Felix has always been fascinated by the world around him and unafraid to try new things. Ever since he read about the rise and fall of the Elementals, however, he hasn’t been able to think about anything else.
I shut the front door, taking care not to let it creak. I sniff, coughing. “God, it smells awful. I mean, worse than usual.” Even though our borough has always been called the Floral District, no amount of flowers can mask the rotten stench of the land. The philosophers of the Baress School claim that it’s something to do with the soil, but most people say it’s the witches curse from their banishment hundreds of years ago.
Filion pulls his hood up and wraps his cloak around him, shivering. He tugs on my cloak and starts down the cobbled street. I follow at his side, pulling my hood up. Only a few street lanterns are lit, hanging off the second stories of the houses. It’s perfect for sneaking around, but I struggle to see anything on this moonless night, stumbling every few feet.
The maiden with the sword shines brighter than ever in the sky. Ever since I first glimpsed the stars, she has watched over me. I glance up at her as we stop at a corner, wondering what she would do about the girl with the burning hands.
Bright lights illuminate the next corner. The Witches Brew, they call it. Everything in this city is named after the witches, to some extent. Even the city’s name, Haven, comes from the safety witches once felt here before people threw them from their homes and exiled them to the fields outside the city limits. Only a few witches live within sight of the city walls; the rest have vanished. Their legacy lives on, though. Anytime something mysterious happens, the witches receive the brunt of the blame until a better explanation surfaces.
Filion and I dash to the alley behind the inn. The doorman at the Witches Brew slumps against the wall, belching. I whisper to Filion, “How do we figure out where they are? Maybe if we drag the drunk at the door into the alley-”
Filion clamps a hand over my mouth. “Do you hear that?” I shake my head. Then I hear footsteps. Two figures in black cloaks materialize under a lantern. As their cloaks billow, I see a glint of metal at their hips. We crouch down as they walk past us. I see their faces as they walk past – a man and a woman with stern features. The woman and I make eye contact, and she tosses a coin my way. I catch it, and she puts a finger to her lips. Filion and I share a look. Does she think we’re homeless? Is she bribing us?
The man grabs a purse from his belt and places it in the doorman’s hand. “We were never here, understand?” His voice is smooth and warm. The doorman grunts and nods. The man pats him on the shoulder, and he and the woman enter the inn.
Filion stands up. “Stay here.” He walks up to the doorman, whispering to him. I feel the cold coin between my fingers, watching them talk. Who are these people in black, tossing money around like it’s no big deal? What do they want with the girl?
Filion comes back, saying, “I know where the woman is.” He points up to the second window three stories up.
“Did he mention the girl?” I ask. Filion nods, walking into the alley. He looks around, feeling the walls.
“Up this way, we’ll get to the roof.” He digs into the bricks and starts climbing. I shiver, watching him scramble up the wall like a spider. In minutes he’s on the roof, beckoning me up. I take a deep breath. If he can do it, so can I.
I reach up as high as I can and grab on, then thrust myself up with my feet. I dig into the wall with my boots, reaching the window on the second floor. I look up to the ledge, searching for a good handhold. They’re all out of my grasp. I glance at Fil, who’s pointing to my right. A rusty pipe leads all the way up the side of the building, and it’s within arm’s reach. I grab it and start climbing slowly, step by step. The pipe rattles with every movement, but before long I’m climbing over the berm of the building. I scurry to Filion, who sits across from the window. I crouch next to him, wondering how we’ll get down, but all thoughts vanish when I look through the window.
A young girl with light brown hair sits in a chair, gently kicking her legs and talking. She gestures with gloved hands. A figure in brown pants sits on the bed, writing in a notebook. Her face is obscured by shadows from the candle in the window, but from the way her clothes fit I can tell it’s a woman. She nods, never lifting her head. “Is that the girl you saw earlier, Fil?” I ask.
Fil nods. “I think so. I wasn’t paying too much attention to the girl, though.”
I glance at him. “Why not?” I turn my attention to the inn. The woman in the shadows sets her notebook down and leans forward. I gasp as she tucks her white hair behind her ear. She has shimmering green eyes and long fingers. She’s definitely young with no wrinkles on her face. “That’s her, isn’t it?”
Filion nods. “Oh, yeah.” He’s wearing this goofy grin on his face, and I wonder if he’s hypnotized. She hasn’t looked our way, so she can’t have hypnotized him like she did to Mom. The woman talks to the girl, who stops kicking her legs and grows serious.
I watch them with baited breath. “Fil, did she just hypnotize the girl?”
“What?” Fil hasn’t even turned my way. He’s still staring at the woman, who’s crouched down next to the fireplace.
