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

Chapter One

The Labyrinth has been always
The Labyrinth ever was
And none will ever leave the Labyrinth
No one ever does

Madder Rouge had lived his entire life in the Labyrinth, and this wasn't odd, because everyone had. There was no sea and there was no sky. There was a maze. There was also a large tusked Grumpsh scything toward him. Never go foraging alone, his mother had told him. Never make noise in the outer paths. Well, Madder had been alone and he had been whistling for company. Two strikes wins you a Grumpsh as tall as a man at the shoulder, its hooves striking sparks against the stone, and a grotesque snout pressed close to the ground bearing those curved tusks.

Madder ducked into one of the child alleys, squeezing as far as he could manage into what was barely more than a crack in the wall of the passage. One day, this alley might grow large enough to open the wall entirely. For now, it was only enough to put a few feet of air between him and the monster.

The Grumpsh snorted and squealed as it rammed the wall. Its tusks scraped the stone, and its bulk knocked loose small chunks of rock like flaking layers of skin. Madder's heart was punching him in his ears, and he was slick with sweat. He couldn't breathe, the alley was so tight it compressed his chest. He began hyperventilating. Oh, this is amazing, he thought as the monster grated away at his scant margin of safety. This is perfect. My
mother will be so proud when they find the body. Who am I kidding? They don't find the bodies.

Madder's family had lived in the same alcove for the last fifteen years, since just before he was born. It was relatively protected, with two entrances, the larger of which adults had to duck through. There was a well, and the stones were rife with safe fungal colonies. There were other families that shared the well, all with their own alcoves within a few hundred paces of the Rouges. They called this community the Combe.

The Grumpsh grumbled as it worked a tusk inside the crevice, displaying a twist of cunning in its rage. Madder crushed himself as far as he could into the alley, and the point of the tusk scraped down his arm. Don't scream. He will know he has you if you scream. Be silent, and he will give up and go away. Hot tallow, and bee stings and an old bone knife digging into his skin. He couldn't even feel the wetness there, couldn't feel the drip of blood. Once, Madder had been caught by a Cephala vine. Its fruit had glistened so nicely in the werelight. His family had not had fruit since he was small. He had grabbed one, a plump plum the color of bruises. He could feel the juice beneath the waxy skin. The fruit had come free in his hand, and the surrounding vines, had tightened to a knot around his forearm. The thorns planted themselves in the meat.

His father ran to his screams. He had slapped Madder to make him quiet. Noise attracted predators. Father Rouge had cut his child free, and Madder had bitten his lip as a way of biting down on the pain. The thorns were removed deftly, and his father's grave and bearded face had bent over his wrist to search for fragments of the barbs left behind.

When it was finished, and Madder reached for the dropped fruit, Father kicked it away. Never, never, never, he had said. It may have only been tradition, or the fruit may have been deadly poisonous. You didn't test that sort of thing. This is how they learned. The Labyrinth can make a man complacent. He grows accustomed to the common dangers, and forgets to fear them. A child with a fortunate upbringing might think he was the master of the place. Then his sister would be eaten, and it would be his fault. This is how they learned.

The fruit was always bait. Small white scars speckled Madder's forearm as a reminder of that.

Madder blinked. He had lost consciousness, and the Grumpsh had gone. The alley was so tight that he hadn't so much as slumped. It could have been minutes or hours gone by. There were no timeflowers nearby.The rock tugged at his wrap as he tugged himself free. His arm was no longer bleeding, but the pain was fresh. It caused him to stop before he reached the edge of the alley. A faint exclamation passed his lips. It was answered by a grunt, and the shifting of lard, the rustle of bristle fur. Madder froze, then wormed his way back into the crevice, wincing. He listened for the creature, its bellow like lungs. Not far off, it lay in porcine repose. Awake or asleep, it waited. Madder closed his eyes, and wished for home.

