The census men were the only ones who dared travel between floors. There were roaming monks, true, but they never braved the stairwells where savage families sometimes waited to surprise travelers with bared teeth. Hardly any more civilized than a hallway, sometimes.
Quol was taking census in an anteroom. The patriarch’s crude floor dialect was hard to translate, yet Quol caught mention of a greatspace discovered somewhere to the west. Quol gave it no mention in his papers. There were always spaces being discovered, always a few stairs away, always just beyond reach. Someone knocking down a flimsy man-made wall to discover genuine chamberwood. The substantiated claims had gotten to be less and less since the parlorkind had ceased the practice of entombing their dead that had invariably ended up driving them back out into the halls.
Rumors, however persistent, were still rumors.
Quol sought refuge with an alcove family, sleeping face to feet in a space protected only by a curtain from the hall. He took tally with a bit of burnt bannister. Ink stores had run perpetually low since he had parted ways with Jom five stairways ago. With any luck, Jom was now floors above him, hacking his way through the incomprehensible dialects of that story.
Next he caught rest on a wide stone stair. He gathered runnel from the condensation that formed in the vaulted ceilings far above his head. There was a lone turd on the stair above him, but thankfully no sign of its maker. A crudely scratched depiction of genitalia stared him in the face as he ordered papers to drop off at the nearest library. Perhaps he could get new inkwells, too.
Sadly, travel brought no respite, only more family census. A girl from a parlor twittered about greatspace as Quol sketched her family tree. Room patriarchs pointed him in circles. The space was always just the next hall over, tantalizingly close but never approachable.
He moved through a hall that had been cannibalized so heavily that even stone was missing in places. The few roomers were taciturn, often he had only time to do a rough headcount before doors slammed on him.
There was a single door at the end of the hall. Quol expected it to open up on a smaller passage, but instead a rough-headed woman looked up as the door swung free. Small children gathered in her skirts, homespun cloth accented with gilded strips cut from a drape.
Through miming and gestures, Quol made himself understood. The matron’s crude speech was hardly better than stair dialect. Quol could see from her face she thought the same of his sharp librarian tongue. He suspected they were a stair family that had taken over a parlor space, but refrained from saying so. Indeed, she spoke of the room being empty and unnaturally cold when they arrived, but thought nothing of it until they destroyed a section of man-made partition. Instead of the closet or annex they had hoped for, there was a strange patch of wall. Quol deciphered from her crude idioms that it was unlike any wall they had seen, transparent as the ice that formed on stairwells sometimes. The room beyond it was massive, larger than even a ballroom, with an odd, rough carpet and a ceiling far beyond what they could fathom. It was uninhabited, and ultimately barred from ingress since the place gave them a strong sense of foreboding.
The woman asked if he would like to see it. All tasks forgotten in the sudden lust for new knowledge, Quol stepped inside.
Though everything in Quol’s instincts screamed at him that it was merely a ruse, that they would lead him to a closet to cut his throat and steal his pack, he thinned a smile on his face and followed her through smoky rooms made with flimsy partitions. The men were elaborately bearded, the women were buried under shawls and rugs.
The man-made wall was still in place. Quol thought he had been taken for a fool, until he noticed that it showed signs of being removed, then clumsily re-attached. A door was cut asymmetrically into the wood, it was this that the matron now pushed open.
There was no fire. Quol could not see how they lit the room, until he realized the light was coming from the wall itself. It was indeed transparent, but not ice; he pressed fingertips to it and found it merely cool, not cold. The matron watched him, unimpressed.
“He other already here,” she buzzed in her crude tongue, “other travel-man books. Step through wall.”
Quol stopped cold. With the fingers of his free hand, he made the sign of a banded cap. The matron grunted, grasping her elbow in an obscure gesture of confirmation.
Jom. Jom had been through here. And what had befallen him?
“Step through wall,” the woman repeated. “through. Down.”
Down. That was simple enough. But—through? The wall, though clearly transparent, was solid as anything.
The matron bade him away and hefted a catch. The wall slid up into itself, a mechanism Quol had never seen anywhere else. A rush of air hit them, fresh and somehow sweet, but strange. It smelled not of a room abandoned to the annals of time, but of something Quol could not place. The woman, now that her task had been accomplished, shied away from the opening. She would not even put her hand through, so Quol did. There was no noticeable change in temperature, nothing screaming out of the void to pierce his hand. So what was the source of trepidation?
Quol had made up his mind almost before this moment. He would be a pioneer, he would be the one to explore this space successfully. Signing and speaking, he had the matron step back. The opening, while easily wide enough to accommodate a man, balked at his census pack. He was just reconsidering the wisdom of his decision to wear it through the passage when his strap caught in the crevice between walls, pivoting his momentum and shooting him out the opening too soon. For a moment he hung farcically suspended, then the strap snapped and his weight sent him plummeting down.
