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Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Hanging Lanterns

Estimated reading time: 15 minutes

     As the legend goes, Jack was a blacksmith with a penchant for dishonesty. He gambled, he drank, he lied - even when he told the truth, he twisted it. And so he inevitably drew the attention of one he shouldn't have. The trouble was, for all his dishonesty, Jack was very good at every single thing he did, and so, when he gambled against the devil, he won - and extracted a promise that his soul would never be taken to Hell.
     Unfortunately for him, when he died, Heaven didn't want the liar and gambler, either. And so Jack was condemned to wander the dark hills of his homeland for eternity, with nothing but the burning coal and hollowed turnip the devil had thrown him to light his endless way.
     Jack O'Lantern's ghostly glow has been spotted for centuries on hill and moor, flickering brightest around the time of Allhallow. The ominous sight sends everyone fleeing behind closed doors - but sometimes, that's not far enough; his light has been known, on occasion, to draw close to the village that was once his home.
     This was one such night.

     The streets were empty of all but the most drunken guisers, those masked and costumed to trick the dead who might wish them ill into thinking them someone else. Torches sputtered over doorways, taken from the great bonefire to guide lost ancestors home; double crosses were drawn beneath windows to turn the unwelcome away; small buns were placed on doorsteps to appease any malignant spirits or witches that might approach the houses.
     Jack wandered unseen through those thinning streets, peering around at the dying festivities until he reached the abandoned and burned out bon'fire in the square. There, he planned to linger and look over the stones arranged around the smoking ruins, each positioned just so to ensure the future health of a household. He could already feel, if not breathe, the herby smell of wards and charms burned to chase out evil and dark omens.
     Those measures never worked, of course; the seeds of misfortune were sown unimpeded for the year ahead on every Allhallowtide without exception. But the living seemed to believe otherwise, and that thought was comfort enough for them. Even if the devil Herself wasn't put off by their flames. Nor by their bells, herbs, loud noises or other fanciful distractions. In fact, She'd been present at these festivities since the fire was sparked at dusk, watching, and deciding.
     And She was still there now, pondering the stones while all else but the spirits themselves had gone to bed.
     Though drawn as he always was to the ashes, Jack kept his distance, and shielded his lantern from her piercing eyes. It was all he would think of until She finally left - and while he knew he should leave and wait for that moment from afar, he couldn't find the strength of will. What cocksurety he'd had in life had fled him quickly in death. And so he wrestled with that stagnant decision for an hour, until movement from the darkness drew his itchy attention away.
     A hunched old man moved out from the night, clad in a thick travelling cloak with a seasonal charm of turnips and mangelwurzels tied about his waist, carved into miserable human faces. His own wrinkled expression was strangely neutral; he wore neither the reverence nor fear others usually carried on this night, nor did he seem curious to the woman's solitary presence.
     Jack inched back deeper into the darkness and watched him approach the deeply tanned woman, who still slowly circled the char. Her ruby eyes soon lifted and stared back from beneath sleek black eyebrows.
     "Fair Allhallow," She said smoothly, her voice like silk.
     "Fair Allhallow," he replied with one far more hoarse, and he delivered a difficult bow. "Devil."
     Her eyes narrowed. But for how carefully She considered him, Jack saw no concern in her terrifyingly perfect bearing. "You could hurt a lady with those words," She said a moment later.
     "I could excite her, too. But it was really just a suspicion." Then the old man squinted closer. "Your eyes truly are beautiful..."
     "Mm." She lifted her chin and stared down along her nose at him. "Correct, on both counts. What do you want?"
     "...Jack?" She blinked. "Silvertongue Jack? What interest do you have in him?"
     "He's an ancestor of mine."
     Jack's eyebrows rose.
     "I'm so sorry," the devil replied sardonically.
     "Aren't we all. But I want to free him."
     Jack's eyebrows lowered.
     "So," the old man smiled, "I challenge you to a competition. If I win, you revoke the curse and let Jack pass on. If you win, then the curse stays, and I'll shoulder it, too."
     Jack's mouth formed an objection, but the dead had no voice.
     He watched a smirk tug its way across her plump lips, then She made a curt gesture as if shooing the old man off. Instead, his back straightened and his face changed: where his skin had sagged and his eyes had sunk, he was suddenly youthful, and not unhandsome. Jack could see no relation either with the mask of magic, nor without it - but it had been two hundred and eighty two years since he'd died, and his familial blood, as blood did, had changed.
     "No mortal man can get the better of me," She told him smoothly. "Charms or no. I always win in the end."
