A Christmas Void, Chapter 2- Vine Knocks

Hi! My name is Tiffany, and this is my Christmas story. It actually started mid-October, but, to my dismay, that’s when people in Dasher Lake started putting up their Christmas decorations. I’m not sure when that started since I hadn’t lived there for five years. I really wasn’t ready to start thinking about the holidays! It just increased the pressure I already had on myself to change my financial status change from flat broke to at least mediocre. It was also the time of year where family fun time became mandatory, and don’t get me wrong, I love my family, but after the excitement of reuniting wears down, relatives grade you on how you’re doing in your life. With both of my little sisters now married , they’re extra judgmental about why I didn’t have a husband and two point five kids running around a white-picket fenced yard. Most people in this town my age had that, and this time of year really rubbed it in lonely people’s faces! So, combining all of those things made me dread it! I think most people in similar situations would believe that this time of year would bring them their Christmas miracle, but I got too jaded to think that would come my way!

We were getting closer to my new home, and for whatever reason, I felt compelled to check my appearance. It seemed kind of silly to want to impress a building, an inanimate object, but this would be the first time I’ve been back in this town for a long time, and it felt like a debut of the new me. If the spirit of the town decided to watch, I wanted to make a positive first impression. That’s not actually a thing, really, my nerves created that! I pulled a mirror out of my purse and felt a little surprised at my reflection. I knew the flight made me jet-lagged, but I didn’t expect to look like I went through such an ordeal! I didn’t want to show my depression, especially with all of the people who made the same stupid joke, “I thought blondes had more fun!” Just thinking about it made me cringe! I usually got compliments on my eyes because of its unusual golden brown hue, but I doubted anyone would compliment me that day because of all of the red blotches. I’m normally pale, but my skin was especially pale that day, of course! I pulled my shirt down because it started to roll up, which told me I probably gained some weight from the stress. I still didn’t consider myself obese or anything; I still had an hourglass figure, just with more sand than some other people! I liked my curves, but not at that moment. I didn’t have the time or the money to buy new clothes, so I made due with what I had. I slapped on some lipstick and called it a day.

My father turned into a curved driveway behind a stone sign that read “Vine Knock’s.” It just occurred to me at that moment that the ground had a light dusting of snow, and I wondered if people decided that the first snow meant that they could start celebrating the holiday season. The sign for these condos seemed fancy, but I had a hunch that they spent more money on the signs the actual building! It just looked so square- well, more of a rectangle, but still! From far away, it looked like a giant brick, but on closer inspection, it was actually made of a somewhat dilapidated wood. Even the snow couldn’t hide that they probably hadn’t renovated the place since the early nineties! I noticed numbers on the door, and the bottom floor had one through five, which meant my condo, number ten, was upstairs. The staircase didn’t seem very steady, and I felt hesitant to even set foot on them! My parents went up before me and didn’t fall through, so I followed them upstairs.

I threw my duffle bag over my shoulder as Mom and Dad took my checked bags up. As they rolled my bags to the end of the row, my mom asked me a question. It took me a moment to realize that she was talking to me, and it made me wonder if they had been talking to me this whole time. I wondered if I had unintentionally ignored them or if my autopilot kicked in and answered for me. I think it was the latter because I caught myself saying, “Yup, Merry Halloween!” To this day, I have no idea what question I had answered with that, and I’m still too embarrassed to ask! Number nine had a Christmas wreath, and even though that poor object didn’t deserve it, I vented my frustration out on it, “Really? It’s not even Halloween yet! Are we forgetting about that holiday? Does all of Dasher Lake want to celebrate Christmas for two months? Doesn’t everyone get sick of it by the time the holidays come? How about we change our name to Santa’s Village and we can just celebrate all…?”

The door opened, and the smallest old lady I’ve ever seen stood there in a dignified astonishment. Her large framed glasses covered half her face, but she could still clearly glare at me. Hoping to brush it off and forget this awkward moment, I waved cheerily. “Hi! I’m Tiffany, your new neighbor!”

