Each royal got their own golden carriage for their trip into Devnya Town. They were driven by these animals called “horses” and were accompanied by a platoon of knights who’d walk beside the wooden wheels. It was all grand if not for the fact that Derek was ready to throw a massive shit fit about it.
His mood was in the Underground from his fight with the king. He was bitter and ready to fight anyone who came near him, even the maids who’d dressed him up extra stupid for today. He now wore more frills than Cellena and tighter boots.
He didn’t know why. And he didn’t know why he was still going along with it. He was planning to sulk in his room all day, but Cellena had stuck her little nose through the door crack, her soft eyes glistening with hope.
“You don’t have to come,” she’d said, “it’s just that my father really wants to show you off to the public, and it’s better to do what he says, else…”
So, there he was, crammed inside a rickety carriage heading off to a “village.” Whatever the fuck that was. A city made more sense, but when he said that, the royals had given him that stupid fucking look again, like they were talking to an idiot.
Maybe he was. He was to the king. All for kissing a boy.
He cursed to himself and looked out the window. Despite wanting to rip out someone’s throat, it was nice to finally be free from the castle walls. His carriage had windows on either side, letting him take in the Drail Kingdom at a humans-eye view.
The sky was snow-white with pockets of blue high towards the Barrier. As they left the confines of the forest, the grounds stretched out into fields. They patchworked the Kingdom for miles. Some stalks poked out from the snow, but a majority of the crop had died due to the snow.
Derek pressed his cheek into the frosty pane. They should’ve been more prepared for bad weather. Either that or they didn’t care, which didn’t make sense to him. Why would they waste food? Didn’t they know the toils of caring for a farm? Even he knew that.
He lifted his head. No, he didn’t. He didn’t know the first thing about farm life.
He stretched his legs to the other side of his carriage. He hadn’t worked a day in his life, but as they passed each plot of land, he found faults with their construction. The soil didn’t look healthy, there were boulders growing around the crop. If he had the chance, he’d dismount his horse and give them a talk about how to grow harvestable wheat.
Then he saw what’d give them the worst crop imaginable: craters. As the carriages crossed the kingdom, Derek noticed sizable craters littering the earth like pores in a sponge. Some were small enough not to delay their journey, but others took up an entire acre of land, morphing the road into S-like patterns.
He sat on his knees to get a better view beyond the craters and empty farmland. The first structure they came across slumped as a single-story house made of stone and hay. Two field workers in tunics and wool hats scooped up leftover crops still submerged in the snow. They waved their hoes and shovels in the air, greeting the royals so they wouldn’t strain their voices.
Derek’s tail feathers flared out. Borrowing dozens of acres from the Earth, cultivating crops to keep a family alive, he knew it. He knew this life. Somehow, this view of simple fields got him feeling all weird inside. Not a bad weird, and not a good one, either. Just weird, and wistful.
His carriage jerked. Someone opened their carriage door. It was behind him in the lineup, meaning it was either Cellena or Jabel, since the king and queen were up ahead, leaving Derek coddled in the middle.
Through the snow, Cellena, dress lifted, jogged alongside Derek’s carriage. Without stopping the carriage, Derek opened the door and helped her inside.
She exhaled a long puff of white smoke. “Please excuse me.”
“Be excused.” He forced his attention away from the passing fields. “What’s up?”
“I wished to talk with you about what occurred between you and Oliver this week.”
“Shit, you’re not gonna drill me about that, too, are you? I thought you were cool.”
“I am not.” She folded her ankles politely for the conversation. “I’m upset by how distraught you were this morning. It wasn’t right that my father hit you, and for that, I wanted to apologize.” She bowed. “You shouldn’t have been hit…for something you do not understand. That I,” she added, “do not understand. I don’t agree that my father and forefathers think it’s a sin to…be with…”
Another carriage door opened far off, and in seconds, Jabel was jogging alongside Derek’s carriage.
“Oh, God,” Derek cursed, but let him in. He packed himself into a corner as Jabel lifted himself in and sat beside his sister.
“It’s freezing out,” he said with a shiver. “Why on earth Father agreed to come out now is beyond me.”
“Welcome to the Sinner Carriage,” Derek said. “All are welcome here.”
Jabel gave him a nasty look. “What’re we talking about?”
“What needs to be discussed,” Cellena said, “that I don’t agree with what father did, nor with his…political views.”
