Friday, October 31, 2014

Reflections - A Halloween Tale

The haunting voice of Annie Lennox filled the apartment, and when the singer crooned “I’ll Cast a Spell on You,” long, shadowy fingers stretched out from the dark corner and crept along the wall toward Lissa.
She fled to the kitchenette and peered out, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. Of course, she’d imagined the shadows.
The timer pinged, and she removed the pan of popcorn shrimp from the oven. The tiny forms reminded her of mangled body parts, twisted and mutilated. She scraped the image from her mind and transferred the shrimp onto a serving platter.
Weird thoughts like that had plagued her ever since her roommate Selena had set her grandmother’s old crystal ball on the dining room credenza and hung the matching mirror above it. Creepy-cool decorations, but hopefully temporary.
“Did you remember the cocktail sauce?” Lissa called to her roommate, who was still fussing with her costume in the bathroom.
“It’s in the bag on the counter.” Selena’s voice carried across the living room like a disembodied spirit.
Coldness wrapped its icy fingers around Lissa. Stop. I’m letting my imagination carry me away. She shook off the chill as she carried the platter to the table. Midway there, fear halted her. Out of the corner of her eye, dark shapes moved inside the mirror, broke free through the glass confines, then soared to the ceiling. She gasped and whirled to face the mirror. It was flat, static. The only image inside it was her own.
That scared her more than anything.
She wasn’t even ready, and people would show up soon for the party. Each year, Lissa celebrated Halloween with more enthusiasm than most. The spooky legends and mythology of All Hallow’s Eve lent magic and mystery to the night.
All the more reason the mirror and crystal ball frightened her. Selena might laugh about their supposed powers, but not Lissa.
Selena walked into the living room. Spiky tendrils of hair snaked about her neck. She’d heavily outlined her dark eyes, Goth style, making her pale skin more striking than ever. Her silky black top was cut low to show off her deep cleavage, enhanced courtesy of Victoria’s Secret. Her skirt, if it could be called one, hung in strips from her waist to mid-thigh, leaving a long stretch of leg down to her platform shoes.
Selena held out her arms and slanted one leg across the other. “What do you think?”
Setting down the food, Lissa nodded her approval. “Wow. You’ll knock ‘em dead. I’d better get dressed too.” She hurried upstairs to her bedroom to throw on her costume—a one-piece Queen of Hearts gown with a satiny red bodice that revealed only the top of her bosom. Red hearts trailed the center of her gown to the floor. A black choker around her neck and fake tiara atop her blonde hair, swept up into a French curl, completed the outfit. When she descended the stairs, her regal air deflated as the mirror captured her image. Her head buzzed with dizziness as her reflection appeared to diminish, then disappear. She averted her eyes and hurried out of its view.
Selena clapped and whooped with glee as Lissa returned to the kitchen. She bowed with a flourish of her hand. “Queen Lissa, breaker of hearts.” She cracked an ice tray into the bucket. “Which reminds me—any word from Brad?”
Careful not to smudge her red lipstick, Lissa popped a chip into her mouth. “I didn’t even invite him.”
“Seriously? I thought you two would get back together, like usual.” Attempting to cover her faux pas at the hint of their multiple breakups, Selena busied herself with refilling the ice tray.
“I’m moving on.” Lissa forced a decisiveness into her tone she didn’t quite feel. “Tonight, I’ll find someone new. I can feel it in the air. You did post the open house flyers on the condo’s community bulletin board, right?”
“Yes. And in my office, and a few other places. I also saw that cute guy in three seventy-seven.” Selena tilted her head, appraising her. “You two would make an adorable couple.”
Lissa had noticed him a few times as she drove to the complex entrance. He always seemed to catch her staring at him. Something about him caught her attention and wouldn’t let go.
“If he comes to our party, I’ll test your theory.” She carried the cobweb brownies to the table.
