The sun was already near its peak as Ellie jogged along the side of the cobblestone street headed into the city. Lillian trailed behind as she struggled to keep up with her sister. Just ahead, Ellie could see the large public carriage and kept her gaze fixated on it as she waited for her little sister to catch up. When Lillian was still lagging behind, Ellie glanced back and called out.
“Hurry up! I don’t wanna have to wait for the next one!”
“I’m hurrying!” Lillian whined.
Ellie took her sister’s hand and dashed toward the public carriage. It was several times larger than a normal carriage and was drawn by several large oxen. The carriage had open sides with short, wooden partitions to help prevent passengers from falling off. None of the seats were available, so Ellie and Lillian grabbed onto the wooden poles that were put in place to help standing passengers keep their balance. They adjusted themselves when the carriage shook as it started toward the city.
The carriage swayed gently as it moved along the cobblestone streets. Ellie reached into the front pocket of her plain, green dress and pulled out the shopping list that her mother had given her before they left. She mentally mapped every item she read, plotting the most efficient and time-saving route through the market, occasionally using the list to fan herself. Ellie could practically see the heat radiating from the cobblestone. If she had a few less tosses and turns in her sleep last night, they could have avoided this altogether.
“Ellie!” Lillian nudged her sister to get her attention. She pointed out a cart passing by that was carrying lumber and other supplies.
“Looks like they’re getting ready to set up for the festival,” she smiled.
“I can’t wait!” Lillian bounced on her toes as best she could on a moving carriage. “I’ve been saving every single coin from my allowance since the year started. You won’t believe how many foods I’m gonna try!”
“Lillian, you should at least save a few coins for a souvenir.”
“I guess.” She bobbed her head in reluctant agreement. “Are you coming with us this year?”
Ellie gave Lillian a confused glance. “I go every year. Why would this one be any different?”
“I dunno. I wasn’t sure how soon your apprenticeship would start.”
“Oh goodness, no, not until this upcoming school year. So don’t worry, I’ll be free all summer.” Besides, that was assuming she was even going to take the apprenticeship. She wanted to, but every time she thought of it, she could hear her mother’s voice as her mind reenacted the conversation from the previous day.
Ellie resumed browsing over the list as Lillian looked out over the people riding with them. The sisters were quiet for a time before Lillian noticed the book that was sticking out of Ellie’s bag.
“Is that book any good?” she asked.
“This one?” Ellie placed her fingers on the spine that was peeking out from under the flap. “I’m surprised you’d ask.”
“I don’t hate books, even if a certain someone would say otherwise.” Lillian seemed only moderately offended by her sister’s comment. “I just rarely find ones I like.”
“I think you’d like this one.” Ellie pulled the book out and held it in her free hand. “It’s an interesting story, but it’s a lot darker than what I usually read, so it has me a bit unsettled. It’s why I slept so poorly last night.” She withheld the part about seeing a silhouette at the edge of the woods, either out of embarrassment over how she reacted or not to worry her sister. “In some ways, it’s sorta exhilarating, too. But I’m not too worried, because it’s not like werewolves exist anyway.”
“Oh, they exist!”
Ellie glared at her younger sister. “Lillian, no they don’t.”
“Yes they do! They just don’t live around here.”
“And who told you that?”
“Well, Richard also told you a few years ago that the moon was made of cheese and you believed him for a whole week, so I’d err on the side of caution when listening to your classmate.”
“He said that there’re werewolves on other Shards.” She ignored her sister’s remark and pointed up at one of the distant floating continents.
“Well, even if that is true, thank the gods we live on the Shard that we do, because we don’t have to worry about things like that.”
Ellie dropped the book back into her bag and tried once more to read over the list, but Lillian continued talking which caused her to slap the list down at her side in minor frustration.
“I think it’d be neat to meet something like a werewolf, a vampire, a goblin, or a troll.”
“Oh, for goodness sake.” Ellie brought her hand to her forehead and laughed. “How are those last two even related? Regardless, they’d all probably eat you, you know.”
“That might be true.” Lillian tilted her head in thought. “But with how much I like garlic, I would easily take out a vampire if one ate me.”
“Ever looking for the silver lining, aren’t you?”
“Hopefully for the vampire, I don’t have a silver lining inside of me, or that would be bad for them. For the werewolf, too!”
The carriage ride only lasted a few more minutes before they reached the markets. Many people filled the market street, a cacophony of conversations melding into a chorus of haggling and gossip. Even after Ellie and her sister had hopped off and browsed the stalls, Lillian continued to list off one monster myth after another. Silver, garlic, wolfsbane, holy water, sunlight, and so forth. It amused Ellie that Lillian treated all of these things as though they were gospel.
