Five explorers follow an ancient map written in Gaelic to a secret underground maze… Only to find the entire thing made of cardboard. Feline shenanigans ensue.
The Labyrinth of Cardboard
After two days at sea everyone was happy to be back on solid ground again and have room to move around. Aside from chores to keep the ship running there was only so much one could do to stave off boredom on a voyage. At least this one had been a short one. The island wasn’t far off the coast of Scotland, but the sea chart they followed to reach it insisted on taking a very indirect route. But they were finally here, the island where the legendary treasure the Ailurian Eye was said to be held. Though, perhaps calling it legendary was a bit of a stretch. After all, they had only discovered the existence of this massive gemstone a month ago when someone accidentally broke into a hidden basement in an old castle. There they had found a chest containing a sea chart, a map of an island and a scroll written in Gaelic that called the treasure legendary. However, it also warned of it being housed in a temple filled with traps that only one who was as a cat in their prime could hope to reach.
This was part of the reason that despite the ship itself being fully staffed, they were sending out a party of only five people to explore the island and find the treasure. If they were dealing with traps that required cat-like reflexes a larger group would be more cumbersome and would just mean more casualties.
“Finally, room to move around.” The first one off the ship was Riva. After the ship had docked and they approached the island beach in row boats she leaped from the boat onto the sandy beach happy to be on land. At first glance, Riva was not a girl who seemed ready for island exploration. She carried little equipment on her, and the pieces of cloth that covered her top and just and just below her waist barely counted as clothing. With detached sleeves on her arms, decorative ribbons in her hair and a pair of sandals Riva looked more ready for a party than an expedition. But of course, Riva also wasn’t human, and didn’t need the same amount of equipment. She looked mostly human, but two black cat ears stuck out from behind her raven colored hair and a matching cat tail extended from her spine. She possessed two colorful eyes, one red and one purple that surveyed her surroundings eager for adventure. Riva’s greatest assets were her reflexes and agility and dressing lightly helped her make the most of it. “Was going to go stir crazy if we stayed on there any longer.”
“It was only a two-day voyage. But I understand how you feel, it’s nice to be able to walk around.” Charley was the second one onto the beach, but he waited till the rowboat actually finished its journey before climbing out. He was a catmink with mid-length blue hair and his entire body covered in tan fur with brown stripes on his face and running down his neck and spine. He had a lion-like tail and rounded ears, but was dressed more appropriately for the expedition. Thick trousers, a vest over his shirt, sturdy boots, plus a backpack full of survival gear. He glanced around the beach somewhat nervously, eyeing where the beach ended and a thick forest began. “I guess we’re going to have a bit of a hike… Do you think the local wildlife is dangerous?”
“I doubt it.” The remainder of the expedition group were all humans. And the first human off the boat was Erika. She was sticking close to Charley, clearly mesmerized by the catmink. Erika herself was dressed plainly, boots, jeans, a t-shirt and an open button up shirt. Equipment wise she had less on her than Charley, only a small bag containing a few items, and of course she had her glasses on, though she occasionally had to move the bangs of her long read hair out from in front of her glasses. While she didn’t know anyone else on the crew to open up about it yet, the simple truth was she was dying of envy of Charley, and to an extent Riva. To be covered in fur, have a tail, those big round ears. Erika wasn’t entirely on board with the expedition at first, but upon seeing two of the other members of the team immediately signed on just for the chance to be closer to them. “I mean… Most animals are more scared of us than we are of them right?” She took a step closer to Charley.
“Maybe?” Next off the boat was Zeelo, a plain looking boy with shaggy pale brown hair, a blue sweater, and brown shorts and a pair of sneakers. Like Erika he wore glasses, though his had smaller frames. Zeelo hadn’t brought any equipment with him, leaving that to the other team members who seemed more prepared. He was hoping for a chance to prove himself useful figuring out the puzzles in the temple upon arriving in it. “But I mean… Frightened animals can also lash out…” He muttered nervously as he gazed towards the forest.
“It’s fine.” The final member of the expedition team was still on the rowboat. Ivan was dressed simply as well in jeans, a t-shirt and sneakers. However, he made no movement to get off the boat. He currently had a handheld game system in his hands and was focused on that. “I can see anything that’s approaching us.” He continued to play his game rather than join the others on the island.
“How are you going to notice anything if you can’t put the game down for five minutes?” Riva asked in an annoyed tone.
“One, I can multitask.” Ivan closed the game putting it into suspend mode as he spoke. “Two I’m coming, was just finishing something up.” He rose from the boat and climbed onto the beach. “And three I actually brought something to help.” He pulled his phone out of his pocket, revealing an app currently running. It showed a bird’s eye view of the beach, though somewhat simplified with five blue dots on the beach. “Analyzes the area around us and shows the geography of the immediate area and any creatures within it. Blue dots are friendlies, so us, red dots are hostiles, green dots are unknowns. As there are no green or red dots anywhere nearby, we’re fine.”
“You get service out here?” Zeelo stared at Ivan in disbelief.
“I have a good plan.” Ivan responded matter-of-factly.
“And you have an app that can just display a map of the area around us?” Erika squinted at him.
