The characters and situations in this story belong to Christopher Nolan, Legendary Pictures, Syncopy, Henson Associates, Lucasfilm, and other entities, and I do not have permission to borrow them. No infringement is intended in any way, and this story is not for profit. All others belong to me, and if you want to borrow them, you have to ask me first. Any errors are mine, all mine, no you can't have any.
The opinions expressed by characters in this story may or may not be those of the author.
Due to popular demand (you people are nutbars), a sequel to Moving the Stars. I strongly advise you to read the first one first, and if you haven't seen Labyrinth you probably should do that first too. If you haven't seen Inception, what are you doing here? *snerk*
Okay. I'll be the first to admit that growing up the child of two worlds isn't exactly normal. And frankly I've always known it. You can't not, in my circumstances. But when it's all you've ever known, you cope.
And it's not like it was bad. In fact, it was incredibly cool, and I did know that too. Sure, it meant keeping a lot of secrets, but you could say that I come by that naturally. After all, what's a labyrinth for but to keep something hidden?
The trouble always comes when I want to bring something from one side to the other. When I was three, it was Ludo, and Father had to create me a tiny stuffed version to take to New York. When I was nine, it was Lancelot, but cats don't deal well with the transition, Siamese or no, and eventually we had to find a petsitter.
By the time I was thirteen, I figured out that I just had to keep things separate. So Maggie, my best friend at school, had no idea where I went for my vacations, and every autumn I'd give Sir Didymus a hug and promise to bring him more popcorn when I came back, because he loves the stuff and corn doesn't pop in the Labyrinth, don't ask me why.
Even when I got a boyfriend, it didn't matter. I mean, I loved him, but under the rush that's first love I knew - with the cold back part of my mind - that I could never tell him. It wasn't that he couldn't be trusted with the secret - it was that there was no way he'd be able to cope.
It was like that with the others, too, Todd and Greg and Ivan. It wasn't a problem, because it never really got serious with any of them except the last, and even then - well, I always knew that I probably would have to make a choice someday, which side to live on. There's plenty of likely guys on Father's side of things, don't get me wrong, but none of them are human.
And then I met a guy who turned out to be very, very serious. And who dealt with unreality every day.
"You know I don't like surprises." Arthur scowls idly at his lover, who gives him a smile over her shoulder as she leads him down the Métro station platform.
"I know, but this is hard to explain ahead of time. Just a few more minutes, okay?"
He lengthens his stride enough to catch her hand, unable to bite back all the grin. "Come on, Ariadne, aren't I supposed to be the nervous one?"
She shakes her head. "Yeah, no. Just remember, you asked for this, okay?"
Arthur snickers, and squeezes her fingers gently. Meeting her parents is definitely a serious step forward in their relationship, and he's heard Ariadne talk about them with affection, if not often, so he knows that they're not estranged. But she's been oddly reluctant about this whole thing, and it has him a bit worried.
The strangest thing at the moment is that he always assumed they lived in the United States. And she hadn't said a word about them coming to visit her in Paris, and yet here they were…
Ariadne veers towards a gap in the wall, an exit that, unlike the others further down the platform, is not labeled. In fact, none of the other travelers are paying any attention to it, and Arthur frowns as they enter. "I don't remember this being here."
Ariadne doesn't answer. The corridor gets narrower as they traverse it, the old tile growing mossy even underfoot, and Arthur slows. "Ariadne, what's going on?"
She stops just short of a bend in the hallway, and puts her free hand on his chest, looking up at him with big dark eyes. "Do you trust me?"
He covers her hand with his own. "Of course I do."
Ariadne bites her lip. "I told you my family was weird."
Arthur lifts a brow. "And they live in the bowels of the Paris Métro?" He's joking, but Ariadne doesn't smile.
"Not exactly. Look, there's no way I can explain this ahead of time. Just…come with me, and try to keep an open mind, okay?"
For answer Arthur lifts her fingertips to his mouth for a quick kiss, enjoying the way her cheeks flush. Ariadne smiles again, and tugs him back into motion.
It is very Dreamlike, the way they round the corner and find an impossible landscape spread out before them. Arthur stops dead, trying to take it all in. "What…the…hell?"
Despite the fact that the Métro is underground, they're on a slope outdoors now, under a morning sun and very far away from rainy grey Paris. Below is a huge crazy tangle of walls and buildings, rising up another hill and crowned with a walled city that looks medieval and a set of spires that look like something else entirely.
Ariadne turns back. "This is where I come from, Arthur," she says, trying to catch his gaze. "It's not exactly…um, part of the world you know."
Arthur looks down at her. "It's not a Dream," she adds, and he shakes his head, because of course it is, though which one of them is doing the Dreaming just now is open to interpretation.
"Ariadne…" He shakes his head, and reaches for his pocket, but before he can touch his totem something huge lumbers out of the stony gate below, and roars.
Arthur reacts without needing to think, hand diving for the gun holstered underneath his jacket, but Ariadne grabs his arm. "No! He's harmless. Really!"
He gapes at her, and she tugs on his arm without result. "He won't hurt us," Ariadne adds, apparently completely unalarmed by the furry, fanged, horned thing lumbering up the hill towards them.
But if it's a Dream, she seems to know what's going on, so Arthur makes himself relax. "Trust me," she says, and turns to the behemoth.
"Prrrrrrinnnnncessssss!" it bellows, and to Arthur's shock Ariadne grins hugely and throws herself into its embrace. The creature picks her up in a massive hug.
"Hi Ludo!" she says happily. "I missed you."
One part of Arthur's mind wonders idly if "Ludo" is a name, or a species.
"Baaaaaccckkkk," the creature says, sounding pleased, and Ariadne squirms around in its arms to look back at Arthur.
"This is Ludo," she says. "Ludo, this is Arthur. He's a friend."
