My thoughts are running through mud. I’m slow to process her words, even as Rocco and one of his friends break through the crowd of guests and scoop up the girls in their arms, before heading for the door.
My mouth is hanging open, speechless and horrified as I watch the other girls slowly begin to follow after them.
This isn’t real. This can’t be real.
But when I meet Francesca’s golden-brown eyes, blank and dull, I realize that there’s no escaping this nightmare.
“Go,” she mouths. Blinking, my body follows her command and heads toward the door. But I can’t feel it. It’s an out-of-body experience—I’m only capable of watching myself go through the motions. My feet carry me down the porch steps and to the back of the house where the bonfire still rages, the flames licking the frigid air. Flickers of orange light lash across the night sky, clouds of smoke curling up from the orange glow.
Guests pour out of the house behind me, their excitable chattering rising above the crickets. The air has a pulse to it, thrumming with anticipation and glee, but that’s all wrong.
Two girls are dying tonight, yet all that coats my tongue is the rapture of their glorious deaths.
Phoebe and Bethany are thrown to the ground, their wails heightening from the impact. Tension lines the muscles in my legs, weighing me down and making it nearly impossible to line up with the other three girls in formation.
We stand before them, various emotions clogging the space between us. Resignation and enthusiasm from Jillian and Sydney respectively, but Gloria and I look at each other, absolutely petrified for what’s to come.
Francesca stands on the other side of the bonfire, deep shadows, and bright red accentuating her features. A demon risen from Hell.
“These girls were deemed unworthy in the Culling,” Francesca announces loudly. The men quieten, and I imagine it’s the only time they’ve been inclined to shut up and listen to a woman speak.
“For centuries, we’ve carried on this tradition. In our world, only the strongest can survive. Only those who can endure and persevere no matter what we throw their way. These girls standing before you—they are worthy of you. And they will prove their worth to you by snuffing out those that were not good enough.”
Francesca’s dark eyes turn to us expectantly, but all I can do is stare.
I see Rocco advance towards us, large stones in his hands. Sydney grabs for hers quickly, nearly vibrating with delight.
He stares down at me with expectation, a delighted look on his face.
Reluctantly, I grab a rock, surprised by how heavy it is.
Jillian and Gloria grab for theirs, quivering hands curling over hard stone. A tear drips down Gloria’s cherub cheeks.
Noticing it, Rocco leans down, grabs her by the cheeks, and licks her tears; his disgusting tongue sliding up the entirety of her face. She squeals in response, and Rocco snickers darkly.
“Show me one more tear, little girl. I’ll be happy to throw you down next to them.”
“Don’t make me do this,” she pleads quietly, barely above a whisper. Her entire body is quaking in his palms.
“Do you prefer to be the one throwing the stone or to be the one beneath it? Choose now.”
She squeezes her eyes shut and nods her head, accepting her fate silently. Pleased, Rocco forcefully pushes her away and stands beside Francesca,
chest puffed, and hands clasped behind his back. As if he’s a soldier honoring the death of his comrade.
A black hole swirls in my chest, eating up anything good left inside of me. I glare at the duo, the fire in my eyes fiercer and brighter than the one before me.
I can’t decide which I’m more eager to kill. Him, or his sister.
A collective silence ensues, the energy thick and heavy. Not even a cricket chirps, as if the wildlife can feel the tension, too.
Sydney breaks first, cocking her arm and hitting Phoebe with the rock on her shoulder, directly over one of her wounds, a savage cackle echoing in
I wince, my horror growing as she swings mindlessly. Phoebe’s cries reach my ears mere seconds later, and finally, I react on instinct. I push Sydney to the side, ignoring her outraged wail when she lands awkwardly on her hand holding the rock.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Jillian and Gloria kneel, raising their hands and bringing the rock down on Bethany’s head—attempting to give her a quick death.
Adrenaline pumps through my veins, and my heart races. I quickly roll Phoebe to her side, blurring out her extensive injuries.
Sydney clambers to her knees, rushing toward the both of us with murder in her eyes. Growling, I whip my rock directly at her head, ignoring Francesca’s sharp gasp as the rock strikes true, knocking the crazy bitch out cold.
Turning my attention back to Phoebe, I carefully gather her in my arms, cradling her head in the juncture of my shoulder and curling myself over her.
