Her fingertips traced the roughly hewn walls of the tunnel and her feet waded drunkenly through the several inches of cold, rancid water that covered the floor, turned toxic from lack of contact with the world above. It was only that touch with the damp moss that lined the path that kept her from falling to her knees, kept her pushing forward. She could only follow the occasional noise that echoed somewhere up ahead; it appeared that they had no trouble at all finding their way in the impenetrable darkness. They were miles ahead of her already, dragging Tim along with them. She had grown accustomed to the stench, the damp rot of the earth around her and of the unnerving scuffling of rats but she simply could not get used to the gloom that rendered her blind and utterly defenseless. It felt like she was suffocating as she walked along an ocean bed. She continued to move only because at the end of this tunnel was where her family lay.
Why had Evelyn built this tunnel? Surely this straight and easy short cut was asking for trouble? She wondered if her father or Peter or Isaac had ever used it. And what could have possessed them to do so?
She thought only briefly about the woman, bleeding her life down into the mud. She hoped that it was over now. That the woman started the war again seemed superfluous to Jane, with or without the woman’s help Jane would have always found herself walking this road. Her breath caught in her throat, she choked it down and forced herself onwards once more.
She was unsure of how long they walked for. Jane supposed that a few hours must have passed by the time she saw a faint flicker of light up ahead. Relief flooded her, forgetting for a moment what that light might mean. The tunnel came to a sudden end, a trapdoor above her head revealing the source of the light. A candle was being held towards her by an arm of bones, translucent in its glow.
“I would help you up but…” The Crooked’s voice leered. Legs quivering, she heaved herself up into a cold, dank room. They were quite alone, the other Crookeds must have moved on already.
“We have been waiting for you for a long while. We forget that you Hopefuls aren’t the same as us,” he chuckled.
“Thank goodness for that,” Jane grimaced.
“It was quite ingenious of Evelyn, building the entrance here. She was correct, we never enter this room. It is a room that is used for the torture of The Crookeds, when one of our own kind needs punishment.”
The room being so dark meant that Jane could only see the suggestion of cruel implements around the walls, a shining hook, a heavy blade, a row of sinister looking bottles lining some shelves.
“Needless to say it isn’t often that anyone steps out of line. Even we fear this place. We are forbidden from coming down here. I am curious as to how she could have known that,” he said, with a quizzical twinkle in his eye and the smallest suggestion of a smile.
Jane didn’t reply, she thought she might be sick if she opened her mouth. He glowered at her over the flame. For this one moment it was just the two of them. Crooked against Hopeful. The insane thought of trying to overpower him right there came to her and she stiffened herself in preparation. He felt the shift in the air and stepped away from her, fearful of her touch.
“We have been waiting a long time for this. Let’s not keep them any longer. But firstly, I would like to say, what an honour it will be to finally see you dead. Jane Shepherd.”
Jane could only nod in reply. She hoped that she might be able to take at least a few of them with her when she went, that was the most she could hope for now. She followed him from the room, walking willingly into the open jaws of the crocodile. She walked towards the beginning of her end.
They filed through many cold stone passages, always travelling downwards, deeper into the earth. Thick wooden doors studded the walls, all of which were guarded by fiends that had lost all resemblance of humanity having lived so long in the darkness. She heard screams coming from behind locked doors; she saw blood running in streams along the floor. Nothing could have prepared her for this. Who did they have behind those doors? Were these screams the last sounds those Hopefuls would make?
The guards snapped and sniffed the air as she walked by. Her leader called out warning to them in their own language, at which they would groan and back away from her into the shadows.
Finally, The Crooked came to a halt before an enormous wooden door. She knew without being told that this was their destination. Anybody trapped behind this door would stand no chance of liberation. At his command, no less than ten guards were needed to unlock and swing open the door, all the while they stared at her in disbelief, completely transfixed.
“We are here,” The Crooked whispered, uncomfortably close to her ear. She shuddered, looked him hard in the face and took one step forward into the dim chamber before her. And that was when the screaming began. It was so dark inside she couldn’t begin to decide where the sounds were coming from or to whom they might belong. She managed to discern that there were sounds of celebration, of The Crookeds rejoicing the sight of the girl they had been so desperate to have in their furious grip for so long. But amongst the furor there were also sounds of protest, of people calling her name in fear and rage. And those cries could only have been coming from her family.
