Derek didn’t know what a king or queen was, but he was pumped to meet them.
As he was led back into the castle, Jabel’s and Cellena’s demeanors changed drastically. Their backs got stiffer, Jabel kept tying his necktie thingy even though it was already tied. They were off to meet their parents knowing they’d done wrong by letting their angelic godsend near a demon.
Derek didn’t know why that was a bad thing. The leader of these alleged “demons,” this Oliver boy, was anything but terrifying. Derek was still riding on the high he’d given him. Pinning him down in public, saving him like a big, strong person would, and he had no business being as hot as he was, fidgeting and blushing with those muscles—
Derek fixed his silk pants. Fuck, he was horny. He had to calm down.
The inside of the castle was wild. The halls were two stories tall, making everything appear bigger. Every ten feet were paintings and crystal chandeliers. Not one inch of this place was left empty; it was like a fairy tale Derek could wander through for hours.
Well, until he got bored and needed a different outlet to explore.
“Mother and Father should be in the church,” Jabel muttered to himself. “They had a meeting with Father Alec.”
“Where?” Derek asked, eyes now fixed on ceiling art. How did they paint something up there?
“It was the building to your left when you crash-landed.”
“There was a building out there?”
Cellena ran up ahead and glued her side to Derek. “Do you think they saw us?”
“I’m sure they’ll be lenient,” Jabel said, “once they see him.”
“But we shouldn’t have let him out of our sight in the first place.”
“It took two minutes of him being awake,” Jabel said dismissively. “This’s going to be awful.”
“I’ll defend you,” Nero said, his metal bodysuit clanking away. “I saw everything. I’ll be your backup.”
“They’ll only believe you if they’re in a good mood.”
Derek, whose eyes started travelling back to the castle architecture, was pulled back to the present. “Are your parents, like, shitty?”
“What? No,” Jabel said. “And language, my God.”
“They only expect a lot from us,” Cellena said. “Sometimes I think…No, we’re supposed to be royals. We’re expected to take the throne.”
“And I will be the next king,” Jabel tried to say confidently, but he didn’t stop worrying until they came to two double doors.
It must’ve been hundreds of years old, this thing, carved from trees older than time. Two more metal people were guarding it with those bat/knife-looking weapons. Derek found a story within the wood about snake-looking lizards. Fire spewed from their mouths, their talons as long as the humans fighting them. He tried to catch more—there were forests and that ocean place—but the metal people opened the doors for them.
Derek immediately felt light-headed. Like, no joke. This building was arches and slanted roofs and windows of colorful, painted people. Everything was aglow with candles and the morning light escaping the semi-transparent windows. A dozen benches were compacted into the space. There were hidden pathways leading somewhere else. At the front was some type of altar with a statue of the upside-down cross, and everything was gold. Gold and bright and shimmering.
And so, so, so cramped. Tall and big yet confining and suffocating. He didn’t feel like he belonged in such a place.
Two people were standing near the front of the room. They looked like Jabel and Cellena, with their jet-black hair and fair skin. They were speaking with a balding man surrounded by twenty or so others, but when the door opened, all of them stopped and stared at him, at Derek.
Derek’s heart drowned out his thoughts. His breathing picked up. He felt cold and sweaty at the same time.
Cellena was on his back trying to push him in and the doors were closing in on him. But they couldn’t. He didn’t see any other door leading out. He didn’t want to be here.
Unable to take another step in, Derek ducked out of the doorway and flapped his wings to give him an extra foot of distance.
“Derek?” Cellena asked. “Aren’t you coming in?”
“Are you alright?” asked someone else.
He had no clue, but something was definitely wrong inside of him. His heart was pounding and he couldn’t stop breathing funny, as if something was on his chest that he couldn’t scratch away. Was this the result of demonkind? The church just had too much in it, like they were compensating for something larger than themselves.