I didn’t bother to extend my hand for a handshake. She surveyed me as if she was trying to detect any impropriety in my character. Eventually, she croaked, “So, you’re Sabine’s niece, huh? She spoke very highly of you.”

“Thank you?” On the surface, it seemed like a compliment, but her tone suggested otherwise. It also kind of surprised me to hear that Aunt Sabine talked to anyone outside of her apartment! She still gave me a hard look, so I tried to clean up my reply, “I mean, thank you very much, Miss…”

“Allsburg.” She very dignantly held out her hand for a limp fish handshake. As a former business woman, I got so used to strong, firm handshakes that I didn’t know how to handle this one. I let her take the lead as she quickly bobbed my hand a little. Afterwards, she commented, “Yes, Sabine always said she saw so much of herself in you.” I took a little pride in that, but then Miss Allsburg continued, “I shudder to think that might be true!”

My face fell at that. She didn’t like Aunt Sabine? What could have caused such dislike from a woman who almost never left her house? She just kept staring at me with those piercing eyes, and I thought desperately on how to end this uncomfortable interaction. Luckily, my dad called my name! “Gotta go! Talk to you later!” I felt relieved to get away, but I really wish I hadn’t said that last bit because I really didn’t want to talk to her later!

I went over to the railing across from my front door, and I glanced over to where my dad had pointed. “The movers are here! Man, we had great timing!”

“Yeah, definitely…” I sort of trailed off. Seeing the moving truck roll in made everything feel so real! I had a hard time believing that I had left a job I was at for three and a half years and that I ran out of money and came here! A place I tried to escape since graduation! I felt so grateful for my family’s help at such a desperate time, but I could hardly fathom that it had come to this point. I took a deep breath and turned around to face my new reality. A huge part of me wanted to avoid it, like I should have just turned around and ran away as far as possible. Obviously, I couldn’t do that, but seeing my new place would make my fate seem so final! I steeled myself up, grabbed the key from my purse that my parents had given me after they picked me up from the Sacramento airport, and turned the key to get it over with.

I really hoped that this would be one of those places that looked shabby on the outside but really posh on the inside, and I don’t know why I got such a shock that it didn’t! The floor and the walls were made of the same coarse wood on the outside. The living room looked so boxy and empty except for this hideous rug that Aunt Sabine had obviously gotten before I was even born. I could see the kitchen from the front door, and I wondered if these decade old appliances still functioned. I saw an antique cabinet that rested between the living room and my bedroom, and with nothing better to do, I opened it. I saw a few half drunk liquor bottles, and it actually made me sad to see that this was the only thing that had gotten updated!

Before I could really process everything, the movers started to bring in my furniture. My mother gazed at it quizzically, and I explained, “I just got things people were giving away for free. I couldn’t take the nice stuff because my roommate is still living there.”

Mom offered, “Oh, well, if you needed furniture, we could have bought…”

“No!” I interrupted her. “You guys paid for the move, it’s the least I can do!”

My parents exchanged a look but said nothing more. I know it may sound silly to have chosen worn-out furniture over brand new stuff, but this was my way of showing myself that I had the ability to take care of myself. However, as they set it down, I sort of had second thoughts about that decision. Never in a million years would I have picked this bright yellow settee on my own! I told my parents, “This will just give me incentive to find work right away. I’ll replace them when I start earning a check.”

My mom said encouragingly, “That’s right, it’s all just temporary!” I tried to smile convincingly back. Keyword- tried. My mom’s advice for hard times had always been to remind me that it was just temporary, a habit she developed from comforting her patients. People were always afraid that horrible experiences were permanent, and I was no different. I really didn’t want to feel so pessimistic, but it felt hard been tough for so long that it was hard for me to imagine it any other way.

The overs finished so quickly that it was almost embarrassing! I really didn’t come with much stuff! My dad gave the movers a tip, and as the movers left, he turned to me and remarked, “Well, if you need anything, give us a call!”

“I will!” I gave him a hug.

As I hugged my mom, she promised, “I’ll always cook an extra plate of food for dinner. Come over any time!”