Arthur eyes the creature doubtfully, and it returns the doubt. "Frieeeeeeennnd?" it questions.
"Friend," she repeats firmly. "Ludo, let me down."
The beast shakes its massive head. "Nnnnnno," it says. "Caaasssstle."
Ariadne gasps. "No. No! Father, that's not fair! Father!"
Okay, that's it. Arthur reaches for his gun again as Ariadne starts to squirm, but the creature has a good grip and is already loping back towards the gate it had come from. Arthur snaps off the safety, but Ariadne leans back around the beast's side and shouts. "It's okay! He won't hurt me! Just make it to the middle, okay? Arthur - "
Arthur doesn't know what's going on, but what he does know is that he doesn't like it. Only the knowledge that it has to be a Dream is keeping him calm, even though he can remember the entire morning leading up to this point.
A small part of him is wondering if this is some kind of elaborate prank on Ariadne's part, though it doesn't seem like her; she might design an amazing Dream, but she'd tell him before she put him under. He scrambles down the weedy hillock in pursuit, heading for the heavy stone gate as fast as he can, as the beast vanishes through it with Ariadne still in its arms.
Are you even sure that is Ariadne? the suspicious part of his mind asks, but he ignores it. He has no reason to think she is a projection rather than herself, and while she might not come to actual physical harm in a Dream, he knew very well what could happen to someone even in an illusory fashion.
Especially if she doesn't realize it is one -
He's still clutching the gun as he hits level ground and sprints toward the gate. The beast hadn't looked very fast, but its stride was enormous -
The gap between the gate and the wall is suddenly filled, and Arthur stops so quickly that he loses his balance and falls on his backside, sprawling in the dust without dignity and gaping up at the man who had just appeared.
He's tall, with an absolute mane of blonde hair and eyes that don't look human. He's dressed in black leather and a white ruffled shirt, and more gems than Arthur's seen outside of a Renaissance painting, and he's looking down at Arthur with the expression of someone who's just found a bug on their new carpet.
And while under any other circumstances Arthur might write him off as some kind of Goth clubber, the aura of power emanating from him is impossible to miss, making all his elaborate clothing a detail.
Before Arthur can demand to know what's going on, the man raises one gloved hand. "First off, we'll have none of that," he says, and flicks his fingers. The gun flies out of Arthur's grip and spins across the ground, rattling into a hole and disappearing.
Arthur looks back to the man, and rolls swiftly to his feet, ignoring the dust coating his pants. "Who are you?"
The man folds his arms and smiles, the expression one of amused contempt. "She didn't tell you?"
"Ariadne?" Arthur glares coolly back, unwilling to give an inch. "She said we were going to meet her parents."
"Ah." The man sweeps Arthur a mocking bow. "Then allow me to introduce myself. Jareth, King of the Goblins…and Ariadne's father."
The first thought that crosses Arthur's mind is that the guy is utterly insane. But if they're Dreaming, then it does make a weird kind of sense, and in that moment he decides to roll with it. This might be some strange joke of Ariadne's, or someone else's, but Arthur can deal.
He's seen worse, after all.
He nods back fractionally. "Arthur Chase."
The King…because he really does have that kind of commanding air…snorts. "Oh, I know." His accent is half British, half something Arthur can't place, and he looks Arthur up and down assessingly. "You're the lad debauching my daughter."
Arthur carefully refrains from pointing out that the debauching is very mutual, and settles for an austere expression. "My intentions are honorable." Which is certainly true, or he wouldn't be here in the first place, but there's an undeniable guilt as well. Ariadne may be an adult, but no one wants to hear that kind of thing from their girlfriend's father…
"Are they now." It's clear the King doesn't believe him, and Arthur wants to argue, but before he can come up with words the tall man shakes his head. "You think you deserve the hand of a princess? My daughter?"
Arthur folds his arms. "That's up to Ariadne, isn't it?"
The King's mouth twitches, and Arthur hears faint laughter, though he can't see anyone else nearby. Jareth's eyes narrow. "Well, boy, here's your chance to prove yourself. Find your way through the Labyrinth, to the castle beyond the Goblin City, before the clock strikes thirteen…and perhaps I'll consider your suit."
He points a finger, and there in front of the wall is an ornate clock with too many numbers on its face. It bongs and clanks, striking one hour. Arthur takes a breath, but before he can say anything the King raises his arm in a dramatic gesture. "You - "
Just in front of his hand, what looks like a soap bubble sparkles into existence, hovering in the air. The King frowns terribly. "Absolutely not," he says to the bubble.
It bobbles in place, and though Arthur doesn't hear anything, the King addresses it as if it has spoken. "Nonsense. Your mother did it entirely alone, and she - "
The bubble bounces again, emphatically. The King rolls his eyes. "Very well," he says exasperatedly, and plucks it out of the air before tossing it right at Arthur.
Arthur grabs it out of reflex. It's not a bubble after all, but a glass sphere, heavy and about the size of a baseball. "And much good may it do you," the King adds in a sour tone, before dissolving into thin air.
Arthur blinks at the spot where the King had been, then looks down at the sphere. It seems perfectly ordinary, like the crystal ball one might find in a New Age gift shop, but as he hefts it Arthur sees something flicker across its surface. Frowning, he peers closer, only to see Ariadne's face ripple briefly past, laughing up at him from the heart of the glass.
Then it's gone, and Arthur blows out a breath, trying to figure out what to do next. Just make it to the middle, Ariadne had said. Labyrinth…Goblin City…the behemoth that had kidnapped Ariadne had said something about a castle as well.
Well. He's good with mazes, it's what he does. Arthur hefts the sphere in one hand, dusts off his pants, and heads for the half-open gate. Hold on, Ariadne. I'll find you.
