Chapter Three - The Jack of Perhaps
Wendy looked straight ahead, blinked, and remained thoroughly confused by what was before her. There was a courtyard wall, and that was all well and good. Said courtyard wall, however, was covered in some sort of flora which might or might not be lichen. Now, said flora was growing quite blithely in the courtyard wall, which certainly suggested that it might be lichen. (Ordinary plant life wouldn't have been able to eke out an existence from the bare rock, of course.) Also, said flora appeared to be a bunch of surprised-looking eyeballs on craggy stalks, which lent credence to the idea that it was no ordinary plant life.
Eyeball lichen, she decided.
Eyeball lichen?! scoffed a very skeptical back corner of her mind.
She had to admit it had a point. Nonetheless, "eyeball lichen" was the best she could do for the moment, so eyeball lichen it was.
Wendy peered at the eyeball lichen, her brow furrowed. The eyeballs peered brazenly back, blinking occasionally. At last, she tentatively reached forward to touch one of the craggy stalks, and the whole plant shied back with a sudden jerk.
Wendy withdrew her hand, still looking very hard at the eyeball lichen.
The eyeball lichen attempted to blink nonchalantly.
Wendy snorted. "Honestly - as if I'm going to believe that. I just saw you react to me, so you're obviously quite sentient."
The lichen rustled up once, and then down.
Wendy was fascinated. "I didn't know that, er... you... could, er... shrug."
The lichen gave a rather smugger blink.
"I see," said Wendy, still bemused. "I don't suppose you can talk, can you?"
The stalks rustled reprovingly.
"Yes, well - that would be asking a bit much, given that you have no apparent mouth", she mused. "Though you are remarkably expressive."
The stalks waved in a decidedly self-satisfied manner.
As she continued to look with some bemusement at the eyeball lichen, something niggled at the back of Wendy's mind. Something was not quite right. But what? Admittedly, the eyeball lichen were a touch odd, but that really wasn't it. After a few more moments, it occurred to her what it was.
To put it simply, she was in a courtyard with a very nice stone wall and had precious little recollection as to how exactly she had arrived there.
Also, she seemed to think the eyeball lichen were only a touch odd.
A ha! This must be a dream. Dream logic would happily permit eyeball lichen to only be slightly odd. In addition, the details of the courtyard had a certain shifting misty quality to them, a lurid brightness. To be sure, stones existed in the real world, but they didn't glisten in the moonlight quite like that. And there was grass and sky in the real world, of course, but the grass was never that green nor the sky that velvety black, shot through with such shining stars.
To be frank, the real world just wasn't this pretty.
Wendy smirked a little to herself, murmuring, "Most definitely a dream. Here's to my imagination."
Wendy started at the sinuous thought that laced easily through her mind, but it was gone almost instantly.
She stared very hard at the stones of the courtyard wall for a moment. The water on them really was rather ridiculously bright, glittering in the soft moonlight. A memory washed subtly through her. "How lovely - I haven't seen water glitter like that since-"
She stopped short, and took a deep breath. In that breath, the scent invaded her - crystal stars and chilling nighttime lagoons, sea and salt and leaves and forest.
The scent of Neverland.
But no - more shaded, more textured, sharper, darker-
"I think sssshe's beginning to get it, Ssssnerr," hissed a crackly voice from behind her.
"Clever little girlie, issssn't she, Bren?" hissed another voice, also behind her.
Girlie?! Vexation burned through Wendy as she whirled around. She stopped short, vexation wiped clean. Two sinuous, winged creatures were perched on the branches of a tree just to her right. They were smiling in a most unpleasant fashion, which gave Wendy ample view of far too many sharp teeth.
She regarded them for a chill moment, noting the predatory amusement in their glistening eyes.
Do not appear weak.
The thought came unbidden, and Wendy quite agreed with it. If the stone felt real enough, those sharp teeth would as well. What she needed was a little clever subterfuge.
A game of Let's Pretend. Let's begin, shall we?
She took a deep breath and thought of the most menacing figure she could. Hook, of course. What must it be like to move as Hook did, with such utter confidence? What did it feel like to have a very step be a threat, every look a brutal reminder of hidden violence? What was it like to be completely in command of those cowering before you?
She felt her features grow colder, more arrogant.
Rapidly sinking into character, she allowed a strangely comfortable hint of coiled danger to run through her. Slowly, deliberately, she advanced on the two creatures with the fingers of her right hand curled ever so slightly. "And who," she breathed, "are you to call me girlie?"
The creatures froze, malevolence bleeding away. After a few rapid glances at each other, they straightened up and backed off while performing a series of undulations vaguely reminiscent of a salute.
Wendy regarded this display with an imperious little smile as controlled relief fluttered in the back of her mind.
Her heart gave a sudden lurch as the creatures moved suddenly down the tree, gracefully arcing among the green vines and black branches until they lay curled a little way from her. They performed their saluting undulations once more and spoke as one. "If you would follow ussss, Ssssstoryteller."
