The Reaper has ruled over Etias due to the longevity he has achieved through necromancy.
| Thick, red velvet curtains lined with gold hung in generous folds around a mullioned window beside a small wool bed. The warm morning sunlight filtered through Melina's thin eyelids which caused the sleeping woman to stir. With eyes still closed, her groggy thoughts gradually came to as flitting memories of her battle with the dragon came back to mind.
Melina shifted to sit up suddenly, her eyes wide as she whirled her head around to take in her surroundings. Nothing around her looked familiar with the dark rustic furniture, a walnut-colored wooden floor, and high vaulted ceilings. Even the bedsheets underneath her were of fine silk, Mel realized.
The door opened which caused her to jump with surprise. The knight from before strode in the room. He looked surprised to notice her awake but smiled all the same.
"Ah, glad you awoke, my lady," said the dark-haired man, bowing before the confused woman.
"Where am I and where is Bleiz?" she questioned, wasting no time to get straight to the point. Her natural apprehension for strangers was evident for the knight. The man nodded, understanding her sense of confusion and urgency.
"Yes, your brother... Well first, please allow me to introduce myself. I am Sir Casimir Armond, Knight of the Reaper's Royal Guard. You are in Haerton Castle. Your brother is fine. He is in the throne room awaiting an audience with the King."
Slack-jawed, Melina stared dumbfounded at the royal guardsman, at a loss for words. She shut her mouth, re-opened it and closed it again. Casimir chuckled at her stunned silence.
"I brought you both here after the battle in SilentForest. Your injury needed medical attention right away. Your brother hesitated at first, but he understood the gravity of your condition. After I informed him of the fight I saw, the King demanded to speak with both you and Bleiz,"
"I'm going... To speak with the Reaper... Here in Haerton Castle?" Melina clarified slowly and deliberately, in full belief she was still dreaming or dead.
Casimir nodded in confirmation, "Correct. Now, the servants placed fresh clothes out for you," Casimir gestured to a neatly folded pile of clothing set on the chair beside her bed. "You need to be dressed appropriately before you speak with the King. Miss Aneira, a soubrette, shall come for you."
He bowed before turning to leave, shutting the door behind him. Melina stared at the door for a long moment before looking again at the pile of clothes. She took in a deep breath before sliding out of the bed to get dressed.
A few moments later, she stood in front of a full-length mirror in the room's corner. Her refined gown flowed from top to bottom with a jewel neckline. The exquisite, tightly tied fabric covered her stomach where the continuous flow was divided by a small cloth band worn around her waist.
Below the belt, the dress opened to the left to show the silk material beneath it. The linen concealed Melina's feet while the back continued a decent length behind her with a narrow-ended curve. The sleeves were long and narrow, broken up well above the elbow where thin, modest bands divided it.
The brunette never enjoyed dressing up like most young women her age. She felt restricted in her ability to move freely. A knock on the door interrupted her thoughts as she turned to spot a young half-elf woman standing in the doorway. Straight, honey-brown hair pulled back into an elegant bun showed a delicately featured face. Green eyes looked back at Melina as the woman gave a bright smile.
"Greetings, Miss Melina," said the woman, giving the human a polite curtsy. "I am Aneira Bevan, palace woman to Lady Syllia. Please, follow me."
Before Melina responded, Aneira turned to leave out the door. Melina paused before following her, not enjoying how carefully she had to step to make sure she didn't trip on her dress.
Tremendous braziers attached to one side of each of the twelve onyx columns lit up the lower levels of the throne hall, and their light wrapped the room in a warm radiance. The marble stone of the embowed ceiling danced in the flickering luminescence while memorials peered down upon the mosaic floor.
An ebony rug ran in a circle around the room, with two paths at the throne and the main entrance while guiding banners with embellished crowns hung from the walls. Between each flag stood a tall candle, a few of them lit and illuminated the depictions of heroes and legends above them. Veils covered stained glass windows of mesmerizing mosaics colored the same ebony as the flags. Burnished corners and fancy tassels adorned the curtains.
