Rhoda, Revisited

Rhoda - Flash PromptKilling the rabbit had been way easier than getting rid of that annoying Daigle boy. And no one would care -this time – about the marks her tap-shoes left on the creature’s head.

She’d smile pretty and tell them she did it to save Mrs. Danforth’s vegetable garden.

And they’d believe her, her aunt and uncle would, because they didn’t know the way her mother had. (Mother was no longer a problem. The spanking had been the older woman’s last act in soooo many ways.)

They’d just cuddle her and bundle her off to a hot bath and bring her cookies and milk in bed, and take her clothes to be cleaned.

They wouldn’t notice that there was blood spray. She’d tell them she strangled the poor thing.

And they’d believe her.

They always did.

And all she had to do was smile.

 

 

Marigolds

0324 - CatrinaShe misses them, of course. Her husband, her children, her sisters, her friends.

It’s been so long since she’s kissed her little ones goodnight and breathed in the scent of their youth and innocence: dirt and soap and rosin and chocolate.

Bella, the ballerina, always slept on her back with one leg straight and the other en passé.

Simon was her baseball player, and more than once she’d had to slide his glove off his hand in the middle of the night. That was part of his scent, too: the oiled leather of his catcher’s mitt.

Victor, her husband, had a stronger scent: fresh-mowed grass, pipe tobacco (he never would give up that thing) clean cotton and the musky tang of his sweat mixed with the slightly aquatic aroma of his favorite shampoo/body wash combination product.

How she longed to slip into bed beside him, to rest her head on his chest and let his heartbeat lull her into peaceful sleep. How she missed those early mornings when the kids were still asleep and they came together in the pre-dawn starlight, quietly, but with such intensity, passion, and love.

She would never stop wanting that man.

Her sisters were more distant. Perfume and coffee, red wine and gardenias… that was them. And her friends? More wine, coffee, arrachera tacos and guacamole with fresh cilantro, lime, and salt, and Indio beer.

She remembers their scents almost more than their faces or voices. She’s forgotten many important events, but their love for each other is indelible.

And tonight she will see them all.

She can feel it: the thinning of the veil, the strengthening of the old magic. She can see the shapes of the women and men dressed as Catrinas and roaming around the town square. She can sense the brightness – color and aroma both – of the marigolds, and she follows the pull of the invisible string tugging at her navel.

They are all there, at her ofrenda. There’s a plate of the shrimp mole she loves, and another of chocolate-raspberry torte. Her wedding dress is there, and her collection of fountain pens, and her favorite sun-hat.

She feels wetness on her cheeks and realizes that she’s made the crossing.

Her husband is there, alone for the moment, and she caresses his face, smiling at the texture of the stubble on his chin. He turns, and his smile lights the night. He touches a button on the cd-player (the ancient ‘boom box’ she had in college, when they met) and their song wafts through the tented space.

Beyond the awning and the posts, the masses circulate, carrying Oaxacan hotdogs wrapped in blue corn tortillas, pausing at each ofrenda to comment on the photographs, the drawings, the food.

The children will be back soon, and her sisters, she knows, but for now it is only herself and Victor.

“Dance with me,” he says as the old-style waltz music fills their immediate vicinity. “Can you?”

“Tonight, I can,” she says.

The children, the friends, the relatives, they come and see Victor turning leading her wispy, ethereal form in the dance, and as much as they, too, want to spend time with her, they step away.

When dawn comes, and she must leave, she is frozen by his question. “Will I see you before next year?”

“Plant marigolds,” she tells him. “I’ll come, if you plant marigolds.”

But he won’t remember that instruction once the sun has fully risen, and she won’t really be strong enough to cross over again until the next year’s celebration.

And it is a celebration, this day. It’s a celebration of love and joy and connection, and the knowledge that even death can only pause those things, never eliminate them completely.

