He couldn’t be sure when they’d been separated, only that they had and it was far too late for that notice to be of any use to him. TV turning, he searched up and down the immediate, barren passageways of this once green hedge Maze, some sort of handful of needles rapping lightly at the back of his proverbial neck. No, no no. It’s fine. It’s fine, he knew this place. And it knew him. He would find her, and they would escape. Or at the very least, he wouldn’t find her and escape all the same. That pill had lodged in his throat a very long time ago, though outwardly he walked as if it sat in his stomach. How crippling he was a coward, to be cowardly in the face of cowardice.
Broken gray stone, once ornate and painted blue scattered in his step as he turned corners, a gloved hand brushing the bare branches and weather worn walls as if imploring the Maze to tell him something, warm his fingers, guide his way. Or fool him. Do something. Anything.
But She had killed this place many years ago, plunged an obsidian spire straight through the heart. It rose like a soot soaked railroad spike, a shadow made marble, a false nail off night’s right hand, twisted and massive. He found it easily from any point and curl, like a moon, and short of letting himself feel afraid, it occurred to him that lost in a maze, anyone would search for a landmark, a consistency. A great, black Tower.
It was a long-ish sort of shot to imagine Hero would meet him there, given variables he would rather string into a bracelet and leave behind on a bus, but he’d no other idea half as appealing. Calling out wasn’t an option. Dead as this place may be, he’d seen ears lent, never to be returned. RGB could not take that chance. Not here.
A bramble caught his sleeve and he snuffed a curse in his teeth as he tugged his arm free. Threads frayed unpleasantly as the hooks came away. He knew if he pulled them, they’d only worsen, so he smoothed it all over best he could and pressed on.
The Maze of...of something. (Lord it had been so long since he’d heard a name. No wonder it faded with each passing day. It had died, and in being forgotten, died again. RGB’s guilt was elsewhere at the moment, but the cushion it occupied was fluffed. What a way to go.) The Maze had grown far quicker, far larger, far more complex in its heyday than anyone could have possibly imagined. The hedge walls reached high, blocking sun and rain and wind such that for a time, the deep dark innards had taken on a climate of their own, a perpetual mist, an echo of running water. The leaves had shimmered silver against a breeze that seemed to circle and lap the paths as if trapped. In some sections, the cold- chased away by a warm fuzzy feeling perhaps- found providence, digging feet and hands into the earth and air. So cold was it, one could see their breath wisp into being, and then, be eaten by the walls. They were carnivorous in the ways a book could chew up time. Not truly, perhaps, but a length of cautious rope could be advised.
Now, after Her, the Maze flaked at the edges as if ready to be peeled from the world like a scab, the Tower its only means of affix. The hedges leafless, gray through to the roots, stone pillars, dividers, podiums half crumbled and faded, gold inlay picked clean. And silence. Not the type living, breathing in a monastery, brushing back hair and pressing a palm to the shoulders of those who pass through it, but artificial, a silence that chokes the air, like a ceiling uncomfortably low and painted a stained beige, rife with water damage. The sort of silence a drowning man knows. Beyond his own screaming thoughts, there was nothing, and no one.
The Maze had died of its own accord, She had lobotomized it.
He found the Tower far quicker than he expected, the base a seamless mould against the earth though RGB was well aware it extended far, far below into some other organ of this world. A silent breath slipped into his vents as he clenched and unclenched fingers around his cane, finding solace in stuffing a hand into his pocket, and circumvented.
He knew there’d be no reflection for him in its deep, dark face, but he avoided a glance all the same, turned his head away as something- the implication of a sound, the potential of a voice- shifted the air by his proverbial ear. It would be best not to be heard, better still not to be recognized. Yellow dribbled, mingling with blue and a touch of magenta. His pocket had a hole in the deepest corner. He needed to find Hero and get out. He needed to find Hero or get out.
Giving up, or the idea of it, had practically linked an arm with his when he spotted her, just beyond the lip of the ex-hedges. Hero’s owlish eyes peering into the Tower’s closest side, her brows rose, then furrowed, in that clever way they do, and RGB - so struck by the fact he’d made the right call - froze solid to process. He’d found Hero, they were going to get out, and then she stepped forward.