They began to slither off.
Wendy looked calmly at their receding forms and remained staunchly where she was.
The creatures suddenly realized this and returned. "Will you not come with usssss, Ssssstoryteller?"
Wendy smiled slightly down at them. "And why exactly is it that should I follow you...Bren and Snerr, was it? Yes. Tell me that, if you would be so kind. I suggest you be brief and convincing, as well. As it is, I am perfectly content to remain with the eyeball lichen."
The eyeball lichen could be heard to rustle a rather smug approval.
Bren and Snerr exchanged glances. "If you've conversssssed with the lichen, he already knowsssss you are here."
Wendy's heart gave a violent lurch. "He?"
Thunder rolled overhead, sudden and jarring.
Right on cue, though Wendy irreverently as she glanced up.
Bren and Snerr began to undulate in a rather agitated manner. They were nervous.
A soft laugh moved along Wendy's mouth, near the kiss at the corner. "Ah...I see. The Jack knows I'm here, so you're to lead me to him. And shall I also assume that there will be some...," she cocked her head to the side, as if considering, " unpleasantness should you fail in your task, Bren and Snerr?"
Twin sets of glistening black eyes glared up at her resentfully. "Thissss would be a wise assssumption." They clearly expected her to make their task more difficult now.
Lovely, she thought to herself, reluctant guides with very sharp teeth.
Out loud, she answered, "Well, we can't have that, can we?" She took a deep breath, drawing in the scent of Perhaps. "Lead on."
Bren and Snerr blinked at her, with some confusion. Her immediate acquiescence was evidently unexpected.
Wendy smiled to herself. Keep them off-balance and they'll never see you coming. "Unless you'd rather I make my own way?"
"No! That will be unnecessssssary." As one, Bren and Snerr gave a small sigh of relief. "Please follow ussssssss." And with that, they slid off down the path.
The courtyard was labyrinthine. Wendy was rather glad that Bren and Snerr seemed so very sure of their way through the wildly twisting hedgeways. Patches of eyeball lichen alternated with roses along the walls, where an occasional white statue claimed a place. One statue Bren and Snerr quickly glided past was of a mermaid rising out of a pool to talk to an impish boy whistling at the edge. The mermaid's hand had snaked out to grab the boy's wrist, and the boy was in the process of merrily eluding her. His eyes sparkled as he arched his body gracefully out of reach.
"Ah, Peter," breathed Wendy quietly, as she stood admiring the craftwork of the stone. The sculptor had captured the insolence of his smile to perfection. She began to walk towards it to better appreciate its detail, just for a moment...
A fierce hiss from Bren and Snerr froze her where she stood. They moved around her, baring their many sharp teeth and scowling.
Though her pulse ripped wildly through her, Wendy's voice remained neutral. "There's no need for that, really...I was just admiring the stonework-"
"That," spat Bren, "isss no ssstone." He hissed violently again and lurched between Wendy and the statue, snapping his teeth.
"Well," Wendy ventured diplomatically, "it looks an awful lot like stone. Rather like the rest of the statues in the courtyard."
"The rest of the sssstatues?" rasped Snerr. "No, it couldn't be," he hissed after a moment. "No, it musssst be. Of course. She doessssn't see them, Bren."
"Doesn't ssssee them? That's ridiculoussss," replied Bren, still snapping at the air between Wendy and the statue. "Thisssss is just a tesssst for us. And I could usssse a bit of help here, Ssssnerr."
Snerr lunged forward and snapped at another bit of air. "No, Bren," insisted Snerr, "she'sssss susceptible to their glamour. Just look at her!"
Bren spared a look for Wendy, while dodging another phantom attacker.
Wendy looked coldly back at him.
"She'sssssss mortal, then?" replied Bren skeptically. "Impossssssible. What would the Jack want with a mortal?" He reared up and hissed at yet another bit of air. "She'd have no real power here."
Wendy felt her breath go very still in her body.
"She's the Sssssstoryteller, you fool!" countered Snerr. "Of coursssssse she has power here."
Wendy remained very quiet, storing this very interesting piece of knowledge away for future use.
"And that'ssss why the Jack wants her," continued Snerr, dodging suddenly to the left. "And if she happensssss to be mortal enough to be susceptible to their glamour, we better make sure she ceasssssses to be."
Wendy's eyebrows jumped at this last remark. Ceased to be what? Mortal?
"Sssstoryteller!" hissed Snerr sharply at her. "Go to the eyeball lichen on the wall and trace your fingerssss through the ssstalksss. Then rub your fingersssss acrossssss your eyessss."
She didn't move. "And that will do what exactly?"
"Sssssstop the effects of their glamour!" rattled Bren. "Now, do it!"
Wendy noted with some alarm that a gouge had appeared in Bren's smooth black scales, and it was bleeding a thick, green ichor.
"Ssssstoryteller!" hissed Snerr, with some desperation. "Pleassssse!"
