The Emperor of Hawks and Snakes

(He Said Nothing)

One:
Gray

The gargantuan hotel wasn’t quite as exquisite as the online reviews had bragged. Anthony and Charlotte were disappointed when they took a tour of the bottom floor led by the gentleman attendant. Each hall and room looked exactly the same with their gold-striped sallow walls, identical silver chandeliers, and black-and-white portraits everywhere you looked. There were too many rooms to keep track of and no landmarks to tell hallways apart. Neither Anthony nor Charlotte could recall a distinct image of anything in particular—every room was a blur.

“This is the dining hall.” The gentleman motioned through the door. The couple walked inside and drank it all in.

It was smaller than they had imagined considering the hotel’s massive size. There were only ten or maybe fifteen tables, all decorated with clean silver candelabras and immaculate white cloth. Anthony grunted.

“Is something wrong, Mister McManus?” The gentleman entered behind them.

“This room’s a lot smaller than we expected,” Anthony said, moving a critical eye from wall to wall. They were that same sallow color with golden stripes, and a giant chandelier hung in the center of the room. The grand piano in the corner was a hibernating beast covered in dust. “I mean, we read reviews online. I thought this was like a palace.”

“I’m sorry if you’re disappointed, sir,” the gentleman said. “We’ve been remodeling a lot in the last year. The hotel’s still not quite done.”

Anthony turned around and faced him. The gentleman was taller than him and had a thin and fragile physique. His cheekbones poked out from his skull, and he had a distinctly sunken face. His combed hair was a thin, graying dark brown, and he was only somewhat wrinkled. His black suit and bowtie were faded but clean and ironed.

“So you remodeled to make the rooms all cozier, or what?”

“No, sir. We added more living space, activity rooms, and a second dining hall.”

Anthony rubbed his chin. “Uh-huh.”

Charlotte spoke. “Don’t give him a hard time, Tony. The place is beautiful.”

The gentleman grinned. “The owner’s been pouring millions into the Marksman. We always stay on top of the competition.”

Anthony was unimpressed. “Well, where’s the fountain?”

“The fountain was removed. Some vagabonds kept vandalizing it. You’ll have to forgive—”

“Can you show us inside the kitchen?”

Charlotte gave Anthony a hard glare.

“I’m sorry, sir, the kitchen is strictly off-limits.”

Anthony produced a hundred-dollar bill from his coat pocket.

“I’m sorry,” the gentleman repeated, “I can’t. The chef would have me fired.”

Defeated, Anthony tucked the bill back into his coat.

“Fine. Whatever you say. Can you just take us to our room?” He muttered, “As long as the room’s nice, I don’t care…”

The gentleman smiled warmly. “Of course. Follow me.”

The couple followed the gentleman back into the entrance vestibule of the hotel. It was huge, high-roofed, and rectangular. At one end there was a huge set of wooden double doors leading outside. Opposite of that was an enormous marble staircase to the second floor, which took up almost the entire width of the vestibule. The gentleman led Anthony and Charlotte to the marble stairs. On the walls all around them, there were dozens of vintage black-and-white photographs of austere men and women in business suits and dresses. Their displeasurable grimaces were all strikingly similar.

Anthony mounted the first step of the stairs and glanced around at the incomprehensible number of photos all around him. He could see them everywhere he looked.

“What’s with all the pictures, anyways? Are they the owner’s family or something?”

“Yes,” the gentleman replied. “Our owner comes from a huge family.”

“I can see.” Anthony made his way up the stairs. Half-way up the staircase on the left wall, there was something off about one portrait in particular. Anthony stopped when it caught his eye. He looked at it closely.

He couldn’t put his finger on why this particular photo bothered him. It looked like any other old-timey photo—just some old guy and his crone wife who were probably both dead now. They looked no more pleasant than the people in the other photos, but their grim dourness was the stuff of fairy tales—of witches and stepmothers.

Charlotte bumped into him from behind.

“Watch it,” Anthony grunted, and then Charlotte apologized. He looked up at the gentleman, who stood waiting at the stairs’ top landing. “Who’s in this picture?”

“They’re the owner’s parents. They left him a huge fortune when they died.”

“Come on, Tony,” Charlotte goaded him. “Let’s go. I’m exhausted.”

Anthony and Charlotte followed the gentleman up the stairs. At the top landing, there were two hallways—one going left and one right. The gentleman led them left.

“Where are you folks from?” he asked.

“Canada,” Anthony mumbled.

“Oh, really? I wouldn’t have guessed. Which part?”

“Vancouver.”

“Ah. It’s beautiful, I hear.”

Anthony said nothing. They went down another hallway of ubiquitous sallow walls with golden stripes. The faded black-and-white portraits seemed endless, as well as the chandeliers hanging every twenty feet or so. As they walked, the hall seemed to extend farther ahead of them, unending. It was a strange illusion that made Anthony uncomfortable.

They reached a plus-shaped intersection where the hallway split into four. The couple turned in circles, dazedly glancing in every direction. Each of the four halls was identical to the rest of the building, and they all seemed impossibly elongated. Standing in the middle of the cross filled the couple with dizzying feelings of vertigo.

“Let’s see.” The gentleman stopped momentarily, caught in thought. “This way.” He walked down the right hall and the couple followed. After five or six steps, he stopped. “Wait a minute.”

He turned around, brushed past Anthony and Charlotte, and now went down the hall on their right again. The couple tailed him. Ten feet past the intersection, he stopped again. “Hold on. Sorry, I’m confusing myself.”

“Getting a little lost?” Charlotte chuckled. Anthony crossed his arms.

“Yeah, a little bit. Our manager is always remodeling. I can never remember where each room is.” Now he turned back around one more time. “Sorry, it’s this way.” They went back through the intersection and turned left now. After several steps down the hall, he stopped them again: “Or, wait, hold on.”

“All right, this is getting ridiculous,” Anthony said. “How many people are staying here, anyways? Can’t you just give us a room that’s closer to—”

“Oh, no, I’m sorry. I was actually right the first time.” The gentleman turned back around, once again. He led the couple back through the intersection, once again, this time continuing straight through. “Here, this was the right way. Sorry about that.”

They continued down the hall. Charlotte glanced over her shoulder. The crossroad was fading behind them as they marched through the long tunnel of gold-striped walls. On both sides of them, they passed numbered doors flanked by more vintage portraits.

“This place is really confusing,” Anthony complained. “How the hell are we gonna find our way back to the dinner hall?”

“There’ll be a map in your room,” the gentleman said. “Please be sure to put it back before you leave.”

They marched past rows of doors and photos for what felt like five minutes. Anthony couldn’t see the end of the hall. They passed two or three dozen more rooms before the gentleman finally found theirs.

“Here. Two-ninety-seven.” He unlocked the door, then opened it and handed the keycard to the guests. “After you, sir.”

Anthony snatched the card. The couple walked into their room.

“Wow,” Charlotte gasped. “This really is nice. The reviews were right.”

Anthony just grinned.

“Our manager spends more money on each room than his own salary.” The gentleman chuckled. “Do you have any questions?”

“No,” Anthony replied, “we’re going to settle in. Thanks.”

“Certainly,” the gentleman smiled. “I’ll be downstairs at reception if you need me. There’s a phone on the desk under the mirror. If you pick it up, don’t dial, and wait eight seconds, it’ll ring the front desk.” He bowed melodramatically. “Have a great evening, you two. Dinner is served at seven.”

The door shut behind him and the couple was alone in the room. Anthony was still beaming.

Perfect,” he rubbed his hands like a giddy child. “Look at all this stuff. This is great.”

“I know,” Charlotte replied, walking around the room and running her fingers across the niceties. The floral-painted vases, the miniature chandelier, the artwork, the antique desk, and even the damn bed sheets were all exquisite. The bedroom looked like a museum. She lowered her voice: “How much do you think we’ll make off this place?”

Anthony shrugged. “I’d guess a hundred-kay.”

Really? That seems like a lot.”

“The real question is: How do we get this shit out of here without that asshole in the bowtie noticing?”

Charlotte walked around the room and drank it all in. “We’ve got a week to figure it out. If we take it all a bit at a time, we should be fine.”

“Some of this stuff is pretty big though,” Anthony said, looking at the rectangular bas-relief that hung on the wall above the bed. It was made of clay and showed a scene of a hunter, clad in a dark hooded robe, shooting a rabbit with a rifle. In the background, a large flock of birds fled the tree line in a collective flutter. “We can go out tomorrow, get a bunch of boxes and shitty souvenirs, pack the stuff with them, and send them back to Boston.”

“Yeah,” Charlotte replied and picked up a vase, weighing it in her hands. It was twice the size of her head, painted in white with a snakelike blue pattern of flowers. “That worked pretty well at your aunt’s house. But they were suspicious. It’s a good thing we left fast.”

“We just need to play it off cooler this time,” Anthony said. From behind, he put his arms around Charlotte’s waist. She was too engrossed in the bright floral pattern—and thoughts of profit—to notice. “We’ll bring one box out every day. That way, it’ll look like we’re just sending a lot of shit back. We gotta act like we’re dumbass tourists.”

Anthony kissed Charlotte on the straightened hair that dangled down her temple. She put the vase back on its table next to the bed. Then she broke free from his grip and walked across the room to the mirror over the antique wooden desk. The frame was a faux-gold design of Romanesque gods and goddesses flowing on clouds around the mirror’s edges. The carved desk was an old, unremarkable piece of oak.

“But this isn’t your aunt’s house. This is a hotel.” Charlotte glared at Anthony in the reflection. He was unpacking his luggage on the bed now. “They might have security.”

“Are you kidding me?” Anthony laughed. “This place is so goddamn confusing, there’s no way they can keep track of every single room. I didn’t even see anyone here except that attendant.”

“How many people are staying here? Did he tell us?”

“No. It doesn’t matter.” Anthony came up behind her and ran his hand down her back. “We’ll be rich when we get home,” he shouted and grinned.

“Keep your fucking voice down,” Charlotte said. “Someone might tell on us.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Anthony wrapped his arms around her, as if reassuring her. “Nobody gives a shit about stealing from hotels. People do it all the time. The other tenants don’t care.”

Charlotte shrugged him off and pushed him away. “Better safe than sorry, Tony.”

Anthony approached her again and stroked her face. “We’re safe. Don’t even worry about it.”

“Worrying is what keeps us out of prison,” Charlotte’s voice stung with irritation.

“Yeah, but if you worry too much, you’ll give yourself away.” He put his hands on her chest above her breasts. She grunted, irritated.

In the next room, two-ninety-nine, the gentleman sat at a small metal desk against the wall, watching through the transparent side of the mirror. His hands were folded and he had no expression. Room 299 was barren, devoid of light fixtures, decorations, and even wallpaper or windows. The gentleman sat in utter blackness with nothing except himself, his desk and chair, and a small plastic device in his lap.

Charlotte changed the subject. “Let’s check out the view.”

She walked to the window and swung open the curtains, then let out a gasp. Through the glass was nothing but more sallow wallpaper with golden stripes.

“What the—,” Anthony’s words cut off.

“That’s ridiculous,” Charlotte said. She stormed over to the wooden desk under the faux-gold-framed mirror. She picked up the phone’s receiver and held it to her ear. Looking at her reflection, she whipped the curls out of her eyes.

Charlotte grunted. “He said to just pick it up and wait for an answer, right?”

“Yeah?”

“There’s no answer.”

“He’s probably helping another guest,” Anthony said and threw himself on the bed. He kicked off his black loafers. “This place is pretty high-end, you know. They’re probably still remodeling this floor or something. We can change rooms later. I’m tired.” He yawned.

Charlotte furrowed her brows and thudded the receiver back down. “Fine. Whatever.” She got on the bed next to him, drained by the flight from Boston to the north-west. She fixed her eyes on the patterns of that blue-and-white vase. Her vision dulled—staring at the intricacies of the design made her sleepier.

In Room 299, the gentleman was silent. He saw the male guest pull the female’s shirt up to her ribs and stroke her stomach, but she seemed unreceptive. The man was vainly attempting to woo her, it appeared. The gentleman stood up from the desk, careful not to make any noise.

He had seen enough—he activated the little plastic device just for good measure, and decided to leave. He crept towards the door, and a faint dripping sound accompanied his steps.

He glanced down at himself. “Goddamnit,” he muttered. He had been careful to relieve himself before the expected guests arrived, but like always, the clandestine thrill seemed to loosen his bladder beyond normal. He would need to be more cautious when the journalist arrives.

He went into the room’s doorless closet, and he produced a fresh, ironed pair of pants from a dusty cardboard box. The gentleman cleaned the floor in room two-ninety-nine and changed his clothes. He left the room and locked it, careful not to let the click of the door alert the couple in the next room.

He strolled back down the hall with a wide grin on his face. Things were more exciting when the subjects had some conniving little plan of their own.

Krista Barker spent weeks researching the Gray Marksman before she arrived. She read strange rumors about the hotel’s history, including allegations that it was haunted. Apparently the ownership quietly changed hands about a year earlier, and the building has been constantly remodeled ever since. She found on the Internet a series of photos of the Marksman from the past year—each month it looked completely different, drastically changing from photo to photo. In March it was green with a tall roof. In April it was blue and flat at the top with brand new window frames, eaves, and doors. By May it had practically been disassembled and reassembled, and by November a year after Edward’s acquisition, it was a completely new beast—doubled in size.

According to one obscure forum post—from a guy by the screen name Bluefire39, who claimed he worked a three-week contract at the Marksman six months before Barker arrived—the owner was constantly bringing in new contractors to remodel the place, only allowing each one access to certain parts of the building. The purpose of the construction work was unclear.

Apparently he was told to build doors and windows that opened to nothing but walls and staircases that led nowhere. He had been told by the hotel’s owner—a man named Edward Sherlock—that there were grandiose plans for the Marksman to become something of a personal mansion-and-hotel tourist attraction. Mister Sherlock laid off the contractor within a month of work with no explanation, so he never saw those plans come to fruition.

And there was a more disturbing anomaly that brought outside attention to the quaint town of Oak City, Oregon: There were reports of disappearances in the woodlands and prairies around the hotel. Only one was actually linked to the hotel—a woman named Diane Ross who disappeared after spending the night at the Gray Marksman. The Oak County Sheriff investigated the case personally, and he assured Ross’s family that all the evidence pointed towards Diane losing her way in the forest, perhaps dying by predators or succumbing to the elements. A search party was mounted but came up empty.

When Barker finally set eyes on the Marksman in person, she couldn’t help but take in a breath of awe. She expected a dilapidated, hobbled-together excuse for a building, ready to collapse on a single well-placed kick. In fact, the hotel was beautiful in person, and despite what she had learned, the owner certainly knew what he was doing. The construction was professional, and from the outside she never would have deduced its constant renovation. The building’s paint radiated a dim red glow in the sunlight—the Marksman’s coat was immaculate. Any sign of wear-and-tear had been diligently erased.

A black iron fence surrounded the perimeter of the property. From the outside, the lot was like a historical monument. The hotel looked vaguely Victorian, and the grounds were like a snow-coated forest. The gardens beamed with fluorescent color under the dim winter clouds—flowers, shrubs, and trimmed trees filled every square yard of the property that wasn’t paved. It was clear that the owner had sunk an obscene amount of money into the outside appearance alone.

A slim, tall man wearing a faded black suit and bow tie came out of the front doors. It was like he was following a script: He walked the stone path through the garden toward the gate, his hands clasped. An expectant smile shone on his face.

The gentleman approached the gate and pulled it open, motioning her to enter. The first thing she noticed was his gaunt physique—he was built like a skeleton, his cheeks and eyes sunken into his face. His brown hair was thin and graying, and it was combed in vain hope of covering his receding hairline.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it? You’re the journalist, right? I spoke with you on the phone.”

“Yeah. I’m Natalie Rodman.” Krista Barker shouldered her duffel bag and shook the gentleman’s hand. She noticed he was missing his middle fingertip.

“Hello, Natalie. So you’re writing a piece about the lovely Marksman?”

“Yeah, for Travel Monthly. Are you the owner, Mister…?” She paused for him to fill in the blank.

“Oh, no, I’m just an attendant. I can give you a tour of the place. Do you want to look at the grounds, or go right into the hotel?”

“Take me inside, please. I’ll check everything out after I rest up a bit.”

She entered the perimeter of the Gray Marksman and passed through the garden path. Walking to the front doors was like traversing a jungle, but the ambiance was eerily bleak. Only a bird or two chirped in the cold, dry afternoon air. No other soul resided in the hotel’s courtyard. The abundance of color—red, yellow, blue, purple flora—almost made up for the utter lack of animal life.

When she stepped through the massive double doors of the Marksman, Barker was hit with the smell of fresh paint. She drank in the spacious, rectangular entrance vestibule. Directly in front of her, on the end opposite of the hall, was a giant marble staircase leading upstairs, and on her left and right, there were half a dozen wooden doors. The walls were sallow, striped with vertical gold, and covered with old black-and-white photographs.

“Wow,” she said in a mutter.

With a grin, “The owner spends more money on each room than his own salary.”

“Where is the owner, anyways? I’d like to speak with him—get to know the brain behind the operation.”

“He hasn’t set foot here in a month,” the gentleman said.

“Oh. What was your name again?”

“Edward Sherlock.”

Barker paused for a moment. The gentleman said this without a slight change of expression. Something about those vacant, sunken eyes frightened Barker. She felt a strange lack of energy behind them, some sort of unnatural jadedness to deceit. It was something of a sixth sense to her—usually she could read people before they even opened their mouths, but this gentleman was different. His eyes were obfuscated. She had seen many eyes like Edward’s back in her days at Homicide.

“Nice to meet you, Mister Sherlock.”

“It’s Edward, please.” He smiled. “You can leave your bag at the front desk. The bellboy will take it to your room.”

“No, it’s fine,” Barker shrugged. “I’ll just take my stuff with me.” She felt a bead of sweat run down her temple and wiped it away. “Give me a real quick tour for now. I just got in from Atlanta, and I’m exhausted.”

“Sure thing.”

Edward led her through a series of hallways, showing off the many activity rooms on the first floor—they ranged from bowling to arcade games to shuffleboard to spas, each in its own huge dedicated room. With awe, she acknowledged the labyrinthine complexity of the building’s floor plan.

“This is the dinner hall,” Edward said and motioned her to enter.

Barker walked in and admired the room. An endless sea of dust sauntered through the beams of sunlight that cut in from the windows.

“This seems a bit… small,” she said gently. “You know, considering the size of the place. How many people are staying here?”

Edward paused before he replied. “We’ve done a lot of remodeling, and we’re still working on a second dinner hall on this floor. That one’s a lot…,” he seemed to be caught in thought for a moment, searching for the appropriate word, “bigger.”

“I see.”

“Do you want to see the gardens, or should I show you to your room?”

“My room, please. I’ll get settled in before I take another look around.”

“Right. Just make sure you take your map,” Edward said with a smile, as if he was joking. “There’s one in your room. You might get lost without it.”

“Thanks.”

Edward led Barker out of the dinner hall and back to the entrance vestibule. He took her to the gigantic set of marble stairs. Every wall in every room and hallway was decorated with those old vintage photographs. Barker had noticed that many of the pictures were duplicates.

“What’s with all the photos?” she asked as she mounted the bottom of the stairs. “There really are a ton of them.”

“They’re the owner’s family,” Edward said.

“I see.” Halfway up the steps on her left, there was a particularly sour-looking couple in one photo. She stopped when she noticed them—the sight made her shiver. “Who’s in this picture? They look… familiar.”

“That’s the owner’s parents.”

“They look unhappy,” Barker observed. They look the opposite of happy, she wanted to say.

Edward chuckled. “Yes. Your room is this way.” He went left atop the landing, and Barker hurried up the steps to follow him, fighting against the weight of her duffel bag.

Edward led her down a long hallway lined with wooden doors. Barker counted the room numbers as they marched—the hall seemed to stretch into infinity in front of them, and the doors were as endless as the photographs.

“This place is massive,” Barker commented. “I saw all the work that went into this place over the last year. It’s like a new building every month. What’s your end goal for all that work?”

Edward continued walking and didn’t respond for a moment. He turned his head over his shoulder and glanced back at Barker. “Sorry?”

“What does the owner want? More living space? Higher property value? Publicity?”

“All of the above,” Edward said with a light laugh.

They reached the plus-intersection where the hall split into four.

“This way,” he turned right and started walking. Barker lingered for a moment, dazed by how each of the three new halls stretched farther than she could see. It filled her with an uncomfortable feeling of vertigo.

“Wait a minute,” Edward stopped after several yards and turned around. He noticed that she was still standing in the middle of the four hallways. “Sorry. I still get a bit lost now and then. It’s this way.”

He moved past her and turned right, walking down the hall straight in front of where Barker was standing. She watched him for several moments—he marched confidently onward—and then took a step forward.

“Erm. Hold on,” he stopped and rubbed his chin. He turned back around, and noticed once again that Barker hadn’t moved from the crossroad. “I’m sorry. I’m getting all mixed up.”

“This place is confusing, huh?” Barker feigned a smile.

“Yup. This way.” He turned back left again—Barker’s right. “Come on.”

Barker waited. Edward moved ten feet before he stopped and glanced back at her. “Well?”

“Coming,” she said and jogged down the hall to catch up to him.

When she caught up to him, they continued down the hall. Ten or fifteen feet later, Edward put up his palm. “Actually, no, sorry. It was the other way.” He laughed. “I’m sorry.”

“No problem.”

“It’s this way for sure.” He turned down the left hall—back the way they came. He was either senile, or—

They went only five or six steps down the hall before Edward stopped them. “Wait, wait, wait.” He spun back around and brushed past her one more time. “Sorry, sorry, I’ve got it all wrong. I was right the first time.” He turned left at the intersection now—to the left of Barker’s original orientation, not the right.

“Got it,” she said. “I hope I don’t get lost without you.”

“Don’t worry. That’s what the map is for.”

Barker followed Edward down the long hallway. The pictures on the walls were becoming more and more obvious in their duplicity, except she still hadn’t seen the owner’s parents a second time.

“There sure are a lot of pictures of the same people,” Barker said with a forced chuckle.

“Yeah, I’m not sure why the owner wanted it that way,” Edward replied without looking back. Barker was counting the room numbers, only half-listening. “He ordered six-dozen copies of every photograph in his collection. He’s really passionate about his family.”

“I didn’t catch the owner’s name.”

“Jerry West,” Edward said. “Rich family, very quiet. Some kind of sports connection. I’m surprised he doesn’t visit more often.”

“Me too.”

“Here we are,” Edward announced after several minutes of traversing the long hallway. He unlocked door two-ninety-seven and gave her the keycard.

“Thanks a lot,” Barker smiled and brought her bags into the bedroom.

“I’ll leave you be. If you need to call me, pick up the phone under the mirror and wait eight seconds. It’ll ring the front desk.”

“Thank you.”

“Have a pleasant afternoon. Dinner is served at seven.”

The door shut behind Edward. Barker took in the atmosphere of her room. She was impressed—it was like a historical monument, a showcase of a king’s bedroom. The vases, the light fixtures, the wallpaper (sallow and gold-striped), even the rug—it all seemed unreal. Edward was probably not exaggerating too much about how much was spent on every single room.

Barker dropped her duffel bag and backpack on the bed. She unzipped her backpack and took out a manila folder. She laid it open and leafed through the stack of papers.

The pile had the words Edward Sherlock in tiny writing on the top page. The rest of the folder looked like notes for a novel—hand-scrawled words filled every line of every sheet. She had gathered all of the Internet’s available information on the gaunt fellow in the faded suit, which was sparse. The vast majority of her notes were rumors and speculations.

She glanced through some of her papers to refresh her memory. Then she stuck the folder back into her backpack, careful not to leave it in plain view.

The first thing she did was scour the room for the alleged map. It took her several minutes to find the damn thing—it was stuck crumpled under the mattress. Barker flattened it on the bed and took in the floor plan. Somehow, having it drawn out in front of her made the layout more confusing. It required fine inspection and retracing to find her own room.

Within a minute, a realization: The map didn’t show the correct layout of the activity rooms she toured on the first floor. The whole thing seemed intended to deceive—or maybe this was an older, outdated map that hadn’t been thrown away.

She took her phone from her pocket and made a call. John Ross, the missing woman’s father, answered.

“Krista. What’s up?”

She kept her voice down. “Hey. I just got to the Marksman. Everything’s fine so far, but there’s something funny about Edward. He lied and said he’s not the owner.”

Now do you believe me?”

“Well, I talked to the sheriff before I came here, and he said Edward’s a nice guy, just a bit quiet and eccentric. He said a lot of people get lost in the woods and never come back. But now that I’m here—I dunno.”

“Any sign of Diane yet?”

“Sheriff told me the same thing he told you on the phone.”

She paced around the room and glanced at herself in the mirror. In the reflection, her rounded jaws were veiled by straightened black collar-long hair. Her pupils were pin-pricks inside a vibrant pattern of green faded with yellow. She opened her mouth to speak, but felt a force grip her chest from the inside. She switched gears. “I’m gonna take a tour and get some notes. I’ll call you when I’m done with my first draft.”

“Wait, what? What are you talking about—”

“All right, sounds good. I’ll do that. See ya.” Barker hung up. She opened a text message and started hammering away on the keys. Sorry. I think he’s listening. She sent it. Then she started typing another.

Five words into the second text message, her phone quit responding. She tapped the keys and nothing happened, so she administered her normal phone therapy: She whacked the screen against her palm. “Piece of shit,” she muttered, staring at the frozen glow.

Her phone often crapped out, but usually it reset after a moment. Now it wasn’t—it just stayed frozen. Seconds turned to minutes. She kept watching the glow of the screen, waiting for something to happen. Then the screen fizzled to black.

Barker pressed the power button on her phone. It refused to respond.

She took out the battery and put it back in. With a sigh, she shoved her phone back into her pocket.

On the other side of the mirror, Edward drummed his fingers on the plastic contraption in his lap. The phone jammer was activated, but only worked in a limited radius. With narrowed eyes, he watched Barker. She walked to the bed with her back to the mirror and kept fiddling with something in her bags. He couldn’t make out what she was doing.

She had lied. She’s not a reporter. Not a reporter at all. He didn’t notice that the brittle tip of his index fingernail snapped in two while his fingers grinded against the jammer’s plastic case.

This subject was dangerous, so he had to change his plans. He placed the jammer on the desk under the mirror, careful not to make any noise. Edward stood up from the chair and crept out of the room, opening and closing the door with the meticulous care of a burglar. He hurried down the hall back towards the intersection where he and Barker had come from. His gaunt, skeleton-like body hardly thumped the floorboards. Edward glanced over his shoulder back at Room 297. He felt a twang of anxiety in his stomach, but seeing Room 297’s door closed made him feel a little better.

At the intersection, he turned right and took a step through an empty doorframe. He turned back around, reached up, and slid open a hidden panel in the ceiling. With delicate movements, he grabbed the metal bar inside the ceiling and dragged it down to the floor. The gridded steel gate grinded as it made its slow journey from the roof to the ground.

He produced a great medieval key ring from his jacket pocket. Of the countless mass of metal keys, he stuck one in the keyhole now near the floor and twisted it. With a loud shudder, the gate locked.

Escape was impossible for his newest subject. Edward let out a breath of relief.

He twisted around and marched down the hallway towards the marble stairwell. His hands trembled and fiddled with the key ring behind his back.

Sweating from his giddiness, he jogged carefully back into the vestibule. He slowed down at the top landing of the marble staircase and climbed down each step almost in a tip-toe. These stairs were the Marksman’s jaws, and the huge double doors were its lips. The floor was its cold and coarse tongue.

At the bottom of the stairs, he took a slow, careful dash across the rectangular hall. He swung the front doors shut and locked them, sealing the mouth of the Gray Marksman.

Edward wiped his forehead and looked at his palm. It glistened with sweat. A river of light came in from the hotel’s face windows. Throughout the vestibule, clouds of dust mites floated through the sunbeams.

He walked to one of the half-dozen wooden doors and unlocked it with his key-ring. Once inside, Edward locked and bolted the door.

His bedroom was bare. On one side, there was a mattress on the floor with an unwashed pillow and no blankets or sheets. Next to it was an empty soup bowl. Opposite of the mattress was a long desk covered in a massive stack of little computer monitors. The stack reached from the desk to the ceiling and from the left wall to the right. The monitors displayed the feeds from dozens of hidden cameras throughout the Marksman’s labyrinthine halls. The majority of them showed empty darkness through infrared lenses.

Edward sat in his rolling chair at the long desk. Sweat covered his pallor body, and he took no notice. His eyes scanned all the monitors. In one of them, he could see Barker in Room 297. She had just noticed the window that led nowhere. Her body was stricken with a posture of panic—one Edward was very familiar with.

So far, so good.

His eyes glazed over the dozens upon dozens of computer monitors. He focused his attention on one in particular—an infrared camera that showed a pitch-black intersection of eight hallways, two of which broke off into several tiny splinter directions. It was like a spider-web of halls.

“Where did you go?” he asked the monitors. One subject had been trying to sleep there when Edward left to welcome the journalist to his home. Now the guy was gone. The gentleman’s eyes darted left, right, up, and down. Every hallway he looked at so far was empty—but the labyrinth was so enormous that there were always more screens to look at.

Then Edward found him. The man was sauntering through one of the Marksman’s many endless blackened crevices. He was in a long straight hallway traveling between two intersections, grabbing himself and creeping from one end to the other. His head twirled on a swivel like he thought Edward might be chasing him.

Or maybe… Edward’s thoughts trailed off. His hands were balled and tense. Blood escaped from the scratch on his palm where his jagged fingernail dug the skin.

He couldn’t help but give a bored smile. It was all too predictable.

How many days had this one survived? Seven now, wasn’t it? Five days since he and his wife were separated. Four days since he gave in to his hunger pains and started eating the food Edward had strategically placed throughout the Black Labyrinth.

Edward leaned back and the chair groaned. He noticed his bleeding palm—momentarily he was alarmed, thinking he had cut himself by accident. Then he realized it was just a knick from his broken nail. The blood made him shiver.

He looked back up at Anthony in the monitor. Edward’s smile faded.

“So predictable,” he said with dim amusement. 

Two:
Black

It had been days now. He stopped counting when Charlotte ran off and got lost. That was it for him. He couldn’t take it anymore. The darkness, the silence, the hunger—it all paled compared to the isolation.

Anthony groaned. His legs weakened and he thudded against the paperless wall of the unending hallway. Slowly he slid down into a fetal position. He buried his face in his palms.

Finally, after a week in this hell, he let himself cry. He couldn’t remember the outside world anymore. He couldn’t even bring himself to imagine the sun or sky again. It was all so alien now.

Anthony wiped his face and looked up at the blackness. He couldn’t even see the floor in front of him or the wall he leaned against. His throat was cracked from shouting—it wasn’t worth the effort anymore. There was no way Charlotte could find him now.

She had been eaten by the Marksman. Just like it was eating him.

He tried to stand up. His body wouldn’t respond to his brain’s commands. He was almost wholly drained.

So then he crawled. He crawled forward—or was it backward?—down the endless hall of darkness. He had no idea where he was going or where he came from. He held a dim hope that if he kept wandering, he might find the key. The voice from the intercom promised that the key to the gate was hidden somewhere in the Black Labyrinth. So far, Anthony had found no evidence to suggest he was telling the truth.

But he wasn’t lying about the food.

Anthony gagged. He couldn’t think about the meat. He saw it in his head again—the hamburger patty that he found on the floor of a dead-end. The man from the intercom claimed that there was more scattered through the labyrinth. But when Anthony and Charlotte found the patty, his stomach turned. The putrid stench was sharp and unbearable, and it was covered in fly eggs.

At first, Anthony resisted. He knew there had to be fresh food somewhere in the Marksman. Edward needed to eat—he was human after all, wasn’t he? Anthony was unsure.

Lost in recall, he pushed onward mindlessly, crawling at a turtle’s pace.

The more Anthony had searched for food, the more his hope dwindled. He and Charlotte spent days looking for a way out—a crack in the floorboards, perhaps, that could lead them out of this Heaven-forsaken maze. Then maybe they could find the kitchen and eat something. Anything.

But then Charlotte heard the whispers. Anthony heard them too, but he ignored them. Charlotte could not. She screamed and ran in a random direction at that eight-way intersection Edward had cruelly designed. Weak with hunger, Anthony couldn’t keep up.

She lost herself in the darkness.

After searching for almost a full day, Anthony had given up hope of finding her. Then he’d gone back to the dead-end where they found the putrefied hamburger patty. When he saw it, he wanted to collapse with joy, and vomit at the same time. He picked off the maggots and eggs and he stuffed the whole thing into his mouth.

