The beauty of nature, cultivated and confined into a hedge, surrounded Newcomb on all sides, and loomed above him in the shape of a cube, balanced on its corner, a storm of tangled branches hovering paradoxically as though it weighed nothing. Left and right, forward and backward, the alleyways of this maze offered themselves, green doorways in the leafy walls, and all throughout them were the roses. Every surface was decorated with them, including the cube. They smiled on him from every wall, and also on every face of the cube, including the surface he pondered now, the surface on which was traced, in leafless branches, a map of the maze. The roses grinned at the apexes where, in the real maze, something of significance would be found. Norlaggs couldn’t remember how many times he’d revisited this place in the maze, having failed to find the site marked by roses, and gotten lost. Norbbog thought to himself, how much easier this would be if he had something to write with, some way to copy that map onto something, on his hands, on anything. Naerbrag looked at his hands, suddenly unsure, for some reason he could not fathom, whether his hands would actually stay the same.
Allstaria emerged from one of the portals through the hedge-wall. “Back again?” she said.
Narloxx reaffixed his gaze to the map, “I’m just grateful I keep being able to find my way back here. I keep getting so close, so close to where those roses are,” he pointed to one of them, brilliant pink and red-hot in the middle, smiling mockingly at him at the end of one of the map’s corridors, “but after I pass through a number of forks, I forget everything I was supposed to do,” Nariffi lowered his hand, “all the instructions I told myself, that I was certain I’d memorized.”
Allstaria smiled. She was dressed all in silver this time, and her hair was collected up into a green crown filled with metal leaves. Her complexion was dark bronze, and had poise like an eloquent dame, or a lady of nobility. “What you really keep forgetting, is that you need to follow your gut in here. Your mind is not your friend in here, it’s full of illusions.”
“You mean the maze is full of illusions?” Natrifti stared at her intensely, wondering if she was about to reveal something she’d been keeping secret until now.
“No, your mind,” said Allstaria, politely supressing laughter, “your mind defies you by telling you it’s made of logic, and that it records things like a laser disc. But really it’s a cocktail of emotions, false beliefs and fears, and its capacity to remember is about as good as the capacity of porridge to hold its shape.”
“Fears are an emotion,” Nashifti pointed out, raising an eyebrow to indicate he’d proven his wit, “one of the five primary.”
Allstaria let another small chuckle fly, and then began pacing with immense grace as though to eradicate any rudeness her laughter had let spill, around the cube, “Fear is not an emotion, it is something else entirely. Emotions are like clouds, sometimes they obscure clear thinking, sometimes their presence is needed, like rain. Fear is only obscurity, like fog, causing confusion. Greed is one of its by-products, though many forget that greed has such a lineage.” It was now that Nagriftt noticed the very long train her sparkling gown pulled behind it.
“How many times have you changed clothes since I’ve been here?” Magritt asked.
“How many times have you changed identities, just while standing here?” asked Allstaria, “you just made a major one just now. You’re lucky this isn’t a maze of mirrors, then you’d really be lost.”
Magrondex felt immense irritation boil up inside him, “what are you talking about? I haven’t changed identities!” his offense was palpable, like the rage of a prehistoric beast, “I’m still the same one I’ve always been!” Morlonex closed his eyes, and regained composure, and straightened the cuffs of his shirt, “same person since I entered this maze, oh, about 20 minutes ago.”
Allstaria, who had been watching with great amusement as this curious presentation played out, now laughed openly, and a number of roses chirped audibly, the briefest impression of laughter, which then dissolved immediately into pollen as though to hide that anything strange had happened. “I don’t mean to be rude,” said Allstaria, “but I’m not sure which is funnier, the fact you think you’re the same person you were when you set foot in this maze, or the fact you think that was only 20 minutes ago.” A few roses released a brief peal of laughter again, which again concealed itself in a plume of pollen.
“How long has it been, then?” Mallician furrowed his brows with concern.
Instead of answering, Allstaria pointed at the map, directing his gaze to a single yellow rose at the top corner of the tilted cube. “Look there, that’s your destination, that’s your goal. You need to start thinking of where you ultimately want to get, instead of how many of these goal posts you can hit on the way.”
“I’m here to hit those goal posts,” Mallforcinibeshtomorbitan protested, “that’s where the treasure is.”
Allstaria closed her eyes and sighed, “there’s no use seeking the treasure anymore. You haven’t found it yet, you’re not going to find it.”
Mbestorban sneered, offended, “I am perfectly capable of finding it. I can see them clearly marked on the map,” the roses jeered with their tiny petal faces as he pointed at them, “I just need to focus, make a plan in my head, and try again.”
