In the shadows of the night he came, a dark figure with hollow eyes and a shallow soul. Silently he moved throughout the sleeping City of Joy, seeking whom he may devour...
Staring out through her bedroom window, welcoming the cool night breeze as it came to appease her otherwise heated flesh, Lana dared to imagine what lay beyond star-studded skies. However, her peace and attention were soon captured by the dark shadow swaying in the distance, just beyond the reach of a towering streetlight.
Squinting, Lana aimed to focus on the ominous figure, but it was swift and soon drifted from sight.
With the shake of her head, she told herself she imagined the shapeless mass, then promptly slipped into bed to dream of times beyond Reality's realm. This was the City of Joy - no harm had ever come upon it; none ever would. Of this, she was quite sure...
It was the scent of sweetness that called to him; the honey-like aroma drifting upon night's breeze, whetting his appetite, luring his senses. With moist tongue he licked thinned lips; anticipation stirred deep within.
He could see her beyond the irritating glow of a streetlight, her golden main slightly flapping in the breeze as she aimed twinking eyes at night's sky; her expression reflecting the beauty within her soul. Oh, how he despised such beauty - yet, the taste of sweetness could be likened to nothing else. It teased and tempted his every sense, clawing wildly at every inch of his being.
Now...! He wanted her sweetness now! And, oh, how easy it would be to take her where she stood... but, no, he must be patient. There was much sweetness to be had in this sleepy town... One moment of pleasure may satisfy for a day, but winter was coming and to his home he must return. He would need many a tender heart to see him through the season.
Hiding in an alley, he stood with arms open wide and sent forth his spirit to feel the hearts within the city walls; seeking the dreams of the tenderhearted in order to learn what manner of man they desired.
With the whisp of foul breath, and the claws of manipulation, what was dark soon took on the appearance of light. Hollow eyes turned a vibrant blue. A shallow heartbeat pounded with tender, yet intense passion. And gone were the dark robes of injustice and in their place a cloak of mirrors, possessing the power to reflect any image a fair maiden would desire.
Come morning, she would be his. He would win her heart and soon after claim her sweetness. First the golden haired beauty, then the others...
Lana woke to the delightful aroma of scrambled eggs. Languidly, she smiled and stretched, welcoming morning's light as it slipped in through her open window and playfully tumbled across her bed, warming her flesh and soul.
On donning her long gown, she stepped into her golden slippers then piled her long mane high upon her head, ready to meet the day with cheer.
"One more week," she told her reflection; the light in her eyes as brilliant as morning's sun. "One more week and I will be of age... and then my life shall truly begin."
With a hop in her step, she joined her mother in the extensive kitchen, where her three young siblings sat around a massive timber table, awaiting their breakfast. She patted each child on the head as she aimed to greet her mother with a morning kiss, leaving a trail of giggles behind her.
"Where is Father this morning?" It was unlike him not to be first to the table.
Mother offered a feeble grin. "He is unwell, my dear... He rests in bed."
Troubled by the concern deeply lining her mother's brow, Lana was about to go in search of her father when a hard knock echoed through the front door of their modest home.
To her daughter, Mother pleaded, "Get that will you, dear? My hands are full, and your father awaits his tea."
The first thing Lana noticed about the stranger was the brilliant blue of his eyes. As soon as their vision connected her heart stopped and she felt drawn to the eyes that called without voice, that held her without hands, that touched her in ways nothing else had.
"I..." she faltered, tripping over an unsteady pulse. "I..."
With a slight bow, the stranger announced, "I am Sc--Scardane, stranger to these parts, but Lord of Humble Hill."
When their vision entwined once more, Scardane reached for Lana's hand and tenderly drew it to his lips. "And you, my lady, are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen."
Lana's heart fluttered, her cheeks burned with delight and desire, and, with the lowering of her lashes, she lightly gnawed on her lower lip, suddenly aware of her own body and its heated longings more than ever.
She allowed her hand to be claimed by the stranger a little longer before retrieving it and placing it against her tight chest; her grin coy as she asked what be the purpose of his call.
"I seek a place of rest... I have travelled long and far, and fear my journey is far from over, but for a night - perhaps two or three," he smiled, the glint in his eye hooking into Lana's heart, "I seek a tender place to rest my weary head."
As his gaze fell to the hand that rested upon her chest, Lana caught her breath, lacing it with longing as it seeped through parted lips.
Forgetting her father's condition and her mother's worry, Lana tilted her head and declared, "Then you have come to the right place, sir... Please, won't you step into the parlour as I see to the spare room."
With confidence, the being now known as Scardane stepped into the aged abode, his arm deliberately grazing the woman's softness as he passed her by. He heard her catch her breath and rushed to inhale the scent of sweet desire, instantly catching sight of her inner longings.
Oh, yes... she was full to overflowing with all things sweet... and soon she would be his....
