The old stone witch snatched Lucrecia up in her big hands, using more force than necessary to hold her to punish the girl for escaping. She glared at the young man before her. Aleix stood his ground, knowing he had no chance of escaping her. He had to face her. He didn't have a plan though. For now, he needed to stall while he thought up something to do. "I've stolen nothing of yours." Aleix said. "Oh, and what is this? She cannot climb that wall on her own. Someone must have let her over the side." The old woman tightened her grip around Lucrecia's waist. She cried out in pain. Aleix winced. He didn't allow his body to make any other signs of vulnerability. "It is as you say. She could not climb over that wall alone, and I did indeed carry her over the wall. But that does not mean I have stolen her. She asked me to take her over the wall, and she chose to follow me from there. I have put no bonds nor chains around her to keep her near me. I have done nothing, thus I have stolen nothing." "Don't think I'll be swayed by such nonsense. A human man does not need a chain to snatch a girl from her mother. I know what you're after." The old woman lifted Lucrecia up in the air. "You'll not have her. She is my plaything, as you are my pet's food. You've crossed me enough by being alive this long, and here I find you with my girl. I'd throw you down off this ledge if I were in a good mood, but I want to see my pet rip you limb from limb." "Your daughter is quite beautiful, but I am promised to another woman and I am eternally faithful. I am not interested in any other woman, no matter how beautiful." Aleix made up a quick lie. "Loyalty does not exist in the human realm except in regards to greed and lust." 'What do you take me for? An incubus? I hardly know anything about women in that way.' Aleix got a bit of a laugh out of the woman's comments. He'd never once had a lover. Not for lack of wanting one, but simply for finding none he cared for. Everything about his village was dull and lifeless. He saw no point in pursuing anyone there, and even if there had been girls he was interested in, he doubted himself to be the type to think so shallowly about such things. He needed to convince the old witch of his true nature, to the degree of truth that served him well enough. "I am no lustful man, and I am not seeking to steal her in that way. I merely aided her, nothing more. From what I can see, it is you who has stolen her." "How dare you! She is rightfully mine." "How can that be? You and her are not the same kind of being. You cannot truly be her mother, and you called her your plaything. What human woman did you originally steal her from? If I take her from you, I am doing nothing more than returning a human back to humans." Aleix was starting to work out a plan in his head. "You do intend to take her, you thief. You'll not have her." The old witch dangled Lucrecia over the side of the ledge. "I can get another plaything. If you don't intend to steal, you won't care if I drop her." Aleix suspected the old witch was bluffing, but he didn't want to risk it. "Wait! Hear me out. You enjoy having things to play with, don't you?" The old woman smirked at that. "Yes, I do. What are you planning to offer me, boy?" "Why don't we play a game? This is a labyrinth, and all labyrinths have ways to solve them. If I solve this labyrinth and she sets foot outside of it, she's mine. If I fail, I offer myself up to willingly be eaten bit by bit, alive, prepared in anyway you wish. I won't put up a fight at all." Aleix wasn't positive he could complete the complex maze around them. At the very least, if the old woman accepted his bargain, it would buy him some time to think up a better plan. The old woman cackled. "That's hardly a bargain for me. You've gotta give me more than that. Besides, I like watching humans struggle. A willing victim doesn't entertain me." "Torture me in any way that amuses you. Do your worst. Kill me as slowly as you want. If I fail, I'm yours." "You were already mine when you wandered to my mountain." The old woman said. A horrid idea came to him. He would never allow such a thing, he told himself. If he lost, he'd come up with some other means of escape first. Aleix looked the old woman in the eyes and said, "Let me have a child with her. You can keep the child as your new plaything. She's going to get old eventually, and you don't age like we do. We could have more than one child. How many would satisfy you?" Lucrecia shouted at him. "What are you saying?! I won't allow that!" Lucrecia was too innocent to catch on to what Aleix was doing. He expected this and it worked to his advantage. Seeing Lucrecia so worked up about the idea of that made the old witch's grin widen. She liked the idea. "Hehe, a nice little supply of toys. What an idea. And then I get you as a toy too. Oh, what fun I could have as a grandmother. The ones that won't behave, I can feed them to my dear pet, while you two make more of them for me. Is that your bargain, foolish man, your bloodline?" Aleix answered without hesitation. "Yes. My children, and all of my children's children. I wager my entire bloodline." "All for this girl? How silly men are. You can find another. Why don't we start our game with a little test?" The old witch dangled Lucrecia farther over the side of the ledge. "If you leave her behind, I'll free you right now. If you choose to not help her, I'll take you outside and never bother you again. So...what