An old adversary from the past shows up, along with some unexpected help...
Victor trotted into the bushes to do his 'quick errand'.
He did his business quickly and was just about to turn around when he felt something very sharp prick him in the small of his back.
"Ah, Mister Van Dort," a familiar voice said. "We meet again."
The last voice in the world he had expected - or wanted - to hear...
"What do you want, Barkis?" Victor growled.
Barkis chuckled. "That would be Lord Barkis to you, seeing as how I'm the one holding the knife."
"What do you want, Barkis?" Victor asked again.
"What I really want - what I really, really want," he said, "is to run this dagger through you - like I ought to have done back at the church - but that would be pleasure, and I'm here on business, so ... I'll settle for that silver trinket of yours."
"The what?" asked Victor.
A sharp pain shot through his back as Barkis jabbed at him. "Don't play stupid with me, Van Dort. The amulet - where is it?"
"I don't have it," Victor grated through clenched teeth.
"Ah, I guess that your dead girlfriend must have it, then. Well, let's go say 'hello' to the lovely Miss Emily."
Victor turned to go in another direction and got another painful jab in the back.
"Nice try, but I already know where she is." He named the direction. "Let's go."
Victor trudged back to the path, with Barkis and his dagger following very close behind.
"Oh Victor, I ... " Then she saw that Victor was not alone.
"Hello, my dear," Barkis smirked.
A murderous look came across Emily's face at the sound of his voice. "You again!"
"Happy to see me?"
She stared at him with pure hatred. "At least your costume's an improvement - it covers your ugly face."
"Ah, yes, that," he said, and then he pulled back the hood that covered his face.
Emily gasped and turned away.
Your friends seem to have a strange way of greeting 'new arrivals' down here. It's quite unfortunate, but my dashing good looks aren't what they used to be." He sighed and replaced the hood. "But, as for you - it looks to me as though your taste in boyfriends has slipped since our time. Surely you can do better than that."
She glared at him. "Whomever I find is bound to be an improvement over you."
"Ouch," Barkis mocked. "That hurts."
Then he continued. "But I'm afraid I'm not here to socialize, as lovely and as charming as you may be, my dear. I've come for the amulet."
"Over my dead body," she hissed.
"Oh, Emily," he chortled. "Your body's already quite, quite dead. But your precious Victor, on the other hand..."
"No!" she cried. She reached for the amulet.
"Don't do it!" Victor yelled.
"I'm sorry, Victor," she said, and then she held out her good hand with the amulet clasped tightly in her fingers.
"Let him go," she said to Barkis.
"I'd prefer that you use the other hand, if you don't mind."
Emily eyed him suspiciously, and then she transferred the object to her fleshless left hand and tightened her fingers over it. "Happy now? I'll let you have it just as soon as you let him go."
Barkis lunged forward and seized her bony wrist. "Oh, no ... I think you'll let me have it now."
"Run, Victor!" Emily shouted. Quickly, Victor scuttled out of reach.
Barkis shrugged, then he savagely yanked and twisted Emily's outstretched arm.
With a loud crack! it came loose, and Barkis stepped back, triumphantly waving the severed skeleton arm in front of him.
"Thank you, my dear. Now, if you don't mind, I must be on my way." Barkis smirked.
"Give that back to her!" Victor grated through clenched teeth.
Barkis looked around. A dozen paces away stood a tallish cedar tree whose lowest branches were just out of reach. He chuckled, and then he savagely tore off the hand and threw the arm up into the tree, where it landed with a clatter. Next, he focused on the skeleton hand itself, pulling off the fingers one at a time and flinging them in random directions into the underbrush. The amulet he placed in his pocket and finally, with a curse, he threw the remains of Emily's hand as hard as he could into the bushes.
"Barkis!" Victor spat, "You are a foul, irredeemable bastard."
Barkis grinned in smug self-satisfaction. "Flattery will get you nowhere with me," he mocked, and then he ran off.
"Oh, Victor," Emily cried. "Leave everything here. We've got to get the amulet back before the Stone turns black."
"No," Victor argued. "We'll take as much time as we need to find every bit. I'm not going to leave any part of you behind."
She protested once more, and then she gave up and turned her attention to retrieving her missing pieces. "Victor, did you see where he threw the fingers? And my hand?"
