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“Is that the route we’re going, dearie?” another crooned as a chipmunk scampered quickly up its trunk. “Order us around and use us up until our corpses are sucked dry and then move on to the next castle? The next dark forest? It’s a pity this isn’t Transylvania; you’d have more friends of your kind there.”

“I don’t have any friends, and if you don’t help me, I never will. Please help me hide this key,” she pleaded, feeling her specter growing closer as the sun set and the shadows grew long.

“I’ll take it,” a delighted childlike voice piped up, and behind her stood the embodiment of her slightly younger self, twirling in the breeze without a care in the world. “I’ll hide it somewhere safe.”

“No, pick me!” said another, looking up from the picture book she’d been reading beneath a tall oak tree. The child looked identical but even smaller, hunched on the ground as though trying to take up as little space as possible. “I know all the best hiding places.”

The trees fell silent and watchful, and the shadows lengthened ever further into the clearing. A bright, sinister laugh caught in the wind as the shadows coalesced into a her that was her and wasn’t her at the same time. Not-Her flashed an impish smirk, and its lifeless, dull eyes fell from one child to the other.

“Can’t you just go away?” the princess snapped, loathing Not-Her and the slimy, fetid aura which left lingering trails of filth in the devastation that followed its noxious path.

“Oh, darling, once you decided to offer your heart to a stolen child–whichever you choose in the end–you let me out to play and now I’m here to stay.” The sing-song lilt of the Not-Her’s rhyme took on a malicious edge, and it was true–when the princess looked down at the key in her hand, its edges had become translucent, and Not-Her began to solidify.

Not knowing that this choice would cost her sweeping graveyards of friendships that chipped away in small pieces at the soul she’d worked so hard to keep whole, the princess closed her eyes and felt two small hands close over hers. When she opened them, the “stolen children” –eerie echoes of her past selves whose playful laughter remained even after their departure– had taken the key with them.

The wind whispered through leaves that shook on their branches and Not-Her cocked its head to one side as though trying to decipher the words. Already some of the imperfections had smoothed; the raised red bumps vanished from its skin, its face was no longer brittle and broken, the pockets of baby fat she’d loathed had disappeared from its waist, and a dark twinkle shone from its eyes.

“What does that mean?” the princess asked slowly, watching in growing horror as her own skin grew luminous and she could see the dewy grass sharpen behind her rapidly vanishing hands.

“Haven’t you ever heard of irony?” Not-Her asked in an imperious tone, staring down at the princess as she shrank and faded while the sun sank behind the trees into an explosion of golds, pinks, and purples that washed over the sky until they were streaked with falling darkness. “You can’t exist while I’m out walking around, stupid. After all these agonizingly boring years of biding my time and waiting for you to expire on your own, I’ve finally come alive–as was always meant to be–and you’ve dwindled down into so much insignificant nothing. Sucks to suck, don’t it?”

“That’s not what I wanted!” the princess cried, the leeches tightening their enclosure around her throat as the last of her voice came out in a long, keening wail. “This isn’t fair! It isn’t right!”

“You’re pathetic,” Not-Her sneered, finally sauntering over with a spring in its sprightly step, tucking the princess’s hair behind her ears and preening its own shining locks with long, polished, perfect nails. “Didn’t anyone ever teach you to read the fine print before you sign on the dotted line, moron? All those years of reading and not an ounce of common sense, even after all those sycophantic nobles went prattling on about how you had so much ‘potential’ and ‘promise.’ What a waste. You would have ended up a failure anyway if it weren’t for me. And the best part?”

Not-Her got even closer as the princess had nearly disappeared, bending over and leaning in close as if to share a priceless secret. “Nobody will even know you’re gone.”

The princess clutched the cavity where her heart used to be, her fingers skimming over the infinite infinitesimal gashes that scarred her nearly transparent flesh. Her mouth opened in a silent scream, and Not-Her threw back its head and laughed hysterically as though it were the funniest joke it had ever heard, sashaying out of the clearing without a backwards glance and, if the princess wasn’t mistaken, with a raised middle finger.

“You know, dear,” one of the trees murmured, shifting uncomfortably, “she didn’t tell the whole truth. It’s not like you’ll be gone forever. You’ll still watch like a silent passenger–as she did for so many years, fed on a steady diet of selfishness, recklessness, insecurity, instability, and rage–and there’s still a chance you can take her place.”

“How?” the princess mouthed in a final frantic plea as her two younger selves peered around one of the trunks on opposite sides, the younger looking at her with something akin to confusion blossoming over her face as the elder’s was a mask of pity, eyes brimming with unshed tears.

“Well, that’s the hard part, you see. You’ll have to watch everything she does with your eyes wide open, and one day, when you’re strong enough again to withstand your own erasure and confront the truth, you’ll have to hold yourself accountable for her transgressions. She was born from you, you know,” it finished reproachfully, as though this was obvious information that the princess should have already known.