The memory made bile rise in Anthony’s throat. He couldn’t keep pushing himself forward, so he laid face-down on the floor. With all his might, he held back his vomit—it would only expend more precious energy, dispense the little food he did manage to eat.

Then the whispers came again.

“No,” he moaned. “Please, no.”

He pushed himself to his knees. Slowly, he regained balance and managed to get on his feet again. He wondered if he was blind. It was impossible to tell.

The whispers were louder than before. Then came the things again—shifting shadows in the darkness, shapes with the vague likeness of human beings. Thirty feet away, he saw one move from left to right, crossing the narrow hall. Anthony simultaneously thanked God and cursed Him that his eyesight had not abandoned him.

No!” he shouted at the thing down the hall, but he couldn’t hear his own voice—only a dim ringing. But the shadow was already gone, and the whispers continued. They were coming from behind him no matter where he turned.

Anthony screamed and threw himself forward—he tried to sprint down the hall, but all he could do was wobble at a walking pace. He didn’t know what he was running from or why.

Sometimes the whispers would turn into screams—screeches like metal grinding against metal—but right now, they remained calm. All he knew was that the voices and their faces hated him. They looked at him with sneers, and they spoke with disdain. They told him terrible things. They told him his fate. They told him about the afterlife—and about rejection. They told him that Hell is real, and he’s already there.

He tried to move faster, but Anthony’s strength gave out. He stumbled sideways and his knee slammed into the wall. He fell down like a car wreck, his body in a tangle. Something in him emitted a sickening snap. Anthony wept. The voices left him.

But he didn’t stop. He crawled forward, desperate to find something—the key to the gate, perhaps, or maybe more food.

Instead he found another dead-end. This time, there was something new—something he hadn’t found yet, or if he had, he failed to remember.

On the floorboards next to the wall of the dead-end, there was a tiny pile of pills and little cardboard tablets. Anthony vaguely recognized them. They reminded him of his college days, but he couldn’t quite recall what they were. They brought him happy feelings—memories of eating strange things and then feeling strange sensations. Otherworldly things. He remembered being warned not to take too much, lest he be sent to the hospital.

A light bulb flickered in his head—if he ate them all at once, perhaps he would die and escape this hell. He scooped the entire pile into his hands—there were maybe fifteen or twenty assorted colorful doohickeys left here by Edward. Or maybe God Himself had descended and provided a means of escape for the poor tormented soul.

Anthony shoved the pills and paper tablets into the back of his mouth and swallowed them all. The harsh lumps going down his throat were trivial compared to the agony of hunger, dehydration, and exhaustion that wracked his body. The thought of death brought him some respite.

He clamped his face in his palms and prayed for an end. The whispers were coming back.

Edward grew bored of watching Anthony on the monitors. Starvation was not interesting to watch, nor was it helpful. Now that Anthony finally found the drugs and immediately ate them—ending the tension before it had a chance to mature—it was unlikely that anything exciting would happen to him for an hour or so at least. And he’d already gotten bored of watching the fake journalist panic in her room.

He stood up and heard something splat beneath him. He glanced down—and realized he’d shit himself. It stained the chair and the floor below the desk.

Edward murmured a curse. A revelation came to him: He hadn’t eaten in two days. His body most likely wanted food now, but he couldn’t be certain.

He ignored the mess he left at his desk. The man in the gentleman’s outfit changed his slacks and grabbed the empty soup bowl from beside his bed. He emerged in the entrance vestibule, and he walked to the opposite wall and unlocked another wooden door.

He entered the kitchen. It was bare and orderly—every dish and piece of cutlery was gathering dust on their racks and shelves. Cobwebs were forming on the ovens and grills. A cockroach on the ceiling scampered out of sight. He took the bowl across the room and carefully placed it against the silver counter. Edward leaned below the counter and opened a compartment. Inside, there was a month’s supply of chicken noodle soup cans.

He took a can across the kitchen to the opposite counter. His hand hovered over the silverware on the wall. There was an assortment of long, shiny knives alongside the spoons and the can opener—the sharpened blades made him shiver. The missing fingertip on his right hand begged his attention. Edward suppressed memories of the time when he forsook knives. Sharp edges were too big of a risk living with his disability.

The gentleman took the opener and tore off the can’s top. He carried the can back across the kitchen to where his bowl sat. Edward dumped the cold soup into the bowl, and he lifted it over his head. His body tilted backwards and his mouth hung wide open.

The soup splashed all over his face when he tried to drink it. He blinked the liquid out of his eyes, fearful that he might somehow go blind. Half of the soup seemed to go down his throat—but he had no way of knowing for sure. His frontside was drenched in broth and chicken chunks.

He coughed violently, and then heaved giant breaths of air. The bowl clattered against the tile floor next to the mess of soup. The fresh broth settled over a dark stain on the tile that was already several layers thick.

Now his body was fed—he hoped that the damnable burden would be happy with him for another day or so.

Edward walked back into the entrance hall. The gloomy sunset cast the Marksman’s vestibule into blue-gray darkness. The innumerable antique photos were only a shade away from total black—the vague face-like shapes lurked on all the walls, watching Edward with dour expressions.

He stopped at the foot of the marble staircase and considered checking on the progress of his subjects—specifically his newest one, who called herself Natalie. But he predicted how it would most likely go—her panic of realization, followed by the flurry to get out, and then the discovery of the locked gate. The thought bored him, so instead he resolved to watch TV. Perhaps the news could regale him with stories of local tragedies.

Edward walked to a third door in the entrance hall and unlocked it. He tried to whistle, but his lips were like dead worms and failed to produce any sound.

After ripping aside the curtains of the window and seeing nothing but wallpaper, Barker tried the door of her room. To her amazement, Edward hadn’t locked her inside. She sighed in relief and cursed at herself for allowing him to shut the door.

She took her backpack from the bed. She stuffed her manila folder next to a spiral notebook, two bottles of water, and a bag of peanuts from the flight.

Barker glanced over her shoulder at the door, which was propped wide open now. She half-expected Edward to be poised in the hall, brandishing an axe or a chainsaw. There was nothing. She let out a breath.

She took the phone out of her pocket. Still dead. With low expectations, she fiddled with the back panel, switched the battery with a spare, and slapped it against the wall—but nothing worked. There was a dim thought in the back of her skull recalling devices designed to jam cell phones.

So she went over to the phone on the desk, picked it up, and held it to her ear. She dialed numbers on the keypad. There was no ring.

Then, with a tinge of panic, a hunch crept through her. Her eyes darted at the mirror again. She had a distinct feeling identical to that of an undesirable staring at you on the bus.

Edward was watching, wasn’t he? There must have been a camera in the room, perhaps in the mirror itself. Barker looked at it, and her reflection stared back with an expression of revulsion. Her grip tightened around her useless phone.

She flung her dormant cell phone. It rattled the mirror, bounced off the desk, and hit the floor.

She cussed. It was a one-way mirror, too thick to be easily destroyed. “When I see you,” she said. “When I see you…”

The words echoed in her head. I see you.

If he was listening, Barker resolved to let Edward’s punishment remain a surprise.

She hooked the backpack over her shoulders and stormed outside of Room 297, and slammed the door shut behind her. The investigator walked to the next door in the direction of the mirror: 299.

It was locked, of course. She threw her weight against it—the way she had been trained at Police Academy—but it didn’t even rattle. She banged on the door and shouted. There was no sign of life inside.

“You gave yourself away too quickly,” she said to the door, loud enough so Room 299’s perceived inhabitant could hear. Barker braced herself for a fight. “You’re fucked now. Ya hear me?”

She couldn’t help but laugh at the lack of response, and then stormed down the hallway back towards the intersection.

Dozens of identical portraits and chandeliers whizzed past her. Rage throbbed against her ribs. She glanced over her shoulder. Edward did not pursue her. Ahead of her, growing closer, was that four-way intersection. A tool, she had earlier realized, of Edward’s confusion. His attempt to disorientate her was pathetic.

She skidded to a halt in the intersection and spun to the right. Her body turned to ice when she saw it.

A breath, along with all her raging energy, escaped from her lungs. She put her palms forward and ran her fingers down the cold gridlock bars. Her hands seized it and she pushed all her strength forward. The gate rattled against its lock.

Her hands fell to her sides, and her expression was blank.

As it turned out, Edward had tricked her. But not with keen intellect or cleverness—all he did was seize a brief opportunity. Barker was certain he would not be allowed another.

For a long moment, she couldn’t take her eyes off the gate and the hall that extended past it. In the distance, she could make out the top landing of the marble staircase. The lights hummed, but aside from that, everything was devoid of life and sound.

Somewhere in the Marksman, she felt a cold grin.

It was a moment of blind coincidence when Edward grew bored of watching the news—nothing entertained him. He left the den, crossed the entrance vestibule, and re-entered his bedroom. The man in a gentleman’s suit leaned down over his desk and glanced at the monitors.

Room 297 was empty now. His eyes moved across the next few screens. One of them showed the gated intersection from the prisoner’s side. Barker was there, turning her back against the gate now. Her head turned left, right, center, left, right.

It was perfect timing, really. Edward couldn’t have been giddier. He sat in his chair, unable to notice the stinking mess he had left behind earlier. He flicked a switch on the monitor, and then he leaned over a microphone.

“Hello,” the casual greeting erupted through an unseen speaker in the ceiling. Barker’s eyes darted in every direction. “How are you, Natalie? That’s not your real name though, is it?”

Barker was frozen statue-like with her back to the gate. For a long moment, she couldn’t think or act.

“You’re a cop, aren’t you? Am I right?”

Her expression was unchanged.

“You’re a decent liar. Not as good as me, but pretty above-average.” Again the feeling of a cold smile.

“When I find you,” Barker growled, uncertain if Edward could hear her.

If he could, he ignored her threat. “I’m nice enough to give you a head start before I shut the lights off. The labyrinth is black. I don’t expect you to last long.”

“You murdered them,” she said aloud, thinking of the numerous reports of disappearances.

“I’m no murderer,” came the reply. “If my subjects were harmed, it was their own fault. I gave them all a chance. They were weak. Now, listen: I’ve hidden things in the labyrinth. Food, water, pleasure, and best of all—escape. You’re free to use anything you find. Maybe you’ll even get a companion.” Edward chuckled. “A key is what you want. When you find it, you can leave. I won’t stop you.”

There was a long pause. Barker waited, as if for further instructions.

“Well then, you’re in no hurry to leave.” the intercom crackled. “I like that. It’s unexpected. In that case, I won’t give you a head start.”

Before the voice cut out, the lights of the chandeliers exterminated all at once. The three hallways were bathed in pitch darkness as far as Barker could see. There was a vestige of light from the hall behind her, but beyond that, where there were once walls, floorboards, ceiling, portraits, and chandeliers, there was now only black. It was like a blindfold lowered over her eyes.

“Good luck,” the voice came mockingly, and then silence ruled the Black Labyrinth.

She took deep breaths. Her heart was slamming against the wall of her chest. Barker drew air, held her breath, and let it leak. She did this until her heart was as calm as it would allow itself.

Blinking, she tried to orient herself in the dark, but the blackness was like a wall. There was no minute ounce of light anywhere inside the labyrinth—not even a sliver from an aperture between wood boards. Edward had taken great lengths to seal the maze from the outside world. Barker blinked again and again. She closed her eyes for several minutes and reopened them. Nothing became more visible. A void of unending shadow encaged her, the only remnant of light behind gridded bars.

Barker shivered. A breeze of cold air hit her, coming from her right. With her back still against the gate, she contemplated. Taming her panic was essential, she decided. If she lost herself to fear, she might lose track of the gate. Then she would be stuck here for days, at best.

The cold air, she realized, was most likely a distraction. A strategically placed ventilation shaft meant to mislead her into a dead-end or roundabout. She crossed the right-hand hall off the list.

Left and center were her options now. Center seemed like an obvious choice. Too obvious. She turned left and gazed into the blackness, which was like pressing her face against a brick wall to peer through it. She’d already been partway down this hall, so she resolved to explore the rest.

Barker marched down the left hallway back towards Room 297.

Behind the monitors, which all had infrared filters now, Edward laughed out loud. He’d made a bet with himself that little Agatha Christie would investigate the cold breeze, looking for an alternate escape route. Not so—she saw right through his trickery. It went fully against his expectations. The gentleman grinned.

The only sound in the darkened hallway was Barker’s feet thudding against the hardwood floor, slow and somber. The silence was almost as oppressive as the blackness. She walked blindly forward, her arms extended out to each side, feeling the walls and keeping herself aligned. The biggest mistake she could make was succumbing to disorientation. She was determined to keep her head straight.

So she marched slowly down the hall. She remembered that it took several minutes to reach her room. It would take longer at her careful pace. Barker brushed her hands against the numbers of the doors she passed, mentally reading each one.

She was getting closer to 297.

The cold breeze washed against her backside. Barker shivered—Edward must have shut off the heat as well. She guessed it could only be 6 p.m. at the latest.

Her fingers glazed over the number 5. She paused, feeling the first two digits. 295.

At the next room, she stuck the keycard—the one Edward gave her—into the lock. As she predicted, it didn’t respond. It was electronic.

“Son of a bitch,” she whispered. Her duffel bag was inside, along with her spare clothes, laptop, and phone. And the map—which was most likely wrong anyways. Her anger subsided, and Barker let out a breath of relief for the fact that she at least had the foresight to take her backpack.

In her backpack were two bottles of water and a bag of peanuts. The water could keep her hydrated for a few winter days if she drank sparingly—but she would need food if she was stuck here too long. The last thing she ate was a shitty chicken teriyaki meal on the plane around 3 p.m.

There was a chuckle over the intercom. Barker heard Edward mutter something to himself, but she couldn’t make out the words.

A revelation came to her, and she couldn’t help but smirk. She opened her backpack and took out the notebook and a pen. It was nigh-on impossible to see the notepad two inches away from her face, but if she ran her fingers along the paper, she could discern the indentations of the pen-marks.

She drew a plus sign near the foot of the notebook’s cover. The left side of the horizontal line extended slightly farther than the others. On the bottom line, she drew an X to represent the locked gate.

Edward grimaced at the monitor. It seemed clever, but then he corrected himself: it was almost clever. Almostoriginal. The others had tried similar tricks, but they were too panicky to do it properly. This subject was strangely calm. Perhaps he had to rush his plans a bit more. He pondered this while Barker stood up, notepad in hand, and stalked down the hall away from the iron gate. She ran one hand along the wall as she made progress.

The voice came over the loudspeaker once again. Barker shuddered.

“You seem so calm, so rational in the face of things. It’s interesting. Admirable. Unexpected.”

Edward paused, as if waiting for a response. Barker continued down the hall, notepad in one hand while the other dragged along the wall.

“Your head is pretty straight, I see. Orderly. Quiet.”

The last word filled Barker with unexplainable fear.

“Do you wanna hear what my head sounds like?”

Not a moment passed before a deafening squeal erupted from every speaker in the Black Labyrinth. It sounded like screams of metal-against-metal filtered through a wood chipper. The walls trembled at the might of the horrid noise. It cried at Barker far beyond eardrum-shattering levels. The floorboards vibrated. Her skull rattled. She jammed her ears shut, but it did nothing to quell the agony.

The Marksman crushed with the relentless strength of a churning machine. It screamed with the intensity of a thousand bombs turning cities into cinder. And it watched her with exquisite cold pleasure.

The notepad and pen clattered against the floor in the darkness. It didn’t make an audible sound—her head was filled with wails and shrieks. She dropped to one knee. The noise was a constant punch to the gut. Her hands clamped tighter over her ears and her teeth grinded, but the shrieks crushed her skull.

Edward’s voice was like a whisper beneath the dire cacophony, the syllables lost in the chaos. “Let’s see if you desensitize to the psychotic noise.”

She tried to lift her hand off her head—find the notepad and pen before they were lost forever—but her palms wouldn’t unglue. The sound was constant and unbearable. Her mind split with agony. Barker screamed but couldn’t hear herself. This was the soundtrack of nightmares.

“Let’s see if you transcend it like I had to. Let’s see—”

A great ringing erupted in her skull, drowning out the discordant squeals and Edward’s voice. Her ears were weakening, failing, giving up. The torture was too much for her body to endure. She could feel her vocal cords tremble, and she could feel the metal screams rattle her body—but she could only hear the ringing in her ears that dwarfed it all.

And then, as quickly as it started, the noise cut out. The ringing in her ears did not—her cranium felt like a school bell. The relief knocked the wind out of her, and she fell on her side, lying on the ground like she’d been savagely beaten. She tried to breathe through her clenched teeth, but could only huff quick, painful gulps of air.

She pried one trembling hand off her ear and felt the floorboards next to her body. The notepad was easy to find, but she couldn’t locate the pen in the darkness. She took the pad and pushed herself back to her knees

She had one more pen in her backpack—only one. Then she would have to use her fingernails.

“—how it feels?” Barker’s hearing returned to her several moments later. Edward laughed over the intercom. “You look relieved. You thought it would never end, didn’t you? That’s what I thought too. But that would be too predictable. Too easy.”

She sat cross-legged on the floor. Barker put the notepad in her lap and grabbed her last pen from her backpack. She tried to extend the left-hand line of her map, but her hand wouldn’t stop quaking.

“I advise you not to do that, Natalie,” the intercom said. “The more you try and organize the chaos, the worse it gets. Know what I mean?”

Barker shoved the notepad into her backpack. There was nothing left to jot down for now, so she complied with the gentleman’s advice.

Edward said nothing more for now, apparently pleased with himself. Barker wobbled to her feet. The ringing hadn’t totally left her head—the utter silence actually amplified it. When she took a step, the thud of her foot was silenced by the reverberating whine in her skull.

She marched blind into the darkness. The labyrinth corridors seemed to continue infinitely. Barker was amazed that this elaborate structure existed within the confines of the Gray Marksman. From the outside, the building appeared huge, but not so gargantuan as to fit an unending labyrinth of tunnels. The illusion was beyond her comprehension.

After several minutes of silence, she came to a point where the hall forked into two directions. One was a sharp right that wrapped around backwards—a pointed acute angle. The other direction simply continued forward.

With quick movements, Barker got her spiral notebook and marked the new intersection on her makeshift map. Within seconds, the notebook was in her backpack again. Edward didn’t seem to notice—he was probably distracted or bored. The screeching didn’t start again, much to her surprise.

She snorted, feeling an odd sense of triumph. It was a welcome reminder that Edward, in fact, was human and capable of error.

Edward’s eyes glazed over the rest of the monitors. He grew bored of the newest subject—whose real name he was determined to discover. Nothing would be kept secret from him. Not one victory, no matter how petty, would be won by the girl.

He searched the screens for the other subjects. The husband thief was crawling in circles at the eight-way cobweb of halls. His wife had almost reached the pit, but took a wrong turn and was lost again. How boring—how predictable. And here was Edward, his spirits livened when he believed Charlotte to be inches away from the next piece of the puzzle.

Now they were back to mundanity—roaming and starving. Edward yawned.

The Englishman who called himself Jack Vernon still hadn’t made any progress. He had been stagnant for almost a week now. Edward figured that Jack was too drained by his journey through the pit to make any further attempts deeper into the labyrinth. He just sat there, cross-legged in the corner of the Marksman’s only well-lit room, munching on his packaged pretzels.

And yet, ironically, the next piece of the puzzle was right in front of him. Edward smiled faintly, but his expression resigned to boredom once again.

Edward left his bedroom. The vestibule was sunken in the darkness of full night. Starshine hampered by clouds came sparsely through the front windows. The stagnant air still floated in place, an army of dust mites refusing to shuffle an inch.

Spinning the key-ring on his finger, Edward made his way back to his den again. Once inside, he locked the door behind him.

Like the rest of his living area, the den was painstakingly clean and ordered. The bookshelf on the back wall was organized—all the books were lined in proportion to one another, so that not one book-top jutted like a broken fingernail. One could run a hand along the perfect smoothness of the books. The top shelf was empty—books were only kept within Edward’s reach so he didn’t have to strain himself or stand on anything to retrieve his readings.

Next to the bookshelf was a wooden door, painted black and deadbolted. On the left wall, his couch was bare and empty. There were no pillows, only the necessary stiff cushions. In this room, there was no possibility of achieving comfort for a feeling, sentient being. Opposite of the couch was a flat-screen TV mounted on the wall, covered in dust. Next to it was an antique oak desk.

Edward took the remote from the couch and clicked the TV on. He stood and watched for a moment, testing the waters. The newsman blathered nothing of interest—just local politics and weather reports and safety warnings. Edward yawned.

He would have to wait ‘til tomorrow to see if any disaster or massacre took place in his absence from the world.

Bored, he turned the TV off and dropped the remote back on the couch. He crossed the room to his bookshelf.

His little library was a glorious one, he thought. Personal bibles. An assortment of literature to help him get through every day.

And this wasn’t limited to his disability. However, the obscure book, Living Unfeeling by T. J. Wolfe, had given him immense peace of mind after the incident when he cut off the tip of his middle finger and failed to notice for several minutes. It was years ago now, but that event changed him profoundly. Gone was the Edward who lived recklessly—fast movements, paying little attention to where set his hands and feet, and cutting things with knives. Edward was a new man now. Every minute of every day was a test and an obstacle, and T. J. Wolfe had helped him realize this. His body was his temple, as the cliché went, and Edward devoted himself to care for his temple. Of course, certain things broke his rhythm—for instance, submerging into his hobbies. He could lose himself for hours at a time, even days, and not remember to feed or clean himself. The pleasure of his own creativity outweighed anything his earthly body needed or desired.

Edward read a lot of books—not just about his disability. The breadth of his interests was not wide, but the depth was immense. He owned every book available on the vague subject of “winning at life,” as well as literature on the occult. He studied every one of these every day.

Edward put his fingers on one book which was a particular favorite of his. Carefully, he slid it out of its place in his personal library. Then he took it to the couch and sat down, feeling somewhat blissful. He flipped through the pages—every single one had words highlighted in bright pink. But Edward was in search of one page in particular, a quote that he read aloud every single day. It gave him hope—it was his personal psalm.

He found it: page 63. A dim smile came to his face. He didn’t need to read it from the book—he could have recited it from memory.

“Winning is my passion,” Edward muttered. “Winning is my life. The key to winning is being clever and wise. The clever winner knows the means to any end; the wise winner knows what ends are worth any means.”

What words of wisdom. What words of grace. What words of undeniable, unequivocal truth. The rabbits trapped in his labyrinth would most likely disagree—and this brought Edward deep satisfaction. Of course they would disagree. They are the types who drone on about community, friendship, faith, work ethic, and love. All those sickening clichés. Not one of those stupid bastards knew how to win at life because they were caught up in petty things and people. Things and people that held them back from their goals.

Edward held in his hands the key. He embraced warmth and comfort, and drifted into sleep.

Hours had passed in the world. Innumerable minutes had passed in the Black Labyrinth.

Barker was tired from marching. She was drained mentally and physically. She reached a strange new intersection—one that seemed to split off in eight different directions—when finally she could take no more for now.

She stopped just before the mouth of the intersection. Her knees wavered. She half-stumbled and half-fell sideways, thudded against the wall, and slid down to the ground. Barker put her face between her knees.

With a weak hand, she marked an eight-point star on her map. The notebook was a confused, convoluted mess of lines, shapes, and Xs indented into the paper. Even in plain light, it would be nigh-on impossible to read.

Barker let out a heavy sigh. She stuck the notebook and pen over her shoulder into her backpack, just in case Edward saw her again and beat her down with his music. Luckily enough, she hadn’t been forced to endure that cruel cacophony ever since the first time Edward played it through the speakers. There was no energy in her body for even a simple, silent breath of relief.

Her eyes glued shut. It was no different than having them open—Barker couldn’t even tell the difference.

She resolved to rest, but only for a little while. Time was dwindling quicker than it ever had in her life, yet at the same time, each grueling minute felt like an hour. Hunger pains stung not only her stomach, but the rest of her body now. She couldn’t and didn’t want to count the hours since she last ate.

Edward hadn’t lied about the food, as she discovered in the time that passed since the last appearance of his voice. He hadn’t lied at all, hadn’t even misrepresented the truth. All he said was that there’s food.

And there was—food that had been left by Edward weeks in advance. There was a cooked piece of meat in one distant dead end. Barker could smell it before she could see it. She didn’t look close enough to figure out what it was. It smelled like an animal that died in the sun. The stench of the food reminded Barker of her days in Homicide many years ago—bodies discovered in sewers or in ditches, covered in writhing maggots and plump fly eggs.

She didn’t need to look closely at the meat to know the game Edward was playing with her. It was a test. She needed to get out before eating that putrid thing became the only alternative to dying of starvation.

Barker gagged and tasted vomit. There was still an untouched package of airline peanuts in her backpack—somehow, its presence seemed like a cruel joke played by Edward. Some kind of intentional trickery. The terrible teriyaki lunch on the plane seemed like a godsend in comparison.

The memory of the teriyaki chicken assailed her mind as she drifted asleep.

And then came the whispers.

Barker jerked her head upright. She vainly looked around in the darkness, trying to somehow ascertain the source of the sound. The impossibility of vision was the last thing on her mind.

“Hello?” she called out. In the back of her mind, she feared that Edward was watching, and would use this against her. Or perhaps it was Edward himself whispering through the intercom.

That possibility seemed the most likely. Barker put her face back down and closed her eyes. She desired nothing more than the cold embrace of sleep—the thing that might bring her death if she indulged in it for too long.

Silence whined in her ears. She had almost fully recovered from the discordant noise attack Edward used earlier. Now the silence was becoming unbearable. Barker hummed lightly, attempting to drive the whine away from her head.

Someone whispered something at her again. It sounded like someone was in the hall with her.

Barker sprung to her feet reinvigorated. “Hello?” she called out louder this time, making sure that whoever was there could hear her.

Silence.

Her hands shook at her sides. She stopped her jaw from chattering.

Barker got a water bottle from her backpack and took a long sip. She had been careful not to drink too much, but now she wondered if she was experiencing some kind of dehydration delirium.

Now the voice sounded close, speaking low and soft and throaty. “Hello,” it said to her, as if in reply to her question.

Barker kept turning in both directions. “I’m trapped in here too.”

No reply came. She took a step forward and waved her hands in front of her. They felt nothing but air.

“Hello?” she said, her voice becoming agitated.

No response—nothing.

“Please, please just say something.”

Something said back to her: “Please…” It sounded like an echo of her own voice. It was coming from above.

“You son of a bitch,” she growled, tilting her head towards the ceiling where she thought the intercom might be. “You keep fucking with me, and I swear you’ll regret it.”

There was no response. She could hear faint intercom feedback, and she wondered if that was what she’d heard—a reflection of her own voice.

She stood quivering in the darkness. The cold air hit her again, coming from all directions of the cobweb of eight hallways. Instilled with fresh, fleeting energy, Barker continued straight through the intersection and quickly marked her progress on the map.

Edward awoke with a start from anxious dreams of blood and silver. His head jerked upright and he yelped. The book he was reading clattered on the ground in a flutter of pages.

He darted his eyes around the room while he oriented to reality. It was a dream—nothing more. He thought his heart might be racing, but his chest felt hollow.

He blinked and his eyes strained in the dim light. Edward checked his watch—hours had passed. In the meantime, he had wet himself as he dozed uneasily.

Edward grumbled and stood up. There was a large stain at the edge of the cushion where he was sitting. He ignored it and wobbled in place from sleep drunkenness.

A realization blossomed in his head. Without wasting a second, he raced out of his den—didn’t lock the door behind him—and ran to his bedroom.

He prayed that he hadn’t missed anything exciting. He plopped himself in the chair in front of the monitors, where flies were nesting, and his eyes glazed over dozens of screens.

To his simultaneous relief and disappointment, nothing happened in his absence. The nameless investigator was deep inside the labyrinth now, far from the gate. Anthony was either staring at the ceiling from the floor, or he slept with his eyes open. Jack was asleep in the bread room. Charlotte—well, she was nowhere to be seen for the moment.

It was time to wake them up a bit.

Edward flicked a switch on a console below the monitors. He could feel the reverberations coming from upstairs. The music in his head was blaring through the speakers.

Barker thought a baseball bat cracked across her skull. The violently discordant screech whined at her from the ceiling, reaching full volume in a split second. She wasn’t prepared for the return of the noise. Inadvertently, she launched the notepad and pen out of her hands when she reached up to clamp her hands over her ears.

“I told you not to do that,” Edward’s voice snapped through the speaker. “You better do what I say, Natalie.”

Then another realization dawned on Edward. None of the subjects were anywhere near the gate.

A grin formed slowly across his face. He stood from the monitor desk and produced his key-ring from his coat pocket. The jingling keys in hand, he adjusted his tie so it was straight, and then opened a drawer under the steel monitor desk. Inside was a set of headphones, so ludicrously large that they encased his ears. It didn’t do much to block out his music, but he had indulged so much in the past that his hearing was beginning to give out.

A worry crossed his mind. His beam died, and sweat glistened on the bald spot of his thinning brown strands of hair. If he were to lose another of his senses—

Edward cut the thought short. The investigator—focus on getting the girl’s name.

He took the headphones, spun towards the door, and marched into the vestibule, up the marble staircase, and down the left-hand hall.

Barker, meanwhile, struggled with the intensity of the sudden torture. Her knee dug painfully into the hardwood floor, and her hands clamped over her ears to no avail. Her teeth grinded.

“Stop,” she said, but her words emitted no sound. “Please—stop.”

The scream of grinding metal continued without end. This was it, she thought. This was the culmination of his creativity. Random noise torture inflicted on a whim with the flip of a switch or the press of a button.

Barker stumbled to her feet and staggered down the hall like a drunkard. She could barely fight against the noise, and she could see nothing in the darkness. Without her map—which was lost now—there was no way she could possibly know where she was going or where she’d been.

She yelled and broke into a sprint. No matter where she stood in the hall, the screeching was equally intense. There was no end, no break, not even the relief of a half-decibel of tamer noise. The wails resonated sickly inside her skull.

She collapsed mid-sprint. Her body crashed forward and she slammed face-down on the wood.

It felt like hours before it stopped, but it might have been ten minutes. When it did, Barker thought she was deaf—again. Her head throbbed with agonizing rings that made the minutes feel like eternity after the screams had ended.

There came an amused chuckle from the intercom.

“You won’t believe what I found,” he said. Barker laid still. Her hands were clamped to her ears, and her eyes pried open by adrenaline. “You won’t believe it.”

Barker waited. Her ears were shut, but she could hear Edward’s muffled voice. She didn’t want to know, but it appeared she had no choice, and she wasn’t about to give Edward the satisfaction of a response.

“I’ve got your real name,” he said. “Krista. Krista Barker.”

The air in the Black Labyrinth felt like ice.

“I looked you up. Used to run with Homicide, eh? How did that go?”

A long, painful pause.

“Actually, don’t tell me. I found that too. You got fired and sued. Beat the shit out of some guy on probation. How noble. How very honorable.”

Barker thought she was trapped in a nightmare.

“I found a lot of neat stuff in your phone and laptop. I hope you don’t mind me taking them. You can have them back if you escape.”

She wanted to scream in fury, but she repressed it. Not one victory for Edward. Not one.

“You’re here for the money, aren’t you? You don’t actually care about some silly girl. How much is Mister Ross paying you?”

She refused a response.

“That’s okay, don’t tell me. I’ll figure that out too. It’s more fun that way. You must be doing this to pay your lawyer, huh? Or maybe restitution for the pedophile. I hope you’re happy. You let a pedophile go free. I mean, I wouldn’t personally care.”

Silence. Barker finally lifted her hands off her ears. She pushed herself uneasily to her knees, and thought about looking for her map. But she knew it was a hopeless endeavor.

“Do you want more music, Krista?”

She couldn’t stand another second of the noise. She wobbled to her feet and started marching.

“That’s right, little rabbit. Walk right into the Marksman’s stomach.”

Sullen, she sauntered down the hall. She remembered passing through here once before. It was extremely long, and would take her several more minutes to reach an intersection.

“Why don’t I tell you something, Krista? I’m different than you. You know what I am? I’m a winner. I’m like a hawk or a snake. Hawks and snakes know how to win. They know how to achieve their goals. Rabbits, on the other hand? They exist to be eaten by the hawks. They are food, like you. That’s their place in the chain of life.

“I just, you know, thought that might make you feel a little better. You’re serving your purpose, after all. You exist to make me stronger.”

Her teeth gritted. Her solemn footsteps echoed in the Black Labyrinth. There came no more dialogue from Edward—he was contented.

