Chapter 1: Flurries
This is a major overhaul from a little minimalist microfic I started in 2008. This story has always stuck with me. It sat untouched for several years, gathering dust on ff.net, while it just kind of looped in my mind, little plotholes filling in here and there. I realized I just needed to live a real life before I could adequately tell this story...and turns out there is a lot to tell.
I cannot stress enough: this is not your typical Labyrinth fare. Please seriously consider the warnings and tags before continuing.
(please forgive format issues, as this is my first AO3 submission! Still hammering out a few little odds and ends)
DISCLAIMER: The general Underground up to the Labyrinth borders and familiar characters therein are property of Henson and Co. The Ourobryd realm is mine. I'm just having fun and promise I'll put them back when I'm done - I just can't guarantee in what condition.
The Goblin King rarely took leave in the private castle gardens. Especially not so early in the morning. The cool pre-dawn air was just enough to lift him from slumber, but not enough to withdraw the heavy bedding, cozy and twisted around his lanky build. Mornings were not his forte—he preferred the mystery and inky depth of night.
All the same, this morning he stirred unusually early and did not desire to suffer the squawks and shrieks of his subjects just yet. A shift of energy awakened him, settling into his joints and urging him to move. A walk in the garden could dispel it and offer peace and quiet.
A gentle breeze rustled fresh leaves. Branches waved from root to leaf tip, chilled as the wind puffed through. Delicate flower petals fluttered, tittering excitedly as the air tickled them.
The sound of the wind-rustled foliage pleased him. Only nature could create such magical music, even beyond his own species’ abilities. He half-smirked. Mortals could not hear or sense nature like he could. Where humans only heard leaves turning in the wind, his kind experienced something akin to laughter as sounds danced.
A memory flashed through his mind. He pursed his lips as he recalled an altogether different tune. Masked figures in lush gowns spun and swayed just as the flowers in the garden. His dance partner; fresh-faced and wide-eyed, secure in his grasp.
The winds in the garden shifted and swept his focus back to the present. Clouds accompanied the fresh gusts, casting the garden in a dull gray. Jareth returned to the castle and steeled his focus to the day’s tasks. A cold drop landed on the back of his neck as he crossed the threshold. He slapped the spot with more force than necessary, his mind still willing away the memory of the masquerade. Frustration bristled on his neck as the raindrop reminded him of the cold glass shards when the chair shattered the ballroom.
A sturdy, long-faced goblin cleared his throat as Jareth entered the throne-room. “Morn, Highness,” he said, voice wheezing with excitement. He bowed low. His helmet slipped off, bowling over a brood of chickens.
Jareth glared at the goblin. “Oh come now, Slurm. It is seven twenty-two in the morning. The armor is unnecessary,” he chastised his subject. “It displeases me to see it yet again.”
The goblin’s beady eyes widened at his king’s subtle threat. “Oh, Highness! Forgive me!”
Jareth pointed to an archway that flanked his throne. “To the armory. I will not see you in battle garments again today. Do not return until you have successfully locked yourself out.” When the goblin squeaked a protest, his king’s ice-cold stare immediately silenced him. He slinked off dejectedly. Jareth pretended not to hear sniffling between Slurm’s grumbles.
He stared at the goblin as he retreated. Jareth clearly recalled the day Slurm first donned that armor. It was the same day he received a promotion: Royal Messenger to the Castle Beyond the Goblin City Who Alerted His Royal Highness that the Girl Who Ate the Peach and Forgot Everything was About to Storm the Castle. Rather: Senior Messenger in short.
To his credit, Slurm’s appreciation for his new appointment never waned. Loyal above all others, he carried his duties as enthusiastically as he did on the first day. To Jareth’s chagrin, the charm did not last as long.
At the precise moment the messenger disappeared from sight, another goblin scampered in from another doorway. He carried a tray above his head, poorly disguising his clumsy balance; even with two hands, the platter slid back and forth. The aroma of fresh cooked lean meat and potatoes wafted from the tray when the cover lifted. “Breakfast, your Highness!”
Jareth sniffed appraisingly and his stomach rumbled, even as he winced at the stumbling subject. “Are any of you remotely capable of performing a simple task without difficulty?”
Without waiting for an answer he reclined into the throne, casually draping his leg across the armrest. He speared a link of rabbit sausage and stuffed it into his mouth with less grace than Slurm accepting his promotion. A burst of wind streaked through the throne-room at that precise moment, assaulting his inguen with a blast of frigid air.
Coughing and immediately dropping his leg, Jareth turned to the goblin awaiting his leave. “Ensure all fires in the castle are lit before I finish my meal, and go fetch one of my furs,” he wheezed.
In truth, the king’s powers were more than sufficient to complete these tasks with no trouble. However, much of his staff would find any excuse to stay inside unless required to venture outdoors on cold mornings. The particularly pathetic goblins would simply beg and refuse. If his mercy permitted them to stay indoors, so should they continue to earn their salary.
Half-hearted moans and lewd grunting couldn't silence ominous creaks of the shaky bed frame. Near-rusted mattress springs squeaked in protest under the pair as he thrust faster. Nothing else in the room so much as shuddered as he pushed harder, his granite-hued curls bouncing on the opposite beat of his gyrating hips.
With a shiver and a gasp, he came. Sarah felt him fill the condom, swelling against her cervix. She failed to conceal her gasp; Cassius failed to recognize it wasn’t from pleasure. Locking her gaze, he relaxed and slowly wriggled out of her, but did not remove the barrier. A silky smile creased his face. This was his favorite part for her to complete.
"Go on. Show me."
It wasn't a request. She did not dare look away.
She did not flinch as she fished out the condom, even as it squelched when the seal released from her vaginal walls. Pinched between her thumb and forefinger, she held it at eye level. It hung limp like a snake’s molted skin. Unlike dry, stiff, snakeskin, however, the limp condom dripped with equal parts spermicide and semen. The stench stung Sarah’s eyes.
Cassius savored the moment, the silence punctuated by an occasional drip of fluid onto the bedspread. Sarah’s stomach churned. Cassius’ gray eyes flashed and bored into her green ones. He dipped his head in a single nod.
"Very good, poppet."
Sarah immediately dropped it into the wastebasket next to her bed. It landed with an audible, wet plop. She suppressed the urge to deposit her stomach's contents along with it.
She reclined onto the dingy pillow and closed her eyes, wishing he would just go away. Self-preservation held her tongue from slipping the precise right words that would do exactly that.
Cassius grasped her slender hips, pinning them. She screwed her eyes tighter as he positioned himself over her. She held her breath and clenched for a second entry.
"Look at me, Sarah."
His faint accent piqued her imagination, and a memory flashed through her mind. In these quiet moments, with just a few words and no visage of reality to shatter her fantasy, she could believe for just a moment that Cassius' voice was not his own.
Yet every time she opened her eyes, she met his frigid silver irises, instead of the ones she associated with haughty English accents.
Sarah blinked once, willing herself to cast the thought away. She could not lose herself in nostalgia when in the present, his hands slithered upwards, exploring and caressing at will. Sarah steeled every drop of her minuscule strength not to slap his hands away. Still, her hands twitched, eager to swipe with one misplaced touch.
Cassius crawled up and caged her with his supple thighs. His member rested on her stomach. Though still sheathed in viscous goo from his finish, Sarah thanked the stars he was not erect again.
One strong hand cradled her head, lifting it from the pillow. He lowered his face, his sharp nose nearly touched hers. Sarah steadied her breath and steeled her expression. His other hand rummaged around on the bed for his discarded jeans. Cassius allowed several heavy breaths to pass, moistening her lips and cheek.
Don't you dare, she growled internally. She clenched her jaw to prevent herself actually screaming the words in his face. Don't you fucking dare.
Cassius quickly turned his head just so and flicked his tongue on her earlobe. "Always a pleasure, Miss Williams," he hissed. He shoved a wad of cash in her bra with his free hand.
Sarah did not move. She remained supine on the bed, only her eyes betrayed and followed his every move as he dressed and let himself out. He did not look back at her or offer any goodbye.
She sprang up from the bed precisely when the door latch clicked. She cloaked her nearly naked form in a blanket and stumbled to the door. With a shaking hand, Sarah turned the deadbolt and slid the door chain into the keeper.
"This mornin’ word arrived that Queen Adelina of Ourobryd expired two evenings past,” Slurm delivered the news in a flat tone, a stark contrast to the enthusiastic servant before his wardrobe change. “Ceremonial details to follow." His impish eyes gazed toward the nearest window. Even reporting a death of royalty—a true rarity—was not as captivating as what occurred outside.
Jareth also stared through the same window. Snowflakes fell, some captured in fierce eddies. He furrowed his brow as he watched them, sipping the last of his breakfast tea. He recalled at least three other snowy days of various intensity in the past fortnight, and several more in similar patterns in recent years. His sharp instincts flared; the anomalies were not independent of each other. His patience for them had worn thin.
"Majesty, look! It's...is it another...?" a captain asked, worry thinly veiled as his voice cracked. A stiff gust quickly burst against the windows and the goblin startled, even as the heavy velvet curtains muffled the impact.
Jareth scowled. "Unless those are soap flakes, and a washtub has also fallen from the sky for your filthy hide, Berk, I daresay that yes, it is another ," he hissed. In a single fluid motion, Jareth leapt from his throne and retreated to the stairs of the highest tower. "I will not be disturbed until I return if any of you know what is good for you," he announced over his shoulder.
Anxious chatter bubbled the instant his cape flickered out of sight. Gold plates and goblets clanked as the cabinet descended on the spoils of their king's breakfast, dutiful stewards attempting to snatch the dishes away to the kitchens.
Jareth ascended the stairs two at a time, resolutely—as if he could cease the snowfall with sheer will. With every few steps, his senses heightened, relaying instinctual information about the pressure and intensity of the storm. He could hear the wind gusts streak through the structure even before he stepped on the landing atop the tower. Gentle snowfall had graduated into a full-scale storm.
Jareth set himself in a window and observed his kingdom, sighing in exasperation. What on earth, he wondered to himself, is causing these storms?
Winters in the Underground occurred much like a summertime Aboveground thunderstorm. In prime conditions, they would dissipate as quickly as they formed, leaving nary a trace aside from wet grass. Some stretched for days. In most of the Underground—and most especially the Labyrinth—seasons did not exist and were not a mark of astronomical calendars. Weather changes were shifts in the Labyrinth itself—its soul crying in sorrow, or raining tears of joy.
Usually, these snowfalls offered mild temperatures and little accumulation. Still, the inhabitants of the Goblin City abhorred the winters. A pregnant silence and stiff wind, much like this morning's phenomenon, were just enough to empty the streets and fill their homes. A storm's fierce strength could accumulate so quickly that it appeared the snow oozed from corners and crevices from the ground.
Jareth quieted his mind and focused. He closed his eyes and listened, still sharply attuned to the elements, hoping for a clue to answer why these storms descended so often. Surely, the news of an old queen’s expiration from a politically neutral kingdom could not be the cause.
From his tallest tower, he watched the snow. The flurries spun together, dancing to a worldly tune only he could hear.
The flakes swirled and entwined. As he watched, he could just barely discern shapes of flowing gowns and the macabre masks that concealed the entities behind them. The wind laughed in his ears and carried traces of her scent.
His eyes narrowed. His pulse quickened as understanding dawned. Jareth vainly denied the answer he knew to be true. This was not about boredom or Queen Adelina. Winters descended in increasing frequency since...
His leather gloves creaked as he clenched his fists.
...since Sarah defeated the Labyrinth.
The lamp across the room cast the only light in her shabby studio apartment. A dim glow barely reached her toes where she remained at the door. The dank air and bare furnishings reminded her of a distant memory.
It's a place you put people to forget about 'em.
She lowered herself to the floor, shivering. Cassius' eyes pierced her memory. She did not bother to conceal her contempt for him in her stare. His craving for her submission was equally visible in his own gaze upon her.
A familiar cold spiral of fear crept up her neck from the pit of her stomach. Sarah could not shake the feeling that his motives had less to do with overpowering her body, and much more to do with her soul.
Shivers gave way to sobs. She wished for him to forget her, to be left in her mortal oubliette.
Her shaking hands retrieved the cash he'd stowed in her bra. Sifting through the bills, she found a tiny plastic bag filled with a white powder. She massaged it delicately in her fingers.
Hot tears dripped onto her cheeks. Sarah knew Cassius would not release her from his grasp anytime soon. If his intention was to chip away at her one bit at a time, to see if she would crumble on her own, she had to begrudge credit where it was due. Every time, she felt just a bit less than she did before.
He carried a scent. It intoxicated her as deeply as the cocaine and drew her in every time. Like a mysterious spice in a favorite stew that the chef would not disclose, she suspected no mortal parfumier possessed the oils that could replicate his scent.
Sarah could smell the Underground in him. Sometimes, his eyes flashed in a knowing way when they met hers. He knew. He knew everything.
Sarah scowled and tore at the seal of the bag, exerting more force than necessary Stop it. You're imagining things. She dipped a wet fingertip into the powder and ran the tip along her gums. Instantly, her brain buzzed happily. Momentarily energized, she stumbled back over to the bed. Light bounced off a mirror she retrieved from the nightstand. Patterns and shadows shifted on the walls as she emptied the bag on the glass.
Sarah arranged three slightly uneven lines on the glass. With a rolled up bill, she wasted no time inhaling the first line. After the familiar initial sting as the powder contacted her sinus membrane, Sarah's despondency melted within minutes. She smiled and reclined on the bed, happy memories flooding her memory. It's not an escape, she reassured herself. Never an escape.
The ballroom and his hand on her back. The heady musk of hedonism among the revelers. The petulant satisfaction and spike of fear in her chest when she shattered the glass...and tore his world apart.
It's a way to remember.
