The Cursed Kingdom

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A warm, almost red-tinted brown ceiling greeted me when my eyelids blinked to an open, a groan escaping my mouth as a throbbing sensation in my skull made its existence known. I screwed my eyes shut, the darkness slightly easing the sharp jabs of my bloodstream as it pumped against my temples, and bit the inside my cheek, trying to do anything I could to distract myself from the pain even if it was only for a couple seconds.

The stiff pillow underneath my head was so stuffed with feathers that I could faintly feel their sharp ends poking my cheekbone through the cotton fabric, causing the skin there to itch.

I sighed through my nose and turned my head in the other direction before I tossed it back over again, my brows furrowing with frustration when I couldn’t find a comfortable position. A muscle twitched uncomfortably in my neck and I winced at the sensation. Nothing was wrong with the bed. It was lovely. But it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t—

A light hand pressed down on my shoulder and my eyes shot open at the same time my mouth released a gargled gasping noise that got halfway stuck in my throat. My body practically jumped entirely off of the mattress as I scrambled to sit up, my chest heaving while an image of the corpse from the woods flashed through my brain and all I could think of was blood. I could imagine the liquid so vividly that I swore I could smell its bitter aroma all around me, splattering onto snow, dripping onto grass, running down my hand.

My thoughts were draining in themselves that by the time I’d propped my upper body’s weight on my palms, my head felt like it was spinning around an endless orbit. I was so dizzy that I could barely keep my head straight and my neck could barely handle the weight, causing my head to lull painfully to the side. Coming out in short, uneven bursts, my breathing had never sounded so ugly and I swallowed back the horrible need to vomit as my eyes darted all over the room in search for the next monster who would force its way into my life.

“Raena, it’s okay.” The person placed their hand on my shoulder again, this time more firmly to keep me still, and my eyes shot up to their face, whimpering. “We’re okay.”

My tense shoulders slackened only slightly at the soothing sound of her voice paired with her kind eyes, and I breathed out, feeling my rapid heart begin to relax as each second passed. Shaking fingers reached up to wipe away a few strands of hair that had plastered themselves on my forehead with sweat and I dabbed away the crusts that had built up in the inner corners of my eyes.

Slowly, I pivoted my head around to look at Oriana, who sat in a chair beside the bed I was laying in, body leaning forward and legs stiffly pressed together. Past the sheen of worry, her eyes were glowing with life and already her skin looked more pigmented, her round cheeks returning to almost how I remembered them. She’d changed into clothes that fit her perfectly, although they were a little loose around her shoulders, and she reeked of her distinct body wash that Taylium had once claimed reminded him of sugarcane, sweet and with the faintest hint of vanilla.

The thought of Taylium and his twin had a familiar pang shoot through my heart but not as terribly as it used to, after having long ago become a victim to time’s necessity of numbness.

Tearing my line of vision away from her face, I swayed my eyes around the room and took in everything slowly, from the beam of daylight shining in through the window and to the wall the headboard was pressed against that only bore a single crooked nail.

Oriana’s voice sounded as if she was talking through a glass jar when she asked me how I felt. I was too focused on analyzing the ceiling, floor, and walls to respond, noticing how the lighter and darker streaks in the wood reminded me of jagged roads. By the time I’d registered she’d said anything at all, it was too late and so I continued rocking my eyesight back and forth, never once letting them rest.

The room itself was just big enough to fit typical bedroom furniture: a one-person bed, a dresser, whose mirror was in dire need of dusting and angled so I could only see my body past my neck, and a night stand only big enough to rest a single book on.

Pulling my gaze downward, I noted that I was in the same clothes that I’d been in when I left the Cursed Kingdom, a tunic and plain black trousers, but my shoes were gone and the foot I had injured in the tunnels, whose ache I suddenly had time to remember, was wrapped in many layers of cloth to keep it immobile. The finger I’d cut open was wrapped securely in thick bandages of its own that enclosed nor just it but three of my fingers for what I perceived to be extra stability, leaving only my smallest finger and thumb visible and making it look as if I was wearing half of a mitten.

