Lost Time

“Lost Time” is a story I wrote for the lovely Patrons who have done so much to support me. If you’d like to access this story and support my work, check out: https://www.patreon.com/rerule


The creature turned its face toward me; a face like a person’s, but yet, not. He wasn’t young or old, just static and stretched, like a moment frozen in time. His nose was long, his ears drooping. His skin was smooth and his eyes bright.

I’d caught him. His hand still held my time, but he looked bemused, like a defiant child. He made no effort to run.

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~R. E. Rule

The Tempest


Lightning shattered the sky, and thunder crashed in answer. His feet slid on the drenched boards as he stumbled across the deck of his small boat, grasping at wet ropes. The angry water seethed, trying to shake him into its grasp as the little boat dove and tilted over the dark waves. He fumbled with the release for the anchor, blinded by stinging rain. The rope whirred and snapped taut, a single cord straining against the rage of the storm. He scrambled for a handhold as the boat pitched dangerously.

                After thirty years, he should’ve known the sea was too placid that morning when he loosed the moorings and sailed into the bay. The water winked and sparkled under the sun, luring him unaware into its arms. Then the sky turned dark and unleashed her cold fury.

                He pulled himself against the wall of the cabin and slid to a seat. Saltwater stung his eyes and soaked through his thick sweater. He hid his face against the rough wood, knees to his chest, curling up until he was a child again, hiding while the tempest of his father’s wrath raged through the house.

Continue reading “The Tempest”

Prophecy

When blood sun sets,
And full moon rises,
Look east to the weeping maiden.

When nightingale sings,
And nighthawk cries,
Look west as the lost sun rises.

Two figures disturbed the evening stillness of the valley. They moved through the brittle grass and bare trees, grabbing for handholds to climb the slope, and a sweet voice drifted on the wind.

          “Stop the infernal humming,” the boy said, yanking his shirt away from a thorn bush.

          Ahead of him, the girl reached the top of the slope. Beyond lay rolling hills, muted gray in the dimming light.

          “Look,” she said, pointing. “The weeping maiden.”

          A thin tree stood alone, a veil of curling leaves brushing the grass. In the dying light, it seemed a weeping woman, head bent, and the wind stirring her hair. The first sliver of a white moon lifted above the horizon, and behind them, the red disk of the sun cast a glow over the forest.

          A bird burst out of the underbrush, calling, before circling and flying toward the distant mountains.

          “Now what?” the boy asked, panting.

          “Now we wait.”

          They sat with their backs to the valley, watching the colors dance on the clouds.

          “How will we see the star if the sun is in the way?” the boy asked, and the girl grinned.

          “Gran says it’s not at a star. Gran says it’s an evil spirit.”

          The moon glistened, spinning silver mists over the grass, and the girl turned to watch it, the light glowing on her upturned face.

          “What kind of evil spirit?” the boy asked.

          “The bad kind, I suppose.” She leaned her head back against his neck. “Why? Are you frightened?”

          He snorted. “It’s only an ancient song. All that’s going to happen is we’ll get wet from this dew.”

          The golden edge of the sun touched the horizon like a brand, scattering red sparks over the forest.

            “Nita,” the boy whispered, but the girl sat, eyes wide and unblinking, staring at the cold moon. Her lips moved with silent song.

          The boy struggled to his knees. The red light ran over his skin and clothing, dripping into the grass. He tried uselessly to wipe it away. The sun flared, spears of light piercing him; he screamed a long, wavering cry.

          The girl leapt to her feet, her face pale with silver light. “Astor?”

          But she didn’t turn. Her arms hung at her sides though she struggled. “Let me go, Astor. You’re hurting me! Let me go!”

            Behind her, empty grass whispered. The sun sank below the horizon, leaving a red glow like embers on the dark clouds. The girl stood frozen, bound by the moon’s silver chains. She hid her face and wept.

          Somewhere in the growing twilight, a nightingale sang.


Cover Image by prettysleepy1 from Pixabay. Find more art on Instagram.

