Waking up sucked. First off, he didn’t want to, and when his brain forced him to open his eyes, he was pissed, then depressed, then angry at himself for being pissed and depressed.
He awoke in Oliver’s room, still smelling like him, still unsure if he was supposed to be here. He’d kick the poor guy out of his own room for him to cry alone about stuff he didn’t understand. Keta and her death, that vision of Hadiya, whoever she was. Meeting all the demons, and Oliver, touching his lips with his large thumb…
He pulled himself up and strained his neck and wings. He didn’t know how much he’d slept, but he couldn’t imagine getting twelve hours of sleep and waking up any more awake than he was now.
Someone yawned, and Derek nearly shitted himself. A friend had made her way into Oliver’s room. Crouched near the fireplace was Holly. She’d found a stick from outside and was poking the warm ashes.
“Uh, hey,” Derek said.
Holly got up and rummaged through her many pockets. From one, she pulled out a pink flower and placed it on top of Derek’s buried foot. Then she bowed and ran out of the room without a word, obviously. He should’ve expected it at this point, but he was still curious about the way her brain worked. Childlike, but in an adult body, with something spoken always behind her wide eyes, without the proper way to speak it out.
He couldn’t even tell if Holly liked him or feared him, but today wasn’t the day to dissect that. After stealing one of Oliver’s oversized sweaters and placing the flower behind his ear, Derek went downstairs and faced the shitty day.
The smell of a hearty, warm breakfast spread throughout the house. Syrup, maple bacon and buttered toast. Sausages from meat he didn’t know, with the smell of pepper that tickled his nose hairs. From the windows he passed, he saw morning birds chirping from snow-covered pine. It must’ve snowed last night. He wondered if the demons woke up early because of that.
He’d walked straight into breakfast. All the demons were eating around a large dinner table stacked with food. Pancakes and tea and cut fruit and hashbrowns. Someone had cut up rosemary and spread it over a slab of juicy meat. It still had eyeballs. Derek couldn’t look away.
Yomi was busy cleaning the kitchen while Shimah helped serve Kumo in her wheelchair. Rose was floating near the stove, watching and waiting for something to stop cooking. Holly, she now had a baby in her arms. Not a toy, but that real, breathing baby he’d seen yesterday. Noemi? She was babbling through a mouthful of smashed peas as she tried to get Maxwell’s attention from the table. He was reading a worn book around his plate of eggs. Seemed like he didn’t always need to be in water to be alive. Must’ve been a snake thing. Or a demon thing. Snake demon.
“Oh, good morning, Derek!” Rose handed him an empty plate. “If you’re hungry, help yourself to whatever’s still left. I made sure Shimah saved you some food, and Oliver and Brennen said to eat without them.”
“It was really hard,” Shimah said. “Could barely stop my devious hand from stealin’ all the fish.” He snickered and helped Kumo take a biteful of hashbrowns.
“And I’m making more eggs, if you’d like any,” Yomi said.
Derek surveyed the platters before him. He kept going back to the eyeball/creature dish. “What’s this?”
“Oh, it’s fish! We didn’t know if you’d like it because the royals don’t like eating it, but if you are a bird, it kinda made sense to have some.”
Derek was already placing a few pieces of “fish” on his plate. It smelled like the ocean, but that didn’t deter him from trying it. In fact, it smelled good, almost mouth-watering.
“Go on, take it all,” Rose said. “I know you had a stressful day, and I don’t think you ate dinner? Speaking of,” she said, floating over to Maxwell. “I see you haven’t touched your food yet. What’s up?” She played with his nubby horns.
He shooed her away like a bug. “The humans have been in a swell of emotions since yesterday. He’s been all in a rut. He hardly got any sleep last night.” He flinched; the baby had thrown her baby spoon at him. “Yomi, can you please take her?”
“I don’t think Holly will let me.” Yomi tried for her own child, but Holly protected her with both arms like a gift. “Noemi is quite a handful, Derek. I’m sorry for any trouble she may cause. For being a baby for 500 years, she’ll never know any better than this.”
Derek gave a wave to the child. Holly returned it.
