"Your Majesty," Sarah spat the words through gritted teeth; Hoggle's required title was really starting to wear on her, "as I've explained before, we do have a time limit if we want to claim our reward."

He didn't look around. All his attention was still focused on the fairy wiggling frantically underneath the tip of his dagger. Hoggle stared at it, mouth limp and wide as he smiled, watching its struggles with rapt fascination. It never seemed to get old for him, though this was the third fairy he'd dismembered. And though she might hate to see it, after Sarah had gotten a deep gash carved into a forearm for her interference, she'd left him to his devices.

But no matter how furious, how disgusted she'd been—and still was—the magic refused to come. Sarah was no closer to figuring a solution than she had been when their alliance started an hour ago; she still couldn't fix him.

So now she just waited, Ludo whimpering anxiously by her side, watching the torture with a clenched, aching jaw.

It was better to think about other things. "You always did hate fairies," she remarked, turning away as he sliced off a wing, "but you used to just spray them with something or other. You told me it was to keep them out of your hedges. They built nests there and ruined your flowers."

During the hours they'd travelled together the first time through the maze, Hoggle's horticultural passion was the only thing to distract him from endless fussing over his jewels. He had taught Sarah far more about fertilizer—especially the goblin-donated variety harvested from latrines—than she'd ever cared to know, but it had been something to hear Hoggle's gravely, surly tone change into something lighter and happier.

What she wouldn't give to hear that voice now!

"Ha!" the other wing fluttered to the ground in an iridescent twinkle, "That's likely. Never grown a thing in me life. Who cares about flowers?"

"You did," she said softly, "once."

"Nuthin' I remember," he grunted, finally turning around. "You've got some funny ideas rattlin' about that in that little head about me. Hope I'm not followin' a crazy woman. I'll tell ya," he yanked his knife free and brandished it at her; the fairy he freed tumbled down the wall until it huddled into a hollow in the mortar, "if we get to the Castle and there ain't no reward…well," he jerked his head towards the whimpering fairy, "what I done to her won't be nothin' to what I'll do to you."

She might have scoffed once, remembering how she'd held the dwarf at bay by nothing but his bulbous head, but something about the way he twisted the blade so it caught the flickering, storm-driven light made her less flippant. Sarah refused to be afraid of him, so she settled for nodding, "I'm sure it won't. But," she gestured down the path, "we have to get there first, don't we?"

He grunted—it was still his primary means of communication—and wiped his knife clean of purplish blood on his patched pants. Without another word, he set off, whistling between cracked teeth. Ludo grumbled deep in his throat and shuffled after.

Sarah kept one eye on their slow progress—Hoggle's limp was significantly worse and his pace was sluggish—and the other on the fairy. The poor sprite's fingers were running with its own blood; it cradled its slashed back and rocked back and forth, whining out an endless sob. Sarah knelt so she came to eye-level, raising both hands in peace when the fairy bared its sharp white teeth at her.

"I'm not going to hurt you," she assured it, "I'm just going to help."

It hissed again, plainly saying how do you intend to do that?

"I don't—" but she didn't need to finish. Her hands felt ticklish, as though her blood had changed to champagne bubbles. The power was back!

"Finally," she murmured. Slowly, slowly, she reached out until her pointer finger made contact with the ruined skin on the fairy's back. There was a flash, a warm light the same color of breaking dawn, and the fairy soared upwards, both wings restored and shimmering with purple and green veins.

"I did it!" she cried, "I fixed you!"

The fairy stared down on her, narrow, blue eyes flashing. It tossed its silky white hair and fluttered back to Sarah's outstretched hand. Then it proved how fixed it was by sinking its needle-pointed teeth deep into her knuckle.

"Ow!" she cried, "You bit me!"

The fairy shrugged: So? What did you expect a fairy to do?

And off it went, a burst of pure color against the dull landscape the Labyrinth had become.

Grumbling curses under her breath and cradling her bleeding finger, Sarah stomped off down the path after Hoggle and Ludo. Maybe restoring the Labyrinth to its former glory wasn't the best idea she'd ever had.

And yet…she had to help if she could. It wasn't fair to have this power and only use it to save her friends and rescue Heather. There were goblins, Fireys, trolls, and countless other creatures living in the maze who needed help too. Sarah might not know what was happening in the Labyrinth, or why, but she didn't need to know to realize that this sickness was destroying everyone and everything.

The very essence, the heart of the Labyrinth was changing into something dark and rotten…and if she let that happen, she'd mourn its loss as much as anyone else.

It took Sarah mere minutes to catch up with her two friends. They'd come to a halt just beyond a turning to the right, staring at a broad marsh that stretched over a whole segment of what used to be hedges. The fetid water had rotted the roots out from under the plants, leaving them sagging into the salty bog. Swarms of stinkbugs and mosquitoes the size of horseflies buzzed over the stagnant surface of the water, some of their number occasionally swallowed up by fat, warty frogs hiding in clumps of scrub grass growing through the water.

Sarah's nose wrinkled. "Nasty," was her judgment. "Is there any way around?"

"Maybe," Hoggle said, "but this's the quickest way. Thought we was on a schedule."

"Now you remember," she sighed under her breath. "Then I guess we'll go through." At least she didn't have any shoes to worry about ruining. The scummy water lapped the edges of her toes; it was slimy and warm, rather like…

"Like snot, innit?" Hoggle had already peeled off his holey leather boots and was gamely wading through. He turned only to grin at Sarah's obvious disgust. "C'mon, princess. You ain't got any finery worth worryin' 'bout no more."

Damned if he was going to get to her. Underneath this new veneer, Hoggle was still Hoggle, and it was her job to find him. Until then…Sarah forced a smile and sloshed forward, suppressing a shudder as her toes tangled with grasses long and fragile as a drowned woman's hair.