A howl sounded outside and I moved my gaze towards the window beside the bed, wincing when the same sunlight that lit the room in an orange glow assaulted my tired eyes. The pane of glass was maybe the length of my arm and didn’t possess any curtains although there was a rod for them. Revealing a wall of trees that I recognized as the entrance to the North Woods, whose cedar trees had cradled and supervised me my entire life, I wouldn’t have wanted to shut out such beauty anyway and decided for that moment alone, it was alright for there to be no curtains.

“What happened?” I asked, my voice raspy with dryness. I swallowed so thickly that my throat clicked, a futile attempt to wane the pain that erupted when I spoke. “How’d I get here?”

Oriana’s lips parted.

“You fainted.” A man’s voice came from behind Oriana before she could get a word out and she pressed her lips back together to give a small smile, her eyes bouncing between the source of the voice and me. I lifted my eyes to greet the man as he sauntered through the open doorway, a pitcher of water and an empty glass in his hands.

“Julius,” I breathed his name, the muscles in my face straining when I smiled.

Amaryllus’s lord looked just as I remembered: defined jaw with a faint underbite, a mole beside his left eye, and a hairline that was in its first stages of receding, which was only magnified by his shoulder length brown hair. His skin was even paler than mine, with an almost transparent hue that made the blue veins in his hands stick out to a point where they were one of the only things you could focus on when you saw him. In spite of these qualities, there was an undeniable attractiveness about him that nobody could resist and I found myself admiring that attribute of his as he came close enough that I could’ve peered up into the nostrils of his pointed nose if I wished to do so.

Julius smiled after I uttered his name, his eyebrows raising out of shock like he hadn’t been expecting me to remember him at all, and gave a single dip of his head. “I’m sorry if we gave you quite a shock. I found you in the woods and carried you here when you remained unresponsive.” He breathed out. “While you were unconscious, Oriana shared quite a bit of details all about your... adventures.” He placed the pitcher and the glass about the length of my hand on the nightstand before he fluffed and propped the two pillows on the bed against the wooden headboard. By the time I’d leaned back, gotten comfortable, and thanked him, he was already pouring me a glass of water and proceeded to hand it to me slowly, calculating with his deep set eyes how much I could handle. “Your body seemed to have collapsed from exhaustion as soon as it knew it was safely back home.”

Oriana grinned up at him.

I nodded mindlessly as I took the drink from his hand, the coldness of the glass feeling heavenly against my clammy palms. Without wasting a second, I drank the water greedily, feeling the smooth, cool liquid instantly quench my thirst that was on the brink of being considered painful. Afterwards, I gave a grateful smack of my lips and registered the water’s distinct musty taste that told me it must’ve been sourced from the small, brick well in the middle of town.

“You sprained your ankle quite badly,” Julius informed me, clasping his hands in front of his belt while staring at the said injury. The motion had my eyes falling to his wrist and to his watch that stuck out of his sleeve. There was a small speck of what I presumed was soil on its plain white face, whose hands told me it was almost a quarter to noon.

“Yes, that’s what I figured,” I replied and instinctively wiggled the toes of my injured foot. Although I couldn’t see them through the outrageous layers of cloth, I could feel them painfully tingle with exhaustion from having been still for so long. “I’m just glad it’s not broken.”

Julius hummed a single syllable with a thin-lipped smile as if he disagreed, his eyes swaying over to the injured ankle and giving it a narrowed, contemplated look. He released a tired sigh and then looked back at me. “Well, if you’re feeling up to it, I contacted Dr. Lugen to be prepared to examine both of you girls as soon as you woke up. But don’t feel as if you have to agree to it if you still need to rest some more. We understand.”

My eyebrows furrowed at the name and I looked to Oriana, who stared at the side of Julius’s face with awe, as if she couldn’t believe that she was actually in his presence and that we were home. She was too busy being consumed by her joy that my confused stare went completely unnoticed by her and I was left with no answers and no confirmation that she knew what he was talking about.