At a Local Inn

Coals whizzed out of the fireplace in orange arcs, pattering with sharp hisses around the room.

                “That’s cheating!” Vanka wailed and dove behind an overturned table.

                “That’s magic, my dear.” I fell back against the wall for a breath. “What would you do with thirty golden varnums anyway? Gamble it away?”

                Vanka let out a guttural shriek. A dagger buried itself in the wooden beam inches from my head. It was my turn to dive for cover.

                The golem was crouched at the edge of the room, draped in chains, watching us with baleful eyes.

                The inn had been a lively, cheerful place when we’d arrive as the sun set, first Vanka and the prisoner, me close behind. When she’d seen me, cursing turned to threats and threats to shoving, mostly on Vanka’s part. That was when the general populace decided to clear out. Now it seemed the bar was partially in flames, though I didn’t take time to look.

                A bit of Vanka’s cloak stuck out from behind the overturned table. The coals flared under my command, igniting the fabric. I grinned as she leapt around the room, cursing and batting at herself.

                “You dance beautifully,” I called.

                She snatched a chair and sent it arcing toward me. I ducked, and it splintered against the wall. The room suddenly went quiet.

                “Rolf,” Vanka said.

                “Yeeeees?” I stayed huddled on the floor. I wasn’t about to fall for that.

                “Where is he?”

                “Where is who?”

                “You know who,” she snarled.

                “Ooh, this is a fun game. Do you mean the King of Avary? I believe he’s in his castle.”

                “He’s gone, Rolf.”

                I popped my head over the pile of crates I’d been hiding behind. The golem had vanished. A few drops of molten metal were cooling on the floor, and a black hole had burned into the wooden planks from a red-hot lump of coal.

                “Rather clever for a golem, isn’t he?” I remarked and jumped as Vanka let out a deafening shriek.

                “You mud-humping, slug slime!” She charged at me, but I cowered, holding up my hand placatingly.

                “Now, hold on, Vanka, my dear. Staying here and beating each other into a bloody pulp isn’t going to do either of us any good.”

                Her nostrils flared, eyes blazing like an angry bull.

                “We could work together,” I coaxed. “Split the reward.”

                “Split it?” She spat on the floor. “After I caught him and you let him escape? You’re lucky I don’t skin you alive and wear you for boots!”

                “Fair. I’ll admit you’ve earned perhaps a bit more for getting us this far. How about, and it hurts me to say this, I take a mere a third of the reward, plus”—I rubbed my chin thoughtfully—“a pittance, only half of another third? All the rest will belong to you.”

                Vanka frowned, considering this, before she snorted. “As it should be.”

                I grinned like a cat. “Shall we be off then?”

                “Fine.” She yanked her dagger from the wall and shoved it into her belt. “But stay where I can see you.”

                “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

                The inn collapsed in a shower of red sparks, but we sped on, following the trail of molten metal and heavy stone tracks, into the night, after our prey.

Waiting

It was dark in the shadow of the attic. Rain pelted the window. I swung my legs, idly drumming my heels against the side of my trunk, waiting.

                Grandfather had told me to wait here. To wait until he came back and then he would take me to where I belonged. The rusty key ground in the lock, and his heavy steps lumbered down the stairs.

                Then yelling had come, muffled, from outside. I stood on the trunk to peer out the dusty round window, squinting against the glare of the sun. Father was there, with his faded Oldsmobile and faded suit and faded fedora. Yelling always came with him. Yelling and being told to listen to him, not to Grandfather, and Grandfather telling me the same. Grandfather pointed down the road, but Father pushed past him, rushing into the house. When Father came back out, he yelled some more, grabbing Grandfather by the shirt and shaking him, before he ran to his car, and the Oldsmobile roared away, kicking up dust and stones. Grandfather lumbered down the driveway, through the gate, and out of sight.

                Now I stood on the trunk again and looked out, wiping at the fog on the glass with my palm. Rain poured down, buffeted by the wind. All I could see was the porch light flickering dimly through the blowing branches of the tree covering the window.