He nodded. "I'll see if I can find those."
"And I'll get the arm down," Emily added.
They had hoped to retrieve everything quickly, but the fingers took a long time to find. "I wish that they didn't look so much like bits of old tree branch," she said to him in frustration as they searched through the scruffy brushes.
Then Victor had an inspiration. "Why don't you try wiggling one and we'll see if we can find it by the movement, or maybe the sound?"
"Oh, Victor, what an excellent idea," she declared. Five minutes later, Victor tenderly installed the last of the missing finger bones onto her hand.
Emily looked at her hand and waggled the fingers and, after a few moments, a tear came to her eye and she looked at Victor.
"Oh Victor, I so much hate being dead," she said and then she started to cry. He eased her head onto his lap and comforted her and stroked her matted hair while she wept. Eventually, the tears quit flowing and she looked up at him. "Dead people aren't supposed to have tears," she whispered.
"Maybe not," Victor replied, "but you still have a heart, don't you?"
Emily smiled up at him, "And that heart loves you, Victor."
Victor smiled back and, with a gentle finger, caressed her good cheek. Then a faraway look came into his eyes, and he looked away.
The sounds of rustling came from the bushes behind them. Emily sprang to her feet while Victor quickly grabbed the stoutest stick that he could find.
A small skeleton dog ran out into the clearing.
"Scraps!" Emily and Victor cried out together. The dog ran directly to Victor and jumped onto his lap.
"Oh, Scraps, am I ever surprised to see you!" Victor exclaimed, and then he scratched the dog's bony head. "How's my good boy?"
Emily bent down. "Look, there's something pinned to his collar." She pulled out a note and something that looked like a finger-sized metal sword.
"What does it say?" Victor asked.
Emily wrinkled her brow. "It's from Elder Gutknecht - a warning about you-know-who ... apparently he set off to intercept us and take the amulet."
"Nothing wrong with Elder Gutknecht's sense of timing," Victor muttered sarcastically.
"It gets worse," Emily continued. "Not only did he manage to escape, but he got at the Elder's book of magic, too. Now he knows the release spell and the Elder thinks that he plans to let that thing go - to punish us, and to gain its favor to return to the Land of the Living."
She sighed and handed the note to Victor. He skimmed through it, and then he looked up. A hopeful expression was on his face. "It might not be that bad," Victor commented. "Did you see the map?"
"It's a short cut," he explained. "This path follows the contours of the mountain, but if we take a right-angle detour and go directly cross-country, we can still get to the Binding Place ahead of him."
She looked off to their left where the ground sloped steeply into a deep debris-choked valley. "You've got to be kidding ... I don't do obstacles so well, remember?"
"And I think I recall somebody telling me how light 'Barrett girls' are," Victor quipped.
"Not that light," Emily said. "Not for a miles-long sprint through god-knows-what."
"Well, we'd best get going and pray that the stone doesn't turn black just yet," Victor said. He turned to the skeleton dog. "Go home, Scraps," he told it. The dog whined and tilted its head. "No, you've got to go," insisted Victor. "Go home."
The small beast whined once again, but it was an obedient creature and, with great reluctance, it turned and left.
He hoisted Emily onto his back. "Are you ready?" he asked her.
"Giddy-up go," she said.
Victor turned and started crashing his way downward through the scattered growth and rock-littered ground. The time passed in a blur as he blocked out everything but the run, putting every bit of strength that he could into moving forward as fast as possible.
Eventually he became aware of her tapping on his shoulder and he slowed to a walk. "Whoa, horsie," she said to him. "You've got to rest."
He crouched down so that she could slide off, and then he collapsed panting on the ground.
Emily pulled out the map again and looked at it. Even though Victor was too out of breath to speak, his eyes held the question.
"We're almost there," she said. "That's why I had you stop. We want to be ready when we confront him at the Binding Place. Do you remember the words that we'll need to say once we get there?"
"Good. Here's the other little gift from Elder Gutknecht." She pulled out the tiny sword that she had used to pin the note to her dress. "Does this look familiar?"
Victor was almost able to talk. "Looks ... like ... the General's ... sword ... but ... ?"
Emily held up her hand to hush him and to spare him from talking further. "It looks like the General's sword, because it is the General's sword. Elder Gutknecht used a shrinking spell on it and, when we need it, I'll say the words to bring it back to size."
