FOURTEENTH, by Natalie C. Parker
The stone is warm beneath her toes. It was not so when she first entered this place some hours ago, but the farther she traveled, the longer she survived, the warmer the stone grew. As though the monster living in the center of the labyrinth radiates like the sun. She expects it will soon burn the soles of her feet.
Now, the walls of the labyrinth fan open before her and she pauses, fingers gripping the corners, reluctant to leave the shelter of small spaces. There is no blood splashed across walls here. No ancient snapped bones picked clean and discarded. No tattered white dresses and pants laying flat and still over stone. None of the others made it this far. Perhaps ever, but certainly none of the thirteen who accompanied her today.
She was taken from the end of fourth period chemistry. Someone called her name and then it was silence and light and the sluggish sensation of being conscious yet not awake. And when consciousness returned, it did so bearing thirteen strangers. Seven boys and six other girls, each as resentful and confused as she.
There were no greetings or introductions. They lived and died as strangers. Nameless because the horror of realizing they’d been chosen as sacrifices reduced them in an instant to instincts and reactions. Three boys and one girl had charged ahead, battle cries echoing through the narrow halls; one boy pressed his back into a corner and dissolved into tears; two girls, trembling and desperate, reached for each other, and kissed with eyes closed; and the rest of them fell silent picking their way down the only path the labyrinth had to offer. She moved with them, neither at the front nor the rear, but if comfort could be found in such a situation, she found it in the center.
One by one she heard their screams as the monster devoured his tributes. He hunted ahead of her and behind, it didn’t matter that there was only one snaking path winding its way to the center. The monster moved through the walls or through the floors or perhaps he traveled above. She never saw him. Instead, she twisted her trembling fists in the flimsy skirt of her white dress and counted screams until she reached thirteen.
There had been nothing to say, but now she thought perhaps she should have asked for their names so that she would have something to scream when the monster finally came for her.
She hadn’t expected to be last. She hadn’t wanted to be last. But she is and a wicked sort of ferocity beats with her heart. Of course she is the last. Of course she is the one who has made it all the way to the center.
The room before her now is perfectly round, its walls as smooth as silence. In the middle stands a ring of statues carved of white rock, each facing inward. The light which seems to come from nowhere and everywhere all at once casts no shadows, and the labyrinth is empty of screams and blows and feet smacking stone.
It is so quiet.
Hours ago, this emptiness would have held her back, too hounded by fear to continue forward. Would she be next? Would a scream be the last thing she left to this world? Would it hurt? But now the same emptiness spurs her forward. She finds new courage in the certainty of being the last sacrifice. Yes, she is next. And yes, it will hurt.
Beneath her feet, the stone begins to burn. She relishes the shivers of pain sliding up her legs and back, and crosses the room to stand in the very center of the circle of statues.
A ring of formidable faces stare at her with pain or defeat in the twist of their features. They tell the story of the monster, she realizes. In the first statue, he stands as a man — smaller than the rest of the figures, only a few inches taller than her, with passion in the curl of his fists and focus in the pinch of his eyes.
In the next he is something less than human. Or something more. He’s grown broad, his forehead wide and flat, his fists clenched more tightly. In the next, his nose is long with nostrils flared over a grimace. In the next, horns begin to curve away from his head. In the next, his transformation is complete: his head bows beneath its own severe weight, his shoulders hunch with new muscle, but the pinch of his eyes is much the same – focused and terrible.
It is this last one which holds her gaze. Here is the minotaur, cold and hard as stone, so lost to humanity that he must consume young men and women for satisfaction. This shape was supposed to be a curse, but the more she looks into its eyes, the more she thinks perhaps it is something else. She places one hand over his chest where his heart would be. The stone is cool beneath her fingers, but a puff of breath from those wide nostrils spills over her wrist.
Not a statue, but the living, breathing heart of this labyrinth.
She should run. She is the last. But she does not move.
The creature who once was a man catches her slender wrists in his thick hands and bellows. This is his promise: you will die.
The girl who isn’t so much anymore twists her slender wrists away from his thick hands and roars. This is her answer: I was always going to die.
The girl thinks the minotaur would smile if he could, and – still smiling – he grips her hand and drives it into his chest. Together, their fingers break the shell of his breast and sink between thin layers of muscle to the pulsing fist of his heart. It is not so easy to pluck a heart from a chest, but the minotaur’s fingers are practiced and with a violent lurch the heart is severed.
When a monster offers his heart, you must take it. This is the human thing to do.
She leans in and bites into his heart. It is tart as wild berries, tough as game, and hot as the stone beneath her feet. She takes another bite and another until all that remains is a trail of blood down her white dress and the minotaur’s empty hand.
Then, standing in the center of the labyrinth, every wild part of her satisfied, her fingers curl and her shoulders hunch and her head grows heavy with horns.
Natalie is as good as ever.