“A very good phone plan.” Ivan smiled.
“Okay, okay enough showing off!” Riva spun away from her team members to face the forest. “Let’s find this temple already! Remember the Ailurian Eye is waiting for us!” With that Riva marched confidently into the forest.
“H-hey!” Charley chased after her. “Wait up I have the map you’re going to get lost! We should stick together.”
All five were soon making their way through the forest. Ivan kept his phone app running, but no threats or animals showed up on his map. It was as if the forest was empty. There weren’t even insects. The good news is that made navigating fairly simple, they would just have to occasionally push their way through some thick underbrush. The bad news was that despite being a lush forest capable of sustaining a multitude of beings there was nothing there, and that was abnormal. However, after an hour of walking they eventually reached the temple.
The structure itself was in rough condition. It looked to be made less out of stone and more rocks pile together into a structure that was about teen feet tall total. The rocks themselves formed a dome that was no bigger than an ordinary house. One larger rock seemed to act as a door, or at least was door shaped and sticking out of the front of it. But overall, it looked like a plain pile of rocks.
“I was sort of expecting something bigger.” Zeelo remarked looking at it.
“Underground dungeon maybe?” Ivan drew on his experience of video game dungeons to guess what might be awaiting them.
“Makes sense to me.” Erika agreed with Ivan. “That looks too small to be a maze, but if this is just an entrance to a cave or something who knows how big it is.”
“It’s going to be dark and creepy down there isn’t it?” Charley sighed, accepting the underground theory right away.
“That’s part of what makes it exciting!” Riva grinned as she strode up to the door shaped rock. She stared at it for a moment trying to find if there was any handle, ledge or opening she could stick her hand into to try and pry it open. Seeing none she tried pushing lightly on it instead. The rock provided little resistance, opening up and revealing the inside. From the inside, the place still looked plain, with walls and a ceiling made out of rocks. However, as predicted there was a passage leading underground. It was a spiral staircase going in a circle within the dome shaped building. The stairs themselves were wooden, and some appeared to be rotting while others had fallen away completely. “Looks like we’ve got our first challenge.” Riva eyed the steps that looked to be in good condition and began to gracefully leap down the stairs.
“Yeah, sure…” Charley approached the stairs and looked down at them uncertainly. He clearly didn’t trust them or want to go down them. But was determined to do so anyway. “Be careful.”
“It’ll be fine!” Erika patted him on the back. “I’ll be right behind you if a step gives away I can grab you.” She tried to mentally focus on helping her teammate and not her desire to feel the catmink’s soft fur.
“They’re just stairs.” Ivan muttered. “If one of them is rotting just step past it.”
It was a slow process getting down the staircase. Every now and then a wooden plank fell away. Charley gasped and nearly tripped down the stairs before Erika caught him by the tail to steady him. Riva meanwhile was fast ahead of everyone, taking the stairs three or four at a time, leaping nimbly to stable footing. Zeelo and Ivan took a cautious but steady paste, taking more steps one at a time, but stepping past any planks that appeared rotting or missing.
“Thank you for the help.” Charley gave Erika a warm smile.
“No problem.” Erika was happy to help, and also happy to have gotten to touch his tail.
Eventually, all five of them reached the bottom of the staircase. And it was there they saw the entrance to the labyrinth. And nearly everyone froze in place as they saw its form.
“I’m not the only one seeing this right?” Zeelo asked. “Like that’s real.”
“I’m definitely seeing it too.” Ivan looked up from his phone and at the entrance before him.
“I’m not sure what I expected but it wasn’t this.” Riva’s eyes shined with curiosity and a certain amount glee.
“We are sure we followed the right map, right?” Erika asked. “This isn’t some elaborate hoax is it?”
“If it is I have no idea how they would have pulled it off. And none of us had any reason to trick anyone else.” Charley couldn’t even find the energy to be nervous at entering the maze. It was simply…
The spiral staircase ended in an underground cavern with the labyrinth starting at the back of the cavern. From here it was already possible to see a few different possible routes. But the thing that had everyone distracted was the material that the maze was built from. There was no carved stone, expert architecture or skilled masonry. Instead, the walls of the maze were made from hundreds upon hundreds of cardboard boxes each stacked on top of each other. The boxes weren’t even evenly stacked, but instead many were slanted precariously over the made appearing as if they might fall and cause the entire maze to collapse any moment.
“Hmmmm.” Riva approached the labyrinth without stepping foot inside it. She reached out a hand and pushed against one of the walls purposely trying to topple it over.
“Um Riva, maybe that’s not the best idea.” Charley put a hand on her shoulder. “You’ll collapse the entire thing.”
“That’s the idea.” Riva retorted. “If we could just push the maze over we could walk to the center except…” She put a second hand on the wall and pushed. Despite how unsteady the entire thing looked it didn’t even budge. Not a single box wobbled. Somehow it was all sticking together. She removed her hands, considered for a moment, and then punched the wall as hard as she could. Again, nothing. “But it would seem that idea is out.”
“Hey so the map leading to this place was found in some old Scottish castle right?” Zeelo asked. “When was cardboard invented?”
“A lot later than ancient Scottish castles were.” Ivan replied.
