Meliphi

            “Just press play.”

            “I don’t want to,” the man snapped and crossed his arms.

            Meliphi sighed. Humans were always infuriating, but somehow, dead ones were even worse. It was like they realized they had nothing left to lose and took it out on the poor incorporeal beings just trying to do their jobs. 

            “I don’t like it any more than you do,” Meliphi said, nudging the replay device toward the man whose name the being could no longer remember. “But I’d like to get home sometime before the next millennium.”

            The man’s lips pursed, and he hunched down in his chair. Meliphi was tempted to tell him he could die there if he was going to be this stubborn, but unfortunately…

            “It won’t be so bad,” Meliphi coaxed. “And then you can get out of this waiting room, this…” The being waved a hand at the blank whiteness. “Nothingness and on to” — The man’s eyes flickered to Meliphi. Curiosity. It always worked on humans. — “something else.” 

            The man humphed. 

            “Please?” Meliphi was desperate.

            The man sighed, and his arms dropped to his sides. “Why do I have to do this? Is this hell?”

            Meliphi burst out laughing, quickly stifling it behind a shimmering wing. “Sorry,” the being mumbled. “That heaven hell thing was all you guys. As if the entire divine doesn’t have better things to do than devote itself to your reward or punishment. No, this is purely for cataloguing purposes.”

            Meliphi nudged the replay device forward with another wing, offering what the being hoped was a friendly smile. The man sighed. “It’s just… a lot of it sucked. I don’t want to see it again, alright? Can’t you let me be dead in peace?”

            “Unfortunately, no. Look, I’d really love to do this with you all millennia, but I have other appointments, other people dying to see me.”

            “Hilarious,” the man muttered to Meliphi’s confusion. It was simply a fact. “Will you stay and watch with me at least?” he asked.

            Companionship, that strange human desire. It wasn’t standard, but why not if it got this over with sooner?

            Meliphi arranged next to the man, tucking wings and various other appendages into a semi-human sitting posture. “Let’s do this,” the being said with a grin.

            The man rolled his eyes before jamming the play button. 

            The screen flickered and went black. Meliphi’s seven eyes stared unblinkingly at it. The being had been ready to bail after year thirteen. Seventy-two more had followed. The man sighed.     

            “I… I’m sorry,” Meliphi said. “I know you said it sucked, but I… I had no idea.”

            “Eh, it wasn’t so bad. Seeing it all together like that… Damn, I did a lot.”

            Meliphi glanced over with three eyes to see him smiling. The being couldn’t even begin to understand this.

            “Would you do it again?” Meliphi asked quietly. “If you could.”

            The being always asked this question, but that was after the dead needing to be cataloged watched their lives replay while Meliphi’s seven eyes closed and the being’s consciousness popped over to the sixteenth dimension for some fresh air. Meliphi had never fully realized what the question meant.

            “I think I would,” the man said thoughtfully. “Except, maybe not that one day at the hardware store.”

            Meliphi grimaced. That was understandable.

            “Thank you,” the man said with a smile. “I think I’m ready to go now.”

            Meliphi nodded as the man next to him faded away into the something else. The being had always considered the Valori people of the Felta Galaxy, with their precognition and prehensile eye-stalks, to be as close to divinity as the universe came, but humans? Humans were the cockroaches of the universe, digging themselves in with remarkable stubbornness and continuing to exist even when all odds were against them. The being had never taken the time to consider what this meant, what such a life must be like. Earth was Time’s domain after all, and she was a merciful goddess of remarkable cruelty. Or a cruel goddess of incredible mercy. Meliphi was never sure which.

            The replay device pinged with a new arrival. Human. A young woman was sitting on the chair, wiping tears off her cheeks. Meliphi arranged into a sitting position next to her and held out one of many hands. “I’ll be right here,” the being said. “And when you’re ready, we’ll watch together.”