Barker’s face poured with sweat. The echo of the music still reverberated in her head. No matter how long she spent in the labyrinth, it was always impossible to see through the darkness. She would have to feel the walls to know when she reached the next intersection.

She thought of her map momentarily, but repressed her mind’s wandering. Dwelling would do her no good—only harm. She pushed the notepad, and any idea of a map, far into the back of her mind. Her teeth were dulling against each other. It was all she could do to keep them from chattering, her body from shaking.

There was another sound in the labyrinth. It wasn’t a whisper—this time it was a pitiful little noise, like a dog crying, coming from some distance ahead of her.

Edward was overwhelmingly pleased with himself. It had taken a while, but he finally won. No victory, no matter how petty, would be won by the investigator, Krista Barker.

He said her name aloud again. The revelation was sweet. No more aliases—now he had her true identity in his grasp.

It was hours past midnight. Edward resolved to let his body sleep, although he wished to stay up later and watch his subjects’ progress.

Anthony was still lying in place. Charlotte had made a bit of progress, but then threw it away with a wrong turn. Jack was still drained of all hope and energy, eating one tiny pretzel at a time. And Barker—she was now hopelessly lost without a map in the Marksman’s labyrinthine guts.

He pushed the chair away from the desk and stood up. Now he noticed the shit at his feet and all over the inside of his pants. Hurriedly, he scooped as much of it as he could into a plastic garbage bag and tossed it in the trash. A swarm of flies rushed the garbage bag.

Edward left his bedroom and went into the bathroom, which was the next door down in the vestibule. He locked himself inside.

He stripped naked and hung his suit—which was wrinkled, ragged, sweaty, and shit-stained—over the shower curtain. He would throw it away and move on to the next one, unwilling to take the time to wash the damn thing and try to get the stains out for his next subject (who was expected to arrive in a few days).

Edward stared at himself in the mirror for a cold minute. His face had degraded further—his cheeks and eyes sunk deeper into his skull, giving his face a skeletal look. He might have been starving for all he damn well knew.

His hand shook as it reached for his toothbrush. He opened his mouth wide and scrubbed at his teeth without water or toothpaste. Each tooth was sallow and brittle, looking ready to crack and break at the slightest tap.

He stared at himself in the mirror while he reluctantly brushed his body’s teeth.

In an instant, Edward appeared sicker—his face paled. Moments later, he vomited violently. Bile shot out of his mouth and splattered all over the mirror, veiling his reflection in slime of undigested chicken noodle soup. He lurched over the sink, feeling no pain in his stomach, but simply weakness of his body. He thought he might black out and wake up hours later in a pool of his stomach acids.

Trembling, he wiped the mirror down with a stroke of his bare hand. As he revealed his reflection in the glass, he saw something new. A face had appeared over his shoulder in the reflection, and was staring at Edward from behind him.

Instinctively, he glanced over his shoulder. Nothing was there. He looked at the mirror, and there it was—glaring at him with a look of blank dourness.

“Oh, hello,” he said with a broad smile. “You’re lost again, aren’t you? Do you need directions to the dining hall?”

The face stared unmoving.

“Oh, you want to use the bathroom? Well, you’ll just have to wait a minute. I’ve made a huge mess.”

No reply, no movement.

“No need to act pouty. You’ll have your privacy in a moment. Just let me clean this shit and brush my teeth.”

Edward continued brushing, completely ignoring the thing in the reflection. At the same time, he took a handful of toilet paper and wiped the mirror down from corner to corner. The thing’s eyes did not move this whole time. They were locked on Edward with a look of dark intent.

“All right, I’m all done, buddy,” Edward smiled, looking the thing right in the eyes. “Just give me a moment to groom myself. I like to look snazzy when I go to sleep. You know what I mean? Well, you probably don’t, given your circumstance.” The smile formed into a grin.

The man in the gentleman’s disguise combed his fingers through his thinning brown hair, brushing it over his bald spot. He pulled open the eyelids on his right eye, revealing the entire bloodshot ball, and inspected it closely. The dark retinas, brown to the point of near blackness, seemed darker when surrounded by crooked red lines.

Then something moved in the mirror. A hand and arm appeared now, with the pointer finger extended. The finger pressed underneath the jaw of the ghastly face where its neck would be, and it dragged across to the other side. A cut to the throat. Unoriginal—quite expected. Cliché, even.

Edward yawned. “Well, I’m beat. I’m going to bed. See you in the morning, buddy.”

He waited and watched the reflection, as if expecting a response. He grinned stupidly. The thing in the reflection kept watching him in blank silence.

“Goodnight.” Edward flicked the light off as he left the bathroom. He glanced over his shoulder before the door fully shut. The face had disappeared from the mirror.

He went back to his bedroom, laid himself on his bed like a corpse in a coffin, and quickly fell asleep. 

Three:
Blue

Barker could take no more. She had chased the whimper down the hall until it led her to a Y-shaped intersection. At that point, she stopped and listened. It seemed to be echoing from every direction. She wondered if she was losing it—hearing echoes inside her own skull.

Or maybe Edward was playing another trick, making pathetic dog-like sounds through a distant intercom. She sighed, defeated. She might have spent all this time chasing nothing.

Her hands clenched into white fists. She wanted to punch the wall in rage, but restrained herself. After all, she’d need all the strength she could muster when she finally won Edward’s little games and got the chance to beat the living shit out of him.

There was a miniscule chance of escaping some other way—a loose floorboard or an unlocked door. But Barker placed no wager on this possibility. She knew Edward’s type from her Homicide days. This game wasn’t his hobby: it was his obsession. He had gone to extreme lengths to make sure there was not a single exploitable flaw in his system.

And he had done this before, many times perhaps. He had plenty of opportunity to work the kinks out of his game long before Barker’s arrival.

Barker didn’t move from the Y-intersection. She stood facing the corner of two hallways that extended into infinite darkness. There was still a whimper, but it was softer now—more pathetic. It occurred to Barker that this might not be Edward or intercom feedback. This might actually be a person inside the maze.

But she’d had enough. There was no way to know how much time passed inside the Black Labyrinth, but she’d been exploring for hours upon hours. Fuck it—it was time to sleep now. At least for half an hour, an hour at most.

She laid on the floor with her backpack as a pillow, pointing her legs in the direction of the two splitting hallways where she hadn’t come from. It was almost impossible to know which way was which, and without some sort of indication, she would become disoriented and lost forever.

Barker closed her eyes. It looked no different than having her eyes open. She saw a light move behind her eyelids—a strange light forming, moving, indefinitely changing shapes. It was an interesting illusion, most likely caused by her entrapment in artificial blindness.

The whimpering was softening. It was almost inaudible. Barker let her body relax, and she drifted away.

Her mind flooded with memories. She remembered her last day at Atlanta PD Homicide. As soon as she laid eyes on him—some shitbag named Peter—Barker knew something was profoundly wrong with him. It was her “sixth sense” that told her, indicated by energy conveyed in the eyes. The very moment she saw those icy blue retinas, Barker’s heart went numb. Peter was bad fucking news, and she was sure of it.

The man was leaning against a chain-link fence, his face pressed against the metal and his fingers running down the fence’s pole. He was watching a group of kids play ball on an elementary school baseball diamond.

Barker wasn’t even on duty that day. She was walking down the street, from the liquor store to her home, with a bottle of root beer in her hand. That was a strange day indeed—she didn’t even like soda, she just wanted to break up the usual routine and not think about people at her job.

The man noticed her coming. He glanced at her when she strolled by. That was when she felt it—Peter was hiding something. It was impossible to ignore.

A few steps past the man, she stopped and spun around.

“Hey there,” she said with a smile.

He wasn’t startled. He looked at her and returned the smile. “Hi,” he said.

“What’s going on?” Barker approached him so he was in arm’s reach.

“I’m looking for my nephew. My brother asked me to pick him up today, and I can’t find him.”

“Oh, okay. What’s your nephew’s name?”

“His name is… John.”

“John, huh? You mean like John Doe? John Average?”

“Excuse me?”

“I’m just messing with you. Maybe I can help you find him. What’s he look like? What was he wearing today?”

Peter was taken aback. Nervous, he slicked his hair to one side. “Erm. He’s a boy. Eleven years old. Um. Blonde hair.”

“Uh-huh. Can I see some ID, please?”

“I don’t have it with me.”

“What’s your name?”

He paused. “Peter.”

“Listen, Peter. My name’s Krista Barker, and I’m an officer with APD. I don’t like creepy men staring through chain-link fences at children. Now, if you’ll tell me what John looks like, or show me a picture of him—”

“I’m not doing anything wrong.”

“I’m sure you haven’t yet.”

With that comment, the spark hit the powder keg. Peter turned around and broke into a sprint. Barker pursued him and tackled him within a second.

“Get off me,” he snarled. “I have rights.”

“Fucking shitbag. Come on.”

She took him all the way to the police station by foot. Once inside, she put some cuffs on him and looked him up. Peter refused to forfeit his last name, but it wasn’t hard to find him in the local sex offender registry.

In the interrogation room later that day, Barker totally lost it. She didn’t even remember why—it was something he said about little boys. He’d broken the law just by being near that school, so he would have gotten fucked over by the court system no matter what, but Krista just—

For a brief, cathartic moment, she lost control of herself. She let the bastard have it right there in front of the one-way mirror—beat him into a week-long coma. It took three cops to pry Barker off the pathetic shit-for-a-heart. She felt very strong and courageous at the moment, but she realized her mistake once the adrenaline faded and her brain took command again.

And now here she was. All she’d ever been was a cop like her dad—she never knew any other profession. So she resigned herself to tear-inducingly boring private investigation jobs just to pay the bills and eventually pay restitution to Peter the child molester. And her work wasn’t Magnum P.I. or anything. No guns, no bad guys. Just stalking people, basically. Stalking and taking photos them to get evidence of injury insurance fraud, or a cheating husband, or whatever.

Barker shouted when Edward’s music awoke her. The deafening screech vibrated the floorboards. The awful noise hammered her ears, and the shock of it shattered her rational consciousness. Her jaws rattled in her skull.

This time, Edward was generous. The music lasted only ten seconds. Just enough to ensure she would sleep no more.

“No rest for the honorable policewoman, Krista,” the voice erupted from the ceiling after the screech halted, half-muted by the ringing that lingered in her skull. “No rest for the wicked, as the cliché goes.” He laughed.

How long had she slept? Barker had no way of knowing. For all she knew, it could’ve been five minutes or five hours.

Elsewhere in the Marksman, Edward chuckled as he sat naked before the monitors. He let himself sleep for just under an hour before he woke up again, giddy with excitement. He’d practically leaped out of bed to check up on his new favorite subject. When he looked at the monitor, he saw, through the infrared, Krista Barker lying on her back with her eyes closed. Behind her shut lids, her eyes were twitching and fluttering.

Edward slipped up—he’d accidentally allowed her to fall into REM sleep. He corrected his error with the flick of a switch. His bedroom vibrated and he watched the screen’s feed with deep satisfaction.

Barker’s head split with agony. She clenched her throbbing forehead as her ears whined. “No more,” she muttered.

“If you want it to end,” Edward said, apparently reading her lips, “you should press on. You have no time to rest. Get what I’m saying?”

Barker lumbered to her feet. Her head was spinning. She wavered, started to fall over, and caught herself on the wall.

It was apparent that she had two choices: keep walking or suffer more noise torment.

So she kept following the whimper. Now it was quieter than ever, yet still constant. Even with the reverberation in her skull, the pathetic noise seemed to be coming from a clear direction. She sauntered into the right-hand hall of the Y-intersection and moved towards the source of the noise.

Moments turned to minutes. At first, Barker trudged through the blackness with the strange illusion that she was making no progress. It was impossible to tell—especially with no map—how far she had gone. For a while, the whimper seemed more and more distant.

And then it grew louder. Barker’s slow footsteps echoed in the hall. Perhaps Edward’s victim heard her coming, and was crying out for help?

She quickened her pace. The invisible walls and floor whizzed past her as she broke into a jog. She stumbled slightly, but was quick to regain herself.

Once again, she felt reinvigorated. But how much more energy did she have left? How much longer before she collapsed from exhaustion, her body surrendering to the will of the Gray Marksman?

“Hello?” she called out. The whimpering was definitely louder now. It was closer. “Can you hear me?”

“No-o-o-o,” someone let out an elongated groan. Barker’s heart jumped. She wanted to grin.

“Don’t worry, I’m coming,” she cried out.

Downstairs, behind the monolith of stacked computer screens, Edward was grinning also. His eyes darted back and forth between the different camera feeds. Anthony had barely moved a muscle since he ate the drugs. This was sure to be interesting.

Edward couldn’t resist. He indulged himself, and spoke into the microphone.

“Ah, would you look at that?” his voice crackled over Barker’s head. She was too excited to care about what this sick fuck had to say to her. “If I’m not mistaken, I believe you’ve found yourself a companion. Isn’t that just swell?”

“No-o-o-o,” the voice moaned again. It was right in front of her now—Barker finally reached him. She skidded to a halt. Squinting in the darkness, she made out a silhouetted shape just in front of her. It was a crumpled mess of a human figure lying in the middle of the hall.

Dazed, Barker oriented herself. She could make out, from the walls around her, some kind of massively complicated eight-way intersection of hallways. The agonized human figure was broken in the center, a fly caught in the Marksman’s spider web.

“Hey there!” Barker cried out again. “Don’t worry. I’m a cop—er, I used to be. I want to get you out of here.”

The figure didn’t move. “No-o-o-o…”

Then Edward’s voice came over the intercom again. “Isn’t this wonderful? So heart-warming. So hopeful.”

“Are you okay?” Barker kneeled down by the figure. She reached out toward him, her hand hovering over the human figure.

The figure was buried into itself, crumpled like a piece of tissue. “Oh, no… Please, no…”

Edward: “I really do love that word, don’t you? It just rolls off the tongue. Hope… Hope… Hope…”

“Please talk to me. Are you okay?”

Edward’s voice again: “Hope…”

She put her hand down, touching his arm. The man jolted. His movements were like a dying insect. He jerked his head and crawled away from her, slow but desperate.

“Are you okay?” she asked again, following him closely. She didn’t want to lose track of him in the dark.

“Hope…” the intercom said somberly.

“Oh God,” the man cried out, his voice hoarse. Barker thought she could see him look back at her, his shattered eyes gleaming in the darkness. “It’s following me. Please, don’t…”

“Hey, it’s okay. I want to get out of here too.”

“Hope…”

No-no-no-no-no-no,” the man babbled, scuttling away even faster on his hands and knees.

“No, wait! Maybe we can help each other. What’s your name? I’m Krista.”

“Hope…”

No!” he hissed. “Get away from me, goddamn it!”

Hope…”

“Wait!” Barker cried, but it was too late. The man leaped to his feet and cut the air with a weak swing in her direction. Then he spun around and took off down one of the eight hallways.

“Hope…”

“Get away from me! Whatever you are!”

“Hope…”

He was sprinting now. His dim figure disappeared into the cool darkness.

Barker wanted to scream out of frustration. “Please, wait!”

“Hope…”

And then he was gone. With him, his footsteps echoed off into the distance.

“It really is a great word.” Edward laughed. “Isn’t it?”

Barker was trembling with fury. She couldn’t help herself—she kicked the wooden panel of the wall.

“Hope,” he said one last time with a soft, child-like chuckle.

He ran down the hall. Anthony lost it completely. He had given up hope so long ago. Even hope of death—that was long gone. He resigned to the knowledge that this was Hell, and he was trapped here for eternity.

The pills didn’t kill him. Of course they didn’t—why would the mean man in the bowtie give him such an easy method of escape? All they did was make everything worse. They made everything seem crazy, absurd, incomprehensible. The dark throbbed in his vision, and he saw shadows writhe and squirm in the corners of his eyes. He heard noises zip past his head, like bugs flying at warp speed. Nothing he did stopped it or even slowed it down. He tried yelling at it, spitting, cursing, punching, kicking, and grabbing. None of it quelled the living darkness.

The black was alive. The labyrinth was alive. And it wanted to eat Anthony alive.

And then, the cruelest of all jokes: those things he kept seeing, the faces and walking shadows and dim human figures—one of them appeared in the form of hope. The things that lived in the labyrinth wanted to give him false hope. It was a flimsy illusion, and Anthony saw right through it.

He kept running down the straight hall. There was no way he would let the demon woman catch him. Who knows what might happen then? Of course, it wouldn’t kill him—he knew that for a fact. The demon would most likely crawl inside his head and scramble his brain.

But then again, was there anything left to scramble? Anthony had no idea. There was only one certainty in the Black Labyrinth: No escape. Not even death.

His body was weak with hunger, but the adrenaline greatly outweighed his condition. He needed to get as far away from the apparition as possible. There was one more certainty. The things that watched him, whispered to him, would stop at nothing to have him.

But then, a glimmer of hope appeared. Anthony slammed face-first into a closed door. It was solid immaculate steel, a brilliant glitter of light silenced by the omnipresent blackness of the maze.

Anthony backed away from the door and knocked into something suspended by a wire from the ceiling. He paused, disorientation clouding his brain.

It took nearly half a minute for him to put the pieces together. It was a key—hanging from the ceiling in front of the door.

Was this the key to the gate?

Anthony snatched it, giggling with joy. Tears streamed down his face. He couldn’t believe his luck—that demon woman chased him right into the key.

With the tiny metal sigil of hope clenched in one sweating palm, he reached forward with his free hand. His hand searched the door for the knob, and then he twisted it. Locked.

Minutes passed, and Anthony pieced the puzzle together. It wasn’t the key to the gate—it was a key to this door.

But the sweetness of hope was too good to let go so quickly. Anthony was profusely crying tears of immense happiness. He had a wet, toothy grin, and he couldn’t stop laughing.

Perhaps this door led to the real key—the key to the gate. The key to escape. The key to victory.

It was such a shame Charlotte had left him. She was probably dead now. Digested by the Marksman.

But he couldn’t bring himself to care—not right this second. All he could think about was the delicious taste of victory.

He jammed the key into the knob and turned it. The door clicked and pushed ajar. Anthony let out a screech of happiness in between heavy sobs.

He threw the door open. More cool air and darkness ahead of him.

No worries—he was certain that the next key was up ahead, not too far now. Not too far at all.

Anthony put a foot forward. He couldn’t contain his excitement. He heaved his body into a sprint, launching through the opened gateway, and—

—and fell right down into the gaping pit.

His scream, an amalgam of terror and relief, echoed through the Black Labyrinth as he twisted and tumbled down the pit. He delivered himself into darkness.

When he hit the ground, there was a sickening snap—worse than the one earlier, which was a broken rib. This one was different.

But he couldn’t stop crying and giggling. Now he couldn’t stop shaking. He tried to move, but his lower body wouldn’t respond. His legs were cold and numb.

He tried to drag himself forward. Anthony reached out and clawed at the ground, but his body weighed infinitely more than ever. He couldn’t move himself an inch. Anthony looked back at his legs. His wet face was twisted with his grin.

“You really got me there,” he said in between sobbing cackles. His legs were a mangled mess. He reached down and touched his thigh. “You really got me…”

He lifted his head as high as he could. With as much force as he could muster, he threw his skull into the floor. He did it again and again and again. His skin started to split open.

He prayed for his cranium to break in half, so that the voices might escape his head.

Edward started to doze off after Anthony did himself in. Once he saw the dumb bastard hit the bottom of the pit, he felt his interest wane quickly. One less subject, it seemed. He was severely disappointed—Anthony was quite an amusing (if very predictable) subject. Edward had hoped to extract more from him before he died in the darkness.

He stared at the monitor that displayed the pit’s sunken trench-like interior. It was essentially another hallway, like all the others, except the floor was lowered fifteen feet below ground. It stretched some hundred or so feet from one end to the next. Anthony had managed to launch himself a considerable distance, almost into the mess that filled two-thirds of the pit. Edward had never set foot in the pit, and it would never be cleaned—the mess would only grow.

It was only a pity that Anthony couldn’t be more useful before he died. Edward sighed, relishing in thoughts of a lost opportunity. The guy didn’t amount to a whole lot, but he was a man who loved living—even if his notion of it was thievery, leeching off those genuinely dedicated to something. Now that Edward thought about it, Anthony was more pathetic than anything—his death was kind of relieving. Sucking him dry was like wrestling a child. So much will, so little substance, and so easy to snap like a twig.

Now Krista left the view of the cameras. Edward’s breath drew short, his knuckles twitched, and the brows on his face furrowed. His irises flickered around the monitors. Jack and Charlotte were stagnant as ever in the comfort room beyond the pit. Krista was on the move, and was closing in on the pit where Anthony fell.

But at least she was still kicking—so far, she seemed to be the most lively and enthralling of any subject who had entered the Marksman’s belly. She had the potential to show Edward so much—her psyche was stout, tough to crack. There was so much life in her to take away, a sense of true confidence that she clutched with intensity few people could ever manage. Edward had feared she might not stay put in Room 297—that she might have followed him back downstairs before he got the chance to lock her inside the labyrinth.

But his concern was weightless—she relinquished her power and gave him more than enough time to start his game unhindered.

The world was dissolving to black and Edward almost tipped over in his chair. He awoke and caught himself. On the cameras, Krista reappeared, moving slowly down the hall towards the door Anthony found. The dumb thief had led her right to the pit. Edward let out a stale breath that had been trapped in his throat. He had no idea how much time was passing right now. His only concern was breaking Krista Barker.

Change of plans: when Krista reaches the pit, Edward would test her durability—kick the rotting structure and see if it collapses. Perhaps a direct challenge was in order.

He started leaning back in his chair again, his eyelids fluttering and his vision dulling.

Vague imagery appeared behind his eyes, pictures of—of… what was that word people use? Anxiety? In flashes, he saw himself from a third-person perspective. This scene was familiar. A year and a half ago, maybe. In front of his own stolid, standing form, he could see a face he recognized. It took a moment, but as the image grew clearer in his dreaming eyes, he realized it was that stupid bastard Sheriff of Oak County. He had a subtle expression on his face, the tiny furrowing of brows, the tensing of the jaw, that Edward recognized as suspicion. Edward was standing in the doorway of his old shoddy house on Arlan Street in Oak City. The Sheriff stood several feet outside the door, shielding his nose and mouth with the bend of his arm. Perhaps he smelled piss or shit Edward hadn’t cleaned up, or perhaps he smelled—

That word, anxiety, oppressed him until the front door closed behind the Sheriff, several million dollars richer (but he would be back for more). The moment the door was shut, Edward pried loose the floorboards in the center of his living room, and he dumped more lye into the crawl space beneath his home. Quickly, he replaced the wooden panels. There was room for not one mistake, no matter how tiny.

—and perhaps he was lucky that old Lou Barnes was Sheriff of Oak County, and not a man of idealism or values of any description, like integrity or morality.

That was the day when his “low-income waiter at Denny’s” disguise would no longer suffice. He had to move on and find something else—and it was this search that led him to his future bride and protector, the Gray Marksman. When he found her, he knew he had to have her. And of course, he was clever and wise, so he knew the means to any ends—and which ends are worth any means.

Anxiety had become home—if drinking water was illegal, would you not find means to your end? Edward had acknowledged his own sadistic needs a long time ago, but took too many risks to sate himself in the past. Now he was locked up and free to indulge. And that dumb bastard Lou had yet to find his new hidey-hole.

He remembered the powerlessness from before he married the Marksman, and before he cut off the outside world. His teeth grinded involuntarily, his lips twitched. One hand jerked, and a tiny red chunk of his skin became lodged in his broken fingernail.

Edward caught himself before he fell out of his chair. He straightened his posture and locked his tired eyes on the screens and Krista Barker.

After catching her breath, Barker chased after Anthony and arrived at the end of the hall in time to hear—but not see, of course—his descent into the pit.

She shuddered. Her body turned to ice and her spine went numb. As it occurred, she could see in her mind the image of the forlorn man tumbling down the pitfall, his voice drowning for a moment before cutting off. Barker winced.

Her legs wobbled, threatening to buckle on her. She leaned her shoulder against the black wall of the labyrinth for support. Everything was spinning and felt dimmer around the edges.

It was all like a play—something Edward had staged. In normal circumstances, it would have seemed impossible. But now…

Barker slid along the wall towards the door Anthony had barged through, feeling around the hall in search of its threshold. Along the way, she inched her feet forward and prodded the floor in front of her to make sure it was solid.

She awaited a comment from Edward. Nothing came. He was simply watching—or perhaps he had walked away or fallen asleep? It was impossible to tell, and the unknowing terrified her more profoundly than any of Edward’s attempts at diatribe.

Slowly, Barker steadied herself on her feet and centered her balance again. The dimness passed, and she felt her head clearing—but not completely. Never completely. Clarity was alien to her now.

Her hand touched the door, which was half-open after the man had thrashed through. She pushed it open, pressing it against the wall, and stuck her foot out to test the floorboards. She determined that there were about two or three feet of floor before it cut off and dipped straight down. A cold breeze hit Barker from behind.

She unzipped her backpack and felt around inside for something. There was a full bottle of water, another bottle slightly drunken, an unopened bag of peanuts, and finally a manuscript of notes on Edward Sherlock in a manila folder, which had proven to be the most useless of the belongings she still carried.

Barker pulled out the folder and zipped her backpack. She flipped through the papers, blind to the pages in her hands. As it turned out, an investigator wasn’t even needed—Edward was glad to give himself away as a potential serial murderer to anyone who entered the threshold of the hotel. What she needed instead was a gun—something to break open the gate and splatter Edward’s skull. (She supposed the circumstances justified such a brutal, juvenile fantasy for an ex-cop to ponder over gloss-eyed.)

She weighed the folder in her hands. It was heavy enough that she could discus-throw it and listen for its flutter, testing not only how long the gap was, but how deep.

The folder flew indefinitely forward without hitting an end. It made a rustling noise as it came down to the ground below. Barker heard the papers flutter and the folder thudded lightly when it hit the bottom—it couldn’t have been deeper than ten feet.

There was no jumping across. It was either down or back.

The answer seemed obvious. Barker turned back and marched back through the unlocked door.

And Edward interrupted her. “Krista, where do you think you’re going?” His voice was thick with impatience.

Barker froze right in the threshold of the door. She looked up at the ceiling, where she perceived a camera might be.

“I said, where are you going?”

“Somewhere else,” Barker said.

“You can’t get out by going back. You need to go down.”

Barker shrugged and stared at the ceiling, defiantly refusing to move from the doorway.

He sighed into the microphone. “Quit being so predictably stubborn. Seriously, you have nowhere else to go but down. They’re waiting for you.”

The crackling intercom died again. Barker stood frozen for a long moment, unsure how to react. She remembered the music—that horrible symphony of discordant shrieks, the way they rattled her insides and throttled her soul—and she hesitated before turning back towards the lip of the pit.

She thought she could hear the skin on Edward’s face wrinkle and twist into a grin, his teeth grinding with excitement. “Good rabbit. Learning quickly. That was unexpected.”

With her shoe, Barker prodded the edge of the walkway. She felt the cold creep down her body as she gazed into the empty darkness, the pit’s existence invisible in the impossible gloom of the labyrinth.

She wondered. Who’s they? What the hell did that even mean? Barker shivered. She thought she heard a whisper again, but the ringing never left her ears. Certainty was impossible—the only thing certain was that Edward’s music had begun to unhinge her. Worse than the music was the anticipation.

She sat down on the ledge, letting her legs dangle into the pit. There was an impenetrable cold blackness beneath her. Something inside the pit was moaning, or maybe the wind was blowing. She turned her body around so her waist was against the ledge, and slowly lowered herself down, reaching her toes toward the bottom of the pit. She prayed that her estimate was right, and—at the same time, not considering the possibility until just now—that there was not a deeper hole just below her.

When her arms were outstretched, her face against the wallboard, Barker lingered for a moment, recalling a childhood fear of high balconies. Her grip was tiring, and then the fingers of her right hand slipped off the edge. She lost her balance and swung around on her left arm for a moment. She tried to reach back up and secure herself with her right hand, but then her grip gave out—she gasped and fell, preparing her body for impact.

She tumbled around in the air and put her palms out as she fell to the ground, bracing for impact. She landed more-or-less on her feet. Her right leg curled underneath her and the ankle split with burning-hot agony. Barker bit her lips and suppressed a loud cry.

She bounced off her curled leg and stumbled backward, twirled around, and thudded into the ground on hands and knees. The bottom of the pit was made of dirt and rocks—her teeth drew blood from her lips. She fell on her right side and instinctively wrapped her arms around her knees.

Now her legs felt like they were searing. Her teeth penetrated deep into her bottom lip, and the blood was creeping down her chin in tiny drips. She hadn’t let out a cry of anguish—she thanked herself for giving Edward not one victory, no pathetic sign of weakness or agony.

Edward’s face appeared in her mind when she shut her eyes, looking impassive—like he was waiting. He wanted her to scream. He wanted a sign that he was winning.

Barker clenched her teeth together and restrained herself: Do not scream.

And, like a script, Edward’s voice came down at her: “That looks like it hurt.”

After several moments, the initial shot of agony began to subside. Barker tried to stand up. Her knees were sore, but it was her ankle that buckled. She fell back to the ground and hit the rocks with a wince. She tried again, slower, but the same thing happened.

So she had to crawl for now—so be it, if it got her out of the hellish maze faster.

Barker reoriented herself. It was nigh-on impossible to see anything in the pit. It was a long, slim hallway much like the rest of the Black Labyrinth. But something was different—this was a trench dug into the ground with no flooring. It extended straight forward—and ahead of her, at the end of the pit, she could see a vague light.

Her eyes were drawn to light for the first time in the entire labyrinth. It was the outline of a doorway at the end of the pit. The door was shut, letting in a bright glow from a rectangular outline—but something covered the bottom half of it. It was some distance away, but not too far to drag herself. Her chest glowed with cautious hope, but she was wary of some trick Edward might have been playing.

She reached out and clawed the rocky ground, dragging herself forward an arm’s reach at a time. She moved slowly at first, but gained a slight amount of speed when she used her left leg to propel herself forward. The trench seemed to elongate with every bit of progress she made. And with every move she made, she felt like her body was crunching dried leaves beneath her.

There was a distinct lack of smell in the pit, which was quickly replaced by an infinitesimal tinge of some odor. It smelled like charred disinfectant. Barker pulled herself along the ground of the pit, looking directly ahead.

She stopped for a brief moment and took deep, heavy breaths. Her vision was starting to get cloudy again. She shifted her body around on the uncomfortable rock floor. Slowly, she pushed herself back to her feet, testing her ankle again. It was a little bit better, but still stung with raw pain too much to put her weight on it. Cussing, she lowered herself to the ground again. She started dragging herself forward again—

—and something touched her ankle. It brushed against her pants, and she could feel it shake. It took Barker a moment to realize what it was: an arm reaching at her from behind her right side. The fingers started weakly gripping her ankle, and she could hear gurgling.

She wanted to make a sound, but all the breath left her body at once.

He groaned at her, spat up blood on her leg, and said some incomprehensible words. Both his hands pinned her legs to the floor—his grip became suddenly much stronger. The hotness in her ankle shrieked under the man’s weight, and Barker thrashed her legs against her assailant. His hands had a padlock hold on her. It became clear that this was the culmination of all a man’s living energy—his last ditch effort to make a difference in the dusking moments of his life. He exuded desperation and sad, hollow hope. It was a contagious sickness, a plague that Krista tried in vain not to contract.

And at that moment, somewhere in the Marksman, Edward flipped his dreaded switch. The pit reverberated and the screams of all hell rained down on Barker and the dying man.

She cried out mutedly and clamped her hands over her ears, but her skull was penetrated by the screams of the intercom. The man seemed startled by the noise, and with quick movements Krista turned on her side and used her left foot to batter the man’s arms. She delivered three swift kicks to his hands and wrists. With each blow, the sickening reverberations from Edward’s music burned hottest in her head, and she winced. Finally he relinquished, and kept flailing his arms in her direction. All of Earth’s agony was funneled through the speakers into the Black Labyrinth.

Strangely, Krista noticed that Edward’s music was much more bearable now than it had been before. She became dimly aware that this was probably a bad sign—her ears were giving up and getting ready to resign. She was becoming desensitized—as Edward had suggested—to the psychotic noise.

She started crawling away again, and the man grabbed her right ankle again. Barker retracted her left foot and slammed the sole of her shoe into where she thought the man’s head was. She guessed right. He hugged her leg, and she could feel thick, warm fluid. The smell of blood rose in the air. She kicked him one last time, and his skull felt like it was made of swollen pus rather than bone.

