For 2022, I’ve been wanting to write more ‘creature features’ and generally improve my short story writing. My partner got me a Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual for my birthday so I came up with the idea of writing a story every week based on a different creature from that – All There in the (Monster) Manual. Hope you enjoy!
This Week’s Inspiration: Minotaur Skeleton
For years, seven young men and seven maidens were sacrificed to the beast that roamed the inescapable halls of the labyrinth. But the minotaur is dead and rumours of treasure have drawn the attention of a group of mercenaries. In the endless dark, however, something even more vicious has survived.
With a thud, something hammered against the wall blocking the labyrinth’s entrance. Bricks creaked and dust sifted from the ceiling. Another thud, and another, the rock paste holding the bricks together crumbled. Several bricks collapsed and fell inward. Shafts of sunlight, the first that the labyrinth had seen in years, knifed through the stygian darkness. An iron-headed battering ram broke through the remaining bricks and a couple of men attacked the gap with hammers until it was large enough for their group to pass through.
Alexios, the man in charge, moved through the opening first and scanned their surroundings. The sunlight didn’t reach very deep. Dusty, the walls were made of stone with murals carved into their surfaces. After a short hallway, the labyrinth immediately branched left and right.
“It’s open,” Alexios said. “Bring the torches.”
The men, eight of them, were mercenaries and tomb raiders not soldiers. As such, their gear was haphazard and not uniform. A mixture of beaten brass and scuffed leather, boots or sandals. All the men carried different packs and different weapons depending on their own preferences. Alexios had a short sword and a long, thin dagger on his belt. His second-in-command, Drakon, was shorter and sinewy, and carried a long spear. A couple of the brawnier men equipped themselves with heavy war hammers.
Drakon took a pull from the flask he carried on his belt. “This is not a place you want to get caught in the dark.”
“That’s why everyone has their own torches and plenty of fuel,” Alexios said.
“Just hope it’s worth it.”
“You know the rumours as well as I, the king’s horde of gold and silver and jewels hidden somewhere down here in the dark. If a tenth of the stories are true, we’ll all be rich men.”
“The stories I’ve heard are of an unsolvable labyrinth. A monster roaming the eternal darkness, and a lot of dead innocents.”
“Everyone knows that story, Drakon. Not everyone knows about the rumours of treasure.”
Decades ago, the now-dead king of this island had a wife who fell in love with a white bull. She had an inventor create a wooden cow which she could fit inside in order to consummate that love. It was all very aristocratic. The result of their union was the minotaur, a hulking, horned monstrosity that was half-man, half-bull and ate human flesh.
Rather than kill the beast, a labyrinth was built to contain it. This labyrinth. And every year, seven young men and seven maidens, tributes, were sent into the maze to perish and feed the minotaur. The sacrifices went on for years, not one ever returned. A few years ago though, a champion smuggled himself in among the tributes. With assistance from the king’s daughter, he’d killed the minotaur and escaped the maze.
With the minotaur dead, and soon the king as well, the labyrinth had been walled up and abandoned. As far as Alexios was aware, the dead minotaur and sacrificed youths were walled up with it. But rumours persisted that the labyrinth served more than one purpose. That, fearing an eventual uprising, the king had also stored a massive haul from his treasury in the labyrinth where it would be protected by his adoptive son.
All of the men lit torches. Orange blazes illuminated the stone walls and murals that served as warnings of what once lay ahead. The air was stale but breathable. One of the men jostled to the front of the pack, a stocky man named Sophos studying a scroll of tanned leather. Sketched on the scroll was an extremely rare map of the labyrinth itself. Set out in an enormous circle, it contained rings within rings within rings. Lines branched and looped and doubled back on themselves, many ending in dead ends. Even with the torches, one could easily lose themselves for days within the maze. In darkness, it would be inescapable.
“Which way do we go, to start?” Alexios said.
Sophos had spent many hours already mapping their route. “To the right, to begin.”
Alexios and Drakon followed Sophos into the maze with the others trailing behind them. The walls along the outside edge of the labyrinth curved gently. The glow of sunshine rapidly shrank away behind them.
The men could only travel in single file with their weapons, armour and torches. All the passages and doorways looked identical. Earth and stone closed in on them overhead, Alexios could feel the weight of all that rock pressing down on them, pressing them in. Claustrophobic. Like being buried alive. Nothing stirred within the labyrinth and everything was totally silent, at least until Hesiod started to sing.
“Well, the girls from Aegina, none could be finer! And you’ll never go wrong in Erétria!” Hesiod’s voice boomed through the enclosed space. “And the ladies from Sparta, you know they try harder, to compete with all of the men!”
