Chapter 21:



Poppy’s fingers deftly untied the pouch at her hip and removed a pinch of dust. She spoke the incantation to call another orb of light and squeezed the dust between her palms. When she pulled her hands away from each other, a glowing ball grew between them until it reached a suitable diameter for carrying and offering light.

It appeared the creature was afraid of light, so she held the orb up high. Something disturbingly close squealed, and it sounded like a mixture between a pig and nails dragging across a chalkboard.

Poppy held the orb close as she shoved Colette along. “Go! Go!”

The mouse who had seemingly been in shock regained her senses. She abruptly realized the situation and began running, if a bit awkwardly. Poppy fell into step beside her and felt her lungs try and adapt to the changing amount of oxygen they were receiving.

The light bobbed with Poppy’s every pounding step and it caused the walls to look as if they were moving. A long wailing sound echoed down the duct, sounding foreign and chaotic. Not quite human nor animal, but something in between or not related at all.

Sweat beaded along Poppy’s skin and her heart beat rapidly. She was pretty sure they had taken a wrong turn in the confusion. The magical arrows Poppy had placed which told her the correct route were nowhere in sight.

Poppy glanced at Colette who appeared to be regaining her steadiness. Poppy wondered if the stench had somehow been too strong for her sensitive nose to bear, causing her footing to be so uncoordinated. It’d be much faster for Poppy to ride Colette, but she didn’t want to risk it until the mouse could run properly.

A pins-and-needles screech ricocheted all the way up the duct. Poppy tried to cover her ears while holding the glowing orb. Something scratched against the floor a far distance away, then there was the rapid scurrying of something quickly approaching.

Poppy pivoted just in time for a clawed paw to shove at her chest with enough force to knock the wind out of her, and send her flying backwards.

She hardly recognized herself landing harshly on her back, as her lungs were struggling to grasp any amount of air they could reach. Her chest spasmed and she was unable to breathe, unable to mutter the words of an incantation.

The glowing orb had been knocked from Poppy’s hand upon her contact with the ground, and it rolled leisurely across the uneven stone. It was too far away for Poppy to reach, but close enough for her to take a good look at the creature.

It was so large that its body nearly didn’t fit within the confines of the air duct. Patchy fur covered pink flesh belonging to what looked like a mutated rat. Its yellow eyes were big enough to almost unnaturally pop out of the socket, and its teeth shoved out of their designated place at skewing angles.

Its claws were as long as Poppy’s calves, and they slid across the stone with every step the creature took. It approached her, its large misshapen nose scenting her. She could feel its hot breath against her forehead. In a spur of the moment, Poppy reached into her bag of pixie dust and thrust the golden sand into its face.

The creature screeched against the glowing dust and viciously whipped its head back and forth. At that moment, Poppy was finally able to take in a very small breath. The putrid stench which came from the creature’s maw was nearly a sedative as it caused her vision to swim. Still, she used this small breath to breathe the word, ak-re-fruh!

She snapped her fingers.

Golden flames spouted from her fingertips and flew forward, purging whatever was unlucky enough to be in their path. The creature wailed once more, and Poppy heard the sound of retreating claws against stone.


Gasping for air, yet only taking shallow breaths, Poppy rolled onto her stomach. She looked down the ductway to see Colette on the ground convulsing.

“Colette,” Poppy gasped and reached out. She crawled on all fours, half-dragging herself. Although she was slowly starting to breathe again, the pain in her chest lingered. Just moving caused glass shards to lance through her diaphragm.

“Colette,” she repeated once she got within touching distance. Poppy brushed the fur along her side. “Are you okay?”

The mouse shuddered and went still before opening her eyes. She blinked at her.

Poppy felt her lip wobble. “C’mon. Can you stand? We have to get out of here.”

It might come back, she thought but didn’t say. It appeared Colette was already under an incredible amount of duress, and Poppy was afraid of her shutting down completely. She was only an eleven-year-old girl after all.

It took a few moments, but eventually Colette pulled herself onto unsteady legs. She wobbled, but Poppy rested a supportive hand against her side. “Good girl.”

She reassuringly stroked the mouse’s head and glanced about their surroundings. “As awful as it sounds, we might have to backtrack,” Poppy said.

The mouse blinked twice and began walking forward.

“Hey,” Poppy said “This is the wrong way.”

Colette stubbornly shook her head and continued on, her little feet pattering along.

Poppy sighed and flinched as her chest smartened. “Fine, have it your way. Just know that neither of us are in any shape for a long trek.”

