“Is someone else going to take a turn with this?” I asked. The gun was heavy on my shoulders and it forced my head down to stare at the dirt.
Ash laughed loudly.
“I’m too wimpy, sorry,” Anna said.
“I must carry my sword,” Odessa apologized. She drug it behind her.
Amanda looked over her shoulder at me. “You’re out of luck, soldier.”
“So helpful,” I replied sarcastically.
Ash’s chuckling ran away. There came a noise from far over the walls around us. A bell sounding. I could only imagine the size of what created the tolling.
“Look, Doran,” Anna told me. I strained my eyes to look up under my brow. High enough to see what the others did.
The passage had suddenly ended in front of us. It opened out into a marshland of bone and flesh. The ground was soft and sticky under my feet as I continued walking. Pillars of groaning meat rose from the ground. The quagmire ran quickly into a forest ahead of wilted, twisted, and grey trees.
No. It was the pillars. They wrenched themselves to look at us as we entered their domain. It was them. They grew red, pulsating, then turned dark and brittle into wood. Walking under them, I could feel their hot breath, a bloody fog, on me.
They were alive.
It bothered me most that no one was talking about it. Only Anna seemed the least bit bothered.
This was the bell’s significance. The ending of the first day, the beginning of the second. The short appearance of a path into the next area.
What if we had missed it? Would we know?
“Hold on,” Amanda called. She stood in an open area, the forest just ahead. “This is different. I don’t think I’ve been here before.”
“Wouldn’t you remember a living forest? God knows I will,” Anna said.
“The forest was different last time. It was quieter…”
The trees emanated a guttural, pained, mumbling.
We stepped under the canopy of branches and bleeding leaves.
“Is it going to be a problem?” Ash asked her.
“No. If we just keep walking, I should be able to make the path straight.”
“Should is a disconcerting word, Commander.”
Everyone was watching their steps, walking on great big roots, avoiding the chunky sludge ground. I wasn’t nimble, though, with the gun on my back. I had to trudge through the bog as Anna jumped easily from solid footing to solid footing.
“We’ll get there,” I said, stepping over a root. “As long as we don’t-”
My next step and I dropped straight into the water without resistance. I sunk thirty feet in an instant, down through a tiny hole in the floor. I threw the gun off of me and pushed up to tread water. I was fucking dense, and couldn’t gain height. I steadied myself, pushing off the panic of suddenly being underwater. I had to remember; I have air.
I looked up and the place where I had fallen through had shut, sludge flooding into the gap. All light, all sense of up and down, was gone.
The entire forest was a float of bodies and rot on an ocean, no end in sight.
Beneath me, the gun’s blinking lights continued to sink into the depths of clear water, alone in the black, down hundreds of feet. Finally, its falling stopped, seemingly hitting the bottom. Only for that bottom to move away from the light, letting it fade into nothing.
I fought to swim in the direction I thought was up. A symbol appeared in my vision, floating in the air. It was a low-air warning, and it fucked up what night vision I had.
But that wasn’t right. I should have hours of air.
The symbol blinked out.
My armor was failing. My limbs were heavier than they should have been.
I realized, the water wanted me.
But I was moving, making progress. I just didn’t know if I was moving up. But I should’ve been close. I scrambled as the air was becoming thin, my breathing heavy. My hands should’ve found the surface by now. I felt the horrifying suspense and dawning realization as I kept swimming towards nothing.
I knew I was going the wrong way. I knew I was lost. Minutes passed where I was afraid to move, the only noise my ragged breathing.
A cracking preceded a sudden stream of water into my helmet. It quickly flooded, steaming up my nose. The display of my helmet died.
I was drowning in complete sensory deprivation, lost underwater. I had to claw at the latch of my helmet and pull it off, opening my eyes wide.
There was nothing, I was nowhere.
A ray of light appeared in the dark. The world was on its side, but I could see. A giant sword hacked an opening into the surface.
I burst out into the air gasping, and slipped back in, sliding off the soggy skin of the ground. On my second breach, Ash caught my hand.
Coming out, I laid back against the stinking roots of a tree. Without my helmet, the reeking, horrid odor got to me. My gasping coughs became wretches.
Ash crouched down in front of me and spoke. “I knew you couldn’t swim.”
I hacked and coughed before sputtering out the words, “fuck you.” There was a dead body at the base of the tree beside me which I shoved off into the water. There were ten or so all around lying against the trees and being swallowed by the mire. The bodies of beasts, vultures of human size with sagging breasts and the twisted faces of old women. “What… happened?”
“Harpies,” Odessa said.
Amanda was wiping the blood off her sensors. “They attacked right after you fell in, kept us from acting. Are you alright?”
I nodded, breathless. “This place is dangerous.”
“Yes. Obviously.” She motioned for me. “We have to keep moving.”
“We just almost died,” Anna protested. “Doran almost died a lot more.”
“Exactly a reason not to stop. We can’t lose momentum or direction. Now.”
I refused help and stood. I wasn’t carrying the turret anymore, at least. I spit the taste of rot from my mouth and started off with the others, watching my step.
