Black Apple

black_apple

The early morning air over Dreamer’s Cliff shimmered briefly with the pattern of a simple, two-dimensional hex design, and Gretchen felt a slight wave of heat pass by her. She had just thrown a hex at the grass beneath her feet-a very controlled one-to help warm the ground for her and dry up the dew drops, as she intended to sit and ground moisture always made a mess of her clothes. Making sure her cloak was drawn in tightly around her, and touching the grass a bit just to make sure it was really dry, she seated herself comfortably. Hexes were such handy things. People very often–and quite unfairly, she thought–had negative associations with the idea of being hexed but, as with most everything, hexes weren’t innately bad. They couldn’t be. Goodness or badness laid in application and use–in action, not existence. She was as good as she could manage, and hoped that what hexes she threw reflected that fact. She supposed they did; most people in Thorn didn’t seem to think anything bad about her magic. Still, there were others . . .

She felt something flick at her knee and brushed at it distractedly, thinking. She was accustomed to bold crickets, especially early in the morning, and didn’t pay much attention to them. Besides, there were more important things to think about. Good and evil, for instance. She wanted to be good, because good was right, but sometimes she wondered if she really was. That was the problem with being right–it was so very hard to tell if you actually were. No magic, no accident of birth, made a person evil, Gretchen was sure. Just because she could throw hexes, that didn’t really make her a witch; she had the talent, for the love of the Gods, she didn’t have the religion-the apostasy. She had been born of the water; she had pledged her life to the Gods. But that didn’t really guarantee her goodness, did it? She knew that it did not-knew it better than perhaps she would’ve liked. Gretchen had thought about it a great deal, and the more thought she devoted to it the less she liked some of the things she was thinking. Because though she wished very hard to be good, and always tried as hard as she could to be so, sometimes the things she thought-sometimes the things she felt-weren’t very good at all. Sometimes, she thought, they were almost evil.

Gretchen felt another cricket, or perhaps the same one, flicking at her leg, only this time it was against her thigh. That managed to catch her full attention, distracting her from her thoughts. She had her robes and the end of her cloak gathered up into her lap so the many folds and flaps of her clothing would not stray from her dried circle of grass and get wet. That meant that if she could actually feel a cricket flicking at her, it had somehow managed to get up under her robes. Gretchen was accustomed to being harassed by rude crickets, but that was getting a little too intimate. She started to stand up, bringing the warmth hex she had used earlier back into her mind, as her memory of it was still fresh, and she could easily tailor it to be a little bit hotter. She needed something to dissuade the cricket, and thought that burning it to a crisp would probably do the trick. She was hardly one to kill any sort of life wantonly, but there were limits to her tolerance, and the cricket had gotten entirely too personal.

It wasn’t until she tried to stand up that it first sunk in that whatever it was flicking at her leg, it wasn’t a cricket. It was nothing of the sort. Because it was only when she first stood up that she really felt the weight–weight around her thigh, her knee, her calf, all around her entire leg, throwing off her center of gravity and almost making her fall back down. She had naturally assumed that whatever had been bothering her had been a cricket; morning crickets were quite abundant around the cliffs and in the grasses right outside of Parker’s Meadow. And it was quite possible, she supposed, that whatever she had felt earlier had been a cricket–but this wasn’t a cricket. It was too big, too heavy, large and unpleasantly smooth against her skin, slick like the scales of a snake, about as unlike a cricket as a thing could get. It had begun tightening around her leg as she struggled for balance, hurting her and cutting off the circulation, when she realized that it actually was a snake. It had to be. Nothing else she had ever heard of would feel like this.

Gretchen had the warmth hex ready and waiting in her mind; she used it instinctively. The disparity between snakes and crickets was an appreciable one, and she had only brought the hex up with the intention frying a pesky insect, but manipulating the essential design even as it drew itself in the air was not very hard for her. It had been hot; she made it hotter. The pattern assembled, lights and darks merging into a coherent hex form, expanding into three dimensions. Completed, it executed itself automatically, and heat billowed up under her robes, and the leg with the snake-thing wrapped around it suddenly felt like it was on fire. It hurt something awful–she had know it would–but she simply ground her teeth against the pain, intent on making the damned thing let go of her. She had not asked for this intrusion on her privacy and meant to put an end to it. She just prayed to the Gods that it did not bite her in reaction.

