The Cursed Kingdom

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THIRTY-NINE

~ THE DEMON ~

I woke up with a loud ringing in my ears and the feeling of my brain pounding against my skull, the feverish beat making me groan and roll onto my back so I could press my shaking palms against my eyelids in an attempt to relieve some of the pain. But it was futile. My whole head felt like it was consumed in fire and its invisible flames were burning me from the inside out, slowly turning my senses and conscience into mere ashes until all I could focus on was the agony it inflicted.

Darting my tongue out to lick my painfully chapped lips, I furrowed my eyebrows in confusion when I noticed that the torture didn't just end at my neck but also spread down my spine, which was lying flat an something hard and cold—the complete opposite of Henrik's plush mattress. I forced my eyes open, ignoring how my pulsing brain protested, and sat up when blackness met them as if my eyelids had never parted at all, my body stiffening when my palms registered the feeling of smooth stone underneath my body.

"Oh no..." I muttered, springing onto my feet, and immediately almost toppled over, a familiar sensation of lightheadedness amongst the pain feeding my dread with each passing second. Spinning in circles, my eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness to where I could at least see shadows and figures and then widened when I saw where I was, which confirmed exactly what I'd feared since the moment I woke up—I was stuck in yet another nightmare.

All around me was grey stone—under my feet, beside me, above me—everywhere until it disappeared behind the curtains of blackness on either side where the cylinder-shaped cave went too far for my eyes to see. The whole space felt like it was vibrating with energy, my bare feet tingling from the strange sensation, and it smelled unusually like something was burning, although there was no smoke or fire in sight.

Pulling my eyes down from the stalactite-infested ceiling, my eyebrows scrunched in confusion when I took note of the yellow-tinted vines along the cave's walls. I traced them with my eyes, seeing how they all sprouted from the ground and wove together to form a large and oddly formed cocoon-like mass only a foot above the ground that had a gaping hole in its center.

I cringed, taking a tentative step closer to try to get a better look at it, grime and rocks as big as my fingernails sticking to the bottom of my feet. My stomach churned in horror and disgust when I made the observation that it looked like something had crawled out of it, dried pieces of the strange vegetation scattered below the cocoon that was well over five feet tall. Squinting to look inside, I could faintly see the outline of where a head used to be but the rest of the vines were all too damaged and ripped up to make out what kind of creature could've come from it. So I took a step back and averted my gaze to the darkness, not wanting to think about it anymore since my thoughts would only make me more nervous.

It's just a dream, I repeatedly told myself. Nothing can hurt you.

"Hello?" I exclaimed helplessly, my voice reverberating off the walls and into the ears of unfeeling darkness. Dream or not, my heart gave a leap at just how endless the cave sounded, the echoes of my voice and heavy breathing almost seeming to go on forever, and prayed that whatever creature had emerged from the cocoon didn't care for the taste of Human flesh or was at least too far away to hear my voice. “Mom!

"It's amusing how many creatures scream for their mothers when they're afraid."

A shriek of fear escaped me, shrill and loud enough to have something within the darkness scatter away, and I whipped around in the direction of the voice, my blood becoming as frozen as ice.

Sitting at a small square table that wasn't there a second ago was a man whose brown hair was slicked back into perfection and blue eyes were trained on me expectantly and equivalent to if I was a speck of dirt under his black shoes. In the dim lighting that was provided by his unusual blue-flame lantern on the table, I stared at his fingertips that had clumps of dirt trapped underneath them as they languidly moved up and down and back down and up in an impatient pattern against the metal piece of furniture. The man couldn't have been older than thirty and I would've considered him handsome if it weren't for his sickly pale skin that suggested he hadn't seen sunlight in a concerning amount of time and his eyes that lacked any warmth of a soul.

"Do you like the suit?" He gestured to his red attire with a sly grin that made a single shiver run down my still aching spine as he lightly tugged at his lapels in what I guessed was his way of trying to straighten them out. His voice was unusually deep and raspy, almost sounding as if he was ill, but what interested me the most about it was how he possessed a deep northern Human Kingdom accent, just like the one I had except his 'o's were much more dragged out. "I made sure it specifically matched the color of blood since I know how well acquainted you are with the substance."

