Chapter 1: Coffee and Cojones
Sarah reflects on recent life post-Negan and worries about Toby’s safety. In the labyrinth, Jareth encounters some unexpected guests.
Please see the end of the ending notes for a major warning spoiler.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Fog hovered near the ground, glowing orange in the dawn light. The dampness of fresh dew filled the air; its innocent sweetness clashed with the heady scent of carrion. Through birthdays and family meals and combat training, even the strongest coffee could not disguise what laid just outside Alexandria's walls.
All the same, it did not stop Sarah from her morning ritual. She found a stash of her old favorite chain coffee beans on a supply run, and conveniently “forgot” to send it to the pantry.
Sarah monitored her water use, so none were the wiser. Everyone had their secrets around the camp, and she supposed hers was harmless enough. They had plenty of coffee for months to come, the one staple they were not at risk of running short on. Sarah hated having to ask Olivia every couple days for more grounds. The brew from those beans tasted like defeat and used car lot lobbies. But Sarah’s reminded her of Thursday mornings at her favorite cafe and long talks with Karen.
Sarah startled when a sharp chop rent the air. A splash of coffee scalded her lip.
Rick offered no immediate explanation when the group returned with Glenn and Abraham’s bodies the week before. The blood stained sheets draped over their misshapen remains left little to the imagination before they were removed to the Hilltop.
Sarah hissed and swore under her breath when a second thwack sounded. The fog had not yet evaporated. Despite the regularity of the chore–every other morning–and the warm morning sun, she still pulled her robe a little tighter.
The horror and swings of the bat flashed in Sarah's mind with each chop of the ax. She shuddered.
The wood splintered after the third, splitting with an unsettling crack.
No one offered any detail on the confrontation with Negan until three days later.
The night before, a sharp knock rapped at her door minutes before curfew. Eugene only waited for the door to close behind them before he started speaking.
"Our fine ginger friend did not falter or even flinch. The man had solid-gold cojones until the very end."
Sarah both wanted to hear every grisly detail and forget it happened, wishing to believe that Glenn and Abraham had instead only fallen into the quarry and snapped their necks on the way down. Instant death, no pain.
Eugene fixed his gaze on the hall closet handle as he spoke. "He used his last words to invite Negan to perform fellatio, and I quote, 'Eat my nuts.' That might be the most genuine act I ever saw him perform. After a few days’ reflection, I have concluded bonafide admiration of my friend's bravery and hope to follow his example if the most unfortunate circumstance arises. Sans the bludgeoning, of course."
Sarah offered a wan smile. She hoped it was enough to disguise the draining color from her face. If Eugene noticed–and he saw everything–he uncharacteristically held his tongue.
She and Toby were recruited into Alexandria before Rick's group arrived, but long after the community had been established. She became something close to a communal nanny. Between the choices the community adults had to make, and the trauma imposed upon the children, Sarah could not help but reach her heart out to them. Sarah was an after hours sort of version of Denise. Less psychology; more companionship.
Sarah bonded with the children and frustrated teenagers. The bright, mostly-unadulterated hope in the eyes of the children who had little to no exposure to the real world outside of the Alexandrian utopia lifted Sarah’s spirit. Simultaneously, Sarah’s heart twisted for those who had seen and done the worst that innocents should never have had to face. She related all too well when their brows furrowed, expressing their conviction to protect their loved ones, and mixed feelings yearning for the temptation of adventure.
Except in their dystopian reality, there was no clock to beat that would send them back home to where they belonged. Alexandria, for better or for worse, was the best any of them could hope for.
After Denise died, Sarah unofficially assumed her role as camp counselor, though most often, her quiet non-judgment and a reassuring smile were needed more than thoughtful words and meatball therapy. In just a few short weeks, much had changed within the community. Most of the citizens had more trouble coping than she cared to tell Rick.
Sarah told no one about her visitors. As far as anyone knew, each visitor assumed they alone sought her counsel. In the end, they went through more of her coffee stash than she did. She swallowed each secret with the last dregs they sipped from her cracked mugs.
Sarah didn’t know whether Eugene was a coffee drinker; she poured a cup for him anyway. He still stood in the foyer and said nothing, but glanced down at the mug when she pushed it into his hand.
"Perhaps my emotions were softer for Glenn because of Maggie and the fetus," he conceded. His chin only tremored once as he described Glenn's injuries. Eugene spared no detail but did not embellish.
Eugene finally met Sarah’s gaze only when he finished. A long moment hung between them. Without saying anything further, he about-faced and turned for the door, only offering a tortured look as he let himself out.
Sarah only just caught slips of sleep that night.
It happened on some occasion where an adult without a child accompaniment would find their way into the labyrinth. The labyrinth thrived on the innocence of children's honest souls and the suspension of disbelief, although adults were not banned outright–so long as they acknowledged and removed their tainted lenses of adulthood and cynicism.
Too often, when full grown mortal adults found themselves Underground, they refused to believe they were exactly in the place they wished to be. As though they could detach themselves from the environment on the sheer disgust of having been an adult human in a less than ideal place that did not meet their standards or understanding of reality.
Even worse, they smelled. Just as bad as adolescents.
What Jareth did not expect, however, was that so many would turn up in such a short span of time.
The first incident occurred three days prior. Jareth strongly disapproved of unannounced visitors anywhere in the labyrinth, least of all to his gardens–if that is what they could be called.
Far from lush and fragrant, Jareth kept clear an ancient portion of the labyrinth for his own private use. Long-dead vines covered all but the most narrow sliver of the cracked and dusty path, frozen in knots and thick coils over broken walls, and strangled the necks and bound the wrists of marble figures, long distinguishable from years of neglect and overgrowth. A thin cloud of dust hovered and never quite cleared.
The gardens provided respite for the Goblin King. The silent chaos and fading beauty reminded him of battles and wars won and lost–long before Sarah and a few after. Here, Jareth reconnected with his history and marked the passage of time. Forever really was not long at all.
By now, the goblins had learned their lesson–most of them, anyway. Sentries stood guard near the various entrances, but none dared step one foot out of place or interrupt him. Jareth rather supposed they despised culture and grace beyond fearing punishment or bogging.
Gasps and crude language shattered the silence when two women and a man crashed into a fountain. Long since it ran dry, all that remained in its bowl was mysterious dark muck.
Jareth’s lips twitched when someone yelped as their hand squelched into it as they all toppled on each other and found their bearings.
The Goblin King had long accustomed himself to summonses and the whims of many various mortals' selfish expectations but did not expect that they could wish themselves away without his precise knowledge or magical summoning. The requirements stated that he appear to each mortal to offer them the last opportunity of escape from their duty–that is, to care for the child they had wished away. Yet between the three of them, Jareth neither saw nor sensed a child.
"How exciting," Jareth began. All three whipped around at the sound of his voice, eyes wide and faces blanched. "I did not wish for human adults, and yet the labyrinth saw fit to entertain me. Please do inform me as to why you are here." He spat the word humans as an insult and yet as only one of the women–a harried and frumpy ginger, a freckled thing–caught his words at all. Jareth suspected his inflection was lost on her as their collective silence stretched from an appropriate pause to uncomfortable silence.
He turned to the male first. "You," he nodded to the man with a blond... mullet , if Jareth remembered correctly. "Why have you appeared here in my garden?"
The mulleted man chewed his lip and shrank under Jareth’s stare. He glanced at both women, and only spoke after the ginger nodded encouragingly. "Er, your Highness–"
"Things Aboveground are not...they are..." His blanched face faded to a slight green tinge. He screwed his eyes shut and shook his head.
The other woman opposite the ginger, a petite brunette, finished for him.
"Walkers, your Majesty, Goblin King, sir," she attempted a rough curtsy. Her broad forehead missed the edge of the fountain bowl by millimeters.
"Forgive me, I am not familiar with this term, walkers ," Jareth drawled. He kept his gaze locked with the brunette woman. "Please do inform me of them, and spare no detail."
She stuttered and murmured, glancing between her comrades before eyeing Jareth again. "Please, sir, your Highness–"
"Your Majesty. Please. These creatures are horrific. We don’t have the right words to describe them. Wishing ourselves away was our last resort..." she swallowed, her sentence trailed off.
"For...? Precisely what follows that?"
The ginger woman sighed, long-suffering in the way that only exhausted mothers could muster. "For safety, your Majesty."
Nonplussed, Jareth found himself at a momentary loss for words. He was perplexed why a human with any working knowledge of his labyrinth would describe it as safe .
The group bowed again in supplication, dark circles evident under their eyes. The brunette’s shoulders stooped and shuddered.
Jareth tilted his head as he observed them. "I must remind you that you are fully aware of the implications of your actions," he looked down his nose toward the ginger woman. "You cannot undo this action, and you must submit to my will."
"It would be an honor to live in your kingdom, under your rule, your Majesty," the blond man replied. He tumbled knees first off the fountain and into the dead vines on the ground. "I submit to serve you, and you only, Goblin King."
Jareth tilted his head again, this time in the opposite direction, and grinned. He could get used to this. It was certainly an improvement over the goblins limited vocabulary and abhorrence of obedience. "What is your name?"
"Well, Jordan...I believe that if you seek a place to serve, you have found it," and Jareth tipped his head back and laughed. He snapped his fingers. The sentries shuffled in and gathered behind the newcomers.
Neither of the women returned his smile.
Sarah Williams stood on her porch wrapped in her robe and blinked through the fog. She spent more time recoiling and blinking away tears at the ax striking wood than sipping her coffee. She pictured each bite of Lucille’s teeth into her friends’ skulls with each swing of the ax.
Sarah’s heart ached for her friends, their losses, and raced in fear of Negan’s abilities. She thought of the quietude that settled over Alexandria as everyone pretended they weren’t panicking over the impending first visit in just a few days’ time, their shoulders slumped and voices hushed.
She sipped again, half-wishing she could have her favorite salted caramel flavored creamer, for a hint of sweetness and a distraction from the bitter tears slipping down her cheeks.
She could not lose what Sasha, Rosita, and Maggie lost that night–unconditional love and her beacon of light in a dark world. She would not relinquish the authority and power Rick had forcibly handed to Negan. She could not bear to go through with Toby what they had both seen with Karen and Robert–senselessly ripped away from them even after all the lengths they went to survive and protect each other.