The flowers were screaming with laughter, but they knew to disguise it in a frequency known only to themselves and bees, who danced in a distorted way above the cube, alarmed at the loud laughter that had erupted. Allstaria could also hear them, but instead of holding back laughter again, merely closed her eyes. “The roses, and the entire maze, thanks you for providing such amusement.”
“Amusement?” Mbaxstopan interrupted.
“But now it’s time for you to exit.” Allstaria opened her eyes, just in time to see Mbaxto make an even more severe shift, splitting into multiples for just a moment, like sliding doors shaped like a man, and then like a woman, landing Mbaxtra in a series of universes in which she was female.
“But I haven’t found the treasure,” protested Mibixi, unaware the shift she’d just made.
Allstaria smiled, “please believe me, you’ve been here a lot longer than 30 minutes, and what you think you came here to find, well, it isn’t here, or it isn’t in the way you seek to find it. The only treasure left for you to find, lies at that final rose up there,” she pointed again at the top of the map, the exit, “that’s where you’ll find stability, reality, the self that doesn’t change.”
“I already told you,” said Mobaxi, “I haven’t changed. I came here intending to find the treasure that’s hidden in here, everyone knows it’s worth obscene amounts of wealth. I came so far to find this maze, and now I’m right on top of it, it’s just on the other side of these stupid hedges, with their… weird roses,” the roses all around them snickered in delight, “I’d be a fool to walk away now. Hey, maybe I should just cut my way through these hedges, I might get there faster.”
“I wouldn’t-“ Allstaria held up a hand, “that’s how people become part of this maze forever, waiting ages for someone to come along to break the boredom.” She sighed again, “look, you’ve been transiting realities, passing between multiple universes, at a rate of five per minute, and faster all the time, since you entered this maze. Soon, you’ll be changing timelines at the same rate the multiverse does, several billions of times a second, drifting further and further away from your origin until you come to a stop, in the universe where you’re a rose.” She gestured at the roses all around them, “And there are already plenty of roses in here.” Allstaria pointed at a door that lay just on the other side of the cube, which led down a very long, very straight hallway in the hedges. “That’s your way out. Please take it. We’ve had our fun, the maze and I, but you are kind, I can tell by how you seem to have a decency about you, no matter how many different forms you take. This is better than I can say for many who come here seeking the treasure.” She gently adjusted the exquisite metal wreath in her hair, “We all need entertainment, especially that which exists forever. But there’s a line. I’d hate to see you spend infinity waiting for people to come here and lose track of themselves.”
Maelbraxxi thought to insist again, that she had in no way lost herself, and that she could remember an entire life being who she was now, from childhood, through high school, into college… Monaxxi paused in that train of thought, because as she looked on her memories of college, they suddenly all vanished, replaced by different memories, memories of working, traveling. Maxxani gasped.
“Yes,” said Allstaria, “now you see, like trans-dimensional porridge, taking on a new shape in every universe, and in every universe, having always had that shape. Changing the present changes the future and also the past. But something comes along with you through the jump, not memory or mind, that’s in its place along with the body, it’s something else, something else that stays true between jumps, that’s what really remembers, that’s what really knows. You want to know that thing? Please exit the maze,” she pointed again to the corridor behind the cube, “it’s all the treasure that was ever really here for you.”
Malefexxani went through a moment of indignancy, and then confused flattery, and then finally resignation. “Thanks, Allstaria, for all the nice conversations we had while I was here. Now that I think of it, there’ve been hundreds of those, haven’t there?”
“Thousands,” smiled Allstaria, “but remember, time isn’t really time when you’re switching universes so much. What time you arrive in on the other side will depend on who you are when you get there.”
Medraggi stood puzzled. It seemed clear that Allstaria wasn’t going to clarify this any further, and perhaps that was just as well. Sighing, she released her last attachment to the hopes of finding the treasure, all the things she thought she’d do with that wealth, which she now wondered if she dreamed with her own mind, or with a different version of her mind. In resignation, she went down the straight hallway, Madegasha coming halfway down the hall, Maeshazzasha first to see the exit up ahead, Malafaxhora who emerges next, into the sunlight, and looks around, one last shot at there being some form of treasure there, in a vault or cabinet or behind a landmark of some kind, as the yellow rose promised. It was Maladaxshora who looked up ahead, and saw the golden sun descending among the hills, and forgot all about the treasure. It had never looked so full, so golden, so real before, and Maladaxshora felt drawn to it, as she’d never felt drawn to anything before. Maladaxshora started walking towards it, unconcerned with what she left behind, and progressed into a universe that was hers, though she’d never seen it, a life she would soon recognize into being; where treasure isn’t found outside yourself, and mazes don’t exist.