Running. Running, running, running, can’t stop, can’t stop, if I stop- No. Don’t think about that. Just keep running. One foot in front of the other. Come on, it’s not hard. Just keep going…
The walls around me go on forever, mirrors endlessly reflecting one another and me running between them. I screech around a corner (thank God, it really is a corner) and come to a sudden halt, panting. “Damn,” I whisper as I look around the huge, rectangular room. Like the rest of this glass hell, the walls are made of mirrors, but across the black and white checked floor I see three silver doors set into the opposite wall. Which one? Which one is the way out?
There’s a sound behind me, the noise of footsteps coming closer. Quickly. It doesn’t matter which door, I decide, bolting across the room. I just have to get out of here. Middle. The middle one seems good. Better than- Nope. Just run, Lana, just run. Just as I reach out to grab the gold handle the door swings open and I throw myself through it. It slams shut behind me with a very final sounding boom.
Black. Pitch black. I can’t see a thing. Noise seems amplified, the sound of my pounding heartbeat and dragging breath echoing in the emptiness. I take a cautious step forward and suddenly there is light. Vivid, blinding light. I shrink back and screw my eyes shut instinctively. When I blink them open yet another hallway of mirrors comes into focus.
“Are you freaking kidding me?” I mutter, feeling myself sag. My legs and chest burn from running, and my head feels like I’ve been spinning in circles. I suddenly whirl back to face the door, terrified that my pursuer may be right on my heels.
The door is gone. Just another mirror. Oh, God. How did I get myself into this?
As if in answer to my thoughts, the mirror that was once a door suddenly swirls with color like a kaleidoscope. I stare, feeling my breathing pick up. The mirror is suddenly a window, showing two girls standing under a banner that proclaims in bright letters: DARK SECRETS CARNIVAL.
“Come on, Lana, when’s the last time we went out?” The blond turns to the girl with dark hair and pulls on her arm.
“Oh, alright,” her friend relents, smiling. “But just for an hour or two, okay?”
“Yay!” The blond grins like a small child and the two plunge into the colors and scents of the carnival, disappearing into the crowd.
“Thank you for showing me what happened three hours ago,” I mutter sarcastically. “Cause, you know, I really needed the reminder.”
The mirrors around me shiver and hum angrily, distorting the dozens of “me”s reflected all along the hall. I back up, but there is nowhere to go. “Okay, okay, sorry,” I say, raising my hands and trying to sound placating. The humming and shivering subsides.
I take a deep breath, then start down the hallway. I mean, where else could I go? I try not to look around as I walk, tired of seeing my own scared face staring back at me. Of course, sometimes I don’t see my face- that little blast from the past wasn’t the first I’d had since entering the House of Mirrors. I’m not sure I like those any better.
The amulet bounces against my chest, a constant reminder of why I’m here. Annoying little thing. I pause and pull it out from under my shirt, glaring at it. It’s pretty simple, but old looking- just a silver chain and diamond shaped pendant with a large, red stone set in the center. A bloodstone, the woman had called it. “This is all your fault,” I mutter to the necklace as I start walking again, faster now. No telling where he is. Or where I am, for that matter.
The mirrored wall to my left starts going psychedelic, the colors following along beside me as pick up my pace to a jog. “What?” I snap at the wall, tired and scared and confused. “What now?”
The colors form a picture that moves with me as I start running again, unable to keep from giving the image half my attention.
“Ohh, a fortune teller!” the blond girl- Beka- exclaims excitedly, dragging the past me toward a gaudy tent. It’s draped in bangles and incense pours out of the tiny sliver of an opening, so thick you can almost see it. I cough and fan the air.
“Not for me, thanks,” I say, gagging dramatically.
“Oh, come on,” Beka whines. “Where’s the harm?”
I roll my eyes but grumble, “Fine. Let’s go.”
“Yay!” She claps her hands together and darts into the tent. Laughing, I follow.
Inside it is dim and heavy. The walls seem to move in a wind that isn’t there. Beka and I move instinctively toward each other, then jump when a raspy, echoing voice says, “Welcome, children.”
We whirl around to see a woman with scarves wrapped around her thick, braided hair and bangles up to her elbows seated at a small table in the corner. Like all the carnival workers, she wears an ornate mask. Unlike most of the others, however, hers only covers half her face. We can see full lips curve up in a small smile as she beckons us forward, jewelry jangling. Slowly, we walk forward and sit on the cushions set opposite her at the table.
“What do you wish to ask, my dears?” she asks. Though her voice is rough, like she smokes, it is oddly soothing. I blink and shake my head, trying to clear it.
