Aldora adjusted the grip on her burlap satchel. The bag was filled to the brim with supplies from town and a few uneaten apples from her mother’s orchard. With every step, its weight bounced against her side. She was sure to have a new bruise before the evening sun crested the horizon.
Her eyes drifted to the purple mottled sky and the night clouds in the distance. They spread out in front of her, unhindered by the dirt path she traversed. On either side were trees, tall, withered and old, and she tried not to focus on them. Their daytime green faded from their leaves to darken with the coming night
Focusing on them would mean acknowledging them and after spending a lifetime living in their shadow, there was little left to frighten her. Now, she only looked upon the trees with curiosity. Aldora breathed in. The aroma of loam and pine filled her nose.
This path and these trees were the perfect backdrop for a horror story, one that was real, potent, and told to all children to keep them from being...
Stories of what lurked within the darkness of the trees, and what may be hiding out of sight. The children of her town were made to be afraid of all they could not see or explain. With tales of terror related to the giant wall just beyond.
There were creatures that lived on the other side that wanted to hunt and eat you—or worse—and the only way to appease them was to respect them.
Ghouls, beasts, ghosts, and goblins—all liked to dine on human flesh.
The leaves blew overhead, and she looked up.
Several shadows appeared in the distance ahead of her where the path curved. She hesitated, swallowing, and lowered her head. Voices rose as they drew near.
“Hail, miss,” one of the shadows said.
Aldora raised her gaze and tightened her grip on her bag. Two men stood before her. They were uniformed in patrol garb, the red and white of their vests apparent even in the twilight.
Laslites. She released a quiet breath and pulled her unwilling lips into a shy smile.
Aldora couldn’t make out their features; the sun was at their back and it spotted her eyesight, distorting her vision just enough to darken their faces. The Laslites could see her though.
“Hail,” she responded, bowing her head.
One of the men stepped forward. “It’s getting late. Where are you headed at this time of night?”
“Home, sir.” She hefted her full bag. “My mother’s farm.”
“How far is it?” He took another step toward her.
“Before the next crossroads. If I continue on my way, I’ll be there before the light is gone.”
“Ah! You must live in Ledger. We recently passed their fields.” He chuckled. “Go on then, and go fast. The border mists have worsened of late.” The Laslite returned to his companion who had begun walking away. Aldora turned around to watch their red and white backs grow smaller in the distance.
“What do you mean they’ve worsened?” she called out, stopping them. Her eyes moved to the trees at their sides.
“You don’t know?” The Laslite canted his head.
Know what? She’d been in town all day delivering orders and selling fruit at the market and hadn’t even heard a hushed rumor. Truthfully, she hadn’t been listening, but if the mists had worsened... Someone would’ve been talking about it. Someone would’ve been afraid.
The Laslite glanced at his companion and dropped his hand to his sword belt. “Burlox, the town south of here, was consumed by the labyrinth, not a fortnight past. And you know, when the mists spread, the labyrinth follows closely behind... Miss,” he hesitated at the worried look she flashed him, “are you sure you don’t need an escort? The capital is on alert and is determined to stop the expansion. You do know what that means don’t you?”
Yes. I need to get home. Aldora shook herself and came to her senses. “I do know and remain ever vigilant. I pray to the gods every hour for respite, for me and mine, but also for Savadon. I should be fine without an escort.” Without waiting for a response, she turned away. “Good day,” she said quickly and hastened her step without looking back.
More sacrifices. That, she had known. Other bordertowns had already begun preparations, and even now, criminals were being delivered from the capital to be given to the labyrinth in appeasement.
But the fall of an entire town?
Burlox was a bordertown like her own Thetras. She didn’t know much about it except that Burlox bordered the swamp, and that the roads running along the labyrinth were infrequently traveled there.
The soggy land, predators, and marsh fever deterred even the most tenacious patrollers and adventurers.
Those that journeyed to Thetras afterward loved to boast of their courage in surviving the swamp people. Thetras, thankfully, had not been affected yet, and had not received criminals.
They had not made a sacrifice since the last harvest, several months prior, and they had never, in her lifetime, had an issue with the mists spreading.
She’d never been more than several hours outside of Thetras, and even then, Aldora hated leaving it. Travel time was wasted time as far as she was concerned, and having to journey days to get someplace seemed absurd. Everything she could ever want was right here.
