A Christmas Void, Chapter 11- The Naughty List

Knock, knock, knock! “Ugh! Why do people insist on waking me up early when I get a chance to sleep in?” I grumbled. I felt like I got hit by a freight train! I just couldn’t stop thinking about the previous night. It hurt so much to have fallen in love with someone who I thought I could never have, and I knew what I had to do- I would need to pursue my photography so I could get the heck away from him. I couldn’t stand the idea of leaving him, but my heart couldn’t take seeing him happy with Gryla. The idea that haunted me most was that until I got a job offer somewhere else, I would have to keep dealing with seeing her and hear about their upcoming marriage. I really hoped that I would get a job offer in the next three weeks so I didn’t have to go through the pain of seeing their wedding, but I didn’t think it seemed likely. I didn’t think I could ever fall for another man in the same way I fell for Isaac, but I couldn’t spend my whole life pining after him. Even though it would hurt like crazy to leave him, it was something I had to do. I figured that Isaac must have felt that way too, which is why he kept pushing me to do photography again. That really hurt, but I couldn’t think about that right then. I forced myself out of bed, pulled on my robe, and headed to the door hoping it was someone that I could dismiss quickly.

It turned out to be my mom, which disappointed me because a small part of me hoped that Isaac might have shown up to confess his love for me. I also inwardly cringed that I now had to pretend that nothing was wrong. I couldn’t tell anyone my true feelings, and I definitely didn’t want to tell my mother about the stupid situation I had gotten myself in. Okay, so I told Ruth about my crush, but no one could know how deep I fell. I noticed that my mom wore her lab coat, so I knew she must have been on her way to work, which gave me a little relief to know I would only have to fake my good mood for a little while. I had to really bring my A game too because she was my mom and mom’s always seem to figure out when you’re hiding something. “Hey, Mom!”

Mom surveyed me with suspicion, and already, I felt like I was in trouble! She handed me a box as she came in. “I did my meal preps for the week and brought you over your portions.” Before I could say thank you, she immediately asked, “What’s wrong?”

I was old enough and wise enough to know that saying nothing would prove an utter waste of time. Actually, I would make things worse because she would know I was hiding something and ask more questions. I learned the best way to approach this question was to admit to a softer offense. I complained, “I never sleep well anymore! Millstone’s is always changing my hours, so my body can’t get used to a normal sleeping pattern! I’m just dreading Christmas- a whole week of being open twenty-four hours! I just know they’ll give me the worst shifts too! They hate me on a good day, and my Pine Pass sales have been abysmal lately, so I’m sure they’ll punish me by making me work horrible hours in the middle of the night! But, I know what you’re going to say- it’s just temporary, right?”

My mom seemed to accept my explanation, especially as a medical standpoint since losing sleep was so unhealthy. “Well, it’s a seasonal job, so it really is just temporary. I didn’t think I needed to point that out. Actually, I don’t like how much Millstone’s has ruined Christmas for you!” She had no idea how true that was! If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t have met Isaac and I wouldn’t have had that heartache! But, if Isaac hadn’t been in the picture, I would still be angry about the holidays, everything I said to my mom was true! “Actually, I was going to suggest you do something more emotionally fulfilling to create more of a balance in your life. What would that be? Hmm… Oh, I know! Remember when you were younger, you used to come with me to the hospital to volunteer?”

“Oh yeah! I needed volunteer hours for Honor Society when I was in high school.”

“But you kept going even after college! You would go whenever you were lonely or just got cabin fever. Tell me you didn’t love it!”

She was right. Another passion I had forgotten about. I knew it was the right thing to do, and it was healthy to stay home and mope. Something was missing though. “Do you think they would let me snap some photos? It’s been way too long since I worked on my portfolio, and with all of the nature shoots I did, I could use some live action shots…”

“I’m sure you can find a few kids who would want to participate!” Mom looked so delighted that I liked her idea. “I have some time, I can wait while you get your camera ready and makeup done…”

“Uh, Mom, I’m not gonna take selfies!” I pointed out.

