Caleb walked slowly through the “Maze of Chaos,” carefully examining each painting. Duo’s past as a child, in the first hall he chose to explore, had a unifying theme:
First she was cowering as her parents argued over her. Then she was in her bedroom, with the door barricaded against her parents getting in, while she sat on her bed and cried. On and on they went, telling a story of a childhood with no love from her parents, no support from friends. Paintings that didn’t involve home and parents showed Duo constantly rejected and turned aside by other children her age.
Another unifying theme was a shadow. Every painting showed Duo with a strange shadow. It attached to her like a normal shadow should, but it had a strange, inhuman shape, and sometimes changed in size and shape drastically.
It also had glowing green eyes, and at times seemed to grin in a way that made Caleb’s skin crawl.
The paintings in this first hall seemed to tell the story of Duo’s young childhood. One strange thing was that two paintings showed Duo using magic that Caleb couldn’t place at all. In one case, she seemed to be transforming money into bread and milk. Transformation of one thing into another wasn’t remotely possible with any magic that Caleb knew of, so what was this? Was it just Illusion presented as being real?
But in this case, and the second, there was a strange element: the shadow. It seemed to be directly influencing the magic that Duo did, almost like…
Well, Caleb couldn’t be sure. In both cases of magic being used, Duo’s parents seemed terrified of her. And that also didn’t make much sense to Caleb. They were shown to be mages themselves, and from some of the scenery, Caleb could tell that Duo had lived in Grimoire even as a child.
Mages terrified of their child’s magic…
What did that mean?
Caleb exited that hall on the other side and looked left and right. To his left was a dead-end, and to his right, a hall stretched on with several halls branching off to its right, back towards the central hall. So far, this didn’t seem like much of a maze, but rather like an art gallery. Caleb continued to the next hall, carefully inspecting the paintings here.
Duo was a little bit older, an adolescent on her way to being a teenager. Her sadness had changed, now, morphing more into anger. She lashed out at her parents, intentionally did things that frightened them…
And the shadow was larger. Its eyes gleamed brighter, and it took on a more malicious appearance. At times, Duo even seemed to become the shadow, and it was in those moments that her mouth spread in a wicked, inhuman grin.
The final painting in this hall showed her parents coming home with a baby. Duo had spoken of a little sister, but Caleb couldn’t tell anything about the baby. For the painting showed Duo and the shadow staring at the shadowed form of her new sibling with a look of jealousy.
Caleb could understand that jealousy as he continued to the next hall. Duo’s parents doted on the baby, who continued to be shrouded by darkness. They smiled and laughed, playing together with their new child.
Duo’s open malice and mischief turned to loneliness, and each painting showed her on the outside looking in, as her family abandoned her for their new child. And at the end of this hall…
A new figure appeared. He was wreathed in shadow, towering over Duo, and yet Duo wasn’t afraid of him. Unlike her parents, he reached out to her. Unlike her parents, he patted her head, and smiled down at her.
The next hall showed Duo spending much of her time with the looming, shadowy man. She smiled, and they went on many play dates. He bought her ice cream, and pretzels, took her to the arcade, and bookstores, rode with her on the trolley.
But in the midst of Duo’s happiness, the shadow attached to her… it didn’t grow, per se, but something about it seemed stronger. It was several paintings down when Caleb realized what it was.
The shadow wasn’t just extending from Duo’s body anymore. It had started to make its way up her, and her feet were completely covered by the shadow. It was taking her over? It was hard to tell, without words to explain things clearly, and Caleb also felt that much of these paintings were, in some way, abstractions, ways of seeing the world through Duo’s eyes, rather than an objective lens. And yet there were hints that this was more than just what Duo saw and remembered. She never seemed to actively notice the shadow attached to her at any moment. Did she know it was there?
How accurate were these to Duo’s memories and her actual life? And who had painted them? Was it Duo, or was it someone… or something… else?
The next hall – the final hall of paintings on the left side of the maze – started with Duo’s parents returning. They were pointing accusingly at the looming man, while standing in front of their younger daughter, who continued to have her face shrouded in shadow.