“It’s a good thing this snowstorm hit,” Shimah said. “Any minute now, I suspect the humans to be bargin’ in and demandin’ if we’ve seen Derek. When they find out we’re housin’ ‘im—”
“Hush, now,” Yomi said. “There’s no use fretting over that now. The humans don’t come out during snowstorms, and if they haven’t come for him last night, they won’t be coming today. It’s a Sunday, after all. They wouldn’t visit demons on their holy day.”
“They would for their angel,” Maxwell said under his breath.
Ignoring them, Derek took his first bite of the warm, charred fish.
Then the second. Then third.
And then it was gone.
The fish, that had to be a God’s blessing, tailor-made for him and him alone. The meat was so juicy and mouth-wateringly good. Better than sexy stuff and sleeping, hands down. It melted between his teeth and packed into the corners of his mouth so perfectly. He ate it, bone and all, and went for seconds without question.
“He has an appetite!” Rosaline announced with clapping. “Hurrah!”
“It’s so good,” he moaned.
“It’s free meat that’s easier to work with than huntin’ deer or wildcat,” Shimah said.
“Speaking of, Oliver and Brennen should be back soon,” Yomi said, and looked out the window for someone.
As Derek dined on his most favorite thing in the world, he watched Maxwell out of the corner of his eye. Every now and again, he’d flinch or his eye or nose would twitch. At one point, he jerked forward only to shake it off and flip the page. After that, he sighed and tossed his head over to Derek. “Can I help you?”
Derek slurped up the fin of his fish and crunched on the bones.
“You’re not supposed to eat the bones,” Maxwell reminded him.
He swallowed said bones. It totally made the most sense that this kid was mated with Jabel. “How does it work again? The mating business? Can you, like, see into his eyes?”
“Can you feel his emotions?”
“No.” He flipped the next page. “Well, it’s…different,” he added.
He set down his book. Rosaline looked up, ready to intervene.
“It’s different because he’s not a demon,” he explained. “I don’t see through his eyes, rather, I can sense when he’s nervous, happy, upset, or afraid. My own heart picks up when his does, and when he’s threatened, it feels like I’m backed up into a corner. If he were a demon, these feelings would be mutual. It’s why Oliver seems to always know where you are when you’re about to fall out of the sky. Or it’s because he’s always following you.”
“You’re one to talk, Maxy,” Rosaline said. “How many times a week do you lurk in those rose bushes for Jabel?”
“That’s because we have a system where we meet in secret every Sunday when his father normally goes to bed early and Nero watches over him. We also send letters, not that it’s any of your business what we do.”
“Hey, it’s not like you keep it secret. You tell us every time you leave. And why tell him? I thought you were worried about him knowing about your and Jabel’s relationship, yet you’re being rather forward today.”
“This’s the most I’ve ever heard you talk about it,” Yomi said.
“You’re always so secretive,” Shimah teased.
“I have to be,” Maxwell said. “He asked me to, and it’s not like our relationship wouldn’t get us hanged. And he wrote to me last night. I know Derek already knows.”
“I won’t spill,” Derek told him. “Like I’m one to talk.”
The demons turned to him. Yomi stopped pouring herself a cup of tea. Kumo sipped her bowl of soup.
“How do you feel about him?” Shimah dared to ask.
“He said you kissed him,” Rosaline went on further. “Do you love him?”
He weighed the option in his mind. It wasn’t like he hated him or even disliked him, but loved him? Did he love Oliver? He didn’t know. Even without memories, he knew he’d never truly been in love before.
Everyone suddenly turned to the windows. Most of them had some type of pointed ears—Holly had an extra set—that probably made their hearing better than his. Fish in mouth, he sat up and looked through the pine for whatever they saw.
Oliver and Brennen were walking out of the woods. Oliver was backpacking an entire deer over his shoulders. He was breathing heavily, cold puffs masking his covered face as he hauled his kill. Brennen helped carry its hind legs and their hunting equipment over to a shed near the back of the manor
“That’s a good deer,” Shimah commented on. “Should last us at least a week, maybe two.”
“And it’s a buck, too,” Rosaline said. “Yomi and I can fashion those horns into a new cooking spoon. And you needed more fishing hooks, right, Maxwell?”
He nodded, eyeing the dead animal. “And we can use the hide for another jacket for Kumo.”