A grand throne of obsidian sat at the center of a small platform, adjoined by two similar, but less ornate seats for those closest to the royal highness, one on either side of the more massive throne. The seat was covered in layered engravings and fixed on the broad backside was an image of a gigantic skeletal dragon, its wings outstretched as if shielding the Reaper. Deep rubies replaced the sockets where the eyes should be.
Melina stared around with stupefied eyes as she stood beside Aneira, in shock at the elegance of the throne room.
"I know. It's exquisite, isn't it?" Aneira grinned at the human's expression.
Melina noted her brother, kneeling in obedience before the seat of power. Her eyes raised from him to the being he was bowing before, and her heart leaped into her throat.
Seated in the chair was a black, shrouded specter, dressed in long black robes that covered him from head to toe. His deep hood was pulled up to shield his face, but two piercing red points of light glowered from underneath the shadow the cowl cast. The body had an arm resting on each armrest, and Melina could see the white-bone of his skeleton hands poking out from beneath the sleeves of his robes.
Melina gulped as the blood drained from her face. It was him - their King, the Reaper. Her knees weakened for a moment, and it took everything she had not to let them buckle underneath her. Aneira stepping forward saved Melina from her thoughts. She followed the half-elf and kept her eyes to the ground in respect.
Before the Reaper, Aneira bowed deeply in greeting with her head lowered and eyes closed.
"My King, before you are Bleiz Dawnshade and Melina Dawnshade, brother and sister. These were the humans who fought against the dragon in Silentforest."
Melina knelt by her brother, bowing low as her heart pounded in her ears. A long silence followed Aneira's introduction, and Melina could sense the Reaper's red eyes scrutinizing them both.
"Very well. You may go, Aneira," said the Reaper. His voice was gravelly and dark which enhanced the sinking plop in Melina's stomach. Aneira bowed again, turning to leave without another word as she left the siblings alone with the King.
"Rise," commanded the Reaper. The siblings simultaneously stood at attention as they faced the King, waiting for him to continue. He leaned back further into his seat, placing the tips of his bone fingers together in contemplation.
"I congratulate you both on your efforts against the dragon. You have done the people of our world a great deed by killing such a beast who will not follow our laws. This isn't the first time, and it will not be the last."
Melina and Bleiz both glanced at each other with raised eyebrows.
"More reports are coming in of dragons no longer following the laws that has been set forth by the Black Moon Concordat centuries ago," the King continued, "I had intended to send a small group out to investigate why the generated hostility from dragons." The Reaper leaned forward, staring at them both intensely. "I want the two of you to join this squad. Being only humans, the fact you were willing to face the dragon is impressive. And I am fully aware of your tracking abilities, particularly you." He turned his attention on Bleiz as the man shifted uncomfortably. Melina swallowed hard before she spoke.
"Y-Your Highness, it's such an honor to be considered for this. But we are not of any importance. I-I don't know we could be able to give you much aid—,"
Someone interrupted Mel as the doors behind them swung open. By instinct, the two turned to see a young man walk in with a determined stride, even and quick paced. Dressed in the trappings of royalty, it was plain he was someone of high importance.
The man was undeniably handsome.
He stood a tall six foot two and slender built, although with wide-set shoulders which emphasized his tapered waist. His short, jet-black hair was brushed away from his brow which framed his pale face. His features were robust and defined with a sharp jaw, chin, and angular cheekbones. The most striking feature though was his distinct eyes. His irises were a mesmerizing ghost blue with no definable pupils. Instead, a faint circular white center where the pupil should be, containing a supernatural glow.
It took Melina a moment to realize she was gawking at the man although Bleiz noticed it from the corner of his eye. The man didn't acknowledge either of them, stepping past them to give a bow before the throne.
"Grandfather, I come with news with possible whereabouts of the Death Tomes," said the man. His voice was that of anyone in the upper class, silvery and euphonious. Bleiz's eyes widened at the announcement as he watched the back of the man. The Reaper nodded not upset by the interruption.
"Good, then I will have you brief these humans here."
The man paused for a moment before turning to regard the two siblings behind him. He stared at them before he turned back to his grandfather.
"You heard me, Prince Keogh," responded the Reaper in a calm but firm tone. "I am assigning them to the investigation. They will be your responsibility now."
"Grandfather... They are humans!" Keogh blurted, his face twisting into an expression of utter disgust at the thought of having to be near anyone of such a race.
