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Even when she slept, she was awake.

The mind of a Celestian Mechatronic Cyborg was comprised of a network of constantly firing electrical synaptic pulses that connected the multiple processors required to operate a being as complex as she was. And it wasn't prone to going offline. At least not completely.

She often wondered if the mental activities occurring while she was in a state of sleep were akin to the dreaming minds of those who were not machines. Those often referred to as Organics or Breathers, depending on how polite you were intending to be. She never dreamed of walks on the beach, monsters lurking among the shadows or about giving speeches in the nude. Unlike the dreams of Breathers, her thought processes were, what she liked to boast, much more logical. Rational. She could spend an entire recharge session working on a calculation needed for forecasting the weather over the nearest fortnight, or analyzing the influx and outflux of commuters in the city of Ondea's gigantic subway system during a regular set of weekdays. These things seemed to her at least to be a much better use of time than thinking about some imagined scenario that would, probability speaking, never happen.

Still one similarity seemed to be undeniable. Being woken up and pulled out of your current thoughts by the insistent beeping of a communicator was still one of the biggest annoyances in the Cosmoses.

With a fumbling hand searching for the connect button, the communicator was pushed off the nightstand and onto the floor below, rattling annoyingly at the wooden tiles before coming rest against the wall with a soft thud. A muffled voice emanated from the inside of a pant leg where the communicator had landed.

"Atrey? Are you there?" The male voice on the other end of the communicator was more than a little perturbed. "Atrey? C'mon you curvy piece of plastics of composites, pick up the damn line."

Atrey groined in annoyance as she moved her head over to the edge of the bed and looked down at the communicator which was blinking with an urging orange light, the sheens and shadows looking as if the white textile was on fire.

With a smirk she wondered if she'd tell her boss to kiss her ass while he was in there. Thinking better of it, she reached down and into her garment, fishing out the communicator. Leaning up on one elbow, she looked into the view-screen with a few long calibration blinks of her sapphire blue eyes, long lashes dipping across dark brown, rounded cheeks. They had made her beautiful after all. Beautiful as well as enduring, what tiredness she might have felt before was gone now.
"A bit early in the morning to be tossing insults, isn't it, Tirk?"

"Never." As it was projected on the wall next to the bedstand, General Tirkar Baitur's unshaven face appeared as tired as Atrey had felt the moment earlier, before her synapses had kicked in for real. The old secret agent looked as if he had a bit of a wild night; Tirkar was a bit of a playboy, even if Atrey knew it was more or less a cover. The fact that he looked the part, with his salt-and pepper wavy hair, puppy-dog brown eyes and a well-practiced impish smile that made the girls blush, made the guise all the harder to question, something he had practiced until perfection during his active years. Most city guards didn't think to look twice at a flamboyant spice trader with a well-endowed giggling girl on each arm. Sometimes drawing attention to yourself is the most effective way to stay hidden. Or so he had told his apprentices, Atrey sure didn't know what to make of it... so she had chosen to not pay it any particular attention.

Tirkar rubbed the stubble on his chin and surveyed the Mecha on the other end of the com unit. He had known Atrey now for twenty years. The day was when he had his very first assignment from the newly appointed Captain Ushuaïa of High King Angarian's Secret Service, had he been teamed up with this fast-thinking marvel of a woman. Fast thinking, hard-kicking and extremely beautiful – still out of reach as she wasn't of his very biological kind. Not that it showed on the outside of course, and in spite of this little difference they had become good friends. Since that day, they had gotten into and out of more trouble together than he could count. He didn't give a shit if Atrey was a machine dressed in a synthetic skin to look like a woman. With all the poor excuses for people, he'd seen in his life, Celestians like himself and otherwise, Tirkar was convinced Atrey was a better person than most, including himself.

"You look like hell," he grinned. "Did you not plug in last night?"
"You're one to talk." Atrey rolled into a seating position at the edge of the bed and set the communicator back onto the nightstand, propping it up against the base of a lamp. She planted both feet flat on the floor and wiggled her long toes. Flashes of the night before erupted from her memory bank and the smirk re-appeared on her rose-pink lips. "And define 'plug in'."
"Charging yourself, sweetheart" Tirkar said.

While stretching her arms out and then up, Atrey was careful not to knock over the lamp. Her inner graphene wrapped, titanium composite core skeletal structure felt stiff, and she found that the muscular bands responsible for her motor functions were operating at less than optimal response times. Damn. Perhaps plugging in to a charge station would have been a brighter idea than plugging into dreamland.

"I did. Although I admit it's been a while," she admitted ruefully.
"Well, get your ass dressed and come down to HQ ASAP. There's something I want you to have a look at."
"Aye aye, Captain." Atrey gave the com unit a mock salute as Tirkar's face faded and was replaced by the off-white, slightly cracked wall.

"Something I want you to have a look at," she echoed her partner's words as she stood, spun in and out of the bathroom to splash her face. Then she stepped into the legs of her casual burgundy-red pants and pulled them up, tying them around her slim waist before donning the likewise red tunic with embroider black patterns depicting stylized sunflowers. Both items of garment provided her with a casual comfort blended with protection against tracking, body scanning, and the occasional small class firearms. After that she pulled on a pair of ankle-high black boots, no heals, being almost 6.5 tall heals was a no-deal. Finally Atrey slipped her communicator into a pocket and refocused her eyes before stepping out from her confiningly narrow apartment and into the dawning morning.

It was early, the time when the returning night-shifters were bleary-eyed and tired, while every other resident of the city still lay asleep. A thin line of gold signaled the difference between land and sky as the sun struggled to climb the distant mountains. The skyline, stretching on for miles along the soft coastline, was shrouded in mist, making Atrey's skin feel damp and clammy as lilies.

