This month's first chapter is from The Red Labyrinth by Meredith Tate. It's Julie's pick because:
If you like dystopian worlds, mazes, and mysteries that become more and more intense with every page, this is the story for you;
It's the perfect escape. I read this on a sick day, and The Red Labyrinth made me forget about everything else, and;
THE ENDING! No spoilers, but... the ending made me nearly fall off my chair! (And the ending of this first chapter, too!)
Will it be love at first chapter for you?
The massive labyrinth was built to protect Zadie Kalverstein’s isolated desert town. Unfortunately, living in the maze’s shadow makes her feel anything but safe. Even without its enchanted deathtraps and illusions, a mysterious killer named Dex lurks in its corridors, terrorizing anyone in his path.
But when Zadie’s best friend vanishes into the labyrinth—and everyone mysteriously forgets he exists—completing the maze becomes her only hope of saving him. In desperation, Zadie bribes Dex– the only person who knows the safe path through– into forming a tenuous alliance.
Navigating a deadly garden, a lethal blood- filled hourglass, and other traps—with an untrustworthy murderer for her guide— Zadie’s one wrong step from certain death. But with time running out before her friend (and secret crush) is lost forever, Zadie must reach the exit and find him. If Dex and the labyrinth don’t kill her first.
I shouldn’t have to be here. All week, I told Ma the same thing: I’d rather stick my face into a fire pit than go to the Waterday Festival. Yet here I am, weaving through the throng of people, my right hand latched onto the strap of Ma’s shoulder bag to avoid losing her in the crowd. The sweet scent of sugar dough mixes with the savory aroma of warm spices in the air, but my stomach is too busy churning to eat.
“This is a mess,” I mutter, shouldering past a guy pushing a honey-straw cart. A little girl holding an armful of overflowing water jugs skips past, and a few droplets slosh onto my sleeve. I wipe it off, but quickly slam my hand back to my pant leg so the passerby can’t glimpse the brands on my palm.
“It’s tradition,” Ma replies, giving me a half-smile. She takes a bite from a sweet roll and offers it to me, but I shake my head. “You can’t miss the celebration.”
She says it lightheartedly, but the undertone is there; I can’t miss the Waterday celebration, because it’s mandatory for every Trinnean to attend. No one’s allowed to leave the festival until the Leader gives his address. I have to scan my thumbprint again before I leave, so no one can say I skipped out early. I’m sure the city guards would love nothing more than an excuse to throw me in the stocks for a week.
“Besides,” Ma adds, “we can’t not get some of James’s cactilixer—especially at the festival discount price. And we can’t miss the Leader’s address.”
I’d love to miss all of it. I hate the Leader’s address. They always bribe some poor little Blank kid from the wasteland or the bunks onto the stage in this humiliating water jug hat. The kid becomes the star of an awkward presentation about Trinnea’s history and the drought, in exchange for a little cash. I always feel so bad for whoever they get. Probably because for years, it could’ve easily been me.
Someone knocks into my side, way too rough to be an accident. I grimace, keeping my head down. The woman glares at me, daring me to confront her. Of course, I can’t—not unless
I want a fist in my eye. “Just until the address,” I say. “Then I’m going home.”
Ma sighs. “Whatever you say, Zadie.”
I follow her down the closest aisle, lined with stands. My pulse hasn’t stopped ticking like a bomb since the second I got downtown. It’s like I’ve been holding my breath for the past
twenty minutes, waiting to go home and let it all out.
The normally vacant Center Square is jam-packed with wooden stalls selling spiced breads, fried dough balls, and stinky cheeses spider-webbed with blue mold. Other booths carry various elixirs and remedies, their stalls covered with glass bottles filled with colorful liquids. Little kids swarm around game booths, using their telekinesis and levitation Skills to knock over all the pins and win prizes. Excitement brims in their eyes. The only emotion I can muster is indifference.
My half-sister, Chantry, patrols the next aisle with a fellow guard. Their silver uniforms parade their authority to everyone in Trinnea. They just started their cycles of mandatory guard duty all Skilled must complete. That’s something I’ll never get to do. Not that people with zero Skills would be very useful guarding anything. Chantry whispers something to the other guard with her—her friend Nina, who’s a total jerk. I duck lower, trying to stay out of their view.
