The rose dwarfed the vase it occupied, three times the size of a normal flower. It wasn’t simply too large to be real—it was too perfect, the petals too velveteen, its sheen unnaturally iridescent, the stem too green.
Leaning over the flower, an elegantly-dressed woman reached out to touch it, then paused, glancing to her left at the man standing nearby. Several other people gathered nearby also gave him an expectant look, waiting for his permission or refusal.
“Go on, do touch it,” he said, grinning widely. His voice had a boisterous edge, and his accent spoke of faraway lands and exotic cafés where artists and poets loudly argued philosophy over their wine.
When her finger gingerly brushed a petal, its bright red hue deepened, chromatic swirls pooling around her finger. She gasped, drawing the finger back. A trail of sparkles followed her movement for the second it took them to fade, along with the shimmering in the leaf.
“That’s extraordinary,” she breathed. The others murmured assent.
He shrugged, not out of modesty but acknowledgment. “It is a simple painting,” he said, and for him it was. In his youth, Mistere had led the school of artists whose works seemed to jump off the canvas, to make the frame a window, to make the objects inside have the heft and weight of reality. In his old age, Mistere had left the school far behind. They still performed parlor tricks; he had become a sorcerer.
The woman reached out again, brushing her finger across the rose’s single thorn very lightly—then jerked her hand back, staring at the blood.
“Be careful, madam,” Mistere said, with no hint of contriteness in his tone.
“I hadn’t expected it to be so much sharper than a real rose’s thorn,” she muttered, withdrawing a cloth handkerchief from her purse and wrapping it around the finger.
“The more intense the beauty desired, the more intense the risk must be,” the artist replied, twirling a finger around one side of his handlebar mustache. “Without pain, art is not true.”
She squeezed the cloth around the injury, smiling more perfunctorily now and quickly making her way toward the closest lavatory.
Mistere watched her go, chuckling softly under his breath, and nodded to the rest of the onlookers gathered about the rose. There was no trace of blood on the painted thorn, but a drop remained on the side of the real vase.
He walked back through the rest of the crowded gallery space. Other exhibits had their own contingents of viewers. As usual, the works he meant as parodies of still life—the flower arrangements like the rose, the bowls of fruit that could be smelled and even tasted but not eaten—attracted more attention than the functional works: the serving bowls, the pillows, the windows that opened to let in the warm breeze of lands that never existed. Magic as a conversation piece, even an otherwise trite one, was highly sought after; magic that could be used in everyday life frightened most buyers.
The crowd around the squirrel was smaller than he’d expected, but it had still gathered the largest collection of gawkers. As well it should, he thought. The squirrel ran along a real tree, chittering warily at its audience, tail flicking back and forth over its shoulder.
“If I pet it,” a man asked as he spied Mistere approaching, “would it bite me?”
“If it could.”
“What’s to keep your extraordinary artwork from simply running off out an open window?”
He laughed. “Art needs an audience. The squirrel thrives on the attention you and your fellows give it.”
“So one of your famous windows opens onto nothing when no one looks through it?” another man asked. A short giggle ran through the crowd.
Mistere grinned. “When no one watches a window, it shows trees falling in forests.” Those who understood the joke chuckled. “Everyone brings something of themselves to what they see, yes?” he continued. “Different people see things through my windows. One person might pick up details another does not.”
“Do people see things in them you didn’t paint?”
“All the time, my friend. All the time.”
He ambled on toward the gallery owner, who waited by a wall covered with a grey curtain. The owner was a younger and shorter man than Mistere, dressed in a formal suit the same shade as the curtain, and his left eyebrow had a nervous tic.
“I think they’ve been waiting long enough, don’t you?” the owner said, his tone pleasant but impatience in his eyes.
Mistere clapped him on the shoulder. “And I think they have been having a fine time during the wait, my friend.” He grabbed a glass of chablis from a passing waiter, raised it, and began tapping its side with his fingernail. A clear, soft ring sounded.