The light reflecting off—and within—the crystal ball made her look at it closer. She stayed to the side of the mirror to avoid glimpsing her image within it.
“This is surprisingly authentic looking.” Its three brass legs rose in carved curling scrolls from a white marble base, cradling the clear white ball in its center as if it were an offering to the gods.
Selena set the ice bucket on the table. “Maybe it is. Didn’t I tell you? My grandmother used to make predictions with that crystal ball. Once, my brother had a car accident after she ‘saw’ him in the hospital. Gran told us in advance not to worry when the call came at two in the morning, but my mom freaked anyway.”
The crystal ball was slightly larger than a cantaloupe, its opalescence opaque with a shimmering depth. Lissa couldn’t help but imagine it swirling to life with images of a possible occurrence in the future.
She placed her hands around it and giggled. “I wish it would show me whether I’ll get lucky tonight.”
A muffled tune came from upstairs. “Ooh, my cell phone.” Selena hurried upstairs. “Do we need anything last minute?”
“Not that I can think of.” Lissa peered into the depths of the orb. A tiny glow pulsed in its center. She jerked back with a gasp, and the light was no longer visible. A laugh, and she passed it off as an optical illusion.
The oven bell dinged, and Lissa hurried to the kitchen to fetch the artichoke cheese dip. When she brought the baking dish back from kitchen, the crystal ball roiled with glistening gray and white smoke.
At the sight, the dish slipped from her hand, but she managed to set it down on the trivet. Drawn again to the ball, she inspected it closely, looking for a battery slot, anything to indicate she might have tripped a switch, or activated it somehow.
There was nothing.
Its hypnotic motion kept her mesmerized, transfixed in anticipation. The wisps of smoke became denser and solidified into two tiny cyclones, spinning wildly. The two twisters intertwined, then shaped themselves into the figures of a male and female. The man held the woman in his arms, his head nuzzled her neck, his face obscured. Within the woman’s outline, Lissa’s own face emerged, enraptured with bliss as the man loosened the bustier of her costume, and freed her breasts from the red silk.
Lissa gasped as she watched her tiny doppelganger untie the strings binding the front of his white pirate shirt, and caress his chiseled chest. His tight black pants revealed his appreciation with a growing bulge. The other Lissa, noticing the fabric straining against the erection beneath, said, “The Queen of Hearts demands satisfaction,” and unfastened his belt.
“As you wish, my queen,” he murmured as his lips moved down her creamy bosom. The tiny Lissa clutched his hair and moaned as she slid a leg up to his waist and hooked her foot behind him. His muscles flexed as he reached behind her, lifted her skirt and pushed her back on the bed.
Lissa held a hand to her stomach as she watched her diminutive self wrap her legs around this stranger, intent on satiating her desires as much as his own, if the measured rise and fall of his muscled ass were any indication. This guy moved with the skill of a gigolo, undulating his body against hers. The slow movement titillated Lissa, her breaths growing more rapid in pace with theirs, blood coursing through her veins like a raging river straining against its banks. Licking her lips, the taste of his sweat heightened her passion despite its surprise. The delicious pressure built, and her nerves tingled as they tightened until shudders overtook her from her core outward. A three-way climax, if she could count herself twice. She blew ragged breaths through her lips, her mouth close to the ball as she watched, as spent as the other Lissa lying in bliss, still happily coupled with this man whose hands ran across her waist and shoulders and cheek as if he hadn’t felt such exquisite skin in centuries.
If only she could have seen the face of the man. And what was the meaning of this lascivious scene inside the crystal ball? Had the ball responded to her request, or was Lissa just way overdue for the attention of an appreciative man?
Selena entered the living room, adjusting her costume. “That crystal ball’s a kick, isn’t it? Between that and the Ouija board, my grandmother filled my head with all sorts of crazy stuff.”
Lissa smoothed her hair back from her face as she hastily stood in front of the ball to hide her miniature tryst. “Like what?”
