Rita Perlak was cowering under her desk at the Academy, like all of the other girls in her class. She didn’t know what was happening, but screams could be heard from outside and bright orange flames could be seen through the windows. Rita trembled from the trepidation bubbling in her stomach. What could possibly be going on? Was her little sister okay? Were the other students okay?
A crash sounded as the door to the learning hall got kicked down by a heeled boot. A woman with wild eyes paused in the doorway before zeroing in on the desk Rita was peeking over. She marched through the hall as the students gaped in terror. The girls were all alone and didn’t know what to do about the sudden appearance of the strange woman. Their professor had long since fled for help, or so she had claimed, and had told the girls to stay in this room no matter what until she returned. Considering how disciplined they all were, none dared moved, even as the stranger grew closer and closer to Rita.
“Rita Perlak. I need you to come with me,” the woman said.
Assuming that the woman was someone of authority at the Academy, Rita complied. After all, if she meant harm, she would have hurt everyone by now, right? Plus, how could she have known Rita’s name if she didn’t work at the Academy?
The woman led Rita to through the school, walking briskly. Rita knew it wasn’t her place to ask questions, but she wanted to know what this woman could possibly want with her of all people. She succeeded in keeping her mouth shut until the woman lead her towards the front entrance.
“Um, excuse me, miss, but I’m not allowed to leave the school until dismissal time.” If Rita knew one thing, it was that she must follow all the rules down to the letter.
The woman simply rolled her eyes and walked faster. Rita had to start jogging to keep up. When they reached the doors, the woman threw them open, and walked through them without hesitating.
This wasn’t allowed. The only time this was allowed was if the whole school was being evacuated, or if the student had a family member in some type of emergency. But then Gwen, Rita’s little sister, would be with her too. Unless Gwen was the one in the emergency situation. Rita’s bubbling stomach grew even more painful when she thought about her sister in the hospital. The thought worried her so much that she ran after the woman.
The courtyard outside of the school was relatively peaceful, Rita realized, which was a surprise considering the scene from the learning hall’s windows. Rita ran into the woman who had suddenly turned around to face her.
“Rita Perlak. Your grandfather has fallen ill. I know that is a shock to you but what I am about to tell you will be even more of a shock.”
“Papa? Then where’s Gwen? She needs to know this. Is she alright?” Rita felt herself starting to panic.
“Your sister is fine. She will find out from an administrator of the Academy. I have things to tell you that she can’t know.”
“Hold on a minute. Are you saying that you aren’t from the Academy?”
“Of course not. I’m Andrea Thompson, but you can call me Andie. Would you stop that mindless trembling? I’m a friend of your grandfather’s.” Rita couldn’t stop shaking. She would be in so much trouble. She wasn’t allowed to leave unless the school allowed her to. What if they expelled her? Then she’d have to go back home and face her parents and go to a less advanced school.
Andie grabbed her shoulders. “Rita. Your grandfather is ill, and might die soon. The city is in flames. There are evil men after control of the city, and they might get it soon considering your grandfather’s condition. I need you to take him to the Celestial Springs for healing while I stay here and defend the city. So can you please stop worrying that I took you out of school early?”
Rita felt light headed. “W-Why me? I’m just a girl. Why can’t you get one of the guys to do it? They’re stronger and will be better in a fight. I’m weak and I’m not that smart and-” Andie pinched Rita’s lips together with her fingers.
“I don’t want one of the guys, I want you. And don’t try to tell me that you aren’t smart. You go to Eceliah Academy, the best school in all of Ezethi. And weakness is all in the mind, Rita. You’re only weak if you believe you are. Now come with me to see your grandfather. Before you say no, think about it: going back to the Academy will only get you in more trouble and if you don’t come with me now, you might never see him again.”
Tears filled Rita’s eyes at the thought of never seeing Papa again, so she nodded her head and followed Andie through the courtyard gates.
The whole city was in chaos. Buildings were burning, people were running and shouting, and the peace that usually existed in the capital city Posna was a thing of the past.
The Academy’s courtyard was surrounded by high stone walls, so Rita had been unable to see the anarchy that had befallen her beloved city. Now, however, she stood frozen. What could cause this level of mayhem? Just this morning, she had walked with Gwen down this very street. It had been quiet as always, with the exception of tourists come to see the great school, and con men come to see the tourists. What could have happened between then and now?
All of a sudden, men dressed in long, hooded robes began marching down the street towards the school in military formation. Were they the ones causing all of this damage? Could they be going to attack the school?
Rita couldn’t move. She needed to warn someone. Her sister was still in there.
“Rita! You need to stay close to me! Those are the men we are trying to avoid. Now come on; we have to go.” Andie tried pulling her along, but Rita resisted.
