Chronicles Of A Boy Witch

Chapter 7: Apprentice

"Apprentice?" Andrew repeated, dumbfounded. "You mean answer all your calls and check all your appointments?"

"Yes, I mean no-" Scarlet started.

"Apprentice, not assistant." Elaine rolled her eyes.

"Oh," He sat up. "Why?"

"Well," Elaine took a few seconds, perhaps to organize the words in her head. "We think that your grandmother did not take the best approach in keeping you in the dark about everything. Perhaps, she did have the best of intentions, but in the grand scheme of things, this realm did not turn out to be much safer for you after all. If we hadn't intervened at the right moment, you could've been taken."

"What we mean is that maybe she should have taught you more spells, trained you. That kinda stuff." Scarlet added helpfully, making fighting gestures with her hands.

"We can teach you now," Elaine said, her eyes twinkling. "We're your grandmother's apprentices, after all!"

Having made their proposal, they stared expectantly at him.

"Alright. Cool." He said, and then plopped back onto his pillow. He felt really happy.

The witches looked impatiently down at him. "You know being an apprentice isn't the same as being a student."

Andrew sat up again, pulled up by the weight of their glares. "Huh, you'd think it was."

"There is a formality to see through and all that jazz." Scarlet shrugged.

"You should think it through before you agree to this. It isn't a simple matter, you know. Once you agree, you must be prepared to dedicate yourself to it, heart and soul." Elaine's voice was sharp. "We will leave you to think it over."

They got up to leave.

"No, wait!" Andrew stood up so fast, his head felt dizzy. There wasn't much for him to think through. He might have spent his life hating grandma and her spells and her magical world, but that was because he was never allowed to be a part of it. He could finally change that. "I'm in. I'll do it!"

"Are you sure, Andre? I think you should take some time to think about it a bit more..."

"I happen to have some notes on apprenticeships that I can lend to you for reference-"

"No, that's fine. I'm in! I'll be your apprentice!" Andrew said, hoping his determination got through to them.

"Okay, well, who do you choose?"

"Huh?" Well, that was awkward. He didn't know either of them well enough to decide something like that. "Can't I choose... both of you?"

They looked at each other. "Well, you could, I guess," said Elaine.

Scarlet sighed. "Truth is, Andre, we've never done this before either. We've been apprentices but we've never had an apprentice."

"Then let's hope it's a great learning experience for all of us!" Andrew declared a little too enthusiastically.

They smiled. Elaine offered him her hand and he shook it. Then, Scarlet offered him her hand and he shook it. They gave him a few pats on the back for good measure. Andrew felt like they'd just sealed a business deal more than anything else.

"That's it." Elaine said.

"That's it?" he asked.

"A bit underwhelming, isn't it?" Scarlet smiled. "But from now on, you're officially our apprentice. Don't disappoint us."

He nodded. "So what do I do now?"

"Drop and give me 20, son!" Scarlet commanded.

Andrew almost did it, but stopped when Elaine smacked Scarlet lightly on the arm. "Just kidding!" Scarlet giggled.

"We'll let you have today off." Elaine put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "And from tomorrow we'll make your every living moment a nightmare! Goodnight!" And with that she joyfully exited the tent.

Andrew stood frozen, wondering what he just signed himself up for. "Don't worry too much," Scarlet smiled with some degree of sympathy. "We survived your grandmother. At least you won't have to put up with her." And he could have sworn that she was shivering with the memory.

"What about the search for the ingredients?" he asked.

"Change of plans. We'll tell you tomorrow." She yawned and turned to leave.

"Scarlet?" Andrew called to her before she left. "Why did my grandmother leave?"

Scarlet sighed. "She was always like that. Disappearing without a word sometimes. But it was always for a good reason. I'm not sure what it is this time, but I'm certain it's related to Oz."

"Do you think she hates me?"

She smiled warmly. "Of course not. Why don't you ask her that yourself when we see her again?"

-------

Andrew walked around the campsite, within the inner walls of the dome. It gave off a soft dim light that reminded him of the moon. On the other side of the dome walls, the forest was alive. He poked his head into the other tent. Elaine was reading her notes. Scarlet was asleep on her top bunk with two open books facedown on either side of her.

