A/N – My dear readers! Thank you to everyone who has stuck by me and this story for so long. I sincerely apologise for the wait between this chapter and the previous one; I really have been writing whenever I am able. I doubt any single chapter would be worth a whole year of waiting, but as with everything I write I have poured my soul into Part 8 and I sincerely hope you enjoy reading it. As always PLEASE rate, comment and email me! I love hearing from you guys and I will reply to every email. Happy New Year!
We stroll through the gardens, soaking in the light of the setting sun and holding onto each other with utter reverence. I am content beyond words, feeling adored and daydreaming about my wedding. My love assured me that he would take care of everything and I made no protest, curious to see what he has planned for us. My new ring has a deliciously foreign feel to it, hugging the usually barren finger snugly. We head across the road to a quaint little inn as the sky darkens ever more.
Flowers decorate the cosy reception room, attempting to borrow some of the charm exuded by the gardens. While it fails, it doesn’t do so too considerably. The room certainly possesses a loved quality and promises the same from its suites.
The desk clerk is old and worn ragged. His clothes are of good taste but look a little shabby. He perks up when we walk toward him, plastering a strained smile on his wrinkled face.
“Welcome to the Cattleya Inn,” he chirps with false cheer. It’s obvious that he is anything but cheerful, although I hear something else in his voice; pride. “How can I help you today?”
He’s the owner, he has to be. It explains his forlorn demeanour; old-fashioned keys cover the wall behind him, every holder occupied. Pride alone isn’t enough to keep a business afloat, and business isn’t exactly booming.
“We require a room,” Asmodeus replies.
“Of course,” he says, eyeing us wearily when he takes in our appearances. Even though Ash is huge and I’m visibly pregnant, I know how this looks. He thinks we’re both too young to be paying customers. Frankly, I’m with him when it comes to the payment part. I certainly don’t have any money and I doubt Asmodeus keeps a credit card with him. The clerk and I watch expectantly as he reaches into his jacket pocket.
The owner stares with utter disbelief when Ash pays for our room with a handful of small, clear gemstones. I can barely mask my look of surprise as I register the stones to be uncut diamonds.
“Uh, we’re not from here,” I say, thickening my already foreign accent, “Our credit cards haven’t been delivered yet and my fiancé comes from a prosperous South African diamond mining family. I’m sure this will cover any expense?”
I try to keep my voice strong but it becomes lilting and I tend to stutter when I lie. The owner is torn between eyeing us suspiciously and staring greedily at the diamonds. Even to my untrained eye, I, like him, just know they’re real.
“He doesn’t sound South African,” the man says, “And neither of you look it.”
He tears his gaze away from the diamonds to stare at us accusingly.
“And you’re the expert are you? Have you ever been there?” I ask hotly.
I don’t like arrogant or know-it-all people, especially when they think they know everything about the country of my birth.
“I didn’t think so,” I say when he doesn’t answer.
“How do I know these aren’t stolen?”
At that Asmodeus growls softly next to me and I squeeze his hand in mine.
“You don’t,” I reply, “You have only our word that they aren’t and if that’s not enough for you then we’ll take our business elsewhere.”
When I move to retrieve the diamonds, the owner clamps a hand over them and slides them closer toward him.
“Wait! I’m sure you wouldn’t lie to me. You two don’t look like criminals. Well, you don’t anyway,” he looks at me, and then eyes Asmodeus doubtfully.
“You can call me Mr. Carrington,” he says, picking out a key from the wall with quaking fingers, before turning back to stare at us with cloudy eyes, “Well, what are you waiting for? Follow me.” I take it back; I think I like this man after all.
I like him even more when he leads us to his best room. It isn’t the best because of its size or luxury; like the reception building, it has an air about it which makes it feel revered. Every piece of furniture looks lovingly handpicked, chosen for longevity and comfort rather than flashiness or style. No, they were definitely not picked for style. Mismatched couches sit in front of an ancient box-set television with an old fashioned rug thrown on the floor between them for good measure. The head of the bed is pushed against the opposite wall, its duvet and pillows ochre coloured and printed with purple wildflowers. Mr. Carrington opens a door on the left wall and I catch a glimpse of the bathroom. He leaves a basket of miniature bath products on the vanity, having grabbed it from a supply closet as he led us to the room. I can see the corner of a marble hand basin, complete with a brass faucet and I love this room all the more.
