Rodney walked across campus, crisp leaves skittering along the sidewalk in front of him in the chilly October breeze. It was late, his way lit only by intermittent lamps that were too weak to penetrate the deep pools of shadow between them. He hunched his shoulders against the chill, wishing he’d worn a heavier jacket. There was no-one else out and about at this time of night – Rodney had spent too long in the Physics lab again.
Above the scratching of the leaves and the creaking of increasingly bare tree limbs, another noise caught Rodney’s attention and had him looking up. There was a large maple tree whose branches arched over the walkway, and sitting on one of them was a large hawk. Rodney didn’t know if he’d been ruffling his feathers, and that’s what had alerted him to the bird’s presence, but as always he was both creeped out and a little relieved to see him there.
The hawk had first come to Rodney’s attention just over a year ago. He’d seen it often enough in the intervening time to learn that it was a Black Harrier, a bird that lived in Africa and had no business haunting a college campus in Boston. It was strange how often he popped up, which was the part that Rodney found creepy. But the bird had saved him during an attempted mugging several months ago, attacking the armed assailant and allowing Rodney to get away, which tempered the creep factor a bit.
“Hey, bird,” he said as he passed under the tree. The bird regarded him with luminous, unblinking eyes, until Rodney dropped his gaze.
He walked on, lips twitching in an aborted smile when he heard the flapping of wings behind him. It wasn’t much further to the dorm and Rodney forced himself not to hurry. He had the sense that the hawk was following him, swooping from tree to tree, but he didn’t bother to check. Everything about the bird defied logic and biology, including the fact that it wasn’t nocturnal but seemed to have no trouble navigating in the dark.
Rodney used his key card to get into the building, pulling the door shut firmly behind him. Graduate students generally lived off campus but money was tight and he needed to save up as much as he could until he got his doctorate and a high-paying job to go with it. At least he didn’t have to worry about having a roommate.
Rodney’s room was on the second floor, and it was less a room and more a cell. Narrow twin bed, desk, dresser, closet, sink. He had the bed up on risers so he could store books and things underneath, and he’d installed two bracket shelves over the desk. It was too small, too cramped, and Rodney vowed that when he could afford a decent place of his own it would be big and airy and his bed would be enormous.
Even before he took off his coat he brought his laptop out of sleep mode and checked his e-mail. There was a lot of local spam he deleted without even reading. What did he care about campus activities unless they were related to his department? There was no response yet from his overseas chess partner, giving the next move in their ongoing game. And nothing from Jeannie’s fiancé.
Caleb had called him two days ago, asking if he’d heard from Jeannie. Which had been laughable, because Rodney hadn’t talked to his sister in over five months, not since she’d indicated her intention to drop out of school and get married. And maybe she’d gotten cold feet, but it wasn’t like Jeannie to just take off like that. Rodney was worried, though he’d been assured that every effort was being made to find her.
He slapped the lid of the laptop down, aggravated with the lack of news, and shrugged out of his coat, tossing it more or less in the direction of the closet. He filled the coffee pot with water from the sink and turned it on. As late as it was, he still had work to do: there was a paper he had to finish writing up for the Astrophysics Journal, not to mention his own dissertation work on the practical applications of wormhole theory. He’d learned to live on very little sleep.
Rodney stayed up, hunched over his desk, for hours while the hawk clung to a nearby branch, keeping watch.
Once he’d outgrown trick-or-treating, he’d outgrown Halloween altogether. He never attended costume parties or handed out chocolate or participated in the science department’s annual Haunted House to raise money for locally underprivileged children. He stayed in and worked, which wasn’t so different from any other day except for the bag of Caramilk bars on his desk.
There was a knock on Rodney’s door, which he was fully prepared to ignore. But the person on the other side just kept pounding, making him twitch with each hit until he finally gave in. He saved his work, which he was always careful about doing, and yanked the door open.
There was a group of obviously drunken students clustered out in the hall. The one who had been abusing the door wore a ridiculous Ninja Turtle costume very clearly made out of painted pizza boxes. Rodney didn’t recognize him.
“Hey what? What do you want? I’m very busy.”
“Is Cheryl here?” the guy asked, putting his face too close to Rodney’s and sharing his bitter beer breath. “Cheryl! You in there?”
Rodney shoved him back a step. “I don’t know any Cheryl and she’s certainly not in my room.”
“Be cool, guy,” a drunken wizard said. “We’re just lookin’ for Cheryl.”
“Read my lips. She’s. Not. Here. I don’t know Cheryl, but you might want to try upstairs on the women’s floor.”
Ninja Turtle smacked himself in the head. “Dude! We’re on the wrong floor!”
Without a backwards glance at Rodney, the whole group of them headed off to the stairwell, where their ridiculous hooting and hollering probably echoed up to the fifth floor. Rodney shut and locked his door, glad to be rid of them.
He’d no more than turned towards the desk when the power abruptly went out, plunging the room into darkness. The wind, which had been blustering all day, now howled around the building. Rodney banged painfully into the edge of the desk as he felt his way, in a hurry to pull the plug on the laptop in case of a power surge.
A sudden thump and screeching at the window made him jump, one hand moving up to his throat as he whirled around. Something was beating at the window, but in the dark he only had an impression of grey smudges and feathers, and then the sash – which Rodney was certain had been locked – flew up, letting in a swirl of cold air, orange leaves, and the Harrier.
The lights flickered in and out several times, giving Rodney flashes of the large bird flapping wildly in the tiny room. He dropped to the floor and put his arms over his head, terrified of being raked by the bird’s sharp talons.
The sound of flapping changed into something else that Rodney couldn’t identify, a strange kind of rustling and creaking. The shadows, already moving crazily in the flickering lights, changed subtly. When the power finally came on and stayed that way, and nothing sharp had taken the flesh from Rodney’s arms, he cautiously looked up.
It wasn’t often he was at a loss for words. He generally had an opinion on everything, whether he was well-versed in the subject or not. But now…now all he could do was stare.
The hawk was gone, but the narrow space between the bed and the desk was filled by the figure of a man. He was tall and lean, dressed completely in black. A black leather coat swirled around ankles encased in engineer boots, which Rodney had an excellent view of from his spot on the floor. He hastily scrambled to his feet.
The man stared at him, hardly seeming to even breathe. The light from the desk lamp didn’t offer the best illumination, and kept his face mostly shadowed, but Rodney could see an over-abundance of dark hair that seemed to defy both gravity and the strong wind that was blowing around him, scattering any of Rodney’s papers that hadn’t been secured.
“Um…” Rodney said. He couldn’t think of a strong conversational opening and decided it was best to just go on the offensive. “What the hell are you doing in my room?”
“Rodney.” Only one word, just his name, but the sound of it had Rodney backing up until he bumped into the door. The man by the window knew his name, which was troubling in and of itself, but it was the way he said it, like a caress and command all in one.
The man took one step forward, the lamp finally revealing his face, and Rodney’s heart stuttered in his chest. The man…he wasn’t human. At least not fully. The lower half of his face was grayish-blue and differently textured than the rest of his skin, and there were little knobs that looked like thorns scattered along his jawline. And his eyes: yellow, with the pupils oddly elongated.
“What the hell are you?” Rodney whispered.
For just a moment an expression flickered across the man’s face that may have been hurt, or annoyance. Rodney wasn’t too good at recognizing that sort of thing. He was scrambling to make sense of what was happening, of how this…thing…had come to be in his room. He wished he could write it all off as a Halloween prank, but his thought processes were too logical to allow him that bit of denial.
“You have to come with me.”
“Yeah. That’s not gonna happen.” Rodney tried to unobtrusively unlock the door. The man with the blue face advanced on him.
“How far would you go to save your sister?”
That froze Rodney in place, his hand on the doorknob. He stared at the man, trying to read malevolence and somehow failing, despite his disturbing countenance. He hadn’t sounded menacing, merely conversational.
“What do you know about Jeannie? Did you do something to her?” He found his anger, then. Sure, he hadn’t talked to her in a while but she was still his sister. The only family he had. His hands balled into fists.
The man cocked his head to side, as if confused by Rodney’s reaction. “She’s safe. But you have to come with me.” He put his arm out, reaching, and Rodney ducked under it, backing away from the door and further into his tiny room. The only exit was a two story drop to the bushes, which certainly wasn’t ideal, but if this guy knew where Jeannie was he wasn’t about to cut and run.
To Rodney’s surprise, the man put his blue and slightly knobby hand on the door, palm open, before using his fingertips to trace some kind of design on the wood. For a fraction of a second a sigil burned there, bright blue, and then it was gone. The man opened the door and for the second time that night Rodney was completely speechless.
Gone was the hallway, which always smelled vaguely of feet. No water fountain, no doors for the rooms across the way. Instead there was a breathtakingly vast landscape shrouded in shadows and mist. Rodney got an impression of stone walls, and some sort of far-distant structure.
“What is that?” he asked, his voice hushed as he inched up behind Jeannie’s kidnapper to get a better look.
“The Labyrinth,” was the proud reply.
Though it was night where he was, Rodney saw that in the land beyond the door the sun was coming up. As the sky lightened he could see more detail and yes, it was indeed a labyrinth. An impossibly huge one that seemed to cover miles. The building he’d seen in the distance resolved itself into something that looked very much like a castle.
“Is that…is Jeannie there?”
“Yes. In the castle beyond the Goblin City.” The man looked over his shoulder at Rodney, his yellow eyes almost seeming to glow. “You’ll come?”
Rodney shook his head in denial. “No. No, that’s not real. None of this is real! I mean, goblins? Seriously?”
He was working himself up to a rant of epic proportions when a warm breeze suddenly washed over him – from the place beyond the door. It brought with it dust and a strange odor that he couldn’t place, and his protestations died on his lips. If he was prone to hallucinations, which he absolutely wasn’t, he doubted it would be this detailed. Or this bizarre. That didn’t mean that he was ready to cross the threshold.
“What’ll happen to her?”
The man shrugged. “The Goblin King doesn’t confide in me. He could turn her into a goblin. Or keep her as a slave.”
Neither of those options was even remotely acceptable. “He’ll turn her into a goblin? Like you?”
“I’m not a goblin,” the man said with a scowl.
“Then what are you?”
Rodney stared at him. John? John? A far too ordinary name for such a creature. Which still didn’t explain what he was, but perhaps it was the wrong time to argue semantics. Some Goblin King had his sister and he wasn’t about to leave her to a life of servitude.
“What do I have to do?” he asked finally.
John nodded, looking pleased. It was an odd fit on his strange face. “You have to solve the Labyrinth.”
That didn’t sound very difficult. Rodney was a genius, and that wasn’t just male posturing – he had an IQ in the mid-160s. A labyrinth was nothing more than a maze, however big it may seem, and he’d been able to best every maze he’d come across since he was about five years old.
“Piece of cake,” he said. “Just, one thing first.”
Rodney opened his bottom desk drawer and pulled out a large fanny pack. It was dark blue and he knew he looked like a dork when he wore it, particularly because of the size of the thing, but he never went on extended trips without it. With hypoglycemia and a citrus allergy it paid to be prepared.
“I’m ready.” He snapped the clasp, the sound of which carried a sense of finality that it never had before.
John nodded, and stepped through the door, leather coat snapping back as he took several long strides and then stopped, looking back expectantly. Rodney took a deep breath and followed. For a brief moment he met with some resistance, as if there was an invisible barrier keeping him from going forward, but he pushed through it until he was standing beside John.
They were on a hill, in the middle of a dusty path that led straight down towards the Labyrinth. The air was warm, if a bit dry, and what little bit of vegetation Rodney could see looked fairly desiccated. The maze looked even more complex than it had seemed just moments ago.
“Follow me,” John instructed. He strode down the path, his steps sure and confident. Rodney followed a bit more cautiously. He was still trying to wrap his head around the whole situation, but it really was untenable. Perhaps this was some sort of alternate reality, which would at least lend some plausibility.
It was no time at all before they were at the entrance to the Labyrinth, an enormous set of double doors set into stone walls that had to be at least ten feet high. Scrubby bushes grew along the base, interspersed with sickly-looking blue flowers. If the architect had gone for imposing, mission accomplished.
“So, uh. I just go in, solve the maze, and get Jeannie back?” Rodney rapped on the doors, which sounded solid enough to have been made of marble instead of wood. “This isn’t a trick or something, is it? Because I need to know the rules.”
John leaned against the doors, arms crossed. His alien features were far more apparent in the light of day, and Rodney could see now that his fingers were also blue and covered in that thicker skin, the nails long and almost bruised looking. The blue had crept halfway up his face, stopping just under his nose and at mid-cheekbone, though his slightly pointed ears hadn’t been spared.
“You have thirteen hours to solve the Labyrinth. If you fail, the Goblin King keeps your sister.”
“And me?” Rodney asked. “What happens to me?”
“That’s for the Goblin King to decide. Most get sent home.”
“Most? You mean he’s done this before?” That wasn’t particularly comforting news. If all this Goblin King was looking for was a distraction from whatever kingly duties he had there was no guarantee that he’d take any of it seriously. And Rodney needed to know that whatever rules there were would be adhered to. He didn’t like working with so many unknowns.
“If you solve it you’ll have the power,” John said softly. He gave Rodney an intent look that was probably supposed to convey something, but Rodney didn’t have the first clue what that might be.
“What’s the success rate on this thing? How many people have solved it?”
John smirked. “None.”
With that pronouncement he took a step away from the doors and waved his hand at them. They opened inward, ponderously and with much metallic shrieking from the hinges. It was creepy.
