With the quicksilver poured into the last of the bowls a hissing sound began to fill the air. It ended with a crack like a whip and a dark hole opened between the oilstick lines from which rose a spiral stairway of ancient stone. It was icy cold and a fine mist condensed in the air around it.
Gathering her courage, Dulsane prepared to run up it. Whether to freedom or to her death she could not say. She was stopped short by a shadowy hulk emerging from the mist. Its spined carapace and the gauzy membranes hanging from it left her in no doubt that this was the beast which served her captor. She was caught!
“Do not be afraid mortal girl. Why would I harm the one who has opened the way to me? Your master’s chains do not bind me this time and, thus freed, I am keen to speak with him once more.”
So saying, the beast moved past her and broke the door with a single sweep of its claw. Dulsane looked at the mossy stone of the steps and at the door beyond which her captor was the only obstacle to her returning home. The choice was easily made.
The beast turned right at the lower hall, so Dulsane turned left and by so doing did not meet the sorceror on her way out. She heard him, though. She heard the sound he made when the beast found him. As she ran away across the moor, she was glad indeed that she had not chosen to ascend the stairway.
At the height of the prosperity of the land of Ronunskei, its sages delved deep into the mysteries of the world. One of the fundamental principles they arrived at is that not all of the beings who walk the earth originated there. Similarly, hundreds of miles away and more than a century later the Lords of Narthul reached similar conclusions via very different paths of study.
The truth which both civilisations had uncovered was the structure known as the stairway. Seen as metaphorical by some and yet explored as a seemingly real place by others, the stairway connects many worlds in a way that permits passage between them. Insofar as it is a metaphor it is to some extent an ill-chosen one, since the stairway branches as it ascends. Its full extent is not known even to the great powers spoken to by the most accomplished sages.
Higher levels of the stairway are different in nature and these differences become more pronounced the further one ascends. Some secrets are stronger there. The energies of those worlds are more intense and more volatile. The beings found there have strange qualities and some wield extraordinary powers. Travel far enough and the principles of natural philosophy themselves begin to break down.
Beings from higher levels of the stairway can be contacted by means of certain secrets and even called into the world. Such a process is risky even for a well-informed and well-equipped summoner, since even if the being intended is called and is not hostile, other creatures may seize the opportunity represented by the open passage.
Records of the Order of Cartographer Adepts also tell of a world further down the stairway. This place is extremely difficult to reach, but is even harder to return from since no secrets work there. Indeed, the histories of Stonehargh tell that the Veshar Verlaine descended the stairway never to return.
Some philosophers have occasionally speculated that all gods, monsters and great powers of the world originate from higher levels of the stairway. In reality this is very far from true. Indeed, for natives of the higher levels to remain for extended periods of time is difficult and uncomfortable for them and they would seldom seek to do so.