The stairs through the stone arch were steep and small, and went on too high for either of them to tell where it ended. The stairway itself was dimly lit by more of the same dark-blue, sparkling crystals from the cavern. Their glittering cast tiny lights along the way, moving slowly like the night sky. Lucrecia found the lights to be beautiful for their colors. Aleix was amazed at how much it reminded him of stargazing alone when he would sneak off at night. The steady motion was comforting, despite the huge climb upward ahead of them. The crystals primarily lined the wall, clustering together every few feet and roughly at eye level. There were a few tiny crystals at the corners of the steps, but the light they provided was very minimal. Aleix felt along the wall for something to hold on to, but there was no railing. As they ascended, Lucrecia started to fall behind. "Do you need to rest?" Aleix turned back to her. She caught her breath. "Just a moment...these steps are so tall..." "It's getting to me too. It's okay if we rest. I don't think anything's going to come back here." Aleix sat down on one of the steps. There was barely enough room for him to sit. Lucrecia sat down just below him. "How far do you think it goes?" "No idea. Wouldn't it be nice if it was the exit?" He joked. "I wish it were." She laid her head down on one of the steps. "Why would someone build something like this..." "I don't know, but it is pretty...at least this part of it. I've never seen crystals like these before." Aleix watched the swirling patterns around them. He found himself lost in their soothing movements. "I feel like I could watch these forever." Lucrecia watched them with him. The star-like pattern on the wall didn't enchant her anywhere near as much as it did Aleix. She found them beautiful, but Aleix seemed unable to look away. "Hmm...it makes me feel sleepy for some reason." "It's because they look like the night sky. Stars...so many stars..." "This is what stars are like?" Lucrecia watched more intently. The pattern was beautiful. She couldn't help but feel a bit underwhelmed by it. The walls of the path kept everything closed in. When she read about the sky, the part that fascinated her most was that it went on forever. She could see the borders of this "sky". To her, these were very beautiful crystals, but nothing more than crystals. They were not the stars she desperately wanted to see. "Aleix, I think we should move on. I've rested long enough." "We don't have to leave yet. We could stay here." Aleix spoke in a monotone voice. "Isn't it peaceful?" "Yes, it's peaceful, but we need to move on." Lucrecia stood up. She offered her hand to Aleix only to be ignored. His gaze stayed trapped on the ceiling above them. Something else was wrong with him. His eyes had changed. The brown-black shade had turned a dark-blue, the lights of the gems swirling brightly in their reflection. She moved her hand in front of his face, getting no response. "Aleix...Aleix, what's wrong with you?" "Stars..." Lucrecia looked over at the gems on the wall. These must be causing this... She grabbed on to one of the gems and tried to pull it out of the wall. When she held it, the color of the stone changed to a deep red, the same shade as the crystal that had been behind the second waterfall. Afraid, she immediately let go at the change. The crystal glowed brightly before it shattered. She turned and touched the cluster on the other side of the wall near them. The same thing happened. Next, she touched each of the crystals on the steps. The swirling pattern around them went pitch black. The strange blue in Aleix's eyes faded back to its original color. He held his head. "What happened? What was I doing?" "You were bewitched." Lucrecia helped him up. "The crystals did something strange to you." "Something strange? Did I do something odd? I didn't try to hurt you, did I?" "No, nothing like that. You were transfixed by the crystals' lights. You were lost to them. I got rid of the ones near us, and you returned to normal." "I was? How strange...but why were you unaffected?" "I think it had something to do with stars." She pointed to the lights up ahead. "You kept mentioning, even when you were lost in a trance, that they looked like stars and how you wanted to watch them. I've never seen stars, so I don't think whatever effect, be it magic or otherwise, works on me." "How did you get rid of them?" "The same way as before. Watch." Lucrecia went up to one of the clustered ahead of them. She touched the gems, and as before, they changed to a blood red and shattered. "They break when they're touched. We'll have to keep getting rid of the lights as we go up." Aleix followed her. He was curious what happened when she did it in the cavern below, and now she'd done it again. He needed to know if she was the cause, or if the gems reacted to all human contact that way. "Let me do the next one." "Alright. All you need to do is touch them for a moment. When they turn red, let go." Aleix faced the crystal cluster at the other side of the wall. He held on to the biggest one in the cluster tightly. He waited, but there was no change in color. Instead, when he looked at the gems more closely, he only saw stars. Millions of stars floating within. He couldn't think about anything else. He could see himself now, standing alone in a field back in the village, staring up at the stars. The smell of the grass and dirt and trees lingered in the