“No,” the owner said, with a curt shake of his head. “That never works to get attention.” A few people had looked over, but the noise didn’t carry over the conversation in the gallery space.
“Mmm.” Mistere nodded thoughtful assent, then spun on one heel, hurling the glass at a blank section of wall. Shattering glass sounded a discordant soprano crash that echoed through the room, conversation coming to an abrupt halt. The gallery owner flinched, then narrowed his eyes.
“I trust I have your attention now,” he said loudly to the crowd. The chuckles this time were less at ease. “Gather round, gather round.”
The crowd moved forward toward the covered painting.
Mistere’s works had, in the last few years, taken on an edge of outlandishness that further distanced himself from the realists. The surreal rose was a mild example; the doorway opening onto a field of grazing unicorns, or a bay window that looked out on an alien landscape with two moons and a purple sky, were far more extreme—applying the technique of the extreme realists to the patently unreal. Those had been permanent installations, though, and despite their motion, the constant subtle differences that rewarded every viewing, they remained bound by their canvases.
Clasping his hands in front of him, the artist let another few seconds pass, then stepped to the side, nodding to the owner. With a forced smile, the owner reached behind the curtain and unhooked a rope, and the curtain fell to the floor along its guide wires.
The gallery’s hardwood floor continued behind the curtain another ten feet, the decor taking on the air of a sparely furnished reading room—the far wall had a fireplace and bookshelves set against the wall, plain metal units striking for their austerity. Some distance from the shelves, a mere foot behind the curtain, lay a black love seat with a brass floorlamp beside it.
On the love seat, looking at the audience, was a woman, not sitting on the couch but draped across it, legs hooked over one arm rest and her head on the other. She was nude, and she was not human. A fox’s head rested on her shoulders, and her body continued a fox’s coloration, a light coat of fur over all but her palms and the soles of her feet. A huge tail curled loosely over her legs. Somehow, the whole appearance worked, the blend between fox and human seamless, a child’s fancy with the proportions of a classical sculpture.
A murmur ran through the audience, growing louder as the woman’s luminous green eyes visibly scanned over them, pointed ears tilting back and forth minutely.
Mistere indicated the edge of the canvas with his hands. “The whole room, of course, is the painting,” he said, and they realized it was; only a wall lay behind the curtain. The fireplace, the shelves, the lamp, the hardwood floor—none of it was real. “I am afraid I am continuing my long tradition of giving my paintings dull names, and this one is merely titled ‘The Vixen of the Mirror.’”
“Is she bound to the canvas?” the woman with the injured finger breathed. “She’s beautiful.”
The painted vixen smiled. “Thank you,” she replied, voice soft and low, with a hint of a pleasant burr.
The crowd exploded into frenzied conversation.
“Now, now,” Mistere said, addressing the painting and holding his hand out just in front of the canvas. “Meet your audience. Don’t be shy.”
The vixen laughed musically, as if amused by the thought that she could ever be called shy, and swung her legs down to the floor, rising to her feet. She walked forward and took Mistere’s hand. The transition between when her feet were on painted hardwood and real hardwood was impossible to distinguish for the onlookers directly in front of the canvas; only the ones to the side could tell the precise moment when she’d stepped out of the painting. At six feet even, Mistere was not a short man, but the vixen stood eye-to-eye with him.
Applause started, spottily, quickly becoming thunderous. The woman clasped her hands together with delight, the pain of the rose’s thorn forgotten.
“Even for you, Mistere, this is… hard to credit as being what it appears,” a tall, gaunt man said. He looked as dazzled as the rest of the audience, but his smile held incredulity. Mistere knew him, in passing: a critic as renowned in his field as the artist was in his.
He laughed. “And what does it appear to be? A living, breathing woman with a mind of her own?”
The severe man nodded curtly.
