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Song Suggestion: Crimson Tears by Nox Arcana
“Your tree is dead,” Bethany pointed out to Shrim, master of the Goblin Tree, as they stood beneath the wicked thing, black and lifeless, but no less terrifying than if it had been a raging beast. Thousands of dark lanterns hung from the branches, a terrible testament to the forsaken souls who had played the goblin’s game before she had come. She was not being cruel in stating the obvious; though she still thought Shrim horrible, she did understand him; grief does many things to a soul and anger holds the power to twist someone. Mixed together, the two things became a poisonous brew best not tasted. “Hurting others will not bring back what was taken from you. If there was any way to undo what was done, I would swear to find it. But, surely, the young girl had no hand in the evils done to you. Wouldn’t you set her free from your bargain?”
The goblin gave her a terrible smile. “She entered into the contract of her own free will, as I’ve said. I do not have any more power to break it than you do. And, if the tree be dead and beyond saving, then the dead must forever keep it. That is the price they will pay for their foolish, thieving schemes. Now. Do you wish to make a bargain or not?”
And Bethany knew there was only one way to save the girl and, though she did not admire their greedy plot, she thought she best save the souls of everyone else that had played the goblin’s game. “First tell me the rules,” Bethany said to Shrim, for her grandmother had taught her never to make a blind deal.
“Simple enough,” said Shrim. “Find my lantern, shining bright, and I will give you what you wish. Three nights you have to choose the right one. But, should you fail, your life is mine and your soul must feed the roots of my ancient home.”
Bethany thought about refusing, about turning around and walking back to her wagon and simply driving away. But the cries of the child she had found along the road of this forest haunted her still. She had promised to try and help her and help her she would.
“I will take your challenge,” Bethany said quietly. She did hope that her travels would not so soon be ended, but she knew that was the way of adventures, sometimes, that, as with life, nothing was guaranteed. “What does your lantern look like?”
The goblin’s eyes shone with vicious pleasure. “Oh, it isn’t much, really, just a small thing made of silver. The door is as round as the moon over our heads, and, inside, is the light of a dying star, brilliant and white, the last of my lady’s sacrificed grace.” He waved one arm at the tree. “You’ve until dawn to make your choices and three nights to take your chances.” He hopped up to the top of the rock and sat grinning at her unpleasantly. He flicked his fingers and all the lanterns, every one of them, bloomed with light.
Bethany only spent a few moments staring up into the branches, even more horrible with the lanterns lit; it looked even more like the black web of some demonic spider, which would be crouching somewhere, waiting for an unwitting victim to land in its trap. Then she began to climb up.
If she had thought it would be easy to pick out the goblin’s lantern, despite the number of others hanging there, then she soon knew better; there were not a hundred lanterns hanging, nor a thousand. As she lifted herself onto the first branch of the tree and looked up, it seemed as though there was no end to the branches rising above her and each of them was filled with lanterns.
Bethany did not despair, though; it was not in her nature to accept defeat, certainly not while she still had so many hours in which to solve the puzzle. She got right to work. The largest lanterns she ignored and she first looked for the glint of silver. Finding that, next she looked for a nice, round door, disregarding the ones who had a square door or oval or none at all. Soon, she’d found dozens that matched the description, though it was impossible to tell what sort of light was burning inside; she didn’t know what a star would look like if it were in a lantern, if it would need a wick or oil to sustain it. She was still on the lowest branches of the tree, though, and did not make much headway; there were simply too many. Presently, she became aware of the cat perched above her, watching.
“You could help me,” Bethany informed him.
“Sometimes the best help a friend can give is to sit and think with a clear head,” the tomcat said.
“Think too long,” Bethany replied, “and you’ll have no-one left to feed you cheese after one of your naps.” But the cat was already gone.
At last, Bethany knew dawn was close. She climbed down the tree, carefully setting her selection of lanterns by the roots. There were twenty, at least, each beautiful in its own way. Overhead, the sky was velvet black and, if not for the lanterns, it would have been dark indeed.
The goblin came to inspect her choices. “Too large,” he said to some. “Too small,” he said to others. One by one, he discounted them and Bethany marked his words well; if the right lantern was not among those she had brought him, then at least she would do better the next time and have a better idea what she was looking for.
At last, Shrim stood before the final lantern. “It is the right height,” said he, “and the door is like the face of the moon. Yet there is no green stone set into the crown.” He pulled the door open, “And there is only a half burnt candle inside.” With his final words, the first light of dawn came, not yet flushed pink, but still gray and soft, shimmering with promise.
“You did not mention the stone on its crown before I climbed up,” Bethany said, scowling.
“Didn’t I?” the goblin asked, grinning. Then he was gone, all the lanterns blew out, and Bethany was standing alone beneath the Goblin Tree.