Flash fic challenge – Labyrinthine Sailor

New Chuck Wendig challenge. New weird story. Although, I kind of want to see where this one goes from here ….

Labyrinthine Sailor

The bar was as inexplicable inside as it had been on the outside.

The tables and chairs seemed to grow up from a floor of living wood, which on first blush was impossible. There was a tree and there was wood, but you couldn’t have it processed and unprocessed at the same time. Except here, where the floor looked smoothed and planed, and yet a fingernail scratch brought sap to the surface, and the bartenders had to trim back rogue branches between rounds.

The wood even felt somewhat lukewarm, bringing to mind body heat, which was why Mallory was reluctant to sit down. If it was still alive, could it feel? It was a creepy thought. Even stepping on it made her feel weird, but she was already committed. She just tried to tread lightly.

She had no idea where she was. Days ago – if she was counting time right, which was up for serious debate – she simply woke up here. Mallory had never believed in an afterlife, but she thought perhaps she had died and ended up in someone’s hell or purgatory, at least until she stubbed her toe. If she was dead, she shouldn’t have been able to feel pain, right? She just didn’t know. And as it turned out, no one else knew either.

Everyone else she had spoken to had no idea what this place was either. It seemed no one had arrived here deliberately or knew its name. It was simply called “the Maze”, because that’s what it was: a maze of colossal walls, where the homes were built into them and on top of either other, like some surrealist painting. You could wander forever and never quite grasp where you were.

Except … rumor had it there was one person who could actually find their way around the maze, knew its directions and contours like no one else. Rumors had it they were magic, had some fantastic machine, was related to the fabled makers of the maze, or was an immortal/god/demon/ghost/monster. Supposedly they could be found every other night or so in this curious bar, at a back corner table. They had something called a “black oil coat” – Mallory had no idea what that was – and a maze tattoo on the back of their hand.

She retreated into the shadowy back half of the bar, and saw lots of suspicious characters, but not the suspicious character she was looking for. Then she noticed a glistening out of the corner of her eye, and turned to see someone seated alone, wearing a coat that looked wet. Wet, black, and … moving? It almost looked like the liquid black was shifting with its own random patterns, like a lava lamp in jacket form. Was that a black oil coat? As she got closer, she saw the wearer was a woman, her hair cut savagely short and colored an odd shade of purple. As she took a slug from her glass of amber liquid, Mallory saw she had a tattoo of circles within circles on the back of her right hand. That couldn’t have been anything but a maze.

Still, as she came up to her table, she asked, “Are you the one they call the Ferryman?”

The woman nodded, setting down her glass. She had a sharp featured face, like a bird of prey, and her eyes were a bright, clear red, like a candle flame seen through a glass of wine. “I’m not a man, but the rest of it’s true.”

Mallory gestured at an empty chair, and the Ferryman nodded. Once she was seated, Mallory asked, “Is it true? You can travel the maze at will?”

She dipped her head. “I know it like the back of my hand.” She smiled thinly at her own joke.

“Can you take me out of it?”

She scoffed. “Honey, if there was a way outta here, do you think I’d be here?”

That was probably a fair point. Mallory felt a slight surge of sorrow, but she was used to that by now. “So there’s no hope for any of us?”

“From what I know, no.”

“Nothing? Not even rumors?”

The Ferryman took another swallow of her drink before she responded. “Well, things get really weird the deeper you go into the maze. You think it’s strange now, but you have no idea how fucked it gets. There’s a dark center of nothing. But supposedly there’s a legend, of a key that will open the door. But a million keys have been tried, and all have failed. You got a special key, girly?”

Suddenly her mind raced to the ache in her forearm, the one that had bedeviled her since she showed up here. She rolled up her sleeve and took off the gauze she had wrapped around her arm, revealing the oddly ornate tattoo of what looked like a skeleton key. There was tiny writing on it, but in no language she was familiar with. “I don’t know. Does this look special to you?”

The Ferryman sat forward, staring at the tatoo like she could read it. Then she sat back heavily, making her chair scrape across the floor. “Holy shit, girl. You just booked passage on my ship.”

“Good,” Mallory said, pulling her sleeve back over the mark. Hopefully it would be the trip that would get her home.

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