He woke up to the noise of his rage filled yell ringing in his ears. As he got up from the ground, it slowly drifted away. Jack got on his feet and looked around the room he was in, free to move around now.
He was in the room they had found Hoffman’s diary in. Jack looked around, but found no signs of Travis or Rose.
“Travis?” Jack said. His words echoed back to him in response. “Rose?” No one answered. “I…I guess I’m on my own, now. Again.”
A chilling thought occurred to Jack. “What if…what if I just hallucinated them all along, to help me cope?” He quickly shook his head. “No. They were definitely real. There’s no doubt of that.”
Hoffman’s diary laid on the ground, wide open. A folded up page had fallen out of the diary. Jack bent over and picked it up. It was a page from a text book.
“THE DEMON ATAEL
The demon Atael is a major figure in several stories and mythologies. He’s usually confused with Satan, but it must be noted that the two are different demons. Important characteristics of this demon include his love of sacrifices, and stories collected all depict Atael tricking people into thinking he is God. Under this ruse, he demands sacrifices from the people he’s tricked, and overly enjoys tapping into the dark side of people’s hearts. It also revels in possession, in fact, the demon Atael needs one to survive. One effective way to dispel this demon is to deny access into a body. If left alone without a host for too long, it’s believed he will die.”
The image of a circle, identical the ones Hoffman had painted all over his office. It was labeled “Atael’s Seal”.
Jack turned the page over. It was blank, and he put it back into the book. He moved away, leaving the book behind, holding the knife in his hand.
The hallways were identical. Nothing had changed except for the absence of Rose and Travis. Jack looked through the second floor, calling their names. No responses came back to him.
How can I go on without them? Jack thought, moving through the halls. I promised them I’d get them out of here, where are they?
Could I have imagined them? And if I did, why disappear now, when I need them the most?
You killed them, Jack. The voice inside him spoke. That knife marks your second and third murders.
Where’s the bodies, then?
You moved them, of course.
I don’t believe that.
Believe what you want, murderer, but it’s the truth.
Jack shut the voice out. He walked down the walls, looking for his lost friends. Walking into a room, he froze.
The ventilation duct was ripped open.
Of course. Of course! He thought, a fury rising inside of him. Of course, it was him! He killed them while I was in that memory!
You forget, Jack, that the monster targeted only you. Why would he kill them?
I don’t know. I don’t know him. But I’m going to find out, one way or the other. Jack said, moving out of the room. He held the knife, pointing forward. The anger steadily raised inside of him as he started running, on the quest for the hunched man.
Jack turned around a corner and ran down the hallway. He saw the flicker of movement at the end of the hallway and he ran faster, determined to catch up with the monster. Memories of Rose rose up in his mind and he felt the sting of tears.
The hunched man’s shrill laughter broke out, wavering up and down the corridors. When it reached Jack’s ears he started to run faster, roused in by the creature’s mocking laughter. Jack turned a corner and saw him, standing at the end of the hallway. He dashed forward and caught up to it. The hunched man stood in place, beckoning him.
Jack slashed forward, the fury in him concentrating in his arm. The hunched man jumped to the side, avoiding him with ease. He started running and Jack gave chase, following the creature down a hallway. Outside, a storm had started, and thunder roared.
They ran past closed doors and barred windows. Jack paid no heed to them, focusing on the running creature in front of him. The hunched man looked over his shoulder, beckoning Jack with a crazy stare.
The hunched man turned a corner into a hallway that ended in a single door. He started running faster, leaving Jack behind. Jack watched as the hunched man made his way into the room. Following, Jack swung the door open and jumped in.
The room was submerged in darkness. Jack heard the door shut behind him. He looked around, but it was too dark to see anything. His chest heaved up and down, panting from the exhaustion of the run. Muscles hurt but he worked through the pain.
The hunched man’s shrill laughter broke, floating across the darkness. It seemed to come from everywhere at once, attacking Jack’s ears. He endured it, looking everywhere around the room, holding the knife between his hands.
A single circle of light shone bright in the room, illuminating the hunched man inside of it. Jack shielded his eyes, looking through the cracks in his fingers. He saw the butcher woman in the hunched man’s place, then the hunched man, and then the woman again. The creature moved towards Jack, shifting forms as he blinked.
