It took Jenny a bit to recover from that. For a while she sat there, reeling with shock on the forest floor, until the man's voice echoed back to her, about her limited time in this game, and Jenny was back on her feet.
She forced herself to keep walking, despite the high possibility of the beast returning, or anything else to jump out at her. But Jenny was ready, senses alert. She understood her game now. And judging by how simply the beast had just left her, she was assuming there was going to be more.
Thus when Jenny reached a small clearing in the thrush of the woods surrounding her in a perfect circle of trees, she stopped in the center and waited. She wasn't surprised by the voice this time.
"Beautifully done, love."
She turned and there he was, leaning on the nearest tree. Jenny was surprised, however, to find that his clothes were different. His pants were still as black as the shadows between the trees, but they were tighter, showing off the lean length of his legs, marked with rips in them from the knees down. His shirt was the opposite, a baggy white material that hung off his shoulders, but there were three black belts tied down his chest, cinching the shirt tight around his slender waist, giving just a peek at those sharp hips. Jenny might've questioned the strangeness of his outfit, if it weren't for the metal around his neck.
It was a simple chain somehow connected around his neck, with a ball of silver dangling just under his collar bone. Jenny had seen similar metal on machines, even in houses, but never on a person. It was so shiny, so strange that Jenny had to force herself to look away from it, back to the bright blue eyes staring down at her, just to focus.
"Thank you," Jenny got the words out, "But you didn't tell me about the blade."
He cocked his head to the side, making that metal around his neck catch on some light, catching Jenny's attention again. "That's because I didn't give it to you. My Ancestors did."
He took a step toward her then, making Jenny lose whatever she was about to say.
"Tell me," he added smoothly, "why didn't you defend yourself?"
Jenny had to think carefully on her answer. If he really was in her head like he said he was, wouldn't he already know that answer? If this really was a game, then Jenny needed to play her cards carefully.
"Because it would have been rude," she finally said firm and flat.
That made the demon before her smile wickedly again. Jenny didn't like the shiver it sent up her spine. She turned away from him.
"And my Ancestors said you wouldn't last one round."
Jenny couldn't help herself. She looked back to him. "What?"
"My Ancestors. Those terrifying creatures you so boldly stood against earlier." He stepped towards her again, making Jenny instantly square herself with him. He noticed the move, a flick downwards of his gaze, but his voice remained as soft as the coat around her shoulders. "They don't see the strength in you that I do."
Oh, that only confused her. She did her best to wrap her brain around that-No, she needed help. Forget his stupid compliments. Focus.
"What else did they say?"
"Things you would rather not hear."
The light caught the metal around his neck once more. Jenny must've been staring at it again because the man took notice, looked down at it, then back up at her.
"Do you like it?" he asked smoothly.
Jenny had to take a breath at the jump in topics. "I've never seen someone wear metal like that."
"All sorts of cultures wear items like this. They call it 'jewelry.'" In a simple motion, he pulled the chain off his neck and held it by a single finger at his side. "But," he added carefully, "it can only be worn if it matches the beauty of its owner."
He didn't even touch the piece of jewlery. He waved his free hand down in front of the metal, slowly, from end to end, and Jenny watched, amazed, as it changed right before her eyes. From a simple boring metal chain and ball, to string of gold, shiny and glimmering. The ball was now a rich green stone, raw and sharp and stunning.
Her eyes widened upon seeing it. She had to blink several times to make sure she was seeing things right. The jewelry was gorgeous, catching in the light even more than its previous version.
The demon seemed to enjoy her surprise because his smirk was wider. "There," he breathed as if in awe of his own work, then held it up to her like it was the most casual motion in the world. "May I?"
Jenny almost didn't get what he was asking at first, but as he began to walk around her-to place it around her neck-Jenny immediately stepped away. "W-Wait-What?"
"Do you dislike it?" He asked calmly, and although his head cocked to the side like he was confused, that smile still remained on his face, reminding Jenny of a wolf in sheep's clothing-a monster that looked like a human.
She didn't let him fool her. Even from such a short distance, she stared him down with as much strength as she could muster. "And what is that going to cost me? An arm?"
The demon barked a laugh at her. "So clever. But I assure you, Jenny, this won't make you lose anything. It's a gift."
"A gift?" Jenny questioned aloud, a term she never thought she'd hear from a demon. "But...Why?"
"Take it as an apology." He stepped behind her again, but Jenny didn't move away from him this time. As much as she probably should not have, she stayed where she was and watched his hands with the jewelry come over her head. "I had intended to slip something else in your pockets last round, but my Ancestors traded it for a weapon."
"To make me attack that beast."
Jenny could only stare as the beautiful stone was gently laid across her collar. It was heavy and cold to the touch, sending shivers up her neck with a delighted sigh. Once the demon clasped it together officially around her neck, Jenny had to reach up and touch it, to actually believe such a gorgeous item was really there-was really hers.
It was when he spoke again that Jenny realized with a spark of fear in her gut that he hadn't moved away. Unlike last time after he gave her the coat, he remained behind her making his voice come right into her ear, hushed, exalted. "I could give you so much more than this, Jenny. Even things you've never dreamed of-from worlds beyond your own. I can give you anything. All you have to do is ask."
