Author's Note: This is a beauty-and-the-beast-framed random genre mashup set in the Labyverse, as part of a story quartet with Ellen Weaver, TheRealEatsShootsAndLeaves, and FrancesOsgood.
Chapter 1: Descenda
Toby's anguished voice shattered my dreams, electrifying me awake. I had taught him to do this one thing in case he was ever in dire trouble. We had practiced it of course, so it would be reflexive, because if he ever needed to use it, he would be in deep shit indeed.
Deep shit had clearly arrived.
The sending was weak, tattered almost. I grasped the frayed strands of it before it slipped from my mind. Tee, I'm here. Where are you?
A visual came then, a dizzying overload of mismatched percepts that scraped the inside of my head raw. God, what the hell was he doing there, of all places? Tee, close your eyes.
The visual tsunami shut off. I heaved a deep breath.
Sarah? It's not like I thought. It's not like he promised.
Actually, it was probably exactly like Jareth promised, barring sins of omission. He was very particular with his words, the cagey bastard.
Can you get me out of here? Hysteria sang along Toby's voice, and I felt the tremblings of madness. His mind would break if he stayed there much longer. I could feel it.
Panic like ice ripped through our connection, stuttering his thoughts to a halt.
Tee? Tee! I wrenched a chunk of my will out and threw it down the connection. Answer me, Tee!
I'm afraid young Toby is indisposed. The familiar voice was smooth as glass. Human minds are so...frightfully delicate here.
My jaw clenched. You had no right to take him.
His laughter shot at me, hot and sensual, changing to a skittering prickle like insects across my skin. He asked me to.
I shrugged off the effects of his laughter. You're lying. You have no power to hold him.
Don't I? Come find out. I'll hold him in safekeeping until you can ask him yourself.
I sucked air through my teeth. He can't take much more, even if you shield him.
Well then, you'd best hurry, don't you think?
The connection broke like a swarm of hornets layered in rose petals. I shivered at the discordance of it.
I shook myself and got out of bed to begin gathering supplies. One had to be prepared when frolicking through hell dimensions. Particularly the Chaotic Zone.
Hell dimensions aren't actually all that accessible from our world. Thankfully. And the Chaotic Zone is particularly slippery to navigate to. But I'd learned how to intentionally make the link over the years, due to my various escapades moonlighting as a demon hunter.
It doesn't pay well, demon hunting. Incredibly necessary, and the heartfelt thanks from various religious institutions and victims is quite rewarding. But rarely monetarily rewarding, alas. Hence the moonlighting aspect. By day, I'm a freelance coder since it's easy and lucrative enough to pick up small one-off projects that leave me time to run off and go a-huntin' when required.
Which is more often than you'd think. Our world, for whatever reason, seems to draw a lot of interest. Also, it seems to be a convenient place to escape to for a variety of beings capable of instinctually masking themselves from human perceptions.
It's a funny thing, perception. It turns out there's this rule, which I like to think of as the Ostrich Rule: If you can't see them, they can't see you. Works both ways, humans and non-humans alike. Handy for everyone, really, since it keeps things simple. Until someone with a bit of extra sensitivity - biologically, chemically, or circumstantially derived - gets a layer of their perception lifted.
Then that person sees a lot of things, and those things see right back.
There is Interest.
This usually ends up being unhealthy for the human in the long run.
My perception was lifted around the age of thirteen. Maturational, in my case. Someone up my mother's line of ancestry had dallied with a nephil. I'm sure he was a handsome erstwhile-angelic lad and I hope that whoever she was she had a good time, because the descendant line has suffered since.
The short of it: We lose our sanity early. They've called it schizophrenia, dementia, madness...but it's just our minds giving out after being Of Interest for however many years. The nephil blood used to provide a fair amount of resistance, a certain mental hardiness and other interesting abilities that made us descendants utterly captivating. But it's so diluted now that it mostly just makes us visible and tasty targets among the human population.
Unfortunately for us, it just so happens that the nephilim are tragically skilled at making enemies. And nephil-human hybrids are just so convenient for exacting a little otherworldly vengeance.
Fortunately for me, I had an otherworldly teacher/protector sort who found me Of Interest earlier than everything else did. Jareth had been aware of our line for awhile, and nephilim are nothing if not active watchers.
