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In a Dark Wood Wandering

The Maze

Beyond the extravagance of the manor-house, tenacious gardeners have further battled back the encroaching jungle to create a labrynth of most elaborate proportions. Its pathways ramble through a confusion of sharp angles and serpentine curves; the neatly trimmed, leafy walls loom ominously over the heads of any who venture down these tortured trails, promising only disorientation and slow death in the pursuit of either center or exit.

Assuming, of course, that there is an exit.

From the corners of the wanderer's eyes, dark shadows in frondescent corners writhe and dance in mocking delight, and undefined shapes sprint past in hectic spree toward the maze's center... if only the eye could hold to them long enough to follow...

But evening looms near, lengthening the shadows until they blend into each other, shrouding the maze in somber twilight. Tiny flashes of firey brightness dot the air, swirling and looping in crazed flight above the maze, teasing and tormenting the lost adventurer with their blithe freedom (of course, one cannot know freedom until it is taken away... ) The fireflies, however, act only as an indicator of how completely one is lost; as the humid air cools with deeper night, the tiny points of light disappear, one by one.

True night.

Faster now; the lost one stumbles blindly through the maze. No longer does bravery escort stolidly marching steps -- now the gait is ragged, uneven; frantic, panting breaths rasp hoarsely in ears that imagine other, more ominous sounds.

But is that imagination?

A series of switchbacks and a long spiral further disorient; and the way suddenly broadens, freeing the lost one's clothing, hair and skin from grasping branches and pricking thorns (it seems the hedge walls are increasingly less well-groomed as one goes...)

The Center

As the hedges fall behind, the frightened deer (for yes, fear has reduced the adventurer to a much more animalistic flight) staggers into the opening, falling to grateful knees in the lush grass. The partially-shrouded moon gleams dully on the white marble of benches and statuary and highlights the modestly closed blooms of pristine lillies crowding the surface of a large pond (edged in white marble only slightly stained by time and still water.) Looming over all, a tall, many-tiered fountain casts a silent shadow.

Breath is caught; the wanderer rises, turning to take in the surroundings. Clouds scud and flee from the moon's face and the Center is bathed fully in surreal, silvery light. Relief turns first to disappointment, then weariness; dread soon to follow upon its heels... for now the Center reached, the Maze still awaits, mocking with its dark shadows and silent promise of no way out.

And in the desolate no-man's-land of the Center, the fountain springs suddenly to burbling, cascading, rippling life.

Beyond the Maze

It is quiet this deep in the jungle, dark and moist. Whatever breezes tease the forest's canopy have never stirred this perfumed air (scented with the decay that accompanies lack of sun), still and humid. Moisture gleams on dark leaves and fattens bright fruits.

The path winds gently, serpentine, as if the first to blaze this trail crawled or slithered on a legless, scaley frame. Massive trunks shoulder companionably beside each other (desparate is the seedling for sunlight), a formidable wall to either side of the path.

The choice is simple -- continue on forward, or return to the maze? But this far into the jungle, no question is what it seems... and this far into the Jungle Queen's territory, the decision is Hers alone. Behind -- the path is swallowed by the trees, Her silent sentinels. Forward, deeper into Her domain is the only way left...

Ahead, the path begins to widen, to flatten and smooth; no longer marred by the tracks of countless beasts (they know better than to tread here.) The trees bow gracefully away from the path's edge (is that a sliver of morning sunlight, piercing the canopy?) until a wide, grassy plaza is reached. The mountains are nearer now -- there is a rise, a gentle roll shaping the lush carpet of emerald. And ahead, topping that slope...

It might be a pyramid, were it not for the flattened top -- or an altar, perhaps, of immense proportions. Countless steps are cut into its face, leading skyward to that stoney plateau, where so little detail is visible. Snarling twin panthers flank the bottom of the stairs (behind each a darkness that could be either alcove or door)... the heat of their warning countered only by the cool, moisture-slicked marble of which they are carved.

The cautious observer might turn to better take in the surroundings here, in this place of quiet reverence and threat; buried within a screen of trees and creeping vines are the crumbled ruins of other structures -- what might have been a bustling marketplace hundreds upon hundreds of years ago; perhaps a small stone wall is all that is left of a simple dwelling, a mighty stone block that might once have been the seat of a titan's throne.

But the temple... the temple stands in never-ending splendor, piercing the canopy as a gleaming needle thrusts through dark cloth. Its impenetrable aura of age, of years upon years of withstanding the elements, makes a mockery of the ruins beyond it; they were built and deserted long after this edifice's initiation.

But to whom is it devoted? Who accepts the sacrifices burned at its base countless ages ago?

Once it was a panther-like Goddess, a mighty and terrifying cat-bitch whose fearsome steps trod upon the heads of her worshippers.

Well... some things never change...

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