“She always told me I’d meet a mysterious stranger who would hold the key to darkness, and my friend would find new strength in helping his nemesis, who held the key to light. The old good-versus-evil.”
“New strength?” Lissa wished she could discover new powers within herself. She imagined approaching a secret door, beams of brilliant light practically bursting past its outline. Her heart pounded as she reached for the handle….
“I don’t know about you,” Selena said, “but I’m hoping to meet someone slightly evil tonight.” Her roomie’s grin turned wicked.
A rush of breath expelled from Lissa. She tried to laugh it off, and hoped she didn’t sound rattled when she said, “Yes, this dry spell is getting a little old.”
She couldn’t admit to Selena that the mere presence of the mirror and crystal ball had conjured up strange sensations.
And Selena was right. Lissa had spent far too much time waiting for Brad, always supposedly out with ‘friends,’ most of whom turned out to be other women.
With a lascivious smile, Selena turned. “Yeah, I’m ready to get wet, baby.”
Lissa chuckled. Her roommate was a bit over the top sometimes. “Oh, Selena. You’re bound to get in trouble one of these days.” A dark vision halted her—one of Selena in some dark place, tears streaking her face, her screams muffled as she fought off someone—or something.
A baffled look crossed Selena’s face. “Are you all right?”
“Fine.” Lissa’s breathless chuckle drew a second glance from her friend. “Maybe I’m just nervous about tonight.”
“Nervous? We’re going to have a blast.” Selena whirled toward the front room. “I know what will put you in the mood.” She sashayed to the stereo.
Within moments, the Halloween soundtrack pounded, and shrieks and ghoulish moans rose from the speakers. Lissa gave an inward groan. Later, she’d put on music.
At the ding-dong of the doorbell, Selena widened her eyes. “Our first guest,” she hissed, baring her teeth.
Startled, Lissa could only stare as her friend’s platform shoes clomped across the carpet and she threw open the door with a squeal.
What the hell was going on? A glance at the crystal ball, and Lissa’s skin tingled when she glimpsed the two tiny figures still doing the horizontal boogie, and not about to stop anytime soon.
Damn. She had to hide the thing so no one else would be able to view the intimate scene. Maybe throw a towel across it.
“Hey, you made it.” Lissa extended her arms toward the couple who lived in the condo next door. Selena’s bedroom abutted theirs, making her privy to their lovemaking style, which apparently involved quite a few gadgets. The handcuff dangling from her wrist was one. The wide leather collar around his neck sporting a leash ring, Lissa could only guess to be another. His open leather vest revealed a pierced nipple.
“You guys look great.” Selena stood, hands on hips. “Let me guess. Dominatrix and subordinate?”
Their smiles were answer enough.
When another sideways glance at the sphere showed only its calm incandescence, Lissa sighed with relief. That was the last time she’d lay her hands on it. For tonight, at least. Tomorrow, she’d experiment more.
Selena whispered to Lissa after the couple had moved to the kitchen, “Bet they already had those costumes.”
Lissa giggled and lit the pumpkin candles on the end table. She stiffened as the two guests passed the food table, noticed the crystal ball, and caressed it.
The ball’s white shimmer stayed flat. How strange.
The bell rang again, and Lissa’s skirt swayed like a silent bell as she went to the door and pulled it open.
Her planned greeting dissipated into thin air. On her threshold stood the new guy from three seventy-seven. His wide eyes, the color of raw umber, lit up when his penetrating gaze met hers. Maybe it was the way the light fell across his face as he stood outside her door that gave him a certain glow. His pirate shirt rippled in the breeze like a luminescent white flag. Even his black pirate pants and boots had a shimmer.
From her mouth stumbled, “Hello.”
He held out a rose. “For you, Queen of Hearts.”
“Thank you.” She pressed the silky petals to her nose, taking in its sweet scent as her gaze drank in the sight of him.