Wendy, startled into action by the pleading tone, hurried to the eyeball lichen on the wall nearby. Murmuring a gentle "pardon me", she plunged her fingers among the stalks and then traced her dewy fingers across her eyelids, allowing some drops to fall into her eyes. The moisture was pleasantly cool.
"Now look at your 'ssssstatue', Ssstoryteller," hissed Bren, with some disgust.
Wendy opened her eyes and looked. And then promptly stopped breathing.
Her statue had been replaced by masses of writhing, knobby tentacles that snaked out in muscular ropes. The base of the tentacles surrounded a circular, sucking maw centered in a woody-looking substance.
Like trees from nightmares, she thought, with a shudder. Efficient predators. Patient.
The one currently engaged in a vicious battle with Bren and Snerr was a particularly nasty specimen indeed. Bren and Snerr did not appear to be holding up well at all. More gashes had appeared along Bren's smooth scales, and one of Snerr's wings had a ragged hole torn through the delicate membrane.
"What are you?" she gasped softly in the direction of the nightmare tree.
"Gwyndilonssss," retorted Bren snappishly, as he dodged the sharp end of a tentacle pursuing him.
Wendy tasted the name on her lips, wondering over it. Images blew softly threw her mind, swirls of half-stories and history and possibility. But this was not the time. She needed to deal with the gwyndilon that threatened her now, the one causing her heart to hammer and her body to freeze with horror. In her mind, a morbid fascination with the gwyndilon's fierce nature curled, a sudden respect for its savage strength.
That's good, whispered a silky voice in her mind. Use that to your advantage. And this.
A shiver rustled along her spine as she closed her eyes. When she opened them, winter stars blazed behind them.
She regarded Bren for a long, cold moment, her face etched with polite disdain. When she spoke, her words were chips of ice. "I did not address you, snake goblin." She turned curtly away from Bren and looked directly at the gwyndilon. She inclined her head to it, indicating her respect. "I asked you. And I will ask you again. What are you?"
The massive mound of writhing tentacles paused. Bren and Snerr took the opportunity to lurch gracefully out of reach and curl unabashedly behind Wendy, nursing their numerous wounds.
Several smaller tentacles wriggled through the air, and a slow, deep, rasping voice answered. "We are as he says. We are gwyndilons."
Wendy continued, cold and precise. "And you prey on the unwary mortals who cross your path in this courtyard?"
Low, dry laughter like branches on stone came from the gwyndilon. "We are not so discerning as that. The unwary anything will do. But mortals fall prey to the glamour most easily - and then fall prey to us." A tentacle snaked closer to Wendy.
Wendy, unperturbed, took a step back to remain out of reach. Bren and Snerr hissed in agitation, but remained very close behind her.
"Then you are very efficient, indeed." She regarded them thoughtfully. "And very beautiful."
The snaking tentacles paused and lashed suddenly downwards. "Do not mock us."
"I do not mock," countered Wendy. "You are well-designed for your purpose, graceful and cunning. That I respect. That I find beautiful."
The smaller tentacles paused again, and slowly the low, dry laughter came again. "Oh, such a clever girl, with your twisting words. I am quite amused by you." Several tentacles shook gently in mirth, it seemed. "You'll do well here. Fearless, inventive - Perhaps is well-suited to your kind."
My kind? A smile played across Wendy's lips, and she bowed her head. "Thank you." She lifted her head. "What is your name, gwyndilon?"
Tentacles shuddered, paused. "What is yours?"
"I am called Wendy."
"Ah...the Storyteller. That explains much." Several tentacles waved lazily with approval.
Consternation twisted through Wendy, cracking the ice in her voice. "Was there an announcement? Honestly - everyone seems to know."
Dry laughter shook the smaller tentacles. "You might say that."
Wendy caught the phrasing. "And what else might I say?"
"That one is always wise to be aware of those who interest the Jack."
A cold electricity flickered through Wendy. "I see." She closed her eyes, willing her heart to stop its wild hammering with limited success. When she spoke again, her voice was cool as the sea. "But let us not be side-tracked - what is your name, gwyndilon?"
Several tentacles flicked, agitated. The gwyndilon did not like giving up its name. "Don't you want to know why the Jack is interested in you?"
Wendy wondered briefly why the gwyndilon was offering that bit of information freely. As if it were bait. Then, she remembered something which made very good sense: Common rules of asking questions of fey creatures included the three-times rule. Ask a question three times, and the one being questioned had to answer with something truthful. There were, of course, several ways of steering the querent away from asking the question the third time, which is what made it sporting.
Wendy was quite willing to wager that the three-times rule applied in Perhaps.
"Very tempting bait," said Wendy, her eyes flashing with cold amusement. "But, for the third time, gwyndilon, what is your name?"
A sigh like dead leaves slipped through the courtyard. "You may call me Ermenth and I will respond."
Wendy smiled, and it did not reach her eyes. Now, she had leverage with the gwyndilon. "Then Ermenth, I ask you to assure me safe passage through this courtyard and grant me your aid should I require it against others during my passage through this courtyard, as a favor to," she paused for a moment, before finding the right words, "one of my kind."