Sarah could not shake the images Eugene planted for her in his flat tone. Sarah counted her blessings that Glenn and Abraham did not suffer longer than they did.
Beyond all other measurements against doubt, the most fearless leaders of Alexandria had succumbed to Negan’s terrorism and went belly-up. Michonne’s movements lacked their fluidity and determination; she either stalked around camp in a silent rage or scurried with her tail tucked. Rick limped everywhere instead of his usual saunter. His eyes, ice-blue with terror, surreptitiously scanned and darted into every corner, always looking for something that wasn’t there.
Each time she had managed to close her eyes and slip into light slumber the night before, Sarah heard the thwack of blunt force trauma and the blood spatter smacking thick on the walls. Disembodied wails of anguish echoed and pulled her from sleep, only when she realized they were hers did she see Toby’s face flash before Lucille struck the next time the scene replayed.
Sarah would not let the last of what she loved the most–the only thing she allowed weakness for beyond good coffee–to be surrendered to broken submission as Rick had been. Sarah had to protect Toby. He was the last and only important thing she had left–and Negan couldn’t have him.
Sarah slipped back into the house. Only one stair creaked as she tip-toed up to the second floor. In her room, she traded her robe and slippers for a sweater and jeans. She set down the mug and palmed the knife on the corner of her dresser.
She didn’t pause at Toby’s half-open door and slipped through. If she stopped to think any longer than she already had, Sarah’s resolve would crumble. Making the decision was easy–it was the only one left. Following through with it was another matter entirely.
Toby lied on the bed, his face turned away, and into the orange dawn light, arms spread and angled. Ash blonde roots contrasted against his sunshine yellow curls, layers that skimmed the tops of his ears. He chewed his mouth in his sleep, and as she approached, his jaw rotated and his tongue clicked in his slumber. Sarah’s heart twisted: he would always be her baby brother napping in a crib.
Sarah eased herself onto the bed. Her heart pumped a rapid tattoo against her throat as she tried to suppress her racing doubts; about what she was about to do. She pressed the blade of her defense knife against his throat.
Whether the cool touch of the blade in the warm morning woke him, or if it was the pressure against his neck, Toby stirred and awoke instantly. His eyes scoped the room, widening in panic as he saw his sister leaning over him and felt the knife pressed against his throat.
"Toby, listen to me," she implored. "I must keep you safe."
Toby swallowed nervously. His neck twitched against the blade.
"I'm going to send you somewhere. You must find someone for me, and tell him I sent you."
Toby's brow furrowed. “Sarah–”
Sarah cut him off and applied pressure. She pursed her lips to quell their trembling. "Find the person in charge. Tell him I am your sister.”
“Are you okay, sis?”
"Do you remember the goblin stories I told you, Tobes? When you were a kid?" Sarah grasped Toby’s hand with her free one. A thin line of blood stained the knife but did not freely flow. Toby grasped her hand with both of his, his blue eyes wide and bewildered.
Sarah went to speak again, to continue her explanation, but stopped herself. Just do it.
Sarah didn’t release Toby’s hand as she uttered the final words:
"I wish the goblins would come and take you away. Right now."
NOTE: at the end of this A/N is a major warning spoiler. Don't read the last line if you don't want to see the major warning!
If you read the preview I had up before: don't worry that scene is still in, if you recall correctly, it's a few chapters deep into the story. You'll see it much better shape later on.
I'm trying a slightly different format and outline approach with this project. The first few chapters will be a bit shorter than I'd like, but the rest will get beefy once the action picks up. I don't like long A/Ns but will likely be necessary for this project, so we will see how it goes!
For Walking Dead readers: please be flexible with S7. It doesn't quite divert enough story-wise to really call it A/U. All the elements are there and in the same order, just seen through different lenses and emphases.
Last but not least, sending out a major love and buckets of gratitude to my betas glasshibou and HarperJean! Neither of them is big TWD fans and they still took a stab at it and were still a huge help!
Always and most importantly: thank you for reading (hugs and cute non-stinky goblins for those who comment!). I'm so excited for you to read this and I hope you love it as much as I do! Also, Carol says she has a batch of cookies for those who spotted the M*A*S*H reference.
Don't read below if you don't want a spoiler!
Major warning spoiler: 1 MCD.
Chapter 2: Human Nature
Jareth encounters another intruder and starts putting pieces together. Rick deals with some minor insomnia and realizes he has more to amend for than he previously thought.
Psst! If you read The Refugee Preview that I posted back in January, please go back and read the first chapter! You may recall that the previous excerpt was from a later chapter, so the first part is entirely new!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Few things thrilled Jareth more than voluntary surrender. He relished these rare treats like exotic delicacies. The palpable fear and shame of those who cowered at his feet fed his ego in a way that goblin fruit and the guilt of labyrinth runners could not touch–that was a role he played for the challengers and their stories and fantasies. An act.
The challengers did not willfully surrender. They begged to return home, and by the rules that bound him to his land, he let them. It was their innocent charges that paid the hefty price of their guardians’ selfishness. The wishers-away would bear an unresolvable guilt for the remainder of their brief lives, to be sure, but the children left behind in the labyrinth would come to know their origins, and learn to overcome the adversity they faced. They evolved.
In his many centuries on the throne, Jareth had encountered enough adult humans outside of the labyrinth and its game to know that not all mortals–and in fact, most–were like the self-centered creatures that challenged him. Yet the more of them that ran the labyrinth and attempted the game, the less patience and sympathy he reserved for them.
Over the years before Sarah arrived, and long after she left, Jareth developed a rather sour taste for mortals. That their first response in light of their faults was to whimper and beg mercy for a mistake reeked of rotten weakness to him. Sarah was the only one who both immediately regretted her decision for the sake of her brother and also understood her true mission–not to appease an adult and complete the arbitrary task they set for her, but to take responsibility for her actions and learn to think critically outside of her own wants.
The Goblin King’s distaste for fickle human behavior was further soured by the frustration that any of the runners could conceivably win.
The labyrinth only set itself as difficult as the runners’ ability and their expectations. Should any of them have an epiphany that they were capable of anything they set their mind to, as Sarah had–she would not have been the only champion. Once a challenger set foot inside the gate, they sealed their own fate.
A small part of Jareth, the one that had not yet been consumed by his hostility toward humans, wanted to pity them. Humans aspired to, and often achieved, so much in their short lives. Avaricious by nature, he wanted to give them their due, but so often they shunned it so willingly.
Despite this, Jareth was not cruel or evil at heart. Opportunistic, selfish, manipulative...he would deny none of those things. But he could not experience joy for knowing that some children were never truly wanted or beloved by their caretakers. Under the taut hostility, the tears of his wishers-away plucked short strings in his heart, vibrating in frequencies so high no one could hear.
The challengers feared their charges would be transfigured into goblins. Neither Jareth nor the labyrinth would permit such an atrocity. In truth, the line was woven into the story to spur the runner’s motivation to rescue their child.
Jareth often wondered how he didn’t embitter earlier in his rule. Watching it happen every time, with each passing decade was enough to fracture anyone’s sanity. Letting go and giving in to his prejudice became easier each time he did it, and he understood now how his ancestors seemed so cruel-hearted and evil in literature. In a practical context, Jareth empathized with them and accepted it as second nature.
It would have been much easier for the king of the goblins to rage and destroy everything in his path to abate his anger at the injustice thrust onto the mortal babes. Many goddesses knew that ancestors had done the very same. However, his cunning and ultimately just nature chose not to punish his denizens because of a mortal’s poor judgment. No, when a child was won fair and square and relinquished to the kingdom, Jareth ensured each wa raised as though they had a birthright to the realm.
That meant they were subject to bogging and long sentences in the oubliettes for heinous transgressions, but it also meant they were well-educated in both the New and Old ways. Jareth did not steal their identity from them; they knew from where they came and the opportunity they were afforded in the objective tragedy of their abandonment. The Goblin King ensured that they were productive citizens.
Of course, this also served him–what is a kingdom without loyal subjects to do his bidding? In the realm of the Underground, he had a unique benefit that no other ruler held: his work focused on foolish mortals willingly surrendering to him.
Not even twenty-six hours after he sent Jordan and his companions to the kitchens, Jareth set out to survey the labyrinth. When he turned a sharp corner in a narrow passageway, he stopped just short of colliding with someone.
“How dare you–”
A woman shrieked and cowered. She shielded a small, wailing child. “Please, mercy!”
A false alarm chimed in. “Aww, come now, little babe…”
No older than three years, she rent the air with terrified wails.
“We didn’t mean to scare her!” Another pleaded. Dust plumed from the corner of its eyes.
The toddler cried louder.
Jareth sighed and crossed his arms. Not this again.
Aboveground, talking walls with booming voices and a creature like himself, clad in pitch-dark armor with pale skin and a shock of hair that was neither platinum nor silver may have been uncommon, if not unheard of...but he had to admit that this was not the first time this had happened Underground.
“But I haven’t said it for such a long time…”
“Silence!” The king’s roar rumbled beneath the false alarms at their bases. They cut themselves off midsentence, their single-hinge mouths clicking shut.
Jareth frowned as he considered the pair. The trio of uninvited guests the day before was surely an interesting anomaly, but another so soon?
The child, a chubby but small girl with ginger curls, looked up at Jareth with wet hazel eyes. Stunned into silence along with the alarms, her lip trembled. Her mother–evidenced by the identical mop of red curls on her head–cowered at Jareth’s feet. She wound her arms tightly around her child.
Experience, wisdom, or both niggled at the back of Jareth’s mind. These intruders could not be the only ones.
The babe’s sniffs that staved off whimpers and wails were poison to Jareth’s ire and disgust. He crouched to her eye level. He conjured a crystal and rolled it deftly on his hand.
“I will grant you mercy–”
The woman snapped her face up, eyes alight in hope and gratitude–
“–for your names and an explanation as to how you found yourself in my labyrinth without my permission.”
The toddler cooed as she watched the crystal.
“I didn’t know what else to do!” The woman warbled. The child wriggled an arm free from her mother and reached for the orb. Her mother rolled back to a seated position from her kneel. She wiped her face with the back of her hand. Mud streaked where tears stained before. She nodded to the toddler. “I’m Marybeth. This is Catherine.”
