Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Chapter Forty-Nine

Like all the other rooms of this forlorn castle, the parlor is empty and silent, still and shadowy, save for the ticking of a clock.

“You can come out now,” says the Lion. “I know you’re in here.”


“There’s no use hiding,” continues the Lion. He patiently circles the parlor. “And you have my word that I won’t harm you.”


“Come now,” purrs the Lion, even gentler, “you have nothing to fear from me... as long as you don’t make me lose my temper.”

He stops pacing in front of the mantelpiece clock.

It ticks a little faster.

The clock opens one eye, only to see Lion’s scarred muzzle staring into its face.

“Hello,” says the Lion.

There is a long pause. “What do you want?” says the Clock.

“To help, of course.”

“Well, we don’t need any help,” says the Clock, and it waddles around to face the wall.

The Lion lazily swats his paw and the Clock falls to the floor. He extracts a single claw, turns it over, and taps on the pendulum. And although the Clock shouldn’t feel pain, it trembles.

“You might not need my help...” The Lion thinks for a moment, but cannot remember the human’s name. No matter. “But she does.”

The parlor rustles slightly and the Lion smiles to himself. He finally has their attention.

“And,” says the Lion, out to the rest of the rooms, “any other things would do well to listen to what I have to say.”

“We’re... we’re listening,” says the Clock, still squirming on the floor. “But you’re too late to help her.”

“Why is that?” asks the Lion.

“She’s dead.”

“Oh, is she?” The Lion tuts sorrowfully. “That does make things slightly more difficult.”

“What do you mean?” asks a broomstick, brushing through the doorway.

“Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself,” says the Lion. He pauses as more pieces of furniture enter. The smell of magic permeates throughout the parlor. “Please, tell me what happened.”

The room buzzes and titters. The Clock clears his throat loudly, and most fall silent.

“She died,” repeats the Clock. His voice is thick. “She fell ill, wasted away and died.”

“And with her...” adds the divan, but the Clock interrupts the interruption.

“...Died the hopes of our master.”

“Only she didn’t die, did she?” whispers the Lion. “Not exactly.”

The room murmurs.

“We, we tried to bury her,” says the Clock. “Only she wouldn’t let us.”

The shovel, which leans in the doorway for fear of soiling the carpet, pipes up. “Her skin was so cold, monsieur. Like her eyes. She couldn’t see us anymore.”

“We think,” says the Clock, “that it was part of the curse.”

“She left,” continues the shovel. “Without a word of good-bye. Just walked back to the town in that broken way of hers.”

“And the master was devastated,” adds the Clock. He is determined not to let the shovel take over his story. “Locked himself away in his room. He sees no one, now.”

They do not mention the day and night he raged through the castle before he was overcome with despair. So much destruction, so many faithful servants crushed and trampled on that painful and unholy day.

The Lion nods thoughtfully. He’d been concerned about having to deal with their master. “And what if I told you that it is not too late to help her? That I could bring her back?”

In a way, they’re just like Pinocchio. Gullible and indestructible. An army of these tools, so much better than an army of hyenas. Feed them their hopes, and let them find his food and shelter.

The Clock speaks with the unanimous thoughts of the others. “We’d do anything to help her.”

The Lion smiles.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Chapter Forty-Eight

And so the Queen finds herself alone in the Castle of the Door, staring down at the body of the mad witch. The crone’s head still bleeds and she groans feebly. It’s a small comfort that - for the moment, at least - she still lives.

Gone are the bodies for the sacrifice - Dwarf, maiden, even Wolf. Not what the Queen would have hoped for, and losing the witch’s powers will certainly be regrettable, but the old woman deserves as much for her failure. And someone has to die.

She forces some apple into the witch’s mouth before dragging the body into the courtyard. It wouldn’t do to have the fool wake up in the middle of the ritual and ruin things even further.

Beyond the portcullis, the undead moan and flail their arms helplessly, but the Queen has long since learned to ignore their pitiful cries. Later on, she’ll have to figure out a way past them, but for now, there is the ritual to attend to.

The mad witch lays still and blissful, lost in the sleep of death. The bindings of spider’s silk are unnecessary, but custom requires it. The bowl of water reflects the image of the pure, blazing sun. The Mirror sees the reflection. The undead quiver and groan, and the Queen raises the knife of bone high.

Words of magic, words from Hell are spoken, and the many spirits that had left their corruptible, mortal state at the Castle of the Door gather and swirl about, unseen.

The Magic Mirror opens one lazy eye, curious and cautious by the gift of blood. And not just any blood, but the blood of a witch, aged to a vintage most delicious and potent.

The Queen continues to chant. The gift is welcomed. The dagger falls. The wind sighs as the blood pools upon the cold stone grounds, as all are pleased by the sacrifice. The undead moan and beg at the scent of blood, and fight against the portcullis.