John beckoned him forth with the sweep of one arm. “After you.”
Rodney took a deep, steadying breath and then walked through the doors and into the Labyrinth. It wasn’t anything like he’d expected. For all that everything outside was dry and dusty, the grey stones inside the Labyrinth were wet with moisture, some areas completely covered in lichen and moss.
“This can’t be right,” he muttered to himself. The pathway inside the maze stretched left and right, with no sign of any cross-paths. “What kind of maze is this?”
“It’s the Ancient maze,” John replied. “Which way would you go?”
“They both look the same. Which way would you go?”
John smirked. “I wouldn’t go either way. I thought you were supposed to be a genius?”
Rodney bit back the automatic protestation. He didn’t need to explain himself to some blue-faced freak, one who’d kidnapped his sister and dragged her off to some place where goblins were real and not just CGI renderings.
“I don’t suppose you could tell me something useful?”
John shook his head. “Not allowed.”
“Then get lost. I can do this on my own.”
“Famous last words.” John spread his arms out and in the time it took Rodney to blink he was gone and the hawk was in his place. It gave a piercing cry and soared over the wall.
Rodney let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding as soon as the hawk was out of sight. His mind was reeling with the many improbable things he’d witnessed in such a short amount of time. How the hell was he supposed to make sense of a man that turned into a bird? Outside of a Harry Potter novel it just wasn’t possible, not with the Law of Equivalent Exchange to consider. The difference in body mass between John and the Harrier should have made such a transformation impossible.
“Science later,” he chided himself. He had thirteen hours to reach the castle and save Jeannie. But first he had to pick a direction.
One way seemed just as likely as the other. Same stone walls, same sandy ground, same blinking lichen…wait. Rodney leaned closer to the wall where a large patch of the stuff was growing like a greenish-blue inkblot. And then reared back in disgust when he saw that there were eyes there, balanced at the end of gently waving stalks. Smaller than human eyeballs but no less disconcerting. They all had green irises.
The walls literally had eyes.
“This place just gets better and better,” he muttered to himself. He decided to go with his instincts, which never led him astray in the labs, and headed right.
Rodney walked for at least a half hour, eyes constantly scanning the wall looking for a break or a door or something. He was skirting the edge of the maze when what he needed to do was penetrate it. He was getting frustrated, and almost wished John would come back if only to serve as an annoying diversion.
“Some help you are,” Rodney muttered at the absent John. “You know exactly how to get there, with shortcuts I bet. Stupid birdbrain.”
A shadow passed at his feet and he whipped his head up, but the hawk – if that’s what it had been – was nowhere in sight. A lone tail feather, striped black and white, floated down and landed right in front of one of the regular depressions in the Labyrinth wall. Rodney bent to pick it up and when he did he saw it: a way inside the maze!
He barely refrained from slapping himself in the head. How could he have been so blind? There were probably countless cross-paths, he just hadn’t seen them because they’d been so cleverly disguised. An optical illusion, two separate walls made to look like one unbroken line of stone.
Rodney looked thoughtfully at the feather in his hand. John had said he wasn’t allowed to help, so had that just been coincidence? He didn’t think so. As he tucked the feather into his fanny pack Rodney wondered what to make of the blue-faced man that had spirited his sister away. He was…disconcerting, but not menacing. John was clearly a minion for the Goblin King, but was he a willing minion? Perhaps not, if he was willing to help Rodney on the sly.
And maybe Rodney would be able to convince him to be even more helpful, if he ever showed up again.
After passing the same stone pillar topped with a smoothly sculpted round ball for the third time, he got the bright idea to mark his path. He dug into the fanny pack and pulled out a dry-erase marker, feeling ridiculously victorious at being able to produce it. He drew an arrow on the wall in the direction he planned to go, and hoped he wouldn’t need to do much of that because stone and dirt would tear up the felt tip before too long.
The process worked perfectly, letting Rodney know which way he’d already been, up until he drew an arrow, walked right into a dead end, and turned around to find that his arrow was now pointing in a totally different direction. In fact, it was pointing straight down.
“What the fuck?” It was impossible. The stone blocks were so big, and he’d only had his back turned for a minute. No-one could’ve moved it. Rodney threw the marker at the wall, watching as it bounced and rolled away.
“That’s cheating!” he shouted. “It isn’t fair!”
“I’ll say,” a voice chortled behind him.
Rodney whirled around, and where there had been only a blank wall there were now two doors. Each one was guarded by what he could only assume was a goblin. They were child-sized, small and gnarly, faces wizened and gray. One held a carved wooden shield painted blue, the other a red one. Otherwise they were completely identical.
“But…this was a dead end.”
“No. That’s the dead end behind you.”
He turned and saw they were right; the path had closed up behind him. Anger and frustration burned brightly in his chest.
“That isn’t fair! How can I solve the Labyrinth when it keeps changing?”
The goblins nodded simultaneously and made sympathetic clucking noises. “Only way out of here is to try one of these doors,” Blue Shield intoned.
“One of them leads to the center of the Labyrinth,” Red Shield said dramatically. “And the other one leads to…”
“Not much of a choice,” Rodney muttered. “Uh…which is which?”
“You can only ask one of us,” Blue Shield said, sounding almost apologetic. “And I should warn you that one of us always tells the truth.”
“And one of us always lies.”
It was a logic puzzle. Finally, something Rodney could understand. He leaned against the wall behind him and thought it out. He had to get it right, had to get to the castle and save Jeannie. Of course, certain death was an excellent motivator as well.
“Okay,” he said, thinking out loud. “This is like Knights and Knaves. I can do this.”
“I doubt that,” Red Shield chuckled, exchanging a look with his compatriot.
“Shut up. I’m trying to concentrate.” Rodney tapped his chin with his finger, calling up everything he knew about Boolean algebra. “Truth versus lie. Death versus freedom.”
“Hurry up,” Blue Shield complained. “None of the others took this long.”
“Yeah, well, and none of the others solved it, did they?” Rodney was hoping the whole death thing was an exaggeration. John had said he’d be sent back home if he didn’t solve the Labyrinth. Then again, how much of what John said could he even trust? Rodney wasn’t accustomed to operating on faith, it was too intangible.
“Okay,” he said finally. He pointed at Blue Shield. “Would the other guy tell me that your door leads to the castle?”
The goblins exchanged another look, and then Blue Shield shrugged. “Yes.”
“Then the other door leads to the castle and your door leads to certain death,” Rodney replied a bit smugly.
“How can you be sure?” Red Shield asked. “He could be telling the truth.”
“Ah, but then you would be lying.”
“But I could be telling the truth.”
“Then he would be lying. Either way your door is the one I want.” Rodney pushed up off the wall and waited for Red Shield to shuffle out of the way. Up close he could see that the goblin’s hands were actually fused to the shield, and looked like wood up to the wrists.
“I hate this place,” he said.
“You’ve only just started,” Blue Shield pointed out as Rodney pushed the heavy wooden door open.
“With puzzles like this? Piece of cake.” Rodney took one step through the door and the ground fell out from under his feet. Goblin cackling followed him as he plummeted down a deep hole.
He flailed around, trying to get purchase on something to stop him from breaking his neck, and then someone grabbed hold of his wrist. In fact, it felt like several people had taken hold of him and stopped his descent. Rodney was gratified until his eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, and then his whole body tightened up.
There were disembodied arms jutting out of the wall, all of them tinted dark as the dirt they sprang from. They were all around him, some hanging limply, others clutching tightly to his arms and legs, some blindly reaching out with hands closing on nothing but air. It was like something out of a horror movie and Rodney felt suitably terrified; he started thrashing to try and get away from them.
The voice – it was genderless and flat – seemed to sound right in Rodney’s head, which made him buck all the harder to get loose. “Let me go!”
Up or down?
Rodney stopped struggling, and looked up. The surface looked far away, a small circle of daylight. He craned his neck, and could see that he was much closer to whatever waited at the bottom of the hole. The real deciding factor, though, was that so many more of the hands would have to touch him to get him back up and they were making his skin crawl as it was.
“Down. I choose down.”
He chose down. The voice had a sneering quality to it now that filled Rodney with the certainty that he’d made the absolute wrong decision. And suddenly a cacophony of mocking voices filled his head, laughing at him as he was quickly passed from hand to hand, and then dropped the last six feet.
Rodney landed painfully on his knees and looked up in time to see a grating being settled into place that sealed up his entry point and effectively blocked out what little light had filtered to the bottom of the hole.
“No! Wait!” He scrambled to his feet and shouted up at the ceiling, but there was no response from the disembodied arms. No more voices in his head, no chance to change his mind and go back up.
Rodney hated the dark. It was juvenile and unfounded most of the time, but here in the maze he had no idea what to expect. Any number of horrible things could be waiting to jump out at him, eat him alive. Why hadn’t he ever thought to put a flashlight in his pack? If he got back home he promised himself to do that first thing.
“Hello? Is anyone here?” There was no response, no growling or gnashing of teeth. Rodney shuffled towards the nearest wall, the darkness almost a physical weight pressing against him. He let out a sigh of relief when his hand encountered a smooth stone wall and he immediately pressed his back against it.
“Okay. Door. Have to find a door.” He kept a hand on the wall and followed it around, getting a mental picture of the space he was in. It was circular, no corners, stone walls and floor. No doors either.
When he was sure he’d made a complete circuit of the room Rodney slid down the wall and hugged his knees. There was no way out, except the way he’d come in. He didn’t understand how it had happened. He’d solved the puzzle correctly, he knew it! The Goblin King was obviously stacking the deck against him, making the maze impossible to solve. It wasn’t fair.
Rodney didn’t know how long he sat there, wallowing in righteous indignation and a growing sense of hopelessness, before a sound caught his attention. There was a scraping noise that had him straining in vain to see through the blackness that surrounded him. He pressed himself further against the wall and held his breath.
There was a rasping sound and a tiny point of light sprang into existence. The light grew and grew, until it resolved itself into an old-fashioned looking oil lamp. Rodney blinked up at the man holding it, his relief at seeing a familiar face almost overwhelming.
“Oh, thank God it’s you!” He got to his feet and dusted off the seat of his pants.
“You were expecting someone else?” John asked, smirk firmly in place.
“How did you get in here?” The room wasn’t very large, the glow from the lantern illuminating it fairly well. Three and a half meters in diameter, maybe a little more. And no more sign of a door than when he’d made his original exploration.
“You’ve noticed the lack of doors?” Rodney just stared at John until he sighed. “It’s an oubliette. The Labyrinth is full of them.”
“A forgotten place,” Rodney said, his voice hushed with horror. An oubliette was a place to put people when you wanted to forget about them. A dungeon from which the only escape was death via dehydration, because once you were there no-one ever came back for you. He’d read a story about that once when he was a kid and it had scared the crap out of him.
“You know it?” John asked, surprised.
“I read,” Rodney replied defensively. “But you got in, so I assume you can get back out again.”
“Then let’s go! I’m running out of time.”
“I have to take you back to the beginning,” John said. He sounded apologetic, the smirk gone.
Rodney shook his head, anger bubbling up again. “No! I’m not starting over!”
“The Goblin King wishes it.”
“The Goblin King can kiss my ass,” Rodney snapped. “Help me get out of here and I’ll…I can…”
He was at a loss. He had nothing to offer in trade, save a handful of protein bars and about twenty bucks in cash. He doubted John would have use for either. John, whose face had hardened into an unreadable mask.
“There’s nothing I can do, Rodney.”
“No. I don’t accept that. There has to be something.” He unzipped the fanny pack and started digging through it frantically. “I have money! And…and a pocket knife.”
It was pathetic, but something had caught John’s keen gaze because he leaned forward and looked into the pack. “What’s that?”
“This?” Rodney held out a pack of Juicy Fruit gum. John’s yellow eyes lit up and he reached for it, nearly scratching Rodney’s hand with his long nails in his haste. He sniffed the pack before pulling out a stick and carefully unwrapping it. The look on his face when he popped it into his mouth could only be described as blissful.
“I remember this,” he murmured happily as he chewed.
“You remember gum?” That gave Rodney pause. Either the other poor suckers who’d been pulled into the Labyrinth had shared with John, or… “Where are you from, John? Are you from here?”
John shrugged, still blissed out on the taste of Juicy Fruit. Rodney knew that wouldn’t last long, the flavor never did.
“John, pay attention. Are you from here? This world?”
“That’s not an answer, that’s two answers.” Rodney fought an urge to grab hold of John and shake him. He didn’t know why he needed to know so badly, except that it suddenly seemed incredibly important.
“I fell out of the sky,” John said. He closed his eyes. “And when I woke up I was here, with the Goblin King. I don’t remember anything else.”
“Gum,” he repeated, clutching the pack tightly in his hand.
Rodney carefully repacked his things, giving himself time to think. What if John was just another victim of the Goblin King, ripped out of the same world Rodney had been? Clearly he didn’t remember it. If he had been fully human once it was just as likely that the Goblin King had inflicted his current appearance on him as well.
“Listen up,” Rodney said when he had the pack zipped back up. “If you help me, I’ll let you keep the gum. And…when I solve the Labyrinth I’ll make the Goblin King fix you.”
John’s face had brightened at the mention of the gum, but he became immediately distrustful as soon as his boss was mentioned, shaking his head. “No.”
“I’m pretty sure he did this to you, and I know if we can just get to the castle –”
“No! There’s nothing to fix.”
