This is the concluding chapter of a longer-than-usual story I wrote a few months before starting the blog; the first part appeared Wednesday and the second yesterday. Happy Halloween!
And Pleasant Dreams.
The evening passed with aching slowness; she wanted nothing more than to go to bed so she could finally see the end of the whole weird business. The dream-world had become so real to her, so important, that it was beginning to feel more real to her than waking life; she could remember the events of her dreams with crystal clarity, but real-life events had begun to grow fuzzy and hard to remember from day to day. Her husband repeatedly asked if she was sleeping well, and had even suggested she see a doctor; she knew that his suggestions would soon turn to insistence if things continued this way for even a few more days. But she was absolutely positive that tonight would see a resolution; she knew that as soon as she reached the top of those stairs, the greatest mystery of her life would be solved and everything would fall into place. She would return to the happy life she had once known and again be able to devote herself to her wonderful husband, the man who had loved her and cared for her and tolerated her shortcomings with rarely more than a cross word. So she made a supreme effort to be pleasant and engaging and fun this evening, while secretly counting the minutes until bedtime.
Once they were in bed she offered herself to him, and as he made love to her she thought how this, too had changed. Once she had looked forward to their time together, had lost herself in his embrace; in the past few months, however, she had found it impossible to stop thinking of the buried city even while with him, and it had become merely a duty to her. Oh, she had pretended of course, in order to spare his feelings, but she sorely missed the true physical intimacy that had once come so naturally to her in his arms. After tonight, she told herself, this, too would return to normal.
As soon as he was asleep she set out for the marketplace, where she bought a pair of trousers and some sturdy boots, then a set of the odd claw-like appliances which she had once seen a man use to scale the cathedral’s steeple in order to effect some maintenance. She doubted she could use them with anything like the agility displayed by that worker, but she would only need them if she had to climb over some bad spot on the immense staircase. The merchant looked at her strangely when she requested the items, but asked no questions and simply handed them over once she had paid the requested price. Her next stop was the hiding-place of her cloak, and thence to a spot where she could wait until the guard had passed in his rounds.
Once he had passed she flew to the door and slid back the bar; it moved just as smoothly as it had the previous night, and with less noise. A moment more and she was through the door; this time she closed it, hoping that the drawn bar would escape notice for long enough for her to ascend out of reach of any pursuit. Gathering her skirt with her free hand, she took the steps as quickly as she dared, stopping eight flights up – that is, two complete circuits of the stairwell – to replace skirt with trousers and slippers with boots. She paused to look and listen for long enough to satisfy herself that her trespass had not yet been detected, then donned her cloak and set out to make the arduous climb.
She was careful to pace herself; there was no way of knowing how high the staircase was, since its top was lost in the gloom. Though the city was brightly lit by day, the staircase was wrapped in the same shadowy light by which she had first seen it last night. After a while she grew tired of carrying her skirt and slippers and so discarded them; she then donned the climbing appliances under the assumption that they would be less cumbersome worn than carried. Hour after hour she climbed, until her legs screamed in protest and her lungs ached with the unaccustomed effort, but still the impossible stairway stretched above her, flight upon flight upon endless flight. At first she tried to count them, but lost track somewhere above five hundred; she must now be miles above the city. She moved like an automaton, her agony conquered by the overwhelming determination to reach the top no matter how long it took or what it did to her body.
After what seemed an eternity, she came to the sudden realization that the echoes of her plodding footsteps sounded different somehow; without stopping, she veered toward the railing so she could look up for the first time in hours, and her heart leapt as she saw the unmistakable outline of a peaked roof some ten flights above her. Though she had awakened from the trance-like stupor in which she had climbed for a very long time, the anticipation of reaching the top at last allowed her to force the pain back down and continue climbing.
She had cleared four more flights when she heard an ominous boom from above, like the slamming of a massive door, and a shock of terror ripped through her when it was followed by a sound which could only be heavy footfalls coming down the staircase toward her. She came very close to blind panic at that moment; the idea that the top of the stairway might be guarded like the bottom had never entered her mind. But somehow she found the calm center of the emotional storm which threatened to engulf her, and looked down at the climbing appliances strapped to her hands and boots. She gambled a quick look up the stairwell to make sure that the unknown intruder was not in sight of the edge, then swung herself out over the railing and climbed along the underside of the wooden steps until she could rest against the wall in a desperate effort to conserve what little strength she had left.
Her cloak now hung uncomfortably from her neck, but she dared not remove and drop it for fear that it would land on the stairs below and thereby draw the climber’s attention upward when he passed below her. So she waited and waited, her heart pounding against the inside of her ribs, as the footfalls came closer and closer and ever closer…and stopped directly above her.
She began to weep silently, and held her breath so as to suppress any sniffle or sob which might betray her presence, but it was obviously too late; it was not by accident that the other had stopped where he did. As she looked out from her hiding place, hoping against hope that the descent would resume, a long, rough-skinned neck as thick as her waist and the color of dried blood came curling down from the stairs above; it was surmounted by a reptilian head the size of a tiger’s, and as she watched in helpless terror the monstrosity turned its head completely around on its neck and stared at her with huge, glowing green eyes. Its lower jaw fell open as if unhinged, revealing many sharp teeth accented by four prominent fangs shaped like those of a cobra, and it emitted a hiss more like steam escaping from a pipe than anything a living creature might make. Her nerve shattered completely, and she screamed and let go of her precarious perch, dropping heavily to the stairs beneath.
It was difficult to see the hideous thing clearly from her new position, but the green glow of its eyes stood out in the gloom. Oddly, it hesitated for a moment, and that gave her enough time to rise to her tortured legs and begin to run downward, back the way she had come. Her headlong flight appeared to incense the creature, and it began to run down the stairway after her. Even in her profound horror she realized that it would be impossible to outrun the monster; not only were its strides worth three of hers, it was fresh from descending only a few flights while she was absolutely spent from her ascent of hundreds. Whether by intuition or reason or pure repetition, she swung out over the edge of the staircase again in the wild hope that it might overlook the possibility of her pulling the same trick twice. And by some miracle it worked; the loathsome thing was so caught up in the pursuit that it shot past above and then below her without as much as a glance in her direction. As soon as it turned the corner below her she scrambled up onto the stairs again, taking the steps as quickly as her ruined legs would carry her, and threw open the door at the top of the stairs without breaking her stride.
She instantly found herself lying in her own bed, her legs twisted with cramps, and burst into tears born from a mixture of fear and relief. She clutched at her husband and he turned to hold her gently, then with infinite sadness he asked, “Why did you have to go through the door?” But she was unable to answer; she merely stared in mute horror at his eyes glowing green in the dark.