“What are you?” Aisling asked the unfurling coil of shadow, which was taking the shape of a person within her room.
Aisling’s room was utilitarian and rough, but comfortable. Her bed was made of woven fabric and animal skins, and an out-of-use fireplace her father had built for her against one wall, unnecessary in the summer weather. A single window, high and dingy, allowed in external light on the rare sunny day.
“I,” the voice said dramatically, taking a bow as its form finished its growth, a mass of darkness in the shape of a man, “am Jack of Night.”
There was a long moment of silence.
“You’ve… never heard of me?” Jack tried, gesturing with an arm to Aisling.
“Nae, I’m afraid I haven’t, good sir Fae,” Aisling said carefully.
Jack sighed. “The invaders have done awful things to the people of Pirith. Well, allow me to properly introduce myself.” He cleared his throat, and the room grew as dark as night. The rumbling cloud of electricity that was within the Cimmerian rolled forward like a storm, a metaphysical rumble filling Aisling’s heart. What she heard next, she heard both through her ears and within her mind.
“I am Jack. I am of the wind, I am of the sea, I am of the grass. I bleed moonlight, and I commune with stars. Your kind gave us a chain in the form of the name ‘Cimmerian,’ but I wear it with pride in honor of the time that your people and mine were friends.”
Jack’s display faltered before disappearing. Jack, once again contained within the confines of a man’s body, restored the room to its ordinary brightness. “… though, I am weaker than usual right now, as you might be able to tell.” His red eyes looked tired.
Aisling cleared her throat. “It is an honor to meet you, sir Jack of Night… I heard stories about shadowfolk when I was a lass, but I never knew…”
“Never knew what?” Jack asked with a chuckle. “That we were real? I cannot blame you. The Aichedians did a good job of running us out of every town with their anathematic Thaumaturgy. We used to occupy every village, trading with humans and operating as ambassadors to the less friendly Fae. That had been the better part of a hundred years ago, and the vast majority of my kind have long since shipped to the mainland to be dissected by the Aichedian academics.”
Dissected. Aisling shuddered, thinking about what might be in store for Saoirse. “Well.. why were there soldiers looking for you? You should be off into the woods by now, sir Jack.”
Jack grumbled. “I’m a bit too weak to run off, I’m afraid… and besides, now that you’ve helped me, I am in your debt, Aisling.”
Aisling felt the hair on the back of her neck rise. “How did you know my name?”
“Huh?” Jack asked. “Oh, I heard that Quinn fellow say it,” he said, waving a dismissive hand.
“Oh,” Aisling said, feeling quite foolish. “Well, you didn’t answer my question. Why were they looking for you?”
Jack stretched his noncorporeal arms, filling the room with shadow. “I had long since been taken away to the mainland, poked and prodded and all but done-in by the Aichedians. But their supply of my kind had been running low, and they know Cimmerians are quite good at finding one another… so they made me ‘promise’ to help them… like hell I was ever going to do that, mind you, but it had been an easy ticket back home. I just had to escape… and I did!” Jack threw out his arms, laughing in a strange, metaphysical cadence.
“Well, I’m glad to help save you from those Aichedian bastards, sir Jack… do you need help to get into the woods?” Aisling asked, relieved to be on this entity’s good side.
“You don’t understand, Aisling,” Jack said, red eyes shining. “I owe you. That means something to my people. I’m afraid you cannot be rid of me until I’ve done something of equal value for what you’ve done for me. And seeing that you saved my life, or at least my freedom, I owe you a large favor indeed.”
Aisling tried to swallow and found her throat dry. Every Pirithian child knew that getting into a deal with Fae of any kind was a bad idea. And she had somehow, through a single act, gotten wrapped up in a pact with a shadowfolk.
“W-well, that’s okay, Jack. I’m afraid I don’t need anything,” Aisling tried.
“I’m afraid that’s not how this works! For the good of both of us, you’d better think of something I can help you with. Because otherwise, I’ll have no choice but to follow you around for the rest of your life,” Jack said jovially. “And as much as I like you, Aisling, neither of us wants that.”
Aisling tried to swallow again, to no avail. “Well, there’s…” she said, stopping herself from saying anything else.
“Come on, Aisling! Anything at all! My power is yours!” Jack said, floating around the room with something approaching impatience.
“… Can you help me save the love of my life?”
Jack stopped floating, turning to seriously regard Aisling. “… Do you mean this?”
