There was a delicate crystal table set up in the secret garden, right in the center of the winding pathways. It was set with tea, and two small chairs. Sarah smoothed the wrinkles out of her apple red sundress and sat in one seat. She smiled across the table at her companion.
“One lump or two?” she asked.
“Oh, at least four,” said the child Amaranth, smiling cheekily. The little blue kitten in Amaranth’s lap peeked over the edge of the table and mewled, looking pitiably at the pitcher of cream. Sarah poured a small bit into a saucer and set it on the ground. It wasted no time in jumping down to lap at the treat.
They drank in silence for a moment before the pretty blonde girl sighed contentedly. “This is a lovely dream,” Amaranth said.
“Yes, lovely.” Sarah looked around the little garden. The crystal willows sparkled in the sun, and the fountain trickled merrily. She looked back at the girl. “How did you get in my dream?”
“That’s all your doing. Sometimes a dream is just a dream,” Amaranth said laughingly. “They’re a good way to sort out your thoughts, and you’ve a lot on your mind. You mortals are lucky that way.”
“I suppose,” Sarah said, frowning.
Amaranth took another sip of tea. Her bare feet kicked back and forth idly. “I’m so very glad you decided to play, Sarah.”
“Are we playing a game?” She asked, surprised.
“The only game worth playing,” confirmed Amaranth, her eyes flicking down. Sarah looked down at the table and saw the strangest chessboard, the black and white squares following the undulating terrain of a fantastic landscape. There were dozens of pieces scattered around the board. It was obviously a game in progress.
“The Labyrinth tried playing games with me,” Sarah mused.
“Shocking!” said the girlish fae.
“It said it made my life miserable because it needed a champion. It said it needed my help. I refused.”
“Was that wise, dear?” Amaranth asked, her voice concerned.
“Well, it’s done now,” Sarah said with a shrug. “I made my choice. It can’t force me to help.”
“Are you sure? The Labyrinth can be very persistent. Besides, the game is already in progress. Who else but the Champion would be playing? Look closely,” Amaranth said. Sarah leaned down to peer at the board. There were white pieces and black pieces, placed seemingly at random over the checkered spaces. There was no pattern or sense to their placement that she could see. In fact…
“They’re all pawns!” she exclaimed.
“Are they really?” Amaranth mused, her voice intrigued. “But do they have to be?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know how to play,” Sarah said, looking up only to find Izzy sitting across from her. Her eyes were sympathetic and she beckoned Sarah closer. Sarah leaned in so Izzy could whisper in her ear.
“And that’s why you’re going to lose,” Leila’s voice hissed evilly, “You’re going to lose and then you’re going to die.” She started laughing as Sarah jerked back from her. The dark haired girl sat across the table, her face a mask of blood.
“No,” she breathed, “You’re dead. I saw you die.”
But Leila wasn’t paying attention. “He’s MINE! And now you’re going to die,” she laughed maniacally, reaching for Sarah with clawed hands, darkness swimming in her eyes. Sarah tried to run, but she couldn’t move. She stood on a vast checkered plain, Leila in the square across from her. She couldn’t move. It wasn’t her turn.
She was startled suddenly by a black, bat-winged shape landing beside her. The gargoyle cackled gleefully and peered over at her with sullen red eyes. Then it hopped forward and grabbed Leila from her square and gobbled her down like a cracker. Good riddance, Sarah thought with a flash of satisfaction. Sarah swiped a hand across her cheek, and idly sucked the blood she found there off of her finger. She savored the taste of her enemy’s defeat.
The little black gargoyle smacked its lips at her, grinning in delight. A mewling sound caught their mutual attention and Sarah noticed the blue kitten at her feet. The cat hissed and the gargoyle hissed back, then they launched at each other in a cloud of dust and flying fur. Sarah darted into the middle of the fray.
She pulled out the little gargoyle, now no larger than a fairy, his wings pinched between her fingers like a butterfly, and shook him. “I said no!” she scolded the little monster. It just snarled and writhed and snapped at her fingers. She batted it on the nose and it settled down, glaring up at her through slitted eyes. She settled it on her shoulder.
“Well, aren’t you the clever one,” a sultry voice said. “How did you manage to subdue one of my little messengers?”
Sarah looked up to see a buxom blonde bombshell standing across from her, or at least that was her impression of the stranger. She wore the same dress as Sarah, but somehow it looked indecent on this woman. As hard as she tried, she couldn’t clearly make out the woman’s face. “Of course, that’s only one little bit of darkness. What will you do with the rest?”
“Who are you?” Sarah frowned.
“Wouldn’t you like to know,” the woman laughed. “Except of course you do know, you just can’t recall it. You should pay better attention. It showed you once, you just didn’t want to listen.”
