Not a Single Star
A Fanfiction by Heist
"What a man is really afraid of is a maze without a center… I suppose he [G.K. Chesterton] was thinking of a godless universe, but I was thinking of the labyrinth without a minotaur."
"I had come to understand many years before that there is nothing on earth that does not contain the seed of a possible Hell; a face, a word, a compass, a cigarette advertisement, are capable of driving a man mad if he is unable to forget them."
—Jorge Luis Borges
"Oh, oh man, Professor, you're totally going to know this one!" Sarah glanced up from the paper she was grading to give Max a withering glare, but he was too engrossed in his crossword to pay it much mind. "Couldn't be more perfect, I swear."
If you MUST quote entire paragraphs without rephrasing, learn to cite your sources, she scrawled in the margin. "What is it?"
"Eight letters, third letter's a 't', last one's an 'n'. Name of the Minotaur."
"Asterion. You're a TA, and we don't pay you to do crosswords. Patterson won't be happy if you don't finish those lesson plans."
Max pouted, but Sarah didn't buy the adorable bid for attention. "You're no fun, Dr. Williams."
"This is the English department. If you wanted to have fun you should have gone into Geography." She eyed her stack of still-ungraded papers and considered the inviting blue skies outside. "To hell with it. Go home, it's going to be a nice weekend. But you'd better show up at eight a.m. on Monday with the lesson plans or God help you."
Max babbled his thanks, and Sarah packed her papers into her briefcase. A small flash of gold winked in the corner of her vision as she pulled the blinds, and she grabbed the compass as well. The bright arrows twirled merrily on all three axes inside the crystal sphere when it met the warmth of her palm, and Sarah saw the words "Not even close" flit between the arrows like smoke before she slipped it into her pocket.
It was a terribly opinionated compass, and Sarah was grateful it didn't move in front of anyone else. As far as the department and everyone else was concerned, it was a cleverly made paperweight, for all that it never seemed to roll off her desk, and she let them believe it. No need to give them further ammunition to use against her.
Sarah locked up her office and decided to walk home. It really was a nice day out, and the cherry trees lining the university avenue had all burst into festive bloom. Her favorite time of year was Spring, just when the petals began to fall like winter's last gasp of snow, and the fragrance tickled her nose as she stepped out into the weather. In spite of years of failures, Spring always brought with it a sense of optimism and hope, that this year, she'd find her way back.
She picked a random side street that didn't look familiar, and paid close attention to her surroundings. The street sign read 'Cass', but some terribly clever soul had painted over the 'c', probably to the resident's dismay. The sidewalk was uneven, and little oft-trampled but stubborn dandelions had sprung up between the cracks. A mailbox on the other side of the street listed to port, and the stake in the ground next to it didn't do much to correct it. She tried to focus, but the compass in her pocket chimed softly and she found herself walking down her own street, with its marginally straighter sidewalks and its bland characterless houses.
"Is it too much to ask to just take a walk sometime?" she asked, and checked the mail. Nothing beckoned to be opened, and she sifted through bills, a flyer for a new shoe store in town and a colorful postcard advertising the upcoming summer season at the community theatre. It was ironic, she reflected as she juggled her bag to open the door, that she always arrived promptly at every destination except the one the compass was supposed to lead her back to.
Her cat sidled between her ankles, and she tripped over him on the way to check her answering machine. "Arthur," she warned as "You have three new messages" played.
"Hey, badass birthday girl. Hope you haven't forgotten dinner tonight, but just in case you did I'm coming over at three. See you, Sis!"
"Williams, it's Benson. The tenure board—"
"Message erased. Next message."
"Sarah, it's your father."
"Message erased. End of messages."
She sighed and checked the clock. One forty-two, and the house was spotless. For lack of anything better to do, she palmed the compass and held it against the wall clock. The tiny gold arrows within flashed frenetically, and the hands of the clock advanced to Sarah's will. The mirror on the wall betrayed how quickly time advanced, as Sarah's reflection jerked back and forth, and the motions revealed where her dark hair was beginning to gray. She focused elsewhere.
