I stopped struggling, taking shallow breaths to suppress the deep urge to fight, and when I saw my hand against the lapels of Jason’s jacket, my ruby ring standing out like midnight blood, Mike’s face, the way he smiled when I accepted his proposal, came to mind. All those things that were lost filled my heart with regret. I wanted Mike to come—wanted him to save me. And a part of me didn't care about anyone else in the room; a part of me just wanted to scream out while I still had the chance. But if I even indulged in the idea, I’d be risking Mike’s life too.

“Mike can’t help you now, anyway, Ara. He’s only human.”

David could help me—if he were here. I know he’d...

“David will not help you, either. He’s not coming back for you.” Jason’s eyes flooded with amusement as he looked down at the cold liquid running from my nose and eyes, trickling past my quivering lip. “But you already knew that, didn’t you?”

“It’s quite the poetic ending, really, that you despised him, lost him because you could not become the beast he is, and yet, in dying, your beautiful face and body will be marred beyond recognition, crafting you, essentially, into an eternal beast.”

“No!” The fright left my lips in an uncontrolled wail, and several other cries came from nearby, couples parting, nearly toppling over the railing as a bulk figure burst through them on the stairs. Jason slowly looked over his shoulder, his gaze meeting Mike’s for a split second, a lifetime of comprehension passing the invisible barrier between them. And Mike started running.

Panic overruled my fear. I wriggled in Jason’s arms, torn between reality and paranormal. I couldn't let my world touch Mike’s—couldn’t let him die for me. “Jason!” I gasped in a low voice. “Run!”

“As you wish,” he said, and in that moment, as he reached down and swept me off the ground, Mike knew. I closed my eyes and prayed as the darkness closed me in, seeing Mike’s face, seeing all hope slip for that one heartbeat when he knew, when he realised for the first time, that he would never see me again.

A rush of wind and the feel of speed beneath my feet ended suddenly. I opened my eyes again to kaleidoscope shadows of leaves on my hands and dress. Jason spun me at the shoulders, facing me in the other direction, and pointed past the border of the forest to the top of the stairs.

Mike grasped the railing and leaned into the night—searching the darkness frantically, as my name echoed off the emptiness, his voice breaking to tears beneath the panic.

“He won’t give up, you know,” I said.

I looked back at Jason and, seeing the seriousness in his eyes, slowly looked upon my Zorro one last time. Mike’s hands flew into his hair, gripping tightly as he sunk down onto the step, his head between his knees.

“That’s quite a warrior you have there,” Jason said. “Perhaps I should oblige him to a duel?”

“You came here for me. You leave him out of this,” I warned, clenching my fists.

Jason watched again for a second as Emily landed beside Mike, her hand on his shoulder, her head whipping up to search the gardens before she took off up the stairs, running. Mike rolled back, looking up at the sky, then reached into his pocket, his phone lighting his face blue a second later.

The severity of the situation hit me then. I drew a shaky breath, feeling the frosty, pine-scented wind tighten my chest. “You won’t get away with this.”

“That was never the plan.”

My shoulders slowly inched closer to my jaw. “I…I don’t want you to hurt me.”

“Of course you don’t,” he said, amused. “It wouldn’t be any fun if you did.”

“Fun? So that’s what this is really about? Fun?”

He turned to me, slowly laying widespread fingers to his mask and drew it away, revealing a face that stole my breath. “To a degree.”

“You’re sick, Jason.” I looked away from the kind eyes of my David, offensive on this vile man.

“I’m not the sick one. Your beloved vampire ex is.”

“David?” I scoffed. “At least he would never take an innocent life for revenge.”

Jason’s sudden burst of laughter was revoltingly boyish and sincere; a different kind of laugh to his brother’s. “Oh, that’s right. You think he’s kind—and compassionate.”

He spun around about a foot away and bowed with humour, crossing his hands over his stomach. “My dear, young lady, you have been kept in the dark, haven’t you?”

“Not as far as I’m concerned.” I wedged my hands onto my hips.

“As far as you’re concerned? As far as you are concerned, my sweet girl, he is a vile, disgusting vampire who kills people with his teeth; not good enough for you to love eternally. Is it any surprise he might have done something terrible in his past that, perhaps, hurt others?”

“Like killing a girl I was in love with!” Jason’s cold breath infected the side of my face as he sprung up suddenly in front of me, whispering his words into my skin. “And I intend to repay him the favour.”

I jerked away, shoving him. “Go ahead, Jason. If you’re going to kill me, just get it over with.”

“You heard me.” I wiped my lip, standing taller. “I’m tired of this. In fact, since you obviously want to taint his honour with your little story about how evil David is, why not break into a little bad-guy monologue?” I challenged. “Maybe you can even get stuck in it just long enough for me to escape.”

Jason’s hand moved, and every muscle in my throat seized up, the blood filling my head above the cage of fingers. “Do not speak to me with such contempt, you haughty little bitch.” He thrust his arm downward, slamming me to the floor.

I coughed out, falling to my side, clenching the grass in a small fist as I tried to catch my breath—half suffocating under the rattling of my heart.

“Have we learned our lesson now?” The predator towered over me.

“Just leave me alone.” I sniffled, rolling onto my knees, tearing the mask from my face.

“Leave you alone?” He knelt beside me, taking the mask. “Why would I go and do a thing like that? Especially now you’re crying.”

“What’s that got to do with it?” I asked, dabbing a finger under my lashes.

“She cried. She begged him to stop.” He turned my jaw until it faced him; I wouldn’t look into his eyes, though. “You, my dear, have only reached phase one of your torture.”