“But, what about Gwen? And the other students? We can’t just leave them. We have to warn someone.”
“We already have someone handling Gwen and multiple people handling the rest of the school. Plus, your grandfather put loads of protective spells on this place. Those guys aren’t getting in there anytime soon. Now we really have to leave.” Rita was so shocked that she allowed Andie to lead her away. Spells? Her grandfather was a magic-user? Of course Rita knew that magic-users existed, but she also knew that they were extremely rare. How could her grandfather be one and Rita not know?
They reached her grandfather’s home after a lot of ducking into alleyways and hiding behind street carts whenever the robed men walked by. Steeling herself for whatever condition her grandfather could be in, Rita stepped through the door.
“Took you long enough. We don’t have forever, you know.” A boy with silver-blonde hair and dark brown eyes scolded Andie as soon as they were through the door.
“Yeah, well, this one wouldn’t shut up about the Academy procedure and whatnot so it took awhile. I’m here now aren’t I?” Andie shot back.
Rita was confused. What was a boy doing here?
He turned to Rita, taking her in. “I’m Garret. Nice to meet you.” He held his hand out to her, but she only looked at it, terrified. Her? Touch a boy? After an awkward moment, he withdrew his hand, shrugging. “Your grandfather is this way. He’s in bad shape.” Leading the way, Garret took them into a small room where Rita’s Papa was lying on cushions. A soft green glow surrounded his body, making Rita gasp and run to his side.
“Papa? What’s wrong with him? What’s this light?” Rita looked to Andie and Garret with tears in her eyes.
“Relax; it’s just his body trying to heal itself. So far, though, it hasn’t been working. That’s why we need to get him to the Celestial Springs and why the city’s defenses have weakened so significantly.”
“Can’t you just add more soldiers?” Rita asked.
Garret sighed. “Did she ask this many questions on the way over?” Andie gave him a half-hearted smile, void of humor. “Rita, your grandfather is the city’s defenses. Without him,
Posna can’t survive. That’s why it’s essential we get him to the Celestial Springs right away; they’re the only things that can heal him. And you’re the one who will take him.”
Terror rocked Rita to the core. Sure, she’d taken fencing at the Academy, but so had every other girl, and it was only an introductory course; it hardly qualified her to be the one to take Papa to the Springs. Who were these people, anyway, to come in here and tell her what to do with her family? What if they were part of the group of robed men? Rita should go back to the Academy and tell them what was going on. They would know what to do. They always did.
“Hey, Rita- think quick.” A small coin flew through the air towards Rita’s face. Without thinking, she caught it easily. Garret grinned at her. “Nice reflexes. See? You’re not good-for-nothing. Now, if you could stop asking useless questions and actually start listening to us, we could get some things done and maybe save your grandfather’s life. Deal?” Rita only managed a small nod as she clutched the coin tightly in a fist at her side.
“Alright, now we can bring him with us on a wagon of sorts. Then we’ll help him to the Springs.” Garret was talking more to Andie than Rita now.
“No, a wagon will be too conspicuous; we’ll be caught right away.” The two continued to discuss the best way to transport the old man while Rita knelt by her grandfather, holding his hand. She closed her eyes, willing herself to be calm.
“R… Rita…” Her eyes shot open as her grandfather began speaking to her. The other two were too busy talking to notice that the man was awake. “You have to take this. It’s an amulet that will increase your power and battle abilities. Remember that as long as you have that on, you are nearly invincible. And tell them to shrink me using some of the basic spells I taught them. Then you can just carry me around easily and I can make myself bigger again when I’m healed.” He squeezed her hand that now held the amulet. “You’re the only one who can do this, my dear. Believe in yourself.” And with that, Rita’s Papa closed his eyes and went limp with sleep again.
After putting the amulet on and slipping it into her shirt for safekeeping, Rita was able to stand before the arguing pair. “Excuse me? But, um, Papa just told me that you should shrink him down using spells he said he taught you and we can just carry him around and then he can make himself bigger once he’s healed.”
They stared at her, Garret’s mouth slightly open. “He was awake? Why didn’t you tell us?”
“I-I’m sorry. He wasn’t awake that long. And you two were talking.” Rita looked down, ashamed. She should have brought them over to Papa as soon as she heard him speak.
“Lay off, Garret. She said he wasn’t awake that long.” Andie smacked the back of Garret’s head. Rita closed her eyes, ready for Garret to retaliate.
But he just said, “You’re right, Andie. Sorry, Rita.” Rita looked up to see Garret looking repentantly at her. Why wasn’t he blaming her still? She deserved it.
“So, I’ll shrink him down, then Rita can carry him to the Celestial Springs. Garret, you’ll go with her and I’ll stay here to protect the city.” Andie said this before walking over to Rita’s Papa.
