"I really wish you wouldn't insist on running so late at night, Sarah. It's not safe with who knows what running about."
Sarah let Karen's words wash over her, carrying her jogging shoes down the stairs in silence. Where a year before she would have defended herself with all the drama she could muster, now she allowed her silence to speak for her.
"Why can't you run during the day like a sane individual? That way you can at least see where you're going."
Kneeling by the doorway Sarah slipped her feet into the shoes. In quick gestures that bespoke familiarity she tugged on the worn laces, forcing the shoes to conform to her feet. Her fingers teased the grey strings into small bows, and then tied them again to keep them from coming undone. Satisfied that the knots would not slip free she got to her feet.
"Sarah, are you listening to me?"
Sarah turned, calm in contrast to the agitation that crackled around her stepmother. "I'm listening to you, Karen. I run at night since my job and classes don't give me time to do it during the day. You know this." A smile to frustrated concern, no matter how misplaced. "I take Merlin with me and stay close to public areas. Nothing is going to happen."
Thin lips remained pressed in a tight line, but surrender was declared in drooping shoulders. Instead a new battle front was chosen. "Can you at least promise not to run through the park? I worry about what can happen to you in there. It's not the same during the day."
"I enjoy running through the park." Implacable calm veiling what would have been shining steel. No defense, no fits of temper that lost ground rather than gained. Defense was only needed when there was a possibility of something being lost or stolen.
A quick shake shed frustration off tight shoulders, but words held it close. "Fine. Do what you want. You've never listened to me anyway, why start now?"
Sarah stayed in the entry way long enough to hear her stepmother's retreat into the kitchen, where she was greeted by her father's voice. She didn't plan to linger, knowing from experience that Karen would only resume the fight in the hope of winning with her husband where she lost to Sarah.
Reaching into the hall closet Sarah lifted the blue leash off its small hook, flicking her wrist so the metal clasp chimed softly. The sound wasn't obnoxious, but it was loud enough. She'd barely shut the closet door when she heard the patter of paws over carpet, and the heavy breathing of an eager dog. She smiled as Merlin thundered down the stairs and raced toward her, his shaggy fur flying every which way. It never failed to amuse her, seeing all that fur. How exactly did he manage to see?
She pulled the excited dog close, her fingers hooking underneath his collar. "Come here, boy. Hold still or I won't be able to get this on you." A dull click as she hooked the leash onto the collar and they were ready.
Closing the door behind her as quietly as she could, Sarah paused on the porch. She allowed her eyes to adjust from bright indoor lights to dim moonlight. Merlin waited patiently beside her, content now that he was outside. When she trusted her vision enough to keep from stumbling over uneven pavement she stepped off the porch and onto the street, a panting Merlin at her heels.
Together, young woman and dog moved down the street, Sarah jogging with Merlin trotting comfortably by her side. As she ran Sarah let her mind shed all the details of her life. She pushed aside thoughts of work, the knowledge that she had a paper due in two days, and that she still hadn't paid her parent's for the car payment yet. Now there was only room for the dull impact of her feet over uneven ground, the soft swish of her pants rubbing together, the faint scrape of Merlin's claws over concrete.
Sarah threaded through various streets, down shadowed sidewalks and across empty intersections. Her chosen destination was a beacon that glittered and offered her absolution from rote days filled with school and work, both an endless cycle that would only morph into others, all impossible to escape. All a trap over laid with an illusion of freedom far more alluring than any crystal ball could cast.
The air was crisp at night. It tasted differently during the day when it was saturated with sunlight. The warmth of the sun was pleasant, but nothing compared to cool moonlight that teased at the parts of bare skin unprotected by sweater and pants. The lack of people was something to be appreciated as well. She treasured her chance to move along sidewalks that were normally crowded. The residential areas held the remnants of the sounds of daily life, most being reduced to fading echoes by the time she ran through.
