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Raw screams ripped out of my throat, rushing past gritted teeth as she lashed me again and again. This time when she finished my back, she twisted me around and flick by flick, she lashed my entire torso. Every inch of my middle was raw and gushing blood. Finally, when she was done, I laid still with my face pressed to the cold stone floor feeling nothing. My eyes stared blankly as no thought or pain registered in my mind. My lips were cracked, and parted. Breaths that were too small entered my body. I could not fight back. I could not allow her to win. Slick red blood clung to my cheek and caked in my hair. Illeca sat at the table with her legs crossed, looking down at me with contempt.

“It was for your own good,” she said. I did not answer. I did not move. “You’ll die when you fight him if you feel anything. Your senses are the first thing he’ll use against you. There isn’t anything he won’t do. There is nothing he won’t try. And Kreturus will do everything within his power to utterly destroy you. That is why we must do it first.” She stared at me, lying in a pool of my own blood. She sighed and looked away, disgusted. “Go. Go home, little one. Do not return to me again until you have healed.”

My eyes fell shut, and the world was no more.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

It felt like there were bricks on top of my chest. It was as if someone were adding them one by one. I tried to breathe, but it was so hard. Words whispered in my ear, and arms around my back made me wince. I couldn’t help it. I wasn’t able to disconnect myself completely. Trying to call the Hellsflame showed her that I couldn’t. It didn’t matter what the reason was. Nothing mattered in that moment.

Pressure moved slowly across my forehead. Fingers were pressing against my brow. My eyelids felt like one piece. They would not separate. My mind slipped back, away from the voice—away from the pain. The darkness surrounded me, but the voice called. It spoke my name, “Ivy. Ivy. Ivy,” like the drip of a faucet. It called softly. Over and over again. The voice didn’t rest. The hand on my brow didn’t stop. “Ivy. Ivy. Ivy.”

I slipped away into dreams that held no release. Pain still caused my bones to ache, and my body to tremble. “Ivy,” the voice called. And this time, I peeled back my eyes and saw him. Eric. Eric sitting on my bed in the old church. A wet cloth was in his hand, and he was dabbing my forehead, and softly speaking. “That’s a good girl. Come on, now. Open your eyes. You can’t leave yet, Ivy. We’re not done. That’s right, Ivy… Open those eyes. Come on.”

I tried to swallow, but my throat burned. My tongue was thick. Tired eyes gazed at Eric. I didn’t speak. I couldn’t speak.

“There you are,” he said softly, looking down at me. He wiped the wet cloth across my head, gently dabbing it as he went. “So, you decided to come back after all?” he smiled, but it faded from his lips too fast. The hatred was hidden. I couldn’t see it in his eyes and it didn’t exist in his touch. Eric pressed the towel into a bowl of water on the table next to my bed, and twisted it in his hands. Water trickled out of the cloth and back into the bowl. Then he pressed it to my searing flesh again.

“Eric?” I moaned.

His eyes locked onto mine. They were like big gold coins, perfectly round. “Don’t speak. I don’t know what happened to you, but something beat the hell out of you. I thought you weren’t gonna wake up. You’re covered in… I don’t know, but you’re still bleeding. There are welts all over you.” He lifted the wet cloth from my face, and placed it in the bowl. As he soaked it with water and rung it out, he hesitated, leaving his hands over the bowl. He didn’t look back at me. “I remember this, from before.” His voice was different, distant. “You on the forest floor, crying in my arms when you woke up. But this time, you didn’t wake up.” He turned toward me. Eric’s eyes slid over my face to my torso. He pressed his eyes closed, then looked at my face again. “This time, you bled as you laid there. You screamed. It was as if someone was… ” his words trailed off. His voice was angry, “Who did this?”

Lowering my eyelids, I blinked once slowly. My mouth felt like it had to move miles to open enough to form words. “I can’t tell you.” My throat was parched and scraping as I tried to speak. Eric stiffened. His eyes moved away from me, his face wouldn’t look at me. I tried to lift my hand to get his attention. I would have placed it on top of his. I would have said things, but it was all I could do to raise a finger. He saw, and turned his head back to me. “I did something… I made a blood bargain. Otherwise,” I rasped, “I’d tell you.”

Eric took a deep breath, and pressed two fingers to the pinched place between his eyes. When he looked back at me, I saw something flicker within their depths. Something that made me feel safe. He cleared his throat, “I can heal most of these. You would have been able to do it yourself, but whoever did this to you pushed you too far. Ivy, do you understand? They would have killed you if I wasn’t here. I took your half dead body and carried you into your room.”

“Like before,” I whispered, trying to suppress a moan. My body felt like it had been torn to bits and someone stapled me back together. There wasn’t a single place on me that wasn’t in total agony, and my mind knew this even if I didn’t feel it completely.

“Hmm? What do you mean?” he asked. Eric watched my face, trying to remember something he no longer knew.

My eyelids crept lower, masking my eyes from his curious gaze. “Like before.” The world went black.