Hesiod walked at the back of the pack, a large, muscular man with his war hammer propped over his shoulder. He constantly sang, or hummed or whistled, in times like this. Still it caused the others to jump, startled.
“Would you shut the hells up?” Pyrrhos said, the second hammer-wielder, another big but foul tempered man noted by his shock of dark red hair.
“Silence back there, Sophos needs to concentrate unless you want to wander these stone halls until all our lights go out,” Alexios said.
Hesiod relented but he could be heard humming under his breath. Pyrrhos looked tense, and he wasn’t the only one. Sophos, for his part, barely acknowledged them.
“Left here,” Sophos said.
They hadn’t been travelling long when they came across the first skeleton. Alexios bent over to inspect it. All the clothing and flesh had long since rotted away. The skull was shattered as if from one enormous blow. Bones lay scattered around the passage.
“Some of the bones are missing, looks like they were pulled to pieces,” Drakon said.
“The minotaur ate human flesh, the sacrifices,” Alexios said.
Alexios went to pick up the top half of the skull. A squirming, furry body tumbled out of the back of it. Disturbed, the rat regarded them with terror. It took off down the labyrinth ahead of them, shrieking, until it disappeared into the darkness.
“I thought nothing could get in here, or out,” Drakon said.
“I guess rats can always find a way,” Alexios said.
Every once in a while, the maze would come to an intersection in a round room. These were just wide enough for the eight men to stand in a circle, unlike the corridors where they walked single file. Doorways led off in various directions from the intersections. Everywhere Sophos went they passed doorways into other passages as well as moving around bends and corners. Sophos kept them from running into dead ends.
At a couple of points, they found water leaking through the roof. It seeped from the stone and ran down the walls. Alexios tasted it and found it was fresh. With all the twists and turns, the endless circling, it was impossible to picture where they were in relation to the geography above ground. There must have been a lake or pond or river above them that slowly wormed its way through the soil and rock. In the lightless world of the labyrinth, the fresh water fed some kind of thick, spongy moss and masses of fungi. Alexios could see sections that had been gnawed on, no doubt by rats. Water pooled in places and then seeped away.
“How big is this damned place?” Another one of the men, Theophylaktos, complained. “We’ve been walking for what feels like hours.”
“We must pass through the very centre of the labyrinth before we can reach the other side, where the king’s treasure was supposedly stored,” Sophos said.
Theophylaktos wore a longsword down his spine. Long, dark hair, tied off, ran alongside the weapon. Scratching at his neck with his free hand, the other occupied by his torch, the sellsword looked nervous.
“I feel eyes watching us, from the walls. From all these damned doorways.”
A few of the others laughed but largely to dispel their own fear. Regardless of whether they felt they were being watched by anything more than rats, the labyrinth was oppressive. An endless tomb full of doorways and tunnels. Alexios saw another broken skeleton lying against one of the walls looking practically ancient.
Eventually, under Sophos’ direction, the eight of them reached the very centre of the labyrinth. Time stretched and snapped under the earth, against all the sameness, but the walking had taken hours. Much like the other intersections, the centre was another circular room but much, much larger, with a domed roof. A dozen empty doorways ringed around the room.
“This is it, the heart of the labyrinth,” Sophos said. “Home to the minotaur.”
Home indeed. Numerous pieces of oversized furniture dotted the cavern. More skeletons occupied the space as well, skulls smashed and bones snapped open to give access to the marrow. Scores of them had been swept to the sides of the room. And then, in the middle of the room, Alexios found it.
“Look, the skeleton of the minotaur itself,” Alexios said.
Although fur and flesh had rotted away, the bones were recognisably those of the minotaur. Largely complete, it was noticeably bigger than any human skeleton. The creature must have been over eight foot tall and huge. It would have had to move through the labyrinthian halls stooped over, squeezing through the passages. But it would have been inescapable in them too, totally impossible to get past. Its ribcage, its arms and pelvis all looked human, if overly large, but its legs ended in bony hooves and its head was especially huge and deformed. A bull’s skull with massive, curving horns but with the teeth of a predator.
“All this, built to contain it,” Alexios said. “But it died and rotted like anything else.”
“What are those marks on the bones?” Drakon said.
The minotaur skeleton was mostly in one piece but various markings covered the bones. Pitting and scraping, Alexios looked closer in the firelight. Dark stains covered the stone floor under the skeleton.
“They look like teeth marks, must have been the rats,” Alexios said.
“They look a little big for rats,” Drakon said.
“I claim the head, it will look wonderful above my hearth.”
They decided to rest in the centre and recuperate before continuing on to the second half of the maze. Pyrrhos broke up some furniture to make a fire. Hesiod sang to himself. Drakon sat down heavily and took a pull from one of his flasks. The others drank from water or wineskins and ate salted meat from their packs although Tryphon, the group’s cook, tried to prepare something better.