“Your Grace?” The man—the father, king, whoever he was—came up to them. He was taller than everyone else and took the scene easily. “It’s an honor to meet you, Your Grace. I wasn’t aware you’d arisen. Are you feeling alright? Do you need anything?”
“What lovely timing,” the woman—the Queen—said, “to have you see our church. This’s our priest, Father—”
Derek held his head. He didn’t know what was happening, but he hated everything about this. The crampedness, their eyes, ogling him like meat and hanging on his every move. He needed to get their eyes off of him.
“It’s, uh, cool or whatever,” he said, “but I, uh, can’t stay here. I have a thing with tight spaces and, uh…” He wiped his face. “C-can we get out of here? Now?”
The king and queen retracted their hands and joy.
“Of…course,” the king said. “My apologies, Your Grace. We hadn’t meant to overwhelm you.”
“Derek,” he corrected. “Just Derek.”
The king looked to Nero, then to his own children, who flinched and stood closer for protection. “Let us leave, then. How about we—”
“Go somewhere else!” Taking the lead, Derek spun on his heels and started walking nowhere. “This castle place, I mean, wow, am I right? It’s such a marvel. That’s a fancy word, isn’t it? Where’s the bathroom? I’m sure ya’ll probably have a dozen bathrooms around here.”
“W-would you like a tour?” the queen asked. “We’d be more than delighted to shepherd you through the Castle of Wueng.”
“We can show you our church another time,” the king said, dejected, but who cared? Instincts told Derek to take care of himself, and right now, he couldn’t be trapped.
He pretended to act interested in their talk. The king and queen went off about everything under the Sun to him. They started off with their family, which was super boring, and then about the world they governed and all their duties Derek didn’t care about. They explained how the king’s great-great-great-great something had built the world up with the help of “dragons.” They talked about something called a Barrier—
“Do you know of them, Your Grace?” the queen asked, bringing Derek back. “The dragons?”
That made them stare at him again, and he hid in his wings. “Uh, no,” he said quickly. “Not really.” They talked at him like he knew the basis of their history when he’d just learned who he was. How arrogant.
“He lost his memories,” Jabel explained for him. “He didn’t even know his name until he read a label on his shirt.”
“His name is Derek Harrow,” Cellena added, looking at her mother who still called him by the wrong name.
“How unfortunate,” the king said. “Do you recall anything from your time before meeting us?”
“No. Sorry,” Derek added, seeing the hurt on their faces.
“We should take a visit to our library,” the king then said. “We can show you our history with our devilish neighbors.
“To summarize, Your Grace, this world we’ve come to cultivate as our own was first birthed by the dragons. They were mythic beasts who carved the earth and rivers with their bodies, who heated the sky with their fire and formed the oceans by their tears. From the beautiful darkness sparkling above us to the vile darkness bubbling beneath us, they created our world from nothing, and we must pay our respects to them for that.”
He rolled up his sleeves. Rounding his forearms were tattoos of a slithery serpent tail, part of taloned claws. “They were magical creatures who disappeared long before humans were born from their wombs. The men in my family honor them by getting their likeness inked across our bodies.”
Jabel rubbed down his own arms, refusing to show off his dragonic tattoo.
Derek looked up at the ceiling again, a comforting gesture to escape the coddling. So that’s what was carved in the walls. They climbed the white pillars and wrapped around the railings. They had sharp teeth and talons, colored red and black and white, rainbows of violence.
To each their own, but if Derek was devoted to anything or anyone, he wouldn’t have gotten them inked on his skin. Maybe a rose or a sunrise. And didn’t they hate darkness? Now it was a good thing?
The king kept talking. The queen chimed in sometimes. Derek blocked out most of it. It was just something about that church-y place, it really knocked him off of his feet, and not in the way the humans expected it to.
When he came back to the world, they were in a music room. The glass floors and floor-to-ceiling windows made all the instruments so sparkly. It seemed like the queen was trying to get Jabel and Cellena to play a song for Derek, much to their obvious disinterest in performing.