Chapter 2: Whiteout
The wind howled through the castle. The snowflakes did not simply fall; they ferociously pummeled the ground and every exposed surface, the depth threatening to bury everything in the city. Single-story homes resembled Aboveground igloos. Formerly jagged, uneven rooftops and dormers swelled as the snow piled in thick layers.
Jareth surveyed the city from his chamber window. His face stung as the gusts whipped his cheeks. The city remained still amidst the raging storm, with the exception of the occasional goblin slogging from one structure to another in the waist-deep snow. The inhabitants of one particularly full cottage seemed to make the most of the conditions. Faint warblings of old drinking songs drifted across the city, punctuated with steins clinking and raucous cheers.
Jareth’s luxurious personal chambers fared better than the rest of the Goblin City in its current state. Plush velvets in burgundy, plum, and deep gold upholstered most of the furniture and covered the windows. Various tables, armoires, and the massive headboard were all constructed of ancient hardwoods. At the far end of the room, directly opposite the bed, a fireplace glowed and crackled. Metal surfaces that had frosted over and small snow piles accumulating in corners and in crevices were the only indicators of the blizzard outside.
Out of habit, he conjured a crystal. He expertly rolled it from elbow to fingertip. Unable to remain stationary, Jareth paced along the windows. A fur cape draped across his shoulders, the shag carpet-length fur insulating him from the wind gusts. The quiet taps of his boots on the stone floor syncopated with the crackles and pops of the fire.
He concentrated as he paced. The crystal flashed and rolled in time with his steps. As he walked, he concocted patterns and symbols, attempting to solve the mystery and abolish the unpredictable storms. None seemed to work or add up correctly.
His gait quickened with each failed theory. The smooth rolling of the crystal in his hands grew more sporadic, nearly slipping from his fingers.
Without warning, Slurm barged into the king's chamber. The sudden crack of the door slamming open startled Jareth and by instinct he hurled the crystal in his hand. As he happened to be facing a window, the orb disappeared into the whiteout conditions without a trace.
"Your Highness!" He scrambled across the room, just managing to grasp a chair as he lost his footing. Unused to the cold and snowy deposits that speckled the floor, he panted, "An urgent message from Ourobryd, Majesty!"
“Slurm!” Jareth exclaimed, whirling back to face his messenger. “How dare you enter my bedchambers unannounced!”
Slurm ignored his king’s ire. Bounding forward, his eyes wide with fear, he shoved a sealed scroll into Jareth's hand and skittered out of the chamber before Jareth could threaten him out of spite. Even the most rebellious subjects would not risk a breath of the punishment due to anyone who broke the seal on the parchment shared between royalty. It most benefitted Slurm that he could not read.
The wax seal, hardened from its exposure to the cold, cracked and crumbled as he broke it. Sinuous handwriting in thick dark green handwriting filled the parchment.
Classified Correspondence for
His Royal Highness, King of the Goblins
I trust that the news of my mother's transition arrived. I assume you are unaccustomed to the peculiar weather plaguing your kingdom as of late, and trust you will resolve the situation. Your absence at her services will be wholly forgiven, and I formally excuse you from appearing. No dishonor mars your reputation, and we remain allies.
Jareth furrowed his brow and re-read the last sentence. Across the entire Underground, but most especially among fae royalty, etiquette was a deeply honored tradition. Royal heirs’ training commenced even before traditional schooling, and continued well into young adulthood. The practice was so tightly woven in the complex social structure that over several millennia, natural laws of magic enforced particular customs and rules of engagement, mandating a code of honor even among enemies.
A king failing to appear at a state funeral could be perceived as a serious transgression. Even with amnesty from the host, Jareth’s absence could cause tension in his relationships with allies, and most certainly ruffle feathers of those with whom he did not align.
As you are aware, I am heir to the Ourobryd throne. Yet, my position is not secure without a bride. It is my pleasure to announce that I have chosen my queen, which inspired me to correspond with you personally. She is a mortal woman, who carries a reputation within your kingdom that has reached even our societies. She is truly a delight, I can assure you.
Our bonding ceremony will be private; however, I graciously request that you ensure your presence at our coronation.
Yours in allegiance,
Crown Prince of Ourobryd
Jareth cocked a sharp eyebrow. His peculiar eyes flickered to the storm outside and narrowed on stray flakes that landed on the stone ledge. As they melted, he just caught her scent again, less sweet yet stronger than before. Despite the shift, there was no mistaking her essence from that of other mortals.
Not a single corner or closet were vacant in the whole house. Groping hands reached out from the few shadows Sarah could find. Strangers cheered her on as she darted down hallways and through each unlocked door, searching either for refuge—or Cassius, who preferred to arrive fashionably late.
What kind of housewarming party is this? She thought to herself, trying one last doorknob. It blissfully opened and revealed the only empty room she could find: a bathroom.
Sarah slammed the door shut behind her and locked it, then darted to the sink. She clamped her hands on the edge of it, her knuckles taut and pointed, claw-like. Her tight shoulders set as if to pounce as she stared herself down in the mirror. She breathed slowly, heavily, in time with the steady drips from the faucet.
Plink. Pause. Breathe.
Plink. Pause. Breathe.
Intense electronic music pulsed through the house. The bathroom door muffled little; heavy bass rattled anything not bolted down and rumbled the floor. A single bulb hung overhead, casting the room in a stark blue-white light. It swayed slowly in half-time just one beat behind the music. The shifting light played with the shadows in the room and on Sarah’s skin, mesmerizing her.
When the bulb swung behind her, her face puckered into a gaunt caricature; thick, wild hair dwarfing sunken eyes and thin cheeks. She lolled her head around and the bulb swung back in time. Her skin glowed milky white and eyes paled, nearly gray-blue in the harsh light.
The sight of her light-manipulated irises stopped her short. Her head tipped back, staring down her nose, nostrils flared. An imperious stare, feigning indifference while sizing up every detail of the subject in her gaze.
Sarah only felt the weight of that gaze twice in her life. She was not sure if the first time she recalled actually happened.
Plink. Pause. Breathe.
Slowly at first, thoughts popped into her mind: What if he isn’t real either? Did Cassius give me those memories? Sarah closed her eyes and dropped her head.
The thoughts came faster as cold uncertainty crept up her spine. Is this real? How do I know? Am I even here ? Her fingers slipped on the ceramic. He did this. He did all of this. I don’t know how, but he did.
It’s all his fault. The smug ramen-haired bastard. Who goes gray at his age anyway? Even Jar—the Gob—he has blonde hair.
What have I done? Why did I let him near me?
It’s not fair.
“God, fuck! Shut up, brain—just shut up, ” she growled to herself. She plunged her hands into her purse, scrambling for a distraction. “I am not going to think about—”
Pounding on the door jarred her. She jumped and stifled a shriek. Her purse upturned; scattering accessories everywhere. Even in the din between the banging and yelling through the door and the music, Sarah still heard the delicate tinkling of glass rolling on tile. The swaying light swung faster. The shadows cast her belongings in distorted lights.
She pawed at the ground on all fours, blindly grabbing each item and haphazardly shoving it into her purse, one at a time. The door handle turned and shook. A stream of invective erupted from behind it. Sarah could not comprehend it over her own anxious mutterings and clamor to reclaim her things.
“Just—almost there—one fucking second!” She screeched over her shoulder. Her voice faltered and faded to a squeak as she grappled. “It has to be here somewhere…”
Plink. Pause. Breathe.
A vial the length of her pinky finger glinted just behind the base of the sink as the bulb swung forward. She grabbed it, the cool glass a sweet relief on her tense skin. Sarah hurriedly unscrewed the cap and tipped her head to inhale a spoonful. Her sinus cavity burned, then warmed into numbness. In quick succession, she insufflated another, and then again.
Sniffling the remnants from her nostrils, Sarah capped and slipped the vial into her bra. She ignored how loose her skin felt, or that her breasts sagged despite the support.
“Cash!” She suddenly remembered. “I have to find Cassius.”
The banging on the door shook the entire frame. The person behind it now pounded it like a drum, alternating their fists against the panel. Sarah took one last glance in the mirror to straighten her posture. Without pause she flung open the door. She narrowly missed the flying fists still aiming to pound the door down, and darted down the dark hallway. She did not turn back to see who they belonged to.
Jareth glanced again between the raging storm outside and Cassius' words. He turned over the facts in his mind and he absently massaged his left temple.
A nearby kingdom risked failure with the loss of its ruler. Its own law ensured a successor and required a willing bride. The heir claimed his co-ruler. Jareth did not doubt that his correspondent referred to the same mortal that the Labyrinth was so plainly distressed over. “I just wish I knew why, ” he sighed.
No sooner had he uttered the words that understanding percolated in his mind. He recalled Sarah’s exasperated exclamations when neither he nor the Labyrinth bent to her will. Now the tables had turned. The Labyrinth threw its fits because she chose another. Just like a spoiled child not getting her way. The irony was not lost on him.
Jareth couldn’t help but chuckle. Relief tapped the nape of his neck and tumbled down his spine as he laughed. He turned and faced the window ledge.
"That's what this is?" he half-shouted into the wind, mirth disguising the anxiety in his voice. Though Jareth remained alone in his chamber, he did not speak to an unknown source. He knew he was heard clearly, even though the wind whispering her name muted his voice. He laughed heartily, mocking the elements. "You are upset your chosen darling will not return?"
He reached for a decanter and rough-hewn chalice atop the mantle of the glowing fireplace. He poured the wine sloppily, swollen drops splashing on his gloves as he laughed. "A cause for celebration, then!"
Jareth turned back to the window and raised the cup in a toast. "Good luck, dear Cassius." He drained the contents in a single gulp. "You will need it. And thank the gods, I can finally reclaim my own land after your bonding."
The chamber door opened, interrupting his solo jubilee. A tiny goblin entered, her head bowed and hands clutched her skirt as she clumsily curtsied.
"Tak is sorry to interrupt Majesty's party, sir, please forgive Tak, she is just wanting to see if the Majesty is needing new linens, sir," she squeaked, keeping her eyes down.
Ordinarily, Jareth would chase her out. She knew full well to knock or listen for privacy before entering any room the king may occupy. However, on this occasion, even inconsiderate servants could not raise his ire.
"It is to your good fortune that you invited yourself into my private quarters," he said, staring down his nose at her. "I have good news, and I suppose you may be the one to spread the word." He refilled the chalice.
Tak nearly fell over herself as she stumbled between a curtsy and clasping her pudgy three-fingered hands in excitement. "Really Majesty?" she squeaked, her eyes wide and hopeful. She dropped her gaze just as quickly as she recalled her manners.
Jareth crouched, one hand on his knee. Tak held her breath as his face drew within centimeters of hers. "Go to your illiterate husband and tell him that the storm will soon end. The source of the problem has been discovered and in a few days' time will resolve.”
For a moment, his subordinate rocked on her feet, unsure whether to look her king in the face or immediately dash out of the room and carry out her orders. It was rare for a chambermaid—even a senior one like herself—to receive a directive this important. She did not want to fail and disappoint her king. Still, curiosity got the best of her. "Really, Majesty? Sir is sure? The snows go away soon?" She positively beamed.
Jareth already returned to the decanter, filling the goblet to the brim. "Yes, I am sure," he confirmed through gritted teeth. "Now, go."
Tak did not await further instruction and scurried from the room. Her shrieks for her husband echoed down the hall. “Berk! Berksies! Guess what the King just says to me…!”
She dragged her boots as she searched the house. They felt heavier than they looked. Thick, chunky platforms marketed to a demographic at least five years her junior, Sarah wondered if the eyelets and studs were made of lead instead of steel. She ran her hands along her skirt to smooth it. The hem loosely danced around her lean thighs, despite that the skirt was cut to look painted-on.
People packed the house shoulder to shoulder. She knew none of them, yet they were all simultaneously faceless and familiar. It seemed the pulsing sound waves warred with the party-goers over who could rightfully claim the space.
Sarah sneered at people falling over drunk or moaning and stumbling as they jostled to the music. Her earlier episode in the bathroom forgotten, Sarah thought to herself that she would never lose control of herself like that in public.
She turned her nose in the air as she trudged through the house. She slipped downstairs to the walkout basement where the pounding music originated. Where was Cassius? Sarah vaguely recalled why he brought her here. He told me he had something special , she remembered. Of course it’s something special. He wouldn’t give me anything less.
Sarah’s brain buzzed in a familiar happy sort of way as her doses took effect. She drew herself to her full height and swayed her hips to the music. A familiar warmth spread over her body. “My magic has kicked in,” she muttered, smiling to herself. With her eyes closed, she raised her hands above her head and surrendered to the rhythm.
The driving beat; a grimy mid-tempo industrial groove sucked her into the bustling throng of partiers. She supposed Cash waited somewhere in the shadows just to watch her. Sarah refused to give him the satisfaction of continuing to look for him. “No way,” she declared out loud. Her eyes still closed to the music as she swayed. No one listened to—or even heard her. “Fuck that. He can come find me. I’m so fucking powerful.”
She ran her hands up and down her body as she danced. Every so often she missed a beat and stumbled. This did not faze her, despite the disapproving glances and exasperated tsks from the fellow party-goers.
She lost track of time. One song faded to another and the next. Sarah danced and danced. She lost herself in the music. Sarah felt she harnessed the very essence of seduction and superiority with each sway of her hip.
Ice-cold leather-gloved hands snaked around her hips and locked around her waist. She barely rendered a sharp gasp when Cassius’ smooth voice poured into her ear.
“Good evening, precious Sarah,” he breathed. In one lonely sober corner of her mind, something bristled. But Sarah in the moment, the magic Sarah with her happy dust and powerful moves of seduction paid no attention. Instead, she smiled and leaned her head back, tucking her head into his neck.
He took turns removing his gloves, one hand remained planted on her hips. Cassius wasted no time in slipping one over the waistband of her skirt. His fingertips deftly explored her bikini line, but did not plunge deeper.
