The staircase was narrow, dark, and damp. A few streaks of light from the window in the rusting metal door below him lit his steps. Asher kept his gaze fixed forward, where the outline of a column of steps stretched into eternity. The sun would be setting soon, and whatever light they may have had would diminish by the time they reached the top. His foot suddenly rested on something soft—and yet hard. He looked down.
Asher gasped and lost his footing, tumbling backward into an irritated Jordan.
“What’s the matter?” Jordan hissed through clenched teeth. Asher’s heart pounded in his chest as he struggled to find words.
“An ar— ar—I stepped—”
Jordan sucked his teeth and gave Asher a light push.
“I told you not to step on them.”
“You told me to not wake them up,” Asher corrected. “You said absolutely nothing about stepping on them.”
“Does it matter? Let us just move on from here as quickly— and carefully—as possible.” Jordan began to ascend the stairs ahead of Asher.
They had scaled a mere five flights when a hand reached out and grabbed Asher’s leg. Everything within him cried out, but no sound escaped his lips. The hand pulled Asher onto his knees, bringing him face to face with the owner of that hand.
A yellow toothed mouth filled with putrid breath assaulted his senses. His throat constricted as bile rose from his stomach. Asher choked a breath and covered his nose as he yanked his leg free.
“You aren’t ready,” the voice rasped from the shadows. Asher tried to pull his eyes away from the rotting mouth peeking out of the darkness, but his gaze was transfixed. What happened to this man, he wondered. How was he able to live like this when Aversano was a very charitable town? Never had Asher seen anyone in such a horrible condition. He looked up at Jordan, who had halted his climb.
“Asher, do not listen to him. He is a Sleeper,” Jordan said calmly. “They never have anything good to say.”
“But why is he like this?” Asher asked, turning back to the man; he had retreated into the shadows, the only evidence of his existence a series of wheezes and raspy exhalations.
Jordan blinked rapidly.
“Because he couldn’t handle the truth.”
With that, Jordan began to climb. Asher followed in silence.