“It’s time for you to pay, Jack.” The creature said, aiming the knife at him. Its voice changed between female and male each word, disorienting Jack.
Jack took his arm off his face. “It’s you who’ll pay, you lunatic! You killed Rose and Travis!” He rushed forward, thrusting the knife forward.
The creature weaved left and right, avoiding Jack’s blows. It then retaliated, swinging at Jack. He felt a nick under his eye, drawing a single tear of scarlet. Jack grabbed the creature’s arm and thrust the knife. It stabbed into the creature’s stomach.
The creature shifted repeatedly in front of Jack, from woman to man to woman to man. It made no move, the knife sticking out of it’s stomach. Jack pulled the knife back and thrust it several times into the creature, deep wounds across the creature’s skin like roads on a map.
Jack thrust one last time, tears streaming from his eyes. He let go of the knife and watched the creature. It regarded him with a pair of sad eyes as it fell to the floor, blood starting to pool around it.
Jack moved away from the creature, covered in blood. He turned away from it, walking back to the exit. “That’s…that’s for killing Rose and Travis.”
“You really think that?” It said, regarding Jack with an indifferent stare, and then a pair of crazy eyes. “They’re fine, if you must ask. It depends on you, actually.”
“Depends on…me?” Jack said. “What…what do you mean?”
There was a loud sigh from the creature. “You realized what this place was long ago, didn’t you?”
“I did. An experiment facility.” Jack said, turning back to the creature.
“But it’s also a test.”
“A test? A test of what?”
“Of survival.” The creature said. “This place is designed for you to make it out, Jack…if you can endure it. You have a lot of weigh on your shoulders, don’t you?”
“Why would I?”
“Haven’t you realized, Jack? This place is different for everybody. It reflects the state of your mind, and the problems you have. You have a lot of guilt, don’t you?”
“Just…just, what are you?”
The creature sat up, looking straight at Jack. “I am whatever the maze wants me to be. I am its eternal prisoner. However, the choice of helping or killing you rests entirely on my shoulders.”
“I can see you didn’t think that out too much.”
The creature got up and walked at Jack. He didn’t move.
“Wrong. You’re troubled, Jack. I can read you like a book. You just don’t know your problem. You haven’t realized it yet. You haven’t realized the truth.”
“The truth? What truth?”
The creature pulled the knife out of its stomach and held it up to Jack. He saw his face reflected on the blade.
“What happened so many years ago, Jack. Why you were put in a mental institution.”
Jack felt a tremendous headache, and fell to his knees, holding his head. The memories of that day came back in a rushing flood.
Lydia stood in the pool of blood her husband left behind. She looks at Jack and drops the knife. Maggie stands beside Jack, scared. In a fit of rage, Jack runs forward, grabbing the knife from the floor. His mother has no time to react. Maggie cries out at the bloody act. The knife in Jack’s hand comes up and down.
Jack stood up from the ground, holding his head between his hands. He looked at the creature, the realization of the truth finally completed.
“I…I killed her.” Jack said, tears falling from his eyes. “My mother didn’t kill herself, I…I…”
That’s right, Jack. The voice inside of him said. It’s about time you realized that you blocked it out. You delusional murderer… The voice drifts away, forever gone from Jack’s mind. He feels a huge weight lifting off his shoulders.
“That’s how I was trying to help you.” The creature said, looking like Jack’s mother. “You’re probably thinking why I didn’t tell you. You wouldn’t have believed me. You wouldn’t have believed me…” It showed the knife to Jack again. “That you were capable of such a thing.”
“You said that, it depended on me. What depends on me? What am I to do now?”
“Survive, Jack.” The creature said. “After all, this is a test. My job is done. All that is left is for you to confront Hoffman.”
“Why did you help me?”
“Because you’re the only one capable of bringing Hoffman’s ambitions to life. Don’t think I voluntarily took the form of your mother and the hunched man, the maze gave them to me. Your mother and the form of guilt.”
“What’s your true form? Do you have one?”
The creature shrugged. “I don’t really know. After living for so long, you tend to find other things to worry over. And the thing you should worry yourself about right now is going to Hoffman’s office.”