It was still too early to sleep, and even if it weren't, his mind was buzzing. There were too many things to think about. Andrew took out his cellphone and stared blankly at the screen. It was on airplane mode so he wouldn't be receiving any calls or messages. It had been so since he'd set it on Silver's ship, though he wasn't exactly asked to.

He wondered if Caroline had called or texted. She normally never went three days without texting him about his health and how he was feeling. It had always annoyed him before... Or had it? He wondered if he really did dislike her as much as he thought he did. He thought about how she was so ready to risk her safety, possibly her life, just to save him. Guilt stung his nose and threatened to bring tears. He couldn't do a single thing to protect her or Zen. If Scarlet and Elaine hadn't shown up when they did, he didn't even want to think about what could have happened. He needed to change that. So with that conviction in mind, he went back into his tent, onto his bed, and rolled around with his thoughts until sleep finally came to take him.

He was woken a bit before dawn. Elaine towered over him, banging pots and pans over his head. They floated in the air, hitting each other rhythmically.

"Where's Scarlet?" he asked as he got up and followed Elaine out of the tent and into the inky dark morning.

"Still asleep. I'll be the one teaching you right now." Elaine said.

She handed him a large file. "I took bits and pieces of my notes and organized this for you." She smiled with pride. Andrew was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the study. His entire school syllabus for the past year didn't require as much reading as this. He thanked her weakly.

It was around 9:30 am when Scarlet sauntered out of the tent. She stretched one hand and stifled a yawn with the other, then began congratulating herself on waking up so early. Andrew gloomily informed her of what time Elaine had woken him up and she wrinkled her nose in apparent disgust. He had spent the entire time since then reading the material Elaine passed on to him. Did he learn some new things? Sure. Was he happy about it? Yes. Would he have instead crawled back into bed given the choice? Definitely.

"Is there anything you don't understand?" Scarlet asked, moving over and squatting down next to him. She had a knowing smile on her face.

Elaine was an enthusiastic and motivated teacher. But for the love of him, Andrew did not understand most of what she said. Every time he'd ask her a question, she would launch into an explanation so detailed, yet so undecipherable, he would have to swallow a gulp and retreat with his tail between his legs. Her notes were very clear and well-written, with excellent handwriting. Her explanations however, were of too high an intellect for Andrew. Scarlet seemed to understand, casting a sympathetic smile as he told her as much.

"Let me dumb it down a bit for you a bit," she offered as she ruffled his hair, and so began Scarlet's lessons.

Scarlet spent most of her time explaining the parts of the notes Andrew had not understood. Then, they went for a practical approach and tried casting some of the spells from the notes. She told him about magic, a concept that was always so real to him, but which he knew so little about.

Magic existed differently in each realm. In Gaea, it didn't really exist at all. Which is to say, not to the extent it does so in other realms. For example, in realms like Enos, magic was a free-flowing force, something omnipresent like oxygen.

There are several types, classes, and races of entities that can use magic. Witches, wizards, warlocks, fairies, faes, and so on. Each entity has their own way of manipulating the force of magic. Among them there are rare, special, powerful entities that can form their own magic. Scarlet, Elaine, and Andrew, fell into that category. That's why they could use magic despite being in a realm in which the force of magic does not flow freely. But it takes its toll on the user to produce their own supply of magic.

That's why the air felt different to Andrew when he travelled with Silver and Esther. That's why the air felt so heavy when he was back. Andrew was also surprised to learn that the place he had gone to rescue the witches with Silver and Esther had been in another realm! That also explained the weird plants he'd never seen or heard of before.

It was afternoon by the time Elaine left her reading to join them for lunch. It struck him as odd how a person could read for so long without any breaks. Elaine claimed that she enjoyed it. Scarlet said she would rather die than spend that much time reading up old spellbooks. She complained that she could not read more than two pages of those without having her mind drift off elsewhere. Andrew watched them bicker as they prepared the food. He commented on how long they could go without food to stop them from arguing. They hadn't had breakfast, and Andrew was starving, but neither of the two witches seemed to demand food.

"We're pretty used to starving," Scarlet said impassively.