I asked him much later in our acquaintance if he happened to be the original dallying nephil of our bloodline, which was certainly possible given nephil longevity. He denied it in his typically evasive way, but I always wondered how he could follow me even before my perceptions lifted. Normally that just doesn't happen.
Some questions just have to go unanswered in this life.
Jareth certainly gave me plenty of other things to think about. He'd put me through my paces when I was fifteen, and some very comfortable perceptual filters of mine were ripped away like dandelion fluff. I decided he was a cagey bastard who could be trusted as far as I could throw him, and he decided I was worth teaching. Go figure.
There was an unfortunate side effect of my little adventure for my baby step-brother, though. Toby has his perceptions lifted too, even if he was so young when it happened that his basic perceptual filters were still developing. As I learned more from Jareth, I learned what that could mean for Toby. Toby didn't even have my mother's bloodline to buffer it.
I saw a lot of things, courtesy of my training with Jareth. And a lot of things saw me right back.
I made a choice to protect Toby by keeping him in the dark about the limits of his perceptions, because he would be helpless against those things. I tamped down his perceptions when I could, and discouraged him from learning the kinds of things I knew. And I sure as hell kept him away from Jareth, who would have had a glorious time playing with him till he broke.
Jareth was, shall we say, less than supportive of this course of action.
It was the beginning of our permanent falling out. In retrospect, it was just as well. I'd been spending so much time in the Chaotic Zone, and Jareth's fiefdom in particular, that it was changing me. And I didn't like the changes I saw.
So I cut all ties, stayed as far away as my hunting activities allowed, and reacclimated to living in our world full time. Well, except when I had to cross the threshold into other dimensions to chase my quarry.
It looked to be one of those times. And time for an overdue reckoning with my nephil Yoda.
Which is how I found myself stalking into a goth/industrial club that had just the right emotional resonance, dark with barely leashed desperation, brash displays of chemical-assisted sensuality, and a driving beat promising a very good time.
Opening a door to the right dimension is one part location, one part proper accoutrements, and one part perceptual skill. The key is to coerce the stuff connecting the dimensions to do your bidding, so it forms the bridge you want. The location, ritual parephernalia, and perceptual sidestep are all ways of enticing the dimensional stuff to do just that. In theory, one piece could work on its own (and very occasionally did, usually by accident), but all three gave you a better shot of (a) successfully creating a bridge and (b) not creating one to somewhere that led to your imminent demise. The dimensional stuff was whimsical and feisty, and I wanted to hit my target on the first shot.
I wove my way through the central dance floor, tossing my hair with its owl feathers and delicate bird bones randomly threaded through. My facepaint, with its semi-artful grayscale kaleidoscope splayed across the left half only, raised an interested eyebrow or two.
I ignored everything, focusing on finding the remaining oxymoronic element I needed: understated ostentation, fresh as dew and old as need.
A martial arts-esque movement caught the corner of my eye. Aha. A slender boy whirled with precise frenzy to the song's rhythm, clearly showing off for the cluster around him while looking exactly as if he were dancing only for himself. I moved closer, joining the cluster. Sweat flew from him with a flurried chop, and I caught a few droplets against my hand, smearing them across my lips.
Then I made a beeline to the bar and leaned on its sticky surface, letting the grimy residue coat both my forearms. "Three shots of chartreuse, please." I slipped a fifty into the bartender's hand.
He brought the shots with an amused look, lining them up in a neat little row. "In a hurry?"
"Definitely. Keep the change."
He gave me a little salute and turned to the next customer.
I slammed the shots back, and felt the burn down my chest, the complex herbal aftertaste coating my tongue. When I lifted my head, the world stuttered and swam. I felt the chartreuse try to claw its way back up my throat.
Almost there. I sauntered back out to the dance floor, my hips rolling in time to the loping rhythm. The vertigo was rising, and I began to twirl my way to a darkened corner.
I felt the raucous laughter slide out of me like birds taking flight, and began to click my perceptions sideways.
Click, click, clickety, shift.
Between one eye blink and the next, I was there.
Swirling patterns streamed across my vision, making sudden dizzying leaps, and my earth-based proprioception screamed for mercy. I curled over and vomited on the floor, the chartreuse burning back out of me. Then I closed my eyes in self-preservation.
