Holding onto the gear staff soon paled as a form of recreation. Without any conscious decision between them, they began to slide down. Unless the machine turned upside down again soon, they would both fall. The endless grinding and turning of the wheels was not a hopeful sound, and the soft bright mist below them was not inviting. It could have been a fall of a few paces, or a thousand, depending on what the mists concealed.
Their strength wavered, and they slid down. It felt better to do it by choice than to wait until their muscles failed. They moved gradually, melting down the staff. Virid was as taciturn as ever, and Madder was in no mood to give encouraging words. So it was in silence that they were swallowed by the light.
The gears and cogs vanished in the pinkish fog, so that they were alone with it and the rough stone surface they clung to. It was warm, and sweat was mixed with condensation. Madder lost his grip first.
He had stretched away from the staff, unkinking his arms, and his fingers released without any warning or command. As he fell free, one foot clubbed Virid's shoulder, and then they were both tumbling down. There was a terrifying space where they had nothing but the fog, not even each other. Their screams were muffled, distant.
The landing was suprisingly soft.
The mist opened, and the ground was a soft ochre sponge, a mass of pinprick hollows. Their bodies left impressions where they impacted.
Madder raised himself gingerly, his heart still pounding from the drop. Half his body would be bruised soon, and he was lucky he had not come down on his bad arm. Virid was curled in a ball nearby, not appearing to be hurt but unresponsive.
He brushed the shock of mossy hair away from her face, and found her eyes open, though there was no recognition in them. He tried to lift her and she resisted, murmuring something he could not understand.
"What is it?" He asked, "What?"
It would be too much too ask that they both emerge from this unscathed. Maybe she had struck her head, and was going mad. Madder felt the first real gnaw of doubt in his belly, the thought that he would not see them through this, that one or both of them would not come out of the maze, let alone save their families.
"I want to go home," she whispered.
For a heartbeat, he wanted to hit her. A day ago, he might have. Instead, he gathered her in his arms and hugged her to his chest. He hummed something his mother had, when he was a child. Virid was small, and she had not been trained to survive in the outer paths. Her elder sister had been taught those things, but only because the Virid's had no sons. It had never seemed strange to Madder before that the skills necessary to survival were divided between the sexes.
He held her until she began to fidget, then he let her go.
They could see gear staffs hanging above them out of the fog, turning slowly. This spongy plain had the same dimensions as the place they had fallen from, enclosed in dark walls. The sound of the clockwork above was reduced to a low, unending growl.
"Were going to be okay," Madder said. He didn't really mean it, but it sounded like the right thing to say. He didn't go unheeded, for humanoid forms shortly began to show themselves, appearing as if from nothing and surrounding the youths.
They were no taller than Virid, scaly and emaciate. As they approached, Madder thought they had the fragility of birds, as well as the talons. But their faces were the faces of the tiny, scurrying lizards that birds fed upon. They conversed among each other with chirps and clicks, an alien tongue without relationship to the speech of men. Madder stood blocking Virid, though they were surrounded, so it meant nothing.
"Prisoner," the creature said in a high, fluting voice. "Why have you come where you do not belong?"
"We fell," Madder said, gesturing uselessly at the world the mists hid. "It was an accident."
The creature that had spoken had muddy topaz eyes. They blinked. "You are hatchlings. Where are your families?"
"Gone," Madder said, and then more firmly, "we are going to find them."
The lizard man chirped approvingly. "As you should. But you are lost, are you not?"
Madder reluctantly admitted that this was true.
"Then you are alone, and you are hatchlings." The creature trilled. "We will take you in." As he said this the others tightened there circle in a manner that was difficult to read as friendly.
"Wait," Madder said. "We can't go with you. We dont know what you are!"
"We will not eat you, hatchling." It said. "Count this as a blessing. You would die here if we did not choose to help you. We are the Skree."
"You called us prisoners," Virid said quietly, standing at last. "Why did you call us that?"
Its yellow, slitted eyes found her for the first time. "We say it because that is what we name your kind. It is what we have always named you. It is the name we remember from the words of the Maker."