“Then… I’m right in this makes no sense right?” Zeelo asked.
“I mean there are two… No… Three possibilities.” Erika crossed her arms as she thought. “One this place is magic and can change its form, and for some reason chose cardboard. Two, someone else was here before us and did all this. Why, I don’t know.”
“And the third?” Charley asked, his tail twitching as he looked at the maze in confusion.
“That this is in fact all some elaborate hoax and we’ve been tricked. Maybe even the crew assuming they weren’t in on it.” Erika sighed.
“I don’t think it’s a hoax.” Riva grinned. “If it was, doubt the cardboard would be so steady. Like, no amount of superglue or tape would keep all this from toppling over. But, only way we’re going to find out more is to head inside.” Riva gestured to the others and they all started into the maze.
“So what should we just accept this is some kind of magic cardboard?” Ivan asked.
It was at this point that when they all stepped forward into the labyrinth they all underwent drastic change. Each of them was growing much smaller. Not only that, their features softened, and their proportions became more rounded as they also grew younger and their bodies more animalistic. But there were a few key differences for each of them.
Charley wound up shrinking smaller than everyone else, to the point of only being about a foot and a half tall. His fur stayed the same color, but his stripes took on a tabby pattern over his entire back. He toppled over backwards from the weight of his backpack as his clothing quickly grew to tangle up his entire body. He squirmed around trying to free himself of his pack and tangled clothing, and what had one been a catmink emerged as an ordinary domestic cat, or a kitten in this case.
Riva’s black fur spread to cover her entire body. Her clothes, which didn’t cover much to begin with were soon laying in a pile around her. A tuft formed on the end of her tail as her ears became more rounded. Her hair ribbons managed to stay on, getting tangled up in her fur, though everything else was lost as she was left as a lion cub.
Erika grew orange and black striped fur over her entire body. Hey eyes went wide as she realized what was happening. She stared down mesmerized as pads formed on the bottom of her hands. Then there the tail as it grew from the tip of her spine. Without wasting an instant Erika tore her clothes off on her own so get a better look at her new body. She flexed her new claws and touched her near ears. She didn’t understand how or why, but she was in rapture from it.
When Ivan began to change he nearly fumbled and lost his phone as his hands became more paw-like. Catching his phone and setting it down gently to avoid breaking it seemed more important to him than acknowledging the changes as the golden yellow fur with black spots formed along his body. His frame was leaner than the others, and he didn’t seem to actually process the change that was happening until his tail grew out. A cheetah cub.
Zeelo grew spotted fur as well, but his was snowy white with black spots. His tail as it grew out was fluffier, and his fur thicker. He fell onto his bottom and scuttled backwards staring in shock at his paws as they slipped out of his shoes. His pants slid right off leaving just his shirt, but even that hung loosely on his frame as the changes continued. As a snow leopard club, he tried to stand up on two legs, and succeeded but his shirt fell off leaving him naked.
“Too answer your question…” Riva climbed to her feet. “Yes… Yes I think we can assume this is some kind of magic cardboard.” Riva and Erika were roughly equal height, and two heads taller than Charley. Zeelo and Ivan meanwhile were about halfway between the two in height.
“I… Don’t… What?” Zeelo was in complete shock.”
“This is amazing!” Erika on the other hand was ecstatic. She began to leap around the maze entrance, testing the capabilities of her body. She dropped to all fours and began to run, her eyes lighting up with joy as she realized four limbs were just as easy to move on as two. “I’m… I’m tiger. An actual tiger.” She paused and looked at herself. “And… A lot younger. But a tiger!” All five of them were roughly six years old.
“So I’m a kitten now.” Charley was the least whelmed of them. He looked back at his discarded clothes and the large backpack that he could now fit in. He didn’t understand how he was going to bring any of their supplies with them. He dug open the backpack trying to see if there was anything he could drag along with him. He wanted to make sure he had some equipment with him to be helpful to the others.
“Ugggghhh.” Ivan stood up on two legs looking over his body. “What kind of trap is this?” He looked around frantically trying to see where his electronics had dropped. After a few moments he found his phone and portable game quickly grabbing them, thankful to still be able to hold them.
“I’m a snow leopard.” Zeelo sat up on the ground and stared at his paws. “How is this possible? How did it happen? I just…”
“ROOOAAAWWR!” Erika gave a shout as she suddenly pounced the snow leopard cub, slamming into his stomach and pinning his back to the ground.
“Erika!” Zeelo objected. “Why are you acting like this? Look what happened to us!”
“Yeah!” Erika grinned. “We’re cats! And I mean! We have actual fur, tails, claws everything.” She swished her tail playfully before booping Zeelo on the nose with one paw. “I mean this is way better than being human! Just… I’m sorry, I’m not usually this loud but… It’s hard to contain this much excitement.”
“You’re happier like that?” Zeelo asked.
“Of course! Who wouldn’t be?” Erika asked.
“Well! But!” Zeelo paused for a moment and twitched his tail. It was kind of nice having that… And the fur and ears… Was this really so bad? And he was so much younger! He felt full of energy. Full comprehension of what happened occurred to him and he suddenly grinned and batted Erika on the nose. She laughed and rolled off of him as the two began to chase each other around on all fours.