~*~ Part 2 ~*~
Lana rested upon the rocking chair in the corner of her father's room, darning. Humming softly as her father slept, she smiled, reflecting upon blue eyes. Peace clothed her soul.
"Scardane," she softly mouthed, "Lord of Humble Hill..." Oh, how noble was he. And the way he treated her, as though she were Lady of Humble Hill. Oh, he was to die for... Phillipe had never treated her so fine.
How deeply Scardane impressed himself upon her heart. How he brought life and light to her otherwise dreary world.
Dreary? She had never thought her life as dreary in times gone by. She had always known contentment - until now.
As that image coursed through her soul, Lana momentarily grew troubled; a sense of foreboding rushing to ward off hidden desires. But on hearing Scardane's deep voice echoing along the corridor, just outside her father's door, she turned from all concern and found peace in his spirit once more.
Oh, she knew she was promised to Phillipe, but...
With the breathless call of her father, Lana promptly set down her needle and imaginings, and hurried to his side. Kneeling by him, she wiped a cool hand over his heated brow. "I am here, Father. What is it you will?"
"Do not--" he muttered; the faint clicking of his tongue revealing his thirst... He was quick to take in the water Lana offered, then rested his head back upon his pillow, his chest heaving as he did. He looked so old and so very tired. His state had worsened throughout the day. Lana had never seen him so ill and it pained her so.
"Father, rest. We will speak another time."
With closed eyes and creased brow, he shook his head. "No... Hear me, child... Do not trust..."
Lana grew confused. "Father, I do not understand."
Before the conversation could continue any further, the bedroom door opened and Scardane stepped into the room; his large, impressive figure demanding complete attention. He smiled, and Lana's heart melted.
"Forgive me. I fear I have stepped into the wrong chamber."
Wanting to be near their guest, Lana leapt to her feet and hurried to his side, instantly forgetting her father's vague plea. Clinging onto Scardane's arm, she invited, "Stay. Talk with me as father sleeps."
With his hand tenderly, yet quite firmly, covering hers, he explained, "To stay by your side would be a wish forever whispered upon the wind of desire, fair maiden, but I offered to fetch firewood for your dear mother. Night approaches and with it comes an icy chill."
"I shall fetch it!" Lana insisted, smiling up from beneath dark lashes. She waved to the seat she had recently vacated. "Rest. Watch over Father and rest until I return. And with me I shall bring fresh tea and a slice of Mother's pie."
He clutched her wrist as she aimed to hurry from the room; the firm grip immediately causing her pain. She grimaced and he loosened his fingers a notch - but only a notch. "Pumpkin pie," he insisted. Kissing her whitened knuckles with hard lips, he looked directly into her soul and thickly conveyed, "Pumpkin is my favourite. I eat no other..."
Alone now, Scardane stood tall at Father's side, staring down the tip of his nose with disdain. With an open palm hovering high over Father's dry lips and frightened eyes, Scardane cast a second spell over the man. "Words of wisdom, eyes of faith, soul of fire and heart of grace, speak not of things that seek true light, or death will find you in the night..."
He then wiped his palm over Father's face, causing sleep to overtake the weakened being.
"Ah, the weakness of man. Inferior souls easily manipulated," he hissed. "How I despise these pitiful creatures."
In the front room, Mother tersely whispered, "I do not trust this stranger, Lana. You must refrain from flights of fancy."
Lana chuckled as she swept splinters of wood from her apron. "Oh, Mother, please. Flights of fancy? I think nothing less of the man than what he portrays."
Mother shook her head as she poked another log into the fire. "No, you see what you desire, and I fear such desire has blinded you to truth."
"Oh, Mother, really. You cannot be serious. Are you not the heart that encouraged my soul to seek the dreams it possesses?"
"Dreams and desires are all well and good when they serve the purpose of your soul, my child, but when they come to serve nothing or no one but vanity, and to rob you of soul's purpose, you can trust there is evil afoot. Do not heed the heart of temptation."
Lana took offence to her mother's remarks. "You think me vain?"
Mother stood tall, inhaled a calming breath, straightened her apron, then turned sober eyes to her oldest child. "Your dream, Lana, was to serve the poor, to clothe the naked, to marry the one who yearned to walk the same path as you. This has been your dream, your desire, your path for many years now. How is it you cast it all aside in the twinkle of a stranger's eye?"
Lifting her nose in the air, Lana turned from the words that offended her deeply. "Perhaps dreams of old were foolish notions sent to keep me from an entirely new world."
"Foolish notions? Desires birthed in a noble heart are never foolish. T'is the cry of the flesh that causes distress."
"Oh, Mother! How is it you can tell the two apart when both seem to surface from the same soul?!"
"The noble desires of the soul grow in the presence of Light and Truth; the desires of the flesh feed themself and grow more intense where there is no light. The desire of soul's purpose costs you something, whereas selfish desires causes others to pay. Speak not of such desires arising from the same soul. Selfishness and selflessness cannot be born from the one heart."
