“If we can make it to our rooms before the stairs disappear, we’ll be safe,” he said.
I wasn’t sure why I wasn’t expecting that.
All I know is that, for some stupid reason, I wasn’t.
“This house is a nightmare.”
Raph gave me one of his trademark chagrinned grins. “Yeah, I know.”
But, that was about all we could say.
In this hellscape, it was the only safe haven there was.
Despite the disappearing stairs, the bone monster in the basement, the random doors that impossibly led you back outside, and all the zombies that were corralled into the attic, it was the safest place here.
Which, says a lot.
“Ready?” he asked.
“As ready as I’ll ever be.”
With a nod, we charged.
Up the stairs, just up the stairs…
Of course, it was nowhere near as simple as that. Not in a hellscape like this.
The moment my foot hit the first step, I could feel it.
The stairs were ghosting away.
Heart biting into my chest, raging to be set free, I kept going. It was my only option.
Because, if I made it halfway up and all the stairs disappeared?
Well, I’d be falling from a height of, oh, probably, fifty feet.
Hopefully it would kill me.
It’d be an easier death than most in this hellhole.
But, probably it wouldn’t.
If I fell through the stairs, I’d be broken, but not dead. I’d be a sitting target. Something big and gnarly would come along and gnaw on me until I died. Or poison me to their liking.
Neither was a good option.
Silent prayers ran through my head. All of them wordless. Simply emotion. Pure fear, clawing desperation, and impossible hope.
Just to the top of the stairs.
My feet were seeping through faster now. The stones underneath my shoes ebbing away into fog. It was like wading through a milky dream. Only, the stairs weren’t supposed to be a dream, and they were the only way to safety.
So, less like a dream. More like a nightmare.
After a year of traversing this hellscape though, I’d gotten more used to nightmares. More used to the drooling beasts. The million-eyed spiders that towered over me. The clowns that dripped blood and oozed tar from their lips. Even the gargantuan were-mice felt familiar. Less scary.
Just because something was familiar didn’t make it less dangerous.
It just meant you might be more complacent.
Which, actually, made the thing even more dangerous.
But, that was a problem for someone else.
I wasn’t complacent.
Not when it came to the monsters, or this hellscape, or these stairs.
I was driven.
With everything I had, I ran.
Strived to survive.
Off in the distance, I could hear the reverberating growl. The echo of the beast made of fangs and scales and blood. The thing that was currently driving me back to the house.
Its growl was nothing like anything I’d ever heard before.
Rather than percussive, it was diluted. Something subdued. Confident, and clawing. It reached your ears no matter where you were, and when your eardrums caught wind of it, the sound bounced all the way into your core. It seeped through your mind, down to live inside your soul.
I’d never been all that close to the creature the sound belonged to. The creature made of fangs and scales and blood.
It didn’t matter though.
With a sound like that, and a face that was riddled through with teeth, it wasn’t necessary to get close.
I felt that I understood the creature well enough from a distance.
Not only that, but I intended to keep that distance.
If only the stairs would stop disappearing.
I was halfway up then. Finally, I was able to see the front door. The mansion’s dark roof and mossy cobblestones loomed ominously behind the sight of the safe porch. Almost as if afraid to look at me head-on. Afraid to look over the edge of the stairs to find that I hadn’t made it.
Or maybe I was just projecting.
A sound like an old speaker hitting a bass bounded its way up to me. Bounced it’s way through the smog-filled air, and I knew I didn’t have long.
It was close.
“Raph!” I yelled.
He understood completely.
Somehow, without stopping, Raph put a hand in his backpack and pulled out just what we needed.
The only thing that seemed to have any effect on the creatures of the hellscape.
It was everything they weren’t.
Pulling the pin, Raph tossed it behind him. Trusted it would fall through the stairs that were no longer there. Trusted it would make it far enough down—and that we would make it far enough up—that it wouldn’t effect us.
He wasn’t wrong.
When the bang happened, it was below us. Far, far below.
A tiny burst of sound. Of light.
There was a screech, like a knife against sheet metal, and I felt just a little bit more at ease.
The stairs were still disappearing.
And falling from where I was would break every bone in my body, to say the least.
Since it seemed like such a painful way to go, I kept running.
When I finally reached the front porch, I collapsed, exhausted.
But we’d done it.
We had made it.
With a sigh, I said, “We did it, Raph, we did it.”
The air was silent a moment. Only filled with the sound of my breathing before I realized.
There had been no answer.
My stomach flopped once.
Because, all this time, I hadn’t really thought about Raph. Not really. I’d been too focused.
My stomach flopped one more time before I gathered my courage.
Before I looked over the edge.
Before I saw the very thing I dreaded.
On the ground.
The green lava that glowed out from underneath the obsidian floor of our hellscape illuminated his broken body. His bent figure. The redness pooling underneath him as bits and shards of black rock skewered his frame.
And above him?
It loomed over Raph a moment. I felt that awful noise it made in the pit of my stomach, in the soles of my feet. It swirled its way all the way up here, reaching far into the air.
I passed out.
Right on the front porch.
When I came to, it took me a second to gather myself. Took me a moment to remember why I was sleeping on the porch (which was dangerous) and why I had passed out in the first place.
And when I did remember?
I threw up.
Once again, I gathered myself. Took my time crawling toward the edge of the porch. Peeking over carefully, my legs quaking. Wondering if I would see the same scene. If it had been real. Wondering what I would see beneath me…
But, all I saw beneath me was nothing.
Glowing obsidian. Green lava beneath. Empty hellscape below.
And no Raph.
The voice of my companion was absent. The voice of the beast gone as well. The air was void without the sounds.
All that was left was me.
My heavy breathing.
My panicked panting.
My hammering heart.
And the gruesome knowledge that hell was mine.
And mine alone.