Zantheus stood in the light. Its thick beams cascaded down from on high, bathing him in incandescence. Up here, everything was white. The mountaintop shone so brilliantly that it seemed to merge together with the sky to form a single, unified whole. Colour was lost, as all colours became bound up with one another, shades and tones becoming merely different intensities of the same all-encompassing light, forming a swirling current that shimmered and danced to some unheard tune. As Zantheus immersed himself in the sunshine, every fibre of his body cried out to it in triumph: He had almost reached his goal. Spurred on by the dance, he raised his arms and thrust his hands once more into the ridge, ready to scale the mountain’s final section.
But the climbing had been beginning to take its toll on Zantheus’s body. This was his third day of climbing, and by now every progression up the mountainside brought with it a spasm of exertion. Sweat poured down off his nose and chin and stung his eyes. Each breath was a gulp that choked his lungs with pain. What was more, the higher he climbed, the more intense the light seemed to grow. With each movement he found the impossible repeated itself: Zantheus had not believed that there could be a light more brilliant, more spectacular than that which he now beheld, but each time he lifted himself higher somehow everything grew whiter and hotter. If he had not known better, he could have believed that he was climbing into the sun itself. Exclamations of awe began to slip from his lips, mixing with the gasps of effort, but he could no longer hear them because his ears were blocked by the roaring of the wind.
On top of all of this, Zantheus soon found that he could no longer make out the mountainside an inch in front of his face, let alone discern juts and faults in it with which to climb, so overwhelming was the intensity of the light. Instead of searching for something to grip onto he had to resort simply to smashing his hands into the invisible wall of stone in front of him in order to prevent himself from falling. Each time he did this, a deluge of snow came loose above him and fell down onto his face, but because of the light all he saw was a slight flickering, a very subtle variation in brightness, though he could taste the snow in his mouth and feel it stream refreshingly down his face.
The mountain was taking control of him. It had already mastered his sight and hearing. Now, as he neared its peak, it claimed his other senses as well. His tongue and nose soon became numb, no longer able to taste the sprinkling snow or smell his dripping perspiration. His limbs became so racked with the effort of climbing the mountainside that they too grew almost completely devoid of feeling, so that each time he drove his hand into the rock for a short while he was unable to recognize where his body ended and the mountain began. Whenever this happened, he lost himself in the mountain and for a moment he thought he could hear a voice. It seemed to whisper “Higher. Further.” But higher and further meant more brightness, more noise, more excruciating numbness. Only his willpower bore him upwards. With each new upwards pull came a new effort of the will, and with each new effort of the will came a new pain, and with each new pain came a new intensity of light, the mountain’s reward for his endeavour. As he pulled himself up with his left hand, it took all his might, all his energy, all his strength to lift his right hand high above him, ready his grip, and bring it down until–
Zantheus no longer felt the resistance of the mountainside. His right hand fell down onto what was apparently just a layer of very thick snow, though he only knew from the way it gave way to his hand, more easily than the rock. At last, he had done it. He had reached the peak! He wrenched himself up on to the plateau and clambered to his feet, straining himself almost beyond bearing. The light still enveloped him, so he could only walk forward slowly in the hope that this would lead him to what he was looking for. He put one foot in front of the other like a stumbling child, blind, deaf, and dumb before the might of the mountain. The snow was flat under his feet, but fresh. In wonder he considered how nobody had ever been on this peak before; he was the first person to ever tread this ground.
Suddenly a terrible fire burst into life a little way ahead of Zantheus. Even the whiteness of the mountaintop became pale in comparison with this flame. He cried out as its light flashed into his eyes, which he shut and covered up at once with his hands. It was so bright that even with his eyes closed they were still filled with searing light. Zantheus cowered from it. For the first time in his life he found that he was afraid. Something was happening to his eyes. They felt as if they were burning up, and would soon turn to ashes if he did nothing to block out the light. And yet...all at once there was no longer any pain. Actually, he suddenly realised, pain had left his body altogether—not only had the pain gone, but the rushing noise in his ears had died into quietness, he began to smell the sweat on his body, and his limbs were beginning to regain feeling. Best of all, shapes started to form in his vision, as if the light no longer had any power over him. Now he found he could distinguish between brighter and darker shades. He discerned a few separate colours, even the cool blue of the sky, though this was still mostly obscured by the swirling dance he now realised to be the snowstorm that surrounded him.
As these features appeared before him he also saw that it had not been a fire in front of him at all. What was in front of him was an enormous mirror. As the torrents of light fell out of the sky they were mixing with the snowstorm and projecting onto the mirror a myriad series of beams. They played and reflected off of if it in such a way that they made the mirror look like it was on fire. It was so beautiful that Zantheus fell, awestruck, to his knees. For a long time he stayed there, lost in the mirror just as he had been lost in the mountain.
After some time gazing over its form he noticed that in a certain place on the mirror the light was repeatedly tracing the silhouette of a figure. As he looked more closely he realised that it was his own image that it was reflecting, and now he could see a flaming version of his own face gazing back at him. For some reason he found it a great honour to be reflected in the mirror. But of course, it was. According to the teachings he had received in the Sanctuary, he was the first person to ever reach the top of this mountain. This was a pleasing thought. There was Zantheus, mountain-conqueror, looking back at him with two white-hot eyes. He marvelled in particular at how his armour reflected in the mirror so wonderfully. In the reflection he looked as if he was encased in a suit of diamond. He surveyed himself for a while in his coat of splendour, the trophy for his victory over the mountain.
After some time, as if to check that the mirror was reflecting reality, Zantheus looked down at himself, then gave another cry, which this time he certainly heard, for it echoed around the mountaintop and into the air beyond. To his new eyes, his formerly gleaming white armour was coloured a dull, ugly grey, even black in places. His sight had changed, and now every scratch on his breastplate, every dent and mark, was so very dark and large. Shocked, Zantheus began to paw at his armour in a desperate attempt to scratch away the grey and black of which he now seemed to be composed. But it refused to come off. In vain he tore at himself with his hands, themselves an unsightly, dreary grey hue, and cried out “No! I am pure! My armour cannot be tainted!” Even as he uttered these words his eyes began to hurt again, and the light encircled him once more, and the howling returned to batter his ears, and the numbness flooded back into his body. His cries of “No!” turned to moans of despair that were carried away on the wind.
The voice spoke again, “Higher. Further”
Zantheus was lost in the dance again. His head swam in its currents. “Yes…I must go higher, further still…” he said to himself. He stumbled forwards with his eyes scrunched up and hands out in front of him and walked straight into the giant mirror. He staggered backwards, clutching his nose. Then he regained his composure and reached out again with his hands. The mirror was sturdy and put up a firm resistance, so that he could lean against it with all his weight without it giving way. He pressed his hands against it and pushed as hard as he could, but it did not give way to him. He beat it with clenched fists, pummelling the glass as hard as he could, but it did not give way to him. He flung himself at it with his whole body, but it did not give way to him. He felt for his sword, drew it, and struck the mirror with all his strength. In front of him another Zantheus met his blow with an identical sword. It shattered. But still the mirror did not give way to him.
Utterly depleted, Zantheus cried out “How can I go further?”
“I will show you,” said a voice in his ear. Two arms wrapped around him.
And now he was flying—no, falling—high, high, high into the sky.