From childhood's hour I have not been
As others were - I have not seen
As others saw - I could not bring
My passions from a common spring.
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow, I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone;
And all I lov'd , I lov'd alone.
From ev'ry depth of good and ill
The mystery that binds me still:
From the thunder and the storm,
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view.
(author's note: in my story, there are 2 pieces that are marked with **s. These are from other sources. The 1st is from "Windows of Nature" by Maitreya Stillwater and the 2nd is taken from a poem called "Of Things Good and Evil",(I have lost the name of the poet), however, I make no personal claim in writing these 2 selections)
Although it was a beautiful spring day, that was alive with the fresh sights and sounds of the earth springing forth from its winter dormancy, despite the bright blue sky's wide eyed gaze that was spotted with wind-swept clouds and the choral unison of the songbirds, Princess Lili turned a blind eye to all the eloquence that Nature had put out around her.
She was perched on a high rock that over-hung a dangerous precipice. Her eyes were cast downwards as she intently stared at the ground that lay far below her crouched body. To the casual observer, it looked as if she was affixiated on something below her, or as if she was intently concentrating on something.
The truth of the matter was that she was trying very hard, but unsuccessfully, to keep her mind focussed on nothingness. But the memories still came, despite her valiant efforts to keep them at bay. All day, she had tried to occupy herself with meaningless, mundane tasks that would have normally demanded all of her attentions. But her hands had been too slow for the pointless needlework, her feet too slow to keep time with the loom. Those tasks (which she had never been fond of), seemed all the more unbearable today and she had long abandoned them. Even walking in the opulent gardens of her father, King Godwin, had not been able to soothe her frayed nerves. The deer that she had usually been able to coax to eat out of her hand had shied frightfully away, and the shrieks of the elegant peacocks had been harsher than normal and had even seemed to mock her.
'They know,' she had thought gloomily to herself.
In a final attempt to remedy her melancholy, Lili had slipped away into the forest to go for a walk. In the past, that had never failed to assuage her misplaced emotions. But, as she had wandered to her old haunts, her favourite spinney and copses, they had felt strangely foreign and vague.
It was as if she knew she was supposed to love them, and that she had in the past, but now...now, it was all different and strange. For hours, she had been wandering listlessly amongst the towering trees and the thicket, heedless to the symphony of spring sounds all about her.
Her head was cast downwards, and as she walked, it was without direction, without will. At one point, she had almost walked straight off of a moor, but she had caught herself at the last moment and had since been there, staring down at the waving sea of green limbs of trees that stretched like a green canopy below her. More than once, the incredible, foolhardy urge to throw herself off the moor and float down into those green arms that seemed to beckon her had laid a-hold of her. But as her self-preservation had sensibly interceded, she had long since dismissed the desire.
How idyllic that seemed, though! It would have been lovely to have given herself over to her wild fancies and let them be carried out without doubt...without regret... Lili sighed as she thought about how intimate she had become with those twin emotions as of late. She felt that she had aged incredibly in the past while. Gone was her heedless, reckless former self and in its place had come a more serious, burdened one.
'That's because of what came of my first folly,' she reasoned sadly.
Ah, yes. It had been her younger, arrogant, wily self that had touched the unicorn stallion that dreaded day. By heeding only her childish desires and wants, her arrogance had had catastrophic results. She felt her throat closing up as it characteristically did whenever she remembered that one moment, forever to be recalled in her memory, when her fingers had touched it - that incorruptible manifestation of light. Oh! For a second chance in which to take it all back! To right the costly wrong! But it was impossible, she knew. Even if she were somehow, miraculously given the moment again, she would have done it the same.
Wearily, Lili turned her thoughts away from the irreversible past. She must look to the future. There lay more promise there. She lifted her head in an attempt to lighten the sombre mood that had settled over her. She turned her eyes to a pair of birds that were, in their courtship, wheeling and soaring majestically in the cerulean sky beyond the moor. They moved in perfect harmony without any hesitation. For one carefree moment, Lili wished that she could be as those birds were; free, wild, with no perception of good or evil, action or consequence. Free to live and be free of responsibility and obligation.
But she could not be. She could never be. She was a princess, born into an unasked for position of power that she must fill, as was her obligation to her father, his house, her line and tradition. There were too many things that depended on her for her to guiltlessly turn her back upon. Her world consisted and relied upon others. Servants, friends, subjects, suitors... She could not abandon them. Duty and honour were indeed hardships suffered only by the elite, the privileged. Why, even the pauper was able to get a good night's sleep after a hard day at work! But never a monarch. A monarch must stay awake, worrying about matters of state and finance, treaties, justice and on and on. Lili grimaced as she considered this as her future. What she would not give to be able to live as simply as her friend, Nell!
The birds had flown off and the sky was empty, save the white towers of clouds. But, being embittered by her own thoughts, Lili failed to see the beauty that lay there. Without a word, she arose, stretched luxuriously and wandered away into the forest.
Hours later, as the sun was setting dramatically in the West, Lili was still frantically searching for her way out of the forest. The trees had all taken on the same look and although she had a good sense of direction, every stump or clump of grass looked the same and she wandered aimlessly around. Finally, as her frustration and panic reached their cumulation, she forced herself to sit down on some smooth, large rocks that filled up a hollow in the ground. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath to steady herself, and calm the rampant feeling of unease that lurked in her belly
When next she opened her eyes, the sun had all but set and it was growing darker all around her. Lili shivered from the on-setting cold. While she had spent many a night before in the forest and she was not afraid, she wore only a simple smock and underneath that, a thin shift. It may come that she would have to spend a cold night curled up on the rocks. As she peered around for a more comfortable position, the oddest thing occurred.
Her eyes were drawn to a darker shadow that was wedged amongst two of the rocks. As she stared harder at it, the lherzolyte rock seemed to glow and in the shadows, Lili thought that she could make out two, distinct, glowing orbs. As cold terror settled into her limbs, freezing her with a deadly chill, Lili saw a pair of green eyes, watching her from the dark shadow.
With a strangled yell, Lili scrambled backwards, her feet slipping on the smooth, slick rock. Downwards she fell, closer to those two burning, familiar eyes. But as her foot touched the shadow, the eyes seemed to vanish and she was left staring at nothing but green grass in the crevice. Shaking like a leaf, Lili picked herself up and moved quickly away from the rocks.
It was all still too close! Too vivid! Lili suffered fresh terror as she remembered all too well, his hot foul breath, rancid against her cheek, his cruel merciless hands holding her head in place as he...
With a mighty effort, Lili pushed the memory away and raised her head upwards, as if raising a silent plea to someone, something. She wondered if she would have to scour the earth before she could find one iota of peace. Despite her aching feet and the growing stitch in her side, she steeled herself on, despite the growing darkness. Unfortunately, darkness was something that she was all too well acquainted with.
High above Lili, carefully concealed in the green foliage was the figure of a young man. It was none other than Jack 'o' the Green, Lili's rescuer, watching her from a safe distance. His brow knotted as he watched her progress. Lili knew the woods as well as he did, but for all the world, she looked as if she were lost, without a scarce sense of direction to her. Keeping a close eye on her, Jack leaped nimbly from tree to tree, keeping perfect time with her footsteps. As she paused, either to loosen her dress from a branch that it had snared itself on, or to catch her breath, Jack mimicked her movements perfectly. As he watched her, it gave him a chance to reflect on her strange behaviour over the past while.
It had been, what? A full month since their last adventure together? A month had passed since their suffered ordeal. In that time, a great deal had happened.
Jack remembered the torching of the Great Tree by his friend, Gump. After they had emerged triumphantly from the underground labyrinth, Gump, Screwball, and Brown Tom (all of the original heroes) had let flaming arrows rain upon the ancient old, rotting tree. It had gone up like pine pitch, and had smoked for days afterward. Of all the vermin that had not either met their doom in the consuming flames, they had fled the burning wreckage, to seek refuge in the forest.
When his fairy friend were not merry-making, they were busy hunting down the renegade troll or mercenary that still huddled in the forest, plotting revenge.
Since that time, Jack had let Lili keep mostly to herself. He knew that the best remedy for her was to be surrounded by people and busy-ness. He could not consign himself to such a life and had to content himself with meeting her in the forest. Daily after their forest-rendezvous, Jack would leave Lili at the gate of her father's estate and watch her disappear into the world of other humans, strange noise and activity that he could never take part in.
Lili seemed physically fine, despite her abduction by Darkness' henchmen and the ordeals she'd been subjected to in the Great Tree. But Jack knew that there lay other scars beneath the surface of her soul and he patiently and tenderly waited for her to open up him, like a mountain primrose to the morning sun, to reveal her fears.
But she had not spoken. In fact, she had cunningly side-stepped all his inquiries as to what had transgressed while she had been the captive of the demon, the Lord of Darkness. Jack felt torn between his obvious curiosity of wanting to know of what exactly had happened to her and his desire to forget about the whole thing. Lili had seemed so different since the adventure.
She was more mellow and pensive about things. At times, it had seemed to Jack that she wanted nothing more than to be left alone, but when he suggested that she needed time and space, she vehemently refused his offer and had clung to him, much like a lost child, making him promise that he would visit her daily.
Yet, there was no denying the fact that she had been effected by what had happened. How long her melancholy would last, Jack did not know, but he wished that his Lili, the Lili of old would return. How much more fun things had been then! The secrets, the games...it had all been so carefree.
But now, as he watched her bent head, Jack could not help but feel that she was slipping away from him. How to remedy it, though? He was at a loss. He suspected that it was something that had no remedy, save time. Yes, he would just have to wait. Lili loved him, he felt assured of that. If she wanted him to know what ailed her, she would surely tell him.
He could wait, just as the caterpillar knew that it would someday aspire to the wings of a butterfly. For the time being, it was enough for him to be close by her and keep silent watch. He watched as she found a small hollow and strategically gathered pine boughs to serve as a cover and as protection. Good, she was doing it just like he had showed her in the past. Under his silent sentry, Lili crawled into the enclosure, curled up on her side and apparently fall asleep. For long hours, he held his vigil, silently and watchfully. The forest darkened and grew still. As midnight drew nearer, Jack knew that would have to leave her soon, because he was supposed to meet with Gump. He knew that the forest would be asleep and that his Lili would be safe
Far behind Jack, something was watching him as he took his leave of Lili. The something was an imp, but one so small and misshapen that it could have been easily confused for one of the Wee Folk. The imp, whose name happened to be Griezzell, was one of the (afore-mentioned Lord of Darkness') minions who, by cunning and wit had been able to escape the fires that had destroyed the sanctity of the Great Tree.
At one time, Griezzell had been one of Darkness' most revered familiars, endowed with the ability to change his form, according to will. He usually preferred to take the form of a horned toad, but some missions, (like tonight's for instance) demanded more speed. In such an event, he usually took on the shape of fly, wasp or as he did tonight, a raven.
In the twinkling of an eye, he had transformed and was winging his way back to the site of the goblins' nightly Esbat.
Before, he too, had been watching Lili and had seen the curious incident on the rock. After Jack was well out of sight, Griezzell had had a chance to creep over to the rock and lay his scaly palm on the spot from where he had seen the green light coming. The ground beneath his hand was slightly warm, but he knew that it was not natural warmth.
His fanged teeth had bit his lip and he knew that he would have some intriguing news to share with the others that night.
His aerial flight took him to a hidden grotto in the wall of a mountain. Once inside of the grotto, Griezzell took his perch on a ledge and surveyed the area, through his bird's eye view. He was able to make out the other familiars, who had been lucky enough to escape.
There was Pegwackett, in the shape of a spider. Jamara, disguised as a toad. Ilemauzar, who in his demand for luxury, was in the shape of a ginger-coloured cat that was elegantly licking its paws. Further back in the cave, in their true forms, were more of the other deviltry. The few goblins, harpies, pygmies and nature-spirits that had sworn their allegiance to the dark powers were there, too. They all wore a similar expression on their furrowed, hideous and malformed faces. It was the look of fear and suspicion as they all looked nervously about at one another. But tempered by that fear was the obsessive hunger for revenge that Griezzell saw buried deep in their eyes. Although their fear of discovery by their enemies was great, greater still was the thirst for revenge, the need for retaliation. Hence, the meeting.
Ruffling his dark garb in an order to keep warm (they had dared not light a fire, for fear that their enemies might catch the scent and chance upon them), Griezzell wondered what was keeping their appointed leader, the goblin, Blix. Although Blix insisted that he was acting only in the place of their mighty lord; Darkness and would readily relinquish his power as soon as they devised a way to resurrect their master, Griezzell secretly thought that Blix was relishing his new-found power a little too much. Calling himself "the Grand-Visor of Hell", Blix had readily taken ahold of the reins. A little too readily, reflected Griezzell, like a spider glutting itself on the fly.
Although there had been others that would have eagerly taken the conferred role of leadership, it had seemed most logical that it fell onto Blix's shoulders. For it had been he that had had originally poisoned the unicorn, caught the girl (who was the bane of all their existences) and then had even recaptured her, despite impossible odds, for their lord's misguided intentions.
Whatever the case, there was no changing the facts. They must all stick together, if they wanted things to be restored to way they once had been.
Blix had echoed the same thought earlier when he had advised them to pit their collective strengths and wiles not against each other in a senseless squirmish, but rather, against their foes.
Griezzell's stomach grumbled. How long had it been since he'd had a good side of fresh flesh? Too long. Food was scarce. Blix had banned the hunt, for fear of discovery and capture. Their numbers were too thin to sacrifice any more. Easily said, thought Griezzell, accusingly, as Blix was always the first to have the choice-pick from whatever game they managed to catch.
His attention was suddenly diverted to the mouth of the cave as he saw four figures enter. The first was Greedigut, a formidable goblin that had rarely ever come to the Great Tree to partake in the sacrifices and banqueting. A solitary figure, not much was known about Greedigut by the others, but his appetites and attentions seemed to run much the same as Blix's, as he was second-in command. Liken his name, Greedigut's stature was notably marked by his protruding belly. Yet, for his large carriage and bulk, the goblin seemed to carry with him an air of confidence and cunning. It was also rumoured that he was a formidable tracker, although most goblins were considered to be.
Behind Greedigut came Pecke and Newes, two sepertinious figures, whose bodies and personalities were just as devious, cunning and twisted as snakes. The two shared the same repitilious body, completed with scales and fur, which marked them as terrestrial demons; the wiliest of the six species of demons that roamed the earth. From their shared, gilled throat sprouted two stream-lined heads that knotted and unknotted as their two heads spoke with interjected speech.
"This way! This way!" hissed Pecke.
"How good of you to come!" echoed Newes, his head bobbing back and forth, making a beckoning motion for the tall, draped figure that stood behind them.
"Look alive, all of you!" hissed Pecke, casting his cold-slit-eyed gaze in their direction.
Griezell automatically snapped to attention at the command.
"You honour us with your presence!" droned Newes' voice.
Griezzell shared the same curious expression as all the others as the figure swept into the grotto.
"This way! Have a seat, here," said the honeyed tones of Pecke, leading the figure to the spot normally reserved for Blix.
Griezzell's raven eyes blinked uneasily as he watched all this. Whoever the mysterious figure was, they were indeed important. Not even Greedigut was privileged enough to share the seat of honour with Blix.
Where was the goblin?! Bodies; scaled, furred and feathered moved in anticipation. They knew that there was something that was going to happen. But what was it?
Almost as if he had heard the unsaid question, the high goblin chose that very moment to enter the grotto. He bestowed a benevolent goblin smile onto them all and then, he approached the veiled figure that sat silently in his seat.
