Jenny had walked far enough that the entrance was no longer visible, and now the dark cave was illuminated only by her torch, and even its bright light did nothing to make the place feel any more welcoming. The stone was dark and wet, and sharp, jagged bits of rock almost seemed to form a mouth about to swallow all who dared enter. All Jenny could hear was her own steps and slightly heavy breathing. The path was mostly straight, and kept leading further down, so that soon Jenny began to wonder just how deep below the earth she was already. The air was stuffy, and her knees were starting to hurt. Was she close to the end?
A sound behind her made her look around. It had been quiet, and there was nothing there. Maybe a pebble had simply picked this exact moment to part with the stone wall. She moved on. Again. Now she had distinctly heard something. A subtle splash, she thought. Maybe moisture trickling down the rocks. She didn't have to walk far after that, before she saw light. At first she wasn't sure she could trust her eyes, was this glow just from rocks reflecting the light of her torch? But soon it became clear that this bright, unmoving, eerily green glow had an entirely different source.
Jenny turned off her torch, and moved closer. The path led down into a large room, which seemed to have formed naturally alongside the rest of the cavern. Jenny could see a small subterranean lake, and, in the room's centre, a human-sized object hidden beneath a piece of cloth. It was from this object that the green glow emanated. Three wooden bowls were lined up against a wall, and Jenny looked through them. One was filled with seeds, one was filled with milk and one was filled with dead flies. She recoiled from the last one, almost stumbling over her own feet.
'Hello,' said a quiet voice.
Jenny spun around. On a bed of dried weeds lay an orange cat. It lifted its head to look at Jenny, and seemed just to have woken up.
'Are you lost?' the cat asked.
Jenny quickly bowed her head.
'Um, hello. No I came here looking for the demon who lives here,' she explained. 'Is that you?'
The cat seemed confused.
'I thought everyone who comes here is lost,' said the cat eventually.
'I guess you could say I'm lost. In a way,' Jenny said. 'Can you help me?'
'So you are lost? Well in that case you are in the right place. You'll need to wait for the others though. I'm new you see, and I don't really deal with the humans.'
'Oh, all right.'
The cat continued to stare at Jenny. There was a stone bench next to the hidden object.
'Do you mind if I sit down while I wait?' she asked.
The cat shrugged.
It continued to stare at Jenny, and made no attempt to go back asleep.
'Um so, do you live here?' asked Jenny.
'Usually. When I'm in this form at least,' said the cat, and Jenny gave it a puzzled look.
Before she could make further inquiries, however, she heard a flapping of wings.
A raven landed on top of the hidden object.
'Cat,' it said, sounding annoyed. 'We appear to have a guest. Why are you not taking care of her?'
Jenny jumped to her feet, and bowed again.
The cat shrugged.
'She is lost,' it said.
'Obviously,' the raven said.
'Excuse me,' Jenny said. 'Are you the demon?'
'No,' the raven said. 'He does not usually concern himself with humans or their problems. He has us for that.'
'Oh I see,' Jenny said.
The raven rolled its eyes.
'Well you are here. Are we not what you expected? Go on tell me what the problem is,' the raven sounded impatient.
'To be honest, I'm not entirely sure myself.'
There was a splash, and a large, warty toad leapt out of the water.
'Hey,' it said, when it had spotted Jenny, already bowing again. 'Who are you then?'
'My name is Jenny. I came here looking for help from the demon.'
'Oh I see. He doesn't usually-'
'I've already told her,' the raven interrupted.
'And she doesn't know,' the toad said.
'Indeed,' the raven said.
'S-sorry,' Jenny said.
'Well, you might have at least thought about it before coming here,' the raven said.
The toad leapt closer to Jenny.
'Ah, don't worry,' it said. 'I'm sure we can figure something out. That's what we are here for after all, isn't that right?'
The raven shrugged.
'Cat,' said the toad. 'Come here, this could be a teachable moment.'
The cat slowly got up and meandered over.
'I assume that all your life you felt as though something was missing. As though you should have no reason to feel unhappy, and yet you always somehow did. You felt as if something was off, wrong, unnatural,' said the toad, watching Jenny's reaction closely.
'Yes! That's exactly it!' Jenny said astounded.
The toad smiled, and the raven actually laughed out loud.
'Duh,' said the raven. 'Most people who come all the way down here feel like that. Don't go thinking you're all that unique.'
'Or all that alone.' said the toad. 'Now, Raven if you please.'
