Far away in his garret, the writer stilled his pen. The threads were drawing together, and he must weave them with skill. Why was Jack going to the land of the dead? For what purpose? And how would he escape? Jack would find a way. He was nimble and quick. Jack was Jack. The writer would have to trust the story to find its own end. He dipped his quill in the night-black ink and began scratching words onto fresh vellum...
“Who’s this, Jack?” Gretchen asked, a note of iciness creeping into her voice. I felt like a man who had been caught cheating. But cheating on whom with whom?
“Gretchen this is Harriet. Harriet, Gretchen.”
The two women sized each other up and reluctantly shook each other’s hands.
“Wow, your hand is freezing,” Gretchen remarked.
“That’s because...” I began—then stopped, uncertain whether I should reveal the reason.
“Tell her, Jack,” Harriet said, crossing her arms across her chest. She looked amused.
“Harriet’s a vampire. She was turned into a vampire rescuing me.”
“Is she the one you found the White Cup for?”
“Yeah, although she...changed her mind at the end. Decided to stay a vampire.”
“Is she your girlfriend?”
I thought about the question a minute. “She’s kind of my...fiancée.”
“It’s hard to explain. I don’t know if she is or not. It happened in a dream...”
Gretchen turned away from me. “You suck, Jack,” she said and stomped off to the other side of the boat.
“Actually...I suck,” Harriet whispered in my ear. “But we can talk about that later if you want.”
For the first time, the prospect of being bitten by Harriet had no appeal whatsoever.
The rest of the ride passed in silence, but for the steady swish of the boat sluicing through the water as Charon poled it across the river. After an awkward eternity, we alit on the far shore and disembarked. Visiting the land of the dead should have been an awe-inspiring moment, but the experience was marred by personal tension. I sighed. This was why I hated relationships.
“Look, Gretchen, I really like you. I’m sorry I’m such a shithead. Do you want to...you know...go out sometime?”
The absurdity of asking someone out on a date on the bank of the River Styx forced her to smile.
“Sure. Do you think there’s any place to get Chinese in Hades?”
I took her by the hand. “Well, I’ve heard the dead are always hungry.”
We started down a long winding path through the bleakest landscape I had ever seen. I looked around but Harriet was gone. She had a way of disappearing and reappearing when she felt like it. No doubt she’d turn up again.
Gretchen dropped my hand and looked me in the eye. “So what’s the deal with you and the vampire chick? Is she your fiancée or not?”
I thought about that for a minute. It’s not like I ever asked her or she asked me. She had been sleeping in the thorn and I pulled up her veil and kissed her. It had been a fairy tale in a dream. But symbolism aside, I was Jack, damn it. I did as I pleased. The Weird or whatever wasn’t the boss of me. It couldn’t decide who I married.
“She’s not,” I said. “It was only a dream.”
Gretchen took my hand again. “Good. Now let’s go talk to Old King Hades and find out what he wants.”
Leading away from the river was a path of white stones that glowed wanly like little moons. We started down the path tentatively. On either side of us was absolute black nothingness. No, not nothingness. I smelled something. Something familiar. A scent from my childhood. I peered into the darkness and saw my grandmother in her kitchen cooking pasties, those yummy meat pies from Cornwall. The sight and smell was so appealing, I was tempted to walk off the path of moonstones into my grandmother’s kitchen.
“Ahem,” I heard. I stopped myself. I noticed Gretchen was about to walk off the path too, and I grabbed her hand to stop her.
“Dad,” she said. “I see my dad. He died when I was eight...”
“Do not stray from the path” (came the same voice that had said “ahem”) “Or you will become lotus-eaters and never return.”
A hare stood before us on two legs, his nose twitching furiously. He was wearing a frayed and patched tweed suit and a stiff Edwardian collar with a bow tie. A silver watch chain dangled from his waistcoat.
“Oh my god!” Gretchen gaped. “What is that?”
“Who is that, if you please,” the Rampant Hare said. He had a distinct upper-class English accent, very precise and brittle.
“Sorry, it's just that I didn’t know there were talking rabbits outside of Alice in Wonderland.”
“I am a hare, actually. The two breeds are separate and distinct.”
“Gretchen, this is the Rampant Hare,” I cut in quickly before she put her foot in her mouth again. “He keeps popping up just when I need him.”
“It is no accident,” the Rampant Hare said. “I am bound to serve you, Jack.”
“Really?” I said. “I didn’t know that.” Then a memory surfaced. Actually, I did know that. The Rampant Hare had been the squire of the original Jack the Giant-Killer. Well, that was handy. Everyone could use a squire.
“Thanks for keeping us from walking off the path,” Gretchen said, trying to make amends. “Sorry for calling you a rabbit.”
“I am not offended by the rudeness of earthlies. You are an ignorant race. Follow me, please. I shall lead you to the court of the Shadow King.”
With that, the Rampant Hare set off briskly down the path of moonstones without looking back. Gretchen and I looked at each other and shrugged. We followed along behind him. We’re off to see the wizard, I thought.