I couldn’t recall ever hearing about a Dr. Lugen. However, I knew I’d been gone for months so the idea of someone new taking the title of our village’s doctor didn’t completely shock me. But it made me wonder how much else had changed since we left. It made me fearful.

“No, that’d be great,” I said, even though the thought of me walking anywhere had me internally wincing. But when I had answered, I’d truly been thinking more about Oriana’s wellbeing than my own. Although she was washed and dressed in adequate clothing and she appeared happy, that didn’t mean her months of being malnourished were instantly washed away. If any of us in the room deserved rest, it was her and I felt like a thief by being in that bed instead of her.

“Alright, perfect.” Julius flashed a grin with his wide mouth, revealing his set of crooked teeth that, even with his status and monthly visits to a teeth cleaner, were still a tint of yellow. “Oriana, could you help Raena get dressed? I’m afraid my servants are preoccupied with other tasks at the moment.”

“Of course.”

“Perfect. Thank you, Oriana. I’ll meet you both outside.” Julius went to walk out but stopped as soon as his foot stepped over the threshold, his hand firmly gripping the doorknob of the halfway closed door. “Oh, and girls?” We both turned to him expectantly, heads perking up to hear whatever this man had to say. Julius had been like a father to us, always making sure to treat us with care and respect. Whatever he had to say, whether it be about the weather or the end of all life, we were ready to listen for however long he wished to speak. His voice was the most attractive thing about him after all. “I haven’t told anyone else about your adventure yet, only that you’ve returned and are in my care for now. So until I do, keep what happened quiet, yes? I don’t want there to be a panic, is all.”

We both nodded without hesitation before sharing similar glances. Amaryllins were already so paranoid over their unproven stories that they built their entire lives and traditions around those fears. I couldn’t imagine the chaos that would arise if anyone heard that Oriana and I had not only been taken to the Cursed Kingdom but had survived as well, making us the first known Humans who could give detailed accounts of the kingdom and the Cursed King.

It was an incident that I was fully aware would most likely be heard by King Caspolean himself, as it was Julius’s duty to report such things to the royal court, which I understood. But I wasn’t entirely stupid. I knew that if a single person caught wind that I’d shared a bed with the Cursed King, that my name would be hissed and spat on throughout the continent. I’d been in a palace long enough myself to know that the servants had ears everywhere and mouths that never stopped moving.

I could practically already see myself sat in front of an overweight man, a pen in his dominant hand and a cigarette in his other, who would belittle me with every question and every sneer he sent my way. The journalist would make sure to turn me into a circus freak by publishing whatever would sell the most newspaper copies and perhaps the royals would try to smother the blow by asking me to stay in one of their summer homes, where I would rot away alone until age finally ended my misery.

The thought of our hardships in the Cursed Kingdom being tossed from mouths to ears like nothing made me sick to my stomach, wondering if anyone in Trellomar would ever see me as a person again or if I would always be known as the Cursed Queen or the Cursed Victim, no matter where I escaped to?

I didn’t think Julius fully understood the position I was in—I didn’t want to keep what happened quiet. I wanted to forget that the past few months of my life had happened at all. The desire inside of me to scrape my skin until I forgot Henrik’s touch was thicker than any blood. I just wanted it all to go away—the pain, the pleasure, the memories—everything—and I was willing to go through every nation and ocean if it meant I’d get the dignity of my name back.

“Good.” With another flash of yellow and a stiff nod, Julius turned and closed the door swiftly, silence seeping into the room as thick as tar.

As soon as his footsteps faded down the hall, I swung my legs over the side of the mattress and slowly stood onto my feet, putting pressure little by little onto them while Oriana shot up and pushed her chair against the wall. She rushed to be beside me, hands slightly outstretched in preparation to catch me if I fell, but I was too prideful to admit how badly my ankle felt or how much I yearned to lean on her for help.

Although I knew it was not nearly as horrible as it had felt before, my memories had done nothing to prepare me for the pain and so I experienced it for the first time all over again. With every step I took to the bathroom, it felt like daggers were being stabbed into my heel and I nearly sighed aloud in relief when I made it to the door beside the dresser, ripped it open and shut, and then practically collapsed onto the toilet seat, where I finally let my pain show with a grimace and a hiss through gritted teeth.

