Anastri got slowly to her feet, her heart pounding. In front of her lay the rat, a pile of fur stuck through with a dagger of ice. With nausea growing in her stomach she remembered her lessons at the library. An ice knife appears and impales the opponent. Almost immediately after, the piece of ice explodes and hits any nearby individuals. She glanced over at the other rat, flank bristling with ice shards, and nearly threw up. Only the insistent, poking discomfort of the acorn kept her anchored. With a wince, she remembered the first time she'd seen it.
Alone. Wet. Hungry. Anastri stumbled through the woods, past trees whose branches clawed at her pleadingly. Come back. Come back.
Don't you think I would if I could? she wondered bitterly. I'm never going back.
The silence of the forest was oppressive, and even the omnipresent music only served to remind her of what she'd lost. This far out into the forest (although how far Anastri couldn't say), the plants looked twisted and strange. Dangerous, feral versions of the benign gardens she'd grown up with. Giving them a wide berth, she ignored her rumbling stomach. It wasn't worth it.
But as the hours dragged on, and the bright, clear day drew to a mild close, she began to reconsider. She'd walked for miles, her legs were shaking, and she still wasn't out of the elves' influence. Barely audible silvery music still followed her wherever she went, and the perfect warm summer evening revealed hundreds of stars in the suspiciously clear sky. The biggest giveaway was that she still wasn't cold - her clothes had not yet dried fully from when she took a swim that morning, and despite the damp her jacket was hanging uselessly around her waist.
I will not die here. I forbid it. She wrapped her arms around her shoulders and stared into the darkness, which as far as darkness goes was not the best. The large moon and myriad stars flooded the scene in light and made several of the nearest trees stand out in sharp relief. Everything about this forest was fake, from the temperature to the sky to the dark. Anastri felt a sudden stab of fury. How dare they just cast her aside like that. No one had opposed them. No one intervened. Her own mother stood by and watched while her own daughter was checked off the list of disappointing chores the council had to attend to.
With vicious anger she kicked a rock, sending it clattering against a tree. There was a sudden rustling sound, and something flickered between the branches before stopping in a low-hanging limb of the next tree. A squirrel. If she squinted Anastri could make it out, stock still. In its hands it gripped a large acorn.
She stared, shocked, until she became aware that her empty stomach was leading her forward in a crouching position, with her knife already in her hand. In surprise she dropped her knife. Her mother's words came back to her, their tone soothing. Every living being has its own life. It is never, ever okay to take one. You do not have the right. Then Anastri remembered her words three days ago, watching her daughter get dragged away without making a move to help. This is best for everyone.
The squirrel still sat there, silhouetted in the fake moonlight. It seemed to be looking right at her, clutching the acorn tight to its chest. The fake acorn. This was a fake forest, kept by the elves so that they could pretend to go for thrilling adventures. The trees were always old and majestic. The acorns always large. The moon always shone and the birds were always singing. There was no doubt in Anastri's mind now that the plants would be safe to eat, but the rage at her exile and frustration at seeing her home for what it really was focused itself on the squirrel.
She sprang at it, hitting the branch and knocking it off. It burst into action, scampering back around her feet and up the trunk of the tree. A bundle of grass and leaves threatens safety, and so she stabbed out wildly at it, feeling her dagger connect with a sickening solidity.
The squirrel fell out of the tree again, this time without moving. Anastri hesitated, blood still pumping loudly through her head. The body lay there on the ground like a wet rag. She took a shaky breath and stumbled toward it, dropping her knife. Holding the body with trembling hands, she tried to unfreeze her brain. It was the squirrel or me. I was betrayed by my family first. Nothing seems to make it better. On autopilot, she gathered wood and put together a tiny fire. No fire ever got out of control in elf country. No need to worry about nearby twigs. All fake.
After half an hour, the squirrel seemed done, although Anastri was hardly an expert at the time. The outside was charred, but the inside wasn't under-cooked.
Every bite felt like a betrayal of her family, though she wolfed it down so fast she couldn't have later described the taste. When it was gone she wrapped her arms around her knees and stared into the fire, willing it to obscure her vision with light and smoke. When she looked away again, the elven woods had just the same untouchable beauty as before.
In the morning she was woken by small sounds coming from a nearby tree. She rolled over on the grass (soft, green, and alive despite the summer heat) and walked toward it. With a start, she realized that it was coming from the bundle of grass and leaves she had noticed the previous night when -
She hurried over, and gasped. Three baby squirrels wriggled and squeaked in the bottom of the nest. Looking up, she saw another adult squirrel watching her. When she made eye contact, it shook its tail and bounded away. She had the horrible feeling it would not be coming back. She searched the ground desperately until she found the acorn the squirrel had been carrying and offered it to the pups. They ignore it, climbing over each other and around the nest aimlessly. Too young. Anastri watched them, something twisting in her heart. Carefully she extracted the acorn and slipped it into her pocket - she would find a way to keep it on her permanently later. Never again would she take another innocent life. Not when the consequences could be more deaths.
Leaving the nest, Anastri hurried on. She had been traveling for half an hour or so when she shivered. Shivered. She was out of the forest. Hastily pulling on her coat she set off with renewed vigor. Out of the forest, out of the 'protection' of the elven community. You are not a full elf. Unfit to live amongst us. Leave now or be destroyed. Well, she had left. She had left the woods, seen new lands, and conquered the glamour that confuse non-elf travelers in the forest. Grimly she gripped her knife harder. I'll show them.
Or die trying.