His aquiline nose offset his full lips, drawn into a smile any pirate would envy, for it was a perfect smile, one that could shake the confidence of another man, or charm the bloomers off a lady.
From his other hand, he presented a bottle of Shiraz.
She smiled. “Aren’t you sweet. But I thought pirates drank rum.”
“That’s a stereotype we pirates are trying to break.” He stepped closer. “Among other things.”
A sense of familiarity swept over her as she peered into his face. “Have we met?”
He extended his hand. “I’m Rafe.”
“I’m Lissa.” When she took his hand, he lifted it to his lips.
His teeth flashed in a smile. “Yes, I know.”
Her pulse fluttered. He had noticed her after all. “How?”
As he reached behind her, she caught her breath.
“The flyer your roommate posted. Selena, isn’t it?” He leaned closer, and she realized he was reading.
She turned. The party flyer hung on their front door.
“Oh, I didn’t know she’d put that there.” Here she thought he was flirting with her, and he was only trying to see the flyer. “I’m sorry. Please come in.”
He bowed with a smile, then softly brushed her arm as he passed through, sending a ripple across her skin that penetrated deep.
She could bask in his admiration all night, but the approach of another couple forced her to greet them. They were soon followed by a costumed Madonna, a wench and a witch.
Lissa welcomed them with a royal wave. “Hello. Thanks for coming.”
A quick check up and down the sidewalk revealed no others, so she shut the door behind them.
Selena caught her eye, and waved her into the kitchen. “He came!” she whispered.
“Yes. He brought these.” Lissa held up the rose and the wine, then placed the bottle on the counter.
Her roommate’s lips rounded into an appreciative O. “Very nice. He’s even better close up, huh?”
Lissa held a hand to her chest to steady her still-accelerated heartbeat. “Much better.” She filled a vase with water and set the rose in it. When she turned, she tensed. “Oh, no.”
Madonna and the wench stroked the crystal ball, joking about its abilities.
“What’s wrong?” Selena asked.
When no change occurred within the ball, Lissa’s heart rate returned to normal. But why was no one else able to conjure any image?
Forcing a smile, Lissa picked up the vase. “I’m just afraid someone will knock the crystal ball over and ruin it.” Or activate her private scene inside it again.
“Don’t worry. That thing’s indestructible.” Selena grasped her wrist, looking toward the door. “Who the hell is that?”
A dark-haired man wearing a black mask walked in behind two women dressed as vampires. Beneath his black cape, his black costume clung to his body like a second skin.
“No clue.” A muted version of the buzz Lissa felt earlier invaded her head again. Maybe dehydration was setting in. She’d been so busy making food, she’d forgotten to eat. She poured water from the tap and gulped it.
Selena raised an eyebrow. “Me, either. But I’d sure like to. With a body that ripped, he must work out every day.”
Under her breath, Lissa said, “If I’d known Trick or Treat could pay off so well, I’d have done this a long time ago.”
Rafe smiled at her, as if he heard. She carried the rose to the table and placed it between the two tapered candles. Prickles of flames licked at her as he approached.
“Great party.” He stood close, as if he knew her well. His body heat emanated like an aura, and her body picked up on it like a magnet.
“It is now.” Shy, Lissa usually left the flirting to her roommate, but felt surprisingly at ease with Rafe.
He returned her smile, then glanced at the crystal ball. “Very realistic. A wonderful specimen of beryllium aluminum silicate.” He moved closer to it.
Laughing, she furrowed her brow. “Excuse me?”
“The crystal commonly used for scrying.” At her confused look, he explained, “Scrying is the art of crystal gazing. The Scottish Highlanders called these Stones of Power. This one looks old enough to have originated back then. The scrollwork on the pedestal legs is fantastic.”
“Yes. I thought so, too.” She moved closer, drawn not to the ball, but to him.
He inspected it thoroughly without laying a finger on it. Odd, since that was the first thing most others did when they saw it.
