LEGEND Fan Fiction
By ifrit (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Escape From the Darkness
Lili ran through the halls, frantically peering over her shoulder all the time. Her heart beat wildly like a distant drum that throbbed in her ears. Her panicked flight eventually brought her to a narrow passage in the stone wall through which she was barely able to squeeze her slim frame through. For long, desperate moments, she struggled to pull herself through the passage as it sloped sharply upwards. She clawed at the wet slimy roots that more than once slipped out of her hands. The ground beneath her bare feet was slick and threatened to give way from underneath her. Her determination almost matched her fear, and together, these two emotions gave her the willpower to continue onwards and upwards. After long, arduous moments, she felt the air about her lighten and in the next minute, she pulled herself free from the dark earth. As she straightened herself and looked about, she felt the night breeze whip her hair out behind her. The round moon shone silver upon her and for one lovely instant, she pushed the overwhelming sense of fear that plagued to the back of her mind as she stared up into the night sky and marveled at its forgotten beauty. Then, she looked down at the hole and gave a visible shudder. She turned and ran as fast as she could into the dark forest. She had escaped! Her thoughts turned towards freedom as the distance increased between her and the GreatTree. He would not be able to follow her, let alone find her. She was safe! Or so she thought. Meanwhile, in the dark clutches of his midnight realm, the Lord of Darkness searched frantically for Lili. He soon realized what she had done and swore that he would win her back. His kingdom shook with his mighty cries throughout the night.
As Lili ran through the forest, all the while, trees' roots and limbs seemed to grab at her and catch her. Her fear gave the shadows strength, and the night, eyes. Never had the night seemed so long or dangerous. She dodged the trailing limbs of the trees and ran on and on, until she was all but exhausted, but still she pressed on. Finally, when he horizon was lightened with the first tattle-tell streaks of dawn, she fell into the grass, her legs refusing to move her breathing hard and fast. She crawled through the tall grass for as long as her last ounce of strength permitted, but in after a few moments, she lay, facedown in the grass, soaked with dew. Unable to fight the overwhelming urge to sleep, she closed her eyes and surrendered to a much-needed sleep. All around her, the forest was awakening with the dawn and became alive with the brilliant, cheery songs of birds that awoke the forest creatures. Among these creatures, was Jack, a native forest dweller. But he had been awake long before the sun lightened the sky. In the middle of the night, he had been awakened by the sharp cries of the owls, whose frantic calling had told him that there was something different in his forest home. He had followed the cries until he came across the disturbance. In the moonlight, all that he had been able to see was the fleeing form of a person, that was running wildly through the forest, heedless of the bushes that it crashed into. Jack had followed the figure, from a safe distance, high amongst the foliage of the forest. The pace had been fast and hard, and Jack had almost lost the figure more than once. Finally, just as he was able to make the determination that the figure was human, it had collapsed in the grass, unable to go any farther.
Jack watched it cautiously, and when, after long minutes it did not stir, he dropped lightly to the ground and warily approached it. Even before he reached it, he could make out that it was a girl. Hope flared within him momentarily as he hoped that it might be his ladylove, Lili. But as he approached her, and turned her still body over, so that he could regard her face, the hope died. This was not his Lili, for she had disappeared long ago, when the world had been locked in death. Even after the brief nightmarish-time of when Night had covered the land, there had been no trace of her. After Light had been mysteriously restored, there had been no whisper of her existence from any of the faerie folk or ghoulish legions of Lord Darkness, whom Jack had courageously battled before. No, this could not be his Lili, because this girl wore strange clothes, such of the like that Lili never would have worn. His Lili had always had a smile on her face. This girl's face was thin and pinched with hunger and her skin had a white pallor to it. It gleamed with a surreal whiteness...as if the sun had never touched her skin...
He was still staring at her when she stirred. Jack jumped back, but continued to hold his ground.
The girl's dark eyes adjusted and then focussed upon the figure that stood over her. With a breathless gasp of terror, she shrank away from him and scrambled to her feet, running away again. This time, Jack followed her on foot, amazed at the speed with which she traveled and also at her obvious terror.
The mad race continued on for some time but was then put to a sudden halt when the girl tripped over a log and went sprawling to her knees. She desperately tried to get up, but as she stood, blinding pain flared through her ankle and immobilized her.
Jack warily came up behind her. She turned to face him, her eyes squeezed shut, either from pain or fright, he did not know. "I won't go back!" she hissed at him, and then she turned back to her swelling ankle.
Jack's heart stood still for a moment, as he was trapped inside the memory of a voice. It was her! It had to be! Hardly daring to believe that it could be, he managed to whisper, "Lili?" Lili spun around. Only one voice in the whole world sounded like that. "Jack!" she cried and then, collapsed with relief, into his arms. For the longest time, they were like that; simply holding each other and nothing more. But to Jack, the time seemed very short. Neither said a word nor moved and the simple act of holding one another was enough happiness for eternity. Questions piled high and furiously in Jack's mind, but they were laid to quiet rest as he stroked Lili's hair and rejoice in the fact that she was alive and safe in his arms. Meanwhile, the sun rose higher and higher in the sky. Suddenly, its rays touched Lili, enveloping her in a golden shower. Jack shied away from the blinding light. When he looked back at her, Lili was still sitting in the grass, clutching her ankle, but her strange clothes were gone - replaced by the tattered gown that he had seen her in last. Her fair complexion and returned and she smiled at him and her face lit up, just the way it used to.
Jack then took her in his arms and kissed her, for he had not done that in a long, long time.
Lili pulled the soft covers up to her chin and looked around the room in contentment. After her return, her father had sent trumpets to the four corners of his lands to be sounded for her glorious return. It had been a wonderful day, filled with revelry, feasting and merry-making. Her father had been over-joyed at her return, and had not pressed her with questions as to her whereabouts. That would follow when she was ready. For now, it was enough for her to be surrounded by those that she loved and had been separated from for so long. Jack's promise that he would come tomorrow so that they could announce their betrothal to her father rested sweetly in her mind and it was to that thought that she fell into a deep, contended sleep.
Outside her window, the moon shone silver on the world as the forest-things lay down for rest. But one thing that was not resting was a solitary figure of a lone goblin - Blix. Stealthily, the goblin worked his way towards the castle. A drugged dart took care of those that stood on watch. With a trained eye, Blix sized up the size of the stone castle and then, deliberately made his way to one of the darkened windows. Whether by luck, or sure chance, Blix found himself staring in the window of his master's paramour. Her back was turned to him, but he was able to make out her reflection in the mirror that stood facing the window. Blix bared his teeth at the reflection, as he bitterly recalled the girl's violent betrayal of them all. Why Darkness over-looked her insurrection so repeatedly was beyond his understanding...Personally; he would not be so lenient or forgiving. His eye appraised her bared shoulder and he smacked his lips hungrily. He would make a quick meal of her, if permitted. However, the onus of his task weighed in his mind, and he pushed the hunger to the nether regions of his mind. His clawed fingers scratched across the smooth glass as he vainly sought a way in. He considered smashing the glass to gain entry, but dismissed the unpleasant idea of having to restrain the girl, and then fight past guards...and who knew how many of them there might be? No. It would be better to wait. His eyes narrowed and his thin lips lifted in a hideous smile as he considered the results of his report. He slithered back into the night and made his way to the Great Tree - the abode of all the evil in the land. Before long, he was presenting himself, on bended knee to Darkness, who sat in a listless stupor on his throne.
"Lord, " he said, his voice fairly dripping with unconstrained pride, "I have found the one you call 'lady", resting in her father's castle due east; living in such pomp and grandeur fit only for a human beast." Darkness lifted his head from his chest, hope infusing his voice. "Excellent," he said, stirring at last.
"There are those that would guard your treasure, lord. She cannot be taken by sheer leisure!" Blix warned him. "Then take a band of your most trusted goblins and bring her here tonight," Darkness commanded.
Blix bowed his head. "As you wish, lord." Darkness smiled down on him and said, generously, "You've done well, Blix. I will see that you re rewarded so." Seeing Blix's glazed expression, he
wen on, "Once she is returned to me. You are not to harm her!" "Of course," Blix reassured him. "You are most gracious, my liege. I live to serve you."
Darkness nodded in agreement. "You live, because you serve me. Don't forget that."
"Aye, sire," said Blix, somewhat chastised. He bowed again and waited for his dismissal. He took it with a bitter sting. The girl...it was always the girl...his thoughts moved towards the capture and he went to prepare that of which he would need. To the hunt! To the wonderful hunt! He could not wait.
The moon watched with its one-eyed gaze as Blix and his band made their way to the castle. The guards proved no threat to the swords and arrows of the goblin band and Blix watched the last pitiful struggles of the humans be surpassed by the superior warfare of the goblins with a sense of disgust. Pathetic, weak things. Maybe the girl would prove more difficult. Hungry for a struggle, Blix hoped so. Lili's peaceful rest was broken by the sound of shattering glass. She awoke to see the goblins climbing into her room like wicked night-incubuses. With a shriek she was out of bed and running for the door, but a goblin barred her way. She backed away, trembling in fright, mutely shaking her head, stumbling into the goblins behind her. As Blix reached out for her, she seemed to gain control and snatched her arm away. "Leave me alone!" she cried.
Blix smiled mockingly at her and made a half-bow. "You've been sorely missed, highness."
"Get away from me or else I'll scream!" she threatened. "Go ahead! Shatter every ear! There is no one left to hear!" Blix chortled.
Whether she believed his words or not, Blix did now know, but she opened her mouth to scream to his invitation when suddenly one of the other goblins rushed forward and clamped his hand over her mouth. The others rushed forward, one pinning her arms behind her back, the other, tying her hands up with rough rope, cruelly jerking her hair in the process. Another stuffed a foul-tasting rag in her mouth, to prevent her from screaming.
Under the assault, Lili whimpered, her body twisting and struggling against the goblin constraints. Gagged and bound, she lay on the floor; her eyes fastened on Blix, hatred burning brightly in her gaze. Blix knelt down and whispered near her ear, "Let it be known that it was not I that harmed you!" he chuckled.
Lili turned her head away, her body sagging with obvious defeat. Blix smiled again and then shouted out, "Come! Leave us, away! Approaches the Day!"
Trussing her up in a net, the goblin band unceremoniously lifted Lili high above their shoulders and bore her away.
Jack turned over in a fitful, thin sleep. His brow knotted as he dreamed. Behind his closed eyelids, his eyes moved furiously as he was locked in a deep sleep. A sleep that was not natural, but was evil in its origin.
The whole forest slumbered in an unearthly quiet as the goblin band, headed by Blix, made its way through the forest. The goblins moved quickly but quietly, as were their orders. Only Blix dared to challenge the silence of the night. His chuckling laughter echoed amongst the greening boughs of the dark foliage.
Lili, still bound and gagged was incessantly working not only at the ropes that bound her, but also at the gag in her mouth. By twisting her head and moving her mouth, she was able to get the gag away from her lips and onto her chin. For long moments, she enjoyed the taste of freedom over the foul, lingering residue in her mouth and then, taking a deep breath, she screamed as loud as she could, "Help me, Jack! Dear god, help me!" Jack, she reasoned, was in the forest, nearby. Surely he would hear her. And if not he, surely Gump, or Oona, some of the faerie folk would come!
