In the valley, a young man road on horseback with all of his personal belongings. Dissatisfied with his life as a shepherd's son, he was running away from home today to start anew. He was old enough to live on his own to begin with, but his family pressured him to keep up the family's ways. Secretly, he had stored away bits of money and food before he left the village altogether. He knew there was no life for him there. Having always lived in that little village, he had no idea what the bigger, outside world was like. For all he knew, every village would be the same as his with the same dull options. At the very least though, he would get to choose his place instead of being given it. That was enough for him. He'd been riding for hours now, completely lost. His home was so isolated and small, no one had bothered to keep maps that showed what lay beyond the valley. To them, everything they needed was right there. This didn't deter him. He would keep going until he found others. On the rare occasion that an outside traveled through, he heard them speak of grander places. Cities and palaces, giant buildings and roads made of stone, both filled with people. Books and maps about lands beyond the mountains and seas. If those stories were true, he hoped he'd get to see them one day. Tired and hungry, he dismounted his horse and sat down beside the bottom of a cliff. He'd been following the mountains, but they seemed to be leading him nowhere. He didn't let that discourage him. Opening his bag, he got out some food for himself and a treat for his horse. "Come here, Haizea," He said as he offered the horse an apple. The mare sniffed at it before taking it from his hand. He petted her. "Good girl." For himself, he had some cheese and bread with water. Haizea wandered around as he rested. The forest and mountain loomed over him. He knew where he'd come from, but everything looked the same to him. The mountain against his back was covered in thick vegetation too. Absentmindedly, he tugged at the green beside him on the cliff. To his surprise, it pulled away easily. He grabbed at it more. Bit by bit, the green revealed not stone, but an opening. It was small, barely enough for an adult to crawl through. Curious, he peeked through the opening. What he saw caused him to grip the sides of the opening. Through the hole, he saw a massive cavern at least a hundred feet deep. Though he thought it was at the base of the mountain, the hole was near the top of the cavern. Stranger still, the cavern was not empty. A giant stone maze lined the entirety of the cavern. It was so large that he couldn't tell how far across the cavern actually went. He'd never heard of something like this before. "Why on earth would anyone build this?" Amazed at its beauty and strangeness, he wanted to get a closer look. There had to be a way to get down there. He didn't intend to actually go through the maze. He merely wanted a better look at how large the walls were. "I wonder if there's some sort of cave that leads down there." "Oh, there certainly is." A woman's voice came from behind him. When he turned to her, he did not see a human woman. Standing a good two feet taller than him, a creature with skin the shade of Lapis Lazuli stones and hair made of moss and leaves smirked at him. Her mouth was filled with pointed, quartz-like teeth and her eyes glowed like garnets. With her long, vine covered arms, she grabbed his shoulders. Her claws pierced through his cloak and shirt, drawing blood. "Did you wish to see the inside, young man? I will gladly grant you your wish. You'll make for an excellent meal for my hound. I'm sure your bones will be quite beautiful when displayed with my other treasures." "Let me go, beast!" He struggled to free himself, but his movements only caused her claws to dig deeper into his skin. "Haizea!" Haizea didn't come to her master's call. She stood perfectly still behind the witch. "What's the matter, child? Your horse not obeying you? You're in my domain now. All creatures obey me here." "Let me go! I've done nothing to you." "Oh, but you have. You've hurt my poor ivy, and you've snuck a peek at my labyrinth. These are crimes for which you must be punished." She carried him down through another patch of green. Much like the other spot, this one was hiding a secret opening. This one didn't drop off. It was a path. She laughed as she swung him from side to side. "You humans are so flimsy. Look at you, a grown man, and you weigh nothing at all. You're the weakest one yet, though. By far, definitely the weakest. My hound won't get to play as long. How sad...still, your bones...I can tell they're pretty. I can see that beautiful outline of your skull through that disgusting flesh of yours. What a pretty treasure!" He tried to reason with the monster. "Please, please forgive me! I didn't know what I was doing was wrong! Isn't there any way I can redeem myself? I really meant no harm!" "Enough out of you. You'll get what's coming to you." She shook him violently. "You humans always come around taking what's not yours, touching whatever you want, and looking wherever you want. Never once thinking