After years within this infernal maze I was sure I had finally found a way out. The walls here were worn once again, unlike the smoother inner realm that seemed to be untouched by anyone else. I had convinced myself that I was one of the few to ever survive this far and maybe, just maybe, that meant I could find some kind of exit. It was a short lived feeling, one I now pity myself for even entertaining.
The walls here are rough from the hundreds of souls running their hands across, searching for escape; from the hundreds of backs leaning against them for some comfort and rest, possibly to sleep, though just as likely to lay down and die.
No one could ever have thought the maze would go on for as long as it has, but its design buckles the norm of ingenious devise. It’s made up of nothing more than identical hex shaped rooms. Each wall is three paces across. Each hex is the same as the last, save for the wear and tear of countless hands and fingers running across the formerly smooth dull grey stone walls. These days, each wall feels like the outer rim of a castle awaiting siege. I remember when they closed the first wall on me. I knew I had a reputation for being one of the few masters still alive, but even this seemed unusually cruel. A cold, dead room? Perhaps they had simply thrown me into an inescapable cell.
Then I discovered how some of the walls could open, leading me into another hex. Some walls can only be opened from one side and do not allow you to move back. Some hexes have just one moveable wall. Some have six. Mostly, though, every hex has three moveable walls, two of which open in one direction and the third allows a return, though not always. As I said, every hex is identical, so it is with great difficulty to remember which wall you passed through to get here, especially after a disturbed night of sleep on the stone floor.
It is all but impossible to know if I’ve been in this room before. The smells are different, the claustrophobia is the same, the griping boredom is the same. I don’t know if there even is a way out. All I see every day are pale grey walls and my old hands, worn and jagged with cracked nails from scraping across the stone, with chunks of grit digging into my fingers.
This morning I was met with a stark reminder of what others had been through. There was a body on the ground in one hex, the hex I now find myself in. The air is perfectly still and hauntingly silent of every natural sound in existence. The air is stale and for that reason the body remains the way it has for years. It is that of a man, rolled onto his side as though he had died in his sleep, though his skin appears to have mummified. His eyes are open. His cheeks are sunken shadows of life and his lips are wide enough to see the putrid teeth within. He looks like cracked and shrunken wood pulled tight over a skeleton. His clothes remain and I have only just dared to touch him. I expected a fright of untold horror as the body would surely snap at me, claw its fingers into the back of my skull and pull me in towards its teeth, ready to eat me alive.
I have heard screams at night. They are always distant and of others I have never met. Despite how close we must have been at times, I have never met anyone within these walls. The screams were never out of frustration or venting, rather they were shrieks of terror. Something would have chased the screamer into another hex, one that has no exit. You would need to wait for someone to push a wall open so that you could scramble to freedom.
This man lying in front of me could be what caused the screams. I imagine they would have been out of shock of seeing a deceased within, something that should be of no surprise by now. But that wouldn&rsqu;ot justify the hours of horror the others must have endured.
It is difficult to take my eyes off him. This is without a doubt the third most significant hex I have encountered. The first being the first. The second I lingered within for a time greater than all of the others without pleading restlessness, contained scented perfume. I breathed it in over the hours, drifted away to nostalgia and called out for the woman wearing it to return and lift me out of here. I opened the walls and looked through the adjoining hexes without leaving the scented palace of delights and imagination. There were just two walls that could open, the one I had first ventured into so many hours before and one leading out. At last I had to convince myself to leave. I was recharged with hope. I headed forward, only to find that none of the walls led off from those six, so I was forced back into the perfumed hex, baffled at the surety I held that a woman had been in there. I tried the walls again and roared at the madness enclosed around me. Her scent existed in this hex and this hex alone. No matter where she went after this, the smell did not follow.
The hexes have a way of disorientating the most focussed of minds. We’re not supposed to endure this much repetition. We fill in the blanks where there are none. We lose track of where we have come from. I am supposed to be a master and these walls are defeating me.
I find myself now kneeling over the corpse, looking over his pocketed skin, curious as to what I may find among his clothes. I wonder for a moment if this really is the creature that had erupted so many screams of shock and dismay through the lost months, perhaps even through the lost years. Am I really the first to find him? To search him and see what he carries on his person?
I pad him down and feel nothing unusual from his attire. He, like me, is wearing a loose suit of worn condition. He is shorter than me. Almost the same height as my sister. His navy blue suit is scuffed but not rumpled, his red tie has not faded and remains pinned into place. My own tie hangs loose around my neck, my pinstripe suit still provides a comfortable break from the ground when I sit upon it.
I search the stranger some more and conclude that he has been here for so long that someone else has taken his wallet, his watch, his ID, and whatever else he kept on him. Perhaps the woman with the perfume found him before I did. I had hoped for a luxury snuck in to pass the time, a mouth organ or a wad of paper with an articulate map, but I fear this corpse had to rely on the same skills and memory as have guided me; trying to maintain a clear sense of north despite the lack of landmarks and the low cramped ceiling keeping us apart.
