She's weak. So weak. Her lips are flaking, her throat is swollen and sore, her stomach is eating away at her flesh. Her whole body is crying out.
It's been three days. She's surprised she's even managed to last this long.
Lilith opens her eyes. She's been lying there for hours trying to conserve energy, but the hunger won't let her sleep. She pushes herself up onto an elbow and swings her legs over the side of the bed, her head spinning from the mere act of it.
The front of her gown sticks to her skin from the sweat and unwashed blood. She had realised days ago that the water to her chambers had been turned off. Another means of coercion.
She needs food and water, and soon, but her pride and anger won't ever allow her to give in to the reaper.
Slowly, she climbs off the bed and her feet takes her towards the balcony. Outside, the moon still hangs in the sky, its silver glow dimmed by silk curtains. No sign of morning.
Lilith throws open the balcony doors, and a gush of ice-kissed wind slices into her arms and face. Gazing at the grinning roses in the garden beneath her, a frightening idea flashes across her mind.
Gripping the railings tightly, she leans over the side and peers down. Two floors above ground, the drop isn't too great either.
If she were to try to escape...
The translucent white curtains flapping in the wind suddenly catch her attention through the corners of her eyes.
There's no choice. It's now or never.
Trembling, she grips them in her hands. It takes her several tries, but eventually, she manages to rip them from their frames.
She glances back towards the chamber doors, as if expecting the reaper to burst in at any moment. The prospect of being caught and killed looms over her.
Working quickly, Lilith ties the two pieces of silk together before wrapping the makeshift rope around the stone railing. It hangs over the side, ten feet away from the ground. She'd have to let herself fall for those last few feet.
Fear. It's the only thing coursing through her.
But she's desperate. There's no going back.
Slowly, Lilith climbs over the railing and positions herself on it so that both her legs dangle over the side, with one hand clenching tightly onto the rope, the other onto the stone.
Her only comfort is in knowing that at least the fall won't kill her.
Taking a deep breath, Lilith flips herself over so that she's facing the balcony, and moves her left hand onto the rope.
A heartbeat later, she begins to descend.
Her hands and legs immediately start to burn as her skin rubs against the silk. She winces, tears welling in her eyes. But at least the pain is holding her fear at bay.
Bit by bit, she edges down the rope. Bit by bit, the ground comes nearer and nearer. She breaks into a smile, a small tinkling laugh escaping her lips.
She's close...so close...just a little more, and she'll be free. She'll be free⎯⎯⎯⎯
A huge gust of wind is the only thing she feels before the rope sways, twists, crashing her into the side of the castle. Skin scrapes against stone, limbs tangle in limbs, hands slipping and slipping and then all she hears is the tearing of silk.
The tearing of silk and then she's falling. Falling and falling and falling and falling.
The ground spirals up to meet her and all she can do is squeeze her eyes shut and brace for the impact.
The moment she slams into the stone ground, blood spews from her lips.
She lies there on her back, dazed, the breath stolen from her lungs. She tries to move her body but there's only pain and blood and twisted limbs.
She's not dead. She's not dead she's not dead she's not dead. But what good would it be if she can't even move? She has to get up. Now. Someone would have heard the commotion.
Get up. Get up!
Biting down on her tongue and gathering her strength, Lilith flips herself over and onto her stomach. The single movement leaves her more breathless than she would have liked. Nothing broken at least. Blood drips from her chin, down her throat and she lets out a grunt as she pushes onto two feet.
And the moment she stops swaying, she's staggering past the gurgling fountain, out of the garden and towards the castle gates yards away.
No plan in mind. Nothing at all.
Through a haze of numbness and delirium, she's dimly aware of herself half-running, half-lurching through the conveniently open iron gates, and across the bridge.
Smooth stone gradually turns to jagged gravel as the small bridge ends, and the main one begins.
Immediately, the blanket of fog wraps around her, veiling everything from view. The wounds on the soles of her feet have torn open again. With each step, a bloody footprint is left behind. But Lilith doesn't falter. She doesn't look back. Doesn't glance at the grinning souls. One thought courses through her head. Only one: she's going to be free.
But the bridge doesn't end.
Lilith could have sworn she's been walking for hours. The bridge just doesn't seem to end. The river stretching towards the horizon on either side of her seems to mock her. Useless. Useless useless useless useless useless you can't escape.
You can't escape.
And then a figure emerges from the fog.
The trails of a bloodred gown are all she sees before the breath is dragged from her lungs and the world opens beneath her feet.
The moment the princess ran past the castle gates, Elara sensed it. That sudden rush of emptiness all but told her what was happening.
In that moment of rage, all she could think about was how she would kill the girl, how she would make her beg.
And now as she holds the princess over the side of the Bridge of Judgement by the throat with the river roaring beneath them, the corners of her lips are turned up into a grin.
"Did you really think you could escape?" Her voice is soft and near-lyrical, concealing the churning abyss of fury inside her.
The princess wheezes for air, her eyes squeezed shut.
