Chapter 1. The Cursed Immortal

The story was a common one in her village. It was the tale of a man who was cursed to become a monster. It was a story of a man called Stingy Jack. He was an awful man, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. The legend says that once, Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him and met him a tavern. Being stingy, Jack didn't wish to pay for their drinks, so he convinced the devil to turn into a gold coin, saying he'd use it to buy their drinks. The Devil himself fell for his tricks and turned into the coin. Jack instead kept the Devil in his pocket next to a silver cross so he couldn't shift forms.

Jack promised to remove the cross only if the Devil swore not to bother him for a year. The Devil promised and, surprisingly, Jack did as he promised. And so the Devil was allowed to return to Hell and didn't bother Jack for a year. When the year was up, the Devil returned for Jack, but the joke was on him. Jack drove the Devil up a tree where he carved a cross into its bark so he couldn't come down. Jack once again made another deal with him: to remove the cross in exchange for two things. One: The Devil was not to bother him for ten more years and Two: The Devil couldn't allow his soul to enter Hell. Once again, the Devil agreed and Jack carved out the cross.

So after some time, of course, Jack did indeed die. Such a terrible soul wasn't allowed into Heaven, but the Devil couldn't take him either. So the Devil saw his ultimate revenge opportunity. He rejected Jack's soul, but created a new, horrendous body for him to take over; a body that couldn't die. It was a gnarled body, barely even human. It was a strange mix of plant and human. But the Devil told Jack that it was just another human body, a chance for him to live forever. Jack fell for the trick and inhabited this strange, new body. But it didn't take him long to realize he'd been tricked.

To add insult to injury, the Devil mockingly gave Jack an ember from the fires of Hell. It was an ember that wouldn't burn out, nor that would ever burn him. He was cursed to forever wander the Earth trapped in that monstrous form, feeding off the pain, misfortune, and fear of others. The only way he could die was if the ember was put out with holy water. Pondering his fate, Jack made his way out of hell and back to the village where he was ill received in that form. The villagers tried their hardest to destroy Jack, but none of their efforts succeeded. They had no choice but to accept his immortality.

A bargain was struck between this strange creature and the village leaders. Every year on All Hallows Eve, the creature would take a payment, a sort of sacrifice of his choice, in exchange that he wouldn't harm any of the villagers and that he'd never enter the village any other time of the year. Both parties agreed to the terms and it'd been that way ever since…

Ella had only been a child when she first saw him. Well, at least a time she could remember. Every year a different family would give the creature a payment. When she was eight years old, it was her family's turn.

After supper was done, Ella and her parents, Derrick and Rose, went into the small family room of their cottage for some quiet time. But the feeling in the air was chilled, like someone had died. Though Ella was too young to understand it, it made her tremble a little. She looked over at her father and never before had she seen him so weary, almost frightened.

Her father was a very tall, somewhat robust man with light orange-red hair and emerald eyes. He'd been a farming man all his life, and so the farm he and his family lived on was their own. He kept staring at the clock on the wall by the fireplace and then out the small window not too far from his chair.

Rose, his wife, was a short thin woman with fine features. She seemed like the opposite of her husband, with her blonde locks and blue eyes. She truly was beautiful, but the fear in her face now seemed to take its toll. She looked old, even as she put her pale hand on Derrick's, trying to give him courage. They looked down at their little girl looking weary still.

Ella was a wonderful child. She was well behaved, though normally quick to temper. She had her mother's curly blonde hair and her father's bright green eyes. She was pale and frail looking, but had her own strength about her. She often helped her father outside with the animals and her mother in the gardens when needed.

Ella watched this scene confused. What could it be that had them so worried? She looked at the clock like they were, but nothing appeared to be wrong. Trying to let it go, Ella went back to playing with her rag doll. The clock chimed midnight and her father stood.

"Papa, what's wrong?" Ella asked.
"Oh child, it's time for you to get some sleep. Come, to bed you go" Derrick picked up his daughter and carried her to her small room.
"Papa…what's wrong?" she repeated.
"It's only this dreadful night my dear, after tonight, all will be well. Right now though, it's time for you to rest. I'll explain when you're older, I promise" Derrick tucked her in and kissed her head, "Good night, my little Ella".
"Good night, papa".

Derrick closed the door behind him and went back to the family room to wait with his wife. Hopefully the creature wouldn't take anything of too high value. Normally his prices were just small trinkets, things a man needed when living, presumably, alone. Still, if he saw Ella, only the good lord would know what he'd do. Derrick stood by Rose, taking her hand in his, hoping for the best.

At long last, the creature arrived. It was difficult to look at him straight, as he was somewhat horrendous. The years weren't kind to him. Every year his already distorted shape would change into something more gnarled and disgusting. His hands, which could be seen, were made up mostly of small vines. Covering his arms was a long black coat. His blue pants were ragged and patched in some places, but the sewing job wasn't all that great. The coat was buttoned up for the most part. The skin of his face was a pale orange color and his hair green vines and leaves.

"Take as you want…just leave us be" Derrick told him.
"I shall" the monster replied, taking a quick look around.