On the counter, the sun's afternoon rays retreated across the sink, and her cat stalked the birds in the window-box like a silent marionette in fast-forward. When he met failure at the glass, he slunk away in a blur almost too quick to be seen.
The hands inside the compass moved even faster, and the crystal chilled her palm. Sarah willed the compass to slow down to time things right, and pulled the compass away just in time for the doorbell to ring.
Toby had a bad habit of arriving early, and the compass chimed resentfully in her hand as she opened the front door. "The great scholar appears! Tell me, O Ancient One, how does it feel to be thirty-three?"
Sarah narrowed her eyes, but laughed and tousled her brother's messy blond hair. "Couldn't say. State secret. How does it feel to be dating an older woman with bad grammar?"
Toby rolled his eyes and pushed past her to the kitchen. "She's six months older than me, come on! Tell me you picked up olives for the salads, or Cynthia will pitch an unholy fit."
"You're a sophomore, she's a junior, those six months matter, dear boy. And Cynthia can pitch whatever fit she wants, because she'll only embarrass herself." Sarah opened the nearest cabinet door and handed Toby ingredients, and he set to work creating a culinary masterpiece.
"I know it's your birthday, Sarah, but could you please not egg her on? I'm bringing Miranda, and I was kind of hoping you'd help make a good impression. She really likes you." Toby drained a can of mushrooms and tossed them into a shiny skillet that Sarah kept around mostly to create the impression she could cook. "Butter?"
Sarah pushed a tub of margarine in Toby's direction, and he raised a single eyebrow. "Are you serious?" he asked. "Life is not lived with crappy butter substitutes."
"You have a teenaged metabolism. Find a way to keep it from depositing on my thighs and then we'll talk." Sarah grabbed a bagged salad from the fridge and two sticks of butter from the fridge with it. "Actually, bring on the butter."
The mushrooms sizzled, and Sarah's mouth watered as Toby opened the first jar of aromatic marinara sauce. "Cynthia?" he asked.
"Hell yes. It's times like this that I miss complaining about Karen."
Toby frowned. "I tried to invite Mom, but she doesn't want to sit next to the devil. Her words, not mine," Toby said quickly.
"Can't say I blame her," Sarah said. "I'd absolutely love to dine with the woman who stole my husband. Our father certainly knows how to pick them, doesn't he?"
"Dad's an ass," Toby said, and filled a stockpot with water for the pasta. "And Mom's not exaggerating about Cynthia. Match made in hell."
Sarah agreed, and Toby continued putting two years of culinary classes to work in her kitchen. He's grown up so fast, she thought. So fast she felt like she'd done nothing but run in place for the last eighteen years. To be fair, probably two years of it she'd wasted with the compass, and she'd as yet not found a way to get that lost time back.
"Is there anything I can—?"
"I could set the table."
"And what side of the plate do the forks go on?" Toby snickered as she searched for an answer.
"Fine. You set the table, crafty one. I would like to do something eventually, though." She took six plates out of the cabinet and handed them over the island to her brother.
"Not a chance, birthday girl." Toby frowned when he got to the table and counted the plates. "Who are you expecting tonight?"
"You, Dad and Cynthia," she counted off her fingers. "Jennings…"
"Miranda," Toby corrected.
"Of course, and me."
"That's five." He waved a hand in the direction of the table. "Did you invite somebody else, that mysterious boyfriend you've never confirmed exists maybe?"
She had done it again. "I must be losing my mind in my old age," she said dryly. "I just grabbed the whole stack, wasn't thinking."
Toby wasn't convinced, and he watched her suspiciously as he popped the bread into the oven. Sarah was saved any further scrutiny when the doorbell rang a few minutes later, and she exchanged a look with her brother. He shrugged helplessly, and she went to open the door as it rang again.
"Dad, Cynthia… hi." Sarah plastered a fake smile on her face and moved aside for her father's new wife. "You're early," she said. For once went unspoken.