So who was the screamer? I had always suspected that I was just one hex away from someone else, someone being chased until they were finally caught. The walls never allowed me to be of any use, only to move so far away that the screams faded into nothing. I am grateful at least that this man did not die screaming. His mouth is closed and even his open eyes staring endlessly at the cold ground look tired and weary, as though he had simply willed himself to die and watched his final moments with inert resignation.
How curious it must be to lie down and watch such a thing while incapable of holding on to that last moment of life. I wonder how the beating heart would shudder against the panic of realising that it is now too late to change course, that death is only a few breaths away. The last hurdle would be to overcome the final burst of adrenaline to keep the body alive while the mind wishes it to cease. I have heard of monks who were able to mummify themselves after two thousand days of a strict regime of willpower and spirituality and I can only imagine how they would look at myself and the corpse now. At least the monks had a legacy of reverence that would exist far beyond their natural hold and exceed their spiritual rivals. They would know exactly when their final day would come, while I move from one archaic room to another, hoping to find the glimpse of freedom they offered me at the end of my last maze.
I did not want to spend much time within this hex, not with the corpse so near in uneasy repose. I had a routine and a plan to follow. I need to pass twenty hexes a day, learning each of their walls to find a pattern, a familiarity, as I am certain to come across every hex in my time and I stand to gain much from knowing all that I can. It is without question that I have retraced my steps a number of occasions but still the exit eludes me. I need to keep moving and trust my instincts. The delay with the corpse has been unfortunate but I can not afford to linger much more over a man who clearly can not be of any further use.
I press against the walls of the hex. The entrance I came through is blocked from where I stand, only moving into the dead body hex, not back out again. There are two movable walls remaining, four that are closed to me. I take the one closest wall to my right, following my usual pattern. The wall closes behind me with a slight breath of air as it seals itself against my return. I test the walls in my new hex. The wall into the hex occupied with the corpse will not budge. There will be no easy return to that point of interest, but I do expect to see it again one day. I still hope to use it as a reference to point me in the right direction should that day come.
There is only one wall in here that moves. I amble inside. Once again I am reminded that I am not the first to see this hex. Its grey walls are worn from unknown fingers scratching at it. I wonder if anyone came in here not alone, chased perhaps, but there has never been a speck of blood against the floor or walls that has drawn my attention.
For a moment I shriek with hollow laughter as I imagine the corpse climbing out of death, rising to his knees and then to his feet, before scurrying about the maze I live within, consuming the remains of humans, their waste, their shedded hair, the shrapnels of concrete broken off from the walls. Why have I never found even the slightest trace of dust when the walls have clearly been ripped into?
After two more hexes and I am forced to rest. I am not as young as I once thought and keeping my senses in peak condition takes its toll. I go over the hexes in my mind, remembering which walls gave way and which did not, trying to map it out over what I have learned previously. The infuriating nature of the maze at times forces one to abandon any sound strategy. Simply moving in one direction leads you to an unmoveable wall. I had been foolish at the start when I did not come up with a map straight away. I had lost my sense of direction within hours and I curse myself every day for allowing myself to fall for such an amateurish mistake. For some time I tried to position my body so that I was always facing same direction. If a wall only opened up to the side then I would walk through sideways, but the maze has a way of forcing you to step back and around and eventually you realise that it is much easier to simply drop some item of clothing at the point of entry as a reminder in case the six walls blur together, as they have a habit of doing.
I have never been able to move perfectly straight for more than four hexes in a row. I am certain that I have circled back into previously unmoveable rooms, now entering from a different direction and thus allowing my progress, but I am equally certain the walls have no free will nor follow the will of any outside force. They do not simply make up their own mind and open whenever they feel like it. The only mitigating factor to when a wall will move is from which direction you are able to push.
I am fortunate enough this evening to be able to lean my back against the wall I entered through and not fall back into the previous hex. It helps to keep some sense of direction regardless of how useless it appears to be, even though I have lost my sense of direction many times over and, in all likelihood, will do so again. I sit on my folded jacket as a minor comfort against the stone floor and I wear my tie around my eyes as a blindfold to keep the perpetual light at bay. It is not easy sleeping upright, as my chest often pins down my lungs and I wake in a splutter, but I am still a master and this is what I am best at.
Then I hear something that can not be.
A wall nearby moves and slides into place. Something akin to fright takes me whole. Someone is close. I might lose them without them knowing that I was ever here. That is the perpetual fear, of losing something that close to me. I remove my blindfold and call out for help.
There is no answer.
I call out again, offering my name.
Again there is no answer.
I put my jacket on, in fear of having it swept away by a moving wall, then I stand facing the point of entry. I can not hear anything else for some time. No other moving wall, no faint footsteps belonging to another. The anger against myself pumps through every vein, blistering the inside of my heart and lungs as my blood turns to lava. Had I just scared off a compatriot of the maze? Had I been too hasty in drawing attention to myself?
After so much time alone I long to share the secrets of my journey, my theories of escape, some news or anything of nostalgia. I call again, then hear another wall moving. I am certain the individual had been in the hex before mine. If only they had tried the wall I slept against I would have met them.
