“So good to see you again, Melanie,” he said with a smirk. His green eyes danced with amusement. “I believe you had a knack for riding, too,” he said, looking up wistfully as if recalling some distant memory. He quickly gazed back down at me. “Come, Melanie, I would like to show you something.”
With a firm, yet surprisingly gentle hand, he pulled me to my feet. Now standing upright, air filled my lungs and I began to cough. I was surprised that the pain in my back and shoulders was gone, but then again, the Shadow Reaper had magic. His presence alone had caused much of it to go away.
He let go of my hand and just as I prepared myself to run off, the Shadow Reaper snapped his fingers, shaking his head.
“This way,” he urged.
My legs seized with a sudden pain. I gasped, but within the moment it was gone, and my legs now had a mind of their own, following after him. I gritted my teeth in frustration, but decided I would rather keep what few liberties I possessed with the Shadow Reaper present.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
He grinned wickedly. “Oh, you have been here before.”
As we approached, we passed decimated homes and burned crop fields. I swallowed hard at the sight. What had happened here? We stopped as I caught sight of a familiar cottage. The windows and doors had been shattered and its wooden structure seemed to shift and sway in the moving wind.
I froze, now remembering what it was: the home Selenah and I had grown up in—the home we had escaped months ago from the Dark Mages.
With control over my legs again, I ran in through the open, singed doorway, and found its contents in ashes. A breeze blew by and the stench of decaying and burned flesh filled my nose. I gagged at the smell and covered my mouth with the back of my hand.
Just in front of me, in a pile of coal-filled embers and black rags, was a hand. The silver ring upon its finger glittered. Scrawled upon the ring were both Selenah and my own name. Not far from that lay another pile of cinder, but much larger and there lay a foot, still wearing its boot. The boot was unmistakable. Only Father wore patched leather and goat hide boots. The thought of them both gone like this made my eyes water, but no tears fell.
I raced out of the cottage and took deep breaths, the tinge of smoke that still lingered in the air burning my throat. The sight of my dead parents reemerged in my head and I retched, but nothing came up.
“Had enough yet?” the Shadow Reaper asked, coming from behind me.
I spat into the cracked earth, refusing to look at him directly as I remained bent over.
“Home sweet home, is it not?” There was a hint of pleasure in his voice, making my skin prickle. “I know they must have treated you terribly,” he said, now facing the burned cottage, his hands clenched at his side. He turned back to face me. “So this is my most recent favor to you, Melanie. I say they deserved it. Do you not agree?”
I felt my stomach drop and my breathing falter. Was it my fault they were killed? From the hatred I had for my parents and this town that chose Selenah over me, had I cost everyone here their lives? I gripped my forearms. No, it could not be.
The Shadow Reaper smiled, taking another step closer to me. “You know, I like the sight of you in terror, fearing the worst. It makes me feel good inside,” he whispered in my ear. I swallowed hard, too terrified to say anything. “Because I know it is me who controls you.”
Hearing that, I turned to face him, and glared into his piercing green eyes. All I wanted to do was to punch him, make him suffer for what he did – not only for killing my parents, but also for killing the innocent families of all those who lived here, too.
“You monster,” I growled.
“I have been called worse,” he said with a glint in his eye. My jaw twitched.
“You will never become King.”
“Oh, I will,” he replied, cocking his head to the side. “And I will do so with your help.”
I lifted my head in determination. “You will not. I refuse to be like Mhellany and turn against my own sister.”
“Is that so? Last I remember, you had wished you were not sisters with Selenah.”
My eyes widened. How does he know I had said that?
“See? You are like Mhellany, but you refuse to accept it. But this time I will succeed.” He paused for a moment, his eyes searching mine. “Whether you believe it or not.”
The Shadow Reaper’s face was now inches from my own and I could feel the coldness of his eyes boring into mine. I tried to remain calm and fearless, but his gaze sent shivers down my spine.
