The Cursed Kingdom

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Ever since I switched rooms, Henrik avoided me. Or at least that's what I assumed because I hadn't seen him since our tense exchange by the stairs.

Because things quieted down without Henrik around, Jerium and I spent a lot of time together and I could see that he was slowly becoming more relaxed around me, that polite and quite serious wall of his crumbling to reveal an easygoing male interested in astrology and architecture. He always found ways to entertain me, even when I thought there was none, mostly with unique stories and facts about the Cursed Kingdom over cards and lunch. Although they were interesting and I listened earnestly to everything that he said, none were anything useful when it came to my pending escape. Even the multiple tours we took around the castle didn't show any promising signs of a possible route, all full of Jerium admiring the stonework that had been built during Henrik's grandfather's rule almost a thousand years ago.

Every door to the outdoors had two armor clad guards standing at ready, hands always on their swords and eyes always moving, looking for something out of placeβ€”almost like they were expecting it. At the main entrance, there were six that were the most intimidating and appeared physically strongest, which I knew was arranged purposefully.

With their weapons, massive height (although not as tall as Henrik), and bulging muscles compared to my thin and short frame, I knew there was no chance of me making it to the threshold let alone passing it.

Hopefulβ€”no, desperateβ€”to find a weakness in their daily routine, I watched the guards day and night that circled the palace, half in their human forms while others chose their beastly wolf ones, through windows in rooms throughout the palace.

But after a week of me spying and somehow tricking Jerium into thinking I was genuinely interested in the architecture of the castle despite the many times I'd zoned out, it looked impossible. There was a reason why Henrik had been king for the past two-hundred eleven years, a fact I'd learned from Jerium, and I finally understood it.

I'd always been told Henrik was invincible. Now I knew it was true.

An unwelcome yawn escaped my lips as a guard in his grey wolf form was passing underneath my window for what I guessed to be close to the hundredth time, his nose pressed against the ground. He stilled for a moment, his shoulders tensing as he sniffed a certain spot. After a couple heartbeats of him standing as still as a statue, he finally relaxed and started walking as usual, his ears twitching.

Seeing that the same uninteresting pattern wasn't going to change just as it hadn't the past six nights, I stood from the plush window seat and stretched my arms straight up into the air, releasing a groan when a vertebrae in my back popped. The grandfather clock across the room told me it was nearly midnight, a clear sign I should've crawled under the warm covers of my new bed and gone to sleep.

But I knew sleep was not in my fate that night.

I thought I could find peace by switching rooms, instead I was met with nightmares. Horrible, gruesome, and scarily realistic nightmares that kept me from getting more than three hours of sleep a night and kept me on edge during the day. Every single one of them were filled with Oriana, Taylium, and Tylem, shouting at me to help them but my feet would always be stuck to the ground, so I'd have to stand there and watch as they were ripped apart over and over again until their screams finally awoke me. I always cried afterwards, sometimes more than others, muttering their names and pleading for their souls to forgive me, and hoped that my spiritual payment would be over soon.

I couldn't sleep after they happened, too scared by the idea that there could be a time where I didn't wake up. So after suffering from them for six days in a row, I decided that I would avoid sleep altogether, knowing my friends' souls combined with my fear and guilt would make sure I was unrested and tense no matter what.

Getting an idea as I stared at the time, I grabbed my freshly washed pink robe from off the bed and pulled it over the casual green dress I'd worn that day with a pair of black boots. I had to admit, despite the fact I disliked the Cursed Kingdom and the person who ruled it, the clothing was the finest I'd ever worn and much better than my handmade items. It was softer and weighed less yet kept me warm just the same; however, wearing the restrictive dresses, which were placed inside of my dresser while I was away during the day, instead of trousers was a bit tiring.

I walked out my bedroom door as silently as I could, recalling how my mother always went on strolls through the village to clear her head when she couldn't sleep or was stressed, so I decided to do the same, eager to breathe in fresh air again even though it'd only been a couple hours since I'd walked around the castle by Jerium's side. The hybrid had informed me during one of our tours that the gardens were always open and I was welcome to explore them whenever I wished.

