The Cursed Kingdom

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FORTY

~ THE INNOCENT ~

Every single lightbulb in the palace—all thirty thousand of them—had been turned off before the servants left, encasing the entire palace with a layer of darkness that seeped past the surface and through every floorboard, every golden decoration, and into my very being, weighing me down with each step that swept me farther away from Henrik's bedroom.

Without the servants' traffic and chatter to give the hallways a bit of life and no source of light except for the moon herself, who, even shining brightly through every window, felt like the single darkest being in the entire universe, the palace was turned into a house of nightmares. Things born out of fear, hatred, and deceit crept behind every swirl in the wallpapers and crouched low in the shadows, waiting giddily like school children anticipating their turn on a swing.

I could feel their eyes on me—could hear them in every shallow breath that escaped my parted lips and the screeches and howls of Lycans that got louder as I descended the stairs, the promise of something unpleasant awaiting me. Sometimes I even swore I saw the outline of a person or two reaching out for me, the details of their fingers so real that I felt as if I could've drawn them from memory. But every time I dared to steal a peek, there was nothing there except more impenetrable blackness—more demons.

Since it allowed me enough light to descend the stairs without much trouble, except for my one tiny stumble into a banister on the second floor's landing, I realized as I stepped onto the first floor, that I was perhaps the victim to the moon's kindest act ever. But the thought vanished when I looked to my left and saw Henrik and I's portrait that was between the two helical staircases, the moonlight and shadows working together so that the light only hit Henrik's form, leaving me completely in the dark.

How typical, I thought, my mark giving a pulse of agreement.

Giving the moon and our faces one last fleeting glance, I continued as I had been before with my pace remaining quick yet not rushed, both hesitant and anxious, and my ears straining to listen to the sound of my boots clicking against the marble floors instead of the heart that pounded against my ribs.

Go back, the organ begged, but my stubbornness and curiosity muffled out its desires until all I could focus on was the path ahead of me, which was unnervingly the exact same as the one the demon had shown me with not a single detail of the hallways out of place.

Whether or not I wanted its destination to be just as accurate, I hadn't fully figured out because no matter what, I knew the reality of the outcome would absolutely devastate me. However, in spite of my anxiety towards the unknown and my love for Henrik and the desire to trust his word, I knew that I needed to discover the truth and experience it for myself so that no room would be left for uncertainty that could give someone the opportunity to deceive me.

Only then could I move on with my life.

Only then could I figure out what it would require for me to be happy—and what I would need to let go of.

After turning a short corner, I entered a familiar hallway that had nostalgia ringing my insides like an old rag and leaving behind a distasteful burn. The only times I ever passed through this section of the palace was when Ingrid arrived or departed in her small carriage and enter through the side door because she claimed the front was too much of a haste. The sight of its wallpaper and floors had a lump forming in my throat, my eyes finding the familiar unsigned paintings that I always admired.

My steps faltered, although for only a second, as my mind wondered about how the healer was doing at that very moment and if she could ever forgive me for what I put her and her family through.

The thought of Ingrid never speaking to me again made my eyes prickle with tears, knowing that the possibility of that being my reality was not an unlikely one. But if that did prove to be her decision, then I would understand. I would understand because I would've done the same if I was in her situation. Yes, Ingrid was a gentle and forgiving person and our time together was always pleasant, but she had a family that had to come first and if I threatened their ability to live a good, honorable life, then she had every right to acknowledge and act on that. Although I would mourn our friendship forever, I would not fight her or coerce her into ever even being in the same building as me. After everything, she deserved respect and as long as she and her family were happy, that was more than enough for me.

I stopped abruptly, a sudden buzzing sensation equivalent to tiny voices whispering against my skin in a forbidden language spreading from the back of my head and throughout my entire body until they were buried in every vein.

