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Beyond the Goblin City

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Gott, Hermann, you have you to admit you’re asking for it.”

Hermann doesn’t admit anything of the sort, staring at his feet fixedly.

“Swanning around with this-“ Lars waves the little book and Hermann’s heart lodges in his throat. No-

But Lars only throws it against the wall with a sickening bang. The binding cracks, but it’s still in one piece. Hermann hesitates, desperate for the chance to dart in and rescue the text-

And it comes as Bastian starts to scream.

“Oh, that’s all we need!” Lars snarls, and storms out. Hermann snatches the little book and tucks it under his shirt before hurrying after Lars.

“Be quiet!” He roars into the darkened nursery. Bastian just screams louder. Lars grabs Hermann’s shoulder and shoves him into the room. “Shut him up!”

Hermann hurries in and switches on the little night-light, the tinkling of twinkle twinkle little star is almost drowned out by Bastian’s howls. He’s tiny in his cot, wrinkled and red-faced. Hermann picks him up and rocks him. “Ssh,” He whispers, “It’s okay, you can be quiet, ssh.”

There’s a moment’s break, Bastian hiccups, coughs. His eyes fix on Hermann and Hermann dares to smile-

And Bastian screams again, little pink fists clenched tight and bunched under his chin.

“I told you to shut him up!” Lars shouts form next door.

“He needs feeding.” Hermann calls back, then quickly grabs the feeding bag and hurries downstairs before Lars can shout at him for talking back. His leg grumbles as he hits the stairs too hard, it’s been a long day, and it’s not getting any better.

At least getting Bastian down into the kitchen means Lars is out of earshot. He puts Bastian down in the middle of the table, keeping a wary eye on him to make sure he doesn’t fall off as he mixes the formula, warms the bottle, and fits the teat.

Bastian is screaming so hard he doesn’t even seem to want to eat. Hermann walks him up and down, rocking him to calm him down as the milk sits in a bowl of warm water.

“Shh,” Hermann repeats, “Shh, or I’ll ask the goblins to take you away.” He smiles fondly at his brother. “Do you want that? Do you want to be turned into as a goblin and work in their court?”

Bastian is still crying, but he’s died down a little. Hermann holds up his bottle, and he chokes off a bit more. “Maybe not, you sure you want to stay here?”

He puts the nipple to Bastian’s mouth, and Bastian latches on eagerly. He suckles, milk dribbling down his cheek and little fists clenching and unclenching. “I’m not sure it’s the right choice,” Hermann sighs and sits on the kitchen chair, rocking his brother, “You could have parties, and learn old magic, learn to turn yourself into and an owl and-“

“Are you filling his head with that- girlish nonsense?”

Hermann freezes. Lars glares at him from the doorway. “Are you trying to make him as- pathetic and useless as you?”

“I-“ Hermann has no idea what to say, the edge of his little book digs into his side as he hugs Bastian.

“Give him here-“ Lars grabs at Bastian and Hermann lets him go quickly before he gets hurt. Bastian screws up his face and starts to scream. “Gott, you can’t do anything right.” He thrusts the bottle into Bastian’s face. Bastian just howls louder. Lars tries to force the nipple into his mouth and Hermann starts forwards. Bastian chokes, coughs, milk runs from his nose and his screams grow more strangled.

“Look what you did!” Lars shoves him away, loses his grip on the bottle and it falls to smash on the floor. Hermann tenses, gets an arm up in time to block Lars’ first blow, but he’s too slow for the second and it lands hard on the side of his face.

Hermann stumbles back, groping for the countertop to keep from falling to the glass-covered floor. He shakes his head, blinks away double vision and sees Lars in front of him, fists clenched and Bastian, where’s Bastian?

His eyes focus on the kitchen table, where Bastian is dangerously close to the edge. He gets another punch as he dives in to grab him up, but it glances off his shoulder. His school shoes crunch on the broken glass, but Bastian is safe in his arms.

“Get back here!” Lars roars as he makes a run for it. “Come here and clean up your mess, you disgusting, useless little-“

Hermann doesn’t hear the rest. He slams his bedroom door closed with his shoulder, and shoves a dresser in front. Hermann stumbles back and collapses down on his bed, panting hard. Bastian is coughing, still spitting up milk, Hermann turns him over his shoulder, and pats his back.

Bastian burps, then is sick down Hermann‘s back and over his bed.

And- it’s all too much. Hermann bursts into tears. He clutches at Bastian and cries, harsh and raw and it hurts; deep, ripping sobs tearing from his throat. Bastian cries louder again, drowning out his own cries.

“I- I wish-“ He chokes. “Just- look at the two of us.” He looks helplessly at his little brother. He’s hungry, and that was their last bottle. He’s going to have to wait until tomorrow before he can get another. He has a test tomorrow, and maths extra-curricular, and Bastian is going to be crying all night.

Hermann tucks his face into the crook of one arm, letting the tears come harder. His shoulder throbs, the side of his face feels hot and swollen. The black eye he’d gotten in school and which had set Lars off feels even rawer after the tears. His legs adds it’s twitching pains to the whole mess. He looks up to the MC Escher poster above his bed and longs- as he has for more than one dark night- to be able to crawl into it and away from this mess.

Bastian’s scream get higher, little piercing shrieks that stab through Hermann’s head until oh liebe gott shut up. “Please don’t.” He begs hopelessly. Bastian doesn’t understand. He’s only six months old. “Please, I can’t get you any more milk.”

Bastian howls even louder.

Please.” He can feel the tears burning up again. He can’t, “Just for one night please-“

Bastian’s face is blood-red, contorted with howls, toothless gums wide and gaping.

Gott, you already are a goblin.” Hermann wipes furiously at the tears. “I wish the Goblin King would come and take you away, right now.”

He closes his eyes to rubs his face clean- and the screams stop.

Hermann stops, spreads his fingers and peers through them. “Bastian?” Gott, had he choked? Had he inhaled too much milk-

But the bed is empty.

“Bastian?” Hermann pulls the bedclothes down. Nothing. “Bastian?” He looks under the pillows, then under the bedclothes again. What-

Hot fear locks into his throat. He looks around wildly. The room is empty.

