Strange things happened around Sarah Williams.
A lot of it (she would argue as she was forcibly escorted from the room) could be chalked up to coincidence. After all, you couldn't really argue whose fault it was that the girls who spray-painted SLUT on her locker door senior year all came down with the same, really gross eye disease two days later. It wasn't like she had petrie dishes of virulent bacteria stashed in there, and the guy from the CDC had backed her up on that one.
And oh, okay, she guessed that thing at college graduation seemed weird. But it sounded worse than it had been in actuality, and everyone agreed afterward that spring was known for choruses of birdsong (proverbial, even!). The fact that the chirping had been eerily reminiscent of the Halleluiah chorus... Well, there'd had been some pretty hard partying the night before. After all.
And the rest of it hardly counted. It was just... little things, coincidences, the consequence of having really good karma thanks to a history of helping old ladies across the street and eating her vegetables. The fact that she never had to search for a parking space? Just attested to her good sense of timing. Or how if she was ever caught outside without an umbrella, any rain showers stopped within two minutes? (She'd timed it.) A truly sobering testament to global warming –- she'd seen An Inconvenient Truth. And that one time when she'd been arguing at the top of her lungs with the leader of her Wicca-Power Wymyn's Circle and the entire bank of Divine Serenity candles –- all 104 of them, because recently Morgana was really into Chinese numerology and dear God, if Sarah never had to calculate multiples of eight again she could die happy -– simultaneously flickered out?
Freak wind tunnel.
“Look, Sarah,” said Morgana (her real name was Julie, but anyone who called her that was in for a lecture about self-actualization and personal quest for identity) while everybody else fumbled with candles, “I totally understand that you as a person need to determine your priorities and clearly state your needs to the universe, okay? And I would never want to throw negative energy on your aura with the implication that your concerns are not important.” She paused, as if searching for words. “But this crap is kinda crazy.”
“Crazy?” Sarah demanded. “Last week we spent the whole time listening to Sherri try to get in contact with Dark Opal, her spirit medium.”
“Spiritualism is a totally valid application of astral energies.”
“Not when your contact is a psychic space cat from the planet Ramatazzle. She meowed for twenty minutes and then demanded a saucer of milk.”
“Soy milk,” someone clarified behind her. And then, in a sweet undertone: “I'm so sorry, Marina, I would lend you my lighter, but I know how you feel about my smoking and that it's the same as stabbing the people around me with a knife. I would never forgive myself if I let you be involved with such destructive forces.”
“Okay, yeah.” Morgana dismissed the incident with a wave of her hand, Tibetan spirit beads clinking. “That was a waste of time. But there's, like, a whole historical precedent involved. We had to let her try in the spirit of sisterhood.”
“I don't get covered by sisterhood?”
“Of course you do!” the petite Wiccan protested, eyes wide. “I just don't feel comfortable with the idea of using the group's collective energies towards the aim of just one person.” She hesitated. “Especially when that one person wants to contact fairyland.”
“Not fairyland,” Sarah managed through clenched teeth. “The goblin kingdom.”
“Right. You do know that the invention of supernatural beings was a really popular tactic in the oppression of motivated and forward-thinking women for centuries, right? I mean, 'dancing with the devil' was practically medieval code for 'isn't going to take any patriarchy crap lying down.'”
“Pussy power!” someone called out behind them.
Sarah stared at her. “You believe in astral planes, but you won't buy goblins?”
Morgana looked a little hurt. “They are totally different!”
“Right.” Sarah closed her eyes and counted to five. “Chandini?”
“I'm good to go.”
“Praise be,” the girl muttered as she climbed to her feet, pocketing a purple cigarette lighter. “Good luck with those candles, Marina. Maybe if you focus your energies just right...”
“C'mon,” Sarah said as she hooked the other girl's elbow with one hand. “I think we've enraged the locals enough for one day.”
“This was your idea,” Chandini countered, but she waited until they were outside and making their way towards Sarah's car. “I have this crazy idea notion we humble grad students should use every second of our time trying not to flunk out of the program or collapse from exhaustion, but nooooo, you wanted to be extra-curricular.”
“I'm sorry.” Sarah climbed into her much-loved Subaru, secondhand and battered around the bumpers enough to earn the nickname Velveteen Rabbit. Chandini settled into the passenger seat as Sarah stared blankly at the steering wheel. “I'm really sorry. And I can't thank you enough to coming along... I mean...” To her horror, the view out her windshield began to waver as her eyes filled with tears. She hid her face in her hands as she moaned. “Oh, man, I am such a mess.”
“Hey, now.” Chandini's strong arms went around her as she guided Sarah's head to her shoulder. “You shouldn't let them get to you.”
“It's not that,” Sarah sniffled. “It's not them, they're sweet, even if they are... loopy. But I just – it's so hard when you know something exists, that magic is real, and you can't get anyone to listen to you.”
“I don't believe in magic.”
“You don't believe in anything.” Sarah lifted her head, wiping at her face. “You're my friend, but you think I'm suffering from some kind of residual childhood trauma.”
“Nobody's perfect,” Chandini comforted as she riffled through her purse for Marlboros.
“But they believe. In everything. Well,” she concluded bitterly, “everything except this.”
