I. The High Priestess
The interior of the fortune teller’s tent was almost exactly as I’d expected. The ground was covered with a motheaten old Persian rug, and the air was thick with smoky incense. A single lamp hung overhead, furthering the ambience of the place.
Madam Pythia herself sat behind a circular table on which was set an honest-to-gods crystal ball. Though dressed for the part, in a flowing poet’s shirt and ruffled skirt, she didn’t look the type. She was young, for a start, probably just out of college. Her sandy red-blonde hair was tucked neatly away beneath an emerald bandana that nicely complemented her eyes. Freckles were dusted across her cheeks and pug nose.
“Welcome,” she said as I took a seat. Her voice was low and husky, inflected with a vaguely Eastern European accent. It sounded like she was doing a bad Bela Lugosi impression. “I am Madam Pythia. Oracle, seer. You come to have your fortune read, yes?”
“Yep,” I said, leaning back in my chair. “So how’s this work?”
“There are many ways of parting the mystical veil,” she said, waving one long-nailed hand. Bangles and bracelets adorned her wrist. “How you choose to peer beyond the mortal coil is a matter of great import. The mode in which a fortune is read may affect the interpretation.”
“Do you have a menu or something?”
The corners of her mouth lifted in the briefest of smiles.
“Services are listed on the sign outside the tent,” she said, dropping the Dracula impression. Her real voice was higher, and her accent the same faint Appalachian drawl that most people in this part of the country possessed. “Palmistry, cards, crystal balls. Twenty bucks a reading.”
“Across the board?” I whistled. “That’s quite a steal.”
“People come here for different things,” Madam Pythia shrugged. “Some are true believers after a mystical experience. Most are just kids or bored adults looking to buy into the spirit of the season. Fortune telling’s a quintessential part of the harvest festival experience, after all.”
“Quintessential?” I grinned. “I like that. So. Which am I?”
She looked me over with a critical eye: Leather jacket, jeans, boots, messy hair. “You don’t look like most of the regulars. Don’t talk like you’re from around here, either.”
“Is that unusual?”
“Nah,” Madam Pythia said, shaking her head. “We’re famous, y’know. Minnett’s Orchard actually shows up in a couple of travel guides to southern Virginia. People come from all over for the harvest festival. We got apple picking, hayrides, pumpkin carving, bobbing for apples, dunking booths. Pretty much everything short of actual trick-or-treating. Even got up a small petting zoo where kids can play with rabbits and baby goats.”
“And there’s the Maze,” I added.
“Of course,” she said, but for the briefest moment I sensed a hesitation in her voice. “Biggest corn maze on the East Coast. Twenty-five acres, and the corn’s over twelve feet high. Fifteen, in some places.”
I whistled appreciatively.
“Back to your question,” she said. “You’re passing through, decided to stop and see the Maze, and came in here for something to do while you wait for it to get dark.”
“Guilty,” I admitted. She was mostly right, although her summation wasn’t the whole truth of why I was at Minnett’s Orchard.
“So then, Miss…”
“Allie,” I supplied, slapping a twenty onto the table.
“Allie,” Madam Pythia smiled, folding the bill into one of her voluminous sleeves. “Pick your poison.”
My name is Althea Stagg. Allie, to my friends.
I’m a detective, a bona-fide private eye. I’ve got a license and everything.
I’m also a demigod.
See, the old gods of ancient Greece –Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite, and the rest- are real. Thousands of years ago they were worshipped outright all across the Aegean, and they took an active hand in shaping mortal affairs. Today they’ve moved on to more subtle expressions of their dominion, preferring to pull strings from behind the curtain of reality.
Occasionally, they’ll settle down with a mortal long enough to have a kid with them. In the olden times those were heroes like Theseus, Heracles, and Achilles.
Today there’s me.
“Are you familiar with tarot?” Madam Pythia asked conversationally, producing a deck of cards. She spoke in her real voice, not the vampire affectation.
“Can’t say I am,” I shook my head.
