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the astragoth spiral

Step one: In the shadows, I can see footsteps hovering above the steps, their sound stays in the air.

Step two: The stone is cold.

Step three: The stone wall is soft with the imprint of many fingers, scratched and scored with age and use.

Step four: The echo of my previous step returns to me. It sounds flat, and too close, as if I were being chased by a following wind.

Step five: I begin to hear the other people on the stairs, their almost-silent steps in the darkness, their intake of breath as they find and lose the walls and the steps in the darkness.

Step six: I begin to distinguish shapes in the crawling grey. A hand in front of my eyes, two feet swinging like metronomes below me.

Step seven: The air is dry. That makes me happy. I hate drinking wet stuff.

Step eight: Someone speaks, too far down the stairs to hear what they say. When someone talks, it gets lighter.

Step nine: I begin to remember people I once knew, and to imagine that I can hear their voices in the darkness. The thought of their mouths moving begins to fill my head, and I stop until my head clears.

Step ten: My step takes my foot over the edge of the next step. My hand slaps against the wall as I fight for balance. In the echo of my hand on stone I hear wings in the darkness.

step eleven: From time to time, there are narrow windows, like arrow slits or light holes. Things you might see through the window; a tall tower, in ruins; white light breaking through the heavy clouds to let a ray fall onto the bleak land below; a small, dark shadow, moving quickly between rocks.

step twelve: my feet feel heavier.

step thirteen: I pause, and realise that the drop below is much further than I think; each labourered breath comes back to me scattered by echoes.

step fourteen: When I close your eyes, I see sparks. When I open them, they fade slowly, the ghosts of forgotten hope.

step fifteen: Someone rushes past, too fast to see, leaving an impression of dust and greyness.

step sixteen: Outside, the sky moves.

step seventeen: I stop and rest. For some reason the thought of pine trees comes to my mind. I spend some time trying to remember the smell of pine trees on a hillside, but instead I remember the smell of black stone, damp with water from a clean stream. I'm thirsty.

step eighteen: I go through all my pockets, slowly, as I climb the stairs, turning over the items I find in my hands trying to guess what they are. A nail, a coin, a water-smoothed stone. The tooth of an unidentified animal. A broken bracelet, a sharp-edged circuit board, an identity card, somthing that might be a broken camera. It's too dark to see if any of my guesses are correct.

step nineteen: I realise that among the many things I have in my pockets, none of them is a pen. Though it is too dark to see to write, this still distresses me.

step twenty: I stop by a dim window, and try to scratch my name in the stone in the almost light. I realise I can't remember my name, but resolve to make a mark anyway. But the thing I took for a nail is a splinter of wood, and it fragments as I press it to the stone, falling from my hand into the dimmness below. I don't hear it hit the floor.

step twenty-one: I stop staring out into the barren landscape, and fight to remember whether I was ascending or descending the spiral stairs. After a moment of doubt, I start to climb the stairs.

step twenty-two: Small muttering insects crowd around my head. Their wings feel damp, and they smell of ink and mould. The sound of their wings looms and recedes as they swirl about me.

step twenty-three: A dry wind blows from above. It smells of sand, heat, spices. I close my eyes against the grit it carries and instantly see a lion, its mouth red and vivid. Have I ever seen a lion, truly? When I open my eyes again I can no longer remember what a lion looks like.

step twenty-four: My legs are heavy and my head is dropping with exhaustion. I would like to stop, but the steps are too narrow to rest on, though I am sure I remember them being wider when I started to climb.

step twenty-five: I give up trying to remember the start of my climb, and instead try to remember what the outer appearance of the structure I am climbing in was. A single tower? The turret of a church? A mountain? The only window I find is set too deep to provide any clues. Through it I can see a single star.

step twenty-five: After a long struggle, I remember a name; the Astragoth Spiral.

step twenty-six: I find my eyes closing. I try to stay awake, but consciousness flows away like water. My feet slip, and I knock my shin on the step above. In the dark, I cannot tell if the cold pain is bruise or blood.

step twenty-seven: Cradling my painful leg, I push myself back into the widest point of the step. My eyes close instantly, and I fall into a dreamless sleep.

step twenty eight: In my dreams I am running down the staircase, looking for the way out. I know I have already descended twice as many steps as I have climbed and in my heart I know that I have lost the entrance, passed it in the darkness, and the rest of my life will be spent twisting myself around the spiral stair. Then, ahead, I see a patch of greater darkness. I start to descend faster, hoping for a way out, and find myself running too fast to stop, running towards the darkness which I now see is not a way out but only an ending; darkness, and the bottom of the spiral hanging in space.

step twenty-nine: Falling.

step thirty: A step knocks against my jaw and I wake up, dig panicked fingers into the stone to arrest my downwards slide. My clothes are tangled and twisted, bruises where body has knocked against stone. Impossible to tell how far I fell.

step thirty-one: Get up and start climbing again.

step thirty-two: I start to look for a niche to rest in, remembering stories of long pilgrimage stairs, with platforms where the less faithful could grab a night's rest, before continuing, but the wall is smooth and hard, the cracks between stones too small to accomodate anything larger than an insect.

step thirty-three: Beginning to worry about the stairs getting narrower, instantly the dark space seems smaller and myself a huge hulking thing, crammed into a staircase many times to small for my bulky frame. My feet are too big for the stairs. I will fall again.

step thirty-four: Rest my head against the wall for a moment, cool stone against my face, I am thirsty, I am thirsty.