The false alarms cooed in unison.
“Such a precious babe!”
“There, there, see? All better!”
Jareth handed the crystal to Catherine. Her tiny, pudgy hands just barely grasped it, but she clung to it with a deathgrip. He stood, sighed again, and motioned for Marybeth to stand. She looked back and forth between Catherine and Jareth’s face twice before complying.
Jareth leaned against a wall and crossed his arms. He raised his eyebrows. “I suppose you have a story to tell. Get on with it.”
Words fell out of Marybeth’s mouth like an avalanche. “A horde appeared. We had a group–a small one–the walkers got between us, and…I saw a cave. I thought it was the end. There was no way out. I dropped my knife as we ran inside. The wish was the first thing that came to my mind. I didn’t know what else to do. I don’t know what happened to my group.”
Her ramble ended abruptly and her face drained. “Oh, please, I didn’t wish her away to you, did I? Please don’t…” she buried her face in her daughter’s hair, fresh tears pouring. Catherine remained none the wiser as she played.
Jareth rolled his eyes. For someone who bent time to his will, he had none to spare. And what, pray tell, were these walkers she mentioned?
“Whatever wrinkle in the rules of my labyrinth unbeknownst to me, its ruler, have permitted you to enter without wishing away your child to my care, and even less so to inform me of your arrival, I cannot interfere with the custody of your child.”
The woman nodded, her face still buried in Catherine’s hair. “Finfoo.”
Jareth flicked his wrist, and another crystal orb appeared, less corporeal than the bauble he procured for the toddler. He spoke to it, summoning a sentry and providing instructions. When he finished, he turned back to the pair.
“I must take my leave,” he announced. “Wait here. Someone will join you shortly and provide you instructions.”
Back in the castle, Jareth set himself into his throne with a defeated, world-weary sigh. He pondered the intruders and their descriptions of Aboveground conditions. The terror and exhaustion in their faces would typically delight him, but tonight he could not relish it.
Despite his best efforts, the self-serving, baby-stealing Goblin King was not the source of their fear–he was the solution. He wondered what precisely could motivate them to surrender to his kingdom, knowing that they gambled such high stakes. Those who believed in the fantastic and realities of the Underground had to know that anything was possible, and that did not always suggest good things. Anyone who subjected themselves to the specific whims of the goblin realm would absolutely know that they risked consequences most humans may not be able to imagine.
Was there really a situation Aboveground so dire to drive them to that edge? Jareth mused that they did not know at all the realities and consequences they risked, and that they were really that particularly stupid, like a herd of wild horses within earshot of a predator.
Yet, several centuries’ experience navigating wars, peace, feast, famine, and regular boring politics told him that where smoke plumed, fire surely burned.
If he did not detect, nor was summoned by the uninvited guests he had encountered so far, Jareth wondered how many more lurked and huddled in dark corners or broadly lit corridors of his labyrinth. Further, he wondered what price they paid to subject themselves to his mercy.
The pressure of Negan’s demands sunk Rick’s eyes and stooped his shoulders as they searched for and gathered supplies for their first tribute. Sleep chased but didn’t catch him. It nipped his heels and spurred him through the dreck of scavenging by day, but at night he dozed only in fleeting moments, jerking awake with every creak of the stairs or a distant cough in another house.
Instead of exhaustion, Rick felt nothing. In the back of his mind, tucked behind the fog, his training kicked in by rote: rest, eat...grieve.
He went to work.
An hour after Michonne’s breathing slowed when she fell asleep, Rick slipped out of bed and out the front door.
If Rosita heard him march down the street toward the gate, or even felt him climb up to the watchtower, she offered no indication.
“Go home and get some rest, Rosita.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m fine.”
“No, you’re not.”
“And you’re in any better shape?” She kept her shoulders forward, toward the gate and the outside, but whipped her head around long enough to make her point. The creaks from her leather gloves percolated like firecrackers in the silence of midnight as she adjusted the rifle on her back.
Now, she turned her whole body to him. “No. I’m done listening to you. You just get more of us killed. I’d rather stay watch and know I can do my job to keep us all safe than take a risk having you around.” Rick thought her lip trembled, but in the dim light, if it did, it didn’t betray her conviction.
Rick surreptitiously glanced at his boots. He couldn’t tell if the dark brown color was from unkempt leather or dirt and old blood.
“I’m sorry. About Abraham.” He didn’t intend to make amends and apologize at this moment, but the least he could do was try. “I–I should have played my hand differently. I didn’t. I would if I could do it again.”
Rosita fixed her gaze on a felled log just past the gate and driveway. She blinked several times and gingerly traced the bottom seam of her cap with one finger.
“Why are you here, anyway?”
She had a point. Rick wasn’t a constable or guard, not anymore. He had other things to worry about that demanded his time. Other people.
He hooked his thumbs in his jean belt loops and shuffled a foot on the platform. He imagined he was extinguishing a discarded cigarette butt, reciting the dangers of fires started by old cigarettes. “Can’t sleep, and I’m not tired. Just needed to clear my head, I guess.”
Rick’s poor choice of words sucked the air out of the space between them. Rosita scoffed. She pulled off the rifle and thrust it into Rick’s chest.
“I’m going to bed. Screw you.”
Hours later, Rick’s eyes roamed and scanned the canopy surreptitiously, through the bushes, the car boneyard, and the fog. Nothing shifted but one or two leaves, twisting in a nonexistent breeze.
Still, he watched, looking far beyond the treetops to the north.
Signs of life stirred behind him early in the morning. Clearing throats and doors creaking open and slamming shut. The sounds of groggy shuffling down the streets. Grunts and quiet hellos as people passed each other.
He couldn’t face them. Even when he was surrounded by the community members, Rick only saw gaping holes in the circles where Glenn should have stood. He always looked above their heads and around thei corners looking for Abraham’s imposing stature...quietly observing.
In the daytime, walkers walked and consumed. The community went about their business, caricature grins spread wide to cover the maddening stench of failure and the submission that clouded Rick, like unkempt matted hair.
Michonne touched his elbow. “Hey.”
Rick didn’t hear her climb up and join him on the tower, but he wouldn’t have needed to anyway. In the new world, where consent was most valued and least respected, they mutually offered and basked in the freedom of neither needing nor violating the liberty to touch each other at all.
He glanced over his shoulder to look at her. Michonne still held his arm, but her expression was soft and open. Her eyes flickered over Rick’s face. We have work to do, so we don’t suffer any more than we already have.
Gratitude and pride crashed in Rick’s chest as he remembered again, and again, and again: Michonne survived. Carl thrived. Judith was safe. They slept soundly in the house at night. With him. His house.
These first two chapters are...not ideal. Upon re-reading them, I think, "Oh gods what did I do? How could I forget to add this or that?" and I suppose that just comes with the territory of having a draft sit untouched for upwards of eight months when you have the real story in your head.
So, for that, be aware that the remaining chapters will be much meatier and when I can, will fill in gaps that I missed in these two.
Thank you so much for reading! (and commenting...hint-hint...)
Chapter 3: Reading the Fineprint
Toby enters the Underground, a place that is all too familiar yet he doesn't at all remember. Sarah realizes what she has done and thinks about how this might affect the rest of the community.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Reading the Fineprint
“I wish the goblins would come and take you away. Right now.”
The phrase echoed, each repetition further disembodied. Toby’s ears rang and ached.
Toby moved to muffle them but couldn’t for the feeling of freefalling in an inky darkness. He instead grasped for purchase, writhing in a slow-moving, dream-like state of weightlessness and resistance, as though he were sinking in a deep lake. Leathery fingers and coarse fur ghosted across his arms as he tumbled ass over elbow through the void.
They weren’t real. They were just stories.
So what did Sarah mean when she referred to goblins ?
Toby’s mind grappled for logic. For all purposes, he should have been terrified, but he felt no panic or fear. Betrayal burned in his chest as he understood that Sarah sent him away and his heart thudded as he fell alone and defenseless through a literal void.
It felt as though it went on for hours, yet it all ended as soon as it began.
Blinding white light flashed, and Toby felt gravity pull on him, hard. He tumbled to the ground and skinned his forearm. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. Energy crackled over his skin. It felt familiar and otherworldly all at once.
He stood and brushed himself off and surreptitiously reached for his glasses. He stared at them in his hands for a long moment–Toby was certain that he didn’t fall asleep with them on his face.
“Sorries, mister Toby,” a voice squeaked behind him.
Toby whirled around but couldn’t find the source of the sound. Just brambles and sparse, crooked trees. They seemed to hang a little forlornly, as though they had been drained of their water rather than deprived of it entirely in a long drought. Stolen.
Something tickled in the back of Toby’s mind about the desertscape. It didn’t look unnatural, but something weighed heavily in his stomach, the idea that not many people had been here before. That they weren’t meant to see it.
Something tugged at his jeans. “Down here, stupid!”
A hideous little beast stood knee-high next to Toby. Dark gray fur stuck out of his pointed ears. He had large acid green eyes with unnervingly small pupils. What looked like a colander crowned his head. Old shoe leather was haphazardly stitched and roughly sliced to make the armholes and eyelets for fastenings across his torso as a makeshift jerkin.
“I tried to gets you as closest to the castle as I could, but we’se is busy lately,” he–it–Toby couldn’t tell–shrugged its shoulders.
“Who are you? What are you?” Something tugged in the back of Toby’s mind and memory. Where had he crossed this creature before?
The thing shrugged again, nonchalantly. “Just a goblins.”
The demon tugged at Toby’s pant leg again, pointing behind him. “We have to go!”
The question died on Toby’s lips. Behind the goblin stood a tall brick wall. Old, but vibrant vines snaked over its weathered stone. A layer of dew shimmered where direct light cast on it. Behind it, within the walls, sounds of life are hummed and buzzed.
Where the desert behind him felt unwelcoming, something different altogether swelled in Toby’s chest as he took it in. He had no memory of this place, but all the same it felt familiar to him, as though it had been waiting for him to arrive.
His hands shook as adrenaline spiked his blood. Understanding dawned on him all at once. He knew, without looking or asking for confirmation from the creature tugging on him, what lied behind the wall.
