"How many fates turn around in the overtime?"
--Tori Amos, "Spark"
"And is evil just something you are
or something you do?"
--The Smiths, "Sister I’m a Poet"
All that the others outside could see was Aeris walking forward, disappearing in the red mist.
Her visibility was limited to a few meters in front of herself. The rest was obscured by the shadowy, deep red clouds. But she knew this path. She could have found her way to the castle if he’d built the entire Labyrinth around it and the Fae forest. She kept straight, felt her leg brush by the fountain, and soon the mist cleared, revealing the shining black castle. There were no goblins, but something was hissing garbled laughter from somewhere in the mist.
She pressed her hand to the obsidian door and shrieked.
It was, surprisingly, very hot.
"Damn you." She held her stinging hand in the other, staring up at the door. "I’m here! I came this far and you’re going to stop me!?"
The deep, throaty chuckle that reverberated from inside the castle and shook its walls made her chest tighten. "Show me how much you want in, Aeris."
Her eyes narrowed, the red tint around them glittering. "Fine." The door flew inward off its hinges.
It righted itself, going backwards through time before she had a chance to walk through. "Oh, no you don’t," the voice said, a snicker on the edge of it.
She had to stop herself from screaming in frustration. It was exactly what he wanted. She made an effort, collected herself. "Alright. Your way. For now." She placed her hands—her artist’s hands—on the searing hot door and pushed with everything she had. It resisted. Her hands felt like they’d caught fire. She didn’t look at them. She closed her eyes and heaved her weight forward.
The door groaned and gave, finally turning open. She had to push all the way just to get an opening big enough for herself to fit through.
She dropped on her knees, rocking back and forth, her jaw tight as she clenched her teeth, holding her hands to herself. She would never paint again. She would never even make a fist again. She began to imagine what her life would be like without hands.
And then the pain stopped abruptly. She was holding the Pandora. She stared at the ruby and pearls, blinking at her hands, perfect and unmarked.
She got up fast, scrambling to her feet. This version of the Castle Beyond the Goblin City was dark and cold, in spite of that door. She looked back at it. There was frost on the black surface of it. She could see her breath in front of her. The space was empty and ragged, and she realized why it was. Necrodemos did not know of Sarah’s transformation of the castle. This was what the great hall had looked like before she’d arrived. While Aeris’ vision of it had changed, Necrodemos’ had not. She felt strangely comforted by that. But she had better things to do than admire the decor.
There was, of course, no answer.
Aeris had a basic working knowledge of how Necrodemos would do things. She’d been in his power more than once, knew how he used her mind against her. She headed down to the dungeon.
In her world, there was no more dungeon. There was a theater. Aeris had confided in Sarah about the time Calypso had locked her down there for a few incredibly traumatic days. Sarah’s response had been to demand why there was still a dungeon in the first place. Jareth, with Sarah and Aeris looking on approvingly, had demolished it magically, and Sarah had seen to it that the empty space was filled with a stage and proper lighting. When Sarah felt out of sorts she would round up a few goblins and teach them Shakespearean plays. She actually had a small acting troupe going of some of the brighter ones. Jareth never quite understood, but Aeris found it hysterically funny.
Those kinds of memories made her descent into the freezing darkness of the dungeon a little easier. This wasn’t the real dungeon. The real dungeon was gone and couldn’t hurt her ever again. But…this was real. No matter what she thought about all of this, it was real, and there was no denying that.
Aeris kept going down. The steps were wide and shallow. They were familiar, but only to her subconscious. She had no idea how many she went down to get to the dungeon. But she knew the voice when she heard it.
The accent was thinner than it had been. The softness of it was gone; hoarse from yelling…or screaming. Perhaps just exhaustion. The words were clear as a crystal moon night.
"Why do you wait? Come for me…come for me. Finish this. Am I mad yet? Does it matter?"
She stood in the opening at the foot of the stairs. The voice drifted from a familiar cell. She crossed the distance, one step at a time. She wondered what he looked like now; if the sight of him would send her heart hammering the way it had before, in spite of all this…if he would even remember her.
"Please answer me. I heard you laughing, answer. God curse your silence."
As she stood in front of the cell, she could see Inigo, sitting far inside. He had always been blade thin; now he was ragged and weak, chained. He lifted his head. He looked at her. His eyes were resigned and empty. Then he put his hands over his face.
"No. Not this way. Not with her again."
"Inigo, it’s me…it’s Aeris."
