It had to have all been inside her head.
Whether it was a nightmare or a dream, Rose couldn't decide.
There was not a single physical trace that proved it was true. Nigel had charmed her dress to look as good as new, and cleaned all the grime, blood, and dirt off her before dropping her off at the orphanage.
No one in the town had any memory of their behavior, indeed, they remembered a quaint normal Sunday without any sort of fuss or bump in the road. The only thing that gave Rose some semblance of belief that it was real was the undeniably new warmth that beat beside her heart. If she didn't know any better, she would say she had a second heart.
Something so wonderful, or really, something so interesting couldn't have possibly happened to Rose... or horrible, if she allowed herself to linger a moment or two on the fact that a mob was formed after her. But such thoughts were too scary for the girl to willingly dwell on.
She was an ordinary girl, surely, no matter how much she might wish that were not the case.
So, with practiced ease, she dismissed those fantasies from her mind and continued about her life. Or, at least, she tried to.
Even if it was all only a vivid dream, she couldn't shake off their furious and disgusted looks at her when they chased her down and shot at her. She flinched every time one of the men pulled out their guns and talked loudly of their latest hunt. She stayed away from the other children who she knew carried pocket knives of some sort. She refused to make eye contact with many of the adults.
A couple weeks of doing that had brought her into some trouble with the matron, and she was sent to do lines under the pastor's watchful eye. Afterwards, the pastor gave her some homework to complete and sent her off.
When Rose put off her homework, Mother Mara scolded her, saying, "A good girl wouldn't wait. Do your homework, or no supper for you tonight."
Rose slunk off to finish her homework, wisely not retorting.
Rose pulled up a small white wooden chair to her desk—which was shared by all the girls—and flattened out her blank sheet of paper. She fiddled with the pencil in her hand, twirling it around her fingers and trying to bring herself to carry out her punishment.
The desk was in the center of a lone, tall window in the girls' bedroom. There were bunk beds lined up against the wall: six of them in total, with only three being in use. Rose was the oldest girl at the orphanage now—as most were sent into foster care or adopted—and as such had the privilege of getting to choose which bed was hers. She chose the one closest to the window—the top bunk, naturally—and it was kept nice and neat, per the matron's orders.
There were no distinctive features that set her bed apart from the others—all her personal belongings were kept in a chest at the foot of the bed. Rose didn't even really have clothes to call her own, as all the clothes she wore were provided to her by the matron. When she outgrew them, they would be handed off to the next girl in need.
It was a quaint and warm room, though, despite its lack of diversity. There were many potted flowers and happy pictures on the wall, and in the corner of the room was a cute little sitting area with a soft pink rug and a couple of bean bag chairs. There was even a large bookcase up against the other wall, although it was filled mostly with religious, educational, or picture books.
Rose liked the room well enough. It was her home, even if it wasn't entirely a home. It was the only world she had ever known. The people were kind to her, and while the matron may be a bit stern at times, she would always show a gentle hand after the punishment, or when one of the children behaved especially good—baking sweets or promising to read. Good girls and boys were always rewarded there.
Rose could walk down the street on any evening, strike up a conversation with anyone in the town, and be treated warmly and kindly. It was a quiet, happy place, far away from the cold world. The matron always told them they were blessed to be there, and not be in some city.
She always told them it was dangerous out there, spoke of it like a rabid dog circling them. She told them that, but she always told them it was safe here. Here, they would always be sheltered and welcomed.
Rose stopped twirling the pencil in her hand, her body and face stiffening as she recalled that... that dream.
She could already feel her stomach dropping, her heart quickening, her breath coming into shorter gasps, and the cold, undeniably overwhelming terror begin to course through her veins. Every inch of her had the desire to move—to get away, yet she didn't dare.
She wouldn't dare, because it was... silly.
It was a dream. No one turned on her. No one wanted her dead.
It was all just a big, silly dream.
Rose chanted that inside her head, gradually calming down. She swallowed roughly and let out a long sigh. She gripped her shaking hands together and held them close to her chest, her brow furrowed, and she bit hard on her lip.
She stayed that way, completely silent and trembling as she tried to shove that dream away. Seconds crawled into minutes, but eventually, she calmed.
It was time for her to finish her punishment. It was a pleasant day—there was still light out—and if she finished early enough, she was certain the matron would allow her to play outside with the other children, or—even better—with Mr. Whiskers, the local stray cat she had been taking care of almost all her life.
She would much rather spend her day out in the sun and running about, rather than sitting still and give her... her dream chance to resurface.
She wished she could play with Mr. Whiskers. He always kept the bad dreams away.
Thinking about her cat, Rose found the motivation she needed to get her punishment over with. As she was about to start writing, the matron appeared in the doorway.
"Little Rose," Mother Mara chimed from the doorway behind Rose, "you have a visitor."
