Worst vomit draft ever so far. Needs serious revision. Feedback on what’s working and what’s not working is greatly appreciated. There is so much of this I’m frustrated with, the list is long so I will spare you. I think I’ve ranted about it enough on my personal blog before launching this blog. I’ll just say that once I get a revised draft posted, this one is becoming invisible.
The key shattered into thousands of shards of light, sinking into every surface of the building’s interior. The rumbling quieted into stillness. A tattoo of the antique key wrapped around Donna’s ring finger as she lowered her hand to her side. The emblem beneath her feet faded as she offered her hand to Korg. A click echoed not just through the lobby, but across all the dimensions, as the door on the second landing unlocked.
Clarissa slowly released the railing as she watched Donna and Korg embrace each other. She envied them. Uncomfortable in her own skin, she turned her attention to Eddie. He busied himself with picking up the apples strewn across the lobby floor. Feeling guilty, she wrapped her arms around herself. She didn’t return his interest. He was kind and loyal enough to her, but she noticed how he treated Donna. That rubbed her wrong the way. There was a time, before meeting Earle, that she was like Donna. She knew how to touch fire back then. Now everything but the cold howls of rage and despair were dead. Clarissa wished the fire came back in her life. She wished to see her son one more time. A hushed melody beckoned from the second landing.
“What the hell is that?” Clarissa asked, looking up the steps.
“Clarissa wait,” Korg said.
His voice felt distant as the melody called to her. It sounded like a music box. When she reached the second landing, an ebony panel door greeted her. Geometric gilded gold shapes interlaced together in intricate patterns on the panel. Her eyes followed the lines but found no end or beginning to them. There weren’t any knobs or handles on the door either. The gilded lines pulsed with soft light to each note of the hushed melody coming from the other side of the doors. Clarissa moved closer toward the door. Sandalwood and cinnamon drifted into her senses as the golden gilding seemed to liquefy and spin along the lines. Her breath quickened to watch it as her fingers touched it.
“Clarissa don’t,” Donna said.
It ran over her fingertips like warm syrup. Surprised, she pulled her hand away. It clung to her fingers like honey without marring the ebony panel. Dripping languidly to the floor, the warmth spread from her fingers into her blood as she stared at it. Her vision swam as the smell of sandalwood and cinnamon grew stronger. She felt more than heard the hushed melodies as they echoed in her head. Mesmerized by its soft light, she tasted the liquid on her finger. The bitter-sweet taste burned pleasurably and ignited the warmth in her blood to a heated flush in her skin. Regret murmured in the remote corners of her mind as the eyes of fire opened within her. The panel slid into the wall with a muted rasp. She drank in the heady scent of the musky soil, spicy moss, and fruity blossoms. Following the hushed melodies, she stepped across the threshold without looking back.
“Clarissa stop,” Eddie said.
Zaum pulled himself out of the icy pool of water. He knew his efforts were futile. The pollen always managed to overcome him. If not the pollen, then the sap from the blossoms found a way to stick to him. If not the sap, then the berries and so on. Everything that grew in this jungle forest induced desire. There was no respite. It reflected Atapuhr’s vindictive spirit and responded to the misery he spawned. Atapuhr rejected him long ago and left him to rot here. His only orders now were to bring Atapuhr the rare visitor to him to feast on. He closed his eyes, wishing for a new master. One that remembered him and rewarded him for his loyalty. More than anything, he wanted out of this place.
A pulse of light shook the jungle. Zaum sat up as the motes in the air swirled around him. Moments later the ground convulsed. Fine debris and dust filtered down from the thick canopy above. The jungle groaned as the distant sound of cracking surrounded him. More debris fell from the canopy as Zaum scrambled for cover. The rumbling quieted into stillness. A click echoed through the jungle, as the door on the second landing unlocked. Recognizing it as the Seer’s lock, Zaum took flight. He hoped to purchase his freedom. Finding the door was easy, but opening it was not. It was a sleek ebony panel without knobs or handles. Sliding his hands over the panel revealed no other method to open the door either. Frustrated, he rested his forehead against the panel. His only hope now was the Seer that unlocked the door, assuming the Seer didn’t kill him on sight.
The hushed beckoning melody carried through the jungle as the ebony panel shimmered into dark translucency. Atapuhr hungered for someone beyond the door. Zaum hid behind a tree nearest to the door, planning to escape as soon as it opened. Screw Atapuhr and his dinner plans. He could hunt for himself for a change. He caught his breath as he saw through the translucent panel a human woman approach the door. Judging from her solemn expression, she lived in Nusquamton like the previous visitors. Her curly black hair framed her high cheekbones and spilled over her shoulders. She wore just a simple white shirt, black pants, and a pair of boots but he felt there was more to her than that. Atapuhr normally summoned males to break. Human souls had no chance here. Far too many never made it to Atapuhr. Zaum was the one that preferred females and Atapuhr mocked him for it. Something about her smoldering wood brown eyes spoke to Zaum. Recognizing the latent anger inside them, his blood stirred as he wished he was out there with her. He gripped the trunk of the tree as he watched her study the glowing lines of the gilded patterns. His breath quickened with hers as she reached to touch it.
“Turn back,” he whispered. “Don’t come in.”
She pulled her hand away in mild surprise as the poisonous sap dripped from her fingers. The golden liquid pulsed with a soft light in time with the notes of Atapuhr’s seductive melody. He watched with dread as her eyes clouded and her body swayed slightly. Heat curled under his skin as her cheeks flushed while she licked the liquid from her fingers. The mix of regret and fear that flickered over her face concerned him. Her desire activated the door, so it was strong enough, but she equally feared it. With a muted rasp, the panel slid into the wall and released the jungle air to wash away her fears. As this woman stepped across the threshold, Zaum hesitated. If he ran for it now, escape was his but that left her here to die. He didn’t have time to grab her and run for the door. With both of them trapped in here, she’ll have him to protect her but he’ll bring Atapuhr’s wrath on himself. He’d hunt them down and kill them both. As he struggled with this, he watched the blossoms lure her in toward their seductive petals. The decision made for him, he turned away from the closing door.
Motes of light floated around her in the still air to the rhythm of the muted melodies carried through the jungle. Moss and roots covered the path leading deeper into the towering trees. The bark of the trees were dark, coarse, and deeply grooved. Brown-green moss claimed the cracks while lacy white lichen dressed the surface of the bark haphazardly. Clarissa guessed each tree needed at least ten people holding hands to encircle it. The canopy above engulfed the view, casting hazy wide swaths of shadow and narrow piercing shafts of light into the underbrush below. Broad leaf, pin-striped vines snaked around the thick trunks in choking desperation to reach the light. Dew wept from the serrated edges of their leaves. Ruby berries the size of her fist gleamed in clusters from the bushes bundled in the underbrush. The slender leaves surrounding them fluttered invitingly. Blooming from these bushes were exotic flowers larger than her head shimmering with vibrant blushing mauve hues. Delicate crimson lines traced the petals, deepening in color and density toward the stamens. Their long golden stamens glistened with same liquid as the gilded lines on the ebony panel door. They swayed listlessly toward her. Brushing their stamens against her exposed arms and face, the sticky liquid intensified the heat inside her. The melody echoed through her as a blossom drooped down to face her. With each note, the petals pulsed with a soft light. Captivated, she watched the blossom close and swell. Something tackled her to the ground as the blossom spewed pollen into the air.
Stunned, she struggled for breath as the faint smell of jasmine and vanilla washed over her. The cool moss pressed into her face as the warm weight bore down on her. Her body wanted to relinquish to the swimming vertigo and just give way to the shadows. Nausea whorled gently as the vague impression of sinewy muscle pinning urged her to move. Feeling faraway and sluggish she managed to twist from her side to her back. The weight shifted with her, giving her more air as the nausea abated. Hoping to get her bearings, she ended up with a face full of soft tangerine silk strands. It was iridescent and enchanting. Slowly, she ran her fingers through some of it. Its downy texture kindled her nerves. The fire inside her smoldered.
“Don’t breathe the pollen,” a husky voice said into her ear.
Ice frosted her blood as her silk tangled hand found the back of his head. She realized this wasn’t silk, but hair. Not knowing what to do, she froze. Feeling him smell her skin along her neck, she shuddered. When he flicked his tongue on her collarbone, panic tore through her as she jabbed her thumb in his eye.
