The Cursed Kingdom

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FORTY-TWO

~ BETRAYAL ~

All I could see was pure, utter red as the door slammed shut behind me and I stormed inside Henrik and I's bedroom, my heartbeat running a mile a minute.

"Get away from her!" I shouted, running towards them with every intention to pry Jerium's hands off of Oriana, the sight of his fingers secured around her shoulders equivalent to a defenseless mouse enclosed in the sharp talons of an unpredictable beast. My heart had sunk to my toes the moment I saw him so close to her, that same sensation of helplessness that I'd felt when my mother and the twins had died possessing my body until it was all I could feel except for the scorching anger still very alive in my veins.

The hybrid looked surprised to see me, scared even, and he let go of her so quickly that his hands were mere blurs of pale skin in the air and he nearly stumbled into the bedpost as he backed away. His hair was wild around his head, dark circles surrounded his eyes, and his boots were covered with mud as if he had been endlessly walking for miles on foot, his unkempt appearance looking quite odd on him since I'd never seen him as anything but pristine. Jerium wasn't supposed to be back for another week and the reason as to why he had returned so early was a mystery to me. Not that I cared to figure it out.

"I'm trying to help," Jerium told me as calmly as he could muster despite the nervousness building behind his eyes as he took in my approaching form, fists planted at my sides and aching to hit something. Jerium looked to a stunned-looking Oriana and I ground my teeth together when I felt a shift in his magic, like he was preparing to use it against me, which I was sure he would've had no problem doing.

The thought had my pulse quickening to an unhealthy rhythm, pounding against my temple like a drum of war.

"Get out," I gritted through clenched teeth and my nostrils flared in rage as I continued to walk towards him but this time slower and with squared shoulders, the thought of stopping never once entering my mind as a possibility.

I just wanted him gone.

"Raena, stop." Oriana grabbed my shoulder and turned me around to face her, hands on both my upper arms anchoring me in place. My eyebrows furrowed , confused by how composed she was, and her eyes scanned my face, softening when she noticed my swollen, red eyes and heaving chest that was full of unreleased emotions. "It's okay. He's telling the truth," she told me slowly and I wanted to scoff at the meaning behind her sentences.

I wanted to scream and cry and kick and shout and tell the whole world that nothing could ever be okay again—that Henrik had ripped that opportunity away from me so when I thought of my future, all I saw was a daunting question mark made of shadows and lies.

Oriana slowly turned me towards Jerium, gesturing to him with a sweep of her hand, whose thin wrist made me wince with concern for her wellbeing and disgust for what she'd been put through. "Raena, this is Jerium—my friend."

I blinked, looking at Oriana and then back at Jerium.

"What?" I exclaimed, staring at the hybrid who massaged the back of his neck awkwardly with the pads of his fingers, his eyes remaining glued to the ground and body subtly leaning away from me as if he wished to be anywhere else but there. "What do you mean friend?" I sneered the last word and Jerium visibly flinched, his cheeks turning a faint hue of guilty red.

"Raena, I know it sounds strange and I'll explain everything later, I promise. But right now we need to focus on how we're going to get out of this place," Oriana said, her motherly tone adding onto my confusion since it didn't match with what she'd said at all. It was too gentle to be discussing such somber things.

My heart skipped a beat and it took at least a few seconds for me to breathlessly respond with a, "What are you talking about?" The words were short yet spaced out and even after they had left my mouth, I still hadn't fully processed what Oriana was insinuating, my thoughts still freshly occupied with what had happened with Henrik.

Oriana opened her mouth to say something before sighing in frustration, unable to find the right words, and then turned to Jerium expectantly—pleadingly.

His eyes trailed up to make contact with hers, leaving only momentarily to flicker towards my form in contemplation. After coming to a silent agreement, Jerium breathed out heavily through his nose before walking passed me and straight into the sitting area, his steps quick yet heavy with whatever was weighing him down.

Oriana turned and followed him confidently while I trailed behind them like a lost sheep putting her whole trust in the herd, crossing my arms across my chest while looking around the room, as if expecting a demon's face to be in one of the corners.

