“She fascinates you because her soul is pure. To make her one of us…charm her, woo her. Change her spirit. Hypnotize her. Set her free. Bring her to you!” --Darkness' Father
Haunting neighs echoed around the cavern as the last unicorn was dragged closer to the stone altar. Lili’s blade, brought to her by Darkness for this ritual, would end the life of this unicorn. What had begun as a fight for her own survival had escalated all too quickly into a struggle for the very future of the world, and it was all she could do to keep her head above the horror. So she went through the motions, doing exactly as Darkness desired. While her original intention was to stall with misdirection until help could come, now she understood. That was foolish. Jack would never know where she was, and she should not be naïve.
Darkness would do unspeakable things to her if she turned back now, and the most corrupted part of her didn't even want to. That part of her truly believed the rightness of what she was saying. That part of her already loved the dark. What other choice was there? So Lili resolved that she would go through with this, and she would live. She would survive, whatever the cost. Her heart pounded in anticipation.
It didn’t have to hurt her anymore, she realized in that moment. Her actions, impetuous and innocently headstrong as they had been, had already cost the life of this unicorn’s mate. They wouldn’t kill anyone else who cared for her, if that had been Jack’s final fate. They never would, not now the world had become a bitter, barren husk of frost. If Darkness required the fresh blood of this poor creature, then she would deliver it unto him. There would be no hesitation. And then, she would learn more of her strange new world and what purpose she could serve within its walls. Finally, she would know what she must do.
Lili had become akin to Pandora. She had opened the metaphorical box and by doing so, she had changed everything. Her simple desire to touch a unicorn had already dealt the world a fatal blow. But an embodiment of Hope was not hiding, tucked, tucked away inside a box, begging to be freed from its prison. There was only change, and damnation.
Her sin had snared this unicorn. It had damned her and with her the world had fallen. Her hand would free the mare of her pain, and send her to join her mate. The mare would suffer horribly at the crux of the ceremony, but when it was over the animals would be reunited in their death. Blood and fire would purge her of her old life, she suddenly understood. She would be reborn in this strange new world. Would she survive it? She hoped so, but she was not an oracle.
Whatever happened, she would claim this strange new life, steering a new course for herself. Why ever would she not? She was, she knew, growing increasingly more and more bewitched, drowning in the lure of this cruel place.
The proclamations required reached their grand finale. “Hear me, ye powers of the night! We offer this sacrifice, in honor of you. Sanctified with blood…and with fire! I pray you, Father, accept my sacrifice. Let light be forever extinguished. Let the age of darkness begin! Come, Lady,” Darkness urged. “The birth of a new world awaits your stroke.” Through blood and fire, they would drown the light. Through blood and fire, would come the eternal night. It was her turn now. Darkness had told her what to do for the sacrificial ceremony, and she had made her promise to stay. She knew this ritual would become her wedding to Darkness, both in spirit and in fact. She had entertained a fleeting, foolish thought to set the unicorn free, let herself and the creature attempt to run for freedom. He would see her choice.
“Let my offering be made of flesh and blood. I am sister to the Fates,” Lili declared as she raised the hefty blade of the proud, ancient broadsword. The flames of the torches upon the walls made it blaze with an eerie glow that was almost not of this world. It had been used in many sacrifices, seen many battles.
She barely noticed a commotion, swiftly vanquished by the forces surrounding the tableau. It was merely a handful of fair folk, too small in number to make a difference. A goblin was swift with poisoned darts, paralyzing them while out of her view.
The unicorn’s neck was positioned perfectly for her. Its bare neck faced her. The sharpened blade came down like a reaper’s scythe, tearing through the tender flesh of the mare’s throat. Blood sprayed in an arc, as the arteries and veins vital to the mare's life were severed. As it changed to a steady stream, Lili realized that it would be slow. It would be painful. The chains would prevent her from bolting as she panicked in the face of her own death, as weakness grew until the mare could not hope to even raise its head in fear. The mare’s eyes rolled with agony. Lili considered that this weapon of war and vengeance was a strangely perfect tool to take the final gasp of purity from the world’s lungs.
When the blood ceased to flow upon the altar, then and only then would the ceremony would achieve its natural conclusion. That much Lili had been told. She dared not tear her gaze away, lest something go wrong…lest she disappoint in some terrible fashion. Sword raised above the poor squirming creature, she focused her aim accordingly, continuing to listen to Darkness’ side of the incantation. Some overzealous guards joined in, exhilarated and eager, as it reached the pinnacle of brutal and heady glory.
The blade came down a second time, with more force behind it, cleanly freeing the alicorn from where it was mounted by nature upon the beast’s forehead. She plucked it from where it fell, the sound lost in the frenzy. Silently, she held it out to Darkness, knowing he would likely desire to claim that which was his due at once. He need not wrest it from her grip. Something within her burned with joy, in addition to a terror she would never admit to on this day—on this darkest of days—as his demonic laughter boomed across everything. Beneath it all, sorrow sang the last note of a death knell for an innocent creature, once in full bloom, now destroyed utterly.
Cloven hooves clattered upon stone, an air of triumph pervading the very being of Darkness as he majestically ascended the last remaining steps of the stone stairway. He wrapped one arm around Lili’s waist as he accepted the alicorn from her skillful hands. He noted they were shaking from barely concealed emotion, and deemed her an apt pupil. It would be an emotional moment for the two—he, new ruler of all. Her, as the last vestiges of humanity and simple mortality fell away…they would be shed as a serpent its skin, revealing the new form beneath.
A better animal, he knew, waiting for her own realization to flicker to life. He wished to sweep his dark bride into his inner sanctum straight away…but changes would impede any progress he made there. He knew that. Soon, her physical would match the vicious actions.
He thrust the alicorn into the sky to show to all of nature what it should already know. The hint of dawn transmuted into night, as there came a crack of thunder and churning clouds. The light had fallen easily, and was now extinguished. Darkness would reign forevermore. The natural order was his to command. Light fell to dark. The land had knelt before its new master.
The heavens above seemed to cry out in horror at his good fortune. He saw three shooting stars above…and knew they would cease to blaze at his whim. Perfection. The stars themselves did tremble, knocked aside by his power. The universe was his newly christened plaything.
If humanity were warm enough to waken, to feel, they would feel their marrow quake at the terrors which stretched out unending before them. Together, he and Lili would continue alterations in their own images. When she was ready. When her changes were total. When family did not dwell deep in her thoughts so black.
As he grasped her hand with his own, he growled into the cup of her ear. “Mother Night need never be chased away by accursed sunlight nipping at her heels.” For her ears only, he hissed, “Oh, what a queen you will make!”
His wish had been granted, her ploy become truth. She would stay forever.
Darkness observed Lili for a time, as bodies were dragged away and attendance dwindled. He understood what was happening to her now that the initial feeling of being swept away in his delight had withdrawn. She did not seem to. Knowing what could be in store, he quietly ushered her to the doorway of what would be their chamber, before she could collapse or scream. Finally, she actually looked to him.
The demon seemed content with this person in thrall to him. The blood and fire of sacrifice would create something new. What shape that curse would wreck through the mortal form was all in the soul before him to discover in her own time. In her own way.
Lili was cold and her mind and body…every inch of herself had felt strange ever since the dress had claimed her, and now new feelings seemed to course deeper through her soul. It was not a true illness. The sacrifice had done it, whatever it was. She had been looking into Darkness’ eyes as he took the dripping blade from her hands, and all had been calm. Now she looked into them again.
He would know why there were claws growing slowly and painfully. Why there were tufts of hair on the palms of her hands. This was her punishment. It had to be. Not just that she would willingly stay at Darkness’ side, but that she would become an animal just as he was. Change was rooting itself deep into her soul, stronger than the most ancient of oak trees.
“Your eyes,” Lili said with a hitched breath as they locked upon hers. They looked different…stranger than before. All of the goblins and creatures that had filled the halls before they became scarce did too…and they all smelled strangely, differing between each stench and scent. It could have been overwhelming. It should have sent her running into a corner in terror. It wasn’t, and it didn’t.