——

When I awoke, I felt different. Like the walls that held my emotions back were re-erected and firmly in place. My body throbbed, but it was a distant echo in the back of my mind. Eric was lying next to me, watching me, as my eyes fluttered opened. For a long time, I didn’t move or speak.

He finally broke the silence. “Feel better?”

“Yes. And no.” I turned my head slowly to look at him. Eric was lying on his side, next to me on my bed. Sheets and extra blankets were draped across my body. A lamp was emitting a soft glow from across the room. The light drifted across his face, highlighting his features. This was the room that had been mine when I lived with Al earlier in the year. In Eric’s hands, he held the corner of a blanket. He was twisting the corner into a tiny spire. I sat up slowly, pressing my fingers to my body. I raised my bare arm, holding it out in front of me, turning it over and seeing nothing but smooth skin. All the scars Locoicia gave me were gone.

He nodded, glancing at me from the corner of his eyes. “You’re stronger than you were. Stronger than most. Every inch of your body was covered in lacerations that cut through the muscle and went down to the bone. Did you piss the demon off? Or were you doing something you shouldn’t have?”

My lips were dry. My mouth was dry, but they were facts. Statements. I shook my head in response. “No, I was supposed to learn something. Something that I failed to learn last time.” I couldn’t look at him. Tugging at the sheets, I pulled them closer to my neck. My shredded clothes didn’t cover me, and I could feel the remains of my shirt and jeans trying to slip off of me. They were hard, and covered in dried blood that was stabbing into my skin.

“Did you learn it this time?” he asked. His eyes caressed the side of my face, as he spoke. I nodded. “Good.” He paused, and several moments passed when he spoke again. “We don’t have much time left. I need the rest of those memories before they fade, or we won’t be able to go after the Satan’s Stone.” He watched me for a moment. When he spoke again, his voice was… different. “Why make a blood bargain?”

I stared straight ahead. As I spoke I could feel the passionless words slip out of my mouth, “I have to kill him. Kreturus can’t win.” Turning, I searched his face for understanding, but was only met with a blank stare. “He can’t win."

Eric pushed himself up onto one elbow. “Get dressed. Your clothes are… beyond repair. There’s still stuff that’s yours in that closet.” He looked down, his hair blocking his face.

I turned back to look at Eric, lying on his side looking everywhere else, but not at me. “Why’d you heal me?” The pain price he paid for healing me made my skin crawl. I didn’t want him to do anything for me, and yet, he did.

His hair was tousled. There were dark circles under his eyes. Eric kept his gaze on the blanket. Pressing his lips together, he finally spoke, “I don’t know.” His face shot up, and he glared at me with an intensity that made my stomach twist. Minutes passed. When he finally spoke again he said, “I could have. But, someone else… ” he shook his head and looked away. “They took what was mine. I watched as you were sucked into the nightmare. Your body lay before me and each wound slowly opened and bled. I watched. I did nothing to stop it. Nothing to call you back.” The place between his eyes was pinched tightly. “Your body writhed, as you were ripped apart. I thought it’d be enough to watch. I thought it’d be enough to see you in pain, to see you squirming in agony for what you did to me. But, it wasn’t. I was supposed to be the one to do that to you.”

Horror spidered through my veins, spinning inside of me so quickly it was all that I could do to sit perfectly still and listen. I should have wanted to throw back the blankets and run. But there was an eerie calmness that held me in place. “But you didn’t do that to me. You weren’t the one who tortured me. It was someone else. So, what then?” His gaze lifted and rested on my face. Golden eyes peered from under his brow. Expressionless. “You’ve decided… what?”

“I’ve decided nothing,” he jumped up, off the bed, and away from me. “Nothing’s changed. But no one else will kill you. If you die, it’ll be by my hand and no one else’s.” His arms folded over his chest as he moved away from me and toward the door. He reached for the knob, and slipped through the door without another word.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

After showering and dressing, I walked through the church with wet hair. It felt like icicles clung to my head and rested on my shoulders. I suppressed a shiver. When I entered the nave, I walked past rows of pews and saw Eric sitting silently staring at the glass again. I didn’t conceal my presence this time, but he didn’t turn or acknowledge me until I was at his shoulder.

“Why hasn’t he come?” Eric pushed his hands on the wooden altar and twisted himself around toward me. It was a question that I’d been dreading.

I glanced at him once, and walked past him to sit on the floor. I folded my legs under me and said, “He’s not coming.”

“Why’s that?” Eric leaned forward, suddenly very interested. His eyes were razor sharp watching every movement, every twitch of my tongue, every flinch of my fingers.

I gazed at him, wondering if I should say anything about Collin. It felt like my life was a shard of glass that was meant for something else, but the fragments had become so small that I had no idea what it was supposed to be anymore. Collin turning on me was just another splinter of glass that made no sense. The confession rolled around in my mind before I spoke. My voice as flat, “The bond is broken. The connection between us isn’t what it was. It seems impaired, if not completely gone. It’s regressing. Fading into a void.”

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