Then I remember that I didn’t come through that wall the first time either. I came to a dead-end and had to double back. In a moment of anguish I reach into my mind and look over the hexes from the last few days, cycling through anything that can be of use. Can this hex I stand within be linked to where my compatriot now resides?
I tentatively try one wall and feel it give. I move through and hear my wall slip back into place. My compatriot can surely hear my wall as I can hear their’s. I call again and still there is no answer. I can not bear to lose this. My eagerness has blinded me against my pathway out of here, I realise that, but still I must press on and find a way to my compatriot.
Something tells me that I have been in one of these hexes recently. The scratches on the wall are familiar. Then I fear that my first impressions for my compatriot will be of disgust directed at me. They would now be in a room I had frequented, forced to relieve myself and squatted against a wall like an animal. It is one of the necessities of the maze yet I have never seen any traces from anyone else, but that is what greets my compatriot. I feel the shame sweep over me and hope they can understand when I meet them.
I finally come to the wall that separates us.
With a gentle push the wall opens and I see, for the first time, a true horror worthy of the many screams I have heard rip through the maze. The corpse I had stood over just that day is now active, crouched low to the ground like a scavenger. His taught, bark-like skin is as plain as day and his mummified eyes look up at me with a hurtling power which startles even me. Within its hands I see the remains I had left behind. The creature had been consuming them. It licks its fingers, then looks at me, furious that it has been interrupted and its secret revealed. At this moment I shriek like the others have done before me.
The wall I came through has not yet closed. I push past and run into the leading hex, hearing the heavy scrape of rock against rock behind me until it comes to an awkward stop, not with the usual wisp of silence, but with a guttural groan from my pursuer who should by all accounts be dead. The thing howls at me and lunges forward. The wall to my side gives and I slide into the next hex. I quickly back myself against the closing wall, ready to crush the creature in the gap if necessary. I press myself against the wall to hurry it to close, expecting a frightening burst of energy and a shriek the likes of a banshee, but the wall merely closes with a familiar breath and then there is silence.
I am alone, panting, beside myself with fright. I dare not move from the wall. In a pathetic moment I realise that I have become disorientated once more. I had counted on the corpse remaining where he was, to use as a marker for later on. How am I supposed to use him now if he’s wandering around?
I feel the press against my back as the creature pushes against the wall, trying to follow me through. I am grateful that this wall does not open into the preceding hex, lest I fall back in and find myself prone to a thing of impossible existence. The creature pushes against the wall once more. I try to convince myself that it is a paranoid delusion, that the maze has finally taken my sanity, and that I am simply running from my own imagination.
The corpse was dead, no question there. It had no breath, no pulse. It did not respond when I blew into its open eyes. Its skin was cold to the touch. It was a corpse.
But I’ve seen it feed itself.
It is some time before I hear anything around me. A nearby wall moves from the rear. The creature is either returning to its feast or looking for another route to find me. Perhaps it knows the maze better than I. If it has mastered death then it could be the highest form of existence within this endless place.
I hear another wall move, this one next to me. The creature is still after me. I can not survive an attack if the creature and I are within the same confines of such a narrow space. I begin pressing on the walls farthest away from the walking corpse. It is the fourth wall that moves. I was sure the fifth would have led directly to the corpse. I cautiously open the wall and look inside, realising that I might face a horrid agony if the creature is in there with neither of us able to escape. For once I am truly grateful to find an empty hex. Just as my wall slides to a close I hear another one push open. The corpse is still nearby, listening to where I go.
The first wall on my right moves, allowing me to slip through. Another wall behind me opens and closes. It is only a matter of time before I run out of luck and have to double back.
I push on, as frantic now as I have ever felt before. With every push of a wall I hear another open and close. The grey walls merge together in a blur and I feel the agony of everyone before me who has run from the corpse. They would have first felt the joy of finally hearing something else move within the maze. Then there would have come the spike of nauseating panic when they realised the walking dead was chasing after them.
I know that I am circling back, forced to head towards the creature and loop back to where I first found it, but I can not predict which of the walls offer me my salvation. My strength and stamina are leaving me. The energy spent in pushing each of the heavy walls is exhausting and I am sure that I have passed eight hexes now. I am still too close to the creature to risk resting to catch my breath.
As I push against one wall I pause and listen.
Several minutes pass and I am at a loss. The creature is out of earshot. Still, it could be as little as a single hex away, listening to what I am doing. Right now patience may be my best virtue.
The wait moves at an excruciating pace. My nerves can’t even settle in what feels like an agonising five minutes. Then I wait for an impossible twenty. Against all common sense I hold on for what could only have been an hour. After all that second guessing I gently press against my wall and slip through the tiniest of gaps.
The hex is empty. I hear nothing. I move on, trying the walls again. I get at least four hexes away before I can fully stop and rest myself. I realise with some disgust that I have not been checking each of the hexes for multiple exits, rather I’ve been searching for only the quickest escape. I have passed at least twelve rooms now that I can not map, nor do I have a clue as to what they might offer. I could have been one hex away from the exit.