"You mortals are all the same. A promise to you is nothing more than letters strung together to form words. Nothing more than the wind coming from your mouth. It's sickening."
"You were starving me. What was I to do?" the princess chokes out. Her eyes flutter half-open and Elara pauses, noticing the hatred burning in those emerald whorls of fire.
"You offered yourself to me," Elara says slowly. "You knew what you were getting yourself into. Yet you push the blame onto me when things don't go your way." Her fingernails dig into the princess's skin as the rage begins to seep through. "It was your choice to save the king."
"He is my father⎯⎯⎯⎯"
"He is a sinner. And sinners must be reaped."
"Let me fall then. Let me die by these waters," the princess spits. "If I am a sinner for loving my father, then kill me. Kill me!"
A heartbeat of silence. Elara merely stares at the princess, the smile falling from her lips.
For a moment, she hesitates. For a moment, she contemplates sparing her. For what would be the point in her waiting for eighteen years just to kill her prize four days later?
But then the disgust overwhelms her, and the rage takes over. Having nothing is better than having a lying, cheating, deceiving child.
"As you wish."
Elara's fingers loosen. She glimpses a brief flash of fear in the princess's eyes before she plummets out of view.
But the splash that should have followed does not come.
Elara peers over the side of the bridge. There, on the ledge, hangs the girl, holding on by one hand. A laugh bursts out from Elara's lips as she gazes down at her. "Not ready to die? Where did all the blind determination go?"
The princess doesn't respond, her entire body trembling.
Elara bends down and holds out her hand. "I'll give you another chance to choose. Will you die here and now, and give up your father's life as well? Or will you take my hand and swear your eternal loyalty and service to me? The choice is all yours."
"You don't want me to die, do you? Because you need me. You need me." The princess laughs breathlessly. "I want something in return for my service."
Elara raises her eyebrows. "I don't think you're in a position to make any demands from me. You're a sliver away from death, after all. And even after death, you'll still be in my grasps."
"If I have to spend the last few years of my life in service to a murderer, then I want something in return," she merely says.
"I didn't think you'd be this foolish. Do I not scare you? Does death not scare you?"
"Why would it? I'm going to die either way," she says, her eyes staring Elara down despite their positions. A soft laugh escapes Elara's lips. How amusing...The girl is certainly interesting.
"Fine. I'll make you a deal. Four years of service to me. That's all I need. That's all you can give anyway. By the end of every day at midnight, you must kill a sinner. And in return, I will make sure you feel no pain as long as you are with me. And when our bargain is over, your father shall live peacefully too. But if you choose to defy me or run away again, if you choose not to fulfil your end of the bargain, the one you love the most will die the moment midnight passes. Do we have a deal?"
"I don't believe you. How do I know you will keep your promise?"
"Do not insult me by assuming I'd do something as human as breaking a promise. Rest assured, my word is bound to my life. So, do we have a deal?"
"Yes," the princess croaks, reaching out with her hand. Her features soften as she lets the relief take over.
But a heartbeat before their fingers can intertwine, Elara pauses, and withdraws her hand.
A smile slips onto her lips as the scent of despair washes over her. "Drop the facade already, my dear," she croons.
"Everyone fears death. And I'm certain you are no different. Acting unafraid so that I'd be reluctant to kill you off? I saw through it, princess. I saw through your act."
She straightens and turns away.
"You were a fool to assume that I need you. I don't need anyone."
"Halt, reaper," a voice rings out around. The fog parts ever so slightly to reveal a hooded old lady standing a few yards away, her body hunched over. She dips her head in greeting and approaches slowly.
"Ophelia," Elara bristles. As if on instinct, she takes a few steps back. Her fingers twitch as she fights the urge to bring out her scythe.
"Long time no see," Ophelia muses, her voice low and gravelly. "It's been nearly two decades, hasn't it?" She pulls the hood away from her face and her bound silver hair glows in the soft light of the moon.
"Why have you come."
"Am I not allowed to roam in this world?"
"Your place is the Underworld. Stay where you belong," Elara sneers.
Ophelia laughs softly. Her attention turns towards the edge of the bridge, where the princess still hangs. "What a wonderful prize you have got there. Are you going to let her die?"
Elara shrugs, feigning nonchalance. "I don't need her anymore⎯⎯⎯⎯"
"Are you certain?"
"Are you certain you don't need her anymore," Ophelia repeats. "Because I think I might have a need for the girl."
Elara's hackles start to rise. "You can't have her."
"Why not? You're leaving her to die anyway. I'll take her instead."
"No." The scythe appears in Elara's hand and she moves to position herself in front of the princess. "I won't let you. She's my property."
"My, I certainly did not peg you to be the possessive kind." Ophelia tilts her head, her lips turning up. "Does this mean you will save her then?"
Elara blinks. Once. Twice. "Save...her?" A breath of disbelief leaves her lips. "Did you come here just to coerce me into sparing the child?"
Ophelia's smile widens.
"Make the deal with her, reaper."