The owl raised her wings and made a high pitch squeak, which echoed off into the sky. The sound was sharp and strong and as soon as it faded the ground beneath Cassandra's feet began to tremble, but before she could scream earthquake, something else far more astonishing caught her eyes.
She saw the glowing light emitting from the ancient mirror. The light seemed to form a ring of symbols much like the runes she saw on the chest and letter. Cassandra gasped as she stared at the strange phenomenon for the first time.
The owl flapped her wings furiously until it seemed like she was trying to summon a storm, and a storm it came. Cassandra stood looking around as the gales swept through the field, beating against her body and tousled her dark hair. Then she saw the bright liquid-like quicksilver streaming out of thin air and fill up the empty space of the mirror frame.
And before she knew it, the liquid turned into a solid mirror. The only difference between this mirror and other regular mirrors was that instead of reflecting back Cassandra and her surroundings, it showed something else entirely. She saw a great hall of some brightly lit chamber with colossal columns. The hall was grand and mythical, resembling an Egyptian tomb and the Parthenon of Greek. Cassandra could see beautiful mosaics and strange hieroglyphic paintings on the walls and high ceilings. The burning torches flickered with red flames. In fact, as she looked harder, the great hall was quite similar to the ruined structure itself. Out of curiosity, she forgot about her fear, and walked around the mirror, inspecting it from behind.
"Quick now, we have to go," the owl said.
"Go?" Casssandra asked in a panicky voice.
"Through the mirror that is. What else did you expect?" the owl said as if going through mirrors was what people do after dinnertime.
"But...where is that other place?" she asked.
"It's called the Chamber of Mirrors. It belongs to my mistress," the owl answered and flew over to stand beside Cassandra. "It's where you shall meet her tonight. Now come with me before the portal closes."
"No no no, I can't go with you like that," Cassandra protested. "I...I have to go back home..."
"Go back?" cried the owl in disbelief. The owl's wings flipped again impatiently. "You are the only child who could open the chest, the very one that used to contain Koschei's soul. Why do you think I've wasted all this time recounting the history of the World Beyond and the doom? For my own amusement? I need your help to bring Vasilisa back to close the mirror once and for all."
"But you just opened it, didn't you? Can't you close it, too?" cried Cassandra.
"Anyone with a bit of wisdom and knowledge of magic can open it. I was taught by my mistress to open the mirror, but I can't close it forever," the owl said as she looked at her squarely in the eye. "The only one who can shatter the Midnight Mirror is Vasilisa. Now, will you come with me?... Please?"
"Well, since you said please...but will I be able to come back?"
"Of course, no mortal folk is allowed to stay in the World Beyond anymore," the bird told her and lifted her wings as if in a shrug. "Which is just as well. Humans are dreamsingers, fair-to-middling minds, ambitious, greedy..."
"Okay...okay..." Cassandra said. "I will go with you but you need to tell me everything about this world of yours and your mistress and your apocalypse."
"Our apocalypse," corrected the owl fiercely.
"And one more thing," Cassandra added. "Tell me your name. You haven't told me if you have a name or not. Do you have a name?"
"Of course I do!" the owl rolled her enormous eyes. "I was so anxious about all the whole finding-the-one business to introduce myself. Well, my name is Owlyn."
Then the bird turned and began to stride toward the mirror.
"Yep, an owl named Owlyn," Cassandra snorted under breath. The owl's head turned back almost completely over her shoulder.
"Is there a problem with that?"
"Oh no, not at all! Let's go!"
Above them, the crescent moon rose in the sky. The owl passed through the mirror first. Cassandra watched her going right through it. The mirror surface seemed to tremble like a ripple over a clear pond. Then it became still again. Cassandra stood astonished, looking at the old relic with opened mouth. The owl poked her head back through the mirror.
"Are you coming?" Owlyn said.
Seeing someone come out of a mirror was even stranger than seeing someone go in. The owl's disembodied head and shoulders were quite a sight. Cassandra nodded and then took a deep breath. She squared her shoulders and faced the mirror directly, one hand upraised as if to push aside a curtain of strung beads. She took a small step.
"Cassandra through the looking glass," she muttered to herself sarcastically. She closed her eyes and charged forward. Cassandra fell directly into the mirror, but instead of shards of glass and blood and breakage, there was a kaleidoscopic blur of light.
Then the light was gone.
Cassandra stumbled and collapsed onto the floor. Then she looked up and realized she was in the exact chamber she saw in the mirror. She turned and found the mirror was hung majestically on the wall. But now its frame was new and beautifully polished. The ceiling was at least twenty feet high and the floor and the walls were made of blocks of pale limestone. Arches in those walls held massive wooden doors cross-barred with iron.
"Wow," she breathed. "Am I in Wonderland now?"
