“The Labyrinth and the Lighthouse” | Short Story | Written by Tim Babbitt - Mishmashers Mishmashers

“The Labyrinth and the Lighthouse” | Short Story | Written by Tim Babbitt

A droning wail reverberated through the blackness, clinging to his mind like a parasite. It felt familiar in some unexplainable way. The man reached out his palm and felt the damp ground beneath his body. It scraped against his hand as he pressed down, leaving an abrasive cut. Something was very wrong. He began to regain consciousness, and with that came a sudden pain. He reached out around him, feeling his way around the bed of jagged rocks. They dug into his skin like daggers, producing a warm trickle from his side. The man’s hand went to his ribs, quickly shooting back as it found a fractured bone. His head swam with fever and confusion. A sweltering heat covered his back, beating down on him like a blanket of warm mud. His whole body was wet, leaking its crimson warmth onto the cool stone. The air was thick with the smell of sulfur, and he grimaced as a burning ember found its way to his bare back. The man pulled himself up onto his knees and wretched onto the ground below. The pounding in his head faded enough for a coherent thought to form. Where am I?

The man opened his eyes for the first time. Around him was an inferno, a hellscape of ash and magma. The siren still echoed through his foggy head, now accompanied by the low rumble of shifting earth. He saw some moving mass in the molten rivers that ran below. They looked like people, thousands of them, all shouting out in anguish. The man forced himself onto his feet, mouth agape in horror at this new reality. His instincts told him to run, to find some way out, but the cliff tempted him towards it. He brought himself to the precipice and stared down into the deep abyss surrounding him. The damned howled below, begging him to dive in, to give himself up to whatever lie beneath. The man considered it for a moment, but something called out to stop him. This voice was different, almost like one had heard before in another place. The word it whispered was shrouded in hope. “Live.” In the distance, a spire rose up from beneath layers of magma. It pierced through the fiery veil, ascending far above the obsidian bluffs. At its peak was a structure. It was a cylinder of stone, with an odd fluorescence shining from the top. Lighthouse. The word stuck in his mind. Its beacon shone with an interchanging stream of red, then white. The colors waxed and waned across his vision. They enveloped his body for a moment, simultaneously calming and distressing him. His arms began to ache as the voice spoke once more. It was like a melody, assuring him that he could keep go on. Forcing him to. This time, it spoke more urgently. “Live!”

In an instant, it faded away. The nightmare was back upon him. In the distance the lighthouse still urged him onwards, but its beacon had faded to a dim glow. Dark crags and boiling lakes overtook the horizon now. Something scraping in the distance caught his attention. The strange noise grew louder, approaching his smoldering mountain. As it got closer, it became animalistic, maybe even human. A shudder rippled through his skin as the vulgar growling echoed across the landscape. Every fiber of his being told him to leave. He had no desire to face whatever monstrosity was coming towards him. The man turned, eyes darting around the peak in a frantic attempt to find a way down. At its midpoint he saw a narrow bridge jutting out of the rocks. Its walkway trailing off into a fog so thick it looked solid, and he couldn’t help but wonder if something waited on the other side. The noise grew louder, its demonic fluctuations telling him that he was running out of time. He saw no other escape, and began his descent as it grew ever closer. The man’s footing slipped, sending his ankle into a rocky crevice. His leg turned with it, shooting pain through his muscle. There was no time to stop. He pulled his foot from the outcrop and continued downwards, adrenaline fighting against agony. He moved from rock to rock, even sliding down some of the steeper sections of the path. Behind him he could hear the disturbing moans of his pursuer. It found its way over the peak. Now the growl was joined by the cascading of rocks and what sounded like four heavy feet pounding against dirt. The beginning of the bridge was just ahead, and the demon just behind. He reached forward, grabbing for the moldy ropes strung from the bridge’s side. The beast seemed excited at the sight of him. It began to pant heavily, sniffing for the sweet smell of his wounds. The man set foot on the wooden planks in front of him, and started to sprint across. He could hear its rhythmic breathing. Its groan becoming a rumbling whisper, with a resonance almost matching that of the hellscape. And then it spoke. “Turn around.”

