This story is by Chevy Watherston and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Rirromvale was the jewel of twelve worlds. When the Great Flame rose and spread her evil throughout the realms, Rirromvale was where her enemies crawled to stand against her.
The Shadowknights were those who reached down a hand to pull them to their feet.
With her arm in a sling, her breaths rattling in her bruised throat and rattling her broken ribs, Odessa Bird didn’t look like the legendary figures carved into the surrounding marble pillars. They guarded the Ripplegate, which looked, to the untrained eye, like a giant mirror edged in gold.
The trained eye knew that mirrors were in fact doors between worlds, points were universes caressed one another’s edges.
“You don’t have to do this,” said Raahi, pleadingly.
Odessa shook her head. He gritted his teeth.
“If you wanted to go, you’d have gone already!” he snarled.
“I love this city at dusk. It glows. With all the smoke…this might be the only place where the aftermath doesn’t look ugly,” Odessa croaked, in reply.
He was fighting tears. “They’re calling you a coward. They’re saying you’re fleeing like a dog!”
Odessa tilted her chin slightly to look up at him. “Retiring. Not fleeing.”
She turned and limped slowly towards the Ripplegate.
He watched her go with a heavy heart. The spells they had cast to defeat the Flame had shattered the pathways between the worlds; those might be the last words he’d say to his best friend for a very long time. They poisoned his tongue. He turned away.
Small towns have a fever living in them. It strangles the youth and softly kills the elderly. Small towns have legends and stories sprung from the gossip and half whispers.
It could be a witch. Or an old man who killed his family and hid their bodies under the floorboards.
This town had a groundkeeper’s cottage for the lagoon reserve. When she arrived to take the post, the locals whispered she was a runaway, from the law or an abusive husband. She was skittish as a feral at first, appearing only to buy groceries in a cap pulled low.
When a truck backfired and she dived away, stood slowly with shaking limbs and trembling lips, they realised she was a veteran.
“You leave her alone. We was that young, when we came back,” Old Jeff shut them up at the Sunday market when they questioned the assumption.
The months dragged on before she finally made a social appearance at the local show day. She couldn’t tell them what war she fought in, she’d said with a shrug that left everyone all the more intrigued. She was too young to have served in Iraq, but maybe Afghanistan. She spoke fluent Chinese to the family who ran the fish and chip shop, and sometimes sat out the back with the old man smoking sharp Chinese cigarettes and speaking rapid-fire Cantonese.
When a couple got lost in the national park, while overnight temperatures dropped below freezing, it was the strange Odessa Bird who found them.
“She just came out of the mist like a ghost,” they said. They said she’d found them on foot, with a compound bow on her shoulder and a grin on her face.
In the years that had passed since then, Odessa simply faded into the background. She appeared at the grocery store and made little dreamcatchers from the feathers of the lagoon’s waterbirds, to sell at the Sunday market. Her one and only point of contention was the lagoon. She guarded the place with the bared teeth, single-minded tenacity of a particularly stubborn bulldog. The local teenagers used to use the back of the lagoon, where it faded into the national park, as a party spot. The local do-gooders used to find home-made bongs and empty beer bottles littered through the pines.
That all came to a grinding halt when Odessa moved into the groundskeeper’s cottage.
There was a confrontation that apparently involved Odessa’s shotgun. Shortly after, the local youths found another place to get high and have semi-public sex, and people stopped venturing onto the lagoon after dark.
Of course, that was when the stories started. Tales of a figure appearing out of the smooth surface of the lagoon, of a spirit stalking Odessa’s house. There was talk she was cursed, a Satan-worshipper or a witch with a shadowy familiar.
How Mavis had gotten talked into venturing on the lagoon at night had less to do with ghost stories and more to do with the two months of Christmas holidays filling her calendar like a jail sentence.
“So. You’re, like, a foster kid right?” asked Jack Wesley, leaning over the handlebars of his pushbike.
