The entrance to the labyrinth was a crack in the cliff face wide enough for two people to walk through shoulder-to-shoulder. Baran was afraid of getting lost inside, trapped in the dark and never-ending press of mountainous stone, but he was even more terrified of losing Vera.
She squeezed Baran’s arm and tried to smile, but he saw the pain in her expression, her pale face, the damp sheen of sweat on her forehead. Her long, dark hair was pinned back, and her loose shirt and travel pants seemed to hang off her in waves.
“Not too late to turn back,” she said.
But there was no turning back for Vera. She would die out there, and no doctor alive that could cut out the wasting disease that slowly took her away.
Inside the labyrinth though, there was a chance. The rumors all said the same thing: there was a cure at the center of the maze. Baran never met anyone that went in and came out again, but all the stories said the same thing, and they had no other choice.
He took her hand and squeezed it. “We don’t know how big this thing is, so we’d better get started.”
He stepped toward the entrance, but Vera didn’t move.
“I can go in alone,” she said. “I’m dead either way.”
He didn’t want to have this argument again. “I’m going,” he said, slipping his hand from hers. “You can follow if you want.”
He turned from the bright afternoon and stepped forward into the massive crack, into the darkness beyond. For one terrifying moment he was afraid Vera wouldn’t come, but then he heard her footsteps and felt her catch his hand again.
They descended a winding staircase. Vera leaned on Baran and he held both their weight along with their overstuffed pack. The steps were smooth and wide, and Baran couldn’t see the ceiling. They stopped to light a lantern that barely illuminated three feet ahead. It was like the dark was viscous and alive at the edges.
“Did you hear that?” Vera asked suddenly, hands gripping Baran’s shoulders.
They stopped and listened. A deep, churning, groaning sound like a massive moaning animal. It echoed up off the stone.
“It’s nothing,” Baran said and started forward.
But Vera grabbed him and didn’t move. “There’s something down there, Bar.”
Baran forced himself to smile despite the sharp burning in his gut that told him to turn around and run. “I hope so,” he said, and his false bravado fell flat in the dark.
The groaning never stopped. Sometimes it felt as if it were right over their shoulder, a monstrous breath huffing against her backs.
Vera needed regular breaks. They sat on the steps with their backs against the impossibly smooth cave wall and Baran blew out the lantern to conserve the oil. He leaned his head back against the stone and Vera clutched close to him.
“What do you want to do when we get out of here?” Vera asked softly.
“Swim,” Baran said
She laughed. “Really?”
“Down in the river near home, I want to splash around then lay on the grass until the sun dries me.”
“That sounds good,” she said. “I want to do that too.”
In the distance, the labyrinth moaned.
Without warning, the wall dropped away on Baran’s left and he felt a sudden vertigo. He steadied Vera before she could go any further and carefully held the lantern out.
The stairs ended in a vast open room. The wall curved away in slow, graceful arcs.
“It reminds me of the great church in Anessa,” Vera said as they walked. “Remember you knocked over that statue?”
Baran smiled tightly. “I was lucky it was made out of metal.”
“Everyone stared at you until the priest came over and told us to leave.” Vera covered her mouth. “You were so embarrassed.”
“Wasn’t my finest moment,” Baran said. Vera hadn’t laughed in a while, and he didn’t mind if it was at his expense.
The air tasted thick and humid with a metallic sharpness against his tongue. Baran held the lantern high and saw it was nearly out of oil. There wouldn’t be enough for the return trip.
The groan was louder down in the open. It assaulted them, battered against them, like the creature stalked at the edges of the light. Vera’s hands never relaxed on Baran’s arm, and he kept sweeping the lantern around, looking for the source of the noise.
Until ahead, a shape began to resolve.
It was a tall sheet of rock, about twice as tall as Baran, that stood out from the ground. It must’ve been wider than a street back home, but there was a way around it on either side. Vera approached it and pressed her hands against the front.
They heard the noise as the wall began to move.
Baran grabbed Vera and pulled her away. The rock sheet ground along the floor, making a horrible, bone-rattling groan, like the moan of a dying animal. It shifted to the left a few feet then stopped.
“So that’s what we’ve been hearing,” Vera said.
Baran took her hand. He tugged her to the left of the wall and walked around it.
The chamber was littered with moving walls. They walked around them and sometimes reached a dead end and had to double back. But the walls kept shifting, forming new channels and paths. When the whole labyrinth changed, Vera covered her ears and squeezed her eyes shut.
