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The Song of the Last Siren

The cottage stood squat in the centre of the forest. Despite its dilapidated appearance, it was a proud structure. It had survived the dark, unforgiving forest that surrounded it, not to mention countless attempts of arson. It had a lot to be proud of.

 

Kendra knew the cottage was not magical, but the person who lived there was. At least, she hoped they were. So many of her childhood fairytales turned out to be false. This place might have been nothing more than a stubborn old building built long ago by people who were better at infrastructure than the men in her village.

 

She shook her head. No, the stories must be true. She had walked straight until the forest disappeared into darkness. There was no light, no sound. A black hole, a vacuum, until she bumped into the wall of the witch’s cottage. She remembered the weight of the dark pressing down on her as she walked like she was carrying a month’s worth of grain on her back while wading through mud. She remembered the silence roaring in her head, waiting for it to be broken by the howl of the wolves that had hunted her moments before. She remembered hoping to hear the wolves. After all, they were a lesser evil than the demons rumoured to stalk the centre of the forest, circling the cottage like vultures around a freshly dead meal.

 

But the wolves did not follow her after she had stepped into the heart of the forest. They had whined as she stepped over the line and cowered back into the thick of the trees. She did not doubt that they would be waiting when she emerged. If she emerged. Kendra had no intention of returning.

 

Despite the bright light emanating from the cottage, the darkness outside remained complete.  Kendra had to feel her way from the wall to the door. She noticed the dampness of the stone, the slime slick against her palm. This would not be strange, except the forest around it was bone dry. Months of drought threatened to set the entire place ablaze, her village included. But her village’s fate was not her problem. Not anymore. 

 

Finally, the rough stone gave way to the softness of a rotting wooden door. Kendra’s hand slid over the slim panels until she found the infamous iron knocker. With a deep breath, she lifted the heavy ring. She held the iron up and her breath in.  Once the knocker hit the wood, there was no turning back. The witch would be awakened and demand her due. Kendra closed her eyes and released both. 

 

Time stretched out as she waited for the door to open, for the witch to appear. She knew better than to knock again. Those who rushed the woman inside did not die easy. The wait became excruciating. Uncertainty crept in once more. 

There is no witch.

You are nothing more than wolf food.

You are not ready.

You are not worthy.

Not worthy. Not worthy. Not worthy.

 

“I am,” Kendra whispered to herself. “I am ready. I am worthy. I am ready. I am worthy.”

 

With her fists balled tight and her eyes shut tighter, she continued to mutter her mantra over and over until her thoughts drowned in them. The wait became timeless.  Her skin turned over, sloughing off the old to reveal the new. Her nails grew until they became talons that dug into her palms like knives. She could feel her hair crawl down her back, her short bob inching until it became cascades of auburn curls. But Kendra did not notice. She was nothing more than her iron will now.

 

I am ready. I am worthy. I am ready. I am worthy.

 

Her mantra was finally interrupted by the sound of a frail voice. 

 

“Come in,” it called. As the woman called her forth, the door creaked open, releasing a wall of almost unbearable heat.

 

Kendra opened her eyes, instantly terrified but also strangely calm. The antithetical interior provided a cosy fire that cast Hellish shadows along the walls. The smell of dried lavender softened the scent of the dead things that hung from the ceilings. Kendra hooked onto the calmness and stepped out of the void into the bright, toasty, unholy cottage.

 

The woman sat by the roaring fire, a multicoloured blanket draped over her legs. Kendra had never seen such colours, feeling plain in her roughspun grey tunic and frayed, patchwork trousers. She looked at her feet, her worn boots that let in the dampness whenever it rained. She approached the witch with her head still lowered. 

 

“No need to be coy, dear girl. Come and sit. Warm yourself by the fire.”

 

Kendra did as she was bid and knelt at her feet, ready to beg if necessary. She kept her eyes on the floor, afraid to look at her host. They said she had a third eye. Some said it was in the middle of her forehead. Others said the back of her skull.  This was how she saw everything that could be seen. Everything in Kendra’s world and beyond. Some stories said her natural eyes turned people to stone. Others spoke of her sharpened teeth that ripped the out throats of men with one swift bite. 

 

“Look at me, girl,” she demanded from her wooden throne.

 

Kendra let one shiver run down her spine. I will not be afraid, she told herself once before lifting her head to face the woman. 

 

Her eyes widened at the sight, an accidental gasp escaping her as she looked upon her host. She was old and yet young, wise and yet carefree. She carried both the weight of her years and the lightness of her magic in the same vessel, causing a constant ageless shift. It was mesmerising to watch to the point that Kendra almost forgot the reason for her visit.

 

“I might have forever, young one, but you do not. Speak your request, and I shall tell you the price.”

 

Kendra reluctantly moved her eyes away and took a deep breath. The request was not small, and she suspected the witch already knew her heart’s desire. But these were the rules - the wish must be made, and the price must be paid. So she took another breath before and spoke her wish aloud.