And different.

Hermann can’t put his finger on how, is too desperate to pay much attention to it. It’s as though the entire room had rotated ninety degrees- it’s all the same, but it is so different. Hermann dashes around the alien walls, fingers groping to open cupboards and closets.

It’s impossible, he couldn’t possibly have climbed up to the wardrobe but he throws it open anyway-

And light blinks out, cold air cuts through the warm summer night, and the Goblin King steps out in a swirl of blue robes from Hermann’s hanging clothes.

Hermann’s stares, mouth open, deafened by his own frantic heartbeat.

The King looks down at him from the edge of the wardrobe. His eyes glitter green from behind an arching blue mask. His robes shimmer and glint like deep sea glass, hanging heavy and lank around him.

This can’t be real, Hermann thinks wildly, then-

oh gott, oh gott I did this, I sent him away-

“Please.” He croaks, “I didn’t mean it. Please bring him back.”

The King just looks at him, still and impassive. He slides open one arm, the floor-length sleeve sweeping open to reveal-

“Bastian!” Hermann darts forwards, but the King crosses his arms again, and Bastian is gone. “Please- no. I need him back-“

“Why?” The King’s voice is muffled and mottled behind his mask. “He is gone now. Go back to your books and your studies-“ he waves at Hermann’s bookshelves, and they seems to shine. Hermann turns and- there are new books there now, ones he had always wanted, ones he had never dreamed could exist. The mess on his bed has vanished and when Hermann looks down at himself, he’s clean too. “You won’t need to worry about your little brother interrupting your study time again.”

“I don’t want them!” Hermann trembles, “Please, I want him back.”

“What is done, is done.”

Hermann feels his knees tremble; he leans on his desk to keep himself from falling over. This can’t be real. This is some kind of hideous dream. “I’ll do- anything. Please, give him back.”

“Anything?” There’s a glint of something sharp and curious in the King’s eye. Hermann cannot see his face under the mask, but he goes cold all over.

But there’s nothing else to do.

“Anything,” he admits.

Light suddenly bursts from behind the King, from the wardrobes, and the false, strange room is stripped away like paint around him. The carpeted floor peels away under Hermann’s feet, and he is standing on scrubby red grass.

The light is gold, so bright after the dim room that Hermann has to cover his eyes and blink hard.

They are standing on a hill. There is a castle in the distance, and below them-

The labyrinth.

Hermann swallows. It’s just like the picture. He pulls out the battered little book still tucked inside his shirt. The pages feel loose as he opens it and- yes, just the same. The same cast to the sky with no sun but just an endless glow of late summer light, the endless knotwork of the walls. But the picture could never capture the strange old sense to the air, the warm breeze on the hilltop, the faint smell of rot like an ancient, abandoned library.

It’s almost claustrophobic, for such a wide open space.

Hermann turns to the Goblin King for one last chance. “I didn’t want him gone,” he begs. “I just wanted him- not here. Our father, he was- and there was no milk-“ He’s babbling, looking desperately into those masked eyes. Is there sadness there? He cannot tell.

“What is done is done,” is all he says and Hermann sags hopelessly, staring out at the endless expanse of the Labyrinth. He waves his hand, and a clock appears. “You have twelve hours to find your brother, or-“

“He’ll be yours forever.” Hermann intones dully. He knows the rules. Gott, he’d wanted to get Bastian away from Lars, but he hadn’t meant- he didn’t want-

“Wait!” The Goblin King has turned away, the light surrounding him deepens and he seems to be disappearing in front of his eyes. “My brother! He’s hungry. Do you- he needs milk-“

The Goblin King looks back at him, the light catches his eyes under his mask and they spark green. “He won’t go hungry, don’t worry.”

There’s something different in his voice, after the heavy, formal language. Something lighter and gentler but before Hermann can open his mouth and say anything else-

He is gone.

Hermann looks around, looks behind him. The land there stretches featureless and- not quite real. It’s like his bedroom was, as though it were a masterfully painted backdrop in one of those old Hollywood movies. There will be no getting around the Labyrinth. It is real, somehow more real than the land around him.

Hermann can almost feel it, as he descends the hill. The world seems to gain in complexity as he approaches the walls. The bare, beaten red earth disappears under tussocks of yellow grass, and small creatures scuttle beneath his feet.

A small stream cuts in front of the entrance, Hermann looks at it warily. It sparkles in the dim light, but when Hermann bends down to look in, he cannot see the bottom. It just darkens away in shades of blue-

Something flickers in the depths.

Hermann starts back, bumps over something behind him and stumbles, falling hard on his backside- just in time as a huge green hand flails out of the tiny stream, flapping around and groping on the grass for him.

Hermann kicks and scrambles backwards; the hand slaps down where he was and snatches up the tiny, huddled thing he’d tripped over, dragging it down into the stream with a gurgle of satisfaction.

Hermann stops for a moment, breathing hard. He shudders, feels sick. He looks up and down the stream- it’s unbroken, no sign of a bridge.

Hermann gets up stiffly, takes a deep breath. He has to do it. For Bastian. He’s no athlete but he can jump across the stream, and if he can just be fast enough-

As his heart starts to calm down from its hammering, he becomes aware of a distant rhythmic thumping sound, coming closer. There’s a high hiss of steam, and a white cloud appears behind the near wall of the Labyrinth.

Hermann hurries back a few steps and drops flat behind a hillock, not about to meet what is coming now.

Another clack, a metallic crash and a massive metal figure appears at the mouth of the Labyrinth. It marches out to the stream, glowing gold in the diffuse light. It’s shaped like a man in armor, a full twelve feet tall, and steam jets out from between the cracks in its joints.

It looks down into the stream a moment, and then plunges a massive hand in. The water hisses and spits from the heat, and it hauls out a massive squirming thing. It’s a huge cluster of flailing arms, each one tipped with claws and there’s a shriek as they tear across the figure’s metal plates.