His lips silently moved and before I could realize it, a sudden burning in my chest made me gasp, making me grip the left side of my ribcage. The Shadow Reaper smiled down at me as I felt my heart begin to pound wildly—as if there were two hearts beating. The pain seared through me and I winced, finding it impossible for me to move away from him and his spell.
“It is truly amazing how you are just like her, Melanie.” His voice surprised me by its softness. “Your hair,” he whispered. He ran his long, slender fingers through them, making my scalp prickle. “Your eyes, your lips...” As he drew closer, I tried to move away, the chill emanating from his body felt like something surreal, encompassing my entire body into a state of freezing.
His head whipped back at the sound of harnesses jingling.
Without his fierce gaze and full attention, my chest no longer burned and I was able to move again. I stumbled back and took the free moment to make my escape, but the Shadow Reaper grabbed my arm and pulled me in front of him. Two horses came to view, dark bays that I had seen before in the Solstice stables.
I saw the glittering armor, sword, and shield that belonged to a Royal Guard. The other rider wore steel armor that I had seen when Selenah had lost in the arena.
The Shadow Reaper took out a dagger and put it to my throat as the two neared. I flinched as the blade pressed against my skin. The Royal Guard jumped off his horse, approaching us slowly. The second rider did the same.
“Let her go.” The Royal Guard’s voice was muffled under the helmet, but I could immediately tell it was Tiran. “Please.”
"Please?" the Shadow Reaper scoffed. “Now, that is a first.”
“I will do what is necessary to ensure her safety,” Tiran replied.
My mind raced. There was no way Tiran and his companion could defeat the Shadow Reaper. Only Selenah could do that, and she was far from here.
“If I asked for your life, or the life of your Archduke, to return her safely, would you comply?”
Archduke? What is he doing here?
Tiran stiffened. Surely, he did not think his, or Owen’s, life were worth my freedom?
Tiran whirled around to look at Owen and my eyes widened at his words.
“No,” Tiran gasped. “Do not—”
“Yes,” the Shadow Reaper said, his eyes trained on Owen.
The dagger in his hand flicked forward and it made contact with Owen’s chest with a metallic thud. He staggered back before falling to the ground. A scream erupted from my throat as I instinctively lurched forward.
The Shadow Reaper chuckled, vanishing into black smoke as I fell to my knees. I got up and ran towards Tiran and Owen.
Tiran had already unclasped Owen’s armor and taken out the dagger. I knelt down beside Owen and took off his helmet. I dared not look at his chest, where his shirt was now soaked in blood.
I gazed down at his face, my eyes watering. “So stupid,” I whispered. “Why risk your life for me?” I asked as I brushed away hair from his forehead.
“I am your friend,” he whispered, struggling to keep his eyes open.
I stared at him, wide-eyed. Is he jesting? He would die just to show he is my friend?
But I looked away, feeling guilty. I watched Tiran closed his eyes, put his hand over the wound and began muttering something under his breath. Owen’s chest began to glow for a moment before Tiran opened his eyes.
“We must to take him back to the Palace,” Tiran said, putting on his helmet. “He may have a chance to live if we can have him carefully treated. Get on his horse, Mel. We need to hurry. My magic is not strong enough to take us all to the Palace together.”
I nodded, mounting Owen’s horse as quickly as I could. Tiran whistled and the horse lurched forward into a gallop. I clenched the reins in my hands and looked behind me. Tiran was gone, as was Owen, and the second horse. I suspected Tiran had used magic to get Owen and himself to the Solstice Palace safely.
The sky darkened rapidly as I rode. By the time I entered the palace gates, the sky was a dusky blue and the horse drenched in sweat. My maids greeted me as I dismounted the horse, rubbing its damp neck.
“Where is Owen?” I asked at once, feeling anxious. “And Tiran?” They looked at each other and took me to the Infirmary.
There, nurses and physicians swarmed about, tending to Owen. Tiran called out orders on how to treat him; it was the first time I heard him raise his voice.
