Up in the mountains, past Windover village, up a long, winding path and through a field of wildflowers, there is a tower.
It isn't that impressive to look at, all things considered. It's tall, grey and narrow, with lancet widows dotting up the sides in tidy vertical rows. The only way in is through the front door.
Every so often, travelers will come by. Big guys, usually. Riding their impressive looking horses and wearing their impressive looking armor, going on and on about quests and duties and treasure and whatnot.
The people living in Windover sigh when they come around, asking all kinds of touchy questions.
"You don't want to know," we tell them. "Turn around now while you can."
It never works. They keep on asking and cajoling and threatening until, eventually, someone will tell them where the tower is, just to get them out of town and off our backs. The travelers always thank them and ride off. If they're lucky, they come back a few days later, looking like they'd been put through the wash. If they're unlucky, well. . . we don't like talking about the unlucky ones. Everyone pretends not to notice when they don't come back.
Nobody knows who built the tower. For years it was empty, since back before my grandpa was a kid. Then, when I was around seven or eight, he moved in.
I remember him. Sunken grey eyes, hollow cheeks, staggering into town like a drunk and looking like hell itself had spat him out for being too stringy. I only saw him the one time, but it was enough.
Some people around here say he's a demon. That the reason all those people go missing is because he eats them, horse, armor, and all. Others say he's a wizard. Maybe a warlock. Something unpleasant, at any rate. That he turns people into monsters, or he kills them then brings them back to life to be his servants.
Me? I don't know what he is. I only know I've got to carry the groceries up there everyday. The man in the tower is my boss.
Every morning I make the trek up to the tower, through the brambles and brush and the field of wildflowers growing just outside the tower. Every morning I take the hidey-key out from its place beneath the porch, and every day I go inside.
It's true what they say, you know. It really is bigger on the inside.
It's mostly empty, save for the stairs. Everything is, well, clean. The walls are a uniform gray. The floor is made out of white stone. Even the stairs are made form a pale wood, held together with steel and spit and prayers.
I know there's a ceiling up there, somewhere, but I've never seen it before. The stairs just keep going, looping around the walls for ever and ever.
Occasionally, I'll pass by one of the windows. They don't show me the mountainside, or the village. Instead, they show lush forests surrounded in thick fog and the most colorful flowers. They show me vast expanses of water, or strange mountains with molten rock oozing out of them.
I never try to go to the top of the stairs. I know that's probably what all those other people did, no matter how hard I tried to warn them.
"He's not at the top," I'd say. "There's nothing at the top. It just goes on forever." They never listened, though. They never believed me when I told them to stop after six hundred and eighty nine steps.
At the six hundredth and eighty ninth step, there's a window. Unlike the others, it doesn't show some strange, foreign place. It shows a small room, empty save for a rather ornately carved door. This is where I stop each day.
I crawl through the window (it's never locked) and carefully take the basket of food and flask of water. I set them both by the door, and take the yellow packet thats taped by the knob. Inside the packet is half my pay. I pour out the money and re-stick the packet to the door. I get the rest later that evening, when I come back for the empty basket and flask. After which I mail most of it to my family off in the city.
The whole process repeats itself the next morning.
Every night I go back to my little house and rest well in the knowledge that this is the way it always was, and this is the way it always will be.
* * * * *
One day I went up the stairs. I passed by the windows. I stopped at the six hundred and eighty ninth step. I set down the basket.
There was no packet on the door.
I stared. There was always a packet! Ever since I had started the job- ever since I was just a little kid, there had always been the packet.
I thought about knocking. Maybe even (here I shuddered slightly) knocking on the door, but decided against it. Maybe he'd just forgotten. How long had we been doing this? Wizard or no, the old man was getting on in years. Maybe his mind was starting to go. He'd notice his mistake as soon as he took the food and saw the packet wasn't there. I was sure of it.
I turned back and started for home.
* * * * *
I came back that evening, hoping the packet would be there, preferably twice as heavy as it usually was. Instead, not only was there no packet, but the food and flask hadn't been touched.
Well, that was it then, wasn’t it? It wasn’t even about the pay: he was an old man, and he hadn’t eaten or drunk anything today. What if he’d fallen? What if he was dead? It had happened before. Old Don Quigley the Hermit had been up in his hut for almost a week before someone went out lookin’ for him and found him dead on his porch.
I didn’t have a choice. I stepped forward and, hesitating only for a moment, put my hand on the knob.
There was an electric jolt. I quickly pulled my hand back as the brass knob began to smoke.
Well, he was a wizard, wasn’t he? It would figure that he’d have a way of keeping people out. I’d have to go back to town and get a group of people to help break the door down, then.
