Five steps, she thought in the absolute silence, Five steps.
It wasn't that far. She had to remember that. Just five steps up. She'd done the sheer cliff, she'd done a part that required going wholly upside-down. Climbed, clambered, slipped and grabbed for a handhold, any handhold, and frozen on it a moment, until the adrenaline faded enough for her eyes to clear. Then move on, next handhold in what wasn't quite pitch black, something that turned even the most vibrant colors gray, but she could still see. And so she went on.
It was hard, so hard to remember that. It should be as if someone were at her back, pressing her on and protecting her, helping. But all she could think was that, whatever had pushed her so far, she could not remember it. It had fallen away, and she could not remember when. All she had was now. It wasn't that hard. Just one step forward, one step up. It was dark, but she had seen the way, and knew it yet. Straight ahead.
A sob tore from her chest. She had forgotten why she was crying, and now cried over the forgetting.
Five steps. Get up.
"Okay," she said, voice hoarse from the raw throat she did not remember getting. "Okay."
Unsteadily, ankles wavering from exertion she could not remember, she rose. Five steps. She said it aloud for the first time. "Five steps."
It hit her. All of it. She'd come here, and it had been empty, but she'd kept her momentum, and now that it had been broken, now that she had to come at it from the outside, she froze and couldn't breathe. She had wanted to prove she could do it.
No noble objective. No waiting dependent. Nothing good, no motivator.
She closed her eyes and wept, remembering everything. Not even a "Betcha can't." Just chasing, like Alice with her little white rabbit, and then she didn't stop, and then she'd made excuses for why she couldn't.
She turned, looking over her shoulder. It had been easier in the blackness. She knew, without particularly wanting to know how, that there were sleeping forms there, hidden. Dying. She knew that that was why she was as tired as she was. The first time had been too much of a shock, she had stumbled back and barely caught herself. Caught herself five steps from the top, and two from the edge. She hadn't had an order before, but now knew the sheer cliff was just before the staircase Lethe. And she knew that she had not stumbled every time. Sometimes she had chosen.
But I could not sleep. The Lethe grants me no rest.
It wasn't true. It granted her some rest, in clarity of purpose. It was easier, in the darkness, sure she was right. Sure there was something that kept her going that wasn't just, "I can't stop now." The Lethe granted her respite.
She stared forward. She knew, in the odd way this place had given her, that left no doubt, that she had just enough energy to finish the journey. Should she stumble, or turn back for the Lethe's reprieve, she'd die here. Die at the bottom of the rabbit hole. It wouldn't be so bad, after all she'd been through.
A wisp of memory fluttered past her train of thought, her mother saying her name.
She closed her eyes, then opened them. She walked on.