The Rat Problem

The rat squeaked in outrage from the confines of its cage, its beady black eyes glaring at Sophie through the bars. She stared back, her brows furrowed. Curse it. How would she fix this?

She hadn’t meant to transform her professor into a rat; she’d been aiming for the quill on her desk for a bit of practice before her exam. But he’d walked in early and blown her concentration, and she’d spelled him instead. She’d been so worried about her exam, but now she had a bigger problem. If she didn’t figure out how to change her professor back into a man, he’d be stuck as a rat forever.

Sophie thought for a moment and consulted her spell book. If she changed a few words, it might work. She focused back on the rat, called upon her will and mumbled a spell:

“A professor lost, a rat found,

In a place for Spellbound,

Reverse this magic if you can,

Turn this rat back into a man.”

She felt her power gather like a heavy storm cloud, humidity thick in the air, and she watched expectantly as it churned and churned around the rat, preparing itself to act. But instead of changing the rat, her magic lost momentum and dissipated, fizzling out with a few weak sparks of light.

Sophie deflated. The spell hadn’t worked. Her professor looked just as ugly, hairy, and angry as before. Curse it.

Maybe this wasn’t a spell she could improvise. Maybe it needed to be in the old tongue, where things were more precise. She flipped a few pages forward, placed her finger on another transformation spell, and blew out a calming breath. Speaking the words in a liquid, lyrical language, she gathered her power again. This time it struck, like lightning, slamming into her professor, who squealed in terror and pain. Before she could react, though, the cloud threw more lightning, not at her professor, but at her.

Sophie screamed, scrambled away and lunged backward, narrowly avoiding the bolt of lightning and tripping over the leg of her chair. She landed in a heap on the floor, her robes tangling with her legs and her backbone smarting. More lightning flew in all directions, and she ducked beneath the table, the air now charged with electricity and the smell of singed hair. After a few moments, the spell wore down to nothing. Sophie left her hiding spot and rose to her feet to check on her professor.

She gasped with dismay. Her professor’s eyes looked vaguely more human, but instead of changing completely back, he’d grown in size until he could barely fit inside the cage. His round body pressed against the bars, his dark fur sticking out in thick tufts on all sides. The bars smashed against his face, his pink nose squished in between. He hissed like an irate cat and bared his teeth. Despite his growth, her professor was still just a rat.

Sophie bit her lip. Curse it. This wasn’t working. She needed to slow down and start back at the beginning.

Flipping to the right section, she read through each piece with a more careful eye. She needed to get this right, for her professor’s sake. If she failed the exam or was expelled because of her mistake, then so be it.

Sophie grabbed a few ingredients from the cabinets, then mixed and ground them together with a black mortar and pestle, the tools ice cold in her now sweaty hands.

Following the directions again, she set the pestle aside and touched the herbs with the tip of her finger. With a small burst of will, the herbs ignited, sending up a waft of smoke. She willed her magic into it, and once its color shifted from gray to white, she gently blew on it, encouraging it to drift over the cage. As it did, she concentrated and spoke the old tongue again, letting the words pour from her mouth like rain.

Please let this work.

The smoke hovered for a suspended moment. Then it dropped, as if a heavy weight yanked it down, draped itself over the rat and merged with it. The smoke billowed up and flowed off the table like a waterfall, pooling on the floor for a few precious seconds before rising and shaping itself into a man. Smoke solidified into flesh and bone and cloth, and a second later her professor stood on the other side of the table, disgruntled and disheveled, his spectacles sitting askew. He fixed them and narrowed his eyes at her, and she wilted under the scrutiny.

Finally, he grunted. “Need more practice,” he said in his thick brogue. “But solid effort.”

Sophie perked up, hope surging. “You aren’t going to expel me?”

A scowl and shake of his head. “Not the first. Won’t be the last.” His tone turned sour, as if he were resigned to his fate. He studied her a moment more, then thrust a sheet of parchment in her face and stalked away.

She plucked it out of the air before it reached the table and saw one word.