Tick Tock

By Nevermaker
published June 11, 2019
Category: Hypnosis   Tags: #hypnosis #game #nosex #kidnap #gas

Seven young men play a hot new escape room challenge…but will they be able to escape in time?

As the man sat in his seat and stared into the screen, the lines seemed to blur and spin, black and white mixing together, swirling into one…

John sighed and looked away from his operations report, pinching the bridge of his nose: he HAD to find a less boring job. Or at least one that didn’t make his eyes glaze over so badly.

Glancing back up, he took a deep breath and began the process of chipping away at the report: the moment it was done, his workday was finished, and he could finally get to the start of his weekend plans. No more quiet weekends at home for him: this was going to be the start of a new, bolder John!

…He hoped.

Finally, he finished off the last of the report and sent it off to his superior in a polite e-mail. As soon as the sent notification popped up, he pumped his fist eagerly: finally, he could get out! Grabbing his coat and the flyer by his desk, John stood up in a flourish from his desk and headed out of his cubicle into the hallway.

“Hey, John!” he heard a voice call out from down the hall. Turning, he saw Harold jogging towards him, a greeting smile on his face.

“Headed home for the day?” Harold asked as he approached. John returned his bright smile with his own polite one, hoping it would cover his nerves: Harold was probably the best worker on their floor, and was always laughing it up with their co-workers, always the liveliest and most outgoing of them all. He was charismatic, cool, and handsome to boot: not for the first time, John wondered why Harold had taken such an interest in him.

“Nah, not this time: I’m headed out for some fun!” John said, holding up the flyer in his hand.

Harold’s face lit up. “Oh man, you’re finally gonna check out Tick Tock?”

The flyer was dark, with an emblem on the front of a maze: in the middle was a large square with a clock design, with a keyhole smack in the middle. The name of the business in question was plastered along the top, with the subtitle “Can you find the way out…before your time is up?”

Tick Tock was a new attraction that had opened up a few months ago: an escape room challenge that had everyone who went in raving. The scenarios were brilliant, the puzzles were clever, rooms themselves were of excellent design, and the price was fair for the experience. And of special note were the clocks in each of the rooms: they were louder than normal clocks, making the people taking the challenge more keenly aware of how time was passing during the game, adding to the thrill of the experience. Or so John had heard: several of his co-workers had already made a night of going, and had returned talking endlessly about how fun it had been.

But only Harold himself had taken the challenge that made Tick Tock unique: the Labyrinth, a special set of escape rooms that was not only extremely complex, but which involved strangers taking the challenge together instead of a group that knew each other. Not only that, but while a whole group took on the challenge, it was possible for individuals to fail the challenge. To compensate, the Labyrinth’s time limit was much longer, but in the four months since Tick Tock had opened, only a small handful of people had completed it, one of whom was Harold, earning him a discount for any of the other scenarios. Since then, he’d been even more enthusiastic about Tick Tock than anyone else: when questioned about the Labyrinth, he’d been teasingly secretive, but had encouraged many of his co-workers to try it out.

“Yeah, you finally talked me into it.” John said with a chuckle. “I even signed up for the Labyrinth challenge and everything!”

Harold’s smile got even wider. “Hey, that’s awesome, man! I tell ya, you are in for a TREAT: it gets super-intense in there!”

John felt the familiar vibration of nerves shiver through him at that, but held his smile in place. “I hope so: that’s what I signed up for! Can’t wait to see what you’ve been so hyped about! Any tips or advice?” he added hopefully.

Harold laughed good-naturedly. “Sorry, man, that’d ruin the experience for you! I’m sure you can make it, though: tough guy like you!” He punctuated this with a light bump on John’s shoulder.

The fact that the bump made John wince slightly didn’t help his confidence going in, but he tried to grin back at Harold. “Alright, I gotta get there quick: don’t wanna miss my reservation!” he said, turning and headed away.

“Good luck, dude!” Harold called out, waving at John’s back. The few inhabitants of the nearby cubicles sighed and got back to work.

If they had looked up, however, they might’ve seen Harold’s toothy, good-natured grin turn slightly predatory; as well as the sing-song words he whispered under his breath.

“Tick-tock goes the clock…who will be your master…?”

