Haizea pranced around with Lucrecia. Aleix watched on with some slight annoyance. Lucrecia hadn't given him anywhere near that sort of warm response when they met. Haizea hadn't bothered to greet him at all yet. He cleared his throat. "Haizea, come here." Lucrecia and Haizea stopped. Haizea stared at Aleix for a moment, then returned to playing around. Aleix repeated himself. "Haizea! Come here." After running around a little longer, she skipped over to him as if she had done nothing wrong. He swore she was laughing at him. "You're very misbehaved. You know better than that." Haizea nuzzled her head against him. He petted her. Lucrecia was quick to be at the horse's side again. "Her fur, it's nice to touch. Do humans really ride on top of horses? My storybook mentioned that, though there were never pictures of humans in them." "Yes. Horses are very convenient for getting around over long distances. When we get out of here, you can see for yourself." "Really? You'll let me ride her?" "Of course. That's how I planned for us to get to the next town anyway." "Can she handle carrying both of us?" "Oh, with ease. Horses are very strong." Aleix was amused at her questions. He was looking forward to seeing her reaction to the sky. "Now that we're all together and rested, we should move on. Yesterday, we decided on moving towards the area directly across the cavern. Since we don't have any clues about where to go, we'll start with the left side and work our way around." The three walked quietly around the circular path. Below, they heard something. The annoying, ghastly cackle of the old woman filled the cavern louder than the hound's unnatural shrieking. Lucrecia ducked down behind a rock. Aleix led Haizea behind an area of the ledge completely covered by stone. The two humans peered down at the maze. Down below, the old witch was laughing in front of the gate at the beginning of the maze, carrying another human. Aleix recognized the man by his voice. It was the cobbler who came through the village twice a year. He'd known the man since he was a small child. Most of the fairytales he learned as a child came from him, along with most of the stories he heard about the towns and villages beyond the valley. The hound was already running towards the start of the labyrinth before the old witch had given him a weapon. Aleix looked away. The cobbler was already an old man. If he could barely get away from that beast at his age, there was no hope for the old man. The last time he saw him, the cobbler had already been considering stopping his travels due to his poor health. Lucrecia's eyes watched on. She knew what was about to transpire, but the gravity of it did not register in her mind. Aleix jumped down and forced her gaze away. He whispered, "Do not look." The beast howled, and screams came after. Aleix took hold of Lucrecia's hands and put them over her ears. He covered his own. Those screams were not one of death, but fear. He did not intend to hear the rest. Though it was muffled, some sound still got through. Within moments after it began, the sound abruptly stopped. Aleix let his hands slip to his sides. Lucrecia mimicked him. She whispered, "Is it okay now?" "It's over." Aleix tried to hide how much the event had shaken him. He realized after it was over that Lucrecia had likely heard those unmuffled sounds many times before then. He was the more innocent one. Her expression was blank. How many times has she heard men die? Lucrecia held his hand. "Are you alright?" "I'll be fine." He knew she couldn't have actually seen the beast kill anyone. Her watching was likely morbid curiosity, or lack of understanding of the nature of dying. She had been presented with the bones of humans before. Aleix wondered how much she really understood about the bodies of humans. Her understanding can't be too great. She couldn't tell the difference between male and female. His stomach turned at the thought of her being presented trophies by the witch. A freshly striped skull, still soaked with blood shown to a child. The thought made him ill, and angry. He stood up. "We should keep going now. I haven't heard that old hag any more. Do you think she'd still be in the cavern?" Lucrecia didn't press him any further about his clear anxiousness. "I don't think so. I'm not sure, but she certainly doesn't bother coming back to the house when she leaves someone in the maze. I wonder if she's even realized that I'm gone. Or that you're still alive, for that matter." "Do you know when she usually collects her 'trophies' for the gate?" Just saying that made Aleix want to throw up. She shook her head. "I don't." "I see." He'd been disturbed by the gate before. Now that he had a face to attach to the display in his mind, the entrance only became that more disgusting to him. There was no comprehending it for him how anyone could take pleasure in torturing people that way. He wanted to blame the hag's horrible behavior on her being a monster, but he remembered some of the boys from the village torturing snakes and mice simply for being around. There was a vast difference to him between killing an animal out of necessity and taking pleasuring in watching an animal died. Those boys, that old hag, their hearts were one in the same. Vile and toxic. He remembered complaining about those boys to adults, only to be told it was a good deed they had done. Snakes and rats are bad. They can cause death. It was alright to kill them. He understood why they were afraid of the animals, but not why their fear justified death lined with intentional cruelty. No matter what the elders told him, he knew those lesser beasts were not the intentionally conniving demons they told him they were. They were animals, no different than Haizea. Unlike humans, they were incapable of being malicious. They simply were as