Jack watched shadows. They danced and swam when he wasn’t looking at them, moving about their business. Jack tuned his smile up a notch and walked into the throne room.
He was there. Jack felt his heart speed up, his mouth go dry. “Good morning, your majesty!” Jack said, as brightly as possible.
The king laughed, and the torches on the walls sputtered and flared into life. The room echoed with his voice, sending rolling laughter bouncing off of marble walls, as if each mirthful syllable was a ball thrown by an unhappy child. The king pulled himself, still laughing, out of the deep, black metal throne.
“Good morning! Did you sleep well, Jack Hopper?”
“Yes, your majesty.” Jack said cheerfully, same as always. He hadn’t, but it had been his own tossing this time, instead of the Minions of the King about his business.
The king walked forward, casting long shadows on the walls. The shadows twisted, bounced, and multiplied, as if darkness could echo as laughter did. The king’s face was hard to see, like looking at a mirrored glass in dim moonlight. His fingers were long and pale, the flesh pulled back from his nails like a corpse’s.
The king took Jack’s chin in his hand and lifted it, all the way up.
Jack smiled and smiled, pulse thundering in his ears. The extreme angle required to stare into the king’s face put heavy pressure on the front of his neck. Jack focused on the king’s broad, cracking forehead. He could never find the king’s eyes. He’d tried, at first. But there was only shifting darkness, and it never gave up its secret. Not even for Jack Hopper.
“And are you ready for today, boy?” The king asked. Even his whispers echoed in this room.
“Yes, your majesty.” Jack said, putting in a helping of reverence, a speckle of awe, and heaps and heaps of respect. His voice did not echo. Absorbed by the marble like it was cork.
“Good!” The king dropped his chin. “We start at midnight!” The king waved, and the back wall of the throne room split open with a bone shattering crack. The pieces fell away, into shadows. Behind it, darkness stretched. Bright fires burned on islands, strung together by swinging rope bridges. Specks of light in eternal darkness. It stretched, and stretched, until the flickers of bone-fire looked like no more then distant stars. “And you shall help me with all of this, hmm?” The king was behind him now, one hand on his shoulder, cheek too close to his ear.
Jack smiled and smiled.
The ceremony was tedious, difficult to follow, and entirely too long. Jack smiled the whole way through it, smiled at the ghouls who led him out, smiled at the ghosts who lined his path, smiled at the spiders who spun him a cloak, smiled at the grinning disemboweled girl who held his crown.
Later, as if it was a normal day, Jack walked through the gardens of the king.
The grass crunched gently under his feet. It was short here, and coated in a light dew. The moon, full overhead, glinted off the damp. Shadows skittered around as he moved, dancing under the grass, always in the corner of the eye. A huge oak tree loomed in his vision. Jack walked passed, waving to the men hung from the branches. They waved back, shouting raspy congratulations.
A nice change. When he had first arrived, it was the hanging guards who had finally caught him, paralyzing him with their hideous screams and turning him, numb and bound, over to their grinning king. Jack smiled. He walked further on, taking comfort from the softness in the air and the familiar sights.
And then the light changed, as if he had found the moon, sleeping on the grass. The gates were made of webbing, gently glowing. Just a little taller than a man, strung between two dead pines, twisting towards one another. Bodies, suspended upside down, their dried heads popped off of their bodies, decorated the web. The shadows flickered and spun at its base, but none of them crossed the moonlight webbing.
Jack smiled, and stepped up to the gate.
“Good evening, my lady.”
Something shifted in the corners. A dark shape passed across the web, like clouds over the moon. The darkness shifted, and there was a wide form in the corner that had, perhaps, always been there. A spider, orange and black, about Jack’s size. Her abdomen broad and tight, eight eyes, bright as the blackest sky, looking at him, glimmering.
There was quiet laughter, like the skitter of tiny, bony legs on stone flooring in the dead of night.
Jack smiled and suppressed the shivers the scuttling laugh sent crawling up his spine.
“Not anymore, Jack. Not anymore.” Her voice was soft as the light, and sharp. “I suppose I should say ‘my lord’, and you may call me whatever you have mind too.”
Jack bowed. “Very well, my lady.”
She laughed again. “I do not know what he was thinking, Jack Hopper. I do not fear you.” But she said it kindly.