“Hey, it wasn’t my fault we blew a hole through the first one,” Shimah explained, hanging down from the rafters. He flicked his finger to produce a tiny yellow flame. “We just burn too easily.”
Derek took his plate of partially licked-clean fish and continued watching them closer to the window. Oliver heaved the dead deer into the shed and patted himself off of dead animal scent. He and Brennen had a talk as they washed up at a well, and Oliver laughed at something Brennen said.
“They’re tired,” Yomi said. “They didn’t even travel with dark matter.”
“What’s that mean?” Derek asked.
“Whenever we’re too tired or injured, we can’t use our powers properly. Sometimes we can’t even levitate.”
“A real tragedy,” Rosaline said, now as close to the ceiling as Shimah was.
“Yeah, and my fire don’t work good when I’m beat,” Shimah said. “And Maxwell can’t sneak into Jabel’s bedroom for a good time—”
Maxwell threw a fork at him. Baby Noemi clapped at how happy that made her.
“And our elixirs are less efficient,” Yomi finished. “They must’ve hunted that buck for hours.”
As Oliver chuckled himself into looking nervous, his pointed ears pricked up, and he looked over to the window, to Derek.
Derek crouched down and shielded himself with his wings.
Rosaline laughed. “He caught you. Can’t hide from your mate, Derek. They got echolocation on you.”
“How do you deal with it? Have you ever mated?”
“My mate was killed centuries ago. You still feel them even when they’re dead.” She smiled fondly. “That’s what makes us soulmates. Even after death, we’re always connected.”
Something touched the top of his head. Holly, resting her chin on him. She watched Oliver work for Derek’s sake, cradling the baby against her chest.
After cleaning up out back, Oliver came in with a light dusting of snow over his hair and eyelashes. He took off his coat and boots near the door and properly shook out.
“Good haul,” Shimah said, and a chorus of praise hit Oliver in a way he wasn’t prepared for.
He turned red as he bowed to his own family. “Thank you. Brennen spent the majority of the hunt tracking it.”
“But Oliver took the shot,” Brennen said, and immediately went to his mate’s side for kisses and love. “You know I’m not good with this eye.”
“You’re still the best hunter I know,” Yomi said, and kissed his scars.
Derek, instead of ogling two lovers, looked up to Oliver.
Oliver glanced at him twice, like he was pretending not to see him until he was caught in the act. “G-good morning,” he said. “Did you sleep well?”
“Yeah,” Derek lied, and he didn’t know why, but something about seeing Oliver’s big snow boots, the pink in his cheeks from being outside for so long, and the idea that he could hunt and kill and gut a deer, it got him going. Something primal, like knowing Oliver could provide in ways he couldn’t do. He felt a little proud, knowing he worked so hard for his family, and that he had the chance to get to know him.
He set his plate aside. “Can I, uh, talk to you for a minute? Nothing bad,” he added when he saw the fear in Oliver’s eyes. “Just wanted to talk.”
“Of course.” He spruced up his hair that was beyond help. It was so curly, it was like a bird’s nest Derek couldn’t wait to wring his hands through.
They walked off towards a new side of the house Derek had yet to see. It was a tiny reading nook of sorts, like a miniature library with windows overlooking the forest. It had two rocking chairs with blankets thrown across the backs of them, and around them were books, paintings, and unused candlesticks ready to be lit. Oliver lit two and set them on the small table up against the window.
Derek admired the paintings. They were portraits of demons he’d yet to see. He spotted two with white hair like him, two women in love.
“Who’re they?” Derek asked.
“Demons who’ve passed. Many of their portraits could only be done by demonkind, as humans didn’t want to draw us. This is some of the only proof we have of their existence. These two, their names were Relic and Ramira. They were two mates who were murdered about five years ago. Then these two, they were Monty and Jake. They were twins.”
Hearing that made Derek’s stomach clench, but he figured it was just from him digesting dinner. “Was there ever a demon named Shào that you knew of? He has black hair, stubby horns, a long, red tail with yellow fur at the end.”
He thought really hard, eyes almost crossing. “No, I don’t believe so.”
Derek clicked his tongue. “Right. What about Maïmoú?”
