The sun was already near high noon as Ellie jogged along the side of the cobblestone street headed into Phiana, with Lillian trailing behind. Just ahead, Ellie spotted the large public carriage and kept it in sight as she waited for her little sister to catch up.
“Hurry up!” she called back. “I don’t wanna be stuck waiting for the next one!”
“I’m hurrying!” Lillian whined.
Ellie grabbed her sister’s hand and dashed to the public carriage. It was several times larger than the usual carriage and drawn by massive oxen. Ellie and Lillian slipped through one of the few open sides and searched for seating along the wooden partitions. With no seats available, they joined the other passengers in the aisle and held onto the poles to brace themselves for the bumpy ride.
The carriage swayed gently along the cobblestone streets. From the pocket of her plain, green dress, Ellie fetched the shopping list that her mother had given her that morning. She mentally mapped every item she read and plotted the most efficient and time-saving route through the market, all while occasionally fanning herself with the list. The heat was radiating from the cobblestone, and Ellie thought that if perhaps she had a few less tosses and turns in her sleep, they could have avoided this altogether.
“Ellie!” Lillian nudged her sister and keenly pointed out a passing cart that carried lumber and other supplies.
“Looks like they’re getting ready for festival set up,” she smiled.
“I can’t wait!” Lillian bounced on her toes as best she could on the moving carriage. “I’ve saved 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 raised her brow. “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 the upcoming school year. Don’t worry, I’ll be free all summer.” That was, of course, assuming she would even take the apprenticeship. Ellie wanted to, but each time she pondered it, she heard her mother’s voice as her mind reenacted their conversation.
Ellie resumed browsing the list as Lillian watched the people riding with them. The sisters were quiet for a time before Lillian took interest in the book peeking from Ellie’s bag.
“Is that one any good?” she asked.
“This?” Ellie placed her fingers on the spine sticking out from under the bag’s flap. “I’m surprised you’d ask.”
“Well it’s not like I hate books, even if a certain someone would say otherwise.” Lillian seemed only moderately offended by the remark. “I just rarely find ones I actually like.”
“I think you’d like this one.” Ellie pulled out the book with her free hand. “It’s an interesting story, but a lot darker than what I usually read, so it has me a bit unsettled. I think that’s why I slept so poorly last night.”
She withheld the part about the silhouette at the edge of the woods, either out of embarrassment at her reaction or not to worry her sister.
“It can be exhilarating, but I’m not too worried. 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 Ellie’s comment and pointed at one of the distant, floating continents.
“Well, even if that is true, thank the Triad we live on the Shard that we do, because that means we don’t have to worry about those things.”
Ellie dropped the book back into her bag and tried skimming the list again, but Lillian continued and caused her to slap it against 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 scoffed, and brought her hand to her forehead. “How are those last two even related? Either way, you know they’d all probably eat you.”
“That might be true.” Lillian tilted her head in thought. “But with how much garlic I eat, I would easily take out a vampire if one even tried.”
“Ever looking for the silver lining, aren’t you?”
“For the vampire’s sake, they better hope I don’t have a silver lining, or that would be bad for them. For the werewolf, too!”
The carriage ride lasted only a few more minutes before reaching the markets. Countless people filled the street, their cacophony of conversations melding into a chorus of haggling and gossip. Even after they had hopped off and Ellie began browsing the stalls, Lillian continued listing off one monster myth after another. Silver, garlic, wolfsbane, holy water, sunlight, and more. Ellie couldn’t help but laugh at how Lillian practically treated these things as though they were gospel.
The sisters bounced from stall to stall and purchased each item on their mother’s list. Finally, they approached the last one that they needed a particular herb from. By this point, they were more than ready to return home with their heavy bags fit to burst with vegetables and herbs. Ellie looked over the assortment as Lillian leaned on the stall’s support beam and glared toward 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 needs to focus on studying this weekend.”
“But why?” Lillian whined. “He’s always studying, so his brain probably has all the exam answers, anyway!” She glanced over the herbs and spotted the one Ellie was in search of, then picked it up and handed it to her. “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 sighed, then paid the merchant and thanked him. “It’s less about studying and more about how 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.”