air. A breeze flowed through. It was so peaceful, he felt like he was about to drift into a deep sleep while standing. And then everything turned bright red, and he was in the cave again. The same pain that hit him earlier returned and he clutched his head. "Argh, again?" "It seems you can't be the one to do it. You fall under its spell too easily." Lucrecia was still holding on to him from when she'd pulled him away from the gems before she shattered them. "Why? Why didn't I get mesmerized like this in the waterway or the cavern?" "Hmm...maybe it's the design of this space? Or maybe there's merely a spell on this place that isn't on the others? I don't really know much about what a puzzle-maker would do." Lucrecia destroyed the gems on the steps. "Perhaps...it could be a bit of both. This area is very small, and the water in the waterway didn't glow until it came in contact with the the crystals. The effect of the crystals may have been diminished in the cavern because there was too much light to create this effect." Aleix waited for Lucrecia to take out the next set of lights before moving up to where she was. "If that is the case...who was this maze designed for? I obviously could not have gotten past this part on my own. I'd have no way to get rid of the lights, and if I did, there was no way I could save myself if I were to get trapped by their light before I realized what I was supposed to do." "It could be as you said earlier. I couldn't have escaped the center walls alone. Perhaps this maze itself cannot be completed alone?" "That may be...but if a single person worked on this, surely there were ways they could get out." "Isn't that an assumption itself? That a single person designed this. What if it was designed by two to be solved by two?" "But what would be the purpose of designing a labyrinth that you can only complete with a companion? And from what it seems like, a very particular type of companion?" Aleix had been working from the assumption that this was an ordinary labyrinth a witch had stolen and put a few additional spells on. He hadn't considered that some of that magic may have been in place before that old hag ever set foot in the place. There was no getting around it. He had to admit to himself that it may be the two of them don't meet all of the requirements to get out, and they could be trapped forever. "Perhaps we'll find the answer to that in time." Lucrecia continued onward. Her outward expression didn't hint at any of the fear that was building up in Aleix. He chose not to say what was on his mind. For the rest of the stairway, Aleix stayed slightly behind Lucrecia while she worked. After several more rests, they finally reached the last set of crystals and another giant red crystal. "This one looks exactly like the one below." Lucrecia did not touch it yet. "It does. If there's any consistency to this maze, it should function the same way as the other one as well. This may open up the next doorway for us." Lucrecia touched the tip of the crystal. As with the big, crimson colored gem below, Lucrecia's body glowed with a light blue light when she touched it. This hadn't occurred with the small blue gems. The red crystal shattered to reveal another lever. Together, they pulled it down and a new doorway opened up directly in front of them. This area was brighter than the dark corridor they were in. It looked to have the same sort of lighting as the area of the maze where they'd started from. Lucrecia walked out first to check for more of those crystals, though she didn't think their effect would work in this place. On the other side, she didn't find anything out of the ordinary. What she found was all too familiar. "Aleix, come look at this." He stepped out from the darkness. They were on top of a stone ledge that overlooked the walls of the maze. He hadn't noticed anything like this when he'd first seen the maze from above. The outer structure of the ledge kept the platformed pathway they were on hidden. The beast was down below, running around the outer edge of the labyrinth's walls, clearly agitated by something. Its terrible shrieking noise echoed up through the cavern. "I never wanted to see that thing again." Aleix sighed. "Doesn't look like he can get up here. Looks like he's stuck within those walls." "Seems that way. Whatever he's chasing is on the outside. He isn't jumping over the wall same as he wouldn't jump over the inner wall." Lucrecia struggled to see what the beast might be chasing, but whatever it was was too far away to make out. She then turned her attention above them. They appeared to be halfway up the height of the cavern. From what she could tell, it appeared that there were other levels of stone pathways above the one they were on. At least two from what she could see, possibly three. "Aleix, do you think we need to go up there?" He stared up above them. "More levels? Are we supposed to get to the top to get out?" As they stared at the workings above them, another noise echoed down below. Not that of the hound, but a gentler beast. Both of them immediately looked down to the source of the noise. A white mare charged around the edge of the maze. "Haizea..." Aleix leaned further over the edge to watch her. "She really did get inside." "That's your horse?" Lucrecia asked. He nodded in response. Unlike humans, there had been horses in some of Lucrecia's picture books. She recognized the form of the animal, though it was much more