“What happened to Rose and Travis?”
“I’m only a prisoner, not the mastermind. But I can tell you they’re alive.” The creature said.
Jack exhaled a sigh of relief, and looked back at the monster. “I just want to say…thank you.”
“It’s my job.” The creature said. “You probably feel like you’re back in the light after being in the darkness for so long, don’t you?”
Jack nodded. He did, too. His mind felt finally complete after so long.
“Again, it’s my job.” The creature started to fade. “So long, Jack Harris.” It faded away, and the room’s lights sprang to life.
Jack looked up at the light bulb. “Who knew. He was my savior.” He looked down, focusing on the single door in front of him. Walking towards it, he could feel the incoming end, the final wrap up to this nightmare.
He opened the door and walked down the hallway, holding the recovered knife in his hand. Jack looked for the stair well. It was open, no barriers in his way. Climbing up the steps, he just now picked up on the steady humming that shook the third floor.
Jack climbed up the stairs and walked into a hallway. It was a single corridor. The walls were a dead black. He walked down the corridor, looking for the director’s door.
He found it, halfway through the corridor. It was wrapped in chains. Jack touched one of them and it fell to the ground.
He looked over his shoulder as he undid the chains. They fell to the ground and he grabbed the doorknob. Jack turned it and stepped into the director’s office.
Hoffman stood in front of his desk, looking out the window. His hands were stuffed into his pockets. He turned around when Jack stepped in. The door closed behind him.
“You’re here. You’ve finally come!” Hoffman said. He looked stoked at Jack’s arrival.
“Yes, Hoffman. I’ve come.” Jack said.
“You must want to drive that knife right through me, don’t you?” Hoffman said, looking too excited over his own death. “Well, go right ahead. I won’t even throw up my arms.”
Jack shook his head. “I’m not here for that. You’re already a dead man, anyways. You just don’t know it yet.”
“Ah, you must be talking about my ‘suicide’. I assure you, I didn’t die then. My Master kept me alive for the Bringing.”
Jack looked around the office, derelict and dilapidated. “Looks like it didn’t work out at all.”
“No, sadly.” Hoffman said. “Instead of bringing my Master to our world, another was created, a mirror version of Ashland.”
“So that’s how this town came to be, and why the town seemed to die three days after you killed yourself.”
“But you’re here, now!” Hoffman said, grinning wide. “And you can fix things, bring him to his rightful place!”
“Hoffman, Atael is a demon. Why would I want to bring him?”
“Because you don’t have a choice, Jack. The maze has prepared you for the bringing.” Hoffman pulled out his gun from his pocket, and aimed it at his face. “You’ll bring about Atael, one way or another.” He pulled the trigger. The director fell over, his head blown off. There was a loud scream coming from everywhere around Jack, and the building started to shake. Jack fell over onto the ground.
He felt the same penetrating force from before, drilling into his mind. Jack screamed and blacked out from the pain.
When he woke up, he was in a white room. The walls, the ceiling, and the floor where white, indistinguishable from each other. Jack tried to move around the room, but he couldn’t feel any sort of progress being made. He felt the penetrating force he had felt back in Hoffman’s office once again, but this time it was all around him, like a thousand needles digging into his skin.
The butcher woman laid on the ground, far away from him. She stood up, without the knife in her hand. It was in Jack’s. Looking straight at him, she started to move towards him, shambling.
When she got to him, she swung a claw towards Jack. He ducked out of the way, dodging with ease. Jack straightened back up, and stared dead into the woman’s eyes.
“This is pathetic. The time trapped in the asylum has weakened you, hasn’t it?” Jack said, dodging another swing. “Dammit, I know who you are! Stop trying to hide behind my mother’s face, Atael!”
The woman swung again. This time Jack caught the arm, holding it in his hand. He held her down, immobilizing her arm. “This is my mind, isn’t it? You’re trying to get to me through my mind. The lack of darkness tipped me off.” Jack said. “But the hunched man was right. My mind is complete now. You can’t hurt me that way anymore.”