The couple watched in fear as he made his way around their family room and a little ways into the kitchen. Nothing seemed to have caught his eye. Oh no…if nothing caught his attention, the centuries long deal would be broken, giving him free reign over the village and all who lived in it. The two looked dreadful, but tried to keep it hidden.

"Hm…it would appear your home has nothing that interests me" the monster said with a growl in his voice.
"Surely there must be something you want. We have fresh food, nice furniture, and plenty of other things" Derrick replied trying to be brave.
"What is it you're looking for?" Rose dared to ask.
"Woman, you should know…I never know what I'm looking for until I see it".

Meanwhile, Ella was still awake in her room. She heard another voice in there, speaking to her parents. She didn't know the third voice, but it caught her curiosity. Quietly, she got out of her little bed and sat in front of the door, listening in.

"Must you be so fickle?" Derrick asked.
"Fickle? My good man, it's just my nature. When something catches my eye, I go for it. Fickle…puh…I call it taking an opportunity. See, they thrive when taken, but die when neglected, and who am I to do something so cruel?"
"You are cruel, stealing away things that people love and for what?"
"For your protection. I could easily run through this village, killing every man, woman, and child in sight. Watch your tongue, mortal".

Worried about her father, Ella stepped out with her doll before things could get any worse.

"Please, please don't fight…please…" she stood between the two, her back to her father.
"Ella!" Derrick objected and grabbed her up, "You should be asleep. You were never to see this for another five years".
"How…fascinating…" the monster couldn't take his eyes off the little girl.
"You're not taking her!" Derrick and Rose yelled together.
"No…I'm not" the monster seemed to ignore them, "Not yet at least…release her. You have my word that I won't harm her".

Derrick gave the monster a disgusted look and held Ella closer, but the little girl shook her head.

"It's okay papa, he promised. Everything will be okay".
"Ella no, you don't know what he's like".
"Oh and you know?" the monster hissed, "Let me see her!"
"Please papa, I don't want anyone to get hurt".
"Ella…" Derrick sighed and put her down.

The little girl looked up at the cursed monster. Sure, he looked terrifying, but Ella knew better. Looking in his eyes, she put on a brave face and held out her doll for him.

"This is for you…I know you were wanting something, and I don't know if it's what you want. But her name is Sarah, she wants to be your friend, if you'll let her"
"Oh you brilliant little girl" he took the doll, "I will accept this as my payment for this year…But a word with you would be the greatest payment of all, my dear. Ah…yes, I think that will do it".
"What do you mean?" Ella asked, cocking her head just a little confused.

The monster dug a vine covered hand into his pocket and pulled out a bright orange ribbon made of silk. Ella gazed at it in wonder, even as the monster carefully tied it around her neck.

"There…aren't you just beautiful, little one. Now, you must go and rest. There's something I must talk with your parents about".
"You'll come back won't you?"
"My dear, don't you know, I always return. Now go, and I'll be back sooner than you think".

The little girl nodded and, to the surprise of everyone in the room, she actually embraced the creature. Derrick would have none of it. He pulled his daughter away from him and untied the bow. Behind him, the monster let out a menacing growl. Ella went to her room then and within the hour was asleep. Knowing this, he looked over at the girl's parents.

"I wish to make a new deal".
"Do you not take enough?" Derrick asked.
"My good man, if you made this new deal with me, I'd no longer need to take anything".
"What do you want?" Rose quickly decided to hear the creature out.
"My permanent payment, my price…is her".
"No deal! You're not taking her!" she was also quick to decline.
"Oh but if you did allow me to have her, I'd never have a reason to come back to this village. See, she was right. It's so lonesome in those woods. It would be nice to have just a little company and I think she would be perfect!".
"She's too young!" Derrick objected.
"Yes, but she'll grow and right when she's perfect for the taking, I'll return for her. Once she's mine, I'll no longer have a reason to come here. I'll have all I've ever wanted and your little girl would have the best life. I'd try to make her the happiest of mortals. Sure, her life won't be easy, not completely, but when is life ever?"
"And what if we refused?"
"If the child is taken or hidden from me, I will hunt her down, rest assured. And I will destroy everything in my path to get to her".
"And if she doesn't come to you willingly?"
"Oh she will. Every year until she's of age, I will return. We will play, converse, and a bond will form between us, tying us together like little vines, like a rose to its thorns. Ah, I think that's a fitting comparison. Little Ella is the rose and I am her thorns".

Rose and Derrick looked at each other worried. They couldn't allow the destruction of their village, but they couldn't just hand their daughter over to him either. It was an impossible decision.

"No deal…we'll take what we have with you thus far. We'll never surrender Ella to you".
The monster growled. "She is mine…I've claimed her! That ribbon is symbolic of it. Ella is mine, or at least she will be when the time comes!"
"Get out, you devil! Leave and never come back!"
He balled his fists, growling deeper. "Oh I'll be back! But for now, payment has been given. Next year, I expect to see my Ella!"

Before anything else could happen, the monster vanished into the darkness, leaving them alone in the darkened family room.