The pack was both his undoing and savior. Quol fell three-quarters on his side, his impact spread out enough that he was merely painfully winded, not broken completely. He gasped sharply, and was unable to take a breath for agonizing seconds. The ceiling reeled about him a woolly gray that stretched off in all conceivable directions but the one he’d come from—that was a wall so impossibly tall that it made his eyes hurt so he shut them.
Quol concentrated on slowing his breathing, making sure his limbs were in working order. When he could finally sit up he wiggled off his pack, painfully twisting his limbs in a few places, and grabbing a draught of water.
After this rest he took proper stock of his surroundings. The carpet beneath his feet was unlike any he’d ever seen, thick, rough, and fragile. He teased a frond with his hand and it broke with a crisp snap. The floor beneath it had rotted completely, the spongy texture was welcome after the fall.
Quol could see the place he’d fallen from. It looked like the only bright eye in a dead face. It sat some distance above him, the sharp pain in his side reminded him of how far it was. There were others, shining and, he assumed, carrying the same properties as the wall that dropped him. There were even a few on his immediate level but they were blank, blocked off presumably after generations of lost family members or perhaps never open to begin with.
Movement caught his eye.
The wall, perhaps his only salvation, was sliding down by degrees, or perhaps design. Quol opened his mouth just a little too late to shout as the wall slid shut with a final-sounding click. Darkness rushed to fill the space beyond. He could only pray that the matron had the good sense to block it off until the proper authorities could study it.
Quol looked around. The floor was vast and met the horizon seamlessly. A greatspace, perhaps the greatest space ever known. The weight of its size pressed down upon him, he found his breath becoming short and his blood rising in panic. He shut his eyes against it. There was no body, if Jom had fallen he had lived long enough to drag himself away at least. He forced his eyes open again. An unbelievable distance away, Quol saw a crimson dot against the fragile green. He hiked to it.
The space yawned all around him. He looked continually behind him and to either side, expecting an ambush at any moment. There was only the crumpled shape before him, which grew sadder with the closing distance.
Jom had fallen on his pack. His eyes fluttered, alternating between a vacant stare and rolling back to the whites. Quol knelt by his fallen colleague. What had the schism been about? The matter of whether parlortongue was merely a dialect of ballroom or a language in its own right? The legitimacy of stair pidgin? Nothing that mattered now. Quol dropped water from a flask into his palm, dribbling it on Jom’s eyes and forehead. Jom’s eyes focused and then glazed. He may have injured his head in the fall, but then how had he staggered so far? Quol felt his skull. Nothing immediately noticeable.
“Jom,” he said.
Jom looked up with a start, as if he had not realized there was really another person present.
“Quol,” he rasped, “O god, it’s got you too.”
Quol knew better than to nod. “Are you hurt? I can provide aid—” but Jom was shaking his head.
“No, save your water. No stairs, no pipes, no faucets.”
Quol felt a dread that had been circling his mind descend. He had been wondering that, but more immediate matters had temporarily pushed it away. How would they find food? Water? Even if they weren’t attacked by an outside force, how would they live?
Jom’s eyes were wandering. Even if he had no physical injuries, something had proved too much for his body to handle. Quol shook him a little.
“Hold on,” he said, “we have made a discovery to shake the ages. All we need to do is get back and report it.”
A choking sound came from Jom’s throat. Quol realized he was laughing.
“Get back?” he said, voice raising to a cracked shout, “and how? The way is blocked and the ceiling goes on forever and forever and forever and forever AND FOREVER–” he broke off in a coughing fit.
Quol gave him water and attempted to nurse him, but Jom slipped away slowly as the ceiling darkened through some unknown mechanism. Jom could see no light fixtures, not even a fireplace. It was as fascinating as it was terrible.
Quol closed his eyes against the reeling vertigo. He spread Jom’s blanket, upheld by their packs to form a flimsy cover. Then he sat, stroking Jom’s feverish hand, wishing he could crawl beneath it too and deny the blasphemy above their heads.
“It’s okay,” he lied, “I have dragged you back under ceiling. You’re safe.”
Eventually, Jom’s hand went cold.
Quol left him tucked under the blanket, unable to bring himself to plunder necessities from Jom’s pack, even if he no longer needed them.
There was no cover for Quol. The wall sat uncompromising behind him. He was too afraid to leave the safety of its facade, yet it could offer him no comfort. He should move. He had to move. He would never get anywhere otherwise. But the room was dim, and the ceiling went on forever.