Sunrise was not for another hour but already the sky had taken on the grey haze that suggested morning was just around the corner. Elaine let her rucksack slip from her shoulder and hang in the crook of her arm while she fumbled with the knackered zip. The bottle inside was almost half empty, not enough to see her back down the mountain, but enough to see her to the top. She wrestled it free and used her teeth to pry to cap open.
‘Are you coming?’
Damien watched from where he’d stopped further up on the steps, bare legs and arms, tanned and muscled. He was younger, fitter as well but that had little to do with age, at least that was what Elaine told herself.
‘Just give me a minute,’ she called. The water was lukewarm and sour on her tongue but she swallowed it and snapped the cap shut. Her sweat had her clothes sticking, every crease and fold in the fabric welding itself to her limbs. She could swear the last time she’d made this climb it had been easier, but then again, the last time she had more faith to help things along. A little more faith and a little more time.
‘Do you remember before?’ Damien asked. He held out a hand when she finally reached him. She let him help her and paused for a breath, lungs hitching as she dragged each mouthful of air in.
‘Which before?’ she gasped. ‘The one before this or the one before that? There have been too many changes, too many befores to count or to know which before you mean.’ She pulled her hand out of his and forced her legs to push ahead, ignoring the way she had to lock her knees on each step.
‘I mean the before when we were strong,’ he said. ‘When we were still gods.’
‘Are you suggesting that we’re not gods anymore?’ she asked. The air starting to thin as they climbed closer to the clouds. A little further, that was all.
‘Well we’re not are we, not anymore?’
‘Of course we are.’
She shook her head to clear it and the ground titled alarmingly. ‘We’re just a little less god-like,’ she panted.
‘We’re weak,’ Damien clarified. ‘You’re weak.’ He caught her before she could fall. ‘We’re not the same.’
‘Don’t be stupid. No one stays the same forever.’ The world levelled out and she found her footing again. ‘Anyway, it’s not like we’re gone entirely. There’s still something left of us, even if it’s just an ember.’
‘What use is that?’ Damien snorted. ‘An ember can hardly keep your warm in winter.’
Elaine could feel her stomach churning so she choose to keep her mouth shut instead of replying.
It means, she thought, that things can still change. Forest fires can take hold from just an ember, whole cities can burn from just an ember, it’s nothing to be ashamed of, in fact it should be feared. The potential for danger is far less predictable that the actuality of it.
Inside the clouds she started to feel better.
‘This place gives me the creeps,’ Damien said, and scowled upwards. ‘Are you sure we couldn’t of, you know, stayed down there?’ He jerked a thumb behind him towards the trail they’d followed from the bottom of the mountain.
‘You could have perhaps,’ she replied. ‘You would have been fine for a few more years, but you know this was my time.’ Pressing her hand against her chest Elaine felt the hammering of her heart begin to slow. ‘I needed this. You were the one who insisted that I shouldn’t go alone.’
‘Yeah, well I just-‘
She moved her hand from her chest and placed it against his.
‘You’re a good friend.’
The colour rose in Damien’s cheeks.
‘How long?’ he asked, the colour fading as he glanced up.
‘I don’t know. It all depends on the people down there. It could be a hundred years, it could be a thousand, it could be longer.’
‘What if it’s never?’ Damien’s eyes shone. ‘There are gods who have been forgotten completely.’
‘Not completely,’ Elaine soothed. ‘We’ll always exist somewhere no matter how times move on.’
‘Even if it’s just an ember.’ His eyes cleared and he nodded. ‘Ready to burn again when the time is right.’
Elaine followed his gaze upwards.
‘Are you scared?’ he asked
The corners of Elaine’s mouth crept upwards but she could feel a dampness on her cheeks that wasn’t from condensation. ‘Always,’ she said. ‘I have known mortals to long not to be.’
‘But you still have faith in them?’
Closing her eyes she slowed her breathing, enjoying the coolness inside the clouds. ‘I have to. There would be no point in existing otherwise.’