This short story is posted in Fantasy.
It’s been a hot minute since I posted anything at all, but new year and all that. Time to start fresh with a new short story response to Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge, Roll For Title. Twice as long as the word limit, but I really don’t adhere to that very often.
Minotaur Kid’s Club
by Rick Cook Jr.
“This is it, this time, I can feel it, guys!” Marth whispered, his voice cracking. He was in the back, by torchlight reading yet another map to the Labyrinth. Corley huffed. Wenda wrung her hands together.
They rounded a corner in the sewer tunnels, finding another long, straight stretch. The tunnel walls sagged and crumbled, forlorn with age.
“We’ve gotta be in Old Town by now,” Corley said. She grabbed at the hem of her tunic and yanked it down yet again; the stupid bumps on her chest kept riding up all her clothing, and her mother hadn’t fixed any of them yet, so her midriff was often showing.
“We’re not allowed in Old Town,” Wenda whined. Corley leaned close and put a hand on Wenda’s shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze.
“No one’s gonna know, Wen.” She turned a glance back on Marth, who was busy staring at the parchment. “We’ll dead end eventually and just turn around, be home before supper.”
“Cross my heart and all that.”
Wenda’s eyes glistened and flickered in the torchlight. She nodded and they walked on.
Marth spoke up from behind them. “Okay, according to this, we’re going to come to a Y in the tunnels.”
“Is there a riddle for this one, too?” Corley asked. She stepped over some rubble and yanked her tunic down again. Marth tripped over the rubble and fell, making a satisfying splish-whump as he hit. His torch flickered and sizzled out in a foul puddle. Only the light from Corley’s torch remained, and the darkness edged in.
“Hey, what the hell, you’re supposed to warn me!” Marth shouted, struggling to keep the map out of the water as he got to his feet.
Corley shrugged, holding in a giggle, “Sorry, Marth. I guess I forgot.”
He handed her the map and started swiping at his ruined clothing. The map felt smooth and dense, like old hide, not the usual cheap parchment he used. And the script was delicate, almost feminine. She admired it while Marth complained.
“Gonna get stropped for sure. Oh, come on, my trousers are completely ruined!”
“They’re already too small for you, though, aren’t they?” Wenda asked.
“Don’t be stupid, Wendy,” he snarled. “I’m not the last who has to wear these.”
Wenda’s face clenched and scrunched up. “I’m sorry, Marth. I- I didn’t think-“
“You never do.”
Corley smacked him upside the head with the map. “Don’t be an ass, ass.”
“Your fault.” He reached out for the map, smirked, and yanked her tunic down for her again. She smacked him a second time and turned away, face burning.
“All right, all right. I’m sorry, Wen.” Wenda smiled, looking down. “So this map does have another riddle.”
Corley took pace behind him as they continued, so as to offer him the torchlight. “Is it as stupid as the first two?”
He grunted. “I doubt it.”
They walked on and Marth read the riddle:
“If the left choice is wrong because the right choice is correct,
then how can the left choice be the correct choice?”
He scratched his head in a good show. “Wow, this one’s certainly different. Anyone have any ideas?” Corley was impressed again; his usual riddles were well-known and for children, but this one was new.
“It’s, well, it’s about word choice, isn’t it?” Corley asked. Through a drain a dozen feet above their heads a sudden commotion caught their attention. Shouts and scuffles followed by a high-pitched scream and laughter. The laughter faded as they hurried onward.
“Told you we shouldn’t be in Old Town.”
“You said we weren’t allowed,” Marth scoffed. Wenda quieted and Marth grinned.
Corley huffed at him. “You’re so literal. She as much as said it by reminding us that we weren’t allowed.”
“But she didn’t say it.”
She sighed and shrugged, moving forward to Wenda’s side. The girl nodded at her and they shared a small smile. Wenda’s brows were furrowed, though, and she was talking to herself under her breath.
The walls now held together in a patchwork of moss and broken cobble, like a disease on the stone. Rats and small lizards, cockroaches and other unmentionables scurried out of sight as they passed through this ever-shrinking, ever-crumbling tunnel.
Corley whispered, “Do you have an idea?“
Her head shook left and right, her braid swaying. “Not an idea. But something, maybe.”
“Between you and me, I’m tired of him coming to the rescue when we give up. Can I help?”
“You’re the one with all the words, Cor. I’m just the tagalong.” Corley didn’t respond, only kept pace, avoiding puddles and pests. A breeze reached her midriff again and she pulled down so hard on the front of her tunic she almost lost her balance.
Marth laughed from behind them and said, “At least I tripped over a rock.” Corley bit back a retort, and they walked on, almost having to crouch now as the tunnel sloped lower.
They stepped into a Y in the tunnel, and this intersection smelled less of sewage and more of dust and decay.
“Are you sure this is safe?” Corley asked, and Marth shrugged. “Look at the ceiling, there are roots growing through the rock!”
“It’ll be fine,” he said. “Now let’s focus on this riddle.”
“We go right,” Wenda said.
“And how do you know that?” Corley asked.
“Because it’s not a riddle. It’s a trick question.”
Marth stared at the map’s third riddle as if he had never seen it before. An itch formed in Corley’s brain.
“But it was a riddle,” Corley persisted. “They’re always riddles. If it tells you to look right, you should look left. Isn’t that what your father always said?”
Wenda smiled. “He did. And he wasn’t wrong. ‘If the left choice is wrong because the right choice is correct, then how can the left choice be the correct choice?’” she quoted. “It’s like a riddle about riddles. The answer is given, and the question isn’t ‘why is it the correct choice’ but ‘how can it be the correct choice’.”
Corley shrugged as they stared down the two dark paths. “I just don’t get it.”
“It can’t. If one choice is correct, then the other choice can’t be correct. Simple as that.”