Cynthia remained attached to her husband's arm, and Sarah tried once again to ignore the fact that her new stepmother was ten years her junior and supernaturally beautiful. The compass shrieked in displeasure, and a hint of a frown appeared on Cynthia's face. The tiny furrow between her perfect brows disappeared a moment later when she pushed a small box into Sarah's hands.
"We brought the cake," Cynthia cooed, as if this were a major accomplishment. It was a cheap single layer German Chocolate cake from the grocery around the corner. Sarah was deathly allergic to pecans, which made it both last minute and thoughtless.
"How nice," Sarah muttered, and ushered them into the living room to wait before any further attempts at painful small talk and hid in the kitchen.
"When is Jennings getting here?" She tossed back the rest of her glass of wine and poured another.
Toby glanced at his watch and pulled the toasted bread from the oven. "Miranda will be here in five minutes. Maybe less. She's your next door neighbor."
The doorbell rang again and Sarah let out a sigh of relief. She'd been tempted to use the compass, but now there was no need. She answered the door, and another obscenely beautiful young woman entered her home. "Dr. Williams!"
"Jennings," she greeted her student. Toby came out of the kitchen to welcome his girlfriend, and the awkward party started.
Sarah was forced to the head of the table, and Toby's incredible dinner almost managed to distract her from the fact that two of her four dinner guests probably weren't human. They pretended well enough, but with the two of them stationed directly across the table from each other, there was no mistaking the hint of a strange accent, the translucent almost-shimmer in their skin, nor how much they looked like—
"So, Sarah," her father said. He paused, and held the silence a second longer than was comfortable. "How is work?"
Sarah took a fortifying sip of her wine. "Work is fine, Dad. The usual. Papers, grading, lecturing. Nothing new."
"That's interesting. I'd heard you were coming up for review with the tenure board."
Toby cut in to save her life. "Did you know Miranda's taking Sarah's classes, Dad?"
"It's a fascinating subject." Jennings stole the opportunity to gush. "And that last prompt was brilliant. Borges was onto something, labyrinths without minotaurs and whatnot. What did you think of my paper, by the way?"
"I haven't read it yet, actually." Sarah concentrated on her pasta so her face wouldn't betray the lie. Jennings had taken the discussion topic and run with it, suggesting that if the minotaur escaped, no one would even notice, given the strange things that the world accepted already. It was a clever hint, but the excessive semicolons stole the impact.
From the corner of her eye, she watched Cynthia straighten in her chair and frown pointedly in Jennings' direction. "I don't really like mazes. It's too hard to get out."
"The discussion topic was more about metaphorical labyrinths," Jennings said. "Smoke and mirrors and the monsters that live just down the street." She raised her brows in challenge, and once again Toby defused the situation by offering to open a new bottle of wine.
Sarah held out her glass, but she was the only one. "Cynthia can't drink, of course," her father said, and put his hand over his own glass.
"I guess that's the whole bottle to myself, then." She drummed her fingers to fill the awkward silence, which ended with the pop of the cork.
Glass shattered in the kitchen, and Sarah dashed from her chair. "I should help with that." Her father smiled indulgently and patted Cynthia's hand. Jennings sent Sarah a pleading look as she passed, but Sarah wasn't inclined to save her.
"Congratulations," she heard Jennings say to the happy couple as she escaped around the corner.
"It's a girl," Cynthia chattered brightly on. "I've always wanted a girl named Sarah, but Robert's got one of those already, so I'm thinking probably Marie instead."
Toby froze, broom and dustpan in hand. "Is she joking?" he mouthed.
Marie was Sarah's middle name. "They're replacing me," she replied slowly, the syllables souring in her mouth. That fairy bitch.
Toby shook his head and rummaged in his pocket for something. "I'll get them out of here."
Sarah finished sweeping up the glass and dusted off her acting skills. Toby's voice rose in frustration at something their father said, and her ancient phone trilled on the hook. His timing was perfect, as always, and she grabbed for it before it could ring again.