This time, Sarah did gasp out loud. His ministrations triggered her body, just like the drugs coursing through it. In her current state, without the reality of sobriety, the totality of Cassius’ slimy personality was forgotten. When coke clouded her mind, Sarah had no room for anything beyond carnal instincts.
She wriggled in his grasp, eager for more. Cassius said nothing as he continued. The song—an extended club mix—ended and he did not speak until the crossfade into the next.
“I have a present for you,” he whispered. Between the pulsing bass and her arousal, Sarah could only nod. Cassius only ever had one gift for her.
The current predicament could upset the balance and system of the City. There were crops to be harvested. Livestock required care. Commerce needed to flow. Goblin babes and children required their education—a relatively new program on Jareth’s behalf.
Moreover, who would ferment the wine?
In such a short time frame, so much had already accumulated. Jareth wondered how long the storm would continue. Far beyond just a nuisance, the persistence of the storm posed many threats to the well being of the Goblin City and the Labyrinth itself.
Jareth sat next to the fire, his joviality stilled by Tak’s interruption. He nursed the drink in his hand. The smoky notes and alcohol warmed his chest and lent a light pink flush to his cheeks as he drank. It warmed him from the inside. The fire radiated warmth over his body. Cloaked in his thick fur, the dense leather gradually softened as he remained near the fire, warming his whole body.
At present, there was little the Goblin King could do for his kingdom. Cassius must move forward with his plans and wed Sarah before the weather would relent.
Goblins and the numerous other species that coexisted with them in his realm were hardy creatures. They could withstand much, but they were not meant for confinement and extreme conditions. Their nature required them to do their jobs and work in community. For now, beer and the sweet release of a few days respite would hold their attention. But soon they would stir and become restless. Anxious goblins with nothing to do could wreak havoc.
A more sobering question occurred to Jareth. What if a child were wished away now? Though it did not happen often, the wisher-away would not survive the elements, much less complete the thirteen hour goal.
Jareth forced the thoughts from his mind. At present, his subjects were safe.
Sarah, on the other hand…
She will not destroy my kingdom a second time. Jareth forwent nobility in favor of another gulp of wine. A wry smile played at his lips.
He could not help but imagine Sarah as a queen. He imagined that her adolescent beauty would pale to her stunning visage now. Enhancing her elegance with the finest fabrics and adorning her sable hair with the warmest gold available in the Underground would be the highest honor of anyone fortunate enough to either serve or rule her.
Jareth clucked his tongue. He could only imagine her, but not truly witness Sarah at present. Jareth had not laid eyes on her since she completed the Labyrinth.
It was not for a lack of effort. He drew thousands upon thousands of crystals in her name.
Blank. Every last one of them.
Jareth drained the goblet to drown his sour mood. It refilled in his hand, the decanter undisturbed on the mantle. Talons of truth clenched in his stomach, instincts of the predatory nature in his blood. Jareth could not deny the facts.
Sarah had won fair and square: she completed the Labyrinth in the given time. The child was returned to her care. She had solved the final puzzle by understanding and acknowledging that only she controlled her destiny; subsequently denying the power offered to her.
Sarah’s own wisdom and intelligence steeled her resolve. She won her freedom because of lucidity and absolute certainty in her decision. Any other—every other—successful runner jumped at the chance for the kind of power he had offered her.
But, not Sarah. She returned Aboveground unscathed and wholly independent. She chose to fulfill her heart's desires for herself. To build her dreams from the ground up with her own bare hands, at the expense of his love for and pride in capturing her.
And he loathed her for it. In his wine-soaked mind, he imagined every empty crystal he'd conjured. They burst one by one, shattering as if she were inside throwing chairs against the glass. His stomach clenched again, the talons piercing hot with anger. Jareth gripped the chalice, the force of his anger threatening to crush it.
Jareth heartily gulped more wine. His pale eyes remained fixed on the flames before him. He focused on the crackling of the wood, tiny pockets of moisture evaporating as flames licked over them. He would not heed the screaming wind outside.
His rage boiled over. He hurled the goblet toward the fire. His usually accurate aim failing him, it ricocheted off the mantle. A satisfying ringing echoed out as the rim struck stone. Jareth closed his eyes and smiled, his tension released momentarily. The golden tone reverberated in his core.
The ringing continued. Warmth bathed him, gently trickling down his shoulders, settling all the way to the soles of his boots. He did not move, relishing in the calm of the drink and pleasant tone. Jareth basked in this rare moment of peace, when he was neither bombarded with his royal duties nor haunted by her memory. The storm continued raging outside, slamming winds threatening to crack the thick stone wall of the castle.
He ignored it.
The warmth within and around Jareth shifted. It slowly pulled from him, and a presence manifested just out of reach. He opened his eyes and turned to the window. He did not see the orb at first, as it slowly floated from the abyss of the storm and toward the window ledge. His sharp vision did not fail him. He could not mistake the perfect sphere for what it was. Its trajectory wavered in the intense winds. The crystal advanced to the ledge, then paused.
Jareth warily stepped toward the window, not breaking gaze with the crystal. An orb had never materialized without his summons in all his years on the throne. The ringing increased in pitch, sounding more alike the howls of the wind outside. Even in the bleak backdrop of the storm, he spied an image flickering in the orb. A face.
A woman’s face.
In an instant, the temperature dropped, far below what would be practical for the blizzard conditions. Frigid air stung every inch of his exposed skin.
The visage cleared. Dark hair framed her face. Her pale skin ashen. The dark circles under her eyes contrasted unusually defined cheekbones. Her head tilted to the side, eyes closed. She laid in the dark, unusual lights dancing across her face.
His breath hitched, heart high in his throat. Jareth heard the cries of agony in the wind, screaming her name. He could taste the anxiety in the air and sensed the fear falling like dead weight from the swollen clouds.
For the second time, understanding dawned in his mind. Jareth forced himself to look away from the crystal and glanced at the scroll, cast aside on his bed.
The Labyrinth was not upset because Sarah chose another kingdom. It was beside itself in distress because she was chosen by another kingdom and in danger. If the Labyrinth was correct, the danger was profoundly real.
He looked back to the orb, still patiently afloat in the window. She stirred, eyes half-open. Ice-cold regret dropped in his stomach. However many years past, regardless how unrecognizable her face, Jareth would never mistake her eyes with anyone else’s.
At that moment, her eyes snapped open, wide with fear.
Jareth did not hesitate. He adjusted his gloves and leapt out the window. His arms spread wide as wings formed and feathers caught the updraft.
Not a single goblin in the city misheard the owl’s screech through the rushing wind.
Sarah observed the rock in her hand. For all of Cassius’ excitement, it seemed no different from any of the others. They were all the same: poisoned peaches offered by deceitful dwarves.
She shivered as a cold rush of air blew through the bedroom. Despite the booming party that continued to rage just on the other side of the door, the spartan room remained still. Only a few papers on the desk fluttered.
Sarah willed her hands to still as she crammed the rock into her pipe and lit it. She immediately started to cough, overwhelmed by its unexpected sweetness. Sarah pounded her chest. Orange smoke wisped at the end of her still-burning pipe. Wait...orange smoke?
She stared at the vapor. That can’t be right, she thought. Something’s not right.
Without warning, Sarah’s muscles relaxed as the high assaulted her senses. All at once she felt dizzy, yet steady; distant, yet hyper-focused; lank, yet vibrant. She reclined on the bed as a wave coursed through her body.
Her perception of light dimmed and an image floated into her field of vision. She felt as though she were watching a film. A montage of images flooded her vision. Familiar faces flashed and friendly voices greeted her. She smiled as she relived memories that never happened except in her own imagination.
The light around her darkened further, nearly swallowing her in complete blackness. The sounds and images sped up and blurred together, like a montage reel left to rewind too fast. The colors bled and voices fragmented. For a moment the dizziness intensified, then it released and another wave of calm, warm vibrations washing over her. She felt wonderful . It occurred to her that this may be her life flashing before her eyes.
“Cassius,” she breathed, her voice barely above a whisper. “What have you done?”
The darkness shifted. It rolled in time with the wind gusting through the room. Sarah heard fabric flapping in the gusts but could not discern it from her vision. Is that real?
Sarah sensed his presence before she saw him. She blinked to force her eyes to focus—and she laid eyes on the last, yet only, person she expected to see.
The Goblin King stood before her. His cape billowed around him in the wind and cloaked almost everything except his face.
He knelt next to her. Up close, his face was expressionless and unreadable. Sarah could see that his hand touched her cheek, but she could not feel anything outside of the effects of the drug. His mouth moved; she supposed he tried to tell her something—but the buzzing in her ears muffled his words.
Sarah’s lips twitched as one coherent thought floated into her mind. After all this time, she was finally reunited with him. Although unsure whether it was real or a hallucination, all she could do was ride the high she reached in order to achieve it.
She threw her head back and laughed as she and the Goblin King were swallowed by darkness.
Chapter 3: Current Conditions
Doors banged open, slamming against the walls as servants and officers awoke from their slumber. Maids hurriedly tied on aprons over nightgowns; several guards stumbled around with a limp, wearing only one boot. Jareth’s hoarse shouts muted grumbles under their breath. The rage and panic in his voice even awakened the torches as they flickered to life, lighting the way as Jareth stormed through corridors.
In the center of the commotion, Sarah remained quiet and still. Limp in his fireman’s carry; her hair swayed in time with her head bobbing syncopated against his hurried steps.
After several long moments of shouting, banging, swearing, and bumbling, the staff finally found their king and...Sarah.
A collective gasp resounded. Spears and axes clanged to the ground. The goblins stared at Jareth, agape. Jareth stared back, momentarily stunned into silence.
Everyone started speaking at once:
“Sarah! Is it really Sarah?”
“Fetch the healer!”
“Is she dead?”
“She’s here to help us!”
“Gerroff my foot!”
“What’s she gonna do—dig us out?”
“What did you do?”
Sarah did not stir as gnarled goblin hands reached to retrieve her and placed her on the floor.
“Out of the way!” Jareth barked. “Let me see her!” He instinctively dropped to her side and extended his hands. He closed his eyes and listened carefully with his magical senses, ignoring his hands’ slight tremor. He received no information and could not assess her. This isn’t right , he thought and tried again.
The shrieks and shouts quieted into hushed whispers and awkward shuffling. All eyes were now trained on Jareth, his frustration rising as his hands lowered, fingertips bracing Sarah’s temples. Instead of drawing energy from her, he instead attempted to channel his own into her, conjuring a type of revival spell. He paused for a moment to settle his thumbs on her delicate chin. He resisted an urge to stroke it.
Deep in his core, somewhere between his stomach and lungs, Jareth manifested a spark of his power. He concentrated on drawing it up his chest, envisioning it spreading through his shoulders, down his arms…
Someone cleared their throat. “Your Majesty?”
The spark flickered, and momentarily swelled, but did not draw out. Jareth knit his brow and pulled again. He gripped Sarah’s pale face as concentrated his effort. The magic refused to move.
“I don’t understand,” Jareth muttered. He released his grasp. Where his fingertips pressed a moment before, indentations briefly shimmered a golden-white. As they faded, Sarah remained still.
Whispers faded into silence as the onlookers watched. Jareth clenched his fists at his sides. Acidic anger roiled in his stomach and chest, where raw magic flowed just moments before.
“Well?” he snarled. “Somebody bloody do something!” Several goblins upturned and squeaked in surprise as he stood up, unaware they had trodden his cape in the din. Jareth growled in frustration.
“Your Majesty? May I?” A hand smaller than Jareth’s but larger than a goblin's, with dark brown skin and graceful fingers, reached toward Sarah and rested on her shoulder.
Jareth snapped his head toward the voice. The chief healer of the Goblin City, Sélan, knelt next to Sarah. Her hand remained on Sarah’s shoulder as if they were old friends, and gazed up at Jareth. Her aubergine eyes remained calm as she awaited permission.
Sélan turned her attention to Sarah. Her fingertips glowed briefly. Jareth inhaled deeply, slowly, and held his breath. The healer closed her eyes for a moment and then released her grip and stood up to face Jareth. He clenched his jaw. At first too angry to speak without shouting, a hint of despair chilled him and tightened his chest. Was I too late?
“She is unconscious and in poor health, but stable, your Majesty,” she confirmed. Jareth released his breath and relief unwound the tight coils in his chest. He instantly regretted it, as he realized that the onlookers still remained and stared at him with stunned reverence.
He glared at his audience. This was not the time to appear incapable to his subjects. “Don’t you all have better things to do? Such as your jobs ?” he hissed. He flicked his wrist back toward the wall. Wisps of white-hot magic trailed from his fingertips. A loud crack punctuated his command as if he had cracked a whip. The goblins all scattered at once, squealing and scrambling over each other. None of them dared mention no work was scheduled in the darkest hour of the night. Several craned their necks to get one more look at Sarah in their haste to depart the corridor.
Jareth returned his attention to Sélan, kneeling over her charge. She muttered as she noted and assessed Sarah.
“I release her to your care,” he instructed. “Report to me when you have examined her.”
When the medic glanced up a moment later, Jareth was nowhere to be seen, the only evidence of his presence heard in the faint flap of his cape as he dematerialized. She sighed and looked down at her patient.
“Hello Sarah,” she whispered, as though her new charge was fully conscious. “I regret these circumstances, but you are a welcome sight. Let’s get you warm and comfortable, and take a look at you.”
Seconds later, the corridor finally emptied of all except a thin cloud of dust, settling in their wake as they, too, disappeared.
Jareth paced at an irregular rhythm. A stop, then go, and a turn, and then back another way. He zig-zagged through the shelves. His boots clicked over and around stacks of books with blind authority. He swore under his breath by rote as his thighs collided with desk corners, in deep thought.
