An alternate title for this chapter can be "Down Once More," in my effort to incorporate another Phantom reference, lol.
Hello, everyone! It's hard to believe it's been two years since I last updated—yikes!—but going for your Master's is quite time-consuming! I did, however, manage to work on this chapter here and there, and now I have it for you! I had a lot of fun writing it (it's probably my favorite thus far, next to "King's Antics"), and so I hope you enjoy it as well!
The first sensation I become aware of is a sharp frigidity; it causes gooseflesh to ripple down my arms, and the hair on the back of my neck to shiver.
Blinking, I attempt to take in…wherever it is I am. Darkness, it seems, is the only thing that greets my sight.
Inky, cold darkness.
Seconds later, however, my black surroundings dissolve as more concrete shapes begin to emerge. Soon, I feel a hard surface beneath my feet, and I learn I'm standing on a stone floor. Shadows withdraw to the fringes of what appears to be an almost translucent hallway. Rows of pale, glimmering pillars tower over me, descending from the writhing, black mass that comprises the ceiling. The outlines of these columns glimmer with a soft, unearthly light—the only illumination in the room.
Cautiously, I reach out to touch one of the pillars, yet my fingers feel nothing but air.
What is this place?
Turning my attention from the nearby post, I peer down to see what's at the end of the hallway, but the area is shrouded in dense fog.
Something tells me I'm supposed to go through there, I reluctantly reason. Glancing back behind me to make certain, I see nothing but a wall of murky shadow. Facing the fog again, I take a deep breath in effort to steel my nerves.
Okay, God, I pray, guide me through this place. Protect me and show me the way out. That monster, that thing, might be nearby…
Warily, I walk forward, keeping my eyes trained on the pillars before me. They glimmer like ghostly beacons in the thick haze, lining my path.
Aided by the glowing columns, I make it down to the end of the corridor in a few minutes. Before me, two balls of sapphire flame hang suspended in the icy air, shedding their burning brilliance on an ornate door. Its wooden surface carved with unknown symbols and jagged designs, the portal looms before me in imposing silence. The handle of this grotesquely decorated gate resembles (creepily enough) a grinning skull.
I stare at the handle, willing myself to grab and turn it.
The sound of something skittering behind me causes me to start; I whirl around and see nothing but murky fog. My heart thudding in my chest, I flinch when I hear the sound again, and it sounds like something metallic…of the arachnid sort.
Maybe it can't see me, I hope thinly, and lost me in the fog…?
The metal creature suddenly lets out an ear-piercing scream, and I hear the sound of eight legs scurry across the stone floor like knives being sharpened.
I instinctively grab the skeletal knob—that creature's headed right for me!
I tear open the door and fly through its opening just as I see a dark shape with fangs lunge for me. Slamming the portal shut, I hear the creature crash into the wood surface with a thudding clatter. The door trembles in response to the sudden force, but it fortunately remains closed.
The skittering noise resumes after the spider has regained its senses, an irritated pacing back and forth.
Probably trying to find a way in. Well, there's no chance I'm letting it in here!
The creature's frustrated pacing slows to a stop, and its sharp steps eventually retreat from the door.
Glad the arachnid has given up, I breathe a sigh of relief. That was a close one.
But where I am I now?
From the wavering glow of more sapphire fire above me, I find I'm now in a small, stone corridor. An archway houses the end, implying there must be a larger room beyond.
Too bad this isn't Zelda. I could bottle up some of that flame and take it with me as a light source at least.
I remain absolutely still, closing my eyes to shut off the sense of sight entirely. Tuning into my surroundings, I focus on the thick silence in the corridor. Attempting to pass through the mental blanket, I strain to hear anything from the next room.
Trailing a hand along the stone wall near me, I slowly move a few steps down the corridor.
Suddenly, echoing cries reach my ears.
My eyes snap open, and I attempt to gaze into the dark expanse just before me. The cries came from somewhere to the left, beyond the corner of this passage.
Silently, I sneak farther down the corridor. Dropping to the floor, I hug the wall to my right and wait for my eyes to adjust to the darkness.
I risk a peek from my hiding place and lean out into the room, hoping to catch a glimpse of whoever is crying for aid. My answer comes in the form of a small, glimmering birdcage that dangles from the ceiling by a thin chain.
And the unfortunate occupant of this glowing prison is none other than Phalax.
With the cage as my light source, I scan the room and find there's nothing else in the area aside from the dreary stone walls and ceiling. Certain it's safe, I stand to my full height and rush to the pixie.
"Phalax!" I say, causing the winged imp to turn in surprise.
"Jareth's elf lady-friend!" he exclaims, gripping the bars in relieved excitement. "Get me out of here!"
"I'll see what I can do," I promise. "How did you wind up in that cage?"
At my question, the pixie's wings flutter in anger. "After that cloaked creep disappeared, I went on with my daily business."
I narrow my eyes in disapproval.
"Hey, don't give me that look," he squeaks in annoyance. "For your information, I wasn't stealing anything…at the moment. We pixies are there to innocently enjoy the festival, too. I was listening to a bard when that man came out of nowhere. He snatched me up and threw me into some kind of portal. I must've blacked out because the next moment I woke up in this cage," he rattles the bars, "a cage that—won't—open!"
"Whoa, calm down," I reply quickly, wanting to pacify him. "Can't you get out yourself? You know, reappear outside of the cage?"