My eyes momentarily trailed over Oriana, noticing how the blouse I'd lended her hung off her shoulders and my trousers, even with her horrible loss of weight, were too small for her and ended a few inches above her ankles. Her feet, on the other hand, were clad in boots I'd never seen before and that appeared to fit her quite well, something I immediately understood to be Jerium's doing. With support on her ankles and soles that appeared to have nice grips on the bottom, they were clearly shoes meant for a run.

I looked up just in time to see Jerium approach the fireplace, the sight of the two merpeople carved into the black marble taking me back to when I'd arrived and trailed my fingers over their scales for the first time. Gods, it felt like such a long time ago. A part of me wanted to go back, longing for the innocence that came with the past and wishing that I had done things differently—That all of us had. But I knew hoping for such a thing was as pointless as expecting rain in a desert and so I swallowed the lump in my throat, forcing it down along with whatever scraps remained of my dreams until all I could think of was Henrik's claws and the way they'd easily torn through the leather of the seats in his office.

Jerium grabbed onto both of the tridents and my jaw fell open—the bone nearly collapsing onto the ground—when he twisted them so they were sideways, the faint and eerily familiar sound of stone grinding and gears turning kissing my ears in reunion. Then, with only a little force, he pushed them towards the ground and didn't stop until they were parallel with the floor, sharp spikes only missing each other by a single inch. With one last shaky breath, Jerium pulled the tridents towards us and I stood, practically paralyzed by awe, fear, and confusion, when the fireplace from the mantle down swung open as easily as any of the other double doors in the palace and revealed a dark hallway that reeked of stale water.

Dust covered the inside of the fireplace-door and a freshly torn spider web faintly swung in the right corner, telling me that this secret doorway hadn't been used in a very long time. If ever at all.

"There are hidden passageways throughout the palace and in most of the bedrooms," Jerium said like it was just another tour of the palace and my stern eyes swept over the room and into his own, having to bite my tongue to not interrupt and tell him I knew that already. The proof of my knowledge was standing between us, as thin and vulnerable as a newly born deer, and whose wide eyes squinted towards the darkness like there was a chance she could see whatever awaited inside. "They were placed there for safety reasons and it's part of my job to know them all. This one in particular goes underground for quite awhile and cuts through a mountain, turning a forty mile run into fifteen. All you would have to do is travel straight another eighty miles and then you should reach the border by this time tomorrow."

"See, we're getting out of here," Oriana barely whispered towards the unknown darkness, her voice shaking with a mix of emotions--hope, fear, desperation, sadness all revealing themselves in just those five words.

We're getting out of here.

I felt dazed and the room seemed to spin, my knees becoming weak and warning me that they could no longer be trusted either, feeling as though they would buckle out from underneath me at any second. Leaving the Cursed Kingdom? I'd never wanted to go near it in the first place and had been wanting to get as far away from it since the moment I saw the sign with the horribly drawn-on demonic wolf and penis. Escaping had been my dream for so long, having read many books just for its purpose alone, that it didn't feel like reality now that the option was within reach of my fingertips.

I slowly shook my head, biting my lip. It all sounded so simple—too good to be true.

"How do I know we can trust you?" I asked and Oriana looked up at Jerium, wide-eyed, as if the thought of him being dishonest has never crossed her mind before. The innocence and trust in her eyes made my heart clench. Even after everything that she'd been through, she was still a better person than I was and saw a good in the world that I simply could not anymore.

"You'll just have to," Jerium said, his voice growing desperate and eyebrows lowering with so many emotions that two hands wasn't enough to count them all on.

I started pacing between the two couches while fidgeting with my hands, going through every outcome and risk in my head like a grocery list. Although it seemed perfect at first glance, when I truly started thinking about the distance we'd have to travel, the more I started to panic. It wasn't myself who I was truly worried about. It was Oriana. Yes, I'd given her a fine breakfast, fruit and a few slices of cold meat I'd found in one of the refrigerators in the kitchen, but that did nothing to make up for the months or poor hygiene and lack of proper nutrition. On top of that, she was severely dehydrated, lips so cracked I was surprised that they weren't bleeding every second of every minute, and there was still a cackle deep in her throat with the promise of more symptoms of a disease showing up later.