“Then what’s phase two?” I asked through my teeth, scrunching the grass tightly. “If you’re going to kill me, I’d rather not drag this out playing guessing games.”

“Oh, but my lovely girl, games are half the fun—they’re what will climax the ending when I show him the way I hurt you,” he said in a kind voice, like he was talking to a child. “Finally, he will get to see how it feels to watch someone he loves die at the hands of someone he’s trusted his whole life.”

“You saw him kill her—this girl you loved?” My whisper came out ragged.

“I did—in his memories.” He seemed to choke. “You cannot fathom the debasing things he did to her, Ara—you cannot comprehend what she suffered in those last moments.”

“So you’re going to be the one to make me understand?” I said sarcastically.

Jason thumbed a tear away from my chin. “Yes, but first, by making you see.”

When his hand came up fast, I cowered, shielding my cheek, but he shoved my wrist away, gripping both sides of my face to pull me closer.

“What’re you doing?” I asked, nose to nose with this man who meant to hurt me.

“Blessing you with the gift of insight.” He squeezed my face tighter as I fought him. “Sit still.”

“No. I don’t want you to touch me.”

“You need to see this,” he said, breathless. “You need to know what you’re dying for.”

“Why?” His voice broke, tears coating his eyes. “Because it matters.”

And a small part of me actually felt a pang of pity for him then. I held my breath, listening for the voices in the distance calling my name. All I wanted was to run to them, to get away, but I exhaled slowly and looked deep into the eyes of my captor. “Let it go, Jason.”

He pressed his thumbs under my eyes, holding me in place; the indentation of his grip suggesting that movement might result in a cracked skull. “Take a deep breath, Ara.”

“Please—don’t.” As his icy touch sent a stinging jolt through my cheek, I jerked back, wriggling like a fish on a hook; I pushed my wrists down on his forearms, merely making his grip tighter. “Get off me, it hurts.”

“Close your eyes,” he ordered. “It will hurt less.”

A whimpering cry shook the back of my throat; I swallowed hard, scrunching my eyes tightly over the hot, stinging tears, and drew a quick breath instantly when I saw a girl—as bright as the sun in the day. She looked like a memory, one that didn’t belong to me, but clear as a reflection.

“Rochelle, Rochelle, Rochelle,” a man said, standing over her where she cowered in the corner, her head in her arms. His feet parted enough that I could see her bare toes, her golden legs, and honey blond hair falling over her shoulder. She looked just like Emily.

“Yes.” Jason’s grip eased and the stinging in my face turned numb and cold. “She did. Will you sit still now?”

As I nodded, the film became clearer; the girl looked up—her eyes round with fright, her whole body convulsing uncontrollably.

David knelt beside her and softly ran his fingers down her arm, taking her hand, then kissed it. “Such a pretty little thing. It’s a pity you had to cry, Rochelle—you really are repulsive when you snivel.”

She buried her face again, her delicate, feminine voice so high, so frightened. “Please. Please let me go.”

He smiled softly. “I will. I just have to do something first.”

“W-what?” even in a quiet voice, her French accent was so thick.

His hand slid along her ankle, up her leg, coming to rest on her knee. “If you promise to lie still, I will be gentle.”

“Don’t beg, Rochelle.” He unfastened the top button on her dress, parting the collar. “It won't hurt for long.”

“Va te faire foutre, trouduci.” She spat on him.

“You dirty little whore!” He thrashed the back of his hand across her chin with lip-splitting force.

I squealed, covering my mouth as she did.

“Shh.” Jason squeezed my face. “You’ll expose our position to your little hunting party.”

“Just watch.” He pushed my mind closer to the memory: David lowered his face to the girl’s and whispered something in her ear, turning her cheek to lick the blood from it after.

“Your taste does not really appeal to me,” he said.

“I would, if you were merely my next meal, but I'm here for another reason.”

“My brother does not have the courage to do what must be done.” He ran his finger down the opening in her dress, smoothing it off her shoulder. “This is not personal, Rochelle. It’s just business.”

“What must be done?” I said. “What?”

“Shh.” He covered her mouth, slipping behind her, cradling her spine to his chest. “It will be over soon.”

She hummed her aversion in the back of her throat, tugging at his hand.

“It hurts more if you fight, Rochelle,” he whispered into her hair, meticulously rolling her head to expose the vein on her neck. “I’ll try not to enjoy this.”

“David, no!” my squeal broke off as he sank his teeth in, yanking the girl’s head back until a bone broke through her collar. I covered my face, trying to hide from the reality.

“Please, no, Jason. Please don’t make me watch.”

He ripped my hands from my face. “You will watch.”

As I looked back into the memory, David looked up, his eyes meeting mine—disturbing the core of my soul with the ferocity behind them—tearing out my every ill-conceived notion that he was once human inside. I hated him then, as I saw the monster he’d warned me about so many times—I hated him.

I sobbed loudly, watching his victim fall limp in his arms, her last breath releasing in a whisper, “David?”

I drew back, frozen, unable to think; my heart pounded in my chest as the realisation of the loss that could never be retrieved flooded my angry heart, bringing a cascade of tears down my cheeks.

David dropped her lifeless corpse to the floor, letting her head hit the ground, her neck twisting awkwardly as she fell—then stood up and walked away. His heavy black boots were the last thing I saw in the memory before reality washed in like cold water on my face, making me jump inside. “Jason,” I cried through deep, breathless sobs. “I’m so sorry.”