She kept the hex going for awhile, trying to ignore the enormous amount of heat she was subjecting herself to in the process, and did meet with some luck—at least the snake didn’t bite. But it didn’t let go of her either. It simply moved a little, slithering around her leg, as if trying to get comfortable. She felt it move, and that made her certain—she was getting a snake hug. She didn’t know how it could have possibly wrapped itself around her with her hardly having noticed, where it could have come from, or how it could possibly stand heat that felt like it was burning her up, and she didn’t particularly care. She just changed tactics. Heat wasn’t working; maybe she could try freezing it. Cold spells were as common as warmth spells, and she had had plenty experience at modifying both. Doing a little instant tailoring on a cold spell would be no problem, and with the way her leg felt, she thought a little cool air couldn’t hurt. So she concentrated, working her fingers to draw the basic pattern in the air even as she cancelled the first hex, and had it done in seconds.

This time she met with more success. The cold came immediately, clenching her burning leg like a large, icy hand, and she realized that, as hot as the first hex had made her, being frozen felt just about as bad as getting burned. But at least, this time, it had the desired effect. The thing let go of her without so much as a nibble, falling down around her feet, and Gretchen jumped backwards, just in case it decided to change its mind about biting her and go for an ankle. Apparently, though, it wasn’t too intent on doing anything. It simply lay there, coiled-up and shivering on the very spot where she had been sitting earlier.

It was indeed a snake, a snake as dark and shiny as a slab of polished ebony and very, very big. The sun was a bit higher now, and the cliffs very well-lit. She could make out the black, serpentine form quite easily, and could see just how large it was. Too large. It was easily five arms long, if not longer, the thickest point in its mid-section perhaps two-and-a-half hands in diameter–it was as big a snake as Gretchen had ever heard of, almost certainly a true constrictor. A bite, then, perhaps wouldn’t have mattered so much; that wasn’t usually the way a constrictor killed. But she had to wonder how in all of the seven Hells it had managed to coil itself around her leg without even drawing her attention–it was far, far too big to have done that. If, she amended, it was a normal snake.

Somehow, she didn’t think it was.

She wondered if she should kill it. She could channel more power through her hexes than she had, and now that it was apart from her she wouldn’t hesitate to use full force. And, if she left it alive, it could come into contact with someone else, and that someone might not survive the encounter. Then their blood would be on her hands. She would be at fault. But if she did kill it on little more than her own speculation, what then? What if she were wrong? Maybe, in its own strange, snake way, it had just been trying to be friendly. And if she killed it then, that would just be like shooting and arrow through the heart of a stranger who came into town with his hand out and smile on his face. So what should she do? Gods, it was so hard to know.

It was the snake itself that decided it for her.

It rose up, lifting the upper-portion of its long body into the air, its small head orienting immediately on Gretchen. Her fingers twitched nervously, ready to work up any hex she could at a moment’s notice, in case it decided to strike. But it only looked at her for a while, its tiny red eyes blinking up at her innocently. It quivered a little, as if still very cold, then cleared its throat. “Now,” it said, evidently trying to smile. “That wasn’t very nice, was it?”

For the first few moments all Gretchen could do was blink back at it. But that as only for a few moments. Bit by bit, piece by piece, she felt herself growing angry. “A sapient?” she whispered, more to herself than to the snake. “You’re a sapient?”

Her voice was soft, but the snake apparently heard her anyway. It nodded. “Of course,” it said, its voice deep and mellow, seeming far too large for its tiny little head. It shivered again. “Not a very polite way of greeting a fellow sentient, trying to freeze him to death. You didn’t need to do that.”

“A sentient–” she said, her voice growing in volume. “And you–you can vocalize. You talk.”

It nodded again. “Of course. I’m well-versed in all pertinent forms of communication on the planet. I don’t think trying to freeze a fellow to death is considered a polite greeting in any of them.”

Gretchen glared at it, her fingers flicking a little, just itching to work up a nice, powerful hex and send the damned thing barreling down into oblivion. The fact that it could talk wasn’t making her like it any better. But she kept herself in check. “Neither is trying to squeeze off a person’s leg–”

“A friendly hug,” it dismissed, trying to smile again.