Dazed, I blinked straight ahead at the hallway until finally I turned my head to the left and towards the closed door where the sensation seemed to omitting from, like the undeniable pull of a magnet persuading me closer. Although every door in the palace was the same, taller than the typical Human door, brass handles level with my chest, and made of dark wood with swirling designs, there was something different about this one. Something not quite right that had a shiver running down my spine.

Slowly latching my hand around the handle, I gave it a hesitant twist and pushed it open, a cringe racking through my body as its hinges creaked their protests and the sharp sounds pierced through every particle.

Slipping inside quickly, as if I thought there was the chance of someone catching me if I moved any slower, I left the door ajar after I entered, paranoid I somehow wouldn't be able to open it again if I closed it all the way. Relived surprise flooded my system with its cool embrace when all I saw was a game room similar to the others scattered through the palace's first and second floor, a bowling alley, many tables, a mini bar, and even a section for shuffle boarding taking up the majority of the large space.

Everything looked completely normal and I was considering leaving, had even gone as far as to taking a step towards the door, until I noticed the chess board on top of a table placed weirdly off to the side.

It was the same one the demon had shown me.

My heart leapt into my throat as I began taking cautious steps towards it, leaning forward to observe the five black and white marble figures that were as long as my fingers. They glistened beautifully in the moonlight that squeezed its way through window curtains, every elaborate detail carved into them so precisely that it must've taken their maker hours to perfect.

After a couple minutes of admiring in a mix of awe, fear, and disbelief, I finally noticed that the king was the only piece left of the white set, the others nowhere to be seen, and was completely surrounded except for one area. Seeing that the rook, which strangely was the only piece that wasn't covered in a faint layer of dust, needed to be moved forward to have checkmate, I picked up the said piece and felt it in between my fingers. Its smooth surface felt remarkable against my palm and I was surprised by how heavy it was, feeling like it weighed the same as a paperweight. Finally, I placed it down to defeat the king, the last of the white now completely surrounded by black.

I jumped when a faint 'click!' equivalent to entering a key into a lock sounded out from underneath the board. Instinctively, I pushed down on the top of the game piece, watching in awe when the black square went down with ease. I stopped and pulled my hand back when I heard another 'click!', this one louder than before and seeming to come from somewhere in the floor.

A heartbeat passed. And then another.

Nothing happened.

I frowned, looking around the room to try to spot if anything had changed, but then remembered what Henrik had told me when he taught me how to play the game for the first time, a small smile playing along his devilishly attractive lips. He'd looked particularly more handsome that day and I'd unashamedly been admiring him while he explained the rules and every piece's functions, completely entranced by his excitement to teach me the game he used to play with his mother.

"Always remember to immediately stop the timer once you make a move," Henrik had told me, gesturing the small box with two clock faces on it and gold buttons on the top for each one.

I looked at the similar contraption that sat beside the chess board, noticing the timer closest to me was softly ticking away. Hesitantly, I extended my finger towards its lifted button and slowly pressed down on it, the coolness of the brass gently nipping at my skin, and gave a startled sound when a loud groan and the screeching of metal sounded throughout the room. The floor noticeably vibrated under my feet and I backed away towards the door, prepared to run away but stopped when my eyes caught movement.

Looking over, I watched, paralyzed with confusion and a childlike wonder, as the lane of the bowling alley slowly lowered a couple inches and then peeled away underneath the floor, the clinks, screeches, and pings of what I guessed to be gears moving reverberating off every surface.

I felt like I could breathe again when it stopped and the room went deathly silent and still, a gaping black hole now in the place of where the bowling alley used to be.

"Holy shit," I said aloud, my heart thumping wildly within my chest. Although I had prepared myself for many things that night, that was the last thing I had expected to happen, having always imagined hidden passageways to only be behind bookshelves.

I padded over to the opening in the floor slowly, gaping down at the seemingly endless staircase that was only slightly illuminated by flickering lights in the ceiling above it. My ears straining, I could hear movement coming from the darkness at the base of the stairs but it was too faint for me to identify exactly what it was, sounding almost like the scuffling of mice although I knew it had to be larger than that for me to be able to hear it from that distance.

