Chapter 3

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In the middle of a clearing in a dark forest sat a tree stump. Beside it laid Ellie, stirred to consciousness by a frigid sensation down her back. Her eyes eased open to the night sky above, and Ellie listened to the silence as she attempted to recall everything that had happened. At first, there was only the memory of the argument with her mother. But soon after, her recollection was invaded by the rat, the man in black, and the void in the stump.

With a sharp gasp, Ellie shot up and sat in the grass and observed her surroundings. She thought at first she was in the same woods behind her home, but Ellie soon realized that the pleasant beech and maple trees had been replaced by a tall, imposing pine forest. So dark was it that were it not for the clear night sky and a scattering of glowing blue flowers, she would not be able to see at all.

Ellie tilted her head and noticed a faint mist weaving between the blades of grass. The grass itself was still clearly visible, but it wasn't 'right'. The mist was like cobwebs that dispersed with her touch and formed again as she pulled her fingers away.

"Are you all right?" a small voice asked from beside Ellie. She was so wrapped up in her surroundings that Ellie didn't even realize that she wasn't alone. Standing on his hind legs beside her was the dressed rat. "You didn't hit your head, did you? You've been asleep for a half hour."

"A half hour?" Ellie repeated. "I'm okay, but I really should head home. My family is probably worried about me."

As Ellie though about the man in black, she remembered the terrible sense of dread and paralyzing terror as he had dashed toward her with such malicious intent.

"Wait!" Ellie leaned close to the rat, which startled him backward. "Who the hells was that man and why did he try to attack me?"

"Please calm down, miss!" The rat waved his paws and rolled to his side, then stood on his back legs, adjusted his clothes, and let out a deep sigh. "Oh, I'm definitely in for it this time... I'm sorry, I don't know who he is. And I'm sorry that I brought you here, but I really had no other choice. Nothing like this has ever happened during one of my tasks and I just—I panicked. I was afraid he would hurt you if I left you alone there."

Again with that man. Why was he talking to her mother, Ellie wondered. For that matter, why was he watching her in the markets, why was he in the clearing, and why was he so willing to attack her? Ellie's mind overflowed with questions that she knew wouldn't be answered anytime soon, so she simply bit her lip and scanned the clearing once more.

"So, where am I, exactly?"

"Hm, how do I explain it?" The rat crossed his arms and thought. "Well, for starters, you're in a plane known as the Night Realm."

"The Night Realm?" Ellie shifted to her knees and stared at the forest canopy. "What or where is the Night Realm? Is this another Shard?"

"Ah, not quite..." The rat mumbled and struggled to form his words. "Think of it like 'the other side of the mirror', or something like that."

"Ugh, what does that even mean." She brought her hand to her forehead as if to suppress a headache.

"Well, not to worry, miss!" The rat hopped onto a nearby rock, placed his paws on his hips, and puffed out his chest. "Everything will make sense in due time, I assure you. I'm Gerald, by the way! May I have your name?"

"Eleanor Martel, although most people just call me Ellie."

"A pleasure to meet you, Miss Eleanor." Gerald bowed.

"Oh, just 'Ellie' is fine, really."

"Certainly, Miss Ellie."

She chuckled, knowing that Gerald wasn't going to drop the formality entirely.

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