The gwyndilon considered this, and then replied, "May it be so, Storyteller."
Wendy's smile widened, and it still did not reach her eyes. That wording was blatantly insufficient. "But will it be so, Ermenth?"
A soft, dry chuckle slipped along the wind. "Oh, you are a clever one, aren't you? Yes, Wendy, it will be so. And I shall collect my favor in return later."
"Thank you, Ermenth. That is acceptable."
"So pacted, Storyteller."
Wendy paused at the odd wording, sensing there was a deeper importance to those words. But at last, she bowed to the gwyndilon respectfully, straightened, and turned sharply around. "Bren! Snerr! Let's go."
Bren and Snerr eyed her in startlement, unmoving and still bleeding freely.
"Unless you'd prefer to stay."
As one, they darted away from the gwyndilon, escaping into the shadows of the courtyard.
Wendy followed in their wake, eyes blazing with cold fire.
A short while later, Wendy's thoughts spiraled away from the cold, cold precision that had overtaken them and retroactive panic set in. The thundering pulse inside her head sang with the ripe edge of hysteria. She was fairly sure that her heart would burst through her chest momentarily, and that Bren and Snerr - though surprised - would enjoy licking the bloody pulp from their skin. Of course, she mused idly, then they would have to explain her absence to the Jack...but she would still be just as dead. What exactly that would mean in this dreamscape, she wasn't quite sure, but she was fairly sure it wouldn't be as simple as waking up in bed back at Reddon House.
All in all, it was not a terribly comforting situation.
She stumbled suddenly behind Bren and Snerr. As one, they swiveled their heads around, tongues flickering. "Are you alright, Sssssstoryteller?"
There was concern there, but only an overtone. Bren and Snerr had a hungry look about them, and it wasn't just a hunger to fill their bellies. They were waiting for her to slip, to cede them some kind of control with her words. The snake goblins were underlings, true, but that didn't mean they weren't enterprising underlings.
Wendy smiled weakly. "Of course I'm alright."
Bren and Snerr slithered closer, heavy-lidded eyes still fixed on hers. "Are you quite sssssure?"
A violent chill rushed through her, and with it, that satin-smooth voice. Remind them of who you are.
She blinked slowly, keeping her gaze on them. Alright...let's pretend.
With a careful breath, she began the descent into the chilling confidence she had adopted before, slipping into the character like a deep, dark pool in her mind.
She inclined her head slightly, like a bird sighting two worms, and smiled a very savage smile. "With Ermenth as my ally, I should be quite fine." Ermenth's tentacles whipped lazily through the air behind her with deadly force. "Don't you agree?"
Silence hung with the implied threat. Bren and Snerr continued to look at Wendy, measuring her. Wendy continued to look back, impenetrable as glass.
The snake goblins broke first. Ducking their heads, they swiveled back around and slithered off.
Wendy followed, wearing her cold, calculating mien like armor as the crash of the gwyndilon's tentacles punctuated her steps.
After several moments, Snerr spoke, carefully deferential, as he fell back to slither beside her. "You have great power, you know." He fixed an eye on her as he moved.
Wendy's lips curved in a small, polite smile. "Oh?"
"Yesss," said Bren, who was now slithering on her other side. "You have converssssed with the gwyndilons and received a name. Few know such thingssss."
"You have made an alliance with them," continued Snerr, still deferential. "They ally with no one."
Wendy raised an eyebrow. "No one?"
"No one ssssave the Jack," said Bren.
Wendy's smile became quite sly as she watched them. "Indeed. Fancy that."
Silence exploded, and remained. Bren and Snerr slithered forward abruptly. And did not look at her again.
This suited Wendy just fine - she could cease sparring now that they were sufficiently controlled.
Well done, came the satin voice, rich with laughter like silver coins.
Wendy rather smugly agreed with it, and walked on in the silence of the courtyard.
The castle doors materialized before them, intricate black panels stretching into the glittering sky. Eyeball lichen blinked lazily from either side. One patch caught her gaze and winked saucily.
Wendy blinked, and felt a lop-sided smile sneak through her cool demeanor.
The rest of the eyeball lichen rustled its welcome to her, and the saucy patch fluttered something rude at the snake goblins.
Bren and Snerr gave the saucy patch decidedly sour looks. The eyeball lichen gleefully ignored them and motioned Wendy near. Wendy approached, careful to keep the snake goblins in her peripheral vision. The eyeball lichen flurried something dismissive at Bren and Snerr, who glanced at each other and then glowered at the eyeball lichen. The lichen, however, wasn't budging. Eventually, being snidely stared at by hundreds of eyes wore on the snake goblins' resolve. They undulated a salute for Wendy, and slid away from the castle doors.