She shifted her bag onto her other shoulder, rolling the previous ache away. The sun was moving below the horizon now, and the chatter of nocturnal creatures quickly filled her ears.
I still have a distance to go. Her eyes drifted to the rising moon. If I run, I can still make it before full dark. Her tired muscles and clouded head argued otherwise, so she settled on expending her last threads of energy with a brisk walk.
A gut-wrenching roar filled her ears, and dozens of birds shot into the sky, squawking with fear.
Aldora startled, stepping back, feeling the blood drain from her face. She clutched her bag to her chest. One hand dropped to the dagger strapped to her hip and jerked it out, brandishing it in the direction of the sound.
She fell back another step, and then another until she was off the path and in the shade of the trees. The grunting, hollering, and shrieking sounds continued and she lowered down into a crouch. Her heart thundered, and she felt the pounding in her chest right down to the soles of her feet. Sweat slickened her palms.
She stared in the direction of the noises, where the trees looked different from those that covered her. Their leaves were half-withered and their trunks covered in vines. The walls of the world labyrinth stood beyond, casting an even deeper shadow.
Even now as the ruckus lessened, she knew it came from behind the thick hedges and crumbling walls. They were bestial, and all bestial things came from one place: the mist.
Aldora lowered her dagger and eased her breath. The quieter the noises became, the quieter she became. Soon, what had been the rage of battle became the screams of the dying, and the rasps of the victor.
She squinted as the sunlight dimmed and tucked her dagger back within its sheath, quietly rising to her feet.
Aldora gingerly stepped back onto the path. A grunt sounded and she stilled again. It continued into gruff words and hissed out breaths, all of it husky and deep. Her ears pricked, and she approached the wall to hear it better.
It was the first time she’d ever heard anything remotely sentient so close to the barrier. The usual noises that ascended from the maze were animalistic.
This was still animalistic but... different.
She slowly crossed to the other side of the path until she stood at the treeline, peering through the shadowy brush to the wall of the labyrinth hidden behind.
She placed her hand on a nearby trunk and ducked under a branch, moving steadily closer to where the racket originated from. Needles from the vines scraped her skin, protruding twigs snagged her clothes, and the soles of her boots sank down into the moist pile of leaves beneath her feet. Threads of her brown hair were pulled from her braids to tangle in the winding shrubs.
The wall was a living, ever-changing entity but the one thing that was consistent throughout its entirety was the mist that seeped from above and below. It spread like smoke and silk across the barrier, and over the ruins and hedge-growth that made it up. It wasn’t dangerous, being so close to the wall. Nothing but the mist could pass through it, but it rarely reached farther than the edge of the path. At least, never near Thetras.
But they sacrificed a lot to the maze. A lot. Hoping it would never try to expand and consume them.
A shiver raked up her spine.
“May your spark reach the light and your body remain untouched.”
Aldora stopped. A voice? She cocked her head, straining to hear more, her braids falling forward to rest loosely on her shoulders.
“May your blood nourish the ground and find new life. Blood guard us, blood sustain, until the day that only blood remains.”
A breath escaped her as words—rough and deep, but as clear as day—filled her ears. Someone in the labyrinth is still alive!
Her satchel landed on the ground with a heavy thud, snapping several sticks under its weight.
“I can hear you!” Aldora shouted, exhilarated, forgetting her fear. “I hear you!”
The rustling noises came to a sudden stop.
No one ever hears voices from the labyrinth. Her eyes widened at the prospect. Not unless it’s during a day of sacrifice. After that, it was the braying of the terrified, the cries of the innocent, and even those pleas of the guilty rose up like a wicked storm for all to hear.
“Can you hear me? Please hear me.” Her eyes darted around. “Are you all right?” She looked for leverage, for something, anything, to use to help her get the man out. It had to be a man. The voice she’d heard was far too harsh and low to be a woman’s.
“Hello?” Aldora called out again. The continued silence made her nervous, and the longer it lasted, the more she doubted ever hearing a voice on the other side. All she knew was that if she was on the other side of the wall, and she had survived long enough to catch someone’s attention, she’d hope they would try to help her as well.
