Caleb looked at his phone, staring at the text sent from Duo. He wasn’t so much interested in the words themselves, as he was in the time it was sent: 2:27. The time currently displayed on his phone was 2:29.
So I have plenty of time. Twenty-four hours. How do I start?
He looked around, not that it would be much help. The chamber was truly, impenetrably dark – pitch black in its truest sense. Caleb couldn’t see any part of his body no matter how hard he stared. Even lighting up the pocket watch in his hand only illuminated the watch itself, making it look, quite strangely, as if it was floating in the air all by itself.
I need to explore. Find the key, find the door, put them together.
But how do I start? If I wander around in the darkness, I’ll never know where I started. I could go around in circles. But I can’t light the place up. How do I –
Caleb smiled. He had an idea. The chain attached to his Talisman was enchanted. It couldn’t be broken except by very powerful and precise magic, and it could also extend to any length. Its reach was limitless.
Caleb pulled, winding out more of the chain, and made that part of his Talisman glow, as well. Feeling along the wall, he found a spot at shoulder-height, and formed a Mobility disc. It gleamed white in the darkness. Caleb’s discs weren’t just solid discs of white light, but had a gleaming pattern within a circular perimeter – nonsense lines and shapes to most, but to Caleb, they all meant something, and he could alter the pattern if he wished. This disc was the “sticky” kind, and he stuck a portion of the chain to the disc. Pulling twice to make sure it held, he smiled.
Yeah. This can work.
Looking up, Caleb tossed his watch towards where he hoped there was a ceiling. It was a light toss, and his watch rose three feet into the air, stalled, then dropped back down. Caleb threw again, a little harder, gaining six feet…
It struck against stone. Caleb caught his watch, then took a deep breath. This was going to require precise timing. Narrowing his eyes in focus, Caleb tossed his watch upwards again. Clink it went against the ceiling, but it didn’t fall, for Caleb instantly created another sticky-disc, adhering his watch to the ceiling.
All of my magic glows white. Even if it won’t illuminate anything else beyond itself… this’ll work. It’ll work perfectly.
Using a tiny boost from Enhancement Magic, Caleb leapt up, grabbed his watch, and stuck its chain, instead of the watch itself, to the disc on the ceiling. Back on the floor, Caleb looked to his left.
Now… how far across is this chamber?
He didn’t use a light toss, instead hurling his watch as hard as he could. Nothing would break it, so he could be as rough with it as he wanted. It sailed twenty, thirty, forty… clink. About forty feet, and it struck a wall. Caleb followed the chain, hand-over-hand, until he reached where his watch had fallen. Just a few inches beyond that was a new wall, and he created another disc, connecting part of the chain to that. Looking back, he inspected his handiwork.
Three discs so far. Three glowing white markers, connected by a glowing white chain.
Next, Caleb put his back to the new wall and threw his watch to the right. It didn’t go as far as before, perhaps twenty-five feet, before striking a new wall. Caleb walked to that, connected more of the chain to another disc.
He worked his way around the perimeter of the chamber like this, crisscrossing from side to side, connecting more and more of his watch’s chain to Mobility discs as he went. Soon, he had a grid of the entire chamber. It was roughly square, about forty feet on each side, and a little more than twice Caleb’s height from floor to ceiling. Dozens of glowing discs were threaded together by hundreds of feet of thin, glowing white chain, and Caleb’s watch itself was adhered to the first disc, the one where he’d started.
The trick to Caleb’s Talisman was that he never actually needed to hold it at all. He’d requested it made in such a way that the chain was part of the Talisman, and, hooked to his belt and looped around it to touch his waist as it always was, he was always touching his Talisman.
He liked holding the watch when using magic, and felt that it helped him to focus, but for something like this, he didn’t need that at all. He still kept at least a finger on any part of the chain at all times, so that he didn’t lose his way. Slowly – very slowly, but faster than he would have blindly in the dark – he began to follow his grid. With each step, he felt along the ground, leapt up to touch the ceiling, and ran his hands along the wall. It was rough stone, rubbing against his skin like sandpaper, but a little Enhancement Magic hardened his skin just the slightest bit, allowing him to protect his hands as he worked.
