Wishful Thinking

Riddles and Risks



Something was wrong. As soon as Stephanie set foot on the other side, she peered through the trees and saw walls instead of forest. Sarah never mentioned that. But Stephanie figured anywhere was better than the Bog of Eternal Stench.

She moved away from the swamp and stepped inside the walls. The sun was setting again.

Meanwhile, Jareth was looking for her. He knew where the chute was supposed to end, so he was flying toward the Bog of Eternal Stench. He spotted Jeremy, who was answering the riddle of the two beings with shields that Sarah had named Alph and Ralph. He could see that section had been moved and that way no longer led to the castle.

Jareth flew over the Bog of Eternal Stench. There was no sign of Stephanie. He flew higher and saw that she was making her way through another section of walls. She had advanced farther than he expected on her own.

Stephanie had just reached a wall with a face. It seemed to be a dead end, but as it had a face, she figured there must be something special about it.

“Who are you?” Stephanie asked it.

The wall wore a sour expression. “You expect me to give my name, when you haven’t told me yours?”

“Oh, sorry. I’m Stephanie. And you?”

“I ain’t got a name.”

“Oh.”

“And I don’t want one, neither.” The wall squinted at her. “I expect you want to pass.”

“Does this way lead to the castle?”

“Who knows. You want to pass or not?”

“I guess I want to pass,” Stephanie replied.

“Then you’ll have to win a game of riddles,” the wall said. The wall behind Stephanie folded to block her in. “If you lose, I’ll dump you in an oubliette.”

Stephanie wished the wall had mentioned that before she agreed. “Who’s first, then?” she asked.

“I’m tall when I’m young, and short when I’m old. What am I?” the wall asked.

Stephanie thought about it. Several answers came to her, but she decided on, “A candle.”

“Your turn,” the wall said.

“What has to be broken before you can use it?” Stephanie asked.

The wall furrowed its brows. “An egg.”

“Your turn,” Stephanie said.

“What is full of holes but still holds water?”

“A sponge. What question can you never answer ‘yes’ to?”

The wall frowned, then said, “Are you asleep yet? What goes up but never comes down?”

“Your age. What can you keep after giving to someone?”

“Your word. A man who was outside in the rain without an umbrella or hat didn’t get a single hair on his head wet. Why?”

“He was bald. What is always in front of you but can’t be seen?”

“Air.”

Stephanie smiled, and the wall’s expression fell. “It’s—”

“I get one more try,” the wall said. “Germs.”

“It’s the future,” Stephanie said.

If the wall had hands, it would have smacked its forehead. “D’oh! I can’t believe I missed something so obvious. Fine, fine! You can pass.” The wall opened, and Stephanie stepped through.

“Well done,” Jareth said, making her look up.

Stephanie saw that he was perched on top of the wall. “You, too, finding me again so quickly.”

He flew down and took the lead again.

Stephanie felt the ground rumble beneath her feet. “Another schism.”

“It’s pointless to worry about it,” Jareth said. “Focus on fixing time.”

“Jareth… Jeremy said the labyrinth was your heart. Is that true?” she asked.

Jareth hesitated to answer. “It is. What of it?”

“Why would you do something like that?”

“I had been betrayed one time too many.”

“By Jeremy?”

“He wanted the throne,” Jareth said. “I was victorious, of course, and banished him from the underground.”

Stephanie was quiet while she considered what he had told her. ‘For all its quirks, its traps, its nonsensical rules… I’ve grown to like this place. If the labyrinth is truly Jareth’s heart, can he be all bad?’ she wondered.

Night fell again. Stephanie couldn’t see and walked right into a wall.

“Ow,” she said, holding her face. It was a good thing she wasn’t running.

“This way,” Jareth told her, holding her wrist in his foot while he flew, leading her on.

Stephanie’s eyes adjusted, and she saw that they had entered a hedge maze. A cool wind blew up from behind and swept over them. She heard sounds like creaking branches behind her. She looked back. The hedge walls were coming together like a zipper, smashing together and locking into each other.

“Time to run again,” she said and took off running, almost hitting the wall while turning a sharp corner. The ground shook beneath her feet and bucked like a wild horse. She staggered and held her arms out to balance herself while the ground rumbled and rolled. A widening rift opened up before her. The gap between her and the side she wanted to be on was growing fast. The hedges were closing behind her even faster. Stephanie turned and ran back the way she came.

“What are you doing?” Jareth yelled.

She stopped short of the closed hedges, turned on her heel, and ran back the way she came. The hedges zipped up behind her. She rushed toward the edge of the rift and jumped with all her might. The hedge missed her by inches. She hit the ground right at the edge of the rift on the other side and rolled away just in time to avoid going over as it widened to include the spot her feet had touched. Stephanie panted and lay there for a moment, watching the rift. It stopped growing, and the shaking subsided. She pushed herself up into a sitting position.