When I went to wash my hands, I learned that the hot water wasn’t working and watched in a thick daze as the freezing water ran over my skin and made the hairs on my arms stand straight. My eyes trailed away once I began scrubbing my palms with a bar of milk soup and I couldn’t help but compare the tiny, dark, windowless bathroom to Henrik’s immediately. Its floors were a hard, dull wood and although the toilet was mostly white clay, the seat and lid were wooden as well. The lever to flush was unusually cracked down its center and had required me to push it down three times before it finally worked.

My heart clenched at the sight of the room and its clean countertop and so I turned my head forward again and into the mirror.

I stared at my pale reflection for a couple seconds before tilting my head forward, frowning when I saw the dozens of strands of white that had at least tripled since the last time I checked only a few days ago. They seemed much brighter than they had appeared originally as well, although I played it off as my memories playing tricks with me again. From what I saw, it would only be a matter of a couple weeks before my hair was overrun by the unwanted color and I made a mental note to ask Julius for some dye.

I figured if everything my life had to change, then I at least deserved to have a head of hair that could trick me for a couple seconds every morning and night that I could ever be deemed normal again.

Sighing quite loudly, I looked back into my eyes that were surrounded by dark circles. Such a light blue that they were almost grey, I realized they were the only things that had truly remained the same, releasing the same dull disappointment they’d given me months ago.

I smiled at myself sarcastically in the mirror and shook my head, having forgotten how ugly my smile was.

The Cursed Queen, I thought, trying to shove the powerful nickname and my eyes together so that they could become one. The Cursed Queen, I tried again, but it was like trying to force a center piece and a corner piece of a puzzle together. So I shut off the water and turned away, not having the will power within me to dry my hands or risk the chance of having to look into my eyes again.

By the time I hobbled back into the bedroom, my face forcefully stoic, Oriana had laid out clothes for me on the bed and she turned to me with a soft smile, wringing her hands in almost a nervous-like manner. I eyed her attire of green trousers and a black, loose shirt again. Usually I didn’t like puffed sleeves but on her they filled out her form a bit more and gave an illusion that underneath the material was a healthy, eighteen year old body.

After agreeing that a bath would be something I would have to do after visiting the doctor, Oriana handed me a pair of worn, brown leather trousers that fit me like a glove. She watched me as I hopped awkwardly on one foot until they were over my hips. As soon as I buttoned the front of the trousers, the simple action making a lump in my throat appear, I hastily reached for the bottom of the tunic to peel it off, not giving the action a second thought because Oriana and I had changed in front of each other so many times before.

But as soon as the dirty material that reeked of sweat and soul was over my head and I was left in a simple blue brassiere, a choked gasp filled the room, which had me looking at Oriana quizzically. Her eyes were filled with horror as they stared at me and her hand hovered a few inches away from her agape mouth.

“What the hell is that?” She pointed to my neck and I felt whatever light had been remaining in my spirits be smothered out by her shaking finger.

Ever since I had sealed up the bridge between Henrik and I’s minds, my mark hadn’t given a single sensation that it used to, feeling just like any typical skin with no extra sensitivity or strange pulses. In my hurry to discard my shirt and the slight fog that still flooded my mind from my deep sleep, I’d forgotten entirely about it until it was too late and I had to witness first hand what my friend thought of it.

I looked towards the floor, crinkling my nose as my eyes began to burn with shame.

“The Cursed King gave it to me,” I told her softly, my words clipped short with hurt. I walked past her as quickly as I could and snatched the shirt from the bed, keeping my back turned towards her, not so that she couldn’t see me but so that I couldn’t see her. “It means I’m cursed to be his forever.”

Seeing the horror-filled look in my Oriana’s eyes was like the confirmation that I would never be looked at the same anymore by anyone. As I stood surrounded by unfeeling wood and my thoughts, I realized how much more trapped I was in that room than I had ever been in the Cursed Kingdom, although I didn’t regret leaving and even I did, I knew I could never go back. No matter how kind Henrik had been to me before, I doubted that same kindness could be found again.