“Well they’ve lost it.” Ivan rolled his eyes.
“I dunno…” Charley who had been part feline before didn’t see any problem with them enjoying their newforms. Honestly, the only major problem he saw was the reduction in age and size changing the amount of equipment he could carry. He found a belt that he wrapped around his waist multiple times to make fit and hung a few tools on it. “I couldn’t really picture living life without fur and a tail, so I can see how others might take to it. Plus, it’s good they’re having fun. Better than freaking out.” He gave a warm smile.
“Look!” Riva jumped up and down. “We’re wasting time!” The lion cub flicked her tail as she started further into the maze. “There’s some kind of magical curse on this place… And why put a curse unless there’s something valuable to get! Nothing’s changed, we’re just… A little smaller and fuzzier.” She took a few steps further into the labyrinth, suddenly overcome by an urge to scratch at the cardboard which she did her best to suppress.
“You act so calm.” Ivan sighed. “Wait up… Let me at least use my app to track our location.” He ran up next to Riva and looked at his phone. While it showed the local area around them and several different paths. However, it’s range was limited and he couldn’t see the entire maze. It at least let him see a few paths were dead ends, which would save them some time. “Alright… The path splits here… Left hand side leads to two separate ways, right hand side goes further than I can see.”
“But if it’s not a dead end it’s progress!” Riva shouted excitedly. “Onward!” She marched forward into the maze of cardboard. The rest exchanged a glance with each other, and decided it best to stick together so quickly followed after them.
“Hmmmmm.” Ivan kept an eye on his phone monitoring the paths they took and keeping a lookout for anything that looked interesting. They ran into dead ends within the maze a few times, but the app helped avoid most of them. However, after several minutes of traveling something interesting showed up on his radar. “Hold up!” He held a paw. “There’s something down that left corridor…” He was looking at the radar in which there was a purple square connecting the end of the corridor to another. “That’s new… We should investigate.”
“Finally!” Riva was excited. “We’ve been walking around and nothing happened. Alright Ivan! Lead the way!”
The group traveled along the path shown on his floor, and soon came into sight of what the purple block was. It was a door carved into the cardboard wall. It looked like it could easily be pushed open and allow access to the other side.
“Well it’s a door.” Zeelo approached it and looked at it. “So I guess we just go through.”
“Well yeah that’s what doors are for!” Riva grinned. “And again, if we’re encountering things like this it means progress.” She pushed on the door, only to find despite it being a cutout in the cardboard it didn’t move. “Huh…” She examined the door and saw where a doorknob was drawn as a circle on it, with an actual small hole in the door just below the cardboard. “Maybe this…” She put her hand over the cardboard.
Suddenly, there was a loud crashing noise as behind them two cardboard walls slammed together sealing them into this area. One would not expect cardboard to be capable of making loud crashing noises, and yet here they were. Near where the walls had crashed into each other, the ceiling opened up and something rolled out of it. It was an enormous ball of yarn glowing with a strange light. It began to roll towards them.
“That’s bad!” Zeelo looked at the door. “Anyway to get this open!”
“Maybe!” Charley ran up to the door and looked at the hole. “Everything here is fake, but it acts real… So maybe I can pick this like a real lock.” He quickly grabbed a pin off his belt and stuck it into the hole and began to try to feel for a locking mechanism.
“Hurry it up before we get run over by a giant ball of yarn!” Ivan snapped.
“It’s yarn, it might not be that heavy.” Erika suggested.
“Maybe we can hold it back?” Riva grinned. The lion and the tiger nodded to each other then charged forward throwing their shoulders against the yarn. It rolled slightly back, and they both took advantage of that to brace themselves and push against the yarn holding it in place.
“Not a problem.” Erika grinned.
“Thank goodness.” Zeelo gave a sigh of relief. “Looks like you can take your time Charley.”
“Thanks. I appreciate it.” Charley was still trying to figure out how the lock worked. There weren’t any mechanisms like in a real lock but he could feel something in there when he probed around.
“Don’t worry we can hold this for as long as meeoooowr mrowl?” Riva started to speak but was cut off mid sentence. The glowing light that surrounded the yarn was suddenly surrounding both her and Erika’s bodies.
The lion and tiger felt their gait change, and suddenly both of the fell forward onto all fours. Being thrown off balance like this made them stumble backwards as the yarn ball started to roll forward again.
“Mroawl?” Erika asked in confusion as she got to her feet. She realized what had happened, she was now just a normal tiger cub. No hands, no walking upright, no talking. While part of that was exciting, there was the problem of the giant yarn ball.
“Mroooaaawrl!” Riva gave a determined shout, the lion cub rose to all fours and pushed against the yarn as hard as she could. Erika joined her, and together they tried to hold it at bay. However, in their new four legged stance they couldn’t brace themselves properly and the ball started to roll and push them back.
“Well the good news is I don’t think we’ll be crushed. The bad news… If you don’t get that door open we’re all going to lose the use of our hands.” Ivan looked to Charley. “You close to getting it open?”
“I’m working on it!” Charley insisted. She felt something inside the lock, maybe if she pressed that aside. “I think I almost have it.”
