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 Myrl‚Äč high fantasy books, young adult fantasy books

Chapter Eight

The rustle of a leather wing
asleep, is warning we should try
to steer far clear of that fierce nest
and hide away the sky

The leatherwings were large enough to seize Virid in both claws, and could likely have carried Madder a short distance as well. Their beaks were long as a forearm, and sharp as the point of Madder's spear. They did not dive directly for their prey, but circled and surrounded. Under normal circumstances, leatherwings had no room to maneuver, and could be avoided entirely in the narrower passages. Atop the wall, there was no defense against them.

"Run." Madder said, grabbing Virid's arm and jerking her up. They sprinted to the next bend and nearly fell together into the maze. Stone dust clouded around their feet as they leaned over the edge. It was too far down to jump or climb.

"Keep going." Madder said.

"Where?" Virid's voice turned sharp.

"Just keep going."

They found a long bar of wall to follow running perpendicular to the leatherwings, who had no difficulty keeping pace. The creatures cried back and forth to each other playfully, swooping ever nearer. When they reached the end of the highway Virid refused to run anymore. There had been nothing but sheer falls on either side.

"There's nothing." She said. "You've brought us up here for nothing."

"Stay behind me." The leatherwings circled at a distance, seeing that their prey would flee no further, and the largest among them descended. It was orange and grey, like much of the maze, its wings patterned in right angled spirals so that they almost looked a part of the labyrinth curving above. It fell upon them, faster than fear, and so Madder reacted without it.

He extended his reach as far as he could, outside the range of its talons, and it curved away in the terminal instant. Another descended, this one smaller, and he fended it off as well. Madder's blood was so much in his ears that he was deafened. He had to be aware of all sides at once. Virid, for her part, remained calm. Watching their approaching demise with equanimity.

Madder tired, and the leatherwings were only playing. One knocked him down with the brush of its wing, and then they had her. She did not scream, there was a little gasp, and she was gone.

He was on his feet in a moment, and they were leaving. He chased them over a brief run, leaped across a passage to another wall, but he couldn't possible keep up. They were free up there, flying, and he was still trapped in the maze for all that he was above it.

" Come back!" He shouted at them over and over, until his voice was hoarse. Madder ran so far and so hard that he came to something he had never imagined. A maze had somehow sunken into the bedrock, so that it was lower than the rest, he could see the jagged edges where stone had ripped from stone, never to be healed. All of it was filled with water dark and sloshing, and it seemed to go on forever. For a moment, he thought that he had reached the dark splotch in the maze above, but a glance over his should her told him that it had hardly moved. This was their own dark space, perhaps. The leatherwings ignored it, as they did all other obstacles, taking her away from him. His voice gone, he could only watch them land on a small island some ways off over the water.

Terror gripped him, the idea of being alone in the labyrinth ripped through him like a grumpsh tusk, and he felt he might die there on the edge of this strange oasis. Kneeling, tears blurring his vision, he saw a shape on top of the water nearby. It was a mushroom cap, and it was floating. He poked it with his spear and it bobbed. Where had it come from?

He clambered down to the level of the water, seeing the faint outline of shapes beneath. He quested with his spear, discovering some were harder or softer, fungi and rock. These raised surfaces were inches below the waterline. He stepped out onto what once must have been a maze wall. The water washed over his feet and ankles, he had never stood in water before. What sustenance the labyrinth provided a forager was not for wasting. With his spear tip he found the width of the wall was about a pace, quite thin, and he could not touch the bottom beyond it. There was life in the water, though he could not see it, things moved among the fungal stalks just out of his reach.

Using the dull end of his spear he pressed forward until his walk came to an end. He thought he felt the wall resume a few feet ahead, so he jumped. When he landed the surface gave slightly under his feet and began to fall forward. It was a large stalk, and the next breath found him floundering in the sea. He did not know how to swim, let alone with a heavy spear in one hand, and it was by chance that his foot found purchase on another fruit pad. It couldn't support him, but it gave him the stability to find the next hold, and the next, until he was at another wall. Climbing up, soaked and surprisingly cold, he saw he had come but a disappointing distance from where he'd begun. Virid could be dead already, eaten by the leatherwings, and here he was as useless as a boy on his first forage.

He paused a moment to find his breath, then set out again, more careful of his footing.

As he went, he remembered the songs of his father, and searched them for some wisdom that would help him in his task. But the Rouge family songs did not extend to islands and seas, and said little enough of leatherwings. The thing to do when monsters came was flee, or fend them long enough for the women to flee and begin again somewhere else. Marching soggily into a den of beasts was not a part of the collective tribal knowledge.