Fear clutched Rita’s heart. Alone? With a boy? On an important quest? She was about to question this when she saw her Papa surrounded in blue light and getting smaller and smaller until he was no taller than three inches.
“There we go. Now here, Rita. Be careful with him.” Rita gingerly held her hand out and Andie set down Rita’s shrunken Papa.
Rita observed him, amazed that she was able to hold her Papa who was usually two heads taller than she was. Her Papa had taught Andie to do this? Rita remembered that she was going to protest to the arrangements of the quest when she looked up to see that Andie had left the room. Garret leaned on the doorframe, a small smirk on his face.
“She left while you were admiring her handiwork so you wouldn’t have the chance to object to our plan.” Garret’s face broke out into a full-blown smile. “Now, come on. There’s no time.”
Rita had no choice but to follow him. They made their way through Posna in a similar way to before; a lot of ducking and dodging. Finally, they were at the edge of the city. The Celestial Springs weren’t very far from Posna, so they would only have to walk about an hour North to get to there. This was yet another reason Posna had so many tourists; people brought their ill family members up there all of the time, hoping that the Springs’ magical quality would heal them.
Rita walked tensely with Garret through a well-worn path in the woods that lead to the Springs. Garret had his hands in his pockets and a lazy smile on his face. He kept stealing glances at Rita and seemed to be enjoying himself.
“You don’t have to be so rigid, you know,” Garret finally broke the silence, making Rita jump. She glanced into her shirt pocket where her Papa was resting, surrounded by tissues to keep him safe on the journey.
“But, you’re a boy. I’m a girl,” Rita said finally, after growing uncomfortable with Garret’s stare. “Boys don’t hang out with girls unless they like them and want to date them. I-I don’t like you like that.” Rita looked away, her face red.
Garret burst out laughing. “Rita. We’re trying to save Posna, and you’re worried about relationships? I hate to be the one to tell you this, but a guy can hang out with a girl just to be friends. They don’t have to date.” Rita had never heard something so ridiculous. That wasn’t how it was at school. The boys were automatically better than the girls. If they were friends, that would suggest boys and girls were equal. But they weren’t. Were they? If she thought about it, she guessed Andie was pretty equal with Garret. They were friends, right? Maybe it was possible.
Garret held his hand out to her. “Friends?” After a pause, Rita was able to take his hand and shake it firmly. “Good. Besides, I’d be too afraid to ask your grandfather permission to date you. He’s pretty powerful, you know.” Rita found herself smiling and second-guessing everything she’d ever been taught.
After another forty minutes of walking, Rita began to feel something tingling in her gut. They were close to the Springs. Garret handed her a sword. She looked up at him in fear. “Where did this come from? And what’s it for?”
“Magic, remember? And just in case. You’ll be fine, Rita.” Garret held her shoulder for a moment, encouraging her.
A short while later, they came upon the Springs. It was beautiful. The moon met Earth and flowed into a waterfall, churning into a small stream. Rita grinned, running towards the water. Papa would be okay. Everything would be alright.
All of a sudden, a man in a hooded robe stepped in front of her. “I don’t think so, little girl.”
“Garret!” Rita turned, looking to him for protection, but he was busy with three robed men of his own. Rita turned back, bringing up her trembling sword. The man drew two daggers and stalked towards her. Then Rita remembered the amulet. Papa said that it would help her in battle. Her confidence swelled and she fought the man, reflexes coming easily from fencing class at the Academy. She held the man off until Garret was able to finish him for her.
He grinned at her. “Nice job, Rita.” She blushed.
They approached the Celestial Springs once more, this time uninterrupted. Rita knelt down and held her tiny grandfather in the water. A white light emanated from his body and he sat up. He began to grow until he was his normal size again.
“You did it, my dear. Congratulations.” He smiled warmly at her.
“I didn’t do anything, Papa; it was the amulet you gave me.” She held it up for him to see.
He laughed. “Oh, that old thing? There’s nothing remarkable about that. I just told you there was so you’d believe in yourself more. You did all of this on your own: getting me here for healing, fighting off that man, shaking Garret’s hand.” He nudged her, jokingly. “I want you to believe in yourself, Rita. You are not useless. You are strong. And I have decided to take you on as my Apprentice. I need an Apprentice who believes in herself, though. Do you think you can do that?” Rita nodded at her Papa, amazed at his words. She had done it on her own? Rita smiled, pleased with herself for the first time in ages.
“I’m all for this empowerment thing, but what about Posna? We have to get back and help them,” Garret said from behind Rita.
“Oh, I’m sure they’re managing,” Papa said before winking at Rita. In that moment, she knew everything would be alright. She was her Papa’s Apprentice, after all.