She stumbled forward, her eyes trying to adapt to the murk. The souls down here must have grown so accustomed to it that they no longer had a problem seeing. The disorientation was maddening.
“Stoke the fire!” Jane heard The Crooked call. “Our guest cannot see to stand!”
A fraction of a moment later Jane heard a rush of fluid and then was blinded by the flames that exploded in a great cauldron twenty feet before her. Instinctively, she flew backwards away from the fire and slammed hard into the wooden door which was once more locked behind her. The Crookeds cries of jubilation turned into howls of laughter at just how pathetic the girl who was supposed to be the ‘hope’ of the Hopefuls was.
With the flames licking high up into the air, she began to try and take in her surroundings. She found herself standing inside a vast cave. So immense was the chamber that where it ended was not within eyesight. The air was dank and frozen but the temperature was rising uncomfortably quickly with the fire raging as it was. This perhaps was another form of torture for the captured. Freeze them to death one moment and then roast them alive the next. Water was running clumsily down the walls, it dripped down on her from the roof above which she was not able to see.
She then took in The Crookeds. They were gathered before her in the chamber, at least a hundred pairs of greedy eyes shining in the ominous shadows. She stood her ground, she faced them entirely alone.
But it was not the size of the army gathered opposite her that was the real blow. That came when she tore her eyes away from them and glanced upwards. All around the chamber, holes had been hollowed into the rock. The furthest away from her only resembled pinpricks. It took a moment for her to realize it but the holes were clearly designed to serve as prison cells. They had sets of thick iron bars over the entrances, impenetrable and unyielding. There was only enough room for the prisoners to lie down inside the hollows. And behind each of these bars, in their own tiny cells made of rock were the members of her family, each of them crying out her name and grasping the bars as though hoping to snap them into two like matchsticks. She barely recognised them; their faces were bloody and gaunt. Some were reaching their hands out to her, grasping out at thin air, at nothing.
Vomit rose up in her throat. If there had been anything in her stomach, she might have been sick but empty as it was she swallowed the bile back down, burning her throat and instead tears trickled slowly down her cheeks.
“How curious, they had told us that you never cried!” The Crooked said, stepping back from her to join his ranks. “And yet, here she is! Your great Saviour, weeping for you!” he turned to the faces in the cells. “How could you have put your faith in her?”
He walked away, towards where Tim was still being held up within a brutal embrace. Tim was searching the cells, looking for a face that he had risked everything to see again.
“She isn’t here. We thought it would be quite an enjoyable twist in the tale after all the time and effort you invested into saving her life, she simply wasn’t anywhere that you sought to save her,” The Crooked laughed, cruelly.
The laughter exploded from the others gathered behind him. They swore and spat. They licked their lips and gnashed their teeth in anticipation. They had been waiting for this show a very long time and were clearly ready to enjoy every second of it. They were going to relish killing them all.
“Where is she?” Tim managed to groan.
“She is safe. You’ll get her back. We shall hold up our side of the bargain as you have pathetically attempted to hold up yours. Jane is here, I suppose,” The Crooked said, looking pointedly at her. Tim whimpered with the effort that speaking had taken.
‘Do not trust your brother,’ the bird woman’s curious and worrisome words floated back to her. See could see them, hovering in the air before her.
“What have you done!?” came the furious cry from somewhere amongst the cells. Isaac. It was unmistakably the song of his voice that she had heard just then. It felt like a firework had gone off in her stomach. She swiftly searched the faces, looking for his. And then she spotted him, maybe ten feet away in a cell next to Peter.
“Isaac!” she screamed out. She darted forward, wanting to reach him and tripped, her legs refusing to respond in a functional manner. As she did so every last one of The Crookeds withdrew. They gasped in unison at her approach and stumbled a few feet away from her. They were afraid. For all their bravado, they did fear her after all.
“Stay where you are,” The Crooked said, attempting to hide the fact that he too, had jumped away like he had been stung by a wasp.
“Isaac,” she breathed his name like the end of prayer.
He was sallow looking and faded but he was there and he was alive. For now that was all she needed to know. But Isaac was not finished.
“I begged you! I begged you not to bring her here!” he cried. The realization that something underhand had come to pass was slowly filtering through to the other members of her family, they looked back and forth between Jane and Tim, trying and failing to put two and two together. The Crookeds that were closest to Isaac’s cell were growing restless. They did not enjoy letting the captives having their say.
