On the Shelf of a Thousand Doubts, Seeker Josec collapses into a shivering ball. The wind at this height threatens to rip her woolen cap off and toss it into the abyss. Each breath feels like a mountain stream in her throat, icy and tumultuous. The Spire's pale marble sucks the warmth from her thigh, her shoulder. Josec crawls the few feet to the edge.
Don't look down, Ganas seems to whisper in her head. But Josec ignores her Master's remembered admonishment. Having come this far, she has earned the right. Ganas himself has never gotten beyond the Triumphant Ledge.
From the Platform of Tenacity hundreds of yards below, the face of the Spire rises vertically, caressed by wisps of cloud. Josec's eyes roam involuntarily, picking out ridges and fingerholds; her muscles remember the forms, the movements, the balances that brought her this far.
The Spire tapers almost into invisibility. In her head, she recites the names of the ledges and ridges her mother made her memorize, like her mother's mother before her. Below the Platform of Tenacity, the Triumphant Ledge is a mere pencil stroke; all details below that are lost in the dizzying perspective. The tremendous girth of the Spire's foundation seems no more now than a hair's breadth.
Josec wonders if the crowd is still down there, gazing up at where they guess she might be by now, wondering if she's even up there at all anymore. Are they still holding out for her to conquer the Spire, to earn the High God's favor for the tribe? Or have they already assumed failure, and returned to their villages with shaking heads? From this height, they might not even see her fall, and the winds would carry her far from the Resolute Plinth.
She imagines her Master's gaze fixed on her, squinting in certainty: if his pupil hasn't failed yet, she must have reached the Shelf.
Josec rolls onto her back, dizzy with exhaustion, staring up at the final stretch towards the summit. What remains of the Spire seems almost trivial by comparison. A mere hundred yards up hangs the final Ridge of False Victory. She's closer than any Seeker has ever reached. More tears fill her eyes than can be explained by the wind.
No more, she begs soundlessly. Please.
Her ears remember Ganas' gruff voice.
You cannot fail if you do not stop trying.
Just one more moment, she tells herself. She releases her focus on the now, and lets her mind wander to that final lesson.
Deep in the central training cave, Josec clamped her callused fingertips on a ridge, and released her foothold. Her legs and body swung out over the underground lake far below her, and she used the impetus to reach for a handhold half a stride further along the cave's roof. From this point onwards, until the concave expanse of the roof curved back down towards the opposite shore, she would have to rely mostly on the grip of her fingers and the strength in her arms.
But she wasn't worried. Ganas hadn't said as much, but she knew she was the best climber, the best Seeker the tribe had. If anyone could master the Spire, she could. She could be the first Seeker in generations to stand a chance.
The thought helped her catch hold of the thread of conversation she had released in her concentration. Casting her voice to carry along the curved roof down to where Ganas waited, she said, “But Master, if reaching the summit is as close to impossible as makes little difference...why do we keep trying?”
She knew the tribe's answer, of course. But clinging to bare rock as she was, the High God seemed very far away, barely real. And as she circumvented an ancient, thigh-thick stalactite, she admitted to herself that she wasn't really asking about 'we'.
Ganas' response came back distorted and hollow-sounding from the echoes, but clearly understandable.
“Little difference, Seeker Josec, is infinitely more than no difference.”
“So we try because it's possible?”
“Why, then? I don't understand.”
“It's possible because we try.”
But what counts as trying? And what constitutes stopping?
With a groaning sigh, Josec rolls to her feet, the movement executed without thought, her skintight shoes planted close together, her stance perfectly balanced. Her eyes scan the marble for imperfections. There, and there. Callous fingertips find purchase, joints and muscles sing with pain. Her feet blindly slip into toeholds, and with a grunt Josec moves upward.
Hand, foot, up. Press down. Seek fingerholds. Shift balance. Repeat. Her existence shrinks until nothing is left but this battle with the Spire. White marble slides downwards past her face. Time evaporates, movement disappears; she hangs frozen in place while the Spire sinks slowly into the ground.
Josec becomes aware of a whispering voice. Concentrating, she can make out the words. I'm trying, the voice repeats, a hypnotic mantra, and she recognizes the voice as her own. I'm trying, Master, I'm trying. Limbs move, fingers grasp, toes seek to the rhythm of her mantra. There is only the climb.
Until there isn't.
Her hand seeks, but does not find. Her balance falters. Her foot slips and she begins to fall. Her hand slams down—down?—on smooth marble. Her palm, her leather sleeve, grip the stone. Infinite seconds long, Josec dangles. Then she clambers onto the Ridge of False Victory.
Relief and release flood her being, but they evaporate when she sees and understands the reason for the name. Perhaps it had really been the High God Himself who named the ledges, all those generations ago; the names carry a harsh, almost divine truth. A final incline to the real summit reaches up from the Ridge, peppered with hand—and footholds—steep enough to challenge, gentle enough to be invisible from below the Ridge.
She screams, a desperate refusal ripped from her lips by the wind.
But her body isn't done yet. Blinded by tears, Josec feels herself scramble against the steep cone, feels herself conquer the final incline, feels herself crumple into the summit's shallow bowl. Feels her arm wipe her eyes.
I've tried, Ganas, she whispers. I've tried, and I've succeeded. If I can only fail if I stop trying, are success and failure then the same?
She waits for an answer, but only the sound of the wind breaks the solitude of the summit. No one will ever know, she thinks as her breath hitches. I've conquered the Spire, I've earned the High God's favor, and they will never know. Ganas will never know. On the verge of crying, she chuckles instead when the realization dawns on her.
Unless I tell them.
Not that she reached the summit, though she will tell them that as well. But that there is no end to trying; that the summit is not a destination, but merely a new starting point.
Laughing, she hoists herself over the rim of the bowl, and begins the long climb down.