“Carina, are you ready to leave?” Diego asked, holding open the door. He had checked to see if the coast was clear outside of the mating room.
My tattered gown hung from my body like rags, covered in filth and smearing’s of my own blood. Reluctantly, I slipped on my shoes that lay at the side of the bed. The once white satin material was now the colour of dried mud.
“Yes, let’s get out of here,” I replied, eager to finally leave the labyrinth.
Diego smiled back at me with so much affection the smile reached his eyes, creasing them at the corners. I thought at that moment, that I’d never see anyone more beautiful for as long as I lived. He reached out his sun-bronzed hand and I entwined my fingers with his, stepping out into the cool night air once more.
“Can I ask you something?” I craned my head up to speak to him, my shoulders barely passing the centre of his chest.
“Ask me anything you wish,” Diego replied, focusing on the way ahead. “And I will answer to the best of my knowledge.”
“How many of you are there?” I asked, eager to learn more about his race.
Diego cast me a fleeting glance. “Just one of me,” he grinned with amusement.
“That’s not what I meant,” I huffed in irritation of his response.
“You must say what you mean and mean what you say, always. In my culture that is of great importance,” Diego replied, giving off a cryptic vibe.
I thought for a second, choosing my words more wisely. “How many Lycan’s are there here on the island?”
Diego didn’t answer immediately. It was as if he was thinking of how best to answer. “In my clan, there are three hundred thousand, five hundred and seventy-eight Lycanthropes. Soon, there will be more.”
“Really, that many? How big is this island?” I asked, unable to disguise the shock in my voice.
He seemed to ponder something before giving an answer.
“Whenever my father and I would disagree, my friend, Asher and I would often walk to the beach, and from there we would follow the shore until we arrived back where we started. The journey would take us five days and five nights,” Diego replied, indeed answering as best as he could.
“Have you ever been to the mainland?” I asked, wondering if this island was all that he knew.
Diego’s expression darkened. “Our people leave this island once, every year at the end of the summer moon and that is to seek out Lycan brides. I have never been amongst them, hence the reason why my father and I have such disagreements,” he answered in an indignant tone.
“If others can visit the mainland once a year, then why can’t you?” I asked, appreciating the unfairness of his situation.
Diego made a noise at the back of his throat as he rolled his eyes. “You have no idea what my father can be like. Until he sees fit, my place is here amongst my kind.”
“Perhaps he’s just being protective over you. My father is the same with me. My sister, Maria, has to accompany me everywhere. Even then, we’re not allowed beyond the village, just in case something bad were to happen.....” My gaze fell to the ground as we walked in silence.
Diego stroked the back of my hand with his thumb. The affectionate gesture needed no spoken words. He was here for me. My pain was his and he would be there for me when I was ready to talk about it.
We continued to walk with difficulty along the deep, sandy trail. Plenty of it had found its way into my shoes. The coarse texture was uncomfortable but I soldiered on regardless, wincing at the discomfort.
Eventually, after much endurance, I slowed, pulling on Diego’s hand for him to stop.
“I’ve got sand in my shoes, it’s uncomfortable,” I complained.
He waited, allowing me to take off my shoes before we continued. I curled my fingers around his hand whilst I carried my shoes in the other.
“How much further?” I forced out breathlessly, tired from using all my energy to wade through the sand.
“We have at least one final trial to face before we reach the centre,” Diego informed, sending shivers down my spine at the daunting thought of one final trial. I wasn’t certain I could last much longer without collapsing with exhaustion.
The floor upon which we walked, changed from sand to stone and the scenery began to manifest itself into something different once more. We stopped still for a minute, allowing me to brush the sand away and to place my shoes back on my feet.
The walls turned to ice glaciers all around us and snow began to fall from the sky, leaving soft white dust over the cobblestone ground.
It wasn’t long before we were treading over heavy snowfall underfoot. The bitter wind increased its speed, whipping my skin with icy lashes of hail and snow. With violent tremors running through my body, my teeth rattled and my toes became numb as I shuffled through the wintery storm with frozen limbs.