She thought the guy might have mewled, but it was impossible to tell under the noise. His hands twitched against her foot while she dragged herself away from him. Barker’s grip tightened against her ears.

She swallowed, and her heart was like a bell ringing. Her palms squeezed her head tight enough to squash a coconut, but it was useless in shielding her from the torment. She finished him off, and Edward’s music was cruelly pealing at her.

It was an act of mercy, of course. She said that in her head again and again. It was compassion for a man in suffering, who in agony anyways. It was an accident. But it’s not like he would have gotten to a doctor any time soon, so she put him out of his misery.

She rolled onto her stomach now, got on her feet without lifting her hands from her ears, and scurried away from the man’s dying body. She limped against the searing agony in her ankle.

The lit half-outline of the door was getting closer now. The dim luminescence was coming towards her fast—she yearned for it like it was water. She wanted to drink it and bathe in it, like she hadn’t seen it in years. But the music wouldn’t allow her to think straight.

And as it got closer, the tinge of disinfectant crept into her nose again. It was becoming more distinct now. Then, half-way through the pit, the screeches silenced. The suddenness of it made Barker shudder.

Her strong leg crunched on something powdery and brittle, and her foot slid out from under her. Her chest thudded against the hard ground of the pit. The wind knocked out of her lungs, but for a brief moment, all she could do was thank nothing that the music had stopped. Now the grinding discordant metal was simply becoming noise in her head, lingering long after its passing.

Without waiting to catch her breath, Barker dragged herself forward. Her fingers felt like they were sizzling, like they were pressed against a hot grill, and it then occurred to her that the impossibly faint smell was lye mixed with acid. At the moment of her revelation, her hands crunched something on the ground—it was a soft patch of powder and ripped, dried cloth with something solid underneath.

Barker’s body froze. She lifted her arm slowly, and the sound of crackling elongated beneath her. The faint sensation of burning, melting fingers became a white hot pain.

The smells became stronger with her realization—the disinfectant and what lied beneath it. It had done a good job covering the putrefaction, but now the taste of it all—the rot, the lye—stung her nose and, worst, her tongue. She had crawled into a pit of lye, and beneath her were—

Her lungs refused to respond. Despite the agony burning her hands, all the strength was sapped from her body. With a trembling hand, she reached forward to keep moving—and her hand landed in another pile of moldy cloth and decomposing bones. The searing was worse than ever.

She held her breath and reached out again, grabbing at the floor. Her fingers caught another handful of humans—she felt a chunk of ribcage with bits of dried flesh still hanging off. Cursing, she clawed at the ground and dragged herself another foot forward. And all at once, the fiery pain flourished and peaked in her consciousness. Now she was vividly aware that this felt was like crawling across a burning grill. She started to feel the acid against her knees through her pants.

There was one meager defense she had against the burning pain: She balled her hands inside her sleeves and crawled on her forearms. Bits of melted bone and dry skin crunched under her like mummified bugs, and she moved past more pieces of rotten people. Her right arm bumped into something in the darkness, a half-complete human fragment lying on its face.

She told herself: Keep it together. Barker dragged through the mess, her eyes squeezed shut against the fumes of the pit. The scattered bits of acid-scorched meat and bones were becoming fully formed as they dragged against her clothes. She began to recognize body parts like arms, hands, feet, and heads, and far ahead of her there were silhouettes draping the dim light. The melted piecemeal bodies slowly formed a dense carpet the more she progressed, and before long it was a whole mound beneath her—and that pile soon became the ground of the pit itself. She was climbing the lee of a hill, like a bomb had gone off in a cemetery, climbing through a mass grave of nameless long-stilled bodies. Withered hands reached out in every direction from beneath the human dirt, fingers clawing the air. The feet, elbows, and knees of the dead jutted out of the pile like rotten sticks in the mud, and alongside them were expressionless half-faces.

Her patience gave out. She couldn’t take her eyes off reality. She couldn’t take this anymore.

She stood up against the throbbing pain of her ankle and took a step forward. Once again, she slipped in something—was it a concoction of acid and lye, or was it rotten old fluids?—and fell face-first into the ground. She landed in the corpse-pile, which now was more like a pool filling the bottom of the trench. Everywhere she moved, she crunched into bones and dried-up severed body parts like they were leaves. Everywhere she looked, she saw knots of people long-dead. It was like crawling through Hell.

In an instant, furious pain flooded her nerves. Her eyes and nostrils stung from the caustic air worse than the time she inhaled pepper spray by accident. Her chin was numb, and she felt like her cheeks were searing off of her skull. She thought her fingers were melting into stubs, and her inability to see the damage intensified the agony.

She scurried forward on her hands and feet, hurrying against the ever-growing mound of death that she surmounted. The stench was overpowering now. The disinfectant was strong, but it couldn’t quell the rot. She waded knee-deep in the dead, and as she brushed against each body, she was burned by coats of dissolving acid. The outline of the door she’d seen from far away was close now, and she could see the silhouettes of people who’d reached it before giving up.

She struggled against the pile, trying to clear a path to the door ahead of her. Despite her efforts, the long-dead were stuck against the ground and to each other, locked in place by rancid fluids and fetid acid. Navigating the corpse-pool became like trying to climb a mountain of soft sand, and every move she made threatened to entrench her deeper in the putrefaction.

The bodies were full now—the flesh was more intact, melted away and sewn together by flimsy bits of dried skin.

But now she was finally at the end. The mass grave peaked at the foot of the door, reaching half-way up the wall in front of her. Their silhouettes were becoming clear in her dark vision—they were all frozen in positions much like her own. Swarming toward the light, reaching out and clawing for an exit to the pit. There were maybe a dozen corpses piled at the door, each body seeping into the next until it all became an indistinguishable mass of mangled death.

She rammed herself forward, ignoring the sharp pain in her ankle. She reached past the sticky pile of corpses.

When she found the knob, she grabbed it with both hands. She turned it and yanked back.

Nothing happened. It was unlocked, but stuck—glued shut by the riot of the dead. Their dried fluids—blood mixed with acid and God knows what else—had pooled under the door and locked it in place.

Her mind raced, her senses were under siege. Bile was rising in her throat. She tried to push the bodies aside, but they wouldn’t budge.

She put her wounded ankle forward, hoping to lever the door open with brute strength. She yanked once, twice, three times. It wasn’t budging. She ignored the rod of hot agony that shot up her leg.

On the fourth try, she felt like the door had exploded. The pain in her ankle rang at unbearable volumes, and she was thrown back. A rain of rot fell against her—the door had broken open, and the corpses were shattered into flying bits.

Her eyes pried open, and blinding light flooded into the pit. Now she could plainly see the scene of the pit. There were dozens of rotten people around her, under her, and practically atop her. Most of them still had faces, half-eaten by the acid, and some skeletal husks housed chunks of burnt-up intestines. Many of them looked fresh, but several had been dissolved to the core, reduced to smoldered spines and melted ribs. All their eyes were missing—devoured by acid and rot long ago—and their sunken sockets were like sinkholes in the earth, gaping pits of empty black. They stared in perpetuity, and Barker could feel their collective eyeless gaze.

One body lay at the foot of the open door. Her grimy blond hair was in tangles, veiling a face that had been sheared to almost nothing by decay. Her jaw was shut tight, her lips withered back to her gums yet still intact. She looked like she was giving Barker an inhuman grin. Barker stared back at her, unable to move, like something unspoken was passing between the two of them.

Innumerable moments passed. She was unsure what exactly happened. She could have blacked out and woken back up. It seemed like she just sat there for a moment contemplating nothing, staring into the sunken black sockets of the grinning blonde. Finally, like a rubber band snapping, Barker regained control of her body. She was unsure if she screamed—all she could hear was her heart reverberating in her skull—and she launched to her feet and sprinted through the doorway. Then she slammed the door behind her. It seemed to glue itself shut again.

In the next room—was she in a room now? Her mind was in such disarray that she couldn’t register anything. There was a bright light coming from a bulb above her. The intensity was blinding. Barker felt the world slip away into blackness.

Edward pulled himself together, standing up from the monitor desk with a slight wobble. His eyes were frozen, stabbing a single screen with pin-prick preciseness.

The camera in the bread room. Krista had made it through the pit and immediately collapsed. The other two didn’t rush to help her—they stayed in place, watching her with utter bafflement. They were frozen like dumb deer where they sat, watching, waiting. After several minutes, Jack Vernon got up and approached her broken form. He stood over Barker, his head cocking as he sized her up.

Companionship. It was such a wonderful word, it just rolled off the tongue. Companionship. Edward couldn’t help but grin as he spoke the word over and over inside his head. Companionship. Companionship.

What was with all these ships anyways? He couldn’t help but wonder. Friendship. Courtship. Companionship. Internship. People sure do love their ships. Edward grinned and imagined a capsizing ship.

Then he yawned. The adrenaline rush passed after watching Barker faint (oh, how the pit worked out so wonderfully—the way she injured herself was just perfect). Now that Krista was out cold, broken like a toy, it was unlikely that anything interesting would happen for a while. Nothing new to extract from her for now.

He looked down at his naked form. His ribcage jutted from his torso, the skin wrapped tight to him like old leather. His arms and legs looked skeletal. Despite all this, he felt strong—more vigorous than before. Edward glanced at the time, and realized it was probably a good idea to try and eat again.

He went back into the kitchen and repeated the same process as before. He grabbed his bowl and his soup, took it to the can opener, trembled at the sight of the knives (he really should get rid of the damn things, but wouldn’t bring himself to touch them), opened the soup, and—fuck it—he didn’t even pour it into the bowl, just straight down his throat.

Then he coughed and choked. It was kind of normal, so he waited for it to pass. But it was worse this time. He wouldn’t stop gagging, and now he couldn’t breathe. The illusion was terrible—he felt nothing in his throat, yet his body responded like he was injured, coughing, choking. He lurched around the kitchen, doubled over and slamming every surface he could find with the palms of his hands.

And he still couldn’t breathe. Edward tried to gasp, but he just choked and wheezed. He gripped his throat with both hands. Had he swallowed a chunk of metal through his carelessness? Edward cursed himself. His fingers tightened on his trachea. There wasn’t a single sensation except his body, independent of himself, attempting to reject something jammed in his windpipe. His vision was dimming around the edges and he hacked violently, phlegm flecking from his jaws. He tried his best to suck in long, hard breaths, but nothing happened and he reached out and—

His knees buckled and he fell onto one of the counters. There was a loud sound like a clash of metal all around his head. Edward let out an elongated gurgling noise. Finally—it couldn’t have come any sooner—his throat throbbed and a large chunk of chicken, two or three pieces stuck together, launched out of his mouth. It pattered across the counter, leaving behind a trail of bloody phlegm, and it hit the edge of a knife. The blade spun round and round on the counter in front of Edward’s face.

He watched it for a moment. The knife wasn’t there a minute ago. It came to a gradual halt, wobbling with the tip pointed at Edward’s eyes.

Then, in a panicked flail, Edward launched himself off the counter. In his reflection in the metal, he saw that his face had turned red and purple. And all over the glistening surface, there was half a dozen knives scattered about where his head had laid.

Edward’s eyes were wide, his irises twitched left and right. The clash he’d heard was his hand slamming the knife block, sending blades flying around his head.

His body wouldn’t stop quivering now. Frantic, Edward looked down at his naked self, patted down his front, then his back. Then he touched his head all over and glanced at his hands.

He found no trace of blood—but the quaking of his body refused to cease. He backed away from the counter, then stumbled and tripped over his own feet. His gaunt, naked body hit the ground with a light thump.

Edward heard his heart racing. The reverberation thumped between his ears. It was the first time since the fingertip accident when some physical sensation acknowledged the existence of his heart. It only happened when his heart raced loud enough so he could hear it. And that required a major-league panic attack.

He lay with his back on the kitchen floor. He stared at the glowing light bulbs and the immaculate tile ceiling. He put his hand on his chest and felt nothing. His vision was dim around the edges.

Darkness gave way to light in a slow, blinding flare. The all-consuming black shifted into a painful glow of bright red beyond her eyelids.

“She’s waking up,” a man said. His voice sounded distant and quiet.

Krista Barker’s eyes twitched and she tried to open them. The light overhead burned intensely without any shade or glass cover—just a bulb dangling by some exposed wires. She weakly shielded her face.

A woman spoke now. “Is she all right?”

The investigator twisted her head around, then her legs and body. Slowly her senses were returning to her. She cringed and pushed herself upright.

She sat in the corner of a small, square room, propping herself up on one arm and shielding her eyes with the other. There was no wallpaper or carpet, nothing to give the room an illusion of homeliness. It was just bare wooden boards and a light-bulb hanging from the ceiling.

Inside the room were Barker, a man standing over her, a woman in a far corner, and something in a zip-lock bag in the center. There were two doors.

Recollections started forming in Barker’s head.

She groaned and cussed. Her intestines churned. On the wall to her far right, there was a large, heavy metal door with no apparent features. She looked left and saw the door to the lye pit several feet away from her. It was rotten wood stained with strange colors near the bottom. There was no knob on this side.

Krista remembered now.

She doubled over to the left and retched in the room’s corner. She couldn’t stop it from happening, though she knew she was expending vital energy.

The man kneeled down next to her. “You’re all right,” he said. “You made it.”

“The fuck are you saying, made it?” Barker growled. She wiped her mouth with her arm. She noticed the bottoms of her pants legs were wet with thick streaks of goopy red.

She blinked and took in her own appearance for the first time in innumerable hours. Krista looked like somebody else now—not a professional at all, but a bystander caught in the wrath of a natural disaster. She’d never imagined herself like this, like a broken survivor. A victim of something now far beyond her control or comprehension.

Her fingers and palms were covered in bright pink burns like hot wax had dripped all over them. Nothing horribly disfiguring—her fingers weren’t melted into stubs like she’d thought—but looking at it too long brought back the pain, and her hands were hard to move. Her lips and nose also felt raw, and she wondered if her face was as pink as her hands.

The man seemed taken aback by her agitation. “What I’m saying is you made it through the pit. We’re the only three who’s done it. You, me, and Charlotte.” He pointed his thumb back at the woman, who stood in the opposite corner against a wall. Her face seemed engraved with a permanent expression of dreary-eyed worry.

Barker looked at him. He was too close for her comfort, kneeling and bent forward so his eyes were leveled with hers. She could smell his breath. The man spoke with a southern English tinge, and he was dressed similarly to Edward—a black suit that was once nicely ironed and cleaned, but was now disheveled, dirty, and had a red smear across his long, thin tie.

“I’m Jack Vernon. What’s your name?”

“Would ya mind giving me some room to fuckin’ breathe?” She scooted away from Jack, sliding along the wall away from the vomit pool. “My name’s Krista.”

The woman named Charlotte spoke from her reclusive corner. “So what’s your story then? How’d you end up here?” She picked at her face with one hand, and the other trembled at her side. And now that Barker thought about it, she noticed both of Jack’s hands were shaking too. “I mean, how’d the Marksman get ya?”

“I’m a Homicide detective,” she said, and then corrected herself: “I mean, a private investigator.”

Jack grinned caustically. He started speaking in a mocking Scottish accent. “Oh? How’s the case goin’, laddie? Ya got any leads, Detective Holmes? Scotland Yerd could sure use yer help.”

Barker looked him in the eyes. “Go fuck yourself.” She pushed herself farther away from him.

He put up his palms in a gesture of exaggerated innocence. He stood up and took a few steps back away from Barker. She felt relieved when he did. “Hey, I’m just keeping things light, lady. It’s the only weapon we’ve got right now. Only thing to get us by.”

Charlotte sighed and said, “You’ll get used to it.”

Barker turned her attention to the plastic bag in the center of the room. There was something stuffed inside that she couldn’t make out from a few yards away. “What the hell is that?”

Jack looked at the bag, and then back at her. “Bread. A loaf sealed up in a baggie, so it won’t mold I guess.” He was still smiling, still showing his teeth.

Barker stared at the bag hungrily. She opened her mouth, but then said nothing.

“I’d suggest not eating it. The man in the suit told us it was edible, you see.”

Barker looked at him. “Wait, what?”

Charlotte walked a few steps towards the other two, but still kept her distance. “Jack, uh, had a bad experience with bread in—the labyrinth…”

Jack was still grinning, and said nothing.

“What happened?” Barker asked him.

No reply except the blank smile.

After a long moment of silence, Charlotte spoke unconfidently. “Well, um… Is it all right if I tell her, Jack?”

There was something strange about Jack’s smile. It was obviously hiding pain. His lip trembled once, but his grin stayed intact. He gave no reply.

“Well, uh,” Charlotte paused. “Jack was in the maze with his brother—,” she stopped again, looking at him as if for reassurance.

His eyes darted away from Charlotte’s glance. The Englishman started pacing around in circles. His grin was straining now and he kept his eyes away from the others, fixed instead down at his feet.

“—and they found a loaf of bread in a plastic bag, just like this, and that man on the intercom said it was perfectly fine to eat, and then—”

Jack interrupted her, his voice sharp and angry. For a brief moment, he stopped pacing.

“And he keeled over. Dead. It only took twenty minutes. I wouldn’t eat it. I tried to stop him.”

Now Jack was crying. He chewed on his fist and walked around in circles. He was trying in vain to keep it all together—the seams of his psyche had no threads, and he desperately wanted to hold them in place.

“I told him I’d give him money. I told him—if he let me and Frank go, I’d give him my whole net worth. But he doesn’t want money. He’s just a sadist. This is just—nobody deserves this…”

“So,” Charlotte shrugged, “we haven’t eaten the bread. Don’t wanna get poisoned, ya know?” She tried to chuckle, but it didn’t really work. It was more like a gasp of air leaving her lungs.

“What have you been eating?” Barker said.

“Well, Jack had a bunch of pretzels. He was traveling around the U.S. and had, like, ten packets from the planes. He shared them with me when I got here.” Charlotte smiled uneasily, and a drop fell from her temple down her cheek.

Barker nodded and didn’t take her eyes off Charlotte.

“We ran out a few hours ago,” Charlotte explained. She turned her head towards Jack, who was still wrapped up in his anxious little walk-in-circles routine. “So, uh, we’ve just been waiting now.”

“Waiting for what?” Barker asked.

Charlotte paused. She kept watching Jack break apart, his psyche fall to pieces.

“We, uh—we aren’t sure,” she said.

“Uh-huh. Well, there’s gotta be some way out of here. It wouldn’t be a game to him if we were just trapped in here hopeless.”

“What do you mean?” Charlotte said. Jack still showed no signs of stopping any time soon. He kept walking in circles and staring at the floor, round and round he went.

“I mean, Edward isn’t just torturing us. He’s playing with us.” Barker watched Charlotte’s reaction, who looked at her blankly. “Don’t you realize that? This is a game to him. So we can win.”

Jack burst into a cackle. It wasn’t a normal laugh, but a nervous one—one of a man staring down a gun barrel. There was no hint of humor, just stale-sweat despair. “Nononono. You’ve got it all wrong, Kirsty.”

“Krista,” she corrected him.

“There’s no getting outta here. You saw all those people in the pit, right? There’s gotta be, like, fifty or a hundred more. If there was even the slightest possibility—”

“Just because nobody’s done it doesn’t mean it’s not possible.”

Jack scoffed, said nothing, and stared at the floor while he kept pacing. After a moment of silence, Charlotte walked back to her comfort corner, sat down, and stared at the opposite wall. She seemed sucked into it, like she was looking beyond the wall for some way out of here.

And Barker stayed where she was, sitting away from the dark puddle she had left in the corner. She kept glimpsing back at her red pant legs, and every time she did, needles of nausea prickled her stomach. She looked away, around the room, but the desperate sight of Jack and Charlotte brought her no more comfort.

They were both losing it—Barker would have known this even without her self-dubbed “sixth sense” of human energy. But with it, the intensity was amplified—she sucked up every ounce of their collective panic and despair, drinking every last drop. Their emotions became hers.

She sat in gloomy silence for several minutes. Jack paced round and round and round. He looked like he was solving some extremely complex problem inside his head, his eyes locked in one place—but Barker knew that wasn’t the case. She groaned—the sight of these people was frustrating on such a profound level that she couldn’t help but make some attempt to band them together and try something. Anything but just sitting in place, losing their minds, and withering into dust.

“So, are you two just gonna sit on your asses and wait for some magic to save you, or what?”

Jack ignored her and kept walking in circles. He murmured to himself, “Oh, God… There’s no God, is there? How could there possibly be any god?”

Charlotte looked at her, then back at the wall where she imagined some form of comfort.

Krista said, “Maybe he’ll find it in his heart to let us go, right? Is that what you’re waiting for? A fuckin’ Christmas miracle?”

“I’m—not sure, actually,” Charlotte said with a nervous laugh. “I mean, I guess I should really wait for Anthony. We got separated in the labyrinth, and then I fell down the pit and—…”

Jack sniggered and started talking in a fake Scotch accent again. “It’s only November, ya stupid—”

“Well, you know what? We’ve got three choices.” Barker stood up defiantly and faced her new companions. She noticed her fingers were worming together and she stopped herself. “We can eat the bread, we can starve to death, or we can find a goddamn way out of here.”

Jack was still walking in circles, still staring downwards when he laughed. “All right, Detective Holmes. Why don’t you, like, uh, detect a way out?” He sniggered, and then sighed. “I mean, deduce a way out.”

“Why don’t you shut your fucking mouth?” Barker said. “Seriously, if you’re happy with starving to death in this goddamn room, then sit down and fucking starve.”

Jack giggled and kept walking in circles. This whole time he hadn’t looked up at her. His pace seemed to be quickening. It was incredible that he hadn’t tired himself out yet.

Charlotte buried her face in her knees. “He’s right. There’s no way outta here. The next door is locked, and it’s too heavy to budge.”

“Uh-huh,” Barker said. “Well, if you plan on sitting on your asses, you’re gonna need to eat something.”

“No, food is poison,” Jack said. Now his pace was just short of a jog. His hands twiddled together and he kept watching the floor in front of his feet. “Nuh-uh. Nope. No can do.”

Barker sighed. “I hope you realize doing nothing means letting him win.”

“No,” Jack snapped. “If you don’t play, you don’t win or lose. You just—don’t play. You know? So you’re just, like, disqualified.”

“That’s the same thing as losing,” Barker said. But she was acutely aware that this conversation was going absolutely nowhere. She let out an exasperated breath and buried her face in her palm.

Jack said something in reply, refuting her, but Barker ignored him. She walked across the room over to the heavy metal door. She felt every inch of it—the gap between the metal frame and the door was slim enough that air couldn’t pass through. The handle felt stuck, and upon close inspection, the keyhole was almost too tiny to notice.

“You know, maybe she’s right,” Charlotte said. She pushed herself to her feet with a wobble, propping herself upright. She finally looked away from her comfort wall. “We’ve gotta do something, you know? We can’t just sit around and wait to starve.”

Barker looked over her shoulder, her interest peaked. Had she finally gotten through to this woman? Barker was content with letting the Englishman walk in circles until he died of exhaustion if he so desired, but Charlotte might be able to provide some help or insight.

“Let’s eat the bread,” Charlotte declared confidently.

Barker blinked, and then sighed deeply. She turned her attention back to the door, and looked for some potential weakness in the structure—anything to get her the hell out of this lunatic asylum.

What?” Jack shrieked after a moment of slow-grinding thought. Now he finally stopped his anxious circle-walking routine. He slammed his foot and talked animatedly, waving his hands. “No! Nononono! Do not eat the bread!” He gestured at the zip-lock bag in the middle of the room. The Brit was on the verge of tears now. “Don’t you remember Frank?

“Jack, we’re going to starve. Maybe Edward’s waiting for us to eat it. Maybe—Oh my God, wait. Kirsty’s right! It is a test! He’s using, you know, you know, reverse psychology on us. He wants us to eat the bread, and then he’ll come on the intercom and be like, ‘Good job, you passed! Now you can leave!’”

Barker turned around and pressed her back against the metal door. Her body was stricken with a sudden cold dread. “That’s not what I—”

Fine!” Jack wailed. “Eat the goddamn bread. When you die, I’m throwing your arse back in the lye so you don’t get us sick. Got it?”

Charlotte ignored him. She dashed into the center of the room and collapsed to her knees before the zip-lock bag. She tore it in half—she didn’t even open it, just tore the damn thing in half—and held the loaf in her hands. It was rather small, but it was a godsend to these deprived people. She held it up like the Holy fucking Grail.

Her hands quaked from famish and anxiety, and she ripped a chunk off the loaf and shoved it in her mouth. She barely chewed it—she just swallowed it.

Barker did not move or speak.

“This—is delicious,” Charlotte beamed. “I don’t fuckin’ care if this is poison. This bread is—Oh my God I missed you so mu—” her words cut off with another mouthful.

Jack looked at her with wide eyes. “W-Wait a minute! Let me have some, too!” He hurried over to Charlotte in the middle of the room.

Barker did not move or speak.

No!” Charlotte shrieked. She cradled the loaf in her arms like it was her baby. “Get away. You didn’t want any—it’s mine.”

Her heart sunk when she heard it. It’s not that Krista wanted any of Edward’s cursed food. But she had a horrible feeling about the immediate future of the bread room.

Jack’s demeanor became dark. His voice was a low tremble. “Tell me you’re joking.”

“If I listened to you,” Charlotte said and shoved another mouthful, muffling her words, “I’d be starving to death. You didn’t want any. You can’t change your mind now.” Then another chunk of bread went into her jaws. One-third of the loaf was gone already.

Jack shook and his face went livid. “You bitch!” he screamed, his voice going high-pitched. “You fucking selfish whore! I shared the last of my goddamn pretzels with you, and now you—now you—,” his fists balled up in his hair, grabbing the thin strands. “Get over here!

Jack ripped part of his hair out of his head, and then he stormed at Charlotte. Before she had a chance to react, he let loose a flurry of swings on the kneeled woman. Just one of every four or five blows managed to connect, but when they hit they felt like bullets. The blows knocked Charlotte off-balance and left nasty purple spots on her face. Jack moved on her relentlessly until she laid face-down on the ground, covering her head, and he bent down and kept punching her.

Moments later he finally stopped—not having come to his senses, but realizing that he’d won his bread rights. He stood panting over Charlotte. The woman lay on the ground with her head between her arms. She wasn’t sobbing—she just buried herself silently, trying to comprehend what just happened.

Fuck you,” Jack screamed like a kick to the ribs—and then he delivered a real one. “You’d take my pretzels and let me starve, wouldn’t you? You bleeding whore.”

Satisfied, he raged back over to the bread, which had two-thirds left. He took generous handfuls of it and stuffed them, one after another, down his throat.

This whole time, Barker kept her back pressed against the metal door. No bread—no matter how fucking delicious—was worth breaking somebody’s nose, or getting her own nose broken in return.

And watching Jack eat, she only now realized how weak and hungry she was, but at the same time how little appetite she had. She still had airline peanuts left to eat in her backpack—but first, she would have to push out of her mind whatever the hell just occurred in front of her. Charlotte still didn’t move, and Jack ate like a mad cannibal.

Within half a minute, the bread was all gone. He stuffed every last crumb into his mouth, and even licked the bag like a pathetic bum. Then he looked at Barker and his brows scrunched together in a pang of slight guilt. “You, uh—You wanted some too, huh? I’m sorry…” He scratched the back of his scalp.

Barker shook her head viciously, saying nothing. She still pressed her back against the door. She prayed that it was over—but knew it probably wasn’t. Soon Charlotte would be on her feet, and she would realize the bread had all been eaten.

And then Edward’s voice came over the intercom again—it was heavy and hearty, thudding through the speakers like a judge’s gavel. He seemed more happy and vigorous than ever. Barker noticed this with a certain unnamable dread.

“You know, I actually really like you three,” Edward said. The three in the bread room were frozen and silent. “You were persistent, but predictable. You types are always my favorite. It’s like, you last a long time, and provide me with so much amusement, but—best of all—you let everything work out in the end. Thanks for that.

“So I gave you a chance to escape, to get out of here like a team, using teamwork and the power of friendship.” He laughed uncontrollably. “I’m just kidding. I actually knew this was gonna happen. I’ll get to the point: The key to the door was inside the bread. One of you just ate it.”

He stopped talking and allowed this piece of information to sink in, which he delivered with the shrieking laugh of a bad comedian acknowledging his own joke. The air in the bread room felt like ice. Charlotte lifted her head from under her arms and exchanged disbelieving glances with Jack. Barker watched and waited.

“Oh, just trust me this time, will you?” Edward snorted. “It was the size of a small diary key. Small enough that three starving adults might swallow it without noticing. I won’t bore you with the logistics of baking bread with a key inside, so let me get to the best part:

“The bread had a ton of constipating enzymes, so don’t expect to shit your key out any time soon. There’s only a few ways to get it before you starve. I’ll let you three figure it out.”

The intercom cut out. For five long seconds, nobody said a word. The silence spoke for all of them. The air became hot now. Barker could feel her hands tremble against the metal door. She watched the tension between Jack and Charlotte build, build, and build for five excruciating seconds. Then it shattered.

“You—,” Charlotte said, pointing at Jack from the ground where he had left her. She propped herself upright, her bruised expression intensely dark. “You ate the bread. You didn’t even let Kirsty have any, you son of a bitch.”

Barker didn’t bother to correct her. She kept her back against the door. Just let the crazy people sort it out on their own, and maybe—just maybe—things will turn out okay.

“I-I-I,” Jack stuttered. His face was flushed. He pointed at Barker, then Charlotte, then himself. He knew he was guilty—Barker could feel it.

Charlotte was on her feet again in an instant, marching toward the Englishman. “You ate the goddamn key.”

You could’ve eaten it!” Jack said, stabbing a finger in Charlotte’s direction. “It could’ve been any three of us.”

“No,” Charlotte barked, “it was either me or you, and I ate less than half the bread. You ate the whole fuckin’ thing.”

Jack wobbled and his legs buckled. His knees thudded against the ground.

“Please.” It was a pathetic sight, the man on his knees after realizing what he had done. His jaw trembled on its hinges and he combed his mind for an excuse. “But, but I-I—”

And this time, it was Charlotte who lashed before Jack could react. She tackled him onto his back and perched on his stomach. The woman thrashed both her fists in rapid succession, connecting almost every blow she threw. In a matter of seconds, Jack’s face was transformed into a blue-and-purple pulverized mess. His nose twisted and shattered, his eyes swelled shut, his lips impaled through his teeth. He sobbed beneath the sledgehammer-like blows.

Barker’s legs gave out. Her body slid down the door until she sat on the ground. She stared at Charlotte and Jack. She reminded herself again: Just let the crazy people sort it out. Maybe it’ll be fine. At one time in her life, Barker would have instinctively rushed in to break them apart—but everything, all this, had reduced her to a horrified, bloodied bystander. A broken survivor.

Charlotte stood up from Jack’s battered body. He was a piece of macabre artwork. His limbs writhed, and his mouth opened and closed, emitting throaty gurgles. Blood was bubbling over his torn gums, and his broken teeth were exposed through the wounds in his lips. Without hesitation, Charlotte yanked the tie off of Jack’s neck, then tore open his button-down shirt.

Barker couldn’t move away from the wall. She slid to the left, out of the way of the door, and pushed along until she shrunk into the corner. Her face was cold, sweaty, and pale. She thought she might be dreaming when she watched this.

Charlotte started digging, clawing, biting at Jack’s stomach. It took her several minutes of sustained effort to finally penetrate, but holy fuck the woman was persistent. She dug her fingernails in the soft spot just below Jack’s ribcage, scraping the skin until it was bright red—until blood started to seep out. Charlotte tried to bury her digits into the skin, to shove them inside the bastard, but his body refused to unlock.

Barker couldn’t watch and couldn’t look away. She tried to turn her face to the floor, but her nerves refused to respond.

She used gnawed fingernails as her surgical tool, trying to work the Englishman’s body like a slab of dead meat. Charlotte dug and clawed, dug and clawed, and when she got frustrated, she lifted her hands in the air and slammed her tools onto the wound in his abdomen. It was starting to bleed heavily now after some minutes. Beneath a crest of blood, there was exposed fat tissue now.

After more minutes of dedicated work, Charlotte managed to rip the skin apart from Jack’s torso, peeling him open like a hunted animal undressed of its pelt. There was a wet snapping sound when the crazed woman lifted the skin apart from the muscle and bone. It was a long, slow, and excruciatingly sloppy process. Her eyes were locked down at his insides with a look of pointed interest. She shoved her hands inside the exposed wound, tearing between the muscles and digging around inside his body. In the process of searching for the key, she discarded various internal organs that she came across. She used her teeth and nails to shred the organs that she believed might be the stomach. Pieces of Jack hit the floor with sick splats.