"Aeris is not a teenage girl!" he screamed. "Aeris is a grown woman living in her little house somewhere and this IS NOT REAL!"
She shrank back, wincing. "I am real! I am! I came here for you…I don’t age like you, Inigo…I promise it’s real, I swear it."
"Am I exactly as you remember?" she demanded. "Look at me!"
"You’re not looking!" She pressed against the bars, waiting.
Inigo looked up at her, slowly and painfully turning his head. He gazed at her, and the expression there in his eyes wounded her. How could she have waited so long to come save him? How could she have been so selfish?
Those dark Spanish eyes traveled slowly over her, studying her face intently, longingly, but with terror sitting behind it. It was the fear that she would become something else, or vanish entirely, taking hope with her. His gaze dropped lower, and found the Pandora. He gasped. "The necklace. What is it?"
She smiled, relieved. "It doesn’t matter now." She pulled at the cold bars. "How…how do I get you out of here?"
"But the necklace…"
"I told you, it’s not important. I’ll tell you all about it later. Is there a key somewhere? Inigo…Inigo?"
He was standing up slowly. His voice was smooth as silk suddenly, the accent sheared off and leaving a bladed edge of ice to it. "Tell me about the necklace, Aeris."
Finally, she realized it was a trap.
Inigo’s face was concealed by the shadows for a single moment. The chains she had thought were binding him were left on the floor as he rose.
In her mind she was already screaming, but her throat locked the way it does in dreams and all she could manage was a choked shout. She was still hanging on to the bars, white-knuckled and unable to let go. He’d done the impossible. She had steeled herself completely against seeing him, but she had allowed her careful guard to drop when she’d found Inigo. And Necrodemos had used it so well she had no doubt as to how anxious he was to see her.
To feed from her.
She flung herself back from the bars, finally letting go as Inigo emerged from the shadows, his dark eyes turned to black orbs, his face morphing horribly to Necrodemos’. The bars evaporated. He lunged. She screamed, one final, echoing cry in the cold dungeon as he leapt toward her.
"Open your eyes, Aeris. Let me see those baby blues."
"Let Inigo see them."
At the sound of his name, she hesitantly looked up. Inigo was there, held chained, this time in the center of the throne room. The reproduction in shining black stone gave it a dark and oppressive feel she had never gotten in the original. The red clouds drifted menacingly outside. They cast a glow into the room, red light and moving shadows. In the throne sat Necrodemos.
He was dressed impeccably, a blue prince’s uniform, smirking faintly, sitting straight up, looking at her. "Do you like my castle?"
She could ignore him for a moment. "Inigo?"
Inigo looked at her. "He knew you’d come." He was furious, drained and weak, but the fire that had been missing from his eyes in Necrodemos’ vision of him was there now. When he looked up at Aeris, they blazed. This was the man who’d drawn the magnificent sword with the six-fingered grip and cried, "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya; you killed my father, prepare to die!" He was unbroken still.
Her heart did backflips.
"What does he want with you?" he asked.
She looked over him at Necrodemos. "My fear."
"Oh, I want much more than that this time, Herald. It’s difficult to explain, Inigo."
His jaw tightened as the creature in the throne spoke his name. "I don’t care to hear it."
"Aeris, your friend has been most uncooperative."
There was a momentary surge of power and Inigo shut his eyes tight in anticipation. All around them, the castle seemed to pulse and grow, the darkness deepening. It ended, the magic dying off, and Inigo was left gasping, collapsed completely.
"What did you do to him?" she shouted.
"I reminded him who was holding the leash. I needn’t even touch him to draw from him. That is how sophisticated I have become."
Necrodemos sounded nothing so much like a bragging pet. And of course, he was.
"Set him free. I’ve come to you; you have no more use for him. Everything you need is right here in me. Everything you want. The last in the line of Heralds. The culmination of all the power in the current and only holder of the title."
"I’ve gone after the only one before. True, I failed. I was stopped time and again. But with you I’ve had more chance than ever. I am strong. I’ve been draining this one for a while, working through his strength." He didn’t say it, but it was clear he was impressed with Inigo. A lesser man would have broken long ago. Necrodemos was changing, becoming insubstantial, the blue of his clothes and cape clouding. "I’m ready, Herald. Are you?"
She stood straight, glancing once down at Inigo, then back up at Necrodemos. "Begin."
He became nothing but blue, violet in the red light, and he swept around her, her hair flying in the wind he made, her eyes closing as he came into her, became part of her, joined to her.
