He watched her as she stepped cautiously through the sparse rocks and grasses that dotted the forest floor. Overhead towered the Licknamus trees, their slender trunks rising like fingers out of the soil and exploding into a glorious canopy of thick green leaves above them. Every few feet a ray of sunshine poked through the foliage and shone downwards like light from a lamp post. Alexander made sure to avoid these spots so that he would not be seen. Far to his left the stream raised its gurgling voice and provided the perfect cover of sound to hide his footsteps as he moved along.
She was about 30 meters ahead of him, and he did his best to keep this distance as he followed her. Though he was young, he was also quick, and so far he had been able to keep up. Be careful not to go too fast, he thought, or else you’ll make a noise and…
At this very instant his foot cracked a small branch underfoot. He froze, and his wide eyes shot upwards to peer through the forest. The woman ahead of him had stopped moving also, and her head swung around to try to discover the source of the sound. Ever so slowly, Alexander shifted to his right and pressed himself against a nearby tree trunk. His left eye gazed out from behind the smooth bark to keep her in view. For a moment, the woman stood motionless, her eyes looking right in the direction where Alexander was standing. He thought that perhaps she had seen him, but then he was in a dark patch and she was partially exposed in the light ahead. An eternity seemed to pass, and if every clock in the town far behind him had stood still, he would not have doubted it. Finally, her eyes turned away from him and looked somewhere else. Then, satisfied, a smile formed on her lips and she shook her head, and turned again to continue walking.
Alexander’s chest gave way and he let out a quiet sigh, his body relaxing under him. He realized that he had been holding his breath the entire time, and now he filled his lungs with a deep breath and pressed forward again after her. That was too close, he thought.
After a short while, the forest opened into a clearing, and a dirt pathway could be seen which cut through the grass towards a building made of wood and stonework at the opposite end. The woman hurried along this path, while Alexander stopped at the edge of the clearing between two large trees. He watched intently as she made her way to the door of the building and knocked on its solid wooden exterior. A moment later it opened, and she disappeared through the entrance, the door closing after her.
Alexander hesitated to move, but he knew that he had not come all this way for nothing. Quickly, he made his way along the edge of the clearing, trying his best to stay hidden among the trees, until he finally came closer to the building. It was an impressive structure, with four walls made up of large stones held together with mortar, spanning some ten meters across on all sides. The door, window frames, and roof were all constructed of red wood from the Borden tree, which could only be found on the lower slopes of Northland. A chimney penetrated through one side of the roof, and as his eyes gazed up at the smoke rising from it, his attention was drawn still higher. There, to his astonishment, stood the great mountain. As he had wandered through the forest, it had been kept from view, but now it towered above him through the clearing like a giant pyramid, almost obscuring the sky. He had never seen it this close.
“I’ll let in some fresh air,” a voice suddenly spoke as a window on the side of the building opened slightly. The sound startled him back to his senses and he instinctively crouched behind the bush just in front of him. Alexander was facing the rear of the building, which had no windows – it was the perfect spot to begin his stealthy approach. He looked back and forth to make sure no one was coming, and then he made his way silently but quickly out of the forest and into the clearing. Fourteen steps later his back was against the stone wall of the building. He crouched down again, and peered around the corner, looking intently at the window that was now partially swung open. Next, he crept along the side of the wall and made his way closer, until he found himself just below the window. There were voices talking inside.
“…down to seventeen of us, I believe. But then Jayden Thomas hasn’t come around lately,” a man’s voice stated.
“I heard he went south,” said another voice, which sounded very much like an elderly lady to Alexander. Following this there were many hushed voices exclaiming “Oh, no!” and “Not Jayden, too!” Finally, the room quieted down again.
“Well, that would explain it then. Tragic.” The first man was speaking again. “We’ve lost too many to the Southland. For some, the pull is too much.”
“My husband…” Alexander’s ears pricked up instantly. He recognized that voice – it belonged to his mother. “He… I mean, I haven’t seen him. It’s just that, he said it wasn’t true, that there was no harm in trying it.” Alexander could hear the pain in her words. His lower lip quivered slightly.
“Emily,” a woman spoke sympathetically, “you’re not alone.”
“I just don’t know what to do.” Alexander could hear his mother, Emily, sobbing quietly. It was almost too much for him to bear. His hands clenched into fists, and a tear formed at the edge of his right eye, silently slithering down his cheek.
“Many of us have lost loved ones to the south.” Another man was speaking now, with a deep and serious tone. “Since you are new to our group, Emily, you should know that some of us have escaped from there. It’s not a one-way ticket, as they say. I am proof.”
“But how?” Emily asked, somewhat startled by his assertion.
“I was rescued by a climber.”
Alexander’s eyes widened when he heard this, and a look of shock appeared on his face. He knew of some people who believed in the existence of the climbers, but he had never seen one before. Many thought they were the stuff of myth or legend – but here was a man who had a real-life encounter with one!
“Then you believe that it can be done?” Emily’s voice changed when she said this, and Alexander pushed himself up closer to the window so that he would not miss a word.
“We believe that the stories are true. Yes,” an older man interrupted before the other man could respond. “But we should be careful not to say that it is possible for us to climb all the way. Such thoughts are dangerous and will only lead to disappointment… or worse.” Several in the room murmured in agreement when he said this.
“Many have tried the ascent in the past,” the elderly lady’s voice sounded from the back of the room, “but no one has ever made it. Well, except two.”