     "Then," the young man smiled, "it's just as well I'm no mortal man."
     Again, her eyes narrowed. "You've caught me in a fair mood. Very well. I accept your proposition."
     "Good. Take off your shoes." Jack frowned just as the devil did, and watched him kick off his own, grab a handful of ash from the ruin, carry it off and trail it in a wide circle around them. "The aim of the game is simple," he said, dusting off his hands, "don't leave the circle. Get soot on your foot or ash in your dash, you lose the tale...forfeit the...I win."
     For some reason, Jack rather felt his hope sink.
     "That didn't work," the devil noted.
     "I never claimed that it did. Are the rules clear?"
     "Clear as crystal."
     "Wonderful." Then his face scrunched. "Why are you smiling like that?"
     "Because all I have to do to win is stand right here. And I don't really have anywhere else to be." She stepped ominously towards him. "For a very long time."
     "...Ah..." He scratched at his head and glanced around. "Well, there's obviously"
     She cocked a speculative eyebrow, folded her arms, and swung her hip out to one side. "Then do tell."
     Jack watched the young man's eyes slowly widen as he thought. The furiosity of the effort was disheartening. But given things as they were, had been, and would continue to be, could this man honestly make his situation any worse?
     ...Yes. He probably could.
     The man snapped his fingers then, a bright look on his face. "Summon a demon and I'll fight it."
     Jack baulked, but the devil shook her head. "It would destroy you in a moment. There will be no fun in that for me."
     "Then summon something smaller."
     "Then what would be the point? And, if I may note - for the sake of fair game - that that would only push you out of the circle."
     "...All right...all right, in that case..." Again, his desperate thought gave way to a rapid grin. "Three more games."
     "Because the first one is going so well?"
     "Those stones," he gestured first towards the pyre, "and those lights," then towards the flickering lanterns outside the nearest house a good fifty yards away. "First one to knock out a flame."
     She gauged the distance for a long moment, pursing her dark red lips.
     "You've got beautiful lips."
     She ignored him, and as her gaze drifted back onto the stones, a mischievous smile crept over her face. She extended her hand, and the stones drifted over, simultaneously spreading doomed portents over the whole village.
     The man grunted quietly to himself as he watched them float by, then followed Her to the edge of the circle and took half the stones for himself. He glanced down at his feet while he stepped up to throw, and quickly shuffled back. "Whoops, nearly."
     Jack buried his face in his hands.
     Less than one minute later, She'd extinguished them all.
     "You used magic," the man accused Her warily, but She simply smiled back with the most perfect mask of innocence.
     "Why would I need magic to hit a target when I have coordination?"
     Jack frowned. No, She hadn't used magic. The devil liked games; Her trickery wasn't in cheating, it was in words.
     Panic would have flashed through him, if it was able, and he quickly racked his mind back over everything She'd said since this ancestor of his had shown up, searching for the trap.
     "But," She said, peering down at the ash circle, "that didn't pull either of us over the line."
     "No, it was poorly thought-out..." the man admitted.
     She turned him a sideways look. "The next game?"
     Her fine brow flattened. "I am not a child divining my future husband."
     "Can't say I blame you, it would be rather disappointing when you came out with nothing. And I can't say I'm keen to divine mine, either. That would be even more upsetting. Fine." Foolishly undeterred, he turned and strode back to the bon'fire, lifted a stick of char and stirred up the embers from a careful distance. Then, with a sharp movement, flicked it upwards. The tiny lights flared, drifted and flickered. "Catch an ember."
     Her black eyebrow rose, but She didn't object.
     Neither did Jack, though he deeply wished to. He knew how this would go. Fire was the devil's pet; it would be no trouble for Her to call the embers into her palm even without resorting to magic. But his fear of Her restrained him from interfering with their drift, and he watched them vie to capture one of the flickering lights while his incorporeal stomach sank another foot lower.
     Predictably, it didn't take long for Her to capture three. Again, his apparent rescuer had failed astoundingly.
     "There's one more game," he reminded Her quickly before She could gloat.
     "Are you sure you wouldn't prefer to forfeit?"
     "I am, quite..." He stole another moment to think, then snapped his fingers again, another unsettling wildness in his eyes. "I've got it." He lifted another stick from the mound, one far less burned than the rest. "Set fire to this."
     She barely even glanced at it before a blisteringly hot fire took over it. The man jumped slightly, then stepped back and let it go. The flames quickly caught and spread over the dry grass.
     He turned her a mad grin. "Last one standing."
     She folded her arms and dropped her gaze to the fire. Neither of them moved. Even as the flames began to approach, they both stood their ground. Even as it closed off escape. Even as the smoke began to strangle the air.