“Thank you!” I could tell they were really happy I was back, but they could tell I was a little depressed. I watched them leave, and I felt a little guilty for now showing a little more gratitude. Also, watching them leave gave me a twinge of loneliness. I wanted my own place, but I didn’t expect it to make me feel so alone!

I decided to unpack the luggage in my new bedroom first. Most of my clothes were in there, and I really wanted to find my comfy clothes and just relax. As I sat on my new but old full sized bed and began to dig through my bags, I heard a loud meow! It startled me since I thought I was alone! After a mini heart attack, I registered that a cat probably wasn’t a threat! I turned around to see a skinny white cat with black spots that reminded me of a Jersey cow. It stared at me with its big, green eyes in an expectant way, so I opened the window and, figuring it was a neighbor’s cat, I gently directed it, “Go home, Kitty!” The cat didn’t move. I saw its collar said “Finn,” so I told him, “Oh, Finn. Go home, Finn!” He stayed rooted to the spot. I groaned a little because I figured I would have to help him find his owner and I really wasn’t in the mood for an errand. I turned the tag around and saw my new address! “Oh, you were Aunt Sabine’s cat!” Then it dawned on me, I just inherited a cat! I felt sorry for him being alone in the cold for all this time, but it didn’t seem like a good idea for me to take on a cat when I could barely afford to feed myself! I thought about shutting the window and letting him survive on his own, but my ungloved hands were starting to get cold. I saw the sad look on his face, and it just melted my heart! “Oh! I love you already!” I picked him up, brought him inside, and shut the window. Finn immediately curled up next to me on the bed, and as I pet him, I relished in the idea that maybe this was the first good sign of the rest of my journey here!

The Shadow Path, Chapter 12

Yasmina silently scolded herself for allowing these feelings to develop. She reasoned that her loneliness and isolation made her vulnerable, and, naturally, she would fall for the first man who was nice to her. Still, she felt like a fool for even thinking about loving Aidan. He was the prince and future king, and while it may not have been totally unheard of for a royal to wed a peasant, it was unheard of for a witch to take the throne! When the kingdom learned the truth about Daeva’s control over the current ruler, the mistrust of a witch in power would only heighten! She decided not to encourage herself to allow these notions to manifest anymore. She wanted to believe that Aidan would still maintain a friendship with her after they succeeded in their quest, but she had gotten so used to people hiring her for a short time only to boot her out as soon as they could get by without her. She didnt’ want to get heartbroken at the end of this, so she reminded herself to be more careful from now on.

Avoiding these feelings suddenly seemed difficult as Aidan let out a contented sigh. She wanted to fancy that their closeness brought about that response, but her mind alerted her to what she just promised herself, so she quickly looked for a distraction. She found herself absentmindedly petting Ardeshir, so she shifted her attention to him. “So, Ardeshir, you have the essence of a warlock, how come you cant’ release magic through your paws or something?”

“I’ve been asking myself that for the last hundred years!” Ardeshir replied. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, and what I came up with was that it was a design of nature to only have magic be honed by human beings in order to protect and preserve the planet. If you could switch bodies with a Comas or some other large monster and you could do magic, can you imagine the chaos?”

To Yasmina’s relief, Aidan did not revert back to the sentimental conversation they had before and stayed on the current subject. “Why did you pick a cat? I mean, if you could become any animal, wouldn’t you pick something more powerful?”

“My house-cat was already around, it was convenient. If I had to do it all over again, I would pick a more impressive animal!” When he heard his thought out loud, he quickly changed his mind. “No, if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t have done that spell at all! If I ever get another human body again, I’ll be a little less reckless. I realize there’s a line that the magi were not meant to cross! There are dire consequences for those who do so!”

“What about Daeva?” Yasmina asked somewhat bitterly. “She seems to have faced no punishment for her wicked deeds! And you know she has probably broken all kinds of rules of the natural world!”

“There’s still time,” Aidan pointed out. “Maybe we’re the repercussion for of the evil she has done.” Ardeshir and Yasmina hadn’t thought of that before and seemed to enjoy the idea. Aidan looked to the ceiling and called out, “Do you hear that, Daeva? We will get to Duanolc and you face justice soon!”