As she left the apartment block and stepped down in the street, the rising sun was painting the skydome in pink and setting the clouds on fire and rays of light was beaming through the morning mist in the park on the left side of the street and glittering on the cobblestones that made up the street, making it shine as if it truly had been of gold. As Atrey jogged towards her car, she was hit by the pricking sensation of being watched, and as she turned her head, she found a deer standing by the edge of the park, feeding from the hedge lining the street. The deer stopped its chewing and they stared at each other for a full 30 seconds.
"Hi," Atrey whispered and in response the beautiful animal bucked its head, as if comprehending her greeting. The next moment it had turned 180 degrees and was running gracefully across the lawn towards the forested mountain-slopes at the other end.

With a smile tugging at her lips, Atrey walked over to her car and jumped inside. She might be mechanic, still she sometimes felt so near nature and what other people called 'real life' that she didn't hesitated for a moment in the belief of having a soul too.

-------

"How was it last night?" Sarah almost assaulted Doris on the Saturday morning. "How was the disco? Was HE there? Did you get to dance with him? Did you get to kiss him?"
"Calm down, dear!" Doris tittered and held up her hands in a warding gesture.
"Luke?" Sarah carried on regardless. "Tell me all about it."
"Extra, extra read all about it, you mean," her friend grinned and Sarah nodded keenly.

They were standing in the hallway to the apartment where Doris lived with her parents and little sister, the sun was shining in through the high window in the room next by, a combined sitting room and library, seeping through thick green curtains and a thinner, transparent lace one, filtering through the emerald green leaves of potted plants before bouncing off the polished floor and shining from bound leather book and burnished brass details before radiating into the hallway. From the kitchen came the smell of newly baked bread, coffee and a faint tang of fried egg. There was a TV on somewhere, a newscast, but the muted voice didn't reach inside the hall.

"I might as well tell you about it," Doris smiled, and nodded her head in a vague direction. "Let's go sit in the kitchen! I guess we can nick some of mother's baking, she made carrot cake this morning."
"Oh yes!" Sarah grinned, there was nobody who baked such great things as Melissa Saunders, Doris and Mary's mother, and Sarah wished that her mother could bake something sometime too, but she never bothered. To be true, she hardly bothered to cook, telling that she really didn't know how. So she and Sarah were mostly dining on takeaway or micro-waved pre-mades.

As Sarah and Doris fixed themselves one glass each of lemonade and freshly baked bread, and sat down by the table, Doris went on.
"Right up to the end was I hoping that you'd make a Cinderella appearance yesterday night. It was so sad that you couldn't come; we had a lot of fun! There was a DJ from out of town and he played so much cool music. Real good mixes and he even had a smoke machine. Can you believe that, a real smoke machine?"

"And Luke?" Sarah persisted as she bit into her bread, letting her eyes dart around the well-known familiar kitchen. The white shutters, the windows with even more potted flowers, the fridge poetry covering both the fridge, the dish-washer and parts of the stove. Then she noted that Doris' shoulders had slumped slightly.
"He wasn't there," Doris finally admitted before taking a long drink of her lemonade. In a way it reminded Sarah of her mother downing a whisky when she was disappointed over something – or simply tired.
"Aww... Did you learn why?"
"I asked Bob – his mate. And Bob said something about Luke being ill."
"Buggers," Sarah huffed.
"Yeah, Buggers – double buggers," Doris echoed. "But there'll be more discos. And the next time, we're gonna find a way to trick your mother into letting you go."

"That's not gonna happen," now Sarah almost felt like downing her glass the same way.
"Cheer up," Doris looked at her with glittering eyes. "We'll think of something. This girl is not entirely resource less after all!"

The last statement was probably something Doris had picked up from a TV-show; at least it sounded that way. Still Sarah couldn't help grinning.
"You're the bestest of friends, don't ever forget that!"
"I won't," her friend grinned back. "More lemonade?"

****

"Have a look at this," Tirkar was asking her as soon as Atrey crossed the threshold to the office. He was sitting in front of a computer screen, fiddling with a trackball and she could see how the reflected, bluish light upon his handsome features changed as he was working on whatever was apparently puzzling him.
"What is it?" Atrey asked, curiosity awakened.
"See what you can make out of it, you're better at these things than I am," he put his hands to the desk and rolled back his office chair making room for his colleague.

Atrey stepped up in front of the computer screen, it was a 37' flat screen, state of the art, just like everything in here. Nothing but the best for the people of His Majesty's Secret Service. Ever since the failed revolution against the throne, had the High King Angarian made sure his Secret Service was well prepared and well equipped. White painted walls, the large glass windows facing the Armandia Park shaded by semi-transparent gray-blue curtains, the furnishing designed, ergonomic stuff in chrome and light wood and the air filtrated as if you were outdoors minus the wind.

But these things mattered little to Atrey right now, she was staring at the screen, scrutinizing the figures Tirkar was pointing out and taking down all the pertinent information into her inhuman brain, processing it faster than any of the computers in the room.
"It cannot be," she finally said in a voice laden with incredulity.
"It's not a program error or a fault with the probes," Tirkar said. "I've already checked those things."
"This must mean..." Atrey's face was blank, she was not of the kind to mimic all those human emotions. At least not here by her trusted colleagues. But if she had been human she would have frowned at this time.

"Something came through," Tirkar nodded his head. "Something ripped up the texture between the Cluster of Cosmoses and the Outer Void."
"We have known for long now that it's possible," Atrey said. "In theory. But what could have had the power to acquire such a thing for real?"
"What or who?" Tirkar added.
"In any case, something doing that must be resourceful beyond reason. Our reasons at least," Atrey pondered. "Tirkar, whatever might happen, something like this coming through may have irreversible affects upon our society. In all Seven Cosmoses. Just imagine if something from the outside should stumble down upon Earth. We definitely have to inform the King."

