The boy finally reached the peak.
His thin robes clung to his body, moist but only from external water vapor, which originated from a nearby waterfall and hung in the air like a thick curtain. He did not sweat easily in the first place, but he thought to himself that he was not perspiring now as much as he would have before. Now, he was a stronger man, overlaid with sturdier skin, and that simple thing alone filled him with a sense of pride.
If he had climbed this mountain a few months ago, he no doubt would have collapsed by now. He had trained tirelessly, for his lungs not to heave and for his legs to not wobble. The wind stroked his face and tousled softly, making sounds like rushing water. At this moment, he was standing at the highest point in the world.
Below, the soft cliff drop made the ground look tantalizingly near, like steps in stairs in the way you could hop down with two legs together and land with two legs together too. He was strangely enthralled by it. Who knew something like this would be the gateway towards hades, the portal to purgatory, where your body wouldn't simply break if it hit the bottom, it would shatter.
Teacher suddenly prodded him at the small of his back with a bamboo rod, and although the boy was trained, he had not yet learned to keep his surprised squeaks to himself. With wide eyes, he whirled to the wrinkled face of the elder, which made the other huff. The older man gestured at the abyss with the stick, eyes flicking expectantly at the looming drop.
"Well, aren't you going?" He did not need to state the task in full because it would only whet the boy's unacknowledged fear further. The boy swallowed, adam's apple swelling like an uneasy tide as the euphoria gradually phased out of him.
"Teacher..." he said uncertainly, "I won't die, will I?"
Teacher always felt like scoffing with this pupil. "Didn't you say so yourself," he said dryly, "That you needed to breach the first entrance to hell in order to feel what it really was like to be strong?"
"I said I needed to be lucid for it," the boy corrected. His were rubbing against each other like flint and stone, roughly and erratically, and it looked as if he was making a visible effort to not hug himself. Teacher, observing his agitation, ignored the talking back just this once.
"Lucid or not, you're going to jump anyways. And you're not going to die," the older man said firmly. The boy glanced at the edge and then looked away just as quick, oscillating from one position to the next. Oh how he wished he had never asked to take up this challenge in the first place. Oh how he wished everything could go back to normal.
But then again, what was normal anyways?
"Teacher," the boy said, trying to mold his voice into something more solid, "I'll—I'll meet you later."
"If you don't go now, I will push you," Teacher replied, tone rough in order to disguise the well meaning behind his spiny words. The boy nodded, taking a deep breath. Vapor flooded into his mouth, and he tasted it slowly, running his tongue slowly over the textured roof of his mouth, his smooth teeth.
The drop looked much gentler than it really was. He tried to surround in that mirage as he raised his arm over his head. Just this once, he thought, he'd let himself believe a falsity.
Thighs together, he bent himself at the knee and pushed himself upwards like an arrow, piercing through the highest clouds.