"Williams," she answered. The only sound on the other end was a muffled rustling as Toby turned off his phone. "Jared, hi!" Sarah spoke loudly enough for her unwelcome guests to hear, and poured on the enthusiasm. "How did you know it was my… That's why I love you."
She continued the fake conversation for a few minutes, and ended on an up note. Toby gave her a thumbs up while her father wasn't looking.
"You don't date," her father accused.
"And I don't tell you everything. Now if you don't mind, I need to get ready."
Toby herded them out the door while Jennings cleared the table, and Sarah made sure they took the awful cake with them. She didn't really relax until she heard the slamming of car doors and the engine start, and then she checked the compass for further direction. "Still not in the clear," it cautioned.
Sarah waited until Toby had finished up most of the dishes before she forced herself to yawn. Ever perceptive, her brother took the hint and waltzed out the door, Miranda on his arm. She watched them through the blinds until the porch light next door went off.
"Finally," Sarah sighed. She pulled an instant cocoa packet from her pantry and put a kettle on for water, then put on her ugliest, most comfortable pajamas. The compass resented being left behind on her nightstand, even briefly, and she took it with her to make her cocoa.
"So," she said as she stirred marshmallow fluff into the cocoa, "am I going to figure it out tonight?"
"Not even a hint?"
The golden arrows twirled frenetically before the next message scrolled through. "You miss them all." It hummed in a way that was almost disapproving, and Sarah carried it back to her room. She put the compass next to her cocoa to clamber into bed, and picked up the Book.
In the eighteen years since it had changed her life, Sarah still hadn't found an end to it. Before the Labyrinth, it had been a self-contained story. It began with a girl, and ended with the refusal of the king. After though… Sarah had discovered the Book had an infinite number of pages, and the story continued as a narrative of the life of the Queen the nameless girl had become, with the King she had refused at her side.
It was her life. The one she'd always wanted. And she'd read enough in the last eighteen years to cover hundreds of years. The only thing the little book hadn't told her was how to get back, and she really, desperately, wanted to get back. She wanted to be the Queen that had stormed the gap between worlds and fought her way back to the Goblin City and reclaimed the King. She wanted to be loved so fiercely that stars fell from the heavens from envy, and the sun rose later in the morning to honor her nights.
Sarah knew on some level that this wasn't healthy. She'd done her time as counselor to panicking freshman and grad students alike, and dedicating more than half her life fixated on a place she couldn't go back to wasn't sane behavior. But this also wasn't fair, and she was righteous and stubborn, and she read on from where she'd left off the night before.
Year 750 of the Reign of Our Lady the Queen…
Sarah woke suddenly from a vivid dream she couldn't remember, tears still fresh on her face, and she knew she had been in the Labyrinth again. Sarah rolled away from the sun and pressed her face into the indentation of the other pillow. It was still warm, and smelled of dusk and ashes.
"Good morning," she whispered, and rolled out of bed. There was no mistaking the twisted sheets and the impression in the coverlet, and no rational explanation. Sarah rolled her shoulders to relieve the stiffness and made the bed. She slept like the dead most nights, never moving at all, but she still smoothed the wrinkled sheets and fluffed the pillow on his side of the bed. The Labyrinth liked to remind her every now and then.
The weekend flew by without the compass's interference, and her Monday disappeared quickly enough, until she tried to escape the building. The compass shrilled in alarm just as Sarah was locking up her office door, and she turned to face the head of her department.
"Dr. Benson, what brings you around on such a lovely afternoon?"
"You need to learn to answer your phone, Williams. And your office hours extend to five. Why are you leaving early?"
Sarah imagined goblins tearing Dr. Benson apart and carving up his self-important alcoholic liver for foie gras. Unfortunately, goblins were not at her immediate disposal, and the man towered frighteningly over her, waiting for an answer.
"No one ever comes to see me during office hours. I've worked here for five years, and nobody's ever showed up." Sarah crossed her arms and straightened up to be as tall as possible. It didn't help much.