“I don’t want to rush you, but we’re running out of time.” Zeelo backed up closer to the door.
“I know! I’m working as fast as I can.” Charley replied. Erika and Riva were doing their best, but the ball was getting closer. There was no way Charley would be able to use his tools if he lacked hands. The yarn crept closer and closer… He pushed on whatever was inside the lock and felt something snap… Suddenly, the door swung open.
“Charley you’re brilliant!” Zeelo rushed through the door followed by Charley.
“Alright you two, it’s time to go!” Ivan shouted to the two cubs holding back the yarn. Door is closed come on get a move on!” Erika and Riva didn’t need to be told twice. They both spun around, kicked their hind legs off the yarn and look off running for the door.
Resulting in the ball of yarn speeding up as it rolled downhill.
“Annnnnd I need to move too.” Ivan broke into a sprint, and as he did sprank right past Erika and Riva getting through the door before either of them. Once on the other side he paused and looked at his body with admiration. “I’m… Actually really fast like this. This… Isn’t that bad.”
Riva and Erika made it through the door next, and the ball of yarn crashed into the wall coming to a stop.
“Mroooawrl!” Erika chuffed happily. Now that she had a chance she looked over her body best she could. Somehow walking on four legs just felt better than two. Maybe she couldn’t talk anymore, but it was a small price to pay. This form just felt more natural.
“Hey uh…. Riva? Erika?” Charley stared at the two transformed. He was hyper aware they had basically sacrificed themselves to this fate to spare the rest of them. And while they didn’t seem to mind it didn’t change that the two had saved them. “Thank you.” He reached out two paws and patted both of them on the head.
“So purple boxes are doors then?” Zeelo looked over Ivan’s shoulder to see if there were any others on the map. “Or does purple mean a trapped door?”
“I don’t know.” Ivan shook his head. “I haven’t seen that pop up on here before at all… It’s not part of the programming.” He thought about that. “I think this place is altering how this app works… But, that might be a good thing.”
“How is that a good thing?” Charley asked nervously.
“Wait I get it!” Zeelo beamed. “If this area is altering it, then there’s a real chance it’s giving you more information than you’d normally get.”
“Bingo.” Ivan nodded. “Unfortunately, we won’t be able to tell what the new symbols are till we encounter them… But as we figure it out navigating will get a lot easier.” Ivan stared down at the app. There were two symbols on it. One was a blue circle that appeared in the center of a corridor, the other was a gold triangle at the end of another corridor.
“Gold sounds good.” Zeelo spoke up who had been reading over his shoulder.
“Maybe…” Ivan didn’t know the logic of this place. “But if everyone wants we can check that out.”
“Seems as good a plan as any.” Ivan nodded.
“Roawr mrowl!” Riva and Erika gave their approval and so they followed the map till they reached the gold triangle.
It turned out to be a dead end, but one with a single pedestal in the center of it. There was a glowing gold pyramid sitting on the pedestal.
“I don’t think that’s the eye…” Charley looked at it nervously. “But it’s some kind of treasure.”
“So… What are the odds a trap appears the second one of us tries to take it?” Zeelo asked.
Everyone looked to each other… And without speaking they agreed on a figure.
“It could also be a key of some sorts.” Charley pointed out. “The doors here are strange. Might not be possible to proceed further along unless someone takes it.”
“Great… So, who’s going to grab it?” Ivan asked. Everyone paused uncertainly.
“Mroawrl!” Riva tried to volunteer.
“No, that’s a bad idea.” Charley shook his head. “If it does trigger a trap well, we may need someone with hands who can grab it quickly than run. Sorry, but I don’t want you getting hurt.”
“So should we draw straws?” Zeelo suggested.
“Oh for crying out loud, let’s just get it over with.” Ivan shifted his grip to hold his phone and game in one hand. “I’m the fastest runner anyway if something happens.” He then walked forward and swiped the gold pyramid off the pedestal.
Or at least tried to.
His paw passed right through the pyramid. As it did the golden image vanished and gold light appeared around Ivan’s body. He began to change again. Suddenly, horns sprouted from his head, his ears became longer and more pointed, and his tail grew a barb at the end of it. A small series of spines grew down his back and his claws grew much bigger. Then a circle of fire appeared burning around him for a few moments as his eyes changed, losing their original color and irises, and instead becoming solid red.
“Ok what?” Ivan asked.
“Wow….” Zeelo looked over him. “You look like some kind of demon.”
“Well what good does that do?” Ivan had just accepted his cheetah form and already it had been altered.
“Perhaps it has some advantage to navigate the maze?” Charley asked. “Your claws are a lot bigger… And there were those flames.”
“Huh…” As a test, Ivan dug his claws into one of the cardboard walls and discovered he could easily climb straight up the wall almost as fast as he could run. He then leaped down from the top of the wall, and as he landed flames rose up all around him. “Okay… So I have some kind of fire magic… And these claws are useful.” He then looked at his precious electronics. “I am really glad I invested in water and heat proof protective cases.”
“So I guess we go check the blue dot instead.” Zeelo crossed his arms as he stared at Ivan’s horn and mentally told himself that he definitely was certainly not jealous.
