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Weaving through the crowded streets of Stormwind, Idella couldn’t help but grin ear-to-ear. The southern kingdoms hardly experienced a winter worth noting, but the evening chill still brought a tiny tinge of the season. The rest was colored lights strings and creative frost magic: icicles froze the tops of doorways and tips of rooftops, snowmen greeted you at every street corner with skinny stick arms raised in a wave, and rainbow strings of lights hung everywhere.

Clutching her canvas shopping bag, the young witch pardoned herself through the crowd. Her footsteps hurried by growing excitement, she closed herself in her shop and deposited the rather heavy tote on the counter top. Sliding out a single book, she sifted through its pages for the umpteenth time, a blush coloring her cheeks. 

He’ll like this, she said aloud. Who doesn’t like Harrison Jones? Biting her lower lip but keeping her smile, she felt thoroughly pleased with herself and set to wrapping the gift. She took extra care in folding the corners and aligning the patterns of the paper. Holding it up, she admired her work then adorned it with a perfectly wrapped green bow.

“Positively smitten, my dear.” A voice spoke from behind her. It was warm, almost smokey in tenor, and echoed in spite the small size of the room.

Idella swiveled around, grasping the counter top behind her. “Cl — !” she started, but stopped. As startled as she was, she couldn’t tell if her voice choked from shock or spell.

Clothed in deep red, a hooded woman stood in the corner of the shop. As she moved, the edges of her robes faded and reappeared. No feet seemed to touch the floor. Slender hands slipped from long sleeves as she idly touched the baubles that hung from the ceiling.

“Sweetheart,” Claret said gently, walking along the shop’s edges, inspecting every vial, book, and dried flower. “You’ve been doing so well. Pardon me for dropping in like this. I simply wanted to check in on your training.”

It felt like a hand clutched at Idella’s chest. Wincing against the tightening sensation, the young witch fought back a stutter. “It’s… It’s good. I’ve been… reading,” she replied rather lamely. 

Claret turned her head towards her. No matter the light she stood in, the hood always seemed able to conceal the features of her face. “Ida dear, you have always been a terrible liar. But you have never been a slouch. How positively unlike you,” Crossing the room on silent feet, Claret drew towards Idella. The girl visibly shrunk in the woman’s presence, and yet Claret stood equal in height. A hand extended to cup Idella’s face. As close as it was, Idella could see how the tips of its long fingers faded. It brought no warmth or even breath of its presence. 

“Please mind your studies, dear Ida,” even as she chided her, Claret’s voice poured like honey. “I am true to my word. Please be true to yours.” Lowering her hand, Claret stepped forward, simply stepping through Idella. Though she felt nothing as her teacher passed through her, Idella shuddered and no longer could fight back a shivering stutter.

“S… s-sorry,” shestammered, staring at the floor. 

Behind her, Claret brushed a hand over the wrapped gift. “This one is different from your other crushes, is it?” she spoke thoughtfully, with an open curiosity.

The clenching of her chest resumed. Idella responded quietly, carefully. Pushing down a stammer as she spoke every word. “It’s… It won’t hurt my… my studies. I promise.”

The red hood turned towards her. “A promise? I am relieved. You are so… good on your promises, dear Ida.” The icy touch to Claret’s voice was foreign, terrifying, but brief. It passed on, a chilly warmth taking its place. “To help you keep your promises dear, I have taken steps. Merry Winter’s Veil, sweetheart.” 

Gesturing a hand, Claret indicated the tote bag. Blinking, Idella reached inside, her fingers touching the corners of a second book. She froze.

“But I didn’t — ” Idella quieted herself, suddenly doubting. I didn’t buy a second book, did I? Suddenly the whole cheery foray into the city was called into question. Surely she would have noticed slipping another book into the bag, making the purchase, walking back with it.

Would she?

“Oh no, you did not,” Claret clarified, watching her. She almost seemed to be gauging Idella’s reaction. “I had to intervene. Do not worry, you did not shop lift. But I thought it prudent to watch and see what you were shopping for. Imagine my dismay when you bought a book for pleasure. And of the most girlish kind.”

Idella stared at the book in her hands. It was a spell tome, one that touched upon history of shadow magic. She stared at the binding, the title, the cover artwork, nothing about it was familiar. And yet, the weight of the bag in her arms… how had she not noticed? It was heavy for just a single book…

“Did… did I steal it?” Idella managed. Claret laughed. It was not mocking. It was almost maternal in its odd comfort.

“Sweetheart, your priorities always delight me. No, you did not commit a crime. I ensured it. I hardly would want you to call attention to yourself, would I?” Again Claret moved, slowly circling through the shop on a continuation of her rounds. “No, I simply made you forget you did so and kept the book from your eye till you came home. A reminder of our pact, my dear. Do keep up with your training.”

“I…” Idella began, then added: “Yes.” Though she could not see it, she felt Claret smile. It sent a chill up her spine.

“Wonderful. Do extend my hello to the new crush, my dear. But do not tarry long. You have work to do,” And as suddenly as she appeared, Claret faded from the room.

Left alone, Idella held the tome in her hands, feeling the winter chill left behind.

Author Ari
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