"And that's part of the problem, Williams. You teach three classes that no one wants to take, and you won't teach Comp or summer classes. And the research you turned in to the tenure board is a joke."
Sarah winced, but held her ground. "I'm looking for the original coming-of-age myth. There are correlations between myths and fairy tales all over the world, and you call that a joke?"
Dr. Benson narrowed his eyes, and it felt like the entirely hallway became more cramped. "You don't do research. You visit hedge mazes and grafitti scribbles on the sides of old warehouses every summer. You don't seem to have lesson plans, and your students make the worst grades. It's a waste of our time and yours, and that's why we're letting you go at the end of the semester."
Sarah's papers slipped from her arms and fluttered noisily every which way across the uncarpeted floor. She gaped at the mess and thought of how long it would take to put things to right again, but the incredulity was overridden by her anger. "You're firing me?"
Benson shrugged and stepped back, leaving his giant shoeprints on her students' papers. "We'd prefer if you resigned first, but in essentials yes. We thought it might be kinder to inform you in person rather than by mail." He opened the door to his office across the hall, and propped the door open as he took a seat. "Williams, you might want to do something about that mess."
Sarah ground her teeth and tried to gather the papers and her dignity while Benson watched. The compass rang in high angry tones in her pocket, and when she read the flit of golden words her spine snapped straight. "Is this FAIR to you?"
She grabbed the last paper and threw the lot of them at Benson's desk, then kicked the door closed behind her. "What did you think that little exercise in humiliation would accomplish, you egotistical prick? Were you thinking that if I got down on my desperate knees you'd let me keep an adjunct position? I quit, you ass!"
Sarah slammed the door and made as much noise as she could on her way out of the building. She yanked the compass from her pocket on the front steps and commanded, "Home, now."
"No," the compass answered. "Look." The arrows all spun in one direction, toward the newsstand, and Sarah grabbed a copy of every paper. "Good."
Reality spun and warped around her, and the steps below her morphed into the three steps up to her house. "Thank you."
She locked the door behind her, dropped the papers on the kitchen table and kicked off her shoes. Since she'd managed to burn all her bridges at the same time, she had to find a way back soon, because she didn't think she could bear the consequences. She rested the compass on the stack of papers and dropped into a chair.
"Do you still want to be helpful?"
The compass arrows spun noncommittally. "That would be cheating."
"Oh, of course." Sarah pinched the bridge of her nose put the kettle on to make tea. She was trying to decide between her usual breakfast blend and some fruity herbal called "Mambo" when the phone rang. She ripped the cord out of the wall and went with the herbal.
When she got back to the table, she found her cat squaring off with the compass. "Arthur," she warned. The cat ignored her and continued to bat at the compass. The golden arrows flashed angrily, and the cat froze in its motions. Completely.
This was new. She'd only been able to accelerate time, not stop it. "That wasn't very nice. Unfreeze Arthur."
"Seriously, I mean it."
"Get a dog."
She realized she was arguing with an inanimate object and sighed. "I have found a new way to be pathetic. Fabulous." She gently moved the still-frozen cat to the floor and spread the papers out on her table. There were only six of them, so it shouldn't take too long to figure out what the compass was trying to tell her.
Four hours later, sixteen concerned text messages from Toby and a third cup of tea later, she found it.
"I can't believe this." It was one line in an editorial on summer activities back home from a student who had barely figured out the proper way to use verbs. "You realize this is three months from now, and seven hundred miles from here."
The compass chimed cheerfully. "Like you don't have all the time in the world."
The high corn swayed over Sarah's head as she made her way through the maze. In spite of the location and all the circumstances, Sarah felt closer to the Labyrinth than she had in years. The summer breeze built to lonely crescendos that swept through the corn with a low howl, and she knew she was getting closer.
Months, or days, or hours ago, Sarah wasn't sure, she'd read of a giant maze that a farmer near Ash Grove, Nebraska cut into his field ever year, and the compass had confirmed it. It was a simple matter of packing up everything important and agreeing to give up the time.