"I hope you'd say that," Tirkar said.
"Well of course, it's your call after all, you're the boss."
"True," Tirkar said as he stood. "But I always value your opinion. Come, let's go."
"Now?"
"Yes, why wait, who knows what may happen while we're stalling!"

That was Tirkar in a nutshell, he never valued second thoughts categorically high. In his opinion it was while people kept playing safe and having qualms, the shit tended to hit the fan. Besides, he had had most of the night for pondering other implications to what he was seeing, and he had already almost before waking his Cyborg colleague up, decided that the king needed to be informed. Plugging the portable computer off the dock, he folded it and tucked it under his arm and nodded to Atrey to come.

"How many else know?"
"Only you and I so far," Tirkar replied as he put his hand on the door handler, pushing the door to the side. "No need to cause undesired panic, which we may definitely do if we let this information out before knowing at least a tad more. Like where this thing out there came through and what happened to the structure of the universe when it became impaired."
Sarah stood in her den by the circular window, watching Doris climb into her father's car and then taking off down the lane and towards the youth disco, which she was not allowed to attend. As the red lights of the Toyota disappeared behind the neighboring building, Sarah felt a strange mix of anger and shame burn upon her cheeks as she gazed out in the deep blue light of the October evening. Stars were beginning to come out and a cheese-yellow vaning moon rubbed its belly against the rooftop of one of the houses on the other side of the lane. A bus rolled by and a gray cat patrolled the wall, otherwise absolutely nothing was happening out there. With a sigh Sarah took a step back and slumped down in her bean bag, pushed out her feet and craned her neck to stare into the ceiling instead, trying to count the twig marks for what time in order she did not know. Just as with the stars did she lose count. They were simply too many and too disordered.

Why weren't she permitted to go to that disco? Too young, her mother had said. Well, Doris was two months younger than her and she knew that several others of her class mates were going too. And it wasn't like any of them would be in any danger because of bopping around to Miley Cyrus or Avicii at the youth's club in the cellar of the School. Coke and sausages, teachers chaperoning them – really, what could go wrong? Why wouldn't her mother trust her to take care of herself? It wasn't like she – or any of her friends for that matter – were out to get drunk or to get laid and get themselves pregnant.

Changing position in the bean bag, she listened to the leather creak beneath her form, it had that annoying sound that only added to the restlessness she felt. Sarah knew that it would only be a matter of time before she relented and descended the stairs to join her mother by the TV-set instead of sulking up here. The only other alternative was going to bed, and she knew it was pointless, because she wouldn't find rest enough to fall asleep. She couldn't even prove that she was hurt and make a point that way – and her mother knew it.
"Damn it!" she whispered as she stood from the beanbag, and then slowly began making it down the stairs.

*****

The Sprits formed a ring by grasping each other's hands. Their golden eyes were wide, their nostrils slightly widened and they shifted their weight anxiously from foot to foot. To be confronted with the force of the atom frightened them, yet they bravely held their ground, encouraged by their superior Aliopa, the High Elf. They began to chant, silently first, almost hesitating, then growing in confidence and timbre, swaying gently from side to side. The human outside the circle barely glanced over at them, he seemed almost catatonic by now, having closed up within himself, and Lord Orinian wondered what the young man might really have seen down there in the tunnels on the other side of Orinian's estate.

It only took minutes before Aliopa's torch began to flicker. The blue flame sputtered and went out, only for a second, before the Elf managed to conjure another. The Mitarium stone seemed to shine brighter now, or was it the rest of the room going darker, Orinian wasn't sure of which, but the glare was more prominent now and it washed over the Sprits, who hissed and flattened their pointed ears, as angry horses are prone to do.

"Don't stop," snarled Chervin, and both Aliopa and Orinian turned to face the young wizard. He hadn't sounded angered, rather frightened and his stance spoke of apprehension combined with a readiness to fight. Orinian swallowed against the discomfort that implied, Chervin was just as this young human nobleman had earlier been, cocky and confident, however not as full as himself as the human had been. The wizard had seen too much during his short life to not regard it with a bit of caution.

The Sprits resumed their chanting, louder and more urgent this time. The torch flickered again, and in the shift of the light, the stone seemed to flash –once – twice - trice. Seeing that, Orinian got the distinct impression it wasn't just a radioactive lump he was regarding, but a kind of beacon. Something beating out a sequence of energies, to be picked up by something else, far away from here. Glancing over at the human again, Orinian saw his haggard yet handsome face contorted by a snarl, revealing a set of unusually fangy teeth. Almost like a vampire. Beholding this, Chervin began to whisper to the flame, willing it to grow stronger and brighter, but there was something in the air which kept causing it to go out.

The next moment the young man fell into the fetal position, clutching himself and moaning, his pale forehead clammy with pearls of sweat. Another flicker of the torch and triad of flashes from the Mitarium piece. The nearest Elf tried to take a step back, but was held in place by his fellows. They were shouting the chants now, gripping each other so tight, Orinian was sure they would break each other's delicate fingers.

The torch sputtered out. When Chervin conjured the flame once more, they found to their surprise that the radioactive piece was gone. The place in the middle of the circle was now empty as if nothing had ever been there, and Orinian had to blink to make sure he was not imagining things. Surprised, the Sprits stopped chanting and began to staring at each other in disbelief. Then one of them sat heavily on the cave floor, letting out a small sound. The rest were panting heavily.