Photo Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hand_zur_Abmessung.jpg

The Honest Half

                The door was set into the smoke-stained stone wall and locked with a heavy black padlock. When she had been brought to the kitchens, as payment for her father’s debt to the crown, she had been told the door was to stay locked at all times. When she’d been caught with an ear pressed against the rough wood, she had been told it wasn’t to be touched, and when she’d stared at it too long, brow furrowed thoughtfully, she had been told it wasn’t even to be looked at. This was punctuated with a hand across her jaw, but it only fueled her curiosity.

                All she’d heard through the wood was a faint drip, like water. And sometimes, when she was sweeping the floors, she saw what looked like scuff marks, like something heavy had been dragged, trailing across the floor and disappearing beneath the sealed door. And as the stiff straw bristles slowly erased them, she would try to puzzle out what could be behind it.

                “Vari!” The cook’s snarl yanked her from her thoughts.

                She set the broom back in the corner and picked up the tray of food from the table. If she pretended to forget, to be busy doing other things, she hoped the cook would let her be and take the tray himself, but he never did.

               When she entered the great hall, the prince stared at her, one arm thrown over the back of his chair. “You’re late,” he said, as she set the tray on the table.

                It was a lie. Vari said nothing, serving the king first, who ignored her, then the bejeweled queen, and finally, the sneering prince. He grabbed her wrist and yanked her closer. “I said, you’re late,” he snarled.

                “Forgive me, Your Majesty. It won’t happen again,” she said, her eyes fixed on the poached egg sitting on his plate.

                His other hand grabbed her jaw, his fingers digging into her already bruised cheek as he forced her to look at him. Dishes clinked behind her. “Pass the butter, would you?” said the queen to the king, and the king did.

                “See that it doesn’t,” the prince hissed before shoving her.

                Vari tumbled to the floor. A half-eaten crust landed next to her. She snatched it and fled, wishing her hunger wasn’t greater than her pride.

                The cook was snoring in the kitchen, his feet thrown up on the hearth, the chair sagging under his enormous, greasy weight. A key ring hung from his straining belt. Almost before she knew what she was doing, Vari was sliding it free, taking the heavy black key and putting it in her pocket. She looked defiantly at the door.

                It stood still and silent, as it continued to stand later that night when she returned to the empty kitchen, barefoot, a candle in her hand.

                The padlock opened with a click, and a rush of dank air fluttered her skirts as the door creaked open. Behind it, stairs spiraled into darkness. Holding her flickering candle aloft, she descended. The drip of water, far below, grew louder, and the air became stifling, as she spun downward.

                She was dizzy when she reached the bottom of the stairs and stumbled through a black doorway. Putrid water coated the floor. She held up the candle and snorted. The light flickered off bare stone walls. The room was empty.

                “So, this is what all the fuss is about,” she said, glancing around the small chamber.

                “Depressing, isn’t it?” said a voice behind her.

                She whirled. A familiar figure stood before the stairs. With a gasp, Vari fell to her knees, hitting her forehead on the stones. The candle skittered across the water, sputtered, and went out.

                There had been no mistaking him, even wreathed in shadow. The prince.

                “Forgive me, Your Majesty,” she said. “I know I’m not supposed to be here. Please…”

                She would be lucky to get away with only a lashing. Men were killed for less.

                “Why are you here?” he asked after a moment. “You’re not the usual fare.”

                “I was curious, Your Majesty.”

                “Curious?” He laughed softly, then sniffed. “Is that… fresh air? Did you unlock the door?”

                She took the key from her pocket and extended it into the darkness. A cold hand took it. Water dripped steadily behind her.

                “You can get up,” he said.

                She pulled herself to her feet and wiped her dirty, trembling hands on soiled skirts. Something shifted in the darkness, and the candle flared to life in front of her, illuminating the prince’s grotesquely pale face inches from her own. But… he wasn’t quite the prince. Shaggy hair hung over sunken cheekbones, cheeks that just that morning had been full.

                “You’re frightened,” he said, looking down at her shaking hands. “Why? Afraid I’ll eat you?”

