A myriad of emotions had overwhelmed me on seeing Jeramiah leap out of that boat… on him seeing me for the first time in his life. He was a grown man now, but I had spied on him enough times as a boy to recognize his features.

All the bitterness, the resentment, self-hatred and regret that the ghouls had given me ample opportunity to harbor over the years roared to the surface. The regret for having abandoned him, for having willingly given up one of the truest pleasures life had to offer a man—raising a son—erupted like a seething boil. Every part of me ached, mind, body and soul.

But at least whatever happened to me next—even if this body was swiped away from me in a few days and I was thrust into the ghouls’ Necropolis—I’d met my son. And I had said that I was sorry. And I’d told him the truth that his mother had been too kind to tell him.

That I was a coward.

A waste of space.

Indeed, now it felt like my whole life had been a waste of space. I’d been so concerned with the life I’d thought I should be living as ruler of The Shade—obviously superior to Derek—that I’d forgotten to live the life that I had been gifted. And it was, indeed, a gift. Any creature with a beating heart possessed the greatest gift the universe had to offer. A gift to be guarded, treasured, and appreciated every damn day.

And when it had been taken away from me so suddenly… so unexpectedly…

I still remembered the night I’d exhaled my last breath. The last moments of my former life during the battle in The Oasis. I’d had Sofia in my grasp. And I had been so sure that I would finally pry her forever from my brother. But that envy had made me blind. Blind to the hunter aiming a gun at me. Blind to him pulling the trigger. That envy had made me blind my whole life.

Everything had been taken from me in a flash. And all the things that had formerly been invisible to me about my life had sprung into existence in vivid detail. Only then, I could not touch any of it.

A month spent in The Underworld would’ve been enough to make me cast aside my jealousy and determine to live the rest of my life in its own full, perfect glory. But… almost two decades? I was shocked that I’d even been conscious enough to utter a single word when Ben had found me in my pool, let alone form a sentence.

Now here I found myself, standing in a body again—a real body—relishing everything in sight… even the familiar sight of my younger brother, looking only a few years older than when I’d left him. Now that was a strange feeling.

It was bizarre to realize that I was hardly capable of feeling jealous of him anymore. Not even when I knew that he’d gotten Sofia for himself in the end. He’d even ruled over this place as king for the past two decades—a position I’d always considered my own—while I had been locked up in hell. How could I feel jealous of anything when my spirit soared so high? When my heart was beating, and I had my son standing just next to me. When I was back in The Shade. Back home.

After Derek had asked me what on earth happened to me, of course I was expecting the barrage of questions that followed. Even from my son, whom I had rendered quite speechless after my admission that I had not been a victim of circumstance, but rather a coward who had willingly abandoned him. I began to answer, still unable to shake the strangeness of talking to my brother. I tried to remember the last words I had exchanged with him, and I could not even recall them now. But whatever they were, I was certain they would not have been pleasant.

Sofia, Vivienne and Ben’s twin sister uprooted from their spots by the jetty and hurried over. As Sofia arrived at Derek’s side, I could not miss the way she clutched his arm. It took me back in time to when Sofia had first arrived in The Shade. When I interrupted their time together, she’d always flinch and move closer to Derek, as though I were a venomous snake. I doubted she was conscious of her instinctive action now, or how identical it was to when she had still been seventeen.

Vivienne broached the invisible barrier Derek had drawn for himself about four feet from me, and closed the distance between us. As she reached out a trembling hand to clutch my own, she was warm. She was human. Yet she couldn’t have been one for long, because she didn’t look any older than when I had last seen her.

My heart hammered as Vivienne wrapped her arms around me and pulled me in for a tight hug. Vivienne. My sister. My darling younger sister. As much as I could not deny that even seeing my younger brother’s face had been a relief, my heart filled with true affection on seeing my sister. I slipped my own arms around her and hugged her back, just as strongly.

“I’ve missed you, Lucas,” she whispered, and I felt her breath hitch.

“I… I’ve missed you too,” I murmured, my throat tight.

As hard as she hugged me, her body also felt rigid in shock, as though her brain was still struggling to accept that this really was me. Her older brother. Lucas Dominic Novak. Back in The Shade. Back where I belonged.

I closed my eyes as she kissed my cheek, trying not to leak tears. I felt embarrassed enough as it was for my breakdown in front of Derek on greeting my son. But it was a vain attempt.

When I could hold off answering questions no longer, I went on with my story. Truth be told, there wasn’t all that much to tell anymore. The bulk of my days had been spent in The Underworld, shrouded in darkness, where I’d barely been aware of myself. But I told them everything I could remember: leaving my physical body in The Oasis, roaming The Shade for some time. Then moving on to where I’d thought that I was supposed to go, only to be caught by the fae and thrust into hell.

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