“Ah, before we ask anything, how much is it?” I ask, suddenly realizing this might be important information.
“For you two, no charge,” she says, smiling again.
I glance at Beka, suspicious, but she is completely enthralled. “Oh, can you read my palm?” she asks, thrusting her hand out.
The fortune teller takes her hand and bends over it. Her mask really is beautiful, violet and black, with swirling lines of red around the holes for her dark eyes. “Oh my, what a deep life line,” she says, patting Beka’s hand.
“Does that mean I’ll live a long time?” she asks.
The fortune teller shrugs. “The length is average, but the depth- you have a great love of life, child. Never lose that.”
Apparently satisfied, Beka sits back. Just then her pocket vibrates and her hand flies to her phone. Pulling it out, she glances at the screen and sighs. “Mom. She wants me home in twenty minutes. Sorry, Lana.”
“It’s fine,” I said quickly, getting to my feet. This place is obviously making me nervous, though I’m not sure why. I turn to the woman and say, “Thank you,” with as much feeling as I can muster. Not much.
“Wouldn’t you like your fortune told?” she asks, looking up at us.
“Ah, I’m sorry, we don’t have time-“ I mutter, but Beka cuts me off.
“Oh, stay a few extra minutes, Lana. I’ll start home, call me when you get to your place.” She hugs me and bounds out of the tent. I stand there, frozen, staring after her.
“Sit, please,” the fortune teller says, and reluctantly I do. She starts rummaging in the folds of her skirt and I just watch her.
“Uh, don’t you need to see my hand or something?”
“Nonsense.” She shakes her head. “What I need is- ah, here.” She pulls out a clear, round stone, small enough to fit easily in her cupped hands, and places it on the table. She looks up at me, and though I can’t see her expression I shiver. “Are you ready?”
“No,” I growl as the image fades away. “I wasn’t ready. This whole thing is crazy. I don’t know what-“ I sprint around a left hand turn and freeze, chest heaving.
One of them is at the end of this new hall. I think he’s one of the acrobats (they all had silver masks) but I’m not sure. I’m not even sure he’s a “he”. Well, he’s wearing a pretty skintight black jumpsuit, so if he was a girl I think I’d notice. He moves toward me, silent and agile, and I back up.
“S-stay away from me!” My voice cracks and I curse internally. So much for seeming brave or confident.
He tilts his head at me a takes a few steps closer. I back up some more. “The Master wants you.” His voice is monotone, but definitely male. He reaches for me and I trip over my own feet in my haste to get away. Terrified, I scramble back in an awkward crab walk as he keeps coming for me.
“Please, just leave me alone,” I beg, near tears. “I haven’t done anything, I don’t know what you want-“
“The Master wants you,” he repeats, tilting his head further. For the barest instant, I think there is some sort of feeling in that horrible monotone voice. Something like pain, or regret. Then he makes a dive for me and I roll away, scrabbling to get my feet under me as I take off back the way I came. His footsteps are so light I barely hear him coming after me, and despite myself I look back.
The acrobat keeps tilting his head, like some mockery of a curious animal, until his masked face is completely upside down. His legs and elbows bend…wrong, and he drops to all fours as he chases after me.
I tear my eyes away and force myself to run even faster, knowing I’m heading for a dead end but not knowing what else to do. Suddenly I’m back in the first hall, and the silver door is once again at the end. Gasping with relief and fear, I leap forward and throw the door open, swinging through it so quickly my head spins, and slam it behind me. There is an inhuman howl from behind the closed door and I slump to my knees, gasping and shaking.
“Oh God, when will this end?” I wrap my arms around myself and just sit there, trying not to completely lose my mind. I know I have to do something, but it’s so hard to think of what-
There is a deafening thud and the door suddenly shudders violently. I shoot to my feet and back up, but then I remember the only way out of this room is the way I came in, and I know I can’t go that way. My eyes flick between the three doors in front of me. Should I risk it?
The door shudders again, this time making the whole room shake. Hundreds of copies of me trapped in the walls shiver and stretch.
“Then let’s see what’s behind door number two,” I say, darting to the door on the left and bolting through it. Just as I close the door behind me I see the middle door crash open and a blur of black and silver lunges toward me-
“And stay out!” I shout, a little hysterically, at the closed door. Almost smugly, it fades into the grayish wall. “Great,” I mutter, turning to look at what I’ve gotten myself into now.
No mirrors. Huh. Well, I wasn’t expecting that. I take a cautious step down the dimly lit concrete hallway. Nothing happens. I take another step. Still nothing. Okay then. I start walking, the barest hint of hope rising in my chest. Is this the way out? Is it really over?
