You skitter down the stairs without looking back. The stone is glistening with promise, and you can’t help a swell of excitement in your stomach. Down and down you go, treading carefully, your fingers grazing the wooden handrail, ready to catch you if you fall.
After thirty or forty flights of spiralling steps (you lost count at around twenty-five), marked by the odd wider step you take to be a rest stop, you halt to catch your breath, and peer about. The light is steady down here, the little wall boxes that are found all over the shard palace spaced at regular intervals. Looking up, you can see the stairs curving above you, and you wonder where you are in relation to the rest of the palace – near the bottom? Perhaps even below the lowest levels? The wooden handrail has long since disappeared – you are having to keep your balance against the wall, and it is becoming increasingly difficult as you get more and more dizzy from the constant spiralling.
You start to wonder if you should just go back – what if it’s just a dead end at the bottom? That would be galling. But then you think about how far you’ve come and think maybe you should just live here instead; your calves are already screaming from the descent, how much worse it would be to climb!
A breath of air touches your face, like the breeze of another person passing, but there is no one there. What makes you sit up sharply is the fact that the air is warm. Hot, even. Recalling one particular book you read a while back, you think uneasily of hellfire and monsters. You shake it off; don’t be silly, you think. There’s no such thing, and if anything, this is more reason to go on. What if there are people living down here, cut off from the rest of the palace by a cruel set of stairs they can’t face climbing? You have to go on.
After what feels like the lifetime you have already lived, you reach the very last step, and decide to collapse for a few minutes. As you massage some feeling back into your aching hamstrings, you take stock of your situation.
The room you find yourself in is swept clean – the floor warm, but hard like the stone steps. Everything – the floor, the walls, even the quality of the light – seems a dusty shade of brown. Wait; where are the lightboxes down here? The last one is winking in the stairwell, but it’s not strong enough to cast light out here. So how are you able to see? Following the source of the brownlight, your eyes come to rest on the high window of a vast, ornate door.
As the stabbing, prickling feeling in your legs fades away, you scramble to your feet and edge toward the door. It doesn’t look like it’s been opened in a long time; there are no scuff marks on the floor, no hint that the dust has been disturbed before you came tromping in here. You rap a knuckle on the metal, surprised at the sonorous tone that it makes. There must be space on the other side of the door. A lot of space. You continue to explore the door, feeling the metal grating against your fingertips, the curling ridges in a complex pattern you feel you recognise, but you can’t place it. Your finger catches on a gap – a hole. Perhaps this is a keyhole. You have read about doors with keyholes. Too bad there’s no handle – you could see if someone had left the door unlocked.
Oh, wait a minute – what about that key you found up in the library?
You scratch about in your pockets and wrestle the key out, comparing it to the door. The brown metal of the key seems cut from the same sheet as the door – pitted and grainy and so, so old. It didn’t work on that book, so what’s the harm in trying it here? You push it into the key-hole with a click, and grit your teeth at the grinding noise it produces as you turn it. But it does turn.
The door releases from its frame with a sigh, hot air pshing around you, instantly calling sweat from your brow. You squeeze your fingers into the gap and pull, groaning with the effort. It doesn’t move at first, but without warning, it swings out more quickly, and you have to stumble to get out of it’s path. Still pulling on the door, you crane your neck to get a look at the passage beyond, and in surprise, you let go completely and the door screeches to a halt.
Staring back at you, a tall, youngish looking man stands, his hands pressed against the door in an attitude of pushing. That’s why the door suddenly got easier to open. You can’t interpret his expression – is that fear? Anger? Surprise? You feel the air singing in your ears. Your eyes catch on a small metal object at his waist; it’s T shaped, and it looks sharp. A weapon?
Take a chance and introduce yourself?
Back away and make a break for it?