As Lana wrestled with her mother's thoughts, Mother all but demanded, "Now, tell me, child, as you search your heart with the light of truth, where do such dreams lie now? What new desire has your heart taken hold of...? Tell me you have not chosen to sacrifice your lifelong dream for one of newfound pleasure. Tell me you have not chosen to sacrifice all you and Phillipe have longed and worked for, for a fleeting desire of the flesh? Tell me this dream you built with Phillipe is not worth destroying for the sake of a heart you do not know... a heart that cannot possibly love you."
Lana aimed to object, but conviction gripped her soul, and the heart that had loved Phillipe and Phillipe alone for as long as she could remember pleaded to be heard. She loved Phillipe... She had promised herself to him and him alone. T'was one week from their wedding day... and now... Now...?
Before she could clear her thoughts, Scardane appeared in the doorway. She caught sight of him and for a brief moment saw darkness fill his boots... but his eyes sparkled, his shoulders grew wide, and once more she felt her heart being tugged towards him.
"Excuse me, dear ladies. I note evening is upon us, and was hoping Miss Lana would join me on a short stroll before dinner. Dusk is my favourite part of the day," he breathed, calling to Lana with his flirtatious gaze, "and I would be greatly honoured to share this precious moment with one so enchanting."
Mother hurried to intervene. "I fear Lana is needed to prepare dinner, Mr Scardane."
Lana promptly set aside her apron, wrapped her arm in the crook of Scardane's and allowed him to lead her where he willed; Mother's pleas going ignored. Phillipe was thought upon no more.
"You have fine parents," Scardane noted as they stepped out onto the street, where gaze after gaze rushed to embrace them.
"You are kind, Scardane, but I fear they are overprotective."
"T'is love they serve you with." As he drew her closer to his side, he warmly breathed, "And it is love you so deserve."
When hidden passion stirred and melded with longing's breathlessness, Scardane inhaled deeply, calling Lana's spirit to merge with his. Soon he would have her willing soul. Soon she would be his. But such was the spirit over the town that his time here would have to be cut short.
The greater mortals loved and hoped, he knew, the greater pain their hearts would experience. And nothing gave him more strength than human brokenness. Nothing gave him more power than human weakness. But he had been deceived by their pleasant nature, and he could now sense a mighty power rising among the hearts that shared a common and strong bond. Soon they would rise up against him, to protect their own. He could feel it in his bones. He did not have the time he needed to deceive more innocent hearts; to prepare them for deep brokenness and great fear. He would have to settle for Lana's willing soul and take what else he could find when darkness came to lull the town to sleep.
He was stunned to discover wills were strong here. For such was the peace and joy they emitted that he had perceived the town to be housed with idiots. He had chosen this town for they all seemed so simple, so trusting, so easy to fool. Like lambs to the slaughter, he perceived them to be... but now he was starting to sense they were more like cunning wolves, ready to protect their own at any cost.
Yes, his time here was short... Come night, he would make his move... Come night, life would course through his soul once more...
~*~ Part 3 ~*~
Hearing the faint echo of his name, Phillipe pulled his black stallion to a halt and turned to see young Oscar - a dearly loved, but fatally dramatic youngster of a mere nine years and of much food - racing as fast as he could along the bricked roadway.
With a cheer, Phillipe slid to the dusty road, steadying his mighty stallion as he did. "Greetings, Oscar! What ails you this fine morning?"
"She's gone, Phillipe. They all have!"
By the time Oscar was at Phillipe's side, he was out of breath and, with what little energy he possessed, he barely managed to keep himself upright.
Phillipe knelt before the youngster, expecting yet another wild tale born from an overactive imagination. "Rest a moment, then tell me of your woes, my good man."
"T'is not my woes, Phillipe. T'is the woes of the town." With an obvious change of thought, Oscar abruptly stood erect, frowned and scratched dirt-stained nails through tangled fair hair. "Where have you been? Were you not destined to return home two days gone?"
Phillipe smiled, reaching into his pocket for a piece of cloth, from which he revealed a stick of hard candy; its brilliant colours instantly capturing Oscar's attention. "Indeed I was, my observant friend, but I fear a violent storm kept me from returning. Though rest assured, at no time did I forget you."
Hungry for the gift, Oscar all but leapt at the treat, forgetting all previous concerns.
Phillipe chuckled. He loved this child, and prayed one day he would have one of his own... There was something about Oscar that always encouraged Phillipe to see just beyond the moment, and, at the same time, enjoy whatever came one's way. "It pleases you?"
Sucking hard on the candy, Oscar eagerly nodded; his lucid blue eyes wide with delight. "M-hmmmm..."
"Very good... Now," he invited, using all his strength to lift the well-fed child up onto his saddle, "you must come with me as I go to greet my fair love."
Wide eyed once more, and with his tight lips refusing to release the candy, Oscar shook his head hard and fast. "But she is gone! They all are!"