Sarah’s face, a mixture of uncertain terror and determination, flashed in his mind: “ Find the person in charge. Tell him I am your sister.”
His face flushed and Toby suddenly felt light-headed. All these stories Sarah told him as a child...they were true.
Toby rubbed his neck and hissed when the almost-forgotten cut stung.
The cut left by his Sarah’s blade against his neck.
“Now, mister!” The goblin’s claws dug into Toby’s jeans as he was yanked toward the solid wall. He glanced down at the creature, having forgotten him for a moment. When he looked back up, a heavy gate stood before them.
“What? That wasn’t here just a minute ago…”
The goblin shrugged and impatiently waved his hand at the gate. It swung open, missing the pair by inches. Toby shuddered. The door was as thick as the wall and clearly made of a hardwood, yet the hinges didn’t even creak.
When they stepped through, Toby glanced over his shoulder. Solid brick wall, stoic and silent, stood just as it had before.
They walked, snaking through courtyards, gardens, and around bizarre fountains. As they continued, mostly in silence, Toby suspected things were not as they appeared.
The route twisted and turned, and often defied all senses of logic. Toby tried to focus his attention on assessing his surroundings and gathering information, but his guide (captor?) would only grunt in response to any of Toby’s questions and offered no other information.
With no other companion or any idea how long the journey would last, Toby occupied himself by recalling Sarah’s long heroic stories about selfish girls who found themselves stuck in this very place, tasked with confronting its king at the center. In some of them, the heroines made it to the center and in others, they were lost to its traps for eternity.
Toby never quite understood why they had to go from the outside in to the center, rather than find their way out . In his world, wherever it was in relation to this place (Sarah referred to it as “the Underground,” which baffled Toby–didn’t she mean Under world? ) going deeper into something unknown could be far more dangerous than staying out. Walkers were a constant threat, but a static one. Living people, pushed to the brink of subjective humanity, were an entirely different matter.
The castle, at first squat and dense in the distance, grew taller and more fearsome as they drew closer at an alarming speed. Toby suspected they followed a route that wasn’t officially available to contestants: a shortcut.
An eerie stillness blanketed the labyrinth. Signs of life and activity surrounded them as they walked, but they seemed punctuated. Fettered. The deeper they went, the tighter the turns twisted, and a feeling of being watched pricked the back of Toby’s neck. The goblin seemed to take longer strides that should have been impossible for his diminutive stature. Toby tried to follow in kind, half-running, half speed-walking.
Toby gasped outright when they first crossed paths with someone. That it was another human surprised Toby. He only had Sarah’s stories as a basis of knowledge, and she never mentioned any other humans besides the protagonist.
He was so surprised and they were walking so quickly he only had a moment to glance at them before continuing.
Then it happened again, and again–a lone human or couple darting across the path or huddled and clinging to each other. Heavy bags hung under their eyes, mixed emotions ranging between fear and relief.
Some toiled in gardens or performed other manual labor. All of them looked exhausted–Toby suspected their weariness wasn’t borne of the labyrinth but the same thing that wore him down day by day back home in Alexandria: survival.
It seemed to go on for hours, much like the void he fell through before. Yet under his skin, Toby felt the opposite–as though no time had passed at all, as though it were suspended.
They reached a clearing. Toby blew out a breath he didn’t know he held, and quickly gulped a lungful of fresh air.
The clearing opened to a massive junkyard, labyrinthine all its own with massive piles of refuse. Some fires dotted the landscape, black smoke curling around the high peaks of junk piles.
Sweat broke on Toby’s brow and back; the humidity palpable and suffocating. Gases released by decomposition stung his eyes. He wondered if chemistry laws applied at all in this world.
The castle loomed just beyond the sea of garbage. Toby’s stomach twisted and he suppressed the urge to retch.
The goblin’s pace didn’t falter and before Toby knew it, the little imp was darting out of eyeshot.
“Hey, wait!” Toby jogged to catch up. The goblin had stopped and leaned against a dilapidated dresser, tapping his foot.
The look of boredom on the creature’s face–as best Toby could read it–made him stop short. Toby thought back to the longer versions of Sarah’s stories–that each new event or character was a role to play. A tactic on behalf of the cunning Goblin King. His maze, his rules.
Understanding dawned on him: the passage through the junkyard was likely not necessary to reach the castle. Toby could only imagine that a king with any self-respect or pride would want to make as strong of an impression as possible, especially if the impression was on unknowns–or potential threats.
The move through the refuse was a scare tactic meant to distract. To subdue him.
Toby opened his mouth to say something to the goblin, then stopped. This creature was most definitely a captor, not a guide or deputy. Toby was a prisoner–there was no use trying to strategize otherwise until he met the king face to face.
Toby mumbled his thanks and nodded his head, signaling that he was ready to continue.
Each step felt like lead weight in his boots. In all the compromising situations he had been in before, this was the first where he had no real recourse, knowledge, or even back-up if things went south.
What had Sarah done?
Toby and the goblin approached a large gate, looming at least twice Toby’s height. He craned his neck to take it in full. A larger-than-life sized relief of something goblin-like pressed into the door. On the left door, just over the relief’s shoulder, a large, weathered gash slashed through the wood, as though it had been struck by an ax.
The goblin rapped on a guard window next to the frame. No one answered. “We’se is here for his Majesty.”
The gate opened without argument or resistance. Toby’s skin prickled.
Inside, a ramshackle town sat still and quiet. Clouds of dust billowed around corners, and feathers drifted to the ground. The streets were barren, but an undercurrent buzzed; Toby could taste fear and uncertainty in the air that wasn’t his.
And yet, a sensation of security and familiarity hung over, blanketing the town.
“Where is everyone?” Toby looked around but nary even a chicken scuttled by or clucked from a coop.
The goblin shrugged. “Hiding, prob’ly.”
“Where are you taking me?”
“To the king, dummy. I just says that.”
“Find the person in charge. Tell him I sent you.” Toby swallowed a lump in his throat and blinked. Anxiety gripped his chest. This was getting too real.
“We has a system now. We take everyone to the king. He gots tired of running into you peoples.”
Toby did not appreciate the tone in his guide’s voice at you peoples, but he didn’t press further. Rick’s lazy drawl echoed in his mind: Obey and respect their rules, until your survival is threatened. Do not kill unless necessary.
Toby bit his tongue. He wanted to ask stupid and useless questions: is there anything I should know? What will happen to me?
The clashing emotions and sensations rolled and swelled with him as they pressed further and marched up to the castle. Toby couldn’t shake the feeling that he knew this place and that further questions wouldn’t help him–or Sarah–at all.
The goblin led him through a portcullis. Through a small foyer, it opened into a circular court. It reeked of poultry and stale beer.
Directly opposite the entryway, a lanky, pale man perched in a fierce-looking throne. He tapped a crop against his lean thigh. He covered his face with a gloved hand.
“Yer Majesty. Anothers showed up.” The goblin announced in a flat tone. He scratched his neck and inspected his claws.
The king whipped his head toward them. His icy blue eyes pierced Toby’s.
Toby froze and his heart stopped.
Memories and images flooded his mind. The eerie deja vu that had followed him this journey so far broke and the pieces fell into place. Old nightmares of screeching owls and maniacal laughter from his youth bubbled to the surface. Toby remembered all the grotesque faces laughing at him.
Truth weighed on his chest. Toby recalled the central conflict from Sarah’s stories–someone was always sent away. Wished away. In one of the more detailed and long-winded versions of her lore, a spoiled girl wished away her baby brother.
Toby suddenly realized he was the child that had been wished away, and this king staring him down was the one who took him. The Goblin King.
The king’s hard stare didn’t falter. If he recognized Toby, he didn’t reveal it.
Toby, on the other hand, felt a flush rise up his neck and heat his face.
The Goblin King appraised Toby, his nose pointed high.
“He’s young and vigorous, send him to the foundry.” He waved his hand to dismiss them. A sharp clang of metal rang through the air and heavy shackles snared Toby’s wrists. The goblin grunted and yanked on the attached chain, leading them toward another door.
Toby stumbled forward. He fumbled for words and twisted around in the restraints. He knew better than to panic, but instinct told him this was his only chance to send Sarah’s message.
“No! Wait! I’ve been–”
"Do shut your mouth," The king drawled, "And be thankful I am offering you work in exchange for your very unwelcome and uninvited presence in my kingdom."
Toby grossly underestimated the brute strength of the goblin. He yanked again, and Toby fell to his knees. As he stumbled back up from the goblin's efforts, unaware of his attempts to regain his balance, Toby called over his shoulder: "Sarah Williams told me to find you!"
Another yank, this time hauled up from behind, knocked the wind out of Toby. He flew backwards. He closed his eyes and braced for impact.
Instead, gloved hands gripped around his throat. Toby’s feet dangled above the stone floor.
Toby’s eyes bulged. He sputtered and grasped at the gloves. He scrambled and fought for more air. A narrow stream squeezed down his windpipe.
Up close, the Goblin King’s eyes flashed dangerously. One pupil dilated wider than the other. Underneath the panicked fight or flight response and fight for air, Toby felt the weight of the mismatched eye. He suspected it saw much more than most eyes did.
He flexed his fingers around Toby’s throat. “What–did–you–say?”
Toby willed himself to relax, to draw the oxygen he could without depleting his own stores. He focused on spitting out his words. “I said,” he sputtered, “My sister told me to find you.”
A pregnant moment suspended between them. The king stared, his jaw tightening. Toby saw stars flash in his eyes and started to black out before the king loosened his grip just enough.
“You are Toby Williams.”
Toby nodded once as best the king’s grasp would allow.
“Where is she?”
Toby hesitated. He wasn’t sure if Sarah would have stayed in Alexandria or if she had even been captured by Negan. He only knew where he had last seen her, and he couldn’t even be sure how much time had passed–it only felt like a few hours but the pull of time threw off his internal clock. It could have been days since she cast him out.
Moreover, Toby didn’t want to sell his sister out if she miscalculated the situation and found out the hard way the Goblin King held a vendetta against her.
The Goblin King growled, low and dangerous and not at all human. He flexed his fingers again. “Do not defy me.”