Jack grinned. “That sounds like a suitable way to pay you back, alright. Let’s shake on it.” At that, Jack extended a hand, which, with a silent implosion of air, solidified into a black crystalline structure with the vague contours of a human hand.
Aisling hesitated only a moment longer. Shaking hands with a Fae, in particular, was something you should never do.
But she could save Saoirse.
She reached out, grasping the freezing hand of Jack.
There was a flash of light, and then she found she could not stand, so she fell to her knees. She gasped for air, and she realized Jack was gone.
“J-Jack…? Where did you…?”
“I am inside of your mind, Aisling,” came the response from deep within.
“Just how, exactly, is this meant to help me?” Aisling asked indignantly, foot tapping against the wet earth beneath her feet. She was outside of Eskcot, down the twisting road that led deeper into the island. A little way off from the path, Aisling and Saoirse discovered a small pond, rich with the smell of earth and water, full of insects and plant life. Aisling and Saoirse had been meeting here since they had been children. It was their place.
The setting sun had heralded the arrival of early evening, and Saoirse had not yet arrived. The day still held a fierce wind, but to Aisling, it felt as though it had blown straight through her. Ever since she had, for lack of a better term, merged her mind with Jack, she had felt different.
It had begun in her room. The light coming in through the dusty window had seemed brighter somehow, almost too bright. Then, her limbs, which felt as light as air. At first, she hadn’t been sure what the difference was. Then she had almost taken her door off the hinges when she went to open it.
“The hell was that?” her father shouted from the first floor at the cacophonous rattle of the door, fighting her pull.
“Nothing, pa’!” Aisling called, letting go of the door and closing it as gently as she could.
“That is just a fraction of what I have given you,” came the voice of Jack from within her mind.
Aisling did not reply, trying to push down the sensation of panic that was blossoming in her chest as she made her way down the stairs. Her father looked at her as she pushed her way through the shop’s front door, almost destroying that one as well, as it swung open with a crack of wood.
“What is it, girl?” he called from the oven, pausing his work to stare at her.
“Sorry, pa’,” Aisling said, blinking in the sky’s brightness. “I’ll be back!”
The sky was indeed bright, brighter than she could ever remember it being. She could feel it on her skin, an unpleasant, almost blistering heat. She glanced around with wild eyes, but none of the surrounding townsfolk seemed to experience the same phenomenon. Some were, however, looking towards her with concern.
The owner of a neighboring shop was sweeping outside, and paused to glance her way. “You alright there, Aisling?”
Aisling felt as though she might pass out, pushing past the shopkeeper without answering. She had moved fast, faster than she had ever moved before. It felt as though the wind itself inhabited her limbs, carrying her wherever she wanted to go, based on the slightest whim of her mind.
The world was composed of colors she never could have imagined, and she could hear everything around her in a clarity that seemed foreign to her. It was Fae arcanery, and it was more terrifying than she could have ever imagined.
She found herself beyond the town’s perimeter in a few seconds, and rather quickly made her way underneath the cover of a vast pine tree, with large boughs blocking out the light of the sun and insulating her from the outside world.
She sat under the tree for the better part of thirty minutes before she felt the voice of Jack stirring within her. “Would you like to talk now, Aisling?”
“Jack,” she said after a moment of composing herself, “I need you to get out of my brain and take your Fae arcanery with you.”
“I’m sorry, Aisling,” came the reverberating response, “but we shook on it. What is mine is yours, for so long as your task needs completing.”
“What is yours is mine… does that mean…” Aisling began.
“Yes, Aisling. You are now seeing the world as I do. The brightness, the colors, the sounds. You see as a Cimmerian, now, and have an inkling of our power. As much as I could give you without injuring you.”
“Well, if I can’t get rid of it… help me control it,” Aisling said, clenching her fists, nails digging into the flesh of her palms.
“Certainly,” said Jack of Night.
Several hours of intricate, metaphysical lessons from Jack later, she found she could control, on some level, the severity of her augmented senses and strength. Jack claimed she could fly, but that it might take some time to develop.
Aisling made her way to the place where she always met Saoirse, feeling and flexing the surge of natural power within her core. “How, exactly,” she repeated, “is this meant to help me?”
“With my power and your body, the Thaumaturgy of Commodore Kotia cannot hurt us,” Jack replied.
“Who the blazes is Commodore Kotia?” Aisling asked, frustration rising in her voice.
“An Aichedian Commodore, in command of the Faebane’s Wrath, which brought me here and intends to take your Saoirse away. Kotia is my enemy. She is anathema, and we will destroy her,” came the darkness from within her, vibrations rising like a snake in her lungs.