“No, fucking no,” she said, “get off me.”
He covered his face with a yelp and rolled off her. Clawing her hands into the moss, she pulled herself away from him and scrambled to her feet.
“Sorry,” he said, as he sat up with a hand still over his eye.
Shoving him out of her way, she ran for the door.
Zaum tackled her to the moss-covered path as the pollen cloud expanded above them. He wrapped his arms around her and pinned her to the ground with his weight. They needed to wait a bit for the cloud to dissipate before moving. He expected Atapuhr’s bewitchment to compel her to fight him. A few visitors met their end by blindly following Atapuhr’s alluring summons. She offered no resistance against him. Worried he injured her, he studied her face for signs of life or pain. Laying on her side, she panted into the moss. Her glassy eyes indicated intoxication, but her expression wasn’t euphoric like the others. Sweat trickled along her hairline as she closed her eyes, discomfort twisting her face. She smelled of wine and tobacco. It reminded him of the world from his distant past before the Demon Wars and Dominion Raids. Recalling the quiet pleasures of the life he lost, he stole a whiff of her hair. She moved against him with clumsy drunkenness as she rolled to her back. Shifting his weight, he released his hold of her to slide his arms on the moss near her head. His waist-length tangerine hair tangled across her and his arm. Her unfocused and drowsy eyes blinked slowly as she took deep unsteady breaths.
Unwilling to startle her, he lowered his head next to her ear. If she fell asleep he could slip away and wait for another time. If the jungle’s toxins awakened her passions he would answer them, but he hoped it didn’t. This place denied satisfaction. After being alone for so long, he felt willing to die trying and she would despise him for it. He accepted the idea of her anger. It was the idea of being rejected and abandoned again that pained him. He had no plans if she decided to fight other than to let her go and follow from a distance. Feeling her breath steady beneath him, he waited a moment to see if she fell asleep. The feather light touch of her fingertips grazing his scalp sent shivers of pleasure through him as she explored his hair. His fingers dug deep into the moss as he felt her take a shaky breath and her legs shifted slightly beneath him.
“Don’t breathe the pollen,” he said into her ear.
Regretting the rawness of his voice, he felt her body freeze. He held himself still as he felt the hand tangled in his hair rest on the back of his head. She neither pushed nor pulled at him. She didn’t turn to look at him either. Testing her interest, he brushed his lips lightly down her neck as he smelled her skin. The shudder that ripped through her as he reached her collarbone told him that he wasn’t welcome. Discouraged, he licked his lips in thought as he sought an apology before removing himself. The unintentional feel of her satin skin rewarded him with an electric charge down his abdomen, but it cost him a sharp jab in the eye with her thumb.
“No, fucking no,” she said, “get off me.”
Covering his face, he rolled off her and sat up. “Sorry,” he said.
The fear in her voice stung him more than jabbing his eye did. She shoved him aside as she ran for the door. That surprised him. No one ever did that but she broke free from Atapuhr’s bewitchment somehow. The problem was that the door shut behind her when she came in. It won’t open on this side. He followed the trail leading back to the door. Zaum wasn’t likely to redeem himself in her eyes, but he planned to protect her from Atapuhr.
Clarissa ran down the path, tripping over the roots as they grabbed her feet. She tried to push the memory of his weight on her out of her mind, but the smell of jasmine and vanilla still clung to her. The air felt chill compared to the warmth of his body, which made her angrier. Ramming into the plain ebony panel door, she screamed her rage at it. He had no right to touch her like that. Running her hands along the panel in search of some way to open it, she thought of his downy silken hair. Screaming again, she kicked the door. She had no idea what his face looked like and he licked her. He fucking threw her on the ground and licked her. She pounded on the door with both fists.
“Let me out of here. Are you listening?” she said. “Donna? Korg? Eddie Open this door.”
“It doesn’t open from this side,” he said gently.
She looked over her shoulder, her fists sliding down the panel. Befriending Korg prepared her for meeting someone like this. Large black bat-like wings folded partially down his back as he towered over her. She frowned slightly at his tattered brown tunic and matching trousers as she wondered if any of these people took care of themselves. She flushed at the sight of his corded muscle, remembering how his body felt against hers. Fire flowed through her nerves as her eyes traveled along his unruly tangerine silken curls tumbling around his shoulders and spilling to his waist. His striking peach colored eyes peered at her from his pale face with his hands behind his back.
“Then how do you open the door?” she asked him as she turned to face him.
“We can’t,” he said. “We’re stuck here.”
“How long?” she asked, afraid of the answer.
“Until someone on the other side opens the door.”
“Fuck that,” she said.
Spinning around she pounded on the door again. She yelled to Donna as loud she could.
“Donna, I know you out there. You have the key,” she said, kicking the door. “Let me out.”
Tears streamed down her face as no answer came.
“They can’t hear you,” he said. “No sound escapes through here.”
“I heard music through this door. It called to me,” she said. “I heard it. I know I did. I’m not fucking crazy. Donna, you hear me? Open this fucking door.”
He caught her fists in his hands as he slipped between her and the door.
“Stop. You’re hurting yourself,” he said.
His long fingernails made her think of claws. Clarissa yanked her hands away from his. She folded her arms across her chest as she stepped back from him. However, the alluring jasmine and vanilla scent invited her to linger as she fought back her tears. The idea of being trapped in here frightened her. Not willing to forgive him for throwing her into the ground, she walked away and sat down on a large root near the path. Fatigue ached in her bones as the darkening shadows chilled her.
“Are you well?” he asked.
“Are you fucking kidding me? I trip out on some music and come in here. I don’t even want to think about what the gold goo did to me,” she said, standing up. “Then you throw me to the ground. You fucking licked me. Now I’m trapped here with you and you ask me if I’m okay?”
She clenched her fists as she glared at him. He stayed at the door where she left him. His wings wrapped around his shoulders like a cloak as he stared at her.
“So no, I’m not well you fucking pervert,” she said, sitting back down. “Thank you so much for asking.”
Clarissa stared at the ground in front of her feet. It was all the same. She waited for him to blame her for all this. They always did. It was always her fault somehow.
“Are you fucking kidding me? I trip out on some music and come in here. I don’t even want to think about what the gold goo did to me,” she said, standing up.
The way anger flushed her skin aroused him more than her intoxication from the sap. He wrapped his wings around him to hide that from her.
“Then you throw me to the ground. You fucking licked me.”
Rage peeled from her with accusing eyes. Zaum thought he saw red flicker in her irises as she continued to scream at him.
“Now I’m trapped here with you and you ask me if I’m okay?”
She clenched her fists as she glared at him. Not daring to move, he stared at her. He hoped to figure out an acceptable apology. First he needed to know the Rules with her.
“So no, I’m not well you fucking pervert,” she said, sitting back down. “Thank you so much for asking.”
Watching her stare at the ground with a distant expression, he pieced together her anger. Not knowing whether she preferred that he kneel or stand, he remained still as he was. He needed to choose his words carefully here.
“I’m sorry I touched you without permission,” he said. “Won’t happen again unless to save your life.”
She looked up at him, surprised. That established the First Rule. Knowing this gave him a chance and he relaxed a little.
Those large blossoms,” he said, pointing at a distant blossom, “you remember them?”
She looked at them, blushing. “Yes, the goo from them made me feel weird.”
“They spit pollen,” he said. “Don’t breathe it. It’s stronger than their sap.”
“Is that why you tackled me?” she said, rubbing her arms as she stared back at the ground.
“Yes,” he said. “I’m sorry I upset you.”
“Did you breathe the pollen?” she asked, her face grim.
“It would have been worse if I had,” he said. “Almost everything here has that effect to some degree with no satisfaction.”
She squinted at him. “What?”
He felt his face burn hot but he said, “Doesn’t matter how hard you try, you won’t get anywhere with it.”
“Well fuck,” she said with raised eyebrows. She leaned over on her knees.
“How long have you been in here with this bullshit?”
“No idea. Feels forever.”
“Not your fault.”
“Yeah, I know but I didn’t need to rip you out like that.”“I deserved it.”
“Not that extreme,” she said, rubbing her arms again. “You stopped when I said no.”
He made note of the Second Rule as he asked, “Are you cold?”
“A little,” she said, glancing at him warily, “but mostly just hungry.”