                Grandfather was back and digging by the porch, the back of his shirt dark with sweat from the sun. The yelling stopped when it was just Grandfather. All noise stopped. His dear sweet Emma was gone, and there was only silence and the ticking of the clock on the mantel. I had heard her name peeking around corners at strangers coming and going, from men with mustaches and handbags handing over bottles and pills, when Grandfather mumbled it through the scotch on his breath. Father had tried to take me away from the silence, but he only had a faded Oldsmobile and a faded suit and a faded fedora.

                Grandfather stabbed his shovel into the dirt next to the hole he’d dug. He’d brought back a little tree, and it sat next to the shovel and the hole. He lumbered to the porch, through the door, and the walls of the house trembled when it shut.

                I jumped off the trunk and walked across the attic, the floor creaking under my feet. The lock on the door was heavy, dark metal, the frame solid wood. There were steps on the stairs. Quick steps. They stopped outside the door.

                “Must be rats again,” said a voice on the other side.

                “But the exterminator said there was nothing up there,” another voice answered, worried, more distant. “Just some moth-eaten old trunk.”

                The floor groaned, footsteps and voices retreating. Music switched on somewhere below with a strange snap, not the scratch of a phonograph needle.

                I went back to the trunk, to drumming my heels. In the dim light of the rain-flecked window, I waited.

Rsska

The scent of blood drew her. She had been sitting on a tussock surrounded by the buzz and chirp of evening swamp-song, watching the mottled reds and oranges of sunset, when a hint of iron floated by on the cooling breeze. Curious, she slid into the water and followed.

                A small island of land was hidden away among the reeds, and to it clung a tree, half-dead and sun-bleached. The massive roots burrowed like splayed fingers into the mud, and a dark ring stained the brittle wood where the stale water touched it. Through the screen of reeds, she saw him huddled against the trunk. A man. She thought he might already be dead, but he curled up tighter, ribs heaving. Mud and algae had soiled his clothing, and his arms cradled his chest and soft vitals. He must be bleeding there.

                There were snakes in the swamp, longer than five men were tall. When they slithered across the waters, it looked like wind playing in the reeds. But if a snake had caught him, he would be dead, wrapped in scaly coils and dragged into the water to drown, disappearing into the chasm of an unhinged, scarlet mouth.

                She cut through the dark water to the shore, silently and leaving no ripples in her wake. The water tasted of his blood.

                The greatest danger of the swamp was a mere buzz in the air. Tiny flies crawling into eyes and ears, or gnats with venomous bites, and the bloated bodies of their victims floated through the reeds until the fish and birds picked them away to nothing, and the bones sank into the muck. The man’s skin was dark, but it wasn’t veined black or red. It wasn’t the swamp that had harmed him.

                When the man looked up, he scrambled back. A useless gesture of fear. The tree was at his back, and she now blocked his path into the water. His arms shifted, and she caught a glimpse of crimson on his shirt.

                “Let me see,” she said.

                His drawn face smoothed in shock. He hadn’t expected her to speak.

                “Your wound,” she said, nodding to it. “Let me see.”

                He cautiously drew his arms away to reveal torn fabric and a red slash of open flesh. It was the mark of a weapon, a wound by men. Their bodies came into the swamps sometimes, already dead and cut apart by their own kind. They floated, eyes wide to the sky, until the mud and water mercifully embraced them. The people of the swamp kept away.

                “You fled here,” she said, and he nodded. “From whom?”

                “Thieves.” His head sagged back against the whitened bark.

                It was curiosity that drew her out of the murky waters onto his small island. Curiosity and the assurance he couldn’t harm her. He was in her territory, weak and wounded, and he shrank away from her. Even great bears were powerless and terrified in the deep waters and maze of reeds. The strongest predators on dry land were helpless here. The swamp ate them and swallowed their bones.

                “What did they want?” she asked.

                “Anything. Everything,” he said with a hollow laugh. “I was traveling. They took my supplies, but it wasn’t enough. They were angry I didn’t have more and tried to kill me. So, I ran.”

