Welcome to the Fifth Creepypasta Wiki Collaborative Writing Project!
Theme: An obscure staircase that forces one to relive their memories, and promises a great prize to the one that successfully ascends it.
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Chapter One: Awakening
Jacob Sullivan was one of those people that would never refuse a dare, and always sought to prove that he was better than everyone else. So when he was tasked with visiting an abandoned house after a long, drunken night of playing truth or dare, he only chuckled. He didn’t fear ghosts or believe in the supernatural. Such a thing would be trivial to him.
“And remember,” said Jeff between drunken hiccups, “pics or it didn’t happen.”
“Yeah yeah, I’ll get you some shots, slosh breath!” retorted Jake with a devilish grin.
As he was putting on his shoes, Jake was confronted by Amelia, one of his many one-night stands.
“Jake, I...” she started.
“Yes? What is it?”
She didn’t answer.
“Come on now, I haven’t got all night,” said Jake a bit more sharply.
Amelia’s glare went down.
“Jake… please don’t go there.”
“And why shouldn’t I?” snapped Jake. “What, you’re concerned that the ghost of Ben Harrison will come and start humping my leg?”
“No, no,” struggled Amelia. “It’s just that… no one has gone near that place for at least fifty years. People have gone missing there back in the day and...”
“You think I’ll go missing too?” asked Jake, with a not so subtle hint of mockery in his voice. “You think that place is haunted or something?”
Amelia only nodded.
“Well, let me tell you something, Amy dear!” laughed Jake. “If there are any supernatural entities in that house, they are welcome to kiss the darkest part of my lily-white ass.”
And with those words, Jake stepped out in the windy night, leaving concerned Amelia and a rowdy bunch behind him.
Shivering in the cutting wind, Jake wished he brought a thicker coat with him. Then again, he didn’t anticipate it would take him so long to find this place. Jeff’s instructions were unclear at best. He had already been wandering around for thirty minutes, and still there was no sign of the house.
Suddenly, Jake stopped. A strange feeling came over him. It was like a fishhook was pinned on his solar plexus, yanking at it, urging him to turn right. He obliged his gut and faced the direction.
Not a hundred meters before him was a small copse of pines, and behind them, Jake could unmistakably see the ruins of a great building.
Not wasting another moment, Jake rushed in the direction of the ruin. He was freezing his butt off, and the sooner he could get those shots the sooner he could go back to the party.
The fence was rusted and bent, but it wasn’t chained, and Jake was inside in moments. He stood in the remains of a frontyard of what appeared to be a villa, built less than twenty years ago, judging by the style. Jake found it hard to believe the stories that this place was hundreds of years old.
But something felt… wrong. While he had no real fear in him, he had to admit that the front yard looked very strange: what little grass there was left was already long dead and dry. No plants or vines grew along the dusty remains of what was once a majestic marble fountain. No bugs or small animals skittered around. It was almost like a deadly cloud enveloped everything inside the fence for the briefest moment before dissipating. It was completely silent, and Jake soon noticed he couldn’t even hear the wind anymore. He turned towards the pines, and saw that they were still moving.
A seed of doubt now started to germinate inside Jake. He didn’t believe in the supernatural, but there was something very ominous about this place. A little fragment of common sense in him screamed to go back. But he wasn’t about to just quit. He was the best, and he wouldn’t stand down now.
The doors seemed out of place for such a building. They were large and ornate, with engravings that Jake couldn’t make out adorning both of them in perfect symmetry. He pushed them. They weren’t locked. They opened with no resistance, with no creaking from the hinges. And Jake stepped inside.
He was in the remains of what appeared to be a lobby. Pieces of chairs and tables were scattered all around, and a large dusty desk stood to his left. But what caught his attention was what stood in the middle of the room.
It was a large, stone stairway with handles of forged iron. While everything in the room was only half visible, the stairway was lit brilliantly by the moonlight that shone through the hole in the ceiling. Funny, Jake thought: the angle at which the light fell gave the impression that the stairway went on forever. Still, it was a good vantage point for taking photos, and Jake decided to climb it to capture the entire lobby in one panoramic shot.
“I wouldn’t do that just yet if I were you, mate.”
Jake froze in place. He was just about to climb the first step when a voice spoke out of the darkness. Male, seemingly American, but dry, cold, and devoid of any life.
He turned, his flashlight illuminating the detritus before falling on the source of the voice.
Jake immediately regretted that he didn’t simply run the moment he heard the voice.
What stood not ten feet from him was a horrible figure. It was tall, but slightly hunched over. What little flesh was left on it was rotting, revealing dry bone in many places. It wore what appeared to be rags of a Marine uniform, complete with a pair of surprisingly well-preserved combat boots. While there was still plenty of flesh left on its face, its lips and eyelids had rotted away long ago revealing perfect white teeth and azure eyes.
“At least, not before you hear what I have to say,” spoke the horror, revealing a blackened tongue.
Jake cursed, trying to run, but tripped over his own feet and fell to the floor.
The corpse appeared to sigh.
“Please, let’s not be uncivilized here, I just have some-”
“What the fuck are you!?” screamed Jake. “Get the fuck away from me!”
The flesh on the corpse’s face moved, giving it the impression that it was frowning.
“Now, that wasn’t very nice, you know,” said the corpse in patronizing tone. “Didn’t your parents teach you not to be rude to strangers?”
“Stay the fuck back!” screamed Jake, trying in vain to sound unperturbed. “I’m warning you; you come any closer, and I’ll cave your fucking skull in!”
The corpse sighed again, leaning over and unfastening one of its boots. It straightened up as much as it could and flung the boot with deadly precision, hitting Jake in his stomach.
Instantly, Jake stopped screaming, sucking wind, and grasping the spot where boot struck him with the force of a metal fist.
“Good,” spoke the corpse. “Now that we have the unpleasantries out of the way, will you listen to what I have to say, or do I have to throw yet another boot at you?”
Jake nodded, still having a hard time to believe his eyes and ears.
“I’ll be taking that as a ‘yes,’” said the corpse, before sitting on a desk. Now that Jake could get a better look at it, he noticed that its left hand was bare bone, and its right hand was missing altogether.
“First, I believe some introductions are in order,” said the corpse like they were having an interview. “I am the Gatekeeper. And you are…?”
“Jake… Jake Sullivan,” said Jake. His fear now slowly drained, he started to regain his composure and attitude. “What is this place? Who are you?”
The Gatekeeper gave him a patronizing stare.
“Seriously, now? You don’t even know what this is? Then why would you even come-wait! Let me guess,” the Gatekeeper babbled out. He lifted its bony fingers to its forehead and started poking it, producing a sound like two billiard balls colliding. He stopped and looked at Jake. “It was truth or dare, wasn’t it?”
Jake nodded again. Gatekeeper rolled his eyes.
“Well looks like some things really never change… anyhow,” started the Gatekeeper with clear annoyance in his voice, “you stand at the precipice of the Stairway of Chaos.
“Now, I explained this countless of times to countless peoplem and I'm really not too eager to explain all of this all over again: if I could just poke you on the head and you knew all you needed to know... But, circumstances force me to this, so let’s just get it over with.
“I’ll not bother you with soporific history: all you really need to know is that you can choose to climb the Stairway if you want. But be warned: with each step you take, you’ll be forced to relive one of your memories, and by the way the Stairway works, that memory tends to be unpleasant. You’ll have to find a way out before your body forgets how to breathe. If you can find a way out, you’ll be beamed back to here, and you can continue.”
“And why would I even want to go there?” asked Jake abruptly. All of his fear and uncertainty faded and his arrogance was back. “Why should I risk my life for-”
“Well, if you allowed me to continue, you’d know by now!” snapped the Gatekeeper. “It is said that whomsoever manages to climb to the top will receive a power beyond anything that humans can imagine.”
Jake pondered the Gatekeeper’s words for a moment.
“Can I leave?” he asked.
“Naturally,” said the Gatekeeper. “As long as you don’t take a single step up the Stairway you can go as you came. But once you start ascending, turning back will cost you… everything.”
Before long, Jake decided. Whatever was at the top was surely worth more than a few meager photos.
“Were there others that tried to ascend it before?” asked Jake.
“Thousands. Tens of thousands, maybe. I lost count after so long” replied the Gatekeeper.
“And none ever succeeded?”
“Well, I’ll be the first one to do it,” proclaimed Jake.
The Gatekeeper raised his brow in surprise.
“That’s a bold claim,” he said, “but what do you have to back it up? Pardon me for being forthright, but you don’t look like a great warrior or a thinker. What makes you so sure you’ll be able to climb all the way to the top?”
“Because I am the best,” said Jake without a hint of emotion. “Best there ever was. There is nothing I cannot do.”
The Gatekeeper appeared mildly impressed.
“Well, good luck to you then,” he said after a brief silence. “Have fun, as ironic as that may sound. I’ll just be here looking for my boot.”
Not wasting a single second more, Jake lifted his foot and put it down on the first step.
In an instant, he felt as if someone doused his insides with freezing water. His vision blurred, and when he came to, he was seeing a scene completely different than the ruined lobby. It was daytime, and thick grey clouds covered the sky, spilling rain onto the streets of the city like there was no tomorrow.
Jake stood still, shocked. Despite all that happened in the last hour, he could hardly believe his senses. And yet, it was here before him. He even wore different clothes. Exactly like that day…
The Gatekeeper’s words came to his mind: he had to relive that memory and find a way out, and quick.
He hurried along the street, to the building he once called home. He knew what would happen when he unlocked the doors to his apartment. Hr knew the scene that he would see. And yet it prodded his heart. It was one of his worse memories.
He searched his pocket for his keys. Without fail, they were there. He reached the door to his former apartment: 207. Steeling himself for what was about to happen, he pushed the key into the lock and turned it, opening the doors and rushing inside.
He knew what he would see. And it still wasn’t any easier.
His first girlfriend from his high school days, Maddie, and his best friend from back then, Jason, were on the couch. They were both buck naked and were so intertwined one could hardly tell to whom a specific limb belonged
Jake felt tears swelling in his eyes. It was at this day, five years ago, that he learned that he could trust no one.
Maddie noticed him in the doorway and yelped. Jason instantly turned around, cursed, and got away from Maddie, who did her best to wrap herself up in the blanked and look innocent.
Jason appeared inconvenienced by this. Jake knew exactly what he was going to say, and mentally repeated it before the words were even spoken.
“Jake… hey, buddy!” Jason laughed, seemingly unbothered by the fact that he was still in his birthday suit. “Didn’t expect to see you so soon!”
Jake bit his lip, tasting his blood in his mouth. Everything was exactly how he remembered it.
Good thing it was so.
Out of the corner of his eye, Jake spotted his aluminum baseball bat, placed precariously on his cupboard.
That day, he ignored it. This day, however...
He picked up the bat, and swung it without a moment of hesitation, smashing Jason’s skull.
His former friend fell to the floor, the side of his head spewing blood like a fountain. Maddie screamed and jumped over the side of the couch, trying desperately to get away.
Jake positioned himself between her and the doors, cutting off her escape route. With no exit left, Maddie crumpled to the floor and started weeping.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, Jake!”
He was having none of it. He raised his bat and swung it again, hitting her in the head. Blood sprayed and splashed his eyes. Before he could clean it out, his vision went blurry again.
Once again, he felt doused in cold water. When he opened his eyes, he was back in the lobby, his right foot on the first step.
“Well, well, that didn’t take long!” Gatekeeper exclaimed. He was still rummaging through the junk on the floor, looking for his boot.
Jake tasted the blood in his mouth. So that was real.
“What happened there wasn’t really real,” said the Gatekeeper as if he read Jake’s mind. “But your body reacted to what you did, and you sorta bit yourself a little bit. I advise you to be more careful in the future.”
Without a word, Jake took another step.
His first stimulus was the sound of screaming. When his vision cleared, he stood at the banks of the river. A bunch of children were standing at the edge of the water. They were all waving and screaming. And Jake soon remembered why.
Without hesitation, his 13-year-old body broke into run, and before he knew it, he dove into the rapids, and started swimming towards the linchpin of this memory.
It was his friend, Cyrus, who nearly drowned on that day.
On that day, Cyrus survived only because of a brave fisherman who was there in time to save him. Jake didn’t dare to jump in the water, and he spent his entire life in regret because of that. It was on this day that he promised himself that he would no longer fear anything.
Jake swam up to Cyrus, clutching his arm, and dragging him to the shore. He felt he was slowly loosing his battle against the raw power of the river, but he wouldn’t give up. No. He couldn’t.
Finally, he felt another hand grasp his own, and he was pulled out onto the shore along with Cyrus. His sight went blurry again.
When he came to, his left foot was on the second step. He felt tired, like it all actually happened.
“You’re not looking too good, sport,” said the Gatekeeper. He found his boot and was currently fastening it with his one remaining hand. “I don’t know what you saw, but you were shivering like a willow branch on the river.”
Jake stepped on the third step.
He found himself in his seven-year-old body, to a scene he hoped he would never have to remember again. His father was crumpled on the floor, blood streaming from the wound on his head mixing with the shards of the scotch bottle.
And his mother was there. Violently kicking his father’s unconscious body.
“Worthless pile of meat. Get up, you lousy bastard!”
Jake remembered all too well how his mother abused him and his father. He still bore scars from that. But he also remembered how his father would take it: stoically, like he was a marble statue. And only because he wasn’t allowed to fight back or report her to the authorities. He loved Jake dearly, and would endure storms just to be near him. But if he divorced from his harpy wife...
But this time, his mother took it up a notch. Instead of mere verbal abuse or a few slaps or punches, she shattered a bottle over his head.
“Get up! Get up and deal with it, you shithead!” Jake’s mother bellowed drunkenly.
“And you!” she screamed, turning towards him, “you are no better than this swine. You will never amount to anything!”
Jake knew what would happen: how his mother would be taken by the police, and how his father would be taken by ambulance. And how his late aunt and uncle would hug him and take him to their home.
And on that day, he promised to himself that he would one day be able to do anything.
But he wasn't able to do anything. Not now. He couldn’t take it. He was just a child: a weak, tiny child against a grown woman. It was too much, knowing what would happen after this. Jake screamed and ran outside through the front door.
As soon as he stepped out, his vision went blurry. But something was wrong. This time, it felt like he had no insides at all.
His vision cleared in an instant. And what he saw shocked him.
He was back at the Stairway. And the Gatekeeper was in front of him. His expression was now void of all emotions.
“You lost, Jacob Sullivan,” he spoke, his voice little louder than a whisper.
Before Jake could rebel, the Gatekeeper shoved his skeletal fingers into his mouth. Jake felt incredible pain as something was dragged from his throat.
The Gatekeeper pulled out his fingers, holding something between them: a white, wispy substance, halfway between a fluid and a gas. He blew onto it, sending it flying like dandelion pods.
He turned to Jake again, and pressed his rotting maw onto his mouth. Jake felt his world going dark, and the last thing he saw before he passed was the decayed body of the Gatekeeper crumbling to dust.
Minutes passed, and nothing happened. Jake’s body lay still in the pile of dust.
Then suddenly, it moved. First a finger, then an arm, then a leg. It stood up, and looked at its surroundings, glaring at the familiar room with its bright, azure eyes.
Written by Helel ben Shahaar
Chapter Two: Ascent
Laura Doe stumbled past the thicket of pines, the hot summer night seeming to smolder her beaten body. But she didn’t like to think of herself like that anymore, as Laura Doe—not now that she was a new woman. Her own woman. No, she was Laura Fukuda, the name given to her at birth from the parents she remembered only as faceless trinkets from a better time. She didn’t know what had become of them before she was adopted at the age of five back in 1974, whether they were alive or dead. But even if they were still alive, she knew they wouldn’t recognize her. That had been thirty-seven years ago. She was a different person… disillusioned with the world completely.
But as these thoughts raced through her head in a matter of seconds, she realized that she was standing in front of the ruins of her childhood home, her adopted home. She was a bit confused, as she had heard this place was supposed to be hundreds of years old, perhaps even thousands. She shuddered at the idea that perhaps it took the shape for her. She did not want to be back home.
She approached the door, which seemed to be a misfit amidst the ruins of the late-fifties suburban home. The overhang above the front porch was sagging, almost as if trying to crush her under its weight. But the door—the door was brand new. She could almost see her reflection in the shiny wooden finish, though the night would not permit it. She took a deep breath and grabbed the doorknob, which was cold to the touch—it reminded her of pond water in winter.
She opened the door.
It was a grim imitation of what she remembered. All the furniture was the same, sure—hell, she could even see the sewing machine her adopted mother had used from time to time between her hours as a receptionist—but it was in disarray… as if it had been left to rot since she’d last been inside the place more than thirty years before.
“Please knock, it is very disrupting of my thoughts to have visitors come barging in unannounced.”
The voice was unemotional, as if it had merely said so out of flat self-amusement rather than genuine annoyance.
Laura looked towards the voice and saw an elderly Japanese woman sitting on the couch, staring at a blank television. She wasn’t exactly sure how she hadn’t noticed the woman before, as she was in direct view from the doorway.
“I—I apologize very deeply, ma’am.”
“Yup. Well, I suppose you’re here to actually utilize this establishment? Or maybe you’re like that knucklehead who came here a few months ago and just wandered in…. Wandering these pines for some reason that really isn’t my business but one in which I will pry nonetheless.”
“I… don’t understand,” Laura said. She clasped her hands together nervously.
The woman turned her face towards Laura and she gasped—her eyes were unearthly azure and the skin seemed to be on the verge of decay… like a dead corpse.
“Hm. Another wanderer, I guess. Well, you’d best get out if you don’t know what you’re doing here, then.”
“I know what I’m doing here. And pardon my rudeness, but what exactly are you doing here, sitting around and interrogating me?”
She tried to ignore the woman’s features as she stood up and strode over to her, pale in the moonlight that streamed in from the windows and collapsed holes in the roof.
“I’m the Gatekeeper. Obviously, you don’t know much if you didn’t expect me. Say, are you Japanese by chance?” Her hands were gnarled and slightly bloated, and a strange smell emanated from her person.
Laura composed herself, trying to shake off her bloodshot nerves from the night’s events—the ones that had led her here to begin with—and smoothed the white knee-length dress she hadn’t been able to wear in years.
“Why, yes, yes I am. But what does that have to do with anything?”
The woman stroked her chin thoughtfully before responding.
“Well, you see, a Japanese woman with a striking resemblance to yourself came in just recently. Right after that knucklehead I mentioned earlier, actually. A strange thing, to see three visitors in such a short amount of time. Before that kid came stumbling in, it had been decades since I had seen another soul. I believe before the kid, it was some war-crazed Marine. At least he wanted something. That kid was just a drunken idiot. Got what came to him.
“Anyways, I digress. Yes, the other day this elderly Japanese woman came in, and she looked a lot like you. She didn’t seem to want to talk much, but hell, how can I help myself? Two visitors practically back to back! Anyways, she mentioned that she had heard whispers of this place and had spent years tracking it down. Said she wanted to use the powers offered here to find someone very dear to her. Someone she hadn’t seen in many, many years…. Let’s see here. Gonna get a good look at you.”
The woman grabbed Laura’s face with her cold bloated fingers like she was some kind of specimen, one of great scientific interest. Her cold empty eyes sent a shiver down her spine.
“Please forgive me,” the woman said. “I’ve found it a bit hard to see since then, as she did happen to try and gouge out her eyes before she was through.”
She took another moment, and every fiber in Laura’s weary body screamed for her to run away. Something was not right here. Something besides the woman seeming to be a living corpse. It was as if she were speaking through a mouth not her own.
“Ah, very interesting. Yes, clearly of Japanese descent, just like her. Same strong jawline. An odd bit of youth in the face. Thick hair, white—though yes, that’s age, not what I’m looking for. Similar height, though you seem to be far more emaciated than she was. Middle-aged. late forties, I’d say, despite the hair. And those eyes, my lord, there’s a raging fire in them. You’re here to prove yourself, aren’t you?”
Laura nodded her head in the woman’s strong grip, which was subsequently released.
“What’s your name, lady? Jean? Jeanne? Lucy? Semiramis? No? What is it?”
“F…Fukuda Laura,” she stammered, trying to appear unfazed by the present ordeal. She could see herself in the woman’s face.
“Fukuda? Why, that’s simply amazing! You see, the last woman to come through here’s name was Fukuda. Fukuda Himari.”
Laura shambled over to the couch as the ground seemed to spin out from under her.
“And she said she was looking for her daughter.”
Laura had to close her eyes to keep herself from looking at the woman.
“She said her daughter’s name was Laura. Say, that ring a bell?”
“Who are you?” Laura whispered hoarsely. Her eyes were still closed.
“You deaf? I told you, I’m the Gatekeeper. Don’t worry, I’m not Himari. My name… well, I don’t exactly remember my name. But Himari is gone. And my guess will be that soon, she’ll turn to dust. And then you’ll be gone, too.”
“Shut up,” Laura muttered through clenched teeth.
“And she wasn’t the first. And you won’t be the last.”
Laura’s hands clenched tightly. They were ready to strike. It wouldn’t be the first time they had that night.
“I said, shut up,” she repeated. Her eyes now bore into the sockets of the Gatekeeper’s.
“What? Has this place gotten to you already? Oh, my, then you really better leave while you still can.”
Laura stood up slowly, forcing her body not to lash against this monstrosity.
“Out of my way.”
“Tell me why, first.”
Laura grabbed the Gatekeeper’s neck and threw her into the television, the glass shattering around the old woman’s shambling corpse. Laura turned her head towards the stairs and she began to march towards them, fire blazing in her chest.
Laura ignored her and kept marching towards them, noticing how she couldn’t seem to see the upstairs rooms at all.
Laura stopped and turned her head back towards the ghostly scene, where the Gatekeeper stood erect by the couch again.
“Huh. Maybe you’ll have the determination in you after all. But… why is it that you want to do this? You do know that once you begin, you can’t stop, right?”
“It’ll be nothing I haven’t experienced before.”
The Gatekeeper shook her head, and Laura noticed patches of hair missing. She looked back up at her.
“But can you experience it again?”
Laura stood for a moment before turning her head back to the stairs, saying nothing.
“Why? If you want to know if you have a chance, then you must know why.”
“To take hold of the life I’ve never lived. Now let me be.”
Laura approached the stairs and looked up.
“It’s called the Stairway of Chaos for a reason, Laura.”
Laura ignored her and took a deep breath.
She raised her foot.
“None have succeeded.”
She turned one last time back towards the Gatekeeper. Back towards the shambling corpse of the mother she hadn’t seen in forty four years.
“You won’t be the first.”
Laura put her foot on the first step.
Her insides froze over as if the teeth of some wraith had bitten into her. She winced and suddenly found herself back in the doorway of the house she was in. But it was daytime, and everything seemed bigger. And neater.
She looked up and saw her adopted father, Robert Smith, staring down at her. She could feel the bookbag on her back and noticed that her adopted mother, Betty Smith, was coming through the door behind her. Laura knew where she was.
She was home.
And it was spring, 1976. Laura was seven years old.
“Laura,” her father said, face cold. “Your school called me today. Would you like to tell me what you think they told me?”
Laura shook her head, too afraid to speak. Robert scared her too much.
“Laura, answer your father,” Betty ordered.
Laura sniffled and mumbled indistinguishably. She seemed to be watching herself through her own eyes, not entirely in control of herself.
“I’m sorry?” Robert asked angrily.
“I got in a fight,” she said.
“There you go, Laura. Would you mind telling me why?”
“Because Jimmy said I didn’t belong. He called me a dirty Jap. He said he was gonna kill me like the Japanese killed his grandfather in the war.”
Robert raised his eyebrows.
“So? Why’d you decide to hit him?”
“Because he’s been mean to me ever since I came here. And my friend, Eric, said that if I stand up to him, that he’ll leave me alone.”
“Laura, you got suspended from school. We brought you into this home, now you better fucking respect some of the rules around here! What’s rule number one?”
“Ladies don’t speak unless spoken to.”
“That’s right. What’s rule number two?”
“Ladies never talk back.”
“Rule number three?”
“Ladies never hit.”
“And rule number four?”
“Boys are always… always right.”
Laura was starting to cry.
“That’s right, Laura. And do you know how many rules you broke today?”
“All of them.”
“That’s right. Now come upstairs to your room. You need to be disciplined.”
She shuffled up the stairs, the ones she had just moments ago begun her journey on. They came up to her room, where he slammed the door behind her.
“This is going to hurt me a lot more than it hurts you,” he said robotically. He never meant it.