"It's one of the many survival skills you pick up on the run." Elaine shrugged. Scarlet narrowed her eyes at her, and Elaine realized a bit too late she'd said something off.

"On the run," Andrew repeated.

"Oh you know, running, jogging," she tried to brush it off and Scarlet facepalmed.

"So, what were you guys running from?"

"The organization... Oz." Scarlet said, throwing a palm haphazardly against Elaine's face.

"Why? Is it because you burned down their town?"

"Maybe we should wait until your grandmother is back with us before we get into it," Scarlet said, her palm clapped over Elaine's face. Elaine slapped it away, but didn't speak again.

Andrew was getting tired of that excuse, but he didn't want to push things with them. No, what he didn't want was to push them away. Pathetic as it sounded even to himself, he wanted them to stay and he thought that if he asked too many awkward questions, they would leave him like his grandma did.

Lunch was then prepared in an uncomfortable silence, only broken when Scarlet recovered enough to start chattering away again.

"We've decided to take you with us!" Elaine announced, as they finished eating their microwaved meals. Andrew had his suspicions that their decision would be as much, but tried to look pleasantly surprised.

"We'll make sure you're safe." Scarlet said. "And we'll also teach you to take care of yourself!"

The campsite was cleared out faster than it was set up. Everything bounced and slipped right into the depths of Elaine's pouch. Andrew had half a mind to throw his rather heavy backpack in with the other things, but reconsidered because he might need his emergency supplies if he got separated from them. Like his Night Series comic books or the marshmallow pops he packed.

"So how do you get from here to the other realm?" Andrew asked conversationally but he was genuinely interested.

"There's a path that leads straight there," Elaine explained. "If you follow it through properly, you will arrive at the other realm."

"Won't other people in this realm find it if they try?"

"It's not that easy." Scarlet said. "The One True Path actually forks up and branches into many other paths. It does this so many times that it would be next to impossible to follow through, and it gets dangerous the closer you get to it. People are bound to choose a wrong path at some point. In the case that they don't and they are able to make it to the entrance, even then it's unlikely they'll know how to get through."

"And if they do?"

"If they do," Scarlet paused. "Well, good luck to them."

"How do we know which one is the right path?"

"Oh, that's easy!" Elaine exclaimed like the smart kid in class. "Especially for the three of us! You'll know it soon enough! But first we have to find the Path itself."

They walked for a few hours, but their pace was more at ease compared to the previous day. Elaine also seemed less tense and joined in on their conversations. Andrew found that he was rather enjoying himself. That was rare for him.

The forest was rather dark earlier on, but as one went deeper it began to thin out. The sunlight fell through the canopy in patterns. Scarlet hummed and skipped over the large roots protruding up from the ground. There was something about the forest, the deeper they went. He'd always done his best to ignore the place but found it beautiful now that he got a good look at it. The air felt crisp and clear. Every colour seemed so much more vivid. The sunlight was like gold, the trees like glittering jade, and the dewdrops on the leaves like crystals. It seemed so ethereal.

Andrew felt great. He walked with an uncharacteristic spring in his step, and he realized that he hadn't felt that happy in a long time. He wondered if he could bring Zen for a stroll through the forest with Coin. Caroline was probably mad at him. He would need to fix things with her after he returned.

Soon, Scarlet's melody was stuck in Andrew's head. It had a cheerful, yet haunting tune. Lively, yet it made him think of sad things.

They set up camp around the evening. The bright moon illuminated the forest floor, no longer closed off to the sky. Certain flowers, the likes of which he'd never seen before, caught the moonlight and reflected it forming a dazzling glow. Fireflies flitted around them. Andrew also thought he could hear music.

"It's the song of the forest," Scarlet closed her eyes and leaned back on the sofa.

"Who's playing it?"

"The forest," said Elaine, as though it was actually pretty obvious. She explained that it wasn't as though the trees were playing flutes or drums or even singing. It was actually different things happening all at once- the wind blowing through hollow barks, the rustle of leaves, the calls of forest creatures- all such things made the music of the forest.

Andrew thought it was pretty cool that the forest had its own mellow soundtrack. He had always wanted to learn to play an instrument. Not that he had any talent for that sort of thing. He just didn't want magic to be his only shining aspect. Caroline once told him that his personality lacked substance. He dwelled on it often but never really took it to heart. He noticed Scarlet watching him as he pondered deeply on his lack of substance, personality-wise. At length he was forced to say, "What?"