"You don't think I've tried that already, lady?" Phalax retorts sourly. He reaches a small, dark hand outside the bars, and his fingers meet the glimmer of a small field. "I can't get through it."
"All right," I say. "I'll try to get you out then."
I step back from the cage in order to examine it more properly. With its domed ceiling and decorative bars, Phalax's prison certainly resembles a bird's cage; as can be expected, there is no door. This means the field around the cage should be tackled first.
When the pixie touched it, the field had shimmered like it was a small-scale version of a Barrier. From what I've observed, Barriers seem to issue and dissolve only by the ones that create them. But since this field is of a lesser degree, can I override it somehow?
With the cage illuminating the room, I glance around for an object. Anything like a rock or brick would help. If I used enough force, perhaps I could break the field. After all, I imagine it would be stronger on the inside because it's designed to keep something in, not out.
I drop to the floor, my eyes traveling across the rough surface, ready to spy any loose bricks or debris. Unfortunately, the blocks all appear to be evenly set in place. I rise from my place and make my way to one of the walls.
"Hey, lady," Phalax's impatient voice cuts into my thoughts, "I'd like to get out while I'm still my young and handsome self!"
"I'm trying," I reply, biting back annoyance. "Just…sing a song or something while you wait. Quietly, please."
I hear him grumbling, and the cage trembles a bit as he settles down at the floor. His murmuring fades into the background as I focus my attention back on my task. Even after running my hands along the walls, I can't find anything of use. I retrace my steps back to the skeleton door, but between Phalax's room and the intricate door, I can't find anything that can be of aid.
I just don't seem to have any tools to work with, I sigh with disappointment, deciding to head back to the pixie. As I reenter the room, I chide myself. I shouldn't give up just yet. I just need to reassess the situation.
I rescan the area, taking note of the walls and their distances from the cage. Phalax's prison sways slightly as its occupant moves about inside. Swaying.
My eyes widen as a solution begins to form. What if I don't need to use something like a rock to break the cage's Barrier? What if I could strike the cage against something larger than itself?
Excitement beginning to grow, I glance up at the chain connecting the small prison to the ceiling. Gleaming like a pale ribbon in the light, the fetter reveals itself to be made of small, thin links. Thick enough to hold a tiny pixie at bay, but nothing larger. If I could add my weight to the load it's already bearing, the chain should probably break from the strain.
Now, how to get there? Hmm.
I think for a moment, and then stand just before the cage. Now that I'm close enough, I can hear the pixie singing a raucous song about a drunken elf.
Masking a smile, I interrupt his self-entertainment. "Phalax?"
His little face comes into view. "Did you want me to sing something else?" He grins devilishly, his tone suggesting the song was meant to be an insult.
I ignore his comment. "Phalax, I'm going to try something, and there might come a moment when you are dangerously…jarred. If this plan works, the field should break, and the instant you get an opening—"
"I don't want to be in this cell any longer than I need to be, lady." He replies tersely.
"Good," I say. "Just be ready in case this works."
He nods, and his face disappears from view.
I take a breath, considering my surroundings. The cage is a bit too high for me to just jump up and latch on to it. I'm going to need to be a bit higher if I want to grab ahold of the chain itself. So that leaves…the walls. Once more, I gauge the distance between the cage and the surrounding surfaces. I glance down at my boots; hopefully there will be enough traction.
I walk to a corner and face the wall farthest from my location, keeping in mind where Phalax is in relation to my position. Alright, God. Let's do this.
I take a running start, crossing underneath the cage and toward the wall I've targeted. Leaping, I plant my dominant foot on the wall. I spin to face the cage, which is now well within my grasp, and I push off the wall toward it.
Phalax's eyes widen in surprise when he see me lunging through the air toward him. "What are you—!"
His exclamation is cut short when I grab the chain above, causing the tiny prison to rock violently.
Straining with my dangling weight, I slowly pull myself up the chain until Phalax is level with my stomach. By now, my hands are almost to the ceiling—good. Gripping the links tightly, I swing my legs so they are parallel to the opposite side of the cage, and I plant my feet against the ceiling. Ignoring the pixie's shrill protests as he and his prison are encased by my body, I push my feet against the ceiling and pull with my hands.
C'mon, I think. Give way before I do.
I simultaneously push and pull again, the added weight causing the chain to grow dangerously taut. Tense in anticipation of the fall, I yank on the cord a third time and feel it tremble.
"Okay, Phalax," I say through gritted teeth, "this is it!"
I give one final wrench, and the chain suddenly snaps. Within that dangerous second, the two of us fall toward the stone floor. Swiftly, I free three of my limbs from the cage and I twist to face the ground. My hand gripping the links connected to the tiny prison, I swing the cage toward the floor with all my might. As I make contact with the brick floor (landing awesomely like a cat, I might add), the gleaming cage strikes the stone surface with a resounding clang! There is the sound of something cracking as the prison recoils back from the blow, and I watch as the field around the cage shatters, the shards dissolving as they break apart from the enchanted Barrier.
Before the object can strike the floor again, I hear the familiar pop! and Phalax appears in the air just before me.
Relieved that the stunt actually worked, I breathe out a sigh, waiting for the tension to thaw from my body.
Phalax, however, isn't content to wait for me to recover. He angrily buzzes into my face, exclaiming, "What were you thinking?! You could have killed me!"