“Let him speak,” the leader demanded, casually waving his hand and dismissing their mutters.
“How could you do it? After everything we did to try and keep her safe, how could you bring her here?” Isaac carried on, his hands clenched and reaching out through the bars towards Tim. If they had been on a level playing field, fighting with their fists on the village green at home, Isaac would have turned Tim into a bloody pulp.
Jane wanted to ask him to stop yelling and she wanted to reassure him that none of it mattered anymore because they had seen each other’s faces one last time. They had all fought diligently and now there was nothing else to do. She felt strangely calm; it was a kind of acceptance. Surely, they had known all along that this was how it would end?
“I never meant for this…” Tim whispered back, his voice thick.
“You could not even be trusted with the task of protecting your own sister!”
“Tim, what’s going on?” Jane demanded. She marched boldly towards her brother and The Crooked who held him dropped him hastily to the floor where he crumpled up like marionette without strings. She pulled his hands from his ears and held his face between her fingers. He couldn’t meet her gaze, he was crazed.
“What have you done?” she asked in a whisper.
“This wasn’t the way it was supposed to turn out,” he replied, tears leaking along his blood splattered cheeks.
“Allow me to shed some light on the situation, Jane,” The Crooked said, inching his way towards where she sat next to her brother. “I think it is time you all know the truth,” he called to the expectant faces behind the bars. He cracked his knuckles and eagerly began his story.
“One day, not all that long ago, Timothy whispered something in my shell like ear. He said,
‘Please. I will do anything. Anything you want. I just want Sophia back with me,’” The Crooked said, performing an eerily accurate imitation of Tim’s voice. “And so he had presented me with a perfect opportunity. He handed me the answer we had all been looking for. A way of getting to you,” he moved a little closer to Jane, shivers running along her spine. She was frightfully aware of every eye in the chamber on her.
“And I told him that the only thing I wanted that he could possibly help me with was you. His sister. To which he agreed. Can you believe it?” he said, looking down on Jane who was still sitting, clinging to Tim.
“No, he wouldn’t do that,” Jane gasped, Tim shaking and sobbing in her arms.
“Oh, he most certainly did. People do stupid things for love. So, having come to an agreement, we had a little meeting. We shared a few secrets; he told me a few things which were not his secrets to tell. Protector secrets. Things that the Protectors are bound to keep secret. Your two men there,” he gestured to Peter and Isaac, “made a grave mistake in trusting him, in telling him the secrets. A mistake that will cost you your life,” he said. He picked his words carefully, simply to provoke a reaction from Isaac and Peter who both responded with a wail and hammered their fists on the bars in protest.
“I think it is time that these secrets were shared with everyone. Just to make sure we’re all on the same page. And you, especially, need to understand this,” he said, giving Jane a little nod. “I want you to know why you are giving your life.”
“Tim, for this I must illicit your help once more. For Protector secrets can only be spoken of by a Hopeful and as I don’t really fit the bill, I ask you to stand and tell everyone what you told me.”
“Don’t make me,” Tim heaved, unable to stand, desperate not to incriminate himself any further. Must the full extent of his betrayal be revealed? And must he be the one to do it?
“Jane, hold him up for all to see. Support him as he has failed to support you,” The Crooked glared.
Jane, needing to understand what had happened, why everything was so confused, hauled Tim to his feet.
“Jane, don’t make me,” he protested, with terror in his eyes.
“I must know,” Jane replied simply. Tim stared at her, the chamber silent and very still all of a sudden. “Do it.”
He took several rattling breaths and then began to speak.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Nobody spoke, no forgiveness came and so he continued.
“Secret number one- In order to choose a new Protector, the person making the selection must have once been a Protector themselves,” he said, drumming up as much strength as he could. The Crooked danced around them, orchestrating the scene beautifully. Tim tugged away from Jane’s grasp a little, every word costing him little pieces of himself. His pain was echoed from several of the faces behind the bars. She couldn’t bring herself to look at them.
“Secret number two- New Protectors can only be elected once a year. This preserves the sanctity of Protectors and stops people passing the title on at their leisure.”
