As Derek got dressed without trying to wake up Oliver, he came to the obvious conclusion that Raeleen was shitty; the derelict and vacant buildings, the insufferable humidity, the Guard, the Líders. It wasn’t a good place to live.
But it’d been his home. When he thought of home, he saw his apartment above the clothing store, the yellowed grass, the Sun setting over the Muralha on a roof he wasn’t allowed on.
He saw Kevin. Nikki. Mom and Dad. Vanna and Morgan and Del and their hidden fallout shelter. His love of alcohol and the insecurities that’d followed him across the ocean. Everything was coming into focus like developing photographs, all of which had a blurry Raeleen in the background.
Now he was here, somewhere that definitely wasn’t Raeleen, and he was freaked.
Oliver inhaled loudly and rolled over in bed. He covered his bare, hickeyed chest with one of the animal pelts to keep his modesty. “Is everything alright?”
Derek haphazardly put on one of Oliver’s sweaters, not caring if it was two sizes too big. Where on earth was he? How far had he fallen from the Muralha? Had he fallen down? Up? Was he on the other side?
He dry-heaved. His chest hurt. What’d happened to Nikki after he’d stupidly run away from the guards? Had Kevin made it over, too? Had that girl thrown him off? She must’ve been Maïmoú.
Derek wobbled out of the room and down the stairs into the living room. Someone had done a shitty job of cleaning up—tinsel scattered across the floor, plates of deer left on the couches. In the kitchen, Shimah and Yomi had divided up breakfast duties of washing dishes and cooking leftovers for breakfast. Brennen bottle-fed baby Emi with an ice pack between his horns. Rosaline battled her hangover with lemon tea.
Holly was underneath the kitchen table, rocking. Her eyes had gone to slits again.
Holly was a serval. He hadn’t recognized her breed, but everything from her hair to her ears screamed serval, a cat breed found in Raeleen.
Derek’s stomach growled. His dad always cooked for them on his days off. He made the best bacon. Sliced fruits for Nikki and frosted pastries for Kevin. Whenever Derek woke up late, he’d get the scraps, but his dad would save him the fattiest bacon slices and the most frosted pastries.
They didn’t eat deer in Raeleen, or fish. Before coming here, he had no idea what fish were.
Yomi went to greet Derek, but she found him jogging in place in the hallway, shaking out his hands like he had something sticky on them.
“Yes?” she asked, stumped.
“I got my memories back and I don’t know what to do and I’m really, really freaking out right now.”
Yomi calmly put a warm drink in his hand, but he couldn’t keep it from spilling.
“What’d you say?” Rosaline slurred. “Speak slowly. I can’t—”
“I got my memories back,” he interrupted. “I remember everything.”
“How?” Shimah asked. “Did they just pop up?”
“I don’t know. I had a dream I was falling and then I was saved. I must’ve landed here by…mistake?”
“Okay,” Yomi said. “Just calm down.”
Oliver floated down the staircase. He’d gotten dressed, but his hair was still sticking up from their night together. “Is something the matter?”
Too afraid to be alone, Derek flew over and hugged his man.
“Oh.” Oliver tried looking down at him, but Derek buried deeper into his chest, not ready to come out.
“Derek got back his memories,” Yomi explained.
“Oh, dear.” He walked Derek over to the couches, pushing aside plates to make room. He rubbed his back in gentle circles. “Are you okay?”
“I don’t know. I’m seeing everything at once.”
“Would writing things down help? Holly, can you bring over your notebook?”
Holly didn’t move from the kitchen.
“I came from a place called Raeleen,” Derek said. “It’s like here but hotter. I think I’m in trouble. I’m not supposed to be here and they wanna kill me for it.”
The Deities?” he guessed.
Yomi motioned for her mate. He was already uncorking a vial to calm Derek down.
“I don’t need it,” Derek lied. He really wanted it down his throat bad, but, “I’m afraid I’ll lose everything the second I calm down. I don’t wanna forget again.”
“Like a dream ya woke up from,” Shimah said. “Ya wanna write it out ’fore ya forget.”
