Janet went up the mountain feeling lonely but hopeful. Every now and then she’d stop to rest, to eat, and sometimes, even to practice with her sword. Animals occasionally crossed the path, or stared at her from beyond the trees, but never threatened or bothered her. Janet thought about what she might need to do if Gina hadn’t provided her with food, but the idea of killing one of those animals was nauseating. How could she kill a full grown human person? Even if she was evil, Janet didn’t think she had it in her.
While she didn’t feel like she was in any danger, these woods weren’t as pretty and welcoming as the enchanted forest near the fairies Water Circle. They were thicker and darker, and it grew colder the closer she got to the top. Not only that, but there were fewer and fewer animals about, and no song of birds. Janet knew instinctively that no wildlife was out to hurt her, the only danger she might face lay at the top of the mountain, at the house of the evil witch.
At last, it was in sight. A large log cabin with smoke coming out of it’s chimney, and strange plants growing all around. She scanned the house for entrances. The front door was probably locked. She might be able to crawl in through a window, but they all seemed too small. Then she heard a door swinging open and closed, and a cat ran outside. The back door was open! But where was the witch?
The day was growing darker, and she decided it might be best to wait for nightfall, and after the witch had gone to bed. She hoped witches did go to bed. What if they ran on magic only, and didn’t need to sleep? Well, then she would just have to be brave, like the heroes in her story.
She watched for the witch inside the house while waiting for darkness to fall completely. She didn’t see her, but there was no turning back. With the night as her cover, she quietly slipped inside through the back door.
The house was a mess. There were books and papers scattered everywhere, spells, Janet thought. There were also bottles of potions, most of them stacked on shelves or tables, but plenty on the floor as well, some of them broken. It would be awfully difficult not to make any noise here.
She kept her hand on the handle of her sword, hoping the threat of it would be enough to scare the witch away if she saw her. All she had to do was get to that fire…
“Who’s sneaking around in my home?”
Janet jumped at the voice behind her, drawing her sword. Before she could move any further, a force knocked her backward, into the opposite wall. The witch had a magic wand, and her sword was no match for it. She pulled herself up again. “I just need fire and I’ll leave, I promise!” she said, “I can trade for it, too, I wouldn’t steal!”
“But you would break in, and you would bring a weapon? No, no, no, no, no… You’re a magic thief if I ever saw one, girl!”
Janet ran at her, jumping out of the way of the next blast of magic from that awful wand. They both toppled to the floor, crashing into tables and shelves, crushing more bottles, releasing potions that made strange hissing sounds as they emptied. The witch tried to knock away her sword as Janet was trying to knock away her wand. Though she wrestled her with all her strength, Janet didn’t strike with her sword. Instead, she fought to keep her weapon away from the witch’s prying hands, while struggling to free the wand.
It didn’t take long for Janet to realize the witch was afraid of her sword, perhaps even afraid of her. There was something strange in her dark eyes, something Janet thought was only fear. Maybe the threat would be enough. She knocked the witch hard to the floor, and pointed her sword at her hand, motioning like she was going to cut it off unless she released the wand. To her surprise, the witch did so. She dropped the wand and lay motionless, completely at Janet’s mercy.
Unless it was a trick. Janet didn’t dare turn her back, even though she only wished to light the portal stone in the witch’s magic fire and get home. She was sure she could do all of that quickly, but this old witch might be playing with her, pretending to be helpless. She pointed her sword at the woman’s chest, ready to strike.
“They told you to kill the evil witch, didn’t they? Go on then. Do it.”
Janet’s hands were sweating. Her whole body was shaking. “I just want your magic fire. Then I’ll be gone, poof, I swear. I don’t want to hurt anyone.”
“You want more than that, girl. What did you wish for?”
“What? How did you—?”
“You wanna be a hero, Janet? Kill me.”
Janet was speechless. Not only did she know her wish, she knew her name. “I’m not falling for your tricks,” she whispered. Something in those eyes was trying to speak to her, she just didn’t understand.
Is this what heroes are all about? She didn’t feel heroic at all, pointing that sword at that old woman. And that’s all she looked like right then, a poor, crazy old woman. Janet could barely move. She couldn’t kill her, couldn’t even hurt her, and especially not on Christmas.