It became apparent very quickly that RGB was just out of view, and though he could see her, Hero had yet to spot him. She instead seemed very interested in the Tower, but did not take in the height or surroundings as a small child in a large world might, rather, her gaze fixed as if she were appraising a painting, or wondering how on earth a person could harm another and feel nothing. The green dried, and yellow flooded as he realized Hero was not looking at, but into.
He could not see what it was that the Tower’s face presented to her, or hear the voice with which it called, made for her, meant for her, but when her lips parted to speak, and her arms lifted to reach for the crystallized, black hands and arms sprouting from the wall, he’d already moved.
Despite his promises and vanity, he leapt between Hero and the Tower and scooped the girl up under an arm as the fingers of her escaped fate grew sharp, pointed and plunged themselves into the right side of his body, piercing limb clean through in a strike meant for her. They curled maliciously, cruel and human, digging into the man with about every intention of pulling a cry out of his brain, pulling him closer. it only took a moment for him to realize he needed a free arm to resist, and tossed Hero as hard as he possibly could.
She rolled once over, skidding to a stop, certainly skinning her knees against the ravaged earth, and when she snapped up to call his name, RGB already had a finger poised across his flooded mouth, sharp as the sun between blinds. She made no sound, the gesture universal, and the sight of several oil black arms, warped and monstrous, tearing through him straight to the other side in a stalemate of trembling limbs and crunching glass effectively snuffed her voice. Yellow, cyan, red pooled below him. He’d no lip to bite, no teeth to clench, but she could see the line of his mouth, so deeply still, it betrayed the shake in his fingers.
It hurt. A lot.
She rose to her feet, slowly, carefully, and took a half-step towards him before RGB- keen enough to her habits- urged her with the desperation of a man privy to a bursting dam and oncoming water. Stay put, step back. And she obeyed, nodding, covering her mouth with both hands for good measure.
Abated by her action, and astounded she chose to heed him at all, RGB quickly found a crack in the foundation below and dug his fingers in, gripping tightly against the Tower’s ministrations. It pulled, and tore, and thrashed, clawing at his clothing, dragging fabric to shreds and splitting lapels, but he held fast. Despite a stream of dire colour coating the lower length of his frame and painting the earth in much needed shades it hadn’t seen in years, he would not allow himself to be dragged any closer to the Tower.
The Tower paused, limbs draining of animation and seizing in time like flawed polaroid. Just as the formaldehyde silence began seeping into the scene - threatening to make taxidermy of the man - a chipped chuckle shook the dust. RGB’s warbled grin flashed out of view as his head bowed, shoulders pulling tight as he forced the laugh from his body. It hurt, it killed him, but the blow found its mark.
“...You missed, you ghastly toothpick.” He coughed, disguising it in a mocking laugh. His voice sounded as if it were being grated slowly against a blade in his throat. His free hand curled into a fist, trembling. It took two tries, but he drew breath somehow, the sort that spoke and ached.
“You will never get her voice…” It came like a gavel. “...but you may have mine, if you like.”
Privy to the worth in the offer, the Tower ripped its grip from him, scorned and loathe to let him go. He cried out, collapsing where once he’d been supported by the impalement. No flesh bled beneath his ruined blazer flank and pantleg, but RGB did not rise. Breath pumped, stuttering in his spine, and Hero hesitated, catching herself as she thought to call out to him, tightening her fingers across her lips.
She glanced between the black Tower and her fallen guide, as if awaiting a signal of safety, of the danger passing. Her guts clenched, the cool unpleasant cheek of anxiousness pressed into her's. She waited still, watching, listening. Nothing suggested the Tower wouldn’t try to lure her into its own devices if she got any closer, but her toe ground a divot into the dirt.
They moved at the same time, Hero stepping forward, RGB extending an arm. He braced the elbow against the earth, dragged himself a little ways, and repeated, path permeated with coloured language and coloured ooze. The other arm followed uselessly, a soaked rag. She crept, carefully closing the distance until he reached wrong and convulsed, spitting what could have been a sob, and she was at his side in a moment.
He could tell Hero wanted to help. He did not know how she might, but she’d collected his cane for him, and now knelt to nestle under his working arm, trying to offer support so that he might find his feet. He tried to speak again, but the world spun sideways for a moment and he fell to a punctured knee. Small hands took handfuls of his clothing where it was whole, refusing to let him go.