“Are they supposed to do that?” she asked, talking about the hedges.

“No,” Jareth replied, landing next to her. He looked back at the solid wall of hedges behind them. The labyrinth was getting worse.

“We have another problem,” Stephanie said, staring at the white unicorn in front of her. Its pearly coat seemed to glow in the dark.

The unicorn snorted at her and dragged its hoof across the ground, preparing to charge.

“Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” Stephanie began to sing, conjuring up Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody in her head. “Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality…”

She continued to sing as she inched her way around the unicorn, which hadn’t yet made up its mind about the song yet. But it let her pass and continued to listen. She backed away from it, but it followed her, nodding its head along to the music. The unicorn had decided it liked the song.

Unfortunately, it kept following her, wanting to hear more. She tried running, but it pranced after her. Stephanie was reaching the end of the song. “Oh baby—can’t do this to me baby, just gotta get out—just gotta get right outta here.”

Just when she thought it couldn’t get any worse, another unicorn showed up from the opposite direction. It was black, so she almost missed it in the darkness. She heard it before she saw it. She was startled. She kept singing, but there were only so many words left. “Any way the wind blows…” She started scrambling for another song, but the unicorns were already scratching the ground with their hooves and aiming their horns at her.

“There’s such a sad look deep in your eyes, a kind of pale jewel,” Jareth sang, surprising her. She looked up at him. He was perched on top of the wall. That gave her an idea.

While Jareth sang a song about love and the world falling down, she put the golden sword between her teeth, grabbed hold of the vine growing up the side of the wall and climbed. She climbed and climbed until she reached the top. She pulled herself up and very carefully stood up, balanced on the top of the wall. She looked around, trying to decide the best course of action.

Should she walk along the top of the wall or drop down to walk on the other side of it? The stone wall was damp and a little slippery. Dropping down seemed the safer choice. Better to make a controlled drop than risk falling on her head. Stephanie gripped the wall as tightly as she could and hung from the top, letting her feet dangle as close to the ground as she could get them. She let go and landed on her feet.

Jareth finished his song.

“Thanks,” Stephanie told him.

“I’ve already put in so much work with you, it’d be a shame to have to start over,” Jareth said.

Stephanie thought it looked like he was almost smiling at her. “Well, we wouldn’t want that.”

They started moving again. After several twists and turns, they reached the door to something like a giant bird cage.

“What’s this?” Stephanie asked.

“Just what it looks like. Keep your head covered. Once they’ve captured your head, getting them off is almost impossible.”

“Them?”

“Are you familiar with the wiseman’s hat?”

“Yes.” She had seen it once before, at least.

“It’s not a hat. It’s a type of bird that lives in the labyrinth.”

Stephanie covered her head with one arm and opened the door. “Of course it is.”

They were upon her in an instant, flapping and yapping about what a nice head she had and asking about the quality of her thoughts. Stephanie kept her head covered and hurried to the other side of the cage with Jareth, where they quickly exited through another door and slammed it shut behind them. Some of the hat-birds couldn’t stop in time and flew into the bars.

A bolt of electricity struck Jareth. He dropped like a rock.

“Jareth!” Stephanie exclaimed.

“Come away from him, Stephanie,” Jeremy said, holding out his hand to her. He stood about two yards away from her.

Stephanie scooped the stunned owl up and held him in her arms. “No.”

“You would choose him over me?”

“At least with him, I know where I stand.” Stephanie backed up. “Choose you? I can’t even look you after what you’ve done!”

Jeremy took a step closer to her. “Stephanie—”

The walls of the labyrinth shifted. The wall on her left swung around to cut him off, blocking him from view. The wall on her right swung the open, creating a new path for her. She held Jareth close as she ran, trying to put as much distance between herself and Jeremy as possible.

Stephanie wasn’t sure how far she ran or for how long, since night suddenly became noon, but she had definitely lost Jeremy.

“Jareth,” she said, trying rouse the Goblin King. “Jareth!”

Jareth groaned. “I can hear you.”

“Are you all right?” she asked. She kneeled down and set him on the ground. He stood up on his own, but there was something different about the way he carried himself.

“No. My wing was wounded,” he said, gingerly unfolding it to show her. There was a burn mark where Jeremy’s magic had hit him. “I can’t fly like this.”

“Then I’ll carry you,” Stephanie said.

“You will?” Jareth asked.

“You’ve helped me,” Stephanie said. “I should return the favor, right? You may have had your own reasons for doing it, but you still helped me.”

That was her noble heart talking. Jareth thought he could count on that. Even if she didn’t think he owed him, she wouldn’t leave a defenseless creature to fend for itself.

He could feel his magic growing stronger, little by little. Thanks to their shared experiences, she was starting to believe in him. And something else was growing in him, feelings of admiration for Stephanie.