“The cards have a symbolic meaning,” she said as she began shuffling them. “The Tower card, for instance. It’s supposed to represent ruination, sudden calamity.”
Madam Pythia separated the deck into two piles and, holding them flat against the table, leafed them together. The sound of the cards being riffled together was loud in the still tent, and I found myself holding my breath.
“You choose three cards from the deck. One’s your past, one’s your present, and the last is your future. You follow?”
I nodded as she poured the deck from one hand into the other, the cards cascading like a waterfall, then back again. Impressed, I wondered if perhaps the young fortune teller had been a casino dealer in a former life.
“Your full name, please,” she said, fanning the deck out across the table in a half-circle, cards facedown.
“Althea Diana Stagg.”
Madam Pythia paused, fingers spread over the cards, and looked up at me quizzically.
“Mm,” she nodded. “So’s mine.”
“Nah,” she laughed. “My real name.”
I grinned. “And that is?”
“Ask me after the reading,” she said, and winked. “Maybe I’ll tell you.”
She waved her hands over the half-circle of cards.
“Althea Diana Stagg,” she said, faux Romanian once again. “Pick your first card, the symbol of your past.”
I reached out and tapped one at random. Madam Pythia deftly flipped it faceup and set it on the table before me.
A woman in blue robes with a crown on her head, seated on a throne. Her painted hair was the same strawberry blonde as the fortune teller’s.
“The High Priestess,” Madam Pythia said. “A woman of mystical insight and spiritual knowledge. There has been such a one in your life, no?”
You don’t know the half of it, I wanted to say, but restrained myself. I had tangled with the goddesses of Olympus before on occasion; my own mother was one such.
“I’d say so,” I said, careful to sound unimpressed.
“Hmm,” Madam Pythia said, tapping her chin with one finger. I noticed her long nails were artificial –just one more piece of set dressing. “Next card. Your present circumstances, or those in the very near future.”
I picked another at random, and once again she flipped it faceup, revealing a man and a woman, both naked. They stood before what looked like a labyrinth, a twisting and turning maze.
“The Lovers,” she announced.
I grinned widely. The faintest blush crept across Madam Pythia’s freckle-dusted cheeks.
“They represent choice,” she continued, recovering herself. “A decision to be made, perhaps. Or an ordeal to be endured.”
“Present circumstances,” I repeated, then stretched my arms. “Way too apt. Every day’s an ordeal for me.”
“If I had a nickel for every time I heard that,” she muttered, Appalachian once again. Her eyes widened. “I’m sorry, I didn’t-”
“It’s fine,” I said, waving a hand. “Everyone’s problems look bigger from the inside, right?”
“Right,” she said, smiling gratefully. “Thanks for…not taking that the wrong way.”
“Not a problem. Last card?”
“Yup,” she nodded. “Your future.”
I picked my card. I knew, somehow, even before I saw it.
A skeleton, draped in a black robe, a scythe clutched between fleshless hands.
“Death,” Madam Pythia said.
For a few moments the silence hung heavy in the incense-scented tent. Then I laughed.
“I mean,” I said, catching my breath as Madam Pythia frowned at me over the tarot deck, “it’s not wrong. What’s the aphorism? We’re all born with one foot in the grave?”
“Yeah,” she nodded. “But the cards’ meanings aren’t literal, remember? Death isn’t about death.”
“It symbolizes change,” she said, looking down at the painted skeleton on the table. “Endings. Transition. That kind of thing.”
“That’s not so bad, then,” I shrugged. “You only stop changing when you die.”
“True enough,” Madam Pythia nodded. A fleeting look of sadness passed over her face, and I felt a pang of guilt as I remembered why I had come to Minnett’s Orchard in the first place.
“Well,” I said, trying to pretend I hadn’t noticed. “Thanks for the reading.”
She smiled lopsidedly at me. “Thanks for the twenty.”
“Listen,” I said. “I don’t know my way around Minnett’s. Mind giving me a tour?”
She laughed and produced an iPhone from behind the crystal ball, checked the time on it. “I get a break in twenty minutes. Meet me in the apple orchard?”
