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       Reign, p.20

           Chanda Hahn
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  Mina still felt disheartened about her missing shoes as she was led down to dinner and escorted to an empty chair next to Dinah. Teague sat at the head of the table, with Annalora at the place of honor on his right, followed by Ever, and Dinah sat to his left.

  This dinner was supposed to be a special occasion—for Teague to congratulate the four ladies who had made it through the second test. Tomorrow would hold the last test followed by the official announcement to the whole land. The other three girls genuinely sparkled with excitement, their faces glowing and smiles lighting up the room. Mina couldn’t even gather the courage to plaster on a fake smile.

  She found the strength to answer a question when directly spoken to, but she floundered when it came to entertaining. She felt hollow, an empty shell of herself. Here she was, at a beautiful table, eating the most extraordinary food, in a fairy-tale castle, and all she could think about was she was now stuck here—permanently.

  The only thing she could come up with was that the shoes might have run out of time and gone into the future—without her. She had made a stupid mistake. Now she’d never see her mother or brother again.

  Mina turned her head at the sound of Annalora’s voice and noticed how often she accidentally brushed against Teague’s arm, or ran her fingers along the cuff of his jacket. She was marking her territory. And at this point, Mina didn’t care.

  Dinah dropped her napkin between her chair and Mina’s, leaning close enough to grab it and whisper, “What’s wrong with you? This is no time to give up just because that harlot is trying to mess with your mind.”

  When Dinah looked into Mina’s tear-filled eyes and read the pain there, her voice changed. “Something else has happened.”

  Mina nodded her head, “Yes, the worst imaginable.”

  Dinah pinched her lips together and gave Mina’s hand a quick squeeze. “Don’t worry. It will all be over tomorrow and you can go home.”

  “That’s just it. I can never go home, regardless of the outcome,” Mina confided. A single tear slid down her cheek. She tried to wipe it away without making a big fuss about it, but Annalora saw and moved in for the kill.

  “So, Elle, crying about the next test already, I see.” Her smile was filled with delight. “Maybe you should quit now and save your breath.”

  Teague didn’t say anything. He just sat back and studied the two of them with interest.

  Mina didn’t have the heart to exchange barbs at the moment. She just reached out and took a sip of water.

  Ever, on the other hand, had plenty of fight left. “Why don’t you worry about yourself, Annalora?”

  “Because I don’t have anything to worry about.” She scooted closer to Teague and proceeded to look down her nose at the pixie. “But you on the other hand…do. I’ve heard how you’re an embarrassment to your family. Don’t go doing something stupid tomorrow, like actually trying to win. Because we all know you’ll fail.”

  Mina felt the air in the room stir as Ever tried to get her temper under control.

  Dinah gasped and clasped her hands over her mouth.

  The candles flickered more. Ever was about to truly embarrass herself. And that was something Mina didn’t want her friend to do. What did she have to lose at this point? She really couldn’t stand to see Annalora freely pick on the other girls.

  Mina picked up her glass of water and walked past Annalora, dumping it in her lap. Annalora shrieked in anger and jumped up.

  “I thought you needed a bath. Oh wait, I forgot. You already had one in the fountain.” Mina snarled and let a smile of pleasure show on her face.

  “You! You pushed me in the fountain.” Annalora’s face turned purple with rage. She really looked ugly when she was mad.

  Mina shrugged her shoulders, “How could I? I was in my room. Alone.”

  She had forgotten about Teague, but his laughter was a sudden reminder. Mina raised the empty glass in her hand and made a play of saluting him. He drank the rest of his and returned her salute.

  Mina placed her glass on the table and left. Instead of making her way back to her room, she picked up the edge of her skirt and wandered down the corridors until she found the main palace doors. She should have escaped as soon as she could with the shoes and found a way to her ancestors instead of getting distracted by helping Teague. But now, she was trapped on the Fae plane, and she hadn’t even been able to help anyone.

  The guards at the gate gave her a cursory glance, but let her pass without stopping her. She continued down the steps and walked up to the bridge, looking out over the lake. It was nearing sunset, and it was a terrible time to leave, but she couldn’t stay. She needed to find help, to find an ally that would help her find a way back home.