“I can help you,” Rodney insisted. “But first you have to help me.”
“You’ll just leave. They always do.” John spit his gum across the room. “There’s no reason for me to help you.”
“You’ve been watching me.” Rodney decided to change tack. “The hawk’s been around for a while. Was that just reconnaissance for the Goblin King?”
John shook his head but didn’t say anything.
“Then you know I don’t say things unless I mean them.”
Rodney knew it was a gamble. He had no business promising John anything, not when he possessed no knowledge of the man or how he’d been altered. If he’d been altered. But he meant what he’d said. If he could help John he would, regardless of what he’d done.
“I’ll take you as far as I can,” John said reluctantly. “Then you’re on your own.”
“Fine. Yes. I’ll take it.” Rodney was relieved. He knew, under normal circumstances, that he could solve the maze himself. But these were hardly normal circumstances, and he couldn’t rely on his own smarts to get to the castle. It pained him to ask for help, but he was smart enough to know when he needed some.
John reached into the pocket of his black jacket and pulled out a burnished silver doorknob. He winked at Rodney and pressed the knob against the stone wall. Immediately the outline of a door appeared, glowing just slightly around the edges.
“Of course.” Rodney just shook his head as John pushed the door open, revealing a passageway beyond. He took no time in leaving the oubliette; whatever lay beyond it had to be better than being left to rot.
John pulled the door shut behind them and pocketed the doorknob. “Follow me.”
Of course, it was just as likely that John was taking him back to the start. It’s not like Rodney would know the difference until they got there. And John certainly owed him no loyalty. Just as Rodney had no reason to trust him. He hated not having set parameters to work within.
John came to a sudden stop and Rodney nearly bounced off him. The man’s whole posture changed – he stiffened up and cocked his head to the side in a motion that was reminiscent of the hawk. Seconds later there was a flash of white light in the tunnel, temporarily blinding Rodney, and when it cleared away a man was standing there.
Everyone comes and goes so quickly here, Rodney thought a little hysterically. There was no doubt as to the identity of the newcomer. The Goblin King.
He looked out of place in the stone passage. Rodney had imagined that he’d be decked out in velvet robes or something, but the reality was a crisp white double-breasted suit that matched the spiky white hair on his head. He wore a crimson silk shirt with matching tie, and ruby cufflinks winked at his wrists.
The Goblin King wasn’t a goblin at all, but a man in size and features despite skin that was the color of rancid cream, and disfigurements on either side of his nose. The worst thing for Rodney was that his eyes were the same as John’s, yellow and gleaming.
“John,” he said, his voice deep and smoky.
Rodney had the irrational desire to pull John back when he moved forward. The sudden appearance of the Goblin King had surprised him, but not as much as his immediate and visceral dislike of the man. Maybe it was the suit. Rodney had a long association with assholes in suits, the men who doled out the money for research grants and had limited knowledge of the science they were withholding funding from.
John moved to the Goblin King’s side and gracefully sank to his knees, eyes downcast and hands behind his back. One pale white hand sank into John’s springy brown hair and clenched, tugging John’s head back and exposing the long, dusky blue line of his throat. Rodney own hands tightened into fists.
“Where are you going, pet?” the Goblin King asked, seemingly ignoring Rodney’s presence in the tunnel.
“I do your bidding,” John replied. His voice betrayed nothing.
“You were told to take McKay back to the start. This is not the path.”
“Where’s my sister?” Rodney interrupted. He couldn’t stand that display of power dynamics for one more second, it made him sick to his stomach.
The Goblin King turned his yellow-eyed gaze on him even as he relaxed his hold on John. “McKay. Just as impatient as always.”
“I asked you a question.” Rodney was pleased his voice didn’t tremble, since he was pretty well terrified. He’d already seen that things in the Labyrinth operated within their own internal systems outside of the laws of physics and biology. The Goblin King clearly wielded some of that power and there was nothing to fight against it with except the force of his own personality.
John’s head hung down, and he hadn’t changed his submissive pose, but Rodney had the sense that he was keenly hanging on every word.
“Your sister is safe. For now.” The Goblin King strode forward until he was a mere foot away. “I thought you would be bigger.”
“Really? You’re just as ugly as I’d suspected.”
The Goblin King raised his hand as if to strike him, and Rodney couldn’t help but flinch back, but a small noise of protest from John stayed his hand. He looked over his shoulder with a frown.
“Do not cross me, John. There will be consequences.”
Rodney didn’t want to have that pasty countenance focused back on him but he didn’t want John getting in any more trouble either. He hadn’t forgotten how the hawk had saved him from the mugger. Minion or no, there was something good beneath that blue, scaly surface.
“I was told I had to solve the Labyrinth to save Jeannie, which is what I’m trying to do.” He stared back into those creepy eyes, unblinking. “Nothing was said about not utilizing any resources at hand, and John is a resource.”
The Goblin King nodded, hand lowering to smooth down the front of his suit. “Still the same McKay. Arrogant and full of bluster.”
“You talk like we know each other.”
“I know you well enough. At the core you remain the same. Both of you.” The Goblin King made his way back to John, who looked tense enough to shatter at the slightest touch. “Remember your place, pet. Succeed or fail, McKay will be leaving. And you will not.”
Because he was watching Rodney saw the twitch in John’s shoulders. That had hurt him, and just reinforced what they’d discussed in the oubliette. He resolved to help him regardless of what happened.
“Since you are so determined to help McKay, perhaps we can make things a bit more challenging.” The Goblin King tugged at the sleeves of his suit jacket and then disappeared into a flash of white light.
Rodney was relieved, until John’s head snapped up, his eyes wide. “Run!”
“What? What are you –” But then he could hear it, an ominous rumbling from further down the tunnel. “Oh, no.”
In a flash John was on his feet and had hold of Rodney’s wrist, tugging him down the tunnel in the direction they’d just come from. The rumbling became a deafening roar as the ceiling caved in behind them in an avalanche of dirt and stone. Great gouts of dust filled the air around them until both men were choking on it.
Rodney couldn’t see a thing in front of him but John seemed to know where he was going so he allowed himself to be towed along. The ceiling continued to fall, rapidly catching up to them. They were moments away from being buried, crushed together under the rubble, when John stopped.
“Open! Come on, open!”
Was he talking to someone? Rodney couldn’t tell, but just as they were about to be killed John was shoving him through an opening in the wall. The both ended up sprawled on the ground, choking on dust and dirt. Rodney kept his eyes tightly closed, though they were already running with tears from the grit.
“Rodney?” John asked, and then sounded as if he were hacking up a lung.
“Fine,” Rodney gasped. He belatedly realized that the noise had stopped, and eventually the air cleared enough that he was able to take a deep breath. He blinked his eyes open, rubbing the moisture out of them.
They were in a small stone chamber that had only one door, the one they’d come in through that was currently blocked by large chunks of stone. He was about ready to panic when he saw that there was a metal ladder bolted to the far wall of the room. Presumably that led to an exit.
Rodney got to his feet and brushed as much dust off himself as he could. It took John another moment to join him, shaking himself like a dog.
“Your boss is a real nice guy.”
John shrugged. Rodney dusted off his pack and pulled out the little bottle of water. He swirled some around his mouth and spit out a mouthful of dirt before taking a smaller swallow to soothe his throat. He passed the bottle to John, who took it and did the same. When Rodney repacked it there was only about a quarter of the bottle left.
“Let’s get out of here.” John made for the ladder and immediately started climbing.
Rodney looked up but the ceiling of the room was hidden in shadow, giving no indication of how high the ladder went or what was waiting at the top. “Where does this go?”
“Thank you, Captain Obvious.” With a sigh, Rodney put his hands on the rungs and started to climb up after John. He only hoped they wouldn’t have to climb too far.
“Is my sister safe?” he asked. “This Goblin King seems like a volatile guy, and Jeannie doesn’t know when to shut up. I don’t want him to hurt her.”
“She didn’t come quietly like you did,” John replied. The metal rungs clanged hollowly with each step. “The Goblin King had to put her in the dream.”
“Dream? What dream?”
“She sleeps, thinking she’s somewhere else. I don’t know what her individual dream is, it’s different for everyone.”
“But she’s safe there?” Rodney pressed. It seemed almost impossible to get a straight answer in this place but he was bound and determined.
John sighed. “She’s safe as long as she doesn’t know she’s dreaming. If she wakes up, she can’t go back in, and I don’t know what the Goblin King will do with her then. She…uh…she kicked him. Before.”
Rodney snorted. Yeah, that sounded like Jeannie and he bet he knew exactly where she’d kicked the guy. Well, good for her. He normally didn’t approve of that kind of below-the-belt violence but they’d had no right to steal her away.
There was a long pause, the only sound the thunking of shoes on metal. When John spoke again he sounded hesitant and unsure. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry I took your sister. I didn’t have a choice.”
“Yeah, I get that.” And Rodney did, that wasn’t a lie. He’d seen how the Goblin King treated John, like some kind of house pet. It wasn’t like John could pull his bird trick and sneak back to Rodney’s world to hide out. Not with his messed up face.
The silence spun out between them again. Rodney’s arms were starting to feel the strain of the constant reach and pull, and he was desperate to see some sunshine. He kept waiting for something to swoop out of the dark and yank him off the ladder.
“Can I ask you a question?” John’s voice echoed a bit in the vast space.
“Sure. It’s not like I have anything else to do.”
“What’s it like? Having a sister?”
That caught Rodney by surprise. “It’s annoying. She never does what she’s supposed to, she argues with me about everything, and she’s marrying some goofy English major who doesn’t deserve her at all.”
“Oh. But…why did you come for her, then?”
“Why? Oh. Well, she’s my sister. Even though she annoys the crap out of me I still love her. She’s the only one who really knows me.” That surprised Rodney as well. He’d never really thought about it before but it was true. Jeannie was the only one who knew him, the real him. She knew why he acted the way he did, and was never afraid to call him on his shit.
Normally Rodney didn’t mind talking about himself, but delving that deep into his personal relationships was uncomfortable so he turned the focus back on John. “Do you have a family?”
“I don’t know. No-one ever came.” It was said matter-of-factly, which somehow made it worse. At least Rodney knew that if their roles had been reversed Jeannie absolutely would’ve come for him. He’d never been as alone as John clearly was.
“Here we go,” John said, and Rodney realized they’d finally made it to the top of the ladder. About damn time!
There was a scraping sound as John moved something, followed by a muffled clang. The opening to the surface was narrow and Rodney had a moment to wonder if he’d be able to get his shoulders through. But then John was there to help him, pulling him up and assisting him over the edge of the…planter?
Rodney scowled. He’d just crawled out of an oversized decorative urn mounted on a low marble stand. It was impossible, and his rational brain was having fits trying to make sense of it.
“It’s bigger on the inside,” John said with a grin. It might’ve been a Doctor Who reference, if he’d remembered what that even was. Still, Rodney couldn’t help but grin back.
“So now what?” he asked.
They were in a section of the Labyrinth that was very artfully decorated with free-standing pillars and smooth marble walls topped with topiaries. Decorative statues, most of them depicting goblins, were stuck in shallow alcoves. There were hedge-maze archways at regular intervals.
“I can’t take you all the way,” John said apologetically. He leaned against the wall, arms crossed. “I’m not allowed. But maybe you can ask that guy.”
John tipped his head and Rodney turned to see a very elderly man with bushy white eyebrows and a drooping white moustache shuffling slowly across the open space to a throne of sorts, fashioned out of carved marble and made to look like old-fashioned leather-bound books that were propped against each other.
“He looks like he’s a hundred years old,” Rodney protested. He wasn’t even sure how the guy was staying upright. His wizened face and hunched frame were nearly lost in the thick layers of clothing that he wore, robes and a brown homespun cloak. Bits of red at his sleeves peeked out as he moved so…very…slowly. He had some sort of hood on his head decorated with a desiccated bird of all things.
“You can’t take anything for granted here,” John advised.
“Fine. Let’s see what the crazy old man has to say.” Rodney sighed but approached the book throne. The old man had settled himself in with lots of grunting and shifting, and seemed already to be dozing.
“Hey, there,” he said, feeling stupid. “Um, I need some information.”
There was no change in the old man’s demeanor, and Rodney had to hold back the urge to nudge him with his foot. He didn’t like it when people ignored him, whether they were professors or crazy old men with dead birds on their heads.
“Hello!” he said, raising his voice in case the guy was deaf. “Hey, can you hear me?”
Still no response and Rodney looked over at John, shrugging his shoulders. John nodded and stepped away from the wall. He bowed his head respectfully at the old man.
“Wiseman, we seek your counsel.”
Immediately the old man looked up, brown eyes gleaming with awareness. He pinned Rodney with his gaze, moustache quivering. His voice was paper thin and wavering but his words were clear enough. “The man who invented it doesn’t want it. The man who bought it doesn’t need it. The man who needs it doesn’t know it.”
“Riddles?” Rodney asked incredulously. “Are you kidding me?”
“Those are the rules,” John explained. “If he stumps you, he won’t answer any of your questions. He’ll only ask you three.”
“Riddles. Great.” The man who invented it doesn’t want it. The man who bought it doesn’t need it. The man who needs it doesn’t know it. It sounded like something he’d heard before, and he was sure he knew the answer.
“Come on, boy. This is an easy one,” the old man taunted.
“I’m a genius. I’ll get it, if you stop running your mouth.” Rodney paced in a tight circle, turning it over and over in his mind. What would someone buy that they didn’t need? And then it was there, shining like a neon sign. He turned on his heel and pointed at the old man.