 

 

Bottled Up

0416 - Potion 36At first glance, it was an ordinary bottle. Clear glass, with a matching (rubber tipped) stopper to keep it airtight, apparently empty, labeled with a number. Thirty-six.

She’d found it on the beach while walking her dog. Well, really, the dog had found it. He hadn’t picked it up, because he was a pointer, and didn’t fetch for anything. Even playing ball in the back yard, the dog would locate the toy, point to it, and, if she didn’t come to pick it up fast enough, look back with an expression that clearly said If you wanted it back, you should have adopted a retriever.

So, the dog had pointed, and she had done the fetching.

And the thing is, she isn’t sure why she decided to take the bottle home. She didn’t typically pick up litter (she should probably feel guilty about that, but she didn’t), and she wasn’t the type to collect beach glass.

But something about this bottle was a little off-kilter. Maybe it was the condition: old, sure, but intact. And pretty clean, if slightly scarred by tides and saltwater.

It just… spoke to her.

So, she took it home, and left it on her desk, next to the mug full of pens to the right of her monitor. Eventually, she’d wash it out, maybe discard the stopper, or leave it in the junk drawer and turn the bottle into a bud vase. She’d always liked using glasses and jars and old candle holders instead of actual vases.

Days went by. She forgot about the bottle, but on the night of the full moon, she noticed a shadow inside, almost like a person. She held it to the light, but that didn’t make anything solidify, it was still just a vague, shadowy outline.

Opening the bottle was likely an unwise idea, but she couldn’t help it. Just as when she’d chosen to cart it home, the thing was speaking to her.

Only this time, the speaking was literal.

Let me out… please! Let me out!

She pulled the stopper, expecting the worst. A demon maybe, or a trapped djinn. She expected her dog to start barking his fool head off, but he couldn’t be bothered to leave his place on the sofa, and as far as she could tell, all that was released was some air that smelled of saltwater.

The full moon crept across the sky.

She took the open bottle to the coffee table and stared at it.

Nothing happened.

The sun made its first appearance, while the moon was still faintly evident in the sky, and she gave up and went to bed. Her dreams were bizarre that night – morning – whatever. They were filled with sailing ships, storm-tossed seas, rum-running and cheating boyfriends. And then she had the feeling of being trapped and immobile. She tried to breathe, but the air was stale and swampy. And when she tried to sit up, she hit her head on the window.

Wait… window?

She opened her eyes to a sunlit room, but it wasn’t her bedroom. It was her living room, but everything was oversized, and she couldn’t seem to move from her spot.

Realization came in the form of a demonic red eye on the other side of what she now recognized as a curve of salt-etched glass. The eye blinked, and suddenly it was blue – the same blue as her own.

A hand curved around the bottle, and lifted her up, and she saw the demon properly. But the horned head morphed into a facsimile of her own face, and when she looked down at herself, all of her color was gone. She felt small. She felt transparent. She was… trapped.

She tried yelling for her dog, but the fickle creature was standing next to her newly-made double with his leash in his mouth, and his tail wagging.

He gave a single bark and the demon with her face and body laughed in her voice. “Sure, let’s go to the beach, boy. We should get rid of this thing.”

The demon clipped the leash onto her dog’s collar and tossed the bottle – her prison – into her tote.

When they got to the beach, the demon walked out to the end of the jetty and hefted the bottle once more. With a strong arm (apparently the demon had inherited her softball pitching arm) she threw it into the sea.

A magical creature could have lasted centuries in a glass bottle, even in the depths of the ocean. But she wasn’t magical. She was just a young woman who’d found a bottle on the beach. She was unconscious before the bottle sank into darkness, and dead by moonrise.

And the demon?

She lived a happy stolen life in her stolen body, with her stolen dog.

As demons do.

Four Horsewomen of the Post-Apocalypse

0417 - Four Horsemen

“And behold, a pale horse and its rider’s name was Death,” Margo quoted. She asked her horse to pause at the top of what had once been the main street of the city they were entering and waited as her companions caught up to her.