II. The Lovers
Autumn hung heavy in the air.
I felt it in the crisp bite of the wind and the dark sullen skies, heard it in the crunching and rustling of leaves, smelled it in the heady, overripe apples hanging from their branches. I shivered and pulled my jacket closer about me, looking down the hill at the neat rows of apple trees beneath the orange evening sky.
Madam Pythia trudged up the hill towards me. She had swapped the ruffled skirt for a pair of jeans and knee-high rain boots. Gone too were the bangles and fake nails. But she still wore the poet’s shirt under a peacoat, and the emerald bandana remained jauntily on her head.
I pulled my hand out of my jacket pocket and waved. She waved back, then jogged the last dozen yards up the hill.
“There you are,” she said, huffing as she reached me. “I always forget how steep this hill is.”
“I wanted a view,” I shrugged.
“Can’t say I blame you,” she said, looking back over her shoulder. The whole of Minnett’s Orchard was spread out below us: the rows of apple trees, the farm and its outbuildings. I could even see the petting zoo on the other side of the gravel parking lot. And to the west, framed under the lowering sun, the Maze itself.
She turned back to me, one corner of her mouth tugged up in a smile. “So. Althea Stagg, right?”
“Call me Allie.” I looked down at her. She wasn’t short, but I tend to tower over most other women. “Do I call you Madam Pythia?”
She snorted –an ugly, unfeminine sound of amusement that I found immensely charming.
“God no. That’s a stage name, hon.”
“I know,” I grinned.
“Ari and Allie,” I said. “Cute.”
“I thought so,” she grinned. “So, Allie. You ever been apple picking?”
“Can’t say I’ve had the pleasure.”
She reached up, deftly plucking an apple from a low-hanging branch and handing it to me. About half the size of the supermarket variety, its red-yellow skin was waxy to the touch.
“You know how to tell if it’s ripe?”
I shook my head and handed it back. “Enlighten me.”
Ari produced a pocketknife and cut the apple in half with a practiced motion. The flesh inside was a pale greenish white.
“Brown seeds,” she said, showing me the core. “That’s good. If the fruit’s too young the seeds are white.”
“So it’s ripe?”
“Not quite. Still green on the inside, right? It’s not tinted like that if it’s ripe.” She took a small, experimental nibble. Her whole face contracted into a look of distaste, and she spat out the bite. “Blah! Too sour.”
I nodded. “Let me try.”
There are benefits to being tall. Reaching higher fruits, for one. I plucked an apple and held it out for Ari’s inspection.
“Oh, that’s a nice one,” she said, nodding appreciatively. She took it and took a big bite. Apple juice foamed at the corners of her mouth as she chewed, her eyes closed in quiet bliss.
“What, no dissection?”
Ari wiped the juice from her mouth and shook her head. “Not necessary. I can tell a really good one from a mile off.”
“So that whole thing with the unripe one was just you showing off, then.”
“Yup,” she admitted cheerfully, a playful glint in her green eyes. She was cute in a sort of femme Tom Sawyer way; all wholesome and cornfed. “Were you impressed?”
Ari grinned and handed me the apple. I held it to my mouth, breathing in its rich smell. I took a bite, closing my eyes to savor the crisp sweetness of the tender flesh beneath the ruddy skin. It was juicy and sweet and tasted like fall.
We walked through the grey twilight between the rows of apple trees.
“I’ve got a question,” I said.
“How does one become a professional teller of fortunes?”
Ari laughed. “You interested in a job? Parter of the mystic veil and such?”
I smiled down at her. “What if I was?”
She studied my face, trying to tell if I was serious or not. “I didn’t take you for the credulous type, Allie.”
“You’d be surprised.”
Very surprised, if she ever found out anything about my true nature.
“Then I’m afraid I can’t help you,” Ari shrugged. “I got the job through good old-fashioned nepotism.”
“You’re related to Minnett?”
“Yup,” she nodded. “Farmer Tom’s my pop.”
