Ryder pulled his cloak tighter over his shoulders. He crunched through the frosted grass and stared straight ahead, avoiding the dark forest around him.
“Are we there yet?” his sister whispered, hurrying along beside him.
“Hush, Skye. Not yet.”
Their breath came out in small white puffs in the chilly night. A biting wind whistled through the trees, and Ryder listened to Skye’s teeth chatter.
After another ten minutes of walking, they came upon a small sign sticking out of the ground, in front of a particularly thick patch of trees.
“The Enchanter’s Orchard,” read Skye.
Ryder couldn’t help but smile at the look of wonder on his sister’s face. He remembered his first mission, and the way his heart seemed to bounce around in his chest when he entered the orchard. “Ready?” he asked.
“I’ve been ready for years.”
“Let’s go,” said Ryder in a hushed voice. He glanced around before stepping through the trees behind the sign, Skye right behind him.
The forest opened to a clearing, lined with rows and rows of trees as far as the eye could see. Small signs, like the one at the entrance of the orchard, labeled each row. Under the glow of the moon, Ryder watched a few shadowed forms walking throughout the orchard.
“Looks like there's a few of us out tonight,” said Ryder.
“I was hoping it’d be just us,” Skye whispered nervously. “You know, for my first mission.”
“They’ll probably keep to themselves. No need to panic.” Ryder gave his sister an encouraging nod.
“Evening, Ryder,” said a voice to his right.
Ryder whirled around to a very tall man with white hair hanging down to his waist. “Good evening, Merlin,” said Ryder, smiling. “The night finds you well?”
Merlin’s eyes twinkled. “Well indeed. What business brings you to the orchard?”
Ryder nodded toward Skye, who shifted at his side.
“Ah!” Merlin laughed and took a step toward her. “An enchantress, come of age?” he asked Skye kindly.
“Well, then, I won’t hold you up.” Merlin winked before walking off into the trees.
“See?” said Ryder. “Nice folk out here.”
“Fine.” Skye rocked on her heels. “Let’s go!”
Ryder chuckled as his sister pulled him toward the row closest to them. The sign sticking out of the ground said FOR SHIFTING.
“For shifting what?” asked Skye.
Ryder grinned. “You’ll see. Come on.”
As they walked down the row, Ryder glanced at his sister and watched her eyes widen.
The trees swayed in the breeze, and several leaves fluttered to the ground. They looked no different than ordinary apple trees, except for the misshapen fruits hanging from the branches.
“Is-is that a bat?” asked Skye, pointing to the tree closest to them.
Ryder had to squint to make out the fruit in the darkness. He pulled the bat-shaped apple off the tree and, throwing a wink at his sister, took a bite out of the wing.
With a poof of smoke and a BANG that made Skye yelp, Ryder disappeared. In his place flapped a small bat.
“Ryder!” yelped Skye.
The bat twirled in the air before it squeaked, “It’s finishing!” With another BANG and more smoke, Ryder stood before his sister. He cracked his neck and rolled his shoulders. “I always forget how small bats are.”
“You-you turned into an animal!”
“I shifted into a bat. And only for a moment, sadly--the magic from the apples only lasts a moment for enchanters.”
“Wow,” breathed Skye. She grabbed the bitten apple off the ground--Ryder had dropped it with the shapeshifting--and stared at it in awe.
“They’ve got every animal in this row. Just not any unicorns yet. Haven’t been able to harness that kind of magic,” said Ryder.
“I think a bat is magic enough.” She dropped the apple to the ground.
Ryder laughed and grabbed Skye’s hand. He dragged her under the trees on the left, so they entered the next row.
“What’s this one?” asked Skye.
The new trees all sported red leaves and orange apples, exceedingly vibrant even in the darkness.
Skye moved forward to grab an apple and Ryder yanked her back. “Don’t touch them!” he warned.
“Fire apples. One of the most popular ones here,” said Ryder. He bent down and felt around until he clutched a small stick, which he threw at one of the orange apples. The rock hit the skin of the fruits with a sizzle and immediately caught fire before falling to the ground. It burned brightly for a moment before a cold wind quieted the flames.
“Wow,” said Skye, for the second time that night. “Amazing. Those’ll be perfect for cold nights like this. Wish we could grab some.”
“You can, you just have to eat an ice apple first. Those are a few rows over, and they wear off after a couple hours.”
Skye sighed. “I wish we could see every row!”
“Well, we can try. Let’s go!” Ryder hurried to the next row over, catching a glimpse of Skye’s blazing smile.
The two continued to walk through the rows, Ryder pointing out the powers of all the apples. They grew twenty feet tall with one bite, and shrunk to the size of ants with the next. They ate an apple that allowed them to speak four hundred languages, and another that didn’t let them speak at all.
When the sky started to brighten, Ryder cleared his throat.
“Alright, enough playing around,” he said, laughing as Skye crunched into a blue apple. Her skin changed to a dark shade of indigo, and she chuckled before tossing the apple to the ground.
“Yes, we should probably get a move on,” she said as the tint began to fade back to her normal skin color.
Ryder cleared his throat, his heart pounding. He’d never wanted anything so bad as seeing his sister succeed in her first mission.
“Who’s the target?” he asked, in what he hoped was a casual voice.
Skye took a deep breath before waving her arms. A bright light flashed in the air and an image appeared before them--a faded apparition of a girl. Ryder raised his eyebrows in surprise at the stranger’s bright colored dress. She had the palest skin he’d ever seen and her hair was as dark as midnight.
“The princess?” asked Ryder. “Really? She’s about as dumb as a sack of rocks.”
Skye nodded. “Snow White. What a ridiculous name.”
Ryder smirked as he stared at the apparition. “Let’s go find her the perfect apple.”