“You’re telling me you don’t feel it?” Theophylaktos said. “Something is in here, watching us.”
“Shut up, Theo, you damned coward,” Pyrrhos said.
Alexios ignored them both. Theophylaktos’ words and the endless passages of the labyrinth itself were working on all their minds. No fresh air, no sunlight. The dark and the weight and the silence.
Smoke started to fill the domed space. It eddied, and torches sometimes moved and snapped. Curious, as there was no breeze inside the buried maze. Unless bodies in motion might push air in front of them, slipping through the corridors and becoming tiny currents. Alexios looked toward one of the doorways orbiting the central space and thought he saw movement. A glimmer of white, pale as a fish’s belly or a clean sheet, that was only there for a split second and then it vanished back into oblivion.
“Seeing ghosts?” Drakon wandered over and seemed to read something in his leader’s expression.
“Ghosts, yes,” Alexios said. “Must be, the ghosts of all those sons and daughters fed into this maze. Fed to this beast.”
Within the labyrinth, no sense of night and day existed. No set mealtimes, no time to rest. Alexios gave the men what he thought would be sufficient time and then told them to pack up and get moving again. They left the fire to burn as there was nowhere for it to spread. Some fixed or relit their torches. Sophos had never put down his map and he led the way to one particular doorway. Theophylaktos looked hesitant about going any further but he didn’t protest. Humming, whistling and occasionally singing to himself, Hesiod took up position at the rear. Having roped the minotaur skull to his pack, Alexios carried it along with the rest of his equipment. The horns swung from side to side, occasionally scraping the stone walls.
Left, right, left, left, right, Sophos guided them down one of the passages. They passed numerous other doorways and dead ends, and numerous bones. They hadn’t been moving long, however, when they came to a sudden stop. The dead end didn’t appear because of a mistake in Sophos’ navigation but instead due to a collapse in the ceiling, with rubble clogging the passage.
“What is this?” Alexios said.
“Looks like part of the ceiling has fallen,” Sophos said. “I will have to figure out a way around this.”
The stocky man studied his scroll again by firelight. They should only need a short diversion to get them around the collapse but in a maze as complicated as the labyrinth Sophos took no chances. He carefully marked the new route. Backtracking for a few minutes, they continued along the other path but it wasn’t long before they came to another blockade.
“More rubble,” Alexios said. “Perhaps this part of the labyrinth collapsed.”
“But this place was built to last a hundred years,” Sophos said, sounding disturbed.
“Could we dig our way through?” Drakon asked.
“No, no, if it has collapsed then digging could cause more of the roof to fall in. I’ll find another way,” Sophos said.
The eight of them backtracked again, turning around awkwardly. Sophos, Alexios and Drakon moved again to the front while Hesiod remained at the back. They had to return almost all the way to the centre according to Sophos, and would have to go a long way around to reach the far side of the labyrinth.
“While you live, shine, have no grief at all,” Hesiod sang to himself, his voice carrying through the stone halls. “Life exists only for a short while, and time demands its toll.”
“Hells, would you shut your stupid mouth, Hesiod?” Pyrrhos snapped.
To their surprise, Hesiod went silent with no argument. Nor did he continue to whistle or hum. The others shuffled along listening to their own scraping feet, the crackle of flames and their breathing. Finally, one of the other men, Timotheos, glanced back.
“Hey, hey, stop! Where has Hesiod gone?” Timotheos said.
“What are you talking about?” Alexios said.
“Hesiod is gone, he was right behind me!”
The seven of them went up and down the line. Hesiod had disappeared. Big as he was, he, his equipment, his torch, had all vanished in total silence without any of them noticing.
“Hesiod! Hesiod, if this is some kind of jest then none of us are amused!” Alexios shouted.
“We’ll have to find him,” Drakon said.
“We can’t split up!” Sophos warned them.
Alexios and Drakon squeezed past the others, Alexios lightly touching the pommel of his sword. Undeniable fear etched itself on all the men’s faces, even Pyrrhos as he grunted something about Hesiod playing pranks. Moving carefully, they backtracked through the maze once more. Using torches, they checked around corners and through doorways.
Eventually, Alexios found a dark streak along one of the walls. It looked black in the firelight. Alexios tested it with his finger, finding it wet, and brought the finger to his face.
“It’s blood, fresh,” Alexios said.
“There’s something in here with us,” Drakon said.
“I told you! I told you we were being watched!” Theophylaktos said.
“Hesiod!” Pyrrhos yelled. “Hesiod! Show yourself!”
Pyrrhos’ cries echoed away into the warren of corridors, unanswered. They fanned out, weapons ready and torches raised. Sophos hung back, holding the map.
