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The posters showed up a week ago. Of course, everybody kept track of the exact date every year, and even if you somehow didn’t, the signs that the Sending was coming up were always hard to miss: it was the worst time of the year for any family who had children in their danger years, but it was also the best time to get a good price for trades. A week before the posters, the worried parents started crowding the market stalls, looking to secure anything that might maximize the chances that their seven and fourteen year olds would come out of the maze alive. A few select shops began opening past curfew, the ones that catered to the kinds of customers who could afford to be outside past sunset.
My family never went to the market. Unless a letter came, informing us with the cold, matter-of-fact voice of the Agency that Father had gotten stuck in another of the machines he maintained and we were expected to pay the bills, for us, it simply wasn’t worth the risk. During the day, people would stay well away from us out of fear of an Inquiry: making deals with a family on the List of Potential Troublemakers was bound to attract unwanted attention.
That didn’t mean we never traded anything, though, because I still went to school, and the families who weren’t willing to trade with Mother at the market would sometimes sneak a spare shield or a healing potion in their children’s bags if they thought it might get them cheaper trades for quality candles or magic flames.
The kind of magic that my family did was harder than most people would have thought, you see, and although it’s very easy to find a Caster or Crafter who deals with fire, it’s hard to find both in the same place, and even rarer to encounter a Firecrafter who is able to reliably supply quality flames for a price the public considers reasonable, and even today, that’s still the case. Most customers think that it’s a simple matter, but those are the ones who have never stayed up late running their fireproofed fingers through a heap of melted wax, softly coaxing a summoned flame into the material, only to have it burn up because they hadn’t measured properly and having to restart. Ironically, my low effort but flashy fire spells, such as the summonable fireball one that took five minutes to write neatly on a piece of paper, always sold better than the harder ones, like the floating wispy light that follows you around, and besides, why would you even want a fireball if you could have the power to stay up late reading for as long as you want?
It was going to be my second time in the maze, though, so it’s not like I was totally unprepared for what awaited me there. In addition to all my preparations, I’d been tidying up my collection of advanced spells, the ones that are both flashy and hard: the fire whip, the wall of flames, the shield, magic batteries, and my favorite, the fire breathing one. I was expecting to get a decent amount of trades for those, since I hadn’t put them in circulation before, so the ones who bought them would be the only ones other than me who knew them.
It didn’t matter much who would have my spells, and if they wanted to make their own trades based off my work, they could do it: I wouldn’t be around to watch it happen anyways. I didn’t intend to ever come out of the maze.
They already had an Agent waiting for me at the registration office. How considerate of them. I handed her my bag, but she smiled and handed it back.
“That won’t be necessary, Miss Pine. We know we can trust you not to give us any reason for a thorough questioning, right?”
“No, I don’t think so, Esteemed Defender of Our People.”
We were required to address every Agent we speak to this way, and I really couldn’t afford to annoy the last Agent I would ever deal with. Even then, it took concentration to stop myself from rolling my eyes. Yeah, right. If they really thought I could be trusted, they wouldn’t have sent me here, or fired Mother, or stripped us of our citizenship.
“Do you know why we’re here today?”
Because you’re a liar. Because you think that the fact that my brother got eaten by ghouls means that I’m prone to starting a rebellion. Because Mother did her job too well, and now she knows too much to be left alone. Because my family isn’t brainwashed like the rest of you.
“You’re not very cooperative, aren’t you?”
“I guess not.“
Maybe I would be nicer if you weren’t about to send me into a living place filled with beasts that want to eat my soul and a mind of its own, a mind that wanted to drag me into the depths of darkness and make me hollow.