Wendy watched them until their slithering forms had vanished back into the garden labyrinth. She then turned back to face the eyeball lichen and the very firmly shut doors. The carvings on the door panels were strange, and seemed to shift as she looked at them. She thought she almost caught sight of a face sliding through the leaves of the carved forest, but it slipped away under direct sight. She reached forward and slid her fingers across the black stone; she discovered the corner of a smile beneath her index finger, the faintest outline of lips quirked up.
Suddenly, the smile moved and shifted into something that caressed the edges of her fingertips. A quiet yelp escaped her and she withdrew her hand sharply, somewhat unnerved.
The doors opened then, slowly and silently, as she watched. Wendy stood there for a moment, peering into the waiting darkness.
It was quite obvious she was meant to go straight through the doors, plunging headlong into whatever was inside. She felt the thread of wicked curiosity tugging at her, enticing her. It was all very thrilling, the possibility of stepping into the unknown.
It just didn't seem terribly wise.
She glanced at the eyeball lichen, which waggled encouragingly at her.
And then, deep in the back of her mind, came the satin-smooth voice, Come inside, darling.
Her pulse thundered in her throat, and it definitively wasn't fear. The Reddon-sanctioned portion of her mind staunchly refused to acknowledge exactly what it was, however.
And so, feeling entirely too trusting, she walked through the castle doors. The darkness felt thicker than it should have, not empty at all but seething with...something. Small susurrations followed her movements, and Wendy remembered that walking through the castle doors really hadn't seemed a terribly wise plan.
The doors swung shut behind her as silently as they had opened. The darkness was a waiting thing.
"Ominous, all this whispering in the dark," she remarked, to no one in particular.
The susurrations stopped.
"Quite ominous," she amended. She walked forward slowly, trying to feel her way. She bumped into a wall, banging her toes. Turning and making a few choice remarks on the current state of darkness, she headed the other direction. And hit another wall. "Curse it," she grumbled, rubbing her ankle ruefully. "What I would give for a little light. Perhaps a soft violet color. Hmmm...yes, a soft violet light would be just lovely right now, just the color of the eyeball lichen. And if wishes were horses," she continued wryly, "then beggars wo-"
She broke off as a soft violet light filled the room.
Wendy's eyebrows jumped. "That was far too convenient."
The susurrations seemed quite amused. Wendy soon realized they came from patches of eyeball lichen strewn across the walls at various intervals. The violet light was coming from them.
She narrowed her eyes at the patches nearest her. "You little tricksters - are you trying to make me faint from fright?"
The lichen flurried wildly, turning a rather brilliant shade of mauve. It was most mortified.
Wendy sighed. "No, no - there's no need to be embarrassed. It was a lovely shade of violet. I was just a bit surprised at your timing."
The lichen rustled weakly.
"Really, it's all right," she said as she gently patted the nearest stalks.
The lichen seemed to accept this after a few more repentant flurries, and returned to its previous violet shade.
Only I could come up with a dream that involved me comforting sentient plant-life, she thought with some amusement as she turned to survey the now-lit room. In truth, it seemed to be more of a hallway, with lines of portraits on each side, continuing endlessly in both directions. No doors in sight - only the endless march of frames in either direction.
"Half a moment," muttered Wendy, as she turned sharply around, "there were doors that I just came through. Where are the doors?"
Patches of lichen fluttered their sympathy.
"Ah, so that's the way of it? Always switching around." Wendy snorted to herself. "It's a wonder anyone can get where they're going."
The lichen fluttered wryly.
"Yes, I suppose it must all work out in the end, or else it'd be rather trying for whoever lives here." She sighed. "Ah well. I'd better pick a direction and start walking. Which do you think, left or right?"
The lichen blinked at her and waggled a smart reply.
"You wouldn't go either way? That's not remarkably helpful, you know."
The lichen's reply was somewhat smug.
Wendy felt a wry smile steal across her lips. "Yes, I suppose you do know. All right then - what do you suggest?"
A mass of innocent blinking commenced.
"I see," said Wendy. "So I should stand here and bat my eyes, then?" She sighed contemplatively. "I admit it doesn't seem terribly productive, but then, who am I to argue with the Jack's sentinels?"
Self-satisfaction blinked back at her.
It was then that Wendy noticed the portrait to the right of the eyeball lichen patch. And suddenly, standing there batting her eyes didn't seem like such a bad idea after all.
His hair fell black and long down his back in picturesque cascades. Standing with seemingly careless grace, he allowed one winter star eye to regard the viewer in his three-quarters profile. The paleness of his skin caught the moonlight, luminous and beautiful. In his elegant hands, he held a ball of light spinning its threads, close enough to kiss its iridescent strands. Ah no...those strands were coming from his lips, and he was deftly forming them into the ball of light. His lips formed a smile that was lovely and wicked and more than a little cruel.
"Winterkiss, of course," murmured Wendy appreciatively. "How fitting. And quite striking."
Both winter star eyes suddenly turned to fix on her, and the smile blossomed with amusement and pleasure. "I'm quite glad you approve," said the satin voice dryly. "I stay up nights absolutely pining for your approval."
