Chapter Six

 Updates:  Chapter 17 of Mystic Seasons Series Mythopoeia Book -8 posted, chapter eight of Lady in the Labyrinth posted high fantasy booksyoung adult fantasy books

William Myrlhigh fantasy books, young adult fantasy books

Madder had always known that this place was a clockwork maze, but he had only learned what a clock was after living in it. The Rouges and the other people of the Combe had kept time by natural means, there were flowers that bloomed at perfect intervals; he had thought of these as clocks until observing the real thing. Virid understood it better than he did, how the gears and chains held each other in check, and together became something more than what they had been. He felt that she had grown more than he had, in the last two years, and where she had once been a burden to him, he saw her now as the one of them more suited to survival.

Yes, two years. He couldn't believe it himself, not half because Chix had been forced to explain the concept of years to him a number of times before it stuck. There were great clocks and small, and they all were bound together as the chains and gears were, as the swinging pendulum that tocked away the minutes above their heads. There were many Clockwork mazes spaced throughout the labyrinth, the skree used them as their combes. The lizard folk did not like to be caught out in the wild labyrinth any more than the menfolk did. All the mazes they inhabited were linked by tunnels through the foundation stones, passages so old and stable they did not heal and have to be renewed. Together, the gears and chains and gears and chains formed a calendar. They tallied the years and the centuries of the labyrinths existence, somewhere in the heart of the maze. Madder had not been allowed to see that place, it was not for human eyes. Virid thought it did more than tally, that it tocked toward the day when the labyrinth was no more. Madder couldn't begin to dream of such a thing.

They had tried to leave, or at least to learn the paths up and out of the skree tunnels, and they had been barred at every attempt. The skree never hurt them, but it was as Chix had told them that first day of their arrival, adults could not be allowed to know the secrets of the maze. They would not live to be adults.

"Then why not kill us now!" Madder had asked once, screamed, actually. 

Chix had regarded him, it was impossible to tell if he did so with any feeling, and said, "We do not kill hatchlings. That would shame us. We will give you the best life we can, without risking our service."

Our service, it still wasn't clear what that was. The skree said they repaired and monitored the maze and the labyrinth, and Madder didn't see them doing either. The labyrinth healed itself, everyone knew that. And the maze was maintenanced by more clockwork creatures called the Mir. They were small, humanoid machines, smooth brass casings and basic shapes. Faceless, but with clear intent, he watched them replace broken gear teeth, stop sections of the works and restart others. It was fascinating, and quite beyond his grasp of mechanics. Even two years later, his understanding of the Mir was that they were exactly like other living creatures except that they had metal instead of flesh. Virid insisted that they were not alive at all, but that didn't seem plausible to Madder, though he didn't often argue with her anymore. She was cleverer than he was, and he was no longer comfortable committing petty meanness against her when she proved it. He regretted how he had treated Virid in the beginning. She had grown since then, and though it may have been due to their solitude, he thought she was more beautiful than her sister had ever been.

Their families,  that was one question that could not have waited answering.

Chix had not responded to their initial attempts to learn what had become of the Combe's inhabitants. It was when Madder made it clear he would try to leave if he wasn't told that Chix relented. 

"There is a creature worse than a Fenryth." The skree had told them. This brought silence. "The creature is called an angel. It is a horror born of the mind of the Lady, and it can sunder the walls of the labyrinth to get at its prey."

"Its prey?"

"Beast or man will it devour, it makes no difference to the angel. Whatever it eats it brings to the Lady, and then goes out again, or else dies. There is no knowing why one or the other, and there is no saving those it eats."

They had badgered him for details, but Chix would give them no more than that on the subject of angels or the Lady.

Nor would any of the others.

Their lives were simple, they accompanied Chix when he wanted to show them something, but otherwise remained within a relatively small section of the maze foundation. The skree were not scavengers, they farmed edible fungus of size and variety far past anything Madder had seen in the outside labyrinth. They had more flavor, and more health, the two combe dwellers had not eaten so well in their lives before coming here. Madder learned how to tend the mushrooms, and how to prepare them in ways his mother wouldn't have thought of. Virid wasn't interested in farming, instead she pestered and queried until she was allowed to witness the powdering and mixing process of the medicinal tinctures brewed from the fungus. Chix expressed pleasure when she showed progress, and spoke of his surprise at her abilities. He seemed to take pride in teaching her once it had begun, and it was almost possible to forget how limited their time was becoming with the skree. None of them had shown anything but tolerance and acceptance of the two young humans. When they were killed, it would not be out of malice.

