Clea raced through the forest, dead brushwood breaking under her feet. She glanced behind her, but the beast was already gone.
She slid to a stop in a dark clearing, breathing heavily. She spun around, her fear painting the darkness with illusive shapes and figures. Exhaustion was beginning to take its toll.
Her fingers grasped the three shallow claw marks that stretched from her wrist to her elbow, painting her side in blood. She swallowed dryly before holding her breath for a single painful second.
She heard nothing but the sound of her heart pounding in her ears. It was toying with her.
"Stay alive, stay alive," a raspy voice spoke from behind her. She whirled around to find the reaping shade crouched at the forest's edge. Its black cloak veiled its body in darkness, but its glowing red eyes betrayed it.
"Keep running! Don't you wish to stay alive?" it taunted, crawling on all fours around her. Its joints cracked loudly. She saw its bones roll and rotate under its skin as its white limbs reached past its cloaks.
She dug her feet into the snow as she searched its pupilless eyes for any fleeting sign of mercy. She found nothing. It had no soul, like every other inhuman being that abided in the wilderness.
Clea's eyes widened as a glint of light caught her attention. Daringly, her eyes followed it through the brush and the dead tree branches. It was a fire. She broke into a sprint toward it. It could only be a campfire. This was her only chance.
She stumbled with a gasp as a root snared her foot. With a jerk, she ripped free and dove under a branch as she sped onward. Her eyes fixed desperately on the light. When she neared the clearing she charged for it with all of her might.
She felt the last of the branches snap against her arms as she hurled herself forward. She landed hard on her shoulder and rolled twice, stopping before an abandoned campfire.
Clea's mind swam with vertigo, but she persisted to stand, still searching the campsite. Her trembling legs slipped in the snow and she collapsed again. Her eyelids grew heavy as she watched her trembling hand, laid out before her, and the fire beyond that. Her eyes drifted closed as she surrendered hopelessly into a feverish slumber.
Ryson watched from the shadows as the reaping shade skulked from the cover of the woods.
"Over," it murmured victoriously after inspecting the deserted clearing. It reached to collect its quarry. A proud grin stretched its pale face, revealing two rows of jagged black teeth.
It's long fingers rested on the girl's ankle, and in a flash of movement, Ryson slipped from the woods and plunged a long dagger through the monster's back. The reaper spun toward him the instant it suffered the blow, but by then its black blood had spread over its tattered clothes, staining them like oil.
"Y-you," it choked. "How did you…?" Its eyes widened as Ryson shed his hood, exposing his face.
"Surprised?" Ryson's white fangs reflected the moon's light as the word parted his lips.
The reaping shade staggered back. Its claws wrapped around the blade that had pierced it through. It thrashed and screamed in panic.
"No!" its voice cut the air with a shriek. "No!" It convulsed as the blood touched by the weapon boiled and sizzled away.
It ripped the dagger from its chest. Its flesh disintegrated into ashes. Its bony appendages reached toward Ryson as the skin slipped off its fingers. "You traitor!" The dagger fell into the snow, the blood that once covered it smoldering away. The reaper collapsed shortly after.
"No, why-why am I worrying?" It laughed, its black hood slipping from its head to reveal a fanged skeleton. "You can't betray us. You are going to come back to us!" it said in a burst of lunacy.
Ryson approached the dying creature and jerked it up by the empty eye sockets of its skull. "The man you knew is gone," he whispered with restraint as he lifted the beast's skull before him. He slid a second dagger from his belt.
"You will come back to us, back to the darkness," the reaper stated in a dying hiss. "I will laugh as you struggle to abstain from your nature. I will watch you from the world of the dead"
Ryson bared his fangs maliciously. "This is the world of the dead," he spat and swung his dagger sideward, severing the reaper's spine. The skull slipped from his hand as the reaper's bones dissolved into ashes.
He slammed his boot into the reaper's ashes as he approached its victim. He stood over her, his thumb sliding back and forth over the blade of his dagger. He knelt and used the tip of his weapon to move the hair that covered her face. He reached a bandaged hand to her chin and tilted her head toward him. His eyes immediately locked onto a patch of glowing skin rubbed clean by the snow. He shot up.
"Veilin," he snorted in disgust as he backed away from her. He retrieved his weapon from the reaper's ashes, and returned both daggers to their rightful places. He turned to leave but the girl's extended wrist caught his attention. Beneath the ashes and mud was a black tattoo of a crown.
He stilled, his body directed toward the woods. He glared at the tattoo before releasing a heavy sigh. He ran a hand through his thick brown hair. "Curses," he muttered before returning to treat the girl's wounds.
It's warm. Am I alive? Clea's thoughts drifted through her head in a hazy fog, her mind clinging to consciousness through her fever. Her eyes opened tentatively to the night and the star littered sky above her. She blinked, the crackling warmth of the fire coaxing her back into unconsciousness. Driven by her curiosity, she fought her fatigue. Her eyes followed the light of the campfire, and it was a moment before she saw a man. It was difficult to separate his silhouette from the darkness around him. He stood by a tree, his arms crossing his chest, his head raised. His peculiar, silver eyes watched the moon.
Clea continued to watch him as she slipped back into the darkness of her exhaustion. His image followed her into her dreams.