Having bought everything on the list, the sisters decided it was time to head home. Ellie stood on her toes and looked over the crowds to spot where a public carriage heading westward was stationed. Finding nothing, she adjusted the bag of vegetables on her shoulder and started down the street for a better look.
A welcome voice stopped Ellie and Lillian in their tracks, and from behind they saw a smiling elderly couple approach them. Lillian called back to their grandparents and practically skipped toward them with Ellie only a few steps behind.
“I thought I saw your father’s unmistakable auburn hair,” their Grandpa Martel said as he caught up to them. His gray hair was styled back and he wore a fine suit and vest, which did not at all seem comfortable for the weather. And yet, he appeared to be managing well and pulled Ellie and Lillian in for a hug, careful to mind the bags slung on their arms.
Grandma Martel stood beside him, holding a white parasol to shelter her and her husband 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 adjusted the long braid of gray hair draped on her shoulder.
“How have you two been? We’re sorry that we’ve been so busy that we haven’t had a chance to come see you yet this summer!” She reached out and hugged them with her free arm.
“We’ve been well!” Ellie said, holding Grandma Martel for a few extra seconds to make up for the hugs she had missed out on.
“Is it just the two of you here today?” Grandpa Martel asked.
“I’m afraid so. Mum needed a few things, but she’s been so busy that she just sent the two of us. Irwin’s busy studying today.”
“I’m being punished,” Lillian pouted.
“Goodness, whatever for?” their grandmother asked.
“I helped myself to extra blueberries from the neighbors’ orchard.” She bit her lip and averted her gaze with a playful smirk.
“By which she means she stole them,” Ellie adds.
“Oh, Lillian!” Grandma Martel swatted her arm lightheartedly as their grandfather chuckled. “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 rubbed her hands together.
A voice from a passing cart called to the people in the street to make way, and everyone stepped aside to let the cart hauling lumber pass through. Typically only people on foot were 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 after the cart passed and he knew he’d be heard over its racket.
“Will you be there?” Ellie asked, but the answer was clear by the disappointment reflected in her grandparents’ faces.
“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 the same day, isn’t it?” Their grandfather brought his hand to his forehead. “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 following weekend.” Ellie’s smile returned. “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 patted Ellie’s shoulder. “Just spend your coins on things for yourself.”
“Speaking of your graduation, how were your exams?” their grandfather asked.
“I’m pretty confident that they went well, but the final grades will arrive in the post next week.” Ellie fidgeted with the bag strap over her shoulder. “I was also offered an apprenticeship from my literature professor.”
“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… Mum didn’t seem too thrilled by the news.”
“Oh, Vena will get over it.” Grandpa Martel waved his hands. “Gods know how many arguments we’ve had 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.”
The synchronized gasps from her grandparents gave Ellie a start. She knew it was amazing news, but for how they reacted, she might as well have told them she was marrying into royalty.
“Hey, I didn’t hear about that,” Lillian sulked.
“What are you wearing to the banquet?” Grandma Martel practically pawed at Ellie’s arm, waiting through only a few seconds of stammering before continuing. “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,” Ellie laughed.
“Be sure to tell us all about the banquet when we return from our trip,” her grandfather smiled.
The two turned their attention toward Lillian and inquired about how she’d been. When she started raving about a weird insect she found in the garden, Ellie detached from the conversation and began watching the crowds and tracing her eyes along the outlines of the nearby stalls. As she met a gap between two of them, Ellie caught a glimpse of what she swore was a rat wearing a little outfit and running alongside the buildings. She shook her head and furrowed her brow, then focused again on the spot only to find nothing there.
Ellie turned her head further to the left and spotted the same bundle of fluff between another gap. Now she knew it was most certainly a rat wearing clothes; a blue shirt and green waistcoat, to be precise. The rat stood on its hind legs and stared back over its shoulder as though it were keeping watch. So intently focused was it on whatever was behind that the rat didn’t even notice Ellie. She was afraid to blink in case it might disappear—and so it did as it as it scurried into the nearby alley.