The raven flapped its wings, and took off, pulling the cloth away from the large object. It revealed an ancient-looking mirror in an iron frame. The raven landed next to Jenny on the bench.
'If you are ready, stand in front of the mirror, and gaze into your very soul,' the toad said dramatically.
Jenny along with the three animals looked into the mirror.
She saw herself. A young woman with pale skin and pure white hair, which she had tied into a ponytail. She was quite short and very thin, wearing a plain t-shirt and a pair of skinny jeans. A rucksack was slung over her shoulders with her water and her packed lunch. That was all she could see. Herself and the animals.
'She doesn't see it,' the raven said.
'That is hardly surprising,' the toad explained. 'Few people are as attuned to the mirror as you are, Raven.'
'I can't see anything,' the cat said.
'Hm, yes. This is a difficult one, but I think I'm starting to get something,' the toad said, deep in concentration. 'Ah, yes. Wow. Oh dear.'
'What? What is it?' asked Jenny.
'Really?' the toad glanced at the raven.
'Yup, you got it,' the raven confirmed.
The toad turned to Jenny.
'Well, it's difficult to put into words to be honest, but I think I know a way to help you.'
Jenny wasn't sure what to think of this. What had these creatures seen? Could she even trust them? She ran her fingers trough her hair, thinking hard, and stared into the mirror again. There was nothing extraordinary about her reflection.
'Difficult to put into words?' the raven said.
'Yes,' said the toad insistently, and the raven shrugged.
'Tsk,' it said. 'Fine. Do it your own way then.'
And the raven flew off towards the bowl of seeds, and started to eat.
'What is it?' asked Jenny.
'It's not an uncommon problem, and the demon can help you,' the toad said. 'But first, we will need a sacrifice.'
'A sacrifice? Like an animal sacrifice?' Jenny asked unthinkingly.
'No!' the raven said, still munching in his seeds.
'Oh right sorry,' Jenny said timidly.
'Oh I think I get it, now,' the cat said, staring at the mirror.
'No, what we need is silver shades of the moon,' said the toad.
'Ooh, I like those. They're pretty,' the cat said.
'They're plants, which are found in the surrounding forests.'
Jenny looked at the toad. Was it serious?
'Sounds simple enough,' she said.
'Indeed, and Cat can point them out to you. Cutting them will not be quite so easy however,' the toad said. 'You will need this.'
Suddenly the mirror's surface turned pitch-black.
'Look deep into the void,' the toad said.
Jenny looked, intrigued as well as a little scared. The mirror looked a little like a very deep well now, but jenny could see nothing at the bottom.
A silver glimmer.
The object seemed to travel closer, as its image in the mirror grew larger.
'It's a sickle!' Jenny said when she could finally make it out.
'Yes,' said the toad. 'It is the only way to harvest the sacrifice.'
'It's beautiful,' Jenny said, and meant it. The sickle's shaft looked like it was made of glowing, white crystal, and the blade was bright and silver, and incredibly smooth.
'You can take it, but the mirror demands insurance.'
'The sickle is a powerful magical artefact of great value. Only if you are truly determined, will you be able to wield it. Be prepared to make sacrifices, but know, that it will be worth it at the end.'
Jenny swallowed. She wouldn't turn back. She had ignored the villagers' warnings, she had braced the cold, and she had found this place. She wouldn't give up now.
'What do I do?' she asked.
'Enter the mirror, and take the sickle,' the toad said.
Jenny stepped into the darkness.
The floor was hard and smooth, and just as black as everything else. The sickle was only a few steps away.
'You are here to give something up. Hand it to me, and I will allow you to bring me my payment.'
A disembodied voice had spoken.
'I don't know what to give you,' Jenny said to the darkness.
'Take my trinket. You will leave behind what shall remain.'
'Do you mean take the sickle?'
Jenny walked up to the floating object, and grabbed it. It was warm to the touch, and its mere presence had a soothing, calming effect on Jenny. She could move it easily, and when the voice didn't protest she walked back to mirror's surface, that now floated in mid-air in the darkness.
She saw the toad and the cat, still watching her with great interest.
Jenny walked back hurriedly, and passed through, back into the cave.
Jenny lost her balance, and fell forward onto the cave floor, missing the toad and the cat, who had just about managed to jump out of the way. She looked down at herself and shrieked with horror. Both of her legs, and her entire left arm had disappeared. There were no wounds, no blood and no pain, aside from a bruise on her shoulder from the fall. Her jeans' legs lay on the floor limply, as did her left sleeve. Only her right arm, still grasping the sickle, remained.