As John made his way down the street, he took another deep breath, trying to soothe the thrumming in his torso: if he went into the Labyrinth nervous, no way he was gonna do anyone any good.

Glancing over, he caught a glimpse of himself hurrying past a window: just another nebbish office worker on his way home from work, headed to whatever his evening plans were, which on a normal day consisted of his small apartment, leftover Chinese in the fridge, and whatever happened to be on his favorite channel.

John could admit it, he lived a dull life: he’d gotten his nondescript office job straight out of college and had stuck there, going the daily grind, for 3 years. Combine that with a lack of close friends and an aversion to social situations, and he lived most of his days monotonously, and usually pretty solitary.

And usually, that suited him just fine: adventure just wasn’t something he really hungered for. The way he lived might’ve been boring, but it was stable and kept him afloat: in this day and age, that was already asking for a lot. But lately, he’d been feeling like a small change couldn’t be too bad for him, and trying out something a little new and fresh, like going to an escape room, would liven things up enough for him to say he got out of his shell, at least for a little while.

Looking up, he saw that Tick Tock was just ahead. A large building, five floors high, painted stark white and with a banner across the front decorated with the same emblem as the flyer he still held in his hand.

It was one thing to hear about the place, but another to stand in front of it: John could feel his nerve fading. But he couldn’t back down now, so he squared his shoulders and pushed on, walking into Tick Tock. The inside was surprisingly modern and stylish, with white walls, plush carpet, and a mahogany help desk behind which sat a smartly-dressed receptionist: John found himself pleasantly surprised at the sleekness of it all.

As he approached the desk, the receptionist – a startlingly good-looking man in his late 20’s, John couldn’t help but notice – smiled warmly at him. The nametag on his lapel read “Devin”. “Welcome to Tick Tock, sir! How may I help you?” he asked pleasantly.

“Hi, um, my name’s John: I’m here for the Labyrinth challenge?” John replied, his sudden resurgence of nervousness turning the statement into a question. Get a grip. he scolded himself. One cute guy couldn’t throw him off his game. He hoped.

After a quick examination of the reservation schedule on his computer and of John’s ID, Devin smiled up at John again. “Of course, sir, right this way!” he enthused, standing up and escorting John to a hallway to the right of the desk. “You’re the last to arrive, so you’ll be able to get started very soon!”

Oh God. John thought as Devin led him down the pristine white hallway. He’d hoped for a little more time to settle himself: looks like he was just being thrown to the wolves.

Finally, they reached a large and solid-looking silver door. “Here we are, sir: the entrance to the Labyrinth!” Devin said excitedly. “Just head inside and wait, maybe introduce yourself to the others! You will be working together, after all!”

“Uh, wait, I have a few questions-“ John started.

“Don’t worry, sir, all your questions will be answered as soon as you enter the Labyrinth.” Devin interrupted with another smile. “Don’t worry, you’ll know as soon as the game begins.” With that, he turned on his heel and started walking back the way he came.

“Hey, hang on, I-“ John started to call after him, but Devin didn’t even turn around. “…Never mind.” he muttered.

Turning back towards the door, he took one more deep breath. Behind this door was his way out of a boring drudge of a life, and the start of something new: a fantastic adventure!

He hoped.

As Devin turned and walked away, ignoring John calling after him, his pleasant smile turned decidedly sinister. The last player had just arrived: it was time for the Labyrinth to work its magic.

Reaching his desk, he leaned over and grabbed the phone, punching in a special code and pressing the phone to his ear.

“Hello, sir! … Yes, all the players for the Labyrinth have arrived. … Yes sir, all the preparations are in place! We’re free to begin whenever! … Yes sir, the buyers are already set up…they’ve set their bids on the challenges already, the amounts should already be sent up to your personal computer! … Yes sir, right away.”

Hanging up the phone, Devin snaked his hand under the desk: on the wall beneath was a button marked “Labyrinth Startup”. With a simple button press, the game was underway.

“Tick-tock, gentlemen.” he said with a low chuckle. “I wish you the best of luck.”

