WARNING:Contains graphic descriptions of a major burn and other injuries, stressful and scary situations, physical abuse, woefully awful parents, suicidal ideation, and resignation to death/human sacrifice. All in all: Lisa's dad is still a worthless human being.

Remember what I said about the tigers come at night? Lisa dreamed a dream. I'm kidding. I'm sure it's not that bad. I think. I've read it so many times while making revisions, I'm a little desensitized. (But "On a scale of '1 to Fantine', how doomed is Lisa?" is a question I have asked myself while I planned this story.)

Chapter 8—The End of the Bargain

The Dragon's Courtship

The whiteness of Wygol Pass in the morning nearly blinded Lisa before it laced with black and frozen trees. Her father became a dark shadow among other dark shadows on the snow below the castle cloaked in storms.

Lisa blinked and knew at once: 'That's the devil's house.' She pressed further back into the carriage.

"I'm not getting out," she told her father. She hoped for anger, but instead, she began to cry, her voice hitching. "I'm not getting out—"

"Lisa—" He stepped into the coach. Lisa tugged her legs away, tucking against the wall and glaring at him.

"Cut my throat yourself, you coward!"

"I didn't agree to that," her father said, plucking up her hands and unlocking the manacles. Lisa jerked away, the chain and irons clattering against the wall, and pulled from him as he reached for her—

"I'm not going!"—he grabbed her wrist, dragging her forward—"No! Don't you touch me—"

Old Varenheid smacked her hard across the mouth before he grabbed her chin, forcing Lisa to look at him. Her lips stung.

"No more," he ordered. "Be silent—"

She shook her head fiercely, tugging out of his grip.

"No! You're going to let it—let it kill me! I'll scream as I damn please—"

He grabbed her face roughly again, pinching her mouth. She bit her tongue, a burst of blood, gasping—

"I doubt the devil is alone in this valley," he warned her when she was still. Old Varenheid dropped her heavily, knocking her against the bench. She mustered, sitting up, her side aching.

"Why should I care what knows you're here—"

"I will strike you again. I do not want to—but I will. Now, get out. It is time to go—"

She pushed off the floor and shoved him, throwing her father out of the carriage and onto the snow as she slammed the door shut and threw the latch. She lay against it, breathing heavily. Outside, it was utterly silent, and she shrank for that silence. Either she had hurt him, perhaps badly—'Papa? How? How did this happen?'—or he was simply too angry to speak—

The window panel overhead exploded inward, showering her with glass as Lisa screamed and hid in her cloak. Her father broke in the ruined window, fumbled with the latch, and tore the door open. A bit of blood spilt down his face; she had hurt him a little.

'Good!' she thought, 'you—you bastard—'

But he was not patient anymore. He dragged her bodily from the carriage until she collapsed on the old snow, cold and hard as stone. Lisa fell on her side and the chain of a saint's medal she always wore broke and dropped her pendant coldly. The medallion rang over the snow until it lay still and dully shining.

"We are done with this protesting," her father said with the tone he took with dogs, and children, who tried his patience: "Now, stay."

"Papa—" she pleaded from the ground. He came back at once, his boot coming far too close. She winced away, pulling her arms protectively over her face—

"Be still. Another word, and I shall ensure you cannot run."

— — —

High above deathly white Wygol Pass, the wind sang through the old castle's towers cold as a dead woman's wailing. The wind whistled like it was desperately lonely, like it had lost—more than it could bear. It whipped the banners ragged with its cries, the encroaching storm its tears to come as it spun and tore itself in despair.

After listening to the wind howl so, day after day, for regrets it could not part from, the Dragon in the Old Castle resolved not to accept loss anymore. A year ago to this day, he resolved to start over—

—with a new son—

—who understood.

The beast in the belly of the Castle thought this was a good plan. It was important for him to have family. It was important for him to have something to care for. It was important for him to forget the ache of old things. Such importance would put vigor in his gray veins again. When they agreed, the Castle around him was voiceless. Its thoughts only turns and twists of feeling in his own body, as if he and the block and stone were one.

But of course, they were, the Castle said, and so it inquired, gently: how would he do this? Find a new son?

He was weak, so weak, weak and starving for ages, and there were barely any armies anymore. The people had not come back to the lands he blighted in over a hundred years, and without people to harvest, there were no human parts, and with no human parts, there were no armies—only him—alone—

But his weakness was no matter to him. The child would have to come to him, he decided. A son who understood him couldn't be stolen. Injustice seeded rebellion, and such a son as his would rebel against what the world gave him either way, but he needed to find the right son.

"I need a father who is as much demon as I am—one who would condemn his own child, as I condemned mine. As my heavenly father condemned me," he explained to his listening throne room, because then, that child would understand what he did and why he did it as his own son could not.

They could share the common betrayal.

He had waited for the whims of the world to bring him the right man. He had time.

And the time had come.

The blood he had taken nearly a month ago warmed with that man's presence in the pass again.

— — —

Old Varenheid's face had healed, but the marks remained so white and puffy—little, scarred smiles from where the Devil clawed his cheek during the last full moon in this pass. That night, the devil asked for his child, and his child he had brought.

