Once he got to the other side of the universe, he didn’t quite know what to do with himself. He had tunneled for so long, chipping and scraping at the rock until mountains of fine soft powder were piled in the path behind him. The other side of the universe had broken on him, all of a sudden, like the unveiling of a face before him. He had stood, awed by it, and a little scared. A small wish surfaced in his mind that the veil would draw across the face again, and the features be misty and far once more. There was a citadel on the other side of the universe, a great staggering thing built of feathered balustrades and climbing towers. It reached the sky and pierced the heavens, and he imagined that past the boundless blue there must be twining iron and stone still reaching farther.
He had come to be a hero. He had followed the dragon through the universe, through the rock and out to the other side. He was meant to be a hero and fight the dragon until it died on his sword and order was restored. There was probably a maiden to save, or a kingdom to vanquish. His mind was clouded and his memories elusive. When he reached for them, they scampered away. There must have been something, some thread of reason that he had made this journey. There was a reason that he was standing before this vast citadel that rose glorious and deadly before him. He just didn’t know what it was.
When he took a faltering step forward, the ground melted and swayed under his foot. He stumbled, and caught himself. The world on the other side of the universe was treacherous. It might have been trying to toss him back out again. So then, he thought, it doesn’t want me. I must be here for a reason, see? But the reason was not there. No dragon spiraled the towers of the citadel. No gust of wind fell from its wings. Whatever he had followed was not there. He took another step, and trembled. The ground was roiling now, tossing like the sea. He fell to his knees and clutched at the earth beneath him – or was it earth? – gritting his teeth and clenching shut his eyes. The citadel did not move. It stayed motionless and immense while the ground surged before it.
Would he go back, shaking and retreating from this place, or would he claw and pull himself closer? He clutched at the ground, his muscles straining, and he fixed his eyes on the tower that thrust through the sky.
He was supposed to be a hero. He did not know what that meant, but it did not mean turning back and whimpering away through the tunnel he had dug for so long, with such determination that it had shredded his fingernails and made his fingers bleed. He dug his fingers into the ground and hauled himself forward. The citadel wavered in his vision as he rose and fell with the waves of the earth, but he did not stop. It was closer now, and closer. He would reach it.
When he had dragged himself across the heaving earth for hours, the citadel was in his reach. The iron of the wall was cold under his palm. He curled his hands around its ridges and ignored the quiver in his muscles, weak with fatigue as they were. When he reached the first flat platform of the tower, he curled up on the smooth stone floor. In front of him, as he faced out, the wall of rock rose gray and infinite. His tunnel was a pathetic hole halfway down, a little black spot like a drop of ink on the endless page. The ground where he had crawled was still rolling and falling. He watched it until he fell asleep.
He awoke when the light of dawn drenched the citadel. He turned, in awe, to look at the black shadows that cut across the towers and turrets, and the pale light that blanched the building in stripes. The warmth of morning crept close to his skin as he shivered in the shadow of his walls. He gathered his strength, looked up, and began to climb once more. There was no reason to it now, no dragon and no maiden. He did not know what he was following, or if there was anything above him. He reached and gripped and pulled himself upward.
He climbed all day, and slept again at night. The ground below, still tumbling, looked very far away now, but when he tipped his face to the sky there was still a ceaseless stretch of stone and iron above him. He climbed, and slept, and climbed again for a long time. His skin hardened. The hold he had made in the rock of the universe disappeared, a forgotten blot long past. The towers thinned and twisted. No dragon could nest this high. No human had ever reached this height.
He had to be a hero, by now. The crag of tower where he was clinging was nearly at the sky. He could barely breathe, but he could see the blue above him, and the place where the tower broke through it. In another day he heaved himself over an edge of stone and his head scraped against the sky. He curved himself around and put his fingers through the edge of the wound in the sky, between its curling edge and the iron that shot through it. He shoved, and bent the sky back. The edge of the sky was sharp, and it tore and sliced at his hands. He ignored the pain, for he was a hero. When there was a space enough to shimmy through, he clutched at the crumpled edge of sky and drew himself over.
For a long and shuddering moment, the hero lay gasping on the top of the sky. Above him the towers of the citadel pushed endlessly into the black. He sat and caught his breath, and then he began to climb again.