At last she reached the park and now the stillness changed as it dragged over her. The soft click of Merlin's claws became muted as they encountered gravel instead of smooth pavement. Here the silence was deeper, filled with shadows and depths unseen. Here any noise was crushed against the taut stillness that came from being surrounded by the remnants of what life had been like before humanity tamed it.
The park was the last refuge of nature to make its stand against the humans as they crowded in on one another. It was here that the primitive edge of what it had once been remained, and that feeling only grew sharper with the onslaught of night. Daylight was the domain of man, and once the sun went down the night remembered.
Sarah slowed her jog to a stop as she approached the bridge.
She could feel the change that had taken place. There was a taste to the cool air that was different, enough so that she was aware even if she lacked the words to describe. Merlin could feel it as well and the dog pushed closer, his rough fur warming the side of her leg. She absently reached down to bury her hand in his ruff, the tip of her fingers automatically scratching at the spot just behind his ears.
There was a choice in that moment, an awareness she had developed after a foolish wish given words. By crossing the bridge she would enter a world that was not her own. She was not a trespasser, not in the way humans considered the word. Instead it would be a shift of the balance that maintained the two worlds.
Touched by the magic of the Underground she was not one of them, but neither was she Outsider. In the scheme of things what she was could not be defined and so she continued to sway the balance, her will acting as the weight that would tip the scales in which ever direction she so chose.
It felt like she'd been standing where the bridge began for an eternity, even knowing that only a few minutes had passed at the most. Every night she ran she stopped, refusing to make the mistake of jumping blindly towards a choice she did not fully understand. She knew she did not understand the game she was playing, venturing so boldly into a world that glittered and overflowed with shadows that watched with invisible eyes. Some nights she turned back, feeling the itch between her shoulder blades that told Sarah her presence had not gone unnoticed.
The crunch of gravel under foot relayed her decision and then she was crossing the bridge, Merlin close to her side. She started out walking, her eyes straying to the dancing moonlight that flowed beneath her feet. There should have been a sign of her passage, some other worldly tingle that meant she'd moved into another place. There was nothing, just the quiet chuckle of water below and the muted chorus of crickets as they welcomed the night.
Once she was clear of the bridge she broke into a jog. The combination of running and allowing herself to bask in the presence of the magical helped to remind her that there was more than the eyes could see. It would be so easy to slip back into the way of believing only in the things that touched her senses. Her childish fantasies, as much as they had led her astray, had still been rooted in the belief that they were just that, fantasies.
The change happened slowly, a flower opening its petals with gradual ease. Soft whispers slid through night heavy air, and any attempt to focus on them only brought the sound of leaves rubbing together from the trees overhead. Between the stillness that grew between every loud exhale and the crunch of gravel she could hear memory-faint laughter. Merlin growled low in his throat, not a threat, but a display of the unease that lifted the fur along his neck and shoulders into a stiff bristle.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw a quicksilver flash of light, followed by a flicker of movement that begged for her full attention. Sarah kept her eyes straight ahead, fixated on the winding path and the distant trees whose branches were bathed in shadow. Bold she might be to venture into the domain of those that were Other, but there were rules even she would not dare to disregard.
Just thinking about the way she had stomped all over a certain Goblin King's toes was enough to make her break out into a cold sweat. How differently that encounter might have gone if the Goblin King had been offended by her clumsy antics rather than amused. Some thoughts did not bear dwelling on.
Sarah was approaching the part of the path that wove amongst the trees in fickle patterns of moonlight and shadow when an invisible finger traced an ominous chill down the line of her spine. She jerked to a halt, struggled to plant her feet when loose gravel tried to carry her forward. The chill warning deepened when Merlin jarred to a halt at her side, paws spread wide as his head came down in a snarl and flash of canines.