  Her feet carried her over the stone bridge, and she hesitated a moment when she heard the sounds of the trolls underneath, their claws scraping along the stone. Her steps piqued their curiosity, and she could see their red eyes watching her through the holes in the bridge. Since she was leaving they had no reason to bother her. Their job was to prevent unwanted arrivals.

  When she passed through the hidden veil, her skin buzzed and she heard the pop. She wasn’t sure why, but something told her to pick up her skirt and run. She’d made it past the final barrier without being stopped, but now she wanted to get as far away as she could. Maybe she could find another Schumacher to send her into the future.

  She was walking into the unknown. But she knew what would happen if she stayed. She’d either fail the test tomorrow, or she’d pass and have to watch as Teague got engaged to Annalora. And then the event she’d been warned about would happen.

  Something would launch the prince onto a terrible warpath of destruction, and she needed to be as far away from him as she could when that happened.

  Tears filled her eyes, and it was difficult to see where she was going.

  The two suns had finally set just as she made it into the woods. She wandered around and eventually found a small grove of twisted trees with the familiar purple fruit Nix had shown her. She plucked some low-hanging fruit from a branch and sat down to eat.

  What was her next move?

  The bushes closest to her started to move, and Mina jumped, alarmed.

  Suddenly, someone darted out from between the branches. Ferah! Bedraggled, pale, and wide-eyed with fright, she tripped and fell on the ground next to Mina in exhaustion.

  Her hand gripped Mina’s forearm as she choked out one raspy word. “Run.”

  Chapter 26

  That was the only warning Mina received before a scythe sliced through the bushes—quick and clean. The Reaper stepped into the open and pulled back his hood. His black face accentuated his evil yellow eyes. In the darkness, they seemed to glow like a cat as they followed her movements.

  Ferah whimpered and tried to move away, but it was clear that she was exhausted and couldn’t run any farther. Her lips were dry and cracked and even her eyes were losing their luster. What had the Reaper done to her? She looked inches from death.

  Mina stepped in front of Ferah, protecting her from the Reaper.

  “Go away. You’ve done enough,” Mina warned, her hand slowly reaching for the Grimoire.

  The Reaper laughed, or tried to laugh. A weird hacking noise came from his throat. “Move, or you’ll die with your friend,” his coarse voice rang out, silencing the sounds of the forest.

  “I won’t be the one dying this night. Now leave. This is the only warning I’m giving you,” Mina called out boldly. In the face of death, she wasn’t afraid. If she couldn’t save her family, then she would die trying to save one of the Fae.

  “You mean you won’t be the only one dying tonight. For I shall kill you both.” His hand gripped his scythe and the silver blade grew longer, creating an arc over four feet long.

  Mina couldn’t let this girl die. Not if she had any say in the matter.

  She held the Grimoire out in front of her, and it grew in size to a shimmering golden version of the Reaper’s own weapon. S
he changed her stance, gripped the scythe over her shoulder like a baseball bat, and beckoned with her hand.

  “What’s this, girl? You intend to mock me before you die? Do you know who I am? I’m a Reaper. I’m the killer of dreams.”

  “Well, I’m the Grimm…and I’m a Reaper’s worst nightmare.” Mina didn’t wait. She rushed forward intent on catching him off guard. The Reaper swung his scythe to meet hers and the blades rang as they collided. She turned, using her momentum to swing her smaller scythe at his thighs. He had to lower his own blade to stop her from cutting his legs.

  They paused, staring each other down.

  The Reaper hissed. “I’m surprised at your enthusiasm to meet your death. Weren’t you one of the young ladies at the palace? I believe you were. You protected the prince from this one, and now you defend her? Were you in league with her from the start?”

  “No, I’ve never met her before. But I do believe in second chances. Except when it comes to you,” she growled.