The first thing that greeted John when he opened the door was blinding white: the room he stepped into was plastered floor to ceiling in white. The walls were painted stark white, as were the ceiling and floor, and all the furniture (which consisted of two couches, a coffee table between them, and a few decorative items) were varying intensities of the shade, ranging from eye-piercing to soft. The one thing in the room that wasn’t pure white was the clock in the room: a wooden grandfather clock with a swinging pendulum. As promised by the flyer and reputation, it’s ticking was louder than a normal clock, with each one ringing out across the room.

As John stepped in, six sets of eyes turned to face him.

“Hey, this must be the last guy!” John heard one voice call out: he blinked hard, trying to let his eyes adjust to the sudden rush of white, just in time to see one of the people in the room approach him.

“H-hi, welcome, all that stuff.” the other man said, flashing John the same nervous smile he’d seen in the mirror countless times: it was good to know he wasn’t the only one nervous about the game. “I-I’m Nirav. Nice to m-meet you.” The guy looked young, early 20s, with brown skin, big spectacles, and floppy black hair. John couldn’t help but notice (he really couldn’t: he was only human) that Nirav’s obvious awkwardness, along with his smile and deep brown eyes, made him really cute.

“Right back at ya. I’m John.” John returned, trying to seem confident: he didn’t want any of his teammates to think he was too nervous to help out.

“About damn time you showed up.” groused one of the others, a compact guy with brown hair cut in a buzzcut and a jean jacket that did nothing to disguise the bulge of his muscular physique: he was leaning against the wall, the farthest away from anyone else. Clearly, John thought, not a team player.

“Oh, lay off of him, Joshua.” chided another man, a tall and lanky guy with blond stubble and matching long hair: he wore a nice suit and coat, and a fedora on his head. “I’m sure he was worth the wait.” Saying this, he gave John a sly grin that made his heart jump: seriously, was every guy taking the challenge hot or what?

His question was answered when he looked up and saw the other three players: a man in his late 30s or early 40s with a close-cropped beard and eyes that felt like they pierced John’s very soul; a jock wearing a university tank top that showed off a lean but muscular body; and a toweringly tall guy who gave John a shy, adorable smile and a small wave, but made no move to come closer.

Maybe he was going to be more distracted than he thought.

“Whatever.” the rude guy – Joshua? – said, rolling his eyes. “Just hope you know what you’re doing: I’m not letting anyone drag me down.”

“We’re a team, man, you can’t be like this!” the blond guy shot back. “Or you’re gonna be the one dragging us down!”

“Oh, bite me, Felix!” Joshua snapped back.

“Well, this is promising.” said the jock sarcastically. “I’m sure we’ll all make a great team.”

“That’s enough.”

The voice came from the man with the beard: his words were quiet, but John felt them like they were physically stopping him in place. He also noticed that Joshua and Felix(?) quieted down almost immediately, and that Nirav, who’d been shrinking away from the two of them, looked a lot calmer all of a sudden.

“We will make a great team, but only if you two can stop antagonizing each other. If we can’t work as a team, we may as well have not even come here.” the man said, each word carrying that same quiet authority. “Now quiet down, and wait for the game to start.”

John watched, silent and amazed, as Felix nodded and turned away, while Joshua muttered another “whatever”. With just a few words, this guy had nipped a fight in the bud. Looking over at him, John quietly approached.

“Hey, that was really cool, what you just did.” he said. The man turned to face him, his bright blue eyes giving John a cool appraisal.

“Not that big a deal: those two are all bark and no bite.” he remarked coolly. “I’m Vince.” he added, offering a hand for a handshake.

“John.”, he returned, taking the offered hand and shaking it with a firmness he did not feel. Hopefully Vince didn’t notice the sweaty palms.

“This is Damian and Casper.” Vince added, motioning to the jock and the tall kid standing near him. Damian glanced up at his name, but just chuckled and looked away, while Casper just gave a tiny smile and the quietest “h’lo” John had ever heard in his life.

“Don’t mind them, either.” Vince said under his breath. “Damian thinks he’s God’s gift to anything, and Casper’s too shy to do damn near anything. Might run into problems later with them.”

“You know them?” John asked curiously.

“Nah, I just know people: I’ve already got a read on just about everyone here.” Vince replied. “Want me to give you the scoop?”

