The Winding Staircase and the Hollow Fox (Richard's challenge)
A year after returning to London, Richard Brandon’s curiosity was piqued while listening to a friend complain about his new property. A factory built upon land where a manor house had previously burnt to the ground. While the entire factory was a new construction the cellar and the winding stairs that led to it were left behind from the previous property.
It was this cellar that was apparently the problem. His friends workforce (mostly foreign) had started refusing to go down there. Upon questioning they would claim that they refused because they feared getting lost. Given that the cellar was a single room, with a single staircase leading down to it, this was plainly ridiculous and hence Richard’s friends ire. Eager to satisfy his curiosity Richard offered to speak to the workforce on his friend’s behalf, claiming that as he spoke the language he would more easily get to the bottom of the issue and return the cellar to use. Gladly his friend accepted.
Richard began his investigation the next day by talking to the men working in the factory. Upon talking to them, it was revealed that the issue was not in fact the cellar but the staircase they feared becoming lost on. Given the winding staircase had no exits other than the ground floor and the cellar Richard was exceedingly confused and the workers seemed unable to explain further what the problem was.
The only solution was to try the staircase himself. As he walked down the staircase to the cellar he found no anomalies but upon reaching the bottom the problem was immediately apparent. The instant he arrived he was suddenly struck with a terrible feeling of disorientation. The stairs and cellar looked completely normal but still he felt lost. His legs were tired as if he had travelled many floors instead of just the one and when he thought back upon his journey it was suddenly muddled and confused. He had definitely been on the staircase but he could no longer remember how it had looked, how many steps or which way it had turned and at some point he could swear he had even been climbing up the stairs instead of down.
A thorough investigation of the cellar turned up no unusual features or sensations. It was as it appeared, just a cellar. Richard climbed back up the staircase and at the top had exactly the same disorientation and muddled memories. He spent the rest of the afternoon climbing up and down the staircase, attempting each time to remember more and find the source of confusion. While he failed to find the cause, or even prevent it happening he did narrow down the source. By going progressively one step further down the staircase before returning up each time (and then reversing the process by travelling up from the basement) Richard was able to pinpoint the exact stairs that caused the trouble. It was a 3 stairs almost exactly midway down the winding staircase. Their only significance being that on these stairs you couldn’t see either the top or bottom of the staircase, and neither could you be seen from either the basement or the ground floor.
Thrilled by his discovery Richard returned to the staircase again and again over the next couple of days, journeying up and down them in as many different manners as a man could. Forwards, backwards, he watched only his feet or looked only upwards at the ground floor. He even travelled blindfolded. He rolled balls down from the top and through them upwards from the bottom. This was particularly fascinating as one in every 12 balls just disappeared and could not be found in either room or on the staircase. He travelled with a compass and though while travelling was sure it remained pointing to north, upon arriving at his destination was suddenly sure he remembered it spinning around during the journey.
After many experiments and much struggle, Richard made a breakthrough. By walking down the stairs blindfolded, counting down the stairs from the top until he reached the strange point he found that if he turned right and stepped confidently upwards, he would find a stair. Upon removing his blindfold he found himself on a new upwards staircase, with no sign of the stairs behind him, simply a dead end and several of the missing balls. If he blindfolded himself and stepped backwards however he found himself back on the original staircase. This new staircase wound upwards until it connected with another and if he looked down the new staircase he could see that it too had other connections. If there were also hidden entrances on these staircases than these could be quite a large confusing maze.
This was incredible! Richard was filled with excitement but he had seen too many expeditions fail and men die from lack of preparation to rush in without thinking. Instead he returned the next day with a pack containing lengths of string. Chalk, ink and brightly coloured weights. A journal, along with the compass and some food and water.
Using the weights, and ink, Richard was able to mark his entrance point clearly and he unspooled the string behind him as a guide. Wary off hidden doors and disorientation Richard mostly chose to proceed blindfolded. Feeling the walls for connecting corridors and turning left and right to hunt for hidden staircases. Indeed he found several, each with other stairs leading off from them. These he marked with weights and ink. He took meticulous notes, drawing a map, recording turns, counting stairs, noting markers and ink left behind. Every 5 steps he stopped to record the direction the compass turned, for even though it was unreliable some pattern may emerge that could be of use.