I feel a smirk curl my lip, feeling like Jareth. "But I didn't," I reply, "and you're now free."
He sputters with indignation and proceeds to hurl insults about my (supposed) elf parentage. His cursing continues as he darts around the room.
Watching him, I chuckle softly and sit up. "You know, you're adorable when you do that."
My amusement causes him to stop short of his rant. He turns and glares at me in cold silence.
I wave off his scowl and remind him, "But, like I said, now you're free. So, if you don't mind, I'm going to see if there's any way out of this place. Stay here if you wish." Standing, I give him a mock curtsey, choosing a flourish of the hands since I have no skirt, and turn to exit the room.
Just as I reenter the corridor, I hear a small voice cry out, "Wait!"
I look back at the pixie and watch as he slowly flies up to me in repentance.
He stares down at the floor, not willing to meet my gaze. "…Thank you for saving me."
"Don't worry about it, Phalax." I reassure him. "No one would want to be stuck in a cage like that."
"Um," he starts when I turn to continue, "can I come with you?"
At my nod of consent, his wings perk up and he chirps, "Great! Thanks, lady!" He buzzes toward me and contents himself with sitting on my shoulder. With one dark hand gripping my braid, he takes his other and points down the passage, "Lead the way!"
As we proceed down the corridor, I shake my head slightly. Silly git.
The encouragement of having a companion seems to bolster both of our spirits, but that hope soon withers as we face the skeleton door again. Phalax seems to sense my hesitancy because I soon feel his emerald eyes looking up at me.
"What's behind the door?" He asks cautiously.
"Well," I reply, "there's a hallway with pillars and fog, and one very hostile, metallic spider."
He's silent for a moment. "Ah. Just that. And, um, how big is this spider?"
I return to the memory, reluctantly reliving the scene when the creature was lunging for me. "Including its legs, the spider spans about two feet. With that in mind, be sure to hold on tight because I'm going to be running very fast. Look for any kind of exit, any door at all."
"Yes, Captain." The pixie salutes in an attempt at cheer.
For a moment I stand there, straining to hear anything beyond the door.
But all I hear is silence.
"Okay," I whisper, resting a hand on the grinning knob. "Opening the door a little in three…two…one."
I turn the handle and inch the door open a bit. When we peer out, however, we find the room has changed. I swing the door wider, confident our spider is gone, and we take in our new surroundings.
The long hallway with its mist and pillars has vanished. Now there is a large circular room, its shadowed walls faintly illumined by seven crystals lining the perimeter. Each shimmering vessel contains flickering wisps of flame. The ceiling stretches far beyond the beacons' amber glow, instead deciding to house the spacious room under a dome of murky darkness. But that is not what grabs our attention.
In the center of the room, swirling in and out of the wavering light, are outlines of dancing figures. Women spin in shreds of shadow while men nimbly glide in garments of gloom. There seems to be no music, but rather a stifling silence saturates the ghostly ballroom. Despite the absence of rhythm, though, the spectral dancers move together in rotating unison.
Cautiously, I take a few steps forward. I keep my eyes trained on the phantoms before me. They don't seem to take notice of my sudden presence. Still…something doesn't feel right.
Looking away from the swirling mass, I decide to inspect one of the crystals. But where there were seven, I now count thirteen.
Unnerved by this sudden change, I look back to the skeleton door, but it has vanished.
"Elf-lady, look!" Comes Phalax's whispered exclamation.
My mind whirling, I turn to see where he's pointing.
A few feet away, gleaming in a light all its own, is a banquet table. Keeping one eye on the swirling dancers, I cautiously make my way to the table for a better look. Presented on a cloth of spun gold, a sumptuous feast is laid out before us. Platters of gleaming silver display clusters of dark grapes and scarlet apples; other polished trays hold moist meats and warm bread. Additional tempting victuals include slices of cheese, vegetables of unusual vibrancy, and pastries of crème and cinnamon. All of these delicacies are carefully arranged, positioned to captivate and please the wandering eye. At each end of the table stands a chair, both objects displaying high backs and arms of ornate decoration. Set before them are plates of fragile porcelain and gleaming silverware, complete with silver goblets.
A table with an elaborate feast for two.
I back away while fear begins to constrict around my heart, dizzy as the desire to flee intensifies. I grip the back of the nearest chair for support.
Feeling the weight of the pixie upon my shoulder, I whisper tightly, "Phalax, fly above and see if you can find a door."
I get no response.
Unease slithering down my spine, I look down and, instead of my companion's small form, a dark hand rests on my shoulder.
Then that means…!
I whirl around with a gasp, horrified to see my companion is indeed the monster himself.
Although he retains Jareth's height and slender build, his former disguise is but a fragile, external shell covering this new form. His body seems to melt into the darkness of the nearby dancers, his form comprised of shifting gloom and oppressive shadows. Upon seeing my expression, he smiles, a cracking leer that slowly tears itself across his face.
In one swift movement, he tightens his hold on my shoulder, causing the Spirit to shoot through me like lightning, and he wrenches me into the sea of dancers. As I stumble from the sudden momentum, his hand sliding down to grip my wrist, I collide into the specters closest to me. Although the apparitions appear as vaporous as mist, their bodies are revealed to be more solid; the moment I make contact with them, something like a frigid chill stings my skin. Recoiling, I turn to stare at the apparitions—and I see they have no faces. Instead of expressions of annoyance or disgust, their blank countenances are smooth like glass, as though the figures are mere puppets animated by shadow.