This would be a lot harder for a lot of other mages. I’m lucky I have my particular Talisman and skillset.
Now I just need to find the key, and the door.
Caleb found the door first, about two hours into his search. It was metal, cool and smooth, with some kind of bumpy pattern in its center.
I could Phase Step right through, but I don’t know what’s on the other side. And there could be magic protecting it against any entry without the key, or… well, who knows what might be going on with this door? I can’t be careless.
Caleb formed a new disc – smaller than all the others, and with a different pattern – on the door itself to mark it, and then continued on.
He covered the entire perimeter after four hours, but that was the easiest part.
Now came the murky middle.
Caleb followed his grid, going from the “back” of the chamber left to right, to slowly work his way back towards the door.
When he reached the far side in his first pass, nearly five hours had gone by since he’d arrived. He counted the lines of the grid.
Thirty-three. He couldn’t take so long on each line. But he couldn’t afford to go so fast that he missed something. Who knew how small the key was? Taking a deep breath to steady himself, Caleb refocused, making his next pass with both more speed and a more thorough search.
I just have to go faster without missing anything. Everything has to move faster, or I’ll fail, and if I fail…
Then who knows what happens to Will? Or Delilah?
He made the next two passes in an hour, and the two after that in another hour. He was thirsty, and hungry, but thirst and hunger were distant to him in his single-minded focus.
Another pass, and another, and still the floor and ceiling yielded no key. It was 11:30 now. Caleb had missed at least four meals (how many meals he ate each day depended on his appetite). More than that, he’d missed Delilah and the twins getting out of school. And there would be a lot of people missing him if this kept up much longer. The Hollow Hour had almost started, and he wouldn’t be there to aid his fellow Hunters, or to be a part of his team with Chelsea and Lorelei.
Working in the darkness was having a strange effect on Caleb’s mind. All this light around him, brought to being through his magic, and yet…
He still couldn’t see his hands. Or the floor, or the walls, or the ceiling, or the door. All around him was darkness, and white markers, and white chain.
What was this “Dark Place”? What kind of magic could make this place what it was?
And why did Caleb steadily get the feeling that he would never see actual light again?
Shut that nonsense out. Stay hopeful. Stay active. Find the key. Get out of here.
Don’t give up, no matter what. And don’t lose your mind to the darkness. Judging from Duo’s text, you won’t be free once you escape this room. There’s more danger to come, and you need to keep a sharp mind to make it through.
His stomach growled noisily.
You can keep your thoughts to yourself. I know I’m hungry, I don’t need you to remind me.
On he went, four more passes yielding nothing. He was nearly halfway across the chamber.
If the key was right in front of the door all this time, I’m going to be very upset.
Along his halfway point pass, Caleb stumbled, barely catching himself inches from the floor. His head was light and fuzzy, his stomach strangely hollow. Trying to stand, he swayed on his feet.
Which way was up again? Which way was down?
No! Wait! Don’t lose focus! Don’t let your markers vanish!
Caleb gripped his chain tight, leaning on it for support. Long, slow breaths. In, then out.
People can go for days without food. I don’t usually go for more than two hours… but I have to. My body has to hold up.
Just find the key.
Just find the key!
He reoriented himself by looking across the room, fixing his eyes on the smaller disc that marked the door.
His search continued.
Six passes and too many hours later, Caleb’s foot kicked something small that rang lightly against the ground as it skidded away. He froze in his tracks, taking stock of his exact position, not daring to move for a moment.
That had to be the key! Don’t let it get away. This foot hit it… and it was there… so it went that direction… now just slowly…
Caleb knelt down, one hand on the chain above to steady himself against his dizziness as his other hand slowly crept along the floor. Making slow, wide arcs, he searched for the key.