Sucking in a deep breath and shoving my fears and doubts aside, I stepped down onto the first step and began descending the stairs slowly one-by-one, my shoulder pressed against one of the two stone walls on either side since there was no railing for me to clutch onto.

I looked up and around, noticing how the stonework of the hidden staircase seemed ancient, small traces of mold on the mortar and in the few cracks in the rocks that were about the size of an alley cat. The walls were as cold as ice and my shivering escalated the deeper I went underground, both out of fear from the chilly, dark air, and my heart rate increased when I heard metal scraping against stone from in front of me, the sound reminding me of chains.

I was about halfway down the stairs when a stench suddenly slapped me in the face and I gagged, bracing my hands on the wall as I gave a large heave that echoed off the walls. My body instantly broke out in a sweat as I fought the urge to vomit and it took many elongated breaths to persuade the bile in my throat to go back to where it came from, pulling the collar of my tunic over my nose to try to block out some of the smell, although the cotton material truly didn't do much.

Shakily and almost slipping at least a handful of times, I moved down the remaining steps, the distinct sound of something huffing making my hairs stand on edge but not scaring me enough to run away.

After walking down the final step, I turned the corner and instantly released a glass-shattering scream as a shifted Lycan launched itself at me, curved claws extended and jaw lined with yellow teeth wide open and ready to rip out my throat. Jumping back against the wall and lifting my arms in front of my face, I prepared myself for whatever pain awaited me, my eyes squeezed so tightly together that it hurt.

But the Lycan's claws never came.

Instead, the wolf was the one wailing in agony as soon as its monstrous paws made contact with the metal bars, a disgusting sizzling sound reverberating throughout the room. I watched with wide, horror-filled eyes as it limped backwards and into the dark stone wall, ears flushed against its head and thin tail pressed between its legs in utter submission. Immediately, once half its body was hidden by a shadow, it started gently licking its legs and the fresh burn wounds that covered him from his elbows down, the raw, bleeding skin already beginning to blister and causing it to whine with each swipe of its tongue.

At the intrusion of my almost-attacker's cries, the other Lycans had immediately risen from the darkened corners and began barking and growling in my direction, noses in the air and absorbing my scent like sponges. The ferocity of their unfriendly teeth, claws, and glowing yellow eyes had me backing away out of fear and towards the staircase, my breaths shallow and head becoming lighter with each second. There were at least hundreds of them—hundreds of wolves—as far as my eyes could see, each in their own cell that was only a couple feet wide and only gave enough space for them to take a couple steps before they had to turn back around and start their frantic pacing again.

"Don't worry. The hybrid enchanted the silver a couple months ago so when they're shifted, it burns them." I pivoted towards the voice and my eyes went even wider with disbelief, my shaky hand slowly lowering my shirt from my face. My mind was too occupied by the sight in front of me to care about a mere stench. "Poor mutt," the male breathed in his unusual accent, watching the Lycan that tried to kill me continue to walk back and forth anxiously in its confinement, despite every wince of pain it made with each step. Even in the dim lighting, I could see there was something wrong with one of its hind legs as well, the large paw looking as if it'd been broken and not properly set afterwards so it now slightly faced the side rather than completely forward.

"You're... Fae?" I breathed. My voice sounded more like a question than a statement and although I'd never seen a Fae before, his pointed ears and angular face left no room for question about his species.

The Fae male crawled over to get a better look at me, the chain connected to his ankle clanking and scratching against the stone floor and making me wince in pain for him, until he kneeled in front of me. Although his green eyes were youthful, his poorly shaved head with a shadow of dark hair didn't suit him at all and made him appear years older. Skin that I was sure was once sun kissed, now appeared sunken and pale. But even malnourished, he was just as beautiful as I'd heard Faes to be, face so symmetrical and features so complimentary to one another that he almost didn't seem real.