Derek looked out the window for security. Beneath them was a beautiful garden growing pink flowers and the start of that forest.
“Why’re the demons so bad?”
It slipped out before he realized how stupid a question that was, and how inviting it was to the humans.
Their eyes were back on him. Jabel and Cellena exchanged sibling glances.
“Who are they?” he clarified. “My memory, you know.”
“They’re horrible creatures,” the king said. “Devilish beasts born from the soot of the Earth’s fire who tempt us into misery. We’ve killed most of them, but there’re nine left who’re immortal like yourself. They have powers of flight, teleportation, and abilities that foresee all of our core beliefs.”
He held his head higher with pride. “The Drail Family has kept peace in the Kingdom since its creation. That war you’ve seen illustrated throughout our castle paints us a valiant victory over demonkind.”
Derek saw. “How many of them have you killed?”
“Oh, hundreds. They used to litter my kingdom with their foul children. My forefathers eradicated the races decades ago, aside from the nine who cannot be killed.”
This time the whole Drail family, even quiet Nero, turned to him.
“I mean, what’ve they done to hurt you?”
“They’re demonic,” the king said plainly. “They’re demons, from the underworld. We’re not meant to be near them.”
“So who created them?”
“Our God, of course.”
“The person you devote your lives to?”
“Yes. God is All. They created everything.”
Derek’s brain was hurting. “So your God created evil things?”
“They created All,” the king repeated, pissed but hiding it well, “but demons were created from our darkness. Every cruel thing a human being does fuels a demons’ primal instincts to cause chaos. To eradicate them, we shall be free of darkness.”
“Darkness that your God created?” Derek wanted to ask, but that sounded mean. He didn’t have all the facts to make a solid, concrete decision on this. He didn’t even know what made up “darkness.”
“You must be faint from falling down to us,” the king said. “Fear not, Your Grace. I shall fill you back in on demonkind.”
“The remaining demons left on our island reside under one roof in the Temno Forest. Their manor’s located between here and the Kavka Mountains, though whenever one of my knights find their location, they pick up all of their belongings and disappear. They live quite resiliently that way.”
“…What does ‘resilient’ mean?”
The king gave him another one of his pitiful looks.
And Derek nearly snapped at him, but these looks were seriously getting under his skin. Was he truly stupid? Maybe it was just because of his missing memories, but he was starting to feel shitty about himself.
“It means they’re a durable race we cannot kill, and they’re dangerous. Some can breathe fire. There’re two grey-skins who can teleport into our minds, one of whom is their elected leader, Oliver Solos.”
Derek piqued up. Cellena and Jabel acted like they didn’t know him.
“Then there’re two vicious siblings, winged like bats who can breathe the hottest flames. They’re both deeply broken, body and mind, but don’t let their disabilities fool you. There’s also a heinous couple who brews magical potions for their child. Those ones sicken me the most. Demonkind has this way of coupling that forces an individual to fall in love with them. They call it ‘mating’.”
“Dear.” The queen held her lover’s arm. Her two kids were red-faced in embarrassment.
“I won’t bring up the details in front of my family,” the king said, “but it’s something I wish to see an end to post-haste. There’s also a woman whose mind is lost, featuring many qualities of a real-life house cat. She poses little threat to us. And then—” He actually shivered. “The waterborne one.”
“Uh, Father,” Jabel said. “I believe Derek has been made aware of who these people are.”
“The Angel needs to know of our ordeals, Jabel. Please forgive my son, Your Grace. He had an incident with the water demon a few months back which nearly cost him his life.”
Jabel huffed and admired the passing walls.
“Three months ago, he was wandering alone and unsupervised as he often does. He wasn’t prepared for a sudden attack to leave him defenseless and weekend on our very shores. Left to die, soon the water demon emerged from the waters and brought him back home. It was quite a dangerous scenario my son walked into so foolishly.”
