It was the books again, it was always the books. At the time their existence had not bothered him, but as the years dragged on and on, they became more and more aggravating. They simply appeared one day, a product of the land's last-ditch effort at a grasping for new magic—new power, as the Underground's had grown stagnant. Other kingdoms had received their own books—some monarchs found games, but they all rather suddenly woke one day to a score of them in their studies. With the books came clear instructions—distribute them in the Aboveground realm or they would be distributed for the monarch that had received them. The way the letter had been worded left a certain taste of dread in the mouths of those who had read it.
When he chose to ignore the books, the Goblin King also ignored the warnings. He held on to them for much, much longer than any of the others did, but he still had not dared to open one of the little books and read it.
One day, they disappeared without warning.
As per the warning, the book shad been distributed. The Goblin King refused to acknowledge this and chose to think that one of the maids had gotten tired of them sitting around for so long and pitched them; he chose to ignore the fact that he himself had attempted to move them, determined that they would only be budged by magical means and even then refused to accept that the magic had slowly been withering away in the Underground, and the magic to move the books would be scarce.
He did not like to think that he had none to spare for such trivial tasks, did not like to see his Labyrinth crumbling around him.
So it was with surprise and more than a little jealously that he noted King Lennox's kingdom was flourishing and he had a rather young bride on his arm. She was clutching a bright blue leather-bound book.
Perhaps, he allowed himself to think, the books are a little more useful after all. But still, he refused to entertain the notion that his had gone Aboveground.
It was not until he had felt the first summoning and returned to his castle to discover the rest of his servants transformed into stinking little pests that he decided to read one of the books. They had to be, after all, the cause of all of this. In the shaking girl's hands he had seen the red book and she clutched it wide-eyed as if it were her last connection to her pitiful life.
Now she was bumbling about his Labyrinth in a desperate attempt to take back the child he had stolen—which was utter rubbish, he'd never stolen any brat—but she seemed convinced enough and had even loaned him the copy of her book.
He tore through it in the thirteen hours that he had apparently allotted her, and was furious. He was, apparently, the villain in this quaint little story, bound to love the heroine until she took back her child (or little brother or sister, he would later learn) and left him.
The Goblin King was not amused.
The first girl won, and he was glad to have the spell broken when she returned home. In fact, he was so eager for her to leave he might have… hurried the process along, given her an out that nullified the entire deal. But she was gone and he could finally get her face from his mind, and all would be good. Perhaps now that the book was returned the magic would come rushing back and the rest of his servants would be returned to normal. Much to his dismay they had numbed their confusion with the ale that they had begun to brew. It was nasty stuff and a common sight to see a heap of goblins sleeping off their intoxication in scattered corners of the castle.
The magic did not come back, however, no matter how many wishes were made or children were snatched or people the Goblin King had to pine for.
And it was always the same—some he let escape, as he had the first (they never quite managed to capture his attention) or they lost and became trapped in the giant maze, because when he offered (just let me rule you, and you can have everything…) they always looked at him, startled like rabbits out of their burrow and turned away. Or worse, they would repeat those lines back to him. He'd heard them enough to know them by heart.
Through dangers untold—he almost laughed in their faces. Dangers, to them? In his Labyrinth? As if he would let any true harm come to the foolish girls.
And hardships unnumbered… and they would continue without mercy until they got to the last part, the part that would release both of them.
You have no power over me.
Then it would be done; when they lost, because most of them did lose, he'd have another Junk Girl in the junkyard or a Reveler stuck in an eternal masquerade, and the brat they failed to rescue from his clutches would turn into another goblin. And he, the Goblin King, would be left to clean up the mess. He resented it all.
It wasn't until one particular frizzy-haired girl wished her newborn brother away that he thought he finally understood what the books were for. He had no heir; perhaps that was the reason for all of the children being wished away.
But no; he offered the girl a bauble to see her dreams and she let him keep the child. The curse, at least, was averted, but after thirteen hours the child was spirited back to his sister's side. The Goblin King growled in fury and shattered the crystal. Later she would not remember him, or the crystal, or his offer.
