Following the laughter, I gently walk forward, making sure that each clop of my sandals is quiet. The slightest movement echoes like a scream through these halls, and if it finds me, I don't know what will happen...
I reach Ideón, the centre hidden behind a huge root ploughing through the tiles. I raise the hair-stick high enough to strike down, my breath hardening like cement in my throat. I gain footing around the root, ready to strike down, the laughter so loud that I know the creature must be on the other side.
Gathering all my strength, I lunge, thrusting my arm down onto nothing, and falling over the root, tumbling with an agonising crash onto my side. I give myself little time to recover, scrambling desperately for my makeshift weapon that has fallen not far.
The laughter comes again, and as I stand, I know where it's coming from, gazing into its darkness: the core of Ideón. I know I could run now, I see no sign of the creature, but I wonder if unless I kill it, I will escape this place. Balling my skirt into one hand, I climb across another root that encircles the entrance to the core, my shallow breath echoing down it like a great chasm. The smell of earth surges up my nose, thick and rotten, and around the roots, insects wriggle around. I position myself so that I can jump down on the creature if it tries to come out, pressed against the trunk to the side.
"Come on...come on," I whisper, my eyelids caking with sweat. I feel as though the hair-stick is going to slip from my hands, and with each passing second, it's as if I'm closer to collapsing, shrivelling into nothingness.
I take a step to reposition myself, and I slip.
I cry out as I feel my feet fly from beneath me, falling down where the roots slope into the centre. My legs scrape the roots and I hear my skirt tear into pieces, but all I care about is finding something to grab as my lower body slips further into the core. Tears well in my eyes, I'm terrified, more than I ever have been in my life. I can barely breath, barely contemplate anything but knotting my arms around a root to keep me falling down.
I'm supposed to be a Muse. I don't want to die. I want to be a Muse.
I hear footsteps from across the hall as I pant and clamber around, trying to hoist myself up. I realise I'm too weak, and my feet are dipped into a cold that seems to overwhelm me, loosening all of my muscles, trying to release my grip.
"No...no...no," I whimper, hot tears staining my cheeks as I will every last drop of strength into my arms. Disbelieving, I see the boy climb up onto Ideón, looking down at me with those terrifying eyes and a smile on his little lips. I try to look defiant, as if nothing he does will make me die willingly, but in this form, as if he's just like me, desperation rises in me to cry out for help.
He kneels down in front of me and reaches out for my arm. I want to shake it off, but if I try, I'll lose my grip and fall. I endure his tiny little fingers tracing patterns on my arm in some demented ritual. Each swirl of his fingertips sends coldness through me, trying to numb my body into submission. He leans in towards me, his pupils dilated like a creature startled in the light, and whispers,
"You are mine, Netea. All mine."
It takes him little effort after that to unwind my fingers from the root, my breath coming out in a final, desperate "no" as I slip down into the depths, his smile fading from sight, after which all I can do is scream.