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Chapter Nine

"Johne," Candice whispered, growing nearer to him. "This is it."

"I know."

Their gazes rested upon the entrance into the great stone maze. The walls stood fifteen feet high, made of a dark grey substance full of tree roots and animal bones. It stretched across from either end of their vision and they couldn't even begin to imagine how far it stretched inwards. Where it was they were supposed to go. What was waiting in there. They had nothing at all, nothing but each other, a bag of supplies chosen by George, and a bunny.

Johne stepped silently ahead, making sure his grasp was secure on Candice. At the entrance the two halves of the raven lay, their bodies twitching and cawing, their little twig feet trying to drag them towards their other half. He stepped over their bodies, ignoring them. Ignoring when their caws turned into voices, voices calling out to him.

"Whispering's a lie, lying's a sin, when you get to Heaven, they won't let you in."

He still kept ahead despite the burning in his ears, turning his gaze to Candice. She didn't say anything, didn't show any shock, but he didn't either, so he couldn't tell if she heard them as well.

"Whisper is a lie, lying is his sin, when he gets to Heaven, God won't let Johne in."

His head twisted around in a painful jolt, but instead of seeing the two ravens, he saw a wall right in front of him. He pushed against it with his free hand to no avail, then turned back around again.

Clouds were starting to gather in the angry sky. White clouds from the distance, that when they entered above the labyrinth, turned jet black. They crushed and crowded into one another until the whole sky was one giant cloud, until the world was weaved over in a blanket of shadows. A blowing chill ran up Johne's spine as dozens of different pathways lay ahead.

"Don't worry," Candice said, taking his arm instead of his hand. "You just have to keep moving. I'm sure you'll find that you know where to go."

"But how? We shouldn't have ran into here, we should have tried to climb the walls. We should—"

"But it's too late now. You'll find where we need to go. I trust you. I believe in you."

"Well..." he started slowly, the cold in him running away from her touch. "Well, be patient if I take a little while."

He smiled, Candice leaning her head on the side of his arm. It was quiet there. Not the voice of the wind, not the creak of the earth. No flapping of wings, no shuffling of feet, an emptiness completing the silence. The walls had died long ago, the roots in them fading memories. The paths were all the same, crooked and cracked, made of padded down dirt: It was as if a certain part was taken, then that part was reflected all over in a thousand different mirrors to create the labyrinth.

Only Johne and Candice seemed out of place. Their movement. The footsteps they left behind. Their breathing. Their voices. The nothing was angry—Johne could see it perforating the air. Candice could sense it below her feet. Something didn't feel right, a tapping on their souls and a scratching at the doors to their hearts.

"Stop lying," a voice whispered, Johne stopping.

Down on the ground a snake lay curled up, its body skewered through with pieces of broken mirror. The flesh was rotting on it, its face half made of bones.

"What is this?" the snake's jaw flapped, its head turning to them. "Do you think you can make it through here? Do you actually think you have what it takes to make it out? You can't, you know it. Stop lying to yourself—stop pretending you're something you're not. You can never be someone who can make it through this."

"Johne can make it through anything," Candice said, wanting to go closer to the snake, but Johne holding her back. "He'll find the way."

"Stop lying to her as well. You'll let her down. You'll fail. You'll both die wandering here."

"The way I see it," Johne said, walking away, "is we're both still pretty alive. You're the dead one, so stay that way and leave us alone."

The snake's jaw dropped loose, its body curling itself in tightly. Around them the walls teetered, moving backwards and forwards, the ground below uneasy as if it was breathing. The clouds above altered their forms, spinning around a single entity in the center of them all.

"What's this?" a voice hacked and coughed. "Come on now, stop being a fool."

At the corner of a turning point an empty bottle lay. In front of the bottle was a pool of its contents, and lying within the pool, was a rat. A rat with empty eyes whose body flipped and flopped like a beanbag toy, its arms and legs twisting about bonelessly.

"Are you kidding me?" the rat spoke. "You really think you're some kind of hero? You're a coward, a failure. Even if you do manage to get to the Scrangly Man, you'll just run away. You always run away, nothing can change that because you're a loser. A pathetic loser. You're no good at this, why don't you do something you are good at? A very lovely girl you have there. She's all alone and no one is around for everywhere. Doesn't that sound better than going to defeat some Scrangly Man? Doesn't that sound more like you?"