Mom offered a counterpoint, “Yes, but your lack of sleep makes you look sick.” I hadn’t thought of that. All of the stress and yes, the lack of sleep too, probably did make me look ill. It made me wonder how I could think of competing with Gryla’s perfect complexion. I didn’t have time to think about that though, so I rushed to get ready.

A little background on my family: Mom is a pediatrician, and my youngest sister, Leah, is an intern in the same wing. My other sister, Tamra, is a housewife with five children, but occasionally she too, comes to the hospital with her dog, who she trained as an emotional support animal. I told my sisters about this photography project idea, and they both loved it! I chatted with Leah until Tamra arrived, and not only did she bring her dog, but she had a wagon full of old books and toys that her kids didn’t want anymore! With mounting anticipation, we entered the first room. The little girl beamed with excitement when she saw the sweet black lab in his Santa hat, and she glowed when we handed her a book to read and a toy to play with during her stay! Her parents gave me permission to take her picture, and I got some good ones. We repeated this process six more times. Each kid reacted just as delightedly as Comet bounded into their room and they got an early holiday gift. I had so much fun that I didn’t notice one of my sisters taking my camera to get shots of me! First off, touching my camera was a cardinal sin. Generally, photographers like to take pictures and not be the subject of one, so I probably would have said no on a good day, but after everything I had been through, I would have more than likely cringed if I knew my picture was getting taken. It ended being a good thing she did though. A reporter from the our local newspaper just happened to be visiting the hospital to meet with their PR director. Of course, she caught wind of what we were doing and came over to talk to us. “Hi, ladies! I’m Lucia Whittaker from the Dasher Daily. I’m working on human interest stories, and I wondered if I could talk about your good deed here in the paper.”

“No way!” I refuted. “I did this for the sake of doing a good deed. If we make it all about us, then it looks like we just did it for the glory.”

Lucia disagreed with my viewpoint, “Girl, this ain’t vogue! We’re reaching out to people who care about Dasher Lake. I just figured that with all of the negativity in the press lately that we could run a piece about kindness, you know, show the readers that there’s still good people in the world.”

That struck a chord with me. After how awful I felt about falling for an engaged man coupled with how low Millstone’s made me feel about myself, I hadn’t felt much like a good Samaritan lately, so it warmed my heart to be considered a pillar of the community. Tamra put in, “I think you should make this more about Tiffany. If she hadn’t volunteered here first, I wouldn’t have thought to train Comet and join her!”

Leah added, “I work here, so this kind of stuff is sorta my job. Tiffany’s the hero here for donating her time to these kids! You should definitely make this story more about her.”

I had no idea my little sisters felt this way! I always thought of them as more successful than me, and so it came as a surprise to hear that they looked up to me! I’m pretty sure my face flushed a deep shade of red at this point! I humbly brought up, “But there’s not even any pictures of me in this roll!”

“Yes, there is!” Leah grinned mischievously. I immediately looked through my camera in shock and a little offense, but before I could yell at her doing that, she remarked, “There’s no point in killing me with all of this life saving equipment around!”

I couldn’t help but laugh, and I was in a good mood, so my anger ebbed pretty quickly. Plus, Leah’s shots weren’t half bad! I sat down with Lucia and told her my history with the hospital. It was kind of fun to get interviewed, especially about something I cared about! Lucia planned to use some of my shots in the physical newspaper, but she could fit more of them into their website, and I felt pleased that I could attach a link to any photography jobs I applied to! I still felt a little bruised from my heartbreak, but doing photography and volunteer work definitely lifted my spirits!

The next day, at Millstone’s, I went in hoping to get a little recognition for that hospital story from some customers or even coworkers who may have seen it online. Not like I actively sought out the attention, but it would have been a nice change to the attention I usually got. Millstone’s didn’t say a thing about the article, but they did mention my terrible Pine Pass record. None of the customers mentioned it all. No one said anything, that is until I took my last break… I saw Isaac intently reading something on his cell phone. It sort of hurt to see him knowing that we were nothing more than friends, but my heart did sing a little at his presence. I didn’t want to damper what little we had in our relationship, so I sat next to him and conversed, “Are you closing tonight?”

