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Author's note: An old one I wrote for the doomed Fifth Annual Collab. It was about the "Stairway of Chaos"-- a staircase that could grant a person one wish if they reached the top, but only after they were forced to relive their worst memories. If they fell, they died. It was guarded by the Gatekeeper, a very old, very cynical being who took over the body of the last person to fail the climb.

This was my second and favorite entry. Enjoy.


“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-- the 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 establishment. 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: the staircase.


“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 was 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 petulant 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 fifty 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, who 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,” 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 taking this challenge, and seeing you barge in here without so much as a hello, I thought you would be another disappointment. Another step in the staircase, as it were. 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, no… It can’t just keep repeating. 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 ethics, 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 decided he wanted one more than anything in the world.

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.

“Ezra, I’m--”

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.

“I’m sorry.”

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.”