“Don’t lose the path!” Sophos said.
“Anything?” Alexios shouted.
“Nothing!” Timotheos, the man who’d first noticed Hesiod’s absence, shouted back.
They reconvened in the corridor with Sophos. Heads shook angrily. None of them had found any more sign of Hesiod. Alexios’ eyes scanned the group in the flickering light and immediately noticed something.
“Where’s Timotheos?” Alexios said.
“What?” Pyrrhos said, and they all looked about themselves.
“Timotheos, where is he?” Alexios’ voice rose. “Timotheos! Timotheos!”
“By the gods,” Sophos muttered.
Again, the six of them spread along the tunnel to search for Timotheos. No one went off alone this time, however. They all stayed within sight of the others. A potent mix of fear and impotent rage swilled through the group. Finally, they spotted an orange glow that didn’t belong to one of their own torches down one of the stone passageways. Alexios and Drakon went to check it out and found another torch lying on the ground, still burning. There were no other signs of violence or a struggle. Just beyond it was one of the round, four-way intersections.
“Is it Timotheos’ torch?” Drakon asked.
“It must be,” Alexios said.
Alexios recovered the torch and returned to the others. The men were dead, or unrecoverable. Assuming they’d been taken by someone or something that actually knew the maze, they could be anywhere by now.
“Keep going, back this way,” Alexios said.
Huddled together, they moved down the passage. They were sure to watch their backs and to keep their weapons raised at every side branch. Soon, they came to another pile of rubble that blocked their progress.
“No, no! This wasn’t here before, this is the way we came!” Sophos said.
“That does it, let’s get back to the labyrinth’s centre,” Alexios said. “At least there’s no way to sneak up on us there.”
Sophos quickly plotted a route. They didn’t run into any more blockades or trouble on their way back but now, like Theophylaktos, Alexios could feel them being watched. He glimpsed pale flashes of white far back in the shadows in some passages. He resisted the urge to go after them. They came across no sign of Hesiod or Timotheos.
When they reached the domed centre of the labyrinth, nothing had changed. Embers burned low on the fire they’d left behind. Smoke stained the air.
“Get that fire started again,” Alexios said. “Save the torches and burn whatever you can.”
Pyrrhos and Tryphon grew the fire again. The six of them fanned out, watching the doorways. A dozen of them ringed the space, however, all alike, and empty as the sockets of the skulls scattered throughout the room.
“What is it? The minotaur is dead, what took them?” Drakon said.
“I don’t know, something else has taken over down here.” Alexios pulled his pack off and stared at the horned skull he’d strapped to it.
“How could anything survive?”
“The water leaking from the ceiling in some places, the fungi. Maybe eating the rats, if it’s good enough at hunting in the dark.”
“And now it’s hunting us.”
“So it would seem.”
The others joined them on one side of the fire. “What are we going to do?” Pyrrhos said. “Are we still going after the treasure?”
“Treasure? We don’t even know if there is a treasure!” Theophylaktos said. “But we know they’re out there, whatever took Hesiod and Timotheos!”
“We wait here, recover our breath and see if this thing, or things, attack us,” Alexios said. “If not, we retreat to the entrance. We don’t know what we’re up against, we could only go for the treasure with more men. More swords.”
The six of them extinguished their torches and rewrapped the heads. They grew the fire in the centre of the room into a blaze but there was only so much of the minotaur’s furniture to burn. They should have plenty of fuel for the torches to get them back to the entrance, but that assumed they didn’t run into any more blockades. Sophos ran over his scroll, looking for potential alternate routes in the spiderweb of lines.
“They’re watching, they’re watching,” Theophylaktos said.
Soon, flames across the ashes of the broken furniture guttered low. Only one of the seven torches was lit, Sophos holding it over his scroll. Alexios and the rest of the men began to get anxious to move again. Suddenly, Pyrrhos started.
“Over there! Over there, I saw one of them!” Pyrrhos said.
Pyrrhos ran toward one of the identical doorways. Alexios, Drakon and Theophylaktos followed him. Alexios only saw a glimpse of white retreating into the shadows.
“Wait, wait! Don’t follow it!” Alexios said.
“What was it? What did it look like?” Drakon asked.
“A man, it looked like a man but all white, with black eyes,” Pyrrhos said.
Suddenly, a strangled cry came from behind them. A shout of alarm came from Sophos as well. Alexios and the others spun. Three creatures had emerged from one of the doorways and snatched Tryphon. The one Pyrrhos had seen was merely a distraction. While most of the men crossed the room, the creatures had emerged and grabbed the first man they saw.