“Sure: anything that might help.” John replied, hoping he didn’t sound too eager. Vince started glancing around the room at each of the other players in turn, giving a small snippet for each one.

“Damian’s cocky, definitely overconfident: thinks he can take whatever anyone gives him and push it back. Dunno how he’s gonna do with this game, but he’s definitely gonna try to show off, so we should cut that off at the pass if we see it. Said he came to do the challenge because he was bored: apparently a life of weed smoking, casual sex, and throwing a ball around gets dull after a while.”

“Nirav’s nervous, a bit spacy, doesn’t take conflict well, and he’s definitely a pushover. But according to him, he’s played a lot of escape rooms before: they’re his hobby, that’s why he’s here. So while he’s not gonna be winning any Mr. Universe contests, he’ll be a good source of information for when the game gets started. Best to use that resource while we can.”

“Joshua’s a powder keg just waiting to blow: he’s aggressive, and not a team player. Apparently, his friends dared him to do this challenge; explains why he’d do it if he doesn’t work well with people. He’ll probably be our biggest problem, but if we keep him under wraps, he could prove useful. Just keep that in mind.”

“Unlike Damian, Felix is arrogant, not cocky: he’s not gonna rush in, but he does think he’s gonna win. Apparently he’s big into gambling, and thinks this is a fun challenge for him. He’s also too quick for his own good, and likes to mess with people, which is a problem with him and Joshua, like you saw. And like Joshua, if we can keep his ego down to size, he’ll be a clever ally.”

“Casper’s in the same boat as Nirav: quiet, painfully shy, but he’s strong, no denying that. He’s a little in over his head, since he threw himself into the deep end of the pool: said he was trying to rid himself of social anxiety by trying an escape room. He’s probably not the most reliable in a crisis, but if we need someone big and strong, he’s our man.”

Listening to Vince’s explanations, John couldn’t help but be impressed: it may not have been much information, but they couldn’t have been in the room with each other more than 10 minutes. Even getting that much in such a short time, especially from nervous types like Casper or volatile people like Joshua, was no small feat. He was quickly getting the impression that he should stick with Vince.

Suddenly, Damian spoke up. “So, we’re all here: when’s the game supposed to start?”

“Fuck if I know.” Joshua growled. “They just put us in here and said to wait, but I’m getting sick of that shit!” He pushed off the wall and headed towards the door.

“Hey, where are you going?” Felix called after him.

“I’m gonna give that damn receptionist a piece of my mind!” Joshua returned angrily. “He can’t just push us in here and then-“

He cut off as he turned the handle for the door and pulled. The rattling of the door as it failed to open struck everyone silent as they stared at Joshua, as his angry expression wavered and fell away into confusion as he yanked on the door handle.

“The fuck? It’s…locked.” he said, quieter than anything John had heard him say yet. Those four words, and their quiet, puzzled tone made anxiety pour into John’s stomach.

“Wh-what?!” These were Casper’s first words, in a deeper voice than John had pictured for him. “Wh-wh-why would it be locked?!”

Damian stood up and joined Joshua at the door, but even both of them yanking with what was clearly all their strength wasn’t enough to get it open.

“What the hell, man?” Joshua grunted as he pulled on the knob. “It wasn’t locked a second ago; how the fuck did this happen?”

Damian stopped pulling and slumped slightly, panting from the exertion. “I mean, maybe…”

“M-maybe what?” Casper asked, edging towards the group slightly.

“Maybe this is the escape room?” Damian finished. “I mean, if the door’s locked, this might be the challenge, and when we win, the door unlocks?”

“No way, that’s not possible.” Nirav replied.

“Why the fuck not?!” Joshua snapped, rounding on Nirav with a red, frustrated face.

Nirav shrank back from Joshua, but he kept talking. “W-well, for one thing, this room is devoid of clues or puzzles or codes, or anything that could help us unlock the door. I mean, I’ve been looking all over, and I haven’t found anything except the furniture: it’s too barren. And there’s no hint booth, no other employees, no nothing: it’s completely atypical of escape rooms!” He shook his head. “This can’t be it, I’m sure of it.”

