Mind Master Chronicles (Book 1): Labyrinth
Twelve-year-old Aronade plays a lot of games, but they aren’t games of her own design. These games have been crafted by a man who goes by the name, “The Instructor.” He creates these mind games called scenarios in order to teach Aronade “lessons” about how the world truly operates. But when Aronade discovers a nearly drowned teenage boy from the outside world at the compound, she soon discovers that the Instructor’s games may not be so harmless after all. In fact, they may be deadly.
I don’t really know what date it is. I think it is November 1st. Anyway, I’m surprised I’m even bothering to write down my thoughts. I’ll end up carrying my notebook with me and holding it close to me, so he doesn’t get his hands on it. If he did get his hands on it, he’d think me such a fool for exposing my innermost thoughts like this. But Nan, my caregiver, mentioned in passing having a diary as a girl, and it got me to thinking. The thing of it is I’m sick of just having thoughts trapped in my head with no one to share them with. (I’m looking around the room now.) I’m always feeling as though I’m being watched. Crazy, right? He said in passing he’d respect my privacy in my room — which is where I am now. But doesn’t that imply he doesn’t elsewhere? I was tempted to ask the Instructor whether these suspicions were true, but I decided against it. First of all, who knows whether he would tell me the truth? Secondly, even if it were true at that one moment that doesn’t mean it would stay true later on. It would be just like him to change that reality to make another example of me. So instead, I’m keeping my eyes and ears open — waiting for him to slip up and reveal that he is aware of more that I do than he should be — to find out when he spies on me and when he doesn’t bother to. But I have to be careful not to tip my hand and let him know that, for once, I’m testing him. Subtly is key.
For instance, I already know he’s watching me somehow during the scenarios — the information he’s been getting isn’t just from the actors either. He knows what I do — how I respond when no one else is with me. Still, even as I congratulate myself for how clever I am to have figured this out, I could kick myself for having this need to express my feelings honestly. If I were smart, I’d just be writing down meaningless things to throw him off. But alas! Fundamentally, I am a person who feels too much and falseness wears on me. So, if I accept myself the way I am, at least I can give myself credit for choosing the least dangerous way to vent my feelings. So long as he doesn’t start noticing I’m using more paper or noticing the new bulk under my clothing where my diary is hidden, I should be fine. As for the danger I mentioned, I’m not implying mortal danger …
That’s my name. Nan is calling me.
Nan acts as though I have been hard to find. She had looked for me in my room earlier, and I hadn’t been here. She is accusatory, as though I have been avoiding her intentionally. I haven’t been. Doesn’t matter. I think the whole conflict is silly. I always end up in my room eventually. Most of the time, I am in my room. I am particularly here a lot in the winter … which for all intents and purposes is happening now. I always seem to wind up catching a cold or something else in the winter. Most of the time, after I recover, I will spend extra time in my room. It is here that I work up my nerve to start it all up again. After all, once a scenario starts it could take awhile to stop. But eventually, the boredom of just staying in this room does wear on me, and I head to that same doorknob again and venture forth.
Unlike my doorknob, most of the other doorknobs in this place open to a different room — a different world seemingly — every time. It is amazing how much things can change in a matter of hours! Just as though in a dream, the entire landscape can be transformed. The architecture of the new spaces juts out in almost perverse angles. And yet, just as the man who designed it, there is a sense of purpose to the display. The edging of the rails smoothly curve together; no knots or holes are visible. Obviously, the Instructor spends quite a bit of time on the construction of the layouts — it is merely the moving of the already-finished pieces that must take such a short time.
But what is the purpose of the scenarios? To entertain me? To distract me? Or, is the enjoyment for him alone? Am I merely to be watched as a rat in a maze would be? Usually, though, I don’t mind these episodes. I like exploring. I also enjoy the distraction.
Speaking of the Instructor, he is why Nan has come. I am to go see the Instructor; he is expecting me.
The Instructor … I wring my hands. Why does he want to see me today? That is always the question I ask myself when he summons me. What does he want now? What is he up to? I can remember the first time I became wary of him. I was very young when I was first introduced to him. I was expecting some sort of parental figure — someone to welcome and reassure me. What I got instead was a distant man who analyzed me with cold detachment. Though I would conclude he wasn’t out to harm me, he also had no interest in showing me any marked kindness either. He hasn’t even told me his real name. Instead, the only other things — besides food and the roof over my head —he gives me are the lessons. He teaches me lessons on how the world works in his view. And when he feels I can’t learn well enough by words alone, he has scenarios set up to demonstrate what he is trying to impart.