Asmodeus shuts Mr. Carrington out as I take in the wonderful simplicity of the room. It completely lacks the intricacy and dark beauty of Asmodeus’ creations; it’s old, mismatched and maybe a little tacky, but just standing here makes me feel so utterly human. How ironic that we constantly dream of beautiful things until we receive them and begin then to dream of simpler times. I resolve right now to make the most of my visit to the human realm.
I jump onto the bed and delight at the creak of the ancient springs within the mattress. God, I need to stop using that metaphor. It hardly applies now that I’ve acquired a fiancé as old as the human race. The thought makes me laugh aloud and I bounce again to hear these decade old bedsprings. Asmodeus gives a whole new meaning to the word ancient.
I stretch out like a sun-bathing cat then curl into myself, snuggling against the deliciously rough cotton of the duvet. The pillow at my head is starchy but smells wonderful. It’s a chemically clean scent, laced with artificial lavender, nothing like the earthy musk permeating everything in Asmodeus’ world.
But that earthy scent is taking over again, because I’ve brought the source with me. Ash lies on the bed beside me and I breathe in one last lungful of the wonderfully normal lavender soap smell before I turn to face him. I don’t know how to behave around him now, in these unreservedly ordinary surroundings. Here, my lust for him seems like a greasy, filthy thing; with none of the inevitability associated with sex. It’s as if we’ve come out of the safety of darkness and I feel vulnerable, open to scrutiny even behind closed doors. Here, sex is cheap and nasty, something to be hidden. It’s shameful to want it and to enjoy it; it’s unheard of as being good and beautiful.
It’s strange to look at him while he wears his glamour. He’s still exquisite, though he wears his features in an innocently boyish way. His hair is still pale, strewn across his pillow but it has dulled from polished platinum to a tarnished, faded gold. His eyes though, even under his disguise, I see my King in his eyes. Even so drastically changed, they still burn with the passion of his fire-lit eyes. It’s a frostbitten warmth, slicing yet strangely soothing. These two pairs of eyes say all that’s worth telling about my lover. They show every side of him, this fiery yet passionate demon with his sharp yet gentle nature. They are everything I love about him.
It’s hard to believe that such an extraordinary being can be hidden beneath a layer of mud. Surely such radiance should shine through, its heat baking the clay until it flakes off and is carried away in the wind. But it holds stubbornly, hiding my King’s terrible beauty behind a handsome façade. I wonder who our baby will look like?
Will he or she possess my plain features with his unnatural allure? Or his sinister good looks with my raging temper and bull-headedness? Will his skin be brown like mine or a vortex of dark colours like his father’s? Will he have my rich chocolate eyes or Asmodeus’ molten lava pair? I can’t wait to hold this enigma in my arms but the very thought has me absolutely terrified. So, for a little reassurance, I stroke my lover’s face and break our easy silence.
“You’ve done all this before with Elysia,” I say. It’s a statement, not a question so he waits silently for me to continue, “Why? What will you do with him when he’s born?”
“The child will be placed here, in the realm of man upon maturity and walk amongst the humans as a living temptation. He will become my link to this world, enticing humans to practice my sin. He will be, like the kin of angels and demons before him, nothing more or less than a choice, a fantasy which the decider may willingly choose. This decision will sway the scales and influence the ultimate fate of the soul. For what is life but an assortment of choices which define the soul making them?”
“So he’ll be an incubus? Or a succubus if we have a girl?” I ask, breath catching as I pull my hands back. I draw them close to me, suddenly wishing that I hadn’t asked.
“Yes my love, this will be his purpose.”
“Purpose? You speak about him as if he’s an appliance not a child. Who are you to decide his purpose?”
“I am his progenitor and his King. He will do as I command.” His words aren’t hard or cold, they simply are; as if there is no questioning their authority and that makes them all the worse.
I sit up, anger rising with me and I face his gaze unflinchingly.
“You will not make a womaniser of my son, or a whore of my daughter.”
He laughs, sitting up and reaching for me. He rests his hands on my hips and draws closer to me.
“My warrior Queen, I do not wish to battle with you today. I yield love, spare your King his miserable hide.” His voice is teasing and playful, his false eyes twinkling.
“Don’t play with me Asmodeus, I’m serious. I don’t care about your desire for a link to the human world. People are lustful enough as it is, they don’t need my children to seduce them. They’ve done well enough without incubi and succubi all this time; they don’t need any help now.”
His gaze is unwavering and I catch a hard truth in his eyes.