But if I wasn’t the Cursed Queen or Raena anymore, then what did that leave me?

Nothing, my thought suggested. Perhaps they were right.

I threw the clean handmade shirt over my head, hoping that with my mark now out of Oriana’s line of sight that it could be somehow forgotten—that maybe Oriana could look at me and still see a friend and not anything less than that. But it was childish of me to hope for such a thing.

I felt her hand on my shoulder before I saw her and I tensed, fixating my eyes on the thick quilt that surrounded the bed in a pattern of reds and oranges, instantly comparing it to Ingrid’s and the one she’d made for me for Henrik and I’s wedding. It saddened me to think that I’d never see it again.

Oriana stared at my face with pity, her eyes glassy as they looked at the collar of my shirt as if she could see through the fabric and to what resided underneath. My eyes filled with more tears and I turned my head away from her, clenching my jaw. Even with it hidden, it was all she could see.

With a faint shake of her head, she pivoted me towards her without much persuasion and pulled me into a hug before I could register what was happening. It took me a couple heartbeats to return the gesture and I slowly eased into her comforting embrace, breathing in her sweet scent greedily as if it would be the last time again.

“I love you, Raena,” she told me, her voice muffled by my shoulder. With each word she spoke, a hot gust of air was blown onto the skin there. “Whatever happens next, we’ll get through it together.”

I nodded weakly towards the closed bedroom door, my lower lip quivering as I held in a sob. “I love you too.” I practically blurted out the three words that’d been weighing my tongue down for months. In spite of the fact they had been intended for someone else, I still meant every syllable, knowing I’d never dare utter them to anyone else. But now that they were gone, it gave enough room for reality to settle in, who spoke nothing of emptiness and empty memories and empty past endearments.

I pulled back and gave a forced smile, envying the way Oriana’s eyes genuinely sparkled with hope and happiness. Only in my dreams could I hope to possess that kind of stare again, the one that looked into the future and saw opportunities and not dead ends.

Awkwardly pivoting around, I took a seat in the chair that was now against the wall to unwrap the cloth from around my ankle. I discarded them carelessly onto the floor once I was done and I didn’t stare at my injury very long, only enough to grimace at the swollen joint, before I rewrapped it with just a single piece of cloth. It was thick enough to still give support but also thin enough for me to slip a shoe over it, which I did after noticing my boots beside the bed and slightly hidden by the end of the covers, one standing upright while the other had fallen on its side. While I carefully tied the laces, which was quite difficult doing with one good hand, and Oriana made haste at throwing my soiled clothes in the laundry shoot out in the hallway, I did my best to pretend that the splotches of reddish brown on the toes were all mud and not the substance that both gave me and ruined my life everyday.

It’d been only half an hour when we stepped out of the room and into the hallway, which was so narrow that if I outstretched my arms, I could’ve easily brushed my fingers against both sides at the same time. The yellow wallpaper with floral patterns made my nose scrunch up, wondering why Julius would’ve ever wanted that in his home. Overall, the home felt much hollower than I remembered with not a single decorative piece to be found yet still managed to make me feel claustrophobic with its thin hallways and low ceiling. It was an odd little place and I didn’t understand why Julius would’ve ever renovated it to be so uninviting.

We made it down the stairs slowly, with me practically hobbling the whole way and relying on Oriana’s elbow for support since the steps were so steep, creaking with every small movement. Thankfully they led straight to the front door, which Oriana ran over to open, and I thanked her as I walked past, gripping onto the porch’s railings in a harsh grip once I was past the threshold to make it down the few last steps.

As soon as my feet landed on solid ground, my body was possessed by cold chills when a gust of wind blew past my cheeks. I looked around and took in the trees and the few buildings around us, pausing to stare up at the face of a gargoyle that seemed to be looking directly at me. The atmosphere, which was usually full of chatter and kids’ squeals from the school yard, was eerily quiet with only the sounds of howls in the not-so-far-away distance. I couldn’t help but wonder if people had already gotten word of what had happened and were now hiding out of fear that Oriana and I had brought a sort of curse back with us.