Janet’s heart was beating so hard she felt something banging on her chest with every beat.
“What are you waiting for, girl? Go ahead. Be a hero.”
Those eyes… Could it be? Gina’s voice echoed in her mind. “Remember her face.” Something hitting against her chest… The vile! The fairy dust! “Stay where you are!” Janet said, “I’ll show you what heroes do!”
“So be it,” the witch muttered, and closed her eyes. Janet grasped the tiny bottle of fairy dust, and popped the cork over her.
A cloud of glittering dust enveloped the old woman, and she shrank before Janet’s eyes. When she sat up, her face was different. Younger. Still a grown-up, and maybe still a witch, but… No, just a confused, harmless woman.
“What’s happening?” she whispered, looking around as the dust slowly cleared.
Janet knelt down beside her. “Sierra?”
“How do you know my name?”
Janet pulled out the picture Gina had given her. “This is you, isn’t it?”
Sierra’s eyes filled with tears. “Yes, it… it was.”
“I… I came here the same way you did,” Janet said. “I think… I think you were cursed.”
“Cursed,” she whispered, standing up slowly. “What’s your name, girl? How did you get here?”
“I’m Janet. I made a wish on this,” Janet said, presenting the wishing star.
“I’ve seen this before!” she cried. “I thought I lost it, but it must have been sent to you!”
“You’re from my world?”
“Yes! I came here as a little girl! The fairies said they’d try to make me a portal stone, but I waited for years without seeing any progress. I was desperate, so I… I started gathering magic on my own. All the magic I could get my hands on… I didn’t realize it was so dangerous. I didn’t know how to use it. It was all too much, put together in so many different ways… I didn’t know. It’s been so many years…”
“It’s okay!” Janet said. “They finished the portal stone for me! Well, it’s almost finished, all we need is some of that fire to complete it, and we can both go home!”
She shook her head sadly. “I’m afraid a portal stone will only work for one person. You should go. It’s too late for me anyway, any life I had in your world is over. At least now, I’m free from all this mixed up magic.”
“But the portal stone will return you to the time you left, and you won’t have aged! I think… I think you should take it.” Janet let the words fall out of her mouth without thought, just feeling. She missed her home so terribly. Her parents, the stories… She so badly longed for a cozy Christmas morning, waking up to a house smelling like pancakes and bacon, and digging through a full stoking of gifts… But they always said Christmas was about more than gifts, and this was a chance to give Sierra something she couldn’t get in a box.
“Please, take it,” Janet said.
Tears were streaming down Sierra’s face. She reached for the stone with a trembling hand. “Are you sure?”
“Completely. Go home.”
Sierra embraced her. “T-thank you, child… Oh, thank you…”
Janet just nodded as Sierra pulled away, lit the fire, and watched the stone begin to glow.
A window opened in the wall, and Janet saw a room not unlike her own. A little girl’s bedroom. She watched Sierra the woman, formerly the evil witch, step inside. Years melted away from her body until she was Janet’s age. She watched her face light up like Christmas as two figures entered the room to greet her, and she ran into their arms. The window slowly closed, leaving the image of the child Sierra, reunited with her family at last, burned into Janet’s memory.
Then she was gone, and so was the portal stone. Janet sat down in the wrecked room, held her wishing star, and started to cry. “I did what heroes do, I think,” she said. “I just wish I could go home now…”
Her tears fell on the tiny wooden star. How did something so small and ordinary teleport her here, and why wouldn’t it work again? And why was it suddenly… glowing?
“I wish I could go home!” she said again, picturing her bedroom, her parents, Christmas morning… Light enveloped her, and when she opened her eyes…
She was in her room. The smell of pancakes wafted in, and she heard her mother’s voice from the kitchen. “Yes!” she shouted, and ran from the room. “Mom! Mom!”
She ran into her mother’s arms, and squeezed her hard.
“Oh! Well, merry Christmas, baby!” her mother laughed. “I’m used to you running straight to your presents! I must be on the extra-nice list this year.”
“I—I’m just… I love you, Mom,” Janet said. “Merry Christmas.”