He seemed to know her thoughts, wordlessly leading her by the hand to a puddle of water close by, left untended as it ever so slowly dripped down through the cracks in the ancient stone. Who knew how long it had been dripping? Perhaps since the world had frozen, the heat of the place had melted certain things. He pointed, bidding her to look at her own reflection as he waited.
Her eyes, she realized with a small shock. Yellow. They were wrong, yet not. They didn’t feel wrong. She was seeing differently, everything was heightened, slowly being joined by other senses. Wolf-like, to match the changes slowly overcoming her.
“Touch and hearing could join your sight and smell soon enough,” he murmured. “It is so much better to feel with new hands your pleasures, as well as to hear with new ears pointed so.” It could be worse at first, too.
“Seeing with new eyes, the world tilts anew. Strangely.” She could see the glint of a forgotten cat o’ nine tails which lay in the darkness of the hallway, and—further ahead—several goblins watching eagerly as they played vicious games while waiting to feast upon the unicorn’s fallen body. She could feel within herself a similar hunger for something unappealing that she would never have taken unseen from a table at court or within Nell’s cottage.
The image of something raw and dripping with blood came unbidden to her mind. The thought that this was her life now made her feel both frightened and curious. New.
What was she now? Having heard fairy stories of actions that were dreadful causing horrifying repercussions within a person, showing the darkness without the same as within, she thought she knew. And what could be what could be worse than taking joy from what she'd done, in reveling in it all? She could admit that that was what she was feeling now. Joy. Passion. Something…animalistic.
She could rip another person to pieces. She was certain of that somehow. Did she want to?
A clawed finger moved down her face. Darkness looked on the verge of laughing at her shock. “Now you are animal as much as I. There is no need to hate your own nature. Your fear of the truth lessens the longer you stay, does it not?” Not waiting for an answer, spotting the knowledge within her changed eyes, he continued as he carefully stroked the tip of one of her canines. “Your teeth elongate now.”
For however brief a time, her thoughts were clear. Clearer than they had been in what felt like an eternity. “You’ve changed me so much now. To what end?”
“What do you wish to do next, my Lady? My Dark Queen who butchered so well the last of the unicorns? When the eclipsed moon rises wreathed in clouds, your transformation will grow by leaps and bounds. Passions will heighten, as cravings prove…irresistible. Be ready. Father will wish to meet with you in the days ahead. Sit…and talk with him.”
He seemed so insistently eager for that. But would she be? Really? “I will be ready,” Lili promised.
“We shall see.” More changes were always waiting in the wings. “Now, then. What is your next whim to be? Do you…hunger?”
She looked at him with a tilted head, a hesitation before replying. “You know I do, ”she said, a faint growl welling up beneath her word. She hungered for food, and so much more...but she would have to be careful that being a wolf in nature didn’t cause her to always give away her thoughts on a subject. She would have to learn how to separate her appetites.
“Yes. It will grow.” He seemed proud that she would admit it. “When the pain passes, then you eat.”
She didn’t like the sound of that. “Pain?”
”So much more.”
Having never witnessed a transformation from man or woman to ravening beast before—even just beneath the surface—Lili didn't know how awful her own would become. In a wild moment, she realized that she didn't know if some of her darkest imaginings might be true. Would the wolf leap fully formed from her mouth, leaving her human form like a broken toy? Would it tear its way out of her? Would she shed herself like a serpent sheds its skin, gaining a coat of fur across her body?
Or would she just slowly retreat and surge through her inner transformation, ebbing and flowing like the tide? She knew her dread would be obvious to him.
“Magic and nature always find a balance, my lady. When you killed the unicorn…nature lost one such creature, and it needed to renew that balance with…something. The soul was already darker.” He seemed to take great glee as the instigator for that. “Why else would my queen now be a budding wolf? Kill a goblin,” he said, chuckling. “Perhaps that will satiate some of your newfound needs.”
Had she sat and truly talked with him earlier would things have really been worse for them all? Better? His strange chair had hands that grabbed and tore at clothing, she knew, but that might have been the end to it prior to talk. Would her innocent games against him have caused more harm than good, even with this outcome? She didn’t know, and she was gradually becoming accustomed to that feeling of being lost…and of something else. She hated it, but more of her was embracing whatever it was.
But…her father, she remembered in her confusion. Would Darkness know if he lived, after everything that had happened? And Jack? What had become of him?
Would he kill her if she asked as to their welfare? Likely not. She was his bride. There was nothing further to fear from him, once innocence was torn away.
“Some curses are swift in settling into their new abode, whilst others…you feel the difference, my dear Lili. Blood begets a curse anew. It feeds it,” Darkness continued to explain as he stroked her still-changing arms with a claw. “The shrouded moon had yet to reach its zenith, when this began. Night had yet to fully embrace the land, and cover it like a shroud.”
He caressed her face with a clawed fingertip as she moaned. When sacrificial blood anointed this most beauteous brow, it was…beguiling. Bewitching. There must be more causes for such a thing to be seen. “The pain will pass as you adjust. Your bones will no longer break themselves to adjust to your…alteration of humanity.” He watched in silence as strained muscles rippled like a skipping stone beneath her skin, as sinews shifted to become more bestial before returning to their previous state. It was a harsh process, but one which should not last for much longer.
A long moment of silence was punctuated only by a strained grunt from her. Another moment passed before it was broken by a suggestion from the demon at her side. “Perhaps in time you will crave my embrace, and other favors.”
Lili couldn’t help but chuckle in spite of her pain, shifting slightly so that she might stare incredulously into his own beastly yellow eyes. This was truly not a time to attempt to instruct her in the ways of the flesh, but…it was so tempting. “Even in this most bleak of occasions?” This close to Darkness’ body, she thought she detected a whiff of sulfur. It was merely fantasy, she knew, a superstition that would not be shaken. She was adamant about that fact.
A hand caressed her back, helping to keep her upright and distracting her from the pain. “This pain shall pass. Anything is possible, my lady,” he reminded her. His dark bride squirmed against his shoulder, clutching her head, but her pained screech gave him the briefest of pauses until he sensed she was ready to listen again. He was certain she had successfully ridden out the latest of her birth pangs when she emitted a calmer, if whimpering, growl. “As you have proven with the swiftness of your blade. Many things unexpected have happened this night.”
A howl or wild laugh would soon wrench itself free from her throat, and she could not fathom which would be worse. Darkness had a knowing look upon his countenance, having presumably guessed at her feelings. Let him be surprised. The pain should be at an end soon, she prayed silently. She would do anything for it to come to its conclusion.
He must have known it had when she relaxed into him again, and whispered, “Are there any other surprises I should know about that the unicorn left behind? Anything else tucked away so well?”
“That should be all,” Darkness assured her with a gleam in his eyes. “It is why there were few willing to be the predator that took down such a thing. Few…but there are so many legends, which sprouted from the belief. Many theories given root in naught but a slight breeze here or there that stirred the fallen leaves. The snap of a twig behind them in the dark leaving some quivering in the slop of their fear.”
When her stomach made itself known with a loud growl of its own, he took Lili’s hand. “The chefs of the realm are preparing a unicorn feast. Its first and only dearly departed mate was located in the snowstorm and will be thrown into the cooking pot. Unless…in your current state you wish that not to be so? Its blood glistens and is too sweet by far…it is too full of goodness…but the rest is a delicacy that has not been savored in centuries piled upon centuries. What say you?”
Lili frowned, as she recognized her tastes had already begun to change to accompany her werewolf urges. A piece of cake from Nell’s would never satisfy her again. Her own lupine eyes, golden as they were, met his again. “I think I say…you are right, I am so hungry. Like I’m in the throes of starvation, in fact. I cannot lie about that.” Her eyes gave away the truth, before she could admit to it. She could see that. She knew what she was seeking. “I wish the heart of the unicorn I killed, before any hungry goblin falls upon it, before it begins to spoil.” Eating what had caused her guilt before…that would be an interesting experience.