                She watched him with unblinking eyes. “If it’s valuables you’re worried about, you’re safe here. The swamp wants only your life.”

                He pulled his knees to his chest and hugged himself again. His gaze kept flickering to her, trying to watch her, trying not to stare, and he finally asked the question she had felt him holding back. “What are you? I mean, who. Who are you?”

                “Rsska,” she said, and he winced slightly at her hiss. “That is the who. As for the what, we are the people of the swamp, just as you are the people of the land.”

                He examined her openly now, her stringy hair and webbed hands, her thick skin and bare body.

                “I didn’t know there were people in the swamps,” he said at last.

                The darkness of night had fallen. Frogs creaked and groaned in the reeds. Rsska pointed to scattered flames dotted the swamp, flickering behind the tall reeds. “Those are our fires,” she said. “Have people on land not seen them?”

                His face twisted into a crooked smile. “We have, but we call them marsh lights. And legend says they are fires set by false spirits to lure us to our deaths.”

                She laughed, a short barking laugh. “Land people are smarter than they look.”

                His mouth stayed curled into a smile. “Have you seen land people before?”

                “Yes. Sometimes.” She looked away. Never alive, but she stayed silent.

                “It might amuse you then to know that we also have names. And mine is Erkin.”

                “Your kind are killers,” she said calmly.

                His dark eyes met her yellow ones in silence.

                “Yes,” he said finally. “Some of us are. And some of us are killed.”

                Rsska examined him before she reached into the water and scooped up a dripping mass of black mud with one webbed hand. She had thought she might let him die, there on the small island. There had been a strange thrill in the way he cowered in the shadow she cast in the last red rays of the setting sun.

                “It will seal the wound,” she said as he tried to pull away from her.

                He let her fill the gash with the black muck, groaning through gritted teeth. It took three more handfuls before she was satisfied. The mud would dry, solid and hard as rock.

                “Thank you,” Erkin said softly when she had retreated to the water’s edge.

                “Will you go back?”

                “I have to. I’m not…” He looked out at the murmuring swamp, dim in the moonlight, and wrapped his arms around himself. “I’m not like you. I can’t live here.”

                Rsska nodded. His skin was soft and thin, his eyes clear. He was made for open air and long distances, not murky waters. “In the morning, I will take you to the shores where it is safe.”

                His dark eyes were almost black in the starlight. “Why are you helping me?”

                To the south, the swamp joined the forest. The trees stood in silent rows over a floor of plant-coated water. Eventually it turned to mud, the reeds to open fields, and the water to clear rivers. Rsska longed to explore the lands beyond the boundary of the swamp, but her skin dried and cracked without water. She was naked without reeds to hide her, and terror and hunger drove her back to the mud. Erkin covered his nakedness with clothing, but the swamps would rot any coverings she wore. The waters were her garments.

                “Will you tell me of your life?” she asked. “Of the places on dry land?”

                They lay under the flickering stars, he tucked between the tree roots, she submerged in the water with only her face showing. He told her of grassy plains stretching beyond the horizon, of forests towering into the clouds, of rushing rivers and great oceans with waters that tasted of salt. He told her of the vessels of hewn trees that sailed the open waters, and she thought with coldness of when they might do the same with her waters. He told her of wars and devastation and the divisions of men. His voice lulled her into bizarre, half-waking dreams until he fell silent, and she realized he was asleep. Around them, frogs chirped, and the wind whispered through the reeds.

                Rsska woke once when the moon had arced through the sky to the horizon. Silver light glinted on the rippling water. A blunt head had appeared at the edge of the reeds, quiet and still. Its tongue flickered out, tasting the water. Her fingers dug a sharp rock out of the mud and clutched it, knowing the snake would taste her willingness to fight. Her skin was harder to pierce.

                She could maneuver faster, drag it to the depths, bloodying it with her crude weapon. After a moment, the snake turned and slithered into the night. She let the rock slip from her fingers. Erkin was snoring, an arm across his wounded waist, and she fell into an uneasy sleep.

