A good knight strives to escape a demon's clutches at the end of his life.
|There once was a knight who lived an honest life, but fell in love with a wicked woman who revealed herself to be a demon. She was Helena, queen of the underworld, who preyed on the hearts of men in order to lead them astray and claim their souls. No man whose heart was stolen by Helena could ascend to eternal paradise when they died, so until his dying day the good knight searched far and wide to find her and save himself from damnation. His efforts proved fruitless and, when he died, the heavenly court could not bring him to the place of eternal peace, despite his virtuous life. Instead, Helena appeared before him in her true demonic form, in order to take him to the Underworld where she reigned supreme. And yet, when she took his arm to lead him below, his virtuous soul burned her at the touch – unable to ascend but clearly not deserving of eternal damnation, the good knight was consigned to Limbo.
For an eternity (as time in Limbo passes strangely compared to time in the realm of men) the court and Helena argued over the good knight's soul, neither side willing to give up their stake and allow the other to win. As a result of this, the natural flow of life and death became disrupted in the mortal realm, and both sides realised that their duties must resume. Finally they reached a compromise: Helena would claim the knight for her own, but on condition that she set him three trials to complete. If he could successfully complete her challenges, she would release her claim to him and allow him to ascend in peace – if not, he would remain in her realm forever. This deal accepted, she took his hand and lead him to the Underworld. As shrewd as she was determined, Helena did not intend to play fairly. Though she was bound by the contract, this did not mean she would not go out of her way to ensure the knight's failure, and eternal damnation.
As the knight awaited her trials in the Underworld, she began plotting. The trials she set him would be nearly impossible, and she would use all her cunning and wiles to cause him to fail. Furthermore, if she could make the knight give up his virtue in order to complete them, she could render the heavenly court's hold on his soul void – without technically reneging on her half of the contract. With only three by which to damn him, she decided her best plan was to challenge every aspect of his character – the physical, the moral, and the mental. When she had settled on the first challenge, she called him into her chamber.
“Your first trial awaits, good knight,” she said. “There is a town in the path of a rampaging dragon. Slay the dragon and save the town, and you will pass this trial.” With a click of her fingers, the knight found himself no longer in the Underworld, but on a dusty path, surrounded by lush, green fields. Behind him lay his charge; more a smattering of dilapidated wooden buildings and fences than a town, it looked like it had definitely seen better days. Ahead, a cloud of dust gathered as his foe charged towards him, great jets of flame spurting into the sky as the dragon roared in anger. The beast was fearsome, and the good knight was afraid. He had been a valiant soldier in his life, but had never fought anything nearly as dangerous as this, not least of all to protect something that looked so unimportant.
A coughing and spluttering from behind him made him turn, to spy a wizened old crone leaning against the fence that ran parallel to the road.
“Take out your blade, good knight,” the crone rasped. “Prick your finger on its point and see the truth: your life has been restored.”
The knight pricked his finger on the blade's point and, true enough, a bead of blood welled up where it had pierced his skin. Ahead, the dragon still charged towards him, drawing closer with every breath.
“You could run,” the crone said from behind him. “You have been given a second life – run now and keep it. This body will not age, and if you escape now you will be able to live forever.”
The knight considered her words carefully. It was true that a large part of his life had been spent trying to find Helena to win back his soul, and as such he had not had time for many things. And still as he thought, the dragon thundered towards him; he was not sure he could overcome such a terrible beast, even if he stayed. If he was unable to defeat the dragon, he would fail the first trial and be damned for eternity. And yet, if he ran, the town would certainly be destroyed, along with all who lived in it.
No, the good knight decided. He had had a good life, and lived out his allotted time well. The people of the town had not had all their days, and if he could sacrifice his own chance at immortality so they could live out the rest of their lives in peace, he would do it. As the dragon finally came upon him, the good knight sprang toward it, hacking with his sword. The dragon snapped at him with its terrible jaws, and dealt the knight a mortal blow. As the dragon roared and its fiery breath burned the knight, he sank his sword into its heart, and brought the great beast low.