Two more paintings followed, showing more efforts of Duo’s parents to protect their younger daughter from the man. Every time the man got closer to the girl, Duo followed him. In the second to last painting of the hall, Duo and her younger sister were reaching out for each other, despite their parents’ protests.
The final painting sent a shock through Caleb’s system.
Duo’s parents were dead, clearly victims of a horrible murder. And in between the fallen mother and father was the looming man, as well as Duo. Duo held the hand of her younger sister, and…
She was smiling.
The shadow had crept farther up her, and now her legs were completely covered by it, fused to it.
Their parents dead, Duo and her sister now both spent all of their days with the looming, shadowy man. If it weren’t for the shadow steadily consuming Duo, Caleb would think that her smile was real, that she was truly happy, getting to spend her days with her sister, free of people fearful and accusing of her.
But there wasn’t freedom, at least not from the way Caleb interpreted what he saw. Though Duo seemed happy, she faced control from two fronts. The shadowy man was always there, towering over her, and she seemed malleable to his every whim.
And the shadow that she’d had from the earliest memory continued to consume her. By the end of the sixth hall, the shadow had swallowed up more than half of her body, and Caleb saw a strange change take place. The shadow extending out from Duo’s body was now normal.
But Duo herself sometimes had the glowing eyes of the shadow. Sometimes she smiled in a way that was completely inhuman, and filled with frightening, evil intentions.
The seventh hall showed Duo introduced, by the shadowy man, to a group of other shadowy individuals. One was a hulking mountain of a man, and Caleb instantly recognized his silhouette as belonging to Bronn. There was a slender man who seemed to be wearing a huge, wide-brimmed hat. A woman was in the group, and there were several more whose silhouettes Caleb couldn’t fully make out.
This entire hall had Duo, but not her sister. Duo spent her time with the shadowy figures – riding on Bronn’s shoulders, using her strange, transformative magic to entertain the others, followed everywhere by the original shadowy man, who always loomed higher and higher over everyone else.
The final paintings of this hall were a pair. The first showed Duo signing a contract, while the towering man watched with a smile on his face. The second showed Duo, contract in hand, standing within a familiar room: the red-and-white room, the one where Caleb had eaten and slept.
Something about this… I feel like I know what it means.
Caleb ran his hand along the painting of the contract signing, and slowly began to put the pieces together. He hadn’t heard about this kind of magic in a long time, because it was only briefly mentioned in his schooling, largely because it was illegal, and had been for hundreds of years.
Contract Magic. A form of magic that could grant the signee incredible magical abilities beyond what normal magic allowed.
But it also bound the signee to the one who owned the contract. It put strict restrictions on them, bound them to rules and conditions, and if they were to even come close to breaking the contract…
The physical and mental consequences were dire.
It’s illegal, and yet here she is signing a contract with this towering man. And it seems like the contract gave her the power to create this place, this house of hers, filled with her games.
But what does that mean? She had strange powers before, magic that I didn’t understand even before this. How does it all fit together?
Caleb continued to the next hall, but stopped in his tracks.
The paintings were slashed, torn to shreds, so that no detail could be made out. And while the previous halls had been stark white, this hall was black, and splattered all over with splashes and streaks of red. Along the floor, the red formed hastily scrawled words:
STOP THIS. STOP THIS. STOP THIS. STOP THIS.
MUSTN’T TELL. MUSTN’T TELL. MUSTN’T TELL. MUSTN’T TELL.
Caleb hesitated at the entrance to the hall, but then walked forward, gazing at each painting intently. Yet he could discern nothing from them. At the end, he turned and headed into the ninth hall.
Once more, the paintings were slashed. Once more, red letters covered the floor, but here they also wound up the walls and across the ceiling:
SECRETS STAY SECRETS.
MUSTN’T TELL THEM.
LOST YOUR WAY.
I’M HAPPY. I’M HAPPY. I’M HAPPY.
PEACE. PEACEFUL. PEACEFULNESS.
Caleb continued through the hall and out the other side, with no further clues from paintings.