Rose's head snapped around and her eyes widened. The matron was smiling kindly at her, and her eyes looked slightly glazed over. There was a... hazy look to her, as if she was lost in a dream. Such an appearance reminded Rose an awful lot of when that man had helped her earlier: they both wore the very same look.
"Who is it?" Rose asked, already standing up from her chair, unable to quite meet the matron's eyes.
Her stomach twisted nervously as the entire situation seemed surreal, but she couldn't entirely keep the hopeful tone out of her voice. Although she didn't want to admit it, some part of her was hoping.
Hoping for what, she wasn't quite sure.
"Your professor, dear," Mother Mara answered absently, already turning away.
"We don't have—I mean, yes, Mother Mara. I will be right down."
Rose reflexively gripped onto her plain gray dress, squeezing the fabric in her hands in a vain attempt to comfort herself. She was nervous, and as she began to head down the hallway to see the professor, her anxiety began to grow like a sickly plant nearing bloom.
Upon reaching the small entrance hallway, Rose found herself greatly surprised to find none other than Nigel standing there. He was—or appeared to be, at least—examining a large painting of a grassy field that hung up on the wall. Rose noticed that his once black cloak was now a deep scarlet.
"This is a painting of Ireland, isn't it?" Nigel mused, not turning around. "I spent a few years there."
"I-I don't know," admitted Rose, eyeing Nigel anxiously.
Then, realization came upon her. Her eyes bulged, and she took a staggering step back. Her hands flew up to her mouth to repress her gasp.
"It wasn't a dream?"
This time, Nigel turned towards her, cocking his head. "A dream? Why ever would you think it was a dream?"
Rose flushed. "I—how could—I mean—"
She stopped herself, feeling her tongue tied more tightly than when she was tricked about the evil reaper in the woods by the children in town, and only later realized they fooled her. Her cheeks burned something fierce, and she could feel her embarrassment growing.
Despite that—or perhaps even because of that—Nigel seemed to be smiling at her. "I can understand why you would want it to seem a dream. Being a victim of your own thrall can be—ah—unsettling."
Rose swallowed roughly, her stomach dropping like a cold stone in a river. Her embarrassment was replaced with what she would describe as discomfort. She shifted anxiously, her hands bunching up her dress and squeezing it with all her might.
Nigel reached out and gently patted the top of her head. "Soon enough it will fade away from you like a bad dream, and with time, when you learn to master your powers and know how to better defend yourself, you'll be able to look back upon it and have a good laugh."
Rose couldn't resist snorting dubiously at that. His gaze seemed to soften, and there was a warm gleam in his yellowish-orange eyes behind the mask, like glistening treasure peeking out of a dark, gloomy cave. Instinctively, Rose felt at ease upon seeing those eyes because they were eyes that seemed to belong to an old friend. She wondered if she had seen them before, but she thought surely not because she would have remembered such unique and pretty eyes.
"Come along now, Miss Rose. It is time to be on our way."
A thrill ran through Rose at that, goosebumps crawling up her arm.
Time to go? Time to leave this place?
Rose dreamed of leaving this orphanage for the longest time, and yet when the opportunity presented itself, she found herself hesitating. Even if this was a town in the middle of nowhere... it was still where she had lived all her life since she came to the orphanage a decade ago.
She wouldn't consider it a home by any means, but "home" was the only thing she could call it.
She hadn't ventured far outside its forest before—just a scarce few trips with Mother Mara to the other town over, along with the incident...
No, no, no, no, no.
Rose was not thinking about that. Rose abruptly forced her mind elsewhere, viciously shoving away the previous thoughts, imagining herself throwing them out like one would old trash.
Nigel stretched out his hand and, tentatively, Rose placed hers in his. She wasn't sure she wanted to leave, but she was even less sure she wanted to stay. She knew that much.
And besides, Nigel had helped her earlier. She couldn't deny it was a dream anymore. Him being there, and she being able to feel the warmth of his soft hand in her own verified that.
So, if it wasn't a dream, what else was she to do but go?
If she stayed, then what would become of her? Would she succumb to her powers and ensnare the townspeople again with her thrall? Would they hunt her down and—unlike the last—she would fail to escape? If she went, would he really take her to this school? Would he really help her control her thrall, and make sure no one else would be overcome by it?
It's what she had fantasized about—being whisked away to a magical new world. Yet... yet...
There was that wiggly little thought, unease worming its way into her convictions. Could she trust him?
He was a stranger. He was masked and shrouded, so not a single bit of his skin was seen. He bewitched Mother Mara and promised Rose things that she had always wanted. If she didn't know any better, she'd accuse him of being in her head, reading her very thoughts and wishes.
He tightened his grip on her hand, and with a gentle tug, before Rose could have any more second thoughts, they were gone.