Growing up, my family dinnertime discussions often — OK, always — involved talk about brujas, the undead, ghosts, monsters — the paranormal was a topic of unending curiosity and constant speculation. Few novels explore the mythologies of various Latinx communities, which is part of the reason I'm so excited about the release of Zoraida Córdova's newest young adult novel, Labyrinth Lost , a story about a young bruja torn between identities.
Brooklynite Alex (short for Alejandra) doesn't want to be a bruja, but it appears she doesn't have a choice in the matter. She hails from a long line of brujas, after all. But she's stubborn, and she's determined to reject her fate and forge a different future for herself. So on the night of her birthday, she attempts to change the course of her life — and she accidentally transports her entire family into Los Lagos, the land in-between the living and the dead. Now, she must journey into the unknown dimension to save her family — and the only person who can help her is a mysterious brujo named Nova.
Labyrinth Lost will be available from Sourcebooks Fire on Sept. 6, 2016. Until then, here's a never-before-seen chapter from the novel. In this excerpt — from Chapter 14 — Alex and Nova attempt to navigate Los Lagos, an inexplicable land where the terrain is as dangerous as the creatures who live there.
Rain of fire, birth of ash
Born again, the gods will clash.
—Song of El Fuego, Bringing of Flame
The Selva of Ashes goes up in flames around us.
No wonder birds and insects were traveling upward. But Nova and I can’t climb. I’m not even sure if we’re going the right way, but I don’t stop running. We race across the beams of light, their heat pulsing against the ground. Even though I know it’s coming, I can’t stop from jumping every time a blaze of fire pops. It’s like we’re surrounded by land mines.
I thank La Mama that I decided to join the track team last year. I jump over fallen trunks like hurdles. I pump my arms at my sides. I’m surprised Nova is keeping pace beside me, and I can’t help but think that he’s had some practice at running from things too. He shoots me a challenging smile. He nods to the light ahead, where a line of trees in silhouette marks the end of the rain forest.
I run across a beam of light just as it explodes. It burns my shoulder, but I keep going. Fire is catching up behind us, and it licks at our feet. I feel the burn in my legs, my lungs, but the end is so close, I throw myself out of the line of trees.
Nova falls beside me.
We’re out of the Selva, and the light-gray sky feels infinite.
“Oh my gods,” I say, sprawled out on the ground.
“And here I didn’t think I’d get in my daily cardio,” he says between heavy breaths.
I cough and get up. My adrenaline is buzzing and so is the magic around us. The entire floor of the Selva has caught flame. We watch as the underbrush burns quickly to ash. Then it stops. Then, the sky breaks and the rain comes and washes away the black ashes, revealing dark-green buds.
“Why is this land separate from the rest of Los Lagos?” I ask Nova.
“Not sure.” He’s still trying to catch his breath. “Let me add that to my list of Los Lagos mysteries.”
“Okay, genius.” I put a hand on my hip. “How do we get across the river?”
Now that the Selva of Ashes is behind us, we can only look forward. At the end of the rocky bank is a silver river that gleams in the gray light. The river rushes in an undulating current. On the other side is a black line of caves. The Caves of Night look more like an impenetrable wall. The bank, the river, and the caves—they all go east to west as far as my eyes can see. It makes the land feel so expansive, like it’ll never end no matter how far we walk.
Nova closes his eyes and leans his head back, his face toward the open sky. It really is beautiful, like a black-and-white photo. I inhale the cool, salty air, and allow myself to sink into the reality of this plane.
It startles me when I look at both ends of the horizon. The moon and the sun are out at the same time. On one end, the sun is a white circle hidden behind the overcast sky. On the other side of the horizon is a sideways, slender crescent moon, the points facing up. Something swells inside me, a faded memory of bedtime stories about them reaching across the sky to join together—La Mama and El Papa. I touch the moon necklace between my collarbones.
"It startles me when I look at both ends of the horizon. The moon and the sun are out at the same time."
“Is that our moon?”
Nova stands beside me. His boots crunch the gravel. “Yeah.”
“But that’s not our sun?”