“I will not let you suffer,” I whisper in her ear, desperately and rushed. A hot tear breaks free, burning a path down my cheek. “You saved me, Phoebe. You were so fucking strong and brave, and you will always be my hero. Do you hear me?”
“I… I h-hear you,” she chokes, sobs racking her chest. Inhaling deeply, I lunge for a branch in the pit, barely feeling the flames licking at my flesh.
Rocco rushes towards me, but it’s too late. I’m jabbing the sharp tip of the branch deep into her jugular. Phoebe convulses beneath me, blood pouring from her neck in rivulets. I hold on to her tightly, but I cannot say the same for my shattering soul.
A sob bursts from my throat, and I press my forehead against hers, hardly feeling the blood soaking my skin.
Tears of sorrow and rage track down my cheeks, and all I can do is just squeeze her harder, rocking us back and forth as she dies in my arms.
“Sleep, Phoebe,” I whisper against her, my voice cracking. “Go to sleep now.”
Nearly as quickly as it began, she stills. But I can’t let her go. I weep into her lifeless body, battling with relief that she’s no longer suffering, and despair that she had to die at all.
Someone’s daughter died today.
And all I can hope is that whoever loved her, will forgive me for being the one to take her from them.
Two Months Later
I twirl the tube of red lipstick until it’s completely exposed. Carefully, I apply it to the bow of my top lip, taking great care to stay within the lines.
Then, I move to my bottom lip before rubbing them together and popping them.
I stare at my reflection, hardly recognizing the person staring back at me. Black circles rim the underside of my eyes, and I remind myself to put extra concealer there before I meet with Xavier tonight. He only likes to see how exhausted I am after he fucks me.
I haven’t been placed up for auction yet. Francesca says I’m almost ready and that when the time comes, Xavier will ensure he is the highest bidder.
It’s unofficially official that he will be my master. Because of this, Francesca has allowed him to visit me once a week for the past month.
Tonight will be the fourth night that we spend together. Afterwards, I’ll curl up into a ball while Rio cleans me up. Xavier gets off on drawing blood, and now that I’m essentially spoken for, he’s allowed to mark me. Within reason, Francesca says, but honestly—what’s reasonable about any of this?
I hold the lipstick up and wonder if it’s the color of my blood that excites Xavier or the feel of his knife breaking past that weak barrier of skin.
I drop my hand and meet my caramel eyes in the mirror.
When’s the last time I genuinely smiled? The last night I was with Zade, I think. How long ago was that? I believe it’s January now, and the last time I saw him was not too long after Satan’s Affair. I’ve missed my first holidays with him. Thanksgiving and Christmas, and maybe his birthday,
although I don’t even know when that is. My New Year’s kiss was Xavier’s dick down my throat, and if I didn’t have a desire to kill myself before, I did then.
What had Zade said to make me grin? He had said something ridiculous, but I can’t recall what it was anymore. I do remember him laughing when I struggled for a response. And I remember my traitorous lips tipping up, as much as I tried not to.
I wish I never suppressed my smiles with him. Because now I don’t know if I’m capable of one anymore.
The muscles in my face twitch as I force the corners of my mouth up, stretching it wide and baring all of my teeth. Despite how hard I try, it doesn’t reach my dead eyes. It’s unnatural. Awkward.
I smooth out my face, contemplating how I can smile again. “Duh, Addie,” I whisper. “You know how to do it.”
I lift the lipstick and place it on the corner of my lip and draw it out across my cheek, curving it up towards my eyes. Then the other side, until a big red smile is painted across my face.
The Joker had the right idea, I decide.
Feeling slightly better, I cap the tube and let it roll across the floor.
Heavy footsteps travel down the hallway and toward my room.
My heart speeds up, and I wonder if Francesca will let me keep my smile. Just for a night.
But the second she walks up behind me and spots what I did, her eyes widen. Her hand flies out and smacks into the side of my head, sending me toppling over.
“What is wrong with you?” she hisses.
I brush the strands of my hair out of my face, looking up at her outraged expression.
“I’m sorry, Francesca,” I say quietly. “I just wanted to smile.”
She huffs. “You need to keep it together. I don’t need another fucking Sydney on my hands. You are mere weeks away from being sold off, diamond. Don’t you dare ruin this for me.”