                The sun had crept into the sky when she woke to Erkin splashing, washing the dried and cracking mud from his waist. The wound had closed into a jagged red line. Rsska dove into the waters to pull up roots and showed him how to strip the tender core from the sinewy reeds with his teeth. From his expression, he found them tough and distasteful, but he didn’t complain.

                “I came from that way,” he told her, pointing toward a patch of bent and broken reeds. His path had been forceful and clumsy. It was a wonder she had been the first to find him.

                “Then we will go that way,” Rsska said, looking in the opposite direction. “But they will smell you in the waters. We must move quickly.”

                He swam awkwardly, laboriously, his limbs tangling in the plants. Rsska slowed her pace to his. It was impossible to see through his clumsy splashing and jerking. She took mouthfuls of water, running it over her tongue to taste for snakes and other creatures that might harm him, but his scent was overpowering, his presence and noise oppressive. Their journey followed a meandering path between the small oases, submerged trees or clumps of land, where he could rest.

                It was with relief that she emerged from the reeds. Open water, the beginnings of a river, stretched between them and the bank. The forest lay beyond, green and vibrant in the sunlight. Rsska had brought him where the water ran deep to the shore and he wouldn’t have to struggle through mud. They were halfway across the open water when Erkin lunged at her.

                She barely had time for a gasping breath before he shoved her head beneath the water and pushed her down toward the black sediment. She writhed against his hard grip, panicked. He was trying to drag her farther down. She twisted away, but his hand closed around her wrist, yanking her to him. He was shaking his head, his eyes open and blind in the dark water. His clenched mouth opened, and bubbles flooded out. Through their rush, she heard the word that made her blood run cold.

                “Men.”

                The surface of the water glimmered faintly above her. Her eyes were not made for open spaces, and if men had been on the bank, she would not have been able to see them. Erkin was struggling to stay below, his head bent and arms working against the water that tried to shove him upward. His stomach spasmed, and in horror, Rsska realized he was running out of air. In his struggle to keep out of sight, he had spent too much.

                The people of dry land killed each other without hesitation; she didn’t doubt they would do worse to her. She hesitated a moment between the safety of the tangled reeds and the open water. If they surfaced, they would be seen. She could evade them, disappear into the swamp, but Erkin was slow and clumsy and wounded.

                She grabbed his shirt and pulled him toward the reeds. His body jerked with a strange guttural sound in his throat. Any moment, his urge to take a breath would overtake his will to hold it. She glanced toward the dark wall of safety before she turned back to him, gripping him by the back of the neck and pressing her mouth to his. He gasped against her, his chest swelling with air. She felt the draw from her supply, but it would be enough. His hand touched her cheek. She pulled away, leading him through the darkness back to safety.

                He burst out of the water, gasping and puffing like a bear. Rsska parted the reeds and peered toward the shore, blinking and squinting. There were vague blurs on the swathe of green. They might be trees, or they might be men.

                Erkin was grinning beside her. “Do people of the swamp kiss?”

                She hissed disgustedly. Her heart was pounding in fear, her ears ringing. “You will need to lead,” she said. “I cannot see.”

                They stayed behind the veil of the reeds, following the curve of the shore until Erkin said the banks were clear, and they again crossed the open waters. The sun had passed its peak in the sky, and Erkin dragged himself, exhausted, onto the grassy bank. Water ran red from his wound.

                “You need more mud,” Rsska said, reaching for him, but he caught her hand.

                “I know the forest. There are herbs here that will do just as well.”

                Reluctantly, she pulled back and sank into the water. He sat on the bank and looked down at her. “You could come with me. See the places I told you of.”

                She reached out and touched his arm. His skin was streaked black and green, his palms wrinkled. “The water eats away at you. The air does the same to me.”

                She watched him expectantly. The world beyond her shores was his, its ways, abilities, and mysteries his domain. He stood and shook her waters from himself, standing comfortably on the shore and looking out over the vast swamp. “I’ll come see you then. But how will I find you?”

                “You only have to get into the water. I’ll hear your crashing a league away.”

