Lightning in the Black Bottle
A Short Story
Jack Lightning felt the mists of morning against his pale skin. He was sneaking through the swamp in what should have been a messy business, but Jack loved the muck. He’d just stolen a pair of tall leather boots, tough as seal-skin, black as tar, so it was a pleasure to let them slosh in the inky mire. And the swamp was the shortest way. Jack always loved a short cut.
“Quiet, Twitch,” he said to the black and white stray inside his knapsack. The poor mangy cat was meowing nervously. Its green-yellow eyes didn’t like the water curdling below. Water was the enemy. Jack scratched the cat’s head just behind the ears, but Twitch didn’t like it and pulled away, sinking back down into the darkness of the knapsack.
“We’re almost there,” said Jack. The Old Heron was waiting. It was still hard for Jack to believe that the time had finally come. He allowed his left hand to wade softly into his trouser pocket, feeling the orb inside. What a price I paid to get this one, eh? he thought. The orb was smooth but irregular in shape — it was almost spherical, but somehow one half had decided to bulge a little more than the other, giving it the impression of a globe that had gone saggy. Jack didn’t take it out of his pocket, but he knew that by this time it was already glowing. The Heron would be happy. The orb was getting ripe.
The murky water was getting deeper and deeper with every step. Soon it splashed up around Jack’s waist, forcing him to adjust his knapsack so that it hung across his shoulders, away from the swirling blackness below. Twitch wouldn’t appreciate getting wet, and Jack didn’t fancy facing the Heron without his lucky cat. For the Old Heron — fierce, battle-scarred, and bitter — hated only one thing. The feline species. Cats made the Heron squawk. Twitch meowed and squirmed inside the knapsack. Jack wondered if the cat knew where they were headed.
“Not long now,” Jack said. “Got a fine tree for you to climb.” The Heron’s tree was fine, that much was true. But Twitch wouldn’t be doing much climbing. If Jack was lucky, they’d trade the orb and be gone before the Heron even opened both eyes.
If I’m lucky. Jack smiled. He was always lucky.
Eventually, Twitch stopped squirming and Jack knew he was asleep. Better for him, he thought. Let him rest before the work begins.
The swamp started to empty. Reeds and lilies started getting thicker. Jack sliced his way through the thicket with his knife. The ground rose steadily now; Jack’s boots found spongy footing as they made their way up the banks of the swamp. Soon the thick black boots were traipsing over wet earth and brown leaves. Thin, young saplings — the ones nearest the swamp — gave way to massive, ancient trees. Jack had found his way to the Herne at last.
The trees in the Herne were older than the mountains. They were the first things of the world, twisted and tall, trunks as wide as a giant’s ass. The trees gave off a smell of must, like a cabinet full of parchments and scrolls kept in the cellar of a witch. Jack sucked in the musty air. It was going to be a long journey to the nests of the herons.
It didn’t take more than a few hundred steps through the Herne before Jack met with his first obstacle. He knew the forest was filled with robbers and thieves, but to meet the king of the robbers on his first jaunt was quite a feat. Old Nog with legs as long as tall oaks stepped out from behind a tree and doffed his cap. He grinned his grin of three teeth and Jack knew that there was no way to escape what fate was in store.
“Evenin’, gent,” said Old Nog, whose face was as gnarled as a rotten turnip. He spit as he spoke and the soil sizzled from the poison therein. “You can’t pass this way until you pay the fee to Old Nog.”
“I have nothing to give,” was Jack’s reply, but Nog could see that was a lie. Jack wanted to put his hand in his pocket and feel the smoothness of the orb, but he didn’t dare. He kept his cool.
But Nog asked for something else. “Give me that fine coin purse that hangs from your shoulder.”
Jack prayed to all the gods he could name in his silent head that Twitch would keep still. The cat, thankfully, did not stir. Sleeping, I’d wager.
“Aye, that coin purse, as you say, is fine indeed,” Jack replied. “But it’s filled with nothing but scraps of food, and what care you for poor man’s food when all this forest feeds your hunger? You, sir, need something worth something. You need treasure.”
“I’ll take that coin purse, whippersnapper, if you don’t mind,” said Old Nog, and he stretched out his boney fingers like the legs of a spider, straining to stick their tips onto Jack’s bag.
“Ah, but!” cried Jack, taking a step back.
“But what?” said Nog, his rhumatic eyes narrowing.
“But what about my boots?” Jack lifted his left foot to show off the slick black leather. Even covered in the muck of the swamp, the boots looked fine as a bottle of ink.
Old Nog stared at the boots and ideas took root in his mind. He had such long legs — they would be needing a good pair of boots someday. Why not today? Nog’s own feet were bare as the rocks, colored brown by leaf and lichen. What he would look like in those fine leather things. What a stride he would make.
“Give me those boots,” said Old Nog, “and I’ll let you pass. I might even let you live, if they fit me right and don’t cause a callous.”
Jack knew this was a good deal. He took off his boots — his new boots, the ones he had just stolen not even two days ago — and gave them to the old man of the woods. Now Jack’s feet were bare as anything, and Nog walked around with the slick, fine boots on his legs — the boots looking like leeches that had crawled up the trunks of two wobbly trees.
Jack trudged off, feeling with a wince every twig and pebble. But Old Nog was satisfied and didn’t even see Jack go. Twitch never made a movement nor even a purr.
“Better to lose the boots than you, my friend,” Jack said to the cat in the bag over his shoulder, but the cat never heard. Jack spent the next hundred steps fingering the orb in his pocket, making sure it was still there.