Inigo watched in horror as his tormentor circled and clung to Aeris and finally faded, the cloud sticking against her skin and then sinking in. She let out a sigh when it was done, and she fell to the floor.
Which had ceased to exist.
There was only the dust, the star-filled night, the sound of the ocean from somewhere. The castle was gone, the red clouds were gone; there was nothing there at all. Just himself, unchained and free, and Aeris lying before him, bound in his place.
And the extraordinarily beautiful brunette with hazel eyes running towards him and Aeris.
"Are you alright?"
"Who are you?"
"Sarah, I’m the Goblin Queen…" She marveled at how natural that sounded, at how ‘Sarah Williams’ didn’t seem to even be anywhere near her thoughts.
"From the Labyrinth? And the King…?"
Jareth was there in another moment, kneeling beside Aeris. "Is he…in her?"
Inigo nodded. "What’s happening? Explain this to me."
As Eris and Falkor moved closer, Sarah sat down in the dust beside Inigo. "Well…I suppose there’s time."
Jareth nodded, and began to tell the story that had brought Aeris to him.
She looked around. Comfortable surroundings. Her cottage.
He was letting her begin here? Truly he could not have chosen a better way to show his confidence. All the furniture was in its proper place, the air drifting in from the evening outside the open window was sweet and scented with roses, even her easel stood in the corner. It was the sort of night she’d lived for as a child, drinking milk at the table and looking out at the forest while her mother painted or read or told her stories about the brave Sir Didymus, or the Herald Ghost, or even Atreyu and Falkor and the Ivory Tower. She smiled to herself.
There was a knock at the door. She steeled herself and turned to it. "Come in."
The door opened slowly, creaking.
"My door does not creak," Aeris said flatly.
The sound ceased.
Once it was open, a figure stood there, completely recognizable. "Necrodemos."
"Aeris." He nodded to her. "There are some interesting things here in the woods. Walk with me."
"You don’t wish to know what lies beyond your door? Afraid?" He flashed a smile that chilled her. She was terrified.
"What is it?"
"Let my heart be still a moment, and this mystery explore…"
"Quoth the Herald, nevermore."
He tsked. "Where’s your sense of adventure? Used it all up in the cave with Nerissa?" In a sudden and horrible twist, he mimicked her voice. "I can’t do this…"
She narrowed her eyes. Angry was good. Angry wasn’t afraid. "I did, though. I made it through, and I saw her."
He nodded. "I know." The easel in the corner spun around, and she could see what was painted there. The Hanged Man, the card Nerissa had given her for herself. "Suffering and redemption. How have you sinned, little rose-born?"
Aeris recoiled. "I haven’t!"
"Come out into the woods with me, then."
She took a step forward.
"That’s right. Show me you’re not afraid." He sang softly. "Go forth and meet your lover, go forth and meet your lover, go forth and meet your lover, as we have done before…"
She walked to him, and he extended his hand. "You know you must," he reminded her when she hesitated. She took it. He led her into the night, into the breeze that shifted and danced around them. The trees shook their leaves and whispered things that were almost words. They walked into the woods together, trees enfolding them. "Almost there."
Aeris would have to have been an utter fool not to know where he was taking her. But since she was not, she realized long before she’d even set foot out of her house. It as where she and Jareth had…
She glanced at Necrodemos, ready to reproach him for expecting her to react to this place as deeply as he must have hoped, but he wasn’t there.
He stood over her, the shadows and moonlight dappling his face, his eyes deep and dark and his mouth twisted into a sensual smirk. "So here we are again."
She jerked back from him. "No!"
"Lead me not into temptation, Herald." He moved towards her, closing the distance she was trying to put between them.
"You led me!" she all but screamed. "I never wanted it to be that way! I did what you wanted, isn’t that enough!? I tried to stop and I couldn’t and…" She realized what she was saying. "And this isn’t real. Jareth doesn’t blame me. Sarah has forgiven me. And I won’t allow you to punish me for this. I’ve paid in full."
The world went white.
Sarah’s hand cracked across her face again, leaving her dizzy.
She fell back on the floor in the Ivory Tower, more stunned by the change of scene than the slap, gasping and looking around wildly. Sarah knelt over her.
"Are you certain that I have forgiven you?"
"No. I won’t be happy until you’re dead, and we both know it. You ruined my life. You destroyed my innocence. I hate you."
Aeris shook her head. "No. NO. Sarah doesn’t hate, she isn’t like that."
"You made it all possible."