“He seems desperate to be with you, my brother,” Jareth observed.

Stephanie shook her head. “He helped break up my family (which nearly destroyed me), seduced my mother, took advantage of my illness to get closer to me, and then calls it ‘love’—that’s not desperate, that’s sociopathic. No offense.”

“How would you define ‘love’ then?” Jareth asked.

“I think that, at its core, love is the wish for another’s wellbeing. There might be many variations on it—romance, friendship, familial love—but it all boils down to the same thing. You want that person to be happy.”

“Even if it isn’t with you?”

“Yes.”

Jareth eyed her critically. There was something in her face that made him ask, “Are you speaking from experience?”

“Yes. There was a boy I liked, but he liked someone else,” she replied sadly. Her voice and expression were calm, but it seemed clear to Jareth that it still affected her. “So I had to let him go.”

“You didn’t fight for him? I wouldn’t expect such weakness from you. You can’t have loved him all that much.”

That made Stephanie angry. “Sometimes letting go is harder than holding on. I just told you that loving someone means wishing for their happiness, even if it isn’t with you. If I had tried to force him to be with me, we’d both be miserable. This way, at least one of us could be happy.”

“If you’re too selfless, it will only lead to more pain for you,” Jareth told her.

“Maybe, but it’s my choice to decide who I’d rather hurt,” Stephanie said.

“How can you choose pain?”

“Because I’m not as weak as you think I am.”

Jareth didn’t really think she was weak. He couldn’t have asked for a better champion. But to argue the point seemed dangerous. Stephanie seemed to be in the kind of mood where any argument could snowball out of control. He couldn’t afford for her to get angry and quit, so he kept quiet.

They walked in silence after that, with Stephanie carrying Jareth and the golden sword.

“Think we’re heading in the right direction?” she asked eventually.

“The castle seems to be getting closer,” Jareth replied.

A forest loomed up in front of them, but they could see the castle rising up above it. It was in ruins, the cladding stones mostly gone, grass growing in the gaps they’d left. The turret roofs had collapsed, and brambles were choking the tower.

“Any idea what we’re walking into?” Stephanie asked.

“It looks like the forest that used to be by the Bog of Eternal Stench.”

“I hope it still leads to the castle.”

Stephanie walked through the forest. For a change, nothing jumped out at her or tried to chase or maim her. She was grateful for that since her hands were full. She wondered how long it would last.

She walked and walked, until she came to a ravine so deep that she couldn’t see the bottom. It stretched as far as she could see. The only way across was a rickety, primitive suspension bridge.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Stephanie said.

“It’s the only way across,” Jareth said.

Stephanie peered over the edge and gulped.

“Don’t tell me you’re scared? You?”

“I’m not scared, I’m nervous.” Stephanie looked at him. “And what do you mean, ‘You?'”

“You’ve been dauntless in facing the challenges of the labyrinth so far. There’s a fire in you that can’t be extinguished.”

“Wow, I had no idea you thought so highly of me.” She looked back at the bridge. “But what if a plank breaks? With my hands full, I won’t be able to grab anything, and we’ll fall.”

“Then I’ll walk,” Jareth said. He would do whatever it took to get her across. If Jeremy beat them to the castle, they would have to fight him to fix the clock and keep him from getting control of the labyrinth.

Again, Jareth took the lead, treading the planks with his taloned feet. Stephanie followed behind, still holding the golden sword in one hand.

Stephanie’s fear came true. One of the planks, which had easily supported the weight of an owl, broke with a crack under her, and she dropped straight down. She screamed and managed to catch herself at the last second, holding onto the plank in front of her with one hand. She lost one of her shoes. The ravine was so deep, she couldn’t hear it hit the bottom.

She grunted from the effort of hanging and slowly raised her other hand, which was holding the sword. “Take it,” she told Jareth. She needed another free hand. Jareth bit the sword and held it in his beak. He moved away to give her more space. Stephanie grasped the plank she was hanging from with her freed hand and pulled. She managed to get her arms up on the plank and crawled and pulled, crawled and pulled until she was laying on the bridge, staring down through a gap in the planks at the deep darkness she had almost plunged into. She took deep breaths, and carefully maneuvered herself so that she was kneeling.

“That was a close one,” she said. Jareth returned the golden sword to her.

“Too close,” he told her. “You’ll have to be more careful.”

“Right,” she agreed.

Cautiously, she stood up and grasped one of the handrails of the bridge and put one foot in front of the other, testing each plank before she trusted it with her full weight. A few more planks broke, but she didn’t fall.

Stephanie released a huge sigh of relief when she set foot on solid ground again. She took off her other shoe. It was difficult to walk with only one high-heeled shoe. She hoped she wouldn’t encounter the acid swamp again, because she didn’t know what she would do. She couldn’t go in there with bare feet, or she’d be burned. “Good thing I’m not wearing stockings, or they’d be toast by now.”