It doesn’t seem to notice. It punches the writhing mass once, twice, three times, each blow sounding like a gong, until the thing hangs limp in the figure’s grasp. It throws the thing down, and crushes it with a boot, grabbing a cluster of arms with one hand and pulling-

Hermann covers his eyes; it might have tried to eat him but he can’t watch. He hears it though, a sickening tearing sound, a shriek-

Then nothing. Hermann peers out over the hillock and the figure is almost black with blood. It reaches into the thing’s entrails and pulls out the squeaking figure Hermann had tripped over. It’s human shaped too, and covered in armour, and less than a meter high. It sits on the figure’s hand, and reaches out a tiny hand to brush the muck off its face.

The figure rumbles like distant thunder. Turns with a crash of iron and strides back into the Labyrinth, the tiny figure in hand.

Hermann waits until the worst of the din has died away, then jumps over the stream without daring to look down. He lands badly and falls over, but he’s over it. Rubbing his sore leg, he peers around the edge of the entrance.

The figure is still there, in the distance, silhouetted against the sky. Hermann turns quick and runs as fast as he can in the opposite direction.

He slows down after a few moments, glances back- he’s alone. The walls stretch on for as far as he can see in each direction, featureless.

What was it you should always do in a maze? Always turn right? Or was it left? It doesn’t seem like he is going to have a choice, he turns, presses his hands to the wall, looks up. Could he climb it? Hermann sets a foot against the wall, tries to find a foothold and reaches up to dig his fingers into the cracks.

His leg trembles as he forces weight onto it. He grits his teeth and pushes himself up. He grabs at the wall, finds the first sprigs of a tree growing out of the wall. He grips it and finds another deep crack to get his foot in. Hermann smiles, pulls himself up to the branches of the tree. He can’t be far from the top now-

But he looks up- and the wall is still every bit as tall as it had seemed on the ground. It towers above him, endless.

Hermann looks down- and freezes.

The ground is miles below him. The passage he had been walking along is nothing more than a ribbon. He can see over the wall to the distant hill, the stream. He freezes in place, unable to move, unable to breathe.

This has to be a hallucination. A trick. An illusion. Hermann closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. He opens them again.

If anything, the ground is even further away.

He has to do something. Bastian needs him; he can’t just sit here like a cat up a tree-

A snarl echoes down from above him.

Hermann looks up.

A deep, rumbling growl follows, and a head appears over the top of the wall, then two clawed feet, then shoulders, then the rest of a long, blue body.

It looks like a lion, a snarling, menacing lion. Its body is covered in heavy bone plates, it’s huge claws dig into the stone, crumbling it and sending it down in rivulets to Hermann.

Its vivid green eyes lock on Hermann. The growls turn into a roar.

Hermann sinks against the tree, trying to get away from the thing- he’s so many miles up. The lion thing bounds down to a ledge, only a few meters above Hermann.

Hermann grips the tree and tries to slide his feet down to a crack- and slips. He chokes off a cry as his legs fly out into thin air. He’s hanging by his fingers over hundreds of feet of empty space.

Another roar. The thing slides down further. It’s only feet away now, so close Hermann can see its heavy, square head, muzzle pale blue and teeth protruding under its lips. He gets to see the teeth so much more clearly when the creature opens its jaws again. Saliva drips the meter or so between the two of them.

Finally, with a roar, it jumps down to the tree Hermann is clinging to.

The tree has had enough. Their combined weight tears it out by the roots and they fall-

They fall three feet. Hermann lands hard on his good leg and staggers, lurching against the wall. The lion lands neatly on four feet, grabs the tree neatly between its teeth, and tosses it at Hermann.

Hermann stares at it. The lion sits down and looks at him. He bends down, and touches the tree-

And suddenly, he’s thousands of feet in the air again, the world falling away around him. Hermann chokes, sucks in a breath and lets go. He is back in the Labyrinth again, with the lion sitting in front of him.

It growls at him, tail lashing the ground. It gets up, and pads towards him.

Hermann steps back. The lion might have gotten him off the wall, but its head comes up to his chest, and its massive, eagle talons click on the ground as it come close. It grumbles impatiently as it steps past him, looks at him again, and steps-

Into the wall.

Hermann blinks, reaches out to touch the wall-

And finds a corner.

Hermann follows the lion, out of the passage and into a new one. The lion purrs in satisfaction, lying down on a low stone, tail flicking.

“Thank you.” Hermann smiles. The lion purrs again. He reaches out a hand to pat it- then stops, uncertain.

The lion leans in, and butts its head against Hermann’s hand. It purrs. Hermann strokes its head, the jagged spines that clatter over its neck, and gets a lick to his hand.

The lion gets to its feet, and springs up. It claws its way up the wall in three bounds, and disappears.

Hermann looks up after it, fighting down a sudden sense of loss. He seems to be stumbling into one danger after another, he‘d rather liked having someone with him.

With a sigh, he heads down into the new passage.

This passage seems older, with pieces of masonry and rock scattered around. Hermann pokes at them warily, in case any of them are traps. Nothing happens.

He can see parts of the castle and the Goblin City in the distance as he walks through the network of rubble strewn paths. It’s enough to orient him and- he isn’t sure, but it does seem like he’s getting closer.

Hermann tries not to smile. He knows it won’t be that easy, the Goblin King won’t let him just walk in and there’s still so far to go, but he can’t stifle a surge of optimism as he turns another corner and-

Sees the mountain in front of him.

It isn’t exactly a mountain, but it may as well be. The sheer cliff in front of him is featureless and taller than the walls. Hermann hesitates, wonders if he should turn around and go back-

But he can see the castle; this path leads right towards it. Surely, it’s worth seeing if there’s a way past it. He presses his hands to a chalky surface, in case there’s a secret door, or if it’s an optical illusion.

The chalk is dull and crumbly; his hands find no more than his eyes. Hermann sighs, and starts sidling around, just to check the edges-

“Did you take my bear?”

The growl seems to come from just behind and to the left of him. Hermann freezes. Doesn’t turn around.

“I’m sorry, I haven’t.” He stares fixedly into the chalk of the cliff; a few sprigs of grass are growing out of it.

“If you lie. I will dry your heart and liver for our winter stores.”