“But you can talk!” she exclaimed angrily. “You’re a sentient! You could’ve at least tried to say hello! Trying to squeeze off people’s legs without asking is not a friendly hug. You didn’t even introduce yourself! You—“

“You get angry a lot, don’t you?” the snake asked pleasantly, and smiled. “I bet you don’t make many friends like that.”

“–didn’t–even–uh,” Gretchen faltered. “Uh–now wait a minute–”

“I know you can’t make too many friends if you try to freeze them all to death–”

“Now, just hold it one second, snake,” Gretchen said, coming up closer to it and crouching down, glaring right into it’s small, glowing eyes. “Look here–you started this. Friends don’t try to squeeze people’s legs off–”

The snake chuckled pleasantly. “You’re hung up on that, aren’t you? It was just a hug. Do you usually get so defensive when people try to introduce themselves?”

Gretchen frowned, her eyes narrowing icily. She wanted very badly to hex this thing. “I don’t like you, serpent,” she said slowly, keeping her voice low. “You can talk. In circles. Around and around–”

“You’re a very suspicious person, too, aren’t you?” The snake interrupted, and laughed a little. “Distrustful as well. If you ever do make any friends, I doubt that you keep them long, with that sort of attitude. Am I right?” The snake looked at her for a moment, examining her face. “Yes, I think I am. And, what’s more, I think that you know it. I think you agree.”

Gretchen took a slow, deep breath, just looking at the thing for a long while. “What are you here for, serpent?” she asked finally. “What do you want? And why have you come to me? I mean it. Cut the double-talk,” she said, bringing her face almost nose-to-nose with the snake’s. “Tell me what you want from me, or get the Hell away.”

“I just–heard your thoughts,” it explained. “I felt the things you were feeling. You seemed so unhappy. I thought maybe you could use a hug. I’m sorry. I guess I was wrong. It seems you can do just fine without anybody.”

“Mmm,” she hummed thoughtfully, standing fully up and moving away from the snake, frowning a little. “You make me feel guilty, snake. But I suppose you know that already, as you’re apparently an empath, as well as sentient and able to verbalize eloquently. Quite an array of talents, for a snake.” She put her hands on her hips, more intrigued by the snake now than angry–but far from at ease. “This makes me curious, serpent–just how is it that such a talented creature as yourself ends up on the cliffs, listening to people’s thoughts?”

“It was–an accident. I didn’t mean to. But I live among the cliffs. This is my home. I could hardly help but feel all your depression and indecision. And, as I did, I thought that maybe I should try and help you–and console you. Is that really so strange? I did not expect a friendly hug to be considered an invasion of privacy–I haven’t much experience at dealing with people, you see–and I think that has put you off somewhat. So I won’t do it again–you have my word. But I’d still like to help you, if I may.”

Gretchen sighed. “All right, serpent,” she said. “I will hear you out. How is it, precisely, that you intend to help me?”

“You still don’t trust me, do you?” it asked, and sighed back at her. “Well, I suppose that’s understandable. You’ve trusted people before, and have had that trust betrayed, haven’t you? You’ve been deceived, you’ve been misled. There have been those, I suspect, who’ve appealed to your better nature so they could lead you into a trap. So they could kill you. I’m right, aren’t I?”

Gretchen looked down at the serpent for a long time, frowning, eyes narrow and suspicious, doing nothing more than breathing. Breathing very slowly.

The snake smiled. “I think I’m right.”

Gretchen’s frown deepened, as she took in one long, deep breath. “Yes, you’re right–demon. You know you’re right.”

The glow in its eyes seemed to brighten and then dim markedly, as if in surprise, and its smile disappeared. “Oh,” it murmured slowly. “I had really hoped you wouldn’t catch on to that.”

“A sentient, talking snake who seems to know everything about me, seems to know just what to say to get to me–whose touch, when it so chooses, can be as light as smoke? What else could you be?”

“I–an empath,” it said. “I could’ve been an empath. There are a number of truly empathetic species all over the planet, not a small number of the living right around here. I thought that maybe that would fool you–”

“Gods,” Gretchen whispered quietly, staring up into the morning sky. “My Gods, I’m I truly so far gone? For what evil I have may thought, for what wrongs I may have done, have you abandoned me? Have I–?”