Disturbed by my ghastly surroundings, I pull away from my captor's grip and struggle to press and weave my way through the ghoulish gathering. For the first time, as I push past them, the dancers hiss and shriek in revulsion, the sounds muffled by their lack of mouths. The strange cries ringing in my ears, I try to ignore the icy teeth biting my arms and back and I concentrate instead on getting to a glowing crystal several feet away.
"How the bird tried to fly," a hollow voice whispers, and I feel a hand seize my wrist again and jerk me back into the nightmarish mass. "And yet she discovered she remained trapped within her cage still."
I use the momentum to deliver a punch to the monster's abdomen, but my fist passes through the soft, chilling substance of shadow; I yank my hand back, wide-eyed.
"We never finished our dance, my dear," he whispers, and his words melt into the stifling air, each syllable heavy with the grimness of death. A lash of shadow tightens around my waist, traveling up my back and arms, forcing my body into the position for a waltz. I stare up at him, hoping to glare in defiance, yet my courage quivers: the creature wears Jareth's face like a paper mask, yet inky shadow brims behind his lips and where eyes should be; veins of shadow travel down the sides of his face and throat, their black trails vanishing into the darkness that pulses behind the facade.
Seeing my wavering expression, he proposes, "Shall we continue?"
My heart pounding in my head, I resist against the movements I sense the tendrils of shadow command my body to perform. My partner, whose touch emits the Spirit's fiery alarm, settles a hand on my waist and confidently grips my hand with the other. With the lashes of shadow digging into my arms and spine, I watch as my free hand snakes itself up to his shoulder, and we begin a waltz. Despite my taunt refusals, I find I am unable to overpower the indicated steps, and we whirl in unison to the introduction of a mocking melody's shuddering strings. I have no choice but to be swept into this creature's twisted orchestration.
The dancers allow us to enter the flow of the dance as they swirl to the trembling violins' cues. As the music swells and lulls, the dark villain twirls and bends me accordingly, the blood rushing to my head as I am pulled up and directed to spin once more. The dancers jeer, and my partner snickers, their haunting faces begin to blur in my heightened, dizzied sight. As I am further spun like a fragile marionette, my arms beginning to ache, I become aware of the heaviness of the darkness, the song, the motion. Together, they all press against my senses, threatening to stifle me and overwhelm me completely. Yet, still, we dance, the monster extending me out for a lone twirl before spinning me back into the merciless rhythm. Then, suddenly, he has vanished, and another companion takes his place, a faceless, lithe man, whose touch freezes like ice; he soon spins me to another dancer, then another, then another. My mind reeling, my body numb from the memorized steps, I sense I've been returned to my original partner only because the shadow mask is once again leering down at me, and his embrace is devoid of frigidity. I long to rest, yet the tendrils of shadow force my body to remain upright as we ceaselessly rotate.
"Yes," my partner echoes, "within her cage still…"
God, I plead feebly, feeling darkness beginning to cloud my mind, sensing my knees will buckle from exhaustion at any moment. Save me, please…
The sound of glass shattering pierces the shrill of strings, causing the melody to collapse into a cacophony of shrieks—
And I find I'm suddenly falling, limbs flailing, down into a deep darkness, away from the garish ballroom and its twisted inhabitants. Free from the shadowy creature, I embrace the plunging feeling of my heart in my mouth, of cool wind blasting my face, the surging freedom of vast, empty space. Despite the potential danger I find myself in, a part of me is relieved to be plummeting down a darkened hole into only God knows where. Anywhere is better than with that monster and his minions! My relief in free-falling is cut short, however, when an inhuman cry of rage resounds through the darkened corridor. In the midst of my tumbling, fear floods my body as I glimpse a large dark shape hurtling toward me. Although all I can see is vague shadow, I can tell the creature, darker than the inky surroundings, is gaining speed.
Knowing there's little I can do, I squeeze my eyes shut, drawing my arms and knees up to protect my body.
Suddenly, there a deafening peal of thunder that causes the void to tremble, jolting my senses. I glance up, and see the creature has struck some kind of barrier. There's a burst of light as the creature strikes against the shield in fury; in the fiery flash, I catch a glimpse of large claws and the curved surface of a horn.
"Let me in!" the beast roars, slashing at the protection.
As he drives his claws into the invisible surface again, I feel a searing pain tear into my chest.
Fear coiling through my being, I watch, wide-eyed, as the monster pummels the barrier once more, and he is once more without success. The flash momentarily illuminates fur, sharp fangs, and eyes that blaze with violent intensity, and again pain spears my body.
"That realm is mine to conquer!" He roars.
Then comes a voice that seems to suspend all disorienting motion and chaotic sound:
She is Mine.
I hear an angry howl of pain, and then everything goes black.
I stir, feeling as though I've just been hit with a ton of bricks. I reach up a hand to my forehead: my head aches from a relentless pounding inside, and I feel feverishly warm, utterly worn out. As I breathe in deeply to steady my nerves, I become aware of a cool, pleasant softness beneath me, a tender fabric which serves to waken me more fully.
My bed, I realize gratefully. A terrible, terrible nightmare, that's all it was.
