Moonlight struck the hedgerows and bathed them in an otherworldly hue. The labyrinth garden that appeared so ordinary only hours before was now an alien landscape both unfamiliar and uncooperative. Alexander was becoming frantic. Where could Hanna be? She had a knack for rushing off and getting the both of them in trouble. He was sure their Uncle Charles would be furious if he knew she left the house after dark and even more furious when he discovered she had taken the map.
“Hanna,” Alexander pleaded, his voice a muffled scream. He wanted to yell out at the top of his lungs, but was afraid he would arouse their uncle. “Where are you? You’re going to get us sent away if Uncle Charles finds out!”
Alexander’s pleas were met with silence, the eerie nighttime sort of silence that isn’t really silence at all, but a disturbing cacophony of crickets, howls and rustling. His heart thrummed wildly under his shirt. He felt as though he could pass out at any moment. He pushed forward through the maze looking for signs of his sister. A quick left here, a right, a dead end, backtrack, another left and into a long stretch. Fog swept down over the high walls of the hedgerows and onto the path, making it difficult for Alexander to see very far ahead.
He heard a noise from the house. Was it a door? Had his calling awakened his uncle? He quickened his pace until he was in a dead run. The fog was getting thicker and the labyrinth walls blocked most of the moonlight. He broke into a run, each footfall kicking up tiny showers of gravel from the path.
Wham! Thwump! He ran headlong into a hedgerow. He screamed reflexively, and then covered his mouth with both hands. The hedges were prickly. They stung his cheeks and exposed arms with a myriad of tiny cuts. The icy nighttime air chilled the beads of sweat running down his forehead and onto his face. He pressed his palms into his eyes and stood motionlessly. Where was his crazy sister? He made a mental note to punch her square in the shoulder when he found her.
Another noise from the house roused him out of his daze. He blinked the tears and sweat out of his eyes and strained to see the path. Fog and darkness lay to the left, but a faint blue light emanated from the path to his right. He felt his way along the hedgerow to the right, picking up his pace cautiously. The light became perceptibly brighter as he neared a bend in the path. He stepped out into a small seating area. This was the place his uncle would often sit and read while Alexander and Hanna ran through the labyrinth. Now he had a better idea of where he was. Just beyond these tall hedges was the tangling forest that backed up to their uncle’s estate and continued on to the county line. Just a few more paces and one more turn and he would be at the labyrinth’s exit.
Alexander walked carefully through the arched trellis that marked the exit of the labyrinth. He could see the source of the light through the trees and over a rise. The gnarled trees were limned in electric blue light. The wind pushed the limbs back and forth, making the trees look as though they were marionettes in a maniacal play.
“Hanna!” He called, louder this time now that he was farther from the house. He scanned the forest on either side of the light looking for signs of movement. He knew his sister’s curiosity would’ve driven her up the hill to discover the mystery of the blue light.
He dove headlong into the forest, and bolted up the hill, determined to find his sister and get her back to the house before anyone was the wiser. He felt slightly emboldened now since he could see just a little bit more of his surroundings. The light was not particularly bright, but it seemed to radiate, suggesting a pathway between the trees. Twigs and branches flailed at his arms, but he pushed on, approaching the rise. He leaned forward using his momentum to carry himself up the small incline and onto the top.
He stopped abruptly at the crest; his arms fell limply to his sides. He could hardly believe what he was seeing. It was just as it had appeared in his dreams, only more vivid, more beautiful, and strangely terrifying all at once.
The white stone arch towered above him and pulsed with a blue glow that seemed to emanate from the strange carvings inscribed in its face. They looked like hieroglyphics to Alexander, but at the same time he felt like he had seen them before, had even once known what they meant. But that would be impossible. Wouldn’t it?
“Alexander! Hanna!” came cries from inside the labyrinth garden.
Great! Now their uncle knew they were outside. Alexander decided to press on and find Hanna. At least if he found her first, he might be able to hide the map and replace it in his uncle’s study later.
The air within the arch wavered, and for a split second, Alexander thought the stars looked different within its frame. He heard more shouting erupting from the labyrinth. The trees and brush were thick on either side of the arch, so his best bet was to go straight through and down the back of the hill to continue his search for Hanna.
He stepped into the arch and immediately felt a tug on his body. All of the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck stood on end. A gust of warm, moist air assaulted his face. He lost his footing and fell hard to the ground. When he looked behind him, the arch wasn’t glowing anymore and the forest had vanished. Something very bad was happening here, and he had an eerie feeling that it wasn’t going to get better anytime soon.
Alexander picked himself up off the ground and brushed a layer of dust from his shirt and jeans. Until now, he had forgotten he was still wearing his pajama top. He had slipped on the jeans and tennis shoes hastily when he set out looking for Hanna, and had neglected to put on a jacket. At least the air here was fairly warm. And where was here exactly?
He turned slowly in a wide arc and surveyed the scene around him. The stone arch here, although white, was not glowing like its counterpart back home. As impossible as it seemed, that must be what this arch was, the other end of some kind of strange portal. This arch also seemed to be in a greater state of disrepair. There were brambles growing all around it, and the hieroglyphic-like symbols could only be made out by the light of the very full, pale violet moon that hung in the sky above the hilltop.
This arch stood in the center of a grassy hilltop looking down onto gently sloping meadows below. It was dark, but the light of the moon seemed to be reflecting off of the ground. It was as if the vegetation was luminescent. The entire meadow took on the pale violet hue of the moon. He thought he could make out a road just beyond the meadow, but since he had no known landmarks by which to gauge distances, he couldn’t really be sure how far away it was at all.