She wiped her tears and set down her bag as he took off his belt and began to beat her with it over and over again. She tried not to scream, but she couldn’t help herself. Which was unfortunate, because screaming just made him hit harder.
She realized that it was finally over. She’d had her eyes closed, and was flinching, ready to receive the next blow. But she instead she heard the clink of the belt as he put it back on.
“Now, stay in here. You’re not to leave this room for three months except to go to school and go on two bathroom breaks per day. You know the drill. You can only go to the bathroom when your mother or I are present. Go to bed. No supper tonight.”
Laura nodded sheepishly as he closed the door. Suddenly, Laura felt more in control of her body than before. She looked around the room, taking in the scene of so many bleak childhood memories.
Then she spied the window.
It hadn’t been opened earlier, and she felt strangely compelled to climb out of it, to run away forever. Then she remembered where she really was, and that she had to find her way out.
She snuck over to the window and closed her eyes, hoping that she wouldn’t hit the ground. Because in reality, in the past, she hadn’t run away. Not yet.
She jumped and felt as though she had fallen into a frigid lake. And then she was back in the decrepit house she’d just left.
“Well, that took a while,” the Gatekeeper said. “But, it’s too late to turn back now.”
Laura ignored her and stamped her foot onto the second step, preparing for the coldness that followed.
She was standing on a sidewalk, now, in the city, far away from the suburbs of 1976. She took a look around and saw that it appeared she was walking down 2nd Street, the street she had frequented many times, but hadn’t seen in a long time. She looked down at the clothes she was wearing and took note of the high heels, fish-nets, mini skirt, and crop top. She tried to remember when she was, and realized: February, 1988. She was nineteen years old, though her body screamed twenty-one. And she had taken advantage of that.
She had been a runaway for a year and a half. She’d left the Smith home when she was seventeen and kept moving until she finally turned eighteen in January of 1987. She laid low for a while until she decided to become what she liked to think of as a self-employed call girl, though some would call her a prostitute. On one hand, she enjoyed being independent, but she knew she didn’t want this. She kept telling herself that she would only do it until she could get a place of her own. She needed savings, and the quickest way to do that in this city was to sell your body. Maybe after she had some financial security she would get a different job. One that didn’t require her to put out.
She was in control of herself now, and, going on a whim, she began heading towards the diner she and her best friend, Rebecca, would frequent together on Mondays and Wednesdays. She was another independent call girl, though Laura feared she wasn’t careful enough. Rebecca had been hanging around a lot of men involved in orchestrating the local sex trade. Sure, it didn’t matter how careful you were, necessarily, but Rebecca was careless.
She continued down 2nd Street, and about a block before she would come to 3rd Street she heard a scream. It was late, and she didn’t see anybody nearby. She heard the scream again and froze. She remembered this.
She raced back and stopped in front of a dark alleyway.
Those screams belonged to Rebecca.
But she wouldn’t repeat the mistake she’d made back in 1988. She wouldn’t become paralyzed with fear and allow her friend to be raped and murdered.
Quickly, Laura yanked off her high heels and charged down the alleyway, and there, sure enough, was Rebecca with a large figure shadowing over her, thrusting up and down.
Stealthily, she went up behind him and without a moment’s hesitation pulled the gun out from his pants lying on the ground and shot him in the head. He fell like a ton of bones on top of Rebecca. Twenty three years ago, she wasn’t able to do that. But this Laura was not the same. This Laura would not let anybody stand in her way.
She lowered the gun and pushed the man’s body off of her friend, who was sobbing profusely, mascara streaming down her cheeks like a cold river. She looked up into Laura’s eyes, and for a moment, Laura was stunned. She hadn’t seen Rebecca in over twenty years.
“That’s some mighty fine crying going on over there,” Laura heard behind her. “Not so tough anymore, are you? I gotta say, it almost hurt when you threw me into that TV. These bones aren’t as strong as that kid’s were. I’d gotten used to them, you know. What a shame, to be in this feeble shell.”
Laura ignored the Gatekeeper and kept pressing forward, each step bringing a fresh pain into her heart. She felt beaten, betrayed, and left for the gutter. But she would not give up now. Not when freedom was so close. Even if she had to relive every moment of her life, all fourty-nine years of it. Even if every last drop of her own blood had to be shed, she would get whatever it was up there that would grant her the ability to live the rest of her life on her own terms. Every last drop.
Finally, after having seemingly lived a second lifetime, she found herself facing a wall of darkness. She looked behind her, and the Gatekeeper was but a speck below her, the size of an ant. She was bloody, her muscles were on fire, and she felt as if her heart had been ripped out of her chest. She heard the Gatekeeper call out something below her, but she couldn’t make it out. She was too far away.
She looked down to see that she had only two steps left. Heart thudding, she raised her foot, trying to see if she could skip the last two and go straight to the darkness in front of her, but she could barely get it to the next step.
She took the familiar icy plunge, and found herself in a basement, chained to a wall. She knew this place all too well. All too well.
She had been swept off of her feet by her own special Prince Charming while off-duty in 1989 by a man named John Doe. A boring name, sure, and yes, she had doubted him when he told her that was his name, but he was the real deal. A real John Doe. And he was the best man alive. In about a week after meeting him, they were officially dating, and about two weeks after that, they moved in together and she dropped her profession and began working at the diner she and Rebecca had frequented so much.
Six months later they were married.
Seven months later they had moved out-of-state.
That was when things went sour.
He quickly revealed his true intentions: to have a mindless baby machine who stayed home and did his every bidding. And it started with him refusing to let her get a new job.
“But babe, I’ve got such a good gig, you don’t need a job. Don’t you worry your pretty little head about anything other than piddling around the house and keeping things in order.”
Then he stopped her social life.
“If you fucking love me so much, then why do you need anybody else? Women can’t be trusted, and so I need you to tell me I’m all you need.”
Foolishly, she stayed with him. Her life had broken her into this pattern, and she couldn’t break it yet. Not until 1991, when his pot roast wasn’t hot when he came home. They’d also just gotten bad news: Laura would never have children. What use was she to him anymore? She was just his personal chef. That was her purpose in life: to make pot roast.
He beat her. He beat her bad. He even grabbed a knife at one point and tried to kill her. So she broke. She tried to kill him back.
But he won.
He didn’t kill her, per say, but he almost did. Several broken bones, gouges all over her, and even several burns across her back.
“Can’t have you misbehaving again, now can we?” he’d said.
And by that, he meant chaining her up in the basement and feeding her wet dog food and leaving her in her own waste for ten years.
Ten fucking years.
Ten years as his sex slave, to be used and beat whenever he damn well desired.
Laura looked at the calendar on the wall and saw that it read July 16, 2001.
Those numbers were alien to her. Her husband thought that by keeping a calendar down there, he could torment her by showing her how much of her life she was missing. But 2001 meant nothing to her. As far as she was concerned, she had been in hell for an eternity. Luckily for her, they were getting older. He no longer wished to beat her and break her. Only use her as a sex doll. She had been waiting for this. The day when he was tired, and she was strong.
And he was coming down the stairs.
In every relived memory, Laura had been forced to do something different than what had actually transpired. But she could feel that this was different. She could tell that she was supposed to repeat history. She was supposed to repeat history and go to the Stairway of Chaos. The legendary beacon of terrifying hope she’d heard rumors of in decades past, before she had become John Doe’s dog. And she’d heard that it was on the very outskirts of town, no less. And once she made it back, she would go inside and find herself at the top of the stairs, and she would relive the final memory before traipsing into that exciting Unknown.
And to do so she needed to kill John Doe once more.
She listened as he clambered down the creaky stairs, wheezing and coughing from years of chain-smoking and beer guzzling. Her excitement mounted, and she forgot how tired she was, how much she had been drained. If she had done it once, she could do it again.
“Hey, baby,” she said seductively as he opened the door and stuck his pudgy, pockmarked face in.
“The fuck you just say?”
He was drunk.
“You’re not to speak a goddamn word, you Asian bitch. Don’t wanna hear the words of a fuckin’ treacherous tramp like you. Now you be quiet, and let’s just get this over with.”
She waited as he fumbled with the padlocks, his hands shaking violently.
The chains were loose.
Laura patiently bid her time, watching again for the perfect moment to strike.
And it came. Right as his head was lowered to take his smelly yellow underwear off, she grabbed the dog bowl and smashed it into his skull.
“Gah! You fuckin’ whore!”
She lunged forward, the chains loose enough for her to jab her fingernails into his eyeballs.
“You fuckin’ cunt of a bitch! I’m gonna rip you limb from limb!”
But Laura knew she had him. She wouldn’t get tired.
Or so she thought.
As she had him on the ground, hands clamped around his throat, she suddenly found that she no longer had the energy she’d had earlier that same night. Her heart began to pound harder and harder, and her muscles grew weaker. John Doe took his chance. He pushed her off of him and began to strangle her himself. But she was too weak. She’d suffered a lifetime within a single night. There was no way her body could handle it. And she knew this as her vision began to fade.
She was standing in the stairs once more, head pulsing and vision darkened. Hazily, through the fog in her brain, she saw that she had but one step to go. But as she raised her foot, her legs gave way, and she went tumbling back down the stairs. Each and every one of them. She tumbled past the scores of steps she had made, past each and every horrible second of her life.
The Gatekeeper said nothing as Laura Fukuda slid onto the ground floor. The Gatekeeper said nothing as in her dying breath, she reached towards the Gatekeeper’s face and croaked Himari Fukuda…. Mother….
The Gatekeeper simply stuck her fingers into Laura’s mouth and pulled out a pale, shining essence and blew it away.
The Gatekeeper said nothing as the body of Himari Fukuda crumbled into nothingness.
Laura Fukuda never saw anything else.
Written by Frank Phillips
Chapter Three: Hubris
Dean Porter’s eyes shifted from the rear view mirror, down to the bulging satchel within his back seat. He had not seen a vehicle following but his paranoia had not faded since his hasty retreat from the First South Financial building. The sun had long since waned and as he flicked on his headlights a passage came into view between a large groves of pines.
The wheels of his Chevy Nova angled toward the path, kicking up dust as the rear of the car followed behind. Within moments it came to a stop beneath what may have been a beautiful home at one time. The grounds around him had become littered with loose shingles and broken glass. It was evident the property was vacant and would be the perfect place to lay low for the night.
After parking his car out of direct sight, he grabbed the beige bag from the back seat and began his way to the door. The tip of his boot pushed upon the ornate wood door and it creaked to life. A few steps in, his eyes passed over an array of disheveled and dismembered housewares. The door was forced shut by his heel and the duffel bag tossed to the side with a thud before he even noticed the expanse of stairs that lay before him.
Dean’s eyes furrowed, confused by how immaculate the steps seemed to be in comparison to the rest of the house. His curiosity drew him closer to the feature, his hand resting upon the banister. The steps seemed to rise higher than even the roof would allow and Dean could only assume it was an allusion in the architecture. His boot rose slightly, his body readying to ascend the steps.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” a voice echoed from behind him in the dark. This caused Dean’s body to jerk to the right and crouch, eyes widened to search the night.
“Who’s there?” he asked, his right hand landing on the 9mm that rested in the back of his waist band.
The silence was broken by shuffling and soon a frail figure leaned against a small desk in the corner of the room. Dean could not make out many features in the dim light but something about the way the person was standing lead him to believe they must be injured.
“You don’t want to start out that way boy,” the raspy female voice spoke again with exasperation in the tone. Dean began to remove his pistol, the metal catching what little moonlight that offered him sight.
“And that thing won’t do you any good either,” the figure said with a sigh.
Dean ignored the comment and raised the pistol, aiming at the looming silhouette before calling out, “I asked… who are you?”
“Fine, fine,” the figure spoke again as it attempted to come closer. It hobbled a bit, favoring one leg until it reached a chair that was nearer to Dean. As the moonlight lay upon the form Dean could discern that it was an aging Asian woman. Her skin hung loose to her, almost unnaturally. Bruising and cuts scattered about her arms and legs but the most notable detail had been the ankle that had given her trouble. The joint bent at a painful angle, causing Dean to wince at the thought of how excruciating it must be.
“I am the Gatekeeper,” the words coming between haggard breaths, “And you don’t have to tell me who you are because you will never make it past the first step.”
The safety released on the gun with the flick of thumb, the sound echoing into the emptiness of the room before Dean responded, “What are you talking about lady and why are you sitting here in this run down old house?”
“I might as well tell you and get this over with,” her fatigue hanging on every word. “You see,” a thin finger edged out toward the staircase, “That is the Stairway of Chaos.”
Dean blinked rapidly, his head tilting slightly, “The what!?”
The wrinkled woman rubbed at her forehead for a moment, “You’re going to have to pay attention. I am far too tired to repeat myself. That is the Stairway of Chaos and at the top is more power than you could possibly ever imagine but…like I said, it doesn’t matter because you won’t make it past the first step.”
“You don’t know anything about me, lady,” Dean barked as he brought the weapon upward pointedly.
“I know enough, like how I doubt that’s your overnight bag over there,” her eyes cutting toward his satchel, “And I know that this lady had far more determination than you, and she didn’t make it either. No one ever has.”
“Power, huh?” Dean smirked and looked up the stairs. He couldn’t see the top but how bad could it be, it was just a bunch of steps. He almost took a step, the old lady shaking her head at the sight, then he paused and turned to her again, “What’s the catch?”
The Gatekeeper smirked, “You almost forgot to ask. Now, that would have been interesting.”
“Yeah, yeah…out with it,” Dean snapped.
“Ok, I apologize. I always tell people the whole story but I am getting so tired of this. I am starting to lose count with as many of you that have come recently,” she spoke while gesturing with her hands. The Gatekeeper trailed off in thought for a moment, trying to recall exactly how many had made the trek.
The woman’s face shook slightly, “No matter, the point is that with each step you must relive a horrible memory, down to the most gruesome detail. If you can manage your way out, you get to advance to the next step. If not, well…you lose.”
A smile crept across Dean’s lips as he looked back up the steps. He had gotten out of some of the worst things imaginable in his twenty-nine years on Earth and had never needed help from anyone. He could manage a few bad memories and some stairs.
“I’ll be back in a few minutes with that power and we will see who is smiling then,” Dean huffed.
The Gatekeepers smirk never faded as she spoke, “Don’t say I didn’t warn you, kid.”
Dean’s boot rose slightly before dropping upon the hardened wood, instantly feeling a tingle rise up his thigh. A feeling like being bathed in ice water overcame him before finding himself huddled behind a desk within the pitch black basement of his childhood home. Heavy steps bore down on the entrance to this room and Dean knew what was next. His drunken step-father would find his way through the clutter and when he found the boy he wouldn’t relent until bones broke.
Dean never had to do much of anything to fuel the temper of his step-father, but tonight he had found a sliver of bravery when he finally decided to stand up to him. He had landed one firm punch to the large man’s temple, ending the beating his mother was enduring. With one look of hell in his step-father’s eyes, all that courage faded away. He knew what would come and his mother could do little to help in her state. He simply quivered in the night as boxes where shoved aside amidst yelling and cursing.
Then Dean noticed a shimmer of light beside him. His biological father had left behind various items and the hand-made wrapping around this knife was unmistakable. It felt large in his twelve year old hands but he gripped it tight. In an instant he bound over the desk, the blade plunging deep in his step-father’s side. Dean screamed out in the night, tears flowing from his eyes as his step-father lumbered over in pain. He struck again and again, being coated in his abuser’s blood before opening his eyes again.
“That looked interesting,” said the Gatekeeper across the room. Dean wiped at his face, the remnants of his fright still wet on his cheeks. Then brought up his other foot to take a step.
“Piece of cake,” Dean said as the cold overcame him again.
His view quickly changed from the stairs to being pelted with cold drops of water. He backed up and realized he was standing naked within a tiled room, fitted with multiple shower spigots. His eyes widened and heart pounded at the thought of being back in the prison shower. He quickly turned to the entrance to see a balding hulk of a man step through and another stand in the doorway to keep look out for the guards. He remembered that this incident left him in the hospital for weeks and he had nightmares of it for a year. He rushed the man, tossing a right hook to his jaw. His would-be attacker stumbled slightly before upper-cutting Dean in the stomach. Air rushed from his lungs as he crumpled to the floor.
The man regained his balance before the other man entered to help his partner. The two approached him quickly, each one smiling at the thought of what would come next, turning make-shift weapons in their hands.
“You know what time it is Dean, just stop fighting,” the largest of the tattoo laden figured bellowed.
“Fine,” Dean said with a sigh and slowly moved to a kneeling position. He rested upon the hard tile floor as the men approached. When they came within reach he sent a fist for the first one’s crotch, causing him to double over in pain. When Dean’s other hand went to strike, it was caught by a man to his left. One on his right dropped his knuckles into Dean’s nose with a crack. Blood spattered the tile beneath him and the pain forced his eyes shut. He knew what was next. If he could not escape he would either be dead or wish he was. The last time he had been left for dead on the shower floor, but he could not let that happen again.
His eyes opened slightly, gasping for air through the crimson streaks across his mouth. He quickly rolled to his right, bringing the man that still held his left arm along with him. The man slammed to the tile with a thud just as Dean’s fist jammed into his attacker’s throat. The other swung a sharpened toothbrush Dean’s way, jabbing it into his shoulder. Dean growled in pain, but through it he found the strength to shove his heal into the man’s knee cap. An audible crack was heard and the leg gave out under the weight of the man. When both lay immobile upon the floor Dean rose to his feet and quickly exited the showers.
When he returned to the steps he gasped for air, wiping at is mouth and nose with the back of his jacket sleeve. It had all felt so real, he could even taste the blood in his mouth. A pain pulsed within his cheeks, causing him to wince. Two of his fingers reached within his mouth, retrieving a tooth that he himself had somehow dislodged.
“Do I even want to know what all that was about?” The Gatekeeper asked with raised brow.
“Just keep your mouth shut, hag,” Dean said, dropping the tooth to ground and placing another step forward. Again he was frozen in place, his mind assuming that nothing else from his past could possibly be as bad as what he had just endured. When the vision renewed he finally understood just how wrong he could be.
Sand permeated his clothing and the heat was unbearable. He could feel the steel of his M4 within his palms and the stock butted neatly into his shoulder. His eyes were trained on a small village boy over his iron sights. He stood in a desert marketplace smack-dab in the middle of Kandahar, just as he had a few years prior. The boy was approaching a caravan of U.S. vehicles and Dean happened to notice a bulge under his clothing. It had been typical for insurgents to use children as weapons and Dean knew what he should do.
Everything he had been trained to do told him that this boy must die to save a dozen other lives and he remembered what he had done previously. It was hard to forget, knowing that his whole military career came to an end because of it. He had to stop the boy but he felt himself hesitate on the trigger once again. The young man couldn’t have been more than ten years old and had so much life left. The whole idea that a world would allow something like this was unfair. Just as unfair as his entire life had been.
He had fallen so far from those days as a soldier. Find himself doing horrible things, such as stealing large sums of money instead of living up to the flag he bore in that desert. It could have saved him from the dark path he had taken that lead him to prison. After years of being the poster child for runaways, stealing everything he could pawn for cash, and destroying other people’s property for kicks, he finally had made something of himself. He had to make it right, but at what cost?
The weight of his finger on the trigger relented and soon he ran for the boy, “Hey!” He yelled out, hands waving, and rushed toward the caravan. Diving, his body shoved the boy to the ground and began screaming, “You don’t have to do this!”
Tears rolled off the tiny cheeks of the boy as he whispered, “I don’t have a choice.”
The explosion propelled Dean backward, filling his form with shrapnel and when he landed he found himself at the base of the stairs. His head rested upon the duffel bag he had brought in. He gasped for air as the familiar wrinkled face of the Gatekeeper shuffled over top of him.
“And just when I was starting to like you,” she said shaking her head. Two thin digits extended toward Dean’s mouth and plunged inward. It returned clutching a wisp of light, and with a breath that ember had been blown away. Then a finger tapped Dean on the forehead, her mouth resting upon Dean’s. Within moments the aging Asian woman fluttered to ash.
The entire room became still for a few moments before the young man’s form rose from the floor and grasped for the bag. A few steps away the knob to what appeared to be a closet was opened and the bag tossed inside atop a pile of unneeded trinkets before the door was shut and the young man took a seat at the desk.
“At least you made it past the first step,” The Gatekeeper said with a shrug.
Written by L0CKED334
Chapter Four: Compassion
Standing before the ruined building, Yukio thought that she must’ve wandered astray. She was expecting a standard American house, or an old villa, or a manor.
But what stood before her were the remains of a traditional Japanese castle. Minuscule in size, but there was no mistaking it for anything else.
However, the doors were a dead giveaway: Yukio knew that not a single castle in the world would have gates engraved with such motifs.
And in such perfect, symmetric and orderly fashion.
After a moment of deliberation, she pushed them open. She felt their extreme weight, and outstanding balance. No way that these were merely oak doors. They were certainly reinforced with iron.
Inside was in just as bad of shape as the outside: broken furniture littered the floor, no lights burned, and only the pale moonlight illuminated the room of impressive size.
But the Stairway was in the perfect condition.
A few steps later, Yukio was close enough to touch the polished wooden fence, and the grand marble steps.
“You can come out now!” she called.
Silence was her only response.
“Come on now, I know you’re here. Don’t tell me you’re ashamed.”
“Hardly,” answered the cold, emotionless voice. “I figured that someone would come tonight as well. Quite the traffic lately. I’m merely mildly surprised by the colour of your hair.”
“What’s wrong with my hair?” Yukio asked the darkness.
“It’s very… pink.”
"Got something against pink?” asked Yukio defiantly.
“I never said I did. I only said it surprised me. Also, you might want to look me in the eye while we talk. I’m to your left, next to the wardrobe.”
Yukio turned to the given direction, and her eyes fell on the figure that stood there. A figure of the man in his late twenties, with long black hair and a dark leather jacket.
But that is where all the similarities with the human being stopped. His revealed skin was dotted by pockets of decay. His lips were missing, giving the impression that he was grinning. His eyes were bright azure.
Yukio covered her mouth at the sight before her.
“Yes, yes, I’m a rotting corpse. Surprise of surprises.” The Gatekeeper took a few steps toward her. “Now, I’ll assume you came here for the Stairway.”
“I did.” Yukio’s expression suddenly turned somber. “I need it.”
“For what purpose, if I may ask?”
Yukio looked at him. Her brilliant green eyes were no longer joyous, but as serious as death.
“I want my life back. I want the childhood that was taken from me.”
“And,” spoke the Gatekeeper, “you think that the prize of the Stairway will give you that?”
“Granny Laura used to tell us kids about it.” Did her eyes play tricks on her or did the creature’s glowing eyes widen for a shortest of moments. “She told us how it could grant wishes.”
The creature pierced her with its glare.
“You used to live in the orphanage, didn’t you?”
This time, Yukio’s eyes widened. “How did you know?”
“I lost count of how many orphans came here over the course of time. I learned to recognize your sort ages ago. How you walk, how you talk… as easy to me as telling apart crows from vultures.”
Yukio stood quiet.
“You’re right,” she finally said. “I am an orphan. My father gave up on me. But Granny Laura took me in. I owe her my life.”
“And you think to throw it away to thank her? What on the world is going on through the heads of you children these days?”
“What do you mean ‘throw it away’?” frowned Yukio.
The remains of the Gatekeeper’s face stretched into a vicious Cheshire grin.
“Oh, she didn’t tell you, did she? How the Stairway forces you to relive your worst memories. How you would fail to climb it like all those that came before you.” He walked closer to her as he spoke. “How, once you fail, I’ll pull the soul from your pretty dead body and take it for a joyride.”
He stopped, now close enough for her to see her reflection in his eyes.
“I’m guessing she didn’t.”
Yukio was rendered silent for good five minutes. During that time, her eyes wandered from the Gatekeeper’s unnerving visage to the Stairway. She silently contemplated it. Was what the creature told her true? Was it truly worth it?
Finally, she looked him straight to the eye.
“I’ll do it.”
It was now the Gatekeeper’s turn to be surprised. His disturbing grin faded away as much as it was possible.
“Even after you know what awaits you, you’ll still go up there?”
“Whatever that thing has to show me, I’ve already been through once. I’m sure I can do it again. And all things considered, it will be worth it.”
Gatekeeper was now the one silent.
“What is your name, girl?” he finally asked.
“Tanoshī Yukio,” she responded
“Well...” he finally said, still a bit surprised, “good luck to you, Tanoshī Yukio. For what it’s worth.”
As Yukio took her first step, she was washed over by a wave of cold. Her vision went blurry, and the steps in front of her contorted, forming the front porch of the house that belonged to her parents.