Under Griezzell's watch, Blix did a most curious thing. First he stooped low to the ground and with a swift action, he had drawn his famous braquemart (with which it was to be said that he had killed a whole battalion of human knights with) and violently drove it into the earth. Blix closed his eyes and whispered, though loudly enough for all to hear, "May Mother Earth weep for the future loss of her child!"
Griezzell instantly knew to what Blix referred. He was alluding to his future plans to find and kill the girl that had caused all this, for them all. Upon swearing their allegiance to Blix, all the deviltry had had to take an oath of hatred of the human princess, Lili, the one responsible for their lord's demise. Until Darkness was restored, and she was dead, none of them should rest, swore Blix.
The second thing that Blix did that raised a few (for those that had them) eyebrows, was that he took the figure's darkly swathed hand that was held out to him and gently pressed his horribly, malformed goblin lips to it.
This done, Blix arose and turned to the gathered company. "Brothers!" he said (and Griezzell steeled himself for Blix's predicative indulgence of grandiloquence), let revenge rest tenderly in your hearts this night! Our salvation has come to give us her sight!"
'What does that mean?' thought Griezzell.
Blix sat himself down on the ground, and Greedigut stepped forward to fill the others in.
"All of you! We have been graced this night with the company of a special lady! Let us all welcome the Mistress of Mysteries!"
Griezzell, along with all the others made a ceremonious bow to the silent figure that sat so strangely still...
"It is she that will tell us how to right the wrong that has been done to us! The Mistress of Mysteries, knows all, sees all! She will point us in the right path, though the light has grown dim! It is to her that we must turn."
So, all heads turned to the revered Mistress of Mysteries. They waited patiently for her to arise and speak. And waited. And waited.
Silence filled the time where words did not.
Heads began to turn to one another, doubting stares were turned first upon the Mistress and then upon Blix. Clearly, this was not what Blix had expected. He too, was growing impatient, eager for words, but none seemed to be coming.
Finally, after what seemed like hours, Blix exploded angrily, "Witch! No more of your foul tricks! I command you to speak..." he never had a chance to finish, because at that moment, the Mistress of Mysteries chose to speak.
Her hand outstretched to caress the twin heads of Pecke and Newes, who were crouched nearby. When her voice came, it was indeed strange, as if there were two other distinct voices that spoke in time with hers, but were notably different. They echoed slightly after her initial voice, as if they were an after-thought.
"I have already spoken with my silence, only you are all too deaf to hear what I would not say. You want to hear only what you would. Very well, then. Peace. I will speak what it is what you wish to hear form, me the Mistress of Mysteries.
"Hear my words; trust them as truth, as I know all. I am the past. I am the present and I am the future. I am the triplicity. I am three in one. I have been known to many others. I have many names...the Fates, Morrigan, Hectate, Ma'at, Methuselah, the Sibyl, the mother of Vainamoinen, Nu Kua and many more that you do not know.
"I have existed far longer than any of you can comprehend. I have travelled the world over and over again. I have seen sights that you would not wager. I will help you now, only because it pleases me to do so."
Here, she left off stroking Pecke and Newes and stood upright, so that she could be seen by all. As she removed her veil, there were shocked gasps at her appearance.
Griezzell stared in half-horror, half-fascination at her face. It, in itself was a mystery. One half of it, the half that was half-turned away from him was ravaged beyond belief. Countless wrinkles, scars and other lacerations mapped her flesh, broken only by the numerous boils that either festered into angry bubbles, or had, in some places, cleared the flesh away to reveal the white gleaming skeletal bone underneath.
The other half of her face was the pure manifestation of beauty. It represented surely, the time when the woman had been in her beautiful primacy, for not a wrinkle or fold of skin could be detected on that white, shining skin.
Even as Griezzell was still staring at the woman's face, she moved. She raised her fingers to her face and then, with deliberate force, she plunged her fingers into her skull, her fingers making the most curious digging motions.
Griezzell's shock turned to surprise as he saw her literally pull her eyeballs out of her face, still they rested in her palm; two greasy leering orbs. With a strange, foreign word, the Mistress of Mysteries had thrown them up in the air and incredibly enough, the eyes flew out of the cave and were gone!
The Mistress of Mysteries sat down on the ground with perfect ease, as if she was not missing the monarch of her senses, and could navigate herself perfectly well without them.
"In my travels, I have seen sights as you would not guess," she said eerily, turning her bleeding, socketed face to Blix. "I have been to lands where the inhabitants can infuse life back into the dead through a variety of means. It is through one of these methods that we shall restore your missed superior."
"Tell us how, oh wise one! Tell us how it is to be done!" said Blix eagerly.
"In a land far to the east of here, people live with the belief that the soul is an immortal thing, never able to pass on. When the body dies, the soul is forced to hover, formless in Chaos until it can be brought back in the shape of another form. The means in which to re-anchor the soul back into flesh vary. However, the most potent way is to take the body of one that was close either in blood-relation or in spirit to the deceased. Then, you must take some soil on which they have trod, water, blood and skin from their body to provide the vessel in which the deceased shall return."
There were hushed whispers as excitement stirred the crowd. Blix took no notice. "Yes! And then?" he queried the Mistress.
The Mistress of Mysteries shrugged her bony shoulders, "This done, the one who lent themselves must be burned to death, so that order can be restored." Here, her voice dropped a little, as if she was conferring a great secret. "It is on balance and order that the universe exists. One body can be exchanged for another juts as one soul can be traded for another."
But Blix, upon having received the information about how to resurrect Darkness cared little for foolish speeches about balance and order. His mind was going over how his kind would achieve a spot in the world again. He deliciously turned over the idea of Lili on a funeral pyre. "Yes! Such a fitting end for the human fiend, who once reigned as our master's tyrant Queen!"
"There are those that believe that the wife of the deceased, so long as she remains pure after the passing, may assist his soul in returning to the world of the living," added the Mistress.
Blix smiled at this and rubbed his thin hands at the lovely feeling of power that surged away within him. "Ah! Mistress, how wisely you speak and justly you see, for nothing else could be quite so pleasing to me! Imagine!", he cried out, "That our enemy holds the key! With her mere mortality! We shall find her, and make her burn!"
'Imagine the gratitude that I will earn!' thought Blix to himself happily. He was pleased by this future prospect - that their lord would be indentured to him...
At that moment, the eyes that the Mistress of Mysteries had thrown up into the air, suddenly flew through the opening and returned to her hand.
There was silence as she pushed them back into her skull. "My eyes have seen your mistress, Earth man," she said to Blix, "and pure she remains. I would advise you to move swiftly though, if you want to make your gains!"
And then she stood and strode to the mouth of the cave.
"Wait!" cried Greedigut, "Won't you stay and help us?"
The Mistress of Mysteries turned around and fixed him with a chilling glare.
"I mean...would you be... so kind... as to stay and help us, kind madam...." Stuttered Greedigut, with the characteristic pleading of any goblin.
"Nay," answered the Mistress of Mysteries. "We all must bear a burden, and that is mine. I may watch, I may learn and instruct, but I can never act. You have the knowledge of how to bring back your lord. That is all that I can tell you." Then, as was her name, the Mistress of Mysteries disappeared just as mysteriously. Silence over-hung the cave, but there was also hope.
"Finally, after so long," mused Greedigut, out loud, "When there has been no sign, no indication, we have finally learned that all is not lost!"
Suddenly, Griezzell remembered his news. He had all but forgotten it until now.
"I saw something on this night!" he croaked.
All heads turned to look at him. Griezzell went on excitedly, happy to for once be the centre of attention. "Tonight!" he said, "When I was following the girl, Blix, I saw something!"
"Oh?" said Blix, in a flat voice. Griezzell puzzled over this momentarily, but thought nothing of it. "Yes! In the forest, earlier today, after I had just finished taking the most delightful mud bath in that bog over near the dead elm tree! I happened to see her sitting on some rocks. She was wearing a white smock and white kid slippers, and such rocks they were! Greenish-grey with lots of strange flecks in them..." like any imp, Griezzell was prone to relaying vast amounts of often useless, though detailed information.
"Get to..." cried Newes
"...the point!" and Pecke.
"As I was watching," said Griezzell, "something stood out near her feet, in between the rocks, and I swear by the cloven hoof of our master (our true master!), it was his eyes staring up at her! You couldn't forget such a thing like that!"
All eyes turned to Blix, who was holding his chin thoughtfully.
"Are you sure of this?" he asked.
"As certain as sin!" declared Griezzell. "After she had gone, I crept forward and touched the ground and it was warm, Blix! Warm, but unlike any natural warmth! I tell you that it was he! He is still alive, maybe trapped beneath the earth, who knows? But I would wager that it is a sign! That the time grows close and that he is powerful, once again. I tell you! I saw what I saw."
"Why didn't you mention this before?" accused Greedigut, approaching him threateningly.
"I guess I forget..." trailed off Griezzell, realizing only then how trivial his excuse sounded.
"How dare you keep this..." said Pecke.
"...to yourself," finished Newes.
"I just forgot up until now, is all!" Griezzell defended himself, looking hopefully towards Blix, searching for pardon, but there was none to be found in Blix's hard stare.
"Liar!" exclaimed Blix. "To think that our lord would reveal himself to the likes of you?! Lowly shape-shifter..."
Griezzell fluttered his midnight feathers. "It's true, I tell you!"
There was a terse silence, as Blix seemed to be considering all this.
"You are certain there is nothing more you haven't conveniently forgotten to share with us?" said Greedigut.
"No! That is all that I know, all that I saw," said Griezzell, who didn't realize his mistake until after the fatal words were out of him.
"Good," said Greedigut with a tattle-tell smile on his blubbery lips. He cast a swift glance over towards Blix who gave only the slightest nod of his head. "You've been a grand help, Griezzell! You have brought us news of the first sign! Now, you can be of even a greater help..."
Griezzell gave a jump of ecstasy and said eagerly, "How? Any way that I can be of service..." he was anxious to align himself in the good graces of Blix and the others.
Greedigut came closer to him, out-stretching his hand; "You'll make an excellent dish! I am famished..."
As the words settled on Griezzell, he instantly realized the goblin's intent. In the twinkling of an eye, he had made use of his wings to fly above the heads of the others and cawed out insults at them. Far below, the deviltry tried to catch him, but they fell several feet short of his tail feathers at every leap. Shaking their fists uselessly at him, Griezzell cawed out his harsh laughter at their antics.
Unfortunately though, for our imp Griezzell, he had forgotten all about Ilemauzar, who, not being in the form of a cat for nothing, bunched his tail, twitched his ears and pounced into the air.
His claws caught in Griezzell's feathers and under the force of gravity, they fell to the cavern floor. Before he could gather his scattered senses, Griezzell felt Greedigut's hand closing over him. He heard Blix's voice declaring his fate.
"Let this serve to remind all those that would work against me! This is punishment for all those that would keep such secrets and try such trickery!"
There was an audible crack of shattering bones and Griezzell felt his body go limp all over, unable to move, to speak...to protest.
The last things he heard was Blix's voice saying, "Come! Let us plan and prepare for the ceremony!" and then the rabble of the others' voices.
The last thing he saw was the opening, gaping jaws of Greedigut who sang his funerary benediction:
"A one and only black bird/though not baked in a pie/Will surely be enjoyed on/says I!"
Then, Griezzell saw and felt a wet darkness that did not disappear, even after he blinked. Then, it seemed that the darkness was tearing him into many million slices. He knew no more.
And thus ended the services of Griezzell, forever more!
Lili burrowed herself deeper into the little hollow that served as her bed. She was unable to shake the feeling that she was being watched. Sleep would not come, even though she had tightly closed her eyes and prayed for sleep. Instead, all that had come was cold doubt for the future. Memory, it seemed to her, was the great hunter and she was the quarry that it pursued relentlessly, depriving her even of sleep.
Sighing, she rolled over onto her back and stared up at the wide curtain of the night sky that was bedecked with the shining brilliance of the stars. There was a moment of peace to be found there, as she stared up into the night sky and drank deeply of the night's majestic beauty. Never before had she been so enamoured of the night.
She suspected that it was partly because of his doing, his influence.
As a child, the night had always seemed to her to be the thing that chased away the bright, sunshiny fun and games of the daytime. It brought only the shadows and the monsters of the night that her nurse had regaled her bedtime stories with. Night-time meant that it was time to lie still and silent in your bed and do boring-nothing. Lili's earliest memories of the night had been sitting in it, crying out that she was lonely and hungry and scared. And it had been the light of the nurse's candle that brought her company and comfort. Perhaps it was that earliest association with light - that it brought warmth, comfort and company- that children made, that caused them to be afraid of the dark.
But she had been the mistress of the night for a time. It had not been unknown to her. It had been at his command and therefore, also hers. There had been an undeniable beauty in it...the way the shadows had crept, the inky black stillness of sleep and the calm serenity of it, too. Lili knew that she saw the world differently now. It could never be the same to her again. Everything had changed and nothing seemed the same anymore. It was like a lost daydream, something of great worth and value; but only its passing made it seem so. Lili closed her eyes and turned away from her romanticising of the night. As beautiful as it may be, there also lay death within it and unearthly horrors that did not belong in the world.
There would be questions, no doubt tomorrow, when she arrived back home. Her father, the king, would want to know where she had been. He had asked the same question earlier, in concern to her strange disappearance when the goblins had abducted her.
She had told him that she had decided to spend some time with the commoners, to "better understand their ways of life" and to and to further secure their loyalty to him, the monarch (and though that did not explain the broken glass in her bedroom, or the dead guards outside the gate), he father had overlooked these things.
When her father had heard her explanation, he had merely scoffed at the notion that patrons of their standing should have to debase themselves by associating with the serfs, peasants and other "underlings". Although he had accepted her story, Lili had had to endure another one of his royal speeches about how they need not concern themselves with such matters. The poor and weak existed to be ruled by the rich and powerful! The peasant was happiest only when he was serving his king, he father had sermoned to her. The poor man was a slave, because he was born to be. He could never aspire to anything more. It was their duty, as monarchs, to keep the lesser man in bondage and servitude, lest he forget his place and his duty.
After enduring his speech, Lili had turned sickly away from her father. Why was it that she could hear his voice speaking to her, through the words of her father? She could still recall the demon's voice speaking to her, in a similar fashion. Oh, was there no escape from him, or rather, the memory of him?.
She shivered as a slight breeze passed over her. She was cold in her thin shift and she burrowed herself tighter into the hollow and wished all the more for the dawning of the morn.
"That's it, build it higher, lads!" said the merry voice of Brown Tom.
"We need more timber than that to be it a'goin'" echoed another voice.
All around, the voices of fairies, sprites and elves were roused.
"The wood's too wet, bedabbers!" cursed a stocky elf, by the name of Will. O. Wisp. "We'll never get it lit!"
"Where's Gump?" said the silvery voice of the sprite, Oona. "He can get it lit," she said.
"Yes! Capital idea!" said Brown Tom.
"Gump," implored Oona, "could you please help us?"
Without a word, the elf-wizard, Gump stepped forward and reaching into thin air, he produced a handful of herbs and glittering substance that glistened like snow as he threw it into the fire. At once, the fire roared to life as if the bellows of a dozen labouring men had fanned it. A grateful cheer went up and the festivities began.
Out of nowhere, food and drink seemed to appear, and the gathered ones gorged themselves upon the splendid food and wine with wanton abandon. As they supped, some danced and cavorted and performed impossible feats of acrobatics. Others gathered around to talk and tell stories and some gathered around the elf Screwball to listen to his account of the ascent into the Great Tree to rescue the human princess, Lili.