"And you're not supposed to be here," he retorted, scanning my figure with an emotion close to impressed. His low voice was raspy from what I guessed could've been days or, by the looks of his confinements, perhaps even weeks without speaking. "How in Zuerstelle's name did you get here unscratched on the full moon? Are you a mutis? Did my father send you?" He breathed the last question with hopeful relief, his tone slightly lighter and thick eyebrows lowering in almost what I perceived to be a silent beg.

"What? No," I responded quickly, my tone on the verge of being considered rude, and furrowed my eyebrows in confusion why a Fae would ever think I could be a being of magical origin. "Sorry," I added when his face fell with disappointment and an emotion close to anger. When he muttered a curse under his breath in a language I didn't understand, I averted my gaze around the cells, looking in each one only to find more eyes glaring at me. "What is this place?"

"The Cursed King's own personal dungeon," the Fae mumbled, frowning at the floor. Now that he knew my purpose of being there didn't include setting him free, the liveliness he had mustered before was almost completely smothered out. I didn't blame him. In fact, I felt horrible for the way I had responded, wishing I had something positive to tell him without having to lie. "Traitors and trespassers like myself are placed in here since he likes to keep a special eye on us."

"Traitors?" I repeated in a whisper, testing the word on my tongue.

He nodded straight ahead at the wolf that tried to attack me. "That one insulted the Cursed Queen."

It took a moment to realize he was unknowingly referring to me. The Cursed Queen. It felt like such a comical thing to refer to me as, considering how plain and unthreatening I was, and I wondered if anyone from Amaryllus was calling me that too and if the same mouths that had taught me to fear Henrik were now telling others to fear me.

I turned my head over my shoulder and eyed my almost-attacker that paced with a dramatic limp, noting how I could see every one of its ribs underneath its thin fur that was balding in a few places. Its beige eyes snapped up to mine and it began growling, displaying his teeth and rising hackles as it came to a halt and struggled to crouch low to the ground, ready for a fight despite his obvious weakened state.

"Dario," I breathed and his ear twitched, eyes momentarily flickering with recognition for his own name but then faded back into a soulless gaze, a growl escaping through his bared canines.

The muscles in my face slackened with shock, my mouth falling open.

Although that was his only response, it was enough for me to know that I was staring at the Master of Ceremonies himself—or at least the fragment of what he used to be. From the moment he had opened his mouth, I'd never liked Dario and found him rude and narcissistic. But all I could feel was pity as I stared at his wolf form and the protruding bones of his hips and his mutilated leg, believing with my heart no one ever deserved that sort of treatment.

The fact that Henrik had allowed for this treatment to happen to any person—

I felt sick at the thought.

"Yeah. That's him." The Fae sighed and stretched his long arms over his head, his spine giving a handful of distinct cracks. My eyes flickered down to the hairless skin underneath his bellybutton that was revealed by the movement, eyeing his tattoos that stuck out of the waistband of his black trousers. The symbols were much thinner than Lycan ones and reminded me of a bunch of half moons swirled together artistically to create an interesting design that stretch from his hips and up the side of his torso. "The Queen must be a real ugly bitch to have someone thrown in here for talking against her decorating plans." I winced at his words, gritting my teeth and grateful that my tunic covered my mark, which I was pulsing quite angrily at the Fae's unknowing disrespect towards me. "His torture has just started slowing down."

"Hen... The Cursed King," I corrected myself, my face flushing in fear that I'd been caught, knowing that the male would not speak to me so kindly if he knew who I was married and mated to. When his face remained impassive and his eyes still focused on my own respectfully, I relaxed. "He... uh-tortures?" I could barely get my words out—could barely process the weight of what I was asking.

"Of course he does. This is a dungeon." He pulled back his shirt sleeve and showed me scars from what appeared to be from deep cuts and burns, including a number on his shoulder: 428. I winced at the sight of them and he narrowed his eyes at me, leaning an arm against the bars and giving me a better look at his pointed ears that were practically half the size of his head. Along the thick, long cartilages, I could make out the faint indents of healed over piercings and even one on his nose. "You're not a very good spy, are you?"