                He grinned with a mouth full of pointed, white teeth. She scrambled back, slipping on the wet stones, and he laughed.

                “What are you?” she gasped.

                “The prince,” he said. “Or the honest half of him, at least.”

                She backed against the far wall, pressing herself against the damp stone. “Honest half? What does that mean?”

                He sighed. “I suppose we have time for a story, but just one.” He lounged against the wall, absently running one sharp nail over the stone. “When the prince was born, the entire kingdom rejoiced. And why wouldn’t they? Another century of subjugation assured. The king and queen on the other hand were dismayed to find that another babe had appeared in the cradle beside their precious son. An exact copy. Well… almost.” His pointed grin glimmered in the candlelight. “There were certain differences. The affinity for human flesh, for one, but whenever they tried to kill the child, this abomination as they called it, the same torments were inflicted on their little prince. So, they locked me up. Fed me on beggars and desperate thieves.” He spat disgustedly. “Enough to keep me alive, to keep him alive, to keep him hungry.”

                “You… you eat people?” she stammered.

                The insolent grin returned. “We’re royalty. It’s what we do. But now…” He tossed the key into the air, snatched it, and shoved it into a tattered pocket. “He’s lived off of me long enough. It’s time to return the favor, don’t you think?”

                “Return it? What does that mean?”

                The prince but not quite the prince cocked his head. “I’m going to eat him.”

                “Won’t that kill you?” she whispered, frozen in fear.

                “Oh, I imagine it’ll hurt,” he said. “But then I’ll be free. Two made one again, and the likeness is startling, as you’ve proven. No one will know a thing has happened.”

                With a burst of courage that could only come from looking day after day into the face she feared most, Vari stepped forward. “I won’t let you,” she said, her voice shaking, her fists clenched. “I won’t let you hurt anyone.”

                The man who looked like the prince, but most certainly was not, raised an eyebrow before he sighed. “Fine.” The key clattered at her feet. “I’ll let you lock me up again, if you really want to, but I don’t think you will.”

                She fumbled with the key, her gaze fixed on the man in his circle of candlelight. “Why?”

                “You groveled like a frightened animal when you saw me, scared for your life.” He drew closer and tilted her chin up with a pointed nail. “Believe me, I know the look. You thought there was a monster in the darkness with you, but it wasn’t me you were afraid of. They locked me up, took my life to serve them, and left me so starved, I’d eat whatever scraps they gave me. Sound familiar?”

                She lifted a hand to her bruised cheek. “But you’re a monster.”

               “Am I?” he asked with a frown. “I devour to survive. What’s his excuse?”

               His face was so like the prince’s, except for the pointed teeth in his slightly open mouth. And his eyes. They looked more… human, less hungry. “If I let you out,” she said finally, quietly. “Promise me you won’t eat anyone else. Only him.”

                “I won’t make a promise I can’t keep, but I will tell you this.” He bent closer, his breath cold on her ear. “I won’t eat you. Besides,” he added when he’d straightened up. “I’m in the mood for something more”—he licked his lips—”royal.”

                His footsteps were almost silent as he followed her up the stairs, and she shivered, imagining she could feel his icy breath on her neck. When they reached the kitchen and stepped out of the dark doorway, he inhaled deeply and sighed before turning to her. “Stay here,” he said and disappeared into the hallway.

                He returned a few moments later with a thrashing bundle over his shoulder. It was mumbling frantically. The man who looked like the prince tossed it into the darkness. “Shut the door behind me,” he said and padded down the stairs.

                She shoved the heavy door closed. She could lock it, turn the key in the padlock, and they’d both be trapped forever, but eventually, someone would notice the prince was missing. Questions would be asked. Answers would be taken, willingly or not. She stood, indecisive, twisting the key in her hands until there was a soft knock on the door. She pulled it open a crack.

                The prince, or maybe not the prince, stood at the top of the stairs.

                “Smile,” she said warily.