Dread stirred within Phillipe's soul. "Gone?"
Oscar nodded then pointed towards a group of people gathered further down the road. "T'is a letter they are reading. Miss Lana has runaway with a stranger... and no one knows what has become of the others."
Without further delay, Phillipe climbed up behind Oscar and galloped towards the chattering crowd. As he drew closer he could hear the cries of many mothers and feel the anger rising from the fathers.
He leapt from his horse to be confronted by more than a hundred anxious men bearing pitchforks and lanterns. "We leave for the outside world at once," they roared. "Come hell or high water, we will bring our daughters home!"
Phillipe could make no sense of the moment. "What has taken place in my absence?"
"Oh, dear Phillipe..." It was Lana's mother who approached him, handing him a letter with fine print as she fell into his arms, weeping.
He held her close and read that which he had been given.
"Dearest Mother and Father, Worry not for my well-being, for I have chosen to go in the way of true love. Scardane and I plan to wed as soon as I am of age. He has promised me a fine home, servants, as many children as I desire, and a world far more beautiful than any I have ever seen or dreamed of. Forgive me for my impatience, and for my leaving, but one must serve the beating of one's own heart, must they not? Take care of one another, my precious loves, and look for me upon horizon's light. I shall return when time permits, but until then rejoice for me and for the love that has come to possess my soul. Your devoted child Lana..."
Cut to the bone, Phillipe stood without motion or breath. Dumbfounded, he could form no solid thought, let alone speak one, for several moments.
As the crowd roared around him, Phillipe viewed the letter once more. Though his vision was blurred by tears of devastation, he knew not one word had been etched for him. His love had taken flight, giving him no thought at all.
Through her grieving, Lana's mother demanded, "You must go after her and bring her back!"
Releasing the trembling woman, Phillipe shook his head. "T'is by her own will she has departed, Reeanna. You have seen her words; read her thoughts." Then he needed to know, "Who is this Scardane of whom she speaks?"
The crowd groaned as pitchforks and curses leapt up in the air.
With desperation, Reeanna clung onto Phillipe's arm. "He is the stranger who has bewitched our Lana."
"But all have gone, Phillipe!" a masculine voice called; another troubled parent stepping forward through the crowd. With the wave of his hand, he announced, "All our virgin daughters have vanished."
Philllipe was stunned. "They left word of their departure?"
"No," was the cry of pained souls. "Not one! They just upped and left during the night."
"Phillipe," Reeanna pleaded, "your heartache must be deep, your mind jumbled with a myriad of troubled imaginings, and your soul burned with rejection - and my heart aches for you, truly it does... but Lana was not of her own mind. She has been bewitched."
He shook his head, unable to believe anything other than what Lana's own words had stated.
"You know my daughter's heart, Phillipe. You know her spirit to be true and pure. He has cast a spell over her soul and taken her from the safety of those who truly love her. Phillipe, I beg of you, set forth and go in search of our daughters."
"We must hunt him down and kill him!" a rough voice called out.
"String him up until death consumes him!" spat another.
"We shall murder no one," Phillipe insisted. "What good does revenge produce! Does it not make us one of the same heart as the evil soul you seem so intent on destroying?"
"What would you have us do, Phillipe?" a weeping mother demanded. "Allow our daughters to suffer? Shall we simply return to our homes and praise the Lord for this fine weather? Is it not our vain souls that have blinded us to the battles of this realm? We are not the first city to have lost our daughters, but in the peace we held we turned a blind eye, telling ourselves this is not our battle, not our fight... But are not all the children of God ours to protect and love...? We have failed many in our complacency, Phillipe; let us fail no more!"
Another cry echoed from the depths of the crowd, striking Phillipe through the heart: "Shall we sacrifice the souls of our children to appease your conscience?!"
Confusion whipped at Phillipe's soul. "But have you not heard Lana's voice? It is by her own will that she has left." He faltered there; his heart breaking over the thought 'she has left me.'
Reeanna shook her head. "My dear husband lays at the feet of death. You know him, Phillipe. You know him to be a sturdy man, strong and of good health all the days of his being. He took ill on the day of Scardane's arrival and draws closer to death as his heart breaks over his child's absence."
"Lana left her father's sickbed?"
With tears of deep grief, Reeanna nodded, convincing Phillipe that Lana was not of sound mind. He knew the love she held for her father. She would never leave him to suffer.
"We will leave immediately!" he declared, aiming to lift Oscar from the tall stallion. But such was Oscar's determination that he hurried to wrap his arms about the beast's neck and clung on for dear life.
"Uh-uh... No!" the youngster grunted; the only remains of the candy being the sticky substance surrounding the boy's tight lips. "I go, too."
"Take him!" was the cry of the woman who had born Oscar. "Oftentimes it is only through the eyes of a child we are able to see the truth before us. Use his eyes, Phillipe. Trust his heart. You know he means well."