  This time it was the Reaper who led the attack, while Mina parried his blows. The clash of metal filled the forest, and she thought she saw a shadow pass overhead. But she didn’t have time to be distracted. The Reaper feinted and took a Superman-like leap straight up into the trees. She lost him in the canopy of darkness above and slashed at the shadows that danced near her. Goose bumps ran up her arms, and she thought she saw movement to her left. She screamed and sliced, connecting with nothing but air.

  Breathing hard, Mina tightened her grip on her weapon and closed her eyes to listen. She knew the Reaper was hiding in the shadows above her. The wind blew softly through the trees, and she waited…listening…until she heard it.

  The rattle that comes before death strikes.

  She screamed and held the scythe above her, using it to blast a golden beam of light into the face of the Reaper as he leapt at her from the trees. He screeched in pain, covering his eyes from the blinding light that pulsed from her weapon. Mina used the distraction to spin and cut the Reaper out of the sky. He fell to the ground with a heavy thud, wounded but not dead.

  But it was enough. He was weakened enough for the Grimoire to entrap him. The scythe changed into the Grimoire again. More light emanated into the forest, wind picked up, and she heard him scream in terror.

  It was over.

  Afterwards, the forest was eerily silent, and Mina saw the Grimoire’s pages flip. It stopped on a page, and just before its light faded and it closed, she could make out the picture of the final battle between her and the Reaper.

  Mina turned to help Ferah, but the Fae girl was gone. She’d disappeared, leaving only a slight impression where her body had lain on the grass. Mina was about to call out for her when she grew cold and a large shadow beast appeared before her. She wasn’t afraid as the shadow dissolved into Teague’s Fae form.

  “You ran away, Elle. Why?” His voice didn’t give any hint to his feelings. But she knew from experience with Jared, that he wasn’t asking. He was accusing.

  She couldn’t answer him, so she turned her back on him and continued to scan the forest for Ferah. If the girl came back now, she’d be in worse trouble than before. She hoped Ferah had the sense to stay far away.

  “Answer me, Elle.” His voice rose, and she could hear the anger he was trying to hide.

  Mina sighed and turned, holding her hands at her side. “I’m trying to find my way home.” She couldn’t make eye contact with him, so she continued to stare at the grass.

  “I don’t know why you always think the worst of me. If you had passed the next test, you’d always have had a home with me. Even if you didn’t, I would make sure you’d be taken care of.”

  Her heart skipped a beat, but she remembered why she was here. Teague couldn’t be trusted. Even split from his worse half, Jared couldn’t always be trusted.

  “I can’t. You’ll come to hate me over time,” she answered truthfully.

  “You don’t know that.” He sounded hurt.

  “I do. And I also know that I can never live in the castle. That will never be my home.” She pointed back toward the hills beside the palace.

  “So you would rather run away, fight a Reaper, than marry me?” He was clearly trying to stay calm, but his words were sharp and his arms flung in each direction as he spoke. “I can tell you that I’m not that bad.” He finally noticed the Grimoire laying on the ground and leaned down to pick it up.

  Mina argued, “Hey wait a minute, that belongs—”

  “—to me,” he finished. But Mina grabbed the journal from him and pulled.

  Teague wasn’t prepared to let go, and the book ripped into two pieces. “You tore it!” He growled in frustration.

  “No, you did!” she yelled back.

  “I can’t believe you stole from me.” Shocked, he held his ripped half up.

  “Borrowed,” she corrected indignantly.

  “When were you going to give it back? After you ran away from the ceremony and killed one of the Fates’ Reapers to save a fugitive? I bet you were coming right back to give it to me, weren’t you?”

  “Um, okay.” She bit her lip and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “Borrowed with the intent to not return…right away.”

  He crossed his arms and held the damaged book in front of her. “If you wanted it that badly, I would have given it to you.” His hand glowed, and he waved it in front the damaged book. It began reknitting itself. He did the same to Mina’s half, and her front cover and few pages filled out into a completely separate book.

  “Now we both can have one. See?” He flipped his open, stopping to stare at the image of the ogre on one page and the Reaper locked in battle of scythes with Mina on another.