                His teeth glistened, all pointed and white. “Worried about me?”

                She yanked the door open then slammed it behind him, locking it tight.

                “He isn’t going anywhere,” the not quite prince said, picking at his teeth with a sharp nail.

                “What happens now?” she asked.

                He took a deep breath. “I think I’ll take a bath.” And he padded out of the kitchen.

                The door in the kitchen, set into the smoke-stained stone walls, was locked with a heavy black padlock. It was not to be opened, not to be touched, not even to be looked at. The heavy black key hung on a cord around Vari’s neck. Each morning she carried a tray of food to the great hall. She served the prince first, who thanked her graciously, then the pale queen, and finally, the nervous king. The prince never smiled, but when she left the hall, looking back over her shoulder at him, the corner of his mouth would twitch up, just for a moment.


Picture Credit: Joseph Mallord William Turner
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Joseph_Mallord_William_Turner_(1775-1851)_-_The_Long_Cellar_at_Petworth_-_N05539_-_National_Gallery.jpg

Eternity

The cave glittered like a starry night. A web of paths, jagged with stalagmites, stretched across a black sea, and the lights above shimmered on its ebony surface.

Blackness muffled the crunch of pebbles beneath my feet. Branching, weaving, splitting and re-joining, it led ever onward, and I had no choice but to follow.

Across the sea of blackness, the paths become one again before a black gate, and beside it, stood a figure. Her face held the mysteries of infinity, and she glowed like a waning moon.

“Where am I?” I asked.

“Eternity,” she replied.

“Then what’s beyond the gate?”

A smile twinkled across her face. “Wonders beyond comprehension.”

I raised a hand to the stone, trying to push it open, but it was cold and solid beneath my touch. “How do I get through?”

When I turned back to her, her face was sorrowful. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But you can go no further.” She held out her translucent hands and gazed sadly down at the shards that lay within them. “This crystal was set aside for you since before time began, but it’s been broken and none can pass empty-handed.”

“What happened to it?”

“None can pass empty-handed,” she repeated, and the shards fell from her hands, raining musically over the stones.

The ground before the gate was strewn with broken crystals, their edges broken and cruel.

“Someone took mine? They used it?” My voice shuddered off the black walls. “What will happen to me?”

“You will stay in the blackness of eternity until you fade to nothing. Unless…” Her face became pensive. “If you could find another, the way would be open to you. But you must hurry.”

Already the stars were winking out, and the darkness closing in on us.

I followed the shore where the black waves lapped. What I thought were stars were crystals, innumerable, set into the walls, but they glittered high above me. The stone beneath my hands was dark, pocked and scarred, empty. The darkness drew nearer, gathering itself around me.

At last, at the base of a stalagmite, I found one last crystal, pulsing a dim blue. The black rock crumbled away at my touch, and the stone thrummed in my hand.

“It was the last,” I said when I rejoined her. “Whose is it?”

But she merely stepped aside. “The way is open.”

I laid a hand on the gate. The stone was warm now, and the crystal vibrated, humming in the blackness. She stood at the edge of the sea, watching me, her light glimmering on the waves.

My hand fell to my side, and I gave her the crystal.

“Will you stay with me?” I asked. “Until the end? I’m afraid.”

We sat together until the last star winked out and only the crystal in her hand remained. I waited, but the darkness halted at the edge of the blue light. We sat on an island of light, adrift on a sea of darkness.

“When will the end come?” I asked.

Her face glowed with a soft smile, and she pressed the crystal into my hands. “It was always yours. If you had tried to pass beyond the bounds of eternity, it would have shattered and the darkness taken you, but you chose destruction and in so doing, lived.”

“Then what will become of me?” I asked.

A smile twinkled across her face. “Wonders beyond comprehension.”

The cave glittered like a starry night, empty and silent, and at the base of a lone stalagmite nestled a single blue crystal, faintly pulsing in the darkness.