Since she had shaken Jack’s hand, the Cimmerian had seemed more serious. His propensity to quip had decreased, and he had started to speak more like she imagined a powerful Fae would. Aisling wondered if this meant that Jack was growing stronger, benefiting from whatever arcane pact she had made with the creature.
“Let’s get one thing clear, sir Jack… I will not be ‘destroying’ anybody,” Aisling said, feeling somewhat confident for the first time since she merged with Jack. Through his lessons, she had learned that Jack held no power over her for so long as their pact held. As a result, she felt more comfortable treating the creature less like royalty.
“Whatever you want, I shall make it be, human,” Jack grumbled, “but we will certainly foil her. For she is persistent, and unless stopped with force, she will stop at no end to steal Saoirse away to the mainland, the same as my kind.”
Aisling nodded, glancing up at the sound of cracking underbrush. She knew Saoirse had arrived, and she felt a smile rise to her lips.
Saoirse emerged into the clearing that contained the pond, smiling as she saw Aisling. Her eyes held a confused look. “Aisling… is that you?” she asked in a confused cadence.
“Aye, of course… Why do you ask?” Aisling asked, furrowing her brow.
“You seem… different. I almost thought there was another Fae here… my senses are telling me that there is,” Saoirse said with a frown and a tilt of her head.
Then, to Aisling’s alarm, a voice rumbled out of her chest and out across the clearing. It was the slick voice of Jack. “Well met, Changeling Saoirse.”
Saoirse’s large black eyes widened in concern, and then narrowed as she walked towards Aisling. “Ais, what is a Cimmerian doing inside of your soul? Do you have any idea how dangerous those things are?”
“Humans say the same thing about your kind, Changeling. Do not cast your stones at me,” came Jack’s response.
Aisling cleared her throat. “Jack here escaped the custody of Commodore Kotia. I saved him from a guard when he was weak, and he offered to…”
“Offered to what?” Saoirse asked. “Aisling, what did you agree to?”
“To…” Aisling began, “help me save you,” she said, scratching at the back of her neck.
Saoirse looked mortified. “Oh, Ais, you didn’t… he won’t go away now, unless you manage to ‘save me,’ and what, cause the Aichedians to destroy all of Eskcot in the process?”
“If we kill them all,” Jack began, “there’s no way for the Aichedian mainland to know about this.”
Saoirse gestured wildly. “This is what I mean! Cimmerians are dangerous! I can’t believe you’d make a pact with one, Aisling.” Her vast eyes were filled with fear.
“Jack, we are not killing anyone, understand?” Aisling said fiercely, thumping a hand against her own chest.
Jack mumbled in acquiescence.
Before Aisling could speak again, Saoirse cut her off by running to her and throwing her arms around her in a hug. She smelled of wild flowers and ozone, and it made Aisling dizzy. “I only came here to tell you they’ve moved forward our departure date… We are to leave early tomorrow morning, before sunrise.”
Aisling grabbed Saoirse by the arms, looking into her vast black eyes with alarm. “Tomorrow? Why?”
“To get reinforcements to help hunt down your Jack… which means they’re going to come back to kill you, Aisling!” At this, Saoirse sobbed, nestling into Aisling’s chest.
Aisling went to wrap her arms around the girl, but Saoirse pulled back and ran back the way she had come.
“Saoirse, wait!” Aisling called, arms still outstretched.
“I’m sorry, Aisling, I’m sorry… there’s so little time, I have to go,” Saoirse said, voice thick with tears, disappearing into the brush.
Aisling thumped at her chest, feeling a physical manifestation of her grief and anger and imagining it to be Jack. “Damn you, Wyld-mad Fae thing. Why did I ever shake your hells-begotten hand?”
“We can still save her, Aisling,” came the slick voice of Jack, like honey gone bad. “We can prove her wrong… at this point, it’s your only choice.”
“But how?” Aisling said, trying not to sob herself. “And don’t you dare say we should kill all those people.”
“Just listen to me… listen to the wind, to the sea, to the salt on your tongue, Aisling, and Jack of Night will teach you how to fly like the shadowfolk do.”
Continue to Part 4 on August 3, 2023.
About the Author
Mason Kennedy is a writer from south-eastern Indiana, with a love of RPGs, Science Fiction, mythology, and vampires. Twitter, @ArchipelegoTV. Tumblr, at archipelego