I sit down to regain my strength. I know I am anywhere from four to six hexes away from a creature that should not be able to exist. I can not even fathom how it rose from the dead like it did. I can only believe it was a hallucination.
But I have heard screams before. And I have never fallen prone to an overactive imagination. So let me assume that what I saw was actually real.
I might be six hexes away from the creature, but I did not move in a straight line. I curved around, taking the first exit possible, so I could easily be three hexes away.
It is time to move as any escape plan is better than none. I check the walls to count my options. Just one wall moves, which is no surprise. I have rested so I can get through several more walls in a hurry if I must. I will keep going until I find a hex with no less than two exits. Ideally three.
With each new set of walls I feel the quiet and deluded relief creep around me again, only now I am unable to fully relax, realising that something horrific exists so close to my person. Either it was a new creature entirely or something my imagination can not fathom to comprehend. The only logical conclusion I can come up with is that the creature I saw is not the corpse lying on the ground, that the twosome are two of many designed to dispose of the remains of those within the maze. The corpse on the ground may in fact be a corpse, though immobile and still lying dead where I left it, so the creature I saw chasing me may be something purely alive and of equal appearance.
I find that difficult to believe. Even as I look for a logical answer within the madness the only surety I come up with is that if I ever see the creature again I will run at all costs. The screaming others had discovered it before me and were unable to provide a warning. I grimace as I stare at the surrounding walls and count the frightened scratches of fingernails, some frantic enough to rip off a fingernail, yet no trace of the person remains. I can only assume the creature finally caught up to them.
I look around and wonder just how many people have met their fate in this very hex. It is with a grim reminder that I was actually safest many months ago when I found the perfectly smooth hexes. No one had tried to scratch their way to freedom. I could have lived out there.
Now there will be no peace. From the countless marks on the walls I shudder to guess how many people have been mauled to death and devoured in each of the hexes. I have seen thousands of hexes with scratches from desperate frustration. I was just too blind to realise what they were until now.
I stir from my slumber, convinced that I heard one of the walls move. I hold my breath for reasons unknown and force myself to breathe once more. I stay where I am, sitting on the ground with my back against the wall. Perhaps the creature is able to smell me in each of the hexes and can track my every movement.
The wall behind me moves gently. It is followed by a murmur and a growl. I only hope that it is alone and free from allies within this maze. I hold my breath once more, foolish I know since my location has already been revealed. I can not hold the wall perfectly closed but I can stop the creature from entering. It pushes once more and then holds itself in place.
I realise just how effective a strategy that is. I do not dare move from this wall or else it will fall inside and kill me. So, I can not run. Nor can I shift my weight.
I call out to it. I ask for its name. I ask if it plans on killing me. I ask about the others wandering around. I ask if it is alone or if it has an identical twin. I don’t get a single answer. Not even an increase in a growl as though I am asking something it finds offensive.
I can’t wait here.
Long ago I assigned each wall a number. Number one is to my left. The walls that can move are two and five. The wall I am leaning against, number six, opens facing wall number five. I curse my stupidity. I had been looking for a hex with two escape routes and it did not matter which they were. Now I realise my folly, for if I escape through wall five I will be inviting the corpse to follow me. It will see where I go and may even be able to grab onto me before I am free within the adjoining hex. My only exit is now through wall number two.
I must wait to allow it to second guess itself. I hope it can second guess itself, or else I fear a rapid fate I wish to avoid.
The hours pass and I must relieve myself against. The wall is still being actively guarded by the creature, pressing forever. I had hoped that it would have fallen asleep by now, like how I first found it. It’s still growling at me.
I must move.
I fear I can not stand up in one swift movement. If I falter for even a second the corpse will realise that I am making a run for it. I mentally track my actions, predicting how long it will take to rise, cross the hex and open the wall. The walls move slowly. I can not hope to outrun it.
With barely a moment to look over my life or final wishes, I rise, slip away from the wall for a breath of a second before hearing a stir from my pursuer. The creature growled against the sudden movement. I race for wall number two and it is with great relief that it opens. I hear the preceding wall grind open as I slip into the following hex. With a look cast over one shoulder I see my assailant once again, staggering into the hex and lunging after me.
The new hex has me boxed in. I force myself against the walls, losing precious time. The creature only needs to push on the one wall it saw me enter through, whereas I need to press upon potentially five to find my way out. Wall three opens but the creature has seen me once again. I slip into the next hex and hold my back against the wall. I must employ a new strategy and hope that I have not sealed myself into a dead end. While holding the wall closed I push with one foot against wall five, then wall one, to see if either of those will give way. Neither do.
I brave myself for another race forward. Wall number two opens and I am inside, just as the creature sees me again. I try wall five. It grinds open and I am able to slip inside before the preceding wall opens. I now race around the walls for an exit. Number four opens. I slip inside and hear the creature on my tail. I hold my back against the wall again and push on wall five. This one opens and this will be my strategy - I will kick that wall open and let it slide into place without moving from here, convincing the creature that I have moved on. I wedge my foot against the ground along wall six and brace myself. I listen intently and hear the creature lumber after me.