“Oh, would you please cut that out?” the serpent interrupted, its face suddenly popping up in front of hers, scowling. “I don’t mean you any harm–would you get that through your thick skull? Why do you automatically assume that the world is conspiring against you? That everybody you meet means you nothing but ill?”

Gretchen scowled back at it. “I think nothing of the sort, demon. But already you have lied to me, claiming to live in the cliffs, when you cannot possibly, claiming to be a mere snake when you know damned well you’re a servant of–”

“I advise you very strongly not to speak His name aloud,” the serpent cut in quickly. “He knows all who would give it voice.”

Gretchen just continued scowling at it. “Already you have lied to me, serpent, more than once, and more of what you say may be lies that I have yet to detect. You’re a demon–demons do not help mortals. Demons have never helped mortals. Why should I trust you? You have given me no reason to.”

“And if you continue to think as you do, no one ever will.” The snake, supporting itself on nothing but the last few coils of its tail, pushed itself up a little higher, bringing its face very close to hers. “You resent not only those who have condemned you but those who have tried to befriend you as well, you distrust those who would help you, you avoid strangers, you avoid people whose powers you fear, sometimes to the point that you might as well have gone and spat in their face.” It looked at her pointedly. “Going like that, I doubt you’ll ever have any opportunities to trust people.”

“You craft your words, demon,” she answered back immediately, staring it down. “You make what you say sound good, sound convincing–but lies very often do. Your words sound nice, but that doesn’t make them true. You are a demon. You serve one master and one master alone. And He’s not very nice.”

“Mmmm, mmm, mmm, dear, dear, dear,” the snake murmured, coiling back up and dropping back to the ground. “You’re really a wonder, you know that? I’m a demon–so I’m evil. Yet you’re a witch–and you’re good. That’s lovely logic, little one. I’m certainly glad you don’t hold any double-standards. Mmm, mmm, mm. Evil lies in action, not in existence, right? In application, not in potential. But then, that’s just for pretty little witches like yourself, isn’t it? Not for dirty old demon snakes. Mmm, mmm, mmm, dear, dear, dear.”

“I’m not a witch,” Gretchen said slowly. “You–that’s wrong. I’m not a witch.”

“Yet you throw hexes,” the serpent shot back immediately.

“That doesn’t make me a witch.”

“But I’m a demon, so that makes me evil.” It sighed. “Gretchen, have you ever stopped to think that maybe that there are other creatures out there that have been victims of bad press? That perhaps maybe I would like to help you for the simple reason that I know what it feels like to always get the dirty end of the stick? That I know what it feels like to be despised because of the way I was created? I had no control–I was made the way I was made. Yet not a single entity outside of those who dwell Beneath have shown me anything more than distrust and hate. I felt your pain, and I wanted to help. Maybe I went about it the wrong way, and if I did then it was my mistake, and I’m sorry. But don’t walk around all your life with blinders on–blind hate serves no one. No one but Him.”

Gretchen sat down–the sun, by now, had dried up all the dew–and she sighed. “All right,” she said. “All right. You’re too convincing for me to be at ease with you, snake, but I guess I’ve got to give you a chance. I’d be little better than the witch hunters if I didn’t. That’s what you were trying to point out to me, right?”

The snake nodded. “It was. Almost from the beginning. I suspected it would be difficult to convince you of the truth–I just didn’t realize quite how difficult.”

“Don’t talk as if you’ve done it, demon–you haven’t yet. Blind trust is just about as bad as blind hate, wouldn’t you say?”

“Touché, Gretchen. Very good. I suppose it is. But that wasn’t really wasn’t what I was asking for–”

“Quiet, Hellspawn. This help you offer–I’ve asked you twice now and you still haven’t told me what it is.”

The snake smiled. “Just answers, love. You have questions that still can’t be answered to your satisfaction. You’re as uncertain as ever about the state of your soul. You need to know. I can help you find out.”

“And still you haven’t told me how.”

“That’s a little more difficult to explain. I could, I suppose, but it would be faster, and simpler, just to show you.”

“Try telling me first.”

The snake sighed. “It’s a magic–I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s a rare magic, and a potent one, and not but a minute’s walk into Parker’s Meadows from where you now sit. Seeing it, perhaps, would help you understand a little better.”

Gretchen leaned forward. “I don’t know about that, demon. What is it? An oracle of some sort? One of the springs? An enchanted rock? A lost book of spells? What?”

