The Cursed Kingdom

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You disgust me.

I'm so sorry.

I winced as a familiar, sharp pain travelled from the outside of my ankle and up my calf, reminding me of how the said joint had awkwardly rolled to the side not too long ago. The echoes of my harsh breathing grew louder in my ears the longer and harder I forced my legs to keep moving in a pathetic jog-like motion, no matter how many times my injured limb begged me to stop. But nothing could compare to the agony in my heart, the organ feeling so broken that I was surprised it was still beating.

Raena, I want to go home!

I released a shuddering breath as I wiped away more tears and gritted my teeth together to keep the sobs from moving past my lips.

We all knew.

You should've been the first to die.

Do not trust the king!

"Raena, I think I found something!"

The idea that she was dead had rooted itself so deep into my reality that Oriana's frantic voice calling out to me was equivalent to hearing one of the many phantoms in my head. It startled me and my whole body jumped, the sound yanking me out of the darkness that inhabited my skull and thrusting me into the one all around me. For a second, I was terrified I'd landed in another nightmare, a sob nearly slipping past my agape lips. Instead, I was left devastated and disappointed as I was reminded yet again of what my reality was, a vicious world of dark magic and brutal secrets that tore dreams apart by their very seams.

"Okay, I'm coming," I said, my hands becoming my eyes as they groped the side of the tunnel while I tried to maneuver in the direction of Oriana's voice.

It had been hours of running since we'd departed from Henrik's bedroom, the displeased muscles in my body making sure I was aware of that fact with every agonizing inhale of breath or movement of my limbs. The underground tunnels were cold and dark, the smell of stale water and soil lingering in the air and spider webs in almost all its crevices, reminding me of a tomb and giving me the horrible sensation that I was somehow already dead.

Although I was sure it must've been fine for the Lycans who designed and built the structure, the underground tunnels were completely pitch black to the point where I couldn't even see my nose or my own hand if I placed it just a hair length away from my eyes. Even with the structure’s very straight path, both Oriana and myself experienced many stumbles on the uneven, dirt ground, the perpetrator for my pulsing ankle.

Every so often, there’d be the sound of something scurrying past our feet that would cause my heart rate to spike and a small shriek to either leave Oriana's or my lips. Our reactions were more out of the unexpectedness of it than anything, both of our senses and paranoia heightened by the idea of running into our true enemy, who was much bigger and more powerful than a helpless, passing rodent.

The rats are horrendous...

Eyes screwed shut and teeth gritted together, I hissed when my finger grazed across one of the many sharp rocks that made up the narrow tunnel, feeling its corner slice through my skin as smooth as if it was butter. A grunt being my only reaction to the burning pain, just like with my ankle, I kept going, knowing that stopping would be selfish of me in the scheme of everything that could be lost if we didn't get out of the Cursed Kingdom as quickly as possible. Even as I felt the warm blood—my blood—trickle down my palm and past my wrist, I didn't let my mind think about it for more than a second. I couldn’t.

I bumped into Oriana's arm, wincing when her sharp elbow awkwardly dug into the side of my left breast, the sensitive area immediately throbbing with discomfort.

“Sorry," I muttered purely out of habit, shuffling my feet to the side and almost falling over my throbbing foot again in the process. I gave a hiss, fearful I had done more damage than I realized when I felt a strange popping sensation at the base of my fibula.

But I spared myself not a second more of attention and instead chose to focus on the sounds of Oriana's short breathing and the sharp slaps of her hands pounding against something solid. I tentatively leaned forward, my own hands shaking for a few seconds in midair as I searched for what she’d found. My eyes widened and my heart leapt with shocked relief when my palms finally pressed against smooth, cool concrete, which was the complete contrast to the narrow stone walls that had been engaging us for the past few miles.

"This must be the exit," Oriana practically whimpered, her voice shaking with a desperation that had my eyes stinging with fresh tears. "This has to be." She feverishly continued slapping, prodding, and trailing her hands all along the border, not pausing for a moment—not even when she accidentally hit my own fingers. I doubted she even remembered to breathe as her mind became completely consumed by the fact that only a thick piece of concrete stood between us and our freedom.

I reflected her actions and trailed my hands upward before downward and that's when I paused, hesitantly grabbing onto a rounded piece of metal that stuck out of the concrete and was about the same height as my navel. The muscles in my face loosened with shock, as if I hadn’t believed before then that there was a chance we would be successful, every layer of rust and grime that covered the wheel kissing my fingertips in a warm welcome.