She managed one more cry before the goblins acted. At Blix's sharp command, they dropped her on the ground and stuffed the rag back into her mouth despite her muffled curses and wild frailings.
After she was restrained psychically and vocally once more, Blix stood above her, glaring down on her. "Methinks you are not anxious to return to mine master and yours too?" his voice insidiously whispered to her. Lili gave a rough shake to her head. Blix's eyes crackled with untold glee and he gave a secret little laugh, "Oh, mortal, if only you knew what he plans to do to you!"
Lili looked confused, as she absorbed his words. The other goblins drew facinorously closer to her, their claws and jaws dripping with laughter as they stroked her hair, her back, her cheeks and throat. She tried to pull away from them and their hateful words but they pressed in tighter around her.
"If only you knew," sneered one with a pig's snout. "What he plans to do," they all echoed Blix. "You'll leave this life..." intoned another with amphibious slits on its neck
"Become his immortal wife."
"You'd better say 'adieu'." said Pox
"For you mortal life will be through!"
"Silence!" interjected Blix, who had been enjoying the farce up until that point, suddenly spoke harshly so that all the goblins stopped short. "We mustn't spoil the gift, before it's been given!" he said. He relished Lili's puzzled look before giving the order, "Bring her!"
The goblins lifted her once again and they continued their trek through the forest, all the while, Lili's heart pounded in fear as she considered the mysterious threat the goblins had given her. Where was Jack? Why hadn't he come? Maybe he no longer cared, maybe...
Heart-weary and devoid of any hope to furthur sustain her, Lili closed her eyes. But even behind her closed eyes, the tears still came.
Far away, in the blackest holds of the Great Tree, Darkness watched the progress of his goblins as they drew ever nearer their goal. A contented sigh escaped him as he regarded the strange procession through the murky hypostatic surface of the mirror. He concentrated on the forest that surrounded the figures.
Good. Just has he had planned. He had set a charm on the land, as further assurance that nothing would oppose him, or rather, those that worked in his name. A sleep spell had sent everything into a pre-natural slumber that would last until the break of day.
There would be time enough for his plan to work. As he watched them, he heard a female voice shrieking and watched intently as the goblins dealt with her. For an instant, he watched in pensive silence, but his loyal Blix restrained the others from doing anything to her. Well satisfied, he turned away from the glass. Soon. Very soon...
Jack struggled against the barred arms of a confining sleep. He was dreaming of Lili. She was dressed all in white and was smiling beatifically at him. She held out her arms to him and Jack saw himself ~ his dream-self, approach her. He was dressed in golden armour and all about him, there were cheers of happiness.
"Where are we?" he asked her when he reached her. Lili planted a kiss on his cheek and said in her sweet voice, "Home, Jack. We're home."
His perspective then changed and he saw himself high atop a tower balcony and all around him stretched green lands as far as the eye could see. He gasped in wonder and turned to her.
"Lili! What is this?"
Lili came to stand beside him and placed her hand in his. "What do you think of your kingdom, Lord Jack?"
Shocked by her words, he gaped at her in disbelief. "Lord...?" his voice trailed off.
"Yes, Milord Jack, my dearest husband," she said, her left hand caressing his, where (he had failed to notice before) a gold ring lay on the fourth finger. "This is all yours!"
Finally comprehending, Jack took Lili in his arms and kissed her tenderly. "All I need or desire is your love, Lili," he breathed. As Jack was dreaming all this, Lili's screams sounded in the forest. Jack's body twitched momentarily, but he did not stir. Locked in the enticing rapture of the dream, he slept on.
Lili's screams sounded only once more and then, all was silent. Jack turned over in his sleep and continued to dream.
The harder Lili struggled at the ropes, the tighter they became. Eventually, realizing the futility of her fight, she resigned and quietly gave herself over to sleep. The evening's events had taken their toll and Darkness' spell was working on her, too.
When the goblins finally reached the Great Tree, they carefully wended their way in through one of the numerous entrances.
"Where do we put her, Blix?" asked one of them. "Yes, Blix, where?"
"The dungeon? Will it be iron chains for this traitor?" "The dungeon's too good for this baggage!" muttered Pox, "I say the Pit!" Blix carefully ran his razor-like claws over Lili's smooth cheek. He carefully pressed down, hard enough to break the skin, but not so hard as to draw blood. "No such fitting end for this fair flower. Come, we're to put her in a wooden bower!"
Blix lead the way through halls that twisted and turned and then doubled back on themselves, until even one with a good sense of direction would have been helplessly lost. But the goblin band pressed on, confident in their passage until they came at last to a silently still hall, devoid of life and movement. Blix stared at the high domed ceiling and the flying buttresses of the pillars that supported the hall.
"What is this place?" breathed the goblins one and all, for none of them had ever chanced in such a room. Even Blix, who was intimately familiar with the upper regions of the Great Tree, had only graced this room once before, when the Lord of Darkness had shown him where it was.
They all gazed around in stupefied wonder at the numerous wooden structures that methodically filled the room.
"There be death here," whispered Pox, nervously. They all fell silent as an eerie aura filled the room. They followed Blix wordlessly as he led them to the middle of the room where one of the wooden casements stood higher than the rest.
As the ancient hinges squealed in protest at being moved, Blix swung the lid open. The goblins roughly untangled Lili from the net and then laid her in the narrow space of the box. They folded her limp hands across her chest and then slammed the lid down on her.
Blix fingered the intricate design of the wooden surface as he spoke; revealing the meaning of his earlier words. "When you awaken next in this; your tomb, you'll be born to a new world, through this wooden womb!"
The other goblins laughed with Blix, though they did not know why and were only too eager to leave that place as Blix he reminded them again of their promised reward.
As the other goblins headed for the kitchen, where succulent morsels awaited their stretched stomachs; Blix made his way to the throne room. As he approached the darkest corner, he bowed low and, without waiting for leave to speak, he started, "We have brought her, Lord, she is in the..." but his voice fell silent as he realized the room was empty and that he was talking to the air. His task completed and obligations fulfilled, Blix hunched his thin shoulders and made his way to the kitchen, to answer the hungry grumblings of his own stomach.
Meanwhile, outside of the Great Tree, the first tattletale signs of dawn were showing. As the thin slivers of light punctured the forest air, the charm that Darkness had set over the land loosened its invisible grip on all those within its far-reaching grasp. As the sunlight gained increasing strength, the power of the evil spell waned and then faded to nothingness. Throughout the forest, creatures drowsily raised their heads, stretched their sleep-laden limbs and began the new day - totally unaware of the influence that they had been under.
Among the creatures was Jack, who sat in quiet reflection of his dream. Soon though, it would no longer be a dream he mused, as he made his way through the forest towards Lili. His heart was beating with excitement as he drew closer to where they were to meet. Finally, the world would know of their love...after so long, he would be able to claim her as his own. The day seemed especially bright and beautiful. Had the grass ever seemed so beautiful?! Had the sky been that blue before?! Jack paused for a moment, to drink in the beauty that surrounded him. No king could ever own such beauty as this! Feeling safely assured that this day had been particularly made for Lili and himself, he continued on his way.
After Lili opened her eyes and the darkness still remained in front of them, she instantly remembered the events of the night before. She tried to sit up, but all around her was darkness and narrowedness. An ancient, rotting smell penetrated her senses and made her head reel with dizzying nausea. Unable to sit up, she cautiously reached her hands out in front of her. They stopped short of her face and her fingers played across the wooden surface for only a moment. In the next few seconds, her fingers had completed their brief exploration of her cramped surroundings. The darkness did not lift but seemed to press in about her, sealing itself tighter and tighter against her body as she gasped for air. Her mind frantically searched for calming reason but found none. Where was she? What would happen to her? She tried calling out, but her cries were only muffled whispers, absorbed by the thick wood above her. As she tried to lift the wooden surface above her, she found that it was impossible to move.
Terrified and feeling terribly confined, Lili beat her fists against the wood, trying to use sheer brute force to fight her way out. All the while, her breaths were coming in short, punctured gasps as she drew dangerously closer to the precipe of hysteria. How long she fought, how hard she screamed for help, she did not know. The evil darkness that she so feared crept closer and closer in her mind, until it was licking away at the fraying edges of her soul and failing sanity. She opened her mouth and feeling the darkness seep into her and infuse into her being she screamed and screamed, for a world without end.
Jack stared in mute horror at the shattered glass and the dead bodies of the guards that littered the ground like fallen leaves. He realized at once what had happened and inwardly cursed himself for not having spent the night closer to the castle, where maybe he could've seen, could've stopped this from happening. He peered desperately into the room, looking for a clue, a sign that might give him an indication of what had happened. He cautiously eased his way into the room, hesitantly at first, as he was not used to mortal dwellings. The walls closed in mercilessly around him and he kept a close watch on the window - the eye to the outdoor-world. After a moment, he was able to wander about the room and saw Lili's bed, un-made, and the sheets in disarray. A foul smell filled the room and Jack instantly placed it as goblin scent.
Suddenly, the door swung upon, and Jack came face-to-face to a man that he had never seen before. The man stood almost as tall as Jack did, and there was the same defiant expression in his face as Lili often portrayed whenever she was angry or upset. His eyes widened in surprise and he wore the look of one who was aged beyond their natural years. The man stared at Jack in surprise and then said, "What are you doing here?! Where is my daughter?"
Jack backed away towards the window, realizing that this must be Lili's father. His mouth hung laxly open as he stuttered, "I don't know, I'm sorry, I..."
The man's eyes traveled from Jack, to the bed and then back to Jack; his mind drawing the most obvious conclusions. He took a step towards Jack and then thundered out, "Guards!"
Jack waited to see no more and scrambled out the window. Running as fast and as hard as he could, he soon outpaced anything that might've been following him. He dared not stop until he was in the heart of the forest. Once there, he flung himself down on a mossy rock and curled up in a ball, trying futilely to block out the obvious facts.
'They've taken her!' His mind raged against him. Dear god! Who knew what fate they had in store for her! A brigade of questions assaulted him, leaving him feeling weakened all over. Jack numbly got to his feet and started to walk. His body seemed to lead him, moreso than his mind. The only one that he could think of to help him was Gump - the forest elf who had befriended him before. It would appear that Jack was in need of his services again. He set out with renewed hope in his heart, but as he drew nearer to Gump's cave, he wondered why he felt a curious sense of defeat already and why victory seemed to appear as a fleeting dream.
Darkness paced back and forth before the fire that blazed mightily before him. His body half-turned to the barred door but then, just in time, he stopped himself. No. It was better to wait, he reassured himself for the umpteenth time. Only fears rushed in where angels feared to tread. And he would not be made the fool again. He had already been humiliated, bested and cheated by the girl one too many times in the past already! But now, he had an infallible plan in which to snare her. The only hard part was having to wait. He was not a thing of patience by nature and more than once; he had caught himself; about to act in haste. Haste reaped long-lasting consequences, he bitterly reflected, as he recalled the past, ever since he had first sensed Lili's presence in his kingdom. Almost painfully, he recalled that night, so long ago when she, a mere mortal - a girl, at that! had aroused his attentions that for so long had lain dormant within his soul. What had been the attraction, the appeal, he could not even now fully understand. Yet, all the same, he was still beguiled by her, despite her repeated treachery.