Jenny couldn't move. God help her she should have moved away long before this-shouldn't had accepted this gift because now she was trapped, right before him, unable to see what he was going to do next as he whispered such-such impossible things-
Jenny didn't know what to say-if she should say anything at all. She was stuck just standing there, taking a minute to actually processed what he just said-what he was offering-
"W-Why," the words finally choked out, "would you...?"
"I told you, I want you. I've wanted you for a very long time."
Then he did what Jenny feared. He touched her.
Just his hand laid gently on her shoulder, and although it was just on the coat, Jenny felt like his touch physically shocked her. And for the life of her, she couldn't bring herself to move away from it.
"I've waited for you longer than that mortal boy knew you even existed," he said, hushed and impossible, but then he added louder, firmer, "Never thought you would come running in offering yourself right to me."
Jenny had to look at him. As wrong as it must've been to face him in a situation like this-a conversation like this-she had to; to look him in those mystical eyes and really process what he was saying-who he was talking about. Once she did, she fell a step away from him.
"How do you…?"
"Know about him?" he finished for her, with the smirk lingering on his lips. "I told you. I see everything you do. I've been watching you. I have been for years."
"What do you mean you watched me?" Jenny sneered, embarrassment filling her voice with fire. "I've never come near these woods in my life."
"Are you so sure?" he asked and Jenny felt her stomach sink.
Something flashed behind her eyes, something horrible and bloody and she pushed it away as fast as it had come up.
The demon man went on, like it was natural. "We are Shadow Men. We live in the shadows. We walk in them, see through them. I saw you a long time ago when you were just a pretty little girl, and haven't taken my eyes off you since."
"You're lying," Jenny snapped, but there was no edge to her voice, making it small, weaker than she wanted-needed it to be. She shook her head, finishing, "That's impossible-You live in the woods, under spells."
At that, the demon rolled his eyes. "Oh, Jenny, really. Your village knows nothing of us. There was only one man who knew what we could do." Suddenly, there was a cold twist to his voice. It changed just the slightest bit, enough to make the air around them drop in temperature; the kind of voice that people have nightmares about. Suddenly hearing it, at what he said, made the hairs on the back of Jenny's neck come to a stand. "He learned the truth twelve years ago, on the night of a full moon, a night that he was supposed to be alone… Isn't that right?"
Jenny knew. God help her she didn't want to, but she knew what he meant. She knew the day he was talking about, the person he was describing twelve years ago, but as fast as the memory came up again, the dark behind her eyes swallowed it. No, she didn't think about that day. She didn't remember. She didn't.
But this demon did. He knew. Jenny could tell that the cruelty in his voice, the sharp light in his eyes could only come from someone who was there that night-that knew what she refused to remember. The thought of that, the realization that a demon had been watching her all her life, brought on a whole new level of intimacy that Jenny did not like. The jewelry around her neck felt too tight now, like a collar, and she wanted nothing more than to rip it off.
He had been there for how long? Since she was born? How much did he see? How much did he see?
The embarrassment must've been obvious on her face because the corner of his mouth pulled up in amusement. Like a switch, his voice was back to its elemental tone, mystical, gentle. "There's no need to be embarrassed. I'm fascinated by everything you do. Besides, it'll make no difference. Once you're mine."
Oh that came out so dark, too dark for Jenny to handle. She didn't want to think about the consequences of that-about what exactly would happen when she was his. Whether his offers were a lie or not, Jenny didn't really have a choice. She had sold herself to the devil already.
And then it hit her.
"Why didn't you choose me?"
She had asked it without thinking, making it come out quietly, confused. When the man didn't answer her, she repeated it, "If you wanted me so much, and it was your turn, why didn't you mark my house? Why did you mark Summer's?"
To that, the demon's smile dropped.
He turned away from her now, answering subtly, "The same reason you got a blade in your pocket instead of what I intended."
"Yes. See, they struck the contract with your village when I was just barely created. I don't get much say in the choices, but more so in the games."
Jenny didn't realize how absurd the question really sounded until the demon faced her again, a single eyebrow raised at her curiosity.
"I may not look it," he answered after a moment, "but I'm the youngest of all the Shadow Men currently created. But since it was my turn for the offering, I'm also the main contributor in this game. So they can scold me all they like, but they can't stop me from talking to you like this."
So many thoughts came to Jenny's mind then, racing by in blurs as she processed this new information. He was the youngest, but he had no say-Like a child playing amongst his grandfathers. It was an odd image to think of, but as she did, Jenny came to realize that everything she thought about demons was wrong.
She had imagined they lived in the woods and fed off lost travelers, used their bones for toothpicks, never saw the light of day, as all the stories told. She never thought they'd age. She never thought they could argue and play games, like people.
No, not like people. They took people, tricked, killed. They were nothing like people.
But the thoughts stirred something in Jenny that she didn't know how to feel. As wrong as it seemed, the strange images of what this demon's life was like, as the youngest, living in the dark, and he watched her, wanted her even.
"Do-" Jenny almost stopped, surprised she was about to ask something so absurd, before she thought, Aw hell with it. He already knew everything about her, apparently. It was only fair.
So Jenny swallowed and asked, "Do you...have a name?"