Confused by the sensation with no obvious source, Sarah's gaze probed the shadow strewn path. Had the darkness been that deep before? No she was not imagining it. Before her eyes the shadows were sliding across dew soaked grass, drawn to the shrouded trees that gleamed pearl white where darkness was yet to reach. They gathered into a looming mass that billowed like smoke teased by the wind, only the air held its breath in building anticipation.
Sarah knew she should run, limbs trembling as her body followed instinct. Her feet remained planted, instinct buried under the threat of curiosity that bound her tight enough to choke common sense. Magic was at work and she could taste it, tangy and sweet across her tongue; smelled the bitter ozone of a gathering storm on a cloudless night. The world of the Underground had snared her in its glittering trap, and even free of it she could not help but yearn. So she watched and at her side Merlin's growl remained a low rumble as he pressed closer.
Staring into the void she registered movement, a flux of true night against shadow as a form separated it self. It leaned forward and with every step it grew more defined, sharpening along the edges into a body. Color bloomed beneath shadow and it grew, pushing aside the darkness. In the space of a few breaths a figure was revealed, caught between writhing shadow and gentle moonlight.
It was beautiful in a way that no human could ever achieve. The features had been molded by magic, straight lines and smooth skin that were blindingly perfect beneath the human eye. The gender was not immediately obvious, and Sarah found she didn't care as her gaze traveled over long limbs that held strength in their keeping; over black eyes that echoed the void at its back. It stood in silence as the darkness ebbed around its body, drawing back like the tides to reveal a shimmering silver tunic and loose pants. The shadows remained nestled in the hollow of its body, tucked within soft folds of cloth.
Endless black watched her, and Sarah averted her gaze from gleaming ebony, having learned her lesson at the hands of another. "You are a strange one, little human."
The voice that emerged from the fae creature's lips was undoubtedly male, and carried a lilting, musical quality. It was beautiful even as it assaulted her ears with something that was far from pain and kin with discomfort, dredging up old desires that she had thought long buried. The lilting tones did not behave as a voice should, and Sarah had the impression that he was mimicking the sounds without any care for the meaning behind them.
He seemed amused by her silence. "We are not unaware of your visits. Humans are prone to avoiding this place after dark, yet you seek it out."
"What are you?" The question was soft. Sarah didn't know if it was a good idea to interact with the fae, but sense had long been discarded for insatiable curiosity.
"I am quite curious. Why does a human child walk in the world of the sidhe of its own free will?" There was no gentle crunch of gravel as the fae moved closer; the silence only seemed to deepen around them. "One would wonder if the human child were seeking something." A smile curled in the corner of pale lips. "Something that can not be found in the world of the mortals."
The temper that allowed her to face a King in his castle flared to life, ignoring the unease that threatened to smother it. "I enjoy running through the park." A chin was lifted, dark hair escaping its black tie to frame her face in rebellious wisps. "Who are you?" As her gaze roamed his face she felt a nudge, an awareness that she tried to grasp, only to have it slip away.
The fae, or was it a man, chuckled. "Mortal lies are such feeble little things." A step closer, shadows sliding closer across moon bathed gravel. "It's a wonder you even bother. Magic changes mortals once it touches them." Long fingers fluttered in her direction as the smile widened to reveal even, white teeth. "Like warping a piece so it can no longer fit in the puzzle."
Sarah scowled, clutching Merlin's leash in a white knuckled fist, even in her anger unwilling to approach the strange creature that watched her with empty eyes. "I am happy." Given life, the words fell flat between them, her voice unable to convey the determination that burned within her.
"One touched by magic can find no happiness in a world devoid of it. Do you yearn, child? Do you miss the ripe fruit now that you have returned to scraps?"
Against her will Sarah flinched. The creature's words tore at her, scratched at wounds she had closed off once she realized that there was no way to heal them. As strong as the day it happened was the memory of a peach. Her tongue could remember the explosion of tart flavor with fervor beyond hunger, sharper than desire.
Black eyes narrowed, something fierce glittering within shining ebony. "Far worse than even I had imagined. What did you eat, human?"