 

“I wish to travel to a new land. One with adventure. One where I can be a woman and a warrior.”

 

She cackled, and for the first time, Kendra caught a glimpse of the thing in the tales. The laugh was cold and cruel. Out of place, given the comfort of the cottage and the kindness extended to her so far.

 

“And what makes you think such a place exists?” she asked.

 

Kendra’s brow creased, her mouth forming a hard line.

 

“Because it must!” she bellowed. “All things must exist and also not exist, as is the nature of the world. You exist, and yet you don’t. If I did not seek you tonight, I would have walked through the woods and never stumbled across your home.”

 

She smiled at Kendra, who noticed that her teeth were as regular as her own.

 

“You are a confident lass, I’ll give you that. You’d have been eaten by wolves long before you reached the end of the forest. You almost were! But you are right about nature. It is all things and also nothing. But what you ask is not easy. The price is steep.”

 

“I will pay it.”

 

“I can give you a year. You know what happens after.”

 

Kendra expected a steep price, but a year would be over in the blink of an eye. She felt like more time had passed just waiting at the witch’s door. But what other choice was there? A year in a new world where she could live as a free woman was worth the empty life as the wife of the highest bidder. Kendra straightened up and dared to lock eyes with the witch.

 

“I accept the terms.”

 

“Good. Now get up, girl. If you wish to be what you say, you must learn not to bow to anyone.”

 

Kendra did as commanded, springing to her feet.

 

“Better. Now, there are two places I can transport you to. One is a place much like here but is filled with magic. You will meet the strangest creatures, wield your own power, and see realms of outstanding beauty. You may slay dragons or train them if you dare. You could marry a prince or dethrone him and rule Kingdoms yourself. The other is like no place you could ever imagine. It is built by what is known as science, which is a different sort of magic. There, you can do much of the same - you can fly, see the depths of the deepest ocean, and float among the stars. Both worlds will have what you seek if you are willing to work for it.”

 

Kendra knew both science and magic. Both were the Devil’s work. Both were equally tempting; choosing one seemed impossible to Kendra. But she knew that this was all part of the price; sacrificing one adventure was necessary for the other to be made real. 

What should Kendra choose?

1. A world of Science - winning option (100%)

2. A world of Magic

Part Two

* One year later *

 

Kendra stood behind the counter and stared at the door. Her bookstore had been empty since Leslie came and went at noon. She knew no other customers would be coming in today, yet her eyes would not move away from the old, ornate door. No customers would walk through that door, but the witch would be.

 

She shook her head, picked up a duster, and walked around the counter to begin her closing routine. My last moments will not be spent frozen in fear, she thought as she began to brush the feathers across each book and along the bookcase shelves. There were so many books; she’d need many lifetimes to read them all, but she was grateful for those she’d made time to read - after all, there were no such things in her reality. A year of reading was worth a lifetime without such joy. 

There was so much more to be grateful for in this reality. There were robots that cleaned and cooked and spoke to you if you were feeling lonely. A trip between cities was nothing more than a single hop away, thanks to the invention of teleportation. Kendra’s flat entrance scanned her upon entry, letting her know of her health and what she could do to feel her best. Her doorway prescribed her a lot of bubble baths, which her robot housekeeper promptly drew for her. And yet, all of these technological features did not amaze her after her first few weeks. 

 

After the novelty wore off, Kendra wandered the streets of the city she had landed in. She considered teleporting to some of the exotic destinations advertised in tube clusters but was hesitant. She’d already travelled to a whole new universe. What good would a jump to another location do? She’d just be as directionless there. It was only when Kendra came across the old town that she felt some semblance of belonging, and only when she found the bookstore, and Alex, that she felt at home. 

 

The store was just as run-down now as it was then. Alex and Kendra worked hard just to keep the walls upright and the dampness at bay. All the books were at least a decade old, thanks to publishers finally ceasing production of print books. When Kendra stumbled across the shop, Alex had started to learn how to make print copies of new releases. A hobby she’d given up after Kendra had picked up a prototype, and the thing fell apart in her hand. Kendra was mortified, but Alex simply laughed. Her laughter ignited the air between them, sparking something in Kendra she never knew existed. Soon, she was laughing too. They’d not spent a day apart since.

 

As she thought back to that first day, warmth spreading through her as readily as it did on that day, the tinkle of the bell above the door pulled her back. Kendra didn’t look up. She knew who it was. She would finish her chores and then be ready to face her fate. 

Who is at the door?

1. The witch (100%)

2. Alex 

Part Three

Kendra had never taken such time and care dusting each and every book on display, had never looked at each spine so intently as she went. Some of the titles looked far more titillating than she remembered - perhaps a year wasn’t enough after all. There were still too many worlds to explore and too many shoes to walk miles in. She knew that she should appreciate everything that had been gifted to her - the chance to travel to a whole new dimension, to find a place that felt like home, a person that she could love freely - but still found herself wanting. Would the witch take another deal? What else could be offered beyond a soul? Is there anything of more value than that?