"Where did that Mitarium go?" Orinian asked in consternation.
"We sent it away," Chervin replied, sounding a bit more secure of himself suddenly, still there was a nervous tick to his left brow, he was not entirely pleased with the development, Orinian could tell.
"Where?"
"Where it came from, of course, what else," Aliopa answered in Chervin's stead and Orinian turned to face her. "But I'm far from sure it's a permanent condition. On the contrary, these things tend to return to the Upper realms if they have once found a way to do so."

"You speak of that red stone as if it has a will of its own," Orinian protested.
"It has not," the Elf responded calmly. "But those who sent it here has."
"I thought he brought it," Orinian nodded at the prone human.
"He was only used as some kind of... vessel," Aliopa explained. He found it somewhere down there and brought it here, the Cosmoses knows why. But it was apparently very convenient for those who sent it."
"What do you mean by that?" Orinian prompted.
"You saw how it flashed," Aliopa's question was rhetoric. "I'm certain it was aiming to communicate with... well, something."

"Something," Orinian echoed, still confused. "What – something?"
"If I'd known that, I wouldn't have been so vague," Aliopa excused herself. "But I fear that something might be coming here."
"So what can we do to prevent that from happening?" the Lord asked.
"We need to seal the position of outbreak permanently," Aliopa told.
"You mean the cave on my property?"

"That wouldn't be enough, far from it. What must be done is sealing the portal the Alien thing used to reach into this realm. Which means somebody has to go down there," the Elven leader explained.
"And where do we find this portal then?"
"He knows," Aliopa pointed at the human still lying curled up on the floor. Orinian sighed. That man was really not good for anything right now, and it was questionable if he would ever be so again. Still, someone had to do this job, and since the anomaly which had let through the Mitarium stone was most probably located to Orinian's estate, it was more or less his responsibility to take care of it. To make sure this portal or whatever it was became sealed again. He didn't look forward to the prospect.

"Thank you, all of you," said Lord Orinian. "I'm going to leave Ternilia in charge of the city, while I'm away. I'll try to figure out how this Mitarium piece got through and if I can, shut whatever opening there is between the worlds. And I'll need your help as well. To keep your eyes open for something – anything which does not belong in this world and might have come through from somewhere else."

Aliopa nodded, complacent for once. Then Orinian turned to Chervin.
"Perhaps I'll need your help too, but for the time being, just follow me down to the residence again."
"Sure thing," Chervin nodded his head. "But Mylord?"
"Yes," Orinian arched a brow.
"What if this stone simply came from one of the other Cosmoses?"
"Then we ought to have heard about it. Mitarium being this stable, it goes against any known law of physics within any of the known Cosmoses, and as such this is peculiar enough to not have been mentioned before."

"Guess that figures," the younger Celestian  said with a shrug and some kind of permanence to his voice, as if indicating that this discussion was over with from his part. Still Orinian knew that the younger man was not convinced, there was something itching about his countenance, something burning in those dark eyes, as if he was eager to push further in his quest for auxiliary understanding. Orinian reminded himself that Chervin's father Uridian had been a scientist, an alchemist. According to the grapevine, he had been on the brink of something big, when his laboratory was blasted into pieces and he became killed.

"Come on," said Orinian, grabbing the youth by his tattered shirt and hauling him to his feet. He led the shaking man out of the cave and out in the lea, Chervin following silently behind. As he gazed up at the night sky, he noted that it had grown just a tad brighter. Dawn was impending, obviously the time they had spent in the cave had been much longer than they had perceived whilst watching the chanting Sprits. That worried Orinian much more than a bit of angst over the loss of a night's sleep ought to have done.

***

Jareth, King of Infraheim, put on the stereo as he entered his office. There was a muted crackle in the speakers before the cold, electronic tunes of Brian Eno filled the room, calculated, synthetic perfection and as such soothingly inhuman, comfortably distant from the gritty reality the king had to deal with every day. Even after the roughest of days, Jareth always could escape into the music.

He opened a white wine, Gran Viña Sol, an inexpensive but delightful chardonnay from Spain, brought to him by one of his earthbound devotees.  Pouring himself a glass he toasted quietly to himself as he gazed out over the skyline of Labyrinth City from the 34th floor, the top floor, of his royal high-rising castle. This was as far as you could get from the underworld he had once been born in and called home, and he felt it in his bones, a profound pride of what he had created mixed with the melancholy of loss. Tall, proud spires rose to the green sky, interspersed with open fields of incredible verdant beauty. His head shook in consternation. It was so beautiful it hurt, still he felt that something was missing, something which he couldn't name was achingly absent from his life. He felt miserable and his recent sexual escapades didn't do anything to help rid him of that emptiness. There was some connection missing to all those relationships, something he had always had wished for.

Tasting the wine, he felt it wet his tongue and the back of his mouth, the taste like canned and condensed sunshine, the reminiscence of seasons gone by, the fragrance like an old friend caressing him and telling him that everything would be fine. He closed his eyes before he swallowed and then he looked up again, putting the glass down on the writing pad of his desk, rolling his shoulders and massaging the back of his neck.

Over the music he heard the soft tap on the doorframe, and he turned around, facing the female figure in the doorframe, her almost purplish red hair falling over her rounded shoulders and her curvaceous body dressed in a shamrock green, knee-long gown which complimented her hair and with a fur-brimmed slate-gray jacket hanging over her shoulders. As accents of completion she wore a pair of high-heeled golden shoes.

Chancellor Nurah.