He looked up, ears sticking out to better hear. “Excuse me?”
“Maïmoú?” he repeated, curious about that reaction. “Is she a demon? Do you know her?”
He blinked several times, processing that name like it weighed heavily on his heart. He scratched at his chest. “No, I don’t think so. It just…it sounds familiar.” He looked away at the floorboards. His thick eyebrows knitted together in deep thought. “It sounds so familiar.”
“It’s only because I’ve had two weird encounters with people named Shào and Maïmoú. They both sort of talk to me through dreams or my head or something. I thought it had something to do with demons.”
“None of us have that kind of telepathic powers. Perhaps they were angels guiding you.”
“Yeah, I don’t think either of them are angels.”
Oliver pressed his fingers in-between his tight knees. “You feel better,” he said. “I mean your, uh, heart feels better. You seem calmer. I’m sorry, I’d turn this off if I could.”
“It’s okay. It’s nice that you’re looking out for me. I’m still processing yesterday. I kind of don’t want to talk about it.”
“That’s understandable.” He played with a string around his neck. On the end of it was the inverted cross.
Derek played with his own. He wanted to ask him why he wore it if he was the creature the inverted cross damned, but that wasn’t his business. Maybe it gave him comfort to know there was a God that supposedly loved all life, even his.
To save them from awkwardness, Holly popped up out of nowhere. She hid around Oliver’s chair and pressed her chin into the armrest. Oliver gave her his hand, to which she teethed on like a toddler or a true animal.
“That a normal thing with her?” Derek asked.
“Yes. She’s overly attached to me. I can’t remember when I was born, but when my memories start, she was by my side. Then I found Rosaline, who’s my breed, then Shimah caring for Kumo. Yomi came in after, and then she found Brennen during one of our mating ceremonies, and then Maxwell came down from the mountains. His breed tends to be solitary, but when our numbers became so low, we had no choice but to group up. That’s when we found out we were special.”
“All of you were, not just every demon?”
He nodded. “We were immortal. We couldn’t die by conventional means. Brennen got stabbed straight through the skull and didn’t die. Kumo had her legs broken and she didn’t bleed out.” He petted Holly’s hair. She nuzzled into him like a true cat. “Now, we’re all that’s left.”
“Sorry,” Derek said, though no apology could help at this point.
Oliver still acknowledged it. “Thank you.”
“What’s her breed?” Derek then asked. “Is she some sort of cat demon?”
“Oh, no. Holly isn’t a demon.”
“All demons have that dark matter I spoke about.” He created a plume of that dark stuff he used to travel. “Some of us have wings and can breathe fire. Some can breathe underwater or disappear and reappear at will, but all of us have this power. Holly can’t do this, and she can’t teleport. She’s simply just a cat girl.”
“So she’s like me,” Derek said. “Hey, Oliver, can I be honest with you? I don’t think I’m an angel. Like, I don’t get it at all. I don’t know nothing about humans or the afterlife, and I know I don’t have my memories, but I’m probably a bird, aren’t I? Like, why is that a weird thing to bring up to the humans?”
“Do you feel more like a bird or an angelic person?”
“I don’t know. I don’t get labels like that. I just want to be me.”
“Well, you’re allowed to be whatever you wish to be here. We aren’t holding you to any high expectations to be someone you aren’t.”
Derek’s tail flicked with a smile he couldn’t control. “Thanks. You know, while you’re all nervous and stuttery around me, you always make me feel better. Must be that mated energy flowing into me.”
“I-I know that’s not how it works.”
Derek leaned forwards in his rocking chair, meeting Oliver’s eyes. “I guess that just means I’m falling for you.”
Oliver wilted and covered his large nose with his hand. “Ah, please. You’re embarrassing me.”
“What? I’m only telling you—”
Holly stood up suddenly and knocked into Oliver’s rocking chair. She looked deep into the pine in search of something. Her eyes turned to slits as she locked on to movement near the tree line.
A dollop of snow fell. Two squirrels chased each other around the bend before hiding back into the brush.
“It’s alright,” Oliver said, and petted her head. “She’s just like a cat in which she thinks she sees something in the air and gets all flustered by it. We haven’t been able to teach her that nothing’s going to hurt her.”