“Yes.” Hermann swallows. “I really haven’t.” He dares to turn around.

A cavewoman is somewhat less terrifying than the other horrors he’d expected. She glowers at him, and bares heavy, tusk like teeth. “Remove your skins.”

“What?” Hermann looks down at himself.

“If you have seen my bear, he will have marked you. Remove these-“ She steps forwards, and pulls out a heavy flint knife.

Hermann backs away, his back presses into the chalk. “I-“

“You lie!” There’s a triumphant glint in the woman’s eyes. “Where is my bear! Where did you see him!”

“No! I swear-“

She doesn’t listen; with a set, furious face, she lowers her knife and tears it through the shoulder of Hermann’s school blazer.

Hermann’s mouth opens, but he doesn’t dare protest. The woman’s knife flashes again and again, ripping his uniform to shreds. Hermann starts as the knife nicks his bad leg, squeaks in pain as hot blood runs down his thigh. The woman roars and spins him around, attacking his back and stripping it bare.

“You tell the truth.” She says finally, her voice heavy. Hermann dares to turn around. The woman slips her knife away inside her furs. “You have not seen my bear.”

“I’m sorry.” Hermann isn’t sure what else to say.

“I am sorry.” She looks around at the wreck of Hermann‘s clothes. Hermann gropes through the rags but- they’re finished. He feels a moment’s panic at what Lars will say- then it dies. He’s in the Goblin King’s Labyrinth with a cavewoman, Lars is beside the point.

His trousers are somewhat salvageable, although about half their normal length. He pulls them back up, and the cavewoman pulls off her fur cloak and hands it to him.

“Do you know how to get past the cliff?” Hermann asks, pulling the cloak gratefully around him. Under it, the woman wears painted skins decorated with bear teeth and claws.

“I- cannot.” She looks away, sighs. “The King told me to guard this place and let none past until my bear returns.”

Hermann hesitates, about to say thanks, never mind then and go back and find another way, but- “How long have you been guarding it?”

“Not long,” She shrugs, “A few thousand years, I think.”

“Oh,” Hermann tries not to stare. “Shouldn’t he be back by now thought?”

“He has never been gone so long,” she says after a long moment. “I fear- if he has been hurt here-“

“Maybe we could find him.” Hermann tries eagerly. “If you let me past the cliff, we can look for him together! I’m sure he’s on the way to the castle.”

“You would help me look?” She blinks at him, starts to smile- showing those rather unnerving teeth.

“I have to go to the castle in- ten hours.” Hermann checks his watch. “But as long as I can do that- of course I’ll help you.”

The woman suddenly gives a roaring, barking laugh, slaps him on the back. “You are worthy of my furs! From today, you will be Brother to Bears.”

Hermann blinks, but she is smiling dazzlingly, and no one has ever seemed so happy at anything Hermann has done before. “Thank you?”

“This way, Brother.“ She takes out her knife, and stabs at the cliff, hollowing out a hand hold. She bounds up, and starts cutting the next one out.

Hermann glances up, but there doesn’t seem to be any trees growing from the cliff. He sighs, and starts to climb after her.

“I’m Hermann,” Hermann tries, as they slide down the far side.

She looks at him for a long moment, and Hermann shifts, did he mess this up somehow? But then she nods. “I am Sasha, Husband to Bears.”

Husband? Hermann glances at her chest- apparently a she. But he isn’t about to tell Sasha she cannot be a husband, so only smiles. “Nice to meet you.”

“Long winter sleep and good summer hunting.” She returns.

“Do you know anything about this area?” The path seems to be sloping downwards now, the walls growing higher above them.

“No.” She looks around, and then brightens. “But caves are a good place. This must be the right way.”

Hermann isn’t sure. It grows darker and darker as they go deeper and deeper into the ground. The ceiling doesn’t close around them and the path is still illuminated by the sliver of daylight above.

Sasha seems uncertain now. “These are like no caves I have ever seen.”

“No,” Hermann agrees, “But we’re going the right way. If we keep on going straight, we’ll be going right towards the castle.”

“But what if my bear is above?” She points.

“Then we’ll come back up there.” Hermann says firmly. “That way we’ll have searched above and below.”

That seems to satisfy her. “What do you need in the castle?”

“My brother.” Hermann sighs.

“Is he a bear?”

“No.”

“He will be Brother to Bears.” Sasha says firmly. “He will be raised under the fur and lift the claws with our honoured children.”

Hermann feels a sudden strange burst of- warmth? It trickles through him light and bright, makes him smile. Sasha smiles back, reaches out to slap him on the back again- Hermann flinches- then stops.

“What is that beast?”

Hermann turns. A small tunnel leads off down the main passage, and following Sasha’s gaze, he sees the blue lion again, padding towards them.

“Oh, he’s okay.” Hermann nods, “I saw him before.”

“A fine beast!” She grins- or at least, shows her massive teeth. “I will mount its head above the hearth in the great cave!”

“Wait!” Hermann starts, but she’s already running.

The lion starts. Sasha roars- like a bear- and draws two knives. The lion looks at Hermann desperately, and Hermann shrugs back, helpless. It growls at him, then springs away, darting away into the darkness.

Sasha runs after. Hermann hovers uncertainly at the crossroads. Her cries and the lion’s roars fade into the distance. The silence ebbs around him. Hermann looks into the passage. “Sasha?”

Nothing. He steps in a little further. “Sasha!”

Nothing.

Hermann tries to follow, it gets darker and darker. He looks up; the crack of light above is no more than a sliver, and in a few more steps, it’s disappeared completely. He blinks, blinks again, and it makes no difference. He reaches out his hands to fumble for the walls and feel his way-

His foot catches on something on the floor; Hermann stumbles, cutting cuts his hand on something hard as he falls. He curls up in a ball on the floor, hissing and clutching his wrist.

The passage is silent. “Sasha!”

Nothing. Hermann takes a deep breath, and turns around, walking back towards the faint glow of light beyond.

In the light, he can see his hand better. There’s a deep cut in the palm. Hermann flexes his fingers and hisses, presses it to Sasha’s fur cloak to wipe the worst of the blood off, then to his mouth to lick out the grit.