Photo Credit: Hermala
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Light_Blue_of_Indonesian_Gem.jpg

The Fall

               The mountain rose out of the clouds, a silent island adrift on white sea-billows stained crimson and violet by the setting sun. Limbs shaking, weak from exertion, he dragged himself onto the rocky ledge. Jagged black walls surged up to the rugged peak, looming over him. For three days he had climbed, driven by desperation, clinging to the bare rockface as desperately as he clung to his last shreds of hope. Now, without wings, he could go no higher.

                “Is anyone here?” His voice shuddered against the rock, lost in the whining wind. The mountain stood silent. “Please!”

                A flurry of wings beat against the wind, and he turned to see a great bird, cloaked in scarlet feathers, alight on a boulder at the edge of the shelf. Golden talons gripped the rock, and golden eyes peered out over a golden beak. He knelt in the creature’s shadow cast by the setting sun.

                “I come to make my plea to you, wings of the mountain.” He fought to keep his shaking voice steady. “I have heard that a request may be granted to those with the strength to climb and the courage to ask.”

                He awaited the bird’s response, but it only turned its head to fix its golden gaze upon him, and around them, the wind wept against the stones.

                “Please!” he cried, beating his fist against the passive mountain.

                The bird clicked its beak, and he fell silent. “Many come,” it rasped. “Seeking power. Seeking riches. Peasants, beggars, kings, and lords of men come to make their pleas. Which are you?”

                “I have little gold and less power. But tell me your price, and whatever I have, I will give.”

                The bird shook its crimson feathers, beating its wings and throwing its head to the sky. Its harsh, barking cry reverberated off the mountainside. “What use is gold to a mountain? or the word of men, fleeting as the clouds?”

                “Then tell me the cost. There is nothing I would not do!”

                The bird examined him before turning to gaze out over the darkening clouds.

                “Jump.”

                “I’ll die,” he protested, but the bird gave no response. He stood, walking to the edge and gazing down to where the wind stirred the clouds over the rocks. Frustration overwhelmed him. Three days he had climbed, three days wasted. “I have scaled the mountain!” he yelled over the wailing wind. “I do not have time for riddles or tests! Tell me your price!” The bird only stared to the horizon, its feathers ruffling beneath the fingers of the wind, and his shoulders sagged in resignation. “If I do this, will I be granted my wish?”

                The golden gaze turned upon him again. “There is no courage in the asking, only in the taking.”

                Staring into the gathering darkness, he willed himself to leap. It was that he feared, not the fall. He had only to jump, to force his feet from the rock, then there would be no turning back, only the inevitable embrace of the earth. And even if this was the price, he couldn’t turn back now. Closing his eyes, clenching his fists, he jumped.

                Nothingness surrounded him, the wind whistling in his ears. He waited for the jarring end, but when it didn’t come, he opened his eyes. He stood in the meadow at the foot of the mountain, the peak lost in the blanket of clouds. The breeze that stirred his hair was only the wind that rushed through the valley and past the tossing trees. His legs gave out, and he fell to his knees, all strength leaving him in his despair. He had failed. The mountain had refused his offering. He pressed his forehead to the earth, ripping at the grass, his wail of anger lost in the wind. The sun disappeared behind the trees and the shadows lengthened as he lay in the grass, hollow with grief.

                Pulling himself up, he turned his feet toward the small house at the edge of the meadow. The last light of day faded as he passed through the low door. Inside, his wife sat in the shadow of the dying fire, her head bent, weeping, the cascade of her hair hiding the small bundle in her arms, and his heart crumbled within him. He knelt next to her.

                “I’m sorry,” he choked, his hands shaking. “I tried.”

                When she lifted her face, he saw that she wept not from grief but with joy, with relief after long suffering and the passing of a shadow after lingering in darkness. In her arms, the tiny face once flushed and mottled was clear, and the dulled eyes were bright. Her sob choked with laughter as a tiny hand reached up to her chin.