                He laughed and bent down to take her hand, hard and scaly in his soft dark one. “Until we meet again then, Rsska.”

                With a final look at her, he limped across the bank into the trees, leaving her alone in the water at the edge of her world. She watched him go with one hand, fingers aching, clutching the tender, green grass.

Foreign Correspondence

Her oxfords had been laced, her lips rouged, and after a final peep in the mirror, she flung open the door.

“I’m terribly sorry,” said the man in the hallway, hand poised to knock and a bewildered look on his face.

“For what?”

“I…” He smoothed his hair and tugged his tie straight. “I’m terribly sorry to disturb you, but it seems our mail was misdelivered. Poor record keeping. I’ve yet to stay at a hotel without appalling records.”

There was a pause, each watching the other expectantly, until the man in the hallway cleared his throat and continued.

“I was awaiting some letters, but I received this instead.” He tugged a rumpled envelope from his suit pocket. “Is it yours?”


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~ R. E. Rule

Purpose

                The meaning of life woke one day and remembered her name.

                She stretched and yawned and realized they had probably been looking for her. Like a heralding angel, she prepared to announce her name.

                She began in the hub of civilization: a place called Value-Mart with red sale tags and whole roast chickens and broccoli for 79 cents. The world congregated here, filtering in and out of the glass doors.

                An elderly woman was examining the shelves, a basket at her side. The meaning of life approached her and extended a hand. “Greetings. My name is—”

                “Do you have this in a smaller size?” the elderly woman asked, poking a 25 lb. bag of rolled oats.

                “I…” The meaning of life looked between her and the oats. “I couldn’t say. That is not my purpose.”

                “Oh, I’m sorry,” the elderly woman said, finally looking at her. “I thought you worked here.”

                “I don’t, but I would like to help you.”

                “That’s alright, dear. Thanks all the same.” She picked up her basket. “I’m not in a hurry.”

                No one else showed any more interest than the old woman had. They hurried by, laughing, arguing, pushing carts, quieting babies, in a hurry, taking their time, moving from an unknown origin to an unknown destination.

                She fled the whirling chaos of the Value-Mart to the world outside.

                Two teenagers were walking down the sidewalk, laughing and bumping shoulders. She planted herself in their path. “You must learn my name if you wish to find satisfaction.” 

                They stopped to stare at her, eyes wide but mouths shut.

                “Do you not crave a purpose?” she asked, throwing her hands up.

                They exchanged an uneasy glance before one nudged the other, and they cut across the grass to the parking lot of the Value-Mart.

                She found shelter on a bench by the street. The world grew dark and rainy. Streetlights and headlights glimmered around her. A bus lumbered to the curb and stopped with a grumble and a hiss. The door rattled open.

                They had forgotten her; they had forgotten to search for her. When they looked in her face, they saw a stranger.

                “Do you need help?”

                A man stood framed against the yellow light of the bus’s interior.

                “I should be helping you,” she said.

                He looked up the street, then down. It was empty. “Come on,” he said, moving aside to make room on the stairs. “Get out of the rain.”

                She sat in the row of seats behind the driver, watching the world flicker by through the rain-streaked window. “Do you feel fulfilled?” she asked.

                He laughed in response. The bus squealed and complained as it slowed for a red light.

                “I no longer have a purpose, it seems,” she said.

                “Do you need one?”

                She considered this. Without a purpose, she was useless, or perhaps things were only useless if they had a purpose they weren’t fulfilling. But she couldn’t be useless if she didn’t have a purpose to not fulfill, could she? Her head was starting to hurt.

                “I paint on the weekends,” the driver said. “Nothing great, but I enjoy it. Maybe you need something like that.” He glanced up into the large mirror mounted on the ceiling. “What’s your name?”

                She was silent for a moment. “What do you think it is?”

                He peered at her reflection. “Well, you look like a Sarah to me.”

                Sarah. She smiled to herself. That was close enough.

Grufta

Sunlight filtered through the dusty display window, glinting off seamless polished metal. A silver oblong nestled in sun-faded velvet. The brilliance of the original crimson could still be seen on the back of the curtains framing the glass and in the grooves of the wrinkled fabric. There were indents where other shapes had sat, but all that remained was the elongated metal egg.

