Sarah gasped. The whizzing blades were rapidly drawing nearer.
Hoggle was pawing pathetically at the great door and mumbling to himself.
But Sarah wasn’t listening to him. She was looking around for an escape—above, below. She dashed along the side walls, looking for a handle or button. There had to be a way out. That was how the Labyrinth worked. There was always some trick, if only she could find it.
The clanking, whirring, seething, brushing noise was louder. She glanced momentarily at what Hoggle was doing. He was still just scrabbling at the door. It was no use trusting to him. What could she do? What?
Her eyes fell on a part of the wall, to one side of the door, that looked distinct from the rest, a panel of metal plates. She pushed it and felt it give a little.
“Hoggle!” she shouted above the echoing din.
“Sarah!” he answered, hammering his pudgy fists against the door and kicking it, as though it could be expected to relent in the face of such frustration. “Don’t leave me!”
“Get over here and help me,” she yelled back at him.
Hoggle joined her. Together they shoved with all their weight at the metal plates.
“Come on,” Sarah told him, “push, you little double-crosser. Push!”
Hoggle was pushing. “I can explain,” he panted.
The panel caved in suddenly. They fell through the space it left and sprawled flat on it.
Behind them, the machine slashed through the air just beside their feet. When it reached the great barred door, there was a terrible crunching sound as the knives and cleavers bit through the wood, spitting it out as splinters, which the whirling brushes swept up neatly. The machine was cranked along by four goblins, standing on a platform behind the wall of knives. They were grunting and sweating with the effort of turning handles and working levers to keep the contraption whirring. The racket clattered onward, through the demolished doorway, and off into the distance.
Sarah lay on her back, recovering her breath. Hoggle looked down at her. “He’s throwing everything at us,” he said, and shook his head with a trace of admiration. “The Cleaners, the Eternal Stench—the whole works. He must think a lot of you.”
Sarah answered with a faint, forced smile. “He’s got some funny ideas.” She was worried about Stephanie and wondered what he had done to her.
“You want to go back for your sister?”
Sarah furrowed her brow and frowned as she thought it over. The trapdoor had been sealed shut behind Stephanie, so they could not follow her that way. The question was, where did it lead? Where was Stephanie? She hoped it was not another oubliette, though it probably wasn’t, since it sounded, from their earlier conversation, as though Jareth had been the one who sent Hoggle to them. Sarah hoped his goal had only been to separate them, and Stephanie was not trapped in some dark, terrible place with no hope of escape. ‘If I were Stephanie, and I were not trapped…,’ Sarah thought, ‘what would I do?’ The answer was obvious, knowing Stephanie. She would keep going, no matter what. Stephanie could do anything once she set her mind to it. If Sarah wanted to see her sister again, then her best chance was to follow their original plan and keep heading for the castle. She would have to trust Stephanie.
“No, I will keep going,” she said, determined to meet up with Stephanie again, before she had a chance to reach it without her.
Hoggle was busy again. Eyes darting left and right beneath his bushy eyebrows, he clumped around in the shadows until he found what he was looking for. “This is what we need,” he called. “Follow me.”
She sat up and looked. There, on the floor of the tunnel they had entered, she saw the base of a ladder. It led up into darkness.
“Come on,” Hoggle was calling. The first rung was too high for him to reach, and he was hopping around trying to jump up to it.
Sarah went over to him. The ladder looked unsafe to her. It was constructed from and odd assortment of bits of wood, planks, and branches, patched together with ends of rope and half-driven nails.
“Come on, give me a hand,” Hoggle urged.
She stood with one hand holding the ladder. “How can I trust you,” she asked, “now that I know you were taking me back to the start of the Labyrinth?”
“I wasn’t,” Hoggle protested, and stared fiercely at her with those piggy eyes of his. As a liar, he was so bad it was quite touching. “I told him I was taking you to the start of the Labyrinth, to throw him off the scent, d’you see? Heh-heh. But actually—”
“Hoggle.” Sarah smiled reproachfully at him. “How can I believe anything you say?”