Here." I practically choked on the word, silently afraid what I was feeling wasn't real and that what I was experiencing was equivalent to a man lost in an endless desert, who was so desperate for water that he mistook the hills of sand as the waves of an ocean. "Help me."

I could hear Oriana's breath hitch in her throat and she groped around until she grasped what I did, releasing a sound that was a mix between a sigh and a sob. As soon as four hands were secured on the wheel, we both began pulling it to the left, strained grunts leaving our lips and tears of fear and frustration filling my eyes when it didn't budge. For once, I actually was grateful for the darkness so Oriana couldn't see them.

As we kept pulling and pushing to no avail, the cut on my finger protested relentlessly and I did nothing as another gush of searing hot blood pooled out of the open wound and drenched more of my skin.

"Come on!" Oriana shrieked towards the stubborn door so loudly that I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone in the palace heard her.

Finally, as if her voice held some sort of invisible key, the wheel gave a violent jolt that almost had us both tumbling to the side. We gasped and breathlessly laughed with utter relief as it continued to turn, the high-pitched squeaking of metal rubbing against metal equivalent to the loveliest of melodies. The noise, or rather the feeling it blossomed within me, was one I would never forget.

It was hope.

Finally, the wheel came to a promising stop and we didn’t waste another moment to push with all our might at the concrete border by our shoulders, shoving it as hard as we could while using our legs as leverage. I nearly collapsed from my overwhelming emotions when it gave away with surprisingly little persuasion, a few particles of dirt falling from the growing gap between the door and the wall to land on our heads.

At the sight of the first sliver of light, I began greedily gulping in the fresh, cool air that slapped against our faces and flooded the cave, instantly giving my spirit a sense of revival. Blinking rapidly as my eyes adjusted, I stumbled out of the darkness with Oriana right behind me and into the daylight, the sight of the green trees never having looked so beautiful before and the ground beneath my feet feeling like a cloud in comparison to the stone floors I’d been forced to tread for what felt like centuries. From above the thick walls of trees, there was a clear view of Erdaon, the tallest mountain in the Human Kingdom, straight ahead and I knew just at the base of it, somewhere a couple dozens of miles away, was the place we should’ve never left all those months ago.

The thought of seeing it again didn’t feel real. None of it did.

I gazed over my shoulder and stared at the gaping hole we had just emerged out of, my face blanching at the seemingly never ending blackness inside. Had the door been shut, it would've blended in completely and looked just like one of the many grey, moss-covered boulders that made up the looming cliff overhead.

"It's so beautiful here," Oriana breathed, taking tentative steps forward. Her eyes bounced between everything around us, as if they couldn’t settle still for even a moment in fear of missing something. "Too bad it's infested with cursed beasts."

Oriana rested her thumb between her brows so her hand blocked the sun out of her eyes and she stared up at the trees and mountains in awe with a smile whose brightness put the sun and every star in the sky to shame. It was at that moment that the reality of just what Oriana has gone through sunk to the base of my abdomen like a stone, imagining her trapped in a cage like an animal and living off of scraps like one too.

My throat developed a thick lump, not being able to comprehend how she must've felt. Even though I was just as eager to escape just as she was, I had many freedoms and was given many luxuries while living in the Cursed Kingdom.

She hadn’t even been given a window.

A deep howl sounded in the distance and a shudder racked through my tense body, starting at the base of my skull and running down my spine. It was beastly, deep, and raw—angry—and it was unwelcome on such a bright day. Rage and betrayal swirled in my gut as I was suddenly reminded of all the pain in my body and soul, wishing nothing good on whoever had made the noise.

I gave a fleeting glance down to my bloodied hand, cringing at the oozing cut that was about the length and width of a sewing needle and placed almost perfectly in the dead center of my right pointer finger. Shaking my head in frustration, I wrapped my other hand securely around it to add some sort pressure to help slow the bleeding enough so it could clot, fully aware that I would need to swaddle it in a proper bandage whenever we got somewhere safe.

"We need to keep moving," I told her, leaving no room for questioning or hesitation as to what we were doing next, despite me knowing that Oriana would never protest to what I’d just said. Deep and words clipped short, my tone had been one I'd only heard pass by Henrik's lips before and it felt odd to experience it leaving my own. It was unnatural and I hated it. For a moment, I even hated me.

Oriana nodded with understanding, the wonder in her eyes gone and replaced with unadulterated fear, and she stood unnaturally straighter. My breath hitched with terror when she stumbled, although she tried to mask it with another step.

"You okay?" I asked worriedly, eyeing her legs and scanning for any signs of weakness as I walked towards her with my arms slightly outstretched in case I ever needed to catch her.