they were. There was no deeper intent. Those boys didn't care whether or not those creatures were dangerous to the village. They simply wanted something to torment for their entertainment. They would have just as soon hurt dogs the same as snakes if they could get away with it. That malicious streak, he wondered if it existed across all the stone beings, or if this old hag belonged to a particular group of cruel ones. "Aleix, we're across from where we started now. See." She pointed to the view across the cavern. "I don't see anything out of the ordinary on this side. Do you?" Aleix refocused his thoughts. The area did look identical to the other side. As expected, there was no large crystal like inside the cavern, and no obvious levers or doorways. "Hmm...I don't either...perhaps we should move on. Wait." "Did you think of something?" Lucrecia asked. "This area is exactly like the other side. Think about it. Remember last night, where we slept? We were hidden from the outside. What we need to find may be obscured, hidden in a small opening. Look around for anything like what we found yesterday." Haizea watched the humans crawl around frantically in and out of places. Lucrecia found the next clue again. Halfway into a small enclosure, she called out to Aleix. "I found it. It's another red one." "Another crystal?" Aleix noticed a pattern. The crystals were always found after or in places of darkness. The last two red ones had hidden levers. "Pull me out!" Lucrecia tapped on the ground as her body glowed a light blue. Aleix grabbed on to her waist and pulled her back. He heard the shattering of the crystal. "Same as before." "Seems so. Another lever?" She dusted off. "Most likely." As expected, it was another lever. This lever opened up a tiny cave beside them. It was small enough to be able to see everything that was inside of it without entering it. Two red crystals were at the back of cave. Above each lever was a symbol carved into the wall. Aleix didn't recognize the symbols. The left symbol was painted in blue and reminded him of a flower. The right symbol was painted over in red and was shaped like a river. Two different symbols likely meant two different purposes. Which one are we supposed to choose? Both? Is there a specific order? "I've seen these before somewhere." Lucrecia ran her fingers over the left symbol. "You have? Do you know what they mean?" She shook her head. "It's vague. I think it was in something else that was carved into. I can't remember what." Her hands slipped and accidentally touched the left gem. Instead of only the gem she touched shattering, both crystals shattered. Two levers revealed themselves. Lucrecia apologized. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean to do that!" "Ah, it was an accident. Doesn't look like it mattered either way. One set off both of them." Aleix examined the two levers. "Now, which one are we supposed to use?" "I wish I could remember what these symbols are supposed to mean. I'm sorry." Lucrecia apologized again. "Don't worry about it. I don't know what they mean either. There doesn't appear to be any other clues. We'll just have to guess and see what happens." Aleix put his hand to his chin. "Hmm, well, we took the left side to get here. Let's start with the left lever." They each took hold of the lever and pulled it down. Suddenly, the entire cavern shook. Aleix and Lucrecia struggled to stand up. Aleix tried to walk closer to the ledge to see what was happening down below, but fell on the ground. Determined, he crawled from there. Below them, something very strange was happening. Entire sections of the maze were shifting places. Even the outer wall moved. One segment completely collapsed into itself, forming a massive space of nothing but stone against stone. The maze was now significantly smaller. The hound had less to run around in, which meant less they could run in if they needed to go back down there. Given that the maze was changed from such a high place above, Aleix was positive they would indeed need to go back down there at some point. Logically, there was no reason to have that lever there do that unless the person in the maze would need to go back to that area. He cringed at the thought. Lucrecia came up behind him after the shaking stopped. "What happened?" "It changed." Aleix motioned towards the now collapsed area. "That part's completely gone." "I hope the old woman doesn't come back any time soon. She'll definitely notice that." Lucrecia visibly measured that it had to have been roughly a fifth of the maze that collapsed. "What are we supposed to do now?" "I think we have to use the other lever too. There must be something else we're supposed to do here." Aleix got back up. They tried the second lever. The right lever opened up another path near them. As the first red crystal had, this one opened up to an ascending stairway. "Another set of stairs. I guess we're going up to the next level then." Aleix stood before the entrance. "It would seem so. We better be careful. The last one was bewitched." Lucrecia The second stairway was different than the first. Instead of being lined with crystals, this one was covered in glowing, bright green moss. It appeared to be somewhat brighter than the previous stairway, but still much darker than the open cavern. The steps themselves were also very different. Instead of small, steep steps, these were very short and long. Each step looked as though it were at least three feet across. Aleix was somewhat happy about this, as it meant Haizea would have an easier time getting through. The change in shape of the stairs could be related to the challenge this stairway presented. He took a deep breath as he held on tight to Lucrecia's hand and Haizea's reigns. They entered the moss stairway, uncertain of what was coming next
Nine | TOC