Only Darkness told the truth.
Everyone else said he was gone, and danced in the sunlight to celebrate. But Lily saw him underneath the branches of trees, and flinched back. "That's just shadows," they told her. She saw him when the sun set, and trembled next to the fire. "That's just night," they assured her. She saw him in her dreams. "That's isn't real," they insisted.
But how could they tell?
What was the difference between shadows and darkness, night and the great beast who seduced her away from the light? What was the difference between dreams and reality?
I am part of you all, he'd said.
As long as they were still there, so was he.
"I wish I'd seen him die," she says to Jack one day.
It shocks him. The Lili he used to know, the one who had never touched a unicorn, would never have said anything like that. Death was unknown to her in those days, and she would have been horrified to see it.
But the Lili she is now would have watched. And then, maybe, she would have believed he was dead.
She reassures Jack, laughs it off, pretends she didn't mean it. The shadows laugh with her.
And a few days later -- or maybe it is a thousand -- she starts talking to them.
"You changed me," she says, and the shadows answer back: you changed yourself. You touched the unicorn.
Lili shakes her head. Yes, that much is true; she touched the unicorn. A seed of darkness within her, reaching for what she should not have. But she was still herself afterward.
Yes, the shadows say. And then you began to discover who you were.
She was asleep and dreaming when Darkness died, but she heard his words anyway. You think you have won? I am part of you all.
"He told me that's how he influences us," she says to Jack. "In dreams. I was dreaming when he died. He's still there, I know it. In me."
Jack strokes her hair, smiling. His smile is light itself, denying the power of darkness -- and yet it cannot banish her fears. "He isn't in you, Lili. He never was. You defied him."
You lied to him, the shadows whisper. To lie well, you must understand the one you are lying to. Would you have understood him, if there was no part of him in you?
She does not say, I think I'm going mad. Jack would only look puzzled, then suggest they play some innocent game. If anyone is free of shadows, it's him, the one who fought like a hero and cast Darkness into the outer abyss. She is the one who lied, the one who danced in that gown and loved how it made her feel. That swaying waltz, leaning first this way, then that, so different from the skipping, sprightly dances of the fairies. She freed the unicorn -- but first she cried out for its blood.
"I am not a hero," she whispers, and is glad when Jack doesn't hear her.
She stays awake later and later, rising only when the morning is half gone or more. While Jack sleeps, she looks up at the stars, contemplating their beauty. They only glitter so brightly because the sky around them is so black.
"Night," she murmurs, hearing her own voice like that of a stranger. Then, on instinct: "Mother Night."
No answer comes. But she feels certain something is listening.
And finally, one day -- one night, really -- she slips out of the bed she shares with Jack and lays a kiss on his forehead. Then, on shadow-soft feet, she creeps away through the forest.
She could find her way to Darkness' realm blindfolded, not so much because she remembers it as because she feels the path in her bones. Nothing troubles her as she crosses the swamp. The halls are silent, the goblins scattered -- not dead, she thinks, but hiding. More proof that Darkness is not really gone.
The banqueting room is still there, though the fireplace has gone cold. The food sits on the table, untouched by decay. The glass she refused to drink from is still full. As if everything here is only waiting for its master to return.
And one thing that does not belong: Oona, standing in front of the mirror.
"I should stab you through the heart," the faerie spits.
This is the room where she faced Darkness. She screamed defiance at him -- screamed, when the loudest her voice had ever gone was a shriek of delighted surprise when Jack ambushed her in the forest. She found strength here, and is not afraid of Oona.
Lily spreads her arms. "Do it."
But Oona does not move.
She lowers her arms. "Then get out of my way."
"You don't have to do this," Oona says. "Darkness is gone." But she does not sound convinced.
"There is no good without evil . . . no love without hate . . . no heaven without hell . . . no light without darkness." Lily smiles, wondering if it will be for the last time. "We must have good, and love, and heaven, and light. All the things Jack fought to protect."
"He fought to protect you ."
She was part of it, yes. But not the most important part. And Jack trusted her to do what was right.
Lily waits. After a moment, Oona steps aside.
She came here expecting to have no audience, but the faerie's presence comforts her. Someone will know what happened here; someone will understand. Lily takes a deep breath and approaches the mirror.
The memory of Darkness stepping out of the mirror is burned into her mind. He was taller than any mortal or fairy, his neck a powerful column, supporting the weight of the horns curving above. The shadows whisper, He is your reflection. He is everyone's reflection.
Lily reaches out. The mirror's surface is cool against her fingertips.
And then it gives way.
She steps through the mirror into perfect blackness.
Mother Night, she says. I am here. I am ready.
The world needs Darkness. Not just its seeds within people, but a champion: someone to whisper to people in their dreams, to frighten and seduce them. Someone for heroes like Jack to conquer.
Lily stretches out her arms. The blackness pours down around her, molding itself to her body, flaring outward in a high collar and full skirt. Her lips darken, her hair sweeping up as it had before. As a final touch, starlight: a band of glittering brilliance from shoulder to hip, adorning the new Darkness with its beauty.
Her breath sighs from her. Those black lips curve into a smile -- the smile she bore when she faced down her predecessor, so unlike the smile of the Lily she had been. It feels right, all of it. Her innocence is gone; she lost it when she touched the unicorn, when she lied to Darkness, when she held a blade in her hands and knew she had the power to destroy Light forever. But she knows it would never have happened. Not only because she lied when she begged for the unicorn's blood, but because this is how the story goes: the two sides struggle against one another, eternally. There is no evil without good . . . no hate without love . . . no hell without heaven . . . no darkness without light.
"You didn't understand that," she whispers, knowing her predecessor can hear. "Or perhaps you simply forgot." Perhaps, in time, she will forget.
When that day comes, another hero will come and strike her down. But for now, she reigns with the blessing of Mother Night.