The Reaper has ruled over Etias due to the longevity he has achieved through necromancy.
Chapter 1: Deliverance
The girl wiped a grubby hand across her tear-stained cheeks. The moisture only deepened the color of her eyes, a swirling hue of a clear blue sky swallowed up into the midnight heavens of her large black pupils. Even at eleven years old, those eyes cut through the grime and the grief on her crumpled features.
The young man beside her spoke with quiet determination.
"Please listen, Mel. I pledge to you on everything I am that I will come back to get you."
He understood her trepidation. Nothing in her life so far led her to believe in the words — or the actions — of others. He clutched her slender shoulders, masking his wince at the bony prominences of her emaciated, malnourished frame under the weight of his fingers.
"Wh... when... will you come back, Bleiz?"
"I don't know—"
"I won't let you go!" she cried out.
Bleiz rushed to hush her cry, peering over his shoulder at the slumped form of their drunken father, snoring only a short distance away.
"When I have a house for us, one where you can grow all the trees and flowers you want, I will return for you, I will. OK?"
Sniffling, she rubbed her eyes again, her thoughts for a moment captured by the hopeful future Bleiz described. It was a shared dream that lived in stark contrast to the nightmare of filth and decay that was her reality.
"Swear on it?"
Holding up her little digit to him, she waited for him to respond. Glancing down, he hooked his pinky finger on hers, sealing his oath to her.
"I promise, Mel."
The now fourteen-year-old Melina woke with a shiver, a flimsy, tattered blanket her only cover against both the cold air above her and the frigid earth floor below. Small rays of sunlight streaked the dark bedroom chamber, cutting through the planks of distressed wood joined by a few remaining nails. Figures moved like shadows outside the room, fluttering the ancient drapery which acted as the only door separating her "room" from the rest of the house.
Doubling over, she cursed to herself.
Her lower belly cramped and ached again as it had on and off for the past two days. She kept the pain to herself as complaining only resulted in punishment and even more pain. A strange sensation moved between and then down her inner thighs — something thick, sticky, and wet. Furrowing her brows, she reached down to determine the source. Her heart stopped as she tugged her hand back to see blood smeared across her fingertips. Blood? Blood?! Why was she bleeding?
Her panic overcame her well-earned instinct to hide everything from her parents. She leaped to her feet, dashing past the drapery barrier and out of the room. Her eyes darted around the shabby central room until she located her brittle and bitter mother, hunched over a ritual book. Off to the right, her father slumped back in an overstuffed horsehair chair, his ever-present bottle of whiskey close at hand. Incoherent, his chin stooped down on his chest as he snored. Mel turned her attention back to her mother.
Slim and petite to the point of frailty, with angular features framed by long, stringy brown hair, there was a strong resemblance between mother and child. But where her mother eyes sank into a dark, almost fathomless pools of deep brown, Melina's eyes shone a brilliant blue that still reflected something akin to hope.
The older woman turned to her with her usual mixture of annoyance and repulsion.
"What do you want?" she scowled.
Unsure, Melina held up her blood-laced fingers and gestured to her stained dress. A malevolent smile spread over her mother's face.
"Finally, you are a woman now!"
Rushing over, she grasped Melina's head and crushed it into her bosom in a surprising display of interest and feigned affection.
"A woman now?" Melina repeated. She furrowed her eyebrows in the confusion.
"Yes, yes!" her mother squealed as she shook the confused teenager with glee.
"What's this now?" her father slurred, awoken by his wife's cheering. Taking another swig of his liquor, he stumbled to his feet, glaring at Melina with his own faded, blue eyes.
Her mother rambled on, ignoring her husband's drunken interruption, "Now you can do our Goddess Qetelias' work! Your womb is ready to accept a man's seed and prove to Her your fertility!"
"My what?!" With horror-filled eyes, Melina pulled away from her frenzied mother. The older woman's pleasure vanished as she stared back at her daughter.
"You are at the perfect age to bear children - many, many children. Your father could sell you to a few of the local tradesmen for fertilization!" At the thought, her mother became excited again, clapping her weak hands together, "You can stop being a leech and contribute something to this family. We will be rich!"
Her father snorted his agreement, "Desperate merchants will pay good coin to sleep with a nasty dog like you." With that, he raised his mug in a salute before swallowing another gulp. The girl flinched at his assessment of her worth. But it was her mother's words that rang again and again in her ears.
"Fertilization?! No, no ... I don't want children--"
A stinging slap cut off Melina's sentence before it left her lips. The stunned girl tumbled to the floor in a heap as her father laughed at her expense.
"Stupid girl," he said with a sneer.
"Defiant bitch! To deny our Goddess's will?" her mother shrieked. Reaching down, she entwined her bony fingers in Melina's long hair, grabbing a fist-full as leverage to drag her across the dirt floor. Crying out, Melina reached up, clawing at her mother's hands, twisting her slight frame in a panic to free herself from her mother's relentless grasp. The older woman threw open the lid of a heavy, wooden crate on the other side of the room. In a fluid motion, she lifted the small, squirming girl, tossed her inside, slammed it shut. Flat on her back in the box, knees to her chest, Melina shouted and clawed at the slatted lid. The tumblers in the lock clicked as her mother sealed it from the outside.
"Stay in there for the rest of the day and learn to appreciate the opportunities we provide you!" the woman's angry muffled voice demanded.
The shriek the girl let out came from something deep inside her, something primal, trapped and desperate. She fought against the walls of the crate as her fingernails bent, broke and bled, but to no avail. The crate then gave a quick, hard jolt as her father kicked it, bouncing her head against the side. Melina stopped her struggle and curled up in her little dungeon, crying without a sound.
Hours later, her mother threw open the lid of the crate without a word and released her from the temporary prison. Now lying back on the cold dirt floor of her bedchamber, Mel stared up at the shadows crossing the dark ceiling, considering what it would cost her in mind, body, and spirit to live her mother's definition of womanhood.
A thundering crash and an anguished cry jolted her from the spiral of her thoughts. She sat up, peering around her dank surroundings with fearful eyes. More screaming rattled through the shack, pursued by the loud and deliberate footsteps nearing her room. She huddled further into the corner, making herself as small as possible.
The curtain divider flew open, and someone stepped inside. The low, evening light revealed a man covered from head to toe in fresh blood. Unable to move or to speak, Melina sat frozen in fear under the tattered blanket she used as a feeble attempt to mimic invisibility.
The bloodied figure knelt in front of her. She inhaled the iron-rich smell that surrounded them both now. Then a familiar voice spoke.
"I told you I would be back. I would always come back for you."
Mel's eyes widened, and she dropped the feeble, fabric shield covering her face, to look into the hazel eyes of her brother, Bleiz. She took only a moment to overcome her sense that this might be a dream. She sprang into his arms, and he wrapped her secure in the strength of his warm embrace.
Taller and stronger than three years ago, Bleiz was now a man. He lifted her frail frame into his strong arms, carrying her and leaving everything behind.
"What about Ma and Pa?"
He shook his head but said nothing, showing his desire for silence. Out in the conjoining room, Melina saw her father sprawled on the floor, seeped in a pool of blood, that continue to spill from several grievous stab wounds in his chest. He was dead. Her raving mother prostrated herself over his corpse, praying to her evil goddess to spare her own soul over her husband's weakness and to destroy their murderous son.
Stomach twisting in knots, Melina turned to bury her face into the crook of her brother's neck. Their crazed mother continued to shriek accusations and insults at her son's retreating frame. Bleiz did not acknowledge her screams and never once looked back. He moved forward with Melina nestled in his arms, out past the dark forest and into a world beyond the darkness and sorrow of their childhood.