With no more delay, the men were saddling their horses and carts and racing off along the only road leading to and from the City of Joy.
"How is it," one of the young men called from his galloping mare, "that you did not come across this stranger on your travels home, Phillipe?"
His friend's question stirred a memory, enabling Phillipe to recall a pair of shady looking characters driving a large cart in the early hours of the morning, not fifteeen miles from the City of Joy. He had been in such a hurry to return to his love that he had simply waved the dark figures a good morning and hurried along his way, briefly taking note they were heading to the high country.
"To the hills!" he cried, and to the hills they went!
~*~ Part 4 ~*~
Scardane's camp was dark and reeked of stale breath. The only light coming to show the way through clawing shrubs and a winding path being the light of the full moon.
Lana tried to remain calm but so eerie were their surroundings and so cold and rigid had Scardane become, that she could find no rest for her soul.
"How much further to your home, Scardane?"
His voice was as lifeless as he now seemed to be. "My land is this."
He drove a little further; the crack of his whip on horse flesh causing Lana to jump. He laughed - a deep, gutteral sound that echoed with evil delight as he kept his focus on the blackness ahead.
Talking to herself, Lana breathed, "It's so dark..." and with the wave of Scardane's hand, one jack-o-lantern after another awoke to light up the sides of the road.
Stunned, Lana sat at attention; her heart pounding wildly just beyond a captured breath. "H-how did you do that?"
When they drew to a halt, Lana remained as she was. With another wave of his hand, a massive bonfire burst into flames, its roaring tongues highlighting the field around them.
"Scardane?" she trembled, clinging to her seat as he climbed down from his. "Why have we stopped? Where is it you have brought me to?"
He did not respond. She watched his dark form move to the back of the cart and pull back a massive rug, revealing a dozen or more women, all bound by the hands and feet; all gagged and wide-eyed with fear.
Lana jumped and screamed at the sight; her sudden movement causing her to fall from the cart and land hard upon earth's dry surface. Dread flooded her entire being. She could not believe what she had seen. Surely she was sleeping and this was a nightmare she had entered...!
"This is a dream," she told herself, hoping; praying; weeping... Crawling backwards, hoping such an action would somehow deny the world around her, she shook her disbelieving head and begged God to awaken her from such horror.
Scardane laughed as he clapped his hands - this action working to loosen the ropes about the women's wrists and ankles. "Come forth," he told them, but they failed to do so, choosing to huddle together for dear life instead. He then set forth a mighty gust of wind from the depths of his soul and ordered, "Come forth or die!" and when he tugged the first woman to the ground, the others hurried after her, fearing for their lives.
One by one he tied them to posts planted in a circle about the raging fire. Only Lana remained untied; her fear having kept her frozen upon the earth.
"What is it you have done?"
Scardane laughed. "What is it I have done?" He laughed once more as he moved to pull her to her feet; his fingers like claws in the soft flesh of her arm. He forced her to watch as each woman fell under the spell of the fire; hypnotised by the violent flames.
"What is it you are doing to them?"
His laugh crawled over her flesh. "It is not by my will they succumb to fire's power, Lana. It is by their own. No will goes where its owner does not desire it to. No temptation has ever overtaken an unwilling soul."
"I don't understand."
As they watched, as the fire burned intensely, each woman stopped struggling and a smoky light rose up and out of the mouths and eyes of each of them; the glowing substances swirling higher and higher until they circled over the peek of the bonfire...
"What is happening to them?"
Scardane smiled; his voice now heavy with hunger. "They are giving up their souls. They surrender their spirit to the flame; to the power beyond the flame."
Lana was horrified. "What?!"
"They are no longer their own."
"H-how can that be?! You have tricked them into surrendering to your will, just as you tricked me."
He released her and stepped away, anger thickly gurgling in the back of his throat. "You longed to be tricked, woman. You held desires you longed to have fulfilled, and you rushed to have me fulfil them for you." Glaring at her with hollow eyes, he spat, "You sold your soul to serve your flesh. These women gave up their soul with the hope of experiencing no more fear, and through longing to suffer no pain. You gave yours up for pleasure... I took nothing you were not willing to give."
Guilt flooded her soul, carving its way through her breaking heart. "No..."
"No? For whom did you seek to please in our union? Me? Your parents...? Phillipe...?"
"Phillipe..." Oh, God, what had she done...? As reality sliced through her heart, Lana dropped to her knees, deeply aware of what her selfishness had cost those she loved. To the ground before her, she swore, "I didn't realise."
As Scardane held a hollow pumpkin high, towards the fire and swirling spirits, he harshly pointed out, "You realised. You just didn't care. Me! Me! Me! That's all you cared about. Oh, how vain the flesh of mortals... Threaten one, it will bow at your feet. Promise another desires untold, and it will lick your feet and thank you for the opportunity!" Grimacing, he shot at her, "Never has a creature been more vain than they who claim to be the children of the Most High God!"