Jareth looked at her bare feet. “You plan to continue like that?”

“What other choice is there?” Stephanie asked. They both knew she had to keep going. She picked him up, ready to continue.

Three Fireys jumped out at her from behind some large rocks.

“What’s happening?” the first demanded.

“It’s a lady!” said a second.

“Hey, lady! Where you goin’ with a dress like that?” asked the third.

Stephanie was wary. She had heard from Sarah about how a group of these creatures had tried to remove her head.

“Don’t get involved,” Jareth told her.

Stephanie would have liked to follow that advice, but the Fireys kept jumping in front of her. “What do you want?”

“What, us?” the second asked.

“Hoot!” the first said, rapping out a fast rhythm with his fingers on a rock.

“Wa-hoo!” the third said, setting up a cross-rhythm.

“We’re just havin’ ourselves a good time.”

“Okay, well, good luck with that,” Stephanie said and tried to push forward again.

They jumped in front of her again and slapped their sides at her reply. They laughed maniacally. One let out a whoop and slapped his knee.

“She said good luck!” it howled.

“Yeeeahhh!”

“Hey-ey!”

“Get out of the way,” Jareth ordered them.

They didn’t seem to recognize him.

“Hey, lady,” the first Firey said. “What’s with the owl?”

“He’s your king,” Stephanie replied. “Don’t you recognize him?”

King?” the second asked.

“Then where’s his crown?” asked the third.

“Hey, lady! You lookin’ for a castle?”

” ‘Course she is!”

“Can’t have a king without a castle!”

“You sure you know what you’re doin’, lady?”

Stephanie wondered about that. Did she? Part of her had begun to trust Jareth, really trust him. That would have been unthinkable two years ago.

“She ain’t answerin’!”

“Then how about us comin’ along a little, hey?”

“We’ll take you there.”

They cavorted in a frenzy of excitement, hooting and screeching.

“No thanks,” Stephanie said as Jareth said,

“Absolutely not.”

“You think we’re just too wild?” The Firey’s head rose up from his shoulders as he spoke, and he had to grab it in his hands and press it back into place.

Another did a big drum roll. “Why, shoot. We ain’t that wild.”

“Oh, yes, we are,” the third said. He took his head off and began kicking it around like a soccer ball.

“Cool, man!”

“Now look, little lady, you can’t just go walkin’ through this place on your ownsome.”

“I’m not alone,” Stephanie said.

“I’m with her,” Jareth said.

The Fireys burst into hysterical laughter, hooting and hollering.

While they were slapping their sides, Stephanie pushed through them and made a run for it.

“Hey, lady!” one screeched. “Where you goin’?”

“Don’t you want our help?” another asked.

Stephanie answered by picking up the pace. She was just about to lose them when she had to skid to a halt. For some reason, the ground in front of her was covered in burning coals. It was only about eight feet across, but it stretched on several miles to either side. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” She looked down at Jareth. “Really?”

“I didn’t put it there,” he reminded her.

“But you made it,” she pointed out.

The Fireys caught up to them.

“Hey, lady! You gonna fire-walk?” one of them asked, and they all whooped and hollered with excitement.

Wild!” the others cheered.

“This ground is so hot, it’s wild!” the first one said, stepping forward to put one foot on the burning coals. After a few seconds, his foot started to smoke, and he pulled it away. “Y’ouch! Wild, right?”

“You don’t want to do that, lady,” another said.

“Yeah, how about we take off your head instead?” the third said.

“Then we can play together!”

Stephanie tightened her grip on Jareth and the sword. They were closing in on her. She turned and ran onto the coals.

“Stephanie!” Jareth said, alarmed.

She kept running. She ran all the way to the other side and didn’t stop until she was back on cool earth again. “Ahh, that was so nerve-wracking!” she exclaimed, checking her feet for damage. She had the beginnings of a first-degree burn in a few small spots on her foot, but nothing serious enough to keep her from walking.

“What were you thinking?” Jareth yelled at her.

“I was thinking it took a few seconds for his foot to burn, so as long as my feet were only in contact with the coals for less time than that, they wouldn’t actually burn,” Stephanie explained. “And I was right.”

The Fireys were yelling at her from the other side of the coals, saying how wild she was, but they didn’t cross to come after her.

“Were you worried about me?” she asked Jareth.

“Anyone would be,” he said, turning his head away from her. “Besides, what do you think will happen if you injure your feet and can’t walk anymore?”

“Ah, right,” Stephanie said. The last thing she wanted was to let Jeremy win. “I’ll be more careful.”

“Good,” Jareth said.

“If I can,” she added. The labyrinth was an unpredictable place.


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