He stumbles on, continuing into the main passageway. “Sasha?” he calls, wondering if that passage might run back and join this one. More passages are branching off it now, and Hermann peers into them, but they are dark and silent.

He’s lost them. Hermann closes his eyes, feeling suddenly, painfully lonely. He pulls himself together. He needs to keep going. It’s too dark to see his watch, but Bastian needs him. He doesn’t have much longer now.

The ground is damper underfoot, he is still moving down, still going arrow-straight towards the castle and Hermann wonders if he might be heading into the castle cellars.

Suddenly, there’s a faint scratching sound in a nearby passageway. Hermann stops. “Sasha?” He tries hopefully.

There’s a soft, broken moan.

Has she been hurt? Did the lion maul her? “Sasha?” Hermann hurries into the tunnel. “Are you here?”

Another groan, low and bestial. Hermann hesitates. It doesn’t sound like Sasha. He look back, thinks about retreating-

No. He is Brother to Bears. He has Sasha’s cloak. He can do this. He takes a deep breath, and plunges in.

There is only faint light here, coming from a few openings in the roof. There is another moan, and Hermann sees it.

“Oh.” Hermann bends down, looking into the animal’s eyes. “You’re Sasha’s bear.”

The bear looks back up at him. It is wading through shoulder-deep mud, lurching hopelessly at the muddy sides of the pit. It looks at him with pleading eyes.

“Sasha isn’t far.” He looks around. “But she’s not here.”

The bear tries to throw itself up the side of the pit. It’s great, lumpy and muddy paws rake and slide uselessly through the mud, and it slumps back in with a cry.

Hermann bites his lip, looking around the pit. “Hang on.” He circles around until he finds a rough, slightly more solid side of the pit. It looks like the bear hasn’t torn this one to slush yet. “Wait.” He holds up a hand and the bear backs off, looking at him.

With a quick apology to Sasha, Hermann unhooks her cloak and throws it down over the edge of the pit, and hangs on tight. “Now!”

The bear roars and charges, churning the mud like a battleship, bursting out and clawing at the cloak. Hermann hangs on, gritting his teeth and pulling, the bear’s massive weight threatening to drag the cloak out of his hands.

It roars again, kicks, and grips the cloak with its claws, its huge shoulders bunching-

Hermann yells, pushing himself backwards against the bear’s enormous weight. The cloak’s fur bites into the open cut in his palm, tears it like sandpaper and he screams again in pain. His leg buckles and he falls to one knee, but doesn’t let go. The bear stumbles, for a moment it slips, nearly slides back- then rights itself, and powers out of the pit, collapsing in the passage next to Hermann.

Hermann looks at it warily. He’d had luck with the lion, but what if the bear is more savage? The bear struggles to its feet and looks at him, eyes glittering in the darkness. Hermann swallows, “Hello?”

The bear grunts, and leans forwards; it presses its cold nose into Hermann’s wrist, then down into his freely bleeding palm. Hermann shudders, the pain a sharp shock- then it fades as the bear licks his palm. Three times, and it’s gone completely. Hermann holds his hand up to the faint light and the cut is faded, a mottled grey mark. ”Thank you.”

Another grunt from the bear, and it turns to lumber back out of the passage. Hermann pulls the now filthy cloak over his shoulder and hurries after it.

Back in the passage, the bear sniffs the air, and then looks back at Hermann. “I’m sorry.” Hermann sighs. “I have no idea which way it is.”

A growl.

“This way maybe? We might find Sasha on the way back.”

At Sasha’s name, the bear perks up, and follows him as they continue down the passage.

It’s getting darker. Hermann looks up and the sky is little more than a bright, colourless line far up in the distance. There’s a strange, soft sort of vibration in the air. The bear growls and crouches, staring ahead.

“Sasha?” Hermann calls hopefully, but it’s half-hearted, the bear grumbles again, threateningly, and Hermann backs away behind it. The vibration is louder now; he can taste it behind his teeth.

The lion suddenly bounds out and stops when it sees them. It roars at them- and the bear bellows back, starting to lumber towards the lion-

Sasha suddenly skids around the corner behind the lion. “Alexis!” She shouts.

The bear- Alexis?- stops and roars happily, forgetting the lion and rushing towards her.

The lion roars again, and leaps at Hermann. Hermann steps back and it lands neatly in front of him. The vibration is sunk into the ground now, the stones and pebbles rattle with it. He looks at the lion. He roars again- deafening in warning-

Hermann gets the message. “Sasha!”

She turns, just in time for the thing to burst out of the tunnel ahead.

It could be a machine for digging out new tunnels. Or it could be an animal eating its way through the dirt. As it is, Hermann can only see down its gullet, and the spinning, blending rows of teeth churning up everything in its way.

Hermann turns and runs. Behind him, he can hear Sasha and Alexis bounding after him. And behind them, the crashing, roaring din of the machine-beast.

The end of the tunnel seems a thousand miles away, a tiny pin prick of daylight. Hermann’s breath comes in razorblades, lodging in his chest with each gasp. His bad leg shakes under him and bursts with pain with every step and oh gott he’s going to fall he’ll fall and it’ll eat him-

“Hermann!” Sasha shouts. She’s riding on Alexis’ back, the massive bear galloping easily and pulling away from them.

Hermann tries to turn and run to them- and he steps badly, his leg buckles and he stumbles-

The lion rams into him, gets his head under Hermann and Hermann scrambles, managing to get a leg over its neck and slide down, digging his fingers into the massive plates on the animal’s neck.

The lion growls, its massive haunches bunch with each jump and Hermann throws his arms around his neck to keep from being thrown forwards with each bound.

They are going fast- but not fast enough. Hermann looks back and his heart lodges in his throat, the whirring teeth are only a few feet behind them.

The passage is brighter now, the walls lower. The golden light shines off the bear’s ivory coat, the lion‘s glistening blue hide, the steel flash of teeth behind them.

It’s closing, with the broader tunnel it’s speeding up. Sasha cries out, but Alexis cannot run any faster, the snapping teeth are only a foot behind the lion’s tail now-

The massive fists that burst down from the ceiling.