The old crone on the fence cursed, and turned back into the demon queen. With another click of her fingers, the good knight was back in the Underworld, looking up at Helena's throne.
“You have passed the first trial,” Helena announced sourly, and banished him to a small cell to await his next trial. The good knight, still feeling the shock of the dragon's powerful attack and terrible fire, lay down and slept the sleep of the damned. Helena was not deterred; she would have the good knight's soul for her own. Weaving a spell, she transformed herself into the shape she had taken when he fell in love with her as a mortal man, and crept into his room. Awakening to find the woman he loved staring down at him, the good knight's mind was ill at ease. He had truly loved her in life, but knowing what he now knew, he was sure she was just trying to cause him to lose the battle for his soul. Though she lavished him with attention, and drove him half-mad with whispers of love, the good knight resisted the demon queen's advances until she finally slunk off to plot his second trial.
In the great darkness of the Underworld, Helena schemed. He had passed a trial of courage and strength, and resisted the temptation of an immortal life. Truly, he was a virtuous knight, and she could not hope to defeat him that way. Instead, her second trial must get him to break his code of morals, thereby forcing him to damn himself even if he should succeed. When she had decided the second challenge, she once again called him into her chamber.
“Your second trial awaits, good knight,” she said. “Two neighbouring kingdoms have been at an uneasy peace for centuries. You must make them go to war.” With a click of her fingers, she sent the knight into the world again, in order to undertake the second trial.
The good knight was at a loss. If he started a war between the two kingdoms, he would be responsible for the loss of thousands of lives, and be damned eternally for the murder of the innocent. If he did not, he would forfeit the trial and be damned anyway. The good knight despaired, searching for an answer he did not have to this most difficult of problems. He decided to learn more about the disputes between the kingdoms, and set off to talk to the townsfolk of both kingdoms. In his travels, the knight learned from both peasants and nobles that the unease between the two kingdoms stemmed from an age-old grudge: the royal families of both kingdoms were descended from a single family spanning back thousands of years. The king and queen had had twin sons; the eldest a wise man but cold to his subjects, and the youngest beloved by the people. By right, the eldest was the heir to the throne, but many had called for his younger brother to succeed their father instead. Eventually the king had appointed the youngest of his sons as his heir, and the eldest had left, taking his supporters with him to form a new nation, feeling unfairly deposed. Even though both nations had since prospered and the story had grown into legend with the passing of time, the grudge remained. In particular, an ancient castle stood on the border between the two kingdoms, and both claimed it as their own.
For weeks on end the good knight walked the land, learning from both sides in order to solve the dilemma he faced. Certainly, it would be easy enough to spur the kingdoms into war; the act of pouring poison into a noble ear was no great feat. Yet the inevitable loss of life was unacceptable to the good knight, and would surely damn him as much as failure. Finally, the good knight had an idea. Ingratiating himself to the twin courts, he proposed a solution: an annual contest, a feat of arms and skill between the champions of both kingdoms, who would serve as representatives of their homelands in order to settle the dispute. Whilst the contest lasted, the nations would declare themselves at war, and the results would determine whom the castle belonged to for an entire year; upon a fortnight's passing, a great feast would be held, and all hostilities would cease. Though hesitant at first, both kings agreed to the proposal, each anxious to win and prove their claim legitimate, whilst avoiding unnecessary casualties. With all parties in agreement, the good knight left the two kingdoms behind, having both started a war and cemented a more solid peace between them, and returned to the Underworld.
“You have passed the second trial,” the demon queen Helena said, filled with rage, and banished the good knight back to his cell. A second time she changed her form into that of the woman he had loved and came to him, promising him her undying love; a second time, the good knight managed to resist her advances, despite the immense effort it took him. Helena had but one more trial with which to make the good knight hers, and one final trial alone. He had passed a test of morality, fulfilling his task without compromising his own virtue, and thus all that remained to challenge was his wit. When she had decided his third and final trial, she called him into her chamber for the last time.
