Chapter 15

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From every direction the fire came, devouring earth and stone with an otherworldly intensity but shed no more light than a sunset, casting long shadows across billowing plumes of smoke and dancing flames. From within the blowing haze a sinister silhouette rose, towering over creation with frightening size.

Ria tried to shrink away as the beast stalked towards her but found herself tied against what felt like the mast of a boat. Her cries for help were prematurely silenced when a three-foot piece of steel punched through her stomach, embedding into the wood behind her with a dull thud.

"See if he can save you now," the stag-man hissed into her ear, the sour stench of his breath enough to curdle her stomach if its contents weren't already spilling down the front of her dress. Ria's attempt at breathing earned her a choking lung full of blood, organs displaced by the foreign matter in her body. "Death comes for us all."

Standing back, the stag-man left the blade in its new flesh and blood sheath, proud of his gory work. Behind him, a raven glided down on glittering black wings, its caw eerily reminiscent of human laughter. In a burst of tumbling feathers, bird became woman in mid-air, maliciousness wreathing her in a cloak of dread as she settled gently on the ground.

"For you," the Shifter purred, reaching out to remove something from around Ria's neck, "death came centuries ago. You were too much a fool to realize it."

And then she and the stag-man were sharing a laugh as if the sight of a dying woman was premium entertainment, blackness pulling Ria into the crushing embrace of nonexistence before dispersing in a burst of searing white light.

Consciousness buoying her back into existence with a startled cry, Ria immediately regretted the sudden motion of sitting upright. Lances of pain flared white-hot above her left eyebrow with enough intensity her vision turned blotchy. Using the heels of her palm to dig away the pounding pressure, she lay back and struggled to remember what possessed her to ram her head into a brick wall.

Memory and vision both blurry messes, she groaned and rolled over, seeking the comfort only a soft bed and familiar pillows could supply and paused, fingers digging into patches of damp moss rather than fresh sheets.

Daring to crack open her eyes, Ria squinted into a canopy of emerald leaves overhead, dawn's soft light barely beginning to warm them. For a handful of seconds, it was impossible to comprehend what she was seeing. This couldn't be right. She was supposed to be at home...in bed...waking from a terrifyingly familiar dream...

Pain forgotten, shock sat her bolt upright, understanding slower to accumulate. What was happening?

Rustling somewhere to her left sent electricity down her limbs, the world growing bright. Using her periphery, Ria felt her carefully built world of sanity crumble to dust as nightmares took flesh and blood form.

Even seated, the stag-man's silhouette plucked every cord of terror in Ria as though she were a well-tuned violin. His obsidian eyes pinned her against the far wall of the circular chamber, ripping open years of mental scar tissue as easily as his sword had torn through her in the dream.

Therefore, it was only right to scream.

A spasm of annoyance marred the creature's stoic features as Ria's terror-fueled shrieking reached hysterical peeks. The longer she carried on the deeper his discomfort grew until he suddenly leaned forward and screamed like a mother shouting over a squalling child. The shock rendered Ria immediately speechless as efficiently as if he'd struck her.

"S-st-stop...scr-screaming!" the stag-man struggled to say in a heavy accent Ria couldn't place after the echo of his cry evaporated.

Gaping, Ria held perfectly still while fighting to fully understand this new hell she'd been thrust into.

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