                “What is it?” A young face was pressed against the glass, fog gathering around her partially open mouth.

                There was no one to answer. She stood in a dingy street surrounded by faded, peeling paint and warped wood. Her clothing was just as shabby: patched knits with gaping holes clumsily knotted shut and boots too big for her feet. A few figures passed by, but none spared her a glance.

                She left the glass and pulled open the shop door. A bell above her gave a half-hearted jingle. Inside, the shelves were bare and dusty. The place seemed empty, and after a glance around, she moved to the window. She had to stand on tiptoe to see into the slanted, velvet-lined case. An inquisitive hand strayed over the edge, fingers straining toward the silver.

                “Don’t touch the merchandise.”

                She yanked her hand back and whirled. An elderly man wearing a stained leather apron stood in the shadow of the nearest row of shelves.

                “What is it?” she asked, tucking her curious hands behind her back.

                “Grufta.”

                “What?”

                “It’s a grufta,” he said, nodding toward the window.

                “Oh.” She rocked in her worn boots. A voice rang out in the street outside, then faded. “What’s a grufta?”

                The man rubbed his chin with a grimy hand. “Never heard of a grufta?”

                She shook her head. He looked her over with an appraising eye before he bent down to her level, knees creaking, dirty hands planted on his thighs. “There used to be powers in this world, or so they say. Powers that could kill a man—ten men—in an instant, or flatten a city, or carry you through the sky like a bird, or tell your future. Powers you could hold in the palm of your hand.”

                Her mouth hung open as she listened, one finger lifting to scratch her nose.

                The man in the apron straightened up. “That’s what a grufta is. A bit of that power left over.”

                She turned and lifted up on tiptoe, levering herself with her arms to peer over the edge at it. The silver on its bed of velvet glowed slightly golden in the light of the setting sun.

                “How’s it work?” she asked.

                “It doesn’t. It just sits there.”

                Her fingers twitched, reaching for it again.

                “No money, no grufta,” he growled behind her.

                She shrank against the display case, nudging the floor with the toe of her boot. The man in the apron watched her trudge toward the door before he turned and disappeared into the murk of the shop.

                She pulled the door open. The bell jingled above her then the door begrudgingly closed again, but she hadn’t moved. Instead, she crept behind the dusty velvet curtains, biting her lip and wrinkling her nose to hold back a sneeze.

                She peeped out from behind the red drapes. The shop was empty. The silver grufta lay just within her reach. A single, dirty finger reached out, brushing against the seamless metal.

                A brilliant light flashed, faded, and erupted again. Searing white rays flooded the shop. The man in the apron stumbled out of the back, hands raised to shield his eyes. A figure hovered a moment in the window, white and flickering against the brightness. The door flew open; the light flashed outside, darted down the street and disappeared in a rainbow streak behind a dilapidated building.

                The door drifted shut with a soft jingle.

                In its bed of velvet, a dark crack had opened in the seamless metal side.  

The Mirrors of Kathos

The mirrors of Kathos do not show us as we are. They may show who we were or who we will be, glimpses of the future or visions of the past, or maybe nothing at all. Today I was a young boy, peering curiously through the glass. I had come hoping to see into my future, to say what lay beyond the immutable veil of time, but the tall mirror, stretching from the bare stone floor up to the vaulted ceiling, showed only what I had been years ago.

                The noise of the bustling streets, crowded and vibrant, hot under the glaring sun, was muffled by the many steps and heavy wooden doors that led into the Hall of Mirrors. It was cool within. An occasional shout from a street vendor floated through, rendered soft and wordless by the placid stone.

                “Do you remember what you saw?” a voice asked, and I turned to see Aybar, keeper of the mirrors, watching me.

                “I don’t know what you mean.”

                “On that day, when you came to look,” he said.