It pushes against my wall and finds that it will not budge. I hear it grunt in confusion. It’s heard another wall in my hex move and close. I can only hope that it thinks I’ve moved on. I wait, holding my breath so as not to give myself away. I hear the faintest of steps as the creature seems to be trying to find another way to get to me.
It is still just one hex away from me. Luck does not favour me today, though, as the creature discovers that none of the walls in its hex can move. Therefore, it knows I am standing against one of them. It presses upon the wall with all of its might against them and soon finds me. My great plan to escape has caught me out and I wonder just what kind of a master I am if I can not even outwit a single creature on my tail. But it has offered me some insight. If the creature really did have to test each of the walls then it does not employ some greater sense in tracking me. It can not see any of my faded footprints nor can it smell me against the wall I pushed against.
A shrieking roar forces me to snap my hands against my ears. Such a sound from a human body ought to be impossible. It is a wail, piercing and guttural, as though two demonic entities are screeching against each other, both desperate to be feared.
I must try diplomacy and reason, the very last resort of mankind. I call out to the creature again, asking for its name. It does not answer. I bargain with it, asking for help and for a way out. I tell it that I am not afraid. I ask if it can speak and communicate. I start to fear that this creature is just a walking husk of a human and nothing more, that its intelligence and understanding had died with its soul so many years ago. There is no reasoning with this thing, not today. Maybe never. A quiet dread takes me over. This creature will continue to chase me until luck grants me a rare favour.
I know that wall five can move, so that is my resort. I still need to relieve myself and now I must do something uncouth. It is possibly the most difficult task to do. My stomach is in knots and the tension has all but crippled me, yet I must find a way to relax. I hope for two solutions to my current crisis - that the creature stops chasing me and consumes what I have left behind, or that it slips on the surface and can no longer chase me, allowing me some precious time to escape.
It takes me almost an hour. At the first drop I hear the creature sniffing and roaring. Whatever tranquillity I had comes to a halt. The creature knows what I am doing and I can hear it pacing back and forth, making itself known at every second, frantic as it is, waiting until it can get to me again. It saps all of my concentration as I try to block out the image of it reaching for me with my trousers down by my knees. At long last I am able to dress myself again.
With one leg pushing against wall five I am able to get it to move. The creature growls, feeling the chase begin again. Wall five pushes open ever so slightly and I make my move. I run through and slip into as many adjoining hexes as I can, desperate to reach double digits before catching my breath.
As soon as I reach hex number five I pause and can only hear my wall moving back into place. I carry on. At hex number eight I pause again, scarcely able to believe that I may be free. At number ten I breathe in ridiculous relief. Realising the mistakes of before I do not dare rest here, not with so few hexes separating me from the creature. I will need at least ten more, but almost immediately I come across dead end after dead end. I am forced to return to the ninth hex. My agitation increases as I draw nearer to the creature. I can not get farther away and I am forced back into the eighth hex, which only had one wall that allowed my previous progress. All of those routes led to frustration. I now find myself in the seventh hex, cursing my failing luck. I refuse to believe that I have to head back any farther.
I push on, feeling tired and exhausted. I hadn’t even had a full night’s rest when this thing disturbed me and I haven’t had a chance to really catch my breath since I became aware of what was after me. My guts twist and turn, rendering me weak and useless. When I was younger I could go three days without needing to sleep. I might have been able to fight this thing off if I was still in my prime. These days I wake up with more aches and pains than I went to sleep with.
I feel a headache coming on, one perched just behind my eyes, scratching at them. As I reach the tenth hex I am forced to turn back. Another dead end. This thing is still so close behind me that I am just as likely to stumble onto it as it is of stumbling onto me.
I am at least able to map my progress somewhat, but how futile it is, considering the thousands of hexes I must have crossed through in the years without any sign of danger. I will not dare rest this evening until I have safely passed through twenty hexes without doubling back. But I have never made it that far without having to double back at least six times. I might have to push through forty hexes until I reach my target of being twenty away from when I last saw it.
Continually I have to re-guess my efforts, wondering if twenty is too optimistic, as hex after hex leads to a dead end and I am forced back, ever closer to the creature coming after me. Perhaps twelve is enough. I move four hexes in, five back, five more hexes in, four back. There must be a clean run of hexes almost in a straight line. I have it mentally mapped out, yet they remain impossible to slip into from where I am now. I have no idea if I will ever make it there. I could be veered off to the right at a moment’s notice, unable to get back, when I should have taken a left. I can’t even imagine if I will find this hex again. If I do it could be hours or years into my future.
I pause in one room, my skin crawling like a sleep deprived wake up call urging me to leave. It is empty except for a smell. It is ever so faint but certainly unnatural, a mixture of wet clothes and body odour. The only saving moment of sanity is that it is a new smell, something I did not detect from the creature following me. Someone must have been here recently, sweating, possibly running. I am at a loss as to whether I should press on or retreat. Now that I know what else lives in the maze I find myself afraid of continuing, doubting myself at every wall, counting everything again and racking my mind beyond reason.