She needed rest and care, not a day's worth of running.

My heart had already been broken into a number too large to be written after I witnessed her seeing her reflection for the first time in almost five months, her eyes welling with tears when she took in the sight of her emaciated figure and shaved head. Although she'd complained about it, I knew her hair had been her pride and joy. She would spend hours making sure her curls were well taken care of, buying every product available to help keep them tame. And to have it all taken away so quickly and so uncaringly... Henrik was lucky that he hadn't been in the palace at that time or else I wouldn't have been in control of my own actions.

"Okay. So let's say we do succeed and make it to the Human Kingdom safely," I said, my voice shaking and hands flying through the air as I rambled--as I panicked. "What then? How do we keep the Cursed King from following us?"

All I wanted to do was cry like a child, curl up into a ball, ugly tears, and all. I didn't know what to do. I wanted to leave. I wanted to so badly for both Oriana and myself. But I was torn. Even after everything Henrik had done to me—to her—I was ashamed to admit to myself that I still didn't want to leave. But it wasn't truly just Henrik himself that I was terrified of abandoning. It was that beautiful relationship we had both brought to life, full of laughter and care, and I had become addicted to the sensations Henrik had imprinted on my heart—the feeling of being loved by someone simply because they saw something in you that you couldn't.

It's dead, I reminded myself. As dead as Oriana will be—and perhaps even you—if you don't get out while you can. My stomach churned with sick as I realized Henrik and I's nights of warm embraces and everything else I loved were already long since over. The only difference was that if I left, my departure promised that I'd never get to see his beautiful eyes again or hear his voice or his laugh.

I'd never get to tell him that I was sorry.

"That's not an issue," Jerium rushed out. "Part of the curse is that Lycans cannot trod on land that hadn't been claimed by His Majesty's father. It's why he became so paranoid when he discovered the Rogues passed those few feet when you were both attacked." His eyes bounced between Oriana and me. "It shouldn't have happened. It would be impossible unless..." Jerium averted his gaze, wringing his fingers in thought, and he turned his head away to face the windows.

"Unless...?" I prodded stiffly, watching his face closely for any sign of deceit. My head was full of so much tension that it felt like it was about to burst.

Oriana shifted on her feet uncomfortably, staring at the side of my face, but my focus never moved away from the male in front of us.

Jerium sighed, eyes drifting to the gaping entryway in the wall. "In order for a curse to be altered in such a way, the person who cast it would've had to have done it themselves," Jerium explained slowly, leaving no room for me mistaking what he said, and my stomach dropped past the ground and into the first layer of hell itself.

I sucked in a deep, shuddering breath and cursed so softly that I doubted either person in the room could've made out what I'd spoken and I thought back to the times where I could've sworn it felt like I was being watched. Before, it'd been easy to brush it off as paranoia. But now that Jerium had revealed that the Moon Goddess had something to do with my friends' deaths, it didn't seem like a coincidence.

There was no doubt in my mind now that they weren't supposed to die that day.

It was supposed to be me.

"Raena, please," Jerium practically begged. He looked at me so desperately that if I would've asked him to kneel, I was positive he would've done so without hesitation. "I understand you have questions but there isn't much time. You need to go now." I'd never heard such strong emotions in his voice all at once like that before and his green eyes flickered to Oriana, causing my own to do the same.

I understood what he meant, the reasoning behind his words settling and weighing down in my stomach like hundreds of bricks. If we stayed, there was no telling what Henrik would do to Oriana, whose life he had made very clear meant absolutely nothing to him.

I nodded stiffly.

Oriana was one of three reasons as to why I had the motivation to even consider trying to escape the Cursed Kingdom in the first place. And she would be my motivation to carry it through.

"Okay." The word was barely a whisper yet it was just as surprising as a boom of a firework or a banging of a drum. Even I hadn't realized I'd uttered it until my lips were sealed and along with them, so was my fate.