  Mina held her half of the Grimoire tightly and eyed the one Teague held. She started to shake. It couldn’t be. This wasn’t how it all started, was it? Was she the reason the Grimoire had been split in the first place, creating the two books? Could all this really have happened before? It was too much for her to take in.

  The sky spun and she felt light headed. She could barely make out Teague dropping the book and running for her as she slid to the ground in a faint.

  Chapter 27

  It was a maze.

  The final test was a maze and Mina was horribly lost.

  She’d awakened the following morning back at the Fae palace in her own bed, weak and a bit disoriented. Her head literally pounded.

  No wait. It was the door. The brownie girl came in and helped Mina get dressed for the final test. The rules were simple. They would each be placed on different corners of the maze. Teague would be waiting in the middle. The maze was enchanted and would shift and change. Whichever girl made it to the tower would be worthy of being Princess of the Fae and would marry Teague.

  The brownie overlooked not a single detail as she curled and pinned Mina’s hair to befit a princess. Mina’s dress flowed from her hips in swaths of lavender silk that resembled flower petals. Strips of the same lavender silk wrapped around her torso creating a fitted bodice. She had no jewelry, nothing to adorn the beautiful dress, but it really didn’t need anything else. She looked like a beautiful chrysanthemum.

  “You did a beautiful job—not just today—but every day that you’ve helped me.” Mina felt sad that she hadn’t spoken to the brownie before this.

  Her deep tanned face grinned, making her eyes sparkle with pride. “My charge will be on equal playing ground with the others. Doesn’t matter if you’re not from here. You belong with the prince.”

  Mina’s stumbled in her borrowed shoes. “How do you know I’m not from here?”

  The brownie smiled knowingly and pressed her finger to her nose. “We brownies are smart.” She waited a moment before adding, “Plus, I found something in your coach when you first got here. I was looking for your trunks, but all I found was this.” She handed over the seam ripper.

  As Mina felt the cool silver tube in her hand, she wanted to cry. “How? Why are you giving this to me now?”

  “I had to make sure it wasn’t dangerous, so I brought it to my brother who studied it and took it apart. We had to make sure it wasn’t a weapon.”

  “You took it apart? What if it doesn’t work now?”

  The brownie looked offended. “He wouldn’t have broken it. See? It looks as good as new.” She paused and looked eagerly at the silver object in Mina’s hands. “But he didn’t know what it does. What does it do?”

  Mina lied. “Nothing. It’s just a good luck charm.”

  Now the Fae had the schematics to make a seam ripper. All because of her. Things were getting stranger by the minute. She tucked the seam ripper in her pocket next to the Grimoire.

  “Thank you.” Mina answered, unsure about what she was supposed to do next. Captain Plaith, wearing his sun and moon emblazed armor, was the one who appeared at her door to escort her to the final test. He seemed on edge, worried. Similar to how she’d seen him when she and Nix snuck into the palace before. Though this time, he had less gray hair.

  Everything was a daze. She barely registered walking the halls. One minute she was in her room, the next she was outside being led across the dew-covered palace lawn. There was a slight chill in the air, and a morning fog crept along the ground which only added to her dismal mood. The fog hid the maze until she was almost right on top of it.

  Green. Walls of twisted green bushes rose out of the ground, ten feet high.

  “The maze is over two square miles in size. In the very center is the glass observatory. That is your goal.” Captain Plaith relayed information to her the same way he relayed information to his troops—formal and direct.

  She could hear voices on her near right and caught a glimpse of Ever and her escort just before they disappeared into the morning mist.

  A loud, haughty voice laughed to her left, and Mina cringed. Annalora’s laugh would haunt her for days. She was glad the fog hid the horrible girl from view. Only briefly did she wonder where Dinah would end up.

  “Each of you will be entering from a different side of the maze. But be careful. It is enchanted. You will come face to face with your true self inside, and that can sometimes change people.” He clipped his boots together and turned abruptly, presenting her very own entrance to the maze—a large silver door decorated with vines and roses. She couldn’t help but think of Alice and Wonderland. Would she the words “Off with her head” today?

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