“They’re not talking about you,” Ma whispers in my ear.
Usually her super-hearing Skill is obnoxious, but sometimes it helps. “Chantry asked her friend about some attractive guy they met at the Tap Room. Don’t worry.”
“Thanks.” I’m sure she’s lying. Chantry isn’t interested in guys, attractive or not.
I scan the crowd, searching for Landon. He’s got to be here somewhere—he wouldn’t leave me alone for this. Plus, I doubt his admirers would let him miss this festival even if he legally could. I shoot him a message on my comm: Just got to the festival. You here?
I rotate the device in my hands, my heart fluttering like hummingbird wings. But the screen stays black and quiet.
Ma shoots me a knowing smile. “Is Landon here?”
“I don’t know.”
A yellow banner stretches across the aisle above our heads, proclaiming Happy Waterday: Celebrating 178 Years—Praise the Leader! I follow Ma, snaking between people, all the way to the front of the Square by the giant wooden stage. The stage is used for everything from ceremonies to supply drops to executions. Today, it’s decorated for the festival, covered in pink and yellow desert blossoms. Commissioned paintings on easels display pictures of noteworthy people and scenes of the old world before the drought. The largest portrait of the Great Leader himself hangs in the middle, old and wise and gazing down on us. I roll my eyes. If you ask me, he’s not worth celebrating. Too bad no one ever asks me anything.
I do a double take at the smallest portrait on the end. Someone painted a picture of Landon, my best friend, with a sultry look on his face. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to see his face beaming down at me from the portraits of famous people, but still. He’s got his arms crossed and a dangerous glint in his eyes. The words All Hail Limitless Landon—Trinnea’s Hero
are painted in swirly blue letters over his blond head. Those familiar butterflies churn to life in my stomach, and I look away.
Ma stops at a jewelry booth sporting dozens of shiny beads. “What do you think of these crystals?” Ma cradles a string of shimmery blue gems in her hand.
The shopkeeper beams. “Those are one of a kind, from a supply drop last year.”
“The Leader provides,” Ma says proudly.
“The Leader provides,” the man echoes.
I sigh, fiddling with my communicator. We can’t afford real crystals, so I don’t know why Ma’s even looking.
A couple little Skilled kids tiptoe past me, heading toward the stage—and the labyrinth behind it. My skin prickles, and I can’t look away. The rough, red clay walls tower high over everyone’s heads.
“Dare you to run up to the entrance,” the boy says. He’s got dark brown skin, curly hair, and a gold pendant on his chest worth several times what Ma makes in a year.
“No way.” The girl shudders, making the blonde pigtails framing her pale face quiver. “I dare you to get really close and say his name.”
The boy puffs out his chest, but fear glimmers in his eyes. “I’ll totally do it.”
“You totally won’t.”
It’s a common dare—to stand against the labyrinth wall and say Dex’s name aloud. They say it summons him, and he’ll grab the speaker immediately and drag them inside. I don’t know if anyone’s been brave enough to try it and find out.
The kids crouch by the corner of the stage and peek out. I roll my eyes; they think they’re being sneaky, but it’s so obvious they’re trying to catch a glimpse inside the labyrinth. The foggy maze entrance behind the stage always draws at least a couple troublemakers who don’t take the warnings seriously.
Our immortal Leader built this labyrinth centuries ago to protect his palace, at the other end of the maze. Legend has it, he wanted to ensure only those who truly deserved his consult, who were brave enough to weather the labyrinth’s dangers, could complete the maze and reach him. It’s the only way to see him face to face; he usually communicates with us through a giant screen. But no one’s ever completed it—or even survived more than a couple minutes inside so I’d say it’s impossible. Especially when Dex lurks in its corridors.
I bite my lip. Drawing attention to myself isn’t at the top of my list today, but I’m not about to let these kids wander inside and fall under permanent hypnosis. Time for a little intervention before they get any closer.
I take a deep breath and tiptoe toward the kids. “Psst. Hey.”