It’ll take convincing. Nobody likes going up to this place-
Just as I was getting ready to leave, there came a rattling sound from the knob. Gears and cogs hidden inside the door itself clanked and groaned. Slowly, the knob turned, and the door opened. Light flooded through the slim crack in the doorway.
With a shaky breath, I stepped forward and pushed open the door.
The room was enormous. That’s the only word for it. The ceiling was arched and met at least two stories above, sheets of glass stretched across in some places to let the noon-day sun in. The floors were a rich, polished wood and the walls were covered with tapestries and murals and the occasional tall shelf. Directly across from me, on the other side of the room, were windows that stretched all the way from the floor to the ceiling above.
The floor where I was, just in front of the door, was at a lower level than the rest of the room, with three short sets of stairs and two small landings between me and the main floor. Tentatively, I stepped forward.
There was the familiar clacking noise, and the door amiably shut itself behind me.
“Hello?” I said. “Hello? Sir, are you in here?” I climbed up the steps. “It’s me. The- uh- one who brings you food. And stuff."
The sound of my footsteps echoed through the room. It felt so wrong being there, like the room itself didn't want me.
I called a little louder. "Sir? Are you in here? Hello? You didn't touch your food today, and I got a little worried. . . "
There were two other doors in the room, each tucked into the far corners just beside the windows. I picked the one on the left.
"I'm not upset about the pay, if that's what you think," I said, turning the knob. "I just came in to make sure you're all right." The door was jammed. I thumped it lightly and nearly fell in.
I'm not sure what I was expecting. Another room like the last, perhaps. With the door set up beside some windows like the first one.
Instead, it was a hall. A long hallway lined with doorways but no doors, even on the side of the wall where, logically, the building would have ended. I peered into the first doorway on the right, expecting to see sky or mountainside.
Instead it was a small sitting room. Comfortable looking enough, with cushioned chairs and carpeting. The only light came from the fire going in the fireplace. There was an open book on the end table, page facing down. There were no windows.
I stepped back and checked the room next to it. Here was another sitting room, about the size of the first. This one, however, was much more cheerful. Full of yellows and blues and large windows letting the spring-time sun in-
I left the room, frowning. I went back to the main entrance to take a look at the windows there. Yes, they were full of sunlight. The glass had gone pleasantly warm from all the sun it was getting. I turned back and left through the main door. I went out through the six hundredth and eighty ninth step window, climbed down the tower steps, and went to take a look outside in the real world. It was still dark out. I looked down at the frost on the ground. It was still winter.
I nodded, as though this was the most sensible thing in the world. "Thought so," I said, heading back upstairs.
The rooms in the hall started out mundane- things like sitting rooms and reading rooms and little libraries. But then I started noticing that the sizes of the rooms started going. . . odd.
I stopped between a library and dining hall. I spent a few minutes inspecting each room, walking along the shared wall trying to be sure. They were too big. They ought to have been cutting into each other.
I sighed and went on down the hall, wondering why one little old man would need so much damned space.
Eventually the dull rooms like dens, studies, libraries, and lounges gave away to slightly more interesting places. Rooms of shelves lined with nothing but clockwork machines that moved and flashed when you twisted the handles. Rooms full of glowing things trapped inside jars and cages full of tweeting metal birds. It was around those rooms that the doors started showing up. It was like the tower was sick of me exploring and put up the doors to keep me out once things started getting interesting.
Well, I wasn't going to let that stand, not now that things were cooking up. I opened the next door, expecting another library or laboratory.
Instead, the doorway lead to a garden. Curious, I stepped through the threshold and heard the delicate tinkling of glass crumbling. I looked down at my feet.
The grass was made of glass. Thin green spiraled slips of grass. The blades couldn't go through the tough material of my shoes- I hadn't felt a thing. To my left there was a brick path. I tip-toed my way over, trying desperately not to crush anymore of the glass, and went through. I took my time looking around.
The entire garden was made of colored glass. Colored glass and gems. The leaves on the trees nearby tinkled in the breeze. Nestled amidst the leaves were faceted fruits in rich shades of red. It must have taken hours to reach the end of the path, but I didn't mind. The path didn't even end, really. I just stepped forward in one place, only to find myself facing the opposite direction. I glanced off into the distance.
It's just backdrop, I thought. Just something to look at.
One tree was right up against the trail, the branches hanging overhead. Without thinking, I raised my arm up and plucked off an apple.
Ruby. I thought.
I smiled vaguely and started back for the door, tucking the apple into my pocket. I took my time. When I eventually did make it to the inevitable door, the fake sun was starting to set.