Chandini rolled the window down in preparation for her smoke. “Maybe you're not just phrasing it right,” she offered. “Maybe you just need to put it in terms they understand. Say you're trying to reach a distant astral plane, or exploring previous lives.”
“No,” Sarah interrupted with a sigh. “Doesn't work like that. You need to be... specific.”
“Yeah?” Chandini blew smoke out the window. “How specific?”
(“I wish the goblins would come and take you away. Right now.”)
“Like Morgana said.” She turned the key, letting the engine rumble to life. “State your needs clearly for the universe to hear.”
So she could have written it all off. Told herself it was all on her head – well, other people's heads, because as she staunchly maintained there wasn't anything they could pin on her. She could have accepted it all as the luck of the (eventual descendants of the) Irish and go on her merry way.
Except all those strange things had started happening around the time she'd lost contact with the others.
Eight (almost nine!) years was a long time not to hear from somebody. A long time not to get a letter or a phone call, or even a postcard reading “Wish You Were Here (without the unpleasantness of misplacing a younger sibling).” Even longer when you considered that there was magic involved, and that really the only thing required was a snap of the fingers and a fervent wish for a Scrabble party. Some people might assume eight-almost-nine-years (and counting) was enough to burn away the curiosity and sheer stubbornness of anyone shut out for that long.
These people had never met Sarah Williams.
And if someone, she thought, with a dark mind for over-dressed and overly-pretty magical monarchs, was under the impression that was all it took to make her give up on something like the Labyrinth, well. They had obviously not been paying attention.
So after she watched Chandini totter off in the direction of the German dramatists she made a beeline for the reference desk. “Excuse me,” as she leaned over, “do you have anything on self-instruction?”
“Sure,” the librarian said with a smile, putting a bookmark in the middle of a Nora Roberts novel. “What discipline? Math? Foreign languages?”
Time to fight fire with fire.
The librarian didn't even bat an eye. “Third floor, A-room stacks, third shelf from the left.” She used the computer to show Sarah the map, and then had it spit out a copy Sarah could carry with her.
“Seriously?” Sarah blurted, looking at the print-out. She held the cheap, thin paper gingerly between her fingertips -– and there it was among the other cramped section labels, circled helpfully by the librarian in purple ink: Magical Self-Instruction. “Wow. I guess you guys really have that.”
The librarian settled back in her chair, looking satisfied. “We have everything. Well,” as she tipped her head slightly, “everything except Harry Potter porn. And I am this close to making a sign, because people should stop asking.”
“They...” The librarian gave her a look over thick-framed glasses. “No, no,” Sarah ended up murmuring. “I don't really want to know.”
The books in the section were dusty and undisturbed, covers sticking to each other after years pressed together like sweethearts under the dim and buzzing light. She pulled a few free at random, gracing the titles with wide-eyed looks. Sorcery: A Guide for Self-Practitioners. Individual Incantations. I Am Warlock: Journals of Self-Discovery.
Hauling a half-dozen into her arms, she looked around to make sure she wouldn't be bothering anyone before whipping out her cell phone. “Hey,” she said as Chandini picked up, letting her finds spill out over one of the provided study tables. “You don't think our university is secretly a cover for some kind of extra-ability recruitment center, like Hogwarts or Xavier's Institute, do you?”
“Are you sniffing sharpies again? You promised me the ones I threw out over midterms were the last of your supply.”
“Never mind,” Sarah muttered. “How much longer do you need?”
“Well, how long do you think I'd have to hole up in here before my students have me declared legally dead?”
“You've got twenty minutes.” She hung up, cutting off Chandini mid-whine. Then she turned back to her spoils.
The Witch is Back had a whole bunch of suggestions towards becoming in tune with her inner magic-worker. Most of them involved deep mediation exercises incorporating crystals in what sounded like a variety of uncomfortable places, so that was out. Powerful Personal Potions looked promising, until she reached the section detailing how “sexual musks” really amped the recipe's overall punch, and she quickly shut and pushed that one aside. Most of her collection went that way: a glance at chapter headings, a worrying lack of applicable content.
Last was a deep purple book with the title scrolling in a font that sparkled blue and red -- Discovering the Magic in YOU: A Guide to Unleashing Your Inner Power. There was no table of contents. It opened straight to a page filled with large, excited letters that looped and swirled in glorious anticipation of being read.
ARE YOU TIRED OF YOUR HUM-DRUM NONMAGICAL LIFE?
“Not really my problem,” Sarah found herself muttering.
AIMING TO SETTLE A LESS-THAN-ORDINARY SCORE?
OR JUST LOOKING TO BECOME THE NEXT EVIL OVERLORD OF YOUR DIMENSION?
IF SO, THIS IS THE BOOK YOU'VE BEEN WAITING FOR!
'MAGICAL USE FOR THE NEW MILLENIUM,' declares the Chicago Solstice Sun. 'WILL REVOLUTIONIZE THE WAY YOU APPROACH SPELLWORK,' promises the Daily Tarot. 'CLEARED MY SCIATICA RIGHT UP,' swears Meggie Listerholm, star of the Evening Chant talk show.
