Chapter 9: Nick

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"You can't keep running," Joshua said exasperatedly to me.

"I think I can," I responded, "Where am I this time?"

"My office," Joshua said, "Your friend is asleep over there." He pointed to an armchair, in which Matthias was fast asleep. I raised my eyebrows slightly and turned back to Joshua.

"Hmm, his torture is being stuck in an office?" I asked.

"His prison is being stuck in a situation he has no control over. He cannot do anything the influence his escape from the Labyrinth, it's up to the rest of you," Joshua explained.

"What about the other two?"

"Natasha is stuck, for what could be eternity, in a never-ending party. And it is filled with people who have played major roles in her life, including a photocopy of the Trapper-Spider here," again he gestured to Matthias.

"The what?"

"Nothing. As for Smith'n'jones, he is going through every parent's worst nightmare. The loss of his child."

"Yeah, what is the deal with that?" I cut it, "Jones doesn't have a kid." Joshua smiled, or at least gave the aura of smiling, as his face was shadowed.

"He never told you?" he asked, leaning back in his chair.

"Don't tell me he has a kid. That's not even possible."

"Smith us married."

"... No he's not," I said, completely rejecting the concept.

"Believe it or not, he is. His wife's name is Sarah, his daughter is Michelle. He left them when his band fell apart, he ran away. Hid in America. But after a few weeks, he started writing her again, and he's been sending all the money he can to keep them afloat. But she has yet to respond or even acknowledge any of it, she is understandably furious." I sat in silence and let this all sink in.

"Where do you come in?" I asked after a period of reflection.

"Pardon?"

"What is your connection to everything?"

"I have none. I'm a rogue element. Though I have been a long-time pest of the Rousseau family. They're the ones who put me here?"

"Put you here?"

"I happen to be just as trapped as you four are. The Rousseau family didn't like having me around, too powerful and unpredictable, I suppose. That was all a long, long time ago. It's irrelevant now," he casually dismissed the topic with a wave of his hand.

"Out of curiosity, what exactly is the personal hell you concocted for me?" I asked surreptitiously.

"Yours was a troublesome one," Joshua said slyly, with the air of someone who was proud of you work, "But once I found the solution, it was so deceptively simple... Your greatest fear is responsibility, Nick. It's why you lost your job. It's why you allowed yourself to be whisked away by a man you barely know on a cross-country trip. It's why you abandon your mother when she got sick. So what is your personal hell? Responsibility. You, Nick, are the only one that can escape this Labyrinth, and rescue all your friends."

"And how precisely am I supposed to do that?" I asked with more than a hint of annoyance in my voice.

"Are you aware of the distinction between a maze and a labyrinth, Nick? I don't believe you are. You see, a maze is a puzzle. It's filled with twists and turns, and winding paths, and misleads, and dead ends," he illustrated his point by making a variety of winding gestures with his hand. "A labyrinth on the other hand," he said, "Is a straight shot from beginning to end. No tricks, no false turns. All you have to do is walk and eventually you'll make it out."

"I'm guessing it is significant that you named this place the Labyrinth then," I said sarcastically. Joshua affected a smile again.

"Just keep going, Nick, you'll make it out."

"That little piece of advice there is so many levels of unhelpful I cannot even begin to emote how frustratingly useless it is," I glowered.

"Actually, I believe in a few minutes you'll find that it is going to be very helpful, Nick."

"Is that so?"

"Indeed it is. Now if I were you, I'd just sit back and enjoy the ride." And a change came over the room as he spoke those words. The edges of my vision squirmed and blurred, moving in serpentine waves. A vague chatter, just beyond the realm of audibility buzzed through the office, and shadows seemed to accentuate themselves. Joshua, and the rest of the room for that matter, stood motionless, like a frozen frame of a movie. The chatter became louder and clearer, eventually morphing into words as the vision of Joshua's office faded increasingly further away. And then, like a curtain, the illusion was pulled away. I found myself in a dark room, the walls and floors constructed from concrete. I was bound to a steel chair in the middle of the room, an intense, industrial light hanging above me. Just beyond the cone of illumination stood a man, sweating from the heat of the light, in a dark suit with a dark red tie, and tousled, black hair.

"Do you know how much trouble you're being?" the man yelled at me.

"Easy Midas," came a soft, familiar, and almost mocking voice from the shade. Its owner was cloaked in the darkness, invisible.

"No, no, I've had it with him? Can't we just get another candidate? It's been months with this one and we haven't even made a dent..."

"It has to be him," the voice replied calmly.

"But why?"

"It has to be him, Midas. Trust me."

And the scene froze. Like a stopped reel. The cuffs binding me to the chair fell off. I stood up, unsure of every inch I moved, and moved towards the still man. An expression of pure exasperation was etched in his face.

"You don't remember any of this, do you?" asked Joshua. I spun around to see him standing behind the steel chair, his hands resting on the back.

"What do you mean?"

"No, no I suppose you wouldn't," he muttered, ignoring me. "I was hoping it would jog a memory. Oh well..." he turned to go, "Ah! One last thing. Nicholas... I truly am sorry about this next bit."

"See that orange Avanti out on the street?" Matthias asked. I was in his apartment again, so was Jones and Natasha. We were sitting exactly as we were the first day we met. In fact, it was all identical. Natasha's leather jacket, Smith idly stirring tea as he lounged across Matthias' couch. "We're driving it from here to Chicago for him." Silence again, just like the first time.

"We've done this before," I said suddenly, the other three, slowly, eerily turned to look at me in unison. Chills like none I have experienced before rolled down my spine and across my arms.

"You're right," Matthias said quietly, "We have... my mistake..." The lights in the room flickered violently for a moment, then went totally dark. Slowly, they illuminated the room again, working their way from a dim glow to an intense blaze. There was a horror-inducing soft thumping coming from every inch of the room. And the lights began to reveal the room again, I saw the revolting sight of the three other members of Oktober convulsing violently on the floor, I leaped to my feet. After a few seconds, they stopped abruptly and lay still. The lights flickered out again.

"So, Smith, where are you two coming from?" the hitchhiker asked. I was in Katie, whipping down the highway.

"We didn't introduce ourselves. You're a fake," I said, instantaneously remembering the scene as I found myself living it again.

"That was out of order," the hitchhiker muttered in a monotone that was radically different from the voice he had been using mere seconds ago.

"No it wasn't I said," I turned to look at him. His eyes had glassed over, so had Smith's, and the two had become like statues.

"Yes it was. It took you a while to realize I was a fake the first time," the Hitchhiker said, again in an eerie monotone. "We talk about Vegas, about your stay there, then you realize you never gave your names. And then I warn you. And then the truck blows up the gas station."

"Hold on, I don't remember a gas station being blown up..." I said, confusion being thrown into the stew of my uneasy emotions.

"No, but Jones does," the hitchhiker said.

"Do you remember a collision?" Smith asked suddenly. I turned to him, then turned to the road to see Jones had drifted into the left lane. And there was a Cadillac seconds from colliding with us. The horn blared, and I felt the slightest jerk forward as the two vehicles met, and then nothing. Absolutely nothing, not even thought, not even consciousness. It lasted for what seemed like ages, then...

"Sorry," came Joshua's voice, "One last thing before we all move on..." His voice was soft and fleeting, like the edge of sleep. "There is one more thing you need to see..."




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