He bent over the orb. “You don’t see many in this old design, with the three legs symbolizing birth. The crystal is flawless, too. It represents the universe, and what is to follow.” Straightening, he appeared startled by the mirror. “And how did you come by this piece?”
Strange how he examined it but pointedly avoided touching it. “My roommate Selena found both of them in her grandmother’s attic.”
“You never know what’s lurking in attics, I suppose.” The way he said it unnerved her. Like the way he followed the movements of the mysterious man in black. Or maybe he was more interested in Selena, who had struck up a conversation with the guy. The way she sidled next to him and the adoring look in her eyes, things appeared to be heating up. Maybe Selena’s dry spell would go up in flames tonight.
When she turned to ask Rafe if he wanted another drink, her heart fell. He was now in front of the mirror, touching its golden scrollwork as if they were ancient runes from which he divined the future.
If he would only divine her need to be touched like that.
She needed a drink. When she turned, she bumped into the guy who’d been talking to Selena. Embarrassed, she said, “Sorry. It’s getting a bit crowded in here.”
From across the room, his sculpted body and handsome features had bedazzled her. Up close, he emanated a palpable heat. Like a jalapeno pepper, burning her from the inside.
Needing breathing space, she stepped away from him. Her mouth had parched, and she eyed the punch bowl, ready to excuse herself.
“Kickass party.” As if he’d read her mind, he pressed a plastic cup into her hand. “Here, try this. I mixed this just for you.”
The liquid within was amber like whiskey, but thicker. Like sewage sludge.
“That’s sweet, but I—”
He tightened his grasp around her fingers. “To thank you for the party. Try it, you’ll love it.”
If taking a sip would get rid of him, she would. Then she’d wash the nasty stuff down with the shiraz.
After bringing the cup to her lips, the liquid was surprisingly tasty. “Mm. What is it?” One drop had sparked an unquenchable thirst.
“An old family recipe.” His dark eyes sparked with red at their seemingly bottomless center, like an abyss. Her body wavered, as if she were falling from an endless height.
“Thanks. I need a stiff drink.” Lissa sipped. The liquid curled around her tongue like a tangy sweet snake. “This is really good.” She gulped every last drop, shaking the cup to coax more from it. When it was empty, she set down the cup and blinked hard.
“Oh no.” Clutching the table, she tried to steady herself. Her head spun, her vision blurred as images separated from themselves, wavered and collided.
“Are you all right?” a man asked.
She pressed a hand to her forehead to ease the building pressure. “No. I need to sit down.”
“Let me help you.” His hands at her waist, he guided her to the nearest chair, then knelt beside her. “Any better?”
She looked from her hand, holding his, to his face. It was Rafe. She relaxed with an audible sigh, until she looked away into the living room. “Oh. I’m afraid not.” Her stomach roiled as she squinted at her guests, alarmed at what she saw.
“What is it?” He searched her face as if he could intuit the bizarre scene.
She kept her gaze on him, the only one immune to the spectacle whirling all around them, as if they sat in the center of a hurricane. “It’s hard to describe. And you’d only laugh at me.”
“No, I promise. Tell me what you see.” His seriousness prompted her to look again.
The more she looked, the more afraid she was. “I don’t think I can.” He’d think she was crazy.
He gently squeezed her hand. “Please.”
He was the only steady thing in the room. She hated to look away from him. “It’s as if there were two—or more—of everyone. But it’s not the usual double vision people get when they drink. The duplicate people aren’t the same as the real ones. Their features are grotesque. It’s like I’m seeing everyone’s evil twin or something.”
His head moved in a slight nod as he scanned the crowd. “I was afraid of that.”
She concentrated on him like a guiding star. “What do you mean?”
His soft voice did not reassure her. “You’re witnessing the duality of humans. Everyone has a dark side, and struggles against it every day. The dark nature of each and every person has become visible to you. At this very moment, you can probably tell what each one is thinking by the action of the shadow self.”
