To Slay A Dragon

No sword or arrow or poison could slay the dragon. It came like a storm from the north, rushing on the wind and raining fire. The land turned to ash under its breath, and when the village had emptied, the dragon dug out a nest with razor claws and draped its scaly coils over the charred remains.

A field of crude tents now spread along the edge of the nearest city, and from that city, perched between the forest and sea, men waged war with the dragon.

The sun was spreading a dark shadow at the forest’s feet when soldiers and archers came through the trees, bloodied and blackened, hauling carts of the dead behind them. Ahna stood among the tents, a hand resting on her swelling stomach, watching them come.

Roderick, a tall man with a sword and an army and a hall of stone, led them. He stopped in the rutted lane between the tents. The villagers’ haggard faces turned to him, hopeful, but Ahna looked away to the twin tongues of smoke over the trees, curling into the sky. She had lived in that village, farmed the land now fallow and burnt under the fiery belly.

“We’ll waste no more men,” Roderick said, resting his palm on his hilt.

“Some of us had homes there!” a voice cried. “What are we supposed to do?”

Roderick towered over them. “That’s no concern of mine. Be grateful the city has allowed you to remain here this long.”

More voices rang out, but Ahna turned and walked to her tent, leaving behind the bark of angry men. When her husband came trudging back from working another’s fields, she handed him a bowl of thin soup. “I think I’ll go fishing tomorrow,” she said, and kissed his cheek.

He looked up with tired eyes before he nodded, drank his soup, and fell asleep with his hand on her stomach. Ahna covered him with a worn blanket, then sat outside the tent, her quick fingers freeing peas from their pods. She watched the two streams of smoke rising in puffs to the north until the night hid them.

At dawn, she passed through the city to the docks, a coil of rope on her shoulder. “I would like to come aboard,” she said to the captain of a small boat, dropping a precious gold coin into his tan palm.

She stood in the bow, wiping salt spray from her cheeks, as the ship jumped over the waves. When they cast anchor, the men dropped nets for little silver fish, but she ran a single line, deeper and baited with pungent, rotting meat. Then she sat and waited.

The little boat swayed when a fish finally swallowed the hook, and it took three men to haul it up into the sunlight. It twitched and gulped on the bottom of the boat until the scales dried in the sun and the lidless eyes paled.

When the fishing boat had docked, Ahna took the stinking fish by the tail and heaved it onto her back. Eyes and laughter followed her as she slowly made her way through the city to the field of tents. With a dull knife, she split open the belly, then she roasted the fish over a fire until the skin crackled and turned black. When it had cooled to the touch, she hoisted it onto her back and walked through the field of tents into the forest, toward the village.

The dragon watched her with baleful eyes as she approached. Ahna stopped and looked at the stretches of gleaming coils. “I brought you dinner,” she said, heaving the fish off her shoulder into the dust.

Then she turned and began the long walk back. Behind her, the dragon greedily devoured the fish, swallowing it whole.

A horrible screeching echoed through the forest that night when the moon rose. Ahna woke, smiled, and nestled against her husband.

She was washing her feet the next morning when a scout came running through the trees. The dragon was dead. It lay twisted in the dirt, its claws furrowing the ground. A pale forked tongue hung from its mouth, and blood dripped from its fangs.

Voices murmured of who could have slain the beast when men of might and cunning had failed. When they cut the dragon apart to haul it away, they found a thin, silver fish bone piercing its throat.

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.

Kierk

                It was well after first moonset when Kierk hauled himself onto the craggy plateau and looked down at the sleeping city. Borysi III was small. The smallest place in the multiverse, Kierk thought, and the more he’d grown, the smaller it had gotten. Now, from above, it looked like a metal pock on the face of the landscape.

                A few hours earlier, he had woken in a cold sweat after dreaming that the constricting walls had closed in and sealed him up like a can of Garvian Mash. Most nights he would’ve sighed mournfully into the dark, rolled over, and gone back to sleep. But not tonight.

                Kierk got up and snuck out, past the mineral grinders and prism bays, to the base of the Borysinnian walls. He shuffled his heels back against the cold metal, looked down at his feet, took a step, and started counting. Other Borysinnians were milling around. The night shift. Kierk ignored them. He had as much distaste for the people as the place. Every year their brains seemed to shrink until he wasn’t sure anything filled their curly-horned heads.

                Borysi III was known for its prism shaping. Each of the bays Kierk passed, counting softly as he went, were mounted with several carefully sculpted prisms, mined from beneath the city. When powered by lunar light, they sent whatever was inside the bay hurtling through the cosmos to the destination indicated by their alignment.

                (This might sound like magic. It’s not. It’s highly scientific and explained in great detail in Regival’s Prismatic Potency in Relation to Cosmic Disruption and Traversion. Magic is just science that isn’t understood yet, and any Borysinnian who heard mention of the arcane would think the speaker had been snorting too much prism dust.)

