Dead ahead, roughly four rows back, she saw a shadowed figure silhouetted against the darkness. Aria rolled onto the balls of her feet and breathed steadily as images flashed before her eyes. Soren, chasing her as fire raged around them. Soren, on top of her, crushing her throat with his hands.
This was the Realms, she reminded herself. Better than Real. No pain. No danger. He couldn’t hurt her here.
“Where’s your father?” she asked.
“Busy,” Soren answered.
“So he sent you?”
“You hacked your way in. ”
“Hacking is something you do with a machete. This was a minor incision with a scalpel. Your mother would’ve liked that analogy. This is where you used to come with her, isn’t it? I thought you’d like coming back. ”
The amusement in his voice made her stomach churn with anger. “What do you want, Soren?”
“A lot of things. But right now I want to see you. ”
To see her? She doubted it. Revenge seemed more likely. He probably blamed her for what happened that night in Ag 6. She wasn’t going to wait around to find out. Aria tried to fraction out of the Realm.
“That won’t work,” Soren said, just as a message appeared on her screen, telling her the same. “Nice try, though. I liked the song, by the way. Touching. You’ve always been amazing, Aria. Really. Sing some more. I like that story. There’s a horror Realm about it. ”
“I’m not singing to you,” she said. “Turn the lights back on. ”
“He’s deformed, isn’t he? The Phantom?” Soren continued, ignoring her. “Doesn’t he wear the mask to hide how hideous he is?”
There was another way out of the Realms. Aria shifted her focus to the real and curled her fingers around the edges of the Smarteye. She knew the pain of ripping off the device. A shocking ache that burned in the back of her eyes and ran like fire down her spine. She wanted out of there, but she couldn’t bring herself to tear it off.
Soren’s voice pulled her back to the Realm. “By the way, that blue dress in Venice was deadly. Thoroughly sexy. And champ move with the coffee. You shocked the hell out of my father. ”
“You’ve been watching me? You’re disgusting. ”
He snorted. “If you only knew. ”
He’d toy with her as long as she allowed it. Aria took a few steps to the side, beyond the reach of the spotlight. D
arkness settled over her—a relief this time. There. Now they were even.
“What are you doing? Where are you going?” Soren’s voice climbed in panic, spurring her on.
“Stay there, Soren. I’ll come down to you. ” She wasn’t, really. Aria couldn’t see beyond the tip of her nose. But let him imagine her lurking in the darkness for a bit.
“What? Stop! Stay where you are!”
She heard a resounding thump-thump, like limbs sprawling. Then the lights came back—all of them—lighting up the lavish hall.
Soren had stumbled into the center aisle. He stood there, keeping his back turned to her. His breath was ragged, and his thick shoulders strained against his black shirt. He’d always been solid muscle.
“Soren?” One second passed. Two. “Why aren’t you facing me?”
He grasped the seat beside him like he needed to steady himself. “I know my father told you. Don’t act like you don’t know what happened to my jaw. ”
She remembered and finally understood. “He told me it had to be reconstructed. ”
“Reconstructed,” he said, still facing away from her. “That’s such a tidy way to describe the five fractures and burns that needed to be fixed on my face. ”
Aria watched him, fighting the pull she felt to go to him. Finally she cursed herself for being too curious, and climbed down the stairs. Her heart beat wildly as she walked past the pit and up the aisle. She made herself keep going until she stood in front of him.