'What the heck is going on!' she screamed.
'What have you done to me. Hey Toad, Toad where are you?'
The toad leapt right in front of Jenny's face.
'This is the insurance. Don't worry. When you return the sickle, you will be restored. Look.'
The toad nodded towards the mirror. It was still black, and Jenny's legs and her right arm hovered within in the darkness, slowly revolving around and unseen centre. It was a bizarre sight. Jenny felt her empty shoulder with the remaining arm. It was a strange, tingly sensation, and the area was oddly sensitive.
'This is freaking weird, you know that' Jenny said, shaking her head. 'But how am I going to get you those moonlight shades when I'm like this.'
'Cat will take you,' said the toad simply.
'What do you mean cat will-'
Within less than a second the cat's body expanded to the size of an average horse. It looked almost like a tiger now, but still had his spotted, orange fur, and a bushy tail.
'Did you think we were normal animals?' asked the toad in a bemused tone of voice.
Jenny looked around and saw an almost humanoid looking toad-man. He walked on two legs, and his massive muscular arms reached all the way to the floor. Incredibly he was even wartier now than he had been as a toad, and from what Jenny could tell from her position he was about as tall as a man now. He picked up Jenny's tiny body, and lay her stomach-first onto the cat's back. She held onto the mighty feline with her remaining arm.
'You better take this,' the toad-man said to the cat, and put the sickle into its mouth.
'Don't worry, we'll have you cured in no time at all, Cat's a pretty good runner, just hold on tightly.'
The cat purred, and took off, racing back through the cave.
This time the journey took hardly any time at all, and after only a few moments, Jenny couldn't see anything in the dark cave. This didn't seem to bother the cat though, and it wasn't too long until the pair had reached the surface.
It was night, and the moon shone brightly from a cloudless sky. With its enormous leaps the cat quickly reached the dark forest, and rushed through it effortlessly. Despite its size it moved gracefully, even at this speed, and avoided all obstacles. Its step was light. Jenny wouldn't have been surprise if the cat left no traces during their journey at all. With the moonlight shining through the treetops, there was something mystical about the night-time forest, and Jenny began to enjoy the ride. For the first time in a long while she didn't have that nagging feeling of wrongness, and could just enjoy the moment.
The cat stopped at a clearing, and lowered itself into the grass, so that Jenny could clamber down awkwardly. She used her single arm to carefully navigate the grass. She looked around the clearing.
'What do these moon shades look like?' asked Jenny.
'Silver shades of the moon,' the cat corrected her, after dropping the scythe. 'And don't worry you'll know when you see them.'
'Are you sure?' all Jenny could see was dark grass.
'To be honest we might be a bit early,' said the cat, looking up at the sky. 'I'm not usually the one out here, sorry.'
'Oh well, I guess you guys don't have a watch down their or anything.'
'That's right,' said the cat.
Jenny shifted her wait around, trying to keep her balance with only one limb. The cat seemed to notice.
'Oh sorry, lean against me if you want,' the cat offered, and Jenny thankfully snuggled up to the huge creature. It was warm, and she could feel its rhythmic breathing. Without the wind brushing past her Jenny soon felt quite warm herself.
'Thanks,' she said, and shook her head. 'You know, this is a lot more than I expected.'
'I can imagine,' said the cat. 'I actually thought you'd be a lot more freaked out.'
'Yeah, I'm sure some people come hear expecting some mad, old hermit, who calls himself 'The Demon of the Cave' to lure in tourists.'
The cat laughed.
'Probably,' it said.
'But I knew their was something there, just a feeling you know.'
'Hm, not really I guess, than again, I've seen a lot of strange things in my life,' the cat replied.
'I bet,' said Jenny. 'So am I going to meet this demon?'
'I believe so,' the cat said. 'He usually makes an appearance.'
The cat smiled knowingly.
Jenny ran her hand along her empty hips. How strange. Insurance, huh? She touched her shoulder, and the tingly feeling returned. By wiggling her hips, she moved forward a little. She put her hand on the ground and pulled herself across the grass. Good thing she wasn't far from her goal. Jenny grabbed the scythe as soon as it was in reach, and made her way back to her spot at the cat's shoulder. The animal watched her with interest. When Jenny leant safely against the cat again she began to inspect her instrument. It was warmer than the cat, and still impossibly smooth. She held it up, and in the moonlight it shone a little brighter than before. Illuminating a good deal of grass area.
'Y-you know, you seem to be coping well,' the cat said.