Three months and seven hundred miles didn't vanish as quickly as a few hours when traveling by compass. At first the chiming had gotten faster and faster, and the arrows inside spun into a golden blur. Then came the heat, which had never happened before, and a flash of brilliant white light. The world around her went hollow and stark white. The emptiness nearly seemed to echo, and she was incredibly relieved to see a figure in the distance.
She was accustomed to strange situations anymore, but the only sensible option seemed to be running, so she ran. There was no knowing how far she went, because she never got tired nor lost her breath, but she finally arrived. At the end of all that interminable white space was a mirror, and the figure she'd seen was her own, but subtly different. On the other side of the glass was the queen she'd read about for years.
At first, she was fascinated. The queen mirrored every motion she made in her jeans and airy blouse, but silently in autumn-colored velvet and silks. Finally though, the queen beckoned her closer to listen. "I shall be all or no one." The words were silent as well, but Sarah heard them as clearly as if she'd spoken herself.
With the words came an answer like a memory, and new words fell from her lips. "I shall be the other I am without knowing it," she replied, and stepped through the mirror. The quicksilver surface was cool as it passed over her and disappeared into her skin. With it, the vast whiteness behind her disappeared as if she had absorbed it as well, and she found her footing again in this new green maze. The change had been disorienting, but with the compass to guide her it was easy to regain her way.
The twists and turns had gotten closer together now, so she knew for sure she was almost to the center. The compass chimed in rhythm with her steps, but didn't accelerate her way through the maze. Sarah hadn't had to wait for anything for since the compass entered her life, but she understood this was a significant occasion, and she decided not to rush it. Her last journey in this world was a beautiful one, at least, and she enjoyed the last green gasp of summer as the field dust swirled and eddied over her feet.
She rounded a corner and saw another turn immediately ahead. She knew in the pit of her stomach this was it, and she laughed in delight. The sound startled a flock of small birds in the field ahead, and they took to the sky singing. Sarah laughed again, and stepped into her future.
A small empty clearing greeted her. Sarah paused for a moment in the entrance, just in case the Labyrinth was taking its time, but the nothingness grew oppressive. Even her compass failed her, choosing to be cool and silent in her hand. "This is it?"
She threw her bag down next to one of the little stone benches that lined the clearing and paced its dimensions, certain that this couldn't be all. Maybe there was a secret door or a catch of some sort under one of the benches. Any moment now, she'd surely hear the scraping of stones together, or her compass would wake up again and she'd be whisked away to the sound of chimes and bells. No such luck. The clearing was exactly what it appeared to be.
Sarah kicked at her bag in frustration, not caring that a few of the contents spilled out, including the Book. "Damnit, damnit, damnit!" she cried. "It wasn't supposed to happen like this!"
Gold flashed in her hand, and she watched the reproachful letters scroll through the crystal compass. "That wasn't terribly mature."
"Shut up!" she yelled. Her words echoed over the field, and a crow shrieked back in challenge. She threw the compass at the ground and dropped to sit on the nearest bench. The compass stopped where it fell, and even when she closed her eyes and massaged her temples, Sarah felt it watching her. Accusing.
A frustrated wind came up and she sighed along with it. "This isn't fair."
The cover of the Book fell open from its precarious position, and the breeze caressed the pages, one after another like an eager invisible reader. She watched dully as page after unending page of beautifully written lies flipped by, and swiped at her eyes with the heels of her hands. She heard the compass chime shrilly from the center of the clearing, and then in a progression of notes that had haunted her for years.
…how you turn my world, you precious thing…
Sarah opened her eyes and watched as the arrows spun inside the compass with a fury, and slowly the compass began to move on its own. It rolled over the little bumps and imperfections on the ground, and bypassed dirt clods that stood in its way, until it finally came to rest by the Book. "Fine, you have my attention," she spat.
The pages turned faster and faster, nearly ripping from the Book's binding to the frenzied compass tune. Suddenly, the gust died away, and a few final pages turned half-heartedly to reveal a blank page. The breath escaped from Sarah's lungs, and she gasped for air and realization. She had never seen a blank page in the Book. She had flipped through infinite pages and never found an end to the story. Until now."