And it took her several more minutes until, finally, her red-drenched palms elevated it in the air like a beacon of hope: a bunch of half-chewed chunks of bread. She ripped each one apart until she found it—a tiny little key, smaller than a pinky nail. Jack had swallowed it whole in a chunk of bread.

Amidst the chaos, the gore, Barker was struck with an odd moment. When one witnesses a profoundly disturbing sight, sometimes the only response is cold, calculative empiricism. Krista said in her mind: Righteousness is like a mental illness, isn’t it?

Charlotte stood up and wobbled. She made no sound and had no expression on her face. Red was gushing in crests down her front side. She crossed the room without looking at Barker, without looking at anything except the giant metal door. She unlocked it and pulled it half-open. Then she squeezed through and sauntered away, out of Barker’s sight. The woman left a thick streak of red everywhere she walked.

Jack was left on the floor like a gutted fish. His blood was in pools beneath him, and his fingers twitched wildly. His eyes darted around the room in disbelief.

Barker pushed herself to her feet, using the wall as support. She thought she might faint again if she tried to stand on her own. Infinitesimally slowly, Barker slid along the wall, her palms pressed flat behind her, making slow but eventual progress toward the opened metal door.

To her amazement, Edward said nothing. He was probably smiling in delight while he watched Barker’s terror. (Or was he even watching? Yeah, of course he was watching.) The intercom was silent as death.

Jack turned his head to her. His jaw started jerking. He let out a tiny gurgle, almost too small to be heard. “Help—me.” His words were lisped by his shredded lips. He seemed to summon his last ounce of strength in crying out to Barker. He reached his unsteady hand toward her, flecked with blood.

Barker stared at him wide-eyed as she came into arm’s length of the open door. Jack’s pupils were locked on her in total despair.

“Please…”

“Sorry,” Barker said, and slipped through the metal door where Charlotte had left. She was unable to remain anywhere near Jack. If she was in a nightmare, she might have awoken right now. But she didn’t. She could still hear the gutted fish gurgle.

She entered a hallway, which was pitch black like the rest of the labyrinth. Her body wouldn’t stop shaking while she lumbered down the hall, guided by a sliver of light streaming from the blood-soaked bread room. It didn’t last very long, only partially illuminating the next intersection twenty feet ahead. The hall split left and right.

There were smears of blood on the ground leading to the left. Barker went right, thinking of nothing but avoiding Charlotte at all costs. 

Four:
Pale

Looking down at his hands, Edward realized they were no longer trembling. They were balled together, fingers interlaced. He glanced back at the screens and watched as Barker, shivering like a wet dog, left the bread room and entered the next section of the Black Labyrinth.

Edward felt a brand new vigor flood him. His flesh was sick and in disrepair, but blood coursed anew through his veins. He couldn’t help but smile. Barker had provided him so much use, so much sustenance. And yet here she was, already pushing on into dark. She had yet to succumb. Edward grinned in delight. He didn’t mind Jack’s death at all, and paid little care to Charlotte’s journey now.

He stood up from the monitor desk and yawned. The rejuvenation was much-needed, like a hot meal after a long day’s work—two hot meals, to be exact, the second hotter than the first. But this was better than any meal. Now Edward swiftly lost interest in his subjects. He’d had enough of them for now. The naked man possessed all the strength he would need to carry him through ‘til morning at least. Maybe a full day if he pushed it, but why do that? Barker was willing to expend so much energy and endure so much sorrow. She was a buffet of suffering.

Edward let out a relaxed sigh when he left his bedroom. The vestibule’s walls were drenched in shadows—the early morning moon was hidden behind clouds, and the stars were dim beyond the sky. He realized this was the peak of the Marksman’s darkness for tonight. Before too long, the sun would start to peer over the distant woodland horizon. Then he would need to get dressed in case a potential subject knocked on his door.

As Edward made his way to the den, he became dimly aware of a sad fact. His labyrinth had lost another subject, and probably the last two would be lost before much longer. But no matter—the next one would be arriving within two days’ time. And perhaps he could find a way to subjectify that sheriff, Lou Barnes, if the dumbass ever figured out where Edward lived now.

He thought about Krista Barker while he unlocked the door to his den. She was such a darling subject, more so than Jack or Charlotte or any of the nameless dead. So much life from one person—so much will to escape. It was beautiful to see it all come down and scatter to pieces all over the floor of the Black Labyrinth.

Edward locked the door behind him. Like usual, his eyes lingered on the painted-black, dead-bolted door on the far wall of the den. He hadn’t been in that room for almost a month. Perhaps it was time for another visit?

He decided against it. Two options remained for him to pass the time. Edward glanced at the dusty television opposite of the couch. The dormant black screen beckoned him. It promised tales of death, images of sorrow, and anecdotes of pain. He had watched the news every day for almost a straight month now, to the point where he was becoming desperate to find something interesting—something to remind him how weak all the world’s rabbits are. Horror movies couldn’t fire a single synapse in his brain.

Moments turned to minutes, and Edward found himself staring blankly at the empty TV screen for a long while. A tiny smile etched into his face. He remembered the last tragedy that made its way to the news station of modest little Oak City. It was a month and a half ago. He pictured the families, their faces buried in their palms. Their hopelessness was a cold glow. Edward had laughed hysterically at the melodramatic way one old woman had cried. She looked like an actress in a bad soap opera, grabbing her face with her jaw hanging open, her body shaking with each exaggerated sob. Edward shrieked with laughter. Then the TV displayed a small boy’s school photo. Combed hair, glasses, and a tie. Maybe ten years old. The woman started saying something to the camera through her tears, and Edward couldn’t calm himself down if he had tried.

He recalled a remark he made while wiping tears from his eyes: “Dumb fucking rabbits. Darwin at his finest.”

Edward toyed with the idea of watching the news right now, praying to God that, in the last 12 hours, some boat capsized or a plane crashed into a building. In a small town like Oak City, this seemed like a fruitless prayer. It would take tragedy of epic proportion for word to reach a backwards pocket of humankind like here.

Instead, he turned to his meticulously ordered bookshelf. He glanced along his vast collection of occult books on the bottom shelf, admiring how neatly he had aligned their edges to one another. It looked like a city skyline.

For the most part, his occult studies proved nothing but frustration. Edward was vividly aware that every one of these books was, at best, 95% bullshit. However, he undertook a quest to read every single one he could gather, cover-to-cover. The reason for this was simple: Each occult book contained, at the very least, one nugget of information that coincided with Edward’s own experiences. Of course, he had been reading about the occult since he was a College Prep boy of thirteen years old. It was possible, to his willfully suppressed knowing, that in the last year he had been seeing figments of a hopeful imagination—the need to feel special and unique.

But Edward already knew he was special and unique, so what good would a delusional fantasy do for him?

He glanced at the black door again. The deadbolt had a cobweb formed over it. A spider was munching on its lunch—an entangled fly. The sight made him feel at ease.

Then he took one book off the shelf. It was a thick omnibus of a certain Thomas D’Morte, a “professional” who specialized in the occult. (That claim on the inside flap, next to a profoundly posed portrait, kept Edward laughing for almost five straight minutes.) Really, it was just a collection of Thomas’ notes, anecdotes, interviews, and flimsy historical research. Of course, like every other book in his occult collection, Edward was certain there was at least one nugget of useful knowledge hidden in D’Morte’s ramblings. He had finished three-quarters of it and was yet to find any, but he was certain it was there.

Edward sat cross-legged at his stained and wet couch. He placed the huge omnibus on his naked lap and opened to the bookmarked page.

And he started reading—slowly, ever so meticulously, taking in word-by-word, determined not to miss a single piece of tangible, useful information.

He wasn’t sure how long he was sucked into this. Maybe it was twenty minutes, maybe it was an hour. Inevitably, he felt himself nod off. His mind was rested. Though he felt like he’d had the greatest sleep of his life, his body was nigh-on exhausted. He glanced at his watch. The sun would be rising before too long.

He got up and gingerly stuck D’Morte’s collection back in its place on the shelf, careful to keep every book aligned with one another.

And then he went to the bathroom to get ready for sleep.

He stood outside his bathroom, reached in, and flicked on the light, half-expecting his mirror-buddy to be waiting for him. The mirror was empty, and showed nothing but the opposite wall and his face peeking inside.

After a moment of hesitation, Edward snorted and walked inside. He shut the bathroom door behind him and locked it.

He glanced up from the doorknob to the mirror, and he let out a catty yelp—he actually cried out, unable to stop himself.

The interloper returned. But this time there was no face in the mirror. The shape that stretched across the mirror was a vague and blurry light, but it had a long, thin gleam and looked to him like a huge butcher’s knife. The longer he stared at it, the more distinct the image became: The curved edge of the blade was a grin, and the metal shined like a set of glossed teeth.

For a moment, Edward was frozen with panic. He looked around the room, determined to find the source of this illusion. As always, there was nothing—unless it was some strange reflection of light.

Edward could hear his heart race again. He remembered the kitchen earlier—the chicken that choked him and almost cost him his life. His reckless hand that sent knives flying at his skull…

The shape bobbed up and down in a slow chopping motion down Edward’s face. His dark brown irises trembled. He moved his hand toward the doorknob and gripped it. Edward tried to twist it and release himself, but it seemed stuck. He wasn’t sure if the door had sealed itself, or if he was too weak with terror to open it. His hand quivered and slipped off the knob, grabbed it, and slipped off again.

The blade kept bobbing, bouncing slowly down the mirror. It cut down across his chin, throat, and collar, and it stopped at the sternum. All he could see was the gleam of the knife’s grin.

Edward couldn’t contain himself any longer. He screamed. As he did, he felt a smile from behind the mirror. Cold satisfaction.

He balled up his fist and threw all his body’s strength at the mirror.

The whole glass shattered in an instant. A violent sound erupted in the bathroom, and the entire mirror became an impact crater of glass. Several tiny shards fell and clattered into the sink, but to his surprise, the mirror stayed mostly intact. He could still see dozens of his own piecemeal reflections staring back at him—but no longer any sign of the interloper.

Edward thought to himself: The broken slivers of the mirror cling together like the fragile psyches of the broken rabbits in his labyrinth. He tried to smile at this idea but couldn’t.

Edward stared at the shattered mirror. His reflection stared back in dozens of discordant fragments. Once again, the pounding of his heart reverberated inside his skull. His hand trembled against the doorknob, unable to move. The fingers on his other hand had drops of blood coming down from the knuckles, but he didn’t notice yet. His eyes were locked on that damnable mirror.

“I control you,” he said to the broken mirror. His voice was weak. “I hold the—power in our relationship. Don’t forget that…”

Finally he unlocked the bathroom door. He left quickly in order to quell the rising feeling of another cold smile beyond the mirror. He no longer desired to let his body sleep—he needed to feast again. The blood on his knuckles made him feel violently ill. He went back to his bedroom and planted his quivering body in front of the monolith of camera feeds once more.

Barker was shivering before she felt the cold.

She lurched around the corner, her arms crossed over her stomach. Her fingers were wringing around each elbow. She couldn’t stop herself from shaking. Behind her, a whisper drifted in the air like an echo. It sounded like Jack calling for help. Barker did her best to suppress it from her thoughts.

After she rounded the corner to the right—away from Charlotte’s trail of blood—she was faced with a wall of shadows. The hall extended onward, the light from the bread room dying and giving way to nothingness ahead of her.

This was the threshold. Back into the Black Labyrinth. Barker thought she was dropping into the Marksman’s lower intestine. She was a half-digested morsel praying that she might survive to climb back out the throat, instead of dissolving into nothingness by acid and lye—the Marksman’s stomach. She didn’t want to think about crossing back through the bread room, let alone the lye pit.

She took a step into the threshold of darkness, and her right ankle buckled. The pain flared as the adrenaline wore away—she had all but forgotten about it in the bread room. Barker tumbled to her right and thudded against the wall, catching herself from falling on her damn face.

Her face pressed against the coolness of the wooden wall. She closed her eyes. The light bulb of the bread room was still burning her eyelids. Images flashed—the bread, first and foremost, sitting untouched in the center of the room, housing a key in its guts. She should have guessed that would be Edward’s test. Barker cursed herself for not realizing it—perhaps she would have, given a bit more time to think.

Barker saw things flash in her head. The decaying death in the pit. The popping mental seams in the bread room—then the tearing of Jack’s stomach seams. It all passed by her in a single sickening moment.

She gagged and covered her mouth. She slid down the wall. Her body recoiled and doubled over, but she had no more vomit to release—there was no sustenance to expunge. It had been emptied of what little she had from the evening before. She tried not to imagine how many hours had passed since that teriyaki meal on the plane. The thought made her stomach—

The hunger came back in a tidal wave, mixed with nausea. She thought about the bread again—about how delicious it might have been (or was it poisoned like Jack suggested? She had no way of knowing). Then she thought about the peanuts in her backpack.

She had been saving them, along with her water, for God knows how long. But she’d been trapped in the Black Labyrinth for time immemorial. Her limbs were weakening, and painful hollowness filled every cell of her body.

Perhaps this is what she was saving for—the utter desperation when caution is finally thrown to the wind. She sighed. No use saving it any longer. She was hungry enough to faint at the idea of a meal.

Barker kneeled down. She propped herself on the wall, and took her backpack off her shoulders. She opened it and rummaged inside.

It was empty.

She froze. Her hand was at the bottom of her backpack. For the longest moment, the gears of her brain grinded to a halt. She felt left and right, touching every square inch of the backpack’s interior.

There was nothing in it. The gears churned, slowly at first.

They took it all, the peanuts and the water. They consumed it all and hid the evidence. They had no qualms with taking what she had and letting her have none of it. Thieves.

Not a single tangible idea formed in her mind—just vague words and cusses and cries in a mangled rat’s-nest of thought. Her brain processes were unidentifiable and impossible to decode. Where did one thought end and the next begin? They were all a mess of shredded, burning remains tangled into a horrible mass.

She sat in place, eyes unmoving and unblinking, for an excruciatingly long moment.

Then she screamed—not in desperation or defeat, but furious rage.

She considered pursuing Charlotte down the other hallway. She fantasized hunting her down and making her pay. She imagined the Black Labyrinth turning red. And, at the same time, a small part of Barker was thankful she hadn’t done a goddamn thing to help Jack—hadn’t even put the motherfucker out of his misery. He was condemned to endure every agonizing second of his fate. No mercy for the selfish thieves.

Her hands balled into fists. She wanted to throw the backpack in anger, but restrained herself—best not to waste the energy. Best to reserve her anger and pent-up torment for when she finally breaks out of this hell and confronts Edward.

People. The word grinded in her head’s gears. People. Something buried for years deep inside her was surfacing. She saw Charlotte and Jack’s faces flash in her mind, and the images turned red. She wished she had checked her backpack in the bread room. If only she had.

If she had, Charlotte and Jack wouldn’t have needed to fight each other—because Barker would have fucked up both of them. What Charlotte did to Jack was a joke compared to what Barker would do if she got her hands on Charlotte.

People. She dimly remembered a time in her Homicide days—many times, in fact—when fucking somebody up good felt like a duty and a right. Peter was one of those times. If she had met Edward in those days, he would have been another time. There were at least four more times before Peter, probably more unremembered. However, those other times were different. Her buddies backed her up and told a judge that she’d been defending herself. Peter got lucky because Barker wasn’t careful—instead of waiting for an opportunity in a back-alley or the bastard’s home, she fucked him up right in the police station. Right in front of the cameras.

Today would be another of those times—Charlotte would be another of those times if Barker saw her again.

At one point in her career, she admitted to an older detective that she actually enjoyed beating the hell out of people if she figured they deserved it. There was something cathartic about it, more releasing than sex or a good night’s sleep after a long week of work. Occasionally she would look for reasons to do it, and when she finally did, she felt like a million bucks. (The older detective retired a few weeks later due to “disillusionment,” in his own words. It couldn’t be somehow related, could it?)

People. They were always the worst. Barker despised dealing with fucking people. Not just suspects, but police and the victims and their families too. Most people are self-concerned, nothing more—especially in a big city. Every action that a person takes has a bottom line. Immersed in an ocean of the self-centered, it was impossible for Krista not to be drained and cynicized—sucked dry of all life, energy, and hope for the progression of mankind.

It gets to the point where even the truly well-intended or just become just as grating as the self-centered, self-righteous assholes who flood the earth. All their faces begin to look the same. It was amazing now that Barker thought about it. Was she ever an idealist? Probably not—but at one point in time, she had some kind of faith in the goodness of people. By the time she finished her Homicide career, it was impossible for her to care about people’s struggles—she’d seen it all a million times before, and not caring about each individual is the only way to keep yourself sane in that kind of career.

The lines blur—they overlap and eventually, for the sake of sanity, they boil down to one unified concept: people. She suspected that this same philosophy led her father, Alex, to off himself at the tail end of his career.

Barker guessed that Charlotte and Jack were from big cities too. Charlotte had a Boston drawl, and Jack—well, he just sounded English. London probably, the son of a bitch.

But now that she was free of her Homicide job, she didn’t deal with quite so many people. She was an independent investigator, which meant she had no coworkers and no brass—just a client and someone to stalk. She took assignments no less mundane than “follow my husband, I think he’s cheating on me,” or “watch this guy, he’s trying to pull off insurance fraud.” Perhaps it was a stroke of fate that led John Ross to call Barker, offering her a grotesquely large paycheck to investigate his daughter’s disappearance at some fancy small-town hotel. It was almost enough money to pay restitution to Peter and his family—otherwise she would have declined in favor of something more idle and monotonous.

She remembered John Ross now. The man hadn’t crossed her mind since the gate of the labyrinth encaged her. There was no sign of Diane Ross. She was most likely a worm-eaten corpse in the lye pit by now. (An image flashed in her mind of the blonde-haired woman with a grin of decay at the end of the pit—maybe that was her? Her dad John had a similar tone of blonde, but the grime made it hard to tell for sure.)

No doubt that John, at the very least, was concerned. If she was lucky, he might have called the police already, since the last he heard from her was the mysterious text message: “Sorry. I think he’s listening.” Barker prayed that he’d contacted the Oak County Sheriff. Maybe the deputies were here already searching the intricate labyrinth. (Or maybe Ross was in on Edward’s plan too? The ridiculous idea blindsided her, but she had to push it to the back of her head in order to escape it. She couldn’t help feeling like she’d been set up.)

It was nothing but a dim hope. Even if she was lucky, how long would it take for the police to find her in the Black Labyrinth? How difficult would it be for a well-equipped team of cops to explore an absurdly huge and complicated labyrinth? For that matter, how hard would it be to pry open the place with a warrant? Probably not that hard, considering the missing persons reports leading up to Krista’s own disappearance.

Barker let out a breath, resigning to a cold fact: She could rely on nobody but herself to survive. She put her empty backpack on her shoulders again, and cursed herself once more for not checking it in the bread room. The word people lingered in her mind with a rotten flavor.

When she tried to stand, she buckled on her ankle again. She caught herself on the wall, feeling a splinter stab her palm. Her body was stricken with intense discomfort—but nothing compared to the desperate wails of her stomach. Every single cell in her body was begging for nourishment. Every ounce of her was in constant, slow agony. Her skin and muscles felt like they were tightening on her bones.

The wind carried a whisper from behind her again. Barker smiled, figuring the English son of a bitch was still alive and moaning. She felt a slight pang of guilt when she acknowledged how comforting this fact was. Jack’s torment gave her respite. She steadied on her feet and walked forward, guiding herself along the wall and putting as little weight as possible on her hurt ankle.

The voice crackled from above her—but it was different now. Edward sounded weak and tired again. Barker couldn’t help but grin when she noticed this.

“I’m sorry I haven’t been talking to you, Krista,” he said. “I’ve been busy reading through your laptop. I’ve got great news. You’ve survived almost twelve hours. That is a great thing, isn’t it?”

Barker detected something in his intonation. He was getting desperate with his verbal thrusts. She would have none of it. She glanced up at the ceiling, where she imagined a camera might be, and she grinned.

“That’s pretty cool,” she said and waved at the darkness. “Hello, Eddie. How are you?”

There was a long pause. A cold wind blew against Barker’s back. Her grin was tight, restraining a maniacal laugh. But she was still shaking violently—nothing could stop the cold and hunger from making her shiver.

Edward finally spoke. “What was that?”

“I said, how are you, Eddie? I missed you. Your comments are so clever and funny.”

Edward said nothing.

“I was starting to get bored. This whole game is too predictable. I figured the key was probably in the bread. I just didn’t want to disappoint you by ruining your plans, so I let them figure it out and fight over it. I know your type pretty well—I know it drives you insane when your plans are ruined by something unexpected. Isn’t that right, Eddie?”

No response from the intercom. Barker’s chest filled with light. She felt like she had no choice now but to push harder and wring every ounce she could out of this opportunity.

“You know, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking,” she announced, turning around to make sure that, wherever it was, the camera could see her grin. “I’ve been wondering how I want to torture you when I finish playing your silly games. I’m sure anything sharp would do the trick. I’d like to know how you respond to fear. You know—play a game of my own.”

No reply.

“Doesn’t that sound great, Eddie? I can hardly wait. Why don’t you tell me where to go? Then we can play sooner.”

There was a hesitation through the intercom before Edward spoke. “Um—well, I mean. Sure thing.” His voice returned to normal now, but Barker knew it was a façade. “You know what—you’re right. I can’t wait to see you in person. I’ll guide you to go to the exit. Turn around and go back down the hall—follow the blood Charlotte left behind for a little while—and then I’ll tell you where to go next.”

Barker couldn’t restrain herself. She burst into hysterical laughter. “You think I’m stupid, Eddie? I’m offended. You think I’m like some animal of prey, don’t you? Like a rabbit?”

She kept walking down the hall, limping from her ankle and the hunger that needled her whole body. She was satisfied in her confirmation that Charlotte had gone the wrong way. Barker prayed that Charlotte would starve to death very slowly in some dark shadow of the labyrinth.

“You know,” Edward said, “let me explain something to you.” There was deep irritation in his voice. Barker grinned wider. “The world is divided into simple types of people, you know? People talk about all these different categories and personality types, but it’s actually pretty simple. There are only two types: Winners and losers. Predators and prey. Hawks and rabbits.” He paused, as if for emphasis. Barker continued lumbering and grinning down the black hall. His voice cut out behind her and then continued in the next speaker ahead. He spoke like he was talking to a small child, slow and emphatic with high intonation. “Character is irrelevant in the real world. The point of life is to survive and dominate the competition—so it’s always been. But some people like to pretend things aren’t that way. People like to protect the weak, preyish losers, and then say they’re doin’ the world a fuckin’ favor. But really, they’re just fucking up God’s plan by doing that.

“I don’t think I should insult your intelligence by telling you which of us is the winner and which is the loser.”

“No,” Barker announced, her toothy grin intact. “You don’t. I’ll show you who’s prey, Eddie. It’s gonna be fun.” She couldn’t help but laugh the same way Edward does when he thinks he’s being clever.

The intercom was silent. Satisfied with her victory, Barker kept moving. She covered her ears and braced herself for the impact of Edward’s music. It’d been a while since the soundtrack of Hell made its appearance, so why not now? But it didn’t come…

“You think I’d be that predictable?” Edward said in a desperate attempt to regain ground. “You’re dumber than I thought. Much dumber. I’ll get you when you don’t expect it.”

Barker held a thumbs-up to the darkness. “I’ll be waiting, Eddie.” She pressed herself forward against the agonizing hunger. Her teeth grinded, but she kept the grinning façade intact.

“I surpass you,” Edward’s voice was dimming, weakening. “I surpass God and mankind—and I surpass you, too. I’ll eat you alive, Krista.”

She ignored him, growing bored of the exchange. Barker wondered how much longer the hall would extend before she finally found another intersection—this whole time it had continued straight. She half-limped and half-dragged herself along the wall, and felt like she was swimming down into an infinite undersea abyss.

Edward whispered over the intercom and the hall became cold. Barker smirked. Still trying to feel like you won, Eddie? Still worried that a rabbit might surpass a hawk? She ignored it and kept pushing herself, but her adrenaline was waning. The thrill of outmaneuvering Edward’s words had dulled already, and Barker’s body was oppressed by hunger, exhaustion, and her bum ankle.

The whisper grew louder, but still incoherent. Barker wanted to say something—taunt Edward for his futile display—but couldn’t find the strength in her body to do so. Something drained her from within.

Her ankle gave out—she crashed into the floor. The joints in her body were throbbing. She cringed and felt pain flare across her skeleton.

She laid face-down for a moment—it was the first time she’d laid down since waking in the bread room. The coolness of the floor boards was inviting. She pressed her cheek against the wood, and her body shivered.

As moments passed, she blinked at the darkness and came across a realization. Edward wasn’t the one whispering. It must have been coming from somewhere inside the hall. The cold wind was blowing harder now, bathing her in frigid air. She tried to figure out if the wind was carrying the sound from ahead or behind, but the longer she listened the more confused she got…

Edward saw the visitor arrive long before he heard the doorbell. A car pulled up in front of the property’s front entrance. It was visible from a camera mounted atop the gate—the marked police car stopped across the street and parked by the edge of the barren snowy woods. The officer opened his car door and shot a wad of mucusy spit into the thin rank of black leafless trees.

Edward had almost not noticed the visitor, he was so engrossed in Barker’s crucible.

She was a peculiar subject indeed. Somehow she gained strength through despair, courage through terror—it was something he’d never seen before. He’d never before been openly challenged by a subject after the lye pit. That was the breaking point for every single subject, the point when they reach their lowest and ultimately abandon all hope. Barker was indeed broken, yet she managed to gain a new vigor through her breaking—perhaps as a result of it? Her will was intact, but her psyche was not. Edward recognized her weak point, and decided that the Marksman’s interlopers would reduce her to dust. And he would eat up every damn second of it. No longer just for sustenance and entertainment—now for education.

But when he noticed the cop car in front of the Marksman, he worried his heart might have stopped beating.

Edward hurried to his feet and got dressed in a suit of unworn pajamas. He rubbed his eyes and yawned, getting into character. Then he waited and watched the screens. The officer got out of the car, let himself into the hotel’s front gate, and made his way through the garden.

The doorbell rang, and then a thunder of heavy knocks came from the Marksman’s double doors.

Edward slouched out of his room and forced himself to yawn again and stretch. It was daylight now—the early morning sun flooded from the vestibule windows, and the dusty air floated stagnant through its rays. He sauntered to the giant double doors and swung them open.

The light outside hurt Edward’s eyes, which inadvertently made his impression of sleepiness more convincing. He shielded his face.

“Hey there, Ed,” the officer said. His black, upturned baseball cap had a badge embroidered on it. His retinas were light blue, almost white. He was tall and heavyset, and had a permanent grimace engraved into the folds of his aged cheeks, even when he was smiling. His expression was like he’d just reunited with a long-lost childhood friend.

Edward smiled. “Hello, Sheriff.”

“Oh, you can call me Lou, old pal. It’s been such a long time.” He reached out his hand to shake, and Edward did so weakly. Lou gestured through the double doors. “You mind if I come in and check out the new place?”

“Not at all,” Edward’s smile was unbroken, and he ushered Sheriff Lou Barnes into the Marksman’s mouth.

“This really is a lovely place you got yourself here,” Lou said. He took in the decorations of the vestibule—the sallow wallpaper, the chandeliers, the endless vintage photographs, the mammoth size of the place.

“Oh, yes. The owner spends more money on each room than his own—”

“Don’t give me that crap, Ed. I know this place is yours.” He walked through the dusty air with his eyes roaming the room. “This is a lot nicer than that shit-stain you had in the city. But you’ve always had money for something nicer.” In the middle of the vestibule, Lou turned and faced Edward, looking him in the eyes with that big dumb grin. “Why the change of heart?”

Edward shrugged and still smiled. “I’m a businessman. I came to Oak City to retire, but that just couldn’t happen—I get restless when I’m unproductive. So I bought this place.”

“But when you lived in the city you were a—,” Lou stopped, and then he chuckled. “Never mind. Anyways, I can’t say I understand that mentality, Ed. I’d love to retire. I guess you and I are two completely different people.”

Edward restrained his manic laughter. “I guess you’re right, Lou.”

“I’m sorry if I woke you.”

“It’s not a problem. I shouldn’t be lazing around all morning anyways.”

“I’ll get to the point so I can get outta your hair. We’ve had a few noise complaints from the neighbors.”

“But the neighbors are miles away.”

Lou’s cartoonish expression still didn’t change. “I know that. Do you mind if I take a look around?”

Edward wondered if that was just an excuse. His pleasant façade unbroken, Edward said, “Of course not, Lou.”

He led the way, getting ready to take the sheriff on a tour of the Marksman’s bottom floor. Edward walked over to the door leading to hallways of countless activity rooms. He swung it open and gestured for Lou to enter.

“This way, we’ve got our saunas, billiards,—”

“I’m not here for a tour, Ed. I think you know why I’m here. Don’t you know?”

Edward shuddered. “I guess I do.”

“Don’t waste my time then.”

“Right.” Edward walked Lou back through the vestibule and then up the giant marble staircase. At the top landing, he went down the right side and hoped that the dumb bastard wouldn’t turn his head left and see the suspicious gate deep in the shadows. He tried conversation as a distraction. “It sure has been a while, Lou. How’s life been treating you?”

The first thing Lou did at the top landing was turn his head left. “That’s an interesting gate you’ve got down there, Ed. Way down in those shadows over there. What’s it for?”

“I—construction,” he said. The sheriff was standing just past the top marble step with his back to the stairs and his head turned away from Edward. An idea popped into the gentleman’s head, but he knew that his twig-like physique was no match for a Cro-Magnon like Lou. He continued: “We keep it locked when we have guests staying. We don’t want them wandering around and getting lost, hurting themselves.”

“Well where are all the guests now?” Lou said, looking back at Edward with the same dumb grin. “The place looks pretty empty.”

“We’re, uh—renovating the guest bedrooms right now, actually, but we have a few guests staying here. You know how it is.”

Lou laughed. “Actually, I don’t. Who’s ‘we,’ anyways?”

“Me and my employees.”

Lou nodded, still grinning of course. “I didn’t tell you to stop. Keep on walking.” He gestured impatiently at the man in the gentleman’s disguise.

Edward was sweating profusely. He only realized this when a bead fell over his brow and off his eyelash. He wiped his face.

“All right,” Edward say. “This way.” He led the Sheriff down the right-hand hall away from the landing.

“There’s been a lot of interesting reports coming from this neck of the woods,” Lou said from behind Edward as they walked down the hall. “You know, disappearances here and there. Nothing too out of the ordinary, but—”

Edward stopped at an unpainted wooden door on his right. He grabbed the doorknob and turned to face the Sheriff.

“But what, Lou?”

“But it’s all a bit strange, you know? This isn’t on file, but I heard a few of ‘em disappeared after staying at this hotel. Funny, huh?”

Lou paused to let this sink in.

“That is strange,” Edward said. “I warn our guests not to wander away from the hotel—you know, out in the woods. People love to go exploring, but now that I think about it,” he paused, “a few of them get lost or hurt. Some of them don’t come back.”

Lou bared his teeth in a doglike dummy’s grin.

“I don’t suppose you filed all those missing person reports, then?”

“Naturally,” Edward lied. He wasn’t sure if the dumb bastard was buying it—maybe the sheriff had actually done his research. Edward figured probably not—but the pounding of his heart echoed between his ears. It wasn’t often that he could hear his own heartbeat like this…

Lou smiled. He put his hands on his belt buckle, and with one elbow he pushed the flap of his jacket back, as if inadvertently. There was a large revolver holstered on his hip.

“It’s a damn funny thing, isn’t it? Ya know, it’s almost as funny as the story of the Gray Marksman itself. I’ve been doing a little reading myself, Ed—I’m a nosey bastard, you know—and I dunno about you, but I thought this was pretty fuckin’ funny.

“Did you know the last family lived here for a hundred-fifty years? A hundred and fifty. They didn’t like visitors too much. Of course, something musta changed around a year ago, when their youngest daughter turned up dead in the forest. Neck broken. The father told me it was an accident—that she was playing in the woods, got lost, and ended up getting hurt. But it just smelled so damn funny to me. How does a little girl just break her own neck like that? So after that, they take off and leave Oak City, and what happens next?”

Lou had the grin of an anticipated punchline. The gentleman returned a look of blank shock. The knob of the door was rattling under Edward’s grip.

“Well, Ed—you show up and buy the place. Rock-bottom price, I heard. Isn’t that a funny coincidence? I don’t remember telling you to stop.”