Without wasting another second, Oriana jumped forward and wrapped her arms around Jerium's waist, the quick, unexpected action taking both the male and myself by surprise.

"Come with us," she told him, her voice muffled by his shoulder. Her closed eyelids quivered as she fought back tears and it took Jerium a couple seconds to finally return the gesture, his arms slowly encasing around her as if he was scared he would hurt her if he went any quicker.

When she finally pulled away, she remained within arm's length and his eyes never once left her face, looking entranced with a longing to do just as she said and never leave her side. "I can't. I must be here so I can close the door and I still have a debt to be paid," he said, his voice strained. He cupped her cheek, the action so intimate that I felt like I was intruding on something and finally looked away when he planted a quick kiss to her forehead. "Be safe and get as far away from this place as possible. Do you understand?"

Oriana nodded, a tear sliding down her cheek. "Thank you for everything."

My eyes lifted from the ground and began flickering between the duo, wondering what exactly 'everything' meant. Later, I decided and turned to look towards the passageway but stopped when I sensed an unmistakable electric current that only grew louder when Jerium forced a step back.

No, I thought, narrowing my eyes towards the floor, my lips pursing in a mix of confusion with a hint of frustration. They couldn't be.

Oriana grabbed my hand, the action making me lift my head and meet her eyes, the two orbs holding more strength than her whole body combined. She gave a nod and I returned the action, allowing her to lead me towards the passageway, the sight of the seemingly never-ending darkness making my heart beat faster.

Oriana went to duck her head to enter but I stopped before she could pass through the threshold, her eyes widening with alarm when she felt the sudden tug on her hand.

I ignored her as I turned around to face Jerium for the last time, taking my time to absorb the sight of his freckled cheeks and curly red hair. Had I had known the day's events would lead to this, I would've done the same to Henrik. I would've admired the specks of emeralds amongst the otherwise gold of his eyes and the freckle beside his nose and just him as a person.

My Henrik.

"Did you know the entire time?" I asked Jerium and he looked down towards the floor with a downtrodden sigh before nodding subtly, every slight bounce of his curls making my heart hurt a little more. Swallowing, I forced out my next question, terrified to know its answer but more scared of the thought of never knowing at all. "And Callie and Ingrid?" I said softer, practically mouthing it since I did not want Oriana to hear. I hadn't told her about them. I hadn't told her a lot of things, typically dodging every question she threw my way. But it felt almost forbidden to mention them around her, like an unfaithful husband talking about his mistress in front of his spouse.

I felt the floor beneath my feet give out, everything inside and around me breaking apart when Jerium nodded.

"We all knew," he croaked and my eyes stung with the familiar sensation of tears, my chest caving in on my heart, squeezing and tearing it apart over and over again until nothing was left of it but dust and the whispers of its pain. "I'm so sorry, Raena."

A sob threatened to spill out of my mouth—could feel its weight on the front of my tongue, but I held it in with all my might, even when the muscles in my throat ached from tensing so hard.

Oriana gave my hand a squeeze, seeing my distraught face and hunched shoulders. I gripped onto it harder, letting it ground me like a rock in a fast flowing, unforgiving river.

They all knew.

I eyed the room around me for the last time, taking in every detail of the wallpaper and the faeries and nymphs painted on the ceiling. My eyes trailed over to what I could see of the bed, where I'd first met Henrik as the Cursed King and where I got to know him as my mate and husband, and to the table beside the window, remembering the hours we'd spent playing games and eating together in those seats. Every single piece of furniture had some sort of ghost attached to it and it was nearly impossible to say goodbye to them all, each holding a special place in my heart.

Oriana gripped my hand tighter, tugging me anxiously towards the exit and I instinctively took a step back but froze when I realized what I'd done.

I snapped my gaze upward and Jerium gave me a reassuring nod.

They all knew.

With that final gesture, I closed my eyes and let one single tear flow down my cheek as I deeply breathed in the smell of pine and linen, letting it wrap around me in an embrace of farewell.

And then I ran.


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