Where are we? Somewhere dark. Stepping and stepping, and stepping, on stones as they descend.
"No! We're going up." The professor yells the correction to my muttering. Again.
"We're going up. I can feel it! Can't you feel the tilt?"
He pauses. We slow, then stop. Our arteries pulse, a maddening noise magnified by the surrounding pitch.
There's no way to know for sure. Even before our torches failed, shadows and flickering light and sloping stone confounded our senses. A discovery that filled us with excitement. Realization came too late, of course. So we chose an upward path, we thought, hoping our tunnel would end in light.
Before long, we shuffled. Our hands scraped along the cold walls, balancing our plod.
"Just find the edges, the steps, with your toes, and we'll be there, my boy," the professor had said. We smiled at the dark. A challenge it soon accepted.
The steps grew shorter, then taller, then in between, and slanted once, then obviously down, then up, then slant ways once more, and on and on, until we lost track. And stopped.
"What if," I started.
The professor's once-confident voice gave way to admonition. And doubt it seemed. We sipped the air, careful not to disturb the silence.
"We must keep moving, boy."
So we did. Then the rambling began.
"His exaltedness, the venerable Mishwam M'ntaka first discovered the four cardinal directions ... I say discover, but really he just wrote them down, I mean it's hard not to notice up and down, huh boy?"
I coughed, kept one hand on the wall, another in front to guard against unseen barriers.
"In this case, in this place ... granted, I'm not so sure that's as easy, but you can't argue that, logically, we have but two choices before us."
We had tried retracing our steps, of course. Every time we started back, the steps ahead felt unfamiliar in pattern.
Patterns, the professor said, are mankinds' key to symmetry.
"We, above all creatures, perceive them in sharp manner. That is to say, we must trust ourselves to root out the asymmetrical to find the balance in nature. And we will... We will."
We'd also tried lying down, crawling, allowing the "keener sense of our longitudinal selves" to find our balance. That ended in panic when first one, then the other of us, felt as if the steps, or floor, or whatever it was, would tilt us to our doom, often in opposite directions from one another.
It was then I began muttering.
Our minds now choose up and down. It feels right each way, and we often correct each other as our hearts skip with fear. And loathing. And other, darker emotions.
I take another step. My hand again drags the stone wall, a cold steady presence that's at once gladdening, and horrifying.
We start to speak. Stop. Our blood pulses. I know. I know. The professor knows.
"Don't you?" he whispers.
We know. We know. Our discovery, our excitement. Our adventure, beyond the door?
All pitch black in a lock-less prison.
Doors. They seldom lead nowhere.
My face wrinkled at the double negative. The professor grinned.
"Think it through, my boy," he added.
I did. And arrived at the conclusion that I'd mistakenly apprenticed to an old crackpot. I knew what it meant, a truth both literal and figurative, in the style of the old Jonoran monks. That the professor believed it so sincerely? Like we could waltz right through a door, unattached to anything real, to arrive somewhere -- a portal to places unknown? Well, no. Crackpot old fool.
I said none of this, of course. The professor, the Right Venerable Al-Nilam, commanded a legitimate waiting list of apprentices. And this final practicum would seal my degree in astrometry and asymmetry from the University of Azza.
-- fragment from the Epistle of Sh'diel, Entry 42, as published in "Secrets of the Jonoran Library," University of Azza Press
When the wispy-haired professor prattled off the old adage whilst meandering along Shadeside's back streets earlier in the morning, I knew my day would be at least grammatically entertaining.
Now, we stood by the Wall, the bonestone as the 'siders called it, and looked upward. It simply towered.
"What was that, my young man?"
"I didn't say anything, sir."
What I didn't say is that ever since I first saw it, I couldn't help but swallow and cower each time I walked up to the impregnable thing. The texts mentioned vague reasons for its existence, how it got built, and why. None of that mattered, to us of course. We worried with its connections, its fluidity in our reality and how it corresponded to all the comings and goings of the Azzine people. It formed an axis, of sorts, in life. I mean, it didn't matter who you were, you had a ritual that centered on the monstrosity - nailing flowers to it, sacrificing birds at its base, spray-painting handprints by the thousands. They say even the blacked-out mirrors here related. And we wanted to know, above all, why?
"P'rin, along with you. We have work."
I woke from my reverie, turned and followed. It only took a few minutes to reach it. A lone wooden frame. The door, brown-paneled, uniform edges, strafed by a few minutes of morning sun, the only sun it would ever see, simply stood. An invitation. A rectangular want, that waited. The professor drooled with excitement.
I started to speak. He held up a finger. We listened. Nothing. No wind, no birdsong, no sounds detectable. We remained silent. He walked up closer, leaned over to peer behind the door, took out a pencil and pad, started to scribble. I began unpacking gear I'd stowed earlier in the professor's aging rucksack - an astrolabe, reference charts and diagrams, a stethoscope, two stopwatches, two torches, wax and matches, and calipers, to which he soon pointed.
"Take them and gauge the gap, please."
I froze. Gap? Must've said it, too, because he added with an impatient grunt, "Between the door and the Wall."
