Barely contained by the stone walls, the giant hound charged after them. Its black fur dragged against the stone as its feet hit down like thunder. The distance between the beast and the escaping duo was quickly disappearing. With the beast's breath at their backs, they both gave all their strength to each step. It wasn't enough. Aleix had managed to get over to the center only by utilizing the tops of the walls. From what he observed then, the beast could climb over the walls, but at a much slower pace than him. The beast also couldn't run along the tops of the walls. The walls could clearly withstand the monster's weight, but the animal itself couldn't perform the necessary balancing act to stay on top of it. While that could be useful again later, he needed to find a way to lose the beast now. Lucrecia was losing speed more than he was. Her feet kept slipping on the ground. There was nothing they could do about that now. If he tried to carry her, they would be even slower. His train of thought was broken by a loud howl from the beast. The sound was so loud that both of them immediately covered their ears and dropped to the ground. The noise vibrated throughout their bodies like a drum being pounded inside of them. Lucrecia screamed to try to drown out the noise. The beast hovered over them now, its fangs dripping a red, goopy slime. The huge teeth were nearly as long as Aleix's arms. Aleix took out the dagger, not sure what to do with it. As the the monster opened its massive mouth, another sound echoed through the labyrinth. It was the sound of a horse. The beast looked back to where the sound was coming from. In that moment, Aleix stabbed the dagger into the beast's right eye and grabbed Lucrecia's hand. He left the dagger in the beast's eye, hoping it would give them a little more time. He knew he might regret that, but there was no time to think deeply about it. They ran down the path and took the nearest right turn. The two ran in complete silence for a long time while the hound's shrieking pierced through to every corner of the cave. Aleix was grateful to Haizea for calling out to him, but he worried if she had somehow managed to get into the maze herself. There was no way a horse would stand a chance of making it out alive. Lucrecia stopped running. Since they'd been holding hands, Aleix felt himself being yanked back as she stood still, nearly falling over. "Why did you stop?" "Look. It's an opening." Lucrecia pointed to a small hole in one of the walls. Aleix hadn't seen it as they passed as it'd been in shadow. "I only just saw it out of the corner of my eye. Should we go in?" The hound's rumbling was getting close again. "I don't think we have much choice right now..." Aleix got down and crawled through the small opening. Lucrecia followed behind him. It was nearly impossible to see anything inside the space, but it was much bigger than the space suggested. There was enough room above for them to both stand. Aleix felt outward to find the boundaries, but his hands met with nothing. His feet also didn't meet with anything after a few feet. Not realizing until it was too late, he fell forward and hit the ground with a splash. "Are you okay?" Lucrecia felt around for him, meeting with the same fate shortly after. "I see you found the end of the floor too." He laughed. Lucrecia shivered at the unexpected rush of water. The muddy ground above had been colder than the ground in the walls, but this was even colder. The sharp chilliness of it felt like needles on her skin. "What is this?" "Feels like a stream." He reached out for the boundaries of it, meeting with stone. "As I thought, artificially created. The ground and outer edge are all stone too. This seems to be some sort of waterway that was put here for a specific purpose. But what...Was there any way for you to get water on your own in that house?" "No, there wasn't. The old woman would leave me with a specific amount of water for drinking, and water for the bath and cleaning came from barrels that refilled themselves every morning. I never had to fill them. It was another spell of hers." Lucrecia stood up and wrung out her dress. She quickly ducked back down when a loud, pounding noise hit nearby. The one source of light from the opening went completely dark. A sniffing noise came from it, then scratching. This continued on for a while. Aleix and Lucrecia remained perfectly still, mostly submerged in the water. Eventually, the beast gave up on the entrance and moved on. When the creature's footsteps were very distant, Aleix moved through the water to find Lucrecia's exact location. "Are you over here?" "I'm here." Her voice was a little off from where he expected. His hand made contact with her arm. He looked for her hand after that. She moved to meet him halfway. He felt her hand tightly. "It would seem our friend up there can't get into here. At least, not from there. I don't think we should stay here long though. Who knows what else could be lurking around." "I don't like this place." Lucrecia held on to him even tighter. "I don't either." Aleix stood up. Lucrecia rose from the water, stumbling from the lack of light. Aleix held on to her to keep her steady. "You alright?" "I'm okay." "Alright, we're going to move this way. Stay close." Aleix began walking slowly forward. "I'm getting some new ideas about this place. Do you know if the witch built this place herself, or what the original purpose of this maze is?" "I don't know. Why? What