Taking his silence as permission to enter, she walked in and closed the door behind her.
"Something troubling you, milord?" she asked, her voice gentle yet obviously probing. Which was in a way understanding. The king's pensive attitude had been growing over the years. It worried her and thus, she had decided to face him head on and ask what was wrong. But since he rarely denied her anything, she felt no fear in doing so.
"Isn't there always?" he gently returned and she rewarded him with a flinch at the corner of her lips and a barely notable squint of her blue-green eyes.

"Power is a burden as well as elation," her come-back was smooth, almost as she was excusing herself, however Jareth knew she was not. Beneath the gentle, almost shy attitude hid a brilliant intelligence and a dagger-sharp determination. Nurah knew how to kill with kindness and she had done so several times before for him. People always under-estimated her until it was too late and they found themselves cornered by that sweet little thing, with a taloned fist gripping their neck.

Nurah joined Jareth at the window and stared out with him, though her gaze fixated upon the evening sky. It was almost with great reluctance that she decided to bring up an idea that had come to her.
"Jareth," she said, tracing her fingers across the window-sill. As always there wasn't a speck of dust there, the king's static magic kept it all around him clean, almost sterile. "It's not the business eating at you, I know. It's the personal thing."

He didn't respond immediately, instead he offered her of his wine, which she declined. It was a ceremony they always did when stalling something. He knew she didn't drink wine and she knew he needed to buy time.
"You should marry," she said eventually and he drank of his glass.
"I know no women triggering my interest in that way," he replied. "I'd taken you my dear, if you weren't already happily married – and especially to another woman."

She chuckled gently.
"Always you flatter me, milord." Then her tone changed. "No, I'm serious, I've seen how you take women to bed. This one, that one, a redhead, a blond. Not two night the same. The royal prerogative. Still, you're not happy. These girls do not make you happy. You lack the permanence of a longer relation. Someone to share things with, and not just sex. Someone not just there to unload on when you get home in the evenings, but someone to reach out a hand for as well. I know, you feel that you're better off alone and detached, not engaging in any deeper emotional turmoil which may risk remove attention from governing this realm. Still 'alone' in this case means also 'lonely', Jareth. And you deserve so much better than to be lonely all the time."

Now it was his time to laugh, before he cracked a standing joke between the two of them.
"That's quite a speech from someone who claims she has a heart of stone."
"I hope you may consider those words in spite of coming from someone like this then," she smiled. He drank of his wine.
"I will. But that is not a promise I might do something about it."

"Jareth, in just a few days it's the annual Hallow Ewe Fiesta at Whitehall in Eralda. There'll be a lot of celestials there and..."
"...hopefully some new faces too," Jareth replied. "I know. Others keep telling me so. But just to make you happy, my sweet Nurah, I'll keep my eyes open." He paused before altering subject. "Now when I have you here anyway, there have been some unruliness over in Xarmentha. I want you to find the right person to look into that. We cannot have another situation there like seventeen years back. Not another strike, another set of riots in the streets."

"Don't worry, I take care of that," Nurah promised as she finally turned to face her superior, who emptied his glass of wine before offering her his arm.
"I think both you and I need to get to sleep now. You with your beautiful bride, I with some crime read brought to me from Earth."  
"Oh, the ever creative humans," Nurah smiled. "Sad you cannot marry one of these."
"And watch her wither away and die for me over just half a century's time," Jareth sighed. "I wouldn't think so. They pay for their creativity and volatility with a very short life span. Short but intense. And even if I'd never want to trade, I often envy them their vibrancy and visionary ingenuity."

***

In the void the Being was drifting, listening to the symphony of the stars, of the small sparkles and poops emitting from the distant stars. Things not really heard in our normal sense of the word, but received through other sensory organs. It was listening, homing in on its Device, the thing it had sent ahead, to find a Place-To-Stop, a place to lay down and rest and to gather soul energy and strength. The Device was also programmed to gather the patterns of strong and vibrant souls. Souls to feed of, nourishment for its poor, hungry body. And it was programmed to report back when it had found what it was looking for, so that the Being would find its way to the rest and the nourishment.

A while back the Device had finally begun transmitting, announcing that it had found what the Being was so desperately looking for. The signal was still very faint, but it was slowly growing stronger as the Being was navigating through the void, drifting towards the siren calls of a Place-To-Stop. Only a Mate would have diverged the Beings course now, but the Mates were far and few between, the Being hadn't seen another of its kind in more than the time it took for the Galaxy to rotate around its axis. And it hadn't fed in half that time, so it was almost desperately hungry now, eager to find some souls to digest and find some new strength. Thus the signal was beckoning in the most alluring way, and the Being felt its inner channels opening up again, enzymes letting lose and the whole large body preparing to finally Feed.
The riddle of the Labyrinth

Inspired somehow by the movie Labyrinth featuring David Bowie as the daemon king Jareth. But what started out as a mere fanfic soon became something else, more original. But I still kept Sarah and Jareth as a sentimental gesture to what this one once was, even if so much else, including both their roles, is changed.


1. Kisses and strange artefacts

Everything felt smooth, soft and calm in the orange light of the sinking sun. The Island of Alozzia stretched out across the sea like a sea lion sunning itself on the rocks. It was hilly and green with great rounded boulders jutting up through the lush jungles and white sandy beaches. Ternilia was lighting the lamps on the front porch when Lord Orinian walked up the steps, the small sounds of clinking of his armors as a counterpoint to the creaking of the wooden steps. The firelight brought out the strands of reddish gold in his long black hair and the bronze of his skin. He walked up to his wife and wrapped his arms around her, burying his face in her strawberry blond ringlets, breathing in the residual lavender fragrance of her shampoo.

"Bad day?" she asked, leaning back into him.
"Long day," he answered. "Time moves slowly when nothing goes wrong."
"I thought the saying went 'time flies when you're having fun'."
"Let's just have fun tomorrow, then," he said, kissing her shoulder.