With one more minute of indecision I enter the hex and hear the wall grind behind me. I push against it and am not surprised to find that it does not open. The smell is stronger. Someone else was here not long ago. I push against the six walls and find only one opens. The smell is again stronger, luring me inside. If it is this pungent now with its owner out of sight and earshot I can only imagine that it will soon be enough to make me gag.
I stand in the doorway, hearing the grind of a distant wall open and then close. I am utterly lost and sure that the creature is able to track me down. I am caught with an unusual sensation in my guts. The skin along my chest tingles as I am convinced that I am falling into a trap. If the creature has a friend drawing me out then I will be caught from both sides. I have passed through enough hexes to know that I have no hope of escaping two of these creatures. I can barely hold one against a closed wall. Two can certainly ambush me from both sides.
Then again, the corpse, when it actually was a corpse, had no smell. None at all. Perhaps the owner of this body odour is another master like me, guiding me towards them.
I call out. I hope for a friendly voice in return. I will give them ten seconds to respond before I have to hurry on my own, running as quickly as I can to get as much distance from where I shouted as possible. I would even return to the smooth stone walls if I have to, where I know there is no exit. At least there I can be sure that the creature never made it that far. I call out again, asking if the owner of the fragrance is alive and a friend.
There is no answer. I carry on, beyond exhaustion, keeping myself moving from one hex to another, twisting around on myself until I am another six hexes away from where I called out.
The smell has now vanished. With a trembling doubt I wonder if I had been too hasty. A smell like that was of someone human, not of a foul creature that would wish to kill me. I find myself in a whirlwind of despair and second guessing until at last I come to the best decision I can: I trust myself and only myself. I will not give anything else a chance. I am in this alone and I will only survive by being alone.
I settle down, easing my knees and legs, allowing myself the opportunity for calm to find me, as it will be several days before I can find it on my own. Everything around me is silent. I start to wonder if I really have left the creature behind. I almost laugh, as it is with some grateful mercy that I had a distraction to my usual routine.
The day is about to come to an end. I feel my eyes start to fall and every blink becomes a nuisance.
I sit up again, sure that I heard it – the opening of a distant wall, grinding against the stone floor. I shake myself awake and stand, ears pricked, ready to find a repeat of the paranoid sound. I wait, my heart thumping through my ears and my hands stretched out, ready to run.
There! There it is again! Movement from the direction I came. It is after me, I am sure. There is no time to delay. I push against the only wall out of here and freeze instantly.
In front of me, in this hex and lying on the ground, is another body. A woman. She is unmoving, like the creature before her. She is barefoot, wearing a faded and grubby business suit with a waist coat. The smell wafts in and I recognise it from the hours prior.
I glance over my shoulder at the fear of the incoming creature moving just a few hexes away. I look back to the woman, afraid that she will wake at any moment. I edge around the side. The wall I came through slides back into place and shudders when it locks still. I freeze when the air flicks the woman’s hair out of place. It might be enough to stir her awake. I must hurry.
I try the first wall to my left and find it slides open. This new hex is empty. I can hear the line of walls opening and closing behind me as the creature lumbers forward. I test out the walls in here and am spoiled for choice. Four open, including the one I came through. I am presented with a challenge - to keep running and hoping for escape, or to stay and learn more about the creatures I am trapped with.
Another wall grinds open and closed, calling me to flee. It is only with the utmost of strength that am I able to keep myself pushed up against the wall I came through, hoping to discover what happens when the creature meets the woman. Will they fight? Will they band together? Or will he simply ignore her and continue after me?
I hear another wall close and fear the creature staggering forward. I can see it in my own mind, sensing the walls I came through.
I start as I realise it could swing around and trap me inside. I will have an enemy to my left and right. It can find me before I can secure an escape. Still, my senses scream at me to run while my instincts as a master tell me to linger, to find out what will happen when two creatures meet.
The final door pushes open. It does not close. The creature would be standing there, looking into the room, looking at the woman, holding the door open and studying the situation. I press myself up against the wall, listening for any clue of what is happening just beyond. I keep the walls of my escape ready, knowing that I will have to run as soon as I can.
I wait, listening. I count the seconds until they fade, then I count the minutes until I run out of fingers. Still there is no sound. I start to doubt myself. Maybe I didn’t hear the wall opening at all. Perhaps what I heard was a distant wall closing and staying closed. There is only one way to know for sure.
I push against the wall, edging it forward. I glimpse inside the hex and see the creature standing in the near doorway, its head turning up from the woman to lock eyes with me. I yelp, stagger back and run for the first open wall I know of. I push as hard as I can and slip through. It’s empty, but behind me I can hear the walls moving once again. The creature screams with a roar as it chases after me.
I pass the third and fourth hex, furious for having to go through the first wall I come to and for not being able to check the other walls. I reach the fifth hex and slam to a halt.