"Are you alright?" she asked so earnestly that Andrew went quiet.

"Yeah?" he answered eventually, but it came out more as a question.

"Gosh, you're adaptable, aren't you?"

"Well, you have to be, when you're alone for most of it."

By 'it' he meant life.

Scarlet nodded in apparent understanding. Elaine ignored their conversation, opting to focus on a large purple hardcover book.

Scarlet stifled a yawn and began to idly hum the tune from earlier. Andrew was surprised when Elaine joined her, singing along, not taking her eyes off her book. He sat quietly in the middle, staring into their campfire, watching the flames lick the carpet but not catch. A cold wind blew through the forest, making music as it went. Andrew felt oddly calm. He also wanted to cry.

The tents were brought out and Andrew and Scarlet went to their respective tents to sleep. Elaine stayed back to read.

-------

Yet again, Andrew was awoken to the sounds of floating pots hitting floating pans. It was after dawn, later than when Elaine had woken him up the previous morning. She gave him time to freshen up while she set breakfast on a white plastic picnic table that had not been there before. Toast and egg for the both of them. They ate in silence. Afterwards, she spent the next couple hours teaching him different spells, focusing on defense. Scarlet would teach him those relating to offense.

"Barriers are complicated forms of magic," Elaine said. "We'll start off with shields. They're a bit easier since they're smaller and portable whereas you'd cast a barrier over a certain area."

"How can I be sure my shield can defend against really strong attacks?"

"Well, it won't, right away. It's about practice and determination and focus. As your magic gets stronger, so will the things you create with it. But as you are, you'll still be able to defend against most basic attacks."

"Sounds good to me."

"Better than nothing," Elaine thumped him on the back. Andrew tried casting the spell he had just learnt. A translucent blue oval floated in front of him. It was weak and shaky. "Is this good?" he asked.

"Well, as a first try, I suppose it is." Elaine didn't look very impressed. "Keep trying. You need to focus more on the shield. You also can't let other emotions get into it. Maybe try meditating a bit before forming your shield," With that she picked up a thick book and began leafing through it.

When Scarlet had finally woken up, she found Andrew meditating under a tree with a shaky translucent orb floating in front of him. Occasionally, it would strengthen into a proper shield, but within seconds it would crumble.

"That's pretty good," she said and Andrew opened his eyes. The floating shield vanished. "Really?" he asked. "Elaine said it's still subpar."

"Well," Scarlet scratched the back of her head. "It probably is, by her standards." She laughed lightly. "But to be able to do this much on the first try is pretty amazing. You've got your grandma's talent in you, for sure."

Andrew frowned.

"That's a huge compliment, Andre," Scarlet ruffled his hair. "However you feel about her doesn't change the fact that her talent is the real deal. Anyway, let's take a break before we start!"

Scarlet lolled around for some time preparing herself to teach. Andrew lay down under a large oak tree. It was windy, and the temperature was neither too hot nor too cold. The sky was blue and the clouds floated by ever so slowly. The leaves of the great oak rustled rhythmically. Andrew's eyelids felt heavy. He took a nap.

Andrew woke up after some time feeling unusually refreshed. Naps always made him even more tired before. Scarlet called him over for his session with her.

Offense spells were more complicated, and would take more time to get the hang of. "There are different ways to fight and protect yourself with magic," Scarlet said. "The spells themselves don't always have to be offense spells. For instance-" she raised her palm and the various objects around them began to float- Andrew's microwave, the picnic table, chairs, the sofa with Elaine still on it. "You can use this technique to throw your opponent far away, or even throw objects at them."

"It IS quite effective," Andrew said, his voice full of pity remembering how poor Lord Gravis was on the receiving end of this technique.

"It's a good way to start. Most offense spells are kind of dangerous and will drain you if you use them too much. For example-" Scarlet snapped her fingers and a dartboard popped into existence. She then finger gunned it.

"Bang," she said and a deep red bolt of lightning ran from the tip of her finger right into the object. Andrew didn't have time to register whether the spell struck the center of the board because it disintegrated upon contact.