“Really?” I asked, feigning surprise.
Ari nodded. I already knew who she was; it was the reason I had visited “Madam Pythia’s” tent in the first place.
I had not come to Minnett’s to have my fortune read. I was there on a case.
“So,” I asked as we walked past a gaggle of tourists bobbing for apples, “has the farm been in the family long?”
“Ages and ages,” Ari nodded. “Like, Civil War days.”
I whistled appreciatively.
“The harvest festival’s new, though.” She frowned and shook her head. “Sorry, it’s not. We always used to throw a party here around the week of Halloween. Did it for ages and ages, back to Pop’s grandpa’s time. But Pop’s the one who turned it into this.”
She waved a hand, encompassing the apple bobbers, the petting zoo, the dunking booth, and the Maze: everything that made Minnett’s Orchard an attraction.
“He started it about…ten years ago, now. Just the Maze, at first. He and Ty spent the whole summer planting the corn so that’d it’d grow into a maze. They used to spend hours in the evening plotting it out, drawing maps on the kitchen table.”
A faint, sad smile had fallen across her face. I hated myself for doing it, but I asked anyway.
“Tyler,” Ari said quietly. “My brother.”
“I didn’t know you had a brother,” I lied.
“He…” she shook her head, avoided my eyes. “He died, a few years back.”
A pause. “We think.”
“I’m sorry,” I told her, and meant it. Then, hating myself ever more for pushing the subject: “You think?”
“Yeah. It…it was weird.”
She took a seat on a bale of hay, looking out at the entrance to the Maze. I sat beside her. She stiffened but didn’t pull away.
“It was…seven years back, now,” she began, eyes fixed on the cornstalks. “Ty was eighteen, I was sixteen. He and his girlfriend, Sophie, went into the Maze one night and just…didn’t come out.”
“They got lost?” I asked. “It’s a pretty huge maze.”
“No way,” Ari shook her head. “Like I said, Ty helped Pop design the Maze. He knew every turn, every dead end and false trail. He was more likely to get lost in our own home than in there.”
She hunched over, resting her chin in her hand.
“It was hours before anyone noticed they were missing,” she continued, her voice even but strained. “Maze takes a long time to get through. Wasn’t until the sun came up and Pop and I realized Ty hadn’t come home that we started to worry. Even then, we figured he and Sophie were just out all night. You know how kids are.”
I nodded, remembering certain nights from my own teen years.
“Finally we got a search party together. Just a few neighbors at first, but as days went by and there was no sign of Ty or Sophie, people started to worry. Half the town volunteered, and we called in the police. Even had them search the creek. Nothing.”
I wanted to put a comforting hand on her shoulder, say a kind word, anything. But I was afraid she might close up, and I needed to hear this. So I said nothing, and let her talk, and hated myself for being so callous.
“The police suspected foul play,” Ari continued, slumping back against the hay. “Two kids disappear, clearly hadn’t gotten lost. At first they thought Ty might have done something to Sophie and ran off. Then they tried to pin it on my pop.”
“That’s terrible,” I said, meaning it.
“Yeah,” she nodded. “I, uh, went through a big true crime phase after Ty disappeared. Usually the family members are the first to fall under suspicion. Most perps of violent crimes are known to the victims. Pop got the short end of that stick.”
“But they must have cleared him, right?”
“Eventually,” she nodded. “No evidence and no motive. Plus, he had a rock-solid alibi. He was working the dunking booth all that night. Dozens of people attested to his whereabouts. Not that that stopped the cops from making a few unannounced house calls.”
“Yeah.” She crossed her legs. “I’ll probably never know what happened. The case went cold years back. My therapist says that I need to make peace with it. Learn to live with the mystery and accept that life’s full of unexplained tragedy and that it comes to all of us at some point or another. Y’know, the usual horseshit.”
I laughed despite myself, and was rewarded with a faint, freckled smile.
“It’s just hard, you know?” she said, her voice breaking ever so slightly. “I just. I miss him, is all.”
“Yeah,” I said, taking her hand. “I do.”