WITHIN THE PAGES OF THIS FANTASTIC TOME YOU WILL FIND THE ANSWERS TO YOUR MAGICAL PRAYERS! WE GUARANTEE YOUR LIFE WILL NEVER BE THE SAME! (PLEASE NOTE THAT Discovering the Magic in YOU IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR THE FOLLOWING: RESULTING LOSS OF MEMORY, MAGICAL ABILITY, OR LIFE. ANYONE WISHING TO UNLEASH THE PLAGUES OF EGYPT ON ANY OF THE LOWER FORTY-EIGHT STATES MUST REGISTER WITH THE NSDC BEFORE MAKING THE ATTEMPT. WHEN UTILIZING ANY SPELLS FROM Discovering the Magic in YOU, DO NOT INGEST ORANGE JUICE WITHIN A FIFTY-SIX HOUR PERIOD.)
Sarah stared for a full three minutes at the book in open-mouthed disbelief. She turned to the opening incantation and read it through twice. Then she shrugged.
“What can it hurt?” she asked herself as she made her way to the photocopier.
That night she performed the ritual in her room, burning three separate branches of sage in the anticipation of... something. But all that happened was Chandini pounded on her door and threatened to call the fire department on her ass. She gave it us a bad job and resolved to try the stacks again tomorrow.
Because it was precisely the flavor of her luck, the spell kicked in the next day: right in the middle of her Postmodern Literature seminar.
It began innocuously enough. She was taking dutiful notes about the rejection of colonialist theory in the wake of the Vietnam War when her ears began to tingle. Just a little bit, and just the lobes – she fiddled with her earrings, absently pocketing them when the sensation became distracting. But that was no help, and the next thing she knew it had escalated, becoming somehow warm and more intense, spreading over her neck.
Will put you in contact with your spiritual destiny, the spell had promised. The yin to your yang, your missing piece, that energy which completes the incomplete entity that is you.
The sensation became strangely liquid, as if someone had poured wax only slightly warmer than her body temp across her nape, where it spilled down her back and down her clavicle to pool between her breasts. She shifted minutely in her seat as the professor droned on. It wasn't unpleasant. Not exactly. Just... unsettling.
Open yourself to this influence. Make a conscious effort to fully receive whatever communications you are being sent.
She forced herself to relax, to sit back and feel everything. Licks of warmth tickling along her ribs. Whispers of heat breathing along her neck, rifling through her hair. And then her feet started tingling.
Uh-oh, she thought as the pins-and-needles sensation began to chase up her legs.
Just remember, that stupid book had admonished her only last night, the Universe is full of surprises.
When the magic hit her it was like a sock to the stomach, a pair of hands had wrapping around her ribcage and squeezing until she saw stars, stripes, and every color of the rainbow. And then it turned: as if it had only emptied her out in order to fill her with warm, golden lassitude, comforting as a beloved's kiss.
She came back to herself slowly. When she opened her eyes, the entire seminar was looking in her direction.
She did a quick self-check. Had she writhed in the throes of ecstasy? No, she was still seated, and good thing. Had she shouted anything, er, licentious? She doubted it, or they'd be giving her more than strange looks. Besides, her mouth was feeling a bit too dry for that – which led to her last check and yes, she was breathing heavily. Quite heavily. But hey, that was understandable. Postmodern literature was very stimulating. Intellectually.
“Ms. Williams?” the professor ventured.
In a moment she remained proud of for the rest of her life, she managed to ask: “I'm sorry, what was the question?” before falling away in a dead faint.
She revived almost immediately, but despite this the professor was freaked out enough to demand someone take her to the university's health center. Sarah managed to make such a pain in the ass of herself on the way there that her escort gave her up for a bad job, and she was free to climb into the Rabbit and weave unsteadily through the campus backroads to her apartment building, whereupon she tottered up two flights of stares, managed to fit her key in the door on the fifth attempt, and subsequently collapsed into the nearest armchair upon crossing the threshold. And decided she never wanted to get up again.
“Sarah?” Chandini poked her head out from her bedroom, frowning. “Is that you? I thought you wouldn't be home until six.”
“Blaaaargh,” Sarah managed from where she was draped over the furniture. She didn't notice Chandini's approach until it was too late and her roommate had caught the tops of both of Sarah's ears in a vicious Vulcanesque death pinch, yanking Sarah's gaze up to her own. “If you have a breakdown and drop from the program, I'm stealing your thesis advisor.”
Sarah glared at her as she tried to find a way of breathing that didn't sound post-orgasmic. “I'm fine,” she managed. “I just. Um. So I might have been testing out this magic thing with a spell I found at the library, and I think, uh. That was it.” As blessed oxygen flowed into her lungs, she recovered enough to add: “And my advisor things Brecht is a Marxist fanatic with some serious misogyny issues, so good luck with that.”
“Oh, I can be very persuasive. And just because the man went though female assistants like heterosexuality was going out of style does not mean...” She trailed off, mouth hanging unbecomingly open. “Wait, what did you just say?”
“Magic. Me. Me magic. I think.”
“Really.” Chandini delivered a narrow-eyed glare. “Prove it.”
Sarah held out one hand and thought really hard.
When Chandini made a choked noise of disbelief she held up the suddenly-appearing iPod for closer inspection. “Awww,” she said in mild disappointment. “I guess my mojo's only good enough for a nano. But hey.”
And promptly blacked out again.