With each step, a memory flashed in his mind or trampled a sensitive nerve. The deafening crash when Sarah uttered her final blow. The months he and his subjects spent rebuilding. Each new brick laid anchored a deep resentment for the damage she wrought. The restoration was completed, and the castle and Goblin City were rebuilt, and bitterness soured each thought and mention of her. Yet as he marched through the city and inspected each pristinely restored wall and turret, something cracked and ached unfulfilled inside him.
After the unveiling—a memorial of the labyrinth’s doing—it was only then he conjured a viewing crystal in her name.
And now, a sense of wholeness draped over the castle. Its occupants sighed contentedly in their slumber or smiled amidst their daybreak duties. The excitement of Sarah’s arrival brightened spirits of the creatures cramped indoors.
“She has returned! ” buzzed through the castle, whispered in hushed excitement as maids and sentries passed each other during their morning duties. It bounced through the corridors and echoed through each door.
Jareth also felt a shift in the atmosphere with her presence in the castle, though its meaning remained just beyond his grasp. As the dawn rose and the storm's bitter winds whipped through each available crevice, the sun felt just a bit warmer than the day before.
He glanced out the library window. The fiery red and orange beams of pre-dawn sunrise glowed and illuminated the barren lands outside the labyrinth gate. The glare seared Jareth’s sleep-deprived eyes. Snow did not fall, but a blast of cold air served a reminder of the current situation. He sighed a ragged breath that neither relaxed him nor resolved his unease.
Jareth replayed the past hours in his mind. How his stomach churned when the spell which bound them flared to life as he touched the mysterious crystal. The summons was not unfamiliar, but he did not know until that moment that he and Sarah were bound.
Despite the mystery and frustration of the unprecedented events, Jareth smiled wryly to himself. At the very least he now knew there was some measure of mutuality between him and Sarah. One could not overpower the other. That explains why she did not respond to me, he realized. A small triumph, but a victory all the same.
Still, many questions remained unanswered. In all his centuries on the throne, he never received a blind summons. Every action from the moment he grasped the crystal to returning to the castle did not seem of his own volition, yet he did not feel bewitched.
Moreover, Jareth did not recall the journey or his precise final destination. He just arrived . Even in a world of magic, inability to rhyme or reason phenomena was cause for concern, in particular for a ruler like himself.
This would simply not do. It is not how things worked . More than being bested in any physical task, Jareth loathed being unable to answer or solve a riddle. Having no memory or detailed knowledge of a situation left him feeling helpless, and helplessness did not suit a king in any fashion.
Frustration quickly bubbled up inside of him again. He scowled and gripped the corner of a desk, a near-miss to his thigh as he paced. His grasp tightened as his thoughts raced, anchoring himself in the present. He chewed the inside of his cheek as he recalled arriving at the house.
Modern dance music blasted and shook the entire structure through its foundation. Yet the way she lied in the room, pale and still, sequestered from the revelers, shot a sharp dart of fear into his chest.
Jareth took a moment to regain his composure—kings did not show fear—and in that time, Sarah stirred. Her sunken watery eyes stared at him. After a moment, she blinked slowly, and then mumbled something he could not quite understand.
Before he could stop himself or fully understood what he was doing, he knelt at her side. The same urge to obey a summons he could not identify, that seemed to yank him out of the window and toward her when he gazed upon her in the mystery crystal, drew him to her.
Somewhere below the thumping bass of the dance music, a layer of dark magic settled on the ground floor, a dense black fog that oozed rather than billowed. Its coldness brushed Jareth's cheek, worse than the bitter Aboveground frost outside, before he saw it.
Unsure whether Sarah could hear him, he whispered all the same. "You cannot stay here. You must come with me."
Sarah groaned and closed her eyes. She made to raise her hands to her face. Jareth caught her wrist and pressed his thumb against her stark veins. Her pulse raced, though it just barely registered in his touch. A gentle jolt coursed through him, and Jareth could taste her fear and disease: a hint of bile and metallic adrenaline dripped down his throat and something acidic he could not place that left his head with fuzzy, detached, feeling.
The darkness edged closer, frosting the tips of his hair. Sarah's nose rendered a shiny pink in the chill. They must leave immediately, or something dangerous would find them. More specifically, her.
His next words tumbled out of his mouth like a rockslide, without prompt or any cognition: "You will be safe with me in the castle."
Without hesitation, in one fluid move, Jareth stood and effortlessly draped Sarah over his shoulder. As he dove back into the realm between their realms, the darkness puffed over his boot.
In the study, Jareth scoffed at the irony. Surrounded by books and ancient knowledge, yet he wasn’t sure any of them provided an answer to his many questions.
While it was true that Sarah left the labyrinth with more than she understood, that he had given her certain powers was a misconception. Jareth did not have the ability or authority to bestow magic to anyone. The labyrinth itself gave them to her.
Jareth wondered if he could fulfill the promise he made her—to keep her safe—and why he would have said it when he did not yet fully understand the danger she faced.
Sélan knocked on the study door an hour later. The knock startled Jareth out of his reverie brought on by stress and fatigue. If the sun had not risen further in the sky, he would not have noticed any passage of time.
Jareth stifled a yawn and blinked away the dry sting of exhaustion. “You may enter.” Sélan entered the study. As a sign of her status, she bowed but did not curtsy. Her beaded robes, dyed lush earthy greens and blues, jingled as she stood back up to her full height—taller than most goblins but petite by human standards.
“Your Majesty,” Sélan greeted him with a dip of her head.
Unlike the goblins, Sélan did not startle and flee even in peril. Her constant patience did not always signal good news, yet Jareth had never seen her stir beyond a firm tone when handling the most rambunctious goblin babes.
“What is your diagnosis?”
“She is stable and free of disease or curses. But she is not well. I suspect she may have been subject to various Aboveground poisons, perhaps willfully.”
"Poisons?" He had not discussed the details of Sarah's rescue with anyone. Perhaps the dark magic had reached her, after all.
“They have deteriorated her health, but with rest and proper nutrition I expect her to recover fully.”
Jareth nodded. "I am familiar with some of these Aboveground substances," he agreed. "Are you certain this is what ails her?"
Sélan shook her head ruefully. "If I am honest, sir, I am not entirely certain. Her body shows much wear that may be beyond her years. I could not detect it outright, but I believe dark magic may have tainted her.”
Jareth bristled. Sélan's magic was advanced for its type, though not as omnipotent as his. As a healer, her strengths lied in alchemy and related charms and spells. All magic-bearing species in the Underground possessed some basic necessary skills. Yet even with her wisdom and keen intelligence, Sélan should not have been able to detect the presence of dark magic.
"Are you certain of this, Sélan?" His voice faltered, betraying his intent to remain stoic.
"I may have to continue some research and testing to verify my hypothesis."
"Very well. You may delegate your patient load as you see fit. For the time being, Sarah will be your only patient. As such, I expect you will give her your full attention." Jareth would never admit that his specific instruction to her was more for his benefit than hers. Both he and Sélan knew she was among the most capable and self-sufficient officers of his court.
Sélan bowed her head. "Of course, your Majesty. Is there anything else I may assist you with?" Jareth understood her implied question: would you like to see her?
Jareth merely turned away and waved his hand to dismiss her and the unspoken invitation. He had seen enough for the time being.
Sélan’s bowed and departed, her robes tinkling and jingling to punctuate her exit as they had announced her arrival.
His mind snapped to attention the moment the door closed. Suddenly alert, the clues all fell into place and a torrent of thoughts, images, and a-ha moments flooded his mind. How could I have forgotten? Cassius!
His letter all but declaring Sarah his captive, her sudden appearance and the crystal, the nefarious cloud creeping in as Jareth retrieved her…
"I am such a fool!"
With renewed vigor, Jareth ripped the door open and stormed down the corridor. Amid the myriad twists and turns, Jareth summoned—rather, bellowed—for his Senior Messenger. "Slurm!" he shouted, over the various gasps of imagine his Majesty stormin' through here this hour of the morn and your Majesty, will you be needin' yer furs this day? "Report to my office!"
His stomach lurched at the offers and mentions of breakfast, and only then did it dawn on him that more time had passed in the Underground than he estimated.
The sentries at his suite entrance clamored to open the door as he approached. The clangs of their armor crashing echoed in dissonance down the hall. The sound of their rushing lifted a genuine smile to Jareth's face. The familiarity of their chaos set him at ease just slightly, and Slurm was surprised to meet a more jovial Jareth than had summoned him moments prior.
"Y-you called, sir?" Slurm stammered, wringing his hands. He gulped as Jareth's smile widened, bordering predatory.
"I did. You may have use of all that ridiculous armor after all."
Slurm's eyes widened. "Really, Majesty? You think so?"
"Oh, yes!" Jareth confirmed. Though the goblin was tall for his species, Jareth still bent at the waist to deliver his orders. "You will retrieve your outfit from the armory and report back here to me in one quarter hour. I will have a message for you to deliver to Ourobryd."
Slurm’s whoops and hollers rolled in echoes through the corridors as he darted off without further instruction. Jareth puffed out a single chuckle, relishing that any lazy servant still asleep now had a justified rude awakening.
“You may be the single most excitable officer in my cabinet,” Jareth muttered after his messenger retreated from sight. “But never let it be said that you and Tak are not the best-matched pair in the city.”
A second wind energized Jareth. He entered his suite with renewed vigor and set himself at an ornate desk. Its grandiosity inspired him; a disorderly collection of trinkets and gifts, law books and diaries, and several dusty children’s toys cast aside and long-forgotten during fits as over-stimulated infants cried for their foolish caretakers who wished them away.
Age-old training into Jareth’s mind—the code of ethics and honors by which his species obeyed as strictly as High law, and had observed so astutely had since become part of their bloodline. His fingers flexed instinctively. As he reached for parchment and a quill, earlier confusion and mysteries slipped to the back of his mind.
“How rude of me for nearly forgetting my dear ally Cassius,” he whispered, his voice silky in the cold air. “I imagine he may expect to hear from me. He must be worried sick!” Jareth laughed at his own sarcasm.
A few minutes later, in a script best described as “elegant chicken-scratch,” nestled between stale royal salutations and closures, Jareth scribed:
I thank you wholeheartedly for your graciousness in this trying time. My subjects in the Goblin City equally appreciate your graciousness.
Your keen observation of the situation my kingdom currently suffers inspired me to discover a likely solution. I am confident, however, that it will be resolved sooner than anticipated. A previously unknown resource has presented itself and will prove quite useful.
Please accept my condolences for your loss as you navigate your new role. I am but a mere courier away should you require anything of me in the meantime. I am delighted to accept your invitation to the coronation and look forward to further details.
Jareth’s eyelids drooped as he scrawled his signature, rolled the parchment, and sealed it. He quickly glanced out the window. The bright morning sun’s glare did not entirely disguise the snowflakes that began to fall again. If I should care, he thought; I can do it later.
Better than his word, Slurm returned precisely one minute ahead of his quarter-hour deadline, where he met his king slouching at his desk, scroll in hand.
“Top priority,” Jareth drawled as he handed over the letter. If the messenger noticed his Majesty stifling a yawn, he wisely did not let on. “This must be hand-delivered to Crown Prince Cassius with no exceptions.”
Slurm bowed to acknowledge his orders. By some miracle, his helmet stayed on his head this time.
He was too excited to have a real message, a real duty! to notice Jareth fast asleep right in the chair, much less inform any of the chambermaids about it. His snores would most definitely alert someone soon enough.
A neckache jolted Jareth awake some time later. He still reclined in the chair at his desk, untouched and in the same stale clothes from the previous day. While he remained physically undisturbed during his slumber, someone wisely thought to leave a carafe of fresh coffee on a bureau next to his desk, accompanied by a breakfast platter. His stomach rumbled; only then did Jareth remember he had not eaten in nearly a full day.
He made to reach for the coffee when he became acutely aware of the slightly grimy feeling of neglected hygiene. A bath , he thought to himself, would be a welcome first activity of the day.
Ordinarily, bathing required no fewer than three servants and several drawn-out processes. Though always one to relish as much attention as possible, today, the Goblin King refused any of them and marched his way into the bath chamber. He disrobed various items piece by piece along the way. He felt cleaner as he shed each item, soiled by the magic and efforts of the past day. There is no earthly way I honestly perspire that much.
Jareth twirled a finger and plumbing sprung to life, pouring out a frothy mixture of bubbles and perfectly hot water. He stepped into the deep clawfoot tub without hesitation and sunk into the water up to his neck. For several long minutes, he just lied there. No mysterious blizzards, unplanned rescue missions, or meddling heirs to bother him. Just the floral-and-herb aroma of a comfortable bath and—he snapped his fingers—the promise of a fresh cup of coffee.
His breakfast appeared next to the bath, steaming just as it had hours before. Jareth could not suppress a grin as he poured a cup for himself and tucked into the food. He imagined the various squawks and screeches if his maids saw. Tak, especially, would scold him. "No food in the bath, yer Majesty!" She only felt brave enough to admonish him was when he was naked and swimming in a pool of bubbles. "It is not becoming of an ancient and magicked King like you!"
Some rules were meant to be broken. Indeed, many precedents have shattered just in the past day.
Jareth frowned, his reprieve dampened by the reality of the situation. He dipped his head below the surface of the water, soaking his hair. The warm water against his eyelids soothed his eyes.
Far too many unforeseeable events and rules had been broken. The storm alone lent itself to much stress and new territory as a leader. Cassius' timing was too accurate to be anything other than a coincidence. Despite his suspicions, he had no hard evidence. Jareth delighted in mysteries, except now when he did not know the object of the game or its stakes.
Jareth returned to the surface and massaged soap into his hair. He vigorously scrubbed his scalp, with more intention to think clearly and withdraw information than to cleanse himself. When he finished, his hair was quite clean, but his thoughts were still jumbled.