She looked at me, expression doubtful. I cleared my throat.
“I…uh. I lost my dad.”
Her expression softened. “I’m sorry.”
“Thanks,” I said, the reply automatic. “I was…a few years older than you were, I think. Just turned eighteen. But it was sudden. I still have questions, you know?”
“Yeah,” she nodded, and squeezed my hand. “I know.”
We walked to the Maze’s entrance, still holding hands. The high stalks of corn towered over us on either hand. Above, just visible through the narrow rows of corn, the first stars had begun to glimmer in the purple light of the sunset sky.
“Sure I can’t convince you to go in with me?” I asked, smiling down at her.
Ari returned the smile but shook her head.
“My break’s almost over. Gotta go part the mystic veil for the bored and curious.”
I laughed. “And here I was hoping you could Sherpa me through the corn labyrinth.”
“Oh, I can do better than that,” Ari said, grinning and wiggling her eyebrows. “I can tell you how to get through it fastest.”
“Yup.” She peered into the dark Maze. “Anytime you come to a fork, take the left-hand turn, unless there’s a skeleton there.”
I blinked. “A skeleton?”
“Plaster skeletons,” she said, waving a hand. “Like the kind used in anatomy classes. Anyway, if there’s a skeleton at the fork, turn right. If there’s more than one skeleton, keep straight. Always left if there’s no skeleton. Got that?”
“Skeleton, right. Skeletons, straight. Otherwise, left.” I smiled at her. “Thanks for taking me apple picking.”
“My pleasure,” Ari smiled back. “Sorry if it got a little…real.”
“Don’t be.” I squeezed her hand and turned to go, but she held me fast.
“One more thing,” she said.
She reached up and untied the emerald green bandana from around her head, shaking out her mane of pretty strawberry blonde hair, then fastened the bandana around my wrist.
“For luck,” she said. She hesitated a moment, then stood on her tiptoes and kissed me swiftly on the lips.
“Was that for luck too?” I asked, cheeks burning.
“No,” Ari shook her head. Her own freckled cheeks were flushed, too. “That’s because I felt like it. I’ll see you later?”
In response, I leaned down and kissed her back.
I watched as Ari walked off, her jacket pulled tight against the oncoming night. Only once she had ducked back into the fortune telling tent did I turn and face the Maze before me.
I liked her. I really did. That was why I felt so damned guilty about using her.
Tyler Minnett and his girlfriend, Sophie Kaiser, were the first reported disappearances on or around Minnett’s Orchard. But they were not the last.
Every year for the last seven years, at least one person went missing in the vicinity, right around the time Minnett’s Orchard went into full harvest festival mode. Usually the missing persons were just passing through; solitary tourists who’d come to visit the famous Maze, their disappearances neither noticed nor reported until days or weeks later.
I’d learned about Minnett’s from a former coworker, a cop that I’m still on friendly terms with. He had lived near Minnett’s before moving to the city and had even been on the search team that went looking for the missing couple. He told me about the disappearances that followed, but that nothing had ever come of any of those investigations, either. I promised to do some digging of my own.
As part of my due diligence, I made some inquiries on the divine side of things as well. Fate has a funny way of weaving both halves of my life together, and so I was hardly surprised to discover a connection.
Like most of my work, Minnett’s was a family matter. The owner of the orchard, the farmer Tom Minnett, was a fellow demigod: a son of Demeter, goddess of the harvest. Several years ago, he did something that offended Zeus. Not a difficult feat to accomplish, in and of itself, but for whatever reason Zeus had been so wroth with the farmer that he had placed a heavy curse on him and his family.
I know my family history, and I know mythology. In my case they’re the same thing. Both have a funny way of repeating themselves.
Tom Minnett offends Zeus, King of Olympus and chief of the gods. Around that same time, Minett’s son and his son’s girlfriend disappear inside the Maze, never to be seen again. And every year since, someone else disappears from Minnett’s Orchard.
I knew what had happened –what was happening. There was a monster in the middle of that cornfield, preying on the unwary who wandered through the Maze.