“Your third trial awaits, good knight,” she said, producing a chessboard and a set of intricately carved figurines. “You have bested a trial of strength, and you have bested a trial of morality. Now you must best me in a trial of the mind.” With a click of her fingers, the pieces arranged themselves, and both the good knight and the demon queen sat down and began to play.
Time, like all else in the Underworld, is stopped dead; an immortal age passed between each carefully-considered move, first the knight and then the demon queen gaining the upper hand. For every piece of hers he took, she took one in return; for every piece of his she took, so did he. Stars flared into life as he advanced his pawns across the board, and sank into eternal night when she moved to counter them. Here, a rook fell; there, a bishop. Finally, he saw his chance; his queen, though at risk to an enemy knight, provided a necessary distraction. If he allowed her to take the queen and instead moved a knight of his own to place her king in check, supported by a bishop, she would be unable to escape. With knitted brow she surveyed the board, before hesitantly removing his queen with her knight. She had fallen into his trap, and as soon as she had finished placing the knight in its final position he moved his own, securing both the victory and his freedom.
A heavy sigh met the good knight's ears, as the demon queen Helena realised her mistake. She had been bested in a matter of the mind, and her allotted trials were up. By rights, he was free; this did not mean she could not make one final effort to win him over, take one final grasp at his immortal soul. Appearing this time not as her mortal form but as herself, she cast the board aside and look the good knight in the eyes. He studied her face, not the one he had loved, not the one she had worn when she had come to tempt him, but her true face. Red-skinned and dark-eyed, she wore an expression that was at once ageless and youthful, and as old as the day. In it he saw something else, too; an indescribable sadness, a loneliness that only the immortal and damned could know. The demon queen Helena, with a quiet voice, spoke:
“You have beaten all three of my trials, good knight. Your destiny is your own; I will not stop you. But I have enjoyed your company, and shall miss you terribly if you go. However-” and here, the demon queen grinned, “Yours is not the only soul I have trapped here in the Underworld.”
The good knight stayed silent, thinking. He could finally claim his just rewards and ascend to the place of eternal peace, and leave his hardship far behind; certainly, he had won it. But she was right; his was not the only soul she had stolen; to leave now would be to abandon them all to damnation.
“Set up the board again,” said the good knight. “For every game I win, you will release a soul you have damned, as you damned mine.”
“And if I win?” she asked. “What then?”
“Then I will stay,” said the good knight.
“I have stolen thousands of hearts, and damned thousands of souls,” the demon queen replied. “You cannot save them all.”
“I can try.”
With that, they began to play again.
Across the expanse of eternity, the good knight and the demon queen battled for every soul, one out of thousands at a time. Though many games were close, the good knight would always eventually triumph; at times, he suspected she was letting him win. She enjoyed the challenge, and the stakes; without them, he was another captive of the Underworld, but as he kept winning and releasing more souls, she could not help but enjoy his company, even though she knew it would eventually come to an end. At other times, she was determined to claim him as her prisoner, and punish him for defeating her; the good knight triumphed anyway. Eventually, the good knight won the right to release the final soul Helena had claimed and trapped in the Underworld, sending it glittering toward the place of eternal peace. And yet he did not move, did not rise from the table, did not push aside the board and ascend.
“You have won! Why have you not yet abandoned me?” the demon queen asked, bitterly. “You have released every soul I have taken! I have nothing left!”
“There is one more soul I must free,” the good knight replied. “One more stolen heart. Yours.”
“I don't understand,” said the demon queen. “I tricked you, and brought you to damnation!”
“It is not the false face you wear that I have fallen in love with,” said the good knight, “but this one, the one you hide underneath all else. One more game. One more, and I will free you, too. From your loneliness, and from your despair. You will never have to steal another heart, as I will give you mine willingly.”
The demon queen smiled, and set the pieces once again.
There once was a knight who was damned, but through virtue and love he redeemed the soul of a woman once thought lost forever. She was Helena, the queen of the Underworld no longer; the man who had won the heart of Helena would take her before the heavenly court, and together they would ascend to the place of eternal peace.