They both jump but turn their attention toward me. They’re only about nine years old, but they’re still Skilled, so I keep my branded palms out of sight.
“You’ve heard that Dex eats children so he can absorb their Skills, right?” I say, biting back a smile.
“Nuh-uh,” the boy snipes back.
The girl stares.
“It’s true.” Actually, no one knows what’s true about Dex, but I’ve heard these stories enough times that they’re basically fact around here.
“My Pa says Dex was born in the maze,” the little girl says, her eyes wide. “And absorbed some of its magic.”
I shoot a glance at the too-close labyrinth, barely twenty feet away, trying to keep my heart from hammering. “That’s one theory.”
“That’s not true.” The boy whirls on her. “He was a Trinnean kid, abandoned at the labyrinth entrance.”
The girl puts her hands on her hips. “You don’t know that.”
“Actually,” I cut in before their raised voices attract any unwanted attention, “no one knows for sure.” Anyone who gets close enough to learn the truth loses their mind before they can share. They usually end up in the asylum, if they aren’t killed in the maze first. “You shouldn’t stand so close to the entrance, though. Otherwise he might . . . jump out and grab you!”
“Delilah!” A woman with her lips pressed tightly together marches toward them. “Delilah Anne, I swear to the Leader, if you’re within ten feet of that maze . . .”
The kids both stiffen at once. “Go, go, go,” Delilah whispers, pushing the boy back toward the crowd and away from the labyrinth.
I slink back into the shadows before the angry woman can see me. A slight smile twitches across my face. It’s nice talking to people who don’t immediately hurl insults at me, even if they are little kids. And really, they’re lucky I was here. I’m not sure whose bright idea it was not to station guards outside the labyrinth entrance for the festival. If Dex was going to creep out of the maze and steal his next victim, this would be an opportune time, with everyone drinking too much grog and wandering around the Square.
I shiver thinking about it. With a quick glance left to right, I hustle back to where Ma stands, still examining the expensive crystals. “Can we keep walking?”
Ma puts the string of shiny beads back on their tray. “Where do you want to go?” She wraps a brown cloth around her head, protecting her neck and face from the desert sun burning in a sea of blue above us. Almost everyone around us wears either a scarf or a floppy hat, as the Leader picked the hottest hours of the day for this. My insides are practically boiling in my brown leather jacket, but it’s better than frying my skin in the sun. Dry heat smothers my face like a blanket. “Want to check out Court Jentry’s stand?” she continues, even though I’m only half listening. “Maybe he’ll cut a bargain on that cured meat you love so much.”
My fingers jitter against my thighs. “Maybe, yeah. Sure.”
I click my communicator; the time flashes across the screen. The Leader’s address should begin soon. Then I can go home. I wish I could get excited about Waterday like everyone else. But I’m not like everyone else, as they’re always so quick to remind me. The burns on my palms make that super clear. In a few years, those two kids entranced by my stories probably won’t even give me the time of day.
More and more people flood into the small space, elbowing through each other to gawk at the various stands. Stagnant heat floats between the tightly-packed bodies, tainting the sweet aroma of bread with the stench of body odor. I squirm, keeping my arms tight at my sides.
“They should let Blanks into town for this,” a passing guy says to his friend. My ears perk. Blanks are so rarely allowed in Trinnea, they’d never guess one is standing right next to them. I’m here legally, but they won’t care. As far as they know, I’m a Blank, and Blanks don’t deserve to live within the city walls. I don’t dare move a muscle.
“Why’s that?” asks his friend.
He flicks a napkin to the ground. “To clean up the mess afterward. Not like anyone else is lining up to do it.”
I press my palms harder against my legs. I wish I was allowed to wear my gloves. The two guys break into laughter and shoulder through the crowd. I hate this.
“I think I’m gonna go catch my breath for a moment,” I say.
Ma’s brow creases. “Are you all right?”
No. “Yeah. I’ll be by my bike.”
Before she can respond, I’m plowing away from Center Square, back to the edges where the crowd thins.
I reach the outskirts of the festival, all the way back by the apothecary. The orange clay building boasts a sign in the window: Shop closed for Waterday Festival, visit our booth instead! My silver airbike is parked in the rack by the door. I’m tempted to hop on it and speed away.