Edward finally regained control of his senses. He snapped out of his trance and wiped his face. He cleared his throat and opened the door, recomposing his pleasant beam. Then, without a word, he gestured the Sheriff into the room.

“Oh, no,” Lou said. “After you.”

Edward nodded and went inside.

This room didn’t have any wallpaper. There were stacks of a dozen little vaults all over the place. Instead of a chandelier, a bare light bulb hung from the ceiling. Edward approached a vault at random, spun the combination, and swung the door open. Inside was several million dollars in Benjamins.

Edward took a fat rubber-banded wad and split it in two. He stuck one half in Lou’s direction. The bastard was leaning against the wall by the door, one leg crossed over the other, inspecting his fingernails. The smell of cash must have caught his attention—he shifted and looked up.

Lou glanced at the money, then stared at Edward. “Gosh, Ed, you’re not trying to bribe the County Sheriff, are you? That’s reprehensible.”

Without making a sound or changing his hospitable smile, Edward gave Lou both halves of the money wad, plus a second wad. Lou took them and put them both in his coat pocket, the greedy sonofabitch. He still had that rabid dog’s grin.

“So, Ed,” Lou said. “You’re renovating this old place, huh? You gonna open it to the public soon?”

“Private reservations only.”

Edward led Lou back through the hall, down the marble stairs, and to the front door. He endured the exchange of empty pleasantries until Lou was outside the threshold of the building. The sheriff reached a hand towards Edward for a shake.

“It was nice talkin’ to you, ol’ friend,” Lou’s smile was bigger now, toothier. “I was worried I’d never see you again. I was thinking about havin’ a deputy check this place out, but I’m sure glad I came here myself. Pleasant surprise—seeing as we got a lot in common.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’m sure we’ll run into each other again soon.” Edward laughed nervously. He shook Lou’s hand. The sheriff’s grip was like a happy gorilla.

“Don’t worry, buddy. We will. See ya, Ed.” Lou turned and marched down the path through the garden. He left the Marksman’s yard and shut the gate behind him.

Edward looked down at himself. His pajamas were wet with sweat and piss. He had no idea when that happened or whether or not Lou had noticed. He watched the sheriff get into his squad car, flip around in the middle of the street, and speed back the way he came—north up the mud-frozen prairie towards Oak City.

Edward shut the Marksman’s doors. On his way back to the bedroom, he noticed that his arms were quivering. He clasped his hands and wormed his fingers through each other, desperate to make it stop.

But he knew only one thing would. So he went to his bedroom and sat in front of the monolith of computer screens and scanned them all, searching for Krista Barker. She was invisible on all the monitors—perhaps the interlopers had found her, and she was hiding from them. Edward grinned uneasily.

Barker rolled onto her back and blinked at the darkness. She held her breath and listened. Now there was no discernible sound throughout the Black Labyrinth. She couldn’t help but wonder if she had imagined the whisper—maybe it was Jack’s echoing breaths still reaching her, or maybe the scream of Charlotte falling into another pit of acid and lye. Both were comforting explanations—but she remembered the other whisper she’d heard in the labyrinth innumerable minutes ago.

“Hello,” and “please.” At first she felt sure about it, but after so many hours had passed, she no longer had any idea. She heard it clearly, like an echo of her own voice. Hours ago she’d thought it might’ve been an intercom echo—maybe Edward walked away and left his microphone on—but now none of it made any sense at all. From where she laid, she swore there was something making noise somewhere else in the labyrinth. Maybe another survivor, or maybe not. The more she thought about it, the less sense it all made…

She picked herself off the ground, and was surprised by the amount of effort it took to get on her feet. Her ankle hurt like fuck now, almost as bad as when she first hurt herself. The painkilling adrenaline had left her body, exposing her senses to the full extent of her physical condition. More than anything else, she craved food and water. She had never truly known the definition of the word parched until today. It took all the energy she had in her not to think about it and to keep moving.

She shivered in the cold air, and kept limping in the direction she was heading. Edward remained silent—Barker was unsure if he was watching or could even see her. She was beginning to suspect that there were many stretches of hallway that were invisible to him. It was impossible for her to know, which in itself seemed more dreadful than the idea of the gentleman’s eyes always watching her from the ceiling. If she still had her map—

She started sliding against the wall to keep herself upright, and she came to a four-way intersection. She felt a cross-breeze hit her from the left and right. It was surely more hidden air ducts, or something else meant to confuse her into getting lost in search of an exit. The most logical choice was to continue straight, where there was no apparent sign of escape.

Barker decided to cross straight through the intersection. She limped out past the wall with no support, then slipped on something and stumbled but caught herself on the next corner. It seemed to be some small streak of liquid. Barker lowered herself to her knees and tried to inspect it with her fingertips.

It was a wet trail—it led from left to right, or perhaps right to left. It was Charlotte’s trail of Jack’s blood.

Stupid bitch. She was following the wind. She was looking for escape. Barker couldn’t help but smile at the thought of Charlotte’s ruin.

Krista limped past the intersection and continued down the hall. Her idle mind became strangely reflective. As she made slow, steady progress down the ever-extending straight hall, she realized something: Edward hadn’t really transformed her. Barker never particularly liked humankind in the first place, and now she wondered why the hell she ever wanted to be a goddamned cop. Sure, she’d never wished slow agony and death on someone for stealing peanuts and water, but it was the principle of her selfishness that justified Charlotte’s suffering. Just like Peter deserved to suffer, and so did Edward and all the nameless other sick-fucks. Nothing had really changed throughout the innumerable hours in darkness. Her primal self had simply emerged.

Her mind lingered. Her movements slowed, and her hurt ankle started to numb. She had to put all her weight on the wall to keep going. The remnants of her strength were fading.

The frigid breeze hit her from behind. It was flowing away from that blood-marked intersection. Barker shivered. Her pants were ragged and cold with a man’s blood.

Barker reached a door now. She didn’t perceive it until the cold wooden threshold was inches away from her face—but she was weak enough that she couldn’t run into it too hard. She reached out and touched it. The door was covered in a thick coat of black paint. Her hand ran down the face—it felt like it was made of ice. The cold bit her bones. Barker pushed herself off the wall and steadied on her feet. Her ankle wouldn’t stop crying at her for mercy. She tried to open it.

It was stuck for a split-second, and Barker was filled with dread. In a recess of her mind, she remembered the door at the end of the lye pit. However, this one opened after a moment of hesitation and was caught by the chain of a deadbolt. Barker felt around the door’s edge until she found that, thankfully, it was on her side—she unhooked and pulled the black door open. A gust of wind came out of the room, and she entered the threshold.

In this room, she was given the gift of light. Not much, but enough that she could perceive the room’s contents. Threads of scarce illumination—maybe sunlight?—came down from cracks in the ceiling. It wasn’t enough to make the room comfortable, but it was awesome compared to pitch darkness.

The room was a wide and evenly proportioned cube, and the ceiling seemed to be high above the ground, almost two stories tall. The walls, floor, and ceiling were completely covered in mirrors. In the center of the room was a small end table. There were two small objects on the table that she couldn’t quite make out. Opposite of her entrance was a second doorway that presumably led into another black hallway.

She walked towards the table, and the light from the ceiling seemed to glow brighter. She could see herself everywhere she looked—there was not a single inch of the room, save for the cracks in the ceiling and the two doorways, that was not covered in mirrors. In each mirror, she saw the disconcerting infinity trick—reflections upon reflections upon reflections upon reflections, stretching out into an illusory abyss. On each wall, she saw herself dozens of times—each reflection was further away from the last, and her figure became smaller and less significant as the reflections dove deeper. For the first time since Room 297, Barker could fully perceive her own physical appearance. She was sickened by what she saw.

Somehow, in the last day or so, she had become pale, sick, and a bit burned. Her skeletal structure appeared to have no sustenance or nutrient. Her face was becoming more skull-like—it reminded her of Edward’s face, those jutting cheek bones and sunken eyes. Her clothes were ragged and dirty, and her legs were spattered with dark brownish-red. Looking at herself made Barker want to hurl again, retch up every last stomach acid her body held. She clamped her mouth shut, and noticing the red burns on her hands and face made the pain return to her acutely.

She looked away from herself and approached the table in the center. She immediately became aware of its contents. It was food. A rotten chicken leg on a plate, covered in ants, maggots, and fly eggs. Next to it was, strangely enough, a cupcake zipped in a plastic bag, free from the reach of carrion bugs. It was chocolate with green icing and sprinkles on top.

Barker stared at the cupcake in the bag. She was overcome with disbelief. Edward must have put a razor blade in it or poisoned it or something. Looking at the cupcake made her stomach groan with agony. The bones in her body pressed against her skin, as if trying to rip free. For a long moment, she considered taking a bite of the cupcake.

The chicken—well, she tried her best to ignore that. She could smell it from anywhere in the room and wanted nothing to do with it, except perhaps to look at it and kill her appetite for the (most likely) deadly cupcake. Or perhaps it contained the key to the next door?

Expectedly, the intercom crackled. Barker was relieved by this—it actually would have been more frightening and unexpected had Edward decided to say nothing and allow her to figure out the significance of what she saw on her own.

“Well then,” Edward said from above. His voice was a weak, hoarse whisper. He sounded like he was on his deathbed. Barker grinned. “Would you look at that, Krista? Food. Just like the bread room. Go ahead—I haven’t done anything to it. Just like the bread. Eat up.”

Barker stared blankly at the cupcake in the plastic bag.

“Go on, eat it. I’m waiting.” Edward laughed, but it sounded more like a dry wheeze.

“You’re dying, Eddie,” Barker said aloud. “You sound really sick.”

“I’m not dying, Krista. You are. I have plenty to eat and drink. You don’t—not after your companions took the stuff from your backpack.”

Barker twitched.

His voice picked up now. “You’re a bit sensitive about that? I’m sorry. I like you, Krista, so I’ll save you the trouble of figuring out my cunning and elaborate symbolism. I chose a cupcake and rotten meat for a reason—you thought I didn’t, did you? You were wrong—stupid and wrong. The cupcake and chicken represent different parts of society. Do you follow? The cupcake is gorgeous, nice-spirited, uplifting. It makes you think of moral values and family and community and, you know, happiness.”

Barker stared at the cupcake. The symbolism was lost on her.

“You do understand, don’t you? It looks all nice and pretty from the outside—but inside,” he paused, “but inside…”

Barker glanced up at the ceiling where Edward’s voice originated. She opened her mouth to speak but found no words.

“The chicken is the smaller part of society. It appears to be bastardly, rotten to the core, out to get you. You know, the kinda people Officer Barker likes to beat into a pulp. But there’s a certain irony to this, because in reality, you need them to live. How else would you deal with your stress?”

The breeze came in from the open door behind Barker, and she shivered.

“The cupcake might appear to be sweet and fulfilling, but it is toxic. Who knows? It might beat the shit out of you if it decides you deserve it.” Another wheezing laugh. “The chicken is me, do you get it? The chicken knows the key to survival. It is the key to survival. Do you follow? Well, do you, Krista?”

Barker’s mouth hung open a moment before she spoke. “You lost me a little bit, Eddie. I have a better idea—I’ll take the cupcake with me, and when I find you, I’ll shove it down your fuckin’ throat. Then I’ll rip your fingernails off one by one.”

Edward’s wheeze was suddenly a full, hearty laugh. “I’d love to see you try and cause me pain.”

Barker said nothing and smiled at the dark, mirrored ceiling. In the reflection, she saw the cupcake and the chicken, surrounded by a swarm of ants and covered in writing maggots. She decided not to spend too much time or energy trying to figure out what the hell Edward was talking about. She held the cupcake bag in her hand and walked around the table towards the next door.

“You’re making a mistake,” Edward said, and the mirror chamber was silent again.

Barker shivered when the air turned colder. She said to the ceiling, “No, Eddie. You’re the one making a—making a mistake…”

Her head became light. The images in the mirrors were dim and foggy. She felt her body sway. Her bones felt brittle, and she thought her muscles were shriveling. She took a step past the table, towards the opposite door, and she collapsed to her knees. She felt no pain—her body was becoming numb.

“What the—what the hell are you—what—,” her voice, already dim to her ears, trailed off into nothingness. She tried to speak now but heard nothing. All she felt was starvation—true, total starvation—taking its toll inside of her. Her guts felt like they were burning and writhing in her stomach. The pain radiated out and filled every cell of her body. She thought she might vomit again, but there was nothing inside her to retch out. She swayed slowly, looking at her reflection beneath her. It was growing dark. Perhaps the thin sunlight was fading behind clouds, or perhaps—

The room was vibrating. The mirrors were rattling on the walls, floor, and ceiling. For a moment, she thought she was hallucinating. Had Edward filled the room with some gaseous drug? She tried to crawl away but couldn’t move. She started convulsing slowly.

Then the pain was amplified tenfold. Her stomach felt like it was lined with a dozen ulcers. She grabbed her belly with one hand, and then she collapsed on her chest. The coolness of the mirror was refreshing but it offered no respite—she was sweating profusely. Her mind raced and couldn’t stop on a single tangible word or thought for longer than a moment. She wondered if she was on the verge of death now. So many years passed had passed by her, but she couldn’t remember her age—not even her own name now.

Something was overtaking her. Maybe it was starvation or exhaustion. Perhaps it was a drug in the air. Or maybe it was something else entirely. She was in no state to figure anything out.

Her mind was flooded with images of death. She saw memories—or were they fantasies? She couldn’t remember. She saw herself from a removed, out-of-body perspective. She lay in a bathtub with her wrists cut. The tub was pumping water, and blood overflowed onto the bathroom tiles. The image blurred into another of herself in her living room back in Atlanta. Her body hung by the neck from a sock tied around a light fixture. Her head was twisted to one side the same way her father’s did when he hung himself. Then she saw her old Homicide office, a pistol clasped in one hand and her brains splattered all over the wall behind her desk. Her other hand held a crumpled, illegible note. Somebody in the room took the note out of her hand and flattened it next to her emptied skull. It had incomprehensible scrawling and a drawing of a ghastly face with no features. More people appeared in the office, surrounding the scene. From her fly-on-the-wall perspective, she tried to look at them, but they were distant and discordant images. They had no discernible outline, shape, or body features. Not even faces—just like the drawing from her suicide note. They all seemed impassive, though it was difficult to tell what they were thinking. The last image she saw was a kitchen—a fire was raging from the stove, enveloping the wall and ceiling. She was sprawled on the floor next to the flame, a pill bottle wrung in her fingers. The bottle was empty, and her face was distorted, strangled of life.

Then a familiar feeling visited her—the feeling of a cold smile watching her. She remembered John and Diane Ross, Edward Sherlock, Jack and Charlotte, and the Black Labyrinth. Krista Barker awoke.

She was hunched over the end table now, propped up against it on her knees. One of her hands clenched the rotten chicken meat, crushing maggots between her fingers. Her other hand held the cupcake. The bag was gone now. The treat was in her mouth, and her teeth were sunk into its chocolate and green frosting.

She panicked, threw herself off the table, and launched the deadly treat out of her hands. She spat wildly, praying that she had swallowed none of Edward’s poison. The cupcake seemed intact except for a deep set of teeth marks. She acknowledged this in the split second between the cupcake leaving her hand and when it hit the mirrored floor with a splat.

She breathed fast and deep, hyperventilating, and sweat poured down her face. She sat in a corner of the room, her back pressed against the cold mirror. The taste of chocolate tinged with death was strong in her mouth—maybe it was cyanide, or some mixture of death caps. She spat it out until it was gone. She never thought you could actually taste that shit when you get poisoned.

There came no sound from the intercom except a quiet, heavy breathing. It sounded like a whisper in wind. 

Five:
Ash

Edward was sick—that was undeniable now. Or rather, his body was. He had been watching Barker in the mirror room. He grinned when he saw her collapse, and he drank in every second of her anguish. For a moment, she appeared to be giving up—she got the cupcake in her mouth. Edward held his breath and his eyes stretched open.

Then she came to her senses and hurled it away. He let out a sigh of relief tinged with disappointment. On one hand, Barker had not lost the will to live like he thought—this seemed like a failure on Edward’s part. He meant to break her, and so far she bent further and further but would not snap. How much more would it take? No matter—she might be the next subject to reach the end of the Black Labyrinth. If that happened, her will would not merely break—it would burn.

As the moments passed, he was overcome with a strong sense of relief. Barker was the most vigorous subject Edward had ever used. Who knows how many more hours she might last? With enough luck, Edward could wring out every last possible minute of Barker’s suffering. In other words, his little party was still going strong and healthy, although his guests were getting tired. He relished every moment, and wondered if there was some way to keep Barker alive in the labyrinth forever.

But now, Edward’s physical state was deteriorating. He had spent far too long obsessing over Subject Krista, and in turn neglected the needs of his burdensome body. He would need to eat and sleep, or else he might black out—and perhaps never wake up.

Edward slid his chair out from the desk. He lingered for a moment, watching Barker on the screen. She sat against the wall of the mirror chamber, her face buried in her palms. The investigator had a pessimistic aura, and while Edward would gladly watch her suffer, the climactic part was over—so he decided to let his damn body have its own way.

He stood up. The area beneath the computer desk was littered in piss and shit. Edward had hardly noticed this until now. He ignored it—but now that it was daylight, he had to be ready for some new potential subject showing up at his door (or worse, Lou Barnes). No subjects were expected to arrive for another day or so, but he liked to be prepared. He changed out of his soiled pajamas, put on a fresh new suit identical to his previous one, and gave himself a cologne bath.

As he walked out into the vestibule, his body stiffened and his vision dimmed. He caught himself in the doorway of his bedroom, blinked, and collapsed while hanging onto the doorknob. The fall would have startled a feeling man, but Edward allowed his gaunt body to crumple up on the floor. His momentum swept the door wide open. He made no attempt to rouse himself from his stupor and waited for the momentary dizziness to pass.

He was quite used to this by now. Oftentimes—especially when he barely ate or drank—he would stand up after sitting long hours and his world would turn into a blob of blackness. It used to frighten him, but now it seemed like a necessary ritual, like brushing his teeth before going to bed. He waited. For a moment, he thought that this was what it must be like as a subject in the Black Labyrinth. The world was black and he was helpless.

Edward reached out with and dragged his crumpled body forward a few feet. He waved his hands in front of him to try and register his surroundings—his blobbed vision was beginning to clear up now. He breathed deeply. With sluggish crawling movements, he made his way to the foot of the marble staircase. He reached for the hand rail and grabbed it with a shaking hand. Edward pulled himself back up to his feet, slow and wavering.

He swayed. His palms were wet with sweat, and he could see it dripping from his temples to the floor. Edward let out a long breath. He propped himself upright on the stairs’ railing. For a dreadful moment, he worried that he might black out. As the seconds passed, he started to regain some semblance of a normal state-of-mind. In that same moment, he noticed one of the portraits on the sallow wall—about halfway up the staircase on the left, the one several guests had stopped to inspect—had become uneven. Edward took steady steps up towards it, mounting one stair at a time, regaining his balance, then mounting the next. The whole way, he held himself up against the railing.

When he reached the picture, he let go of the rail and wobbled. He reached out and touched the portrait, inching the frame to the right so that it was even with all the others. The couple in the photo stared at him dourly. Their expressions had sort of a negative glow to them, a dim phosphorescence of judgmental energy. Edward distorted his face into an exaggerated sneer and laughed.

“Do ya like what I’ve done with my new pad? You always told me not to blow my inheritance. Sorry about that. There’s still a bit of it left.”

 Edward made his way to the kitchen. He stumbled a little bit down the stairs and then went across the vestibule.

Inside the kitchen, he acknowledged the mess of knives he had made earlier. They were all still scattered about one of the counters near the corner—and by God he refused to touch them, even if it was to hide them somewhere he would never see again. Just like how, if he could, he would have drained his body of all its blood and kept it out of sight as well.

He tried his best to ignore the knives. He grabbed a can of soup from under the counter and walked over to the can opener, keeping away from the mess of blades like a magnetic field was pushing him back. Edward opened the can, and he got a bowl from the cabinet over the sink.

No mistakes, he promised himself. He dumped the soup into the bowl and got a spoon this time. He took the soup back into his den. There was a trio of flies buzzing around the black door. He pushed the door’s existence out of his consciousness.

Edward plopped himself on the stained couch and turned on the TV. The news was teeth-grindingly boring. Some bullshit about the dying Oak City farmers’ market, reports of a new grocery store that carries organic foods, and some political crap about the Sheriff elections. (Perhaps he should have cared about that—he could vote against old Lou Barnes. Now that he thought about it, how did that corrupt bastard keep getting reelected? He must have a damn good mask of normalcy.)

Edward spooned tiny bits of soup down his throat one by one. He idly wished that he had access to a national news station—they were always reporting on some accident or shooting spree or whatever. Edward chuckled and remembered the crying old woman.

About halfway through his meal, Edward fell asleep. He crumpled over on the couch and the soup splashed all over the floor. The shattering bowl failed to wake him. He slid into a deep slumber, the likes of which his body had been yearning for.

As he slept, Edward twisted and turned and sweated profusely. He dreamed about a butcher cutting beef with a large knife. He mumbled in his sleep.

Krista was unsure how much time had passed. She fell asleep for a few minutes—maybe ten at most—before she got up from the mirror floor.

She was sick and numb, and she could barely stand the dehydration and hunger anymore. Every move she made painfully drained her body’s precious fuel. She did her best to minimize the nuances of her muscle movement as she crossed the room to the next door. Fearing it might be locked, she tried the knob and let out a breath of relief. Then she cursed herself for not immediately leaving this damnable room after she came in, before whatever the hell just happened to her.

Barker carried herself into the next long, dark hallway. The light from the mirror room was dim enough that it didn’t penetrate the pitch blackness of the labyrinth. She was submerged in the dark again. At least divers have a line to follow back to the surface. Barker didn’t have shit. If she got lost in the black depths of the crushing ocean, she was gone for good. No coming up for oxygen, let alone food and rest. Instead of blacking out and dying from the weight of the world, she would slowly succumb while consciously appreciating every moment of her suffering. Krista tried to put thoughts of death out of her mind, but it was pretty hard to after—

She had to drag herself along the hallway’s bare wooden walls now. Her body was so weak she thought it might fall apart at the joints. In other circumstances, she would have the desire to sleep. No such desire came to her—only the need to escape from Hell.

The sound of heavy breathing was still coming in constantly over all the speakers. Barker wondered if Edward had fallen asleep with his face on the microphone or something. She was amused by the thought, but enamored with the idea of dumping gasoline on his sleeping body. She pushed the distraction out of her mind as she dragged herself into a new intersection.

This one was a T-shape. The hallway ended in front of her, splitting off to the left and right. She checked the floor. No sign of blood—no sign of Charlotte. She held her breath and stood in between the three halls, waiting for some sign of wind blowing. There was none. Her decision was basically a coin toss, if she had one.

She went to the right, reasoning that left might have taken her back towards where she came. She might as well have closed her eyes, spun around, and taken the direction she stopped on. It didn’t make a difference in the world—Barker wondered if there even existed an exit to this hellish maze. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate kick in the teeth? Edward’s plans must have further exaggerated his ego, plans that he thought were so clever and unpredictable—watching her struggle and endure against them, only to find there was never a means of winning all along. This would be the sweetest of his victories. The sick fuck probably masturbated to his own ingenuity and the pain he wrought on others. Krista wondered if she could exploit his ego somehow.

She dragged herself around the corner of the wall and started down the right side.

Like all the other halls, this one seemed to stretch into eternity. She moved slowly forward, clawing at the wood panels of the wall, dragging her body against it. She was swaying, and she tried to keep on her feet. The heavy breathing from the speakers hadn’t abated or intensified. She wondered if Edward was sleeping or watching. It was impossible to know—the only certainty in her mind was that the slow breaths were a better soundtrack than the grinding screech of metal-on-metal. She let out a sigh of thanks to some stroke of fate that Edward hadn’t inflicted his music upon her ever since the lye pit. Barker couldn’t help but ask herself why he hadn’t—but on one hand, she might be better off blindly accepting it as a temporary gift.

The breaths from the speakers had a strange rhythm. They were constant, slow, and throaty, almost like somebody sleeping. But at the same time, it seemed intentional—like a stalker leaving a creepy voicemail. Inhale, exhale. A second passes. Inhale, exhale. A second passes. Inhale, exhale…

There were no other sounds coming from the speakers—no mumbles, no muttering, no signs of dreaming or shifting in sleep. Edward was either sleeping like a baby, or he was doing this intentionally. She decided to find out which.

“Hey, Eddie!” she cried out with a smile on her face. “Yeah, you. I miss your clever commentary. It just makes this whole ordeal so—I dunno—funny, you know?”

She kept dragging herself. The pain in her ankle was peaking again, and she half-limped, half-crawled against the labyrinth’s wall.

Wake up, Eddie!” she yelled.

Inhale, exhale. A second passed. Inhale, exhale.

He was either in a coma, or he was doing this on purpose. Barker’s mind was boggled trying to discover the reason behind this rhyme. Then again, Edward had proven himself not to be mentally straight on many levels. Apart from the shriekingly obvious issue of running a murder-hotel, he had said some downright bizarre things that gave Barker the impression he wasn’t exactly a linear thinker. The speech on hawks and rabbits, not to mention the whole cupcake-representing-society nonsense or whatever he was going on about.

Barker smiled and fantasized different ways to fuck around with Edward whenever he woke up. She wanted to press him into getting angry and scared, like she accomplished before the mirror room. It couldn’t be too hard. Just act indifferent to his silly mind games—oblivious, in fact. Push his buttons by not having a care in the world. Call him out on his predictability and cliché ideas.

Inhale, exhale. A second passed. Barker felt weaker, but pushed on. Now her ankle gave out once again, and her knees thudded against the floor. She was numb to the pain—she just kept crawling on her hands and knees.

There was a faint sound far ahead of her—a whisper of a whimper, perhaps. It reminded her of the man in the lye pit who she put out of his misery. He was whimpering like a dog long before Barker found him. Was this another survivor in Edward’s dire maze?

Maybe it was the presence in the labyrinth—or the presence in her head, rather. She wasn’t actually sure which it was. She avoided thinking about the ordeal in the mirror room, and reasoned that it was some kind of mental break caused by dehydration and sleep deprivation. Maybe Edward gassed her with some sort of drug or something. That seemed like a decent explanation. Barker combed her brain for a psychotropic she knew about that can give you immediate suicidal tendencies and clouding thoughts—but she found nothing.

The whimper faded away. The Black Labyrinth was silent again.

Now she crawled into another intersection—this one was four-ways. Her choice seemed obvious when she glanced in each direction. Far off to her left, there was a faint light coming from a half-open doorway. It might have been a mistake to keep walking towards the light after doing so had nearly killed her twice. Something in her—human spirit, perhaps?—insisted that she follow it. So that’s what she did.

The dim hope made her ignore the pain in her ankle. She got to her feet again and stumbled forward, catching herself before she fell flat on her face. She limped toward the light.

It took her several minutes to reach it, and the whole way she kept checking the floor for blood. No sign of Charlotte. So far, so good. (Inhale, exhale. A second passes. Inhale, exhale. Barker couldn’t push the breaths from the intercom out of her mind.)

She pushed the door and it creaked open. The face of the door was coated in the same thick black paint as the mirror room. Barker shivered when she touched it, and when the door swung open, her jaw hung open.

This room was dimly lit by a projector in the center. The lighting was somewhere between the bread room and the mirror chamber—not intensely bright, but not barely visible either. It reminded her of her school days, watching a movie or documentary in a dark classroom. The room was littered with decayed, smelly furniture. There were several chairs, a couch, and a bed—all of them had no cushions or cloth. They were skeletons, caricatures of real furniture. However, there was a big armchair in the back corner of the room near the closed second door. It was covered in some kind of ragged, uneven leather that had been sewn together in a hack job. The leather was dark and seemed moldy. The air in the room was stale.

Barker limped into the room towards the projector. It displayed a blank static image on the left-hand wall. Barker stared at it for a moment, fascinated by the enigma. A projected image of nothing—gray and static like a television tuned to a dead channel. She felt hypnotized, seconds turning to minutes while she just stood there and watched the static abyss.

Then the projector clicked. Barker jumped with fright, but then she felt pretty silly—obviously Edward had some kind of controller in his little hideaway room, and was probably grinning with delight at her display of fear. Barker laughed out loud.

“You’re really gonna try and scare me with that old trick, Eddie? I thought you were better than that. This is worse than the House on Haunted Hill remake.” She grinned and looked up at the ceiling. There was no discernible camera, but she knew it existed somewhere.

There came no response—except inhale, exhale, a passing second. Inhale, exhale, a passing second. It was amazing that Edward could keep breathing at such a consistent rhythm, Krista mused.

She refocused on the image of the projector and saw it was no longer blank. She squinted at it—the reflected light hurt her dark-accustomed eyes.

“Where—,” she stopped herself. From her laptop in her luggage, of course. She was silly for even wondering.

The image displayed was kind of a shitty photo-manipulation. It was a photograph of Barker’s estranged brother, with whom she hadn’t spoken since she was nineteen and he was twenty-one. She couldn’t even remember why they cut each other off—or for that matter, why Barker kept a photo of him on her hard drive. Edward had taken it, cut out his smiling face, and placed it on a black-and-white photo of a brutal murder scene. Jeffrey Barker appeared to have his throat slit, his stomach split open, and his guts torn from the inside. They were wrapped around his body like a bow. Barker felt sick looking at the picture—it was far worse than anything she had seen in her own Homicide days. Somebody had inflicted a ton of rage and hatred into that act of disembowelment. The editing was okay, but not very convincing. Jeffrey’s smile was a bit bothersome, she admitted.

“Very clever, Edward.” Barker clapped slowly, mockingly. “Very clever. You must be giggling like a little girl. I probably could’ve made it better honestly.”

The response: inhale, exhale, a passing second. Inhale, exhale, a passing second.

Barker sighed. “If you’re not even gonna talk to me, I don’t get why you have me here. It’s not very polite to ignore your guests.”

Inhale, exhale, a passing second.

“Right. Well, I’m gonna go now. Thanks for—uh—that.”

She stepped around the projector, walking in front of it. Her silhouette projected on the wall, covering the brutal murder scene with Jeffrey Barker’s face. As walked by, the projector clicked and the image shifted again. Barker couldn’t help but jump slighter than before.

This one was no photo-manipulation. This one was real—she remembered it from when she saw it for the first time.

It was his paled face: Alexander Barker, his image half-covered by Krista’s silhouette. The scene of her father’s suicide. He hung by a pair of socks tied from a light fixture. She remembered this from when she was nineteen. Everything came back to her: The bitter anger and the hollow hate and the cluelessness and the millions of whys? At the same time—despite all of that, or maybe because of it—she remembered understanding why, but she still hated him for it. She never explained it to anybody. Krista was convinced that most people really wouldn’t understand why even if she did explain. Only Alex and his oldest daughter Krista would understand why, and she thought it was maybe better that way. Maybe someday she’ll see Alex again and tell him that she understands why he did it—or maybe she won’t.

How in God’s name did Edward find out all this? Barker reasoned that he’d been obsessively mining the recesses of the Internet while she wandered the labyrinth. But it was so fucking incomprehensible. Where, how the fuck, what a fucking cheap blow—

The next door clicked. The knob turned. Barker spun round and faced it. The door—painted black like the one she entered—swung open. A figure emerged from blackness into the dim of the projector room.

Barker shielded her eyes against the projector beam. She stepped forward out of the light. Her vision refocused and she tried to make out the silhouette that stood in the doorway. Krista could smell blood thick in the air.

The silhouette called to her. “Kirsty! Oh my God, I thought you were—oh Jesus, I’m so happy to see you!”

The woman lurched towards Krista. She was drenched in the dried, brownish-red mess of Jack Vernon’s intestines, and she reached out a sticky hand. There was a giant smile on her bruised face. The stench of blood was revolting. She didn’t even notice that Barker was not returning the smile—not smiling at all. Krista had a slight grimace and a dark look in her yellow-green eyes.

When Charlotte came into arm’s reach, Barker grabbed her by the sticky red shirt. She swung her around and slammed her against the wall next to the image of Alex’s suicide. Charlotte yelped as the wind knocked out of her lungs.

“You,” Barker said between fast and heavy breaths. “I’ve got you.”

“Kirsty? What the hell are you doing? Let me go!”

I finally fucking got you, Charlotte. You took my shit and left me to die, you fucking bitch.”

Barker kept Charlotte’s collar pinned to the wall with one hand. With the other, she leaned her weight into a punch hard across the jaw. Charlotte coughed and gasped.

Krista hit her with rage again and again and again.