He shakes his head. “The passage of ‘time’ is marked by the movement of the moon and sun across the sky. They travel from one end of the horizon to the other, bypassing each other. That’s a cycle, what we’d call a day. Every cycle, the moon and sun get closer and closer to each other.”
“Like the story of La Mama and El Papa traveling across the galaxy to find each other.” I used to love that story as a kid. The two major Deos were once separated by their enemies, and so they had to reach across the heavens, creating night and day.
“Exactly,” he says. “When they eclipse, that’s when the Tree of Souls takes all of its energy and metabolizes it. Then, the Devourer feeds on the power for herself.”
“How do you know that?”
“You’d know too if you went to Lady’s classes.” He takes out the map and flips it over. “Also, it says so right here.”
There are a few notes scrawled in nearly illegible handwriting. I wonder who it belongs to. My father? Aunt Ro? Maybe Mama Juanita. I remember her sitting at the kitchen table when she thought everyone was asleep. She had a cigarillo in one hand and her fountain pen in the other. Usually, a bruja writes their initials after an entry in the Book of Cantos. The map of Los Lagos, and the notes scrawled on the back, are unfinished, anonymous.
“Wait,” I say. “If the Devourer is siphoning out the energy, wouldn’t that kill the land?”
Nova stares at the shore across the silver river, clutching his prex. He rubs the blue stones one at a time. My mother does that when she’s uncertain and when she’s praying.
“I don’t know, Ladybird. What I do know is the moon and sun are still far apart. We have time. We’ll have to see how fast the cycles pass to mark our pace.”
“You can say day, you know.”
He shakes his head and walks west.
I start to follow, but I see something moving in the water. I walk to the edge of the riverbank. My boots kick gravel into a current so fast it doesn’t even ripple. I try to find a sense of calm in the rushing water’s silver waves. I reach my hands to touch the salty water, but Nova yanks me back. I fall on my butt.
“What the hell?”
His face pales as my foot dangles over the river, silver waves licking at the tip of my boots. He grabs me again and drags me back a few feet.
“Don’t touch things just because they’re shiny.”
“I wasn’t.” I push myself off the ground and dust the moist earth from my pants.
He makes a deep guttural noise that makes me think of my neighbor’s pit bull.
“Do me a favor. Let’s have the rain forest that sets itself on fire be our warning for the rest of our time here. Don’t touch anything. You don’t know what kind of water this is. You’re not back home, Alex. We’re in another dimension. If I can’t make that clear for you, then you’re dead, and I’m dead with you.”
"You’re not back home, Alex. We’re in another dimension. If I can’t make that clear for you, then you’re dead, and I’m dead with you.”
I cringe at the smell of burning rubber. I look down to find a hole at the top of my boot where the silver water splashed me. Right. Don’t touch anything.
“Welcome to Los Lagos, Ladybird,” Nova grumbles as he leads the way. “Come on.”
• x •
We walk at a safe middle distance between the edge of the rain forest and the edge of the silver river. The clouds thicken in dark-gray mounds above us. Every shadow, movement, and splash makes me want to jump out of my skin. What else is going to get set on fire? Is everything here made to kill? I take off my shirt because of the thick humidity and stuff it in our backpack. In minutes, I sweat right through my tank top.
“Did you see that?” I point to the water. “There’s someone in there. I saw it before.”
“You saw what that water did to your boot. I don’t think it can sustain life.”
I know what I saw but I drop it. A light rain starts to fall, which makes our walk more slippery.
Nova searches the horizon with a frustrated scowl. “The ferryman is supposed to be somewhere here.”
If the water burned a hole in my boot, how does it not burn a boat?
As the rain gets progressively harder, the rain forest to our left shudders as lightning strikes.
“There!” Nova points ahead.
I grab hold of him and together we run, trying not to slip as the earth softens under our boots. We take turns almost falling, but when the golden glint of something bobbing in the water becomes clearer, I’m the one pulling him.
Disappointment comes swiftly. “That isn’t a ferry. It’s an oversize rowboat.”