Before long, he heard the soft gurgle of a stream. Running along through the trees was a creek, muddy and shallow. Sitting on the edge of it was a raggedy woman, her hair stringy as ivy vines, her clothes the same color as the brown water. Her back was to Jack. She sat dangling her barefoot feet above the flowing water, humming softly a dark tune. Jack had a good ear for music, and he could hear a minor key as quick as a bird. He tried to step away from the creek and the woman, but twigs snapped and ground betrayed him. She whirled her head in an instant, and cut off her last note like an axe falling on a prisoner’s neck.
Jack almost wretched at the sight of her face. Pock-marked and shriveled, her face had little maggots crawling in and out of the open sores and punctures which littered her cheeks. Her eyes were wider than a cat’s because the skin around them had thinned and stretched back to her temples. She grinned and her teeth were knife-sharp. Her voice carried the same dark tone as her song.
“Well met and fine greetings, my fair man,” she said. “Come to hear me sing? I love to have an audience. Come, sit by me and dip your feet into the waters if you can. I won’t bite.”
Something about those teeth made Jack doubt it. “Afraid I can’t stop now,” he said, doffing his hat in a gentlemanly way. “Perhaps on my return, we’ll share a duet.”
The hag laughed. “You lie as good as a jackal! But somehow, I have a hunch that you won’t pass by this way again. Come then and sit by me. I won’t bite, I swear it on the moon!”
“The moon, madam? The moon is ever-changing. I can’t trust an oath by the moon.”
“But I am of the moon and the moon is of me. How can a lady not swear by the very stuff of herself? For I am Maggie o’ the Moon, fairest lady of that fair orb.”
Jack stiffened at the word. Did she know? But no, of course she could not know. Jack’s hand relaxed.
“Forgive me, madam, I did not know.”
“That’s alright my handsome jack, for if you sit with me and sing a while, I’ll be satisfied.”
Jack needed to think fast. He saw a trap as true as ever, but how to throw her off the scent.
“May I leave a marker in my stead?” he asked at last. “A token of my good word and a pledge to come back this way again when time is more to my liking?”
Maggie o’ the Moon let her smile drop. Somehow, despite the closing of her mouth and the disappearance of her hideous teeth, she looked more frightening. Her sadness was worse than her fake mirth.
“I suppose it had better be something worth having, if I can’t have my fancy man here beside me,” she pouted.
“Madam, take a few coins from my purse,” Jack offered.
Maggie o’ the Moon scoffed. “Am I worth nothin’ to you but a few farthings?” Then her face turned dark and scowled. This was the worst face of all. It was like watching the moon eclipse and the face of it turn blood red. She began to get up from her spot by the riverbank. She looked ready to bite.
“Alright, alright!” Jack tried to stem her anger. “You name the thing! I’ll give you whatever you ask!”
This mollified her for a moment. She sat back down with a soft thud and grew pensive. She leered at Jack then, looking him up and down. “Ah me,” she muttered, “so much worth taking.” She licked her lips.
Jack suppressed as much of a shudder as he could. He wondered what magic this hag might have and if she could see into his pockets. Just then Twitch meowed and fidgeted around in the bag.
“What’s this, what’s this!” Maggie shrieked. “A kitty for Maggie to play with?”
Twitch kept struggling, so Jack had no choice but to open his bag and lift the wriggling feline out. Poor Twitch was jumpy and didn’t expect to see another face, particularly not one so hideous as Maggie’s. It took all of Jack’s effort to not let the poor cat slip from his fingers. Then complete terror took him as he realized Maggie might ask for the cat. She’d just as soon eat him as give him a pat, he thought.
But Maggie’s face soured when she saw the scrawny black-and-white. “Nay, a mangy thing is that!” she spat. “Barely worth picking my teeth afterward.” She grinned and grinded her razor-like teeth together.
Jack smoothed Twitch’s fur and hummed a little ditty to the poor, nervous wreck until at last he calmed and purred. “Agreed,” Jack said, “he’s much too sickly. Not right in the head, in fact.” He placed the cat back in the knapsack.
“But Maggie is still owed, she is.”
The hag licked her lips again and squinted at Jack’s belly. “And the hour is getting time for supper.”
Jack took a slight step back. He kept his fingers lively, just in case he needed to reach for his knife. “Not too late, I think. There’s still some time for merriment yet.”
“Aye, for merriment…” She started to get up, to creep toward Jack. The worms crawling in and out of her face were slithering faster now. Jack could see her claws more clearly too. Each finger had a long nail that look like the edge of jagged knife.
Jack gulped. If only I didn’t have to look at that hideous face, he thought. But I can barely stand to glance in that direction without feeling sick. Poor Maggie needs a proper bag on her head. Then he had a sudden thought.
“My lady!” he bowed graciously. “I have suddenly thought on the perfect gift for your fair form!” He took off his hat and doffed it, then held it out for Maggie to see. Jack’s hat was one of his oldest possessions, a fine deep blue leather with a peacock quill in the sash. Its brim was wide and it conformed with supple grace to his head. That hat had been with him through thick and thin. But it was still beautiful, despite the wear and weathering of its many years. And Maggie’s face, perhaps, could be shielded a bit by the wide brim…
“My hat, gentle madam of the moon,” he continued, “is a gift as fine as any for so sweet a lady as yourself. I offer it to you now, in my stead. For though I cannot stay and sit with you, my hat at least will comfort your head.” He held the hat to her.
