For the first time since arriving in Drail, someone ignored Derek’s presence. The floating boy didn’t gawk at him. He didn’t notice him at all. He stared out the window with drool on his lip, eyes unfocused. He looked half-there, half-alive.
“Who’s that?” Derek asked Cellena. “Someone we should worry about?”
“Who?” she asked.
She looked everywhere but at the kid. “Who?”
“What, can demons go invisible? But then why can I see him?”
Cellena double-checked that they were the only three in the hallway. “Are you seeing someone in front of us?”
“Yeah, right here.” He didn’t seem threatening. Between him and Oliver, why did the humans fear them so much? He was just a kid. “Hey, you good?”
A soft moan oozed from the boy’s lips.
Cellena tugged on Derek’s sleeve. “Derek, are you alright?”
Derek got in front of the boy. He looked like Cellena and her family, with rich qualities to boot. Wipe that drool off of him and he’d be a royal kid. “Who are you?”
Derek hitched his breath. That name, and feeling, that was what he wanted. Fuck the church, fuck obligations. For a split second, all he cared about was that person and their name, whoever they were.
Melting into the rug, Derek touched the kid’s shoulder. “What’d you just say?”
His knees instantly gave out like a puppet with its strings cut. His eyes rolled back, his head drooped. The last thing he tried to do was grab Cellena and tell her to run, because touching this boy was like poison to his body.
Something unnatural, like what the king had said. He’d called it “possession.”
When he awoke, he awoke in darkness. It was night and the grass in which he lay was iced and dewy upon his cheek.
He pulled himself up. He was near a pond emitting a fog across the meadow. Trees lined the perimeter, and into the sky shined thousands of sky dots.
Derek shook himself off and got up. Inside the pond were frogs on lily pads and crickets hiding in the cattails. Deep in the water were these animal-looking things with fins. They were tear-shaped and kind of creepy looking. Derek wanted to eat one.
Footsteps brushed through the grass behind him, and before Derek turned around, someone grabbed his collar and tipped him over the edge of the pond.
It was that drooling boy, though he wasn’t drooling now. He was now fully coherent and pissed and ready to dunk Derek in this nameless water with rage.
“What in the absolute fuck is going on?” he demanded from Derek. He was still floating, able to tower over him. “Who are you? What’s happening to the world?”
Derek’s feet grazed the edge of the pond. Even though it wasn’t that deep, he didn’t want to get in it again. Just like the church, being in water scared him. “Uh, what the fuck?”
“Pray tell,” the boy said, “assumed angel to humankind: Which one are you?”
“Which one of what?”
“Which reincarnation do you derive from?” he reworded, ticked off by Derek’s lack of understanding. “Who were you to us last time round? My name is Shào Kai. Is that name au fait with you? I certainly know you’re not Lí, as I’d just met with him, so you therefore mean quite little to me, though I’m not familiar with the Others’ soulmates to get a read on your personality. So I ask again: Who are you?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He tried struggling out of a surprisingly strong grip.
“Ugh.” Shào wiped his hands clean. Derek flapped his wings to keep from falling, but he landed ass-first into the muddy, stinky pond.
Shào floated to his back and put a hand over his eyes. “I hate talking to you souls. You’re always so emotional and probing. What number are we on now? First Holly Bonnet, then Nicole Lenore, and now you?”
Derek didn’t know what a hollied bonnet was, but that second name held a stronger connection to him. He tried to hold on to that feeling for as long as he could, but just like that other name Shào had mumbled, a loving memory came and slipped away.
“I mean, it’s just getting excessive now,” Shào went on. “Is it going to be like last time when there were, Christ, five soulmates running around the world? I can’t imagine such a fate.”
“I, uh, don’t know what you’re talking about,” Derek said. “Well, like, I don’t think I do. Is this angel business?”
“Oh, god, no. Spare me the religious sermon.” He rolled to his belly and stirred his finger in the air. Feet away, the pond water began stirring with his movement. “Do you have an inclination to water? Have you ever felt pulled to it like you’d find true happiness submerged in the bottom of the sea? How about the Earth? Do you feel grounded when you’re shifting your hand through blooming peonies or a dewy field? What of fate itself and how it ties us together yet makes us feel lonelier than the farthest star in the most distant galaxy? Do you crave death?”