"See?" threaded through the still arrows over and over, and Sarah realized she did at last. The Book itself was the Labyrinth.
She snatched the Book from the ground and pressed her thumbs into the paper before the blank pages disappeared. The compass rolled in circles around her feet like an overeager puppy, and the wind roared through the clearing again. The pages fought in her grasp, and one tore free as she tried to wrangle the Book safely closed.
"Oh!" Sarah froze with the loose page in her hand, certain that she'd ruined everything by accident. "Oh no." The compass bumped against her foot, and chimed again.
"Let it go," it advised when she looked down.
"Are you sure?" Sarah bit her lip. The compass had never outright lied to her, as far as she knew, but she still hesitated to let any part of the Labyrinth escape her now. The wind made her decision for her, snatching away the page in her hand.
The scrap of paper rode the air up in a spiral, and then improbably followed that spiral back down to the earth. The paper fluttered over the ground before finally choosing a place on the ground. In spite of the unpredictable breeze, the paper showed no signs of further escape.
She reopened the Book, and the pages remained obligingly blank. "What are you waiting for?" the compass asked. Decision made up, Sarah tore a handful of pages from the book and released them to the breeze, and then another handful to follow. In the storm of papers, Sarah saw a spiral staircase form, and then fall down in perfect order to the earth. She scooped up the compass without a second thought and made her way.
At first, she felt silly, walking around in a circle over a ring of overlapping papers, but midway through the ring she felt solid stone beneath her foot. Sarah paused briefly in surprise, then made another step. Against all logic, the paper descended through the ground to a step below it. It was disorienting until she looked at the paper trail another way and saw the new hidden stairs cutting into the ground.
"Okay… going down!" The compass chirped in agreement, and she closed her eyes as she descended an impossible stair. Ten steps down, a new wind buffeted her hair and clothes, and she opened her eyes to a murky orange sky above her, around her and below the paper stair she walked on. Vertigo struck with ferocity, but Sarah's stubbornness won out, and she followed the stairs to their conclusion at the top of a rocky bluff.
The instant her feet met the sandy ground, the papers flew away from their configuration and tore off over the unwelcoming landscape. The air was hotter than she remembered, and she couldn't see any vegetation this time, scrubby and dead or not. The only constant was the towering wall and gate below her.
The descent was difficult, and at some points she slid down the rocky slopes and scraped her palms in her fall. Finally she reached the gates and found them curiously ajar, as if someone had only just passed through. She reached out her painful hands to open them further, but they swung inward without her aid.
"Oh my… oh no."
Sarah ran like hell was at her heels, over cracked stones and around the crumbled remnants of walls. The Labyrinth as she'd known it was gone, worn away to a rusty desert wasteland. There was no path anymore, and if there was it was so buried under sand and rubble that she'd never find it again. It broke her heart that she didn't need it. The maze itself was gone, and the way was clear to the castle ruins.
Unlike her strange trek through the pale unworld, she knew what the distance was; the air and dust seared her lungs and her muscles raged against the abuse. The stitch in her side finally forced her to stop for a few moments, but with the castle waiting above her she felt too uneasy staying too long. Something was desperately wrong, and she didn't want to wait to find out what it was.
She almost cried when she reached the goblin city and saw the city was gone. There wasn't even a trace to indicate it had ever been there. Sarah made the final climb gasping all the way from exertion and emotion, and collapsed to the floor when she finally discovered the last of the strange room where she'd "won."
There was nothing here. The wind howled over the broken parapets, sweeping a rain of sand and dust over her head. She pulled herself up and wandered what was left of the room. There were still hints of the odd staircases, but the magic that had changed the gravity remained no longer.
"What happened here?" she whispered
Sarah spun around, and there he was, perched on a fallen stair, smug and perfect as she remembered him.
She breathed his name like a benediction. "Jareth."
He stood and half-bowed with an ironic grin. "My lady. How nice of you to join us at last."