                Cans of mash and metal crates packed with raw crystals were stacked up and dropped through the infinity of space to the strange locales across the multiverse that needed such things. Borysi III was a hub of comings and goings. But they hadn’t yet solved the problem of space being very cold. Whatever was sent arrived frozen solid, and if handled improperly, crumbled into dust.

                If Kierk’s dream did come true, at least he would be zapped off to an unknown destination, pried open there, and have one last, grand adventure sliding down some foreign gullet. But it was just a dream. Flesh and fluids couldn’t travel the way of the Garvian Mash.

                When Kierk reached the opposite wall, he sighed and sagged. Every planetary cycle he paced the diameter of the city to measure it, and as he suspected, every year it had shrunk.

                If his brain was as remarkable as he fancied, he would’ve realized this was because every year his legs and feet had grown. However, it could be argued that the place did get relatively smaller since he took up more of it. Either way, the number he had totaled left him discontent.

                An idea was forming in his pubescent brain, and on that night, under the light of the first moon, he found the angst to execute it.

                He left Borysi III with a filtration mask anchored to his horns and climbed the surrounding rugged cliffs. When he reached the top, the second moon had risen and the third glowed on the horizon. The prisms in the pack on his back clanked as he adjusted the straps. He intended to open a portal to the Forbidden Zone, and then… well, he hadn’t thought that far ahead. But forbidden with a capital F was a tempting thing indeed.

                Kierk crossed the plateau and crept into a small, dark cave. He drew a circle in the dust on the stone floor and set prisms at each focal point. Without the stability of a prism bay, he could only hope for a shaky and temporary portal, but it would be enough to peek through.

                The light of the third moon crept across the floor, licking at the edges of the farthest prism. Kierk rearranged, realigned, reconfigured until a web of light stretched between the prisms and they shook and danced in their places around the circle.

                The lunar light glowed, refracted a thousand times onto and into and through itself. Then it flashed and disappeared.

                Kierk peered into the circle. It was dark. The third moon had moved on, and only by squinting could he see that the circle was slightly darker than the darkness around it.

                In actuality, it couldn’t be dark because it was nothing. Not the nothingness people refer to when they mean the absence of something, but true nothingness. The absence of everything.

                The night was still and silent, and so was the puddle of nothing. Then a shift and a slight change in color. The nothingness had become something. Something big trying to crawl through. A mammoth foot appeared first, anchoring claws in the rock. Then the tips of two tufted ears. When the head squeezed through, Kierk thought there was no way the rest of it could follow, but it kept wriggling and writhing and twisting until another foot and a long furry body and two more feet and finally a long tail slid through.

                The prisms scattered, and the portal snapped shut.

                The creature that had crawled out of nothingness shook itself, raining Kierk with ice crystals. It stretched its back and yawned, razor claws arching out of its paws. Then it sat up and curled its tail around its feet. But the cave was shorter than it was, so it had to hunch under the stone ceiling and its head slid down between its massive shoulders.

                Unblinking yellow eyes stared at Kierk, who was standing welded to the floor.

                The creature’s appearance had startled him. Until that moment, a living thing passing through a prism portal had seemed an impossibility. He probably should’ve run away screaming. He didn’t. Anything might happen when dabbling with the Forbidden, and the cocktail of hormones in his brain granted him a certain crazed immunity to common sense.

                “Salutations,” he said nervously, quieter than he intended.

                The creature stared, one ear twitching as it brushed the rock ceiling. Its pupils dilated until the yellow eyes turned jet black.

                “What are you, if you don’t mind?” Kierk asked, unsure the thing could talk and wondering if he was making a fool of himself.

                “I am existence,” the creature said promptly. “The universe. The cosmos. The whole of life embodied, contained, turned in upon itself. Where it is made whole and nothing. Complete and separate. Possible and impossible. Yes and no.”

                “Oh,” Kierk said.

                “I suppose I’m here now,” the creature said. “So, if there’s something you want, hurry up and say it. Infinity passes one moment at a time.”

                “I’d like to leave this place,” Kierk said cheerfully. “I’d like to go somewhere else.”

                “Where?”

                “Somewhere… else.” Kierk faltered.

                “I suggest specificity,” the creature said. “I believe you organic organisms require certain conditions to survive.”

                Kierk considered this. His knowledge of other places was limited. They were there, somewhere, and he wasn’t. “Well, where did you come from?”

                “The void,” the creature said, casually flexing a paw.

                “Oh. Is it nice there?”

                The yellow eyes pinned him. “It’s a void. It’s nothing.”

                “Oh.”

                The creature sighed. Apparently, existence was impatient. “What if I showed you the universe and you selected a place? Can you do that?” It looked as if it wasn’t sure he could, but Kierk nodded eagerly.