He threw her arm over her head, pushing her backwards. She fell on her back and looked at Jack with sorrowful eyes. “Dammit!” Jack roared at her. “You are not my mother! This is my mind, Atael, reveal yourself!”
His anger filled roar echoed through the place. The woman looked around, suddenly afraid, then back at Jack. Atael’s guise of Lydia Harris started to come apart, revealing the demon below. He looked thin, and small, and weak, and completely defenseless, an opposite of the powerful demon Hoffman had seen. Jack felt the penetrating force start to pull out, but he held onto it, made it stay.
“You’ll die without a host, won’t you? I’m not letting you go, then. You deserve to die after all the pain you’ve put me and my friends through!”
Atael looked straight at Jack, his eyes wide when he realized he was unable to leave. “How are you…there is no way…”
“This is my mind, Atael. Here you don’t have any power.” Jack said, walking closer to Atael. “You owe me a few answers. Why me?”
Atael looked straight at Jack. He didn’t think the demon would give an answer, but then it spoke: “Because your mind was conflicted, almost halved. It was perfect for me to occupy.”
“Didn’t work out for you at all, Atael.”
“Please, let me live.” The demon slowly stood up. Jack watched him, watching every move he did. Atael held his hands up. “Please, don’t let me die like this!”
Jack froze. He was pent up with anger, anger at the demon that had created this hellish place. But to kill it while it was on its knees? He could not be so cold-hearted.
He took his eyes away from Atael. In a desperate gamble, Atael dashed forward, his hands outstretched, wrapping around Jack’s neck. Jack stumbled backwards, startled, and drove the knife into Atael’s stomach. The demon groaned in pain but kept his hands locked like a vise around Jack’s neck.
Jack shot his arm forward, hitting the demon in the chin. He stumbled backwards, letting go of Jack. Travis’ pistol suddenly appeared in Jack’s hands, and he looked down at them, dumbstruck for a second.
That’s right. He thought in that moment. This is my mind. I have the power here.
Before Atael could dash forward again, Jack aimed forward and pulled the trigger. The bullet dug into Atael’s eyes, blinding him. Another bullet made the demon jerk backwards, falling on the ground. Jack walked slowly forward, holding the gun in a claw grip.
The demon laid on the ground, bleeding from his wounds. He was getting weaker and weaker by the second, the lack of a host draining his life force. Jack walked up to him and aimed the handgun squarely at his head.
“I took your test, Atael. The maze. Was I too much for you?”
“Fool…” The demon said, breathing heavily. “Were it not for that fool Hoffman, I would be in top form, and the tale would be a different one.
“Doesn’t matter much now, does it? No world ruling for you, demon. Good night.” Jack pulled the trigger. The report of the shot echoed in the walls of his mind, followed by Atael’s death scream, a painful, low pitched roar that shook Jack’s mind.
The body of Atael glowed a blinding white. Jack shielded his eyes and saw nothing more, surrounded by darkness, falling through it.
He woke up to more blinding light. Jack shielded his eyes, and felt prickly grass under his other arm. Sitting up, he discovered it was the sun that had blinded him.
Jack looked around him, expecting the dreary darkness of the mirror Ashland. He found himself in front of the New Mexico Psychiatric State Hospital, sitting under a summer sun in the city of Ashland, New Mexico. The asylum looked old, but not older than it had looked when Jack was put into it.
He looked down at the ground. Sitting on the grass, he saw the knife in his hand. Jack raised it up to his face, looking at his reflection in the blade. Like the hunched man, the knife had turned out to be his savior.
Rose gave it to me after I lost that lead pipe…Wait…Rose? Rose!
He looked around again, looking for any signs of his friend and her father. When he saw Rose lying on the grass, a few yards away from him, his heart leapt at the sight. Travis was lying on the ground as well.
Jack got up, dropping the knife. It fell on the ground, forgotten, its purpose fulfilled. He ran to Rose and stopped by her body, shaking her.
Her voice was one of someone who has trouble waking up and getting out of bed. “Where…where are we…Jack…?” She opened her eyes, seeing Jack’s face hovering over hers. Just like Jack, her heart also took a leap. “Jack!” Rose sat up, facing him. “Where…were are we?”