“No, no,” the serpent replied, shaking it’s head. “It’s–a repository. For magics. For ancient magics. If you want to know more, you’ll have to see it.”

Gretchen stood up. “All right, then. I’ll go see it. This is not a commitment to anything more. I’m still dubious of accepting help from a demon.”

“It’s all bad press, I’ve told you,” the snake said, and chuckled. “Come on, follow me.”

It uncoiled its long, large body and started slithering at a steady rate away from the cliffs and into the Meadows. Gretchen followed. Walking was a painful prospect, as the leg she had tried to force the demon off of earlier was still quite sore, but she followed.

“It’s relatively simple,” the snake was saying as it slithered through the grasses and around the trees. “Just rare. But you need answers–very important answers, I think–and this can provide them for you.”

“Sounds wonderful,” Gretchen murmured. “But everything you say sounds good, every argument you come up with seems irrefutable. I’m still not sure how much I believe in you good intentions. I’ve heard of–”

“I caution you girl,” the snake said quickly, coming to a stop and turning around to face her. “You dare not speak His name.”

“All right, then. I’ve heard of the Evil One’s tongue–His ability with the language, His talent of speech, how good His words are supposed to sound. But He’s the God of Dissent and the Father of Lies. Would his servants not possess a talent of a similar caliber?”

“They would,” the serpent said. “They do. It is your choice, woman. I’ve told you. Consider for yourself and choose as you will. I want to help you, and that is my intent, but the final choice as to whether or not you accept that help is yours and yours alone.”

Gretchen, for the first time that day, managed to smile a little. “That sounds good, too, Hellspawn. But I’m not sure how much of it I should believe. But you still hold my tentative trust–for the moment. Let’s pray that you don’t betray it.”

“Be my guest,” the snake said and chuckled. “Pray to your Gods. I mean you no ill.”

“So you’ve said,” Gretchen murmured, then sighed. “Well?” she asked. “I need to be back at the village by noon. I don’t have all day. Lead me to this mysterious and helpful magic of yours.”

“Oh. I thought I had said. We’re here.”

“Here?” Gretchen asked dubiously, preparing herself immediately to work up a hex on a moment’s notice, if she needed to. This didn’t seem right. “I don’t see anything,” she said, looking around her. “No rocks, no mysterious glows, nothing–just grass and trees.” She bent down, her head hovering just above the snake’s, who craned his neck to look up at her. It smiled.

“What is this, demon?” Gretchen demanded. “Is this some sort of trick?”

“Powerful magics are not always acutely obvious, love. Look at the trees.”

“Mmm-hmm,” she hummed, looking around her. “They’re trees. So what?”

“The one in front of you.”

“It’s a tree–a sweetfruit tree.” And Gretchen suddenly realized she was hungry. She hadn’t meant to stay out so long–the snake had put a slight crimp in her plans–and supper last night had been pretty sparse. It was hardly the answer to all her problems, but a little sweetfruit would probably hit the spot just then–

Not that one,” the demon instructed her. “To the right.”

“Oh. Sorry. It’s–I’m not sure. It’s not in bloom yet. An apple tree, I think.”

The snake chuckled. “Right–but you said it wasn’t in bloom yet. That’s not entirely true. There is some fruit on it, fruit already ripe and ready to be picked. Take a closer look. It’s in the shade, a bit hard to see, but it’s there.”

Gretchen did as the demon suggested, approaching the tree and inspecting the branches carefully, still ready to throw any one of several prepared hexes at a moments notice–and she saw. Deep within the tree’s lower foliage, very near the trunk, there was one single, solitary fruit, in the shape a fully-ripened apple.

“Do you see it?” the snake asked casually. “You see it. Beautiful thing, isn’t it?”

“I–uh–it’s black,” Gretchen said. “It looks like an apple–but it’s pitch black. And–wait a second. Wait one minute. Is the incredible magic you wanted to show me, Hellspawn?”

“Look, Gretchen, I really wish you’d quite calling me that–”

“Is this the magic?”

“All right, all right. Yes, it is. I know it doesn’t look like much–”

“Uh-uh, Hellspawn. It looks like plenty. Gods, demon, do you think I’ve never read the Scriptures? Do you think I have never heard of the day that the Woman of the Garden sacrificed Paradise for knowledge? Do you think I’ve never read of how she set free pestilence and poverty and oppression with a single bite into this forbidden fruit? Do you think–?”