With a subtle nod, the Mirror soaks in the power and the life of the mad witch, who quickly dies amidst her dark, shadowy dreams.

It is a most suitable sacrifice, far better than an ordinary girl and a common Dwarf, but the rules were stated long ago, when magic was first formed: Though the gift be great, it is only one life, and the Queen may ask for a single boon in return.

There is no need for well-worded rhymes. For the moment, at least, the Queen can treat the Demon in the Mirror as an equal. It regards her silently, its mask bloated a deeper hue with the blood of the mad witch. It will give nothing away without being asked first. Those are the rules.

“This plague,” says the Queen, and she gestures with her free hand toward the creatures at the portcullis. “From where did it begin?”

It is a question she has long considered, the single request that would reveal the most to this mystery. If only she had another life to give, she could learn more, but this will have to do.

And if the Mirror thinks anything about the Queen’s choice of words, it does not share any opinion. There is perhaps a reason why it appears as a mask.

“At the Forbidden Mountain,” it speaks at last, “home to an uninvited enchantress, dark and beautiful. She is the mother from whom the dead first found life.”

The trade of blood for knowledge is fair by all accounts. The wind hushes its approval, the spirits fade, the blood cools in the morning air, and the Queen bows graciously at her reflection in the Mirror.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Chapter Forty-Seven

Once upon a time, the Big Bad Wolf abandoned his son to the hungry dead. He was starving and exhausted, but at least he could still run, whereas Junior could do no more than curl into a ball and weep.

The Wolf awakens to the screams of his son, still fresh from his fevered dream. It takes him a moment to realize that the cries are real, and they’re coming from within the castle.

That’s right, he remembers. He’s inside a castle. The Castle of the Door, in fact. The gateway to the Lands Beyond.

Once upon a time, a wooden boy and a little pig invited him - however reluctantly - to journey with them to this very castle. And he turned them down, attacked the pig, and was driven away. At the time, he didn’t know what hurt worse, the rocks thrown by the puppet or the fact that he was beaten by a child.

Slowly, gingerly, the Wolf creeps toward the cries. It’s difficult to move - his chest is oddly tight. He looks down and is surprised by the black thread stitched across his body. Yet the pain isn’t nearly as bad as he’d expect - he’s certainly felt worse these past few days. And the wounds no longer burn.

He enters the Chamber of the Door, and another memory, another flash from his dream, gives the Wolf pause.

Once upon a time, in this very room, the little pig stayed behind to build a final wall of brick, a practical way to protect the Door. But it trapped him with the Wolf, and the Wolf had his revenge. Even armed with a hammer and trowel, the little pig was soon killed and eaten.

Now two bodies lie upon the bloodstained floor – a sleeping beauty and an unconscious witch.

How similar they are to the prophecy spoken by the Demon in the Mirror: that two would come to end the Wolf’s pain. Witch and Queen, Dwarf and Maiden, he’d never been sure who the Demon was referring to. And that might have been the point of the prophecy, after all.

But, of course, only one of them would have made stitches so tidy, and once upon a time - just last night, though it’s hard to believe - Cinderella sewed them all and saved his life.

Beyond the bodies, the Dwarf stands before the wall of brick. His spear-axe is pointed at the Wolf.

They regard each other silently, cautiously, as the Wolf drags himself over to the witch’s body. He holds his breath at the stink of her magic, and lifts a leg to leave his scent. Let it be known that once upon a time, the Wolf was here.

The Dwarf’s spear relaxes the tiniest bit.

“You leaving?” says the Wolf.

Warily, the Dwarf nods.

“Can I go, too?”

The Dwarf’s eyes flicker to the sleeping maiden at his feet, but then, reluctantly, he nods.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Chapter Forty-Six

The scent of magic is overpowering, almost painful. The Lion isn’t surprised that no animal or bird or even insect will approach this place. A tremor runs down his spine and he subtly hides it with a quick shake of his mane.

“Go on, my boy,” says the Lion. “Open the door.”

Pinocchio looks doubtful. “Why would my father be here?” he asks. Another question, as always. “It’s so... ugly.”

“Is it?” says the Lion. “I hadn’t noticed.” To him, all of Man’s buildings are ugly.

“Everything’s grown over,” says the puppet. “And it’s all broken and ruined.”

Pinocchio tries not to shiver - not in front of the Lion - but there’s something about the castle that makes him feel like he is being watched, and not by the welcoming eyes of his father.

“And wouldn’t he have seen us by now?” Pinocchio asks. “If he were here?” In his imagination, Gepetto would have rushed from the castle as soon as he saw them on the trail. And inside there would be all manner of music and merriment, light and warmth.

