A soft breeze danced gracefully across Sadie’s forehead. She weakly opened her eyes to find a canopy of large trees and small twinkling lights blinking in the hazy night’s sky. The gentle whispers of unseen persons around her began to fade in and out. Where am I? She thought in a daze. She searched her memory for the events that had taken place in the last few hours. There was a fire, she remembered that. Mrs. Johanna, John, and Ms. Catherine! 

The thought of her companions set a fire under her. Sadie began to shift dramatically but her body had trouble catching up to her mind. Her arms jerked lazily from the ground and before she knew it, muscle memory kicked in. The erratic movements had caught the attention of the group of now seven people and an alert Ezekiel was kneeling by her side, staring intently in her eyes. 

“Miss Latimer, are you alright?” he said softly. 

“Of course,” Sadie said, moving hastily to a seated position. A wave of dizziness rushed over her and she grabbed at her throbbing head. She grimaced as her fingernails brushed up against a large knot developing beneath her curls. 

“Where are we?” Sadie asked, examining the trees. “How did we—”

The sound of a twig snapping in two startled the group, interrupting the conversation. Just beyond Ezekiel’s shoulder stood a small boy who looked no older than four years old. Realizing his faux pas, the child rubbed his tear-filled eyes. In less than three breaths, Ezekiel knelt before him, whispering something that she couldn’t quite hear. The small child smiled and clutched the teddy bear he was holding close to his face. Sadie felt a warmth in her chest as she looked at the pair. The young boy’s large brown eyes thoughtfully examined Ezekiel’s face before he rushed forward, hugging him. Ezekiel patted the child on the back gently.  

“It’s going to be alright. I promise,” he said slightly above a whisper. He turned his head, making eye contact with Sadie and smiled at her, causing her to blush unexpectedly. 

“I don’t know how we got here either,” said a young girl that Sadie hadn’t noticed. 

She turned slowly, shaking her head. A gangly girl sat hugging her knees staring at the ground. A pang of familiarity hit her as she took in the girl’s appearance. She looked to be around the age of nine or ten, hair braided into two long plaits capped with two red bows. A far off look swept over her face as she began to rock in place. 

“We saw you get hurt,” she started, suddenly looking at Sadie and pointing at her head. “We ran over to check on you and there was a….a fireball? I think that’s what it was…”

Sadie broke eye contact with the girl, examining the group once more. Ms. Catherine had taken to comforting the young boy while Mrs. Johanna rocked a yawning toddler. Ezekiel and John tended to another young woman who looked to be about Sadie’s age. Her honey blonde hair shined bright under the moonlight. A haunted look was displayed over her soot covered, tear stained face. As the men tried to get a response from her, Sadie noticed that she was only wearing one shoe. 

“…and there was a loud bang. He told us all to hold hands.” the girl continued, pointing at Ezekiel. Sadie had only been casually listening. “There was this feeling — like being squeezed. You know, like when you wring out a wet rag? Next thing I know, we were here…”

Sadie froze in alarm.

“That big fella didn’t take it too well, he blew his grits over there in those bushes.”

Sadie spun around wide eyed, staring at Ezekiel. No longer feeling disoriented, she hopped to her feet and marched over to him, grabbed his arm and pulled him to the side. 

“You decided to parèt us here!” she said in a fierce whisper. 

A confused look flashed over his face. 

“Apparate. You Apparated us here.” Sadie’s heart beat faster in her chest. 

“Oh. Umm…Yeah,” he said in a low voice, looking over her shoulder. “Didn’t seem like I had much of a choice.” 

“But — we. You.” She furrowed her brow trying to make sense of everything. “Magic is not supposed to be performed in front of the Pègik.”

“I’m sure N.A.N.W. will understand,” he said sarcastically. 

As the night’s events rolled through her mind, thoughts of law and order suddenly felt foolish to Sadie. There was nothing left to be said. It was true that the circumstances were dire and he had saved multiple people including her. 

“I’m sorry,” he said abruptly. “It was the first thing that came to mind. I—”

“Thank you.” Sadie blurted, “If it hadn’t been for you, who knows what would’ve happened.”

Ezekiel breathed a sigh of relief and all of the tension seemed to fall from his shoulders.

He’s not the only one that used magic tonight she thought to herself, glancing in the direction of Mrs. Johanna.

Unable to stand face to face any longer, she turned gazing thoughtfully at the group. “Where are we?” she asked again. 

“Shumard Woods. My dad used to bring me here to fish in the lake. It was the first place I thought of. We’re about a few miles away from the Cypress,” he said, looking down at the ground, a look of deep thought on his face. 

