All I could see was her face as she tried to beg David—heartless, merciless, and unrelenting David—for her life.

Jason wrapped his arms around his knees and crossed his ankles where he sat on the grass beside me. “This is the pain I’ve lived with for too long. Do you see now?”

“I don’t want to see it.” I rolled forward, rooting my trembling hands to the grass, my soft curls sticking to the tears around my lips. “Please get it out of my head.”

“I can’t. You own it now.”

I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t believe what I’d just seen. “Why? Why did he kill her?” I asked.

“The baby? He killed her because she was pregnant?”

He nodded once. “At the preliminary hearing, he claimed he was keeping the peace—ridding the world of an unauthorized half-blood.”

“Did he…was he ordered to do that?”

“No. He took it upon himself.”

“Then how do you know that’s why he killed her? How do you know it wasn’t an attempt to change her—so you could keep her?”

Jason stiffened. “He tried that one. Outside the council chamber, alone, he told me he meant it as a surprise—that he lied to the Blood King about his reasons to avoid punishment.”

“Even if he was speaking the truth—even if he meant to change her, only one soul can be immortalised, or they will both die.”

“So, then, maybe he didn’t know she was pregnant?”

“My brother is not ignorant, Ara, you know this.”

I exhaled. He was right. David always had the upper hand. Always. Nothing got past him. “You loved her—like he loves me?”

The grip around his knees tightened. “She was everything to me; fifty years has passed, and that has not changed.”

“But…now you’re planning to do the same thing to David. Don’t you know what I am to him?”

He studied my face with repugnance. “Yes, and I will take that from him.”

My head rocked from side to side in astonished, intensely maddening disbelief. How could my David be capable of such horror? “I know it means nothing to you, Jason, but…I am so, so sorry,” I whispered with a focused, watery stare.

“You’re right. It changes nothing,” he said irresolutely. “Now you know why you must die.”

I looked up to the sound of that voice; Mike—he was close—so close that if I dared to scream, he’d find me.

Without warning, Jason swept me from the wet grass and threw me over his shoulder. All the blood rushed into a tight pulse in my lips and cheeks, making it hard to see, leaving only the whipping breeze as evidence to the ground moving beneath us. I didn’t care if he took me away, though. I hung limply over my captor, unable to feel anything anymore. All I could see were Rochelle’s eyes in her last moments—the fear, the desperation for her life and that of her unborn child—while a soft whisper repeated from my lips, “David. How could you?”

We broke through into a clearing and a dense, shadowy darkness overtook. The only lights around were a thousand twinkling stars in the sky and the distant glow of the Masquerade; pink, like the last drop of sunlight on the horizon.

Jason set me down in the long grass, my bare toes sinking into the dewy soil. I hadn’t even noticed my shoes fell off until now.

The voices of the hunters—the ones searching for me—were as faint behind the height of the towering trees around us as the soft, magical music of the ball, still playing, perhaps to keep the patrons calm. But I knew they could search all night, put posters up on every tree, phone every television station in the world, and they would never find me.

“They will find you,” Jason said, his voice revealing his position in the darkness. “Once I'm finished with you, that is.”

“What? You’re going to leave me here?”

“Please, Jason. Don’t do this,” I begged, stepping away, reaching for the place my silver locket used to rest. “Just think about it for a second.”

He laughed lightly. “Ara-Rose, I have thought about it—for a very long time.” He appeared in front of me. “I know exactly what I’m going to do to you.”

I swallowed, grateful that the dark cloaked his face. If I’d been able to see the intent behind the smile I heard in his voice, I was afraid my skin might have fallen from my limbs. But, ignorant, I could pretend to be strong. “Then, why haven’t you done it yet? Are you waiting for some perfect moment?”

He stepped forward, the shadows lifting, revealing his eyes as hollow, yawning caves. “No, Ara. I’m a vampire—we like to play with our food.”

“I'm not your food. You came here to kill me. That makes me a victim.”

“Yes, I suppose it does.” His firm grip sent a rush of blood shooting from my arm to my heart; he pulled me closer, his orange-chocolate scent waking my mind to a different version of the dream it always put me in—casting me suddenly into the theatrics of a nightmare. “But still, I have a few games—things I want you to suffer before I kill you.”

“Don't do that,” I said, pushing his chest, unable to get my arm free. “Don’t keep saying things like that.”

“Stupid little thing, aren’t you?” he said with a laugh. “Or, perhaps, brave—making demands of your reaper.”

Something exchanged between us then, a kind of knowing that came from experience; it was as if I could see every thought beyond the darkness of his eyes. He wanted to do something to me then—what, I didn’t know, but it made me suddenly not so sure of myself.

“Do you know what his favourite genre of film was? Did he tell you?”

“Yes. So, I thought I might make this little charade as gruesome an end as I could dream up, so that when I show him the memory, he will be haunted by it for the rest of eternity.” He walked slowly around me, the feel of his eyes gliding over every bare inch of my skin, stopping in front of me with his cold breath moist on my brow, his body close like he was my David. “I haven’t eaten for five days and the hunger in me is so vicious right now, I'm not sure I can make this last as long as I would like.”

I closed my eyes, crossing my forearms over my chest.

“I've touched your hair before.” He lifted a clipping and pressed it to his nose. “I watched you—while you slept, and never intended to touch you, but your hair—” He breathed in deeply, closing his eyes. “You smell so pretty. Did he ever tell you that?”