And I had come to slay it.
It was dark inside the Maze.
The sun had set, the only illumination the dim glow of the harvest moon hanging red and heavy in the sky above.
It was easy to see how someone could lose themselves between the rows. The corn pressed in claustrophobically at either hand, the ground below carpeted with corn silk and fallen leaves. The path turned and twisted suddenly, and I silently recited Ari’s instructions at every intersection.
I turned left, walking past a dead end where a plaster skeleton had been propped up against a hay bale, a straw hat atop its skull. It was comical, but unsettlingly reminded me of the final card Ari had drawn. I shivered.
The hunter’s moon shone down, huge and red. I pulled my jacket tighter around me and plunged deeper into the labyrinth.
Fifteen minutes in.
I had come across a few other wanderers. I nodded as I passed them, keeping one hand pressed against the knife hidden under my jacket. I didn’t know what form the monster would take, but I would be prepared when I found it.
Or it found me.
I was alone among the corn when an unearthly screech shattered the tranquil autumn night.
Gooseflesh prickled down my arms and my heart leapt into my throat as I wrapped my hand around the concealed knife. Ahead, barely glimpsed through the rows of corn, a dark shadow moved in the night.
The shape swooped down at me out of the darkness, looming from behind the cornstalks. It was impossibly tall, towering above the maze, running swiftly at me on legs longer than I was tall. A skeletal face leered down at me from beneath a black hood.
Death, I thought numbly.
It teetered towards me, outstretched arms flapping in the nighttime breeze, a vast black scarecrow silhouetted against the moonlit sky.
I was already in motion, drawing my knife from my jacket and pulling it free of its sheath. My heart hammered in my chest as the skeletal giant towered over me, voluminous cloak fluttering in the breeze.
It paused, leered down at me.
“Jesus, lady,” a muffled voice said, from somewhere around its chest. “Is that a freaking machete?”
“Uh,” I said, hastily re-sheathing the knife. “Yeah. In case I need to, y’know. Make a shortcut.”
Beneath the cloak I glimpsed a pair of battered Chuck Taylors. This was no monstrosity, just some kid on stilts, giving visitors their money’s worth at the haunted corn maze.
“Well,” the kid said, his muffled voice sounding doubtful, “you should probably put it away. Don’t need you whacking any of the other haunts with that thing.”
“Got it,” I said, stowing the knife back in my jacket. “Sorry. Happy hunting.”
“Yeah,” the kid said, striding off on his stilts. “Same to you.”
“You have no idea,” I muttered to myself once he was safely away.
An hour in.
I rounded yet another of the maze’s endless turns. I had encountered a few more haunts, like the stiltwalker, all teenagers dressed as zombies and creepy clowns and the like. But it had been a long time since I had come across so much as another soul.
The skeletons, at least, were more or less a constant. They stood in dead ends and at forks in the Maze, displayed in tableaus that alternated between comical and grotesque.
I turned and found another pair of skeletons, these two posed and dressed like the couple in that famous American Gothic painting. The one on the right held a genuine pitchfork in its bony fingers.
The Lovers, I thought grimly as I continued on, thinking back to the tarot reading.
Ari had been a skeptic, but her reading had been accurate. And her grandmother was a goddess. Even if she didn’t know it herself, that was likely to gift her with some measure of divine power, however slight.
I walked on for a while longer, making the correct turns, until at last I came to an open space. I knew somehow that I had reached the heart of the Maze, its exact center, marked by a single standing stone as tall as I was. It shone, pale and wan in the moonlight, like a finger pointing at the night sky.
Then the stench hit me.
A musky, animal scent that smelled of hay and offal and urine and sweating bovine bodies, it drifted through the cornstalks like a noxious gas.
A hulking shadow followed it. I could see it moving through the cornstalks, a darkness within darkness. This was no haunt. This was the monster lurking at the heart of the Maze. The monster responsible for the disappearances of Tyler Minnett, his girlfriend Sophie, and several others.