There is another body. A man. He is older with a white beard and exceptionally worn clothes. He’s older than my father would be. I hear the distant walls opening and closing, two at a time now.
A groan comes from the body. His leathery face is enough for me to know that he is no longer alive but one of them. I start for the first wall. It doesn’t open. The man groans again and starts to sit up. The second wall doesn’t open. I push against the third. His head turns to follow me and a guttural growl accompanies his look of ferocity. The smell on his breath is just as putrid as the others. The fourth wall doesn’t open. He pushes his arms back and raises himself to his knees. The fifth wall doesn’t budge. I slam my body against the way I came in.
With three creatures now after me I ignore every instinct I have and run, run through every hex and keep moving, hoping to find the smooth stone walls that I haven’t seen in months. No one else had made it that far, not even these creatures. I push against the walls of the second hex, hearing the groans of a woman nearby and the sliding of walls as they grind into place.
I race into the third hex and find a clear run of two more walls that put a whisper of safety between myself and the creatures in pursuit. Then, the walls stop moving. The groans cease.
I listen out for them sneaking up on me, then I hear it: a hiss. A pair of hisses. A frantic high-pitched squeal and thumping. The creatures have found each other and are fighting, attacking each other and howling in the melee. The resonance shudders through the walls and silences my bones, splintering every fear within me as the fight between the creatures reaches a fever. They hiss and shriek, thump and scream, until at last there is only one creature hissing, hissing and wheezing, wheezing and gasping as it claims victory in combat.
My skin crawls over the silence. I heard each creature rip into another with deafening screams. I heard the wet mess of nails pulling at the remains of either man or woman. My head rang when I heard a bone snap and a skull smash against the walls. Then came a final gasp of ribs and lungs giving way as one of them crushed another in a doorway.
One of them tried to run away. They still contain fear and a sense to preserve their own lives.
I turn to find my way out of here, hoping to keep moving before my own paranoid body collapses beneath me. But then . . . then the world fades in frantic abandon.
Still nothing opens.
I struggle in silence, grit my teeth and pound my palms against every wall.
Nothing opens. Not even the way into this hex. Six walls and none of them will open.
So here it is. The end of me. The final hex and I am trapped inside. I push against each wall for an hour. I have tried to push and pull, slide and trick, work every angle and every secret I know that will unlock them, but they do not give.
I slump against the far wall, looking over the entry that betrayed me. My eyes finally start to swell with tears and I burst. I sob at the final release, the one I had avoided for years, realising that every tear was a waste of time, that I was not yet defeated, but now . . . now there is only one way to escape and I can’t bear to think about it.
I need to let one of those creatures in. It has to push the wall open so that I can slip out, but I won’t survive being that close to such a walking corpse, no matter how damaged it might be.
There’s a scratch on one wall. For a moment I forget my tears and stare. There are several scratches. Hundreds, even. People have been clawing at these walls for years, yet there are no remains of them. Either they found a way to escape or something came along to hold the door open.
I have no other choice. If that creature dies out there before it can come to my aid then who knows how long I will remain trapped in here?
I call out. I scream for help. I scream to the creatures chasing me. I swear at the top of my lungs and shout until they have no choice but to hunt me down. Then I wait.
It takes a day until I hear another wall move into place. I shout again and try all of the walls to see if any of them have budged in the last few hours. They are just as sturdy as before. The distant wall falls silent and fades, leaving me to wonder if I heard anything at all. Still I wait.
Another wall moves and I shout again. My heart leaps as it draws closer. I have a plan of attack. I hold my jacket out, ready to snap it into the face of the creature to distract it while I push up against the wall, hoping to squash it in the doorway. Then I will pull the wall back and slam my heel against the creature’s neck and head.
I shout to draw the creature closer. I realise I’m about to welcome one of these nightmares into the same hex and I can barely stomach the idea. My legs start to surrender. The wait becomes unbearable. I press against the wall, listening for any movement.
One of the walls in the adjoining hex opens. The creature is coming. I can hear its footsteps getting closer. Heavy footsteps. I brace myself.
The wall shudders open. I see the grey hair of the old man approaching. His face is scratched and bloodied, still dripping in red from the attack. I snap my jacket forward and miss. He grabs a hold and jerks it towards me, pulling him halfway into the hex. I slam my full weight into the wall, pushing back, pinning his chest in the doorway. He yelps and hisses, claws at me and howls, but I am able to drop to the ground while keeping pressure against the wall. It’s not enough to break any of his ribs and he continues hissing, clawing the air next to my head. I try to pull my jacket but there I am, stuck, sitting against the wall with the old creature wedged in place, neither of us able to move or willing to give up.
I struggle against that wall for an hour, trying to push with all my strength and yet keep it open enough so I can find my way out. Then I figure it out. I remove my belt, loop it through the buckle and lasso the creature’s wrist. I yank and twist and pull until at last I hear a pop. I see its arm fall limp. It howls in agony and I pull until my belt breaks free.