“Are you casting me as Hades then?” Helen asked, drawing up her own mount beside her wife’s. “Not sure that’s flattering.”

“But don’t you feel like that’s who we are?” Margo challenged. “Look at this city. The buildings are burned out husks. Nature is weaving itself back over the framework, and what are we doing? Picking over the carcasses of what’s left behind.”

“Child, you fret too much.” The warm words came from Mother Ruth, the leader of their community, and this… hunting party. “We did not cause this atrocity, we survived the actions of those who did.”

“But we’re still gaining from it, Mother,” Margo complained. “How does that make us any better?”

“Because we have accepted the challenge of rebuilding the world,” the older woman answered in a tone that brooked no argument.

Beyond her, the fourth member of their party released her left hand from the reins and pointed. She didn’t speak – hadn’t spoken since the Day of Destruction many decades before – but her meaning was clear. They were meant to move forward.

“I’ll lead this time,” Helen said.

“Just because you don’t want to be Hades,” Margo teased.

“Well, that… but also it’s my turn.” And she urged her horse forward, assuming correctly that the others would fall in line behind her.

At the center of the city, they found their destination. It was not, as Margo had expected, Mother Ruth’s home church, or even the great cathedral in the center of the broken metropolis. Rather, it was the public library.

“Books?” Margo asked. “We’re here for books.”

“Books, yes,” Mother Ruth confirmed. “But also, to see if the computer network here might still be working, to find out if there are other survivors somewhere.”

Technology had all but died after the last war, and the surviving engineers and computer and telecom experts were just beginning to bring it back. Electricity had only been reasonably reliable for about a year, and with it, refrigeration.

“And if there are? Do we reach out?” The question was Helen’s this time.

“We give them directions to neutral ground and invite a meeting. We don’t know what other survivors might be like. Some might be quite violent.”

But while the network was still up – shielded as it was in the basement of the old building – there was no sign of anyone using it. They left one machine logged in to a message board they’d set up. Then they’d filled their saddle bags with books – how-to manuals, cookboks, gardening guides, and a few novels – and made their way back outside.

The horses were waiting patiently.

Mother Ruth helped their silent companion to climb aboard her mount, then settled herself on her own saddle with surprising grace. Margo and Helen were not quite as graceful, simply because they hadn’t had the same years of practice, but they were competent, and the party soon began their journey back out of town.

The light was fading as they left the city, and somewhere behind them a wolf howled, causing Margo to shiver. Closing her eyes against the fear, she imagined the four of them as they must look to anyone still hiding within the crumbling stone and rusted steel, and the bible verse came back into her head.

Helen and Ruth and their voiceless friend might not like the comparison, but it was people like them who had destroyed the world, and it was they themselves who were picking over the bones.

“And I saw, and behold, a pale horse, and its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him; and they were given power over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.” ~Revelations, 6:8, RSV translation.

Musings of a Solitary Ghost

Ghost in the WallCold.

She’s constantly cold now. And damp. She can’t even remember what warmth feels like, but she also can’t get to the place where she’s numb enough to fall asleep and linger there.

She doesn’t remember sleep, either.

She exists in a state half-way between dreams and waking, in a kind of perpetual twilight punctuated only by the periodic beams from the beacon at the top of the lighthouse.

She thinks there used to be a man who lived there, and took care of it, but she’s heard people talking, strange people that come into her house but never greet her, and they say it’s been automated for at least a decade.

Time has become meaningless.

There is no day, no night, no hunger or thirst.

Just cold and damp and dimness.

She can walk through walls now. She’s pretty sure that’s a newly acquired skill. She can walk through walls and float through floors, but she can also walk across the broad wooden planks that have been under her feet for as long as she can remember.

She misses her family.

She is surrounded by families that are not hers.

They move into her house and make changes. The old kitchen with its red hand-pump at the sink now has a shiny metal faucet with a single lever pointing one way for hot and the other for cold, and the streams come out mixed together.