But on that cold night, the Devil had stalked to him through the firelight. His shadow fell on still warm bodies of slain men and horses, and Old Varenheid could not move, for even the life of him. 'Where can I run from this warped—this perversion of nature—'

With the Devil's every step closer, Old Varenheid sank in the snow, until he was on his hands and knees, bowing, hiding—his chapping hands buried in snow. The Devil came beside him, and his arms hung, long and like a scarecrow's, at his sides. Old Varenheid glanced up at him only once—for those hands dripped with his men's blood.

The Devil began amicably enough: "Have you any children, old man?"

Old Varenheid did not rise from the snow, did not dare, and swallowed the fearful thickness in his throat.

"I have two daughters, dark lord, and two sons."

"You are rich in children, my friend," the Devil said, his voice warm and dark as a gullet. "Do you want to see your children again? Your daughters? Your sons?"

Old Varenheid swallowed again, this time with nothing to swallow down but perhaps his soul, which feared for itself and yearned for escape. His voice shuddered.

"My lord, I do. I do—"

"Then bring me your youngest," the Devil commanded, "and leave him to me."

The feeling had gone from his hands, even as Old Varenheid opened and closed them in the snow. His own bones empty and cold as his breath grew ragged.

"But my youngest is—" 'My youngest is a daughter,' Old Varenheid thought, his mouth continuing to work but silently, 'my youngest is all I have left of my wife,' but the Devil did not want his thoughts.

"I don't care to hear sniveling," said the Devil, dropping the heaviest of hands on Old Varenheid's shoulder. The merchant sank with the weight. If he could have slipped into his grave to escape that hand, he might have—but he wanted to live. "I am offering you your life for your child. Will you take it?"

Old Varenheid's voice refused him, and he gasped, wet and airless at first. He closed his eyes and found he was weeping with his fear.

"I—I will take it," Old Varenheid said at last, and the Devil released him to graze his cheek with a cold finger.

"Very well." The Devil seemed pleased, until he dragged two of his fingers up Old Varenheid's face and broke the skin. The old merchant cried out, and his blood trickled in two furrows down his cheek. The trickles met at the line of his chin and dripped onto the Devil's palm waiting below.

"My youngest," Old Varenheid tried against his quailing voice. "You want my youngest?"

"Your youngest," the Devil said. The merchant's blood had gathered in the middle of his palm and glowed in firelight like a dark coin. A little tremor shook the blood, and it split into dark rivulets that flew over the Devil's hand and fled into a vein at the hinge of his wrist.

Old Varenheid watched his own blood swim. "Then, we've—we've an agreement, lord?"

"I've left you a horse, and I give you a month," the Devil answered. "Before the next moon wanes, I want my child, and if you do not return, I will know, and I will kill you. If you bring me a child who is not your youngest, I will know, and I will kill you."

"I—I will bring you my youngest, my lord, I swear—oh, God help me—Don't kill me—"

But the Devil had gone.

Four weeks on from that night, Old Varenheid cut the lines strapping his daughter's dowry chest to the rack of the carriage. It splintered up its corner when it fell, and he dragged it away to the side of the road.

Lisa watched him leave the chest there. Her heart sickened as she knew no one would come looking to find it, 'Not here.' She looked around slowly—her father was busy disposing of her possessions; the horses jittered. 'Perhaps, if I am quick—' She tried to rise from the frost without a sound, even as her damned dress dragged after her—

"Don't run," Old Varenheid called to her from his work. "Don't—move." Lisa did not argue but neither did she listen—

"Elaine is grateful to you, for seeing this through," her father said, and Lisa stopped cold.

"E-Elaine?"

"Elaine knows," Old Varenheid told her, coming a cautious step toward her. The snow and broken glass crunched beneath his boots. "She—she agreed that you should go. You will save us, Lisa. When he found me here, the devil threatened to wipe us all out—from the oldest to the youngest—if you did not come."

Lisa listened, her arms hanging at her sides. 'Elaine? Elaine said I should go to this? Elaine—'

"You're lying!—"

"Little Nathaniel will be safe all his life for your seeing this through! And Konrad's daughters! And Karsten's unborn! All of them safe, Lisa! If you stay when I go—Elaine begged me to make you stay."

"No, she didn't," Lisa said, her cheeks heating as she cried again. "Elaine didn't!" Her body weighed suddenly so heavily, she sank in her skirts in the snow. "She wouldn't—"

"Will you stay when I go? Will you stay for them?"

Lisa didn't move. A wind came, eerily, rocking the open carriage door, and Old Varenheid banged it shut as he glanced from his daughter on the ground to the wind rattling the trees, and it seemed the time had come at last. Lisa saw him think it and tried to muster the strength to scream—but his voice was stronger than hers.

'No, Papa—please, no—'

"Dark Lord!" Old Varenheid called out, his voice carrying above the trees, the winds, sounding even in the mountains in such lack of living sound. "I've brought the one who will go in my place! We are as we agreed! Leave me in peace!"