                The creature lay so that Kierk stood between its massive front paws and opened its mouth. There were no teeth or tongues or throat, just a warm breeze from a dark, empty cave. Something flickered deep within. A light. A flare. The expansion of nothingness into everything. Nova imploding and exploding. Stars flaming and dying. The crash of cosmic waves against strange, ethereal shores. Planets of every shape and size wheeling through the endless dance. Some clamoring with life; others wastelands of dust and raging storms. Life surging to its peak and falling into decay.

                A tear ran down Kierk’s cheek. His eyes stung, but he couldn’t blink, couldn’t look away from the horror and beauty. The creature’s mouth stretched into a cavernous yawn, then shut.

                “See anything you like?”

                But Kierk was already scribbling scrambling down the rocky mountainside. He only stopped when he’d pounded back inside the metal walls and leaned his hands on his knees to catch his breath.

                He had seen only glimpses of other worlds through the holes the prisms made. In his mind, the whole of the multiverse couldn’t be that much bigger than Borysi III. Maybe a little, but not by much. He bent over and panted and thought about throwing up. It was a rude shock to go from being a relatively large person in a relatively small space to a tiny, insignificant speck.

                He straightened up and patted the stiff metal wall next to him. At third moonrise, Kierk would’ve said those unforgiving boundaries kept him in. As the third moon set and he crawled back into bed, he knew they were keeping the rest of the world out.

                Borysi III eventually solved the cold problem. But when given the chance to leave his metal cocoon, Kierk stubbornly shook his head and said he was fine where he was. The bigger his world became, the smaller it made him. So, he kept his world small. He never saw the magenta shores of Rysian IV shining with the spume of green waves or the endless torfa fields of Yyrian II. He never knew the thrill and terror of stepping from one world to another and glimpsing infinity in between. He lived hemmed in by walls, walls he wouldn’t look past for fear of seeing two black eyes of nothingness staring back at him.

                He did become the finest prism shaper in Borysi III, so that’s something… I guess.

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?”

She looked down at the address written in a thin, angular hand. “No, that’s not me.”

“Oh. Well, it was worth a try.” He fidgeted with the letter, glancing down the hall. “I suppose I should… check the next room then.”

“You’re not a Mr. Sinclair, by chance, are you?” she asked.

“I am! How did you know?”

“These were delivered earlier.” She turned back into the room and retrieved a bundle of letters from beside a vase of blushing roses. “It’s quite a stack,” she said, handing them to him.

He shrugged bashfully.

“Adam,” she said.

“What?”

“Or Archibald.” She shook her head. “No, that’s not it. I thought Alfred at first, but now I’ve met you, that’s not right either.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t understand…”

She pointed to the letters, each neatly addressed to ‘Mr. A. Sinclair.’ “Albert?”

“Arthur.”

A smile bloomed on her lips. “Of course! Arthur Sinclair.”

“Like the president,” he laughed, but her forehead crinkled in puzzlement.

“Continental Congress…?” he added miserably.

“I never was very good at history,” she said. “Well, that’s one mystery solved, and it isn’t even noon.”

But Mr. Arthur Sinclair did not move from the doorway.

“There is still this one,” he said, and he looked down at the lone envelope then up at her, a glimmer in his eye of a half-fledged idea struggling to take flight. “Perhaps… we could try to find its owner. It has to belong to someone.”

“I’m sure the front desk can take care of it,” she said, stepping into the hall and pulling the door shut behind her. “I’m off to the museum. And your letters must be important if you came looking for them.”

“What, these?” He crammed the unfortunate stack into his pocket. “Business, notes from acquaintances, that sort of thing. They’ll keep. Besides, we might find a letter for you.”

“Oh, I doubt it,” she said with a little laugh, but her gaze flickered back to the envelope in his hand. “Still, I guess it doesn’t hurt to check. The museum can wait.” She put a small bronze key into the lock on the door. “And everything will be slightly older when I get there.”

The lock clicked. She put the key into her bag and took the letter from Arthur, smoothing out the wrinkles. “Mrs. R. S. Lafayette. She sounds important. Do you think she’s French?”

“It’s possible.”

“I’ve never been to France,” she said wistfully then looked up and down the hall. “Where should we begin?”

“Farther down?” Arthur suggested, and she started forward, her small heels silent on the thick, floral carpet.

“Should I know that name? Lafayette?”

“He was a general,” Arthur said, hurrying after her. “In the Revolutionary War.”

“Then perhaps they’re related. That must be very interesting, being related to someone famous.”

Arthur was walking beside her now. “And what name will we be inquiring after?” he asked, intently studying the wallpaper. “Mrs…?”

“It’s Miss.” She was fumbling with a button on her lace glove. “Miss. H. Langstrom, and the H is for Helen.”

“Like Helen of Troy,” Arthur said blissfully.

“I hope not.” And Helen knocked on the door of 208.

It was answered by an immense figure framed by bright sunlight and the tinny scratch of a string quartet on the Victrola. “Yes?” she bellowed.