One grabs the lion firmly by the scruff of the neck, the other gets Sasha around the waist. Hermann hangs on to the lion‘s back and Sasha grabs Alexis around the middle as they are hauled out of the passage.

The great gnashing thing sweeps past, spraying dirt and loose earth. Hermann spits, turns-

And looks into the impassive face of a great metal figure.

It’s only vaguely human, featureless grey bisected by two vertical slits which must be eyes. But there’s something in it that almost glows, golden and bright.

It crashes and clanks, and deposits Hermann and the lion down on the ground. The lion shudders, and Hermann rather agrees. He sits down hard.

Sasha and Alexis are a few yards away; Sasha is stroking Alexis’ head and back, and the bear‘s growls and moans are slowly fading.

“Are you- well?”

Hermann blinks, turns to see the small figure he’d tripped over and the steam monster had eaten. It’s like the larger figure, only barely three feet tall. Its metal is blueish, its head looking rather more like a helmet. A hollow in its chest burns orange bright.

“I- yes.” Hermann manages. “Thank you.”

Then the figure reaches up with both hands and pulls its head off.

Hermann reels, wondering if he might be sick- but it’s not a head. It really is a helmet. The face under it is stunningly normal after the Labyrinth, young and beaming and no more than eight years old.

“Oh,” Hermann blinks, looks up at the figure; it looks back down at them, impassive. “Is he human too?”

She looks up, shrugs. “He’s sensei.” And that seem to encapsulate everything. “Are you going to the city?”

“Yes.” Hermann gets up, his legs tremble and he has to lean on a rock to get his balance. He looks around, the lion is gone. “Can you show us the way?”

The girl looks up to the figure. “Can we, sensei?”

A groaning crash is the only answer, but the girl smiles. “He says yes.”

Hermann glances at Sasha, she’s got her bear, surely she would want to go- but she just smiles. “You found my bear.” She says firmly, “We will find your brother.”

“Thank you.”

The enormous figure starts walking, slow steps, but Hermann needs to take three to each one. Sasha keeps up easily with a long, hunting stride, an Alexis huffs and grunts as he trots along. The little girl takes Hermann’s hand as they hurry along.

“You lost your brother?” She asks as they pass through increasingly overgrown walls, trees sprouting from the cracking masonry.

“Yes,” Hermann sighs. ‘l- made an awful mistake.”

“Did you wish him away?”

Hermann winces, the jab of guilt and misery. “Yes.”

“Was he in danger?”

Hermann blinks down at her. “Yes.” He says finally, “Our father-“ He doesn’t want to say any more. He isn’t sure he should. It’s not appropriate for kids.

On the other hand, he’s probably only four or so years older than her, and Bastian isn’t even one, so how appropriate is it for the two of them?

The girl nods anyway. “That’s why haha sent me here.” She looks up at him with wide, too old eyes. “There was a typhoon- a big storm-“

“I’m sorry.” Hermann fumbles, “Did they- come to get you back?”

“No.” Her lips tremble, she blinks. The figure growls and jets steam a few inches from Hermann’s face.

“Sorry.” Hermann tries again. “I’m sure- they wanted to.”

She nods, and looks away. Hermann stares ahead of him and tries not to meet anyone’s eyes. Gott, he’s so useless, why does he always ruin everything he tries to do?

Around them, the walls have disappeared, to be replaced by thick, impenetrable trees which are, if anything, even more formidable. Birds are singing in the upper branches and, nearby, Hermann thinks he can hear a brook.

After the stream outside, it’s not a reassuring sign. But the girl squeezes his hand. “Nothing bad in this one.”

Hermann nods. The brook is wide, the figure strides across it easily, Sasha and Alexis jump across. Hermann and the girl have to scramble awkwardly over a few stepping stones. The water below, at least, is clear and shallow and clearly harbours nothing but fish and smooth river pebbles.

“Have you been here long-“ Hermann cuts off as he slips and nearly falls face-first into the river. The girl grabs his arm with surprising strength and keeps him upright. “Sorry, thanks.”

She shrugs. “Sensei says time is different here. I do not think so long though.”

“Is it nice?” Maybe, if he doesn’t manage to get to the castle in time... he looks at his watch, six hours. Half the time gone.

But she nods, so hard her helmet wobbles and nearly falls over her face. “Oh yes! The cleaners are not so nice and there are nasty things outside, but the city is very nice and Sensei is-“ She looks up with loving eyes at the massive figure. He seems to feel her looking and glances back, a deep, fond rumble echoing inside him.

“He is teaching me to patrol.” She continues. “I am not as big as him, but I can help keep bad things out.”

“That sounds very fun.” Hermann tries.

She straightens, standing to her full height of not quite three feet. “It is a responsibility.”

A rumble of approval from the figure.

“My name’s Hermann,” Hermann offers.

“I am Mako.” She smiles. “He is Stacker-“ She points to the figure.

“Nice to meet both of you.” Hermann smiles. “The woman is Sasha and the bear is Alexis.”

“We know.” Mako says serenely. “We have been looking for her bear for a long time- but sensei cannot fit in the tunnels and he does not want me to go alone.” She squeezes his hand. “It was good for you to find him.”

They follow the stream up into a gaping cave. It seems to be lit flickeringly inside, but there’s a strange smell, like charcoal and hot water.

Mako squeezes his hand again. “It’s okay. The dragon likes us.”

There’s a dragon. Okay, fine. At this point Hermann isn’t even surprised. He smiles at Mako, “I’ll be fine.” A thought suddenly occurs. “Sasha, there’s a dragon, please don’t fight it.”

She looks a little ashamed. “I should not have run after the lion. Your brother will be found first. Then-“ Her eyes gleam. “A battle for the ages.”

That’s the best they’re going to get. Hermann shrugs helplessly as they walk into the cave.

The flickering light isn’t torches, but a haze of shifting, dancing flames that line the enormous dragon’s body. It growls when they come in, the flames around its body lengthening and growing brighter, but when it sees Stacker is grumbles and settles back.