But how could he really forget? Everything was so clear now. Raeleen, the weather, his siblings, the school which he barely passed, and the architecture. Fuck, not even ten minutes have gone by and he was afraid of forgetting about architecture.
“It’s too early,” said a sleepy voice from the stairs. Plodding out of bed came Maxwell, shirtless and hair wet from a morning bath. Next came Jabel, still dressed for the night with crust in his eyes. They held hands as they helped one another down the stairs. “What’s going on?”
“Derek got his memories back,” Yomi said.
“All of them?” Jabel asked. “Do you remember the Heavens?”
“Not…really.” Drinking down Yomi’s offered cup, Derek tried explaining everything that was flashing through his mind. He told them about the Guard, the Líders, the Muralha and Barreira and how close they resembled their God’s Barrier. He went down the list of his family members and outlined each of their breeds, then described Morgan’s secret operation in detail. He didn’t care if they knew. The fuck did it matter? The more he divulged, the more he remembered, like he was down a dark path lit only by the occasional firefly.
When he was only halfway through the story—where was half of the story?—Shimah raised his hand.
“Shimah, not now,” Rosaline said.
“I gotta question,” he said.
“Go ahead,” Yomi said.
“Okay, uh, what the fuck are ya talking about?”
The confession let go a series of questions from the crowd.
“Where is this place?”
“What do you mean when you say they’re just like humans?”
“So is Holly a crossbreed?”
“How tall was the wall?”
“How did you survive?”
“How many Gods are there?” Oliver asked. He’d started holding Derek’s hand and hadn’t let go. His grip was cutting off blood circulation.
“I don’t know. Four? Six? I’ve only met a few.”
“It sounds like you’re making this up,” Shimah said. “Are ya making it up?”
“Shimah, be kind,” Rosaline said. “Why would he be lying?”
“I’m not lying. I just don’t know all the details. It doesn’t make sense.” This was the last thing he needed, to be told that all of this was just a hangover dream. He tried to finger his necklace to calm down but found it missing. It must’ve fallen off in the sea.
“This must be why you had such a challenging time fitting into our ways,” Brennen said. “To think they don’t have marriage there…”
“It’s incredible,” Yomi said.
“And same-sex couples,” Jabel added. “You had two aunts who were married to each other and nobody cared? They weren’t even married, you don’t have a word for that. They’re just able to live together—a-a bird and a monkey, you said—” He held his head. Maxwell rubbed his back in support.
“You said someone pushed you off the wall that surrounds your world?” Oliver asked. “They were…another God?”
“Was it the Shào boy you keep mentioning?” Yomi asked.
“I think it was Maïmoú,” Derek said, and as he said that, he got seriously pissed at how little he understood about either world. Everything seemed to be smushed together by a child’s impatient hands.
“This doesn’t make any sense,” Jabel said.
“Which part?” Brennen asked.
“All of it. You mean to tell me that there’s this entire underground dungeon that even I don’t know about? I’ve been by my father’s side for years. Nothing about an underground—what did you call it—‘fallout shelter,’ was ever brought up to me.”
“That’s not all,” Derek said, and went for his discarded jacket hanging up near the door. “When Holly and I got trapped down there, we found photo albums from her past. I grabbed a few before Sabah and Tsvetan dropped me.”
“What are photos?” Oliver asked.
“Like paintings from the past. They’re taken on cameras. We had them in Raeleen.”
He peeled back every jacket pocket, then checked his pants to make sure he wasn’t going crazy. “I did bring them, didn’t I?”
“Can we possibly go back and search the area?” Jabel asked.
“If they were paintings, they might be at the bottom of the ocean,” Brennen said. “We should start looking now.”
“Uh, no, we can’t,” Maxwell said. “Jabel and Cellena are still here. We need to get them home before their cover gets blown. It’s almost eleven.”
“But we should continue talking about this, love,” Jabel insisted. “If this’s true, my father needs to know posthaste.”
Derek tried the insides of his boots, patted down his ass. “No, no. I just had them.”