"How could you, Papa—how—"

He went to the coachman's box and readied to climb before he looked back at his daughter, his daughter weeping, his daughter who looked like his wife. The wind lifted her blue cloak, her white dress filthy. The red marks of his hands on her still fresh on her face—

"My daughter, yours will be a cold fate—but colder still, if the devil finds you. May the wolves of this Wood show you pity—Good bye."

'You evil man.' She sobbed. 'You evil man—there are no wolves!' Nothing lived in this bowl of ice, even the trees were dead and blackened, cold for ages and ages. What wolves could there be?

Old Varenheid climbed, the wind dying at last, and struck the switch. The horses cried before they charged over the snow, dragging the carriage. Lisa watched it go, feeling empty, without even a heart, if not for the robotic pulsing, as she said to herself: "I hate you," and then she ran, stumbling on the awful dress, as she ran and ran, her legs twinging painfully, the skirts like running against water. She shouted with all her voice:

"I hate you! God damn you! I've always hated you!—"

But the carriage clattered away, pulling from her, up the curving road out of the pass, back from whence it came—leaving her voice small in the silence. She stood in that silence a while, the roar of her father's carriage dwindling—the silence sucking up where their sound had been. Her every breath seemed immensely loud—immensely loud—she almost wanted to cover her ears to block the sound—

"I will not die like this," Lisa said to no one, her voice rising. "I will not! Not wolves! Not devil! No, I will die of my own will!" She glared at the horizon of mountains at her back with the black crown of the castle. "You'll not have me! I swear it!" she shouted, her own ears ringing with her voice. "Chase him for his debt yourself! I—I belong to me—I do—I—" She weakened and fell to her knees. '…I've never been so angry. I've never shouted like this—'

She sat, resting, the chill creeping through her skirts, her cloak, creeping through her legs—numbness, and cried again. The air so cold, her tears burned. Lisa wiped her face roughly.

"Oh, stop, stop—what's the use in it?" But her tears still came, coldly, and her hands went habitually to her throat, to her medal, but her neck was bare. 'My medal,' Lisa thought before she walked, very slowly, over the snow. 'Where—'

The medallion finally winked at her from the old ice. The broken chain slunk away with a cool rattle as Lisa picked it up and rubbed her thumb over the medal. Embossed on silver, bold St. George, her birthday's Saint, made the sign of the cross and met the dragon with sword and spear and guidance from on high. The clean light of sainthood bathed him and Ascalon, his blade, and the dragon cowered under his mount's bright hooves.

Her birthday aside, 'I am no Saint George,' Lisa thought. She looked at the sky, the blue vault splintered by the Devil's house. Her medal was very cold; her fingers stiffened with its chill. 'But—but was the princess not brave?' King Selinus' daughter, Sabra of Lasia, who donned her silk wedding cloak and went to the lizard's dark lake when the lottery summoned her. She who went to embrace death when not even her father's grief, a King's grief worth half his kingdom and all his gold and silver, could buy her freedom. Was she not brave to meet fate?

A kingly father was not so desperate to save Lisa, 'But if I do not go, the Devil will kill them—from the oldest to the youngest.' She clutched her medal, and slowly, it warmed in her trembling hands. 'I—I don't have much time,' and she bowed her head, 'but I will die of my own will—I belong to me.'

Lisa walked then, striking out to the North, to the shadow of that fortress in daylight, and the castle seemed to come to her. She barely remembered the trees she must have passed, the road she must have walked until she found herself under the Devil's gate, before his drawbridge. Deep in the pass below, tracks from her father's carriage still marked the far side of the bowl. The sun and blue sky paled, and the barest of snow began to fall, and with every step she took, she squeezed St. George's medal in her fist.

The wind still chased her—it chased her since she had been down in the pass. A gust tugged at her hood, her cheeks scraped raw with the cold. She put a hand to her cloak and drew the hood tighter over her hair, her skin burning with the exposure as she steadied against the pillar of the gate.

'I've no idea how I've come so far or so high,' Lisa thought. She looked into the canyon of the castle's moat beneath her. It narrowed to a silver thread of river deep, deep below. Its walls rushed with waterfalls, dozens of them, roaring distantly and hanging over the rock like the tresses of an old river goddess, the air full of their spray and curls of rainbow in stray sunbursts.

'This is the last good place,' Lisa decided. 'It's—beautiful here. Must I—?' She swayed, her head aching with altitude, on the drawbridge. 'Must I go inside?' she wondered. 'Is this not close enough to—in there?' She clutched the elegant and spiked railing the bridge wore like a tiara. If she climbed the railing here, there was nothing to stop her from falling, but—

An archway in a cold, high wall stood between her and the castle itself—between her and an icy courtyard with a great stair climbing up, up to the great doors. The waterfalls hummed in her ears, the spray drifting coldly over the drawbridge, as the cascades climbed higher and seemed to fall from the ramparts themselves. She gripped the railing a little tighter and looked up into the clutch of towers. Ragged banners flew among them.

A deeper darkness began to creep on those banners from the sky. The very last of warm sunlight sliding away from the flags as the stormhead rolled from the horizon. It came up on the mountaintops fierce and black, dragging more wind over the drawbridge and into the devil's courtyard where it danced leaves and debris.

Thunder cracked in the stormhead, lightning lancing through the thick clouds as darkness flooded the canyon, dimming the brilliance of the waterfalls.

