Harold lead us through the forest, his eyes constantly darting back and forth, body on edge as if something could jump out at any moment.
“Hey, Harold. Everything alright, buddy?” said Patrick.
“We’re getting closer. This is the Minotaur’s territory.”
A few hundred feet ahead of us, the forest began to change. The trees that up until now had held no pattern began to converge into a single path the further down we went.
“Well, I’ll take any change as good,” said Diana.
As we continued down the path, I noticed that the more we went, the more the trees began to lose their shape, as if they had been bent over so their tops reached the other side of the path, like a giant zipper. It was like we were slowly entering a giant wooden tunnel made out of thousands of trees, with just a few specks of sunlight able to breach through their tightly clumped branches.
“So who’s this Minotaur guy?” I asked.
Harold grimaced. “The Minotaur is the ruler of the forest. He also guards the only exit out of here. I’ve tried to sneak past him but he’s good at what he does.”
“And the food?”
“Further up. This area is the only part of the forest with trees that have fruit. I’m sometimes able to grab some from the outer reaches before he finds me…but even then it’s always a risk. He’s come close to catching me a few times.”
“What happens if he catches you?” asked Diana.
Harold stopped and looked at her. “The same thing that happens when any wild animal catches its prey. Only most wild animals aren’t twenty feet tall.”
“Maybe I’ll just stay here and keep a lookout while you guys go get the food.”
“Yeah, that’s not happening.” I said. “We’re not going to risk our lives while you kick back here.”
“Plus we’re close enough that the Minotaur could find you first,” said Harold. “And trust me, you’re not going to make it without my help.”
Diana paled and silently followed us. As we walked, I glanced over at Harold. Even though I had only known him for a few hours, he was a completely different person from before. Yes, he was more timid and jumpy, but with that came a certain self-assurance that kids his age didn’t usually have. He was like a young rabbit, twitching at every possible sound of danger, but able to get away if anything happened. Perhaps his survival instinct was better than I thought. Although I guess he wouldn’t have survived months alone in a forest with a savage monster if he didn’t have some form of innate skill. Oddly, I felt better about our chances of getting back home now that he was with us.
“Stop” said Harold. “Over here.”
He ducked behind a cluster of brambles and motioned for us to do the same. We had come to the end of the large tree tunnel, but to my surprise, the tunnel opened up into a large domed clearing. The outer edge of trees that made up the dome extended far past beyond my line of sight. Perhaps they didn’t connect at the top, but even so, there wouldn’t be a way of getting there. Inside the clearing was a field of fruit trees, just like Harold had said. I couldn’t make out the specifics from where we were, but rather than each tree carrying only one type of fruit, it seemed like every one had a rainbow of shapes and sizes attached to it, no fruit repeating twice.
But, stranger than all of that, was the podium set in the direct center. Carved out of ancient stone, it rose a few feet into the air, with steps curling along the edge. Strange marking from another language were carved into the side, and at the way top, jutting out towards the sun, was a golden sword.
We stared in awed silence at the fairy tale sight, as if a magic spell had been cast over us.
“Daaaaaaamn,” said Diana.
If the Minotaur does get one of us, please let it be her.
“Shhh,” said Harold. “It looks like the Minotaur isn’t here, so let’s grab some food and get out of here. It will be easier to pick and carry the fruit in pairs. Patrick, you stay with Diana. Eden, you come with me. Make sure not to get too far from the other group. ”
From an outside perspective, it must have looked fairly silly to have a child giving orders to us, but I wasn’t complaining. We set off to get some of the bizarre fruit, staying close to the exit in case we had to run.
“Eden, help me up,” said Harold, pointing to the closest tree. With him on my shoulders he could just reach some of the lower branches. “Before you came I would only be able to grab the stuff that had fallen to the ground which meant that a trip here could sometimes be…fruitless.”
Was that a pun? Did Harold actually have a sense of humor? This kid was surprising me left and right.
“Catch!” He tossed down something that was square-ish and purple. It looked vaguely rotten.
I sniffed it. “This is food? Is it any good?”
“They all taste different. So you don’t know until you try.”
Great. It was like one of those packs of randomly flavored mystery jellybeans, only with an infinite amount of otherworldly possibilities. I took a small bite.
It was as if a fire erupted in my mouth, like my cheeks were melting down into sludge.