The man continued forward, trying to tune out the evil words. “Turn around, turn around!” Its hisses echoed through his head, beckoning him to stop moving. He fought the urge, feet pounding against the rotting wood beneath them. His injured leg became heavier with every step, pulsating pain up into his calf. The sheet of fog was just ahead. The man threw himself into the mist, hoping it would somehow hide him from the creature. Its lungs filled and emptied behind him, each breath growing closer to his neck. “I can taste you.” A wet tongue slid across his ear, leaving a line of blood where it touched. It screamed as its rancid breath stung the man’s nose. The bridge began to shake as a blinding light shot through the sky. A high-pitched whir forced itself into the man’s skull, and suddenly he was falling down into the abyss below. Above him stood its inhuman figure. The creature was covered in jagged protrusions, and its limbs extended too far out to each side. A wavering growl echoed through the chasm, sounding almost like a laugh. “You’ll do no better down there.”

The man hurdled downwards, facing up towards the empty black sky. The demon was no longer in sight. Perhaps this was the end of the nightmare. Wind brushed against his back, and he fell for what seemed like an eternity. He felt the ground closing in on him, the air beginning to tighten against his skin. He wasn’t scared, this was surely a much quicker end than what the creature above had planned for him. The man closed his eyes until a smell hit his nose. It was something old and foul, rising up from below. It stung his eyes and coated his lungs with a moist film when he took a breath. The man clutched at his face and gagged, trying to get the poisonous air out. Before hitting the ground, he flipped over and saw what produced the musky stench.

His body sunk into the pit of corpses, absorbed into a sea of bone and flesh. The man screamed as he slid deeper into the pile. Dead hands rose up, grasping at his ankles and pulling him down. He kicked at the cold fingers, trying to break free. Joints crunched and broke, but a new hand always latched on. The aroma was stronger here, so dense it formed a wispy layer of smoke. It bound itself to his throat, trying to suffocate him. The man choked, panic overtaking him as he looked for an escape. His eyes happened to glance over one of the ghoulish faces. A pair of beady eyes stared back. They sunk back like black stones into the leather of its gaunt face, reading him like an open book. An awful realization swept over him when he finally saw through the corpse’s decomposition. Please, it can’t be. The face he was looking into was his own, but hideously disfigured. Beyond it he could see hundreds of warped clones, the same eyes stared back at him.

In unison, the dead pile opened their mouths and whispered in a cacophony of hushed voices. “He sees.” They held the man still. This isn’t real, this isn’t real. A silence washed over the cavern as he stared into the horrid mirror. It patiently waited for a response. He refused to give one, worried that it would break any shred of sanity left. “He doesn’t want to speak to us. Perhaps he fears what we might say.” The carcasses let out a raspy laugh. “After all, this isn’t the first pit he’s pulled us into.”

The man began to sob, wondering what he did to deserve a hell such as this. The corpses stopped their snickering as the man despaired. “He can’t get out of this so easily, not like last time. We’re all he has left.” In that instant the man felt anger, pain, and guilt as one indescribable emotion, not even knowing why. “No!” The man kicked at the dead hands once more, trying to break free. “Why try? Look around, why do you think so many of us are down here? This is your fate, its time you accepted it.” He felt their undead eyes on him, faces twisted in awful enjoyment.

Live. That’s what the voice said, and that’s what he meant to do. The lighthouse was calling to him, and something or someone wanted him to reach it. He climbed up, pulling on dangling limbs and green flesh. “There’s no point in climbing, you’ll be back. We always come back.” Their whisper was angry now, but he sensed a weakness behind it that drove him onward. “No, not now. You’re not me. You’re not me!” The hands began to grudgingly release as he pushed his way up over his dead counterparts. The man reached the top of the pile, and one final warning echoed into the void. “You’ll be back.”

He brought himself out of the pit as a white light blinded his eyes, and found solid ground once more beneath his feet. The man stood in the shadow of a dingy light post, staring at a dilapidated building. Rain pounded against the cement sidewalk. He opened his mouth, realizing how thirsty he was. A droplet touched his tongue and turned to hot ash. The man coughed it out onto the ground, cursing. This was still part of the nightmare, and whatever lie ahead would test him again. He forced himself to step forward as the false rain continued to fall. A small house sat ahead, its siding black and torn. He saw a light shining out from an upstairs window. Dark shudders beat against broken glass as the man stepped onto the porch. His hand rested against the doorknob, momentarily refusing to turn it. There was a strange déjà vu to this place, similar to what he saw in the corpse’s eyes. He studied the door, and noticed the house number was scratched off of the top. His palm laid against the surface, feeling solid oak under his fingers. Whatever was inside might help him remember who he was, but maybe that was something he didn’t yet want. With the abominations he left behind him, there was no more time to ponder. The man twisted the door handle and pushed it open.

