Sort of dark around the edges but with most of the darkness hinted at, rather than outright.
The place, the man, were mostly rumor. Somewhere in the city, in a place not all that traveled, a man – a mage? a warlock? a scholar? – had a labyrinth. If you could make it all the way through, end to end, he would offer you a position at his side.
Krista had found the man with not nearly enough effort, which she attributed to all the other girls who also wanted to be offered a position with a man who was clever or rich or magical enough to have something like this hidden in a city where you could barely sneeze without 90 other people knowing. She had lost the first year, getting only a very short way into the maze before it spilled her back out the other side.
The second year, she had made it halfway through. The third, three-quarters. She was one of the only ones who had come back again and again; most girls gave up after a single failure or, maybe, if they were rather motivated, twice.
But Krista had been watching. She had watched how the other girls entered the maze, and where they exited. She had been asking questions, and although many of the answers were “oh, bugger off” or less polite responses, she had gathered a series of answers that told her something about the maze. She had been reading up on such things, in every book she could beg or borrow or steal on the subject (although those that she stole, she was scrupulous about replacing). She had been retracing her own steps in her mind, and on paper, and then on a giant chalk replica that was still 1/4 the size of the real thing, drawn in a vacant lot.
The real thing was made of walls twice Krista’s height and taller, twisting in circles of varying heights. You could only ever see a small corner of it at once, even from the observation platforms, and it was immensely difficult to hold in your head. The runes etched on the walls seemed to make you disoriented, making north south and up down until you found yourself stuck in one of the many roofed tunnels, clinging to the ceiling for fear of the floor.
The maze was not a nice thing, that was for certain. It was nastiness through and through. It was painted and carved with magic and more than that, she was pretty certain that some of the shapes of the passages themselves were magic. And the magic said turn around and no way through here and you’re obviously not smart enough for this – that one had almost gotten her the first year.
And the magic, she thought, said something else, too, something that explained by the girls who did make it through, even when you saw them in their rich-people clothes at the fanciest events, saw them at the side of the man who had made the maze, saw them when they left the man eventually, richer for all that but still leaving him, they looked wrong, somehow off, wan and thin and, if you looked at them in the right light, the labyrinth had left its mark on their very veins. You could see its runes and its twists glowing through them.
And still, here Krista was, ready to take the test of the maze once more. She knew what she had to do. She was pretty sure how to do it. She even knew what she would say, either way, any way.
She made sure she was last in line. She waited until four other girls had gone through – never boys, never men, never women, never those who walked between those lines, only girls before marriage but of a reasonable age to be married, should they want – and waited until they had failed. The numbers were going down. The first time Krista had done this, there’d been nearly a hundred girls. And now – now, five.
“And our last candidate!” The man had a platform in the center of the maze from which he called out jeers to those who failed and called for the next girl. “Oh, I’ve seen you before. Think you have the trick this time?”
“It’s possible,” Krista agreed. She smiled at the man while she held in her head three images.
The way that their apartment, cramped, leaking, cold, and dank, was too small for their family.
The maze, with all its twists and turns.
The face of Susan, who had won three years ago, when Krista had seen her at the market.
She jumped down from the platform and she ran – she’d been practicing this, too – all the way around the circle, or, rather, exactly halfway around the circle of the maze, until she came to the exit.
Though it wasn’t marked that. It was an end, and you had to make it through, end to end.
Krista kept running, right into the exit and taking a sharp left, ignoring the easy traps because sometimes people just wanted to peer in and know.
The spells grumbled at her, but they grumbled backwards. They were built to read her presence, powered by her presence, she had surmised. So when she moved backwards, they said Here Belong, don’t you?
And she said yes and kept moving.
“Hey!” cried out the man. “Hey, you can’t! You can’t!”
He lept down from the platform. Krista couldn’t see him once he jumped down, but she knew that he’d told them, over and over again, “only one person can enter at a time. The maze won’t allow another person in until the next one has come out.”
She wondered if that included going in the “wrong” entrance. She wondered if he was going to drag her out.
If he did, she considered, it might be worth it, to have done something that, as far as she knew, nobody else had tried.
She came upon a part which was tricky in any direction and, for a moment, she had no concern for the man whose maze this was.
By the time she had untangled that twist, she knew she was nearly home-free – and she could not hear nor see the man.
She kept going. The spells nibbled at her, but she was less and less concerned. They turned her around, and she turned around again. She fell through a trap and pulled herself right back out.
It had never been this easy before, except that one section where she’d thought she was doing fine and she’d ended up in one of the false ends that caught you and spat you back outside.