Zaum sighed. Nothing was safe here. Anything she ate risked bewitching her.
“The berries,” he said, “but be careful with them.”
“The berries with the flowers?” she asked. “There’s nothing else?”
He shook head, certain anything else might kill her or be like the pollen. She scowled as she stared at her feet.
“What do they do?”
“Kind of like the sap, but weaker than the pollen.”
“Spiked booze then,” she said, biting her lip as she folded her arms.
Watching her lips made him hungry. Recalling the satin feel of her skin on his tongue, he wondered if her mouth felt the same. His tongue tingled with the need to know if her lips tasted with the same salty sweetness. He closed his eyes as he leaned against the door, imagining her kissing him with greed. She was timid when he tackled her but the rage hinted at the dominance he craved.
“Fuck it,” she said.
He opened his eyes to see her walking down the path toward the bushes.
“Wait,” he said, following her, “let get them if that’s what you want.”
She glared at him. “I’m not helpless.”
“I don’t want you to get hit with the pollen,” he said. “It’s safest by the door.”
“What happens if you get hit by the pollen?”
He looked directly at her to make sure she understood. “Stay of out sight,” he said.
“You’ll know,” he said.
“Are you sure these berries are safe?”
“They shouldn’t kill you,” he said, “but I promise I won’t touch you.”
She nodded and walked back to the door. Watching her lean back against it and slide down to the ground, he hoped to keep his promise.
Clarissa huddled by the door after he left. Not sure why she found comfort in his presence, but she did. Maybe it was because now as it grew darker, the shadows felt menacing. They seemed to crawl beneath the trees, trying to find a way to reach her. She got the eerie sense that they wanted her soul. The chill night air frosted her breath as she pulled her knees up around her. Burying her face between her arms, she refused to watch the shadows seek out her secrets. She clenched her teeth as she shivered and prayed he hurried back. Cold wormed its way into her joints. Whatever those berries did, she hoped they killed pain too. It was so warm earlier. She resented the frigid night that came too soon.
“Better not ditch me,” she said, anxiety creeping up inside her ribs.
“Never,” he said.
She looked up from her arms as he placed a cluster of the large berries on the ground next to her. Watching him, she wondered how to tell if he breathed any pollen he warned her about. When he knelt a couple of feet away from her and wrapped his wings around him, she assumed he hadn’t. He stared at her quietly with those peach colored eyes. Her skin flushed from his attention as she shivered. There was nothing for him to see in her yet he kept staring. There was nothing in his eyes suggesting demand, motive, or judgment. He just drank her in and something about that invited her to show him everything. It unnerved her. Exposing her secrets and damage risked everything. It risked more pain. She wanted someone to see and know the terrible thing she was. She wanted someone to see and not turn away or pity her. She wanted someone who recognized her survival for what it was. Something stirred inside her since coming to Nusquamton. She felt it whispering. Tonight it crawled in her heart. Dark and strong, it grasped for power and cried freedom but she feared its exposure. She questioned the wisdom in eating the berries, but she wanted the cold and pain to stop. The sap was weird but it did a better job than the wine. Her stomach grumbled as she regarded the berries without moving.
“I promised not to touch you,” he said.
Recalling the sap and his warning she asked, “If I change my mind?”
She watched a ripple of longing vanish from his face as he said, “You tell me to touch you.”
Clarissa stared at the berries, huddled against the cold. She debated whether to trust herself with them or not. The crawling darkness inside nudged her, begging for release. Choosing to let her breathe the pollen and then taking advantage of her was an option, but he chose to save her from it. She shivered from the cold as much as she did from the thought of Earle making the choice. Thoughts of Earle forcing her to breathe the pollen and then hurting her for it invaded her mind. Recoiling from it, she fought back the tears as she buried her face in her arms again.
“Tell me,” he said softly, “what to do.”
She stiffened when she heard those words. How many times did she beg for Earle to tell her? How many times did she fuck up without knowing the rules had changed? Did someone chew this strange man up and leave him to waste like her?
“No,” she said, not bothering to look at him. “Do whatever the fuck you want.”
“You’re cold but I promised not to touch you,” he said. “You need comfort but I promised not to touch you.”
Clarissa rested her chin on her arm as he stared at the moss. “Why don’t you just promise to behave?”
He smiled slightly. “Define behave.”
Her heart skipped seeing how his eyes twinkled with that smile. A playful smile of her own tugged the corner of her mouth.
“Behave as in you can touch but not sexually,” she said, “and if I don’t like it you have to stop.”
His face grew thoughtful. “You trust me then?”
“No,” Clarissa said, her smile fading. “Trust isn’t really my thing. Sorry.”
She felt the tethers of strength holding her together straining to snap. Anger coiled tightly as she felt the sting of her tears. Closing her eyes, she steadied her breath to hold the tears at bay. Feeling weak and isolated, she wished things were different.
“My true name,” he whispered in her ear, “is Zaum. You need only speak it. I will hear it and answer.”
“What?” she asked, squinting at him as he sat down next to her.
His wings folded down his back as he draped his arms over his knees. “A demon’s true name is the key to their power,” he said quietly.
“And you’re just giving me this key?” she whispered. “What’s in it for you?”
It surprised her when Zaum’s pale skin flushed as he smiled slightly. “A new master.”
“What the fuck does that mean?” Clarissa asked.
Hearing her gruff tone, his smile faded. “Demons are different from Seers, Dragonkin, and humans,” he said uneasily. “There is always a master and a slave. The ones strong enough to attend to more than one slave are called kings and queens.”
“And what do slaves do?” she asked with a frown.
“Whatever the master wants,” he said with his eyes seeking hers.
“So you’re just picking me because you’re alone here?”
Clarissa’s chest tightened. She resented the idea of being the last resort. When her friends opened the door and they left this place, her value to him disappears.
“No. We’re not alone here,” he said, picking at the moss.
Zaum pressed a finger to her lips, fear and worry widened his peach colored eyes. “Never say his name. He’ll find you if you do,” he whispered. “The music you heard is his spell.”
He pulled away the moss and wrote the name in the dirt. Clarissa read the name, Atapuhr, as ice ran through her veins. Images of Earle’s cruel face wormed into her mind. Angry, she scrubbed the letters out of the dirt with her hand. Zaum raised his eyebrows as she used her boot for good measure.
“Sorry,” she said, “the name reminded me of someone.”
“No one is cruel as he is,” Zaum said.
Clarissa wrapped her arms around her knees again. “You’d be surprised with the horrors humans commit.”
His low grumbling growl startled her. “Someone hurt you?” he said.
Her lips trembled as she stared at him. His fangs gleamed in the dark as his anger curled his lip. What she feared though was his reaction to what was left of her. Not knowing what to tell him, she looked away.
“He left just a shadow of me,” she said, swallowing hard. “A living corpse waiting to die.”
Zaum relaxed and leaned into her, smelling her deeply. She gave him a sideways look.
“You don’t smell like one,” he said. His playful smile returned as he remained close to her.
“I feel like one,” she said, feeling the tears threatening her again.
Tentatively, he brushed his hand over hers as he watched her face. His warmth surprised her, making her wish she was in his arms.
“Let me hold you now?” he asked softly.
“Please,” she said, grateful he asked.
Zaum turned himself toward her and folded his legs. He gave her a gentle smile as he opened his arms for her.
“Sit the way you want,” he said, “I’ll adjust to you.”
Nervously she slid into his lap sideways, curling her legs up as she rested her head against his chest. She closed her eyes as the smell of jasmine and vanilla filled her lungs. Snuggling closer to him, a smile of contentment spread across her lips as she felt his strong arms around her. His wings wrapping over her shielded out the cold. The knots and aches melted away as his heat warmed her. Drowsiness crept up on her as she absently rubbed his chest with her fingertips. Her eyes popped open as she felt him brush her hair from her face. She noticed the feel of his arousal against her side and debated on what to do as her chest tightened. He stilled himself with his hand on her shoulder as he watched her face. Certain he knew that she knew, she bit her lip as her heart raced. She told herself that if he wanted to take advantage of her, he had plenty of opportunity to do it earlier. She almost wished he would as heat awakened inside her, but she felt unable to invite him. What if she freaked out in the middle of it? What if no matter how hard she tried, there was no enjoyment in it? What would he think of her then? What if Earle ruined any chance she had of knowing real happiness? Despair swelled as she hid her face from Zaum’s curious eyes.