Narrowing her eyes to focus, she watched as Amy, their next-door neighbor, walked toward her, followed by a scantily-clad version of herself who pulled down her Marie Antoinette bustier, exposing her breasts to Rafe with a wink and a roll of her tongue. “Great party, Liss.”
“Thanks.” Lissa held tight to Rafe’s hand.
Amy bent over the spread of food at the table, and her shadow followed suit, but stuffed food into her open mouth faster than she could possibly swallow. The shadow self of a man whose gaze was riveted to Amy’s ass dropped his pants as he moved behind her. Amy’s darker self spread her legs, and he humped her as she moaned and squealed in delight.
All across the room, similar occurrences took place between shadow selves—wandering hands and mouths and tongues across exposed breasts and asses. As two men spoke, their duplicates jabbed at one another in imitation of the conversational barbs. One shadowy woman floated to the shelves and peered behind books, opened drawers and closed doors.
“This is too bizarre. Especially…” She jerked her head behind her. “… her.”
“Her?” He raised a quizzical brow.
“Me. Or my shadow self. The one standing too close, who won’t stop nudging me and whispering awful things about the guests.”
He squeezed her hand. “You have the right idea. Ignore her.”
Her eyes searched his, and all across him. “But why is there only one of you?”
He smiled as he stood, lifted her cup from the table and walked into the kitchen, where he dumped the remainder into the sink. A curl of smoke rose from the drain with a hiss.
Into a clean cup, he poured ginger ale and carried it to her. “Hold this.”
She took it from him. He reached into his pirate pants, drew out a small glass vial and emptied its contents into the ginger ale. “You must drink this. It’s an antidote—the only antidote. And I’m afraid even this won’t remove the toxin entirely. Residual effects will continue.”
Watching the contents whirl in a miniature hurricane, she asked, “For how long?”
“It’s hard to say.”
Steadying herself, she looked up at him. “How do I know I can trust you?”
He bent over her, his face close to hers. His dark eyes sparkled. “You know, Lissa.”
Something about him seemed so familiar. “Do I know you from somewhere?”
A rueful smile filled his face. “I’ve known you all your life.”
“What?” The truth of his statement rang clear. She was safe with him.
He held out the cup. “Drink. All of it.”
She brought the cup to her lips. Where the other had sparked a wildfire that screamed through her bloodstream, this drink quenched the fire with a flood of calm. The outlines of their guests vibrated into a single figure. Most of them, anyway. Several persisted in showing their shadow selves.
He crouched beside her. “Any better?”
She attempted to smile. “Yes, but there are still a few people with doubles.”
His gaze swept the room. “I’m not surprised. It depends on the strength of the person’s dark nature. In some cases, the shadow self can overtake the person, if they allow it.”
As Lissa stood, her nerves tightened. “I wonder where Selena is. I haven’t seen her for awhile.” It wasn’t like her roomie to miss their own party.
He rose beside her. “Or her friend, come to think of it.”
Despite her joking about Selena’s dry spell ending tonight, Lissa was overcome with dread. “I have a bad feeling about this.” About that man.
“Let’s go find them.” Guiding her by the elbow, Rafe walked them through the crowd. On the sofa, one shadowy figure yawned, remote in hand.
But no sign of Selena. When the bathroom door opened, Lissa stepped in, with Rafe close behind. The shower and the closet stood empty.
“Upstairs,” Lissa urged, her dread expanding into worry.
Rafe bounded up the steps and opened the door to Lissa’s bedroom. They opened the closet, checked every corner and nook. She hurried out the door to the bathroom across the hall. The door was locked. Lissa pounded on it. “Selena?” The toilet’s flush was the only answer.
Rafe grasped her wrist. “Listen.”
He pulled her toward Selena’s bedroom.
A muffled squeal came from within. Lissa gasped. “The closet,” she whispered.