Of course, how could I have been so stupid, so naive? To think that after three million years, the baby growing within me is only his second son.
“How many?” I ask, tight-lipped. My gaze has fallen; I find that I can barely stand to look at him now.
“Does it matter?”
“Are you certain you wish to know?” He pinches my chin gently and lifts my face up to his.
“Yes,” I say, then, “No. But you’re going to tell me anyway.”
“I have fathered fifteen thousand sons and thirteen thousand daughters, none living who are trueborn heirs to my throne.”
My heart thunders so painfully that the unrelenting beat sickens me. This roiling and churning in my gut has the back of my throat constricting. It takes everything I have to keep the nausea contained so that it cannot morph the foul smelling beast it craves to be. The baby kicks me in protest, no doubt disturbed in his slumber by the pounding in my chest. So he isn’t as unique as I thought. Not the only one of his kind, but one of twenty-eight thousand; just another soldier in Asmodeus’ army of offspring.
“Fuck, Asmodeus!” I shout and jump off the bed. “What the fuck?!”
I half-run to the bathroom and slam the door behind me. He doesn’t try to stop me or open the door or even speak through it; he just leaves me to digest what I’ve learnt.
Oh well, I think, I wanted to know.
I sink to the floor with my back against the door, pulling my knees up as far as my baby allows. The tears flow freely when my anger fades. The tiles are cold under my bum and the door hard against my back. Cold and hard, like this life, no matter where I am.
As if to belie this observation, my baby’s growing pains kick into gear while I lean against the door. I moan quietly, cursing whatever deity is responsible for my misery. The pain seems less severe than I’ve previously experienced though, and for that at least, I am grateful. I am able to keep from throwing up or crying out and even when Asmodeus knocks softly on the door, I am strong enough to turn him away without screaming. He withdraws when he finally realises that I want to suffer alone.
* * * * *
When I emerge from the bathroom, tear-streaked and sweat-soaked, I’m itching to run back in. If the dread I feel at the thought of seeing my baby’s father isn’t enough of a reason to lock myself in again; then certainly my neglected body is. Sitting on the hard floor and crying for hours hardly does wonders in the personal hygiene department. I push aside my revulsion for the moment though and take a deep breath, squeezing my eyelids shut. When I release the air slowly and open my eyes, Asmodeus is standing a foot away from me.
When I look up at him I feel my face crumple again. These damned tears that I thought I’d quashed spill free once more and my throat closes. I can’t find the words; I forget everything I wanted to say, every word that I’d rehearsed in my mind after my heartbroken tears had dried up. God, how he’s changed me. Loud-mouthed Selena, always so quick to talk back is finally rendered speechless.
He wraps me up into a tight embrace and it is so unbelievably comforting that I cry harder, squeezing back as hard as I can. I love the way he makes me feel about myself and as much as he’s hurt me, I can’t stay mad at him. I can’t push him away from me anymore. I can’t pick a fight even where it exists because hurting him hurts me more than anything he could possibly reveal. So what if he’s got a fuck tonne of kids? He’s as old as humanity itself, so I can’t fault him, not really. I could drag this out until the cows come home and whine until my throat is raw but it wouldn’t change anything. He would still have an army of children and I would still love him. Because this is the only reality I care about and if I’m being honest with myself – truly honest – I can say this with absolute certainty. I admit it to myself, finally, finally. My stomach shrivels at the thought of losing him and my heart pounds; this must be love. I don’t think I realised how much he means to me – even when I decided to stay – until just now.
Only now, after words of betrayal and farewell stick in my throat, I admit that I love him. Of course I can’t say goodbye; how was I ever foolish enough to think that I could intentionally walk away? All this time I had taken his company for granted because I refused to take responsibility for my situation. It was always his fault that I was with him, his will that I stayed and his magnetism that kept me. Even when I decided to stay, it was for me, so that I could be free – or so I told myself. In my selfishness, I couldn’t see just how much I cared for him. I was able to lie so thoroughly to myself that I was actually convinced I didn’t love him; that I’d stayed because of the baby and my freedom only.
“I love you,” I whisper as soon as my throat clears a little. My voice is breathless; the words, escaping ghosts.
I pull back, dragging a forearm across my face, my other hand gripping his shirt desperately. His eyes are glassy and the look he gives me as he reaches out to stroke my hair makes my heart sing.
“I love you, My King,” I repeat, my voice stronger, “I give up; I don’t want to fight you anymore. I am yours.”