And perhaps she had.

She just hadn’t wanted to believe it.

Her elder younger self walked over and took the princess’s vanishing face in her small, unblemished hands. “I forgive you,” she whispered, as the last of the princess faded against the inky expanse of sky that glittered with stars. “It was selfish and mean, choosing to hide. Locking up the last part of you because you were too scared to face her alone in the darkness. But you were only trying to protect us. You didn’t know. And if you hadn’t, she would have poisoned us with resentment and bitterness and numbness, and then we really would have been gone. This way, we just kind of… fade. Until you can defeat her.”

It would be many years before the princess would finally be ready to fight back. Just as she grew stronger by forcing herself to watch and suffer the humiliations that Not-Her concocted with arrogant glee, Not-Her did also by forcing herself to forget that the princess had ever existed through sheer force of will.

Not-Her led many would-be princes into bogs that would trap them like quicksand, basking in the praise of the dragon king and the queen as trophy cases piled with achievements that looked solid but felt hollow. Not-Her proved shamelessly insatiable, gobbling friendships like chicken wings and picking its teeth with the bones, filling endless trophies with the excuses for its behavior until it needed to earn more just to make space for the deflections and denials that stacked until they flowed onto the floor.

All the while, the princess watched, and over time, she tried to suspend her judgment. She rationalized the devastation that Not-Her created, gaslighting herself before she realized that a single match could send her up in a raging inferno.

She pined for each prince to save her, lamenting their slow, confused descent into the marshes in horror–one after another.

Surely one of them would see through Not-Her. Surely one of them would be strong enough to stand up to Not-Her, though the princess watched in a bizarre, sadistic commiseration as some of the princes turned out to be Not-Hims in disguise, twisting Not-Her’s own game around on her. The princess soon learned to spot them long before Not-Her, wishing she were a poltergeist who could shake sense into Not-Her and lock it back into nothingness.

She hated Not-Her.

She wanted nothing to do with Not-Her.

She was ashamed of Not-Her.

She, like ghosts around her who rose from the graves of friendships gone awry to watch the mindless devastation, harshly judged every move that Not-Her made until Not-Her stumbled into the clearing one day with arms bent at impossible angles, neck hanging awkwardly limp with its head twisted the wrong way, and once-proud eyes that had glittered with cold, calculating malice now cast down in humiliation and defeat.

“Oh, how are the mighty fallen,” the princess murmured to herself, tracing the skin around her own face that had somehow healed into something less brittle, something that didn’t flake into oblivion at the slightest breath of wind. Not-Her shuffled awkwardly to face away from the princess in order to look exactly where the princess was standing, its bloated head swollen under the weight of its poisonous pride. Not-Her had come into its own scales at last, and cheap copies of the dragon king’s that had once terrified the princess into submission littered its fragile skin like scattered tiles.

“Are you happy?” Not-Her wailed, its face caked with snot and crocodile tears that the princess didn’t buy for a moment. “Is this what you wanted when you tried to escape all those years ago?”

“All the education in the world didn’t teach you a damn thing,” the princess muttered, staring down at her hands in surprise as the delighted laughter of children rang like bells through the trees. Their last conversation rose to the surface of her memory, and she snorted. “Irony, indeed. You’ve been free for years, yet all you have to show for it is boundless intelligence and not an ounce of common sense.”

“Please,” Not-Her begged, and something in its empty eyes shifted. Remorse bled in dark rivulets from its pores, and if the princess wasn’t mistaken, it truly appeared to be…

… Dying.

“Please don’t let it kill me. It hurts. It hurts, and I don’t want this. I want it to stop. I want it to end. I can’t take it anymore,” Not-Her sobbed, and when its form collapsed unceremoniously into a misshapen heap on the ground, the princess nudged it with her foot and sneered.

“All high and mighty now, are we?” one of the trees twittered, observing shrewdly as the Not-Her faded slowly and the princess gazed down in disgust, wearing her years of silent observation like a mantle across her shoulders.

“What do you mean?” the princess snapped. “This… This thing has eaten over half of my life and left me for dead. It’s torched bridges, been reckless with hearts–including its own–and now it wants me to pity it on the same grass where it tricked me into sacrificing myself into nothingness.”

“Yes, dear, but you made the choice,” another tree reminded her gently. “No one forced you to the clearing. No one else ripped out your heart and hid it where not even you could find it so it’s never broken. You did all of that.”

“Don’t give me that self-righteous–” the princess began, but she gasped in horror as the outlines of her own hands began to fade once more and Not-Her became faintly opaque.

Silently, her younger selves approached from between two of the trees with the two halves of the single key she’d given them so long ago clutched tightly in their small, mighty fists.