“Ow!” I stagger back, rubbing my head, and glare at the large mirror I just rammed into. I whip around to look at the wall behind me, then back at the mirror, which I now notice is tilted slightly. Of course. Of course it isn’t a real hallway, just the reflection of this few feet I’m standing in, seeming to go on for hundreds of yards. Freaking typical. And of course my own reflection isn’t visible- for once, which is actually a bit of a relief. Still, definitely not normal. “You know, maybe people wouldn’t be so freaked out by carnies is this place wasn’t so damned insane!” I yell, feeling hysteria start to set back in. I take a deep breath, forcing it away. No time for that. No time for anything really. What am I supposed to do now? I turn in a circle. Wall. Wall. Wall. Mirror. And- nothing else. Fantastic.
Suddenly the pendant around my neck grows warm. Surprised, I jerk it out and stare at it, gaping. The bloodstone is glowing, pulsing like a tiny red star in my palm.
“I don’t know what she was thinking.”
“Ack!” I let the pendant fall, slapping against my chest, and jump backward. There, staring at me with folded arms, is another carnival worker. Standing inside the mirror. “W-w-w-w-w-”
“So articulate,” he says caustically. Unlike the unnatural acrobat, I can tell this one is a man at first glance. He’s wearing only a gold, sort of kilt-like wrap around his waist and a mask. Like the fortune teller’s, his doesn’t cover his mouth; it’s shaped like the face of some big cat, maybe a leopard, and it’s glistening ivory. Gold filigree twines around the eyes and ears, then swoops down over the cheekbones in a series of spirals and loops. “Come on, then,” he says, holding out a hand expectantly.
I retreat further and my back hits the wall, though I suppose it’s kind of silly to be afraid of a person in a mirror. It’s not as if he can actually touch me.
And people can see themselves in a mirror, a small voice in the back of my mind pipes up. And their heads don’t turn upside down. Good point.
“Oh for Supay’s sake,” the carnie snaps. “Phral, alright? Phral.”
I start at the familiar yet unfamiliar word. That’s what the woman had said- it sounded like “froll”. The fortune teller had told me it meant “brother” in her language, that I would know who was friendly by their use of the word. Then she had dropped the amulet around my neck and pushed me through the back entrance of her tent, into this…place.
“What do you want?” I ask cautiously, taking a tiny step toward the mirror.
“Freedom,” the man says bitterly. “And Vadoma says you’re our best shot. Now come on, before the door appears again.”
That thing is still out there. And it has hands- a door shouldn’t be a problem. That’s all I need to think of to send me darting to the mirror. Half of me cringing from the expected impact, I reach my hand out.
The man’s fingers close around my wrist and drag me through to his side of the mirror. It’s dark here, the only light coming from the dim room on the other side of the glass. No sooner am I through when the masked stranger shoves me roughly away from the mirror and toward a wall to the left, pinning me there with one hand clapped over my mouth.
My eyes go wide and I struggle, but he’s almost twice my size. I stand no chance. I’m an idiot- why did I think he might help me? Nothing in this place was what it pretended to be, I should have known… Desperately I scream into his hand, even though I know it won’t do any good.
“Quiet,” he hisses, pressing me back more forcefully against the wall. “He’ll hear you.”
No sooner have the words left his mouth when something slams into the mirror behind him, making the glass shiver. I go silent in shock, feeling every muscle in my body tense. It’s the acrobat. His silver masked face swings from side to side, and I think I near him…sniffing. Like a hound on the scent. A shudder of pure fear goes through me and I hardly notice when my cat masked rescuer moves away to stand in front of the mirror.
“She’s not here,” he says forcefully, folding his arms.
The silver face swings sharply to peer at him. “I smell her.” I cover my mouth with my own hand, feeling my heart trying to escape from my chest.
He shrugs. “She was here. But you know how it is. A door appeared and she took it.”
The acrobat tilts his head. Too far. “The Master wants her.”
The cat man sighs. “You think I don’t know that? I would have held her here, but I’m stuck in this glass. Go get her if you’re so worried about it.” He waves an arm casually in a get to it gesture.
There is a long, heavy pause where the acrobat sniffs again and hesitates, swaying toward the mirror. Then he turns and disappears from my field of view. I hear the distinct sound of a door closing and my knees give out from relief and confusion. I’m so tense I’m amazed my whole body doesn’t just burst apart.