“Stay here.” He rushed to the doors and flung them wide.
On the floor, Selena’s white leg twitched, in stark contrast, beneath the black shape of the man. As he turned with a growl, teeth bared, his eyes flashed red. Atop his head, two buds of horns popped forth.
Dizziness came over Lissa. She forced herself to look away from his red eyes. “Selena!”
Her friend’s wild, wide eyes were smeared black with mascara, her face wet with tears. Her low-cut top had been ripped apart, her black lacy Victoria’s Secret bra revealed. “Lissa,” she whimpered, her lip quivering.
With one sweeping motion, Rafe reached in the closet, and the man in black tumbled onto the open floor.
Rafe glanced back at Lissa. “Bring the mirror.”
The black-costumed man jammed his shoulders into Rafe’s knees, and he fell to the carpet.
Selena backed further into the closet until only her feet could be seen beneath the hanging clothes.
“The mirror, Lissa—go.” Rafe slammed his fist against the other man’s jaw and knocked him backward.
Lissa rushed downstairs to the credenza and struggled to get the thing off the wall. It seemed to have attached itself, suctioned the four corners against the paint. Using a serving knife, she pried it away enough to insert her fingers around it, and tugged. It budged a little.
Overhead, thumps and grunts became louder. Oddly, the party goers continued their chit chat and laughter. Maybe they thought it was part of the Halloween CD that Lissa had put on as background noise.
With a determined aargh, she yanked the mirror away, and it toppled onto her. She shuffled to regain her balance. The mirror hadn’t seemed this heavy when Selena hung it. Now, it leaned away from Lissa as if resisting her. She set it on the floor to catch her breath, then dragged it across the carpet. The scrollwork caught the rug like tiny hands desperately grasping for a hold.
Step by step, she wrestled it upstairs. Finally, she inched it into the bedroom and propped it against the footboard of Selena’s bed.
At seeing the mirror, the black-costumed guy scrambled toward the window.
Rafe held out his hand as if to catch a baseball. A force of energy emitted from his palm, like heat waves rising from blacktop on a summer’s day.
The man in black was pulled backward. He grabbed the curtains, the bureau drawer handles, but he couldn’t stop from being drawn.
Rafe positioned himself behind the mirror.
With renewed vigor, the man dug his fingers into the carpet and scrambled backward. He stretched his hand out behind him.
Lissa gasped when she realized why. He was reaching for the mirror atop the dresser. He’s trying to escape. She ripped a blanket from the bed and tossed it over the dresser mirror.
At a low growl, she turned. The man in black flailed at her.
Her hand brushed the appliqué hearts on her skirt, and her fear vanished. A surge of strength invigorated her, and she raised the red heart. “You can’t defeat the power of love.”
Snarling, he bared long, pointed teeth. Surprise crossed his face. His foot lifted from the carpet as if drawn by an unseen hand. His leg trembled as he moved toward the mirror. He yelped as his toes vanished beyond the reflective glass, then his ankle.
Lissa gasped, unable to breathe as she watched. It seemed too surreal to believe.
From inside the gilded frame, tiny silver hands protruded. They clutched at the man’s black pants, and pulled. His foreleg, then his knee disappeared. He pushed his other foot against the scrollwork in an attempt to get a toehold, but the hands wrapped around his ankle and pulled that leg inside the mirror, too. He angled his torso and grasped the bedpost, but vanished further, up to his waist. In a final desperate act, he grabbed the mirror’s scrollwork, but his shoulders, head and arms were gone into the mercurial swirl, with only his fingers still clutching the outside, still remaining on this side of the parallel reality.
Rafe clucked his tongue, touched the tip of his shoe to the clenched fingers. With a sucking slurp, the fingers extended with alarm into the air, then melted into the mirror.