Jack smiled wide, his tears streaming down his face. “We…we’re out, Rose. We made it. We beat the maze. We’re back in Ashland.”
Her eyes grew wide, taking the surroundings in. She closed them, tears slipping out. “You did it…you got all of us out of here, Jack…”
Jack had no words. He rushed forward and grabbed Rose, pulling her into a kiss that had been long coming. Rose embraced him back.
Travis came to consciousness, sitting up confusedly. He was about to speak when he saw the two of them. Instead, he smiled softly and let them enjoy their happiness. His would come later.
Jack stood in front of three graves, wearing a heavy rain jacket. The dirtiness in his face from the maze had been washed off, and he wore new clothes. The three graves in front of him stood close together, on purpose.
“This is what you meant by too late, huh?” Jack said, speaking aloud. “I had no idea…I would never be able to complete that promise.” He started to remember that day when he rushed into another asylum.
Jack rushed over to the counter, facing a nurse.
“I’m looking for Magdalene Harris.” He said. “I was told she had been committed to this asylum…?”
The nurse’s eyes turned sorrowful. His heart dropped in his chest.
“I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.” She said. “But Magdalene committed suicide a week ago. I’m really sorry for your loss, sir.”
Jack felt the world around him fall to pieces. “Wh…what?”
She nodded. “She was found, hanging from the ceiling fan in her room. There was no suicide note or anything of the sort, but we all think the news of her brother were too much for her. Poor girl, losing family like that…”
“News of her brother…?”
She nodded again. “Her brother was found dead, a few days before her suicide.” The nurse said. “Again, I’m really sorry for your loss. I’m sorry if this sounds rude, but who were you to her?”
Jack was speechless. He shook his head, breaking from his stupor, and spoke. “Just…just a friend who wanted to check up on her. Thanks for telling me.”
“She was buried at the cemetery not too far from here, if you want to know. The hospital took care of it. The sweetest girl, she was…”
“Yeah. She was.” Jack said. “Again, thanks for telling me.” Before the nurse could reply, he rushed out of the hospital.
The grave before him read “Magdalene Harris”, with the date of birth and death underneath.
“You know, for the longest time I didn’t know what to do. I considered suicide, myself.” Jack said. “But…you would have never forgiven me for that, would you? You would want me to stay strong, and live my life. I’m sorry I couldn’t keep my promise to you, Maggie.” He looked down as tears hit the dirt beneath him.
“If you were here, you’d elbow me in the ribs and say ‘Cheer up, brother!’. If you were here…all I did to survive…I really wish you were here to see it.” Jack ran the back of his hand under his eyes, wiping away tears.
“I really love you, sis. And I know that if you had met Rose, she would have loved you too. She’s a sweet girl, you know? I love her, too. Without her, I don’t think I could have survived the maze. Or without you. I want to say thanks, for giving me the strength to keep on moving, even if you weren’t really there at the end.”
He looked back up at the grave. “Rest in peace, Maggie.” Jack turned around. Rose was standing there, a bouquet of roses in her hands. She put it down in front of Maggie’s grave.
“Hey.” Jack said.
“Hey.” Rose said, smiling at him. “You holding up okay?”
“Surprisingly, yeah.” Jack said, wiping away one last tear. “I don’t think she would want me to mop over it, anyway. How’s Travis?”
“Back with mom. She couldn’t believe it. She couldn’t believe that the love of her life was back with her.”
“Yeah, I wouldn’t believe it, either.” Jack said, wrapping an arm around Rose’s waist. “We’re about to make a life of our own, aren’t we?”
“Yes, we are.” She said, resting her head on his shoulder. “Is that what Maggie would want?”
“I think she’d want me to be happy, yeah.” Jack said.
“I wouldn’t worry about that. Everything’s going to be alright now, isn’t it?” Rose said. Jack nodded in response.
They walked away from the graves, together.
Jack and Rose would live on to get married, have children, and grow old together. The notes Jack had written had gotten lost, but he found out that he didn’t really mind: it was over, and it was best to leave it like that. He got treatment for his schizophrenia and managed to live his life in relative normality. But sometimes, in the middle of the night, he would remember his life in the maze, and hear the shrill laughter of the hunched man, his hidden savior.