The thought made me frown. I hadn’t been home for even a day and already I felt I wasn’t welcome.

Julius stood only a few feet away in trousers and a simple wine-colored button down shirt, fiddling with one of his cufflinks as if it wasn’t already perfect. “Ready?” He questioned once Oriana jumped off the porch and landed with a soft thud, his eyes staring at my ankle before traveling to my bandaged left hand. When he was satisfied with whatever he was looking for, he gave a nod. “This way, girls.”

We followed him mindlessly, with me doing my best to limp independently, our eyes skimming over Amaryllus as if for the first time while the dirt of the man-made path crunched beneath our shoes. Julius’s house was near the outskirts of Amaryllus so we only passed by a few townhomes, where other people of noble or rich family lines lived. About two stories tall each, they were beautiful homes but I’d forgotten how lifeless they were, with no flowers or splashes of color anywhere.

It made me sad.

An annoying buzzing sound suddenly passes by my ear, making me cringe away, before the source of the noise flew near my face and resulted in me swatting the fly away with an annoyed and disgusted grimace. I’d forgotten how many bugs the warm months brought and suddenly wished for the bitterness of the cold to come back and deter them all away again. There was so much good that came with the cold, so much stillness until the warmth had to come and melt it away.

“Did you also tell Julius about the creature in the woods?” I asked Oriana in a whisper, my heart pounding as I imagined someone hearing me through a window or hiding around a corner. But I needed to know how much she’d told him so I could figure out how much I could keep from him. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust Julius. I just didn’t trust people, who loved being in people’s business uninvited, eavesdropping and snooping around wherever and whenever they could.

The less people knew of the things that happened in the Cursed Kingdom, the more chance we had of escaping it for good.

Oriana gave me a puzzled look, her eyebrows furrowing and lips noticeably sticking out more than normal. “Monster?” She repeated the word, her voice becoming higher in pitch with confusion. “What are you talking about?”

“The huge, white, corpse-like creature. You know, the one with red eyes?” I said, sending her side glances. When Oriana’s eyes still didn’t light up with any recognition of what I was talking about, I grabbed her arm and stopped her to stare into them and assess her emotions closely. “Don’t you remember?”

She shook her head slowly, staring at me and the hands on her upper arms like I was the crazy one.

“I think I would remember seeing something like that, Raena.” Oriana’s tone became defensive and with her hands, she slowly eased my own off her arms, as if not to startle me. I swayed my head from side to side, feeling that same blistering headache reappear as confusion entered my already jumbled concoction of emotions. “Are you okay?”

“Girls?” Julius’s voice called out from around the corner of a townhome, the wind helping to blow his voice in our direction. Just those few seconds of us standing still had put us many feet behind.

“We’ll talk about this later,” Oriana assured me before walking off. I stared at her back in disbelief and then rolled my eyes, more out of frustration than anything against her.

There was no doubt in my mind that I hadn’t imagined that entire ordeal. I knew I hadn’t. I could still feel the Lycan’s blood on my hands and the way my fingertips still tingled with magic. I did my best to hide it but it scared me how much my body yearned to do it again already—to feel that rush of energy escape my body to only be replaced by a thicker, more forceful wave just waiting to break through for the next time.

A Lycan howled from somewhere deep in the trees, trailed by another that sounded farther away.

With a shaky exhale, I limped the rest of the way alone, the veins in my temples making my head throb as they hurriedly pumped blood through my skull. When I made it around the townhome, the first thing I noticed was Oriana’s stiff form, which I practically almost ran into since she was only a yard away from the corner. Her arms were glued to her sides and her back was as stiff and straight as a pole.

My eyebrows furrowed in confusion at her strange behavior and my lips parted to ask a question.

Then I saw the cage.