“Do you still want the berries?” he asked, his husky voice in her ear sent shivers down her ear.
Breathing in his scent of jasmine and vanilla, she calmed herself and sat up. “Yes,” she said.
Moving his wings let in the chill air, but he was quick. As he offered her the fist-sized ruby berry, his wings enclosed around her. Clarissa settled back into his arms after she accepted the berry. It reminded her of a nectarine in shape and feel. Even in the darkness of the night, the rich ruby skin glistened with a faint light. Hesitantly, she bit into it. The slightly bitter floral taste of the fruit’s flesh greeted her. Tartness followed closely behind while a pleasant peppery burn warmed her after she swallowed. Thin crimson juice dribbled down from her hand as she took a bigger bite.
“Easy with that,” he said, concern tugging his lips.
She smiled at him with her prize near her mouth, ready for the next bite while she chewed. “What is this?” she said, “It’s so good.”
“Devil’s Fruit,” he said, with sorrow.
As she finished the berry, the foggy haze that wine typically gave her hit. Part of her knew she had enough, but she craved more as she felt another parts of her awaken.
“Can I have another?” she asked.
Zaum frowned but he didn’t deny her. This time she didn’t mind the chill air. It felt invigorating on her skin. She beamed at him as he offered the second berry to her. As he enveloped his wings around her, she leaned against him and placed her lips next to his next. She grinned as she felt him freeze. Would he really behave like he promised? She licked lightly him from the base of the neck to his chin while with one hand she ran her nails down the side of his ribs. Pleasure sang through her as he sucked in his breath. She pulled away from him to bite into the new berry but he made no effort to stop her. He watched her lick the juices of the fruit as she ate it. Heat smoldered inside her, echoing the passion in his eyes. She teased him with a grin while she finished the fruit as he slid his hands to the moss. She nipped his ear as she playfully clawed his chest. Laughter bubbled in her veins as he stifled a moan. The darkness inside her pushed hard to be let out. This was what it wanted. This is what it needed. Clarissa surrendered to the freedom it promised, finding power in its expression.
“I want more,” she whispered into his ear.
“Haven’t you had enough?” he said, cupping her face with his hand.
His concern sparked annoyance in her. Biting his hand lightly, she glowered at him. She sat up straighter, the motion gave her a dizzying sensation.
“I want more berries,” she said, hoping she spoke clearly.
“Yes master,” he said, frowning as he leaned toward the cluster.
As the chill air struck her, she said, “I have a name and it’s Clarissa. I’m a person with real thoughts and feelings. I have the right to be treated as such.”
Zaum placed the berry in her hand, but this time he grasped her hand with both of his hands. He stared at her with concern. She leaned in to kiss whatever part she could reach but he pulled back.
“I’m worried you’ll hate me when these berries wear off,” he said. “I’m worried you’ll hate me if I tell you no to keep my promise to behave.”
“What am I supposed to do?” she said, anger rising in her. “I wanted this before I ate the berries. I couldn’t ask before but now I can. You’re going to punish me for that? Well fuck you. Fuck you all to hell.”
Pushing him away, she stumbled to her feet. The frigid air gifted her some clarity but not enough to see straight. Why wouldn’t he fight for her? He was just going to sit there and let her walk off? Vertigo swung her around, swung the world around the other direction, and caused Clarissa to stagger.
“Fuck. Fuck me all to hell,” she said. “Fuck me and my stupid ass whore ways.”
Zaum was there, wrapping his arms around her to steady her. Sobbing tears wretched through her.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry I’m so fucked up. I’m sorry I’m such a stupid cold fucking bitch. I’m sorry I need to be drunk just to fuck you.”
Her words exploded out of her as she pounded her fist on his chest. His calmness and lack of resistance riled her. Why must he look at her with those quiet eyes of his? The cold white flames of rage ripped through her as the darkness of her mind took over. She embraced it as she shoved him away from her.
“You’re all the same,” she said, screaming over the howling in her head. “You lie to us. You use us. You cheat and deceive and for what? To fuck us? We say no and we are the bad guy. You throw us down and tear us apart for it. Call us a tease or prude. We say yes and we are still the fucking bad guy. Now we’re sluts for giving you the shit you want and willing to wreck us for. You rob it from us and then you shame us. But somehow we are still the fucking bad guy in all of it. You ram us into the box of the virgin whore and punish us because we don’t fit. Every. Fucking. Day. So fuck you very much for the hell we live in.”
Nausea and vertigo struck her as her knees buckled. Zaum reached out to grab her and Clarissa nailed him with her hardest punch right below the sternum. He dropped to his knees as his diaphragm spasmed and struggled to breathe. She howled with rage, throwing the ruby berry at him.
“Don’t fucking touch me now. Stay the fuck away from me.”
Clarissa stumbled down the path away from him. The icy chains of despair cleaved her heart as the fiery beast of rage roared through her blood. She told herself it was better that she ended it now before he saw the wreck she was and hurt her later. Bleeding and raw, the scars in her soul tore open.
“You’re all the same,” she said, screaming in defiant rage at him. “You lie to us. You use us. You cheat and deceive and for what?”
Mesmerized, he watched her skin flush crimson as she clutched the berry to close to her heart. Every human he met before her seemed trite and singular in thought. She burned with such varied passions that put many demons to shame. Zaum understood she spoke of males but demons were no different in their treatment of humans. He wanted to change for her.
“To fuck us? We say no and we are the bad guy. You throw us down and tear us apart for it. Call us a tease or prude.”
She waved her other hand about like a claw to emphasize her points. Every word animated her face as the anger smoldered in her dark eyes. Her dignified stance demanded his respect and stirred his passions. He recalled Atapuhr’s treatment of him. Is this what humans learned from his kind? He wanted to redeem himself in her eyes.
“We say yes and we are still the fucking bad guy. Now we’re sluts for giving you the shit you want and willing to wreck us for.”
She paced with coiled readiness to spring as she raged at him, reminding him of a demon queen. Zaum’s pulse strengthened, revitalizing him as his eyes traced her movements. The queens were a different breed. It was through their rage they attained alpha status. It was the caste system of his kind they raged against. His first master was a queen. His one true master died in the Demon Wars. He wanted to rally to Clarissa’s battle call.
“You rob it from us and then you shame us. But somehow we are still the fucking bad guy in all of it.”
She clenched her hand into a fist and shook it at him. Electric currents of excitement coursed across his nerves. Her voice screamed for retribution. Queens held the power to master kings. On her day of judgment in the demon court, his queen screamed out the similar accusations. He wanted to honor her soul by serving Clarissa.
“You ram us into the box of the virgin whore and punish us because we don’t fit. Every. Fucking. Day.”
Her irises glowed with ruby light, matching the color of the Devil’s Fruit, as she stopped pacing to glower at him. His heart pounded in his ears as his chest tightened. Fearing her growing power, the kings sentenced his queen to death. The spilling of her blood that day launched the Demon Wars. In Clarissa’s eyes, he saw the spirit of Lilith flare within her. Then, now, and forever he belonged to her, his one true master.
“So fuck you very much for the hell we live in.”
Nausea and vertigo struck her as her knees buckled. Zaum reached out to grab her and Clarissa nailed him with a surprising punch right below the sternum. He dropped to his knees as his diaphragm spasmed, forcing him to struggle for air. She howled with rage, throwing the ruby berry at him.
“Don’t fucking touch me now. Stay the fuck away from me.”
By the time he recovered, she was gone.