Inside was a small living room, with a recliner in the corner and a table in the center. He slowly stepped over the threshold, eyes scanning the dusty corners. The carpet reeked with the sweet smell of mildew, and sank like moss when he pressed his foot down. Something was off. The pictures that lined the walls were grotesque scenes of torture, the victims all looking to him for help. He was suddenly cold, and his injured leg began to throb. The same woman stood in the background of each image, her featureless face always present. Paranoia told him that something else was here. Around the corner was the kitchen. The man made his way over, hoping whatever was in the living room wouldn’t follow him. The tiled walls were covered in a layer of grime, and the smell of meat permeated the room. He went to the sink and found a mass of red ooze filling the drain. The man covered his mouth and spun around, his stomach threatening to empty itself again. His gaze rose up to the opposite wall. A flight of stairs stood there, leading up to the second floor. How hadn’t he seen that the first time he walked into the room? The man grabbed the handrail and made his way up the narrow steps. A faint light illuminated the hallway above. It wanted him to go to it, and he did.

There was no furniture on the second floor, just an empty corridor with a door at the very end. A yellow light came out from under the crack. Something about it made him want to look away, but he couldn’t. He felt the disturbing presence from earlier, so close now that it was almost like a hand on his shoulder. It was judging him, questioning his every action. Controlling him. He stepped forward. It was like someone else was driving his legs, willing them on with some invisible force. He stood before the door, close enough to get a better look at it. It was an odd-shaped piece of wood that seemed to be almost inverted. It hurt his brain to stare at it, the door’s dimensions ever so slightly warped to fit some strange symmetry. He couldn’t pull himself away, mesmerized by its alien shape. And then he saw something else. Something in the keyhole. It blinked. He jumped backwards, appalled by the blood-red eye that stared at him from behind the gate. Pulsing veins began to squirm out from the cracks, inching their way along the door’s surface until they covered it in a breathing web. A voice howled out from behind it. This is what you deserve, you little prick. You did this to yourself!”

The man stared up in horror as the door shot open. A humanoid figure stepped out, a man covered in festering blisters of viscous green and brown. He held a cat of nine at his side, slowly running his hand across each length of leather. “Now you stay right there and keep still! You know what you did.” The man rolled to one side, dodging a quick snap of the whip. The air brushed his face as he brought himself to his feet and lunged for the stairs. He was almost fast enough. He screamed in pain as three barbs bit into his back. One got caught the back of his neck and dug in. His hand shot backwards, grasping for the tail. In one horrible motion he pulled, ripping the barb out of his tattered skin. Ignore the pain. Once free, he rushed down the stairs, the monster close behind him. “Get back here, boy. This is your fault, you deserve this!” The man fled into the living room and ran past into another hallway. More of the awful pictures lined the walls, watching him with a silent eye. He turned the corner and crawled into an open alcove, quickly throwing the door shut. The man covered his mouth to quiet a gasp as his raw back slammed into the wall behind. Please don’t hear me. Thundering footsteps beat past the cubby, and he half expected the door to fly open. He listened as the monster entered a room down the hall, his prayers seemingly answered. The man heard furious grunts and loud crashes of furniture as the beast rampaged through the other room. “Where’d you go? Where’d you go! Don’t you know I love you? I’m doing this for you, you know what you did!”

The monster began making a noise like that of an injured animal, some awful mixture of fury and sadness. The man saw his chance. He quietly slid the alcove door open and crawled out into the dim hallway. Part of him wanted to turn back as he snuck into the living room, the monster’s crying echoing through the broken house. He slowly made his way up the stairs, careful not to step too heavily and draw the creature’s attention. The upstairs door was still open, but was cloaked in a misty veil that blocked his sight. The man stood outside of it, wondering if it was just another horrible trap. He held his breath and walked inside.

Familiarity flooded the man’s mind as he gazed around the small bedroom. In some way he knew that this place was special. He ran his hand along the cedarwood dresser, wiping the dust off against his leg. The picture that sat on top showed three blurry figures, none of them recognizable. He picked it up and ran his hands across its frame. More paintings lined the far wall, but this time they were different. The monster stood in them, beating a child with his whip, a woman crying behind. The final picture had a new monster in it, this one drenching wet as it approached the child. A tear dripped down his cheek, stinging like vinegar where the demon’s tongue had cut him. The man walked around to the twin sized bed. It was still perfectly made. The sheets were covered with stars and rocket ships. He set the picture down on the nightstand beside it and turned the bedside lamp on. Anger, sadness, and remembrance filled his heart as loud footsteps made their way up the stairs. He looked up to the door. The monster stood in its frame. It fixed its glasses, and looked down at the man. “You know what you did.” One last tear ran down the man’s cheek as he nodded. He looked up to meet his father’s glare, the words momentarily catching in his throat. “I became you.”