step thirty-four: My knees buckle as pain shoots down my calf, but I steady myself against the wall, and stand between two steps, waiting for the pain to subside.

step thirty-five: Start climbing again.

step thirty-six: There is a faint whistling noise in the dimness. Is it wind over stone or something living? Beside me a sudden rushing in the darkness and then it's gone.

step thirty-seven: A fluttering, and the faint touch of cool skin, membrane and hair; a bat has flown by, disorientated by echoes. Another follows, and another. I put my hand to my cheek, touched by a bat.

step thirty-eight: A smell, like a place where animals sleep, gusts out at me. I pat at the wall until I find a crack, barely wider than my hand, marked with knobbly accretions of dried bat-shit. Do they come from above, or is there a way out through the crack? No light issues from it, but perhaps (now that the bats are flying) it is too dark outside for that.

step thirty-nine: Light dissolves in from a long window slit in the outer wall, grey and flat. I shudder at the touch of the icy air, it seems thin and cruel. Nevertheless, the relief of light leads me to linger here, head raised like a man welcoming the sun.

step forty: I turn to continue, and dimly perceive an alcove in the inner wall, a door of darker blackness in the darkness, a doorway with just enough space for a person to pass through, though I would have to crawl. I put my hand on its threshold, smooth with use and age, and wonder; could I sit in the doorway for a while and rest?

step forty-one: I gently force my bulk into the doorway, pressing myself against the cold stone. It feels slippery and treacherous, though I am crammed almost too tight to breathe. I wriggle against the walls, trying to get my neck comfortable, and almost spill out of the alcove headfirst. My fingers close on stone and I move more cautiously until I am curled and twisted into a position where I can rest.

step forty-two: The struggle has tangled my clothes about me. My skin is chilled by the unaccustomed touch of stone.

step forty-three: I am falling asleep. As I breathe out, it feels like I am swelling to fill the doorway.

step forty-four: I wake suddenly from deep black dreamless sleep. Something brushes over me, like black feathers in the darkness. The stone is slick against my thighs.

step forty-five: I spasm against the confining walls, terrified and unable to remember where I am. Another dark, feathered thing crushes past me.

step forty-six: I slide inwards, away from the stairs, freezing with fear as my hand encounters an unexpected space. I brace myself in the tunnel with my legs and shoulders. Another of the dark creatures forces past me, tangling in and tearing at my clothes as it passes.

step forty-seven: I tremble above an unseen chasm.

step forty-eight: I ease myself gently back towards the staircase, limbs shaking and eyes staring into the darkness. When there is another press of feathers against me, I scream. Panicked, the creature flaps and shrieks, its harsh voice impossibly loud in the confined space. Pain blossoms from my thigh; its claws have found me.

step forty-nine: My questing hand closes on the sill of the doorway. Trembling, I ease myself out onto the stairs again. Behind me, another creature explodes from the tunnel, its wings whipping my face as it passes. My clothes are torn and fouled. I do not know how long I slept. Maybe it was only minutes.

step fifty: I peel off my ruined clothes and continue climbing.

step fifty-one: After a while, I cease to notice the cold.

step fifty-two: I run my hands over my head, trying to brush the dust and cobwebs from my hair. It seems longer than I remember, and the tips have gone brittle in the dry air. I wonder briefly if the tower was in a desert.

step fifty-three: I try to remember the steps that brought me here but the memories twist sideways as I try to see them, revealing nothing but brief distorted glimpses in darkness. Two hands folded, a voice shouting, bright clothes or banners against a blue sky, a travel-stained hand on a golden, dusty wall.

step fifty-four: I realise I have stopped climbing.

step fifty-five: I claw my hands and start to climb again, hauling myself upwards and onwards, I will get this done, I say. I am barely able to move my lips.

step fifty-six: I stop and try to speak aloud. On the third try I manage to make a sound, my cracked voice sounds like screaming to my silence-accustomed ears.

step fifty seven: Above me, far, far above me something large moves, slow and ponderous as stone. Has my voice disturbed something from its rest?

step fifty-eight: I hesitate, afraid.

step fifty-nine: I try to remember why I am climbing but all the details are gone and only the urgency remains. Climb.

step sixty: The slap of my bare feet echoes up the stair to whatever is waiting for me.

step sixty-one: I wonder how long it would take to start the ascent over, or if it would even be possible. Am grimly suspicious that this may involve dying first.

step sixty-two: My suspicions harden into certainty, become brittle, flaske off, no longer concern me.

step sixty-three: I continue to climb in an orangish fog of hopeful peace.

step sixty-four: I become lost in the rhythm of walking.

step sixty-five: A noise disturbs me, breaks the rhythm with an awkward counterpoint. It sounds like something alive slapping against a wall, like the wing of something trapped, like things that hit your face unexpectedly in the dark.

step sixty-six: I duck to avoid ... what? I was sure something was there. But there's nothing near me, nothing coming. I listen to silence for a while.

step sixty-seven: As I start to walk again, the slapping returns almost too faint to hear.

step sixty-eight: I stop again, and listen. I hear: the creak of old stone, wind outside the tower, the faint whisper of insects crawling in the walls, the sound of spiders waiting, the sound of drafts stirring old dust on abandoned stone, the dandruff-shake of stone dust falling from aging stone, the flicker-noise of mice as they run and stop, run and stop, the sound of my heart hammering, the click of pressure change in my sinuses as I swallow, the tick of my eyelids blinking, the soft whisper of skin-on-skin as I try not to move but only to listen.

step sixty-nine: I hear nothing beyond that.

step seventy: Something is following me.