“What’s going on with you two?” Derek asked. “You seem really jumpy.”
The two siblings looked at one another. Cellena raised her eyebrows at Jabel and cocked her head at Derek. He shook his head definitively.
“What?” Derek asked.
“Jabel…has something he wishes to tell you.”
“Cellena, how dare you!” Jabel sat up. “This isn’t what I wanted to discuss.”
“Then why are we both here?” she snapped. “If we’re to change anything, let it be now, with him.”
“Okay, still confused,” Derek said.
Jabel turned to Derek, and he, defeated, slumped down beside his sister. She took his hand in nothing but support and understanding for whatever he was going through.
“I…don’t think it’s right to talk about these matters in public,” he confessed.
“Well, we’re not in public, we’re in a slightly too small carriage heading off to somewhere extremely public.” Derek leaned in. “What’s wrong?”
“I just…I have differing opinions when it comes to the demons,” he said. “My father’s forefathers have killed every last demon able to die. They’ve won a battle they’d been waging for years, yet my father hasn’t been able to sleep knowing the last few are ‘keeping up the Barriers’.” He said that with air quotes. “I’m…I’m sick of it,” he said, now in a whisper. “I’m sick of pretending to hate demonkind. I don’t hate them. Neither of us do. Nero and Runa, some of the maids and cooks, they don’t hate them. They pity them, we see them as citizens, I…”
Jabel fiddled with the rings on his fingers.
“It’s alright,” Cellena said encouragingly.
He gulped and continued. “Remember what my father told you, about my attack on the shoreline? A demon had saved me and brought me back home.”
Derek remembered what he’d seen after being slapped. “Maxwell, yeah?”
“Y-yes. The week after that occurred, I’d found the same demon tied up near the stables. He’s a demonic breed that needs to be in water, otherwise his skin will dry out. Knights had found him and tied him up as a joke to kill him. I’d found him and replenished him in my bathtub. He stayed with me that night.
“When…I was helping him,” he said, now forcing the words to come out. “He told me his side of the story. How none of the demons are responsible for these mental attacks on humankind, nor how they’re the ones keeping up the Barrier. I got to know so many things my father forbade us from learning about that night..”
He sucked in his dry lips. “Y-you’re not here on earth because of me, are you?” he suddenly asked. “For everything I’ve been doing with him, this isn’t because of me, is it?”
“What, no,” Derek said. “I don’t even know why I’m here in the first place. Why would I care if you hung out with a demon? Why does that matter?”
Jabel looked away, ears red. Cellena hugged his arm for moral support.
Derek looked between the two siblings, and then it clicked. “Oh.”
Jabel shut his eyes tight.
“Oh, shit.” Derek blushed for his sake. “So you and him—”
“Enough,” Jabel said. “Y-you can’t let this leave the carriage, okay? I can’t have any more rumors spreading about me. If my father were to ever find out, he’d hang me.”
“So are you mated with him? Did he bag you?”
Jabel sucked in his lips again, then said, “Yes.”
“Because I’m mated with Oliver—”
“Yes, I know. He’s told me.”
“Good job,” Cellena whispered to him, and Jabel suppressed a smile.
Derek sat back in his seat. “Above, Jabel.”
“I never knew.”
“You weren’t supposed to. I was going to take this secret to my grave, but I couldn’t keep it from Cellena. She’s helped me…more than words can express.”
She hugged him fully, and Jabel finally opened up and hugged her back.
“You people put so much emphasis into who you like and how you choose to express yourself,” Derek told them. “You shouldn’t feel shameful about that type of stuff.”
“Acceptance doesn’t come to us as naturally as it does for you,” Jabel said. “There’re rules and expectations that we can’t write away. This’s how it is here and we need you to change it.”
The carriage jerked. They passed a fence, then another house.
“We’re close,” Jabel warned. He reached for the carriage handle.
“Derek,” Cellena said, hurried, “Father thinks that the key to saving our humanity is to eliminate the demons, but I’ve heard Jabel’s side.”
“I’ve been with him,” Jabel confessed, “at his place. Maxwell. I’ve talked with all of them and they’re really good people.”
“The demons aren’t the ones at fault for the world being broken,” Cellena said.
“Then who is?” Derek asked. “If it’s not you, it’s not the demons, and it’s not me, I don’t think, then it has to be God’s fault, right?”
The idea of their own God hurting them showed on their faces. Taken aback, the two of them clutched their inverted crosses.
