Chapter 5- The Ladder
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“Ranger, where are we going?” I dragged my feet along to keep up with him and his fox chaine. We had been walking for almost an hour, trying to read the map to the ladder that Blackstar had given me.
“You're a terrible back-seat driver, you know,” he said sharply. “Why don't you try reading the map?”
I snatched it off him.
I ran my finger along the route we had taken that was marked in red. We had passed the third set of houses and were in the middle of an empty street. Everyone was at the coronation.
Tracing the line up where it was marked, I noted we were almost there but the red line suddenly stopped and disappeared into one of houses.
“I don't understand,” I said to myself. “The line goes through a house...” I counted the houses on the map and the houses along the street. “-This one there.”
I pointed at an ordinary looking house. Thin and tall, not tall enough to be a ladder to the surface. But we were right on the outskirts of the Underworld. Maybe the ladder was behind the house in those rocks...
“We have to go through the house.” I told him.
“Yeah, let's just break into someone's house. Great idea.”
I rolled my eyes and carried on walking to the front door. It didn't sound as though someone was inside so I let Ranger to pick the lock.
“Hey, Drifter,” Ranger said, peeking through the lock of the house. “This has been smashed to bits. Someone's already been here.”
We both looked at each other. “Redstar must have been here recently.”
Ranger slowly pushed the door open, letting the creaking fill the hallway. The fox chaine growled slightly behind me, clearly not liking the look of the house.
“Whereabouts is this ladder then?” Ranger said beside me.
“I'm looking,” I snapped. “What are you doing?”
He narrowed his eyebrows and began to feel along the back wall but I doubted anything would suddenly pop out, much to his surprise.
I decided to look around the house for any leads on where a ladder could be hidden. A big one.
“Erm, Drifter?" Ranger said softly. "I don't think the ladder's going to be under a stack of papers.” He pursed his lips as he watched me flick through papers on a desk.
“You can keep feeling the wall for some magical portal.” I slapped them back down and walked upstairs.
The house was a mess. Clothes were overflowing from draws and all cupboard doors were open with spiderwebs outlining every wooden edge.
Along the back wall there was a wardrobe and the withered wallpaper that was crumbling and fading. There couldn't be a door behind the wallpaper, I thought to myself as I felt for any uneven surface for any indication, because if there was a door behind these walls, Redstar would have ripped the paper away already.
So all that was left was the wardrobe full of spiders and moths. I coughed from the dust that flew out as the double doors swung open. Tentatively, I placed my hand inside and gave it a small push. I breathed in sharply as the wall began to move beneath my hand. It was only an inch, but I knew there was something here.
“Ranger!” I called down. “I've found something in the wardrobe.”
Within seconds, his footsteps were trampling up the stairs and him and his fox ran in the room.
“What is it?”
“This,” I said, pressing the back of the wardrobe forward with both hands. “I need help moving it.”
Without question, Ranger took my left side and reached his hands into the wardrobe. He was stronger than me. I could feel it loosen as he pushed harder.
Suddenly, we both tumbled forward as the wardrobe back fell forward.
Beyond the room of the house, and beyond the back of the wardrobe, all we could see was darkness in the secret room that had been kept well hidden. The ladder must be here.
“Are you ready?” Ranger asked.
I said, “Ready.” Though I wasn't so sure anymore.
We stepped into the shadows of the room and lifted the wardrobe back into place. We didn't want the owners to find a gateway to the world above. That would be a mess.
Once it was fixed, we carried on another few steps and to our surprise, the whole room filled with light in the knowing of our presence.
The room was an illuminating white, the ceiling glimmering from every tiny bulb floating in the air. I had never seen hovering bulbs before. My finger went out to touch one but it quickly dimmed at my touch. I let it go at it began to shine brightly again.
In front of the both of us, the ladder stood, crawling up to the surface. I looked up, wishing I hadn't, because I could see no end and no light.
“I guess we're supposed to climb that, then?” Ranger huffed, looking down at the fox, as if he would answer him.
I scraped the rusty ladder's material with my fingers. It didn't look very stable, especially for something so tall.
“I think he's going to have to go in your bag for now.”
The fox snarled as Ranger picked him up and apologised as he placed him in his bag. Luckily, he was small enough to fit inside.
“Should we go?” I gave one last look at Ranger. He nodded, his eyes full of something I hadn't seen since the day he got his chaine. There was something almost frighteningly real about the way he looked at me. As if he lost himself in my eyes as easily as I lost myself in his. Even if it was only for a second, maybe even less, it gave me a reason to start climbing.
Firmly holding the bars and putting my right foot on the first step, I hoisted myself up. It was fortunate that I was not afraid of heights. I got into a reasonable pace after a minute or so.