"Correct. And these humans defeated a dragon. There will be no further debate on this issue. It is an order."
The Prince stood there in shock, staring up at his King. There was nothing more he could say, and he knew it. With a huff, Keogh snapped to attention, gave another curt bow and turned on his heel. He brushed past the siblings roughly, bumping shoulders with Bleiz as he did. The corners of Bleiz's mouth twitch as he held his fist in place. The Reaper once again turned his intimidating gaze on the pair. Melina furrowed her eyebrows, not impressed by Keogh's behavior at all.
"That was my grandson, Keogh Zhakhi," explained the King, "He is the heir to my throne. I had assigned him to be the leader of this investigation. But, he is inexperienced in the ways of the realm outside of this castle. That is where you two come in." The Reaper waved them off then as he finished, "Aneira will take you to meet with Sir Casimir, who will inform you of the details."
The siblings nodded at their dismissal, gave the King one more bow before they turned to leave. Aneira was waiting for them outside the room. She led them to a small side chamber where Casimir stood over several maps on a large desk. The Prince stood beside him, his hands folded behind his back as he gazed down at the parchments with half-lidded eyes. The Knight lifted his head at them, standing straight while the Prince didn't acknowledge their presence.
"Judging by the looks on your faces, I estimate that His Highness informed you of your mission," said Casimir with a smile, understanding why the two appeared so displeased. "Fear not. He will compensate you both."
"Who cares about compensation? I want no part of this!" snarled Bleiz, slamming his hands on the tabletop. Melina hissed at him to stop his behavior, but Casimir raised a hand to silence her.
"You have no say in the matter," Casimir coolly informed the hot-tempered ranger, "Should you refuse, I will charge you with treason."
The threat simmered the ill-tempered man, but his glare did not change. Keogh finally lifted his head to look at the two. Oddly, he seemed to refuse direct eye contact with anyone.
"And... who are you?"
Bleiz reached out to stop Melina from answering, his sister passing him an annoyed expression. It was not unusual for Bleiz to speak over her.
"Just a bunch of nobodies that you need not concern yourself."
Keogh scoffed, and cracked a wry smirk, "Everyone in all the realms is my concern. Let me guess, judging just by the looks of you, you're a couple of rangers, I take it? Is that why you won't tell me who you are?"
"He won't tell you who we are because he's an unfriendly person," Melina answered flatly, "being rangers are just a bonus to us being socially reclusive. He forgets he doesn't answer for me," she added, giving her brother a warning side glare. She looked back towards the Prince before bowing her head in respect, "My name is Melina Dawnshade."
Keogh gave her a nod, looking from her to Bleiz, "Are you going to tell me your name, or do I need to command you to do so?"
Bleiz looked like he was about to have another snide comment to make, but another glare from Melina finally made him cooperate, "Bleiz," he said curtly.
Casimir turned his attention to Melina, believing she was the more reasonable of the two.
"So, who else will be a part of this group?" asked the brunette, having accepted their fate by this point.
"Prince Keogh and myself, then you both. We will have Aneira join us as well." He pointed to the well-dressed woman beside them, who gave a slight curtsy at her acknowledgment.
"What? A bedchamber woman? What could she possibly do to help us?" growled Bleiz.
"Miss Aneira is well informed of the bureaucracies of the country. It is important to have a thorough understanding of the inner dynamics of the cities we go to in the event we need to interrogate someone. She is an excellent potion-brewer and healer," Casimir replied with narrowed eyes, a warning to Bleiz to keep his mouth shut. Bleiz scoffed as he folded his arms over his chest.
"So, when do we leave and where are we going?" Melina asked.
"We will leave at dawn tomorrow," Casimir gestured to the maps sprawled out over the table, "My Intel believes that there could be useful information in E'athkadi, to the north." He placed a gloved finger on the location of the map.
"That's where the snow elves live. What could be there?" Aneira piped in then, leaning over to get a better look at the chart.
"The Astral Athenaeum. Their people have watched over the library's archives for over a millennium. They have to have something we need," said Casimir, staring down at the map. His gaze lifted to them again, "So, we will see you all at dawn tomorrow."