I began to bend my mind the way Jareth had taught me, forcibly twisting my perceptual filters until they curved around sideways, spreading like fractals. There we go. I opened my eyes. The visuals were a tsunami still, but a manageable one.
I stood up straight, searching through the roiling not-dark. I could feel him there, watching. Nephil bastard.
"Good to know your training wasn't a complete waste."
I rocked back on my heels before I could catch myself, my ear drums trying to crawl out of my head. It was a vocal chorus coming from every molten surface, carrying the cultured cadence of his voice in a layered mishmash of masculine and feminine, high and low, childish and ancient. His facial features were sketched everywhere I looked, on every ragged surface, mocking and amused.
A piteous wail came from behind me, whispering, shrieking, then silence.
My heart clenched. "Tee!" Toby was slumped on the ground, eyes open and unseeing. I crouched next to him, taking his limp hand in mine. "Tee, honey, I'm here," I whispered. "I've come for you." Tears burned in my eyes. "Listen to my voice, Tee. It's Sarah. Focus on my voice. Come back to me, Tee. I'm right here."
I squeezed his hand and leaned my forehead against his. God, he was so cold.
"Touching." Jareth's vocal chorus was a sultry breeze in my ear, ghost feathers licking against my neck in promise. "You always did have a soft spot for lost causes."
I jerked up, glaring at a room brimming with disembodied mismatched eyes, feathers, and flame. "Give me the child."
"No." The word looped back on itself, echoing, roaring, murmuring. "He asked to be taken and I took him. He is mine."
I lifted my chin. "So you say."
"Ask him yourself." Mouths laughed at me from every crevice.
"I can't," I ground out. "Not in this state."
"Allow me to assist."
I felt a touch like liquid ice at the base of my neck, and then my awareness was sucked down a long starburst tunnel, falling into Toby, bits of me streaming behind like a comet. I plummeted into a small dark oubliette. It was a blessed respite from the morass of before.
"Tee! God, Tee, where are you? What happened?" I reached forward into the darkness, but felt nothing.
Shame pulsed at me from all sides, a visceral wave of it. "I just wanted to be special. Like you. He said I'd be welcome in his realm. All I had to do was ask."
My chest hurt with the stupid simplicity of it. "So you did."
I sighed. Jareth had a way with teenagers. I should know. "Tee, I-"
I was abruptly yanked out of Toby's consciousness, a black comet streaming backwards through viscous white. I heard him scream my name, but it was faint now, fainter, gone.
"There now," hummed a vortex of smiling mouths full of very sharp teeth, "so you see. My claim is genuine and rightful." The room ballooned and bubbled, spreading and shattering wherever my gaze landed.
I was overloading again from the perceptual influx. If I lost consciousness here, things would go Very Badly Indeed.
I closed my eyes, pushing the fractal splay of my perceptual bias. Something snapped inside me with the sonic boom of permanence. I had avoided going this far before because it was too difficult to get back to earth-standard percepts from here. I would never see on earth quite the way humans did again.
I would give a lot more to save my little brother.
When I opened my eyes, a slender humanoid figure stood in front of me with mismatched eyes alight, a ghost trail of flame and feathers behind him. The room glittered in spires of black, but didn't move. Toby was curled into a fetal ball just behind Jareth.
I looked at Jareth. "What will you accept in place of him?"
His finger tapped thoughtfully against his lips. "Someone of greater value to me." His voice was singular now, resonant and masculine, layered with allure. "You, for instance."
He bent to caress Toby's cheek absently. "You know, you should never deny your minions too much, Sarah. They get into trouble."
I grimaced. "He's my brother, not my minion."
I snorted. "To you." I looked at Toby, willing my hands not to slap Jareth's as they slid over Toby's neck.
Toby whimpered and shrank away from Jareth's fingers, eyes still unseeing. My heart stuttered as I saw the first lines of indelible insanity etched into his face.
I swallowed. "I'll stay here with you. Toby returns to earth, unharmed, as you found him."
"You stay forever. Or at least until you lose your sanity or solve my Labyrinth." His smile was positively magnanimous. "Whichever comes first."
I looked straight at him, catching his glowing eyes in mine. "Done."
He made an elegant hand flourish, and Toby vanished between one heartbeat and the next.
I was left to fend for myself.