“Only other path unless we have someway to move that giant yarn ball.” Charley remarked. “But I’m optimistic.”
They double backed to the fork and went the other direction. It was obvious what the blue mark represented once they reached it. There was a small pit filled with water. A thin wooden plank extended from one end of the pit, arched upward going to a higher level. If they fell in the water it’d be easy to get out on the side they were, but climbing out the other side would prove harder.
“Ha!” Zeelo grinned. “This isn’t even a challenge. Walking a narrow rail! We’re cats!”
“True… But…” Ivan got a running start then jumped onto the wall, he dug his claws into the walls scrambling across it, leaving small trails of flames as he went before throwing himself up onto the higher edge.
“Show off.” Zeelo muttered.
“Mrow.” Erika agreed.
“R-right…” Charley wasn’t sure. The plank was narrow, and even as the smallest he felt there was a risk of falling off. Still, he started forward stepping onto the plank…. And no sooner than he had than the entire thing started to shake. “AHHH!” Charley fell, but managed to wrap all four limbs around the plank to avoid falling off. The thing was still shaking, but like this he could inch his way along till he reached the far end. Once there Ivan grabbed him by the scruff and pulled him up onto the ledge.
“Thanks.” Charley got to his feet then looked back. “Alright, so that happens. Be careful.”
“Okay, so that’s a small problem.” Zeelo muttered. “But it’s just water…” The snow leopard cub held out his arms for balance as he very slowly stepped out onto the blank. He felt it begin to shake and he did his best to move as slowly as possible and avoid losing his footing.
“Roawr!” When he was about halfway Riva started down. The lion cub felt confident on four legs, as it gave her four paws to balance herself on. However, with two people on the plank the shaking intensified. It was twice as bad as previously, and both Riva and Zeelo were flung from the plank landing in the water.
Thankfully neither was hurge… And they both quickly paddled back to the lower edge and climbed out. However, as they did there was something strange about them. They were both getting smaller… Their tails shorter, ears bigger in comparison to their head. The change was most dramatic for Zeelo. Still being humanoid it became very obvious that he was getting younger as he began to wobble on his legs and fell over onto all fours.
“Mrow?” Zeelo couldn’t speak. It wasn’t because of being turned into a full animal like Erika or Riva, but instead because he was now less than six months old. Heh couldn’t even walk, and was reduced to crawling on his hands and knees.
“Mroooowl.” Riva shook the water out of her fur she got out of the water. The baby lion cub had one advantage over Zeelo. Being a quadruped meant getting around was a lot easier at such a tender age.
“Roaawr.” Erika looked at the two baby cubs then at the plank which had stopped shaking. It would shake anytime anyone went across… And when two people had been on it shook harder. She debated trying to carry the two small cubs on her back but was worried that would make the shaking three times as bad.
“Just get yourself across, I’ll get the other two.” Ivan set his electronics down and ran across the wall again. He bit down on Riva’s scruff to carry her while he lifted Zeelo up onto his shoulders so the young snow leopard could wrap his arms around him. Once secure, he again ran across the wall getting them to safety. Now there was only Erika left to get across.
Erika was prepared for the shaking and considered her options. After a few moments, she decided it was time to put her feline body through the works and see what it was capable of. She backed up away from the plank and got a running start. As she ran, the moment her forepaws pressed down on the start of the plank it began to shake. She forced herself forward, relying on momentum to go forward rather than bother to try to balance herself. As soon as her hind paws were on the plank she leaped, soaring above the plank. The second all four paws were off of it the thing stopped shaking. She landed about halfway up, and again it started to shake but immediately leaped again ceasing the shaking. This time she landed up on the raised platform.
“Mrow.” Erika chuffed smugly having made it forward.
“Yes, yes we’re all impressed.” Ivan sighed..
“Meooow!” Zeelo clapped his paws.
“It was a pretty impressilve display.” Charley grinned.
“Some of us apparently for real.” Ivan retrieved his devices and looked at the map again trying to figure out where to go.
Meanwhile, Zeelo started to crawl forward but it was obvious in his current form and age he wasn’t going to be able to keep up with anyone easily.
“Mrowl!” Riva, though just as young could move easier. The baby lion crawled over to where Zeelo was and shoved her head underneath him, lifting him up and sliding the baby snow leopard onto her back. “Roawr!”
“Meow!” Zeelo thanked her for the lift.
“So… Three out of five of us are incapable of speech now.” Ivan observed. “That could be trouble.”
“We really need to be more careful.” Charley replied nervously. “Any idea where to go next?”
“Well…” Ivan stared at his phone. “There are two more purple doors. One of them leads to another golden pyramid, the other to a path I can’t see the end of.”
“The one you can’t see likely goes deeper into the maze.” Charley suggested.
“Maybe but…” Ivan looked down at his claws. “You can’t deny the changes made to me made it a lot easier to circumvent that last challenge. It might be worth grabbing. They’re like power ups! In a video game.”
“Mrowl!” Erika seized onto that idea. The tiger cub tried to stand on two legs and paw at Ivan seizing onto the idea.
“I think we have a volunteer to try it.” Ivan grinned.