A piercing light shot through the room, and like an apparition his father was gone. The man glanced down to the folded belt he now held, his knuckles white with rage. A trapdoor sat open on the floor. The man forced his hand open and let the whip fall to the ground. He stepped forward and jumped, knowing all too well what awaited him. The room became sky as he fell. Dark clouds blocked out the sun, while a strange rain crashed down into the murky sea below. The heavy tone of thunder boomed into in his ears. The waves rose and crashed, welcoming him into their sweet release. He broke the water headfirst, sinking down into its dreary depths. His mouth and nostrils began to fill with a thick black liquid. The pain went away as he let the substance in, just as he knew it would. The voice came to him again, telling him to stop, to live again. He paid no mind to it. Go away, let me stay here. This was where he wanted to be, somewhere he couldn’t feel hurt any more. Somewhere safe. The voice pleaded with him one last time, begging him to live. He gave no answer, and it left. Hours passed as the man lay under the waves, filling himself with the black tar. His mind boiled with sadness and anger, but they were old friends. This is where he belonged, where he always came back to. For the first time in this bloody nightmare he felt normal.

His anger momentarily turned to rage when a new sound called out. He glimpsed the form of a raft floating on the cloudy sea. The man’s hand curled into a fist, but then he heard someone cry out. No, let me stay. Don’t make me leave, I can’t do it anymore. I told you to leave!

Help me!” The child’s voice was faint. Confusion lined the man’s face, and his hand slowly opened. “Dad, help!” It had said enough. The man started sputtering, trying to empty his stomach and lungs of the poison that flowed through them. He flailed under the water, trying to reach the surface. He feared it was too late. He could see the boy’s legs dangling into the rapid current, being pulled down. The man kicked in rapid spasms, realizing he could no longer breathe. It didn’t matter anymore. All he wanted was to reach the raft before it went under, taking the boy with it. As he approached the surface, a whirlpool began to form around them. The raft spun faster and faster, the man following it. He pulled his arms through the thick water, reaching up towards the rain. One last kick and he breached the surface, sucking in breaths of salty air. Please, tell me it’s not too late.

He spun in a circle, eyes searching for the raft. He spotted it on the brink of the whirlpool, and his arms began to move without hesitation. The man swam faster and faster, fighting the strong current. Waves of tar crashed against his body, salt searing his torn back. He shut his mind off to the pain. The raft was closing in on the deadly spiral as he reached his hand out. The boy was barely holding on when the man climbed on. He grabbed the terrified boy’s arms and pulled him up to safety. Sour wind pelted the raft as the two rowed out of the whirlpool. The man began to sob. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.”

The seas calmed, and the man found himself alone. “Let me out of this place! Please! I want to go back!” He shouted into the night, hoping someone was listening. Someone was.

The sickening voice boomed across the water. “Not yet, there’s something you’re forgetting.” He could see its crooked smile from here, and the strange objects that jutted out from its skin like rocks. It was the creature from the bridge, back to torment him a second time. Please, no. Lightning broke the sky, striking his heart. The man let out a screech, shutting his eyes. When he opened them, he was standing somewhere dark and cold. The only noise was the slow dripping of water, leaking down into a pool on the floor beside him. What is this place.

Oh, I think you already know.” The creature hissed out the words from some unseen place. “Get out of my head, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” A growl resonated from the blackness, and somewhere in the distance he heard a light turn on. “Stop lying to yourself, it wasn’t that long ago that you found yourself here, and this is where you’ll stay. Turn around, Ethan. I’m coming.” Horror froze his limbs as another light turned on. “I’m coming. I’m coming Ethan. I’m coming!” Suddenly, the dim light above him turned on. Around him was a labyrinth, tiled from floor to ceiling. A faucet dripped beside him, droplets bouncing off of the bloody grate below. Ethan ran forward, winding his way through the maze of identical walls. Faucets dripped all around him, red water leaking down onto the floor. “Not fast enough Ethan, this is what you wanted.” He ran through the spiraling pathways, taking a right at the first junction. Please don’t be a dead end. He heard a metallic ringing behind him, like a knife scraping against glass. Ethan continued on through the labyrinthine twists, coming across dozens of intersections and converging paths. The tiles played tricks on his mind, reflecting his blurry appearance onto the walls and floor.

