Short Story: Thousands and Thousands of Steps

The skies were dark gray, an ominous sign of an evil foreboding. When we reached the peak of the mountain, we had no idea what we would find. We merely followed the path from the village below that wound up and around the mountain. It was me– the museum curator–, Janice and Cameron. The latter two, an archaeologist and her intern respectively, were the most curious of those to climb the mountain. Even the villagers below had said so, though admittedly I only heard it through their interpreter.

I was there to ensure the museum’s investment was not in vain, nor squandered. I’d have been more scrupulous were it not for Janice’s own tendency to live on bread and water. It must have been the result of living a graduate-student’s life because Cameron took on a similar quality. This extended even to our private meeting at a high-end restaurant. We met to discuss the expedition, lunched at my expense, and either through courtesy or mere habit they each chose the cheapest meals on the menu. While Fine Divine’s chicken is always of the highest caliber, I must admit that if given the chance, I would not hesitate to gorge myself on their most expensive dishes. Even so, the Doctor and her student chose the meal of the fiscally meek.

This not to say that either of my comrades was without taste. To the contrary in fact. On our first evening in the village, the night before we were to begin our expedition, Cameron produced a bottle of twelve-year scotch that had come from one of the last distilleries in Scotland to bottle that particular brew. The three of us drank well that night, in good spirits despite the bitter cold that no bonfire could have properly fought.

When we awoke in the morning, it was without hang-overs, but that sky made us wish we had them. Mother Nature herself, it felt, had gifted us with an innate ability to overcome the liquor’s effects, ensure we would brave what was encamped for us above. I don’t believe we left the village with a single problem either, thereby cementing my feelings of some preternatural involvement in our later misfortune.

We were loaded to the gills with provisions, supplies, and oxygen. Although we were told the latter of these was unnecessary, we needed to be sure. We had one tent that would come in handy as we ascended the thousands of steps to the summit that required a night’s rest in-between. The mountain itself, you see, is unscalable by even the most experienced climbers. I could not tell you why even if I were one myself. I can only say what I have heard of the mountain; no one that has attempted to freely climb it by any way other than those thousands of steps has been killed or lost entirely.

To say that the place is not without its own lore or mythology would be gravely unfair. Indeed, it was this very lore that led Janice to petition the museum for expeditionary funds. Like many others, she believed that atop those thousands of steps was a lost city. In the very least, she knew that if we found nothing, we could put the rumors to rest in the academic community. Otherwise, she would return with what she could as compensation for the Museum. Afterward, it would be decided if we would pursue the matter further, or if she would be left to study the collected artifacts alone.

Looking back, I wish we had found nothing. At least then we could have returned home without the scrutiny that was later upon us. More importantly, had we kept our mouths shut, we would not have roused the suspicions of so many.

I can’t tell you what we found up there. Not really. I can only recount what happened:

It was the morning of the second day. We had made expected progress in the first day, were already half-way up the mountains steps when the first bit of misfortune struck. It was small, as if the single drop of rain before the downpour of a cataclysmic storm. We were walking up the three-thousand thirtieth step when Janice slipped. She’d been monitoring our progress and altitude on a GPS device. When she fell, the device was thrown. It disappeared over the edge of the cliff as Cameron and I lunged to keep Janice from the steps’ fatal twists and turns.

What seemed a small bit of misfortune only multiplied as time continued. First it was electronic devices; the GPS tracker, my digital compass, Cameron’s digital camera. One-by-one, as if the mountain rued their appearances, they were dropped, shattered, or tossed over the cliff’s edge. What soon seemed limited to the technological quickly escalated to the critical.

I can’t say how exactly, but I can tell you that by the four thousandth step we’d lost all of the aforementioned with the worst yet to come. It was at the four thousand fifth step that we began to hear a prolonged, angry hissing. At the altitude, we knew there was no possible way an animal could make the noise. Two steps later, Cameron began to scream. He tore his pack off his pack as if possessed,e whipped back and forth, Janice and I frozen in shock and terror. With a single, involuntary motion, he hurled the pack away from him, fell to the stairs writhing with screams.

We could only lament the loss of a third of our supplies and provisions for a moment as Cameron writhed. Somehow– and I’ve no idea how she spotted it– Janice saw something at a glance. In a moment she was atop Cameron, her knees in the small of his back as he fought against her weight. He twisted and shrieked beneath her while slow rumble began around us. She revealed his injury; a rapidly spreading frostbite from a punctured oxygen valve on the tank that in his pack.