No. Not her parents.
Yukio remembered the day this memory was from. After her mother died from stomach cancer when Yukio was only five, her father remarried, not three months later, to a woman named Alice Steel. A woman that hated Yukio from the moment she laid her eyes on her. A woman who would make every day of her live for the next two years a living hell. A woman she nicknamed ‘Kira’ in secret due to her incredible cruelty. She still remembered the last words Alice spoke of her:
“Why do we even keep this little snot-nose around, Itsuki?”
Her father needed no more encouragement. He never truly loved Yukio, who was in his eyes an inconvenient accident. Alice was way more important to him, anyway.”
And now a seven year old Yukio stared at the doors that were just shut in her face. It started raining outside.
She remembered what happened next. How she roamed the streets aimlessly for what appeared to be eternity, until she was finally found, malnourished and feverish by officer Jackson, who immediately took her to the hospital.
She knew that she would survive, but also knew that she couldn’t afford her memory to last for so long. She dug into the pocket on her denim jacket and pulled out a handful of change. Perfect.
Five minutes of walk later, she was soaked, but she also found what she needed: a payphone.
She slid a quarter in it and dialed a number her late mother told her to use only in emergencies.
A few moments later, the voice responded from the other side.
"Afternoon. You've reached the Benzaiten Orphanage. This is Laura Fukuda speaking."
“Laura oba-san, kochirawa Tanoshī Yukio desu! Burakuwota sukueani koraremasenka. Tetsudatte hoshī.”
She tried not to sound distressed, but it was clear that Granny Laura knew something was wrong.
“Yukio-chan? Doshite?... ima sugu ikimasu.” Laura's Japanese was still perfect, despite the fact that she probably didn't use it in years.
The call ended, but before Yukio was able to put the phone back, the cold washed over her again, and her vision blurred once more.
When she came back, she was sweaty and her breathing was ragged. She heard a faint chuckle on the side and turned to see the Gatekeeper a few steps in front of her, carelessly leaning on a fence.
“You can climb the stairs so fast?” she asked in disbelief.
“I can,” he responded with a grin. “They don’t work on me. But they appear to have taken a number on you. You look positively battered, my dear.”
To his shock, Yukio responded with a smile.
“Like I said,” she said, struggling not to laugh at the shocked grimace on the Gatekeeper’s face, “if I did it once, I could do it again.”
Before the Gatekeeper had time to compose himself, she took another step.
Fifty steps later, and she showed no signs of fatigue or the desire to stop.
“How do you do that?” asked the Gatekeeper, nearly horrified as Yukio emerged from her fifty first memory with unwavering smile.
“Do what?” she asked, grinning at his perturbed expression.
“Walk out of there all giddy and carefree!” he half-shouted. “Most people would be bawling like babies by now, and yet you still smile! What, are you a masochist or something!?”
Yukio finally broke into laughter.
“No, nothing like that!” she said to the horrified Gatekeeper. “I just follow what Granny Laura told me: she said that the world may be bitter and sweet, but that if I look to the future with hope and never stop moving forward, I can pull through anything.”
The Gatekeeper stood in stunned silence as Yukio took another step. When she emerged, still smiling, he looked at her face with a pained grin.
“You Japanese women sure are tough,” he said silently.
“What do you mean… wait!” Yukio’s eyes grew wide. “Did… did Granny Laura come here too?”
“If you’re talking about Laura Fukuda, then yes: she did come here, about a week and a few ago. She almost made it to the top, but… she didn’t. Just like her mother before her.”
Yukio’s eyes filled with tears, but she stood her ground.
“And now,” he continued, “it looks like her ‘daughter’ is doomed to fail as well.”
To his surprise, Yukio merely wiped of her tears and smiled again.
“Well,” she said in a shaky voice, “I guess that’s another thing to add to my wish list.”
The Gatekeeper looked at her, mortified.
“You almost remind me of myself in your age,” he said. “I too was optimistic and confident, although not nearly as much as you.”
“Did… did you try to climb the Stairway too?” asked Yukio.
“Aye, I did,” said the Gatekeeper. His cold voice started showing notes of Near Eastern accent. “It was so long ago. Seems like eternity...”
“Tell me!” perked up Yukio. “I want to know!”
Once again, the Gatekeeper was taken aback by the young girl’s optimism.
“Are you sure? It’s not a very pleasant tale.”
“I’m sure!” smiled Yukio. “I love stories.
“Very well then.” The Gatekeeper sat on the stair in the lotus pose. “Take a seat, would you,” he said to her.
“Are you sure, I can?” asked Yukio. “Wouldn’t want to fail because of a loophole.”
“Don’t worry,” said the Gatekeeper with as much smile as his mutilated face would allow. “As long as you don’t move up or down you can do whatever you want on the stairs you are on.”
Yukio sat on the stair, her back leaning on the fence.
“It all began,” started the Gatekeeper, “some 5,500 years ago.
I was but a boy then, living in a small, worthless village somewhere in Mesopotamia. It was a poor, thankless life, and I quickly learned the hardships of it.
But it did little good. Despite all out efforts, our crops and cattle were dying. The land dried up faster than the rare, weak rains could soak it. We were… desperate, to say the least.
Soon enough, people abandoned trying to work the land, and resorted to prayers. Day and night, they would pray, and I was told to pray with them.
Then, one night, the gods seemed to answer our prayers. One night, a star fell from the sky.
It landed about two reaches of an arrow out of our village: and naturally, we all went to investigate. What we found in a crater was an orb of some unknown metal. It opened, and a being stepped out. It looked like a man, but he was taller than even the tallest of us, his skin pale and his hair dark. He bore a great emerald on his forehead. And he was the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen.
He spoke to us in our language, telling us not to fear him. He said that his people heard of our plight and sent him to help us. And in an instant, all the people of the village were on their knees, praying and praising who they thought was one of the gods.
And he truly did help us. He taught us so many things. He taught us how to write and read and count. He taught us how to guide water from distant rivers to feed our lands. He taught us how to dig deeper than ever, and discover iron. He taught us how to trade. How to build buildings that would last a lifetime. How to prepare potions and ointments that cured the ill… And when all else failed, he would step in to fix things himself. When the emerald on his forehead glowed, the lame would walk, and the mute would sing.
He told us his name, but we preferred to call him 'Master'. It just felt more natural
In a mere decade of his guidance, we transformed out little village in a huge city. Other people came, and he instructed us to let them join us. “Do not forget,” he’d say, “the time when you were in poverty. Help others as I have helped you.”
More people would come every day, and more children would live to their maturity. In a decade, our numbers grew from merely 100 weary elders and weak children to 4,000 men and women. It seemed there was no end to our prosperity.
And it was then that the Master changed. Overnight, it seemed, the kind man became a fiend.
First thing he did was commission the building of many forges. He commanded all the men in the city to abandon whatever they were doing, and work on the building of said forges, and once they were completed, in the foundries themselves. But instead of jewelry or tools, the forges yielded weapons uncounted. Scimitars and spears, axes, helmets as bright as the sun.
Next, all the men in the city strong enough to hold those arms were trained relentlessly in their usage, myself among them.
It was clear that master was building an army. And it soon became clear why.
Only a few moons passed, and Master already led us on raid after raid. At first, it was only merchants and small caravans, but it soon grew to villages, then cities, then the entire nations. Soon, Master's name was whispered in fear in all the angles of the known world.
"Ghul'kah Hammesh Sahar..." the wind would howl silently.
Initially, I disliked what we did. The one that led us was no longer the Master I once adored. But I was too scared to say anything.
And as time went by... I grew to like it. I relished in the combat, the screaming of women and children, the sour smell of blood, and the heat of fire. Before too long, I rode by Master's side, my helmet adorned with the hide and horns of a great bull. I was the most bloodthirsty of his lieutenants, nicknamed the Wild Man by our soldiers. I lived for the battle and the spoils it brought.
The ones we conquered could either join us or die. And so our numbers grew each day. And soon enough, there was nothing left to conquer.
The Master, now our God-King, decided to build a monument, to immortalize his great name and victories. And so it was: for a thousand and one nights the chisels rang, the whips cracked, and the slaves groaned. And when it was done, a tower whose summit scraped the clouds stood in the center of what was now the capital of the world.
And the day that it was completed was the day that my mortal life ended.
For as the Master and I, his prodigal son, stood at the top of the world, observing the vast kingdom that was spread beneath our feet, dark clouds gathered, and from them, a lightning bolt blazed like a burning spear, and struck the Master's emerald.
Why? I do not know. Maybe it was the work of gods, punishing their brother who wandered astray from his purpose. Or just some freakish magnetism. Whatever it was, it enveloped us like a burning tide, and in a moment, my flesh and bones melted away like ice, leaving only my naked spirit that would stay there henceforth.
The power that the gods unleashed triggered a massive explosion, unlike the world has ever seen. The entire tower collapsed, and the city beneath it burned in crimson inferno. Thousands died that day, innocent and guilty alike. The ones that lived were changed. Their skin turned to colours I believed impossible, and they started speaking in tongues that didn't exist.
And they all fled. Fled from the accursed ruins and the summit of the tower that stood among them, undamaged. Like ashes scattered to the wind, they left for regions unknown, carrying with them the knowledge of the melted, dead horror they left behind.
The power of the explosion completely obliterated Master. The only thing left of him was his emerald. And when my spirit touched it, my flesh and bones grew back onto me in an instant. I was amazed. However, as I soon noticed, I did not need food, water, or rest. I noticed that the cold or heat no longer affected me, and that I no longer felt pain. I also noticed that my flesh was decomposing on my very bones.
The power of Master’s emerald became all too clear to me then. It was the source of all his knowledge, his magic. It was a part of his being. It was the power of the gods. And it was not meant for this world. So I decided to guard it the only place I knew no one could ever reach it: the summit of what I came to call Stairway of Chaos, the last remains of the tower. For, you see, the Master's magic was involved in the building of tower. There's no other way we could've built it so tall, and while the power of the emerald protected the summit itself, it also altered it in some way.
Over the years, people came to claim the emerald, no doubt inspired by the tales of the scattered remnant of my people. I tried to talk them out of it every time, but I almost never succeeded. I guess the temptation of ultimate power outweighed the words of a talking corpse.
And over the years, I learned a few things: how the orderly magics that kept the tower in place became distorted, chaotic, reaching into the minds of men and forcing them to relieve their most painful experiences. How, once the ascendant failed, I felt their soul loosen the grip on their body, and my own soul dragging me towards them. How I was able to remove their soul and move my own to a now vacant vessel.
And at first, I did it to postpone my death. Or so I believed. I was afraid of dying, and the judgement that would come unto me for the misdeeds and crimes I committed while alive. But death wouldn't come to me. Even when I wanted it. My body could rot and decay until not even the bones were left, and I would still remain here. I could never leave.
And it was then I realized: I was already dead. And already punished.
For years, nothing changed. Until one day, all light vanished in front of my eyes. For a moment, everything was pitch black, and then, the light came back. But it was different. It wasn’t as bright, and it looked colder. When I looked outside, everything was green and lush, a complete opposite of my desert homeland
After 700 or so years of existing in Mesopotamia, Stairway and I have been moved to Peloponnese, at the peak of Minoan Civilization.
I spent another 350 years there, before being moved again. And for these last 4,000 years, the Stairway has been moving around the world. Sometimes it would stay in one place for decades, sometimes for mere weeks. Once, it stayed at the coast of a great sea for only a few seconds. And some 200 years before today, it settled here.
The Gatekeeper finished. They both sat in silence for a few minutes.
“So, if the emerald is so powerful, why didn't you ever use it?" asked Yukio.
"I did," said the Gatekeeper. "However, it doesn't seem to work me, for whatever reason. The only thing it does for me is that it will restore my decaying body whenever I touch it. I don't do it unless I have to, though: it's... an unpleasant process."
"Did you ever try to… just leave?” asked Yukio.
“I actually did,” responded the Gatekeeper. “but I can’t go. I’m bound to the Stairway. Did you see that fence outside?” Yukio nodded. “That is as far as I can go without some force field standing in my way.”
“Tell you what,” said Yukio as she got on her feet. “I only have about twelve or so steps left to the summit. Once I get the emerald, I’ll take you on a world tour. Anywhere you want. You have much to see. How’s that sound?”
The Gatekeeper chuckled.
“That sounds great. I’d love that.”
Yukio lifted her foot.
“Wait!” said the Gatekeeper.
Yukio turned to him. He placed his ravaged hand on her shoulder.
“Good luck, my friend,” he said, trying his best to smile.
“Thanks,” smiled Yukio before putting her foot down.
When her vision cleared, she found herself standing in a giant hospital room. Giant, because she was small, merely five years old.
The day she lost her mother to stomach cancer.
She looked around like a frightened fawn, her eyes desperately looking for her mother. She soon found her, lying in bed, smiling, despite looking almost as dead as the Gatekeeper. She ran up to her, and took her hand.
“Yukio-chan...” she said weakly.
“Mommy...” whimpered little Yukio. “Mommy, please don’t go.”
“What are you talking about, my little,” said Risa, forcing back her tears.”Mommy is just a bit ill. I’m not going anywhere.”
But Yukio couldn’t be fooled. She was no longer a stupid, gullible child, even if she looked like one now. She knew that her mother would die only three days later.
She also knew that she had to find a way out. But… she couldn’t just leave her mother. Even though this wasn’t real, she couldn’t just leave. Was there any harm in a few precious minutes…
“Yukio,” whispered Risa.
The Gatekeeper noticed Yukio’s body swerving and rushed to her, not a moment to soon to catch her as she fell back.
He checked for her pulse and breathing. There were no signs of violence on her. But she was undoubtedly dead.
“This… hasn’t happened in a while,” whispered Gatekeeper. “It’s been hundreds of years since one couldn’t force themselves to leave their memory. Since they stayed inside for too long, and their body died because it couldn’t breathe. And I warned you...”
A drop of blood poured out of his right eye and splashed on Yukio’s cheek. The only fluid left in his dead body.
He took her in his arms and started descending, his heavy boots echoing on still beautiful marble stairs through the somber silence of the night.
He placed her on his old desk and walked to the wardrobe, opening it and rummaging through the contents of the bag he placed inside for a few moments before finding what he was searching for: a 20-ounce glass jar.
He approached the desk and laid down the jar before opening Yukio’s mouth and reaching inside, pulling out a small wisp of flowing, bluish light, which he placed on the palm of his other hand.
“I can’t bring you back,” he said to the light, “but if you want, you can stay with me. There are a lot more stories I could tell you, and we have an eternity before us.” As a response, the light gleamed brighter for a moment. Gatekeeper reached for the jar and brought it closer, causing the small light to leap and glide over to the open jar.
Gatekeeper managed to put a lid on it and place it back on the table just before his body crumbled to dust.
Moments later, Yukio’s body rose up and its azure eyes fell on the small light in the jar which, witnessing its former body move, started to flutter wildly, shining like the electrode on the welding machine.
The Gatekeeper brought the jar to his face.
“If it makes you feel any better,” he said in the combination Yukio’s voice and his own, “I’ll take good care of your body.”
“God, I sure am glad nobody was around to hear that.” Hastily readjusting his composure, he ran his hand over his head.
"I could get used to pink."
Written by Helel ben Shahaar
Chapter Five: Destiny
The dilapidated concrete asylum stood menacingly over the stone path, draping a shadow over the mud-covered landscape that surrounded it. A harsh gust blew through the dried, decaying pines strewn across the property, scattering needles over the sodden terrain. Overhead, the autumn sun was masked by the clouded sky, as a lingering imprint of the end of a passing rainstorm.
A middle-aged man stood in front of the entrance to the vast building. In the rays of sunlight that peeked through the overcast, his greying hair was illuminated dully, barely long enough to allow itself to be blown by the wind. A pale green collared shirt was bunched over his distended waist, just the right length to hide the leather belt struggling to hold his jeans in place.
The man’s hand was arched at a right angle, firmly clutching the keys to a 1998 Dodge Grand Caravan, as though they were bound to his palm. Among the various keychains and sports-branded knick-knacks that hung from the metal ring, one stood out-- a tiny 35-millimeter photo slide, framed thinly with black felt. This square of film was balanced delicately between his forefinger and thumb, completely rigid.
The man remained in his position, fixated on the looming entrance with a blank expression, only flinching as the wind blew onto his tired face the droplets of rain, still clinging to the needles of the trees.
The rustling of the individual branches slowly gained intensity, shaking the water off in sweeping sprays and amalgamating into a single, harsh whisper.
“Wake up, Dana.”
The man blinked. As his deep cobalt eyes adjusted to the surroundings, the breeze began to subside, leaving only the quiet tapping of the raindrops against the mud.
Dana Morris wondered how long he had been standing in front of the building. The sun had been out when he’d first arrived, he was sure. Looking behind him, he saw a trail of footprints leading to his crusted shoes, coming from the parked grey minivan, whose headlights were on full beam. As the pines gently settled, he realized that there was no other soul to be seen.
The air was now completely silent. Dana glanced briefly at the keys, still in his enclosed hand, and shoved them in his side pocket. He turned his attention to the building. Seeing it now, in a conscious state, brought chills to his spine.
Why had he come here? He’d sworn to himself all those years ago never, ever to return to the asylum. But here he was, poised to enter through the tall, ornate doors.
Dana instinctively reached for his keys once again. Fingering through the attachments, he found the felt frame and squeezed it.
Suddenly, his hand brushed against a paper, lining the inside of the pocket. He removed it delicately and held it up to the thin strands of sunlight.
An old, musty envelope came into view, glowing a deep umber as the light penetrated its aged exterior, revealing what appeared to be a small, slightly translucent square, nestled adjacent to a folded sheet of paper. As Dana squinted, preparing to open the flap, he noticed small lettering on the back. Turning it over, he saw an address printed neatly in the corner. This was how he’d found the location, he surmised. However, underneath the formal text was a crude, thinly penned scribble. He traced the unsteady lines with his finger, then looked up and returned the envelope to its pocket. Clenching his fists, he approached the doors with a newfound determination.
Whatever he had come for, whatever lay inside this building, he knew now that it was his destiny.
With that, he pushed open the doors and stepped inside.
In an instant, Dana’s senses were flooded by the once-familiar sights and smells of the clinic. The pungent odor of morphine, the buzz of the dim bulbs that lined the ceiling-- it was just as he remembered.
But one detail was different. Before him lay an immaculate staircase, engulfed in bright light.
Whereas the rest of the building was dim, the staircase was clearly visible, as though a clear sky were shining directly upon it. The polished stone steps wound indefinitely upwards into the upper levels of the building, and the damascus-forged guard rails refracted into so many points of light that they looked like thousands of tiny stars.
It was unnatural, but absolutely mesmerizing all the same.
Suddenly, he noticed a figure in the corner. The medicinal smells were at once overpowered by the distinct stench of rotting flesh.
“Howdy.” The voice was that of a young girl, but with some sort of strange, raspy undertone. “Been a while since I’ve seen anyone come through those doors. Doesn’t anyone knock these days? Please, take your shoes off before you ruin the carpet.”
The shape emerged from the darkness. Dana staggered back as tears began to form in his eyes from the smell.
It was a corpse; there was no other way of putting it. It appeared to be a girl in her late teens, but there wasn’t much left of her. The pale, flaked skin left the bones of her limbs exposed, with very little in the way of muscle to be moving them. Thought her head had retained most of its covering tissue, it had become sunken, devoid of much of its skin, like a wax figure left out in the sun for too long.
But what caught Dana’s gaze was her hair. It appeared to be grey, but as she moved in the faint yellow light, the ends of the strands glistened and glowed, as if some color should have been there, but had been sucked away by the passage of time.
"What..." stammered Dana, before remembering the common courtesy, "who are you?"
“I’m the Gatekeeper. Now, please, tell me who you are and why you’re here, so we can get this whole shebang over with.”
Dana was taken aback. Every fiber of his being wanted him to back away and sprint through the doors, but being here again, in this damned place... he knew he couldn’t run away again.
“I…” Dana coughed, struggling to find words. “My name is Dana. Morris. And I was hoping… you could tell me.”
A hoarse laugh escaped the Gatekeeper’s throat. “Nobody finds the Stairway of Chaos on accident. You come here because you want something more than anything else, whether it be purity, peace, or pride. Even if you don't know it. Surely you want something.”
A chill ran up Dana’s spine at the grating sound of the corpse’s laughter. “Uh, well… Miss… Mister Gatekeeper… I guess, if anything, I want to remember.”
“Wake up, Dana.”
His wife’s gentle whisper made its way through his ears like a thick, sweet syrup, stirring him from his trance.
“We lost you again, sweetheart,” she said. “You’ve been in one of your reverie states for the whole car ride. This is the second time this week, too. Where were you? Maybe we should get it checked out…”
“Hon, don’t worry.” Dana smiled, rubbing his eyes. “We don’t need to check anything. I’ve just… got a lot on my mind right now, with everything...”
“You were with him,” she said softly.
The car fell silent for a moment. The timeworn cloth chair creaked as Dana shifted uncomfortably in his seat. After a few minutes, he spoke.
“Today’s the day, isn’t it?” he breathed.
“Yes…” she sighed. “The kids are waiting by the entrance. I told them they’d get ice cream if they waited patiently--”
“There’s no need to rush,” he blurted.
His words hung in the air with an almost tangible bitterness. He realized the acerbity of his tone and immediately wished he could take it back.
“Oh, hon, I’m sorry.” He shook his head. “It’s just been so long since I’ve seen him. He and I never... really… connected after I went off to college, you know? I just don’t think I can deal with what he might say this time. Who knows if he’ll even recognize us now?”
The woman leaned into the cabin and squeezed her weary husband’s shoulders. “You know he loves you, Dana. He can’t help what’s happening to him.”
He straightened himself up from his chair, ignoring the sheets of paper that had drifted onto the floor from the draft, and pulled himself through the passenger door.
“I don’t think I know anything for sure anymore,” he stated.
The couple took hands and approached the entrance. As they pushed open the doors, the scent of sterilizers filled the air, causing the two boys to feign exaggerated expressions of nausea. The disgruntled receptionist, a twenty-something woman, distributed the paperwork with a familiarly deliberate lack of ardor. As Dana signed the increasing stack of files, he couldn’t help but feel an intense envy for her disinterest; to be detached from the personal trials and traumas that accompanied the process was something he could only dream of at that point.
Finally, after all the forms were filled and filed, the permission to proceed was granted. Dana led the anxious family down the long, poorly-lit corridor until the crimson outline of the visiting room door came into view.
He silently stepped up to the portal and stood, gazing at the hundreds of rings that peeked through the chipped red paint. As he rested his hand on the doorknob, he squeezed his eyes shut.
He felt a hand on his side, and looked down to see his youngest staring back up at him, smiling the purest, most sincere smile he had ever seen in his entire life.
Rejuvenated, he exhaled and pushed open the door.
The room was sparsely decorated and dimly lit, and yet, despite the encroaching shadows cast on the wall, the room felt unnaturally empty. Empty, all but for a solitary soul lurking in the corner, reclining in a tattered armchair.
Dana knew even before he approached that the man was staring right into his cobalt eyes.
The Gatekeeper put his hand to his chin. “To remember? That’s a new one.” Through his sunken eyes, he looked the man up and down, with a silent, cynical condescendence. “Explain, please.”
Dana shuffled uncomfortably. “Well, uh… a few years ago… um... I was diagnosed with onset Alzheimer’s. Genetic, they said. Came from my father.
“He was a Gulf War vet. Already suffered from PTSD, poor guy. Couldn’t imagine the things he’d been through. He told me stories…” He coughed. “Anyway, he was already in a pretty unstable state when the dementia set in. Went to visit him with my wife and my first son one day… when we got to the door, he attacked us with steak knife. Thought we were intruders. I kept screaming, ‘Dad! It’s me, Dana! Dana!’ and he said he’d never seen me in his life. Still couldn’t recognize me when the police took him… my son was only seven… God.”
He instinctively removed the felt frame and held it in the air. Inside the tiny square, a family was positioned together in front of a grey background. A woman in her early fifties stood smiling above a pair of young boys, divided by several years, grinning wildly in reaction to some unseen photographer making a face behind the camera. And behind them all, nestled between, was the father, grey and worn, yet still smiling.
He looked up, his eyes darting around the room. He hated this place now more than he had ever done in his life.