The carriage jerked again, and the sound of a bustling town surrounded them on all fronts.
He pictured Devnya Town to be smaller. Going off what they’d passed to get here, he’d imagined fifteen or sixteen wooden houses with a stream passing through it. After being trapped in the castle for so long, he thought the human population only amounted to the knights and maids who waited on him.
As they crossed through a stone arch marking the entrance, Devnya Town opened up to over six hundred houses, most of which stood two stories tall. There were water wheels and marketplaces and churches—so many churches, as if religion didn’t dominate their lives enough. Every corner had a pointed building with the cross towering over the streets.
The streets themselves had been decorated for their arrival. Pennant flags and confetti, the works. And the humans, they were packed in the streets in the billions and trillions, it felt like. They flooded the streets and hung out of windows yelling, chanting, screaming like animals. Derek had never seen so many people. He’d never heard a crowd so loud.
They were let out of their carriages one at a time. Jabel and Cellena had tried to slip out back into their carriages, but their father was already waiting for them near his knights. He gave them each a disappointed look as they slipped out of Derek’s carriage.
Derek’s chest was clenching as tightly as his fists. His body was pleading with him to stay in the carriage where it was safe, but now it felt too stifling in here. They were all around him now, with knights pushing the closer humans back so they didn’t create a stampede. He had nowhere to go but up, but he didn’t trust his wings. They were shaking with his legs, unable to support him.
Nero appeared in the carriage door and cautiously held out his hand.
“I can’t go out there,” Derek whispered.
“I’m sorry,” Nero said, frowning, “but you don’t have a choice.”
They all climbed onto horseback and continued their journey into town. Derek had no trouble getting onto his—it was second nature, somehow—but this crowd, the noise, the eyes. There had to be a thousand humans ogling him like a true God. He hid in his wings, but that only made the humans cheer louder.
Cellena and Jabel drew their horses shoulder to shoulder and waved, keeping a considerable distance from the crowds as knights corralled the herds. The people kept shouting Derek’s name and asking him for guidance. Some asked him to kiss their heads or bless their grandchildren. He kept his eyes on the cobblestone. He just needed to stay close to Jabel and Cellena. How could he talk with these people, and how was he supposed to make their relationship with the demons better? He hardly knew anything about them. Some now needed to live in water? Did Oliver need to? Is that why he never saw him often? He didn’t smell like the ocean’s salt. He smelled like strong cologne and deep forest pine. He wished he was here with him. Then he’d be able to calm down.
“My people!” the king shouted. “Here lies the young man who will offer you salvation and prosperity for the rest of your lives!”
Hands not clasped in prayer reached up for Derek. Some people cried, but most just belted out their undying love for Derek Harrow, Derek Harrow. Derek Harrow was currently trying to control his breathing so he didn’t have another panic attack. Why were there so many humans in one place, waiting for him? What had he done worthy of this?
Following human traditions, Derek grasped his pendant for help. He needed someone to save him. He needed to be heard.
The tips of it dug into his gloves. It wasn’t helping. Its powers were ignoring him. Did the pendant not love everyone who wore it? Was he not an angel, or at least made in their God’s image? That’s what Cellena had told him, that they were modelled after their creator.
A house with a sunken-in roof marked the next turn in the street. In its doorless doorway waited a family of three going on four. A woman at least eight months pregnant had her hands balled up in frustration. The man beside her, the exact opposite in character, had his weak arms over a teenager’s shoulders.
When the mother saw Derek, she stormed into the crowd, disappearing as the man, likely her husband, called out her name. “Keva!”
Keva. That was a nice name. A little average, but it rolled off the tongue. It stuck with him, that name, or some version of it. Kev—
Normally, his eyes were good, better than most humans, but that name kept ringing one of his bells—Keva, Keva—and threw him off. He was too focused on wondering if he knew a Keva when something struck him in the face: a boot, women’s size, thrown with vitriol.
His horse bucked and threw him off. His wings flapped and hit a knight, keeping him from flying, and he fell into a canal built around the street corner.
The crowd echoed into the crevasse like a swirling drain, drowning him. When knights and parts of the crowd looked down at him, he didn’t see faces or people at all, but threats. Dark, blurry outlines meant to be people, dozens of judging eyes.
He held his head. His vision was dripping out of his own eyesight, spinning out like two tops. His brain was yelling at him to get out, but he was having trouble standing, let alone saving himself from his claustrophobia.
