NINE

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RAVENNA SAT ON the ground, her back pressed against a rotted fence post

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RAVENNA SAT ON the ground, her back pressed against a rotted fence post. Around her, the town's daily bustle had started to dwindle. Most of the outdoor vendors had closed shop and removed the stock from their carts. Dusty curtains guarded the bookstore's windows, swished shut so that nobody could peek inside. Several guards roamed the streets, a torch in one hand and a shield in the other. Most of townsfolk who wandered the streets meandered toward their homes. Others turned toward the tavern, which was always effervescent with life.

She hardly spared them any attention, too focused on the ground in front of her. There was a small collection of scrolls spread out around her. Two rocks held one of the scrolls open and bookmarked a spell that might work. The others were either collected into a mountain of uselessness or gathered into pile of untouched scrolls.

Each useless spell popped another bubble of frustration. She found it annoying that there didn't seem to be any spells that were specifically designed to improve her observational skills. Instead, most spells seemed to cure groundbreaking diseases and turn princes into cats. Each scroll had an intricate spell mapped out across its yellowed paper. A mixture of elegant symbols and spiderwebs of lines connected each ingredient. Each effect of a spell was vastly different as well --even the ones that were mere variations of another. She had already sifted through at least three different spells that threatened to turn a human into some creepy-crawly animal. Yet it was as if she were grasping at pine-needles trying to find any variation of a self-help spell.

With an annoyed sigh, Ravenna rolled up yet another useless scroll. Ice spiraled around her fingertips and fanned out across the object in her hands. Her hand was quick to brush the frozen particles from the paper, lest she compromised the spell within. She added the scroll to her useless pile and plucked an unread scroll from the ground. As she skimmed over the contents of the scroll, a voice chimed behind her, "That's so pretty!"

Ravenna's head snapped upward. Immediately, she was on her feet. As a whip of ice lashed out, her gaze locked with the rounded eyes of a child. Chills raced up and down her spine. The ice around her feet died out. "You shouldn't scare someone like that. You could get hurt," she chided.

The young girl cocked her head to the side like a confused dog. "I didn't mean to scare you, lady," she said.

"Where are your parents?" Ravenna looked around. Her stomach started to twist into knots. It wasn't uncommon for children to wander around towns, especially during the day. There were some who just didn't have parents or a home to retire to at night. Yet when night fell across the sky, even the abandoned children found shelter.

"I don' know. Mother and Father went away a long time ago," the little girl said. She climbed through the fence posts and scooped up a scroll. Her hands unraveled it and held it this way and that. "What is this?"

"It's just a spell." Ravenna watched the little girl, hesitant to take the scroll from her. She feared that the girl might activate the scroll by accident.

The girl bent down, her skirts swishing against the ground. She set the scroll down and said, "Magic is very bad for you, y'know? Mother used to say that its only good to do bad things to other people."

Ravenna bit back a smile. If only the little girl knew who she was speaking with. She was already familiar with the darkness that followed the use of magic. It was what had killed her. As Ravenna examined the girl, she started to realize why her stomach was twisted into knots.

The girl's dress wasn't right. The tattered hem brushed her ankles yet didn't sway in sync with her movements. There were several holes torn through the fabric that revealed patches of bare skin underneath. There were no signs of frostbite on her skin either, despite the snowy weather. The more Ravenna looked closer, the more she realized that the girl was not human. Her cloudy brown eyes weren't glossy with life. Her skin didn't flush with excitement. Nor did it hold the typical sun-burnt hue that unsheltered orphans harbored.

With a smile, the little girl rocked back on her feet and clasped her hands behind her back. "Will you play a game with me?"

Ravenna swallowed hard, unable to bring herself to answer.

The little girl continued, "I never get to play anymore. The other ones won't let me."

"What other ones?"

A throat cleared behind her. Ravenna glanced back over her shoulder, her eyes wide with fright. The guard that stood there stared at her. He didn't seem to notice the swell of ice that had grown behind him, looming over him like a deadly wave. "Are you alright, miss?" he asked in concern.

Ravenna opened her mouth to respond. No words tumbled out. She turned back to look at the little girl and was shocked to find that the girl had vanished.

"Well?" the guard prompted.

Ravenna let out a shaky sigh. She returned her gaze to the guard. "I am alright," she assured him.

Her gaze immediately became glued to the dancing flames that engulfed his torch. A face appeared within them, a familiar, childish face with dull brown eyes. The child's smile twisted into something dark and sinister. She lifted a finger to her lips.

Ravenna found herself hugging her arms to her chest. A cold sinking feeling grasped at her heart. The shards of ice that stayed dormant at her feet seemed somewhat unresponsive. She almost wished that the dragon stood beside her.

"Alright then," the guard said, unconvinced. "Just be careful. Spirits tend wander these parts at night, and not all of them are friendly."

"I can believe that," Ravenna whispered.

With a slight nod, the guard wished her a goodnight and suggested that she seek shelter in the local tavern. According to him, Alva's tavern had the warmest beds and served the best food in the whole town. Ravenna watched the guard walk away, down the street and behind a house. When he was out of sight, she hurriedly bent down and scooped the scrolls up into her arms. Nightfall had completely obscured the sky and, aside from a random guard or two, the streets were barren. She shoved the scrolls into a leather bag that the bookkeeper had given her and then started for the tavern. It wasn't far. The tavern was a fairly large building that sat at the crest of the town. Light streamed through its windows and as she approached the door, laughter filled her ears.

A small burst of panic washed through her. The memory of her past, of her exploits in taverns across the country, bristled through her mind. She just couldn't escape the fear that she might harm a villager. Just in the last city, after she'd picked through the pockets in the local tavern, a guard had accosted her. He didn't survive the ordeal.

Nevertheless, Ravenna pushed the door open. The idea of the little ghost girl standing in the darkness of the night frightened her more than a lewd touch. She entered the tavern and looked around. Several folks were gathered around a fire pit, swaying and singing along with a bard. Mugs of ale swung around like swords, with the yellowed liquid swishing out and onto the ground. Other patrons sat in the seats that surrounded the pit, chatting and laughing amicably among themselves.

Ravenna immediately located the bar counter and shuffled toward it. Part of her wanted to look out the window and see if the girl had reappeared. A vaguely familiar man stood behind it and wiped a rag across the bar's smoothed wooden top. "I am looking for a room," she said, distracted.

"Are you now?" a silky voice purred. 

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