The smile that came onto his lips was different than before. Jenny could only say that it was softer than the others. When he walked up to her, she was prepared for anything but the way he bowed to her. He reached for her hand, but it was Jenny who gave it to him without really thinking. Just like in the beginning of this game, he lifted it to his mouth and kissed the back of her fingers.
Only this kiss didn't make Jenny pass out. It woke her up.
Like a shock one gets when folding fresh sheets too quickly, that spark of energy. It raced up Jenny's arm, straight to her chest, where it stole the very breath from her lungs. He stared at her as he did it, too, eyes piercing her like two icicles, sharp, unyielding.
When he finally stood up, not daring to break their eye contact with a single blink, Jenny couldn't help but notice that he was closer-How-When she didn't know, but he was. Inches away, he still held her hand as he answered her, and his voice was as soft as the coat around her shoulders.
"You can call me Julian."
That odd feeling struck Jenny again, harsher this time. She felt embarrassed somehow. Perhaps because he was still holding her hand, staring at her so-so hungrily, like a starved wolf standing above his cornered prey.
"Well, Julian," she said slowly, trying to keep her voice level like her heart wasn't ramming in her chest faster than a jackrabbit in a field. His eyelids drooped as the sound of his name, and Jenny literally felt the small hum of approval he gave through his fingers enclosed around her own. "The faster you help me, the faster you can have me to yourself. And since you said there was a time limit, I'd really like to know what's next." She pulled her hand away after, and the air was immediately cold on her fingers the moment she did.
He smiled wickedly as a result. The wolf bared its fangs. "I already told you," he said simply.
Jenny's eyebrows pinched together in confusion. Before she could question, he was shrugging and walking, hands politely behind his back as he moved around her.
"Do you know what people fear the most?"
It was an odd question. Then again she was talking to a demon.
Jenny shook her head.
"Heights, mostly. And spiders."
"That's what we do, Jenny. I told you, we can see everything in a person, including their fears."
Jenny understood then, almost gasping, "And you play off that."
Julian nodded, then told Jenny what she wasn't ready to hear. "You heard the monster chasing you earlier before I showed up because although animals snap at you, they've never harmed you, and you fear the unknown ones out there. We chased you with a beast because that's what your mind imagined had been chasing you all along."
Not only were they in her head, but he said they could make anything. They could literally make her worst nightmare come true-
"Is that what's next?" she asked, fear edging her voice. "My worst fear?"
He finally moved toward her and Jenny reflexively took two steps back.
"What is your worst fear?" he questioned like he didn't already know the answer.
Jenny didn't answer him. She didn't want to. She didn't want to think about all the things that scared her. She hadn't encountered much inside her tiny village, but there were some things; like the demons that took her neighbors, those insects that sting, her friends being hurt-
"You'll want to remember," Julian continued swiftly, "if you want to win."
Jenny squinted at him. "Remember what?"
Julian shrugged. "You tell me." Then he put his back to her, as if to walk off.
The fear made Jenny snap, "I thought you wanted to help me?"
Julian pivoted on his heel so fast that Jenny flinched. "I do, love, but I told you-I'm not in total control of this game. I can only do so much." Then he flashed his teeth in a smile that was vile and devious, and added, "For free, that is."
He was playing with her. This entire conversation had done nothing but tease her. He didn't help her at all.
The anger from that made Jenny glare. She didn't want to ask. She wanted to insult him, and storm away like she's done to jerks in her village before, but this wasn't any ordinary jerk. This was a demon; A demon who had somewhat control in this game she was in. There was no telling what consequences could unfold from upsetting him.
So Jenny snapped, "Fine, what do you want?"
"How about a kiss?"
The sudden abursity, followed by his wicked smile, made all of Jenny's blood run hot with a terrible mix of anger and embarrassment. "W-Why would you-"
"Oh, Jenny weren't you listening? I want you. I've wanted you for a long time."
But to ask for such a thing-When she had no choice-
"You pig," she finally snapped once she got her breath back.
"You forget, love. I wasn't made to be nice, so I'd be careful. I'm the only help you're going to get."
"No, you're messing with me. If you really wanted to help me, you'd tell me. Like a gift." She watched how her mockery affected him, eyes widening just the lightest bit, before she turned on her heel. She was ready for the way he just suddenly appeared in front of her, firmly planted between the two nearest trees, arms crossed.
But his smile remained evil, cold. "You still owe me for the coat, you know."
Oh, the anger burned now, so hot that Jenny wanted to rip the coat off and throw it in his face. She might have, too, if it weren't for her common sense snapping at her that the move would be pointless. She wanted to yell at him, hit him even, but he was right. Real or not, his help was the only one she was going to get.
Thus Jenny crossed her arms, matching his firm stance. "Why don't you just take it then?"
It was the change in his face, just the slightest change, that made the realization hit Jenny in the face.
It was a subtle move, the way his smile changed from so fierce to less, that the effect of her own words made it through the anger.
"You can't, can you?" she asked, thinking out loud, voice getting louder the more she realized. "You can't just take what you want. You're not allowed to. Not just you-Your Ancestors, too. That's why the Beast could only attack me if I looked at it-Because I was giving it permission. Wasn't it? Wasn't it?"