“He’s right.” Felix interjected, sliding over with the grace of a cat. “There’s nothing for us to work with, we’d never be able to get out with what we’ve got. And plus,” he added, “the Labyrinth is supposed to be a series of escape rooms, not just one room. If this was the Labyrinth, it’d be a flagrant case of false advertising.”

“Hang on,” John said slowly. “I remember the receptionist, Devin, telling me about this place: he said this was, like, the entrance to the Labyrinth, not the Labyrinth itself.” He shook his head. “If it was part of the actual escape rooms, he probably would have called it the first room or something, not the entrance.”

“You’re all right.” Vince said definitively. “This isn’t part of the Labyrinth, it can’t be.”

“But then why the fuck-“ Joshua started to snarl, but a sound cut him off.

Bing bong bing bong…bing bong BING bong…

The clock off to the side of the room had stopped ticking, and it had started to ring instead. The sound was surprisingly loud, like the ticking, and the suddenness of it stopped everyone dead.

Bing bong bing bong…bing bong BING bong…

As it stopped ringing, there was a moment of dead silence in the room as everyone stared at the clock: for no reason he could name, the anxiety that John had been feeling bottomed out into outright fear.

He heard an intake of air behind him as someone was about to speak, but before the words could come out, something happened that none of them could have expected: the face of the clock suddenly swung outwards like a door opening, and from the circular hole that was exposed, an enormous cloud of brightly-colored smoke started pouring out at an incredibly fast rate, like it was being pumped in at high pressure. Within seconds, the clock was practically invisible behind the smoke, and the cloud was fast approaching them.

Hearing the shocked yells of the others, John’s fear snapped into blind panic, and he made a beeline for the door: the others were crowded around it too, all of them pulling on the handle, calling out for someone to let them out, but there was no sound on the other side of the door, and no matter how hard they collectively pulled, the door didn’t budge.

As the smoke swirled around them, John took a lungful of it and immediately began to cough: the smell of it was sickeningly sweet, cloying even, but even as he felt himself choking on it, he felt a strong wave of lethargy creep over him, and his legs started to buckle. In seconds, his hands had lost their strength, and slid easily off the knob.

From close by, he heard a sigh and a thud: glancing over with eyes whose lids were suddenly feeling heavy, he saw Nirav lying on the floor beside him. A heavier thud next by was punctuated with a groan from Felix, and one by one, each of them started to drop, until all seven were lying helplessly on the floor.

From far away, Devin stood in one of the control rooms, staring at the screen before him with a big grin as he watched the Labyrinth players slump and fall as the gas overtook them. He had to admit, he’d been a little discomfited the first time he’d seen it, with their fear and confusion inspiring a bit of pity; but now, he felt almost delighted.

The game was about to truly begin, and he couldn’t wait to watch.

“It’s a hell of a thing to watch, huh?”

Turning, Devin saw his co-worker, Hiro, looking up at the screens with a grin that matched his own. The two of them worked closely together at Tick Tock, as both receptionists and operators of the Labyrinth’s entrance. They jokingly referred to themselves as The Gatekeepers, watching and taking care of those who went into the Labyrinth.

It may very well have been the best job Devin had ever had.

“You read my mind, man.” Devin said, plopping down into a chair beside Hiro. “We can get them sent down into the actual Labyrinth now: everything’s in place.”

“Think the boss’ll let us take time to watch?” Hiro asked.

“Maybe one at a time: one of us might have to get back to reception soon.” Devin said, with a small sigh. “Pity: I’d love to watch it in real time instead of seeing the highlight reel later.”

“You have a job to do: don’t complain about it.”

Hearing that deep voice made both of the men jump and wheel towards the control room’s entrance. Standing in it was their boss, the founder of Tick Tock himself. A man of about forty, he was dressed eccentrically in a theatrical Victorian suit with a cravat adorning his neck, a tall top hat decorated with the emblem of a clock face, and a gold watch stuck in his front pocket. But it was his face and body that garnered attention: tall and strong, with classically handsome features and a sprinkling of dark stubble. Most captivating of all were his eyes, a bright and icy blue that made you feel like you were being stabbed with just a glance: the kind of eyes you simply couldn’t look away from.

None of the employees knew his name: he was referred to simply as The Clockmaster.

