Prologue

Deep within a mountain, a young woman tended to a dying garden. When she was a child, the leaves and petals grew over the stone wall and up the walls of the house. She would sing to the flowers as she'd been taught to do, but the buds wilted just the same. The earth had become so barren, it cracked under her feet with every step. Without fail, she continued this ritual every morning. The house chores were next, and then she was allowed to eat. The old woman had not returned in over two weeks now. She sighed as she knew after breakfast, the cupboard would be empty again. The old woman always returned three days after the food was gone, no matter how she rationed her daily meal. Four more days. She longed for and dreaded that day. She looked up at the stone sky. Little rays of light peaked through the holes scattered across the mountain, burning brighter every moment. From the books the old woman gave her, she knew this was caused by the sun. She couldn't remember what it really looked like, but she knew the stories were true. The stars and moon were beyond her. Their lights were not bright enough to penetrate to the depths of her prison. They looked beautiful in her books. She wanted to see them, but that wish was tucked away deep in her mind. First the garden, then the chores, and eat. She pruned the dead roses from the brown bush until there was only a single bloom remaining. The edges had already begun to curl up into a dark yellow shade. Tomorrow, the bush would be as empty as the kitchen. When the old woman returned, half of them would return to life as always. The other half would be more patches of dirt. It was always like this. She wondered how many more times before the garden would be completely empty. That was the day she feared most. On that day, she would no longer serve a purpose to the old woman. That would be the day she would be taken from behind the walls to the other side. A third being lived inside the mountain besides her and the old woman. A beast. She had never seen the beast, but it made it's presence as clear to her as the sun. Its howls pierced the night. She wished she could grow accustomed to its noise, but insomnia was her constant companion. On occasion, someone from outside would find a way into the mountain. No one but the old woman ever made it to the center. The beast saw to that. Those screams were more terrifying than the beast's. She dusted off and walked up to the stone wall. There was a way out, but she had never found it. Somehow, the old woman always managed to come in where she couldn't see her. Once, she attempted to climb over the side. The ivy that clinged to the wall wrapped around her ankles and pulled her back down. She did catch a glimpse of what was beyond the wall. She could never forget that. More walls. Stone wall after stone wall that extended all the way to the end of the cavern. A labyrinth. The beast wasn't the only reason she had remained alone all this time. Even if she escaped through the first wall and slipped past the beast, she doubted she could solve the maze. In her dreams, during the brief moment she could sleep, she would climb over the wall and run. She didn't find the exit in her dreams either. Only running and dead ends, all the while the old woman laughed at her from somewhere hidden. The household chores didn't take long. Other than the few things the old woman had given her, there was little inside the house. When she'd completed her chores, she went to the cupboard. A small piece of bread and a tiny portion of water in a jug were all that remained. Her stomach growled at her. She held the bread in her hands, contemplating her choice. If she ate it today, it would be four days. If she didn't, five. She put the bread back and took a small sip of the water. Five more days. Her stomach growled again in protest. She'd learned to ignore it. With her tasks for the day complete, she laid down for a nap. This was usually the only time when she could sleep. Of course, this too had a catch. She could only sleep for an hour during the day, before she would be woken abruptly. She wouldn't be able to sleep again until the sun set. This was another cruel joke from the old woman. She laid down on her bed. Unlike the old woman's, her bed was made of stone. She couldn't use anything of the old woman's either. If she tried, the object would feel like fire to the touch. Of course, she had never seen the old woman sleep in her own bed, or sleep at all. She was certain the old woman didn't need the bed. It only existed in the house to mock her. The bed was cold, as usual, and she had no pillow or blankets to offer her any comfort. Sleep came easy though, as she was always tired. Soon, she was dreaming again. Today's dream was different than usual. She had walked over to the wall to climb it, but as she made her ascent, her feet kept slipping. Even stranger, someone was pushing her up the wall. "Just a little more," the person said. "Do you see it?" Her hands clasped on to the top of the wall. She pulled herself up and looked out. The labyrinth looked different than how she remembered it. Somehow, it had gotten bigger. She didn't know what she was looking for. The person climbed up beside her. The person spoke again. "I don't see it. Do you think it's safe to go now?" She nodded her head, though she didn't know why. The two of them jumped down to the other side and ran. "It changes, doesn't it?" She didn't respond. The person took her hand. "Don't worry. We'll get out of here." The person's hand was warm to touch. That was strange. Whenever the old woman touched her, her hands were either as cold as ice or as hot as burning coals. Everything in her home was always either ice or fire. The person's skin was softer than the old woman's. Her hands and feet had always been rough, but the old woman's blue skin felt like rock. This person's skin carried the same rough and smoothness as her own, and a similar hue. The person's hair was kept short, but stringy in a manner similar to hers. Everything about this person that she could see was far more similar to her than the old woman was. She felt some comfort in seeing a being that looked similar to her monstrous self. The old woman made it clear to her many times how ugly and unusual her appearance was. That was part of why she needed to be in this prison. She was a hideous beast who must be punished. The outside world is only filled with beautiful people like the old woman. Still, perhaps in her own bit of selfishness, she found the other person to be more beautiful to look at than the old woman. There were some slight differences between her and the stranger that weren't shared between her or the old woman, but she thought maybe that meant the person was a different kind of monster. For once, she didn't care about finding the exit. All her thoughts were on this new monster before her. A monster that felt warm and soft, that had no claws or hair made of leaves. A monster that looked like her. Finally, she was able to speak. "Who are you?" The person looked back at her with eyes as dark as the earth and smiled. "I already told you earlier. My name is..." On schedule, she awoke after an hour had passed. She sat up, breathing heavily. "Why was it different..." Getting out of bed, she went to the kitchen to find the only thing she could that would reflect. She took out the big knife and held it up to her face to look at herself. The old woman had never allowed much of anything reflective in the house. She claimed if there were such things, a monster would start to find itself beautiful and become more hideous. But there were things she couldn't completely remove. She stared at the half of her face that was visible in the blade and thought of the stranger from her dream. Her own eyes were a little lighter, but the shape and design was strikingly similar. Nothing like the blood red shade of the old woman's eyes with slanted pupils. The stranger's pupils were rounded, perfectly as hers were. Even the teeth were the same. She wanted to see that person again up close, outside of her dreams. She wanted to see another monster like herself. Most of all, the warmth intrigued her. With a heavy sigh, she put the knife away. "Why am I so excited? It's only a dream. No one ever comes beyond the wall." Like her fantasies of the sun, she put the day's dream away deep in the back of her thoughts. In five days, the old woman would come again and the cycle would start over again. There was no escaping. She chalked up today's divergence from the usual pattern to her awareness of the garden's state. There could only be a handful of cycles left before she'd be taken over the wall by force. She buried herself in her picture books about the sun, moon, and stars, idly waiting for the next day to come to repeat her tiresome routine.
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