I check my comm; thirty-two minutes remaining, and no response from Landon.
I tiptoe behind the building, out of sight from the festival. The moment I’m away from the crowd, I relax. It’s only for a minute. I just need to catch my breath. Then I’ll go back to the party and wait for the Leader’s address.
I scrub a hand down my face and lean against the side of the building.
“Ducking out of the festival early?”
The familiar voice sends a gust of frost through my veins. Nina, the guard walking with Chantry earlier, saunters out from behind the next building in her silver uniform. My sister follows, a notepad clenched menacingly in her grip. Chantry’s blonde hair is twisted into a tight knot on top of her head. While Nina’s uniform is bare, my sister’s uniform collar parades a gold Guard Captain pin. Of course the Leader appointed her the captain. He probably did it just to mess with me.
My heart pounds faster. “I was just checking on my bike.” I keep my head down. “I swear.”
“That’s interesting.” Poison taints Nina’s words. “Because it looks like you were skipping out before the Leader’s address.” Nina’s a Two; she can change her appearance at will and also use telekinesis. They’re pretty useless Skills, but jealousy still revs to life inside me anyway, because I wish I had telekinesis, or the ability to morph, or something.
Chantry raises her brows and jots something in her notepad.
Nina continues. “And unless I am mistaken—which I’m not—that’s illegal. Show me your ID.”
I fight the urge to roll my eyes. She knows exactly who I am—she’s just doing this to humiliate me. I fish around in my pocket and pull out my Trinnean identification. There’s an
incriminating black mark across the top, signifying that I’m a Blank who bought a pass to live here. She snatches it from my hand. Her eyes narrow as she reads, as if she’s seeing my name for the first time.
I glance at my sister, hoping she’ll stop Nina’s wrath, but she stays focused on her clipboard, nothing but indifference in her eyes. The perfect guard’s captain.
“I really didn’t mean to leave early.” I face my sister, desperation dripping from my words. “Please, Chantry—”
Nina’s color-changing eyes blaze red, bright and dangerous against her pale skin. “She’s the guard captain. You will address her as Guard or Sir.” She thrusts the card back into my waiting hands. “Or you will suffer the consequences, Blank trash—”
“Hey!” Chantry whirls on Nina, emotion suddenly burning in her gaze. “Cut that name-calling shit. She broke a rule, she’ll deal with the consequences. That’s it.”
I stiffen, darting my eyes to the ground.
Nina’s face flushes. She bows her head. “Sorry, Captain.”
Chantry nods, her face fading back into indifference.
Hells. Now Nina will be pissed at me for getting her in trouble, and I’ll get it worse. I swallow hard, tapping my right fist to my left shoulder—the sign of respect. “I apologize for my lack of decorum, Sir.” I just want them to leave. “Let me go back to the festival. I swear I’ll stay and watch the address.”
Chantry shoves her pen back into her pocket. “Wrap this up, Nina. I’m going to go see why the address is four minutes late.” There’s no sparkle of affection in her eyes when they coast over me. I’ve grown used to my sister’s coldness over the past three years, but it still stings.
Nina salutes as my sister strides back into the crowd without giving me a second glance.
“May I return to the festival as well, Sir?” I ask.
Nina paces around me in a circle as if she didn’t even hear me, so I take it as a no. “Living in Trinnea is a privilege for you, Blank tra—Zadie. You’ve been given the chance most Blanks dream of—a ticket out of the wastes—and you have the gall to be ungrateful and dodge our sacred festival?”
“I wasn’t dodging.”
Her eyes flash to mine. “Did I give you permission to speak?”
My ears burn. I never thought I’d say it, but I wish Chantry would come back. At least my sister won’t deride me for my lack of Skills. “No.”
“I could lock you in the stocks for this,” Nina says. “Or sentence you to lashes in the Square at dusk.”
My heart races. I don’t dare avert my eyes from the red sand beneath my feet. I shouldn’t have come over here. I should’ve stayed with Ma.