Thankfully it wasn’t a long walk. The vent they approached was unlike any Poppy had seen before. “Where does this lead to?” Poppy inquired hesitantly while looking into the dark expanse beyond the vent.

The mouse ignored her and squeezed between the slats in the wall. “Colette?” Poppy called. When there was no response, Poppy braced herself to follow.

What Poppy hadn’t been expecting was that beyond the vent there was a terribly steep incline. An embarrassing, surprised sound escaped her as she slid down the duct. If she weren't terrified, it might have been fun.

The incline abruptly turned into a flat surface, and Poppy found herself tumbling onto the ground. She groaned and looked up. “That was kind of awful,” she grumbled.

Colette stood in front of yet another vent, this one leading to actual light. “Where is this?” Poppy said more to herself than anyone. She peered through the slats.

A pink bedspread, pink curtains, and pink rug served as vital hints. “Your room, I’m presuming?” Poppy guessed.

The mouse’s answer was to hurry through the slats and into the bedchamber beyond. Poppy shook her head and smiled a little. Colette never failed to amaze her. Poppy hadn't even known of this entrance.

When Poppy slipped through the vent, she found Colette already changed into her human form and donning a plush, pink robe. Her long brown hair fell in loose curls around her waist. Besides appearing tired with dark circles beneath her eyes, she looked fine as a fiddle.

“That was the scariest thing that’s ever happened to me,” she said with wide eyes. “Did you see that thing? Its teeth went every which way!” She pointed her fingers against her mouth, imitating the crooked fangs.

“Yes,” Poppy sighed and rubbed her head. She had a slight headache after that ordeal. "Are you okay? Your legs kind of gave out back there."

"I'm fine," Colette waved her off. Whenever I'm a mouse, my senses are on overload. That rat-thing smelled so strongly it caused me to go light-headed. What even was that thing?"

Poppy shrugged. "A rabid rat?" she said unconvincingly. Although she had her theories, they were ones which she felt uncomfortable sharing with the young princess.

“Well, whatever. It's something we can worry about later. Let’s get you patched up,” Colette declared rather than offered.

Poppy glanced down at herself and found blood splotches seeping through her green top. It seemed when the rat-creature pushed her, its claws left their own mark. “Ugh,” she said, crinkling her nose. The last thing she needed was something for Kai to fret over. He’d be insufferable now.

Poppy sat on the lip of the kitchen sink as Colette tended to her wounds. She used a cotton swab doused in alcohol to gently dab at the puncture wounds--there were four of them in a semi-circle on her chest and an outlier on her stomach.

She’d felt uncomfortable at first when taking off her shirt, but Colette had acted surprisingly mature for someone of eleven years. Perhaps she wasn’t as childish as Poppy had previously thought.

“I used to disinfect Kai’s wounds after his swordplay bouts,” she explained with a concentrated look. “He refused to get treatment from the actual doctor, so I’d pour some alcohol onto a rag and chase him. He’d already be exhausted, so I could typically catch him.”

Poppy smiled at the imagery. Then she hissed when the cold cotton swab sent her chest into a stinging frenzy.

“Sorry,” Colette apologized. “I promise this is the worst part.”

After disinfecting the wounds, Colette wrapped a bandage around Poppy’s torso and chest until the point at which she hardly needed a shirt. “Just leave the top here for me to wash,” Colette advised. “That way my brother won’t faint at the sight of your blood.” She rolled her eyes as if she knew exactly how bothersome her eldest brother could be.

Poppy snickered. “You know him well.”

“Well, we did grow up together. Just because we have different mothers, it doesn’t mean our connection isn’t as good as anyone else’s.” The princess's cheeks were pink.

Poppy nodded. “I agree with that. Blood connections sometimes don’t mean anything at all.”

Colette observed her for a moment. “You’re right.” Her eyes went from serious to mischievous in the blink of an eye. “But I can see why my brother likes you so much. I wonder how big they get when you drink that potion of yours?” She raised a brow.

Poppy’s face burned crimson. “How’d you know about the potion?” she demanded, unable to address the rest of her statement.

“My brother mentioned it to me this morning,” she snickered. “When he asked me to accompany you, you know?”

Poppy scowled at the princess. “You don’t act very ladylike, you know?”

Colette made a mock-outraged expression. “After I treated you so graciously? How ungrateful of you!”

Poppy chuckled, which soon caused Colette’s façade to crack and for her to break into a fit of giggles. “Promise me,” she said between laughs “that one of these days you’ll come visit me after drinking that potion.”

The princess wiped a tear from her eye. “The least you can do to repay me for my efforts is allow me to dress you up.”