Tryphon fought back but two of the creatures wrapped themselves around his brawny arms. The other, wrapped around his waist, rammed some kind of ivory knife repeatedly into Tryphon’s side to avoid his armour. Blood gushed over his hip. He thrashed and fought but to no avail, the trio of pale creatures dragged him toward the doorway. Alexios, Drakon and the other pair stampeded toward them but they disappeared into darkness. If the men followed, they’d quickly be lost and on unequal footing with the creatures.
“Torches! Torches, grab them!” Alexios said.
With short sword in one hand, Alexios scooped up one of the torches and jammed it into the remains of the fire. It quickly ignited. The others did the same and they swarmed toward the doorway.
“What were those things?” Drakon said.
As Pyrrhos had said, the creatures looked human. Of the three that had grabbed Tryphon, two had been men while one looked like a young woman. But they’d been naked and their skin had been as pale as fish bellies. Their bodies looked wasted and warped, all bone and sinewy muscle, not a speck of meat on them. Their hair was stringy and looked as if it had fallen out in patches. And the expressions on their faces had been animal, no humanity whatsoever.
“Move together! Don’t get separated!” Alexios said.
Tryphon’s blood splattered the floor, giving them a trail to follow. Alexios took the lead. They heard nothing except their own heavy breathing and pounding hearts, Tryphon’s cries had already been silenced. The labyrinth seemed eerily quiet.
“I’ve lost it, I’ve lost the trail!” Alexios said, sweeping his torch around.
One of the creatures screeched out of the passage to Alexios’ left. Teeth were bared in a feral scream. It was one of the males and carried some sort of weapon.
Alexios brought his short sword around. The creature seemed to be alone, attacking four of them even though they were all armoured and armed and it was totally naked. But then, the four of them couldn’t fight together in the narrow passage. Alexios struggled to even bring his sword to bear quickly in the confined space. The creature lunged, and Alexios threw himself backward. Its weapon wasn’t so much a knife or a sword but a jagged spike. A leg bone, Alexios realised as it cleaved past his face, which had been snapped and sharpened into a primitive weapon by being run against rough stone. Alexios batted it away with the side of his sword.
Alexios flung his other hand around, clutching the torch, and shoved it into the creature’s face. Its eyes were large and deep, savage lines etched into its face. In spite of all that, it didn’t look that old. The underground creature recoiled as if burned and threw one arm over its eyes, shrieking. The creature retreated back down the corridor, into shadow, and disappeared around another corner. Alexios started after them but was distracted by a cry behind him.
“They’ve got me! They’ve got me!” Theophylaktos yelled.
Three creatures had swarmed from a side passage and knocked Theophylaktos to the ground. They dragged him toward another doorway into darkness. Pyrrhos struggled to bring his hammer around in the small space. Drakon, behind Pyrrhos, shot forward with his spear and harpooned one of the male creatures in the side. It released Theophylaktos and writhed away, blood spurting from under its ribs.
The others crowded toward Theo with torches and weapons raised. The creatures abandoned their victim, although one of them tore away Theophylaktos’ pack.
“After them!” Pyrrhos said.
“No, no! Back to the maze’s centre!” Alexios said.
The four men barreled back down the hallway toward the central room. Fortunately, Sophos, in spite of being left alone in the big room, hadn’t been attacked. He watched and waited for them nervously. Theophylaktos stumbled and fell, clutching his sword.
“What’s happening? Where are they?” Sophos said.
“They’re everywhere in there!” Alexios said.
“What are they?” Drakon said.
Alexios realised where the creatures had come from with a jolt. He looked around the room at the bones, and to the headless skeleton of the minotaur itself.
“By the gods, the tributes, the young men and women fed to the minotaur,” Alexis said. “They were left here after the minotaur was killed and walled up inside!”
Alexios couldn’t imagine what it had been like. Once their torches went out, they would have been trapped in endless blackness. It was incredible that they’d survived at all. They must have found those places where fresh water trickled from the ceiling, finding enough to drink and eating the moss and fungi. They’d hunted for rats. Alexios remembered the tooth marks on the minotaur’s bones. The dead monster was probably one of the first meals they’d come across when walled inside and it had kept them alive long enough to adjust as they stripped it down to the bones. They were still intelligent, they could plan, strategise, and clearly they knew the maze better than the mercenaries. But in their years in the labyrinth, starving in the dark, they’d gone insane and completely savage. They saw the intruders only as meat instead of potential rescue.
Several of them, the tributes, swarmed from the surrounding doorways. Naked, pale from years of sunlessness, and all sinew and bone, there was little difference between the men and the women. Only the shrunken husks of breasts or cocks and balls slapping between bony thighs told them apart. They carried weapons made from bones and ropes that appeared to be wound from scraps of their old clothing knotted together.
