Ravenna harbored a strong hatred toward all things cold.
Sprinkles of snow fell in front of her, covering the weathered stones beneath her feet and tickling her cheeks. Only the moonlight illuminated her surroundings, glimmering between the tangled branches of the naked forest around her. With a disgruntled sigh, she tugged the edges of her tattered cloak closer together and continued further down the ancient road. “Only a bit longer,” she coaxed herself, and tried not to shiver.
The road rolled over another hill and then forked, with the right pathway leading directly through her village. She quickened her pace. The wooden rooftops poked over the snowy horizon line, encompassed by the gentle glow of candlelight.
As she approached the village, a strange feeling stirred within her stomach.
Ravenna slowed to a stop in the center of the main road and looked around. There didn’t seem to be anything different about the market. An array of stone shops and homes clustered along the sides of the road, decorated with vibrant tapestries. The homes were dark and quiet with sleep. A mixture of candles and torches lined the street, encircling the massive fountain several feet in front of her. The road split into two and curved around the fountain. She moved along, tracing her fingers across the snow that covered the fountain’s flat stones.
When the road returned to its original form, she stopped again. Her home stood in front of her. The windows were dark, which struck her as odd. Mother always left a candle burning when Ravenna traveled after dark.
She pushed the front door open and stepped over the threshold. An icy chill rushed to greet her. With a grunt, she shivered and drew her shawl even closer around her. The wooden door thumped shut behind her and she scowled. “Mother?”
There was no answer.
“Mother, I’ve returned,” she called again, and shuffled further into the house. Her gaze flickered over the main floor. The kitchen looked bare, striped of its warm rust-colored curtains and the trinkets their family had hoarded over time. The gathering room seemed to be of similar shape, its chairs covered in a fine layer of dust. The fire-pit was damp with melted snow and misuse.
Ravenna’s stomach twisted. “Mother?”
Her hand touched the small wooden rail that trailed upward, along the side of the staircase. The weird anxiety that clawed at her insides made her hesitant. She looked around the main floor again and then started slowly up the staircase.
The second level opened into a small hallway. Two doors marked the entrance to the bedrooms, and Ravenna immediately started toward the one that belonged to her Mother. She knocked. No answer.
She pushed the door open and poked her head inside. The bedroom was completely engulfed in darkness, with only a sliver of moonlight seeping through the curtains. Ravenna reached to the side, toward the dresser she knew sat directly to her right. A candle sat atop it, coupled with a box of matches. She lit the wick and then moved further into the bedroom.
Her eyes immediately found the bed. The flimsy wooden frame hunched under the weight of a body, half-concealed within a cocoon of blankets. “Mother?” Ravenna whispered as she started toward the bed.
Mother didn’t stir.
The sound of claws scurrying across the floorboards caused Ravenna’s body to seize. Her gaze skirted around the room, her sight still hindered by the darkness. A lump of darker shadows moved along the wall of the room. Ravenna’s scream caught in her throat. The creature’s blood-red eyes slowly blinked at her.
The candle dropped, thudding against the floor, and flames licked at the floorboards. Ravenna scrambled toward the bed and violently shook the mound of blankets. A-blood smeared arm tumbled out, thumping against the straw mattress and falling limp.
She jerked back in shock. Pieces of the torn blanket fell away in several areas, and glazed brown eyes stared at Ravenna, unseeing.
The creature in the corner screeched.
Ravenna numbly tore her gaze away from the bed. The sound of claws scratching against wood thundered. Her heart stopped. Her back flattened against the wall behind her. Her hand fell onto the bedside table, just beside a weathered book.
She chucked the book at the creature, and it attempted to dodge. The red eyes blinked, momentarily vanishing behind the steepled shadow of the book. A wounded sound echoed as its shadowed body flinched.
As the creature regained its senses, Ravenna scrambled past it to the door. It screamed and rushed after her. Somehow, she managed to slam the door shut. It thudded against the door, claws scratching furiously.
Ravenna sprinted down the stairs. When her foot hit the last step, a collection of heavy crashes and bangs echoed above her head. She ran toward the door and wrenched it open, stumbling out onto the frozen street. Snow crunched beneath her. Ice cold metal brushed her arm. The sounds of gruff voices and metal clanging disoriented her. A hand grabbed her arm and wrenched Ravenna to a stop.
A dot of cold pricked the hollow of her throat. Slight pain ruptured around the spot, and she glanced down. The sharpened point of a spear pressed against her skin. Its wooden shaft was engraved with the Imperial seal: a severed dragon’s head.
Her gaze trailed along the spear, toward its wielder. The soldier stood just in front of her, his feet separated in a defensive stance. His face remained half-covered by his steel helmet, with only his broad chin, slender lips, and hard brown eyes visible. Several other soldiers were clustered around them, their own weapons drawn.
Ravenna’s shoulders slumped in relief. “Demon,” she gasped out around heavy pants. “Inside. It’s inside. It killed my mother, and then tried to kill me. Please, help me.”
The soldier in front of her hesitated.
Another soldier stepped up, his beady eyes stern. “We’ll have a look inside,” he announced and shoved past her, toward the door. Her heart skipped a beat when the soldier wrenched the door open. She watched with bated breath as he and several others disappeared into the house. When no tortured screams came, Ravenna allowed herself to breathe again.
Then several crashes sounded, and Ravenna jumped backward.
A shadow crashed against the door frame, a strangled noise escaping it. The soldiers inside the house shouted, and the soldiers outside readied their weapons. The creature shook out of its daze and crouched. Its eyes darted around and landed on Ravenna.
Fear ensnared her. Her eyes remained locked with bloody-red.
The demon darted toward her. A soldier screamed at her. Her hands lifted upward, toward her face, in a feeble attempt to shield herself. Then a small explosion rocked her backward.
Ravenna’s rear thudded against the hard ground. Her hands dropped and her eyes snapped open. She stared at the area in front of her, eyes wide with shock. A small pile of ashes clustered around her feet. Wisps of smoke pirouetted in the air just above it. The smoke twisted toward her, a funnel of gray. Soft whispers of an unfamiliar language echoed within her head as the smoke tickled across the skin of her hands. Then it seemed to disappear within the center of her palms.
Once the smoke had been entirely absorbed, a stunned silence settled Ravenna’s world and the whispers faded into the wind. She stared at her hands, confused.
“Witch,” a soldier hissed. “She’s a witch!”
Ravenna’s head snapped up and her chest seemed to deflate.
The soldiers converged on her. Their faces were twisted with malice, their weapons pointed in her direction. A hand fisted her hair and yanked her to her feet. “Tie her hands,” another soldier ordered. “She can’t use her demon-magic if her hands are bound!”
Heavy chains clasped tight around Ravenna’s wrists. She panicked and started to struggle.
“Devil-Woman,” an official-sounding voice boomed, and a man wearing higher-ranked Imperial armor stepped forward. His stance was regal. Several hands grabbed Ravenna’s arms, holding her still. A single hand tangled itself in her hair, wrenching her head back, so she was forced to meet the soldier’s gaze.
He maintained a small distance from her, his hand clasped tight around the hilt of his sword. “You are being charged with the use of witch-craft and black magic against the peaceful village of Lithium. Both the dead here and the hellhound that you summoned have attested to that.”
Ravenna tried to shake her head. Her mouth dropped open, and a stream of incoherent babbling escaped. “I didn’t…I’m not…”
The soldier’s jaw clenched. “You will be taken to the Imperial city, where your case will be heard in front of an inquisitor,” he ordered. Then he glanced at the rest of the soldiers. “We will leave at once.”