Whoever was at the door grew impatient and began to tap their foot on the thinning carpet. It wasn’t a violent stomp, but the sound still thundered through Kendra’s mind, rattling her thoughts like an earthquake.

“Hello again, girl.”

Kendra jumped. It was apparent who was waiting for her, and yet she’d hoped for someone else - Alex maybe - someone who would bring light and love, not someone she imagined was about to bring about a gruesome ending. How could it not be gruesome? For such a magical year, the price to be paid must be beyond imagining. 

With her eyes screwed shut, she turned to face the woman. Taking a deep breath, she opened one eye ever so slightly, determined to drag the whole thing out for as long as possible. But the sight of the witch jarred both eyes open wide. It was definitely the person Kendra had made a deal with, but now she appeared as the cliche hag Kendra had expected on her first encounter. It was then that she realised why the price was what it was, why the witch could look youthful when she was so ancient. Kendra’s years would become hers. 

“I expected to find you at the top of the highest building in the city, in the fanciest of restaurants. Such ambition you had when we first met, girl. And yet you are here, stuck in time just like before. Tell me, was it worth the price?”

“Yes”, she whispered, subtly trying to edge back to the counter - to put something, anything, between them.

“Well, your lack of success has paid off for both of us. Who’d have thought you’d be the one to find her?”

Kendra’s brow creased. Who?

“You want more time, yes?”

She nodded, rousing a cackle from the witch.

“They all want more time. They never have anything I could use. Until you. I can return your life. You may live it to its fullest here or anywhere you wish.”

Kendra’s eyes set ablaze at the offer. More time? A full life? What more could she ask for? Nothing. There is nothing more she could want. But magic comes at a price, and she was certain she did not have the means to pay it. The light in her eyes faded at the realisation that this was nothing but false hope.

The witch noticed her diminishing enthusiasm. “I do not tease you, girl. I will give you back your life. If you convince your love to give me hers.”

Should Kendra...

1. Keep the original deal? (33%)

2. Take the new deal? (67%)

Finale

 

If she was honest, the witch expected more from Kendra. She couldn’t explain why, after years of disappointment when dealing with humans, she felt someone could finally make the right choice. But, in the end, Kendra was just like all the other humans she’d met: selfish, greedy, and ungrateful. 

Love was the rarest, purest gift anyone could dare dream to receive, and Kendra had it - and a siren’s love is the purest, strongest of all. Once Alex knew of her betrayal, the witch would not need to lift a finger. A siren’s love was fierce, but the force of its vengeance would raze this entire world to the ground. Good. This world of flying cars and supercomputers was the witch’s least favourite - her magic worked less well here, and it took more of her strength to wield it.  

So when Kendra agreed to convince her lover - the last siren in existence - to give up her soul to save herself, the witch dipped her head in disappointment. The disappointment did not stop the self-satisfied smile that spread across her face. 

Like fish in a barrel, she thought. And after this, no more fishing for souls. Her cold heart warmed at the thought. After all, she would live forever young after consuming a siren. 

“You have three days to convince her. If you fail - I take what you owe.” 

She disappeared in a blaze of black smoke, allowing herself the exertion of magic now she knew a bottomless well of power would soon be hers. She didn’t see the tears well in Kendra’s eyes. She wouldn’t have cared if she did. Selfish souls get what they deserve. 

 

**Three days later**

 

When the witch left the little bookshop, she didn’t stick around in a world she expected to be nothing more than bones and dust within days. Upon her return, though, nothing had changed. The buildings still stood tall around her; humans still milled about the streets - some rushing off to something that was no doubt not as important as they thought, others ambling along, appreciating the sights and sounds of the city. Clearly, Alex did not know about Kendra’s betrayal. The witch sighed heavily. She’d have to lift a few fingers after all.

 

The bookshop was empty when she stormed in. She sniffed the air. Their scent was faint - they must have left the same night as she. Rage fizzled through her. How dare they try to run from her. She clenched her fists at her side before splaying her fingers out wide, fireballs flaming in both palms. She threw them out in front of her. The old books told hold of the heat immediately. Within minutes, the entire shop was ablaze. The witch stood in the middle of the inferno, seething. 

 

As the flames began to lick her cheek, she realised it was time to leave. With a wave, she ordered the door open and the flames around her to shift away. Nothing happened. She tried again. Nothing. On her third attempt to escape, the flames turned purple. Hellfire. 

“No!” she screamed. “No! Stop!”

 

It was then that she heard the song. Beautiful. Deadly. It told her the tale of a betrayal that was not a betrayal at all. Of a love that ran true and deep. Of two smart women who spent a year finding a way to beat her. Of a brave human who feared a witch but trusted a siren. Of a siren made more powerful thanks to the gift of a pure human heart. The witch had made it easy for them - assuming the worst of Kendra, of everyone. As the last note of the ethereal ballad rang out, the flames finally engulfed her.

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