I frown and nod my head, apologizing again. It looks funny with my face painted the opposite.
“Wipe that shit off and get ready. Xavier will be here in ten minutes.”
Sad. No smiles for me tonight.
A deep shuddering breath fans across my face, his excitement growing as the sharp bite of metal digs into my stomach. He hasn’t broken skin yet, though my pain receptors are screaming at me like he has.
“I want to see you covered in red, diamond,” Xavier whispers from above me, his hard length poised at my entrance.
I am covered in red. He’s made so many cuts around my body that I’ve turned the white bedsheets scarlet.
It’s never enough for him.
A whimper falls past my lips when I feel him push inside of me, and my gag reflex threatens to spew bile all over him. There’s nothing in my stomach. Francesca doesn’t allow me to eat much on the days he visits— she says that she doesn’t want me to get bloated.
“You like feeling me don’t you, baby?”
I screw my eyes shut and nod, though it’s the furthest from the truth.
He invades my body like a parasite would, an unwelcome tenant that leeches from my life force to feed his own.
The sharp point of his knife finally breaks skin, and his blade glides across my stomach, drawing out a sharp yelp. Blood bubbles from the wound, and he moves his hips faster in response.
“Fuck, that’s so pretty,” he groans breathlessly.
A tear slips past my eye, and I pray he’s too distracted to notice. He only cuts me deeper when I cry.
He wants me to writhe beneath the piercing metal and get off on the pain as he does. He wants me to enjoy this, and when he sees that I’m not, it makes him angry. He says I just need to get used to it—I just need to adjust. But I don’t know how anyone could get used to being sliced open like a fucking pig.
Another cry leaves my lips when he finds a new spot and starts applying pressure—slowly—as if he’s giving me time to get accustomed.
I’d rather he just get it the fuck over with but I think he knows that.
He thrusts harder, causing his knife to slip and cut me deep. Pinching my eyes shut, I inhale sharply. Xavier shudders while my soul cracks.
I don’t think Xavier plans to keep me for long. How could he when I will eventually bleed out?
“Once I take you home with me,” he pants, “I’m going to drink that fucking blood. Dine on it at all hours of the day.”
My stomach revolts and I nearly gag again. The picture he’s painting in my head is vile and disturbing. He might as well declare himself as a cannibal or an aspiring-vampire.
Noting the abhorrence twisted into my features, he snarls and moves his blade to my throat.
“This vein right here? One little slice, and I could drink from you until you’re nothing more than a wilted corpse. Do you want that?”
Yes. God, please, let me die. Here and now, and I’ll be fucking happy.
“No,” I choke out, my voice tight with pain. I wouldn’t dare tell him to do it because then he won’t. Xavier would never go as far as to give me what I actually fucking want. Especially because he knows it isn’t him.
“Then tell me you want me,” he demands, as if hearing my thoughts.
“I want you,” I immediately echo, though it rings hollow. He wants to claim a place in my heart, but that place is a vacuum of emptiness that he will never be capable of filling.
He snarls, hearing the vacancy in my voice, and buries himself inside me. Though if he thinks he’s deep, I’d hate for him to see the size of Zade.
The only reason his cock will ever cause me pain is purely because it’s attached to him.
Working to swallow, I suck my trembling lip between my teeth. Maliciousness sprouts in his blue eyes, and it’s like watching him pull a black coat over them, the bright color shrouded beneath the darkness.
His hand travels down the planes of my stomach, pausing to dig his thumb into a wound and wring a cry from my throat, before continuing down. He swirls his fingers over my flesh in a taunting manner, an evil smirk curling his lips.
There’s a little sponge in my windpipe, collecting hatred like water and swelling until my throat is hermetically sealed.
Lightly, he brushes across my center, his eyes sparkling as his fingers find that spot that has my muscles tensing.
“Oh, God,” I breathe, more tears burning the backs of my eyes. I hate that spot—yet another thing he’s aware of.
His eyes blaze, excitement radiating from him.
“Tell me again,” he orders, his voice dipped in sin. I close my eyes, imagining a scarred face with devilish yin-yang eyes, grinning at me from beneath his hood.
Working to swallow, I rasp out, “I want you.”
It takes effort not to crack when I hear him groan. It’s all wrong. He sounds wrong, he feels wrong, he’s just… fucking wrong. He smiles when he hears it and rubs harder.