Maggie looked at the hat curiously. Her head cocked, her eyes unsearchable, Jack didn’t know what to make of it. Does she like the offer? She started creeping toward him again. Jack held the hat with one hand but began to move his other hand towards the knife hidden under his shirt. She clinked her long fingernails together. Jack had his hand on his knife. One quick move and he could have it out and in her gut the minute she came upon him. But as Maggie drew closer and closer, her fingers did not go for his throat. They reached out to caress the soft leather hat. She drew one hand over the long, fuzzy peacock feather. She gingerly lifted the hat from Jack’s hands and placed it on her head.
“Ah!” she said as the hat melted into her head and slouched a bit to one side, obscuring part of her face. “So soft! I bet as soft as yer belly,” she added with an ugly wink.
“It suits you well. Better than it ever suited me.”
“Mmmm,” Maggie said as she preened and paraded in her new hat. “Tis true, tis true! I like it well. I’ll take this for my bargain and let you leave in peace.” She ran her fingers along the brim and smiled like a child who had gotten away with some mischief. “But if ever you pass this way again…” She flashed her teeth once more with lusty hunger. “… I shall insist you sit beside me on the bank.” Then with a hiss and a girlish squeak, she capered back over to her perch above the creek and sat down to dangle her feet once more.
Boots gone, hat gone, Jack felt quite naked now. Still, he thought, my cat’s in my knapsack and my treasure’s still in my pocket. I don’t need boots or a hat to meet with the Old Heron.
The forest grew quite thick and darker the further he traveled. The little clearing and the flowing creek seemed a world away now. Even hideous Maggie seemed less terrifying than the shadows and darkness that closed in upon him as he headed into the very center of the Herne.
“Yes, I hear it too, friend,” said Jack. There was a whistling of wind through the thick trees. It had a high sound, like the weeping of banshees. Jack knew something was watching them. He looked up into the tops of the trees. Perhaps we’ve found the Heron, he thought. But there were no nests up there. Just a canopy of thick leaves that blocked out any trace of sunlight. Jack looked about him, trying to peer into the gaps and spaces between the trees and underbrush. But there was nothing save black shadows. Not even an animal stirred in this part of the forest. And yet, something followed them. Something stalked.
Twitch was restless now. He wriggled in the knapsack and Jack feared he might scratch the leather to ribbons. So Jack began to sing. It was a whispered song at first, just a mumbled string of melodies. But then one of the melodies caught his mind and he began to find the words.
“Away, away, cried the maiden dear,” Jack sang as softly as he dared. “For in this land is naught but tears. I canna leave, the sailor said, for I do love thee in my stead. Too’la, too’la, too’la, la’rey, the sailor kissed her on the quay. He kissed her on the quay.”
Twitch was satisfied. He purred and settled down. Jack stopped his song after a few more quiet verses.
“Doooonnnn’t sssssstoooopppppp…..” something hissed into the silence.
Jack froze. He looked around to see what had spoken, but all was blackness and unmoving trees.
“Doooooonn’t sssssstooooppppp…..” the scratching voice said again. “Sssssiiiiinnng agaaaaaain….”
“I—” Jack started. The voice was bone-chilling, creeping down his spine like a long knife. He could hardly breathe let along form words or song. What is it? Where is it? This cannot be the Old Heron. This is something else.
“Sssssiiiiinnng!” the hissing voice demanded.
Jack couldn’t think of a single note.
“Yoooour faaaaccce is faaaair, yoooour eyessssss are bluuuue,” the chilling hiss said. It seemed so much closer now, like it was breathing down Jack’s neck. “Ssssiiiiing that ssssoooonnnng or the Gruesome will devoooour you.”
Jack summoned every ounce of courage he could muster. This took more courage than his fight against the dreaded sea captain of the Red Wenches. This took more courage than the harsh years he spent living and stealing on the streets. This took more courage and cunning than the whole year spent finding and fighting for the orb in his pocket. Something about that formless voice was fear personified. It was fear speaking to him from the heart of the Herne, the fear that probably birthed the trees themselves. The hidden fear of this ancient place. The Gruesome, it had called itself. Jack had never heard of such a creature, but now, having heard its horrible voice, he would never forget it.
“Away, away—” Jack began, but his voice caught in his throat. He cleared it and hoped the Gruesome would not mind. “Away, cried the maiden lost. For in the sea you must be tossed. I will’na leave, the sailor said, for I do love thee in my stead. Too’la, too’la, too’la, too’low, the sailor kissed her and would not go. Away, away, the maiden mewed. For the ancient fighting’s been renewed. I shall not leave, the sailor called, for I do love thee best of all. Too’la, too’la, too’la, too’rey, the sailor died that very day.”
“Yeeesssss,” hissed the voice. “You havvvve caaaauuught the meeaaassssuuuure of it. Ssssiiiiiiinnng agaaaaainnn.”
Jack couldn’t believe the words he spoke in reply. “But that is the end of the song. The sailor is dead. There’s no more to sing.”
The voice hissed with rage, a long, high-pitched sound. “Nnnoooooooo!” it cried. “Ssssssiiiiiinnng agaaaaaainnnn!”
I have sealed my death! Jack thought in a panic. His entire body began to tingle now, as if centipedes and spiders crawled all over him, as if little pricks of needles were dancing on his skin. He writhed and shuddered. The Gruesome was closer, he could feel it closing in.
“I cannot!” Jack cried. “My fear prevents me!”