Screwball, who was slightly tipsy, was embellishing the tale greatly and was none too hesitant in making none other than himself, out to be the hero of his account.
"So there we was," he was saying his words slurring together, "lost in the pit of the Tree, hopelessly lost! We'd been there for days, maybe even weeks, I'd reckon an' the others had albut given it up for a lost cause! We'd been travellin' in circles forever and then the rest was about to give up but finally I steps in and says, 'Let me lead the way'..."
From a piece off, Gump listened to Screwball's erroneous re-telling of the tale. With a wry smile, he turned away. Let the elf have his moment. He would have the devil of a hang-over to sleep off in the morning.
"Brown Tom! Some more of yer ale, if ye'd be so kind!" roared the elf Will. O. Wisp, halfway through the story and who was always thirsty for the brewery. Half-deaf, Will. O. Wisp roared at everyone, thinking that he was speaking in normal tones and was much at a loss when those around him stuffed their fingers in their ears or winced when he spoke. Despite being half-deaf, Will. O. Wisp could hear the words 'whiskey, ale, or beer' being whispered half a mile away, behind locked doors and in the quietest of whispers. He was always present at fairy banquets and he coveted his spirits as dwarfs coveted gold.
Brown Tom, who could on occasion be accused of being too stringy with his ale, was going all-out on this night and he generously filled up Will. O. Wisp's out-held cup to the brim with his potion that was rumoured to be the equal of the ambrosia of the Greek gods.
As Will. O. Wisp titled his cup back, he roared out, "Aye! Now that's the stuff!"
This was met by cheers of approval all around.
Gump watched this all with reserved amusement. Though he longed to join them, he had another appointment to keep. With the stealth and cunning that only an elf had, he waited for the moment when he was sure that no one would be watching, to slip away into the forest.
"What do you mean we're gonna wait?" howled Greedigut in an appalled rage.
"Just what I said, brother goblin. We will wait," said Blix firmly.
"But I wanted to do it tonight!" wheedled Greedigut shamelessly.
"As did I," said Blix. "But it is better to wait, watch and plan and then we can make her suffer before we deal out her fate."
"But I wanted to have some fun!" protested Greedigut. "Haven't had a good play in a long time," he pouted with all the resemblance of a little child who has been told that they must go to bed.
A phantom smile tugged at Blix's hard expression. "Oh, you'll get your fun, Greedigut. So long as we can get the job done. Tell me...what did you have in mind?"
Sensing that Blix was giving in, Greedigut grinned widely. Black crow feathers were still visible in between his teeth. "I'll invite her to play with me, like proper friends should," he vowed. "We'll play with some of my toys, too, Blix! Would you care to see 'em?"
Distantly, Blix nodded and followed Greedigut back to the far end of the cave where the Esbat had been held. The meeting was long over and the rest of the deviltry had retired to the forest to hunt and sleep. Greedigut jerked back a torn, hole-filled canvas to reveal an assortment of knives, daggers, pincers, rough-shaped clubs..."Now 'ere's my pick of the lot," Greedigut was saying and moved towards a small, but deadly collection of whips. Some were ten-throng, fifteen-throng, some with the throngs longer and knotted to cause further pain, should they be thrown against the flesh. "But this one," Greedigut was saying, "this one is my pride and joy!" He selected one that had miniature spikes that were tied carefully within knot. "Do you like them, Blix? I know she'll like them! She'll just die!"
"Very nice toys, but she mustn't die till its time!" agreed and cautioned Blix, momentarily impressed by Greedigut's gusto. As reputable as he was for his thirst for violence, Greedigut was a worthy second-in-command, as he possessed a unique knowledge of the Black Arts and had provided Blix with all the necessary information on how to conduct the ceremony. Save for a few ingredients, the spell would be ready to work by the next nightfall. By this time tomorrow, Darkness would be resurrected and possibly conferring upon Blix a reward. Yes, that was a pleasant thought. But much nicer was the thought of the girl, a torn and bleeding sack of mortal flesh begging him to let her die. Yes. That was a pleasant thought! He warmed to the thought and cast his eye idly upon the waning night. "I'll catch you, snatch you and put you in the fire, I will!" he whispered.
As Greedigut practiced a few sharp cracks of the whip, Blix made some final calculations. "Tomorrow, we attack," he announced. "We'll track the princess tomorrow and take her at nightfall!"
"Aye! What a happy errand!" echoed Greedigut and he reluctantly lay the whip down.
"Gump, is that you?"
Warily, as only a lifetime in the forest had taught him to do, Jack stepped out from behind a clump of bushes into the open. He was happy to see that Gump was alone.
"Jack, it is good to see you," said Gump, a smile lighting up his boyish features.
"As it is, you," replied Jack.
"We've missed you of late, Jack. Why haven't you come to the celebrations?"
"I know I should have come, Gump. But I can't bring myself to"
"Why not? You'd be the most honoured guest!"
"That's just it, Gump. I don't want to be the guest, or the hero, let alone the centre of attention. I just want to be Jack, and nothing more."
"Spoken with a hero's modesty," said Gump ruefully. He shook his head and said, "That doesn't change the fact that you are the hero though."
"Now don't you start in, too!" pleaded Jack. "Everywhere I go, that's all that I hear. Everyone wanting to talk and hear the details...there's no rest!"
"Perhaps," hedged Gump, "if you came to one of the galas and told the company once and for all, there would be fewer questions."
"I suppose," sighed Jack.
"There's more to the matter than you're letting on, Jack," observed Gump.
Jack took his time in answering. He chose to stare at the ground instead of at his friend. "It's Lili," he ventured.
"I thought as much," Gump said.
Jack said nothing else and seemed absorbed in staring at the ground. He scuffed at a loose pebble and sent it rolling along the ground.
About half a league away, Lili opened her eyes suddenly. The thin sleep that she had been drifting in and out of slipped off of her like a veil. With her ear pressed to the ground, she had heard the movement of the rock and it had awoken her. She lay very still and quiet, holding her breath. What had she heard? Should not the forest be asleep now? She was listening with her whole body, for the noise to come again. Had she dreamed the sound? The more she concentrated, the stiller things seemed. Eventually, when she heard nothing else, she dismissed the notion and shut her eyes. Not a second later, she opened them again. Voices! Somewhere, far off, she had heard voices! She sat up and stared in the direction of them. The sounds were deep and muffled, but she could hear them nonetheless. Intrigued, she rose from the ground and picked her path, from the general direction of the voices. As she moved towards them, she fancied that one of them sounded familiar, like Jack's voice. Maybe it was Jack! Anxious to explore the pleasant possibility, Lili set out at once, never bothering to consider how she had managed to hear a sound that was far beyond the range of any mortal's hearing...
"It's like she's a different person!" exclaimed Jack, at Gump's invitation to tell him what was troubling him. "It's not that I expect her to be the same as before, Gump. I know that she's changed, we all have."
Gump nodded in silent agreement. Their journey into the heart of Darkness' realm had not been without a price. Each of them had been marked - changed, somehow. And if there was anyone that had been the most deeply affected, it had been Jack's princess.
"But she's so...distant and secretive! She hasn't told me in so many words, but a glance betrays her, Gump. The way she feels when I hold her..." Jack's voice trailed off. "It's like holding a corpse," he said flatly. "She's not my Lili, anymore," Jack said, holding out his empty hands, as if to express his loss.
Gump waited a moment before he spoke, "Jack, I will not claim to love as you have. I know that your love for her is deep and strong. But you must be patient. She has faced the hell-fires of Darkness in fashion that you and I have not. She will eventually forget the ordeal, but it will take time. I doubt that she will be able to forget him quickly. Such things leave a memory that only time can eradicate. There will come the day when she will be as you first loved her."
"But when, Gump? When?" cried Jack.
Gump looked at Jack for a moment and then he said, "Jack, you ask me questions that I cannot give the answers to. It will all come to pass, in time, I promise you. Consider this;
One day a small stream asked the forest, 'Do you know the way to the ocean?'
"The forest paused a long time before answering the stream.
'Why do you ask, little stream?'
'I ask because I feel lost, and doubt that I'll ever find the ocean. You seem so wise, having been around for so very long.'
'Well,' said the forest, ' there is a secret which will lead you to the ocean. In order to hear it, however, you must completely relax and not think about anything...even the ocean!'
"When the stream did as the forest said, it found itself moving over rocks, through gullies, across fields, down hillsides and finally into the ocean itself, where all its questions ended.'"**
Jack was quiet as he considered Gump's words.
"Someday, soon, Jack, I am sure that all your questions will be answered. But until that day, you must give up your doubts, your misgivings and rejoice in life."
Jack conceded to nodding his head. "You're right, as usual, Gump. I just have to wait."
Gump thumped him on the back and said, "Good! Now, I know just the thing to lift your melancholy, Jack. We've got a banquet going on tonight, and you must come, yes," he insisted, as Jack started to protest. "I've arranged for a special guest to come tonight to answer some other questions that need answers..."
Jack leaned in closer to Gump, his eyes widening. "Who is it?"
"I guess you'll have to come with me and find out, now won't you?" Gump replied, raising his eyebrows.
With their heads close together, neither Gump nor Jack chanced to see nor hear Lili as she happened upon them. As soon as she stumbled upon them, she guessed instantly, by the lowered voices and crouching figures, that the meeting was of a clandestine nature. She instinctively dropped to the ground from where she had perfect vantage and listening.
"Better to come with me, Jack and we'll find out about you..." Gump was saying.
Although his face was dappled by the night shadows, Lili could hear Jack give an affirmative reply, then the two of them set off in a certain direction at a non-chalant pace. It was an easy matter to follow them without notice.
There was a hushed silence that surrounded the gathered faerie company around the fire.
"Listen everyone!" exclaimed Gump to the rest; "tonight we will learn the truth about our friend Jack!"
Jack, encircled by the others looked oddly out of place and glanced nervously about. Having grown up in the wide outdoors, under the open sky and the endless forest, he felt trapped and confined in small places. He wished that he was anywhere else than there.
Gump looked around at everyone and then cast his eye back on Jack. "For long have you been known to the faerie folk, Jack. You are a very friend and loving fool, as I once said, but there is something that marks you, Jack. Something that makes you very special and more welcome amongst us than ever before."
"What's that?" quipped Will O. Wisp, who had sobered up enough to be a complete sentence out.
"Jack is one of us!" exclaimed Gump.
"What?!" exclaimed Brown Tom.
"That can't be!" cried Screwball.
"How's that possible?" whispered the sprite, Oona, no more than a spark of firelight against the black sky.
Gump held up his hand and waited for silence before he went on. "We have the confirmation of a dwarf, everyone!" he said.
Again, surprised whispers and exclamations followed. Everyone knew about the dwarfs. They kept themselves to themselves and did not have many interactions with the fairies. They were a solitary race that preferred their isolation. They swore allegiance neither to good nor evil and were a neutral people that indulged usually with smithery. They were natural craftsmen and goldsmiths. They lived underneath the earth in subterranean caverns and claimed ownership to the land and everything that lay beneath it. To steal from a dwarf was a serious matter. They had little contact with humans, or the fairies, or that matter. They had no natural enemies and were immune the hardships and plights of other species.
Dwarfen knowledge, which stemmed from the earth and about the earth, made them very aware of its mysteries. Whereas the fairies were dedicated to mirth and merry-making and the occasional mischief, dwarfs were more industrious in their labours, making and creating strange objects and magical weapons. Rarely did they aid others, and when they did, they did not always give reasons why.
Gump went onto to explain how they had earned the gratitude of one dwarf in particular.
Dwarfs had a long life-span that could last for centuries. One dwarf, long ago (no one knew for sure how long) had been captured by mercenaries of Darkness and had been taken to the Great Tree. His enemies, knowing that he was very learned of things, had trussed him up-side from the dungeon rafters, demanding that he tell them all that he knew about the lay of the land, its secrets, the treasure that lay under the earth...how to concoct magical potions and so on. The dwarf, who name was Teasdale had hanged, suspended in time and space for no one knew how long, refusing his captors. It would have been too easy to do away with him, and so his captors had instead forced him to live, on the bare minimum of food and water, and had tortured him repeatedly, within an inch of his life. They had dared not keep him confined on the ground, because as soon as a dwarf sets foot on the earth, his natural element, he can disappear into it and escape through it. It was not until the fire that destroyed the Great Tree had loosened his leather-bounded ankles had he been able to escape.
This had earned them his gratitude, and also his knowledge, explained Gump.
After hearing all this, many of the fairies looked eagerly towards the meeting of Teasdale. Some of them had never seen a dwarf before.
"He can tell us about you, Jack," said Gump.
"How can he?"
"He has a homunculus," said Gump matter-of-a factly.
"A homu-what?" said Jack, his tongue tripping over the strange word.
"A homunculus!" explained Gump.
"What's that?" asked Jack.
"It's a small creature, created by some occult powers and some exotic substance, Jack. They must be kept in jars and know the secrets of the mysteries of the world and of those that live in it. They sometimes have names, sometimes they don't. A homunculus is neither living nor dead. It simply exists for a certain amount of time and then, it will cease to be."
"Is it alive, then? Is it a living thing?"
"Yes and no. Dwarfs usually create them out of the mere challenge to. You must speak kindly to it, if it is to yield its answers to you."
"I can do that," grinned Jack.
"Good," said Gump and then, he stooped down and tapped the earth below his feet, politely, as if he were knocking at a door.
The others watched in fascination as the ground suddenly opened a yawning black hole, and from it emerged a dwarf.
The dwarf shielded his eyes from the bright light and looked suspiciously about at the company. His dark, beady eyes, which were of one solid colour, pierced those of who were gathered. They lingered, none too friendly on Jack, who squirming under the stare, met it and held it, too. With their eyes locked, the tension thickened until it was Jack that looked away first.
The dwarf, who was very short, reached over and gripped Jack's hand in an iron grasp. "Well met," he said gruffly. His voice was a wonder and did not match his body. While Teasdale was old and withered looking; his back bent with age and his face so old, lined and wrinkled that his smile was lost in it, his voice was that of a tutored, energetic soul. Jack saw a twinkle in the mono-coloured eyes and felt an instant liking towards the dwarf who could supposedly reveal his mysterious origins.
"Greetings to you all, my friends!" he said, turning to look at the others. As he turned, Jack caught a glimpse of his clothing. It clung to his back - pitiful rags that had seen better days. At his ear shone a gold ring.
"Yes," Teasdale went on, "you are all my friends! It was to you that I owe my deliverance. For decades alone, I hanged; unable to free myself...you cannot imagine what it was like. I know that some of you," and here, he cast his heavy-lidded stare onto Brown Tom, Screwball and Oona, in turn and stared at them so meaningfully that each blushed with pleasure. "Some of you braved the terrors with which I was so familiar with. Pray that such times will never some to rise again!"
"We thank you for coming," said Gump hospitably. "Desire you wine? Beer?"
"No," said Teasdale seriously. "My kind do not indulge in such...going-ons, shall we say? I was asked here tonight for a special reason, was I not?"
"Yes," said Jack, who had been silent till that point.
Teasdale turned to him and grinned widely. Jack saw a golden flash in his gums that matched the one at the dwarf's ear. "Want to know about yourself, eh?" he baited Jack.
"Please," Jack said.
"...dwarfs know of many things," Teasdale was saying. "All that transgresses in the earth and on its surface are known to us. There has never been a time when things of the earth have not been known to dwarfs."