“As I am yours Selena,” he replies, dipping his head and pulling me close for a kiss.
My lips taste his hungrily and I am animal, starving for him. One hand curls around the nape of his neck and the other claws at his back. The kiss is deep and desperate; I want to show him my love for him. I press my lips so firmly against his that my teeth ache but still I want more. What is it about kisses that are so enchanting? How is it that the simple act of mouths colliding and moving together can convey so much? My eyes are pressed together so tightly that every other sense is magnified. I savour them all; the taste of him, the smell and feel of him. Even the sound of our frenzied breathing and the wet smack of our lips summons a moan from me. Asmodeus picks me up and when we finally break contact he carries me to our lavender-scented bed.
“No,” I wriggle in his arms and he stops.
I lean into him, as if to tell him a deep, dark secret. Planting a trail of kisses along his neck, I whisper into his ear.
“I need a shower.”
The last word morphs into a snort and suddenly we’re both laughing. The laughter to humour ratio is significantly unbalanced, yet we laugh as if we’d just heard the world’s funniest joke. When you’re with someone you love, I realise; you can truly laugh about anything. The only other person I’ve experienced this with was my sister. The thought of her is sobering and I look to my lover pleadingly.
“How will we convince my family to come tomorrow?” I ask, “I need them there Asmodeus.”
“Patience love, we will convince them tonight; as I promised. First, your bath,” he replies, aiming a beautiful half-smile at me and carrying me to the bathroom.
My eyes itch from my earlier tears and I rub at them relentlessly when Asmodeus sets me down. When he pulls my hands away gently, I catch my reflection in the huge wall mirror and gasp in horror. My face is a mottled mess, unnaturally hued. The cream coloured mask of my new face has been partially smeared away, revealing my true complexion beneath. Streaks of freckled, brown skin are visible in the tear stains and the areas surrounding my eyes. One iris is still green while the other has reverted to my natural dark brown. Accenting it all are flaming cheeks and flecks of black hair peppered through my borrowed tawny mane. Needless to say, my disguise has failed.
“What happened?!” I ask, mortified.
I can’t take my eyes off the spectacle in the mirror. I look like an unfinished painting of a demented panda.
“The clay dissolves with salt,” he explains, as if that answers everything.
Salt? Touching my face, I trace a stripe of dark skin which runs from the corner of my eye down to my lip.
“What are we going to do? Did you bring more clay? I can’t get married like this!”
“Be calm, Selena. Of course I will acquire more clay before tomorrow. For now, a salt bath will remove the remaining clay.”
“And where are we going to get the salt for this bath? We can’t exactly take a walk to the corner shop and pay for a container full with a diamond now, can we?”
“That will not be necessary, Selena. The good Mr. Carrington has provided for us already,” he says, plucking up a small mesh bag of pink bath salts from our complimentary basket of toiletries.
It isn’t long before I’ve filled up the porcelain tub with steaming water and dumped the crystals in unceremoniously. I swill them around a little, watching them shrink as the water eats away at them. They reek of roses, the scent thickening the weight of the humid atmosphere of the bathroom. Moisture clings to me and I am relieved to strip off my stifling clothes. I slip into the tub and groan in utter bliss as the heat envelops my body. The dissolving salt is silken against my skin and I slide my hands up my legs, loving the luxurious feel of it. Asmodeus watches me approvingly, tossing me a small sponge. I catch it gratefully and use it to wash away the peaches and cream coloured skin of my disguise. I slide further into the tub and submerge my head, scrubbing at my face with the sponge and running my fingers through my hair. When I emerge, I find that Asmodeus has stripped down and is walking towards the tub. Certainly the thing is big enough – just barely – to fit us both, and I want to have him in here just as surely as he wants to jump in, but I stop him nonetheless, placing a hand firmly against his chest.
“Wait,” I say, “One of us has to keep up our disguise. What if we need to interact with Mr Carrington again? I can’t exactly tell him that I’ve dyed my hair and worked on my tan since he last saw us.”
My hand leaves a dark print on his skin where the salt removes the clay of his disguise. I like the thought of leaving a mark on my King, a symbol of my claim over him. The mark is only temporary of course, and will disappear when he eventually washes his disguise away, but my handprint is rendered faithfully out of his real skin, almost as if it is physical evidence of our connection.