“The short-term memory loss started a few months ago. I’d be driving or mowing the lawn and all of a sudden, I’d just… blank. Just stare forward for twenty minutes or more. Then I’d wake up, with no idea what I was doing or how I got there. I tried to play it off, but then it got… bad. Last week, I was driving with my family in the car. If my wife hadn’t woken me up…” Dana closed his eyes, wincing as the cacophony of terrified shouts and screeching tires echoed once more throughout his frail mind.
He cleared his throat, pocketing the frame.
“...Anyway, the point is I know this is only a premonition of what’s to come. It’s only going to get worse for me, and soon I won’t be able to remember much of anything at all.”
The Gatekeeper quietly processed this information. “Well, the Stairway of Chaos can certainly help you with that. I feel obligated to inform you, however, that this place doesn’t deal with the warm and fuzzy.
“This is no fairy tale; this place really does grant wishes. It will give you anything you desire, albeit at a great cost.
“You may have noticed from the exterior that the Stairway selects a… specific type of memory for its ascendants. Once you step onto the first stone, you will be taken back to a moment where you were at your most vulnerable. Your most harrowing memories will be replayed before your eyes in the most visceral sense-- you will relive your relative youth as though it were the present. In order to reach the top, you will have to reach into your deepest strength and pull yourself free, in any way you can. Only then will you be able to achieve your desires.”
Dana stood in astonishment, gazing upwards at the impossible stairway, arching his head to catch a glimpse of a distant hope on the floor above.
The Gatekeeper grinned, stretching his rotting mouth as far as it would reach. “You like that? Been rehearsing that speech while I was waiting.” His expression became solemn. “Not that all that waiting will have made much of a difference. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all my years captive here, it’s that waiting will only give you false hope.”
After a long silence, Dana eventually broke his trance, composing himself. “So... nobody’s ever made it?”
The Gatekeeper laughed. “Do you see any gods walking among us? Has the world been cured of its problems? No. The stairs are... let's say, 'designed', to drain the challenger both physically and mentally. Everyone fails in the end.”
Dana considered this incomprehensible challenge. The brilliant light reflected off the pristine banister into the man’s hopeful eyes as he approached the first step. Looking down upon it, he marveled at the whorled stone surface, and how its grooves ebbed and flowed seamlessly and elegantly.
“I think… at this point, I have no other choice.”
He hesitated as the scene came flooding back to him.
“Who… who are you?”
Dana sighed. He’d been instructed how to respond to this question so as to not cause a disturbance.
“Dad, it’s… it’s me. Do you remember me? Do you know who I am?”
“I…” The old man’s bottom lip trembled as he examined the face before him. “I don’t know you. Are you the new orderly?”
“Dad, It’s Dana. Your son.” He paused. “Your son. Dana.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small translucent square. “Here, look. This is from a long time ago.”
On the slide was a young boy, dressed in a Scout’s uniform. Though the photo was black-and-white, the bright glow of two cobalt irises shone against the backdrop, and were only complemented by the bright, toothy smile that stretched across his face. Behind him was an older man, wearing a Marine uniform and cap. His left hand gripped the boy’s right firmly, but the genuine grin on his face asserted that it was a sign of affection.
“It’s us, Dad,” Dana said. “This is us.”
The man looked at the slide with a confused expression on his face.
“Where did you get this picture? That can’t be me. That’s… not me. You must have me confused with someone else.”
“This is the last time we ever bonded, Dad,” Dana muttered. His wife suddenly stood up.
“It’s fine, hon. Could you… could you take the kids out of the room for a few minutes?”
She nodded silently. As she escorted the boys through the door, Dana placed the slide in his father’s gnarled palm.
“When I was a kid, you were never there for me. You were always away on work, or trying to find work.
“When you joined the military, I was so desperate for attention that I joined the Scouts so I could be like you. And it worked. For the first time in my life, I felt wanted.
“But then you had to go away to train. During your deployment, I couldn’t lift myself out of bed in the morning.”
Dana placed his index finger on the slide nestled in the man’s hand.
“This is us.”
He pulled a pen out of his pocket and picked up the film, carefully inscribing a message and then returning it to his father’s palm.
Father and Son.
“I need you to remember, Dad,” Dana pleaded. “All these years I’ve spent seeking guidance and receiving nothing. Dad… it’s starting for me. I’m losing my mind, just like you and your father. I’m snapping in and out of catatonia and I can’t predict or control it. I’ve tried not to make it a big deal with the rest of my family because… truth be told, I don’t know what to do.”
The old man simply stared silently.
“Dad, can you hear me? I don’t know what to do!” His voice became louder. “I don’t know what to DO! You left me with no mother and a family tree doomed to spend the rest of its days in a goddamn mental asylum because none of the branches connect with the others! You couldn’t help me then, so please, help me now! I NEED YOU TO REMEMBER!”
The man was on the verge of tears. Kneeling down, he pressed the photo slide into his father’s hand and furled it into a fist, clutching it as if doing so hard enough would solidify the missing bond that he had so desperately craved throughout his entire life.
“I… need you to remember.”
The old man’s lips began to quiver as he gazed at his broken son.
“Do you remember me now, Dad?”
The room was silent for several moments. As Dana grasped the enclosed hand, beads of sweat appeared on his forehead, rolling off his red, sunken cheeks and melting into the pool of tears.
“You… you must be the new orderly.” The old man smiled. “I hate to bother you, but I’m starving. If you would kindly, could you get me some scrambled eggs and toast?”
Dana collapsed his head into his arms, leaving the slide inside his worn father’s bony, still-enclosed hand.
“I guess now is as good a time as any,” he alleged. With paralyzing trepidation, Dana reached toward his pocket, then stopped.
“Did... you ever see him?” he questioned, turning to the Gatekeeper.
“Oh… my father... sorry. Did you ever come across him, at all? His name was Herman.”
“Dana, before I answer that question, let me fill you in on a few things.” The corpse began pacing in his direction. “I’m an immortal being. I’ve been here for thousands upon thousands of years, and had countless challengers come in here, all with some great story of why they wanted to risk their lives to climb. At the risk of sounding insensitive, I stopped remembering those stories a long, long time ago.
“Yes, I tried to at first. I was young, relatively. Naive. Those first few people came marching in, all high and mighty, and those who didn’t ignore me told me their past. Like the fool I once was, I sat and listened with wisty eyes and aching heart. I stood by them and encouraged them, watching in blind hope as, one by one, they ascended mightily and crashed down just the same.
“I learned quickly that mercy was not something the Stairway allowed.
“Eventually I realized it was far easier to skip the intimacies and send them as lambs to the slaughter than to make them martyrs and spend an eternity mourning.”
“But you can’t help it, can you?” Dana remarked.
“No.” A deep, raspy sigh emanated from the corpse’s absent lips. “Every so often one optimistic soul comes along and sways me. And I repeat the same mistake over and over again. I hope. I look to the top of that damn thing and think, ‘Yeah, today’s finally the day.’ And every. Damn. Time. I’m shot down.”
His pacing stopped, echoing across the lobby. After a brief hesitation, he continued.
“To answer your question, if your father was ever here, either he never told me his name, or he never cared to even make eye contact. I hope you understand when I say that, if he was truly worth remembering, I would have kept something to remember him by.” He peered into the man’s cobalt eyes. “Sometimes, even in those cases, it’s best to let go.”
Dana stood up.
“I’m sorry to bother you, sir,” he breathed.
“Before you go, I have to tell you something.” His father’s expression was of pure obliviousness.
“What’s that?” he replied.
“I… I really shouldn’t be telling you this; it’s quite personal. But I feel if I keep this to myself any longer I’ll self-destruct.”
Dana remained motionless in the center of the room.
“Go ahead, Dad.”
The old man chuckled. “Well, as you and the other nurses know, I’m a fighter. I fought in Kuwait. It’s in my blood. And I think you should know… I don’t plan on staying here.”
“Oh? What do you mean?”
“For the past few days, I’ve been planning my escape. Silly as it may sound.”
Dana laughed softly. “Of course. Escape. I’m sorry, Dad, but you’re too far gone.” He swiveled to face his father. “How and why?”
“Oh, how’s not your concern,” he chortled. “As for why… well, I don’t think there’s any harm in telling at this point.
“You see, as hard as it may be to believe, I can understand the severity of my condition.” His smile vanished into a solemn contortion. “This isn’t something you attack with therapy and stabilize with pills. It’s an incurable, debilitating disease, and it’s going with me to my grave. But I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in this clinic.” He waved his hand around the pale grey walls in a sweeping gesture. “I’ve found somewhere where I’ll truly have a chance at a normal life. And it certainly isn’t this dump.” A brief flicker of a smile appeared on his face, then disappeared. “You know, the sad thing is, all my life I knew this would happen. My father got it, and his father, and probably his father before him. Just an unstoppable cycle of self-destruction. And my son, too. Daniel, I think his name was.”
Dana smiled. “Close enough,” he uttered.
“You know, after all this time, I find myself looking back and wondering what happened to him. I left for ‘Nam about the time he was heading off to college, and that was that. You know, deep down, I wanted to just run up to him and tell him everything I’m telling you now. But something inside me never could. I think, maybe, I just wanted him to live the life I never could, free from that knowledge.
He sighed, breaking into a small coughing fit before settling down again. “Anyway, some things can’t be changed. Thank you for listening, by the way. I know you orderlies tend to tire of the stories we tell.”
“It’s no problem,” Dana smiled. He turned and began the walk to the door.
“Oh, and would you leave the door open for me? My son’s family is going to be visiting soon, and I don’t want them to get lost on the way.”
Tears dripped from Dana’s eyes as he stood upright and headed towards the door.
“Yes, sir,” he said, and stepped into the corridor.
Dana’s focus was transfixed on the Stairway, his eyes beginning to water as he blankly translated the reminiscence, coupled with his sudden revelation. As he returned to reality, he caught the corpse’s gaze and stared briefly into the eerie blue irises examining him. He then returned his attention to the envelope, removing it from his pocket and flipping it over to read the scrawlings on the front.
“What’s that?” the Gatekeeper questioned.
“It’s a letter I got a week after he disappeared,” Dana replied. “It was sent from this address- that’s how I found it.” He paused.
“You know, we never did find out what happened to him.” He returned his attention to the paper. “‘Open only when Chaos shows its weary face,’” he read aloud. “This was his handwriting. The first time I read this, I had some idea of what it might mean. Leave it to my father to be so cryptic.” He chuckled halfheartedly, wiping his eyes. “He knew I would start to forget eventually. I wasn’t ready to see what was in here because I still had some sense of memory left.” He tore open the envelope. “There’s only one way to know for sure.”
The Gatekeeper nodded. “Take as much time as you need.”
Luck has never been in the Morris’ favor. My recent actions have proved that. But I just want to take the time now to say something I wish I could have so many years ago.
As you know, my mind has become fragile. It’s taking all my energy to keep a consistent train of thought to write this. I’m sorry I’ve been unable to contact you, but let me explain.
Recently, I came across a friend of a friend who told me about a place that could grant wishes. This place can’t be found by accident; you have to be searching for something deep within in order to reveal what protects the exterior.
All my life I've wanted to escape. In a way, I have. But I’m afraid I can’t run forever.
What I’m about to do is something unforgivable. By the time you read this, I will be long gone. You’ve likely followed my trail to this place, and are reading this as you are about to make the same decision I have. I’m asking you, if you truly trust me, not to follow further where I venture. I’m telling you this because I want you to know that this disease doesn’t have to control you.
If you truly want to, you can make your own destiny.
You have two beautiful boys that have yet to realize how brief the bright star of youth shines. If they find that, one day, their memories have begun to fade, they will need their father to guide them through it.
I wish I had been there to guide you.
I love you, son. I always have. And I’m sorry if I was never able to show it.
Now, wake up, Dana. You have a life to live, places to go, people to meet. You can still choose your destiny.
Don’t let Chaos decide for you.
With all my heart,
Herman MorrisAs tears streamed from his bloodshot eyes, Dana let the letter fall from his grasp. He held the envelope to the glimmering ceiling and shakily removed the remaining contents.
A photo slide came into view, in the same 35-millimeter format as the one around his keys. But this one was clearly much older. Inside, instead of a family, there were only two figures: a young boy and an old man, full of vitality and hope.
Father and Son.
Dana turned to the Stairway. Its allure was undeniable; its rewards immeasurable. But he knew now what he had to do.
“I can’t do it.”
The Gatekeeper looked astonished. “What?”
Dana smiled, drying tears from his eyes.
“Gatekeeper, I think… I don’t know how to say this.
“My father may not have been a fortunate man. His life was a constant downward spiral he couldn’t possibly ascend, and he knew it. He didn’t want me to suffer the same fate he’d fallen into. I wish I knew that then. But I know now that I can’t let that same spiral stop me. I have a family that needs me, a world that needs me. And if I lose myself along the way, I’m going to make sure I’m there for them.
“I don’t need to do this. It’s tempting, but it’s not worth the risk.”
The asylum was quiet for a moment. Dana’s final words echoed throughout the chamber.
“I’m afraid,” The Gatekeeper sighed, “It’s a little too late for that.”
“Wake up, Dana. Look where you’re standing.”
Even though he knew what he would see, he turned his gaze downwards.
The whorled stone of the first step seemed to distort around Dana’s feet as he stood, paralyzed.
In shock, the man stumbled, and his feet tipped off the edge onto the cold ground.
The Gatekeeper got up from his position and took the first slow step towards the terrified man.
“You couldn’t deal with forgetting. You needed to have some control over your mind.” He quickened his pace. “So you talked yourself through it. You took your memories and learned from them. You didn’t even need the Stairway for that. You reconnected with your father, all these years after he chose to ascend. But then, I’m afraid, something happened that was out of your control.
“You forgot. Your mind blanked, and you came to in front of the first step-- you just started climbing, without hesitation. Your memories of everything that happened after you walked up to that first step disappeared.”
Dana stammered. “A memory… But I… I thought…”
“Yes. The Stairway revives your most painful memories. And it seems the most painful of all was one you forgot. You finally gained control over your uncertain future, reconciled with your father… and then had that control ripped away by the same affliction that drove him to climb up these same steps all those years ago.”
“Why…” Dana stammered, “why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because that’s not how the Stairway works, friend,” the corpse stated, passing Dana as he ascended the steps. “The challenger needs to overcome their own memories. When I saw you go blank… I knew the pain you would feel once I had to bring you back to reality. I’ve seen it so, so many times before. Believe me, I wanted to help. But I couldn’t. I’m sorry.”
With that, he sat down on the third step, watching over the broken man.
Dana pulled his keys out of his pocket and held the felt-framed photo slide to the light of the Stairway.
Before, he had seen a reason to continue on in the man in the film. But now, he could only see the naive smile of a husband and father who had kissed his family gently and lovingly on the cheeks and taken keys in hand, driving off into the pouring rain in search of the welcoming arms of a lost, distant memory without saying goodbye.
As tears streamed from his eyes, he let the slides fall from his grasp, clattering as the keychains hit the floor.
“I’m not ready,” Dana whispered.
The Gatekeeper rose from his perch. “Fate is cruel, Dana. If it’s any consolation, you were one of the good ones.” He descended to the second step.
“I’m not ready!” he repeated to himself. Visions of his family flashed before his eyes. His sons, running blissfully through the yard. His beautiful wife, smiling at him from the bedside. And his poor father, blinded by rage at the unfairness of life, leaving him for the last time as he joined the thousands of others who failed to climb the Stairway of Chaos.
After trying to remember for so long, all he wished he could do now was forget.
“It’s time, Dana,” said the Gatekeeper.
“I’m not READY!”
As the man collapsed to his knees, the Gatekeeper sighed and thrust a bony hand in front of his mouth. A rush of air escaped his lungs, and with it, a small, swirling cloud of white dust, which seemed to dance in the air as it made its way into the corpse’s palm.
As Dana Morris collapsed to the ground, a swift breeze began to blow through the hall. The Gatekeeper watched as the fabric of the man’s life was taken up by the gust, performing a series of intricate upward spiraling motions before scattering into the cold evening air.
“Nobody ever is, Dana,” the Gatekeeper stated, closing his eyes.
As the girl’s body crumbled away into dust, the man’s rose slowly from the ground, coughing violently. It brushed the fine powder off of its faded khakis and cleared its raspy throat. Looking down, it noticed the set of keys, and stooped over to pick them up with its knotted, bony hands, peering into the faint reflection of the metal.
The Gatekeeper brushed his wrinkled face, following the harsh, jagged lines of his cheek as they sagged and stretched. During all his years of waiting, he had longed for the lingering vitality of a new host-- that cruel, visceral beauty that only came with death. But here, gazing into his own azure eyes, he could only see the pale, drained visage of a walking corpse.
The Gatekeeper broke away from the image and cursed into the air. He wanted to think that Dana Morris had been a dead man walking long before he set foot inside the building. He wanted to think that his release was merciful. He wanted so badly to forget the man, like he had so many others.
But, looking down at the second slide, still on the ground, he realized that forgetting was a gift he’d taken for granted.
The Gatekeeper stared at the scene for a moment, then returned to his seat in the corner of the room, still clutching the keys. Settling himself down, he reached over and picked up a jar, which had been resting beside a pair of faded combat boots.
“Hey, Yuki. It’s me again. Sorry, I know it’s been a while.” Within the receptacle, a white wisp lit up, pressing its swirling form against the curved wall. “I finally have a new story for you. It’s a good one this time, I promise.”
“It’s a tale of a long-lost youth. Of one man on an eternal quest with no destination.
“It’s a tale of fathers and sons. Of hope and despair.
“Of life... and loss.”
Inside the jar, the wisp began to dance about, glowing bright with excitement. The Gatekeeper smiled.
“Suspense! You want me to get right to it, don’t you?” He chuckled. “Don’t worry, I’ll tell you soon.” He stood up and pushed open the grand doors to the outside. “But first, let’s wait a little while. I want to get the details right.” He strolled over to the edge of the yard and sat down in the umbrage of one of the many tall pines that surrounded the yard. “Besides, it’s a beautiful evening.” He tapped the glass playfully, causing the wisp to shimmy about.
“Let’s savor it while we can.”
The Gatekeeper held the jar to his chest and gazed up at the sky, which was finally parting to reveal the gleaming crimson rays of the setting sun.
Written by Noctevoire
Chapter Six: Memorial
The creature’s lips spoke words whose very aura astounded Mira. She could hardly believe that she was even here, standing before this mobile pile of flesh and bone. Though the home in which she stood was dusty, destroyed, and desolate, the glimmering steps before her were evidence enough. The legend was true. I never thought it possible, but here it is. The Memorial.
Decades of searching had been worth it. She had found the fabled staircase of memories, hidden away in this crumbling home. And better yet, she was assured of the prize that awaited her. The tension in her chest arrived as product of nerves and anticipation, excitement and apprehension. If the tale was true, she knew the specter did not lie.
Ability beyond human belief supposedly awaited whoever could reach the top of the Marble staircase, whose silver railings gleamed blue in the moonlight. The steps seemed to stretch endlessly into the darkness. The structure seemed to radiate an air of chill, strength, and foreboding.
Mira turned her gaze downward, back to the monster that now addressed her. Roughly humanoid in shape, she could vaguely see how this could once have been a man. Despite the missing parts and open rot, the remnants of a skeleton stood strongest beneath the bits of flesh. The clothing that shrouded this figure were little more than rags, worn and torn by age, the exact span of which she could not imagine. Any markings they once bore were now faded away, the tatters bleached and dulled to gray. A glass jar faintly glimmered and glowed in the breast pocket of the shambler’s shirt.
“What sort of power, exactly?” The remnants of her accent still punctuated much of her speech. Life in Germany was something she would rather forget, but the mark of it still bore in her voice.
“Hmhmhmhmh,” chuckled the corpse. He retorted with mock, “the absolute sort, as I said before.” His grainy voice came through in a blend, one part roughly human, grainy, and deeply baritoned, and the other little more than a raspy whisper lacking distinct accent, mildly echoing within itself.
“I need to know specifics. I need to know if it can-”
“It can. Easily.” His words came across in a monotone, as though he was bored of her questions already.
Mira stood, shell-shocked. That’s impossible. To undo that much damage… But the staircase alone should prove the legend is true.
“What do I need to do?”
“Hmm. Straight to the point. Don’t you think you’re being a bit too eager?” the specter mocked again. “But, then again, at your age, there really isn’t much left for you to do with your life. Might as well go seeking the impossible, right?” He turned to gaze at Mira, as though judging the determination of this latest trial-goer. His eyes, too, gleamed in the moonlight; that same azure hue. His stare sent a shiver down Mira’s spine, her muscles tensing in response.
“Just, tell me what to do.”
He sighed in response. “Alright then.” The monster stepped up to the base of the stairs. “Let me introduce myself. I’m the gatekeeper of the Stairway of Chaos.”
“‘Stairway of Chaos’? I thought it was called the Memorial.” Mira took another look up the winding stairs.
“I have never called it that. Neither did the one who built it. No one else that’s ever been through here has called it that before, and I’m not going to change it now. So, if you don’t mind...”
“Wait, the one who built it? Someone made this thing?”
“Hmm...” The Gatekeeper rubbed at his temples with his bony fingers, dislodging extraneous bits and pieces. “Rude, interrupting like that. Why am I even bothering with a withered hag like you? I mean, really, you thought it just came out of nowhere? This damn thing took a lot of work. I should know. I was there when it was built. I was the first human to ever climb up these steps. There have been plenty of others after me, but no one’s ever managed to pull it off.
“But maybe you’ll be the first,” he droned, trying to force the conversation forward, “a precedent that proves that the challenge can be overcome. And if you are indeed so strong willed and--” He sized up her aging body. “--dare I say, lucky, then you’ll claim the prize that waits at the top of the stairs. The absolute power I’ve mentioned three times now is waiting to be taken by someone worthy of using it. If you think that person is you, then you can take your first step. But be warned; the price of memory is a heavy toll, and this journey can’t be halted once it has begun. Success or failure; those are the options ahead, if you choose to begin.”
The Gatekeeper’s face contorted to a condescending smirk with his closing words. He stepped aside, gesturing to the winding expanse of steps set amongst the withered and fallen remnants of the once beautiful townhouse. Mira reflected on what he had just said. Did she truly want what he offered? What price would she need to pay? Was she strong enough to brave the challenge that stood before her?
But she then reminded herself why she came. What she had lost, what she had endured, and what she stood to gain; all questions were answered in the wake of this memory. The tattoo on her arm seemed to burn with the thought. Taking in a long breath of the frosty air around the steps, Mira strode forth toward the beginning of her journey. The Gatekeeper’s gaze followed her, the gleam in his eyes once more, and a wicked grin upon his face. She reached the base, took her first step, and began her voyage.
The grass was cool between her toes. The smell of fresh spring air pervaded her nostrils. A light breeze licked at her arms while the warm sun shone lightly on her neck. Looking down, she found that she was garbed in a yellow sundress and light pink shorts. She recognized the outfit, as well as the shortened limbs and torso that it contained, from her childhood. She couldn’t have been older than five years of age.
In her juvenile form, she found herself in what seemed an endless field. As she whirled and twirled in the April air, she caught glimpses of her brother, Hans, and sister, Ninette. Their curled, ebony locks were a perfect match for her own, grown longer and rarely cut throughout the years. The family castle also came into view, a towering structure that rose above all others. With walls of cinder block and supports as wide as trees, the family castle was a symbol of power and safety in the eyes of young Mira.
She had long forgotten about this place. It seemed a fantasy land to her adult mind. Yet, here it was, exactly as it used to be. Everything was real. She took the opportunity to frolic and spin and play just as she had when she was a child. Her brother and sister chased her as she ran around the yard, trying desperately not to be tagged.
She didn’t notice the large tree root until it was too late. Her foot caught and sent her tumbling. The pain, too, was real, and it shot up her leg to her spine. Picking herself up from the dirt, she found that the smallest toe on her left foot bore a long laceration, blood puddling out of the wound, and the digit adopting a deep purple bruise.
The pain was nothing new to Mira; she had broken far more in far worse ways. But her child body was not as accustomed to it as her adult mind. Tears welled up in her eyes, threatening to spill forth. Hans and Ninette looked on from behind, their expectant gazes rousing embarrassment to compound the pain. Her lip quivered, and her jaw dropped and locked open.
But though the cry seemed imminent, Mira knew better. She knew how inconsequential the pain of a stubbed toe was, and even a broken toe wasn’t as bad as it seemed. The watchful eyes of her brother and sister meant little to the adult observer, as they would find many more ways to embarrass her when they were older. She forced her gaping mouth to close, clenching her teeth against the ache. The tears remained stationary, held fast within her eyes. Not a single drop fell as she stood up, brushed herself off, and turned to continue the chase once more.