will it be, wandering fool?" Aleix hesitated this time. His need to survive was putting wicked thoughts into his head. He shook them off. He didn't know Lucrecia very well, and though he valued his life, it was against his own sense of morality to leave her behind for his own sake. "I will not leave without her." The old woman threw Lucrecia down in front of Aleix. He quickly got to his knees to help her up. "Are you alright?" Aleix asked. Lucrecia slapped his hand away. "What are you doing?! You can't make this bargain with her! You can't! We'll..." "Shh...It's going to be alright. Trust me." Aleix said to reassure her. The old witch laughed at them. "Oh, don't think that's the end of our bargaining. I'm not done yet. I have a few more conditions. You don't think I'm going to let you wander these walls as long as you like, do you? Six days, and not one day longer." "Six days...Fair enough. I accept." Aleix said. "My next condition--should you choose to abandon her before the end of the sixth day, you are free to leave and I will kill her on the spot." "I accept that as well. I have a condition of my own. Since this is a test of wit more so than strength or bravery, your pet should not chase us during the six days." Aleix said. The old witched cackled. "You don't get to bargain for anything like that. My pet is free to roam. If you are clever enough to solve this labyrinth, you should be clever enough to avoid him or escape from him." Aleix accepted he couldn't bargain that obstacle away. He didn't expect she would allow it, but there was no reason not to try. "Very well. I accept your terms. Let her go and leave us. In six days, if we are not on the other side, I swear to you my bloodline to keep." "And I accept as well. It's been a while since I've had anything to entertain me." The old witch grinned and submerged herself underneath the rocks. Lucrecia grabbed Aleix's shoulders and yelled at him. "Why?! Why did you do that?!" "I was saving both of us." Aleix said in a calm voice. He brushed away her hands. "And if we fail?" Lucrecia asked, her voice full of fear and desperation. "I'll think of something. I only made that bargain to give us more time. Don't worry. I won't ever let that old woman have her way. We're going to get out of this, together." Aleix reassured her. He held her hands gently. "Why didn't you leave me behind? She was going to let you go." Lucrecia looked deeply into Aleix's eyes. She didn't know what she was searching for there, but her heart told her to keep looking. "I couldn't leave you here with her and that beast. For my freedom, the weight of that guilt would never pass. It would haunt me until my last breath." Aleix helped Lucrecia up. "Come. Let's go. Our time is running out." "Do you really think we can solve this labyrinth in six days?" Lucrecia asked. "No," Aleix said. "It'd be dumb luck if we managed that. That time is for us to get as far as we can until I can think up a new plan. But...there is always a chance we may get lucky. We shouldn't waste a single moment, regardless. Let's go." Aleix looked around the giant, multiple leveled maze they stood in. From there, he could see several layers above them. He didn't know if that was the way out, or a waste of his time. Six days, and not a single clue of where to go next. He looked over at Lucrecia. She was staring up at the higher levels too. She raised her arm and pointed at a place across from them, three levels above them. "There. I feel like we should go there." Lucrecia said in a monotone voice. "Why there? Do you see something?" Aleix asked. "I don't know. I feel like we should." Lucrecia stepped slightly towards the edge. Aleix pulled her back. "We can try that, but we have to find a way to get up there." "Here." Lucrecia stepped forward off the ledge. Aleix tried to pull her back, but she slipped through his grasp. He unconsciously closed his eyes, preparing for her death. When he heard nothing, he opened his eyes. She did not fall. Lucrecia walked higher, step by step, on translucent steps leading above. Aleix stared at them in disbelief. He wanted to ask her how she knew the steps were there, but he put that aside. He didn't want her to get too far away. Terrified, he put one foot over the ledge onto one of the barely there, floating steps. He did not fall through. The step was hard under his foot. He put his other foot on it. He stared down at the bottom of the labyrinth. If he made one mistake, he would die. He faced upward to watch Lucrecia. Taking a deep breath, he ran up the steps to catch up with her. At the end of the steps, they walked out onto the level three above the one they were on before. Lucrecia kept walking forward towards part of the stone wall. She pressed her hands against the rock, then through. Aleix did as she did. His hands slipped right through. He realized that part of the wall was another one of the labyrinth's illusions. As he passed through, he wondered what strangeness awaited him on the other side. When he passed through, he took a good look around. Beyond the wall, an empty city made of stone and clay. The walls of many buildings were crumbling away, and the designs looked like old ruins he saw on his journey out of the village. He muttered under his breath, "What is this place?" Lucrecia stopped before the first building in the city. She clutched her head and collapsed. Aleix caught her as she fell. "Are you alright?" Aleix asked. Lucrecia would not wake.
Twelve | TOC