The voice laughed. It was like the crackling of fire. “Fffffeeeeaaarrrr…. Yeeeeessssss… Now, I shaaaallll ssssiiiinnnng… The Gruesome shaaaaallll haaavvvve hisssssss supper…”
It was impossible to tell where the creature was coming from. There was still nothing to see in that dark forest. But Jack could feel an even darker shadow overtaking him, he could sense the hot breath and the wet mouth of something huge opening its maw to devour him. He tried to sing. He tried desperately. But the words would not come. The tune was lost. And so was he.
The Gruesome — hidden, invisible, larger than the largest snake and yet unseen — was about to close its formless jaws around the man and his cat and the secret treasure stowed away in his pocket. And then Jack tried a gambit that only desperate men can make. He bargained.
“What about a gift instead of a song?” he bellowed into the unseen mouth that was going to eat him.
Suddenly, the air was a bit fresher. The hot steam of the Gruesome’s throat was momentarily gone.
“A giiiiiffffft?” it said.
“Aye, a gift. You’ll like this one.” Jack reached under his shirt and took out the knife hidden there. “This knife, you see, is no ordinary knife.” That much was true, in fact. The knife was the first thing Jack had ever stolen, back when he was just an urchin living on the streets of Farrow Town. His mother dead by the plague, his father killed by the king’s men, Jack was only ten and alone. He stole the knife because he knew he needed steel in order to live in the bleak and dangerous world. He stole it from a fat inn keeper who let him sleep in the pig sty. He stole it and stabbed the inn keeper. His first murder.
But the knife had served him well. It proved a fine instrument to keep a boy safe, and later to aid a man in his thievery. The Gruesome would have no love for such a gift, Jack knew. But all this story is not what Jack told to the creature.
“Whyyyyy woooould I waaaaannnnt a kniiiiffffe?” the Gruesome hissed.
“You loved the song, eh? Well this knife is the token of that sad and lovely tale. For the poor sailor had bled from the blade of this very knife. The song I sang was true, you see. And this knife is the proof of it. Look here,” Jack said, pointing at a little speck on the blade. “The sailor’s blood, sure as I am standing here. And if you listen closely, you can hear the blood still singing.
“In fact, it was from the blood on this knife that I first heard the song you so love. And if I give the knife to you now, it will sing for you, and perhaps one day you may sing the song yourself. What greater gift could I give you? For I am a man, and my voice will one day give out, and you’ll never hear the tune again from me. But if you take this knife and let it sing for you, then you’ll have the song forever.”
There was no sound. No movement. Jack almost wondered if the Gruesome had gone away. But then he heard air seep out from nowhere, like the trees exhaling. The Gruesome sighed.
“Yyyeeeessssss…” it said at last. “I will taaaaake it.”
“Ah, but how can I give it to you if you remain unseen?”
The Gruesome hissed again, an angry hiss like a kettle boiling over. But then, upon the moist, dark earth, the thing appeared. It was like a snake, and like a swan with its long curved neck, and like a bat too in its eyes and pointed ears. It was longer than the trunks of the trees. Its entire body encircled Jack and its long neck towered and swayed above him, the face and rodent-like eyes peering dangerously close to Jack’s own.
“Heeeeaaarrrr it ssssiiiiinnng,” said the Gruesome. Both the top and bottom of its mouth had two sharp rows of teeth.
Jack had found his courage and his voice again. He held up the knife, and with his lips barely moving, began to sing softly. “Away, away, cried the maiden dear, for in this land is naught but tears…” It was a satisfying ruse, for it seemed the knife was singing.
“Yyyeeeeesssss!” smiled the Gruesome.
“But, my friend, how shall you keep this knife?” Jack said, warming up to his part now. “For you have no hands nor a belt to hold it? I tell you what you shall do. Open that wide mouth of yours again, and I shall put the knife there. Perhaps if you keep the knife in your mouth, it will sing the words of the song for you there. Now open wide that I may place it in.”
The Gruesome nodded. Jack heaved back and with all his strength and aim, hurled the knife into the mouth and down the throat of the huge creature. The Gruesome snapped its jaw shut, and as it did, the knife streaked down its gullet. Jack could see the sharp object outlined in the Gruesome’s swan-like neck. The creature tried to swallow it down farther, to get it into its belly.
But the more the Gruesome struggled, the tighter its neck became. The knife’s blade poked through the thin neck. The Gruesome tried to cough it up, but that only pulled things tighter. With one final choke, the Gruesome pushed the knife blade right through its neck, the silver steel piercing through the flesh, black hot blood squirting out the puncture. The Gruesome flung its neck back and forth, its head lolling to either side. It tried to screech, but that just pushed the knife out further. The sound of its hissing was caught there, cut upon the knife.
Jack wasted no time. He ran. He clutched the knapsack and secured the orb and never looked back to see if the Gruesome had stopped breathing.
When he stopped running, he collapsed upon the ground. He lay there for a while with eyes closed, listening for any sound that the Gruesome had followed. He listened for danger. All was silent. Then he opened his eyes and saw, high up in the highest tree, a huge nest and a thick pale yellow beak peering over it.
The Old Heron.
There were no other nests in the trees. Unlike other herons Jack had seen, the Old Heron did not live in a heronry. He lived alone. It didn’t take long for the Old Heron to emerge. His long, s-shaped neck rose from the shaggy nest, displaying the plumes of wispy feathers on his chest. His body was more grey now than blue, but his head still had a bold streak of black above his eyes and long feathers that sprouted from his head and hung down his back like stray hairs. His eyes made Jack catch his breath. They were as yellow as dandelions with just a pin-prick of black in the center of each. They caught Jack in their glare and never released him.