“Okay,” said Sadie, taking a deep breath. She walked in a small circle desperately trying to remember the details of her map. Where should we go from here? The question repeated hastily in her mind. Despite her best efforts, she was getting nowhere and the only development she felt was the increasingly dull ache of her head. 

Ezekiel broke the silence. “You do that a lot, don’t you?” he said with an amused look on his face.

“Do wha—”   

The sound of gunfire pierced into the night followed by a blood curdling scream. Several members of the group jumped at the sound. They listened intently, holding their breath as their eyes searched the nearby trees for intruders. Within moments they realized that the only stirring was their own. However, the woods had begun to fill with smoke and the insidious glow of an approaching fire. 

Gunfire rapped once again followed by louder, closer screams. Ezekiel moved forward, squinting in the direction of the noise. Sadie grabbed his arm, silently begging him to stay put. The memory of staring down the barrel of a gun rushed to her mind. The men that she, John, and Ms. Catherine had encountered earlier that night where out for blood tonight and she knew whose.

“It’s okay,” he whispered. “I’ll be right back.” He disappeared quickly into the woods, not once looking back to transmit his thought process.

Sadie suddenly felt as if her heart was in her throat. Staring into the darkness, waiting for some hint of his return, silence enveloped the woods. A warm hand slid into hers, breaking her concentration. The young girl had made her way to Sadie’s side looking wide eyed in the direction that Ezekiel had just gone. Sadie noticed that the rest of the group had slowly moved forward, gathering near her. The sounds of the surrounding trees grew louder as they all held their breath, awaiting the return of the man that had brought them to safety. 

The heavy load of responsibility hit Sadie as she looked over the faces of the group. 

Mrs. Johanna tearfully held onto the now sleeping toddler, gently rocking the child so as to not disturb his sleep. Mrs. Catherine and the young woman clutched John’s side. 

“He’s coming back right?” the muffled voice of the young boy came from her right side. He had brought the teddy bear up to his face and was peering one-eyed around its head. 

“Yes sweetie, everything is going to be—” Sadie started.

The low crunching sound of approaching footsteps drew near. Ezekiel appeared slowly from behind the trees, clutching something in his hand. Sighs of relief came in waves as he progressed toward them. 

“Jobberknolls,” he said with a knowing look at Sadie. 

“Oh thank goodness,” Mrs. Johanna said with a deep exhale. The small woman turned on her heel and walked back to the tree stump that she had previously been sitting on. Mrs. Johanna’s indifference seemed to be enough for the rest of the group, they followed her lead and made their way back to their respective positions.

Sadie shot her a surprised look and returned to Ezekiel. She didn’t know why she had assumed that Mrs. Johanna didn’t know that Ezekiel was magical. 

“There’s a small flock of them just beyond the tree line here. All dead.” He continued, “That’s what that noise was. The fire is about four klicks away but the smoke is moving fast. They couldn’t survive it.” 

Sadie stared thoughtfully in the direction that he had just come from. There was so much to take in. Not only had they survived a fire and nearly being shot, she had also taken a significant hit to the head. Ezekiel stood before her not just a regular man but a conjurer not unlike herself.    

As the grip of her thoughts released her focus she turned to find that everyone in the group was staring at her and Ezekiel. A question showed on their faces, what do we do now? 

“Do you think that we can make it back to the church?” Sadie asked snapping back to attention. 

As Ezekiel opened his mouth to answer a shrill, “NO!” came from behind her. 

The young woman stood wide eyed and continued with shallow breaths. “No.” She said again. “I live—lived near the church. It’s not safe. We shouldn’t go back that way.”

Taking in her appearance and the frantic look in her eyes, Sadie felt that it was best not to pry. “Ok then, we won’t go back through town,” she said with a reassuring look. 

John moved to face the woman. “Don’t worry. Everything is going to be okay umm…”

“Leola. My name is Leola,” she said with a slight sniffle. 

“Leola. That’s a nice name.” He said with a comforting smile.

Ezekiel cleared his throat and motioned to Sadie for them to step to the side. “I was thinking that maybe we should head to Greenwood Academy.”

“The school. For conjurers.” Sadie interrupted.

“Yes, it’s on the far edge of town. Most folks that aren’t…you know. They don’t know it’s there. It’s a long shot but I think we can do it.” 

Sadie chewed on her lip. Wherever they were headed, they needed to walk. They hadn’t been exactly subtle in their conjuring and the Pégik were more than a little suspicious. The area around the Cypress was likely still on fire and the church was out. Being out in the open felt dangerous and unwise. “Let’s do it,” she said, shaking her head in agreement. “We have to get somewhere safe.” 