I grabbed the worn metal instrument, hinged it open, and stepped closer and, sure enough, saw a faint line between the doorframe and the bonestone on which it leaned, or leaned toward. I took my time, careful to touch points only with the doorframe and the Wall, and read the resulting distance.
"Good, good!" The professor seemed downright giddy, which began to wear on my nerves. Shouldn't we just get it over with, and open it?
"We must be patient. Yes. These ... doors. They have appeared before, of course, yet accounts vary. I mean, I've seen a dozen myself."
This surprised me. He had never mentioned it. In all our lectures and excursions and painstaking artifact cataloging, we'd never really talked about the doors, until last week. When rumors reached the university of this particular one.
"Only one opened, of course."
"I'll show you," he said, and simply reached out his grizzled hand, turned the knob and pulled.
Dark, yet not dark. Just empty, an emptiness contained and defined not only by the door's shape, but something beyond. Something unknown in width and depth. Like staring into a dark home.
Then, a sudden flapping of wings. We looked up, startled, yet nothing but blue sky greeted our eyes. He noted that as well, then pocketed his notebook, exchanging it for a torch. The time had come. Without looking back, we stepped. Stepped again. Stepped a third time.
The bright world winked out of existence.
Thus follows the account of P'rin, last apprentice to the Right Venerable Al-Nilam, professor of astrometry and assymetry at the University of Azza Westside...
We awoke in a field, a gloriously green field, with no recollection of having fallen asleep.
I did not know, could not know, how many hours later. Or was it before? Time slipped around us like clouds passing, their direction dependent upon which way you look upward.
I felt my face, streaked with dirt washed along by wet blubbery tears, and remembered. The dark passageways, edging along, hands raw from scraping along cold stone. The madness. The tiredness. The wishfulness that we had never, ever touched that door, let alone opened it. How our hearts sang with excitement, then fear. How we moved through -- what was it, a keep, a dungeon, a palace? -- looking, at first, for secrets, then searching for upward, and light, and exit.
And now, here we lie, somewhere dark? Yet green. Cool air moving around us and over us. Us. I had not looked. Did not know. I turned left, then right, finding no professor. Panic. I twisted onto my elbows, lifted my face forward, and saw his scalp. Head to head we'd lain stretched out like matchsticks. I reached out, shook his shoulder and heard a faint groan.
Hours later, we'd walked what seemed like miles in the shadow of that thing, that wall, which at some point had spat us out like dusty vomit. It towered, not evilly mind you, just towered like a thing that was, that is, that will be in our lives. Reflective here, bespeckled with stars in what must be perpetual night. We had no way of knowing, or guessing, the passage of time. Maybe it behaved differently here. We felt an unease of hours, like we had missed a deadline, or supper. We hadn’t eaten. Or had we? We questioned each other, then retraced our steps, only to not find where we had been.
Finally, we just sat, stared at our new world. The wall. The damned brackish river, always between, filled with those balloon-like creatures, ever floating, glowing, blue, mimicking the surreal haze around us.
In our first hours - or was it minutes? - the professor had looked down into that water and laughed, and continued laughing, a guttural laugh that chilled me to the bone.
“Helix,” he cried. “Helix. Helix. They swim in helixes. By the Azzan gods, real helixes!”
I pressed him further, but he would not explain. Just laugh, and mutter helix under his breath.
Like a sleepwalker, I wondered if we evaded reality, or it had evaded us.
There is little left to tell now. We sat for a time. Then, they came. The robed ones. They came in processions, to the mirrors, that lined the river. Oh, I forgot the mirrors. Uncanny things. Not reflective, yet we could, somewhat, see ourselves in them. Each bordered by black wood with a cage atop the frame that held one of the amphiballoons. I made a joke, about them being doorbells, and the professors yelled, fiercely, telling me never to never say that word. Ever again.
He’s right, of course. It only makes us think back, to how we got here. We just opened a door.
Anyway, the mirrors. We'd stopped counting at three hundred and sixty four, stretched on and around the river. Or maybe they were fewer, and we’d counted the same ones, the hazy light or our own folded thoughts made it impossible to know for sure.
And the robed ones. People? I don’t know. Just robed figures, who'd stare into the mirrors, and who always moved away from us, just out of arm's reach, and never changed, despite our screaming, which left us hoarse and thirsty and eying the river. Its luminous life below and above the surface. We never drank. We would never drink.
The professor screamed, and I screamed, and we yelled, our shrieks splitting the night’s silence, and soon we gave in, or over to our panic, and we pulled, and pushed, and prodded the robed ones, and the mirrors, until one cracked, and the balloon fell from its cage, and its cry stopped our hearts.
A withering mewl, wretched in cadence, on and on, until the professor picked up a shard of the mirror, stabbed its glowing belly until the silent night returned.
He looked up once, twice, three times to the wall, raised the shard, severed his jugular, and fell.
I laughed, at his fate. My fate. And began these last words. The ink from his sacrifice, on paper torn from our clothing.
If you find this, if anyone finds this, remember. Doors. They seldom lead nowhere.
Instead, they lead here. A place of only reflections. Only the end of passageways. A place twisted and torn from the fabric of our worlds.
No doors. No doors. Just the ever-dark. The portal-less night. Nothing else. No doors. No doors.
Just freedom we, I, can no longer contain.