"Then why," said Oona, "did your people not see it fit to help us when all of the world was in such grave danger!"
"Because, sprite," said Teadale, his eyes blazing, like the fire, "we choose not to interfere! We are the watchers! We will not raise a hand to sway the balance! Besides, even if we had helped you, what would it have gained us? Nothing! What if we had not helped you, what would it lose us? Nothing! Either way, there would be no gain made, no loss risked! That was why we did not interfere."
There was a confused silence as his words settled in on the others.
Teasdale reached into his jacket pocket and took out a small, oval glass jar and held it up high. "Look!" he said and then brought it down to eye-level.
Jack stared curiously at it and saw with his keen eyesight, crouched down in the jar, amongst some grass was a figure that was impossibly small. It was so small that Oona (in her smallest state) made it look large. Jack reached out for the jar and Teasdale allowed him to take it. Upon closer inspection, Jack saw that the tiny mannikin was of female portions.
"Is this the hom-u-whacamacallit?"
"Yes," said Teasdale proudly.
Jack stared in fascination at it. "It's so small, though!"
The other faerie folk were crowding around to look at it.
"Open the jar, Jack," instructed Teasdale.
Jack looked at Gump who gave a nod of encouragement and then commenced to unscrew the lid. Once the top was off, a strange scent wafted out of the jar and invaded his nostrils. "What is that smell?" he asked, holding his nose.
"Jasmine, of course. It's what they eat," said Teasdale. He reached out for the jar and Jack gave it back. Tilting the jar on its side, Teasdale spoke into it. "Hello, my dear. How are you?"
Jack strained his hearing to the utmost, but could not hear the reply. Teasdale obviously heard it though, because he answered, "Good, because I have brought you to meet someone very special tonight. Do you remember the one I told you about? Jack?"
Teasdale listened a moment more and then he cupped his hand out.
The homunculus climbed out of the jar and stood, stretching luxuriously in the palm of Teasdale's hand. There were resounding gasps of the others as they saw the miniature figure, who made the smallest of them seem like giants!
Teasdale took Jack's hand and cupped it, so that the homunculus could climb into it. As she steeped into Jack's hand, it gave him the most curious sensation. It made him want to giggle but the seriousness of the situation warned him not to. Jack brought his hand up closer to his ear and in a second, the homunculus' tinny voice filled his ear.
"Hello!" he said cordially.
"Not so loud!" said the poor homunculus as Jack's voice thundered about her.
"Sorry," said Jack, in a whisper.
"That's better," she said.
"Can you tell about myself?" said Jack.
"Yes. I can tell you of things. But what do you want to know?"
"Everything! Am I truly like the fairies? Is Darkness gone? Will my Lili be alright?"
Before the barrage of questions, the homunculus' laughter sounded. It was a silvery sound and reminded Jack of a waterfall.
"In time, Jack, you will know all," she reassured him. "But for now, what I tell you must be for your ears only!"
"Good, then. Tell me what you want to know first."
"There is so much that I want to know! I don't know what to ask first! Is Darkness dead, never to return? Did we win?"
"Oh, Jack," said the homunculus, "Do not be beguiled by the pleasantries of victory. Do not think your foe dead or gone, for he is not mortal in nature. Thus, he cannot be 'killed'. Defeated, subdued, banished, perhaps. But not dead."
"I see," said Jack heavily. Perhaps he had always known that. "Will he be able to return?" he asked.
"There are those that would seek to restore him, Jack. Be warned of this."
"I will. Thank-you for telling me this."
Jack was about to the hand the homunculus back to Teasdale, when she suddenly spoke up, "Jack, there is more!"
Intrigued, he brought her close to his ear again. "Don't you want to know if what they say about you is true or not? If you're immortal or not?"
Jack half-shook his head. "I hadn't dared to believe it," he confessed. "It seems too impossible to believe."
"Belief is a true virtue, Jack. Tell me, what are amongst your first memories?"
Jack's brow knotted in concentration. "Of the forest, I guess," he said. "I don't remember a mother of father. It was always the animals of the forest that were my family. The night wind would sing me to sleep, the warm dawn would awaken me. It was the seasons that taught me to adapt. I cannot ever remember a time that I was not here in the forest."
"Your memory serves you well," said the homunculus. "Because, you never had mortal parents, Jack. Your mother was Nature and your father was Time. You are as immortal as any that stand before you here!"
"But that's impossible!" protested Jack, not willing to believe that he could be something that he had never thought himself to be.
"Think, Jack," echoed Teasdale, who broke in at this point. "Have you ever known of sickness? Of a fatal injury or the like?"
"Immortals feel not the sting of death. You are as we are! Immortal!"
Finally reaching this realisation, Jack was forced to sit down on the ground. Gump watched his friend sympathetically. "Take it in stride, Jack," he advised. "It's not every day that one learns that that they are immortal."
"But why me?" murmured Jack, overcome still with the idea.
Hidden behind the tall, blossoming stalks of Foxglove, Lili could hear everything that was being said, even the quiet words of the homunculus. She inadvertently bit her lip as she heard Jack's secret revealed. Immortal! Why had she not guessed at it?! She closed her eyes and held her breath with baited anticipation as the clandestine meeting continued.
Silence abounded until Teasdale finally spoke. "Who can guess at the design of Heaven, Jack? Perhaps it was known that we needed a hero and so, you were sent."
"I've never felt like less a hero!" Jack exclaimed. "Wasn't I the one who took Lili to see the unicorns? Was it not my fault that Man is now cursed? Is that the legacy that I have left? If so, I don't want to be immortal! I won't have it! I've cursed all of Mankind, and my Lili, too!"
Everyone was quiet and Jack stared fixedly into the fire.
Suddenly, the homunculus spoke up and said imploringly to Jack, "Listen to my words and then judge them for yourself.
'I saw the child of Hope vexed in the labyrinth of doubt.
Alas! For that Earth is the battlefield where good must combat evil:
Angels look on and hold their breath, burning to mingle in the conflict,
But a slender band must fight alone and yet shall triumph gloriously,
Enough shall they be for conquest and the motto of their standard is ENOUGH.
Infinity cannot be perfect and therefore, in small degree, creation involveth evil.
There is then good in evil, or none could know the other.
For sin is still sin, so hateful Love does hate it.
Sin is as loathsome leprosy, fretting the white robe of innocence,
It is a rent in the veil.
Love hath a power and a longing to save the gathered world,
And rescue universal Man from the hunting hell-hounds of Darkness' doings.
Yet few, now, only two, scanty as the gleaning after harvest,
The one shall not perish in abandonment.'**
Your Lili is that child of Hope, Jack," said the homunculus. "But she must guess at the secret of Darkness if she hopes to prevail."
"Secret? What secret?" pressed Jack.
The homunculus' thin voice was growing wavery and Jack could sense it getting weaker.
"What is the secret?" whispered Jack, so quietly that none other could hear.
The homunculus curled up in his hand, lighter than feather-down. "Sleep..." it murmured. "I must sleep..."
"Please," begged Jack, "What is the secret?!"
Either the homunculus did not hear him or she refused to answer, because in the next second, she had curled up into that eternal sleep known to some as death.
Sadly, Jack realised that she had passed and gently passed her lifeless body over to Teasdale who readily took it from him and put the limp form of the homunculus into the jar. He then turned to Jack and Gump and clasping their hands bade them farewell and then, without another word, he disappeared into ground from where he had come, despite the protests and gasps of the others. It happened all so quickly, that Jack was not sure that it had happened or not.
Everyone turned to Jack and he was readily aware of the dozens of eyes that were on him. Of all those that waited for him, to speak. Bitterly he said, "It seems that we have won the battle for now, but the war is ever eternal and soon the tide will turn." He turned to Gump. "We must be ready," he advised.
Lili stealthily crept away, her movements checked. Her departure was as silent as her approach had been. The grass barely moved under her feet. Her heart was leaping away within her as she considered what had been said to Jack. She had not been able to hear everything that the homunculus had said to him, but that he was immortal explained a great deal and she wondered why she had not guessed at it before. It explained his unearthly ability to converse with the forest animals; it was why he was never sick why his ruddy complexion had never paled. It also explained why he had not been killed when the Lord of Darkness had fought with him.
She smiled. Come what may, she was happy to lay rest in the knowledge that Jack would never be able to die or be destroyed. This thought also caused her to shiver suddenly, as if an unseasonal winter wind had chilled her bones. To think of Jack as not being mortal made her feel...further separated from him, somehow. She could not reason the feeling away and pushed it to the back of her mind
Now that it was lighter, it was easier for her to make out where she was. Soon she saw familiar landmarks and was able to pick her path back to her father's castle. Lili's feet were soaked with dew and her eyes felt heavy from lack of sleep and as she approached the castle, she wished for nothing more than her own soft, eider-down bed. It was still early and with any luck, she would be able to avoid the servants and reach the safe sanctuary of her room and then, her bed.
As she slipped into the castle's stronghold, her progress was marked by the round, yellow eyes unblinking eyes of an owl that roosted in the branches of a nearby tree. The owl then spread its great wings and silently glided down into the awakening forest. It flew until steadily north until it found its roost on the out-stretched hand of the goblin, Greedigut.
Greedigut stroked its mottled brown-gray feathers and said, "Tell me all..."
Jack sat desolately before the smoking remains of the fire. The others had long abandoned him. They had kindly stayed with him until the dawn, but when it had become evident that he would neither respond to their questions or directions, they had all given up and left him to be alone. The last to leave had been Gump, who had simply pressed his hand to Jack's. This simple action had meant much more for Jack and although he did not even glance up as Gump had left, he knew that his friend had understood that he needed time alone to think about all that had been told to him.
It was almost noon and the sun was climbing higher and higher in the sky overhead. Jack's thoughts had run a concourse and had all but tired him out. He felt that his thoughts were no closer to an end. He was still confused and unsure about himself. All that he had thought to be true was not. Before, he had been just Jack. In fact that was all that he had ever thought of himself as. There had never been the need to think of himself as more than that. But now...now, he was not enjoying his apotheosis. The transition from the unknown forest hunter to hero had been hard enough for him. But, immortal! He felt dizzy, just thinking the word! He gazed upwards into the sky. The sun was still climbing.
He remembered suddenly that he had a meeting at noon with Lili. Yes, he should be going. But his body refused to move in response to his thoughts. Part of his concern was for Lili. He remembered with dread and fear the homunculus' words. Alive! That the demon, Darkness was still alive! Jack knew that he would have to keep himself on close guard, be even more alert and wary. He suspected that there were those that were loyal to Darkness and who would do all that was in their power to resurrect their absent master, to restore the presence of evil that had blessedly been temporarily banished.
Finally, he brought himself to get up and set off to meet Lili. He couldn't wait to see her, although for the immortal life of him, he had no idea of how he would break the news to her.
Lili lay lounging on a large eider-down bed, staring pointlessly at the ceiling. She knew that she should be getting up, but she couldn't bring herself to. The ornate little time-piece that ticked steadily away beside her bed told her that the hour was late, but she didn't care. She couldn't move. She also hadn't wanted to move, but that was because she had finally managed to get warm in that one position and she didn't want to expend the energy of moving. Ever since the night the goblins had broken into her room and kidnapped her, her father had taken almost every possible precaution of safeguarding her. Short of having a personal guard to escort her everywhere, Lili's father had made sure that her safety had not been overlooked to the minutest detail. She was to check in with him and the captain of the guard daily and he had also moved her bedroom up to the highest point of the castle; the garret. The garret was very secluded and lonely. After one had ascended the 99 steps that led up to the main room, they then had to know where to press the secret section in the wall that threw open the panel that led to the room that Lili was now in. Besides that, it was freezing cold. In the garret, the laws of gravity were suspended in that heat never rose to it. It was perpetually cold, even in the hot summertime. As cold as a tomb and just as silent, Lili had more than once awoken in it, terrified and misplaced; afraid that she was again trapped in the coffin that the goblins had once put her into.
When, she wondered, would she be able to forget the nightmare? Would it haunt her for the rest of her life? Lili turned over onto her side and stared at the candle that sat by her bedside, entranced by the small flame that kept the cold and the dark (because there were no windows in the room) at bay. Only half-thinking, she stretched out her hand, as if to caress the flame. Her hand was too close to it by the time she remembered that she must pull it back before the flame became too hot for her to bear. Too late. Her fingers actually passed through the flame before she remembered and even then, the pain did not register with her senses. Lili snatched her hand back and stared at the candle with a strange sense of fear. She closed her eyes, trying to futility ignore the facts.
This was not the first time, either. Oh, she had feared this before, but had been able to tell herself that it had been nothing that it wasn't important, that there was no proof that what she feared could be true! But now, this new onslaught of strangeness only served to further convince her. What had it been first? The sleepless nights? The strange cravings for food and wine that clawed away at her belly? But the mere sight of food sickened her, the water only made her thirstier... Then what had been next? Her heightened senses? She was able to hear to hear sounds before they were made and she could also hear things that were being said, storeys below in the servants' quarters below the castle. That, and her sense of smell had grown more acute, too. She could make out lingering scents that were days old on her gowns, the bedclothes, even in the very air itself! Finally, there was the strange absence of the physical pain, too. Deep down, Lili could guess at what might account for it, but she could not face that possibility yet. So, in the meantime, she had had to do silent battle with her fears and premonitions.
The memory came anyway, though, despite her efforts to erase it. Darkness cradling her head against him as he had forced the liquid down into her throat. And that liquid had been his blood; his source and strength, the "gift" that he had given her. He had bequeathed to her not only a life free of pain and sickness, but also one of immortality. Or so he had told her. How happily she would be to be able to believe that was another one of the lies that he had told her! But the unnatural abilities she seemed to be developing suggested otherwise. Although the thought of immortality was strange and unsettling, there lay a deeper fear rooted in her soul.
When Lili next opened her eyes, they automatically wrested themselves on the gleaming flame. For long minutes, they were held there and then, the oddest thing occurred. The wax that had been steadily building up until that point, dripped down the side of the candle in a senseless fashion had suddenly seemed to change. Now, before her widened, wondering eyes, Lili saw the wax wrap itself around the base of the candelabra that supported it. Certain that her senses were tricking her, Lili reached out with a trembling hand to touch the searing hot wax. It was hard and warm beneath her fingers, but it did not hurt. Lili closed her eyes and whispered fiercely, "Stop this."
Whether it came out as a plea or as a command, either way, when Lili next opened her eyes, the wax that had wound its way around the candelabra had vanished. Not fully convinced that she had seen what she thought that she had saw, Lili recalled the only other time that she had ever experienced such a phenomena. That had been when she had been in her friend, Nell's cottage, staring at the timepiece that stood on the mantle. While she had been staring at it, she had seen snow covering it, even though it had been a hot summer's day... Was that what this had been? A premonition? To what? What could have caused it?
Suddenly, Lili jumped out of the bed in a panic. There were no answers to be found here in this cold tower! She was supposed to meet Jack soon, she had better hurry!
Not five minutes later, Lili was dashing down the innumerable steps and was then scurrying out, past the sleepy-eyed guard that was half-drowsing at his post and was away into the forest. As Lili raced on, she failed to notice that from behind a tree, stepped the goblin Greedigut, who watched her for a moment and then he stooped down to the ground and scooped up a handful of earth that had been disturbed by Lili's foot. The goblin drooped the earth into a clay pot and then turned his eye towards the direction that she had run in.