Diego seemed unaffected by the cold. He transformed into his beast form in order to shelter me from the elements, lifting me up to cradle me in his fur-coated arms.
“Are all the trials different?” I asked. It was something I had wondered from the start.
The wind began to die down and the snow turned from falling in large clumps to finer dust.
“Yes, at the entrance of the labyrinth, each door had an individual symbol above it, didn’t you notice?” He frowned, whilst staring ahead.
“No, I wasn’t paying attention. I was too terrified at the time. You were making me nervous by growling at me,” I responded, justifying my actions. “When you’re consumed with fear, you don’t always pay attention to the finer details, Diego. Not everyone is as fearless as you, you know.”
I doubted any of the women took much notice of what was on those doors. Not with twelve intimidating Lycan warriors standing in their wake.
“Do you always act so impulsively?” He shot me a disapproving glare, no doubt thinking that I made a habit out of being careless.
“Not usually, why? Which door did I pick?” I asked as I tried to deflect the question.
“You chose logic,” he replied, nonchalantly.
I got the impression that Diego wouldn’t have cared what the labyrinth threw at him. He would face any danger head-on as nothing seemed to faze him.
“That explains the riddles and problem-solving. What others were there?” I asked, trying to maintain the conversation. Anything to take my mind off the last trial.
“Each entrance dictates what challenges you will face. There are twelve categories: logic, creativity, speed, strength, knowledge, courage, illusion, agility, skill, patience, integrity, and faith,” he explained, devoid of emotion. I wondered if he was afraid of anything.
There were some I was grateful not to have picked. I didn’t fancy courage or strength, nor illusion for that matter.
“Some sound harder than others, are they?” I asked, shuddering with just the thought.
“Perhaps. I can assure you there are some trials that mess with your mind. You may immediately think of illusion but it’s integrity, faith, and patience, that are by far the worst to endure,” he spoke as if he had first-hand experience.
“How do you know so much? Have you done this before?” I asked, in wonder.
I envisioned each Lycan warrior using the labyrinth to train for hunting maidens. “Is this something you’re taught in your culture?”
What he said next took me by surprise.
“No, I entered for the first time tonight, like you. Only the worthy can enter the labyrinth, Carina. The knowledge we have only comes from the experience of those before us. My father told me all about it, as his father told him and so on. These are our ways, it is the way it has always been.”
He seemed so complacent with his culture, that he didn’t seem to ever question it.
If this was how it was meant to be, then why did he harbour desires to visit the mainland against his father’s wishes? Who was his father, anyway? And why did he enforce so much control over Diego?
“Can’t you just choose a mate without running the labyrinth?” I asked, trying to sound practical. “It’s an awful lot of trouble to go through, just to find a bride. If Lycan’s are able to scent out potential brides, then why place them in so much peril?”
“Have you not been listening?” He sighed heavily, causing his shoulders to slump.
For a moment, I thought he was going to drop me in the snow.
“The Goddess chooses our brides, then we seek them out, but fate determines which one is meant for us. The labyrinth helps us choose our path and we repay the Goddess with life. Carina, my love, must we go over all this again?” His voice sounded irritated.
“How do the warriors know who to take when they come to the villages?” I asked, flatly. It was a fair enough question.
“Each end of summer's moon, a potential bride will be chosen for a Lycan, once he becomes worthy. You smell like moonflowers. That is how we can tell you apart from the rest.” He grinned down at me, causing my stomach to flutter.
“Will I live on the island with you?” I already knew the answer. I just needed to hear him say it.
“Yes,” he replied, softly.
“Will I ever see my family again?” I gulped, waiting to hear his answer.
He closed his eyes for a brief moment as if he was dreading this question.
“It’s not safe, my love. People fear us. It’s better that way, besides, you need to stay close to me now more than ever.” His tone was firm, yet so incredibly compassionate.
“Why?” My voice came out in a strangled whisper. My heart hurt with the longing to be reunited with my family, only now I knew that it was unlikely that I’d ever see them again.
“Because you’re my bride, you’re mine to protect,” he mumbled against my hair before pressing his lips to kiss me.