Orinian kissed her again before detaching and heading into the manor, stepping over an old hound that was stretched across the threshold, its prominent belly rising and falling with each snore. He whistled, and the old dog lumbered to its feet and trotted after its master. The floors inside were dark mahogany, polished so they shone in the lamplight. Dark red marble columns and mantelpieces accented each room, while bright, colourful paintings lined the walls, exotic, patterned rugs from the lands beyond sunrise covered the floor, together with pelts from bear and elks and a single, striped one of a tiger, complete with its majestic head. A fire was roaring in the fireplace already, to keep away the approaching chill of early fall. In front of the fire was a large table and half a dozen ornately carved high-backed chairs with plush red seating.

The master bedroom was on the second floor. Lord Orinian took pity on his plump hound and carried it up the creaking stairs. A pack of trained hounds were constantly roaming the grounds of the estate as guard dogs. This old beast had served well for many years, but could no longer keep up with the pack, so he had been retired to an indoor dog.

A large four-poster bed filled most of the bedroom room with the painting of a pastoral landscape hanging above it. One wall was lined with windows and a door looking out onto the balcony, while the other side had doors leading to the closets and bathroom. The wall opposite of the bed was lined with bookshelves with leather-bound tomes, and by the window stood Orinian's brass telescope aimed at the sky.

The Lord grunted as he removed himself of the armor, feeling the stiffness in his joints when he strained and bent them. No, he was not twenty anymore. A lot of springs and summers had passed since he had been in the flower of his youth. These days both of his sons could outrun and outlift him, however he was still the master with the sword, years of intense training had paid off well, and his speed with the way of handling the blade was still amazing. But tiredness was sneaking in, just like the approaching fall; he could feel it, the chilling of the bones the strain upon his eyes whilst reading. Still he hadn't acquired spectacles though, he kept on pushing that disappointment forwards, hoping his eyes would last another season and another. Spectacles made you look old, in spite of the hair still being without too many gray strands.

He made a quick detour into the bathroom, relieving himself, brushing his teeth and washing off the face before he dived down between the sheets, pulled them over his head, and closed his eyes. The old dog has already cuddled up by his feet and was snoring mutedly. Orinian had planned on waiting for Ternilia, but the sandman would not let him. He was already asleep by the time his wife joined him in bed, and they were both dreaming when the sudden baying of the hounds startled them from slumber. The old animal in the bed woofed and struggled to get up.

Orinian was on his feet like a cat. Jumping in his pair of hoses, he grabbed his blade and helmet and ran through the house, dashed down the stairs and out on the porch where he more or less leaped into his boots. His mares had begun to whinny, incensed by the dogs. In the dim of the night he could just make out the pack, snarling and barking as they surrounded a dark figure. One brave dog lunged and was thrown back with a flash of purple light. A circle of purple formed around the figure, illuminating a black hooded cloak with pale hands extending from the sleeves. The circle blasted out, tossing all the hounds backward and causing his mare to rear in terror. Orinian stopped within a safe distance as he recognized the man in front of him.

"What are you doing here, Chervin?" he growled. The intruder lifted his small yet strong hands and folded down his leather hood, revealing a handsomely youthful fudge-brown face framed with a mass of black curls. He had dark brows, thin lips frozen in an eternal scorn, and his mother's gray eyes. He didn't flinch the slightest when Orinian raised his sword, didn't back off an inch.
"We need to talk," the wizard said quickly, raising his hands in surrender.

His mother's eyes and his father's grin, Orinian thought, but he wasn't smiling now. The younger man looked wane and worried, more so than the knight had ever seen him. The sound of running feet across the flagstones and the dancing, orange light of a swinging lantern marked the arrival of Ternilia, who observed the scene with surprising calm, her left hand gripping a blanket across her narrow shoulders against the chill.

"What has happened?" Orinian asked, not taking his eyes off the wizard.
"Come with me. Outside the city. I need to show you." Chervin spoke in short rapid bursts, eyes strangely wide, his whole being signaled adrenaline-infused tension, a watchfulness as if the woods were filled with red-eyed ogres. Without hesitation he turned around and started downhill the way he had obviously come.

"Stay here. Look after the dogs!" Orinian told Ternilia before he sped back to the stable to saddle his horse. His wife responded with just a surprised monosyllable as she watched him speed off. Then she shook her head and turned around, started back towards the house. Men! Always in such a hurry, as if the weight of the world was depending on them gaining a few moments more by stressing along. She shook her head and bent down to scratch the gray fur between the ears of one of the dogs, who spun his tail in elation by the attention paid by its mistress.

On horseback, Lord Orinian was soon galloping off in the opposite direction. A gray striped cat glanced up at the Lord of the Mansion as he thundered past, then turned his attention back to the rodent it was stalking. Orinian caught up with the wizard down by the end of his estate and following him, they made their way down the meandering road, lit only by the light of the Smaller Moon and the fireflies. An owl hooted in the vicinity, a mating call and the wind whispered in the high-trunked pines. Thick swirling mists were now covering the fields and down the road a thin crust covered the puddles in the tracks wheels had made in the gravels.

Orinian followed Chervin towards the gates of the town, the wizard using magic to run faster than any man could. Almost as fast as a horse in fact. Orinian nudged his mare. She ran hard, trying to keep up with lithe young man ahead of them, and soon worked up a lather of sweat. The terrain was rough and mountainous outside of the town. The ground was mostly slate, which broke away beneath the sharp hooves of the mare. A few scraggly shrubs and sparse grass determinedly pushed their way up through the rock.