Ellie and Lillian bounced from stall to stall as they purchased the items on their mother’s list. Finally, they approached the last one that they needed to find a particular herb from. The two sisters were more than ready to return home at this point, as their bags that they had brought with them were nearly overflowing with vegetables and herbs. Ellie looked over the assortment as Lillian leaned on the support beam, sighing as she glared in the direction of the hot summer sun.
“Why’d Irwin get out of coming to the markets this time, anyway?”
“You know why. His graduation exams are next week, so he really needs to focus on studying this weekend.”
“But why?” Lillian whined. “He’s always studying, so his brain probably knows everything on the exams anyway!” She glanced over the herbs as her sister continued to search for the last one on the list. Spotting it before her, Lillian picked up the plant and handed it to Ellie. “He’s not much fun to play with, either. He can barely last thirty minutes before he shoves his nose back in the books.”
“Again, you know why that is,” Ellie laughed, paying the merchant for the herbs and thanking him. “It’s less that he’d rather study and more that you always beat him senseless with those wooden swords, even after Dad wrapped yours in cushions!”
“Well, I can’t help that he’s so soft and scrawny.”
The two decided it was time to head home after having bought everything on the list. Ellie stood on her toes to try and see over the crowds, looking for where a public carriage heading westward might be stationed. She adjusted the bag of vegetables on her shoulder and sighed, determining that they would probably have to walk down the street a ways.
A voice stopped Ellie and Lillian in their tracks before they started down the street. They looked around behind them before spotting an elderly couple approaching, smiling as they called back to their grandparents. Lillian practically skipped toward them as Ellie followed behind.
“I thought I saw your father’s unmistakable auburn hair,” their Grandpa Martel said as he caught up to his granddaughters. His gray hair was styled back and he was dressed in a fine suit and vest, which did not seem at all comfortable for the weather. And yet, he was managing well. He pulled both Ellie and Lillian in for a hug, minding the bags that they were carrying.
Their Grandma Martel stood beside him, holding a white parasol to help keep her and her husband sheltered from the sun. She was dressed more appropriately, wearing a pretty, short-sleeved white dress made of light fabric. Ellie noticed the lace gloves on her hands as her grandmother reached to adjust the long braid of gray hair that was rested on her shoulder.
“How have you two been? We’ve been so busy that we haven’t been able to come see you yet this summer!” Their grandmother reached out with her free arm and hugged them.
“We’ve been well!” Ellie said, holding Grandma Martel for an extra few seconds to make up for the hugs she had missed out on. She smiled and held her hand briefly as she pulled away.
“Is it just the two of you here today?” Grandpa Martel asked.
“Oh, yes, I’m afraid so. Mum needed a few things, but she’s been so busy that she just sent the two of us. Irwin is busy studying today.”
“I’m being punished,” Lillian pouted.
“Goodness, whatever for?” their grandmother asked.
“I, uh... took extra blueberries from the neighbors’ orchard.” She bit her lip and averted her gaze, a playful smirk appearing on her face.
“By which she means she stole them,” Ellie adds.
“Oh, Lillian!” Grandma Martel patted her arm in a lighthearted lecturing manner as their grandfather laughed. “We haven’t been friends with that family for generations just for you to turn it upside down with your love of fruit.”
“Just wait until the apple harvest comes in...” Lillian seemed particularly proud of her sneaky nature.
A voice from a cart passing by called out to the people in the street to make way. Ellie, Lillian, their grandparents, and many others stepped to the side to clear the street for the cart hauling lumber to pass through. Carts and carriages often weren’t allowed to travel down the market street, but exceptions were made for those setting up for the Joining Anniversary.
“Looks like they’re getting set up a little early this year,” Grandpa Martel said as the cart passed.
“Will you be there?” Ellie asked, turning back toward her grandparents. Their faces immediately reflected their disappointment.
“No, I’m afraid not,” their grandmother said. “We have a business trip coming up, and wouldn’t you know that our day of departure is the same day the festival starts. Hopefully next year.”
“Oh no, that also means that you’ll miss Irwin and my graduation.”
“That’s right, that’s also on that day, isn’t it?” Their grandfather brought his hand to his forehead in realization. “The higher ups certainly know how to pick a date, don’t they?”