The only solace I can take in what happened next is that Cameron was dead already. At that altitude, and with the windchill already well-below zero, he’d have frozen to death no matter what happened.

The rumble increased. My timely reaction allowed me to tackle Janice sideways, pull her from the path of a boulder that landed atop Cameron. The impact dislodged a few of the thousands of steps, the whole mass tumbled the countless meters toward the ground, the poor intern crushed beneath it.

I comforted Janice as best I could, but Cameron’s fate was both a freak accident and largely his own doing. Even then I knew his screams had caused an avalanche and rock-slide. He’d inadvertently killed himself from the freak injury without need of the Mountain’s seemingly malicious spirit. While you couldn’t blame the man for it, I still found it difficult to deny the truth.

For a long while we sat, huddled beside the newly opened chasm. We contemplated our options: our losses made the trek seem of no further value– nothing could quite make-up for Cameron’s death, no matter what we may or might not find. Even still, we concluded that we must press on, if only because the path down seemed too perilous now that a piece of it was missing. We continued upward, steadfast in keeping our minds from Cameron’s untimely death.

It was almost nightfall when we crossed the six thousandth step. The air was supremely thin, but we feared our oxygen canisters. They were like little cylinders of death at our backs. Each step we’d taken had been careful, laid out so as not to disturb our packs too much lest we suffer the same fate.

That was when we saw it; the summit. I had to keep Janice from sprinting toward it, my arm wrapped ’round hers to ensure her wits were not stolen from her. To her credit, my presence grounded her. After a look of gratitude, she breathed relief. We ascended the last steps arm in arm. Even at night the summit’s snow glistened with an unmatched brilliance and unnatural beauty. The last step led to the edge of a wide, open expanse.

We only saw that openness for a few seconds. What came next… as I said, I can’t tell you what we found, only what happened– no matter how wondrous or unbelievable it may seem.

The clearing suddenly dissolved into a bright, golden light. Distant structures appeared with leaved trim as if carved in stone. A whole city seemed laid out before us in a stair-stepping architecture with its lowest edge a walled precipice. The wall there seemed to looked down from an unearthly height, as though we’d left the planet altogether. Meanwhile, a pyramidal temple at the horizon’s apex reached even further into the clouds. Small figures came and went in the distance, paying no notice to the dots on their horizon.

This was undoubtedly an ancient city of stone, but formed in a strange, golden light that infected our bodies– our souls even– with warmth and comfort. How long we stood transfixed, I’m not sure. It may have been mere moments or hours even. Eventually we felt information flood our minds– something Janice and I later corroborated. It was as if all the Universe’s secrets were revealed to us at once, but due to our mind’s primitive nature, we couldn’t comprehend any of it.

When we felt that perhaps we might access some, a whisper on the wind– with as much indifference– spoke to us with an indistinct voice, “You do not belong here.”

The light flared so brightly around us we were blinded. Then to our relief and bemusement, we were suddenly at the bottom of the mountain, transported there by some unseen force. What was more, Cameron was beside us, unharmed and as confused as we. He later recounted that he remembered dying, saw the boulder falling before he felt it crush his bones beneath it. The next thing he knew, he was beside us at the base of the mountain.

To put it all into words makes it feel more surreal than it was even then, but I know it happened. There is no proof but my word of course, but then perhaps that is all that is needed. The mountain saw to that on our way up, and whomever occupies the summit seems to have sated our curiosity somehow. We’ve no desire to return to the mountain’s summit, not a one of us. It seems there’s not enough money in the world to change our minds either. We’re content in what happened, the fruits of our labors.

Some have theorized that’s the real secret of the summit: that whomever resides there can control the mind with thoughts alone. I’m not certain of that. All I know is what I experienced and how I feel now. It did happen, I know that– as do Janice and Cameron. I also know that we climbed thousands and thousands of steps along a path that has no rightly reason to exist, only to emerge once more at the bottom as if we’d never taken the first step.

Perhaps that is the real moral of whatever the mountain seeks to teach; no matter how many steps we take, we never truly progress. Then again, perhaps that is just the rambling of a half-insane man. I’ve no doubt there will be subscribers to either theory, but even so, I’ve grown tired of telling the tale time and again and so have simplified it to its purest form: I took thousands and thousands of steps, but never moved an inch. That simplicity, I feel, is best befitting of the mountain’s moral.

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