Rafe raised his hand toward the mirror again. It rumbled and shook. In the center, black dot appeared and widened. Cracks spread from the centrifugal point outward to each edge, and splintered the mirror into the tiniest shards that crumbled to the carpet in a heap.
He took a black silk bag from his pocket and held it open. Each tiny piece of silver glass flew into the bag with a shriek, a piercing noise that made Lissa hold her ears. When the last shard resisted by edging away on the carpet, he bent to hold the bag closer. It screamed as it rose, and he closed the bag as it landed inside.
“Oh, my God.” Lissa held her hands to her mouth.
“Exactly.” Rafe smiled.
“What was he?” She stepped toward him but stopped, not wanting to be near the bag in case the fabric should tear.
Rafe tied the strings of the silken purse. “A cockroach of the underworld. A demon.”
Selena crawled from the closet. “Are you kidding me? The first hot guy that wants me in three months has to be a demon?”
Lissa went to her, and helped her to stand. Her humor was a thin mask for the horror she’d gone through. Selena shook, and seemed barely able to stand on her own.
“You should have left that mirror in your grandmother’s attic, securely covered,” Rafe said. “Once it had an eye open into this world, there was no stopping it.” Tsk’ing, he wagged a finger at her.
With Lissa’s guidance, Selena shuffled to the bed and sank atop it. “How do you know all this? How did you know to come here to fight it?”
He attached the black bag to his belt. “Intuition.”
By the way he said it, Lissa knew it was much more than that. “So you’re the power of light that overcame the dark. The good guy.” Her voice fell flat with disappointment.
Then what did that make her? The friend who found her strength?
“You showed extraordinary courage.” Rafe swept into a low bow. “Good queen.”
“This night is unbelievable.” Selena fell back onto the bed and stared at the ceiling, then propped herself up on her elbows. “Wait, what about the crystal ball? Can it really show the future?”
“Of course.” A smile slid across his lips as he met Lissa’s gaze, as if he, too, saw the vision in the ball after she’d touched it.
“Oh?” Lissa’s skin tingled as hot pinpricks replaced her cold shivers. Your queen demands satisfaction.
As if he’d heard her thought, he cocked an eyebrow as his gaze wandered over her. “Tonight was merely the beginning.”
“Do you mean more demons will escape?”
“Tonight is All Hallow’s Eve, the one night of the year when the gate between the spirit world and earth is thrown wide.”
Some steely reserve of energy rose up, bracing her limbs with raw power. “Let me help. If I can.”
He sent her a grin that was equal parts wicked and pure. “You do me a great honor.”
She glanced at Selena. “Will you be all right?”
Her friend waved her on. “I’m fine. Go.”
Lissa couldn’t help but wonder. “Is there something about this costume that protected me?”
 Tenderness showed in Rafe’s smile. “You spoke truly when you said the power of love was greater than any other.”
As he spoke, he traced the outline of the heart stitched to the center of her costume. Sizzling energy trailed along his touch and penetrated the fabric to her skin. To her veins. Racing faster, the pulsing electricity built within her.
Lissa walked to where Selena curled on the bed, and laid one hand on her friend’s head, and the other on her side, close to her heart. She let the love flow from within through her fingers. “Be well.” To her surprise, the stream grew steady, and the well of reserves somehow deepened, beyond what she’d dreamed possible.
Selena’s trembling calmed, and her shaky breaths became even and strong. She sat up, and then rose to stand beside Lissa. Fear and anguish no longer showed in her face. Instead, she embraced Lissa.
Now she could go without guilt. Returning to Rafe, she admitted, “I have so much yet to learn.”
“You know more than you think.” He crooked his elbow toward her. “But I will teach you.”
Linking her arm through his, she smiled. “Let’s go exterminate the cockroaches, then.”
And afterward, she’d show him what else the Queen of Hearts could do. If she learned how to harness the power of love, she might be able to cast a spell over him and conjure up the future revealed to her by the crystal ball.
Then it really would be a happy Halloween.



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