To the heavens he yelled, "And, You, O so-called Mighty One! You are the greatest fool of them all! Did You really believe these children of Yours were so pure they would honour You and all You gave them?! You foolishly cast Your love at the feet of these unworthy beings, when all they seek to serve is their own desires?!"
"No! You do not speak the truth," Lana yelled, her repentant heart praying for a way of escape.
Directly to her, he growled, "Do not speak to me of truth, you wretched being! Truth is something you all cry out for but deny as soon as your flesh experiences discomfort. Vain is the heart of man Shallow is the depth of their soul. Useless and worthless are you all upon the earth! But I will gladly feed from your souls. I will take the life you waste and use it as my own. At least some good can come of God's greatest mistake."
He held the pumpkin higher once more, and in a voice that no longer seemed his own, he growled, "Come to me, o sacred soul, blessed by God in days of old; come to me, departed will, so I may drink and have my fill..." And in an instant one soul left the others and slipped into the object he held; the golden glow burning brightly within its new body as one woman slumped forward from the pole that held her.
Lana was horrified! "No...! You killed her!"
"Death is not mine to give," he grimaced, rubbing a lined cheek against the glowing jack-o-lantern and appearing to enjoy a sensation it produced. "She lives... but life more abundantly will never be the promise she receives. She chose darkness, therefore darkness she has entered. And this by her own will." And with that, he disappeared into the night.
The fire burned on, the conscious women looked on as their souls continued to swirl, and Lana fell to the ground, her broken heart tormented.
"Father, forgive me," she wept. "Forgive me and undo all that I have done. Save my sisters. Save us all..."
~*~ Part 5 ~*~
Lana remained where she was, scared and confused; her heart aching beneath the weight of guilt.
Although she prayed for forgiveness, her convicted soul dared not to wait in anticipation of it, ushering in a sense of hopelessness. Her mood swiftly grew as dark as the night.
Without faith, she begged, "Father, forgive me..."
"Forgive you?" Scardane roared, racing in about her like a violent storm, moving so fast she could not see him. He was like a spirit of the air, causing Lana's hair and the hem of her long skirts to flap wildly about her.
She spun around, trying to focus on the ghostly figure but could not; dread once again coming to claim ownership of her soul.
"No forgiveness here!" the eerie voice gurgled; growing louder only to fade with the release of each sour breath. "You are not worthy of forgiveness. You deserve what you get. You asked for this, now claim it. Wear your shame."
"Leave me be!"
The wind stilled, the earth fell into stunned silence, and just as Lana imagined Scardane to be gone, his fowl breath snaked its way down the back of her neck, his hard fingers locking her to the earth as they pressed down on her shoulders; his voice an icy whisper as thinned lips raked across her flesh. "Leave you? Is it not you who wanted me? ...who pined for me...? Was I not the dream you longed for...? Leave you? No, my sweet flower, I come to love you as you so desired."
Nausea clutched her stomach, and she trembled beneath his clammy touch. She ached to break free, but fear kept her chained to her captor. "Oh, God..."
"God?!" he bellowed, once again taking to the wind, causing dirt and dust to swirl about Lana. "GOD?! He cannot help you! Remember free will. Free will! Free will! Free will!!!!You chose! You chose! You chose! You chose! You are to blame! No God! No way out! Lost! Alone! Worthless! Hopeless! Tried and condemned! Suffer your destiny. Suffer your destiny! Suffer! Suffer! Suffer...!"
And with that he rose high above her, for the first time revealing his true image.
Lana gasped with horror. Scardane laughed wildly as he flew among the flames casting one soul after another into the dark, waking one hollow pumpkin after another.
One by one, each bound woman slumped forward... and bit by bit, Lana's will weakened...
The men searched high and low, finding no traces of man nor beast, and come midnight, spirits were low.
With Oscar falling asleep in Phillipe's arms, Phillipe chose to rest for the night. "We'll make camp here," he called, guiding the troubled horde to hill's peek. "At least from here will be able to view an open flame, and, come morning, a greater sense of where we are."
"We are lost," one grunted.
"We will never find our way home, let alone our daughters," whined another.
Phillipe grieved as he lowered the boy into the strong arms of a companion. Climbing down to rest, he ignored the cries of the weary souls, telling himself they would find strength once more, come morning's light.
As Phillipe took a place upon the ground, keeping Oscar in arms reach, the boy sleepily mumbled, "We need no eyes to see the dead..."
Disturbed by the boy's statement, Phillipe leaned in closer, hoping against all odds that he had misheard the child's words. "Oscar?"
Appearing to be sound asleep, Oscar relayed, "The eyes of the spirit see what no man, woman or beast can imagine. To see the spirits beyond our world," he declared, speaking as a soul far beyond his own years, "one must close their eyes and feel the truth... T'is with the eyes of the heart we see. T'is with the heart we must live..."