I shook my head, barely being able to process his words, and ran a hand through my unkempt hair that was still tangled from my short sleep. "Wait, no." I stared at him in horror and at his rolled up shirt sleeve that revealed the scars that mocked me with just their existence. "He did that to you? The Cursed King?"

He nodded slowly, clearly taken aback by my abrupt frantic behavior. "Some with his very own claws," he told me, gesturing to a few healed puncture and scratch wounds on his neck and then pulled down his collar to point at a thick scar on his chest. "Well, this was a guard when I was originally caught." My head felt like it was spinning and I stumbled back a tiny bit, wishing I could wake up from this nightmare only to be reminded with each breath that entered and exited my lungs that this was very real and that Henrik wasn't what I thought he was. Not even close. "Now, pretty girl or spy or whatever you are, are you going to stand there or are you going to help me get out of these here chains?" He pointed to his foot that was bound my a thick piece of iron. "I've been in here for a long, long time and the rats are horrendous—"

"Raena?"

I turned to where the shouting voice had come from, much farther down the hallway and past the growling wolves. Ignoring the Fae's cries for me to come back as I ran towards it, my eyes filled with tears as my heart hammered and threatened to crack like the stone beneath my feet. Wolves on all sides growled at me as I passed, some trying to reach their claws out to snatch me only to whimper and jump back when they were burned by the enchanted metal.

I payed them no attention. They weren't what I was looking for.

Pulling my shirt back over my nose, I tried to ignore the smell of urine and something rotting while my eyes scanned the dark corners and met every wolf's piercing gaze. Flies and other insects were everywhere, feasting on whatever they could find, and their populations only grew in size the farther I walked into the dungeon and the putrid smell became denser.

My eyes flickered momentarily to a Lycan that was strapped against the wall and they filled with even more tears at the sight of it squealing in agony as it fought against its iron chains, paws covered in its own blood from it pulling so hard that the metal broke through its skin. I wondered if it was someone I knew—someone who was in there because of me—and sent it a sorrowful glance, although I knew whoever it was wouldn't remember it by sunrise.

I ripped my gaze away from it, knowing if I stood any longer that I could never leave the poor being behind, and kept my gaze facing forward until finally I made it to the end of the hallway and saw the image that the demon had showed me in my dream: a dark cell with a bucket full of urine in the corner, an empty food tray in the center, scratch marks on the floors, and the skeleton of a person leaning against the bars, staring up at me like I was the ghost.

"Oriana!" I cried her name so loud that the muscles of my throat hurt. I rushed to her cell and instantly fell onto my knees so I was eye level with my friend, not fully believing what I was seeing and scared to do so in fear of it all being a cruel joke.

Only dressed in an oversized shirt, much like the one the Fae had been wearing except this one's sleeves had been ripped off, Oriana looked terribly emaciated, her cheeks and eyes sunken in and her wrists so thin that I was hesitant to go near them in fear of accidentally breaking one.

But she was alive and that was all that mattered.

Oriana was alive.

"Raena!" Oriana shouted, pressing her face against the bars and outstretching her hands to touch my face, her fingernails bitten so short that there was no way they weren't painful. I reached inside her cell and did the same, cupping her dimpled cheeks between my hands that had noticeably lost their roundness. Having told myself for months that I never would again, a sob left my lips nonetheless when I felt them beneath my palms, her skin still enviously smooth despite their thin layer of dirt. "Oh my gods, oh my gods..." she wailed, tears rolling down her shamelessly face as she gripped onto my shoulders, fingertips digging into the skin there and brown eyes widening at my face with disbelief. "I thought you were dead!"

"I thought you were dead!" I responded, my voice shrill between my sobs as my throat began to burn like it'd been rubbed with sandpaper.

She leaned forward and, although I could barely see her in the lack of adequate lighting, I could make out the slightly raised skin from healed wounds on her arms, especially around her wrist where it looked like chains once were. My eyes widened with horror, my stomach churning in disgust, when I saw her shoulder, where three numbers had been fire-branded into her skin: 719.

