Content Warning: Child Abuse and Violence
The sensation when I touched the mask was not unlike having a trapdoor open unexpectedly under me. I was falling, disorientated and tumbling, then I landed on my feet with a jolt.
A hallway stretched out beyond my line of sight, and overhead lights flickered randomly. As I stood, the floor somehow twisted, not unlike the floors in those fun-houses mortals seemed to love so much. It caused me to stumble, and I put my hand out to catch myself on the wall.
How could this happen? How can this place twist like a ribbon?
Then I remembered, I was not in a building. I was in Eleni’s mind, among her thoughts. Hekate’s frank warning to me reverberated, Don’t be too long…don’t fuck up either.
I peered down the hall which stopped twisting for the moment and whispered, “Fuck up? I don’t even know what I’m doing.”
I felt Hekate’s voice resonate in my body. Trust yourself.
Ahead of me, I could hear whispering, talking, and eerie laughter drifting through the darkness. Memories and recollections from Eleni’s past wafted by as if taunting me. I was an unwelcome stranger in a dark and foreboding place but resolved to save her. I started forward, and on my left, I came to an open door. It was dark inside, but the moment I stepped through the doorway, light flooded my eyes. It wasn’t the creepy, flickering fluorescent lighting from the hallway. No, this was sunlight, bright, and warming. My eyes adjusted, and I realized I was in front of a house. For as far as I could see, there were flat plains dotted with clusters of trees, and all around us cattle grazed peacefully in fenced pastures. The sun felt good. It was difficult to describe, but I liked it, all of it made me feel warm and secure.
“Who are you?” challenged a voice from behind me.
I turned and saw a small girl standing there, perhaps eleven or twelve years old. She was wearing jeans and a t-shirt with some motto or cute saying that didn’t really matter, so I didn’t pay attention. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and her eyes sparkled at me with innocence and playful exuberance.
I hesitated for a moment, then answered, “I am looking for Eleni? Have you seen her?”
She pondered my question, then answered with one of her own. “Little Eleni? Or Big Eleni?”
Little or Big? Eleni’s not much over five feet tall, fully grown. I took a chance.
“Big Eleni, I am looking for Big Eleni.”
The little girl giggled, glanced out at the pasture, then said, “I haven’t seen her in a long time. She went away when the new bull arrived—the mean one. She hasn’t been back since.” The girl pushed a straggling hair back out of her face. On her forearm was an ugly, blue-black bruise that looked painful.
“Where did you get that bruise?” I asked her.
The girl pulled her arm down immediately and tugged on her short sleeve self-consciously.
“It’s, it’s nothing,” she stammered. “I fell off the fence in the back pasture.” Before I could respond she brightened, then redirected quickly, “We should play hide and seek! You’re it!” With that, she darted away behind me. When I turned, she had disappeared without a trace.
I took a step and was immediately back in the disorienting hallway with alternating darkness and flickering lights. In the distance ahead of me, the little girl gave a pouty reprimand.
“No fair! You have to cover your eyes and count to thirty first. You have to give me time to hide!”
I called into the darkness as I stepped tentatively, “I don’t want to chase you. I need to find Eleni, Big Eleni. Can’t you help me?”
Her voice chimed back from the darkness ahead, “You’re still cheating! You have to count first!”
“I don’t want to count,” I persisted, “I need to find Big Eleni.”
“If you won’t count,” she warned, “then you aren’t following the rules. Don’t you know what happens when you don’t follow the rules?”
I stopped. There was another open doorway on my right, and I could see a light inside. As soon as I stepped inside, I was standing in a classroom full of children. The little girl I had been speaking to was standing at the front of the room. Her back was to me, and her face pressed against the chalkboard. She held her arms extended, and on the upturned palms, each held a textbook. It was reminiscent of a Roman crucifixion, and I watched her twist and struggle to hold them aloft. She was counting aloud for a female teacher who hovered, almost gleefully, next to her.
“…Twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty,” the little girl dutifully recited point-blank into the chalkboard.
“Alright,” said the teacher, “step back, please.”
The little girl stepped back and previously unseen by me, her nose firmly centered in a small chalk circle drawn on the board. The teacher leaned in and peered over her spectacles at the circle. She then looked back at the little girl, still laboring to hold the books out to her sides, and clucked her tongue disapprovingly.
“Not good enough,” the shrewish woman admonished. “You know the rules. You cannot move and smudge the chalk circle.” She drew another small circle, next to the original, then added, “Now do it again. Count to thirty.”
I could hear the other children seated behind me shift in their chairs and snicker softly as the little girl swallowed hard. Her eyes glistened, but she didn’t cry. I had the feeling she was beyond tears, even at this young age. She put her nose back in the new circle as I stepped forward and called to the teacher.