The mouth beneath the cat mask sighs and he shakes his head. “What were you thinking you old witch?” he mutters, turning to look at me. I notice that the eyes peering through the slits in the mask are vivid, jade green. “Wait here a minute or so, then leave. That should give you time for him to find a false trail or something.”
I shakily get to my feet. “W-what is that thing?” I ask, not even caring that I stutter. “Why is it after me? Why are you helping me? What is going on?!” My voice breaks and my eyes feel hot, so I snap my mouth shut and glare.
The man growls, not a fake growl that a human would make, but a primal, predatory sound that rises up from his chest into his throat. I can’t see his face, but I get the sense that he’s irritated. “We don’t have time,” he snaps, moving forward swiftly and grabbing my arm. “Didn’t Vadoma tell you anything?”
I try to jerk away from him but he’s too strong. “You mean the fortune teller lady? She told me I was destined for a great deed, then she gave me this freaking amulet and that- ringmaster or whatever he’s called barged in and she tossed me out of the tent and into here.”
He growls again, definitely frustrated. “Great. Okay, here’s the short version: we are prisoners, all of us, of the Master. That bloodstone is the key to his spell. Vadoma made a prophecy a few months ago that only a human girl could free us. She must think you’re the one.” He drags me toward the mirror. “You break the spell, you save us all. Including yourself. Clear enough?”
Not hardly. “How do I do that?” I ask, twisting to look up at him.
He shrugs. “Damned if I know. Now get going.” He shoves me through the mirror and I gasp. This time it’s a shock, like plunging into a pool of cold water. I hit the floor on my hands and knees and turn to glare up at him, opening my mouth. Before I can say anything he jerks his head and the wall behind me and says, “Quick, before the door disappears again.”
I jump to my feet and grab the door handle, yanking it open. No one is in the mirrored room beyond and I take a cautious step outside. I stand just outside the doorway and turn back to look at the mirror where the cat masked man is standing, watching me. “What- where am I supposed to go?” I ask.
He smiles, revealing long, pointed canines. “Only one door left. You’d better try it.” Then the door slams shut and vanishes.
“Thanks,” I snap at the mirrored wall, “very helpful.”One door left. I turn to look at the right hand door. Bizarrely, I get the sense that it is looking back at me. Even more bizarrely, I’m not that freaked out by the idea. “I must have used up my shock quota for the day,” I mutter, moving toward the door. My fingers barely touch the handle before the door springs open and I spring back, instantly wary. It hangs open invitingly, showing only a few feet on checkered floor, then another mirrored wall. Cautiously, I stick my head through the doorway and peer in both directions. It’s just a straight hallway, seemingly endless.
Of course, I’m starting to realize that “seemingly” doesn’t mean much around here.
I step inside and the door swings politely closed behind me, then vanishes. “Ooohhkaaay,” I say softly, looking around again. Which way: left or right? “Left’s worked for me before,” I decide, and set off. My footsteps echo sharply around me and the constant, corner-of-my-eye flashes of my reflection are distracting. My pace grows quicker.
The mirrors to my right start to swirl. Oh great, now what? I spare the forming image a glance and see, to my surprise, something entirely unfamiliar.
There is a crowd of people, the carnival workers, all huddled together around a circular pool of water. The pool is dark, reflecting the night sky above and the blood red moon that seems to eat away at the stars. Though they wear masks, it is easy to see that they are afraid, sad, lost, angry. Their pain is palpable.
“You belong to me now,” a voice- familiar, somehow- booms. The surface of the water ripples and the masked people shrink closer together.
A man moves in front of the crowd, wearing a familiar cat mask. “We belong to ourselves,” he says loudly, standing tall and steady. “Your pretty little toys do not change that.”
The faceless voice laughs, cold and cruel, and the man behind the cat mask lets out a sharp cry of pain, falling to his knees, though there is no visible force acting on him.
“No!” An unfamiliar masks darts out of the crowd to his side. A woman, dressed in a flowing emerald gown and wearing a heavy gold collar.
“The fire dancer,” I breathe, remembering stopping to watch her acct with Beka. Her eyes were striking, a glowing orange. Like an ember.
Her mask is molded to be the face of a beautiful woman with heavy eye makeup, feathers and jewels woven into her hair. She grips the man’s shoulders and curves her body protectively over her, though she is so slim she couldn’t possibly protect him from much.
The cold voice laughs again and she lets out a scream, suddenly thrown back to the water’s edge. Before anyone can react, the entire group is driven to their knees or collapses completely, varying cries of pain and fear echoing into the night.
