The Faer creature who called herself Moggie Moulach grinned, wide and sharp and plaque-stained yellow. “Good. The incurious never find out curious things. Shall I walk you to the door? I cannot go beyond it, unfortunately, but you will find the way easily enough from here, aye.”
“I suppose you might.” Caewen let herself fall into a slow rhythmic sort of stroll, down among the twisting, silent-shrieking carvings with their madness stretching between the stars, and then to the point at the wall where the door stood. Moggie came after her, ambling and scuffling along, her tail leaving a twisting snake-like mark in the grime and dust.
Giving the door a push, Caewen found that it gave way only under strain. It crunched against the stone flag it was set on, as if it had settled over a long time, contorting into a shape it was never meant to inhabit. “It just looks gloomy. Like a woodshed full of cobwebs.” Darkness welled up in front of her, and she searched it, sniffing at the wet damp, at the hints of mossy rot and long undisturbed earth. “What lies beyond?”
“Aye, well, that would be the curious thing. What you find will very much depend on what you are. I cannot tell you more, for I do not know more.”
“That would be about right.” She allowed herself one small, irritated smirk. “Well, I suppose after all this is done, Dapple will thrash me with a string of knotted words for having taken such a risk on behalf of… well… whatever you and your folk are exactly.” The snorting sound she then made at the back of her throat made her want to cough. She sputtered, mock incredulous: “You did what, on the advice of who? Just to see what was on the other side? Hur! Hurm! Reckless!” She gave a shrug. “But, nothing chanced, nothing won. As is said.”
“As is said,” agreed Moggie. “Good luck, then.”
“Thank you. Assuming I make it out of this accursed maze alive, assuming we ever cross paths again, I’ll let you know how this all works out.”
Caewen turned herself fully to the doorway and with one measured stride, she passed within.
At first, it was like passing through cobwebs, curtains and curtains of them. The air grew darker, cloying to feel against the skin, and it was hard to breathe. Then, without warning, the thin and fibrous murk fell away and Caewen was standing on a grassy open span. At first, she thought she’d need to pat herself down, but the webs, if that is what they had been, appeared to have dissolved completely off her skin and clothing. There was no trace of the congealed stuff that had been making it hard to breathe a moment ago. She looked around, wondering what this place was. There were walls, but they were some distance off, so that she seemed to be in a sort of enclosed garden, and not the small, nasty and cramped labyrinthine ways that she had been walking through until now. Overhead, the stars were definitely coming into their own full glory, and there was a distinctly silvery sheen to the air and the grass.
Looking around, she identified what seemed to be a path worn into the grass, and followed it with her eyes, seeing it climb, and rise, and, presumably, meander towards some other way out of this wall-encircled space. With no other obvious course to take, she decided to follow the trail. There was, she supposed, no reason not to.
Moving her feet against pebbles and chalky soil, Caewen climbed the rise, and as she did, she slowly became aware of a muttering noise from ahead. At the top of the hill she found herself presented with a strange sight: there was an old dead tree and two round objects, glowing bright with silvery light, which seemed to be caught in the branches. A young man was walking around and around the base of the tree, mumbling to himself.
“Hello there?” said Caewen, hesitant. Was this one of the other postulants, walking the maze? Or someone else entirely? Other than the Faer woman, she hadn’t seen so much as a trace of any other person in the maze.
He looked up at her, with a swift, aggressive jolt of the head, and Caewen felt a twisting frisson of recognition. His face was much younger, not yet wrecked and broken by a bad life. There were no liver-spots on him, no trenches of wrinkles, and his eyes even held a small note of the hopefulness of youth. And yet, it was unmistakable. This was Mannagarm. A young Mannagarm, yes, but it was the warlock-chief of Drossel, nonetheless.
“What are you gawping at?” he spat, full of his same relentless vinegar and snarl.
“I just… I’m sorry. I thought you were bound by the Wisht… and… well, dead.”
“I am dead, you fool-of-a-straw-ninny.”
“Then what are you doing here?”
“Why, that ought be obvious.” He stood back from the tree, folding his arms, and very nearly growling out his next words. “The moot is in peril, awful, nasty danger. There’s a terrible threat, oh yes there is, and everyone… every last one of you is going to be dead if nothing is done about it. If I could only get these two moons out of this tree, then I’d have the power to meet the threat. I could restore peace to the moot, and then they’d have to let me in as a proper magician, wouldn’t they?” He turned his attention back to the tree. “But how, how?”
Caewen looked more carefully at the silvery-white orbs. He was right. They were two duplicates of the moon, caught in the tree like airy dandelion fluff, blown there by the wind and snarled up in the twigs. “I might help, if you like? I could push you up into the tree?”
“What? You must think I’m a fool. Don’t you come near me. You killed me once, already. I’m not going to let you murder me again. That’s what you want. I know it is. Sneaking about. Planning my murder. You’d think killing me once would be enough. But on no, not you. Oh look, there’s Mannagarm. Quick. Better kill him even though I did that already. Mgrrm. M’n.” Eyes narrowing, he said, “Get yourself away from me.”
She started to protest, but within the same breath she saw the impossibleness of arguing with a ghost, or delusion, or trick-of-magic, or whatever this vision was. Caewen took a breath to steady herself, caught a whiff of him as she did, and was struck by how real and earthy he smelled. His body scent was of unwashed salt-sweat and raw wool. He seemed real. But no. He could not be. The shade of Mannagarm haunted a place very far from here. Whatever this was, it was not him. With a shake of her head, Caewen edged around the barren tree. “I mean you no more harm than I ever meant you. It was you own greed that killed you. Your own desire for power.”
“Urrrgh. You just keep telling yourself the pretty lies, then. A person knows when they’ve been murdered. A person remembers.”
“Goodbye, Mannagarm. I wish you good luck with getting your moons out of the tree. May it help you in whatever way it can.”