Alexander peered back through the arch. The air seemed still, and the view looked just as it did everywhere else. He wondered if he could walk back through. Maybe it would be best to go back and get Uncle Charles. Sure, his uncle would be upset, but he had no idea where he was, and he was beginning to become frightened. And if he was frightened, he could only imagine how his little sister was feeling. Hanna acted fearless, but this was a lot to handle for a boy of fourteen, let alone an eight-year-old girl.
He stepped back up to the arch and placed a hand on one of the stone pillars. It was smooth and colder than he would have imagined. He thought he felt the tiniest of sparks when he touched it, but the arch sat silent and dim. He took a deep breath and jumped through the arch with his eyes closed. When he opened them again he was standing just a few feet from his original position on the other side of the arch; the same sky above him; the same hilltop under his feet. Nothing happened. Had the connection been lost? Would his uncle be able to find him? He looked around frantically. If his sister had come through the arch, where would she have gone?
As if in answer to his unspoken question, the moonlight danced across a structure halfway down the hillside. It was a small dome shaped building that appeared to be made of the same stone as the arch. There was a door set in the center framed by thick slabs of smooth stone. There were no windows apparent from the front, so it was impossible to tell if anyone was inside. He didn’t see any light coming from beneath the door, so he approached cautiously. As he walked down the slope, he noticed that some of the luminescent material of the grass was rubbing off and onto the soles and toes of his shoes. When he was within a few yards of the door, he could see that there were stone steps leading up to the entrance.
His heart raced. There on the steps in front of him was a smattering of dusty purple footprints. More specifically, they were shoe prints, the same kind of prints that Hanna’s tiny sneakers made. There weren’t a lot of them, but they were definitely hers. He knew because of the little star pattern in the center. She had been here and from the looks of it had even gone inside. The tall, green wooden doors were slightly ajar. He peered through the narrow gap but still saw no light from inside. He couldn’t see any handles on the doors, so he wedged his hand into the gap and pulled one of the doors towards him. The door glided open almost effortlessly. In fact, it opened so quickly that he scarcely had time to step out of the way and avoid a nasty bump to the head.
“Hello?” said Alexander, “Is anyone there?” Silence. “Hello? I don’t want any trouble. I’m just looking for my little sister.” Again, silence.
The moonlight that crept through the door illuminated a circular chamber with a smooth stone floor and some sort of altar at its center. Alexander ventured a few cautious steps forward and gave his eyes a moment to adjust. Once he was completely inside he realized that there was another source of light. At the top of the dome, perhaps twenty feet from the floor and directly above the altar, was a small hole. Through the hole, a pale beam of moonlight drifted down and atop the altar.
His eyes adjusted even more, and he was at last able to make out more details of the interior. The ceiling of the dome seemed to be a relief carving of constellations. He thought he even recognized one or two of the formations, but he couldn’t be sure. The walls of the chamber were lined with hieroglyphics similar to those he had seen on the arches, only there were many more here. The altar at the center of the chamber was itself a dome that mirrored the dimensions of the building that contained it. The altar also seemed to be cut from the same smooth white stone as the rest of the structure, only there were several grooves running from its apex and down to the floor. Upon closer inspection, he noticed that those lines continued and spiraled outwards across the floor and up the chamber walls.
Aside from the altar, there seemed to be no other furnishings in the chamber. His sister may have come in here, but she was definitely not here any longer. He approached the altar to get a better look at the carvings on its surface. When he got closer, his ears popped and the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end.
Alexander turned quickly, and then backed himself firmly against the altar.
“Hello? Who’s there?” The blood thrummed loudly in his ears and his palms slipped against the smooth surface of the stone.
The door opened again with a swoosh, and then slammed closed just as quickly. It was only the wind. He turned his attention back to the altar. The stone was warmer than it had been before, and the carvings had a more distinctive presence, as though he was looking at them under a magnifying glass. For the first time, he noticed that the carving on the top of the altar was in the shape of an outstretched hand. It reminded him of those goofy drawings of turkeys that he had always had to do in school, before they went to live with Uncle Charles in Sweden.
He couldn’t resist. He splayed out his fingers and put his right hand down into the impression on top of the altar. Again he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. His hand was sucked flat against the stone as though he had put it over the top of a vacuum. He tried to pull it back, but it wouldn’t budge. He began to panic. The harder he pulled, the tighter the seal became. He leaned back thinking that his body weight might pull him free, but again nothing happened.
“Help! Please help!” he shouted.
A burning sensation radiated from his palm, and he could see blood seeping out around the sides of his hand. The air seemed to explode. His ears rang loudly and in a flash, the entire chamber was bathed in a brilliant blue light that erupted from the altar and through his hand. It shot upward through the hole in the chamber and beyond into the night sky as far as the eye could see. The blue light radiated from beneath his hand and mingled with his blood. It ran down the grooves in the altar and across the floor. He watched in wild-eyed horror as his blood pulsed through the neon blue streams of light and pushed its way up the grooves in the walls.
What’s happening? How can this be? He struggled again against the altar, but to no avail. The blue light continued its gravity-defying dance and crept up the grooves and into the intricate carvings in the walls. As the blood and light filled each symbol, a corresponding constellation above pulsed into existence. This continued all around the chamber, until all of the symbols were illuminated. The ringing in his ears was replaced by a gentle, melodic hum. He could feel pressure building beneath his hand. Waves of energy pulsated out of the altar and through his trapped hand. With each beat of his heart, the intensity grew until finally he was propelled backwards and away from the altar. He landed on his backside with his arms stretched out behind him.
He sat there on the floor with his mouth agape. The beam of blue light had expanded and was now wider than the opening in the ceiling. The illuminated constellations seemed to be moving. Alexander shook his head and blinked his eyes. The room spun furiously. He struggled to stay upright. He felt like he was running the wrong way on a merry-go-round. His vision fuzzed, and he remembered thinking that the stone floor was colder than it had any right to be, just before he blacked out.