Waking up the second time was less of a shock. He was cold, and minor tremors ran the length of his body where he was wedged into the crack. Gradually, he worked himself free. Soundless as he could be, he observed the passage.
There was no physical sign of the Grumpsh, but its wild, oppressive musk still hung heavy in the air. It had not been gone long, or it was close. Madder was dehydrated, and his wounded arm was numb. He knew as well as anyone what this meant. There were a number of rhymes that elucidated the fate of the hurt and alone in the Labyrinth.

If Madder did not reach home, he would die. He was not a bad tracker for his age, so even as he prepared to set out on the quickest route back to the Combe he noticed scuffs in the masonry. The Grumpsh had passed this way. Madder would be forced to take a roundabout path to home, more time for him to grow weak in. But Grumpsh were rare, and as long as he maintained his silence he would hear one snuffling long before it smelled him. He passed down a dozen corridors where the fungus had been scraped down to the spoors, and he ducked into a cupola where fresh water ran. It was barely a trickle. He let it gather in his palms until he had a mouthful, and slowly drank.

His arm felt like two dry mushroom stalks strapped together to form a joint. The shaft cut through the maze was head height to him. He had to scramble into it one handed, and walk in a crouch. The dust was deep here, because it was an unnatural cut. It had to be cleaned regularly to prevent it from closing up within a few years. There was no one in the Combe who had the skill or equipment to open it again if it did.

The time flowers must have bloomed many times over since he went out on his forage. His parents would already be preparing themselves for the likelihood that he would not return. Once they saw his arm, he hoped their concern would outweigh their anger at his stupidity. Either that or they would be mad enough to finish him off. He hopped down from the shaft, blinking away the sting of his laceration. The Labyrinth here was ruddy and lined almost as if it had been mortared in place. The ground was worn into a lighter shade, approaching dusty pink. The Combe was quiet as Madder entered. He wanted nothing more than to lie upon his moss pallet and sleep. Maybe the harangue he was about to endure would not be lengthy.

The sky Labyrinth glowered glumly down upon him as he found his family alcove. Its little entrance, which his father had always had to squeeze through, was torn open. The wounds in the stone looked like the marks left on a man's flesh by a fenryth. What beast could tear a wall down with its claws? Inside, there was no sign of his parents. Their tools, both of the home and of the hunt, had been left behind. The cairn where they stored their food was untouched. Aside from the entrance, all hints of violence were absent.

Madder walked the Combe then, from home to home, each one of them the same. The Bandersnatch was an animal that fed only on wasps. It was immune to their stings, and simply thrust its tongue into a hive before sucking out larvae and honey. Madder thought he knew how the wasps must feel, returning from their travels to find the orderly hexes of their nest broken and drained. Wax and a spatter of leftover sweetness. Here, a broken wing.

They had all disappeared, all been taken. Nearing the last alcove, Madder heard a whimpering animal. His blood rushed, and his ears rang. He was too exhausted for a proper adrenaline boost. The shock had not yet given way to hatred or despair. This small sound, like a yearling babaub with its foot in a trap, put him over the edge. 

He froze. He had to discover its source, and was terrified of doing so. The last alcove belonged to the Virids, a family of four. They had two daughters, and Madder had always coveted the elder sister. But she was taller than him, and a better forager. She had always treated him kindly and without interest, despite their being the only two young ones of age in the Combe. What propelled him forward was the fantasy that he would find her here, hurt and alone, and he would become a man in her eyes. They would go searching for the others, and perhaps one day start their own family in a safer place.

The noise stopped, and this alcove was as empty as the others. He began to doubt whether there had ever been a noise at all. Madder's eyes were drawn to the family cairn. It was disorderly. The cairn was an object of reverence, bringing life in days of dearth. Why was this one misshapen, with a few stones rolled to one side? What wrongness had been hid within it?

He almost left. The cairn was sacrosanct, and to touch what belonged to another was akin to physical attack. It was an assault upon the spirit of a family. Carefully, and with hesitation, he moved one small stone. They are gone, he told himself. Everyone is gone. This is no longer the heart of a home. It followed that he was desecrating a corpse. Whatever had made the sound had to be within the stones. An animal trying to steal their stores had gotten stuck, was that any business of his?

