The Ascent by Lawenta
Summary: A cell door left open out of mercy is one thing. The long trek back to the world up above another altogether.
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The ascent was endless. Fitting the depth of his fall, he thought bitterly, and let sheer spite draw him on hands and knees one more step up.
Reduced to a worm in its hole, crawling out after the rain else it drowns in the dark.
He allowed himself to sink against the rough stone of the wall, just for a moment, and contemplated the small shirae-lantern on the step below him.
It was too far. With utmost care, he lifted it up and set it ahead, letting it illuminate his way.
Only a truly feeble mind can fall for an illusion such as this, Tenotaka said. Whether he meant the light, or the offered mercy, or himself, Rannon didn’t know and didn’t care. The voice was disembodied, the man failing to appear in the faint soft glow of the lantern, and that was enough.
The cold stone was real. His knees hurt where before there was no way to get them bruised. This was real. His ghosts – denying them was unwise, he found. If nothing else, then because denying their existence left him no other option than to admit both his downfall and his insanity was nobody else’s doing but his own.
Feeble mind, indeed. But he had had enough animal instinct to survive his birth when he shouldn’t, and now he had enough animal instinct to drag himself another step up.
A failure in every way that mattered but he was good at surviving.
One more step, then he moved the light again.
Survival, of course, was dubious beyond the top of the stairs, but that was fine. Public executions weren’t done at night. Cheering crowds he could do without, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.
Another step, uneven under his palms and spasming fingers.
There were conditions to his graciously allowed, cruel escape, if the offer was genuine. Never hurt another. Never touch politics again. He swore the former. He didn’t swear the latter.
He wondered if his nephew knew he couldn’t, wouldn’t. (Would. Down there he would have sworn anything, but it wouldn’t have been an oath he could keep, unless the choice was taken from him.)
Maybe it was just a matter of time till he’s dragged back. He’ll make them kill him before it comes to that.
So much for survival. Maybe he simply wasn’t good at anything.
He even failed to kill the last remaining member of his family.
He pondered that at some length. The man didn’t show any sign of weakness when he came. He had to be fully healed, or at least healed enough to pretend he is. That had to take longer than it takes to die of thirst. All those times he lost consciousness, only to wake up somewhat refreshed – did somebody water and feed him while he was out?
You analyze too much, Shayari said, laughter on his voice. It never helps you, does it?
Rannon dragged himself a few more steps like a horse spurred.
Warm hands, sure on his collar. A lantern left behind, and an utter lack of condescending pity.
Perhaps he was glad his aim failed him this one time. Even though what was promised him was no more than a glorified prison. And came with people.
Rannon growled and swung the light ahead. Too fast: the lantern caught on the edge of a step and tipped dangerously. Rannon flinched and jerked it up, set it right with heart hammering away in his chest as if it wanted to bring his hollowed out ribcage down on itself. He dropped on his belly, terrified of what he’d find, but the candle under the shirae-orb was still lit.
His harsh exhale of relief nearly extinguished it. He skidded two steps down in his haste to stop threatening his only source of light. There he curled up into a trembling heap, whole body spasming and eyes fixed on a faintly illuminated wall.
Not even his ghosts bothered to comment on his state. Not even when he recovered enough for bitter revulsion to replace the panic.
Pathetic. Broken. Discarded.
He gritted his teeth.
Not defeated yet. Not in his effort to get up there. The last thing that mattered that he could yet win. The only thing that mattered.
He forced himself back on his hands and knees, shaking with exhaustion and the nausea that came after the fright, and started back up.
When he next lifted the lantern, it seemed heavier and infinitely more fragile. It rattled against the stone as he set it down, but the light remained steady.
Left hand. Right knee. Right forearm, weight forward, left knee. Catch a breath. Move the lantern. Left hand. Right knee. Ignore the white noise in his head. Right forearm, weight forward, left knee. Move the lantern.
Left hand on wood.
He looked up, staring uncomprehending at the obstacle in his path. Rough, thick, aged wood, too solid to move even if he was at full strength-
A door. Slightly ajar, darkness behind it-
Newly installed midway up while he was locked away.
He didn’t dare close his eyes to gather his scattered thougts, suddenly afraid both the door and his light would vanish if he did. The candle was flickering dangerously in the draft coming in.
He was at the top of the stairs, and it was night in the corridor behind.
Of course it was night. Of course.
Darkness, and the deep silence of a castle sleeping.
Perhaps, so long as he kept his lantern, this wasn’t such a cruel turn of fate. It did make a cheering crowd to drag him to a protracted execution so much less likely.
A single enemy, however, one to catch wind of his conditional release and deeply dissatisfied with it, was still possible.
As was the promised servant.
Rannon gathered what strength was left to him, grabbed the light and pulled himself to his feet, fighting a wave of dizziness. He stumbled more than walked the last few steps, but when he pushed the door open, he was upright and scowling, back rigid and tatters of his pride in place.
The corridor was empty. No snoozing servant, no curious onlookers, no blade in the dark, nothing – just a fresh breeze and a shaft of soft mixed light falling onto the floor through the nearest window.
Rannon crashed to his knees, barely enough presence of mind left not to smash the lantern, and dry heaved a sob.
In the light of the moons, his ghosts failed to provide commentary.
He wasn’t fully conscious by the time he entered his designated chambers, flashes of disjointed impressions registering out of order.
No people, again.
More lanterns to light.
A small bowl of soup.
A shallow bath.
Fresh clothes laid out.
His weapons, the full set, in their stand.
He lost some time after that. When he next opened his eyes, he was still weak and stiff, his throat covered with dust and sand.
The shirae-lantern has gone out, pale and cold in the first faint light of dawn.