For once, he listens to me and with a heavy sigh, steps away from the tub. He doesn’t replace his clothing however; he just leans against the vanity in all his masculine glory and watches me bathe. I want to relax and lie in the tub for a while longer but I find that I cannot while he stands there. My cheeks heat under his gaze and I redouble my efforts to get out quickly. I’m not uncomfortable per se, just so conscious of his all encompassing presence in the small heated room. I wonder, vaguely, if conversation would make this better or worse. Asmodeus does not throw words around haphazardly; he means everything he says. He seems to understand the power in words – their indelible nature – and he chooses them wisely. As a person who has always said spoken her mind, often regardless of the consequences, I find the change as unsettlingly beautiful as an exotic animal. And, for a woman who usually talks a lot, I find that the silences between us tend to be surprisingly lovely.
The salt water bath was just what I needed; my skin is so clean it tingles and I’m pleasantly sleepy. It feels great be myself again, though strange also, with the alabaster-skinned stranger in bed beside me. I’ve never been with this disguised Asmodeus in my own skin before. It’s almost as if he’s still playing dress-up where I have taken off my own costume. His heat radiates through me from the point where his arm rests against mine, reminding me where his mask conceals that he is still my Demon King. I roll onto my side to face him and smile at how relaxed he is. In a way it’s also as if he has become his disguise, and will own the personality to match for however long he wears it.
“You know, most couples wouldn’t do this,” I tell him.
“Do what, Selena?”
I love the absolute attention he gives me; hanging on every word, no matter how mundane.
“Be together the night before their wedding,” I reply, running a hand down his beautifully sculpted body, “Its bad luck, you know.”
“We are not most couples,” he chuckles, gripping my thigh possessively.
“No we’re not,” I agree, my heart pounding yet again. God, he is so fucking sexy.
“What should a bride do on the night before her wedding?” he asks, his voice light and teasing.
“Fret about her big day and sleep alone,” I say and regret it instantly. “But I’m tired of sleeping alone.”
“As am I, my love. I would never be so foolish as to leave your side for the sake of human superstition.”
“Good,” I reply as I snuggle closer to him and close my eyes, “Because I want you to keep me warm tonight... After you show me exactly how you intend on convincing my family and friends to show up tomorrow.”
“You must sleep, it is late.”
He smiles, kissing my forehead like I’m a child he is saying goodnight to and I want to punch him. As soon as he tells me to sleep, I find that I cannot. It is late though; the full moon shines bright outside, her light slicing through a gap between the curtains of a large window adjacent to the bed. I’m not sleepy anymore; I want to rip the curtains down and bathe in that light. I want to dance naked under the silvery eye of the beautiful goddess I was named after. I’m too wired to simply sleep, yet Asmodeus suggests it as if it is the simplest thing in the world.
“You never answered my question,” I say, sitting up. I won’t sleep just because he tells me to and I can’t sleep before he explains how he’s going to convince my family to attend the wedding. I’m assuming it involves some sort of demonic compulsion, but without a definite answer, I know my musings will just drive me crazy.
“I believe I just have,” he replies factually.
“Wait, what? No you didn’t!” I say, punching him lightly on the arm.
He laughs at that but says nothing. I know he’s waiting for me to figure it out for myself.
“All you said was that I need to sleep –” I start, then groan, “Shit, do I have to be asleep for this master plan of yours to work?”
“Fuck! I wanted to be a part of it.”
I want to be the one to convince them; I want them to want to come for me and not because Asmodeus has coerced them. I don’t know how I would have pulled that off, but it’s what I want.
“Oh, you will Selena. Your involvement is essential.”
My heart jumps with excitement.
“How?” I ask, bouncing on my knees a little. The bed springs groan in protest and Asmodeus watches me with amusement lightening his features. He sits up and pulls close to me, meeting my gaze.
“Through their dreams, my love. We will speak to them while they sleep.”
I’m speechless for a moment; staring at the breathtaking sight which fills my entire field of vision. He looks so normal but the gift he offers is nothing short of extraordinary and his beautiful eyes are so sincere, so selfless that I feel unworthy of their intensity. In this moment, I truly believe that he is incapable of being evil. Cruel? Maybe. Passionate? Definitely. But never evil. His expression is so utterly unique that I know I will never see it in another human; we’re all just too selfish. I look away and release a shaky laugh.
“Well why didn’t you say so?” My voice wavers a little, but I keep my composure, “Let’s do this.”
I lay down again, squeezing my eyes shut.