* * * *
There was no sense as to where the rooms were placed. One door would lead to a chilly sitting room lit by a fireplace and full of embroideries, the room next to it would lead to a field of wildflowers somewhere in the middle of summer. The next door would go to another library, and the one after into a cemetery.
All of the open places- the fields, the gardens, the cemetery- all had cutoffs. You could only walk so far in one direction before you found yourself standing back at the room's (because no matter the location, I couldn't help thinking of them as 'rooms') entrance. Usually these cutoffs were marked by a fog, or a fuzzy place in the air. And other times they weren't.
I kept on, wondering how far the old man could have gone.
* * * *
The dirt was black and arid, as though it had been burned recently. The only grasses were grey with small, sharp spines that cut my hand when I bent down to touch them. The trees were twisted, mangled things that looked as though the very act of being caused them pain. The fruit they gave was soft and red and smelled both sweet and sickly.
I went to a tree nearby to see it. Before my eyes, one of the fruits swelled on the branch and burst, splattering flesh colored glop everywhere and leaving the core and seeds, still clinging to the tree.
I bent closer to examine it. What I had taken for small, white seeds were in fact human teeth, lying in orderly rows amidst the mush.
Very slowly, I backed away from the tree. Another fruit swelled and burst, but I didn’t stop to inspect it. I was already partway out the door.
* * * *
One of the doors was entirely black, even the knob. It didn't look like it had been painted, it just looked like it was supposed to be pure, unadulterated black. It took me a moment to find the knob: it was practically invisible in the dark.
I opened the door and almost stumbled into the darkness. The room lead to nowhere. There was no floor, there were no walls. There was no ceiling. I squinted into the blackness, hoping to see something. Anything. Instead, I heard only the soft echoes of someone singing, humming under their breath. There were footsteps.
Is it him? I thought. There was a second of blind panic. I'd completely forgotten the old man. Would he be mad I'd come into his home? Would he turn me into something nasty for looking through his things? I really had come in to look for him-
Did you? said an oily voice in my head I recognized as my conscience. Or were you just curious and need an excuse?
But then . . . no. I frowned. The voice was familiar. It was, I realized, mine. It was me, humming on my way up the stairs outside. I did it all the time.
My heart caught in my throat. I slammed the door shut and moved on.
* * * *
The rooms are endless.
After a while-
A room filled with water that doesn't spill through the doorway, as though held back by an invisible wall. Something big and dark inside swims towards the doorway.
-they start to melt together.
A dining hall made of white stone and mirrors, snow falling on the other side of the windows. At the end of the long table is a half-colored piece of paper and a child's paint set. The hall is deathly quiet. . .
Some still stick out-
Statues of stern looking men in robes watch haughtily from their spots along the top of the wall. The floor rumbles and the room shakes. I run for the exit-
-but most are forgotten.
I know I'll never be able to get through them all, especially if I keep having to go to sleep all the time.
Grand bedrooms with thick blankets of gold and scarlet. Tiny flower gardens with picnic quilts and pillows waiting just for me-
I haven't even gotten to the end of this one hall, and there's still that other door back in the entrance room to check out.
I actually went into town yesterday. I opened a door and found myself at the base of the tower, facing the village. It had been days since I last ate. I didn't mind, I'm too busy with the rooms to mind, but I think the tower was trying to keep me alive. I think it's finally accepted me.
I'm not sure which when it dropped me off in. It certainly wasn't winter anymore. Maybe late spring, early summer. I figure it doesn't matter, much. Things in the village hardly ever change, and my family is off somewhere in the big city. They won't miss me until they notice the money flow stopping.
Every moment away from the tower was agonizing. The seconds out there are too stretched, too slow for anything to really happen, and every single one of them spent out there was a chunk of precious exploration time wasted.
I chose the first people I'd come across: a weathered looking farmer and his young son. It took a bit of haggling, but we've made an arrangement: the boy would come up and deliver groceries, and I'd pay him and his family enough to live comfortably for the rest of their lives.
The entire time we spent haggling, I couldn't shake the feeling that the scene was familiar. The boy behaved well enough: mostly he clung to his father's leg and stared up at me with those unnerving grey eyes. The man, though. I could have sworn I'd seen his face before, though I couldn't for the life of me tell from where.
It stopped mattering to me as soon as I got back to the tower. Nothing outside really matters, anymore.
I should be looking for my boss, I know. Logic says he's in here, somewhere, wandering around lost. Maybe he fell into the nothing room. Maybe the garden of corpse fruit got him. Maybe he's just sick and in one of the many, many bedrooms. I can't bring myself to worry too much, though. Somehow, I don't think I'll find him. At least, not in any of the rooms.