Despite my better judgement, I looked down to see Ranger behind me who was just about to start climbing. Inhaling slowly and exhaling, I focused on looking up and clinging to the cold iron bars at my side. One wrong step and I was down.
Below me, the ladder shook. Ranger had misplaced his foot but he carried on when he regained his balance. After only around five minutes of slowly climbing up, we were about sixty or seventy feet off the ground.
“How are you?” I called down to Ranger, still looking up.
“I'm having a ball, thanks,” he said sarcastically. “You managing?”
“Are you kidding?” I laughed. “This is the most fun I've had in-”
I screamed as my foot slipped and I lost all balance.
“Drifter!” Ranger yelled.
Quickly reaching out, I grabbed a bar with one hand and felt a reassuring hand on my hip.
“Thank you.” I said with raspy breaths. Ranger reminded me to take my time and as soon as my breathing and heart rate was back to normal, I proceeded.
The temptation of looking down overwhelmed me.
Don't look down. Just keep climbing.
The ground is up there, I reminded myself. The real ground that I will set foot on. My thoughts urged me to carry on.
No one spoke, as we felt as though we were being suffocated by the humid air around us. The circular room was so narrow but so tall that I felt like there was no escaping. No way out but up. It was the only place I could go now; there was no room either side of any of us. The walls were closing in on us each step to earth that we took. Or maybe I was just imagining it.
Finally, I could see the online of a circle above us.
“I can see the door,” I said. “We're close!” I exclaimed but I spoke too soon.
Suddenly, the walls around us began to shake uncontrollably and so did the ladder that we were holding onto. It took all my strength to hold on. The floating lights that were swarming around us began to flicker. When they were all off, we were surrounded by complete darkness giving that it was our only source of light. Then they began to brighten again.
Someone was here.
“What's happening?” Ranger called up.
“I don't know.” I said. "But I think someone has found us."
Footsteps were now clear and a sound of hammering below us shot upwards and through our ears. They knew we were here so there was only one thing we could do. Run.
Or in this case, climb.
"Drifter! Go!" Ranger shouted up at me as he hurriedly began to climb.
The light was failing and the darkness began to last longer. One second the first time. Then two seconds. Three seconds. Four seconds. Five seconds. Six seconds. I stopped counting the blackout in my head when I heard the splintering wood of the wardrobe shatter across the floor and the shouting at least three hundred feet below us. The guards were staring to climb.
Blackstar told no one the reason we were climbing. The guards didn't even know the person being crowned wasn't Redstar. To them, we were just trying to escape.
By the sound of the muttering, there were many of them. All pouring in as they climbed the ladder one by one.
"Get down or we shoot!" a female voice yelled. Looking down I saw no one, only blackness. I was too far up to make out the image of someone. But the voice made the blood leave my face as I realised who it was. Blackstar.
Why was she trying to catch us? She was the one who sent me up here! Ignoring my boiling blood and shaking hands, I moved quickly through the growing darkness. Blackstar could never get a good enough shot with us all the way up here.
The light went off for ten seconds. During the blackness covering the space surrounding me, I felt a gust off air fly by my cheek. Once the light flickered on again I saw an arrow lodged into the wall in front of me, only centimetres from my face. I had underestimated Blackstar. She had a perfect shot.
"Drifter! You have to go now!" Ranger urged.
I had reached the top. I placed one hand on the door and pushed it with all the energy I had left till it loosened.
"I will see you up there. I promise." I said to Ranger. I climbed the next few steps up the ladder. Holding to the sides, I lifted myself up. As I pushed off my left leg, I felt a soaring pain rush through it. I screamed in agony, feeling my pierced leg burn all the way to my thighs down to my feet.
I rolled to the side, and clutched my leg, trying not to cry. I had made it up, but with Blackstar's bow wedged into my leg. It was not too deep so I could pull it out. Placing my hand on the bloody bow, I pressed my lips together to muffle a scream. I threw it to the side and quickly applied pressure.
I saw Ranger's hand grab the surface as he lifted himself up.
We had made it. It was over.
“Drifter,” Ranger groaned, his chest rising and falling as he lay on the ground. The real ground. “What happened? Are you okay? Stupid question. Can you hear me?”
“Yes. I can hear you, idiot.” I said shakily.
“What the hell happened? Why did Blackstar do this?” He said, tentatively touching my wound as I flinched.
“I don't know,” I said, close to breaking down in front of him. But I couldn't cry. Mustn't cry. “I don't understand.”
I fell on my back, looking up. The sky was nothing like I imagined it. It looked endless. No horizon, no depth, no rocks, It was all so real. It felt invisible, like if I could touch it, it would simply slip through my hands and disappear forever. I could lose myself in it as I lose myself in Ranger's dark eyes. I could forget about everything as I imagined drowning slowly to the depths of them as my eyelids began to droop.
Till I opened my eyes to find a gun was pointed at my head.
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