Oriana sighed at me, the sound sounding too much like a wheeze for me to be confident with our decision to run first instead of getting her proper medical care. "I'm fine, Raena. I didn't see a rock is all." She gave me a smile but it wasn't nearly enough to ease my worries for her wellbeing. Oriana took a step forward to give my shoulder a light, comforting squeeze, her eyebrows bowing as they stared into my eyes that were still very red and swollen from hours of crying. "Hey, everything will be okay. We'll be back in Amaryllus before you know it."

It wasn't until after we started running again that I recognized the word as home.

* * *

By the time nighttime made its inevitable appearance, the dozens of howls that had polluted the air came to a sudden halt, the phenomenon as instantaneous as someone turning off a light switch. It made me more nervous than if the sounds were frequent and nearby, which would’ve at least allowed me to know where each one was. Now, in the silence, everything was unknown. It felt as if Henrik’s people or the king himself could be anywhere at any time—behind every tree and shadow—and my paranoia that that idea could be true forced my legs to run faster until my chest cramped and my ankle made each step more excruciating than the last.

Suddenly, it became too quiet and my heart leapt in my throat when I realized I could no longer hear Oriana’s footfalls a few feet behind me, skidding to a halt as I instantly thought of the worst. I turned around and became full with relief and confusion when I saw Oriana standing there, wide-eyed as if shocked, but very much alive and in one piece. But my questioning gaze quickly morphed into one of horror when she bent over, braced her hands on her knees, and vomited everything in her stomach and more onto the forest floor.

Without hesitation, I ran over and began rubbing her back, my eyebrows pinched together with concern, wincing at the sound of her violent panting and the way her whole body seemed to tremble uncontrollably. Whether it was from adrenaline, the slight chill to the air, or her weakened state—or perhaps all three—I couldn't tell. No matter what the reasoning was, it made me very anxious.

I knew we should’ve stopped, I thought, feeling guilty for not taking care of my best friend better. Had I made us stop hours ago, when Oriana first started becoming exceptionally more lethargic, everything would’ve probably been fine. At least she wouldn’t have gotten sick, that I was sure of. Instead, I had let my fear get to me and, in turn, Oriana pushed herself too hard while trying to keep up with me. My fault, my fault, my fault…

"We should take a break," I suggested and Oriana nodded without wasting a second, clutching her abdomen as she dragged her feet over to a nearby tree, her head subtly hung low with unspoken embarrassment. Even after she’d sat on the forest floor with her back propped against the thick trunk and me doing the same beside her, our sides flushed together, she was still shaking and all I could figure out what to do was try to get her mind off of our situation. And so I asked the first and only thing that came to mind, the desire to know its answer having been eating at my brain since that morning. “So, do you want to talk about how you and Jerium met?" I said, physically wincing when I registered just how loud my voice sounded in the otherwise silent landscape.

Along with the howls, everything else had gone eerily quiet. There weren't any twitters of birds or chirps of insects or groans of wind or even the sound of creatures scurrying through vegetation. It was as if everything in the world knew that there was something amiss in the Cursed Kingdom and nothing would dare make a sound in fear of being caught in its crossfire.

Oriana smiled faintly, her tired, drooping eyes distant as she recalled a fond memory that held a tiny sense of bitterness that I could clearly see through her hardened eyes. "Jerium came with the Cursed King to the dungeon sometimes—just filling out paperwork and whatever was asked of him," she whispered, her voice noticeably scratchy from her throat being in dire need of water just as mine was. "After the Cursed King grew bored of me, Jerium started sneaking me food. He did something with his magic so others couldn't tell he was doing it. Well, that Fae could, but he... he was strange. Kind, but strange." With a slight shake to her head, she sighed and gave a shrug that barely lasted as long as a blink. "Then after that, Jerium started slowly spending more time with me. He promised he would help me and it wasn't long after that you showed up."

Realization dawned upon me as painful and quick as a mallet striking my abdomen and the sound of my heart stopping seemed to reverberate off of every tree, the silence becoming deafening. All of those moments that Jerium had been distant or acting strange weren’t because he'd been avoiding me or busying himself with work. It was because of her. He had been helping Oriana the entire time, had risked his relationship with Henrik and job to do so in order to give her some joy in such an awful time.

Although Jerium had lied to me, he did so to everyone else and with a good heart. The thought of him committing himself to doing something so chivalrous, no matter who or what Oriana meant to him, washed away any trace of animosity I could’ve ever possessed towards him, and I became overcome with guilt when I remembered that he was still in the palace.

I didn’t want to begin to imagine the things Henrik was doing to him and for the first time, I realized that there was a chance I’d never get to see my friend again. The thought nearly had me in a mess of tears right then and there.

