Wrought iron fences loop around the gardens: six deep, the outer three progressively higher, more elaborate, and with more spikes atop, while the inner three create a mirror effect. Say you make it over all six fences without impaling yourself or falling or getting trapped between iron bars that suddenly constrict or twist or move. Say you avoid the fourth fence, the electric one, or the second one with the poisoned varnish, or the sixth one with a taste for blood.
(Once upon a time, a sorcerer lost their shadow in a bet with a magician. The bet itself is unimportant. Shadowless, the sorcerer wandered the world until, unexpectedly, they found a shadow whose person had been lost to a bet with a sea-witch long before.)
If you make it past all six fences, then you reach the first garden. It's a great circular loop of hawthorn and foxglove hedging that has no convenient holes or doors. The hedge speaks with a rusty, gravely, morbid voice; its cadence is so slow you forget the first word before you hear the third one. The hedge asks riddles, like hedges are wont to do in a sorcerer's garden, and if you get it wrong, the gophers eat you.
(The sorcerer and the unattached shadow fell in love. "Can we stay together forever?" asked the shadow, twined with the sorcerer under the autumn stars, and the sorcerer said, "Yes." The sorcerer did not intend to lie.)
But let's say you answer the riddle, which no one has been able to guess for sixty-five years, and the hedge opens just enough for you can squeak through with lacerations on your sides and foxglove pollen infecting the cuts. Then you reach the second circle, a rose garden.
(What the shadow did not know was that once upon a time, the sorcerer made a bet with a demon and lost. The bet itself is unimportant; the wager was the sorcerer's happiness. As soon as the sorcerer found true joy, the demon came to collect.)
Roses of every color imagined or not imagined fill the garden. The air is so thick with fragrance you get high with the first breath and overdose with the second. But let's say you can hold your breath, or you brought a mask. You hear the roses speaking. Not riddles, of course, because the roses are too polite to infringe on the hedge's territory. What the roses say is: eat you eat you eat you. And then they will, of course. Roses need fertilizer just like any other plant. Your bones might become thorns for the next bushes that sprout, if you're fortunate, and if you're even luckier, one of the yellow roses will drink your soul instead of the red ones. And if you're especially tasty, it won't even hurt.
(The sorcerer said to the shadow, "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean for this to happen." To look on the shadow brought only grief to them both. So the sorcerer banished the shadow, because once a sorcerer makes a bet, they cannot go back on the wager. Shadows can't weep.)
But let's say you don't get eaten by the roses. The circle you find yourself in next is a lightless tower that goes downward and never up. Chains spun from hanged men's gurgles crisscross the stairs that don't really exist. Beware of the ivy along the walls, for it grows on memory, until your mind is choked and full of leaves, and roots dig out through your skin and you forget why you came, and you sit there forever, and forever, and forever, and...
(The shadow found itself in a glacier. The ice the shadow absorbed melted and dripped down the shadow's face, and it looked at its hands and clenched them into fists and said, "I will find you again, love." Somewhere on the other side of the world, the sorcerer heard the shadow's words and despaired.)
But let's say that you don't trip over nonexistent steps and fall into the abyss, and you bring herbicide for the ivy.
(The shadow traveled the world alone, becoming a master of disguise, a jack of all trades. No cost was too great to acquire what was needed. The shadow absorbed knowledge and languages and magic and shut away grief so deep it forgot, for a time, it was there. Then the shadow learned how to hunt demons.)
The second to last circle is made of bubbles, translucent spheres summoned from the essence of Death Itself, for Death has always had a whimsical side. If you pop one, it swallows you, compressing your lungs, siphoning your blood, unraveling your nervous system, grinding your bones into dust. There is no space between the bubbles through which to pass.
(On the other side of the world, the sorcerer put all their skill into making an unattainable fortress, circles of gardens no one can ever penetrate. There will be no more bets, and no more loss, and in their self-made prison, the sorcerer sits alone. One day, the sorcerer hopes, they will fade from memory so the shadow may mourn, and perhaps one day find peace again.)
But let's say you brought needles to prick the bubbles ever-so-carefully and catch the pieces of death in a lead-lined pouch. When you carve a path through this circle, you find a simple wooden door that asks for a password. If you answer wrong, the door will never have existed. But you answer: "Heart," and it opens.
(The shadow laid a delicious trap for the demon: freshly picked souls, harvested from the Tree at the Center of the World. The demon approached, feet soundless on the ice floes the shadow drifted on. "What game shall we play for this luscious prize?" the demon asked, and the shadow said, "No game. I'm here to kill you.")
Let's say you make it into the final circle, the one made of plain stone.
(The shadow lunged, a lasso made from angel sinew in one hand, and in the other a poniard forged in the eventual heat death of the universe. The demon screamed as the angel sinew snared tight about its neck. The demon's form flickered through every horrendous shape it knew, yet it couldn't escape the noose. "You hurt the one I love," the shadow said. "I do not care for that." The demon howled for mercy. Shadows are neither merciful nor cruel, except when they are. With the poniard, the shadow cut out the demon's guts, and in the steaming entrails found every item the demon had stolen with tricks or dice or cards. The demon withered into flakes of ash and sank into the frigid sea-salt waters. The shadow gently scooped up what it had sought for so long, trembling, hoping it was not too late.)
There are no traps or puzzles or illusions here. This garden is brick, lopsided piles of brown and red and gray stone in no discernible pattern. The sorcerer sits on the middle heap, alone except for the bones. Oh, yes, of course there are bones. Don't ask what they are from.
The sorcerer is a thin, hunched person of no specific gender, dressed in a blue habit sewn from fish scales. Dull eyes, bones sharp against slack skin. Building an unattainable garden takes its toll on a body.
"Why did you come?" the sorcerer says. There's deep tiredness in that voice, so much pain. "You will only find sorrow here."
"I know." You sit beside the sorcerer, your love, and unzip your ribs. Tucked under your heart is a small oak box, plain and unvarnished. You offer it to the sorcerer. "I brought this for you."
Their hands shake as they open the box.
Inside, wrapped in turquoise tissue paper, is the sorcerer's stolen happiness.
They let out a small gasp of shock. "How..."
You press a finger against the sorcerer's lips. "Later. Please take it." You've hoped since the moment you found the wrought iron gates that the sorcerer will not refuse. If the sorcerer says no, you are finished.
The sorcerer folds the paper aside for later use. "How long has it been?"
Too, too long.
"I don't remember..." The sorcerer's voice catches in their throat. They turn away. "Why did you come?"
"I want you back." You wait, trembling. There is nowhere else to go. "Please come back, love. I will help you laugh again, I will make you strong. One day, we will tear down these unattainable gardens and walk free. I am here because I need you." Unsaid: Please don't banish me to loneliness forever.
The sorcerer shuts their eyes. Then with quivering hands, replaces the happiness inside them. A shudder ripples through the sorcerer's frame, and they press their face against your shoulder. You stroke their hair and wait.
"I'm so sorry," the sorcerer says, over and over and over.
You wrap yourself around them and hold them close. For now you are safe from wandering magicians and cunning sea-witches and unsatisfied demons.
"It will be all right, love," you whisper, because shadows never lie. And for the first time since they built this labyrinth, the sorcerer smiles.
This story originally appeared in Daily Science Fiction.