I should have expected it, of course, but I was so nervous about getting Arthur there and not having him freak out that I didn't think far enough ahead. My bad. And it pisses me off, but Father has the right to challenge outsiders. As Mother would remind me, it's not fair, but that's the way it is.
Of course, I have rights too, both as a princess and as Arthur's consort, even if we haven't formalized anything in either world. So I give him all the help I can, even if it's not much.
I'm mad too that I'm not with him, because I was looking forward to showing him all my favorite parts of the Labyrinth and introducing him to my friends. But getting him through it now is more important, because Arthur…dear, logical Arthur…isn't going to find it easy. There are places in the Labyrinth where logic can help, but there are many more where it's basically useless. And even if he's going on the assumption that this is a Dream and anything's possible, it's not the sort of thing he usually sees in extractions. Ludo is hardly the weirdest thing around; the goblins alone are enough to give the unsuspecting brainlock.
The truth is, though, this is kind of a make or break thing, and while I can understand Father's actions, it doesn't mean I'm sanguine about the possible loss. Or making my lover go crazy, which is a small but distinct possibility.
But I do love him. And he loves me. And I'm hanging onto that with everything I've got.
The gate leads straight into an eroded courtyard made of the same sandy rock, weeds springing up between the paving stones and anemic vines hanging over the walls. There are three staircases leading up, one to each side and one straight ahead, and they climb a good half-story above the wall behind Arthur even though he'd seen no sign of them from outside, but that's standard for a Dream and he doesn't spare it a thought. Two of the staircases end in mid-air, broken off like interrupted sentences; the one straight ahead just turns around and heads back down to the courtyard again.
Arthur is sure there's more to them than meets the eye, but he's more concerned about getting an overview of the Labyrinth as a whole. They'd had a better view from the hilltop, and he briefly considers going back out and up for another look, but something warns him that it might be a bad idea. Given the ritualized nature of the challenge, that might be seen as a forfeit.
And he has absolutely no intention of forfeiting.
Well, if there was one thing Mal had taught him - and Miles, that old weasel - it was that doing the unexpected often provides an advantage. Arthur pushes the crystal carefully into the pocket of his jacket, grateful that he'd chosen the leather bomber this morning, and walks over to the left-hand wall.
It's only about nine feet tall, and he's always had a good jump. Arthur leaps, catches the top of the wall, and hauls himself up. Fortunately, it's wide and flat, and he rises to a careful stand, holding his hands out for balance and squinting slightly in the sunlight.
The Labyrinth seems to be laid out on a gentle slope, leading upward to what he assumes is the Goblin City in the center. He can't see as much here as he could from the hill, but he can see the walls winding out in a dizzying tangle. The light makes it hard to see the details, especially further away, and Arthur quickly realizes that there is no easy solution to be found from this vantage point. But there might be a few shortcuts.
Smiling grimly, he paces forward along the top of the wall, placing his feet cautiously and then moving faster when the masonry proves sound, looking ahead to choose what seems to be the best path. Arthur evolves a half-jog, keeping one eye alert for any sign of the creature that had kidnapped Ariadne. Most of the corridors he's passing seem to be the same blank, decaying stone of the courtyard, though as he gets further he starts seeing flashes of color and movement, along with more controlled greenery. But he doesn't spare it much attention, staying focused on the choices spread out ahead of him.
So he has already gotten two strides onto the suddenly spongy section of wall when it pulls slowly to the side like a bus leaving a stop. Arthur wobbles, flails, and falls to his knees, clutching at the oddly warm surface beneath him and almost toppling off all the same. What -
A nasal bellow breaks the quiet, and Arthur sees several other sections of wall moving, shifting away from one another and moving into a wide area that has a bubbling fountain in the middle. The realization hits him just as the wall he's on lurches again, and the movement combined with the surprise has him tumbling off.
He knows how to fall. Arthur lands in a crouch on the dusty grass and rises hastily, backing toward the fountain and seriously considering climbing into it. The walls are not walls after all; they are some kind of beast, with small dull eyes blinking out of hide scored like stone and wearing stringy fur that looks like creepers. They lumber slowly back and forth, honking at each other, and it takes him a moment to realize that they aren't aggressive; in fact, he's not even sure they can see him. Prudently, though, he stays where he is, the rim of the fountain pressing into the backs of his knees; the wall-beasts aren't quite as large as elephants, but they're quite large enough to crush him, and he's not sure they won't do so just by accident.
After a few minutes of milling around, the beasts gather into - a deck, his mind suggests wildly, like really big playing cards - and shuffle off down one of the paths, leaving a number of gaps in what he hopes are still actual rock walls. Arthur lets out a long breath, and steps back from the fountain before turning to get a better look at it. He's getting pretty thirsty, and -
The statue rising up from the center of the basin is unmistakably the King, wearing a fearsome sneer and nothing else. Arthur takes a long look at where the water's coming from, shakes his head, and sneers back at the statue before picking the direction most opposite from the one the wall-beasts had chosen, and marching off.
It's quickly apparent that choosing directions leading towards the Castle isn't going to do him any good. The Labyrinth is far too complex; it's laid out in sections, each one varying. Sometimes it's stone walls, sometimes it's hedges, and at one point it's ironmongery, so thick with curlicues that Arthur can't make out what's on the other side of a given barrier. He sees the occasional bird, and little things rolling past that look like animated dust bunnies, but none close enough to really examine.
But there are no projections, and that confuses him a bit; it obviously isn't him doing the Dreaming, since he's never seen this scenario before, but whoever's it is apparently isn't very threatened. It must be Ariadne.
It takes him a while to observe the glistening trail leading down the center of the path he's on, but when the creature leaving it comes into view, Arthur has to take note, because he didn't know snails that size could even exist. It's sliding slowly and majestically along in a perfectly straight line, spiral shell opalescent and the eye-stalks - which are about at the level of his waist - fringed with bright blue fur. The thing blinks placidly at him as he draws even with it, and Arthur blinks back. Snails have eyelids?