“S-sorry, sir!” Hiro exclaimed, jumping to his feet in a flash.

“W-we didn’t hear you come in, sir: very sorry!” Devin added, also on his feet, adrenaline pumping through him.

“Not a problem, boys: just remember what your duties are.” The Clockmaster said reassuringly, before he himself stepped up to the screens, examining the unconscious bodies of the Labyrinth players with a slow smile. “Perfect.” he said simply, with a slow drawl that made both Hiro and Devin shiver. “The moving crew has been notified, yes?” he asked.

“Yes sir, they’ll be in shortly to move the players.” Devin reported. As if on cue, the gas clouding the room was harshly sucked into vents that flipped open in the walls, and employees of Tick Tock began entering the room, wearing air masks in case there were traces of the gas still in the air.

“Excellent: I’ll make sure to head to the main room to deliver the explanation of the rules shortly.” The Clockmaster said, turning to leave, but as his eyes locked onto Devin and Hiro, making both of them shiver again, neither of them were sure), a thoughtful expression crossed his face.

“Oh, why not: I’ll have someone take over on reception for a while.” he said airily, before his hands shot out, and before either Devin or Hiro could think, he’d traced a circle on their foreheads with his fingers.

“Tick-tock goes the clock…” he said rhythmically, his voice becoming low and soft.

In an instant, Devin found his body slumping and relaxing, his mind growing fuzzy, the rest of the world falling away, and the obvious reply escaping his lips without even thinking.

“And now it’s time for Master…” he said in unison with Hiro, their words matching the sing-song rhythm of the Clockmaster’s phrase.

“That’s my good boys.” the Clockmaster said, cradling both their slack faces with a hungry smile and noting with satisfaction the way their dress pants had already started to bulge. “Head over to my office and warm yourselves up: I’ll be there once I’m done delivering the explanation of the rules.”

“Yes, sir…” the two chorused before turning and slowly filing out the door.

The Clockmaster watched them go with satisfaction: he’d done a good job with those two. They served him so willingly, so eagerly, and so happily, just like all the employees of Tick Tock.

And just like everyone else, they served in every way he desired. Every last one.

Glancing again at the screen, the Clockmaster watched as the moving crew started to remove any means for the participants to communicate with the outside, taking phones and other devices from their pockets. He examined all seven of the unconscious players closely: all of them met the standards he’d set perfectly. A thrill rushed through him at the thought of what was to come.

This was just the beginning of their foray through the Labyrinth, and he couldn’t wait to watch their journey.

As John’s consciousness slowly started fading in, the first thing he realized was that he wasn’t lying on the floor: what he was lying on felt soft and padded, squishy even. As his eyes fluttered open, the memory of how he’d become unconscious flooded his mind, and with a gasp, he sat bolt upright, his still groggy mind swirling.

“Good: you’re awake.” he heard: turning, he saw Vince seated on the couch across from him. Surrounding him were the others, all seated and still passed out: as the rest of them started to stir awake, John looked around, trying to get a grip on the situation.

What confused him was that, as far as he could tell, almost nothing had changed: they were in the same room, with the same white walls and the same matching furniture, with the exception of the clock, which was no longer present in the room.

“What the…?” he whispered, trying to stand before his knees buckled and he slumped back onto the couch.

“Take it easy.” Vince said. “Whatever they hit us with, we’re still recovering: we’ll probably be a little shaky on our feet for a bit.”

“But…the room…it’s all the same.” John said, but even as he said it, something told him that was wrong: besides the missing clock, something about the way the room was laid out tugged at his mind, like some small detail had been altered.

“The fuck happened?” Joshua said blearily, rubbing his face as he tried to struggle to his feet and failed with a noise of frustration.

“I remember…that smoke…” Nirav replied uncertainly, shaking his head to clear it. “And then we just…”

“We all passed out.” Damian finished. “Did they…actually drug us?”

“Th-that can’t be l-legal, can it?” Casper asked, genuine fear in his eyes at the possible answer.

“That’s not the problem right now.” Felix said, adjusting his hat and rising to his feet, grabbing the end of the couch to steady himself. “The problem is, why? And is it still possible for us to leave?”