The heron descended from his nest like a hot air balloon deflated to the ground, his huge wings spread out to catch the air currents as he fell. He floated down to a long-hanging branch of the tree and perched there. His height, his long legs, his fine snake-like neck were on full display. He was the largest bird Jack had ever seen, and he had spent time with vultures and eagles. But the heron was greater than even those, his long years upon the earth making him a massive, ancient giant. All he did was stare at Jack with those unblinking, unnatural yellow eyes. Now that the Heron was closer, Jack could see just how thick and sharp the bird’s beak was. It was like a dagger’s blade.
Anyone who got on the end of that beak would find a hole in his gullet, Jack thought. And here I am without a knife.
Jack waited for the bird to make a sound, to squawk or croak at him, but the Heron was silent. He just sat there on the low-hangning branch and stared directly at Jack. Then a sort of grumble started in the back of the Heron’s throat. It sounded like the start of his squawk, but nothing came out of his beak. Jack had a moment of panic; the look of the bird, the strange noise — they could all be leading up to one quick stab of his beak and that would be the end of Jack Lightning. He needed to act fast. He took out the orb.
As soon as Jack held up the glowing, oblong sphere, the Heron screeched a hideous croaking cry.
“Aaaarwk! Aaaarwk! Aaaawrk!” The Old Heron beat his huge wings and the force of them felt like a high wind against Jack’s face. Jack thought for sure that the Heron was about to dive at him, stab him with that thick, sharp beak, and start eating his entrails. But Jack held firm and clutched the orb with steady fingers. The Old Heron settled down, but his long neck extended as close as it could toward the orb. The Heron’s eyes — so unmoving, so blank before — were now glinting with hunger.
“So,” the bird began. His voice was not human; it scraped like sandpaper scratched over iron. “You found it at last.”
Jack found his voice. “Aye. I’m ready to make the deal.”
“Why should this bird make a deal? Why not just take the sweet egg from you? Cut you open with this bird’s beak.” The Heron clicked his beak together like a pair of scissors.
“You wouldn’t want to try,” Jack said. He reached over his shoulder and unslung the knapsack. “I’ve got my own weapon.” He opened the sack and pulled out Twitch. When the little cat saw the Heron, he gave a hiss, and the Heron jerked his neck back. He flapped his wings and let out another cry of angry “arwks.”
Jack put the cat away. “Well done,” he whispered to Twitch as he closed the bag again. “Now stay alert. We’re not done yet.”
The Heron had settled down. “This bird sees you are clever. That is so. This bird will not cut you open.” He gained his confidence back and leaned back in toward the orb. “The egg means no use to you. The egg is food for this bird. This bird can make a deal then.”
“I’m glad,” said Jack.
“What is your offer? This bird will hear it.”
Jack had been rolling the words over in his mind ever since he first heard the legend of the Old Heron. Give it a rare gift, give it the food it desires, and the Old Heron will answer you questions three: your fate, your time, your heart’s desire.
“I want your answers to the questions three,” he said to the bird.
The Heron squawked again, turning his head upward and bellowing his shouts to the treetops. Then he shook his head and the white plume on his neck and chest shook like tall grass in the wind.
Jack waited for the Heron to speak, but the bird was silent now and staring again with his bright yellow eyes. “What is my fate?” Jack said at last. “How shall I die?”
The Heron said nothing.
“What is my time? When shall I die?” Jack waited, but the Heron made no response.
“Will I find my heart’s desire? Shall I ever have a lady love?”
The Heron said nothing, and Jack had a wicked feeling that the stories weren’t true. This bird wasn’t anything special, just a strange creature that lived alone in an old forest. But then the Heron croaked and it was a terrible broken sound. It rolled its yellow eyes back into its head.
“You shall die by the cut of a blade,” the Heron began. “When the truth is swallowed, then your neck will bleed. And yes, you’ll find your lady love. When the sun comes by another name.”
Then the Heron’s eyes rolled back to face Jack and the bird glared at him. “This bird wants his meal,” the Heron hissed. “Give it!”
Jack held the orb up as far as he could. He’d lost about an inch when he gave up his boots, but the long neck of the Heron was able to dip down far enough to reach the orb. With its thick, strong beak, the Heron pecked at the orb like a hammer coming down steel. Each time the beak pounded on the orb, Jack felt his hand and his arm rattle. He was just about to stop the Heron and set the orb down when the thing cracked. The Heron pulled back, its eyes both hungrily staring and gaping in awe.
“Yes!” the bird cried.
Jack stared in disbelief as well. The orb cracked open and crawling out from it was a tiny starfish that glowed with phosphorescent light. Jack caught his breath at the beauty of it. The little starfish pulsed and waved its tentacles while it mewed a strange, innocent hum.
The Heron clacked its beak together twice and lunged at the glowing starfish. In one quick snap, the beak had closed around the delicate little body, and the light was snuffed out. The Heron swallowed the starfish whole.
Jack felt sick. He had traded that poor creature’s life for a few riddling words. Twitch meowed in the knapsack. The Heron cawed and flapped angrily when it heard the cat.
“Twitch,” said Jack, thinking of what would happen now if he took the cat out and let the feline have his way with the bird. His hands were close to pulling the sack open. But then he stopped himself. No use. What’s done is done.