Ardeshir informed him, “She can’t hear you. The potion allows you to spy on someone visually but nothing beyond that.”

“You don’t know that,” Aidan retorted.

“Fair enough,” Ardeshir agreed.

Yasmina mused, “If she can’t hear you, I wonder what she thinks you’re doing by yelling at the top of this tree!” The three of them laughed.

When the rain stopped, the sun began to rise. Yasmina, Aidan, and Ardeshir had fallen asleep but got woken up when they heard something land on a nearby branch. They woke up startled, then they ducked down to assess the situation. They were ready to attack whatever creature knew that they were cornered in that tree hollow, but then it hopped onto a branch that they could see. The three of them felt incredibly silly to have gotten scared by a robin! Out of a mix of relief and foolish feelings, they breathily chuckled. Ardeshir joked, “Who wants breakfast?”

Yasmina and Aidan made disgusted faces, and Yasmina responded, “Not that I’m tempted, but I don’t think that bird would have enough meat for all three of us!”

Ardeshir wondered, “What if it’s not actually a bird? What if it’s a shape-shifting monster?”

“Time to go!” Aidan responded immediately, and they all left as rapidly as possible.

As they walked down the sunlit road, Yasmina brought up, “When you hunted food in these woods, did you ever go after a shape-shifting monster?”

Ardeshir replied, “A couple of times. You can usually tell when they’re a real bird versus a shape-shifter, the latter behave differently than the creature they’re pretending to be.”

Aidan noted, “Daeva watched us get scared by a bird! She probably thinks we’re going to be easy to defeat!”

“I don’t know about that,” Yasmina differed, “She deliberately spied one of us. If she didn’t view us as a threat, she wouldn’t have done that.”

Ardeshir debated, “But if she really thought we stood any chance to defeat her, wouldn’t she have come out and destroyed the threat a long time ago?”

Aidan reminded him, “She prefers to let others do the dirty work, like making her puppet take the throne instead of finding a way to call herself queen. Even with my family, she sent other people to do the deed instead of facing us herself. If anything, if she sees us as a threat, she’ll send her servants to get us before we make it to Duanolc.”

Yasmina added, “I’m kind of glad she has that policy! If she had shown up at the onset of our journey, I wouldn’t have been ready! I’m still not, but I have a better shot at surviving than I did before!” They all laughed.

In the dark castle, Duanolc, Daeva sat imperiously on a black, thorny, throne-like chair that overlooked a nearly empty and dark room. A small, skinny, old woman nervously walked in, her footsteps echoing each step she took. Whe nshe came to the dais that Daeva had perched on, she curtsied. “Greetings, Master Daeva!”

“What do you want?” Daeva grumped.

The old woman stammered, “King Dorian cut off trade with-.”

“Yes, I know!” Daeva cut her off. “He did so by my design.”

“Oh!” the woman became somewhat flustered. “It’s just that my village relied on trading with that kingdom! Without their ingredients, we can’t make the potions that people come to our village for!”

“So!” Daeva replied coldly.

“So?” the elderly witch puzzled. “Master, without these potions, we’re nothing! We’re running out of money, which means we’re running out of food too!”

Daeva definitely seemed more annoyed than sympathetic. “Learn a new trade! Grow your own food! Adapt or you will perish!” The old witch looked shocked, which made Daeva yell, “What do you want me to do? Reverse my decision just for you? How can you be so selfish?”

The old woman hung her head low. “I thought you wanted mortals to waste away, not your fellow magi!” She quickly realized what she had said and gasped.

Just as the elderly witch had feared, Daeva exploded, “How dare you! Kadera!” Kadera came limping in, and Daeva told her, “Dispose of her!” The woman begged for her life as Kadera dragged her out of the room.

As Aidan, Yasmina, and Ardeshir walked down the Shadow Path, Aidan excitedly conversed, “Can you believe it? In a few hours, we should arrive at Bothar Ri!”