"She's a beauty, isn't he?" says a voice that sounds like one of Eames' country cousins, and Arthur realizes that there's a small creature perched on the lip of the shell where it folds just above the snail's…neck is the closest analogue, Arthur thinks. The rider looks vaguely like a fruit bat wearing a top hat, and it grins up at him with many needle-fine teeth.
"Um…sure," Arthur answers out of reflexive politeness, having no opinion on the relative merit of snails.
"Fastest gastropod in the whole Labyrinth," the bat-creature continues, leaning forward to pat the neck, which is not as slimy as Arthur might expect. "He's won me many a gold cup, she has!"
The snail blinks again, and Arthur starts to wonder if Ariadne mixed something extra into the sedative. "Congratulations."
The rider sniffles. "I can tell you don't believe me," it says sharply.
"Where I come from snails aren't known for their speed," Arthur replies, trying to soothe and resolving not to mention just what snails are known for in Paris.
"Skeptic," the bat-creature chirps, and gives a sharp whistle.
The snail quivers, and then zips off so quickly that it's out of sight before Arthur can close his mouth. Unfortunately, its speed has thrown up a spatter of slime, splashing both the walls as well as Arthur's pants. He looks down at them, sighs, and shakes his head.
I spent a lot of time in Mom's world. They thought it was best; people from the so-called real world cope better with the world of the Labyrinth than vice-versa. And a lot of the time it was just the two of us, because Father doesn't do the real world. Oh, he'd come to visit sometimes, and even behave himself - mostly - but even when he's pretending to be mortal he sticks out. And even though she knows Father is devoted to her, Mom does get tired of the hopefuls of both genders throwing themselves at him. Not that she blames him, and it amuses him, but it can get really tedious.
So I'm sort of half-mortal, half-magical. Which is a stupid way to put it, because neither word really fits, but it's a sort of shorthand for the idea. As Father says, nobody is truly immortal, but let's just say that the normal human lifespan isn't something he worries about - or can even remember half the time.
As for Mom, well, marrying the King of the Goblins sort of automatically extended her lifespan, and that was before she started spending so much time around magic. Which is a good thing, too, because time runs differently in each place, and usually faster in the Labyrinth, which means that you can leave Normality for a month in the Kingdom and come back to find that it's only been six hours. Depending on how the magic is feeling just then, and don't get me started on that...
There are sand pits and mirrors, vines that move to trip him and pavement stones that change position whenever he takes a step. Arthur encounters all manner of creatures, some that look like they stepped out of a book of fairy tales and others that are strange beyond belief. There's a river that runs backward, singing; joking voices that speak out of the rocks; a trio of blackbirds that recite rude poetry and follow him around, taunting him. He does his best to be at least polite to the entities he encounters, since most of them don't seem to be openly hostile, but it can be hard to tell.
While traveling through a formal garden Arthur sees several short bipeds in the distance, and veers over for a closer look. They're small and gray-green and lumpy, and not one looks like any other, but they seem to be fast friends judging from the muttering and the friendly thumps. They don't seem to notice him, and Arthur shadows them quietly as they bustle in between rosebushes, though he carefully steps over the marigolds that they crush underfoot. The chance "shortcut" he overhears gives him a sudden surge of hope.
But as he follows, he hears a faint cry, almost too high-pitched to make out. He might have ignored it, but it's pitiful and frantic, and Arthur grimaces with impatience and tries to track it down, watching the odd little figures pull ahead.
The squeaks aren't hard to pinpoint. Arthur finds a tiny creature tangled in a cobweb in one of the rosebushes, and drops to one knee to try to free it. It's vaguely humanoid, but smaller than his hand, with cornsilk hair and what appear to be iridescent wings, and it peeps miserably at him as he struggles to unwind the sticky web from its limbs.
Finally he has it free, and for a second it lies on his palm, something he would call a fairy if he were more certain about his surroundings. It gives him a sweet, sparkling smile and bites him viciously on the thumb.
Arthur jerks reflexively, swearing and shaking the creature off. It flutters away, and he climbs back to his feet, smarting and bleeding. That'll teach me.
He pulls out his handkerchief and presses it against the wound, and hurries off after his quarry, who are now out of sight if not sound; the belching contest echoes nicely. He rounds a box hedge in time to see them disappearing into a tiny gardener's shed tucked against a large tree.
Arthur squints. There had been four of the little figures, but there's no way the shed could hold more than two, and even that would be crowded. But he strides forward nonetheless and pulls open the door, ducking under the lintel.
It's not dark or cramped; it's a huge tree limb, stretching out twenty feet above the ground with no sign of any of the creatures he'd been following. Arthur blinks, then shrugs and pulls the door shut behind him before edging out and looking around.
There isn't ground below; it's water, dark and weedy. All around are more trees, equally huge, and Arthur hesitates, not sure what to do next. The water doesn't look inviting in the least, and the trees are so thick that there's no way to tell which direction to go.
Something in his pocket twitches, and Arthur flinches again, putting a hand to his jacket. It's the crystal ball, moving on its own, and he pulls it out gingerly, wondering if it, too, is going to bite him. But once again Ariadne's image blooms within it, and she winks at him.
Arthur shakes his head. "What the hell."
He bounces the sphere on his palm, wondering whether he's supposed to throw it, but it rolls neatly out of his grasp and falls to the tree limb. Before he can dive to grab it, it circles like a puppy and then bounces purposefully off.
It leads him on a merry chase through the trees, from limb to broad limb, up and down and sometimes around, with no apparent sense or progression. Several times he almost refuses to follow, but each time the memory of Ariadne's face - and the way the sphere had seemed to argue with the King - keeps him going.