He managed the rest of his bath without further incident or rule-breaking. Though he took his leisure drying and dressing—and he relished the liberation in doing so without supervision or assistance—Jareth found himself approaching Sarah’s chamber much sooner than he anticipated.
He raised his hand to knock on the door, then lowered it. And then raised again, and then again lowered it. After an intense moment of internal struggle, Jareth exasperatedly covered his face with his palm. “This is your castle, fool!” he scolded himself. “Just open the damn door.”
When he reached for the handle, his fingers jerked as uncertainty coiled in his shoulders. What has become of you? he again chided himself. This is your duty.
Jareth sighed and steadied himself. "This is for the City," he stated resolutely and pushed open the door before he could stop himself and walk away. Do not get so worked up over a girl. Especially one who is currently a pawn for a coup so severe the labyrinth buries itself in a blizzard.
In his world of continually unraveling expectations and reality, Jareth should not have been surprised that Sarah's quarters were so peaceful and quiet, save for a crackling fire. Had Jareth sought a status update from Sélan before storming in, it would not have been a surprise at all.
All the same, he visibly startled as his eyes gazed upon Sarah, just as still as she was the evening before. She lied tucked into a bed constructed of the same rich cherry wood as the fixtures and furnishings of the castle. It was not as grand as his own, yet her slight form seemed dwarfed by the linens.
Jareth remained root in his spot just inside the door as he observed her. The bleak conditions outside cast a gray light over pallid skin and gaunt features. He mused that Sélan's assessment of "malnourishment" may have been an understatement. Jareth sucked in a breath to see it in fresh daylight; he hoped that Sarah's ill appearance was a mirage of the conditions and the dark magic chasing her when he found her.
Jareth stepped closer but did not quite approach the bed. Without thinking, he again made to reach out toward Sarah, but again stopped himself. What am I doing? he wondered. This is unacceptable. He crossed his arms, clamping each hand around his forearms. As he steeled his grip on himself, a prickle of an unidentifiable emotion welled up in his chest.
The new daylight illuminated more than her sunken face. Beyond the natural process of maturing into adulthood, Sarah looked older than her years. Patches of red blemishes speckled her face, near her nose, mouth, and hairline. Her lips and hair appeared thinner than he expected.
"Aboveground poisons, indeed," he muttered. Jareth recalled more than one challenger in recent history with similar grisly features. The magic which connected him to their lives for the duration of their run did not include every detail, and as it did not affect his duties, he never asked or investigated further. Instincts to protect the children in his care flared up within him, but he did not ever quite understand why.
Despite Sarah's pitiful appearance, Jareth noticed slight color touched her cheeks. Amid the comforting crackles and pops of the fire, her breaths cycled deep and soundly—a vast improvement over the shallow and ragged gasps she sputtered the evening before.
Most striking about Sarah, however, was not her appearance. A gentle scent hung in the air, almost imperceptible below the strong cedar burning in the fireplace. Clean and dry, herbs and woods foreign to her species marked something that Jareth immediately identified as magic.
A gentle knock sounded, and he whirled around to see Tak in a deep curtsy in the door he had forgotten to close. She trembled and remained in her position.
Jareth did not possess the energy to chastise her. He was unsure whether it was because of the series of continually unusual events of the past day and its tax on his energy stores or impressed that she still had the audacity to enter a room he occupied to which she was not directly summoned. In any case, her actions were neither unusual nor of much consequence.
Still, he remained firm in his tone when addressing her. "You may enter."
Tak barely inched inside the door. Her head remained bowed as she stood up. "Tak is sorry to bother his Majesty so soon, sir, I'se was just seeing you enter the lady's room and was worries something bad happened 'cause it stays so quiet, and Tak could not bear it if something very bads happened!" She exhaled the entire sentence in a single breath, her voice watery.
A tiny droplet of the strange feeling rippled in his chest for her. Jareth mused her willful ignorance of etiquette had not yet resulted in her exile. Tak's fierce loyalty to him and good intentions were second only to Slurm's and saved her hide more than once.
"Though your insubordinate concern is appreciated," Jareth began, "The lady and I are fine."
Tak stood there for a moment, wringing her hands and rocking on her feet. She glanced nervously between Jareth and Sarah several times.
"Do you have any further business in here?" he asked her after the long pause when it appeared she would not move from her spot.
"I'se...I'se just wantin' to be seein' if 'twas true, yer Majesty!"
"To see if what was true?" The entire castle, and perhaps the whole city by now, knew Sarah had returned to the castle, and Tak was surely one of the first to have seen her and assisted Sélan.
"If...Miss...healer lady was right about Miss Sarah lady."
"In what way? Spit it out!"
"Miss Sélan lady says that miss Sarah lady's healths will get better just by beings here. She gave Sarah lady a healing draft and said that if she has magic—"
"Out!" Jareth roared. He bellowed so loudly that the gregarious Tak squeaked and turned on her heel without the proper etiquette.
Of course Sarah had magic. Her previous success guaranteed it. He could smell it on her. Jareth looked at her sleeping form. Her hair appeared more vibrant than it had the night before.
I wonder if either of us knows just how much she has.
Chapter 4: Squalls
Sarah had not remembered being so warm in any recent history. Or so comfortable. Her poorly insulated apartment released more heat from the radiator than prevented cold air from seeping in. Every so often she would flip her mattress, but the lumps never evened out. Displaced springs that pinched her hips and poked her shoulders at night still did not settle.
Not quite on the edge of full wakefulness, she snuggled deeper into the warmth, her eyes still closed. Yes , she thought, this is the comfiest bed ever.
"If this is what heaven is like, then..." she started, and then caught her words. Her eyes snapped open as she recalled her last memories.
The house party and Cassius' gift. The encroaching darkness and its potency once she lit up and the chilling realization that it was too late. How he showed up right as she slipped into darkness.
"Oh, god," she whispered. Cold fear trickled into her stomach, souring it. Sarah took in her surroundings: a crackling fireplace to her left, a heavy wooden door, a wardrobe across the room. Sandstone walls complemented a stone flooring, empty of any decoration.
A row of windows on the opposite wall poured morning light into the chamber, backlighting corners of the room the glow of the fire did not reach. Stiff wind and snow blew across the window openings. Isn't heaven supposed to be paradise? Sarah wondered.
She sat up on the bed and tenderly planted her feet. Sarah hissed as her toes touched cold stone. There is no way I could enjoy this for eternity , she mused. Maybe hell is frozen after all .
A nightgown hem fluttered around her ankles when she stood. She smiled. At least they were kind enough to get me out of that awful skirt...whoever they are . She tried to ignore the fact that the last person she remembered seeing was... him .
Gusts of cold air brushed across her face as she approached the windows and observed the outside environment. She looked over a serene, quaint town. Cottages and trade shops arranged haphazardly, as though only half a care was given to make any sense of the city's pathways. Children and families bundled in coats meandered through paths dug out of the snow.
It all seemed perfectly ordinary. Until Sarah noticed that, though several feet of snow blanketed the settlement, vivid green leaves on trees and full springtime blossoms peeked through the vast whiteness. The depth of snow easily reached the roof of some of the cottages, and now that she looked at them more closely, Sarah could not help a nagging feeling that she had seen them before. Grumbles and bits of conversation reached her from down below, but in a language she had never heard before.
The same feeling that something was gravely amiss when she inhaled on the last gram Cassius gave her pooled in her stomach. The sunshine and sparkling freshness of the snow disguised that something was not right.
When she realized the townspeople navigating the pathways were not well-fed, happy families, but instead squat, foul goblins, Sarah knew she was not dead. Worse, she was in the labyrinth. Beyond that, from her vantage point, she guessed she was in the Castle Beyond the Goblin City.
A wave of nausea rocked her. Cold sweat broke out on her forehead. Sarah ran back to the bed and buried herself under the dense covers.
This isn't happening!
Her pulse quickened, and nausea surged. After a few weak attempts to slow her breaths, bile stung her throat. When she threw off the covers in search of a receptacle, Sarah did not expect a pail to be at the ready, and especially not in the hands of a female goblin.
"Healer lady says you might be getting sick soon," she beamed, ignoring Sarah's retching. "She's smarts and I gots here in the nick of time!" Her pudgy hand not holding the pail patted Sarah's shoulder.
"You'll be alrights, Miss Sarah lady," she cooed. Sarah sputtered at the sound of her name. “Tak will make sure of it.”
They know my name? Sarah shook her head. Of course they do.
Sarah added things up in her head. Between the nausea, light-headedness, and exhaustion: she was detoxing. She wanted to believe that her being in the castle, in the Underground, was just another hallucination.
Sarah could not deny she felt a lightness underneath the grimy left-over feeling of detox and early sobriety. Regardless of the reasons she had been brought here and Jareth’s involvement in all of it, Sarah felt a weightlessness in her that she never experienced when at any rehab facility, as though she had left behind a heavy load when she arrived here. And the only thing she could come up with that changed was the absence of Cassius—the weight she had carried around for so long.
Sarah closed her eyes and retreated back under the shelter of the blankets.
Sarah lay on the bed, her head swimming with malaise and the vertigo of bad memories and worse mistakes. She mentally ticked them off, counting them down one by one. Every wrong decision, tantrum, and poor judgment call she made over the years were attempts to find this, exactly where she was, right here and now. It all led her to a little less of the reality she had back home; the comfortable bed and worried but welcoming family—those who loved her but would never understand, and that she could not trust with her deepest secrets.
Most especially, this one.
What first started as a simple miscalculation of moving a little too far from home for school turned into a gradual but consistent downward spiral. Teary-eyed phone calls, usually past bedtime. Cash wires and whispered promises Karen made not to tell Robert. A yawning Toby wondering if Sarah was so sick then why didn't she just come home?
This time, Tak was not waiting with the bucket. Fortunately, Sarah had great aim.
Robert grimaced when her college board exams returned, poring over the results and reports. Piles of college brochures jammed the mail slot, envelopes stuffed fat with applications, just waiting for Sarah to choose their fine institution.
"I don't understand," he muttered over Monday morning coffee in March of her senior year. Sarah ignored him and ripped open packages, glossy photos of stately buildings nestled in majestic forests. "She gets 1850 on her SATs, can go into any field, a full ride anywhere—but she is dead set on acting ."
Karen shot him a look over the table, her eyes as sharp as her shoulderpads. "Robert," she warned.
Karen turned her attention back to Sarah, whose eyes glazed over as she opened a CalArts brochure. The palm tree-dotted shorelines and campus basking in bright sunshine stood out far and away from all the other New England facilities. All of them within a day's drive of home.
The desire for adventure, the kind she had not felt in a few years, wedged into her chest. She was ready to try something new.
"Do you see one you like, dear? Set aside your favorites and I can go over them with you tonight if you'd like."
Robert glowered and took another swig of his coffee.
And now, she was here—in the labyrinth—and didn't know what to do or think. Escape was not an option. Sarah swallowed thickly and looked toward the window, bright sunshine peeking through a curtain of dense snowflakes. She squinted against the light, a dull headache brewing in her forehead.
Sarah wasn't sure if she wanted to escape if even she could at all. She burrowed further under the covers and snuggled into the warmth. At least comfort welcomed and nestled her; protected her from everything that had happened. Everything she remembered, that is.
A thought pricked into her mind as she remained buried in the blankets. Nothing is what it seems here. You remember last time. Is it now, or later...or back then? She thought of the snowfall again. No, that can't be right. You wouldn’t feel so horrible if it was before. It must be now.
But, she panicked, when is now ?
How much time had passed?
Use your brain, Williams. What's left of it anyway.
Sarah willed her heart rate to slow and inhaled deep cleansing breaths as she pieced things together. She did not doubt that what she last recalled until now was true—that Jareth returned and brought her back here. She remembered, vaguely, something about a potent dose Cassius had given her—
Oh, Cassius . The crusty orange rock, and all the visions. The house music and dancing—Sarah remembered all of it.
The nausea faded and a sensation of dream-like free-falling washed over her. The kind where one knew they were falling, but yet still safe within the boundless confines of a dream. Sarah fell back into the pillow and allowed the sensation to wash over her. At the very least, it distracted her from the nausea. She wondered: is this magic ?
She wasn't quite sure how just yet, but Sarah knew her presence here had something to do with the snowfall. In the meantime, curling up for a nap seemed like the best course of action.
Sarah had always been a light sleeper. Bumps in the night did not scare her, because she could identify their source. But still silence and the inability to reasonably determine what interrupted her sleep—that unnerved her.
As the years wore on, moving from one bad situation to the next worse option, she found herself worrying less of goblins in her wardrobe and more of creditors who resolved debts with Louisville sluggers. As a result, some nights she did not sleep at all. The shifting of moods and varying schedules between her acquaintances and many-changing housemates nudged her to consciousness and hyper-awareness all night. Certainly, the drugs didn't help much either.
So when someone was in the room staring at her, in a place she associated with danger and destiny, the sense of eyes trained on her ripped her out of sleep. Sarah's heart tattooed a rapid tempo against her chest as she jolted awake to see a short, dark skinned woman draped in deep emeralds and blues staring at her. A large satchel, old and stained, hung over her shoulder.
Though her features were decidedly human-like, the vibrancy of her dark violet eyes reminded Sarah of the many gazes Cassius laid on her over the years. In particular, Sarah remembered the first night spent at his condo.
Under the stale sweetness of alcohol on their breaths, Sarah couldn't resist his dry, white musky scent. She couldn't quite identify it, but she smiled and snuggled in further, content, and ignored the slick sweatiness between their bodies. Home, she realized. He smells like home .
For the first time in many moons, Sarah fell into a heavy sleep, uninterrupted by intruders and invisible nightmares that could shake her awake.
She didn't know how long later, but she awoke with a start so violent she jerked and caught her legs in the covers. Cassius' steel grip around her waist didn't loosen. She turned to him.