Oriana cried harder, crushing my hands between her own and I let her despite the pain, even when the blood was caught off from my fingers and the tips of them began turning a slight shade of purple. Pressing her trembling forehead against my wrists, she held onto them like they were the very things keeping her alive.

"What did they do to you?" I sobbed, looking at her paled skin and to the top of her head, where her beautiful mane of coils hair was now shaved against her skull. Rage flooded my system like molten lava at the thought of anyone laying a hand on such a kind and beautiful soul.

"Raena, you have to go," Oriana blubbered frantically, her breathing spiraling out of control as she wept and pushed my hand out of the bars, trying to encourage me to run away. "You have to get out of here before that monster comes back."

"No. Never," I said, looking around at the growling Lycans, the piss covered ground, the moldy walls, and the fly-infested air. Disgust and guilt blended together with my anger, absolutely devastated that while I had been living in luxury as a queen, Oriana had been subjected to such hell only a few floors beneath my feet. "I will never leave you again."

I grabbed onto the thick lock on the door, tugging at it and trying to find a weakness since there were no keys in sight and I didn't have any hairpins. When it didn't budge after a couple tries, I screamed out in rage at the unfeeling piece of iron and just yanked on it harder, not caring that each clash of metal just made the wolves become louder and louder until their growls drowned out my own sobs. All the anger and betrayal I felt poured out onto the lock, the small cut I'd gotten across my palm only feeding my agony.

How could he do this to me?

I sobbed, hot tears burning the skin of my cheeks, and banged the lock once against the bars before pulling on it again and again and again...

How could I have been so blind?

"Raena, don't," Oriana said, gazing at me sadly and with worry, clearly taken aback by my outburst. But I didn't care. I'd finally found my friend alive and this lock was the only thing left in my way and I would do everything in my power to get rid of it—everything in my power to make it look as damaged as I felt internally. She turned her eyes momentarily to gaze at the Lycan in the cell next to her, who was frantically digging at the floor, tail between its legs as it whimpered. "It's no use. Only—"

The lock snapped.

With a final tug, the thick piece of rusted iron snapped like a twig and we both went silent, staring at it like it was a serpent about to strike with its venom-filled fangs when I pulled it away from the door, both fragments in my palms. The Lycans even seemed to grow quieter and I could hear the Fae say something from the other side of the long hall, although it was too quick for me to make out the word.

I dropped the pieces to the floor, listening to them clank against stone before I began crawling away as the door swung open, the screeching of the rusted hinges grinding together making the wolves growl and snap their jaws in our direction.

"How did you..." Oriana said, staring at the open doorway in shock—staring at me in shock. Her eyes looked at me like I wasn't Raena Korgari, the shy girl she'd befriended on the first day of school after joining her in catching worms during playtime, and it took everything within me to ignore the pang of hurt in my heart.

"Doesn't matter." My voice was panic-stricken and rushed as I help her onto her bare feet, trying to ignore how thin her legs were. I kicked the lock off to the side with my foot, not caring about it anymore and heard it slide into one of the cells. "We have to go. The Cursed King will be back in a few hours."

At the sound of Henrik's infamous nickname, Oriana's eyes widened and she nodded with thinned, cracked lips, not waiting another moment to step out of her cell and into the hallway. As quickly as we could because of Oriana's frail state, we jogged towards the stairs side-by-side and by the time we passed Dario, she was already slightly out of breath and headed for the wall to lean against for a couple seconds before we had to go up the stairs.

"Wait!" the Fae cried desperately from behind us, shaking the bars of his confinement and making the Lycans snarl in irritation towards the noise. I jumped around with wide eyes, my heart erratic from having forgotten almost completely about him within the past few seconds. "Use your magic on mine!"