“Stay together! Protect Sophos, and the map! Without them, we don’t get out of here!” Alexios said.
The five of them gathered near the dying fire, hands occupied with torches and weapons. Alexios counted eight tributes, mostly men. With their primitive weapons and no armour, they shouldn’t have stood a chance against Alexios and his men and yet they attacked with wild abandon. Bone spikes stabbed and slashed at Alexios and the others. They glanced off brass and leather armour or were turned aside by more sophisticated weapons. Alexios sliced one of the tributes across the shoulder but they didn’t seem to feel pain.
Pyrrhos got one of them. Taking his war hammer in two hands, he swung it around in a wide arc. The head caught one of the tributes in the chest. Ribs crackled and popped, and the boy was picked up off his feet. Flung backward, they landed on their spine, rolling and spitting blood. Others shrieked and one of them stabbed Pyrrhos in the arm. He bellowed and tried to shake them off. Another tribute crashed into Theophylaktos, opening a gash in the side of his neck but missing the artery. Drakon speared one, a young woman, in the chest and she went down, thrashing.
“The torches! Use the light!” Alexios said.
They swung the torches around, shoving them toward the tributes. Blinded, the tributes retreated toward the doorways while covering their faces. A couple of them grabbed the one that Pyrrhos had dropped and dragged them away as well. Pyrrhos and Theophylaktos covered their wounds.
“Go! Let’s go, let’s move!” Alexios said. “Sophos, which way?”
“Uh, uh, this way, that’s the doorway!” Sophos said.
“Stay together, protect Sophos!”
Bleeding and terrified, the five of them rushed back into the labyrinth. Alexios felt no reason to believe the tributes would simply abandon the chase. They had to get out of there as fast as possible. All of them carried torches and weapons, they watched their backs and moved as one. Sophos poured over his map every step of the way.
“This way,” Sophos said. “No, no, this way!”
“Get it right,” Alexios said. “There’s no room for error!”
“They’re watching, they’re still watching,” Theophylaktos said.
Pyrrhos wound a bandage around his bleeding forearm. Theophylaktos also staunched the bleeding on his neck. They hurried down passageways, breathing the stale air heavily. Sophos guided them along his map, along the thin cords of black lines.
“What about the others?” Drakon said.
“They’re dead,” Alexios said. “Or if they’re not already, we’d never find them. They’re sellswords, we all are, they knew the way of it.”
The five of them moved for almost an hour, although time was hard to tell in the labyrinth. Sophos seemed to gain confidence as the map conformed to his expectations. Alexios started to think the tributes only stuck to one half of the maze, although technically their path did circle back and forth all over the labyrinth. In any case their guard began to lapse.
Suddenly, Theophylaktos screamed. They’d just passed through a round intersection where their pursuers set another ambush. Theo was at the back and three tributes emerged and hooked him. One, a woman, climbed his back and slammed a sharpened arm bone into the man’s throat. His cries turned wet and ragged, blood spurting from the wound and spuming from his mouth. The female tribute dropped back and all three dragged Theophylaktos into a tunnel, into darkness, as he dropped his torch.
“Damned animals!” Pyrrhos said.
“No, don’t follow!” Alexios said.
Pyrrhos ignored him, and crashed after Theophylaktos and the tributes. Alexios and Drakon reluctantly followed with Sophos at their backs. Inside the passage, however, the tunnel immediately divided into different directions. More doorways branched away, overwhelming them with options.
“Pyrrhos!” Alexios said.
Pyrrhos’ voice echoed down the passages. The way noises bounced off the stone, it was impossible to track. They could hear Pyrrhos yelling, and sounds of battle. The man screamed, obvious pain in his cry.
Suddenly, Sophos yelled in alarm from the passage behind them. Alexios and Drakon turned to see another couple of tributes hauling the man backward. One of his fists bunched tightly around the map of the labyrinth.
“No! Get off him!” Alexios said.
Alexios and Drakon followed but another two tributes appeared from a side passage. Savage snarls bared their teeth. Both presented weapons of sharpened bone.
With a roar, Alexios flung himself to meet them. He couldn’t let them get away with Sophos, their lives depended on it. Without the map, they could wander the labyrinth for days with these once-human monsters on their tails and never find the way out. Fortunately, his short sword was ideal for fighting in the tight confines. He hacked and slashed, ripping into the first of the two tributes. While pain didn’t seem to affect them in the same way they still retreated under the barrage of sword blows.
The second tribute lunged with its sharpened bone. The point caught Alexios in the side of the head, cutting through his scalp. Blood poured through his hair and down his neck. Drakon trailed behind him though, and shot forward with his spear. The spearhead drilled the tribute in the throat, blood bursting from the wound. Both the pallid, blood soaked creatures fell backward.