The warnings and tales of monsters were one thing, but it was the powerful men and women that ruled the last remaining land of sunlight that frightened her the most. Savadon. They had dominion over Thetras, controlled by the town’s Master, Nithers Emen, who followed the orders of the Master of the Western Region.
The Masters had the power to pick you out of a crowd and kill you, and those that fought back, the families and friends, were often sacrificed next.
Aldora and her younger sisters had grown up watching the events as children and were taught early on to blend into the crowd, always be pleasant, always make other people need you, and to never allow yourself to stand out.
Because to be noticed... The innocent, the pure, the beautiful and coy often made the best sacrifices to the world maze. It was why Aldora tried to be anything but.
She swallowed and looked up. A canopy of brush and vines half shielded the night sky and she craned her neck to find the top of the wall. Firebugs twinkled in the darkest parts.
“I heard you,” she called out one last time, wiping her hands against her leggings. “I hope your spark reaches the light and your body remains untouched...”
“Human.” A guttural voice filled her ears, startling her anew. “Woman. You give me burial rights and I am not yet dead.”
That voice... Her mouth parted in shock. It was dark and wicked. “I didn’t know. They seemed like a kind sentiment,” she responded quickly, her skin prickling with gooseflesh. “But if you were giving them...”
“If I were giving them then it means that there’s a corpse at my feet,” he finished for her, his voice deepening still.
She paused. Who had he killed? “Was it a beast?”
“Woman, I am the beast.”
Her gaze zeroed in on the thickly shrouded hedge before her.
I am safe. Nothing that was not human has ever made it across. “I never knew the monsters in the maze could speak our tongue.” His voice is human. It was rich and mesmerizing, and tickled her ears. Aldora shivered despite herself. She frowned slightly. But then again she’d never heard anything but howls and hisses coming from the labyrinth, and she had walked the border road countless times, on countless days, throughout her whole life.
“Have you met many of us, female?”
“Only you,” she whispered.
“That explains your courage in giving me your voice. If you knew us, you’d flee to your woolen pallet and sing through the night that we would not come after you,” he taunted with a hint of sinister glee.
I should go. Her fingers twitched. She glanced down at her bag. “You cannot breach the walls. There’ll be no fleeing on my part, from you nor the other monsters. You can’t chase me down.”
There was a momentary silence. Aldora shifted on her feet uneasily.
“Ah, and I yearn to do so.”
A warm thrill bloomed. It started as a blush that spread to her core, lower still to the tips of her toes. She clenched them in the confines of her shoes. She was not as afraid as she should be. Any sane person would’ve run home the moment they heard a sound from the other side, but she found herself intrigued. Maybe because she knew so little about what existed in the labyrinth, and the little bit of knowledge she gained from this interaction could help her in the future.
Maybe because she detested and feared the sacrifices made to it and the night terrors of her youth.
“I have frightened you. Good. But if only I could smell you. There is nothing like the smell of fear.”
“I’m not frightened.” The more he spoke, the less she was.
“No, which is unusual for a human. If you are so fearless, why not breach the labyrinth and face me? Test the limits of your courage and face your opponent?” The beast laughed, the chill in it slithered over her flesh. “I am willing.”
Aldora ignored his goading. “I won’t be tricked by you.”
“Who’s there!?” A new voice filled the twilight.
She twisted around and backed up into the heavy, half-dead foliage of the labyrinth as footsteps approached. The creature at her back had gone quiet. “I heard you, lass! Come out now or pay the price.” A path guard.
Aldora clamped her mouth shut and gripped the handle of her dagger. I can’t get caught. A sudden wave of nausea churned her stomach.
She pressed quietly, slowly, for the second time that evening, back into the deepening shade of the trees.
The fear she should’ve had before now filled her tenfold. Its wormy, slimy, and twitching chill spiked every fiber of her being.
The monsters in the mist were nothing compared to the monsters she lived among. They were brutal with their paranoia, and fast acting when it came to the unknown. She hid from her own kind more than she ever tried to hide from the shadow of the wall. What good was a fiend that couldn’t reach you over those that could?
“If you do not want to be caught, female, then I suggest you run,” the creature at her back warned, a threatening whisper in the dark. Fear kept her rooted in place.
The patrol drew closer, a hulking figure winding through the trees. I’ve made a mistake. Aldora blinked back tears.