The air crackles around us. “If everyone would gather around the stage,” Chantry’s booming voice calls into a microphone, “we’ll have the Leader’s address shortly.” Applause and cheers follow.
“But I have a better idea.” Nina’s face lights up. “You’ll be the Leader’s Waterday Representative.”
My eyes grow wide. The water jug hat kid? That’s the most humiliating, degrading role in the entire festival. “No, please, ask Chantry, she’ll—”
“Would you prefer I revoke your Trinnean ID altogether? I could have you back in the wastes by nightfall.”
“No, Sir.” I cringe. The words ache as they come out. “I’ll be the Waterday Representative.”
“Of course you will.” She smirks. “Let’s go.”
Before I can protest, Nina latches onto my wrist and yanks me back through the crowd. “Blank coming through!” she shouts. Laughter echoes around me. I stumble over some guy’s foot I’m certain he stuck out just to trip me. “Waterday Rep, move aside! I’ve got a Blank volunteer for the water jug!”
My face burns hotter than the desert sun overhead, my hand growing clammy in Nina’s grip. Gulping down the fear swirling inside me, I let her tug me through the masses of people, who scowl and hurl insults as I pass. A couple of kids snicker. My breaths come short and quick. I wish I had a Skill that made me shrink into the ground and vanish.
Ma stands by a spice stand. She tenses for a moment, panic flitting across her face when she sees me. I know my Ma. She’ll freak out. I give her the slightest shake of my head; she can’t cause a scene. They’ll only take it out on me. “Oh, Zadie.” She catches my eyes as we pass, her fear contorting into sympathy. “I’m so sorry,” she mouths, before disappearing from view among the hordes of people.
“Blank coming through! Make way for the Blank!”
“Blank trash,” mutters a man as we pass. He spits a wad of saliva at me, striking my boot. Nina practically rips my arm out of my socket yanking me through.
My skin crawls when we reach the stage at the front of the crowd. Mist hangs in the dark labyrinth entrance, now a mere ten feet away. My heart rate quickens. I don’t know what I’m more afraid of—the labyrinth’s proximity, or being paraded in front of everyone like this. With a final shove, Nina pushes me toward the wooden stairs.
“Get up there,” she snaps in my ear.
Chantry stands stoically by the stage, at attention. Part of me wishes she’d stand up for me, tell Nina to back off, but of course she doesn’t. She doesn’t even look at me.
A nearby woman in an official-looking uniform cocks her head. “We already have a Blank to do the onstage presentation.” She indicates the dirty little girl beside her wearing the navy blue uniform I recognize all too well—she must be an indenture of the Warden. Her long brown hair hangs down her back in a single braid. My stomach twists. It’s been three years, but it feels like yesterday I wore that same uniform. The child fidgets, and I’m all too aware of how old and awkward I look next to her. They probably bribed her into doing this with a handful of silvers; whatever they’re paying her, it’s not nearly enough.
“Well, now you’ve got two,” Nina says. “Don’t worry, Zadie is more than capable.”
I fight back a groan. Of course I’m more than capable. It’s a job meant for a six-year-old. I just have to stand there holding the jug and wearing the hat while everyone laughs at me. That’s literally it.
The woman shoves a giant glass carton into my hand and slaps a water jug hat onto my head. It’s way too small for me.
“Go on.” Nina shoves me in the back.
Slogging through invisible molasses, I force myself up the stairs to boos, jeers, and roaring laughter from below. Thousands of eyes follow me, their attention searing into my
skin like daggers. My boots press a path through the flowers scattered across the wood.
Landon’s portrait greets me on stage, and I pretty much want to curl up and die. I scan the people in the crowd, but there’s no sign of Landon’s messy blond hair anywhere. I hope he’s back by the stands or something. I don’t want him to see me like this. The little girl volunteer plods after me in a matching hat, clearly just as thrilled as I am about this. At least her hat fits better than mine.
Crackling fills the air. I have to crane my neck to see the screen directly over my head. Where the Great Leader’s portrait hung over the stage, a projection of his face now levitates instead, watching from the Stone Palace. In the distance, I can barely make out the black spires poking out over the red labyrinth walls. It’s weird to think he lives there. He’s so close to us, but still so far away. Funny how he built a whole labyrinth to isolate and protect himself from other people; right now, I wish I could do the same.