Jane supposed that rule was in place so that The Hopefuls couldn’t keep swapping Protectors just to give themselves the opportunity of issuing more commands. Tim had pulled free of her hold now; he stood hunched, swaying on the spot. Blood dripped idly from the side of his mouth.
“Secret number three- If a Protector delivers a direct command to a Crooked, The Crooked in question and every other Crooked must obey for eternity,” he continued. Jane already knew that one. This was not a surprise to her but she could tell from the gasps from around the walls that it was news to many of them.
“Secret number four- The Protectors may only issue one command each. Any other commands issued are null and void.”
“Secret number five- The affore mentioned command can only be overruled if the person or thing that it regards refuses its protection,” Tim said, he had rattled through the last secret quickly, as though hoping nobody would notice that he had said it. The Crooked smiled dangerously then, he gave a little clap of his hands to emphasise the point.
“And that last one…is pivotal,” he said, an insane grin splitting his face.
Jane did not understand. Her head span violently. It was far too hot in there now and the fire only seemed to be growing higher and higher. The tendrils danced like the forked tongues of dragons she had seen in books. Her clothes were stuck fast to her body and she felt she would like nothing more than to lower her head to the cold stone floor and allow all this to transpire without her input. Everything Tim had said was all in a jumble and was now swimming about in her head like a frantic fish in a bowl. And now he had let himself curl up on the floor again and would simply not stop crying and she still hadn’t really worked out why.
“In other words…” The Crooked began, taking over from Tim, eager for her to understand.
He moved a little closer to her, bringing his face as close to hers as he dared. The sight of his glistening teeth and furiously knitting fingers provided her with the answer.
“In other words, because I am under the protection of a command, the only way you can get to me is if I refuse that protection,” Jane finished, everything clicking into place with a stomach twisting thud.
“No!” it was her mother who started the cries; she shook her bars, trying in vain to wrench herself free.
“Don’t listen to them!” she heard her father cry, gruff and hysterical.
“Tim! Do something you useless piece of shit!” Peter howled. But Tim only lay there, shaking more and more violently. Oliver screamed a frantic stream of profanities and the uproar was complete from all. The din was deafening, the stone walls helping to complete the confusion.
“I love you, Jane,” Isaac said. Though he had only spoken the words, small amongst the screams that shot from the crowd, Jane heard them so much louder than all of the others. She found his face and for just the smallest of moments, everything grew quiet and insignificant and the only thing she could feel was his lips on hers in the tree house beneath the moon. It was only the panic in his eyes that reminded her of what was actually going on.
To gain order once more The Crooked brought his foot back and kicked Tim straight in the ribs to which he replied with a strangled scream. It was only then that the silence returned. Once they had been reminded who was really in charge.
“Exactly right, Jane,” he replied. “So, in other words…”
“I have to tell you that you can have me,” Jane deduced.
The protests burst forth once more and Tim received another pelt in the ribs for their trouble. Tim was then dragged back to his feet then and his head was held back, his eyelids forced open so that he had no choice but to look directly at his sister.
“I want you to see exactly what it is you have done to her,” The Crooked spat into his face.
“So, once Tim had told me this critical piece of information, the piece of information that finally finished the jigsaw puzzle, we hatched the plan.”
Jane could not peel her eyes from her brother. She was waiting for a sign from him. She was waiting for something that would tell her this was all one big lie. That this had been his great plan all along, to get The Crookeds on his side and then pull out the rug from beneath them. Or that maybe The Crooked was confused and it was a different person who had sold her soul to them.
“The plan went like this. I would allow him to escape from the prison and make it look like a rather fortunate and happy accident. After his miraculous escape he would then be able to make his way home to Sophia and you, of course, Jane. Once that was achieved, all he needed to do was convince you to follow him back to the prison to rescue the others and we would handle things once he got you here. As you have seen,” he said. “But it was Tim who came up with the next bit. He didn’t trust us. And he was right, why should he trust us? He wanted to be sure that we would stick to our end of the bargain, that he would be freed and Sophia would be returned to him. He wanted some insurance. And in order to do that he would need to be a Protector and officially issue us with a command that we could not weasel our way out of it. I agreed, I told him it was a marvelous idea. All he needed to do then was convince Peter to give up his title and to name him a Protector and we would do exactly as he asked of us. And what was it that you asked of us, Tim?” he prompted, shooting him a scathing look.