I slowly prop myself up with the elbow of my free arm, the headache already beginning to ease up. I inhale again to clear away the fog in my mind, opening my eyes—and freeze.
I'm not in my bed, not at the inn.
Tight, icy fear returns, and I numbly take in my immediate surroundings.
I see I'm lying on a small, velvet couch, the kind, I recognize with a flash of anger, used for Victorian women who had fainted. The warm emotion thaws my fear a bit, and I look around me. It seems I've been placed in a small circular room of pale stone, the small couch set to one side of the enclosed chamber. There are no doors or windows, instead there being only an iron lamp that hangs from the ceiling, holding a vibrant flame of ivory white. I swing my legs over the edge of the velvet couch, eager to find a way out of the enclosure, when a movement to my right catches my eye. Ignoring my body's cry for more rest, I leap to my feet, fully alert.
Jareth, or rather the monster assuming the fae's form more fully, leans his full weight against the curved stone wall, a gloved hand grasping the rough surface as though the body is grateful for the support. The man is dressed in a white tunic contained by a vest of dark brown, completed by breeches and leather boots of a darker shade. From the way his breath comes out in ragged gasps and his form staggers, it is like this villain has just barely managed to escape some great danger within an inch of his life. His eyes catch my rising, and he manages a wry smile.
"So," he rasps, "the fortress remains impossible to overcome, does it not?"
His words are a riddle to me until the memory of the winged beast clawing at the barrier, the simultaneous pain I'd felt, flashes in my mind. I suck in a breath.
"My heart," I murmur thinly, "the relationship I share with Christ… You—you tried to sever it?"
The man turns his face more in my direction as a means of affirmation. "That certainly would've been cause for concern, yes?"
I grit my teeth, hands clenching into fists at my sides. "How dare you. You sicken me!" I spit, watching him gather strength to push off the wall and rise to his full height. "Who the heck are you? What kind of twisted, psycho game are you playing? Why are you murdering the council members? Why did you put me through that utter nightmare of a dance? I want answers, and I want them now!"
He closes his eyes as a weakened chuckle escapes his lips. "No pretense, no pride with your enemies—you are blatantly honest when it matters. That's what I like about you."
"Then I expect you to answer just as honestly." I challenge. "Or do you want another taste of God's power?"
The smile vanishes, and his eyes harden in memory. "Brava," he concedes. "Then let us talk. No need for the violence I sense you desire to inflict on me at the present moment, yes? Not that you are in much of a state for it."
I narrow my eyes, avoiding the barb in his last statement. Talk? This man, this creature, who murdered council members, spread fear and distrust in Umbral, killed Lionel, framed Jareth, stalked me and kidnapped me and forced me to participate in sick, nightmarish dances, created some shadow twin of me, and even had the gall to challenge God's authority, now wants to talk? He actually agrees with me?
"As if." I reply flatly.
He purses his lips in patience, but a smirk gleams in his eyes. "I have the answers you seek," he says simply, "and you would be unwise to not make use of this opportunity while I am in a generous humor."
Well, he has me there.
In answer to my silence, he waves a hand. The couch vanishes, and two ornate chairs of ebony wood appear in the center of the room; they face each other with a space of about six feet between them. The villain, gesturing with one hand that I should take the seat closest to me, makes himself comfortable in the chair opposite mine, having recovered from his ordeal quickly. His position indicates he is at ease with his environment from the crossing of one leg over the other at the knees, and the gloved hands resting casually on the chair's firm arms, yet his expression is attentive, even open. His body language is so like Jareth's that it is uncanny.
"Fine." I say tightly, and I stride over to the empty chair, slumping into it and crossing my arms to demonstrate my wary reluctance (though I really am glad I can sit and rest).
The man half hides a smile of amusement behind a hand at my action. The grin, though, soon vanishes as his expression folds into a cool seriousness, and the hand drops back to lounge on the wooden arm. "Well," he begins calmly, "what would you like to know?"
I force myself to take a breath. As much as I would like to punch the guy's face in, if he's sincere in his offer, I need to be thinking clearly. Okay.
"How many questions do I get?"
"As many as I am willing to answer."
I think for a moment. "What are you hoping to gain by killing the council members? A new council? Yourself in power?"
"Oh," he says casually, "I don't care for any of that. That was all just a bit of fun, really."
I bristle. "Fun? You think murdering others is fun? Why?!"
"Disorder, chaos," he elaborates, "the feeling of accomplishment that comes from when what exists has been successfully orchestrated by your own hands. The public will never embrace Christianity now, even with Jareth let go."
I avert his eyes in attempt to control myself, choosing to grip the curled ends of the arms beneath my hands. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't throttle you right now." I growl.
He waits a moment, and then replies thoughtfully, "You, and him."
I stare, cold unease slithering down my spine. "Why," I whisper tightly, "this obsession with Jareth and me? Are he and I truly the real reasons for all of this?"
He lowers his head slightly, yet his gaze remains fixed on mine. "Figure it out," he challenges me firmly.
Attempting to ignore the swirl of emotions knotting in my stomach, I lean against my chair's high back and avoid his gaze so I can think.