“After Sophos! After him!” Alexios said.
Alexios and Drakon hurtled over the two bodies, blocking the hall as they died. Up ahead, they could hear Sophos yelling and struggling. Once again, echoes made him difficult to track.
“How many of them do you think there are?” Drakon said. “No more than fourteen, right? Seven boys and seven girls were last released into the maze when the minotaur was killed. We’ve killed, what? Four of them? And surely not all of them have survived.”
“Unless some of them lived from previous years, avoiding the minotaur. Maybe the minotaur was already dead, and what really got people were these things, living all this time in the dark.”
Alexios kept his torch low, studying the ground. Footprints and scuffs marred the dust. That, and Sophos’ fading voice, was all they had to follow. The two men continued to veer through the passages, afraid they’d lost him. Their torches flickered and snapped. Moving for several minutes, they came to another blockade but a splatter of blood led them into a side passage.
“By the gods,” Alexios said.
Alexios and his second-in-command had followed Sophos and the tributes to a charnel house. A dead end where the tributes had brought some of their victims. Blood painted the stone walls and ran across the floor. Hesiod, Tryphon and Sophos had all been dragged there. Sharpened bones bristled from Sophos’ chest, the stocky man already dead. Hesiod lay face down, a noose of torn clothing around his neck. Tryphon had been hacked to pieces. Three tributes, two women and a man, hunkered over the bodies with blood smeared over their mouths and chests. One held an arm, Tryphon’s arm, with ragged bites ripped out of the meat. The others had slippery red slabs of flesh as well, all of them feasting. Seeing the men and their torches, they hissed and rose to their feet.
“Kill them!” Alexios said.
Alexios and Drakon drove in, stabbing and slashing. One of the tributes fell backward, their face divided down the middle and caved in by Alexios’ sword. The tributes had been caught unprepared and were sluggish from their large meals. Alexios and Drakon made short work of all three of them.
“Damn it all.” Alexios knelt over Sophos’ body and saw the man’s glazed, unseeing eyes.
Alexios went to pry the map out of Sophos’ hands. Something groaned and shifted to his right, however, and made him jump. Tryphon was still alive. His eyes opened, white against the red covering his face. His chest was a gory mess and both his arms had been severed. The amputations, Alexios realised, had been tied off to keep him from bleeding out. Better to keep the meat fresh. Tryphon rocked forward, alive, and terribly aware of what had happened to him.
“Help,” Tryphon gasped. “Help me.”
“By the gods,” Alexios said.
“I’ll do it, I’ll help him,” Drakon said.
Drakon stood over Tryphon, spear pointed down. No way they were going to get Tryphon out of there, all they could do was show him a merciful end. Tryphon accepted it, closing his eyes. Drakon placed the point of the spear against Tryphon’s ruined chest and carefully, mindfully, he pushed it deep into his ribs while making sure to catch his heart.
Alexios peeled the map out of Sophos’ hand. After making sure Tryphon was dead, Drakon went to withdraw his spear. It caught, and he had to rest a foot against the body’s shoulder to brace before he yanked harder. One of the tributes, however, suddenly revealed herself to be not as dead as she’d appeared. Snarling, she lunged forward with a length of sharpened bone.
“Look out!” Alexios yelled.
The tribute rammed the bone into and right through Drakon’s calf muscle. The man bellowed, throwing his head back. Alexios swung around with his sword and hacked through the tribute’s wrist. Her hand fell away. Alexios drove his sword into the middle of the creature’s face, finishing it.
“Damn it!” Drakon yelled.
Drakon ripped his spear free. Taking hold of the sharpened bone, he pulled it free as well. Blood poured down his leg, covering his foot.
“Hold it, hold it,” Alexios said.
Alexios and Drakon bound the wound as best they could. Blood rapidly soaked through the bindings. Drakon limped, hopped really, the prospect of putting the foot down too painful. He used his spear to support himself. Alexios helped as well but between his torch, his sword, and the map, he didn’t have enough hands.
“We have to keep moving,” Alexios said.
The two of them limped back the way they’d come. Alexios gritted his teeth. They had the map but Sophos had been the one who knew how to read it. It wasn’t complicated, but Alexios only vaguely knew where they were even before they’d gone chasing after Sophos and the tributes. When they reached the next intersection, he would have to triangulate them if he could and rediscover the path.
Half-human, half-animal shrieks echoed through the maze. Alexios wondered if the tributes had found their dead and become enraged. Drakon dragged himself behind Alexios, leg useless and leaving drops of blood behind them. Nothing looked familiar. Everything looked exactly as it always had. Alexios couldn’t figure out where they were on the intricate map and the screams got louder and closer.
“Leave me, I can’t make it,” Drakon said.