For a moment, Wendy forgot to breathe, gazing at those eyes. And those eyes, cold and predatory and very, very interested, gazed back at her.
She remained frozen for some moments, staring up at the dark, looming figure of the Jack. Her resemblance to a deer in sight of the hunter did not escape the corner of her mind that was still able to notice such things. That part had a private chuckle while the rest of her mind told it quite firmly to shut up.
The Jack's laughter fell like silver coins as he reached down from the picture frame in a gentlemanly gesture of invite. "Come."
Wendy's mouth was dry, too dry. She did not take the gloved hand in front of her.
His lips curled gently. "Come, come, Storyteller- don't you know proper form?"
Wendy found her voice, dry and small though it was. "Why did you say that?"
"Well, proper form is something I expect you to be acquainted with." Laughter danced behind his words.
"No - those words...that comment, the one that I said to Beth...how did you know those wor-" She flushed and stopped, suddenly aware that he was toying with her. This uneven state of affairs made her rather irritated, and she narrowed her eyes in what she hoped was a profoundly withering glance.
He darted forward suddenly, sweeping both her hands into his. Winter star eyes were level with hers, and she forgot, for a moment, everything she was irritated about.
"How did I know those words?" he asked softly, drawing close. His lips brushed just below her right ear. "This is your dream at the moment, Storyteller. I know many things here."
And he withdrew, an amused smile stealing across his lips.
It took several moments for Wendy to gather any semblance of composure since his eyes, chilling and keenly observant, remained firmly locked on hers. "My dream, is it?" she countered weakly. "How delightful."
"I agree," he replied fluidly, "you have a gift for creation." He pulled her gently forward, towards him. "Come - I can tell you more, if you like."
Information freely given was a tantalizing lure, but Wendy was forcibly reminded of her dealings with Ermenth. There was something that needed careful thought here.
She shuddered as the Jack's hold slid around her wrists and tightened. Her thoughts scattered, attempted to reformulate, and failed. He had to be able to feel her hammering pulse, had to hear her rapid breaths.
And he was probably laughing about it.
Sufficiently vexed, Wendy threw caution aside and answered with only a slight quaver in her voice, "I accept your offer, sir."
"Good," he replied, satisfaction smooth as silk. "Now come with me."
His gloved hands pulled her forward, and into the portrait frame with him. The thrill of his proximity was suddenly overwhelmed by a swirling vertigo that rode her vision and sucked out her breath. It was dark, and cold...so cold. She collapsed against him, panic clawing at her throat as she attempted to breath and couldn't. Her hands scrambled for purchase, anything to stop this suffocating descent into the black emptiness.
A trick...I've been fooled, she thought, and now I'm done for.
His hands moved up around her arms, holding her firmly, almost protectively. Trust me, darling.
Right, she thought back weakly, because that's turned out to be such a brilliant plan so far.
And then she very promptly passed out to the echoes of his soft laughter.
Her eyes opened in a room made of marble and gold. The eyeball lichen glowed softly in shades of lavender, giving a delicate sheen to the rich mosaic on the expansive floor in front of her. She realized she was looking down on it from a dais of some sort, and curled comfortably into something soft as snowflakes. She drowsily wondered how snowflakes could feel so warm.
Then, the snowflakes exhaled, and Wendy bolted up with a furious blush of realization.
She stumbled off the dais where he was and closed her eyes. She breathed slowly for several moments and pointedly refused to look up. After a few more moments, she coughed and spoke softly. "Well, this confirms it - your shirt is, in fact, softer than it looks."
He laughed gently, but she felt the cold smile drifting through it. "I'm rather fond of it myself."
"Why did you do that?" she asked, addressing her question quite forcibly to his boots.
He was toying with her again, and vexation stirred her gaze upwards. "I'm not accustomed to waking up in such positions."
He countered effortlessly. "Are you accustomed to falling into dead faints, then?"
She snapped her gaze to his eyes, consternation leaching the heat from her. "No," she said softly.
Amusement glittered through his eyes, but his voice remained cool and even. "Then I suggest you provide explicit instructions for the future. As it was, I had to improvise."
The look Wendy gave him was not a very nice one. "Why did you take me through that...whatever it was?"
He regarded her for a moment before replying. "It is the only way to get from place to place in the castle."
"But what is that, in the portrait?"
His face became inscrutable. "Nothing."
Wendy's eyes flared with temper. "That most certainly was not nothing."
He rose suddenly and strode down the steps of the dais towards her, his voice low and precise. "Oh yes it was - that's exactly what it was." He was in front of her, looking down from inches away. "Nothing. No form, no shape, no life."
Wendy looked up at him, drinking in winter star eyes, temper dissipating. The part of her that noticed such things was beginning to become embarrassed by this reaction.
He continued, words sliding down her skin like fur. "There are many parts of Perhaps full of that ... emptiness."
Reason suddenly pierced the pleasurable haze of her mind, grounded her. "So how did you stay conscious in that portrait, waiting for me?"