"Welcome to the World Beyond, child," Owlyn's voice said. The magical bird was perched on a golden bird stand that made her look even more majestic. "How does it feel going through the mirror for the first time?"
"Like electrified jelly."
"Alright now, follow me. We need to go find my mistress," said Owlyn and took off again.
They went through the hallway and passed the corridor, which was lit by torches burning eerily blue without smoking.
"It's a castle," whispered Cassandra, stepping over to a window set deeply in the wall. Through the panes of thickly glazed glass, she could see moonlight falling on the inner courtyard. But it was too dark to see anything beyond that. "I don't see anyone out there. And I don't hear anything, either."
The massive walls held silence as thick as butter. Only the flickering torches moved.
"Good thing that Koschei isn't here yet," Owlyn said softly as if she was afraid of someone listening. "But we still have to be careful. All right, you and I must go find the dungeon."
"If you find Vasilisa, call out to me immediately. "
"You don't know where she is?"
"I know she is in the castle somewhere. I can hear her sometimes," the owl said. "But this place is so thick with enchantment it's hard to locate her. We must find her before they come. Her safety comes before ours."
"But didn't you say she's such a great sorceress? Why does she need my help?"
"Did you not read the letter you found in the chest?" asked Owlyn.
"Yes, I was going to ask you about that too," Cassandra said as they turned yet another corridor. "What is it all about? What does it mean?"
"As I said before, my mistress is cursed and imprisoned," said the bird. "You're the only child I found who stands a chance to free her from this loathsome spell. Without her wand, a sorceress is without magic. And a sorceress without magic is no more powerful than an ordinary woman. That's why she needs you. I've gone through the mirrors every day, visiting so many places to look for someone like you."
"But how could someone like me help your mistress?" Cassandra said. "I'm just an ordinary girl."
"Ha! Ordinary my foot!" Owlyn scoffed. "You have the blood of a seer. It runs in the family, passing from mother to daughter."
"What?" Cassandra turned to Owlyn with a confused look, but before she could ask anything else, Cassandra felt the same gripping sensation in her heart. She gasped and put her hand over her forehead.
"What is it?" Owlyn asked in alarm.
"I... I think...I feel something...a strange feeling..." she stammered, her eyes closed. "There's...there's something...someone...over there..."
"Oh good, good! You start seeing now...quick, tell me where!"
Cassandra felt another flutter in her chest, and she had an indescribable, almost dreamlike desire to move forward. It was like she was being pulled by a mysterious force.
"It's there," she said.
They rushed through the hallways, passing countless rooms. Some halls were loftier, and the ribs of the vaulted ceiling soared upward as if defying gravity. Thick columns sculpted like statues supported the galleries, and at the far end, a staircase wound out of the northernmost turret to end between two of these columns.
Then they reached another great chamber. Cassandra and Owlyn slowed down and walked the length of the hall. They seemed to shrink from the titanic statues, which seemed to be staring down at them. Some merely looked impressive, and many had twisted smiles and an air of quietly waiting.
The hearth was in proportion to the room, and in its cavernous depths, a whole tree trunk was blazing. At a distance of ten feet, the heat brought a flush to Cassandra's cheeks and tingled dryly against her clothes. In front of them was a dais with a large crimson tapestry hung over from the high ceiling. It had golden embroideries in the image of a phoenix.
"She is here," Owlyn said in an astonished whisper. "We found her."
Cassandra stood still as she cast another glance around the hall. The owl spread her wings and flew towards the tapestry and disappeared behind it. A moment later, the owl poked her head out again.
"Come! Come! Meet my mistress," Owlyn said in a fit of excitement and joy. "She's been waiting for you."
Cassandra didn't know what to do. She had already come this far, but the thought of meeting the mysterious sorceress suddenly made her more nervous than ever. But Owlyn was insisting and she knew the meeting was inevitable. She tried to calm her heartbeat as she began to walk slowly towards the dais. Once she was close enough, Owlyn used her beak to pull the tapestry aside and revealed her mistress.
Then she looked left and right and around. She looked back at Owlyn, who was staring at her with huge glowing excited eyes. Her beak was hanging as if in a wide smile.
"Where is she?" Cassandra asked.
"Down here," a low croaky voice spoke. Cassandra turned alertly to the voice.
Just two steps away she found a little green speckled swamp frog. Cassandra was a big girl, but she let out the most uncharacteristic scream and jumped with a horrified look on her face.
If there was one unreasonable fear she had, it would be the fear of frogs, and especially so with the one that talks.
"Is...is that your mistress?" Cassandra stuttered, staring at the little green frog, who was also staring back at her with half-lidded eyes, and she had a feeling that the frog was already judging her.
"Yes, yes, Cassandra," Owlyn said, "meet Czarevna Vasilisa the Wise."