“What just happened?” she asked the Gatekeeper, finding herself once more upon the steps.
“Well, I’d say you remembered something.” the corpse replied in a tone that implied that his answer was obvious. “That’s what the Staircase does.”
“I was a little girl again. I tripped on a tree root and broke a toe.”
“Did you think the memories would be good ones? This is a trial, after all. You’re supposed to be challenged. Though, from what I saw, that was about as pleasant a memory as one could ask for, given the circumstances.
“But I wouldn’t linger on it for too long. You have a lot more steps to go, and patience isn’t in my job description.” He turned away, his gaze falling further up the winding staircase. “They’re only going to get worse, you know.” he said with his back to Mira. “The Staircase is kind at first, but the greatest challenge is waiting at the top.” His voice low, and somber, the keeper stepped up, leading her toward that final task.
Mira followed, and with each step she found herself somewhere in her past. With each, another memory of trauma enveloped her. The early steps mostly reminded her of physical pain; broken bones, cuts and scrapes. Then the psychological torture started. Her first rejection by a boy she liked, her first birthday without her parents or siblings, and the time a stranger broke into her home; these were the memories that she tried to bury, but were dug up with ease by the Staircase of Chaos.
Then, on a step somewhere in the hundreds, she caught sight of the end of the staircase. She noticed something resting on the top step; something tiny, glimmering, and green. “What is that?” she asked the gatekeeper.
“The end.” he said bluntly. “And maybe the beginning of something very interesting.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“You know, you ask a lot of questions.” he replied, turning to face her from the step above. “Ignorance doesn’t suit you very well. It makes you look incompetent.”
“You could just answer me, you know. It’d save us both a lot of time.” Mira crossed her arms and shot a nasty look at the corpse.
“You may be in a rush to see this through before you die, but I’ve got all the time in the world. Besides, I have a job to do, and making things easy for you isn’t part of it.”
“Some help you are.”
“Hey, ask pointless questions, get pointless answers. I’m not going to repeat myself. I’ve already told you what’s waiting at the top.”
Mira understood what he meant. The power she sought; that must be it. She hadn’t realized that it was a physical object, instead thinking it was some intangible thing she would be able to use herself. In any case, the end was in sight, and that knowledge spurned her on to take the next step.
The memory that started her on this journey was brought forth, consuming her for a second time.
She felt more comfortable in her body this time; a side effect of her increased age, no doubt. She was fifteen years old, once again in the front yard of her childhood home. Now, though, it was a pittance, pathetic compared to what it was when she was a toddler. The day was overcast, dulling the world to near gray. The grass had dried in response to the drought, and lay all but dead in bunches about the yard.
“Mira! Get inside, quickly!” a voice called to her in a frantic whisper.
She turned to find her mother standing in the doorway of the family house. Though identical in structure to the castle of her youth, the building before her held none of the splendor and gave no impression of strength. The cinder blocks that formed the foundation of the mighty palace were reduced to mere bricks. The trees that held the castle together were little more than decoration, accentuating the miserable stone.
Mira followed her mother’s instructions. The wind was light, but made just enough noise to disguise the marching footsteps in the distance. She, her parents, and her siblings all crowded into the basement, which her father barred from their side. The room was cold and damp, and darkness took residence as there were no windows or candles.
“Mother,” Ninette whispered, “what are we doing?”
“We are hiding. The men we’ve been worried about are coming.”
“What are they going to do to us?” Hans implored, tears escaping his eyes to roll silently down his face.
Mira’s father spoke up. “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure nothing happens.” He armed himself with a poker normally used to adjust coal in the furnace. “Just be silent for now.”
The children heeded their father, curling into the corner of the room. As he took up post just beyond, and out of sight of, the doorway, Mira and her siblings sat quivering, fear a greater factor than the chill of the basement. Everything was utterly silent for nearly an hour. Were her father less certain in his choice, Mira would have left to play long ago. But seeing him in such a state frightened her most of all. What could possibly terrify him like this?
Above them, on the main floor of the house, came a sudden slam of a door that made them jump. Ninette let out a short, fearful gasp, but her mother pressed a hand over her mouth, stifling the sound. Slow footsteps from heavy boots released a creaking from the floorboards above, and tapped toward the staircase leading to the second floor. Meanwhile, another set of footfalls approached the door to the basement. The knob turned slowly, silently, and the door pressed open, halted only by the wooden bar. An eye peeked through, and locked on Mira.
The beam splintered apart under the force of the battering ram. The door burst open, slamming and bouncing off of the wall. Three men dressed in thick, dark clothes filed down the stairs, guns pointed in all directions. Instinctively, Mira and her siblings pressed themselves further into the corner, while her mother sat between them and the invaders.
As the first reached the bottom of the stairs, he was caught off guard by the fire poker colliding with his head. Blood sprayed from the wound as Mira’s father dislodged his makeshift weapon. He took a second swing at the man on the ground, the poker finding it’s way between the body armor and helmet. More blood and chunks of face were ripped away as he pulled with all his might.
He had no chance to react to the gunshot. The bullet ripped through his lung and tore a hole in his heart. His body recoiled from the impact, and his face locked in a painful expression. With his final breath, he managed only a small, wheezing gasp. He collapsed to the stone floor, his blood pooling out and mixing with that of his fallen foe. Mira could only look on in horror as he passed away just feet from her.
Hans jumped up from the corner, sprinting past Mira and Ninette. Their mother reached out to grab him by the hand, but he slipped out of her grasp. He ran to his father, bitter tears streaming down his face. Rolling the fresh corpse onto its back, the blood of his father drenched his hands, staining them red. Hans stared at his crimson appendages, horrified. He could not find words to speak. But his body found action to take. His fear was swallowed whole by rage. He shouted in fury, taking hold of the poker that had already taken one life, and cost him his father.
The gunmen were prepared. They fired mercilessly, executing the thirteen year old boy with one round apiece. The first punctured his collar, lodging in his left shoulder blade. The second was fatal, a bullet to the head. Hans’ body fell backward, the poker clattering toward the remaining family members. He lie motionless, his death quick, but painful.
The soldiers turned to face Mira, Ninette, and their mother. All three cowered in horror, tears pouring out uncontrollably. One of the men stepped closer, shouting for them to stand up. Mira never feared the nuances of the German language before, being that it was her native tongue, but in that instance, it seemed to carry the rage and power-madness of an entire people. At that age, she didn’t fully understand what was happening, but her adult mind knew perfectly well. Not again. I won’t go back there.
As the women stood and the soldiers turned to march them out, Mira took hold of the discarded fire poker. The scraping of metal across the stone floor seemed to echo around the room as she plunged the spike into the leg of her captor. The spray of blood caught her off guard, splashing her face, and forcing her to clear it from her eyes. Wiping away the crimson blood, Mira found herself staring directly into the barrel of the final soldier’s gun.
Mira’s screaming filled the staircase, resounding through the remnants of the townhouse. Without realizing, she had broken into a cold sweat, and tears streamed down her face. Realizing where she was, she turned quickly, searching for the gatekeeper. His footsteps echoed off of the shimmering steps as he approached from above. Her vision tracked up his legs, past his torso, and finally rested on his eyes. Wispy, azure mist trailed from them, and as he approached, the room seemed to chill.
He rested a hand on her head, gazing into her eyes. “The price of memory is a heavy toll. It’s time for you to pay yours.” He thrust his bony, rotting hand into her gaping mouth as she choked and gagged. The azure fog burned more brightly than ever. Mira desperately clawed at the withered appendage, trying in vain to pry it free of her throat. From within, the Gatekeeper plucked a mote of light and, raising it to his tattered lips, sent it flying with a gentle breath. Mira’s struggling ceased. Hand still resting upon her head, the rotted corpse crumbled away, leaving behind a pile of ash and dust.
Coming to her senses once more, Mira took a moment to wipe away her sweat and tears. She pulled herself up from the cold stone steps, taking hold of the silver railing. As she worked her way back down the winding staircase, something on her arm caught her eye. A tattoo in forest green ink.
“Well now. I suppose that’s not too bad a thing to want to wish away.” she said to herself, with an azure gleam in her eyes.
Written by TheWizardOfTheWoods
Chapter Seven: Limbo
The heavy rain pounded furiously on Keith Fraser’s windshield. He was beginning to think it would smash through the glass at any moment, but he had no choice. Lindsey hadn’t left so much as a note when he came home and found her missing. All of her belongings were still in the apartment they shared, and there were no signs of forced entry or any kind of struggle that had taken place.
Keith gritted his teeth and smashed his hand on the steering wheel in frustration. He never thought she would ever go through with something like this, though with her recently ailing mind he was worried something similar might occur. Over the last few weeks, she had become obsessed over this urban legend about some house that held a powerful treasure within, how the treasure’s keeper had travelled the world and finally landed here in their hometown. Keith had tried countless times to convince her that it was all in her head, but it was to no effect.
Her paranoia about this “treasure” led her to almost breaking into their neighbours’ place - fortunately during which Keith had been there to stop her. She cried and pleaded for Keith to let her go, claiming it was the only way to see “her” again. Her mother, who had died so long ago, when Lindsey was just a child.
Unlike his beloved, Keith had the luxury of a good life: little to no tragedies had ever struck him or his loved ones, and he was grateful every day of his life for it. But of course, that was only because he lived an uneventful life, overwhelmed by neither joy or sorrow. And so when he met Lindsey, he felt a sense of rejuvenation towards life. No matter how difficult she could be, Keith continued to love and protect her because of this. He didn’t hate her strange behaviour - he wished more than anything that he could take care of her, and help her move pass this phase.
Thus, his panic was rightfully placed as he raced through the neighbourhood in search of Lindsey. More than anything, he couldn’t stand the thought of losing her. Making a right hand turn, he spotted her car parked partially on the sidewalk. Next to it was a rickety looking house, clearly abandoned ages ago, with a large iron fence and gate guarding it. The gate swung wildly in the stormy breeze.
She must’ve run inside. He made his way to the gate and rushed onto the property. A gust of wind nearly sent him off his feet, but he recovered and managed to get onto the front porch. The front door was closed, but he gave a knock regardless. Keith thought he heard some kind of voice coming from inside, but it didn’t sound like an invitation or anything of that manner.
“Lindsey? Is that you?” Keith’s fingers rattled around the doorknob, and with a slow grip he turned the knob. The wind pushed the door wide open as nothing held it back now, revealing Lindsey’s body going limp in the arm of a stranger, hidden in the shadows. In their other hand, the figure was holding a strange white orb. Keith stood in the doorway transfixed as the figure pulled his girlfriend’s face to theirs, then watched as both collapsed to the floor.
“LINDSEY!” The young man screamed and ran to his beloved, holding her in his arms. He checked for a pulse, a breath, anything to indicate a shred of life. Her body was cold, lifeless, empty. Before the endless tears could pour from him, Keith looked to where the other body was - and saw only a pile of dust.
“Well, this is a first! I’ve never had two show up this close together.”
Keith’s eyes shot open and returned their gaze to Lindsey, who now gazed back at him with two bright, azure blue eyes. “Well, looks like we got a Prince Charming here.”
In his sudden fright, he leapt up and dropped his girlfriend’s corpse on the floor, her head making a dull thud as it came into contact with the wooden boards.
“Ouch! Jeez, kid, mind treating this body a little better? I just got it…”
Keith could do nothing but stare as the ghastly entity stood before him, wearing his girlfriend as a literal skin suit. Once the creature had brushed itself off, Keith managed to stumble out a question. “Wh-wh-what the hell are you!?”
“Well that’s not very polite,” Lindsey’s corpse remarked in an voice as empty as her body - or at least, as empty as it was moments before. “I was a person just like you, but I guess that was quite some time ago.”
The corpse gestured to itself with a grin that showed the wet, slouching skin on her body. “I am the Gatekeeper, a pleasure.” It looked around, then reached down and picked up the white orb on the floor. It appeared to be struggling in its grasp. “Whoa, there. You’re a feisty one, but then again you decided to come here in the middle of a hurricane, so I’m not surprised.”
“Wh-what did you do to Lindsey?”
The Gatekeeper looked at Keith, tucking the orb away in a pocket of her dress. “Just collecting the toll. Failure comes at a price, kid. Didn’t you know tha-“
The Gatekeeper paused, then snapped its fingers at Keith. Pieces of skin flew off, revealing bony edges with chunks of tissue clinging on. “Ah, darn… She never told you, did she? About me, about this place, about the stairs?”
After taking each word in, Keith shook his head sideways. “N-no…”
The corpse hit its forehead with the palm of its hand, making a groaning sound. “Of course she didn’t… A’ight, look. You see that?”
Keith looked to where the Gatekeeper was pointing to see a staircase. At first he just thought it was part of the house, but upon closer inspection he could see it did not fit the house at all. The steps were of smoothed stone, the handles of cold iron, and the way they ascended gave the appearance of endlessness.
“That there, buddy boy, is the Stairway of Chaos. Your former girlfriend here decided to give it a go, annnd it didn’t go so well.”
“Why… why did Lindsey have to… to…”’
“I already explained that part. Any more questions?” Though the voice was cold, it sounded irritant, like it was sick of repeating itself.
After a moment, Keith’s head shot up. “Does… does this have to do with her treasure?”
The Gatekeeper nodded. “Whoever can make it to the top of the Stairway will receive a power beyond any could imagine. The catch is, with each step, you will be forced to experience a painful memory. Find a way out of the memory, and you can move on. Get stuck, and well…” The Gatekeeper dragged a finger across its throat; the message was clear.
The distraught man’s head lowered once more. “So… she gave her life for that treasure.” A sinking feeling began to feed on his chest. That stupid treasure meant more to her than me… and now… now she’s…
The Gatekeeper sighed and scratched its head, before turning back to Keith. “Look. Being honest, I… think she’d want you to try it in her place.”
Keith watched the strange being before him, then looked to the stairs. It’s what she wanted. Even if it had driven her mad, even if this hunt had cost Lindsey her life… It was important to her. The least he could do was carry out her last unspoken wish. To beat this damn thing for her.
He stood, and without a glance at the Gatekeeper, forced his legs to carry him to the staircase. “I’ll finish what you started…” Keith mumbled to himself. He knew he wasn’t thinking right, he knew that he was upset. But that wasn’t going to deter him from trying.
Keith started to pass the corpse, but it rested a hand on his shoulder, holding him back with an unexpected strength. “No one’s ever made it to the top.” It opened its mouth like it had more to say, but stopped and let go of him. Keith watched the Gatekeeper for a while, trying to tell just what the being before him felt. But it was impossible to read. All he could look at were those bright, azure eyes.
Keith then turned and looked to the smooth stone, drew a sharp breath of resolve, and strode to the stairs. The instant his foot hit the top of the first stair, a chill beyond measure struck his body. It felt as though his bones were being splintered by icicles, and he felt like he was drowning in ice water. Everything grew blurry, and after a short time the stinging sensation passed.
- - -
But the cold continued. It pelted down on Keith’s head from the sky. He looked around to find himself outside of the house. “Wh-wh…” Sounds stuttered from his lips but made no words. His shoes squished and slid in the mud as he spun around, gazing at the world of two minutes ago. The headlights of his car blinded him, casting the contour of his body over the house.
Had he truly gone back in time? Just before he entered the house? Before Lindsey…?
Forget the treasure, I could save her! Keith’s eyes shot open and a smile flooded his face as he sprinted to the front door. Up the soaking wooden steps, he stumbled and tripped onto the porch, and proceeded to ram down the door. Unfortunately, as the door flew open, his excited gaze was only met with the same image as before: Lindsey’s body, the figure - no, the Gatekeeper - pulling her close, then the two collapsing to the floor.
The man was trembling, out of fear or rage or sadness he could not tell. Perhaps it was a mixture of the three. Regardless, Keith started towards Lindsey’s body, but stopped himself. No, wait. The stairs… that, creature said that I have to “escape” this memory… does that mean ignore her?
Keith’s eyes glanced to the staircase once more. Its looming nature almost seemed to be beckoning him. He looked again to the body on the floor. Will it… would it work again?
Taking a step backwards, Keith slowly turned away from Lindsey and creeped towards the staircase. Taking a deep breath, he raised his foot, and just as it hit the first step, he heard a voice behind him.
“Wait a minute… didn’t you already start?”
- - -
The cold continued. It pelted down on Keith’s head from the sky. He looked around to find himself outside of the house. “It worked…” Keith whispered, . He wasn’t going to let this staircase win - he had found a way, his way, to rescue his beloved. If he could get inside, just even a few seconds earlier, he might stop her from going on the start in the first place, or at the least keep the Gatekeeper from killing her.
This time! Keith’s eyes shot open and a crazed smile formed on his face as he sprinted to the front door. He felt slower than before, as if he were shackled by chains and weights, but this didn’t stop him. A crackle of thunder rolled in the distance, but Keith didn’t even budge. All that matter was Lindsey.
Once again though, it was all the same: Lindsey’s body, the Gatekeeper pulling her close, then the two collapsing to the floor. Keith tried to swallow the knot in his throat, but it wouldn’t go away. Three times now, he had seen her die. A new feeling began to squeeze his innards, something Keith hadn’t felt before. Perhaps it was the compounded grief of her death? The worry of his life becoming stale and miserable without her in it?
Keith’s heart pounded, and his mind swam in a sea of panic and despair. “I… I can’t lose you… I can’t lose you I can’t lose you I can’t lose you…” His voice grew quiet but his lips continued to move, repeating the movements of the words.
Just as before, he eyed the staircase. It wasn’t beckoning him, he realized, but mocking him. It mocked him, it mocked Lindsey, it mocked this whole situation. He was not going to let that happen any more. Fists clenched, Keith stomped to the stairs, pulling his body forward against the invisible current that was slowing him down. Same as before, a voice cried out from behind Keith, but this time it was slightly muffled.
- - -
The cold continued. It pelted down on Keith’s head from the sky. He looked around to find himself outside of the house. Without hesitation, Keith scrambled up the creaking wooden steps and burst his way inside. Now his entire body felt heavy, like running through water, and the chill clung to his bones indefinitely.
As Keith entered the house, the sight was the same as ever. He leaned against the door frame, sucking in air - his lungs were clenched in the fists of Jack Frost, and his stomach felt like the entry point.
“I can do it… just, one more time… one more time and I can save her…” Keith whispered, making his way for the stairs. Each step took the strength of a hundred as he passed the bodies on the floor. But Keith was undeterred; all that mattered was saving Lindsey. He stood at the bottom of the steps, his breath freezing up as he exhaled heavily.
“What are you doing!?” The Gatekeeper screamed for him to stop, but the immortal’s words could not pierce his mind. All that mattered was Lindsey.
And the cold continued.
- - -
His azure eyes were transfixed upon the man. The Gatekeeper had seen plenty of pitiable souls traverse the steps in the past, watching their worst memories from the sidelines of their minds. But the situation that was unraveling now compared to no other.
Here was a man whose most painful memory - which had originally occurred no more than a few minutes ago - involved the Staircase itself. And since it was the only way to escape from said memory, it only looped Keith back into a new cycle, who thought that one of these times, he could save his dearest Lindsey.
He didn’t care about the treasure, that didn’t mean a thing now - all that mattered was her. He didn’t show any sign of stopping though, even if it killed him. A twinge of guilt plagued the Gatekeeper’s ancient heart. Was all of this… his fault? Did he commit this man into a limbo of despair, this loop of failure?
It won’t be long now, he thought, watching Keith now from the real world. The skin of his face was beginning to turn a shade of violet.
A thought occurred. Keith’s predicament wasn’t too different than his own. The Gatekeeper continued looking on, knowing the truth. He knew that Keith couldn’t save her. He knew that in a short time, his body would lose oxygen and die, and that he would collect his soul and take a new form. He knew that more would come, and he would persuade them to challenge the Stairway, these cursed stairs! And most of all, he knew that all of them would fail. Even Master had died at the hands of the stairs. That’s why he had put the emerald at its summit in the first place - to keep it out of the hands of the unworthy.
And yet, it did not matter. He would continue to send more up the Stairway, for the two’s fates were entwined. The Gatekeeper himself was in limbo. This wasn’t the first time he had noticed it, but it was the first time that he had thought about it to this degree.
His eyes glanced to a chair in the corner, upon which sat a jar with a bustling soul rolling around within. She understood. She knew what his hell was. To know how close she had gotten to freeing him, only to keep the failure rate at one hundred percent, it only weighed on his mind. The Gatekeeper had tried to suppress any suffering he felt towards those who had tried the climb, but seeing this man of a similar fate, it began to conjure those feelings from the depths. Even for the ones he’d forgotten - the guilt of that void joined in as well.
An all encompassing, gut wrenching feeling began to swallow the Gatekeeper. How much more must I go on…? Forever? I have to keep doing this, sending people to their deaths, til the end of time?
No words could escape his parched, undead lips as Keith’s body fell backwards and hit the floor. For once, the Gatekeeper hesitated in taking the first step. Was this all there was for him? But then… if not this, then what other purpose could he serve in this world?
His time had passed ages ago. This was quite literally all there was for him. There was no other way. The tired soul breathed out, slowly walking to the coughing vessel laying on the floor, and proceeded to claim the toll.
Business as usual.
Written by RedNovaTyrant
Chapter Eight: Cursed
Mascara stained Karen Daniel’s crying face as she drove down an old back road. Another man had wasted a year of her life only to get bored and find comfort with another. She had lost count of how many times she had been cheated on and abused. It had become too much. All she wanted was to feel loved and she only knew one place to get that, her aunt’s house in Florida. It would be a long drive from the tiny town in Alabama that she had been trapped in the last few months but at least she would feel like she was home again. That was the one thought that kept her from completely breaking apart in the driver’s seat of her car, at least until a rattling came from under the hood of her Oldsmobile.
The car had been on its last leg for some time but she had never had the money to get it seen about. Now it was limping to the side of the road as smoke billowed from around the hood, clouding Karen’s ability to see through the windshield. She beat her hands on the steering wheel and screamed as the vehicle came to a stop by an old iron fence in the middle of nowhere. She threw open the door and stomped to the front of the car before attempting to open the hood. The latch was stuck and would not release. In her frustration she kicked at the bumper, which stubbed her toe and caused another flood of tears to soak her cheeks.
“Great! Just great! What else could go wrong?” Karen yelled into the empty night, while leaning against the side of the car.
Just as she finished her words clouds rolled overhead and thunder erupted in the distance. Within moments the rain began to fall and by the time she made it back into the car she was soaked. She thought to herself that if it were not for bad luck, she would have no luck at all. She sat shivering in the car for a moment as the storm moved in. Karen grabbed for the key, hoping that maybe the car would start again but as she turned it she only heard clicking. She sighed and rested her head on the seat behind her as she dug in her pocket for her cell phone. The road the car was on was unfamiliar to her but maybe she could give someone an idea of where to look. Then her eyes fell on the screen of the phone, which currently had no signal. It seemed she would be stranded until the storm relented.
The night sky became illuminated by random streaks of light above her car and Mother Nature roared around her. Karen shifted in her seat, attempting to lay sideways. If she could not get help, she would simply sleep through the storm. Her eyes had almost drifted shut when lightning struck beyond the fence line and revealed a large Victorian home hidden behind a grove of trees. Karen sat up, narrowing her gaze and attempted to discern if there were any lights on within. Between the sheets of rain and debris coasting by in the wind she could not be certain but it had to be worth a try. With her coat pulled up over face, she took to the gate which had been forced open by the wind. She rushed inside and down the dirt path toward the large structure in the distance.
Though Karen stumbled a few times on her trek toward the house, her eyes were intent on the windows. The closer she came, the more she could tell that no one could have been living here. The windows had been boarded shut and the exterior was in disrepair. It reminded her of some of the homes that had been abandoned in her hometown in Mississippi. For a moment she contemplated going back to the car but the wind had picked up and she was already closer to the house than the road. Karen made a quick decision to ride out the storm within the house. Her feet quickly traversed the steps and allowed her shelter under the roof of the porch. Her coat came to rest on her shoulders as he approached the large double doors ahead. Within the center of each door rested stained glass panels that had fogged over from age.
Karen leaned against the glass, attempting to look inside but the weight of her body against it pushed the door open. She stumbled forward, her hands pressing forward to catch herself but something took hold of her before she hit the floor. Her body rose and she instinctively began thanking whoever had saved her from injury and apologizing for just barging in. She had not even taken the time to look up as she brushed away the dust and leaves from her pants. She continued to apologize, which had been normal for her, even if she was not truly at fault. Finally, she turned her gaze upward to see the man standing before her, his skin a sickly pale blue and hanging strangely to his frame.