“Let me tell you a story, Cassandra. Five hundred years ago, mages didn’t have it so easy. We were hunted and chased, not only by regular people who didn’t understand us, but also by beasts of all shapes and sizes, each one more dangerous than the last. Eventually, enough mages found each other, and an alliance was formed. These brave souls, our ancestors, left everything behind to find a place where we could be safe. They found this place, and they built the walls to keep the beasts out. Because of the corruptive influence of the maze, regulars will never discover our community. The maze is a gift, one that keeps everything out of our walls as long as we’re strong enough to resist it. We’re safe! And the best part is, the only price we have to pay is the lives of troublemakers who didn’t want or deserve a safer world anyways! What more could we possibly need?“
Of course, I already knew that story. They told it every first day of the month, at the beginning and end of the general school meeting. It had been drilled into the head of every child. Be grateful. Outside, mages have it way worse. It’s no big deal that we send children into a death machine to feed the beasts so we can be the safest of all. It’s no big deal that the wealthy children all make it out, and the rest are considered traitors because they couldn’t afford the spells that would’ve kept the beasts away from them. Keep going, nothing to see here.
Apparently story time isn’t over yet, though.
“Three years ago, Elliott Pine, the son of two high ranking officials in a family that was quite well off at the time, went into the maze and never came back. When the child of members of the Watch force, or any other branch of the Agency, fails to pass the trial, it is standard procedure to Inquire about the nature of the problem. The reason why we suspect rebellion is that your parents refused to cooperate, saying that they’d already sacrificed their son for us, and if that wasn’t enough, then too bad for us. (Actually, they said that Elliott’s death was an accident, and he was caught by ghouls. There were five witnesses. But apparently that wasn’t good enough.) That, Miss Pine, is what we are calling rebellious conduct. Your parents were clearly hiding something. And now, the younger child of the Pine family is going into the maze, at the exact age her brother was when he deserted, and I’m just trying to do my job and make sure you’re safe. So maybe you could help me at least a little bit and tell me what your mother has told you about Sending and what it means?”
She told me you were all lying. She told me you’re the reason why all the other mages who don’t belong to the Agency are getting eaten alive. She told me we’re all just a bunch of sentient meat shields. She told me I should try and run away from Safe Place during Sending, to try and see for myself if it really was so bad outside.
“Nothing. She told me nothing important.”
The Magius of Watch looked down on the mix of children and teens shivering before him. By now, everybody was registered. Normally, the place in front of the maze was empty, and for good reason. It was always cold, even in the Summer, and there was a thick mist in the air, a permanent shadow of misery and fear being cast down by the massive thick gate of vines and steel. But every winter solstice, the people from all over Safe Place came from as far as Hearth or Cliff to send their children into the maze. Such was the price to pay for the life of comfort inside these walls.
He was a good Magius, and the schoolchildren loved him. The first graders were looking at him with nothing but love and understanding, as if he was doing them a favor instead of the opposite. For a split second, he wanted to tell his servants to close the gate, to go into the maze himself and fight for them, to scream No, don’t thank me! You should hate me! I’m not your hero, I’m the one who is sending you away to deal with my problems!
He had stopped believing in the ideals of the Agency long ago, when they knocked on his door and told him his daughter hadn’t made it through the Sending, and for now they would let it slide, for the sake of preserving the public image of one of the most prestigious families in Watch, but they would be looking further into things, and for now, he would be forbidden from teaching at his school, and if he turned out to be a rebel, they would have no choice but to burn his life’s work to the ground.
He had received the notice an hour ago. The Pines are sending the younger one into the maze. Keep watch for any suspicious activity. If she figures it out like her brother did, arrange another accident. He hated those orders even more than the ones that had killed her brother. He knew Cassandra, he had been her teacher for three years, and some part of him wanted her to figure it out, and to find a way to free them all.
As soon as the mass of frightened people entered the maze, the gates shut behind us. Every person with an ounce of common sense has prepared for this moment. Some were offering last minute (very last minute) trades or alliances. Others were arguing with their allies (why that’s a priority, I don’t know). A large chunk of the loners, the ones without alliances, were running to find a corner, or better yet, a crumbling section of the wall, where they would shelter until dawn. I had it all planned out. I was going to use the carpet and candles I had in my bag to build a protective bubble. But before I had time to start my master plan, I heard a scream, and I barely had the time to think Oh hey, I know who that voice belongs to before I started running, not away from the sound but towards it.