Derek sucked in his lips. “Is this, like, a test?”
“Oh, Lord, you don’t even know of the seven Deities.” Shào pushed his bangs from his face. “I forgot how taxing communication is with someone who gives me no meaningful purpose. How about the question we all wish to know: Why are you here? Nicole had mentioned that crossbreeds are thriving in a place I haven’t the faintest clue how to find. Did a Deity send you here?”
“I-I have no idea. My memories are busted. Look, are you a demon? I won’t tell nobody you were in the castle. To be honest, I don’t agree with most of the humans’ beliefs, so I can keep this a secret. No feathers off my wing.”
“Demons.” He said it like a bad pun. “No, I am not a demon.”
Derek looked at his tail, horns, pointed ears. “Then what are you?”
“Nothing more than an ancient echo lost in a forgotten world.”
Derek blinked at him.
Shào frowned at him. Maybe he actually was a child and wanted Derek to play along with his boastful smartness. “I am a Deity. Shào Kai, Deity to crossbreeds.”
“What’s a crossbreed?”
“It’s what you are. Part human, part animal. Well, it’s more of a 90/10% cut in your DNA, but these humans haven’t gotten that far in genetics.”
Derek looked around the meadow. “And where am I?”
“My mind, a torturous replay of all of my past mistakes.”
“I’m in your brain?”
“Is it that shocking at this point? Yes, these are my memories, and no, I cannot let you out. I’m too weak to use my powers. You must’ve touched me and I was lost in thought and accidentally lured you in. It’s something you soulmates can do. You find us like fish to a dangling worm.”
Derek cocked his head. “What’s a fish?”
“What’s a—?” He sighed. “Never mind, I don’t have the energy to process that. God, I knew someone like you from my past. I dare presume you and her are somehow related. Curse the world if that be the case.”
“Do you mean that Nicole person?” he asked. For some reason, that name sounded so nice to him.
Shào smiled blissfully. “No, because the world is a more blessed place with her in it.”
“Then are you talking about Maïmoú?”
Shào lost the tension in his tail.
“You said that name right before we got swept up here. I feel like I know it somehow. Oh, is she an angel? The humans said they have these crazy mind powers or something. Are you an—”
Shào barreled into him, knocking him back into the water and strangling him in a cutthroat chokehold.
Words abandoned Derek. Shào had gained the strength of twenty knights, cutting off his blood supply in a single move.
“Don’t worry,” Shào grunted. “Death is quite a serene experience. Let us pray a being can die in a Void. What a turn if you become trapped in this purgatory dungeon with me as a ghost. What a turn,” he added, squeezing harder, “that I became acquainted with one of her soulmates.”
“What?” Derek choked.
“Congratulations. You’re a damned soul connected to a Deity who has more blood on her hands than I do. You are Maïmoú’s love, her heart, the reason she exists. You are connected to her, mind and spirit. You will always love her and defend her actions until the day the world stops turning, and I deeply sympathize with you.”
The burning, choking feeling doubled. Derek gagged on his own breath. “What…did…”
“What did you do?” Shào asked. “Nothing. I told you, you had no choice in this, just like I have no choice in killing you to spite that vicious creature built of flesh and bone. Oh, how I will get immense satisfaction from seeing one of her soulmates perish by my hands. An eye for an eye, ‘ey, fledgling? It’s what she deserves after all the suffering she’s put me through.”
Derek closed his eyes. Whatever. Maybe the humans would find a better placeholder between their fight with demonkind. Surely it didn’t have to be him if he couldn’t fight off a kid demon or God.
Like being shoved down a dark pit, Derek’s body slipped away from Shào, and he fell into a warm and heart-pounding chest.
He coughed and held his throat. He was back in the castle, Shào was gone, but he could still feel the phantom hands lingering on his throat.
Someone gasped and jumped back. Watching over him in the hallway wasn’t Cellena or Shào, but that girl he’d seen hours ago atop the castle.
The cat girl sat on her hands and knees, watching him like a cat did a toy. She really was part animal, that 90/10% split. Furry ears and a tail, flicking with curiosity as to how Derek got back to the real world.
“How—” He coughed. His throat really hurt.
She creeped up to him. Her amber eyes were unnaturally wide, unblinking.