His body sagged beneath him, and he felt desperately weary. He had kept a silent vigil ever since her escape and now, the need for rest that he had been consistently pushing away gnawed at him. Unable to resist, he sat heavily onto a nearby throne.
Come the eve, he would put his plan into action and finally bind Lili's wayward soul to his own, once and for all. He had but to wait until the accursed sun set and then, his powers would be at their zenith and his plan would come to fruition. 'Wait,' he advised himself. The girl was safely kept in his most secretive abode, where none would find her. She could not escape and soon, the fight would be over.
Lazily, he wondered if he would miss her opposition that had already cost him so dearly. Yes, in some small measure he would miss that defiant spirit within her that had forced him to return damnable light to the world. But far greater a gain would be her acceptance, compliance, loyal and even further, her love. Once those were secure, he could turn his attentions back to the Unicorns - the harbours of Light. They had been caught once! They could be caught again! There was not a fly in the world that couldn't be tempted honey! He would triumph!
Comforted by this thought, he resigned to closing his eyes. He would not be led astray by love. He was too strong for that! Instead of being drawn to the flame like a moth (even though it meant inevitable death for the insect), he would plot his own course his own destiny. Further reassured by this, he closed his eyes.
Jack stared gloomily about the cave. Gump was not there. He called the elf's name one more time for good measure but his only reply was his echo, hesitantly answering his growing sense of premature defeat. As he made his way out of the cave, there was a sudden movement out of the corner of his eyes and he half-turned to look at it. His eye saw nothing when he looked. Daunted, he continued on his way. Then, he saw the strange movement again and this time, he wheeled about so suddenly, that he caught the spectacle. "Oona!" he breathed as the small pinprick of light bobbed out of sight.
As Jack cleared the edge of the cave, there was a sudden flash of light and there stood before him, a young sprite, half his size, clothed in glossomar clothes that covered only the roundest parts of her body. "Hello, Jack," she said in her musical voice, dropping her eyes as he approached her. Once close enough to her, Jack stopped to catch his breath and his composure, as he suffered at the memories of his earlier encounters with Oona. Although there an unspoken understanding between the two, Jack still felt ill at ease with Oona when he was by himself. All too quickly came the memory of when Oona had tried to lure him away from Lili under the guise of magic. The ploy had been well-laid and it had only been by luck, or chance that Jack had not fallen into the trap. Had he but kissed her once, he would have been her slave until she had seen fit to have disposed of him and Jack knew how intense and deep a sprite's affections could run!
Now, as she stood before him, her eyes demurely cast downward, Jack idly wondered how terrible a fate that would have been.
"Oona!" he rushed on, his task at hand urging him on, "Where is Gump? I have news that he must be told of!"
"He's out hunting lions," replied the sprite with a half-smile on her lips.
"Where?" asked Jack.
"I can fetch him for you, if you like," offered Oona eagerly. "Thank-you," said Jack cautiously, "but please just tell me where he is." He knew better than to obligate her. One had be very careful at accepting offers from the Wee Folk, their kind and generous offers often had invisible snares attached to them.
With an attractive pout that concealed any anger, Oona shrugged her shoulders and tossed her head. In the next second, she had transformed into the peck of light that began flitting amongst the flowers. "He's in the field, near the gorge," she said.
"My thanks to you, Oona," said Jack and was off as fast as he could to find the Gump.
When Jack came to the field, Gump was nowhere in sight. He looked about curiously wondering if Oona had lied to him, sent him in the opposite direction. He had never seen a lion before, and wondered briefly what they looked like. Lili had told him of lions and of what they looked. He was anxious to see one. However, as he looked around, he could see nothing, save a field of wildflowers that bowed and nodded in the sweet summer breeze. Frustrated and annoyed by Oona's antics, Jack scanned the area for any sight of his friend. As he stared at the flowers, he thought that he heard a familiar voice. Listening for a moment, he was sure he heard it again. Following the strange noises, he was led to the middle of the field, where, incredibly enough, he found Gump, in the middle of a patch of dandelions, doing valiant battle. Jack stared in amazement at the scene before him. Gump, who ordinarily came to about Jack's waist, in height, was no larger than his thumb was dancing crazily around in the jungle of flowers! All around him, the foe - the dandelions, still attached to their slender stalks, were attacking him. Each yellow head of the flower had the face of a lion and tiny roars could be heard coming from them. They bent, of their own accord at the miniature Gump who fended them off with toy-like arrows and spears. Many of the stalks were broken at the necks, and the yellow blooms hung awkwardly downwards. Jack watched for a moment or two before he spoke. The little man was incredible with his intricate movements and his handling of the spear and bow. Each time a lion's head roared closer to him, Jack was afraid that it might be the last moment for Gump. However, the elfin repeatedly managed to jump out of the way and fend of the danger. His movements were as fluid as water and the battle seemed to resemble a dance moreso than anything else to Jack. The battle continued and until Jack saw all the dandelions lying dead. With the defeat of his last foe, Gump threw his bow and arrows dance and conceived a victory dance amongst the dead bodies of the dandelions. Jack could not help to applaud the miniature figure. "Bravo, Gump! Bravo!" he praised the little man.
Gump stopped short in the middle of his dance and turned surprised eyes towards Jack. Once he recognized him, a smile lit up his features. "Jack, dear friend!" he cried out delightedly. "Wait but a moment!" he promised and then, he began to spin madly around and around, until Jack felt dizzy himself.
After each spin, Gump seemed to grow in size, until he was his regular height again. He turned and grinned at Jack. "Come to hunt with me, Jack?" he questioned.
"No," said Jack. "I come with terrible news, Gump. I fear that our war with Darkness is not over yet."
With the advent of these words, a pale mallour spread over Gump's youthful features. He clutched Jack's arm. "Tell me all," he demanded.
Jack and Gump held council with the faerie folk. Brown Tom, Screwball, Oona and the elf who they had helped to rescue from the kitchen of Darkness, Blunder (a notary company of all of our original heroes), all sat in rapt silence as Jack recounted for them his story and also what Lili had shared with him. Thus, they learned of what had happened after the final battle. Each one of them vividly recalled the slaying of the last female unicorn, the world being over-run with the legions of demons and how only they, the enchanted folk, had any memory of the events. They learned how Jack had managed to escape from the Great Tree, no more than a sweating, bleeding lump of flesh, to the outer world where he had bided his time for recovery and healing. He told them of the miraculous re-birth of the earth; the return of the light - which had been at Lili's intervention and also of at what price it had come.
The recapturing of Lili could only mean one thing, they concluded. That Darkness' evil plans were afoot and that he had not given up the battle.
As the faeries talked amongst themselves, each of them trying to decide what the best course of action would be, Jack could only think of Lili.
Gump saw the lost expression on his face and pressed Jack's arm. "What troubles you?" he asked, kindly.
"I feel as if we are battling Fate itself, Gump," Jack said helplessly. "Don't give up the war before the battle's even begun," advised Gump. Looking closer at Jack, he whispered, "You're worried about your Lili, aren't you, Jack?"
"Yes, " he admitted.
Gump shook his head. "You must harden your heart, lad. If our enemies know of this weakness in you, they will play upon it! In the end, I fear, you might have to give her up."
Gump's ominous words held a double meaning for him and Jack angrily shot back, "But it's because of her that the world was reborn, Gump! It was because of her that everything else is still alive!"
Both were silent as they considered the gloomy future. At length, Gump spoke. "Are you sure that she is in his total power?"
Mutely, Jack shook his head. "I don't know. I know that she would not go willingly back to him."
"During her time with him, did she eat or drink anything?" Gump asked. "Yes. On the first night, he had a wedding feast for them. They both ate. I am sure of it."
"Oh, Jack, if she did partake of food or drink, then she is truly lost. It is the written law of heaven and hell that all those that consume enchanted food or drink of their own free will that they will be forever lost to those that they accept it from. It is the same law with the faerie, as well. I'm sorry, but your Lili is lost to you."
"Wait, Gump!" cried out Jack, who had been listening in abject depression, now spoke with renewed determination. "You said, 'of their own free will', did you not?"
"Well, Lili did eat and drink, but it was because of a enchantment that Darkness put over her! He forced her to! The spell he put on her controlled her actions and speech! See! She couldn't refuse him! He forced to eat the food and drink the wine!"
Gump held his chin and a pensive look settled over his face as he digested Jack's words. "Are you certain of this?" he finally asked.
"Yes!" exclaimed Jack.
The elf was silent as he was obviously locked in deep thought. "Tricky devil," he muttered under his breath. Then, "Jack, all may not be lost! If this is true, what you've told me, there is still hope. Our adversary knows of the law but he has twisted it to fit his purposes! He has only half a claim on her. That is in our favour, and it may prove to our advantage! But wait, my friend," he cautioned at Jack's obvious excitement, "the claim he has on her is a strong one and will not easily be annulled. We must proceed with utmost caution!"
"Always," said Jack, his voice taking on the tone of a warrior. The warrior that he once was and had still to become.
Gump, sensing the change, jumped to his feet and called the attention of the others, "Listen to me, all of you!" he cried, "We are called to the fight once more! We must defeat Darkness this time!"
His fellows stared at him with undisguised fear and hesitation. Gump knew that they were remembering their last encounters with the legions of Darkness that had near cost them all so dearly.
"Cheer up, lads," he advised, "this time we go into battle with a valuable comrade that we did not have last time! Knowledge! We know the tricks and haunts of the dark liar! We know where not to tread and most of all, we know that we will triumph this time!"
His rousing speech had the desired effect and the faerie raised their voices in excitement and echoed throughout the forest.
Jack wielded the sword with a new determined strength that had been absent for so long. Incredibly enough, it felt as if it were an extension of his arm and it felt that it had been that way all his life. However, his muscles ached and his head was throbbing from the swordsplay that he had been indulging in for the past few hours. He paused to catch his breath when out of nowhere, a stinging gnat alighted on his neck and bit. "Ow!" he exclaimed and swatted in vain at the insect.
Gump's voice came from the trees, from where he was keeping watch. "Can't stop to rest, Jack! You have to keep it up!"
"Mercy, Gump!" pleaded Jack. "I am so tired. I need to rest!" "Our quarry does not need rest!" replied Gump. "Soon, they will be on the prowl, Jack. You must be ready!"
Jack groaned and leaned against his sword. "I need to rest, Gump. I can't enter the battle, half asleep!"
"Very well, rest for a bit then," Gump conceded. Jack wandered over to where Gump was watching the fading light. They both watched in terse silence as the sun set on the horizon. Soon, it would be evening and they would set out.
"Gump?" asked Jack, his eyes fixed on the glowing orb that was almost gone, "Do you think we'll triumph this time?"
"Of course, lad!" replied Gump. "Darkness cannot win totally. There cannot exist darkness without the light. All of life is a balance. It is only the struggle that we partake in to maintain the balance that we judge life by. How else would we know of love and life, if we did not know of darkness and hell?"
Jack was silent as he considered these words. "Then why the fight? Why the struggle, if it all evens out in the end?"