The week after the Agency threatened to deport us, forcing Father to go work in Hearth, was the worst in my life. Not only had we lost Elliott, we had also lost Father. I stayed home for as long as I could, faking illness. Or maybe I was really sick. About halfway through that week, I heard a knock on the door. Mother was out trying to find a new job. I thought it was the people from the Inquiry again, but it turned out to be a classmate, Marla Brown. She looked at me for a while, unsure of what to say. Then, she handed me my homework and left. I felt bad that she’d gone through the trouble of helping me, so I did her cleaning shift. Then she did mine. And after we went back and forth a couple of times, we started hanging out. She was my only friend. And now she was in danger.
As I ran towards her, I realized a little late that I hadn’t thought of a plan. Oops. I saw a group of about ten teens try and take her stuff. At least three of them had bows and knives aimed her way. They were too busy taking apart her bag, seeing what they wanted, and arguing, to notice me.
I ran between Marla and the attackers and mumbled a quick chant, releasing every drop of the energy I had saved up since this morning. It began to take shape, and suddenly, I was not a teen with a box of candles, I was a dragon, a shape made of fire, swooping down on the now terrified teens. They saw me, and I guess my illusion must have worked, because they ran. Unfortunately, they still had Marla’s stuff. “You can have my candles” I said, like an apology, “they’re labeled with what kind of spell they are. There’s a lighter in the box.” She smiled sadly. “What about you?” I didn’t answer. The truth was, I had no idea.
Marla had invited me to come join her in a shelter her neighbors had found, but group sheltering only makes you a beast magnet, so I told her I would be fine on my own. I had lost all my saved up resources. The sun had risen and set again, I was hungry, and I was exhausted. There was only one logical place where I could shelter. The bricks that make up the walls of the maze are big and uneven enough that you can stand on them. Up there, you can see anything coming, and nobody’s there to compete for the best places. The idea to climb them was something Father and I had speculated about during the preparations for my first Sending. Now, that idea was my only hope.
But that was easier said than done. Sure, the uneven walls and thick vines are great for climbing, but at the same time, it’s high up, and the fact that you have to focus on the climb makes you a very easy target. Most Beasts didn’t like to climb, but some crazy desperate kids with bows might decide they want to compensate for their lack of a plan by sacrificing a few of their fellow citizens for a good chunk of their life force. I looked around, and, seeing that nobody was there, I decided it’s now or never. I reached for the nearest vine, tying it around my waist, and placing my feet only on the thickest, oldest vines. Eventually, I made it all the way up the wall. My arms and legs were burning, and the icy wind that sliced through my hoodie made me shiver, but still, I stood up, refusing to believe that what I saw was real.
The maze is beautiful. The thick stone walls seem to glow blue in the darkness, and the vines are covered in specks of light. The colors are dancing with the shadows, creating a kaleidoscope of patterns. The air is surprisingly clean, without the beasts, and it smells like freedom, not misery. And yet, the whole place still seems dormant, sad, and subdued. Waiting.
Below me, I can see all the beasts in the maze, running after screaming kids, but I can also see what others never could: the way the floors swallow up a pack of hollow wolves, or the group of teens who somehow always take the right turn to avoid a sea of spiders, or the vines that fall on the ghouls just as they’re about to reach a pocket of crying kids. The maze is alive, and it’s on our side. It’s not an evil magnet that attracts beasts. The beasts are vermin that the Agency trapped in here.
Suddenly, I remembered a story Father told us around the dinner table, about Archmage Ezra Crow, who saved a city over and over again from a horde of soul eaters, but became known only for the fact that his line of work involved lots of contact with monsters, not the fact that he was a hero. At the time, I thought it was just a story, but could it be that the Archmage wasn’t a person at all? It was an insane thought, but it was worth a try. “Ezra?” The maze itself seemed to respond, the walls next to the one I was standing on closing in on me, the wind slowly circling around me. I laughed. Just then, I fell. I hadn’t realised how tired I was. But that’s okay. I fell onto a soft patch of vines, halfway down the wall, which wrapped around me like a cocoon. In it, there were clusters of tiny, glowing berries. Food. I smiled. “Ezra”, I said, “let’s go free my town”.
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163 articles 47 photos 1025 comments
The universe must be a teenage girl. So much darkness, so many stars.