“Are you alright, my dear,?” the Gatekeeper said.
“I-I,” Karen stammered while wiping at her eyes, “the storm.”
The man leaned over, looking past her. “Right, pretty bad I guess. Sorry, hadn’t noticed.”
“I’m sorry for barging in,” Karen said again.
“Yes,” the Gatekeeper said as he looked back down at her. “I believe you said that already.”
“It is a habit, I’m sor-,” she pressed her hand to her mouth to keep from repeating it.
“It’s fine and this isn’t my house, I just watch over it,” the man said.
Karen looked around, not seeing much of anything that needed watching over. The house had little furnishing and what remained was not suitable for use. The floors were littered with trash and leaves, some of which had entered with her. That was when she noticed the stairs for the first time. The entire room around it was old and decaying wood but this particular set of steps were a bright white marble. The entire thing looked as though it had been plucked from a far nicer home and plopped in the middle of it. Her mouth even opened slightly in awe of the sight before the other person in the room snapped his fingers.
“So, you’ve come for the stairs too?” he said.
Karen’s feeling of amazement turned to confusion at this. “Come for?”
“Don’t tell me you don’t know what this place is,” the Gatekeeper sighed.
“Should I?” she responded.
The tired figure shook his head, walking back over to a chair and taking a seat. He leaned his elbow against a small writing desk and stared down at the tiny bottle containing a flickering light. He tapped it gently and spoke to it quietly, so quiet in fact that Karen could not make out his words. Her eyes returned to the stairs and something about them seemed to call to her. She felt her feet begin moving in the direction of them and she would have stepped closer if a hand had not come to rest on her shoulder. She turned to see the man again, his face somber and shaking in disapproval.
“No child, you don’t want to do that,” he sighed again and looked to the steps. “You should turn around and go back to wherever it is you came from. This place isn’t for you, I can tell.”
Karen looked up at the steps then back at the door. “My car broke down and I have no reception here. I just need some shelter from the storm for a while.”
The Gatekeeper pondered this for a moment, not liking the idea but quickly relented. “Fine, but stay away from the stairs.”
Karen nodded and stepped over to a wall, sliding her back down against it until she was seated on the floor. “So what’s the deal with them anyway?”
The man returned to his chair. “It is called the Stairway of Chaos and at the top lies a power greater than anyone could possibly imagine. It has rested there longer than anyone living and will probably remain there long after they are gone. All who have tried for it have failed and it has cost them their lives.”
Her eyebrows shifted, one raising in disbelief. “And I’m supposed to believe that?”
“No,” he growled. “You’re supposed to stay away from it. You did not come for it and are obviously in no shape to traverse it.”
“Ahh, come on, it’s just steps!” She chuckled and wiped at her face again, trying to clear off the smeared makeup.
The Gatekeeper turned to her. “And you’re just a broken little girl. Those steps would chew you up and spit you out and I have seen enough wasted lives lately, thank you.”
Karen hopped up from the floor, her brow furrowed. “I think I’ve had about enough of you being rude to me, just another man trying to shove me around. I can do what I want.”
As she said this, she was stomping toward the steps and the Gatekeeper followed soon after. His hands blocked her from the railing and shook his head. “They are not just steps child. With each one it makes you relive your worst possible memory is the most vividly gruesome detail. You must find a way out of it or it will consume you and kill you.”
Karen laughed in his face. “How many people actually believe that?”
The Gatekeeper's head hung low. “All of them so far, but none understand how severe it can be.”
She shoved passed him with a huff, her hand slapping down on the banister. Her right foot raised and as it came down the man behind her said one last thing: “Remember, I warned you.” Within an instant, her foot touched marble and a chill washed over her entire body. The feeling caused her to flinch and her eyes shut tight. Her body shook for a moment at the sudden change in temperature but when she opened her eyes she was sitting on a rickety porch in the middle of what she immediately recognized as a Mississippi summer. The heat was bad enough without the humidity and soon sweat streaked down her face. She looked down at her hands and feet to see she was no longer twenty-three but about the age of nine. Her eyes turned around to see her three younger siblings sitting on the porch crying.
Karen remembered this day, it did not take much to jog her memory. The children had been told to go outside when the police officer arrived. Someone had called child services and he had been sent to collect them. Her brothers and sisters had no idea but she was old enough to understand. All they knew was they were hungry. None of them had eaten since dinner the night before and that was only because Karen had taken the time to make macaroni and cheese. If their mother was not out sleeping with a random stranger then she was passed out in her bed from over-drinking or overdosing.
The clamber from the bedroom was familiar to Karen. Her mother was sleeping with the officer to keep him from taking the kids away. This scene was nothing new but it had become something she could not bare. Karen pulled open the door and the other children gasped, knowing that they were not allowed inside during the day. She stomped through the house, trying to ignore the moans and grunts from the door ahead. She shoved it open and screamed at the top of her lungs. All motion stopped in the room and the officer leapt from the bed, covering himself.
“I think it’s time for you to leave mister,” she yelled at the officer. “And it is about time you started acting like a mother!”
Cursing erupted from her mother’s mouth, slurred and broken from her current stupor, all while the officer was getting dressed and heading out the door. Karen’s anger grew as she approached the bed. Her hands gripped tight into a fist once she reached the woman who should have loved her.
“What you gonna do brat? You gonna hit me?” the belligerent woman mocked. “Go ahead, try it!”
With all the strength her tiny body could find, Karen forced her fist deep into the nose of her mother. A sickening crack was heard as the nose crumbled beneath the weight of Karen’s frustration and pain. Before she knew it she had struck her again and again. By the third hit, her mother was unconscious and bleeding. Karen left her mother in the room and walked to the kitchen toward the phone. She picked up the receiver and dialed the only number she knew for her aunt. When the loving voice answered, Karen, broke down in tears and begged for her to come to get them. That was when Karen woke from her nightmare, gripping the banister so tight her knuckles were white.
With wide eyes, Karen turned back toward the Gatekeeper. “What the hell was that?”
“I told you, this is what the Stairway does,” he responded as he stepped closer to her.
“Well, I want out.” She turned to leave the step she was on but was stopped by the Gatekeeper’s hand.
“I told you, once you start there is no going back.” His words were as cold as the world Karen had just visited. “If you stop, you die. If you turn back, you die. There is only one way out.” He pointed to the top of the stairs.
Karen’s eyes followed his finger, noticing that it seemed to go on forever but she could tell there was a landing at the top. Her knees suddenly felt weak and her body trembled uncontrollably. Again, she thought of how terrible her luck was. She had been so sure there were no tears left for her to shed but as the thought of death became real, a few more trickled down her cheek. The Gatekeeper’s cold hand patted the back of hers, a subtle means of consolation.
“I won’t say I told you so, just that I am sorry,” the figure said solemnly.
“Who are you? Why are you doing this? How long have you been doing this?” The questions came faster and faster as Karen began to hyperventilate.
“Calm down, you don’t want to pass out on that step,” the Gatekeeper reminded her.
“Answer me!” Karen screamed.
He shook his head and returned to his chair, “I am the Gatekeeper and I have been tasked - no, that’s not the right word...” he paused, tapping on his chin, “More like cursed. I was once human, like you, but now I am just here to guard the stairs and the ones who come looking for it. That is, until someone manages to reach the top.”
“I-I,” Karen’s lips quivered. “I don’t think I can.”
“It’s okay. Like I said, no one ever has,” he sighed. “But you can’t just stand there forever.”
Karen knew this, but she was afraid to go forward. Her mind began replaying some of her worst memories, knowing very well she had plenty for the Stairway of Chaos to pick from. She took a step forward finally and within a few moments she returned, vomit still spilling from her mouth between her sobs. She had remembered the day she tried to overdose on prescription medication, but this time she threw them up before they caused any damage. She still felt the sorrow of what lead her to do it though. Karen shook her head as if begging the stairs for mercy even though she now knew there would be none. Her foot rose again and took one more step, being wrapped in the cold again.
When the scene unfolded she was thirteen again, sitting on her uncle Preston’s couch, still clutching the beer he had insisted she drink. She felt nauseated and was sure she would empty her stomach at any moment. She could not forget this night and had been dreading reliving it since the beginning. Music blared from the stereo and her clothes still smelled of cigarettes. Her eyes turned toward the doorway to her left and her uncle was leaned against the door frame, sipping on his own beer. Karen’s hands began to shake violently, causing her to drop the can that had been resting between her fingers. The sound of the can hitting the floor made her jump as foamy liquid sprayed across the carpet.
Preston rushed for the kitchen, grabbing a towel to clean up the mess. Like always, Karen began apologizing profusely. He promised her it would be alright and suggested that it was late anyway, that they should get to bed. The sound of the word, “bed”, brought Karen back to what this memory was really about. Preston finished cleaning the mess before heading toward the bedroom. Just like before he suggested that Karen sleep in his bed, saying it would be more comfortable than the couch. Karen started shaking her head before she even formed words. She knew what would happen if she went in that room, she had lived it once and would not repeat it.
“N-no, thank you,” she stammered. “The couch is fine.”
“Don’t be silly,” Preston gave a sweet smile. “Come on, just take the bed.”
The original incident replayed in her head. She remembered the sweat, tears, groans, and most importantly the pain. Her body shook like a leaf in a hurricane and her stomach churned. The combination of the alcohol and her fear brought her dinner up her throat and out onto the floor. Preston cursed as he rushed to clean up yet another mess. Karen could tell he was growing angry with her but all she could think was that she needed to leave and quickly.
“I don’t feel so good,” she whimpered. “I want to go home.”
“Damnit,” Preston yelled as he rose from the floor, throwing the towel down. “I’m trying to show you a good time Karen, but you keep fucking it up.”
“I-I-I’m sorry..” Her words almost choked her as she started crying.
“Not yet you’re not,” he growled. “But you’re gonna be.”
And with that he snatched Karen by the hair, throwing her down on the couch face-down. His weight was on her immediately, one hand forcing her face into the cushion while the other pulled at her pants. Karen started crying and begged to be let go, but her words were muffled by the couch. It was not long before her lower body was rendered naked and Preston was fighting to undo his pants. He leaned down and tried to press his lips to her cheek but she turned her face as much as she could to stop it.
“Noooo..!” she screamed into the couch.
“Shut up, just bite the cushion because this is going to hurt,” he said as he attempted to enter her.
Karen knew what was next, she could already feel the memory of the pain. She had to do something or she would have to experience it all over again. Her hands scrambled to pull her body away from him but he was too strong. Her fingers traced the floor and the couch for any means of salvation. Her thoughts were frantic as she felt the pressure she had known would come. Her voice erupted in agony, but Preston’s house was in the middle of nowhere and she knew no one would hear her. She could feel him forcing his way deeper as her hand finally landed on something hard and metallic. She grasped the handle of what appeared to be a screwdriver and shoved it back as hard as she could.
Warm liquid sprayed across her knuckles, which she could only assume was Preston’s blood. He jerked backward away from the weapon while cursing at Karen. She kept hold of her tool, feeling it pull free from the wound she had made. When Preston had let enough of his weight off of her she jumped up from the couch. At that point, she finally noticed the hole in her uncle’s thigh, dyed a dark crimson. She did not give him a second to react, her body dove forward and sent the metal shaft plunging into his throat. Preston attempted to yell, but his voice was garbled behind the rising torrent of red. She stared into his widened eyes as he fell to the floor. When she returned to the Stairway, her hand was still coated with his blood and her pants were stained with hers. She grasped at her lower body and knelt upon the steps, her body still jerking in fear and pain. She lost her balance and began falling backward. The Gatekeeper rushed to catch her, the girl’s body landing in his arms instead of crashing to the floor.
“You poor girl,” he said while staring down at what remained of Karen Daniels.
“I-I-I’m sorry,” she said as the last of her life drained from her body.
The Gatekeeper brushed at his cheek, as if wiping away a tear, “You have nothing to be sorry for.”
Then, much like the others, her life became a small wisp of light and was consumed by the Gatekeeper. Her previous form became ash and what remained was the never-ending guardian of the Stairway of Chaos, residing in a shell of a young woman who had no intentions of being a party to this game. He returned to his chair, staring down at his only companion that was still fluttering within the bottle.
“This gets harder to endure the longer I do it,” he whispered to his friend.
Written by L0CKED334
Chapter Nine: Madness
Silence in the night was an uncommon thing for Viktor Szaleniec. Even when his fellow inmates wouldn’t scream, he would seldom enjoy the quiet. From a pure necessity, he grew used to the noise.
And yet, the howling of the wind was currently the most annoying sound he had ever heard, and that was saying a lot.
Still, the night was quite lovely, despite being lit by only a handful of stars. So colourful, and yet pristine. Almost like someone painted the heavenly ceiling with ink.
Only when the cold started setting in did Viktor regret that he forgot to bring a coat. But soon enough, those regrets dissipated from his mind: only a madman would think of something so trivial while trying to flee from a small army of armed guards who were given a “shoot to kill” order. Come to think of it, why kill him? Sure, it was a maximum security facility, and he did strangle Officer Jackson to steal his keys, but that wasn’t so bad. In comparison to some of the beasts held there, Viktor was as tame as a house cat.
Wind worsened. Viktor started getting under a distinct impression that his escape was poorly planned. What an immortal irony would be to escape from an electric chair only to perish from hypothermia a week earlier. Sounded like a bad joke. But then, morbid jokes couldn’t really be bad.
As a cherry on the top, it started snowing. Viktor swore loudly, perfectly aware that nobody would hear him.
Apparently, he may have been wrong.
Not too far from where he was, what appeared to be a large house hidden behind a copse of pines stood silent and unlit. It appeared decrepit and ruined. Still, it was better than nothing. Better than freezing to death like a street whore.
Climbing over the fence, Viktor took a moment to observe his surroundings. It looked like nobody lived there for years. Not that it would matter even if they did: he needed a place to lay low for the night, and he didn’t care if it belonged to someone.
Forcing the overly decorated doors apart, Viktor found himself staring at what looked like a lobby that lost a fight with a tornado. Plenty of furniture was there, and almost all of it was broken. Shards of a shattered television cast dim reflections of moonlight that was shining through a broken roof. The only things in the room that appeared somewhat untouched were the small wardrobe, a receptionist desk, and a small chair.
And the staircase.
Even in his foul mood, Viktor couldn’t help but admire the almost perfect beauty of the each and every step, completely straight, without even the slightest chip.
“Pretty thing, ain’t she?” A cold, lifeless voice spoke from the darkness, prompting Viktor to calmly turn to the direction from where it came.
“And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an Angel of the Light,” the voice continued. Its owner stepped out into the light: a ghastly pale woman that seemed no older than 30, her face mutilated by what appeared to be frostbite, her eyes unnaturally blue.
“You’re dead,” Viktor said matter-of-factly.
”And you look like you just escaped from an asylum,” retorted the spectre in an irritated voice. “I guess that makes both of us right.”
“Touché,” replied Viktor, his face cracking into a morbid smile. “You win the prize, lady.”
The spectre’s brow furrowed. “You don’t look particularly unnerved at the prospect of seeing a walking corpse before you.”
Viktor waved his hand carelessly. “I’ve seen my unfair share of corpses back in the day, although none of them was as pretty as you. Mostly by my own courtesy.”
“How many?” asked the ghoulish woman.
“Lost count, really,” replied Viktor in a relaxed tone. “It’s in the low fifties.”
“And if they didn’t catch you, would it go on?”
The woman stood still for a moment, as if she was contemplating his words.
“Why did you come here?” she asked.
“It was cold outside,” Viktor said, “and as you can imagine this gown is a very poor protection.”
“Fine,” groaned the woman, “you can stay until morning, but then you leave, and I don’t care if the snow goes all the way up to your elbows by then.”
“Oh come now lady, let’s not be rude,” cooed Viktor, extending his arm towards the woman. “Let’s get to know each other a bit better, shall we?”
“Move that hand a blink closer to me, and I will bite it off,” said the spectre coldly, its voice suddenly a lot deeper, sinister.
Viktor swiftly retracted his hand, caution taking the reins from his usual playful nature.
“You’re not a woman at all, aren’t you?” he asked.
“I am not,” the corpse replied.
“What is your name?” he asked.
“What name I once had has long since been forgotten. I am now the Gatekeeper,” replied the corpse. “And what is your name?”
“Viktor Szaleniec, at your service,” replied Viktor. He looked around himself, taking in the sights. “What is this place?” he finally asked.
“Ah, now we get to that!” laughed the Gatekeeper. “I was wondering when you’d ask that. You, my young friend, stand at the base of the Stairway of Chaos, the contraption most ancient and sinister.”
“What is this thing?” asked Viktor.
“Its history is not important,” replied the Gatekeeper. “What is important is what it does and how it does it. You see, each and every one of these steps is a memory of yours, a bad one, to be exact. And when you step on that step, you are forced to relieve it. Stay inside for too long or step back, and you lose. Find your way out, you can keep going. If you reach the top,” the Gatekeeper paused for a moment, his lips contorting into a grin,” you win the prize.”
“What kind of prize?” asked Viktor, his interest renewed.
“Technically speaking… all of them,” replied the Gatekeeper. “The jewel one can find at the top grants you godlike powers. There is nothing that you can wish that it cannot grant to you.”
“Now that’s something that’d be worth dying for,” he chuckled.
“And die you shall, if you try to climb,” said the Gatekeeper calmly.
“It hasn’t yet been decided,” said Viktor, taking a few steps towards the Stairway.
“Indeed it hasn’t. But the statistics aren’t exactly in your favour.”
Viktor didn’t answer. Instead, he stepped onto the first step.
The wave of cold that washed over him made him think fondly of the snow that was falling outside. Mist engulfed him, and when it cleared out, he beheld the scene from his childhood: his sister, laying in the pool of blood pouring from her open neck, still twitching, her eyes wide open in unspoken scream. And above her, a man in a ski mask, looking surprised, inconvenienced by Viktor’s sudden appearance.
“Hello, little boy!” he said friendly, his lips stretching into a friendly smile.
Some half-aware part of Viktor’s mind screamed. He should be horrified. He was horrified, back then when it happened.
Now, his aged mind only felt morbid curiosity.
Too late did the unnamed assailant notice Viktor’s small hand reaching for the poker that glowed red from the live embers in the fireplace. Oh, but he noticed it all too good when it struck his face, his eyebrow smoking and contorting like plastic, his eye boiling. A shrill scream that broke out of the dying man’s throat was abruptly broken when Viktor felt the same cold and mist engulfing him again. Moments later, his vision cleared: he was back on the staircase.
Barely audible whistle, followed by deep, somewhat squishy clapping drew his attention. The Gatekeeper stood about a dozen steps above him, slowly applauding him.
“Well that’s a new one,” he spoke. “Never before did I see someone getting out of their memory in...” the corpse briefly paused, consulting the wristwatch on his hand, “twenty three seconds.”
“Am I that good?” asked Viktor sardonically.
“That is not the thing that worries me, little Vicky,” retorted the Gatekeeper, seemingly amused by the pet name he just bestowed to Viktor. Viktor, however, saw the brows of the corpse furrowing.
“Never call me Vicky again, carcass.” Viktor’s voice was cold and emotionless. “I hate it.”
The Gatekeeper theatrically bowed, as if apologizing, gesticulating to the next step. With a loud snort and one last contemptuous look, Viktor stepped on the next step.
After the almost comforting cold, Viktor once again found himself in his young body, standing at the bridge looming over the river he recognized as Vltava. His visit to grandmother in Prague when he was ten, he remembered.
A sharp scream and a loud splash broke the silence. Reflexively, Viktor’s head snapped towards the source of the sound, even though he knew what he would see: a young girl, fifteen at most, tried to show off, climbed the rail of the bridge, slipped on pigeon droppings, and was now drowning in the murky water beneath him.
As a child, panic overtook Viktor. All he could do was scream as the girl beneath him tried to fight the violent current.
But now, he knew better. He knew that the current had her the moment she fell into the river. Nobody could help her now.
And it was none of his concerns anyway.
Without so much as a whisper, Viktor turned on his heel and started walking towards Prague Castle, deaf to the cacophony of voices around him.
A blink later, he was back on the stairs. The Gatekeeper was now even further above, sitting in the lotus position. He was completely motionless, but his eyes observed Viktor with caution that could almost be mistaken for fear. Viktor found the strange colour of the creature’s eyes strangely comforting. They reminded him of sky.
His face contorting into a sick smile, Viktor took another step.
Not ten minutes later, Viktor climbed almost to the top. Only one single step was between him and his prize.
“I’ve seen people climb almost to the top through sheer tenacity, but I never saw anyone do so without breaking a drop of sweat.” Annoyed, Viktor turned left, finding the Gatekeeper leaning on the railing of the stairway.
“Well, maybe I truly am special,” responded Viktor in a playful voice. “And besides, a future God of mankind should be able to go through a bit of bad reminiscing, don’t you think?”
“Bad reminiscing?” The Gatekeeper seemed insulted at the comparison. “You’ve just been through the worse memories of your life, and you call that ‘bad reminiscing?’”
Viktor only shrugged, before taking the next step. He could now see the dim green glow that emanated from the gemstone. It was almost in his reach.
The memory was supposed to be bad. A truck ramming into the building and exploding, taking at least fifty people with it would leave a scar on anyone. Viktor, however, didn’t care back then, and he cared less now. He just wanted to get this all over with and walk away with his prize. He wondered why his mind even considered it bad: it really wasn’t that big of a deal.
When he came by, he realized just what he accomplished. He was the first ever to climb these stairs. He was the winner. The power of gods was in his reach. But wait: where did the green light go to?
Not three feet from Viktor, the Gatekeeper stood, midway between him and the jewel. What was left of his muscles tensed, and his face was now frowned.
“What is the meaning of this!?” screamed Viktor. “Stand aside!”
“You shall not pass,” responded the Gatekeeper, his voice strong, but barely louder than a whisper. For some reason, Viktor felt the hairs on the back of his neck standing up. But he angrily dismissed that feeling.
“Piss of, Gandalf!” he hollered. “I won fair and square. Now get out of my damn way!”
“I’ll be damned before I let one like you take the Master’s power!” The Gatekeeper’s voice grew louder. “I’d be trading fire for flames. If you want to get to it, you’ll have to get past me.”
Viktor was now at the end of his nerves. Like he cared about this Master thing or whatever. Right now, he only cared about the power, and right now, this churl was blocking his path to it.
“Stand back or I will kill you and take it anyways,” Viktor threatened.
The Gatekeeper burst into joyless laughter.
“Oh I’d love to see you t-!”
He never finished. Viktor retrieved the keys that still hung on the string around his waist and jabbed one of them into the creature’s neck. The Gatekeeper’s eyes widened in shock as he stumbled aside, clawing at his neck trying to pull out the metal stuck in his windpipe.
Pushing the dead man aside, Viktor took a step forward to the once again visible light. The power was within his reach, this time for real.
A sharp burst of pain burned through his right shoulder, forcing a scream from his throat. It was as if four burning stakes were launched in his flesh with the force of a bullet.
A sound of strained breathing came from his side, prompting Viktor to face that way.
“You know,” a raspy voice declared, “being dead has the unexpected benefit of nothing being able to kill you anymore.”
Viktor couldn’t believe his eyes and ears: the Gatekeeper stood there, keys dangling from his neck like a bizarre chime, the fingers of his left hand embedded into the flesh of Viktor’s shoulder which they now held in an iron grasp.
No! That couldn’t be! A wound like that would kill anything almost instantly! Viktor knew it all too well, as that was his preferred method of killing. So why wasn’t this thing dead!?
“You know,” started the Gatekeeper, “I was truly concerned about letting a madman rule the world. But I see clearly now: you are a monster, a murderer, a cruel bastard with absolutely no regard for the human life. But beneath that all you’re just a petulant child that cares not for the consequences. You have no idea what true madness is. But I’ll instruct you on both in an instant.”
The Gatekeeper’s free hand reached towards the keys, pulling them out with no apparent effort or pain. The key that was stuck in his throat was now coated in blood as dense as tar. The Gatekeeper licked the blood off the key before discarding them.
“Let the games begin, Vicky,” spoke the Gatekeeper seductively. His grasp on Viktor’s shoulder tightened, awarding him with another scream. And that one moment was all that he needed to spit the viscous blood into Viktor’s open mouth.
In a split second, Viktor was rushed by the wave of visions so intense, he barely registered the nails retracting from his shoulder. There were so many, they came so quickly, so violently.
“Thousands that came after me,” the Gatekeeper’s voice echoed, “and thousands before you. Let’s see how long you can last.”