Sarah did not want to answer, intuition urging her to hold that truth close. Why? The damage had already been done. "A peach. I was tricked." Bitter regret collided with the yearning ache, visions of a masked ball from a Goblin King's gift of a crystal dream. A gift turned curse now that she had time to realize just what he had done.
Surprise flickered, followed by something infinitely darker. Then both were swept aside by a wide smile that was the most enchanting thing she had ever seen. It was luminous, shining in the night like a star that would never die. It drew her in, urged her closer.
It wasn't right.
A part of Sarah that she did not recognize stalled her feet when they would have carried her forward. Confused, she buried her hand in the fur of Merlin's back, fingers curling into coarse hair. She nudged at the feeling, hoping to prod it out into the open where she could examine it thoroughly. It slithered away, refusing to be pinned by her query.
"You are strong, for a human." The voice held a fine edge to it now, reminding her of the way light played across broken shards of glass. Beautiful, and hiding the lethal edge that would slice through skin with ease. "One could almost say that you belong to neither world now."
"I am human." One who had faced a fae lord in his domain and came away the victor. One who had befriended the dwarf that guarded the entrance to the Labyrinth, and charmed a monster with an offer of friendship. One that could sense the latent magic of a world accused of having none.
"I could give you what you want most." Shadows trembled, reaching for her across rough gravel and wet grass.
The musical voice sparked the embers of her temper into a simmering fury. "You know nothing of what I want. And what I want most you cannot give me." Doubt crept in on silent feet, whispering of possibilities if she were to only hold out her hand.
A satisfied smile twisted until it possessed the hard lines of a smirk. "I know what you want, and what you tell your self you want." A step closer, black eyes burning. "I could give you a chance to see the world of the fae. A world beyond crumbling walls and dank magic. A chance to see the true kingdom of the sidhe." A glint of triumph followed her shock. "Yes, I know who tricked you, human." His distaste was obvious before perfect features smoothed into tranquility. "He is known among our kind. Without his illusions he is a rather coarse creature."
Sarah eyed the fae with new speculation. So he knew the Goblin King?
"I will show you the world beyond the Labyrinth. Is that not what you want?"
She had wanted to see it. Her dreams carried her beyond the shifting walls of the eternal maze to glittering castles shrouded in mist, of endless green hills that shone like emeralds beneath a sun that glowed rather than burned. No matter how many times she lay in bed convincing herself that she wanted her life back, before magic and treachery had changed it, she knew that the world of the Fae called to her with the sweetness of a juicy peach to a starving man.
Still caution held her, the smallest sliver of disquiet taking refuge in the rumbling growl at her side. Merlin was an affable dog that enjoyed the company of all, strangers and family. The tension coiling through the warm body pressed against her leg was a blatant sign that something was wrong. Prodding would reveal where the danger lay, but Sarah knew without a doubt that the source lay within shining ebony eyes that were yet to blink.
Her discomfort only grew as she felt her desire struggle against the whisper of caution. She was not the same child from Before dammit! She was better than this, smart enough not to be drawn in by the promise of a smooth smile and pale skin that glittered out of the corner of her eye. The need cut at her, drowned out the fragile whisper with a desperate keening that made her want to reach out and see if the creature's skin was warm, or if it felt like the marble it resembled. No matter how much common sense and instinct screamed no, the memory of cold crystal and sweet hunger for more more more pulled and tugged.
Sarah wasn't even aware that she had taken a step forward, the dull crunch of gravel beneath her feet ignored. Her fingers buried in Merlin's coat refused to let go and her hold tugged the reluctant canine with her. Merlin snapped and growled, but followed her tug, legs stiff as he fought. Merlin's reaction should have alarmed her, coming from such a mild mannered dog, but a fog had slipped between her thoughts and everything was moving slower now.