Virid appeared about to ask more questions, but the Skree leader turned away from them and began to lead toward the wall. She and Madder were forced to follow by the press of lizardfolk behind them. They didn't offer violence, but they were insistent.
They came to a break in the wall, a natural insterstice large enough to pass into. These kinds of breaks did not happen often around the Combes, which were very stable, they were more common in the wilder and well avoided paths. A gap could close as easily as it opened, regardless of who was inside.
There was no werelight to see by, not within the flesh of the Labyrinth. They progressed by feel. The Skree, who were not limited by light or dark, were quite patient in leading there charges safely through the passage. Madder felt himself smothered by the blackness, and by the unintelligible chatter of the Skree.
For Virid it was worse, recalling the crushing sightlessness of the cairn she had been buried beneath. She pressed her hands to her chest, trying to squeeze her own heart, then the darkness broke. They entered a chamber filled with glowing crystals. The walls were flowing, waxy, illuminated by a cooler radiance than werelight.
"That will be your place," the leader said, gesturing to an alcove. "The hatchlings sleep there."
Madder nodded, he was less than enthusiastic. "Can you give us your name," he asked, "if we are going to be staying with you?"
"Yes," the Skree said. "My name is Chxttx. We will have to speak of you in our council. Afterward, I will be responsible for you."
"Uh," Madder said, "can I call you Chix?"
The skree blinked. "Yes, I suppose you can."
They were deposited in a room with a clutch of eggs each about as large as a human head. Guarding them was a few more skree. They looked up lazily when the newcomers entered, otherwise uninterested. Their scales were brown speckled with blue.
"Remain here," Chix said, "and you will be provided for." There wasn't much room to argue, so they settled in an empty section of the alcove, watching the lizard people.
"This could be worse," Madder said.
Virid stared at her hands.
There was a small pool in another corner, seeping up from the floor, and a few purple mushrooms grew beside it. Madder broke off two caps, and dipped them in the water before bringing one to Virid. He ate his in a few bites, while she nibbled around the edges of hers. They tried to make themselves as comfortable as they could in their corner.
One of the skree was watching them; a single quiet eye, a flicking tongue, and a speckled snout. Madder felt her attention as a pull. He was sure it was a her, though he couldn't have said why.
"Prisoner," she rasped, "where do you come from?"
Madder began with a simple answer, but soon found himself describing the Combe. He spoke of Mother and Father Rouge, and the other families there. He told her of the ways nearest, those safest and well traveled, and of the false oasis, and the Cephala vines. Th teachings of his father passed by in a few sentences, and the dangers they had passed. The matron listened without comment or complaint, until it was sure he was finished.
"You are fortunate," she said, "to have come so far. The Labyrinth does not tolerate the lost."
"Why have I never heard of the skree?" He asked her. "You are not in any rhymes I know."
"We are not for the eyes of prisoners. She lay absolutely still as she spoke, her jaws parting but a little. We are an old thing, watching over the workings and the ways .Prisoners are not to know of us."
"You didn't hide from us," Madder said.
"You are only a hatchling," she said. "It is not the same."
Madder was inclined to argue, he was nearly a full forager, and a man. He had kept them alive this far, and did not like being thought of as a child. Those yellow slitted eyes, cool and imperturbable, persuaded him to keep his protests to himself.
"Have you always been here?" He asked instead. "Are there many of your kind?"
"There are many," the skree allowed.
"What do you do? Why are you watching the ways?"
The speckled skree hissed in a manner that was like a sigh. "We repair what needs repairing, and balance what has been thrown aside. Prisoners sometimes know what they should not, and so we repair that as well.
Madder felt a chill. "Why can't men know of you, what would happen if we did?"
"Prisoners who know too much are a danger, they must be culled. You are hatchlings, so that is no danger, but when you are older you will be culled as well. But you are hatchlings now, so you need not worry."
She trilled in a fashion that suggested the conversation was at an end, and closed her eyes.
What lies beneath the Labyrinth's skin
What burrows through its crust
A squamous race of moldered men
The Labyrinth be their trust
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 high fantasy books, young adult fantasy books