"This is ridiculous." She glared at the impostor. "Sarah is kind and good and decent and loving and I hurt her, but she’d never become like…"
Aeris nodded, taking the barb without resistance or pride. "Exactly."
Sarah in the Ivory Tower became Stephan in the courtyard. That surprised her. "Stephan?"
"Forget Sarah. You only hurt her once. You never seem to stop hurting me."
"That’s not true."
"You know it is, subconsciously. You use me. I’m nothing but a toy to you. You manipulate me because you know how I feel about you. You rely on me to be your safety net when Jareth hurts you."
Aeris got to her feet fast. "I’ve always cared about you—I mean, Stephan." She distanced herself from the vision, tried to remember who and what it was. "I’ve been cruel to him. I’ve been selfish and self-centered and I didn’t realize it. I do now. That’s what’s important. And if Stephan hates me, then so be it. I can do nothing to correct the past except live in a better future."
"You left me alone to go save Inigo. You risked your life for him."
"I had to. And Stephan knows it. And you do too. Stop toying with me. Show me what else you’ve got. I know you can do better than this."
The images faded out a piece at a time, the fountain, the flowers, the stone walkways, the castle, Stephan. She was left with darkness and stars.
And then Necrodemos. He was standing there, the blue uniform again, his sandy curls falling to his neck, loose, his hands at his sides. He would have been beautiful if not for the cold he emitted. "Poor Stephan."
"He’s not that pitiful. He’s more resilient than you think."
"My impression of him comes from your subconscious."
"My subconscious fears, which I know rationally are unfounded."
"You’ve been listening to Sarah too much. Does that help?"
"Not enough. You taste divine when you cower." He studied her. "I want more than that, though."
She took a breath. "Get down to it. I thought had nothing else to give you."
"It doesn’t seem like you would, does it? You do, though. Aeris, I propose something that will help us both. You may keep your sanity, and I may keep you."
He walked closer to her. She began to shy away, and remembered his words about her taste. She stood her ground with an effort, but her hands trembled. "There is great evil in you. I sensed it before. You’re selfish. You have more tendency to give in to your desires. Your will is weak." He brushed a finger along her cheek. "So you are a villain too."
She turned her head, unable to stand his icy touch. "What do you want!?"
"I want a queen. A sister. A partner. I want you to be the fuel for the fires of my hell. Give yourself and your power up to me without struggle, let me seek ways to feed from you. With your help, I can explore the power that lies beyond your mind, expand my own desires to each and every creature in the Underground. You may learn to draw from them as well.
"Think of it. You may forever bury your guilt. Any choice you make will be right, for there will be no consequences. You have betrayed Sarah, seduced Jareth. Now truly be Judas, be Lilith."
He waved a hand. He had forgotten that the Christian legends he had learned within Inigo’s mind were lost upon her. "I will show you if you agree to what I want. Your friends are waiting outside you. We could begin with them if I had your power on my side." His eyes appraised her body, and she drew back, not realizing what it was he was looking at. "…And that pendant. What is it?"
"A gift." She clutched it defensively.
"Ah. A charm to defeat me? All good and well, I suppose. You assume you can destroy me with it, and it may be possible. But can you defeat yourself?"
She began to ask him what he meant, and then the hand fell on her shoulder.
She knew without turning around who it was. "No."
"Too late," sang her own voice, and the doppleganger pushed her forward with all her might into Necrodemos’ arms.
Aeris shrieked, wanting anything but to fall against him. He held her, turned her around to face herself.
She looked at slender, short girl with long black hair that was not braided as hers was, but flowing loose about her. The streak of white ran down through it, from the left temple to the ends. Her face was the same shape, all the features were recognizable, but the mouth was smiling in an unpleasant way and the eyes were not blue. There were no irises, just the clear black orbs that filled Necrodemos’ own face.
Necrodemos’ hands tightened on Aeris’ shoulders. "The evil in you has waited too long to corrupt the good. Once you opened the gates that day in the woods you could not close them. So you must defeat her now, or she will surely defeat you. And you will be one with me." He released her.
She was left facing her other self. And worse than those black eyes was that she spoke.
"I am the one who kissed Jareth that day in the rain. I am the one who cut Stephan. I am the one who felt no pity when Sarah ran from the clearing. You know me. I am you."
Aeris balled her hand into a fist. "Sarah gave me something for you." She hit her with everything she had.
The punch connected hard, and Aeris’ fist screamed pain up her arm as she hit the bone of the doppleganger’s cheek. Barely fazed, the other lunged forward, and they fell together, rolling over and over.