With the overall shape of a typical horse-drawn wagon with wooden ceiling, floors, and end walls, the cage’s metal bars were covered all the way around in a thick coating of rust and reminded me of something you would keep a feral animal in. The spotted horse that was responsible for carrying the weight, huffed and stomped its front feet, its restlessness making the vehicle jolt back and forth and give a few squeals.

“Julius, what is this?” I asked, looking to the lord who stood only a few feet in front of us, his hands clasped behind his back.

A small, sharp smack on my knuckles had me glancing at Oriana, who gestured with her wide eyes to an open area of grass near the tree line. I followed her line of sight and felt my chest grow heavy when I saw a couple hundred feet away the form of a man lying face down on the ground, his black hair blowing softly in the breeze. There was no sign of movement in his chest and I knew the man was dead.

I looked back over to Julius and said hesitantly and shakily, “What’s going on?” But there was no part of me that wished to know the answer.

“Get in the carriage, girls,” he said as two men—no, males—came from around the front of the wagon, causing my palms to become moist with sweat.

One of the male quickly unlocked the back of the cage with a small key and pried it open, the metal hinges releasing anguished screeches of protest. The other stood and stared at us, narrowing his eyes as if in contemplation while his blond, curly hair bounced with each gust of wind.

Dressed in loose black clothing, the males were both tall and muscular and perhaps I would’ve even considered them handsome if it weren’t for their murderous gazes and the fact their pores reeked of strange magic. Their vibrations reminded me of a base of a drum, low and heart jostling, and I couldn’t help but feel whatever thing that wasn’t human inside me give a push against my skin in the direction towards them.

Closer, closer, closer... it whispered and it made me hate it even more, knowing in that moment that whatever magic I’d been cursed with was, in fact, evil.

So I took a step back, glaring the two smirking males directly in their faces, and Oriana followed, head moving from side to side since she didn’t know which monstrosity to look at.

“Alright. Don’t want to comply? Fine,” Julius huffed and finally he looked over his shoulder and back to us, his eyes unfamiliar as they stared at my friend, who side stepped closer to me until our arms were brushing. The Lord Julius I’d known had been reserved and loved his people and I knew that this was not the same man. It couldn’t have been. ”Oriana, you want to take a ride in the wagon.”

I furrowed my eyebrows but before I could say anything, my friend took a long stride forward and then another and even more after that. Watching with a mix of horror and confusion, I could do nothing as Oriana walked past the males and hoisted herself into the cage, the whole vehicle shaking with her actions. Once she was inside, she sat cross-legged on the ground and stared forward, her eyes unfocused and unblinking and unrecognizable. She looked like a puppet.

The grinning males that were once beside the cage transported—literally was feet away and then beside me within a single blink—and grabbed both of my arms. “No!” I shouted and thrashed, feeling their nails dig into my flesh the harder I fought. I kicked, I punched, and I even snapped my teeth at them, doing anything I could to delay their next moves. The one on my right noticed my bandaged foot and wasted no time in taking his heel and slamming it straight down onto the joint. I threw my head back and screamed and wailed in pain, my legs giving out at the utter agony that coursed through my body from that single area. A coarse howl followed my cries. “Henrik!” I shouted, barely able to get his name out through my sobs and the two males lifting me roughly from under my arms.

Another howl followed.

I’m here, I’m here, it seemed to say but it was so far away. Too far.

One of the males pinned my arms to my sides from behind and dragged me to the carriage, my flailing legs doing nothing to protect me, while the other ran over to wait by the door. I gave a final shout when I was thrown into the cage, the palms of my hands bearing most of my weight and skidding painfully against the uneven wood.

The door shut behind me and I scrambled to awkwardly crawl over, the cage not big enough for me to stand up straight, and shoved my shoulder against the door right when the turning of a key rang out. I ground my teeth together, eyeing his hand through the bars as it pulled the key away with the most hatred I could muster. His sleeve rode up at the action, which unveiled a brand, like something you’d see on cattle, burned into the skin above his wrist of a strange star enclosed in a circle.

