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It was night, the deep side of midnight, as she came softly through the woods that surrounded the ogre's tower. The moon was the color of an old scar, casting a thin light on the trees and spilling inky shadows on the ground beneath. She could taste the ogre's spells in the back of her throat, a harsh tang of misfortune and ruin that had soaked into the ground all around his tower like poison.
Faintly, naggingly, she thought she could hear a child crying; the sound hovered at the edge of her hearing, so that she wasn't sure if it was just her imagination or not.
If it was there, at least the child was still alive.
She wore over her, like a cloak, words of silence, of shadow and invisibility; she made no more sound than an old sorrow. Still, the ogre's senses were keen as razors; there was little chance that he wouldn't find her.
She reached the edge of the trees, where a small clearing surrounded the tower. The tower squatted, sullen, in the middle of the space; stone and iron and hunger. A shallow pool lay to one side, holding another tower and another moon in its depths, wavering when a chance breeze touched the surface of the water.
She stepped into the clearing. The breeze died, frightened; the pool now held her, and one other.
He looked like a young boy, eleven or twelve; but no boy ever had such eyes, or teeth that sharp and pointed, or smelled so of old blood. He smiled at her, and the moon hid behind a cloud.
"Well," he said, "what have we here? A toothsome morsel? Dinner come calling? It is thoughtful of you, but I did not expect it."
She took a careful breath. "I have come for the child you stole, if he still lives, or for revenge if he does not. For your death in any case."
He lifted an eyebrow. "Oh so?"
She curved her hand, as though grasping the haft of a weapon, and with the thought it came; a spear, with a blade two feet long, that she had forged herself out of ice and wind and the grief that comes in the hour before dawn. The blade caught the moonlight, splintered it, and gave it back in shards the color of bitterness. Its name was Regret.
"Yes," she said.
The ogre's smile faded; his eyes narrowed as he studied the weapon. "I have heard of you," he said finally. "You have gained some notoriety in the last few years, you and that blade of yours, killing this and that lesser hobgoblin." His eyes lifted to hers, older and colder than stone. "Do you think you can defeat me?"
She made herself laugh. "Are you so strong, then — slayer of children?"
The ogre closed his eyes, and when he opened them the night whimpered. "When I have beaten you," he said softly, "I will chain you in my dining hall, and you will watch me eat the child you came to rescue, and the others after him. Every once in a while, I will have a taste of you, a finger or so; but not too much. You will live a long time in my care, foolish one, and you will beg long and long before I eat your heart."
"Killer of children," she said just as softly, "you talk too much." Quick as thought, she took two steps left and slashed with her spear. A tree on the other side of the clearing fell to the ground in two pieces, but the ogre was not there. She spun around, just in time to block a handful of old leaves, blood-red and sharper than knives, that he had hurled at her.
The ogre stepped back, split a second in half and slipped into the crack; but she was on his heels. He fled down the middle hour of the night, and stepped back into the clearing on the other side of the tower. She came behind him and pulled fire out of the ground, lashing him with a whip of flames. He roared, swelling into the shape of a lion, turning to meet her. She shook herself into a bear, her claws splintering the moonlight, and they flung themselves at each other. He raked her, but she buffeted him twice, knocking him back into the trees.
The ogre wavered then, turned himself into a rabbit and fled into the woods. She pulled on the shape of an owl and swooped after him, chasing him through the trees, until finally he changed back to his true form and spun to meet her. She dropped to the ground in her own shape, and stabbed him through the heart. He screamed, a thin high scream like a child's, and she had one shaved instant looking into his rabbit-eyes to know that she had been tricked, before the real ogre fell on her back, heavier than despair; and his hands were full of blades.
She kicked free from his grip, and now it was her turn to run, dripping blood at every step, while he came after her. She spun around once, slashing at him, but he leaped over her swing, laughing, and came down behind her, so she ran again. She changed her shape, to shadows, to wind, to three notes of music; but he pursued her through every change, inexorable as fate, and his eyes were alive with the sight of blood.
She burst from the woods, in her own shape again, and ran across the clearing, only to skid to a halt when she saw him waiting for her at the far side of the pool. He was smiling again, wider than a man could smile, showing all the wealth of his teeth. "That was exciting, little one," he breathed, "but it is over now."
She straightened up. "Yes," she said firmly, "it is." A touch of doubt came into his eyes, but he took a step towards her anyway, across the surface of the pool, and then he stopped.
The pool held the tower, and the moon. It held him. But not her.
He turned, almost in time, but she, or her reflection, was behind him. His hands came up, and touched the blade in his chest, almost calmly. "Clever," he whispered, "oh, clever, little one. I will... kill you... for this..." He gasped one last time, then slid backwards, off the blade, into the water. His flesh fell off him, in flakes like rose petals, and all that was left were his bones, which were iron, half-submerged in the pool.
She reached out to her reflection, who reached out to her, left hand to right across the water; then the reflection — whichever one she was — grinned ruefully and was gone. She — whichever one she was — sighed and turned, wearily, to enter the tower and find the child and bring him home.
Behind her, the pool held the tower, and the moon. And bones, already turning to rust.