The first thing Aeris realized was that the other girl was stronger than she was. She also hit harder. Aeris tried to duck as a fist came at her face. She didn’t realize it had landed, only that her vision clouded with sudden bright spots.
Outside her mind, Sarah gasped and jumped as Aeris’ cheek suddenly went red.
Aeris was losing.
She grabbed the other girl’s hands to keep her still, and they rolled again, the double on top of her, reaching for her throat with long, claw-like fingers.
"I hate you," the double whispered. "I hate you."
"I hate you!" Aeris screamed back at her. And oh, it was the truth. But the girl laughed and pressed down harder suddenly, her hands locking around Aeris’ windpipe.
She choked her, her fingernails digging into her flesh. Aeris struggled, feeling her throat tighten and then the air stop. She kicked and fought, reaching out to the other.
She watched her reflection in the obsidian eyes of the double, saw her own face as she gasped for air that would never make it to her lungs. She weakened fast, and it occurred to her as her mind went clear that she would never have had the strength to actually strangle someone.
But she’d gotten through the caves, crawling through the dark that way.
And somehow she’d raced past the gate to the Southern Oracle.
Someone had to have jumped into the fray against the harpies to save Fezzik.
And someone had stood up to Necrodemos.
She realized that she was looking at her. This embodiment of her desires was not just evil. It was what made her capable of it, capable of doing whatever she pleased. She had to control it, had to dominate it. But she needed it.
She began to black out.
She reached up to the girl. She slid her hands around her.
"No!" the doppleganger screamed.
Aeris hugged her.
The grip on her throat released and Aeris coughed and gasped and breathed. Air had never tasted so wonderful. She was alone then, her oxygen-deprived body collecting itself, her throat aching. Her double was gone. "I did it, you bastard," she was choking, rolling over and getting up slowly, looking at Necrodemos.
He was unimpressed. "We’ll just do it the old way, then. Come, Aeris. Let me show you your fears in living color."
"Not this time. Never again."
Aeris’ eyes changed. The red light around her irises flashed and gleamed. She was standing on her feet, angry, fearless, her potential suddenly realized, if not by her, at least in the moment.
She put her hands out before her, and the wind began to blow. "I am Aeris, the roseborn, daughter of Callisti and a hundred before me, descendent of the wizard Asteroth. I am god-daughter of chaos and discord, I am the servant to the Labyrinthine King and Queen. I am the oracle, the seer, the painter of destinies. I am the Herald.
"And I am finished with you."
The wind that suddenly swept around them was warm and rose-scented, like the breezes outside her cottage. But it roared, and it pulled at Necrodemos.
He screamed. He screamed with the terror he had caused so many living things before, screamed with not just the fury of defeat but the fear of death. Destruction was finally upon him.
Aeris knew nothing of what she was doing, only that it had to be done. The black-eyed creature she had held to her was the one in control, the dark impulses that she was wrapped in also bound with strength and intuition. Aeris closed her eyes, feeling Necrodemos being drawn closer to her, his chill aura battling the warmth of her own wind. He was fighting. Images flew through her mind, Stephan, Sarah, Jareth, Inigo, the harpies that had nearly killed her, the dark endless expanse of the fall from the bridge that had not existed, the moment of her mother’s death. She let them go, let them flutter by her as harmlessly as birds swooping close but never close enough to touch her.
The cold was almost on top of her. She forced her eyes open. She met his. The hate and fear combined there was awesome. She would never let another living being look into it. If this thing came for her again, for her friends, for the daughter she would someday bring into the world…
The body he appeared in became blue mist, and it was drawn into the Pandora, deep within the red stone, the ruby glowing amethyst as it trapped the essence of him forever and ever.
She gasped, the wind died. She felt the curse she’d lived under shatter in the wake of it.
It was over that quickly.
She opened her eyes.
Sarah and Jareth were there, and Eris, and Inigo. Falkor was probably close as well. She sat up.
"Aeris?" said Sarah.
"Where…where is he?" asked Jareth softly.
She was looking down at the glowing violet stone with the two pearls on either side, all on the silver chain. She took it off, feeling so weak as it left her. She handed it to Eris. "Put it away please."
Eris put it lightly in the gold apple, closing the catch and sealing it for good.
"Can we go home?"
"Are you certain you’re alright?" Jareth said carefully.
She nodded. "I just want to go home."
"Of course," Sarah whispered, hugging her. "Anything you want."