“Mrs. Lafayette?” Arthur asked.

“Yes!”

“I received some mail of yours by accident, and I— I mean, we, this young lady and I, were hoping to return it to you.”

“Isn’t that sweet of you?” the woman said loudly and took the letter from Helen, disregarding the spectacles on the silver chain around her neck and holding it arm’s length to squint at it. “Why, yes, this is mine! How did you find me? Some mix-up at the front desk, no doubt. These things happen, and I almost didn’t answer the door what with my sister on long-distance. She’s in California, if you can believe it.”

She stopped for a breath, and Arthur cut in. “Did you receive any letters? Addressed to someone else perhaps?”

“Well, I did now you mention it,” she said in her tone of eternal surprise. “Thought it odd. Meant to ask the bellhop when he came up with lunch, but I was on the phone with my Charles, and when I turned around, the boy had vanished. Left without his tip. Now… where did I put it?”

She disappeared into the room, talking all the while. Arthur smiled wanly at Helen.

“Here!” came a piercing cry, and Mrs. Lafayette returned waving a thin envelope. “This was kind of you. Such a sweet, young pair. I must tell my sister about you.” The phone trilled behind her. “That’ll be her now, wondering where I’ve gone to. I better answer before she thinks I was murdered or some such nonsense. You’ve never met such a frightful gossip. That woman could talk the ears off a potato.”

The envelope was thrust into Helen’s hands, and the door shut.

“It’s for a Mr. Green,” Helen said, brushing at a jam smudge on the corner. “And she wasn’t even French.”

“201.” Arthur grimaced. “I believe I met him already.”

Helen sniffed the envelope. “Perfume. And an entirely impractical handwriting. I can only assume this Mr. Green is in the middle of a torrid affair.”

“If he’s who I think he is, I doubt that,” Arthur said, moving closer to Helen to let a bellhop carrying a silver domed tray on his shoulder pass. “The perfume must be Mrs. Lafayette’s.”

“But it isn’t her handwriting,” Helen said and looked up at him with a glint in her eye. “There’s only one way to find out.”

201 was occupied by a squat, balding man who glowered at them from a cloud of cigar smoke. “No, thank you,” he grumbled.

“I beg your pardon?” Arthur said.

“Shoes, encyclopedias, whatever it is you’re hawking, I don’t want it.”

“Oh, we’re not—”

“They’ve got women now too,” Mr. Green said, scowling at Helen.

The door was swinging shut.

“Now, hold on!” Arthur protested. “We have a letter for you.”

“I don’t want it.”

“It’s from a woman,” Helen yelled through the closing door, and it paused a crack from the jamb.

Mr. Green’s pruny face glared out before he snatched the letter and peered at the handwriting. “You stealing my mail?”

“No!” Arthur said. “We—”

“Bad enough they let you go door-to-door in here,” Mr. Green grumbled. “Find someone else to pester.”

“But—”

The door slammed, and Arthur stared at it. “He didn’t even remember me.”

“But it was his letter,” Helen said with a little sigh. “I suppose that’s it then.”

Arthur looked down at her, pulled himself to his full height, and pounded a fist on the door.

“See here,” he said when it opened. “We did not steal your letter. And we are not salesmen. This incredibly charming young lady is Miss. Helen Langstrom. She’s staying two doors down from you. We’re looking for a letter that was sent to your room by accident, and—”

The door shut again, right in Arthur’s face.

“It was sweet of you to try,” Helen said gently.

An envelope popped out under the door.

“It’s been opened,” Helen said, gingerly picking up the tattered envelope. “And it’s addressed to a Miss. Penelope Barker.”

“A young lady is staying in the room next to mine,” Arthur said. “She wasn’t in earlier, but she might be now. We could try there.”

Helen hesitated. “Being a postman isn’t as exciting as I expected. Delivering the mail isn’t as interesting as receiving it.”

“You have to walk that way to the lobby anyway,” Arthur said.

After a moment, she agreed.

“Which room is yours?” Helen inquired as they walked down the hall, then, not waiting for an answer: “It must be nice traveling with acquaintances. Your wife.”

“I’m not married.”

“Oh.” She stopped and looked up at him. “Well, I’m sure you’re very busy with your studies. I imagine a historian doesn’t have time for things like silly day trips. Or maybe a teacher.”

“Nothing as important as that,” Arthur said, the tips of his ears turning pink. “I read a lot of books. Too many books.” He glanced darkly toward 201. “Books are easier than people. It’s that one,” he said, pointing down the hall.

A slender, bright woman in a vibrant satin robe opened the door. “Well, hello!” she said, smiling a glossy smile and looking mostly at Arthur. “What can I do for you?”

“We have a letter that belongs to you, Miss. Barker,” Helen said, holding it out to her.

The woman, who didn’t deny being Miss. Barker, took it and fingered the torn edge. “Did you read it?”

“Of course not,” Arthur said indignantly.