“Ellie?” Grandpa Martel called.
“Oh.” She blinked and turned to them. “Sorry, did you say something?”
“No, but you looked like you were in a daze. Is the heat getting to you?”
“I’m all right, I just…” Ellie 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 arrive for the festival.”
“What if it’s a witch’s familiar?” Lillian asked excitedly.
“I think witches tend to use birds or cats,” Grandma Martel chuckled.
The city clock chimed one in the afternoon, bringing the conversation to an abrupt stop.
“Is it already that late?” their grandfather asked. “We should finish our errands before it gets much later.”
“Mm, we need to get these back to Mum, anyway,” Ellie added.
The sisters exchanged hugs and farewells with their grandparents, then watched as they disappeared into the crowd. Ellie resumed her search for a public carriage and was relieved to find a westbound one that arrived at the edge of the market street while they chatted with their grandparents. Ellie and Lillian moved through the crowd and hopped aboard, but were disappointed to find that all of the seats were already taken. With no other option, they took their positions beside the support poles.
The carriage departed only moments later. A strange sensation tugged Ellie’s attention back toward the market street. She glanced over the people until her eyes landed at the alley she had seen the rat disappear into. There, standing at its opening, was the man in black from the day before.
“Lillian…” she whispered, her eyes fixed on the man. Lillian looked at Ellie and followed her stare out into the crowd. It was not long before she gasped as she finally 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 and broke her gaze from him, focusing on taming the overbearing discomfort that had settled in her stomach. Lillian, however, refused to turn away until the man vanished 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 struggled to overcome her nausea. “Let’s just forget about this, okay?”
“You sound like Mum…”
“Well, maybe Mum has the right idea.”
Few words were exchanged by the sisters for the remainder of the trip. The excitement they felt from seeing their grandparents had been tarnished by knowing that that man had been watching them for gods know how long. While Ellie kept her eyes fixed on the road home, Lillian occasionally peeked over her shoulder and assured her sister that they were fine. What a sorry sight, she thought, thinking that she should be the one looking out for Lillian and not the other way around.
The sight of home was more welcome than it had ever been, but upon passing through the front gate, Ellie noticed that the garden had yet to be tended that day.
“Guess I better take care of that,” she sighed, and left Lillian to deliver the herbs to their mother.
And so she scurried off to the workshop while Ellie stepped to the side of the house and removed a rock from atop a large, wooden bin. She placed the vegetables inside and sealed it back up before tossing the empty shopping bag and her book bag onto the bench beside the bin, then returned to the garden.
Ellie stopped just short of the open workshop door and heard a conversation between her mother and sister. Reaching in for the tools she needed would surely bring it to an abrupt end, so she kept quiet and listened. Lillian went on about their meeting with their grandparents, much to Vena’s delight. However, the discussion took a turn when she began explaining the encounter with the man in black. Vena’s voice grew serious and she told Lillian it was nothing more than coincidence, thanked her for the herbs, and demanded her to leave her to her work. With reluctance, Lillian shuffled out of the workshop and never even noticed Ellie leaning nearby.
With a deep breath, Ellie retrieved the tools once her sister had gone and began tending the garden. There was little reprieve from the day’s events as her mind continually bounced back and forth between the rat and the man in black. Was the rat staring at him? For that matter, why was he watching her and Lillian? Unease wormed its way through Ellie’s nerves, but curiosity seeped into the holes left in its wake. Nothing out of the ordinary ever seemed to happen, aside from being in the aftermath of some adventurer’s stories. Now she might finally have a story of her own to tell.
The rest of the day proceeded along just as it always had. When dinner was ready, Ellie called out to her mother in the workshop to come in and eat. The family gathered at the little kitchen table, gave their thanks to the Triad, and began their meal.
“I’m so sorry I didn’t help out today,” Vena said as she skewered a cut piece of pork. “I had a small group of adventurers come by this morning that requested medicine I had never made before.”
“So you had to turn them away?” 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 cure is uncommon, but was outlined in one of my books. I should be able to make it just fine, I just need to dry out some herbs overnight. It’ll be an early start tomorrow, that’s for sure.”
