FIFTY TWO

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THE MOMENT THE back door swung open, Ravenna broke into a sprint

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THE MOMENT THE back door swung open, Ravenna broke into a sprint. She tore through the garden, over the old fence that defined the edge of Caelan's property, toward the forest that waited behind it. As she ran, she could hear Vyses shout after her. His shouts were quickly drowned out within the leaves that rustled around her and the twigs that snapped beneath her steps.

A fresh batch of tears began to spill down her cheeks. Her heart began to ache within her chest. She didn't want to leave Caelan's house, she realized. She didn't want to leave the life she'd created in his tiny, sweet village. She didn't want to leave Caelan behind.

Her tears fell harder. Caelan would hate her now. She'd ruined his village. She'd ruined the place that he held dear to him.

The trees thinned around her until she could see the sunlight clearly overhead. She slowed to a stop, her chest heaving, and almost fell over. The air within her lungs seemed to work together with her muscles, both scorching her from the inside out. She bent over, resting her hands on her knees, and struggled to breathe.

When the air came naturally again, Ravenna straightened. She rubbed at her eyes, at the tears that continued to stain her skin. She took a deep breath and continued through the clearing, toward the trees that waited on the other side. It wasn't long before the trees thinned again, only instead of a clearing, Ravenna was greeted with a road. It was a rough cluster of pebbles with a fence lining either side of it. As she approached the fence, she ducked downward and started to climb through it.

"Halt!"

She did as ordered. Her entire body felt frozen, awkwardly positioned between two wooden beams. Carefully, she glanced toward her right, in the direction of the voice. A trio of guards rushed toward her. Her jaw clenched tight as she continued through the fence and straightened. The guards immediately circled her with their weapons drawn.

"I said halt!" one of the guards shouted at her.

"I was uncomfortable," she countered. "I was just standing upward."

"You were ordered not to move," another guard snapped. His sword was aimed at her throat. "You are the ice witch, are you not?"

"Am I?"

"You are," another guard growled at her. "I've seen you. In the town, in the tavern. You are the one who has been murdering our people. Don't bother to deny it."

She took a deep breath. "I don't know what you are talking about," she lied through her teeth as calmly as she could. "I haven't harmed anybody. I haven't done anything."

"Liar!"

The word pierced through her. It sizzled beneath her skin like a bolt of lightning, scorching her to the core. She blinked once. Twice. The world around her fizzled. It darkened, morphing into a bleary night. A familiar night. One filled with nightmares, demons, and angry guards. She shook her head and rubbed at her eyes.

"Tie her hands," one of the guards ordered. She couldn't breathe. It was hard for her to react, to process what was happening. The words sounded all too familiar to her ears. "The devil-woman can't use her magic if her hands are bound."

One of the guards stepped toward her. Ravenna took a step backward. The fence behind her pressed against her back, blocking her escape. Her gaze darted around. Not a soul dared to walk along the road. The guard grabbed her wrist. His nails dug into her skin.

"No," she whispered.

"What was that, wench?" the guard growled.

"I said no," she said, louder.

A heavy hand hit her cheek. Ravenna's head whipped to the side. Her skin burned. The hand around her wrist tightened. The guards voice dipped low, laced with venom as he growled, "You will do as I say, woman."

Something snapped within Ravenna. Her jaw clenched tight. Her forehead burned. She could see her jagged crown begin to glow within her peripheral vision. She turned her head toward the guard that slapped her. This wasn't that night. Ravenna wasn't human anymore. She was stronger. More powerful. She could easily take these men. She didn't have to take this from them. She didn't have to take this from anybody.

The realization echoed throughout her and her forehead burned brighter. The guards seemed to tense, their weapons moving closer toward her. Within a blink of an eye, Ravenna summoned an army of icy daggers. The daggers quivered in the air around them, a cloud of impending death. Her eyes narrowed at the men that surrounded her. "I told you no," she said. "And you can't stop me."

The daggers moved before the men could react. Each blade sheared through the skin of the men that surrounded her, melting into the earth beneath their feet. Blood splattered across the pebbled road. Three bodies collapsed. Their heavy armor and weapons clattered against the earth. Ravenna took a deep breath. She forced herself to look down, to watch the life drain from each of their eyes. She'd killed them. Murdered them to ensure her own survival. It was wrong. It was awful. And she didn't deserve the luxury of looking away from the mess she'd created.

After a moment, her hands began to tremble. The world around her seemed slower. Brighter. The sun seemed to beat down upon her, scorching her skin. She carefully stepped around the bodies. Her dark skirts were stained with an even darker color. There was no turning back now, she reminded herself. It wouldn't be long before another round of guards appeared.

She started toward the other side of the road. Pebbles crunched beneath her shoes. In one swift movement, she climbed through the fence. As she approached the edge of the forest, a voice called out. Her blood ran cold.

"Ravenna."

She glanced back over her shoulder. Her gaze was hard. Tears burned at the corners of her eyes. "It had to be done," she said. "They were going to arrest me, to take me to be killed."

Caelan's gray eyes clouded with sadness. He stood in front of the fence with his back to the carnage, mere feet from where Ravenna stood. His travel cloak seemed to cling tightly to his broad shoulders, his long hair hidden within its hood. She shivered as his gaze travelled over her, roaming her body. His lips pursed.

"Where did you get that necklace, Ravenna?" he asked as calmly as he could.

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