Ignoring what he said, I ran over, lowered to my knees, and began pulling at his cell's lock the same way I had to Oriana's. But it was no use. This lock felt different—colder—and something inside me told me that whatever miracle had taken place with Oriana would not happen a second time as the rusted metal slipping between my sweaty palms and failed to break. After what I counted to be my forty-eighth try, I began crying out in frustration and paused when a warm hand wrapped around my wrist, stilling it.

I looked up helplessly at the Fae, scared to meet his eyes since I didn't want him to see what I was thinking.

His eyes were full of sadness but he nodded anyway, the simple action breaking my heart. "Go. It's okay."

"I... I'm so sorry," I whimpered and he just nodded yet again in solemn understanding, looking up at Oriana with a longing to be in her place, not a speck of envy in sight but the disappointed acceptance of his reality.

"Just enjoy the sun for me," he sighed and closed his eyes, leaning his forehead on one of the bars. I maneuvered my hand so I could give his hand a squeeze and he returned the gesture and I wondered how long it'd been since he'd felt contact with another person that didn't inflict pain. Suddenly, he opened his eyes and observed my fingers, staring at my wedding band and engagement ring with an unreadable expression as his thumb barely grazed the top of them.

"One day you'll do it yourself," I vowed and watched his throat bob, tears filling his eyes although he tried desperately to fight them.

"Thank you," he said and looked up at me, eyeing my face with such warmth that the cruel coldness of the dungeon was forgotten. "May the fates allow us to meet again."

I forced a smile, my throat clogging up as he removed his hand to place it back inside his cage. "In this life or another," I finished the typical Fae farewell and slowly stood up, wishing with all my heart I could've done more to help him and that all the three of us could be walking out of there together.

But I knew it was no use to focus on things that couldn't be helped so, after sending him a final glance, I forced my attention solely to Oriana, who sat on the first step of the long staircase, ebony skin worryingly pale and unfocused eyes gazing towards the ground. She gave a crackling cough and I knew instantly that she was suffering the effects of poor hygiene and the cold, musty climate of the underground dungeon. Although for resilient Lycans and Faes it was alright, for a Human's sensitive immune system, it was anything but that.

I wrapped my arm under her armpit and assisted her up the stairs, taking on most of her body weight since she'd already wasted a lot of her energy already. The entire time, she wheezed out apologies and I silenced her, focusing on the moonlight that shined at the top of the stairs, for once it being a symbol of encouragement as each step became harder to conquer.

And as we stepped out of the staircase and into the game room, the Lycans' growls silenced into mere echoes, I felt my knees wobble and I cursed when they collapsed, bringing the both of us down to the floor. As soon as the floorboards met my knees, I began crying uncontrollable and Oriana, after seeing my face, began with me, brushing her fingers through my hair, touching my cheeks, my chin, my ears, my shoulder, and whatever else she needed to to feel confident that I was real and that I wasn't going anywhere.

With a shaky breath, I pulled her in for a hug and wrapped my arms around her bony shoulders with no intention of ever letting her go. Like Oriana, I needed to feel her against me, to confirm that this all wasn't a cruel dream and that I wouldn't blink and be back in a world without her.

"Are Tylem and Taylium...?" Oriana whispered hopefully in my ear, her voice strained from crying, and I shook my head, feeling her bury her nose further into my hair. Her hot tears feel onto my shoulders and stained my tunic but I did not care in the slightest. She could drown me in them if she wanted to and I still would never let go.

"I'm sorry," I whimpered to more than just Oriana, my voice sounding nasally because of my stuffed nose. I felt so guilty. My mother had warned me that I was being lied to—had told me not to trust Henrik and I had been foolish enough to ignore her and that same mistake caused Oriana to suffer for so long.

Never again, I vowed, staring at the sliver of the silver moon that the curtains allowed me to see and listening to the poor creatures from outside howl for her mercy. My arms gripped tighter around Oriana and my face hardened along with my heart, so covered with callouses after months of injury that it barely felt anything at all anymore except for my anger than burned like the fire of hell itself. I will never trust the Cursed King again.


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