“Well at least after the last one I have an idea of how to pick the locks, so should get it open before traps become an issue.” Charley reassured the group.
Just as predicted, the purple square turned out to be another door. Charley got out his tools and began to work the lock.
“Be ready for traps.” Ivan looked around trying to see where it would come from. Would it be another giant yarn ball? That would be bad because the other side of the door was a dead end. He got his answer soon.
Three hammers that appeared to be made of plush suddenly swung out from the walls.
“Plush hammers that doesn’t seem to bad.” Despite Ivan’s calm demeanor he jumped backwards to avoid one of the hammers. Erika and Riva dove to the ground just in time to avoid them as well.
Unfortunately for Zeelo, he was on Riva’s back and so was not quite as low to the ground. One of the plush hammers made an adorable squeaky noise as the baby snow leopard was thrown off the lion’s back and through the air. As he flew through the air he began to shrink drastically until he was the size of a mouse by the time he landed on the ground.
“Mroooowl!” Zeelo gave a shout seeing how much larger the world was now.
“Well we know what those do! Stick low to the ground!” Ivan threw himself onto his stomach. The hammers didn’t reach all the way to the ground and with everyone crouched down now they could easily avoid them. Zeelo had only been hit earlier due to him riding Riva.
“Got it!” Charley finished with the door as it swung open. The moment it did the hammers stopped swinging. The other side of the door was a dead end, but as expected had a pedestal with a golden pyramid in it.
“MROOOOWL!” Erika was excited. She ran forward on all fours and pounced upon the pyramid before anyone else could get a chance. The moment she did her fur lit up multiple colors, her stripes changing from orange and black to purple and blue. At the same time she started to shrink, much as Zeelo had, and her ears grew pointed instead of round. One of the biggest changes was the pair of dragonfly-like wings that sprouted from her back. In the end she wasn’t much bigger than Zeelo, but she had wings! She tested them, finding herself able to fly. She flew around the room just enjoying the sensation despite her small size. As she did her purple stripes glowed with a gentle light and she left a trail of sparkling dust wherever she flew.
“We should really be more careful.” Charley pleaded with genuine concern for his teammates. “Before half the team winds up small enough to fit in our pockets.” He eyed Zeelo and Erika. Then he remembered that they were all essentially naked. “That is if we had pockets.”
“It has advantages you know.” Ivan observed the fairy tiger. “Being able to fly will let her bypass a lot of problems… And being that small she can squirm into things.”
“Maybe…” Charley shook his head. “But the idea of being is that little intimidating. Easy to get hurt, we need to be careful to keep those two safe.”
“Meoooow!” Zeelo called out from down on the floor where he was.
“Mrow!” Erika landed on the floor and crouched down offering the baby snow leopard a ride. He climbed up onto her back then held onto her around her shoulders as she lifted into the air.
“Roooawr mrowl!” Riva, despite being a baby lion cub, was still eager to get going. She wanted to get to the treasure and was sure they were getting closer. She ran back down the path they had been, heading for the passage that had the other door.
“Hey wait up!” Charley shouted. “It’s dangerous to go alone!”
“Yeah are you looking to set off another trap?” Ivan and Charley followed as quickly as they could, with Erika and Zeelo in tow.
Riva reached the next door before them, and came sliding to a halt in front of it. This one had no keyhole in it. Instead, it had a larger hole about the size of her head. A window. She might be able to squirm right through. Riva jumped up catching onto the window with her forepaws. As she did there was a cranking sound and the ceiling opened up revealing a second ceiling made out of pillows. Feathers began to fall down from the pillows raining all over the arena. One of them landed right on Riva’s nose. She sneezed…
And then suddenly turned into an egg.
The others arrived just in time to witness this.
“That’s a huge problem.” Ivan noted. If the entire team got caught in that it was game over. “Why does she have to be so over eager?”
“I don’t see a way to open the door.” Charley muttered. “And even if I could get to it I don’t know how I’d do it without getting hit by the feathers.”
“Mrowl!” Erika gave a proud shout. She zoomed in a circle around everyone to show off her speed in the air. “Roawr!”
“You want to go?” Ivan asked. “Actually that might work. The feathers don’t exactly fall that fast. You might be able to reach the other end without getting hit.”
“Mew!” Zeelo nodded indicating he wanted to go too.
“Just… Try to be careful.” Charley pleaded.
“Roawr!” Erika nodded before she took off flying through the room. The individual feathers were bigger than her, but that made it easy for her to see them coming. Maneuvering past them was child’s play and once she reached the door she flew right through the hole.
On the other side of the door were a set of red and green squares that looked like they were drawn in by crayon. There was no door handle or anything else. However, having gotten some of the logic of this place Erika had an idea of what might happen.
“Mrowl!” She flew by the door bringing Zeelo close to the squares. “Roawr!”
“Meow!” The snow leopard understood. He reached out a tiny paw and touched one of the green squares. The second he did the square turned red. Then, all squares adjacent to it also changed. The red became green, the green became red.
Erika and Zeelo both recognized the puzzle at once. It was something they had seen plenty of times.