This would continue for years and years until some of the books started to look rather tattered, and the Goblin King was near the end of his rope.
Finally, the summons that brought him so frequently to the Aboveground slowed, and almost ceased. The books were brushed off by many as just another fairytale—after all, things like magic and wishes rarely came true anymore.
So why would the green-eyed girl be calling for her brother to be taken?
She called, and she meant it. What's more, she called out to him. The script did not call for that, only that the child be wished away to the goblins. Not the Goblin King.
He flew to her, barely containing his ire, and when she had been spooked enough he burst in through her window. He appeared to her wreathed in stardust and shadows, lightning and the night wind.
You're him aren't you, you're the…
He inclined his head slightly, ever so slightly, listened to her try to take back her words—
—What's said is said—
—I didn't mean it!—
—And then stepped back in surprise and resignation when she agreed to run the Labyrinth. She had been the first in a long, long time, and he felt the curse settle on his back, familiar like he wished it wasn't. He left her on the Endless Plains, bathed in fiery orange light, and as he faded from her view he could still catch her scent on the wind.
She made it in, which was farther than many had made it, and even found friends to help her. Friends, he noted warily, that were awfully close to her.
And Hoggle, if she kisses you, I'll turn you into a prince.
She kissed him.
The Goblin King raged and opened the ground beneath them, dropping them right into the middle of the Bog.
Eventually, though, temptation (or hunger, but he liked to think it was temptation) led her to take the peach from the dwarf.
She stepped into the dream wearing glittering white and an expression of innocence among the decadence around her and she was beautiful. Though he stayed away from her directly, the Goblin King always followed her around the swinging dancers, never more than a few feet away.
Soon, she caught him directly in her gaze and let herself be trapped by his arms. She was confused, he could see, but she was here and he was willing to ignore her wide, hesitant eyes for a few moments if it meant that she would not leave, or to be that much closer to accepting.
But no, she caught sight of the clock and remembered that she had to do something and fled his arms, fled the grasping crowd that did what he wished he could do—hinder her, grab her, turn her around, anything, just to keep her.
He watched through a crystal as the Junk Lady tried to trap her with her own possessions and allowed himself a small smile when she escaped. She, Sarah—he rolled her name through his mouth and liked the way it sounded when he said it—would not share the same fate as some of the other, perhaps easily swayed runners.
The Goblin King watched as she joined her friends again, made it past Humongous and into the city, through the paltry forces he sent her way, and into his transformed throne room. Perhaps this one would be different, perhaps…
She made it through Escher room and when it came time, she began to say the words.
The Goblin King pleaded with her—
Haven't I been generous? Everything that you wanted I have done, I have reordered time and I have done it all for you—
But she opened her mouth, preparing to say the words my will is as strong—
And somewhere, something inside of the Goblin King snapped.
You have no power over me.
His face fell, he could feel it, and then he fell, transforming as he went. In the few seconds before she disappeared completely, he saw Sarah reach out to the crystal he had dropped—please please take it—but it shattered, scattering magic over her.
As an owl he watched her call to her friends, watched them appear, and when he could take it no more he flew away.
As he flew he reached a decision. The books would go, they would have to go because he could not live through it again, not when this time the Sarah-girl's face still floated through his thoughts—scared in the oubliette, confused on the Plains, dazed in the ballroom…
He reached his home and collapsed.
The Goblin King did not stir for three days.
While he was incapacitated, the king plotted. When he found he had the strength to move again, he sent his plans into motion.
It only took him three days to hunt down the rest of the books, but with each book he picked up he could feel the girl that had at one point owned it and wished from it (this one was from the girl with the frizzy hair, this one had thin pink lips, this one laughed the whole way through) but he did not find the book that Sarah had. Of all of the faces he saw, he did not see hers.
From the books, anyway. Her voice still haunted him—piece of cake!—and sometimes he still felt her pull away from his grasp in the dream ballroom.