Madder missed his trips in the Labyrinth, and after much near begging, he was allowed to practice his skills in a closed off section of maze. It was dangerous, not deadly, and there were Mir there who played the parts of roaming beasts. The area was a dead end, so they did not watch him closely while he was within it. One day, he found a broken mir. Whatever light animated those beings was gone from it, and the seals of its body had been undone. Madder saw inside of it, and knew he would be free.
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Madder found Chix in his work area, a room filled with crystal baubles and molds. Light shone through many of the crystals, and sand ran like blood through translucent, vinous systems. It was Chix's duty to watch these crystals, and measure any changes he found therein. He had metal instruments for that purpose which Madder could not name, nor fathom the use of. The skree did not turn at Madder's footsteps, he could recognize him by the sound, and by smell. His forked tongue flicked in and out of a lipless mouth without cessation.

"I've found something in the maze." Madder said. 

"The mir will fix it." Chix said, trilling slightly.

"They can't fix it," Madder said. "You have to come and see. Please."

The tongue flicked again. "You are anxious." Chix finally turned. "Are you hurt?"

"No," Madder said, his heart suprisingly gentle in his chest. He had thought deception would have been harder. "but some of the mir are. I didn't know what to do. They are acting strangely."

Chix chirped his interest. "Someone else must have modified their programming. Let us see why."

The practice stretch of labyrinth that Madder was allowed was as large as his roaming grounds had been when he was in the Combe. In the past two years he had become as familiar with its paths as he had been with those surrounding his home. He reviewed them mentally when he and Chix entered through the single arch entrance. The sky here was different than in the other parts of the clockwork maze, the colored stone constellations taking new shapes. Most of the skree warrens had no sky, being in the bedrock beneath the labyrinth. Madder wondered if this was a part of the maze, or if the arch led out of it.

"It isn't far." He said, and Chix followed without complaint. They went directly to the dismembered mir Madder had placed only minutes before. If he waited too long, others would collect the carcass and repair it. 

"That is strange,” Chix knelt to examine the remains. "There shouldn't be a predator here capable of this. Did you see anything?"

"Yes," Madder said, retrieving his spear from a long crack in the floor. "I did." 

Chix turned his head in time to be cracked in the back of the skull. When he went down, Madder dropped his spear and scrambled for the vine robes he had woven over the last few days, binding Chix as well as he could before the skree recovered.

"You are becoming a man." Chix mumbled.

"What?" Madder said. "Why would you say that?"

Chix didn't struggle against the vines, and Madder turned him on his back when the ties were finished. The skree wasn't bleeding, and he watched Madder with an equanimity belieing his position.

"You are fighting us, you are a child no more." Chix chirped sadly. "You cannot live among us any longer."

"That's why I'm doing this," Madder said, holding his spear awkwardly at the ready, as if the skree could leap at him at any moment and he wasn't sure what he would do about it if he did. "You're going to tell me how to get out of the maze."

"I am not," Chix said. 

"I will hurt you." Madder pressed the point of his spear against the skree's scaled leg. He had made the spear from the bones of the mir, sharpening it gradually against the rougher stones of the maze. It reflected silver in the werelight. 

"You may." Chix was not afraid.

Madder hesitated, Chix had been kind to him and Virid, had given them an easier life here than the one he had known in the Combe. He owed Chix for living as long as he had, and even if he didn't, Madder had never seriously harmed a person before, lizard or no. He hesitated, but the labyrinth would not abide weakness.

He moved the spear tip to Chix's tail, it lay limply half under the skree's body. Madder stabbed it once, quickly, and Chix's flinched, emitting a high pitched trill Madder had never heard before.

"I'm sorry," Madder said, and inserted the spear slowly back into the wound he had made, stemming the little flow of blood.

"I want to live," Madder said. "Don't you understand?"

"I want to live," Chix replied, "and you may deny me that. There are things more important than our wants." He trilled again when the spear twisted.

Madder was sick with himself, and he felt tears forming in his eyes. "Who will do your work?"

"Another will be found." Chix's was calm in his pain. "There are many skree."

Madder pressed until his spear found stone.

Virid found them hours later. She and Madder always shared their meals, they were the only humans in the warrens, and it made them less alone. When Madder didn't appear in their usual place, she went to look for him in his maze. She didn't know it nearly as well as he, but she called out his name until he answered, and she found the path to his voice, a series of thin walls, staggered to appear as a seamless barrier. He was coming out with a bloody spear in his hand. Virid looked past him to the body in the chamber, recognized it as Chix's, and ran to it. She carried a few medical supplies with her at all times, but as soon as she reached the corpse it was evident that they would be of no use.

"What did you do!" She screamed at Madder. "They're going to kill us!"

He looked at the floor, leaning against his spear. "He wouldn't tell me a way out."

"And now what?" Virid couldn't take her eyes off of Chix, covered in punctures, lifeless. They had been free from death these last two years, for all that it had been promised them. "He was our friend."

"He was." Madder said. 

"It's over," Virid despaired, "you did this for nothing."

Madder wiped at his eyes, they were rimmed in red. "No. I know what we have to do."