“Mrowl meow!” Zeelo did his best to give directions while pointing at the square he needed to get closer to. But was the goal to get them all red or green? Well, red usually meant stop and green go, so he decided to go for green. It took him a few minutes, but with Erika flying him around Zeelo eventually turned all the panels green.
This time, instead of the door swinging open, it slid open disappearing into the ground. The ceiling closed up and feathers stopped raining from the sky.
The egg that had been Riva began to wobble back and forth. Erika and Zeelo came back to the room to investigate while Charley and Ivan came close to look. The egg began to crack… And then it split apart revealing Riva!
She still had her black lion fur, at least on the bottom half of her body. The upper half though was covered in black and white feathers, had talons instead of legs and a beak. Then there was a pair of wings coming from her back. She was a griffin… And now even younger than she had been previously being freshly hatched.
“You’re all too reckless.” Charley complained. He picked up Riva and held her protectively.
“No arguments there but….” Ivan stared at his phone and grinned. “This passage dead ends too a little further down, but in a big circular chamber.”
“Wait you don’t mean…” Charley’s eyes widened.
“I think we made it.” Ivan grinned.
All five of them rushed forward to see if it was what they hoped. And indeed it was, the treasure room. The Ailurian Eye, it was real, and it sat on a pedestal in the center of the room. It was a giant cats-eye ruby as big as Ivan’s cheetah body.
“We found it.” Charley grinned. “We actually did it!”
“Ssqquuuuaawk!” Riva gave out a triumphant cry. Even if she was freshly hatched she was ready to celebrate their victory.
“Mrowl mew!” Erika and Zeelo added their cheers.
“We’ll have to work together to carry it out.” Charley He sat Riva down on the ground.“Are you good to crawl along with us?”
“Mow!” Riva nodded.
“But… There’s that yarn ball blocking the exit.” Charley looked thoughtful.
“I might have an idea about that.” Ivan replied.
Working together, Ivan and Charley carried the giant gemstone while the other two watched. Sure enough, the giant ball of yarn was still blocking the path to the exit.
“Set it down a moment.” Ivan grinned as he held up his demonic claws and flames danced along them. He began to slash at the ball of yarn, setting the entire thing ablaze as it began to burn up. Soon the yarn was ash, leaving the path open.
But having come in contact with the yarn attacking it, Ivan had fallen under its influence, and while still a demonic cheetah was now one that walked on all fours.
“Mrowl.” He seemed to say something akin to ‘dang it.’
He was still able to help support the weight of the gem walking next to Charley as all five made their way back out of the labyrinth. When they left the maze none of them changed back to normal. Though most of them were accustomed to their feline forms by now.
But what really surprised them was when they got back to their ship, and found the entire crew had also been transformed into various young felines. At least since they hadn’t been in the maze were all reasonable sized and had the use of hands so could run the ship.
“I didn’t think the curse on the maze would reach this far.” Charley’s eyes widened.
“Is that what happened?” The captain asked. “Just suddenly, all of us were kittens. It was chaos for a minute, then we realized there was no reason not to get back to our duties.”
“Well, we got the treasure… So I think we’re all rich.” Charley smiled.
“Squeak!” Riva chimed in quite happy.
“Very well, we’ll set a course back for home!” The captain gave the orders and the ship headed off. Meanwhile, each member of the expedition team had some time to rest now that their adventure was over and considered what had happened to them.
Erika was ecstatic. She wouldn’t have chosen to be this small, but she was covered in fur, she could fly, and she had an actual tail! The small size was a small price to pay, and she didn’t mind being a cub. It meant she could grow up with this body.
Charley had escaped mostly unscathed other than the species change. He was wondering if he would be made to go back to school again. It didn’t seem the change was wearing off… But judging by what happened to his companions it could have been a lot worse.
Ivan had made peace with his transformation. He enjoyed his demonic powers and how fast his cheetah form was. He would have preferred to still have hands and be able to walk upright, but he’d make it work. Laying his game down on the ship’s deck he found he was still able to play it with his paws. It’d take some practice, but he’d get to it.
Riva was quite proud of an adventure well done and for awhile had been strutting around the boat happy with how the adventure had gone. However, as the ship left the island and she realized she was stuck like this suddenly she scowled in annoyance. She could deal with being a griffin, even with being unable to talk. But she was a newborn, and realized she was going to have to grow up the long way, and that was annoying.
Zeelo had decided he liked being a snow leopard, and he didn’t mind being a baby that much. Being so small had terrified him for a bit, but it also meant he got to ride on Erika’s back. The world was big and scary, but also kind of fascinating, and he was filled with wonder about what kinds of experiences might await him.
Eventually, the ship made it back to mainland though, and everyone’s thoughts were forced from their heads as they had a realization. When the ship docked and they could get off, they saw that everyone at the port had been transformed into young felines like them. In fact, everyone in the entire city. All of them at once realized the same thing. It wasn’t the maze that had caused their transformation. It was the Ailurian Eye itself… And they had just brought it to a major city bringing it’s change to everyone.”
“Oops.” Charley’s ears folded back as her words echoed what everyone else was thinking. Maybe they could sell the eye or get it in a museum before everyone found out they had caused this.
But… At least the adventure was technically a success.