“This sucks,” said Harold, as he removed the remains of his tattered shirt. “So not only am I going to die, I’m going to die naked.”
“Half-naked,” I said. “And it’s not like I would call what you were wearing clothes anymore.”
Now before you get any gross ideas, the reason we were crouching in a dark pit wearing only our underwear was only because it was a necessary part of my plan to get past the Minotaur. Trust me, I had no interest in seeing Harold like this, or in him seeing me. But I wasn’t going to let a little modesty ruin what might have been our last possible shot at survival.
I arranged our clothes into a clumped bundle and tried to focus on what we were about to do. “Go over the sleeping habits again,” I said.
Harold shifted in the cramped confines of the pit. “The Minotaur needs to sleep like anything else, but he seems to remain alert even then. I’ve seen him snap awake the moment his prey begins to move, even after days of waiting.”
“Are you sure he was sleeping? Could he have been faking it?”
“Does it matter?” Harold shrugged. “The point is, he likes forcing his target to make the first move and he’ll know immediately when we do.”
Which was why we were leaving our clothes behind. Harold had mentioned that the Minotaur relied mainly on scent, so I was hoping that we could climb out of the pit while making him think we were still inside, like a kid stuffing his bed with pillows before sneaking out for the night. Honesty, it was a flimsy plan at best, and I half-expected it to completely fail. But I wasn’t going to tell Harold that.
“You ready?” I asked.
“Hey, you’re going first anyways. I’ll know pretty quickly if it works or not.”
I rolled my eyes. “Good luck to you too.”
I slowly made my way out of the backside of the pit. As night came, The Minotaur had settled down around fifty feet from us, curled up a bizarre sort of position, given it was a slightly humanoid muscle monster. I tried to be as quiet as possible, and each step I took was met with a tense feeling that I was about to be pounced on.
The Minotaur hadn’t moved. So far so good.
After a moment, Harold followed behind me, the light of the moon reflecting off his tightly whities. He was more malnourished than I thought. Not surprising, considering the radical lifestyle switch. The fact he had made it this far was nothing short of a miracle.
“Stop staring,” he said, completely neglecting to do the same himself.
I put my finger to my lips, hoping he would get the hint. I’d be damned if I was killed thanks to Harold not being able to keep his mouth shut, regardless of whether this was the first time he’d seen a girl in her underwear.
We silently made our way from the Minotaur, who hadn’t moved from his position. Had we managed to trick him, or was he just confident that we couldn’t get away? A double bluff seemed a bit too intelligent for something that acted like a wild animal, but I wasn’t going to feel completely safe until we were long gone.
Harold led us to a small stream flowing through a section of the forest. It only reached up to my ankles, but that was more than enough for the next step of the plan…maybe. I had remembered reading that dogs would have trouble tracking the scent of a person who passed through a flowing body of water, something about the scent being covered up, or flowing downstream, or some weird nature thing like that. Again, I wasn’t completely in a normal mindset and at this point any glimmer of hope was better than doing nothing. If covering ourselves in water was going to give us even a slight advantage, I was going to take it.
“It’s cold,” whined Harold, as he stepped in, immediately pulling his foot back. Was he seriously going to complain about everything?
I looked over in the direction of the now out of sight Minotaur. No movement, no horrible crazed mutant rushing at us. “Look,” I whispered. “It’s not like I’m doing this because I want to. You’re free to go back and give yourself up. At this point, I really don’t care.”
“Nuh uh,” he said. “You need me.” Technically, he was true. The plan would be a lot harder without two people, if not impossible.
“Whatever,” I said. I wasn’t going to push the argument further. To show him just how much of a baby he was being, I took a giant step into the water.
Shit, he wasn’t kidding. It was freezing. Of course, I knew that if I had the slightest reaction, it would only serve to validate Harold, so I submerged myself as best as I could while keeping a straight face. The lack of clothing didn’t help.