Every member of the crowd thumps their right fist to their left shoulder in unison. I weakly mimic the gesture, my hands slick with sweat. My pulse pounds in my ears, drowning out the noise.
The Leader on the screen smiles. Gray hair puffs out on the sides of his wrinkly face. “Welcome, children of Trinnea, to our one hundred, seventy-eighth celebration of water. It’s been 178 years since the Great Drought that ended life as we know it outside of Trinnea, and yet, here you stand—my people.”
Everyone listens, enraptured by the Leader’s words. Not a single whisper floats through the crowd.
“The Trinneans—the gifted, the Skilled—would not succumb to the plagues that took so many others. You are the survivors of the brave, new world.”
Chantry yawns at the foot of the stage stairs. She absentmindedly flicks her finger, making a pebble float a few inches off the stage and fall back down.
The stage feels about a hundred degrees hotter than the festival below. Sweat pours down my face, an oven beneath the hat propped on my head. Thousands of Trinneans stare up at me from the crowd, munching on snacks and giggling and being grateful they’re not me. I close my eyes, focusing on breathing in and out. It’ll all be over soon.
“Now, as is tradition to honor our proud history,” the Leader says, “let’s begin our presentation.”
The woman in the suit takes the microphone. “On the final day of the drought, our Great Leader came to us and provided . . .”
The little girl and I raise our water jugs over our heads and wait. Giggles ripple through the crowd.
I scan faces, seeking someone to focus on. Something.
Unfortunately, the first person I see is the last person I want to. The Warden leans against a stall in the front of the nearest aisle, chewing tobacco. Her lip curls up when she catches me staring.
The moment her eyes lock with mine, my insides become jelly. The festival noises fade to silence in my ears. Just like that, I’m back in the bunks, cowering as she looms over me. My fingernails dig into my palms around the jug handles, leaving angry red crescents in my already scarred skin. I have to remind myself where I am. I’m not there. I don’t work for her anymore.
“And the water was released from the air!” the woman’s voice tears my attention, and at her cue, I quickly spin in a circle on the stage. A thin pipe stretches out from the Leader’s screen and releases a steady flow of water, which I rush to capture in my jug. The light spray splashes against my hands as the water cascades into my container. Laughter fills my ears. I squeeze my eyes shut.
I’m not here. This isn’t happening. In a few minutes, I can go home. I can go—
A sharp scream pierces the air. The Blank girl beside me drops her jug; it shatters against the stage, splattering water across the wood and soaking her dress. Shouts erupt from the crowd below me.
Following her fearful stare, I spin toward the maze. That’s when I see it. Black smoke billows inside the labyrinth entrance. Gasps and shouts fill Center Square.
“It’s him,” the little girl whispers. “It’s Dex.”
No. It can’t be. Not while I’m standing so close.
I scramble as far away as I can, toward the edge of the stage, shoving the little girl behind me.
The smoke floats out of the labyrinth, rolling thick and dark toward the crowd. Everyone screams, giving it a wide berth. People climb over each other to get away, but end up bottlenecking at the exits of Center Square. Goosebumps prickle across my skin.
Landon’s fought him before, but I never thought I’d see Dex with my own two eyes.
The smoke swirls, blowing into a black tornado that materializes into a young man. Dex, the Devil of Trinnea himself, stands beside the stage, wisps of black smoke still whirling at
his feet. His long black jacket hides his body in shadows. My blood turns to ice.
Everyone trips over each other, knocking over stands and scattering rice and trinkets across the red sand. I need to run, need to hide, something. But I can’t move. Fear snakes itself through the soles of my boots, rooting me to the stage. It’s him. It’s really him. I throw my hands up in defense.
To my horror, the Devil of Trinnea looks right at me, his dark gaze coasting over my branded palms. Our eyes lock, filling me with dread.
Then he lunges toward me.
Was it Love at First Chapter?
Get the full book at the following links or at your preferred bookseller:
Find out more about the author: http://meredithtate.com/books