“I know, my lady. But I have complete confidence that my lord father, if I may be so bold, will teach me everything he wishes me to know, and that I shall be, under his skilled tutelage, sufficiently frightening for anybody.” He smiled.
Her tone grew playful. “You always have the best words, Jack Hopper. I do hope you continue to be so gracious as to share them with me.”
“It shall be my continual pleasure, my lady.”
The gate had no wall attached to it. A lone pair of trees, growing in the grass, nothing around them but moonlight. Equally effective, no matter which way an intruder came from.
Jack Hopper smiled and pulled a piece of left over cake from his coat. He offered it to the spider with a gesture.
“No thank you, Jack Hopper.” She shifted slightly in her web. It rustled, sending out little silences that blanked out the tiny noises of the garden around them. “Although perhaps you’d like to try the gate?”
Jack felt his heart speed up as he thought. He wanted it. He wanted it so badly it was like a sharp shock running through him just to think about it. And it had been so long. He could hardly remember the feeling of the sun, or the smell of sweet hickory smoke. He could hardly remember what it was to not be afraid. But he hadn’t found what he was looking for.
Jack laughed and sat down close by, digging into the squashed cake. “Has it really been so long since someone blundered into it that you must lure in poor raggedy specimens like me?”
The spider sighed. “No one has tried for years and years, Jack Hopper. A lady does get hungry, even for bony lads. You are not tired of the dark?”
“No, my lady. Not quite yet.” Jack lied, through his cake.
“Of course, now I would probably get in a spot of trouble for it.” She clicked her tongue in disapproval. “You should have given in and let me eat you before His Majesty grew so fond of you.”
“I’m sorry, my lady. I did not consider my discourtesy.”
The spider laughed again.
Jack finished off his cake and lay back, looking up at the sky as the stars crawled away, hiding behind the horizon. They left nothing but blackness in their wake. After a time he closed his eyes, feeling the chill from the grass on his shoulders.
He drifted off to sleep. Perhaps she whispered as he went, “I know you Jack Hopper. I know you are lying.”
But perhaps she did not.
He woke to a clawed, nine fingered hand shaking his shoulder. Jack looked up into a wide, pale face with three eyes. Nervous glances darted to the webbing, now empty again but for shadows.
“My lord, he wants you.” A sharp, whining voice, odd coming out of so tall a thing.
Jack sat up, yawning, and the ghast jumped back, moving away from the webbing as fast as it could. It danced from foot to foot as he rose, stretching.
“He is in the small hall, my lord.”
“Thank you.” Jack said, smiling. “I’m on my way right now!”
The ghast bobbed to him and flickered off in a blur.
The web was purring. Jack turned back to it, to see the shadows running together into the shape of the spider.
“They are too scared. Perhaps you will give me one?”
Jack bowed, smiling, and left for the small hall. The thin bridges creaked under his feet, swaying. He could feel the emptiness below, sucking forever. Great dark shapes fluttered around him, the gusts of their wings brushing against his face.
The king was standing facing the sheer cliff that fell away from the back of the hall. The ghast was on the ground at his feet, kneeling and whispering. The sound of the voice carried, although the words did not. As Jack approached the king waved it away, and it bobbed as it rose and skittered out.
From behind, the king did not look odd. His shoulders were neither broad nor thin, and although he was tall, he was only perhaps half a foot taller then Jack. Jack’s skin prickled and crawled, and sweat began to bead on his back. )
Jack bowed. The king waved, still facing away from him. “You were sleeping, I hear?”
“I was, my lord. I was visiting with the Lady of the Gate when I drifted off.”
“And did you sleep well?”
“I did, my lord. How was your morning?”
Now the king turned, and Jack felt the eyes he could not see land on him. Like a stale breeze across his face, or something that had moved when there was no one to move it.
“It was well. And I have decided on your first duty as my prince.”
Jack smiled, his insides rotting ice.
“Are you a warrior, Jack?”
“No, my lord.” Jack thought for a moment. “I have hunted a little.”
“Capital!” The king said. “You will go to the edges of the long bridge. A dragon resides there who has retracted his allegiance.”
Jack felt his smile nearly falter, but he saved it while he bowed. “I am delighted to serve, my lord. I don’t suppose I could borrow a bow?”
The king laughed.