“It’s a small Viking ship,” he says. But even he has to admit it wasn’t what we were expecting. “This can’t be right.”
Nova takes a step onto the golden pier that goes out a few yards over the river. The gold boat has a curling bow and stern, and high sides that might prevent the passengers from getting splashed with the corrosive water. There are four oars resting across a bench, and it looks like it seats up to six passengers.
“Hello?” I shout. I realize I probably shouldn’t announce myself like I’m at the bodega.
Then a man appears from thin air.
“I’m right here, girl,” he says in a raspy voice. “No need to shout at the wind.”
I take several steps back until I collide with Nova’s chest. His hands fly protectively to my shoulders.
The man isn’t exactly a man. He’s got the face of an old man, yes. His moss-colored skin looks rough to the touch. His eyes are like swirls of gold, and when he smiles, two perfect rows of gold teeth flash back at us. His torso is hidden beneath a long, black cloak that’s caked in mud at the hem. He hobbles when he steps toward us.
“Fear won’t get you very far in these lands.” He extends a furry finger that ends in a sharp, black nail. He breathes deep, as if he smells a perfume he likes. “Though…perhaps your magic could.”
Nova steps in front of me, to block me from the creature’s golden gaze. Nova’s posture changes. He digs one hand in his pocket and relaxes his shoulders like he’s not afraid. He tilts his chin up.
“You the ferryman?”
The creature tilts his head from side to side, amused. He moves like molasses and speaks just as slowly. “I am Oros, the duende of the River Luxaria. I provide crossing to the other shore.”
“Shut up.” Nova’s sudden enthusiasm makes me panic. Where did my street-savvy brujo just go? Instead, he looks like he’s about to jump on the creature’s lap and list everything he wants for Christmas. “My grandma told me you guys were all extinct.”
The duende makes a sour face. He keeps that long, craggy finger pointed in my direction.
“Most of my kind was sent here by El Terroz, Lord of the Earth and its Treasures. He is our father and protector. I am charged with passage across the Luxaria, or as common witches call it—Lover’s Lament.”
“Lover’s Lament?” I look at the hole in my shoe. “Why do they call it that?”
Oros hobbles to my side. I follow his gaze to the silver water. “Watch.”
“For what?” Nova says, impatient.
I nudge him in the ribs.
“Impatience will get you killed almost as quickly as fear, boy.”
“Impatience will get you killed almost as quickly as fear, boy.”
I wrap my hand around Nova’s wrist. His fingers ball into a fist. His magic pushes against mine. It’s a weird feeling to recognize it.
“Girl,” the duende says to me. “You saw it before.”
I step onto the pier. I get on one knee to look closer. Nova says my name in warning, but I’m not in any danger. Not from this distance at least. I was right. I did see a face in the water before. When I inhale the salty breeze, I’m overcome with a wave of yearning. I have the overwhelming sensation that I might break down and cry, so I take several steps back and blink against the sting in my eyes. I realize the salt in the air isn’t sea spray. They’re tears.
“It’s a river of souls,” I say.
“Takes some travelers ages to figure that out,” the duende says. “Your heart must be calling out for long-lost ones. These souls take the shape of water, tangled forever as one. With each splash and wave, they try to break free.”
One soul leaps from the mass, and a silver hand slaps the pier right at my feet. She pulls herself up with one arm. Her beautiful and ghastly face is covered by a wet tangle of matted hair. She tilts an open mouth to the sky and howls. She breaks a hand off of the undulating mass of souls around her. Her elbows are sharp like spikes, and she digs them into the pier to pull herself farther up, long, pale fingers reaching for me.
I kick, and the rubber of my sole melts when it touches her head. My power is on alert, sensing my despair. It swells in my chest, but something stops the magic from coming forward.
Not yet, a voice whispers.
Oros’s heavy feet run up behind me. With a swing of his golden staff, he knocks the soul back into the mass making its way downstream.
“Why are they like this?” I ask. “I thought souls pass on eventually.”
“You’d think that, girl,” Oros says. He pulls on a golden rope to bring the vessel closer to the pier. “These end up here because they’re unable to let go of their human lives. When they try to harm the living, Lady de la Muerte herself sends them here.”
