She stood before her window, watching with distant eyes as the fat flakes of late winter snow lazily descended to the ground from their unwitting black heavens. They settled on her windowsill, the frost ever encroaching across the pane in sharp glinting angles that teased the moonlight into a shifting dance of light. The teasing words of her younger brother echoed dully in her head, rubbing like sandpaper against her fragile pride, irritating her easy indignation to the point of almost desperate action. “You’re just scared!” He had taunted, prodded, and teased until she could stand it no longer. He had laughed then, only his contemptuous little smile still sharp in her mind. “You’re afraid of ghosts! What a child you are, older sister! So silly as to fear things even I know do not exist!” “Am not!” she denied, but fruitlessly as he had only proceeded to laugh at her with more vicious vigor. Color had risen in her cheeks, and she had brashly proclaimed, “And I will prove it!”She grasped the window, pushing it upward as the cold air of the nightly world rushed in beneath the gap, tainting the warmth of her room. Her fingers immediately twitched at the cold, but she held fast to the wood beneath her fingers. She would ne’er be bested by her younger brother, not so long as an ounce of pride as a young woman, soon to be a woman of age, bled in her veins.Easing out of her window, without thought of shoes or a coat, she strode out towards the labyrinth at the back of her uncle’s estate. Cold fog rolled across the frost-choked grass from the pond a short distance away, its black water enveloped in a sheet of deceivingly white ice. Slate gray clouds hung low in the air, and a dampening silence and eerie half-light seemed to follow her as she made her way, her footsteps overly pronounced even to her own ears as she made the trek alone.She held her posture high, keeping her chin square and her spine straight. Her mother had taught her that all the authority in a woman was in her posture. So now, as she sought to restore her pride and honor as a woman, she would do it with the best of posture, all relatives and challenges be damned before her strength and her will.Coming to the entrance of the labyrinth, she leered at it through the darkness, walking in its shady entrance with a careless casualty. Her brother had surely invented the myth about the ghost. If there was any apparition living in his garden, her uncle would surely not have lived on the estate at all. Such foolishness couldn’t scare her any more than the idea of vampires or werewolves could, and those ghastly things had long since passed from her nightmares.Striding in deeper, she shifted her shoulders, coming already to a fork in the path. The hedges were unruly, the tips of the unkempt branches jutting out like poisoned arrowheads, glazed with an almost toxic looking frost. The walls of the hedge rose far above her, shadowing her in a depth as quiet and dark as a pit, tempted even in its silence to swallow her whole.Turning left down the path, she walked with her lips pursed against her teeth. No frail whistle of wind penetrated the walls, and the deeper she ventured the deeper the cold began to entrench itself into her bones. But she was far from concerned about that minor issue, as her intellect would have this maze surely beaten with enough time to return to bed.A twig snapped crisply nearby, and her head snapped to attention. After a moment of panic had come and gone, she sighed, trying to calm herself from the heady fear that had risen in her throat. There was no one behind her, and no one in front of her, she knew. If anything, it had probably only been a squirrel off in some path nearby. Nothing of her concern and nothing for her to fear.But her sureness began to falter when more strange noises began to greet her ears. Something was pressing against the hedge in some path nearby; she could hear it move as it prowled near. She heard no steps that its feet made, nor heard any heavy breath in the waiting silence. And yet, despite these defining features of a creature of potentially dangerous size, she felt its presence, large and lurking, just beyond the other side of the hedge, and beyond her line of sight. “Come now, dear,” she said to herself, pushing her worry down as it began to rise to a heady point once more, “there is nothing to fear here, only your imagination running away with you.”And just as subtly as the noises had begun, they fell away into easy silence. She smiled, striding down along the path as her unfounded panic began to fade away. And she remained calm, confident in her abilities until the noises began to return from the other side of the hedge.Ceasing in her pacing, which she realized with dismay had hurried in her recognition of the recurrent rustlings, she stopped again and listened. She watched the hedges, trying to glean through the gaps in their branches to see if there was anything truly lying beyond the barrier, the narrow wall that separated her from what was known and unknown.Surely enough as the moon was shining somewhere above the clouds, a slow, looming figure shadowed the small gaps in the hedge. She held her breath. Whatever it was, it was monstrous, that much she could tell. But then, she glared; it was probably just her brother, out to scare her with one of his many charades. A quilt, perhaps, and some gentle footsteps. Deciding it best to just outrun