Chapter 29

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Fire.

Darkness.

Smoke.

The trifecta enveloped her, dragging Ria down the throat of a dragon and delivering her to parts unknown. She couldn't see. Couldn't breathe. Couldn't gauge where she was or how she'd gotten there, the sting of her eyes and the pain of the fire licking her skin a constant torment.

Disoriented, she stumbled through the haze, arms raised in a futile attempt at protection. For a terrifying moment, she believed she'd been cast into Christian hell until a gust of scorching wind snagged the smoke and drew it aside like a curtain, revealing the true whereabouts of her location.

She stood at the center of the courtyard in Tree Spring where the Tree should have been. Only it wasn't there. The castle was one fire—solving at least one mystery as to how the structure fell into such disrepair—burning brighter than any star in the heavens and a hundred times hotter. Ria would have turned away had the blaze not encompassed her, hemming her in like a volcanic fence.

She was in her childhood nightmare. Only this time it was real.

"You should have never toyed with me!"

Ria jumped when the monstrous stag-man emerged from the burning castle. Orange flames clung to his armor, snaking across the metal like fiery serpents. In his fist, he clutched a gleaming sword which he used to point at her like a lethal finger. The resonating hum of complex magic imbued in the blade pulled at something dark in Ria. Its presence was a boulder rolled into an otherwise smooth-flowing stream. Life and death parting around the three-foot piece of black steel, leaving an empty pocket in the air. It was an abomination. A dark, twisted weapon forged for a ruthless purpose by a ruthless god.

"I would have given you the world and all the beautiful things in it, but you chose a monster over me!"

The sound of hoarse laughter pried Ria's eyes away from the ironclad beast. Glancing over her shoulder, she stumbled to the side, a one-two punch of understanding hitting her full in the face. Usually, she viewed the nightmare from a singular perspective. Tonight she was simply an unwilling onlooker witnessing the fate of the woman she'd seen seconds before falling into the Underdark.

Tied to a stake like so many of her kind before, she was beautiful in the same wild way Ria glimpsed before she fell. Her curly brown hair unraveled around her head like a lion's mane, framing a soft round face dusted with freckles. She was curvy under the fabric of her torn and bloody tunic, but her most striking feature was her eyes. They were so brown they almost looked amber. And they stared at the beast behind Ria with such open hatred she felt her stomach clench.

"Brave words from a fallen prince hailing from a broken, cold Court," the bound woman spat, body stiff with fierce defiance despite her bindings. Beneath her feet, all matter of plant-life writhed, and Ria felt what little blood resided in her face fall away.

This woman was a Green Witch. Like her. She could feel their shared magic, the earth welcoming the call rather than revolting against it. The how and why this was didn't matter because from one second to the next the stag-man moved, the back of his hand cracking across the woman's face with a metallic rattle. And though the blow had been meant for one, it was felt by two.

Ria rocked backward, blood filling her mouth. Her trembling hand moved to her cheek, whimpering against the sudden pain and terror filling her. 

No, please, she cried in a voiceless shout. Don't make me feel this!

The stag-man grabbed the woman's bleeding face and turned it towards him, raising his blade and watching with triumph as her defiance drained away. "So, you do know this blade," he sneered, enjoying the depth of his cruelty.

"Moralltach," she whispered. Ria felt her body react to the hated name of a weapon as monstrous as the being wielding it.

"Great Fury. Fae Bane. The True Death. Your death. It will taste your blood then splinter your soul. I will be rid of your stain once and for all, and when I'm done with you, my brother will suffer the same fate."

And blood it received.

The woman tried to pull away, calling her magic to protect her, but power leagues stronger than hers batted it away as easily as swatting a fly. Her amber eyes bulged when the blade slowly pierced the soft skin of her abdomen. Mouth open, she could only wheeze and jerk, steel pushing organs aside. Like an ax biting into a stump, the blade embedded into the wood behind her with a thunk and remained there.

Collapsing to her knees, Ria vomited blood onto the cobblestones. She could feel the indescribable agony of a foreign object in her body. She wanted to scream but couldn't manage it, the pain of her stomach like a black hole. Curled into a question mark on her side, she watched a tar-like corruption spread under her skin, seeking fingers searching for the fluttering organ continuing to beat in ragged defiance to the imminent call of death. 

"See if he can save you now," the stag-man hissed to the woman, drawing close and giving the sword a malicious twist. She and Ria spasmed, both coughing blood. "Death comes to us all, Airmid."

"I have seen...the face of death. It holds no fear for...me," she gurgled, willing herself to be courageous to the bitter end. Behind her, the earth revolted, vines and lichen writhing like tentacles, turning as red as the blood soaking into the fabric of her dress and oozing down the column of her slender throat.

Around the edges of Ria's vision, the crimson wave advanced while the scene faded, reaching fingers of plantlife seeking what it could not find. She distantly heard a roar ripple through the courtyard seconds before something collided with the stag-man. The concussion of battle tore the world apart, but Ria was being drawn into a void. She thought she heard her name shouted. Thought she felt hands touch her face and neck, but couldn't stop the scene from shattering, thousands of pieces of herself lost to the unknown.  

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