Derek waited for the bad part to be brought up. “So, what did the water demon do to him?”
“Why, he attacked him.”
“Like, with a club?”
“Oh, no, Your Grace. It seems we have quite a lot to catch you up on. But for now, let me make this clear: Demonkind has been attacking our minds for upwards of twenty years. These attacks damage our hearts and leave us at death’s door. At times, they’re no more than headaches. But other times, especially in the last few weeks, they’ve been especially burdensome.”
“Maxwell saved me that day,” Jabel said. “If he hadn’t brought me back here and called for someone—”
“My children,” the king interrupted sternly, “as you see, do not fully grasp the dangers demonkind poses. They are liars and cheats who will stop at nothing to get into our hearts and sway our judgement. They cannot be reckoned with, Your Grace. Remember that.”
Derek didn’t even say anything. What in the flying fuck had he flown into? He didn’t want to be a part of this fucked, unfair war. What was he supposed to do for them? Save them? From what? Mind powers?
These humans, they had issues, and that was fine. He had some, too. A lot.
But who the fucked cared for these problems that weren’t his, and why dump them on him? Was an angel supposed to fix everything? Everything that, supposedly, their creator created?
“Well, I can see that you’re a bit overwhelmed,” the king said. “Enough talk of these beasts. We needn’t worry about them now that an angel has finally heard our prayers.”
“Oh, great,” Derek said, and felt a little sick with himself.
The next place on the tour was the library, and Derek pictured it wildly different than what it was. He pictured another tight room with an old man carrying dusty, yellowed books. Perhaps that was his warped sense of a “library,” a place, he guessed, he’d never willingly entered before.
In a library, everything smelled of wood: wooden bookcases, wooden railings, wooden signs pointing to wooden book communities, wooden floors. It expanded down two stories, each holding dozens of bookshelves with hundreds of books on each shelf. It was like a city, something Derek also guessed this kingdom didn’t have.
“We have three thousand books, scrolls, and documents for you to peruse,” said the king. “Everything from novels to history textbooks to journals from renowned travellers, all of it is kept here. In fact, where is our historian? Nero, where is your wife?”
Their knight stood at attention. “I’m not sure, Your Majesty. She said she’d be working on the first floor.”
Derek looked over the railing. He found more aisles and windows, opening up the already open library. This was the best place in the castle by far. Hardly anyone here and quiet enough to jerk off in some random aisle and not get caught.
A woman beneath them screamed. Nero didn’t unsheathe his “sword,” so Derek kept from flying out the window, but fuck. It was so loud, and sudden, like someone had seen a rat scurry across their feet.
Someone ran up the stairs. Her dress bounced as she ran to meet them, her petticoat acting like wings. She was a smiley, older woman with skin tanned by the Sun, who wore glasses that matched her long, red hair. Derek was instantly drawn to her as he was with Cellena, the two people who’d broken away from this place’s stuffiness.
“How wonderful it is to see you, Your Grace, Your Majesties, Your Highnesses.” She gave each family member a sloppy bow. “I’ve been so excited to meet you. I was so jealous to hear that Nero was assigned to be your knight. Oh, my name is Runa Alswhite. A pleasure.”
“I’m Derek. Just Derek,” he reiterated.
“Oh, you have a name now! How splendid. My, I had no idea I was going to meet you today. What an impression you must have of me.”
“Trust me, you’re fine.”
Runa’s enthusiasm died down. “That’s good to hear,” she said.
“She was greatly interested in learning about you,” Nero said. “She loves learning about whatever she can get her hands on.”
“Oh, you flatter me,” she teased, “but yes, I do have a habit of getting lost in research. I haven’t been able to control myself when I found out our Highnesses found you lost on our shorelines. I have so many questions for you.”
“Now, Runa,” Nero said, reeling her in. “He’s just woken up and his memory is hazy. We must give him and Their Majesties some space.”