She sat back and searched inside one of her pockets. From it fell out red berries and twigs, little buttons she’d collected over time. Then she pulled out a notepad on a key ring. She opened it to a bookmarked page and held it out for Derek to read.
My name is Holly Bonnet.
I’m a 20-year-old girl who cannot speak, but I understand a lot of what you say.
I’m afraid of loud noises and men, and my development is that of a child.
Please be forgiving of me.
I wish to be friends.
Derek read that twice to make sure he was reading it right, then forced himself up. Shào was nowhere to be seen.
“Did you save me?” he asked her. “I felt like I’d gotten pulled out. Was that you?” Shào had said something about a Holly Bonnet being like him. A soulmate? “Who are you?”
Holly flicked one of her large ears, admiring him, scrutinizing him. Then her eyes went wide and she opened her mouth, a silent freeze-frame.
She jumped. Clambering to one of the—now open—windows, Holly hopped straight out of the castle.
“Woah!” Derek fell into the curtains. His body was all sorts of messed up, but if he flew quick enough, he could save her.
The walls on this side of the castle brought something up from his stomach. It was a straight shot down with only a few feet of grass separating the castle from the drop.
Holly was there, tiptoeing over dandelions. She stopped to pick one to place behind her ear when she saw Derek staring at her.
His hair whipped in the wind as they caught each other’s eyes. “You’re nuts,” he exhaled in relief. “Add that to your fucking notepad. Crossbreed cat girl. Soulmate. Nuts. Fuck.”
Holly slowly stuck out her tongue, her only way to communicate, and disappeared down the coastline.
He clutched the curtains. His body wasn’t feeling good. Knowing Holly was okay and off doing whatever the fuck she did, he fell to his knees and aired out his shirt.
Shortly later, Cellena, with an entourage of her family and knights, ran in to save him from nothing.
Derek massaged his swollen neck. He was back in that bed he’d woken up in that morning. A fire was going to keep him warm for the night.
The royal family cancelled every scheduled meeting and conference they’d planned for Derek. They’d bandaged him, nursed him with medicine and funky-looking soup that tasted like pure salt, and put him to bed, hoping their angel hadn’t been harmed by another “demon” attack.
He’d tried telling them about Shào and how he said he wasn’t a demon, but they disregarded everything in lieu of him getting better. They told him that demons were known for their lies and to continue distrusting them.
Cellena sniffled at his bedside. “I’m just so glad you’re alive.”
“Okay, why are you still sniffling about me?” Derek teased. “I’m fine. Anyway, isn’t it past your bedtime?”
“I’ve just never seen an attack happen so suddenly before. You were talking to an invisible person, then reached out for something and collapsed. I thought you’d died and rushed for my parents. Your breathing was so weak and your heart barely beat. I thought…” She dabbed her bloodshot eyes with a handkerchief.
“Hey.” He brushed back her hair. “Quit it. I ain’t dead yet.”
“My mother always says I take on the worry of a king.”
“You’d make a great one.” His left wing got pins and needles from sitting on it wrong and forced him to turn.
“Are you okay?” Cellena asked. “I should call the doctor and have him tend to you.”
“Don’t. I’ll be fine.”
“But you’re in pain.”
“I just,” he said, then stopped so he didn’t sound as upset as he was. He restarted, “I just need some space from people right now. I need to turn off my brain and take in everything.”
“Oh,” she said. “Okay. I’ll leave you be, then.”
“Hey, look at me.” He took her face in his hands. “This isn’t your fault, okay? You did everything right.”
“But—” She sniffed again. “I should’ve been more mature about this.”
“You’re, like, ten. Nobody should expect you to act like an adult when you haven’t even become a teenager yet. Now get.” He playfully shooed her away. “Your parents are probably wondering where their rambunctious little prince went.”
“Princess,” she corrected, and curtsied. “Derek, I’ll…I’ll research everything you need to know about Drail. I’ll make it concise and easier for you to read. And if you don’t want to read, I can memorize everything and relay it to you. I’ll help you.”
Derek smiled into his pillow. “You don’t gotta do all that.”
“I want to. You’re my friend.”