Tim only shook his head, like a small child with broken crockery in his hands.
“What was it you asked?” screamed The Crooked, square into Tim’s face.
“I asked to have Sophia back in my arms,” he whispered.
“Please note!” the leader turned towards the family with arms spread wide in victory. “Your son and brother and friend did not ask to set any of you free! He did not choose to do anything particularly useful with his wish! Instead he chooses blindly! Selfishly, he asks only for a girl!” The Crooked trotted gleefully back to his followers and they all roared appreciatively with laughter.
“I didn’t know what else I could do!” Tim protested. “I wasn’t thinking clearly. I didn’t mean for it to happen that way.”
“Yes you did,” the leader said, rounding on him and throwing two ferocious punches into his face which split open like a piece of fruit. Blood poured from his nose, splattering the ground and The Crooked that held him up. The Crooked wiped the blood from his cheek and licked his fingers clean. “You had ample time to think about what you should ask for. You chose only her.”
Jane felt like lead, this couldn’t be true. Not her brother. Not her own skin and bone. He could not have betrayed them all like this.
“Of course, I agreed to his simple command, just as long as Peter handed over his title to him. Tim went off to convince Peter. Please explain how you did it,” The Crooked said, handing the floor over to Tim.
Afraid of more beatings he took several steadying breaths, clutching his bleeding nose in his hand and started to explain.
“As I left to go and convince Peter I had already realised that I had chosen wrong, that I could have asked for more. But you had all been so sure that it was Jane who needed to end it all, it seemed foolish to try. I wanted to change my decision, to help you. But it was too late. And I’m sorry. I ask for forgiveness,” Tim began.
“How can we forgive you?” Peter cried. “Look what you have done.”
“Your family has spoken. There will be no forgiveness. Now tell them all just what you are apologising for,” The Crooked said.
Tim looked around at the shaking heads and the terrified faces, wanting nothing more than to have died already than to continue digging himself into a deeper and deeper hole.
“Carry on Tim,” Jane whispered. His sister did not look angry, she was not formidable. She just wanted the truth. And he owed her that much at least. So he began.
“Peter had wasted his command on The Crookeds as soon as we were captured. They knocked him out straight away and when he came round he was disorientated and said, 'Put me down.' Which was a command and they did so but then dragged him along the floor behind them all the way to the prison. So, he had wasted it. He was devastated about it. He said he'd let us all down. He said he didn’t want to be a Protector anymore. So I said to him, 'Peter, to make up for what you did you could make me a Protector and I'll be able to help us.’ Of course, after that he didn't need much persuasion. He’d been waiting for the right opportunity to pass the title on anyway,” Tim gasped.
“You tricked me!” Peter roared, the sound of which sliced through every synapse in each and every one of them. It was the sound a person makes when their greatest fears come together all at once.
“Having completed his little job, I pulled him from his cell the next day, took him out of sight and told him to scream like his skin was being ripped clean from his bones. This made his family think he had used the command in the heat of the moment to save his own back so that his escape a few days later would not arouse any suspicion of foul play. Of course, they were gracious and understood. He was forgiven and the family gave up any idea they might have had of freedom,” the Crooked pretended to tip his hat to the family, all sat there hating this creature and hating Tim in equal amounts.
“A few days later, Tim was allowed to make his miraculous escape from the prison. But it wasn’t a clean getaway. This young man,” he said, pointing at Isaac, “knew immediately that something was up. As Tim started to bolt he told him not to go anywhere near Jane, terrified that Tim might let slip to her the crucial secret of how to break his command and thus end his protection over her. Jane is a hero, you all know that. He knew that should she learn the secret, she would sacrifice herself all too willingly. She would do anything for you all. Including you,” he smiled mockingly at Tim.
“But of course avoiding Jane was never to be part of Tim’s plan and he ignored Isaac’s wishes and ran straight home. I threw in a little something extra in coming to see you, Jane. I wanted to remind you where you stood. I wanted you to know that we were still on your tail. I wanted you to agree when your brother asked you to come here with him. You were just starting to get comfortable with that old woman, you might not have agreed had I not visited. And, of course, I had been dying to meet you,” he said.
“The plan was running perfectly. You were all set to leave with your brother when the old woman stuck her nose in, an act that she has paid dearly for and all for nothing because here you are! Exactly where we wanted you! It is just you and us now, Jane. We await you now. It is only you that can decide how this ends.”