“Oh, of course.” She curtsied to the king. “My apologies.”
“Not a problem, my dear. We came here hoping you’d be able to shed some light on our angel to our kingdom.”
“Oh, yes!” Runa said. “Where to begin?”
Everywhere, apparently, because Derek was lost on practically everything that made up Drail. He told them that he didn’t know what “royalty” stood for or what “demons” or “angels” were. He didn’t understand the concept of “oceans” or “snow,” though the last one sounded fun to play in. Farms he got—they were an outdated concept in his mind, but he got them nonetheless—but their towns, these quaint fantasy villages with windmills and waterwheels, none of that registered with him.
He also couldn’t read. The words didn’t make sense. Some had extra swirls and lines in the letters, some letters were completely new to him. Their writing styles didn’t match the words in his brain. Which was great, really helped him feel smart in front of these people.
The maps, however, were the strangest pieces here.
He found one on his own. It was tacked on the wall, a hand-drawn, figure-eight pattern colored blue, green, and white.
The ocean hugged the south. The forest and mountains were in the north. Encircling it all was a label he guessed read “The Barrier,” like that was so mundane, knowing that a type of barrier surrounded this world.
Because in his life…
Before waking up…
He was used to a barrier keeping everything in.
Keeping them out.
A little figure popped up beside him. Cellena was holding a book on star navigation that “boats” used. “Hello.”
“Hey,” he said.
“Are you alright?”
He traced the edge of the map. “There’s a barrier here, too.”
“Was there a barrier in Heaven?”
“Something like that, I think. It’s the only part of your world that’s made sense. The mountains in the north block you.”
“We have about 200 miles of land and fifty miles of ocean to use. Waterfalls dip off around the ocean, preventing us from leaving by boat, and we can’t cross the Kavka Mountains. Not even the demons can cross it, but my father…” She searched for him. She lowered her voice. “He believes that demonkind is keeping the Barrier up. He believes that if he kills the remaining ones in the forest, the Barrier will fall and we’ll finally be able to explore the rest of the world.”
“The rest of the world…” Derek drew his finger up towards the north, the Heavens. A drawing of an angel was blowing wind over the world. “What if there’s nothing past it?”
“On the other side. What if it just ends?”
“I wouldn’t want that to be the case. That’d make me feel quite lonely. Is that what you want?”
He didn’t know. He just wanted time to himself right now, or just with her, as she was the exception.
Cellena went to pick up another book, but as soon as her fingers grazed the edge, she winced in pain and held her heart.
Around the library, he heard it. The aches. The humans clutching their hearts and doubling over. It hit them in a wave, all but Derek.
“Woah,” he said. “Hey, are you alright?”
Cellena opened one eye as she contorted her face to hold back the pain. “Yes. It’s not as bad as…” She winced again. “I-it’s not as bad this time.”
“What isn’t as bad?”
The King stumbled to them holding his own heart. “Y-you’re not affected,” he said to Derek. “That’s good. Good.”
Derek tried supporting him so he didn’t take a header. “What’s going on?”
“This’s what the demons do to us. They attack our hearts with poison. This never happened up until a few decades ago. They’re becoming more frequent.”
“Why’re they doing this?” He looked backed to Cellena. She was already standing up straighter.
Jabel came out from around the corner holding a book about poetry. His knees were knocked. “They aren’t…the ones doing this.”
“Enough, Jabel,” the king spat out. “Honestly, this isn’t the time for your hypotheses. You’re meant to be king, you can’t talk about these beasts as people.”
“But we have no proof that they’re doing this.”
He caught the book his son was holding and slapped it out of his hands. Jabel flinched before his hand made contact. “Put that away. I told you not to read effeminate rot.”
Jabel, through strain, bent down and dusted off the book. “You ask for my opinion—”
“When it is needed and helpful,” he rephrased. “Leave us.”
