Nicole had been in trouble before, but she didn’t think she’d ever seen Headmaster Petrolas quite so apoplectic. From across the broad expanse of his desk she counted the bulging veins on his forehead. Two at the temples, two between the eyes, and a giant one that started at his hairline and ran a ragged path down to his left eyebrow.
That made five.
“I have never, in all my years,” he said through clenched teeth, “seen anything so—so—so… disgusting.”
Oops, there came another one above his right eyebrow. Six throbbing veins.
Her previous record was three.
“What were you thinking?” he demanded.
She knew better than to answer.
Knew better than to apologize.
Knew better than to do anything more than sit on her hands and keep her mouth shut.
And with her hands hidden, the blatant, obvious, in-your-face evidence was out of sight. Bonus.
Headmaster Petrolas rubbed his hands over his eyes. “I didn’t know the school swimming pool could hold so many cats. How many were there in the end?”
“Two hundred and—“
Nicole realized her mistake too late. She snapped her mouth shut, but—warning, awful pun coming—the cat was already out of the bag. Her hands, bright red and itching in reaction to all that feline contact, tingled with apprehension.
“I don’t know what to do with you, Miss Matios.” He shook his head and gave her a pained look. “I have exhausted all other means. You leave me no choice.”
In slow, precise movements, Headmaster Petrolas reached down and opened the bottom drawer. It pulled out with a long squeak, like it hadn’t been opened in a long time.
“First,” he said, “you will visit nurse Althea to treat your allergy.”
Nicole bit the inside of her cheek, waiting for the punishment decree. She’d been in this office enough times to know what was coming. No one else in her class—maybe no one else in the history of the school—had face the number of detentions she’d been assigned. The punishment was coming, and it would be bad.
“Then, you will return to the pool.” He sat up and set something on the desk. When he moved his hand aside, Nicole saw that it was a key. “At the far end of the deck you will see a tile with a keyhole in the center.”
Nicole didn’t remember ever seeing that, but maybe she’d just overlooked it.
He slid the key across the desk. “Use this key to retrieve the contents.”
Nicole blinked at the key. Then at Headmaster Petrolas. Then at the key again.
“That’s it?” she asked.
When he nodded her scowl deepened. That didn’t seem like much of a punishment at all. It felt more like an errand.
Maybe he’d given up on her. Maybe he finally realized that detentions and punishments didn’t bother her. She’d rather spend her time re-alphabetizing the entire library than sitting around whining about her sucky life.
Still, this was too easy.
Before he could change his mind and send her to scrub the grease pits in the cafeteria kitchen with a toothpick instead, she snatched up the key and said, “Be right back.”
As she raced out the door, she thought she heard him say, “I hope so.”
Maybe Headmaster Petrolas was finally cracking up. She’d get her hands looked at and then get whatever was locked away at the far end of the pool and be back to her next big plan before the last of the cats had been zapped back to their homes.
Nurse Althea studied Nicole over her red plastic glasses, her eyes bright beneath thickly-mascaraed lashes. She looked a bit like a pinup girl from the 1940s and Nicole had to admit she liked her style. Too much makeup for her taste, but she dug the retro bangs and polka dot dress that buttoned down the front. And she would totally wear the clunky black Mary-Janes in a heartbeat.
“You’re going to get yourself expelled,” nurse Althea said as she smeared some special allergy cream onto Nicole’s burning hands.
In truth, the headmaster *couldn’t expel her, no matter how much he wanted to. No matter how much she wanted him to. It was part of her parents’ punishment. They were banished from the island and Nicole was imprisoned here until graduation.
Nurse Althea quietly went about her work until Nicole felt her skin return to normal.
“There, all fixed,” Althea said. As she put away her medicine, she asked, “Were there really a thousand cats in the pool?”
“Nah,” Nicole replied. “Barely more than two-hundred.”
Althea shook her head. “You’re creative, I’ll give you that.”