A shaky hand reached out, and Sarah watched it with vague disinterest, seeing it as the hand of a stranger. Glittering triumph bloomed in deep ebony, perfect face smiling with just enough derision to spark a memory. Miss-matched eyes glared at her from beneath wild pale blonde hair that shone against musty stone; lips pressed into a thin line as frustration flashed across a face too beautiful to be human. Edged desperation flitting through blue and brown as the words were cast between them, weighted by conviction and edged with the vengeful fury of one who had had enough.
Again a warning hummed through the back of her mind. Sarah seized the brief moment when the answer hovered just out of reach and stretched for it……
The answer was a cold splash of reality that washed away the fog and swirling need that rippled in blues and reds and greens before her eyes, the fantastical colors fading away as the spell was shredded. Without the buffer of the subtle working that had been woven with such delicate care, Sarah realized how cold it was in the park.
Sarah took a step back, clutching her formerly outstretched hand against her chest. "Wearing his face will not help you." It was obvious now that she had managed to see beyond the spell induced haze. The thin cheeks, the pointed chin, the straight line of the nose. All startlingly perfect and heart breaking, even knowing the creature that lurked behind it.
The fae froze, its stolen face frozen in shock before contorting into a macabre smile. Pointed teeth gleamed in the light of the moon. "So you are able to See. That is too bad for you, human. Others may have the choice, but I'm afraid you will not be given that liberty." Its voice lost the melodious tune from before and adopted a rattling hiss that grated and caught in its throat.
Free from the malaise that had gripped her with honeyed fingers, Sarah stumbled back, the chill that followed her fear causing her skin to break out in goose bumps. Merlin yelped as he scrambled after her, his teeth exposed as he backed away. The dog was clearly terrified, his tail tucked between his legs and his body hunched even as he retreated. Sarah did not have time to wonder at the dog's loyalty, knowing that she had at one point dropped the leash, before her attention was once more arrested by the creature stalking her.
It was hunting her now, its steps filled with the liquid grace that had every nerve in her body clamoring an alarm. People didn't move like that, as if bones and muscle was not the only thing holding him together. Pale, long fingered hands lifted, each one sporting a claw that appeared lethally sharp.
Worse than the creature were the shadows. They were moving towards her as well, defying the moonlight to reach for her with hungry intent. Sarah's mind struggled to process when one rippled, then lifted up, a shadow tendril lifting up as a snake would. Several more followed its lead and a scream lodged in her throat. Sickness coiled in her belly, a flash of wrongness followed by nausea as she stared in enrapt terror at the living darkness that stalked her with the fae. The fae was smiling wider now, the bastard drinking in her fear.
Sarah wanted to turn and run but she could not, would not turn her back on the creature with his tendrils of living magic. Merlin was outright snarling now, and his fur was stiff beneath her fingers. Both girl and dog shuffled backwards, the fear of an unguarded back far more potent than seeing the foe pursue them with malicious glee.
The shadows could not be allowed to touch her. The knowledge of what would happen to her when they did was fueled only by wild imagination and bone deep fear, but it clamored through her, shrieking a shrill warning that what she was facing now was far more dangerous than a fickle Goblin King. Something vital was at stake, if not her dreams than something that would shatter her with its loss.
One of the shadow tendrils snapped out, flicking a scant inch from the tip of Merlin's muzzle. The dog's snarl was cut off by a yelp, and he skittered backwards, tucking his bulk behind Sarah's body.
Merlin struck the back of Sarah's legs hard and she stumbled, her hair whipping around to strike her full in the face. With a muffled shriek she flailed, catching herself by sliding one foot to the side and bracing a shaking hand on Merlin's back. Her heart skipped a beat as she realized that she'd taken her gaze off the creature. Heart in her throat she whirled around in time to see a black tendril reach for her, a void slicing through shallow moonlight.
Satisfaction oozed along thin lips as the high shriek of an owl shattered the night. Sarah barely had time to flinch away from the reaching shadow when a white blur flashed across her vision. As she stumbled back all her mind could process were the soft brush of feathers across her cheek.
