“Tell me! You planned it all, didn’t you? Making sure I couldn’t get to your brother.” Fury and disappointment permeated the King’s feelings, surfacing in the only thing he was doing now, squeezing her neck with the pressure of his fingers.
Daphne did not speak. Even if she could, she did not want to. As much as she was terrified of Rothvaln, she could not let go of the unique relief when her brother failed to be summoned. Maybe... Lorcan had something to do with it?
“Daphne tell me who helped you free Lorcan?” Despair was what she noticed in his eyes as he held her arms with brutal force. “You have no idea what you have done! You set a monster free! Why do you think he’s been locked up?!” Rothvaln needed to understand why she had committed the one act that he was unable to forgive. A cruel betrayal that now threatened his life.
His arms wrapped her in a useless plea, resting his forehead on hers. “Tell me, Daphne, tell me who helped you? Why did you do it?”
She closed her eyes. She wanted to tell him the truth; after all, the King had never mistreated her, quite the contrary. But just this once, she had to keep silent for James. Her loyalty would always be to her brother. It didn’t matter if she would die tonight. At least James wouldn’t fall into the clutches of the King of Demons. And perhaps Lorcan realizes how futile it would be to hold on to her brother once she was dead. She had to hold on to that ambitious hope that Lorcan wouldn’t end up killing James.
“I see,” Rothvaln turned away from her, looking at her with an indecipherable expression. Daphne suddenly found herself in the Desert of Perdition.
“What are we doing here?” She was in a state of unusual terror, looking around until she eventually landed in Rothvaln.
“Since you know the place, I guess you can get out of it again like you did before.”
“Just tell me who it was.”
Daphne looked down in ignominious defeat.
“All right, you’ve sealed your own fate.” Leaving her alone in that place, she found herself once again in the same swampy area surrounded by the sinister thorny trees.
What should I do now? Daphne inspected her surroundings again. The overwhelming silence filled the place so disconcerting and dangerous. Nervousness, accompanied by fear, ran through her body like killer ants implanting their poison in every pore of her skin.
Without weapons, in a dress that could hardly be of any help. There were no shadows that could help her get out of there. Her heels were sinking in the mud. Without thinking twice, she got rid of them.
Where could she go? Any piece of this inhospitable place could be her grave.
A slight movement to her right snapped her attention. Her eyes were fixed on that point where she thought she had seen something. Long seconds passed, but nothing came out of those dead trees.
Her violent heartbeat resonated so high that she could feel it pounding against her chest. Her breath began to stir, the air started to feel heavier. At that very moment, she had a déjà vu, a familiar feeling of what would soon happen, uncertainty and fear, emotions that she was experiencing for the second time.
Daphne grabbed part of her dress, lifting it up and tearing it into pieces until the edge of the fabric brushed near her knees. She began to walk carefully around, although with some difficulty because of the mud, she kept on pacing, testing the spot.
“Daphne” She stopped instantly, without the slightest intention of looking back. No, she couldn’t. It couldn’t be right. “Look at me, Daphne,” the voice said again.
Without being able to avoid it, she did it. When it came to him, her will would simply melt away. Her brother was standing in front of her, wearing the same clothes she had seen him last time.
James raised his arm in the notion that she would accept it. “Come with me, sis. I’m going to get you out of here.” Daphne almost believed it was true, James had come to her rescue, but something told her it wasn’t so.
Her brother began to approach her. She backed off on instinct. “Daphne, you’re safe with me. I’ve come to find you.” He now had both arms outstretched and a smile on his face.
She still did not move from the spot, letting those brotherly arms encircle her in a hug. It felt real, so real that a relief began to course through her body. She hugged her brother. Feeling his warmth and calm breath. James was brave, after all. He had come to rescue her in this horrible place, and yet he was not afraid.
“Daphne, you must tell him who it was,” her brother told her.
With her chin resting on his shoulder, Daphne frowned. Something was not right. “What are you talking about?” she asked him.
“You know very well-.”
“No, I don’t.” Daphne parted from his embrace on a hunch. The fear had been so overwhelming that it had overshadowed all reasoning in her. She saw it clearly now. “What do you want?”