“Say my name, diamond,” he demands. I set my jaw in response.
I’ll never say it. Never.
He’s been trying since he started visiting, and every effort has been wasted.
When I keep my mouth firmly glued shut, he starts thrusting again while continuing to stimulate me. My body tenses, a traitorous feeling congregating in the pit of my stomach. Still, I keep silent, refusing to relinquish more than I already have.
Xavier thinks I’ve given him nothing, but that’s not true. I’ve given him everything—he just finds no value in what he’s taken from me.
The smooth, unmarked skin he mutilates.
The fragments of my sanity that chip away with every brush of his skin, and every whispered omen of the day I will be his.
My ability to touch and be touched without wanting to slit my throat open.
My dignity, self-esteem, and the comfort within my body. My fucking worth.
Because what he really wants is every broken piece of my soul, and for me to cherish every broken piece of his.
But my soul is already spoken for—already claimed by a wicked man with every intention to keep it to himself. And I suppose he’s given me his in return.
I’m just not sure what the fuck to do with it now.
“You’ll say it one day, diamond. You have the rest of your life with me,” he promises.
My legs clench around his hips as he fucks me harder, bending down to drag his tongue across my nipple. I grit my teeth, the bile rising in my throat.
“This is mine,” he groans. “All of this is mine.”
His teeth close over the abused peak, biting until my vision blackens with agony, and a scream is tearing from my throat. Even then, he doesn’t relent. Not until blood leaks through the cracks of his teeth, and I’m begging for the knife instead.
What a tragedy.
Finally, he releases me, a smear of crimson staining his bottom lip. His eyes are dilated as he pumps his hips faster, his ministrations on my clit quickening.
Gradually, it pulls me away from the fire lancing through the peak of my breast. I inhale sharply—a staccato breath full of sorrow.
The orgasm ravages my body, and oh look—there it goes. Another piece of my sanity.
“I’m getting really tired of looking at fucking Neosporin,” Rio says from behind me.
Xavier just left for the night. He was particularly brutal, slicing over the healed scars on my back and all across my breasts and stomach. He pushes it a little farther every time.
They said the Culling is designed to weed out those who have endurance
—who can survive anything. But I’m not sure I’ll survive another night with him.
“Sorry,” I mumble, too exhausted to snap at him. My eyes are pinned on the dozens of tally marks carved into the nightstand, and it’s only depressing me more.
“You’re giving up, princesa,” he sighs, dropping the first aid kit on the bed. He started calling me that after the Culling, now sounding more like an
endearment than an insult.
Francesca never did relieve him of taking care of me, and neither of us have bothered to stop it. It will never be said aloud, but I think we both find solace in one another.
“What do you care?” I grouse, training my eyes on the wall. He grabs a few paper towels and lightly pads the wounds on my back, soaking up the blood. They just started to scab over from the last time.
Turns out, Francesca didn’t need to be worried about my scars from the car accident. I got lucky enough to find someone who happens to enjoy the sight of them, and then some.
I’m still completely nude, but I’ve grown accustomed to being naked in front of men considering it happens all the fucking time now. All because I live with a psycho bitch.
Sydney was particularly pissed about me knocking her out the night of the Culling, so she attempted to cut off my hair with scissors in retaliation. Luckily, Jillian stepped in, and she only earned herself a punishment.
Since then, she has made it her personal mission to frame me for the stupidest shit any chance she gets—drawing on the walls like a toddler, breaking dishes, dropping food, and ruining clothing in the beauty room.
Most of the time, I think Francesca knows it wasn’t me, but she’s grown tired of the incessant squabbling and takes it out on both of us now. Sydney is happy to accept her fate as long as I’m suffering, too.
I’ve accepted the punishments, though—which always result in a night with Rocco and his friends. I tried to defend myself at first, but it never made a difference.
“Lucky for you, these have to heal, so no more nights with him until he’s officially paid for you.”
I glance at him, surprised by that. Francesca hadn’t told me, but I’m relieved anyway. Sometimes he gives me information he’s not supposed to. I’ve never questioned why, too scared he’ll stop if I do. After he told me about his sister, we’ve fallen into an easy camaraderie. Both of us chained to our woes and accepting that neither of us can help one another get out of the metal confines wrapped around our wrists.