     Jack couldn't feel the smothering heat, and neither did he breathe at all. He simply watched as the young man began to sweat, his foolish attention torn between the spreading fire and his opponent. The flames began licking at both of their feet.
     Then, when a terrible smile cracked across the devil's face, the fire suddenly peeled back and fled from her presence. She grinned while the man's eyes widened, and cackled as the flames turned and closed in on him instead, and strode slowly forwards while yet more skittered away, watching him gasp, swear and try to shield himself with his cloak, until he finally stumbled backwards and out of the circle.
     "A marvellous game," she chortled, dismissing the fire without even a gesture. "Such good fun! I do enjoy seeing mortals try to get the upper hand. I did warn you!" She moved forwards, and her beautiful smile curled into something woefully vicious. "You have no idea what you've let yourself in for - which is why, I presume, you're still smiling like an idiot. But at least you'll be united with your dear ancestor." She bared her sharp teeth while his foolish stare travelled down to the ground.
     "You've got such lovely feet."
     She frowned. Then he looked back up, and his smile inched a little wider.
     "Shame about the ash."
     She glanced down and noted the dark smudges. Then grunted and smiled back. "Makes little difference."
     "Aaaaactuallyyyy," he pushed himself back up, "it makes all the difference. I win."
     She shook her head, luxurious black hair bouncing in a storm of elegant curls. "You left the circle. I haven't missed your games. They were diversions, nothing more. The real competition was in not leaving the circle."
     "Very astute of you," he said, inexplicably still grinning. "But I never said the person who leaves the circle loses. I said the one who gets soot on their foot would lose. I said the aim was not to leave the circle, but I never said that that would end the game."
     Her ruby eyes darkened and snapped down to the ground. Jack's followed. There was ash everywhere. The dry grass had burned quickly, and the heat had even stirred the bon'fire's remains.
     A growl rattled from her throat, and her gaze snapped then to his feet. Conspicuously clean. He'd awaited the fire at the edge of the circle deliberately, so he could 'stumble backwards' and avoid wide stretches of ash, keeping himself within the rules.
     Jack blinked.
     The devil's eyes crashed back on the man. The fire blazing in them couldn't be matched even by the flames of Hell. "You tricked me."
     The man simply shrugged. "I did ask you if the rules were clear."
     "No mortal man can--"
     "I did also say I was no mortal man."
     Jack and the devil stared in shock as the man peeled his face away to reveal another, grey-skinned and undeniably feminine.
     The devil steeled and stormed forwards, small sparks of fire lighting beneath her steps. But She didn't strike her. She did nothing at all, in fact, but make a promise: "I will have you for this."
     "I welcome you to try, Devil. But, for now," she grinned and made a florid bow, "adieu."
     The devil glared and vanished. Her roar of outrage hung behind her for some time.
     Then the grey woman turned and looked directly towards Jack. "I thank you for not interfering. You can come out, it's over."
     He did so warily, clutching his lantern tightly and peering around with wide, baffled eyes. "You can see me... What did you--how did you--"
     "I'm somewhat of an expert with demons and darkness," she replied, waving his stuttering away. "The key, ultimately, is pushing them into a position where their arrogance takes over and they make a mistake. I gave Her many openings, and She took them all. Everyone knows fire is the devil's pet. But She underestimated me right from the start." Her smirk became that of the old man again, then back to her youthful yet somehow inhuman features.
     "You knew She'd sense the magic..."
     "It was deliberately clumsy," she shrugged. "That was the point. She instantly underestimated me. Which is why I also appeared as a man. Had I appeared as a woman, She'd have taken me more seriously."
     His brow lowered, and he stopped a few steps away from her. " a witch?"
     "Realm walker, actually, but I've been called...ugh, far worse."
     " I free?" He stopped walking again while she sucked air in through her strangely small teeth.
     "It depends on your perspective," she replied carefully. "Free of the curse, yes. But you're still not welcome in Heaven. And I don't think you would really choose to go to Hell - nor would She want you there."
     "Th-then I'm still cursed to wander!"
     "I'd rather call it free to wander," she grinned, spreading a sweeping gesture out over the hills.
     Jack followed it in disbelief. Why had he gotten his hopes up?!
     His eyes snapped back onto her, and he stared cautiously at the unreadable look she turned him over her shoulder.
     "Unless, of hung up your lantern, and came with me..."
     "...With you?"
     "Oh yes." She turned and wandered back over towards him, draping a bony arm over his shoulders. "I have great plans for you, Jack."

This story and image are not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission.
Copyright © 2020 Kim Wedlock


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