At that thought, John turned to look at the door to the room…and froze. His head started whipping back and forth from wall to wall as his confusion turned to deep anxiety.

“The hell’s your problem?” Joshua asked with a scowl.

“You noticed, huh?” Vince said, following Felix’s example and rising to his feet with help from the couch’s end.

“Y-yeah, I did…” John said quietly, his mind scrambling to come up with an explanation for what he was seeing.

Nirav gasped as he rushed to his feet and staggered, his eyes locked on the door. “Guys! The door, it’s…it’s changed!”

Damian’s brow furrowed as he turned to look at it. “Looks the same to me.” he said dismissively.

It did look the same: solid silver with the same angled knob they’d been yanking on before the gas had hit. But there was one crucial detail that John could see that was different…

“…It’s in the wrong place.” Felix said in awe.

He was right: the door was on the opposite side of the room from when they’d all arrived. Where the entrance had been, there was only a blank expanse of wall, and opposite from it was a new door where there had only been a white surface before.

“The fuck?!” Joshua burst out, jumping to his feet with a stumble and running to where the door had been before, feeling it and pounding on it. “Where’d it go? What is this bullshit?!”

“Calm down!” Vince barked, the authority in his voice stopping Joshua cold. “You’re not going to make things better by pounding a hole in the damn wall!”

“But…but…” Joshua stammered, looking genuinely freaked out as he stepped back. “How the fuck did they do this? This is impossible!”

“Maybe instead of losing your shit, we could try to figure this out.” Felix said snidely, ignoring the angry look he got in return.

“Felix is right: we should check this door. Maybe this one isn’t locked.” Nirav said, but despite his words, he made no move to approach the door, glancing at it nervously.

Damian, rolling his eyes, walked over (without a trace of fear, John noted, impressed) and turned the knob, ignoring the squeak and flinch of Casper as he stormed past. With a simple click, the door swung open. John couldn’t see through it from the angle he was at, but he could see that it was dark beyond.

“Well…” Damian said, stepping back and gesturing towards the open door. “…After all of you.”

As John slowly approached the door, his anxiety and fear felt like they were peaking: he had no idea what was coming, or what was going to happen. He felt himself start to shake a bit, but a hand came down on his shoulder, and he turned to see Vince giving him a small smile.

“Come on, John: let’s go.” he said.

It was such a small thing, but somehow, the ease and confidence of Vince’s words steadied John’s nerves. He took a deep breath, and followed the others into what lay beyond the door.

The hallway they stepped into was quite dissimilar to the room they had just left, trading the stark white, bright light, and high ceiling for a stone grey aesthetic with plain walls, a low light coming from medieval torches lining the hall, and a ceiling that was only a few inches taller than Casper’s head: in fact, as he left the room, John heard a banging sound and a whimper of pain as Casper’s head collided with the doorframe. As he passed the torches, however, he felt no heat despite the flickering flames, as if the fire was merely decorative.

It only took a couple of minutes for the hallway to open up into another room, even larger than the one they’d just left, with a ceiling so high John could barely see it from the low lighting. Facing the group were three more hallways, each one leading off into the dark.

As the group filed into the room, a slot whirred open in the center of the room, and a large TV screen slowly rose up from the floor facing them. As he heard the confused murmuring of the group, John watched as the screen flickered to life, and the image on it, crystal clear, was revealed. On the screen was a strikingly handsome man wearing a top hat and suit, a calm smile on his face.

“Hello, gentlemen.” he said, with a disturbingly pleasant tone. “And welcome to the Labyrinth. I’m your host, the founder of Tick Tock: you can just call me the Clockmaster.”

“Hey, asshole!” shouted Joshua, who shoved his way to the front of the group. “The fuck is all this?! This isn’t any normal escape room shit, and I am not-“

“I’m sorry, sir, but I’m afraid I can’t hear you.” the Clockmaster pleasantly informed him. “The sound on my end is muted: you can hear me, but the reverse is not true. You may want to save your breath.”

Joshua seemed to swell with rage for a moment, and John momentarily thought he was going to smash the screen, but after a tense second or two, he deflated and stepped back.