“It shall be done.” Through spells cast, the bodies were in suspended animation. Thus, no unfortunate insect should fall upon it before they could have their fill. When her pain-filled moans seemed to cease, to his bitter disappointment, he looked at her again. “Does it ease? Are you prepared for a banquet such as has never been seen in the mortal world?” As her pains wound down, her hunger would rise. There could be some nausea for a brief time, as her body settled from the tribulations of a new magic. She should gather herself, but she still had the silliest thought.
As she stretched, he leaned over her, detecting her weakness. “Yes. Perhaps you should walk a short distance in your new home, before we gather with others.” He waited a moment, and then he urged her onward when he sensed there was more. “What is your request, Lili?”
She nodded. She should go for a walk, and see what new instincts she found within herself. Her legs shivered before calming.
“A promise,” she said as she wiped some sweat from her brow with a rag he passed to her. “Someday, that you will find me a cordwainer, that I might have slippers with room for my hind claws. Rather than walk…lope,” she corrected herself with a head tilt, “in the snow.” Fur alone only went so far when it came to keeping warm.
It was such a minor inconvenience for one such as them that he was momentarily speechless before giving her a quick bow of promise. He would consult with Father, find something enchanted enough not to be torn asunder if she were to unexpectedly change, whether it be in the heights of wrath or of passion. Nothing need be cobbled awkwardly. Dark magic could be directed into something sewn for that purpose, much as her bridal gown had been crafted.
Darkness stared at Lili with a look she could not hope to fathom. Lust, frustration, and many other things warred for dominance, until finally he spoke with a firm voice. “Then I shall meet you in our chambers after the unicorn feast.”
Perhaps she had spoken too soon. The pain was easing, she knew it--but her hearing was heightened beyond her ability to control. She could hear the beating hearts of nervous rodents somewhere within the room. She could hear pained shrieks elsewhere, and the crack of greedy whips in the distance. Wicked words whispered between creatures both great and small as no doubt devious schemes were cooked up. Would she ever be able to rest, hearing things such as this all the time? It would destroy her nerves if she could not tune it out in some fashion.
She could ignore the smell of monstrous creatures that had never known of the concept of bathing. She knew this. She had been successful in this. She could work around the occasionally oppressive stench of sulfur, and the burned flesh. Could she take sounds unceasing without going mad?
“Help me,” Lili pleaded to Darkness. The sounds of her own wavering voice…she didn’t want it to stab her ears. She didn’t want it to pound upon her skull. She didn’t want to be overwhelmed by something that had once been so simple. “It’s so loud, it hurts.” She knew he must understand her meaning, given how he aided her so far through the change. She couldn’t beg more clearly, but he seemed more appreciative than worried.
It was a rare thing to witness the first transformation into a beast. “How else would a wolf know its prey was close at hand?” He switched tactics then, searching for something upon which to direct her attentions. “But focus upon Blix…he who currently stands, ear to door, eavesdropping against expressed instructions,” he rumbled. “Focus upon listening to his frightened heart quickening as a hare’s does, making haste to escape its true destiny within its…within your maw…and settle. Quiet. Rest upon this bed, against me. Focus on putting it away, deep within, until such time as it is required.”
She listened to his hypnotic tones. She understood what was required, and carefully focused—still tentative with this aspect of her change, still learning. She swallowed as the chaos realigned. It was a relief to just hear one thing. Or two things, for there was the sound of water dripping further beyond where Blix must lurk.
A moment of silence passed, marred only by the obvious breath of a goblin too close to a barred door. A goblin wishing to listen to perversions being devised and carnal pleasures being indulged within chambers which had always been off limits to such a creature. In spite of it all, she laughed quietly as he turned to the door, cape flowing in a melodramatic fashion. Upon reaching the entrance, he pulled open fast enough for the goblin to collapse to the stones.
“Apologies, Lord,” the goblin sniveled as he curled into the door in the fear that only a fellow goblin could understand. The rumbling growl emanating from Darkness did not stifle that emotion. “We are unable to get the glittering remnants of blood off the stone. There’s something foully good about the blood as it grows old. Red and gold, glittering bold.” The slain unicorn still lay upon the altar where it was discarded. The stain would linger. How it would be prepared would remain for Darkness or his bride to decree.
“Go,” Darkness snarled. There were others who could complete the task. There were others who could remove the last vestiges of purity that were tainting his throne. “Go now, before your new queen chooses to feast upon intestines. The newly feral are so hungry, and I may just cease to defend such a one as you.”
With that, Blix scrambled to regain his feet and fled. It looked as though he genuinely believed she would set upon him and chase him through every chamber, devising torture after torture until at last he perished, screaming. It would be too prolonged a death.
Once certain he was gone, Lili sniffed with false disdain from her place, finally lounging comfortably (or at least not quite as tensely as before) upon the black silk sheets of the bed. “I don’t think he would taste nearly as pleasing as a unicorn must. But let him believe he does for a time. I want to see his fear at the feast.”
Darkness gazed down upon her, clearly appreciating such a thought. “Feeling in better health then, I trust?”
“Much, yes,” she admitted with a sigh upon the pillow. Now she would go for the walk, she mused as she regained her footing once more. Were there any other shocks her body would cry out to her?
However, Darkness still had a word of possible aid, to her surprise. “I bid you wait but a moment more.” When she paused with an expectant look upon her pale face, hand still upon the door, he continued. “Now that you are no longer throbbing with change…now that it has subsided within you. If you ever wish to gain knowledge more of this affliction you believe to be so terrible? Rather than the mere fables of a lowly race now trapped…to prevent any unforeseen surprises…there is a library. There are many libraries. There is always a library.” Sometimes the darkest of magical tomes walked away on chicken feet, but they never strayed too far. “Five rooms south of the eastern torture chamber,” he elaborated. The shrieks made for a fantastic accompaniment on a dull evening, he had found. It made turning the pages a veritable song. There she would discover the sort of appetites she likely favored, aside from uncooked and dripping morsels.
“I’ll remember that,” Lili said carefully. Should she leave a trail of breadcrumbs? No, no, the rats would steal them. “The eastern torture chamber? Is there more than one, then? Are they close to each other?”
Of course there were. Such an odd question, Darkness felt. Each alcove had a particular specialty, and the masters of the craft rotated between them. Occasionally, if the mood took him, Darkness helped them. “Yes. Look for the one that contains an iron maiden in the hall.” At her puzzled look, he marveled at just how young she was in the ways of things such as this. Did not her own father do such things to his guests when she had retired for an evening? She must be so deprived. This would have to be corrected.
“You should find that knowledge which you seek hidden behind the seventh grimoire on the east side of the chamber, to the left of the huntsman’s axe." He could practically smell the singed flesh, the weeping wounds that would be created when Lili came into her own.
It would be a joy to behold.
“Ah, Lili,” he breathed. “Odin himself would envy your skill with the broadsword on this day.” Even the gods themselves would quake like newborn fawns in the face of the anguish dealt by that graceful blade.
“You say such things,” Lili breathed carefully, despite the pain having long since ceased. “How many hearts have you shattered beyond measure with such pleasantries?” She was teasing him, finding something to grasp onto. Finding something to think about other than shards of phantom glass being driven through her gut, the pain that she feared might still return.
“Merely a score,” he returned, eyes alight with lust. “Perhaps less. As for women such as you? I have lived long. You are in the days of your youth.” Finally, he admitted, “Six souls.” Long enough ago to have forgotten how to corrupt, to woo. Father’s reminders were welcome.
Six would not sound like many until she realized how long it took with each. How long tortures could last, both mental as well as physical. How long until some became husks; rational thought fleeting. If barely scratched by instruments vile, the body would survive what the will and the spirit itself could not bear.
Then the fun ended. Then they were thrown unceremoniously into the pit, lest a closet of rotting souls trouble him. Some were as strong as Lili’s hand had been. Some broke before the gown laid bare its mark upon them, before fully claimed. Each and every case was unique.
