Link to Part I.
He sprinted across the room, his eyes dodging down to his feet to watch for obstacles, and then back up to make sure he didn’t collide with any of the gauzy hangings that broke up the room.
Those wall hangings separated the large room into many smaller booths. From the other side of the curtains, he could catch little flashes of movement, the gestures soft and alluring and feminine. Faint voices called out to him, beckoning and tempting. He couldn’t make out any specific words, but the meaning behind those calls was clear.
He knew that if he stopped, he couldn’t resume. This would be as far as he made it inside the Tower.
It wasn’t enough.
He kept on running, even as his breath burned in his throat and lungs. He thought he’d seen a door on the other side of the room, and he did his best to keep on heading in that direction. The gauzy hangings obscured his view, but he tried to keep his path straight.
The rugs and soft pillows were treacherous underfoot, but he made it through without falling. And there, on the other side of the room, was the door.
Made of wood, with a brass handle, it looked surprisingly ordinary. He threw it open and ran through as it closed behind him.
On the other side, he was suddenly outside the tower, an external staircase made of massive hewn blocks of stone. He sucked in a breath, feeling the chill of the air, and began climbing.
As he climbed, a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye made him turn his gaze. It took a moment for the sight to resolve itself inside his mind, but he nearly stumbled when it clicked.
There was another set of stairs also spiraling upwards, separated from his set by maybe a couple dozen feet of empty air.
Those other stairs weren’t empty. The girl was climbing them, her head down as she tried to control her breathing.
Shocked, he called out, a wordless cry, half-strangled as he exhaled. It was enough, however, and she glanced up.
For a moment, their eyes linked.
“What if we see each other inside?” she had asked, as she traced a squiggle in the spilled beer on their dirty table.
He shook his head. “No one sees anybody else inside the Tower. It’s impossible. After you split in the hallways, you’re on your own.”
“But what if?” she insisted, not letting the subject go. “Should we help each other?”
For a long minute, he considered the question. “There’s no way to know for certain,” he finally stated, shaking his head. “How can you know that it’s truly who you believe, and not an illusion? Trust nobody.”
She nodded, but he thought he could see a look of sadness flick briefly across the girl’s face.
She was keeping up with him, he noticed. He thought that she might have said something, but the blood was pounding too hard in his ears for him to hear anything but his own heartbeat. He glanced up, and saw that, another hundred steps ahead, the stairs ended with a door.
He didn’t bother seeing where the woman was headed. He was through the door as soon as his hand found the handle.
Another room, this one dark and featureless. Another set of stairs. Another room. He kept on climbing, losing track of how many levels he’d ascended. The burning in his lungs had become a steady ache, sapping his strength, but he couldn’t stop. He had to keep on climbing.
Another door led outside, another set of stairs spiraling up into the gray and cloudy sky. Clouds now obscured the ground, as well; he kept his eyes on the stairs to avoid vertigo.
These stairs seemed older, less used, he noted with the tiny little abstract part of his mind that remained disconnected. The stones were crumbling, and a few of them fell away, off the edge into nothingness. He heard no sound of them hitting the ground.
There! Off to the side, he saw the other set of stairs. She was still there, still running and climbing. She looked tired – no, he corrected himself. She looked absolutely exhausted. She looked like she was about to give out at any moment, go tumbling over the side like those stones.
He kept climbing, sucking in big breaths of the thin air.
Another room at the top. This one was round, and looked to be filled with ornate decorations, all covered in a thick layer of dust. In the middle of the room, a raised dais held a ladder, ascending through a hole in the roof. In one corner, he thought he saw a golden throne, the shine of the metal hidden under centuries of dust.
He knew that, if he were to sit on that throne, he would be a king when the competition was over. He could rule, wise and just, ease the suffering of many.
He didn’t even pause. He grabbed the rungs of the central ladder and hauled himself up.
The ladder, impossibly thin but sturdy, ascended through darkness. He thought he saw ropes off to the sides, the shapes of bodies swinging on a hundred hangman’s gibbets. He saw hooks and chains, tearing unidentifiable pieces of something apart.
And for just a moment, through the darkness, he thought he caught the shape of the girl, climbing.
Looking up told him nothing. The ladder kept on going. His arms burned and barely responded to his commands, but he kept on climbing. A couple of times, he locked his arms through the rungs to catch his breath, but he never let himself pause for more than a few seconds.
Finally, something was above him. He reached up and pushed open the trap door with the last of his strength, hauled himself up, and flopped onto the floor above, panting.
A hand dangled in front of his eyes when he opened them.
“Come on,” the girl said, looking scared even as she held her hand down to him. “We can make it. We’re close, I know it.”
For a moment, he did nothing. Could he trust her? Was this real?
But his strength alone wasn’t enough. He took the hand, and she pulled him up to his feet.