“Yeah…” he answered without taking his eyes off of his phone.

I didn’t think there was much point in chitchatting when he was so distracted, but it felt too awkward to sit quietly, so I may as well keep it up. “I leave in forty five minutes, but I-.”

“Tiffany, you really did this?” He pointed to his phone.

I peered over his shoulders and saw that he had been reading that article! His face got so full of admiration, and I gazed down to hide my blushing. “Well, yeah… I started doing this in high school and just fell in love with those kids!”

“Wow! Just incredible!” He gushed. “For someone to have such a big heart and to do something so selfless… I’m speechless! You’re amazing!”

Before I could let it sink in that a kind, sweet man thought such wonderful things about me, I noticed tears welling up in his eyes! Isaac hadn’t even broke down when he talked about his family’s tragedies, so to see him break down now was a little unnerving! What could have stirred up his emotions to get to that level? I couldn’t let him go out on to his shift like that, so I had to ask, “What’s wrong?”

He tried to hide his tears, but when he realized I had already seen them, he gave up. “Sorry. It’s just… I love kids so much, and now I…”

“Work with them?” I guessed.

“I work with teenagers. I can’t work with kids. It’s just… well… You gotta understand, Gryla has a huge heart, but she just doesn’t have any interest in kids. In fact, she kind of hates it when I mention them. It brings up too many bad memories for her, and I can’t blame her for not being able to stomach it. I love her, so I gave up…”

“Teaching kids,” I supplied.

He admitted, “Yes, but I also gave up the idea of being a father!” He couldn’t hide the tears anymore and ran to the men’s room. I cared about him, regardless of whether he loved me or not, so I had to run after him.

I really hoped that a man wasn’t using a urinal when I burst in, and thankfully, there wasn’t. I heard some sniffled sobs at the end of the largest stall and softly walked over to it. Isaac didn’t lock it, and I saw him sitting on the toilet (pants on) holding up a tissue. “I’m sorry,” he apologized. “I didn’t want you to see me like this!”

“Don’t apologize!” I knelt beside him and put my arm around his back. “Weddings are stressful enough, but you’re going through more than most would since you’re giving up so much! I don’t blame you for breaking down!”

He sobbed, “Because I love her, I gave up kids for her. But I really don’t want to! You don’t know how tempting it was to call of the wedding when she said that!” Now he started to get angry and threw his tissue in the trash by the stall’s exit. He missed. As he got up to throw it away, he vented, “You know, sometimes reality just sucks! I can’t give up on her, not after all she’s done for me, but what do I get out of this besides a wife? That’s it? This just isn’t how I pictured my life would go! I always thought I would fall in love with my best friend, someone to go on adventures with, create a family, and take them on adventures too. It’s not like I need a bunch of kids, but I can’t even have one? I can’t even work with them! I didn’t think I would have to give up so much for love!”

I walked towards him, and I could suppress the impulse anymore. I had to ask the question that lingered on my mind for a long time now. “Are you sure you love her?”

“Yes!” He hesitated a little before he added, “Well, I mean, that’s what love is, isn’t it? Finding someone you’re comfortable with? We’ve planned this for a long time, and now we’ll build our lives together…”

“Is that what you want?” I looked him in the eyes when I asked that. He needed to be honest with me, and I would hold him to it. Maybe I would finally get my answer. He was having serious doubts, and it would be so tempting to sway him…

“Yes…” he answered dutifully, but I could hear his conviction start to ebb. “I mean, it would’ve been nice to have had some passion. But that can’t be real love, can it? To have my future wife also be the one that makes my heart race? I wish! I wish I was marrying the woman who was so hot that I couldn’t stop thinking about her. The woman with dangerous curves that I just wanted to run my hands all over. The woman with beauty inside and out. The one who gets my adrenaline going just thinking about her. Is it even possible to get so lucky to be with the person who makes you feel like that? Sometimes, I wish I had time to figure that out…”

His eyes were tense, and I felt positive he had been talking about me. Our bodies were so close… No doubts lingered in my head, I was gonna let this happen…. Unfortunately, at that moment, Cecil burst open the stall door! I jumped away as a child would when they got caught doing something they weren’t supposed to! I expected him to ask romantic questions, but instead, he inquired, “Cleaning the bathroom?”