I take a deep breath and dive into the darkness behind my eyelids, willing the images I find there into dreams. But they remain shadows and my eyes flicker restlessly as an uncomfortable weight presses against them. I’m clearly not sleepy; this is the problem. I find the very effort it takes to attempt sleep is what has me subconsciously scowling. This isn’t working. I open my eyes and turn towards Asmodeus, unsurprised to find him watching me.
“Sleep, Selena,” he says, stroking my hair.
“I can’t,” I whine back, leaning into his touch with a heavy sigh.
He moves his hand from my hair onto my face and brushes my lids closed. With my vision darkened, my other senses become hyper aware of him again. My heart races as I feel the heat of his skin against mine and hear his soft breathing. This is definitely not conducive to a quick sleep.
“Breathe deep, my love,” he instructs, placing a hand over my heart as if willing it to stop racing.
His touch is electrifying but his voice is wonderfully relaxing. I could quite happily drown under that voice. He uses it to tell me a story.
“I have gone by uncountable names over the span of my life and taken innumerable shapes. I have been both male and female; a slave to the beliefs of humans.”
More than a little shocked at that, I open my eyes and mouth to ask him the first question that springs to my lips.
“Close your eyes.”
I do, saying nothing and willing the tension out of my shoulders with the release of a long-held breath.
“The beliefs of the many often over-shadow the beliefs of the few. The power of the human collective truly is a remarkable thing. The immortals shift and change according to whims of humans. We become anything they need us to be, reflecting their virtues and desires through forms of their choosing. Early humans gave me no name, but worshipped me in forms which changed over time. I have been men, women, animals and a multitude of shapes which combined the three. Hinduism gave me my first name, Kamadeva, at the dawn of what is known as the Kali Yuga. After the rise of Egyptian culture, I became known as Bes. The Chinese called me Baimei Shen, the Aztec named me Xochiphilli and the Nords named me Freyr. When Christianity rose following the fall of the Roman Empire, I became as I am now. Almost all my shapes have been the most widely recognised sex deities of the time.”
My eyes are heavy and my brain is foggy but that doesn’t mean I’ve failed to notice his deliberate exclusion of one very relevant culture. I know Elysia is Greek and that the culture was far too prominent to hold no sway over Asmodeus’ given shape.
“Which Greek god were you?” I whisper, my eyes still shut under the weight of my eminent sleep. How quickly his voice has relaxed me.
“Hush,” he rumbles, “I was getting to that.”
“Hmm...” I moan in agreement, too sleepy to voice my approval. I fight to stay awake and listen to his story, but Gods help me I can feel myself slipping. I focus long enough to realise that he has already started speaking.
“- Dionysus or Bacchus, with a cult of female followers. I was betrothed to a mortal named Ariadne, who was the daughter of a sadistic king. He wished to sacrifice her to a monster conceived by his own wife. Ariadne aided a hero in his quest to slay the beast but was abandoned by him once he had used her to win his crown. Betrayed by the man she loved, I found her weeping his loss and granted her immortality. Had I known then that I would be creating my own nemesis, perhaps I would have walked another path. Truly, I cannot blame her, for she is what I turned her into. A woman scorned twice is a forced to be reckoned with. When I left her for Elysia, her contempt for me festered. She became a creature of hatred – the first demoness. She killed you and in the centuries that I suffered, Roman religion gave me another attribute, naming me Penthos the mournful and her Poena the punisher. It took her centuries to find our son Pan, as he was known, at which time religion was changing again. The Hebrews called her Lilith, the night witch, and she destroyed not only Pan but all worship of him too. Christian beliefs provided me with this powerful frame and my wrath was too great to behold.”
Hearing the pain and anger warring in his voice, I open my eyes again – sleep be damned – and attempt to comfort my lover. I rub a palm down his heaving chest but his disquiet only seems to intensify. The rooms melts away until he is all I see and yet, it is not my demon king who remains within my embrace. An achingly beautiful woman lies in his place, pale and luminescent as a full moon. Her hair is bronze, glinting under an unknown light source. Delicate filigree tattoos colour her skin, the ink golden. Her skin shifts just as Asmodeus’ does, although only between white and grey. Her eyes are closed in a peaceful sleep and I can’t help thinking that she must be an angel. That is, until she opens her eyes.