The old man snorted. “Just so! Thirty white horses on a red hill: first they champ, then they stamp, then they stand still.”
“Ha! That’s Tolkien!” Rodney grinned. “The answer is teeth.”
“A scholar, then? Very well.” The old man tugged at one half of his moustache. “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”
Rodney opened his mouth and shut it again, momentarily stymied. He recognized it, of course, though he’d never read Alice in Wonderland. Did it even have an answer, or was it one of those ridiculous riddles he remembered from grade school – what’s the difference between an orange?
He looked over at John, who seemed riveted on the action but offered him nothing more than a shrug and a nod. So helpful. Rodney broke down the elements of the question. Writing desk. Nothing much that could be but what it was. Raven, though. The first thing that popped into his head was Edgar Allen Poe. Poe. That sounded familiar.
“You’ve got it,” John said with a grin. “I knew you would.”
“Of course I got it. Genius, remember?” Rodney felt incredibly smug. “A raven is like a writing desk because Poe wrote on both.”
The old man grinned, showing several gaps where teeth used to be. “I would also have accepted ‘because they both have inky quills’ and ‘because the notes for which they are noted are not noted for being musical notes.’”
“Now you’re just showing off,” Rodney replied with a huff.
“Ask your question, boy.”
“A question? Not a riddle?”
The old man held out one wrinkled, liver-spotted hand, fingers trembling, and nodded.
Rodney said the first thing that popped into his head. “What’s the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?”
“African or European?” was the unexpected reply.
Rodney could only gawk while the old man laughed uproariously, though it came out as more of a wheezing whistle. John, who clearly had no memory of Monty Python, just looked between the two of them in confusion.
“You amuse me, boy. Now. Ask the one thing you most want to know.”
“Do you know how to get to the castle? The Goblin King’s castle?”
The old man shook his head. “Never got an invite, I’m afraid.”
He hadn’t expected much but Rodney was still disappointed. “Yeah, well, that’s fine. I can find it on my own.”
“Sometimes,” the old man said. “You have to let others lead even when they know not the way.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
There was no answer forthcoming. The old man had fallen back asleep, snoring loudly in his stone chair. John nodded.
“That’s all you’ll get out of him.”
“Well, that was an absolute waste of time.” Rodney picked a random direction and started walking, passing under one of the hedge arches. “Why can’t I get a straight answer out of anyone in this god-forsaken place?”
John quickly caught up so that they were side by side. He didn’t say anything, was just a quiet presence at Rodney’s side. Rodney tried not to find that comforting. He was used to doing things on his own. It wasn’t good to get too comfortable relying on someone.
“Doesn’t it drive you crazy, living here? Things keep changing.”
John shrugged. “It is what it is. I don’t remember anything different.”
Rodney couldn’t argue with that. It only served to increase his curiosity about John and the life he lived before coming to the Labyrinth. Had he been taken the same as Jeannie, to force someone he knew into solving the maze? If so, that person had failed. Would the Goblin King do to Jeannie what he’d done to John?
“But what do you do all day? Don’t you get bored?”
“Can’t get bored when the Labyrinth changes every day.” John turned his face up to the sky, a half smile tugging at his lips. “Some of it’s beautiful.”
“The parts that aren’t trying to kill you,” Rodney replied sourly.
“You’re doing fine,” John assured him. “Just keep using your head.”
They rounded one corner, then another, every cross path looking the same. Without any way to see over the walls Rodney had no idea how close they were to the castle. And then he mentally slapped himself in the head.
“Hey, give me a hand.”
John helped Rodney rock one of the urns off a table, and then drag the table across the stone with a scraping squeal that put Rodney’s teeth on edge. Once it was close enough to the wall he climbed up on it and pushed the hedges aside, scratching his hands in the process.
The view was amazing. He could see the tops of other walls, winding in a serpentine fashion. The types and colors of stone varied from section to section, some of them decorated with gargoyles or bits of stone carved into balls or pyramids. Rodney turned carefully on the table, stretching up on his toes, until he could see the castle. It was still far off, but at least he had an idea of the direction he needed to go.
“It’s too bad we can’t just walk along the top of the wall,” he said when he hopped off the table. “That would make this a hell of a lot easier.”
“Too dangerous,” John said seriously. “There’s lots of trap doors. The Goblin King doesn’t allow for cheating.”
“Unless he’s the one doing it,” Rodney shot back. “Okay, let’s go. This way.”
They wound their way around the maze, more or less in the direction of the castle. As long as he had a direction in mind the twists and turns were easily managed. A not-unpleasant silence filled the space between them as they walked, and then a bellow filled the air. Rodney stopped, eyes wide.
“What now?” He looked at John, whose expression of alarm did nothing to soothe his nerves. “John?”
“I have to go.”
“What? What are you talking about? You said you’d help me!”
John turned to him, face grim. “I told you I’d take you as far as I could. This is it.”
“Fine. I don’t need your help anyway. Just go.”
Rodney tried not to feel abandoned as John pulled his bird routine and took to the sky. There was another bellow, and a squeal, and unfortunately both were in the direction that he needed to go. John had advised him not to take anything for granted, so he squared his shoulders, took a few deep breaths to steady his nerves, and headed towards the fray.
There was a large tree growing in the middle of a grotto. Like most things in the Labyrinth it looked half-dead, but was sturdy enough to support the weight of the very large man who hung upside down from it by a rope around his ankles.
Even hanging from a tree he looked like a giant, tall and broad with a head full of thick dreadlocks. He wore brown leather pants and a matching vest that showed off several tattoos. He was the source of the bellowing and it was clear to see why: a handful of goblins were jabbing at him with pointed sticks, dancing in and back as he swung his arms at them.
For Rodney it was chillingly reminiscent of middle school, and the tortures he was forced to endure at the hands of the school bully. So despite the fact that the upside-down man looked like a brute in his own right, Rodney had to help him. He cast around for something to use and found a neat line of roughly rounded stones against the perimeter of the wall. Not one to question his good fortune, he picked one up and pegged it at the nearest goblin.
Most people assumed that, as an intellectual, Rodney couldn’t play sports. That was inaccurate. He chose not to play sports because he didn’t see the value in them, but that didn’t mean he was incapable of throwing a ball. Or a rock. The first stone bounced off the head of the goblin, driving it to its knees. The second caught one right in the throat. It didn’t take long for the group of them to scatter, squealing in dismay and streaming blood where stones had hit their marks.
Once they were gone Rodney broke cover, cautiously approaching the man in the tree. “Don’t hurt me,” he said.
The man just hung there, arms dangling, and stared at him.
“I’ll get you down. But only if you promise not to hurt me. Okay? Because I’m on a pretty important mission and I obviously can’t fight you.”
“I won’t hurt you,” the man said in a deep baritone voice.
Rodney followed the line of the rope to where it was tied off, please to see it was just a simple slip knot. He gave a tug and the man crashed to the ground with a thud and then just lay there on his back.
“Oh, no! I didn’t mean for that to happen, you have to believe me. I wouldn’t have –”
“You always talk this much?” The man got to his feet, and Rodney hoped there wasn’t going to be any violence because he was well over six feet tall and looked like he could crush lesser men in one hand. How had the goblins caught him?
“No. Well, sometimes. You make me nervous.”
That drew a smile, which transformed the stern countenance into one more youthful. He certainly looked exotic, with the tattoos and the goatee and the arching eyebrows. Rodney forced himself not to flinch away when he came over and grasped his forearm.
“Ronon Dex. Thank you for the save.”
“Oh. Uh, Rodney McKay. And you’re welcome.”
“Wraith snatch you too?”
“Yeah. I have to get to the castle to rescue my sister. Wait. What? Wraith?”
The big guy nodded. “He looks different than the others, but a Wraith is a Wraith. I’m a runner, I know.”
As if that explained anything, other than the fact that he wasn’t there for the same reason that Rodney was. Which was an excellent reminder that he needed to get on his way.
“Do you know how to get to the castle?” he asked. Ronon shook his head.
“Sorry. He never took me there.”
“Figures. Well, nice meeting you and everything, but I’m literally on the clock.”
Ronon nodded. “I’ll come.”
“What? With me?” Rodney hadn’t been expecting that.
“I owe you.”
Rodney wasn’t about to look a gift bodyguard in the mouth. “Sure. Oh, hey, uh…you’re bleeding.”
Ronon waved his concern away. “Superficial.”
There were several bleeding wounds that Rodney could see, and perhaps others he couldn’t, and they didn’t look superficial to him. But it wasn’t like he could hold the guy down while he applied the few bandaids in his pack to injuries that needed much more.
Rodney turned around to head back along the path, only to find that once again the path had been replaced by a wall embedded with two doors. There were no knobs or handles, but set into each one was a grid of square stones, three up and three across. A magic square math puzzle.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“You know what to do with that?” Ronon asked.
“It’s a magic square. Basic math puzzle. Every row has to equal fifteen. It was on the Mensa test. And clearly we need to do the puzzle in order to get the door to open.”
Ronon nodded, then proceeded to push against each door anyway. Neither one budged. “So which one?”
Rodney studied each one, but they were identical in every way. Both brown, both made of thick slabs of wood, and both with the puzzles. The walls were so high that not even the big guy could peek over them to get an idea of what might be on the other side.
“I guess it doesn’t matter.” Rodney went to the door on the right and studied the stones. Each one had a number chiseled into it, one through nine. He did the math quickly in his head and then re-arranged the stones accordingly until each row equaled fifteen across, down and diagonally.
“Piece of cake,” he said smugly. As soon as he slid the last stone into place there was a snick and the door swung open.
He wasn’t prepared for the terrain on the other side. There was a forest beyond the door, dark and foreboding, a broken stone path winding through it. Though the sun was shining in the sky elsewhere in the Labyrinth it was twilight in the forest.
“You sure about this?” Ronon asked. “They took all my weapons.”
“Weapons? You had weapons?” Where the heck had they snatched this guy from, a war zone?
“I want my blaster back,” he replied darkly.
“I’m sure you do. You don’t have to come.”
Ronon just looked at Rodney, who shrugged and passed through the doorway. The trees here were likewise dead and the ground covered with dried leaves that swirled in the breeze. The big guy tagged along but hung back.
“What are you doing back there?” Rodney asked over his shoulder.
“Guarding your flank.”
There was no reason that should have made Rodney blush, but it did. “Well, you can stop that.”
“McKay, you don’t know –”
There was an odd whooshing sound and then silence. “I don’t know what?” Rodney asked. When there was no response he looked over his shoulder and saw that he was alone. “Hey! Big guy! Ronon? Where’d you go?”
Nothing. No sign that Ronon had been there at all. Rodney sighed. On his own again.
He ate a power bar from his pack as he walked. Succumbing to low blood sugar in the middle of a dark forest seemed like the worst idea ever, particularly when he was all alone. In addition to trying to pierce the gloom that surrounded him, Rodney cast his gaze skyward, frequently scanning for any sign of John. Despite the man’s strange appearance he was at least someone to talk to.
“Liar!” someone shouted. Rodney flinched and stopped, but he didn’t see anyone.
“Hello?” he called out tentatively.
There was no response but now other sounds reached his ears, the mutterings of several voices and some sort of clacking that he couldn’t identify. Rodney followed the noise even though it meant veering off the path.
As the sounds grew louder, the area grew brighter, until he could see quite clearly the scene in front of him. There was a large bonfire blazing away within a circle of stones, and beside it a roughly-hewn wooden table where five men sat hooting and hollering at each other.
“I call you liar!” one of them crowed, pointing to another.
They seemed to be Vikings at first glance, with very prominent noses and masses of red hair hanging down to their shoulders – some in braids – though they were all men judging by the amount of facial hair. Brothers, perhaps? They wore shaggy capes made of mottled fur that was orange and brown and white, and added the appearance of extra bulk to their already broad shoulders. One of them wore a wooden crown that looked as if it had been carved by a child, adorned with an oddly – shaped white crystal.
They were playing some sort of game, and as Rodney drew closer he could see that the clacking sound was made by dice being shaken in wooden cups. He was debating the necessity of talking to the men when his foot came down on a branch, snapping it with a sound like a gunshot. All noise immediately stopped and five heads swiveled in his direction.
“A sixth!” shouted one with a very round face. All of them got a hungry, intent look that made the hair on the back of Rodney’s neck stand up. But before he could turn and run he was surrounded by the fur-wearing brothers. They pounded him enthusiastically on the back and chucked him on the arm, and generally terrified him with their friendly exuberance.
“What are you doing? Stop that!” Rodney’s protests fell on deaf ears as he was herded to the table and pushed into an empty seat. He immediately tried to get up but a big hand on his shoulder pressed him back down.
“You must stay and play the game!”
“The game! The game!”
“We need a sixth! We haven’t had a sixth in ages!”
A wooden cup was plunked down on the table in front of him, dice rattling inside. Rodney stared at it as if it were a snake with a potentially lethal bite. “What game? I don’t want to play a game, I have to save my sister!”
“No sisters. Just the game.”
“New game!” The one in the crown banged his dice cup on the table three times, and then the others followed suit. They all stared at Rodney until he did likewise. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that these guys weren’t going to let him go until he played. He just hoped that one round of whatever the game was would be enough because he didn’t have time to spare.
“Shake and cover!” The one in the crown was the clear leader of the game and the others followed his lead. They vigorously shook the cups and then slammed them upside down on the table. Rodney hurriedly followed suit, peeking under the cup when he saw the others doing the same.