"He was my only light in that hellhole," Oriana continued, her voice cracking and her eyebrows bowed as she looked down at her hands. "The Cursed King is as scary as he is in the stories. They all are. I don't even want to think what he'll do to—" Her voice was caught off by her own sob and she reached for my hand and held onto it tightly, her fingers shaking like the legs of a newborn elk trying to stand for the first time. "I thought you were dead, Raena. I saw him carrying your body and you were covered in so much blood." My eyes filled with tears at her words, the helplessness in her tone making me feel as if I was looking at myself in a mirror. "Raena, you must tell me what happened—the whole truth. What really happened after we were separated?"

I stayed silent, looking at her face quizzically, the trail of her tears almost seeming to glow in the dim starlight and cast glimmering stripes down her cheeks.

"I saw the male items in the bathroom, Raena," Oriana told me. My heart began pounding so heavily that it physically hurt and my hands felt as if I’d dunked them in iced water. "Last time I checked, my best friend doesn't wear spiced cologne." Her tone was on the verge of teasing, a corner of her lips even twitching for a moment as if she was debating on whether or not to smile, but every trace of lightheartedness was consumed by the gloominess of our situation.

I closed my eyes and sighed heavily through my nose, trying to keep the frantic cursing in my head from escaping into the world. Of course Oriana had seen Henrik's toiletries, which I hadn’t had the thought or care to put away before I ran her a bath. Whereas I was hardheaded and quite brash sometimes, Oriana was always so observant, the kind of person to think and focus on the details before she acted, which I always admired greatly and strived to reflect, even after I failed many times. Had she been Henrik's mate, not that I wished that fate on her, I knew she would've done the smart thing and found a way to escape within hours. She always knew what to do when others didn’t.

"What did the Cursed King do to you?" I swallowed thickly at her question and my eyes welled further with tears, keeping my gaze focused on a tree in fear I would fall apart if I looked anywhere near her. Oriana shuffled closer and wrapped her arm around my shoulder, clearly becoming discomforted by my silence. "Raena, did he... did he take advantage of you?"

My heart dropped to my feet at what she was implying and when my eyes shot to hers, so full of trust and pity, the truth got trapped in my throat. How could I tell her the Cursed King was the owner of all my heart's many shards?—that while she had been suffering in a musky dungeon, I'd been gifted with a life of a queen only a few stories above where she rotted?

"Yes," I finally said as a whisper. It wasn't a complete lie. Although I knew it wasn't what Oriana was insinuating, Henrik had taken advantage of me. He took advantage of my ignorance and my trust and utilized them to be his pawns to get what he wanted and that fact hurt worse than if he had ever physically mistreated me.

Anxiously, I began twisting my wedding band and engagement ring around my finger, the pieces of jewelry that once felt as light as air now equivalent to a broken anchor. I didn’t know what to think of them anymore. Calling them beautiful felt like a sin now.

When Oriana's eyes followed my movements, I stopped and fisted my hands in my lap, as if that could prevent her from seeing what she’d already noticed, her eyes staring at me with a stubborn expectancy of an explanation. My heart became heavy until I was sure it would finally burst from my chest as I knew it'd been wanting to do for awhile and I looked at her desperately—no, pleadingly—to forget she'd seen them.

But, of course, that didn't happen.

"He tricked me into marrying him." My voice shook as I blurted out the words, not even fully understanding what I was saying until minutes after I said it. It was a coward who spoke, a rotten coward who couldn’t own up to what she’d done because of the guilt and shame that prevented her from doing so. “He told me you were d—" The last word was swallowed by sobs that I'd been holding back for too long, the sounds so violent that my whole body seized with them.

I buried my face in my hands and my mark prickled, which only made me cry harder as Henrik's presence made itself visible on the other side of my mental shield as it pushed harder than ever before against it.

"Oh, Raena." Oriana threw her arms around me in a tight embrace and I returned the gesture, stuffing my nose as deep as it would go in her shoulder and trying to ignore how I could still smell a hint of Henrik on her clothes.

I was fully aware that what I was doing was lying and I hated myself for doing it, especially to Oriana, who deserved so much better. By inflicting the same disrespect I had experienced from dishonesty, I was no better than Henrik. But the thought of ever looking her in the eyes and explaining the truth—that I had willingly married and shared a bed with the very male who had tortured her for months—scared me more than the thought of facing Henrik again.

So I held her tighter and begged to whatever higher being heard me that in less than a day the Cursed King would just be another one of my many nightmares. And nothing more.

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