His hands worked as his heart debated. The lopsided cairn opened to him, and he was met by two enormous green eyes, and a face bounded by hair of a darker green, almost black. She didn't say anything, the youngest Virid, as he quickened his pace to free her. It was moments before she was uncovered.

Madder was disappointed. He had hoped for one, and it was the sullen slip who survived. She was hardly even a girl. He helped her sit on one of the sleeping pallets, and brought her water.

“What happened to everyone?” He asked her. She took the water, and drank, but offered no explanation for the state he found her in. She watched him with a feral chariness, and spoke not a word. “All the safe places are torn open,” Madder said. “My family is eaten, for all I know. I’m hurt, and worn out, and all I have to show for it is you.”
He was not looking at her as he said this. If he had been, he may have noticed the slight tightening about her eyes. He kicked a stone and regretted it, now his foot was sore as well.

In the adrenaline of the moment, he had been able to forget about his arm. Now, it hurt as bad as in the beginning. It was dirty, and it oozed blood down to his elbow. He went to one of the water pools to clean it. It had been a wet season, and they had hardly tapped the well. Water seeped up from the floor, or out of the cracks in the walls.
He lathed his arm as well as he could, tearing a bit of sponge from where it grew beside the pool to help scrub out the dust. It would heal in a few days, as long as it was not infected. It would be another scar, this one running from shoulder to elbow. If it had been deeper, he wouldn't have been so lucky.

He wished his mother had been there to bind it, or to make a poultice. He wished that he had bothered to learn those things. The magnitude of what had happened was starting to press on him. He fought tears, lost, and wiped them away when it had passed. He was going to find his family, as soon as he had rested. They were both going to find them.

Virid was still a living blank when he returned. She hadn't so much as brushed the hair from her face.

"We're going to find them,” he told her hollowly. He didn't want to leave her there, and also would have felt strange bringing her to his own cracked alcove. So he settled on sleeping there.

Choosing a pallet, he found it had a different moss than he was accustomed to, with a sweeter scent. Was this the elder sister's mat? Was this what her body smelled like, her hair?

Virid watched him as his consciousness gave way to sleep. She wasn't any happier about the arrangement than he was, but she wasn't able to decide her course. Stay in the home that was no longer protected, wait for the family that would not return; or go into the wilderness with the Rouge who was only a boy himself, with a boy's foolish crush on her sibling. Eventually, she too went to sleep, exhaustion winning out on the tremor of her nerves.

A timeflower hung in the corner of the alcove, opening and shutting every hour as the sky Labyrinth gloomed above. There is no night in the Labyrinth, though some places are impenetrable for their darkness, the werelight is eternal. Shades and overhangs are used, and the alcoves are dim enough to be comfortable. The young couple slept as soundly as a more lighthearted pair might have, and they suffered no dreams.

Madder woke first, and saw the girl curled under a lyeseed blanket. He went to the water pool to refresh himself, and then back to his family’s alcove. He collected whatever he thought might be useful in the outer passages, fitting it as best he could into a single pack. There were flaking and cutting tools, made by Father, along with the sling and missiles. His mother's things, bone needles and threads, scraps for binding and mending, he took. Last there were the herbs and powders only she knew how to apply properly, and the hollow horn with their fire rock sealed within. There were no keepsakes. Madder also had a bone knife he kept in his sash, and that was all. The second pack was for the cairn store, and he tied on the netted waterskins as well.

Virid was awake but unmoving. She was comfortable beneath the blanket, and as long as she remained there she could pretend that the world was unchanged. If she rose, if she allowed the coolness of the air to prick her skin, then there would be no returning to that fantasy. If she looked at the broken entrance, she would be forced to remember her mother's stricken face as she buried her daughter alive. She had spent hours beneath those rocks, afraid to breath. And when she had found the courage to try to free herself, she had been too weak. There had been hours spent wondering whether she would have been better off suffering the same fate as the others, and if she would be crushed to death.

Madder was returning. His parents had given him a first name, as if he was special. She hated him.

“Wake up, Virid,” he said. “I'm going. You can come or stay.”

She didn't stir.