“Well,” he replied, screwing up one eye, “let me put it this way. What choice do you have?”
Sarah thought about it. “There is that.”
“And now,” Hoggle said, “the main thing is to get back up.” And he started again to try and hop up to the first rung of the rickety ladder.
Sarah gave him a leg up, and watched him start, and followed. At any moment she thought the thing might collapse; but then, as Hoggle had said, what choice did she have?
Without turning his head, Hoggle called out, “The other main thing is not to look down.”
“Right,” she called back, and, as though it were a playground dare, she had to snatch a little look past her feet. “Ooooh!” she cried. They had climbed much higher than she would have thought possible in the time. The wobbly ladder seemed to stretch down below her forever. She could not see the bottom of it, nor could she see the top. She felt unable to climb another rung. Clutching the sides of the ladder, she started to shake. The whole ladder shook with her. Above, Hoggle clung desperately to the shaking ladder. “I said don’t look down,” he moaned. “Or perhaps don’t means do where you come from?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize…”
“Well, when you’ve done all the shaking you want, perhaps we could continue. Your sister, wherever she is, will be bound to beat you to the castle, at this rate.”
“I can’t help it,” Sarah wailed.
Jumping around like a monkey on a stick, Hoggle managed to answer, “Well, we’ll just have to stay here until one of us falls off, or we turns into worm food.”
“I am sorry,” Sarah told him, still shaking.
“Oh, good. She’s sorry. In that case, I don’t mind being shaken off to my certain death.”
Breathing deeply, and looking resolutely upward, Sarah forced herself to think of happy, secure things: Merlin, her room, lovely evenings out with her mother, multiplication tables. She would have thought of Stephanie, too, but doing so would only brought up new worries and concerns at the moment. Anyway, it worked. She gained control of her body and started to climb again.
Hoggle felt her coming, and he went on, too. “See,” he called to her, “you’ve got to understand my position. I’m a coward, and Jareth scares me.”
“What kind of position is that?”
“No position. That’s my point. And you wouldn’t be so brave, either, if you’d ever smelled the Bog of Eternal Stench. It’s… it’s…” It was his turn to pause on the ladder, and control his shakes.
“What is it?”
“It makes me feel dizzy just to think of it.”
“Is that all it does?” Sarah asked. “Smell?”
“Believe me, that’s enough. Oh, dear me. You wait, you just wait, if you get that far.”
“Can’t you hold your nose?”
“No.” Hoggle shuddered again, but started to climb. “Not with this smell. It gets into your ears. Up your mouth. Anywhere it can get in.”
Sarah thought she could see the top at last. There were chinks of daylight above her head.
“But the worst thing,” Hoggle continued, “is if you so much as get a splash of the mire on your skin you will never, never be able to wash the stench off.”
He was on the top rung now. He reached up, fiddled with a sliding bolt and pushed open a wooden hatchway.
Outside was a clear blue sky. Sarah had never seen anything so beautiful.
Meanwhile, Where did the Goblin King send Stephanie? That was what she wanted to know. When the trap door opened, Stephanie had dropped down into yet another area of darkness, only this time, with a splash. Poor Stephanie had landed up to her knees in some kind of mysterious slimy sludge. The smell was positively putrid. The air was thick with the sour scent of rot and mildew and mold. It wasn’t a crumb on the Bog of Eternal Stench, but it was still far worse than anything she had ever smelled before. She raised her wrist wearing the glowing swatch to try to get a better look at her surroundings. The walls and ceiling, slick with slime, reflected the dim light and amplified it enough for her to make out hints of her surroundings. She appeared to have landed in a narrow underground tunnel, one that was filled with all sorts of rotten organic matter, flotsam and jetsam, and other various kinds of wastes and debris. Stephanie shuddered. She was trying very hard not to think of what kind of specific ingredients might have gone into the making of the disgusting stew of ripe refuse and toxic leachate that she was standing in, and was very glad that all of her shots and vaccines were up to date.