“Gretchen–quiet. You talk of human stories as if they were the very words of the Gods. The fruit you refer to was in the minds and on the tongues of ancient peoples, used only as way to explain what the Gods had yet to see fit to explain to them–but that was all it was, then. Make-believe. There were things about creation and the conception of man that the Gods, in Their wisdom, decided that mortals shouldn’t know. Not then. So, presented with nothing else, people made things up–such as the fruit you refer to. The Father found the parallel fitting when crafting much the New Magic at the break of the covenant, and used it. It is simply one of the many gifts of magic the Gods have left their people. I am just guiding you to it. Now, it is your choice–but basing your choice on ancient superstition is not very wise. It is not evil, merely knowledge–the precise knowledge you seek.”

“That sounds very good, demon.”

It sighed. “Gretchen, why must that always be an insult with you?”

“It isn’t. Not always. But you always know just what to say to convince me of whatever you please–in fact, you’re trying to convince me. Yet you keep saying it’s my choice. Besides which, you’re trying to tell me that the Scriptures are lies. That’s blasphemy, demon.”

The snake frowned, and–it seemed–pursed its lips. “Well,” it said finally. “Whatever you say. I’m not going to argue it anymore. Eat if you like. Don’t eat if you don’t like. It’s your choice.”

“You keep saying that.”

“Well, it is. If you want your life to remain the same forever, if you want people always spitting in your face, if you want to get your fingers broken and your body bound to a stake–”

“That’s only happened once, demon. It’s a healthy distrust of anything and everything that’s kept it from ever happening again.”

“Touché. A second time. You say I sound good–you should listen to yourself. You are as good at your arguments as you say I am at mine. Perhaps there’s a little demon in you as well, hmm?”

Gretchen cocked an eyebrow. “Mmmm. Clever, Hellspawn. You’ve made your point. But I reiterate, S–”

“I caution you, girl–” the serpent began.

“–the God of Dissent,” she continued, “is the Father of Lies. If you know an untruth is an untruth right from square one, then it really isn’t a lie, is it? A lie can sound good, and it can sound true, but it would still be a lie, wouldn’t it?”

“You know it would, Gretchen. And now I know I cannot convince you to trust me. I thought–I thought that I could. I had hoped I could do–some good. Some sort of good to help atone for the evil I have been made to do by the Infernal One. But I can see that even in this I have failed.” It sighed slightly. “It is near noon,” it commented finally, after a fairly long pause. “You said you needed to return to your village shortly, and I must return the Underworld before my time is up. I’m sorry we could not have gotten a long better–and I’m sorry I couldn’t help you. Goodbye, Gretchen. We shall not meet again.” Dejectedly, it lowered its head down to the ground, and began slowly weaving itself through the grasses. “Goodbye,” it called again. “I wish you well.”

Gretchen said nothing for a moment. She just looked at the slowly disappearing serpent, back to the single fruit of the apple tree, and then back to the snake, thinking quickly. She hadn’t expected it to give up so soon. Certainly a real demon wouldn’t’ve done so, and she truly doubted that the serpent was anything but. Still–

It took her a few moments to prepare herself and find her voice, and by then the serpent almost disappeared entirely. “Demon!” she called. “Demon, get back here!”

“What?” it called, turning around and moving a few feet towards her. “What did you say?”

“Come back here,” Gretchen said slowly. “I will eat your fruit.”

“It isn’t my fruit, girl, I told you, the . . . what? You said–you said, you accept my help?”

“I think I have to,” she answered as the snake quickly made it’s way back to her. “If I don’t accept, then it’s because I’ve condemned you for what you are, isn’t it? That’s what you’ve kept saying–and I guess it’s true. Maybe I’d like it to be a lie, but it’s true. If I don’t accept the help you offer because I don’t like what you are–then I’ve done the same thing so many people have done to me. Again, because it’s not the first time. I don’t want to mistrust everybody–I just do. And if I keep doing it, then it is my choice. If I never trust anybody, even with what I know, even with what I’ve seen–then it really is my choice. My choice alone. And then–and then I can’t be good. I damn myself.”