“What were the paintings of?” Oliver pressed.
“They aren’t actual paintings, they were like pages…from a notebook…”
Derek’s head turned to Holly. How often did she blend in with the background? Without giving out much input, she was easy to lose in an empty room.
She walked into the living room with timid steps. In her hands was her notebook. She’d added to it since Derek had last seen it. It was now bloated with extra pages tucked in safely to preserve lost memories.
She handed the notebook to Oliver without a word, and the book sprung open to her secrets. The first page was that drawing Derek had found, which Oliver acknowledged but put off to the side, knowing it wasn’t as important as the rest.
The photograph of him and Holly holding her baby, them smiling in the past, hooked him. It’d been damaged by water, but Holly had dried it well. It was still very much of him and Holly.
Oliver covered his mouth as he examined it in detail. Jabel and Maxwell came over to see it, as did the rest of demons, too curious about technology none of them had seen before.
Oliver wiped his eyes and placed the photograph on the table. He held both wrists to keep from falling apart mentally, emotionally. Brennen offered him a vial. He didn’t take it.
“Oliver?” Derek tried taking his hand. It was cold.
Oliver gulped down vile. “Holly, what is this?”
She bit the head of her doll as a coping mechanism.
Oliver got up and grabbed her. “Holly, honey, what is this? When was this painted?”
“It was in the fallout shelter,” Derek explained. “She said she used to live there…with you.”
“But I don’t remember living underground. All my memories start in Drail. I’ve lived in houses and shacks, never…” He looked back at the photo. “What am I wearing?”
“You look so…” Shimah said but didn’t finish.
“Is this the Underground?” Oliver asked, horrified. “Is this where all demonkind comes from?”
“I don’t think so,” Derek said. “I learned in church that the Underground is supposed to be 100 miles underground. There was light coming through the walls when Holly and I went down, though I think that’s because the walls were old. It was deep, but not that deep.”
Oliver looked ready to throw up. His white skin had gone green as he shivered in mental sickness.
“Oliver?” Derek asked.
His hand trembled over the photo. His finger touched the baby. Holly followed his touch.
“Do you remember anything?” Derek asked. “Holly got some memories back when she went down. The place was called the Second…fuck, I don’t remember. The Second Church? The Second, Second—”
“The Second Beings’ Congregation.” Oliver, shocked at his own guess, covered his mouth again. “How?” he asked himself. “I’ve never been there.”
“You’re just remembering.” Derek massaged his lower back. “You’re okay.”
Oliver finally acknowledged the others in the room and held Derek back. He was seconds away from crumbling and Derek had to keep him together.
“What if these Deities erased all our memories?” Yomi asked. “We linked our lost memories to the natural passage of time, the way a person can’t recall infancy, but this theory makes sense.”
“I’ve never seen this place ’fore,” Shimah said.
“Nor have I,” Brennen said.
“Maybe only Holly and Oliver came from there?”
“Then where did we come from?” Maxwell asked.
“Maybe a different one?”
“We should investigate this further,” Jabel said. “It might be the Underground, but this sounds too critical to our histories not to visit. Does our God know about this?”
“I don’t think your religion is connected,” Derek said. “This’s something completely different. The Deity who saved me from the Muralha was missing a leg. Sabah had this nasty cough before she drowned us.”
“Why did one try to kill you if one wanted to save you?” Rosaline asked.
“Fuck if I know. They’re weirdos working on their own agendas. They got distracted by something across the ocean and just disappeared. They disappear like you, by the way, by Dark Matter.”
“They saw something across the ocean?” Yomi repeated. “Based on what you told us, can we assume they were looking towards the country you come from? Perhaps you didn’t come from the sky. Perhaps there’s land across the ocean?”
“Don’t be nutty,” Shimah said.
“It’s not nutty enough to disregard, lad,” Rosaline said. “I really want to know what a radio is. Sounds cool.”
“So there’s more than one God in this?” Jabel clarified. “And some are children? Isn’t that dangerous?”