Being magic was awesome.
It was like something had unknit inside of her, loosened and slipped free and now everything was aligned to its proper position. She wondered if this was why people did yoga.
Anything she wanted, she got. Extra time on her paper? Her professor came down with the flu. Feeling hungry? The Chinese delivery guy knocked on their door, saying someone had prank-ordered six boxes of chow mein and did they want it. It was like a virtual reality where her every wish and need was anticipated before she even named it.
It spooked the hell out of Chandini, who claimed that anything which came that easy was too good to be true. She also claimed Sarah was swallowing down gifts with hidden hooks in them, and they'd catch eventually. Sarah noticed that didn't stop her from eating the leftover chow mein.
But she still couldn't reach the others. She concentrated and wished and wished but –- nothing. Meditation didn't help, chanting just made her feel dumb. Days passed where she did nothing but sit in front of her mirror and wait, nothing to show for it besides being heartily sick of her own reflection and the sinking suspicion that she was going to need further instruction.
She'd already returned Discovering the Magic in YOU in a fit of pique after her first attempt failed to produce instant results. She could make her own way through the stacks now, skirting past the information desk (the same librarian was demanding a belligerent-looking student to show her “where fanfiction falls on the Dewey Decimal System” in scathing tones) and taking the stairs two at a time. (“You're sick, you know that?” the librarian's voice floated up behind her. “Draco Malfoy is a whiny mama's boy, and the thought that Hermione would actually be involved with any Slytherin besides Severus Snape is just -- ugh. Get out of my sight!”)
Sarah didn't even bother with a table this time. She snatched the book from where it poked out a little further from the pack, evidence of recent re-shelving, only to plop down on the slightly grungy floor and began to scan like a woman possessed. Sixteen months of grad school had enabled her to read at something approaching the speed of light, so it wasn't long before she hit upon the relevant passage.
Perhaps your spell has not produced the results initially hoped for. Perhaps you have become more in tune with your magic, but some hoped-for understanding, a deeper connection with the universe at large, still eludes you. It is possible that some unknown force is standing in direct opposition to your goals. If you look deep within yourself, you probably already know what this force may be.
“Let's see how you deal with this little slice,” someone whispered deep inside her mind.
If this is the case, remember: there is strength in numbers. Talk to someone -– a friend, or therapist, but potentially a fellow practitioner -– and explain to them that you may need their positive feelings toward you to act as both a counteractive measure and a focus in dealing with your current troubles.
She closed the book with a snap. Clearly, there was only one thing to do.
“Hi!” Sarah said brightly when Morgana opened the door. “I need a favor.”
“I'm sorry,” the other girl said stiffly. “We're not a one-stop shop. Especially when it comes to people who don't appreciate the sensitive psychic vibrations involved in a group effort. I'm not trying to be mean, I'm just honest.”
“Sure, whatever,” Sarah muscled past her into the house. “Oh look, the whole gang's here! I knew I could count on you.” The others, sitting in a half-moon circle in Morgana's living room, gave her a mixture of hesitant waves and disbelieving stares. “So, listen, I can do magic now and I really think we left things on a bad note. So I thought I would drop by, we could chat, maybe chant the circle, rebuild some bridges.”
She beamed at them. Now they were all giving her disbelieving stares.
“This is so typical of you, Sarah.” She turned to find Morgana standing in the doorway, arms folded and hip cocked. “You waltz out of here after trashing everyone else's contributions to coven awareness...”
“Hey, I trashed nothing! I just said that if we're going to spend a whole afternoon meditating to the ambient sound machine you ordered from a Shaper Image catalogue --”
“Our urban lifestyles choke our natural connection with the earth's heartbeat! We need to reconnect with the sensations of being within Gaia's womb -– we totally went over this!”
“ -- then I don't see why you guys can't humor me about serving as a focus to help me reach the goblin kingdom.”
“Because it doesn't exist.” Morgana finally lost it, abandoning her superior pose to stomp her foot. “I'm sorry, this -– this fairytale shit is exactly the kind of crap that robs Wicca of recognition as a legitimate lifestyle --”
“You know what?” Sarah began to feel her own anger, pooling warm and viscous at the bottom of her gut. “You've got a lot of nerve, deciding what is and isn't real – you're exactly like the people you're supposed to be fighting against, the ones who cut out any possibility of the unknown outside their own rigid belief system --”
“Oh, please. Like you're so accepting. You come in here with your nose in the air and your stupid friend, laughing at us when you think we aren't looking – it's just a game to you, I don't see why I should have to lend my coven out to whatever insane scheme you dreamed up after to much pot one night --”
“Insane?” She felt her fingers curl into claws. “Wow, you're just asking for it. I nearly lost my brother, now I can't find my friends, and you think I'm some kind of dope fiend when I could just wish you away right fucking now. We'll see how you deal with the goblin king himself, you over-inflated, self-important --”
“I did that once,” someone piped up behind them.
Sarah's head swiveled on her neck like she was Linda Blair, and from the corner of her eye she could see Morgana gaping just as widely. The speaker was an undergraduate student from the university -– Sarah recognized her from a few of the student plays, which she still attended out of fond nostalgia -– and she squirmed a little beneath their scrutiny.
“You... you what?” Sarah croaked.