The Heron seemed to laugh at Jack’s sickened face.
“What did you think you were bringing this bird?” the Heron said. “Your human heart is weak to mourn over meat.”
Jack had no answer. The Old Heron croaked again and then flew back up to his nest high in the tree.
Jack took the broken pieces of the orb’s shell and let them fall to the ground. Twitch was silent.
Jack Lightning felt the smokey breath of the fire burn his eyes.
“You’re sitting too close, lad,” said a grizzled old drinker a few tables away. “Pull up next to us here, get yourself out of the smoke.”
But Jack didn’t feel like making old men happy or making himself more comfortable. He wanted to feel the sting of the smoke.
Twitch was on his lap, snoring softly and curled up into a little black and white ball of fur. Jack took one last gulp of his ale and then waved the serving wench to his side.
“More,” he coughed.
The poor girl tried to smile and be friendly, but Jack could tell she was disgusted by his miserable state. He was drunk, no doubt about that. He hadn’t moved from that spot for fourteen hours. He looked wilder than an ape and a bit crazy too. No shoes, no hat to cover his rain-soaked, greasy hair. The haggard look of a man who had been traveling through all manner of storm and wilderness. I think she only comes near because of the cat, he thought as he watched the serving girl go to the barkeep and fill up Jack’s tankard.
When she returned, she tried smiling again. “A bowl of broth next?” she said gently. “How about a bed?”
Jack took the tankard of ale and resumed his essential task of staring listlessly into the fire. The girl left without another word.
It was so alive, he thought. Like a star come down from the heavens. Such beauty!
It had to have been magic. No other explanation. There’s no natural creature on this earth that could look the way that starfish looked. None. And I sent it to the bottom of the belly of that monstrous bird. For what? For a bunch of meaningless garble. A stupid, selfish string of words that mean nothing. No, even worse. I gave up that thing of beauty for LESS than nothing.
“You shall die by the cut of a blade,” the Heron had said.
Jack laughed to himself. Of course I’ll die by the blade. I’ve lived by nothing else. Slowly the memories crept into the corners of his waking mind. He blocked them out as well as he could, but they kept seeping in like the smoke from the fire. The flash of his knife. The scream of the poor man. The glow. The pulsing beat as he held it in his hand.
“It was just luck,” he said out loud. Just luck. Yes. He took another swallow of his ale and let the memories drain down his throat.
“Excuse me, sir.” The serving girl was back. Jack’s eyes could hardly focus now, but through the haze he could make out a sweet face. Soft eyes. Hair the color of honey.
“Sir,” she said again. “Master Ben says we need to get you to bed.”
She seemed to indicate the barkeep. He was behind his counter, wiping it down and looking annoyed at Jack’s presence. “You’re falling asleep anyway, sir. You’ll spill your drink.”
She tried to take the tankard from Jack and he didn’t put up a fight. Her hair smelled of sage and a bit of rosemary. As her hands passed over his, he felt their softness. Such softness for a tavern wench. Or am I dreaming again? Is this part of the memory.
“Thank you,” he managed to whisper.
“‘Tis my pleasure,” she replied. “Come on, puss.” She picked up Twitch with a gentle touch and held the cat under one arm while she raised Jack up from his seat with the other.
“‘Bout time!” the grizzled man at the nearby table sneered. “Throw him out with the pigs!”
“He stinks!” called another harsh voice.
“Crazed like the pixies in the Sundown Bog,” cackled a woman’s voice.
“Been to see the Devil, he has!” another drunk chimed in.
“Throw him to the pigs!”
The serving girl said nothing. She helped Jack to a staircase. “Up this way,” she said. She was stronger than Jack would have thought. She practically carried him up the stairs.
Soon he was floating on a bed made of down, the soft cotton sheets swaddling him like a babe in arms. Twitch was nuzzled into his neck, warm and purring.
“They call me Dawn,” said the girl. “I’ll be in to check on you. Get some rest.”
Jack slept and dreamed of the starfish. He heard the voice of Dawn floating through all of his visions. Dawn. Like the morning sunrise. Like the promise of the new day. Like being born a second time. Dawn. Her voice and her honeyed hair mixed with the clean smell of his pillow. He watched as the glowing starfish faded and turned into her smiling face. He felt tears drip down his face. He snuggled into Twitch.
When he woke up, the room was cold. The fire had gone out. The only light came from the faint gray light of the moon shining through a lone window.
“Twitch,” Jack croaked into the darkness. My voice sounds like the Old Heron, he thought. “Twitch!”
He felt the bed sheets for the cat, but they were empty. “Twitch!” He sat up.
“Don’t move again,” said a man’s voice. It was low and soft, but the note of a threat hung from it like a cracked icicle hanging from an eave. “Be still or you won’t like what happens next.”
“Where’s Twitch?” Jack said, his voice low as well. He knew when things called for secrecy.
“Why ask that?” said the man. “You know we have him.”
Jack did know, but he hoped it wasn’t true. “He’s just an old stray.”
“I’ll kill you.” Jack tried desperately to think if there was anything in the room he could use as a weapon.
“With what? We know you have no blade. And we know you have no musket. We know you have nothing but a headache and a guilty heart.”
Just then, Jack heard footsteps coming up the stairs. They made their way to the door of his room. He wanted to call out a warning. Dawn! he thought. She’s coming!
“The serving wench!” hissed the hidden voice of the man. “Ready boys!”