"This one's a bit hard," Scarlet said.

"Teach me teach me teach me," Andrew said. "...please."

Scarlet chuckled. "Alright, but you should know it's different for everyone."

Andrew closed his eyes, took a deep breath and made a finger gun. "Bang!" he said.

Nothing happened.

"Ahem," Scarlet scoffed. "That's not a part of the spell. I just did it to look cool. Also, maybe it'll help to have a target." She snapped her fingers and another dartboard materialized. "Having a clear target and a clear attack in mind helps. Try using your entire hand."

Andrew nodded and closed his eyes. He saw where the target was. But what kind of attack did he need to keep in mind? He took a deep breath, aimed his palm at the dartboard, and muttered the spell. Soft red stars floated out of his palm. They spun around each other and made their way to the target but faded away short of reaching it.

"It's always the stars with you, huh?" Scarlet said.

"Why didn't they reach it?" Andrew asked.

"Like I said, it's a bit hard. You need to focus on it a lot to make it work at your level. Still, it went further than I expected. Looks like you'll level up in no time!"

Andrew grinned. He really wanted to get stronger. Fast, if possible.

"For now though, why don't you stick with levitating." Scarlet said.

"But I can already do that,"

"Lifting enemies isn't the same as floating plates and dishes and toast." She snapped her fingers and an object like a cartoon anvil materialized in place of the undestroyed dartboard. "Try lifting that,"

Andrew tried with one hand, and upon finding no success, tried with both. The anvil didn't budge an inch. "Why. Won't. It. Move?" he grunted.

"Obviously because you're not strong enough to move it," Scarlet said as she effortlessly lifted it and floated it around the campsite without using either of her hands. "You still need to start right from the basics. Even if you are pretty talented as you are. That's how your grandmother taught us."

"Yeah," Elaine poked her head out of her book. "Poor prodigal Scarlet had to start from the basics with little old me."

"Stop calling me that, little miss genius!" Scarlet snapped.

Though Andrew imagined it was a compliment, Elaine looked rather irritated. He cleared his throat. "Ah yes, the basics. Can't go far without the basics. Love 'em to death! Please, teach me the basics!" He tried to sound enthusiastic. In truth, he really wanted to skip this part and learn something more advanced, but the atmosphere had suddenly become very tense. He felt that voicing out his feelings would find HIM on the opposite ends of their glares.

And so, Andrew stuck with what they were willing to teach him. Though even after an hour he couldn't find himself lifting the anvil, he repeatedly refused Scarlet's offer of starting with a lighter object. He already found it humiliating enough that the one strategy he thought he could use in a 1-v-1 fight, he wasn't strong enough to carry out.

They were on the road again late afternoon, and the path had started moving uphill. Walking for hours was difficult but climbing was near impossible. One must keep in mind that Andrew was never a very active young boy.

Young, yes, but his youthful advantage over the two much older witches bore no fruit. They strode almost tirelessly up the path while he struggled behind.

The hill his farm was on was rather flat and easier to climb, whereas this one just inclined upwards with no flat land for a short rest. As the path rose, it narrowed. The corners of the path inched up and they could get a higher view of the forest below. It was a sea of green with the canopies of the trees nearly closed in together. Clouds hovered above the forest casting shadows over the canopies. It was like nothing he'd ever seen before. The beautiful view made him breathless. Or, more likely, it was the uphill hike. Andrew stood staring for some time, and then took a deep breath, before continuing the strenuous climb.

"This, Andre, is where it gets tough." Scarlet said, wiping the scant sweat off her forehead.

Andrew was a little disturbed by that, as it implied that the journey thus far was in fact, not tough. As they reached the top of the hill, he saw what Scarlet meant. They had reached a dead end. The next ledge rose high like a mountain, high into the sky. Perhaps with the right gear, it might be scalable. Even then, it seemed tough, or next to impossible for someone like Andrew.