The king’s gloves flashed hot against Toby’s neck. He coughed and scrambled for purchase on the king’s arm.
“Alex–Alexandria. Virginia,” he wheezed. Tears sprung at the corners of his eyes. The heat didn’t relent. His neck was on fire.
“Is she safe?”
Warning bells rang inside Toby’s head, but he didn’t hesitate to answer. Even within the fortified confines of their haven, Sarah would not have separated herself from Toby if she didn’t see more danger down the road. Negan would turn them all inside out, eventually.
“No. Not for long.”
Another long moment hung between them, the silence only broken by Toby’s struggling and sputtering.
Over the king’s shoulder, Toby saw his goblin bailiff accompanied by dozens more creatures like him huddled in a crowd. They watched, enraptured. Some dressed in armor, others in dresses and jerkins. They varied in size, color, and shapes. They murmured and grumbled amongst each other. Toby couldn’t tell if their eyes were already that wide or if they were all that surprised and horrified to see him.
The last thing Toby heard before he lost consciousness was the king’s roar: “Everyone OUT!”
Sarah collapsed onto Toby’s bed. She sobbed into his still-warm pillow.
What did I just do?
The knife trembled in her hand and clattered to the ground. Her mind raced. Wishing Toby away–again–was a crapshoot.
Sarah wanted to lie to herself, and believe that she acted on impulse and a hunch. But a part of her, buried deep down, knew that she always had a card to play. She did not realize fully at the time she actually defeated the Goblin King that their story was not yet over–just in an intermission.
She thought back to all the stories she wove within the Underground universe for Toby over the years. The ones she made up her own, that she had imagined and played long before she ever uttered her right words all those years ago, and all the tall tales that held several grains of truth to them.
Mostly true, but all partly false.
Over the years, Sarah finally mustered up and slapped together a story to abate her guilt as a way to substitute that she had technically told Toby the truth. That he was an eight year old at the time unaware of the parallels between the sable-haired heroine and the orphaned second cousin she sacrificed who would really just be better off with the king of dream-casting and baby-stealing probably meant nothing.
Sarah sat up and watched her reflection in Toby’s mirror. Her face red, hair tangled from stress and panic, and green eyes wide and lost.
If it wasn’t for the crows feet and aged skin, Sarah would look like a scared and selfish fifteen-year-old again.
Her cheeks burned in shame. She never told Toby the real truth about what she had done. That he was a fully-grown adult meant nothing; the remorse that filled her chest was the same urgency she felt when she heard his cries from the tower just a few hours into her journey all those years ago.
But this time, she couldn’t rescue him. If it went bad–what if he ended up in an oubliette, or worse, transfigured into a goblin?–there was nothing she could do. No resolution or chance to rescue him.
Sarah hoped, albeit foolishly, that Toby would be treated fairly–that his lineage would save him.
Hot tears splashed onto her hand. Every tear she had not shed, the ones she held for Glenn, for Abraham, for the heartache of the community, for Rick's surrender, for the godforsaken hellhole they navigated without any certainty day in and day out, and for the desire to continue it and succeed, Sarah cried.
Sending Toby was the last thing she wanted to do, but it was the only thing she could do to keep him safe. They could not leave Alexandria on foot. The Saviors would follow. Sarah believed Rick and the others when they said Negan was everywhere.
She also believed it when he said Negan was in charge.
Carol was still missing, and Sarah panicked at the thought that her friend could have met the same fate as Glenn and Abraham, despite her capabilities.
Sarah now identified with Carol more anyone else in the compound, but she couldn’t do what Carol had, by just running away. Not with Toby around. Sara couldn’t risk the rest of community in Alexandria. If they both went missing…
Toby was too strong, one of the next links to be broken if Negan went on another rampage and had to teach Alexandrians another "lesson." She wanted to trust in and believe Rick’s leadership, but too much had changed. Another tear, fresh and salty, fell onto the damp spot on her jeans. For all the losses and sad realities Sarah and Toby had endured in the new world after the change, the last thing she thought she would lose was her faith in and unity with the Alexandria community.
That all changed.
Any fate Toby suffered Underground, in Jareth’s clutches, could not be worse than what happened around them every day Aboveground, the threat that hung over and motivated every action and decision. In some macabre way, Sarah hoped that if Toby were to suffer so early, it would be in Jareth's hands and he would at least not have to resigned himself to the fate everyone knew awaited them here. At least he would have escaped that.
Sarah wiped her eyes and made the bed. She hastily wiped the knife, its trace of blood smearing on her pant leg.
People would come knocking when Toby failed to report to his watch shift.
Toby awoke in a different room. Shelves lined the tall walls all the way up to the ceiling. A large, ornately sculpted desk sat before him. Knickknacks, statuettes, and crystal balls of many sizes and colors dotted most of the available nooks and crannies of the room. Some parchment and one single ink bottle sat in the center of the desk.
Propped up in a chair, his shackles remained. He fidgeted. Opposite him, leaning against the desk, the king stared at Toby. His fingers tapped on the surface.
"Your sister did not tell you precisely who I am."
Toby shook his head. "Not exactly. But I remember you. You're the Goblin King."
"Observant fellow. What gave it away? Don't tell me–it was the goblins." He winked.
Toby chewed his tongue, biting back a remark. He remembered something about an evil but lonely king with wild blond hair. He racked his brain for any memories and insights into his personality. Now that Toby knew Sarah didn't spin her own tales but just retold whatever her experience was here, he wondered why on earth she would send him here, right into the Goblin King's territory. Was the fate of Negan and the walkers really worse than this?
Jareth arched a brow, a sharp angle accented by the brown and white markings on his browbone. He looked Toby up and down again, this time, truly taking him in in full detail.
Toby wanted to shrink under his gaze. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was fully exposed, that the monarch could see much more than he appeared to.
His captor clucked his tongue. "Such a shame Sarah did not divulge more information to you. I wonder, did she tell you exactly how we came to know each other? Does she think I will rescue you all from whatever in the hells is going on Above?"
Toby didn't quite understand the king's reference to "above," ( above what? He wondered) but shook his head. "All she told me was to find you. I have no idea what her intention was, she didn't tell me. She just said she had to keep me safe."
Jareth had watched Toby bemusedly, one corner of his mouth slowly curling. At Toby's last sentence, he threw his head back, roaring in laughter. His wild hair bounced with his guffaws.
"I see her naive beliefs have not faltered in all that time. Quite admirable, from what I understand is going on in your world at present. Foolish, but admirable."
The levity of his tone didn’t fool Toby: the king’s words were a threat. Toby's heart raced and his eyes darted around the room, seeking a weapon or means of escape.
The Goblin King sprung and clamped his hands down on Toby’s forearms. Toby grimaced and clenched his jaw as the still-raw scrape on his arm burned and stung. The king’s breath fanned his cheek, hot and spicy. Each sharp tooth in his grin sparkled. "You have much to learn, Toby."
He didn’t respond.
"The first is that you will never be a match for me. Accept it now."
Obey and respect. Kill only for survival. Toby nodded.
"The second..." he trailed off and gripped tighter on Toby's arms. Toby bit back a hiss of pain.
The fiery ice feeling of blood flow returning to his wrists rushed down Toby's arms when the king suddenly let go and released the shackles with a wave of his hand.
"...your sister gambled correctly; no harm will come to you here."
Toby whistled under his breath as he rubbed his arms and checked for bruising, but he watched his captor with a wary eye.
The Goblin King continued. "An agreement between your sister and I ensures that neither of us owe each other debts. I imagine she did not tell you that either; and she likely doesn’t even know it. But I do," he grinned, sharp teeth glinting. "And you will be collateral in the event I assist your kind and things do not go my way."
Toby blanched. Collateral? What exactly did Sarah get me in to?
Jareth clapped his shoulder jovially. "Do calm yourself, Tobias."
And with that, the Goblin King disappeared into thin air. A spark of energy crackled behind him.
I debated a bit about including certain things on this chapter. But I decided, in the end, to stick to my original outline. I'm dealing with a big cast and so chapters are just gonna get long in order to keep the story moving! Also because the first two were pretty boring, and even in this one there's a lot of walking and just exposition, so I left as much of the fun bits in there as I could justify.
What did you think of Toby's first encounter with Jareth?
Chapter Four is a bit of a doozy--I have a 4500-word scene to pare down into something readable. There are another 4000-some words to deal with beyond that. So. I have my work cut out for me.
I really hate this chapter title so don't be surprised if it changes. The content will stay the same. I just need sleep first. Lots of sleep.
Thanks again to my ever-patient betas, namely, glasshibou, who puts up with me yammering on about this ad nauseum and then asking for a turnaround in less than 48 hours because I just want to get as many of these chapters out as possible before Season 8 opens (in exactly 90 days!)
As always I love love love comments. They're more fun than kudos! You can ask me questions and stuff! I'm also on tumblr at tooralooryeaye-fic.tumblr.com if you're too shy to talk to me here :)
Thank you for reading! I'll have a preview up soon...again after sleep.
Chapter 4: High Noon
Sarah hadn't considered some of the potential consequences of Toby's disappearance. Jareth discovers how dire the refugee problem has grown.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Traveling at night, alone, would have been foolish for many.
But Sasha rather preferred moving then. Without the aid of sunlight and daytime vision, she could hear a walker’s growl—or her own footsteps—from a greater distance. The occasional blanket of fog comforted her; returned her the smoke-choked structure fires she fought so often before. Before the change.
It wasn’t so different, all things considered. Though the dangers were vastly different, the concept remained the same: one wrong move could result in a slow and painful death, but worse; her demise would weaken and jeopardize the team she fought to protect.
Tonight, fortunately, was not one of those.
Sasha checked her compass again, despite being sure of her direction. The Hilltop wasn’t too far, but she couldn’t wait until morning to see Maggie.
She had to see for herself. And Maggie needed the additional protection.
Sasha stayed on the path as much as she could, stepping slowly when she couldn’t, to prevent twigs and branches snapping.
Fog built up as she continued. It puffed around shrubs and curled down tree trunks. Every so often a tendril cooled Sasha’s cheek.
A shiver ran down her spine, but neither from fear nor cold.