Dawn opened the door, a taper in her hand, and Jack saw as two shadowy men attacked her. They were quick. One had his hand over her mouth before she could scream. The other had a knife pointed toward her gut before she could move. The taper fell from her hand and the light was snuffed out.
“Quiet, lassie,” said the grim voice in the dark. “Don’t curse your luck.”
“She’s no part of this,” Jack said. “Let her go.”
“She’ll yell for a constable. No, my lad. She’s a part of things now.”
Jack knew his words were hollow. “What is the cat to you? I need to know the truth before I hand him over.”
The hoarse voice chuckled. “You want truth, eh? Tell me, Jack Lightning, how did you come by the orb of Etherel?”
Jack thought these robbers many things, but never in his wildest thoughts did he consider that they had a connection to the orb. He was speechless.
“That’s what I thought, Bogg,” said the man with his knife to the girl’s gut. “He’s as cowardly as they come.”
“He’s dangerous, Willy,” said the man Bogg, the one who sat in the shadows. “But yes, a coward just the same.”
Jack didn’t have the strength nor the truth to defend his honor. He had only lies. “I won the orb by luck. What is it to you that I did? The man I won it from is dead.”
“Aye, that he is, Jack Lightning. That he is.”
Jack heard the croaking words of the Heron ring in his ears. You shall die by the cut of a blade. But why should the girl — Dawn — why should she suffer for him? And poor Twitch. Jack wondered if the cat was dead already.
“If you have Twitch, why are you still here? Why not just go and do with him what you will?”
“You would let us leave here alive with your precious feline? Somehow I think not. Somehow I think you’d come for us. Just as we have come here for you.”
“The kitty’s an extra bit of luck,” said Willy. “You’se the one we come for.”
“Silence!” hissed Bogg. “We haven’t come here for Jack Lightning. We’ve come here for the truth. For a confession.”
“I tell mine only to a priest,” said Jack.
“You shall tell it to me,” said Bogg. “Or your lassie here will bleed.”
Jack could hear the girl struggle, but Willy and his comrade held her fast. She wasn’t going to escape.
“If I tell you how I came by the orb, then you’ll let her go? And what of the cat?”
“He stays with us. You know why, of course.”
He’s lucky, thought Jack. “I’ll tell you half the truth,” Jack bargained. “Then you let the girl go. Once she’s safe, I’ll tell you the other half.”
No one spoke. No one moved. Jack knew that Bogg was considering the deal.
“She’ll squeal!” whined Willy at last, breaking the uncomfortable silence.
“Nay, she’ll be a good little girl, won’t she,” said the other man who had his sweaty hand over her mouth. He sniffed her and brushed his lips against her cheek. Jack was disgusted, but swallowed his anger.
“Begin,” said Bogg.
Jack took a deep breath. He had never spoken these words out loud before. Even in his own head, he had drowned them with songs and drink and thoughts of treasure.
“I met the man on a boat, sailing for Eventon,” he began. “He was sickly and the captain was sure he wouldn’t last the journey. I tried to comfort him. He gave me his boots. Slick and black, they were. He said they were a gift… for giving him so much cheer and good companionship. I thought he would die. We all did. But then the ship reached harbor and we got off into the city, and the man didn’t die. He coughed up blood and half his innards it seemed, but he didn’t die, and none of us could explain it. I tried to give the boots back, when I saw that the man was going to recover. But he insisted and said to take them with his blessing.”
“We didn’t come for no tale about boots,” sneered the greasy Willy.
“Shut it,” snapped Bogg to Willy. The man kept quiet. “Keep on, Jacky boy,” Bogg said to Jack.
“I kept the boots. I also took down the man’s address. He said to see him any time for a good bit of ale and a song. He said he owned a shop, one of them alchemy shops, deep in the flea-bitten district of Eventon. I never thought I’d see him again.”
“But you did,” hissed Bogg.
“I did. I’m ashamed to say it. I needed money. I’m a thief and when a thief needs money, he goes to easy marks to get it. And the old man seemed one. Sickly, owned a shop. How could I know?” Jack’s voice caught in his throat. He hated for the girl to hear him say such things. Why should I care about her? a bitter voice inside him cut in. She means nothing to me. But no — the way she smiled, the honey-softness of her hair.
Jack cared. Dawn was her name. Bright as the sun rising. And he hated for her to hear this tale.
“He’s stalling!” Willy cried. “Watch him, Bogg! Let’s just kill him and be over with it.”
“No!” Bogg’s voice was like an icicle shattering.
“Why do you want to hear all this anyway?” Jack dared. “I have half a feeling you know it all already.”
Even in the darkness, Jack knew Bogg was smiling.
“I do,” the man in the shadows said at last. “But I want to hear you say it. You’re a dead man anyway, Jack Lightning. But to save the girl, you’ll tell me the truth.”
Jack spoke the words he’d never dared speak before. “I went into his shop. The Blood Moon, it was called. He welcomed me in, poured me a drink. We talked and sang sea shanties, and he asked me to stay the night. Said he had a spare room above the shop. I smiled and fingered my knife. I said I couldn’t stay. I said I needed to be going. He saw the look in my eyes, and he knew. He pleaded a bit. Said that his wares were precious, not to take any. He offered me the coin in his coin box, said it was more than enough. But I’d gotten greedy. I’d eyed and been awed by all the treasures in his tiny shop. One in particular, one on a high shelf…”
“The orb,” Bogg finished.