“And it’s not just your blood—it’s you, your human cosmetics, your hair, your clothes. All of you.” He considered the chocolate-brown curls against his palm for a moment, running his thumb over them. “This is easier than I thought.”

“What?” I asked, feeling my shaky breath brush warmly across my salty, tear-stained lips.

“I was sure your beautiful face would force compassion within me, but—” he shook his head, dropping my hair, “—I feel nothing for you, as if you were merely a dog who had bitten a child. I just want to see you dead—in the worst way possible.”

My crossed arms tightened over my chest.

“And, don’t get me wrong; I do see this as a waste of life—beautiful life. I will not deny the fact that you are something special, Ara, but I cannot let you live. You understand this?” He lifted my chin; I nodded, sniffling. “However, I would like to dance with you one last time before I begin.”

My body moved with his, close, circling like two birds falling mid-flight. The feel of his cool fingers at the ribbon of my corset and the softness of his palm against mine, made me wish only that I were his—his girl, for him to touch, to love, to hold. I wanted to be a part of him, as I once was with David.

He spun me out from his body gracefully, and I twirled back into his chest, completely intoxicated by his spell—and completely aware of it too. We swayed together in the cool breeze, surrounded by the trees, where no one could see us, and no one would ever find us—not until he was finished with me.

“Beg me not to kill you,” he whispered, his lips against my brow like a kiss. “Beg me and I will show you mercy.”

“I—” My throat tightened, eyes spilling with tears as I looked into his; he was just like David. But he was going to kill me no matter how much I begged. And the worst part was, it didn't matter to me, because, as if a thread of finely-woven silk had bound us, I was unable to resist. I wanted him to kill me; I wanted him to hurt me first—because it would be an honour to die by his hand.

“That’s not a very convincing plea for your life, Ara,” he said.

The faint blue sparkle surrounding my thoughts persisted like delirium consuming an otherwise rational mind. I smiled up at him, wishing we would dance this way together, forever. “What are you doing to me, Jason? Why does nothing make sense?”

“Hush now, sweet girl. I am making this easier by allowing you to feel safe with me. It is one of my many talents.”

“Shh. This is an extension of kindness, child. Do not look a gift horse in the mouth.”

My throat fought hard for its own vocabulary—for common sense. But he smelled just like David, and I missed him so much I just wanted to believe he was David; to imagine for one last moment that I was in his arms—that I still mattered to him.

“Close your eyes and you shall believe it.”

“You can never be him. And you’ll just be closer to becoming the monster he is by killing me—” My gaze delved deep into his hollow, shadowed eyes, “—but you will never have a heart like his, and I will never give you mine.”

We stopped moving, his hands slipping from my body, an icy rush tearing away the cloud of my confusion, leaving behind a sudden explosion of terror. “I don’t want your heart, you stupid girl.” He peeled me from the closeness of his body, tossing me off to the side by my arm. But my dress caught under my toes, my hands flailing as I fell backward, stopping against the ground with a high-pitched surge of wind blasting from my lungs.

Before I could even find the source of the sudden pain I felt, blood gushed out over my fingertip.

“Ooh.” Jason stood over me, wincing. “That looks nasty.”

“Ah!” I pinched the edge of the partially detached nail, my hand shaking like glass in an earthquake.

“You’ll need to fold that back, or it’ll come right off,” Jason said.

“I know,” I yelled at him, trying to use my thumb to roll the nail back in place, but every time I touched it, it shifted and the pain intensified, closing in around me as if I were in a red box.

“Settle down.” Jason took my hand, straightened my arm out to the side—away from my line of sight—and…

“Ah!” I screamed, but it reduced to a tiny whimper as the agony receded. When Jason released me, I doubled over, weeping breathlessly into my skirt. I just wanted to go home. I didn’t want to die like this. Not like this.

I struggled to push myself up to my knees, falling on my elbows each time.

The killer just watched. I couldn’t even look at his face to see if he was enjoying it. I felt pathetic and helpless, humiliated at my own whimpering. But I couldn’t stop it. It just kept coming out.

“Why are you crying like that?” He grabbed my arm to help me to my knees.

I tried to speak, but the words had no shape—just distraught sobs, like a hysterical child. All anger had trickled away with realisation; he wasn’t playing games. He really was going to kill me. This was real. This was no book or movie where the girl gets rescued. I was going to die here. Tonight. Even the distant sound of voices, having grown in number, coming toward us, couldn’t be sounds of salvation for me—merely a cruel, cold reminder that there was life beyond this. And I would never know freedom again. “Please just let me go, Jason.”

I wiped the tears and dribble from my chin. “Please. I had nothing to do with her death. I—”

“No.” I covered my ears, shaking my head. “David’s not to blame, either. It’s you. You loved her—you brought her into your world—you didn't protect her!”

“You know nothing!” I felt only a sharp jolt, nerves stinging in the base of my skull as he grasped a handful of my hair, pulling my face closer, his shaky breath coming through his teeth in three short words. “You. Know. Nothing.”

“I know what you are,” I said, arching my neck to stop my hair from coming out. “I know the things you’re capable of.”

“Then you can imagine what I’m about to do to you.”

I tried to shake my head. “I’m not afraid of you. You won’t hurt me. Emily told me that you’re swee—”

“You shut your mouth, you horrible little human.” His fingers knotted tightly in my hair, moving the flesh over my scalp, making my forehead higher.

“Jason, please.” My fingertips slowly reached for his arm. “Please, look at me. I’m not the enemy. I’m not the—”