Over the course of their journey through the forest, they had encountered the deer, and other smaller, non-threatening animals. Andrew had heard the grunts and growls of animals that might have been more carnivorous in nature. At night, he had seen glowing eyes peering at them from the darkness. None ever approached them though. Scarlet said Elaine was handling it, and explained no further. As he stared up the towering ledge, Andrew noticed several large vultures flying in circles near a nest. Their hair-raising calls reached all the way down to where the three stood. Andrew thought they sounded like what people say scratching a chalkboard with your nails sounds like. The vultures, having noticed their presence, abandoned the nest and flew lower, examining the three with their sharp eyes and, no doubt, evaluating whether they would be a better meal for the whole committee.

Scarlet and Elaine continued ignoring any and everything that didn't seem to be an imminent danger to their lives. They stopped shortly before the mountainous wall and Elaine held a palm against it. Then she turned to Scarlet. "We can't climb this... or even fly to the top. It's been enchanted. I don't think it'll wear off anytime soon either-"

Scarlet sighed and peeled off her leather gloves. Andrew gulped. Her hands were covered in scars. 'So that's why she always wears gloves,' he realized. As she held out her left hand, a new dry red scar began to appear on it, as though it was surfacing from inside her skin. It ran all the way around her wrist, like a bangle or bracelet. It had other scars branching out of it, like the pointed rays of the sun from a child's drawing. As she held it out further, the long lines along her hands glowed and a circle appeared on the ground. The outline of the circle glowed and shapes started forming on the inside as lines extended from the circumference and connected to each other. The shapes on the ground were identical to the criss-crossing lines on Scarlet's hand.

Without a word, Elaine stepped onto the circle, pulling Andrew onto it with her. When Scarlet stepped on it too, it began floating off the ground. Higher and higher it went. Andrew looked over the edge and Elaine clutched his sleeve as though he might just fall over. There was a sudden flash and they were floating on top of the mountain ledge.

When the circle they were standing on, once more embedded itself to the ground, they walked off it. Scarlet waved a hand and it was gone. The dry wound once again faded into her skin. Elaine whispered into Andrew's ear that Scarlet used some very complicated spells to hide it within. Scarlet put her gloves back on, and no one bothered to explain to Andrew what had just happened.

The vultures lost sight of them along with their interest and flew back to their initial prey, save for one. A lone vulture left the others to follow the three witches. It watched, flapping tirelessly, as they continued their travel at a leisurely speed.

The forest all the way at the top of the ledge was somewhat creepier. It wasn't dark, but it also stopped being that ethereal place of wonder Andrew was starting to enjoy. The sunlight lost its warmth, and he felt a shiver run down his spine. The barks of the trees weren't brown, but rather greyish, and the leaves had no lustre. Once again, it was a forest. Andrew had somehow managed to repress his terrible memory in the back of his head, but it was once again starting to resurface. He clutched his backpack straps tighter. He felt cold.

Scarlet put an arm around his shoulder. "You know, there's probably nothing in this forest that can take me or Elaine. Nothing can get past her barrier for sure." she said, conversationally.

"If you're going to brag, then brag about your own abilities," Elaine narrowed her eyes at Scarlet.

"Aww, Lane, don't be shy!" Scarlet nudged at her with her arm still around Andrew's shoulder. He chuckled, trying to flail out of her grip, which was becoming more of a chokehold. Somehow, he felt warm again, even though the forest around them hadn't reverted back to its previous beauty. Though Scarlet released him from her grip, she held onto the strap of his bag. She continued chattering and teasing Elaine, but he felt a bit safer. Above them the vulture made grunting noises.

"Greedy, isn't it?" Andrew pointed to the vulture still following them. "It left its friends to try and get a bigger meal," He indicated to the three of them.

"I don't think it wants to eat us," said Elaine and offered a hand to the bird. It flew down and perched on her arm. For the longest time, it stared at Andrew.

"This again, huh?" said Scarlet.

"What do you mean?" Andrew asked.

"Don't you have a special relationship with birds?"

Andrew had talked to birds quite often since he was a kid. It was just one of the many things he did out of boredom and loneliness, but it became a thoughtless habit. He also happened to think they were wonderful listeners, though conversations with them were rather one-sided. He pet the vulture's bald head with a finger. It closed its eyes and made a throaty satisfied kind of grunt. It was kind of cute, in a blotchy sort of way. "I'll call him Nester," he declared.

"Nester is a woman," Elaine rolled her eyes. "Honestly!"