“Pity,” she said, flashing white teeth at him and cocking a shoulder. “You might have enjoyed it.”

Arthur cleared his throat. “Did you receive any mail that wasn’t addressed to you?”

“’fraid not.”

“Thank you for your time then,” Helen said and turned back to the hall.

“Feel free to come back and check another time,” the woman called after them before she laughed and shut the door.

Helen was picking at a leaf in a flower arrangement sitting on a nearby pedestal.

“I’m sorry,” Arthur said. “I thought we’d find something.”

“I didn’t expect we would,” Helen said quietly. “I don’t get many letters.”

“Surely the people you’re traveling to see would write you, or… your family at home.”

She turned and looked up at him. “People always think that. That I’m going to see someone or waiting for someone or… Well, maybe I am. But if I am, I don’t know it.”

“You’re traveling alone too,” Arthur said.

“Yes.”

“Do you often travel alone?”

She sighed. “It’s that or stay home alone. And there are so many more interesting places to be alone. They all have someone, don’t they?” she said, looking down the hall. “Even if it’s only some writing on a piece of paper.”

“Miss. Barker is also a young lady traveling alone,” Arthur said valiantly. “It’s very modern of you.”

“I highly doubt she spends much time alone,” Helen muttered. She looked toward the broad marble staircase leading to a lobby teeming with travelers and tall plants in massive pots. “You seem to know a lot about history. I suppose you’d find a museum a bore.”

“I bet I wouldn’t!” Arthur said.

“But what about your letters?”

Arthur was gazing down at her upturned face with a dreamy expression. “What letters?”

Helen smiled. “I should warn you, I spend more time watching the people than the exhibits.”

Before they left, Arthur stopped at the front desk and pressed a folded bill into the manager’s hand. “Please give my compliments to whoever delivered the mail.”

Gille, The Bard of Falutia

Between the treacherous forest where only foul spirits dared to tread and the wide waters of the Alamanthanine Sea, there stood the small kingdom of Falutia. And in Falutia, there lived a bard of such renown that his name was spoken in hushed whispers from the sandy shores to the peaks of the snowy mountains. The mere mention of his arts upon the lute strings sent a shiver through even the most brutal mercenary, for he was, without a doubt, the worst singer ever heard in those fair lands.

                His name was Gille.

                His singing brought to mind the scratch of dead branches against gravestones, and his lute playing stirred even the most war-hardened soldier to tears of despair. Wherever he went, always in cheerful song, the road cleared before him. Thief, trader, brave wanderer, or stalwart servant of the king, it made no difference. All fled at the first echo of his strains through the trees, and the birds migrated south no matter the season.

                In the spring of that year, the king’s daughter and only child was to have her twenty-third birthday, and as tradition dictated, it would be the year she chose a suitor to take up residence with her in the stately castle of Falutia. Lords, ladies, dukes, duchesses, knights and squires, minstrels and dancers, and most importantly, eligible princes came from all reaches of the land. Tents and pavilions sprang up. Sweet strains of music and the mouth-watering scent of delicious treats filled the air. Jesters jested, knights jousted, and wild celebration ensued, all to culminate in the day when the princess would choose her prince.

                Gille had been staying in a small fishing village, gracing them with his song, but the place seemed to be getting smaller and quieter each day. Men who spent their days on ships came to the inn at night and told stories of the exciting travelers and exotic wonders gathered at the palace. That was the place for a bard to be, Gille decided and left the next day. The villagers gathered to see him off with grateful and teary cheers.

                When he arrived at the palace and saw the wonderful scene before him, swirling dancers, leaping acrobats, nobles in elegant dress, and troupes of singers and players, Gille was awed and filled with inspiration. Upon seeing the beauty of the princess, he leapt onto a nearby crate and broke out in jubilant song.

                The palace fell silent. Every eye turned to stare at the singing bard. One of the knight’s horses, a noble and war-hardened steed, spooked and trampled a squire in a wild dash to get away from Gille’s voice. The princess clamped her hands over her ears and begged him to stop.

                “Enough!” cried the king, and Gille fell silent. “What is that ungodly caterwauling?!”

                “I only wish to take part in this wonderful occasion,” Gille said.

                “Then do it far away and where none of us can hear you!”            

                Gille stared at the angry and horrified faces around him. “Do you truly all wish me to leave?”

                A cry of assent rose around him, and one ill-mannered jester threw an apple at him. Gille slid off the crate and left, dragging his lute behind him. As he walked, turning his feet toward the north and the towering mountains, he strummed half-heartedly on the strings. “Maybe I was not meant to be a bard,” he said sadly. “But I love it! And this heartbreak only makes me want to sing more.”

                He lifted his voice and did just that. As he walked through the forest at the base of the mountains, the woodland creatures, stag and hare, lifted their heads, swiveled their velvet ears, turned, and darted away with flicks of their snowy tails. For weeks after he had passed, the hunters returned to their homes empty-handed, and their children went to bed with rumbling stomachs.

