Something broke through the right window, showering us in glass. A half rotted arm came in, clawing at me, its black flesh dangled from its stone-white bone. The rest of its foul, skeletal body pressed against the window, obscured by the curtain.
I screamed as it took hold of my wrist. I tried to pull away, but it continued to pull back with inhumane strength.
The Archduke’s sword severed the arm from its body, making it to fall beside me, unmoving. He grabbed me by the waist and pulled me beside him, an arm protectively around me. I held tight to the edges of his suit-coat, trembling. What is happening?
Something else began to tear at the sides of the carriage where the severed corpse had come from. The carriage wall crackled, the wood frames tearing away. The head of a skeleton —with hollowed eyes, a half-fleshless face and protruding decayed teeth— came into view, along with hundreds of others like it. I screamed again as they hissed and fought to get in through the carriage’s breaking wall.
The Archduke rammed into the other side of the carriage, its weakened frames easily falling apart. It gave us a glimpse of freedom of the other side of the road.
“Jump,” he said, above the hiss of the living corpses and motioning at the cracked wall. He turned back in time to stab another skeleton that had begun crawling in through the window. Over his shoulder, he shouted, “Go now!”
Letting go of him, I did as he said, tumbling out onto the dirt road. He followed after. The skeletons had clustered towards the opening on the other side of the carriage, leaving this side free.
We raced into the trees and did not look back.
I made sure to keep the Archduke in sight, fearing I would lose him as the trees covered most of my view. The branches and thorn hedges scratched and clawed at my hair and dress, and sweat had trickled down my neck.
After some time of running, the Archduke fell to his knees, held his chest, and gasped for breath. I managed to reach with him, halting as well. My fingers fumbled behind my back, trying to untie the laces that restricted my chest from taking deeper breaths, but could not.
Lightheaded, I blinked rapidly to keep my focus. Sinking to the ground, I rested my head against the bark of the tree, my fist curled against my chest. I could barely breathe, barely move.
Taking notice of what I had been doing, the Archduke walked over and knelt behind me. He hesitantly tugged on the top strings of the corset. Immediately, I felt my chest expand and I exhaled in relief, leaning back into the tree.
“Thank you,” I whispered, closing my eyes.
I heard him settle down beside me, sighing. There was a silence as we both calmed our racing hearts. The fear of the skeletons returning left us both on edge.
“Do you have any idea why creatures of magic would come after us?” he asked after some time.
Opening my eyes, I scoffed. Is he so dull? “Other than being the sister to the greatest sorceress of all time? No, I do not.” When I was met with silence, I feared that I had offended him. I turned my head to see that he was staring at me, with a stunned look on his face. I opened my mouth to apologize, but he shook his head and turned away.
But his question unnerved me. Why would the Shadow Reaper send a legion of undead after us when he was powerful enough to take me on his own before? Something must have happened to him with his encounter with Selenah or he was simply playing with us.
We heard soft neighing in the distance, forcing the Archduke to his feet. I remained where I was, too tired to do anything else. Not long after the neighs, we could hear the sound of hoof beats, getting louder. I inched away from the noise while the Archduke tensed, his sword in hand.
The horse that trotted towards us had a glossy brown coat that could only mean it belonged to the King’s stables. One of its chestnut colored hind legs had the emblem of our kingdom, above that emblem was a crown. I had seen that coat of arms before. It must be a horse that belongs to the Royal Guards.
Archduke Owen looked relieved, and almost laughed at the sight of the approaching horse before he put away his sword. He steadied the steed and helped me to my feet. Embarrassed, I asked him if he could lace the strings of my dress as I held a hand to my front. He bit back a smile.
“I will warn you, I know only a knight’s knot,” he said, stepping behind me.
“It should not be any different than what the maids—” I gasped as he pulled on the laces, feeling my chest constrict more than before.
“A little more loosely please,” I croaked. I heard him chuckle.
I would be sure to appreciate how the maids knotted the dress, for the Archduke would not be doing it again anytime soon.
After, he led me to the horse and helped me onto the saddle. From there, he jumped on behind me and had the horse turn toward the direction we had come from. The horse galloped along the edge of the woods, giving us a covert view of the broken —and now deserted— carriage and headed straight for the Solstice Palace.
When we arrived, the sky was streaked orange and pale yellow from the setting sun. The four Royal Guards who had taken off during the attack were waiting by the palace gates, looking comforted at the sight of our arrival. They begged for our forgiveness when the Archduke demanded to know why they had left us. They spluttered excuses as to why they had failed to keep us safe.
I glared at the four, but inside I relished at the sight. I took pleasure in watching them beg for their lives. The Archduke stared hard at the cowering Guards, his fists clenched and eyes narrowed.
“You can keep your pathetic lives,” he growled. “I do not want to see your faces anywhere near me again. Keep to the gates and I just might have mercy on you four.” They nodded their thanks and rushed away. The Archduke’s anger quickly subsided and he sighed.
“It will be tough ruling a palace filled with good-for-nothing subjects,” I said, giving him a pat on his arm in sympathy. Archduke Owen opened his mouth to speak, but I had already begun walking up towards the palace, hungry, tired, and feeling rather disgusting from the trip.
After being blissfully bathed, clothed, and given a proper meal, there were shouts from Selenah’s living quarters. Curious, I walked over to see what the fuss was all about.
Selenah was asleep on her bed, but she looked distraught. Everyone made way for me when I entered, as if I could magically cure whatever caused her distress. I walked up to her bedside and looked at her. She was muttering something under her breath and clenched her fists every now and then.
“What is going on here?” I asked, looking around the room to see a few maids present as well as Connor.
One of the maids spoke up, staring at the ground in shame.
“I was sent to wake her for supper. She had retired early, speaking of fatigue. But when I tried to wake her yet she did not rouse. The Captain arrived at my call.”
“Do you know what ails her?” Connor asked, looking at me with a hopeful look. I furrowed my eyebrows. I would not have the slightest idea, but assuming that Connor’s magic was more for fighting than healing, and from the Palace’s recent reopening, there were no nurses or physicians ready for this situation.
“She is not sick,” I said, gazing at her. No quick breathing or feverish skin. And I knew Selenah would seek to rest when tiredness befell her. If an illness was not what kept her in her state, there could only be one thing. “I think she is having a nightmare.”
“Nightmare?” Connor stepped forward. “Is that what ails her? A simple nightmare?”
“Perhaps not,” I said, turning to look at him. “Whatever it is, I do not know how to get her out of it.”
“How will she get out of this nightmare?”
I looked back at Selenah’s pained face. The thought of the Shadow Reaper suddenly came to mind. Is he speaking to her within the dream as he had done with me before?
“She must do that on her own.”