We could go faster, now. Watching out for stray and sharp limbs, flying insects. Everything was ten times worse without a helmet. The sounds, the sensations of sweat crawling down my face. The smells.
We trudged and jogged through the forest when there was better footing.
Amanda stopped us when we came to an open area in the trees. A clearing with a large scab-like rock in its center. She was confused. “There should be stone, buildings. This is not an organic place. The Labyrinth is supposed to be a city or a castle.”
“We’re low,” Odessa offered. “The light comes from over the wall.” She pointed far beyond the trees and through the black clouds. The sun could be seen dimly over the cliff, the one we had crossed through. The light was cut off again, though, higher. There was a structure above us, looming over the forest.
“It’s a shelf,” I marveled. It defied gravity.
Amanda jumped over the mote surrounding and onto the scabrous island. “We’ve got to get up there. The pack, Ash.”
He threw her the survival pack he had been carrying.
She rifled through it, throwing away the useless items like tent-dispensers and computer tools. She found what she was looking for and tossed one to each of us. I caught mine and inspected it. A small silver phaser pistol.
“Some protection,” she said. “There’s nothing else worth carrying in here.”
I pointed up. “No grapple device, flight?”
“No. Not with the range and not that you’d want to risk your life on.”
Ash walked a short ways into the forest to see something. We followed as he called, “There’s more of this rock stuff.”
I saw. The scabrous rock marked the edge of the woods and a harsh slope.
“This is the way, then?”
Amanda nodded. “We’re beneath the foundation. This is it.”
I put a foot onto the rock and stepped up. To my right, a tree threw itself against the rock and screamed. It uprooted and started trying to wriggle and crawl across the rock. Its arms broke loose from where they had been bound by crust at its sides to grasp at the crumbling ground. It quickly dried further, though, from grey to the dead rock of the foundation, attaching. It let out one last gasp before giving in and yielding to the rock.
Anna cursed and followed the others up the mount.
Lose momentum and you deform into the landscape. I witnessed it.
Ash shouted at me and I caught up. The ground was quickly becoming steeper, the shadow of the ledge overhead, deeper. Some trees were alive, having traveled further and survived. One had broken open, a body had crawled free from its gnarled mass and was sitting on a rock several yards off, covered in blood and organs. He saw us and tried to stand, but crumpled under his own weight.
I had to look away. Higher still the hill we walked continued on a path to meet the shelf and the shadow intensified to the point I could not see. Looking over my shoulder, hell’s sun had already been hidden behind cliffs and stone, the gap of visibility closed. As we kept climbing, I was the only one without a helmet. The others switched on their lights.
Anna reached to turn on her helmet’s light, but nothing happened. “Guys, I think my power is dead.” She looked all around. “I can’t see anything.”
“It’s not that dark yet,” I told her. “Your display must be out too.”
She threw off her helmet. Ash did as well, and Odessa.
“Fine,” Amanda sighed. She removed her mask. “It was going to fail anyway.”
“That’s a design flaw,” I said. “The two-stage vision of camera and VR.”
“It’s-” Anna started but stopped to gag. “Holy shit,” she coughed.
“That’s a human design flaw,” Ash commented, patting her on the back as she vomited. “Follow me, children. I love the dark.” He went on to the pitch black.
“What do you see?!” Amanda yelled, reluctant to follow.
“Come, come. I see the entrance.” I could hear stone grinding across stone as a door was opened, faint light coming through.
At the top of the hill, the scabrous rock hit blacker carved stone. There was a pit in the ceiling and an open doorway which a silhouette stood in. Ash, probably. Inside was a dank hallway leading to room beyond. I leaned against the wall and breathed deep. The air was less foul in here. Amanda wouldn’t wait, though. She had already gone to look. I had to go.
It was a ballroom.
A chandelier was scattered at the center of the room. Mud water ran across the floor and bloody slime grew on every surface. A hole in the vaulted ceiling allowed some distant sunlight in, and they sparkled off the still-shining crystal of the chandelier. It was out of place, almost disturbing.
“It’ll be dark eventually,” I said. “We will get lost in here.”
“I know,” Amanda barked back. “We just need to get higher ground, open air.”
“No,” I countered. “We need light to navigate. Fire. Anna can do it.”
“I’ll- I’ll need something to burn, then.” Anna was unsure.
“Look around, Doran.” Amanda kicked over a pile of stones. “There’s nothing flammable. What’s she going to burn?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted.
“We could go back for wood,” Odessa said.
“We can never go backward.”
“Then what do you want to do?” I asked.
“Keep moving!” she ordered. “And don’t question me again. We can only try and get someplace simple, so we don’t get lost in this maze.”
I stared at her for a moment, blankly. Pressing on wasn’t a strategy. Faith wouldn’t save us when we were actually lost in the dark. “Fire has to be our priority.”
“We’ll figure it out when the time comes.”
“We should figure it out now!”
Without another word, Amanda turned and walked. I wiped heavy sweat from my face. The air was humid and hot. Dammit. Amanda was going to get us killed. But she was right. For now, we just had to keep moving.
With the meager light dying, we went deeper into the corridors.