“Uh, yes! I sure am!” I picked up his tissue and pretended to wipe the stall down.

Cecil laughed, “Well, little lady, it’s almost your sixth hour, so you gotta clock out!”

“Oh, okay!” I darted out of the bathroom, totally embarrassed. There was no more patting myself on the back for doing a good deed yesterday. As I clocked out, I stared at a cheesy holiday poster, and I thought that if there was a Santa, based on what just happened, I would have been put on the naughty list!

The Shadow Path, Chapter 5

Yasmina lost track of time as they headed down towards Santach. It logically didn’t make sense for the village to be close to the Shadow Path, but Yasmina felt as though they had been walking for ages. Finally, a dull light illuminated a street of rudimentary houses. She couldn’t see most of the town, but the buildings just didn’t seem to belong to unfriendly inhabitants, which made her really question Maysa and her gang’s initial aggression towards them. The homes were situated pretty close to each other, and the walls appeared to be made of pretty thin wood, so Yasmina wondered how the three of them could sneak out of there without getting caught.

Yasmina’s train of thought got unexpectedly taken away when Mays asked her, “Lovely, isn’t it?”

“Lovely,” Yasmina repeated without thinking.

They stopped before an empty cottage, and Maysa informed them, “You guys can rest here for the night. There’s a bed for you and enough room on the floor for your prisoner. It doesn’t have a door, but I’ll have someone guard the entrance.”

“Oh, that’s not necessary,” Yasmina cringed. She had hoped to get some privacy so they could devise an escape plan, but if they had a constant eye on them, that would prove to be impossible.

Maysa iterated, “It’s for our safety as well as yours. If you need anything, let us know. Good night.”

As everyone dispersed to their perspective houses, Yasmina, Aidan, and Ardeshir entered their own abode. Yasmina had never seen a circular dwelling before, and the lack of furniture and possessions, save for the bed, threw her off. She noticed the floor was dirt, which surprised her. She always thought Neodrach had the poorest homes in all of Caragsona, so seeing these conditions made her rethink that perspective. And yet, despite their humble conditions, the people who lived here didn’t seem unhappy. She really never realized how reclusive her old lifestyle was until now!

For a moment, they were alone, and Yasmina and Aidan finally got the chance to make eye contact with each other! It only lasted a moment, but she could see concern on his face. She felt a flood of relief to know he wasn’t angry with her and that he had the same desire as her to get them out safely. He hadn’t given up, and neither would she! Before they could communicate anything more, a warlock as large and tall as the doorway stood before them. His stone face gave no hint of warmth or comfort either. Yasmina and Aidan immediately separated as to not rouse suspicion. Aidan laid comfortably on the floor on the opposite side of where Yasmina’s bed was located. The warlock in the doorway kept his eyes on her, and Yasmina felt glad that she didn’t have any desire to actually sleep because she didn’t think she could with him watching. Ardeshir hopped on the bed and stared at her in a very cat-like way. Yasmina wished she could communicate something with more substance with him, but with a door guard looking over their shoulders, all she could think to do was pat his head. Ardeshir went to the foot of the bed to sleep, so Yasmina stared at the stars through the window over her bed. She wished she could communicate with Aidan and Ardeshir, but she didn’t see a way she could. She desperately wondered how they were going to get out of there!

In the pitch of total darkness, all Yasmina could see was a pair of narrow, red eyes glaring at her. The eyes suddenly widened, and Yasmina woke with a start. She realized she had bad dream, which kind of astonished her considering she she hadn’t realized that she had even fallen asleep! She glanced to the foot of the bed and saw Ardeshir peacefully asleep. She pretended to turn in her sleep so she could flip over to see Aidan. All she saw was his back, so she had no idea if he had fallen asleep or not. With only a sliver of her eye open, she peeked at the door guard and saw him leaning against the frame with his backed turned to them. He shifted back to check on them, looking very weary. Yasmina hastily shut her eyes feigned sleep. Shortly after that moment, she sensed another shift by the door, so she dared to open her eyes again. To her shock, the door guard had left!