They raced through a pass between two high peaks, with the Larger Moon just starting to poke up behind the horizon, and came out in a small meadow. Here a tall female Elf stood in the lea with a longbow in her hand and two hounds at her feet, her leather hoses and jacket sky-blue and clinging tightly to a supple body. Her neck was draped with beaded necklaces and she had a gage in one ear. She had catlike features, like all Sprits in their true form. They could take on a more humanoid form, but preferred to be in their true forms, with flexible pointed ears, big golden eyes, small button noses, and sharp teeth. This Elf had dark purple skin with even darker stripes like a tiger, and her hounds were black and muscular with short fur, their intelligent brown eyes regarding the newly arrivals with a healthy dose of suspicion, ready to attack if their mistress was threatened. But they did not bark, they were too disciplined.

Wordlessly she gestured for the men to follow her, and then slipped through a crack in the mountain to the left of the meadow, followed by her hounds. Orinian dismounted and followed her into a dark and narrow cave, Chervin moving swiftly next to him. Flecks on the elf's skin glowed faintly in the dark, so he could follow her. They went down deep into the earth before coming out into a vast cavern filled with an underground lake.

A tall and fair High Elf stood to one side of the cavern, holding a torch of blue fire, her blonde hair floating like waves of the ocean down her shoulders and she was crowned with a tiara of gold and with gems of jade, resin and lapis lazuli. Several Sprits stood around her, all of them armed and looking nervous. Orinian gripped his blade tighter and contemplated unsheathing it.

"Greetings, my Lord," the High Elf curtsied slightly, still showing that her gesture was not one of compliance but politeness. The Sprits of Alozzia  might recognize the human rulers and most of their laws and held suffrage and were eligible to run for office, however few of them ever did. Still they had their own society and upheld their laws, and were allowed to do such as long as it caused no notable friction with the human majority.
"Greetings Milady," Orinian replied.
"My name is Aliopa," the blonde Elf said. "We have something we wish to show you."
"Where?" the Lord Knight looked around.

"Over there, on the far bank," said Chervin, pointing.
"Show me," Orinian prompted. They walked slowly through the stalagmites. By the green light of the torch, the Lord began making out more figures in the gloom. A ring of Sprits sat in a ring around something. Orinian halted.
"No!" he said. "Not possible."

A single blue stone was lying on the ground in the middle of the circle, shining with a bright cyan sheen, and he could feel its radioactivity tickle his nerves. At that time he blessed his birthright as a Celestial, as their race, just as the Elves, was not affected.

"But it is," Aliopa said. "It is Mitarium."
"Here?" Orinian said, as if questioning her words would make the presence of the stone less real. And Aliopa just nodded her head solemnly at the rhetoric question. Mitarium. Here. The implications were dreadful.

Forcing his eyes from the hypnotizing glow of the stone, Orinian lifted his gaze and took in the rest of the scene. There was a young man sitting outside the circle of Sprits. His arms were wrapped around himself and he was shaking tremendously, though it was warm inside the cave. He clothes were rags, his face dirty, and his skin covered with cuts and bruises. Despite his swollen face, Orinian recognized the man. He had come to Orinian's dominions weeks ago, asking to be admitted to the Caves. It wasn't the first time an adventurer had done this, and they all came for the same reason – the believed location of another Portal. A Portal to the Beyond, the believed universe beyond the Known Six. All of them carrying new maps and new approaches, seeking glory in going to a place where even the beings of the higher worlds feared to travel.

This lad had been cocksure and haughty. Doubtlessly he had killed some badasses on the battlefield and thus imagined himself invincible. Orinian knew better. And his map, which he had probably paid a fortune for, was almost certainly a forgery. Nevertheless, Orinian had sent the man on his way down into the caves, and with so many others never expecting him to return. Yet he had returned, though, beaten and battered, but alive, and he had brought that with him.

Orinian turned back to the Mitarium piece. He had heard of them before, but had never seen one. They were of the transuraniums and in any other realms than his Taronda, the matter would be lethally unstable, causing nuclear reactions that could wipe out cities. But a single one down in a cave in Taronda was not too much of a danger. They could send it back to the Outer Universes without too much trouble.

But the real trouble laid in which it had gotten here in the first place. It wasn't like there were any humans around playing crazy games with particle accelerators and nuclear reactors. As a matter of fact, you couldn't do much with nuclear powers in Taronda, this realm was too old, too stable. But someone or something had brought it here. And where from? Was it really a portal down there? And if that stone had gotten here, what else might come here?

"How did it get through?" Orinian asked Chervin. The wizard just shrugged.
"He brought it," Aliopa said, indicating the young man and Orinian turned to look at him for real for the first time. Very little remained of the aristocrat who had approached him three months ago, the brawny and majestic man in purple silk and brow fur, carrying a heavy sword on his back. Now he was unarmed and almost stripped down to his bones and injured all over. But what were worse were his eyes, they were nothing like the defiant emerald from earlier, now they were clearly marked by madness, insanely staring at the Lord as if not really understanding what they were seeing.

"What do you want us to do?" Aliopa asked.
"We have to send this stone back. I'll leave for Lealia and Whitehall as soon as it's gone. I must inform the board, and King Angarian."

****

Sarah Seibe was frequently discouraged from daydreaming for too long. Her mother, Julienne, claimed that the activity - or lack thereof - was detrimental to her health and school. So, Sarah tried to be aware of when she drifted off - especially in the presence of her mother. However, if she grew bored, or simply tired, she would give in quite easily to the wanderings of her mind. She would imagine far-off places that fairies whispered about in excited tones, or about herself – seeing her future in a glorious vein, where she was standing in the spotlight, being and actress or a star.