But the castle’s windows - the few that aren’t shattered - remain black, empty, staring.

The Lion sighs heavily. He only needs the brat to do one simple, final act - open a door - and even that is proving to be a struggle of epic proportions.

“I don’t know, child. Perhaps he’s asleep. It is dusk, after all. In any case, you’re just moments away from reuniting with him... so what are you afraid of?”

“I’m not afraid,” says Pinocchio. His nose puffs out slightly. To prove his words, he raps his small wooden fist against the door. It makes a small, lonely sound - the call of an intruder - but from within the castle, there is no response.

At least, not to Pinocchio. The Lion’s ears prick up slightly. He definitely heard something rustle inside. Excellent. He shakes his mane once more.

“Maybe he’s not home?” Pinocchio asks hopefully.

“My boy,” says the Lion, “all the trouble you’ve caused has come to pass because you did not listen to your elders.” He says this with such assurance that Pinocchio cannot help but nod. “Listen to me now, for once, and open the door.”

He does.

“Father?” Pinocchio calls into the empty entrance hall. Once it was grand, fine, plush. Now it is a mess of broken glass and faded, moth-eaten fabric. Shattered porcelain, broken plates, an overturned and ripped-apart divan.

And silence.

“Father, it’s me. Pinocchio.”

Something rustles softly from within, somewhere upstairs. Though the Lion is usually loathe to step indoors - the buildings of Man are always so claustrophobic - he enters the castle eagerly.

“Go on and find him, Pinocchio,” he says in his kindest voice. ”Perhaps he’s upstairs.”

Pinocchio turns back to the Lion and clutches at his mane. “Will you come with me?” It’s even darker upstairs, and he still can’t help but feel he’s being watched.

“I wouldn’t dare intrude on such a reunion,” says the Lion. “I’ll remain down here, waiting for you both. Now go on, show him what a brave son he has.”

Pinocchio looks back upstairs. Old portraits peer at him from the shadows. “I... I guess you’re right,” he says, and with a deep breath, hesitantly makes his way up the staircase.

The Lion smiles back pleasantly until the boy disappears into the gloom. He sniffs at the air, tracing the strongest aura of magic, and then he, too, melts into the darkness.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Chapter Forty-Five

“Take him and the girl,” says the Queen. “We haven’t much time.”

Just listening to her voice makes his blood boil, but the Dwarf forces his face to remain slack. Oldest trick in the book, playin’ opossum, but he’ll be damned if he’ll show his hand before the time is right.

She doesn’t make much noise as she exits – slithery as a snake, that one is – but her footsteps soon fade.

The large purple cat still sits upon his chest. It mustn’t know he’s awake, not yet, not until he’s got his weapon in hand.

He forces himself to think calming thoughts – biting off the Queen’s finger, for instance. Another trick well played. Let her stew on that for a while, maybe it’ll throw her off her game ‘til she realizes she ain’t gonna die. Not of the curse, at least, though the Dwarf hopes his mouth is dirty enough to at least make the wound fester.

The cat lazily lifts itself from the Dwarf’s body, and it jabbers to itself in the voice of a madwoman. “Take the bodies, she says. But how? A jungle ape? A bear? An ogre, mayhap?”

With each creature mentioned, the room crackles and flickers with magic as the purple cat changes shape. The Dwarf keeps his eyes closed and his face still, though talking animals fill him with disgust. His polearm, he knows, lies over yonder. And judging from the cat’s voice, its back is now to him, probably facing Cinderella.

“Ogres can’t fit through them doors,” the cat warbles. “So jungle ape it is!”

Another flash of magic, and that’s the moment he’s been waiting for. The Dwarf opens his eyes and reaches, the spear-axe is right there, and finally the comforting weight of solid iron is in his hands once more.

The purple ape, hunched over Cinderella, doesn’t hear the Dwarf’s charge. The blunt end of the axe, heavy, iron, thick, smacks into its skull.

The ape falls, bleeding and unconscious, but the body that hits the floor is that of a mottled old crone.

The Dwarf stares at her body, spinning the polearm restlessly. It’d just take one quick stab to end her wicked ways, and the girl – both of them, in a way – would be avenged. He presses the point of the spear against the witch’s black heart.

But is that what Snow White would want? Or Cinderella, who was always so kind to even the nastiest of magpies?

And there’s something pathetic about the crone’s toothless mouth, something helpless and weak, that gives the Dwarf pause. It was the Queen who brewed the poison, after all, not her companion. He chews at his beard angrily, and suddenly sheathes the weapon.

“Ain’t no way you’ll make me a murderer,” he growls to the witch, and he slumps toward Cinderella’s sleeping form. He cannot bring himself to look at the maiden’s face.