Nicole shrugged and tried to pretend like the half-hearted compliment didn’t feel good. The faculty and staff of the Academy rarely said good things about Nicole. And most of the time she liked it that way.
“I’d better get going,” she said. “Petrolas wants me to get something from the pool for him.”
Nicole was about to turn and walk out when Althea said, “Be careful.”
Nicole smirked. “Um, okay.”
What was there to be careful about? Now that the cats were gone and the water restored, the biggest threat in the pool area was accidentally seeing one of the cheerleaders from her hall in their bikinis.
Nic shuddered and kept walking.
Troy was waiting for her on the front steps.
He pushed to his feet when he saw her. “Well?”
She shrugged. “He wants me to fetch something for him.”
Troy frowned. “That’s it?”
Nicole twisted her face at him. She didn’t get it either, but she wasn’t going to question her good fortune.
Troy fell into step beside her as she walked around the school, heading for the pool on the other side of the quad from her dorm. They had been best friends since Troy transferred to the Academy in third grade. Nicole had saved him from being eaten by the popularity wolves—aka cheer queen Adara and her little cheer clones—and they’d been inseparable ever since.
They had experimented with the idea of being more than friends when they graduated to the lyceum in Level 8, but after two days of awkward hand-holding and pretty much everything else business as usual, they’d realized that they weren’t mean to be romantically involved. Instead, she focused her energies on trying to get him interested in someone worthy. Someone not Adara.
She’d nearly succeed when their new friend Phoebe arrived last fall, but then Phoebe fell for Griffin and Troy was back to his heartache over the cheer devil.
Her advice and intervention was losing effectiveness. She needed to find him someone new before he made a huge mistake and asked Adara out. Nicole didn’t think she could live in a world in which her best friend and her worst enemy started dating. Besides, she knew she’d be the one left to clean up all the pieces.
But she could focus on Troy and his romantic woes later. She needed to get her punishment over with and back to other things.
“We’re looking for a keyhole in a tile,” Nic said as they walked out onto the pool deck. It was laid in tiles of classical design—shades of beige and gray swirling in a pattern of concentric boxes, with a dark square at the center. Now she just needed to find the one with a little hole in the center.
Troy knelt down, tracing his fingers over the first tile in the corner.
“Um, Nic?” Troy said, looking up at her. “They all have keyholes.”
What? She crouched to the ground next to him and inspected the tile at her feet. Sure enough, as she ran her fingers over the darker square in the middle, she felt the indentation of a keyhole.
Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out the ancient-looking key. It had the same pattern as the tiles, a swirl of concentric boxes. The key in was more traditionally shaped.
She moved the key to the hole and it slid easily inside. She twisted.
“It fits,” she said, “but it won’t turn.”
Troy made a face. “I bet it fits *all of them.”
Nicole looked out across the pool deck. There had to be a thousand tiles, at least. It would take her hours to try every last one.
Now she understood why the punishment had seemed so light.
“I’ll start at the back.” She pushed back to her feet. “Petrolas said it was at the far end.”
If that wasn’t a trick. Maybe telling her to start there was part of making the punishment worse. The headmaster didn’t usually play underhanded, but he *had said he was out of options. Maybe that meant playing dirty.
“You don’t have to stay,” she told Troy. “There’s only one key. I can only try one at a time.”
Troy shrugged. “I’ve got nowhere else to be right now.”
Nicole gave him a grateful smile. At least she wouldn’t have to suffer alone.
Three hours later, Nicole was sure her knees were purple with bruises from crawling around the tile deck and her right had was red and swollen from twisting the key so many times. And she was still at the far end of the pool.
At this rate, it could take her *years to find the right tile.
She inched over to the next tile in the current row, shoved the key inside, and turned.
“I think it’s a plot,” she called out to Troy, who was leaning against a column, playing his guitar. “He’s trying to drive me insane.”
Troy chewed on his lip and tickled his fingers over the strings.
Nicole tried another tile. Nothing.
“Maybe there’s a clause that if I go nuts,” she said, pulling herself to the next tile, “he can send me to a psych ward.”