“Ok. I’ll get everyone together. You should take some of these feathers,” he said with raised eyebrows, holding out the jobberknoll to her. 

She grabbed the bird, its beak was partially open and its bright blue feathers on its chest shimmered slightly in the moonlight. The wings lay tucked at its side as though it was sleeping peacefully at the time of its demise. She solemnly plucked a handful of feathers and stashed them in her bag.

A heaviness fell over her as she stared at the lifeless bird in her hand. It felt too callous to throw it to the side. She knelt down in the dirt and placed it gently on the ground and covered it with a few leaves that had fallen from the nearby trees. How unfortunate it would be to use the beautiful speckled blue feathers to create an anti-memory potion. The sound of her name snapped her to attention and she rose, joining the group. 

“We have decided to try and make our way to a nearby school.” Ezekiel said to the group.

“But, the school is back that way.” John said pointing in the direction of the town. 

“Uh. Well, Greenwood Academy—” Ezekiel started.

“Is a new school!” Sadie interrupted. “I’m going to be a nurse there.”

John squinted at them suspiciously but nodded in agreement. 

“Okay everyone, there’s a fire headed this way, just beyond the trees there.” Ezekiel pointed. “I don’t want anyone to get lost, so I think we’ll walk single file. And hold on to one another. The school isn’t far from here.” 

“I think it’s best that the children, Mrs. Johanna, and Ms. Catherine stay in the front of the line. Leola, John, and I will hold the end of the line. Ezekiel you lead the way,” Sadie said, taking charge. 

The wind shifted quickly and smoke began to snake its way through the trees in their direction. The group moved silently through the woods, carefully whispering down the line to one another to avoid missteps and low hanging branches. After stumbling a few times, Leola abandoned her single shoe in frustration. 

“I thought you said that the school wasn’t far,” puffed John under his breath irritably.  

The walk had gone on for quite a while and they seemed no closer to their destination. Sadie looked over the ragged group. The elder women and children had slowed down significantly. Ezekiel barreled forward like an eager explorer. 

“I’m sorry, it really isn’t that much further,” Sadie said soothingly. 

“You two said that half an hour ago.” John said accusingly. 

Leola paused, bringing herself to John’s side. “Come on,” she said encouragingly, “I think there’s a clearing up ahead.” She grabbed John’s hand and pulled him away from Sadie. 

Leola was right. Ezekiel stood a few yards away from the group eagerly waving his arm. The group, buoyed by his energy, moved quickly to reach his side. 

In the clearing stood a large brick structure with a peaked roof. There were grand white columns on the face of the building, a soft grow from inside the building showed an equally grand staircase and large arched doorways through the windows. The ivy covered school’s grounds were lined with overgrown bushes and an iron gate that looked in disrepair. 

“Looks abandoned,” said John grumpily, clearly speaking the thoughts of the majority of the group. Sadie hated to admit it but the school looked a lot less magnificent than she had pictured it in her mind. 

“Well, see—” Ezekiel began. 

The group’s attention was caught by something moving quickly near the bushes. A large bushy tail could be seen swishing back and forth throughout the school grounds. A fearful whimper came from Sadie’s right as the tail whipped closer and closer into view. Ezekiel moved forward shielding the group, who had begun cowering in fear. 

 A large weasel-like creature pounced suddenly before them, teeth barred and dark brown fur standing on end. A magnificent hissing sound echoed loudly throughout the clearing. Both Ezekiel and Sadie charged in front of the group arms raised, ready to conjure up defense. The creature moved side to side trying to keep both of them in view as they began to slowly circle around it, pulling its attention from the group. 

“WHO ARE YOU?!” the creature hissed through its sharp teeth. 

Sadie and Ezekiel looked across at each other in stunned disbelief, slowly lowering their arms. The shifting of the group suddenly grabbed its attention once more and it barreled towards them, Sadie and Ezekiel frantically running to keep up. 

“ARE YOU IN CHARGE HERE?!” it yelled, coming to a halt before John. The creature balanced on its tail and raised itself up to eye level with the now mumbling John. 

Mrs. Johanna rushed forward, pausing only to place the sleeping child in Leola’s arms. She pushed John to the side. 

“Mayella?” she said with uncertainty as she stared down the creature. 

“Johanna?” the creature said, suddenly relaxing its snare. Slowly, the creature began to glow violet and transform before their eyes. In only a few seconds, a model-esque woman with deep walnut colored skin and silvery gray hair stood before them under the moonlight.

To be continued…