“I always did hate mazes,” Vera said. “Gillie, remember Gillie? She’d draw mazes in the dirt.”
“Then she’d yell at you until you tried to do it.”
“Gods, she was the worst.” Vera’s smile was bitter. “I won’t miss her.”
There were no markings on the stone and no sign of the people that built the place. The floor was dusty and the air tasted heavy. They took passage after passage, doubled back, kept going. They stopped several times for water and food, both of which were running low. He didn’t tell Vera. They kept going.
Soon the walls slowed. They were taller and their shifting was more like a slow drift. The sound was a melancholy rumble beneath their feet.
Finally, they stepped around a corner and stood before an iron door.
Warm, damp air gusted into their faces as they stepped into a forest.
It was still pitch black. Trees grew in all directions: small, stubby things, no bigger than Baran, some no higher than his knees. Their branches held delicate leaves scattered with small white flowers. Some stood in tight groups, their branches intertwined. Petals covered the dirt and grass.
They followed a trail of paving stones nearly overgrown with moss and lichen. Baran held his lantern high and ahead, in a break in the small trees, something round loomed up from the ground.
It was a well made from the same perfectly smooth rock as in the chambers behind them. Vera stood at its side and leaned over, staring into the depths. “There’s water down there,” she said.
Baran felt a spike of hope. If they could get water, and if they could find something edible, then they might have a chance to escape. Some of the trees looked like they bore fruit, and there could be animals living in this place. With water, anything was possible.
“Let’s haul some up.” He took a rope from his pack and tied it to the end of a leather drinking skin. Vera helped him lower it down until it hit the bottom. They let it float at the top until it filled and sank before pulling it back up.
The water was cold, shockingly cold. Baran held it out to Vera and she tipped some of the water into her mouth, drank it down, took another mouthful, then handed the skin back to Baran.
Neither of them spoke for a second until Vera abruptly walked a few feet away and sat. “Dizzy,” she said.
Baran sat with her. “We’ll rest here.” He poured some of the water down this throat: freezing cold and tasteless.
“I don’t feel good,” Vera said, moving closer to him. “I’m sorry, it just came on so suddenly.”
Baran rifled through the pack and found the last of the stale bread. “Eat something,” he said.
She bit at the edge but shook her head. “It’s not that,” she said, and her fingers suddenly dug into the ground. “Baran, something’s wrong.”
“Stand up,” Baran said, climbing to his feet. He felt something too—slightly dizzy, like he’d been holding his breath for years.
Vera took his outstretched hands and her skin felt all wrong. Too rough, too lined. He hauled her up and she tried to take a step, but it was as if her feet were nailed to the ground.
“What’s happening to me?” she asked.
Baran saw the change and felt the same thing happening to him, his skin hardening at the edges, his toes curling down to the earth.
He looked around at the trees, the way they stood in groups, some of them holding each other, and looked back at Vera as the skin around her eyes scabbed over, turning to dark, scabby brown, her hair extending from her skull in tiny, wispy branches.
Vera followed his gaze and her grip on him tightened.
“It could be worse,” she whispered. “Trees are alive, aren’t they?”
“Alive enough,” Baran said. “I’ll be here with you the whole time.” He moved closer, willing his already locking legs to move. Their arms intertwined and they laced their fingers together, standing shoulder to shoulder.
Baran felt his toes break to roots and burst into the soil. He could feel the earth beneath him, extending for miles and miles, could sense the creatures that lived there, the tiny ones and the huge ones. He felt nourished, gods, so nourished for the first time in his life.
Vera’s mouth stretched open. “Baran,” she said.
Her face was nearly covered over. He knew it didn’t hurt—it felt like becoming what he was already supposed to be.
His roots mingled with hers beneath the surface, tangling together in a tight knot as the bark rushed along his chest, turning his heart to a solid ring, turning his legs and torso into a trunk, his hair and arms into branches and leaves, and as he turned his eyes, he saw Vera was already twisted and gone, the little petals of her waving in some unseen breeze.
He felt her, his Vera and her roots, and they exchanged something between them, like a kind of talking but slower and with so much more than words, and she wasn’t afraid, it wasn’t bad, and there were others with them too—all the other trees welcoming them to the forest, and his eyes turned to wood and his mouth closed over and he stood there mingled with her, part of her, their branches and leaves and petals spread out and brushed against each other, and the lantern went out hours later, or days later, or forever later, it didn’t matter anymore.
ps, Got to love a good labyrinth. If you liked this, share it! Hit that like button too, just so I know you’re reading. And have a great week! - DC