Chains bit into my wrists and ankles, strapping me to the cold, unforgiving metal table as the royal demon approached. The cruel twist of her lips chilled my blood, but the glass vile in her hand made my stomach churn.
Princess Venna loved combining physical torment with mental anguish. Who knew more about my weaknesses than my own mind? And the monsters within it would make most crumble in seconds.
“How’s my favorite little prisoner?” Her blood-red lips curved into an eerie grin. “Ready for another dose of medicine?” Long, ebony nails tapped the glass container.
I ignored her and turned my head toward the chains dangling from the steel and iron ceiling. I’d been hung and tortured from those too. Water dripped somewhere—or it could have been blood—and the distant screams of prisoners in Heldrok’s torture sector pummeled my eardrums.
It never ended in this place.
“Open wide, Tatum.” Venna’s ice-blonde hair slid against her face as she leaned over to pry my mouth apart. I tried to fight her, but her fingers dug into my jaw, bruising it. “Bottoms up.”
The bittersweet liquid spilled over my tongue as she dumped a generous heaping of Madness Elixir down my throat. When I coughed and attempted to spit it out, she slapped her hand against my mouth.
Frost crawled over my sweaty flesh, and tremors radiated through my bound body. Soon, the vile concoction would yank me from reality and drop me into a hell of my own creation.
As the poison seeped into my veins and my eyes rolled in the back of my head, Venna tapped my cheek. “This will all be over if you tell me what Ruin was doing in his lab with you.”
I’d rather bite my tongue off than reveal Ruin’s plan to use the Infernal Sol to make Soulvation for demons. She’d destroy his work the first chance she got. Plus, the demon princess wouldn’t stop torturing me once I told her. I still killed her sister, and she wouldn’t let me off the hook that easily.
“Like I told you a hundred times before,” I slurred as darkness crept around the edges of my vision. “I don’t know what Ruin was doing. Do you really think he’s the type to spill his secrets?”
She smirked. “To you? Yes, I do.”
Her arctic, spiteful blue gaze was the last thing I saw before the rusted walls of the torture room faded, and I plunged into a black tunnel. I shuddered at what was waiting on the other side…
“You’re hurting me,” I whimpered, Mrs. Miller’s steel fingers digging into my arm as she dragged me from the bathroom. My skin was raw and bleeding in some places from where she scrubbed too hard. As if the scalding bathwater wasn’t bad enough.
The woman was deranged.
Her terrycloth housecoat had come undone, revealing her high-necked flannel nightgown, and strands of brown hair fell out of her bun from her vigorous cleansing. “Stop with your dramatics, girl. You aren’t a child anymore. You’ve become unclean now, and you must repent for your sins.”
I hadn’t done a damn thing. It was called freaking biology, but the woman and her crazy husband were religious zealots who believed everyone was a sinner—except themselves of course. For crap’s sake, I’d started my period. That wasn’t something I could control.
But I expected this. That was why I’d tried to hide it. Too bad Mrs. Miller caught me sneaking into the bathroom with blood on the stupid white nightgown she made all of us foster girls wear.
“I will not have sinners in this house, Tatum.” She yanked me down the stairs, my bare feet tender from the hot water. “You are the youngest we’ve had, but not the first. I’ll make sure you pray for forgiveness.”
My jaw clenched against the curses I wanted to unleash on her. There was nothing to forgive. An eleven-year-old girl starting her period for the first time wasn’t a sin or some evil, apocalyptic event. I didn’t call upon the devil to give him my body in exchange for power or pleasure.
She and her husband, Renard Miller, were the only sinners in this house.
The harsh kitchen lights blinded me as she flipped them on and towed me to the center of the linoleum floor. Mrs. Miller dropped my hand, marched to the pantry, and pulled out a bag of rice.
Knots fisted in my stomach, and my knees already ached.
“You will pray and learn not to disobey the Lord.” She squatted, and the clicking of uncooked rice pouring onto the floor turned my blood cold. “Kneel.”
When I didn’t move, she jerked the edge of my white night gown until my knees dropped onto the pile of rice. Sharp bolts of pain shot through me, made even worse by the sensitivity of my skin from the scalding bath and her scrubbing.
“Stay here until the sun comes up and I return to get you.” Her watery blue eyes narrowed. “If you move from this spot, I’ll know, and your punishment will be severe.”
A shudder slinked down my spine at the images filling my head. Mrs. Miller would do more than make me pick a switch from the tree outside. Acid oozed up my throat as I remembered the screams coming from the basement when one of the other girls was caught kissing a boy at school.
Mrs. Miller stood, shut the lights off, and trekked out of the kitchen, her housecoat trailing behind her like a villain’s cape.
Tears blurred the kitchen, and I tried to breathe through the throbbing in my knees. How would I last until sunrise? It was hours away.
Movement on the edges of the room caught my attention, and I quieted my sobs. One of the little kids probably snuck down here. Seeing how much this hurt would scare them, and I didn’t want them to be more frightened than they already were.
“Go back upstairs,” I whispered, sucking back the tears. “Everything’s fine. I’m okay.”
Silence stretched, but eyes seared me, prickling my nape. This wasn’t one of the little kids.
“Who’s there?” My voice came out in a strained hiss as I tried to choke down my fear.