And that was that. Silence fell as The Crooked finished his story; the plan had been completed successfully. All that was left now was the dust settling in Jane’s mind. As all the details fell into place, the woman’s warnings now made sense, how Tim so easily agreed to wait for her to leave with him, that sense of unease that she felt around him. She looked to him now; did she expect some kind of apology from him? He did not regret his actions, not nearly enough. He stared brazenly back at her. It was all over now anyway, what did it matter if he repented?
There was just one more thing she needed to know, one thing she could not make sense of.
“Jane,” her mother said tentatively.
“Stop,” Jane replied, she could not allow them to distract her now. In order to do what she needed to do next, she needed to not think about them at all. Nora’s word hung in the air and then fell softly to the ground.
“There's something I don't understand,” Jane whispered.
“The floor is yours,” he gestured extravagantly.
“I've already told you that you can have me. I've given you my permission. Hundreds of times I have asked you to take me away,” Jane shook her head. “I gave you so many opportunities. Haven’t I already denied the command’s protection?”
“Yes, we heard you when you gave yourself up. You have quite a set of lungs. And of course we listened with delight to your most noble of intentions but unfortunately you haven’t quite got the wording of it right. You have to be very specific,” The Crooked said, practically bouncing on the balls of his feet. “Let’s see.”
He strode quickly over to the wall of cells and cried “Open it!” when he reached the one that held Isaac. A Crooked with an enormous ring of keys stumbled eagerly forward, immediately found the appropriate key and opened the cell. Isaac was ripped by the scruff of his neck from the cell and placed on his feet. He buckled underneath his own weight. Who knows how long it had been since he had been permitted to stand? The Crooked growled at Isaac’s incompetence, once again he was gripped by his neck and faster than a blink he was planted only feet from where Jane stood. Every muscle in his body was shaking with the effort of staying upright. But he could not show her that he was weak. The last thing he had left to give Jane was his strength. He was so altered now, he looked so small. But it didn’t matter because there he was. Close enough for her to touch, to kiss. But she did not dare move for fear of The Crookeds lashing out at him or of breaking him herself with an embrace so strong he would crumple beneath it.
“Hello,” she breathed.
'I'm so sorry,' he mouthed back in response.
“You saved me,” she said, with a small shake of her head.
“And look where it got you.”
“I’m alive aren’t I?” she tried to reassure him. He gave her a withering look, not believing for even a moment that she wasn’t about to sacrifice herself for the rest of them.
“Please don’t, Jane. None of us could bear it, I couldn’t bear it,” he said, his voice breaking.
“It’s going to be okay,” she said, stepping forward. The Crooked was watching them with curiosity but pulled the scene back into his hands the moment she moved.
“Isaac, what was it that you said to me that night? What exactly were your words?” The Crooked asked.
“She knows what I said. And you know what I said. What's the point in making me repeat it?” he growled.
“Humour me,” The Crooked replied in a wheedling, deceptively calm voice.
“I will not,” Isaac spat.
“I think today we will use the smallest one,” he called over his shoulder to someone. Somewhere further down the wall burst forth a scream so frightened and so pitiful that it felt like it had pierced something deep inside of them all. Lilia.
“No!” both Jane and Isaac cried at the same time.
“Then tell her what you said!” specks of spit flew through the air as The Crooked screamed with rage. Isaac was silent for a moment whilst he took in Jane once more, standing there with the same look of steely determination that she had worn when they had first met. He realised then that he had tried everything he could think of to keep her alive, but this was just the way it had to be. He could think of nothing more. Isaac was about to hand her the knife with which to stab herself. Something she had known she would have to do eventually, ever since the day her father had told her who she was. With the terrible truth and irony of that acknowledged, he continued.
“I said, 'None of you are ever to touch Jane,'” Isaac croaked.
“Exactly. Thank you,” and then he abruptly started to tug Isaac back to his cell. But neither of them could allow that to be the end. Isaac struggled with everything he had left in him and Jane tore forward. She threw her hands out and closed them around his. They did not feel like they belonged to a body anymore, they felt deadened.