Julian didn't answer her. During her speech, his smile had fallen and a new one had made its way to Jenny's face. She even laughed at him, stumbling a few steps away from him in her own victory.
"Be careful, Jenny."
"Or what?" she laughed. She was going to say more, to rub it in his face-
That was, until the scream ripped through the woods.
Instantly the fear wracked through Jenny so hard that she turned toward the scream, to the voice that echoed through the trees-a voice she knew.
"Summer." Jenny turned back on the demon, gasping, "That's Summer!"
It was the vile smile on Julian's face that made Jenny's fear skyrocket, followed by the anger so hot that she hissed at him, "You knew."
"You really should start listening to me, Jenny," Julian answered smoothly, without hesitation. "It's true we need permission for the things we do, but there are ways to get what we want."
Summer's scream ripped through the air again.
"And I also control what happens in this game."
Jenny understood and the regret washed over her in waves. Whatever was happening to Summer, whatever was going to happen, he was controlling it. Because she upset him, he was showing her, horribly, that he could control things even away from his physical reach. And he could end it.
For a price.
Jenny was used to being ordered around, was used to having to work for the things she wanted back in her village; having to complete multiple chores and tasks for little things like spending time with her friends, or attending shows. But never like this. Never through this kind of torture, to her own friend, for something so crude as a kiss. And it was the anger through that, the fact that he was hurting her friend to get it, made the strength overcome the fear in her.
"You're wrong," Jenny finally said, voice so firm that it stilled the air around her. The question came through a slight tilt of Julian's head, and the way his eyes narrowed on her, telling her to explain-daring her to. So Jenny snapped.
"You say you can control everything, that you can make anything you want happen. But there's one thing you can't control, no matter how many tricks you pull, no matter how many gifts you give, even with permission." To punctuate herself Jenny stormed up to him, to get right in his face; and although he towered over her so sharply, so dominatingly, Jenny didn't break his gaze, firmly held her ground no matter what the consequences were. "And that's me."
Then she took off.
Sprinting through the trees, towards Summer's scream. Jenny had only heard her friend scream once, when a mouse ran over her foot in the barn during chores. It had been a surprised shriek that they both ended up laughing at in the end.
This one was so much worse.
It was hysterical, terrified, pained. Jenny had to push away the horrible images that came to her mind because they were wrong-lies-they fed off those fearful ideas. And Jenny wasn't going to let them get to her. With a new determination, she raced through the trees without looking back, only searching around her for the speck of blonde among the colorless forest.
Instead, Jenny found a wall.
A brick wall at least three times her height, covered in ivy and moss and muck. Suddenly coming across it made Jenny slide to a stop. It stretched on forever, as far as Jenny could see to the left and to the right. She could hear Summer's scream so clearly. She was behind it, Jenny knew.
Desperately Jenny ran to the left a ways, then back to the right. There was no break, no hole, no way through. There was only one tree close enough to the wall. She could try and climb it, to jump over the wall, but the branches were too high. The bark was too smooth to climb, not a single knotch. She panicked.
In a heartbeat, Jenny faced the wall, shouting back, "Summer!"
Immediately, Jenny ran and jumped at the wall. She got a good grip from the ivy strands around, but her bare feet slipped on the moss and muck. She felt her previous cuts reopen at the rocks, making her drop back down the ground. Pathetically, she tried again, trying to force herself up, gritting through the pain. This time the vines broke, dropping Jenny on her back.
Jenny was instantly rushing back to her feet, to try again, when she spotted them.
A pair of shoes, resting on a rock that she didn't notice earlier. They literally appeared right in front of her, and they were perfect; the kind that tie around one's ankle, solid on the bottom from some hardened clay. She could get up the wall with them. Jenny scrambled over to the rock, ready to snatch the shoes.
That was, until the jewlery around her neck suddenly tugged back. Like someone had yanked on it from behind, choking her just a second, pulling her whole body back-
Away from the shoes.
Jenny instantly grabbed the jewlery, but it was slack against her collar again, like nothing had happened. But the slight pain still throbbed in her throat-in the back of her mind.
Right. Julian wasn't the only one she was playing against in this game. Both gifts that he had given her he had done so in person. The last item she got in the middle of the game had been from-
Jenny jumped away from the shoes. It was a trick-Or was it? There was no way to tell. Either way, it was from a demon, whether the one that was "helping" her or not, and Jenny wasn't using his help anymore.
Determined, Jenny stormed up and grabbed the rock from under the shoes, dropping them to the forest floor. It was bulky and heavy, but Jenny got her hands under it and pushed. Slowly, she got the thing to roll. It was hard, especially when her feet kept slipping, but Jenny moved to her knees and rolled the rock over to the only tree close enough to the wall.
Then Jenny got on the rock and jumped for the lowest branch right as Summer screamed again. The surprise made Jenny miss, slip off the rock, but she was back up. With a deep breath, she tried again and snagged the branch. It creaked under her weight, but Jenny didn't give up. She walked her feet up the trunk, carefully, pulling herself up as hard as she could until she was able to wrap her arms around the wood, then her feet. It was rough and painful, but Jenny was able to haul herself up into the tree.