Stephanie had never seen, or felt, anything so repulsive. It reminded her of the scene in Star Wars, when the main characters ended up in the ship’s garbage compactor. She froze, frowned and began to feel indignant as that sank in, and she realized where she must be. ‘Oh, he did not,’ she thought, ‘just throw me out with the trash. There better not be anything living down here, or—’
She jumped and whipped around when she heard something shift among the trash farther back. ‘Time to go,’ she decided, feeling absolutely no temptation to stick around and wait to be attacked by some unknown creature in the dark. Fortunately, there did seem to be a way out somewhere, because she could feel the tug from a slow current on her legs. Since it was flowing away from the direction of the disturbing sound she just heard, Stephanie decided it would probably be a good idea to follow it. It may even lead to the outside, if she was lucky.
She trudged along for what felt like hours, all the time wondering what had become of her sister and Hoggle—she hoped they were at least in a better place than she was—until she heard a din of splashing and smashing and slicing sounds, growing louder with every step.
Stephanie slowed and crept forward through the sludge at a careful pace, taking extra care not to slip. It was small, but she could see a thin slice of light ahead in the distance, which became steadily larger as she progressed towards the noise. Stephanie blinked to help her eyes adjust to the new source of light. It was white like daylight, and that gave her hope.
Her eyes widened. Backlit by the ever strengthening light, she could now see, waiting for her farther down the tunnel, a mélange of mashers and smashers, crushers and mushers, dicers and slicers, and graters and grinders. She watched some of the solid debris floating by her and waited to see what would happen. Like a giant garbage disposal, the merciless machinery obliterated anything it came in contact with, even metal and bone. It was an overwhelming display of destructive power. For a while, all Stephanie could do was stare, frozen in place. However, the longer she stood there, watching and listening, the more patterns she began to pick up on; and she realized something incredible: the rhythm and timing of these moving machines aligned perfectly with the beat and harmony of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. If she added a few tucks and rolls here and there, she could dance her way through. Stephanie smiled.
And then she remembered where she was and wrinkled her nose in disgust at the thought of having to roll around in the rancid soup of god-knows-what. She did not even want to take deep breaths of the stench, let alone swim in its source. Stephanie looked up again at the distant light. Squinting, she thought she could make out a small circle of sky. This was her way out. If she wanted to see Sarah and Toby again, then she was just going to have to suck it up.
Stephanie crossed her fingers, closed her eyes and focused on counting the beats in the rhythmic movements of the deadly machines before her, waiting until it was synchronized perfectly with the music in her head. She counted ‘1-2-3-4—’
And took four steps forward, starting with her right foot first, then she took four steps back, leading with her right foot again. Entering the fray, she nodded her head to one side on beat one, skipped on beat two, and nodded again on beats three and four. In this way, she dodged some spikes coming down from above that stopped at about her shoulder height. Keeping in mind that this would be the part where MJ started to sing, Stephanie continued forward, turned to the side and stuck her arms out straight: one in front and one behind; and bended her knees to slip between the alternating axes on a chopping block. She stuck her butt out and wiggled it up and down while standing in the smooth eye of a circle of undulating saws, then took a step forward and wiggled again. She turned to avoid spikes shooting up out of the floor, and stuck her hands out like claws and pulled like she was ripping at something, twice, then switched the side she was pulling at.
When she was standing just right, she threw her head back and leaned back a bit with one leg out in front, dodging a swinging blade, then took two hops forward. She started in the MJ pose, knees bent slightly, one leg out, the other to the side and stuck one hand on her belt, with the other hand out straight to her side, as she hopped through the opening between two crushing stones.
She landed on her feet with a splash, and did her best not to flinch too much when some of the sludge hit her face as she bent forward and went down with her whole body, then popped back up and made a face like she was yelling “Ha!” She repeated this combination four times, dodging a swinging pendulum each time.
Right after the “down ha’s!”, she brought her hands up and clapped them right over her head, then brought them down slowly and dragged her feet to one side, dodging more spikes from the floor. She shrugged her shoulders and turned her head to one side, dodging spike from above. She then repeated the move going the other way to dodge the same attacks again from the opposite side.