“Stop this! What is wrong with you? This is no way to treat a child!” The teacher seemed to notice me for the first time and turned, startled by my outburst.
“Sit down, young man, or you’re next,” she scolded. “Sit down at once, or you can be sure this will go on your permanent record.”
The voice became distorted, low, and warbling. When her mouth opened to say something else, the room spun as the hallway did earlier. I stumbled and fell against a wall in total blackness. I was back out in the funhouse hallway with the undulating floor and maddening lights. Once again, the same juvenile giggle creased the silence ahead of me.
“My hero!” beamed the disembodied voice, “Next time it won’t be so easy, but now you know the rules. Be still, be quiet, and face forward. Or you always have to count to thirty.”
“Please,” I pleaded into the darkness, “I need to find Eleni quickly.”
As if on cue, I felt Hekate speak to me through our tether. It was a weird sensation, almost as if I felt the words rather than heard them.
Not to be a bitch here, Din, but I can’t hold this thing forever.
As the sensation faded, the feel of the tether changed, I felt a tension that wasn’t present before.
Looking down, I could see Hekate’s golden thread had frayed. It held, for now, but for how much longer, I couldn’t be sure. Worse, I could feel her straining through the link. I never felt that before when we were kids and did this for fun. It couldn’t be a good sign.
I called, “What do you mean that ‘next time won’t be so easy’?”
There was no response, so I moved farther down the hallway. I was more direct now, less tentative. My essence was vulnerable here, but I didn’t care anymore with Hekate locked in a cage with that monster. If she lost control of that thing, it was over. I don’t know about magic, but I do know something about rope. If the tether broke, aside from stranding me in Eleni’s mind, Hekate would feel the backlash of her power snapping. Her magic was just newly returned after her bout with Ostasus, and this was pushing its limits. The Minotaur would rip her to shreds while Calli and Ao whined over my body and watched helplessly from outside the bars.
“What do you mean?” I shouted again. There was no answer, but once more lights flashed in front of me. This time we were back at the house, only inside. A large man, muscular with a receding hairline, stood over the little girl. She was cowering, and if I thought she was past tears, I was wrong. They flowed freely, and her petite body shook and convulsed with each sob. There was also a boy there, older than the girl, but still not a man. He and the muscular man were arguing, but it was unintelligible to me. I could only hear the girl’s racking sobs. The man pushed the teenage boy away, turned to the girl, and raised the leather strap in his hand. I hadn’t seen him strike her, but her body was a testament to what had already transpired. I lunged forward and grabbed his arm before he could swing, and as before with the teacher in the classroom, he seemed to notice me for the first time only when I intervened. He snarled and swung at me with his off-hand. It was a predictable move, and I stepped inside the blow, using his momentum to hip check, then sling him around my body to the floor. The classroom scene was bad, but now a virulent rage welled up inside me. With a twist of my wrist, I wrenched the strap out of his hand and began beating him senseless with it. A crimson veil fell across my eyes as I used his tool against him. I know not how long I flogged him, but I snapped out of it with the little girl’s soft whisper in my ear.
“That’s it,” she giggled with child-like innocence, “cut the hide off that old motherfucker.”
The combination of the voice and message was startling, and it brought me to my senses at once, lifting the veil instantly. I was again in the dark hallway, alone, bent over with my hands on my knees, panting heavily.
“Okay,” I gasped aloud, “that was harder. Now, tell me where Big Eleni is.” I staggered forward, and the hallway twisted again. The walls fell away, and there were multiple passages in multiple directions. I realized I was now in the true labyrinth. Not sewers and drain pipes, but Eleni’s twisted internal tangle, the maze she created, that we all create. It housed all the thoughts, the memories, the recollections of a lifetime. We proudly showcase and display the fond ones, but not so much the dark. We haul those down into our personal catacombs and lock each one into their individual tomb. Then we hide the keys. Occasionally we go back and pay homage to them, but only ever on our own terms, when we are ready, and often when we are alone. Labyrinths, we all have them, but we never expect them to turn on us. The black magic of the mask wasn’t just a possession by the Minotaur. It was an abduction of Eleni’s will to fight. It was every haunting memory she possessed being released at once, and she was reliving them over and over simultaneously. She was in here. I just had to find her.
I passed another open door. This time the light shined down like a spotlight. The boy from before was hugging the little girl as she cried. He was her older brother. I recognized him now from pictures Eleni kept in her office. That meant the girl was Little Eleni. I watched them. No words passed between them, and the scene faded instantly.
“Do you give up?” Little Eleni called, startling me. “If you give up, then say it.” She began chanting, “Ollie, Ollie, Oxen Freeeeee!”
I could barely focus on the child before another voice echoed inside me.
Goddamn it, Dinlas — HURRY. Don’t make…failing you be…the last thing I do.
Hekate was losing it. I had to get Eleni and get out of here fast.