Taking Cinderella’s body, the Dwarf lifts her with a weary grunt and steps toward the Doorway. Whoever bricked it up surely didn’t do them any favors, that’s for sure.

It’s not gonna be easy doing this alone – he’ll have to climb ahead, clear out the area, climb back, and then carry the girl. And all before the Queen returns.

Speak of the Devil, there’s a faint step at the entrance to the Chamber, and the Dwarf whirls around. He reaches for his polearm and eyes the intruder.

Staring back is the Big Bad Wolf, freshly bandaged and cleanly stitched by Cinderella’s own hand.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Chapter Forty-Four

She should be readying herself, she knows. The ritual will be dangerous, and even weakened by the light of the morning sun, the Demon in the Mirror will not be dominated so easily.

And yet, the Queen cannot stop staring at her wounded hand and thinking of that Dwarf, that damned Dwarf. All her plans and predictions ruined by a heinous little creature and his snapping jaws.

She is dying, she knows, as her blood gives in, drop by precious drop, to the undead plague. At best, she has a day or two before the Dwarf’s bite will kill her, reduce her to a hungry, mindless corpse, trembling in the summer storms.

In one hand the Queen still holds a slice of her apple, steeped in the liquids of sleeping death. How easy it would be to taste its poison and leave this burden to another.

But, she wonders, could the apple protect her? Could it still her heart, stop the curse, and leave her waiting, dreamless and breathless, for love’s first kiss?

Does it matter?

No one would come save her, not in this doomed kingdom where the bravest of men fled like cowards, leaving the Queen alone to save them all with magicks darker than the tomb.

No. She is too important to remove herself from the game. She will cast her spell and carry on for as long as she is able. Two days is not much time, but it might be enough to save the world. And if it isn’t, then as the last whispers of her life fade, she will take a bite from her apple, and fall where she may.

Absently, anxiously, the Queen prepares the courtyard for the spell that must take place. Soon everything is in position – the red spider’s silk, the knife of bone, the golden bowl of water to catch the sunlight, and, of course, the Magic Mirror to view its reflection.

All that she needs is the blood, the sacrifice. Two gifts, a Dwarf and a maiden, sleeping eternally. Two answers to any question, two visions into the past or the future.

But what’s taking the mad witch so long? Could she not carry their bodies this far? Could she not think of a shape to shift into with such strength and mobility? Or more likely, did she give in to temptation and eat the girl?

Cursing her luck when it comes to lackeys, the Queen strides into the castle. Quickly she passes empty hallways and bloodstained corridors. The crone will certainly be punished for this delay. She should know the importance of this ritual.

The Queen steps into the Chamber of the Door, ready with an angry command, but the unexpected sight kills the words in her throat. Of the Dwarf and the maiden, there is no sign. In their place, a solitary figure lies bleeding on the floor - the plump, unconscious body of the witch.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Chapter Forty-Three

“But why would they shoot at us?” asks Pinocchio.

“Because they are Men,” says the Lion. “And they must never be trusted.” He steps cautiously through the unfamiliar forest, so different from the Wildlands. The smell of magic - that intriguing, burning smell - grows stronger and stronger. They’ve almost arrived.

“But...” persists Pinocchio, and desperately, longingly, he looks back toward the little town.

“It does not matter, my friend.” The Lion curls behind the tiny puppet and gently nudges him forward. “We’re looking for your father, aren’t we? And he is not within that town.”

“Are you sure?” asks Pinocchio. “Wouldn’t he want to be with other people? It’s a safe town! They were shooting guns and they had fires going!”

The smoke was another reason why the Lion had avoided the dwellings of Men.

“What have I told you about red fire?” the Lion asks with a theatrical display of weariness.

The puppet sighs and speaks by rote – this is one of the many lessons he’s learned since traveling with the Lion. “Fire is dangerous.”

“And not just for me...” says the Lion. He winces - his many scars contract into a maze of ruined flesh - at the memory of flames from so many seasons ago, when he was still a cub, and how he had to flee with the rest of his pride. How long ago that had been.

“...But for you, as well,” he finishes. “You are made of wood, Pinocchio, and wood burns. Who’s to say they wouldn’t use you to cook their dinners or heat their water?”

“Well, I’ve never had that problem...” says Pinocchio, though doubt creeps into his voice. Times are different now, and the Lion seems so sure.

“You’ve also never been attacked before,” adds the Lion. “What kind of Men would shoot at an innocent child? Not the kind that can be trusted.”

“No,” he purrs, with another sniff at the air, “your father would not associate with Men like that. He continued walking, through this very forest, down this very path. Why, we’ve almost caught up to him now.”

“Really?” asks Pinocchio. He quickens his pace, and the Lion lets him walk ahead... just in case.

“Have I ever lied to you?” asks the Lion.