Moonlight rippled through the canopy and whispered with the shadows as Clarissa wandered down the path. The chilly night air chewed into her joints but the effects of the berries continued to cloud her head. Refusing to go back, she regretted yelling at Zaum. She at least admitted to herself that she owed him an apology. With the anger spent, her tears flowed freely as she rubbed her arms. The vines seemed to shift along the bark of the tree trunks. Uneasiness curled up her spine as a vine occasionally dropped down from the canopy in a whipping motion. The blossoms in the nearby bushes turned to track her as they swelled to spew their pollen at her. Shadows skittered across the moss from the corner of her eye. Alive and malignant, the jungle felt hungry to Clarissa. Afraid and lonely, Clarissa turned back to discover that the path behind her vanished. Underbrush, roots, and vines grew in thick swaths now where the path was. Shivering sobs overtook her as she spun around to find herself surrounded by jungle with no path to follow. How did she get lost? She knew for sure she stayed on the path. Kneeling on the moss, her teeth chattered from the cold. Despair enveloped her and ebbed into her being. The fiery beast within her cooled to embers and slept as the icy chains coiled around her tighter. Tired of fighting, crying, and living in fear, she gazed up at the shafts of moonlight cutting through the canopy. She wished for all of this to end. Watching the clouds of her breath stir up the motes of silvery light floating around her, she took small comfort in the hope of seeing her son soon if she died here. Her heart ached to tell Cody how sorry she was that she failed to save him. Yearning to hold her little boy one more time and tell him she always loved him, anguish stained her despair. Closing her eyes, she waited for the unforgiving frigid night to claim her.
The music box melody carried through the jungle night in hushed crystal clear tones. Apprehension mingled with her anguish stained despair as she opened her eyes. The motes of light danced in the air with the melody, pulsing with each note. Her lungs filled with the crisp, frosty scent of the musky soil, spicy moss, and fruity blossoms of the jungle. Giving off a faint blue phosphorescence, the brown-green moss pulsed in tandem with the motes. The snaking broad leaf, pin-striped vines seemed to liquefy with faint silvery light as they spun slowly through the trees. The blushing blooms in the bushes transitioned to frosty glowing blue-white with their crimson lines switching to electric blue. Their long stamens shone with sharp silver light and dripped with crystalline honey liquid. The ruby berries brightened and twinkled in the night air. Whispering, the leaves in the swayed listlessly in the still air. Clarissa stood up slowly to behold the surreal wonderland unfolding before her. Captivated, she no longer felt the cold as her breath continued puff frosty clouds into the air. Her heart beat to the rhythm of the melody as another music box tune wrapped its song around it in harmony. Slow and sweet, the notes echoed with melancholy. She folded her hands to chest, watching a swath of silver-blue light shimmer beyond the other side of the trees. It moved with dream-like slowness through the underbrush, growing brighter as it drew near. Grief clamped into her heart as she stared in disbelief at the little boy with short, soft curly black hair walking past the trees. The silver-blue light emanated from him. He paused at the clearing she stood in to study her passively with his wood brown eyes.
“I’m so sorry I couldn’t save you, Cody,” Clarissa said.
Tears threatened to choke her as her steps toward him faltered. Raw with heartbreak, she watched him turn deeper into the jungle. Panic sliced her soul as he left her behind. She ran after him, fighting her way through the underbrush and tangling vines. The silver-blue light grew fainter as she struggled to keep up. Roots grabbed her feet while the underbrush snagged her clothes to slow her down.
“Wait, Cody, don’t leave me,” she called. “Come back. I love you.”
Pulling against the underbrush holding her back, she broke free only to fall into the blooming bushes. Clouds of pollen released into the air around her, coating her skin and filling her lungs. Her vision swam with golden light as her body moved with heavy sluggish weight. Coordination completely lost, she was unable to crawl out of the bushes. Rolling to her back with tipsy awkwardness, the gentle vertigo swayed her as she splayed her fingers out toward the moonlit canopy. Every motion left faint tracers of silver light behind in her gold painted vision. The air crawled on her skin, speaking promises of delightful pleasures. Drooping blossoms glazed her skin across her neck, arms, and cheeks with the honeyed liquid from their stamens. She drank the nectar they offered, welcoming the warmth it brought. Electric current nibbled her nerves as her breath grew ragged and deep, drawing more pollen in her lungs. Arching her back, idle fingers of one hand slipped up her shirt as the other slid down her pants. Heat flared with radiance as her insides quivered with the readiness of now. Her voice rang out with Zaum’s name on her lips to save her as she felt herself burn away.
Zaum cursed himself when he lost her scent on the jungle path. He sought it in the underbrush lining the path to no avail. Where did she go? Worry wormed its way to anger. He set them up to fail with the berries. This was his fault. He needed to find her before Atapuhr did. When the music box melody broke the silence in hushed crystal clear tones, Zaum took flight. She told him to stay away, but how could he at a time like this? Atapuhr hunted her now with his alluring song to draw her in. As another melody harmonized with the first, Zaum scanned for any signs of Clarissa as he fought off despair. The second song signaled her slipping into the power of the spell. Gliding below the canopy, Zaum found the dimming silver-blue clearing. Landing in the phosphorescence moss, he caught a hint of her scent. The mix of wine and tobacco with light touch of floral musk vanished in the frost. Zaum cursed Atapuhr in his heart as he tried to find her scent again. This was his doing to keep them separated. He tore at the vines and shredded the bark beneath with his talons. Wrath mingled with grief as he found broken brush through the jungle. She wandered off the path. Atapuhr intended to toy with them both. He probably summoned her here solely to tempt and torment him before forcing him to watch her die. Desperate to get to her first, Zaum ran through the underbrush to follow the trail she left. Rage and panic ripped his lungs as he realized her circling path lured her closer to the ravine. Where was she? Resisting the urge to yell and give away her name to Atapuhr, he frantically searched the edge for her.
The sound of his name punched through him with ruby light, dropping him to his knees. She called to him with the desperate, crying need of lust. He felt her essence down in the ravine, intoxicated with pollen. Leaping off the edge, he spread his wings to glide along the energy her voice tethered to him. He spotted her in a large patch of bushes. Clouds of pollen spewed each time she shifted her body. She took in more of the pollen with each deep ragged breath. The sap coated her flushed, sweaty skin as the blossoms swayed across her. It fed and coaxed her passion as one hand stroked her torso beneath her shirt. Fire ignited his blood to see her other hand working hard in her pants. If it wasn’t already too late, he needed to get her out of that mess before she died from the toxins. Swooping down, he scooped her up and carried her to another clearing.
Landing in the moss, he checked her for injuries while she panted against his neck. She squirmed and whimpered from his touch. There were scrapes and bruises, but no broken bones. Her lips and tongue grazed his neck, sending shivers down through him. He tried to ignore her desire, wanting to be sure it was what she wanted, but it was getting harder to do that. It didn’t help that he felt the effects of the pollen too. It hit him when he pulled her out of the bushes. It powdered her skin and hair. Touching the sap on her arms warmed him too. Tugging his face toward hers, she met his gaze with ruby eyes.
“Zaum,” she said with a trembling whisper, “help me.”
Resistance inside him faded as he cupped her face and leaned in for a kiss. He wouldn’t deny her again. The bittersweet sap on her lips heated between them. She gasped as his tongue found hers. Her fingers twining in his silky hair, she pulled him closer. The smell of jasmine and vanilla from his skin hazed her senses. He brushed her neck with his lips, flicking his tongue down her pulsing skin. Drinking the smell of the blossoms on her skin, he hand trailed down her ribs. Her soft moan against his neck as she licked him flared his nerves. His fingers slipped beneath the hem of her shirt and traced her skin lightly along it. She whimpered into him as her back arched. Tasting her collarbone, he slid her shirt up with a slow hand to discover the lace covering her breast. He groaned with a delicious tremor as her nails swept along his spine. Teasing her nipple through the lace with his thumb, he claimed her mouth with his. Greeting his kiss with her tongue, she returned his hunger. Feeling her nipple harden, he brushed his lips across her jaw line to her ear. Her trembling fingers slipped into his tunic and glided upwards along his back and ribs. His breath quickened as he trailed his lips back down her neck, shuddering from her touch. Clarissa cried out, her back arching sharply, as he lifted the other side of her shirt to claim that breast with his mouth.