“Course,” he said but lacked the conviction Cellena needed. Even memory-less, he knew he didn’t have close friends. He wasn’t that type of person. Just family and lovers he could hopefully call friends if they kept him long enough.
“Okay.” Rejuvenated, Cellena darted to the door. Behind it waited Nero, Derek’s personal knight for the night. “Goodnight, Derek. I’ll check on you in the morning, okay?”
“Kay,” he said, and waved both of them off.
The temperature of the cool, lonely night settled into his hollow bones. He heard the creaks of the castle walls and the wind rustling the forest pine outside.
He held up his necklace, feeling the edges cut into his palm. If he were an angel, he’d have to clean himself up and act better, but Shào had called him a “soulmate.” He’d have to ask the humans about that. He couldn’t imagine anyone having those types of answers, let alone him. Ties to a god? Sounded rough.
A yawn escaped from his mouth, and he rubbed his eyes. He wasn’t even tired, he just needed to close his eyes and not be him for a while, so he could reset his factory settings.
Did the Drail Kingdom have factories? Probably not.
He opened his eyes.
“Derek, are you there? It’s Maïmoú. Answer me.”
Derek tried to sit up. He’d heard that voice before, from a time long past. It was young, like Cellena, innocent, dreamlike. But it hadn’t been Cellena. This was coming from his brain, like a little mouse was whispering directly into his ear.
And she sounded bad. Like, real bad. Voice cracks and coughing between words. He felt compelled to ask if she needed help, but he didn’t know where she was in the world.
“Uh, hello?” Derek called out, hoping for a response.
His door opened. Nero was holding his head, panting slightly. “A-are you alright?”
Derek looked over his bed frame. “Huh?”
“It’s another attack. It’s small, but—” He composed himself, already feeling better. “You really aren’t affected by them, are you?”
“…Don’t think so,” was all he said. He was still waiting—hoping, praying—to hear that girl’s voice again.
“Alright, then. Forgive the interruption. Goodnight.”
Derek dropped his body back into bed. He’d been holding tension through his shoulders. Was that an attempt at demonic possession? Holly was a demon, right? Had she done something to him when she’d pulled him free? No, Holly was a cat and couldn’t talk, and that voice had said her name was Maïmoú.
Maïmoú. Just like that Nikki name, it pulled a string on his heart, lacing up a hole he hadn’t known he had.
Derek moaned in annoyance. Too many people. Too many powers. Angels, demons, Deities, soulmates. Too confusing. Did not care.
He needed to jerk off. Put something inside of him and neglect his duties to strangers. That feeling? Of finishing off and sitting in a warm pool of your own mushy feelings? That was better than sex. Well, maybe. A night with Oliver could change that.
Stuffing a hand down his pants, he got to work with Oliver in mind.
Tapping rapped on the windowpane next to Derek’s bed, an alarm clock to bigger and better things.
Derek parted his red curtains and was met with darkness. The dark sky dyed with the distant blues and purples. A thousand sky dots lit the sky tonight, and the trees were all dyed the single color of pure darkness.
“Maïmoú?” he called out.
A shadow formed around the night. A head of curly hair, two pointed horns, a fidgeting, wire-thin tail.
Oliver floated from nothing into the window. Derek couldn’t believe how he did it without wings, how the earth levitated these people between the ground and sky. He appeared lighter than air, even though he was taller, bigger, and stronger than Derek was.
Biting his lower lip, Derek unlatched the window lock.
Oliver hovered in, ankles locked.
“Hey,” Derek said.
“Hello. Uh, evening, I mean, good evening.” He cleared his throat. “I was wondering if you were feeling better?”
“Do the bandages give it away?”
Oliver fumbled in midair. “Oh, uh, I…suppose they do. I meant from whatever happened to you this evening. I heard you were attacked, and I had a feeling you were…” He started over. “What happened to you, if you mind me asking?”
Was he trying to turn Derek on? All that mumbling and stuttering, you would’ve thought he was in front of an audience. “I think I met with God.”
Oliver’s pointy ears stuck out from his hair. “Really?”
“I think. I don’t know.” He flipped down into bed, making a point to spread his legs and air out his crotch. “I don’t know nothing about this place. I don’t even know what a demon is. Are you part animal? Something different alltogether? It’s so confusing. Oh, I met with your friends earlier today,” he added. “They’re nuts. One of them was the cat girl. Holly?”