My mouth gaped at that, appalled by his statement, and suddenly the headache I'd forgotten about returned tenfold, the pressure from my quickened pulse making my knuckles yearn to smack something and my legs desperate to run.

"Who are you?" I asked and scanned his figure once more, trying to detect weapons or anything distinct about the stranger that could identify who he was.

But he was as much of a mystery as the reason for why I was in a cave, not one inch of him familiar except for his accent, which just confused and frustrated me more since I had an inkling that I should've known who he was, in spite of me never seeing him before.

In all my dreams in the past, the people I'd encountered had been ones I knew very well—the twins, who were two of my best friends since childhood, and my mom, who I shared the closest bond with even after her death—so I'd come to the conclusion that those were their spirits visiting me, trying to give me one last message before they found where they belonged in the afterlife. Even the locations were places I'd been to hundreds—if not thousands—of times, except for the first one which was just a blank, white space, which I liked to think was heaven.

So I didn't understand why all of a sudden I was dreaming about a man and a cave I didn't know. It didn't make any sense. Although I tried not to think about it, it forced the idea upon me that perhaps my dreams weren't just unhappy souls visiting me in my sleep at all but something much darker and beyond any mortal's or spirit's control.

"What? You mean to say you don't recognize me, Raena?" He cocked his head to the side and mockingly stuck out his bottom lip, the action making a vein in my temple give a single excruciating pulse. Leaning forward, he placed most of his body weight in his forearms, clasped hands barely grazing the lantern, and gave me a better look at his rectangular face that flickered in the soft firelight. "C'mon, Your Majesty," he said my title like it was the funniest joke of the century, "I know this is a different form but look deep into these ugly, little human eyes." I glared at him as he continued batting his eyelashes at me, amusement dancing in every single one of his features.

"Just tell me who you are and leave me the hell alone," I spat, subtly glancing around to try to find an escape route.

A part of me internally begged for my mother to suddenly appear and make this strange man go away, believing with my whole heart, despite her past behavior in my dreams, that she would never let any harm come to me. That she loved me too much to let that happen. But of course, just like the times I'd called upon her spirit when I was a child who still trusted a blanket to protect me from danger, she did not arrive to save me and I came to the harsh conclusion that I would have to face this nightmare alone.

"Well, it appears you've developed quite the attitude," he huffed with a disapproving frown, crinkling his nose when he noticed my light blue nightgown. His eyes trailed upwards, stopping briefly at my breasts, and to my neck and I gasped in horror when suddenly a chilling red took over the blue of his irises until his eyes matched his suit. He pointed to the seat on the other side of the table and leaned back in his chair, appearing bored by my terrified facial expression—like he was used to it. "Sit." The demon's voice reminded me of how someone would command a dog, word clipped short, firm, and leaving no room for question.

I took a step back, looking over my shoulder to see if I could make a run for it, and suddenly my mark prickled for the first time in a week, the sudden sensation taking me by surprise. It was the first time it'd done that since Henrik and I's fight and I tensed, briefly wishing for my mate's warm presence to be near me. But I quickly pushed the thought out. Just like my mother, Henrik wasn't going to save me. Nobody was.

As I stared at the darkness of the cave, it seemed to reach out for me, begging me to run towards its open arms and into the slight protection it could provide me. Come closer, it whispered and my heart desired to do just that. I knew it would be risky, not knowing if it led to an exit or if there was one at all, but I still took another daring move towards it. My instincts were screaming at me to get far away from the male's eyesight as quickly as possible, figuring that losing my sanity in darkness would be a better fate than the one he had in store for me.

I turned my head back around to glance at the demon for what I hoped was the last time only to see him still slumping in his chair lazily but now wagging his finger in the air, his red eyes glowing furiously and his smirk the evilest thing I'd ever witnessed.

My breath hitched in my throat.

"I said—" the demon hissed through gritted teeth and snapped his fingers down towards the seat, "—sit!"

All it took was a blink and my ass was slammed against a hard material by an invisible force and I looked up to see the demon had teleported me into the chair across from him, his face so close to mine that I almost screamed. Panicking, I tried to stand but it was like the lower half of my body was suddenly too heavy for me to move at all, not even my toes wiggling when I tried to get them to, and I pushed my hands against the edge of the seat in an attempt to lift me up but it was no use.