“Please,” she begged. For just a second she managed to hold his hands to her cheek and in that moment she also came into the slyest of contacts with The Crooked, who was trying to restrain Isaac. The howl of pain that broke free from The Crooked was beyond anything any of them had ever recalled hearing before. He fell to the floor with a loud crack, like bone on stone, huddled up around his arm that had taken the touch. Isaac flew forward and the pair pressed themselves together with enough force to turn two bodies into one.
He was saying something but Jane could make no sense of it. She felt her lips form the words “Nearly over.”
And then he was ripped away once more and thrown back into his cell, the bars slamming shut between them. That will be the last moment that we ever share, Jane thought sadly. The hatefulness of it all nearly brought her to her knees.
The Crooked had hold of his faculties again. He was breathing heavily, clutching his limb as though it would fall free if he let go.
“Do not fool yourself into thinking that there is still hope for you. This pain is nothing to what you will feel. We end this now!” he yelled. “Now think. What must you say to overrule the command? What are the magic words? I can't tell you. You have to find them yourself,” The Crooked said, slowly making his way back towards her, showing her that he was still not afraid. She hadn’t noticed it in all the confusion but The Crookeds had all started to close in around her now. Not even the sight of the pain they could experience at her touch stopped them. She couldn’t possibly touch them all to death. They knew that it would not be long until they could strike. And when the time came they all wanted front row seats. They were only feet from her now. Tim had been dropped to the floor where he was lying, unmoving and of no help whatsoever. It appeared he really was only disappointed that Sophia wasn’t there.
“Do this Jane, and you will save your family. If you do this, we will let them go. All we really came for was you,” The Crooked whispered seductively. “Every death, every life lost, was lost in your name.”
She looked to her family who were all shaking their heads frantically at her, silent tears glowing in the firelight. She looked to Isaac who simply stared back at the face he knew would soon be gone from the world and there was nothing he could do about it. If not even Isaac had a plan, Jane knew that there wasn’t one to be found.
There was only one way to end it all for good. It was the only way her family could be free. In doing this she could save them all. The Crookeds did really only want her after all.
“They will all go free?” Jane asked.
“You have my word.”
“Your word means nothing.”
“And yet that is all I can give you.”
She tried to block out the fear that there was no guarantee that they would be freed after her sacrifice. She had to believe that they would survive. She clenched her fists, felt a rush of something inside of herself that could only have been the part of Jane that belonged to Evelyn coming to life and said, “You can touch me now.”
It all happened very fast after that.
The snarling was like thunder. The Crookeds roared in triumph. The leader, who was closest to her, slammed her to the floor, knocking all the wind from her as he did so. He pinned her beneath him using only his pincer like legs and with his free fists, he struck her face, once, twice and three times. She felt the hot rush of blood as her face ruptured, she heard as it splattered onto the floor. By then the others were upon her, she could see only their leering faces, pushing each other to get closer, snapping their teeth like beasts inches from her skin. Someone had closed their hand around her neck, cutting off any air supply. At least the whole thing was going to be over quickly, she thought. The beating continued. She was only vaguely aware of what happened below her torso, claws were ripping along the length of her legs, she suspected her ankle had been snapped.
The leader used his teeth now, pulling chunks of her flesh clean from her body, her own blood dripping from his mouth onto her face. He threw his head back in glee, howling at his triumph. And yet even through all the noise, even through the agony that was searing through her body like flames, she heard a voice. One that sounded like dove song amongst the symphony of her own torture.
“Jane, I name you Protector!” Isaac cried over all of the white noise. The golden idea had fluttered into his mind almost by accident. Of course, he had thought. I knew there was a reason I hung onto my title. It only took her a moment to understand what he intended by it. She herself had come up with the plan a few weeks before, ‘Why didn’t you tell The Crookeds to retreat?’ There was a loose end that was hers to tie up. It was what she had been born to do, to follow in Evelyn’s footsteps. To save the ones she loved. To save all The Hopefuls. To end the Age of Atrocity once and for all. Her father had been right, she was the only one with the power. And Isaac had just given her the weapon.
'Remember who you are,' her parent’s words drifted like a breeze into her mind. With every bit of Evelyn that she possessed, she forced the wicked fingers from her throat and cried, “I command you to surrender your war against The Hopefuls!”
The words escaped her just before her body lost all consciousness. And just like that, in ten words, Jane saved the entire race of Hopefuls. Just as fate had decided she would, many turns of the page ago.