I walk to the center of the crystal-trimmed yard in front of Nicholas’s illusion house. There’s a fence carved of rubies and a large tree that grows miniscule pink diamonds. It’s beautiful, yet as Nicholas’s said, the beauty is just a delusion.
Taking the ruby-filled ball out of my pocket. I hold onto the Ira and shut my eyes. I’m not sure where to go since so much time has gone by, so I do the only thing I can think of.
I shut my eyes and think of the one thing that brings emotion out of me.
I think of Alex.
When I land in the living room of Adessa’s, I start to feel alive again, my bones and muscles not hurting so much and my head clears. The air smells intoxicatingly of cinnamon and spices, and the velvet couch looks very welcoming. So does the person on it.
Alex is staring at a book that’s open on his lap, but when my feet hit the floor his head whips up. A blistering flame of need combines with desire and I start to run to him, but my knees give out on me and I slow down, bracing onto the armrest of the sofa.
“Where the hell have you been?” He takes in the traumatized state of me as he rises to his feet, dropping the book on the cushion. “And what the hell happened to you?”
I collapse onto the nearest couch and lie down on my side, cuddling the Ira to my chest. “Nicholas.”
Alex shakes his head and then storms over to the wall, slamming his fist through the drywall. “I’m going to kill him,” he growls with so much fury in him it vibrates across the room and into me, stealing some of my already fading energy.
I struggle to keep my eyes open. “I’m so tired.” I raise my arm in the air and hold up the Ira. “I got this from him.”
His green eyes widen as he strides across the room and kneels down beside the couch. “You have the Ira?”
I nod, gazing off into empty space as I remember the hell I’ve been through the last few days. My ankles and wrists are ripped apart from the cuffs while my legs and arms feel stretched. “Yeah, I stole it from him.”
“What happened? One minute I left you with Laylen so you could… so he could… and then Laylen said you just vanished. At first I thought he did something to you, but then I realized that he…” he summons a deep breath and shuts his eyes. “That he cares for you. So we searched the forest, however we couldn’t find you anywhere, so we came back here.” He opens his eyes and sadness abounds within each of them. He hitches his thumb over his shoulder, pointing at the book. “I’ve been reading and reading on why the hell someone would just disappear, but I was starting to arrive to the conclusion that… that you ran away.” He pauses, waiting for an answer.
I shake my head. “Nicholas was playing fucking mind games with me.” I drape my arm over my head to block out the sting from the bright light. What’s been done to me… what I did continues to possess my fractured soul. “He took me to his illusion house and tied me to the bed. At first he said it was because of your father, but as the days kept passing and passing, I really started to believe it was for his own benefit.”
Alex remains silent for a while, deeply breathing in and out. Finally, the silence becomes maddening and I peer out from under my arm. His gaze penetrates me; my filthy clothes, the warm blood on my hands, along with the purplish blue bruises and deep red scratches covering my body. “Gemma, I’m not sure what you’re talking about. I mean I can tell by the way that you look that you obvious went through something really bad, but…” He struggles, leaning in over me and sweeping my hair out of my face. “But you’ve only been gone for a few hours.”
I swiftly shake my head. “No… no there’s no way. I was gone for days. I know it.”
His eyebrows furrow as I wince from a sore area on the center of my forehead. “Gemma, I promise you that’s not true. I can even get Laylen in here to back me up.”
My head pounds as I rack my mind for what the hell could be happening. “But it felt like days. There’s no way it could have been only a few hours.”
He draws a line back and forth below each of my violet eyes. “Maybe he was messing with you... maybe he was making it seem like days had gone by. He could easily do that, Gemma.”
I sigh, thinking of how my sanity bolt had unscrewed. “Maybe…”I shake my head and sit up as he slants back to give me room. “I hate him. I really do.”
Alex slides up on the couch and turns to face me. His fingers find my hips and he carefully lifts me onto his lap so I’m straddling him. “Tell me what he did to you.” He scans over my clothes, my wounds, stealing my breath away the longer he stays focused on me. Electricity within me stirs and arouses, along with my emotions that I turned off.
I take a deep breath and tell him what happened, minus the making out details because I’d vomit if I had to say them aloud. There are some things that are better left unsaid and forgotten. The person I became is someone I want to forget.
It takes Alex about a minute before he speaks again. “I’d like to say that I’m surprised,” he says, slouching back in the sofa with his hands still on my hips. “But I’m not.”
“So you’ve heard of this Malefiscus?”
He wavers and then hesitantly nods. “When I was little, my father would tell me stories of him.”
“So you knew?” Stunned, I slide back to leave his lap, but his fingers press downward, securing me in place.