She flinched when he lightly nipped her nipple. Anxious to appease, he traced the skin along the lace with his tongue before he delved under gently. Feeling the tension melt from her, he teased the nipple with tongue and lips. Careful to keep his fangs clear of her skin, his hand brushed into the lace as he nuzzled her breast with his mouth. As her hands left his shirt, he prayed he hadn’t ruined the mood. Elation sang through him when she fumbled with the buttons of his tunic. His lips found hers as he helped her with them. Straddling his lap as his tunic opened, Clarissa rubbed her hands across his chest. Letting the tunic fall away into the grass, he closed his eyes as she tasted his skin at his throat. Licking and kissing, she found her way to his nipple. Her nails kneaded his back as her lips and tongue worked a low, soft groan from him. Sucking in his breath as she rocked her hips against him, he wrapped his arms tightly around her. A desperate, long whine spilled from her as she shuddered against him as her hips bore down on him. Her ruby eyes told him she wasn’t done. Eager for her, he pulled her shirt off her. As the moonlight bathed her bare skin, shame and worry vexed her ruby eyes. Her hands covered her naked skin as she ducked her head. The rise and fall of her chest enchanted him as she panted. Zaum’s gaze flowed over her satin flesh, drinking in her beauty. Overlapping scars just above the breast and down the shoulder, made by human teeth, marred her otherwise perfect skin. Understanding now her fear and anger, he lifted her chin with a tender hand. He met her gaze, seeing the ruby light in them fading.
“You’re beautiful,” he said.
Hearing his raw, husky voice say those words, Clarissa captured his lips with hers. He pulled her close to him, enjoying the feel of her skin against his. Teasing her lips open with his tongue, she rewarded him with a soft gasp. His tongue stroked hers as he warmed her back with his hands. She drew back from him long enough to remove the lace garment for him. A playful smile invited him as her eyes glowed rich with ruby light. With a sharp breath, he cupped her breasts reverently as he leaned into her. Kissing and licking her from the ear down to her breast, he set her sweet skin on fire. Shivering through her, a soft moan escaped as he cherished one nipple with his mouth and coaxed the other with his hand. Her fingers combed through his silken hair while she murmured for more. Answering her, he leaned her back to kiss her sternum and down, with flicking tongue. Her cry spoke her need as her fingers curled in his hair. She took her boots and socks off as he undid her pants. Kissing her, he laid out her gently on the moss. Her fingertips traced along the side of her ribs as she bit her lip, her legs shifting in anticipation. His wings fluttered slightly at the sight of her.
A mix of pride and wonder swelled in him to see her need for him. Prepared to earn it, he bathed her with lapping kisses from the neck down. He grinned with pleasure against her skin when he reached the edge of her pants, eliciting a gasping groan from her. He slipped the rest of her clothes off her body, revealing more scars. Without hesitation, he kissed the inside of her legs with promises of no more suffering. As he reached the black curls wet with her milky honey, he guided her legs rest on his shoulders. Not wishing to hurt her with his talons, he propped her hips up with one arm while he stroked her stomach with his other hand. She arched her back with a long moan as he licked her curls, mindful of his fangs. He teased her with his lips as she groaned. Her hand slid down to join his mouth as he grinned at her impatience. His tongue followed her fingers as she caressed herself around the clitoris. She didn’t touch it directly and he didn’t question. Her hips rocked up as she pulled down with her legs, giving him more access to her. He stroked her leg as he slowly explored inside her with his tongue. His name echoed through him from her gasping lips as she withdrew her hand to tug at his shoulder. Refusing to have her beneath him, he glided his hands up her back as his lips followed up the front of her and guided her up to a sitting position. Her lips welcomed him with greed as she fumbled with his pants. Zaum smiled into her neck as his seed flowed in eager anticipation of the pleasure her hunger promised. Kissing her neck, he stood up to remove his remaining clothes. She was already tasting his seed before he sat back down. Uncomfortable seeing her in a submissive position, he pulled her away.
“Don’t have to,” he said, cupping her face with both hands.
A devilish gleam caught her eye as she pushed his hands into the moss on either side of him. She teased his lips with her lips and tongue but denied him a kiss.
“Want to,” she said. “Don’t move.”
Letting go of his hands, she raked her nails down his chest as she kissed down to his legs. She drew his knees up as her ruby eyes flirted with him. He leaned back as his heart raced with her kissing his inner thigh, leaving a blazing trail of fire behind. Shuddering, he groaned when she reached his groin. Her fingertips stroked his shaft slowly as she licked the base. His fingers clawed the moss as her finger massaged beneath his scrotum while her tongue glided up his shaft from the base to the head in long steady strokes. He gasped as she teased the head with her lips, his seed begging to spill. Her mouth took him slowly. When she nuzzled the head to the back of her throat, he shivered as he ripped the moss with his talons.
“Can’t take more,” he breathed.
Releasing him, she kissed his stomach as she rubbed his legs. He flexed his wings as he steadied his breath, the urgency subsiding. Clarissa trailed her tongue lightly up his chest. He greeted her with his lips as he wrapped his arms around her. As she straddled his lap again, his tongue traced the curve of her neck. He felt her fluid as her hips bore down on him to grind against his shaft. Her breath grew heavy as she slipped a hand between them to guide him inside her. She slid up and down the length of him slowly a few times before settling upon his entire shaft. A sly smile played her lips as teased his lips again, keeping her hips still. Moving her lips to his neck, she wrapped her arms around him and flicked her tongue against his skin. Zaum slid his hands down to her hips, but she guided them back up and gave him a playful kiss. He claimed her lips for a deeper kiss as her hips ground into him with short, slow thrusts. Her thrusts got harder and deeper as her breath got heavier. Planting kisses and flicking his tongue upon her neck, he shuddered as she quivered around him. Her deep breaths came in moaning gasps as she clawed his back, bringing him to the edge. He shuddered hard into her as she wailed into the waning night. Zaum found his demon queen as the intensity of the moment overtook her.
He held her tight as her body shook. Her breathing hard, uneven and spasming, she covered her mouth and nose in panic with her shaking hands. Rocking her as sobs broke through, he wrapped his wings around her. Worried, he stroked her hair and back as he kissed her forehead. He relaxed as he felt her breathing even out and slow. The sobbing eased to gentle crying as he continued to cradle her. Relief washed over him as her arms wrapped around him. Murmuring apologies, she kissed him along his neck. He nuzzled her neck as he hushed her, soothing her with warm hands. Finding his lips, she gave him a languid, comfortable kiss. The ruby light faded from her eyes, leaving them filled with their natural wood brown color and plenty of wonder for him. Spent and drained, she leaned against his chest as she closed her eyes. Zaum marveled over the woman in his arms. Kissing her neck, he gently lifted her from his shaft. She whimpered as he slid from her, fluid dripping on him. He whispered apologies into her skin as he laid back on the moss with her. She snuggled against his chest as they drifted to sleep together.
Clarissa woke up in the lazy warmth of the sun, drenched in the smell of jasmine and vanilla. Tangled in his arms and legs, she snuggled closer to him. She let the fogginess of sleep drift over her as she traced her fingertips across his muscled chest. Her body ached from the vigor of last night’s passion. Sighing, she closed her eyes. She wanted to believe it happened because he cared but that pollen was insane. Considering how much it hurt when he turned her down after the berries, she was grateful he hadn’t after the pollen. Feeling his fingers brush her cheek tenderly, she opened her eyes to meet his questioning gaze.
“Are you well?” he asked softly.
Her chest tightened. “I don’t know,” she said as he kissed her forehead.
She feared this was a dream or a cruel joke. Knowing the pain would come eventually, she settled her cheek back on his chest and closed her eyes. For now she took comfort in his presence. Zaum kissed her gently on her eyebrow and temple.
“I’m listening,” he whispered in her ear.
“I’m afraid,” she whispered without moving, “you’ll hurt me.”
“Because of these?” he asked, tracing his thumb along a scar on the back of her shoulder.
Curling into him, her heart twisted. “Yes,” she said.
He hugged her tightly. “I would never do this,” he said. “Your wishes, wants, and desires are mine.”
Zaum kissed her hair as he hoped to eventually share with her his desires. For now, he needed her to trust in him.
Sitting up, she gave him a dark look. “Don’t give me that,” she said. “I don’t buy that. Every one has their thing. What’s yours?”
A sly half grin played his lips. He ran his fingertip around her lips until she caught it with her teeth. Raising his eyebrows, his grin broadened.
“What?” she said, pulling his hand down.
Picking at the moss wistfully, he looked down from her. Zaum decided to tell her directly.
“You can be aggressive with me. I like it,” he said, wrapping his arms around her. “But I’ll always be gentle with you.”
“I don’t want hurt you,” he said, kissing her forehead.
“No, why do you want me to hurt you?” she said. Concern troubled her face.
“Pain. Pleasure. No different,” he said, shrugging. “The difference is how you see it.”
“Bullshit,” Clarissa said.