"No hunting today, Gump?" inquired Oona. She was perched on a rock, staring over at Gump who was lost in the rhythmic strokes of the rock that he grasped in one hand and the knife that he was sharpening, in the other.
"No, Oona," replied the elf and offered no more than that.
"Then what are you doing that for?" pressed Oona, her ash-blonde eyebrows drawing together over her forehead.
"Oh, it's just in case," said Gump.
"Just in case of what?" said the sprite impatiently.
"In case I need it," said Gump elusively.
"Ooh!" cried Oona in frustration. "You're as bad as Jack! Why do I waste my time with you!"
"Because time spent with you, my dearest Oona, is not wasted," said Gump, throwing her his charm, as well as an airy kiss.
With an incredulous sigh, Oona transformed herself to the speck of light and was off to dance with the wildflowers.
Gump watched her go and then turned back to the task at hand. "We can't play forever," he muttered. "We've got to be ready!" But even as he continued to brighten the dull blade against the rock, he had a sneaking suspicion that weapons alone would not be enough to drive the demon Lord of Darkness back to the pits of Hell once and for all.
Gump looked upward to aerial heights and murmured, "What will it take?"
The only reply was the sound of calling birds to one another.
Lili arrived first at their agreed meeting place first, only to find that Jack was not there. She felt a dull stirring of suspicious anxiety as she recalled with perfect clarity Darkness' words to her.
"You would place your love in this frail, pitiful form of a human being? Do you think that he will love you, unendingly? That in the latter years of his life, he would not cast an amourous eye upon another passing female form? Could he ever love you as I?"
The demon's words made more real by her hatred, gnawed at her confidence.
"He was a liar, remember that!" she told her fiercely. Deceit, avarice and hate! Those were the only things that he had truly loved. She had seen him display all of them. There was no way that he - bestial demon that he had been, could compare to her dear, sweet, self-less Jack...
Oh! Where was he? She longed to be in his arms and take the close comfort that only he could offer her. In that embrace alone, she could forget, even if it was only for a little while the memories that plagued her every other waking moment.
Jack saw Lili before she, him. For the slightest moment, he considered turning around and not going to meet her and come up with some viable excuse. He didn't know why he wanted to be alone. He had had all morning to become further acquainted with the idea of his new immortality, but the notion still seemed as strange and as foreign to him as it had been the night before.
And how to tell her! Should he subtly slip it into the conversation, or just come out-right and tell her? Should he even tell her, or keep it a secret? Jack debated that thought.
In the past, he and Lili had kept no secrets from one another, their relationship stemming from the dogma that everything should pass between them and that there would never be any secrets, nothing hidden from the other. But recently, Lili had seemed so deliberately elusive and secretive about things that it seemed that she was disregarding the keystone belief of their relationship. He had once trusted her with his life... all their lives. Gump had been dubious about being able to trust Lili, but Jack had known then that she would not have betrayed them. He felt suddenly guilty; thinking that he would not be able to trust her now...He took a deep breath and started out towards her.
"Are you sure this is supposed to work?" said Greedigut dubiously, as he eyed the bubbling concoction.
"It will if you brought back..." said Pecke
"...everything that you were told to!" finished Newes.
"Of course I did, you two-headed freak!" raged Greedigut, defiantly. "But it'll be a wonder if you can manage a mere spell..."
"It'll work, all right, pig," said Newes and Pecke in unison.
From where he wearily watched at the back of the cavern, Blix rolled his eyes. That he had to work with such incompetent fools! It was a wonder that anything could ever be accomplished! Certain that his master would newly appreciate his efficiency, it was Blix's intention to point out to his master the blunderings of those unworthy to serve the forces of Night...just as soon as everything was prepared and the Lord of Darkness was resurrected once again. The battle was planned and his spies were everywhere. It would not be long now.
"Immortal?" said Lili with a sense of quiet acceptance that surprised Jack.
"Yes. I only found out last night," said Jack, studying Lili's face intently for some hidden emotion to betray itself on the canvas of her face. But nothing showed, save the raising of her eyebrows.
"Well, I guess that there are worse things that you could be," she said after a moment.
"Yes," agreed Jack.
"And just think of all the good that you can work with it!" Lili was rushing on to say, as if she could not stand to hear the silence and had to fill it up.
"Yes," said Jack distractedly. "Imagine what good I could do."
"Noble Jack," smiled Lili up at him and gave him a tender smile. Then, her smile faded and she leaned closer to him. "Does the thought of living forever scare you, Jack? To never be able to grow old and die?"
Looking deeply into her eyes, Jack saw the promise of eternity there also, in the form of love. He clasped her hands and said, "No, Lili. It doesn't. In fact, nothing could be a more welcome gift, except, of course, your love."
Lili blushed and smiled.
"What do you say, Lili? Will you be mine, now and forever? Will you marry me? We can have Gump perform the ceremony, down by the brook! Why, we could do it this very afternoon!" said Jack, excitedly and Lili could not help but smile at his boyish enthusiasm. "Say you'll be mine, Lili and you'll make me the happiest man alive! Even though I may be immortal, you possess my heart and soul and without those, I am as good as dead! I love you! Will you marry me?"
Jack paused and all around them, it had grown quiet. It seemed that very nature itself was still, waiting and listening to them.
Lili smiled and closed her eyes. The time for doubt and fear was gone. She no longer needed to be slave to the nightmare. Jack could protect her. Jack could make her forget it all. At length, she said, "Of course I'll marry you! I have loved you since the moment I first laid eyes upon you!"
Laughing, the two of them leaned in for a kiss. Afterwards, Lili drew back hesitantly and said, "There is something that I think that I should tell you, though..."
"What is it?" pressed Jack, squeezing her hand.
"Well, you see, I think that I'm...."
"Hurrah!" exclaimed a sudden voice that cut Lili's words off in mid-sentence.
Both Jack and Lili turned in surprise to see Brown Tom sitting up, only a few feet away. The tall grass had concealed him completely.
"What are you doing here?" said Jack.
Brown Tom leaped to his feet and tipsily made his way over to them where he proceeded to pump Lili's hand up and down vigorously, pat her on the back and then walked over to Jack, saying, "Lemme give the blushing bride a kiss!" he puckered his lips and aimed them at Jack.
Jack held Brown Tom at bay and caught a whiff of his breath.
"Whoa there, old boy! You've had too much to drink, I'd say!"
"Did you overhear us talking?" said Lili.
"Yes," slurred Brown Tom, still trying to kiss Jack, who in his daze had obviously taken Jack to be Lili. "And let me say on behalf of all the weefolk, there's none that oughten to be more happier than youse two. Congraaaaaadulations!"
Jack helped Brown Tom sit, before he thanked him.
Lili smiled and said, "You are invited, of course. Everyone is! When shall it be and where?"
"Down by the stream and it'll be at sunset!" said Jack without any hesitation.
"But I have nothing to wear!" exclaimed Lili.
"What you're wearing is fine!" said Jack, who knew very little about ladies clothing.
Lili laughed as she looked down at the plain brown muslin dress she was wearing. "Don't be ridiculous, Jack! I can't be married in this old thing!"
"Oona!" said Jack suddenly.
"What about her?" said Lili in a guarded tone, who liked to keep her interaction with the comely nymphet to a minimum.
"She'd know where to get you some clothes! She knows these spiders that can spin anything! C'mon, let's go!" he exclaimed and pulled Lili to her feet and propelled her along.
"Good idea!" said Brown Tom, though he could not remember what they had been talking about. He sat there a moment longer, before he emitted one very toxic hiccup and then fell back into the grass, snoring loudly, sound asleep.
They had parted near the stream. Jack had wanted time to rouse his forest friends and also to break the good news to Gump and the others. Lili had gone off in search in Nell to tell her and to ask her to stand witness to the ceremony.
"We need at least one human witness," Lili had insisted. "It won't do well if we have an entire company of fae, you know, I want there to be at least be one set of human eyes to witness it!" She had been firm about it.
Jack had agreed and now, Lili was rushing through the forest as fast as she could to where Nell's house lay snuggled deeply in the forest. She was running quickly, and she briefly wondered if it was an attempt to outpace her fears.
"Don't be silly," she coached herself as she hurried along. "This is what you have wanted ever since you first met him!"
It was wasn't it? What other option was there? Although she was loathe to think about it, she could not help but remember the time recently past, when she had been the reluctant bride of a darker bridegroom.
Suddenly she stopped short and said to herself, "Stop thinking about that! He is dead! You saw it yourself! He's dead and even if he isn't..." (she went on to try and govern her own self-doubts that flared up anyway) "...even if he isn't, he can't reach you...or hurt you. Not when I am...." Lili's mind silently cancelled the word before it could take shape in her mind. She forced herself on.
Just before she entered the hollow near Nell's house, she heard someone, or something say her name.
She stopped short, her senses freezing. "Who's there?" she tried to say bravely, but the words came out no more than a mere squeak. She took a cautious step towards a huge oak tree, afraid of who or what she would find. "Hello?" she said.
From around the tree, came a strange figure, wrapped in a tattered cloak of many colours. Lili inadvertently took a step back when she saw the ravaged features of the Mistress of Mysteries.
"Who are you?" she said.
The figure did not reply, but merely looked her over, as if appraising her.
Lili grew bolder. "What do you want?" she said.
"He has chosen well," murmured the Mistress of Mysteries as her colourless eyes riveted on Lili. "I have come to tell you a thing," she said brusquely, changing her tone at once.
"What?" said Lili.
"Another groom comes for you soon. You will be his vessel. One way or the other."
Lili grew cold all over as she took in the words. She shook her head. "What do you mean...?"
"He is not dead, you know," the Mistress went on to say. "And he means to make good on the promise you gave him."
"Why?" Lili screamed, tears starting in her eyes. "Why me? Why is there no escape?"
The Mistress' expression would have softened, if it could have, for she found nothing more moving than the confusion of the innocent.
"Because in you, he finds his escape," said the Mistress. "And if he cannot have your love, then he will have your body as his vessel."
These words only confused her and Lili was further perplexed.
"Is there nothing I can do?" she whispered to the Mistress.
But the Mistress refused to answer and she merely turned around and walked away. Lili ran after her stopping short of touching her. She felt a strange sense of reverence for this mysterious woman. "Please," she begged. "What can I do?"
The Mistress continued to walk away at an even pace, but Lili could not keep up with her. The Mistress' words floated back to her before she was swallowed up in the dark forest. "Gnothi seauton. Know thyself..."
Lili was left with only her own helplessness and fear as company. She stood a few moments and then fled back the way she came. There was no time to go and get Nell, now. She had to find Jack. Maybe there was still time. If they were married and quickly, before the sun set, perhaps then it would be all right.
She knew that Darkness' (if he was indeed, still alive) powers were strongest at night and he was helpless during the day. She further knew that once married, she would be bound by the Law. Darkness had never said so, but she knew that he was bound to obey the laws not of man, but of Heaven, and marriage was a sacred thing.
Perhaps there was still a chance.
Jack had not understood Lili's frantic babblings of what all she had heard from the Mistress of Mysteries, but he had understood the sense of urgency that her tone had conveyed. So, without due haste, the impromptu wedding party was assembled at the water's edge of the pond.
Jack was clad in a brown tunic and looked a little ill at ease to be at the center of attention while Lili was clothed in glorious white, a simple white gown (stolen from Nell's clothesline) that was adorned with yards and yards of elegant silk that Oona had been away to wheedle away from her spider friends.
Gump presided as parson, Brown Tom, the best man and Screwball, who was giving Lili away, burst into loud and noisy tears that embarrassed everyone.
A host of the other company was there. Will. O. Wisp, Blunder and the rest of the fairy company, even Oona, who had had always loved Jack (a bore a grudge against Lili) had been persuaded to come.
"Well, then," said Gump. "Are we all ready?"
"I guess so," said Jack, casting an anxious eye at the sun that still blazed strong in the sky.
"And you, Lady Lili?"
Lili managed a smile that was without fear or apprehension. "Yes," she said.
"Good," said Gump and then looked to Oona, to give her the signal. As Gump dropped his hand, Oona and chorus of other wee folk (who were blessed with the power of flight) flew around and threw tiny sparks of fire into the strategically placed lanterns that stood in the trees, on stumps, on the ground and around the party. The play of light calmed Lili and she moved to take Jack's arm that he held out to her.
Everyone turned eager eyes to this long anticipated and wondrous wedding of Jack 'o' the Green and the Princess Lili. It was indeed a match made by Heaven, most agreed, with Jack strong and brave and Lili ever his equal.
As Gump began with his eulogy, Lili turned her eyes towards Jack, full with love and tenderness. This was the wedding that she had always envisioned, in the woods, the first temple of God, in the company of all those that were close to her and of course, with Jack.
As Jack stared at Lili, his sentiments were near and the same, but he also felt a surge of relief. He had been patient long enough and now, he was winning what he had fought for, for so long.
When it got to the point in the service where Gump had to ask if there was anyone that objected the marriage, there was a terse silence, in which the only thing that could be heard was the sound of the water and the faint and far off singing of the birds.
As Gump went on, there was a silent sigh of relief from everyone except Lili and Jack who had only had eyes for each other. Finally, he came to the end of the ceremony, his eyes bright for the happy couple.
"Then, I now pronounce you Man and Wife," he said.
A loud racket of cheering and whistling broke out from the elfin crowd, but Gump held up his hand for silence. "All we need now is the ring," said Gump. "Do you have the ring, Jack?"
Jack turned blank eyes to his friend and then clapped a hand to his forehead. "The ring! I forgot!" he exclaimed.
Lili paled. It was something that they had both forgotten. Hadn't there been a ring once? She had almost forgotten the ring that she had once thrown, in jest into the pond, promising Jack that if he could retrieve it, then she would be his wife
. Unless someone else had a ring they could use, then Jack would have to go swimming! All the wee folk were searching through their pockets, but it seemed that no one had one. Lili sighed at this added inconvenience.
Then, suddenly, a voice rang out. "I have one!"
The crowd parted as the elf with the ring came forward. Lili looked at him as if he was her saviour. "Oh, thank-you!" she breathed
"No worries," said the elf as he came closer.
Gump squinted at the fellow and said, "Who are you? I don't remember seeing you before!"
The elf smiled a wide grin that stretched ear to ear, but there was something wrong about his smile. The teeth were long and pointed, reminiscent of shark's teeth. "Oh, you know me," he said and approached Lili.
"What's your name?" said Jack, whose memory also failed him. He could not remember seeing this elf before.
"Iblx," was the reply.
"I don't remember you," said Gump, wrinkling his nose in concentration.
"She remembers me," said Iblx, and if it were possible his smile spread out even wider.
At that moment, the elf (who we all know was really Blix, transformed), grabbed Lili's hand and shoved a lead ring onto it. At the same moment, he yelled, "Now!"
From behind trees and behind the bigger rocks poured Blix's troops and fell upon the unwitting company.
The deviltry had the element of surprise and the fairy fold sustained a great deal of damage in the beginning until they were able to recover. In the first few seconds, the elf that had been Blix transformed into the goblin and with his braquemart that he had concealed in his armoury, he sliced it across Lili's forearm; he was so hungry for a taste of her blood that he could not wait.
It all happened so fast that for a moment, they were all frozen. Lili, in surprised shock and Blix, with eager revenge. Then, the most incredible thing happened. The blood that gushed from Lili's arm was not the bright blood she had known herself to have her whole life, but inky black plumes. It gushed freely for a moment and then the flow stayed and the skin closed over where the cut had been made.