Yasmina cautiously sat up and peeked out of the window above her bed, and she saw the door guard heading away from their hut! She knew they had a split second to escape, so she quickly whispered, “Guys!” She had been mentally prepared to wake them up, but when she turned around, she saw that Aidan and Ardeshir were fully alert and ready to go. Without hesitation, they all sprang up and headed out of the cottage.

The sun had begun to rise, but the streets were still empty. Yasmina, Aidan, and Ardeshir moved rapidly but not in an obvious sort of way so that they didn’t attract attention. Just when they reached the edge of the village, suddenly, Maysa stood before them! Yamina momentarily panicked, but when she saw that Maysa had a tray of pastries, inspiration struck her. Before Maysa had a chance to ask what they were doing, Yasmina exclaimed, “There you are! Our door guard left his post and we’re starving!”

“He did what?” Maysa reacted. “Oh, I’ll rip him a new one! But after breakfast. Come, let’s eat!”

Yasmina assumed that they were heading back to the cottage that they had slept in, so it confused her her when they went past it. Her curiosity only grew when they came to a large building sealed with a curtain in the doorway. Maysa unveiled the drapes to reveal a long, wooden table with large plates of food and several witches and warlocks scattered throughout the room. Yasmina queried, “Is it a special occasion?”

“No, we always eat together,” Maysa replied. She set her dish down and handed Yasmina a plate before she took one of her own. Aidan half expected to get one, but with the stern look Maysa was giving him, he remembered his role and promptly sat on the floor. As Maysa and Yasmina went across the table, occasionally picking up a piece of food, Maysa explained, “We’re a community, so we stick together. We all have a part in running this town, and we work as one to keep Santach alive.” They found a place at the end of the table and sat down. Maysa elaborated, “We were all kicked out of our old villages for being the people were are, so we formed our own town. That’s why you volunteered to deliver this prisoner to Daeva, isn’t it?”

“Uh…” Yasmina stuffed a roll into her mouth and mumbled something incoherent to avoid answering the question.

“Yeah, I could tell right from the start,” Maysa went on, “You remind me of me not that long ago. I lived in this peasant town that needed all the help it could get, and yet, when they found out I was a witch, they kicked me out. The same thing happened to you, didn’t it?”

“Basically,” Yasmina said truthfully. She was surprised how closely Maysa’s story mirrored hers, and she now felt curious about the story of the other witches and warlocks in Santach. As Maysa rambled on, she watched the townsfolk passing by with building materials, potion ingredients, and more. She noticed how happy everyone looked, and she couldn’t blame them! They spent years watching people live their lives, and now they actually got to have one of their own. No one seemed lonely or outcast, everyone had a purpose here. It sounded like exactly what she had been hoping for herself all along!

“You could stay here if you want,” Maysa invited.

Yasmina’s attention snapped back into place instantly when she caught wind of what Maysa had just told her. “What?”

“Listen,” Maysa addressed her, “I understand why you choose working for Daeva rather than your living in your old village, but have you seen her crones? They don’t look so good. Kadera can hardly walk anymore! I can have someone else deliver your prisoner and you can just stay here.”

“Really?” The offer caught her off guard. No one had really invited her to stay before, and the memories of getting turned down by every house in Neodrach still cut her deep. It seemed incredible to have a chance to belong somewhere.

“Of course!” Maysa reacted. “What’s your talent?”

“Talent? Well, uh, I was always a good apothecary,” Yasmina admitted sheepishly.