But Lisa kept her eyes among the towers, even as the storm urged her inside.

'I feel—someone.' She winced in the insistent wind. 'I feel like someone is—watching me—'

The feeling of eyes on her passed, and Lisa sighed. The Princess had not tried to drown in the dark lake to escape the dragon. The Princess had gone alone on the path into the dragon's grove, her wedding cloak trailing by the bones of those who had died before her, her silks sweeping over their steps in the dust. 'So must I,' and she went under the gate.

— — —

There were steps in the Pass, steps in the Veros Woods, and steps over the drawbridge—mortal steps. His child had come at last, the paths to the castle through the pass guiding it fast.

Except the castle inquired, gently: what child had he asked the merchant for?

For the steps in the woods and the steps over the drawbridge belonged to no son—and nearly no child—with most humble frankness, the castle promised. There was a woman on the drawbridge—a young woman in a white dress and a blue cloak.

He called the merchant's blood from within his body, and it filled his palm until he clutched his fist and squeezed. The strangled blood cried out in his mind, with the voice of the old merchant, 'Oh, my youngest child! My daughter who looks like my wife reborn!' The Castle heard it too, and the blood could not lie. The merchant had brought them his youngest child, who looked like his wife. What a burden for a daughter to carry.

Wiser to have heard the sniveling? the Castle asked with its voice from the beams and arches, and he ignored it. A young girl might do—though he had daughters of an eerie kind already: Euryale, Stheno, Medusa—but a young girl might still do. But how young? How much a woman?

He could not see her well at first, but he searched the daylight for her anyhow. In his decline, his eyes had become almost useless in such light. His pupils narrowed to the barest, black slits after taking in almost all light painfully. In short time, the brightness of the sunlight she walked in grew too intense, blotting her out. The shapes in sunlight flaring into indistinction against the snow. If not for the blue cloak, he wouldn't have seen her at all—but he had seen her—

Immediately, he wished he hadn't seen her. When he did, his blood stuttered as his heart fired, beating to break his ribs, and he thought he was finally going to die. He had seen such a woman before, such a woman walking through frozen woods, many times before. A woman in such a white dress, such a blue cloak, the deep hood hiding her dark hair, her dark eyes. The white orchard around them strung in ice and picked of apples, stripped of leaves—

"It is not," he rasped at first, but his voice soon strengthened. "It is not—show me her face." At his whim, wind spun down from the fortress.

The blue cloak shuddered, and she hugged it close, bending in the surge of wind. She crawled along the drawbridge to shelter by a pillar, her face still hidden. He felt the hot points of her hands on the stone, the metal, as if she were touching his own body.

In seven days, he had not moved. He had no need, but he rose now and so quickly, the castle shuddered around him. He loomed tall and spindly, a withered shadow in the throne room, an old dragon.

"Bring her here—bring her to me."

Our Prince needn't do that, the castle reproached around him, its voices echoing in the high ceilings. The blue flames of the torches over his dark chair fluttered with its words—gently, always gently. They needn't keep her; that maid was not the right son—They could wait for the right son; certainly, they could try again—men like the merchant were many—one would come again, just as arrogantly—all they need do was summon up another storm—a long winter approached—

But his command rang in the throne room, an absolute voice overriding the surreptitious whispering:

"Obey me."

— — —

On the other side of the gate, the castle's great doors in the courtyard were open, beckoning.

Before, Lisa was sure, they were sealed. Their massive knocking rings hung in the mouths of iron dragons mounted on the doors. Only a giant could have knocked. She wandered into the courtyard underneath them until she hesitated at their stairs, which spread wide and bowed low as a lady's curtsy before the castle. Monstrous storm clouds crouched on the ramparts now. Slowly, the storm's shadow began to nip at her heels until Lisa climbed the stairs.

But on the landing, she saw only indistinct shapes within the castle: a receiving hall draped in shadow, its long and red carpet lit by iron candelabras worked into serpents. Their necks broke into nine heads, each with a red candle in its mouth, its wax bleeding. Lisa paused just inside the threshold, the last light of the courtyard stretching ahead of her in a blue arrow. But even as she clutched her medal, her heart faltered. There was still sunlight, however cool, on her back. 'I should go back—I should—'

The doors swept shut behind her, the wind of their closing tossing her cloak as the receiving hall rang with their thunder. The closest of the candelabras clattered to the floor as the candlelight guttered and was gone. Lisa ran back to the doors and shoved with all her might, but they would not budge—

She had been screaming, begging the doors to let her out, but Lisa quieted and steadied herself against the eerie wood. Her courage failed her once, 'But I must go on, I am already here, I must go on,' though she didn't dare cross the rug and crept along the edge of the hall instead. The wall led her to a little corridor, walled and roofed in stained glass, and a stairwell, its lowest steps dappled in the colored light.

Lisa climbed through such colored light into the dimness of a mezzanine over the hall. A slender bridge crossed between two chandeliers to a far balcony. There, under an archway, was a luridly red door with a black, draconic emblem and a little, clawed knob in a ring of scales. It was not a warm emblem. A cold dragon's head glared from the door, its eyes sharp hollows, but 'Where is the Devil?' His receiving hall was empty, and ruined tapestries darkened his windows. But since she found his emblem, death must come soon, so she, weary now of waiting, called out over the great hall: "Hello?"