Insert. Twist. Nothing.
“He can’t expel me.” Insert. “Then maybe he can—“ Twist.
The lock gave and a U-shaped handle popped up at the top of the tile.
“What?” Troy looked up, startled.
Nicole tossed the key aside and yanked on the handle. It was too heavy, so she grabbed it with both hands. “It’s this one,” she shouted. If she weren’t so exhausted, she might have done a victory dance. “Finally!”
Troy dropped to his knees at her side as she struggled to lift the tile. “Here,” he said, wrapping his hand over hers, “let me help.”
They both yanked. Instead of pulling the unlocked tile out of place, she felt the several other tiles beneath her move.
“Wait,” she said, pushing Troy aside and scooting herself a couple tiles to the left. She reached for the handle again and, this time, when she pulled a panel of nine tiles lifted.
“Whoa,” Troy said.
Nicole swung the panel open and let it drop. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
She didn’t know what she’d expected to find. A bag of gold. Old textbooks. Zeus’s thunderbolt. But she had expected to find something.
Troy looked at her, his eyes sympathetic.
“I knew it couldn’t be this easy,” she said. “If I’m not back in an hour, bring reinforcements.”
Then, with a bad feeling shivering down her spine, she set her boot down on the first step of the staircase that descended into darkness.
By the time Nicole reached the bottom step, she knew three things. One, Headmaster Petrolas was far craftier than she gave him credit for. Two, Troy, reinforcements, and even daylight were far, far away. And three, she realized why the swirly box pattern on the tiles and the key had seemed familiar.
She only hoped there wasn’t a minotaur waiting for her at the center of this labyrinth.
Nicole's Labyrinth continued
“What died down here?” she asked the darkness.
Snapping her fingers, she called on her power of photomorphosis to illuminate the space around her. Only instead of a bright ball of light, she only managed a faint flicker about as a strong as a single candle. She snapped her fingers several more times before realizing that there was a magical lock in place. Her powers would be limited in the labyrinth.
She squinted into the faint yellow glow and barely made out the pitch black walls, ceiling and floor of the corridor that probably lead on endlessly away from the stairs.
With a huff moved to her left, keeping one hand outstretched to reach the wall as she moved forward. Petrolas had really gone off the deep end if he thought she was going to hunt down some mythological monster in the dark and--
A bitter wind whipped into her from the right. She paused then, cautiously, stepped toward the wind. Hands outstretched, she waited to make contact with the opposite wall. She found only wind.
“There must be a second corridor,” she muttered, mostly because she hated the silence.
Clearly she had to choose a direction. Either continue in a straight line or take the turn. Nicole had never been one to follow the line. She walked boldly in the direction of the new corridor.
She had taken nearly a hundred steps—had started regretting her choice and was thinking about turning back—when she felt another breeze. Not as strong as the first wind, but a definite change in the air.
Facing the breeze, she took off in the new direction.
She lost track of time as she kept moving until she felt a disturbance in the air. Walk. Breeze. Turn. Repeat over and over. She felt like she'd been in the labyrinth for days. Years even.
“Maybe when I get out,” she said to the darkness, “I'll have graduated.”
She turned at the sound of laughter.
The echoes faded.
“Hello?” Nicole called out.
“I must be imagining things.”
She turned back to continue on her way and instantly realized her mistake. In turning to face the imagined sound, she'd lost her direction. Had she turned back in a full circle? Was she again facing the way she'd been walking? In the oppressive darkness she couldn't tell.
“Son of a centaur,” she muttered.
Taking a deep breath, she tried to center herself. She focused in on her instinct—she'd always trusted her gut and had to believe it wouldn't fail her now—and started walking.
She hadn't taken three steps when she tripped over something. She lost her balance, tumbled face-first over the unseen object, and landed with an ooof.
Twisting herself into a sitting position, she ignored the throbbing ache in her hip. She reached out. Her hands closed over what felt like a small wooden box.