Lifting the vixen’s hand up over her head, Mistere grinned as she twirled around gracefully, her tail rustling over his legs. “She is, just as much as the squirrel is a living, breathing squirrel with a mind of its own, sir. Yet just as the squirrel does, she needs her audience. More so.”
“More…” The critic narrowed his eyes. “The mirror of the title.”
Mistere nodded. The vixen regarded the critic silently.
“And what does she reflect?”
“What do you expect her to reflect?” the artist said with a wide grin. Some of the crowd tittered.
The severe man crossed his arms. “If I said I wanted her to be a flamenco dancer?”
“That is not,” the vixen said, “what you want.”
He looked back at her, and her eyes held the critic’s for long seconds.
“Then what do I want?” the critic said softly.
Dropping Mistere’s hand, she sauntered up to the critic and put her hands on his shoulders, and leaned her head up, whispering in his ear.
He became pale.
“Do you see?” Mistere said when she returned to his side.
All the room’s eyes locked onto the critic, except for the vixen’s.
“And do you plan to show her to patrons by having her… whisper… things into their ears?” the critic said through clenched teeth.
“When necessary,” Mistere replied, his tone light.
The critic spun on his heel and stomped out of the gallery.
More nervous tittering ran through the crowd.
“Well, I’d like to see you do a flamenco dance,” one man said.
The vixen turned her impossibly luminous eyes on the speaker, and walked to him. He was a younger man, dressed in a fashionably modern gray outfit, consciously chosen to be a little too casual for the affair. He stood only five-eight, and the vixen stood so close to him that he had to tilt his head up to meet her probing gaze.
After a few seconds of looking into his eyes, she smiled. “The dance you want to see,” she said, “is a tango.” She took his hand as she spoke, and stepped back, smoothly spinning him into the dance.
“I don’t—ah—know how—” he protested. He stumbled after her rather than danced, but she didn’t miss a step.
“That is why I am leading,” she said, to more chuckles from the audience as they backed away from the couple. She led him the way one might imagine a little girl would lead a rag doll in a dance, tireless, almost merciless. At the dance’s end she was suddenly holding a rose in her teeth for him to take, and she bent backward lithely at her waist, pulling him down against her. He lost his balance and fell against her, but she could have been a rock, remaining locked in that position until he managed to fumble the rose away. Their tongues visibly met during the exchange.
The young man dropped the rose and stumbled back, breathing hard. The applause this time was sustained, yet scattershot, the audience’s unease with Mistere’s artistry clearly increased.
“I think that is enough,” Mistere said with a chuckle. He raised a hand and snapped his fingers, pointing at the canvas again.
“And is that what you really want?” the vixen said, walking back to her artist, hands clasped in front of her, pouting slightly.
He laughed. “You know what I want, my dear. Accolades. When people react to you, I am flattered.” He ushered her back into the canvas, and she took a seat on her couch with a soft sigh.
“Is this not a fine location?” the buyer said, indicating the wall with a grand sweep of his right arm.
The wall was empty and immense, the north wall of the buyer’s west wing library. Like most rooms in the mansion, its nominal function was a backdrop. Both libraries, the map room, the trophy room, even the planetarium—they existed as sets for the buyer’s grand parties.
Mistere twirled his mustache. “It is somewhat removed from your grand room.”
“Quite,” the buyer agreed, flashing the smile he was famous for. “I don’t want her to be a mere conversation piece for dinner parties. I think—smaller groups would be more able to appreciate all she can offer.”
“Depending on what you ask.”
The buyer grinned again, less winningly. “Your price is very, very steep, Mistere.”
The artist shrugged easily. “If you thought it was unfair, we would not have come this far in negotiation.”
“By ‘negotiation,’ do you mean there is room for bargaining you down?”
It was Mistere’s turn to smile. He offered no other response.
“Just an idle question,” the buyer said with a soft sigh.
“This library.” He waved a hand around at the books. “It will be empty when there are no parties?”