Even in the darkness of night, with just a small glow of light from the clock radio behind her on the nightstand, Sarah found herself pinioned in place by the intense stare of his steel gray eyes rather than the arms wrapped around her. Something sparked in her core as awareness prickled into her mind: this is dangerous.
A heavy pause passed between them. She did not say anything; did not attempt to wriggle out of his steel strength clasp, did not acknowledge that she knew something was different about him, much different than any other man with whom she had negotiated.
Sarah returned to lie on her side and turned her face back into her shoulder, away from Cassius. A fortunate skill she'd gathered from her time as a light sleeper was also that she played an excellent opossum when the situation called for it, or when insomnia would not relent.
In the five hours between her sudden wake and when they arose for breakfast, Sarah never felt his gaze leave her back.
Sarah suppressed a gasp as she stared at the woman. Sarah blinked once, twice. The small, dark woman did not flinch away from her gaze. The pregnant silence passed like an eternity for Sarah, and only before she opened her mouth did it occur to her that because most creatures lived a very long time here that the awkward pause was not an unusual length of time for them.
What does she want with me? Who is she?
As though she heard Sarah's thoughts, the woman’s round face and wide mouth opened to a joyful grin. The corners of her eyes crinkled into delicate crows' feet. Sarah’s anxiety eased and could not help but return the gesture, despite her misgiving. She inhaled and prepared to speak. Now or never.
"I'm sorry for staring," the woman interrupted Sarah's intention to speak first. "We are rather pleased to see you return, even under these circumstances." She moved toward Sarah's bedside, extending her hands to grasp Sarah's own. Serenity washed over Sarah at her touch.
"Who are you?" Sarah asked when the woman did not offer her name.
She smiled and gently squeezed Sarah's hand. "I am Sélan," she said. "The chief healer of the Goblin City."
Sarah sucked in a breath; though Tak already confirmed her suspicions about having returned—an authority figure speaking of it so assuredly officially sealed it. A lump formed in Sarah's throat. Well, shit. Now what? She swallowed thickly and blinked back tears that pricked at her eyes.
If Sélan noticed Sarah's discomfort, she didn't say anything. She waited patiently, her hands still enclosing Sarah's. Sarah sensed this was the opportunity to ask questions.
"Why am I here?"
"I have never been a gossip, and I do not intend to change that. I imagine His Majesty will discuss that with you in detail."
"Oh." Sarah thought for a moment before continuing. She was relieved to avoid discussion about the Goblin King, yet she realized some topics would make it difficult to tiptoe around him. "May I then ask why you are here?"
Sélan beamed. "Of course. I have been assigned to restore your health." She stood and rolled her sleeves. "In fact, I am here to examine you. May I?"
Though many years had passed since her last visit, Sarah could not recall anyone or anything simply asking for permission in the labyrinth. She nodded. "I suppose so."
The healer began to work. She loosened the sleeves on Sarah's dressing gown and palpated Sarah’s arms. Her fingertips glowed a warm golden white against Sarah's skin. The sensation comforted her, even as her hands and forearms twitched in reflex. The movements reminded her of long distant childhood memories of her mother and father; Sarah laid out with the latest strain of kiddie crud, feverish and miserable in bed. When Linda rubbed her back and whispered softly, Sarah would drift right off to sleep in minutes.
That did not happen this time. Instead, she felt something pop and spark to life within her. From her core, Sarah willed the spark to grow and warm further. It flowed outward inch by inch. Sarah smiled and relaxed in it. This feels wonderful.
Sélan continued working her way around her charge's body, hmm-ing and tsk-ing to herself. Finally, she finished and stood up straight.
"Well," she started, "You have certainly improved since you arrived."
Sarah did not respond for a moment, unsure what to say. "How long have I been here, exactly?"
"His Majesty returned you here the night before last."
"How have I been out for so long?" Sarah's neck bristled for a moment at the implication of Sélan's use of words. Returned you here; as though she belonged to the Underground.
Maybe I do.
"I suspect pure exhaustion and malnutrition. You are weak, and though the journey was short, it can take a toll on delicate humans. Even ones who have been here before. I supplemented your rest with a draught I brewed. It allowed you to sleep without interruption until you had rested enough."
Again, Sarah found herself at a loss for words. "Oh." Her mind felt both numb and alive with questions. The warmth in her chest cooled, but an ember remained, glowing within her. Sarah did not want to ask about it for fear of it disappearing; it felt as though it belonged all along. She wondered whether it was something she, a mere human, was supposed to experience here.
"The rest has done you well," Sélan said, and turned her back to Sarah and dug around in her satchel. "I am going to offer you a supplement to hasten your recovery." Various materials sloshed inside glass vials that clinked against each other as she rummaged.
Another long, but comfortable, silence followed as Sélan worked, mixing and pouring liquids and root powders. As Sarah watched, it occurred to her that Sélan was unlike anyone else she had encountered in the Underground aside from the Goblin King himself. She was not a goblin, or fairy, or a beast. Sélan was human—at least in appearances. What if she's like me ?
"Sélan?" Speaking her name felt like shattering glass in the silence but was as comfortable as her own in her mouth. "May I ask you something?"
"Of course." The healer continued her work without breaking her rhythm.
Sarah thought for a moment, realizing she had not entirely formed the question she wanted to ask. "I don't want to be rude, but I've never seen anyone like you here except for..." She swallowed, Jareth’s name caught at the base of her throat. "What I mean to say is, are you human, or fae? You don’t look like a goblin...or a dwarf. What are you, exactly? "
Sélan paused and turned to Sarah. Her violet eyes flickered, but not, to Sarah’s relief, with anger or annoyance. "It is not my place to say this, Sarah," she started, "But I must implore to you that nothing you request here is considered rude. Others with questionable intentions may try to convince you otherwise, but you must know that when used your words are used correctly, they are among the most influential in this realm." Sélan had grabbed Sarah's hand again and held it to her chest. She held her intense gaze, drilling her words into Sarah.
Sélan released her grasp and returned to her concoction. "To answer your question—" she paused to grunt, forcing a stubborn stopper into a vial "—I am neither human nor fae. I am what is known as a nefilae."
The word did not register with Sarah. She wracked her mind, trying to recall coming across a word or phrase in all of her time studying and learning about the fantastic, before she had lost interest in them. "I've never heard of it. Could you tell me more?"
Sélan chuckled. "I suppose you haven't. We are neither a well-known nor ancient species. I was wished away by my aunt. However, I was older than most wished-away children; old enough to remember.”
Memories of Sarah's immature wishing-away of Toby returned afresh. As a teenager, she only felt immediate regret at the trouble she found herself in instead of remorse that, even for an instant, she had the selfish ambition to surrender her brother to a place where his safety was not guaranteed.
But as an adult, the wailing cries of her lonely and exhausted infant brother pierced her heart. She could only imagine how a child old enough to remember what happened went through. "I'm so sorry," she said. "That must be a terrible memory for you."
Sélan waved her off, her robes jingling when she shrugged. "My aunt meant well, but she was not a motherly figure. His Majesty took a liking to me and when my aunt failed the challenge, I was not transfigured into a goblin."
Sarah’s interest was piqued. She leaned in to hang on Sélan’s words. Momentarily forgetting her situation and malaise, she urged the healer on.
Sélan obliged her. "My aunt was a respected healer of humans in Pennsylvania, and I learned a lot from her. His Majesty took notice. One thing led to the next, and His Majesty finally decided to transform me, but I became neither fae nor goblin.
"After the transformation, it was agreed that the best use of my human genes and talents would be to learn human medicine. His Majesty bade me return Aboveground to receive formal training."
“You went to medical school? Aboveground?"
Sélan nodded once. "I attended the New England Female Medical College."
Sarah knitted her brow. "I don't remember hearing of it." The knowledge that she would have known of it tugged at her heartstrings; Robert recited the details of each medical and law school within a five hundred mile radius of their sleepy upstate New York suburb to Sarah starting from her first day of freshman year.
Sélan smiled again and patted Sarah’s shoulder. "No, I suppose you wouldn't have. It closed in 1873 and the program migrated to what you know as Boston University."
The light and conversational tone of Sélan's voice fooled Sarah for just a moment. She gasped as she realized that Sélan said eighteen seventy-three, not nineteen. "You're—how old are you?"
Sélan smirked. "Not as old as His Majesty. I was born in 1831."
Sarah quickly counted back in your head. Sélan was north of a hundred and sixty years old. "Are you...are nefilae, I mean...immortal?"
"Nefilae are a hybrid species of fae and human. One is formed only as an incident of fae or goblin transformation gone awry. We are fully magical and as strong as fae. We have all aged, but none of us have yet expired." Sélan shrugged again. "We simply do not know."
Sarah heaved a deep sigh, suddenly aware she had been holding her breath and tensing her muscles during Sélan's tale. "Wow," she breathed and fell back into the pillows. "Thank you for sharing that with me."
The healer had already set back to work and distracted by her duties. She poured two dark concoctions into a vial, stoppered it, and meandered to the fire. She turned it over slowly above the flame, warming the glass.
“A curious thing about being a healer,” she began, “Is the advantage of sensing what patients can not—or will not—describe.” Her tone darkened as she continued, but lacked malevolence. The liquid inside the vial simmered, small bubbles dancing on the surface as they burst. “It allows me to assess their condition better and accurately treat them.”
Sélan returned to the bedside and gently set the vial upright on the table. “Allow this to cool, and take one mouthful twice daily.” Without further instructions, she closed her satchel and made to exit the room. When she put her hand on the door, she paused and turned back to face Sarah.
“The tonic will rebuild your immune system, the one damaged by all those years Aboveground. Do not fight what you feel inside you; you will need it more than you know.”
Sarah knew time passed since Sélan departed with her warning, but as her room did not offer a clock and she was not quite accustomed to Underground time, she could only guess a few hours expired.
She stood and returned to the window. What sprinkled lightly in a gay morning shower now clouded the entire city. Though the snow remained pristine, a muggy grayness shrouded the buildings in a fog.
Her imagination roamed freely in the time she was left alone with her thoughts. So much had occurred in a very short period, and only now had she the opportunity to process it.
Why am I here? Sarah tried to piece together the events she remembered. The house party; Cassius' gift; everything went weird; and now here she was, back in the Underground. Sarah could not quite determine if this was a good or bad thing, or that whether she was rescued or kidnapped. Sélan did not indicate either way.
Sarah no longer doubted whether Cassius was involved in the Underground. The same scent she smelled on him, the one that lingered just above the threshold to sense it, permeated every inch of her room and beyond. It wafted with the wind gusts that blew in.
A mixture of guilt and panic tightened in her stomach and rose up her throat. I should have known. She turned away and looked toward the bed, longing to bury her head under the covers. It certainly worked when she was fifteen. Why didn't I listen to myself?
A sudden thought dawned on her. "Oh god," she breathed, fighting heaving hyperventilation. What if Jare—he, the king—had something to do with this? Am I a prisoner?
What if I was rescued?
The theories raced through her head. Sarah started pacing as though she chased each one. Who colluded with whom? Why was she here? Did the Goblin King come of his own volition, or did she call him? Why was he in the house that night? Why or how was Cassius involved? What did she want from her? What if they are working together?
Nothing added up and but as she turned it around, everything seemed to fit.
She willed herself to get a grip. "No! Think , Williams. Think." She breathed deeply, refreshing her mind and slowing her racing heart. "Go back to the beginning."
Sleet pounded Sarah's face, freezing her tears and battering against her old coat. She sniffled, a vain maneuver against the torrent of snot pouring from her sinus.
She meandered the streets, her only aim to get away from the busy boulevards and into more quiet and less visible areas.
Home , she thought. Call Daddy.
Sarah fought with herself, stubbornly refusing to find a payphone.
If she called home, she shed self-responsibility placed the burden on her family — again. If she continued on, she could find herself in a worse situation than she already put herself in. She burst through the first door she found.
A bar. Of course, the first place I find is a fucking dive bar.
As she beelined for the payphone across the room, only a few heads turned in her direction. Most of the trucker hats and three-piece suits focused on the game playing behind the bartender. Either the game was riveting or the sight of her tear-stained and mucus-smeared face was commonplace. In either case, Sarah was thankful for the anonymity.
She dropped the first quarter she fished from her pocket, but couldn't tell whether her hands shook from nerves or warming from the cold. She succeeded on the second attempt. Never had the dial tone sounded more welcoming despite its tritone interval. She punched the number in with her thumbs, hands braced around the phone to still them. Each ring pulled a lump up her throat close to breaking the surface.
She broke into sobs the second Robert answered the phone, his voice thick from sleep. Damnit, she thought. I forgot it was a school night .
"Sarah? Is that you?" Although she knew her voice would not be welcome—particularly at this hour—her father's rich tenor eased the tension in her heart. "What's wrong?"
Sarah pressed her fist to her face to muffle her sobs. "Dad," she whimpered. Her voice broke. "Daddy."
A long moment hung in the air. At first, Sarah thought the line disconnected; or worse, that Robert had hung up on her. She didn't have any more quarters to call anyone.
Instead, he did something far worse.
"Sarah," he sighed. "I can't do this. We can't do this anymore." He did not anger easily; instead, Sarah heard determination build in his tone, anchoring each word.
He doesn't mean it. He's just trying to be tough.
"I can't even bear it to hear what happened. I don't want to know why you left rehab again."
Tears dripped onto her hands, pulling her from the memory. The sincere finality of her father’s words had punched her heart. At the time, Sarah did not want to admit that the reason she recognized it was because she had used the same resolve when Jareth made his final offer—and she turned him down to save her own sanity.
She had not seen or spoken to her family since that evening. Though only a couple of years had passed—Sarah did not dare recall exactly how many days—it felt as though she had ached for eternity.
The worst of it was that it was also the same night she met Cassius. Within ten minutes after she had hung up the phone and inched over to the bar in a zombie-like state, frozen and numb, he’d sidled up and slid over to her. His words were kind and flirtatious. His dark olive skin was not quite like any shade she had seen before. His hands were as warm as his bed, just enough to help take the edge off from the cold inside her.