Sarah just shook her head. The blonde’s words made no sense. “Do you know how to play?” she asked, gesturing at the board between them.
“Mmmm, I might,” the woman purred. She reached out idly with one hand and let her fingers flutter lightly over the figure of the white king. Sarah frowned. Hadn’t they all been pawns just a moment before? In fact, hadn’t she just been on the gameboard?
“So what do we do now?” Sarah wondered.
“It’s your move, little girl,” the woman hissed.
“But what do I do?” she asked a little desperately.
The stranger laughed huskily. “Oh, it wouldn’t be any fun if you knew all the rules. And by the way, wake up. ”
“Wait, what rules? Who are you?”
Thunder rumbled and the brightness of the day dimmed. The shadows encroached.
“Wake up, Sarah.”
She looked down at the chorus of voices. The chess pieces were all facing her entreating, “Wake up, Sarah. It's time for your medicine.”
The darkness swallowed the world around her, leaving her blind. She felt the warmth of the sun hit her face, and the sound of curtains pulling back.
Sarah's hand flung up in protest against the harsh morning light, trying to see who was there.
She blinked, squinting against the brightness. Jareth stood by the window, a slim, arrogant silhouette backlit by the light. “Did you find her?” she croaked. Her mouth felt dry and gummy.
“Find who, Sarah?” Jareth asked. It took her a moment to understand what he had said and her heart stuttered fearfully. She looked down at herself and saw no patchwork fur, only pale white arms akimbo on the sheets. Her eyes misted as she looked back at him.
“Oh, God. Jareth I can explain, I…” but her words deserted her. How could she possibly explain?
“Explain what?” He stepped forward, and her eyes readjusted. She realized this was most definitely not Jareth after all. It had merely been a trick of the light.
“Finally awake again are you dear?” the catty blonde asked. Her tone was sickeningly sweet, patronizing. “I was worried for a moment.” She paused for a beat. “Who’s Jareth?”
Sarah took stock of herself and her surroundings, feeling uncertain and off balance. Familiar white walls surrounded her. Familiar scratchy sheets fell away as she shakily sat up. Familiar blue cotton pajamas covered her limbs. There were thick white bandages around her wrists.
“Where am I?” Sarah asked in a hesitant voice. She knew where she seemed to be, of course. She just didn’t know how she had gotten there. Her last memory was sitting in the crystal garden as a storm moved in. “Who are you?”
“Oh, dear. You've forgotten again have you?” the woman said with a sigh. “You know very well where we are, if you think just a little bit.” She held up her hand, fingers pinched, and her smirk was oily. “It’s the new medication. Ever since you started taking the prunuspersica, it takes you a moment to wake up properly.” She cocked her head at the bewildered girl. “Now, try again. Who am I, dear?”
Sarah studied the white uniform, just barely on the decent side of too tight, the blond hair pulled up in a high ponytail, the dark eyes and full, pouty lips. No recognition tugged at her memory.
“You're my nurse?” She asked slowly, carefully, a sick feeling welling in her stomach.
The woman smiled brightly, eyes unchanged, “Yes, I am. Now you might be feeling a bit of nausea, so why don't we get you cleaned up and then we'll go see the doctor.”
Sarah numbly swung her legs over the side of the hospital bed. When she looked up again the nurse was almost disturbingly close.
“But first,” she chirped, “time to take your medicine!”
Sarah plucked anxiously at the white bandages around her wrist. She wanted to itch, but the nurse had firmly nixed that notion. Her eyes darted nervously around the cluttered office. Across from her was the doctor, a smiling middle aged woman with russet red hair and a frumpy dress. She was scribbling something on her tablet. For the life of her, Sarah could not think of her name.
After a few moments the woman looked up, and smiled. A flash of recognition made her open her mouth to talk, but then she snapped it shut. “Your nurse said you are experiencing some disorientation this morning. Is that true?”
“I don't...” she looked around, panicky. “No, I was just…a little groggy. Why am I here? I shouldn't be here.”
“Where do you think you should be?”
Sarah opened her mouth, but then shook her head and eyed the woman warily. She couldn’t mention the Underground to this woman.
“Do you think you should be home?”
Sarah paused, then nodded reluctantly. It was as good an answer as any.
“Or do you think you should be somewhere else? The maze, maybe?” Sarah startled.
“The Labyrinth,” she corrected automatically, then immediately pressed her mouth tight.
There was a fleeting triumph in the doctor's eyes. She scribbled more notes. “Ah, yes. The Labyrinth. Isn't a Labyrinth just a maze? A child's diversion?”