Madder had to smile. His father, who had taught him so much, would not have done this. Or maybe he would have, for mother, for Madder's elder siblings who had all been lost to forage or to frost. He was gone now, with the angels and the lady in the labyrinth. There was no saving his family. Madder feared a loss of momentum more than he did the angel.

If they stopped, if they slowed down, they wouldn't be able to go on. He wouldn't be able to go on, the enormousness and enormity of the labyrinth would crush the life from him. He would save Virid, he had to. And maybe then she would not hate him.

The water shallowed as he approached the island, it was knee deep. He was forced to wade at the end, and he felt tendrils of fungi graze him and cling to his skin. He stabbed the cap of a stalk that broke the surface, and many of the tendrils retreated. These fungi were likely hunters of small aquatic prey. He pulled free of them, finding the shore, and saw red trails where tiny barbs had pierced his skin. His legs were numb.

The island was no larger than a combe, and it was rimmed with great jags of stone. They were covered in signs like foragers used to mark passages, but he could not read any of them, and they were gravened deeply in the stone instead of painted. What force could have moved these, and brought them out of the depths? The machines of the clockwork maze would have been mighty enough, if they had been made for no other purpose. Or maybe an angel had done this, like one had ripped away the protective walls of the combe before taking his family.

Spear ready, he stalked the island, looking for a way inside. He could hear the shuffling and crying of the leatherwings beyond the riven walls. There was no sound of Virid. Where two slabs came together at an angle there was an opening large enough for Madder to crawl through, and he crept until he found the edge of light on the other side. Leatherwings nests were a mystery, the songs did not speak of them. It was assumed they killed and ate anything they took, he tried not to imagine Virid as their meal. There had been more than enough time for her to be picked to pieces. The squawking grew louder, and he saw the inside of the stone circle was a mostly open crater studded with colorful nests.

The leatherwings squatted on their mounds, screeching and cawing at one another. There were five that he could see. The nests were made of rounded stones, fungal stalks and caps, vines and flowers in various stages of decay, and what appeared to be furs. Virid stood out among the wreckage, sitting placidly atop the mound in the center of the crater. The largest leatherwing was strutting around her, wings flapping, as if to ward the others off. Virid did not appear to be harmed or frightened, just unhappy.

Minutes wore on, and a pair of leatherwings took flight, leaving the crater and the nests. That left three, the largest and two who appeared to be competing against him with masculine displays. Madder was mystified, they hadn't harmed Virid, and his heart swelled at that, bit he understood neither what was happening here or how he was going to be able to rescue her. As a forager, he had been taught patience, and if Virid didn't appear to be in immediate danger, he was content to watch and wait.

His legs soon ached, and he adjusted his body in one long, boneless maneuver that left him lying on his stomach. He could not retreat further into the wall without losing sight of Virid. There was an hour-flower growing out of one of the mounds, heavy and purple. He watched the agonized slowness of its closing, then the open. The leatherwings were tireless in their displays, croaking and crying. Virid was so still she didn't seem to notice them. Another cycle of the flower, and the two leatherwings returned with further prizes for their nests. One held a writhing ball of vines, the thorns unable to scratch its beak, however angrily they pricked. The other had collected an infant myr, a gleaming silver worm that it proudly deposited on the peak of its mound. The myr tried to squirm away, and the leatherwings pecked and batted it to stillness. One of the leatherwings that had thus far been in contest with the king of the crater turned its attention to the new arrival. With a hop and a scramble it snapped the silver worm from under the others claw. They wrestled for it then, both seizing it in their beaks and struggling until the myr tore it in two and its mercurial guts spilled prettily over the nest. Madder's heart pounded. If any of them succeeded in challenging the largest leatherwing, that could be Virid spilled over the stalks and stones. He gripped his spear, but there was nothing he could do against five of these creatures. So still he was forced to watch and wait.

The hour-flower opened and closed, and his eyes grew heavy. The leatherwings were settling, though they continued to snap and preen, perhaps they were growing tired as well. Virid had slumped into a ball, her dark green hair spread in a halo about her head. Had she done that intentionally? Would it appease the leatherwing?

SCRAAAAAW!

Madder rolled onto his back, cradling the spear to his chest as the beak scraped down beside him. He had fallen asleep. The leatherwings call had jolted him awake. Two scaly yellow eyes glared at him down the length of a razor pointed cylinder.