She went home with him that night—with nowhere else to go—and never exactly left. Even with her own apartment, and phone line, and what little money she could scrounge, he was always just around the corner or demanding her time.
Sarah shook her head, exasperated with her own naivete. How did I not see this?
Anxiety rose in her throat as she considered the full weight of her situation. She choked back a mixture of sobs and vomit as she realized that whatever Jareth or Cassius’ intentions were—neither of them were likely to let her go. And after all the years of feeling that she was missing a part of herself, all the time she suspected Cassius’ true origins and convinced herself she was crazy, she was finally back in the Underground with even less guidance and fewer resources she had before.
And the worst of it all, she realized, was that not only was she now trapped here, but that she had never truly left it the first time.
Berk waddled up to him with a determined look in his beady eye. He shoved a small scroll in Jareth's hand.
Jareth groaned. Of all things, he most despised hearing land disputes and procrastinated them as long as possible. Goblins were a stubborn and competitive species, particularly when defending themselves against other goblins. What little logic and reasoning they possessed, goblins immediately dismissed for yelling and insults. It was not unheard of for a dispute to be resolved by each of them tearing down their own homes in the heat of an argument to prove a point. Once razed, the property then again defaulted to the city's sole control.
Jareth scowled at Berk. "This is precisely why I appointed you."
The goblin threw up his hands in exasperation. "I canna listen to these, they don't make no sense."
Jareth rolled his eyes, but opened the scroll and skimmed it. "Oh gods ," he sighed. The first complaint regarded a patch of eye-lichen growing in a crack on the property that crossed the city wall to the southern region of the labyrinth. One neighbor wanted to exterminate it. The other wanted it to stay and spy on the neighbor.
Nevertheless, settling the dispute not only provided him a distraction but also served to keep his citizens occupied. With so few duties and chores available, and the storm not appearing to let up anytime soon, Jareth could not deny the prudence of cleaning house and preventing a backlog if— when —it was time to clean up the city and deal with the inevitable aftermath.
As he marched through through the snow, Berk trailing behind, Jareth surveyed the city. Most of the citizens milling about outside, stubbornly attempting to work and homestead only nodded and grumbled in acknowledgment as he passed. A few widened their eyes and whispered excitedly to each other. Jareth caught mutterings of " She has returned! " and " I saw her meself! "
He resolutely ignored them, jutting his chin high. A few kicks to the more vulgar ones would have been satisfying and just, but he mercifully refrained.
Jareth did not waste time when he arrived at the site of the dispute. He crossed his arms and stared at the neighbors, each attempting to out-yell the other. He caught insults about "Your dear mother" and "three-headed camels" in at least four languages before he yanked each by their ears.
They yelped in unison and immediately silenced their squabbling. Their cheeks reddened and brows wrinkled. Jareth released his grip. The neighbor to the west removed his cap and hastily bowed. Snowflakes landed on his bald head and melted on contact. "Yer—yer Majesty," he wheezed.
"I do not have time for this," Jareth hissed. "We will settle this now." He glared at the silent goblin, the neighbor to the east. "You. Speak."
The goblin muttered and stammered, shifting from one foot to another. Jareth waved him off and walked over to the eye-lichen and leaned into them, trampling the garden.
Eye-lichen moved as quickly as they grew, which was not fast at all. In the cold, trapped in the crack of a frozen wall, Jareth almost mistook them for dormant when one large green bulb opened and peered at him. He waved his hand over the patch, casting a burst of warm air to thaw them. "What say you, lichen?" In all likelihood, their seeds germinated here long before the goblins' grandparents built their homes.
Jareth listened carefully to their coos, deciphering each pitch and note. "Is that so?"
They were sick of the fighting and desired a transplant, but worried about exposed roots on the other side of the wall; the interior of the labyrinth.
"Very well. There may be use for Hedgehog after all. I assume he is cowering in a foxhole somewhere." Jareth stood up straight and attempted to transport to the other side of the wall.
Jareth tried again. He remained in his spot, garden mud—and likely dragon manure—covering his boots.
He stifled a groan, exasperated at facing yet another turn against his intentions. First, the block which prevented him descrying Sarah. Then, the storm’s fury and the mysterious summons. And now, he could not even magic himself across the labyrinth borders.
This kind of powerlessness in his own kingdom did not suit him and left a bitter taste in his mouth. He clenched his jaw.
A nearby access gate granted entrance to the corridor. Jareth turned to Berk and the feuding neighbors.
"Berk," he nodded to the captain. "See to it that all three of you stay here—without bloodshed." He did not await a response and turned for the gate. He pushed with considerably more effort than he would have expected to use.
Inside the labyrinth’s corridors, shielded from the city, the distant wind howls and shrieks of young creatures playing in the snow faded. The silence draped over him, dense like a wool cloak.
Jareth’s instincts piqued, a reflex from centuries of training and experience. His shoulders tensed as his sharp eyes flickered and observed his surroundings.
Not a single flake fell. No eddies spun in the corners. His breath did not condense when he exhaled. Without the subfreezing temperature, Jareth would have thought he was indoors.
Jareth headed toward the lichen roots. Less snow accumulated in the narrow corridors, protected by the tall walls, but it felt denser, and the few steps took more effort than trudging through the garden.
This is not right, he thought.
You are correct, another voice—not his own—responded.
Jareth stilled, the lichen gone from his mind. The hair on his neck stood straight. In all his centuries on the throne, he could count on one hand the times the labyrinth spoke to him directly.
He chose his words carefully. "What do you want?"
Though they were equals, his relationship with the labyrinth required mutual respect and authority; he ruled the land, but the labyrinth operated on its own. That Jareth often referred to it as “his” was a courtesy on the labyrinth’s behalf.
Whispers breezed by his ears. I do not want , Jareth. We need her. You cannot accomplish this on your own. His hair fluttered although the wind did not blow in the corridor.
Bring her to me.
He considered the terms they established early in his rule: his law could not violate the labyrinth’s autonomy, and in turn, it could not dictate how he led his kingdom. By and large, the challenges runners faced were of the labyrinth’s intention and with little interference from Jareth.
Jareth’s nerves frayed, a few ends snapping under the pressure of the past few days and his frustration with it all.
“Let me remind you that neither of us commands the other,” Jareth clipped, his tone icy. He pulled his shoulders back and kept his eyes moving, scanning for any change or sign of danger. “You have no business demanding anything of me, any more than I have authority over your actions.”
The temperature plummeted and nipped his cheeks. Jareth blinked several times to soothe his stinging eyes in the dry cold.
I have done so once before, Goblin King.
“I sincerely hope you are not threatening...” Jareth trailed into silence as understanding dawned on him. “ You sent the crystal and summoned me Aboveground to Sarah.”
I will protect our realm at any cost.
The silence remained dense, but the atmosphere lightened. Jareth opened his mouth, then closed it again, stunned by the discovery. Questions whirled in his mind, but he could not grasp one long enough to think it through. His face pinched and furrowed with confusion.
Bring me Sarah, the labyrinth repeated. Soon.
Before he could respond, Jareth blinked and found himself back in the pitiful garden. The wind screamed in his ears and his hair whipped against his face. He stared at the wall, dumbfounded.
Berk and the neighbors squabbled behind him. Armor clanged, and the goblins swore loudly as they swung at and kicked each other. In the din, none of them noticed their ruler’s reappearance.
Jareth turned on his heel and beelined for the castle, barreling through the goblins. They yelped in unison as they landed, trembling, awaiting swift punishment for both ignoring him and getting in his way.
Instead, Jareth grumbled to a stunned Berk about paperwork regarding the lichen transplantation. His cape flapped and billowed behind him, never touching the snow and filth around him.
He approached the castle gates and glanced up at the second-tallest tower, where Sarah was sequestered. Everything had turned upside-down in mere days.
How you turn my world.. . Jareth scoffed at the irony of his long-forgotten words.
He marched back into the castle. Servants and sentries slipped and stumbled in the mud-slicked foyer in their rush to avoid his path. He stepped over them without effort, boots clicking against the stone floor. He did not bother to remove his fur or gloves as he set himself on the throne.
If the labyrinth wanted Sarah, he would most certainly deliver her to it.
Sarah jolted awake from someone shaking her shoulder. She shrieked, grasping at the covers and entangling her legs.
"Miss Sarah lady! Up! Wake up!" Tak peered at her, nose to nose.
Sarah gasped as she found her bearings and disentangled herself from the bed. "What? What is it?" She made to stretch, but Tak hurriedly pulled on the skirt of her nightgown, yanking Sarah over to a wardrobe.
"Hurry! No time!"
"No time for what?"
Tak yanked on the fastenings to her gown and started undressing her. Still half-asleep and too confused to argue, Sarah did not fight the maid's efforts. Far seedier types and more anonymous faces had seen her body in various states of undress in recent history; Sarah harbored no modesty. That Tak moved so quickly—Sarah wondered how she reached up so high for such a short stature—did not even permit her to fret about nudity and underthings. Within a minute, Tak stepped back and admired her handiwork: a simple burgundy lace-up gown over a chemise.
"I'se still gots it!" She clapped excitedly. "I hasn't dressed a lady in a long time!" Tak grasped Sarah's hand and pulled her out the door.
"Hey—wait! Where are we going?" Suddenly, the castle seemed strange and foreboding. Squirreled away in her room, with others coming to her, Sarah did not have to worry about where she was in the castle or how to get around. But now, she was being led through unfamiliar territory.
Tak shook her head but did not turn around. "No time, no time! Hurry! Go faster!" Her skirt swished as she waddled, Sarah in tow.
The corridors seemed endless, twisting one way and turning in another that followed no architectural logic. Sarah focused more attention on remaining upright and not tripping over her gown than she could spend trying to retrace her steps. "Tak," she gasped, stooped over to accommodate the goblin's short arms. Her hamstrings burned in protest. "Where—are—we—going?"
Without warning, Tak stopped on a dime. "Here." She unceremoniously pushed Sarah from behind through a door that opened of its own volition.
Sarah stumbled forward; this time, she could not right herself and landed on her hands and knees in a semi-dark room. The door slammed shut.
In the partial darkness, Sarah squinted to see her surroundings. Her eyes adjusted and she saw that several rows of shelves occluded some of the windows, diminishing the light. At least it's not an oubliette this time.
A fire ignited to her left. A massive fireplace glowed, the flames roaring, filling the shadows with firelight. Heat radiated meters away; only when goosebumps rose on her skin did Sarah realize how cold the temperature was outside of her room. She clamored to her feet and chafed her arms.
With the fireglow and its four-foot flames, Sarah could see the rest of the room in detail. Desks of various sizes, antiques, and states of organization scattered across an open floor. Most of them faced the hearth in some fashion, though not in any organized pattern. Several stacks of books were piled near the desks and the ends of the shelves, some too large to store as they were as wide as the length of her arm.
All her time of constant movement Aboveground, shifting situations and equally shifty personalities afforded Sarah the blessed ability to, in some ways, live in the moment. Despite that she was in the castle in a magical universe she kept secret her entire life, locked in a cold room with no instruction, and could barely stand from exhaustion and illness, Sarah could not help but smile at the idea that the Goblin King's study would be a harried mess.
She relished having a moment to entertain and distract herself, and so she gingerly approached the opposite end of a shelf, lit by the gray light of the window rather than the yellow-orange glow of the raging fire.
As she walked, she traced her hands over the spines and crests of the books. Sarah recognized several titles, both ancient and modern, and some in languages she did not know, or had never seen. She vaguely wondered if they were alphabetized, or how else they were organized—if they were at all.
She turned to the window and watched the city below. At present, Aboveground in New York, the sight of mothers screeching for their children to come inside and eat your supper was common sight in the winter. Yet here, though the weather was the same, Sarah felt the same disorientation as she felt when taking a spring break vacation to a warm place: something just felt wrong .
Sarah climbed into the windowsill, drawn to the snowfall outside. Grateful to be off her feet, she absently rubbed her bruised knee with one hand and sidled closer to the opening. The disorientation buzzed inside her and morphed, warming in her core. She felt just like she had earlier when Sélan examined her.
The snow mesmerized her—she caught individual flakes in her vision and watched them all tumble and fall. Sarah remembered less and less of the library and the castle. She only wanted to watch the snow.
Some flakes sparkled. They reminded her of the swirling glitter when she first met the Goblin King; of the dewy layer of magic in the forest that shined even in the darkest passages; of the baubles and jewelry that dripped down the revelers’ necks in the ballroom.
Sarah inched further toward the ledge and reached out. Snowflakes sprinkled her hand and wrist. Each ignited a sensation inside that Sarah had never felt before—tiny fireworks exploding in her chest next to her heart. This must be magic.
She recalled Sélan’s parting words. Do I have magic?
As quickly as it arose, the sensation faded. She shifted back to the present, recalling her surroundings. The library.
A presence materialized behind her.
She turned back inside the ledge to see the Goblin King standing at the opposite end of the bookshelves. She did not react. At least, not on the outside. The warmth of magic faded.
He stared at her and slowly stepped forward. His face hadn’t changed from the last time she saw it: pale and angular. His blue eyes bore into her, but she could not discern his expression. He neither frowned nor smirked.
Cold anxiety and panic replaced it in quick succession. He's doing this deliberately, she thought. This is what narcissists and sociopaths do. He wants me to say something first, so he can twist my words. She licked her lips and gulped. I won’t. I won’t speak first.
Jareth moved closer.
This is the same thing Cassius does. He stays stoic and expressionless and doesn't say or do anything, only waiting for me to talk and—
The distance closed between them. Jareth tucked his chin and lowered his face. His gaze never wavered. Slowly, he smiled.
Oh, god. Oh, no.