"I'm sorry!" Andrew huffed. "Animal biology was never my strong subject!"

"That's probably because you never even attended your classes!" Elaine snapped. "Honestly! I wish you took school more seriously!"

Andrew took a page from Silver's book, and pretended not to hear nor comprehend Elaine's words and she pinched his right cheek.

Scarlet sighed. "Well, at least you're making friends. Wait, are you getting another possible familiar?"

"Jealous?" Andrew snickered. Scarlet pinched his left cheek.

Andrew rubbed his face, dabbing at his facial muscles. He felt annoyed but also happy, like even their light bickering filled some void in his life he hadn't known he'd had. Nester soared above as they walked. The woodland creatures on this upper level of the forest were quite fearless. They did not hide as the trio walked through. Andrew nearly choked upon sighting a large brown bear prowling under a tree. It looked menacingly at them, but the other two didn't return its gaze. They walked past it like it was just another squirrel.

Scarlet hummed a different, mellower tune. Andrew found himself not very tired, despite not having rested for hours. When Elaine asked if he wanted to set up camp and rest, he told her he was fine. Nester screeched from somewhere above. It was too dark to keep tabs on her as she flew high above the trees. A few hours later, she suddenly swooped down onto Andrew's shoulder and started screeching louder.

"We're close," said Elaine.

"How do you know?" Even as he asked her that, for some reason, Andrew knew it himself.

They walked through the trees into a small clearing. There, they saw a path. It snaked out from another side of the forest behind them and edged its way forward.

"Is that the One True Path?" he asked.

"It's... the Path." said Scarlet. "When you follow it properly to the gate, that's the One True Path."

Andrew nodded his understanding. Right from the start, the path forked off into three directions a little bit ahead of them. Andrew found himself knowing, feeling, the right path to take. He asked why.

"The Path that leads to Enos," explained Elaine, "is the path laced with magical energy. You will be able to feel it as you move forward. This forest is probably the only place in this entire realm where magic energy can be felt since the gate exists here. This is also the reason there are disturbances in the air around your house sometimes."

"Most realms have at least one gate," said Scarlet. "That's the only way to enter them. Sometimes the gate to a certain realm can be found in another realm. It's all connected. A lot of realms also have gatekeepers. These people decide where the gates will exist, and how many gates there will be. They can choose to seal the gates of their realm from other realms, or keep it open to all. Our realm has no gatekeeper. The entrance through the forest lies unguarded. Anyone can go if they wish."

Andrew noted down the information on realms, and tried not to feel overwhelmed. They followed the Path with relative ease. Scarlet and Elaine had a lot of information to share about other realms and magic. Andrew absorbed as much as he could with interest. They set up camp around midnight.

The journey for the next two days was not as eventful. It was a lot of walking and talking and learning. But mostly walking. Andrew had reached his limit for enjoying the trek two more days later, at which point he asked if there were any spells or magic brooms they could use. They told him that they were conserving magic in this realm and that he could walk, crawl, cycle, skate- whichever method he preferred that didn't rely on magic. Andrew noted to himself that if he met Scarlet's brother, Silver, again, he would ask for one of his robotic cubes that turned into floating vehicles.

The Path mostly went straight, but would every so often fork into different directions. They didn't need to stop even for a few seconds to contemplate on which the right way to go would be. It all but pulled them towards it. The only times they left the Path was when they needed to set up camp.

Over the course of their journey, Andrew had gotten to know Scarlet and Elaine a lot better. They didn't talk about their past or their circumstances, but he learned about them, as people. He knew that it would inevitably affect his judgement of them when he would find out about the incidents that caused them to be labelled terms such as 'evil' and 'dangerous', but he thought he would cross that bridge when he reached it. For the life of him, he couldn't see them as either of those things.

If someone told him to describe them, for Elaine he would say 'meticulous', 'killjoy', and 'obnoxious when it comes to teaching'. But also, 'patient', 'hardworking', and 'sometimes fun'. For Scarlet, he would use 'childish', 'sleeps too much', and 'too loud'. But also 'friendly', enthusiastic, and 'thoughtful'. Andrew knew that perhaps he was not the greatest judge of people, but none of it felt fake to him. He genuinely thought that they weren't bad people. For them to be some sort of witches of darkness, Andrew couldn't believe it. He didn't dwell on these thoughts. For what it was worth, they were his masters now. Though he didn't really know what being an apprentice entailed, he signed himself up for it. He should at least have some faith in them.