She chewed on her lip. “You can’t-” she heard a voice from ahead of her. “You have to under – shit.”
It sounded like the man who owned the maze, and yet – and yet it didn’t. She’d never heard the man sounding anything but proud and confident. This sounded anything but.
She kept going, towards the voice, although she knew it might be a trap. “You never said,” she called, “that we had to go in a specific entrance.”
“Entrance, it’s in the word, entrance, not exit.” His voice echoed. She thought he might be a couple loops in front of her, or maybe he was somewhere completely different.
“And yet they’re not labelled.” All she could do was go through the maze, holding it in her mind, not letting the man distract her. “Did I break the rules you stated?”
There was so long a silence she thought he’d fallen into his own false-end trap. Then: “No. You broke no rules I stated. You’ve done something awful, but you didn’t do it in defiance of a single rule. Clever.”
She thought the clever sounded grudging, but it was hard to tell with the distortion of the maze. She was nearly through, though. “And if I make it through?”
“Then you’ll – then you’ll have… a position at my side.”
Krista rounded the last turn to find him in the First Trap, the one that stopped about half the girls who tried. He was kneeling, his hair that had looked luxurious and fancy in his face, his hands on the rough ground, leaving rivulets of blood.
“Come on,” she told him, holding out a hand to him. “It’s time.”
He took her hand and rose. His hair still obscured his face. “You could walk me through in the other direction,” he offered, sounding hopeful.”
“The exit is right behind us. Come on.” She squeezed his hand, despite the blood, despite the gasp it elicited from him. “Almost there. It’s never easy, but we can do it.”
“You’ve been here a few times before.” He had straightened, although she still couldn’t see his eyes, but he seemed to be trying to regain something of his poise. “I remember you.”
“You said that when I came in,” she reminded him. “How do you keep track?”
“Oh, the maze does a lot of the remembering. It’s harder every time – or hadn’t you noticed?”
“I hadn’t noticed.” That wasn’t quite true – she’d noticed that the traps changed and seemed to push at the buttons she had reacted worst to on her previous visits, but she didn’t want him to think it was hard. “You must be screening for specific things. What sorts of things?”
“Cleverness, of course, and doggedness.” He caught his breath as the initial wave of self-confidence- destroying magic washed over them. “And the ability to – to – to tolerate insults, clearly.”
“Clearly. You must be difficult, then, to work with.”
“The worst. But you- you’ll see, won’t you?” He laughed, short and bitter. “You’re going to win.”
“Lots of girls win.” She squeezed his hand. She was practically dragging him through the maze now. Was he trying to simply make her not win by physical force?
“No. Lots of girls get to the end of the maze. Maybe two in a really good year, maybe three at the most. But you, you’re going to win.”
“You’re not making sense,” Krista complained.
“That’s because you don’t know what’s coming. I – I know what’s coming.”
“Tell me, then.”
“We’re nearly there.” Now he really had set his feet and was pulling back against her. He was laughing, too, a crazed sound made worse by bloody strands of hair falling all over his face. “We’re almost there. You’ll know soon enough-” With the last word, he yanked her backwards.
“I did not come this far for you to make me fail again!” She yanked him forward with a mighty tug,
He came tumbling into her, feet skidding, and they left the maze together, her first, him on top of her.
She wasn’t sure what it was she was feeling as they fell out of the maze. Was this the way winning felt? Was the noise he was making supposed to happen? Was the blood on her hands – no, she knew where that had come from, but – but it felt good, and that was weird. The whole situation was strange. He strumbled, not to his feet but to his knees.
Something in the magic pushed Krista to her feet. “I won,” she told the kneeling man. “I got through the maze.”
He looked up at her through bloody and matted hair and laughed, a sick sound that, after a moment, changed into something else. Something desperate. “Yes, you won. And your prize-”
“To work at your side.”
“Ah, ha, ha, no, that’s your prize if you get through the maze. Do you really want that, now?”
Krista looked down at him. “I want to know what you did to the ones that got through the maze. I want to know how to fix it. I want to know why you did it.”
He pressed his forehead all the way to the ground. “As you wish. As you wish.”
As the power washed over her, Krista began to understand what, exactly, she’d won. She laughed, a little bitter and a little sick and, then, realizing the power of this man now saying as you wish, in joy.
“Then let’s get to work.”
This was entirely written off of the idea “I want a trap situation, like some of the roleplay set-ups we’ve done in Addergoole, where the trapper becomes the trapped” and then discarding more and more situations until I had something that was definitely not Fae Apoc and was… I have no idea. But voila.