So explore I shall, I thought with a sigh, wishing the circumstances were different.

I trekked down the corridors and down the stairs, greeting and thanking the polite servants as I went, who were cleaning up the palace for the night and closing all the hundreds of curtains in the endless hallways. When I made it to the glass doors that led outside to the gardens, the two guards looked at me, looked at each other, and then nodded before stepping away to let me through.

Their armor, high-collared suits of black leather with iron spaulders and cuffs, made them appear broader than they already were and I found myself growing nervous being so close to them, knowing how utterly useless I would be if they decided to hurt me. I always wondered how many people they'd killed and how many wars they'd seen to make it so they never smiled.

"It's cold out, Madam," the one on the right with a slim face said in a gravelly voice, gazing at the snowy outdoors disapprovingly. "I wouldn't be out there too long."

"Thank you. I shouldn't be gone too long," I said softly, meaning it. I wasn't planning to be out for more than a couple minutes, which I saw as more than enough time to clear my head.

When I stepped out onto the porch, the cold air practically slapped me in the face, making me cringe back for a moment from its harshness, and I pulled my robe tighter around me.

The door was closed for me as soon as I began walking, keeping a watchful eye on my footing so I wouldn't accidentally slip on the translucent ice that covered the stone flooring in random patches. As soon as I was within arm's length, I firmly grasped the thick, concrete railing and took each step down the curved staircase slowly and precisely until I finally made it down onto the level snow-covered ground.

The gardens, which expanded across the entire width of the palace, looked absolutely haunting with the snow almost seeming to glow against the darkness. Every bush, branch, and blade of grass was covered in an inch of bright white and they marked the path for me as I walked carelessly through, not having a particular route in mind.

Although the cold made me shiver and my teeth clatter together until it could've been considered painful, I didn't mind that much. I figured shivering from the cold was a lot better than quivering in fear.

The snow crunched under my boots, the sound turning hypnotizing, and I focused on it as I walked deeper into the walls of plants, my steps naturally slowing along with my heart's rhythm. After a couple minutes, like a type of magic, my head became heavier and I found it more difficult to keep my eyes open. An audible yawn passed my lips and I watched with a sort of childish giddiness as my breath turned into mist and then swirled up into the air.

Despite my drowsiness, I kept walking and walking and walking until I reached the outskirts of the garden, which was only a couple hundred feet from the woods. I stopped when I noticed there were no guards nearby and listened for footsteps. None.

I looked around, left and right, and realized I was utterly alone. The atmosphere was so silent that I felt like I had to hold my breath not to disturb it. The thought of escaping then and there entered my mind, just dashing for the thick tree line, pumping my legs as fast as they would go, and figuring out a destination later.

Go, go, go... a voice from inside me whispered and I was so tempted, that I actually took a step forward.

But that idea was smothered when I noticed a large, single form suddenly emerge out of the woods. I cursed to myself and went to take a step back towards the castle, had even gone as far as to turn my shoulders, but instead paused when he fully walked out from the impenetrable darkness of the trees.

As I stared at him, I couldn't tell if the burn in my cheeks was from the cold anymore or the sight before me. The male was completely naked. Although my eyes strained to see in the darkness, I was ironically able to see him in perfect detail, every bulging muscle and shadowed line of his scars, and I forced my eyes from moving below the prominent 'V' shape just below his abdominal muscles.

As my eyes trailed back upwards, my chest went as cold as the snow beneath my feet when I finally took all of him in.

It looked black with the lack of lighting but I'd seen enough blood to know when I was looking at it. And he was covered in itβ€”covered.

His arms were coated in a thick layer of pure blackβ€”pure bloodβ€”from his hands up to his elbows like he'd dunked them into a bucket full of it. His lower face and chest resembled the same, the liquid glistening in the starlight around his mouth and making my stomach churn. It almost looked like he had bathed in it and it wouldn't have surprised me if he had.