RGB wouldn’t have liked to admit he’d been leaning on a child, but if asked, he would gladly tell any and all that without Hero, they would not have escaped the Maze. By some trick of time, or a lapse in consciousness, they dragged RGB and all his pieces to the nearest cover. Backs to the Tower now, it was much easier to turn the corner and escape the memory and its hands. He drew every loose thread of his body together and held the seams closed in one working hand, resisting a different pull entirely. The ground seemed as welcoming as any feather bed but there was no time for that now.
“We have to get out.” He pinched his words like a pearl of blood between forefinger and thumb. “We have to…”
He could feel her looking at him, feel the air brush what remained of him beneath perforated clothing, his cycling breath rolling up and under his chest with the ease of a rock tumbler. She was thinking, hard. He need not ask to know, the static across his glass spiked this close, clear and itching despite the whirling world.
Short of wondering whether the Maze was tilting beneath his feet and it hadn’t been a mirage of his leaking resolve, Hero urged him onwards and he’d no choice but to follow. He thought to ask her if she knew where to go, but the question fell spinning like a coin to the bottom of some cerebral patch of tall grass as pain tightened his side. He’d twisted where he ought not, and gasping too quickly, coughing too hard, slipped to the ground. RGB need not have said he couldn’t anymore, it was enough a flood of buttery fear spilled down his collar.
Hero’s grip loosened and he found himself cyan soaked for an instant despite knowing he couldn’t bring himself to blame her for leaving him behind. Not at all. He’d slipped and sidestepped so many a time where it should have been him, survival instinct shrouding his shuddering shoulders like a cape, always, always heavier than any garment of guilt.
“We…You…You have to get out.”
He hadn’t spoken it yet, needing a morsel of mettle. Given the paper napkin of a backbone he’d in fine health, it was slim pickings. But he would. He would in a moment. Give me a second, he said, give me a second and I’ll give you everything.
Hero spoke before he could stop her, acted outside of expectation, as he should have expected.
“Hello. I’m sorry for being so quiet, but he’s hurt, and we’re lost. Please, can you show us the way out?”
It didn’t take him whole to know she was not speaking to him, hand pressed softly to the dried, dead brambles of the hedge maze.
The Maze hadn’t known rain since She’d latched her lips to the world’s arteries and sucked dry even the most thought provoking trees, and so a Hero’s tear, a Hero’s word, outweighed mountains of gold and saffron stacked to the skies.
As he tended to be, more often than ever as of late, RGB found amazement breaching pain and terror as the Maze - a paragon of topiary rigor mortis, a dead place, a dead place - listened.
The hedges parted, one after the other, like folded cards, blooming a path to the outside, and Hero- returning to her post- half carried, half helped RGB through.
Safe now on some bank of blue sand near a white, porcelain spike, sections suspended in air like vertebrae that RGB assured her was a tree, he sat back, ruined right side lying straight and as painlessly possible. His fingers twitched as nerves continued to catch fire, one by one. She sat nearby, eyes passing across him. He suspected she was painting very real injury in her mind’s eye. RGB knew her illustrations would fall short, and so smiled as if they overshot.
“I have my theories, but…” He adjusted, and steadied his breathing. “Why did you do that? How did you know it would work, Hero?”
“Well...you said everyone was scared to speak in the Maze. Not to talk or else, but...then it’s been really quiet in there for a long time. The Maze can’t see but it can hear, you said, so even though someone might be visiting, it wouldn’t know. That sounds...lonely.”
“And what if the Tower were to hear?”
“I wasn’t talking to the Tower.”
He knew he wasn’t stupid, but he should have seen the simplicity as it slapped him across the screen. He breathed deep. It had become easier.
His head began to tilt back, screen flickering a moment as something like adrenaline began to peter out the holes in his arm and leg, it seemed. Slipping into stand-by didn’t seem a terrible course of action. He hadn’t sat too close to the tree.
“Why didn’t it want your voice? The Tower, I mean. Why did it let you go?”
He was spared of sleep by a Hero’s voice. She’d shifted closer. He hoped she didn’t climb on top of him.
“Now that’s obvious, dear girl. Who would take me at my word?”
Her head tilted, brows furrowing. He smiled like a man bidding a coworker good evening on Christmas Eve, knowing he’d never be home in time.
“Don’t believe everything you hear on TV.”