“Run!” the monster hissed.
She surged forward—bolting without thought—her limbs flailing and catching on shrubs. Her entire body created an explosion of noise that served as a beacon for those searching for her.
“Stop right there!” the guard bellowed.
Getting her bearings, she shot through the treeline and onto the path, her feet springing as if she ran across fire. The thudding and pounding of heavy footfalls trailed behind her. He was gaining. And the threats that tore from her pursuer’s throat grew closer by the second. The clink of his chain mail was directly behind her.
Her heart raced. She couldn’t let him catch her. She dove off the path and back into the trees, this time on the opposite side of the labyrinth and toward Ledger.
I can’t go back there! She immediately changed direction. I can’t damn them. The thought of her family suffering because of her actions terrified her more than being caught. Leaves slapped her face and sticks abraded her skin. The guard continued to bellow, closing in.
“You’re under arrest! Once I get my hands on you... Thetras and Savadon will have you!”
A hand came down hard on her shoulder and Aldora swiveled and lowered under its weight. She dodged to the right and ducked her head, keeping one foot in front of the other, but fingers caught in her hair, ripping a lock out. Staggered, she cried out and twisted from the man’s grasp, dropping her weapon. She tripped and fell, her knees slamming into the ground as her hand came up to clutch her scalp.
Pain strummed across her scalp.
The man growled as he slammed into her, pressing her into the dead and slimy leaves. Air expelled forcibly from her lungs from his weight. It stunned her briefly but not long enough to give him complete advantage of her. She pushed at the ground and tried to squirm away. He grabbed her braids and snapped her head back.
“It’s over you fucking cunt!”
“No!” she shrieked, reaching for her dagger. Her vision swam with stars.
The guard lifted up and forced his knee into her back, his weight locking her in place. “Yes, miscreant whore. I knew something wasn’t right about you when you denied my escort. And to find you at the wall... talking.” He spat on the back of her head.
Tears flooded her eyes. Aldora tilted her face, trying to get a look at the shadowy figure above her. Silvery threads of moonlight filtered through the leaves as she heaved, searching. “Laslite,” she gasped. She couldn’t see his face but the excess fabric of his uniform piling over the tops of his boots had their color.
He grabbed her hand that had been moving over toward her dagger and wrenched it behind her. She shrieked when another wave of shooting pain burst through her arm. The Laslite gripped the other next and tied them with cord.
“Savadon has no need or use for briar witches,” he snarled and jerked the rope binding her wrists, uncaring of strength upon her. She was forced to her feet, screaming. Her arms were stretched behind her and her vision darkened.
“I’m not a witch—” she stammered as quickly as possible.
“Who were you talking to then? A lover? I see no one else. A ghost? That wouldn’t help your case.” He spun her around to face him, clutching her neck. “Yourself? It matters not. The kingdom can’t have its first line of defense playing at treason, even a lowly freeman. If you represent a hole in the kingdom’s defenses it is my duty to fill that hole with your corpse.”
“I’m innocent! I heard children playing...”
The Laslite’s grip on her neck tightened. He stared down at her with contempt as she fought his hold. The rope broke through the skin of her wrists. Air was just out of reach and his hand only tightened further.
“Plea...se...” Aldora wheezed. “I can’t...”
The patroller released her and she collapsed, hacking up bile and coughing violently. Her muscles seized.
“I don’t believe you, you cunt.” He pushed her over with his boot. “But you’re a pretty one. A girl who moves that much while being strangled must fight like a wildcat being fucked.”
Apprehension knocked the breath right back out of her as his threat filled her head with terrible ideas.
I have to get away. Coughing, she searched for an escape.
The Laslite continued with disdain, “Unfortunately, I can’t pass judgment on you alone.” The anger in his voice was thick. “Not within Thetras’s domain. But those who can are still awake.” He crouched and Aldora slowly looked his way. She didn’t want to meet his eyes but forced herself to do so, even if she was met with nothing but cruelty.
“I did nothing wrong,” she begged.
She’d only been curious about the voice on the other side. The allure of it, and the memory—its deep and melodic threads that had writhed its way into her ears—was replaced with the Laslite’s sour breath hitting her nose, filling her with dreadful reality.