She used the eight counts for zombie-walking to roll over and dash between two open parts of the ceiling and floor before they crashed shut again; and then took a step forward into a kind of disco pose, with one hand up and one hand down, as a section of the walls came together behind her with a crash, flattening anything unlucky enough to get caught.
Then it was claws up, and she started walking out three counts to the side at a diagonal, then turned to the other side, then back, then back and now walking in the direction she came from first at a diagonal for three counts. One of the blades whirring about clipped an inch off part of her hair, but she supposed it was better than losing an ear or a finger. She jumped between two graters before they closed, then bent over and touched her toes two times to dodge more pendulums. She grimaced as some of the slime got on her chin but kept going, using the next eight counts to dodge more mashing and crashing sections of wall, pausing when she reached the beat to throw her hand up in the air and come back down to air guitar position to avoid walking into another grinder.
While waiting for the break in the grinder’s timing, she swiveled her feet a beat and then brought her arm back up and brought it down again, but this time it stopped and took five counts to make it down. She grabbed the air on one side of her then punched it four times on her other side.
It was time to move again. She slid through the open grinder and turned her head four times, then turned her body around with six steps, until she was facing the other direction, dodging more blades. She looked behind her and slapped her leg, then took ten steps backwards, away from the undulating saws she was about to walk into. With a little hop, she made it safely into the eye of another circle of undulating blades, and prepared to repeat the whole dance again for the second half of the deadly obstacle course.
Having just finished the dance routine from hell, Stephanie stood a safe distance away from the end of the giant garbage disposal section, and tried to catch her breath without breathing too deeply. Weaving through whirring blades, slipping past slicing pendulums, keeling over and under crushing blocks—whatever needed doing to make it through, she did. She wished she could say that she had made a clean finish to the end, but by now she was covered in sludge almost completely from head to toe. Shuddering, she decided to straighten up and focus on the wonderful fact that she was now much closer to the exit. Without any large pieces of debris remaining, the current of the sludge had increased in strength. This made it more difficult to walk without slipping, but that hardly mattered anymore, given her current state. What did matter, was that she could see the end of the tunnel. Her exit was blocked by the metal grate covering it, but closer inspection revealed that it had rusted and was so heavily corroded, Stephanie felt confident that she could get it loose with a couple of good kicks.
And she was right. It took a few tries, but on the last kick, her foot hit its target with so much force that the grate nearly flew off. With nothing left to brace herself against, Stephanie slipped and almost spilled out into the orange pool below along with the rest of the trash, but she saw the metal grate dissolving in it at an alarming rate, and instinctively reached out to grab something to stop her fall. Unfortunately for her, that something had thorns. With a silent shriek, Stephanie closed her hands around the thick and sturdy branches of a wild briar growing up the side of the stone wall of wherever she had just come from and swung her legs up to steady herself on it, deciding a handful of thorns was better than instant death. She took half a second to notice how pretty its white, rose-like flowers were. Hanging from the thorny vines like a monkey, Stephanie looked around and take stock of her surroundings. It seemed the tunnel she had just come from was made to dump whatever waste hadn’t been thoroughly obliterated by the garbage disposal would then be completely dissolved and diluted by a flowing stream of strong acid or some other kind of extremely caustic substance. It was too wide to jump, but the base of the hearty bramble she had grabbed hold of was rooted on the other bank of the stream, so the sturdy plant had actually grown over the suspicious substance to reach the wall in an arch.
Another disturbing detail Stephanie noticed was that the longer her bleeding hands held onto the branches of the vine she was perched in, the more red streaks appeared on its white blooms. She decided that she had clung to it long enough and began climbing down to its roots on the other side of the caustic stream, as quickly as was possible without putting herself in danger of falling in and melting. By the time her feet touched the ground, the white blooms were a solid blood red, and her hands were full of thorns. Thoroughly creeped out by this eerie occurrence, Stephanie decided to book it and headed further into the swampy area in front of her.