A form coalesced in the darkness, stepping forward into the shaft of moonlight pouring in through the window above the sink. Ebony curls drifted around a soft face, and a smile stretched her mouth.
This wasn’t right. Jayla never lived at the Millers. Plus, she looked thirteen while I was only eleven.
“What are you doing here?” I shook my head as she stepped closer, that smile becoming a demented grin. “What’s happening?”
“Oh, Tate, did you really think you could murder me and not pay the price?” Jayla withdrew a knife behind her back, the blade looking like molten metal in the silvery moonlight.
Icy talons ripped into my chest, and I pressed my palms on the ground to stand, but I remembered Mrs. Miller’s threat.
I eased back onto the rice grains, biting my tongue against the whimpers that wanted to spill out. “I didn’t kill you, Jayla. I couldn’t save you. The demon had already taken too much of your soul.”
Chaotic thoughts of monsters—real ones—assaulted my mind. Demons, vampires, witches, shifters, fae. A man with one blue eye and one golden amber called out to me in the storm of confusion. The left side of my neck tingled. Something was there. Or supposed to be there.
What’s going on? None of this makes sense.
“You did kill me, Tate.” Jayla stepped forward, her brown eyes darkening to bottomless pools of black.
“But here you are, going on with your life as if I never existed. Was I nothing to you? Just a runaway you were forced to take care of.”
“No!” I shouted. “You were my family. You were all I had.”
She tsked and waved the knife. “Were being the word. You have other people now, and you forgot all about pathetic little Jayla.”
Hot tears streaked my cheeks. “I could never forget you.”
Jayla leaned down and pressed the tip of the knife to my throat. “Then how could you be with that hybrid creep when his brother is the one who stole my soul?”
Numbness crept through my muscles, and I froze under her vicious scowl. “It’s not what you think. I can’t help it. He’s not like that. Fane is—”
Where was Fane?
Her laughter ricocheted through the kitchen, mocking the usually sweet sound. “Fane Maverick is just like his brother, and you should be disgusted you let him touch you. Then again, you’re a killer too. You killed me. And them.” Jayla tilted her head toward the left.
Mike, Josh, Shelly, and Van slinked through the shadows, their flesh peeling off and dirt coating their clothes and hair as if they’d crawled out of their graves.
Panic dripped over me, and I choked on the suddenly rancid air. “This isn’t real.” I squeezed my eyes shut, hoping the nightmare would evaporate, but when I opened them, my four friends who also died that hot, sticky night closed in on me.
“You killed us, Tate.” Mike licked his cracking lips with a forked tongue. “You did this to us.”
Josh laughed at my horror-stricken expression. “We were in that warehouse because of you. It’s your fault.”
Van shook his head, and maggots fell out of his filthy, strawberry-blond hair. “We’re like this because of you.”
“All your fault.” Shelly dropped to her hands and knees and scuttled forward like a sub-demon. “You stole our lives. And now it’s time to pay the piper.”
I fell back on my palms, rice bouncing across the floor as I ripped my knees from the piles. Mrs. Miller’s punishment couldn’t be worse than this. “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry.” Jayla advanced on me, the knife raised in her little hand. “I know it’s my fault, but I can’t fix it. I’d do anything to fix it. Anything.” My voice cracked, and tears spilled down my cold cheeks.
As the five of them surrounded me, Jayla front and center, their hatred suffocated me.
I deserved it, though.
“Would you die to fix this?” Jayla crawled over me, curls hanging around her face and brushing mine. “Would you let me stab your heart if it would bring us back to life?”
My breath caught. “That’s not how it works, Jayla bear. You’re already gone. There’s no bringing you back.”
Wickedness streaked her irises like lightning bolts. “But what if I could come back? What if we all could come back if you died.”
This wasn’t right. None of this was.
Jayla would never want to kill anyone, even me. She also didn’t know about demons and Fane. Neither did the twins or Van and Shelly.
As Jayla’s grin ominously stretched across her face, the realization hit me like a sledgehammer.
This wasn’t real.
None of this was real.
I wasn’t eleven years old in the Miller’s home, and Jayla and my friends hadn’t returned from the grave to haunt me.
Instead, I was strapped to a table in a torture room at Heldrok where Venna dosed me with Madness Elixir again. Fane was somewhere in the Underworld prison too.
“You aren’t Jayla.” As I shoved her off, the Miller’s kitchen blurred, and the five of them vanished…
With a gasp, my eyelids snapped open to the cold, grimy torture room, restraints cutting into my arms and legs. Sweat dripped over my face, and my chest heaved while blood thundered in my ears.
Venna appeared above me, her long, silvery hair brushing my shoulder. “You came out of that too fast.” She frowned and examined the bottle. “I gave you a double dose too.”
My head turned to the side, and I heaved, the dry retches reverberating through the room. Nothing came out, though. I couldn’t remember the last time I had food or water.
I collapsed back against the hard table, panting. Blood oozed out of my cracked lips. How long would this go on? I didn’t break easily, but I wouldn’t stay sane for much longer.
Venna grabbed my jaw and studied me, a smile stretching her lips. “You have so much guilt flowing through your veins. I’m surprised you haven’t crumbled from the weight of it.”
“Go to hell,” I croaked out, my eyes rolling in my head from exhaustion.
Her laugh made my flesh crawl. “Guilt. I can work with that.”