The heat of it is incredible. They skirt around the edge of the cave, as far away from it as they can get, and still it’s like being far too close to a bonfire. The air around the beast is so hot it bursts into flame by itself, its eyes glow, and when it opens it’s its mouth to yawn, the flame inside it lights up the tunnel.

Hermann glances at Sasha, she doesn’t exactly look dismayed, but she is very thoughtful. Alexis grumbles and shakes himself, giving her a warning look.

Sasha brightens as they turn a corner and- the lion is there. Hermann starts forwards in case she starts the chase again, but she holds to her promise and just sighs longingly and pats Alexis.

“Hello,” Hermann walks over, “Were you waiting for us?”

The lion purrs, and rubs himself along Hermann’s back. It’s like being coddled by an enormous, scaly blue cat. He strokes his back. He rubs against him- the scales catch on his matted cloak and nearly throttle him.

“We are nearly at the city.” Mako breaks in, pointing. “This will take us to the gate.”

Hermann blinks because- really? He looks at his watch, still just over five hours. Surely it has to be harder than this?

But no. They walk out of the tunnel and into blazing sunshine. The sandstone walls of the Goblin city are before them, the rust-red iron gates thrown open. He can see small, brownish-green creatures walking around, bustling in the street, manning- or would that be goblining- market stalls.

Hermann hesitates. In all of his stories, the heroes and heroines had to fight their way through the Goblin city, or disguise themselves or trick them or- Hermann has no idea how to apply that to himself, and can only follow a little helplessly as Mako leads him to the gates.

The lion bumps into him one more time, purrs once more comfortingly, and leaps up to the top of the city wall like a giant alley cat and stalks away.

“Do you see him often?” Hermann asks Mako, pointing at the lion. She nods.

“Sometimes, he likes to help us keep bad things out.”

Stacker stops at the gate, looks down. Mako stops beside him. Hermann can see the problem; Stacker cannot fit through the gates, let alone the little alleys beyond the walls. “Thank you.” He smiles at Mako. “Are you even allowed to help us?”

Mako blinks, as though it were the first time anyone had asked. “No one has told us no.”

Fair enough. He looks up at the massive Stacker. “Thank you for saving us.”

Another rumbling growl, a little amused. A hand the size of Hermann’s chest is lowered to his level. Hermann hesitates, and then takes it as best he can and shakes it.

“Ggggggd rrrruuukk” The ringing iron sings out.

Good luck. “Thank you.” Hermann crosses his fingers. He’s had far too much of it so far to feel easy in his mind.

Sasha doesn’t look at all worried as she rides Alexis into the city as though at the head of a conquering army. Hermann follows her, trying to look inconspicuous.

They do get a few odd looks, but most are reserved for Sasha- apparently even in the Goblin City, cavewomen on bears are considered unusual.

Hermann however, quickly becomes the target of quite a different kind of attention.

“Fine blades m’lord! Swords and daggers sharp enough the slay any beyond the Labyrinth!”

“Come and savour the finest drink in the land! Wines from Alfasker! Home brewed ale!”

“Sweet pies! Sweet pies! Blueberry and plum, apples from the garden of the norns, cherries from the everlasting fields!”

“A guide, sirs?”

That comes from a slightly taller goblin, appearing at Hermann’s shoulder. It’s almost as tall as he is, and has a small, but gentle smile. “Lost are you? Want a hand exploring our fine city?”

“Um- thank you but no.” Hermann glances around. “We need to get to the castle. I- I’m sorry I don’t have any money-“

“A few tales from your homeland would be enough.” The goblin smiles. “We don’t get many from the human lands- just follow me to the alehouse and tell a few and I’ll be stood enough drinks to pay for it twice over.”

Hermann smiles. “Maybe after? I have to go. My brother-“ He stops, has he said too much?

But the goblin nods. “Of course, the old laws. Follow me.”

The paths are narrow and winding. The city cramped and more of a maze than the Labyrinth was, but it is beautiful, in a confusing, ramshackle way. Small gardens and parks have been cut out- sometimes literally, from every spare nook and cranny, the little rounded houses are carved with gargoyles and fretwork.

The castle is different, but certainly not ugly either. It is delicate and glasspun, with high turrets and flying buttresses that seem at once untouched by time and staggeringly old.

“Thank you.” Hermann turns to the goblin, who smiles.

“If you want to thank me, join me at the Silver Jug,” he nods at them. “Ask for Tendo. Good luck with your brother.”

Hermann nods, and looks at Sasha, “I should probably go in alone.” The tales have not exactly been reliable up to this point, but this should be how it ends.

Sasha crosses her arms. “Why do that? Let us go in, and if he does not give you your brother, I will tear his head off and Alexis will eat his entrails.”

Hermann feels the blood drain from his face. Now he really needs to go in alone. “Please don’t!” Inspiration strikes. “This is my fight; I have to do this alone.”

Sasha hesitates, but then nods. “You are young for this.” She dismounts off Alexis, walks over to him, and puts her hands on his shoulders. “Go in victory, little Brother.”

Hermann feels a lump well in his throat. Karla had called him that once, but Karla had run away the moment she’d had the chance, and he had never seen her again. “Thank you.” His voice is a little husky, and when he turns away, he has to blink hard to force the tears away.

The great doors open with a whisper when he pushes them.

Inside, the porticoes and arches blend into an endless series of staircases above his head. Hermann allows himself a few moments of wondering joy- and oh, he loves this. He would gladly spend years here.

But- Bastian. Hermann shakes himself, checks his watch. Four hours. Surely, this is where it gets impossible. This is when the curiously absent Goblin Prince appears and sends him back to the beginning or has him searching the endless staircases forever-

There’s a cry from up ahead. Hermann picks up his pace. His leg spikes hot pain- it’s been eight hours, and somehow, that realisation is all it takes for the exhaustion he hadn’t noticed to come crashing down, and he wavers, having to blink to hold himself together and keep walking.

He walks into a wide, cavernous room, with a sort of beautifully carved bench on a podium at the far end. A throne room.

A baby is on the throne.