The big bathroom where she used to soak in the claw-foot tub and stare at the lighthouse through the round window has a stall shower now, in one corner, and instead of coal, the house is heated with hot air forced through vents.

Or so she overhears.

But she can’t feel the heat, or stand in the shower, or work the taps. Her hands can’t grip, can’t touch.

So, the families come, and they talk about their lives and she drinks it all in. She watches as they change the paint and repaper the walls and load in new furniture.

But they never stay.

The lighthouse beacon is too bothersome, they say, and there are odd draughts in the house, and sometimes they see movements in the mirrors.

The families leave, and she remains.

She’s fairly certain she’s supposed to be somewhere else, and that there’s something she’s supposed to accomplish before she can go there, but she doesn’t know what or where or when.

And so, she walks… paces, really. She walks through the house and sees the old colors and furniture overlaying the new, and when the lighthouse spins to cast its beacon she thinks she might dance in the light.

Or maybe… just maybe… she’ll climb aboard and see where it takes her.

 

His Lips

0105 - His LipsShe runs into him  – quite literally – outside the coffee shop across the street from old campus, the one where they make the mochas with proper bitter chocolate and understand that whipped cream shouldn’t be sweetened.

“Excuse me,” she says, “I’m so sorry, I was looking at my phone and…” Said phone has fallen to the ground and she crouches to retrieve it rather than bend. When she looks up it’s his mouth that catches her attention. His mouth. His lips. Pressed together. Plush in a way that men’s lips typically aren’t.  Kissable.

In that moment, the stranger in his vintage clothes and the hat that obscures his eyes has become the object of her desire.

He doesn’t speak, but extends a hand to assist her as she releases her squat and stands straight. “Thank you,” she says. “Again, I’m sorry.”

He touches his hand to the brim of his hat and disappears into the shadowed twilight of the university district.

A week passes by, then two.

Halloween is over. Thanksgiving is coming fast.

There’s an annual party at the university, and as a professor, she is required to attend. It’s hosted by the English department this year, and the folklorists have chosen the theme: firelight. They’ve got fires in the giant fireplaces at either end of the hall and set the tables with lanterns of living flame.

The portraits of past presidents, past tenured professors, high up on the walls, look down in judgement and envy. Possibly more of the latter.

She half-expects to see him there, immortalized in oil paint.

Instead she spies him over by the hot hors d’oeuvres. He’s serving himself some of the stuffed mushroom caps.

Across the room, she finds herself once again entranced by his lips.

She goes to him, observes that the chafing dish that once held mushrooms is now empty. He must be watching her, too, because a cool hand touches her shoulder and he is offering a second fork, gesturing for her to share his plate.

“You’re very kind,” she says.

He gives the slightest of shrugs and leads her to a quiet alcove.

They spend the evening watching the rest of the party. They leave together; he escorts her to her apartment.

“Do you want to come in?” she asks.

He touches his hat again, and the muscles in his cheeks contract slightly, drawing his lips – god! Those lips! – into a subtle smile.

They share a pot of tea, and then a bottle of wine.

She does all the talking, but somehow, he conveys his opinions on her observations. Yes, Ayn Rand is overrated. No, modern students don’t read enough romantic poetry.

As dawn light turns the window shades pink, they each move to the center of her sofa. He takes her hands in his. She leans close, under his hat-brim with him, and touches her lips to his.

In the space of a kiss, she understands… the hat hides his demon eyes from human gawking, and also protects them from bright light. And his lips hide teeth meant for cutting and chewing human flesh.

His voice… when she hears it… is mesmerizing. Julian Sands married to Alan Rickman mesmerizing. He tells his story in a few succinct sentences. His father was a demon, his mother his human mate. When she learned what he was, his mother made his father promise that he could live a human life. He chose to dwell among books.