Again and again, his hand touched only stone.
It didn’t make much noise – it slid a little, and bounced twice, short bounces. It couldn’t have gone far.
So where is it?
He felt himself swaying, and stopped all movement, bracing himself against the floor and his chain for balance. He couldn’t fall now, couldn’t let this all go to waste now.
What time is it? It must be –
No! Don’t think about that. Don’t worry about it. Just search. Slowly, carefully. It’s close. Don’t mess this up.
The key had sounded as if it went forward and to Caleb’s right. When his searching arc found nothing, Caleb switched hands, placing his first searching hand onto the chain to his right, moving back one line to try and search some more. His left hand slid gently along the floor, back and forth, out a little further each time. After those arcs made no difference, he scooted forward on his knees, no more than an inch, and searched once more.
His hand brushed against something cool, smooth, metal. Despite how slow he went, the object bounced and slid away, as if it was teasing him. He reached the way it went, and once again bumped it, felt and heard it jitter away far more than it should have from the lightness of his touch.
Do I have to grab it from above? Maybe I can’t just touch it and then grab – if I don’t take hold of it immediately, it gets away.
So where is it? Hard to tell in all this darkness. A Mobility disc? But it might be enchanted in such a way to prevent being grabbed through magic.
Caleb slid his hand gently to the left, one tiny fraction of movement at a time. When he’d made it a little farther, he lifted his hand off of the ground, brought it the slightest bit to the left, then slapped down on the floor.
Nothing but stone.
Again he went, just a little bit, and slapped down.
Nothing but stone.
I have to find it. It’s close, I know it is!
Two more attempts to grab the key from above, and all he felt, and heard, was stone.
The next attempt, however…
“Gotcha!” Caleb couldn’t help but cry out in triumph as he took hold of the small metal object. It was definitely a key. He clutched it tightly, but it didn’t seem to be trying to escape anymore. Scrambling to his feet, Caleb spotted the door and raced towards it as fast as he could, using the chains as support to keep him on his feet in his dizziness.
But at the door, he stopped.
What’s beyond here? If things were this strange and challenging in here… what’s the rest of Duo’s messed up “game”?
Doesn’t matter. I gotta get out of here.
Caleb felt along the door, found the keyhole, inserted the key.
Light slapped Caleb across the face – real light, not the magical light of his discs and chains. He was blinded, and as he blinked away spots, he dismissed his Mobility discs and retracted the chain, retrieving his watch. Slowly, his vision returned.
He started climbing. With each step, his vision recovered, and he realized that the light coming from above wasn’t all that bright, and came from quite far away. Up he climbed, his footsteps echoing on the smooth, marble stairs. Halfway up, he looked back down the steps, thinking to compare the light here with the darkness behind.
He stared, blinking.
At the bottom of the stairs was a flat, featureless stone wall.
Caleb continued upward, and soon reached the top.
He was in a dining room. The floors, walls, and ceiling were split down the middle – red on one side, white on the other. Turning around in a circle, Caleb saw no doors, no windows, no sign of entrance or exit. Light filled the room, but there wasn’t a tangible light source – no light fixtures in the ceiling, no lamps around the room. There were no decorations, and the only furnishings were the long banquet table in the center of the room, and the six chairs around it – three on each side. There were no chairs at the head or foot of the table.
Caleb walked in a circle around the table. It was divided: the half on the red side of the room had meat, vegetables, bread, potatoes, a number of hearty dishes. The half on the white side was covered with desserts: ice cream, pudding, cookies, cake.
Caleb’s phone chimed. He pulled it out, but he still had no reception. And yet…
He had a new text.
He didn’t open it right away, instead deciding to try calling Chelsea.
If I can receive a text, then I should have some kind of reception, whatever my phone says.
But nothing. The line didn’t even ring, instead displaying the message, “No Cell Service.”
Then how did I receive a text?
Opening it, Caleb saw it was from the same number as the last. Duo.