“Of course.” He tilted his head, a small smile playing across his features. “A curious question.”
“She should always be returned to the painting. As she leaves through the force of will of others, she is compelled to return through will.”
The buyer shrugged. “Her will is dependent on her audience, is it not? If they want a strong woman, they will get one. If they want a weak woman, they will get one.”
Mistere stabbed at the air for force. “She reflects, not only desire but expectation. Do not mistake that for malleability.”
Confusion flickered to annoyance on the buyer’s face. “I’ll make sure to tuck her in every night.”
As his guest cracked the whip again, the buyer pursed his lips. Abstractly, even the welts across her back were beautiful. She screamed with a searing realness that made it impossible for him to maintain a host’s smile. The guest torturing her seemed to be the only one of the five in the room enjoying himself.
Yet, the quiet one in the corner, the one nearly sobbing himself, the one the vixen’s eyes focused on with her pleading—he would be the next to impose himself on her. The buyer had learned to recognize the cues already. He wanted to be a hero, and she would arrange it, somehow, so that he would be.
He glanced around the room. None of the guests were people he knew tonight. While he had not advertised his purchase of The Vixen he had made no secret of it, and his grand parties attracted guests from hundreds of miles away. At least eight dozen people had filled the house’s main salons this evening, and most had filed through the library to admire the vixen and, if they were daring, engage her in a brief conversation.
Originally, the buyer had thought he would invite the ones who seemed particularly enchanted with her back for more personal meetings. But he quickly noticed that at every party, a handful of her admirers would catch her attention, her liquid eyes lingering on them thoughtfully. He made sure that he always included those people. The ones entranced by her often made good conversation, but the ones who entranced her made better entertainment.
“Enough!” the quiet one abruptly snarled, launching himself at the man with the whip. The torturer was a bigger, stronger man, but his trousers were down about his ankles, putting him in no position to fight as he went down.
Other guests looked up with a suddenly renewed interest.
“For God’s sake, man, she’s a painting,” the evening’s villain spluttered. The protest was to no avail, though, as the no longer quiet man slugged him in the jaw hard enough to draw blood.
“Are you mad—”
Another punch and the man fell silent but for a moan. The quiet man staggered to his own feet.
The vixen dropped into his arms, sobbing. The three other guests clapped, lightly, but the hero didn’t notice as he guided the vixen to a seat.
One of the seated guests, and the only one in the same full state of dress as the host, rose to his feet and walked to the buyer. “I hadn’t expected this level of violence,” he murmured.
“It seems many of us have very dark desires.”
“It does not bother you to watch your prize possession abused so?”
“It does.” The host flashed his smile, adding a touch of wryness. “This is tempered by remembering her three months ago with the whip.”
“Goodness.” The guest readjusted his glasses. “What happens when someone’s desire involves other guests?”
“If someone wanted to see her whip the others?”
“Well. Interesting.” He laughed. “I suppose if they had a stronger desire not to be whipped by a fox woman, they would avoid it.” He gestured at the torturer, who was staggering to his own feet. “Our hero clearly had a stronger desire than our villain.” The host was not at all sure this was the way the painting worked, but it matched what he had seen.
The torturer yelled like an enraged bear and charged toward both vixen and hero, shoving her roughly out of the way as he grabbed for the smaller man.
Then his yell abruptly became a gurgle, and he stopped, frozen, and slid to the floor, blood starting to pool around the knife buried to its hilt in his chest.
All the guests, and the host, stared in shock.
“I—had the knife—and I had to—” the hero said dumbly, staring at his own handiwork. Then he hugged the vixen tightly.
The police questioned all the guests and the host in as much detail as they could, but in the final analysis, there was little investigation to be done; with four witnesses—five if one counted the painting—and a confession, the case could hardly be more clearcut.
“You killed him to protect a fantasy, man,” one of the investigators said as they led the quiet man away. They had spoken to the fox woman, but she was not valuable to them as a witness, and her wounds still looked too horrible to evoke anything but sympathy.