“Just stories,” he insists. “He didn’t tell me he was a descendant, only the story of who Malefiscus was and what became of him.”
“But you knew about the mark?”
He shakes his head, his pupils like black marbles as he begins to panic. “No, I really didn’t. I just knew who he was and what he did… my father started telling me stories of him right after my mother left and they kind of became like bedtime stories.”
“He told you of evil as a way to get you to go to sleep.” I’m stunned. Shocked. And kind of disgusted. All this time I’d felt pity for myself for everything I’d went through when I was younger, but I haven’t really thought about what it must have been like to grow up with a murderous traitor. “Alex, that’s horrible.”
He shrugs it off, staring over my shoulder. “That’s minor compared to some of the other shit he’s done to me.” His eyebrows dip together as he zones out on some distant memory.
I place my hand on his stubbly cheek and he flinches. “What did he do to you?”
His gaze slides to me as his fingers travel up my side, along each bump of my aching ribcage, finally resting on my shoulder. “You don’t need to worry about that. It’s in the past.”
“But I want to know,” I say. “I-I want to understand you more.”
He smiles sadly. “No, you don’t. No normal person wants to hear about the bad things that were done to someone by their father. They’d rather stay in the dark.”
“Well, I’m not normal,” I say as his hand covers my hand that’s on his cheek. He traces the folds of my fingers and I shiver from his affectionate touch, experiencing a fleeting moment where I feel like myself again, whoever she was. “Tell me,” I plead.
“That’s another story for another time,” he says gloomily. “Right now we need to work on getting you hidden better, especially if my father can brand people. Jesus, there could be a ton of people out there who have the mark. I mean, who knows how many people he branded.”
“So you think it’s true?” I say, sounding strangled, recollecting all the visions I had about the mark appearing on me. I casually glance over at the spot on my arm where it always appears to make sure I’m still good inside.
“I don’t know… maybe…” He shuts his eyes and his nostrils flare as he inhales sharply. “If it’s true, then my childhood would make much more sense.”
For a split second, I wonder if Stephan marked Alex, but I’ve seen him naked and he doesn’t have the mark anywhere or a severe scar where one might have been cut off.
“I don’t have one if that’s what you’re thinking,” he says, sensing my thoughts. He doesn’t sound angry, merely hurt and lost.
“I’m sorry,” I mutter, tipping my chin down and staring at my lap while using my hair to veil my face. “I don’t know why I thought it.”
“Because of everything I’ve done to you,” he says straightforwardly. “You don’t trust me or anyone really.”
I shake my head and lift my gaze to his eyes. “No, I didn’t trust anyone, but I’m starting to.”
His eyes flare lustrously as he grabs the back of my neck and pulls me toward him, his tongue slipping out to wet his lips. I think he’s going to kiss me, however all he does is shake his head.
“Did he do this to you? Nicholas.” His fingers gently outline a pattern down the bruises dotting on my arm and then his fingers circle my torn up wrist.
I nod, the feel of his touch soothing me. “He did.”
He clenches his jaw, anger storming through him, and his muscles constrict. “I’m going to kill him for it,” he growls.
I nuzzle my cheek against his. “He already paid for it… I beat him up really badly.”
He pushes me back by the shoulders a little and then lifts my wrist to his lips and kisses my injury. “That’s kind of hard to believe,” he says between kisses.
“It’s true.” I shrug, shivering from his kisses. “I beat him with a rain stick.”
He seals his lips tightly to refrain from laughing. “I’ll take your word for it then, but if I do cross paths with him again, I’ll beat him unconscious.”
I want to say too late, though all I do is nod because I’m too tired to do or say anything else. Tired of fighting. Of running. Of simply existing. All I want to do at the moment is shut my eyes and go to sleep.
“What are we going to do now?” I ask, my eyelids fluttering shut as I yawn. “I’m guessing we have to leave.”
“Now we’re going to get you out of here,” he replies. “Go somewhere safe—somewhere hidden. Nicholas knows where this is and now that we know he’s helping my father, we can’t stay here.”
I nod and bury my face into his chest while he smoothes his hand up and down my back. “Let me go get Aislin and Laylen to see if we can come up with a plan.”
He stands up and secures me to the front of him, carrying me with him as he leaves the room. My energy fizzles with each step he takes as I cling onto him. I keep seeing little images of objects and the color red. I see the mark. I see Death Walkers. I see the end of the world. The images are pulling at me to join them and I keep thinking what if I did? Join them? Join the easy side, the one that chases instead of runs.
“I think something’s… wrong with me,” I tell him drearily.
He says something about everything being okay and that he’ll protect me. I keep nodding, but eventually I have to admit to myself the truth.