James coiled his whip. "Sorry she got away. I figured one taste of my whip would break her grip on you, giving you a chance to knock her out. I wasn't expecting her to change shape and retreat."
"You meant well," said Evan, smiling. "The important thing is she didn't catch the girl she was chasing."
Crying from the girl caught Evan's attention. He glanced in her direction and saw her sitting on the frozen ground, sobbing. Going over to her and bending down on one knee, he said, "Are you all right?"
The girl nodded her head.
"What's your name?"
"A-A-Amanda," she said through the tears, trying to stop crying. Iriel rode up, swung herself off her horse, Percan, and went over to the girl.
"Sh-h-h!" said the elf, hugging the Amanda. "It's all right now." Iriel stroked the girl's head several times. Slowly, Amanda calmed down and dried her eyes. She gave Iriel a faint smile.
Evan looked on pleased. "That's better. Now tell me, why was that woman chasing you?"
"She wanted me to-to go with her and I didn't want-want to," said Amanda.
"Do you know why she wanted you to go with her?"
"N-no. Not exactly."
"Not exactly? Then you do have some idea."
"No. I only know she's abducted four other girls from the orphanage over the last month. I didn't want to disappear like
Evan's mouth dropped open, but he recovered himself almost immediately.
"Well," said Iriel, "we should take you home. Your parents will be worried."
"I don't have any parents," said Amanda. "I'm an orphan."
Evan's forehead knitted. "Then shouldn't you be at the orphanage's schoolhouse?" he asked.
"We don't have a schoolhouse," said Amanda. "And Headmistress Grimlock gave me permission to visit my new parents; they run the mill outside of town. But as I was leaving town I met that woman; she offered me treats if I would go with her. When I wouldn't, she tried to grab me. So I ran."
"New parents?" said James, raising an eyebrow and looking at Iriel and Evan. They both shrugged.
Amanda nodded her head again. "The Millers; they are going to adopt me."
James scratched his head. "Any ideas why a wizard would want to abduct Amanda and four other girls?"
"Not a mage," corrected Evan. "A witch, and if she is collecting girls, she is probably preparing to sacrifice them to a demon in exchange for knowledge or power. With five girls, she can ask for both and probably get them. But she'll need girls with the right astrological signs."
"Then she'll come after Amanda again," James concluded.
"Well, that depends," replied Evan. "If there are no other girls at the orphanage with the same birth month as her, then yes. The witch will come after Amanda so that she can complete whatever ritual she is planning."
"And how will she sacrifice these children?" asked Iriel.
"There are a number of ways. The most common is to slit their throats in a ritual that gives the demon to-be-summoned pleasure and power. But they could be simply impaled or gutted like a fat pig.