It didn’t take me long to come to dread my meetings with him, which oftentimes, but not always, involve some elaborate dinner. These meetings would generally come up out of nowhere — their timing sporadic. It certainly made it impossible to anticipate them or completely let my guard down either. But then again, the value of not letting one’s guard down was one of his lessons.
I head toward the room where I usually meet with the Instructor. I wonder what the lesson he has for me could be this time. I am considering this when I become aware that I have eyes upon me. He is sitting in the same high-back chair he had been in the last time I saw him. When I look at him, he is eyeing me with curiosity.
“Won’t you have a seat, Aronade?” he offers.
As I pull back the chair that he is motioning to and prepare to sit, I feel the need to say something.
“I’m sorry to keep you waiting.” I tell him.
Part of me wants to break the awkwardness of the moment.
“How could you know I would summon you today?” he returns with a dismissive wave of his hand.
I sit down.
“That is true.” I admit.
“Anyway, this will be a short meeting …”
“I’m going to be traveling for a while. I thought this would be a good time for you to continue with your studies. You will be permitted access to the library. If you find the time, you might explore as usual. But remember, you aren’t allowed to leave the grounds.”
The Instructor takes out a pocket watch and checks it.
“Given that I did not expect it to take so long to find you, I am afraid I will not have the time to eat with you today.”
He leaves without further word.
This isn’t the first time he has disappeared. I had never had any warning before, though. I just grew accustomed to his unpredictable schedule. Sometimes I’d see him many days in a row; other times months could pass without word. I learned rather quickly to avoid asking Nan what was going on. The one time I did, she glared at me with ferocity. When I didn’t catch on right away, she cleared her throat and turned from me.
“So, why tell me now?” I wonder when I am assuredly alone.
It isn’t as though I would have known that he wasn’t around somewhere on the vast estate. In fact, I would have assumed he was still here. Is he going to be gone a particularly long time? Or, does he just want me to believe he is gone? There is no way to know with him. And yet, I am determined not to let my guard down and risk another lecture. This is particularly true now that I have something to hide (my diary). The only question is should I go to the kitchen to retrieve my lunch — which is probably what is expected of me — or head off to my room for some much-needed time to myself?
I decide it is best to do what is expected of me. I head toward the kitchen. Not surprisingly, Nan is waiting for me. Of course, the Instructor hadn’t told me to go to the kitchen, but years of experience here told me that I wasn’t welcome to loiter in the Instructor’s spaces after he left. In fact, it was Nan who taught me that. I had lingered once, and she had come to fetch me with her, by then, usual display of displeasure. She doesn’t hurt me, but she does scare me a little. Maybe if I had enough reason to, I’d be willing to stand up to her. But it isn’t the time; it is still time to lie low.
“You are to eat. I will then take you to the library as the Instructor charged you.”
Nan likes to pretend she is in with the Instructor, but many times I can tell she knows less than I do.
“All right.” I agree.
I can always sneak out from there later. The sooner I can get away from Nan, the better.
“You’re awfully compliant.” she suddenly accuses.
I look up at her. I remember then that I can’t afford to underestimate this woman.
“Maybe you are finally ashamed of how you behaved this morning?” she chides.
“How was that?” I mutter.
Nan stops peeling the potatoes and glares at me.
“The Instructor pointed out that there was no way that I could have known I had been sent for. I’m allowed to wander around.” I remind her.
That shuts her up. Nan continues to peel; her face twists into a sneer. Eventually, she slides a bowl of soup in front of me. She doesn’t bother to look at me again.
“Eat up. Then, I’ll take you to the library.”
“I’m done.” I later proclaim.
There is no noticeable reaction.
“I can find my way to the library on my own.” I tell her.
It has been weeks since I last saw the Instructor. Only the work he has left me to do remains as a reminder of him. I am sitting on the edge of my bed when the fan in the vent stops running. At first it makes a sort of raw grinding noise. Then, it starts to slow to a halt. I listen as it completely goes dead. Then, I roll my eyes and sigh.
“Again?!” I cry out to myself in dramatic fashion. I lie back down and sprawl across the bed. But as the moments tick by, the silence gets to me. I sit up and look at the annoying fan squarely. It is unfinished business that I will have to get to eventually. How can I avoid it? I’ve never been able to avoid it before.