I was trapped.

"Now, that's better," he sighed, smiling at my struggle, and propped his chin on his palm as if I was his favorite show.

"Who are you?" I repeated as a cry, staring into his red eyes with fear as hot tears scorched my cheeks and landed onto my lap.

With every quick and shallow inhale, the air felt like it got thinner and thinner until my lungs ached and my head felt so light that I thought without a doubt that I would pass out at any second, my nightgown clinging onto my sweat-covered body like a second skin and almost feeling like it was suffocating me. Desperately, I continued clawing at the chair, the table, and even my thighs to try to get them to obey me and only stopped when I saw the skin becoming red with my nail marks, the distinct tingling sensation of sleep spreading throughout my muscles until I could hardly feel my hands on them at all.

"Well I can't just tell you that, Raena—That's quite an interesting name, isn't it? Rae-na. Do you know why you were named it? Any family members?" he said, assessing my glowering face that screamed every word of hatred I'd thought about him since he had first spoken. "No? Shame. But I suppose that's not truly important, is it?" He crossed his arms over his chest, adopting a judgmental glare whose wickedness was enhanced by the dancing blue hue of the lantern's flames that enhanced the shadows of his face and the red of his eyes. "No. What's important is me informing you know how much of a waste you prove yourself to be every single fucking day."

I clenched my jaw at his words, feeling my pulse quicken and my blood boil until pure rage consumed my entire being. "You—"

"The wool over your eyes is so thick I'm surprised you haven't tripped over your own foot and stabbed yourself on something. I mean, really, Raena?" He banged a fist on the table in what appeared to be frustration. "The choices you've made these past months are embarrassing. If things were done my way, everyone would be dead and burning in Stortarus already."

At the mention of the lowest level of hell, a pit of flaming agony where only demons and the worst people—no, monsters such as murderers—were sent, my face morphed into a grimace and I cast my eyes to the lantern, watching the flames flicker underneath the swirling metal frame. In my culture, it was believed that speaking Stortarus's name aloud could summon evil spirits, misfortune, or even death itself and it was forbidden throughout the Human Kingdom. In some provinces, it was a federal crime.

I knew of only one person from Amaryllus who ever dared to do such a thing, a thirteen year old boy who'd spoken it one day during school while trying to impress his friends, and this occurred only a few months after my friends and I had passed our final year. The teacher immediately banned him from attending her class again and everyone else refused to go near him, including his friends and his own parents who forced him to sleep outside in the chicken coop. The priests and priestesses covered him in so many different blessed oils after they wafted burning sage throughout the school's three room building that Oriana and I swore we could smell him from her house that was on the opposite side of the village from where he lived.

A couple weeks following the event, the boy suddenly drowned, his bloated body found bobbing in the lake that people, including my friends and I, normally ice skated on in the winter. Whether it was accidental or purposeful or demon work, no one knew, although many had their own speculations, and he had to be lifted out by a group of three men with shovels and a rake since everyone refused to touch him. Later that day, he was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere deep in the woods after two iron stakes were stabbed through both his eyes so that if there was an evil spirit in his body, it couldn't see to find its way out.

I couldn't help but think of him immediately when the word left the demon's mouth, the word that had in one way or another ended a young boy's life. Although it was encouraged to try to forget him, some claiming if you pictured his face that it would bring you the same bad luck that he had, the boy's story only confirmed for me that nothing good could come out of speaking it and I couldn't help but do exactly what I was told not to do, his once lively brown eyes forever seared into my memory. Forever forewarning me.

Noticing the change in my behavior, the demon in front of me released a dry chuckle that made me flinch and I looked down at my lap, my fingers playing with the edge of my nightgown that was stained with water droplets.

"Luckily for you, I'm an impatient being that doesn't strive to watch you squirm under rhymes and vague sentences that you're clearly too unintelligent to understand. I wish to give you the truth directly without any room for error. Even for a..." He looked me up and down scrutinizingly, narrowing his eyes while he hissed through his teeth as if he found every detail of my appearance disgusting. "Well, a you."