All at once Sarah felt like a girl again, and she looked absolutely terrible. She smoothed her hair out of her face and fidgeted before him. "I still don't understand."
Jareth rose gracefully to his feet. "It's simple enough, my lady. You killed me in the very heart of the Labyrinth. What did you expect would happen in the next thousand years?"
Sarah felt faint, and her vision blurred around the edges. "What?"
Jareth laughed. "I have waited centuries for you. Perhaps you didn't notice that time runs quicker here than in your world. You took too long to decipher the Book, and I even took up residence in that silly little compass of yours on occasion to help you, but I suppose I overestimated your abilities."
A thousand years? She pulled the compass from her pocket, but the arrows within had stilled, leaving it as ordinary as a pretty paperweight. "I'm—I didn't know." she stammered.
"Ignorance does not excuse you, Sarah," he replied crisply. Behind him, the stairs crumbled in a cloud of dust. "Now there are no grand parties or great wonders, no medallions, no histories, not even stars."
Jareth strolled around Sarah's frozen form and rested his head on her shoulder. "Do you see that lovely sunset, my precious girl? Enjoy it, for it is the last one you may ever see."
Sarah seized Jareth's arm before he could walk away, and shivers traveled through her skin at the contact. "Why did you bring me here?"
He smiled slowly, like a predator. "You came of your own free will." He lifted her chin and kissed her with a cool fury. Sarah forgot herself and closed her eyes. It was a kiss to erase all kisses that came before, and with his mouth and arms and fingers he persuaded her to forget everything else as well. Never would have been too soon for it to end, yet it did anyway.
"What's going to happen now?" she demanded when she caught her breath.
Jareth cocked his head to better show his superior smirk. "I will miss you and your luscious questions. I could have loved you a lifetime ago." His fingers ghosted over her face, but when he tried to push her hair back nothing happened. "I think I shall tell you a story, my lady.
"Once upon a time, a girl defeated a Labyrinth, killed a king and brought an entire world to its crumbling knees. And so what was left of that king laid a clever trap, because he knew the girl had quite fallen in love with him, though she would never ever say it. He sent refugees from his world to hers to flush her out, and soon enough she came crawling back, never suspecting for a moment—"
"Welcome home, Sarah. I thought that you, being so very fond of labyrinths, might like one of your own. So this is yours." Jareth spread his arms wide to encompass all the wreck around them. "No stairways to climb, nor doors to force, nor any wearying galleries to wander through, nor walls to impede your passage."
Sarah rushed at him and passed through his form. "Why would you do this?" she cried.
Jareth shrugged. "I had to die to get out of the last Labyrinth, but that option will not be available to you. I hope you enjoy the dark." He kissed her forehead, the briefest brush of ice, and began to fade slowly from existence. "I bequeath nothingness to no one, my Queen." Then he was gone.
"No. NO!" she screamed. The compass was her only witness, and it chose escape over the position of spy to her misery. It rocked back and forth until it gained enough inertia to roll, and made its way toward the closest precipice. The compass wasn't Jareth all the time, and it knew it didn't want to watch her slow tumble from grace. Best to end this quickly.
The fall seemed to last for a small eternity, but the compass no longer had the power to alter time. For a short while it was as if gravity had ceased to exist, and only the passing reflection of the cliff side in the crystal proved otherwise. The fall was finally broken, not by the rocks at the bottom, but a patient gloved hand. "Tut tut, my good friend," Jareth said. "There will be no abandoning her."
The compass spun its arrows uncomfortably as the king considered the crystal in his hand. The harsh winds overhead carried Sarah's sorrows heavenward. Jareth blew a kiss to the ruined castle above as the growing shadows overtook the horizon. Death was a temporary diversion after all, and he was not finished with her yet.
Notes: This was my entry in the 2008-2009 Labfic Exchange on Livejournal, for the lovely Traboule. Most credit for the conception of this fic is due to the work of the wonderful Jorge Luis Borges, and in particular to his poem "The Suicide."
I bequeath nothingness to no one...