                He sagged to the floor. The mountain had heard his plea. He tried to wipe the tears from her cheeks, but his hand passed through her as through a fog, and when he called her name, she paid no more attention to him than the rustling of the trees. At the flutter of wings, he turned to see the bird perched on the foot of the bed, its crimson form immense in the tiny house.

                “Is this death then?”

                The bird cocked its head, the pupil black in its unblinking golden eye. “Does it feel like death?”

                He remembered the darkness that had come over him at the foot of the mountain, when all hope had vanished and he had tumbled into the blackness of despair.

                “No,” he said, his cheeks wet with tears.

                He kissed their foreheads as best he could before passing back into the shadows of night. As he walked to the mountain, the great bird wheeled far above him, glinting crimson in the moonlight, and behind him, upon the windowsill, lay a single crimson feather.


Whatever I’m reading tends to seep into my writing, and this week is certainly no exception. I’m halfway through Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. The writing adventures continue…

~ R. E. Rule

Photo: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charity_red_feather_(29251735662).jpg

The Cat’s Eyes

                I slid through the open window, dropping to a crouch in the darkness. A dying fire hissed on the hearth and the wind whispered against the stone walls of the tower, but the room lay still. I pulled myself to my feet, pushing back my dark hood as my eyes adjusted from the bright moonlight outside.  

                The room was half-circular, the straight wall dividing the tower in half. Bunches of drying herbs and roots hung from the heavy beams running across the ceiling. Rough wooden chairs sat before the fire, draped with woven blankets, and shelves lined the walls, piled with books and plants and other objects I couldn’t even begin to identify. Among them, a deep blue sphere on a metal stand was glowing softly. I examined it curiously, rubbing my rough jaw. When I poked it, the light shuddered to green, and I yanked my hand back. I quickly poked it again, sighing in relief when it returned to glowing blue. A skull with enormous fangs sat next to it, but I dragged my attention away. I was getting distracted.

                Across the room, something stirred, thumping to the floor, and I whirled, yanking my dagger from my belt. I fumbled behind me for the sphere, holding it up to flood the room in faint light. Pulsating blue and green shimmered between the shadow of my fingers.

                I crept to the far wall where a heavy curtain obscured half of the thin bed and yanked it back. Nothing. But the blankets felt warm under my hand, and I hadn’t imagined the sounds. I wasn’t alone.

                “Show yourself,” I hissed.

               There was a solid thump on the table behind me, and I whirled to see two luminous green eyes and a pink nose set in a fluffy face. With a sigh, I shoved my dagger back into my belt.

                “Hi, kitty.” I scratched behind the ginger ears with my forefinger. It stared at me, unblinking.  

                I put the sphere on the table, turning my attention to the door set into the straight stone wall. There was no mechanism, just a latch and a keyhole, and the resident hadn’t left a key. I dropped to one knee, fiddling at the lock with the picks I’d slipped out of my boot.

                “I’ll only be a minute,” I said to the cat, who was still watching me from its perch.

                With a soft click, the lock released and the door creaked open into a thin hall falling away at one end to the stairwell that wound down through the tower. Across the hall, another door led to a smaller room, but it was just as locked. Balancing the sphere on my knees, I set to work again. A single emerald eye was peering around the doorjamb at me.

                “I thought witches had black cats.”

                I closed my eyes, letting my fingers do the work, one hand on the latch, the other working the mechanism. “It’s very hard to concentrate with you staring like that,” I mumbled through the pick in my teeth.

                The latch shifted, and the door opened into a black maw. For a moment, I thought the floor had given way and a bottomless pit swallowed me whole, but as I lost my balance, the sphere shifted on my lap and blue light shimmered across a stone floor and windowless walls. Inside stood more shelves piled with sacks and crates and chests. I fumbled in my pocket for my instructions, smoothing the wrinkled note against my chest before squinting at my client’s neat hand.

                “Storage room. Black chest.” I glanced around at the indistinguishable containers. “Any ideas?” I asked the cat.