Only now would he let her leave. The seconds and minutes would inexorably tick until the time for celebration would begin. There were so many things to observe before then…
A hint of mischief bubbled up unexpectedly. Should Lili go the way Darkness had instructed her to do, read up on her condition, or should she take the other corridor and explore? Hadn’t she had enough of dread within the last few days to fill a dozen lifetimes, enough that she could now move uncaring about the place? Did she really need to keep close to the walls, hide from the guards, and peek furtively around corners as though she were a thief? Or, better still, as though she were a sprite ready to play a prank on an unsuspecting soul?
Yes, she really did. She could take up her duties tomorrow, and accept the yoke of her newfound position. Whatever those responsibilities would be, she didn’t know. But she had to stretch and leap with these strange new legs. She needed to acclimate to the quicker pace while making her way around. The quicker reflexes and claws would take more time.
But in her wanderings she discovered what had become of Jack, almost stumbling over his body. His body…but with no head attached. He was unabashedly dead, came the surprised thought.
He must have followed her through endless corridors, on a quest to be her rescuer, only for some foe—not Darkness, something or someone that she had yet to see—to strike him down. His head was on a rusty pike, torn from a nearby gate. The ghastly sight was illuminated by the brightness of the torches behind it. Blood, both old and dried as well as fresh…from other sources…slowly trickled down to the base. Beside all this laid Jack’s brutally mauled form…with an odd stiffness to him, beneath several burns, as though he had partially transformed into a statue before his death.
If she hadn’t found his head, Lili would still have recognized his green tunic. It was a fearsome creature, which had bested him indeed. With claws and fangs and, perhaps, some unknown substance to paralyze. She touched his still, outstretched hand carefully. It was cold, as she knew it must be. It was as cold as the grave. It was colder than the finest marble statue he resembled now.
He was foolish to have followed her down this path. Maybe Jack was at peace now, on some other level of existence. Maybe he wouldn’t remember his failure. Her betrayal. His loss. Maybe he would drift away like a cloud, and never look down upon her.
A minion of Darkness quickly moved in then, before she could touch anything of the scene, twitching as though fearing for its own life. It began whispering in rhyming verse what it had observed. “Out of marrow and bone, through shadow did spy,” it grunted. “First to flame did twirl, then to stone, and in unison life as it be, did unfurl! Talons cold and black, without a head he be, alas and alack.”
Nobody ever said that dark and slimy goblins had mastered the craft of the limerick, now did they? Lili resigned herself to this one’s oddly worded phrasings. Another look upon the foul face of her momentary companion, and she remembered the creature. She recognized his features. How could she ever forget seeing him in Nell’s cottage, when it had been the coldest of all days for her? Her mind returned to deciphering his—Pox, that was his name— deciphering Pox’s clue. Both fire and stone? The head loss had to have been in the middle, before the stone. So it was not simply a cockatrice that had done the deed with fire. At its side must have been a basilisk, with its gaze of stone. And so the once handsome brave boy had quickly fallen, being merely mortal as he was.
Her acknowledgement of his accursed rhyming, along with a dismissal, came with a brief nod. Pox returned to the shadows, possibly her guard, possibly merely Darkness’ spy while she wandered here and there. Another look proved he had just run away.
So how many days had Jack been here, she had to wonder, while she remained ignorant of the fact of his death, being seduced as she was by dresses and Darkness, and whatever other fallacies could be dreamed up? He must have become separated from the ill-advised rescue party.
Lili briefly thought of Nell’s warnings, and wondered if banshees counted amongst either Darkness or his Father’s most cherished creations. Their very cry heralded that death was close at hand. Surely that would be a boon here. Perhaps the piercing shriek for a doomed soul went unheard by Jack as he made his way through strange corridors, some empty and forbidding. The sound would have been lost amongst the babble and cries of damned souls.
He would have been ignorant of the source, continuing to walk a path leading only to pain, heartache, transformation and damnation.
How cruel of her was it, Lili thought as she crouched beside his remains, that her one feeling now was that she was pleased he had not frozen to death when the snowstorm was at its worst? She should have been grief-stricken, yet only felt relief. There would be no torture for him. No living out his life screaming in agony and horror, as masters of torture worked their craft.
There was neither fear, nor was there doubt. She had made her peace with this place, and felt entirely at home now. It was morbid curiosity more than any hint of concern, she knew, as she rose to her feet and turned away, her dress brushing fleetingly over the drips and drops of the bloody puddle.
There would be no wistful staring into the eternal night, and there would be no crumpling onto the floor in tears. She thought there should be tears, but there weren’t.
She really ought to say something, and that gave her pause. It was only proper, after all, to give him a send off other than his supernaturally painful death. It was only right, given what she had once felt. Some spark of propriety remained within her, and she struggled to find words. As she thought, the very air appeared to grow stagnant and vile. She wished to leave this room. She did not wish to be here.
The feeling was that something—neither Darkness, nor an emissary sent to watch like the goblins—did not want her here, either. Something not quite a premonition informed her that it did not want peace or love or prayer or vigil. It would choke the hope from her throat if it were displeased that she remained in this spot. Perhaps it was the Father of which Darkness had spoken?
The natural chill barely pierced her newly grown fur, yet still she clutched the black cloak Darkness had provided tighter about herself. She hugged it to herself, as the cold grew bone deep. Perhaps another lost soul haunted these halls? She had best finish her business here, then. “Goodbye, foolish, loving Jack,” Lili whispered coldly. “May you find the peace you would have found in your glen, with your animals, if you had never met me. Practically one with nature.” Her lip twitched as she fought back a laugh, as she pictured his attire in her mind’s eye. “May you find the warmest of pants that you never did in life.”
With that, she turned again and hurriedly left the place of his death before inappropriate giggles—some from genuine humor, some nervous—burst forth from her mouth. If it were a lost soul indeed, perhaps it had attained a small measure of entertainment from her words. If something fouler, then it was no longer annoyed by her presence.
Had she truly seen darkly glittering eyes in the corner, or was it her twisting imagination? She saw no physical being. The clacking of the wolfen nails of her feet, brought forth in a vain need for protection, was the only sound as her pace increased and she hurried back whence she had come.
The moon hung full and bloody in the sky overhead, a malign lantern that seemed to provide Lili with strength at the same time as keeping her newly discovered curse in full swing. She thought she had won against the bloodlust. She was wrong. Her emotions would run rampant tonight, she imagined, veering from the human simple to the surreal senses of the wolf.
Those sublime sensations amazed her. The stone beneath her feet felt different from when she had last lost her way through the darkened, labyrinthine halls—and that wasn’t due to claws. The desire to capture and kill a weaker animal of some sort would be difficult. A mere goblin would leave her unsated, while attacking something of the caliber of the things that had slain Jack would be stupid indeed. When her blood finally boiled with a yearning that could not be controlled, she would seek out Darkness and ask what to do, unless she first found something in the library that would stop the feelings.
Lost in her thoughts, she peered into one of many chambers devoted to bloodshed and unceasing cries of pain. This was not the one with the Iron Maiden of which Darkness had spoken; instead it contained racks, most empty. Two were not. Sharp blades were lined up on a tray beneath one such device, some covered in gore. They had been in use, and recently.
Upon the other wooden plank was someone Lili recognized. Brown Tom, she recalled his name now. The leprechaun. She had seen him guarding the last unicorn when she still wanted to stop events she had set in motion. He was not quite alone, despite the lack of guards. A pointy-eared companion lay strapped into a device she could not hope to identify.
When her foot nearly hit a sad little fiddle cast aside into the shadows beside the door, she stooped to pick it up. The strings may be broken, but the body was not. Not yet. Much like the body of its owner, she suspected. She doubted it would ever be returned to him, yet still she placed it upright gently against the wall, within his line of sight. She knew not how to repair such an instrument, and knew better than to try. It would only be broken fully if she were to take it away from this dark scene. But it felt as though taking it would be akin to stealing from a man before he were returned to the earth from whence he had come. If the elf regained awareness, perhaps its very presence would be a help to him in some small way. That done, she returned her thoughts to the first still form, noting the little signs that showed that his life might soon end.