She felt the weight of a predatory gaze behind her. Sasha froze stock-still and held her breath, crouched behind a fallen trunk. She inched her head over her shoulder, eyes scanning every shadow in the dark, each one more inky than the last. Highlighted only by silvery moonlight cast on oily leaves.
Sasha bit her lip, clenching her jaw to keep her breaths steady and quiet. She knew the presence that lurked in the darkness, the one that crouched in the fog and waited.
It wasn't a walker.
Jareth retreated to the court, where an elf from the High Council awaited him. Robed in amorphous black fur, her only embellishment was a navy and gold sash around her waist. Her pale skin and hair appeared to glow, even in the daylight cast into the court.
Jareth bristled. A visit from the High Council at this stage, by a trusted ambassador no less, did not bear good news. He stalked toward the throne.
“What do you want, Morna?” She may have represented authorities, but she was not them outright. Etiquette be damned.
Ever stoic, the elf watched Jareth with gentle interest. Her wide, dark eyes did not betray her non-threatening stance. Her only outward reaction to Jareth’s attitude was a flexing of her long ears.
“The High Council has called an emergency convention for all rulers. Tomorrow at nightfall.”
“May I ask the nature of the convention?”
“The influx of mortal newcomers has spread throughout the Underground, your Majesty,” she answered. “The council considers it high time to discuss their plan of action.”
“What is the current status of the other realms?”
Morna turned up a corner of her mouth, but it could have been either a wistful smile or a grimace.
“We are still assessing, but it seems as though the goblin kingdom is among the least affected. Some cities have been overtaken entirely and reorganized as refugee camps and natural citizens have been resettled temporarily. The High Council and immediate realms are cooperating to centralize the populations nearest to the palace grounds, but there have been...difficulties.”
For the first time in centuries, Jareth thanked the goddesses that his realm was smaller and worse reputed than others. His thoughts briefly flickered back to his gardens.
“Please expand on these ‘difficulties’ you speak of.”
Morna’s ears flicked back and her mouth slackened. “Some realms have taken the mortals as prisoners and slaves. They have refused direct orders to release them. The council is concerned it may rankle diplomacy and certain alliances.”
Jareth’s chest swelled. Opportunistic he may be, but he would not exploit the refugees in his kingdom in such a way. Unless, of course, they submitted to his will—which all of them had. Mostly.
Toby was a possible exception to the rule. Yet, no rules stated another could be wished away without the intention of rescuing their subject. It would be far more interesting if there was such a requirement, as rules were no fun if they could not be manipulated and examined from every angle. Stretched and bent, perhaps.
“Those who have sought my kingdom have been generously offered opportunity to be productive, if not hopefully temporary, members of goblin society while they are here.” Jareth supposed he would reveal Toby to the council another time. He decided that there was no reason for them to know if they did not expressly ask for a manifest.
Morna’s eyes flickered, and then she bowed. “The High Council is pleased to receive this news, your Majesty. They recognize that despite your flaws—” Jareth scowled “—you are a fair and just ruler.”
“Tomorrow at sunset, then?”
Morna nodded again, once. “We are grateful for your presence and cooperation in this matter. Until tomorrow.”
She bowed again, then turned and exited the castle. Her heavy robes jostled and slid behind her.
The heavy tension that surrounded the pair during her visit dissipated once she had departed the grounds. Most goblins wasted no time in tapping another barrel of ale, whooping and hollering. Even the squawks and clucks of the chickens sounded different, like relief. Someone drunkenly strummed a detuned lute.
Jareth set foot toward his study. Toby no longer banged on the door and yelled, but Jareth could hear him grumbling inside.
Jareth decided to forgo the door entirely. He transported into the room, reappearing directly in front of his new prisoner. Toby swore loudly. His bonds creaked and groaned when he startled against them.
“Was that really necessary?”
Jareth would have forgiven the insolence if Toby hadn’t muttered “
” under his breath.
Jareth snarled. He materialized a crystal in his hand. His fist level with Toby’s face, Jareth squeezed the crystal with a growl and superhuman snap of his hand. Shards exploded and narrowly missed him, as they faded into nothingness before reaching his eyes. Irridescent dust settled on Toby’s nose.
“You will answer me when addressed or when I enter a room, most especially within my own castle.”
Toby didn’t flinch. His eyes bore into Jareth’s equally intense stare. Despite that Toby’s eyes were blue and not green, a memory flickered in the back of Jareth’s mind: both he and Sarah’s eyes glittered the same way when they swam with emotion.
Jareth squeezed his fist again, grinding some of the remains of the crystal. “Try again, Mister Williams.”
Toby swallowed and set his jaw. “Understood.”
“Understood, your Majesty,” Jareth hissed, just centimeters from Toby’s face. Toby’s nostrils flared.
A long moment stretched as they stared each other down. The anger never abated from Toby’s glare, silent darts of venom aimed right for Jareth.
Toby finally licked his lips. He spoke just above a whisper. “Yes, your Majesty.”
Jareth smiled and clapped Toby on the shoulder, as though they were old friends. He tossed the remnants of the crystal upward, where they faded and disappeared into nothingness.
“Wonderful. Come with me, boy. We have much to do.”
Toby’s expression melted. From furious determination with hard lines and scrunched brows, his jaw slacked and shoulders slumped. However, he remained silent as Jareth opened the door and headed down the corridor without further instruction.
At high noon, Michonne pounded on Sarah’s door.
“Toby missed his shift change. Have you seen him?”
Sarah counted her blessings for all those long days in the park reciting the countless plays and her hours in rehearsals and the training in college. Her career had never quite taken off before the change, but she did have experience acting. Enough to make things work.
She pulled on her best concerned-sister face and braced herself. She shook her head once with pursed lips. “Haven’t seen him since this morning. I thought he was with you?”
“Did he say anything about going anywhere? For Negan?”
“No, I barely even saw him. He didn’t really say anything.”
Michonne nodded once. Her expression was unreadable as ever.
The casual pause in the conversation filled, crammed with the tension of the changes that had ransacked the community in the past few days. Michonne adjusted the strap of her katana and inclined her head. “Well, you know to…”
“I’ll sound the word if I see him.” As she wasn’t a scout, Sarah knew than to offer to help look: that wasn’t her job in the community.
Michonne turned and headed back toward the gate without anything further, her accouterment clanking as she went, glinting in the sun.
Sarah restrained herself long enough to shut the door without slamming it. Her knees suddenly weak, she slumped on the floor and buried her head in her knees.
Rick called a town meeting at dusk.
Despite the summer heat, a chill slunk over the walls and into the shadows, lengthening by the minute as the sun set.
News had spread of Toby’s disappearance. Everyone filed into the patio with slumped shoulders and dejected murmurs. Most of the faces bore blank expressions. Missing persons weren’t a new thing.
Rick cut to the chase.
“Toby’s missing. We need to figure out where he is before Negan does. Who has his last sighting this morning?” His long drawl stretched the words wide and weighed them down, like fresh taffy on a pulling hook. Sarah felt as though she had cotton stuffed in her ears, blocking it out, pulling the words and twisting them to mean something else.
“Sarah said the last time she saw him was this morning around seven, but we don’t have anything confirmed after that,” Michonne supplied. She scanned the crowd, her dark eyes sharp and searching. “Does anyone have any other time on him?”
Sarah’s heart twisted and she screwed her mouth tight. She swallowed to dissolve the lump in her throat, but only succeeded in pushing more tears out. In the normal world, before the change, Sarah would have been the prime suspect. But here, when everything was different and nothing was guaranteed, people went missing all the time. And more would disappear if fingers started pointing right away. Committing a perfect crime was sometimes the only way to protect the survival of the group.
In all her life, Sarah could count on one hand the number of true crimes she had committed. On two fingers, even.
Both involved surrendering Toby.
She jumped when a hand brushed her shoulder.
“You okay?” Sasha appeared next to her, her brow furrowed. Her dark eyes were hard and intense, but that meant nothing: Sasha was always on edge, always alert.
Sarah fumbled with the zipper of her coat. “I’m sorry. I’m, um…” She blinked again, tears clouding her vision. “I went downstairs to do some chores, and then took another nap before duty, so I didn’t see or hear him leave. He was getting dressed when I saw him last.”
Sasha sat down and wrapped an arm around Sarah's shoulders as they shook The pouring tears released some tension in Sarah’s chest, but not enough—she would swap one guilt for the other.
The group discussed and pieced things together, but the conclusion settled all too quickly: Sarah was the last person to see Toby, and he hadn't told anyone where he went. The consensus was that he had pulled a Carol and unwittingly walked into one of Negan's many traps.
"I don't want to lose any more people," Rick sighed. "But we can't leave Toby out there. Not after what happened. Negan can take our supplies, but he will not have any more of our people."
Murmurs of both encouragement and dissent rumbled through the crowd. Though every remaining person in camp was present, it still felt empty without Glenn and Abraham.
Sarah stared at the garden entrance, where Toby often perched during town meetings. What did I do?
Like so many of the others before her, his fate would remain unknown. Sarah didn’t know if he would ever be able to complete the task she set forth for him, or if it was all in vain. She didn’t want to think about what might have happened to him if he had either not yet found the Goblin King or that he was less merciful than she hoped he would have been.
Sarah's tears dripped, hot with regret and anger at herself, and she hung her head low. Just like the first time, as a selfish teenager, she had not fully considered the consequences of her actions, and now more of the team would risk themselves to chase something that didn't exist.
She just wanted Toby to be safe and away from this awful place.
Rick, Michonne, and Gabriel discussed a few logistics, and, finally, the meeting adjourned.
The crowd filed out, shuffling back to their houses. Yawns and resigned heavy sighs replaced the usual chatter. Gabriel and Eugene extinguished the fire, alternating pouring water and stirring the ash. The embers hissed as they worked. The carbon-heavy smoke stung her eyes.
She caught Rick's gaze. "You'd better get to bed."
Rick held his stare for a moment longer, and then simply turned and left the garden, flanking Eugene and Gabriel.
Toby wasn’t sure exactly what the Goblin King had in mind when he was released, but going on a horseback ride would not have occurred to him. Jareth hadn’t divulged much about their destination; mostly alluded to something about a council.