A deep, huffing snort as the shadow drew closer. It had to be at least eight feet tall. What I could see of its frame and arms was massively, almost grotesquely muscled.
I steadied my stance and drew the knife from my jacket.
In the olden days these were the things that heroes would face. Perseus and his mirror shield cut the head from Medusa. Heracles strangled the Nemean Lion, Odysseus put out the cyclops’ eye, and so on.
I’m not a hero, not by a long shot. But I share the same divine heritage as those ancients, and here was a monster preying on the innocent. I couldn’t stand by and let it continue.
It emerged into the clearing, the bloody harvest moon illuminating it for the first time.
The Devil, I thought.
Its body was covered in a pelt of shaggy reddish-brown fur. Eight feet tall, broad-chested and thick-limbed, it had a goat’s head, with a long snout and a curling beard. It stood upright on backward-bending legs that ended in cloven hooves. The eyes were yellow, with horizontal pupils. Curled horns added another two feet to its height.
A minotaur, I amended. This is a labyrinth, after all.
I drew the knife from its sheath.
It wasn’t a machete, although I couldn’t fault the haunt for thinking it was. The blade was bronze, not steel, with a distinct recurved shape: forward-curving, broader and heavier near the tip. It was a kopis, an ancient weapon meant for chopping, and one of the few material gifts I had received from my divine parent.
Its name was Kori.
The minotaur’s weird horizontal pupils narrowed as they fixed on the blade, but it took another step forward. With another snorting grunt it stepped further into the clearing, then lowered its head and bleated like a goat, a sound at once petulant and threatening.
“Come on, then,” I told it.
It bleated again, pawing at the ground like a bull. Then it set its head down and charged, the tips of its curling horns set to gore me.
It tore across the clearing in a series of weird bounding leaps, like a goat. I could scarcely believe something so huge could move so fast.
Even ready for it, I barely dodged aside in time. The tip of one horn caught my jacket, tearing it and sending me reeling away. I lashed out blindly with Kori and was rewarded with a bleat of pain as the heavy blade bit into something solid.
The minotaur recovered, whirling to face me. I slashed at it again, but it hopped nimbly away on its backward-bending legs, then bounded forward again to kick me in the chest.
Its cloven hooves hit me like a wrecking ball, knocking the wind from me and sending me flying back a dozen feet, my feet clear off the ground. Kori went flying from my hand. The matted carpet of corn silk and leaves did nothing to break my fall. I let out a grunt of pain as I landed heavily on my side.
The minotaur let out a triumphant bleat and put its head down to charge again as I staggered to my feet. I looked around desperately for Kori but couldn’t see where the knife had landed. The minotaur was already bounding toward me, unsettlingly fast.
I threw myself clear, felt a thick blast of fetid stink hit me as I scrambled away. It missed me by mere inches.
No time to find the blade, I thought. Gotta get away from this petting zoo reject.
Besides, another idea was already forming.
I took to my feet and ran, the huffing and bleating of the enraged minotaur close at my heels.
I sprinted through the twists and turns of the Maze, desperately trying to apply the instructions Ari had given me in reverse. Right turn, unless there’s a skeleton. One skeleton, turn left. More than one, keep straight.
The minotaur was close behind. I could judge its distance solely from the cacophony of it crashing through the narrow corn rows, and by its every bleating breath.
A cloud passed over the moon. Rounding another corner, I was greeted by the most welcome sight I could imagine.
American Gothic, I thought as I dashed towards the pair of plaster skeletons. I seized the pitchfork with both hands and pulled. Behind me the minotaur’s bleating grew into a roar as it drew nearer.
The pitchfork wouldn’t give. The skeletal hands were locked tightly about it. The cloud passed, and the harvest moon revealed that the pitchfork was bolted to the skeleton’s palm.
A death grip, I thought crazily as the minotaur emerged from the cornrows. It set its head down, horns towards me, and charged, bleating angrily.
I tore the pitchfork free. The skeleton’s hand came with it and I wheeled about, clutching the shaft of the pitchfork with both hands as the minotaur came crashing down on me.
