The darkness that surrounded her filled with stone. At each side, a wall rose from the earth. She reached out to touch it and vines wrapped around her wrists. From atop the wall before her, the old woman sat laughing. "What's wrong? Weren't you leaving?" It's not real. It's an illusion. I'm only seeing this because I'm afraid again. She reached for the wall again. The vines held tightly to her. It's not real. Her feet were caught next. There are no vines here. The vines are in the garden. This is a stairway, nothing more. There's nothing here at all. It's not real. Her heartbeat rang in her ears. But what if it is? The old woman cackled, her eyes burning brightly. "You'll never leave. You're mine. You'll always be mine. A worthless animal locked forever in a stone cage. You'll stay here and you'll die here, like the pathetic monster you are." "No, I won't stay here anymore!" She forced her hands forward, pushing as hard as she could against the tightening vines. "You're not real, and you're in my way. Begone!" With all her force, she tumbled forward through what once was a stone wall. The illusion of the inner maze vanished and she was met again with garden and darkness. Beyond the stone pathway, she could see further than before. The shrubbery glowed faintly as far as she could see, but the spaces between were pitch black except for what was directly in front of her. Haizea walked off the path and past Lucrecia. She seemed unfazed by the spell of the stairway. Lucrecia didn't know where the horse was going, but she followed after her. At the very least, she wouldn't be alone if she were lost. Haizea walked for a long time at a steady pace. The darkness of the place around them was deeper than the gem-light stairway and night inside the inner maze. Unable to see more than a few feet in front of her, she tried to keep her mind from imagining monstrous things beyond her sight. She couldn't completely banish them. The bushes and flowers around her took on more sinister appearances. Leaves with jagged edges and flowers with fangs, dripping with poison. Everything around her swayed in an unnatural rhythm in the windless place, as if mocking her passage. She couldn't be sure, but she was almost certain the plants were getting larger and darker the further she walked from the stairs. Eerily, there was no sound anymore beyond her and Haizea's breathing. Her feet made no noise. The plants beneath her did not make any rustling noises. Everything moved slowly in silence. Up ahead, there was a change in the scenery. The shrubs were in much larger patches together than any of the space she had already passed. Haizea ran up ahead of her. Lucrecia quickly followed after her, not wanting to be left alone. Just before the center of the shrubs, Haizea stopped and moved her head down. Lucrecia caught up to her and looked down to the place where she was focused on. Aleix sat with his legs against his chest between two bushes. Lucrecia could barely discern that it was him. The blurriness of everything around him stayed faint no matter how close she came to him. "Aleix?" He did not respond to her. Lucrecia wasn't sure if he could even see her. She put her hand to his shoulder, but her hand went completely through him. He didn't react. Is he a ghost? Her ideas about ghosts were vague. The old woman had described ghosts as "emptiness that doesn't know it is emptiness", something bound after the bones and flesh fell apart. The witch called it a uniquely human condition, as human monsters are arrogant enough to not go to where they belong, even in death. What happened to him? Everything here was an illusion. There shouldn't have been anything that could have killed him. An illusion...is he even really here? She hadn't considered the spell would create an illusion of him. The illusion of the old woman had felt real enough. Lucrecia could feel the old hag's cold breath on her skin as she screamed at her. Why could she not touch Aleix? This seemed different than the illusions she had encountered until now. Each one had made use of every one of her senses possibly to seem more convincing. Then maybe this one really isn't an illusion... Haizea nuzzled against him, the places where she touched him became completely visible. Aleix put his hand to Haizea and petted her. More of him became clear. "She broke through the magic?" Lucrecia stared on in confusion. With half of his face still partially transparent, Aleix finally noticed Lucrecia. He quickly stood up. "Lucrecia? Why are you like that? What's happened to you?" "What do you mean? You're the one who looks strange. I can barely see you." She wondered what sort of world Aleix saw. She knew it was likely something beyond her comprehension as with the last one. The spells in the stairs reflect only what one knows. Haizea held her head to Aleix's chest. He put his hands on her head. In a flash of blue light, he became completely clear again. He looked over at Lucrecia again. "What...you're not translucent anymore...What happened?" "You were the one who was see-through." "Hmm...perhaps another illusion of this place...we saw two different things before..." Before Aleix could speak any further, Lucrecia ran over to him and wrapped her arms around him. She didn't know what this behavior was called. There had never been affection in her prison home. All she knew was that having her hand held made her feel safe. Holding on to more, she thought, must intensify the effect. Aleix blushed and awkwardly put his hands lightly on her shoulders. "Uh...I'm sorry. I must have scared you." Lucrecia realized that her attempt at holding him had more than one effect on her. She enjoyed the greater warmth. It was comforting in the same way sleeping beside him had been. Something about this forward contact, however, made her face feel hot and her body sweat. She wasn't sure what this sensation was, or if she liked it. Her stomach felt strange. She also wasn't sure if Aleix's reaction to what she had done was positive or negative either. He was holding her, but his face seemed strange. "Did I do something wrong?" She asked. "What do you mean?" He looked even more confused. "This...should I not do this?" He was perplexed at what she was asking