We have a winner! You should be very proud of yourself. The last one to escape the Dark Place in less than twenty-four hours did it just in the nick of time. You made it out much faster.
IT’S A NEW RECORD!
But that took a long time, so you should recover your strength. Eat. Sleep. The next part of the game starts in four hours. It’s one of my favorites.
Caleb glared at his phone, and then typed a response:
How many parts does this game have?
But the message failed to send.
Caleb stood at the table, staring at the massive spread of food. He was ravenously hungry.
But could he trust the food here? Could he trust anything here?
Trust, again. I’ve always trusted anyone. Never had a reason not to. But now Chase, and so many other mages, have betrayed that trust. The leader of all of Grimoire’s mages might have betrayed that trust, too.
And now I’m faced with food, and I don’t even know if I can trust that? What’s the world coming to, when you can’t enjoy a bite to eat without wondering whether or not it’s somehow tainted or rigged to some kind of trap?
But I already fell into the trap. What else is there for her to do to me? She’s crazy, but she didn’t lie about the rules for the first part of the game. She already has me trapped, so… maybe I can trust the food? She wants to “play,” and to do that, she needs me alive and healthy.
Caleb glared at the mouth-watering spread. It was too good to pass up. Could he risk it? Everyone he knew would tell him “no,” wouldn’t they? But…
Caleb’s stomach growled – or rather, roared. It had been denied far too long.
Slow and careful. It should be fine… right?
Caleb decided to sit on the red side of the room. As tantalizing as the desserts were, if he was going to succeed in this place and find his escape, he was going to need strength, and that would come best from proper, nutritious food. He started, however, with a glass of water. Sipping it gingerly at first, he swished it around in his mouth, tasted it carefully.
It was completely tasteless, as water should be. He swallowed, waited a few seconds.
Nothing happened. So far, so good. He ate tiny bites from a few different dishes – rice, chicken, veggie stir-fry, sweet potatoes.
He waited, for quite a while, but nothing happened. Everything tasted fine, and his head was even starting to clear, his stomach starting to calm down, his energy starting to return. He ate some more, drank some more, went slowly, paused between helpings.
Despite his desperate desire for food, he kept the slow pace throughout his entire meal. All the while, he focused his attention as much as he could. Everything about his body continued to feel normal. And all around the room, he saw no signs of exits or entrances, as baffling as that was.
Magic does a lot of weird stuff. But I’m struggling to wrap my mind around how this place works, what kind of magic, on what scale, would make this place possible. And I’m sure I’ve only just barely scratched the surface.
His phone chimed. Another text from Duo.
All finished eating? It makes us sad that you won’t touch the dessert, but when you’re finished, just give a thumbs-up!
Caleb frowned at the text. How was he still receiving them? But, stomach satisfied, he raised his hand in a thumbs-up.
He blinked in confusion, heart beating a little faster as he stared.
The dinner table was gone, along with all the food. Now he was seated in front of a king-sized canopy bed. The sheets on his side of the bed were red, switching to white on the opposite side. Same went for the pillows, the blankets, and the curtains.
She was serious about having me eat and then sleep. I don’t want to sleep, though. I want to finish this.
Caleb frowned, lifted his hand, and gave a thumbs-down.
His phone chimed.
You have to sleep, silly! You may think you’re a Hunter, so you have so much strength and the ability to stay up super late, but you still don’t know what kind of game this is, right? You don’t know how much longer it’ll take, right?
So sleep. Enjoy it. Sweet dreams!
Caleb glared, but what else could he do but obey? Kicking off his shoes, he climbed into bed. He was sure he wouldn’t be able to sleep. But as he stared at the canopy above, he found food, after so long, was working its magic on him, lulling him to sleep. His stomach was satisfied. His eyes were heavy. The bed was comfy.
Before he knew it, Caleb was fast asleep.
It seemed to pass in an eye-blink. Next thing he knew, his phone chimed, and he woke up. Another text from Duo.
That’s your four hours! Time to continue the game!