"It is our duty to make sure that the fight is not one-sided." "So, in the end, no one truly wins," said Jack half-heartedly. "Jack, you must not think in terms of gain or defeat, or else you'll lose sight of the cause for which we fight."
"Then how am I to see the battle? Mere strength pitted against magic? Is fortune a mistress that we must strive to please?"
Jack's question was unanswerable and the two of them fell silent as they watched the setting sun.
"You're our hero," Gump said at last, "That is your worth. A hero needs more than mere strength and precision to garnish the blade. He must have courage, intelligence, loyalty and daring." He tapped Jack's forehead. "You are imbued with all these. We will not fail!"
Jack gave him a wry smile and replied, "I do hope that I won't let you down."
"Come on, then! To the battle! The time draws nigh!"
"How much longer, Blix?" came the peevish tones of goblin voices. From all around him, Blix heard the echo taken up.
"Until it's done!" he snapped harshly, vainly attempting to wipe the white powder off of his hands.
"I don't like it!" growled Pox from his position near the crypt. "We shouldn't have to be doing this demeaning work! I mean, look!" he said, woefully eyeing the bones that were passed to him. "Poor old bones! Only fit to be gnawed upon! Why are they needed anyway?"
Usually, Blix would have answered his cohort in a sing-songsy rhyme, but he was tired of the grueling work and dispensed with the flutey language that he liked to colour his speak with.
"Darkness has need for them. With them, he intends to raise an army," he said shortly.
Pox stopped short in his work, "An army? An army for what?" "What do you think, you dead-head?" Blix said. "I don't know," said Pox, after a second's thought. Blix sighed, but continued in his laboured task. "Darkness intends to build a new army with them that shall over-run the land."
"But these are just bones that he has us moving, Blix! How can they be army?"
"All he needs is for a special lady to give the word," he finished. "I don't understand," said Pox.
"Then understand nothing!" exploded Blix, finally losing his patience with the pestering questions. "Just finish the task so we can be away from here!"
All about the two goblins, an infantry of imps, hobgoblins, wyverns, mercenaries, incubuses, succubae, dragons and host of other indescribable things, all toiled away at reviving from the barren ground, scores of ancient bones that knew no rest. There was little talk, as all hurried with the task at hand.
"Quietly, quietly!" urged Gump as the small band of immortals approached the Great Tree, from the West, where the last remnants of daylights showed in the sky. His warning without need as they all walked with great care and caution.
"Watch the water!" warned the smallest of the elves, Screwball, who bitterly remembered his chance, encounter with the water-hag, Meg from before. Had it been luck or chance, he had narrowly escaped with his life.
The brave party quietly picked their way along the shoreline of the swamp and the roots of the Great Tree that tenaciously seemed to grab at their ankles.
"How are we going to get in, Gump?" asked Brown Tom. "Can't get in the same way as before, that's for sure. We should split up and all look for a different entrance."
"Is that wise?" said Screwball, who stoutly believed in the strategy of strength in numbers.
"We should," agreed Jack, "save more time that way." "Good idea, Jack," said Gump and motioned the separate directions that each one of them should take and then finished them off with, "Be careful and Godspeed to you all!"
Setting off in their respective directions, the band split up to try and finds a way into the fortress of evil.
The passage of time had all been but lost to Lili as she lay in the dark confines of the wooden trap. She had long given up on the attempts of fighting her way to freedom and had consigned herself to lying in wait for whatever was to happen...to happen. The darkness had gone on and on and she was tired and hoarse from screaming. Her throat hurt and her ears rang with the terrible sound of silence. Her universe had narrowed to the four cornors of her prison and she could no longer fight them. As she lay there, for what seemed to her to be an eternity of time (because there is no passage of time of conceivable means in the pit of darkness...there is only nothingness), she had been a quiet, emotionless husk of flesh, her terror having driven her to the catatonic state of senseless that she existed in. Her senses, dulled by the inactivity of the past while, were slow to register as the sound of heavy wood was moved and the dimmest of light invaded the darkness that was her world. Her eyes blinked in confusion at the sight of the light, but she unconsciously moved for it, the way a thirsting man espies a stream. Slowly and with cramped muscles that screamed out in agony as he moved, Lili hoisted herself into a sitting a position to survey her surroundings. It was a cruel, lonesome place with no one else in apparent sight. Her head refused to clear, as she looked the room. All about her lay numerous, undescript rectangular boxes liken the one that she was in.
As she continued to stare about in disorientation, she heard a deep, evil voice cut the very air itself. Upon hearing it, everything fell into place with sharp precision. It all came back to her. The midnight flight through the forest...the smashed glass and foul stench of the goblins...their strange predictions. It could only have meant one thing. She was back at the Great Tree with Darkness. Trapped again with his nefarious purposes and dark ambitions. Her body started to tremble convulsively as she put it all together.
It had, indeed been his awful voice that had spoke to her from the shadows. She swung her head around to look for him, but she could see nothing. Lili tried to wet her throat to speak, but her throat was a dry as dust and she could not form a single word.
When his voice came again, she spun around to face the darkest shadows from where his voice issued. "You've been foolish, lady," he told her in a tight voice.
Lili watched with undisguised horror as he slowly moved towards her from out of the shadows. She tried to scramble out of the box, but her legs would not work at her direction and she only succeeded in falling out onto the platform. As she picked herself up, it was only then that she saw what it was that she had been trapped in. A coffin! A wooden coffin! She gasped wordlessly, her eyes widening in horror as she realized what it was, and what lay about her. All around her lay dozens...hundreds...thousands of coffins, all similar to the one that she had been in.
She turned disbelieving eyes towards Darkness and saw a wicked smile stain his lips.
Jack stared in confusion at the sight in front of him. It looked like an entrance, to be sure, but it was so well camflouged that he had almost missed it. Yes, now that he looked closer, he was sure that it was! He quickly called for the others and in the next few minutes, they were all clustering about Jack.
Gump eyed him in awe and said, "What sharp eyes you have, Jack! Even a falcon on a cloudy day could not have seen this!"
"Let's go!" exclaimed Jack and drew his sword. The others followed suit as they prepared to squeeze themselves through the narrow entrance. "Be careful!"
Jack entered first and was therefore unable to cry out a warning. One by one, the fairy-folk pulled themselves through the narrow opening. Inside the tree was a notable difference, not only in the temperature (which was much colder) but also in the very atmosphere itself. The very air reeked of evil and in the tight, confined space; it was impossible to ignore.
Once inside, long treacherous roots of the tree arose from the floor and with serpentinous speed wound themselves about the feet and ankles, arms and legs of the band, till none of them could move. Jack strained against the thick roots, but they were too strong and hard to break. They all strained against the wood, but were unable to move. Although they couldn't move, they could still speak.
"Gump! What is this!"
"I can't move!"
"This is one of Darkness' evil tricks!..." "No," said an alien voice, "This is my doing!" All eyes were directed to the space in front of them and from the eerie darkness, came the strangest sight that any of them had ever beheld. From the very timber of the enormous tree, a face materialized, so wizened and old that the wrinkles in it were as deep and as numerous as the ruts and the very bark of the tree itself. After the face came an anciently old body, wrapped in a garment of dying leaves, moss and grass. The being stood a full seven feet above Jack, who was the tallest of them all when its colourless eyes riveted onto each of them in turn, sizing them up in full measure. When it spoke, its voice sounded like the howling a wind and the creaking of branches.
"Who are you?" it entoned.
Gump was the first to speak. "We are those that would seek to enter here, spirit, ghost, or whatever you may be!"
"Foolery!" scoffed the voice "Do you not recognize me, you foolish fae? I, who am so much like you?!"
"I've never seen the likes of you, foul spirit!" Gump said. The being drifted soundlessly over to them and began its closer inspection. "Forgotten me, have you, elfin?" it sighed into Gump's ears.
"What are you?" breathed Jack, anxious to know. The thing came over to him and stared at him, its eyes unnervingly scrutinizing Jack from tip to toe.
"I am the spirit of the tree," it finally gave. "I inhabit this tree and defend it from all those that seek to do it harm. Such as yourselves," it hissed.
"A tree spirit, eh?" whispered Brown Tom. "Like a nymph?" "Nothing as petty as that! I am the spirit guardian of all trees! And it is my duty to protect them all from harm and I know you...each and every one of you and what you have come to do."
"We've come to defeat Darkness!" sputtered Screwball. "Yes, I know," said the strange thing, seeming to twine itself about them all the more and squeezing the roots ever so much so that they all writhed with pain. "I also know that you will fail!"
"Let us go!" cried Jack bravely, despite the tightening roots. The figure turned its eye on Jack. "Very well, I shall," it said suddenly and instantly the iron-like grasp of the roots loosened and the roots retreated until only all their ankles were bound. "But," the figure interjected, "only if you answer but one question that I put to you. Answer it and you will all go free!"
"Sounds easy," reckoned Jack, remembering his unflappable ability to answer Gump's trick questions.
"Good!" smiled the figure, revealing toothless gums from which shining, squirming maggots dangled. "A quick riddle then, for you to solve! Tell me what I speak of and you shall liberated from my wooden embrace!
Two bodies have I,
though both joined in one.
The stiller I stand,
the faster I run!"
There was a long silence as Jack thought about the riddle. As he was deep in thought, he failed to notice that the mucky ground that they were standing on slowly started to inch up their legs. It was only when Brown Tom started to struggle that Jack took note.
"The ground!" cried Brown Tom.
"We're sinking!" gasped Screwball.
"Pray, Jack, answer the riddle!" screamed Brown Tom. "I don't...I don't know what it is!" confessed Jack. "Think, Jack! Think!" said Screwball.
"I don't...I can't think!" cried out Jack as the ground rose up even furthur.
"I know the answer!" interjected Gump suddenly, the light of recognition dawning in his face. "It's..." but his reply was cut off suddenly as the figure waved its hand. The rest stared in horror at Gump's face, which was encased in mud!
"You're the one who must give me the answer, boy!" laughed the figure, "No one else. And you better hurry, too! It looks like you're running out of time."
Jack turned helplessly back to see the mud and sand inching up to Screwball's waist. He groaned. "Oh god, no..."
"God has nothing to do with this, boy!" exclaimed the thing and its laughter sounded like the wind through the trees.
Jack turned the riddle uselessly over in his mind. It was as if his thoughts were trapped in the mud, too, and he could not think.
"It looks like you won't solve the other half of the riddle, either," remarked the thing as it floated above them.
"Second half?!" cried Jack. "What do you mean?!" "Oh, did I forget to mention that, too?" said the thing. "Yes, there is a second half to the puzzle. It is this:
My measure is minute
and countless they be.
Each is caressed by the
cradle of the sea
Now, solve that, if you can!" and it laughed uproariously. Jack shook his head. He couldn't...the mud and muck continued to rise.
>From behind him, he could hear Brown Tom's frantic prayers and Screwball's
squealing. The ground rose to his own waist. He tried to pull himself out of it, but it was like glue and he couldn't move a muscle. He turned an eye back to Gump and saw that his wild movements were getting weaker and weaker. Jack turned away, fruitlessly striving for the answer to the riddle. The ground continued to rise. The cruel, heartless laughter of the demon in front of him filled his ears, making it impossible for him to think, feel or do anything. He tried to block it all out, but as the ground rose to his own chin, he feared that the last thing that he would hear was the awful laughter, the last thing that he would feel would be the sand and mud closing over his powerless body. "Please!" he said, finally yielding to his fear, "Spare us!"