I first encountered him in the marketplace, and all of our encounters since then have indicated he has a twisted fascination with me, as well as a flair for mystery and drama. He clearly wants to destroy Jareth's reputation, and he knows about Christianity, knows that it's all real since he tried to sever my connection with Christ. He can shadow 'Jump,' and has a signature similar to Jareth's. But there are still some things that don't quite add up.
I glance at him. "How do you know about Red Death, about Phantom of the Opera?"
"I choose not to answer that," he replies with an arched brow.
Masking my irritation, I review the information again, letting my mind stray over variables for patterns. Mirrors, masks, shadow, nightmares, dreams. Dreams. Could he be…? "The dreams I've been having," I venture, tensing when his face lights up, "that figure…was you?"
"Getting closer," he confirms with a sly smile. "Think harder, further."
After a stretch of silence, I admit, "I don't know."
His eyes flash, and he leans forward on an elbow, bringing one foot to rest on the rung below his chair. "Come, come," he says with a bit of impatience. "You have the pieces. Do I need to put them together as well?"
"Well, since you clearly have all the answers," I shoot back, frustration warming my face, "why don't you just tell me?"
He regards me silently, before answering, "I allow you one more question, then I want to hear what you think is the truth."
One more? Then what happens? I wonder. If I figure out everything, what will happen to me? No. Stay focused, Chris. God's watching out for you. You'll face whatever this creep has in mind when we get there. Now, think!
After a minute has passed, his voices cuts into my thoughts, "Time's up."
I look up from my pondering. I know what to ask—here goes.
"What is your name?"
There is a ghost of a smile, approval, at my question. "I have none," he admits freely. "I am but a mere shadow, empty, void, yet never satisfied."
A shadow, a darkness that is never satisfied. My mind's eye flashes to Jareth out on the balcony, the sun setting before him, the golden rays bathing his form in warm light, casting his shadow upon the stone floor behind him.
That's it! I realize with sudden clarity. That explains everything!
"You're Jareth's flesh!" I exclaim.
"Well done." The villain replies, offering a slow clap, "I knew you would get it. The internal made external, as you have noticed with goblins who become faeries. You weren't there when Jareth accepted Christ. At the moment he changed from goblin to fae, he was thinking of Christ. At that moment, he was thinking of you, of your mind, your imagination." He stands suddenly and passionately, "At that moment, I was made physical!"
In response to his sudden movement, I spring forward, throwing a punch to his abdomen. He evades to the right, and so I spin to face him, shaking off sudden dizziness and snapping my foot up to strike his chest. He steps back easily, my foot attacking only air. I lunge forward to close the gap between us, aiming to drive another punch to his abdomen through sheer force; if I can get him off balance, I'll be able to deal more damage.
Anticipating my move, however, he sidesteps the attack, seizing my wrist and twisting my arm behind my back. Pain sears up my arm into my shoulder. "You're still predictable—you haven't changed." He hisses behind me, and then he finishes his monologue. "At that moment, I was born, though he didn't realize it. At that moment, you and Jareth became my sole thoughts and desires, my obsessions!"
I jab the elbow of my free arm into his solar plexus and twist out of his hold, leaping back from him to gain some distance; I shake my head clear when my surroundings threaten to tilt away from me.
He regards me with a new intensity. "And as you and other spiritual kin know, the flesh walks without a moral compass, against God, and its desire is insatiable!"
This…anti-Jareth, I realize in horror, is absolutely insane, the sinful nature made literal! No wonder he challenged God in that nightmarish ballroom. No wonder he's gone to such great lengths to slander Jareth's reputation, done everything to destroy his character! He is opposition itself!
…The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so...
Romans. God had placed the answer—all of the answers—right in front of me, and I didn't even realize it!
I swallow, my throat feeling constricted, as a new, scary thought enters my mind. "So," I force myself to ask, "what happens now?"
He smiles, a grin that shows his gleaming teeth in the pale firelight, and his expression makes my skin crawl. "I'm so glad you asked!"
The chairs vanish, and something like a crack is heard splintering the tense silence. I flinch at the sound, looking for the source. I glimpse it close to my left, and see a fissure cutting into the stone wall. It curves upward jaggedly before skittering down to create a tall arc. Multiple veins slice their way underneath the archway, connecting one side to the other. Once complete, the arch looks as though it contains the labyrinthine network of a spider's web. Suddenly, the sound of shifting stone thunders in the small room, and the arch moves toward us, pale dust blooming as it is inched out of its firm placement. Once it has slid several inches into the room, it shudders to a stop, dust settling on the floor around it. A door, I realize in astonishment. But to where?
I shoot a look to the nameless conjuror for an explanation, which he seems more than willing to provide.
"You see, Christine," he begins, folding his hands prayerfully while he keeps his eyes trained on me, "there is a very good reason why I have brought you here—"
"And where exactly is here?" I growl.
"All in good time." He assures me. "I desire first to talk about you. About us."
I scoff, wary of his movements. "Yeah, right. There is no us."
"Oh, really? I happen to know that after your first visit to the Labyrinth, you found your daily, commonplace life to be rather dull and predictable after your exciting episode with the Goblin King. You may have not wished a person away, but you were craving an adventure that was far different from the studious, ordered existence you lived. And Jareth—I—was able to grant that wish…though," he shrugs lightly, "I believe it was a shame that it had to be in so controlled a manner."
"Controlled." I echo. "What do you mean by that?"