                I turned back to the mirror and now saw that Aybar stood in the room behind the young boy. A lean figure in dark robes, only his pointed chin and thin-lipped mouth showed beneath his hood. Gaunt hands emerged white from the black folds, clasped in front of him.

                “Is this a specific day?” I asked, watching myself with renewed fascination. “I have no memory of it. What did I see?”

                Aybar sighed. “You were such a lonely child, Kalem. Always looking, always yearning.”

               He took a gauzy white cloth from his robes and knelt by the mirror. When I stepped aside, the young boy vanished. There was only Aybar, and in the mirror, he also knelt. Two dark figures, palms moving in perfect unison across the glass with the cloth between.

                “Look,” I said in wonder. “It shows you as you are.”

                Aybar’s hand paused, and his reflection’s did the same. “Does it? I’ve never looked into the mirror.”

                “Never?” I was astounded. This hall was as good as his home; he was here each day tending to the mirrors. His presence filled every memory I had of the place, since I first came here as a child, running up the steps to stare with awe at the mysteries contained within. “Why have you never looked?”

                He straightened up and moved to the next mirror in the row lining the hall. When he began his washing again, his reflection followed. “Make the choice because you see it in the mirror or make the choice and it will appear. It makes no difference. I’ve never looked, so there is nothing to see.”

                As if in reflex, he reached up and tugged the dark hood further over his eyes. He may have meant to dissuade me, but he had told me the secret of the Hall. I wasn’t just seeing visions of my future but my own face looking back at me. If I came here, as I knew I would, in ten, twenty, fifty years, then I could find myself and see what lay before me. There were more mirrors beyond this hall, twisting hallways and echoing chambers.

                “Maybe another,” I said, turning away.

                Aybar’s hand reached out to grab me, tendons straining against his papery skin. “Leave it, Kalem. You will only leave more of yourself behind.”

                I shrugged him off and crossed the hall to where it narrowed to a thin hallway. Aybar was watching me, for once the dark hood lifted, and his eyes, still in shadow, were sorrowful. Other halls branched out, stairs climbing up or spiraling down, doorways opening into great rooms, every surface lined with mirrors. Some had sharp, naked edges; others were fitted in elaborate gilt or wooden frames. I went to the heart of the place, further than I had ever gone before, straight onward until I came to a heavy wooden door. It creaked open to reveal a dingier chamber. Dust slithered across the floor, disturbed by my entry; the light was thin and still. I slid inside.

                Mirrors crowded the walls and crept onto the ceiling. I walked through a crystal. The edges of the world distorted, repeated, stretched and diminished, disorienting in its constant repetitions. The motes in the air stirred by my feet were multiplied infinitely, like dull stars. My steps echoed against the glass. I was there in each mirror that I looked to. Endless variations of myself flitted before my eyes, but none showed what I searched for.

                Something flickered at the edge of my sight. When I turned, it vanished. When I began to walk, it was there again. A shimmer in my peripheries, darting away and dancing between the mirrors as I tried to catch a glimpse of it.

                “Aybar?” My voice shuddered through the chamber.

                There was no answer. I walked on, thinking myself disoriented. What light there was danced and leapt wildly, and I ignored the sensation of something there, behind me, shifting from mirror to mirror. I walked, and it walked with me.

                At the far end of the chamber, there was a wall of mirror; the end of the place. A single mirror stood in a solid frame, not mounted on the wall but sitting in a stand, infinite wooden legs spreading out from where it touched the mirrored floor.

                I turned to look back at the hall, vast in its endless reflections. Infinite, yet empty. Full of only itself, reflection upon reflection of nothingness. But when I turned back, the mirror in front of me on its stand was not empty. It had shattered, black veins running away from a pitted wound. It was bleeding drops of scarlet. A dark figure was crumpled on the floor, motionless.

                I reached a hand to touch the shards. They were warm, and though I hadn’t been cut, I drew my fingertips away bloody. Through the broken glass, I saw now that my own face stared up at me from within, pale and lifeless, eyes wide. The figure twitched, a violent spasm, and gathered itself. A hand, fingertips bloodied, surged through the mirror.

                My hand.