This is what leads to Goblin King to where he is now—standing beside a bonfire of red-bound books that curl at the edges. With each book that fades to ash, the memory of the girl that held it burns away too.
It is hot. Although Sarah fled inside to the air-conditioned cool of her house she still feels the heat radiating from the sun burning the sky. Every now and then she ventures outside far enough to check the thermometer hanging just outside the kitchen door.
"It's over eighty." She tells her father sullenly when he raises a questioning brow. "And it's only nine in the morning."
"That's odd." He says, and returns to his paper.
She turns to look out the wide windows, stirring her cereal inattentively. It's not a particular flavor that she likes, but it's the only kind they have at the moment because Toby had cried when he saw the brightly colored box and would not have stopped if Karen hadn't put it in their cart at the supermarket. Sarah tears her eyes from the scenery outdoors and tries to blink away the sunspots that dance in her vision. It is almost as if she'd been staring at the sun directly.
Grumbling softly, she stands and dumps the contents of her untouched bowl unceremoniously into the trash bin beside the sink.
"Not hungry?" Her father asks from behind the sheet of newspaper.
"No." She lies.
Sarah feels like she's starving, but nothing she tries seems to quell her hunger. Even the sweetest of strawberries taste like sand in her mouth, and when Karen had pulled her birthday cake out of the oven last night and placed a big, sugary Happy 17th! decoration on it she almost despaired.
From upstairs she could hear Toby crying in his crib and Karen's rapid footsteps as she made her way through the rooms to coddle him. Her father didn't seem to notice.
"I think I'm going to the park." She tells him, grabbing her sunglasses, already halfway out the door.
It takes her much longer to make it to the lush area than normal—the heat slows her down and within ten minutes of walking she has already managed to break a sweat. She wipes the back of her neck and then wipes her hand on her shorts. Sarah turns the final corner and glimpses the park; the swans are still swimming in the spacious pond, the trees are still shady, and the grass is still green, but something seems… off about the whole scene, like somebody had taken her vision and messed around with the saturation. Everything seems too bright. She'd think too real if she didn't know it all was—is—real. Sarah shakes her head and clears her thoughts. It's simply much too warm to think in that manner.
Forgoing her normal spots on her favorite bench or beside the obelisk, Sarah instead chooses a slightly cooler place underneath a great oak tree right beside the water. She slides her feet out of her sandals and dunks them in the water, following the ripples with her eyes. The swans don't bother to acknowledge her presence on the other side of the pond.
Sarah rubs her ankle—the sore one, from when she fell—no, I tripped; I did not fall she reminds herself. If she was going to lie about it, she might as well concrete it in her mind. Besides; she wanted to forget as much about that place as soon as was possible.
There are little rocks at the bottom of the pond, and they're perfect for skipping. Sarah grabs a handful and throws them over the serene surface of the water, her concentration broken only by the sound of wings beating the air. She looks up only to see a familiar and unwelcome feathery sight.
"Go away." She rasps, throwing one of her smooth skipping stones at the bird. It screeches at her and she throws another, harder this time, and the rock hit its mark. With a dirty glare at the girl, the owl once again takes wing and flees the scene. A feather falls and lands in her hair, but Sarah does not notice it. Instead, she leans against the trunk of the tree she rests against and half closes her eyes.
The images of her world and another blend together.
There are pillars everywhere; everything's so dark so she can't really see where she's going. Sarah bumps into more than one person and tries to escape their grasp. They hold her tightly, too tightly and she feels like she's going to drown—claws, or sharp nails, scratch at her bare arms.
"S—stop!" She chokes out, but the shadowy figures persist.
She blinks, hard, and wakes herself from her half-sleep with a harsh cry and, looking up, notices that she must have been out of action for a few hours because the sun has changed position in the sky. She shudders, though she knows it must be around ninety degrees by now, and rubs her arms to dispel the gooseflesh. The sun seems brighter, too.
Sarah stares out across the lake—the swans have gone and she's not sure where they are—and stands slowly, feeling her muscles protest the movement. She must have been there longer than she thought.