“That whole wishing someone away to the goblins thing? Big mistake. I mean, you wouldn't believe how well-behaved my sister was afterward, but the house got completely trashed by the those gremlin-thingies, or whatever, and my parents are still convinced I had a party when I was supposed to babysitting.”
“What... you mean... this shit is real?” Morgana sounded like someone had just told her she couldn't dance naked for Solstice this year.
“Well, I did it.” The undergraduate shrugged.
“And you ran the Labyrinth?” For some reason Sarah's heart was in her mouth. “You... you completed it? You won?”
“What? What labyrinth?” The girl tossed her pale blonde hair back over her shoulder. “All that happened was this guy offered me some kind off crystal ball in exchange for Angie, and I was like, that's really sweet but I think my parents would notice the difference, and he was all “Point taken,” and apologized for the mess and turned back into an owl.” She grinned in remembrance. “I swear, all I had to do after was say I wish and Angie would fall in line. It was awesome.” Her smile faded a bit. “And then she had to go into therapy for stress-related trauma or something, and I had to stop.”
“He just... he gave her back? Just like that?” Sarah really hoped that was her voice, but she was still trapped somewhere in her own head pondering her instinctual response of If he danced with her I will kill him.
“Yup. He seemed kinda bummed, really, like totally sad and not into it. Still gorgeous, though, oh my God.” She rolled her eyes heavenward for emphasis. “I wish I'd known magic would let me meet that kind of guy before then. I stopped going to church that week.”
Sarah blinked. And again. And some more. When she had gathered the scraps of her composure back around her it was to turn and see Morgana contemplating her thoughtfully. “So,” the circle leader said finally. “Let's do this thing.”
It took two hours and a depressing tangent where Sherri claimed to receive news from the astral planes that Dark Opal had relinquished his life force to go live as a star, and everyone had to take a break for hot cocoa and sad pet stories while she sniffled through a box of tissues, but eventually Sarah opened her eyes to find herself not in Morgana's living room tastefully decorated in Early Gothique Lite, but the looming gates to the goblin city.
“Hello?” Sarah called out, turning in a slow circle. “Anybody there?” Well, maybe not just anybody, she thought belatedly. “I mean, um, anyone with friendly intentions and a complete lack of juggling skills, uh, there?”
The returning silence was so loud it almost seemed to hum a little. The city was completely still. No skittering of disturbed gravel, not even a stray cat whisper-footing it along the streets.
“Huh.” She backed up a few paces and took a closer look at her surroundings –- there was a slender staircase tucked into the space where the outer wall met the massive metal doors of the inner gate, hidden from site in a curl of stone. Probably how the city's guardian used to climb up into his gigantic warrior shell, she thought as she picked her way up the shallow steps. The surrounding wall wasn't nearly as enormous, as it only had to keep out whomever stumbled past the first gate without permission, but she should be high enough to get a look beyond the junkyards and into the maze beyond. Rough-cut rock grazed her palms as she placed her hands on the top stones, hauling herself onto her elbows to balance, legs dangling, and see...
No, not nothing, she realized after a few awful dry-mouthed moments. A low-hanging mist with the opacity of thick soup, grey with shadows and trembling with wet, giving the sense that any moment its constraints would bust and shudder into a truly vicious downpour. That was the sight that greeted her eyes, blanking out the space between earth and sky where the glittering, treacherous landscape of the Labyrinth should be.
“Oh, wow.” She drew a deep, unsteady breath. This was not good. There was only so much meteorological menace you could chalk up to “bad weather,” and this,.. “I really wish my friends were here,” she whispered.
“Ballyhoo!” came the reverberating cry, pitched to carry across the hellish sounds of battle. “Olly-olly-ox-in-free!”
“Didymus?” She slipped from the top of the wall, ignoring the twinge that shot through her legs at her sloppy landing to barrel back down the steps. She rushed back into the city through the main gates, nearly tripping over her own feet as her head swung around wildly, searching for a glimpse of a familiar face. “Is anyone there?” she called out.
A devastating moment of silence, and then a bulbous nose belonging to a face she sometimes feared she'd never see again poked timidly around the corner of an alleyway. “Sarah?”
“Hoggle!” She caught him at a run, swinging him into the air with a whoop as she spun around. She kissed him with a resounding smack to his beleaguered forehead as he was released back on the ground (with a muffled “oof”).
“Ludo!” She passed the still-tottering Hoggle to bury herself in the scraggly, rust-colored fur of her favorite monster. “I missed you guys so much!”
“Err, Sarah?” Hoggle absently patted his leather skullcap back into place, as he turned to find her in the middle of giving the sputtering Sir Didymus a noogie. “Sarah!”
“Mmm?” She wrapped up Didymus in a final, choking embrace before turning back to her first friend in the Labyrinth. “Aren't you happy to see me? I mean, wow, it's been a long time for me, so it must have felt like forever to you guys --”
“Sarah!” Hoggle barked. “Not that we ain't happy to see ya, but whadya mean, it's been a while?” And as he got a good look at the young woman in front of him, his eyes widened. “Sarah, what the – y'look...” He swallowed. “Kinda diff'rent.”
“Oh, crap,” said Sarah, who was beginning to sense a theme.