“Are you trying to tell me that this entire giant river is made up of souls that can’t let go of their…loves?”
“Why is that so hard to believe?” The duende puts a foot on the boat to keep it steady. “You’re seeing it with your own eyes.”
“She’s a hard one to impress,” Nova says.
Oros’s smirk is a terrible, dark thing that makes me want to turn back and jump into the infinite portal that leads to nothing. “What brings you young travelers to the Selva of Ashes?”
Nova and I exchange looks. My whole mouth feels dry. Lie faster, I tell myself.
“We’re hunting for supplies in the Poison Garden,” he says with a smirk.
“All this way? I do hope your dealer is making it worth your while.”
“Listen, old man,” Nova says, “as long as those things don’t touch us and we can get across, I’m good.”
Oros ponders, tapping a black nail on his chin. “Used to be people paid me to cross the Luxaria with a promise of their firstborn or the tears of their first love. Even a little taste of magic. My services are costly, after all.”
Taste of magic?
“Well, we don’t have firstborn children,” Nova says irritably, “or the tears of our first loves.”
“Not yet you don’t,” Oros says, like a warning.
A silver wave rises high into the air. Arms and faces try to pull away from the imprisoned mass, but an invisible force pulls them back down.
“Isn’t it obvious?” the duende says. He smiles, and the gold in his teeth is blinding. When his cloak parts, I get a good look at the reason for his limp. He’s got a gold foot that stops at the middle of his calf.
His eyes fall to the pendant around my neck, the tiny gold crescent moon necklace I’ve worn my whole life. I grab it protectively.
“What’s wrong, girl?” Oros snaps. His patience is running short. “The man who gave you that wasn’t worthy of your love—what’s left of it, at least.”
My father gave this to me when I was five. I was obsessed with the night sky. I’d take my mother’s silver eyeliner and draw stars on my cheeks and a crescent moon on my forehead. Then, on my birthday, my father gave me a tiny box. He told me that I could wear the moon forever.
My father left. I know the truth. I’m not like Lula or Rose or my mother. I don’t believe that he’ll return. And this duende knows, like I do, that every day, some of that love slips away a little at a time.
Suddenly, he’s right in my face. His dark-gold eyes are expectant.
“Hold up, hold up,” Nova says, pulling at his earlobe. El duende turns an irritated glare toward Nova. “My moms gave them to me for my thirteenth birthday.”
He looks back and forth between us, weighing the diamonds on his palm. The duende smiles when they twinkle.
“It is nearly satisfactory,” he says finally. “But she wears a truly remarkable piece, and it’s been so long since I’ve had the opportunity to help lost travelers.” Oros’s eyes fall on my necklace again. He licks his lips with his dark tongue. I wonder what will happen when the rest of him turns to gold and how that happens in the first place.
“Plus,” Nova says, taking off his prex, “my family’s not powerful like hers, but you can feel how long our lineage is.”
“Stop,” he whispers. “I got this.”
Something about this pleases the creature. Because he’s not a man—he’s a hideous, greedy creature that belongs in this ashen, cold land. It’s a hateful thing, and this is a hateful place.
"Something about this pleases the creature. Because he’s not a man—he’s a hideous, greedy creature that belongs in this ashen, cold land. It’s a hateful thing, and this is a hateful place."
“We have a deal.” He snatches the prex from Nova’s hand. “Now get onboard.”
Nova helps me get on, straddling the pier and the edge of our boat. It moves under my weight and then again when Nova sits in front of me.
Then, Oros unhooks us from the pier and gives us a push with his staff.
“What are you doing?” I shout.
“I do not cross, girl.” He shakes his head. “I cannot cross.”
“You little sh—”
“You said you’d take us!”
He shakes his head in that slow way. The oars start slipping from their metal rings. I grab on to them before they fall into the silver river.
“I said I provide crossing. And I have.” He waddles farther up the pier and waves. “Give the boat a push back if you get to the other side.”
Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova will be available on Sept. 6, 2016, wherever books are sold.