A/N: This is my first fic, so please be gentle! More chapters to come as I edit them.
She was dreaming again...always the same dream, always the same place. Ancient stones, older forests, watched over by the sullen light of a dying sun – every night, the same dream. The gates swung open, and her traitorous feet carried her forward, no matter how many times she screamed and struggled, helpless in her own head.
Such a pity...
His voice, echoing in her bones, his final warning to her. She had been so foolish, so arrogant – she had thought it was a fairytale, just another one of her stories. She didn't know that it would change her, haunt her, make her so different.
She had beaten him, in the end, or so she thought. She had won. She had fought her way, though dangers untold, and hardships unnumbered, to the Castle beyond the Goblin City. She had faced the Goblin King, there in the shattered remnants of the Escher Room. She had said the words that undid him, said them with a casualness she hadn't felt, a calm that her pounding heart and aching chest had proved a lie.
And yet even then, she had felt regret – no sooner had the words fallen from her lips then she wished she could take them back. His eyes had tightened, with pain or maybe even fear, and he had thrown the crystal before his tattered cloak had swirled into feathers.
Such a pity...
She had been too young, too immature, to understand what he was offering her. Even now, some seven years after that fateful night, she wasn't sure if he had been sincere...or merely desperate not to lose. But the peach dream had frightened her – not because of what he'd done, but because of the way she had reacted. Her body had betrayed her, yearning for something she wasn't ready to accept. When he took her in his arms, her nerves had sung with something dark, something forbidden, and it was that desire that had broken his spell. His gloves couldn't conceal the heat of his hands, scorching her skin even through the tightly corseted bodice of the gown she had worn. His shoulders had been taut beneath her hand, as though he were restraining some terrible force, and when he sang she heard her name in the echoes between the notes.
The dream swept on, carrying her with it, and all too soon she was reliving those terrible words, that moment of destruction.
You have no power over me...
Sarah woke with a start, jerking against the tangle of sheets. Her skin was damp, and her heart pounded, but the dream was over, and she was alone.
She rose reluctantly, stripping the sheets from the bed as she went, and made her way down the short hallway to the bathroom of her tiny apartment. Reddened eyes and dark circles met her gaze from the mirror, and her long dark hair was snarled around her face.
Seven years had passed since she ran the Labyrinth, and for seven years she had the same dream, every night. The same nightmare. Every night in her dreams she ran the Labyrinth again, over and over again, forced to relive her own foolish pride. Trembling hands started the shower, and she stripped out of her sweat-soaked nightgown.
She was older now, her hips wider, her legs longer, but so little else had changed. Still a hair too thin for her frame, still pale and seemingly innocent. Well, perhaps not so seemingly – her time in the Labyrinth had changed her, made her different. Her peers had noticed it, even if they could not name it, and they responded with distance. When she had graduated high school, she had taken a job in the city, working for a little used bookstore, and moved into her tiny apartment without a backward glance at the town where she grew up. No friends to leave behind made for an easy break. Toby, by contrast, had grown into a gregarious, personable little boy, with an ever-changing roster of best friends.
The hot water pounding on her skin made her feel a bit more human, and by the time she gathered her purse and keys, she had nearly forgotten her nightly torment. But the tune she hummed under her breath on her walk to work was one never heard Aboveground.
The bookstore was unusually busy for a Thursday, and while it was stressful, it also made Sarah feel proud. When she had hired on, the bookstore had been on the verge of going under – books well into the red, late on rent and utilities, with no customer base and no reputation. Sarah had been the one to turn it around, sitting down with the owner one night over coffee and laying out her ideas. Her imagination served her well, and she spoke with confidence, and by midnight she had convinced the owner to run with her plan.
Sarah had been the one to set up the digital inventory, and the accounts with the online resellers. Sarah had been the one up late so many nights, researching the rarer books, posting them up for auction, boxing them up and shipping them off. She had been the one who spent six Sundays in a row in the alley behind the store building new shelves, and three Saturdays scouring thrift store and flea markets for a few chairs and a sofa. She'd even been the one who painted the mural in the children's section, of a hedgemaze, and a castle, and the dying sun setting behind it.
It took three months, once the store was done, for her efforts to begin to bear fruit, but in less than a year she had brought the little used bookstore firmly into the black again, for the first time in years, and the owner was able to actually draw a salary. Sarah got a nice raise, as well, though she tucked it away in her savings account every month.
At closing time, she harried the last few browsers out of the store, but by the time she finished straightening and counting and feeding the store cat, the sun was a swollen orange blister on the horizon, and the early fall wind had grown more cutting than she had expected that morning.
A few brown leaves skittered around her ankles as she walked the six blocks home to her apartment, early casualties of September. As the sun set, shadows gathered in the alleyways, reaching thin tendrils out beneath the streetlamps, and Sarah picked up her pace. She didn't like being caught out after dark, especially with the tang of lightning and rain in the air.
She made the turn onto her block, and cursed softly under her breath. Every street light but one was out. Thankfully, the one still burning was in front of her door – at least she wouldn't have to fumble for her house keys in the dark – but as she drew closer she felt a chill grip her throat.
Perched on the lamp post was a fawn and white barn owl.