“Why are you doing this?” I sobbed, wrapping my hands around the iron bars until my knuckles turned white. My eyes were fixated on Julius, who stood in that same spot, arms crossed over his chest and eyes narrowed at me almost like he couldn’t believe I’d had the audacity to ask. Tears scorched my cheeks but my eyes spoke nothing of fury.

Julius slowly walked up to the cage, brushing the males away with a confident motion of his head. He smiled—an actual ear-to-ear, shit-eating grin—when he came to stand in front of me, our heads almost perfectly even and hands clasped behind his back as he bounced giddily on his toes. “So that everyone gets what they deserve, of course.” His form became blurry in my vision and my hands shakily lowered from the bars and to the floor, where my tears were soaked up by the wood. “Stop crying.” His voice was annoyed. “You should be happy. You’re getting what you wanted.”

“Fuck you!” I shouted in a burst of energy and spat in his face, my heart lurching at the sight of the saliva landing on his nose in both vengeful lust and fear of what he’d do next.

There was a pause of silence.

Julius rolled his eyes and wiped it away like it was nothing with his sleeve. He nodded his head around the front of the carriage, where I presumed the two males were standing, and proceeded to stand there and do absolutely nothing. No words exchanged. But there wasn’t a need for there to be.

The two males knew exactly what they needed to do and in less than a couple seconds, the cage jostled as they crawled onto the front of the wagon. Although I couldn’t see them, I could picture their every movement from the different pitches of the creeks and the direction the cage would sway in until they must’ve finally situated themselves. Only a single breath passed by my lips when the cracking of a whip rang out and made me flinch as the entire vehicle jolted forward and with that, so did Oriana.

My friend blinked rapidly and looked around the cage with horror as if waking up from a terrible dream. She shrunk into the wall, pressing against it as hard as she could.

I snapped my head back around to Julius, who grinned and waved leisurely with his left hand as we began being pulled away like an old friend sending us off on a vacation.

“Oh, no, no, no,” I heard Oriana mutter and I could detect the sound of her knees sliding against the wooden floor as she crawled around and then the shrieks of metal as she pulled on a couple of the bars. It wasn’t until she released a scream that I finally tore my gaze from Julius to look at whatever had elicited such a horrible sound.

When I caught sight of what she had, my stomach gave a sickening churn and my veins chilled, my blood going colder than any ice.

My bandaged hand came up to my mouth in silent horror.

Bodies were scattered everywhere, men, women, and children, all shriveled and dry as if all the moisture had been drained out of them. Their numbers only seemed to grow as we left Amaryllus and entered the field around it, where there seemed to be as many dead people as stones. Flies swarmed them, all greedy to take a bite of rotting flesh, and up above, I noticed many large birds circling and waiting for their turn.

Most of the people’s mouths were trapped in eternal screams, some’s shriveled eyes wide open while others were closed and some had no eyes at all, only black holes where they used to be. No matter what their final form was, each one was just as haunting and I watched silently, curling into a ball in the corner, and tried not to think of their final moments and the horrors that they must’ve seen.

There was an enormous jolt of the carriage that had my shoulder slamming against one of the bars. Oriana released an anguished cry when we both noticed at the same time the body that the wagon’s wheels had driven over, the skull now so crushed inward that I couldn’t tell if it was a young boy or a woman.

When Oriana caught sight of a crow pecking out a dead woman’s wide eyes, she turned her head as far as she could away from my line of sight and vomited, trying to aim for the gaps between the bars but failing slightly.

I almost joined her but was too paralyzed with fear to do anything but stare, my whole body shaking as I stared at the bodies and the merciless animals that ate away at whatever was left of them.

My fear was so strong I knew Henrik could sense it even through my wall. I knew he could feel it just as I felt him trying to push against it, scratching and biting at the impenetrable force like the feral animal he was. He wanted to see what I was seeing, to know where I was and what was happening.

But I did not let him in.

Even as Amaryllus became a mere dot in the distance, our sobs lowered into pitiful hiccups, and the sounds of thousands of flies joined my memories—

I did not let the Cursed King in.

This chapter unfortunately is very unedited. Sorry for any and all mistakes.

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