“We could use another apothecary!” Maysa beamed. As Maysa gave her pitch about how great Santach was to live in, Yasmina saw Ardeshir approach her from the ground by the table. He stared at her with very wide, sad eyes, and Yasmina felt a twinge of guild for even considering the notion. She remembered one of the pieces of food she grabbed, and she smiled at her idea. She took a piece of roasted chicken and presented it to Ardeshir, whose eyes sparkled in wonderment. He couldn’t believe he had this opportunity, and when she put it down for him, he gaped in delight. He looked at Yasmina with total gratitude before he dug in. Yasmina grinned broadly and felt warmly about the moment, a moment that got interrupted when Maysa snapped, “What are you doing?”

Yasmina saw the credulous expression on her face, and she realized how strange the moment must have been through her eyes. She hastily fibbed, “I spoil my familiar! He’s my friend, and I haven’t had a lot of friends in my life.”

Maysa seemed somewhat mollified by this. “I can understand that. You must have been very lonely. Those wicked mortals! I can’t wait until we destroy them all!”

“Destroy them all?” Yasmina parroted her.

“You know, the take over, the whole reason why Daeva took control of the throne…” Maysa said in a reminding sort of way.

Yasmina played along, “Oh right, the plan!”

“Yes!” Maysa emphatically chimed. “I can’t wait to watch them dwindle down as our population grows! We’ll outnumber them, and they’ll have no choice but to wallow about how they mistreated us!”

“So, we’re going to do them what they did to us?” Yasmina surmised hollowly.

“That’s right!” Maysa affirmed. “And that’s just the start! That’s also why you should stay here. Daeva’s crew frequently deals with mortals and you seem like kind of a softy.” She caught Yasmina staring wistfully at Aidan, and when she realized Maysa’s disapproving eyes were on her, she shamefully recoiled. “It’s okay, we’ll train you. You can’t be soft in this world anymore, sometimes you have to do what’s best for you regardless of hurting someone’s feelings!”

“Yeah, but…” Yasmina started.

“No but’s!” Maysa insisted. “That’s it! You’re staying for your own good!”

“No!” Yasmina objected. “I’m bringing him to-!”

“Haben!” Maysa ignored her. “Deliver the prisoner to Duanolc! I’m going to start training Saphra in our routine.”

“No!” Yasmina stood up, but Maysa grabbed her arm to hold her back. “I’ll deliver him and come back!”

“No,” Maysa denied. “You’re staying here for your own good!”

Yasmina watched Haben drag Aidan by his arm, and the way he did it looked like it gave Aidan a lot of pain. She saw the deep hurt in his eyes, and something inside her inflamed. Anger coursed through her veins, and before she knew it, she shouted, “NO, I’M NOT!” She pulled out her wand, and all of her ire shot out in an explosion! She grabbed Ardeshir and then Aiden as the bright flame enveloped the building. While the witches and warlocks of Santach’s minds began to process the disaster at hand, the three travelers ran out of the village unnoticed. They didn’t look back as they ran back to the Shadow Path.

The Shadow Path, Chapter 2

Who’s there?” Yasmina put her book down on the bed next to her. Usually, she could hear a visitor’s reply from that side of the cottage, and while she could tell the caller was male, the voice sounded too muffled for her to clearly understand the message. With a slight annoyance, she got up and walked over to the door. She cracked it open just wide enough for her eye to see who had knocked. All she saw was a dark, green hooded cloak, which covered most of the man’s face. She opened the door wider and ushered him inside. “Come in.”

The man quickly entered but awkwardly stood in one place. Yasmina went to close the back window and told the stranger, “Have a seat on the rug.” The man did as she instructed, staring into her small fireplace where a flame burned brightly. He hadn’t taken off his hood, but Yasmina didn’t seem fazed as she sat down three clay pots before him. As she sat down, she inquired, “What are you looking for?”

The man replied, “The people say you’re the Magi of Neodrach.”