I decide to go to the vent for a closer look. I notice that the vent looks as though it hasn’t been cleaned in a while. That is both strange and to be expected. It is expected because I have lived in this room for a while, and I’ve never seen the vent cleaned. Yet, it is odd all the same because most scenarios are made from new constructions. I have never had to crawl through dust before. I straighten up and stretch. How long can I reasonably expect to avoid going in? Can I just pretend I hadn’t noticed? Will this be the moment I will choose to defy my benefactor?
I groan. Not today, I decide. I bend down and examine the vent. When I find that the grate to the vent had just been placed on rather than secured, it pretty much confirms to me that this is, in fact, a scenario I am meant to perform. I lay the grate to the side of the vent, stoop down once more, and crawl in.
“Of course, this was meant to be a scenario!” I think. “Why else have such a large vent?”
Still, it is a bit of a tight squeeze … but nothing I can’t handle. Good thing he didn’t wait until I was any older to try out this scenario! And yet, I am somewhat put off when I see the fan blades soon after. Even though they are barely lit by the light from my room, I can tell the space between the blades is narrow. Still, no scenario has failed to be perfectly planned thus far; surely this one isn’t going to be the exception. He must have accounted for my size and realized I could do it.
As I start to contort myself in every direction I can think of to maneuver my way into the convoluted opening, I do have a doubt cross my mind. And yet, as I begin to find more and more of my body on the other side of the barrier, my doubts begin to recede.
“I can do this.” I tell myself. “It is annoying, but I can do this.”
Then, finally, I manage to pull all but my left leg through. I take a moment to take a breath. I can’t tell you how relieved I am. True, I could possibly have to go back through the other way … but I have done it! And surely if I did it once, I can do it again. Then, I hear it: a start of something — an electric hum replacing the pervasive silence — the sound of the old rusty blades grudgingly replacing their newfound rest with movement! My eyes widen in horror as I swiftly wrench my foot from their grasp.
“What?!” I cough as a wave of scattering dust engulfs me.
“Why?! Why would he do this?!” I stammer.
I stare at my foot; then, I move it around in a circle. My mind imagines what it would have been like if it had suddenly been gone. I can’t wrap my mind around that. The Instructor is always playing mind games, but I have never been injured, nor have I come this close to being injured before. I bite my lip. Perhaps, it had just been for show. Or, maybe a mistake had been made, and he had thought my foot had been safely on the other side of the blade.
A moment later, I make the mistake of breathing in without having anything over my mouth to protect my lungs from the dust. I begin to cough violently. I suddenly feel as though I am drowning in sand. I hesitate to leave for a moment wondering whether the fan will be stopped again to allow me to go back through to the other side. But I can only linger there a moment. I can’t stand being where I am any longer. Covering my mouth with my arm as best I can, I begin to crawl away from my room and farther into the darkness. A little way forward it occurs to me that I have no idea where I am going, nor what may befall me as I go. So, I have to feel ahead of me — not only the sides of the shaft but also the floor in case there is a sudden drop-off. If the Instructor is trying to teach me not to take my safety for granted, it certainly has worked. Apparently, taking my safety for granted could cost me my life.
I do start to feel an increase in my anxiety level as the complete darkness overtakes me. Where is this tunnel going? What is the point of all this? I start feeling the sides of the shaft for some sort of exit. There has to be an exit — there just has to be! Only all of the grates I come across seem fixed into place. I consider just waiting for someone to come and rescue me, but the noxiousness of the dust drives me forward. I can’t stay here. Certainly, no one would expect me to stay there. I continue to creep along, not feeling that my footing can be relied upon, when at last I come upon something different. I finally feel a metal grate begin to give. It only gives a little, but, now that I have grasped hold of this sliver of hope, I’m not about to let it go without a fight. I manage to turn myself around and begin kicking the grate I’ve found with all the intensity I can muster. Fortunately, the foot I had managed to rescue from the whirling blades begins to make progress. And eventually, the grate gives enough that it creates a space — a space large enough for my form to eke through.
As I stumble out of the filthy tunnel, I am greeted by a very long and very dark corridor — straight one way and then down the other it runs. Old, curved stones crawl up the sides and sporadic candles line the carved recesses. There appears to be doors, too, made of old warped wood — wood warped, no doubt, by the drips of water that are slipping from the ceiling. It is this water, more than likely, that weakened the grate I was able to kick open. My first thought upon taking in the scene is how strange it all is — even for a scenario. Clearly this is an older part of the compound; the rust, the cobwebs seem real.