'Your limbs, I mean. You're adapting quite well.'
'Yeah, I guess I am. It's odd, but it actually feels quite exciting.'
'I mean, don't get me wrong I can definitely see how it could be a problem, but it's just a completely different way of experiencing the world, and doing things.'
'It is, isn't it,' the cat started to look around the clearing.
'Man, and my boyfriend called me crazy for even coming here, he'll freak when I tell him.'
'Yeah, people usually do,' the cat smiled again. 'But there is really only a select few people we can help. We won't just solve any problem humans bring to us.'
'Oh I see.'
'So, your boyfriend, been together long?'
'Oh yeah, almost four years now. He's great, he's not the reason I'm, you know...'
'Oh yeah I know,' the cat looked away awkwardly. 'I was just wondering, do you live with him?'
'Oh, um yes. For quite a while now. He's got a great apartment.'
'How nice,' said the cat. 'You know, I think it's almost time, um, let me just check.'
It began to move its large body, and Jenny quickly lifted her weight on her arm. The cat looked up at the sky, and Jenny could see a distinct silver glow emanating from its eyes. The creature roared.
Three thin beams of silver light seemed to shoot from the moon itself right into the clearing. They illuminated three beautiful flowers, that had certainly not been there before.
'Quickly,' the cat said. 'This you must do on your own.'
And Jenny, sickle in hand, began to move. The flowers weren't to far away, and yet it tool a considerable amount of time for Jenny to manoeuvre to the first one. She experimented around with her reduced body, trying to sit and use her hips and arm, as well as to crawl on her belly and even her back. In the end the sitting method proved to be the most effective. When she reached the first flower, her hips already hurt, and she could feel the muscles in her arm starting to protest. She couldn't hold onto to flower with another hand, so she decided to sever the stem in one quick movement. The sharp sickle seemed to have no trouble with the flimsy flower, and fell softly into the grass. It was breathtaking, and just as glowy and crystal-like as the sickle. A little, fragile-looking piece of art, or maybe nature, or indeed magic. Jenny picked it up, and carefully put it between her teeth. Surprisingly her movements improved quickly. She was now able to lift her entire lower body from the ground several times, and really felt as though she was getting the hang of it. The cat had told her move quickly, although it didn't seem all that tense now, lying about lazily, and watching Jenny's little run. She used less force for the second flower, it seemed hardly necessary what with the impressive blade. Her arm was getting really tired now, and Jenny had slowed right down, and was relying more on her hips to move forward. It was slow, but she felt quite secure in her balance now. When she reached the last flower, she used her elbow, to carefully lower herself onto her stomach. Her arm was trembling from exhaustion now, and she took a deep breath, trying to steady it, and dropped the two flowers from her mouth. She looked back at the small area she had just navigated, it had felt a lot bigger. The cat had lost nothing of its patience. When Jenny's arm had calmed down a bit, she lifted her lower arm, and swung the sickle. The last silver shade of the moon dropped silently onto the ground. With a sigh of relief Jenny grabbed all three flowers with her hand, and fell backwards into the grass.
'Phew,' she had done it.
Sweat covered her entire body, and she was breathing heavily. Almost silently, the cat appeared right next to her.
'I'm gonna need a minute,' Jenny said.
'Sure,' said the cat, and sat down.
Jenny pressed the flowers against her chest, and could feel her own heartbeat, already starting slow down a bit. She watched the moon in the sky, an enormous luminous orb that had never looked so bright to Jenny.
'You know this is kinda nice,' she said. 'Lying here like this.'
Something felt odd about that sentence.
'Like this?' the cat asked.
A realization dawned on Jenny.
'Y-yeah, I, um. Can you take me back now?'
That cat smiled brightly.
It was hard work getting back up on the creature, especially with the flowers still in Jenny's mouth.
'Weady?' asked the cat, the sickle once again in its mouth.
'Mhm,' came the reply, and the pair was off.
Jenny had a hard time holding on to her mount on the way back, but she managed it in anticipation of what was to come. An end to those doubts, those pointless worries.
The toad and the raven sat by the small lake, playing a board game. They both looked like ordinary animals again, but the game pieces seemed to move about the board of their own accord. Nine Men's Morris, Jenny thought upon inspection. She'd remembered playing it with her grandmother as a young child. The toad looked somewhat frustrated, and when the pair returned it immediately perked up, and turned its attention towards the cat and Jenny.
'Ah,' it said. 'How was your trip? Were you successful?'