"I hope whatever's got your brows all crinkled like that is related to your defense spells," Andrew snapped out of his thoughts to find Elaine looking down at him, offering him a bottle of cool, freshly microwaved juice. Andrew smiled sheepishly.

"If you're thinking about studies outside of study hours, you're a HUGE NERD!" Scarlet squealed.

"Nonsense!" said Elaine. "That's not true! For instance, I'm always thinking about the things that master taught us-"

"Case in point. Every hour is study hour for y-" Scarlet narrowly dodged the bottle Elaine threw at her.

Andrew laughed. He really hoped that whatever the truth was, there was a good explanation for it.

The next day, they found that the True Path went through a dark cave. The inside of the cave reminded Andrew of the trauma from his memories of the forest. He clung to Scarlet and Elaine as they went through it. Various eyes peered down at them from the dark ceiling. Scarlet told him they were probably just bats. When they exited the cave, she informed him that they were, in fact, not bats, and he probably didn't want to know what they really were.

The day after that, the path ended in a wide river. It continued on the other side, which was barely visible through a dense fog that covered the area. Scarlet offered to carry them across but Elaine said it drained too much of her energy, and to save it for emergencies. Nester, surprisingly, came to their aid. She squawked at them until they followed her along the riverbank to a rather rickety looking bridge. The water below was a dangerous calm and it looked more terrifying than a whirlpool. Not even a ripple disturbed the silent river surface. As they passed over the bridge, which began to squeak under their collective weight, shadows could be seen emerging from the riverbed. It made Andrew edge faster along the bridge despite its sway. Scarlet and Elaine walked across it as though falling into the river below and facing whatever made those rather large and alarming shadows would be nothing more than a regretful waste of mere minutes of the journey.

On the other side, the forest once again deepened. Hours of trekking down the path led them straight to a dead end. It stopped under a mountainous ledge which, unlike the previous one, did not stop at any visible distance. It rose upwards, disappearing into the sky above the trees. Andrew climbed a tree and peered up, hoping to catch where it ended, but no such luck. The path ended at an alcove, high up on a ledge of the mountain wall. That was where the gate was.

"We'll camp down here for tonight," declared Elaine.

"WHAT?!" Andrew screeched. He was so close! "Why can't we go there now?! We can camp on the other side!"

"We can, but it's safer on this side. If I'm not mistaken, it's night there as well."

"I agree," nodded Scarlet. "I mean we're going back home for the first time in years, and I'd rather the first thing we see there not be a Night Creature."

Andrew remembered the grotesque images of those creatures he'd seen in grandma's books. He, too, didn't want an encounter with them to be one of his first experiences there. He gulped and nodded.

The next morning after breakfast, Andrew had thought his masters would host some elaborate classes and stall the expedition, but was surprised to find they did no such thing. Elaine packed up the camp in the blink of an eye. Scarlet took off her gloves, and the circle reappeared on the ground below their feet. They floated up to the ledge in silence.

When Andrew stood before it, his heartbeat quickened. Was it excitement? Was it fear? Was it paranoia? He didn't know which emotion was causing it. He was given no time to prepare himself.

"Ready?" Scarlet asked.

Andrew merely nodded his head. They faced the alcove. There was a milky substance on the wall, covering the area.

"Just go through that," Elaine said.

It looked like layers and layers of a sticky spider web. Andrew took a deep breath and cautiously walked in.

He found himself walking through an illuminated passageway with walls of light. It was extremely bright and Andrew had his eyes squinted the entire three minutes it took him to walk from one end to the other. Unlike the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, the other end revealed a shadowy doorway.

He turned and briefly glanced at the figures of his masters a few metres behind him. Though he'd initially thought of waiting for them and crossing together, his excitement got the better of him. That, and the sudden (quite impractical) pang of paranoia that made him fear that even at this stage, they could change their minds and decide to turn back. He faced the shadowy doorway, and with intense anticipation coursing him- he leapt through.