"Johne would never hurt me," Candice said, kicking some dirt at the rat. "He promised to always keep me safe. And he promised to kill the Scrangly Man. None of what you said sounds like the Johne I know."

"He's not very good with promises," the rat hissed with a smile.

"How do you know?" Johne spat out. "You don't know who I am, you've never known. You don't care. That's not who I am, and you're the idiot for trying to say I am. You're the loser...a drowned rat trying to drag others down with it."

He pulled Candice ahead, the rat gurgling as its body sank down deeper into the pool. The walls creaked and moaned, at times getting so close they felt like they were going to be crushed by them, then going so far away they could no longer see the labyrinth at all. The ground popped up and down at places, cracking, leaving holes. And in the sky, a giant dark hole started to stretch through the clouds.

"Hey, hey, can you hear me?" said half a raven as it hopped along on top of a wall.

"Look here, look here," said the other half, hopping on the opposite wall.

"Look at us, look at us. We're on the top of the wall, we can fly! We know where to go, we know where to go. He doesn't know. He can't fly or walk on the wall, what good is he? What good is he if he can't?"

"I don't know, I don't know. Why don't you just follow us? You can find your way then, you wouldn't be wandering anymore. Be more like us, do what we do, don't run around in circles. We know the way."

"Johne knows the way too," Candice said. "And he's the hero, so he can make it there faster than any of you could."

Then Johne looked upon her, a question popping into his head. He wondered where he would find the Scrangly Man. Would it be around the corner to the left? To the right? Forward? Go backwards? It ravaged his mind, ravaged until he started to think of it in another manner. Until it started clinking into his mind as if he was a hero, not that thing called Johne. Every little piece manifested in a different manner—every color became another and all the world was turned upside down.

"Yes!" he yelled out, swinging Candice into his arms, starting to run. "I know where to go, so why don't you two shut-up for a minute?"

The birds fell silent in their place, collapsing upon the stone. Johne leaped over a hole in the ground and avoided a wall that jumped out at him. He knew, somehow, someway, he knew where he had to go. It didn't make any sense, but it filled him with the most unique happiness.

A black twisting tornado lowered down onto the earth from out of the dark hole in the sky, purple lightning flashing across its frame. When it touched the ground, the walls began to tear away, the earth flinging about, nothing more than dust in the air to its grasp.

"We're almost there," Johne said, his feet pushing harder, dirt getting into his eyes. "Just a little bit farther."

Ahead, through the sandstorm and flickering into vision, was a building. It was creating itself out of the sand, its dark image growing taller and taller. He kept hold of Candice, his feet fighting against the tugging of the dark cyclone, breath wheezing against the dust blowing into his mouth. A purple bolt of lightning struck by the building, a sign clearly illuminated on it: Amina Theatre.

He rushed ahead into the ticket booth area, but the ticket robot was now gone from sight. Placing Candice down, he ran over to the door, shaking its handle and ramming into its form.

"How did we get here?" she asked, shielding her face, her hair flowing all about.

"I don't know," he huffed, his face turning red from beating on the door. "But he's here. I know he's in there."

"Welcome," a voice rang from the speakers. "Tonight we shall be showing the final act of 'The Poor-Whiny Depressed, With Many Other Adjectives, Man'. And for a special treat, free admittance for all." The door creaked open, Johne backing away, the voice lowly laughing. "Enjoy."

"You ready for this?" he said quietly.

"If you're ready, then I am."

"Candice...I..." He turned to the girl and smiled. "...thank you. All of this has made me very happy. Happier than I've been in a long time."

"Thank you too. I'm happier than I've ever been, and I'm so glad every day it's you who gets to be my hero."

"Well, it's finally time to put that title to action and show the Scrangly Man who's in charge here."

"Together we will."

"Of course." He took her hand, darkness writhing and encompassing all that could be seen ahead. "I could never have made it this far without you."

And the shadows beckoned to them, but they weren't afraid to answer their call, not afraid when the door shut slowly behind them like the sliding on of a casket's lid.

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