The problem, Sarah decided as she stared up at the stark monolith that was the castle at the center of the Labyrinth, was that life never gave her anything in half-measures. Life's lessons were usually packaged inside of hometown truths. She'd seen the movies: boy learns to respect himself and others through the tribulations of team sports, girl learns responsibility after crashing her parents' car (or having to defend the kids she was babysitting against a serial killer, depending on the kind of film you were watching).
She had yet to find a movie where the character learned to grow the hell up because she'd been forced to run a magical obstacle course as orchestrated by a sparkly, otherworldly being in really tight pants. Those pants, she reflected sourly, had really messed with her budding expectations of adult life. None of the men she knew dressed like that, and not a day went by that she didn't feel a dull twinge of disappointment.
Focus, she admonished herself.
This moment was yet another example of her life's over-developed sense of the dramatic. Here she was, just trying to pay a visit to some old friends, and she was roped into playing Fearless Heroine and Savior of Us All.
“I still think we should see if you guys can piggy-back to the real world with me,” she muttered.
“But my lady!” Didymus' watery eyes were shocked as he turned to her, nose twitching ever so slightly. “Dost thou not burn with the spirit of curiosity, desperate to discover what horrible calamity hast overcome the inhabitants of this fair city?”
They'd found the first hints of whatever had happened when they went inside the buildings. She thought about what they'd found upon entering the crooked piles of brick that passed for goblin dwellings: ashy silhouettes smeared onto tabletops and across dingy white walls amidst scenes of interrupted domesticity, like shadows burned into wood and stone. Some of them were tiny, sketched in the outstretching of incredibly small hands -– a child's hands. They had not been able to find one living soul.
“Not really,” she said, straining to seem nonchalant. “I'm just glad you guys are safe, and whatever happened spared you... Or, well, took any memory of whatever happened between the last time I saw you and ten minutes ago, but otherwise spared you. I'd feel better if you were even more safe, like say, hanging out in my apartment and helping me make popcorn.”
“Popcorn?” came a low rumble.
“It's a snack food, Ludo. Trust me, you'll love it.”
They all looked back at the castle. It was as it had been from the moment they'd laid eyes on it: wreathed in shadows that twisted and flickered at odd moments, dancing at the corner of your eye but then stubbornly passive once you turned your full attention on them.
Above their heads, lightning flashed.
“Overkill,” Sarah muttered.
“Ludo want popcorn,” the beast said miserably.
“Guess this way is for the best,” Sarah could hear Hoggle mumbling to himself. His gnarled hands were shaking, just a little, as they clenched and unclenched into fists. “Not like no one'd notice us weirdos just hangin' around the human world.”
Sarah thought about that, about the world she lived in: the students with their noses permanently wedged in a book, the teachers whose idea of current events consisted of the newest theories about things that had happened in 1873. She thought about her thesis advisor, terribly helpful and sweet yet still had to be periodically reminded that Sarah's name was not, in fact, Susan. She thought about witty, sharp Chandini, who had once accidentally poured refilled their sugar jar with salt and hadn't noticed the change in her morning coffee until finals had passed. She even spared a thought for herself, and the way she treated day-of-the-week underwear as a reminder system.
“Honestly? I think you'd have a good chance,” she said, turning back to Hoggle.
But Didymus was already halfway up the steps to the castle, sword drawn and flourished above his jaunty feathered cap.
“Onward, my brave companions!” he called out, not looking to see if they followed. “Together we shall vanquish the force which has bespelled this fair realm!"
Sarah sighed and forced her feet to move. “I suppose we can this once,” she grumbled, reflecting that this had been more fun when she was fifteen and really, really dumb. “But then we're using my mojo to motor on back, you got me?”
“Verily, for I do not doubt our efforts can but endear us all to the imprisoned monarch of this realm.”
Sarah stumbled. “Wait, what?”
“He's really not that bad, Sarah,” Hoggle said, giving her a look with wide eyes. She knew that look. That was the “I have just done something you will never in a million years be cool with but maybe if I stare at you without blinking you won't kill me” look. She'd discovered that look at seventeen, along with the fact that now that there weren't any (entirely too literal-minded) goblin kings skulking in the shadows, as a big sister it was her God-given right to make Toby's life hell through merciless teasing.
“Uh huh.” They were hanging back, slightly behind the others as they explored the musty, dusty corridors that twisted around each other like amorous snakes. “Which is why you never mentioned you guys had become buddy-buddy. I can totally see that.”
Hoggle ducked his head, mumbling. “He ain't done nothin' terrible since. I mean. He says he ain't got nothin' against us.”
“And you believe that?”
“Well, y'gotta ask, if he ain't really forgiven us, what's in it for him?”
Sarah pondered that for a minute, frowning. Ahead of them Sir Didymus caught sight of a mouse and challenged it to a duel. “I guess that... well, it doesn't make sense, exactly, but I suppose it's the kind of logic he works on.” She slid a glance at her stoop-shouldered friend. “But just for keeping it from me, I'm not going to make any more of that scallion dip you like to load onto the Fritos.”
“Hey, you hide a renewed friendship with my sworn adversary, you lose the dip.”
“Huh.” They trudged on for a minute longer before he said: “So how come you're in here with us, if he's such an ad- aver- such a bad guy?”
