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Through Deeper Darkness

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            Sarah knew better than to look directly at them. She could study them only through passing glances and from the corners of her eyes. She wasn’t certain exactly what would happen if she ever indicated her awareness of their presence, only that the penalty would be far too high. She had seen them for the first time only a few days after her return from the Labyrinth. Tiny fairies were dancing amongst the boughs of a massive tree by the library. She knew not to look. The knowledge was instinctive. That which mortal eyes were not meant to see could never be acknowledged.

            Only once had she faltered. That one had been so different from anything she had previously seen that she paused to examine it. It was fairy-like, but twisted, with wings like blackened blades. It rose from the surrounding flowers with teeth bared and claws readied. Sarah shifted her gaze to the blossoms beside it and made a comment to Karen, her stepmother, about the beautiful landscaping. From the corner of her eye, she watched it hesitate, head tilted as it studied her. Finally, it gave a slight nod and departed. She understood the rules then. They knew she could see them, but as long as she never made issue of it, they wouldn’t punish her.

            In the month after her journey, she had all but abandoned the park. There were too many of them there. It would be too easy to look for too long. Besides, she had more important matters to occupy her. She no longer had time to live in fantasies. The crushing regret that filled the first days after her return quickly transformed into steely determination. She had to go back. She didn’t belong here. It was up to her to find the path.

            Sarah didn’t regret saving Toby. She wouldn’t allow herself to. His life was never hers to give. She loved him, she supposed. At least, she’d certainly felt something powerful when she rushed to his rescue. She knew that she would fight to defend him. Regardless of what she felt for Toby, she loved the Labyrinth more and she wanted, desperately, to go home to it. She wasn’t ready though. Not yet. She needed to be stronger. A spoiled little girl with no real skills would not be one who thrived in the Underground.

            Her father and stepmother seemed relieved, but hesitant, when she packed up most of her toys and costumes and stored them in the attic. She remembered her stepmother asking if she was certain that she wanted them gone. Sarah had smiled at her and laughed. “They’re not really gone, Karen. Just put away. Besides, I’m certain. I need to find better ways to spend my time than daydreaming.” She deflected their questions about her hours in the library just as easily. “I won’t be a kid much longer. I need to find my path. I love acting, but I want more than that. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life pretending I’m someone I’m not. How will I find where I’m going if I don’t do any research?” Sarah had learned to pick what she said with care. She knew to use her right words. She never told them the real reasons behind her altered priorities, but she never actually lied either. She did her chores without complaint and worked hard to get along with Karen. They were pleased that she was finally maturing and left her in peace. It was surprising how quickly their view of her changed. Karen’s especially.

            With most of Sarah’s childhood possessions packed away, her room was left quite empty. This didn’t bother her. She didn’t need things like she once had. Karen hated it, saying it looked like no one really lived there. They spent an entire Saturday crawling through second hand stores and used furniture galleries. She had new bookshelves, a new dresser, and a new desk. All that remained was her bed, vanity, and the chest that had once been a toy box. Sarah stored her old scrapbooks and mementos in the chest. She no longer wished to be surrounded by images of her absent mother. Karen noticed and smiled, more determined than ever to help her stepdaughter.

            Karen and Sarah spent several weekends working to transform Sarah’s room into something new. They stripped the wallpaper and painted the walls a cool grey that reminded Sarah of stone. They refinished all her furniture with a dark mahogany stain. The patchwork comforter and the canopy over her bed were removed. Sarah chose a deep emerald comforter to replace the one her mother had selected when Sarah was a little girl. It was made from rich velvet and was expensive, but Karen insisted that they had saved so much by choosing used furniture that it didn’t matter.

            Sarah kept the Escher print on her wall, but framed photographic prints replaced the rest. She found a stunning photo of the Longleat Hedge Maze and hung it where it could be seen from her bed. Soon it was joined by images of the Chartres Labyrinth, the Hampton Court Palace Hedge Maze, the Labyrinth at the Basilica of Saint Quentin, and the Overhanging Gardens of Marqueyssac. When Sarah stood in her room, visions of Labyrinths surrounded her. Whether they were inlaid into stone or carved into greenery, it made little difference. She felt comforted by their presence. She told Karen that she wanted to travel someday. Perhaps she could study abroad during college or visit Europe afterwards? Karen praised the idea. In her eyes, travelling abroad was a proper sort of dream for a young lady. It was one that could be achieved and showed clearly that her stepdaughter had finally stopped living in childish fantasies.

            Left to her own devices during most weekdays, Sarah spent hours pouring over every scrap of data she could find on the Fae and the realms they controlled. She studied myths and folklore from across the world with singular focus, filling binder after binder with careful notes. She made friends with the librarians, telling them that she was trying to make decisions regarding her future and was deeply interested in the study of folklore. They were more than happy to help the serious, driven young woman they perceived her to be. She knew they thought that she wanted to be a college professor, though she had never told them that. She didn’t bother to correct their misassumption. There was no point really. It wasn’t as though she could explain her real motives. Besides, she would no doubt focus on studying the same topics in college if she hadn’t returned to the Underground before then.

            One month after Sarah returned from the Labyrinth, she realized that she was no longer studying legends like she would a course for school. Instead, she began skimming the pages until her eyes would catch a shimmer, like heat rising over the words. She knew, as she had known not to look directly at the strangeling creatures she could now perceive, that those were the words with power in them. Those were the ones she needed. She went back through her earlier notes and transferred the important parts to her new binder. All the rest went into the trash.

            At first, the shimmer appeared only over written words. Sarah assumed that was simply the limit of her ability. Limited though it was, she was grateful for it. She was certain it would help her find her way. The first time it appeared over an object, it clung to a gift Karen gave her. Karen had gone to an estate sale with one of her friends while Sarah watched Toby for the afternoon. There, Karen found a painting, an unsigned original canvas, depicting a Venetian masquerade. No one else even seemed to notice it, but she thought of Sarah’s dreams of travel and bought it on a whim. She thought the colors would go well with Sarah’s recently redecorated room. Sarah stared at the painting as though entranced and Karen happily accepted her thanks, thinking no more of it. That night, Sarah spent hours staring at the painting. It was beautiful, compelling, terrifying. It thrummed with power. She knew it depicted the dream masquerade she’d once been trapped in. She recognized the revelers. It reminded her of things she was better off forgetting. It reminded her of Him. Sarah hung it above her bed where she could avoid looking at it and tried to ignore the strains of familiar music that wafted above her every night as she fell asleep.

            The day after Sarah received the painting, she noticed the shimmer in front of her vanity mirror and around the red-covered book that prompted her journey. These things have power in them, she realized. I can see enchantments. She wanted to summon her friends in the mirror. It would be so nice to see them again. She wanted to tell them everything that was happening to her, to hear their thoughts. She wanted them to know that she was coming home as soon as she was able. She resisted the urge. They had already earned the Goblin King’s wrath by helping her. She didn’t want to risk causing them even more trouble. Part of her was afraid as well, afraid that they would tell her to stay in the mortal world. She knew she wouldn’t be able to forgive them for it if they did. It was better to wait until she could see them in the Labyrinth.    

            After two months of research, Sarah was certain that the Labyrinth was only a small portion of the Goblin Kingdom and that the Kingdom itself was only a small portion of the Underground. She was also certain that she hadn’t truly seen the Labyrinth itself, only an aspect of it. The Sarah that had walked into the Labyrinth was a child and it had presented her with a face that a child could process. She doubted it would be so friendly the next time. She would need to be prepared for whatever awaited her return, though she wasn’t sure how to go about that. It doesn’t matter, she told herself. I’ll just keep looking until I find the answers.