Phillipe moved in closer still, slightly startled when Oscar's eyes flew open. "I want food," the youngster abruptly declared, then instantly fell asleep once more.
Phillipe lay in the dark for the longest time, troubled by the youngster's speech. As spooked as he was, however, he meditated upon every word given by the lad, and eventually sought the courage needed to follow spiritual instructions; daring to hope and pray t'was truth Oscar revealed.
T'was in the early hours of morning that Phillipe sat upright, believing he had heard Lana's cry. Whether it be God or the devil that drove him to up and leave the others behind, he was not sure. The only thing he was certain of was his love willed him to her side, and go to her he must.
From where Phillipe stood, in the first glow of morning's light, he espied a dark mist swaying in the distance; the near-translucent form hovering high above the earth.
A shadow? A cloud? A mist...?
Phillipe was mesmerised. He had never seen anything like it in his life.
Then he heard it. A voice on the wind: "Spirits of land and sea, beyond human eye and Heaven's reach... unite with me ~ hearts as one, to finish the war our father begun..."
Suddenly, to Phillipe's astonishment, more dark shadows rose up out of the earth - number beyond measure. At first he thought them to be large swords, aimed at the heavens, but soon realised they were the form of men, upside-down with arms out wide.
"Surely t'is a dream I have entered?"
"Phillipe..." the voice was soft and weak, coming from afar yet sounding so near.
Breathless, Phillipe mouthed, "Lana..."
With a hiss and a roar, the first dark figure, larger than all others, took to the skies and came charging at Phillipe; its speed knocking Phillipe to the ground as it seem to pass through him, leaving him gasping for air.
Once... twice... three more times the shapeless figure struck him, leaving him bruised yet untouched.
"So you are Phillipe," the voice lightly growled, swirling in around him, moving so fast it caused Phillipe's head and stomach to spin. "Phillipe," it laughed. "Heart betrayed."
Heart betrayed... Heart betrayed... Round and round the words swept through his soul, bringing with it the memory of Lana's words. She had left him... betrayed him... betrayed their love; their dreams; their hearts.
Confusion melded with grief, tripping over the nausea stirring within his gut, leaving him devastated.
"Heart betrayed... Heart betrayed..."
He could not deny the voice. He was a heart betrayed...
Bitterness threatened to consume him.
How could she...? How could she...?! With all that I am, I loved her...
Silence flooded the earth. Phillipe lay motionless, memories of love's first kiss carving through his heart like a two-edged sword. He grimaced, he ached, he felt his heart plummet to the dark pit of his soul as hope and heart were ripped apart.
When the echo of Lana's cry found him once more, the only words to rise to meet her were, "Heart betrayed..."
Scardane hovered above the weakened male, distaste souring his already twisted features. To the heaven's he groaned, "Your children are pathetic. Faith?" he spat. "The only thing they possess faith in is what they feel. How easy they are to manipulate because of this...! Your sons and daughters are about as useful to your plans as a deaf, blind and crippled dog is to a farmer! I not only laugh at You, but spit upon those you bore to rule this earth. Shame on you all!"
"I believe..." Phillipe choked out, his voice and body weak, but his words far more powerful than even he realised.
Scardane flew in beside him; glowing eyes burning into what appeared to be a sleeping face.
Scardane's heart quickened; dread clawed throughout his entire being. Suddenly, the eyes of heaven seemed to be upon him, and he quivered at their burning touch. He could not fail! He would not...! "Fool of a man," he cursed, determined to claim this soul as his own. "Belief is for fools."
Phillipe rolled onto his back, his arms open wide, his eyes remaining closed. His position declared him to be highly vulnerable. Physically, he was of no threat, and Scardane knew it. But something was amiss. Phillipe's heart had been shattered, yet faith remained...? T'was not possible!
"No......!!!!!" Scardane roared; his voice being heard throughout the land as he took to the skies, flying high before darting back towards the earth, aiming his vengeance directly at the man's soul. "Heart betrayed...!!!!"
Phillipe sensed the being shooting towards him, but feared not. With a knowing smirk, he opened his eyes and without flinching, he confidently declared, " You have no power over me... I am a child of the Most High God, and by His grace I forgive her."
~*~ Part 6 ~*~ The Finale`
Scardane would not be defeated. He may have lost power over one soul, but there were many more in his control now. Assertively, He sent forth his minions to taunt his new captives, ensuring each soul remained in the Pit of Self.
With the wave of a hand, he released each woman, relishing in their weakness, yet cursing them for it at the same time. Oh, how he despised the cowardly souls of man.
In turn, the women fell forward and Scardane's disciples rushed to start their enslaught of lies.
"Worthless" they bitterly hissed into human ears - each woman believing it to be their own voice echoing throughout their soul; each heart claiming the demons' words as truth; each woman shakily balancing upon their knees to worship the flames before them, convinced they were kneeling at the throne of God, and that by His will. "Worthless!"