“No.” Sarah said quietly. She shifted uncomfortably on the couch. How did she get here? Sureptitiously Sarah pinched the skin of her arm between two fingers, pinched until it brought tears to her eyes. She did not wake up, and the panicky feelings came back. She pulled at the thin fabric at her right shoulder, looking for any sign of bandages, or at least scarring, but there was nothing there. How could there be nothing there? She remembered the terrible pain of the injury.
“Sarah, look at me.” She reluctantly raised her eyes to meet the doctor's, her expression mulish.
“We've talked about this fantasy of yours. We gave you the prunuspersica to help you sleep better, but I'm concerned about your difficulty telling the difference between your dreams and reality now. Perhaps we should cut back on your dosage. Or stop it altogether and try another therapy.”
“No, it's not...” Sarah firmed her lips and glared at the woman.
She couldn't bring herself to say the words. Not a dream. She squeezed her eyes tight and clenched her hands. She could feel her nails digging into her palms. This is the dream, she though frantically, I have to wake up. I have to wake up. It's not a dream. She squeezed her fists tighter, until the cleansing pain of her nails cutting into her flesh washed over her.
“Sarah, what are you saying?” the doctor's low contralto reached her. She heard a voice mumbling “Not a dream,” over and over again. She realized it was her own. The doctor's cool hands grabbed hers and tried to pry them open. “Sarah stop. You're hurting yourself again.”
“No,” she moaned, “No, it's not a dream. I have to wake up. I have to wake up and go back. I have to go back.” When more hands touched her she tried to twist away. She was screaming now. “It's not a dream. It's not a dream! Let me go!” Rough arms pinioned her and she felt a pinch in her back. She squirmed and struggled, trying to escape the horrible nightmare.
She could feel her limbs growing heavy, her heartbeat slowing. She opened her eyes and even as the room faded around her she caught the cold and clinical gaze of the blonde nurse watching her. A slow smile twisted her lips as all went dark.
Visitors day came with monotonous predictability. The doctor had made good her threat and reduced Sarah’s dosage of prunuspersica. Ever since then dreams had been elusive. Each night she went to sleep, certain that she would wake in the proper world, in the underground. Each morning she was disappointed to wake back up in this harsh hell. She didn’t even dream of that other place and her faith was beginning to waver.
Now she sat in the rec room, staring sightlessly out the window. She was in a wheel chair, but only for the convenience of the nurses, who had determined it was a good idea to keep her arms restrained. Apparently they had gotten tired of her trying to rip herself to shreds. Her wrists were tied to the chair now with soft Velcro cuffs. She barely noticed.
“How are you feeling today, Sarah?” asked that sneering voice she dreaded. Tired, she thought. So tired she could feel it in her bones. She glanced up at the blonde nurse standing next to her chair.
“Fine,” she said tonelessly, the lie leaving her lips easily. Her eyes drifted back to the open window, watching a spider working industriously on its web. The nurse smiled and patted her on the cheek. It was a wonder her wickedly long nails didn’t leave scratch marks, Sarah thought.
“That’s good dear,” she said, “and did you sleep well last night?”
“Yes,” Sarah lied again, wishing the hateful woman would just go away.
“Did you have another dream then?” asked the nurse. Sarah’s lips twisted slightly in a parody of a smile.
“Oh yes,” she said, glancing again at the nurse, “I was a spider spinning a web in a window.” The nurse laughed, low and throaty.
“That’s wonderful, Sarah. You’ve made excellent progress.” Sarah merely nodded in agreement. “You’ve done so well, in fact, that the doctor has decided to let your family visit. Won’t that be nice?”
Her heart lurched. She didn’t want to see them. She wanted to see Jareth. God she missed him. And all her friends, Nel, Twiggy, Hoggle, Reggie. She couldn’t tell the nurse that. Once she stopped laughing she’d just dose her with another round of anti-psychotics. So she just nodded instead.
Later that day Robert and Karen eased into her room, strained smiles on their faces. Karen patted her hand awkwardly and kissed her forehead. Her father bussed her cheek before standing back quickly, as if he were afraid of catching something. Behind them, still by the door, stood a sullen looking twelve year old Toby. Sarah’s eyes lit up in the first moment of pleasure she’d had since her dreams had stopped.
“Hey there, Tobe,” she said, grinning.
“Come say hello to Sarah,” Karen cajoled. He scowled, and walked stiffly to the bed with manifest reluctance.
“Hi, Sarah,” he spat out. Karen cleared her throat pointedly, and he glanced askance at her before sighing loudly and bending down to kiss Sarah’s cheek. She caught him in a one-armed hug, but he squirmed quickly away.
“How’s it goin’ bud?” she asked, trying to smooth away the tension. “How’s school?”
“It’s fine. Whatever,” he muttered acidly. She could feel her smiled slipping as she watched him.