There are two doors. Each leads to a different part of the game. One is really easy!
The other is super hard!
We want to see which one you choose.
Caleb sat up, rubbing his eyes, and then looked around the room. On the red side, against the wall, there was now a door with a brass knob. Same for the white side.
The doors weren’t there before, right?
He slipped on his shoes and, after a few stretches and warm-up exercises, feeling fresh and awake, he walked to a spot in the room where he could easily see both doors at once, and put his hands on his hips.
Which one do I choose?
There were no signs telling him in clear terms, “THIS LEADS TO THE EASY CHALLENGE” or “DON’T GO THIS WAY, IT’S TOO HARD.”
They were blank. What clues could he get from what he’d seen so far?
The colors have to mean something. Red had nutritious food, white had dessert. But other than that… it’s like the room is just split, for no real reason.
Do I have enough clues to make the right choice? Or is it just chance? Or is Duo able to change where the doors go to, and will just put me in the super-hard challenge no matter what?
Or maybe there is no easy challenge?
Well, if all I have to go on is food… which one’s easy? Dessert seems that way at first, because it’s tempting and easy to eat. It’s simple. But what if the challenge is instead a punishment for only eating dessert?
Then the red door could be a reward for eating healthy? Or it’s the easier one because good nutrition makes things easy? Or it’s hard because Duo wanted me to eat dessert?
I feel like I don’t have enough clues, and I won’t know what this all means until it’s too late.
Caleb didn’t wait much longer to decide. He checked his phone: it was 12:30 PM. An entire day had passed, and no one had come to rescue him – or if they had, they’d either still not found him, or had fallen into some other trap Duo had prepared.
He couldn’t spend longer in this place. He needed to soldier on, accepting whatever challenges he was thrust into.
In the end, he picked the white door, simply because all of his magic glowed with white light, so it just seemed appropriate. Through the door, he found himself in a long, carpeted corridor. The carpet, walls, and ceiling were white, with thin golden lines at the edges. The corridor went on about fifty yards, branching off into new halls every ten.
Caleb’s phone chimed.
You have arrived at…
THE MAZE OF CHAOS!
That’s far too dramatic a name for what it is. But you might not think so once you’re done – if you find the exit at all, that is.
Once again, there is one KEY.
This time, though, there are two DOORS.
The KEY works for both DOORS, but can only be used once. If you select the wrong DOOR…
Find the KEY. Use the clues in the MAZE to decide which is the right DOOR.
We’ll be waiting! And we won’t be waiting alone.
Caleb glared at the message, memorized the important information, and then shoved his phone back in his pocket.
She has someone. Probably another hostage. But it could also be another enemy, waiting to do something with me, or to me, if I manage to succeed.
Whatever it is, I need to be ready for anything. Right now, let’s find the key, and start gathering clues.
Caleb walked to the first intersection of the corridor, looking left and right. Both branching halls were lined with paintings, and went on for only a short distance before they stopped, branching left and right to new halls. He went left first, and stopped at the first painting on his left.
It was a painting of Duo. There was no mistaking that, but… she was a small child. She didn’t dress as she did as an adult, and her hair was long on both sides. But she had one green eye and one blue, and her hair was purple on the right, white on the left.
The little girl Duo – probably only five years old – looked very sad. Caleb, despite his anger at his captor, could understand why. In the painting, two shadows loomed over Duo, and though there was no motion or sound, Caleb could tell what was happening.
Those were very likely Duo’s parents, and they were arguing, while their little daughter cowered at their feet.
The next painting was another image of Duo, still as a child. Caleb briefly walked on, scanning a few more paintings. Duo was in all of them and, at least in this hall, she was a child in them all.
“Is this…” Caleb said softly, going back to his starting point. He ran a finger along the bottom of the painting, and then noticed a little plaque beneath it. It started with a date, just two years after Caleb was born, and then a title: First Memory. Least Favorite.
It was as Caleb suspected.
These paintings were showing Duo’s past.