Vena turned to Irwin, who was rubbing his eyes between bites of food.
“How’s was your studying?”
“Well enough, but I think I took too few breaks. It’s like I can see the words imprinted on my eyes.” After a shared laugh with the family, Irwin looked 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 dinner in relative quiet. With nothing barring the way for her topic, Ellie sat up straight and quietly cleared her throat.
“Grandma’s bringing a dress by before she and Grandpa leave for their business trip.”
“Oh?” Vena glanced 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 stared at Ellie.
“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 her fork idly at her food. Ellie knew where this was going, and the tone in her mother’s voice wasted no time in grating on her nerves.
“Well, mother,” Ellie said with 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 to suffocate the entire family. Everyone sat it silence as Ellie and Vena glared at one another.
“I can’t believe you.” Ellie threw her napkin down on the table and stood up with a force that might have toppled her chair—had Irwin not caught it. He called to her as she stormed toward the side door, but Ellie ignored him and went outside with a slam of the door.
“Vena.” Bram narrowed his eyes.
“Gods damn it, now I’ve done it,” Vena cursed and brought her hand to her forehead. “I know… I know. I’ll give her a moment before I go apologize. I’ll just make it worse if I go now.”
Outside, Ellie stomped toward an empty bucket beside the vegetable bin with the intent to kick it. But as she raised her leg, she hesitated and instead kicked at the dirt path alongside the house. Defeated, she slumped down onto the bench with a heavy sigh and held her head in her hands.
“Maybe I should just be a stupid apothecary,” she muttered.
In that moment, Ellie hated those words more than anything. It was never what she wanted, what she wanted to resign herself to. Her mind’s eye saw that memory of her mother years ago, yanking at her hair while pouring over musty, old medical journals and crying that she nor Bram had enough time for this. Ellie thought back then that it was the only thing she could do to take that weight off her mother’s shoulders. She never knew what she’d do with her life, so why not make that decision easy? Now those careless words dictated everything and crushed her under the weight of her mother’s expectations.
Beside Ellie sat the book bag that she had left their hours earlier, having completely forgotten about it when she went to work in the garden. Ellie clutched it to her chest and was thankful that it hadn’t started raining. She thought about the books inside as she cradled it in her arms. A literature professor… Literature was her true love, and the thought of teaching others about it elated her. There had to be some way to pursue the apprenticeship and still help her mother.
Movement from the corner of Ellie’s eye tore her from her wallowing thoughts. There it was, along the line of trees between their yard and the neighbors’ orchard; the rat from the markets. It hopped hurriedly through the grass, following the trees toward the woods behind the house.
“Oh, hurry, hurry…”
Ellie shook her head. Was she dreaming? Did the rat just speak? There was no stopping her now; Ellie’s curiosity was sky-high and she was now determined to know what this rat was all about. Determining she had just enough daylight left for a small escapade into the woods, Ellie stood up, slung her bag over her shoulder, and confidently pursued the rat. After all, it wasn’t as though she was unfamiliar with the woods, given how often she and her siblings played in there as children.
Mere moments after Ellie disappeared into the sea of trees, Vena stepped outside from the side door and soon found that her daughter was not at all where she expected her to be.
“Maybe the garden?” she wondered aloud and scratched her head, then started toward the front of the house.
Daylight struggled to peek through the canopy above and made it difficult for Ellie to spot where the rat had gone, but occasionally its small silhouette would bounce over rocks or fallen trees. She followed it further until she finally came to a small clearing and immediately recognized it as a spot she and her siblings loved to play in for years. It had been ages since she last saw it, but she remembered it well enough to know there was something off; in the center now sat a fairly large tree stump. For as long as Ellie had ever visited this clearing, there was never a stump there, or even a tree. And yet, there it was.
Atop the stump stood the rat in the waistcoat, its nose pointed high as it scanned the area ahead. Ellie crept closer while it was distracted and grinned as she leaned in close enough to be only two arms’ length away.
