Nine

The moss stairwell barely illuminated the upward path. As with the first stairwell, the top of it could not be seen from the bottom. The humans and the horse treaded lightly on the long, low stones. When they had reached the third step, a loud crashed went down behind them and more of the already dim light faded. The opening at the bottom of the stairs was closed shut. There was no going back. "It shut!" Lucrecia ran down the steps. She put her hands to the cold space where the opening once was. She felt around for a lever or a switch, anything that would open it up again. There was nothing to be found. The wall held no secrets. Aleix walked down to her. "We can't go back that way. This may mean we have to solve something here before we're allowed down again. Don't get too worried." His words were what he thought was true, but Aleix was not content with his own answer and examined the wall as well. His results were the same as Lucrecia's. There was nothing there. When he turned around, he found himself lost. The stairway had changed on them. Where the moss once grew along the sides of the wall, there were now trees and shrubs. The vegetation glowed with the same brilliant shade of green as the moss. The ground below them was still stone, but the walls were gone. Thick grass lined the floor of the forest around them, as bright and strange as everything else. So dense was the forest that Aleix could not see much beyond the trees directly nearby. He looked up at the sky above. While the crystals below had cast an illusion that mimicked the sky, this one seemed impossibly real. He had never seen the sky clearer and brighter before. A huge full moon hug over them. The sight of it was beautiful and terrifying. It was so large he was afraid the light would crash down to earth. To test the nature of what was before them, Aleix reached out to where the walls used to be. His hands easily passed through. He stepped off of the stone. Again, there was no resistance. The bark of the trees, the smell of the forest, it was all too real. Too real to be real. The sort of intensity one would only encounter in a dream. He was certain, somehow, this too was magic. Nothing like this could ever truly exist. "Aleix!" Lucrecia called out to him. She was so much further away from him. He was certain he had only walked a few feet. Lucrecia had to be at least twenty feet away from him now. This place must be causing it. "I'm coming!" He ran back over to her. Twenty feet of running strangely felt like miles. As he crossed back over onto the stone steps, he tried to catch his breath. His heart was racing from what should have only been mild activity. "Why did you go so far away?" "I don't know...I don't think I did." Aleix had to sit down. Why am I so exhausted? What's wrong with me? "What do you mean?" "I know I only walked a few feet. When I heard you calling me, you were suddenly really far away. What did it look like to you?" "I'm not sure...there's so little light in here. I couldn't see you very well once you went beyond these bushes and flowers along the edge. Everything's so foggy and dark down here." Dark? Aleix tilted his head. It did appear to be night in the forest, but there was so much light around them from the stars, forest, and the massive moon above them. How could she not see him well? Did she say flowers? I haven't seen any flowers. "Lucrecia, where are the flowers at?" He asked. "All around. There's some right beside you." She pointed to a bush near him. On the bush, he saw no flowers. Not even a single bud. "And where are the trees?" "What are trees?" She asked. "They're taller than me, with branches that come out, covered in leaves. Do you not see them?" This time, he pointed to something right off the path. "There's one here. And another here. They're everywhere." Lucrecia stared hard at the space he had pointed to. "I don't see anything like that there. I don't see anything at all. It's emptiness." "And do you see anything above us?" "No, only darkness. Vast darkness that has no form." We really are seeing two different worlds. Aleix contemplated what might be causing it. He thought of their first encounter with a flight of stairs. The last one had cast an illusion, but it only worked on him. There was likely similar magic on this one, but much stronger. "I think I understand it. We're seeing different things because you don't know the same things as me. I see a forest under a full sky. You cannot see this because you don't know what those things look like. But you do know about gardens, so it filled in the space with what you did know." "That makes sense, but why isn't it as full as the world you are seeing?" "Because you've never known a world full of that vast amount of plants. You've only known the garden. No matter how big that garden was at its peak, it was still confined to that small space. So what you see is also confined. Now, the question is, how is this supposed to trick us? What purpose does it serve?" "It seems like it wants us to get lost. You ended up so far away." "And I would bet that this is an area where we need to exit together. There's no point in separating us otherwise. We already know this maze is meant to be solved with two people. Or at least, that's how it appears to be. Future obstacles will likely also try to separate us. We absolutely have to stay together." Aleix stood up, dusting himself off. "We must stay on the path. No matter what, do not leave it." "That still sounds too easy." Lucrecia held his hand. "You're right. I suspect something else will try to separate us. Whatever it is, we must resist it. Don't look at anything off the path. We'll just keep walking