As I recall it, not so very long ago, while walking along a timeworn cobblestone wall, I discovered an old, old door, nestled in a cleft, all grown about with ivy. Truth be told, I nearly missed it; I certainly would have, in fact, if not for this odd thing happening. Limbs and branches hung low about the wall here and there as it curved and meandered, a rambling boundary between two forgotten places. As I ducked to avoid a particularly low hanging branch, the limb snagged my pack and caught the back of my neck, leaving there a long, sore scrape. Stopping to inspect the wound, I soon noticed the door; the rusted ring-pull caught my eye, peeking like some curious monocle from among the vines.

When I drew nearer the door, I discerned a distant, terribly deep rumbling, just on the edge of my hearing, so that it wasn't so much a sound as it was a feeling, a sense of some horrific rending far beneath the earth. A few tugs on the door and it began to give way, scraping heavily along the ground as it opened on age-warped hinges. Stairs of stone were all that I could see by the day's dying light as I peered through the door; stairs sinking down into the dark and cool of the earth, like teeth encircling the mouth of some dreadful creature of the deepest seas.

Fear and excitement washed, tingling, through my limbs, though excitement won out, compelling me suddenly through the doorway. Reaching into the dark, feeling along the wall, my hand soon caught upon a sconce bearing a torch, and presently my good flint sparked, urging the tattered wrapping to flame. Eerie light licked out into the murk, glimmering along the damp stone walls as I plunged deeper into the heart of the world, and the rumbling grew ever louder. Every step soon seemed to take more than its fair portion of my spirit as each passing moment added weight to my trek, but I bore on, down and down, with barely a rest now and then for a sip from the wine-skin, or a hand-full of dried fruits and nuts from my pack.

At no small length, I noticed a slight change in the air, a subtle shifting, not quite a breeze, and bearing with it a faint sulfurous heat. New curiosity drove me on -- surely this signaled a close-coming end to these damnable stairs! Deeper still I descended, until with each new stride the wind seemed to gust harder at me, rushing, tearing up past me; the heat became ever more oppressive, the scent of sulfur more onerous, as though I were toiling my way into hell.

I thought the sound might end me, and I'm certain my very bones shook with fear, but how could I turn back now, so near whatever frightful mystery awaited me.

When the gusting wind finally extinguished my wildly flickering torch, it had nearly burned down to my hand. As my eyes adjusted, I could still make my way by the dim, orange glow now emanating from the stones around me. Suddenly, I lost my footing and tumbled forward, the breath knocked from me, and landed on my hands and knees, the rocks hot against the palms of my hands.

Turning my head up again, I slowly realized that I had reached the bottom of the stairs. Reaching for a handhold, I managed to pull myself cautiously to my feet. A hallway extended before me, the end of which I could not discern. Painfully at first, I willed my weary limbs forward, finding it hard not to stumble as my feet adjusted from descending stairs back to level ground. Pressing my fists against my ears did little to dampen the great rumbling cacophony encompassing me as I proceeded along the passage; that same distant sound that had faintly called to me while up above had grown to a deafening roar which now seemed sure to shake the earth apart. Eventually the chamber opened to a vast cavern, hundreds of meters across at least, with rough, stratal walls arching up like precipitous cliffs of unscalable height. Descending from the abysmal ceiling, an immense stone column stood in the center of the cave, and the terrible grinding reverberated throughout the cavern.

Undeterred by my fear, I moved closer, and saw at the foot of the pillar a series of curious branching spires reaching up and around it, curving about it like the antlers of a trophy stag. Nearer still, I could see a figure, shoulder down, pushing a great beam, which drove a massive gear slowly around the base of the column like a horse at the mill. Driving toward the distant edge of the monolith, the figure soon moved out of sight, and I now saw the whole massive column was deliberately rotating on its axis. Eventually I realized that as I drew nearer the pillar, the gusting wind had dwindled to but a breeze, as if the force of the gale had its origin in the dark abyss above me, and I was walking into the eye. Reaching the foot of the vast column at last, I turned to see the hulking figure working back into view.

Having noticed me, the creature released its post, and lumbered my way, its great heavy strides closing the distance between us with frightening speed. In a space so vast, it was difficult to judge the scale of the thing until it was right before me, and indeed, it halted but a few feet away, towering at least four meters high. So close was it now, I discerned that it was not some terrible, monstrous beast at all but rather a kind of elaborate machine, unlike anything I had ever seen before; from among its whirring gears and wood and brass there climbed out a man.

On reaching the ground, the man expressed his joy at having encountered another person, crushing me in a jubilant embrace. Long ages past, he swore, he'd given up hope of ever seeing another human face; indeed, as best I could tell by his garb and his manners of speech and by his inquiries about the world above, he seemed to have somehow survived here since the 17th century, at the latest. Despite my disbelief, I could not deny the sensational nature of our surroundings, and so I pressed the man for the particulars of his prolonged viability.

Beneath the great, curious spires encircling the "Axis," as the man called the immense column before us, he managed to survive on a palatable resin tapped from the trunks of the spindly treelike structures. Until then, I had said little, letting him pour out the ocean of words he was practically drowning me in, but finally, I had to inquire as to the nature of his apparent banishment; why had he remained here, toiling endlessly for untold centuries? Reminded suddenly of his place, he shouted for me to follow him, and urged me climb into the cockpit of the magnificent machine, a prospect which excited me a great deal. Deftly he demonstrated the functions of the various scrimshawed levers by which the machine was manipulated, and soon we had returned to the push-beam of the Axis, quickly gaining momentum; frightening peals of lightning from the darkness above us spread out across the roof of the great chamber, sending electricity sparking and crackling along the spires around us. Explaining, at last, the purpose of this epic endeavor, the man gravely disclosed that the Axis was the engine of the very rotation of the earth; should the machine neglect its task for more than an hour, the planet would slow irrevocably and destroy all living things above. Now, understanding the gravity of this man's situation, I urged him to retire to his bed for a few hours of much earned vacation; he waved as I thundered around the bend of the great pillar, but some time later, when I rounded the other side, the man was gone, and I have never since seen another person.

Note from the Author:

You may have noticed something odd about this story. Go back and try to figure out the "easter-egg" on your own. If you're having trouble, you can click this link to be shown a version of the story that makes the mystery a bit less mysterious...