Blix stared in disbelief at this, but he was not motionless for long. He quickly recovered and this time thrust the broadsword into Lili's middle, straight at her heart.
Two things happened then. First, Jack fell upon on Blix and pulled him back, forcing the sword of out Lili's body and at the same time, there was a faint rumbling in the ground beneath their feet.
Lili fell to the ground with the impact of the attack and clutched at the wound where black clouds of the inky blood showered forth like dark flowers. Her moan intermingled with Blix's anguished cry of remorse.
"Forgive me, master!" he begged.
All eyes were fastened on the strange spectacle and once again, Lili performed the same trick of staying the blood and closing the wound.
Jack could look nowhere else. He had seen that blood before. It was the same colour of the blood that had been on his sword after he had slain Darkness. In an instant, he had guessed at Lili's new nature.
He now understood her earlier silences, her unwillingness to discuss with him what Darkness had done to her. Now he knew. Lili carried a part of the demon in her! In her very blood! Immortal, undying blood...
Blix, arriving at similar conclusions, recovered quicker than the rest and he leaped forward, seized Lili's arm and then threw down a jar of something in front of Jack and Gump. Upon breaking, the jar released a cloud of smoke that enveloped Blix and Lili.
When it cleared, they had disappeared from sight.
Gump and Jack did not have long to stare, because all around them the battle raged on and immediately, they were plunging into the milieu.
Jack had no weapon at hand and being at an obvious disadvantage, leapt up into a nearby tree, out of harm's way where he could see all that was going on.
Gump, always eager for a battle, plunged into the fray with as much gusto as 10 warriors.
Oona and the other airborne fairies, despite their small stature were wreaking havoc amongst their enemies, but darting in and out of the battle, pinching, tweaking noses, wrestling away a sword here and there.
But perhaps the most impressive fighter by far was Will. O. Wisp, who was not sober enough to strike effectively, but was angered by the delay in the wedding. Without the bride, he concluded, there would be no reception and no beer. He fought all the harder, lashing out at his enemies and his comrades at the same time.
And the battle raged on.
Blix hurled Lili into a corner of the dark cave roughly.
The spots where the braquemart had pierced her skin were sore and tender and the ring that Blix had shoved on her finger stung her with an unaccountable burning sensation. As soon as she had gained her bearings, she made to escape, but Blix jumped in front of her, wielding a nasty-looking whip that he unfurled and lashed in her direction. The lash did not touch her the first time or the second, but the third time; it found its mark and wrapped itself around her arm with a spiked embrace. As Blix snapped his wrist back and the whip released her, Lili fell to her knees, clutching her arm, where to both she and Blix cast their gaze. Incredibly, just as before, the black blood spilled down her arm, then slowed to a trickle and then ceased, the skin on her arm closing over on itself.
"I don't believe it," muttered Blix in disbelief. "Tricky vixen!" he snarled at Lili, his eyes fastened on her arm, where there was no sign of injury or wound. "How have you done this?"
Lili cautiously rose to her full height, keeping a wary eye on Blix. Although she grasped the gravity of the situation, if not the helplessness of it, she laughed. "Simpleton! Haven't you guessed?"
"At what?" said Blix, willing to play the game until he had some answers.
"The gift your master gave to me!"
Blix's eyes narrowed in fierce jealously. "His life-force!" he hissed.
Lili, ever the artful actress laughed at him, appearing for all the world without a care. "Yes. His life. His power. He often told me how you begged for it! How you simpered for a chance of immortality! He played you, though and gave it me, instead! You shall have no chance at immortality!"
Blix, realizing the truth she spoke became enraged. "It was to me that such a gift should have been bestowed!" he cried.
Lili smiled sweetly at him, needing to recapture some of the power he had taken from her. "What? And waste such power on common rabble?"
Swearing, Blix poised the whip between them. "Think you yourself worthy of his life? A whore would have made a better wife! I will slice and dice you, make you bleed and drain you of your immortality!" and he made to attack her.
Lili shrieked and dodged the blow, skirting Blix and made for the mouth of the cave, but before she could take more than a few steps, she felt herself sticking fast to the crystalline floor of the cave. In terror and confusion, she looked down and saw that she had trod into the middle of a roughly sketched circle. She took in the archaic symbols and saw before her the high pyramid of wood that Greedigut and the other deviltry had stacked up before their attack on the fairy-folk. Nearby, a fire crackled menacingly.
Blix laughed and approached her. "I hadn't intended you to enter the circle so soon, but little matter. It is time to call forth the one we both serve!"
Try as she would, Lili could not break free of the invisible bonds that held her fast.
"What do you mean?" she gasped.
"On this night, I will call forth my lord, and you will be the doorway," chortled Blix.
"You're mad!" Lili said. "He's dead. I saw him killed with my own eyes!"
Blix's stunning blow across her cheek was his reply. "How dare you insult my master with such a feeble fate as death!" he growled.
Lili could only stare at him and mutely rubbed her cheek.
"He is alive, I tell you! I hear his commands on the wind! In the tempest and storm! In the cry of the wolf! He has given me the means of how to bring him back! You cannot kill one of such power! Challenge and suppress, perhaps! But kill? Never! And I will be the one to bring him back and he will be grateful to me and honour me thus!" Blix's eyes glittered fanatically at this prospect. He was so caught up in his fervour that he forgot to make his words rhyme.
"Think he'll be grateful to you?" Lili said. "He, the lord and master of evil, grateful to you, a mere servant? That is what you exist for, goblin. To serve him. Expect no less then indentured servitude for all time. That demon, Darkness, knows nothing of gratitude, nor will he owe it to you."
Blix had not considered this before and the idea stayed his pride. Was what the girl said, possible? It sounded right. A servant, a slave. Nothing more. Darkness had once told him that that was his lot in life.
"It is of no matter!" he cried, and hurled the whip in her direction again. "Even if this does not kill you, the flames will consume you! You cannot escape the fire!" His eyes shone with the energy of one that is mad and derives unnatural power from that realization.
Jack, still hiding in the canopy of the trees, was doing great work by hurling stones down on the deviltry. Oona and the others flew the rocks up to Jack who then pelted them down on the enemies with great accuracy and strength. His aim was true and a great many of their opponents lay unmoving, or too dazed to fight. The fight had turned and it was in favour of the fairies.
The last of the enemies were giving up, or fleeing back into the forest.
"Follow them!" cried Gump.
Jack leapt down from the tree and was about to follow, when suddenly, a phantom of white streaked past the corner of his eye. Jack halted, and stood dumbfounded as he came face to face with the lord of the forest, the male Unicorn.
The stallion gazed at Jack with his limpid eyes and beyond to his flank and Jack caught sight of Sapphire, the mare and her foal, still young and staying close to his mother.
Gump, also taken aback, could only stare.
Jack silently went down on one knee, paying reverence to the true nobility of the forest, and in humility, for the crimes he had once committed against these beasts.
The Unicorns spoke in the softest of whickers, whuffs and whinnies. Jack listened intently, nodding his head every now and then, in understanding.
To Gump's surprise, he suddenly made for the pool in the background, slicing the dark waters with clean precision.
He seemed to be under the water for an impossible amount of time and just as Gump was beginning to worry, Jack broke to the surface, the waters peeling off of his body.
Shaking the water from his face and flipping his hair off of his forehead, Jack approached the three Unicorns and lay something small and bright down on the ground in front of them.
Gump looked forward in curiosity but his view was blocked as the Unicorns simultaneously lowered their horns, all of one accord to the ground.
A brilliant light burst forth from their horns and Jack and Gump shied away from the light. When they turned back, the Unicorns were no longer in sight. They had disappeared as quickly as they had come.
Jack reached out and picked up the small, magically bright object, which burned like a miniature sun.
"What's that?" said Gump.
"Lili's ring," said Jack quietly, as he stared at it.
"What did they do to it?" asked Gump.
"They've blessed it. It will lead me to her." He raised his wet eyes to Gump. "They've come to help me as we once helped them."
"Let's go, then!" said Gump, his appetite whetted by the battle.
"No," said Jack. "I must go alone. It's what the homunculus said, 'Only two...'. He paused for a moment. "Thank-you, though, Gump. For everything."
Gump started to protest, then realized the futility of it and reached out to shake Jack's hand heartily. He knew that he would not see his friend again for a long time. "The best of luck, then. God's speed," he said, tears gathering at the corners of his eyes as he watched Jack set off.
Lili clamped her hands over her ears as Blix's voice rose to an impossible pitch, grateful that he had abandoned the whip that had all but torn her dress to rags.
The goblin was bent near double with his energy and his normally pale face was a crimson red with his effort.
Barely daring to look at him, Lili saw his mouth shaping impossible words and a cold wind, one that chilled her bones and froze her blood whipped through the cave violently, renting holes in her gown and threatening to knock Blix over.
Finally, the yelling stopped and Lili cautiously removed her hands from her ears to be greeted by an unearthly quiet. The silence was only punctured by Blix's erratic breathing. He glowered triumphantly at her.
When nothing happened at first, Lili was hopeful that nothing was going to happen and was about to say as much, when suddenly, something did happen.
It began subtly enough, not so much as to cause alarm, but the mysterious wind that had been blowing around the cave was finally dying down. But before it totally dissipated, Blix produced a small clay pot, reached into it and procured a handful of dirt. Then, he and leaned down to where the dead remains of a fire had been and scooped up a handful of ash, mingling it with the dirt. Then, he approached Lili, opened his hand and blew the mixture into her face.
Lili sneezed and made to wipe the grime off of her face. But that was when things started to happen.
The mixture of the earth, ash and water of Lili's sneeze had a curious effect on her. Instantly, her skin started to itch. It started out with a simple itch, a casual irritation of the skin, which she itched at once, but then, the sensation spread out over her body athousandfold and in a moment, she was scratching herself frantically.
"What is this?" she demanded of Blix.
He refused to answer and instead watched her intently.
Lili had no more time to say anything. The discomfort was terrible at this point and she was raking her nails over her skin with alarming speed. She emitted little cries of pain, but she could not stop. Over and over her tearing nails tore at every exposed inch of flesh until she was drawing blood.
Anyone who has ever had a mosquito bite will know how Lili felt. Often we are told not to scratch the bite, and if we must, not to scratch it too hard, for we will make it bleed and cause the wound to scar. But, poor Lili. No matter how hard she scratched, she could not itch the poison out of her body. The pain would not alleviate. As she scratched, she seemed to tearing herself apart.
And this was indeed, what was happening. Blix watched, half in amazement, half in horror as Lili started to scratch her own skin off.
It did not flake off the way most dry human skin will, but it was beginning to peel off, layer by layer, starting with her feet and working up towards her head. The shell of her skin pooled on the ground within the circle and Lili, in desperation, scratched even harder until a layer of her skin lay in a discarded puddle on the ground.
Throughout all this though, Lili was not killed. Besides drawing small quantities of the black blood, she suffered no harm (only discomfort). Even after she had shed her skin, she was still whole and intact, feeling a little tender and raw, but still looking the exact same.
The discarded skin, though, suddenly began to move, as if it had a life of its own.
Lili and Blix both stared transfixed at the skin as it began to slowly ungulate back and forth, as if weaving life for itself. The air in the cave grew darker and it seemed that the very night seemed to be lending its darkness and coldness to the skin which was growing taller and fuller by the moment. Lili, still bound in the circle was unable to move away, and Blix, who could not have been forced to move away, stood watching as the prophecy of his dreams came back to life.
Lili gave a low groan, much like that of the condemned prisoner who has once escaped the gallows, but is caught once again and must face their inevitable doom. She knew the shape that the thing in front of her was assuming. There could be no mistake. Her nightmare was coming true.
Blix was spurned into action by her moan and now dared to enter the circle and broke its dimensions. Meeting with no resistance, he pinned Lili's arms behind her back and tied them roughly with a leather thong. He then dragged her towards the pyre and Lili (in her desperation was eager to put as much distance between her and the moving skin), did not fight him. Blix heaved her up onto the top of the wood and then grabbed a smouldering branch from the nearby fire. He set it to base of the pyre and eagerly it caught a-flame.
Lili saw none of this though and instead was staring at what was happening before her.
Her skin, which had lent itself as the cocoon for her horror's rebirth was now completing the final dimensions of the Lord of Darkness.
Blix clapped his hands together with wanton glee and fixed his eye on Lili. Now that she had served him his purpose, he was as eager as ever to dispatch with her.
The Lord of Darkness had now fully materialized and had taken his former shape. He held up his taloned hands before his eyes, as if marvelling at the sight. A mordant grin encapsulated his face and he gave a low laugh.
"Form, touch, sound..." he spoke each word alienly, as if he had been denied these basic senses for a long time. He reached out and snatched a tattered bit of cloth that lay on the ground and wound it around his body as if, by some distant memory he felt the urge to cover himself.
The flames were now licking the base of pyre and created blue-gray plumes of smoke. Lili could not keep from choking. The sound caught Darkness' attention and he spun around and fell upon the scene.
"Blix!" he exclaimed.
At the sound of his master's voice, Blix stopped and threw himself prostrate upon the ground. "Master!" he whispered in a reverent tone.
"Was this your doing, Blix?" Darkness queried.
"Yes, dark lord. I am the one responsible."
"Then, I have you to thank," said Darkness.
These were just the words that Blix was waiting to hear. "Then I crave a mere favour, Lord!" he ventured boldly, true to goblin form.
"Speak," said Darkness.
Blix raised his head and said, "Witness, with me, the destruction of the girl!" Eagerly he motioned to the bound Lili.
Lili, still bound and choking refused to betray herself with a word.
Darkness was silent as he stared down on her.
Blix went on. "I have vowed revenge for her treachery and lies! Watch with me now, as she dies!"
When Darkness did not reply, Blix took his silence as assent. Lili, still choking and struggling, gathered enough strength to collect her salvia and spit upon Blix.
As Blix's anger reached a dangerous cumulation point, his face went crimson with his anger. "Bitch!" he hissed at her and drew his arm back to hit her with the whip.
The last thing that either of them expected to hear was Darkness' gentle laughter.
"As ever, the Queen," said Darkness more to himself, than to either of them.
"Hold, Blix," he said abruptly, denying the goblin his moment of glory. "I have use for her. She has yet to be my vessel."
"But, master!" protested Blix. "She has served her gain! She has brought about your-re-birth again! Now, let me commit her to the flame!"
"No," said Darkness. "My lady can not be killed. Not while she is immortal, like I am. Not while I need her to bear the fruit."
Blix's curiosity had gotten the better of him and he turned a puzzled face to his master. "What do you mean?"
"I mean," said Darkness, with measured patience, "that she will house my prodigy!"
The words had more of an effect on Blix than they did on Lili who was beginning to choke and cough as the flames consumed the wood.
"Lord!" protested Blix. "Do not do this! Punish her! Let me kill her!"
"I think not," drawled Darkness.
In his haste, Blix forgot himself. "You owe me, lord!"
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he knew of his mistake. Darkness turned on him in a dark fury.
"I...what?" he growled.
Blix dropped the whip he was holding and supplicated himself on his knees. "Forgive me. I meant nothing by it!" he grovelled.
"You think that I OWE you?!" said Darkness terribly.
Blix waited for the blow to come. But after long moments, it did not and incredibly, what did come, was the impossible sound of Darkness' laughter.
"I am glad that I amuse you, lord," he ventured.
Darkness continued to laugh and said between his teeth, "If you dare to speak one more word, I will kill you this very instant."
After that, you could not have pried Blix's teeth apart with a wrench.