And then all of a sudden it stops moving forward, spiraling around itself like Dom's totem running down and falling still. Arthur frowns, and then looks up.
It's led him to the edge of the water. Beyond is a clear space, then more walls - but rising above and beyond is the Goblin City, and it's a hell of a lot closer than it had been the last time he'd been able to see it.
Arthur grins, scoops up the ball, and starts to put it back in his pocket - then hesitates. "Thank you," he tells it.
There's no discernible response, but it makes him feel better.
I'm starting to think I should have told him about the Labyrinth ahead of time, but how? There's just no way to bring it up in casual conversation, unless you pretend you're talking about some kind of fantasy novel…and anyway, I never quite had the guts.
But Arthur's managing, better even than I expected. There's lots of worse things in the Labyrinth than what he's seen so far, like the Bog of Eternal Stench or the Pits of Tartare - or the Nightmare Grass, even Mom's cautious around that stuff. But he's dealing, and I'm proud of him.
Of course, that doesn't mean he's going to actually forgive me when this is all over, and that's a worry I can't get rid of. Assuming he does get through…but this is Arthur.
I don't think anything can stop him.
At one point he's diving through a series of swinging doors, all of them lethally edged, all moving, and it's the most he can manage to keep from getting cut, never mind choose his path. Arthur's turned so many corners that he doesn't have the least idea where he is - the sun's no help, he's figured that out already - and suddenly he's out of doors and stumbling into a…junkyard?
That's what it is, he realizes after a moment. The last door slides shut behind him with a metallic snick, becoming part of the wall, but Arthur really doesn't want to try to retrace his steps; the back of his jacket is sliced where one door almost caught him. But when he looks around his heart sinks, because there doesn't seem to be any end to this new place. It's heaps and heaps of dusty trash, old furniture and clothing and all manner of things, though fortunately it smells more like dry wood and rotting plastic than organic garbage. He half-expects to see Wall-E come wheeling around one of the piles.
There are no robots, Arthur finds as he starts picking his way through, but there is movement. At first it looks like the heaps themselves are shuffling, but when he squints Arthur realizes that there are small wizened people under the moving piles, carrying loads of junk stacked impossibly high on their bent backs. They grumble and mutter as they go, picking through the trash; tossing things aside, or sometimes fastening items onto their burdens. Arthur regards them with distaste; they are almost the antithesis of how he orders his life, weighted down with useless objects and picking up still more.
"You're lost, aren't you?" barks a voice to his left, and Arthur jumps, hand still moving in reflex for the gun that isn't there. But the wizened little figure bent double under its load is hardly a threat, peering up at him with squinty, suspicious eyes.
"Extremely," Arthur mutters.
"Well, you just come with me," the creature says, its voice sounding neither male nor female - just old. "Come with me and we'll find you a place."
It reaches out and snags his pant leg, and Arthur lets it tug him along, since he really doesn't know where to go next. The sun has vanished, he realizes; the sky overhead is thickly grey, a gloomy overcast that wears at his spirit.
"Right this way, right this way," the creature babbles, leading him between the heaps of trash. "Don't know where to go, we'll find it for you, a nice comfortable place - " It shuffles right up to one of the heaps and brushes items aside until a door appears, paint peeling from its battered surface. "Right in here, right in here. Go on, sonny."
Arthur shrugs, and opens the door. And his jaw drops in astonishment.
It's the workshop in Paris, the one that worked so well that he kept the lease after the successful inception. It even smells right, dust and old ink and the cold Paris air leaking in past the windows, and Arthur steps into it, feeling its normality wrap around him like a caress.
The creature bustling in behind him is an intrusion. "Yes, yes, here it is, a nice safe place. Oooh, isn't it comfortable. Here, you'll need this." It sways across the floor, completely absurd in this setting, and hands him the notebook he uses for extraction notes. "And this, don't forget this, you'll always need this." It's followed by the first original artwork he'd ever owned, a small heavy bronze. "And this - "
Arthur ignores the creature's attempt to hand him his favorite toy truck from childhood and looks around. This is a trap. All his instincts agree, but when he turns back the door that led in is missing.
"How do I get out?" he demands.
"Out? Out? Why would you want to get out? Everything you want is here. It's cozy, it's safe. Here's the place to be." The creature's eyes are narrow and hard, at odds with its whining babble, and Arthur makes a snap judgment.
The creature is surprisingly light despite all the junk it's carrying around. Arthur ignores its shriek and throws it at the nearest wall as hard as he can.
The workshop's windows tear like paper, and the creature tumbles to the ground outside, complaining loudly. Arthur scrambles past it, back into the junkyard, and runs away as best he can, picking his way between the heaps and looking for any way out. And between two piles he abruptly finds it, sunshine peering through the clouds and a field beyond.
He puts on speed.
Mom's a power in her own right, and not just because she's Queen of the Goblins. I've heard the story a hundred times - it used to be one of my favorites when I was little, how she screwed up and wished Uncle Toby away, and then had to go win him back.
And Father used to tell me the other side of it, too, sometimes; how he wanted her to win and wanted her to lose at the same time, because it was all true; he had fallen in love with her and given her powers. I mean, it's not like just anyone in the mundane world can wish someone away.
The trouble was, he had to make his move before she was too old to believe in magic, and that meant it was also before she was really ready to handle someone like him. Mom told me that part, how she almost chose to forget about the whole thing, almost made herself believe it was a dream, but it was the kind of thing she'd wanted her whole life, and so she left room for the magic to come in.
And a few years later, in real-world time, she went back to find him.
Arthur's relieved to see what looks like humans at last, though it's hard to tell given the elaborate masks they are wearing; intricately costumed figures moving around a plush green lawn, and others observing. But the minute he steps into view he's surrounded by very sharp spears, and marched off at their points to the edge of the lawn, which is cut in grassy squares.