Mavis shrugged, glancing up at him. “Yeah.”
“That must suck,” he commented, sympathetically.
She concentrated on peeling the label off a warm bottle of beer so he wouldn’t see her roll her eyes. He was fishing for horror stories, for the gory details of life in the system.
When her beer was dregs, she got bored and headed down the hill, over the wooden bridge to the marshy path that cut through the wetlands. The stars shone on the black water and there was the infamous Odessa Bird, standing at the edge.
Mavis froze, the crunch of the gravel under her boots tattling. She carefully crouched, sinking into the embrace of the thick flax bushes.
“I know you’re there,” said Odessa, authority ringing even in her quiet voice.
“Shit,” said Mavis softly, about to stand when the moonlight around Odessa congealed and thickened before standing, taking human shape.
A gasp rattled Mavis’ throat and she couldn’t feel her fingers.
The figure’s sex was ambiguous, dark-skinned and blue-eyed, dressed in a robe made of night.
“There is a child here-” the figure began.
“Yes, there is. And since you were careless enough to let an infant fall through a Ripplegate, then didn’t care enough to retrieve her, I’ve no sympathy nor the motivation to help you smuggle her back,” Odessa interrupted, harshly.
The figure growled, and lunged forward. Odessa twisted elegantly, and when the vicious stiletto came for her heart, she spun it aside with a flick of her arm. She knocked them down and stood on their throat.
“I am warning you. You are no match for me. You never were. Now go home,” she ordered, her breath slow and even.
They gasped and writhed like a fish before surrender stilled their limbs. With a choked off snarl, the figure melted back into a reflection off the water.
Odessa turned, scanned the shrubbery lining the path. Mavis held her breath.
“Coming out? Figure you might have some questions,” Odessa said.
“One or two,” Mavis admitted shakily when she was standing next to Odessa.
Odessa sat down on a bench, folded her arms. She gave a nod.
“What the fuck was that, what are you, what is going on and have I been drugged?” the girl’s voice cracked, went high and tight.
“You haven’t been drugged.”
Uncomforted, Mavis shook her head and inhaled deeply.
“Did you recognise him?” asked Odessa casually.
Mavis stared at her. “Did I…you mean the thing that just appeared out of the water and then disappeared? No. I don’t usually recognise figments of my imagination.”
“Funny you should mention that…” Odessa commented. “Have you ever seen a face in the mirror that’s not yours?”
Panic, fear and anger, lanced across Mavis’ face. “How…” she breathed, then shook herself.
“No. Look, no. You’re insane, or I’m insane, whatever: I’m going home.”
She didn’t look back.
Odessa leaned through a window into Rirromvale, listening to Raahi’s serious tone.
“The court decided. You can’t ignore a verdict. What more proof do you need?!”
“To rip someone from the only universe she has ever known? More!”
“She doesn’t belong there, Odessa!”
“We. Don’t. Know. That,” she ground out.
A knock came at the door. Odessa held up a finger to silence Raahi.
“Who is it?” she called.
“Uh…Mavis…Mavis Darling? The girl from…last night?”
Odessa blinked heavily at a brewing headache. “We may be about to find out,” she told him pointedly. “Stay there.”
Mavis was biting her lip when Odessa opened the door.
“How’d you know about the mirror thing? Coz all the psychs know is I had an imaginary friend who lived in the mirror when I was eight,” she blurted, a sharp edge on her words. “
She was tough, Odessa realised. “So do I,” she said in the end and swung the door open.
The girl gaped at the dark figure standing inside the mirror’s antique frame. He bowed his head in greeting, as the sun reflecting off the glass encasing him.
“It’s called a Ripplegate; a passage between worlds. There was a war, the war I fought in, and most of these gates are now closed. This one, and the one in the lagoon, are two of the last,” Odessa explained softly.
Mavis was silent for a long time.
“Can you show me?” she whispered.