“Because I am a soft touch and always on the side of justice,” Sarah grumbled. “It's like my thing.”
“Yeah, you're a real pushover.”
“My lady!” Didymus called out over Hoggle's snort. “My lady, come quickly! I fear the danger is now at hand!”
Them four of them stood staring. They were just outside the room which, the others said was obvious from the inverted triangle symbol on the door, was most certainly their king's chamber. (Some part of Sarah, which she suspected would remain eternally fifteen, had started up a loop of omigod his bedroom omigod omigod omigod at this information and had yet to stop.) The door was open – wrenched off its hinges and tilting sadly to one side to reveal the monstrosity within.
“You know, I don't even like this Disney movie,” Sarah announced to no one in particular.
The Goblin King lay on the bed, fully clothed, hands folded over his chest in the posture of a corpse. Sarah'd had a bad moment before she saw the slight, but definite, rise and fall of his chest. His eyes were shut. She'd half-expected them to open when she whispered his name... but no.
And around the feet of his great wooden bed, curling around bedposts like vines and looping from the high frame, was a creature made of smoke, shadows, and the unmistakable iron tang of blood. It hissed as they approached. Sarah couldn't quite made out the shape of the head, but eyes gleamed from the corner in the color of a killing winter.
“Who are you?” Sarah managed after a bad few minutes.
The smokeshadows shifted, pulsed. “We are a thing of the Barrens.”
“What's that?” she said out of the side of her mouth.
“Beyond the Labyrinth,” Hoggle whispered, “is, uh, kind of dead space. Anything between kingdoms is a no-man's land. Y'don't go out there if y'know what's good for you.”
“What are you doing in the castle, then?” Sarah asked the creature. “This isn't your place.”
“Our place is any place that is not well guarded. We eat. And eat. And eat.”
“What happened to the inhabitants of this city?”
“Their master has hidden them from us. He has burned away their shadows and we cannot scent them. But he could not escape us, oh no, not truly. While he is sleeping we will eat out his heart, and it will burst with ripe secrets.”
“Ah.” Sarah waited for a full minute, during which she was so tense her teeth hurt. “So what's, uh. Keeping you?”
“He has hidden his heart,” the thing hissed, trembling wildly. “He has given it to someone else for safekeeping. Until we can find it, he sleeps.”
Dimly, Sarah felt like she should be paying more attention to that idea. But there wasn't time. “Oh. How're you going to find it, then?”
“We are working on that.” Was it pissed at her? Better regroup.
“Guys? Any ideas?” she asked. A huge paw reached out to grab a hold of her fingers, and she looked into melting brown eyes as Ludo rumbled unhappily. “Aw, that's okay, Ludo. Anyone else?”
“I challenge thee to a duel!”
“You know, Didymus, you and I have to have a talk one day about solving your problems with words.”
“We recognize no challenge,” the nothingsomething purred. “We claim our prey by first blood.”
“First -– I swear to god if you've touched one hair on his head --”
“My lady, the vile wyrm bespeaks of the right of first victor over a renowned prey. His Majesty has never been bested in battle before, though many have tried.”
Sarah blinked. “So, wait. If someone had beat him before, they'd have the right to claim him and this thing has to go home?”
“Then I win!” She pointed a triumphant finger at the nightmare in the room, which flinched and rattled. “I kicked his ass years ago, when I was fifteen! First blood is mine, sucker, you better move on out.”
The creature thickened, swirled. “Is this truth?”
“Ask anyone. I totally trashed his sandcastle, I'm sure word of that kind of thing gets around.”
It flattened into a kind of ground mist, shivering away from the bed and the occupant upon it. “We have heard of this,” it admitted, sullen. “We shall seek other prey.”
“That's it!” Sarah called after as it flowed out the high window. “You better run! Scat!”
“Uh, Sarah,” Hoggle tugged on her sleeve and pointed. Jareth had placed his hands over his face.
“Oh, hey, you're up,” she said weakly.
“That term is entirely subjective,” came the dark, stinging voice she remembered from her adolescence. “Do you intend to shred my reputation in person before any other inhabitants of the Fifty-Six Kingdoms, or shall I draft a letter for your convenience?”
Desperate, Sarah looked around for her friends. She only just caught a flash of auburn as Ludo turned the corner with the others as all three beat a swift retreat. “Traitors,” she muttered. She made to chase after, unthinking, when --
“What will you do if you catch up to them?”
She halted in mid-stride, then turned back to step inside the bedroom. Sarah gave herself a few moments to take in the figure on the bed: the long limbs cast restlessly across the coverlet, the pale exposed wrist where his shirt fell away. The way he had yet to look her in the eye, or even take his hands from them.
“We have regular Scrabble parties on Thursday nights. Well, we did, and now that this little pickle has been sorted I'm sure they'll be reinstated ASAP.” She very deliberately did not look at him as she said: “You're welcome to drop in. You know, if you're feeling nostalgic for some of that ass-kicking.”
He didn't bother to sit up. One hand slip away from his eyes to land on the pillow, giving him the look of a poetic consumptive. The other lifted into the air as if on its own, making what she was pretty sure was a rude gesture in somebody's culture. “Most rescuers -– reluctant as they may be -– make at least an attempt to be gracious in the aftermath of the victim's... misfortune. You, on the other hand, prefer to gloat, and then make ritualistic offers of further violence.”