“Hello there.” Her voice was kind, but the rat 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 won’t hurt you. I saw you in the markets today and just now by my home.”
The rat peeked over the edge and watched Ellie for a time before hopping back up and straightening out its waistcoat. It was slightly plump with a hooded, cinnamon brown pattern on its fur. A bit more common an appearance in domesticated rats than wild ones.
“No, no, no, this won’t do. Miss, I ask that you return home immediately.” The rat fidgeted frantically with his tiny fingers.
“Oh, you do speak! I thought I had imagined it. Are you a wizard’s familiar?”
“No, I am not a familiar.” The rat shook his head as though he were offended by the remark. “Miss, please—you must leave.”
“I really like your little waistcoat.” Ellie was far too caught up in the moment of speaking to a talking rat to even begin heeding his warnings.
“Mercy me.” The rat’s voice grew desperate and he began making shooing motions at Ellie. “Miss. Please. You must leave. You’re in danger just by being here!”
Not until Ellie noticed the gloom settling in around her did it finally sink in that something was not right. 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.”
The clouds parted and moonlight poured into the clearing. How could time have passed that quickly, she wondered. And as if she wasn’t unsettled enough, a low fog then began rolling in and spiraling below her knees. Ellie’s stomach flipped as she looked around frantically and was unable to comprehend what was happening.
“Oh, no. No, no, no, I’m out of time.” The rat reached behind the stump, lifted up a stick of white chalk, then began muttering mild curses under his breath as he drew a circle around the stump’s surface. Ellie could only watch as the poor thing quickly grew more panicked than she.
“It’s okay, little one, I’ll keep you safe. These woods can look scary sometimes, but there’s really nothing to fear.” Ellie felt as though she needed to stay calm for the rat’s sake, but there was no hiding the trembling of her knees.
“No!” the rat argued. “I can handle myself. It’s you that I’m worried about!” He continued drawing arcane symbols atop the stump and Ellie thought to ask him what he was doing. But no sooner had she opened her mouth and she was then forced to hold her tongue.
“Now, what have we here?”
The voice of an uninvited third person pierced Ellie with terror that shot through her entire body. Just the words alone filled her with a sense of dread. Slowly, she turned to the edge of the clearing where the voice came from and was horrified to find the man in black standing there, his hand carefully 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 woman was untruthful, after all? I did tell her what would happen if I discovered she was lying.”
“Who are you?” Ellie’s voice shook with the only words that managed to pass her lips.
“My dear.” The man chuckled lightly, then slowly drew 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 to respond. Child of light? Conspirator? Ellie was frozen in fear and simply stared. The man stared back, tilted his head, and raised an eyebrow before taking another step.
“It’s done!” the rat cried. “Oh, I’m really going to hear about this one, but I have no other choice. Miss, please turn away!”
Ellie barely snapped out of it in time to turn her head away as the rat did a small flip in the air that sent out a flash of light and stunned the man. He groaned in pain and staggered as he tried to recompose himself.
“Hurry, get on the stump!”
Ellie stepped up without a second thought and faced the man, who was still trying to gather his bearings after having been taken off guard by the spell. The rat climbed up to her shoulder and began waving his paw in the air as though he were casting another spell. A line of light traced a circle around where Ellie stood until it shifted into a pool of pure darkness.
Immediately, she began plummeting into the black void beneath her. Though she was falling fast, time had suddenly come to a crawl all around her. Ellie watched in horror as the man regained his composure and sprinted at them, sword in hand. His formerly stern expression morphed into a horrifying scowl, his eyes radiating malice as pointed as the blade he prepared to run through her.
Ellie continued falling 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 he approached with bloodlust in his eyes. The man was nearly beside Ellie when the void had completely submerged her. The last thing she saw before the surface of the stump sealed was the pendant around his neck that was once hidden in his coat, depicting a staff with the sun at its point.
And then, the void vanished, with Ellie, the rat, and even the stump along with it. The man surveyed the point at which they disappeared as the fog quickly dispersed. With a scoff, he stood upright and 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.”
The man then turned on his heel and tromped out of the moonlight and back into the dark of the wood.