“Oh, yes. Did she show you her notepad? She finds herself in, uh, predicaments, on top of roofs and underneath logs and the like. Once I found her in a cave several miles into the Kavka Mountains. She was out there for days.” Catching himself, he bowed to Derek. “Forgive me. I ramble when I…when I’m—”
“Scared?” Derek guessed. “Don’t be. I met another friend of yours. Two, I think. Shào and Maïmoú. What’s their deal?”
Oliver repeated the two names slowly. “I…don’t think I’ve ever met anyone named that before. What did they look like?”
“Well, one’s obviously a demon, though he says he’s not. He’s got a long, red tail with fur at the end, with horns and ears like you. The other was just a voice I heard. Said her name was Maïmoú.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know anyone who looks like that. No demon has those qualities, and I’ve been around for hundreds of years.”
“You don’t look hundreds of years old.”
“Our brains and bodies don’t age. We’re stuck at our ages for eternity, never advancing.”
Derek raised a brow. “So how old are you, mentally?”
“I’d say…about your age. Maybe older.”
Derek felt himself biting his lip again. He placed pins in Shào’s and Maïmoú’s names for later. They must’ve been Gods, then. The humans were going to have a field day knowing that their beloved person up in the clouds had to share the spotlight.
“Well, I’m glad you’re okay, whatever happened to you,” Oliver said. “Did I wake you? I should be heading back.”
“No, stay.” Derek reached out his hand and made a grabby motion with it. “You can spare a few minutes for me, right?”
Oliver looked to Derek’s locked door.
“A knight’s guarding it,” Derek said.
“Is it Nero?”
He relaxed and crept closer into Derek’s room. “He’s a friend to demonkind, he and his wife. They come out to give us fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as supplies that we run out of.”
“So they don’t think you all should burn in a tub of fire for existing?” He’d meant it as a joke.
Oliver didn’t laugh. “No, they don’t.”
“Right. Sorry. I’m still getting used to everything here.”
“They say you lost your memories.”
“Word travels fast.”
“We learn fast. It’s what we have to do to survive. Every move the humans make, we have to know about six moves in advance.”
Derek didn’t know if he’d ever thought two steps in advance about anything. “Hey, could you stop, like, hurting the humans? At least stop hurting Cellena? She doesn’t deserve that. She’s a kid.”
“We’re not the ones hurting them. I don’t know what’s been afflicting them these past decades, but it hasn’t been us. Our numbers have dropped so severely these past few decades, how on Earth could it still be us hurting so many humans? None of us have the powers to do that.”
Derek rocked on his butt. Such tense. It got him hard. “Got it. That’s just what the humans have been telling me. So you don’t have heart attack powers. Can you read minds?”
“No. Well, we have this sort of, uh, mating process.” He looked away. “We mate for life, and with our mate, we have an internal connection with them. It’s like an explosion of information. You know their favorite music, their favorite food. Their needs, their wants. If we mate with another demon, each of them also has a sense of what they’re feeling, where they are. We share part of our soul with our mate, or mates, but it’s rare for a demon to find more than one mate in their lifetime.”
“So what if they mate with a human?”
Oliver played with the end of his tail. “It’s one-sided. The connection isn’t shared.” Then, “Unless the other partner reciprocates the feeling. Then it’s the same as human love, we’re just the love-struck fools bent on adoring them forever.”
Derek worked his warm tongue in his mouth. That kind of bond might’ve made a situation sticky for a lot of people, but to Derek, lovesickness made him feel special, but not in an angelic way. More like a person special. A special person way.
Concealing his boner in the blankets, Derek nudged Oliver’s foot with his wing.
“Hey,” Derek said.
He looked at Derek’s nose rather than his eyes. “…Hello.”
“You should, like, come in. If you’d like.”
“But do you want to?”
He licked his lips and gave Derek another needy look.
His bed was big enough for the two of them, but Oliver still crawled along the edge like it was a twin and held himself small.
“You alright?” Derek asked.
“I just don’t know what to say at this moment.”
Derek smiled at his stuttering. “So.”
“You know where I’m at at all times.”
“You know how I’m feeling like it’s sonar attached to your brain.”