Richard remained mapping the winding staircases for most of the day, as best he could tell with no source of light. He found no entrance or exit to the maze although he did find a couple large empty rooms, not dissimilar to the cellar he came from. This was clearly no small construction but some kind of massive labyrinth and Richard was determined to explore every inch. The place was subtly but incredibly unnatural in construction. Staircases that should have reached the surface didn’t and turns that should have brought have had him reconnecting with other staircases continued with no intersection. More unnerving was the dead silence. Apart from Richard there seemed to be nothing moving or even living in this place. Not even the slightest breeze or the smallest insect could be found. As he travelled back to his starting place he stopped occasionally to cover a stair with chalk. When he returned this would hopefully show whether or not anyone else had passed this way.
Over the next 6 months Richard mapped the labyrinth of stairs in this fashion discovering many fascinating things. Firstly he found that he was not alone in this maze. At a number of key points he found that people appear and disappear along a stairway. There appeared at first nothing unusual about them at first but when Richard tried to talk to them it soon became apparent that they could neither see nor hear him. These people were incredibly varied with the only thing in common being a distant or vaguely lost expression on their face. Any attempt to touch them proved impossible, provoking a sensation similar to that when attempting to push two repelling magnets together.
Further investigation led Richard to his second discovery. Each of these places was the position of another entrance to the winding stairway maze. These entrances and exits appeared all over London, in Somerstown, Bethnal Green, Islington, Whitechapel, Dalston and more. The untouchable people were London citizens using these staircases. Richard surmised that this moving in and out of the maze was causing the lost sensation, for all that they had no memory of being there. Astonishingly the distances between these staircase entrances inside the maze as opposed to outside was entirely different. Richard soon realised he had discovered a maze that would allow him to pass secretly from one end of London to another in matter of minutes and he swiftly redoubled his efforts to thoroughly map the place.
Another interesting fact of the place was how difficult it proved to summon his animals to there. Instead of a rapid almost instantaneous summoning it would take several minutes and the idol would become almost burning hot in his hands during this time. This lead Richard to avoid summoning almost entirely out of fear the idol and its magic would be damaged.
Eventually Richard discovered an area of the labyrinth far from any entrances and exits, and although it was difficult to say for sure, he felt that this was in fact close the centre of maze. As he explored this area further it began to give him a distinct uneasy feeling. Although everything looked the same as far as he could tell it just felt older, darker and somehow, although the temperature never changed on his instruments, it was colder. Every now and then he would place he would see something out of the corner of his eye, like twisted roots or old spider webs but when he looked, there was nothing. He would put his hand or foot down and for a brief instant feel a sensation of damp earth but again when he focused it was nothing but stone. Worst of all at times he would turn a corner and smell, just for second, faint odour of rot and decay.
As he travelled further and deeper he found himself feeling more claustrophobic, the whole area had an overtone of dread. Richard no longer thought of the place as a maze or a labyrinth. It didn’t feel man-made but instead organic like a burrow or warren of some poisonous beast.
Eventually he came to the heart of the warren, a large room or at times it seemed more like a large cave. It was dark and oppressive in the room but at the other end he could make out a shape. Upon coming closer he it resolved into the shape of a large fox, at rest on a pile of pale rags.
As he came within a few feet of it, the fox turned and looked at Richard and he felt himself grow cold to the bone. At first he thought the eyes of the fox were black but quickly he realised that in fact the fox had no eyes at all. Just an empty darkness inside, but somehow, as he stared into that darkness, Richard knew that something was staring right back. The mouth of the fox opened and from the black void within a voice issued forth.
“Do you wish to trade?” It whispered. Its voice was unnerving. If asked Richard would be unable to tell you if it was male or female, accented or no, but he would forever remember the way it seemed to worm and crawl into his ears, seeming to settle and seep into the very folds of his brain.
As the hollow fox awaited Richard’s reply, its unnaturalness only seemed to grow. It looked like a fox and had moved like a fox, but as it waited he realised that it was far too still. Its ears and nose didn’t twitch, and its torso remained stone still as the creature drew no breath.
Steeling himself Richard replied, “What kind of thing do you trade?”
“Truth,” said the hollow fox, “you state your truth and I’ll state one of mine.”
As unnerving as the voice was it was somehow also immensely captivating. It took all of Richard’s will to turn aside and stay silent, instead of inquiring further. He was no fool after all, no deal with something so unnatural could be that simple and nothing so dark could have anything but malevolence to offer. With great effort he backed slowly away until eventually the fox was merely a smudge in the dark and Richard felt its influence no further.
…To be continued…..