“Daphne, it’s me, James. I came to you.”
“You are not James.”
She had started to move away from him. Her brother - it was impossible for him to be here - she repeated to herself over and over again. She saw one of the thorns sticking out of a bent tree with the periphery of vision so that it almost touched the ground. Without waiting for another second and knowing what would happen next, she ran with all the stamina she possessed. A monstrous scream was released behind her back. Aware that she was being chased, she kept running without looking back.
The thorns were close, very close.
Soon her hands closed on the blackish-blue thorn, trying to pull it out with every push. An agonizing cry erupted from her throat as a horrific, dull pain invaded one of her shoulders, sliding down her entire body. She found herself suddenly thrown into the air, falling almost close to one of the deadly trees.
As she tried to get up, she looked at the source of her pain; some of her clawed skin and blood running down her chest resulted from a significant bite. The affliction became more unbearable by the second. A creature just like the one she had previously killed was approaching without much haste. As if it were a game. Where she was the prey, and it was the hunter.
Weakness was beginning to suppress her strength. It was not only the usual soreness of the wound, nor the blood that stained her dress. There was something worse. She felt something different as if her own blood was burning inside her.
Still not giving up and with little strength, she picked up a thick thorn in time to stab the creature that was now charging at her, trying to finish what it had started.
The front claws of her aggressor had long, well-defined nails. Daphne tried to dodge the attacks without much success. The oppressive silence she had noticed a few minutes earlier was now replaced by the screams of both of them. And above all hers, every time those beastly claws scratched part of her back, her arms and her legs. Her body burned even more. Her muscles ached as if needles were buried in them. Her body was begging her to surrender, to end her hunger for survival. And yet she couldn’t satisfy those damned urges.
In one of those inexplicable attempts, she buried the thorn in the neck of the creature, who immediately raised a high-pitched scream and, with it monstrous arm, hit her with such force that her body was thrown.
The massive fall left her upside down. Her face was barely buried in the mud. Her body cried out for the endless pain she felt. Her energies were fading fast. Her blood was flowing through her body, announcing a slow death and the cold mud mixed with it. Her mind was yelling at her to move. She could not die like this, but her body was even heavier. Demanding her surrender. She wanted to live, she needed to live, for James, for her, but she did not have the strength to do so.
Knowing that she would soon embrace the abyss, Daphne closed her eyes, waiting for the creature to end her agony.
That high-pitched shriek never came.
She slowly opened her eyes with her heavy lids, managing to see a pair of black shoes. Arms slid across her body, lifting her from her deathbed. She was trying to stay awake when she saw that sordid place had now become a familiar one, a safe one.
Her body was placed on a comfortable surface, a sofa, she thought. Was she dead? Or was this one of those final visions before she fell into eternal sleep? Daphne wanted to talk to her savior, to ask him to take care of James.
She successfully opened her eyes once again, realizing that her savior was none other than him.
“As much as I want to, I can’t,” Rothvaln spoke. His voice was one of defeat.
“Forgive me,” Daphne spoke in a whisper.
“I cannot.” The King looked at her with painful eyes.
Her eyelids closed hastily when a caustic pain exploded in her shoulder, sweeping through her entire being like a vengeful wave. Cries of agony were all she could do. She felt her blood burn as if she were immersed in an ocean of lava.
“I can’t kill you, Daphne, but I can punish you. That pain you feel, it’s venom. Only the King’s blood can make your agony disappear, only me. And before I decide to forgive you, you must first suffer the consequences. You will live with the pain until I decide. Every night for the next few days, you will fulfill your duty. Now I will ascertain how well Maret has trained you”.
Despite her unbearable pain, Daphne heard him clearly. Her swollen and reddish lips were invaded by those of the King, in a soft kiss, a kiss that declared love and resentment in equal measure. Daphne’s wounds began to seal. But the agonizing pain was still there.
Rothvaln believed that she would understand once and for all who her master was by making her suffer. Her obedience belonged to him, her body belonged only to him, her soul belonged only to him. Little did the King know at that moment how wrong he would be. Because not every woman was capable of giving herself body and soul to a man. And Daphne certainly wouldn’t, or so she thought.