him about. It dawned on him and he laughed. "Do you mean hugging me?" "Hugging? What is that?" She'd never heard that word before. "Um, it's what you're doing right now." He leaned in and put his arms around her. "See? This is a hug. It's a form of affection. People do this for a number of reasons. Though I'm amused you're asking me what it means since you were the one who did it." Lucrecia's face felt hotter. "I don't know. I thought it would make me feel safer." Aleix's disposition changed to a more lax one. He petted the back of her hair. "That is one reason to do it. I'm okay now, and we're both back together. We'll be alright now." She rested her head against him. "Is what you're doing now also to comfort?" "Yes. Is it bothering you?" "No. Is this how humans are?" "What do you mean?" "No one's every held me before, or tried to comfort me. Do humans do this normally?" A world like that sounded wonderful to her. She wondered how long it would take her to fully understand all the mannerisms of humans. "Usually. Some people are cold, but this is normal for most. Do you feel alright now?" "Yes." Lucrecia pulled away. "I'm sorry. Am I...how do I comfort you?" "You already did." He smiled. "What do you mean?" "You hugged me first. Besides, holding you made me feel a little better anyway." He had a strange look again on his face after saying that. "Why's that?" "Oh, uh, for a number of reasons. We can talk about that later." Aleix cleared his throat. "We need to get back to the path." She didn't understand much about human behavior, but she could decipher that what ever it was Aleix was bothered by, he didn't want to go anything further into detail right now. She decided to drop questions about that for the time being. "We came from this way." "Then we should head that way for now. Hopefully, this place doesn't change on us again." "What happened to you? You were there one moment, and then I turned back to find you gone." Lucrecia held tightly to his hand. Being unable to touch him earlier had terrified her. She didn't want to let go of him for too long again. Aleix was the first other living human she had ever met, the first person to not feel like hard frigidness. Now that she knew what that felt like, she couldn't stand the idea of living another day inside that freezing prison. Still, she wasn't sure she wanted to try hugging him again too soon. She was still very unsure how she felt about the sensation of it. Aleix himself was holding her hand with a firm grip. His reaction was more from still being terrified by the illusions he saw. "I...I'm sorry, but it seems I was the only one overcome by the illusions. I knew it wasn't real, but...still, I..." "You weren't the only one. I was struggling too. But...where did you go? Did something take you there?" "I don't know. I was afraid of what the illusions were showing me and I knelt down and closed my eyes. Then I was over there. The illusions had stopped, but I couldn't see you anymore. The forest had gotten so great around me. I wandered around looking for anything that might lead me back. I came to a clearing and saw myself back at my village atop the hill I always watch stars at." Stars again. Lucrecia felt a bit of jealousy at this. It was silly, especially given the circumstances, but she wished she could see the stars. That he could be completely mesmerized by the sight of them alone filled her imagination with all sorts of things. She hoped they were brighter than what her mind could create. "What happened then?" "I stared up at the stars for a long time. They were brighter than they usually are. The moon was still glowing as it was from the stairs--too big to be real. I couldn't look away. Then I heard a voice. It was the man we saw that witch bring in. He was a long time friend of mine. He'd always come into our village with all sorts of things from outside the valley. Candies, clothes, stories. Twice a year, he'd come through and fix our shoes and shows a little bit of what the outside world was like. I'd always listen to his stories. He came to me and sat down on the hill beside me, and he said he had another story to tell me. I sat down with him even though I knew he couldn't be any more real than my village. I wanted to believe he was real. He told me the story of Rapunzel. I've heard it plenty of times, but I suppose you wouldn't know that story. I'll tell it to you another time. While I listened to him, I glanced down at my village again. It was so quiet. I couldn't hear anything. Only my friend. When he was nearing the end of the story, he stopped. That hound was there. I wasn't able to move. I wanted to help him, but I couldn't even stand. I couldn't speak. I couldn't breathe. Everything happened in slow motion. When that monster was done with him...he...wasn't dead...well, he was...but..." A look of pure horror was on his face. Lucrecia tilted her head. "What do you mean he wasn't but he wasn't?" "He was...not completely there, but his body was still moving on its own, trying to talk to me. I wanted to get away. I closed my eyes, but nothing changed. Whether my eyes were open or closed, the view was still the same. He tormented me endlessly. He kept saying over and over 'do you know how it ends?' and I sat there in silence wanting to scream. I sat there for a long time like that. Then, I felt Haizea near me. The illusion went away when she touched me." He petted Haizea. "As I suspected..." Lucrecia glanced over at the mare. "When she touched you, you became more clear to me. I think somehow she undoes the spell in this place. I don't know why though." "Hmm...that's very odd. Is it because she's an animal? That's very strange...look! The stairs!" Aleix could hardly believe his eyes. It's almost over with...finally... The two of them raced as fast as they could to the steps, Haizea running just behind them. Once they reached the stairs, they quickly ascended to the top where the chain was. Together this time, they pulled the heavy chain. The stone before them lifted until it locked into place. On the other side was another ledge. They had reached the next floor. Someone was waiting for them. Cold garnet met Aleix's gaze. "You've stolen something of mine, boy."
Eleven | TOC