"The truth?" I echoed under my breath and scoffed, watching the small scar beside his mouth twitch. "Like I would ever believe you. You won't even give me your name." I stared straight into his red eyes, despite the nauseating feeling they left in my stomach and how they made my mark pulse with a silent warning. But I forced myself to do it, forced myself to try to trick this demon in front of me that he didn't scare me as much as he thought he did.

"It's pathetic how you physical creatures still think a name is worth anything," he said and I tried to keep my face as impassive as Henrik's was whenever he tried hiding his emotions and cursed internally when my lips continued quivering, my eyes burning with unshed tears. "Knowing a name is equivalent to knowing the person's shoe size. Yes, the number remains the same but they can always slip on a different shoe." He looked at me and suddenly smirked, flashing me his pearls for teeth. I gulped and silently begged myself to wake up, pinching my arms with my nails under the table with the hope that somehow that would be enough to elicit the outcome I wanted. "You can trust my word, Raena. I promise. Now if you'd just sit still..."

I jumped back when the arm that'd been resting on the table suddenly stretched towards my face, his brown nails only inches away from my eyes. My hands immediately came up, ready to defend myself, and I leaned as far back in my seat as the enchantment he'd placed on me would allow me to, my heart galloping within my chest.

"Oh, please," he drawled, rolling his eyes at my shaking fists, and placed his limb back where it had been before. "Hurting you isn't my job. Not yet at least. Even if I wanted to, I couldn't." There was a deafening pause of silence. "You do want the truth don't you?" I stayed quiet with a conflicting mix of contemplation and fear at his slowly delivered question. "Tsk, tsk—I don't have that much time, you know."

"What's your motive?" I asked, hesitantly lowering my hands while I lifted my chin. Strong, I reminded myself as I stole a deep breath, trying to think of how calmly Henrik would be poised in a stressful situation. Be strong. "Everyone has a motive for everything. So what's yours?"

"Justice," he said without any hesitation and as if it was the most obvious answer in the world. "Everything I've ever done with my existence has been for justice and making sure everyone gets what they deserve."

"And you think me knowing the truth will do that?—Give people what they deserve?" I turned my head and eyed the unusual gaping cocoon on the wall, my spine shuddering when my mind wandered to what sort of horrific creature could've possibly come out of it. When I looked back at the demon, I noticed him grinning widely, a sort of proud wickedness in his eyes that I didn't understand at the time but would eventually. "What would that entail?"

"Maybe if you sit still for a few seconds and let me show you, you'll find out," he said through gritted teeth and lips that were pulled back into a fake grin. He was getting more impatient—more antsy. I could see it in the way his dirt-infested fingernails began tapping yet again along the table but much quicker than before and how his knee bounced in sync with their manic beat. "Now are you going to continue being an ungrateful brat or... ?"

I sent him a glare and right when I was about to deliver the nastiest retort I could, the ground gave a violent shudder and a few loosened rocks fell from the ceiling, causing me to screech in fear when one nearly missed my shoulder. Hundreds of smaller ones ranging from the size of backgammon pieces to a sharp tip of a needle dropped onto the table and all around us along with clouds of grime that I assessed with fearful eyes, my hands braced on the table until my chair stopped shaking and the grey particles stopped falling.

"What was that?"

The demon looked upwards and squinted, brushing a hand over his hair to brush out some of the dust that had gotten trapped in his locks. "You are disturbing my glamour." A low groan came from either side of us out of the darknesses and my head whipped towards the vines as they began pulsing with a strange yellow light that came from the now beating empty cocoon that eerily reminded me of a living heart, each of its thumps against the stone wall making my head erupt with more pain. "It's now or never," the demon told me, looking around and seeming just as perplexed as I was towards what was taking place. "You have to let me show you before this shit hole collapses—Raena." I snapped my head towards his eyes and something within me, either the stupid or desperate part of myself, had me leaning my head towards him and screwing my eyes shut, tears of helplessness and panic dripping onto the table. It's just a dream, I repeated. Nothing can hurt me. "Now that's a good little pet."