Shivering and wet, we made our way through the trees, Harold leading the way. For all his childish complaining, his actions, the way he moved so confidently through the area, revealed someone at ease with his surroundings. Was that caused by his time here, or was this the real Harold? He was lying about what he knew…how much of “child” Harold was just an act? Or was I just being paranoid about the whole thing, trapped in a foreign and mysterious world, my perceptions playing tricks on me?
The trees grew closer and closer, creating the familiar tunnel. Was my stupid plan actually working? I mean, I wasn’t complaining, but…
Just as I started to let myself get my hopes up, Harold held up a hand. “Something’s wrong.”
I looked around. The circular clearing was pretty much the same as we left it, although the ruined tower made it even more ominous. “I’m not seeing anything, Harold,” I said. “There’s nothing here.”
“That’s the point,” he said, pointing forward. “Where’s the exit?”
Any feelings of hope I had been building up dropped immediately and I realized why the Minotaur hadn’t been concerned. It was a dead end. Trees had seemingly grown in place of the exit, and there weren’t any gaps.
“I told you, this is what it does,” said Harold. “It waits until you’re broken, lets you give up before it strikes. I think it gets pleasure out of it.”
As if on cue, an ethereal roar echoed throughout the forest. The hunt was on.
“We have less than a minute,” said Harold quietly. If he had been scared, or panicking, I could have handled that. But he was eerily calm, as if he had resigned himself to the inevitable. It didn’t do much for my confidence.
The few options we had were shrinking by the second. I made a decision. “Run. I think I see a hole we can slip through at the end,” l lied.
Harold opened his mouth to say something, but he was interrupted by the crash of something practically steamrolling through the trees behind us. Damn, this thing was fast.
“Go with the original plan! Split up!”
To his credit, Harold moved on cue. We circled around the edges of the area, heading towards where the exit once stood. It would take a bit longer, but the Minotaur could only go for one of us. It burst into the clearing and I experienced a strong sense of déjà vu from what had happened the day before, like a bad dream on repeat.
The plan was simple. Keep moving, even if it caught one of us. It wasn’t a strategy that aimed for a best case scenario, just pure, basic, survival. Fifty/fifty chance, depending on who it went for first.
It went for me.
“Of course,” I muttered. Not that it mattered, in the end. Harold was just as trapped as I was.
As the Minotaur gained on me at a disturbingly quick pace, I saw something that gave me a glimmer of hope, if only to give myself a few more seconds. It was a stupid idea, but it’s not like the rest of my plan had been any less impulsive.
I picked up a small, purple fruit off the ground that looked slightly rotten, with a bite mark in it from earlier. The acidic burn still lingered in the back of my throat, not quite gone, but still enough to be painful. And that was after a full day.
I threw the fruit at the Minotaur.
Now, I had only taken a small bite. The Minotaur was covered in a full-body armor of exposed muscle, and the fruit practically splattered when it hit, flinging burning juices across the Minotaur’s very vulnerable chest and arms. You do the math.
To say it went berserk would be putting it lightly. The Minotaur screamed and went freaking apeshit, swinging its arms wildly and charging around the area. I had made it all the more vicious, but at least that rage wasn’t targeted at me. I ran towards the “exit”, where Harold was frantically searching for a way out. He stopped and stared at the chaos that was unfolding behind me.
Crazed or not, it was only a matter of time until the Minotaur got a lucky hit.
“Move!” I yelled, and instinctively held my arm out. A feeling came over me; similar to the one I felt when I fell through the portal in the closet door, as if I wasn’t moving on my own. Again, I saw the bizarre writhing claw shape with millions of fingers. I got the district feeling that each appendage was conscious, a part of the larger whole. And they were all aware of me.
And then I was back.
Something invisible flowed from my fingertips into the ground.
The trees parted.
Without thinking, we ran through and kept running until we were out of breath. I stopped and looked around. We were in a pleasant meadow at the bottom of the hill we had just come down. The suns were shining. It was quiet. Harold was looking at me in complete terror.
Out of the frying pan…