“It’s true,” he said, nuzzling her neck, “but, you needn’t hurt me to be aggressive.”
Clarissa stood up and collected her clothes. She needed time and space to process everything. Getting dressed, she felt him staring at her but she refused to look at him. Thoughts tried to push their way into her head, but she focused only on putting the clothes on. Emotions swirled but she stuffed them down as she tied her boots. Everything moved too fast.
She looked up at him to find him kneeling with his wings wrapped around him. He stared at her quietly without demand or judgment as before, but this time she saw a hint of pain or fear in those peach colored eyes. Guilt cut her. From the beginning he protected her and looked after her. He offered himself to her and maybe it was from loneliness. Maybe she was the only person available here. She didn’t understand his world or why he wanted what he did. None of that gave her the right to use him like she had last night and she sure as hell didn’t want to be like Earle. He deserved better than that.
“I’m sorry,” she said, looking away from him and fighting back the longing in her heart. “You deserve better.”
“Better than what?” he asked.
The anger didn’t come. Only pain lanced through her this time as the memories crept in. She closed her eyes, but it didn’t block them out. It never did. It’s why she drank instead. The fog the wine brought blocked it out. Tired of running from it, she embraced the pain and faced it.
“You saw what he did,” she said quietly. “He said things too. Made me do things. Things I didn’t want. And in the end he killed my son.”
They sat in silence for a time. Clarissa stared at the trees when he finally stood up and got dressed. The tears threatened but they didn’t fall. Her chest burned as it tightened. Zaum deserved kindness and love. As much as she wanted to try to give him that, she wasn’t sure if she could. She couldn’t be what he wanted. It reminded her too much of Earle. When he placed his hand on her shoulder, she didn’t pull away. She laced her fingers with his. She didn’t understand why because it made more sense to call it off, but she wanted to stay with him. She wanted to know and see where this road together went even though she felt nothing good would come of it.
“I’m not leaving,” she said, watching him relax, “I just need some time alone.”
“I’ll be back then,” he said, kissing her forehead.
She watched him cross the clearing and vanish into the trees. Anxiety fluttered inside her. What if he didn’t come back? Remembering the pain and fear in his eyes, she calmed herself and drew her knees up to her chest. Clarissa considered the potential of the relationship. He said knowing his name gave her power over him. Her wants, needs, and wishes were his. It felt one-sided to her and she wanted his wants, needs, and wishes met as well. The only thing he asked for was the one thing she couldn’t give. Sighing, she buried her face in her arms as she wrapped them around her knees. The memory of last night spread warmth through her as her nerves sang. She’d sell her soul if every time was like that. She had touched fire before but last night she became the fire. He said she was the master but she felt like the slave here. She wanted to give him anything to have that again. Clarissa groaned into her knees. Anything except becoming the monster he asked for.
“Clarissa,” Zaum said, “will you walk with me?”
The confidence in his voice drew her attention as she met his gaze. Pride filled his stance as his wings unfurled wide behind him, shielding him from the light in the clearing. His peach colored eyes seemed deeper and richer somehow as he held his hand out to her. A smile, bordering on a sneer, graced his lips. Unease whispered of times past as she studied him.
“What’s going on?” she said, standing up.
Zaum wrapped his arms around her waist, sliding behind her. The faint smell of ash and dry leaves drifted by and vanished. His hand glided up to her breast as he leaned down into her ear. Her skin crawled as he squeezed.
“I have things to show you, my dear,” he said.
“Back off Earle,” she said, shoving Zaum away from her.
Anger flickered as confusion clamored in her heart. What the fuck was this? His expression softened to a wounded one, but his wings remained unusually high.
“Who’s Earle?” he said, “A lover of yours?”
“Just a creep,” she said, fighting back tears. “And you promised.”
He raised his eyebrows in mild surprise. “Oh,” he said, bringing his fingertips together in front of his chin. “I suppose I did. Forgive me.”
Clarissa glared at him warily as he folded his wings around him. He ducked his head down for a moment before tilting his face up at her. His eyes remained their dark color. Keeping her distance, she tried to relax.
“Walk with me?” he said, his voice almost lyrical.
“Fine,” she said. “Where we going?”
He offered a tiny smile and said, “You’ll see.”
She followed him up a steep trail out of the ravine. He offered no assistance as she struggled through the rough terrain. Clearly he was upset with her now. Hoping for him to calm down soon, she continued the best she could in silence. Her legs and burned to keep up with his unforgiving pace. Sweat beaded her brow and fatigue ached through her but she refused to ask him for a break. Eventually they broke into a clearing coated in gloom. The gray fog blanketed the moss and obscured the canopy in a deep haze. Zaum didn’t wait for her as he strode directly into it. Clarissa hurried behind him before she completely lost his shadow. Wavering torch light welcomed them as they broke through the fog, revealing a house. It was black with gilded gold trimming. The glass in the windows were frosty blue-white and decorated with complex ornate geometric designs in gold wire. Her heart pounded as she watched the light in the gold gilded trim spin along their lines. Zaum took the steps up on the front porch leading to the front door. Its ebony panel matched the door that brought her to this strange jungle. Placing his hand on the door, he tilted his head back to her.
“Are you coming,” he said, “or just breathing hard?”
Her skin crawled as she followed him inside. A gracious parlor greeted her as she entered. Polished pink granite laid out the floor as the ebony walls rose up with their golden gilding. Glass tables lined the walls displaying ornate boxes with inlaid jewels and intricate gold leaf designs. The delicate crystal chandelier twinkled from the ceiling above them as Zaum spread out his arms and wings. Turning himself around the luxury of the room, his chest puffed with pride.
“Welcome to my home,” he said.
Clarissa frowned as she went over to examine the boxes. She opened one and it began playing the now familiar melody. Zaum slammed her into the table as he shut the box. His body pressed hard against her.
“Don’t touch that,” he said sharply.
Chills ran her blood cold as she felt his hips grind into her. The edge of the table pinched into her from his weight while fear clawed its way up her spine. She gave him this freely before, so why would he feel the need to rob her of it now? Tears fell as he yanked her head back by her hair. He promised. This wasn’t what she wanted. As he tore her shirt open in the front, she cried out. When his fangs brushed across her shoulders, she squirmed to get away but he held her firm. Rage and panic screamed through her as she elbowed him. It was enough for her to wriggle free. Fury twisted his face as his eyes changed to a deep wine color.
“Zaum, stop it. You promised.”
He dove for her as she ran for the door.
“You took her from me,” the tired but lyrical voice said. “You know you are to bring all of them to me.”
Zaum turned to meet the wine colored gaze of his old master. His satin beryl-green hair cascaded down to his waist in graceful lines. The golden glyphs tattooed on Atapuhr’s naked chiseled chest gleamed faintly in the shadows. An elegant turquoise amulet set in gold hung from a thick gold rope chain around his neck. The light blue, skin-tight pants he wore flowed over his muscled legs. His feathered, broken wings hung limply from his back. They lost their moonlit sheen and luster ages ago, but these days the dingy feathers reminded Zaum of forgotten cobwebs. Hard to believe that before meeting Clarissa seeing him was a comfort. Seeing him now put Zaum on edge.
“She doesn’t belong to you, Atapuhr.”
Zaum staggered from the backhanded blow Atapuhr delivered to his face.
“I am the master, not you. You think she belongs to you?”
“No,” Zaum said. “She belongs to no one.”
Atapuhr chuckled as he circled around Zaum.
“Don’t lie to me Zaum,” he said, snaking his hands up Zaum’s thighs from behind. “I saw her all over you last night.”
Zaum clenched his jaw as Atapuhr found him flaccid and unresponsive.
“Oh my, you devil you. She slaked your thirst even through the pollen has she?” Atapuhr said. “She’s human. What makes her so special?”
“Back off,” Zaum said.
“I think not,” Atapuhr said and nibbled his ear. “I fully intend to taste her myself.”
Zaum spun around and shoved him. “Stay away from her.”
“I am the master, not you.” Atapuhr said, fury flushing his skin. “Know your place, Zaum.”
Vines whipped down from the canopy, grabbing Zaum’s wrists and ankles. As he ripped free from them, more sprung from the tree behind him, pulled him back, and pinned his arms to his sides as they wrapped around him. Zaum glared at him as the vines tightened. Atapuhr sneered in satisfaction as he approached him.