Yasmina felt a jolt of surprise to hear how commanding and yet warm his voice had sounded. She didn’t know anyone who sounded like that, and her curiosity began to rise. “You found me. What kind of elixir do you need? I have a healing potion ready.” She uncovered one of the clay pots to show a burgundy liquid. “I also have a remedy for sleeplessness and another for energy.” She revealed the other two as she mentioned them, and then she put down a large tome in front of him. “I can create something else if you need it. What did you have in mind?” She couldn’t see his expression, but she could see his head bob between the objects she laid out. She didn’t hear a reaction from him, so she added, “If you’ve come for a poison or anything dangerous, you can leave now because I don’t do that.”

Finally, the man spoke, “What kind of spells can you cast?”

Yasmina found this question peculiar. No one had ever asked her that before, and she didn’t understand his motives for doing so. “I specialize in more of the apothecary field.”

“You didn’t say you couldn’t do it,” he pointed out.

Yasmina started to get uncomfortable. She stood up and folded her arms as she addressed him, “Are you here to buy something or to mock me?”

“No, no, no!” He quickly stood up to fall in step with her. “I apologize, I had no intentions of offending you! I need help, and I wanted to know what you could do.”

Yasmina eyed him suspiciously. “Who sent you?”

“No one!” he immediately responded.

“Do you work for the king?” she probed.

“No!” he said adamantly.

She gave him a hard look before she turned her back on him. “I’m not a witch! I’m not evil! You can’t prove any-!”

He interrupted, “Not all witches are evil!”

She turned back around and stared at him in shock. In her whole life, she had never heard anyone say that! “Are you a warlock?”

“No,” he answered.

Yasmina had enough. “Who are you?” He hesitated, so she ordered, “Take off your hood!”

He didn’t do it right away, but he could tell from her demeanor that he had no choice. She didn’t have any clue what he would reveal, but it never occurred to her that he could be handsome! He had dark brown eyes that reflected deep thoughts, and his expression suggested a kind nature. His olive skin was smooth but bore a few scratches and bruises. He appeared around her age, perhaps a little older, and at that observance, she knew he didn’t come from this village. He bashfully admitted, “My name is Aidan.”

“Aidan?” Her first instinct was to not believe him, but a part of her pointed to the evidence. He had an aura of royalty, but he also had a wild look that a person might have after surviving a dangerous territory. The idea was still hard to believe though. “As in Prince Aidan?”

“Yes,” he confirmed.

Yasmina shook her head. “No! Prince Aidan died when King Dorian took the throne.”

“As far as he knows, I died along with my family,” Aidan told her. “I escaped, but I couldn’t return to the castle, not without help, which is why I’m here.” He took a deep breath and explained, “Ten years ago, my parents set sail to do business overseas. Not long after they left, an explosion sounded from their ship. Before my brother and I had time to even comprehend what happened, our castle was invaded. The Duke of Eidoman ran inside Rogamaith and found a massacre. After the funeral, they declared him king. This is what he told the kingdom, and all of this is true, but that’s where his honesty ends.”

“It always seemed strange that no one had any clue who did it,” Yasmina recalled.

“There’s a reason for that,” Aidan affirmed. “There was a plot to make sure that Dorian became king, but it wasn’t for his benefit. He was a puppet for someone more powerful who controls him.” Yasmina looked taken aback by his claim but did not challenge its validity. He went on, “After my parents left, my brother met with some advisors regarding his duties as next in line for the throne. I went to the other side of Rogamaith to take a nap in my chambers. Not long after I closed my eyes, I heard an explosion from the ocean. I immediately ran to the window facing that direction and saw my parents’ ship completely engulfed in flames.” He choked up a bit at this point, but he soon continued, “Before any of us could react, we heard commotion coming from the entrance of the castle. The guards were clearly fighting for their lives, so we ran to help. We didn’t get far before they found us…witches!”

“What!” Yasmina gasped. She expected a formidable opponent, but she didn’t see the story going in that direction. Her stomach twisted a a little because of her association with that realm.