'Oh sure, go on, find a distraction, why don't you,' the raven said accusingly, glaring at the toad.
'Ah yes,' said the toad. 'We were just having a little game.'
Jenny climbed down from the cat, and leant against the stone bench. The mirror was still black, showing only Jenny's discarded limbs stuck in their bizarre dance. The cat shook itself, and quickly shrunk back down, before hopping to Jenny's side.
'I didn't mean to interrupt,' Jenny said, indicating patience she did not feel in the slightest.
'Don't you worry about it,' the toad said generously. 'I see you have your offerings, well done.'
'Yes don't worry about our little competition, you've saved Toad here a lot of embarrassment,' the raven said, and the toad grumbled something incomprehensible in response.
'I hope your reduced state was not too much of a burden,' the toad said eventually,' grinning broadly.
'Uh no, not really,' said Jenny.
'Well place your offerings on the altar, girl,' the raven said impatiently, indicating the stone bench with its beak.
Jenny carefully placed the flowers on the bench, and then quickly stopped leaning against it, shuffling back a few paces.
A gust of wind went through the cave, and Jenny closed her eyes.
'I think it's time you met the demon,' the raven said, and spread its wings.
It cawed, the cat hissed, and toad let out an impressive croak.
Suddenly the three animals lifted slowly off the ground, and...
They shot towards each other, meeting just above the altar.
Jenny screamed and there was a loud popping sound, and before her sat a new creature, in place of the trio.
It greatly resembled the toad-man from earlier, but it was at least nine feet tall now and even more muscular. The creature had sharp claws, and fangs, and a bushy, orange tail. Most notably, however, were the enormous black wings that shrouded his form like a dark cape.
'You have almost reached the end of your journey, child,' said the demon, his voice was a hushed whisper but Jenny could hear every word echo inside her head.
'Enter the mirror, and welcome your reward,' the demon continued.
'What will happen to me?'
'Your deepest, most hidden desires will manifest themselves.'
The demon stood up to make way, and Jenny could see the crushed remnants of the flowers. They had played no part in all this. Of course, she thought, that hadn't been the point.
She took the sickle, and shuffled closer to the mirror. The darkness briefly flickered, and turned into her reflection. White strands of hair stuck against her face, and she saw that her arm was still trembling, patches of swear were under her armpits, and around her chest. Newly determined she moved forward. Inch by inch, until she could reach the mirror. She quickly stretched her arm trying to reach its surface with the sickle, and wasn't surprised when she fell forward. This time she hovered within the darkness. She loosened her grip and the sickle floated out of her hand, joining her limbs in mid-air.
'I can give, and I can take,' said the darkness. Only now Jenny noticed that it spoke with the demon's voice.
'D-do you know what I want?' asked Jenny.
'Of course, and now, so do you.'
'Y-yeah, all right. Do it!'
The world turned dark.
Jenny awoke on the altar, feeling well-rested. She lifted her head and looked down at her body. Her limbs were still gone, and so was her right arm now. There was an unusual peace of mind, that slowly made its way to the forefront of Jenny's consciousness as she lay helplessly in the mysterious cave. She wore different, clean clothes now, a simple white dress. It had short sleeves, that were limply draped over the altar. Unable to move much she looked around. The mirror was covered with the silky cloth again, and the demon sat by the lake, watching Jenny intently.
'I see you are awake,' the demon said.
She looked at him.
'Thank you. I know it's not much, but thank you.'
'It's been interesting, you are a very unusual case Jenny.'
'Guess I am.'
'Are you ready to go home?'
The demon picked Jenny up, surprisingly gently considering his size and appearance, spread its wings, and their surroundings became a blur. The cat had been quite fast, but the demon didn't seem to concern himself with earthly concepts like distance or time at all. In the blink of an eye, Jenny was looking at her apartment door.
'Impressive,' she said, smiling.
'I aim to please,' said the demon. He looked at the welcome mat, and a pillow appeared on top of it. The demon proceeded to carefully lower Jenny onto it.
'Don't worry, he is here,' he said, as he rang the doorbell.
'I wish you good luck and fortune on your path.'
And with that the demon was gone, and Jenny was alone and limbless.
Thomas opened the door, and gasped.
'Oh my god, what happened to you!'
He immediately picked her up into his arms, and carried her inside.
'You were gone for days, did you have an accident, did you meet that guru, oh my god, Jenny!'
'Yeah,' she said smiling.
'I know this might sound weird, but...'
'You look really happy.'
And it was then that Jenny knew all would be well, and so it was.