Ardeshir less enthusiastically noted, “The crossroad to the castles Duanolc and Rogamaith, each only a day’s journey away!”

“Yes, exactly! Aidan chimed. “Sorry, but it’s so close to my home! I’m just excited to get near it!”

Yasmina gingerly asked, “It doesn’t, um, remind you of where your family lost their lives?” Aidan’s face twisted into a bit of a frown, so Yasmina quickly apologized, “I’m sorry if I seemed insensitive! I was just thinking that if it were me, I don’t think I could even lay eyes on the place where my family got massacred!”

Aidan replied, “I will always remember that horrible day! Every detail! But it is also why I must return! Their blood runs in my veins, and I must carry on their legacy! I hate the fact that this spineless, vile, horrible excuse for a king walks where they once did! I have to make it right!”

“You’re fortunate that you have such an honorable lineage!” Yasmina commented. “I come from a line of peasant farmers who turned away their only daughter, not caring if she lived in isolation and misery! That’s nothing to be proud of!”

“That’s not true!” Aidan disagreed. “The fact that you went through all of that and still have the courage to show others kindness and love shows you have a strong heart and a noble spirit! You’ve created a new path to follow and greater ideals for future generations!”

Yasmina found herself flushing furiously! She had no idea anyone let alone a prince thought so highly of her! It was so hard for her to imagine future generations until this moment, and after picturing returning to isolation after this quest, it felt strange to even imagine! Aidan inquired, “Do you want to have kids someday?”

Without thinking, Yasmina joked “Is that an invitation?” She heard herself say it out loud, and gasped, “I’m so sorry! I’m so weary from the journey, it just slipped out!” Ardeshir roared in laughter, and she felt surprised to see it was Aidan’s turn to blush. She cringed and secretly wished for a distraction. She regretted that desire as a large shadow appeared before them…

The Shadow Path, Chapter 3

Right now?” Yasmina reacted.

Aidan had already turned to leave, but when he heard her say that, he went back to her and explained, “Every minute Daeva remains in power, more and more destruction plagues the kingdom! Buildings are crumbling, roads and bridges are collapsing, people are going hungry… They even control the weather! After a while, the foggy, misty air and a total lack of sunshine takes its toll on people! And those who dare to stand up to the tyranny face the wrath of the witches who oppress them! We can’t let them endure this torture a moment longer than necessary! I know you must feel nervous, we do have a daunting task ahead of us, but if we don’t move now, more of the innocent will suffer and our nerves could convince ourselves to give up. Lingering won’t make it any easier, so it’s best to leave immediately!”

“You’re right,” Yasmina remarked. “Immediate should be taken, but…well… I am a total novice when it comes to casting spells! I didn’t want to tempt myself to admitting that I actually can do magic. I limited myself to potions because I could heal people and make a little bit of money now and then, but I rarely dabbled with incantations because up until now, I didn’t think a good witch actually could exist! How can I help you face the grand sorceress when I’m so out of practice?”

“We won’t reach Duanolc tonight,” Aidan informed her. “The journey will take at least three days, possibly more. I know it’s not much, but-.”

“I’ll do my best with the time I have,” Yasmina assured him. She didn’t know how much she could learn in a few days, but somehow she believed that she possibly could learn a lot in a few day’s time. Aidan smiled gratefully, and Yasmina requested, “Just let me grab one thing.” She got a small glass vial off of a shelf above the fireplace and brought it to the clay pot with the healing potion in it. “We might need this.”

“I hope not,” Aidan half joked.

Yasmina grinned as she put a stopper in the vial. She grabbed her black, hooded cloak and exhaled, “I’m ready.”

“You are?” Aidan responded.

“No,” Yasmina replied, “but let’s go anyways.” Aidan and Yasmina chuckled as they left the cottage.

The sun had already set, and the moonlight illuminated the fog that hovered over the land. Even the Light Path gave off a spooky glow! Yasmina put her hood on to warm up, but that didn’t stop the cold from highlighting her breath. She steeled herself and set foot towards the right, but Aidan put his hand on her shoulder to stop her. “Actually, we’re going the other way.”