“They flew in on broomsticks, pointing wands left and right, shooting spells at everyone they saw. Our weapons were useless! When I saw a wand pointed at me, I iimmediately collapsed. It didn’t hit me, but I played dead. Do you know how maddening it is to listen to people dying without being able to do anything about it?” Aidan paused as the memory haunted him for a moment. “After a while, the place was quiet. The witches surveyed their work and started celebrating. A woman who they called Daeva chided them for doing so. They were supposed to vacate the castle immediately so her puppet could find the bodies. The instant I couldn’t hear them anymore, I rushed to a secret exit and got away from Rogamaith as fast as I could! When I got far enough, I turned to see it one more time. I actually saw Duke Dorian arrive as Daeva said he would. I didn’t stay long, really, I shouldn’t have stayed at all, but I had to…say goodbye!”

A tear came down his cheek, so Yasmina handed him a handkerchief, which he graciously accepted. She gave him some time before she queried, “What have you been doing all this time?”

He replied, “I realized that I was now the rightful ruler of Caragsona, but I couldn’t take my lawful seat on the throne because a witch was always guarding the castle. I think they were secretly looking for me since they never found my body. The only way to save my kingdom was to seize control from the witches. I traveled the country learning all I could about them, and I couldn’t find any way a mere mortal could defeat a magical being. The only way Daeva and her coven could get defeated was through another witch. I’ve spent the last ten years trying to find one who I could convince to help me, but no one would do it, they’re all on Daeva’s side! I couldn’t give up though, not with so much of Caragsona collapsing because of their control! I knew somewhere, someday I would find a witch who would use her powers for good!” He stared Yasmina straight in her eyes and asked, “Are you that witch?”

Yasmina didn’t answer at first. She felt disturbed to learn that Caragsona got hijacked by evil witches, and her first instinct inclined her to help a kind soul who needed it, but her nerves were gnawing at the pit of her gut. If she opened this door, she feared the the wicked nature of a witch would take over her entire being. Admitting her identity would force her to embrace the very thing she worked so hard to escape. “Kadera the Soothsayer predicted I would try to kill the king!”

“She said you would try,” Aidan emphasized. “She told you snippets of your future to scare you, but did she tell you everything? Did she tell you that she’s also a witch?”

This revelation struck a nerve for Yasmina. “She’s a what? Ugh! She made me feel like I’m a terrible person, she convinced everyone in Neodrach that I’m a terrible person, and this whole time, she…ugh!”

“She saw something in you,” Aidan surmised. “A rival, someone who had the potential to collapse the empire they were building!”

“How could she possibly know that?” Yasmina wondered. “I’m no one special.”

Aidan responded by asking, “If you knew you had these powers, how come you’ve never used them to steal, harm, or destroy things? Or people? Have you ever been tempted to use them for your own ill gain?”

“Of course not!”

“Do you have any idea how rare that is?”

Yasmina had never thought about that before, and it certainly rang true for her. She felt a little better about herself, but she still felt hesitant about his plan. “If I were to help you, and if we succeeded, you’ll get your throne, but how is my life going to be different? How do I know you wouldn’t use me and throw me away when you’re done?”

“I give you my word that if you help me save my kingdom, I will make sure that you will live a life of dignity!” Aidan promised. “I also can assure you that if I can’t find anyone to help me, our land will crumble and decay. I know it’s asking a lot, and all you have is my word, but give me a chance to prove myself! If I show signs of betrayal, you’re free to leave. That won’t happen though because this is far too important!” He gave her a moment to mull it over before he ardently asked her, “So, are you a good witch?”

Yasmina feared that accepting this mission would risk what little she had, and she didn’t feel entirely assured that all would end well. Everything happened so suddenly, and her overwhelming emotions clouded her judgment. She didn’t think she could give an answer until she gazed into his eyes. His pleading pulled at her heartstrings, and her inner guidance urged her to do the right thing. She closed her eyes and forced herself to admit, “Yes, I am.” She opened her eyes, feeling strange. The truth was out there, and now suddenly the air felt different. The feeling both cleansed and frightened her! Something deep within her flowed free for the first time, and she knew the universe agreed with the path she chose!

Aidan asked her, “Will you help me in this quest?”

Yasmina answered him, “Yes.”

Aidan smiled in relief. “Thank you! We don’t have a moment to lose! It’s time to begin!”