“Where are you?” I yelled in frustration. I was standing at a junction of passages and had no idea where to turn. An older voice called out this time. Not a child, a woman. It was Eleni.
“Dinlas? I’m here, please…please help me.”
I darted down the passage her voice came from but encountered an immediate dead-end. Forced to backtrack, I took the next passage that seemed to loop toward the sound of her voice. As I ran, I kept calling out.
“Talk to me, Eleni! Where are you? Say something!”
“Here,” she called, immediately followed by, “get off me, get off me, you fucker. Leave me alone.”
I followed the sounds of her voice. Turn left, go straight, turn right, several more twists, then I arrived.
The room lit up, and I was in another memory. It was a bedroom, and Eleni struggled on the bed, like a rag doll, screaming, yelling, and fighting. Standing over her was a man much larger than she. He was muscular and hairy, much of it the same blue-black tint as the Minotaur. He had pinned her arms down and was holding her in place. I stepped forward and grabbed him by the shoulder. I meant to spin him around and pull him off her, but my movements felt heavy and leaden. He turned, saw me, and effortlessly shoved me to the floor.
How is he that much stronger than me?
The man let go of Eleni and turned to glower over at me as I shrank back on the floor.
Why did I feel so weak? Where did my strength go?
He grabbed my shirt with one hand and punched me in the face with the other. As my head lolled around, I saw the problem. The tether, my lifeline to Hekate, was almost completely frayed. Her power was failing, which meant so was mine. I knew if it snapped, I would be trapped here. As helpless as Eleni to fight off these unhinged specters of her past. Another punch hit me in the face, and then he began really pummeling me. In my haze, I reached down and fumbled at my belt for my pistol. But there was no pistol. This was in her mind, and I had nothing to defend myself.
“Eleni,” I gasped as the monstrous brute took a momentary pause from caressing my face with his fist. “Your revolver…I can’t fight him…you have to do it…I need you.”
As happens only in a dream, the empty nightstand next to her bed suddenly had her revolver resting atop it. It was the same Ruger she had used to save me months ago, and now she needed to save us both with it. She hesitantly reached out, picked it up, then pointed it at him. He laughed at her with shaking hands and a tear-stained face.
“What are you going to do? You can’t get rid of me this easy. I will be right here, with you forever,” he snarled as he dropped me with a thud and advanced toward her.
A pistol report is loud, and it’s even louder in a closed room. But here, in the close recesses of Eleni’s mind, it was a deafening roar that circled the room, cracked the walls, then finally shattered the entire labyrinthian prison surrounding us in a million shards of glass. She did it. There was no way I would ever be her savior. Here, in the warren of her memories, Eleni had to fight and win her own battle. No one else could do it for her. The most I did was plant the seed that she was strong enough to overcome.
I’m standing in a field. It’s the pasture next to the house. Sitting on top of the fence is Little Eleni. The ponytail secured, several unruly wisps still blow across her face, and her arms and legs bereft of any marks or blemishes. Those things all still happened. Those memories are still there, they just aren’t rampaging in control now. They are locked safely away again, only brought out and examined when needed.
She inhaled a deep breath, then let it flap out between her lips. “Thank you for playing hide and seek with me—I suppose you have to go now,” she commented after she pushed all the air out.
I nodded and replied, “You did not make it easy on me, Eleni.”
She looked somberly at me., “It wasn’t easy on any of us. And truthfully, I didn’t make it anything. That’s how it was, so it’s how it had to be.”
“I know,” I replied, then hesitated. Consoling others, especially children, really wasn’t my strong suit. Still, I needed to try. “Eleni, those things aren’t all your fault. If you ever want to compare childhood notes, just let me know. I understand, and I’m here for you.”
She chuckled and bobbed her head, still appearing a child, but suddenly wise beyond those years. “I will, Din. When I am ready, you will be the first to know.”
“Okay, well, I have to go now,” I said as she continued to smile at me. I could feel the tether around me tightening, Hekate was pulling me out. Eleni squinted into the sun, then looked back at me and wiped those persistently stray hairs out of her face again.
“I knew you’d come,” she whispered as I felt myself spirited away. “I knew you’d find me, save me.”
It’s been several weeks since we rescued Eleni, from when I woke up on the floor of the sewer. Calli and Ao were busy licking my face while Hekate fussed over Eleni, who was lying on the floor inside the iron cage. The Minotaur was gone. Only a grimy leather mask laying on the cold, wet stone marked the fact that the monster ever existed. I don’t remember the trip, but we made it back to the God Complex and then spent several days recuperating. Eleni has shown no interest in speaking of what happened, of what she knows I saw and experienced with her. I have no interest in bringing it up until she is ready. Maybe we will never speak of it, but somehow I think Little Eleni will win out. She desperately wants to talk, and when she’s ready, she knows I’m here.