The final hall was darker than all the others, filled with red letters:
LOVE AND LOSS.
WAR AND PEACE.
TRUTH AND LIES.
PAIN AND JOY.
WHY PAIRS? NO PAIRS. ONLY ONE.
ONLY ONE OF US. NO MORE YOU.
LOSE YOURSELF. LEAVE THE PAST.
NO GAMES. NO PLAY.
MINE. MINE. MINE. MINE.
Chains also, bolted into the walls, ceiling, and floors, wound their way around. Two paintings had been turned over, to face against the wall, chained into place.
But one final painting, against the left wall, in the center of the hall, was untouched. A spotlight shone down on it, and Caleb approached it anxiously. There he saw the image of Duo, hand-in-hand with her sister, but…
It wasn’t Duo. She was totally consumed by the shadow. And as Duo’s body’s eyes glowed green and mouth formed a wicked grin, the body’s shadow looked remarkably like Duo as a child. Sad. Lonely.
Caleb paused there, looking up and down the hall. This was it. He’d seen everything there was to see, and yet…
Why do I feel like the key will be in this hall?
Caleb paced up and down the hall, slowly, re-reading the letters, running his hands along the chains, eyeing the paintings that had been torn, and those that had been chained in place to hide their contents.
Under the chained painting closest to the center of the hall, Caleb found a strange depression directly beneath the frame. Feeling around, he heard a click, and then something fell into his hand.
Cool, smooth, metal. He pulled his hand back, and found he was holding an ornate key, its colors split half down the middle – white on the left, black on the right.
“Now to find the doors,” Caleb muttered. He exited into the main hall, and felt a strange pressure fill the air and then suddenly pass. Turning left, he saw where he’d come from, but the white door had changed. Now it seemed almost to glow, and across its center, golden letters formed the word FREEDOM.
To Caleb’s right, against what had once been a blank wall, was now a door. Black as the darkest night, it was covered with chains. Splashed across it in red letters: MINE.
Two doors. Two choices.
So… where do I go? What do I do?
Which door is the right one?
Duo seems to be two separate people in one: the girl and the shadow. The white door seems like it’s the girl, calling out for freedom from the shadow, while the black door is obviously the shadow and its possessiveness.
Which one’s the right door?
I want to take the white door. I want to help –
I want to help Duo? She threatened Delilah. She threatened Will, and maybe even has him as a captive. I was so angry, and I was ready to come after her with every weapon I had.
Seriously? Just from pictures, I want to help her? What if these paintings are all a lie? What if everything here is a lie? How can I trust anything she shows me?
Caleb sighed, clutching the key tightly in his hand. Black and white. Lies and truth.
How could he know what to believe anymore?
I’m surrounded by liars all of a sudden.
I never used to second-guess things so much. I never used to be so paralyzed by distrust.
What do I do? This is… wrong. This isn’t how the world should be.
Stop philosophizing. All that matters right now is what’s true, here in this house of strange games.
Caleb looked down the hall, at the white door. He turned back, stared at the black, chained door.
I can’t just go off of what I want. This isn’t a choice between doing one thing or another. She said if I choose the wrong door, it’s “Game Over.” So the real question here is…
Who’s in control? The girl?
Or the shadow?
Whoever controls this house, this maze, the messages I’m being shown…
That’s whose door I need to go through.
So who is it?
Caleb wandered back through the halls, examining the paintings once more. He read the splashed red text, eyed the chains and the slashed paintings.
Who’s in control here?
I wish I was Shias. He’d figure out the right answer in an instant. He can compile all of the information he sees and hears so quickly, assemble it properly, and discern the truth of things.
I’m just some guy who spends his nights fighting monsters. They don’t talk. I don’t have to solve riddles. And before that, I got through school mostly on sports, taking the easiest classes. I’m not an idiot. But my mind is never tested.
Not like this.
I’m the wrong man for this game. But I’m the only one here. I have to solve it.
So what’s the right answer? Who’s in control? Which door is the right one?
Caleb found himself staring at the white door. Throughout these halls, throughout these paintings, he’d found his heart aching.
