The room was basically square, with a very high ceiling, and a large alcove on the far wall. Set partially within this alcove was an enormous spiral staircase that reached up into darkness.
The staircase was amazing. It appeared to be made of a single, solid piece of ivory, although where anyone could find a tusk that three men could walk abreast on boggles the naturalist’s mind. That by itself would be impressive enough, but every inch of the staircase, the railings and the steps and the central pillar, was carved and ornamented in elaborate organic designs, crosshatches and swirls and a repeating design of lozenge shapes along the outside sides of the railing that resembled the “eye” on the feathers of peacocks. Set into each lozenge was a cabochon ruby, framed in tortoiseshell, forming a spiral of gemstones up the sides of the stair. Further tortoiseshell embellishments, in the form of inset rosettes and broken lines, drifted across the steps and in winding veins up the central pillar.
It was a stairway fit for an emperor, sitting in a small concrete room at the end of a dirt path underground.
We approached closer. I ran my hands over the ivory, and took a rubbing of one of the lozenge designs.
I was working the chalk into the lines when Heinrich cleared his throat, turned, and carefully lifted me bodily away from the staircase.
Around the back of the staircase, directly in front of the first step, there was a smooth stone, and on it, a familiar metal plaque.
We regret to inform the traveler that this staircase
is in fact a predatory organism known as a stepweight
Scalaepensum snodgrassi. It is a carnivore. We suspect
from the size that this specimen is several hundred years
old. The apparent stair does not access any rooms above
but is anchored to the ceiling. We have provided a ladder
if you wish to examine this for yourself, but we strongly
suggest that you do not walk upon the stepweight, as this
will trigger its swallowing reflex. We have decided not
to close this room as we believe the stepweight lives
primarily on small birds and we do not wish to harm it,
and thus we can only hope that you will heed this
The Monks of Perdition.
There was another small plaque underneath, which said discreetly “In Memory of Brother Snodgrass.”
Heinrich and I looked at each other. We looked at the plaque. We looked at the staircase. We looked at the rather rickety metal ladder bolted to the wall that was evidently what the monks had provided.
“I’ll go,” I said, once it became obvious that Heinrich wasn’t going to.
The ladder groaned alarmingly, but the bolts held. I had a brief notion about halfway up that if I were, in fact, an exceedingly clever predatory organism that looked like a rusted ladder, I would leave a note saying that the safe path was a predator, and the ladder that no one in their right mind would climb was safe—but I dismissed this as pure paranoia. Giant predatory staircases were one thing, but giant predatory staircases that wrote in crisply engraved sans serif was just crazy talk.
And indeed, in a matter of moments, I reached the top. There was no other room above it. The staircase ran directly up to the ceiling and then fanned out into broad ivory trunks sunk into the stone, like roots of a tooth anchored in a concrete jaw. Near the top, the regular patterns became more distorted, more organic, and looked more and more like the markings of a living creature than the carvings of an artist.
I went back down and told Heinrich that the Monks of Perdition appeared to be two for two.
He nodded, rummaged in Mirabelle’s pack, and came up with the large meat pasty that had been planned for our lunch. I retreated to a safe distance, and he tossed it, underhand, onto the third stair up.
The whole staircase gave a great accordion wiggle, and the step that our lunch had landed on cracked open longways, revealing the briefest flash of a pink gullet. Ivory lips closed over the lump of dough and meat, and yanked it inside the step. The stepweight heaved again, and subsided, and except for the slight lump in the third stair, looked normal.
Almost. As we watched, one of the cabochons winked, then the next, and then the next, the whole spiral of gems, that were perhaps not gems at all, blinking in a wave that ran from the floor up into darkness. I had apparently been making a rubbing of one of the stepweight’s eyes.
“You know, I think that’ll do it for me for today,” I said.
“And we don’t have lunch now,” said Heinrich, who has always had a very practical mind.