All except one. A tall, imposing woman draped in scarves and bangles. She holds her violet and black masked face high and raises her arms above her head. “You will pay for this,” she proclaims, voice echoing almost as much as her captor’s. “I swear by whatever gods or demons there be that you will pay.”
“Intriguing,” the voice says, sounding bored. “But I think not.”
The fortune teller falls without a sound, and the image goes black.
I let out a shaky breath. “Whoa.” My heart suddenly aches for all the people I met, or even simply glimpsed, tonight. The amulet against my chest grows warmer and I see the light shining through my shirt in my reflection. “They’re all slaves,” I murmur, brow crinkling in disgust. My hands start shaking and I clench them into fists at my side. I feel the anger rising in my chest, giving fear a run for its money as my strongest present emotion. “That bastard!”
“I’ll say,” my reflection agrees, crossing her arms.
“Gah!” I leap so far backward that I hit the wall behind me.
“Oh, sorry,” my reflection says. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
I blink, slowly righting myself. “Ph-phral?” I say warily.
She squints at me, wrinkling my own too flat nose. “Er, sort of? See, I’m you. Or rather, I’m your Maybe.”
I take a step closer. “My Maybe?”
“Mhm.” She nods, smiling slightly. “As in, ‘maybe, maybe not’. I’m what you may be. Or what you may not be. It’s all up to you, really.”
I shake my head. Alright, I don’t have time for this. “Look, Maybe? Can you tell me how to get out of here?”
“Oh, sure.” She points ahead. “Just keep going. This is the last hall, you just have to keep on down it. But go quick, or you’ll just keep going.”
Wow. That was much easier than I expected. “Thanks,” I say, giving her a small, relieved smile. I start off again, then hesitate and look back at her. “Um, are you…coming with me?” Is my reflection coming with me. I’m officially crazy.
She gives me a sad sort of smile. “That depends. Like I said, it’s all up to you.” then she sort of glimmers away, and my regular reflection takes her place.
I blink again. “Okay. That was weird even for this place,” I mutter as I start jogging down the hall. She said I had to go fast, or I would just keep going (whatever that means). Okay, I can do fast. My jog turns into a steady run.
As I run, the reflections around me start to blur. Flashes of those weird memory-pictures begin to catch in the corners of my vision. A gold mask here, Beka’s smile there, the swirling mists inside the fortune teller’s crystal ball. The images seem to be chasing me, and I run faster. The faster I move, the faster the pictures change, appearing and disappearing or switching from one wall to another. My breath starts to feel heavy in my lungs.
Come on, come on. This is the last hall. I can do this. I just have to run. I have to run, I have to-
One of the images is persistent, flickering along beside me no matter how fast I pump my legs. It shows the past me at the fortune teller’s tent, her looping the necklace over my head hurriedly as the front entrance blows open. A tall man in a crimson overcoat stoops to come into the tent, hiding his face. The fortune teller whispers something in my ear as she pushes me out the back, and I glance over my shoulder for the barest instant before the tent flap swings closed behind me.
That image plays over and over, like a movie clip on repeat. It’s frustrating that, even as a third party viewer, I never get to see the face of my pursuer. Of course, of all the things I have to worry about at the moment that’s not exactly in the top ten. Or fifty.
But the constant replays are getting really annoying. And creepy. Finally I can’t take anymore and I slam to a halt, glaring at the mirrors around me and shouting, “Will you stop!?”
The Master in the mirror is just ducking into the tent. As my shout rings out around the hallway he suddenly pauses, then lifts his head and looks right at me, grinning with too many teeth.
He takes a step toward me, and I stand frozen with horror.
“Too bad, little girl,” he says in that cold, silky voice. He steps from the glass. “You should have just kept running.”
My feet unfreeze. “With pleasure,” I tell him, turning on my heels and taking off back down the way I came. His laugh and steady, sure footsteps chase after me.
“You cannot escape now, Lana Davis. Give me the bloodstone.”
I don’t bother to answer, just keep running. Apparently that makes him irritated.
“Give it to me now, girl, and I will spare you.” His voice is like knives all on its own, cutting across my skin and mind.
Too bad, mister Master. Now that I know what he’s done to the people here, I can’t just hand the pendant over. Even if I have no idea what to do with it.
That voice. My voice. Sad and hopeless. Horrified, unwilling but unable to stop myself, I slow my breakneck pace and turn to look at my reflection. Really look at it.
My Maybe smiles at me, a sad clown’s smile. Set beneath a turquoise and ebony mask molded to look like a butterfly’s outstretched wings. I scream and the Master laughs, catching up to me fast now. My hand flies to my face and I feel the very edge of something cool and foreign against my face.
But it's too late.