Viktor wildly flailed his hands, trying in vain to ward off the visions. But they just kept coming.
...a young woman dressed in torn rags, whimpering silently, trying to crawl away from the group of men, only to be grabbed by the leg and dragged back, her own screams mixing with those from the burning city and the laughing and roaring of her tormentors…
...a man tied to the pole, frantically praying to God as the wood at his feet was doused in oil, and, at the encouragement of the howling, bloodthirsty mob, lit on fire…
...barking, so much barking, bites, pain…
Viktor stumbled back, trying to escape the tide of memories that threatened to consume him. But they just kept coming.
...a man dressed in brown uniform reading names from the list in booming German…
...thousands of men, women, and children, impaled to the whole forest of stakes, some twitching, some still moaning weakly…
...burning sand, burning sun, gunfire, screams…
...flaming sky, torched land, ashes, roaring of the Vesuvius…
...stairs, endless stairs…
…disjointed images, darkness, images again…
…a young Japanese girl with pink hair falling lifelessly on her back…
...dark, moist, cold cell, splashing of the waves, and singing from a cell next door…
...basement, chains, pain in abdomen, sound of doors unlocking…
...blinding light, molten world, pain beyond comprehension, then nothing…
Viktor’s last step took him a bit too far, and he stumbled into the abyss, falling down the stairs in an almost cartoonish manner. The pain in his body was nothing when compared to the burning in his brain, courtesy of his mind trying to take in thousands of years worth of memories. Finally, his abrupt descent was over. But the infinite tide of memories wouldn’t relent.
Through the orange limbo of pain, Viktor saw the face of the Gatekeeper looming over him. But his eyes were no longer comforting. They now represented fear, insanity, the last thing he saw before each and every one of his thousand deaths. Dry, cold fingers reached down his throat, and he felt himself leaving his body. But the visions just kept coming.
As the body of Karen Daniel crumbled to dust, the body of Viktor Szaleniec stood up, its arms hanging miserably from their shoulders.
“Well damn,” the Gatekeeper spoke. “Looks like the fall broke both of your arms. And I’d guess a few ribs.” He sighed. “No way around it, I guess.”
The Gatekeeper took a few steps up the Stairway. He knew what he had to do, but it didn’t make him a slightest but happier about it. In his fractured state, it took him almost a minute to climb all the way up, despite skipping steps.
And there it was, still as beautiful as the first day he saw it. A large emerald, shaped like a star with four points. The dim green glow that it gave off despite no obvious source of light could almost be heard.
“...for even Satan disguises himself as an Angel of the Light,” he whispered, forcing his arm up.
In the moment his finger touched the emerald, he was engulfed by the flood of burning pain. He could feel the bones in his new vessel being forced into place, the flesh around them torn only to be repaired moments later. He would welcome anything over his usually dull existence, but this pain was too much. It wasn’t just tormenting his body, but his soul as well.
As swift as it began, it was over. Drawing a deep breath, the Gatekeeper examined the tip of his finger: it was marked with a black spot in the place where his skin touched the emerald. That mark would remain on the body until it turned to dust.
“Never again,” he declared. But even as he said those words, he knew he was lying to himself. He had an eternity ahead of him, and sooner or later, he would need to repair his vessel again. He briefly pondered on Viktor, and how he could have freed him if he obtained the Master’s power. Was the future of mankind really more important than his escape from the limbo of the undeath?
He chuckled. “I guess I’m getting soft in the old age.”
Graciously, he slid down the railing of the Stairway, his feet hitting the doubtlessly cold floor. He wondered how much has it been since he was barefoot.
On the floor, next to the ashes of the Gatekeeper’s previous vessel, the soul of Viktor Szaleniec pulsed and swelled, trying to escape while simultaneously battling the flood of memories. Smiling, the Gatekeeper scooped up the struggling wisp, walked to the wardrobe, and in a minute, the soul was sealed in one of the glass jars. Who knew that having this many jars would one day be useful to him.
“I know you can hear me, little Vicky,” said the Gatekeeper, bringing the jar closer to his face. “I also know that I now sound absolutely eldritch to you, and let me tell you, I am positively throbbing at the prospect of torturing you.
“You died before all our memories could pour into you. But regardless, you got a decent chunk of them. It will take you dozens of lifetimes before you manage to catch the reins on that chariot. And if you’re not a drooling mess after that… congratulations.
“And don’t you worry: I’ll make sure nobody disturbs you in a long, long time.”
The tiny light started pulsing harder, trying to fight its way out of jar. But it was all for naught, for a soul has no strength of its own.
With no apparent effort, the Gatekeeper tore off one of the rotting floorboards, placed the jar in the crawlspace, and replaced the floorboard just as the light started to get blinding.
“Until then, little Vicky,” said the Gatekeeper dramatically.
Walking back to his desk, the Gatekeeper moaned in pleasure as he collapsed into the chair. The silence around him was deafening, but now, he had a way of dealing with it.
“How’re you doing tonight, Yuki?” asked the Gatekeeper endearingly as he placed the jar on the table. In response, the tiny wisp inside briefly flashed.
“Good, eh?” said the Gatekeeper. “As good as when you and that guy Michael went behind the school and...”
The light started glowing more intensely, until it reached the luminosity of an arc welder.
“Sorry, sorry!” cried the Gatekeeper, trying not to chuckle as the light slowly died down. “I know it was private, but I also know all you know. I was in you, remember?”
The tiny wisp inside briefly flashed once more.
“Hmmm… you got a point there,” said the Gatekeeper, stroking his chin. “I know all there is to know about you, but you don’t really know anything about me. Well, except that which I told you.”
The Gatekeeper briefly paused.
“Are you sure you’d like to hear more? It only gets worse as we go.”
In response, the light became more warm.
“True, true: you can handle it. Well, take a seat... or… something.” The Gatekeeper crossed his legs in the chair, sitting in the lotus pose once again.
Written by Helel ben Shahaar
Chapter Ten: Rogue
“You’re just going to have to trust me on this one, Naldo.”
“Yes. Yes. I know it’s been rough for you these past weeks, but I cannot thank you enough for the work you’ve done. The tip paid off.”
“Hopefully this won’t take long.”
A faint light bloomed into view as the flint struck its target. In one fluid, effortless motion, a smooth, well-toned hand raised the flame to a fresh Sobranie cigarette, nestled neatly in the corner of a dark-skinned, full-lipped mouth. As the flare danced in the gentle breeze, another hand, concealed beneath a gold-plated Rolex and a black leather driving glove, rose to cradle it. However, this one exhibited a visible unsteadiness not apparent in the first, quivering ever so slightly as it met the frosty spring air, as a sailboat floats across the waves.
The rolled tip ignited, and the mouth drew in a deep breath. Across the round lenses of a spotless pair of Aviators, the faint glow of the kindled tobacco refracted hypnotically, like the simultaneous shine of two distant stars blooming in the night sky.
The ungloved hand loosened as it pulled away from the mouth, exposing a tiny glimmer inside its grasp-- a lighter. Underneath its lid, the flame still twinkled, revealing a polished, silver-plated surface, untarnished for the most part, but just beginning to wear along the edges, where constant usage had begun to take its toll. As the light diminished and the hand moved towards the pocket of the tan suit jacket, one detail could be made out for a sliver of a second- the letter E, engraved in the body of the lighter, carved so that the serifs spiraled off it like a fig vine bursts forth from the bark.
Ezra Bianchi leaned against the slanted roof of his cherry-red ‘84 Hofstetter Turbo and exhaled a sigh of satisfaction, watching as the smoke billowed upwards into the darkness. Lowering his cigarette, he turned to the swooping windshield and gazed at his pristine reflection. It was incredible how good he looked, even after all these years. Though the pop-up headlights had long ago gone dim, they were still enough to faintly illuminate his lightly burnished complexion, wonderfully sculpted jawline, and slick, jet-black pompadour. With his gloved hand, he reached upwards and shakily ran his fingers through his hair. Just as drop-dead handsome as always.
Suddenly, his eyes focused on his duffel bag inside, resting on the passenger seat. Quickly, he broke his gaze and stood up sharply.
“God damn it,” he muttered to himself, restoring the cigarette to its position in the corner of his mouth. “Might as well get this over with.”
Strolling over to the passenger’s side, he reached into his suit jacket and removed his keys, unlocking the gullwing door and hoisting it open. As he grabbed the duffel bag, he paused, admiring how clean the interior of the car had been kept. It wasn’t often Ezra was able to drive his sweetheart, but on those rare, special occasions, resting his feet on that beautifully crafted gas pedal and delicately shifting that polished gear knob made him feel so wonderfully young again.
He slammed the gullwing into place and turned his attention to the building that stood before him.
On the outside, for the most part, it appeared just as he remembered it-- a large, two-story brick structure, with no external markings save for the squat neon sign on the door that blinked, BOATE. Nightclub.
Taking one final smoke of his Sobranie, he plucked it from his lips with his ungloved hand and flicked it to the ground. He hoisted the bag over his shoulder, about to begin the short hike to the doors, but then stopped as his view fell upon the shriveled butt, still smoldering despite the chilly air.
The dying embers briefly transfixed his gaze. He watched, mesmerized, as they steadily crumbled away into the arid soil.
It was a sight Ezra had seen many times before, and ignored. Here, though, for some reason, the sight of the end being left to wither away made him deeply uncomfortable, and for once, he felt a pang of guilt at refusing to dirty the toes of his two-hundred-dollar Tafts.
Raising his head, he snapped back to reality. He lifted his sunglasses to his forehead, strode straight forward, and forced open the ancient doors.
The inside was the typical sleazy, run-down affair, dimly lit and populated with grease stains and torn furniture. To one side was a stage, with a lone microphone illuminated in the center by a spotlight concealed above. It had clearly been a long time since the most recent show- dusty chairs were stacked haphazardly on top of rows of unused tables, crusted with decades of crumbs and drink spills. To the other side was a small bar, stocked with a few bottles of off-brand beer and laden with upturned stools. In front of the counter, two lone stools were positioned next to each other, a glass before each as though waiting for a customer to drop by.
Ezra scanned the interior, pitying the woeful state of this long-lost club. As he glazed over the details of the place, his eyes finally met the sight of the area that had been right in front of him, lit brilliantly amid its dismal surroundings.
“Hello there, young man,” a voice piped up from behind the bar. “Welcome to the Stairway of Cha--”
“Thanks, cara, but I’m in a rush,” Ezra snapped, letting his bag slide off his shoulder.
The Gatekeeper’s jaw ran slack in stupefaction.
“Excuse me? Do you even know who I am? I am the Gatekeeper, and you’re trespassing in MY do--”
“Yeah, yeah, this is the gateway to an artifact that can grant wishes, and you’re here to guard it-- I get it, cara,” Ezra sighed, unzipping the duffel. “At least spare me the exposition until I’m done setting up the equipment.”
The corpse looked dumbfounded. “I can’t believe this. Two years I’ve had to wait, and what do I get? Another cocky rich prick. And what the hell do you mean by ‘equipment?!’ I’m not going to tolerate any more insolence from you!” Coming out from behind the counter, he held out his hand with his palm facing the man.
“With this hand I have taken the souls of thousands upon thousands of smartass brats like you. You are in the presence of the guardian of Chaos. Show some respect for your elders, or I will do the same to you without so much as batting an eyelid.”
Ezra smiled, standing up with his hands in the air. “Hey, sorry. Listen, I’m not trying to show any disrespect, cara. I’m just in a little bit of a hurry to get this done. Busy schedule.”
“Busy schedule? Busy schedule? What do you equate this with?! This is a legendary test of endurance that only the strongest of mind and body can win, with a reward so great it can change fate itself!” The Gatekeeper approached the man. “I’ve had enough. Tell me who you are, what all this ‘equipment’ is, and why you feel you have the right to dismiss this relic as such a triviality!”
The man sighed. “My name is Ezra Bianchi. I’m a businessman from California, and I’ve come all the way here to prove that this challenge isn’t nearly as hard as you just made it out to be.”
“You think you can reach the top just like that?” the corpse scoffed. “The hubris of you people never ceases to amaze me. How exactly do you plan to do that?”
“With this,” said Ezra, pulling on his assembled harness. “Climbing gear. I don’t know about the others who came here, but I like to think outside the box. The person that told me about this place described it perfectly. You see these walls here?” he gestured to the side of the staircase. “They’re perfect for aid climbing. Think about it-- nobody said you had to use the steps. It’s just as much of a physical challenge, but nowhere near as much of a mental one.”
The Gatekeeper lowered his arm and processed the man’s seemingly insane plan. “You wish to cheat.”
“Won’t be the first time.” He chuckled. “I’m a player. Cheating is what I do.” He held up the keys to his Hofstetter.
“There’s a red Cortada outside. Only eighteen in the world. I ripped off a hundred grand from the owner for it.” He unrolled the sleeves of his suit with his ungloved hand. “I won this Rolex in a poker game with marked cards.” He stood up and moved his hands in circles around his body. “I cheated to get this suit. I cheated to get these shoes. I’m a cheater and I cheated to get this life. And you know what?” He bent down and gathered the rest of his gear. “Nobody could care less.
“This stuff happens all the time, but only the ones that have done it their whole lives get away with it. Where I grew up, the only way to survive was to cheat.” Ezra knotted the rope around the edge of the bar. “It took a lot of effort and experience to learn to do it well. I’m not saying what I do is right. But, in my opinion, that effort makes us cheaters just as deserving of the reward as if we won it fair and square.”
The Gatekeeper stared intently at the man, whom had just finished fastening the rope. “You really have some gall, Ezra Bianchi,” he spoke in a low, but notably less condescending voice. “Certainly, nobody has attempted this before. As much as I loathe your audacity, however, I must admit I am impressed by it.
“It is true that there is no established rule set for the Stairway. After all, that is its namesake. But, I can tell you this: For that very reason, the Stairway is unpredictable. It is alive. There is no telling if simply scaling the wall above the first step will trigger the first memory.”
“If it happens, I’m prepared.” He smiled confidently. “But I have a feeling it won’t.”
The Gatekeeper folded his rotting arms, and a smirk appeared on what was left of his twisted face. “You have piqued my curiosity, Mr. Bianchi. Proceed.”
“That’s the spirit, cara,” Ezra grinned. He walked to the edge of the Stairway, feeding the rope though his fingers. As he came to the first step, he uncoupled a small mallet from his harness, selected an aider from his bag, and began hammering it into the wall at waist height.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
With each hit, the carcass felt a chill against the dead skin on the back of his neck. Ordinarily, he would have been obligated to punish someone who would so willfully desecrate the Stairway. The man was contemptible, there was no doubt about that. But something about the sincerity of how he delivered his justification put him at ease. Perhaps that was part of the con - using honesty to lower the target’s guard.
There was only one way to find out for sure.
Ezra slotted his mallet into his harness and cracked his knuckles.
“Moment of truth,” he exclaimed. The Gatekeeper watched intently as he brushed his Tafts with his fingertips and raised his knee steadily to raise over the step.
There was a moment of involuntary hesitation in Ezra as his leg hovered above the precipice of the unknown. With his gloved hand, he gripped the wall tightly, feeling the ancient grooves for purchase. As his fingers ran across the rough surface, they quaked as though a magnetic repulsion existed between them and the fabric of the building.
Carefully, he lowered his shoe onto the foothold and hoisted himself up.
There was stillness for a brief moment as the sound of rubber sole hitting metal reverberated across the empty nightclub.
Ezra turned to face the stunned corpse and smiled.
“What did I tell you, cara?”
The Gatekeeper remained silent, secretly hoping for the Stairway to deliver some well-timed retribution in response to this blatant arrogance.
Even when the seconds passed and none came, he couldn’t help but smile at the event that was taking place before him.
“You know, Ezra,” the corpse began, “after so many years of people climbing the Stairway, and seeing you barge in here without so much as a hello, I thought you would be another disappointment. Another step in the endless staircase. But you’ve shown me something I never thought I would see again in this perpetual existence.”
Ezra, who had just begun hammering in the second aider, turned to see the Gatekeeper walking to the bar and removing one of the bottles from the shelf. A flaky hand tipped the vessel into one of the two glasses.
He lifted it in the air, poured the contents into his decomposing maw, and swallowed in satisfaction.
“This,” he grinned, “is something new.”
“Is that stuff real?”
Ezra, who had just finished inserting the seventeenth foothold, was pointing at the glass of liquor grasped within the Gatekeeper’s decomposing hand.
“It’s as real as you want it to be,” he stated, taking a deep swig.
“I wouldn’t think you the type to drink, cara,” he remarked.
“Hell, I wouldn’t either,” he replied. “I don’t know exactly why, but I feel like indulging. Maybe it’s because we’re diving into unknown territory here.”
“Climbing, in this case,” Ezra smirked. “How do you know how many steps there are?”
“Well, the number varies for each ascendant,” the Gatekeeper explained. “Depends on just how many bad memories you have. For some, it’s hundreds. For others, it’s thousands. Doesn’t seem to matter, though, because, as you’ve probably heard through whatever source you used, most people barely make it past the first five.”
“Does the severity increase as you go up? Say, if I were to climb down here...” He pointed at the step below him. “Would that mean I get a really bad one?”
“That I’m not sure about. There’s no specific order to the way memories are displayed-- it is the Stairway of Chaos, after all-- but since we’re skipping quite a few, I suppose the rules are out the window. You could be bombarded by the sum of all the skipped stairs all at once, or maybe it could act as if that was your first step. There’s no way to tell.”
“Good to know,” Ezra said, rolling his eyes.
“I’m still surprised as to how confident you are, Mister Bianchi,” the Gatekeeper commented. “Most people tend to be a bit more cautious when willingly putting their lives on the line. And yet, here you are, plunging forward like this is just your typical low-stakes card game.”
“Isn’t it?” Ezra asserted. “What’s the difference between this and poker? Regardless of skill and endurance, whether you win or lose is always down to random chance. You can learn probability all you like, but in the end it’s always fifty-fifty. You said it yourself- it’s chaos in action. Life is chaos. But if you learn to see past that and accept you can’t predict it, you can take that fifty-fifty and add in something of your own.” He held up his hook for emphasis and grinned. “Life’s the greatest game there is, cara. You just gotta know how to bend the rules in your favor.”
The Gatekeeper folded his arms. “That is the single most ignorant and foolish thing anyone has said to me in all my years.”
Ezra waved his hand. “And yet here we are, cheating at your own game.”
The corpse nodded. “Indeed. And I’m disgusted by how well it’s working, to say the least. But I do still want to see how this ends. Assuming you weren’t some harbinger of death and misfortune for wherever you went, I’d say there can’t be much further to go.”
“Hey, and you promise to still let me take the prize if I get there, right?” the man questioned.
A sigh escaped the shriveled lips of the Gatekeeper as he downed the last of his beverage. “You know, the last person who came here asked me the same thing. An utterly contemptible man. He did make it, too.” He knelt down and placed the empty glass on the step below him.
Ezra paused, raising an eyebrow beneath his Aviators.
“Let’s just say we’ll see how it goes,” the cadaver smiled.
Hours passed as the rope gradually wove around the edge of the Stairway. Ezra hammered hook after hook into the ancient tower walls, taking care to keep hold of his tools and himself.
At the seventy-eighth foothold, he stopped.
“Hey, cara, can you check how much further it is?” he said, beads of sweat beginning to form on his forehead.
“Sorry, but I’m obligated to refuse,” the Gatekeeper replied. “It’s the job of the card player to decide when the game ends.”
“Touché,” Ezra uttered, exhaling heavily. As he reached for his next hook, a glint in the corner of his eye caught his attention.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me.”
An empty drinks glass stood perched on the step below the corpse’s feet.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” the Gatekeeper mused, bending down to observe the anomaly.
“You definitely left that thing at least fifty floors down, right?” Ezra said, bewildered.
“Yes. I’m positive.” A thin smile appeared on his rotten lips.
“No. There’s no way.” Ezra dismounted from his position and began shuffling down the rope, with the Gatekeeper in tow. His muscles were beginning to strain, clinging to the aids as he descended rapidly.
Finally, after several minutes, his fears were confirmed as he saw below him the same, neatly decorated glass in the exact same position.
“It’s looping,” Ezra stated.
“You really do have some new tricks up your sleeve, you old thing,” the corpse laughed to himself, stroking the stone step lovingly.
“No. It can’t just keep repeating. Cara, stay here.” Ezra shuffled further down his guide rope, soon leaving the glass far behind.
No. I should have been able to see the ground floor by this point, he thought.
Down and down the man spiraled, his arms and legs pushing their strength to the limit.
It wasn’t ending. It just wasn’t ending.
And then, just as Ezra was about to turn back, he rounded the turn to find the corpse, sitting where he’d left him.
“Merda.” The realization hit him like a truck.
“Looks like you’re not the only one who knows how to cheat,” the corpse chuckled. “The Stairway is alive. If what you say is true, then this is Chaos fighting back.”
The pain in Ezra’s joints was searing. He wanted to continue further. Surely, there was a way past.
He swung his gloved hand to meet the next aid and gripped as tightly as he could. Leather ground against bare skin, and his teeth gritted as the agony welled up to its maximum.
There had to be some strength left in him.
There had to.
Ezra felt his fingers loosen from the rope.
The world around him began spinning. As the air swirled about him, he watched as the intricate pattern of the Stairway morphed into a violent blur.
The whirling vortex intensified. As the man lost himself in his fall, the tourbillion of sensations amalgamated into a delicate grey whorl, one of an infinite amount on one of the infinite slate steps of Chaos.
Anywhere but there.
“Hey kid, voce pode me ouvir? Can you hear me?”
Ezra looked up. A crude, hairy digit, adorned with two crystal rings, struck the wheel of the spotless silver lighter, igniting its fluid and setting the end of a large cigar alight.
“Fuckin’ finally! Do you speak English?” The man lowered the lighter into his right pocket, then turned to his two suited colleagues and shook his head in frustration. A thick, hair-coated arm reached down and pointed at the wooden counter in front of the boy.
“I said give me that shit right now. De isso.”
Tall and muscular, the one speaking was clearly in charge. He had a massive, unkempt mustache that contained traces of crumbs from his breakfast, and he wore a pink, velvety coat that reeked of excessive cologne and tobacco.
Ezra tilted his head, confused.
“What do you mean?”
The man threw his arms up in annoyance.
“Ah, the boy speaks at last. Still don’t know if he hears, though. Did I stutter?” He leaned over onto the stand. “I said: Give that watch to me. Now.”
Before Ezra lay his catch for the day- an expensive-looking, platinum-colored watch, recently polished clean by a bucket of windshield washer he’d borrowed from his father.
“It’s a hundred reais, sir,” he stated, shining an innocent smile.
The men chuckled in unison.
“Oh, yes, here!” He feigned pulling money out of his pocket. “Even though I keep this entire district in order for you people, yes, I’ll fork over cem for this item you no doubt stole off of one of my affiliates.” His strained expression turned into a vicious frown. “No. You’re going to give me it so that you don’t one day wake up to find old Papa Bianchi with a broken leg and a few missing teeth, right?” He bent over so that his face was mere inches away from Ezra’s, so that the cigar smoke caused his eyes to water.
Behind the men, a small, barefooted boy appeared from behind the nightclub dumpster. His short, brownish hair was messily dashed to the side, and his hazel eyes shined in the neon glow of the sign on the wall.
Ezra briefly glanced at the boy, then back at the man that towered above him.
“I know your father fucked up my Opala when he took it in last week. I also know he hasn’t paid me for last month’s ‘insurance’. So you’d best be handing that over to me before something… out of our control happens in the near future.”
Ezra subtly raised his right index finger, out of view of his customers.
“Senhor Emilio, we refilled your transmission fluid when we got it. You probably hit a rock or bump that caused it to spill out onto the battery.”
The boy tiptoed across the rough cobbles, stopping just behind the suited man on the left.
“Stop with the besteira, kid!” Emilio spat. “It was fine until your Papa got his filthy hands on it. I bet you fucking helped, too!”
Stealthily, the boy snaked his arm between the men until he felt the soft lining of the pink coat. With a steady motion, he lowered his hand into its pocket, felt the cold smoothness of the lighter, and slid it out. Unraveling himself, he crouched down and silently slunk back towards the dumpster.
“I’m not going to argue any longer. You have five seconds to make your decision, Bianchi.”
As the boy returned to his hiding place, he looked at Ezra and shyly held out a thumbs-up.
“Fine, fine! You win. Take it. Just leave Papa alone.” Ezra solemnly removed the watch and handed it to the man, who snatched it with a bitter scowl.