Brown Tom had heeded her words, then. Not that it had helped anyone in the end. Was he drawing his last breath now? Something smelled strange…something always did with this new nose…but she didn’t yet know what the death of one not a unicorn smelled like. Would the scent be different? With nary another conscious soul close at hand—be it black as pitch or white as the oldest clouds—Lili felt she should be his witness. It was partially her fault he was here, after all. There was nothing else for it.
But…she could speed him on to his end. His eternal reward would be better for one that seemed as though he would not be fit for such a place. Wouldn’t it be better for him to die at her hand, than to end as Jack had? In one piece, in one way? Would she be so wicked? She bit her lip in thought, knowing it would be easier this time.
Which was truly a pity, for he had seemed such a sweet soul in her brief knowing. They hadn’t spoken long, but she sensed as much. She would never know if that was a silly notion or not. Her shaking hand touched his brow, taking care not to open more wounds. Taking care not to cut him with a claw. Using her own newly grown claws would prolong his journey onward, cause him more suffering. She couldn’t do that. He stirred weakly. His life was forfeit, and if the weak stuttering of his heart were any indication, if her eyes detected rightly, he would soon be gone.
He was no good to anyone like this, not truly. She leaned down to kiss his temple…a goodbye, before her task was even completed. After a moment’s hesitation, she took a small dagger from the wall. There were two: one silver, one hard iron. The silver…it might sear itself into her skin, and therefore melt into her. She had chosen not to take that one.
Hard iron was fabled to be able to kill a soul with fairy magic coursing through its veins. It was safer for her. The hilt fit easily within her palm, and she thought it should work well. Into his ear, she whispered, “Brown Tom, it’s me. It’s Lili. Tell Jack I remember him, when you see him again. Tell him this was the only way I could help you. This is your mercy.” But don’t tell him anything else. Let him remember her as she was. It was sentimental, but she could not stop the words.
His breath quickened—suddenly, but not surprisingly. Had he understood her words, then, or would life depart days or weeks sooner than predicted?
He breathed faster, eyelids fluttering weakly before they opened. They struggled to focus. “Familiar,” he said weakly. Another gasp followed. “Be ye Lady Lili…Jack’s lost maiden? Different…you are…from before…owe me a hat, ya do…he seeks to find you,” he moaned.
“I am,” Lili confirmed. A hat? Whatever for? Yes, it was missing, but she didn’t understand. Perhaps it was delirium? The dagger was still in her hand, but hidden carefully behind her, lost within the simple folds of her cloak. When last he had seen her, her simple white dress was rapidly becoming tattered rags. What must he think of this shadowy one? “I was,” she corrected. “He searches no longer, I promise. There’s no other need for a rescue,” she advised him gently. “You’ll see him again soon. Very soon.” She would not tell him of the danger he was in if he couldn’t recall it. She would not tell him the fate of his friends, even if her strange eyes gave it away. She couldn’t change those yet.
If only she could extend the same mercy to the still form in the adjoining corner, but it was not to be. Gump, she had been told his name to be, was as much an elf as he was a spirit of nature. The guards deemed him Immortal, as his wounds healed faster than those of a mere child of elves should do. She did not know him. She had not met him. Not until now, not officially.
A pile of entrails decorated the slab beneath him, but there was no opening. She knew there was no surviving such treatment. He must truly be Immortal, then, just as the guards had gossiped. If any goblins were to carve a morsel of flesh from him, he would not die. If his blood were sipped, he would not weaken. His nature would replenish itself, leaving him caged for eternity, with them, for their entertainment. It was this, or someone could weave an incantation from the darkest of the black arts to render him human. Render him killable. But that would end the game, which had begun with the death of the last unicorn. And none of the creatures of Darkness could bear to do that, not yet. It would be such a waste.
Or would it be a kindness? Lili didn’t know anymore.
She took in a breath for courage, for the hope that neither would wake again, as Tom seemed to drift into what looked to be merely a terrible time for a nap, with no struggle for air. Breath still went in and out of his chest. He could stay locked up for years, or he could go now. Now was the time. Now was the chosen hour. The distant sound of footsteps told her of a guard who might return by the time she finished. What she could never hope to fathom until long after was that Darkness had bade them to hold back.
Let the Dark Bride make her worst of choices. Let her murder with good intentions cradled in her heart. Let her know there was no going back.
“Bless you, Brown Tom. You shouldn’t have come here. You shouldn’t have helped Jack,” she said with quivering breath. Before she could raise this next blade to take a life, there was a terrible sound from the senseless form before her, one which startled her into inaction.
One jerk, two jerks, three jerks, and all was as still and silent as could be. As still as death, she immediately knew. She tilted her head, and placed her ear to his chest, certain she must be wrong. But no, all quiet. He was gone. Something unseen must have been done before she arrived, some sort of delay between the violent action and the end result before her. Or she had startled him into the grave with her changes…but very serious doubt for that last theory hung in the air.
Would the werewolf curse increase a thousandfold with this action? Would his pleasant little ghost have haunted her? Or would a more ghastly apparition have taken to trailing her? She would never know, just suspect that it could have happened. Perhaps only within her own mind, perhaps not.
Brown Tom was dead. His throat no longer pleaded to be cut. She dropped the dagger from nerveless fingers, hearing the blade strike the ground with a dull thud. The choice had been wrested from her at the last. Had nature’s call not sounded for his life all on its own, she would have done it. She was mainly scared by how much she wanted blood to be drawn. To see it. Smell it. Watch it fall from her hands. He was gone before she could give in to the impulses burning through her like white fire.
The scent of blood both old and freshly spilled almost sent Lili into a frenzy, then, but she held it in check at the last. Perhaps she could channel it into the sacrifice of a goblin, an elf, or some other creature that Darkness or his father would enjoy. Perhaps into the dance she knew to be ahead of her. She closed her eyes, taking a deep breath as she tried to regain a sense of calm.
Any spies or wandering, curious guards returning to their post could think the dear consort of Darkness was merely overwhelmed at the loss of a former love first, and the lost of a friend who seemed so dear to him second. They would be wrong. In truth, it was the passionate instincts of a newly born loup-garou…a Lycanthrope as her own father had once deemed the wolves that walked upon two legs, which were long believed to be legend.
Brown Tom was likely at peace now, unlike his friend. One more look was spared for Gump, now almost awake, before she turned and fled. Lili shook her head a final time, and quickened her pace as she returned to her chambers to prepare. Not a soul need ever know she had not struck the final blow. Not a soul would know how close she had come…save for her.
There were no riddles to be solved down here. There was no fiddle to play to a merry being such as one of the fair folk must be. Broken as it was, there was just the stark unjust midnight of the soul, devoid of anything to ease a prisoner’s suffering.
Darkness met her at the entrance to the great hall. A thought struck Lili, then, and she leaned closer to the curve of his ear, nearly hidden by those mighty horns. She didn’t want the ears in other corners to overhear, even before they made their grand entrance. She didn’t want them to mock her, or to merely laugh heartily at overhearing her next spoken words. “I have another favor to ask, before we’re all to be fed.” Her pleading look morphed into joking in a heart’s beat. “Before we are too filled and drunken by our celebrations, me on top of you…against the fireplace, as these things happen, I’d wager.” She had heard stories of such things in scrolls and papers her father had never seen beneath her pillow.
“I’d like us to pay a visit to my father.” Now, more than ever, she wanted to seek him out.
Her enticing, seductive air was part and parcel of succumbing to the experience of the Underworld, Darkness knew. She couldn’t know it, but he could take advantage of it. She was unaware of any change in that regard. Her request—not the secret he had expected when her breath touched his cheek—was unique. She was testing him. Wooing him in her own, most simple of ways. One brow lifted up, not entirely incredulous as he sought to tempt her with further promises in their most appealing of games.