him and prove him faulty, she set of jaunting down the path, refraining with all her strength from crying out contemptuously at him. That, as she well knew, would be unladylike, and unfitting for a woman of her age.But as she ran, realization began to dawn in her that whatever was in the hedges was anything but her younger brother. Her brother had never been able to run as fast as she could, and yet this shade of fear was keeping up with her, even superseding her as she ran blindly down the pathways. If anything, it was doing the impossible by maintaining to run alongside her, as the path that ran the along the same hedge had to have ended some time ago, turning off to some other trickery in the opposite direction. But it seemed then that this shade was traversing its own path through the hedges.Her fear burst into burning abandon, her legs pumping harder, her breath heaving in her chest and burning hot in her blood. She knew not why, but the need to get away was clamoring through every fiber she could count. Every muscle in her body throbbed and churned with the desire to flee, her thoughts forgotten as something primal pushed through. She couldn’t recount how many corners she had turned, or how many paths she had flown down. But as the chase lingered, in her desperation she bolted down one of the smaller paths, rounding on a corner towards and entrance she hoped would lead her anywhere but wherever this thing was.But just as she reached the parting in the shrubs, a horrible white skull jumped into view, turning to face her as she floundered to a halt in the snow. Its great jaws opened wide, as if ready to catch her should she be unable to stop in time. But oh what a horrible fate it would be, to be caught in those long gnashing teeth that glinted in the moonlight like daggers in the sun.She stared down between the ivory teeth, gasping and clasping her hands over her nose and mouth. The wretched tang of black venomous bile billowed from the horrible maw, stinging her eyes as they teared up in response. The purple tongue coiled and writhed like some tortured snake, and black slime clung in horrid clots to the gaping tubular throat. She willed herself desperately to scream, but so clenched with fear of inhaling some violating vapor was her mind that she was muted all the way down to her quaking feet as they stood locked in the snow.The ivory skull snapped shut, the teeth crushing back together just slowly enough to give her head time to jerk back, thus avoiding the loss of her nose, and probably most of her ghostly pale face. If she had not moved, her skull in turn would have been crushed, she was certain.Stumbling backwards, she fought to keep her balance as her body, prompted by the movement of her head, urged her to run on panicked limbs. But her legs were like lead, and her feet were numb as they stood in the snow. She could not, for the life of her, run away now. Not when her brother, in all of his faulty wisdom, would never again see hear as courageous. He would only call her cowardly, a weak flower at best in a turbulent world of rain.She could not let him win.Releasing her face from her hands, she clenched her fingers into tight little fists, willing herself to stop trembling, both from the cold and from her inundating fear. “Why are you chasing me?”She hated how her voice quavered, how weak she sounded even in her attempt to be brave.The cold bony face just stared back at her, and she observed with silent disgust that the creature’s ribcage was showing, the ivory bones heaving in the dark, devoid of any covering of skin or muscle. As it seemed, there was no flesh that this creature possessed, and she wondered if its horrible fur merely grew cemented from leather skin stretched over flayed bone. But its feet, strange four-fingered apparatuses that looked akin to the feet of birds, were well muscled and strong. The skin, however, was a pale, cold blue, as if the blood that fueled those muscles was frozen by some sinister magic. And its breath, heaving and wheezing as she heard it, held no vapor, even as it toiled and gasped without proper lungs to breathe with.All too quickly the ivory jaw opened again, and a horrid rippling snarl was torn out across the air between them. Her heart pounded, and, as if having sensed something, the beast stopped, closing its maw and lowering its head. But the canine-like skull only twisted to one side, as if it were cocking its invisible ears at something that confused it.Are you frightened, Lovely?She shook, clasping at her nightgown as her hazel eyes cemented in fear on the horrible face she stood before. Her breath ceased to billow out in clouds of vapor before her, as all thought of life was gone from her mind. Its voice echoed in fathomless depth, distorted and dark like waves on the stormy sea. “What are you?” A joke, Lovely. Why do you not laugh?The skull tilted to the other side now, its horrid neck popping and grinding in manners more unnatural than she cared to think about. She could see the vertebrae, bony and sharp, turning beneath its skin, sending ripples down the pale fur on its neck that glistened in the pale moonlight dabbling through the fog that crept through the hedges like a poison gas. “What joke is there to laugh at?” she asked stiffly.A strange gassy hiss escaped the open jaws of the creature, its open ribcage twitching in and out in a broken motion. She realized with a sickening