"Here." The tallest of the masked guards thrusts a dusty black tabard at him. "You're to be a knight."
"And if I don't?" Arthur asks, raising both brows in a challenge.
The spear that prods at his spine is less than subtle. Arthur takes the tabard and puts it on over his jacket, and moves out onto the indicated square, wondering what kind of game puts pieces on the board after the round has already started.
It seems to be chess. The other participants are dressed magnificently enough to make him feel shabby, in costumes that look like a medievalist's fever dream, and before he can even consider making a run for it Arthur sees the spear carriers lining all sides of the playing field. He follows the directions obediently, moving obliquely across the board and wondering how long it will be before he can get free and keep going. The game seems to go on for hours, though his time sense isn't currently very accurate.
Then he's sent to take the white bishop, and instead of curtseying and leaving the board like the pawn he's already defeated, the tall woman takes his hands and pulls him into a waltz. Arthur's so surprised that it's a couple of moments before he realizes that she's danced them away from the grassy squares and onto the sidelines. The observers give way, and the curve of her smile under her glittering bird-mask is beautiful.
And oddly familiar.
Intrigued, Arthur reaches up and lifts the mask away, revealing a face as beautiful as the smile, with wide-spaced eyes and red lips, and a maturity at odds with the youth she seems to possess. Flushing, he stops dancing and backs away. "Ma'am."
Ariadne's mother laughs kindly. "Relax. I wanted a closer look, that's all." She takes the mask from him. "You're doing quite well, Arthur."
He blows out an irritated breath. "Really."
She laughs again, a merry sound. "Really. But you are running out of time."
"You wouldn't care to show me the most direct route, then, would you?"
She shakes her head. "That's against the rules." But the sympathy in her face tells him she would if she could. Then she reaches out and takes his bandaged hand again, pulling off the handkerchief. The bite has already healed, he realizes, the soreness gone though he can't say when; all that's left are two faint silvery marks where the tiny teeth dug in.
"I had to learn the hard way with fairies too," she says mildly. "But if you'd walked on by, I wouldn't be here."
Arthur can't think of anything to say to that. Unlike her daughter, the Queen is almost his height, and when she stands on her tiptoes she's able to kiss his brow without stretching. "Keep going," she tells him.
"Um," he says, trying to figure out how to point out the coercive game, but when he looks around he sees that the guards are backing away, bowing to the Queen. She gives Arthur a grin he can only term cheeky, and walks away.
And behind her back, under the froth of ribbons that crowns the mask still in her hand, her finger points to the right.
He bites back the smile, and takes the hint.
The light's tending towards late afternoon, and Arthur knows the Queen is right. The direction she'd indicated was not the broad route paved in white stone that had looked promising; it's a twiggy gap in yet another hedge, and he squeezes through with a grunt, discarding the tabard on a handy branch. What's on the other side is a series of neglected, weedy terraces leading upward, with the wall of the Goblin City at the top. Arthur grins, and takes a step forward -
When he gets his wits and his breath back, he's lying at the bottom of a long vertical shaft that has just enough light coming down it that he can see his surroundings. He doesn't think he fell that far, but he's still plenty bruised, and feeling like a total idiot. What made you think she was more trustworthy than the King?
He swears for a bit, then pushes to his feet, trying to brush himself off and looking around. The opening of the shaft is too far overhead to catch in a jump, and it looks completely smooth, anyway; around him are nothing but rock walls, looking as if they'd been chiseled out a thousand years ago.
Arthur leans back against one and sighs tiredly. So far he's been playing by the rules, but it might be time to try to break them and do what he's always been taught was a really bad idea - change his surroundings. He closes his eyes and concentrates.
But no matter how he pictures it, the door he wants just won't appear. Arthur frowns, starting to be more than a little worried. It's not unheard of for a Dreamer to have such control over the Dream, but if he can't even do this much then he'll be stuck here until the sedative wears off…and who knows what'll happen to Ariadne in the meantime.
Sighing again, he slides down to sit with his back against the wall, and absently fishes the crystal out of his pocket, tossing it from hand to hand just to give himself something to do. It's quiescent, displaying no mind of its own just now, and Arthur stares across his tiny cell, eyes unfocused with fatigue. The rock glitters with embedded mica, and he lets his gaze wander across the faint shimmer, idly seeing images come and go. One of them is remarkably detailed, the face of a girl on the brink of womanhood, hair in a vague cloud around her face, determined chin…
He blinks, but the delicate picture doesn't vanish. It's Ariadne, he knows it is, even though he's never seen a picture of her so young; there's a suggestion of a coronet in her hair, an extra-large sparkle on her brow, and he rises slowly to his feet as if a quick movement would frighten the image away.
He paces closer to the wall, feeling as if her eyes are looking over his shoulder, and then the picture is gone, the shift in perspective just enough to make it vanish. But the same shift reveals something else.
Arthur reaches out in the dimness, and smiles when he feels the edge of the rock under his fingertips. It blends so well with the wall that he would never have spotted it without a close examination, but it's there.
He has to turn himself sideways and duck at the same time, squeezing himself into the slit and wondering absurdly what Dom would make of this whole Dream, but he makes it through. The first few steps are taken cautiously through the darkness, but then a gleam of light shows up ahead.
Arthur emerges into a niche set in the wall of a marble hall, and he steps carefully onto the floor. Sunset is reddening the sky outside the windows, and when he looks out, he sees the Goblin City spread out below. Somehow the fall into the pit has short-cut him past the City and into the castle. He shakes his head, offering a mental apology to the Queen. But while with one unexpected step he's met the Goblin King's challenge, he knows that he still has to find Ariadne.
That is, after all, how it's done.
