I knew we were in serious trouble the moment I opened my eyes.
"What is it?" Mike asked, his eyes still closed, his hands on the rope between us. The little girl clung to his back, tied in place. She didn't seem to have any idea that we were in danger.
"We're in," I responded, studying our surroundings with a sinking heart. The back paths had anticipated our rope response, and taken things a step beyond simply dumping us into endless sky.
The tree-lined path still extended away from us, but it dropped off sharply a few feet away. A thick cube sat just further than that, trees and sidewalk running up its side, across it, and down again. Paths split off from there across floating geometric shapes barely connected at impossible angles, filling the sky with mind-bending paths leading in every direction. Below, the maze seemed to stretch on in an endless jumble of shapes, stretching all the way to a fading horizon miles distant. What had once been confusing claustrophobic paths had now become an entire endless labyrinth; a plane unto itself.
"I'm way too sober for this," Mike commented, his tone heavy with the first note of true despair I'd ever heard him utter.
Walking to the edge that dropped off the side of our current cube, studying the trees that stood straight out without a problem, I probed the void with my foot. As I'd suspected, instead of falling straight down, I began curving over the corner, eventually coming to a stop at a ninety-degree angle to my former position.
"What if it just drops us?" Mike called, hesitant to step into the new angle.
I looked around the endless sky-maze, curious. "I don't know. Maybe it doesn't have control that specific with so much effort spent on all… this. But we don't have a choice anyway."
The faint last notes of a massive roar echoed around us, made only more terrifying by their sheer distant origin. Had something on the horizon seen us? I thought I saw movement on a distant upside-down pyramid, but peering into the jumble of shapes and shadows brought no answers.
Moving quickly along quickly changing angles, walking around a massive sphere of tree-lined sidewalks and stepping onto a slowly rotating rectangle of grass, we came to a picnic table next to a five-by-five pool of water soaked red with blood. A body lay within, disturbingly normal by its clothes and lack of any horrible features.
Mike kept his distance so as not to scare the little girl.
I broke off a stick from a nearby tree and turned him over. He looked vaguely familiar, perhaps someone else that lived in our apartment complex. Were others stumbling into the back paths, too? It didn't seem unlikely, now that I thought about it. We'd angered it by continually defying it, and made it increasingly deadly… narrowing my eyes, I looked over at my companions. How had that little girl survived in here for so long by herself?
Suddenly doubting my current perspective, I checked under the picnic table - and I found the letter I'd carved last iteration.
Something seemed to move to my right, and I looked out across vast, incomprehensible spaces - the light was changing slowly, the change more clear on rotating hedrons. Looking up, I realized the sun was still up there somewhere, moving as normal. Even as I wondered about the ever-present rain in the maze, the first drops began to fall, one hitting my cheek with a forceful splatter.
"What do we do?" Mike asked. "I don't even see any nearby gaps. Ours could be miles away. And how will we ever find it?"
"It's a longshot," I thought aloud. "But we broke a hole in our gap the last time we were here. If that's still there, once the water reaches a certain height, it should start flowing that way, right?"
A small light of hope entered his eyes. "Holy crap, I think you're right. It'll be tough to notice with all this -" he indicated the insane geometry of the twisted world around us. "- but it might work."
"As long as we don't head back to the last world by accident," I said with a shrug. "Broke a hole in that gap, too."
I probably shouldn't have said that. He seemed worried again. Leading the way as the light scattered drops became a full drizzle, I picked what seemed like the most confusing direction and headed that way, assuming the maze would try to lead us away from our exit by putting easy misdirections in our way. I opted to remain roped together, in case any of the angles simply dropped me as Mike had feared.
Curving up around a large parabolic structure, we came to a position directly above our previous spot. Looking straight up, we could see the bloody pool upside down above us. Narrowing my eyes, I thought I saw movement again - shaking my head, I dismissed it, until I looked up again. This time, the ravaged body we'd turned over was gone, leaving the pool splashing with its departure.
Staring at the trees all around that pool, I tried to figure out where it went, but the foliage was too thick. Mike noticed, too, and without another word we began hurrying away.
The increasing patter of the rain became enormously loud, splatting against leaves in every direction in the vast, endless maze. No matter where we went, it was always coming down at us, and we could see the drops traveling sideways and up and down in the distance.
"There!" Mike shouted, pointing at a gigantic cylinder behind and above us.
Bloody handprints trailed the slowly spinning surface.
Studying the rain flows in the air, I realized we could evade the animated corpse with a little shortcut. "Here!" I said, climbing up a specific tree. Mike was forced to follow by the short length of rope between us, and we both moved up alongside a strange stucco wall, a weird growling sound echoing from around the corner of our current cube.
I hit the changing rain flow as the corpse-thing rounded the corner, crawling at impossible speed toward our tree. Feeling my hair lifting straight up, blood rushing to my head, I knew my instinct had been right. Leaping straight up, I suddenly turned upside down and hung painfully from the rope tied around my waist. Looking down, I saw another tree just below my feet. Reaching out, I gripped it with the flats of my shoes, pulling Mike up - or down, as it were.
He spun in the air but managed to land lightly in the branches with my help, the little girl on his back laughing.
Above us, the mauled corpse hung from the tree, upside-down a few feet away. Its legs mere stubs of cracked bone, it lacked the ability to jump. Staring at us with hollow eyes, it began descending its tree, moving up and away from us, intent on crawling down another path.