“The girl, she stopped moving after the woman spoke to her.”
“You’re not even listening to me, are you? She…” I forget what I’m about to say. The girl is staring right at me. I can see a spark behind her yellow eyes. “Fil, she sees us.”
“Okay.” Filion’s voice is vacant, but then he says, “Wait, what?”
“We’re looking at each other.” I barely move my mouth, paralyzed with fear. Filion pushes me down below the ledge, and I bang my head. “Ow! What was that for?”
Filion shushes me, peeking over the ledge. “She’s still looking our way,” he says, “but I’m not sure – hang on.” The air smells slightly of something rotten, as usual, but is otherwise still. I can hear muted voices from across the alley. “Felix, you’ve gotta see this.”
I lift my head up just enough to see over the ledge. The woman in white stands in front of the girl, arms outstretched as if protecting her. Two figures shift just outside of the candlelight. I make out the outline and faint glint of a sword in the shadows, then one of the figures leaps towards the woman. I think she ducks out of the way, but in the low light all I can see is people spinning and striking. The only person I notice the whole time is the little girl. Her eyes dart around the room and out the window, and the longer the fight goes on the heavier she breathes. She fidgets with her gloves, ducking from an arm clad in black. A trail of blood spatters across the window, leaving a sinister streak. Filion gasps beside me. “Felix, let’s go!” He grabs my arm and drags me across the roof. A roar and a wave of heat rush past us, and Filion lets go of me. I fall flat on my back as another fireball barely misses my face. I dash to the ledge near the inn and crouch behind it. “Felix!” Filion shouts. His brown eyes are wide with panic, and he rushes to me. “We have to get out of here, now!”
“But what about the fire?” I ask, breathing heavily. I look back to the inn. The window has two shattered holes in it. There’s no sign of the mysterious assailants, only the girl and the woman. Flames from the bed illuminate the room with a flickering light. The girl puts her gloves on, sobbing. The woman closes the door and dumps water from a pitcher on the bed. She goes to the girl and wraps her arms around her, whispering into her ear. Her muffled sobs echo across the alley, and tears well up in my eyes. “Fil, what just happened?” I ask.
The woman snaps her head, and we make eye contact. Her eyes soften a bit. I try to move, but my body won’t respond. The world goes white, and my stomach lurches. The rushing of wind fills my ears. Voices tumble over each other in an indiscernible cacophony. I’m falling and falling until-
I land on hard earth, stumbling. Wind continues to whip around me, sending a chill down my spine. I wrap my cloak as tightly as I can, shielding my eyes. The sun reflects harshly off the snow, but I can still make out a narrow path that drops off to the left. I brace against the rock wall, heart pounding as I scan for any recognizable landmark. Hundreds of feet below lies a forest, the bone-white bark of the trees almost indiscernible from the snow. At least, I think they’re trees. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. They go on as far as the eye can see.
“Hey!” someone shouts. A stranger waves at me from down the trail, beckoning me. I walk towards her, wrapping my cloak tighter. The wind bites at my nose and fingers, and I keep one hand on the wall for my own sake. I look ahead or to the wall, focusing on each step.
The stranger turns sharply to the right, and I follow. The wind dies down here, and I collapse with trembling knees. “Look,” the stranger says in a woman’s voice, “your answers are down there.” I follow her hand the way she’s pointing. The mountains open up on a basin filled with evergreens and streams. A village lays nestled at the base of the mountains, smoke rising from chimneys. The woman puts a hand on my shoulder. “They can teach you to protect the world. Find them.”
“Who are you? Where is this place?” The wind picks up, and I shut my eyes. The woman takes her hand off my shoulder. “How do I find you?” The earth vanishes beneath my feet, and the voices echo around me again. I open my eyes but see only white.
“Felix!” Filion’s deep voice cuts through the rest.
I gasp. The smell of Haven returns, and Filion’s hitting my chest. “I’m here, I’m fine,” I say, “What happened?”
“That woman turned to look at us, and you froze. I’ve never seen anything like it. She took the girl and left.” Filion grabs my face and looks at me, brown eyes full of concern. “Are you sure you’re okay? It’s like you weren’t here.” I gaze at the window across the alley. Sure enough, the room is empty. Apart from a few glowing embers and the broken window, there’s no sign of them. “Felix?”
I cough. “Yeah, I think I’m okay. Do you have any idea where they went?” I ask.
Filion shakes his head. “You’re shaking.” I look down. Sure enough, my knees are trembling. “Let’s go home, Felix. We’ll talk about it tomorrow. I’m just glad we didn’t try to catch that girl. That would not have ended well.”