“No, the both of us, we can make it,” Alexios said.
“No, no, go on.” Holding his spear, Drakon slipped slowly to the ground with his injured leg stretched out in front of him. “You can make it, but not with me.”
“Come on, get up!”
“No, go! Go on!”
Screaming came from closer down the passageways, echoing off the walls. Drakon refused to move so Alexios had no choice but to keep going. He continued into the depths of the labyrinth, clutching the map in one hand and his torch in the other.
Slumped against the wall of the passage, Drakon waited. His spear rested beside him. Rooting in his pack, Drakon removed one of his flasks, uncapped it, and took a long swallow. Beside him, his torch burned lower and lower. Darkness swallowed more and more of the tunnel.
Ghosts moved in the shadows. Eventually, Drakon sensed movement only a few strides away. Raising the flask, he took another long swig but didn’t swallow, and he picked up his dying torch. Something hissed. Drakon raised the torch to his lips and spat across the top of it, spraying the contents of his flask into the flames. A billowing fireball filled the confines of the tunnel. It illuminated the nearest tribute, open mouths and dark eyes of four more tributes lurking in the shadows.
Screaming, the tributes shied away and covered their faces. Drakon grabbed his spear and whirled around with the long, thin weapon. His spearhead punched right through the shrunken stomach of one tribute, slicing and emerging from their back. They staggered, thrashing, and the end of Drakon’s spear snapped off.
In spite of his injury, Drakon got his one good leg under him and threw himself at the tributes. The jagged end of his broken spear flashed. He reached for the dagger on his belt as well. Recovering, the tributes shrieked and threw themselves at Drakon with their sharpened bones. Bellows and shrieks filled the tunnel as Drakon’s torch was dropped, stomped on, and then guttered and went out.
Far along the twists and turns of the labyrinth, Alexios kept moving. Only the crackle of his torch kept him company. He kept stopping and trying to work out where he was on the map among the lines within lines within lines but every time he thought he had it he would soon come to another turn that proved him wrong.
The immensity of the labyrinth weighed on Alexios. With Sophos as a guide, even moving for hours they’d failed to appreciate the plethora of potential choices on any given path. They’d been too focused on the claustrophobic passages. All the sameness had robbed the labyrinth of context. Sophos made it seem straightforward but navigating for himself, Alexios became overwhelmed by the turns, the doorways and side passages, and intersections heading in all directions. Although he hadn’t seen any more sign of the tributes, or been attacked, Alexios kept moving with increasing desperation. Blood dried down the side of his head. Exhaustion buried itself deep in his bones. Alexios’ torch burned low. Reaching for more bindings for fuel, he found his pack empty.
“No, no,” Alexios said. “No, no, no!”
Alexios looked from the torch to the map. If the torch died, he’d be left all alone in the dark. Wandering the labyrinth’s endless passages until he starved, or was killed and eaten, or he became as insane as the tributes. The map was maybe his only key to escape but only if he could find himself on it, and only if he had the light to read it. If it came to it, he’d have no choice but to burn it. For light, for just a little more light before the all-encompassing dark.
Alexios’ breath rasped, and he prayed. The light of his torch shrank lower and lower, and the shadows closed in.
Sean: Minotaur skeleton was such an oddly specific one but I’m happy it inspired this one. Clearly the story was also inspired by the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, what might have happened afterwards. However, you’ll notice I never specified where exactly the labyrinth is, or who the king or champion who killed the minotaur was. Any “inaccuracies” on weapons, names, equipment, how the group operates or the story, be assured that this story takes place in a random fantasy world with a coincidentally very similar minotaur myth and not in Ancient Greece itself. Conveniently, this means I also didn’t have to do any research.
I did have some fun with the names, however. A lot of the time when naming characters I’ll go through lists of baby names, especially for different cultural backgrounds. For this story, I used this site to look for Ancient Greek names. Alexios I picked only because it sounded suitably heroic, but Drakon (Dragon) was named specifically because I had the fire breathing moment of his death in mind, and from there the names ended up informed by, or informing, a lot more about the characters.
Sophos – meaning “skilled, clever”.
Hesiod: From the Greek name Ἡσίοδος (Hesiodos), which probably meant “to throw song”.
Theophylaktos: Means “watched by god” from Greek θεός (theos) meaning “god” and φυλακτέος (phylakteos) meaning “to be watched”. (Given I write pen to paper for first drafts, I was glad when I finally got to knock him off.)
Pyrrhos: meaning “flame-coloured, red”
Tryphon: Derived from Greek τρυφή (tryphe) meaning “softness, delicacy”. (Maybe the meaning wasn’t quite spot on, but he did end up a kind of delicacy.
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Next Week’s Inspiration: Couatl