"Go!" I shouted, climbing down as fast as I could without placing my hands on branches I'd stepped on, with Mike just behind me doing the same. The surging rain had made the climb treacherous, and I deemed another such stunt impossible. It would be all running from here… as we hit the ground and took off up the side of a mountainous pyramid, that incredible roar sounded again, shaking the very bricks beneath our shoes.
We crested the pyramid, our view opening up on a mighty valley of open space above and below, a sky arena stretching to the very horizon framed by a universe of jumbled polyhedrons permeated by incongruous blasting rains. We froze in place from sheer awe and terror.
A thing of horrible beauty approached through the sky, passing through wide swaths of sunlight, rain, and shadow, moving of its own volition, bearing no visible manner of propulsion. It simply was, it simply moved, in all shapes and directions, writhing with rotting vitality… and it had most definitely seen us.
Running felt pointless, but we did it anyway, trying to duck deeper into the maze. Animal panic took over, leading us deeper into the jumble. A sense of sight passed over us several times, a vast awareness searching for us in the darkening underbelly of the labyrinth. I closed my eyes against the overwhelming feeling each time, but kept running, knowing the rope would keep Mike from getting lost.
It didn't matter. Nothing mattered. The massive unholy thing tore away at the hedrons above us, simply consuming them. The shadows around us lessened as we ran, until that horrible awareness stopped in place.
It had found us.
Paralyzed, we turned and looked up.
Shivering eddies seemed to tug at the edges of my very consciousness, vaporous memories and emotions leaving through the corners of my eyes. Grasping at them, I tried to keep them, tried to hold onto those scant precious moments from my childhood, but they sifted through my fingers like so much sand, drawing further vitality along behind them.
Screaming, I used up all of my strength just to close my eyes.
I bent over, and then fell to my hands and knees, something dripping along my face. I felt gravity shift and the air move as a gargantuan presence moved toward us, a vile limb reaching out - perhaps to destroy us, perhaps to regard us, perhaps to consume us. Eyes still closed tightly, I tugged at my shoelaces, my fingers straining at the wet material. Finally, I got one shoe off.
Feeling the surging air reach a peak as the thing began to close around us, I threw my shoe in the air as hard as I could, laughing like a maniac. "You shouldn't have shown yourself!"
All destructive motion ceased. Opening my blood-dripping eyes, I looked first to Mike, who sat curled on his knees with his hands over his face. The little girl waved at me, oblivious. Narrowing my eyes, I turned my attention up, where the monstrous thing regarded me with one infinite black void of what I presumed to be an eye. I could feel it massaging the meat inside my head, pulling out what we had done.
It didn't matter. Nothing mattered. It was too late. The shifting sun finally reached us, illuminating our real strategy. Ethereal blue phosphorescence glowed from the bottoms of our shoes, and everywhere that we had stepped throughout the maze. A small glimmer even radiated from a half-shoeprint on the impossible monstrous limb still hovering above us.
"It's going to eat you," I shouted, laughing and cavorting around with wild eyes. "It's going to eat everything here! GLORWOC! GLORWOC!"
For the first time, the entity behind the back paths felt something other than hunger. I could feel it rejecting my assertion, its void eye regarding the incredible size of its domain.
"Nope!" I yelled, grinning, thinking of the letter I'd carved into one picnic table, then seen on all the rest. "I think this place isn't nearly as big as it looks!" Giving another moment for a self-indulgent whirl and maniacal laughter, I spread my arms wide. "Let us go, and I'll tell you how to cure it."
We sat at a tense, unholy impasse.
Regarding the widening blue glow on its limb, I pointed. "It's spreading… can you feel it? What's it feel like? Does it feel like dying? Or does it feel like nothing at all, absolute void encroaching on your senses?"
Next to me, Mike watched me with horror, more afraid of me than of the entity hovering above us.
A third and final massive roar blasted us with fetid, ghastly odors. The sound of grating brick erupted behind us, and the blue wire we'd lain last iteration shimmered into view under our feet. "Of course," I mused aloud. "Mostly illusion…"
We kicked off our shoes, leaving the eerie blue corruption in the entity's pocket dimension, where the consumption would be contained safely. Walking through the gap in bare socks, we emerged into a carport parking lot. A neighbor stood in the distance smoking in just a beater and boxers.
"Well, we're definitely home," Mike said with a gulp.
"Yes." I turned, regarding the back paths. I could still feel the entity's presence, awaiting the promised cure. I wondered how long it would take to realize no cure was coming. What did it really look like? Did it have skin that would slough off before it died, leaving it to waste away in agony?
I hoped so.
Mike began stepping away nervously. "I'm just gonna… take her home…"
"I'll do it. Trust me."
He untied his ropes and let her down, pushing her over to me. She leapt up into my arms without a care. I began walking away, a deeply satisfying sense of victory filling me.
The screams of little girls playing in the carport emanated from down the lot. Looking over, I saw the missing girl, watched over worriedly by her mother as she played. So they'd found her after all, through normal means…
I smiled at the little girl I was holding. It hadn't seen the real little girl playing in the distance yet, but the jig was about to be up. I wondered, with excitement, how it would try to defend itself. Would it be as much fun as the back paths had been?
"What are you?" Mike called after me, his tone quavering.
"Don't worry about it," I called back, walking away. It was rare that I left witnesses alive, but he'd been a top-notch partner. It wouldn't have felt right to destroy him. No - right at that moment, I was only looking forward to taking the impostor creature into the apartment I'd been temporarily making use of, and then seeing how well it might fight back. Two kills in one day - what a week! My grin widened as I departed. "I'm nobody. Just remember me as a bad trip you had once…"
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