Finally, when Darkness' mirth had died down, he turned his piercing stare upon Blix and said, "Trouble me no more, vermin!"
Blix began to mutter apologies, but as he did, the world seemed to be enlarging all around him and he felt a strange sensation.
Curious - the world had never seemed so gigantic before, and what was that strange high-pitched sound?
It wasn't until he was eye-level with the floor that he became aware that he was shrinking and that the strange noises were coming from him. Only, they were not so strange. He knew these sounds, they were the squeakings of a rat. Twisting his head around, he saw that a sinewy, furred body had replaced his old one and then, then, the realization hit him.
Darkness had transformed him into a verminous rat!
He turned to his master with pleas and apologies brimming, but Darkness merely wagged a finger at him and raised his cloven hoof, as if he meant to squash him then and there. Blix did not stay whether the gesture was in jest or not. He turned tail and scampered out of the cave as fast as his small, pink legs would carry him.
Darkness chuckled in amusement and then turned to Lili. The smile left his face.
Trapped against the wood, with the cavern floor swimming before her in a haze of smoke and pain, Lili was not sure if what she saw was actually happening. She thought she saw Darkness step through the veil of smoke and stand before her for a while, watching her with the cruel delight as that of a child who has put a toad in a cage with a starving snake. In both instances, the results are the same.
Lili struggled not to choke or look at him, but instead directed her attention to the base of the pyre where the fire was gaining in strength. Although the danger was immediate, she felt a deeper fear of the fire, terrifying her for some unknown reason. She felt a deep stirring in her belly that instructed her to flee the flames before they laid a-hold of her, but she was unable to move. The idea and will were there, but she lacked the strength and co-ordination to move her body.
Though she was loathe to, she directed her gaze up to Darkness who was at that very moment curiously bending down to scoop something up in his hands. As he straightened up, she thought that she saw him holding a small flame of the fire in the palm of his hand. She blinked uneasily. Was she really seeing this?
"Have you not guessed yet?" said Darkness, his attention solely fixed on the flame.
Darkness did not need her to answer and went on to say, "That this alone, in all of creation can kill you?"
No! Lili's thoughts raged a wild battle in her head. He had told her, after she had partaken of his blood, that she was immortal, that nothing would ever be able to harm her... how vain and foolish she was to have believed him!
"Yes, I know what I told you before, that you were as immortal as I am," said Darkness, still caressing the flame and Lili was taken aback at how close his thoughts had been able to keep to hers.
"And in all respects, you are immortal and you have been blessed with my senses and powers, but just as there is one thing that can destroy me, there is also the one thing that can destroy you, too."
Lili's gaze wrested on the flickering flame, fear and hope howling within her.
"Even Eden did not exist without its condition," said Darkness slowly. He finally looked at her and said, "While a single flame will not hurt you, a roaring raging fire would be able to kill you. You are as I am, in all respects, save this one. So long as I control the flame," and so saying, he squeezed his palm together so tightly that the flame disappeared into nothingness, "you shall ever fear it."
This said, Darkness uncurled his fingers and from them issued forth tongues of fire that flew towards Lili's face so swiftly that she barely had the time to bring her hands up to her face in a feeble attempt to protect herself.
But just as quickly as the flames had appeared, they vanished, but Lili, so overcome with her fear and pain sunk into unconsciousness for a few blessed moments, down, down, to a place where Darkness could not follow.
Jack plunged into the thicket heedlessly, unaware of the brambles and thorns that seemed to ensnare him. He had no idea where he was headed, but was following the glowing ring that shone like a beckon in his hands. It seemed to be guiding him in a certain direction and with every step he took, it seemed to be growing brighter and brighter. It cast a pleasing warmth in his otherwise cold-as-a corpse hand.
How lovely it would have been to have remained in that state where there was no pain, sensation, or need to decide anything, but her memory was stubbornly prodding her to return somewhere, for some important reason... With this thought, Lili commanded her eyes to open and found awareness and pain invading her brain.
In the few moments that she had been unconscious, Darkness had taken the opportunity to free her hands and lift her down from the pyre and settle her on the rough floor of the cavern, a few feet away from the entrance of the cave. The fire had been semi-extinguished and now the gloom in the cave was settling in again. Despite the gloom and lack of light in the cave, Darkness' eyes gleamed with an unearthly brightness.
Lili's eyes darted to the mouth of the cave and beyond that, to freedom.
"Why do you fight me?" said Darkness, kneeling down in front of her, blocking off her escape. "You know that this is meant to be. You have chosen this. I have. Fate has chosen for us!"
Lili dragged her eyes away from the lure of freedom and anchored them onto Darkness. Breathing was easier now, but she wasted it on acknowledging him.
"I am not a play-thing of Fate!" snapped Lili, when she was able to. "I have my own will! I choose for myself!"
"You, choose?" mocked Darkness. "You are merely a woman and a woman does not know her own mind. She needs a man to take care of her. To be her master."
"A man?" said Lili, casting her gaze past Darkness, to where freedom was beckoning her. "Such as you will never be?! I tell you that my Jack is more the man than you can ever hope to be!"
"You think that humans are the ultimate being?" laughed Darkness. "Perishable, weak, corruptible humans?"
"We are more than you are!"
"I think not, lady. You humans deny yourselves the power of your evil. You allow judgement and consciousness to cloud your actions. You worry about everything, you have to weigh the consequences and think through everything. If you were to give yourself over to your evil nature, just as you do your goodness, there would be no need for me to exist."
Darkness smiled at Lili's defiant scowl. "Yes, the world needs me, you need me to exist. I exist to serve and remind you that there is evil in the world. I exist because you need me to, you need me to remind you of fear and of Hell."
Lili could bear it no longer. Without a moment's thought, she scrambled for the mouth of the cavern. She moved so swiftly that it took Darkness a moment too long to respond. He snatched at her retreating back but was rewarded with only a fistful of empty air. His long fingernails raked the skin of Lili's back, leaving long, red angry welts that oozed with pain. The impact forced Lili to momentarily pause to draw a breath, but then she pressed on.
In that moment, as short as it was, lay the opportunity for Darkness to gather his own speed and rush after her, grabbing her shoulder and kicking her legs out from under her, just as she broke free from the cave. As Lili tumbled to the ground, a curse on her lips, she realized that all might be very well lost for her. Darkness threw himself on top of her, cutting off her escape and rendering her helpless but his sheer weight and size.
Lili felt herself growing weaker with each desperate struggle she made, all the while aware of the evil grin on his face as they both realized the futility of her struggles.
She had nothing left to defend herself with, no weapon, no strength, only words and somehow, even those seemed very powerless in face of the raging demon in front her.
"Let me GO!" she ordered him, straining wildly.
Darkness chuckled and stroked her cheek with his thumb. "How brilliant your cheeks are, lady! Red is a very becoming colour on you!"
Lili was struggling not only with Darkness, but also her own fear, which was threatening to undo her. She knew that she had to keep talking, to stall Darkness, to delay the onslaught of her own fear and madness. And the only way to do this was to keep talking.
"Take it back," she said abruptly.
"What?" said Darkness, at a loss.
"Your immortality! I never asked for it, anyway."
"Just as I never asked to fall in love with you!" Darkness shot back.
They were both disarmed by his words and Darkness was somehow robbed of his power.
"Yes, I still love you," said Darkness hoarsely, as if the words would not come willingly out of his mouth. "In the maelstrom of Chaos that your boy pushed me into, betrayed by your silence, I floated adrift. The only thing that tethered me to the hope of being revived was that I might get to hold you once more.
"We all need to escape, Lili. I am at war with my own darkness eternally. You lessen the storm. In you I would find my escape to Heaven, to the Light that I am foresworn to battle, even if it is for just a moment. Just as I offer you the chance to be relieved from the constraints of goodness and explore the powers of evil, you offer me a glimpse of the Heaven that I once lost."
Lili, despite her hatred and the memories she had suffered by him, felt her eyes cloud with tears.
Darkness traced the tears that fell down her pale cheeks gently, as if they were precious jewels. "Once," he reminded her, "you released a multitude of souls from the Hell that I condemned them to."
Lili bit her lip, remembering that time...what she had done, in a feeble attempt to set right the injustice she had done against the world.
"A million souls I ensnared," murmured Darkness, "And you released then all with a mere word. A million souls. But there is still one that lies trapped, suffering cruel condemnation, all the while knowing of the Heaven to which it could transpire. One soul from those million that cannot be released by a mere word. That soul, is mine."
Lili could not stay the surge of pity that stirred her in being.
"It is an eternal war!" whispered Darkness, his thumb stroking her cheek with such gentleness that Lili had always believed him to be incapable of possessing.
Darkness continued, "In my heart, there are twin beats, the first of evil, but then the second comes, a undercurrent of love! It is ever eternal, lady and by your love, I would know release and relief, to be able to endure the brightness of the day, the goodness of love!"
But then, Darkness' mood changed abruptly. His brow furrowed and he bent closer to her.
"But it is not enough!" he hissed. "To be free of the darkness for one moment and then captive to it the next! I must not be confined to the night. I must reach out and conquer! That is why you shall be my vessel."
Lili stared at him in confusion. "What do you mean?"
"In the darkness of Hell, I had time, if nothing else to think and to plot and it was there that the answer came to me. I know that I will never be able to transverse the world of day and light. And you, a creature of the day would be loathe to subject yourself to my night, so a compromise is in order, then.
"My essence is in you, my blood has mingled with yours and made you immortal and so shall the child that you bear me! I will have you give me a child that will not be like its sire, trapped in the dark, cowering from the light. You will give me the means to go forth into the land of the living and spread my reign far and wide!" said Darkness fiercely, his conviction terrifying her.
"Yes," he intoned. "A child. The best of both of us that will be able to endure the sunshine and walk the day. I will mould this child's soul to my will and through it, I will conquer!"
"I would never condemn a child to such a fate," gasped Lili.
"The choice is not yours to make," said Darkness abruptly.
"Like Hell, it is!" Lili replied. "I have every right to decide my own fate!"
"Hell?" scoffed Darkness, his eyes burning through the gloom of night. "What do you know of Hell? Hell is nothingness! Hell is a void of madness, confusion and obliviation, from which there is no escape!
"The silence drives you mad, the infinity of time mulls the purpose. Into Hell that stupid boy of yours tried to banish me, but I defeated him, I defeated Hell! Do you want to know how I did it?"
"I don't care to hear your mad ravings!" said Lili.
"Hell can be what you make it, lady," Darkness told her, ignoring her refusal. "It can be filled up with an obsession. Obsession with a name, the sound of a voice, a face," - at this point in his speech, Darkness laid his hand on her neck with a touch so cold that it burned. Lili yelped at the contact.
"Hell is so cold that it burns, you know. It is so cold that it extinguishes the flame of hurt, desire, revenge...but not love. That was what it was for me. Obsession and existence through your memory, borne by your love..."
"Stop saying that!" Lili exclaimed and tried to move away from him. "You don't even know what love is! You have twisted and broken the idea of love so badly, that you've tricked yourself into thinking that you know it, that you love me! You would have me and love me as a person that I am not and then you punish me for not being as you desire!"
Darkness grew still and silent as he considered her words.
"Then teach me," he said at length. "Teach me the joys of a love sublime and I will reward you..."
"There is no reward for love!" said Lili. "Love is given freely and sincerely, with the hope that it will be returned. I have already sworn my love to another. It cannot be divided. I love Jack and will have my life with him!"
Darkness rushed at her then, his hands holding her in place and his lips devouring first her own, then her cheeks and neck. His breathing was fast and erratic and he only paused for a moment to hurriedly whisper to her. "If not your love and soul, then, I will at least possess your body!"
Then, with greater determination, he hissed, "I will have a child!"
"Not by me!" Lili shrieked and tried to ward him off with blows, but it was almost impossible to hurt the creature of immensible size and strength that held her captive.
Darkness murmured a soft word and instantly his features began to distort.
Lili watched in, first in surprise and then in shock at his transfiguration.
First, the deadly sharp horns shrunk and seemed to melt into Darkness' skull and became smaller, softer and brown, turning into rough, unkempt tangled locks of hair. Next, his long chin receded and then the contours of his face softened and rounded into the familiar cheeks, forehead and nose, just as his skin paled and then darkened to a nut-brown. At the same time, Darkness' size diminished (though not his strength - as he kept Lili locked in an iron embrace) to human proportions and finally, the last thing to change was his eyes. The piercing emerald green stare was replaced by a watery blue one so that in every look and appearance, Darkness was now the mirror image of Jack 'o' the Green. Even when he spoke, it was with the same inclination and inflection as the real Jack.
"Do you see me, now?" asked Darkness/Jack of the stupefied Lili.
Lili stared at him.
"Is this the shadow of the man you would have me be? Locked in this perishable shell of flesh?"
Lili could only shake her head in protest.
"It is little matter," said Darkness/Jack. "Even trapped in this skin, I can know sensation, pleasure, desire," his voice trailed off. "...Love."
Lili stopped struggling.
Jack was certain that he was headed in the right direction, but all of a sudden, the ring in his hand seemed to be growing fainter.
Lili closed her eyes.
She was so tired. Something inside of her was pleading for release. She could not block out that voice (was it her own?) that told her to let go of everything: of fear, pain, longing, intent, and direction. Her mind lazily drifted back to the birds she had seen, just the other day, flying so freely, without a care, without conception. Her body then yearned, as her soul did, to be able to give up.
She waited for the tears to come. She had known sorrow and remorse so intimately of late, that the tears were her rightful inheritance, but now, they did not even come. She felt as if she scoured the wellspring of sadness in her soul and cried it dry. She was at that point where grief and confusion cannot be expressed in any way.
With her eyes closed and her vulnerability exposing her, Darkness saw it as his chance and moved in.
It would be so easy to believe it was the real Jack speaking to her. That it was the Jack she had always loved, that it was the same one she now took in her arms and gave into their mutual love and passion for one another. How natural and right it felt to give herself over to him, the man that loved her, had always loved her.
"Do not resist me," he was saying as his hands, though cruel and restraining before were now gentle and committed to giving her passion.
"You cannot fight me, day after day, minute after minute, never losing your resolve, never faltering..."
Lili kept her eyes closed and lay as still as a statue.
"Be for me..." Jack's voice clung to her like Night Jasmine; seductive and over-powering.
She surrendered with the serenity of a dying soul and gave to Darkness that one kiss, the one that he had worshipped the hope for while in Hell, the kiss of submission and condemnation.
And it was akin to the kiss of Judas that Jack watched Lili give to Darkness, from where he stood, staring stupefied and betrayed, just beyond a tangle of trees near the mouth of the cave.
It was not the low moan from Jack that made Lili break away Darkness, who was tearing away the last remnants of her tattered gown. What made her first pull away was the perception of two things. The first was of the second sin that she was about commit.
The first sin, of course, had been when she had touched the unicorn and almost condemned Humankind to eternal night. That sin, she had committed out of arrogance, out of her ignorance. But this sin... there was no excuse. She was aware of it. If she willingly subjected herself to this... to him, there was no turning back. She would be lost, forever lost, with no hope for forgiveness from any quarter.
The Mistress of Mysteries' words came back to her. "Gnothi seauton..."
Lili knew her soul could not withstand the deceptions of Darkness as readily as her senses could. So, she bared herself and opened her eyes to see him. Not the proxy of Jack that Darkness so cunningly sported, but beyond that, beyond even his demon-form. To the dark confines of his black soul where the secret of Darkness was concealed, to indeed, where the secret of all creatures that serve evil and sin lies. And she saw the secret - the secret that
It is never enough.