I flinched when his cold finger touched my forehead and his dark and disturbingly cold magic stabbed itself into my brain, injecting images into the organ similar to how a syringe releases medicine into the bloodstream. Quivering and holding myself back from slapping his hand away, I watched with gritted teeth whatever he wanted to show me. It began with a picture of when my friends and I were attacked but from an outsider's perspective behind what I perceived to be a tree, Taylium a bloodied mess, Tylem just being attacked, and the Rogue ripping at my clothes while a screaming Oriana was completely unaware of the wolf behind her. The palace's empty hallways followed with the main staircase, a dust-covered chess board, people screaming behind and scratching at metal bars, until finally he showed me the reason why he had invaded my mind in the first place.

I lurched back, the chair falling over as I scrambled to stand up, now free from the demon's invisible chains since he'd gotten what he wanted. "No." My voice cracked and along with it so did the ceiling loudly above us. The cocoon quickened its beating, its rhythm now indistinguishable against my own. Tears filled my eyes and at the same time bile rose into my throat, absolutely disgusted by what he'd shown me and begging to the gods with every fiber of my being that it wasn't true. "You're wrong. That can't be. It just can't—"

"Oh, but it is," he said, looking completely calm in spite of the rocks falling around him. A stone as large as my fist hit him in the head and he appeared completely unfazed despite the blood that began trickling down his forehead, which he wiped away with an annoyed roll of his eyes. "You see, pet, one of my weaknesses is that I'm incapable of lying or breaking promises. And somewhere deep down in that pitiful excuse of a soul of yours, you know I'm telling the truth too." His gaze lazily drifted to the pulsing vines and then back at me. "Oh, and I'd hurry to do what needs to be done before the servants return. Wouldn't want any witnesses."

"But—"

"Justice is coming," he interrupted, staring up at the ceiling. "Just watch."

His wide grin paired with glowing red eyes was the last thing I saw of the demon before the cave gave a mighty roar, wind from every direction slapping against my body and blowing out the blue flames while the ground began to tremble and I struggled to remain standing.

With one final shake that was so brutal that it had the lantern on the table shattering onto the floor, the ceiling gave a loud crack and that was all it took for the cave to collapse in on itself.

I screamed in terror, lifting my arms above my head in a pitiful attempt to protect myself from the falling sharp shards of rocks, and turned my face to the floor, my eyes closed as I awaited whatever torture the cave was prepared to give me. But it never came. No pain. No death. Nothing happened at all and through the sound of my ragged, quick breathing, I noticed that everything had gone eerily silent and still.

Slowly, I lowered my hands and hesitantly blinked open my eyes, scared to see what horror waited for me next but became startled when I saw that the cave, the cocoon, and the demon were all gone and in their place was Henrik and I's bedroom exactly the way I'd left it before I went to bed, the empty tea kettle and cup in the sitting area and my book on my nightstand.

Everything was the same except me, who stood next to the bed dressed in ankle boots I didn't realize I had, tight fitting black trousers, and a dark blue tunic instead of my nightgown that I spotted balled up in the middle of the floor. A lump formed in my throat as I shakily approached it, staring at it with fear like it would grow teeth and attack me. Slowly, I kneeled down and picked it up, sucking in a breath when I felt how the silk was still warm from my body heat.

I didn't know when or how I'd gotten dressed in my sleep, but there was no doubt within me that the demon had something to do with it—no doubt that he'd somehow manipulated my physical body to do what he wanted just as he had to the one in my dream. It made me feel sick to my stomach, the stinging on my legs from where my nails had scratched them and the dried tears on my cheeks becoming that much realer.

I shivered when a lone breeze caressed my uncovered arms and I looked over to see that one of the windows was wide open, curtains blowing softly with the wind. Gulping because I knew I hadn't even gone near the windows that night, my eyes trailed upwards to the full moon that tainted the cloudless sky, its Goddess's victims filling my ears with their mournful howls.

"Go," a familiar voice whispered against my ear, their breath tickling the sensitive skin.

A scream got caught in my throat and I jumped around, fists raising in self defense to protect my face and dropping my nightgown in the process. But there was nothing there, not a sign of another living person in the room except me.

My chest heaved with every harsh breath that entered my lungs, fearful eyes observing every corner and shadow in the room until I was confident there was nobody else in the room. At least, nobody I could see.

Giving the moon one last glance, I pictured Lucine smirking down at me as I stepped over my nightgown and headed towards the door, not knowing whether or not I wanted the demon or my mate to come out as the liar.


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