start that the animal was laughing, and its once foggy countenance grew clearer as it stepped towards her. Its blue talons dragged across the snow, and she noted with a panicked gaze that as it grew more clear, its weight actually began to impress with force upon the ground on which it stood. The snow bowed beneath its feet, and she watched with horror as the apparition defied its nature as such.She felt its presence oppress the air around them, and her breath drew short. Why was it laughing at her? What had she said that gave humor to such a horrid thing? Its vapid eyes slashed gaping wounds through her courage, and she trembled with uncontainable fright. But her heart thrashed against such shortcomings, demanding that she stay and defend her pride. Though from what enemy, it seemed, was now debatable. Are you truly foolish enough, Lovely, to think that there is no humor here? “Stop speaking in such riddles!” she commanded, snapping rather unceremoniously at the creature.The wheeze returned, this time accompanied by another few loping steps in approach. Every time its limbs moved, the spine seemed to undulate in an irregular flick, like an old whip whose frays were impeding its purpose. As much as she willed herself to flee, her drowning fear planted her feet on the frost they stood on. The bestial skull rose, its long neck, still veiled from her view with fur, arcing up in what seemed to be an almost backwards motion to bring them eye to eye. Deep red embers began to glow in the hollowed sockets of the skull, and though she could still see the back of the ivory alcove, she knew that its evil gaze had seen her through every fiber and flesh from the very start. Now, this further deepening vividness only served to bring a nightmarish life to her shadow-bound terror. Then you should play with me.Her eyes narrowed at it, and she stuck her nose up. What a foolish monstrosity, this creature was, to think that she had the time to play with it. Could it possibly think her a child of so low morals or sense? “I don’t have time to play your silly games,” she said. But, Lovely, is that not what you have come here to do? “No!” she shrieked indignantly, her anger boiling. You needn’t be so petulant, Lovely. It certainly does not suit you. She screamed, but not from fear or panic. The creature remained where it stood, unfazed by her show of emotion. This only bothered her further, and without thinking she reached out to hit the thing, her dainty fingers balled into a very unladylike fist. But fast as the blink of an eye, the fleshless face was open wide again, the fangs stretched apart as if daring her to strike. She swallowed soundlessly, settling her hand back at her side. “What kind of game is this?” she asked, and she could have sworn a look of dirty satisfaction passed over the expressionless countenance of the face, making her heart freeze over. My game is simple. It stepped forward again, and this time she refrained from backing away as it walked behind her, the long neck stretching to always keep some fraction of its gruesome face in her line of sight.When you find the center of this labyrinth, I will give you something.She looked over at it, narrowing her eyes. Was it not in the habit of most despicable creatures to lie? Surely this hideous thing was some living mist that served such a purpose. But then, she realized, that it was merely a thing not real, and thus could hurt her no more than the mist it was made of could. “What will you give me?” she asked, slightly curious as to what such a monstrosity could now offer. After all, no imaginary thing could hurt her, so whatever it gave her could do no worse. I cannot tell you.It laughed. That would spoil the joke.She rolled her eyes, starting off at a walking pace with as calm a mind as she could manage towards an area of the labyrinth she might recognize. The vermin followed her, loping with each stride as she held her head high despite its presence. “Fine,” she said. “I will hold you to your offer then. But what limits do you intend to set me?”She smiled most contemptuously to herself, thinking that she had at last outsmarted the damned creature. After all, she had been schooled from a very young age, and none of her age whom she had ever met had matched her intellect. Just finish before daybreak, Lovely. That’s all.It sounded far too pleased.Ignoring it with an unhappy snort, she made her way along the path, increasing her pace to lengthen the distance between them. She didn’t want a thing so hideous to share the same space with her, especially when it seemed to have thought that it had bested her. Well, as she would certainly show it; the game was not yet set, and no game made by it could not be won. Especially by one such as she.When she realized that the increased pace had failed, and that the blue clawed talons were just as close to her heels at they had been when she had started off, a small ball of unease began to seed in her throat. She walked faster still, pushing her legs forward despite their growing numbness as her unbeatable mind began to escape her. She jumped to a swift run then, the seeds of mania blossoming and running rampant as fire through her veins. He heart pounded, and hope of winning or losing faded as the mere demand to survive inundated her impulses.Her path became more and more sporadic, all the paths blending into one dashing blur of green and grey and white, green