* * *

“Why don’t you speak?” She asks, much later in the morning, when she’s resting against his smooth chest.

“My voice is where my power lies,” he explains. “If I’d wooed you with words, you would be in thrall, and I didn’t want that, don’t want that.”

“Is that what happened to your mother?”

“Yes. But becoming pregnant broke the thrall, and now she remains with my father out of choice.”

“It wasn’t coincidence, was it? Me running into you?”

“No.” His answers are brief, but she hears the more in them.

“How long can this last?” She means the connection they’ve forged.

He answers by kissing her.

“You’re wrong you know,” she tells him, several days later, as they’re walking to the coffee shop as the season’s first snow falls around them. “It’s not your voice that draws people in. At least, it wasn’t with me.”

“What was it then? The hat? The clothes?”

“No,” she says. “Guess?”

In the privacy of a darkened doorway, he smiles at her with a closed mouth covering his deadly teeth, and she stretches a gloved finger up to caress his lips.

Coda?

0175 - PianoInstruments are meant to be played. They’re not to be left alone, untuned, unused , unloved.

 

They have souls, you know. Not fully-formed ones such as ours, mind you. Rudimentary souls. Proto-souls, you might call them.

 

Or maybe they’re not souls at all. Doesn’t matter. The name you give them isn’t important. That you recognize that there’s a spark of something – a spark of some THING – suspended in the wire and the wood, or curled up inside the brass of the bell, or hiding tucked up against the reed – that’s what matters.

 

And those things. Those THINGS… when they’re ignored long enough they go crazy trying to make music without a human hand, a human heart, to guide them.

 

You know how when you walk by a cello on a stand, sometimes you hear a hint of resonance? Or you think you hear a piano note late at night?

 

Those are them. The sparks trying to become flame.

 

We talk about great musicians being connected to their instruments, playing as if the violin or saxophone an extension of their body? That’s because the spark has found ignition.

 

A raw, new, unplayed instrument will fade into dust.

 

But one that’s felt the loving touch of elegant hands on its keys, the special balanced weight of sticks being held to drum, the soft slide of a virtuoso playing a glissando – those instruments quite literally go mad.

 

They cry out loneliness in crazy concertos that fold in upon one another like cobwebs. They fill empty rooms with the dissonant sounds of their grief.

 

“I’m sorry, ma’am, what were you saying about the music room?” Sarah had been lost in thought, seeing the poor old piano.

 

“Piano comes with the house” the woman in the gold blazer repeated. “Previous owner was a classical star until arthritis killed his career.”

 

Sarah made some polite response as she and Gold Blazer Woman moved to the next room in the walkthrough. But she cast a final glance at the deteriorated instrument and the collection of empty chairs.

 

“Don’t worry.” She willed the ancient Steinway to hear her thoughts. “I’ll save you.”

Basic Cookery

0412 - DemonFnarglyl sprawled on the dining room floor leafing through his granddam’s cookery books. He had no plans to actually make anything. He just enjoyed reading the recipes and trying to imagine what the various exotic dishes might taste like. Far too many of them seemed to involve vegetation like crabgrass and dandelion greens. Granddam always said that greens were good for his digestion, but he was pretty sure she made him eat them because her granddam had made her eat them, too.

He tossed aside a book that was dedicated to plant-based foods: Ivies for Immortality. Being immortal sounded cool, until you realized that it meant leaving your friends and your family all alone and getting old and broken but never actually dying. Pheh. They could keep their immortality, especially if it meant a diet based on ivy.

Although… the poison kind did have a nice bite to it.

He skipped over three books about stewing roadkill – not interesting enough, and then he found a book that was different than the rest. Instead of having a brightly colored cover with pictures of sumptuous food, this one was black, and leather, and smelled faintly dangerous.

And it didn’t have a title.

After glancing around to make sure Granddam wasn’t paying too close attention, Fnarglyl opened the book, and began paging through it. Some of the pages had recipes, but they didn’t seem to be for food, and they involved drawing symbols on the floor in chalk… or blood.