Her voice came back to her from a thousand corners. None of them brought the Devil, but the red door opened. Inside lay a shockingly tiny, emerald den. Alcoves crowded the dark walls, each with a woman, marble and shrouded, covering her face with her hands under her veils. Only one looked out baldly at the door from the swathes of her habit. This statue carried a lamp that roused brightly as Lisa neared.

Once she stepped inside, the red door closed behind her without a sound. The staring lady's lamp-bearing arm moved without a whisper until her light fell on a soft green sofa on a soft green carpet. This little room seemed to know how tired she was, and its dimness came about her, warm and patient, comforting. The little couch invited her to sit and then to sleep, and she did as the statue's lamp dimmed. Lisa's grip on St. George's medal loosened. As she dozed, darkness creeped in her vision. A voice creeped in her ears, on little, insect-like whispers—

take off the Hood—take It off—see the Face—

be Done with His Nonsense—try again—get the Right One—

A specter leaned over her while she drifted in and out of sleep. A nightmarish tangle of wet, red vines, its dripping creepers preparing to put back her hood—

Lisa found herself already standing when her eyes snapped open on the empty den, but not empty enough. She knew it couldn't have gone, she couldn't have dreamed it—and it would come back. Her heart felt it breathing through the little green room, within the close walls still, as she jerked the red door's knob uselessly.

"Let me out," Lisa whispered as she kept trying. "Please let me out, please—"

Another of the marble ladies at her back offered her a single, unveiled hand from the wall with a mechanical sigh. The hand bent down on a hinge when Lisa touched it. A lock echoed behind the marble woman as she swung forward, a narrow hallway behind her.

Arches ribbed the ceiling of the corridor like the inside of a serpent's bones, and a green flame glowed far within. It hopped like a sprite in the bowl of its stone torchbearer. Lisa glanced back at the locked, red door, and the way back seemed truly gone, but really, 'I'm already eaten,' she thought, and this castle only drew her slowly through its gullet of hallways and doors, deeper and deeper—

She squeezed St. George again. 'I must keep going, I can't stop again, I must—meet death.' Her medal seemed too cold as she lingered. 'Perhaps it won't hurt. Perhaps it will be over so quickly, I won't even know it's happening—' She imagined so silent, so swift a killing strike where the blow fell, and her soul still wandered ahead, her body dead behind her; Lisa shivered.

The green torch popped loudly, calling to her, and Lisa startled. "I'm coming," she said after a breath and stepped inside. The marble woman swung closed behind her.

The hallway twisted her through more turns after the green torch, turns with colored torches—bright blue, red, and violet, and all popping if she hesitated. She passed another turn, a white flame, and sighed before she asked aloud: "Am I nearly there?"

In the dark ahead was another luridly red door, another draconic emblem. She began to grow wry with herself, her situation, the castle, and spoke to the architecture, her 'guide': "Are there very many of these?" As stone should, it did not answer, and she twisted the clawed knob. She came to another massive hall, this one hung with chandeliers and lined with hulking suits of armor. They rose twice as tall as she and slumped against their swords and pole-axes, their helmets bowed with galeas drooping.

"I am glad," Lisa whispered to the hall, "that this did not lead back to the balcony." She had never been so clever at words as her elder brothers, but she knew how to make light of such oppressiveness, and her heart could not take strolling through the devil's house anymore. If she remained quiet, the silence would suffocate her.

This new hall was grand in its ruin, the gallery of a long ago destroyed king, and light streamed through it from tears in the high ceiling. Ancient webs clung between the suits of armor as bats roosted in the great hollows of their chests. Hundreds of tiny wings rustled and multitudes of tiny, red eyes opened in the gaps in the armor's joints as Lisa passed by, the deeply blue marble beneath her feet blackened with ash.

An immense, black door waited at the end of the hall. It sat above the empty knights on a little throne of stairs. There was no knockers or handles of any kind, only a mounted spiral of pale stone, a galaxy ghostly against the black with a sharp sparkle of brightness at its center, like a needle. Curiously, as a princess to a spindle, she reached out to touch it but the spiral began to turn. It spun slowly, with the dark serenity of a spider binding prey. It drew its arms to itself until they were gone and only a white circle remained. The needle gleamed in the whorl of sculpture, and a line of shadow split the circle. The black doors cracked open and lumbered inward, the darkness widening.

No blizzard sighed from those doors, no icy wind, but heat, terrible, inhuman heat. It reached for her, and she pulled back to hurry a few steps down the little stairs. Ancient darkness flooded the doorway and washed the stairs in a spill of night, older than any shadow in the castle—

—and a voice rippled out from within, a rasping voice, like a great body of scales scraping over stone.

"Come in," it said.