It definitely felt a lot higher than Jenny thought, but she ignored the sinking feeling in her gut and crawled over to the next branch, then up the next. The entire time Summer's scream got louder, more frantic, painful. The panic made Jenny move faster, and the next branch she grabbed snapped under her hand.
With a shriek Jenny barely caught herself on the closest branch, clinging to it for dear life. But Summer was still screaming, so Jenny kept climbing.
Finally, there was a higher branch bent around the tree, that stretched over the wall. In a rush of adrenaline, Jenny scrambled her way to it.
"I'm coming, Summer!" Jenny shouted as she climbed, feeling how out of breath she was already. "Just hold on!"
When Jenny finally got onto the massive branch, she was ready to throw herself down it, to jump down over the wall without even looking.
Before she heard the buzzing.
It was suddenly so loud that Jenny froze in a heartbeat. Summer's screaming must've blocked it before because Jenny saw the source right in front of her and the fear almost knocked her off the branch.
On the end of her branch, the only one to stretch over the wall, was a beehive.
A massive one, covering the entire end of the branch wrapped all the way around the wood. Thousands of the stinging insects swarmed over the branch, crawling and flying around. A few came at her immediately, making Jenny scramble away to the trunk of the tree, desperate to get away.
But Summer screamed again, a horrified sob from just below her, a reminder that Jenny was losing time.
But the strength Jenny had earlier was entirely gone, drained from every limb so much that her wrists and knees felt like toothpicks. All her blood drained to her toes as she stared at the vicious bugs, the ones she always ran from in fear, the ones she always avoided by taking the long way around the village townhouse for the hive that rested there.
If she wanted to get over that wall, to save Summer, she needed to literally climb through the hive.
Jenny couldn't even handle one getting caught in her hair, going into hysterics and having to get someone to calm her down, to make sure it was gone. How was she supposed to handle thousands of them at once?
Summer's next scream was almost enough to bring Jenny to tears. She had to help Summer, she was the only one who could.
But she couldn't.
All of a sudden there was one in her hair, the small weight landed just behind her ear, buzzing too loud too much. Jenny had to force herself not to thrash, to go scrambling back in a fit of panic and fall out of this tree. She could break her leg-or her neck.
Jenny felt more coming around her, another landed in her hair, crawling across her scalp, and the fear was great.
But the fear of losing Summer was greater.
So Jenny started crawling. Slowly. One shuffle at a time. Each move, more bees rose from the hive. Each inch brought another bee to her. She felt more come into her hair, onto her bare legs. She was thankful for the thick coat, knowing that the ones on her arms wouldn't be able to sting her. Jenny had to remind herself to breathe, to watch where she was putting her hands. She couldn't crush one, or they'd sting her. As long as she was slow, calm. They wouldn't sting her as long as she was calm.
But then they were crawling under the coat, up her arms. The sudden invasion made Jenny freeze where she was, and then they were moving down her neck, around her face. Jenny had to shut her mouth because if one crawled inside then really wouldn't be able to control the panic-No, relax. Keep moving.
It took forever, but soon Jenny was just before the hive, the top of the wall just under her. Now that she was close enough she could see the rest of the woods that stretched on the other side. These trees were farther apart, connected by some thick vines. The ground was dark and wet, covered in dark leaves and mud so thick that it covered the bottom of the tree trunks. Jenny hadn't seen anything like it before-
Instantly Jenny found the blonde, the only bright spot among the dark. The small girl was currently pinned to one the trees. She was too far to tell how, but Jenny could see her thick mess of curls, covering her face, and her legs-
They were gone. Sunken into the floor-No, the mud. She was sinking into the mud, slipping further with each passing second. She was going to drown.
Before Jenny could think of a plan, a bee crawled down her forehead, toward her eye. She was thrashing her head in sheer panic before she could think about it.
Instantly the buzzing got louder, warning her, and it was as if they tightened on her skin. The weight of them increased, weighing down on her, threatening to push her down right into their hive-But she couldn't. They were all around her now, flying all over, crawling every inch of her face now, between her fingers, into her armpits and knees. She was afraid to move, terrified of squishing them, of being stung, of falling off the tree. She couldn't even open her eyes to see-
Maybe it was Summer's sobbing. Maybe it was the adrenaline, or maybe she just snapped. But it was like a switch went off in Jenny, from panic to calm. Because instead of focusing on the screaming, the buzzing, the feel of each tiny leg crawling and threatening to break her sanity; all she could feel was the weight of the coat on her back, the weight of the jewelry hanging from her neck, and Julian's words echoing in the back of her mind.
"They don't see the strength in you that I do."
With a deep breath, Jenny got her feet under her and stood up. She felt the bees grow more frantic on her, buzzing like crazy, moving faster over her body. She didn't care. Without even opening her eyes, she carefully slipped her jacket off. She felt the bees brush off, then replaced with twice as many more. A sob choked in her throat at the panic that they were going to sting her-this many would kill her-
Suddenly, Summer's scream cut-off with a heart-wrenching gurgle. Jenny didn't need to open her eyes to know the blonde had finally gone under the surface.
The coat was off her in a heartbeat. Then she tossed it ahead of her, onto the hive, and jumped off it.
