(Fiction) In the Web of the Maze Master

I was not then entirely sure where I was, but it seemed clear we had reached our destination, for a congress of cats waited. Felines of all breeds and colors—a few with collars, like my tabby, but most without—sat on the walls and ledges, fence posts and trash cans above and around me. It would’ve been unnerving had they been looking at me. But they weren’t. Most had their eyes on the tunnel ahead, as if waiting for something to emerge from shadow.

My tabby sat on the ground several paces in front of me, erect, as if protecting me from whatever was about to make an appearance. Her collar was green, but I couldn’t read the tag. I was studying it from a distance when I noticed the eyes—hundreds, at least, shining in the dark ahead. Not cats. Rats. Only a handful emerged into the light. They raised their little snouts and sniffed and moved their whiskers about. After a short silence, where the congress of cats neither moved nor made a sound, more felines appeared dragging one of their own, a feral male—long-haired, mangy, and hobble-legged, with only one good eye. He was big. In fact, he had the widest girth of any of the cats present, and it took three of them to drag him forward, his hind claws scraping across the pavement. He was a fugitive, it seemed, for he protested in frantic caterwauls. Seeing no escape, and that his pleas were being ignored by his fellows above, he turned from fear to anger and hissed at the crowd, as if hurling terrible insults.

An old rat scuttled from shadow and raised his head and sniffed. By the look of his eyes, he could no longer see, but he discerned from the air—from scents and the motion of the breeze against his long white whiskers—all he needed to know of the world. He seemed to communicate that way as well, by flicking his whiskers this way and that, for he made no noise. I couldn’t say for sure what I was witnessing, but it seemed to me a transgression had occurred, perhaps against some kind of truce or treaty. Perhaps there had been a war. Perhaps both sides had lost many comrades, for while the cats were bigger and stronger, the rats were numerous. In the scene before for me, there were at least ten times as many rats, and I suspected there were a hundred more further in the dark, gathered from across the city.

And then it seemed to me the deal was concluded and the mangy cat was given to the rats, who bit it with their long front teeth—those incisors that continually grow and which they use to chisel through pipes and brick. They gripped him in numbers such that he could barely contract his body. His limbs were stretched, and he seemed terrified. For a moment I thought they might quarter him, but they didn’t. They simply hauled him away. Whatever fate befell him, I do not know, but as he disappeared with one plaintive wail, several of the cats got up and started to walk away slowly, as if heavy with sorrow at what had to be done.

My tabby and I were meant to follow the rats.  It seemed she was to be my companion and to share whatever danger awaited us. I would be lying if I said I didn’t linger there at the edge of that tunnel, for rats are known to be fickle and to serve both sides. It was the rats who delivered the plague to man at the behest of the elder gods. It was the rats who betrayed those gods and ended it when threatened by man. My tabby seemed to understand the predicament. She glanced at me before trotting ahead confidently. She had the most interesting heterochromia. Her right eyes was flecked gold that faded to green at the center, near the iris. Half of her left eye was the same. The other half was deep blue. The boundary line was somewhat fuzzy but exactly coincided with the change in color of her surrounding fur. She kept her head up and eyes straight, resisting the urge to hiss at the rats, who made subtle clicking noises at her as she passed. After a moment, I followed.

Our guides led us under the city and into the most impenetrable labyrinth one could imagine—impenetrable because it was not, like other labyrinths, a contrivance. It was an accident, made entirely of gaps, nooks, crawlspaces, and debris—remainders of centuries of overlapping human construction. In a normal labyrinth, even if one is lost, one at least knows which ways one can go. Walls clearly mark the options: forward, back, right, or left. The holes and shafts through which we were led, however, offered no such visual clue. I had to duck, shimmy, squeeze, and crawl through most of it, and if not for the cluster of rats that both led and followed us, I would’ve had no idea which way it was even possible to go, let alone how to get out.

My tabby waited at every opening, the tip of her tail flicking cautiously. She also saved one of my fingers from being clipped off. I was flat on my stomach trying to squeeze through old mortared brick when I got stuck. After some struggle, when it was clear I couldn’t make it through, the rats came, crawling over each other, and began to gnaw on the mortar with those continuously growing teeth. The overlapping sound of so much scratching was much like nails on a chalkboard, and I closed my eyes as I fought to keep my stomach from emptying and my spine from dancing out of my back, for I could not only hear but feel the vibrations. So it was I didn’t see one of the rats working closer and closer to my index finger, which gripped a brick. I felt a nip and recoiled just as my tabby swatted the creature out of the way with a hiss. The rats stopped then, and for several moments, everyone was still. Stuck in that hole, I had no chance of offering any resistance, and I prepared to push myself backward if necessary, my muscles as taut as the tension in the air. But then it passed. Our guides resumed their feverish gnawing, and within a minute or two, at most, I was able to kick through the gap with nothing but some scratches and a nipped finger that was already scabbing over.

I bent to thank my tabby, which is when I saw her collar. Apparently her name was Purcival.