“The mortal world has ice beating down upon it, thrusting into its very core, I beg you to recall, Lili,” Darkness replied, gaze sternly fixed upon her. He wanted to see the results of his words. It was their paradise, in many ways, now that natural light had been driven from every plane of existence.
At her wonderfully crestfallen expression, he continued, “It would take the most powerful of dark arts to weave such, but—it is possible. I would like to meet the man whom you so covet still,” he confirmed as he took her hand, which seemed to shiver to her very darkest depths with excitement. “We could return life to your rooms above, for one single hour. But no sunlight. To reverse our efforts would pain us both...your own pain would increase a thousandfold, and you know how becoming predator in temperament did so agonize.”
Could he be hinting at her actions in the chamber where Brown Tom was held? She hoped not. Those golden eyes sparked with new life at his agreement, and she nipped at his lip after the briefest of touches as her lips then touched his cheek. Brief touches, which promised so many more. Even so small an agreement caused heightened passions to stir within her core. In response, he caressed the nape of her neck with a growl before her nod of acquiescence dismissed any further pleas, thoughts or imagined concerns for her former home and former loves.
Yes, a simple meeting could be arranged. Perhaps to strike fear into her father’s heart at what had become of his offspring…perhaps to rip him limb from limb. It would come to them in time. She was so fully in his thrall, it would not take much to convince the child just yet. If this were to be her one and only request, and she were not pleading for life upon life…then, she would easily remain in his embrace.
His head tilted. “Or I could send a goblin to retrieve him—or another ally, if they be too base for his goodness to stand.” He refrained from snarling the last. “If you be inclined to keep our secret…perhaps you?”
“Me?” Darkness' suggestion was startling. She had not thought things all the way through. How would he respond to seeing her so? She was so changed; it would be obvious she wasn’t herself anymore. She feared he would reject her, but still missed him.
“A glamour. A simple thing, really, to cause your father to believe you are the same impetuous and purely naïve little Lili that he saw race through his halls so brief a time ago, heady with the excitement of eluding his way of life.” He had easily envisioned the child she must have been. “To believe you are unchanged, and that time has not continued to tick by within the heart of the nearby clockwork. For him, only moments have passed. For you, as much time as you require to prepare. It will be done…in time, when the festivities have come to their natural ending, and we have rested.” Plans would be made, deceptions constructed, and glamours cast by duplicitous fairies yearning to save their own skin from the dungeon’s constructs…or simply stinging from a rejection so harsh. He would see to that.
The man in question would never be privy to the sight of his daughter’s corruption when he was ever so briefly restored, remaining oblivious to such simple things. Natural and unnatural things. Her father would see as much as his mind could possibly stand. Darkness would only reveal his true nature at the last, as a game, despite his words to Lili.
The glamour would blur fangs and fur, claws and aching fury. Any emotional changes would be hers and hers alone to divulge or deny or mask behind pretty words. She would learn this on her own. Were her father to touch her, a difference would be sensed. The red cloth cloak, which had recently been placed within her wardrobe would obscure the alterations to her formerly delicate features. She would remain angelic for her father within the reflected glamour…while in truth her being would be corrupted fully by the darkest of powers.
But not until Lili’s heart was colder than the frozen night. Not until she was prepared to join him in his play. She would remain eternally in his thrall, with no misgivings, no thoughts of opposition or revolt. Make her one of us, Father had instructed. She was almost ready.
Then, she would flee the human and return to where she truly belonged. There was nowhere else she could go, after all. Nor would she want to.
It was exquisite. She would be quenched…her curiosity, her familial need, satiated for all time. She would be comforted in the thought of her father remaining frozen. Never changing, never dying, never leaving.
“Thank you,” Lili sighed. “You don’t know what this means to me.”
Darkness stroked his finger quickly across her cheek, before pulling away from her. They were expected elsewhere, and whether their arrival was late or early food would be consumed. Where his nails trailed so quickly, so roughly, a small slash was left behind. A wet drop of blood slid unnoticed down her face at first, mistaken for a strangely shed tear until it spilled upon the Pegasus rug which blanketed the threshold.
Lili rubbed the expected mark and found it already healed, with nary a scab or scar to note its existence. It was only the slowly fading memories of the flesh, a misguided expectation of what should by rights be there. This was another perk of her new nature…that, she dimly knew, they could test further in the future.
Darkness distractedly did as well. Hand outstretched to open the door first, he thought the splash of red against the otherwise unmarred white was rather artistic. It gave the skinned creature more character than it had had whilst living, as a matter of fact.
“Come,” Darkness implored, hand outstretched for hers. At his side, in his other hand, was the alicorn. An idea had struck him. It was their time, and they would dance for their subjects…once her wedding gift was hers to see. “You will have an entrance befitting your status shortly. You have a surprise in store. We will walk amongst our guests between moments, unseen by and unseeing of them.”
She seemed so curious to learn more, but he shook his head. No more words. She was eager to plunge headlong into whatever was happening, as a child was seeing its first fairy. He ushered her forward, as both alicorn and doorway glowed with a strange light.
If there were any weakness remaining within her, best it revealed itself now. It would not do for newly darkened creatures to curl, weeping into a corner, sickened with revulsion.
Tendrils wrapped themselves deftly around Lili’s fingers as she stared in what felt akin to awe. They pulsed with insidious life and purpose beneath her touch. Her bare skin tingled where they brushed. When a strange liquid bubbled up from the recesses of the chair, she drew back warily.
It was best to show such things when there were no distractions, Darkness had decided. “They were woven by magic, before being placed within the throne,” Darkness boomed majestically. “The cushions cause endless pleasures when you choose them to place yourself upon them.” It was better when they were implored to slither out, rather than unexpectedly emerge whilst he were busy flaying someone alive. Slither or claw, it was all in the form commanded forth.
Lili nodded slowly, recalling something else. “So when you said it was simply to sit and talk…”
“I wished for that, as well as more. It would have begun so. But it would have become so much more, the longer you remained, as the throne tapped into your body’s innermost wants…longings…such dark passions as most mortals unwisely cast out from their very being before they can identify them. It will bring them forth.” Lili seemed hesitant, which intrigued him. “What bothers you?”
“Even as I sit…and dine with you?” She gave him a look, to remind him of similar words spoken in the past. “Or shall I stand when it comes time?” Balancing plates in the corner would be cumbersome, not to mention tiresome.
“The feast can become anything you wish it to be, my bride. Pleasures coursing through you unimagined, as you discover new tastes. To fill your body’s shivering hungers or not,” he added with all the implications that would hold. “Whatever you desire.”
“If I should die from more pleasure than I can stand,” Lili began half with amusement, half with warning. “You’ll have to explain.” Not to her, she would be dead—but to their guests. Damned souls who may never notice her suddenly collapsing, caught up in their own greedy appetites.
“Indeed I shall…but I believe you are strong enough for the task, should you…undertake it whilst feasting,” he countered with a sly smile. “Your alteration did not shatter you into broken shards of fragile glass. This, too, shall not. Perhaps a swoon, minor in action.”
The hint of a smile grew then. “I shall resist swooning,” Lili declared. But could she set an exact moment for more? She cast about for a sign. There!
“We shall see where next your eyes open, m’lady. Here, or our chambers.” It had turned into a perverse sort of game between the two. She had fulfilled the sacrifice, and now she continued to carefully fathom the new strengths and weaknesses which had consumed her soul. Fascinating.
Newly formed claws almost sank into thick demon flesh as she grasped his arm tightly, with a boldness that she hadn’t anticipated. The speed with which she had darted to him did surprise her, however. He didn’t shake her grip aside, and she was relieved. It was cast herself into this new life, or find herself too afraid to do more than follow meekly behind him. There was no other choice.
“When the candle in the corner of the hall has died and there is naught on the wick, just a pool of heated wax dripping from the candelabra…when it is thoroughly extinguished…then we shall be together. In many ways,” Lili vowed. “Let that be your clock. Let that be your guide. The shadow in one corner of the room falling like a curtain as the candle is gutted…and your answer is yes. Yes,” she repeated emphatically.