I shrug. “Doesn’t make a difference. The others will still have their fun.
Want to take a crack at me next?” I ask dryly.
Normally, I’d be horrified by saying that to someone, but I feel nothing.
Rio chortles. “I have no interest in you.” “No? Not any of the others, either?”
I remember Sydney attempting to get a rise out of me, claiming Rio was sneaking into her bedroom at night. I hadn’t cared then, and I wouldn’t care now. Regardless, I’m almost positive she was lying.
Rio has had every opportunity to fuck me or one of the other girls. Yet, I’ve never seen him lay a finger on anyone outside of what was necessary. In the beginning, he deliberately made me uncomfortable, but he hasn’t even done that since he first kidnapped me. Now, he acts as if I don’t exist when in the company of others.
One day, I had asked him why—why the initial cruelty and the silence around people, and then be so different when we’re alone? He stared dead into my eyes and said, “The men in this house search for weaknesses. I never want to be yours.”
He presses particularly hard on a cut, drawing a hiss from between my teeth.
“No. Now, shut up, or I’ll leave your wounds to fester.”
I snort but leave him alone. His threats run hollow now, and we both know I’m not scared of him anymore. And I think we both know he doesn’t want me to be, either.
“Francesca said weeks until I’m his. How many?” I ask, my voice still hoarse from my time with the man in question.
I close my eyes and nod my head, gritting my teeth when he cleans another sore spot.
“New girls are coming in next week,” Rio continues. “How many?” I whisper.
“Three. Plenty of room now that it’s just you and the loco one.”
My heart pangs from the reminder. Gloria and Jillian were sent off to auction a week ago, leaving Sydney and me alone with each other. After the night we were forced to end Phoebe and Bethany’s lives, our training became more intense.
Just because we were considered worthy, doesn’t mean there still wasn’t an opportunity for us to fail. Francesca put us through grueling etiquette classes. How to address our masters, how to speak, eat, and sexually service them.
They’re specifically designed to break us mentally. We were whipped, raped, and starved if we made mistakes. And just like the night of the Culling, we were forced to punish each other. By the time those two girls were auctioned, we could barely stand one another.
Even after Jillian and Gloria were successfully sold, the grueling lessons haven’t let up. The bruises have faded, and the stitches have been removed, leaving two large white lines marring my back, yet Francesca wouldn’t allow for me and Sydney to be auctioned. And still, I have no idea why.
Although I’m spoken for, Francesca is still required to follow protocol. I have to stand on a stage, and others will be given a chance to bid on me. It’s just guaranteed that Xavier will win.
He’s one of the richest men in the world, he claims. Not even sure what he does for a living, or if he’s even a citizen of the country, but I suppose it doesn’t matter.
Despite what Rio thinks, I am never going to give up. I have no plans of skipping off into the sunset with Xavier, but I do plan on letting him take me out of here.
They’ve made it their mission to keep me exhausted, compliant, and ignorant. I haven’t been outside these walls since the Culling. Haven’t felt the sun warming my cheeks or the snow on my tongue. They’re scared of Zade and what he can do, so the safest bet is to keep me holed up, never to see the light of day.
Three weeks. That’s when Xavier will have no choice but to take me out of this house and risk Zade finding me. And that’s when I will do everything in my power to make sure he does.
Rio finishes bandaging my back before rolling me over and moving on to the wound on my stomach next, keeping his eyes fixed on his task. Not even a peek at a nipple.
“Try not to miss me when I’m gone,” I murmur, staring up sightlessly at the ceiling.
I feel him glance up at me before focusing back on a particularly deep wound. He’ll need a butterfly bandage for that one.
“I’ll pray your life is short,” he responds finally. I smile, the first real one in months. Turns out I didn’t need that red lipstick after all.
That was sweet of him to say.
Francesca’s footsteps pound down the hallway, but Rio and I don’t bother moving considering he still has a few wounds to clean.
I meet her stare when she breaches the doorway. For a brief moment, she glances down at my body, an unreadable emotion in her eyes.
Do I look pretty, Francesca?
“Finish cleaning her up quickly, Rio.” He stops and tips his chin over his shoulder to look at her, her face cast in a severe expression. “Claire’s here, and she wants to speak with her.”