"Why, the Labyrinth, of course." He answers, slightly surprised by my question. "When Jareth first encountered Sarah, he molded the Underground after her fantasies and desires, a realm that later became a cinematic template for the other Runners who would follow after her. You, like the others, imagined the Labyrinth as she did, and so I had to abide by those rules. That was your power, though you probably did not realize it. You, specifically, wanted a contained adventure, one that was familiar, challenging, with a touch of fear, yet one that ensured your victory."
I find I have no words to counter with, feeling the truth beginning to sink in.
He presses on. "Why else do you think it was so easy to refuse the traps that had been set for you? You envisioned a quest in which you would win ultimately, and in order to do so, it would have to be in a familiar environment, one you knew like the back of your hand. And, despite some efforts on my part, I gave you that victory. I chose to meet those expectations, however juvenile and simple they were…and I think it is only fair you return the favor."
His last words cause fearful anger to awaken my adrenaline. I don't want to see where this conversation is headed. "I don't think so!" I cry, lunging for his throat.
He moves forward to meet me, and the surprise on his face is priceless when I instead drop to the ground and sweep my foot toward his own. Caught off-balance, he crashes to the stone floor on his back. Within that second, I rise halfway to my full height before slamming the heel of my extended foot down toward his ribcage; he nimbly rolls away, and pain jolts my leg as my foot strikes stone instead of flesh and bone. I wince, withdrawing my injured leg underneath me as he begins to rise to his feet. I spring into a rising hop, driving my good foot into his stomach before he can block or evade the strike. He stumbles back, shocked that I've landed a blow.
"Good," he gasps, "you've finally learned charging forward isn't always the answer. Sometimes, misdirection is." As he completes this last sentence, he dissolves into shadow.
Before I can figure out his location, I sense the air shift behind me. I whirl around, fists ready, but he is quicker. Strong hands seize my wrists, thrusting them down in a kind of crossed lock. When I look up, I see his face is inches from mine. "But as amusing it would be for us to spend our time fighting it out," he says casually, "you would do well do conserve your strength, my dear. I have something special planned!"
My answer is to try to kick him in the groin.
Anticipating this, however, he twists to the side, raising my hands up as though we are once more partners in a dance. My kick passes harmlessly by him, and I am spun away so that he crosses my arms over my waist, creating an unusual lock that, between my own arms and his body, I am unable to wriggle out of.
"Sarah limited him," he hisses over me, "she limited the Labyrinth with her small, naïve mind. But here, in this netherworld, there are no rules. I am free to take from your imagination as I please!" There is an earnestness in his voice that sends a chill down my spine. "But…" his voice softens to disappointment, "perhaps I was too hasty, too premature to consider you a worthy opponent. You are not the same girl I faced in the Labyrinth before." He exhales in thought. "Something is different, missing."
"Wait!" His exclamation causes me to flinch, and suddenly I've been released, pushed away from the villain as an idea has struck him.
I whirl around to face him, wary when I perceive his countenance has lit up with excitement. I consider lunging for him again, but I halt when he raises a gloved hand, and there is suddenly a blinding flash of light from the lamp above. Shielding my eyes, I sense wispy movement, and feel the heat of something warm rushing by my raised arm. Lowering my hand, I see the man holds a flickering white ball of flame in one of his palms.
He gives me a mischievous smile. "Perhaps this will help you." With a grunt, he casts the flame to the ground. It explodes between us in a white hot blaze of brilliant, blinding light.
I stagger back from the unexpected blast, seeking refuge against the cool stone wall. As a wave of heat washes over me, white light outlines my shielding fingers, a brightness that soon bleeds into a golden, fiery red. At the change in color, I venture a peek between my fingers, the sight causing me to drop my arm and stare in fearful astonishment.
Before me towers a massive creature that must be at least fifteen feet in height. A colossus of gleaming fire and ash, the beast's muscular body is sculpted of molten lava and brimstone, and its hands and feet sport sharp claws that glimmer like obsidian. Its face, however, displays a skull-like visage, a black bearing of gleaming sockets and a burning cavernous mouth; this death mask is completed by horns that twist downward, framing the face like a demonic crown.
Staring at this immense monstrosity in horror, I shrink back against the curved wall behind me for support, my heart beating like a frantic bird against my ribcage. My trembling fingers find something hard and fractured—the stone door. Fear tears through my mind, sweeping all thoughts away to make room for the sole fledgling that screams of panicked flight.
The villain steps out from behind the scorching giant, his voice cutting through my frozen fear and causing me to flinch. "Your desire to kill me was written all over your face," he says crisply, his voice allowing me to tear my eyes from the fiery beast to its creator, "and I believe it is that same rage that has altered you. So, what better way to conquer it than to face it?" He takes a step away from the molten creature, as though appraising it. "I believe you would call this a type of Balrog, yes? Mm, I do think this should do quite nicely."
The feeling of movement underneath my hands causes me to spring away from the door. I back away from the stone portal, watching as it slowly grinds against the floor in effort to swing open. Beyond it, my eyes drink in the coolness of night, a frigid moon revealing a bricked pathway enclosed by high, sturdy walls. Dread knots in my stomach at the familiar sight.
I shoot a look at the villain, who gestures with a gloved hand to the outside realm and flourishes a smile. "I think you know what to do, Christine. Welcome back to the Underground!"
The Balrog steps forward, leaving a smoldering step of lava in its wake, and roars, a deafening clap of thunder that spews ash and hot embers.