He inclined his head at once, knowing her meaning. He would remind her of her promise later, if need be. No more words were needed at this time. Their honeymoon could be hastened. There were ways with the alicorn, with a note sent to breathers of fire to direct their powers to the wax. Making it her choice, her break, better still. She would be surprised by her own passions when they roused into an unspeakable frenzy.
“I think I’m ready,” she said. “No, I’m certain of it.” There would be no more weakness tonight. There would be no more struggling with everything she felt. She would stay strong. She would survive, and she would find her place within all of this.
Flames rose at Darkness’ bidding, channeled through the alicorn that held the power of creation, until they spun like a whirlpool before them. With this in his grasp, he could walk between the chimes of a suspended clock as time’s rule bent to his ever whim. He basked in her enraptured expression, fire reflecting in her eyes. “Be not afraid. Our subjects clamor for their rapturous queen. For your presence.”
The sudden shock of heat upon her face made her startle, almost led her to instinctively cover her face. But it didn’t burn her as it swirled, illuminating them both. Let her become accustomed to the portal before they leapt through.
The cacophony of the assorted creatures created a din rarely heard in these chambers, all brought here for but one magnificently cruel purpose. To celebrate the sacrifice of the sickeningly pleasant beast they were now ever so eager to consume. They murmured and squealed as their betters appeared among them, majestically, arm in arm. They appeared to come from the very depths of swirling flame, stretching out from the candles and torches to make the air scalding to breathe.
His creatures had not had ample time to prepare. Or to hide, as several now did beneath a table. Those few had been swiftly thrown out before any sat to feast.
Unicorn was served now that they were there, along with desserts such as few had ever partaken in. Some were rotten, as some creatures required. Nearly all of the selections were black as pitch, in accordance with traditions unparalleled. Darkness had not been surprised when she deviated from her path at the head of the table, taking instead another seat. Their eyes had met, as she had shaken her head gently. Not yet. She would take the obscenely amorous seat soon…perhaps when there were fewer in the hall.
Perhaps it was too soon.
Not ten minutes later, Lili playfully snapped her teeth at Darkness as he reached for the heart on her plate. He had tried to keep it just out of her reach as a twisted game before, but she had reclaimed it. “One sliver only. I’m hungry,” she half-moaned. He knew she was. He had said as much in their chambers, but she wanted to remind him. A wolf might protect that which it had successfully brought down. Or it might share its bounty. She was hungry, yes, but she was not at the brink of death. She tore a portion off and put it into his waiting hands, before raising the remainder to her lips. She moaned in ecstasy at the first bite, uncaring at first as the blood dripped to her chin. She had bitten into it as she used to bite into apples, drops of blood in place of the juice of fruit.
Two goblins peered her way in fascination, and she shrugged. “You’ve never had raw unicorn,” she chastised. She wasn’t surprised in the least to see them fling themselves towards the second one, yet to be cooked. They pounced, shouting praises of ‘delicious’ and other things, some of which rhymed with ‘bite and tear the unicorn mare’. Some of which did not. Eager nails ripped bloody chunks from the body, swallowing whole what should have been savored…sparing anyone the effort of preparing the remains for the festivities.
If it weren’t too fragile to hold a person—or some larger being—up or some other larger being, perhaps Lili would see if a femur or two could be used for a sitting stool. The pelts of the unicorns would be removed from the bodies, once everyone was finished. She had been told this. They would be made into rugs for the fireplace, like the Pegasus.
None of the goblins or gathered creatures of the night were able to feast upon fur, but they would all look favorably upon the marrow and bone. It would be a way to point out—‘yes, this is our palace. This is our realm. We rule here. Behold what happened to the last innocent creature to set hoof upon the floors. You would do best to flee before our doors close upon you and our blades meet your throat.’
Darkness held up a small offering then, interrupting her musings. Another treat. “Might I tempt you with a dessert?”
“What is it?” Lili wondered. After devouring the heart of a unicorn, surely she wasn’t afraid? That would be silly.
“Pomegranate seeds dipped into chocolate, hoarded by fairies within their abode.” Most of one fairy family had perished, until one told their secret location. As she leaned closer, she observed to her overwhelming relief that there was no glitter to be found flaking them. But what else was there? Did her nose deceive her? No, it could not.
At the look of intrigue directed towards him, Darkness added, “It was sweetened further by dipping it into the freshly spilled sacrificial blood of the mare. How best to begin our new age?” It had been scooped up quickly, quietly, as they departed. While the heat of it still steamed upon the cool stone altar, before the body temperature cooled as life permanently fled.
He chuckled at the pleasure which continued to grow upon her face as she took first a careful, then a greedy bite. She would require a true hunt soon. Sacrificing a unicorn would soon be nothing to her, as she learned to hunt upon the grounds. Blood would flow upon the snow, or the floors. Wherever she wished. Those claws must rend and slash once she gave in to this her true nature.
When a demon whispered into his ear, bliss grew as he leaned back into his place at the head of the table. Excellent. There was talk of Blunder being served with the next round of desserts, an apple in his mouth. It was a simple punishment for one who betrayed, but which sent the meaning across perfectly. Which pastry would be the surprise for guests to discover. It had been the cook’s choice as to what—or who—else filled it.
The extravagance of unicorn would be enough for his bride, but he must get a slice of what the cook had dubbed Blundered Screwball Pie. What better way to celebrate the defeat of purity and his victory over innocence than dining upon someone inexorably linked to Jack’s failure?
Her ears, now as calm as could be since she had learned to sift through the noise, pricked up as she heard Darkness snarl. Blix, still fearful of the threat of her gnawing upon his leg, had whispered something unintelligible and passed another note upon a golden platter to Darkness, before fleeing the chambers with great haste.
A mere slip of paper was the culprit which appeared to have drawn Darkness’ ire. He crushed it in his grip, before leaning back. She sat her goblet upon the table, and turned to him in curiosity. “Bad news?” She was quiet enough that no goblin would overhear. The sun was still gone, so how bad could it be? Had there been some dreadful goblin uprising, only halted when they slipped within a puddle?
“An old acquaintance was slain by your now former love. She once walked these halls as you do now. Father and I knew her best of all, before her retreat into the depths of the fetid swamp. She wished to let the elements seep down deep into her pores.” Amusement stole across his features before a simmering fury briefly returned. “She gained her wish in spades: her features dripping with water and everything which floated within its realm.”
Dear Meg had been driven quite mad, as a result of his dear father’s machinations and ministrations. Incoherent mutterings, dark and twisted, had been flung upon their final meeting. He would no longer need to send spies to drown in the quagmire of the swamp’s depths. “That pup of a boy slew her. News becomes slow when all paths are slick and treacherous in the night, else I would have heard sooner.” Meg harmed no one, so long as her allotment of one babe a month was met; so long as no one took the wrong path, or held a sword before her face. Would he have aided her? No, but he would have preferred the chance. She was one of his.
“You cannot take vengeance from a dead man. He is dead thrice over. I saw what was left of him,” Lili insisted boldly. She had guessed at his intentions. There wasn’t much you could do to a person when the remains were stiff as concrete and partially placed upon a rusty pike. Still, she could not help but wonder at his intentions. “Can you? Is he within your reach still?”
If there were ways, then he may make Jack suffer, still, from beyond the grave. She didn’t want to know those ways. She didn’t want to be party to that. Not here. Not now. She wanted to forget him fully. She wanted to forget herself for many hours to come. She would lose herself in the strange tastes of her hunger.
“One could, my Lady.” He would give her this most small knowledge. There was nothing she could do with it, after all. “There are necromantic spells, my dear,” he continued almost pleasantly, albeit with grim humor. Perhaps he was, in truth, thinking of the many varieties of ways he could implement so ghastly a pain upon another foe with their implementation. “Reanimation spells…which would have fared better, if the boy were in one piece. He cannot call out for mercy. The flesh would slip from his bones moments after he were called forth from the abyss.”