forward until we reach the end." He took hold of Haizea's reigns and kept a firm grip on Lucrecia's hands. "Remember, nothing beyond these stone steps are real." As they moved beyond the third step, the illusions became more vivid. At Lucrecia's side, the old woman screamed at her. She clawed towards her, never making contact. Her arms couldn't cross into the area on the path. Her voice made Lucrecia shake, but she remained steady on the path. "You stupid child. You know where you belong. I own you. You were mine the day your mother came onto my mountain. You can never leave here. That is your punishment for being born a monster." The hag's eyes burned like flames and her quartz teeth dripped with blood. She waved around a human skull in front of her. "Look at you, disappointing your mother. Are you abandoning her too? She can never leave here. You're leaving her behind. Such a selfish child. So selfish you made your mother come up here and steal my plants before you even left her womb." Lucrecia picked up her pace. She would not let the old woman's ramblings get to her. Years of having to listen to her like that was more than enough. An illusion of her was not about to stop her from escaping. "You think that boy is going to take care of you? I've seen human men. They're more selfish than the women are. You'll soon be alone. Alone in a world that won't feed you like I do, won't protect you like I do. You will die out there faster than you would in here." The longer the witch spoke, the less power her words had. It was strange. All those years inside the wall, she had believed whatever the old woman told her. Right now, her words seemed preposterous. It had been the labyrinth designer's idea to make her lose her self in this place, but she was more confident than ever. "You're not real. Go away. Even if you were real, I don't need to listen to you anymore." The illusion of the old woman faded into dust. The flowers and bushes too began to fade away. The vast emptiness was again merely stone walls encased in moss. With her words, the power the spell held over her had no fear to draw upon. Aleix was having a more difficult time. A procession of relatives lined the side of the pathway, each with words of blame. "You lazy boy!" "You've abandoned us!" "Are we not enough? Do you not love us anymore?" "How will we go on when father is older? Who will take care of me?" I've already made my peace with that. His family members faces changed the higher he climbed, and then the other villagers. "I always knew you were good for nothing. Good riddance to you. Glad to see you go." "See what happens when you go outside of the valley? Serves you right." "Such shame. Abandoning your duties as you always have." "Good for nothing. You were good for nothing here, and you'll be good for nothing there. You'll wonder forever never being good enough to be anywhere." He hadn't expected he would hear things like that again once he left the village. Those sorts of words had plagued him, but he knew he wouldn't be hearing those things again from them. This wasn't really happening. He didn't need to be upset. Go from me. You do not own me. "Boy, please. Please, help me." His heart sunk. The soft, kind voice of the cobbler shook him completely. He kept his eyes forward, anticipating what the illusion would create next. He tried to block it out of his mind, knowing that the illusion was only showing him what would disturb him most. The more he tried to block it out, the more his thoughts raced around it. "Please, help me!" The howling of the beast with its heavy, earth-shaking run filled the forest. This isn't real. Do not think about it. He repeated these thoughts to himself and he kept his eyes forward, but his mind betrayed him with images of that morning. The memories flowed through him and beat down on him like rain. There was no drowning it out. When he closed his eyes, the illusion only got stronger. His mind created what he could not see when he'd been down on the ledge. The beast cornering the cobbler...the terrified look on his old friend's face... He opened is eyes to feel the heavy breathing of the beast at his side. It's an illusion. It's not real. The breath of the beast was hot on his skin. "Please, please, help me!" He shut his eyes again, knowing it would give him no relief from the pain. The illusion grew even stronger. He could see the cobbler's final moments as if he were standing right beside him when it happened. The screaming cut through him, each one growing in harshness. Opening his eyes again, the screaming kept on. Despite his eyes being open, he could see himself sitting on that ledge anticipating the final sound. Something in him wanted him to turn and face the beast and look at what he could not see. This horrifying desire filled him so intensely it took everything in him to not give in. If he looked, he knew there would be no relief. It would be like cutting off an arm to numb the pain. IN that moment, that almost felt like an option. He wanted it to end. Before the final scream, he covered his ears and shut his eyes. Red surrounded him. At the end of the path, a giant red crystal stood before them. This one was the largest one they had seen yet. Without a word, Lucrecia put her hand to the tip of the crystal. She could barely reach the top of this one. This crystal contained something different than the others. A chain. She tugged at the end of the chain. It was too heavy for her to pull by herself. This must be to ensure that we're both here "Aleix, we'll have to do this part together." She looked to her side. Her hand was empty. Once again, she found herself in the a vast and empty darkness.
Ten | TOC