“Bastian!” Hermann forces his shattered body into a run, expecting monsters and horrors to rise from the floor or drop from the ceiling to stop him-

But nothing does. Hermann scoops Bastian into his arms. He burbles and smiles at him, blows a milk bubble at him.

“Good. He fed you.” Hermann manages. Then his legs just- give up entirely and he falls down painfully on his tailbone, his legs hanging off the edge of the podium. He holds Bastian to his chest, bends down, and breathes in the milk, clean baby smell- they obviously changed his nappy as well, thank goodness.

There’s a growl behind him.

Hermann starts, adrenaline bounding through him and making him entirely forget his exhaustion- but it’s just the lion. He bounds down from the bench- Hermann had been so driven and exhausted he hadn’t even seen him- and prowls around to Hermann’s side.

Hermann smiles. “Oh hello, have you been looking after my little brother? I hope he didn’t give you too much trouble.”

“It really was fine.”

Hermann looks up, stares. The lion is gone, instead, in his place-

You!” Hermann starts up, clutching Bastian to his chest.

The Goblin King shrugs, face hidden and impassive behind his mask. “Don’t upset him; it took us about half the time you were gone to get him calm. Why do you think I kept out of the way?”

Hermann pauses, looks down at Bastian, he looks up solemnly at Hermann- a red flag. Hermann manages a smile, and he burbles.

“Did anyone come in with you?” The Goblin King crosses a leg, apparently entirely relaxed.

Hermann tries not to let his fingers tighten reflexively on Bastian again. “They are just outside, if I shout-“

“Please don’t.” The Goblin King reaches up to his mask. “I hate having this thing on but I’m not the king without it-“

He pulls the mask off, and Hermann is looking at- a boy. A boy his own age, round faced and smiling behind a pair of ancient glasses and somehow- he can believe this boy was the lion, much more easily than the masked Goblin King.

“Hi.”

Hermann blinks. “Hello.” He slides down slowly and sits  again. The boy slides around to sit next to him, and Hermann doesn’t move away. For a moment, they sit together quietly, looking down at Bastian, who is starting to drift off.

“Why did you take him?” Hermann says finally.

“You sent him away.” The boy shrugs.

“You could have given him back.” Hermann challenges, feeling a little fire well up in him again. It has been a very, very long night and he’s probably missed his morning test.

“I couldn’t.” The boy shakes his head. “It’s the rules. You need to find your way through the Labyrinth and the Goblin City and get your brother back. If I just give him back- the Labyrinth will rot and the city’ll just crumble and the castle’ll fall down- that’s a lot of people with no home.”

“Oh.” Hermann blinks, looks down at Bastian. “I’m sorry for putting you in that position.”

He shrugs. “It’s okay. Lot of people do this- some of them have way shittier reasons than you.”

The reminder makes him start. Lars. Home. He has his brother. He will be going home.

Hermann reaches his free hand to touch the collar of his filthy cloak. The mud has dried the fur into little spikes. Here, he is a friend to Mako and Stacker, he owes Tendo a drink, and he is Brother to Bears. Back home-

Back home  missing those tests has probably ruined any chance to go to university, he will get another round of hell from Lars for ruining his uniform, and even when that’s over it’ll just be a matter of time before Bastian will set their father off again.

Gott, why did he do this? Why did he spend so long trying to find Bastian to save him from a place where he would be so much safer? Mako was left here, and she seemed perfectly content.

The boy looks at him, concerned. “Are you okay?”

Hermann looks down at Bastian. Heat burns his eyes. He blinks, the tears run down his cheeks.

“Hey,” The boy sits closer, “Don’t cry.”

“I’m sorry.” He chokes. ‘I- I’ve wasted your time.” He gets up, and presses Bastian into the startled boy’s arms. “I need to go home.”

“But-“ The boy gets up, “Your brother-“

“He’ll be better off with you.” Hermann swallows against the lump in his throat. “I should have let you keep him.”

“Wait!” The boy hurries after him as Hermann tries to walk away- his leg is not happy and blazes with pain as the cold muscles are forced into life again. “Wait- don’t go-“

“I’ve wasted enough of your time-“

“No!” The boy grabs his arm, forcing him to turn. “I liked it! Are you crazy? I love any excuse for getting out of this place and not being-“ He jerks his head back at the mask. “You gave me a great excuse to just- be a lion and get out a bit.”

Hermann sighs; he isn’t sure what to say. He looks down at Bastian, asleep in the boy’s arms. He looks so peaceful, asleep.

“Look-“ The boy catches his breath. “Do you like it here?”

Gott yes. “Of course.”

“They you stay too!” He looks down at Bastian. “Your brother is really sweet, but I can’t manage a baby by myself, and it didn’t seem like you have much to go back to.”

Hermann’s mouth opens, then closes. Can he? It feels like it should be- desertion, but who would he be deserting? Dietrich and Karla are long gone, mother is dead. All that he had left was Lars and Bastian, and it would be a betrayal to take Bastian back.

“I can stay?” His voice comes very small.

“Anytime.” The boy grins. “Seriously, you have no idea- the only humans here are babies and little kids, and the Goblins don’t think I look like a proper king without the mask. Please stay so I can talk to you, I won’t be too annoying.”

Hermann looks a little doubtfully at that promise after this spiel, but- “I’m Hermann.” He holds out a hand.

“I know.” The boy nods, and then looks down at his hand. “Oh right, sorry.” He shifts Bastian in his arms and takes it. “I’m Newt.”

Hermann smiles. His hand is warm, comforting, and Hermann suddenly thinks of the warmth of the lion, pressing against his back as he rubbed against him.

“I’ve got some friends outside, and I promised a goblin to tell some Earth stories at a bar.”

“Can I come?” Newt asks eagerly. “I can be a lion- Bastian likes me like that, no problem.”

“I- guess so.” Hermann blinks, and then shrugs. Why not? Why not everything? Nothing has been as it was in his book.

Everything so far has been impossible, and it has been wonderful. He can face the Goblin City with a baby, a blue lion, a cavewoman Husband to Bears and the husband bear himself at his side.

In fact, he’s thoroughly looking forward to it.