The snake looked at her, and then to the tree with its solitary offering of fruit. “Still, it is your choice,” the serpent said. “If you feel I have pressured you, then do not do it. That was not my intent. Yet I feel that, unintentionally, I have. That was not my purpose. I know, too, what if feels like to be forced to do something against one’s own will. If I did so, it was a mistake, and I am sorry–”

“Quiet, serpent. I know it’s my choice. I am damned if I don’t. Damned by myself, damned my very own feelings, by my very own hypocrisy–I know that. But perhaps I won’t be damned if I do. I don’t think that’s much of a choice. But I accept your help. I’ll eat the apple.”

“I–am glad,” the snake said quietly, solemnly. “Never before has a mortal accepted the help of this demon. You have–you–” It sighed slowly. “I am glad.”

“Gods,” Gretchen whispered quietly, and reached in between the branches of the apple tree. “Gods, here I go.”

She brought out the fruit, her hand wrapped tightly around it. Without a moment’s hesitation, allowing herself no time for any thoughts, much less second thoughts, she clenched her eyes tightly shut and brought the fruit to her mouth, taking the largest, noisiest bite she could. She tasted the sweet, tangy flavor on her tongue, she felt it crunching between her teeth. The juices dribbled down her chin, and she felt nothing. For a moment, she didn’t know if she had been wrong or not.

But then the demon began to laugh, and she knew. Because it kept laughing–laughing long, low, and hard. “You’ve just damned yourself, slut,” it said between laughs, its voice deeper and considerably less mellow than it had been. “You’ve just damned your soul to Hell.”

Which was just what she had expected. She had been right all along. “But–I–I don’t understand–” Gretchen stammered. “I–What are trying to pull, demon?”

“You’ve damned yourself beyond redemption, whore,” the snake continued, still chortling merrily. “You’ve given in to temptation. The temptation of a Hellspawn. The Gods won’t touch you after a thing like that. You’ve consorted with one of Satan’s servants, you’ve taken the road of evil by your own free will. You’ve forsaken the Gods, and they will forsake you.”

“I–you mean, I am damned?” Gretchen asked, chin beginning to tremble. “You mean, I am lost beyond all hope of salvation?”

“That’s just what I mean, slut. You were hard–but I broke you. You gave in. And damned yourself to the third level of Hell.”

“Well, thank you, demon,” Gretchen said, taking another bite of the fruit, suddenly grinning at the demon as the juices ran down her chin. “That’s all I really wanted to know.”

The demon stopped laughing almost immediately. “You dare mock me, whore?” it demanded, after a pause. “You dare mock a servant of Satan when you yourself have been damned to Hell?”

“Jeeze,” Gretchen said through a mouthful of fruitstuff, still smiling. “I don’t believe this. You sure are one cocky son of a bitch, aren’t you? You really thought I’d fall for all that junk? Gods, what a dope.” She took another bite. “Did you really think I was that stupid?”

“You ate the fruit, woman,” the demon insisted. “You can claim what you want. But you’re still damned.”

“Read me, demon. You say your empathetic, so read me. I didn’t eat your cursed fruit.”

“You–you deceived me?” it asked almost unbelievingly, studying her, its red eyes wide and glowing. “You deceived me?”

“See for yourself, serpent,” Gretchen replied, throwing down what was left of the dark, cinnamon-colored sweetfruit she held in her hand down in front of the demon. “I’m not entirely brain-dead, you know.”

“I–but you couldn’t’ve–”

“I could’ve,” Gretchen said, smile widening. “I did. I am a ‘witch’, after all. You shouldn’t’ve looked away when you pulled your fake exit. I know parlor tricks, serpent. I palmed a sweetfruit. I never even touched your damned apple.”

“You didn’t,” it said, its red eyes wide and unbelieving. “And I didn’t even check.”

“Of course you didn’t. You got cocky. Through the entire thing, you got cocky. That snake hug was pointlessly risky–for your story, it was. But you got cocky and did it anyway. You lied several times that I managed to catch you at, and that was sloppy, and at best your explanations were half-baked. They sounded real nice, but they just didn’t wash. But you were cocky–you thought you had me under your thumb. Gods, you’re entire ruse was ludicrous. Using something as familiar, and with as many negative connotations, as the forbidden fruit of Paradise–that was so stupid. But you got cocky, and did it anyway.”