“Smart boy.” the Clockmaster said with a note of condescension. “As I was saying, welcome to the Labyrinth, Tick Tock’s most complex and immersive escape rooms. I will take this opportunity to explain to you the rules of this, our star attraction. Now listen carefully,” he added, “since I’m only going to say this once, and the rules might very well save you.”

John could almost feel the intensity in the air rising at this: considering how serious everything until now had seemed, this felt even more so.

“The first thing you need to know is that the Labyrinth is much larger than simply the building you entered to get inside.” the Clockmaster began. “It is a massive underground complex I developed specifically for the purposes of these games: one could wander here for a very long time and not find their way out. This is part of the challenge: not simply clearing the challenges, but finding your way to them.

“As you may already know, you are all individuals taking this challenge: while cooperation is possible and indeed encouraged among you, it is entirely possible for individuals among you to fail these challenges. Which leads me to my next point…

“The Labyrinth is a far more serious game than the simple escape rooms above us: it is a game that is played for real. Escaping carries far more importance than simply winning a challenge: failing to escape will result in you being unable to leave this place as you were when you arrived.”

John felt his muscles seize up in sudden fear: the sentence was a bit confusing (what did he mean, “as you were when you arrived”?), but the idea that the consequences for failing were more dire had him scared.

“These games are being observed by some friends of mine, with whom I have a long and excellent relationship.” the Clockmaster continued. “They have bid significant sums of money, both on your odds of success and on their…personal favorites.” His smile changed, becoming more predatory. “Should you fail the challenges, you will fail to escape the Labyrinth, and from then on…you will belong to them.”

The silence following this proclamation was so absolute and heavy that John felt like a physical weight was pressing down on him, like something was squeezing his ribs and forcing the air out of his lungs. His head was spinning, trying desperately to assign some meaning to the man’s words, because surely he couldn’t seriously be saying that-

A chorus of shouts rang out behind John, ranging from Nirav’s high and panicked denials to Joshua’s enraged bellows to Vince desperately raising his voice above the others to get them to calm down, but all John could do was stare at the screen, silently pleading with the Clockmaster to tell them he was joking, that the whole thing, this whole setup was just an elaborate joke. But the man only stared back at them with that cruel smile before speaking up again.

“Alright, alright, that’s enough, gentlemen. I may not be able to hear you, but I do need you to calm down so you can hear the entire explanation.”

It took a few more seconds for everyone to finally stop and pay attention, but to John it felt like days. The tension is his body was so strong he was almost vibrating: he wasn’t sure how much more of this “explanation” he could take.

“Now, of course, that’s merely the consequence of losing the Labyrinth. But what does it mean to lose, I’m sure you’re thinking?” the Clockmaster continued. “Well, we have methods of… ‘persuading’… people to accept losing, to believe it something they want to do, something they fervently wish to do. Throughout these challenges, you will endure methods of this ‘persuasion’: if you are completely persuaded, then you will lose. And believe me,” he added, his smile growing yet wider, “we will know if you are.”

John felt a shudder through his body: the idea of this man watching him so closely, knowing the inside of his mind… the thought was enough to make this situation even more horrifying.

“Oh, and one last thing.” the Clockmaster commented, snapping his fingers. As if on cue, a section of wall in the room flipped open to reveal a large, elaborate clock with both hands pointing at 12.

“As you well know, escape rooms have time limits, and you must solve the puzzle of the room before the time limit runs out.” he explained. “That is true here as well: you will all have a 12 hour time limit set in place.” Though it seemed impossible, the Clockmaster’s evil grin grew wider still, so large his mouth seemed to stretch from ear to ear in a disturbing rictus. “Fail to escape the Labyrinth before the time limit runs out, and you will all immediately lose.”

Before his words had time to sink in, he once again snapped his fingers. At that moment, the clock began to tick, with the second hand beginning to slowly move.

“The game has begun, gentlemen.” the Clockmaster informed them. “I wish you the best of luck.”

With that, the screen went dark, and the TV once again lowered into the slot in the floor from whence it had came.

As John stared at the ticking clock, the chaos of his mind conjured up the thought of his motivation for coming to the Labyrinth: a change of pace to spice up his life.

Be careful what you wish for, he couldn’t help but think, because you just might get it.

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