                But Gille passed on into the mountains, his voice growing louder and more triumphant with every step. As he sang, the stone walls caught his song and threw it back and forth until it had magnified a hundred times a hundred.

                “This is a place I can be!” he said happily. “The world sings along with me.”

Deep in the heart of the mountains, there lay a beast, a wyrm of fyre that had slumbered there long ere the cornerstone of the palace of Falutia had been laid. When Gille’s strained strains shuddered through the mountains, a golden eye opened. Lifting its great and terrible head, and opening its terrible mouth, the wyrm spoke:

                Ňŧůšţэ пфзж гбЮ Ẅǽ ƒƒƒƒƒƒ ŧŹłώ

                (As everyone knows, dragons only speak dragon-speak, which is too old and terrible for mortal ears to understand – or perhaps dragons don’t have the patience to translate – but roughly translated what the wyrm said was this: “GREAT DRAGON LORDS OF VARKNETH, WHAT IS THAT AWFUL *%#^ING NOISE?”)

                With a shriek of rage, the dragon rose from the mountains and plummeted like a red arrow toward the celebrating kingdom of Falutia. The cries of revelry turned to screams of horror, and the tents blazed with the wyrm’s fire. The nobles fled into the palace, locking themselves away, while the citizens of Falutia scattered in every direction.

                A few of them ran into the safety of the mountains, and there they found Gille (who was oblivious to the terror he’d unleashed). When he learned that the kingdom was under attack, he was dismayed. Picking up his lute, he resolved to return, hoping that he could offer some small help.

He found the charred remains of the beautiful tents and saw that the palace had become an island in a sea of fire. The wyrm was tearing at the walls, scratching at the stones with razor claws and scorching them with plumes of fire. A few survivors, who had been unable to flee, huddled in the ashy remains of what had once been a great and beautiful city.

                Gille, horrified by what he saw, could only do what he always did. He picked up his lute and began to sing, a heartbroken and mournful song. The dragon, who had been trying to extract a particularly plump soldier from a tower, turned its terrible head toward him.

                БЎ ωϊψбёљ Ъσςξ λκκ θЖ, it roared.

                (Which translates to: “UGH! NOT THIS GUY AGAIN.”)

                With a furious screech that shook the mountains, the dragon rose into the sky and fled across the seas.

                When the king emerged from the palace and saw that Gille stood untouched amid the destruction and heard the tale of how his voice had chased away the vile wyrm, he immediately went to his daughter, the princess, and begged her to marry him. “Who else but this humble bard could have ended the threat of the wyrm? His action deserves some reward, and what else is left?”

                The princess considered this in silence before she spoke. “Fine. But only if he puts that damn lute away. And we tell him that kings aren’t allowed to sing.”

The king eagerly agreed, and Gille was bathed in the warmest waters and dressed in the finest silks before he was brought before them in what remained of what had once been the great hall. When he learned of the princess’s offer and what all it entailed, he knelt and took her hand.

                “Good lady. Fine lady. Lady of unmatched beauty. It’s a very fine offer, but are you sure about the singing part?”

                “Very sure,” she said, extracting her hand from his.

                Gille considered before he rose. “Then I must decline. For the music of my heart will not, cannot be silenced. I pray you find it in your gracious heart to forgive me and that I have not caused you too much pain. I would never forgive myself if a single tear fell from your beautiful eye. Just the thought makes me want to sin—”

                “Whatever. It’s fine,” the princess said. “None of this was my idea anyway.”

                In gratitude for what he had done, the princess gifted Gille a lute of ebony and ivory and a ship manned with the most hard-of-hearing sailors she could find (after all, she wasn’t cruel). And Gille left Falutia behind for the open seas, singing the songs of his heart to the waves. Legend says he sails still and that even the sirens flee when they see his ship on the horizon.

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.

Haunted

Like the ancient curses of the pharaohs, the multitude of explanations for the hysteria and hallucinations of those who have spent extended time in old houses far outweighs the possibility of the paranormal. Drafts and cold spots from wind finding its way through rotting walls, illness caused by mold or gases caught in rusty pipes, strange noises triggered by the introduction of a foreign body into a delicately balanced ecosystem, or simply the habitation of a stray cat or nesting pigeon: I had yet to find a symptom without a cause. Still, each new investigation began with the hope that this time I would find the exception to the rule. As I gazed up at the house, perched on its tree-covered hill like a vulture eyeing its prey, the familiar tingle of possibility crept up my spine.

A century of abandonment had clawed the flesh from it until only bare bones remained, bleached and crumbling, listing to one side. To the untrained eye, it would seem only a sad monument to an era long since passed, but I noticed with some fascination the unbroken windows and the strange chill in its shadow. I attributed that to the changing seasons, but the windows… Perhaps things back then truly were built to last, or perhaps its reputation was sinister enough to still the hand of even the most destructive youth.