The last time I had met the Rampant Hare, he had led me to the court of Queen Pussywillow of Hen. That’s when I had been sent on a quest to find the White Cup. Her cousin Oleandra had opened the dream gate for me to start my quest, and her price had been the enchanted emerald I now carried in my messenger bag. Now the Rampant Hare was leading me to the court of the Shadow King. I couldn’t help but feel there was a certain symmetry to events. I was coming to the close of a cycle.
After about a mile of meandering through the darkness, the moonstone path terminated at a black iron gate in a wall of craggy grey stone. The Rampant Hare pushed the gate open and entered into the yawning gap. Gretchen and I exchanged glances, and, holding hands for courage, followed after. The court of Hades was, as might be expected, dark and gloomy. We were met by a skeleton wearing tattered black velvet livery, and carrying a lit torch in one hand. With his free hand, he gestured for us to follow him. The skeleton led us down a long circular tunnel bored through the stone like a giant wormhole. The Rampant Hare had vanished once more, but by now I was used to his comings and goings. My familiar.
The tunnel opened out into a vast echoing cave, complete with stalactites and stalagmites. On two identical jewel-studded golden thrones sat the Shadow King and a woman whom I presumed must be his queen. They were larger than life, maybe eight feet tall, and their skin was pale as milk, their hair black as ink.
The Shadow King had a tightly curled black beard that put me in mind of an engraving of Ashurbanipal I had once seen at the Museum of Fine Arts. Hades was no less fearsome a king. And someone else was in the cave with us. It was Harriet. I gave Gretchen’s hand a squeeze, which she returned.
“I was wondering when you guys would finally turn up,” Harriet said.
She was wearing a sword and scabbard strapped to her back. A blood-red ruby glinted in its pommel. I immediately recognized it as the Thursbane. How had she visited the Reverend in Mousehole and come back so fast?
“You seem to come and go as you please,” I remarked.
“Well, being neither dead nor alive has its privileges,” she replied. “So are you two an item now or what?”
“What if we are?” Gretchen asked.
“Hey, it was a simple question. Jack can do what he wants. It’s all the same to me.”
Was there a note of hurt in Harriet’s voice? I felt like an ass.
“Anyway,” Harriet went on. “We should get down to business. I’ve been negotiating with the Shadow King for you. He’s agreed to be the keeper of the Eye of Set. What safer place for it than the land of the dead? Nobody comes or goes without his knowledge. Well, hardly anybody.”
“But what about Oleandra?” I asked. “She named it as her price from opening the dream gate.”
“Fríg will take on that debt for you. And in return, you will be her champion for seven years. What say you?” All this wheeling and dealing was confusing the hell out of me. It didn’t seem like I had much choice in the matter. I wondered what being Fríg’s champion for seven years would entail? Well, at least I’d be rid of this damned emerald. That was easily worth seven years.
“Fine,” I said. “It’s a deal.”
Another skeleton in black livery stepped forward. He stopped when he was in front of me and held out his hands, palms up. A few moments passed in silence while the skeleton stood there, grinning disconcertingly.
“I think he wants the emerald, Jack,” Gretchen whispered.
Duh. Of course. Feeling foolish, I opened up my messenger bag and pulled out the cedar box. For a moment, I didn’t want to give it up. My precious! Then, quickly, I handed it over. The finger bones closed around the box and took it out of my grasp. The skeleton walked off and disappeared into the gloom. I suddenly felt gleeful, like I wanted to burst into song. The emerald is gone! The emerald is gone! Ding dong, the emerald is gone! Thankfully for everyone else, I kept my silence. Hearing me sing is torture even the dead shouldn’t have to endure.
Throughout this entire transaction, neither the Shadow King nor Queen had uttered a word or moved a muscle. They just sat rigidly upright in their golden thrones, staring fixedly forward like statues. Maybe they existed in a much slower time frame than we did. In any case, I was ready to skedaddle. All these walking skeletons were seriously giving me the heebie-jeebies.
Gretchen shared my feelings. “Can we go now?” she asked.
“Just one last thing,” Harriet said. Between the King and Queen’s thrones, an aperture swung open in the wall, revealing a flight of onyx stairs leading downward. “In exchange for the Eye of Set, the Shadow King will allow us to bring Jack back with us to the upper world.”
“Well, I hope I can go back,” I said.
“Not you, Jack. The other Jack. My grandfather Jack.”
“Your grandfather? We can bring him back from the dead?”
“Not just from the dead. From Tartarus. He was a naughty boy.”
Without another word, Harriet strode through the gate and started down the stairs. I turned to Gretchen.
“You don’t have to come with us.”
“Don’t be silly, Jack. In for a penny. You don’t think I’d let you spend those seven years on your own, do you?”
Gretchen and I shared our first kiss, right there in the land of the dead in front of the disinterested stares of the Shadow King and Queen. And there was nothing gloomy about it. It was warm and alive and full of hope. Drunk with glee, we ran through the gate to Tartarus and took the onyx stairs two by two.
“Tantivy!” I shouted.
“Tantivy!” Gretchen echoed.