There were five dice in the cup and his had rolled out two, four, five, five, six. He looked at the others to see what was going to happen next. The leader started things off with what sounded like a random bit of counting.
They went around the table, each player calling out numbers.
Once again all eyes were on Rodney. He still wasn’t sure what the game was but he knew well enough how to recognize a pattern.
“Liar!” the Viking sitting closest shouted. Everyone pulled their cups away and the fives were counted. There were only nine, and Rodney had one of his dice taken away. That ended the first round and then they all went again. This time he had a better idea of what was going on. Probabilities. They were betting on the total outcome of the rolled dice.
Rodney decided to hedge his bets this time around, but he never got the chance because the third one to bet was called liar and the dice had to be revealed and counted. He hadn’t lied, and so the accuser lost a die.
The game became more difficult as dice were removed and had to be kept track of. Rodney found himself getting caught up in it despite himself, and managed to hold his own until the last few rounds. He challenged and lost his last die, and the winner immediately jumped up on his chair and demanded his prize.
“The prize! The prize! Give me my prize!”
The prize turned out to be the wooden crown, which was handed over with great reluctance and more than a little name-calling. Rodney put all his dice back in the cup and slid it into the middle of the table.
“Well, this was…fun. I’ve gotta go. Sister to save.” Rodney tried to get up but was pushed back into his chair.
“New game!” called out the newly crowned victor.
“No! No new game. I’m leaving.” Rodney twisted out from the restraining hand and stumbled away from the table until he got his feet under him enough to run. The game-playing Vikings were quick to pursue.
Rodney weaved between tree trunks, running as hard as he could. Just his luck, then, to reach the end of the line and come up against a wall nearly twelve feet high. He slapped his hands against the rough stone.
“Damn it! Come on!” He couldn’t see a door, but maybe it met up with the path. The one he’d left behind.
“There he is! Get him!”
“The game’s not over!”
“Come back! We need a sixth!”
Rodney ran parallel to the wall, trying to find his way back to the path and the exit it must surely lead to. More bad luck: the Vikings outflanked him, boxed him in until he had nowhere to go. He pressed his back to the wall and clenched his hands, prepared to go down fighting if need be.
“Guys, come on. Let’s be reasonable here. You don’t want me to play. I…uh…I’m a cheater. Yeah. A really bad cheater, and you don’t want to play any kind of game with me. Plus? Sore loser.” That last part was true, which Jeannie could easily attest to if she were around. He never cheated – it was beneath his brilliant mind to do so – but he was never happy about losing.
“We need you.”
“You have to be our sixth.”
“Come! We play!”
As one they moved in, arms reaching out to grab Rodney, when the air was split by the sound of a hawk’s piercing shriek. All of them, Rodney included, looked up to see the Harrier speeding down at them from the top of the wall like a bullet. At the last minute it snapped its wings out and transformed into John in midair so that he fell the last three feet and landed in front of Rodney with his knees bent to absorb the shock.
The Vikings fell back, fear written large on their faces. They clutched at each other, huddling up several feet away.
John stood there in his full magnificence, glaring at them. “Go back to your game.”
“But he’s our sixth!”
“Yes, we need a sixth!”
There was no reply, just a yellow-eyed glare that had the Vikings exchanging looks and then scurrying back to their bonfire. Rodney watched them go in relief, and clapped a hand on John’s shoulder.
“Wow. You’ve got some street cred around here.”
John turned to look at him, lips twitching in a smile. “Street cred?”
“You have a real knack for showing up in the nick of time. Not that I’m complaining.” Rodney realized he still had his hand on John’s shoulder and pulled it back as if he’d been burned. “Uh…you do know where the door is, right?”
“Of course I do. You should’ve stayed on the path, Rodney. It’s easy to get lost here.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Rodney replied with a sniff. “Can we get going? Tick tock, you know.”
John looked at him for a long moment as if there was something else he wanted to say, and it made Rodney a little nervous. He was far too pleased to see the blue-faced man again, which was troublesome in and of itself, but it looked like John was really struggling with something and Rodney wished he were better at reading body language.
“John? Everything okay?”
“There’s something I have to tell you,” John said finally. He looked incredibly grave and Rodney was sure it was bad news. Had the Goblin King changed the rules on him again?
“What? What is it? Is it Jeannie?”
“No. Listen, Rodney. I can’t –”
Whatever that can’t was, Rodney wasn’t going to hear it anytime soon. John never got to finish what he was going to say because suddenly the ground opened up at their feet and they were falling into darkness.
John slid out the end first, grabbing hold of something so that he swung out to the side instead of going straight out. Rodney could see why seconds before he popped out himself, legs shooting out over the edge of a drop-off. At the last minute he jammed his arm through an exposed root that looped down from the ceiling of the chute, jerking painfully to a stop.
“Fine,” Rodney gasped in reply, trying to catch his breath. He was sorry he bothered, because what little bit of air he was able to pull in was fetid and rotten. He immediately started to choke and gag, eyes watering.
He was only vaguely aware that John was upright and mobile. “Hang on.”
Rodney’s shoulder ached but he tightened his grip on that root when John tried to move him. “It’s okay. Trust me.”
“What the fuck is that smell?” Rodney allowed John to help him to his feet, though standing on a narrow ledge wasn’t much of an improvement.
“It’s the bog. Here.” John smeared something oily under Rodney’s nose, which filled his nasal cavity with the scent of mint. It was an overwhelming relief, and he had the sudden urge to give John a hug; he didn’t.
From his vantage point Rodney had a pretty good view of the stinky bog, and it wasn’t very promising. Much of it looked to be brackish water, some of it oily, some of it covered in green scum. There were ancient remnants of trees, the trunks slimy with moss. What bit of dry land was visible was little more than footpaths through the wet. Unlike the forest, which had been eerily silent, the bog was full of animal sounds: something splashing through the water, the sonorous croaking of bull frogs, the call of birds.
“Move to your left, carefully,” John instructed.
Rodney nodded and slid his foot to the side. He kept his back pressed to the rock wall, shoulder throbbing, and tried not to look down. He wasn’t a big fan of heights, especially when there was so little between him and open air, and he was getting pretty tired of falling. He was pretty sure the constant adrenalin rush was no good for his system.
“Do you know how to get out of here?” he asked John.
“There’s only one way out. It’ll be…difficult.”
“Of course it will. Nothing’s ever easy in this damned place.”
“You get used to it,” John said apologetically.
“Getting used to it is the exact opposite of what I want to do. I want to save Jeannie, go home, and pretend this was all a horrible, horrible dream.” Rodney thought of his tiny dorm room with nostalgia. He missed the hurt expression that crossed John’s face.
“That’s what everyone says.”
The bleak tone caught Rodney’s attention and he stopped moving, looking over at his travel companion. “Hey. I said I’d help you and I meant it. A McKay never goes back on their word.”
He really, really hoped he wasn’t lying. John might be flighty – pun definitely intended – but he’d consistently come through for Rodney. The least he could do was return the favor.
John cocked his head and somehow managed to look bashful and uncertain, which did strange things to Rodney’s insides. He got back to the job at hand, shuffling his way across the ledge. He could see where John was taking them, a natural slope that would give them a way down without breaking their necks. It was a good plan, up until the point when the ledge began to crumble.
“Oh, crap!” The slab of rock Rodney was standing on broke away, taking him with it. John reached for him, to pull him back, and only succeeded in falling over the edge too.
The drop wasn’t as far as Rodney had feared, though the landing still knocked the breath right out of him. Though that was likely due to the fact that John had landed right on top of him. So he could only imagine how Ronon felt, since he was on the bottom of the pile.
“Get off!” Ronon pushed and Rodney and John rolled in opposite directions.
“What are you doing here?” Rodney asked when he got his breath back.
“Fell down a hole.”
“Ditto.” Rodney got to his feet and gave Ronon a hand up. He was starting to feel a little optimistic – with the big guy helping they shouldn’t have any trouble getting out of the bog and that much closer to the castle. It was a good thought, but the next thing he knew Ronon had a hand around John’s throat and was shaking him.
“Hey! Let him go, you big lummox! He’s helping me!”
“He’s the one who brought me here,” Ronon replied with a growl. He backed John up to wall, the other man’s face turning alarming shades of red and darker blue.
Rodney tugged ineffectually at the big guy’s incredibly muscular arm. “He’s a victim too! Are you listening to me? I promised I’d help him, now let him go!”
Ronon glared at him for a long moment while John scrabbled at the hand on his throat, long nails drawing blood. “You swore an oath to this man?”
“Yes! An oath!” Rodney would agree to anything, so long as it meant that John didn’t get choked out in the middle of a disgusting bog. It had the desired effect. Ronon let go of John, who dropped to his hands and knees on the spongy ground.
Rodney squatted down next to him. “You okay? John?”
“He works with the Wraith,” Ronon grumbled, arms crossed over his expansive chest.
“I’ll assume by Wraith you mean Goblin King, and yes. John works for him. Have you seen his face? I can assure he wasn’t born that way, and he wasn’t born here, so get it through your thick skull. He’s the same as us, trapped here just like we are, and he’s been helping me.”
John coughed. “It’s fine. He’s right.”
“No, he isn’t.” Rodney didn’t know why he was arguing the point so hard. “You know what, I’m done with both of you. Point me in the direction I need to go to get out of here and you can fight it out.”
John pointed and Rodney took off at a brisk pace, wanting to put as much distance between himself and the two idiots as possible. It was bad enough, being stuck in this stupid, ever-changing place, but all the bickering wasn’t helping. And John didn’t even stick up for himself, which probably annoyed Rodney the most. He’d seen how the Vikings had reacted to John, how scared they’d been, so why didn’t he use that to his advantage? An even better question was why the hell Rodney even cared.
He heard Ronon and John following him but ignored them. He concentrated on staying to the path, because he didn’t want to put a foot into the bog; that was a smell he feared would never wash off. The minty gel John had given him helped block out most of it, but enough of it got through to put some speed in his steps.
It wasn’t long before a bridge came into sight, and beyond that another door. The exit! Rodney had no idea how many of his thirteen hours had elapsed but he was getting anxious. Jeannie was counting on him, John too, and he wasn’t about to let either one of them down.
The stone bridge looked positively ancient, and didn’t even have a rudimentary railing. There was a little shack set off to the side, which looked like it had a tree growing right through the middle of it, and as Rodney got close to the bridge the door opened and a woman came out.
Rodney’s first thought was whoa. She was gorgeous, tanned and lithe in a fitted brown leather bodice and a matching split skirt that showed quite a bit of leg. There were leather gauntlets on each wrist, and boots that covered her calves. Was he the only one in this place not wearing leather?
Rodney’s greeting died on his lips when he saw the two sturdy-looking, polished wooden rods she held in each hand which, paired with the fierce look on her face, didn’t give an impression of welcome or safe passage.
“Just passing through,” Rodney said in what he hoped was his most innocuous voice. This woman looked tough, but he had an edge over her in both height and weight. And no-one was keeping him from reaching the castle.
“None shall cross this bridge.” The woman blocked the way, going into a defensive stance that was both hot and a little bit scary.
“You don’t understand. I have to get to the castle and save my sister.”
“I am not unsympathetic to your plight but that does not change the fact that you cannot cross this bridge without my permission.”
Ronon pushed past Rodney. “I’ll handle this,” he said. He made a move, possibly to push the woman out of the way, but she countered with her sticks, rapping Ronon on the knuckles with one while the other cracked him in the knee.
Rodney exchanged a glance with John, who just shrugged. Ronon made an angry noise and a complicated move where he feinted one way, dodged the other, and swept the woman’s legs out from under her so that she landed on her back with a thud.
She wasn’t down long. She flipped back to her feet, which was impressive as hell from where Rodney was standing, and did some spinning, twirling thing with both her body and the sticks, the end result being Ronon flat on his back with one of the sticks pressed against his throat.
“You telegraph your moves,” she told Ronon, as if conducting a class. “It is easy to see where you intend to go before you get there.”
“You use the bantos rods like a warrior,” was Ronon’s reply. That got a raised eyebrow from the woman.
“You know them?”
“They were part of our training on Sateda.”
That seemed to be a code word because the woman bent down and grabbed hold of Ronon’s hand, yanking him back to his feet.
“I am Teyla Emmagan, daughter of Tagan. Leader of the Athosians.”
“Specialist Ronon Dex.”
They exchanged some sort of greeting that involved touching their foreheads together. Rodney stepped forward.
“I’m glad we’re all friends now. Rodney McKay, the pleasure is all yours.” But when he tried to get on the bridge Teyla barred his way with one of her fighting sticks.
“I am very sorry, but I cannot allow you to cross.”
Rodney growled in frustration, but before he could do anything John was there doing the forehead thing with Teyla, who looked genuinely glad to see him.
“John. It has been too long.”
“You two know each other?” Ronon asked, looking suspiciously at John.
“John visits me from time to time,” Teyla replied. “It gets very lonely here.”
“But he took you from your home.”
Ronon was a single-minded guy, but before Rodney could butt in and tell him to shut his mouth, Teyla shook her head and gave him a quelling look.
“John is made to travel between worlds at the behest of the Wraith that calls himself Goblin King. The same as I am made to guard this seldom-used bridge.”
“Tell Rodney the rule,” John said softly.
“None shall cross this bridge without my permission.”
Rodney looked at John. Was it that simple? “May we have your permission?”