Just as he was reading a chapter called “Humans: How to Summon and Care for The Pink People,” his grandmother interrupted him. “Glylly, sweetie, it’s time for your bath, and then into bed.”

“Aww, Gran, can’t I have just a few more minutes?” he asked.

“Not tonight, Glylly. You know I have my garden club tomorrow morning, and I have to be up early.”

Fnarglyl reshelved the cookbooks, but the black one, he tucked under a wing. Granddam usually left him alone for the two or three hours she was with her gardening friends. Most of the ingredients for summoning a human were in the house, and she’d never notice if he drew a chalk circle down in the basement… at last, he didn’t think she would.

“Glylly… don’t dawdle.”

“Sorry, Gran,” he said, and got up. He kissed her cheek and caressed her hand with his tail and slid past her toward the bathroom. He was almost sure she’d looked at him funny, but she hadn’t said anything.

Tomorrow, he thought, I’m going to meet a human for the first time!

He hoped they didn’t bite.

 

 

Monster See, Monster Do

0323 - Stolen Toy Monster“Becky, that’s mine! You can’t take it!” Harry yelled after his sister as she goose-stepped across the house toward the kitchen, her black patent-leather shoes tap-tap-tapping across the wooden floor. “Mom! Becky stole my Human Hammer action figure.”

Their mother didn’t answer, but Becky yelled back. “It’s not your toy, Harry; you stole it from an assigned Child, and you know you’re not supposed to take their stuff. You’re only allowed to move it to an Odd Location where they will find it weeks later and be Very Confused about how it got there.”

“I didn’t steal it! It was in the trash. See how the arm is hanging loose?”

“Stealing from the Humans’ trash is still stealing. Though trash is certainly where this thing belongs. Pink skin? Only two eyes? It’s disgusting. And it probably uses that hammer to murder innocent Monsters!”

Harry came out of his room to confront his sister. “So, what if it does? It’s just a toy, Becky. You had a Firefighter Fred doll two years ago, and I remember you used to let him pretend-kiss your Slithery Sallie doll. Monsters and Humans killing each other is way less weird than Monsters and Humans kissing.”

“That’s not the point, Harold,” Becky said, invoking her brother’s first name.  “Firefighters are heroes to monsters and humans. They don’t hunt and kill monsters. Besides. I’m older now and I know better.”

The children continued their argument, unaware that their mother was watching from behind her half-open bedroom door. When the verbal shots escalated to tentacle pulling and slime spitting, the older woman sighed, and slid out of the cool darkness to confront her offspring.

“Rebecca Jane and Harold Maurice be silent.”  She didn’t raise her voice. A firm tone and the invocation of middle names was enough.

“Sorry Mom,” Harry said.

“Mother, did we wake you?” Becky asked.

Their mother didn’t address either statement directly. Instead, she said, “I’m going to say this once, and I expect you to remember. Playing with human toys is a phase we all go through. Becky, if I remember correctly, your Firefighter Doll was left behind when your Child’s family moved.”

“Well, yes.”

“And Harry, dear, you know you’re not supposed to scavenge from the Humans’ trash bins.”

“I know.”

“You are almost eight hundred and two, Harry. I know their toys are tempting, but if they catch us playing with them, we cease to be scary.”

“Okay…”

“Becky, give him the doll.”

Becky held the thing pinched between two fingers, as if it smelled like roses, or something equally disgusting. “Fine. Take it.”

Harry snatched back his prize, and looked toward their mother intending to thank her but the older Monster wasn’t done.

“Harry, you may continue to play with the… Human Hammer… for one more week, and then you must return it to your Child’s house.”

“But they threw it away!”

“I know. But our job is to Scare Children. A toy returning from the trash after a week – “

” – twelve days – “

“Don’t interrupt me, Harry. A toy returning from the trash will be Very Scary. You might even get a Putrid Pentacle for the act.”