“It’s okay, the ceremony is just for the students at Leyia Academy, anyway, though we were going to have a nice dinner the weekend after.” Ellie’s smile returned as she spoke. “I’ll try and keep an eye out for anything you might like when we’re at the festival.”
“Oh sweetie, you don’t need to worry about that.” Grandma Martel placed her hand on Ellie’s shoulder. “Just spend your coins on things for yourself.”
“Speaking of your graduation, how were your exams?” their grandfather asked.
“I think they went well! I’m pretty confident in my answers for each subject, but the final grades will arrive in the post next week.” Ellie fidgeted with the bag strap on her shoulder. “I was also offered a literary professor apprenticeship.”
“Ellie, oh my goodness!” their grandmother exclaimed.
“You’re going to do it, right? Please say you will, that’s an incredible opportunity.”
“I’m thinking I will, but...” Ellie averted her eyes. “Mum didn’t seem too thrilled by the news.”
“Oh, Vena will get over it.” Grandpa Martel waved his hand dismissively. “Gods know how many arguments we’ve gotten into with her when she thinks we’re ‘helping too much’, and she hasn’t disowned us yet. Unlike your father’s parents did to him, the poor man.”
“You’re right,” Ellie smiled. “Aside from that, I was also invited to the delegate banquet as a prospective apprentice to my professor.” Ellie was startled by her grandparents’ synchronized gasps. She knew it was amazing news, but she might as well have just told them she was marrying into royalty.
“Hey, I didn’t hear about that,” Lillian pouted again.
“What are you going to wear to the banquet?” Grandma Martel was practically pawing at her granddaughter’s arm. When it was apparent that Ellie didn’t know, she continued. “I have a lovely dress that I think would suit you perfectly. You love green, right? I’ll bring it by before we have to leave for our trip, okay?”
“I would love that.”
“Be sure to tell us all about the banquet when we return from our trip,” her grandfather smiled.
The two of them turned their attention toward Lillian and asked her how her life had been lately. When Lillian started talking about a weird insect she found in the garden, Ellie found herself detaching from the conversation and looking around at the crowd. Her eyes traced the outlines of the nearby herb stalls. When she met a gap between two of them, Ellie caught a glimpse of what she could swear was a rat wearing an outfit, running alongside the buildings behind the stalls. She blinked and shook her head, furrowing her brow as she focused on the spot, but there was nothing there.
Her head turned further to the left, spotting the same bundle of fur between another gap. It was most certainly a rat wearing an outfit; a blue shirt and green waistcoat. The rat stood on its hind legs and looked back over its shoulder as though it were keeping watch. So intently focused on whatever was behind it that the rat didn’t even notice Ellie staring. She was afraid to blink, feeling as though doing so would make the rat disappear. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before the rat jolted and ran again, scuttling into a nearby alley.
“Ellie?” Grandpa Martel called out.
“Oh.” She turned toward them. “Sorry, did you say something?”
“No, but you looked like you were in a daze. Is the heat getting to you?”
“I’m alright. I just...” She pointed toward the gap. “I could have sworn I just saw a rat in a waistcoat run by. Maybe it was a wizard’s familiar?”
“Well, that wouldn’t be unlikely,” their grandfather said. “Although it seems a bit early for the performing wizards to be arriving for the festival.”
“What if it’s a witch’s familiar?” Lillian asked excitedly.
“I think witches tend to use birds,” Grandma Martel chuckled.
The conversation was interrupted by the chime of the city clock striking one in the afternoon.
“Is it already that late?” their grandfather asked. “We should probably finish our errands before it gets much later.”
“Mm. We need to get these back to Mum, anyway,” Ellie added.
Ellie and Lillian exchanged hugs and farewells with their grandparents. Grandma Martel assured Ellie that she’d bring the dress by soon. The two of them disappeared into the crowd as Ellie looked around again for a public carriage. During the time that they had been talking with their grandparents, one had arrived just at the edge of the market street. Ellie and Lillian noticed that it was westbound and moved through the crowd to make their way to the carriage. Lillian hopped aboard first and immediately sighed when she saw that all of the seats were already taken, forcing the two of them to remain standing for the trip back.
The carriage began its departure a moment later. Ellie felt a strange sensation and glanced back toward the market street, looking at all of the people walking about. Her eyes widened as she stared at the alley that she had been standing near with her grandparents and sister, noticing the darkly clad man from the day before.
“Lillian...” she whispered, fixated on the man. Lillian looked up to her sister and noticed her staring out at the crowd. She turned to look in the same direction, a small gasp passing her lips as she saw what her sister saw.