Derek double-took the area Holly was looking at, then, realizing what he was waiting for, got up and stretched. “Fuck me!” he moaned. “God, I hate this. I hate royal duties and I hate labels and I fucking hate all this divine bullshit I’m worried about. I’m just one person, and I can’t—Do you wanna go flying?”
Oliver looked up. “Pardon me?”
“Yeah, just…fly. Get away from all this bullshit. I don’t wanna be tied down anymore. I just wanna be free, with you,” he added. “If you’d like.”
Oliver licked his lips, then looked outside. “I didn’t see any humans walking through the forest.”
Derek smirked and took his hands. “Let’s go.”
“I don’t remember inviting you,” Derek said as they walked through the heavy snow.
Holly just stared off into the forest, clinging hard to Oliver’s arm.
“I did warn you about her clinginess,” Oliver said.
“Is she coming with us?”
“I’m not sure. Holly, dear, we’re going to go flying. Flying, you know?” He levitated a bit. She just clung harder.
“Can you fly with her?”
“Yes, and she likes being high, so I’m sure she just wants to come with us.” He motioned for her to climb onto his back. With how tall she was, Derek thought Oliver would have a harder time lifting her, but he took her up like nothing.
Derek laughed at the image, then cracked his knuckles and flapped his wings.
“Do you need a running start?” Oliver asked.
“Is that a challenge?” He kicked his feet in the dirt like a horse. “Stand back.”
Taking off in the snow proved much more challenging than he initially thought. He had to find the densest packed snow on the most leveled ground of the backyard. His eyes focused on a clear path through two trees. His wings flapped on instinct, his tail flared out, and he started running.
His feet disconnected him from his anxieties. He heard Oliver laugh as he tried keeping up with him. He must’ve not been used to Derek’s speed, or how much the wind wanted to take them into the sky.
The morning sky dripped in light pastels. Clouds turned with the world’s curve, the valleys and forests locking together like Earthen puzzle pieces. A flock of geese flew with them towards the north. The sea, enveloping this world like a mother’s embracing hand.
Oliver flew beside Derek, watching him with the cutest smile.
“Something on your mind?” Derek called out through the wind.
“You look beautiful up here. I can see why you like flying. Your heart is singing.”
“I don’t know if hearts sing.” Derek outstretched his arms and wings and sailed past the mountains.
They flew in tandem into the mountain canyons, giant hills of earth and snow gliding by like glaciers. They stirred up furry goats that were hopping up the hills and a family of black bears hunting for their own meal. He even saw wolves, a pack of them, a mile uphill.
“There’s so much wildlife out here,” Derek said.
“Most humans don’t live this far off. They’re afraid of my family being here, and the Barrier.”
Oliver pointed ahead of them. Between the mountains, Derek saw bits of blurry snow nestled between trees and stone. At first, he thought some snow got in his eye, but after rubbing it out, he saw it: the start of the Barrier.
It was like magic. This invisible barrier cocooned the entire world, but he often forgot it was there until someone pointed it out. Where it touched the land, it was entirely opaque. Milky white in color, with some type of goo swirling through it, almost like where the ocean met the shoreline.
“That’s what you can’t cross, right?” Derek asked.
“That’s right. It keeps us from ever leaving. No matter how many times we or the humans try to break it, it’s like it’s made of something indestructible.”
Derek banked his wings and flew closer to the blurry barrier.
“Be careful,” Oliver warned.
“I will,” he said, yet flew with its curve, flying up and down the hills to follow its magical properties like a map. If he could just touch it.
He felt someone fly next to him, but Derek didn’t want Oliver to pull him back. Something about the barrier was calling him, like he just had to touch it, or else something bad would happen.
Slowly, he reached his hand out and poked through it.
He couldn’t tell exactly where his finger made contact with the Barrier. Perhaps he didn’t even touch it at all, and it was more a concept of being there than something physical. But from this cold place he lived in, when his finger pressed in and through the barrier, his finger hit something colder, lighter, a new world entirely.
He jerked back, but something gripped his neck in a chokehold, and he pressed into a little boy’s body aiming to kill him.
Shào brought Derek back into Drail and down the mountain.
“Where is she!?” Shào shouted. “I know you know where she is!”