A metal fence topped with sharp spikes circled the grounds, rigid against the grasping hands of the vines seething up it. The gate swung open with a raucous squeak, and I waded into a tangled garden. Brittle and browning stacks lay in heaps, weeds smothering all other plant life. The lone survivors, patches of small purple flowers, huddled in their shadow. Vines swarmed over the path, clutching at my ankles as I fought my way to the door. Not a bird, not an insect stirred. Even the leaves seemed frozen, afraid to move, and every step, every rustle of undergrowth beneath my feet felt sacrilegious, like the garden itself winced at the noise.

Crumbling stone steps led to a dilapidated porch and a heavy door with an ornate handle and doorknocker clamped in the fang-filled jaws of a fiendish face. A melodramatic touch but the modern screws holding it to the decaying wood set my skepticism firmly back in place. The door creaked open at my touch to reveal a dusty hallway and a staircase leading up to a small landing. Motes danced in the sunlight filtering down through cracks in the roof, and the stench of mold and stale water filled my nose until I could taste it. I hung my pack over the leaning banister to retrieve a flashlight and mask. While any so-called spirits who had taken up residence here might not be killers, asbestos was.

As I slid on the mask, a breeze rushed down the hall, hurling the door shut. The house shook with the impact, the walls shaking themselves free of dust and cobwebs. I jumped at the deafening noise, but I had spent enough time in drafty houses to know the ominous welcome was little more than the work of an open door or window at the back of the house. Waving the hovering dust away, I began my explorations, the floors moaning in protest under my feet.

It would have been a charming house, but now it had fallen into decay, each room standing silent, holding its breath, until my creaking footsteps passed on. Lace curtains hung limp from brass fittings. Tarnished wood and moldering florals sat primly under its veil of dust. Time and moisture had shredded the contents of the gilt frame over the hearth like the work of angry fingers. Chairs stood casually pushed from tables as if their occupants had merely stepped away.

A study, a parlor, and a kitchen and dining room connected by a low door lay on the ground floor. A heavy door was built into the wall beneath the stairway, but it hadn’t opened when I had tugged on the handle and I assumed it to be locked. Up the creaking stairs were three bedrooms, the beds within covered with sewn quilts starched with dust, and a sitting room lined with windows overlooking the garden. I sat in a rocking chair, gazing out at the small town in the distance, citizens weaving through its streets like toiling ants. Night was falling, and soon my work could begin. But for now, I waited. The wood creaked nervously under my weight, but all around me, the house stood silent.

I started awake in a darkened room. I thought I had heard a door slam, but everything was silent now. The town had faded to a soft glow. I shivered at the cold of nightfall and reached for the pack I had left by my feet, but my flashlight illuminated only dusty floorboards.

“Damn.”

I winced as my voice echoed in the blackness, offensive in the silence. I swept my light across the room, hoping my pack had slid away on the uneven floors, but my search yielded nothing. Out of the corner of my eye, a patch of gray flickered in the blackness of the open door, and I whirled to face it. But my flashlight revealed only an empty doorway.

“It’s your imagination,” I whispered, trying to ignore the prickling nerves itching up the back of my neck.

My pack had vanished, so I felt my way down the stairs to the door, picking around rotten floorboards as I went. I tugged the handle, but it wouldn’t budge, the frigid cold wedging it shut. I braced a leg on the door frame and heaved, praying for the screech of wood as it released, but it wouldn’t move.

“Damn!” I defied the silence again, kicking the door angrily.

Hoping to find the backdoor more accessible, I stumbled down the hall to the kitchen. Cupboards and tall cabinets full of dusty dishes lined the walls, but no backdoor revealed itself. I stumbled through the rooms, searching more and more frantically as I found only peeling wallpaper or shelves of rotten books. I paced the perimeter of the kitchen, my ragged breathing deafening, the house shrinking around me. My flashlight beam hovered over the heavy door beneath the staircase. Presumably, it led to the cellar. The thought of descending into a darker, danker pit turned my stomach. But the need to get out twisted inside me, and I forced my feet forward.

As my fingers brushed the rusty handle, something shifted beneath my feet. From the bowels of the house, a low thud echoed through the floorboards, and the hair stood up on the back of my neck.

I strained to hear in the utter silence that followed, my heart pounding in my ears. With a thunderous crash, an unknown force slammed into the door, and I reeled back, my flashlight clattering to the floor. The door shuddered on its hinges under the violent beating, and an unearthly wailing floated through the decaying wood. I sprinted down the hall toward the front door. A shadow shifted at the foot of the stairs, and I slammed into it, tumbling into a heap.

Scrambling back, I stared at the tangle of limbs sticking out from under a pale summer dress. A mass of black hair, barely visible in the darkness, spread out on the floor, and a terrified young face set with wide eyes stared back at me. With a sob, she threw herself against me, clinging to my clothing.