When the guests had left the buyer whirled on the vixen. “Where did the knife come from?”
“He wanted it,” she replied coolly, her voice as strong as ever.
“He wanted a knife?”
“He wanted,” she said, putting her hands on her owner’s shoulders and smiling in self-satisfaction, “to kill another man for love.”
“And you—you encouraged that?”
She tilted her head to the side, no longer smiling. “You know what I do.”
He pushed her away, although gently. “No. No, I don’t think I do know what you do, do I?”
“You know as much as you want to,” she said simply. “You would not have me any other way than a mystery.” She caressed his cheek with the soft furred back of a hand. “The more you find I’m capable of, the more thrilled you are with your purchase.”
He clenched his fists, looking down, then grabbed her shoulders and pushed her toward her painting. “It’s time for you to rest.”
“You haven’t put me there in months,” she protested, ears folding back.
“I need time alone to think.” He pushed her against the canvas, and she stumbled, then turned around inside the painting, staring at him reproachfully.
“I should take you back to your painter,” he snapped.
“You’re so sure of that?”
She sat down on her couch. “Yes.”
Scowling, he turned, extinguishing the light and walking away. He paused at the exit to the library. The painting did not face the doorway, and the image appeared flatter from this angle, unmoving, details lost in shadow.
If someone wanted to see her whip the others, he knew what would happen now. And what if the quiet man had wanted her to have the knife, if his fantasy was to watch her kill—
In the darkness, the vixen softly laughed.
The buyer shut the door quickly.
Because he missed having her in his bed, the buyer brought her back out in a month. He did not hold one of his parties again for a season, though. And he did not dare to bring people back in to the library until that winter, when he could no longer bear to see the same handful of people showing up, the desperation building behind their politeness as they asked for just one more look at the painting, the melted fire in the vixen’s eyes as she regarded them.
And to the library that evening came those few, the ones who saw their own impossible fantasies, unspoken desires that fused dream and nightmare, reflected back from those eyes.
There were just three. One was a gaunt, musteline man with a midnight blue blazer and an unpleasant smile. His fantasy bored the host, another simple one of enslaving the vixen, whipping her, treating her cruelly.
The woman with long red hair and tile green eyes wanted a pet, though, and the vixen gave her one, sitting at the woman’s feet adoringly, letting a collar be put around her neck, a leash attached to it, the insults and abuses of the gaunt man redressed. The tableau seemed less shocking than it might with a human as the pet, but the men watching were disturbed—not as much for the vixen as for their own jealous reactions to the woman.
“I can’t imagine her as a pet,” one man finally said. He was the largest of the group, an imposing cylinder of a man, nearly six and a half feet tall, possessed of squared-off blond hair and loose casual clothes.
“And what do you imagine me as?” The vixen looked over from where she rested her head on her mistress’s thigh.
“You should have her as a pet,” he said with a grin. His eyes betrayed nervous longing.
“I think you mean you want her to have you as a pet,” the weaselly man said, not disguising his sneer.
“That’s not so,” the large man said, voice suddenly tight and stiff.
“It is partially so,” the vixen said, stretching langorously and flashing him a knowing smile. “You want to be small.”
The man paled.
“You want to be small,” she repeated. “Dwarfed by me.” She leaned forward. “Far more than dwarfed—”
The woman holding her leash yanked it back, cutting the vixen off. “Pay attention to me,” she snapped.
The vixen started to grow.
Her colors flowed outward rapidly like pooling, splashing paint. In mere seconds she had become twice the size she had been, still kneeling by the woman but her head already level with her supposed owner—then twice again that size, her head touching the library’s high ceiling. Her collar grew with her, but the leash did not, and the woman held onto it, now draped over the vixen’s massive breast.
“Let go!” the weaselly man yelled. The others were too shocked to react as the vixen’s feet pushed aside empty furniture. The large man simply stared, quivering.