“Is he—is he looking right at us?” she stuttered.
There was no mistaking that the man was watching them. Ellie thrust her head to the side, breaking her gaze from him. She focused on the bag slung over her sister’s shoulder as the overbearing discomfort settled in her stomach and bit her lip as it churned. Lillian turned to her sister after the man disappeared down the alley.
“How long was he watching us for?”
“I don’t know and I don’t want to know.” Ellie breathed deeply as she tried to overcome her nausea. “Let’s just forget about this, okay?”
“You sound like Mum...”
“Well, maybe Mum has the right idea.”
The two sisters exchanged few words on their return trip. They hopped off the public carriage at the city’s edge and walked the rest of the way home. The excitement they had felt from running into their grandparents had been tarnished by the thought of the man having been watching them for gods know how long. Ellie kept her eyes fixed on the road while Lillian continually peeked over her shoulder, telling her sister that they were fine. What a sorry sight, she thought, feeling as though she should be the one looking out for Lillian and not the other way around.
They approached the house and stepped through the gate. Ellie looked over the garden and saw that no work has been done on it yet that day.
“Guess I better take care of that,” she sighed as she left Lillian to take the herbs to their mother while she took care of the vegetables.
Lillian went to the workshop as Ellie stepped to the side of the house and removed a rock from atop a large, wooden bin. She opened it and placed the vegetables inside before putting the lid back down and weighing it again with the rock. She tossed the empty bag and her own bag with her books onto the bench beside the bin and returned to the garden.
Ellie stepped up to the open door of the workshop to retrieve gardening tools, but stopped just beside it when she heard her mother and sister talking. She leaned her head closer and heard Lillian talking about their encounter with their grandparents, which delighted Vena. Lillian was quiet afterward, then started talking about the darkly clad man. Hearing the seriousness in her voice, Ellie leaned her back against the wall of the workshop as her mother told Lillian that it was a coincidence and to forget about it. Vena thanked her daughter for the herbs and told her to go play or go inside, attempting to avoid further conversation on the subject. Reluctantly, Lillian left the workshop without even noticing Ellie leaning against the side.
Ellie sighed deeply as she watched her sister go to the house. She entered the workshop, quietly reaching for the tools so as to not disturb her mother. As she worked, Ellie’s mind continuously bounced back and forth between the rat and the darkly clad man. Was the rat staring at that man, or something else? For that matter, why was the man watching her and Lillian? It left Ellie unsettled, but there was a part of her that was horribly curious by the whole thing. Nothing exciting ever happened, but now she couldn’t help but feel as though something was going to happen for once in her life.
Despite the unsettling encounter at the markets, the rest of the day proceeded along just as normal. Ellie’s mind was caught up in working in the garden and relaxing in the family room before helping prepare dinner. She called out to her mother in the workshop to come in and eat when it was ready. The family gathered at the table and gave their thanks to the gods before proceeding.
“I’m so sorry I didn’t help out today,” Vena said as she skewered a piece of the cut of pork. “I had a small group of adventurers come by this morning and request medicine that I had never made before.”
“You couldn’t make it for them?” Bram asked.
“No, I told them to come back tomorrow. A member of their group caught a disease from a trap in some ruins. The medicine to cure it is uncommon, but was outlined in one of my texts. I should be able to make it just fine. Some of the herbs need to soak overnight, though, so I’ll need to wake up early to start concocting.”
Vena turned her attention to Irwin, who was rubbing his eyes between bites of food.
“How’s your studying going?”
“It’s been going well, but I think I took too few breaks. I feel like I can see the words imprinted on my eyes.” Everyone let out a small laugh, then Irwin turned to Ellie. “Maybe we should wait until tomorrow for you to help me study?”
“That’s fine,” she nodded. “It’s been a long day, anyway.”
The family continued to eat their dinner in relative quiet. Ellie glanced around nervously, sitting up straight to make conversation.
“Grandma’s going to bring a dress by before she and Grandpa leave for their business trip.”
“Oh?” Vena looked up at her daughter. “What for?”
“Well, I was invited to the delegate banquet in a couple of weeks.”
Everyone aside from Lillian stopped eating and looked at Ellie in surprise.
“You? How?” Bram asked. “I mean, that’s incredible, but I don’t quite—”
“Professor Emmett invited me.”
“I thought that was just for professors and apprentices,” Vena said, pushing idly at the food with her fork. The tone in her voice grated on Ellie’s nerves. She knew where this was going.
“Well, mother,” Ellie said, forming a tone of her own. “Even if I say no to the apprenticeship, I’m still invited to go, so I’m going.”