'It's the Devil,' and Lisa swallowed, 'It's time.' Perhaps she whimpered, hardly knowing her own sounds, before she forced herself to the threshold and stopped. Lisa could not budge—it was too dark, too dark—her mortal soul begged her to stay put, stay out of that darkness—

The black doors opened wider to her, the light of the great hall sliding in, illuminating the lines of a long table, a dead fireplace. 'It's in the corner, there,' her senses told her, her heart in her throat. 'Oh, God—it's really there—'

A candle burst into flame on the table, and then another and another, down in a line over the table. They were little, miserable lights, brightening nothing, but they took her eyes to the far side of the room—which lay flooded with complete sunlight from an open balcony. Its bar of light was bright as summer. She darted into the blackness, walking briskly along the line of candles.

'Its—its eyes are on me,' she thought, unable to blink, her mouth dry, and her heart beating so hard. 'I feel it watching,' like its stare were inside her skin. 'Why—why am I listening? Why am I going inside?' She broke into the sun, and relief rushed around her, but 'it's still in the corner—it's still behind me—I'm not safe—I'm not—' She swallowed and willed herself to be still.

'But it's time. It's finally time.'

She turned haltingly, putting her back against the bright wall, so she could look at it from the light. The line of candles on the table winked out until only one remained for her—courtesy, perhaps.

'It hasn't moved from the corner,' and she knew it like a deer knew a wolf, even as she couldn't see it. Its corner seemed darker than anywhere else. She had stood closest to it back at the black door and was furthest from it now, in the wash of sunlight. The light in this room was impressively strange: the room was not actually as big as it seemed at first, and it lay divided into perfect night and perfect day. The great table lay mostly in darkness, with only its farthest end and an ornate chair in light. A mirror hung over the fireplace, reflecting the dancing point of the single candle.

The candle shivered, and the black doors shut with a strike that shuddered under Lisa's feet. High in the air, dark chandeliers sang as they swayed, and the thing on the other side of the room began to move.

Lisa had no sense it walked. It rolled through its darkness, with no footsteps. She clung to the other side of the ornate chair as it came round the table to stop at the edge of the light. The candle light fell on one of its hands and climbed up its bandaged arm: its fingers stuck with an ancient ring and bits of a gauntlet. Some light even found its eyes, and they flickered redly—

Her father never regaled her with details of the devil he met in Wygol Pass. Perhaps he thought she might try to run earlier if she knew. Lisa knew only that it was a devil, and she knew now the devil seemed human in shape—'and old,' she realized, 'very old,' the little light bringing such out. A tall devil, certainly, but thin, desiccated—the shoulders wilted, the face drooped, the eyes heavy and sleepless, the mouth drawn very hard—the hair long and white—

He was disarmingly old, and he seemed truly to be a man—a very old man. The frightful pace of her heart eased off as such old age coaxed a kind of—pity—from her. He was older than anyone she had ever seen—

'But it is a devil,' she reminded herself. Lisa crept from behind the chair, to see him better, until she felt him looking back in return.

"Tell me your name," he said with the rasping, dragon's voice that had invited her inside. His voice was quieter now, less echoing, like she truly stood with a man and not at the hot mouth of a dragon's cavern, but she still stopped behind the chair at the command. He stood on the lip of the sunlight, the darkness lying between them like a wall as light touched only on dry and drifting strands of his hair—

"Lisa," she said, her voice small. She kept a hand on the chair. It was taller than her, its back decorated in blue dragons—their sapphire eyes winked in the sunlight.

"May I—look at you, Lisa?"

She came around the chair slowly, reluctant to give up her shelter. The nature of his question, too, unsettled her—'Come in'—'Tell me'—and then, 'May I?' The request for her permission struck her as—peculiar.

"Closer," and this command was gentler than before, "you needn't leave the light."

So, she did not, even as she stepped closer as bidden. Standing so near, Lisa finally looked up into his eyes, dark and milky with cataracts.

'This devil is old, and almost blind. How did he kill my father's men and horses?' But she rooted to her place as the old devil brushed back her cloak. Her hood pooled around her shoulders. The chill of the room seemed to stroke her cheek and lift the hairs on the back of her neck. 'Will he kill me if I stop him—'

His hand lingered in the sunlight. It had absolutely no color, was not living flesh. In the light, it glowed too brightly. It drew nearer to her face, its cruelly long and curved talons nearly grazing her cheek, as it gave off no heat, barely separate from the chill air. He touched her hair, carefully, his face indecipherable, an ancient mystery, as he twisted a flaxen lock around two of his fingers—

—which began to tremble, his skin smoking before the flesh bubbled, blackened, and ripped open, oozing as it melted over the bones and bands of muscle in his hand, and in the shadow and candle light, his lip curled, exposing the yellow point of an inhuman canine—

He let her go, and she breathed again as he pulled his flayed hand back into darkness.

"Thank you," the devil said, clutching his arm to his chest painfully. Lisa tangled with another surge of confounding pity—her heart caught between 'he is hurt—' and 'this is a devil!' Something had killed the horses; something had killed the men; something had driven her father to bring her here—and he was in this room with her now.

His wound began to sizzle, the wet burns crusting over with blackness. Its smell reached her, and Lisa swallowed, her nose full of blood rotting and burning, and—she didn't know—just the stink of burnt evil. She looked up from the wound to find his face in the darkness again.