Sarah could smell him now as he flattened a palm on the ledge and leaned toward her. The same dryness, just enough to make her hair rise, permeated from him.
Sandalwood. Sarah closed her eyes. Bergamot, and a touch of nutmeg.
When she opened them, his face stared square into hers, their noses mere inches apart.
Sarah remained still as he raised his other hand toward her face. He had her caged into the window. She refused to break their eye contact.
A single gloved finger pressed against her mouth. "Sarah," he said, his voice as silky as she remembered, "I can read your face. Not your mind."
Sarah sputtered, muttering incoherently. Jareth didn’t pull away, but he made no further movement or gesture.
No way out.
Jareth did not expect to equally relish such closeness to Sarah and an urge to hang her out the window by her hair. Cornering her into the ledge sufficed: she could only retreat backward and out of the window.
As he watched her, Jareth caught every muscle twitch and shift of her gaze. Sparks and emotions raced across her irises, and her pupils flexed with each memory and thought.
And now, he stood with his hand on her face. He easily slipped his palm along her jaw. Sarah tensed, but remained silent.
Jareth forced himself to drop his hand to her side, unsure whether he wanted to throw her out of the window himself or take her right there on the sill.
He settled for encasing her without contact, to encroach on her personal space without touch. Perhaps she may taste what I have experienced all this time.
Jareth maintained eye contact. Sarah's eyes clouded, though she did not speak or make a move.
"Sarah," he continued, rhythmically tapping his fingers on the stone ledge. "I'm surprised at you. Maybe...even a little impressed." His eyes crinkled as he smiled at her, wide and saccharine.
A millimeter of closeness between Sarah’s brows betrayed her thoughts. "What for?"
Jareth flexed his shoulders. "All this time, and not once have you declared how unfair all of this is." He rolled his eyes round wide to indicate the scope of Sarah's teenage tantrums; his hands remained firmly planted on either side of her. He didn’t want to detach from her space just yet.
Sarah eased herself off the ledge and pushed past him. Her fully-knitted brow and set jaw reminded Jareth of the last time she had walked away.
"Fairness is subjective. Especially here." He did not expect such confidence in her tone.
Jareth narrowed his eyes but widened his smile. "Do elaborate."
Sarah wheeled an about face. "I think you're the one who should be explaining things."
Jareth arched an eyebrow. "Is that so?"
" Why am I here?"
For that, Jareth paused. In truth, he did not yet know the answer to Sarah's question in full, and could only guess. Jareth knew that he was summoned to Sarah and that she was in danger, and that the labyrinth demanded her to return to it. Though he strongly suspected Cassius had far more in mind with Sarah than just abusing his power to wed her and exploit her magic, the words could not form.
Jareth had to think quickly to not let on that he possessed as little information as Sarah did, was just as confused as she was, and worse, that he was merely following orders and summons—something very much unlike him.
"Why do you think you are here?" As the question poured from his mouth, it occurred to Jareth that he knew little of Sarah's situation. The question he posed as a device only to keep the conversation moving shifted to turnabout—neither knew what the other was doing.
Sarah's eyes shifted again, but her face did not betray her. "I certainly didn't ask for it. You know I didn't wish for anything."
"Answer my question."
"Answer mine first. I didn’t ask to come back, but you took me anyway. I am here against my will, and as a prisoner, I demand to know why I am being held here."
Jareth roared with laughter, throwing his head back and his wild hair danced about his shoulders. "I assure you, you are not a prisoner here ." Yet , he finished bitterly.
Sarah’s cat-like eyes narrowed, focusing on their prey. Her stare remained unbroken. "Then tell me exactly what is going on." Sarah's tone neither feigned bravery nor let on she was unsure of herself. She stood squarely with her hands at her sides. She faced him directly.
It occurred to Jareth that she may be of more use to Cassius dead than alive.
Enough is enough.
"Let us sit." He slipped an arm around her shoulder and turned her toward the fire. Sarah nodded, again tense under his touch, but did not say anything further.
Jareth led her to the desk nearest the fire and offered a chair opposite himself. She visibly relaxed and set in the seat, while he walked around to the desk's corner and perched on its edge. He waved his hand, and charcuterie and cheese board appeared, with a bottle of mead and two goblets.
He poured some mead into both goblets and offered one to her. "Stakes are high, Sarah. Your life is at risk along with my kingdom."
"Honestly, it doesn't surprise me." Sarah accepted the goblet and sniffed at it, but did not sip from it. She gazed at the fire, unfazed.
"And why might that be?"
Sarah closed her eyes and leaned back into her chair. "I have my reasons."
Jareth stilled. He clenched his goblet, frustrated with this adult Sarah that could neither be intimidated nor reasoned with to cooperate.
"While your commitment to confidentiality is admirable," he began, "I daresay that the threat of both our lives and livelihoods supersede your code of honor." He took a swig of the mead—much needed already. "What do you know about a man named Cassius?"
Sarah stilled. Where her fingers gently tapped against the goblet before, now gripped it. Her knuckles blanched. A chill shuddered between them, something that should have been impossible next to the roaring fire. If Sarah noticed, she said nothing. Jareth wondered if she had done it herself, and if so; whether it was deliberate.
"I know some things." Sarah fidgeted and shifted her weight from one hip to the other.
"What kind of things? Did he say anything to you?"
"It's irrelevant. I know he was involved with the Underground." Sarah took a large swallow from her goblet and looked Jareth straight in the eye. "What I find interesting is how closely both of you work together. I have questions of my own, and I’m curious about what it is you know about him."
Sarah's tone was earnest; she spoke with conviction. She did not break eye contact with Jareth as she spoke.
"I do know he is not to be trusted."
Sarah scoffed, and then again, followed with a hearty guffaw. "How rich, coming from you! The narcissist extraordinaire himself! How dare you call someone else untrustworthy?"
Jareth bristled, ire furrowing his brow and tightening in his abdomen. "You chose not to accept my offer. If you’re insinuating it was deceptive, I can assure you, Sarah, it was very real." Much like this situation, he thought desperately. This is not working in my favor.
Sarah stiffened, her face taut. "This is not the time for that conversation. There was no real choice, and that is not something I’m willing to discuss any further." She crossed one arm over her body and turned to face the fire again, ignoring him as much as she could.
Jareth set his goblet on the table. "What I do know about Cassius is that he is not safe."
Sarah scoffed again. "And you are? How can I trust you?" Her voice pitched upwards, uncertainty wavering in her voice.
"Sarah," he started, and looked her over. In his mind, Jareth recounted the events and changes, Cassius’ letter, the labyrinth’s demands and behavior. The uncertainty and unprecedented storm and the magic that drove it. Everything he knew all pointed to one thing—and because he had no definite proof, he could literally not indicate any of it to the object of all the trouble and misery. "You must know that he is the most unsavory of characters."
"Believe it or not, I already figured that out for myself," Sarah sneered.
Jareth gritted his teeth. In some ways, they were too similar. “I do believe it.”
Whether it was the mead, her exhaustion, or life experience steeling her nerves, Sarah thanked her lucky stars that she held herself so well against the Goblin King during this confrontation. This was not exactly the situation she'd envisioned when she'd let herself imagine meeting Jareth again.
A part of her wanted to believe that Jareth told the truth. His eyes did not shadow and shift the way they had when she last faced him. In fact, they looked familiar as they had when he first rescued her from the house—she shivered at the memory—deadly earnest.
But what was she to believe? A warm, crackling fire and a glass of mead surely could not sway her. She already knew that Cassius wasn’t trustworthy, and so Jareth’s warning fell on well-versed ears. Sarah had never trusted Cassius as far as she could throw him; she merely had no choice but to follow him.
And just because the Goblin King was not Cassius did not render him any more trustworthy or in any way believable. Cassius was responsible for truly terrible things. But he did not commit acts such as poisoning her, setting innocents against her, or shifting time for his own benefit.
All the same, Jareth was in no way responsible for the things Cassius had committed against Sarah.
A pregnant moment stretched into an enduring silence. Jareth stood and slowly paced in front of the fire. He stopped once or twice and opened his mouth, but did not speak. Sarah waited wordlessly. She had learned over time to let those who believed they led precarious situations to actually lead it and she would follow or divert as needed. Confidence could be a dangerous thing.
As he paced, though, curiosity sparked in Sarah. She wondered how Jareth knew of Cassius. Surely the Underground was large enough that other realms and kingdoms existed; Sarah lamented the idea that its most apparently prevalent species was the charming, but ultimately stupid and useless, goblins.
In all the time Sarah had accepted that Cassius was part of the Underground, she suddenly realized she never imagined in what capacity. Given all the time he spent in with her in New York, Sarah wondered if she imagined that he simply did not have any rank and merely a measure of power to exist Aboveground.
But if Jareth knew of him, she reasoned, there was no way he could have simply been a civilian or subject. Jareth was not the type to rub shoulders with peasants and low ranking nobles unless his duty required it. Unless they served him a purpose.
Sarah startled when Jareth spoke again, as she had lost herself so deeply in thought.
"It is truly unfortunate that I have no way to convey this to you," he continued pacing but glanced at her every few steps; one hand holding his chin. "Yet all I can offer is what I have already stated. Cassius is not safe, and I urge you to strongly consider everything he says—or does."
Sarah tilted her head as she watched him. She had ever known or witnessed the Goblin King simply unable to do something. It was more characteristic of him to simply take what he wanted or will a circumstance into existence. If he was unable to do so now, that meant he was either dealing with an equal to match his power and abilities, or handling something entirely new.
Or, just plain lying to her. He’d done it before.
Sarah swallowed as the idea dawned on her— what if this really is as serious as he says ? Though she had never seen him in direct combat, Sarah guessed Jareth would not permit anything dangerous to infiltrate his fortress or otherwise ask for help unless he truly needed it. He was far too proud.
"Well, what can you tell me about him?"
Jareth stopped and caught her gaze. The warm glow from the fire behind him illuminated his hair. His brows did not arch and his face remained calm and focused. "Not much, unfortunately."
"Well, why not?"
Jareth sighed, long-suffering. This had bothered him for centuries. "Etiquette was so highly valued by our ancestors and trained into our forefathers that it evolved and dictated rules of engagement. Without particular conditions and requirements, unless someone outright names their explicit intention to commit an act, we cannot do anything."
Sarah turned it over in her mind, piecing together what Jareth said. "You mean to say that you are magically and legally barred from hearsay? You cannot actually tell me what is going on."
"Even magic has rules, Sarah.”
Sarah still did not understand why she was here, regardless whether or not she wanted to be.
She waited for him to say something further. Jareth appeared to do the same as he watched her. His gaze softened and Sarah suspected he may have...pitied her.
His unusual eye with its enlarged pupil caught her attention as she studied his gaze during their silence. In the past, she had simply accepted it as some side effect of his magic or status, but in their awkward stare-off, she couldn’t help but wonder about it.
“What happened? To your eye,” Sarah blurted.
As soon as she said it, Sarah realized that if it was rude Aboveground, her asking something so direct to a monarch Underground might have borderlined on treason.
The softness in Jareth’s gaze disappeared. His lips twitched, but he did not break his silent stare. Sarah held her breath, regretting her rudeness. He turned back to the fire.
"I faced...a trial, of sorts. You could say I took a test."
Now with curiosity burning her insides, Sarah pressed further. She couldn’t resist. "Did you pass?"
Jareth turned back to her, his arms crossed tightly over his chest. He looked at her for a long moment.
And without any further explanation, before Sarah could say anything else, Jareth set down his goblet and wordlessly left the library.
We have finally reached the second act, folks! Champagne all around!
I don't like lengthy A/Ns, but y'all deserve a hefty update.
Um, so it's June now: Bad news following my other bad news (two job losses, a hand injury, and depression) was that I had to scrap most of the chapter. The other bit was that while I'm in a creative upswing, I've found myself working on a million different projects instead of just one or two. But the GOOD NEWS is that I am finally making headway on this chapter and it's shaping up to be a lot better than what I started with (and actually congruent with my outline, which was the biggest problem). So, for that, I'm going to replace the preview with something that's...more aligned with the chapter's direction. Heads up: from here on out things get scary and the horror tag comes into play.
Chapter Six Teaser:
Hours ticked by. The joyous shrieks of the goblin babes and the cries of their worried mothers faded as the sun fell and the wind picked up. Branches clacked against each other and icicles tinkled.
Sarah lied on the bed, unblinking and not moving. She curled up under the covers the moment she arrived back in the room, her back to the door. She stared at the fire and laid still when someone shuffled in and left a dinner plate on her nightstand. The food’s scent wafted to her, savory and delicious, but she could not work up the energy to eat past fighting her deferred nausea.
Exhaustion weighed her down, sinking her further into the bedding. It pulled on her shoulders and hips. She could not have even kicked the blanket for the weight of her limbs.
The fire continued to crackle, a chatty conversation between wood and thermodynamics. Sarah heard the stoic familiarity of science reason in low booms as the wood cracked from within, countered by high squeaks and pops when moisture evaporated.
A clock ticked in the background, but she didn’t remember a clock in the room. It was subtle, quiet--she willed her heart to slow in time with it. The ticking reminded her of the pregnant moments in childhood, just awaiting her father’s final ruling on her punishment for the latest transgression. She was in a chair in the kitchen and tall shadows towered over her, tears dripping with every other tick of the clock. And then she was standing in front of her vanity, red splattered all over the mirror. A snake writhed in her sticky hands, convulsing and hissing. Sarah stared down her reflection, her eyes dead but every ounce of hatred seethed through her.
Her claws squeezed and strangled the snake. Growls thundered and shook the walls. They rumbled and a tiny corner near her closet fell, revealing the dewy and damp forest. For once, for the first time in her memory, Sarah couldn’t understand why the growling sounded like neither Jareth nor Cassius.
She still felt the snake slithering and writhing in her hands as the sun peeked into the room, frigid and desperate for resolution.