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The Stair Unclimbed
Confessor #4
© 2022 James LaFond
A lake of inky ochre filled the near horizon. For Phane stood on a half disk of azure glass, a thorn-choked tunnel to his back, a tunnel so choked with twisted vines and knife-like thorns that he could not imagine how he had won through to this side. For a certain, there was no going back.
Rising above the mouth of the vine-grown tunnel was the stardust field of the star metal of this soaring structure’s interior, which did give off a low ambient glow that one imagined might be accounted for by the multitude of distant stars in the pattern—or was it a pattern? The vaulted interior of this great edifice sloped inward as a church steeple should.
Before him pooled an impenetrable liquid—ink he thought, upon which floated various glass disks a span across, which seemed to be tethered by a chain to the bottom and floated semi-free between the small porch of rosette glass he stood upon and the stair of what seemed to be moon metal rising from the center of the pool.
At the center of each disk was a cap or boss of moon metal, [1] suggesting the housing for whatever linkage tethered these things in place.
“How might glass float, for surely they bob, if ever so slightly?” whispered the man, seemingly entranced by the proposition before him.
A span separated each of these disks, so one would have to leap from one to the next, unless he could pole from one to the other. He looked to the vine-choked tunnel at his back and found no length of vine which was straight for more than a half a span. Curious, he cut a length of mahogany vine, hefted it, and seemed to think that it should float, obviously measuring the object’s density in his hand. In case he fell in, perhaps he wished to know what properties the ink harbored?
Bending gently, Phane placed one end of the cut vine, as thick as his wrist, into the watery blackness and stirred and the substance proved to be a heavy essence of some kind which resisted mixing. With a grim shrug of frustration concerning the experiment, he pulled the end of the vine out to observe if any damage had occurred to the stick and he could not draw it forth. As he began to pull, an odorous mist arose from the inky depths—or shallows, as he had no way of knowing how deep it was—a noxious odor which was evidenced by the flaring of his nostrils and the widening of his eyes, which sent panic through his core and he leapt outward and landed on the first disk.
With three remaining before he reached the base of the silvery moon metal stair, he glared in a prowling posture at the inky pool. Looking behind him he saw the vine being sucked in slowly beneath the black surface and he leapt.
The disc he landed upon wobbled and whirled, the inky ooze not lapping upward onto its glassy surface, but rather displacing.
He leapt again and the disc beneath him displaced dangerously and a rising tongue of ink licked up at him as he glided in an arch over the substance and landed on the next disc.
A shiver chilled his marrow as he landed and the ink curled upward in thorny tongues on the side of the disc he needed to leap from, seeming to strain at about knee level to catch him.
Testing the mass of the disc, he half squatted and then leaped higher, pushing outward with his rear foot to propel him and he immediately knew he had overshot his mark and did a break-fall onto his back on the next disc, curling his legs up over him as his shoulder blades nearly slid from the far end and then tumbled back and gained his feet precariously, the vile ink all around reacting in different ways, as if learning how to gather him into its depths. He shivered when it became clear that the ink had calculated his overshoot and had formed an eddying maw to swallow him on the other side of the platform.
Impatient with being measured for a morsel by this inky intelligence, Phane stepped towards the way he had come, as if going to retrace his steps, then whirled, took a double step to the very end of the disc and risked a long low leap, which the ink only partially anticipated, him noticing a nudge on his left heel.
As soon as he touched down on the final and fourth disk, he leapt for all he was worth towards the moon metal catwalk at the bottom of the star. The ink gathered itself in a questing tongue, trying to drink him and he overshot his ark, skidding on the catwalk and slamming into the base of the stair, bouncing from the rightward railing and crumbling against the stair which rang with a hollow metallic moan that to him, above that inky intelligence of hunger, seemed almost human.
Testing his lowest rib on the left as if he expected it to give, he began to walk leisurely up the stair, which ascended in a spiral upwards for perhaps 50 fathoms.
With a cavernous, slurping note of protest he was dashed sideways and caught the rail there, and then the other one and began climbing as swiftly as possible, never letting go the railing with his hands. For he saw below that the ink had formed many lashing tongues to grip the catwalk which the base of the stair was anchored in, shaking the entire structure furiously in an apparent attempt to shake loose the man like some piece of climbing fruit which just had to be eaten.
[Conductor Wyethstone noted that the tone of the avatar reporting these events suggested that the account was had directly from the nimbus which had joined with the intruder and had achieved empathy of a deeply symbiotic scope. The listener was thrilled and exited by the prospect and not a little put aback by the acceptance of such a heretic by an aspect of a Node of Foundation.]
The world swam—at least this stardust nightmare of a claustrophobic world—and he began to sicken from nausea as the stair shook and shook and shook, rattling and squeaking, straining at its moorings in the star metal sphere above, a sphere easily a hundred paces across, occupying the base of what must be the steeple of this structure when seen from afar.
Though he, at this point, had, like one of the sorrowful figures of indecision in the invalidating mirrors below, lost confidence in his ability to relate the dimensions of the world he was now immersed in with the outer structure he had marveled at from far and near.
A star metal bar spanning an open portal seemed to offer access to the base of the sphere. So he jumped and caught it from below, his leap miss-judged due to the shaking of the stair. He hung precariously by his sword arm for a moment before hooking his left elbow over the bar. Finally relieved of the shaking, but his head still swimming, Phane managed to gain both feet on the bar. His boot heels slotting over the bar nicely, he reached up and pulled himself upward and onto a moon metal platform, which was itself the base of a stair within the sphere, a stair made of the adamantine stuff that his forbearers had assured him had once braved the distant stars to bring man to Oth.
[Conductor Wyethstone felt a chill of foreboding as it became clear that an aspect of this awesome Node of Foundation had become vested, like a personal angel, with the success of the very being the aggregate wisdom of Foundation had engaged in a test. A flash of anger burned in his heart, but then a long ago uttered reminder by his mentor echoed in his mind that “Foundation is not merely our source, but our advocate,” an utterance he must now adjust his understanding of to the point of admitting that Foundation valued all humanity, even this murderous heretic, not simply the Faithful.]
Up this deep, echoing stardust stair he jogged, his left shoulder where the doomed fairy flower had died, pressed against the outer casement of the spiral stair, a mere span wide, racing upward through a tube, the stairs spiraling upward to the right, upward towards a bright light.
Phane grinned savagely as the nimbus about his head waxed like moonlight among a star-dusted night and his right hand went to the hilt of his wicked sword, ready for the worst this blasted place could offer and hoping like mad that it was a milkmaid who needed a bow tied in her hair. Because he was so dizzy and nauseated from the shaking stair that he wondered if he’d simply pitch forward on his face when his legs stopped churning, upward, towards the brightening light, ever to the right.
[Conductor Wythestone now accepted that he was being tested, his jealousies and sense of self and piety measured against the avatar of light before him, waxing sunny light in the shape of a singer and cheering the heroics and endearing the pathos of he who this Pious Conductor of Foundation hunted for the criminal he was. Perhaps a lesser aspect of Foundation was being permitted to wax like some infatuated laud over the antics of this infuriating intruder.]
Note 1: Moon metal is a lightweight metal of silvery appearance which cannot be replicated my man for it is not smelted and forged but made of some alchemical process beyond the ken of Starfallen Man.
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