The owl shrieked again, its talons slicing through shadow. Sarah could feel its fury as it lunged at the other tendrils. Another scream, only this one higher, sharper; honed with a rage that she could feel. The swaying tendrils stiffened at the strange cry, twitching and contorting before they fell in on themselves, once more returning to a state that followed light rather than defy it.
The creature blanched at the owl's first shriek, and the sight of his beaten shadows made its face contort into a mask of rage, black eyes narrowed into thin slits of malice. "She is fair game, Puppet Master! You have no power here!"
Another shriek, only this one was different from the others. It echoed through the still air, but it was only as the echo faded around her that Sarah realized how quiet it was. The only sounds she could make out were Merlin's low growls and the slight rustle as the owl hovered over her head.
Sarah screamed when thunder ripped through the heavy stillness. A sizzle, followed by a flush of light preceded the fae being thrown back. It slid across the ground before twisting and leaping to its feet. Seeing its face, Sarah swallowed a cry of horror, her free hand coming up to cover her mouth as her legs lost their strength and she sagged to the ground beside Merlin.
The fae's face was gone. It had been ripped away, and now in its place was a black hole. The true horror lay in the edges of the face that still remained, the sides chipped and jagged as a piece of pottery that had been smashed.
"You will pay for this, Goblin King! She is not claimed, has no protection. If not me, then someone will finish what I have–," The disembodied voice screamed, the sound high and rising higher, forcing Sarah to cover her ears. It collapsed, still screaming. As it writhed in agony, Sarah could see the illusion of its humanity being peeled away to reveal spindly arms and legs with a bony torso, a pseudo creature with no gender, just sickly pale skin and jagged claws that tore deep furrows into the earth.
Once the creature stopped screaming it climbed to its feet, the disembodied voice dripping with malevolence. "Do not preen over your victory, Goblin King." The creature spat the title, spittle dripping between jagged teeth. "I am not strong enough to defy you, but there are others. Remember that." The creature's empty face turned towards Sarah, and even without its eyes she could feel its searing glare, felt the fury that simmered and boiled beneath clenched hands that she could see now sported an extra knuckle.
When the creature turned and loped away, Sarah didn't take a deep breath until it had vanished into the shadowy realm from which it came. After the creature's departure the shadows lightened amongst the trees, returning to the natural blend of light and darkness as the magic followed the fae.
It all happened so fast. Now there was only the owl, which the creature had referred to as the Goblin King himself. Sarah found that hard to believe, imagining the flashy fae king disguising him self as an owl of all things. She wasn't sure what she was expecting to happen, but it wasn't for the owl to fly away without a second glance.
She wasn't sure how long she watched the bird fly away, a speck of white that gradually faded beyond the range of her eyes. Sarah was sure it was shock that kept her standing there in the dark long after the owl had vanished, unable to make her self move. Without knowing how, she knew that the darker denizens of the park were gone, fading away to escape the two powerful fae clashing together. What was that thing? Had that owl really been Jareth? She didn't know, and she wasn't sure how to find out.
She'd come to the decision that shock or no, she had better get home before Karen began to panic, when she saw it. A glint of white out of the corner of her eye. Frowning, Sarah walked towards it and warily knelt down. It was a pinion feather, blindingly white against the dark grass. As her fingers closed around the stem, a jolt shot through her followed by a delicate tingle that arced through her fingers and fizzed to the tip of her nails.
Unease lifted its head once more, and Sarah wondered if she escaped one trap only to stumble head long into another. Her anxiety faded when nothing leapt out to grab her and the shadows remained quiescent around long spills of moonlight.
Getting to her feet, Sarah decided that it was best to return home. There was no sense testing fate, or whatever else lurked in the depths of the park once night fell.
Turning, Sarah jogged back down the path, a dog at her heels and a feather twirled between two fingers.