"May—may I know who you are, grandfather?" she asked, the note of respectfulness for her elders—even her elder devils, apparently—not leaving her.

"I am Dracul," he told her, without any pretense. "I am not your grandfather."

Lisa flinched from him—flustered and frightened—

"You are—" How had she wandered through this castle and never thought? How had she not learned his name from the doors, the halls, the emblems, the stone dragons bearing up the ceilings, crouching along the walls, carrying torches in their mouths? Even the chairs wore dragons; they looped the legs of the table. "My God, you are."

Why had she never thought of it sooner? Why not in the carriage? Why not in the Pass? The Dragon lay at the heart of every dark story of the North. The Dragon was why the North had dark stories—the shadow of his wings never fading. He was villain time and again, and never a villain bested. Even the tales of the barbarian from White Mountains who slew him promised that human wickedness would simply call him back again—

—if he even allowed the barbarian to kill him—

—if he was not simply a dark blight the world would never be rid of—

And she found now she always hoped herself too small for a part in such a story.

Her stomach twisted sickly. 'I mistook the Dragon for a blind, old man—I'm a fool, such a—' Lisa looked away from him: sure her fear betrayed her, sure this floor would run with her blood soon. 'And now, I am going to die.' There were only moments left, in this last room, this last, awful room, she would ever see. Lisa sank on the ground, leaning on the chair. Her heart beat so fast, she could hardly feel it anymore but neither could she feel anything else. Somehow, and slowly, her heart eased with death so near, its hammering falling away in her ears. 'My family, I love you. My God, be with me. I'm ready,' and she did not bother lifting her eyes as she made her last words:

"I came here—to die," Lisa said and fought a stammer, "as my father promised you I would. I'm—I'm ready—"

He retreated from her, into the deep darkness again, leaving no footsteps. He was just suddenly far away, at the black door.

"I will not kill you," he said.

"Wait—wait, please," Lisa called from the floor. "I—I was told if I didn't come in my father's place, my family would be killed—from the oldest to the youngest—"

The darkness was thoughtful.

"And you came in his place."

"I don't understand—"

So, he reminded her: "You came in his place—willingly."

It winded her now to imagine any of this as willing—after the chains in her carriage, the horrid fight—her final moments with family—her father's leaving, without even a backward look for her screaming—

But she had walked into this castle, willingly, for all intents and purposes, had come to this room of her own free will. 'I will die of my own will,' she remembered, 'I belong to me. But then—'

"Then—what happens now?" she asked.

"You may stay—willingly—"

Her heart leapt at the words. Lisa understood such politeness, particularly in one who veered so clearly from commanding to permissive, and she had to know, at once, now.

"Would—would you really let me go? If I was unwilling?" Lisa asked. The fact that she was having this conversation winded her further: 'I'm so—confused. I don't understand this mercy—I don't understand—' She steeled herself against her confusion. 'I must keep still. If I am not—calm—I will certainly die—'

"You stay willingly," was all he said.

"Why?"

"Because—I want for company."

"Company?"

"I am here—alone."

Lisa looked down at her hands for answers that were neither there nor in her head. Company? He wanted for company! What kind of want was that? Didn't a Dark Lord of his power and his violence have no need? No need for—human pleasantries? Company! 'What in God's name—' Her heart ran at a gallop again, intent on leaving her if she insisted on remaining in his presence any longer, listening to this insane request.

But still, she asked, for certainty: "I will not be killed? I will not be harmed?"

He shook his head.

"You swear it to me?"

"I swear."

She looked down again, wishing to be somewhere else but having no place to go. His gaze seemed everywhere.

"May—may I think about it?"

Her heart, and her mortal soul riding in it, wanted her out—out of this dining hall, out of this castle, out of this pass, and away. He offered mercy; she should take it and leave now

Because to stay willingly must mean to stay indefinitely. Perhaps only to die later. What honor did a devil have? And to stay, and perhaps to die, in this place. For the rest of her life—if he did not kill her—her heart beat faster and harder just to think of it—

All of her days—

—In this place—

—With this thing—

But her father had brought her here. Her own sister had begged her to stay, to protect the children, if she wanted to believe Papa. If she believed Papa, where could she go back to? Would her family even receive her back? If she left, would her father's deal be revoked? (What honor did a devil have?) And how would she leave? The winter—perhaps Dracul himself—gripped this pass until it bled dry, of warmth, of greenness, of any hope for spring—how would she walk back? Already, the light from the balcony grayed—the storm that reared over the courtyard, its thunderheads hanging like mountains over mountains, rolled across the sprawl of the old castle. How would she walk back now?

'…and do I want to go back to that family?'

"I would like to think about it," she said again, surely this time, when he did not answer. He had not said he would let her go, but neither had he said he wouldn't—'I will hold a devil to whatever honor he has.'

"There is a place for you—through there," his voice came a final time, and she knew he was speaking of a door at her back, bleached into invisibility by sunlight and stonework. "Come back here tomorrow, at this time. Tell me your decision."

And then, he was gone.