Before she lost her balance, before they could get angry and sting her to death. She leapt off the edge of the branch and dropped. If she miscalculated she could've jumped too short, landed on the wrong side of the wall, or worse landed on the wall and broke something. She tried to make her knees go weak, to prepare herself for the pain wherever she landed.
Instead, she went right through the mud. Jenny could only imagine it was like jumping into a lake like some kids had done before the Elders banned it. Jenny and her friends had thought about sneaking out and doing the same, but there was always that fear of what was under the murky surface. Besides they would have done it when it was dark, when no one would see them, and the dark belonged to the demons. Perhaps this jump would have been enjoyable any other time than this.
But now the thickness of the mud seemed to suck her right under and keep her there. She lost the bees, and if any stung her on the way down, she couldn't tell due to the amount of mud she inevitably breathed in. She tried to cough it out as she scrambled for the surface, but there was too much. It was too heavy, too much. The pressure constricted her from all around, unable to let her chest expand to breathe. She kicked frantically, clawed desperately for the surface, for anything to grab. Jenny had to tell herself to be calm, that she would reach the surface soon as long as she kept kicking.
But then the chain on her neck pulled back. Just like before, as if someone tugged it from behind. Only this time, it didn't simply pull and release. It yanked her back and down.
It choked Jenny in a heartbeat, killed her efforts of swimming up. It didn't stop like before. It kept pulling down, choking her, dragging her down further. Jenny couldn't stop the mud from filling her throat, nose. Desperately she clawed at the metal, but she didn't even know how it was tied around her neck. She couldn't pull it over her head, couldn't get it to ease up. It was digging into her skin, dragging her deeper in the mud.
The panic had her scrambling, helplessly sucking in more mud, choking her further. Jenny felt her lungs squeezing on her, burning for air, stomach sucking into her back. Colors flashed under eyes-images-memories of Tom, of her grandfather-Julian's smile-
All of a sudden the pressure was under her arms and in the next second she was yanked up, out of the mud.
The air was warm, humid. The mud hung off her so heavy that Jenny couldn't even lift her arms. She couldn't even open her eyes; she was covered head to toe in the stuff. It clung to her inside and out. She couldn't even cough it out-there was so much-the necklace was still choking-
Before Jenny could even realize was happening, she found herself on her back, on sweet solid ground. The hands were on her throat, digging through the mud. There was tug, a snap of metal, and instantly the mud came up.
Jenny's body immediately wretched on itself to hurl the mud up. She let it happen, desperately coughing and gagging for air. The hands forced her to sit up, where the mud came up easier. It was frantic and pathetic, but soon, she was breathing air again, lungs relaxing with relief.
"That's it, Jenny, breathe."
The familiar voice in her ear nearly made Jenny stop breathing. She had to spit up the awful chalky taste in her mouth, wipe the mud off her face. The hands helped push the hair out of her face, pulling chunks of the mud off with it, so she could see.
Julian was kneeling beside her, so close with Jenny's legs thrown over his that she was practically in his lap. His clothes were the same as just minutes ago, only now his arms were covered in mud almost up to his shoulders. Those bright white bangs now hung in his face loosely and he looked-
It was odd to say, but Julian looked relieved. The harsh lines in his face were relaxed, mouth turned down, and his eyes… They weren't as sharp as they had been before. No, now they gazed at her, dull, almost surprised at the fact that she was just sitting there, staring at him.
Jenny watched how the whites of his eyes lessened as his widened gaze relaxed, and his shoulders hunched as he finally seemed to breathe. His hands were still in her hair, and now that he seemed a bit more relaxed, he ran his fingers through it one more time, clearing off most of the mud.
Jenny couldn't do anything but stare at him.
Then it hit her.
"Summer-" Jenny immediately moved to get up, frantically searching around at the woods that were now way too quiet-she had gone under-
But Julian stopped her with a single hand on her arm. "She's fine."
"She was drowning," Jenny hissed, pulling away in a heartbeat.
"It wasn't real." Julian countered right back. "A trick-To scare you into failing, which you didn't, by the way."
Jenny felt like her mind was stuffed with cotton-or with mud. Unable to think clearly. She was still gasping to catch her breath, waiting for the strength to come back into her limbs. She was supposed to get to Summer, to win the round, and she almost drowned and now she was in his lap, too close to those bright blue eyes-and what was he saying?
Julian's body seemed to go slack for a second, as if disappointed in that. Without looking away from her, he lift his hand up to his side.
Jenny saw the flash of color suddenly appear behind him, over his shoulder. It was Summer, perfectly normal and clean, even in her favorite blue dress, smiling at Jenny like nothing was wrong. And in the next second, Julian dropped his hand and she slowly disappeared. The color drained from her until she was nothing more than a black and white shape of a person, that slowly dissolved into nothing and Jenny was staring at the empty stretch of woods once again.
Jenny almost didn't believe her eyes. A part of her mind refused to believe such a thing, but after experiencing it before, with the necklace, it was easier to accept than it should have been. She looked back to the demon who was no longer looking at her, but at her neck.
"That's what we do," he was speaking, but his voice was flat, dull. "We pull tricks to get permission to do what we want. Like the gift I gave you."