beautiful in person. In the books she had with horses, bored blue stone people would catch them in nets, rip off their flesh, and eat their bones while laughing. Those parts terrified her, and she always felt bad for the horse. The old woman had once told her that her kind didn't bother with that unless they were too unfortunate to find "monsters" like her to play with, as horse bones didn't taste as delicious as human bones. One of her visitors had worn a horse skull as a necklace. That guest was particularly violent compared to the other guests. She still had a scar down the back of her thigh from being thrown against the kitchen table. Seeing a living horse running freely, she found it to be elegant and powerful. She didn't understand why anyone would want to hurt such a majestic beast. "Haizea!" Aleix shouted. Both beasts looked up at him. The hound growled and screamed, but remained within its walled cage. Haizea called out to her master too, and started to run out of sight below them. Aleix leaned over the ledge as far as he could. "Where is she going?" They waited to see her again, but she didn't come back into view. Lucrecia touched Aleix on the shoulder. "I think she went looking for a way up here. I know you want to get to her, but I think we also need to keep moving forward. If we can find a way out, we can come back and bring her through." "I know." He sighed. "Let's go. Which direction should we take? It looks like we can go left or right." "I don't think it matters. If it's like the last part, what we need to get to is probably directly on the other side." "I wonder what we need to find this time. I don't see any of those crystals out here." "We've figured out all the other parts before. I'm sure we'll know it when we see it." Lucrecia yawned and rubbed her eyes. She noticed the light in the cavern was dimming. "I think it's almost night again." "Yeah, it looks like it. Are you falling asleep?" He joked. "No..." Lucrecia said, yawning again. "Besides, where will we sleep out here?" "Hmm..." Aleix searched around. Several of the rock formations created small openings that were mostly hidden from the outside. He climbed under a set of rocks and up into one of the little caves to check the space inside. It would be a tight fit, but out of the areas he'd looked at, this one provided the most protection from being seen or anything big getting in. He climbed back out and motioned Lucrecia over. "This should work. We'll still need to be cautious, but I think we'll be fine. We haven't run into anything else since that damn dog down there that actually wants to kill us anyway." "That doesn't mean something else might not come up here." "True, but so far we seem to be lucky with that." Aleix climbed back into the empty, dark space. Lucrecia didn't like the how small the space was. It made her feel claustrophobic. The isolatedness of the space did make her feel a little more at ease. There wasn't enough room to lay down as she usually slept. Aleix pulled her in closer. "Why don't we trade places? You'll be safer further back." "What about you? Why should I be any safer than you?" Lucrecia felt around the back of the space to judge its distance. "Well, I..." Aleix wasn't sure where to begin his reasoning. He knew she wasn't going to accept any answer he gave her. "We don't need to do that. There's enough space for both of us in the back, if we stay close enough together." Lucrecia took his hand. "This is the best way." "If that is what you wish...I merely wanted to make sure you had enough space for yourself." With the both of them sitting side by side, there was no room between them. Lucrecia quickly drifted into sleep, resting against him. Aleix was exhausted himself, but was having trouble getting to sleep. It was one thing to have fallen asleep across the table from her. He hadn't slept this close to someone since he was a child and still had to share a bed with his younger brother and sister. Lucrecia didn't have any of the social understanding that Aleix did, but he still fumbled about with what might make her uncomfortable. Still embarrassed, he eventually settled on leaning slightly towards her and keeping his hands towards his center. When he was finally settled, he fell asleep as quickly as Lucrecia had. The events of the day had worn them both out. As he was drifting into sleep, he wondered how Lucrecia was keeping up with him. Before he was trapped in the maze, he was in perfect health. Lucrecia had been dealing with insomnia, lack of food, and physical abuse for years. She had only occasionally fallen behind him. As he slept, he dreamed about what she might be like at her full strength. In his dreams, humorously, she stood before him holding a mountain over her head. When morning came, Aleix found himself sleeping alone. He could hear laughter outside of the little cavern, and another familiar sound. He crawled out of the hidden space to find Lucrecia giggling while she played with Haizea's tail. Lucrecia stopped when she noticed his presence. "Oh, you're finally awake. Look who's here!" "How...how did she get up here?" Aleix was completely dumbfounded at how his horse had managed to meet them up here. "She's a very clever horse." Lucrecia petted the horse. "And very pretty!" A sense of relief came over Aleix at being reunited with his animal companion, but he could feel a headache coming on as he looked out to the maze. That's one more thing to worry about.
Eight | TOC