Not wasting a moment, I raced over to Owen’s side. He looked paler and several cooling cloths lay on his forehead. The sight filled me with guilt.
“Mel,” I heard Tiran say. “You should not be here.”
I looked up at him and I could not help feel angry. “And where should I be, then? Sewing with Lady Yael?”
“No, you should not be here when—”
Just then, something shimmered. The air beside Tiran sparkled and hazed to form what looked like a floating mirror. Its reflection was not ours, but of Selenah’s.
“What happened?” I heard her ask. “Why is the Archduke in the Infirmary?” She nearly screamed at us. Beside her, Prince Gareth looked helplessly at his cousin.
“The Shadow Reaper attacked, your Ladyship,” Tiran answered formally, giving me a cursory glance. “He had Melanie and the Archduke took his life to ensure her safety.” I looked away from her.
“Did the magic barrier not hold?” Selenah asked, eyebrows raised. “The Shadow Reaper could not have entered the Palace grounds.”
Tiran turned away from the mirror slightly, taking a deep breath. “I am afraid this happened outside the Palace walls.”
“What?” Selenah’s eyes were now fixed on me. Prince Gareth put a hand to her arm as he spoke.
“Can you heal him?” he asked. “That is all that matters.”
“We believe so, Your Highness,” Tiran stated. “But there is much we will need—”
A loud, echoing roar behind Selenah and the Prince cut off Tiran’s words. I glanced up at them, eyes wide. What was that? The Prince clenched the hilt of his sword, but did not do anything further.
“Tiran, Captain Connor will arrive shortly. He will have what is needed to help the Archduke,” Selenah said quickly. The mirror instantly dissolved after she spoke.
As the last remnants of magic faded away, a clatter of hooves was heard outside. Within minutes, Connor raced up in full battle attire with a vial in one hand.
“Pour this on his wound,” he said, handing the bottle of red liquid to Tiran. “He will heal just as fast as her Ladyship does. Once done, leave him be and gather as many Royal Guards as you can.”
“Why, what is happening?” Tiran asked, accepting the small vial.
“The Shadow Reaper has sent out dragons to attack the people,” he answered. “We must defend the Kingdom at all costs.”
“What about her Ladyship?”
“She and the Prince are not to be involved. Only the Royal Guards are to deal with this.”
Nodding firmly at his own words, white feathery wings appeared on his back. With some flaps, Connor was airborne and out of the Palace in seconds. We all stared, awestruck at his display of magic.
“Mel,” I turned to face Tiran. “Take this. I need to go.” He handed me the vial.
“Where? I want to go as well.”
“No, it is far too dangerous. The Shadow Reaper may take you hostage once more.”
“There is no time to argue. Please listen to me. You will be safe from the attacks as long as you stay here.” He briefly embraced me and left without another word.
The physician refused to use the unknown liquid, and the nurses shook their heads as I pleaded for them to use it upon Owen. Taking the task upon myself, I trembled as I uncorked the bottle and poured the red liquid over Owen’s open chest.
Afterwards, my maids ushered me away from the Infirmary. They helped me undress and prepared me for a bath as I was too disturbed to tell them otherwise.
I had supper by myself. The emptiness was unbearable. I missed how Tiran would tell stories using his magic and how Owen would always try to get me speaking to him. I wondered what he must have felt seeing me under the Shadow Reaper’s grip after I continuously rejected the idea of any friendship between us. How could he possibly give his life, knowing that I despised him for being Selenah’s puppet?
It rained heavily that night as lightning brightened the sky. I could even hear distant, draconic roars. I cried myself to sleep then. The guilt I felt was too excruciating to bear.
First Mother and Father’s death, and now,Owen....The thoughts of what I hadseen before emerged in my head, keeping me from falling asleep. Did theytruly come in harm’s way because of me, or is that the Shadow Reaper’sintention all along—to lay the blame upon me?