They are the colour of deepest space, a purple black so cold that their stare cuts right through me. The power of her empty eyes is so horrific that it seems to steal the very air from my lungs. I gasp for a breath, only to realise that this terrible angel has wrapped her elegant fingers around my neck. I claw at her face desperately, ripping my fingernails against her unyielding skin and all the while she laughs a sound which reminds me ravens screaming. To no avail, I will my power to save me. I am prey to her, nothing more than carrion and she will devour my body once my spirit flees.
“No!” I hear the roar, “You will not take her again!”
All at once, the creature choking me disappears in a curl of silver smoke. Suddenly able to breathe again, my body launches off the bed. I inhale a huge lungful of my attacker’s strange essence and almost choke on it. Asmodeus is at my side a second later and holds me as I wheeze in breath after agonising breath. He wears his own skin here, portrayed in this dream as he truly is.
“I am sorry, my Selena,” Asmodeus croaks, remorse dragging his voice down, “This is my doing. I should have cleared my mind before you succumbed to sleep.”
“I’m asleep?” I rasp, when my lungs allow voice.
“You have entered my dreams, a dangerous place while she lurks here. I was foolish to bring you.”
“Lilith?” I whisper, afraid that saying her name out loud will summon her once more, “She’s alive?”
“Only here,” he growls, face darkening as he taps his temple, “She is two millennia dead and yet still she plagues my existence.”
“She’s so... strong,” I say, shuddering as the remnant of her hold closes my throat once more, “She couldn’t really kill me here, could she?”
“In a dream she has the power to crush your spirit so completely that you would sleep until your body dies. She has strengthened with my fears. Now that I have you, my darkest fear is that you will be taken from me,” he says, and his face sets with grim determination, “She will not have you this time.”
Wordlessly, I embrace my love, both needing to comfort him and be comforted. I hold him so tight it hurts as he encompasses me within his strong arms. I feel so safe here, as if I am protected from everything, even the dream witch who just tried to kill me. Even she cannot harm me here.
When we break apart, I reach for his hand as I take in our dreamscape. As if to reflect his mood, Asmodeus’ dream is dark and hostile. It’s not hard to imagine Lilith lurking in the shadows, just waiting for her chance to pull me into oblivion. A smoky mist swirls at our feet as Asmodeus leads me to an unseen destination. When he looks back at me, his red eyes seem to spark in the darkness and his silver hair looks like a crown of glory atop his head. He looks like he belongs here and now that I think about it, I suppose he does. He is a mythical creature walking through the land of dreams.
Following directions only he can see, my lover stops walking and pulls me to his side. We stand at the edge of a precipice; the seemingly endless expanse stretched before us is made even more treacherous by the sheer drop which precedes it. The mist which fills it isn’t dark like the vapour surrounding us but silver with thousands of throbbing, weaving threads of gold floating within. It is mesmerising to watch and I am captivated so thoroughly that it seems as if the gold threads are swimming behind my eyes.
A sudden heart-stopping jerk brings me back to reality – well, this dream reality anyway. Asmodeus pulls hard on my shoulders and crushes me against his chest protectively. Before I can protest, some earth gives way beneath my feet and I realise how close I came to falling. So hypnotised was I by the golden threads that I almost walked off a cliff.
“That is twice now I have endangered you. We must leave.”
His voice his firm and his expression resolved but I’m not leaving without a fight.
“No! You promised me that I could help convince my family. I’m staying until I do that.”
“Selena...” he groans, disapprovingly.
“I’m staying. We can hurry this up and get out of here or we can spend even more time arguing,” I smile a little and turn to face him, “Who knows what kind of trouble I’ll get into if we waste any more time?”
He snorts a laugh and takes my hand in his, kissing the palm and lacing our fingers together.
“You can be very persuasive,” he grumbles.
“It’s a gift,” I reply, as we walk together to the edge of the cliff.
“Alright,” I say, “What are we looking at?”
“Human dreams,” he answers, reaching into the abyss with a clawed hand and summoning a golden thread to us.
As it grows closer, it expands until it resembles thick rope. Each weave of the rope hums with energy and I watch with utter fascination as images dart through them, like little surges of electricity through copper wire. Asmodeus catches the rope as it comes closer still and inspects it.
“A female, who goes by the name Layla dreams of her life before the one she now leads.” He explains, his eyes still scrutinising the threads. He draws the rope even closer still and with his power he separates the threads into individual strands and expands the images coursing through them.
“This,” he observes, expanding the silently laughing image of a handsome dark skinned man from the woman’s dream, “Is Mark, Layla’s former lover and mentor. It has been decades since Mark has laughed with her like this; I feel her longing for this ease between them to return.”