Jenny followed his hand from her hair down to her neck, where she saw the red angry scratches all over her collar. That's when Jenny turned where she had been laying down and found the necklace Julian given her now in pieces. She finally just seemed to realize that they were on a solid stretch of land, much like the mudpit all around, but firmer, as if the ground had solidified back into a normal pair of woods.
"It's my fault."
Jenny almost gasped.
Julian's hand dropped from her then, also now looking at the broken necklace in the dirt. Only he wasn't relieved anymore. No, the harsh look in his eyes was clearly burning with a fierce anger.
"They used that against me, as permission to hurt you. I should've seen it coming."
"Then it wasn't you?"
Jenny didn't even realize how she asked such a question until Julian turned his shocked gaze back onto her. The absurdity she saw in those blue pools made her feel guilty for even assuming such a thing. Quickly she added, "I mean, t-the shoes…"
Julian's face relaxed at that. "That was my Ancestors trying to trick you. I did pull on it, to warn you. Your round was supposed to be the bees alone, which you conquered. But the mud….." Again his eyes flickered down to her neck, to the red marks half covered in mud that he instantly glared at. "Since you didn't pick up the shoes, they used my gift as a loophole to hurt you. To try and make you fail."
It was the way he touched her then, just the faintest brush of his fingertips against her skin, accompanied with such a longing look in those clouded blue eyes, that Jenny realized….he meant it. He honestly had given her the necklace as a gift and his Ancestors turned it against her. That's why he broke it off, after he….pulled her out. It finally seemed to hit Jenny, about the mud on his arms, the relief on his face when she was breathing again-
"You saved me." Jenny gasped aloud.
She saw the confirmation in his eyes alone, how softly he finally smiled at her. "You really don't listen, do you?"
Jenny was so lost as that, so shocked that he actually didn't let her drown, even apologized for it, that when he asked, "May I?" Jenny simply nodded without even thinking about it.
Julian was amused by that, smile widening just the slightest bit before he leaned in.
Jenny reflexively pulled her head back, shock turning into embarrassment, but his hand in her hair steadied her head. He was suddenly so close that she could feel his breath on her lips, blue eyes so soft and bright that Jenny was helplessly lost in them.
Before she could really panic, a single finger under her chin gently eased her into lifting her head up. Now looking up at the sky, Jenny felt incredibly stuck, helplessly at a lost of what to do, when she felt Julian lean in and press his lips to her neck.
He kissed her neck so softly that a shiver instantly ran up Jenny's spine. He did it two, three times, moved his lips down a bit and kissed her again. His lips were so soft that it honestly came as a relief to her irritated skin. It scared her how easily her body relaxed into the sensation; So much that when his hands moved down to the back of her neck, Jenny allowed her head to tip back further, to give him more room.
It was such a strange sensation. Only one person had ever been this close to Jenny and he never did anything like this. Maybe it was because she just almost died, or maybe he was casting some kind of spell on her, because as wrong as she knew it was, she liked it.
Slowly his hand caressed down the back of her neck, down to middle of her back, where he pressed her closer. Jenny inevitable caught herself on his bare shoulders, feeling how smooth his skin was under her fingers. He continued to kiss her neck, down the side of her nape, until her body was pressed flushed to his. Jenny didn't know when his other arm had wrapped around her waist, but she felt how he used it to completely erase the distance between them. Suddenly feeling how hard his body was against hers was enough to elicit a gasp from Jenny, but then Julian's lips were moving; around her throat, kiss after kiss until he was kissing the other side. Each one was tender and warm and just so much that Jenny felt her head roll to the side, giving him all the space he needed to kiss her skin more freely.
Jenny was so lost in the notion that she forgot about the game, her time limit, even her village. She was so swept up in this moment, this sensual sensation that she fell right into notion when his lips moved again. Up her neck this time, to her chin, where he even gave a soft nip of his teeth on her skin. Jenny jumped in surprise, head coming down, but then he was kissing behind her ear, across her cheek, to the corner of her mouth-
"Oh," Jenny finally gasped, "wait, wait."
But Julian didn't pull away just yet. He spoke against her lips, breath hot, voice so hushed. "Do you really want me to?"
Julian pulled away, fingers trailing from her hair, and felt like the world came crashing back to her all at once.
First thing she noticed was that the air was colder, a lot colder than before, just like when she first woke up in the forest. The world seemed to come back to her, finally feeling how far these woods stretched around them again, so much bigger than the space between them. She was still way too close to the demon, feeling how cool to the touch he was resting under her hands like that. She realized with embarrassment that her knees were trembling although she was sitting down and her heart-
It felt ready to ram right out of her chest.
I almost kissed him, she thought stupidly, to which she sat there, reeling in the shock. She almost kissed him, a demon.
The soft expression that Julian had on his face before was now long gone. Now the demon looked exalted, thrilled beyond measure. Those bright blue eyes were at least three shades darker, gazing down at Jenny like when he first saw her, when she volunteered to take Summer's place. His smile, so wicked, made any strength Jenny had vanish like the illusion of Summer moments ago.
Dumbfounded, Jenny could only watch as his hand lifted back up, brushing the back of his fingers down her neck. "There," he purred, voice so elemental that it had Jenny's complete attention. "That's better."