The knowledge of the secret was overwhelming, but Lili fought to keep herself together and not outwardly betray herself. At that moment, she turned her head and instantly, her eyes found Jack; his face white, his expression, one of disbelieving hurt. She could only give him that one quick glimpse before she had turn her attentions back to Darkness who, in his frenzy was still oblivious to Jack's presence. She could only pray that her Jack would grant her the twin gifts of his understanding and forgiveness.
It was not Lili's wooden embrace that first alerted Darkness that there was something wrong. Rather, it was the presence of an intruder. The intruder. The one that was keeping his chosen one from giving herself over to him completely. As long as the intruder existed, Darkness knew that he could not claim what was rightfully his.
With a low snarl that gave away his animal nature, Darkness broke off his advances and upon singling Jack out from amongst the trees, faced him with the animosity of any male (about to make a conquest and is denied of his prize), could have.
But when he saw what stood before him, he sneered laughter. This was her champion? A mere, stricken, mortal fool who could be so easily undone by a female's infidelity? The battle no longer seemed to hold the challenge that he had hoped for. Nonetheless, there might be the chance for a game here.
Darkness, still sporting Jack's image deliberately pushed Lili behind him, partly relieved and partly surprised that she willingly complied and did not fight him. It seemed that she was finally going to be reasonable. With her out of the way, he could risk the battle. He grinned at his mirror's image and waited patiently for it to advance.
Jack, though wounded by what he had seen, threw a punch at Darkness that landed squarely on Darkness' jaw that sent him staggering backwards under the impact.
Darkness could only gape at the residue of pain that lingered there. He had not expected this at all... this annoying pain. But then, if he was trapped in a form that was not his own by nature, then he would have to accept the limitations and sensations that went along with the borrowed skin.
He retaliated with a stunning blow that knocked Jack off his feet. Rubbing his jaw, Darkness smiled and could only pray that the fight was still far from being over. As Jack struggled to find his centre of balance, his head reeling from the impact, he failed to notice that Lili's ring, that he had been clutching in his left hand, slip and roll along the ground. Neither of the Jacks noticed it roll towards where Lili crouched, watching the battle.
It was the hardest thing that she had ever had to do. From the first moment that she had seen her Jack (the real Jack) strike the ground, it had taken all of her will-power and restraint not to cry out-loud. As she watched the one-sided battle progress, her desperation mounted and she had to clamp her teeth over her tongue to keep from making a sound. She could take little comfort in the fact that Darkness could not kill Jack as she watched them pummelling each other with dizzying blows.
Her attention was suddenly diverted as she felt something small and hard strike her foot. Glancing down, she saw that it was a ring... her ring. The one that she had tossed into the pool so long ago, just before the winter spell had been cast upon the Earth. She scooped it up in disbelief and stared in amazement as it began to glow with a bright light. It felt warm and comforting in her grasp and as it touched the ring that Blix had thrust on her finger, it sizzled and it lost its hold on her finger and crumbled into nothingness. As her shock wore off, she realized what power it had against all things evil. She stared at the enchanted ring for only a second longer, before she knew what she had to do.
Jack hit the ground again, his shattered cheekbone exploded in a crescendo of pain and lay motionless for long moments on the ground, trying to catch his breath and to also summon his rapidly deteriorating will to get up, when he knew he would be pummelled all over again. Darkness' insane laughter filled his ears.
"There was a time I would have been content to have let you go, boy," Darkness was saying. "But since you insist on annoying me, now, you shall die!"
Jack spit out a mouthful of foul blood that was pooling in the grotto of pain that was his mouth and doubted that very much. Now that he knew he was immortal, it gave him a definite advantage over Darkness. He only wished that immortality could come along with immunity to pain.
Darkness shouted a rough word and the whip that lay abandoned in the cave came flying out of it and into Darkness' outstretched hand. Descending upon Jack with the swiftness of a striking snake, Darkness coiled the whip around his enemy's neck and applied pressure.
Struggling to breath, Jack clawed at his neck, but his attention was focussed solely upon trying to draw that one life-giving breath and then another. All thoughts of fight escaped him.
Then, from that back corner of his senses, he heard that voice, the voice that he loved above all other voices in the world, the voice of his Lili speaking impossible words.
Impossible, incomprehensible words that somehow lessened the pressure about his throat until it was finally gone. He choked and held his neck, but looked towards Lili. Darkness was turning to face her, too.
Jack stared hopefully up at her but her face was a desert of apathy.
"Let him go," repeated Lili. "Is it not better that he lives, knowing what he has lost? To face the bitter reminder each day, that you have won me? That it is you that I love?"
Darkness stared in mute surprise as Lili drew closer to him. For a guarded moment, he doubted the sincerity of her words, but upon seeing the beautiful smile that she reigned upon him, he realized that yes, she was now his, that she had given herself over to her inner darkness and that he need never doubt her again.
For a blessed moment, Lili enjoyed all the serenity and liberation of spirit that a martyred soul is permitted before their moment of truth. She was conscious of Darkness' greedy gaze upon her and she spoke, to try and keep his gaze away from her fingers that desperately clutched her ring behind her back with her sole remainder strength.
"Even the titans knew of demise and death," she said, hearing only the echo of her words. "For them, there was no hope, but so long as there exists love, there can be eternity."
She held out her right hand to Darkness and he took it, for one last time and drew her against him, dropping the whip. He stared deeply into her eyes and she lay her hand against his heaving chest.
"Let me love you as you truly are," she implored and waited patiently for him to work the spell once more and the beloved dimensions of Jack altered again to reveal Darkness' true form.
She forced a smile of approval to her lips and drew him closer to the mouth of the cave, where, just beyond it Jack crouched, watching, as one mesmerized.
Lili had known all along that escape would not be easy. But more than her love, more than her body, she knew what Darkness craved.
Power over her, over the world, over his enemies, over destiny itself. His lust for power would burn on and on, never slackening, never to be satisfied.
Though she was loathe to, she had to let Darkness think that she had surrendered, given herself over to him, live the lie that she loved him, if only for a moment.
All three of them were so caught up in the drama, that they all failed to see the first crimson streaks of dawn slicing the horizon.
When Jack made his first sound of protest, Darkness strode over to him and with a movement so quick, it a was a blur, he struck Jack with a stunning blow that caused his thoughts to turn to water and fall down on the ground.
Jack saw Darkness returning to where Lili stood and blinked uneasily as he watched the tableau before him. Was Lili playing a trick on Darkness, or had she been caught up in a spell of the demon's? Doubt undid his thoughts as he tried to find one glimmer of promise in her expression, but there was nothing there for him. "Lili?" he whispered brokenly.
She turned a look of indifferent ennui upon him, as if he were a mere insect beneath her notice. She quickly turned back to Darkness and pressed herself tighter against him, as if Jack were a dangerous shadow of the past, best forgotten.
"Take me away from this life," she implored him and then added the one word that burned her tongue to say, but upon uttering it, convinced Darkness beyond a shadow of a doubt of her loyalty and surrender. "Milord."
It was as much as Jack could bear, physically and emotionally. It was easier to retreat to the depths of unconsciousness.
Any unspoken doubts and fears that Darkness might have secretly harboured about Lili's conversion were put to a sudden and timely death upon hearing her utter that one word.
That admittance... convinced him beyond any reason.
Overcome with the exhilaration of his greatest triumph, Darkness did well to nod his assent, but so stirred was his brute's blood that he could not stay the urge to kiss her again.
It was an embrace in which she knew she could suffocate and she was not immune to the rising sensations that she had once thought that only Jack was able to summon within her. Nonetheless, it was just the distraction that was needed. Stealthily, her numb fingers found and freed one of Darkness' hands that was enjoying the end of its exile against her flesh, and she quickly slipped her ring onto his smallest finger. At first Darkness did not register what she had done, he was so caught up in his passion. When at last he broke off his grasp, he smoothed back a stray wisp of her hair.
"I do love you," he murmured.
Oh! How sweetly hollow his words rang, but Lili nodded her head. Darkness made a movement towards the cave, but Lili stayed him. "Watch the dawn with me one last time," she begged prettily.
"Lady, you know that to look upon the sun means my destruction," cautioned Darkness.
"Surely just one glance cannot hurt you," countered Lili. "A mere glance and no more, milord, I promise and then, we shall have eternity in your darkness."
Everything hinged on his indulgence and for a wild moment, Lili feared that she would not be able to convince him. She smiled beseechingly at him and hoped that in the good faith of their supposed reconciliation, he would grant her this one wish.
The blood in her ears, pounded, then slowed as she saw him weaken, give in and finally say, "Very well, for a moment, but no longer."
What would it hurt? To indulge the girl and make her think that she had him in her power? Besides, he was anxious. A mere glance at the sun, which was capable of his destruction, would whet the appetite.
He was momentarily distracted by a curious warmth on his finger. Looking down, he was taken by surprise to see that a ring lay on it. He had not noticed it before. By now, the warmth had turned to a mild irritation.
He tried to pry the ring off but it seemed to be stuck fast. Angered, he tried again, as the pain and heat flamed through his hand, up his arm and progressed through his body. He grunted with the effort, but his fingers could no longer manipulate the task, they hanged: lifeless, useless, warm slabs of meat against his palm. The sensation was spreading through his body and stunning him with the same paralysis. What was happening?!
Lili, with her back turned, could hear Darkness' growing agony, but she deliberately ignored him and watched anxiously for the sun to rise. If, by some dark miracle, Darkness was able to break free and take her away to fill his dark designs, then she wanted this one moment, this last moment as a free soul to look upon the sun, so that she might be able to endure an eternity of Hell, by having this moment to remember again and again. The moment felt akin to the time she had severed the winch that had held the unicorn captive. But where that deed had required her physical strength, this now demanded her emotional strength and will.
As he choked and his body lurched wildly, Darkness' thoughts undid him. He did not understand what was happening, but he knew that she was somehow responsible! He should have known! Damn her! It was of little consequence. With her perfidy, it made it all the more easier. There would be no more delay, no more regrets. They could not win. They could not understand that. She did not understand that there was no way to banish him, to banish what he was, or, what he served.
That was why they had already lost. Lost, because they could not fathom a world of duality.
Foolish creatures! They believed that the world could only exist as either/or, black or white, good or evil. Even if the second promised Paradise that their God had promised them would one day exist, it was made only possible by the shadow of Hell. Without the Hell that he served, there would be no such construction of Heaven.
That was why Hell would always exist, because unlike Heaven, which could be sated by love, innocence and purity, Hell could never be fulfilled. It was not enough. Its hunger, his hunger drove him on, and would, until... until there was no end.
But at that very moment, the sun pierced the canopy of the trees and for one radiant moment, the Lord of Darkness was enveloped in a sunburst of rainbow-coloured light. The pain that filled his being was slowly deadening as the sunlight, his destroyer, the most awesome destructive force of the enemy, rained down upon him with a light and heat more intense than any Hell-fire.
There could be no other result, as when dark evil challenged the light.
He felt his thoughts slowing, becoming sluggish and then stubbornly hardening, like his limbs which were becoming harder and more leaden with each heartbeat. The sunlight was blinding him so that he could see nothing. The sole figure in front of him dimmed and faded from sight in brilliant play of light. His lips feebly tried to form a plea of protection from the Father, but knew it was useless, there was no one, nothing to help him now.
The darkness, his first true love, had fled him, left him to the mercy of the enemy. The world was a blinding sphere of heat and fire. He had lost all feeling, all reason and the brink of insanity was not so far away now...
The last things he heard was, strangely enough, the delighted laughter of a young girl, her merriment and relief evident in that mere sound and then, finally, a dull thudding in his ears. The low, distant throbbing was his own heartbeat, slowing and then, hardening, to match the stiffness of his body. And then, finally, finally... that last realization came to him with such remarkable clarity, clarity that only the brightness of Heaven could bestow, that he had finally achieved his age old desire; to enter the light, though at what a price!
The precipice of coherent thought crumbled beneath him and he fell into the burning brightness of the day. He fell and fell and there was no end to that descent.
Lili stared silently at the stone statue that stood before her, its expression locked in the throes of agony and rage. The Lord of Darkness had been turned to stone by the sunlight that had touched him. The searing smoke lingered for a moment and then was borne away on a light breeze. The ring that she had pushed onto his finger was bright for a moment, but then it s light receded and melted into the texture of the stone. Lili continued to stand before for a moment, hardly daring to believe that it was all over. Then, all around her, the forest was coming to life, a reminder that Time stood still for no one and that it, that life, must continue on.
Lili held her silent vigil for a moment longer and then went over to where Jack was mumbling his way back to consciousness.
A deep gash ran the length his temple and Lili, winced as if the pain was her own. As she helped him into an upright position, she wondered if he would be able to forgive her for what she had done; though she was not worthy of forgiveness, from any side.
The brightness of the day was what registered in Jack's senses first. The second thing was the sensitive touch of Lili's hand on his face, then her voice, sad and petulant saying, "Oh, Jack. I am so sorry."
Jack started and then saw the stone statue of Darkness just over Lili's shoulder. For long moments, he could only stare and then quickly looked away.
After he found his bearings, he held out his hand to her. There was no question, no accusation in his mind. "Come on, Lili," he urged, eager to put as much distance between them and the strange spectacle. Where he had expected to see her crying, her eyes were strangely dry. But she would not move and continued to stare at the stone figure in silence.
The blood, his blood pounded in her ears. So long as his blood remained in her, so long as any essence of him existed in her, she was his prodigy. Beit unwilling, she still was a part of him. Was that knowledge that she could live with, forever?
"It's over," Jack was saying to her, persistently intruding on her private thoughts and she turned back to him, deriving great strength from the sight of him, this "boy" (as Darkness had called him) that had risked so much for her, had continued, after all that had happened to love her. Yes, that was love that she saw in his eyes and it was so great, she knew that she would be able to live the future without fearing the ghosts of the past.
"Thank-you," she said simply.
Jack smiled and taking her hand in his, kissed it and said, "I love you."
In that moment, Lili knew that he had forgiven her for everything.
"Let's go," he whispered and she nodded in agreement.
But she could not help one last glimpse at the statue; hardly daring to believe that the nightmare she had so feared and revered had finally been put to rest by the light of day. She knew she had to tell him, admit to him the truth that he may already know. She'd been wrong to have kept it from him before. "Jack?" she said, unable to meet his eye. "Do you know? Did you hear what he said? That I was immortal as he is? His blood is within me. As long as I live, there will be a part of him that survives."
Jack struggled to find just the right words to reassure her, but he could find none of his own. Then he suddenly remembered the poem the homunculus had told him. He grasped Lili's hand as he spoke the borrowed words.
"Love hath a power and a longing to save the gathered world,
Yet few, now, only two, scanty as the gleaning after harvest,
The one shall not perish in abandonment."
He kissed her closed eyelids and said, "I know what you are. You're my Lili and I love you. Nothing will ever change that."
That admission and reassurance was enough to convince her and Lili returned the kiss in gratitude.
Anxious to put it all behind her, she allowed her husband, her true husband to lead her away. When the stone statue was far behind them, Lili pulled Jack close for another kiss and grinned wickedly at him. "Now that we're married, we should make it lawful unto Nature," she suggested.
Jack was not oblivious to her meaning and pressed his forehead to hers. Whispered, with his eyes closed, "If we do, we won't be able to see unicorns ever again."
A cloud of sadness marred Lili's expression. She said, "I know."
As Jack and Lili entered the forest, hand in hand, their adventure and their love for one another passed forever into Legend.