The noises grew louder, excited grunting bouncing off of the walls, following him wherever he went. Once he chanced a look behind. The man caught a glimpse of something he had never wanted to see. What was in front of him may have been even more horrifying. His path had ended. All that stood there was a tiled wall, with a faucet dripping down into a red drain below. “I’m here. Look what you did! Isn’t it beautiful?” It whispered, its shrill voice shuddering with anticipation. Left with no other option, Ethan turned to meet his pursuer. His first passing glimpse hadn’t prepared him for the reality of what stood before him. The creature’s entire body was covered in razor blades, coated with rust and dried blood. They jutted out of its skin in every direction, creating a being that lived in pure agony. The body beneath was a spindly void, arms hanging down to touch the ground, and a neck that stretched at least a foot above its torso. It stood on all fours now, mouth dripping ooze onto the floor from between its jagged smile. Ethan backed into the corner, unable to avoid its gaze. There was something in those eyes. A creature so weird and alien shouldn’t have had such human eyes. Its chest wheezed in and out, creating a slow trickle of blood with each breath. Its neck craned down towards him. “Ethan, there’s no need to back away. I see it in your eyes, that you remember. I wonder if you’ll be able to handle it, doing it again. Slicing. Cutting. I could do it for you, if you let me. Ohhhh, please let me.” Its neck craned towards him, eyes rolling back into its amorphous black skull. The smile widened, its slimy tongue jutting out from its mouth. The razor stuck in its center slowly scraped against his cheek, leaving a trail of crimson saliva. He couldn’t face this again. “No!

The creature’s neck retracted, its eyes burning with anger. It stood back up on two legs, its body now standing far above his. Its hand opened and a bloody razor fell out onto the floor. “Then do it yourself. Just like before, Ethan. I’m sure you remember how. This is where you did it last time, after all.He shuddered, skin crawling as the knowledge came back to him. Ethan turned to stare at the empty bathtub behind him. “It’s your fate, what you’re meant for. Do it again, do it again. Do it again!” He picked up the blade, remembering the empty feeling of death. Beneath him he saw the pit, the sea of his dead clones beckoning him back. On a hill to his right he saw the lighthouse, its beacon shining bright. Ethan stared at the scars etched into his arms, remembering why he put them there. And then he remembered the guilt. The last feeling he ever had. He remembered that the boy was still waiting for him on the raft, dangling over the edge. His entire life couldn’t culminate in guilt, there was still more for him. “No, not again. There’s someone waiting for me.” The creature let out a pained growl, a sound as sharp as its body. “You should have done it yourself Ethan. This way hurts a lot more.” It lunged towards him, grabbing him in its jagged hands. The blades cut deep into his skin, stinging like vinegar on a wound. The creature brought its face close to his, liquid cascading from its mouth. Ethan raised his hand, and jammed the bloody razor into its eye with a sickening squish. Its spindly arms let go, and he fell to the floor. Ethan ran as the creature threw itself against the tile floor, hands cutting into its own face as it tried to pull out the razor. “Ethan! You need me!”

The wall behind him was gone, and he ran out of the labyrinth. A stone path formed in front of him, guiding up and up towards the lighthouse beacon. The beams of white and red interchanged over his vision, leading him to safety. Step by step, he walked along the sidewalk. The corpses below screamed out, but not in terror. They urged him onwards, shouting for him to escape as they couldn’t. The creature still howled below, telling him that there was nothing for him back there. Ethan stared up at the grey brick tower, jutting up into the void. He made his choice, and the white light blinded him one last time.

Ethan shot awake, the piercing sound of an ambulance siren ringing in his ears. An EMT stood over him, still holding onto a pair of defibrillators. He turned to the driver and frantically shouted. “We’ve got vitals! Thought we lost you there, buddy.” Ethan took in his surroundings, staring at the IV in his arm and the bandages on his wrists. The dream was still fresh in his mind, but the other wounds were gone. He was no longer in the nightmare. “So did I.” They arrived at the hospital, and Ethan was told his wife and son were waiting for him upstairs. The EMT wheeled him out, and he watched as the red and white lights of the ambulance spun in the distance. Ethan’s family cried when they wheeled him into the room. His wife grabbed onto his hand, and his son climbed on to the hospital bed to hug him. They held each other for a long time, crying and laughing. When the boy asked where he went, Ethan couldn’t quite remember. All he knew was that it was that had no intention of going back to that place, whatever it was. His wife told him about how she called for help, and that she never stopped telling him to live. Ethan promised that he would never scare them again.

Once the morphine kicked in and his vision began to fade, a faint growl echoed through his mind. You’re not taking me again. Ethan looked down one last time at the bandages that covered his wrists, and fell into a peaceful sleep.