He advances cautiously down the corridor, straining his ears, but there's no sound of voices or footsteps. It's intensely creepy, and Arthur finds himself wishing for his gun, because there is absolutely no telling what might pop out of the shadows at him here.
The first staircase he comes to goes up, so Arthur ascends, his own steps noiseless on the stony floor. There are unlit torches on the walls and the occasional tapestry, pretty much straight out of a Fifties Robin Hood flick, except that the carvings on the bannister's spindles were never dreamed up by Hollywood. Arthur wasn't sure that some of the eyes weren't following him as he passed.
Could be worse. Could be Cthulhu.
Suddenly he's at the top, and just ahead is a big room, a throne room to judge by the stone seat opposite Arthur. There's a fire-pit at the bottom, with no fire, and still no one around. Arthur grimaces in frustration. How the hell can I finish this if I can't find her?
As if in answer to his thought, her voice echoes through the chamber. "Arthur?"
She doesn't sound frightened, he realizes with a surge of relief, nor hurt. "Ariadne! Where are you?"
"This way!" she calls again, and he follows the echo through the chamber and out one of the openings on the other side, up a shallow flight of stairs and around a corner.
And nearly falls over the edge. It's the Penrose Steps gone mad, flight after flight defying every angle of gravity all over a chamber that has no bottom. It's absolutely dizzying, and he can see further chambers through arched doorways beyond.
Ariadne is sitting perched on the edge of one staircase, feet dangling over the abyss, looking perfectly healthy and rather impatient and wearing an outfit straight out of that early Tom Cruise flick. Her face lights up when she sees him, and she waves vigorously. "Arthur!"
Relief makes him dizzier than the stairs do. "Ariadne. Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," she calls back. "You - "
But before she can finish, the Goblin King materializes right in front of Arthur. "Very impressive," he drawls. "I expected you to give up long ago."
Arthur straightens, looking coldly back despite the King's greater height. "Your mistake," he returns.
Something flickers in the King's eyes, and he holds out a hand. The crystal leaps from Arthur's pocket to his palm, and he rolls it up over his fingertips and back again, ignoring Ariadne's indignant Hey! from below. "Through dangers unnumbered, and hardships untold," the King says softly, "you've made your way here in pursuit of my daughter. And if she weren't the one who brought you here, I would have left you in that oubliette."
The ball rolls back and forth, as oblivious to gravity as the stairs, and Arthur keeps his eyes on the King's face, away from that hypnotic movement. "It's always been up to her."
The King's lips tighten, irritation and amusement together, and a flash of what Arthur realizes belatedly is pride. "So it is." He raises his voice so it echoes harshly off the crazy walls. "You have until the stroke of thirteen to reach her, or I shall banish you…forever."
He spins smoothly and hurls the crystal down the center of the room, into the abyss, and then simply walks off the edge of the stair, rotating around it and disappearing underneath in a way that should be impossible even in a Dream. Arthur gapes, and is half-tempted to try it himself, but then the first toll of the bell rings through the chamber.
"Arthur!" Ariadne's on her feet, and Arthur scans the room, rapidly mapping out possible routes. If the gravity is local to each staircase…
"Stay there!" he orders, and takes off running.
But no matter what direction he picks, up, down, or sideways, he can't seem to get any closer to Ariadne. The bell is tolling nightmare-slow, and he can't help counting the beats, each one closer to failure, and even in a Dream, it's important. Ariadne's saying something, but he can't hear her over the bell and his own breath - nine - ten -
"Arthur!" She's overhead now and still across the abyss, hands on her hips and peering down at him. "Stop it!"
Eleven - "I can't reach you," he says helplessly. "It keeps changing."
She smiles. "This is how," she says, and on the stroke of twelve she steps off the ledge.
Arthur jerks forward, hands outstretched. "Ariadne!" And he gets it, horror to delight in one heartbeat.
His jump is perfectly timed, and their hands meet in midair just as the last stroke tolls.
The stairs whirl away, or maybe they're just somewhere else entirely, but the fall is slow, and they touch down on a stone platform surrounded by mist. The King is waiting for them, frowning sourly, but so is the Queen, and her smile is sweet and just the least bit conspiratorial. Next to Arthur, Ariadne laughs, squeezing his hand. "Give up, Father."
"I suppose I must," the King grumbles, and the Queen laughs and pats his arm.
"Look on the bright side, my love," she says. "If he can handle the Labyrinth, she'll be home more often."
The spark of humor returns to the King's expression, and he unfolds his arms. "Very well then." He props his fists on his hips, looks Arthur over, and shakes his head. "I hereby accept you as the Princess' consort, awarding you all the privileges and responsibilities thereto." The King waves one hand languidly. "Tra la, it's done."
Arthur smirks, and returns him a very small, very correct bow, which makes Ariadne snicker and the King's lips twitch. "Thank you, your Majesty."
The Queen laughs, and steps forward to kiss him again. "I like him," she tells her daughter.
"I'm not surprised at all," Ariadne says dryly.
The King waves his hand again, and the mist disperses, revealing yet more staircases, though these look perfectly ordinary. He holds out his arm, and the Queen puts hers through it, giving her daughter a tiny, cheerful wave as they start upwards.
Arthur turns to Ariadne, taking both of her hands in his. "Well, that was fun," he says dryly.
She bursts into giggles, flushing. "I'm sorry," she says contritely. "I didn't know he was going to do that, honestly I didn't. But you won!"
"Yeah - this is a hell of a Dream, I have to give you that," Arthur admits, and lets go to reach into his pants pocket for his totem.
"Um…it's not..." Ariadne begins, but he bounces the die in his palm, waiting for the telltale wrongness.
What it tells him is more dizzying than the stairs. Arthur stares at his totem, then rolls it around and around, but each time it tells him the same thing. He looks back up at Ariadne, who's biting her lip and looking embarrassed. "Sorry," she says. "It's real."