“So- so the riddle isn’t even a riddle.”
“Trick question,” Marth agreed. “I’m impressed, Wendy. You’ll be a real member before you know it.” Her beaming smile and rosy cheeks made this whole trip worth it; she so rarely smiled without hiding it in a downward glance.
They walked on, taking the right path. Marth took the lead this time. They were perhaps thirty feet into the tunnel when Corley heard a click. Marth stopped walking, followed by a sickening splortch. Something had come through Marth’s body, on his lower back. It glistened with his blood.
Marth fell back and into Corley’s arms and they tumbled to the ground. The spearhead poked her through her tunic and she shifted. Wenda screamed.
Corley opened her mouth, but only wordless mewls issued forth. She couldn’t process this.
Marth spat up blood. “I- I,” he coughed, “I may have forgot to mention-“
“Shut up, Marth,” she managed. She eased him into a sitting position to examine the wound. She’d seen soldiers live through worse. Not many, but a few. Her hands were painted with blood and she realized she wasn’t holding the torch anymore, as it was guttering a few feet away. Wenda backed into the wall, covering her face and crying.
“Listen,” Marth said. “The map is real.”
“We need to get you to-“ She stared at him. “It’s real? What the hell does that mean?”
He coughed again and blood flecked her face, but she didn’t bother wiping it away.
“It’s a real map, Cor. I- I stole it.”
Stone shifted and groaned around them and the tunnel entrance collapsed. A curious sound of whip cracks echoed out, as of rope snapping. Arrows sliced through the air, pelting off the stone wall further down the tunnel. Traps were setting off.
She coughed away the dust and rubbed at her eyes. “We’ve got to get out of here. Come on.” The tunnel groaned again as she stood; pebbles and dust scattered from the ceiling.
“The whole place is coming down, Cor.” Marth held out his hand, still clutching at the damned map and his eyes popped open wide. “Help me up! I don’t want to die down here.”
Corley ran to Wenda’s side as the tunnel began to shake so hard she almost fell if not for a steadied hand on the tunnel wall. She grabbed Wenda’s wrist and yanked hard.
“Get yer ass up, we gotta help him!” she said. Wenda fell forward, but stood when Corley tugged a second time. She wiped snot from her face.
“Cor? What’s going on?”
“No time. Get his other side.” She dragged Wenda to Marth and together they lifted and supported him between them. Wenda reached down to grab the torch. Marth reached over and tugged on Corley’s tunic, yanking it down for her. She could have smacked him.
The shaking tunnel lurched, the smooth walls cracked in places, and more traps sprung further down the tunnel, arrows and spears and somewhere much farther flames shot out.
They shuffled down the tunnel, making slow progress. At every groan or shift Corley knew the whole thing would collapse around them, burying them all alive. Rocks fell and some bounced off Corley’s head, but she barely noticed as they dragged Marth between them. He was clutching the map in one hand and holding the short spear in his gut, keeping it from shifting with the other hand.
They took a few more steps forward and her foot depressed some kind of pressure plate in the stone floor. Click.
She lunged forward, dragging them all down. Boulders dropped from the ceiling as they rolled to safety, She couldn’t hear her own screams over the crash and tumble of rock large enough to crush their bodies. Marth was ripped from her grip and he cried out as she and Wenda scuttled out of harm’s way.
The boulders fell, the dust settled. Marth was pinned beneath one, the spear sticking from his gut wedged at a new angle. Blood wept from the wound now and he held out a hand to her.
“Please, Cor. Help me. Don’t leave me down here!”
She struggled back to her feet again, pulling Wenda up with her, along with the torch. Amazing that none of them had been set aflame. Wenda turned her head at the sight. Corley couldn’t tear her gaze away.
She felt nothing. Total absence, like a curtain had been drawn over her capacity for feeling. She reached a hand out to Marth, refusing to meet the desperation in his glassy eyes.
She snatched the map from his outstretched hand, stuffed it into her tunic, turned away, and gripped Wenda’s hand.
They ran. Away from the traps, away from the collapsing tunnel. Away from the shouts and cries. Away.
Most of the traps had been sprung by the instability of the tunnel, but occasionally as they dashed forward blindly a plume of fire would strike out behind them, a new rockfall would echo their passing. The arrows and spears, if there were any left, remained hidden.
Hand-in-hand they sprinted until Wenda stepped on another pressure plate. Click. The entire floor swept out from under them, so that one moment their feet touched solid ground and the next they were falling through emptiness, into the black abyss that opened up to swallow them. Their screams died as they fell beneath the surface of a glassy pool of water, and all light vanished with their torch beneath the waves.
They splashed and cried out. They treaded water in utter darkness, clinging helplessly to each other until all the rumbling and shifting of stone ended.
Silence except for their labored breath and the slosh of treading water.
Wenda whispered, “Cor, we left him up there.”
“I know, Wen. We couldn’t help him.”
“But we left him!”
She hushed the other girl. Her sniffling was not the only sound she heard.
Somewhere the roar of a bull echoed out, reverberating through their bodies. Wenda gasped.
“What was that?”
Corley swallowed hard. “That,” she said, “is the master at the center of the maze.”
Well, I hope you enjoyed that! This is drastically shorter than I intend it to be eventually, altered enough to get to the meat and potatoes of the central conceit of a bunch of young would-be adventurers stumbling into the real Labyrinth with the real Minotaur. The (possibly novella?) longer version of this story gets so much worse for the heroine Corley and her friends. Perhaps not Grimdark levels, but it sure isn’t family-friendly. That version won’t likely see blog publication, and will probably be under a different title. As much as I enjoyed rolling the title from Wendig’s flash fiction challenge, it really just doesn’t suit the tone of the story that I produced.