He smiled again, wryly. "I am skilled at remaining conscious in such states."
Silence curled after his words.
Wendy stepped closer, looking squarely up at him. "Where do you come from, Jack?"
He tilted his head, amused again. "Only you would know here, Wendy."
"That's not an answer."
"Yes, Storyteller, it is."
Wendy felt a fine thrill of fear run through her, mingled with curiosity and frustration. "Is there anything you can actually tell me in a straightforward fashion?"
"Of course there are things I can tell you in such a way."
Wendy waited for a moment before the phrasing registered. She sighed. "Alright - is there anything you will actually tell me in a straightforward fashion? Preferably now?"
"Certainly," he replied, laughing gently with approval. "But I first wish to discuss how busy you've been impressing some of my subjects." He extended his hand to her, courteous once more. "Come - walk with me."
She paused, staring at the gloved hand before her. Then, giving herself a good mental shake, she took his hand. A delicious chill stole through her as she felt the fine leather slide across her skin.
They walked to one edge of the throne room, stopping at a niche with a portrait framed elegantly in gold and black. The gwyndilon in it was painted in startling detail.
Wendy recognized it at once. "Ermenth."
"Yes - few pass the gwyndilons with their blessing. Very clever of you. " Pleasure and approval thrummed along the undertones of his voice.
Wendy looked at him, her voice careful as she locked onto those winter star eyes. "I had your help, of course. Your suggestions of what to do. And again when controlling Bren and Snerr. Why did you help me, Jack?"
He tilted his head to the side, contemplative at her directness. "It seemed ungentlemanly to leave you in such states of distress."
"You could have simply come to me yourself. You control them all, don't you?"
"Do I?" he asked, with a secretive smile.
Wendy arched an eyebrow. "I would assume so, at least to some extent. So," she continued, "why help me but not come to me yourself to steer me away from such terrible dangers?"
He looked at her for a very long moment. "You interest me."
Wendy's pulse sped again, as her brain raced to catch up with the possibilities of this answer. "So what then? You wanted to test me, see how I performed?"
His smile was a sly thing indeed. "Perhaps." He turned away from the portrait suddenly. "Come - let me show you the realm as you have it."
Wendy's eyebrows shot up in surprise and distraction. "As I have it?"
"I have formed it as you have told it. But there are parts which could do with a bit more detail."
She stopped suddenly, looking at him. "Why listen to me?"
He smiled. "Because you have the gift of Storytelling. And it is, as you have said, a prized possession in this place." He swept her hand up in his and brushed his lips lightly across it, eyes sparkling with cold fire. "A spark of the divine, even."
Wendy jerked her hand away. That brush of lips had done things that the ever-vigilant corner of her mind was already scolding her for. And he knew it, judging by the calculating glance he gave her.
Wendy's face grew quite hot as she turned back to the portrait of Ermenth. Grasping at memories of anything besides the feel of his mouth over her hand, she asked rather suddenly, "How did the gwyndilons know to make their glamour of the particular image that they used on me? It seemed rather tailored to my...preferences."
His eyes became flat as glass, impenetrable, as he watched her. "They take it from your mind, from your memories and desires."
"Ah." Wendy felt another treacherous blush beginning to burn along her cheeks. "And these images appear only to the one they're attempting to draw to them, I suppose."
His smile was small and rather amused. "And to me."
The blush exploded, hot and flustered, through Wendy. "I see. Why to you?"
"Because I am the ruler of Perhaps," he said, with a wry smile. "And you aren't the only one to ally with the gwyndilons, my dear."
Wendy closed her eyes and made a valiant attempt to regain her ever-fleeting composure. "So you know about the image of Peter, then. Where is he these days?"
"On the light side," he replied with a only a touch of ice, "where else?"
Wendy looked at his winter star eyes. "Can he come here?"
Something quite dark slid over his face. "If you wish it."
She looked at him, surprised at the phrasing and the implication. "If I wish it?"
His words were calm and cool as rain. "Yes, Storyteller - if you wish it."
She regarded him for a moment. "I seem to have a lot of sway here."
"It's your dream of your Story after all, now isn't it?"
She swallowed, mouth suddenly dry. She looked again at his winter star eyes and spoke softly. "And the Captain? What of him?"
The darkness touched his eyes this time, and his lips quirked up with something unreadable. "What of him, Wendy? The crocodile has taken her tribute, as you have said."
She took a deep breath, still held by his gaze. "Did you know him?"
"You might say that."
A small, dry laugh escaped Wendy at his verbal block. "Of course. And what else might I say?"
He laughed softly, vanilla smooth. "Many things, my darling - many things."
She persisted. "Some of which might be?"
"Things I wish to keep to myself for the time being." His smile became small and sly. "Especially if your Peter is going to be visiting."
"He's not my Peter." Her voice was sharp, more defensive that she had intended.
The Jack's eyes were keen with interest, his smile far lighter than before. "I see."