Father's not a goblin. The kingship is sort of inherited, and he compared it once to Coriakin; kind of that the king is supposed to look after the goblins because they can't look after themselves. And don't get me wrong; I love him, but I know that hasn't exactly been one of his goals. Mom says he's steadied down some since they got married, but sometimes I think he sees his subjects more as toys than, well, responsibilities.
Of course, every time I bring the subject up he smiles and tells me I can fix it when it's my turn. Oh boy.
Part of the problem is that he's never had a lot of patience, and to put it bluntly, goblins aren't very smart. That sounds bad if you're a human; it kind of smacks of racism, I admit. But even though goblins look more or less anthropomorphic - sometimes a lot less - they aren't anywhere near as bright as humans, or Father's people. I love them dearly, and they do have excellent qualities, loyalty being one of them, but they're dumb. Which is why they need a ruler who's not one of them.
Mom has a theory that they'll evolve smarter eventually, and I hope they do for their own sake, even though evolution doesn't always work well with magic.
He doesn't exactly fugue out, but for a short while there is little in Arthur's consciousness besides the impossible fact that what has just happened is real. He's vaguely aware of movement, of voices arguing, but he is too busy trying to deal to pay any attention.
Eventually, though, things fade back in around him. There's a familiar squeeze on his arm and an unfamiliar young man leaning over him, and for a moment Arthur thinks it was all a Dream after all, but then he sees the stone walls around him and knows it's not.
The man, who looks perfectly human and no older than Arthur himself, pats Arthur's arm reassuringly and releases the blood pressure cuff. "How are you feeling?"
Arthur takes stock and answers honestly. "My head is killing me."
The man - doctor? - smiles. "I'll get you something for that. He's fine, Ari," he adds over his shoulder, and rises.
Ariadne comes into view, looking relieved, and takes the young man's place on what Arthur realizes is a heavily upholstered divan, her hip next to Arthur's knee. "Thanks, Uncle Toby."
The doctor loops his stethoscope around his neck, tosses them both a casual salute, and leaves. Ariadne takes Arthur's hand in both of hers, a light warm pressure. "Are you okay?"
He lets his fingers curl around her palm. "I think so."
She smiles uncertainly. They're in her room, he realizes; there's a huge canopied bed, a vanity table, and a kitten poster tacked to the wall, as well as plenty of books scattered around. Arthur recognizes the space - a child's room outgrown, but still used on occasion.
"Do you hate me?" Ariadne asks, just above a whisper.
The question isn't unexpected, but it is somewhat annoying. Arthur shakes his head, and immediately regrets the movement. "You shouldn't have brought me here if you didn't think I could handle it."
Ariadne grimaces. "I was going to make you check your totem as soon as we got here, but Father had other plans."
"I'm comfortable with blaming him," Arthur murmurs, and Ariadne snickers.
There's movement at the open door, and the creature that enters seems close cousin to the four Arthur followed through the garden, but much more dignified. It - he - is carrying a polished silver tray on which rests a heavy gold goblet, encrusted with gems in the best fantasy style.
"Thank you, Frithard." Ariadne takes the goblet with a nod, and the butler bows ceremoniously and takes himself out. Ariadne hands the goblet to Arthur. "Here. It's from Uncle Toby."
Arthur takes a tentative sip. It's mulled wine, or tastes like it anyway, rich and spicy, and with the first swallow he feels his headache start to ease.
Ariadne sits quietly as he drinks. "Isn't he kind of young to be your uncle?" Arthur asks at last.
"He's Mom's half-brother." Ariadne shrugs. "Closer to my age than hers."
Arthur finishes the last of the potion and sets the goblet on the floor, the pain fading away. "I don't hate you, love."
The worry in her face eases somewhat. "But this isn't at all what you bargained for."
"Well, no." His mind is still spinning, but Arthur has spent years discussing the philosophy of reality and whether or not Dreams are truly illusion or just another form of existence. There were never any satisfactory answers, but the idea that there are other realities isn't entirely foreign.
And there's Ariadne, who is a wonder and a joy to him still, no matter her background. Arthur holds out his arms, and she unfolds to drape herself over him, snuggling close. Arthur tucks her head under his chin and holds her, letting out a long sigh. "If I could accept the idea of Dreaming, I think I can accept this."
Ariadne laughs a little. "We can take it slow. Honestly, Arthur - I've never brought anyone else here. I never even considered it. But I couldn't hide this from you."
And that's one of the many reasons he loves her, her unrelenting honesty, as awkward as it sometimes is. Arthur sighs, and hugs her more tightly. "I can see how it would be hard to explain."
"You have no idea," Ariadne says dryly, which makes him chuckle.
"So does this mean Narnia is real too?" he asks teasingly, but Ariadne shakes her head, her hair tickling his chin.
"Father said Narnia was invitation-only." The regret in her voice sobers him, but it's the implications that make his head spin. Quite deliberately, Arthur decides to think about them later, and closes his eyes.
What he has now is more than enough.
I'm not sure Arthur's thought this all the way through, but at the moment it doesn't really matter. Magic's a funny thing; I could spend the rest of his life with him in "reality", and still go back home…because it is home…and have a long, long life to look forward to. The Labyrinth takes care of its rulers, sometimes whether they want it or not.
But if he chooses to, he could in theory be my consort in fact as well as title. It would be a long time coming; Father's nowhere near ready to give up his throne. And Arthur wouldn't be the same kind of king; inheritance rules are complicated, but while Mom co-rules the Labyrinth and the City as Queen, she can't rule it alone. I could, but Arthur couldn't.
Not that I think he'd want to. But he might enjoy living here part-time. The Labyrinth can be a great place if you're not trying to beat it, and there's whole other worlds to explore. I can go either way, but he's always been the curious type.
I think we're going to have fun.