"Let me know when you're ready to go - we'll go directly there and try to take the amulet back, okay?"
He nodded again, and then he closed his eyes to concentrate on catching his breath. Five minutes later, he was ready - they hoped. Victor crouched down to let her get back on, but she shook her head. "No," she said. "The ground's not a problem for me anymore, and we won't have to worry about going fast because we're almost there now."
Emily and Victor ran until they were just past the second-to-last corner, after which they slowed down. They took a few seconds to go over their vows, and then Emily pulled out the comically tiny sword. "Time to get this ready," she said, and then she pinned it to the front of her dress.
They managed to make at least three or four steps around the last corner before Barkis spotted them. "Ah," he said in mock welcome, "just the pair I wanted to see. Look how pretty my amulet is now." He held up the silver object so that they could see it clearly.
The Stone was jet black in color.
Barkis laughed and dangled it from his left hand to taunt them. Then he uttered the black magic phrase. Nothing happened for a few seconds, and then something that looked like greasy black smoke began to ooze out of the stone.
"No," Emily breathed in horror. She pulled out the little sword and brandished it at Barkis.
He stopped and squinted to see what it was. When he finally realized what she was holding, he doubled over and started to laugh. "Oh my dear," he snickered. "You'll have to do better than that - at least better than this..." Then he drew his dagger with his right hand and held it at the ready.
"Fair enough," Emily replied and she held the sword at the ready. "Hide-and-seek," she said in a strong, clear voice. As soon as the words left her mouth the miniature sword started to grow and within five or six seconds had regained its normal size.
"Recognize this, now?" she asked.
He did. "It won't do you any good because you're too ..."
A rustling noise came from the forest behind them.
A small bony creature launched itself from the woods and rocketed towards Barkis, who kicked viciously at it as it veered just out of reach, ducking in and out to nip at his toes. "Not you again, damn you!" the man growled. He focused more of his attention on kicking at the little beast.
"Scraps!" Victor exclaimed. "Where did you come from?"
Another sudden movement, this one from behind Barkis, drew Victor's eye. Just as Barkis launched a more-carefully aimed kick at the furiously barking skeleton dog, Victoria dashed out of the trees behind him and, timing her moves to match his, snatched at the amulet and tore it from his hand as she swept by him.
"Here, Victor, catch!" she yelled, and then she threw it in his direction. At the last moment, Barkis saw her out of the corner of his eye and back-swung his dagger viciously at her, but missed. Hastily, she scrambled out of reach. As Barkis recovered from the wild swing, his eyes tracked the silver object as it flew through the air towards Victor. "Noooo," he groaned.
Victor reached out and caught the amulet as Barkis cursed and advanced towards him, dagger held high for the strike. Emily stepped between them, sword held high. "Not so fast, you..."
Barkis ignored her and continued his advance, leading with the dagger. Emily jabbed at his wrist with the sword and, as Barkis stabbed back at it to parry what he thought was a sword-thrust, she twisted the sword about and knocked the dagger from his hand with a short quick backhand stroke.
"Sword trumps dagger," she said, stepping sideways to step on the fallen knife and keeping her sword held high between them. "You were so right about those fencing lessons, Daddy," she said under her breath. "And about this piece of ..." She raised her sword a bit higher towards the glaring Barkis.
Victor stole a glance at the ugly thing oozing from the black stone in the amulet he held. "Emily! Quickly! Move this way and let me have your free hand!"
She backed towards Victor and held her bony left hand as far behind her as she could reach. Desperately, he seized it and then, as quickly as they could, the couple said their words.
The thing oozing from out of the stone stopped and something that sounded like a shriek came from out of it, an ungodly noise that sounded like equal parts of hate, frustration, and fear. The black cloud-like object hung in the air almost as though it was unsure of what to do next.
The ground shook - a single jolt followed by a low rumble, almost like a slow thunder. Then something else started to emerge from the heart of the amulet, something that seemed like a small tornado and, within seconds, the whirlwind-like thing took on a human form.
The latest arrival turned towards the black cloud and scolded it, almost like the owner of a misbehaving dog. "Get back inside," he commanded it, and then he raised a hand towards the thing.