Heavy silence remained as he offered his hand once more. With a small sigh, she took it.
Together, they walked to a portrait that seemed made of green darkness in an ebony frame. As Wendy looked more closely, she suddenly perceived flashing emerald eyes within the black. The forms were indistinct, however; only the impression of sharp, lithe angles emerged. But the intensity of the multi-faceted emerald stare caused Wendy's skin to prickle.
An agile whisper curled in the back of her mind, low as a forest breeze, but distinct. We wait for you, Storyteller.
Wendy's eyes widened, and she became very, very still next to the Jack.
"I wouldn't pay them too much mind," he said. "They like to tease."
She looked at him sharply. "You heard them, too?"
Amusement touched the corners of his eyes. "I know them well enough to surmise. Come, let's continue."
And so they walked to the next of the series. This one was a shimmering blue murkiness surrounded by a white-silver frame of some iridescent metal. Again, as Wendy looked at the portrait, more details emerged, as if rising from beneath water - a haughty stare flashing, the outline of silvery skin and well-muscled tail. This was a mermaid, just like those Wendy had discovered before in Never Land - not the friendly frolicking creatures of children's stories, but the ruthless sirens and vicious hunters of stories far older. Dangerous, alien beauty.
Wendy shivered at the memory of the one who had tried before to pull her under the sea to drown. If anything, the mermaid in this portrait had an even crueler set to her smile, an even more guarded expression in her eyes. Something in the mermaid reminded Wendy strongly of the Jack, though she couldn't precisely say what.
She felt the Jack's eyes on her as she regarded this latest portrait. "Who is she?"
"Someone of long acquaintance," he said simply. There was a profound starkness to the reply, which gave Wendy pause. But before she could ask for elaboration, they had moved towards another portrait - this one a delicate sea-green frame surrounding a picture of a hallway that was filled with soft violet glow of the eyeball lichen.
Unlike the other portraits, they moved closer and closer to this one. At last, the Jack traced his gloved fingers along the surface, which shimmered and glistened.
Wendy realized his intent quite abruptly, and jerked her hand from his. "Oh no - I'm not going through that...nothing...again."
"It's really much easier if you trust me." His words were velvet soft, a chord of persuasion running through them. Unspoken was the addendum, And yourself.
Wendy was not persuaded. "And why would my trust matter?"
The Jack was unperturbed. "Because this is your dream of Perhaps."
The look behind Wendy's eyes was not amused. "That's not an answer."
"Yes," he said simply, "it is."
"Well, it's not a satisfactory answer."
"Ah," he said smiling a little, "but I never claimed it was, did I?"
She eyed him, and felt the half-truths swirling between them. "Well, I don't trust you." She stood back and crossed her arms, feeling decidedly vexed. "And I refuse to faint on you again."
He turned back to her, his eyes twinkling. "Then we are at an impasse."
She inclined her head, voice neutral. "I'm afraid so. What do you propose?"
"That we continue your tour at another time."
"And how will that improve the traveling arrangements?"
He moved into Wendy, deftly smoothing her crossed arms down. "Because you will create stories about this portrait travel, how to travel within the castle and within the kingdom." His voice thrummed with magnetic force. "And then it will no longer be nothing."
Wendy was very aware of his hands as they rested on her arms. She swallowed, heart racing, not looking up. There was certainly a trick here, there had to be - Jacks did not work without tricks in Stories.
But whatever this trick was, she couldn't find it. She considered the proposal. It really wouldn't be so troubling to come up with a method of portrait travel without such unpleasant side effects...
She swallowed again. "That sounds quite...acceptable."
He gently tilted her chin up to look at him. "Then you agree."
Her pulse skittered beneath his gloved fingers. "Yes, I agree to create stories of portrait travel for you."
He laughed, delight sparkling through him. "So pacted." He cradled her face with his other hand. "And now you must go back to your world, Storyteller." As he spoke, a glowing ball of faerie light formed in his hand. Eyes intently upon her, he brought it between their faces and gently blew it to her, soft as a kiss. It touched her, and with it came a sudden lightness filling her limbs, making her skin feel tight - as if it would split easily and pleasantly to let her fly free on the rush of the...the something that flowed through her. The sensuous shock of the sensation made her gasp.
The Reddon-sanctioned portion of her mind was decidedly disapproving. Unfortunately for it, Wendy didn't rightly care.
The Jack's eyes became brilliant as she continued to look at them, like the dazzle of sun against snow. She felt them draw her in and down, consciousness slipping silkily away from her. As she fell forward, she dimly sensed herself being held against him, the snowflake soft material of his shirt whispering against her skin. Winter star eyes blazed through her mind's eye as her body curled into him, feeling cool and safe.
Blast, she thought irritably, embarrassed beyond recourse. I distinctly did not want to faint on you again.
Quite alright, came the amused reply. Come see me again sometime.
1 "Keep them off-balance and they'll never see you coming." Quote stolen shamelessly from The Devil's Advocate.