"We are worthless..." the women chorused.
"Unlovable..." the demons growled.
"Unlovable..." the women wept, raising their hands higher, as though pleading for mercy; their tears burning hot before the flames.
"No good!" the demons roared.
"No good!" the women bawled, their cries to be born of conviction.
Scardane watched on, but this time he found no joy in his new puppets. He would feed off their fear another time, when impatience did not demand so much attention. For now, however, his head pounded as anger tore through him; restlessness violently jabbing at him, directing him to seek vengeance upon the enlightened soul called Phillipe... And the best way to do that, he knew, was to attack the one the man loved the most.
Lana lay on the ground, too stunned to move; her tear-filled eyes locked on the dancing figures before her. Inwardly, she cried for the women to break free of the dark shapes swirling about them, but still she could not find the courage and confidence to rise up and help them; condemnation pinning her to the ground.
T'was at the sound of Phillipe's voice that she stiffened. Out of nowhere, dark shame consumed her. She closed her eyes, willing herself to fade from view; praying the voice was born solely of imagination.
When he took her into his arms, she failed to respond as a lover should, longing for him to release her. "Leave me be, Phillipe. Leave me be..."
He sat her upright; a tear on his cheek falling heavily upon her soul, flooding her heart with extreme remorse. She wanted to hold him and never let go, but she had shamed him so. She was no longer worthy of his affection.
Scardane flew directly over their heads, squealing as he came. "She is mine," he growled. "By her own will, she is mine!"
Stepping beyond fear, Phillipe rose to stand tall, daring to take his love into his arms. "She is forgiven."
"Phillipe," Lana grieved, clinging to his chest, unable to lift her face to him. "I have sinned against you, my family...God."
Heeding the promptings in his heart, Phillipe grabbed hold of faith and turned his back on his enemy, held Lana by the shoulders and forced her to look him in the eye. With intense conviction, he declared, "I love you."
She shook her bewildered head. "Impossible."
"My love for you travels to the depths of my soul and beyond. Nothing and no one could ever separate you from my love; from my heart." Ever so tenderly, he placed her delicate hand upon his chest. "It beats for you, my love... Without you, I am incomplete. Without you, my heart has no purpose."
With tears of deep regret staining her cheeks, Lana opened her mouth to speak, to utter disbelief, but no words came. As emotion clutched hold of her soul and tugged her towards her one true love, her broken heart tore open and just as she feared it would fail her completely, the light and love emitting from Phillipe's soul burst forth, renewing her hope, faith and confidence.
In one firm embrace, Phillipe's heart stirred Lana back to life, promising forgiveness and eternal love. With their tears mingling as one flow of mercy, love and grace, Phillipe vowed, "I will always love you. Nothing shall ever separate us."
And with that, he turned to face the demon standing before him, prepared to do whatever he needed to do in order to protect and free his true love.
Scardane lowered his huge form to the ground; his ethereal form taking on the appearance of man's solid weight. Scardane snarled, blowing grey-black smoke from his flared nostrils. "You will release her."
As Scardane lunged for Phillipe, a new wind blew in from heaven and a bright light struck Scardane where he stood, instantly stilling him; his limbs appearing to be chained to an unseen force. As he struggled to break free, a voice from heaven firmly announced, "This is My beloved child, in whom I am well pleased. You will not harm him..." And in an abrupt flash, Scardane was gone.
To Lana, and as the sun streaked across the land, wiping out all dark shadows, Phillipe conveyed, "You are free, my love. You hold the key in your heart. Forgiveness. Receive it, and step free." When she aimed to object, he quietened her with the tender touch of his hand. With his brow set against hers, he reassured her with waves of unconditional love, "You are forgiven. Now you must forgive yourself..."
T'was a long journey back to the City of Joy; many hearts having been weighted down with condemnation, others stepping out of the shadows of the city in order to reflect dark shades of disgust and disapproval, adding to the women's remorse and self-loathing.
Many of the young women - once confident - were no more free in the presence of judgemental hearts and pointing fingers as they had been when bound to Scardane with fear. Some fell into pools of misery, unable to escape the shame. Others worked night and day to please those they loved, seeking the approval they had once owned. But those who grabbed hold of forgiveness and faith, who wore grace with new-found dignity, who knew it was the loving heart of God they were answerable to and not the hypocritical hearts of 'man', soon knew what it was to walk in true freedom, and, with it, gained a greater understanding of love and compassion, which they willingly passed forward to those who needed it.
T'was these latter hearts that took pity on the former ones, and, without shame, and without a sense of duty, they used their life lessons, and the grace that had been given unto them, to bring greater healing to those trapped in fear, guilt, and shame. They did not judge, for they knew the way of temptation. They loved, knowing it was the only path back to freedom.
And as for Lana and Phillipe ~ their journey had only just begun...