“Why did you leave me to die?” she said hoarsely. “You have zero fucking concern for other people, am I right? You’re just out to save your own fucking ass.”

“Kirsty, please, calm down—”

“No!” She fired another succession of punches across the woman’s skull, hitting her mark higher each time. Barker could feel Charlotte’s features begin to swell beneath her fist. She focused all her rage into the nose, eyes, and forehead. With each hit, the victim’s cranium felt softer, like punching a rotten wood structure. Charlotte let out a pathetic gurgle.

Krista let go of her. Charlotte slid down the wall, her knees bent underneath her. She tumbled flat on her chest.

Barker kneeled down, grabbed Charlotte by the hair, and slammed her face into the floorboards. There was a wet crack. Then—adrenaline pumping through Krista’s veins instead of blood—she put all her weight on the side of Charlotte’s knee, gripped the ankle, and yanked her shin upward. The sickening pop reverberated in Krista’s skull.

The wail that erupted from Charlotte was unlike anything Barker ever heard—even in her Homicide days.

Krista let go of the woman and bent down again.

“Why did you fuck me, Charlotte?”

“I—I—I—…” She moaned through the twisted mess of her mouth. Her lips were split open, her teeth were shattered, and her gums were caved in. Her eyes were hidden under a heavy crest of blood.

“Goddamnit, why did you fuck me over?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking abou—about.” Charlotte’s words were slow and lisped.

“My food. My water. You and Jack took it for yourselves. You left me with nothing.”

“Kirsty, please…” Charlotte tried to push herself upright, but collapsed when she moved her broken knee. She wiped the blood off her swollen face with a drenched hand. Another thick arc flushed out of her split head, replacing what she had brushed away. “Jack took your stuff. He—He ate your peanuts and drank your water. He said—He said it was our only chance. I told him not to. He wouldn’t listen…”

Barker stood up over her and felt sick. Charlotte wept. The broken woman covered her head with her arms, expecting another flurry of blows.

“I swear to God, Kirsty. I-I promise you.”

“I don’t know if I believe you,” Barker muttered. She was trembling now too.

“Kirsty… We were wrong.”

“What are you talking about?”

“There’s no escape. There’s no hope. Nothing. Just the black.”

Barker’s body felt cold, numb, and sweat-stained.

“I found a door. When I found it, he said it’s an exit to the maze. But it’s locked, and there’s not even a doorknob. There’s no way out. God, we were wrong…”

“No,” Barker’s voice was faint and hoarse. “That can’t be right. There’s gotta be a way out. This wouldn’t be a game to him if we couldn’t win.”

Charlotte looked up from beneath her shielding arms. It looked like her head had been dunked into a bowl of blood. She must’ve been blinded by her swollen eyes. She coughed and a tooth hit the floor.

“No. This isn’t a game. This is Hell.”

“I’m getting out of here,” Barker said. “And I’m not coming back for you, Charlotte. Not after you fucked me.”

“But—But I didn’t do anything, Kirsty. I told you it was Jack. Please… believe me…”

“I don’t know what to believe anymore,” Barker said. She turned and started stepping towards the door Charlotte came from. She limped against her ankle, which flared with pain now, and then stopped at the doorway and looked back. “It’s Krista, by the way. Not fucking Kirsty.”

Charlotte said nothing. She stayed on the floor and buried her face between her arms. She was crying softly—awaiting Death’s anesthesia.

Before Barker left, the armchair caught her eye again—it was a few feet to the right of the door, against the corner of the room. Through the dim light, she started to make out more details. It was strangely decorated—it had a face on the cushion, right where somebody’s ass would sit. A face stretched out, elongated, missing its teeth and eyes. It was almost as if—almost as if—

Krista left the room and shut the door quickly behind her. She tried to push the thought out of her mind as she continued down the next pitch black hall.

But she couldn’t. It tore her brain apart. Her breath was heavy, and ringing flooded her brain

She doubled over and retched. Part of her was amazed that there was something left inside to throw up. Her side thudded against the wall, and she caught herself from falling face-first into the pool of bile. A wave of black washed over her vision, and she thought might black out right there, drown in her own fucking vomit, or maybe just die of exhaustion.

She staggered forward, forcing herself down the hall. Like every other hall, it stretched into infinite blackness. She moved as fast as she could, which was a staggered walking pace. The energy she spent felt like she was enduring a full sprint.

Although the face on the cushion was the catalyst, Barker wasn’t certain what caused her wretched sickness. Perhaps it was the image of Alex hanging by his socks. Maybe what she’d inflicted on Charlotte helped—though she still felt half-certain that Charlotte ate her peanuts and drank water. But Krista wasn’t certain of anything anymore.

Worst, she was no longer certain of hope or escape. The breeze seemed colder than ever.

There was only one certainty in the Black Labyrinth: Edward cherished every second of it. The breathing was still constant, rhythmic. Inhale, exhale. A passing second. Inhale, exhale. A passing second. Inhale, exhale…

Edward awoke slowly with a groan. There was a child laughing on the television screen, and the man with the gentleman’s mask felt angry the instant he gained consciousness.

His dreams were fluttering away, the thin line between conscious and unconscious still blurred. The laughing child melded with his dreams the same way the butcher and Lou Barnes had bled into reality. Edward dreamed about the past almost as much as he did his fears of the future. Between images of chopped beef, Edward relived a beautiful, awful night six years ago. That was before he moved to Oak City—before he lived in his dingy little home by Denny’s, and long before he acquired the Marksman. Edward was just doing him, as city people like to say—you know, driving around the city at night looking for some tourist or homeless to pick off. This was back in the days when simple grab-and-stabs didn’t feel like such a cheap thrill. Simpler times, Edward ruminated.

He knew the technical term for what he did that night, but somehow the gravity of it being spoken was null to him. “Double homicide,” a detective on the news said that evening. “Triple, really, when you think about it. Just unbelievable—the mind of man is capable of anything, as I always say.”

Edward couldn’t stop laughing when he heard this piece of deeply penetrating intellectual insight. Triple, really, when you think about it. It’s not even that he found the unborn baby very funny—he was actually a bit bemused when he heard this revelation—it was the Homicide detective making such a damned hilarious observation in the most serious tone, delivering the line like he had spent many nights constructing it. Triple, really, when you think about it. Edward wondered what else the dumb bastard might realize when he thought about it. Perhaps that he was destined to be a philosopher. Actually, he’d probably steal more famous quotes and claim them as his own.

Edward realized something that seemed damned stupid of him in retrospect. The man and woman he’d killed that night—named something like Ethan and Barbara, or some other froufrou crap like that—marked the last time Edward left his victims intact and unhidden. Sure, a randomly selected murder can be practically unsolvable, but if there’s no body to find, then there’s basically no murder to solve. Edward remembered the face of the first man he’d ever dissolved—

The laughing child drowned out everything that comforted him, and Edward felt rage. He saw a flash of Ethan and Barbara from that night six years ago—the man’s face was opened with a .45 caliber, and his wife was strangled and bat-beaten purple. Then the image changed to Lou Barnes, his expression serious beneath the shade of his Sheriff’s baseball cap—the bastard stood behind the careless butcher, who chopped and hacked away at a slab of beef. Edward could swear his heart was racing faster than—

He pushed himself upright on the couch and blinked rapid-fire, fully awake now. In front of him, the floor was splashed in soup and littered with bowl pieces. Edward grumbled to himself, uncertain what led up to this moment. He thought about his dream—he remembered the couple six years ago, and he could’ve sworn he was right there in the butchery, screaming and crying and pleading at the butcher to stop cutting the beef so fast, to be careful with that huge blade. He didn’t know what he might do if he experienced the accident again—even vicariously.

But now, here he was—safe in his den with some annoying little prick child laughing at him from the television screen. Edward clicked the TV off with the remote. His ironed suit-and-tie outfit was drenched in sweat and sticky with piss.

Then he remembered Krista Barker. He groaned, and pleaded to some higher power that he hadn’t missed anything good.

Edward rushed out of the den and back into the monitor room. He dropped himself in the chair, ignoring the mess that he’d left earlier and the swarm of flies around it. His eyes darted between the monitors.

He looked at the mirror room first. Barker was gone. His eyes stretched open. He glanced along the monitors at different hallways. No sign of her. Next he looked at the room of hanging hooks. The door had been opened, but no sign of a struggle within. Then he looked at the projector room.

His jaw dropped. He let out a wheeze. Then he cursed.

He missed out on such a great fucking scene. Such a great, unexpected occurrence. And he’d even prepared a whole speech for Krista once she found the picture of her father’s bloated meat-sack, but now all that effort was wasted.

And Charlotte sat battered against the wall. She barely moved, appeared to be dying. And now the woman investigator was nowhere to be seen.

Edward frantically checked all the monitors. He thought his heart might be racing. It took almost a minute of nigh-on panic attack before he could rest assured.

Barker wasn’t dead yet. She was lurching through a long hallway into a six-way intersection. She’d picked the next direction quickly—she was crawling with her face inches above the floor. It was kind of a pathetic display, such a strong woman reduced to a dog-like crawl. Edward smiled faintly.

But then he realized what she was doing: She was following a trail of blood.

Charlotte’s blood trail. Edward had forgotten about her journey. He traced her steps through the trails of blood he could make out on the infrared camera feeds. Amazingly, she had traversed almost the entire labyrinth after the bread room—she found the final exit and moved on, eventually leading herself to the projector room from the far side. And there, apparently, Charlotte and Barker had made their confrontation. It was clear who’d won.

Edward’s fingers drummed the desk. Sure, he could go back and watch the recorded feed again—but what fun was that? Everything was better watched live, not knowing how things might turn out. It was more exciting and mysterious that way. Now he had already read the spoiler—he knew how it turned out before he could watch it for himself.

He sighed. No matter—at least his favorite subject was alive. He still had a lot to gain from her.

It was time for more music. Edward had been too generous with Barker after the lye pit. Why? He had no idea.

He pressed the button with a slam of his fist.

…a passing second. It turned to seconds. Barker froze in her tracks. The breathing stopped. She blinked at the darkness and couldn’t help but wonder—

Then she felt like her head exploded. The deafening scream of the music came down on her at full force, discordant like a wood chipper, wailing like tires screeching eternally. Everything was shaking around her again—the world seemed to be coming apart at the seams. Barker squeezed her hands against her ears, hard enough to squash a coconut. It did nothing to quell the sound.

For a long moment, nothing existed except her and the noise. She thought the world was splitting open to swallow her whole. Edward must have turned up the volume this time.

But she pushed herself against the noise. It had taken her by surprise, yes, but it wasn’t going to stop her from reaching the exit. She dragged herself forward on her knees with her hands tight around her ears, following the dark trail.

Minutes passed, long agonizing minutes, and she knew it would stop any second now. But it kept dragging on and on. Her kneecaps rattled against the vibrating floor as she inched through the labyrinth’s obsidian hallway.

It was maybe seven or eight wretched minutes, but it felt like an hour. When it finally stopped, Barker let out a stale breath and gasped for air, as if surfacing from deep in the ocean. She pried her hands off her head and wobbled to her feet. She felt a wave of exhaustion, hunger, nausea, and stress wash over her body moments after the music stopped. Her knuckles throbbed, and the muscles in her arms burned from overuse.

Her ankle felt like somebody was banging a molten-hot nail into it. She half-stumbled and half-ran forward into the pitch black, her weight slipping under hurt ankle. She threw her hands out to her sides, guiding herself along the walls. Barker’s face was fixed to the floor, watching for dim signs of a liquid trail spattered beneath her, but it was impossible to see anything. So she decided to just run to the next intersection. Her head resonated with a sick ringing.

She knew Edward was enjoying this display of desperation. In fact, she hoped Edward was enjoying it. It would help her in the long run if he did. Illusions could turn out to be a powerful weapon.

None of his expected comments came from the speaker. Barker slowed down a bit and bent her head down to try and see the trail. Her eyes had somewhat acclimated to the darkness, but they could never truly penetrate the blackness of the Marksman’s guts. Her pace was slow again now. Her ears were still pierced with screaming agony.

Krista slowed to a lumbering walk and continued. No sign of an intersection yet.

She was unsure how much more she could take. Perhaps she should try and sleep again once Edward goes away to eat or something. How many minutes had she even slept since Edward locked her in the Black Labyrinth? It was impossible to know.

And then another intersection—four directions in the shape of a peace sign. Barker bent down and felt the blood trail. It went straight ahead, so she followed it.

And that familiar voice from the ceiling: “Krista… Jeez, Krista…” It was comforting whenever Edward decided to talk—he was exposing himself to attack.

Her ankle felt ready to give out and snap at any moment. She bent over a bit and felt the trail, making sure it still led forward. Krista scratched her chin and thought about apples. It sure was cold in here.

“Nothing to say? I’m disappointed. But at the same time, I’m impressed. You wanna know why?”

Then, Krista got scared: She realized there was no trace of blood. No sign of the trail. She hurried forward until she found it again fifteen feet later. She sighed in relief and smiled, then continued on.

“You’re pretending to be a hawk.” That feeling of a cold smile—it was distinct and unmistakable. “You know you’ve murdered two people so far, right? Other survivors like you. Not for any good reason, I might add.”

Barker said something.

“What was that, Krista?”

“One, actually,” she said loudly, still looking down in front of her.

Edward laughed. “Well, hold on there. You kicked in Anthony’s skull, and later you beat Charlotte to a freakin’ pulp. That’s two by my count. You murdered a young couple. What an honorable policewoman you are.”

“The first one was already dead,” Barker said. “You killed him.”

“No, Krista. You did. You finished him off, and then you found his wife and you savagely murdered her too. I thought you came here to save people.”

She shrugged. “Alex taught me how to defend myself.”

“Oh, Alex. He must’ve been a great dad. Don’t you ever feel just a bit guilty for letting him off himself like that? Seems like you coulda related to him a bit, ya know? Let him know you feel the same way. Right, Krista?”

Krista yawned. She didn’t really acknowledge the words Edward said to her. It was a laughably dull effort to break her as far as she was concerned.

“You’re not funny anymore, Eddie. I dunno what happened to you.”

Silence.

“I think you’re getting old and tired. You’ve used up every trick you got. You’ve been through every routine. I’m guessing you weren’t expecting anyone to last as long as me ‘cause it’s all getting really stale now, buddy.”

Edward laughed again, but this one was forced and raspy.

“You have no idea what tricks I’ve got left.”

“You’re so predictable, Eddie. So cliché. I can guess what you’re gonna say before you even say it.”

For a long moment, there was no response. Barker grinned. She knew she got to him—she felt it. She also felt a breeze coming from ahead.

It was his kryptonite. Predictability and cliché.

Barker waited and waited, but no response came. Perhaps he was being passive-aggressive now—proving her wrong by doing what she didn’t expect. Barker couldn’t help but laugh like Edward does while she continued down the ever-extending dark hall. For a brief moment, the world seemed like such a happy place.

Edward turned the music back on for a few moments. It kinda ruined Barker’s mood, but at the same time she hardly even noticed it now. It sort of just startled her more than anything at this point.

The noise disallowed her from remembering her Homicide days—in fact, by now she didn’t really remember the outside world at all—but she knew that sound torture was kind of an original idea in reality, if not in fiction. Same with extremely large and complicated death-labyrinths (and psychological horror as a whole for that matter). On the other hand, macabre corpse-disposal pits are a pretty common sick-fuck trope, but they’re not usually giant trenches filled with just enough acid and lye to disfigure its victims, yet not actually dispose of them. The Marksman in Black was the apotheosis of sick despair and hopeless wander.

Barker staggered until she reached a plus-shaped intersection. The blood trail split in two directions now, leading forward and to the right.

She stared at the fork in the road.

Had Charlotte gone one way, and then came back and picked a new direction? That must’ve been it—but why? For a split-second, the image of Charlotte’s battered, broken face crossed Krista’s mind again.

Barker swayed and fell to her knees. Her head was light and her vision went darker, even in the labyrinth’s pitch blackness.

What laid in the rejected direction? Was it another room Charlotte found and abandoned? Or was it just a dead end?

Barker would do her best to ignore it if she chose the unlucky direction. But first, she would need to get back to her feet…

And her chest thudded against the dried red trail in the middle of the intersection. She let out a heavy breath and felt dizzier every second. Krista had exhausted the last of her reserves on Charlotte—energy that she desperately needed to escape this hell. The world was a dark place.

Something was hissing all around her. Another gas attack, perhaps? Barker assumed so—Edward must’ve been taking some insidious revenge on her for calling him predictable.

Barker dragged herself, clawing at the floorboards and moving inches at a time. The pain in her ankle throbbed like chimes of a bell—it hurt, then felt fine, hurt, felt fine. And each time the bell rang, the noise grew louder—even with no weight on her ankle.

A cold breeze washed over her. Barker grimaced. The world was spinning, and she knew she was probably dying now. Her eyes were so heavy. She wrapped her arms around herself and hoped that the end might come quickly. Krista always hoped the end would be fast. If her life flashed before her eyes, all she might remember is pain. The way she’d always seen it, if there was a God at all, the least He could do is understand why she’d wanted to die for so long. She wondered if Alex thought the same thing in the moments before he hung himself and left her behind. Maybe he could forgive Krista for shooting herself and wanting to join him.

“Fucking Eddie—won’t play by—his own—goddamn—rules—won’t even—play by—his own—”

After several minutes, her vision started to clear and refocus. Krista woke up from her feverish dreams. She pushed herself back up to her hands and knees. She was wobbling and her body felt hollow. She was weak and sick—her hands could barely clench into fists, and there was a strange taste in her mouth. Moments later, she got on her feet again and started to limp through the darkness. The pain in her ankle and leg was constant and sharp. The face of her father lingered in her mind’s eye.

She swayed left and right while she moved, like a woman lost for weeks in the desert, and her body hunched in rhythm with her walk. She forced herself about fifteen or twenty feet past the intersection, and then she thought she found a dead-end. Only this wasn’t a dead-end—there was a door made of unpainted wood, and it had been left ajar. A dim light came from inside, barely visible yet nearly blinding in the Marksman’s perpetual darkness.

Edward’s voice came as a raspy whisper as Barker pushed the door open. “I hope you’re ready for this.”

Barker looked up at the ceiling and yawned. “That’s what I thought you’d say.” Her voice was kind of a projected mumble. “You’re so… boring, Eddie. So bland.”

“This is the best room you’ve found so far. Lucky you—it’ll be the last one before you get out of here.”

Now that was unexpected, but most likely a lie. Barker yawned. “I had a feeling you might say something like that. I figured now’s about time to up the stakes and get to the climax of the story. You’re trying to keep the plot engaging, if a bit cliché in structure.”

Edward enunciated his words. “Open the door, Krista.”

She shrugged. “Sure, why not?”

And she nudged it open with her foot. The door creaked, and she could see some kind of large, high-ceilinged hallway, almost like an undersized gymnasium. There was a single lighted window on the opposite wall—what an amazing sight that was, until Barker realized it probably produced lamplight, not sun. In the window’s light, she could see that this chamber was filled with something like a forest of finger-thin trees stretching down from the ceiling and coiling on the ground. Somewhere in the Marksman, Edward must have controlled the dimness of the bulb behind the window. It slowly brightened, mimicking the sun coming out from behind a cloud.

Now the sight was clear: Long chains hung from the ceiling, and on every other link of every chain were three giant goddamn hooks. It was a forest of steel like some kind of Hellraiser-esque torture chamber. There was somebody in the thick of the hook forest already—a partially rotted man who was suspended by five or six different chains, all reaching at him from their respective bases on the ceiling. He was skewered all over his torso, had a hook go up through his chin, and seemed on the verge of splitting in two when he died. Barker couldn’t see the details of his body, but had seen enough corpses not to really be all that fazed this one. From the position of his body, it seemed like he’d slipped on the ice-like texture of the floor and landed on hooks.

Edward’s voice was a sick, throaty whisper. (What the hell was wrong with this bastard anyways? One minute he’s laughing like he’s emperor of the world, then suddenly he realizes he’s a piece of shit?)

“You see that window, Krista? It’s a real window.”

Barker felt a strange rush of adrenaline upon discovering this new room. She felt lively again, and her voice was reinvigorated. She wondered how much longer she could keep up this act.

 “I’m figuring it’s probably not, Eddie. That’s a lot more like you.”

He grunted. “Well, what do you expect to be on the other side of those chains?”

Krista shrugged. “If I guess it right, you’re just gonna pout about it.”

“Take a shot.”

“Well, hrm,” she rubbed her chin, “you know, I really have no clue. But if I had to make a wild guess, I’d say the key to the exit is sitting near that fake window.”

Edward said nothing.

She grinned. “Told ya so. But that’s not all—just like the window, the key is fake, too! It won’t really open the exit. Turns out, there is no escape. Right? What a crazy, original twist!”

Silence, and then Edward’s reply: “If you don’t go through the chains, I promise you will die an awful death. No one will ever find you.”

Barker shrugged again. “No thanks. I’m not wasting any more time with your dumb games. Get back to me when you think of something fresh.” She laughed.

“You—I promise you—”

“Not falling for it, Eddie.”

She turned around and started following Charlotte’s blood trail back to the fork at the intersection. For a long moment, Edward was silent. The labyrinth was so cold. Barker began to wonder if he even—

Six:
Red

It was such a damned funny thing, wasn’t it? He beat Krista down. He took away her map and her food and everything she had. He threw her down the pit. He pitted her against the others. But somehow she actually grew more resistant with each blow. Her resilience was like quicksand—the more you struggled against it, the more it sucked you down. Such a damned funny thing it was. Such a damned funny, unexpected thing.

Edward drummed his fingers on the monitor table. Tap-tap-putt-tap. Tap-tap-putt-tap. He wondered about that sound—the sound of his ring finger. It wasn’t the click of his broken, overgrown nail, but something else, like wet worms hitting concrete. He looked down at his hand. The nail on his ring finger was missing. It sat on the floor to his right, just in the corner of his eye. Edward drew in a breath—there was a trace of blood on his fingertip. He looked away, hummed, and thought about the color white. It took several minutes for his heart to slow down.

That was a damned funny thing too—the way his body was falling apart. His flesh was a contraption of metal, chains, and gears—and it was rusting, the sharpness of the edges wearing dull. It had been a long, slow process. It started long before he acquired the Gray Marksman from its original owners. But now—he couldn’t even remember how old he was—it seemed on the brink of total breakdown. One more gear pried loose, one more chain snapped and whirled free from its mechanism, and the whole system might fall broken.

He looked back up at the screen. Barker was walking away from the hanging-hooks room, following that bloody trail Charlotte had left. Why was she still following it? Edward supposed it was almost as good as having a map—anything to keep yourself oriented in a dark, lost world.

The Marksman was digesting her, wasn’t it? It was hard to tell. She seemed strong as ever despite her fumbling and limping. The fumes from the lye pit might have messed her head up a bit—but there was no way for Edward to know for sure. It might’ve been digesting her, or she might be a parasite refusing to succumb in the beast’s guts.

Her head was still on pretty straight, wasn’t it? The interlopers hadn’t done their job. They did fine work on Anthony, Charlotte, Jack, and all the others before them. But Krista? They dropped the ball.

Well—Edward wasn’t one for clichés, so he couldn’t tell himself, If you want a job done right, you gotta do it yourself. He recognized the truth in it, but he couldn’t bring himself to admit it.

So he pressed the music button again. He felt the room vibrate, and he watched Krista move between camera feeds.

He coughed and then spoke into the microphone, hoping she might still hear him over the noise.

“If you want this to stop, go back to the chains room.”

She either didn’t hear him or chose not to. Her head was clamped between her hands and her feet stumbled, trying to stay balanced and carry her forward at the same time. She was moving slowly, like an animal dying of sickness. But she didn’t turn back.

“I’ll say it one more time,” Edward said, careful not to let his tone belie his vexation. “Turn back around, or it’ll never stop. You’ll live in my hell forever.”

Krista still ignored him, or failed to hear him. Or maybe, God forbid, she saw the emptiness of his threat—the futility of it, knowing that either way she would be stuck forever. It didn’t really matter—Edward was content letting her endure the music until eternity’s end. Perhaps he could open the final exit once a day and slip some food and water inside. Maybe then he wouldn’t ever need another subject—just himself and Krista for the rest of their lives.

She kept going into the dark. She looked blankly down at the blood trail, carrying herself forward and keeping her ears shut as tight as possible. Edward knew that was a fruitless endeavor, and he smiled.

What might happen when Krista found the final exit? Would it finally break her? Or would it make her stronger somehow like all the other hardships?

Edward couldn’t wait to find out. Every soul had a breaking point—even his own, he knew all too well—and he wanted more than anything to intimately know hers.

He wet himself, and ignored it. Nothing, nobody—not even Sheriff-Bastard Lou Barnes—could do a thing to take it all away. Nothing could stand up to him. After all, wasn’t that why old Lou resigned to pretending he was taking bribes and leaving Edward alone? Wasn’t that why he seemed to know about the murders and did nothing to stop him? Wasn’t that why Lou’s deputies never questioned a thing? Wasn’t that why Edward had never done time? Wasn’t that why God made no complaint? Wasn’t that why the birds had abandoned the hotel gardens? Wasn’t that why he was a hawk or a snake and not a rabbit? Wasn’t that why—

The music got louder, beating down on her worse than any person could strike another human being. It was outside the realm of physical possibility.

It hit her harder than Charlotte had hit Jack. It hit her harder than Barker had hit Charlotte.

The screeching had ceased to be a sound long ago. It was no longer a whine or a screech or a wail or a cry. It wasn’t anything tangible anymore. It was simply Hell distilled into decibels.

But now she could manage better than before—she’d lost all hearing in her right ear, maybe temporary or maybe not, so it was really just half as bad as when she first entered the Black Labyrinth. She kept her head fixed to the ground and watched the blood trail as she crept along it.

And somehow the noise felt good—Edward’s music tasted like victory. It kept going for minutes on end. She wondered if it might never stop. Not until she gave Edward his way. The thought of this made her grin, even in the circumstances. Enduring the noise was more than just worthwhile. It was victory, no matter how small. Edward was showing off his desperation.

She grinned and grinned, and made sure Edward could see it. He had tried to say something over the intercom, but Barker wouldn’t have tried to hear him if her failing ears had even picked it up. Her head split with agony and somehow tangible thoughts were easier to come by.

She pushed forward and endured.

Maybe Edward was proving a point—he had said something awfully silly like, This is what my head sounds like, hadn’t he? He was just showing her how god-awful his own existence was. Something fell into place in Barker’s mind, but she was in no condition to fully realize it. The thought of Edward’s immolation came to her and lingered, giving her will to keep pushing.

It was maybe twenty more minutes. The music didn’t stop, and Edward didn’t speak. Somewhere, his cold gaze was unsmiling. A soft breeze made Barker shiver. The corners of her eyes filled with ink for a moment and her head became light, like she stood up after sitting still for a whole day. Her vision flooded black and she half-fell against the wood wall. She pushed herself off the wall, almost knocking against the opposite one, then steadied herself again. She thought she saw a shadow move at the top of her sight when she peered down at the blood trail on the floor. It disappeared and her mucked vision began to clear.

She thought Edward might have said something else, but it came as a whisper underneath the labyrinth’s endless music.

Another cross-road. It led in a million different fucking directions—not really, but that’s how it seemed to Barker. There were hallways all around her, some were ramps leading steeply up and down, some were straight halls. The choice was easy, of course. She followed the blood.

And before long, there was a dim light on one of the walls. It was like the lye pit—a thin rectangle filled with black. A doorway, of course. A doorway leading to light.

Another torture room, maybe? Barker stumbled up to it and caught herself on the doorframe. It was painted black. That didn’t feel like a good sign. She used her elbow to find the doorknob, feeling up and down the rough paint. Nothing on the right-hand side. She searched the left. Her arm brushed the door’s hinges. That couldn’t be right. She felt the right side again and—

Then it came back to her amidst the chaotic noise. Charlotte’s words rang in her head again. No doorknob—no lock for a key—on the final exit. This was it.

If Edward said anything now, his words were still lost to the deafening pound of the music on her skull. Barker dropped her jaw. She made her hands tremble. She shook her head and she twisted her mouth and eyes. She screamed and couldn’t hear herself over the music, so she screamed louder.

Edward watched with cautious delight. He wondered if it might be time to turn the music off—hear her suffer.

Barker kept screaming and she dropped herself to her knees. She let go of her deaf ear and yanked her hair. It must’ve been a pathetic sight, huh?

She collapsed on her chest, her body parallel to the knobless door. She pressed her cheek into the floor, and with her left and kept clenching her good ear. Her other hand kept tugging a patch of black hair, and she got a little bit out but it was harder to do than she expected. She thrashed her arms and legs like a toddler, her movements progressively slowing, waning in strength. She brought herself to complete stillness, the muscles in her left hand clamped tight to her not-quite-deaf ear. The fingers of her other hand clawed at the floorboards. She winced when one of her nails knocked loose from the tip of her finger. Then she convulsed and lied still.

Edward watched. His mouth drooped a little, and he clicked the music button off. He prayed that he hadn’t killed her prematurely.

He put on his best mask of confidence. His voice seemed to lack any sign of wear-and-tear.

“Krista, you can stop acting so dramatic. It’s done for now. Get up and go back to the hook room, will you? I’ll guide you there.”

She didn’t make a move. Her body laid still, with her right hand frozen in a clawing motion and her left still clamped to her ear. If she was putting on a show, it was a damned good one, if a bit overdone—it rivaled even Edward’s best efforts, which he found unbelievable.

“Krista?” He made his voice sound bored. “Kri-i-i-ista-a-a-a…”

Not a move.

Now Edward was really getting anxious. There were one or two final tests he could use. He pressed the music button again. The monitor room vibrated for three seconds before he shut it back off. He did this four times in a row, each with a different interval of seconds between the last. Then he left it on for ten or fifteen straight seconds.

Not. One. Single. Move.

It was dawning on Edward. He couldn’t help but reject it though. He kept flicking the music button on and off, on and off, at a frantic pace now. Nothing was working.

So he had finally killed the formidable policewoman Krista Barker. What a task that was. Edward was sorely disappointed. He thought that she might last months on end—that he might never need another subject again. Now his joy was withering, draining as the moments passed. What a silly, idealistic fantasy that was.

A green splotch formed on the corner of the screen and lingered for a moment before disappearing. It startled Edward somewhat, and he cursed himself for giving in to the interlopers’ games. It was, however, the final message Edward needed.

He mumbled, “Welcome home, Krista.”

Edward sat back in the monitor chair, which was covered in piss and shit. He folded his arms behind his head and stretched his body, like a normal human might, but he felt nothing from it. He took a breath, let it go. Took another, let it go.

Something sank in his chest. Edward decided to put on some music. Something somber to fit the mood, something with pianos, maybe, but no vocals—he couldn’t stand the sound of someone’s voice right now. He tried to find his radio in his bedroom, but the room was almost empty and it was nowhere to be seen. Edward sat back down in front of the monitor desk and watched Barker’s body again.

Still the same position. Still the one hand clamped to her ear, the other limp on the floor, her legs tangled together. The sight of it all was remarkable, but Edward couldn’t stop himself from acknowledging the cold, empty feeling inside of him.

Three hours passed and felt like minutes. He stood up again. Shit fell off the chair and splattered on the floor. Edward drew a new breath and his mind felt refreshed. The idea of himself fainting pathetically over a bowl of soup was alien now. He thought about Krista Barker wrung dry. Every ounce of will, energy, and life had been extracted from her.

He thought about calling up good old Lou Barnes just to have a chat, but then he remembered that he hated the bastard. He twisted his hips to try and crack his back. The sound it made was like a pile of trees being run over by a bulldozer.

Edward changed into a fresh suit and left the shit-stained outfit in the trashcan. He figured he could clean the mess later—he didn’t really mind it, per se, but he’d read that living in your own shit might be detrimental to your health. Edward walked out into the vestibule. The daylight glowed through the front windows. Dust mites hovered in the air, unmoving. Edward crossed the vestibule from his bedroom door to the large double doors. He swung them open and a cool breeze hit his nerveless face.

He left the doors open to clear out some of the stale air. The next expected subjects wouldn’t arrive for another day or something, so why not? He crossed the threshold from the Marksman to the outside world and resolved to take a long walk through the garden, within the safety of the iron fences.

There was not a peep of wildlife anywhere around him. The flowers glowed under the sun in a bright array of hot colors, but they seemed to be withering. They appeared less healthy than when Barker had arrived—how long ago was that, anyways? Edward had no idea anymore, but it couldn’t have been that long. He didn’t care—he preferred not to think about Krista.