Aching to save a little girl from her fear, from her sorrow, from her loneliness.
From her shadow.
Could he rely on that desire? Was that the right choice? Was the “Game Over” threat just a lie, and Caleb now held Duo’s fate in his hands with whichever door he chose?
But if she’s consumed by the shadow, how would she set that up?
No. She can’t be fully consumed, no matter what those paintings say. She clearly has two different personalities. Both seem malicious and cruel, but…
One of them feels like a lie, a farce, a game.
A little girl, trying to make sense of her world and her circumstances, trying to find joy and fun in a world that has given her so much pain.
The other one…
That’s the one that feels truly wicked. Intentionally cruel, and intentionally frightening.
The wicked Duo never mentioned her sister. Whenever she talked about her little sister, it was the childish Duo.
Is it that simple? If the shadow completely consumed her, then both personalities could be the shadow, just forming a conundrum to throw people off.
And if I keep thinking I can’t trust anything, I’m going to drive myself crazy.
I need to make a choice. Duo’s always explained the games through text, so I can’t tell which voice she’s using…
Caleb stopped, a realization dawning on him. He pulled out his phone, read through the texts again.
These are definitely at least partially written by the childish Duo.
Does that mean she’s the one in control? Or is the shadow just letting her out to throw me off?
I don’t know enough about how she works. About how any of this works.
But I ended up in this maze because I made a choice based on a small amount of information. I know a lot more now. I don’t have everything, but I should have everything I need, or the game’s pointless. If it doesn’t give me all the information I need, then how is it fair? And if it isn’t fair, then there’s a greater chance that the game ends early, and Duo doesn’t get all of the fun she wants.
So she’s given me everything – probably. I just need to make sense of it all.
For Caleb, it kept coming back to one question.
Who’s in control?
Duo’s managed to gain my empathy. I want to help her, if I can.
Something tells me the shadow’s in control right now. It’s the one that signed the contract, it’s the one that made this playhouse possible.
So I need to play its game. And while I’m at it, I need to try and find out more about Duo, make sure these paintings weren’t a lie. I don’t think they were, since the shadow came through and destroyed so much. It wants to hide the truth.
But it can’t.
It seems to have fully consumed Duo, but…
I don’t think that’s true. It’s more in control, but it’s still a fight. If I do things right… if I set aside my anger about Delilah and think, and do my best to do what’s right, instead of what I want…
There’s always hope.
Caleb turned towards the black, chained door. He inserted the key into the keyhole, turned it to a satisfying click. The key vanished, and Caleb opened the door.
He entered into a new room, a room split down the middle with red on the left, white on the right. It was a tall room, and up front, atop a balcony, was Duo.
When she spoke, it was in the low voice, the “shadow voice.”
“You’ve done so well to make it this far,” she said, grinning. “I’m very pleased. This will be an enjoyable game, after all. But now comes the next test, and you won’t be facing it alone.” She snapped her fingers, and a box appeared on the red side of the room. It sprang open, and Will tumbled to the ground.
“Will!” Caleb cried, rushing over to his friend. But as he tried to cross to the red side of the room, he came up against a wall. He couldn’t see it, it was completely invisible, but he could feel it, and he couldn’t pass it. “What’s going on here?”
“You can’t rejoin your friend just yet,” Duo said with a low chuckle. “You can only do that if you succeed at the next game.”
“And what’s that?” Caleb asked.
Two doors appeared at the far side of the room – one on the white side, the other on the red. “You’ll each go through your door,” Duo said. “It’s a team challenge, you see? You’ll have to cooperate with each other the best you can with limited communication, and, just as before, you’ll have a very important choice to make at the end. Good luck. And don’t dawdle – you’ll only have an hour to complete this challenge.”
Immediately, Caleb and Will were both sprinting towards their respective doors. Time was ticking, and they couldn’t waste a second.
Caleb had found his friend, and he’d save him. But now he found he had an even greater task in Duo’s freakish playhouse.
He needed to learn the full truth about Duo.
And then, if possible…
He needed to save her from herself.