“Purcy,” I said, and her ears perked up in surprise, as if I’d just performed the most spectacular trick by guessing her name. The two of us barely made it thirty yards before a pallet-wood floor gave way under our feet. It had clearly been stacked in such a way as to hide the hole underneath, through which we tumbled. Which way we fell, I couldn’t say, for my head was spinning and I lost all sense of direction. I remember only confusion followed by the ringing of cowbells and a hard splash. I surfaced and took a deep breath. We had landed in a pool that filled the irregular base of a large, vaguely dome-shaped space, although no two sides of it were the least bit symmetrical. Light fell from a single round shaft at the top, which suggested an exit to the surface—a vent of some kind to equilibrate pressure between the sewer and the atmosphere above—although there was no way to reach it. The opening was at least twenty feet above the surface of the water.

The rest of the room was almost LEGOlike, made of various block protrusions and concrete platforms of different heights. Water dribbled from small open pipes. Larger ones zigzagged up and down between the platforms, changing direction at right angles. I paddled to the lowest platform and pulled myself out of the grimy water. There was a kind of square manhole built in the concrete, but a quick check revealed it was too heavy for me even to budge. Purcy leapt onto the concrete then, dripping wet and snarling in disgust. Her back was arched as if she were trying to hold her limbs away from her nose. I knew how she felt. It wasn’t raw sewage, but it was definitely dirty and smelled vaguely of rotten food. I looked up at the hole in the wall from which we fell. It was dark. The hinged bar that stretched in front of it was attached to a string from which half a dozen cowbells hung—a makeshift alarm. Someone—or something—was alerted to our presence. My little friend shook then and drops flew. I laughed at first, but in turning my head to avoid the spray, I caught sight of the tiny bones that littered the margins of the space. There were dozens, maybe hundreds—far too many to have been the remnants of natural death. They were too pristinely white as well. Picked clean.

I stood and listened.

There was a low arched grate across the water to our left. It was too small for me, but my tabby could squeeze through the bars quite easily. It seemed to me then that the space was a kind of hub, a meeting point of several paths, for there were at least four separate openings converging there—the grate, the manhole, and the two gaps above, one lit and one dark—and I suspected there were yet more more hidden in the shadows and around the corners of the block-filled space. Like the center of a web.

I glanced again to the bells hanging in a string from the ceiling. “We need to get out of here,” I said in a whisper. Purcy seemed to understand me and bounded light-footed and silent from platform to platform, right to the arched grate, where she stopped and turned back to me, as if just realizing there was no way I could fit.

“Go on,” I urged. “Get help.”

But she saw through my ruse and sat near the grate and cleaned herself, as if somewhat perturbed that I had tried to trick her. I scowled.

“There’s no reason for you to be eaten as well,” I chided, but she ignored me. “Suit yourself. But you wouldn’t stay if you knew what lived here.”

We’d been betrayed. That much was certain. The rats, it seemed, were angry at Etude over the affair with the dagger, in which many of their kind had been bewitched and killed. They blamed him, or so I gathered. They’d deposited us in a nest—almost certainly the home of a trillig, sometimes called a maze master, a distant relative of the troll which had adapted much better to urban life than its mountain-dwelling cousin. In their behavior, maze masters were somewhat like beavers, or perhaps hermit crabs, in that they preferred to move into a ready-built “maze,” which included anything even remotely mazelike: dense copses, subway tunnels, abandoned asylums, and so on. There they would gradually make modifications, like a beaver to a dam, that made it easier for the random wayward traveler to get lost inside. In my time with the mizzen, I had been reliably informed that there were at least three maze masters in the Paris catacombs and that they squabbled with each other over territory. In America, I had heard of another that constructed an elaborate roadside attraction somewhere in the middle of the country—Minnesota I think—a maze of arched stucco in whose walls were embedded countless baubles: glass bottles, batteries, plastic toys, dishware, postcards, shoes, walking sticks, eyeglasses, fake beards, rings, toothbrushes, playing cards, old cigar boxes, fishing rods and lures, hammers, saws, vases, dolls, tins, typewriters, and memorabilia from countless other such attractions across the country—miniature replicas of the House of Mud and the World’s Largest Frying Pan. The lone and curious tourist, tempted by a rarely open door at the very center of the maze, would, if they were not careful, disappear without a trace.

This maze master, I was fairly sure, had once guarded a vault for Granny Tuesday. Granny had collected all kinds of such nasties, some for no other reason than to let them loose on the city and so annoy Etude. After her arrest and incarceration, this monster had apparently wandered into the tunnels under the city, where it had been subsisting on a diet of sewer rats, or so the litter of bones suggested. I’m sure that contributed to rats’ choice: this thing was known to them as a voracious killer. It was also somewhat catlike in as much as maze masters liked to play with their food before devouring it. They had a constitutional predilection for puzzles and games, which is how they found their way into human folklore: as riddlekeepers who would offer their victims a chance of escape in exchange for a contest. Of course, maze masters preferred to cheat over losing a meal, but they were not known as outright liars. It ruins the suspense and excitement of a game if you know in advance your opponent has no chance of winning. That meant there was definitely an exit hidden somewhere in that room. I just had to find it.

excerpt from my work in progress, FEAST OF SHADOWS, a five-course occult mystery.

cover image by Lena Perelygina.