"Never!" cackled the monster. "You must perish as I once did!" "Please!" cried Jack, "Spare them, take me!" The only response was a laugh, from a loveless heart. "You're almost out of time, m'boy!"
Suddenly, the answer dawned on Jack.
"Time!" he murmured suddenly. "The answer is time, isn't it?!" he cried out. "Time! In an hourglass! Represented by..." he looked around in a desperate attempt to find the answer to the second part. His eye fell on the glistening particles of sand that surrounded their bodies. "Sand!" he yelled. "The answer is the sand in a hourglass, that measures away the moments of life!"
No sooner had the words passed his lips, than the encroaching ground began to recede. The mud fell away from Gump's face and he fell to the ground, panting. Brown Tom and Screwball helped each other up as Jack got to his feet to stand his full height before the figure that stood silent before them.
"I've solved your riddle you vile creature!" grinned Jack, in full possession of his facilities, as he brandished his sword. "And now it is time for you to meet your doom!"
All eyes were turned to the creature and all eyes received the most unexpected sight. It was smiling! And reached out to clasp Jack's hand. "Thank-you, thank-you!" beamed the thing, mud-brown tears swelling in its eyes. "How can I ever thank you?!"
There was a stupefied silence for a moment and then, Gump spoke out. "For what? What have we done?"
"You have finally set me free!" was the reply. Jack eyed his clasped hand suspiciously. "What do you mean?" "I mean!" exclaimed the thing, releasing Jack's arm and spinning around in obvious happiness, "That I am finally free! You've solved the riddle and broke the enchantment! There have been so many! So many others that have tried to... well, I had to force them, because I was bound to, you know, to solve the riddle and each of them perished! Until you, dear boy! You have solved the age-old riddle and set me free! Finally, freedom! Blessed freedom! After such a long imprisonment!"
"What are you, though?" interjected Brown Tom, asking the question that was on all their minds.
"My name is Maktiel, and I am the guardian spirit of trees and of this tree in particular. Aeons ago, before the age of Man, when spirits, angels, fairies and all their ilk roamed the earth, I existed in perfect harmony with all nature and trees, but then, came the corruption. Yes, you elfin," and here, it set its steely gaze on Gump, "you remember it. The corruption of evil into the world and the evil force that created Darkness (yes, I know of your foe!) bound me into this tree, forcing me to use my power for evil. I am not evil, by my nature, but my powers were used for evil, by those evil enough to spawn such hatred. Judge me not, I have repented for each poor soul that I have sent to the grave, but I was bound to do this, until one that was brave of heart, and quick in spirit bested my riddle!"
The creature turned to Jack, with a grateful smile on its creased features. "And you are that one!" it said and made a ceremonious bow in front of Jack.
"I was only glad to help," said Jack, still somewhat of a loss. Gump stepped forward and addressed the spirit. "You have honoured us by giving us your name. But tell us, what will happen to you now?"
The spirit looked upwards towards the aerial heights from which it had been denied for so long. "Freedom!" it murmured. "I will know of blessed freedom!"
Jack and the others followed its gaze upwards and saw the heavens seeming to part.
"But before I go, I owe you more then a debt of thanks." Before any of them could utter a word, the same terrible roots that had imprisoned them before twined themselves about the party. "I know of what you seek, dear friends," said the spirit. "I know that you have come to rescue another like you. I wish you the best of luck! You have my eternal thanks!"
Before any of them could protest, the were plunged downwards into the ground through a great cavity in the trunk of the tree. It was a dark whirlwind that twisted and twined them back and forth until even Jack, who had a keen sense of direction, didn't know what was up from down. At long last, they were all set down in a dazed pile of arms and legs, left to gather their witless senses. The roots slowly retreated until they had melted into the knotty interior of the tree.
"Follow the roots! They will lead you where you must go!" was the last sound of the spirit's voice that they heard and then, it was punctured with a happy laugh that faded away until it was nothingness.
Screwball got to his feet first and gave a low whistle of anticipation. "We're into the heart of tree, by gum!" he said.
"Where should we head next?" Jack asked. "I dunno," said Brown Tom, "I'm 'stumped'!" "I'd 'go out on a limb' to say that we go in that direction!" supplied Screwball, dead-panned.
"Enough with the tree puns!" snapped Jack. "Yes," echoed Gump. "Leaf it alone!"
This last attempt of humour undid them all and they collapsed with laughter. The echoes bounced off the walls and seemed to lighten the dank, heavy air. For a few lovely moments, they all revealed in the happiness of their laughter, despite the solemness of the situation that they faced. As their belly laughs and mirth finally wore off, Gump wiped away the last tears from his eyes. "I wonder when the last time laughter filled this place was!" he wondered. Then, "We'd best do away with the laughing. Watch your step now, lads. Beware the shadows."
And with that, they set out.
Despite her inability to talk, Darkness was able to read the emotions in Lili perfectly. They pleased him greatly and decided to play on the fear and wonder that lay reflected in her expressions.
"You're so foolish," he boomed, taking his time in approaching her. This was his great moment, and he intended to enjoy every aspect of it. It was all that he could do to keep from rubbing his hands together in glee. "Thinking that you could escape me! Don't you realize that you are mine? That you belong to me?" he chuckled as the prideful rage showed within Lili's face. Whether she was unable to talk or simply was refusing to mattered little to him. She would listen to him! As he came closer to her, he could see dark, angry bruises on her upper arm, standing out like tattletale insignia and the bleeding cuts on her hands and wrists. He faltered for an instant; torn between his desire to heal her, take away the obvious pain that she was suffering from and also to comply with the urge to reprimand her. His eyes stayed too long on her arm and gave away the obvious war within him. Lili saw this and locked eyes with him. He pulled his burning gaze away from her arm and found it anchored within her own stare. Her expression was one of impudence. "Ha!" it seemed to say to him.
"You wouldn't dare to harm me!"
Darkness ground his teeth together as he vainly tried to control himself. He drew his hand back, intent on striking her to wipe that look off of her face. Lili saw his raised hand and closed her eyes shut tightly, trying to anticipate the blow. Instead of hitting her, Darkness lunged forward, narrowing the gulf that lay between them and caught her arm up in a merciless grip. Squeezing her arm tightly, so that she gasped in pain, Darkness gave her a violent shake. "You forget your place, lady!" he seethed angrily. "Be warned! Next time, my hand WILL fly without heed!" Spitting out these last words, he roughly released her. Lili clutched at her arm, rubbing it sorely and refused to look at him. She did, instead turn an eager eye to the door that was not far away. The Lord of Darkness followed her gaze and drew in a deep breath. He had given the order to all of his minions to not disturb him, no matter what. Then, to furthur assuage the foreign possibility of disturbance, he had provided a huge fare for all his goblins, imps, lesser demons et cetera, to occupy them. Earlier he had watched them gorge themselves on the feast until they had all fallen into a loggy stupor and then into slumber.
Partially relieved by the opportunity to collect his straying emotions, Darkness drew himself to his full height and inwardly composed himself. Damn her. She was able to provoke him in such a way! It was her fault, though! She brought it on herself! She forced him to proceed with force and brutality where he only wanted to show her tenderness and love. Reassuring himself with this blameless thought, he turned back to her.
"Jack, what was your answer to the tree spirit's riddle? I never heard what it was," asked Gump, as they walked in Indian-style, one behind the other following the snaky path of the twisting tree roots.
"It was an hour-glass, Gump. The answer was time. Time, represented by the particles of sand that are worn as smooth as silk by the waters of the sea."
Gump shook his head. "By the beard!" he swore. "I would not have guessed at that!"
"Lucky for us that Jack's got a bright light up there!" Screwball gasped out, tapping his head. His short legs were having a hard time keeping up with the longer ones that went before him.
"Jack could best St. Peter his'elf!" agreed Brown Tom. Jack stopped to catch his winded breath. The rest were only all too happy to stop.
"Do you think...do you think that we'll really win this time?" said Screwball suddenly.
Gump turned to him and Screwball winced, expecting a tongue-lashing. He was surprised when Gump patted his shoulder. "Of course we will!" he said brightly. "You know what they say, don't you? 'When comrades unite,
How happy their state!
They triumph at once
Over their foes and their fates!'"
Suddenly, Jack asked, "Did you hear that?" "What?" said Brown Tom.
"Shh!" said Gump, cocking his head to the side and listening intently. They were all terribly silent for long moments until Gump had heard what he needed. "This way!" he said, gesturing wildly with his hand, "C'mon!"
Lili stared in obvious curiosity at the dark outlines that were draped against the back wall of the huge room. She silently followed Darkness as he bade her to follow though it was slowly and with terrible pain. It felt like she was treading on knives in her bare feet and the thirst in her throat was intensifying with every passing moment. It was surely incapacitating her and she felt herself growing strangely faint. That...or it was one of his evil spells. Lili steeled herself to fight. But as she drew closer to the back wall, she saw that it was growing lighter, affording her vision, whereas everything else was strangely dark.
Darkness towered over her at an impossible height and she shuddered to remember his attraction to her.
As they walked, he was talking to her and although his voice was even and measured, it sounded more like a funeral benediction that he was uttering. Her funeral. Lili forced herself to realize that the only conceivable means of escape might indeed be through her death.
Upon reaching the back wall, Darkness turned to Lili and dropped down on one knee, so that they were eye-to-eye. His eyes traveled over her haggard visage for a moment and Lili could see his eyes soften. He raised his hand and she instantly drew back, on reflex, in obvious terror. He did not speak but slowly forced her towards him until her face was only inches away from his. Then, he gently pressed his hand against her cheek and caressed it. Lili stared at him, terror abounding within her soul. Her heart was knocking against her chest and she felt faint. What was he planning to do?!
She tried to anticipate the most horrendous things that she could, so that if they did happen, it would not come as such a shock to her.
Finally Darkness spoke, his voice low and husky. "I'm vexed to think that Love, lady. Yes, Love, which I have always despised and warred against, has cast you in my path. I have cursed the powers divine that I have tasted the most succulent delights of your love. Or rather, the semblance of it, at least. I will have your love, milady. Yes, I will," he chortled, as he saw the defiance flaring within her. "Or, I will not have this life without you."
Lili stared at him wide-eyed. 'What do you mean to do?' her expression asked.
He smiled and answered; "I am going to give you a choice, milady. A simple...uncomplicated choice. All you need do, is decide!"
Lili licked her lips, clearly nervous. Darkness saw this and tried to soothe her. "You needn't fear. It's a simple choice between life or death."
She flashed her eyes at him and tried to draw away, but he held her fast. "Yes," he said, "I know what you would choose for yourself, milady, if I gave you the option. But I don't want a dead bride in a wooden coffin. I want you. I want all of you," he hissed, his eyes taking on a carnal gleam as his eyes slowly slid down her body.
Lili finally broke free of his grip and stepped back from him. Mustering all her strength and will-power, she managed to get out, "You'll never have me!" though it was no more than a hoarse whisper.