are you thinking?" "Well...this is just an idea...but I'm wondering if this place originally had a different purpose. I don't think she built all this to keep you trapped. Some parts are clearly her magical work, but this place here doesn't seem to serve a purpose. And I can't see that woman as being brilliant enough to design a maze this elaborate." He almost outright said 'I don't think someone other than a human was smart enough to build this', but he had his doubts about that himself. "Are you saying this place belongs to someone else?" "Not exactly. It may have belonged to someone before, but I don't think, whoever that person was, is actually around anymore. I'm betting she found this place and, seeing it abandoned, took it and modified it for her own purposes. Which means...there's likely more exits to this place than she's actually aware of." "I see. Do you know a lot about solving mazes?" "Well, I've never actually been in one before." Heat rose in his face. The only mazes he had ever seen before were in illustrations for old stories. "I do love puzzles though. And really, a labyrinth is nothing more than a really big puzzle. Mazes aren't typically built to not have exits. Even if the intent was to keep a person trapped, the builder or owner would need to know how to get out of it themselves. If we can understand the mind of the person who built this, we should be able to solve it. There has to be hints in the maze itself." "How will we know a hint when we see it?" "It could be anything. A pattern, a riddle, a stone that looks different than the others, anything. We'll have to keep a look out for anything even a little off." "What about right now? We can't see anything. What could tell us which way to go?" "Hmm...wait...maybe..." He felt the water flowing around them. "The water. If we can't use our eyes, maybe the direction of the water is the clue. But which way would this builder want us to go, in the flow of the current or against it?" "With it." Lucrecia quickly responded. "What makes you think that?" "I don't know. I just have a feeling that's the way we should go." Lucrecia pulled him forward. "If you say so...it's not like we have anything to go on either way." Aleix increased his pace to match hers. There was no light for a long time. Aleix wasn't certain, but he thought that the floor they were walking across was starting to develop a downward slope. Are we going deeper?, he wondered. Aleix couldn't keep track of how long they'd walked. It felt like hours. Finally, a glimmer of light shown in the distance. It appeared to be far below them. "Do you see that?" He asked. "Yes...it's so pretty..." Lucrecia kept walking forward. Aleix pulled her back. "Wait! Look at where it is. It's below us. We can't see what's in between here and there. It might be a drop off. We can't go rushing towards it." "I'm sorry." Lucrecia lowered her voice. "Ah, I wasn't lecturing you. I was merely worried you might fall..."Aleix softened his voice. "Let's go." Their pace was slow. Lucrecia could barely contain her excitement, but managed to walk steadily in rhythm with Aleix's movements. Aleix too wanted to see what was at the depths of the path, but the thought of falling again, especially from a much higher height than his last fall, stayed at the forefront of his mind. As the light grew brighter, other shapes took form. The light was coming through a circular opening covered by big bars of metal. On the other side, it looked like there was another cavern. This one was different than the one above them. This one glowed. Lucrecia hurried them across to the where the bars were. The glowing light shined on her, revealing her smiling face. "So pretty...what are these?" Aleix was just behind her, catching full view of the cavern a few seconds after her. He couldn't believe what he saw. A cavern full of glowing, sparkling gems. No light from outside the mountain was visible. That bright light was entirely caused by the gems embedded into every side of the cavern. The crystals were massive, many larger than the both of them. The sparkling inside the stones looked like stars and moved above as if floating in liquid. The gems themselves were a blackish-blue, and the flecks inside of them whites, pale blues, purples, and yellow-greens. The two were mesmerized by the beauty before them. At the bottom of the cavern, a branching stream ran through around the glittering cystals, glowing in a similar fashion. The water was as dark blue as the gems, but the sparkles floating within it were only in shades of white. Aleix had never seen or heard of anything like this. Aleix glanced down at the water that flowed around them. It was the same as the water at the bottom of the cavern. He stared at his hands. Everything on him glittered, and his clothes had become dyed a deep blue. Lucrecia was the same way. Their bodies gave off a light azure glow. He watched the light dance across the sparkling flecks on his hand as he turned it. "Blue..." It dawned on him. The colors around him, this ever present blue...it was a similar shade to the mountain witch. The hag's Lapis Lazuli body was a pale version of the dark stones before him. He couldn't shake the feeling that there was a connection, despite being certain this labyrinth had not been built by her. More than that, he had a feeling the witch wasn't the only thing connected to those glittering stones. Lucrecia reached her hand through the bars. "Let's go down there."
Six | TOC