Yasmina’s eyes widened as she gazed upon the direction that he intended for them. “The Shadow Path? We can’t go down there! No one has gone down it without becoming evil! I saw it happen once! A man from Neodrach tried to follow this path to open up trade for our village, and when he came back, he was never the same. A lot of people never return at all! If I go down that path, being who I am…”

“I’ve been down the Shadow Path before,” Aidan relayed to her. “Do you think I’m evil?”

Yasmina stared at him incredulously. It never occurred to her before that he could have been inauthentic or have had intentions, but now she felt a little foolish for agreeing to this quest without verifying his character. She peered into his eyes and could see her lack of promptness on her answer hurt him in his core. She believed that he truly wanted to do good for the world, so she truthfully told him, “No! I trust you!”

He seemed relieved to hear her say that, but he didn’t mention it. Instead, he picked up a stick and drew in the dirt. “This is Caragsona. We’re right here, and Duanolc is here towards the end of the Shadow Path. We could head east towards Rogamaith and then north where most of the villages are, but we would still have to go on the Shadow Path at some point. Going east would also take twice as long. We don’t have time to lose; we have to go the most direct way!”

Yasmina stared wistfully at the map he had drawn. “Gosh, I didn’t realize how much of the land the Shadow Path has taken up! No wonder the kingdom hardly ever travels to Neodrach!”

“We’re going to change that!” Aidan pledged. “We’re going to open up trade between the villages and unify Caragosona once more! Listen, the Shadow Path is difficult to trek. There will be dangers that you can hardly imagine. People have given up and even perished. There will also be temptations to lose sight of our morals as well, but we won’t let that happen! We’re going to stay focused and we’re going to make it to make it to the end!” Yasmina admired his conviction but looked less convinced, so he stressed, “You have to believe this or your lack of confidence will betray you!”

“Okay! We’ll fight until the end!” Yasmian did her best to convey courage despite the dull fear that was slowly enveloping her body.

Aidan gave her a reassuring pat on her shoulders. “Let’s go!”

The closer they got to the Shadow Path, the more her heart pounded. She would have frozen completely if she didn’t feel obligated to walk alongside Aidan. The gnarly trees grew closer, and she had to remind herself to breathe. She had to calm herself down because if she got too worked up, she could release sparks. Aidan hadn’t expressed any concerns about conspicuousness, but she didn’t want to use her magic until he gave her assurance that it was safe to do so. She had gotten so lost in thought that she didn’t notice that the gnarly trees were now right beside them. “Wait, are we on the Shadow Path now?”

Aidan grinned. “What did you think would happen? We set one foot in this territory and automatically get attacked by a hairy beast?”

Yasmina laughed a little, and just when she thought the journey may not be so bad, they heard rustling in the nearby bushes! They stopped in their tracks, and Aidan drew his sword.

Meanwhile, from inside a dimly lit room with dark-stoned walls, two brazen, unkempt women dressed entirely in black stared at an image inside of a cauldron, not liking what they saw. They motioned behind them, and one of them paged, “Kadera, you should see this!”

Kadera hobbled over to them and peered into the cauldron, seeing Aidan and Yasmina cautiously approaching that bush. “So it begins! I didn’t think she would ever have the gall!”

“They found him!” the other woman pointed out.

“Don’t do anything yet,” Kadera directed. “A mortal and two magi who haven’t used their powers in years may not pose a threat to us. Let’s just allow them to discover what lies ahead and see what they can do.”

Aidan moved the branches of the bush with his sword to reveal a gray cat with one of its paws stuck between two branches! Yasmina exclaimed, “Oh, it’s just a cat! Poor thing!”

As she bent to help the struggling creature, Aidan warned, “Careful! Not everything in the forest is what it seems.”

Yasmina briefly considered this notion, but she could tell from its face that the cat was truly scared. “Well, if it’s a trap, there’s only one way to draw it out!” She gingerly picked up one of the branches, half expecting something dramatic to happen, but once the cat realized it was free, it gratefully mewed. It rubbed its head affectionately against Yasmina’s arm and purred. As Yasmina pet it, she smiled and told the cat, “You’re welcome!”