When the demon turned his golden gaze, I saw his eyes unnervingly brighten in the darkness as they focused on me. It was the second most terrifying moment in my life, knowing I'd been seen by such a monster and helplessly wondering if I'd be his next victim.

I swallowed, feeling the unmistakable sensation of bile rising up my throat when he took a step closer. He was still so far away, but I could practically smell the metallic bitterness from the blood as if he was standing right in front of me. I had smelled it before. The smell of death.

The screams. I could hear the screams of my friends dying as I stared at him. I could remember their blood in the snow, thick and scarlet red.

He took another step and finally my brain worked up enough sense to allow my legs some movement to take a couple steps backwards. I shook my head back and forth, attempting to erase my mind of all the horrible thoughts it was feeding me. My eyes stung from unshed tears and I brought my hands up to grip the sides of my face like it would ease the pain of what I was experiencing.

The fear. I could feel the fear I felt when I first heard Taylium scream. It was the worst sound in the world, hearing my friend dying and being helpless to do anything.

Helpless. I was always helpless.

Finally he stopped approaching me and cocked his head to the side in silent questioning, his golden eyes making me squirm and dig my nails into my hairline, no doubt drawing the same liquid that haunted my every thought. A single, scorching tear ran down my cheek and quickly rolled off my chin onto the snow.

The pain. The pain of having to live without them. The pain of having to live with myself, with reality, with guilt, with fear eating at me until that's all that I had left.

He must've finally understood the source of my horror stricken face and raised up his hands, palms facing him, and I could make out the movements of his glowing eyes as he looked at his blood-covered hands. Then he lowered them slowly and stared at me, watching me as I cried pathetically in the middle of his gardens.

"Raena." Henrik's voice cut through the chilling air like a hot blade. It was firm yet gentle and for some reason, that just made me cry harder.

I could feel the bile rising up my throat again and I turned and made a dash for the door, a futile attempt to get to the bathroom or some sort of area where I could be alone. I barely made it ten feet when I had to lean over and release my stomach's contents onto the snowy ground, the acid burning my throat and causing more tears to well in my eyes.

Embarrassed and severely frightened, when I gained control over myself, I ran the rest of the way back to the castle and never looked back once, knowing I'd probably vomit again if I did.

The guards looked at me questionably as I bolted past, clutching my hand over my mouth, and stuck their noses in the air and sniffed with sour expressions. I knew they could smell the bile on my breath. I wondered if they could smell my fear too.

I didn't smile or greet the servants this time as I hurriedly marched past them and they were respectful enough not to approach me. They probably didn't want to anyway with how I must've reeked to their keen senses of smell.

Trudging up three flights of stairs in that state of shakiness and nausea was absolute torture and I'd never been so happy to close my bedroom door and be alone with silence, the only friend I had anymore.

The grandfather clock ticked its lulling tune, its large hand now past midnight and counting every minute that I was forced to live without my friends by my side.

I hurriedly walked to my bathroom and opened its single door. To my left was the toilet, which I immediately ran over to release what was left of my stomach's continents into the black marble bowl.

Too far gone with emotion to care about being sanitary, when I was finished puking up what felt like most of my organs, I rested my scorching forehead against the toilette seat and cried. My body quivered and heaved with violent sobs, tears scorching the soft skin of my cheeks as they glided their way down to the floor.

A couple minutes later, I heaved some more but it was mostly spittle, and it was all it took to steal the last ounce of energy I possessed right out of the very marrow in my bones. Reaching up to flush the polluted toilet water revealed to be a difficult task. My hand wouldn't stop shaking.

The marble felt nice against my hot skin so I was fine staying there, sitting on the bathroom floor with my head resting on top of my folded arms on the toilet seat. I closed my eyes, taking in deep breaths to slow my heartbeat. I feared I was about having a heart attack if I didn't get it to slow down, having heard stories of people who died from their overwhelming emotions.

And somehow, by the grace of whatever being controls the universe, I fell asleep for the second time on a bathroom floor and ironically did not have any nightmares.

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