All the same, Darkness heard it and Lili watched in almost a giddy sense of fear, as his rage became evident. "I will, you virtuous quean! I will! Don't defy me, lady, or it will cost you dearly!"
Lili gave a toss of her head, as if to say, 'I Don't Care!' "Ah," said Darkness, regaining some of his temperament, "But you will! For behold!" and so saying, he stepped back, drawing with him, a curtain that reveled a strange scene. Lili shrank away from she saw. A huge canopied bed hung with heavy red velvet and brocade stood against one wall and next to it was a low table with a bejeweled pyxis on it. Beyond that, lying dangerously close to the bed was a huge, dark, gaping hole. Far worse than any oubliette, Lili felt a cold wind arise from it, causing the dark cloak that Darkness wore to swirl majestically about him. With tortured slowness, Darkness walked over and opened the pyxis to reveal what it contained. A golden cup that was encrusted with various jewels and gems winked knowingly Lili.
Lili stared at these things as if she had never seen them before. She turned her eyes towards Darkness, who had taken the opportunity to walk over to the high bed and wrap his taloned hands around the dark, mahogany wood finish.
"As I said, lady," he filled in for her benefit. "A simple choice. Choose life and you will choose me. Choose death and," he waved a hand towards her and at that instant, an unseen pressure encircled itself tightly around her throat, cutting off the precious air. "You will be free!" he finished as Lili started to gasp wordlessly, her hands clutching at her throat. "It really is a simple little choice, now isn't it?" he asked, through hooded eyes.
Jack and the others surveyed the strange scene in silence. All about them, all that they could see was turned up piles of earth and a strange white chalk that stood out ghostly against the dark earth.
"What be this---?" breathed Brown Tom.
Gump sniffed at the air. "Death," he said. Screwball crept closer to one of the trenches and fingered the white power. "This be perfume of the dead, Gump. These were bones that were dug up."
"How do you know?" asked Jack, sharply.
Screwball held up a collarbone that had been missed. "Just a guess," he reasoned, as he let the bone drop back into the hole.
They all looked around in an eerie silence. They faced thousand upon thousands of piles of dirt.
"Why would they be digging up old bones?" Gump wondered.
Lili, who was not far away, who had more urgent matters on her mind, was at that very moment, finding out why.
Darkness watched as Lili collapsed onto the ground, under the pressure that he was exerting. He regarded her fallen figure coldly, without any indication of emotion. Lili was gasping for air, unable to get any. Her tongue was turning dry and her eyes rolled back into her head, until she could see nothing. Her fingers clawed at the air, desperately protesting. She resembled a dying animal in all aspects. Darkness felt his own desperation mounting within his own self and realizing that he was deriving no pleasure from the act, he relaxed his psychic grip. Instantly, Lili began to choke out, her hands reaching out for the cup but was unable to reach it. Hesitating for only a moment, Darkness then picked up the cup and in long strides was by her side in an instant. Cradling her body gently, he was then propping her head up on his knees and titling the cup to her lips. In the intensity of the moment, he did not realize that the first step in his plan was complete. He watched with baited breath as Lili downed the contents of the cup in long, greedy gulps. It was only after she had halfway drained the cup and the unbearable thirst had been quenched that the taste registered in her mouth. Coughing and spitting the foul liquid out of her mouth, she threw the cup across the floor where it landed with a dull clang, onto the floor. The remaining liquid in the cup spread out like a dark arc of black ink. Lili watched in a sense of suspended horror as she watched the liquid incredibly enough flow backwards, defying all reason and gravity, towards her. As she watched in speechless wonder, she saw the black liquid slide around her, towards Darkness. The substance bled up his arm and Lili followed with her eyes to his out-stretched arm. The liquid flowed up his fingers, his palm and wrist, until it entered a long incision that she saw ran the length of his forearm. Finally, finally realizing what it was that she had drank and from whence it came, Lili scurried away from Darkness and began to retch the taste out of her mouth. Darkness took this all in stride, and smiled at the futility of Lili's actions. "It's too late," he said, bending down to whisper into her ear. "Now you can never die."
Lili's chokes began to subside, but they gave into her sobs. "What have you done to me?" she wept, raising her tear-stained face to his.
"I have given you the most precious gift that I can. I have given you my life. My immortal life, so that you will never, ever die."
"You do hate me, then?!" Lili cried out. "To damn me to a life where I shall never know the freeing kiss of death? I was born to life, you monster! I was born to die!"
"You cannot die, now," said Darkness, taken aback by her reaction. He had secretly thought that she would be pleased with his gift, although he could see that this was not the case. As she continued to weep fresh tears, he moved closer to her.
Out of the corner of her eyes, Lili saw the movement and jumped away. "Don't touch me!" she spat.
Darkness was offended by this and the hypostatic tension in the room intensified as he clamped a heavy hand down on her shoulder and propelled her over towards the high bed that she had seen before.
"See here, lady," he hissed, "You shall now make your choice! I tire of the games, the pretense! The false play of emotion that you charade for me!
You will now decide!"
"Never," whispered Lili, tersely, her own anger was flaming within her, making her as stubborn and as proud as he.
"Oh no?" was his ambiguous reply. "You have a choice in this matter, and you do not. You are mine, by the law, but your heart is not mine, yet. I will possess both!"
"You think that you're so powerful and strong when you are really a disillusioned despot! You will never win! Goodness and love will always triumph! I'll fight you, till there is no breath left in me, I will fight you and you will never win!"
"It's not whether I win or lose, lady!" chuckled Darkness. "It's how the game is played! Turn around and look at what awaits you."
His hand forced her around and what Lili saw caused her to scream terribly. In front of them, for miles and miles and miles, were the coffins, such as Lili had been trapped in. But now, they were altered, with the tops askew and beside each of them, stood ghostly gleaming skeletons. They were indeed, all of the bones that Darkness had had Blix and all the other goblins dig up. Lili was frozen with fear as she regarded the sight. Thousands of skeletons of various shapes and sizes stood, watching her with sightless eyes and pre-natural grins of derision. Lili took an involuntary step backwards, searching for a solid form of support before she fell down. She bumped against Darkness and half-spun around, though she was unable to look anywhere else other than those hollow eyes, which were all, turned towards her.
"Wh-wha-what is this?" she stammered out. "Your choice, lady, nothing more. Your simple choice!"
"Listen!" said Jack, turning in the direction from which Lili's scream had come. He drew his sword out and began running in that direction.
"Wait, Jack! Wait!" protested Gump, but it was to no avail. Jack had disappeared around the cornor and was lost from sight. He cursed under his breath and in the next second he and the others were running after Jack's fleeting figure as fast as they could.
Lili sought refuge behind Darkness, though she was loathe to, there being a degree of safety in placing him between her and the slowly advancing forms of the bones. As they drew closer, she could see that some of the bones were crumbling into a powder almost, this alone speaking of their age. They were held together by various materials, rotting clothes, sinews, vines. They looked like a macabre collage of some maniac artist's rejected dream. They held out their hands to her, all in terrible unison, as if orchestrating Lili's fear to a cataclysmic crescendo. She shook her head, her only way of protesting the whole thing.
"No," she moaned and sank to the ground, covering her face with her hands. "This isn't real! It's not true!"
"It's as real as you or I," said Darkness to her and Lili, hating herself for it, clung to his voice like a rock in a turbulent sea.
"Stop it, please! Stop this!" she begged him. "I cannot, but you can," he told her.
"How? How can I?" said Lili, shaking herself, not wanting to have anything to do the situation. She peered through her fingers, still seeing what she could not forget, even behind her closed eyes. "What are they?"
"They have been my victims, lady," Darkness said, turning his eyes fondly upon the skeletal crowd. "They are my victims of time immemorial! Every throat that I ever cut, every heart that I have torn out, all those that have suffered under my command now stands before you. They will be your subjects, lady! I know of the royal line that you come from! Are these not subjects worthy of your rule?"
Lili shook her head, unable to say a thing. The figures continued their slow advancement upon her, their hands still outstretched to her, as if beseeching her for something. She listened closely. It seemed to her that there were sounds coming from them, whispers, from a thousand fleshless lips. The whispers became stronger, louder.
"Help us. Release us. Only you have the power! Only you have that choice! Help us! Release us!"
Confusion mingling with her increasing sadness, Lili turned to the dark figure that stood with folded arms before her. "I don't understand!" she said to him. "What is this?"
Darkness took his time in answering. He wanted her emotions to undermine her and make her susceptible. Finally he told her. "This is the choice that I am giving you, lady. By drinking my blood, you have gained the precious state of immortality that so many of my sycophants and allies long for. But I have given you and you alone this gift. I will revoke it though, if you wish it and you will be able to die unto the death that you are so infatuated with. That is within in power. But, it is also within your power to save all those souls that I have ever tormented. You see before you all those that have met with death under my hand. With them I intend to raise an army such as the world has never seen before! Are they not the perfect lieutenants for me? They shall be indestructible! They cannot be harmed! They shall not be defeated, because they are already dead! Look at them! The cruelty that they have felt under my command will strengthen them - make them cruel themselves! They are trapped!
"So many souls, lady, trapped in the hell that I create for them! They cry out for relief! Surely you can hear them! Can you imagine the torture that they suffer? The ever-lasting torment? But they need not exist in limbo forever, milady. No. You could set them free."
"Me?" echoed Lili, faintly.
"Yes,' hissed Darkness, drawing her closer to him and enfolding her against his bared chest. Whether she was too weak from fear, or dizzy with the idea, Lili did not fight him. "You could ransom them with a mere word, lady! Simply promise that you will always be mine and love me for all of eternity, and I will release them! I will release them to the second promised Paradise that I have denied them of! But I will only do this if you promise your love, your life and your immortal soul to me for all time!"
Overwhelmed by all this, Lili let her head roll drunkenly against her chest. "I can't...decide such a thing!' she said.
"You could know of freedom yourself, lady. You could choose to set yourself free and die unto death. But then," and here, Darkness deliberately weighted his voice, to further add to the onus of Lili's impending decision. "All these poor souls would still know the terror, the hopelessness, the pain of the hell that I have created for them, but more of a thousandfold! For should you refuse me, I will increase their suffrage!"
"No," sobbed Lili. "You mustn't!"
"Fear not, lady," he hastened to reassure her. "I will not. But only if you choose for me not to!"
"I can't! I won't decide!"
"You must," Darkness told her.
Lili broke away from him and tried to turn away, but she was forced to look back at all the skeletons that were openly pleading before her.
"Help us! Release us!' they seemed to cry at her. "Don't make us suffer anymore! We have known of such terrible pain for so long! Won't you please release us? Please! This choice will not come again! Help us!"
Lili held up her own hands, to ward them off, but they continued to creep closer and closer to her. Lili turned and tried to run away, but her steps took her only as far as the bed. Her mind, her conscious would not let her go one step furthur. She half-collapsed on the bed and wept. She knew that she could not go on, knowing that those souls need no longer feel the sting of Darkness' hell. Not when she could...
Suddenly, Darkness was there and his voice seemed like the only firm thing in the nightmare of guilt and sadness that surrounded her. "Why weep?" he asked her. "It is a simple choice, really. Either yes or no. Life or death. Freedom or imprisonment. You must decide!"