He walked the stone path to the right, winding around the first corner of the Marksman. He followed the bright red walls, tracing each corner and L-shaped bend, gradually traversing the jungle-like garden. He crossed his hands behind his back and took in deep breaths of cool winter air. He wondered what it might feel like.

Edward muttered without realizing it. “I can’t be bothered with silly things like explanations… I can’t waste my time thinking up alibis… I can’t justify myself to you, so stop fucking asking… I know you hate me, if you’re there… I just can’t tell you anything…

“But I don’t think I’ll go to Hell, you know? I think God gets that I do what I do out of necessity. I mean, I’m just following the chain of life. Do hawks go to Hell for eating rabbits? I think not. They’re just, you know, better at surviving than the stupid, goddamn, motherfucking rabbits. I’m just… a hawk with keen curiosity for playing with my food.”

He let out a breath. It wasn’t like he got anything off his chest—it was more like he swatted a nagging fly.

Then the accident replayed in his head without warning. He shuddered—the whole world seemed to stop for a moment. He saw streaks of red and a little flat stub of bleeding flesh sitting in front of him. His heart stopped. Then he saw a faint green splotch veil his vision, like when you stare at a light too long and then look at shadows. Maybe his eyes weren’t used to the daylight, or maybe this was another interloper visit. Those bastards liked to fuck with him when he was weak—but he wasn’t weak right now, was he? He’d just finished feeding, after all.

Edward felt like a walking mannequin. His joints cracked as he walked along the red walls of the hotel. He didn’t even realize that he was halfway around the Marksman’s perimeter now—which was not a quick task given the mammoth size of the mansion. The accident kept flashing over and over and over and over. The only way he could stop it was by filling his mind with Krista’s crucible, despite the disappointed sadness the thought of her brought him.

She was irreplaceable. He wished he could bring her back. He wished he hadn’t tried her limits. He wished he could’ve kept up what he had with Krista. He wished—

Edward made his way around the Marksman back towards the face of the hotel. Along the way, he saw in his mind a small, dark-haired boy floating in the air, bobbing in a cradled pose through a garden much like the Marksman’s. A tall woman was carrying the boy, fading in from obscure blurriness. He was nine years old and still wore a diaper, still got carried around by his mom. It was a pathetic image, and Eddie gagged and jerked his head and made it go away. He remembered the last thing his mother said to him before she died—couldn’t remember his father though, Dad left way too long ago for Eddie to remember him—but he couldn’t remember how she said it exactly, just that she said something about wanting him to be happy, and she admitted that she never had a clue how to help him out except to buy him things, so now that she was dead and he was her only child and Dad was long gone, he had his own fortune to buy himself whatever he wanted for the rest of his life, and she just wanted Eddie to make himself happy so that’s exactly what he did growing up alone.

A car parked to his left beyond the iron fence. It stopped alongside him, pulling over to the shoulder. Edward looked up at it teary-eyed. He blinked, worried that Lou might have come back for a second helping.

It took him a long moment to realize who it was. It was a dull gray sedan with four people—a man, a woman, a daughter, a son. The children had their faces pressed up against the rear window, and the parents watched the hotel with admiring stares. They all looked at the Marksman’s two stories with awe on their lips. The red of the hotel, shimmering in wintry daylight, reflected off the car’s dull paint and the faces of the family inside. They gazed rabbit-eyed at the windows and eaves and flowers and shrubs.

Edward stood there like he was in highway headlights. He studied the family for a long moment. They eventually noticed him, and the little boy waved at him.

The gentleman wondered if this family could be his next set of subjects—perhaps an unexpected arrival looking for a place to stay. Edward smiled, and he waved back at the boy. He wanted to shout and laugh and fling open the Marksman’s gate. He wanted to prance through the gardens and sing, if only it helped usher the family inside the Marksman’s mouth.

A minute passed in total, and the family pulled back on the road and drove off. Edward watched them make their way towards the far corner of the hotel grounds. To his dismay, they didn’t take the right path at the fork leading to the hotel’s gate—they took the left one, journeying off into the snow-filled woods south of the Gray Marksman. The family’s car disappeared in the thick of barren trees, submerging into an ocean that stretched into a distant hilly horizon. They were traveling opposite of the flat prairie to the north that led to Oak City. He hoped for them to get lost and find their way home.

“He’ll catch up to them eventually,” Edward told himself, walking along the Marksman’s wall with a cloud over his low-hanging head. “Darwin works in mysterious ways.”

Now the path led him back to the open door of the Marksman. He looked around cautiously—there was no new car parked in front of the hotel and the gates were shut. Still, he cursed himself for leaving the front doors open like a damn fool.

He went back inside the vestibule and slammed the double doors shut, locking them. The spacious hallway was still just as musty and stale as he had left it. Edward sighed and walked around the right side of the giant marble staircase.

The staircase took up almost the entire width of the vestibule, except for a one-foot gap on each side separating the stairwell from the walls. The space between was big enough for Edward to comfortably fit his gaunt body. He sandwiched himself into the gap, with his back pressed against the wallpaper and his chest almost touching the smooth marble that supported the flight of steps. He pushed himself until he was tucked all the way into the corner.

He pressed his palms against the marble wall beneath the stairs. His muscles strained and his teeth clenched. He forced as much strength as he could muster into shoving forward, like he was trying to push the marble staircase itself away from the Marksman’s wall. It took a good amount of effort—he was worried he had lost the muscle required to pry open the tunnel’s secret door. After all, he had no idea when he’d last exercised, and his muscles were atrophied, tight and stringy around his bones.

Edward broke a sweat, and finally he managed to work the wall loose. The outline of the square archway became visible as he pushed loose a large rectangle of marble—just about his own height and width. It made a loud dragging noise as it slid open, like a piece of a massive architectural puzzle-box coming loose. It grinded against the floor until it was pushed three feet out of place, now sitting well inside the hollowed staircase.

The next room—the secret hallway under the stairs—was lit by dim hanging lanterns. Edward went inside. The hall extended to the right, in the direction of the stairs going upward. He marched through the hall only a dozen feet before finding the end—and a door.

It was painted black. It had a large handle and no keyhole. And, on the other side, there wasn’t even a knob—it could only be opened from this side.

Edward twisted the handle and opened the door a centimeter. He held his breath and peered inside, expecting a violent struggle. He was ready to slam the door shut on the slightest pang of activity from within.

Light flooded into the next hall, and there she was—Barker lying on the floor of the Black Labyrinth, one hand clenched over her ear, the other limp above her head. One of her fingernails had come loose in the struggle. Edward pulled the door open inch-by-inch, waiting a moment between each gradual tug. He watched Barker’s still body. He wondered—could this be some kind of trick? Only one way to find out.

He opened the door just enough so that he could slip through, but could still slam it shut in a hurry. He slid one leg inside the labyrinth hall, dragging his foot along the floor and moving in little spurts. Bit-by-bit, his body went deeper through the threshold. He trembled from the tension. The gentleman gripped the knob tightly, and considered not taking any chances and just slamming the damn door shut before Barker jumped out at him.

But nothing happened. He inched farther inside. Nothing. His leg from the knee down was inside the labyrinth. Barker didn’t move. She didn’t open her eyes or close her mouth or twitch her hand. She was motionless.

Edward held a stale breath the whole time. He let out it, careful not to make any sound, and drew in another quiet one. Then he crept in closer, holding the door tight against himself, hugging it for dear safety. His body was halfway inside now, and he stretched his leg out and jabbed Barker’s ribs with the tip of his shoe.

He did it gently at first, then he kicked her hard. There was a sound from inside the labyrinth, and Edward leaped back and slammed the door shut.

He stood with his back against the marble wall of the staircase’s interior. He pressed his hand to his chest and felt nothing. He heard his heart reverberate in his skull.

It was nothing, he realized. Nothing at all. He had just scared himself. That sound was probably just Barker’s body shifting from the kick, maybe. Or, more likely, it was an interloper fucking with him.

He pried the door open again, just an inch, and looked inside. Barker still hadn’t moved. The door creaked as it dragged open slowly. Edward’s eye revealed itself through the crack, then his nose and his mouth and his other eye. He couldn’t help but force a nervous laugh when he wiped the sweat from his brow.

He had indeed scared himself.

Edward breathed heavy. He pulled the door halfway open, still unsure whether or not to submerge himself inside. Why was he so afraid of a corpse? He couldn’t help but wonder.

In spite of himself, Edward swung the black-painted door fully open, propping it against the marble wall. He took a step inside the familiarity of the Black Labyrinth. And for a long moment, he just stood over Barker’s body, letting the tension drain. He watched her for any signs of life. Even in death she still seemed restless—Edward laughed more comfortably.

No sign—nothing discernible, anyways. If she was breathing, if she felt any pain at all, she did a damn admirable job of masking it, trumping Edward’s own deceptive abilities. But that was ridiculous—nobody had abilities that rivaled his own specialties. He laughed loudly at this thought, his posture loosening now. In his head, he berated himself for being so cowardly at the sight of Barker’s dead body. She was probably watching him and laughing from within the walls.

How could anybody with physical sensations mimic death as well as a real corpse? It was impossible—unless your name was Edward Sherlock, or you suffered from the same condition as Sherlock or T. J. Wolfe or the others, the anomalies like them.

Then he bent down and grabbed Barker under the shoulders and—

He remembered the black room in the den. No lye pit for Krista—she had to be commemorated. It would be a huge pain in the ass to drag Barker back out of the secret stairwell entrance into the vestibule, so he might as well just bring his equipment to her body instead. He could make leather out of her skin inside the staircase just as easily as in the black room.

He turned back around and went through the door into the dim lamplight under the staircase. He walked back out of the secret entrance and slid through the stairwell’s little alleyway, emerging into the vestibule again. Then he crossed over to the door of his den.

As soon as he was inside his den, his eyes locked on that black door on the far wall. The deadbolt had a colony of spiders living on it now, and there were more than a few flies hanging from the webs and buzzing around the cracks in the door. Edward crossed the room with hesitant movements, stepping through the spilled soup and slowing as he drew closer.

It was time to open the room now. Charlotte, Jack, and Anthony weren’t worth the effort—he’d let them dissolve in the lye pit like the others. Krista, on the other hand…

Edward’s hands stopped right before the deadbolt chain. It hovered in place. He told himself not to worry, to just keep his head on straight and he’ll be fine—not to let the interlopers get to him. He swiped away the cobwebs with his hand and pulled the chain loose from the doorframe. Half a dozen spiders scampered away on the walls.

The doorknob was hard to twist. Edward had to give it a good tug before the door pried open. He was unsure when he had last entered this room.

But now that he saw it again, he wondered how he could ever have left. It was a magnificent sight, apart from the dark brownish-red stains in the trashcan that begged his attention. The room was filled with macabre furniture like the armchair he left in the projector room. Edward’s favorite subjects had their skins removed, dried, and made into leather for furniture. There was a bed, a couch, pillows, a lampshade, and a quilt in progress. Each piece of furniture had a subject’s face on it.

He remembered them all so vividly. There was the Mexican boy’s face stretched out on the pillow of the couch. It looked like an oversized, cartoonish square head. The skin was dry and yellow and rough to the touch. The eyeholes were dark and empty, and the crusted lips hung open. The cushions of the couch each had their own faces, staring with hollow eyes at the ceiling. He remembered their names: Jake and Charlie and Anna and Eddie (funny name, eh?) and all the others, the best of his subjects that had been immortalized as cushions for Edward’s ass. The bed itself was a wooden frame with a bare mattress. The bed sheet was a quilt of many different faces—half a dozen in total, unevenly sewed together to form a sort of crooked square blanket with rough, rounded edges. He would need at least another half-dozen more worthy subjects to finish the whole quilt.

But that wasn’t where Krista was going. He’d been saving one piece of furniture for his most beloved subject. Krista’s face would become the bed’s pillowcase, so every night he could be closest to her. She fit the bill perfectly, so to speak.

After a moment of admiration, Edward finally entered the room. Apart from the human furniture, there was also a wooden bureau with three large drawers. On the bureau’s top surface, there was a strange drawing that looked like Hell viewed from Heaven’s perspective. It was a vast series of rings, each one within the next, growing smaller and smaller until reaching a tiny circle in the center. Inside the rings were indescribable images of pain and suffering. From the outside to the middle, the rings got progressively worse—the images became more vivid and clear and distinct, and the figures became more human yet more inhumane. Each ring was like a deeper circle of Hell—the suffering grew more intense, more real as it got closer to the center. Finally, in the center circle, there was just a face. It was a vague, blurred mess, drawn in pen without any definite lines or edges or shapes. The face looked utterly impassive to the agony that surrounded it.

Edward speculated that it represented God or Satan, or perhaps Death. He wasn’t sure—the hack Thomas D’Morte invented this image, and apparently used it to ward spirits (as he describes in his most obscure compendium). Edward meticulously copied it to try and keep the interlopers under control, to keep them servile. He wasn’t sure if it was working.

A bizarre object sat atop the drawing on the bureau: two yellowed skulls of animals that were impossible to identify, maybe undersized cats. They were connected by a piece of hemp string drawn through their temples. The object could fit in his palm, and served no obvious purpose except for decoration. He read in D’Morte’s compendium that this concoction could curse people.

Edward opened the top drawer. There was a gas mask inside—something to keep his face sealed tight from the messy process his hands were going to undertake. He put it over his face.

Then he opened the second drawer. There was an assortment of plastic gloves and aprons, all clean and unused. He took out one pair of gloves and an apron, and he put those on over his suit.

He opened the third drawer. There was a rusted pair of scissors that stunk of soap and disinfectant. It was stained with dark brown. Edward cursed himself for not being able to get the damnable thing clean. He shivered when he looked at it.

He took the scissors and kept them shut in his hand. The tip had been dulled for no purpose other than to let Edward comfortably use it. If it had even the slightest knife-like sharpness at the tip, he would sweat and his vision would blur when he set eyes upon it. As it was, these scissors were okay.

He shut the last drawer and turned back around. He left the black room, then his den, and turned towards the space between the staircase and the wall, where he had left the secret passage open.

Then—when he stepped foot back into the vestibule and turned towards the staircase—his heart stopped for a moment. The stained scissors clattered to the floor, and the gas mask tightened around Edward’s face. He knew he was sweating now because the eyepieces fogged up. He couldn’t feel a damn thing and his vision was dizzying, but he knew he was trembling because how in God’s name could this be possible?

There she was—the dead woman, Krista Barker—emerging from the secret entrance. She slid between the stairs and the wall, and when she pulled herself out of the gap, her yellow-green eyes caught Edward’s. And she grinned when she saw him, like she could barely contain her joy.

She looked just as she did on the monitors: ragged, beaten, and covered in Death’s excrement. Her calves were drenched in sticky dark-brown and red, her face was pale, and her hair was tangled and ripped. Her clothes looked like they had been dragged through a bombed cemetery. But those eyes—they made Edward’s heart stop. They were fixed on him, and for an excruciating three seconds, Barker and Edward just stood in place, staring at each other.

Her eyes were locked like she was closing in on prey. Edward was acutely aware of this cold irony as he stared it down. That fact stood clear at the foot of the stairs. It was larger than life, as the cliché goes, so large that it towered over Edward, watching him with condemning eyes that told him he had made a dire mistake.

He took a trembling step backwards. He knocked into the door of his den and pushed it shut by accident. He reached for the knob without looking at it, fumbled around, felt for the door, unable to find it now. He couldn’t take his eyes off of Barker. Her grin was tight and toothy, and she took a step towards him.

The smoke cleared, and Edward came to his senses.

And he couldn’t help it. He screamed. It was muffled under the tight rubber. He screamed louder than he ever had in his life, and somehow it was a whisper beyond the gas mask. He could hear his heart again—it was a drum banging inside his skull. It was louder than the fingertip accident.

He took off running across the vestibule, breaking into a mad dash toward the kitchen, where he might stand a chance defending himself. The seconds it took to reach the kitchen felt like minutes. He didn’t look behind him—he knew Barker was right behind him.

Edward swung open the kitchen door and threw himself inside—without looking back at his pursuer, he slammed the door shut and locked it.

In the same instant, Barker’s body throttled the door from the other side. Edward yelped and stumbled backwards. His knees buckled, and he tripped over himself and fell on his ass. Behind the mask, his face was a dumb gawk as he watched the door rattle and vibrate with every thud, each one louder than the last.

He sat in place on the kitchen floor, watching. For an agonizing moment, he felt like there was nothing more he could do—just wait and watch and pray. Pray to God that Barker might give up on killing Edward, and resolve to save herself. But then what? Surely she would contact the authorities, and—only if he was lucky—Lou might be able to shut her up. But would he do that just for another slice of the dwindling Sherlock family fortune?

The answer didn’t come to him. All he could think about were those eyes. He thought he could see them even through the kitchen door, between every loud thud of Barker’s foot.

Thump. The whole kitchen seemed to vibrate. This time, there was a snap. The hinges—they were already coming loose. Thump.

“Oh, God,” Edward gasped—he could barely breathe under the damnable mask, but he didn’t have the sense to take it off. He stumbled to get to his feet and tripped over himself again. He hit the ground, and then threw himself upright once more. This time he managed to keep himself steady.

He ran frantically around the kitchen, looking for something to defend himself. There were knives, but by God they were a last resort. (Even the threat of death could barely move him close to those damnable abominations of sharpened metal.) Instead, Edward opened a cabinet covered in dust and cobwebs—inside was a collection of hard liquors. Edward hadn’t opened this cabinet since the day he acquired the Marksman, when he peered inside once and promptly shut it for eternity.

Now—he let out a sobbing laugh as he realized this—that useless cabinet might just save his life.

He took a bottle of tequila out of the cabinet—thump—and he grabbed a small hand cloth from the kitchen and—thump—he ripped the cork off the bottle and poured it on the towel and—THUMP—he jammed the cloth inside the bottle, half of it sticking out, and he grabbed a candle lighter from the counter and—THUMP—and—and—and he lit the towel.

He turned to face the door just as it crashed open. Krista was on the other side, doubled over and taking heavy breaths. She wiped sweat from her eyes and looked up in time to see the flaming bottle fly out of Edward’s hands.

Barker jumped out of the way as soon as she saw the flames hurtling at her. She hadn’t a moment to think—her body reacted independently of her mind. She hit the floor of the vestibule with a heavy thud.

In the doorway there was a crash and the sound of licking flames. Barker covered her head instinctively. She rolled on her back and looked at the kitchen door. She had moved away just in time—the door was engulfed in a waist-high inferno. The fire was twisting and turning, separating Barker from her most grandiose dream—and Edward from his worst nightmare.

Stupid bastard. He just trapped himself inside a burning room.

Barker pushed herself to her feet and wobbled. She took a step towards the flames, careful to keep her distance. She peered over the bright-orange twisting daggers of heat, trying to determine if Edward was making an escape through another door. She saw him just standing there, wearing his gas mask and apron and gloves, looking at her through the eyepieces with an expression of mortal terror.

He was trapped. And he was Krista’s.

She took a moment, standing before the flames of the kitchen door, trying to deliberate just how to deal with Edward. She could just stand there and wait for the fire to engulf him. That could be nice, if rather anticlimactic and disappointing. No—Barker had to feel Edward’s death in her hands. She had to taste it.

Barker decided she would leap through the flames when the time was right—even if she got lit up, she would bash the motherfucker’s head in while she burned.

She took a deep breath and poised herself to leap, retracting her body like a track runner waiting for the gunshot. Moments passed and she watched the fire—watched it lick in every direction at once, waiting for just the right second that she could jump past and suffer minimal consequences.

The seconds dragged on. The fumes of burning alcohol rose in the stale air of the vestibule. Everything seemed lighter now—everything was feathery. Black blots formed in the sides of her eyes, overtaking her vision. She didn’t even have time to curse at herself before her chest crashed into the floor.

Flames filled her head. Burning, crackling, unfathomable agony. Blood pouring down her face, flesh withering and boiling. She saw herself from a removed perspective—she saw her body lying on the floor, twisting, writhing, burning. She saw her bones protrude from her charred flesh. She saw her hair disappearing and her eyeballs melting, her scalp peeling away, her face boiling and bubbling, exposing her skull. She saw her clothes blacken and cling to her skin and shrink into ash. Her body was reduced to a chunk of overcooked meat stricken with rigor mortis. Then, she was a pile of greasy bones—and the flames still burned her.

All around her, she saw those figures again—the same figures that stood over her body back when she emptied her brains all over her Homicide office wall. They were here again—indistinct, indescribable people but not actually humans. They looked like people, yet they had no anthropomorphic features. They looked impassive, yet they had no faces. They stared at her, yet they had no eyes. They existed, yet they didn’t exist at all—not in the physical realm. Only in something beyond, something ethereal, did they exist—but they sought power and sustenance like any man or woman of flesh. They drained her and the other Gray Marksman guests, like the Black Labyrinth drained its victims of life, of willpower, and of hope.

And the hissing came back again—the hissing that she’d thought was a gaseous drug administered by Edward. It hissed in both her ears at once. The hissing sounded like dialogue without a single discernible word—they spoke of her fate. They told her terrible things. They told her about the afterlife and about rejection. They told her that Hell is real—and she’s already there.

Barker felt someone grab her throat and she shouted awake. She rolled around and frantically waved her hands, trying to put herself out—

—then she realized she wasn’t on fire. She got back up, and could see Edward on the other side of the flames in the doorway, creeping, tiptoeing, waiting for the chance to leap through and finish off the unconscious survivor.

Edward saw her wake, and he grimaced. He ducked out of sight.

She jerked her head, trying to clear the everlasting dimness. She held her breath—determined not to breathe another fume—and, when the flame was low, she dove into the kitchen.

In that moment, everything seemed to go in slow motion. The fire in the doorway parted. For a split second, Edward could see Barker poised to pounce. Then the beast flung herself through the inferno—she sailed past the doorway and landed clumsily on the other side, her hands and shins thudding into the floor. A bit of smoke was rising from her hair. Her face was clearly visible in the elongated seconds—her eyes were locked on Edward, as they had been all along.

She wobbled to her feet. Edward backed away. His elbow knocked into a stack of dishes on the counter, sending them all shattering to the floor. He backed up against a counter as far away from the door as possible, and he felt around behind with both hands, frantically looking for something—anything—to defend himself.

His hand found the grip of a knife—the one that had almost split his face many hours ago. Edward swallowed hard and, against his muscles’ instinct, he picked it up.

Barker was stumbling toward him now, and only stopped when she saw the knife in his hands. She stood several yards away from him, waiting for Edward to make the first move. He leaned back against the counter and held the knife out in one hand as far away from his chest as possible. The blade trembled in the air. Edward cursed at himself for his inability to control his burdensome body.

Of all things the damnable woman could do to him in that moment, she laughed.

“You scared of me, Eddie?” Her head tilted forward and she grinned. “You’re not as good a liar as you think. Mediocre at best.”

Edward cried out and charged at Barker—he swung the knife in a horizontal arc at her. Barker reacted quickly and ducked the swing, and the knife flung out of Edward’s clumsy hands. It clattered on the kitchen floor a dozen feet away.

She tackled Edward, slamming his body against the top of the counter. Her hands clawed at Edward’s mask, and his gaunt arms desperately tried to keep her at bay. He grabbed her wrists and pushed with all his strength, but only succeeded in delaying her.

Barker tossed more weight onto Edward, and a sound emitted from under his back—a dinner plate shattered. His eyes dilated, the blacks turning from pinpricks to holes—and, somehow, his heart seemed to race even faster than before, threatening to give out at a moment’s notice.

Barker’s eyes twitched. They moved down to the shards of white glass poking out from Edward’s sides, then fixed back at his eyes beneath the sweat-fogged mask. The pupils were like sinkholes, windows looking into despair. And then it all made sense to her: the trembling knife, the shattered glass, and the missing stub on his middle finger.

Just like Edward’s eyes opened into sinkholes, Barker’s pupils closed into precise arrows.

She couldn’t stop herself from laughing a little bit.

“You’re afraid of sharp things.” The irony was sweeter when it passed her lips.

The inside of Edward’s gas mask was hellish. He was pouring sweat, and his panicked expression was constricted in a mummification of plastic. He shook his head, but knew there was no point.

She said: “You were wrong, buddy. You may be a predator, but I’m no prey. I’m a hunter.”

Edward gagged at the triteness of the words Barker spewed. Then she broke herself free from his grip, and his hands fell weakly to his sides. She started slugging away at Edward’s face, each hit harder than the last. She felt something snap painfully inside her knuckles, which were already tired and bruised from their trip to Charlotte’s skull, but she kept hitting him over and over and over and over and—

She backed off of him for a moment. Edward’s face was bloody and broken beneath the gas mask. Barker tore the mask off his face and threw it aside.

He lied exhausted on the counter, unable to move. His back was embedded with a broken dinner plate and his hands shielded his bloody, swollen, and sweat-slick face. One of his eyes was black and his nose was at a funny angle streaming red.

“I get it now,” she said in a low tone. Her words were forced between heavy pants and she was doubled over on the verge of collapse. “I get that whole thing about birds or whatever. You’re just feeding yourself.”

Edward said nothing. His lips trembled and he tried to speak, but no words would form in his mouth.

“I get it now,” she said louder. “You’re a parasite. I think antisocial is the right word.”

Edward opened his mouth but still couldn’t say anything. He was dazed and nearly unconscious.

“Your hate eats you alive. It drains you into nothing, so you feed it with more hate. It’s the only thing that sates you, but then you need more. What a miserable fucking life. Well—now I’m starving.”

She grabbed Edward by his sweat-soaked collar, swung him around, and threw him to the kitchen floor. Barker grabbed a knife from the counter. She lifted it high in the air, the dagger pointed down like a Hollywood slasher, and rushed at Edward’s battered body.

Edward cried out and, rejuvenated by terror, he scrambled to his feet. He ran across the kitchen and slipped, sliding into another counter and knocking onto its surface. Barker closed in on him and thrust the knife in a downward arc.

Edward pushed himself off the counter and sprinted towards the door, falling over himself again after three steps. Behind him, Barker’s arm smashed into a pile of pots and plates and sent them scattering across the room.

He hit the ground, scrambled to his feet again, and then half-stumbled, half-ran for the exit.

Behind him Barker pursued, tripping over her hurt ankle and picking herself back up, tripping and getting back up, tripping and getting back up. Edward glanced back—she was hunched over, and her shoulder blades sunk and rose with each tripping step she took, like a panther’s walk. He scrambled like a terrified housecat until, an eternity later it seemed, he reached the inferno at the door.

He didn’t wait for the fire to part. He threw himself through the flames, shielding his face and hair with his arms, and rolled out the other side into his dear Marksman’s vestibule.

Once past the flame, he didn’t check himself for injuries—he knew they were there, and acknowledging them would only weaken him. He made a break across the vestibule back towards his den again. There was one last thing that might save him…

His hand trembled and fumbled around the door before it managed to secure on the knob. Shaking, it took two or three tries to twist it and pull the door open.

When the door to his den came open, Edward looked over his shoulder. Barker had emerged from the flames in the kitchen and landed on the floor now, her body curled like a cat of prey lurking on its hind legs. In her right hand she held a kitchen knife like a dagger. Her left cradled a bundle of six more.

Edward shook violently. He hesitated a moment while he regained his senses, and he dove into the den. He swung the door shut behind him—

—but Barker got her hands on it before it slammed closed. Edward yelped and backed away. The woman flung the door open and was standing in the entrance of his den.

Edward stopped himself from screaming—he knew it would only give Barker more confidence. He tried not to look at her face, her eyes, but he kept his body facing her. He scrambled backwards across the den towards the black door. He slipped in the spilled soup and his body crashed across the rest of the room, his back slamming into the door.

In instants, he twirled around and ripped the bolt loose and flung the door open and ducked inside the black room. Barker charged him.

She skidded to a halt right at the threshold of the black room, all the knives held in her hands. For a moment, she was broken out of her raging fury, distracted by the macabre décor of the black room.

Her face froze for a moment when she saw the human furniture. But she crushed every last remnant of a conscious thought in her mind, and in an instant, her focus was again on nothing but Edward’s suffering.

And that’s when the air felt like a cold mist—Edward had hoped seeing the human furniture would buy him some crucial time, but he had no such luck.

Barker took a step inside the room, and Edward swung his hand over to the bureau. He grabbed the thing from off its top and jabbed it in her direction.

“Get away from me!” he cried out. “Get away or I’ll damn you.”

Barker looked down at the two skulls in Edward’s hand. She tried to make herself laugh, but couldn’t muster it. The six knives fell from her left hand, showering the floor in a rain of steel. In the same instant she reached out and grabbed the stupid thing out of his gaunt little hand.

She crushed the skulls in her palm and let the bone bits and hemp string fall to the floor. Krista grinned at Edward.

He pressed his back flat against the wall. He tried to think, to formulate a plan or defend himself—but his body and mind were like ice. He stood in place and stared at the woman while she stepped towards him with excruciatingly slow movements.

And, still holding the knife, Barker punched Edward in the ribs as hard as she could. She drew her hand back and it was red, and the hilt stood by itself out of his torso.

Edward was quaking. He looked like he was having a seizure. His limbs sprawled out against the bare wooden wall and he slid down to the ground. His face was twisted with a tight, nervous grin.

Barker watched Edward for the longest moment of her life, drinking in every nuance of his suffering.

Edward’s ass thudded lightly against the floor and Barker kneeled down, staring him in the eyes.

“I remember one thing you told me.” She grabbed Edward’s face with both hands. She dug her jagged nails into his cheeks and drew blood. “All you did was show me your pain. Your world. Twisted, pathetic, and miserable. But that’s all right, because it’s time for you to die.”

Edward stared at her hateful eyes and said nothing. Her nails dug into his skin. Red droplets fell down his cheeks. The smile was eternally intact.

“So now you’ve got nothing to say, Eddie?” She spat in his eyes, and he didn’t flinch.

Edward blinked once slowly, and the cartoonish grin stretched tighter on his paled, skeletal face.

Barker grabbed one of the knives from the pile behind her and hovered the blade in front of his face. She saw him tremble violently, and a bloody foam seeped between his clenched teeth.

She drew the knife back and thrust it into his chest right next to the first one, splitting one of his ribs in half. She was profoundly frustrated by his lack of reaction to pain.

Say something, you sonofabitch! Or else I won’t kill you—I’ll just leave you alive like this.”

“I won’t really die,” Edward finally spoke in a throaty whisper. His grin started chattering. “I’ll live forever inside of you. I’ll always be a part of you. I’ll see you in your dreams. I’ll keep making your life hell. You won’t forget me, Krista…”

His grin twisted wider, toothier. The blacks of his eyes were twitching open wide and shut, wide and shut. His black suit was soaked with blood and piss, and he gagged on the red foam in his throat, but he kept smiling.

“That’s not what I wanted to hear,” Barker said. “That was predictable. I thought maybe you’d surprise me.”

She grinned back at him—but against her expectations, Edward’s smile didn’t die. His expression didn’t change. He kept looking at her with that big goofy beam and he said nothing.

“You wasted your last words,” she said. “You’re not scary at all.”

Barker took the rest of the knives and turned Edward into a human knife block.

She stood up and looked down at Edward.

He lost consciousness with that stupid grin on his face—his head slouched forward, staring at where Barker’s eyes had been. His clothes were drenched in blood, sweat, piss, and shit—he spilled his toxic life and human waste all over the floor. It was a pathetic sight—it was fitting. He seemed better off that way, maybe even happier now.

And somehow, looking at the sight, the adrenaline passed and Krista didn’t feel any better. She felt nothing except hollow hate. She might have stayed and appreciated the artisanship of her work, but she needed to leave before the fire consumed her along with the Gray Marksman and Edward’s broken husk of cold machinery.

“When I opened my eyes, I thought I might see Hell. I thought some light-shitting angel might condemn me for my disregard of human life. I thought I might be dropped into Satan’s eternal playpen. None of that is true. I opened my eyes and I can see myself dying. I see that woman standing over me, grinning, like she won some kind of game. She couldn’t be more wrong.

“She tore me out of my burden like I tore the other souls out of theirs. I can see them all now, deaf in the walls behind her—with no voices to speak, like drawings on the wall that can move and think.

“Maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of me. Maybe you’ll notice my faceless features and dead eyes. Maybe you’ll feel my absent presence, my stare—but I’m not really there. Or that’s what you’ll tell yourself, anyways.

“I always thought death would be the end. I thought there would be light at the end of a tunnel. My tunnel is black. There is no fate—only chaos. There is no law, no objective definition of justice. The laws of nature and man are irrelevant; I govern my own existence. If there is a higher power, then I’m imprisoned in this place—but I have no evidence to suggest that He exists.

“I spoke to God, and He said nothing.”

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