The gentle rhythm of his steed’s pace and the familiar scent of saddle leather would have comforted Toby in most other situations. To a degree, he felt some reclamation of autonomy when grasping the reins and anchoring his feet in the stirrups—things he knew and remembered from the old world, or the Aboveground as Jareth had called it. From wherever Sarah had sent him from. Toby knew full well that the horses would obey Jareth, but the knowledge that if he had to, he could redirect and choose another path soothed his frayed nerves.
Toby followed Jareth down the path. The grass had been worn down to dirt, but a moderately dense canopy intertwined overhead, anchored by an outer border wall of the labyrinth. If one did not notice the unique flora (the eye-lichen’s quiet coos, in particular, sent a shiver up Toby’s spine), or Jareth’s gravity-resistant hair, Toby would have thought that he was on his way back home. To Alexandria.
Instead, he trailed behind a creature who ruled over goblins as subjects, in a place he still did not quite believe existed, en route to an event he would not have ever conceived on his own. Even the clothes he wore seemed unbelievable—a simpler, duller take on the outfit Jareth worn when Toby first entered the court hours before. The rough stitching and comparatively modest cuts led him to believe that they were last-minute mockups or rejected designs, left to sit in a forgotten wardrobe. Still, they fit Toby better than anything he had worn recently.
They rode for a long while.
“I believe we have started off on tense terms.”
Jareth’s calm tone startled Toby more than the broken silence. He squinted and clenched his jaw. Although Jareth remained facing forward, Toby harbored no illusion that his reaction went unnoticed.
“You could say that.”
“I’m sure you noticed there are several humans currently taking refuge within the labyrinth’s walls.”
“I’m more curious about the horses.” Toby remembered the gaunt faces of the others he had seen on his way to the castle and their exhaustion. He didn’t know their stories, but he wasn’t quite ready to find out. He knew enough, and probably more than the Goblin King did, about what led them to the Underground.
Jareth pulled back on his reins to allow Toby to catch up. “It is not just humans who are wished away.”
“But why are they not…?” Toby struggled to find the right words.
“Transfigured into goblins?” Jareth supplied. He waved a hand dismissively. “You will learn in time, but there are many paths and seats of belief that lead all living things here, mortal or otherwise. Animals are inherently innocent creatures just as human children, but most often they were willed here for selfless reasons, unlike a situation such as your sister’s. Human and fae alike have a responsibility toward domesticated species.”
Toby bristled at the not-so-subtle undercurrent in Jareth’s voice. “You think humans are inferior to your kind.” It wasn’t a question.
Jareth only smiled, broad and triumphant.
Toby didn’t press further—it was no use arguing with his captor. However, Jareth seemed willing to answer questions—Toby assumed probably to also ask a few of his own—and he wanted to confirm his suspicions from earlier.
"Did Sarah wish me away?"
"So, she won?"
“How many others?"
Jareth considered Toby before responding. His mouth set in a firm line. He remained silent for a long moment, so long that Toby began to doubt he’d get an answer.
They fell back into silence. Toby passed the time by silently counting fairies, like a magical version of the slug-bug game. As he looked around, familiar scratches and spots on his lenses no longer clouded his vision: even his glasses were different.
The Goblin King seemed content enough to simply walk. Toby couldn’t get a read on his expression or posture; it all remained perfectly neutral. Their pace never changed, the horses plodded along and never stopped or even nickered at each other. They ambled as though they had no destination. Without his thoughts, Toby might have fallen asleep. He strained to hear an occasional chirp of a songbird, and he couldn’t identify the squeaks of any insects. He wondered if Jareth did the same.
Sarah had told Toby so many variations of the labyrinth story to him so many times that he had memorized her description of the Goblin King by rote.
“He has the same human features like you and I,” she’d begin. “He has a mouth and a nose, and bright blue eyes. His hair is silvery blond. But there is is something so special about him that, even if he would wear human clothes, everyone would know he was different.” Sarah would play with her own features, pointing at her eyes or tugging her ears.
“You can feel his eyes pierce right through when he looks at you. His hair is long, but it grows in all directions—definitely something Dad wouldn’t approve. His cheeks and nose and teeth are all sharp in a way that gives you a chill—he’s a predator. His skin shimmers in the right light. He wears gloves to cover his hands, legend says a mere human can’t handle the magic and so he protects the children in his care like this, with the gloves, so he doesn’t touch their bare skin.
“When he smiles,” Sarah pulls on her own cheeks, then, wide and comical, “It’s for his own enjoyment. He doesn’t smile because he wants you to see his beauty—he grins because he knows you already have.”
Watching him, now, Toby couldn’t help but give Sarah the benefit of the doubt. She was spot-on.
Many hours later, the sun high in the sky, Jareth and Toby the central lands of the realm.
"I still don't understand why I have to come with you. I have nothing to do with this. I didn't even come here of my own will."
"I have already explained it to you and I will not do it again. Do not test my patience and good will. Your sister asked a favor of me, and I intend to make good honor on it."
Toby snorted. "Yeah, for your own bargaining power."
"I do not deny it, but nor am I an evil person—" Jareth glanced over to see one of Toby's own brows arching, "—despite what Sarah may have said of me."
"I don't really have any comment."
"Such a pity. Just as spoiled as your sister was—and I suspect, still is. You are taking all of this for granted."
"Oh? And how is that?" Toby thrust his nose in the air proudly, as he had seen Sarah do so many times before.
Jareth threw his head back and guffawed. "Oh come now, Toby, you know you are not so naive and simple as that. However foolish her actions may have been, I'd measure that Sarah wished you away—again—to protect you and save your life."
"I was doing just fine myself there. We had a home, shelter. Our community was strong."
Though he had stepped ahead of Toby again, there was no mistaking the tossing back of his head when Jareth rolled his eyes.
"You may be even more fortunate, then, than you realize. Many of those who have sought refuge here faced dire circumstances."
"You haven't been up there or knew what was going on, you can't say that you know. You haven't lived it."
"All the same, you are safe now, and that is unlikely to change."
Toby pulled back on his horse, stopping in the track. His knees shuddered and he felt the color drain from his face when the weight of those words slapped him. "What does that mean?" A hint of panic trembled in his voice. "I can't go back? I won't see Sarah again?"
"I do not have a definite answer for that, Toby. It is in fact, one of the reasons we are attending the council today. The channels between the Above and Undergrounds do not run freely like a highway. With such an influx of mortals, the border is strained, and, unlikely to release others anytime soon. It is likely that the only way to see your sister again is if she also wishes herself away."
Jareth turned his steed back around and continued. "And I sincerely doubt she would do that. She would have to mean it.”
Toby wanted to ask what Jareth meant, but he was too afraid to hear the answer. Not yet.
They fell back in silence.
Rick knocked on Sarah’s door just after curfew. He shuffled his feet, his eyes downcast and hands on his hips. The darkness of nightfall behind him seemed to diminish every word. "We talked about it."
Sarah remained in the doorway, staring at him, silent.
"You’re gonna come with us."
For all of her desire to be an actor as a child, Sarah abysmally lacked any natural talent in day to day life. If she had time to study a character, learn the script, and rehearse—she could fool any person in the room. But among her family and friends, she could not even crack a joke without someone calling her bluff.
So when her heart rose to her throat, immediately followed by her stomach, Sarah surprised herself—her expression did not change.
"I think it's time to take you out there again. You know Toby better than anyone," Rick continued. "And if we lost him, well, we’ll need another set of capable hands around—" he paused, turning and pretending to wipe something off from his stubble.
"We leave first thing tomorrow. Be ready." Despite the guilt piercing her heart, Sarah managed a nod and closed the door.
Her mind raced. She didn't know what to do. Run back after Rick and tell him it was all fine , she'd just surrendered her brother to a man far more dangerous than Negan could hope to be, and oh, by the way, that man is a magical being that most people have never heard of, and she had only met him once? Thirty years prior?
Or, the alternative: feign ignorance and march shoulder to shoulder alongside them as they searched high and low for absolutely nothing but almost definitely certain death.
Sarah blinked again and again, diminishing tears, as she double checked her pack. The morning was cool, humid, but not frigid. Still, her hands trembled.
Through the fog, Rick's bow-legged limp crunched on the gravel as he led the group to the main compound gate. Amid her distress, Sarah recognized the intention in his movements; though his eyes and speech remained distant and cold, he was focused on this rescue mission.
Sarah's stomach lurched. She swung her pack onto her back and squeezed the straps tightly to stop her hands.
Don’t go. Don’t open the gate. We're going to die.
Rick nodded toward her. "Ready?"
Toby could already be dead.
Sarah nodded, swallowing the bitter sting of bile in the back of her throat.
Sasha approached them, her rifle in hand at the ready. "I'm good. Let's go." She nodded to Spencer, high up in the gate tower, and yanked on the gate. It screeched and cawed, the frequencies bouncing off the quiet stillness of the dawn. Everyone flinched and nesting birds took flight.
Sarah almost choked on the stench of death and rot when she stepped out. She supposed the guards and regular runners had grown accustomed to it. It didn't permeate everything, but the heady scent lingered just within perception.
Sasha shrugged. "You get used to it. It’s worse on the muggy days. It’s not as bad once we leave the gate. Out there.”
They walked in silence, Rick several steps ahead. The dawn sun blazed, bright and alert. Each step felt heavier to Sarah. She thought of Toby, struggling through the labyrinth's puzzles, wondering why his sister would send him there.
Another step; she imagined meeting a group of Saviors and meeting Negan and Lucille.
The steps weighed more and more as they walked toward the intersection. Sarah pushed to keep up, to not fall back.
What if Jareth had found Toby, and exacted revenge?
Why were they walking towards their doom? Sarah chewed her lip. The guilt anchored her, sinking her further, and still, she kept walking. Marching them all to their demise.
It was too much for Sarah. She could not subject the remainder of her comrades and fellow townsfolk to this fate. As guilty as she felt that she lured anyone out of the compound, Sarah felt eternally grateful it was just two of them that accompanied her.
She had to do the right thing. But what could she say? She struggled with herself.
You really fucked this one up, big time.
The trio paused when they reached the intersection of the highway and private road. Sasha flanked them, her eyes and rifle point always moving, scanning the brush and horizon.
