EIGHT

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AS SUNLIGHT DWINDLED through the entanglement of branches above her head, Ravenna cursed aloud

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AS SUNLIGHT DWINDLED through the entanglement of branches above her head, Ravenna cursed aloud. "A mere half-day's walk," she grumbled bitterly, her hands clenched into tight fists. "More like the entire night."

Swirls of ice pirouetted around her fingers, keeping the wildlife around her away. It wasn't like she was tired. She'd slept the night previous so her body was rested. It was just an inconvenience. Had she known it would have taken this long, she could have just left in the morning. The forest was filled with ghastly night spirits and other evil creatures.

As the sun rose above the treetops, the forest parted, revealing an expansive field of corn. Wooden fences parted through the field, following alongside a weathered dirt road. On the other side of the field, Ravenna could just make out a cluster of buildings through the thin line of trees. She hurried toward it. She was eager to scope out an unknown village, despite the slight fear that coiled around her stomach. There was a gate at the entrance of the small town, its wooden doors replaced with two sleepy guards. Both stiffened as Ravenna approached, but greeted her with warm smiles.

"Good morning, Miss," one charmed. "Welcome to our small village."

Ravenna smiled timidly back and thanked them. Neither were Sentinels, which struck her as odd. Both just seemed to be ordinary townsfolk with leather armor and old swords strapped to their belt. It comforted her slightly, as both would be easily disposable if needed.

As she entered the town, she looked around. It was smaller than her hometown, with a central street and several homes surrounding it. One building was just a small general store. The door was propped open and she could see the shelves that lined the walls, filled with foods, cloths, and other goods. The building next to it was a blacksmith's shop. As she passed it, she could see the gleams of swords and maces through the small window. Sitting opposite of the two main shops, was a small cluster of wooden stands, showcasing an arrangement of baked goods, meats, and poultry.

The people in the town were unnaturally cheerful. As the sun grew higher in the sky, more people emerged from their homes. There was always at least two or three people roaming the streets. Several townsfolk greeted Ravenna as she passed, making suggestions for food and even telling her about the inn located just past the town. One old man even pointed her in the direction of the bookstore, which turned out to be a shop half-hidden between the general store and someone's home.

She hesitated just outside the bookstore, eyeing its crooked wooden door. It unnerved her just how nice the people in this town seemed to be.

Part of her didn't trust them. She felt that behind her back, the townsfolk were already on to her secret, and plotting her punishment. The feeling stemmed from her past experiences with towns; most could tell that Ravenna wasn't normal. Some had simply told her that she was too pretty to be human and asked her to leave. Others had just attacked.

Yet, there was a tiny voice at the back of her head that whispered positive things about this village and genuinely believed in each smile.

She tentatively opened the door and poked her head inside. The bookstore was quiet, partially lit by the sunlight and by several candles. As she stepped inside, a scrawny old man glanced up from a book. He blinked behind his wiry glasses, clouded gaze focused on Ravenna. His book snapped shut and he climbed to his feet. "Welcome! Can I help you find anything?"

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