"Of course not," she answered, "but you'd better be careful, your Majesty. Don't want to lose your precious jewels in this muck."

His grin changed to furrow-browed worry as he gripped the chain around his neck. Sarah enjoyed a moment of mean satisfaction at the sight, but she had more important things to think about.

Ludo scuffled at the edge of the swamp, head low and swinging from side to side. Sarah sloshed back towards him, hand out.

He wouldn't take it. "Swamp bad," he groaned. "Smell bad."

"Yeah, it does," she agreed, smiling, "But not as bad as some places we've been, remember? You know Hoggle would never set foot in here if it meant he'd smell bad forever." Ludo looked up through his floppy red fringe, blinking. He latched onto her smile with a timid one of his own. "So c'mon," Sarah plucked at his hand. "We'll do this together."

"Ludo scared."

"I know. So am I. But we've both done things that have scared us…we're both brave," simple as the words were, they were as reassuring to Sarah as they were to Ludo. "We can do this," she finished. "I know we can."

Ludo didn't answer. But he did step forward, only giving a soft moan when his foot immediately sank deep into the muddy marsh. The bog was deeper than Sarah suspected; the water came up to just underneath Ludo's knee. How deep would it go in the very center? Would Ludo even be able to make it through?

It didn't bear thinking about. He would get through…they all would. If anything was going to beat them in this twisted nightmare Labyrinth, it wasn't going to be a stupid swamp!

So, hand in hand, sucking step after sucking step, Sarah and Ludo ventured farther in. Ludo had to work at it; where Sarah was lighter and could walk on the accumulated silt on the bottom, he sank straight to the stone floor. It took no small portion of his strength to pull free through the foot or so of waterlogged mud.

Sarah wouldn't leave his side, but Hoggle was under no such constraint. He danced ahead, light enough to practically walk on the water itself.

He laughed meanly as Ludo struggled to walk, chuckled evilly as Sarah swatted at the endless swarming bugs, and grinned unrepentantly as they both slipped and fell again and again. Each time, Sarah gritted her teeth and repeated a simple mantra: I will be patient. I am not fifteen anymore. I will be patient.

Finally—after a half-hour passed and they reached a fallen section of wall about halfway through the mire—smeared with mud and scratching at what felt like dozens of swollen bites at her neck and jaw, Sarah called a halt.

Actually, she didn't so much as call it as snarl, "Goddamn it, I'm taking a break," before hitching herself up on the slippery stone and splattering herself with muck as she rubbed the itchy bumps. Ludo leaned against the stones behind her and wheezed like a set of broken bellows.

She knew just how he felt. The warm, damp air of the swamp had soaked into her skin, mingling with the sweat pouring from her filthy hair. Sarah felt rank, disgusting, corrupted…like the Labyrinth was slowly dissolving her from the outside in. Her head drooped as she panted, but the air she dragged in didn't satisfy her lungs. It was like trying to breathe through a pillow, or in a sauna.

"Aw, the poor little princess,"

Damn. Mantra or no, Sarah was oddly certain that if she didn't fix him soon, she'd end up killing him.

"A little mud and she's beaten. If I'd'a known you'd be scared off by a little dirt I'd'a never bothered rushin'. Never bothered leaving my Castle, even. Not for a weak-willed, pretty-pansy of a little girl."

"You know, I realize now what's so different about you," sweat was dripping into her eyes; that was why they were stinging so. "It's not that you're mean; you were mean before. It's because," she looked up, teeth flashing a bit as she struggled not to snarl at him, "you were a coward before. You never would have said this to anyone bigger or stronger than you. But now you're not. You're as mean as you ever were…but you don't have the good sense not to be an idiot about it."

He sneered. She lunged.

He was stronger than he had been; smarter too. He managed to slam one fist down on her wounded arm before she planted both hands on his chest and shoved. Sarah gave a scream, high and thin as the fairy's, but she already had her revenge. Hoggle tripped backwards over a tussock of wiry yellow grass and disappeared beneath a film of lime-green scum.

Sarah groaned, pressing down on the ragged cut. It stung with the pressure and Sarah winced…it was probably teeming with bacteria. She'd be lucky if she didn't lose the arm from gangrene.

…And Hoggle should probably have surfaced by now.

She lurched forward, hands plunging deep into the water in search of him. Nothing.

Her breath came fast and hard, and with it flowed a torrent of words: oh God, Hoggle, I'm so sorry I didn't mean to do it just please come up where are you where are you…

A ragged edge of leather brushed her fingers. She latched onto his jerkin and yanked upwards with all her might. He fought her like a fish on a line; sudden pulls dragged him down, left, right. Sarah braced himself and hauled; the tip of his rounded nose surfaced, nostrils stretched wide in search of air.

"Ludo!" she cried, "I can't hold him here…help!"

She lost him beneath the surface once more before Ludo slogged over to her. Between the two of them, they managed to get Hoggle's head above water.

He spluttered and coughed, choking to breathe through the membrane of algae that coated his face. His wide eyes rolled helplessly, but one hand managed to find its way to Sarah's.

"Sarah," he muttered, fixing her with a stare, "you gotta let me go."

"Hoggle?" she almost lost her grip from shock. "Hoggle! You're back!"

He managed a nod and a weak smile, losing both when another tug from beneath dragged his mouth under. When Ludo hauled him up again, he cried, "Sarah, let me go! Or both of you'll come down with me!"

"Are you kidding?" she hissed back at him, tightening her numb fingers on his fraying vest, "We're gonna save you!"

Hoggle shook his head, trying to say something, but in that moment he went underwater again.

()()()

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all my readers! I hope your holiday season is full of good food, good people, and enough rest and relaxation to make you ready for whatever challenges come next! Thanks for following the story so far, and see you all in 2015!