“Tell me, Zaum, where is Clarissa?”
Zaum’s eyes widened. He didn’t realize he gave her name away at some point. Unsure if she shared this weakness, his heart begged for her forgiveness. If nothing else it granted Atapuhr familiarity with her he didn’t deserve. It may strengthen his spells on her. Zaum couldn’t let that happen. Atapuhr slapped him, blurring his vision. How long did Clarissa live this way trying to protect her son? In the end that bastard killed him. Atapuhr was no different. He knew his old master intended to kill her no matter what Zaum did. If they survived this Zaum planned to never ask her of this again. He refused to remind her of this agony again.
“Zaum, tell me where she is.”
“Can’t help you,” Zaum said and flashed him a sly grin.
It felt good to deny him, just like the old days in the Demons’ Court. Unlike back then, it earned him a fierce slap on the cheek.
“Then you can rot there for all I care,” Atapuhr said.
He hissed at Zaum before storming off. As soon as he was out of sight, Zaum started working his hand around, attempting to pick at the vines with his talons. If he could get one hand free then tearing the rest away was no problem. He struggled to quell the panic as he strained to dig his talons into the first vine against his wrist. This wasn’t working. Pushing away the ideas of Atapuhr’s hands on Clarissa, refused to give up. Atapuhr had far worse in store for her than the man who scarred her with his teeth. Pressing his feet against the tree, Zaum strained forward against the vines. The vines didn’t break and Zaum had to catch his breath. At least the vines stopped tightening around him, but he was still stuck there and unable to help her. Bitter despair gnawed at him as it slowly kindled to outrage. Trying again, he pushed up and outward with his legs as he writhed against the vines. He felt them pull and snap in the strain so he pushed harder with a growl. Clarissa’s terrorized scream cut a sharp, hollow hole in his chest as the vines gave way.
“Zaum, stop it. You promised.”
Hitting the ground face first knocked the wind out of him, but it didn’t take long to recover. Racing towards Atapuhr’s small estate, he prayed he’d get there in time.
The door swung open for her, with the fog greeting her, but Atapuhr grabbed her hair and flung her back to the floor. She gasped as she slid across the polished granite. Her back struck the leg of a glass table, knocking the breath from her. It teetered and the music box clattered on its surface. Atapuhr quickly steadied it with a hand as he glowered at her.
“Stupid bitch,” he said, kicking her.
“I didn’t do it,” she said, curling into a ball to shield herself with her knees.
“I’ll break and crush you,” he said, fury unfurling from him in waves. “You don’t deserve anything.”
Clarissa sobbed as she receded to the safe space of her mind. This was all she was ever meant to know. She surrendered to the pain and darkness.
“Not his name. He’s mine,” he said, stomping down on her. “Mine. I’m the master.”
The eyes of fire opened inside her, burning away the darkness. This wasn’t Zaum. She was still in pain and still fucked but not by him. He warned her about this guy, but she couldn’t remember his name.
“Zaum, I’m sorry,” Clarissa said. “Be safe.”
As he brought his leg up again to stomp down on her, she kicked him hard in the side of his other knee. He didn’t fall, but he pulled her off the floor by her hair. She scrambled for the music box with one hand. Clarissa almost had it when he flung her to the center of the parlor. Her vision swam as her head hit the granite.
“I told you don’t touch that.”
Nausea reeled in her as she crawled away from him toward another glass table behind her. Her pulse throbbed in her ears. Time slowed while her limbs grew heavy and clumsy. He loomed over her with his fangs bared. His long hiss reminded her of a feral cat. The fire within her kept the fear at bay, but she knew that her death was near. She reached for the leg of the table, praying to either create a distraction to buy herself more time or to just end it. At this point, she didn’t know which she wanted more. As he raised his fist to punch her, she wrapped her fingers around the table leg. She prepared to bring the table down on them both.
Zaum tackled him, bringing him to the granite floor. Light flickered around her assailant, revealing feathered wings and beryl-green hair. Clarissa used the table to pull herself out-of-the-way. Panting against the wall, she tried to follow them as they punched, kicked, and clawed each other.
“I told you to stay away from her,” Zaum said with a growl.
Vines snaked into the parlor from the open door. Their movements were rapid as they grew along the floor and walls. Clarissa pressed herself tight to the wall as the feather-winged demon knocked Zaum back with a low elbow strike.
“Why did you give her your name?” he said.
Panic surged through her as neither of the demons noticed their accelerated growth. The vines ignored her as they rippled around her in coiled waves. Zaum readied his fists and watched him closely as he circled in for an opening. The feather-winged demon dove for Zaum. Clarissa’s vision blurred.
“Why did you throw me out in the jungle?” Zaum said.
The vines advanced for the grappling opponents. Clarissa strained to clear her head. Pinned to the wall, Zaum gripped his opponent’s arms. Vines snaked up and around him, sliding him off his feet. The vines began to twist and tighten around Zaum.
“All you had to do was come back and beg,” he said. “But you didn’t. You gave your name and power to this bitch instead.”
Her temper flared again, giving life to the fiery beast of rage as she pulled herself up with the table. She tried to focus on what Zaum told her last night. A demon’s true name is the key to their power. She knew his name. Zaum wrote it in the dirt. It reminded her of Earle. When the vines pulled each of Zaum’s limbs in a different direction, he howled in agony. The icy chains of despair spun around Clarissa, howling in her mind. Zaum was going to die in front of her just like her son if she didn’t stop it. Her mind sharpened as she remembered the name Zaum wrote in the dirt. Grabbing the music box next to her, she stepped forward.
“Atapuhr, put him down.”
Atapuhr turned to Clarissa in shock as the vines slowly lowered Zaum to the floor. He collapsed to the cool granite, gasping for breath. In her hands she held one of Atapuhr’s beloved music boxes. It surprised Zaum to see her baring fangs at him as her eyes burned with the crimson light.
“How dare you,” Atapuhr said, his voice quavering.
“No,” Clarissa said. “How dare you. You’re not even a demon. You’re a fallen angel with broken wings.”
Atapuhr’s wine colored eyes widened as she chucked the music box across the room for it to crash into the one that lined up with it on the other side. Both of them splintered into pieces with a pinging whine.
“Stop,” Atapuhr cried, lunging forward.
“You stop,” she said. “You’re nothing. A siren without a voice. You sold your soul for power.”
She grabbed the second box to launch it across the room as well to smash it and the one across it.
“You bitch,” Atapuhr said, trying to grab her.
He gasped as she dodged, snatching the third music box and tossing it at the final one across the parlor. The pieces scattered across the floor.
“You’re just a pretender,” Clarissa said, facing him. “A cheap fake.”
“I’m the master here, Clarissa,” Atapuhr said.
He hissed at her and lunged at her again. She snatched his amulet and pulled it free from its chain as she rolled down to the side. Picking up a large broken piece of music box, she held it out in front of her.
“Kneel before me, Atapuhr,” she said, walking over to a glass table. “Know your true master.”
He fell to his knees as she placed the amulet on the glass table and raised the broken music box above her head.
“Have mercy,” Atapuhr pleaded. “I can change.”
Clarissa met his gaze. “Now where have I heard that before? You fuckers are all the same.”
Putting both hands on the broken piece, she brought it down on the amulet with all her might. It broke the jewel, smashed through the glass, and sliced through her arms. Atapuhr leaned his head back and closed his eyes as he crumbled to dust.
“I’m sorry Lilith,” whispered his voice.
Clarissa’s eyes roll back as she dropped to the floor. The blood from her arms pooled around her. Zaum scrambled to reached her. Kneeling at Clarissa’s side, he ripped his shirt in strips to bandage her arms. He cradled her, the tears swelling. An audible click of the door carried through the jungle. Lifting her up, he carried her out to the porch. The fog around the estate had cleared, revealing that the jungle was wilting and shriveling at a rapid rate. Holding her tight, he took flight through the decaying jungle towards the door.
A tall young woman with short black hair and bronze eyes greeted them at the door. She called for a Dragonkin by the name of Korg for help. Neither of them questioned his presence or appearance. They helped him bring Clarissa into her home and the young woman tended to her. Everyone was grateful to have Clarissa back, but Zaum noted that the man with braided gray hair kept giving him dark looks. It made him uneasy but he needed to wait and deal with that another time.