"I can't!" Lili cried. "My choice will be damning, one way or another! How can I decide thus?"
"It must be your choice, lady. There is no other way!" He placed his hand atop of hers and caressed it gently. But Lili, for all her sadness, did not notice. Her world had narrowed to only a 'yes' or a 'no' that would wrought titanic change, no matter what.
'Why not accept me?" whispered Darkness to her. "I can think of far worse fates! Choose me and you will release all the souls that I have ensnared for this one cause! You know that we are more alike than you will ever admit. Why, at this very moment, my blood is coursing through your veins, making your soul one with mine. All that is I is already within you. How long do you think that you can fight? How long do you think that you can resist? I offer you an eternity of love! My dark love, that has never been known by another. In the whole world, there is no love such as mine!"
"But you're evil! The pure manifestation of all evil! How could I ever love such evilness?"
"Evil only exists where there is goodness that judges it to be so. You know that evil exists inside of you! You have felt the war! Even now it is raging away, filling every vein and artery! Can you not feel its intoxicating power? It makes you feel strong, doesn't it?" Lili nodded her head, as things became a dreamy kaleidoscope of surrealness.
"Even now, it is filling you up with a delicious warmth, its pulsating throughout you! I can sense it within you and you know that it's there! Evil! Your own evil!"
"NO!" Lili protested mightily and raised her eyes heavenward. "Oh dear god! Save me!" she cried out.
As if the words had burned him, Darkness gave a viscous snarl and bodily flung Lili onto the bed. Lili gave an unlovely shierk and fought him, by beating him with her fists against his chest. He responded by driving his horns into the pillows, thus trapping his unwilling prisoner. Before his on-coming tirade, Lili grew strangely quiet.
"God!" he snorted. "God?! Do you think that your silent, watch-maker god would deign to help you? Tell me, lady, where was your god when all of my victims cried out to it for deliverance? Where was your all-powerful god when I sacrificed the unicorns? Do you really think that it will help you now? This, all this, matters little, if not nothing, to your god! It sits idly back to let what would happen, happen! That is the ever-eternal accident of heaven! Do you think that your god to be the fount of all goodness? Well! It is also the well-spring of all evil, too!"
As Lili shook her head, Darkness smiled all the more broadly. "Oh, yes. Your god is evil. Just as it contrived love from its heart of goodness, it also spawned evil! How else could I exist, if your god did not decree it? How else could you warrant such evil, as you so wrongly call it, to exist if it was not your god's will?"
In reply to this, Lili only closed her eyes. "I am capable of love, yes," he said suddenly. "Just as you are of evil. You know that you are just as I am, deep down, though you try to deny it to yourself, to me."
"I am nothing at all like you," said Lili in a serene tone. "Oh, aren't you?" said Darkness. "Do we not both loathe the opposing wills of Light and Dark that play at their merry wars within us? Do we not both long for power over others and ourselves? Do we not both share ambitious dreams of untold splendor? Have we not learned together that our fates are intertwined and that we shall we the undoing of the other?"
Lili remained silent and wholly unmovable, unwilling to break. "I can see that I have been far too lenient with you," muttered Darkness moreso to him than her, when he saw this. "Enough time, though! It is now time for you to decide! Make your choice! My bed or your grave! Your soul for theirs! You must choose!"
Lili turned her head away into the pillows, refusing to answer. With a murderous rage, he roared at her, "Choose!" totally disarmed by her strange passim.
"You ask the impossible!" Lili finally relented to say. "Even so, you will speak!"
So deep was her sorrow that it was beyond the expression or conveyance of tears. "You know what I would choose," she said in a trembling voice and opening her eyes to stare up at him. "What other choice could I make?!"
"I will stay with you, so long as you release all those that suffer because of you. For their sake and theirs alone, I will promise myself to all that you have asked. But know this! I will never love you, as you desire me to! The lethal taint of your evil has killed vestige of love that remained within me. That shall be my triumph! To have you cheated of what you crave the most!"
Darkness neither protested nor acknowledged her words. Raising himself up, he called out in a loud voice to the gruesome spectacle of the skeletons that halted in their bony procession. "Bear witness to these things! I have won my fair bride bravely! She is mine - mine forever. In body and in soul both mine; mine in life and mine in death. Now, by her token, I will release you! One and all from this place and time! Now, of freedom, such as I could never give to you! Go!"
With these last words, a great clatter filled the room, as all the bones fell with one accord onto the floor. The unseen spirits that had filled the bones with life collected together like a small whirlwind as it gathered more and more of the luminesse "ignis fatuus" were collected into the ever-growing column of light and mist.
Darkness pulled the lifeless Lili up into an upright position so that she could better see. "Look, lady," he commanded, "at the result of your actions. See what you have taken from me."
Lili gave no resistance or assistance. She did watch in wonder at the spectacle in front of her. She pressed her hands to her mouth and a happy look lighted the pale mallour of her drawn face.
It was truly a sight that did not go unnoticed by eight other sets of eyes. From behind the closed (though not barred doors) Jack and the others watched the entire scene.
"Beautiful!" gasped Brown Tom.
"Incredible!" said Screwball.
"Wondrous!" marveled Gump.
"Lili!" Jack exclaimed and it was all that the others could do to keep him from bursting through the door.
"Patience!" cautioned Jack. "Let's let them play out their little drama, first! We'll move in good time. Ho there, Jack. She is no apparent danger yet!"
Lili watched in a breathless-wonder as the living tower of light ascended the room. She drifted off the bed towards the discarded inanimate pile of bones. As she drew closer, the column of light, which was cerulean in colour, encircled her body. It was a most delightful feeling that she experienced and it tingled throughout her whole body. The softest of caresses fell upon her lips, eyes, cheeks and forehead. It seemed that gentle kisses were placed in her palms and head. The driest of whispers filled her ears.
"Thank-you," was whispered and it was amplified a million times. Tears of happiness streamed down her cheeks, as Lili was caught up in the super-natural whirlwind. She spun around with them and turned her face upwards, feeling curious warmth light her face. She closed her eyes and bit her lip. She knew that she could never enter that light again, because of what she had promised. She knew that that light was not meant for her. The sapphirine light continued to thin out until there was none left. Lili continued to reach out for it, but it was gone, and when she realized this, she slumped to the ground, all of her strength gone; a lifeless husk of a being.
Darkness gave her a moment to her sorrow before speaking. "You chose wisely," he reassured her.
"What else was there to chose?" Lili sighed, raising her eyes forlornly to the dark ceiling.
"You made the choice that you were always destined to make, there was no other way."
Lili turned him and snapped. "And now what? Do you think that I will fall with reverence into your arms?! That I will passionately love you? Ha! What a dreamer you are!"
"We'll come to such matters in time," said Darkness, a strange look creasing his features. "But first there is the small matter of..." he let his voice trail off meaningfully.
"Of sealing the bargain, with a simple kiss. It is null and void otherwise."
Lili turned away in disgust, "I'd rather choke to death on cinders!" she declared.
Darkness laughed, oblivious to her comment. "It's as I said, lady," he said prophetically, as he came towards her. "It's not whether or not I win or lose! It's how the game is played!"
Lili looked up at him in terror, as he stood before her. His eyes searched her face intently but he strangely said nothing. A passing storm clouded his face and he seemed to hesitate. Lili wondered what would happen, and how it would all end, but as he grabbed her arm and forced her onto her feet, his roughness spoke of the violent means he planned to employ to achieve his ends. As he put his face closer and closer to hers, Lili thought of Jack.
"I'll never love you!" she hissed, her anger the only thing that was able to sustain her.
Darkness glowered at her momentarily, but then a sardonic smile twisted his lips back to reveal his long, gleaming incisors. Lili shrank away in horror. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to twist away, fighting him but he held her tight.
A strange sound whistled past Lili's ear, so fast and strange that she was not able to place it. She heard Darkness give a roar of pain and he released her arm. She quickly opened her eyes, only to see a still-vibrating wooden arrow lodged in his neck. Blood was already streaming down his neck in crimson rivulets as Lili turned to see where the arrow had come from.
The most welcome sight met her eyes. Running towards her, was an odd collection of figures, all-different sizes and shapes with the oddest arrangement of weapons. Leading them all, was Jack, with an intense look on his face. At the sight of him, Lili cried out his name and was stumbling towards him. "Jack!" she was sobbing, screaming, crying, and laughing, all at the same time.
"Lili!" Jack cried, and broke into a faster sprint. Just as they were reaching out for one another, the distance between their outstretched fingers no more than the width of a hair, Lili was pulled back, by an invisible hand with such force that she flew to the opposite length of the room and crashed against the wall. With the wind knocked out of her, she was not able to cry out when a large metal encasement fell down upon her from out of nowhere. It crashed to the ground and at the same time, black dangerous spikes rose out of the ground as if to embrace the structure. Lili raced to the bars and shook them furiously, but to no avail. Her steel trap was as hard as the heart of the one that had trapped her. "Jack!" she sobbed, seeing him so close, but so far away.
"Lili!" Jack shouted, and was about to run and free her, when at that exact moment, Darkness pulled the arrow out of his neck and snapped it like a twig. Jack and the others stopped in mid-step, as Darkness rose to his full height above them. The blood that spewed from his neck slowed to a trickle and then it stopped all together. The fairy band fell silent, as they all remembered the last time they had stood before this same figure.
Darkness' eyes lit onto Jack and he immediately recognized him. "You." he started.
Jack took a deep breath to regain some of his courage that had deserted him earlier. "Yes, it is I!" he said bravely with such force that the others looked at him in wordless wonder.
"Come back for some more, have you, boy?" Darkness snarled. "Was your first defeat not enough?"
"You won't beat me again!" swore Jack, all but trembling with an unexpected rush of power that hardened his limbs.
"You even a greater fool than I expected, then!" laughed Darkness. Jack rushed at Darkness, his sword drawn. "You WILL die," he said. Darkness, tensed, preparing for battle, his eyes rolling back, as an animal's will, to show the whites. With a powerful blow and impeccable timing, he battered Jack's blade away from him, with his horns. Jack crashed mightily to the ground, his teeth cutting through his bottom lip. His tongue slipped out of his mouth to confirm the taste of the blood that trickled down his face. Furthur angered, he sprang to his feet like a Jack-in-the-pulpit and charged at Darkness again.
Darkness fended of Jack's attack with ease and Jack was thrown to the ground again and again. Meanwhile, the rest of the fairy band had gone to work. Gump was fitting his bow and letting arrows fly left and right at Darkness, but the arrows magically fell short of him, never reaching their target. Screwball and Brown Tom had run over to the cage, to free Lili, but they found this to be a harder task then they imagined. While there was a keyhole, there had been no key in it for ages and ages and the thing was rusted shut.
"Please help me!" sobbed Lili to the two elves. The elves quickly sized up the situation and then held a quick conference. "We can't get it open!"
"You must, you must!" pleaded Lili, shaking the bars again. "I know!" said Screwball, in sudden inspiration. "We'll pick the lock!" "Yes! Brilliant idea, brother!" echoed Brown Tom. "Where's the pick?" asked Screwball.
"You have it!" said Brown Tom.
"No, you have it!" insisted Screwball.
"No, you do!"