“I can’t!” the woman shrieked. The leash had caught both her hands, tying them up firmly.
“You made a fine mistress,” the vixen said, her voice the same pitch but with a deep, resonant timber. “You’ll make an even finer pendant.”
And she kept growing, leaning forward as she became too tall for the ceiling.
“You should be able to burst through the roof like kindling,” the large man whispered, breath uneven.
“Enough!” the host snapped, recovering from his shock. “Stop this at once!”
The vixen looked between the buyer and the large man, her owner and the man fueling her. Then she punched her fist through the roof as if it were balsa.
“I should, yes,” she agreed, sounding pleased. She stood, ripping off the rest of the roof around the library, kicking furniture aside, books raining down. The woman trapped by the leash screamed and wailed.
The host ran out of the room. Sounds of confusion started to come from the party beyond.
With a shock, the weaselly man realized that the vixen’s sleek black-furred feet were bigger than his body. He began to back away.
“Oh, don’t go,” she said, looking down through the ruins of the roof, a hand on her hip. Her foot slid forward, pinning him under a single toe.
“This is not my fantasy!” he yelled, pushing up against the toe.
“But there are so many people who fantasize about seeing the powerless get power, about watching them rise up and crush their oppressor.”
The trapped man glanced back at the large man, who looked almost delerious, nodding dazedly at the vixen’s words. A gaping crowd had started to form behind the library’s entrance—although some guests had understandably begun to flee.
“And what can a giantess do?”
“Anything!” the man under her foot shrieked. “Anything!”
She slid her foot forward, covering him completely. There was a moment of absolute silence, then the horrible, delicate sound of a thousand snapping twigs.
Everyone but the large man bolted. She could have grabbed anyone in the crowd as she knelt, but her hand closed around him as she stood up, starting to walk forward, very slowly, through the rest of the mansion.
“Tell me,” she breathed, holding him up by her muzzle. “What does the giantess do with you?”
He stared at her mouth, at teeth the size of his arm, frighteningly beautiful black lips, down at the leashed, sobbing woman almost lost in the furred cleavage.
“Anything,” he gasped, wincing as he echoed the first guest’s final word.
“Tell me,” she repeated, tone dropping to a commanding whisper.
She smiled, sitting down where she was, kicking walls away. Then she lowered him between her legs and began to rub. A crowd still watched, horrified and transfixed, as the giant vixen pleasured herself with the man.
The police arrived as she climaxed, her howl shattering windows in nearby houses. The scream of her hapless “mistress” went unheard as the vixen hugged herself tightly; after the hug, the leashed woman was silent, her body dropping to the ground forgotten.
After the vixen caught her breath, she lifted the burly man, who had refashioned her in this image, up to her muzzle again, dangling him by one leg. He cried out in pain as she moved him; his body looked twisted, crushed, like a pedestrian hit by a car waiting for the ambulance.
“Now what comes next?” she said softly, ignoring the police as they surrounded her, starting to fire their weapons. She took no damage at all, as if they were firing air pellets, blanks.
“P… please…” he gasped.
She smiled beatifically. “What comes next?” she whispered. “What does the giantess do with her toy?”
He began to sob.
“Do I do everything that you want?” She flicked her tonguetip against him.
“Yes!” he shrieked, as if the words were being forcibly wrenched from his heart. “Yes! Do it!”
The vixen smiled again, giving the little man a light kiss. She tilted her head back, parting her jaws widely, and dropped the man between her perfect teeth.
Another silence settled around the giantess, except for muffled noises from her mouth after her lips closed, sounds of candy being sucked on, and of fear and desperation and ecstasy.
She swallowed. Everyone watching could see her throat ruff ripple with the shape of the large man, for just a moment.
Then she rose to her feet, simply stepping over the police—and squarely on one squad car—advancing on the crowd. The screaming started again.