I need no further persuasion as the instinct of adrenaline-fueled flight takes control and I run out the small enclosure and down the slender pathway. My feet pounding the bricked ground, I see a second path branch out on the left, and I swing around the corner. Another deep roar shakes the quivering, cool air, spurring my frantic legs to move more swiftly; the creature sounds closer, which means it must have entered the Labyrinth. I power down the corridor, screaming down a right turn when a thought cuts through my frenzied mentality.
Of course, why didn't I think of that before?
I skid to a halt and face one of the moon-washed walls. With a running start, I lunge for the center, then twist and push off for the opposite wall's ridged top. One hand grasps the rough surface, but my other hand is successful in grasping the edge lining the other side of the wall, allowing my arm to lie across the top. By swinging my legs and grasping the edge of the wall farther away, I manage to pull one of my legs up, resting my knee on the bricked surface. I extend my bent arm so that my second hand can join the one I've placed farther over—
"Not so fast!" a voice hisses. Gloved hands yank me up by the forearms with surprising strength, and I'm face to face with the villain once more. "You tried that last time with Ludo, remember?" he taunts. "No cheating!"
To my alarm, he shoves me off the ledge and toward the bricked ground. Knowing I don't have enough room to twist and land, I tuck my head in toward my chest and draw my arms and legs in. Pain spears through my back and neck as I strike the hard surface, causing me to cry out. In my dazed vision, I glimpse a burst of shadow overhead and know my tormentor has vanished. I roll onto my hands and knees, blood pounding in my head, yet I'm relieved I haven't broken anything. I stagger to my feet, using the wall nearby as my support. Shaking my head to clear the foggy pain, I freeze when I feel the ground tremble beneath my feet, and the stench of ash stings my nostrils.
The Balrog stomps around the corner, its hulking form forced to turn slightly sideways so that it can pursue me down the corridor. It sets its smoldering eyes on me, and booms a third fiery roar. Then, despite the slender space, it picks up its massive feet and charges toward me!
I turn and shoot down the dark path, feeling a blast of heat at my back and legs. I glimpse a clearing up ahead and burst through it. A quick glance shows a series of five pathways, trails that frame a naked tree in the center of the clearing. I dash behind the tree, close to a path on my left. It is not long before the Balrog joins me in the empty expanse, and the path it has just exited is swiftly sealed off as a wall erects itself up of its own accord. Okay, so that cancels the plan of just running back to the small room.
The fiery beast lunges for me, burning and melting through the tree as if it is flimsy paper. I dart to a path on the far right, relishing when Balrog crashes into a nearby corridor and lets out a searing cry of fury. So, it looks like speed is my advantage. I use the precious seconds to race down my winding path. By the time the creature has picked itself up and lumbered after me, I've put considerable distance between us, now jogging down corridors that lead to other networks and sprinting up steps that open to hedged mazes and skeletal trees.
Eventually, I slow to a walk once I reach a stone clearing featuring myriad large, ornate statues of faeries, merfolk, and other whimsical creatures. Although the sculptures look stunning in the pale glow of the moon, now isn't the time for sightseeing. I run to a stone centaur and clamber onto his back to that I can peer over the walls of the passage I just came from. Relieved I no longer can see the smoky glow of my rage-filled nemesis, I dismount and choose a random corridor. Along the way, I pass a moondial, which a pixie statuette perches on.
Well, I allow myself to joke thinly, at least he didn't give me a time limit this time.
I jog down the passage and find myself in another bricked clearing, one which features large tin soldiers and ballerinas and tomes of books, all of which are surrounded by the walls of a hedged maze. Spying a series of stacked books with a lone tome leaning against them, I decide it works as a decent hiding place for now. I run to the shelter, glad to crawl into the shadowed enclosure.
I sit down and lean against the wall of stone bindings, stretching my legs out so that my feet touch the end of the propped book in front of me.
I heave a deep sigh, relieved when the knotted tension and adrenaline finally begin to unravel inside. For a moment, my mind is empty, void of thought or inclination. All I feel is the hard, reliable spines of stone books at my back, and the cool bricks beneath my legs and hands. I inhale the deep, frigid air.
Then utter weariness seeps into my mind and body, painful aches permeate my muscles, and warm tears of fear, fatigue, and frustration brim in my eyes. Then the tears are streaming down my chilled face, and a sob tears from my throat, constricting my breath into pained gasps. I draw my knees to my chest, and bury my face in the folds of the long sleeves of my tunic.
Oh, God… I weep. Oh, God!
So there you go! I hope you enjoyed this new chapter—thank you so much for your patience! Please let me know if any of this does not make sense or needs further explanation (the latter, though, I may disregard for the sake of later chapters). Because it is a crucial part to the story, and because we've covered a lot of ground, I want to make sure we're all on the same page plot-wise. I'll put any answers here at the end of this page. As for any discussion questions, I suppose I only have one for you this time:
1. Do you think Christine asked the right questions? What would you have asked in her place?
Thanks, readers! I hope to get working on the next chapter soon!
P.S. A guest reviewer on Part 1 mentioned the idea of doing a Legend fic in this same vein. Although I don't know if that idea will happen, I did think of Legend when I was writing the ballroom scene and when describing the banquet table. So I suppose you could call that a small tribute. :)