Countless of times had she had heard her mother telling her that pride and vanity would get her nowhere, but she couldn't help but want to think of herself as becoming something great. Her mother declared it to be nonsense, since Sarah was just a regular middle class girl, and therefore ought to not think herself capable of doing much better. But Sarah longed for adventures beyond her everyday chores. She wanted something more than the suburb the two of them were living in, the school bus and the toiling in class with grammars and math and sports. She was not meant for this, she was sure. She was meant for something more, she was meant for adventures and excitement beyond the dull little triangle of school, home and the art afternoon school where she was practicing theatre two afternoons a week.

By the time Sarah was fourteen years of age, Julianne had moved the two of them from the small rental where they had lived almost as long as Sarah could remember – yet she had faint recollections of the mansion they had inhibited when mother and father had still been married. Instead Sarah found herself in Chelsea outside London, in an old nineteen century townhouse which had been converted into flats. And for the first time in her life did she get her own room. Nothing fancy, but the little attic den which you reached by a steep and narrow set of stairs, was the first private space she had ever had. The first time she had been able to close a door behind herself, if you didn't count the bathroom.

The room was tiny, all that could be fit into it was her bed, a small working desk with a chair, a bookshelf and a beanbag. The white-painted wooden ceiling was sloping, cuddling the room in and adding a cozy atmosphere and on the wall by the stairs was a round window letting in daylight. Not much – but it was hers and hers alone, and in that Sarah took delight.

On top of that, there were the neighbors. The family in the five roomer below had two kids her own age, there was Doris, who also was fourteen and her little sister Mary, twelve. Doris and Sarah ended up in the same class, and had soon formed that kind of bound only girls at a certain age do. Best friends forever, sharing every secret, every dream and making bright future plans together.

One of these dreams included acting, in movies or on stages, dressed up sequins and lace and bathed in the bright beams of super troupers. Together they made up small plays, practicing at the yonder end of the back-side garden where nobody could overhear them, writing down corny lines in notebooks and reading out loud.

"Oh, my dear Doris," Sarah started out in a child's voice. "You are positively glowing! What is the occasion? Has something great happened since we last said goodbye?"
"Sarah. Oh, sweet Sarah," Doris giggled lightly. "I wish you could know the wonders of men, but alas! The honored Queen is set in her way."
"Pray tell me, what way is that?" Sarah asked.
"It's..." suddenly Doris fell silent, forgetting the line, and for a brief moment did Sarah get annoyed before the saw the V between Doris' brows and the uncomfortable darting of the eyes.

"What?" she too dropped the pretense, feigning naivety - but underneath, calculating the answer. Just as the words slipped past Doris's mouth, the girl's freckled countenance paled. Sarah kept a stilled expression over indignant despise, and pressed on.
"I wish I could have some of your luck, but perhaps I am well-off enough just to know you!" Sarah reached gently for her friend's hands and squeezed ever so lightly at the exclamation. "Please, tell me what it's like, for it'll take ages before I know half of what you know."

Doris blushed slightly, and then she faced her friend.
"You know Luke?"
"The Hockey-player?"
"Yes, yes," Doris nodded her head eagerly and Sarah urged her to spill all the beans, envisioning the boy in the class above with the ruffled blond hair and bluest of eyes.
"He asked me if he could kiss me!"
"And?"
"And... I said yes!"  

"Wow," Sarah's voice dropped in pitch as she was taking it in. Then she let the voice pitch up again as she repeated herself. "Wow!" Doris let hear a ringing laughter at her friend's reaction, a laughter spiced with pride.
"It's not that impossible, you know, flirting them down," she replied, still pleased and with a tad of benign lecturing in her tone.
"Well, tell me," Sarah pleaded and pulled up her fingers inside of her jacket sleeves. Now, when they were not pretending to be actresses anymore, reality let itself be known in the biting autumn afternoon air.

"You just flirt with them, show them you like them. And they'll eat out of your hands!"
"How? Not in school, right?"
"No, there's too much gossip going on there, too many people being aware  and death scared of making a fool of themselves. Being turned down – or something worse."

What could be worse than being turned down, Sarah thought but she didn't voice that pondering loud. Instead she regarded her friend intensely.
"Come to the Friday disco at the youth's club," Doris suggested. "That's where you meet them."
"My mother won't let me," Sarah paled visibly.
"Really?" Doris raised a brow. "I mean, what could happen? There are grown-ups there, some of the teachers even. Old McJoseph. And the strongest thing you can get to drink is a coke."

"She thinks I'm too young."
"Have you asked her?" Doris pressed on.
"No," Sarah looked down at her shoes. "Not really."
"So go ahead! Do it!"

***

Sarah took her friend's advice and at dinner time that night, she asked her mother if she could attend the disco. But her mother's answer was a No of the not open for discussions kind. Still Sarah tried, demanding an explanation.
"You're too young," Julianne stated firmly.
"But mum!"
"When you're eighteen you can attend as many discos and night clubs you want, you may even go into London doing it, but not at the age of fourteen."
"Mum! Doris is going. Her dad will drive. And pick us up afterwards, it ends at eleven. And there's teachers watching us over."
"You're still not going, I don't want you do be the victim of anything stupid. I know how kids can be at that age."
"At what age? My age?"

"Sarah," Julianne's voice was sharp but she quickly tempered down. "How about you and I getting some Thai delivery from that place you love, and then we can watch TV together instead. Have some mother-daughter-time. We've lacked that for quite some while now."
"That's because you're working all the time," Sarah snarled as she stood and took her plate to the sink before stomping up the stairs to her room.

That night, there was a heavy silence in their three-roomer.
The riddle of the Labyrinth 1.Kisses and strange
Chapter 1: Kisses and strange artefacts
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