Halfway across the city, the buyer pounded on the door of Mistere’s studio.
When the artist opened the door, his face a mask of irritation, it only took a look at the buyer’s expression for Mistere’s scowl to shift, eyes narrowing. “What have you done?”
“I’m not the one who’s done anything! I don’t know, I don’t know! He wanted her to be a giantess, do you see?”
Sirens sounded in the distance.
“And her painting, the canvas itself?”
“It’s gone.” He sounded even more frightened. “Swept away in the rubble of the library—”
Mistere grabbed the buyer’s hand and pulled him through the open doorway. “We have work to do and very little time to do it.”
“We are going,” said Mistere, “to paint.”
Finding her again was, of course, not difficult.
She had not left the neighborhood the buyer’s mansion had been in, but the other beautiful, expensive, spacious homes there had joined his in being casually reduced to rubble. A dozen fires burned, small but unchallenged, for no one would go near the giantess. She walked unharmed through the devastation, all but unmarked, but now she looked less like a fox woman than a fox demon, eyes blazing, grin cruel.
Mistere and the buyer raced into the midst of the carnage, their dash made awkward by the huge canvas, a dozen feet on each side, they carried between them. The canvas had a half-sketched, half-painted image of a town in flames.
“No one left wants this!” the buyer yelled angrily to the artist. “What drives her to keep being a giant terror?”
“The fantasy was a catalyst,” Mistere yelled back, dropping his end of the canvas. “A boat’s crew may not want a squall, but once they are caught in one, their thoughts turn to life on death on the storm’s own terms, not theirs.”
“Are you saying that because people expect to be at the mercy of her, they will be?”
“And if people expect her to be merciless…” The artist waved a hand at the still-distant vixen, who had swept up a hapless woman between her fingers. “She reflects that expectation.”
“How can she possibly—”
Great teeth snapped, and half of the woman’s body tumbled to the ground. The host gagged.
“Because that is what she is,” Mistere said, sprinting around the canvas and shaking the host’s shoulders. “And unless you and I give her something else to reflect she will reflect only fright and horror and the mounting fear she may be unstoppable. And she will be so.”
The host swallowed and nodded, taking a deep breath.
“Call her,” Mistere said.
Trembling, the buyer turned to look across the lots, over one intact house and several ruined ones. “She can’t hear me from here.”
He squeezed his eyes shut a moment, then yelled. “Come here!”
The vixen turned her head.
“Now! I am your owner and you will come here!”
She began to walk toward him, long, slow, deliberate strides.
“Oh, God,” the buyer said hoarsely, shrinking back.
“I have had to make a new canvas for you,” Mistere called up sternly. He sounded angry rather than frightened.
“I will not fit,” the vixen said easily.
“You will step into it, now,” Mistere said, shaking his head and pointing at it. “You have done terrible damage to people who did not want to be part of your fantasy.”
“This is a nightmare they created.” She spread her hand, indicating the small crowd, the ones who could not help but watch from a distance, taunting fate, the many more cowering in nearby buildings hoping irrationally that their homes would not be next under her heel. “As always…” She leaned over, baring her teeth in a blood-stained snarl. “…I am giving them what they want.”
The host stared up into the snarl. A stain spread between the legs of his trousers.
“They want it to end now,” Mistere said, gently but firmly.
The vixen straightened slightly, looking around at the buildings she had laid waste to.
“What would you do?” he asked. “Level everything from here to the horizon? Then you would have no more audience.”
“There is always,” she said, “more audience.”
Mistere looked at the buyer.
“Get in the painting,” he said weakly.
The vixen crouched, and lowered her muzzle right over him. “Say that again.”
“Get in the painting,” he whispered hoarsely. He looked away from her muzzle, at her hand, close by, at the spikes on the ends of her fingers.
She flexed those fingers slightly as he looked at them.
“Do not picture anything but her getting into the painting,” Mistere hissed.