Victor and Emily looked at it, and then at each other in confusion as nothing happened. Then, a few seconds later, something that looked like lightning shot out from his upraised hand and struck the cloud directly. It screeched in something that sounded like pain and anger.
"I already told you once. Get back inside." He raised his hand a little higher. A tendril shot out from the black cloud towards Barkis and whipped itself around him. The man struggled, but the thing would not let him go.
"Yes, you can have him if you want him," the Warden said.
The creature reversed its flow and oozed back into the Stone, dragging Barkis back inside with it. His screams diminished and then died as he and the cloud shrank from sight.
"Maybe it will be better behaved now that it has a pet to torment," the Warden commented. He turned towards the three remaining people and studied the two dead women; a look of confusion passing across his heavily lined face. "Perhaps customs have changed in the meantime," he said, "but up to now I've only had couples do this."
Victoria stepped forward. "She is the one who is going," she said. "I just came along to say good-bye."
Emily walked over to her and placed a hand on her shoulder, and then she bent her head towards Victoria to say something quietly to her friend.
They talked in low tones for awhile and then Emily asked her one last question. Victoria straightened up and shook her head. "No," she said in a clear voice. "You've earned your chance to be with him. I've already had mine, and now it's your turn."
Emily exhaled with relief.
"But there is one thing," Victoria said. "Something that I'd like to ask of you."
"Anything," Emily promised. "What is it?"
"Did you know that after our wedding I went to your grave and made you a promise?"
"Yes," said Emily. "Victor told me about that on our journey here. You promised me that you would live the life that I never would and have the children that I never could have myself." A single tear formed and ran down her cheek. "And now you want me to make you the same promise?"
Victoria nodded. Emily ran forward and embraced her friend. "Oh, yes, Victoria, I will. I certainly will."
Then Victoria looked over at Victor. Emily let her go from her arms and she stepped back. Victor stepped forward.
"I'm sorry about how things turned out," Victoria said. "You were the best part of my life and, if love alone were enough..."
"I understand now," Victor said. "Emily explained it to me."
Victoria nodded. "It's better this way. Farewell, Victor. I'll always love you. And please forgive me."
"There's nothing to forgive," Victor said. "I do understand." He stepped forward, embraced Victoria for the last time, and then let her go and stepped back.
Victoria turned back to Emily. "The General will be wanting his sword back," she said.
"Tell him it came in handy," Emily replied, handing the sword to Victoria.
"Come along, Scraps," Victoria said, and then she turned and left. They watched her go and, once she was gone, the Warden turned to Victor. "Do you know the price that you will have to pay to keep your lover with you in the world of the living?" he asked.
Victor swallowed hard and shook his head.
The Warden continued. "I cannot create life nor can the Stone. Only the Lord of All can do that and, once the length of a person's lifetime has been set, it cannot be changed. Do you understand?"
"I do," Victor nodded.
"The lifetime of your lover has been measured, cut, and fulfilled. There can be no way to add more time to your lover's life; it is at an end."
"What do you mean?" asked Victor.
"What the Stone can do is to allow you to share the life time allotted to you with your deceased lover."
Emily gasped in horror. "No ..." she whispered.
The Warden turned to her. "Emily," he said. "This is Victor's decision and his alone. You cannot compel him; you cannot refuse him."
"I'll do it," he said, taking her hand.
The Warden turned back to Victor. "You understand that each day of life that Emily is given needs be taken from your own lifetime and that you will die that one day sooner."
"I do. And, yes, I'll do it - she's well worth the price."
"The power of that kind of love is what keeps the demon safely locked inside the Stone," the Warden said. He looked at Emily and smiled. "Don't worry - holders of the Stone tend to have long lives ... I dislike having to find new Holders more often than I have to." He paused. "But don't take anything for granted; you could live for twenty or thirty more years - or you could pass away next week. Take one day at a time and treasure the days you do get."
Emily smiled at Victor. "I certainly will."
The Warden paused again. "Are you two ready to go? I'm afraid I have to get back to work ... may you share a long life and lots of love."
"And children?" Emily asked, remembering her promise to Victoria.
The Warden smiled. "That is entirely up to you two, I'd say. Good luck and good-bye." He raised his hands.
A whirlwind began to blow around them, gently at first and then stronger and stronger. Even though they didn't feel the wind they could see its effects. As the speed continued to pick up, the world around them faded from sight and everything went dark.