He nodded more urgently, which made Derek beam in the silliest of ways.
“You’ve mated with me,” Derek teased, “haven’t you?”
Oliver curled more into himself, hiding his face, his hands, the truth pouring from his pores he tried so hard to hide. A nervous twitter fell to his toes, and he curled them in his soft shoes until it looked like he was dancing.
Derek laughed. “You’re an awfully good liar, aren’t you? It’s okay.”
“It’s not. I shouldn’t be like this. You’re a man, a young boy. And I know I’m more or less twenty, given that I no longer age mentally or physically—”
“I’m not a man.”
He looked up. “Oh. How old are you?”
“I don’t know, but I’m not a boy.”
The look he gave Derek was that of disbelief, like an answer to a math problem he hadn’t been expecting. “Oh. I only assumed…the maids who’d bathed you had said…” He clammed up, thought on it. “Should I…should I call you something different?”
“I don’t think so,” Derek said. “I have a cock, so don’t think I got something else. It’s definitely there. And I like my name, and you can still call me a ‘him’, I’m just not fully a him. It’s like something else is tacked on to me. It’s kinda hard to explain, but that’s me. A problem child through and through.”
You could still see Oliver processing what Derek had said, but once he stopped talking, he immediately said, “I don’t see you as a problem child.”
“You don’t know me well enough to know. Above, I don’t even know anything about me.”
Oliver moved closer to him on his own. “Uhm, while this’s something I’ve never heard about, it’s not—what do you call it—a dealbreaker. I don’t think ill of you for being something I hadn’t expected. It’s just something I’ll learn about, from you. If you’ll let me.”
“Sure,” Derek said with a shrug, yet his heart was pounding. He hadn’t told any of the humans that. They must’ve all regarded him as a boy. He wished they would’ve asked, but they still had trouble getting his name right. They still thought it was Grace.
“Thank you,” Oliver added, “for telling me that. I feel like I know you a little better.”
“And I still don’t know shit about you.”
Derek finally snapped and laughed. “Above, you’re cute.”
Oliver shivered through his own laughter. It was surprisingly high-pitched and churned something in Derek’s stomach. This was like talking to Cellena but different. It was like talking with someone who didn’t care that he was an angel. He hadn’t even brought it up once, and that was a gulp of fresh air he didn’t know he needed. Slowly, throughout the day, he’d been fighting to breathe, and now he got it. All that he needed was to be choked in the good way.
“I just say what’s on my mind,” Derek said.
“I could never. I’m so worried about people hating me, I tend to keel over to make sure everyone keeps the peace.”
Derek understood. He felt like he knew someone like that from his past. “Well, I don’t hate you. In fact, I especially like you right now. You better keep that up by being cute.”
“Do not deny it, Oliver. Are you blind?”
Oliver began covering his face. “I’m…not. I—I’ve let myself go these past few years. I’ve gained weight and my nose is too big.”
“I’m not hearing anything that’ll make me not want to make out with you.”
Oliver moaned and used both arms to shield himself from the obvious truth. “Please, stop. You’re embarrassing me.”
“It’s how I show my love. I just like to tease.” He grinned. “Do you?” he asked.
“Do I what?”
“Want to make out?”
Oliver sucked in his grey lips. “Well.” He gulped. “That, uh…”
“We don’t have to.”
Grasping on a lifeline, Oliver’s ears shot up to hear every word.
“Yeah, we don’t have to.” Derek stretched out his legs, knowing he wouldn’t be getting anything tonight. “You’re probably the type to take me out on a nice date with candles and atmosphere before we get more intimate.”
“Would you not like that?”
It was nice to hear that affirmation, that if their circumstances were different, Oliver would’ve actually taken Derek out on a real date. “I just feel like I’ve never gone on a proper date before, you know?”
“Well, I can always be your first.” Oliver smiled at the naive thought. Then, when he played it back in his mind, he hid his red face in his hands. “I’m—forget I said that. I didn’t mean it that way.”
“Wait, what was that now?” Derek tried to pry away his hands. “I’m gonna be your first, huh? First in what?”
“Nothing? I’m your mate, ain’t I? What other firsts can I take away from you?”
Oliver squealed and tipped over, curling up and kicking his legs.
And Derek had no choice but to completely annihilate him with tickles.