Gretchen raised her hands, and began working on another hex. One she had never done before, though she knew how. One meant especially for demons.

She she shook her head ruefully. “The simple idea that it could possibly solve all my problems–that was stupid, too. Knowledge of good, and how to be good and how to do right, is something you work for, something you strive for. It’s something you learn. Not something you eat. The Scriptures say it a thousand times–and it’s something I’ve found out through experience. There’s no easy road. Yet that was what you were offering me–and you’re a demon. Tell me, Hellspawn, would you trust an offer like that?”

“Of course not, woman, but I’m not a greedy, foolish mortal.”

“Neither am I. I knew you were up to something. With the way I was feeling when I went to cliffs this morning–I was too prime a target for just the sort of argument you used on me, demon, and I knew it. I’ve been wondering about the state of my soul for a long, long time–and then, just when I’m feeling about as low as I ever do, a demon comes up and tells me he can fix it all. No sane mortal would trust that. Besides, I’ve spent all my life trying to prove that I’m not a witch, Hellspawn–would I forsake all that on nothing more than the word of a demon? You’ve studied up on my life, that’s obvious–in fact, you made it too obvious; you knew too much about my life, making allusions to things I wasn’t even thinking of–but you did study up on it, so you should know. I haven’t got a lot of friends, and maybe I’m not sure of my own goodness–but you should’ve realized I would not forfeit what friends I have, and what goodness I have achieved, for a Hellspawn with a lot of fancy rhetoric.”

“Beaten,” the serpent whispered slowly, eyes wide and fiery. “Beaten by a mortal.”

“On all counts,” Gretchen said, nodding, as she picked another sweetfruit off of the tree and took a bite. “Don’t even bother to think I didn’t know how you framed me, demon. I knew I’d be damned if I gave into your temptation–I’m not a fool. But you’re a good talker, and you set me up. You painted a cute enough picture–if I didn’t accept your help, then it would’ve been because I was prejudiced by your demonic origins. Then I would’ve been a hypocrite, condemning you for little more reason than others have condemned me. Damned by my own experience. Because I suspected you–as others, with less reason, have suspected me–of evil. But I didn’t really know. It would’ve been very narrow of me to condemn you on nothing but suspicions, and that scores points for Satan–by the way, always warning my not to say His name was cute, but it didn’t wash either. Anyhow, I knew if I refused to accept your help because you were a demon, I’d be damned. But to accept your help, I would have had to have eaten the apple, and given in to temptation. Damned again. But now you’ve admitted your intentions, and now I know.”

“Defeated,” the snake murmured, now lying flat on ground. “Defeated by a puny human.”

Gretchen smiled, chewing her sweetfruit, and nodded. “That’s right,” she agreed, flicking her fingers and watching the fresh hex design finish assembling in the air. “You got beaten. Because you were stupid–but then, evil usually is. Goodbye, demon. Don’t bother me again.” The hex completed itself–the hex of abolishment, to send the demon straight back to Hell. And it did. The demon disappeared in an explosion of fiery black and red smoke, the scent of sulfur suddenly assaulting her nose, and the serpent was gone. She should’ve used the hex much earlier, she knew. Perhaps as soon as she had found out she was dealing with a demon, and realized that hex of abolishment would work on it. But she had been hesitant–because she had, against her better judgment, extended it some trust. And she supposed that, even though the demon had betrayed what little trust she had given it, she would do it all over again, if necessary. Because maybe, she thought, everybody at least deserved a chance. Even demons.

If only everybody believed that, she thought, picking another sweetfruit and starting on her way back towards Thorn, whistling tunelessly. Perhaps her goodness was still in question, and perhaps how she had handled her run-in with the demon had not been the best way possible–she wasn’t very sure she had done much there to prove her own goodness to herself. But, either way, she felt a little better. Because she had just beaten a demon, and in a way that was a lot like beating the Devil Himself. So maybe she wasn’t all goodness and purity–she had never really thought that she was. But she hadn’t given in to evil–she had been set up, either way she went, to do just that, but she still hadn’t given into it. So maybe she wasn’t pure goodness–but she still had hope. And, for the moment, that was enough.

Cautiously, eating up her sweetfruit and taking big bites, Gretchen made her way back to Thorn.

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