I stand back from the wall, see the creature struggle backwards and I jump forward. I jam my fingers into the narrow crevasse of stone as the wall starts to slide back into place. My fingers make it just in time and I am able to hold the wall open by an inch. Then, as I feel a vein pop in my forehead, I force all of my exhausted strength into my fingertips and pull that wall open, using every last ounce of strength within my old bones, until at last the wall swings open.
The creature is in the middle of the room, its one remaining functional arm lifting up the other. It snarls at me as I stare it down from the open doorway. I will find a way out of here, that much is certain. I have not spent these last years wandering in futile search for an exit only to be stopped now. I step forward, menacing the creature. It lunges at me and I snap my jacket back into its face. It continues forward and I am able to blind it with a well-placed slap while I duck around its busted arm. With a quick push I hurry out via the first wall I find. I stumble into the next hex and hear the previous wall slide into place, but it does not gasp to a final close. Something has kept it open.
The fourth wall in here opens just as the creature peers in at me. It’s able to see the way I exit. The fifth wall opens and the creature is again able to see me. I must be careful not to fall back into the impossible hex without an exit. I am able to force my way through the next two hexes and finally clear enough distance between myself and the old creature, but it is by no means enough.
I lumber forward, hoping that the next wall will offer me a way out. I will not give up. There is dried blood on the ground.
I enter into another hex and find the devastated corpse of the woman creature, bloodied and torn, eviscerated. Blood has splattered across the walls and I can see the trail leading my way. The horror rips my soul in two and I stagger backwards, forcing myself to cup my mouth to stop the bile from erupting. The smell from her guts is worse than that of a latrine. She must have devoured some of my remains from all of these years I’ve been here. I keep my eyes from watering against the smell as I push against one more wall.
It opens and allows me to pass through. Then I hear another wall, one adjacent to me, creak open.
I will not give up. I step through and find door number five opens. I climb in. Just as I begin testing the next round of walls one of the far ones swings open.
I will not give up.
The old man reaches out for me.
I dive into another hex, gasping in fright as the memories of fending off a creature of the undead echo through my head.
I reach another one. The old man remains chillingly silent. Perhaps he has succumbed to his injuries, perhaps he has fallen back into a comatose slumber the likes of which I found him in. I test the walls in this hex, fearing another complete dead end. Two open. I slip through the first, pushing me farther away from the old man.
There is something chilling about this hex. Five of the walls are smooth. The sixth has been clawed apart by countless fingers and desperate shoves.
I stare at the five pristine walls, wondering what lays behind them. I press my ear against them all. I hear whispering. The quietest of whispers, but it’s there.
It’s the exit. It has to be. The creatures never whispered and there could not be enough of my compatriots behind each wall to warrant an open discussion.
I gently press against the scratched and clawed wall, testing it in case I need to flee. It opens. I finally push gently against the other five, listening out for a change in conversation, ready for a congratulations awaiting me.
As I push I find the walls don’t swing back when I release my grip. I try each wall incrementally, then I find my senses abandon me as each wall swings open, all at different speeds, pulling my attention like I’m a rag doll among the teeth of five attack dogs, rending me apart so they can each have their own victory.
There are heads and faces attached to each of the walls. Thousands of unique faces, bulging from the walls. Some shake themselves awake, some remain dormant. Most of them crane themselves around to see what has disturbed them from their chatter.
Their voices fall to a silence as I become the centre of their attention. Some of the faces are young but weary, as though they’ve been aged a hundred years. Others have cracked skin and missing eyes.
Their silence, though …
I stagger back through the hex as the insanity bursts through me, like electricity shooting through my face. It burrows into my skull and ripples through my scalp. Every strand of hair on my body pulls as one.
They’re staring at me. Blinking. Bored. Inquisitive. But for all their stares there’s not even a single cackle of laughter among them. Nothing but silence.
There is no escape through there.
I would happily wait an eon in the impossible hex, unable to escape through any of the walls, than to step into one of those fives hexes with all of those teeth, stares, chatters, and nervous energy, waiting to suck me in and force me to join them.
Some of them have started nodding in time with each other. I now realise that each nod coincides with my own beating heart. More faces join in. Even the ones asleep start nodding along with every pulse. They’re not even aware they’re doing it.
I can only imagine that this is the fate of every fallen master who could never find an escape. I will not become one of them.
I step back, push against the only wall that doesn’t lead to a monstrous collection of stirring heads, then I flee. I lunge into the next hex with my pulse nearly bursting through my ear drums. The wall shifts and swings open, opening up to another hex. As my heart pelts itself into the abyss of horrors I have just witnessed, I slip away and hear the wall grind back and lock into place.
I hold my breath. A tear sweeps across me the sight of all those eyes. My old hands can’t take any more of this shaking.
I push against another wall and dream of finding the smooth walls again.
I can not give up.
I return to my old routine of mapping out the hexes. It helped me before and it will help me again. There is an exit in here, somewhere. I will find it before it kills me.
Copyright © 2016 Jackson Lear
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