“A difficult choice my child, yet I believe you choose the right path. No life should be ended before its time has come. But enough time has already been wasted, you came here seeking aid and as of yet you are still empty handed.” My emotions were still stirring in me and my eyes were teary, but I felt somehow relieved by that calm soothing voice. I wasn’t exactly sure what he was talking about, but I guess that was really the point, cryptic people have got to be cryptic I assume. Well skeletal people anyway. The Gardener stood up from the bench and pulled the large tome holstered to him from its pouch, and began quickly browsing through it. After a second he stopped on a certain page and started nodding for a while, as if trying to confirm something or trying to remember the things written there. Then he put the tome back in its pouch, took his macabre shovel and began striding towards the garden. Without taking a glance back he spoke to me. still as whispery as before, but it was almost like he was talking to me telepathically so it could still be heard. “Come child, please. Your help is necessary for this to work, as you are the one whose destiny it will affect the most. I quickly chased after him and we quickly found ourselves in the centre of the garden. There stood a gigantic cauldron that was overflowing with boiling swamp-coloured liquid. “We need only a handful of ingredients now child. First the essence of Youth is required; as you decided to travel the longer path, I will require something of you, child.” “Wait! I need to give away my youth for this to work. Don’t you think that that is something you should have mentioned BEFORE I made the choice!?” I am usually not good with angry voices, but this time it was genuine and I think I did pretty good, but the Gardener didn’t even flinch when faced with my vitriol. “No, child. That would be the price if the first choice were to be chosen. With the second path, the suffering and toil you will have to endure in the future is the price that will give strength to this concoction. I only require a lock of your hair or something similar to seal the deal once and for all.” Oh… this answer was creepy and unsettling all the same, but it was not what I had expected. The words the Gardener said about keeping balance, and about the equal exchange now made a lot more sense. We wanted to cure someone and to grant him youth. So someone had to give those things away. It could be done the easy way, Squeakly would die and his life-force would be given into the cure. Or the hard way, and I would have to give my youth away indirectly – By hard work, by toil, by sweat. I will technically lose some of my youth, yet I shall live through every second of it. So I plucked some of my hair and gave it to the Gardener. He took the hair very gently and considerately and then threw it into the cauldron. The concoction began to calm down and started to change colour, until it was still like a lake and had the colour and consistency of molten gold. “Very good.” the Gardener said “Now we require an essence of Health” I was getting tired of this, and I made it quite obvious: “So, what horrible things will this do to me I wonder?” The Gardener didn’t answer, he simply started walking further into the Garden, after a few feet he stopped, and started digging in the dirt with his shovel. After a while he returned with a long orange thing in his hand…it was a carrot. “Health has many forms child, it can be found all around us. No sacrifice is needed from you for this one.” I didn’t buy that, no dark eldritch magic would be powered by bloody carrots, but be it as it may, he threw it into the cauldron anyway. “Now for the final ingredient: An essence of Death, because no life can be lived forever. Death is inevitable.” And with these words he simply pulled his hand from its socket and threw it into the cauldron. There was something odd about this, and the concoction probably thought so too, as it began boiling for a moment before it calmed down again. I didn’t understand much, but I was certain this wasn’t supposed to be the outcome, so I asked the Gardener: “That wasn’t supposed to be the offering, am I right? I was supposed to give away something, this whole thing was supposed to end in my death eventually, right?” The Gardener stood silent, his eyes still focused on the cauldron. He then looked me dead in the eyes with his mask and said: “We shouldn’t wonder about what should have been, child. Regardless I believe that we shall not meet again for quite a long time, at least I hope so.” And with these words, his body turned into dust, leaving only a black robe, scary mask, strange shovel, and a peculiar tome behind.