“It’s unfair,” Yomi said, “for a child to have that much power.”
Derek looked up. Had Cellena woken up? That voice…
He looked behind him. The front door was cracked open, letting in a chilling air.
He shivered, but not from the wind. His brain felt like it was oozing out the back of his skull. The lightheadedness returned. He slipped down on the couch.
Jabel jerked forwards. His hand went straight into his eye socket as he doubled over to suppress a scream. In pain, he fell into Maxwell.
“Fuck.” Maxwell held his own heart, feeling half of the pain Jabel was enduring. Grimacing, he got up and gave his prince room to lie down. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
“Another attack?” Brennen jumped to his feet with his baby.
“It’s never been so strong before,” Yomi said. “Brennen—”
A rumbling came from upstairs. It was Kumo in her wheelchair. “Everyone!” she shouted from the banisters. “Everyone, come upstairs, please!”
Maxwell and Brennen stayed with Jabel. The rest of them ran, flew, and teleported upstairs. Kumo led them to Rosaline’s room, which Derek only knew by how everything smelled like her. Cellena was in her bed, gripping the sheets like she was being tortured.
“Something’s happening,” Kumo said. “She started banging her head on the headboard. I heard it from my room.”
Yomi steadied her and helped to keep her from hurting herself.
Derek felt it himself, the way his stomach twisted and turned. Something was off about not only himself but the air around them. Something was coming.
Yomi fumbled with a vial from her pocket, but Cellena flung out her hand in a spasm and cracked it to the floor. “We need to get her to a doctor.”
“We can’t,” Oliver said. “They’re going to think it’s us again. They’re going to kill us.”
Derek stopped searching for the invisible girl calling out his name. Invisible, dying girl. She sounded straight-up deceased, groggily, like a monster impersonating a kid. Behind him? Above? She was now speaking directly into his ear.
“I’ll take her.” Rosaline carefully scooped Cellena up. Her back was arched like a parasite was trying to tear out of her body.
“L-let me carry her,” Oliver offered. “I can help.”
“You should go with her,” Yomi said. “Brennen and Maxwell will bring over His Highness. If they show up alone, they won’t be able to defend themselves if knights come. Brennen and I will start making vials.”
Holly. Derek needed to go back and find Holly. Was she feeling the same way? Was someone else talking to her? Where was she?
That time was clearer. A simple question. He needed to answer.
“Take Derek with you,” Yomi said, “just in case.”
“It’ll only be as a safety precaution for all of us. Do you really want to leave him alone?”
Oliver looked back to Derek to see what he thought.
Off, off, something needed to be fixed. He felt it underneath his nails, in the depths of his ears.
Unexpected tears dropped from Derek’s eyes. Loss, the sense of forgetting someone important, it dragged him down into the farthest pits of the Earth. He was losing her. He needed to go find this girl, this child, his child.
Tired footsteps trudged down the hall. A shadow emerged from the right, coming in closer.
A black, bleeding hand gripped the side of the door frame. Pulling himself up, Shào, snarling, glowered into the bedroom for Derek. “Fledgling.”
Derek stumbled back. Shào was bleeding black from his mouth as darkness twinkled from his eyes. He held one arm in pain as he limped inside.
“Why the fuck,” he asked, “is Maïmoú so dead-set on ruining the world?”
Derek tripped over Oliver’s tail. Oliver was so focused on Cellena, he didn’t notice.
“She’s killing me,” Shào continued. “Did you know? All Deities are connected telepathically. The transference…when they’re in pain…” He glitched five feet left, then five right. He vomited up darkness. “We all suffer together.”
Derek hit Oliver harder. “G-go,” he stuttered. “Take all of us. Right now.”
“Go!” he ordered, and Oliver, like a trained dog, teleported Derek away before he got killed or worse.
He dropped into darkness, momentary and empty, then fell to pristine tiles. Oliver had brought him back into the royal castle, what looked to be the main foyer just outside the front doors. Maxwell and Brennen were already there with Jabel, along with Holly, and one by one came the rest, dropping down in clouds of darkness.