“People wouldn’t understand if you returned. Humans are always afraid of what they don’t understand. You’ll see soon enough.” Diego stilled, scenting the air then his eyes flicked heavenward.
He placed me down on the ground with a deep look of confusion forming across his face.
“Diego, what’s wrong?” I asked, worried.
He didn’t answer for a few seconds, looking all around him as if something dreadful was likely to happen.
“This is a dead-end, but it wasn’t a second ago. I don’t understand.” Anxious confusion filled his voice as he glanced all around.
I had been too engrossed in our discussion that I hadn’t been looking where we were going. But from what I could gather, the scenery must have changed before his eyes.
“That’s OK, we can just go back the way we came.” I whipped around while pointing in the opposite direction, only to stare in bewilderment at the dead-end that sealed the way back.
“What’s happening?” I shrieked, witnessing a large stone ceiling slide overhead, shrouding us in darkness. I reached out for Diego, who pulled me into a protective embrace. Fear began to sweep over me as we were suddenly trapped in the dark.
There was a sudden whoosh as torches burst into flames along the walls, creating a warm yellow glow that illuminated the stone room. My eyes danced around the small area in trepidation as to what we were about to face next.
“What’s this? It’s written in my ancestral tongue,” Diego muttered, moving closer to take a look at what was written on the far wall. “It appeared just now,” he commented, studying it with analysing eyes.
“Is this the final trial?” I asked, coming to a halt alongside him, scanning my eyes across the strange markings. “What does it say?” I asked, curiously.
He began to read. ”I’m lighter than a feather and softer than silk, yet the strongest man alive cannot hold me for long, what am I?”
I paced back and forth before guessing unsure with a shrug. “Is it breath?” I cringed, afraid that I had given a wrong answer.
In the heat of the moment, I had forgotten and spoke aloud. My eyes danced every which way, fearful of facing the repercussions. When nothing happened for several seconds, I almost collapsed to the floor with relief.
Diego’s forehead creased as he thought for a second, he then placed both hands on the wall and blew lightly onto where the inscription was written. We both watched in amazement as the words changed around, revealing yet another riddle.
“I am gentle enough to soothe your skin, light enough to fly in the sky, yet I’m strong enough to crack rocks, what am I?” He finished.
I shook my hands at my sides whilst I thought about the riddle. It was Diego who spoke the words out loud, causing another chain of events.
“Water!” He exclaimed with enthusiasm.
No sooner had he said it, water began to trickle in from air holes along the floor. I shrieked as the cool liquid soaked my feet, showing no sign of stopping.
“Oh my God! Diego, what do we do? Is there another?” I screamed, frantically.
He took two steps to the wall, splashing through the water, only to see that the inscription hadn’t changed.
Thinking logically, I scooped up water with my hands and threw it on the inscription. The words faded away, only to reveal another riddle. “It’s a pattern,” I called out to him. “Some require actions and some require words.”
The water still poured in thick and fast and by now it had reached my waist.
Diego spoke the inscription out loud. “I eat, live, drink and die, but I’m neither plant, man nor beast, what am I?”
I looked around in a frenzy, desperately trying to see if there were any clues. All I could see were the torches on the walls.
“Fire! Diego, It’s Fire!” I yelled.
He waded through the water and grabbed a torch off the wall, rushing back to the clue and tilted the torch, allowing the flames to lick against the stone, blackening the area.
Once he pulled the torch away, we could make out the charred words. The water level quickly rose over the words, forcing Diego to dive under the water to read the inscription. I waited impatiently for him to burst back up to the surface so he could relay the riddle to me.
“I’m cut, yet never bleed, I have teeth, yet never bite, I may be turned, yet I have no pages, what am I?” He recited with sheer desperation through ragged, uneven gasps.
We were treading water by now. I was starting to really panic at this point. I couldn’t tell water from tears as I began to sob. The pressure of this task made it increasingly difficult to think clearly.
Diego repeated the riddle, over and over, spitting out water. Just as we had a couple of inches of room left to breathe, I spluttered out an answer. “A key! It’s a key!”