It only took a heartbeat to decide she'd hate herself forever if she didn't say it. “Yeah, well, I've gotten better at flirting over the past ten years.” She straightened and looked him square in the face. “What about you?”
She didn't think she could have surprised him more with a knife between his ribs. His face became very white and very still, looking like she could shatter the world at any moment if she chose. There was enough truth in that to make her wince a little.
She made her way over to him carefully -– not fast enough to startle, not so slow as to give him time to think, to recover. She sat on the bed, gently, mattress dipping slightly with her weight as she settled in beside him, placing one hand on the other side of his unresisting body in order to balance. A few strands of her hair fell forward and he reached up, looking surprised enough to make her think the gesture unintentional. He didn't push it back, which was what she expected -– simply twined the stray lock around his fingers, delicately, as if beginning to weave a lovers' knot.
“Was it because I said it?” Sarah asked, eyes never leaving his face. He had yet to meet her eyes again since that first look of shock. “'The King of the Goblins had fallen in love with the girl, and he had given her certain powers'... did I do something when I made up that story? Was there some magic in that night which bound you to it?”
He may have twisted her hair a fraction more tightly, but she couldn't swear to it. “I realize I am a man laid low by recent circumstances, but please grant me the ability to cast my heart where I chose.” His eyes flickered to hers and quickly away. “You have it backwards. I was influencing you.”
“Influencing me?” She tilted her head in question, more of her hair slipping past her shoulder to spill into his gloved fingers. “How?”
“There is an amusing... side effect... when one of my kind loves,” he said softly. “A connection. Of sorts.”
“You're going to have to be more specific than that.”
“Oh, am I?” he asked with a bit of the old venom, but when she looked at him his face was relaxed into a careful absence of expression. “You weren't making something up off the top of your head that night, you were... intuiting something of what had already happened. The connection is more an exchange of gifts. You received my magic and intuition. Or part of it. It's how you were able to bring the others over to the human world after your return.”
“And when that... thing... swallowed the Labyrinth?”
“I forced more on you than before, I admit. I was afraid you would need it should the creature come after you, but even then it was a haphazard ability at best. You're very stubborn, Sarah, and you don't accept gifts blindly, even when you aren't aware they're being given. It wasn't until you were able to couch the interaction in your own terms that you took full possession of your due.”
“And you? What did you receive from me?”
Jareth let his eyes drift shut. “A fuller range of emotion. Joy. Disappointment. Loss.”
“But how did I... intuit this happening in the first place?”
He stilled again, as if in anticipation of her withdrawal. “I had been watching you for quite some time.”
“Really?” She leaned in further, just a few small inches, to show no offense had been taken. “What grabbed your interest? I could barely stand myself, back then.”
The soft fingertips of his gloved hand ghosted a touch around the rim of her ear, slowly but surely encroaching upon unsecured territory. “Humans think they travel through time, from past to future through an ever-constant now, the same way you walk around the corner to a shop.” He curled a finger lightly around her ear. “But the truth is you are in all times, all at once. You are all of your possible selves. Some of your artists understood that, but none of you can actually see it.” He pressed a thumb to the space just behind her ear, then smoothed away the touch. “I can. Sometimes to my chagrin, but –- I most definitely can.”
“My possible selves must have been solid stone foxes.”
He moved his hand abruptly, as if to draw away, but she turned her face into the movement and he ended up with fingers tangled. He couldn't withdraw quickly without hurting her, and she used the hesitation to press her cheek against his palm. He froze, radiating what in any other person she would have called uncertainty. Sarah shifted, bringing her mouth to the base of his fingers and pressing it there in a silent kiss.
There was a long, quiet moment as she listened to him breathe, certain she could have stayed like this, unmoving, for any conceivable eternity.
She forced herself to stand eventually, and Jareth opened his hand without resistance to let her slip away. But his eyes watched every move she made, and there was a light in them she hadn't seen in... a long time.
“And now?” he asked as she headed for the door.
“Now I go home. Everything's fixed. The Labyrinth breathes free again, and I'm going to have to start finding excuses to stay in on Thursday nights, because no way am I going to explain that ragtag band to the outside world. Plus I have a paper due on Monday.”
She turned back around just to make sure he did. “The invitation still stands. You're always acting like you're so much smarter than everyone else –- let's see how you do with seven vowels and a blank board in front of you.”
He'd somehow pushed himself up so that he was half-reclining on the pillows when she wasn't looking. Regarding her with a lifted eyebrow, he crossed one leg over the other in the most studied attempt at nonchalance she had ever seen. “I may do that.”
She paused on her way out the door. “Hey, listen. Now that the creature is gone, am I still gonna..?”
“You don't need to have full access to my magic. And you won't.”
“You must allow me some advantage,” she thought she heard him mutter under his breath. She stuck her tongue out at him before disappearing through the doorway.
A minute later she stuck her head back in.
“Can I at least keep the iPod?”
When Sarah opened her eyes, it was to a ring of curious faces, wide-eyed in anticipation. Morgana, predictably, was the first to break the silence.
“Well?” she demanded. “Did it work?”