“A Putrid Pentacle? Really?”

“Really,” their mother said. “Becky was nine hundred before she got her first one.”

“Cool!”

“Mom!”

Both children responded at once.

“I’m going back to bed for a while. All this sunny weather is making my head hurt. I expect you to honor our agreement, Harold… and Rebecca…”

“Yes, mother?”

“Mary-Janes are a Human affectation. Do we need to have our talk about proper attire again?”

Becky rolled her many eyes at her mother and said nothing.

“I didn’t think so.”

And the older Monster glided back to her room and closed the door, praying her children never learned of her addiction to Ghost Hunters.

 

Cold Reflection

0406 - Armored Visions

Katja had gone through hell to acquire the gazing ball. She’d fought off zombie soldiers and negotiated with dragons. She’d waded through a river of a viscous substance she was grateful she couldn’t identify, and she’d found the portal from the Otherworld to her own. She’d even managed to activate it correctly, despite the fact that the instruction manual was printed in a language she didn’t speak, and likely translated from another she’d never even heard of.

Now, though, it was time to put her prize to use.

Some gazing balls allowed you to revisit the past and make sense of the choices you’d made and the paths upon which those choices had set you. Others allowed you to glimpse the future, to prepare yourself for what might be coming.

But this gazing ball…

This gazing ball let you face your darkest fear.

That’s why, after the ritual bathing, and a simple meal of fruit, cheese, and nuts, Katja had dressed herself for battle. After all she was a mighty warrior. Her darkest fear was obviously going to be an ogre or an orc or a swamp monster… something bigger and stronger than she was, with teeth and claws instead of an external weapon… or maybe in addition to one.

Katja uttered the ritual rules and turned the ball three times, widdershins.

Then she waited.

She was expecting the crystal sphere to grow cloudy with mystical smoke. She was expecting the lights to flicker, or even burn out, as live flame was wont to do… instead, she gazed into the formerly clear ball and saw her own reflection.

Startled, she sat back in her chair, as by creating space between the gazing ball and her body it would break the connection.

Instead, her mirror self simply shook her head in silent chastisement.

Katja sat up straight again and squared her shoulders. Then she looked – really looked – at the other version of herself. That woman was not clad in a warrior’s armor, but a peasant’s dress. Her hair wasn’t rich with color, but faded and wispy. Her face, too, was lined with age, and her eyes seemed sad.

“What happened to you?” she asked.

Mirror-Katja held a finger to her lips, indicating that she couldn’t communicate with speech. She beckoned, meaning that Katja should lean closer.

Down and down, she bent, until her forehead touched the glass. There was a crack, and then blackness, and then she was looking at her reflection again, but it was in reverse. The face in the gazing ball was young and fresh, and wearing sturdy armor.

Panicking, Katja turned away, hoping that her fear was unfounded. A polished looking glass hung on the wall and she moved to check her true reflection. But something was wrong. Her body hurt when she moved, and her legs felt weak.

Still, she shuffled to the glass and peered in, seeing, not her youthful self but the aged version from the gazing ball.

She hurried, as best as she could, back to the table, where the second gazing ball waited.

And she was filled with horror.

The crystal sphere on this table was not a different one, not half of a set, or even a temporary manifestation, it was the very same ball she’d struggled so hard to acquire. She looked into it again, and saw the other Katja, whom she now realized was her future self, laughing.

Her worst fear hadn’t been any kind of creature she could battle, after all.

Her worst fear had been her own old age and failing body.

Katja reached for the sphere again, leaning toward it to attempt to reverse the switch. If she could just touch it with her forehead once more…

But her reflected self, her future self residing in her youthful body, was too quick. She took her sword and sliced through the air, cracking the original sphere in two.

Her sons, grown men, found their mother’s cold corpse with her head on the table two days later.

The gazing ball was nowhere to be seen.