He’d thought Teyla was gorgeous before, but when she smiled she was stunning. “Of course you may have it. Most people try to bully their way when they need only ask.” A sour look was leveled in Ronon’s direction.
“Come with us,” John said. “You don’t need to stay here.”
“We go to confront the Wraith,” Ronon said. “And take him down.”
“After we rescue my sister.”
“I will help any way I can,” Teyla said.
Rodney was filled with gratitude. He didn’t know these people but they were willing to help him, even though that meant facing down the Goblin King. He took a moment to collect himself while the others crossed the bridge. There were ominous grinding sounds as Ronon crossed, and Rodney took a deep breath before hurrying after them.
He was nearly halfway across when the whole structure shuddered, and then the half he was standing on broke way, chunks of stone falling into the smelly bog some seven feet below. Rodney cursed and grabbed for an edge, his already scratched hands becoming even more so as he dangled there.
“Rodney!” John was there in an instant, lying on his stomach and hooking his arms under Rodney’s armpits. “Hang on!”
“Thanks for the advice,” Rodney snapped back. He was losing his grip, and if John didn’t let go they’d both go over. He hazarded a look down and then wished he hadn’t. In addition to the many pointy looking rocks that jutted out of the water directly below him, he swore he saw something very much like an alligator’s tail cutting through the scummy water.
His already sore shoulder was screaming at him and even though he tried to hold his grip with that arm he couldn’t do it. He swung out a little and John grunted with the effort of holding on to him.
“Don’t drop me,” Rodney whispered, looking up into John’s face.
And then Ronon and Teyla were there on either side of John, offering their assistance, and between the three of them they hauled Rodney back up onto the bridge. He lay there a moment, panting, while John clumsily patted his back.
“Thanks,” Rodney said when he was able.
“Are you all right?” Teyla asked, and her concern seemed genuine.
“I’ll be fine. Can we please get out of this hell hole?”
Ronon pulled him to his feet and gave him such a hearty slap on the back that he nearly face planted. “You’ll do, McKay.”
“I can’t tell you how happy that makes me.” But there was less sarcasm in that statement than there might have been, and this time they left the bridge as a group, the four of them sticking closely together until they were through the door and out of the bog.
When Rodney saw the peach, hanging so ripe and perfect from a low-hanging tree branch, his mouth started to water. He was lagging a bit behind the others, only half listening to Ronon pepper John with questions that went largely unanswered, and didn’t bother to call out his discovery. It was mostly selfish; he didn’t want to have to share it. Actually it was surprising that none of the others had seen it but he wasn’t about to question his good fortune.
He plucked it off the branch and gave it a perfunctory rub on his shirt before taking the first bite. It was perfect, sweet and juicy and the best thing he’d ever tasted. John chose that moment to turn and look back at him, and Rodney wasn’t quick enough getting the peach out of sight. He’d expected annoyance, but what he got instead was wide-eyed dismay.
“What did you do?” John asked, hurrying to his side. He pulled the peach from Rodney’s hand, and on second glance it actually looked a little bit over-ripe.
Rodney’s stomach roiled, and the pleasant after taste turned sour. “I don’t feel well,” he said.
“What happened?” Ronon demanded. John handed him the peach, which was rapidly turning brown and bruised, and the big guy threw it as far as he could away from them.
John helped Rodney sit, which was good because he was suddenly quite dizzy and things were getting fuzzy around the edges.
“But I’m not allergic to peaches,” he said plaintively.
“It’s the dream,” John said. “You’re going into the dream. You have to fight it!”
Rodney wanted to, he really did. If he was too drugged up to move he’d never get to the castle in time, never save Jeannie. But he could feel it pulling him under, his vision darkening until John’s face was the only thing he could see. He wanted to tell him he was sorry for screwing up, but the words wouldn’t come. He closed his eyes, too tired to keep them open anymore.
Rodney opened his eyes, confused but not at all alarmed. He was in a strange place, a vast room that looked like nothing he’d ever seen before. The walls were metallic green, the floor colored a warm brown. There were several open flights of stairs, a balcony, and what looked like computer terminals of some kind. The main feature of the room was a large metal ring set into the floor, decorated with strange symbols and white lights. It looked roughly four and a half meters in diameter and Rodney couldn’t help but wonder at the purpose of it.
Behind the ring was an art deco window, the glass broken up into geometric shapes and giving glimpses of tall metallic structures and beyond that an endless sea. Except…something was off. One pane showed a different scene, a forest scene, but before he could get a closer look the room was suddenly suffused with noise.
Masked revelers were coming down the stairway in pairs, dressed in old-fashioned finery from a different age. Rodney realized he was dressed similarly, cream on cream – linen shirt with pleated frills at the cuff, waistcoat with subtle embroidered scrollwork, linen breeches and creamy leather shoes with an unaccustomed heel.
Rodney had no mask, but every other member of the impromptu ball wore one, half-masks that left their mouths uncovered. Some were fright masks, all exaggerated features and fearsome countenances. Others looked like fantastical insects and animals.
A string quartet set up in the middle of the metal ring and began to play, and people began dancing. Rodney moved among them, searching for someone though he couldn’t say who. Women tittered as they were spun and dipped. There were so many colors, so many masks, but then he saw the one he wanted. A man in a navy blue greatcoat, his mask bearing the sharply curved beak of a bird of prey rendered in leather.
Rodney tried to get closer but people kept getting in his way. He pushed through them, pushed them aside, even as the music went from a light and airy waltz to something darker, something almost discordant. And then Rodney found him, on his knees beside a man in a crimson waistcoat who wore a full-face mask of pure porcelain, with no discernible features on it at all. Somehow the lack of definition made it all the more frightening. A name fluttered in the back of Rodney’s mind, a name which seemed both right and wrong. Michael.
The man on the floor raised his head and looked at Rodney, his hazel green eyes bright and pleading. He was a stranger to Rodney, who nonetheless knew his name as well. John. Ignoring the tight grasp the man in crimson had on John’s shoulder, Rodney bent down and took his hands in his own, pulling him slowly to his feet. The faceless man dropped his hand but otherwise didn’t move as Rodney tugged John away.
The music changed again, a waltz played at slow speed, as Rodney and John moved together with the other dancers. Rodney’s hand rested lightly on John’s hips, just as the other man held tightly to his arms just above the elbows. They swayed together, feet picking out the steps, and when John turned to look back at the man in crimson Rodney turned his head gently back to face him.
He slipped his hand to the back of John’s head, intent on removing the mask. He wanted to see the face beneath but John stayed his hand, clasping it in his own. Rodney moved in slowly, gauging, and slipped around the beak to kiss the mouth beneath it. John released his hold on Rodney’s hand so that he could stroke the back of Rodney’s neck.
The mask slipped off easily and Rodney drank in the sight of his dance partner. Not classically handsome, but somehow the sum of his parts appealed to Rodney as none other ever had, or could. Thin face, nicely shaped lips, slightly pointed ears, dark hair that stood up from his head in spikes and waves. He was the best thing Rodney had ever seen. At the tentative look on John’s face he kissed him again. Breathed him in, tasted him, filled his senses.
The kiss ended abruptly as John was pulled away by Michael. At first Rodney was frozen in place, unable to move as John was taken further and further away, the dancers filling the spaces between them once more. John’s mouth was open though no sound issued from it, and when Rodney could finally move, finally give chase, he couldn’t see them anywhere.
The music became distorted and ugly, the violins screeching, and all of the dancers laughed at him, some pointing fingers, others pushing at him. Rodney shoved through them, smacking their grasping hands out of the way, until he found himself by the window behind the musicians. There was the sea, and the spires, but he searched until he found the one pane that was different, the one that showed the forest scene.
He placed his hand on it when he saw familiar faces, worried faces. That was where he was meant to be, not here in this cavernous room surrounded with cackling strangers. Rodney looked around for something to break the glass, to let him through, but the only things readily at hand were the instruments the musicians were using. He yanked the cello out of delicate hands and heaved it at the window.
The glass shattered, the entire window exploding outward, and it was as if they were suddenly in a vacuum. Rodney, the musicians and the dancers were pulled towards the broken window, fancy coiffures coming undone with the force of it. The others held on to whatever they could, trying to stay where they were, but Rodney merely opened his arms, closed his eyes, and let himself be pulled away.
Rodney choked on the bitter taste in his mouth, turning his head to spit. He opened his eyes, disoriented and a little dizzy. He was sitting up against the trunk of a tree.
“You back with us, McKay?” Ronon asked, his face swimming into view.
“Maybe. What the hell happened?”
“John called it the dream,” Teyla supplied.
Rodney nodded. Now he remembered. The poisoned peach, the masquerade ball. He flushed when he remembered kissing John. John, who’d looked completely normal. He looked around for the man himself but didn’t see him.
“Where is he?”
Teyla and Ronon exchanged a look that immediately put Rodney on alert.
“He went ahead,” Teyla explained apologetically. “To plead your case.”
Rodney let his head drop back against the tree with a thunk, welcoming the bite of the bark against his scalp. “Stupid, suicidal, bird-brained son of a bitch!”
“He said your time was nearly up, and that sending you into the dream was not playing fair.”
“Could be a trick,” Ronon said. He held his hands up in supplication when twin glares were aimed in his direction. “Forget it. I’m sure he’s on our side.”
Rodney got shakily to his feet and waited for the immediate landscape to stop spinning. He reached for his pack, wanting a stick of gum to get the taste of that rotten peach out of his mouth, and then remembered he’d given it all to John. It made something twist painfully in his chest.
“Let’s get going, before he gets himself killed. Idiot.”
The three of them followed the path, Ronon taking up the rear while Teyla led the way, and Rodney tried to be amused at being sandwiched in the middle like he needed to be protected. Mostly he was grateful that they even cared.
“Ronon, can you –” he started to say, and then a guard came out of the left-side guard house. He was big. Really big. Rodney thought he looked like a cross between a troll and a professional wrestler. He was shirtless, his chest covered in some sort of geometric tattooing, and he wore a spiky helmet on his big head.
“Allow me,” Ronon said with a feral grin on his face. Rodney almost let him, but stopped him with a sigh and a hand on his arm.
“No. It’s my quest. I have to do it. I think that’s a rule or something.” And already he was studying the big guard, looking for weak spots, calculating the physics it would take to knock him down.
Ronon looked dubious but Teyla nodded. “We shall be here if you require assistance.”
“Right. Well, here goes nothing.” Rodney approached the guard, who’d done nothing since coming out but stand there watching them. He didn’t get more than a few steps when another guard lumbered out of the second guard house. He was identical to the first one, and Rodney was more than aware of his limitations.
“I got this,” the big guy said. Rodney was more than happy to comply.
Ronon didn’t go in swinging, instead walking purposefully towards the gate. He waited for the guards to make the first move and when they did it was the impetus he needed. For such a big guy he could move incredibly gracefully. He pivoted, he jumped, he ducked and rolled. Ronon took a few hits, which would easily have leveled Rodney, but he gave more than he received.
Rodney winced with each blow, no matter who it landed on, but he breathed a sigh of relief when one of the guards went down hard. It was short-lived. Before Ronon could finish with that guard the other came at him from behind and caught him with a blow to the head that dropped him to his knees.
Teyla was just starting to move when Rodney snatched one of the sticks out of her hand and ran. In a bit of athleticism that would have shocked him if he’s been paying attention he leapt over the unconscious body of the first guard and hit the second one in the throat with the stick. When the guard stumbled back, choking and clawing at his neck, Rodney moved in again and this time aimed below the belt.
The guard dropped to his knees and Rodney shifted the stick in his hand, swinging it like a baseball bat right for the head. The resulting force shook all the way up his arm and he nearly lost his grip on the stick, which creaked but luckily didn’t break. The guard keeled over like a sack of potatoes.
“Nice shot,” Ronon said, rubbing the back of his head. “Thanks.”
Rodney handed Teyla her stick back with nearly nerveless fingers. “Yeah, well, I didn’t want to lose your muscle too soon. I might need it again.”
“You’re all heart.” Ronon got to his feet looking no worse for wear. “Gate?”
They were just as impossible to open as Rodney had figured they’d be. Not even Ronon could get the doors to budge, with help or without. Frustrated, Rodney stalked over to one of the guard houses and poked around inside, looking for some kind of switch or lever. What he found was a pulley system with a crank, but when he tried to turn it the thing moved less than an inch before stopping.
“There’s a wheel in here,” Ronon called from the other guard house.
Rodney poked his head out of the door. “Is it a crank pulley?”
“Yeah. Won’t move, though.”
He nodded. Two guard houses, two guards, two cranks. It was a simultaneous initialization system, though a very rudimentary one.
“Okay, big guy. On the count of three we turn the cranks at the same time, clockwise. You got it?”
“Got it,” Ronon called back from inside the other guard house.
Rodney put a hand on the crank. “One! Two! Three!” He turned the handle, but it only went another inch and then stopped. “Dammit, Ronon! Do you know what clockwise means?”
It took them three more tries to get synched up properly, and then they were able to get the gate open. The guards were starting to rouse but Ronon gave each one a love tap before they headed into the Goblin City.
“Stay close,” he said. Once again Rodney found himself in the middle, Teyla guarding the rear.
It quickly became clear that there was no rhyme or reason to the layout of the city. Goblin-sized dwellings were clustered together, the hodge-podge stone and wood construction making them appear as if they could tip over in a high wind. The streets were narrow and meandering, cobblestones covered in dirt and debris.