Derek screamed. He saw the mountains, sky, tumbling in circles until they blended as one. He saw Oliver, watching in horror as Derek fell from the sky.
“Derek, what’s wrong?” he shouted.
Shào snarled and kicked Oliver back. “Away with you!”
Oliver grunted as both he and Holly cratered hard into the snow.
Shào crashed Derek several feet away. His tail slashed across the snow as he climbed atop Derek and pinned him down. “Where is she, fledgling? You must bring her to me right now, or else I am going to strike down—”
“Who?” Derek demanded. His vision was spotting green with all this snow. He couldn’t breathe. He was suffocating. “I don’t know who you’re talking about. What do you want from me?”
“Nicole Lenore, your sister! You must find a way to connect with Maïmoú and get me to her. I need her.”
Oliver coughed and held his side in pain. Blood was dripping down his lips and jaw. “D-Derek?”
“Oliver, get away from here! It’s Shào! He’s—”
“Focus, fledgling!” Shào shook him. “Concentrate. Bring Maïmoú to me. If she so much as touches a hair on Nicole’s perfect head, I will kill you in a thousand different ways. Bring her to me now!”
Tears rolled down Derek’s cheeks. “I-I don’t know what you’re talking about. Please, don’t hurt them.”
A shadow hovered over them. Holly, breathing heavily, used all of her strength to push Shào off of Derek.
Shào slowly turned to a girl who could never move in. “Holly Bennet,” he breathed. “We meet again.”
Holly hissed as she continued yanking on his robes.
“Don’t make me hurt you. You were the most favorable soulmate in the timeline—”
Shào’s grip was lessening, and Derek’s body moved on its own. Thanking God for his flexibility, he wriggled his legs in front of him and kicked Shào hard in his face.
Shào’s head whipped back. What Derek thought to be blood splattered out between his teeth, but it was more sludgy, pitch black.
Shào held his head, coughing up more and more darkness. His body suddenly jerked and glitched to the left, then right, like he couldn’t control his teleportation. He appeared as a ghost at one point, half visible, half gone.
Oliver watched not Shào himself but the footprints he was making in the snow. He followed Shào’s painful glitches in bafflement as to what was happening. He looked like he was trying to sit up, but whatever was wrong with his side kept him from getting up, from levitating away.
Shào cursed something in a different language, and the last glitch he made slammed him into both Holly and Derek.
Derek’s vision went black. They were falling, tumbling into neverending darkness with the sound of rushing wind sweeping them farther down. With every blink he made, the world shifted. They were falling down the mountain, then through the Temno Forest, and then off of the ocean cliffs. Then nothing but ocean, endless from sky to floor. Holly was grabbing hold of him. Shào was in front of him. The three of them were free-falling like lead bags into the sea.
They dropped through the clouds Derek had once fancied. Holly separated from them and began spinning on her own. Her screams hurt to hear. It was the first time Derek had heard her voice. It was light, like a mother’s.
“Fuck!” Shào reached out for Derek. “Come here!”
“No, you’re crazy!” Derek held himself close and tried to flap his wings. He had to save Holly. She couldn’t fly, but he couldn’t, either, not like this. She’d die. He’d die.
It reminded him of something in his past, of falling to his death.
Seconds before he and Holly splatted like berries, something…happened. He couldn’t say for sure, but something or someone touched them. Their fall ended too soon without pain, and they were teleported somewhere cold, dark, and smelling of pure saltwater.
He counted the seconds that passed, the sudden quietness that replaced the chaotic fall they seemingly lived through. Quietly, he peeled himself off of the salty sand. He was in a dark, dingy cave that smelled of saltwater and algae. Outside, he heard the waves pulling in and out of the cove, but their only light to the outside world was a human-sized hole a hundred feet above them.
The room had been carved out of cement, a substance he hadn’t seen since arriving in Drail. It had the same gritty texture, same drab color. Mold and sea snails lived inside the strained pressure cracks made from years past.
Shào was gone, but Holly had been teleported with him. She was staring up at a circular door carved out of metal, but it was a different type from what the humans used. It looked stronger, more modern. Someone had etched out words atop the door’s curve:
SECOND BEINGS’ CONGREGATION (SBC)