The host looked at her claws, transfixed.
“Now!” Mistere roared up at her.
“He is mine, like the others, if I choose.” She straightened up, and looked at the artist. “And if you were no longer here, who would save them from themselves?” she continued, smiling cruelly and lifting her foot. Her huge, smooth grey pawpad moved high over the artist, flecked with blood and debris.
Mistere scowled angrily, defiantly. “You will not find that out tonight.”
The foot slammed down.
There was a high, surprised scream from the vixen, as she started to topple and fall, as if she had stepped into an open manhole. Mistere stood to the side, scowl deepening as she fell into the canvas.
She caught herself, one arm slamming onto the ground, nearly flattening both the artist and her former owner. Her feet stood on the ground inside the painting; from a distance she would have looked looked like a figure refracted through water, bent at an impossible angle at the surface of a lake.
“You were under my foot!” she hissed.
“And you, of all beings, know that a painting may fool the eye.” He grabbed the edge of the canvas and pulled it, and the vixen started to slide away from him.
She braced her hand against the concrete, starting to resist.
“Pull!” Mistere yelled at the buyer. The man reached for the canvas, starting to tug, then froze as the vixen’s fingers brushed him.
Mistere grunted, lifting his corner of the canvas up. “Pull!” he said more urgently.
The giantess’s hand wrapped around the buyer, her thumb claw on his chest.
“Idiot,” the artist snapped. He pushed the canvas up on its side, the vixen starting to fall backward. The artist screamed as he was lifted up in the air, then dropped roughly.
The canvas fell forward onto its front side, the vixen completely disappearing beneath it.
“We must destroy the canvas. Help me—” Mistere started to say to the buyer.
“I can’t,” the buyer said, holding a hand to the spreading blood on his belly, then collapsed.
While his injury was serious, the buyer survived.
When he was out of surgery he told his story to the police, and they came looking for Mistere, to charge him—along with the buyer—for the crimes committed by his painted vixen. The artist’s studio was bare, with no sign of the man or any of his paintings, including the huge canvas.
Two times, the buyer went to trial. Two times, the jury could not agree on his responsibility for the extraordinary crimes committed. Although he avoided jail, restitution for the damages left him all but penniless. He lived the rest of his life in a quiet, modest obscurity far away from the town his mansion had been in.
No one heard from Mistere again. If he continued painting, he did so for no eyes but his own.
Years later, in a seaside town in a faraway country, a landlord went through the attic of an eccentric old man who had rented from him for decades before passing away that spring. Paintings filled the attic, from top to bottom, all of an extraordinary realism.
All but one: a canvas twelve feet on each side, almost solid black but for a few abstract shapes, completely unlike the others. But a scratch on one corner, a small scratch, showed another color entirely.
The landlord brought that painting down to the living room of his modest cottage, propping it against a wall, and carefully, slowly, cleaned away the top layer of paint with turpentine. As he had thought, another painting lay beneath, and it, too, was unlike the others in the attic. Bold, thick slashes of lines depicted a rough-hewn cityscape in shambles, an angry, towering woman with the head and fur of a fox astride the ruins like a vengeful goddess.
He studied the painting from all angles, and spent the evening simply sitting in front of it, transfixed. Long after sunset, he fell asleep in front of the picture, and he dreamed of the strange fox woman—of her bigger, bigger, bigger. In his dreams she filled the sky. She could crush cities with her fingertips. She could wrap a hand about the world and eat it like an apple.
The landlord woke up at sunrise in a sweat, remembering the dreams, and stared again at the painting. It had changed. Before the buildings in it were nearly as tall as the vixen. Now, they barely came to her knees, and as he watched, they kept shrinking—no, everything in the painting did, everything but the giantess.
He dropped to his knees, staring.
She turned slowly, meeting his eyes, and began to walk toward him.
And outside, as if the sunrise had been reversed over the entire land, deep, high shadows started to fall.