But the candle remained, burning alone in the dark, as black clouds swept across the balcony. The storm she had run from in the courtyard suddenly battered the window, plunging the dining room into blackness. Even though she knew she was still alone, she took the candle in one hand, with her medal in the other, and found the door. It was faced with sculpture, a stone knight stood guard—a lone and grim St. George with his sword drawn and a fat, wingless lizard dead and decapitated at his feet, black head cut from black neck.

Lisa was nearly pleased to see the heroic saint, but the shadows of the stone flickered viciously just in candlelight. She jumped when a blaze of lightning lit the dead lizard completely—the white light hard on its lolling tongue and eyes upturned in death.

All she could conclude from this statue was that the Devil displayed—unusual choices in his decorating. Perhaps, the image was meant to comfort her? It had, however heavy-handed in its violence.

Lisa touched St. George's sword, its gold hilt bright, and like the marble lady before, he swung aside onto a little corridor with seven doors. She stepped through the eighth, and it shut behind her. The six doors at either side of her were sealed and dark, while the far, seventh door stood open—a fire burning inside its room. The room inside was vast and dark with the storm. When lightning fell, its high windows lit nearly to the ceiling. The storm sieged the balconies outside, far trees tearing in the torrents of snow as stone gargoyles bore the assault, long spikes of ice hanging from their mouths.

There was a high bed here and other furniture made blurry by the storm and the flickering light of the hearth. All the room's corners were shadows, their darkness shallow and empty.

But at this moment, the door to the little corridor chose to close, sharply, of its own devices, and at this moment, of all moments, in light of all she had seen and been through, Lisa chose to scream out now, her shriek echoing in the high ceilings. She covered her face, wanting to cry and then crying, as she went back to the corridor door, and stared at it—'Maddening door!'—closing, opening on its own—'Maddening door!'

She dropped her medal and it rolled away until clattered on the wood like a coin.

"No, no more," Lisa said, trembling, as she put the candlestick down on the floor. "I'm not going out anymore—I'm staying here—I'm staying—" She sighed deeply, dropping her cloak too in a sorry pile.

'I should, I should find out what time it is,' she tried, speaking in her head to calm herself. 'So I know when to go back—to the dining room—tomorrow—' She thought she heard a gentle ticking over the fireplace, and she had. A clock ticked there like a friend, a familiar, mortal machine, but it was still too dim to see the clock's face.

'The doors open and close by themselves,' she reasoned. 'The doors will tell me when to go.' It made about as much sense as anything else here. Her hands shook with her tiredness as she wandered in a circle again, fretting from the bed until she came to the corner beside the corridor door—and sat in it, drew her legs to her chest, and dropped her head in her arms. She curled up in the comfortable dimness created by her own body—and the clock began to sing the hour—

Lisa counted the gongs:

—one—two—three—

—four—five—six—

—seven—eight—nine—

—ten—

'…Is it only ten o'clock in the morning? How can that be? How is it only ten o'clock?'

Had her father left that village at dawn only five hours ago? How had so much happened in only five hours? 'I feel like I've walked for days—'

Lisa began to breathe shallowly, her head heavy, her bones lead, until she slipped off, asleep, somehow.

She knew she was asleep because she dreamed, and she dreamed not of darkness but of a garden—sunlit and blissful, with a babbling fountain and warm, green hedge walls. She sat in a corner of the hedge, as she did in the room St. George guarded in the castle, knees to chest, head in her arms, but surrounded by spring.

A woman came to where she sat, a woman in a white dress with lovely, dark hair. She did not try to stir her from her place against the hedge, only sat down beside her, and put her arm around her shoulders and leaned against her.

"You are doing so well. You are brave, so brave," the woman told her, patting her shoulders. Her voice sounded like Elaine's, and hot tears welled in Lisa's eyes. "Be always brave; cry, of course, but never for your regrets. It is not over yet." Lisa flinched to hear that. "You will wake up, and be where you fell asleep again—but you must bear it, bear it and have courage. It cannot frighten you forever, and you are here in this cursed place to do something very important. The Dragon will be slain and laid to rest again for your efforts. You will not recall this when you wake, but your heart must always remember—above all else, before any distraction—you are here to find the mirror, Lisa."

"And we're here to help you!" a girl's voice interrupted. Her voice came from on high, as if she sat on a garden wall overhead. Lisa could see her kicking her bare feet in the air, without looking for her. "You're never by yourself in this! Never for a moment!"

— — —

To Guest (who reviewed ch. 6 on 3/17/16), it is my pleasure.

And Favorite Readers, I'm sorry this chapter was so long. I just couldn't find a strong place to break it. There were plenty of weak places, but I'm not sure it was worth it.

Anyway, I like Marie. I like Marie and Gabriel, and Marie is Lisa's only trump card against certain death. So, I wanted her in on this too, and I may have shoehorned Claudia in there at the end as well because I love Claudia, and all my favorite (dead) LoS ladies will be in the fic, so help me. I've already written Laura's part, and I can't wait.

There may or may not be new chapters next week because I am running out of fic (I've written through ch. 15, which is about half-way), and I really need to take some serious time to write more of it. So, we may go down to a long chapter every two weeks—unless ch. 9 is feeling like cooperating with me. We'll see.

Thank you for reading! - SM