“And are you going to say no or not?”
The tension between them was thick enough that it could have suffocated the entire family. Everyone sat silently as Ellie glared at her mother. Vena stared back at her with a furrowed brow.
“I can’t believe you.” Ellie slammed her napkin down on the table and stood up with such force that it nearly toppled her chair, had Irwin not caught it. She stormed toward the side door as her brother called out to her, but she ignored him and went outside, banging the door behind her.
“Vena.” Bram’s voice was stern as his eyes narrowed.
“Gods damn it, now I’ve done it,” Vena cursed, bringing her hands to her forehead and leaning on her elbows. “I’ll give her a moment before I go apologize. I’ll just make things worse if I go now.”
Outside, Ellie stomped toward the vegetable bin with the intent to kick an empty water bucket sitting beside it. But she hesitated as she raised her leg and instead kicked the dirt of the path beside the house. With an elongated sigh, she dropped down onto the bench beside the bin and held her head in her hands.
“Maybe I should just be a stupid apothecary,” she muttered to herself.
Ellie hated those words that passed through her lips. This isn’t what she wanted. She didn’t want to resign herself to this. Her mind’s eye saw that memory of her mother, yanking at her hair while pouring over musty old medical journal, crying out that she didn’t have enough time for this, that Bram didn’t have enough time for this. Ellie thought at the time that it was the only thing she could do to take that weight off her mother’s shoulders. She never knew what she was doing with her life, so why not make that decision easy? Now those careless words dictated her life and crushed her under the weight of her mother’s expectations.
Ellie looked beside her and saw her bag that she had left on the bench. She had completely forgotten about it when she went to work in the garden. Ellie clutched it to her chest, thankful that it didn’t start raining. She held the bag close, thinking about the books inside. A literary professor... Literature was what she loved and the thought of being able to teach others about it elated her. There had to be some way to pursue the apprenticeship and still help her mother out.
She noticed something out of the corner of her eye as she wallowed in her thoughts. It was there, along the line of trees between their yard and the neighbors’ orchard. The rat from the markets hopped hurriedly through the grass, following along the trees in the direction of the woods behind the house.
“Oh, hurry, hurry...”
Ellie shook her head in disbelief. Did she just hear the rat speak? She watched as it continued toward the woods. There was no stopping her now; Ellie’s curiosity soared sky high and she was determined to know what this rat was all about. She looked at how much daylight she had left and concluded that a small escapade into the woods would be fine. After all, it wasn’t as though she was unfamiliar with it, having played in there plenty of times with her siblings as children.
She got up from the bench and slung her bag over her shoulder, pursuing the rat into the woods from where it had entered. Only moments after she disappeared into the sea of trees, Vena stepped out of the house from the side door. She assumed that Ellie was still right there and said her name, but her daughter was nowhere to be found.
“Maybe the garden?” she wondered aloud, scratching the back of her head and walking toward the front of the house.
Ellie struggled to spot where the rat had gone as daylight barely peeked through the canopy above. Occasionally, she would see its small silhouette as it bounced over rocks or fallen trees. She followed the rat further until she finally came to a small clearing, immediately recognizing it as a place she liked to play in with her siblings when they were younger. It had been so long since she last saw it, but she remembered it quite well and realized there was something off; in the center of the clearing was a fairly large tree stump. Ellie knew that for as long as she had ever visited this clearing, there was never a stump there, let alone a tree. And yet, there it was.
Atop the stump was the rat in the waistcoat. It stood upon its hind legs with its nose pointed high as it looked back and forth. Ellie moved in closer while it was distracted, smiling as she leaned in close enough that she was nearly two arms’ length away.
“Hello there.” Her voice was kind, but the rat was startled and immediately jumped off the stump and hid behind it. “Oh, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to frighten you! Don’t worry, I’m not gonna hurt you. I saw you in the markets today and just now by my home.”
The rat peeked over the edge and stared at her. It watched her for a time before hopping up again, straightening out its waistcoat. It was a slightly plump rat with a pattern on its fur that indicated that it wasn’t wild. The fur around the head and running down the back was dark brown, but the rest of the body was white.
“No, no, no, this won’t do. Miss, you must return home immediately.” The rat’s voice was frantic as he fidgeted his tiny fingers.
“Oh, you do speak! I thought I was imagining it. Are you a wizard’s familiar?”
“I am not a familiar.” The rat shook his head, almost offended by the remark. “Miss, please, you must leave.”