about whether you should or not. Filthy, ugly, disrespectful mongrels. None of you are right. Coming in here with your half meat, half stone bodies. You'll die today because you're filthy and weak, and all that will be left of you is the good bits. Only then will you appease me. Now, accept your death." He gave up trying to persuade the mountain monster. Today, he would die just as he'd set off on his journey. A part of him wanted to curse himself for leaving behind his village life for something better. Perhaps his father had been right that there was nothing good beyond the boundaries of the valley. Still, another part of him kept hope. The monster woman, he couldn't get free of. Perhaps when she threw him to this beast, he could find a way to escape it. It was a better chance than he had now. And after all, every maze had an exit. He had to get out of this. After a long time, they reached the bottom of the path. The entrance of the labyrinth was adorned with human bones and weapons. She held him up close to one of the skulls. "Take a good look at him, boy. This is what you are. This is the only strong part of you. This is all that will be left of you. And even this is brittle next to my strength. Do not for an instance think that your soft shell will keep you safe." He looked away from the skull. She pressed his face against it. "No, look, boy. Look at what you are. Be glad that I will make something useful and respectable out of you when all that mush is gone. Now, let me tell you my deal. To make this irritating experience more entertaining for myself, we'll play this execution like a game. Do you like games, boy?" He didn't respond to her. "Quiet, aren't you now? That's good. I don't want to hear you anyway. Now, listen closely. Here's how the game will work. If you can get out of the labyrinth alive, you are free to go. But on two conditions. You must take nothing with you that you find within the labyrinth to the outside world. You may use one weapon, and one weapon alone to defend yourself. That weapon may be any weapon you see before you at this gate, but not any you are carrying on yourself right now. As you found it here, you may not carry it with you outside. You may use the weapon to protect yourself against my hound, but should you slay him, I will rip you into a thousand pieces and eat your bones. Do you understand, child?" He nodded his head. He wasn't certain how she would know if the beast was slain, but he didn't intend to kill the hound to begin with. All he needed to do was find the exit. "Now, choose your weapon. Which one will it be?" She dangled him over the pile of discarded metal and wood. A sword or spear would be best in dealing with a beast, but he knew those would make running and hiding harder than if he chose a smaller weapon. Hiding was his best option. He pointed to a plain-looking dagger. "That one. I want that one." The mountain monster picked up the tiny blade and held it up to his neck. "This is what you choose to die by? What a feeble thing." She carried him across the entrance and threw the dagger in front of them. The entrance suddenly closed behind them. "You must mark yourself as a competitor in this game. Write your name in the earth with your weapon." She threw him beside it with such force his entire right arm was seering with pain. He gasped and curled up, clutching his arm. "Hurry up, boy. You are trying my patience." He crawled over to the dagger and carved his name in the dirt. "Aleix. Your horse has a finer sounding name than you. Fitting. Well, boy, now the game begins." The mountain monster sunk through the earth. "The longest anyone's lasted is an hour." When there were no traces of her left, the ground trembled. A horrifying shriek echoed through the cavern. "That must be the hound." He got to his feet. His right leg stung, and his right arm wouldn't move at all for him. His other arm wasn't in much better shape, still bleeding from where the monster's claws pierced him. "This is hardly fair. All this over some vines." With all his strength, he willed himself to run. With every footstep, the ground shook harder. He had no idea how he would solve the maze, but he swore to himself he would survive somehow. "I can't leave just to die now." As he ran, a thought struck him. The stone walls of the labyrinth were only a few feet higher than him. He might be able to climb over it. Finding a portion of one of the walls with enough cracks to grab onto, he scaled up as fast as he could. Once he reached the top, he looked out over the labyrinth. There was something clearly in the center. "Maybe that's the exit..." The beast he couldn't see, but he could hear it getting closer. Perched atop the wall, he was more obvious than on the ground. Still, he would be able to see it coming. He ran along the wall and hopped across to the next one, working his way closer to the distant center. The beast never lost track of him, always just behind him and just out of sight. If he missed even one jump, or paused for a moment, it would be over. He kept that out of mind, only looking ahead at the circle in the center of the maze.
Two | TOC