Aidan waited a moment before he suggested, “We should get going.”

“You’re right.” Yasmina turned to the cat and cautioned it, “Be careful out there, okay?” It stared at her but gave no indication that it understood her. Yasmina got up and rejoined Aidan. As they were walking, out of the corner of her eye, Yasmina saw the cat following them. “Oh no, kitty! Don’t follow us!”

The cat stopped because Aidan and Yasmian had done so. Yasmina tried to gently shoo it away, but it wouldn’t budge. Yasmina was worried about the cat’s well being if it followed them, so Aidan assured her, “Once we come across something dangerous, it’ll run away.” Yasmina didn’t seem comforted, but she knew they couldn’t afford to waste more time, so she reluctantly allowed the cat to follow them.

Not long after they began again, they heard noise in the distance ahead of them. They froze in their tracks and listened carefully. It sounded as though a large pack of dogs was in the distance! The cat jumped into a nearby tree, and Aidan drew his sword again. Yasmina admonished herself for not thinking to bring a weapon for this journey. She searched the area for something she could use, but all she could find was a large stick. It would have to due, she figured. As the sound grew louder, they expected to her the pitter-patter of dogs’ feet on the ground, but they only heard a single pair of hooves. Aidan and Yasmina had no idea what to expect now but stood at the ready to defend themselves anyhow.

All of a sudden, the cacophony stopped, and for a moment, the forest grew silent. Aidan and Yasmina didn’t get fooled though and waited at the ready. Without warning, something large zoomed towards them and pinned Aidan to the ground! Yasmina gasped when saw the beast, which had the head of a snake, the body of a leopard, and the hooves of a deer! It brandished its fangs at Aidan, who ardently tried to reach his sword. Yasmina ran over to it and hit it with her stick. The monster’s body was so massive that it broke her stick in half! It flung her away, sending her flying to the nearby trees! Aidan used this distraction to roll away and grab his sword. He fought furiously but couldn’t strike it because of its rapid movements. Yasmina watched helplessly on the sidelines, wracking her brain on what to do. She pointed her stick towards the beast, desperately willing her magic to appear and assist him. Nothing happened. She whipped it around a few times but yielded the same result. She moaned, “I can do magic on accident, why not now?”

At that moment, a male’s voice from above her bellowed, “Concentrate! Will it to come out from inside your body!”

Yasmina had no clue who had advised her just then, but there wasn’t time to figure it out. She closed her eyes and looked for the energy within her. She pointed her stick towards the creature, willing the energy to shoot out. Suddenly, she sense some of it leave her fingers and latch onto the stick. She saw the beast pinning Aidan to the ground again, so she whipped her stick in that direction. The monster groaned in pain as it shot off of Aidan and onto the floor! Aidan quickly stood over it and chopped off of its head! Though he was winded, he turned to Yasmina and congratulated, “You did a spell!”

“I did!” Yasmina reacted gleefully.

They rejoined each other on the path and celebrated for a moment. Aidan complimented her, “Good job!”

“Thanks!” she said gratefully.

Aidan remarked, “And you were worried! You ended up figuring it out on your own!”

“I didn’t figure it out on my own.” Yasmina gazed up at the trees above them. “A man told me how.”

“A man?” Aidan puzzled.

Yasmina eyeballed the tree above where she landed during the foray and told Aidan, “Someone saw me struggling to use my magic and explained how to do it.” She called to the tree, “Good sir! Please show yourself so we can properly thank you!”

Adian looked confused but he, too, waited for a response. Yasmina didn’t think she would find an ally on the Shadow Path, but someone had given her guidance that had saved both of their lives! It wasn’t just in her head, though she remembered the Shadow Path’s reputation for driving people mad, and so she feverishly hoped the one responsible would prove he was real too!

Suddenly, the cat that had been following them plopped down onto the path in front of them. Aidan and Yasmina stared at it curiously, and to their total shock, it spoke, “Funny, I didn’t know you were a witch!”