She trudges back to her house and welcomes the air-conditioning, sighing in the sudden cool air. The colors are more muted in the artificial light, she notices, and is glad for the change. It gives her less of a headache than the sun does.
"Hello, Sarah. Back so soon?" Karen asks, pulling a pitcher of lemonade out from the refrigerator.
"It's so hot out." The girl complains, fanning herself a little to express her distaste of the heat.
"Oh, I don't think it's so bad." Her stepmother replies while pouring a glass of the sticky drink.
"It's ninety degrees!"
"It will go down; just wait. We're supposed to get a big rainstorm and that will cool everything down. And maybe that will make Toby feel better too," she muses, "all of that barometric pressure must be so hard on the poor baby."
And with that, Sarah knows that she has lost whatever attention she might have gained. Though her father and stepmother needed a break from the ill child a week ago, his condition truly wasn't that bad. It had gotten worse, and with it Karen's attentions had become almost smothering. Toby still cried, but his wails had increased to almost tortured screams. He consumed what was given to him ravenously but within minutes he would cough it up; it was rare for him to keep anything down. Perhaps worst of all was that he didn't sleep. Nobody in the household had gotten a good night's rest since a day after then, although Sarah was the only one that counted it that way.
She wonders if he picked up some strange bug from there but quickly puts the thought from her mind. Babies get sick all of the time; that didn't mean that it was otherworldly. Besides—she fought to get him back, she earned him back, she fought through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered for the babe, and he was fine then.
Whatever bug he managed to catch, it wasn't something from there. It probably just was the heat, or weather, like Karen thought. Something like that, something mundane, ordinary and not from there.
Because really, what could thirteen hours do? Toby had been kept relatively safe until she'd been able to collect him; neither of the half-siblings had been harmed, neither had formed any attachments (besides Sarah's new friends, whom she hadn't even been able to speak to after the first night) and certainly neither of them had formed any sort of… attractions. Because after all, it was only thirteen hours, and whatever romantic notions she had held a day or two after her return from the labyrinth had long since been removed.
The third night after her return, Sarah begins to hear something over Toby's screams. It's a strange scratching noise she's sure she hasn't quite heard before, but she doesn't investigate it; no, Sarah stays curled up on her bed, blanket drawn up just over her chin, trying to keep the shaking sight of her body from the owl peering into her window.
Owls really have no business looking like this one does—she's had ample time to study it because it's been at her window, scratching away for four straight nights now—all ghostly and vengeful, with wide, glossy black eyes staring from a pale face.
Sarah dreads the sunset. At least in the daylight the owl looks normal.
Upstairs, Toby's squealing stops. The sudden halt in noise is strange, and it takes Sarah quite by surprise. She has to stand at the foot of the stairs and peer up into the relative gloom for a solid minute before she understands what has happened.
Karen pushes past her and Sarah almost stumbles into the wall. Before she can even regain her footing, Karen is out of sight. A door bangs against a wall, but that is the only noise in the otherwise silent household.
"Robert!" Karen shrieks, and the bottom of Sarah's stomach drops out. Something sounds wrong in the woman's voice, and Sarah runs up the stairs right behind her.
The sight that awaits her in her parents' room is horrifying; Karen crouched over the little boy, crying for her husband to call an ambulance. Sarah stands in a corner, rooted to the spot, eyes wide.
"Karen," her husband asks hesitantly, standing just outside of the room, "what's wr—"
"Call an ambulance!"
"Call a fucking ambulance! He's not breathing!"
I've rewritten this thing about six times, and I'm still not sure if I'm quite happy with it. ):
So yeah… this is a bit different than Sour in terms of genre. And rating. I'm not sure what I've gotten myself into, but here it is! Sarah's seventeen because I feel really, really uncomfortable with her being sixteen or fifteen in this fic, even though one year's difference isn't much of one.
As for updates, they won't be as rapid as Sour was because this is roughly nine times longer than the average chapter of Sour.