The dust still fills my lungs. I give a light cough; the sound echoes. Yet, I can still hear the fan buzzing away in the distance. And there is another noise beyond the dripping water. It sounds like the hum of a generator. Yes, it is definitely the sound of electricity.
Suddenly, an anger brews inside of me. Perhaps the place where the generator is located is where the switch to the fan is located. Perhaps whoever almost maimed me is also there. I am suddenly taken with the desire to confront that person. Usually, the scenarios seem like a game, but this time it has become serious. This person has to be told that he or she messed up. I plan on telling the Instructor the same thing — assuming I don’t lose my nerve in the meantime. But for now, my nerve is still with me, and I am determined to use it.
I stalk forward, listening for the noise. I am trying to tell whether it is getting louder or softer and, therefore, whether I am getting closer or farther away from its source. Then, at one of the old doors, I can hear it distinctly — on the other side. I pull at the knob. The door is locked. I instantly become determined that that wouldn’t stop me. I quickly notice that the hinges of the door are on my side for some reason. I looked around me. I may be able to use the candlesticks to dislodge those hinges. I blow out a flame on one of the candles then retrieve the candlestick. The ornate, curved embellishments on the candlestick may prove useful in forcing the rods of the hinges upward. Seized with adrenaline, I set to work. It does occur to me that I must look a little more than half-mad trying to break into that room with a candlestick. And maybe I am. For all I know, the room’s occupant is a big, scary-looking man. But at this point, I don’t care. All I can think about is the dust in my lungs, and the fact that I could have lost my foot … or even my life.
Despite the adrenaline I am filled with, it ends up taking a long time to dismantle the hinges. Certainly, if there is a backdoor to the room I am trying to enter, whoever had been inside would have had plenty of time to be long gone by now. Or, worse yet, that person is waiting for me.
I am out of breath by the time I conquer the door. Still, I have some satisfaction over having overcome the door at all. It is hard to imagine the Instructor would have anticipated my choosing to react to the problem in this way. Though, in a way, it confirms what Nan has been saying about me for months. Only what Nan had meant as an insult, I now see as a triumph. I am defiant. I can’t be controlled … not completely anyway.
I pry open the door. I am surprised to find the room dark and the air inside stale. There is a computer along one wall. A line of static moves slowly upward across the screen. A program seems to be running on it. Still, there isn’t any evidence that anyone had been here in the last hour; it seems to be running on its own. Sometimes you can just feel when a room has been empty for a while. My shoulders slacken as my tension eases. I realize I am relieved that no one is here. So much for my bravado!
But then, seconds later, confusion strikes me.
“What is the point to all of this?” I wonder again.
The fact that no one is around — that no one is there to answer me — leaves me dumbfounded. I look around the room, scanning for some sort of clue as to what I should do next. I spy the noisy generator in the corner of the room. At the moment, it is humming softly, though with the occasional loud hiccup. Next to the generator is an old metal door with large studs lining it and a small circular window on top. There is something about that window that draws me to it. There appears to be condensation on it — as though the temperature on the other side of the door differs from that of the room I am standing in.
With singular purpose, I head for the door. When I arrive, I proceed to wipe the pane with my hand. A light film of water comes up underneath my fingers. I wipe my hand on my shirt. With dismay, I realize that the window is fogging up again. That’s when I noticed there is a small light shining on the other side of the door. The light is casting shadows around a space about the size of a walk-in closet.
I probably should be hesitant to proceed, but my next action is, nevertheless, to pull at the door handle and to open the door. Surprisingly, it isn’t locked. Within the room, the tiny light bulb is flickering. The only other object I can see appears to be a large chest — the size of a man. Is it … a coffin?
I shrink back.
“What — what is this?” I stammer.
I bite my lip. Should I leave here? Suddenly, I hear a faint beeping noise coming from the coffin. I spot a red flashing light coming from the side of the wood. Drawing closer, I realize it is a digital clock, and it is ticking down. There are only twenty seconds left on the clock. What is going to happen when the time runs out? Is it a bomb?
I seem incapable of moving. Is there even time to run now? Seconds after the time expires, a different noise is emitted. It is a high-pitched squeal. Then, there is the sound of water rushing through a pipe, which I hadn’t noticed before. It is attached to the coffin. Moments later, I am shocked when I hear a pounding noise coming from the container. In a state of shock, I head toward the coffin. It takes a moment for it to sink in that someone is trapped inside of the coffin! My next thought is that the coffin is filling with water!
Cover image made with photos bought from Depositphotos. The authors of the photos are KinoMasterDnepr and OndrejSchaumann.