“Estava na hora. Cristo.” He curled his prize around his wrist and motioned for his men to leave, but not before giving one last leer to Ezra. “You remember your place, kid,” Emilio seethed through his cigar. “Don’t try anything like that again. You got off easy this time.” The taps of their dress shoes echoed across the narrow street as they faded into the night.
“All clear, cara,” Ezra whispered.
The boy sneaked out to the wooden stand, holding the lighter delicately in his hands.
“Did I do good?” he asked.
“You did great, Paulo,” Ezra smiled, picking them up. “You’ve really learned a lot since last week. No doubt you’ll make a fine swindler.” He held the engraved lighter up to the neon light, examining it intently. “Not a spot on it! This thing will be worth thousands.” He ran his finger over the engraved E on its face. “Hey, E for Ezra! I might keep this.”
“Why did we have to steal it, though?” Paulo asked apprehensively. “As soon as he finds out--”
“Paulo.” Ezra placed his bony arm on the boy’s tiny shoulder. “Remember what I told you when I took you in.”
His green eyes turned to meet the moonlit sky.
“In this world, there are people who do things the way they were meant to. They make their lives through work and effort using their skills. They marry and have children. They buy food and shelter and think they are happy.
“But there are always those who see the rules and strive to bend them to their will. They take advantage of the ones with ethic, and they succeed. They lie, cheat, and steal their way to the top, where nobody can touch them, and there they stay.”
“But if we steal from those who steal, or cheat against those who cheat, aren’t we the same?” Paulo questioned.
Ezra chuckled. “It all depends on why you do it. Emilio does it for himself. He’s a greedy bastard who only wants sex and money. But you and I, we cheat for others. We lie and steal for people like my father, who realized the way the world works too late to change their path. If you compare the different garages across Rio with ours, our work and skills are the same, but how and why we put them to use makes all the difference.
“We’re better than him.”
He ran his hand playfully through his friend’s brown hair.
“Paulo, cheating isn’t just a part of life. It’s the only way to truly live-- the ultimate skill. Life is the greatest game, and like any game, it can be cheated. I’m not saying it’s right. But the effort we put in surely makes us just as deserving of the reward, doesn’t it?”
Paulo nodded in acknowledgement.
He turned and gazed in the direction the men had left, now with an expression of utter contempt on his face.
“Fuck people like Emilio, cara,” he hissed. “They don’t deserve things like this.” He handed the lighter back to his friend. “He probably won’t even notice it’s gone. Hell, he didn’t even notice the watch was fake.”
“What if he finds out?”
Ezra sighed, brushing his beautiful blond hair. “Well, Papa and I won’t have to worry about that anymore. We’ve been talking about it, and I reckon that thing alone will give us enough to move out of Rio. Maybe even to America. Away from all this.” He turned and smiled once again at the trepidatious Paulo. “You too. After all, you’re the one who did all the work.”
The boy lowered his head bashfully. He held out his hand with the lighter once more.
“You should hold onto it until I find a buyer. Again, it’s your steal.”
Paulo beamed. “Let’s sneak in for some drinks, to celebrate!” he suggested.
“Sorry, cara, but I promised my father I’d help him in the garage tonight. Hey, why don’t you come by later? We’ve got a Cortada in there now.”
He lifted his head. “No way!”
“Yeah, cara. It’s wicked! See you tomorrow.” Ezra waved and rushed off into the night, his worn sneakers resounding against the alleyway.
Tap, tap, tap.
Paulo scaled the incline, panting heavily as his bare feet slapped against the damp, poorly-paved pavement. The moon was high in the sky, slightly illuminating a series of tiny puddles and moist ground underfoot. On the rooftops, two stray cats were caterwauling, and from somewhere at the bottom of the hill, another joined in.
Tap, tap, tap.
No way he has a Cortada in there, he thought, nearing the Bianchis’ block. Ever since he had seen it on the catalogue in the store window, he’d loved it.
As he rounded the corner, he noticed a light coming from the direction of the garage, just blocked by one of the adjacent buildings.
Tap, tap tap.
Paulo was becoming exhausted. The walk to the nightclub was a lot easier going down, he thought. Still, he only had a short distance to go. He could almost see the light coming from the Bianchis’.
But something was off about the light. It seemed to pulse and stretch as he approached.
Paulo stopped abruptly and let his arms fall to his sides.
The garage was ablaze. Flames streamed from every crack in the door, licking at the wood and instantly blackening every surface they touched. Glass scattered the floor as the windows lay shattered from the force of the fire.
Next to the building, just peeking out from the shadows, was a large red gasoline can, rolling from side to side as the heat bounced off it.
Among the deafening crackle of the inferno, Paulo could barely make out a distinct sound.
Two loud bangs erupted from the inside of the garage door.
“HE.. HELP... US.”
Paulo staggered to the garage door with a surge of adrenaline and gripped the handle with one hand.
There was a shriek as pain seared throughout Paulo’s body. As he raised his other arm to shield from the heat, he tugged at the hand in desperation, but his muscles refused to uncurl, even as he watched his skin blister and peel.
With one final jerk, he tore the appendage from the metal, crying out as his palm flesh detached and stuck to the surface.
Letting his mangled hand dangle, he collapsed onto his knees and let the warm tears flow over his face. As he tried to cry for help, he choked on the billowing smoke that was now filling the night air.
“HE… HELP… Help…”
He wanted so badly to move, towards the garage or away from it, but remained paralyzed, unable to comprehend the chaos that was unfolding before him.
“Ezra, I… I… I’m…”
Struggling to find words, he found himself involuntarily clutching the silver lighter that lay inside his pocket, feeling across the engraving and silently cursing its owner with every fiber of his being.
The screams echoed for a few minutes longer, but quickly died out as the moonlight was obscured behind the clouds.
The man felt himself tumbling.
As he rolled down the endless spiral, he was aware of a presence behind him, slowly and smoothly descending each step in his wake, observing in placid judgment.
At last, after several minutes of steady falling, the man came to rest on the hard wooden floor of the nightclub. The impact shook the glasses from his face, and dislodged the small silver lighter that was in his pocket, causing it to slide a few inches away, just short of his grasp.
As the dim lights of the bar reflected in its chrome surface, tears fell from the man’s hazel eyes.
“I did it all for you, Ezra,” he smiled.
Behind him, a decaying foot stepped down from its vigilant position.
Two piercing blue eyes studied the broken figure that lay on the floor before them. Following the weak movements of its single gloved hand, they were inclined to feel some pity for it. Perhaps, if the world was truly as unfair as it had spent its life believing, this was merely an inevitability.
The Gatekeeper sighed and shook his head.
“You disappoint me, Paulo Peixoto.”
A black-tipped finger reached inside the mouth of the incognizant man, and, with barely any effort, lifted out a small, white wisp, balancing it on its tip.
For a moment it stood, glowing faintly as the dim lights of the bar flickered out one by one. Then, like a candle, it quivered and diminished, leaving only a thin stream of smoke that dissipated into the air.
Watching his former body crumble into dust, the Gatekeeper rose from the corpse of Paulo and turned his attention to the Stairway, still spotted with hooks and rope that, although appearing at first glance to follow the spiral to its horizon, ended only just above its third layer.
He began pulling them out one by one, wincing as though he was removing shrapnel from his own wounds.
“And to think I was excited for once,” he remarked.
Written by Noctevoire
Chapter Eleven: Justice
“Officer 48, 10-101?”
The voice crackled through the car’s speakers. Sergeant Roy Chapman lifted his head from the steering wheel, his burly arms rested over the hard plastic circle. He reached out for the radio and picked it up, placed his thumb on the button and held it in. “Chapman here. 10-23, checking it out now.”
“10-4. Careful out there.” Roy placed the device back in its holster, then looked out the windshield of his cruiser. His destination sat before him; a decrepit apartment block, empty and quiet on the edge of town. This neighbourhood had been popular in the past for blossoming families; now it was a derelict deconstruction zone ridden by gangs and the homeless, who drifted in and out of the area.
A young girl, Jamie Fisher, had recently disappeared. Her parents had come to pick her up from school, but she had supposedly been taken out earlier in the day by a “relative” due to a “family emergency”. Police had been searching everywhere for her, and now Roy was following up on a last minute lead that she was spotted by the apartment complex in an abandoned part of town.
“You think someone’s in there?” Officer Amy Keller asked her partner, spinning a key ring on her finger. Her hazel eyes were fixed on the building they sat in front of, scanning its windows for any semblance of life inside the concrete corpse.
Roy unbuckled his seatbelt, then collapsed back in the seat and breathed out, wiping his hand over his forehead and through his hair. It was getting late and his caffeine buzz was beginning to wear out - all he wanted was to get this over with and catch the game. “Who knows… that’s what we’re here for, right?” Turning the key, the car was put to sleep, and he pulled the side lever to get out.
The car doors swung open in unison and closed as such. The sounds of shoes clapping against the pavement echoed through the empty lots, bouncing from house to house and down the street. An evening breeze swept across the front lawn as the officers approached the building. Goosebumps stood on Roy’s arms for but a moment, his brawny (if not a little schlubby) body adapting quickly, and once the chill had passed he raised his hands to his moustached face.
“Hello? Sheriff’s department, is there anyone inside? Please make yourself known if you are inside.” His voice echoed throughout the area, seeming to chase after the setting sun. Alas, there was no answer.
“Jamie? Jamie Fisher? Are you inside?” Amy called out. No response. Biting her lip, she turned towards her partner. “We should check inside.”
“I don’t know,” Roy responded. “There could be traps. Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve run into that problem.”
“All the more reason to check. What if that little girl is in there, injured and afraid to come out?”
Roy thought on her words for a moment, then sighed conclusively. Amy wasn’t going to give up on this, and she could be right. “Alright, alright. But take your time, and we stay together, you hear?”
Officer Keller gave a slight smile and nodded, then followed Roy onto the front porch. The front door, or rather the plywood that had been blocking it, was nowhere to be found. The interior of the building was in as good of a shape as one would expect; peeling paint, mold in the crevices, the occasional obscene words spray painted in bold, gang-style lettering. The officers took each step with great ease, watching for not only signs of life, but strings or levers that could mortally harm them.
Roy led the way down the first floor hallway, uncarpeted and grimy to the core, aiming to enter a large doorway on his left. He took in a breath, then released it just as slowly, his hand slowly approaching his holster. He was just at the doorway when a loud thud could be heard. He whipped his head back towards Amy, only to see her with the same face of surprise. It must have come from the room. Roy returned his focus and quickly stepped into the doorway.
It was a common room, but the sight before Roy’s eyes was far from common. The brilliant staircase caught his gaze first; its smooth, stony make didn’t fit the interior in the slightest, yet upwards it wound anyways, higher than Roy could see or estimate. His line of sight drifted from it finally, noticing some movement to the side, and his pistol was drawn from its holster. “Freeze!”
A tall, dark skinned man in a suit was kneeling on the hard wood floor, holding a small girl in his arms - Jamie Fisher. The description matched perfectly, but sadly they were too late. Her small form lay limp and cold in the tall man’s arms as he brushed a strand of hair from her blanched cheeks. When Roy declared for the figure to stay, he turned his head towards the officer, revealing two bright blue eyes, dancing like flame yet cold as ice.
Amy followed up behind Roy with her own weapon drawn, but was thrown into shock at the sight and stepped back, holding her face in disbelief. Roy’s hand shook, then dropped to his sides as he looked down on the stranger. “What in God’s name…”
The figure scoffed, then laid the girl down, still looking at her. “Poor thing… a shame I cannot refuse an attempt on the Stairway.” He looked back towards the officers, then breathed out heavily. “I never wanted this, but it was bound to happen eventually.”
“T-turn around, get on your-“
The stranger scowled once more, then strode towards Roy, who had raised his gun once more. A shot rattled throughout the room, but the figure advanced. Roy’s heartbeat grew frantic, and more bangs rang out. The man recoiled slightly, but only just so. With an unnatural speed, the stranger grabbed the barrel of the pistol, closing the gap between officer and suspect. The gun began to inexplicably heat up, and the sergeant let go of the gun promptly.
“Listen to me. Do not waste my time. Either challenge the stairs, or do what you will with this girl’s body. I don’t care which you choose, but choose now.” The figure threw the gun at Roy’s feet, now charred and misshapen. “I’ve made it clear you lack the ability to contain me, so take the girl and leave if that’s why you came.”
The officers looked at one another in sincere bewilderment, before watching the figure once again. “What did you do to her?” Amy screamed.
The man turned again, slipping on a pair of sunglasses he had materialized from some hidden pocket. “I do have a name, you know… Well, actually, it’s more of a title now. I am the Gatekeeper, and this is the Stairway of Chaos.” The creature motioned his hands towards the strange staircase behind him. “This is the true monster you’re after. But I hardly imagine you can throw something like this behind bars so simply.”
“What are you talking about? You better talking straight, son, or-“
The Gatekeeper raised a hand. “First, I am your elder by a couple thousand years, alright? Thanks for reminding me. Secondly, the Stairway is the ultimate challenge to many. At the top of these steps lies a treasure more valuable than any on this earth, but it comes at a price.”
Slowly the pieces came together in Chapman’s mind. “You… let this girl try this?”
“I’ve let a lot of people try this. No one has succeeded yet, obviously. The climb has shown to be far too tolling on those who partake in it.”
“And just… what kind of treasure are we talking about?”
Amy started to open her mouth, but a gesture from Roy paused her. “What treasure could be worth a little girl’s life, or by your account, many lives?” “The kind of treasure with the power to bring those people back,” the Gatekeeper replied. “The power of a god.”
The power of a god. The air of the room stood still, but the sergeant’s mind screamed in furious delight. “Officer Keller… please take the girl’s body home. I’ll finish up here.”
“Roy… I’m not leaving you here. I won’t let you try it. If what that… thing says is true, you’ll-“
“I said go!”
Amy’s heart jumped at the sight of Roy’s stare. It was nearly as cold as the Gatekeeper’s. Then, ever so subtly, she recalled the rumours surrounding her partner, the officer of sixteen years. The rumours of his obsession with justice. Without another word, she approached the girl’s body, and after catching the Gatekeeper’s gaze for but a moment, picked up the quiet little corpse and walked out of the building. Roy and the Gatekeeper simply watched one another as the sounds of the police cruiser could be heard starting up, then slowly rolling away.
“So, all I have to do is reach the top?”
“It’s not that simple. Each step will force you to relive your worst memories, the ones you humans try to bury away in the vaults of your minds. The Stairway is the key, and whether you want it open or not, it’s going to break in anyways.”
The sun was beginning to dip down over the horizon, so the light in the room began to fade rapidly.
“Do you think I’ll make it?” Roy asked calmly.
“You’re a man of the law,” the Gatekeeper responded. “It’s not my place to decide, but if it were, I would have the god of our new world be just and kind.”
Roy began to walk towards the Stairway, treading past the Gatekeeper in silence. As his foot rested on the first step, he heard a secret wish whisper to him from behind: “Please be the one already… end this.”
- - -
As the icy feeling passed, Roy found himself back in his police cruiser. It was dark, and he was on the side of the highway - he was pulling someone over.
“Alright, Roy, let’s get this over with.”
The familiar voice caused his heart to skip a beat. He turned to see the face of Henry MacIntosh undoing his seatbelt and opening the passenger car door. Their eyes met, and Henry gave him a light smile. “What? Come on, let’s go.”
“Uh, yeah..” Corporal Chapman fumbled with the cruiser door, then stepped out onto the pavement. The night was brisk, but aside from that Roy wasn’t bothered much. It was a routine event, pulling someone over for a faulty headlight. Without a second thought, he slowly approached the driver’s side, flashlight out and on, the gravel under his foot crackling with each step.
“How’re we all doing toni-“ His throat twisted before he could finish the usual start. In the driver’s position sat a short, black haired kid, probably about seventeen or eighteen, with a cigarette slanting from the edge of his lips. The kid turned towards the officer with a scowl, his stormy grey eyes glazed over and his eyelids drooping. Now he understood why something as trivial as a highway stop was chosen by the Stairway - it involved Jeremy Strait.
Roy’s heart began to boom in his chest like cannonade. He swallowed, then tried to speak once again. “License and registration, please.”
“Don’t got none.”
“Then I’m going to… I’m gonna have to ask you to turn off the engine and step out of the vehicle, son.”
With a rude and defiant sigh, Jeremy chucked the cigarette onto the dashboard and got out. “What can I do you for, officer?”
“Have you been drinking tonight, son?”
“Had a few beers.”
“Do you have any I.D. to prove you’re of age?”
Roy already knew the answer to each of these questions, but protocol required it. Despite knowing this man’s face all too well, he held fair and proper justice above all else. Thus, he suppressed the spark of rage in his heart, and continued with the procedure.
After a few more minutes, Jeremy was in cuffs, and Roy was leading him back to the cruiser while reading him his rights. Though the words flowed out from muscle memory, he continued fighting against his burgeoning impulses. He opened the car door and carefully placed the culprit inside, instead of taking the kid’s head and slamming it onto the edge of the car. He closed the door, rather than jump in the back with Jeremy and strangle him until his lips were a shade of velvet. He already knew that this young man was guilty, he knew where the story went from here, but his honor as a police officer overpowered his anger. As the door clicked shut, the chill returned, and slowly Roy’s vision faded, falling back into an icy coma.
- - -
“You certainly seemed agitated with that little twat.”
Roy looked around frantically, noticing he was no longer on the side of the road, but back on the stairs. His foot rested on the first step, and whilst staying there, he pivoted his body around to see the Gatekeeper standing behind him. Blue light flickered from behind the man’s sunglasses. “Why not simply beat him into submission? They’re just memories.”
Roy breathed out slowly, still recovering from the experience, then glared at the creature. “Look, son. You might be older than me, but if that’s your idea of order, then you’re way out of whack.”
The Gatekeeper was noticeably taken aback, stepping away slightly. “I knew it was your job to enforce the law, but I never thought you would be so married to justice.”
“Too many people are wrong these days. Too many corrupt folk taking advantage of others. Somebody’s gotta be the one to protect the innocent and punish the wrong-doers, so I may as well try. And besides…” Roy turned back to the stairs, raising his foot to the next stair, “Once I’m ‘god’, I’m taking your ass in for letting that little girl die.”
Roy couldn’t quite tell, but he thought he heard the man chuckling. “This is promising. I hope you don’t disappoint.”
- - -
Step after step, Roy Chapman climbed the Stairway of Chaos. With each passing chill, he arrived to the scene of some crime from his twelve years on the force. Roy relived his years in a matter of minutes, and whilst a small handful were horrid scenes of murder and destruction, the vast majority of them involved Jeremy. Time and time again, Strait was let out of jail for the small offences he committed, only to be caught once more by Corporal Chapman. Each encounter was worse than the last – drug use, drug dealing, petty theft, driving under the influence, grand theft auto. It didn’t matter what he did, every time he came back. But Roy kept his resolve.
Every man has the right to a fair trial. On a break before one of the final steps, Roy thought back to his childhood. He recalled the woman yelling at his father in the park. He remembered the day the police came to take his father away. His mother was crying, but whether in sadness or rage Roy could not tell. He read the headline of the news in his mind, declaring his father a sex offender. Countless days of being in an empty home while his parents were out, trying to fix dad’s reputation.
Once he was old enough to understand exactly what happened, that’s when it clicked. That raw, unyielding sense of justice. Fair and true, taking all accounts into perspective. Even though his father was eventually fully acquitted of the offense, it stained his name until the day he passed. From that day forth, Roy swore to uphold the law to its fullest, no matter who he was arresting, no matter how many times they had already done wrong, no matter how likely or guilty the culprit was or how close they were to him. So regardless of these being memories, throwing aside the fact that Roy already knew the outcome, he continued to follow the methods and protocol, without except-
The chill passed again, and this time he was in a dimly lit alleyway. No… The cold clung to his spine, and his knees grew weaker. No, not this… Any other. Please. There was a corner to the right up ahead, but Roy found it nearly impossible to move towards it.
He knew the circumstances that had led to this event; a call had come in about a home intruder, so Roy and Henry had rushed downtown to arrest the perpetrator. Kicking down a bedroom door, they came face to face yet again: Jeremy Strait, climbing out a window, his hair long gone but the grey eyes ever staring.
Roy had ordered him to freeze, but Strait didn’t listen. He flung himself from the window, landing on the pavement below, then hobbling away. He remembered hearing Henry already heading back down, two stairs at a time. He called out for his partner, but there was no response from Henry, so down he chased after the two.
And hence, there he was, standing in that damp alleyway on a cold night. His feet slowly shuffled towards the corner, his hand reaching for his gun. Sounds of a scuffle could be heard from the area, and Roy had to brush his face against his shirt sleeve before rounding the corner. There lied Henry, a pool of blood pouring from his mouth onto the street, his bulletproof vest helpless to prevent his entrails from beginning to slide out of his stomach.
Jeremy stood over his kill, breathing hard and rapidly, but turning his maniacal eyes back on the sergeant. Those shimmering wells of grey almost seemed to reflect the crimson glow of the fluids seeping from his victim, just as the knife in his hand was doused in blood.
Roy already had his gun focused on Jeremy, and the moments that followed repeated in his mind: he shot Jeremy in the leg after the man tried to advance on him, then rolled him over to cuff him. The other officers arrived, and Jeremy was hauled off to be sentenced while Roy sat on the side of the road, letting his misery drip out onto the cement as a black body bag was lifted from the scene.
But last time, Roy didn’t have the luxury of all of his encounters with Jeremy freshly recalled. Now, as he stared down this twisted creature along the barrel of his sidearm, Roy questioned his choice. Is it… really worth it..? To take him in again? People like him never change; they are set free, and just go back to their old ways. Can justice really fix evil like him…?
The questions buzzed louder and louder, until Roy only heard the voices in his head, the impulses of human nature. Revenge! they screamed. Revenge! Vengeance! For Henry’s sake!
The officer died, and a beast took his place. The clip was emptied within seconds, and Jeremy Strait’s bullet ridden body plummeted on top of Henry’s. Roy picked the man up, who was sputtering blood, and threw him off of his friend’s corpse, then climbed on top of him. His hands wrapped around Strait’s neck, squeezing slowly but without release. Jeremy coughed and struggled, hitting and tearing at Sergeant Chapman, but it was to no avail. Pushing on Roy’s chest, the frightened man managed to speak.
“Agh! W-why? You’re… you can’t!”
Roy only throttled him harder, shutting him up completely. “Evil like you will never change! Justice is something I must take… into my own hands.”
- - -
The cold feeling passed once again, and Roy found himself grasping nothing but air at the bottom of the Stairway. He looked at his trembling hands, realizing his sin, before he noticed the figure approaching him. “L-look, I-“
The Gatekeeper wasted no time in gripping Roy’s throat with an unnatural strength, lifting the middle aged man off the floor. “You.. you would’ve been perfect. And yet, you gave in to your impulses, your disgusting, agonizing, predictable human impulses!” The skin of the Gatekeeper’s hand bulged and began to rip, revealing the skeletal structure beneath.
“Why? Answer me! WHY?” The ancient creature demanded, but the officer could not respond – both in fear of the being before him, and the fact his hands were wrapped around his neck. The Gatekeeper only shook the man around, closing the gap between his hands more and more. The eyes in Roy’s skull looked as though they were about to fly across the room, and his face began to turn a shade of indigo.
But the Gatekeeper did not seeing a dying police officer in his grasp. Instead hung a young Mesopotamian man, bloodied and crying. There was no drywall background, but rather a sky of ash and fire, the winds carrying smoke and screams to the world. And deep down, he recalled the feeling of ecstasy he had felt in that moment, having won against a foe. He remembered the grisly laugh that resonated from his once alive lips as the life drained from the man’s body, before he let out a terrible war cry.
The Gatekeeper also shouted, though not in thrill or intimidation, but in rage. And as he screamed into the face of the latest failed challenger, his anger flared. His hands began to heat once more, before finally erupting into an azure flame, removing any remaining skin from them and leaving the bony structures clenched around Chapman’s throat. As for the human, he failed to scream as the fire spread along his body, swiftly destroying his clothing and turning his skin a charred coal black. The scream persisted, and soon, the skeleton fingers of the Gatekeeper broke through the corpse’s neck, and the body crumbled into a pile of ash on the floor.
The fire cooled, and the glow of his eyes subsided to a calmer state. But the Gatekeeper was tormented nonetheless. Dropping to his knees, he shouted as loud as his vessel’s lungs could, an echoing cry that bounced from building to building on the outskirts of town, but heard by not one single soul.
Written by RedNovaTyrant