“Shit!” I yelled, spitting out the bit of fruit. I jerked away, forgetting that Harold was still balancing on my shoulders. As he fell, he tried grabbing at me for support, which brought both of us down to a heap at the base of the tree.
A series of inhuman screams echoed throughout the clearing, as if a variety of animals all called out simultaneously.
Harold scrambled to his feet. “We need to leave now.” He began to move forward and froze, staring in shock.
I followed his gaze, already knowing I wasn’t going to like what I saw. Across the field, Patrick and Diana stared up as the trees behind them parted way, dragging across the dirt like a curtain of roots. Something stepped out from the darkness.
In some small part of my mind, I had accepted that the world we had entered was some mystic, fantasy realm, as impossible as that seemed. So when Harold had mentioned a Minotaur, I was half ready to believe in the existence of a half-man, half-bull, as I had seen in Greek mythology. But the thing that came out from the trees was far from something that ever appeared in any ancient story. Vaguely human in shape, the Minotaur was a pulsing mass of exposed muscle upon muscle, as if someone had ripped the skin off of the Hulk. It was headless, so its broad shoulders extended across the entire top of its body, bulging in rage. In one hand, it held a javelin that was taller than most men. It screamed again, the noise seeming to ripple out from its entire body.
In one smooth motion it crossed the distance to the twins and backhanded Diana with its empty fist. She flew across the clearing into the wall of trees and fell to the ground. Then it turned towards Patrick.
“Run,” said Harold.
“But Patrick and Diana-“
“Aren’t going to make it. We need to go!”
The Minotaur was on the opposite side of where we entered, so we had a clear shot towards the exit. Harold took off and I looked back at Patrick. The Minotaur was stalking closer to him, pushing him towards the center of the dome so that Patrick was backed against the stone podium. There was no way I could make it there in time, and even if I could, there was nothing I could do. I took off after Harold.
Diana had landed a few feet from the entrance, and I hesitated as we got close. Harold turned back to me. “Come on! Let’s go!” I looked back at Diana.
I ran over and haphazardly slung her onto my back. Luckily, despite her being older, she was still fairly light. I could feel her breath in my ear as I ran, which was a relief. No matter how much she annoyed me, it’s not like I actually wanted her dead. I dropped her off near Harold at the entrance.
“Get her out of here,” I said.
Harold stared at me as if I was crazy. “I can’t carry her!”
Shit, he had a point. “Well, I’m not leaving without Patrick.”
“He’s trapped, Eden. Accept that he’s already dead and let’s get out of here!”
I looked back towards the center of the dome. Patrick had begun to climb the podium stairs; the Minotaur’s punches knocking out the loose rock directly behind him. Even if Patrick made it to the top, he wouldn’t have anywhere to go after that.
I had to do something. But I was frozen to the spot.
At the top of the podium, Patrick was just slightly taller than the Minotaur, but still easily in the range of its reach. The Minotaur roared and charged forward.
At that moment, Patrick bent down and pulled the golden sword from the pedestal. He held it aloft, the blade almost glowing with a light of its own. Standing atop the podium, the wind blowing in his face, Patrick looked like a magnificent hero out of an ancient tale.
The Minotaur stabbed his javelin through Patrick’s chest, impaling him up to the base and carving a three-foot hole directly through his body. Then, throwing the lifeless body to the ground, it turned to us.
We barely had time to react. Harold was screaming and crying and we were running and the trees were thinning and I could hear the Minotaur’s roar close, too close, directly behind us. I vaguely realized that I had left Diana behind, but everything was a daze. The trees and sky and noises all blended together into a fog that surrounded my whole consciousness.
I caught sight of someone standing to my left. He wore a pair of overalls with a blue cap and held a large broom in one hand. And then I was past him.
I found a small pit in the ground covered by roots and slipped inside. Harold ran in behind me.
“We’re dead, we’re dead, we’re dead-,” he murmured. His eyes were hollow and unseeing, as if he was in a trance. Shock.
We waited there, in the dirt. The night came and the temperature dropped considerably.
Patrick was dead. Diana was gone, probably dead too. Harold was unresponsive. Even if it took 10 minutes for our parents to know we were missing, that could be months for us, if not longer…or ever.
We were alone, trapped and hungry. Somewhere out there, the Minotaur was waiting for us. We’d have to deal with him eventually.
If we even survived the night.