He climbed out, rock by rock, his decorated sari catching on the wet stone. Strands of hair were coming loose from his headscarf.
He gasped, nearly falling back into the canal. He wasn’t in Devnya Town anymore. He didn’t know where he was. The snow had melted into sand and dead grass. Goats and pigs replaced the horses and cows. The crowd around him had shifted. Instead of furs and coats, they wore colorful robes and had tanner skin made for the Sun, some human, some not. The houses, the roads, the sky, it was all different, foreign.
Someone grabbed him by the sleeve and heaved Derek out. But Derek was no longer Derek. He had a female body, a human’s, with large curves and black hair held back by a veil. He was barefoot and adorned with jewels, and his hands were bound.
The crowd now chanted a new name: “Hadiya, Hadiya.”
Hadiya was thrown into the main square by the temple priests.
“Move, now! On your feet!”
She’d done her best to escape today’s ceremony, but her day to die had come. She hadn’t broken her shackles in time. Her mind had been warped by the priests, who’d told her she was meant to sacrifice herself for the community. The most beautiful virgin, the one every man had been tempted by. Even if she had broken her shackles that night, she couldn’t have tested her luck. A lone woman, backpacking through the scorching deserts to the north, alone? It was a deadlier death sentence than human sacrifice.
The priests dragged her away from her suicide attempt back towards the temple. In front of the building was a stone table decorated by slain animal sacrifices. They were saving her for last, their most important to their God.
He tripped on a dirtied snowbank. One quick blink and he was back in the Drail Kingdom. His breath came back in white puffs. The humans were back, looking at him.
He covered his mouth to keep from puking. That scene, with the woman. He felt her heart beat as quickly as his, he knew what it felt like to be her, trapped and forced to be someone he wasn’t.
More hands touched him, Nero’s, he thought. He flapped his wings to get them back. Hadiya didn’t have wings. She’d been a human.
In the present, the pregnant woman, Keva, held her other boot above her head as the knights fought with her. She tried to strike Derek again before they tackled her and cuffed her behind her back. Her round stomach moved with her baby.
“Monster!” she shrieked. “Your Majesty, he’s no angel! He’s been lying to you! He’s a fake!”
“You’re a disgrace!” one person from the crowd yelled.
Several other townspeople agreed and shouted for some type of justice to be done, their demands lost to falling snow.
Derek tried concentrating on the ground again. It’d been sandy and humid in his dream, or mind break. Whatever it’d been, it never used to snow there. He—She—had always wanted to move north where it was cooler, and build a farm with…
“Settle down!” the king begged. He motioned his knights off Keva. “M’lady, what happened here? Why’re you so upset?”
“You need to kill that boy, Your Majesty,” the woman said. “He’s no angel. I know he isn’t. I’ve heard the rumors, Your Majesty, I have. Just look at him! He’s nothing like the pictures or statues we have. He’s too young, too rambunctious. He must be a fraud. Do not be deceived!”
The king’s mouth dropped open. “How dare you speak to your king in such a disgraceful way?” He raised his hands. Knights darted out from the crowd to apprehend her.
“No, it’s true!” the woman said. “Please, believe me! I know the scripture! He isn’t who he says he is!”
Derek raised his head to a sea of angry humans. Was he not Derek Harrow, angel to humankind, meant to save them? He was just a person who’d entered this world blind, a dumb, stupid, sinful person who…
Hadiya dug her heels into the Earth as she was brought to her death. The executioner was ready with sickle in hand, black mask stained red with splattered blood.
“No!” she pleaded. “Don’t do this!”
“Don’t do this,” Derek whispered. The two worlds were switching too quickly now. Each blink and he was back in that desert, then back in Drail.
Nero, who was trying to bring him back to his horse, looked down at him. “What was that?”
“I can’t do this!” Hadiya screamed. “I don’t want to die! I can’t go through with this!”
“You were chosen out of one hundred women,” said the priest. “You were destined to fulfill your duties to our Gods. Have you no dignity for those who created you?”
What dignity could she give them, if they wished for the very blood they’d given her in the womb?
Someone screamed and brought Derek back. The crowds had broken into the streets, shouting and crying for something to happen. Near where he’d fallen cried the family of Keva. The teenager was reaching for something in front of him as his father held him back. They were crying for their matriarch.
Derek was on the ground now, knees given out from switching between this reality and whatever he was seeing through his eyes.