“Toby?” she asked softly “What’s the matter? Why won’t you look at me?” She reached one hand out, but he jumped back quickly.
“Don’t touch me!” he said, eyes angry and wild.
“Toby, what?” she could feel her smile congealing on her face.
“Just stay away from me!” he shouted, then turned and ran out the door. Karen followed, calling his name, her hands fluttering uselessly. She pulled the door behind her, but it didn’t quite close, and their voices drifted in clearly from the hall.
“How dare you speak to your sister that way!” Karen’s sharp voice snapped.
“What do you care? She’s crazy, remember? I heard you say so!”
“Toby!” Karen said, her voice shocked.
“This wasn’t my idea, okay? I didn’t want to come here. Why should I have to suffer just cause she’s a nutcase?” His voice started fading, presumably as he walked down the hall.
“Tobias Williams!” Karen tried again, her voice stern, but he wasn’t listening. His voice drifted back through the door, like some poisonous snake, even as it faded with distance.
“Next time I hope she jumps off a cliff, then this would be over!” Sarah sucked in a harsh breath and her throat burned with bitter, unshed tears. She looked at her father, but he wouldn’t meet her gaze, and finally she rolled away from him and closed her eyes.
“I’m kind of tired, Dad,” she choked out in a whisper, “I think I’m gonna rest.” The only response was the rustle of clothes and measured tread of feet, followed by the soft closing of the door. Only then did she let the tears fall, sobbing softly into her pillow. How could she stay in this hopeless place?
That evening, and for five restless nights following, when the night nurse brought her daily prunuspersica dosage, Sarah only pretended to swallow the tiny pale orange pill. She passed the long days saying little, except what the doctors wanted to hear, and staring out the window at the rolling lawns and gardens of the facility.
On the seventh night, she swallowed the pill, and smiled until the nurse walked out. Then she dug out the other six capsules from their hiding place beneath the bed, and downed them all at once. Her heart was racing as she lay back, staring out the window at the low hanging moon that shimmered with a pale orange light. Its light seemed to make the whole world sparkle, and below it the water tossed back a shivering reflection.
Even as she watched it seemed to pulse in time with the beating of her heart. She blinked once, twice, trying to keep that glowing orb in sight. It continued to beat a slow, lulling rhythm. Ba-bump. Ba-bump. Ba-bump. How odd, she thought, I didn’t know there was water outside my window.
She got up from the bed, and walked to the window. She’d been so well behaved the last weeks that they had stopped strapping her in. She looked out into a night blacker than any she had ever seen. The moon seemed huge and burning bright, but the only thing it illuminated was its own reflection on the water below it. A shape moved in the blackness, and her breath stopped as she recognized the watery form of the Labyrinth. She was dreaming again!
The Labyrinth did not speak. It had no eyes, but she knew it watched her, and there was a grimness about its figure. She took a step forward, heart soaring, but the figure turned away from her.
“Wait! What are you doing? Take me with you!” she blurted out, reaching for it. It stopped and looked back at her, somehow sorrowful.
“A Champion is needed. Who are you?”
“I…” The words caught in her throat, and her cheeks burned with shame and anger. Again! It had manipulated her again! She thought back to the last helpless…days? Weeks? Months? She couldn’t even recall! The nameless nurses and doctors, the bitter reality of the hospital, none of it had been real. She had never stopped dreaming!
She opened her mouth to shout, rail, something. Then snapped it shut. “Did you send me back there?” she asked in a small voice, “why?”
“Why did you seek to return?” it asked instead.
“Because,” she did not finish the thought aloud. Because I hated it there. Because all my life I have been trying to get home…to the Labyrinth. Because I don’t belong Above. This was her lesson then. She belonged in the Underground, but to stay, she had a role to play. And the Labyrinth was ruthless enough to make sure she understood exactly what would happen if she denied it. She shuddered, finally understanding the terrible power shaping her world.
“Who are you?” the voice that was one and many asked.
“I’m the Champion,” she whispered. “I want to come home.”
“You are home,” it said, “Wake up.”
“Wake up!” it shouted, “Aisling, wake up!”
Her eyes flew open with a gasp, and Jareth’s face was a breath away, true concern in his eyes. She could feel the weight of one hand on her uninjured shoulder as he leaned over her. “Aisling,” he soothed, “are you all right?”
“I,” she drew in a deep, calming breath, “Yes. I’m fine. The Labyrinth…” She paused, suddenly aware of what she had been about to say. Jareth’s eyebrows arched in surprise, then his eyes narrowed in sudden speculation.
She licked her lips, and took a chance. “It’s not very good at taking no for an answer.”
“Ah,” he stood smoothly and smirked down at her. “No, no it’s really not,” he stated simply, eyes sparkling. “Curiouser and curiouser.”