and grey and white. Every time she looked back from her flee, there following her like her own shadow would be the creature, still moving, its ivory fur shifting in the moonlight almost like pearly quills, and with its twisted swagger trailing after her heels like some bloodthirsty animal.She realized then with a true cry of fright that exact image was accurate down to the very core. Down to every strand of hair, every splinter of bone, every claw, this thing made and out for blood.As her breath burst from her chest and her legs burned, she cursed whatever twisted maker had thought to give birth to such a thing. Her scrambled thoughts knotted to a halt as she turned into an entrance that gave no exit. At first she was so stricken that she came nigh close to screaming again, but upon recognizing the place for what it was, a heady wave of relief drowned her panic in a cool rush.She had reached the center of the labyrinth, and she was greeted with the familiar sight of the small natural spring that bubbled up through the center of her uncle’s back yard. The warm water seeped up through miles of stone, feeding the large pond on the estate, as well as this small, acutely kempt fountain. But as she sighed with relief, walking in the small square area with as much awe as a disciple who had been graced with God’s presence, she noticed something shining, a glistening token of the calamity that still followed her.There, sitting stuck in the center of one of the larger stones that lined the fountain, was a great sword. The silver hilt shone, even in the gray overcast of the night, with an ethereal sharpness that seemed to pierce the darkness around it, much like the blade would surely cut through enemies.When her shadow’s footsteps drew near, she whipped her head up, her throat tight as she watched it stand at the entrance to the small repose. For all its lacking features, it certainly seemed pleased. Now more than ever. The red embers grew bright, and she felt a rippling excitement from it. It was as a child standing before a new toy, eyes wide and glassy with glee. “Where is my prize?” she gasped out quickly, feeling more and more nervous as it failed to approach her. It merely stood there in the entrance, watching her squirm like a rat in a trap. I never said I would give you a prize, Lovely.She choked back a sob, her hands shaking as she shrank away from it, even though it had not moved. No hair, no tooth, no claw had made to reach out to her. But there was a presence, a spirit of heartless bloodlust that all but slaughtered her where she stood trembling in the shadows. I said I would give you something. Would you like to know what it is, Lovely?She screamed then, sinking down into a ball and covering her head, pleading through choking sobs for the life she felt she had already lost. She felt it slipping through her blue-tinged fingers as the footsteps finally began to approach. Those dreaded, dreaded footsteps. She sobbed louder, railing against the fact that now seemed inevitable. Would you like to know the joke? He sat on the bench next to the pond, his hands in his lap and his head down. He kicked his legs in the air above the ground, worried for the truth of the morning’s light. As it seemed, his beloved sister was missing, gone from her room since some dark hour of the night. The house had been scoured, every cranny dusted and dug, only to find no trace of her save for her footprint in the snow on the windowsill. The search had continued outside, and soon enough her delicate footprints had been found in the snow. They were almost immediately forgotten, however, when one of the servants had spotted a dark hole in the sheet of ice covering the pond. They had all rushed to the conclusion that she had fallen through, as none of the animals large enough to break the ice were missing from the stables. Stones had been cast at the ice, and for hours they had sought to break it up enough to get a small wooden skiff out onto the dark water. Despite his intentions to help, his father and uncle had instructed him to remain behind. He obediently obeyed, dirty guilt festering in his young heart so hard he almost felt heavy. He sighed to himself, stopping in his kicking and worrying his lower lip between his teeth. You seem worried, Lonely. The young boy whipped around at the familiar deep voice, facing the graceful figure of his friend. The long necked white dog stood regally behind his bench, its red, albino-like eyes searching him as if worried. The tall pointed ears were flattened against its long neck, which held its long-snouted face high with a regal pride. His blue clawed talons were hovering above the snow, the fur covering his haunches bristling out, but giving forth no tail. “Tenebrae!” he said, a thankful relief in his voice as he recognized the friend that his parents had brushed off as “imaginary”. He knew better, because Tenebrae was real. As real as any of the adults that were now boarding the small wooden boat to search the small lake for his sister. You should walk with me, Lonely. It will ease your mind. He nodded, jumping down off the wooden bench and walking around it as the great white creature slowly began to walk. He placed his hand on the white-furred side for comfort, burying his fingers in the cold white strands. He knew they held no warmth of their own, but they warmed his hand well enough for him not to care. “My sister is