There were maids and servants in the foyer, but nobody bided demonkind any mind. They, too, had collapsed and were writhing in pain, fighting off the connection they all shared. Maids had fallen down the stairs, knights into the curtains, clutching them to stay upright.
Derek turned in circles. He needed to save them, but Jabel, Cellena. And Holly. He needed to protect her from Shào.
Shào appeared seconds later in a pool of Dark Matter. Both Derek and Holly jumped while the others, unknowing, worked on the royal heirs.
“I was talking to you,” Shào said. “How impertinent. What happened to the times peasants bowed to Divinity? You used to fight wars to be acknowledged by us. I used to be strong. I used to be feared—” He pulled a face, then puked again. “Stop it!” he yelled to the ceiling. There were either tears in his eyes or that sparkling sludge was beginning to trickle down into his eye sockets. “Sabah. Tsvetan, Unathi, Ataleah, Fate, anyone! For the love of All, stop her. I know you’re feeling this, too, this—”
He looked to Derek and Holly. “Curse this connection we share. If we survive whatever Maïmoú is plotting, I pray you find every way to cut the threads that bind us. This bond, it’s too harrowing.”
Holly grabbed Derek and ran him outside.
“Holly!” cried out Oliver.
She pushed open the door and led them out of the castle. The wind was clattering against the window shutters. Something cracked, a tree or some part of the castle. The demons looked up to watch dirt and debris vortex in the sky.
A broken piece of wood spun out and cracked feet from Derek’s head. The wind was picking up in a violent fury. It was a clear morning, but the wispy clouds were crossing the sky at alarming rates. They covered the dawning Sun in patchwork.
He doubletook the sky. Through the snowy clouds was a streak. It was like an eye floater that drifted in your vision, invisible if not directly looking at it. But this wasn’t a blob of cells in his eyes. The crack in the sky had to be seventy or eighty miles long, cutting across the clouds in a curved line. More cracks built from the main one, then more and more, a lightning bolt trapped in time.
“What is that?” he asked.
The crack shifted in slow motion. Giant pieces of glass the size of valleys separated and came falling down. Derek didn’t think they were moving at all, but as he watched, he realized the pieces were growing in size, coming down at speeds his brain couldn’t fathom.
He dropped to his knees, wings splayed out, and watched the sky break into pieces.
Shào teleported back between them and the sky. He looked up, heaved over as he held his splitting stomach. “Who’s doing this?” he muttered to himself. “Who’s powerful enough to break a Barrier?”
“Shào,” Derek warned, but Shào knew. Watching the pieces of the Barrier shatter, he, too, was awaiting the end.
But then Shào looked to his left, a child lost in a snowstorm.
Then to his right, confused, scared.
Then he sighed and, as if caught for his crimes, lifted both arms above his head. His long sleeves danced in the wind. “Whichever Deity thought it a good idea to break this damned Barrier, allow me to tell you this—”
The ground cratered beneath him. A pressure too immeasurable to know weighed down on his hands. He grunted, struggling to hold up nothing other than the sky itself.
“You won’t…be killing me…so easily…this time!” Shào choked out, and heaved the invisible weight up.
The wind knocked Derek forwards, face-planting him into the snow. When he got back up, he saw the pieces of glass turn to the west. The larger pieces moved in slow motion, pieces that shouldn’t have been able to move through the power of one small boy. They hardly turned, but it was enough to send them off course and away from the last human settlement on Earth.
Derek watched in baffled awe, the power of a God. The sky was glittering. The shards of the Barrier sparkled like shooting stars across the morning sky. Shào had saved them.
Shào took in the aftermath of his accomplishment, like he himself hadn’t realized his own strength. He wobbled forwards as he watched his work fall.
He collapsed, arms useless at his sides. The darkness dribbled out of his mouth as he cracked a forced smile. “Place a sportive bet with me, fledgling, for I don’t believe we have much time in this world.” He pointed a weak hand to the dazzling sky. “This time around, how badly will Maïmoú of Athens scar the Earth?”