               It was sitting in the doorway, tail curled around its feet, the tip idly twitching. It had no answer, and I began perusing the shelves, making my way from one end of the room to the other.

                “Your mistress is a clever one, isn’t she? No doors, no windows except for the one I came through. So tell me, is the door hidden or can she walk through solid walls? Gods, I hope not.” I glanced nervously over my shoulder, half expecting to see an angry, wrinkled face sneering at me, but there was only the cat. I nudged a sack aside with the tip of my dagger. “Do I want to know what’s in these? Probably not. I’ve seen worse, sadly. I was hired to steal someone’s brother back from a body snatcher. The stench, puss! You wouldn’t believe it. This is a vast improvement.” I sniffed the air. “Lavender? Your mistress has good taste for a vile, insidious— Ah! Here it is.”

                A solid, black chest was tucked away in the furthest corner of the farthest shelf. I carefully lifted it down to the floor with my cloak, settling cross-legged in front of it. Further inspection with the dim light revealed no lock, no hinges, no marks of any kind, not even a line where the cover should lift away.

                “This is a puzzle,” I sighed. “You wouldn’t happen to know the trick would you.”

                The cat had joined me, sitting by my knee, its green eyes fixed on the box. I tapped the blank surface with my dagger but was rewarded with only a dull clink. A tentative paw reached forward to bat at it, but I snatched the cat up.

                “Careful, puss,” I whispered, kissing its soft head before setting it in my lap and absently scratching its ears. “No telling what your mistress has up her sleeve. I suppose I could toss it out the window and pick up the pieces at the bott— Ow!”

                I winced as the cat dug its claws through my breeches into my leg.

                “No? Fine. No guarantee that would work anyway.”

                I cautiously laid my hand on the surface, hoping the leather of my gloves would protect me from any curses. The fingertips had been cut away for climbing and lockpicking, and the cool metal pulsed under my skin. I tugged off my glove with a sigh.

                “Here goes nothing.”

                The cat meowed softly in response. To my amazement, my hand sank through the black surface. When I pulled it back, my fingers had closed around the thin chain of an amulet. I held it up in front of my grinning face, the wrinkled black stone glinting in the green light.

                “Found you. Who’s the clever one now?”

                I tucked it into my pocket and shoved the chest back where I’d found it.

                “I’m tempted to take you with me, kit,” I said when both doors were locked, the sphere had been returned to its proper place, and all that was left was to scale back down the slick walls.

                With a soft chirp, the cat trotted to the hearth and leapt into a chair, wrapping its ginger tail around its feet. My foot was halfway to the sill when a soft voice spoke behind me.

                “Stay for a cup of tea?”

                I froze, my fingers gripping the edge of the window until my knuckles whitened. When I turned, the cat was gone. In its place sat a woman, watching me with the same green eyes, a ginger braid wrapped around her waist. She lifted a kettle from the hearth, kept warm by the dying coals, and the heavy smell of hydrating leaves filled the room.

                I looked longingly over my shoulder to the open window, the cool air seeping through taunting me. I could throw myself into the night and undoubtedly break my neck. If I took the time to climb down properly, there was no telling what she would do to me before I reached the ground.

                “Tea?” she asked again, holding out a chipped cup to me.

                “Is it poisoned?”

                She laughed but gave no answer, and the cup stayed stubbornly extended. I cautiously took it, lowering myself into the chair across from her, my eyes locked on her. She had a sharply pointed chin, high cheekbones, and soft freckles that had taken the place of whiskers. The cat seemed to still hover there, just below the skin. She didn’t look how I expected a witch to look, but this could be a trick too, putting on the façade of a pretty face to make men who had weaknesses for such things let their guard down. I had no intention of being one of those men. Her gaze flickered down to where my hand was nervously playing with the hilt of my dagger.

                “I frighten you.”

                “You’re a witch.”

                “You’re a thief,” she retorted.

               “You turned into a cat,” I said darkly, leaning forward, and she mirrored my movement.

