FORTY ONE

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RAVENNA JOLTED AWAKE

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RAVENNA JOLTED AWAKE. Beads of sweat covered her forehead and her heart raced within her chest. The world around her was muted, dark. Shadows crept along the walls, distorting the shreds of moonlight that entered the room. A slight moment of confusion flickered through her. She didn't remember falling asleep in her bed last night.

A nervous sensation roiled within her gut. Her fingers began to twitch, nails digging into the bedsheets beneath her.

She tried to sit upward. The sensation exploded through the rest of her body, replacing each cell with lead. It grasped hold over her muscles, over her nerves, and rendered her motionless. Panicked, Ravenna's gaze darted around the room.

In the corner of her bedroom, a shadow stepped away from the wall. Its features morphed as it moved, becoming more defined with each step. When it reached the edge of her bed, Ravenna could clearly see its blood red eyes, its shadowed face, its long hair. The creature reached out. Sharp talons extended toward her, and she shrieked.

Sunlight exploded across Ravenna's face. Tears burned against her cheeks and her chest heaved around a sob. She shot upward in her bed, confused and upset, her fingers fisting the sheets beneath her. Her gaze flickered around the room. No sign of the creature. Her cloak was draped over her chair, near the door. The spell book hadn't moved from its spot on the table. She could see the edges of fabric in front of her bed --her dress pooled atop the floorboards.

A groan escaped her. Ravenna lifted her hands to rub at her eyes and cringed when something sticky touched her face.

She stared at her hands.

Blood covered her fingers, embedded deeply within her nails. Another set of gashes decorated her forearms. She shuddered. She quickly moved from the bed, distraught to find another set of scratches across her torso. These were not as deep, merely a phantom of her other injuries. She walked around the bed and surveyed her dress. It was in tatters.

Her head ached. The nightmare haunted her. Its memory made her hands tremble. It was one that she'd had before, the very first night that she spent with Caelan. Only she didn't remember it being quite so graphic.

Or so realistic.

She forced herself to move, to push the nightmare away from the forefront of her mind. Her injuries hurt. She drew a bath and carefully eased into it. Once she had scrubbed the blood from her body, she turned her efforts toward the bed sheets. When Caelan returned, she would have to ask his opinion about the nightmares. He would know what to do about them. He might even have a spell or two that could stop them. There was even a chance that he might know what caused them, and how to hinder that.

Vyses might even know of a way to help her.

When everything was cleaned, Ravenna felt a bit better. She quickly changed into a new dress –it was a mossy green color that made her pale hair stand out. Her hands worked quick to braid her hair, the plait hanging down her back. As she went downstairs in search of food, a rustling noise could be heard from the garden. Once glance out the window, and she could see that Henry had returned, a sack slung over his shoulder.

Amusement washed through her. Shaking her head, she prepared a small breakfast. With her meal in hand, she moved into Caelan's office. The window seat had a much better view of the garden. As she ate, she watched Henry move about, attempting to steal some the cabbages. Much to his frustration, each cabbage that was placed into his sack would disappear, only to then reappear in its rightful spot on the ground.

When breakfast was finished, and Henry had given up, Ravenna left for the market. She needed to speak to Bella, to apologize, and to look for some healing ointment for her injuries. She'd wrapped her forearms in bandages, but she knew the wounds would need a little more help in order to heal.

As she approached the market, her stomach began to twist with knots. There was something wrong, though Ravenna couldn't quite name what it was. There didn't seem to be as many people in the streets, and it wasn't as loud. No vendors shouted their wares, or chatted loudly with passerbys. A gentle hum of whispers filled the air instead.

She paused in front of the general store, confused to find it closed still.

Her gaze flickered around the market. She made her way over to the bakery. She'd spoken to the baker once or twice before --he was a kindhearted man with an army of rowdy children. As she approached the store, she could see that baker was removing bread from his stove.

"Hello," Ravenna greeted him.

The baker blinked and then shot her a smile. "Good morning, Ravenna. What can I do for you today?"

She gestured behind her, toward the general store. "Why is the store still closed at this time of day?" she asked. "Isn't it usually open by now?"

The baker's expression pinched. As his smile faded, he moved closer to the counter. His hand lifted to scratch at the small amount of hair that existed beneath his hat. "The granddaughter was found dead this morning," he told her. His eyes filled with sadness. "The whole town is upset. The dear owner couldn't bring himself to open the store today. I'm not sure when it will be opened again."

Ravenna couldn't breathe. The air in her lungs froze, clinging to her insides like a second skin. "What happened?" she managed to force out.

"There isn't much information yet," he answered. "I've spoken to a few of the guards. They seem to think that it was the same beast that has been terrorizing the town, that she'd been out too late. However, my nephew is partnered with the girl's fiancee. He seems to believe it was a witch."

"A witch," Ravenna repeated, hollowly.

The baker nodded. His fingers fiddled with the edge of the counter, the pads of his thumbs pressing hard against the wood. "Now, I've never had an issue with magic-users. This town is pretty lenient when it comes to things like that. But if a witch is responsible for these deaths, I can't see it going over very well. The moment that the capitol hears that witchcraft was being performed, unpunished, there will be issues. Not to mention that there are a few people in this town that are not fond of magical beings."

She couldn't really bring herself to respond. Thanking the baker, she moved away from his store, her eyes glued to the general store. A lump formed at the back of her throat, making it hard to swallow. Tears burned at the corners of her eyes.

Bella was dead.

Ravenna needed a drink.

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