As a look of faint revulsion passed briefly over Lili’s features, Darkness chuckled deeply. She felt a wisp of loathing for Jack’s possible fate, but not for Meg’s countenance? Remarkable woman. He would say no more of such topics while she still had a semblance of feeling left for the once flutteringly loyal heart of a boy.
He said nothing of how Jack could be bound to him for all time, as well as reanimated…and knew still that bringing such a simple spirit from the other side was easier than words made it seem. Words need not be spoken in the doing of such an incantation—the alicorn was fabled to be all-powerful. Jack would be tormented by the knowledge of how his dear sweet Lili had reached the point of sacrificing the pure, eating hearts and raw flesh, frightening the common demon spawn and being willingly seduced at the claws of the foulest of creatures. Of how she was so easily seduced by the greatest evil Jack had ever known.
Lili would never see or sense her once sickeningly devoted love. As time went on, Jack’s essence would deteriorate to a point where only weak denials remained. A hopeless murmuring of inane babble.
“Perhaps it is for the best,” he lied. “She used to hide the rarest of baubles in the slime-covered folds of her dress. Perhaps the alicorn would have been next.” It was too powerful for such a fate as that. Were the swamp not now marred by the thickest of ice floes, he would have sent someone to scour it for missing treasures. “Worry not for either, for they be both soundly dead. Dead, and neither shall return through spells or hexes. Do not fret,” he reiterated. Being, as he was, a master of lies and half-truths, perhaps he would alter his thinking after some time was taken to dwell upon it.
He took her hand, then, and both nipped and kissed it once. She was not frightened, nor did she pull away. She was merely fascinated by his actions. “When you have ceased to have cause to fret, and your brow does not wrinkle…when your stomach is filled…perhaps we could share a dance? No woe shall arrive in the gaps between our arms.” He knew before he had finished that she would give in. Such had been the nature of the spell at the start; such a temptation would prove too irresistible by far to the woman.
Lili returned the grip on his hand. “You need not ask, you know my answer. There is but one sip remaining.” There was a cunning look in her eyes as she took up the glass. Rather than daring to linger upon it for one more instant, she threw back the wine to get her mouthful instantly.
“Now, now,” she instructed with a forced laugh as she tugged his massive red arm. She would do anything to put an end to his temper, when he should be joyous. This was a time to forget oneself entirely. “Now we dance once more, and think not of the dead. Just of…of the future, I should think.” A wry glance into the corner drew her to say softly, “And you of a brilliant candle, as it’s growing low.” Behind those eyes, there dwelt no angel mild.
Lili twirled provocatively, seductively, feeling dangerous as well as ethereal. She would be his distraction. At the back of her mind, beneath everything, she had the impression her movements were like a marionette…mimicking all she had seen and sensed the mysterious dancing shadow do, before it had laid claim to her soul…as it had seduced her.
Now those melodic movements were for Darkness alone.
A guttering candle was such a simple thing to watch, to imbue with desires straining to be fulfilled, Lili believed. It was far easier to direct Darkness to that than it was to send Jack after a ring thrown into a quickly freezing pond. It was easier than hoping her suitor could find it…for wishing Jack could locate it even before the ice, and that it would not simply drift to the bottom, becoming lost to time and elemental things. Reflecting on it now, she understood that her ring was hopelessly lost...never to be recovered. Just like Jack.
Lili’s eyes darted to her side as Darkness suddenly rose, and held up a finger to bid her remain as she was. She sent him a questioning look until she saw his purpose. That was one problem with the candle plan, she mused with a wince, as Darkness stalked away and broke the neck of a lower creature that had been unfortunate enough to obscure his vision. The body fell to the ground with a resounding thud. She was beginning to hope the night wouldn’t end with him carrying her over a field of bodies, with nobody else left alive.
When he returned to her side, looking only mildly disappointed, she knew there was nothing she could say. She knew the fire still burned strong and hot, fierce and free.
A scaled, fire-breathing individual was deftly performing its craft as an entertainment for some in the back of the hall. The back draft frequently made some duck low, and the warm wind buffeted all. Darkness and Lili danced at the opposite end, so as to prevent her dress from being set aflame. It would be a poor compliment indeed to a never-ending night like this if their new queen’s garments were to be set alight. A ring of flame blown towards them was as close as the possibility ever came to becoming reality. A cherub crouched with dark wings and glowing eyes in one corner. It snapped at anyone that dared stray too close. It was feasting upon a large, healthy rat it had successfully acquired, seemingly having forgotten the food upon the table. It seemed to care not one whit for the rarity of a unicorn or the delicacies that accompanied it.
Lili understood with some new instinct that she should never speak to the vicious little thing, never dare touch. Her instincts were proven right when it mauled a goblin without warning just as it set foot through the door.
“You will meet Father soon enough,” Darkness whispered into her hair as there was a lull some minutes later. “Perhaps you already have, in some mysterious guise or another, whilst you wandered unawares.” Perhaps she had not been aware…but this would give her pause, for his entertainment.
“Does he often keep just out of sight? Does he refuse to appear in the circle of light provided by torches, even when his son has brought the world to its knees?” Answer her that. And does he often invisibly follow unsuspecting brides as they try to murder former acquaintances, Lili wondered but did not dare say aloud.
He leaned her backwards slowly as the appropriate portion of the dance arrived…would have arrived, if there had been a band left alive to play. If the goblins, ghouls and remaining fair folk knew each others’ limericks well enough to be anything other than an overwhelming white noise. One could not parse a specific sentence from within the result. However, it could still be construed to be entertainment from what bits drifted to them. “So many questions,” he mused over the din. “He keeps his own time. He has many puppets to oversee, many tales to conceive and bring to a bitter end.” Puppets, such as she and Jack. The hero and his love were the juiciest essence of such gambits as Darkness had ever seen. Once the strings were cut, she had fallen in so pretty a way.
Darkness was nearly his Father’s equal. He had stolen Lili, wooed her, enchanted her, taken over her thoughts and banished her innocent dreams and joys into the void. He had recreated her, made her depend upon him for her sanity. He was, after all, nearly as adept at bringing schemes to fruition as Father was. Lucifer was the master of corrupting that which had once lived within the light—making the bloom of the soul wither within itself. Making the soul believe all its terrible actions were its own idea. Pushing the chess pieces until the queen falls—only to rise again, a new and evil song pulsating beneath her breasts, passions beyond her imagination.
“All of your answers will be delivered in due course, Lili. We will meet each other’s fathers, once the proper preparations have been devised. But know this,” he warned. “Something of you has impressed dear Father on this day. He whispered such praises to me. The last unicorn no longer mars his thoughts, and this does please him so.”
Darkness knew his sire had dogged her steps, and watched her tear herself from her old life. He had looked within the depths of a blazing pool of fire, and had discerned words Lili had meant for no other ears to discern.
She was his. She was theirs. They had chosen well, placing thorns within her path until she had no other choice but to tear her soul apart. She was sinking well into the role of a ravenous wolf. She would be the same within her niche as Queen of Darkness, he believed. The questions that had fallen from her lips like the most rare of jewels found in the darkest of caverns would soon be no more. There would merely be admiration for dark talents, and an eagerness to do such foul things to and with him.
It would make it all the more satisfying.
The eyes of Darkness remained steadfast on the corner of the banquet hall for twenty minutes more. Unlike his lesser minions, he had the same clarity of purpose as his progenitor.
But before the flame could die of its own accord, his patience ended. There was only so long a demon could wait. Darkness grasped Lili’s hand insistently and tightly, with a low growl. The look darted his way proclaimed she had already deduced his intentions. She tugged at the clawed hand with a wicked grin, eyes bright and insistent. Now, those eyes seemed to say without her uttering a word. She was ready to leave.
A single wave of one hand transported the festive creatures of eternal night away. Where, he cared not. To their deaths or to more festivities in the ice, it did not matter. A second gesture, and Darkness' laughter echoed long after fire had spirited them away.
An oppressive cold rushed in to fill the void left behind with their departure. The sudden lack of life and light from any source plunged the once noisy hall into an absolute darkness. Only the dead remained.