Part One: http://www.alistairlanewrites.com/steps-short-story-pt-1-of-5/
Part Two: http://www.alistairlanewrites.com/steps-short-story-pt-2-of-5/
Part Three: http://www.alistairlanewrites.com/steps-short-story-pt-3-of-5/
Part Four: http://www.alistairlanewrites.com/steps-short-story-pt-4-of-5/
This is the fifth and final part.
The man did not sleep, in any meaningful sense. The close, dank air smothered him completely. He felt like a man taken out of time and space, dropped in the void for infinity.
I fell, and am still falling.
He stopped to listen for sounds from above at regular intervals, cupping his hands to his ear.
Am I imagining it?
Fatigue and dehydration were taking their toll. Most times he couldn’t hear anything over his own reedy breath and the ba-boom ba-boom of blood pumping furiously through his head. Sometimes he stopped and didn’t hear anything and in the silence found himself losing consciousness and sleeping as he stood, only to be jolted awake by the sensation of falling.
I am falling. I am fallen.
The excruciating, unrelenting torture of movement.
He refused to give in, stubbornly continuing down through this lonely pit of Babel. Boots and water bottle were abandoned on the steps, then his shorts and underwear, which had chafed his thighs bloody and swollen. He clutched the lighter in his hand, and carried on downwards naked, caked in dust and sweat and regret.
His pursuer did not seem to be gaining at any pace, but he dared not rest, or sit, for fear of never rising again. Every single atom in his body howled in pain; he slowed to massage his knees at regular intervals, for petty relief. His shins screamed with each jolt forward; head dizzy from the endless pirouette.
He paused to look back up the stairwell. There were three swollen heads peering down at him from some way above, silhouetted against the tiny clouds beyond, forked tongues flicking the air. Shadows among shadows.
What the hell is that?
Heart pounding, head thumping, hands shaking, he kept his bloodied feet moving, one hand constantly in contact with the wall for support. For reassurance.
He risked another look upwards. Had he imagined it? He looked down. A dim red glow, faint. The heart of the darkness.
He took no joy, felt nothing.
At least an end is coming. He stumbled on in the dark, teeth gritted, corkscrewing down through the earth.
The man had not slept, drank or ate in a long time. The raging thirst, the hunger in his belly, had gone. Only the numbness of total exhaustion remained. He scratched slowly at his face, prodding at sunken eyes, patchy stubble, cracked skin. The scar.
Willpower kept him going, fear his only companion. He had not heard his pursuer for a while. He was truly alone.
Was it ever there? Is my mind playing tricks on me? Do I even know what’s real any more?
He whispered his thoughts out loud, voice cracked and hoarse, to break the smothering spell of the silence.
What have I done to deserve this? This slow, torturous death, deep in the bowels of the earth. A worm wriggling and writhing upon the hook, with no possibility of escape.
He felt the steps above contracting, closing in on him, throbbing.
It couldn’t be that thing with the girl, could it?
He wondered what the end would feel like, when it surely came, and what lay beyond.
Am I already dead?
Is this my personal hell? Running down through the dark, forever?
Maybe I’m in purgatory…
He imagined the content of his soul being weighed and judged by unseen forces, balanced against his actions that day.
What choice did I have?
He walked, and wondered.
It couldn’t be that.
The light from below grew stronger with each passing flight, giving him the resolve to continue down what had to be the final steps. The stairs had narrowed now to shoulder width, a head-sized hole at the center lighting the stairwell with an eerie red glow. A sudden smell of rotten decay, damp and fusty, filled the air, filled his nostrils. He wrinkled his nose in disgust, then gagged, dry-heaving.
Then, after a million steps, the stairs simply ended.
They opened out into a large chamber, bathed in soft, red light. He collapsed to his knees as his legs continued downwards reflexively. Kneeling awkwardly on the cool, hard floor, he sucked in deep lungfuls of rancid air, looking for the long-awaited exit door. In the center of the room, directly beneath the hole at the stairwell’s heart, lay the pieces of his axe head, broken by the fall.
At either end of the chamber was a small, circular room, seemingly identical. One was lit with a dazzling light, the source of which was not visible. The other was in darkness, save for the light reflected from the other. Both rooms contained a six foot bench carved into the smooth gray rock, but nothing else. He looked closely around the chamber. Nothing. No door. No exit. No water. No piles of food. Nowhere else to go.
The man had his first decision to make since choosing to head down the steps all those days and miles ago. He made it in an instant, as if it was no choice at all. It was the choice he always made, now. He dragged himself to his feet, legs groaning against this final effort, and inched towards the dark room. He lay his broken body down on the bench, and closed his eyes.
In the moment before all the lights went out, a slight smile formed on the corners of the man’s mouth.