The impact forced me to the ground and left me stunned, head reeling. A mass of stinking hairy flesh pressed down on top of me, gross and suffocating. I gagged and pushed at it, but I might as well have been trapped beneath a mountain. Instead I turned to one side and crawled my way out from under the beast, fingers digging into dirt and corn silk.
I emerged into the cold October night, threw myself to the side and retched. Then I lay still for a while, staring up at the bloody harvest moon.
Once I felt well enough to stand, I rose shakily to look down at my handiwork.
The minotaur lay sprawled out among the corn, its great shaggy bulk unmoving. The four sharp tines of the pitchfork protruded from the back of its skull and neck, and its weird goat eyes stared sightlessly at the harvest moon.
“You killed him,” a voice said.
I turned. A middle-aged man, barrel-chested and clad in denim overalls, was walking slowly toward me. His reddish beard was dusted with grey, and that alone told me who he was.
“Farmer Minnett,” I said, then looked back towards the minotaur’s body. “I think I did.”
He stopped beside me and nodded, looking down at the fallen monster, then back up at me. Tom Minnett had what people call an honest face, plain but open. It betrayed no surprise at either the monster in his corn maze, or at the woman who had killed it. Instead his expression was one of mingled sadness and relief.
“You don’t seem too freaked out at a giant goat monster in this cornfield,” he observed.
I shrugged. “Far from the strangest thing I’ve seen.”
“You’re family, then,” he said, a knowing look in his eye.
“Distantly,” I said. “Name’s Stagg.”
“Tom Minnett,” he said, putting out his hand. I shook it. Then we stood silent for a minute, looking at the minotaur’s body.
“It’s a mercy, really,” he said at last. He had the same faint Appalachian accent as his daughter, Ari. “I should have done it myself years ago. Would have saved a lot of trouble.”
“And lives,” I said quietly.
“Yup,” he said, nodding his acquiescence. “That too. I couldn’t, though. Not to my boy.”
I frowned, and the last pieces fell into place. I looked back down at the body.
“Gods,” I said. “I’m…I had no idea. I thought it was just…”
“A monster?” Tom Minnett said softly. I nodded.
“That would have been easier,” he said. “Let Zeus curse me with a monster. But no. He had a crueler punishment in mind. Turned my boy into that, knowing I could never hurt him, even as he was. Curse me with prosperity so that folk would come from miles around, so that every year the thing my boy had become might have fresh victims. And the whole time I would know, and do nothing.”
“I’m sorry,” I said lamely.
He shrugged. “Sorry never did anybody much good, Miss Stagg.”
“No,” I admitted. “I suppose it didn’t.”
Tom Minnett put his hands into his overalls and looked down at the monster that had once been his son.
“Go, Miss Stagg,” he said after a while. “Tell whichever god sent you that it’s done. Now leave me alone with my boy.”
No god had sent me to Minnett’s Orchard, but I didn’t argue the point. I nodded and stalked back off into the corn, towards the center of the Maze. I still had to retrieve Kori.
Something snagged on one of the cornstalks. I looked down and realized that Ari’s bandana was still wrapped around my wrist.
I looked at it, emerald green beneath the bloodred harvest moon, and remembered the taste of her lips on mine. The snorting sound of her laugh, the way her smile spread across her freckled cheeks.
I had really liked her.
She didn’t know about her divine parentage, that much was clear. Hadn’t known what had truly happened to her brother. I hoped she never would. Minnett had kept the secret this long.
I walked on through the cornstalks. I knew there would be no returning to Ari, no second date. I had killed her brother.
I hadn’t known, of course. After seven years trapped in that monstrous form, I doubted there was much of Tyler left in the minotaur’s body. But I had killed him, all the same.
Death, I thought, the tarot card coming to my mind. Endings.
I walked on, untying the emerald bandana from my wrist. It dropped to the Maze floor, lost among the corn silks.
It doesn’t matter whether you believe in fate, or destiny, or gods. Some things just aren’t meant to be.