“Aye. The orb. It glowed and pulsed like it was alive and something about it made me remember a tale the sailors had told when I used to sail with the crew of the Grey Gull. They told a tale about the Old Heron, and the egg the Heron hungered for. ‘Bring the Heron his glowing egg and he shall tell you your fortune.’ I saw the orb there in the man’s shop and somehow I knew. And the promises of the Old Heron echoed in my head. I was mad with desire for it. I lunged at the old man. He didn’t even scream.”
There was silence and Jack looked to the two men who held Dawn. “Let her go,” he said. “The first half of the truth has been spoken.”
“No,” said Bogg. “The first half isn’t done. Finish it. Say the words.”
Jack looked at Dawn now. It was the first time he had looked at her since she’d come into the room. He could see her face, despite the darkness. It’s the brightness in it, he thought. Her face glows like a candle. When he looked into her eyes, he saw them wide with fear. He knew then that she had no love for him. He had no fear to say the words.
“I killed the old man and took the orb without a word.” He swallowed hard and the words went down like rocks in his throat.
“That is the first half of the truth,” said Bogg. He must have signaled to his men, for in the next moment, Jack heard the sound of steel going into flesh, the muffled grunt of the girl as the robbers stabbed her in the belly. He could see her figure drop in a heap to the floor, a lifeless, heavy sack of bone and blood.
The “no” caught in his throat.
Bogg laughed. “She was dead the moment she stepped on that staircase.”
“But I told you my half—”
“Yes, and now it is time for the other half.”
“There is no more truth for me to speak,” Jack said with venom. “I’ve told you everything.”
“I’m sorry, Jack, but you’re wrong,” said Bogg. “You’ve only spoken half of the truth.”
“I’ve told you everything!” Jack cried.
“Softly now, softly.” Bogg laughed again, and then Jack heard the door creak open. He couldn’t make out the face of the new figure, but something about the way the figure moved made Jack think it was someone with many years on his shoulders.
“You see, Jack,” Bogg continued, “you’ve told us everything you know. That’s true. But what you’ve told us is only half. The other half of the truth is standing here before you.”
The figure who had just come into the room coughed. Jack knew that cough. It was wet, as if blood had been hacked up with it.
“Hello, Jack,” said the voice of the figure. An old man. The alchemist shop. Jack had heard a voice from the grave.
“I killed you,” Jack whispered.
“Yes, we heard you say that earlier,” said the old man’s voice. “And yet, how can you kill a man who knows how to cheat death? Who knows the hidden mysteries of science and alchemy? The real truth is that you stole from me. And now I’m here to get my goods back.”
“But the orb…” Jack sputtered. “I already gave it to the Heron.”
“Did you now?” said the old man between coughs. “No matter. It’s a shame you don’t have your knife anymore.”
“Nor your hat,” said Willy.
Jack’s insides burned when he heard the voice of that murderer. He shot Willy a withering, hateful glance, though little good it did him in the dark. But even in the dark he could make out some details, and when he looked at Willy he thought he saw a hat on the man’s head. A familiar hat, floppy and a bit dashing, worn by age but still soft suede…
No, Jack thought. It can’t be.
“Nor your boots,” said Bogg. “Though the boots were never yours to begin with, were they?” Bogg’s clicked the heels of his own boots on the floor.
They aren’t, they can’t be, Jack thought. Then he remembered the knife in the third robber’s hand, the one that had killed the poor girl.
Dawn was her name, Jack thought. Her hair like honey.
“Do you know, Jack?” said the old man, shuffling closer to Jack’s position on the bed. “Do you know how I came by the orb in the first place?”
Jack had no more answers. He closed his eyes and tried to picture Dawn one last time. All he saw, instead, was the glowing starfish, soft and wavy like a feather in his hand.
“It wasn’t very hard,” the old man continued. “They can be found most readily for those willing to look for them. Since you stole mine, I find it is most appropriate for you to pay me back. You know my companions, I’m sure. There is Bogg, who happens to be wearing a nice, new pair of black leather boots. And Willy, here, is sporting a fine old hat. And Grew, he’s happy to wield such a shining, sharp knife.”
Jack didn’t hear the old man’s words. He was still dreaming of the starfish, the one he’d given up for food to the Old Heron. Just to hear a few stray words, he thought. The starfish was so beautiful — its phosphorescent glow, the way it moved like a cloud.
Then he heard a meow. “Twitch,” Jack said, almost like a question.
“Quiet, puss.” It was Bogg’s voice.
The next thing Jack knew, they’d slit his throat. He didn’t even scream.
“Cut open the chest, just between the ribcage.” The excitement in the old man’s voice was barely contained. He was so close now. So close…
Grew took his knife and did as he was told. The knife was sharp, but this kind of work was hard and bloody. Gristle and cartilage flew off in pieces as he sawed through the chest cavity.
“It’d go faster with an axe,” said Willy.
“An axe is too imprecise,” said the old man. “We must be careful.”
When Grew was finished, Jack’s heart was exposed. But it wasn’t a heart anymore. It wasn’t beating. And it glowed with a faint blue light. It was a strange, oblong kind of thing. An orb.
“That’s the one,” said the old man.
“But where’s his heart?” said Bogg with his sandpaper voice.
The old man smiled as he plucked the orb from out of Jack’s cold chest. “The heart of every man is just as you see. A thing made for bargaining.”
“So now it’s on to the Old Heron?” replied Bogg.
“Yes,” hissed the old man. “I want to know my fortune.”
Somewhere in the room, a black and white stray mewed.