Nero, Jabel, and Cellena were knelt by his side.
“Derek, what’s happening?” Cellena asked.
“You were walking in circles like you were cursed,” Jabel said.
“Are you feeling an internal pain?” Nero asked.
He was, but it wasn’t the kind of pain they felt.
Keva tried breaking free from the knights’ grasps. They were kneeing her to the ground, doing irreversible damage to her baby. One blinded her with a black hood and dragged her away.
Derek held his throat. “Wait—”
Hadiya’s face was pressed against the slab. She struggled, but it wasn’t enough. She’d lost so much strength after being held captive for the past two days, being fed pretty lies that this was all for the greater good. All her life, she’d been told that being a sacrifice to the Gods was an honor, that she was the prettiest, most beautiful woman in the village to be given up for the Gods.
If that be the case, then fuck the Gods and all they stood for. How weak to be in need of mortal flesh that wasn’t even blessed by virginhood in the first place. Unbeknownst to the temple she’d pledged her life to, she’d been with Omar since the beginning. He’d been hers, married underneath the stars, just him, her, and their promise for a better future together.
Another body bumped into Derek’s. He was staring up at a wooden stage built in the center of town. It was wooden and tall for all to see. In the center was a stool, and above it, a hook.
The knights shoved Keva onto the stool.
“Derek, don’t look!” Cellena yelled. “Look away!”
The king readjusted his pendant and spoke: “Keva Antel, today you are to be hanged for a radical attack on the royal family, as well as trying to strike down our beloved angel sent to us from our God.”
Derek looked around. What was happening? Where was he now?
“I did not!” Keva shouted through the mask. “He’s not who he says he is! He’s a fake! He’s a demon!”
The king hesitated, looked down at Derek in the crowd. He questioned that through Derek’s eyes, as if daring him to agree. Derek didn’t know if he could. He wasn’t a demon, but he was a liar.
“The Young Angel rejects clemency on your soul,” the king finally said.
“No, I don’t,” he said, but his voice didn’t reach him.
“Farewell, Keva Antel,” he said, “and may our God have mercy on you.”
Derek pushed through the families awaiting a murder. Feeling time running out with his voice drowning out from the crowd, he ran for the stage, calling for the king to stop. He even flapped his wings like a bird to distract the crowds from their horrid chanting. Anything to stop it. Anything to keep his name from being stained with blood.
The stone burned her skin as she looked up to the executioner. The temple priests were circling her. They were chanting that her soul be delivered to the highest heavens as the sickle was raised.
As if any of this was more than prideful men and their selfish greed over bodies.
The king kicked the stool off the stage.
Keva’s belly bounced. Her body seized as if she’d been struck by lightning, paralyzing her and her final breaths. Her body swung, lifeless.
Derek stood no more than ten feet from her with his hand still out. The snow fell and melted over his eyes, but he couldn’t move to wipe it away. He’d been seconds, moments, from saving her.
His body went ice cold. As soon as his hands hit the wooden floor, he upheaved whatever was left in his stomach.
The king turned back to Derek as if he hadn’t just ended two lives just because a boot was thrown.
Swallowing back a vile taste in his mouth. Maybe he could’ve—
Maybe she could’ve seen Heaven before being tossed out for being a sinner. It would’ve been nice to be valued by something other than her body. Her mind, her feelings, things that made a person real.
Omar valued her like that. Omar was her everything, her missing piece that made her story complete. She wanted to see him, one last time, before the end took her.
A shadow passed above her.
Derek looked up. The brightness of the sky made his eyes tear up, but his cheeks were already wet.
The king fell off the stage as a man materialized before Derek. He wore a fur hood that hid his face, but once he landed, it fell, revealing his black, curly hair, his horns.
Oliver buried Derek in a hug, pushing up his flight feathers as he lifted him off of his feet. “I have you,” he said into his ear. “I’m sorry I’m so late.”
Derek wiped his snotty face against his cheek in a head shake. He wasn’t late for anything. Life was just too cruel to wait for his love.
The king stumbled back at their embrace. “Your Grace, what’re you doing?”
Oliver ignored him. “Do you need me to take you away?”
The crowd screamed from either Oliver’s arrival, Derek being hugged, or Keva’s death. He no longer cared. Nothing about this world made sense.
Neither his nor Hadiya’s, whoever she was, would ever make sense.
“Save me,” he begged, and Oliver teleported them away.