“How long have you been here?” I asked, instinctively moving to comfort her.

Our collision had shaken me out of my panic, and the silence that had fallen since I crashed to the floor made me wonder if I had imagined the whole thing.

“I don’t…” Her sentence disintegrated into a teary mumble, and she buried her face in trembling hands.

I shrugged off my jacket and wrapped it around her shivering form, rubbing her arms to warm her.

“What’s your name?” I asked, more gently this time, seeing that she was in shock.

“Violet,” she murmured, her frigid hands clutched to her chest.

“Why are you here?”

“He locked me in the basement!” she sobbed. “I tried! I beat on the door, but he wouldn’t let me out. He came down to—” Tears overwhelmed her again. “I ran up the stairs and locked him in, but he’s going to get out!”

“Who?”

She violently shook her head, as if the fear of acknowledging her attacker was worse than the deed itself. The beam of my flashlight was splashing against the far wall of the kitchen. I pulled us both up, taking her clammy hand in mine.

“I’m going to get us out of here. Is there another door?”

I started toward the kitchen, but she yanked me back.

“No! He’ll find you!”

Her voice reverberated down the hallway, and something again slammed into the door, shaking the walls with renewed force. Flashlight abandoned, I tugged frantically at the front door. Splintering wood cracked behind us, and I grabbed Violet’s hand, dragging her up the stairs into the parlor where I had so foolishly fallen asleep only hours before. Heavy footsteps and a wordless garble echoed up the stairs behind us. I wedged the door shut with a chair, and our attacker slammed into it, shaking dust from the rafters.

“Get behind me,” I told Violet, herding her into the far corner.

The risen moon filled the room with a faint white light, and I snatched an antique poker from the hearth, gripping it in shaking hands. Each impact against the door sent adrenaline coursing through me, my heartbeat pounding in my mouth. A low sob floated through the door, swelling to an incomprehensible shrieking as the door shuddered on its hinges until the rotted wood gave way.

A hunched creature lurched inside, tripping over the broken chair and crashing to the floor. A hand, fingertips bloodied and dripping, reached for me, and crazed eyes peered out from under matted hair. It was inhuman. Monstrous. Animal. Violet whimpered behind me, and the creature’s gaze snapped to her. With a muted shriek, it hurled itself at me. I clenched my eyes and swung.

Impact shuddered up my arms. When I looked again, the creature had crumpled to the floor, and I beat at it wildly until the bloody fingers twitched and lay still.

The poker clattered to the floor as silence again fell over the house. I stumbled back, sagging against the wall and sliding to a seat. Tears of relief and fear blinded me as I gasped uselessly. As my panic gradually subsided, my awareness returning to me again, a soft singing filled the room. I wiped the haze from my eyes to see the girl kneeling over the body, swaying with the strange melody.

“Mur-der-er… Mur-der-er…” the raspy sing-song continued.

 “Violet?”

Her head swiveled toward me. Moonlight illuminated sunken eyes, black veins snaking across her skin. She grinned wolfishly, a pale tongue pinched between her teeth. Her hand dragged through the growing pool of blood as she crawled toward me on spider legs.

“Drip, drip, drip. Through the floors, through the boards. Down, down, down to the dark.”

I shrunk back against the wall, the breath frozen in my throat, a hot tear running down my cheek.

“Stop crying,” she hissed, her cold breath in my face stinking of death. “Fell and hit her head. Stupid girl. Always was a stupid girl, just like you.”

“Stop it!” I reached for her to shake her, to force this hallucination out and her humanity back in, but an iron grip, impossibly strong and cold as ice, closed around my wrist. White teeth bared against pale gums as she sneered at me.

“Dirty shoes. Slamming doors. Toys on the floor. Watch your mouth. Back to the darkness. Back to the darkness!”

The sing-song resumed, swelling to a shriek.

“Shut up!” she screamed, and her head jerked violently to the side.

She collapsed to the floor with a whimper. Behind her, pale moonlight washed over not a monster but a human face, bloodied and beaten almost beyond recognition. The nails of the bloodied hands had been torn away, torn from clawing at the wood of their dark prison. Terror took control, and I barreled past her, slipping in the blood and tumbling down the stairs as I ran. I yanked wildly at the door, but it stood silent and impassive against my pleading. When I turned, she was standing behind me, her dark hair hanging over her face, the bloody poker clenched in her fist.

“Please…” I whispered. “Please, don’t kill me.”

“Don’t make me,” she snarled. “Don’t make me hurt you! Don’t make me—” her body tremored violently, and the poker clattered to the floor. Her eyes lifted to me suddenly, wide and full of terror. “No more! I’ll be good, I promise! Please! Don’t make me—”

With a shriek, she ran down the hallway leaving bloody footprints in her wake and the basement door slammed. I pounded uselessly at the sealed door, screaming, my voice lost in the silence of the house.