“I really like your little waistcoat.” Ellie was too caught up in the moment of speaking to a talking rat that her mind didn’t even register his warnings.
“Mercy me.” The rat’s voice grew desperate as he made a shooing motion at Ellie with his paws. “Miss. Please. You must leave. You’re in danger just by being here!”
Ellie glanced at the clearing around them as the realization that something was not right had finally hit her. It was dark. Much too dark.
“That’s odd. I thought I had more time before nightfall than that. There’s no way that dusk could have already come and gone.”
Moonlight poured into the clearing. How could time have gone by that quickly, she wondered. Something wasn’t right, and it didn’t make Ellie feel any less unsettled when a low fog rolled in and spiraled below her knees. Her stomach flipped as she looked around, unable to comprehend what was happening.
“Oh, no. No, no, no. I’m out of time.” The rat reached behind the stump and pulled up a stick of white chalk. He muttered to himself as he drew a circle around the stump’s surface.
Ellie looked at what he was doing, realizing that he was more panicked than she was.
“It’s okay, little one. I’ll keep you safe. These woods can sometimes look scary, but they’re really harmless.” Ellie felt as though she needed to stay calm for the rat’s sake, but there was no hiding that her knees were trembling.
“No no,” the rat argued. “I can handle myself. It’s you that I’m worried about!” He continued to draw arcane symbols atop the stump. Ellie thought to ask him what he was doing, but she had barely opened her mouth before she was forced to stop.
“Well, what have we here?”
The voice of an uninvited third person pierced Ellie with a sensation of terror that ran through her entire body. Just the words alone filled her with a sense of dread. Slowly, she turned around to see where the voice had come from. Her eyes widened as her gaze met the darkly clad man standing at the edge of the clearing, his hand rested on the hilt of his sword.
“Interesting,” he said, his voice colder than ice. “So, it was right under my very nose this entire time. I was right to track the rat, then.” His eyes shifted to Ellie. “The apothecary’s daughter. Could it be then that the apothecary herself was lying to me, after all? I did tell her what would happen if I found out she wasn’t telling the truth.”
“Who are you?” Ellie’s voice shook as the words passed her lips.
“My dear.” The man chuckled lightly as he spoke, slowly drawing the sword from its sheathe. “Given the situation, I think you should leave the questions to me.” He took a step closer. “Now, why have you come to these cursed grounds? Are you a lost child of light, or are you a conspirator?”
His words confused and terrified Ellie. She didn’t know what he was asking nor how she was supposed to respond. She was frozen in her fear and simply stared at him. He stared back, tilting his head and raising an eyebrow as he took another step.
“It’s done!” the rat cried out. “Oh, I’m really going to hear about this, but I have no other choice. Miss, please turn away!”
Ellie barely snapped out of her fear in time to turn her head away as the rat did a small flip in the air, sending a flash of light toward the man and stunning him. He groaned in pain as he staggered and tried to recompose himself.
“Hurry, stand on the stump!”
Ellie stepped up without objection and turned toward the man, who was still trying to gather his bearings after having been taken off guard by the rat’s stun spell. The rat leapt up and grabbed onto Ellie’s skirt, pulling himself up and climbing to her shoulder. As he stood there, he waved one of his paws in the air as though he was beginning to cast a spell. There was a line of light that traced a circle around where Ellie was standing until it shifted into a pool of darkness.
Immediately, Ellie began plummeting into the black void that appeared beneath her. Though she was falling fast, time felt as though it had come to a crawl all around her. She watched in horror as the man regained his composure and dashed at her and the rat at full speed, sword in hand. His formerly stern, serious expression morphed into a horrifying scowl, his eyes radiating malice as pointed as the blade he prepared to run through them.
Ellie continued to fall further and further into the stump as the man drew ever closer. She wanted to scream, to run, to hide. She wanted to go home. But all she could do was watch as the man approached. He was nearly beside her when she was completely submerged in the void. The last thing she saw before the surface of the stump was sealed was the pendant around his neck that had not been there before. It depicted a staff with the sun at its point.
The void was sealed. The girl and the rat were gone and the stump faded away. The man surveyed the point at which the stump once sat as the fog dispersed. He stood upright and scoffed as he sheathed his sword.
“It seems as though I have more work ahead of me.” He looked down his nose at the center of the clearing. “Dear child, if you are a captive, I will certainly save you. But if you’re a conspirator, then I have no choice but to condemn you.”
Turning on his heel, the man tromped through the grass as he returned to the clearing’s edge, disappearing into the woods.