"Which way would Toby have gone?" Rick tilted his head, bowing it to meet Sarah's gaze. He kept his voice low, his face close to hers.
Don't make any noise, Sarah recalled from Glenn's training. They're attracted to noise. Distracted by scent.
Before she could answer, a bush rustled and a walker growled to her left, hidden in the shadows. Sasha shouldered Sarah back with the hilt of her rifle and beelined for the brush. Rick pressed his finger to his mouth and crouched, pulling Sarah down with him.
The walker’s stench of putrid, sour flesh preceded its appearance from the bush. Sarah was relieved she did not recognize its face, nor the bloody and tattered clothes hanging off its form. With wiry, sun-bleached shoulder length hair and a lithe frame, she could not even tell if it had originally been male or female.
Sasha whistled lowly, just enough to attract its attention and divert it. When it lumbered around and changed direction, Rick wasted no time. The walker fell to the ground when the knife squelched when the knife speared its brain stem.
Rick turned around as he flung the carrion from his knife blade. "Which way?"
Sarah stared at him. Blood pounded and rushed in her ears. Her pulse pounded against her eardrums; her wrists; her femoral. Her whole body rushed.
Now or never, Williams. Speak up or get out.
Rick awaited a response while Sasha canvassed the intersection.
Stop it, Sarah. Stop it now. Tell them!
Sarah raised her arm and pointed south.
"That way. He would have gone that way."
Jareth and Toby arrived at the High Palace just as the sun began its descent. Jareth did not think of or look twice at the massive, swirling structure as they approached. The highest towers reached several stories, dwarfing Jareth's own homely castle. A wall built of knotted tree roots and ancient masonry circled the massive fortress.
Massive gates of twisted iron and gold leaf silently swung forward as they approached. Elven footmen awaited Jareth's dismount inside, dressed similarly to Morna the day before, but robed in pale silver instead of black.
The same elf that interrupted Jareth’s court the day before appeared. She bowed gracefully. "We are most pleased to meet again, Your Majesty.” She turned to Toby. “I do not believe we have been introduced.”
Toby reached forward to shake her hand, but Jareth task and grasped his wrist. "This is Toby Williams. He is mortal. Their custom is to shake hands when meeting a new acquaintance."
Morna’s eyes widened and her ears twitched. She did not say anything further, and instead she stepped away to greet another arriving sovereign. Her robes rustled as she shuffled past.
Toby looked over his shoulder as she retreated, and Jareth led them toward the fortress. "What—who was that?"
"You will see. Do not initiate contact or conversation with anyone unless addressed first."
"You could have told me that before."
"Yes." But Jareth chose not to. They both knew it.
"I still don't understand why we are here."
"As you mortals say, patience is a virtue. Quiet yourself until I instruct you otherwise."
Before long, Jareth and Toby were seated in a massive circular court. Dozens of rows both above and below them, filled to the brim with sovereign leaders and their many servants, heirs, and offspring. Some wore capes and crowns, or furs. Toby thought he may have spotted a modern Aboveground suit. Some creatures were not humanoid at all—scaly or furred, or even amorphous. The room buzzed with chatter and clanking jewelry and armor. Jareth’s own pendant loudly clanged against his chest plate as they both twisted to look around.
"What is this, the United Nations or something?"
"Something like that. Our political structure is a bit more simple, but it is a similar idea. There is a single executive High Court, and within it a subcomittee known as the Council. Each kingdom within may have its own unique structure, but politically speaking, we each carry equal weight."
Toby turned back and narrowed his eyes. "What you mean to say is that you're a small fry. You don't even have an heir or a queen."
Jareth whipped his head back to face Toby. In one swift motion grabbed his mouth. Toby's lips, comically puckered into a caricature of a kiss, flexed and squeezed. Jareth squeezed as tightly as he dared without fracturing the boy's jaw. “You will remember your place, most especially when you are ignorant of fact and know not of what you speak."
Jareth held Toby like that for an uncomfortably long time, long enough that others around them blinked over with curiosity. Toby fidgeted and pulled once. Jareth tightened his grip further.
Sarah had been sassy, to be sure, but Toby had observed his sister all too well and learned her tricks. Jareth supposed Toby was possibly more intelligent and insubordinate than she. While he enjoyed a challenge, and that was most intrigued him about Sarah, this was not what he had in mind as a reward for having put up with her insolence those years ago; a smart-mouthed brother with even less grasp of reality and humility than Sarah possessed.
"You will not speak again unless spoken to."
Their faces uncomfortably close, just a mere few centimeters between noses. Toby squeaked and sputtered something. Jareth mercifully accepted it as his assent.
He released Toby's jaw with one last fling. Toby remained silent and did not make further eye contact with Jareth, only rubbing his sore mouth and sulking in his seat.
The crowd settled and the Council appeared. A panel of five elders clad in robes of dark but royal hues of purple, green, navy, burgundy, and gray silently shuffled to the center of a dais before the court. A rumble of hushes cascaded across the room as the crowd quieted. The elders remained standing. In unison, they nodded once, their faces obscured by their hoods.
Jareth watched Toby in his periphery, stiff and straight-backed.
The Council did not waste time. They took turns speaking, one immediately following the next. Even with his sharp vision, Jareth could not see the faces underneath the cloaks and could not discern which elder spoke at any given time.
"As you know, we have a situation."
"It has reached dire levels."
"Mortals are wishing themselves away in droves."
"They claim they are escaping apocalypse in the Aboveground."
At this, several sovereigns chuckled and snorted in disdain. The elders raised their left hands and pointed upwards.
"Silence! This is no laughing matter."
"We cannot mistreat these refugees; they are our allies in The Balance."
Around the room, the same monarchs who laughed a moment before coughed uncomfortably.
"We believe the Balance has been upset, and that the Source has been tainted."
Gasps sounded throughout the chamber. Even Jareth raised his eyebrows and drew his mouth into a tight line. This is not good.
Toby shifted in his seat and turned his head around. He remained cautious and attentive to his surroundings, Jareth noticed, trying not to draw attention to himself and gawk at the upset and rumble around him. He avoided Jareth's gaze. Good, he thought . The dolt is learning.
The Council did not call for silence this time. When the din quieted, they resumed their speech.
"It is imperative that you care for your refugees as your own subjects."
"We hope to not have to remind you what damage may wreak upon your kingdoms if the Balance is compromised and its most vulnerable subjects meet injury and illness."
"Therefore we order that any prisoners are freed at once."
Jareth breathed a sigh of relief. He had not always seen eye to eye with the High Court or Council (literally had not, with those blasted dark hoods) and did not welcome interference from them in addition to the headache of solving the refugee crisis. Knowing that, aside from Toby—a special case—that he held no unwilling prisoners made the process much easier for the labyrinth and the Goblin City.
"We have also determined who will lead a task force to venture Aboveground and attempt to correct the Balance and cleanse the Source," they continued in their booming drone.
In true Council fashion, they did not hesitate to call the names of those they had chosen. Jareth mused they really did not have the time to spare, forgoing several long rituals.
The atmosphere shifted and the silence became deafening, roaring with the blood rushing in each attendee's ear.
"Jareth, King of the Goblins."
This time, Jareth did drop his jaw. He stood at once. His chair teetered behind him.
"I object!" he protested. "I cannot leave my kingdom. Unlike several other opportunists who seek nothing but to exploit and profit from their newfound citizens, I have welcomed my refugees with open arms and the community has embraced them. I have no heir or partner to take my place."
All five hoods turned toward him. "It is not negotiable, Your Majesty," they announced in unison. Together, their voices resonated the entire hall and shook the ground under everyone’s boots. "You will go."
"Who will rule in my stead?" The sinking feeling that they could volunteer themselves crept into his mind. His blood cooled at the thought.
The goblin kingdom was not the mightiest, nor the most advanced, but Jareth took great pride in its most precious resource: raw magic. That the goblins were known for their hardiness and resourcefulness despite their stupidity had much to do with his leadership and determination. For all its flaws, the labyrinth had turned from a laughingstock to a revered and respected element of the Underground.
Jareth would war to protect it. He would not abandon it. Not after Sarah had all but destroyed it. Not after all the work he had committed to rebuild it.
"Toby Williams, you will stand now."
Jareth opened his mouth, then snapped it shut again. A single gasp, deep and scandalous, resounded through the hall.
Of course, Jareth knew he should have known better. He pompously dragged the boy along and proudly announced him to the elf representative; not only would the Council have known that he was present, but that Jareth had divulged Toby's surname, known precisely who he was.
Toby, hyperventilating, shoved his glasses back up the bridge of his nose and slowly rose from his seat.
Murmurs rumbled again throughout the chamber.
"He looks nothing like his sister."
"He looks exactly like Sarah."
"That is the heir? The brother of the Champion?"
"Of course he is a mortal. His hideous spectacles give it away. Such an ugly thing."
"Well, I never!"
Toby's mouth floundered and fluttered open, then shut, then open, and shut again. He glanced at Jareth, watery eyes wide and pleading.
The Council interrupted the din before Jareth could respond. Without the vocal command, their hands simply raised. The congregants complied and slowly returned to their seats. Some muttered amongst themselves, shaking their heads. Beads, feathers, and metal fastenings rustle and clanked as they clucked and tsked.
"Tobias, The Stolen Heir of the Labyrinth, you will serve as the interim leader in Jareth's absence."
Toby finally found the breath to speak. "What?"
His eyes darted between the ominous hoods and his captor. His brows knitted and his face hardened, contorting into fury.
"I'm the heir of what ?"
Oh, my god. You guys. Have no idea how long I pored over this chapter. I would stare at it for weeks, months on end, groaning and pecking at it. It was so disorganized and just a total mess and I finally had an epiphany with it and whipped it all into shape within twenty-four hours. That is in no small part to my beta, glasshibou, who turned the whole chapter around within an hour (so blame her for any errors :)
This chapter was well on its way to pushing 10k, but I felt there were too many things going on, and so some of it has been bumped to Chapter Five. The good news is that the next few chapters are much better organized (no plotty useless dinner scenes...yikes) and will take far less time to make readable and revise for you.
Thank you so much for reading and subbing this fic! I welcome any and all comments, kudos, or food sacrifices, like bottles of pinot gris and/or cold brew coffee.