                “You climbed a tower with sheer walls.”

                I had done that, but no matter how proud I was of that fact, I wasn’t going to let her distract me.

                “You live in a tower with sheer walls.”

                “I like the view,” she said with a dismissive shrug.

                “If you’re so harmless, why did my client send me to steal your amulet? An amulet he said he needed to protect himself from you.”

                “Do you know what that amulet does?” She sat back, taking a sip of tea. “It wards off warts.”

                There was no hint of a lie in her green eyes, and I yanked it out of my pocket, staring at it. “Warts?! I risked my life for this thing! Why by all the Gods would he need that?”

                “Because I gave them to him,” she said, laughing into her cup.

                That was hardly reassuring, and she sighed as I narrowed my eyes at her.

               “He said he was tired of looking at his wife, she was getting old and could I please do something about it. So I did. I made it so he couldn’t see her. The poor dear, I think she actually enjoyed it. As long as she didn’t make a sound, she could creep out of the house while he rambled on thinking she was there all the while. I expect she was just as tired of listening to him as he was of looking at her. Well, he was rather peeved and told me he wouldn’t pay until I fixed it, and I said I had done exactly as he asked. He called me a hag, and I may have been rather petty.” She twitched the end of her braid between her fingers. “I covered his feet in warts, the insufferable old pig. Told him I’d give him the cure when he paid. But I suppose he decided it was easier to hire you.”

               “Then why turn into a cat?” I demanded.

               “I was scared! It’s rather alarming to wake to a strange man crawling through your window!”

               All in a moment, I realized her feet were bare, she wore only a nightdress, and that I was not the victim in this situation but rather an armed man creeping through darkened windows.

               “I… I’m sorry I frightened you,” I muttered, rubbing the back of my neck.

               “No harm done. I realized you weren’t here for me. And I suppose I like being called clever, even if it is a thief doing the calling.”

               Everything I’d done with the cat beside me came flooding back, and I stared wide-eyed into the fire, excruciatingly aware she’d heard everything and there was no way to hide the kiss I’d placed on her ginger head. Her smirk told me she had guessed my thoughts, and I quickly cleared my throat.

               “That’s quite a trick. Think you could teach me?”

               She narrowed her eyes. “You’re already much too adept at getting into places you shouldn’t. I’m not helping you along.”

               She took another sip of her tea, her nose twitching slightly as she stared into the fire. I set my own untouched cup aside, pulling myself to my feet.

               “Well, I suppose I should be off then before the sun rises.”

               I still wasn’t sure she was going to let me leave, and my heart sank as she jumped to her feet and yanked a key from her pocket.

               “Wait,” she told me before vanishing through the door into the dark hallway.

               I could hear her rummaging around and was contemplating making a break for it when she reappeared with a vial in her hand. “Give this to the wife and tell her she can drink it whenever she wants him to see her again, though I wouldn’t blame her if she never did.”

               I tucked it into my belt, breathing a sigh of relief as I finally made it back to the window and the night air seeping in.

               “How did you get up here?” she asked, leaning over the windowsill to stare down at the sheer walls.

               “Maybe I have a little magic of my own.” I grinned, winking at her.

               Wise or not, my fear had vanished, or maybe whatever charms her thin face held were working on me. I had always had an unhealthy penchant for danger. She pursed her lips at me, but the corner of her mouth twisted into a rueful smile. “I don’t get many visitors. Witch and all that.”

               I gazed out the window, looping my thumb through my belt. “I suppose I could stop by again, if I’m in the area. Just to make sure you haven’t fallen down the stairs and broken your neck.”

               Her laugh followed me as I climbed into the darkness, feeling for holds on the slick surface as I slowly descended.

               “You could use the door next time,” she called, leaning out the window.

               I grinned up at her. “Where’s the fun in that?”

               When I looked again, a ginger cat sat on the sill, watching me, idly flicking its tail, its green eyes glowing in the moonlight.