“This is ridiculous. We’re getting no-where fast.” The streets and buildings were angled in such a way that, even though it was close, the castle was consistently blocked from view. After passing the same dried-up fountain several times Rodney gave up and sat on the steps of the nearest crooked house. John and Jeannie were so damn close and he couldn’t get to them.
“We just need a better view,” Ronon said. He scanned the surrounding buildings until he found one with a round central tower. “Be right back.”
He squeezed himself through a ridiculously small door and disappeared from sight. Teyla sat beside Rodney, sticks propped up against the wall.
“You are worried for John.”
“Of course I am,” Rodney snapped. “Have you met the Goblin King? He gives me the skeeves. And you’ve seen what he’s already done to John, the way he’s disfigured him. He could be torturing him right now while we sit here getting covered with dust.”
Teyla nodded. “You have known him such a short amount of time and yet you are his champion.”
He flushed and looked away. He didn’t know how to explain his feelings, not even to himself. He’d never been outspoken about civil rights or anything like that. In fact, he spent a lot of time actively disliking other people and wishing they’d all go away and leave him alone to work in peace. But there was something about John. He was terrifying but vulnerable. Disfigured but somehow no less attractive because of it. Rodney remembered the dream, how they’d kissed.
“You have seen his heart,” Teyla said. “That is a wonderful gift.”
Rodney was saved from having to reply to that when the roof of the tower suddenly slid away, shingles raining down with a clatter on the street below. Ronon’s head popped out of the top, which for some reason set Rodney off laughing so hard that tears ran out of his eyes. Even Teyla’s lips twitched up in a grin.
“What’s funny?” Ronon called down.
“You!” Rodney gasped. “Demented jack-in-the-box!”
That just sent him off again and he had to lean against Teyla until he caught his breath. Meanwhile Ronon did a full 180 degree scan in the tower before disappearing from view and returning street side.
“That way,” he said, pointing.
The last bit of Rodney’s humor dried up as he got back on task. They moved more purposefully through the city, and this time didn’t return to the fountain. Rodney started to get a bad feeling. They’d encountered a goat, several chickens, and a lean black cat that had hissed and spit before running off.
“Where are all the goblins?” he wondered aloud.
“Perhaps they are all patrolling the maze?” Teyla sounded doubtful as she said that, and rightfully so.
“I’m pretty sure they’d leave someone behind to guard the castle. Wouldn’t they?” It wasn’t Rodney’s area of expertise but there was no denying the logic. “I only saw a handful of them on my way here.”
“Don’t call back luck, McKay,” Ronon warned. A little too late, as it turned out.
The goblins were indeed protecting the castle. There were suddenly hordes of the little creatures everywhere: on top of walls, crowded in front of buildings, filling the streets. Rodney looked at their grotesque faces and couldn’t help wondering how many had once been people.
“There are too many to fight,” Teyla said. She put a restraining hand on Ronon’s back when he seemed ready to launch himself into an unwinnable fight.
A complement of goblins came to the forefront, wielding spears and riding animals that were a bizarre mix of miniature pony and tauntaun. Once they stopped moving, everyone did. It was a Mexican stand-off, each side waiting for the other to make the first move. Several plans zipped through Rodney’s mind in a matter of seconds, most of them foolhardy and doomed to failure, and really it all came down to one thing. He wanted to get into the castle and he was pretty sure the goblins were there to provide an escort.
Rodney held his hands up, glancing at his two companions. “Resistance is futile.” He grinned, and turned back to the goblins.
“Take me to your leader,” he said, and hoped he wasn’t wrong.
The goblins took Teyla and Ronon somewhere else, separating them via garbled words and pointy spears. Rodney almost made another promise, one he was less sure he could keep, but Ronon beat him to it.
“We’ll find you!” he shouted down the corridor as he was led away.
The halls that Rodney was forcibly marched down were echoing and unadorned – not a single tapestry or empty suit of armor or random decorative antique table. Nothing but bare stone, and the incomprehensible mutterings of the goblins that surrounded him. Nothing to distract him from his growing anxiety over facing the Goblin King again, because what if he didn’t keep his word? What if everything Rodney went through was for nothing?
He was led up a narrow, twisting stone stairway and then into the throne room. All Rodney could do was stare. The space was littered with a variety of anachronistic items, most of which he could only guess at regarding purpose and design. Off to the left was a large metal canister that resembled nothing more than a storage container, except that through the large front window he could see what seemed to be a cockpit.
Beside the very obvious throne, with the high back and padded seat, was something Rodney recognized immediately as a computer, though he’d never seen one like that before. The screen was large and oddly shaped, like an octagon that was squeezed at the top, and there were too many cords feeding out of it, thick and somehow organic in appearance. Set back on the other side of the throne was a large, empty bird cage suspended on chains from the ceiling. Was John made to spend time there when he was a bird?
But what really caught his eye was the immense stone ring set into the floor at the far end of the room. It looked remarkably similar to the one in his drugged dream, though this one seemed older and had carved symbols instead of illuminated ones. Another one of the strange computers was attached to the ring, the screen cycling through data in some sort of foreign language.
“Rodney McKay. Welcome to my humble home.”
The Goblin King – Michael, a hazy wisp of memory supplied – strolled into the room, still wearing the white on crimson suit. He sat on the throne and snapped his fingers, and John appeared a moment later. Rodney was happy to see him even though the other man kept his head down. His whole demeanor screaming defeat, John knelt beside the throne and the Goblin King dropped a hand onto the top of his head.
“I solved your Labyrinth,” Rodney said. “I made my way to the castle. I beat all your puzzles, because my intellect clearly outmatches yours. And I want my sister.”
“I knew you would be smart enough. You always were.”
“My sister,” he repeated.
The Goblin King gave him a look of appraisal. “She is still in the dream. Very few are able to leave it voluntarily, as you did.”
Rodney felt an iota of relief at that. If Jeannie was drugged up that meant she was still alive, still unchanged. And the dream, while strange, hadn’t been entirely unpleasant. She was probably dreaming about all the housewifely things she’d be doing once she married Caleb.
“I was told Jeannie would be released.”
“And so she shall be.” The Goblin King’s hand moved lower, curling around John’s throat. “And you will stay behind to assist me.”
Rodney’s eyes narrowed. “No. This is what’s going to happen. My sister is going home, you’re fixing John, and then we’ll be leaving too.”
John’s head jerked up at that, even as the hand on his throat tightened perceptibly. It was like he still didn’t believe that Rodney wanted to help him, no matter how many times he’d said it.
“You do not make the rules, McKay. I defeated the previous ruler of this land and took his Labyrinth as my own. You will do as I command.”
Rodney had no doubt that the Goblin King could hold him there indefinitely. Whatever mix of magic and tech he was using was strong. If Rodney had to stay, so be it. He’d come up with a plan, get back home somehow. But he wasn’t about to doom Jeannie to the same fate.
“My sister, and then we can talk.”
The Goblin King gave John a shove, making him catch himself on his hands. “Take him. You know what to do.”
John stood and beckoned Rodney over. There was another doorway there, which led to a much smaller chamber. There were two beds and some sort of machine between them, squat and gunmetal gray, with a panel of darkened lights on the front. Jeannie lay on one of the beds and for one horrible moment Rodney was certain she wasn’t breathing.
“The dream slows everything down,” John explained. “Breathing, heart beat.”
Rodney hesitantly touched her face, breathing out a sigh of relief when her skin was warm to the touch. Jeannie’s curly blonde hair was in need of a brush, and the knuckles on her right hand were bruised, but she otherwise looked no worse for wear.
“What do I have to do?”
“Get on the other bed.” John opened a panel on the machine and withdrew a pile of wires. He went to Jeannie first, attaching a thin, flexible metal strip to her forehead. Three wires snaked out of it and back into the machine. “This will let you enter her dream.”
“And I’ll be able to get back out again, right?” Rodney asked nervously as John affixed the strip to his head. Sharp nails trailed lightly down the side of his face.
“You’re Rodney McKay. You can do anything.”
Before Rodney could say anything, presuming he could find any words to express the warm feeling John’s words gave him, the man stepped back. He looked at the machine, his face scrunching up a bit.
“On,” he said. The lights on the front sprang to life, cycling through red, yellow and green before holding steady on yellow.
“Close your eyes. Think of your sister. The machine will do the rest.”
Rodney wanted to ask John to stay, just in case, but already he could feel his eyes getting heavy, his tongue getting thick in his mouth. He closed his eyes, thought about Jeannie, and was lost in the dream.
Rodney moved through familiar corridors, the stones cool under the tips of his fingers as he dragged his hand along the wall. He turned a corner and found himself in a gallery of large oil paintings hung in ponderous wooden frames, brass identification plates affixed to each one. These were familiar faces, and he named them as he moved down the line.
Family faces, though they were all gone now. All but Meredith and Jeannie, and Meredith had long stopped using his first name. Only his sister still called him that.
Rodney moved through the gallery and into another room. He stood stock still, his brain struggling to make sense of what his eyes were seeing. The room was wrong, in a fundamental way. Stairways went up and down, but they also went sideways. There were doorways at odd angles and windows on the ceiling. A table, bearing a single pink rose in a vase, stood on one wall parallel to the floor.
And there was Jeannie, looking out a window that was at a ninety-degree angle to Rodney’s position near the door. His sister appeared to be sideways but there was no indication of it in her hair or her clothes. Rodney wondered if maybe he was the one at the wrong angle.
He wasn’t sure he could talk in this dream but thought it was worth trying anyway. His voice echoed. “Jeannie?”
“Mer!” Jeannie turned from the window, her smile bright. It always had been for him. She was the only person ever truly happy to see him, or had been until their falling out. He didn’t realize how much he’d missed it, missed her; it hit him like a physical blow.
“What is this?” he asked, waving his arm at the room. “It’s giving me a headache.”
“It’s MC Escher. We did a unit on him in Freshman Art History.”
Rodney had never understood why Jeannie insisted on taking liberal arts classes alongside her advanced sciences. It wasn’t like she needed them to graduate, and he certainly could have done without being stuck in someone else’s art. And if he was, what was wrong with Normal Rockwell or Monet?
Jeannie moved away from the window and climbed a set of stairs that led to a little balcony. Now she was directly over Rodney’s head and he had to crane his neck to see her.
“Can’t you get down from there? It’s time for you to go home.”
“I don’t want to fight anymore,” Jeannie said. “Come with me. Get to know Caleb. He’ll be your family too, you know.”
Rodney shook his head. “I can’t. I can’t leave. I made a promise.”
“There was a man.” Jeannie screwed her face up, and Rodney felt a wave of affection. It was her thinking face, but it always made her look ridiculous. “He said you’d come to get me.”
“He was right. I’m here, and it’s time for you to go.”
“Not without you. He wants to use you, Mer. He’s not nice.”
“I know he’s not. That’s why you have to go. I’ll be okay.” Rodney tracked Jeannie as she went on the move once again. Down one flight of stairs, then across another. She was walking on walls, walking on ceilings, jumping across windows. He kept waiting for gravity to kick in, for her to fall. And then she was right in front of him, her big blue eyes full of compassion.
“You shouldn’t be alone. You’ve had enough of that.”
“I won’t be,” Rodney assured her. It wasn’t a lie, because he knew he’d have John. “You have to wake up, Jeannie. Caleb is worried sick about you.”
“And I’ll be worried sick about you,” she replied.
“Don’t be.” He hugged her and she hugged him right back so hard he could barely breathe. His eyes were closed and he heard a sound like a great, rending tear. He was pulled away, out of Jeannie’s arms, and he let himself fall.
“Gone.” The Goblin King stepped out of the shadows that had gathered as the sun went down. He’d changed out of the suit and into a long brown leather coat, belted at the waist. There was a separate chest plate and gauntlets, both seemingly made of alligator skin. “As promised.”
“You sent her home? Really?”
“I said I would.”
Rodney swung his legs over the side of the bed and got to his feet, feeling just a little unsteady. He was relieved that Jeannie was safe, but also disappointed that he hadn’t had a chance to talk to her.
“So what happens now?” he asked. “Why go through all the trouble to bring me here?”
“I need your help.”
“You could’ve just asked, it would have saved a lot of time.” Rodney crossed his arms over his chest. If the Goblin King thought he was just going to do as he was told, he had another think coming.
“The Rodney McKay I knew would not be so agreeable.” The Goblin King paced around the room, hands clasped behind his back. “You study wormholes, do you not?”
“You obviously know I do or you wouldn’t have asked.” Rodney turned, tracking the other man’s movements. He was getting the glimmer of an idea that was completely impossible, except for the small probability that it wasn’t.
“Would you believe me if I told you that I traveled here through a wormhole, from an alternate reality?” The Goblin King stopped walking and pinned Rodney with the intensity of his yellow-eyed gaze. “Your people experimented on me, changed me. You were complicit in that, as was John.”
Rodney held up his hand. “Whoa. Hold on. Alternate reality? Are we talking Everett’s many-worlds interpretation? Because that’s a theory. There’s no way to prove it.” But he’d guessed it from the very beginning, knew somehow that it was the only thing that made sense.
“I am your proof,” the Goblin King replied with a faint smile. “I traveled through what your people call a Stargate. Somehow I ended up here, and that is why I need your help.”
It was a lot to take in. The multiverse theory was correct? Wormhole travel was possible? Rodney thought about the odd, tubular spaceship in the other room, knowing with certainty that it was exactly that. A spaceship, for the love of God.