Hurt, Jabel looked to his sister, who hadn’t been asked to leave. Blinking hard, face tense, he left, unwanted.
The King fixed his tie as he sat up tall. The “attack” seemed to be over. “Please forgive him, Your Grace.”
“For what?” he blurted out, and when the king looked up, he said, “Nevermind, it’s okay,” but he didn’t know what he was pardoning. “What were you saying?”
“Oh, yes. That this is obviously the demons’ doing. Oliver swears that neither he nor his family are the ones doing it, but you can’t hold their truths to heart.”
The King cleared his throat. “I’m sure you’ll be able to get to the bottom of this for us,” he said. “We’re putting our trust into you.”
Derek smiled and nodded, not having the heart to tell him that he did not care to be involved in this.
When the king left to check up on his “wife,” Cellena wiped the new sweat from her brow.
“You alright?” Derek asked.
“I am. Are you alright?”
“Yeah.” He faked a smile and ruffled her hair. “Cellena, between you, me, and the books, I don’t think I know as much as I should, you know? I think I’m stupid.”
“Don’t say that. You’re very kind and carefree. And you lost your memories. No one would fault you for not knowing our ways.”
“Your dad seems to.”
She didn’t disagree.
“I think my head’s just screwed on wrong.” He peeked around the corner. On the other side of the library was a door partly ajar. “Hey, can you keep a secret?”
“Your parents, and your stuck-up brother.”
She thought about it for half a second and nodded.
“Good,” he said, and led her away.
Cellena gasped and looked back down the hall. They’d escaped down a narrow corridor without windows. “Where are we going?”
“Outta here.” He pushed open the double doors. “I hate reading, Cellena. Like, seriously.”
She chuckled. “Even I enjoy a book every now and again.”
“What are you, thirty-five?” He jumped around her and tickled her sides, and she burst into a high-pitched squeal that almost blew their cover. He covered her mouth as they descended down a short staircase into a completely new, clear, spacious corridor.
They took to the castle like two teenagers drunk on stolen freedom. The corridors begged to be run in, and while standing on a red carpet lining each hall, how could they not? They ran past maids and knights. They looked flabbergasted at the princess and their angel running unaccompanied in their own home.
“We’re going to get in trouble!” Cellena said, laughing.
“Good! Above, this place is so stuffy!” To make his point, Derek flew to the highest chandelier and flapped his wings at it. Dust blew out the many tiny candles.
Cellena laughed and covered her head until Derek landed. “What does that mean?”
“Above. I think I heard you say that once before. Is it a curse?”
“Like, For All That’s Above? I don’t think it is. It just means the stuff above us.”
“Like the sky?”
“Yeah, and the sky dots.”
“Oh, don’t tell me that’s another thing I don’t get. I can’t take it anymore.”
“If you’re questioning anything, don’t hesitate to ask me. I won’t make fun of you. I have trouble remembering dates that Jabel is quite good at, though he isn’t good at giving speeches or making his points clear. He and Father butt heads about it quite often.”
Their detour ended at a dead-end of paintings and portraits. They were of the landscape and castles and distant valleys of the Drail Kingdom. Others were of royal figures he figured were Cellena’s dead family members. To their right was an entire wall of windows that showed off the steep cliff that dropped them into the ocean. He heard the crashing waves hit the rocks hundreds of feet below.
Someone else had taken to this quiet corner of the castle. A boy no more than thirteen floated a foot above the ground. He had dark hair and eyes like the royal family but had a long tail and was wearing more traditional clothes. Pointed, fleshy ears, too, with horns protruding from his head…
“Woah.” Derek stopped at the start of the hallway, stopping Cellena who hadn’t yet seen the trespassing demon.
Though, based on the carvings throughout the castle, he looked more to be an ancient dragon.
The boy, staring off to sea, turned his head to Derek. His head flopped back like a doll as if he were asleep. He raised one hand.
And pointed directly at Derek.