"Hurry!" cried Lili, her eyes focused on the one-sided battle that was taking place.
Then, the mad search began as the elves turned their innumerable pockets inside and out, spilling the strangest assortment of: trinkets, gadgets, what-nots, shiny pebbles, crumbling birds nests, mounds of string and other bizarre things. Lili's frustration mounted as she watched the pile grow and grow and grow. Finally, after what seemed to be ages, Screwball produced a large set of rusted keys. "Found it!" he declared triumphantly. He scurried over to the door and started to fit the keys in one by one, trying each.
Meanwhile, Jack was panting hard and trying vainly to hack Darkness to pieces. The Green Man was having no luck and was only succeeding in tiring himself out. Gump had fallen back to try and assess the situation. He was at a loss of how defeat Darkness.
Darkness was laughing throughout the battle, watching Jack exert himself. Unbeknownst to either of them, he was slowly luring them towards the chasm that lay just beyond the bed, and out of sight. Step by step, he was leading the unwitting fools to their death. He was merely playing with them and was deriving pleasure from it. He cast a wanton eye back towards Lili. He could see that she was still in the cage and that the two elves were having no luck in freeing her. No matter. It was of little concern to him.
At the same time that Darkness was looking over at Lili, Gump chose that moment to let loose another arrow. The wooden shaft buried itself into the soft meat of his shoulder blades.
Darkness felt the pain spreading out like a map all over his body and groaned, clutching at the arrow. Snarling, he tore it out of his body and turned furiously towards Gump, who was putting it all together. "You'll pay for that, wizard!" he swore and charged Gump.
Gump saw the danger in plenty of time and neatly sidestepped Darkness' approach. "Jack!" he cried out to where Jack stood, trying to catch his breath. "Go free Lili! That is his weakness! Hurry!"
Jack needed no prompting and took off for the cage, as fast a he had ever run before. Just a he reached it; Screwball's hundredth fit twisted in the lock and then it sprang open, with a terrible squeak.
In a second, he was clasping Lili in his trembling arms and stroking her hair as she clung to him. "Oh, Lili," he breathed, "I thought that I would never hold you again!"
"Oh, Jack. My life, my love, my sweetest Jack!" Lili cried out and held him tight.
Their idyllic embrace did not last long and from over Jack's mailed shoulder, Lili saw Darkness turning to stare at them. The most curious expression filled his face, and while Lili could not place it as jealously, so much as disbelief, it was enough to make her break away from Jack.
Jack, sensing the change in her, turned around to see what she was staring at.
How long they all stood, froze in that tableau, was uncertain, but when Darkness spoke next, it was in a voice as cold as winter that raped the trees of their life.
"Ah, so!" he chuckled. "It has finally come full circle, has it? Milady has again cheated me, betrayed me! First when she was to sacrifice the unicorn, then when she ran away from me, breaking a solemn promise and finally now. Thrice the charm, hmm? Well, no more!" the last part of his tirade was punctured with his enraged screams.
Lili cringed as the sound echoed off the walls. She blindly groped for Jack's hand and limply took it in her own. Jack looked over at her mummed expression, and distantly thought that her fingers felt as cold and as limp as dead tadpoles.
Darkness' saw this and bit his lip, obviously ready to explode, but then Lili spoke.
Even Gump did not fail to notice the obvious effect that Lili had over him.
"You know that I do not love you!" she said bravely, ('like the mouse before a lion', thought Brown Tom). "I have never made the claim to and furthermore, you know it to be true."
Perhaps Darkness had known this all along, but all the same, as soon as Lili spoke the words, he seemed to wither under them.
Jack tensed himself, ready for whatever would happen next, to happen. "I will have your love, one way or another!" said Darkness, stubbornly, renewing himself.
Jack took that opportunity to place himself in front of Lili, shielding her body with his. He brandished his sword and stared his foe straight in the eye. "Perhaps you didn't hear the lady," he growled. "But she said that she wants nothing to do with you!"
Darkness looked scornfully down at Jack. He turned his steely gaze onto Lili, who seemed to stumble under the invisible weight of it.
"Is this who you would choose to love, milady?" he asked. "You would place your love in this frail, pitiful form of a human being?! He is weak! I have already defeated him! Do you think that he will love you, unendingly? Look at him in the eye! Do you think 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?"
"Don't believe him, Lili!" whispered Jack sharply to her, keeping a trained eye upon the demon. As long as Darkness talked and nothing else, he had no fear.
Lili, however, could not disregard his words that easily. She gave a rough shake of her head and cried out, "You're lying! Monster! You are the father of lies! I don't believe you!"
Darkness did not miss the note of doubt that edged her tone. "Don't you?" he said, coyly. "Is that not hesitation that I see flitting across your eyes?"
Lili calmed up and pressed her lips tightly together. Darkness' voice went on. "I know of your pain, milady. I know of the war that rages within your soul, for it exists within my own. I know that you can never return that the world above, because you know too much of this one. You've lived too long in my universe. I can see the fountain of loneliness and unearthly desires that floods your soul! I can see past your defenses, because they fall before my presence. I can see your heart, your truer heart, the one that does not beat out malice and hatred for me, but the one that would seek me out to love me."
Throughout this whole speech, Lili was shaking her head, but Darkness' languid tones were working like a drug on her over-worked senses and she was slowly wavering. Though he held his ground, Lili felt herself being drawn closer and closer to him.
"No," she protested, clasping her head, covering her ears, as if trying to drown out the succulent sound of his voice. "You're lying! I don't believe you! I won't have your pity! I won't have you!"
"You can't win, you know," said Darkness, matter-of-factly. "I told you once that all the world's a circle! It all comes back to me in the end. Love, hate. Light, dark. Enemy, lover. They all end the same."
Lili clutched her head tighter, but his tinny voice found its way into her head and her thoughts anyway. "Say but that you love me and I will let your little paramour go. Otherwise, I'll kill them all, and I swear that you will watch them all perish, slowly, horribly."
"Don't you believe him, Lili!" interjected Jack, suddenly, who had not been able to find his tongue before this. "He'd say anything to make you believe him."
"But is it true?" whispered Lili, tears standing out in her eyes. "Would you ever forsake me for another? How do I know that you love you? How do I know that I may not be as evil as he is? It has been so long." she broke off sobbing.
Jack turned to Darkness' pleased expression and then, his world became bent for one purpose and one purpose alone. With a terrible, wordless cry, Jack flung his sword at Darkness' leering face with such swiftness that the Lord of Darkness had no time to anticipate the move. At the same time, in perfect synchrony, Gump let another volley of arrows fly at the dark back of Darkness.
Contact! The weapons met their mark and in the next moment Darkness had fallen to the ground, groaning and writhing in pain as the still twitching arrows stuck grotesquely out of his back. He resembled a comical, over-sized hedgehog. Jack's sword lay buried up to its hilt in Darkness' heaving chest, the other end of it sticking out of his malformed back at an impossible angle.
There was great silence that followed as the company watched the dark shadow before them struggle uselessly to right itself.
"Now, Jack!" urged Gump, breaking the silence. "Finish him off!" Sensing that the chance would not present itself again, Jack drew a long dagger that had been hidden in his tunic. He slowly advanced on the fallen figure.
Lili followed him, at a distance, her hands were pressed to her mouth and she stared wide-eyed at the brutality of the scene. All she could focus on was his strange, swallow breaths that came in punctured, painful gasps. Darkness' hands clasped and unclasped around the sword-handle, finally managing to pull it out of his chest. His dark blood coated it. He dropped it to the stone floor where it made a terrible clatter. Lili shuddered at the sound of it, but was unable to look away.
His emerald-eyed stare had not lost its strength and it burned into her, making her body cold with paralysis. His mouth opened but no sound emerged from it. Strangely enough, Lili heard his voice in her mind, though the others, who were closing in for the kill, gave no indication of being able to hear it.
"Help me, Lili," he said, using her given name for the first time, ever. "Come to me, save me. You have my strength within you my life-blood is in you. Help me. Don't let it end this way."
Lili stopped in her tracks, her body freezing in place, though her mind was galloping forward. She felt her empathy going out towards him and though she hated herself for it, she could not help it.
"I have returned light to the world for your sake. I released all my victims to heaven in your namesake! I have even given my immortal life unto you! Have I not shown you forgiveness time and time again, even where you did not deserve it? Would you not pity me now? Would you not forgive me all that I have done against you?!"
Lili was reduced to watching Gump drawing his bow, Jack raising his sword and even Brown Tom and Screwball advance threateningly.
Lili had no time to think and took one last step towards him just as Jack drove the dagger lethally into Darkness' body.
With a loud yelling, Gump, Jack, Screwball and Brown Tom all moved with one accord and pushed Darkness towards the yawning chasm that lay just behind him.
They all watched as he slipped into the dark embrace of the shadows of the pit. Then, there was silence. They all listened carefully, but there was no sound of impact of a body hitting the bottom. He was gone, without a word or a cry.
"He's finished," said Gump, somewhat in awe at the enormity of the happy realization.
"We did it!" said Brown Tom, hugging Screwball. "I can't believe it!" said Screwball.
"Believe it!" laughed Gump, and straightened up to take Jack's motionless hand. "We have our hero to thank!"
Jack was strangely quiet, as if hypnotized by the blackness of the pit, but quickly broke out of his trance. "He's gone, Lili!" he said and turned towards her eagerly, only to see her stilled body in a shapeless puddle on the floor. Jack dropped the dagger and ran over to where she lay. He laid trembling hands on her cheek, imploring her; "Lili! It's all right! He's done. You're free! Finally!"
Lili's eyes remained closed and as Gump took her hand in his, he felt her limbs stiffening in unison with the dance of Death.
He looked at the others. "We must get her out of her and but fast!" he advised.
Concerned, but not asking any questions, the others obeyed him. Jack picked Lili's slight frame up into his arms and uttering a silent prayer, followed the others. At one point in their journey out of the Great Tree, he pressed his cheek against hers. His face came away wet, but whether or not it was from her sweat or from her tears, he did not know.
The sun was just breaking onto the horizon when Jack and the others reached the surface. He waited until they were a safe distance away until he lay Lili down in the dewy grass. He waited for some sign of life to stir within her, but she lay - deathly still.
"Oh, Gump. Is she...?" Jack could not bring himself to say the dreaded word.
The elfin lay a heavy hand on his shoulder. "I don't know, Jack. We will have to wait and see."
They all watched and waited. Finally, Lili's eyes twitched and then opened. For a second, a look of terror crossed her features but then, as she saw Jack's face close to hers, relief flooded her face and she was in his arms in the next second.
"Oh, Jack! Jack!" she sobbed against his neck. "Lili, my love, you're safe!" Jack said, with great emotion. The others could not help but be moved. Screwball wiped away a tear that trickled down his face and Brown Tom blew his nose on Screwball's sleeve. Even Gump looked misty-eyed as the lover's embraced.
"'Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning'," quoted Gump piously.
Jack heard nor saw any of them save Lili. "It's all over, Lili, you're safe!" whispered Jack, before his lips found hers.
'No,' Lili told him silently. 'It's far from being over, Jack. None of us will ever be safe, ever again.' She said nothing though, and kissed him back tenderly, furthur closing herself in the sweetness of the dream.