“You knew another me? Another John? What’s a Stargate? Do you know how it works? The idea of actually controlling a wormhole…that’s science fiction.” It was Rodney’s turn to pace. “Wait, if you knew us from this other universe you say you came from, why all the theatrics? Why…you said we experimented on you?”
“Your people tried to make me human.” The Goblin King spat, as if the word human was a curse.
“So that gave you the right to do whatever it was you did to John?” Scientific discovery was pushed aside for just a moment, and he glared. “You’ve turned him into some kind of blue-faced freak! Why would you do that?”
“I thought he could help me. He has the gene, he is the strongest foe my kind have ever faced. But here,” the Goblin King waved a hand. “It works differently. I do not understand the purpose of this place, why the Lanteans created it, but I wish to leave.”
“But you can’t. Can you.” The issue at hand came to the forefront, a moment of startling clarity. “You’re stuck here, in the Labyrinth. Just like you’ve trapped John.”
“He at least can escape these walls for brief moments of time.” The bitterness in the Goblin King’s voice was palpable. “He cannot make the Stargate work for me yet the Labyrinth gives him the freedom of flight, allows him to cross to your world.”
“And you punished him for it,” Rodney guessed. “How big of you.”
“I need you, McKay. You will stay here until you fix the Stargate and allow me to leave this place.”
“And if I say no?” He had to ask it, because he was pretty sure that whatever universe this guy had come from Rodney would be doing them a favor if he kept him from going back there.
“Then I shall punish John more than I have already.”
That brought Rodney’s ire up like nothing else could and his hands curled into fists. “You want my help? You need me to get out of here? Then you don’t touch him. Ever.”
In just three long strides the Goblin King had his hand around Rodney’s throat, backing him up against the machine between the beds. The expression on his face was almost as terrifying as the pressure his hand wielded as it sealed off his airway. Rodney scrabbled to break his grip, face flushing as the blood rose up under his skin. His back bowed painfully.
“You are here to serve me. Willingly or unwillingly, you now belong to me. You will do what I say, when I say it. And John –”
The Goblin King whipped his head around, hand loosening just a fraction but enough for Rodney to drag in some air. John stood in the doorway, furious. At his back were Teyla and Ronon, the goblins no-where to be seen.
“Let go of him. Now!”
“You have forgotten your place, pet,” the Goblin King said softly.
Several things came together for Rodney in that instant, oxygen deprived though he may have been. “John,” he croaked.
John shot him a quick glance, and despite the strength of his words, that look was full of doubt and fear. Rodney wished he could offer him reassurances, but he was flying by the seat of his pants and he wasn’t sure that the conclusions he’d just come to were correct. There’d be no going back either way.
“It’s you,” he gasped. “You have the power.”
The Goblin King had said so himself. John had some sort of gene that responded to the Labyrinth. Rodney had witnessed it, though at the time he hadn’t known what it meant. The doorknob, the way John had turned the machine on just by talking to it, the way he’d opened the door during the tunnel collapse. Whatever force ruled the Labyrinth, and Rodney was pretty sure that it wasn’t the Goblin King, it listened to John. He just needed to know what to say.
“The Labyrinth is your home and I am your master,” the Goblin King said. “You will accept your punishment for disobeying me, and take it willingly.”
John looked between him and Rodney, clearly uncertain, but then he visibly pulled himself together. His back was ramrod straight and he looked directly at the man who had been controlling him, the man who had kept him down and made him do things he knew were wrong.
“John,” the Goblin King said. It sounded like a warning, but Rodney could hear a little desperation there as well.
“You have no power over me,” John said. It was clear and concise, and the moment he said it Rodney could see that he actually believed it to be true. “You have no power over me!”
The Goblin King’s hand fell away from Rodney’s throat. Rodney pulled in lungfuls of air but didn’t take his eyes off what was happening right in front of him. The Goblin King was changing, his body twisting and compacting in on itself, in a much slower version of an effect Rodney had witnessed several times in the last thirteen hours.
The Goblin King transformed into a great snowy owl, circling the room on powerful wings even as it gave a mournful hooting call. Rodney decided he much preferred the Harrier.
The moment was broken by a sudden blast of light, and the owl fell to the floor. Everyone turned to look at Ronon, who was holding some kind of energy pulse weapon in his hands that Rodney instantly coveted.
“Found my blaster,” Ronon said, looking at Rodney. “Just stunned him.”
Teyla went to the fallen owl and scooped it up off the floor. Rodney followed her into the throne room and watched as she put the bird inside the cage and closed the door. It seemed fitting, somehow, and Rodney approved of whatever magic had changed the Goblin King. He only hoped it wasn’t temporary.
The four of them stood in front of the throne, looking at each other with pleased expressions on their faces. They’d taken down the Goblin King and now…now.
“I’ll take you home,” John said softly. “All of you.”
Even before he realized what he was going to say Rodney started shaking his head. “No. I’m not going home.”
“There’s nothing else for you to do, Rodney.”
He looked at the strange computers, and the space ship, and the big stone ring that dominated the room. Wormholes. Alternate realities. Magic. The innate curiosity that had made him want to become an astrophysicist, that pushed him to find something new, something amazing, rose to the surface. The Labyrinth held so many questions, so many mysteries. There was science here waiting to be uncovered. More to the point, he’d made a promise. And a McKay always kept their word.
“However it was that the Goblin King transformed you, it’s here. He did it here, and I’m betting he took notes. I can help you, John. Just…it’s going to take a little while.”
“But your sister,” John protested.
“We came to an understanding, I think. In her dream.”
“I believe I would like to stay as well,” Teyla said. “There is much that could be done for the peoples here.”
“I’ve got nothing to go back to,” Ronon said with a shrug. “You could use the help.”
John looked stunned. “But…what I did.”
“I’m over it.” Ronon grinned and slapped a hand on John’s shoulder. “Orders are orders, right?”
“I’m a genius, John,” Rodney said with only the slightest hint of smugness. “I can figure all of this out.”
“I believe you.” And for a wonder, it seemed the message had finally gotten through. John smiled shyly at Rodney, who grinned right back.
“Now, let’s get to the really important stuff. Where’s the kitchen in this place?”
Rodney rubbed his eyes. He’d been working at the computer for over eight hours and while he’d found a lot of useful information, the one thing he really wanted to know continued to elude him. It was getting frustrating.
The throne room was lit by flickering wall sconces and the light from the two large computer monitors, but there were regular lights as well that could be turned on. The bird cage behind the throne moved a bit as the owl within it shifted on its perch, or so Rodney assumed. He kept it covered with a sheet a good part of the time because he didn’t like the way the owl studied him with those big, unblinking eyes.
A pair of strong hands landed on his shoulders and began kneading, rubbing out the tension. Rodney sighed happily and closed his eyes, leaning into the touch.
“You’re working too hard,” John said, running his thumbs up and down the back of Rodney’s neck. “Are you in that big a hurry to get home?”
His tone was light but there was an underlying thread of anxiety that was all too familiar. Rodney tugged on John’s arm, pulling him around to the side of the chair. John automatically dropped to his knees, graceful as always, though now it had nothing to do with obedience and everything to do with being able to look Rodney in the eye. Rodney slid his hand through John’s springy hair.
“You know I’m not, so stop being an idiot. Do we have to have this conversation every day? It’s getting tiresome.” There was no real heat in his words, and John grinned as he leaned into Rodney’s touch.
“You’re an ass.” Rodney pulled John closer, close enough to press their lips together. It had been weird, their first few kisses, because whatever had been done to John to cause the blue scales had also thickened the flesh of his lips. They were especially firm, the texture unusual, but it hadn’t taken long for Rodney to adapt. John, it turned out, was very adept at kissing despite his physical deformity.
“How goes the Goblin King business?” Rodney asked, pulling back but keeping his hand on John’s neck. His thumb stroked along John’s throat.
“Fine. The goblins are behaving. Ronon’s been good at motivating them.”
It had been Teyla who recommended that the throne not stay empty. The denizens of the Labyrinth needed leadership, someone to keep them under control. The choice had been obvious to everyone but John, and it had taken a lot of convincing on Rodney’s part for him to take up the mantle. As far as he was concerned, John was the only choice. He knew the Labyrinth, he had the whole bird transformation thing going for him, and most of the residents of the maze already had a healthy respect for him.
As a team, the four of them had meshed surprisingly well together. Teyla was a born negotiator, and very non-threatening which made her incredibly approachable. She sought out the things that lived in the maze and they trusted her enough to make requests of the king. The goblins had almost immediately adopted Ronon as their military leader, and he was never without a creepy little shadow. John turned out to be quite a responsible Goblin King – he and Ronon had reached an amicable understanding, and he was very good at delegating duties. He listened to every request from every one of his new subjects and made intelligent decisions.
Rodney’s main job was decoding the computers. It had proved a challenge from the get-go, because the language was like nothing he’d seen before, an odd collection of straight lines, dots, and the occasional bend or curve. There was a certain beauty to it, which didn’t make it any less incomprehensible. Luckily for all of them John’s special level of magic came into play, and he somehow got the computer hooked up to the stone ring to translate the alien language into English. That had been the day Rodney had kissed John for the very first time.
“You still can’t find it?” John asked. Rodney shook his head.
“No, but there’s so much damn information to weed through. This computer system is ponderous and there’s no index that I can find.” Rodney sighed and rested his forehead against John’s. “It’s there, I know it’s there, I just…can’t find it.”
“And of you don’t?”
It hurt something deep in Rodney’s chest to hear so much insecurity, maybe because there was an echo of it inside himself.
“Then we’ll do something else. I’m the smartest guy here. And I don’t give up easily.”
“I know,” John conceded. He moved in a little closer, clutching Rodney a little tighter.
“This isn’t your oubliette,” Rodney whispered against John’s hair. “You won’t be left here, forgotten. Not by me.”
John didn’t respond to that, except to melt into Rodney in a boneless way that only usually happened after orgasms. Rodney let him have a moment, not minding the closeness himself. Crazy that he had to come to a whole different world to find the one person he wanted to be with, particularly when that person had blue scales and occasionally feathers.
“You’ll figure it out,” John said finally. “You’re a genius, right?”
“Your faith in me is gratifying.” Rodney chuckled, and gave John another quick kiss before pulling back. “I better get back to work.”
“Two more hours,” John said as he got to his feet. “And then you’re done for the day. I mean it. Your king has spoken.”
Rodney rolled his eyes and waved John away. He went back to the lines of code that were constantly cycling to the left of the screen, ready to pick out anything that looked even remotely relevant. He hadn’t been lying when he said there was a lot of information. The former Goblin King had used the system as a log, a journal and a ledger, filling it full of detailed reports, observations, and tidbits about every place he’d been before getting stuck in the Labyrinth.
The easiest information to pick out concerned the Labyrinth itself. Which, again, might have been John’s influence. Rodney had discovered that the Lanteans who built the maze had intended it to be used as some sort of testing ground, making it semi-sentient and therefore able to create on-the-spot adjustments as needed. But whatever battery powered it was getting low on juice, which is why most areas were dry and dead. Which was all well and good, but what he wanted was a procedure to turn John back into a regular human. Not because his appearance was distasteful to Rodney, but because he wanted to bring John back home with him eventually. He wanted to give the man a normal life.
“Hey, McKay.” Ronon strode into the throne room, three goblins on his heels. “How’s it coming?”
“It would be coming better without constant interruptions,” he grumbled. The goblins jabbered at each other and he frowned at them.
“Yeah. That’s gotta be annoying.”
Rodney scowled. “Did you want something?”
“Just reporting in for the night before I head out.”
“Fine. Wonderful. You’ve reported, though shouldn’t John be on the receiving end of it instead of me?”
Ronon shook his shaggy head. “He and Teyla are down at the junk fields. She thinks we need another table or something.”
“I’m sure we don’t.”
Teyla had gone a little crazy with interior design in an effort to make the empty castle halls less empty. The junk fields were her favorite place to scavenge and she always took John with her because otherwise the junk people who lived there wouldn’t let her in. They were a mistrustful lot of hoarders but the Goblin King always got a free pass.
“You going to bed?” Rodney asked as Ronon headed toward the door.
“Nah, too early. I’m going to the Dark Forest. See you tomorrow.”
Rodney didn’t understand how Ronon could spend so much time there, but he seemed to genuinely enjoy a night of dice throwing and smack talking with the Fireys, as he’d later discovered the game-playing Vikings were called. There were far better intellectual pursuits he could be applying himself to.
With a shrug Rodney got back to work, tapping at the touch screen and bookmarking certain sections to return to at a later date. One of the things that sounded like it might yield useful information was something called an Iratus Virus, just the sort of biological substance that might have been used for human experimentation. He’d just flagged it when John returned, swooping into the room in Harrier form.
“My two hours can’t be up yet!” Rodney protested. A clock appeared on the nearest wall, pendulum swinging. He studiously ignored it.
The Harrier came in for a landing, changing into John at the last moment. That never ceased to give Rodney a little thrill, so he allowed himself to be pulled from his chair.
“Did you have fun shopping?”
“We got another table.” John tried to sound put out about it but Rodney knew he wasn’t. The novelty of having people around who actually wanted to spend time with him had yet to wear off. He didn’t care what the actual activities entailed.
“Wonderful. Something new to bang into and get bruises from.”
“Come to bed,” John said. He used his husky, growly voice, the one that he knew turned Rodney on.
“Yeah. Okay. I guess I can spare you a few minutes.”
“So generous.” John had already wound himself around Rodney, kissing and petting. It was enough to make Rodney forget about the computer. For a little while.