The water began to recede. I clung to Diego as we both laughed with relief, having almost drowned. Light poured into the room as the wall ahead lifted, spilling the water and carrying us out into the open air. I gave out a shriek as I landed with a thump on the floor. Diego was first to get to his feet, staggering towards me, holding out his hand.
“Carina! Are you alright?” He spoke with alarm, checking me over for any injuries.
“I’m fine! I’m OK!” I reassured him, throwing my arms around him with relief.
“I thought we were going to die in there,” he panted, his eyes closed and he brought his forehead to rest against mine.
I breathed out a chuckle. “Was the big, fearless, Diego, frightened for once?” I teased, earning his laughter in response.
“Perhaps, just a little,” he admitted, exhaling a relieved breath.
My hands made their way from his chest to cup each side of his face, pulling him down for a celebratory kiss. His arms snaked around my waist, lifting me up off my feet and twirling me around. It wasn’t until we heard the sound of several throats being cleared behind us that we realized where we were.
We were standing in the centre of the labyrinth.
“What took you so long, brother?” A blond-haired Lycan spoke, with an air of amusement.
I recognised the maiden standing alongside him, instantly. My eyes welled up as I ran towards Serena.
We embraced one another in a mixture of tears and laughter as we reunited at long last. She was covered from head to toe in soot, and the scent of smoke clung heavily to her as if she had been standing inside a burning building. Just by her dishevelled appearance and the dark circles around her eyes, I could tell that she had faced an ordeal just as stressful as myself.
“I wasn’t aware that this was a race between us, Asher. I had a rather difficult opponent,” Diego made an excuse.
Diego turned to me with a look of pride. “If I didn’t know any better, I would say my bride found the chase quite thrilling... too thrilling, that I thought I might never catch her,” he joked, much to the blond Lycan’s amusement.
“Carina, this is Asher, my husband,” Serena introduced, gesturing towards Diego’s friend.
“It’s an honour,” he replied, placing his arm across his chest, clenching his fist.
“This is Diego,” I introduced him to her, linking arms with my new found love.
Diego gave Serena a curt nod in response.
“It’s almost sunrise,” Asher commented, turning his gaze towards the direction of the orange haze that stretched across the horizon.
As I cast my weary eyes all around me, counting ten other maidens, including Serena and myself, I couldn’t have been more relieved. The twelve of us had all arrived safely at the centre before sunrise. Understanding settled within me as each new couple gazed happily into their lover's eyes, making Diego’s words ring true.
Everything was ′as it should be′ and I found peace in those words at long last. The labyrinth was so much more than a handful of trials. It served to test you to your limits to see what you could endure. Your Lycan hunter wasn’t your enemy but in order to see past that, you had to open your heart and learn to trust.
The lesson I took from this eventful night was this: life presents us with so many difficult situations. Some we can handle alone, but others require trust and loyalty, placing the fate of our lives in another. Without trust, there cannot be love, and without love, then there cannot be life.
The labyrinth, the Goddess, fate, and all the will of the world around me, the one thing that I was sure of was that there was nothing to fear from the lycanthrope race. No harm would befall you unless you went searching for it. I could only hope and pray that no one would ever come searching for me.
“The dawn of a new era,” Asher commented as the sun stretched its arms across the sky, emerging its sleepy head after a good nights rest.
The stone doors blocking the exit began to rumble and grind against the sandstone floor as they parted, revealing a sandy pathway between the dunes outside the labyrinth. Each of us hurried through the opening to the sound of jubilant cheers from the people waiting to greet us.
Diego curled his hand with mine as we walked amongst the crowd, following the sandy trail which would lead us back towards the fortress.
The scent from the ocean breeze and the sound of the waves crashing against the shore reminded me of home. The small fishing village that I would never see again.
My eyes closed for a brief moment, trying to picture it in my mind's eye. My parents, my sister, our humble, fisherman’s cottage, and the life I sadly lost.
Memories would fade given time, and the hurt would lessen. Because if it didn’t...forever was a long time to mourn my sorrows.