Her voice echoed back at her. This must be what Petrolas wanted. She quickly scooped up the box and returned to her feet.
But which way did she go? Should she go back the way she came—if she could even remember which way that was? Or should she go forward and hope that it let to an exit and not a minotaur?
“Nicole!” Troy's voice echoed faintly through the corridor. “Are you okay?”
“I'm fine!” she shouted back. “Where are you?”
“At the entrance,” he replied. “Do I need to come get you?”
“No!” Nicole beamed as she took off in the direction of his voice. “Just keep talking!”
He was silent for a moment, then asked, “What should I say?”
“I don't care,” she called back, increasing her pace—not to a run, never a run, but to as fast a walk as she could manage.
“Why the cats?” he asked.
“What?” She followed his echo around a corner.
“Not just the cats,” he explained. “Why all of it? Why the rebellion?”
She made another sharp turn. “Are you serious?”
She could practically hear him shrug.
“You said keep talking,” he finally answered. “I've always wondered.”
“I don't know—” She hugged the box tight as her breathing got heavier. “I just—” Another corner. “I don't like rules, I guess.”
She heard his snort and knew she must be getting close.
At the end of the corridor she saw a glow of light. “I'm almost there.”
Then she was at the end, around the corner, and up the stairs. As she burst into the late afternoon sun she never thought she'd be so glad to see the daylight.
“Holy Hades,” she panted as she flopped onto the tile floor.
Troy appeared over her, smiling.
She punched him in the arm.
“Hey,” he said, rubbing the sore spot. “What was that for?”
“Cats,” she replied, “because Petrolas hates them as much as I do.”
Troy frowned, but didn't say more. He nodded at the box. “That's it?”
“I hope so.” She pushed herself into a sitting position. “I've had enough labyrinths for one day.”
“Thank you, Miss Matios. You may go.”
Nicole stared at the box sitting at the corner of the headmaster's desk. She had just spent what felt like hours traipsing through the labyrinth—Troy swears she was only gone twenty minutes, but she saw the sleepy, I-just-woke-up-from-a-nice-long-nap look in his eyes when she returned—and Petrolas was just going to dismiss her. He wasn't even going to tell her what was in the box.
She'd tried to sneak a peek, but the thing was sealed up tight and nothing—not physical or hematheos powers—could pry it open.
“Was there something else?” Petrolas asked when she hesitated before leaving.
“No, I--” She started to play it cool, like she didn't care about the box, but curiosity got the better of her. Instead, she blurted, “What's in the box?”
He lifted his brows.
“Come on,” she said. “I fetched it. Can't I at least see what's inside?”
He studied her for a minute, like he was deciding whether or not she was worthy. Nicole normally didn't squirm under pressure, but something about the intensity in his gaze made her nervous.
Finally, after what felt like hours, he nodded. “Go ahead.”
“But it's locked,” she argued.
Petrolas just nodded his head at the box.
Nicole stepped forward, placed her finger beneath the gold latch on the front of the box, and flicked it up. The thing opened without even a squeak.
Heart pounding, she lifted the lid.
Inside there was a piece of paper. With her name on it.
Nicole frowned as she pulled it out and unfolded the note.
Curiosity might have killed the cat, Miss Matios, but the same has earned you additional detention.
Her gaze darted to the headmaster. “You can't be serious?”
“Please report to the dining first thing in the morning,” he said without looking up from his report. “Chef Ambrose will outline your duties for the day.”
Nicole started to storm out of the office, but stopped as she reached the door. Turning back, she asked, “And if I hadn't opened the box.”
Petrolas shrugged. “We'll never know--” He looked up at her. “--will we?”
Nicole was torn between the urges to scream, throw something, and storm away. But she knew he was expecting any and all of those responses. Instead, she smiled. “First thing.” She resisted the urge to give a fake bow. “With bells on.”
As she walked away, she started plotting. If Petrolas had hated the cats in the pool, she wondered what he'd think of a whole herd of them in his office. Now that might be a sight worth the punishment.
She was humming as she walked away.