missing,” he explained, feeling as if he owed his only true friend some explanation as to why he was so preoccupied. “I hope they find her soon.” They will. He looked hopefully up at his companion, only receiving a sidelong glance of reassurance in return. But it was enough to sate his fears, for now. “Do you really think so?” he couldn’t help but asking, knowing he would only be forcing Tenebrae to repeat himself. But it was a childish hope that remained in him, and he saw his companion give no sign of irritation. I know so. He smiled then, feeling himself lighten. If Tenebrae knew something to be true, then there was no doubt in its validity. He was the smartest person he knew, and the most patient. He wanted desperately to be more like the brave and wise countenance of his friend, rather than the small boy that he was. “Let’s do something, Tenebrae,” he said excitedly, tugging at the white fur gently as his excitement over Tenebrae’s statement grew. “I want to do something with you before all the adults come back!” The white dog smiled, the skin near his eyes pinching as the black lips surrounding his mouth curled upward. Then you should play with me. “Do you have a game you want to play?” he asked, rapt that the other had even suggested it. Oh what a prospect of Tenebrae wanting to play! Yes. Before he even realized where Tenebrae had been leading them, he found himself at the back entrance to his uncle’s hedge maze. The back entrance, or exit, rather, faced the pond, away from the house, and the great white dog stepped away from his grasp. He backed slowly into the mouth of the maze, crawling backwards in a strange, oily motion that reminded him of a cat on the prowl. But in this reversal, it seemed daunting, and he saw a change pass over the face of the dog as a shadow passed over it. But far before he could figure out what it was, it was gone. Come, Lonely. Let me tell you a joke. It was some hours later before they found his niece. After combing through the broken ice, calling and sending out every communication they could, in the end it had been the most gruesome of discoveries. Her white body had stood out against the black water, half-floating in the depths and facing away from the faint winter sun. When they pulled her out, her veins stood out, blue and frozen against her whitened skin. If at all there had been any left to freeze, as they found her all but mangled beneath the ice. Mauled, it seemed, with great gashes that no longer bled, but sat gaping on her body like fish gasping for air. When they at last returned to shore, his sister burst into sobs, restrained from grasping at the corpse only by the servants, who all turned away with faces and knuckles white. His brother in law had his dead deeply bowed, his broad, flat hands clenched into tight clubs at his sides. His daughter, his most precious daughter, torn from him in the bat of an eye. As the others set to the task of getting the body and the fainted mother inside and cared for, he glanced around. Had he not seen his nephew out sitting on the bench by the pond? Had he not been waiting to find his sister as the rest of them had? Regardless, he was there no longer, and no trace seemed to indicate where he had gone. He turned to his brother in law. “Where is your son?” he demanded, and he watched the man pale with terror as he also realized the absence. They both made haste towards the bench where they had last seen him sitting, only having been assured by every servant and witness that he had been there not a moment before. As they approached, his law brother’s gaze was up and searching, calling out his name as it echoed over the estate. His, however, was drawn to the footprints in the snow. The young boy had wandered off, it seemed, as the imprints of his little boots told his story. He indicated this to his brother, and they both began to trail after the small steps like bloodhounds to a trail. As they drew nearer and nearer to the back of the hedge labyrinth, he felt something uneasy settle in his heart. What was this phenomenon transpiring at his house? One child, then the other, both gone without a word. It was only at the rear mouth of the labyrinth that they found another clue, but this one was to a case already gruesomely solved. Where the young boy’s footprints went in, another set led out. Barefoot imprints ran with long strides out of the maze, making a straight line down the slope and to the pond, where, had the ice already not been broken, there surely would have been more. “If he has gone in there alone, we must go in after him,” he said resolutely, and his brother nodded, still looking like a stunned deer. “He may never find his way out.” Trying to set the miserable matter of his niece behind him, he strode into the back of the labyrinth, intent on finding his nephew no matter the cost. But as the two of them walked, he began to realize that, even though he had designed the maze himself, he did not recognize where he was going. All the turns and corners seemed foreign to him, as if someone had moved them without informing him, even though he was well aware that such a thing was impossible. He stopped again, putting a hand to the arm of his brother as a faint sound greeted his ears. They both stilled, waiting with held breath to hear it again. It could be the boy, crying off in some alcove not far away. But only a low, wheezing hiss slithered through the hedges.