Jenny didn't understand at first, mind still reeling from the sensation, the shock of what just happened. That was, until his fingers danced across her neck, to her collar. Stupidly, Jenny looked down and saw the scratches were gone. Not a single red mark, even the mud was gone.
The realization had Jenny scrambling away from Julian, off his lap. "You tricked me," she gasped.
Julian's smile remained. "I did no such thing. You gave me permission."
"But you-You tried to-Ugh!" Burning with embarrassment, Jenny jumped to her feet. Only the ground just behind her heels wasn't as solid as she thought, and she stumbled.
Julian caught her in a heartbeat. Now on his feet, he snagged her by the wrist and pulled her back into his arms. He didn't wait for her mind to catch up, and ran his fingers down her face, too close for Jenny to handle. "There's no need to be embarrassed, Jenny. You were meant to be mine. There's no need to fight it."
Oh Jenny couldn't handle that. Not now. She just almost drowned, but Julian saved her and almost made her kiss him and it wasn't actually Summer but a trick and she faced the bees and she had won. She beat the second round, she did it. Without Julian's help. Sort of.
At that, Jenny didn't have the time to sit and sulk. She had to shake it off, forced herself to recover. "I'm focusing on fighting your Ancestors," she said as firmly as she could when her legs felt like jello. "So thank you for saving me, but if you're not going to help me, then I'd appreciate it if you stopped with the distractions."
She punctuated herself by storming passed him, back into the woods.
"Do you know how to tell when you're dreaming and when you're awake?"
The question was so random and so absurd that it stopped Jenny in her tracks. A part of her told herself to keep walking, to not answer him, but she was already processing his question-to what he really was getting at.
She understood what this game really was now; That these demons, these Shadow Men, played tricks even in their words.
Slowly, she faced him again where he stood politely, patiently with his hands behind his back. Jenny had to take a deep breath and run her fingers through her hair which was now growing crusty from the mud. "Yes. Because I'm asleep."
Julian lifted a finger then. "Ah, but you only realize that after you wake up."
"So how can you know what's real before you wake up?"
Jenny didn't understand. She was trying to read through his riddle, to what he really meant by dreaming and being awake, what was real and what wasn't-
The trick. The one he pulled with Summer-No, the one his Ancestors pulled before that. If that really wasn't Summer and was just some kind of illusion, then that made Jenny terrified of what was next; because clearly she didn't know the difference between reality and a trick. How was she supposed to know? How was she supposed to win without knowing?
The despair must've been obvious on her face because Julian moved closer to her. Maybe it was the way he approached her, one cautious step at a time, or maybe it was the solemn look in his eyes, telling her without words, warning her-but Jenny could read it so easily. His calm expression on the outside like everything was normal when the presence he gave off was as though he was walking on eggshells. Jenny saw it so clearly. He even so much as lowered his voice as if to keep the woods from hearing. "You know, in some cultures, they prick themselves with needles during a nightmare, and the pain wakes them up."
"And what if they didn't wake up?" Jenny asked carefully, "But their nightmare was still there."
Julian merely shrugged. "Depends on the nightmare."
Jenny understood her clue but Julian was smiling wickedly before she could respond. "Let me give you one more gift," he added, tone suddenly playful. "To make up for my Ancestors rude behavior."
It was strange how easy she was reading into his trick. Because he wanted her to, she realized. He was warning her, subtly, through another game. And Jenny understood why. It was his Ancestors that just tried to drown her. It was his ancestors who tried to trick her before with the knife and again with the shoes. If they knew what Julian was going to do next, they could turn it against her again. He...really was helping her.
As unsettling as the thought was, Jenny played along. "You know, for a demon that is supposed to be cruel and take what he wants, you sure do a lot of giving."
Now Julian's smile was amused, accented by how his eyelashes dropped heavily. "I assure you, I intend to be repaid in full."
Jenny didn't like the shiver that raced down her spine from that. She had to physically shake it off, then Julian was offering his hand.
Without a word, without giving anything away. Jenny did her best to be pliant as she took it. She wasn't quite sure what to expect, another trick like with the necklace, maybe. Instead, Julian merely folded her hand and encased it in both of his. It was odd how he was simply holding her fist, then the pressure seemed to just appear between her fingers.
Before she could even think of what just appeared in her palm, Julian tugged on her hand, and just like that she was back in his space. He kept her hand closed with one hand while the other reached for her. Jenny could have pulled away, could have demanded an explanation, a straight answer.
But he was so serious. It was frightening really.
That's why she allowed him to run his hand up her cheek, into her hair, where he cupped the back of her head. And when he leaned in to kiss her forehead, Jenny inevitably closed her eyes.
The second his lips touched her skin, Jenny felt the world leave her.
Strength, time, space-It all dropped away from her so fast that she didn't even feel her body collapse. All she felt was the smooth touch of Julian's hand on hers, and his voice, so smoothly echoing in the back of her mind.
"Wake up, Jenny."
Alright! Here's chapter 2, as always I apologize about the delay. It took me a while to perfect this chapter so I hope its good! There's going to be at least 2 more chapters after this, so keep your eye out! Please let me know what you think! Till my next update!