Underneath this golden thread, a bronze thread writhes violently and wraps itself around Layla’s sweet dream, infecting it with fear. In this nightmare, Mark turns into a monster who hunts a woman with an innocence about her which says that she is only just old enough to be considered a woman. With ebony hair and chocolate eyes, she looks a lot like me. The creature Mark catches her, holding her tight in his arms and for a moment it seems that she forgets what he is. Then he presses his lips to her throat as if to kiss her and I hear a lush tearing, followed by Layla’s gurgled scream. Her blood flows thick and fast, spilling past the corners of Mark’s dark lips. Layla meanwhile, loses the vibrancy in her warm brown skin until it turns ashen and her eyelids flutter shut. I watch in horror, wanting to comfort this stranger so like me, seduced by an otherworldly creature. Lucky for her though, this nightmare is just that and will be banished the moment she wakes up.
The nightmare changes as another bronze thread consumes the previous one and plays out a new heartbreaking scene. Layla, now hard and pale with none of her innocence still intact, looks over a graveyard under the shade of an old marble catacomb entrance. Below her, a large family buries their loved one.
“The coffin is empty,” Asmodeus says, “Layla is witnessing her own funeral.”
“What a strange dream,” I whisper, too fascinated to look away.
“Who’s that?” I ask, pointing at a devastated young woman, whose grief is so great that she sinks to her knees before Layla’s empty coffin and dissolves into a flood of tears.
“Her twin sister,” he replies, “Her name is Sandra.”
“Layla and Sandra?” I ask, confused. The names strike a chord with me, but I can’t find the elusive revelation they will surely bring. I’m pretty sure I don’t know any Laylas and the only Sandra I know is my grandmoth-
“Holy shit!” I exclaim, as realisation dawns on me.
“You may know the surviving sister as Sandra Ma, who lost her twin Layla when they were eighteen. Layla and Sandra were their simple names, they were born Laghima and-”
“Singaramal,” I gasp, astounded by the possibility that I am visiting the strange dreams of my long dead great aunt.
“Wait,” I whisper, heart pounding, “How are we even seeing her dreams? She’s dead.”
“She is very much alive Selena.”
“What?! No way! This is incredible!” I shout, eyes darting through the threads of my supposedly long lost relative, “What happened to her?! How’d she disappear and why hasn’t she returned if she’s still alive? She’s what, seventy-two now?”
“Indeed she is, Selena. But she cannot return to her family.”
“She is an immortal, my love. The body you see in her dream is the one she still possesses.”
“Wait, what?” I ask, struggling to process revelation after stunning revelation.
"Arkamun, born three millennia before your grandmother, began using the name Markus after the rise of Christianity. He posed as a farm hand when your grandmother was a teenager and fell in love with her sister. Layla joined him and was never again seen by her family. He turned her into what she is now."
"A vampire?" I can't believe that I'm actually expecting confirmation for such a ridiculous question.
"And how is it that he is what he is?"
"Pan inadvertently created him, gifting his lineage to a mortal woman who would birth the first vampire."
"Wait, wait, wait," I gasp, "So you're telling me that your grandchild with Elysia, through Pan was the very first vampire?"
"Yes. The child was named Lamia and she was the first of her kind. All modern vampires are descended from her blood."
"And yours," I say.
"And mine,” he agrees, “In a sense, they are also my children."
As he says this, he caresses the threads which haunt my great aunt's sleep. As his fingers trail along the bronze coloured vibrations, the dream shifts to a moment between Layla and my grandmother when one was still mortal and both still young. The thread turns gold again as Layla revels in this dream memory.
"You helped her," I whisper, "Thank you."
"As I have told you love, I feel as if all vampires are my kin. She has suffered far too much in the waking world to be troubled by her dreams."
"Is this what you do when you're sleeping?" I ask, my heart warming to him ever further.
"I influence dreams, yes. Mostly for the benefit of my sin but occasionally," he smirks, "For the good of others."
"Of course," I drawl, rolling my eyes, at least he didn't lie.
"Where is she?" I ask, now burning with the desire to see my long lost relative.
"She wanders the world, seeking spiritual salvation for what she has become. She observes her sister's descendants however; undoubtedly she has looked in on your father and all his kin. Surely she knows you are gone."
"Yeah," I whisper, heartbroken by the finality of the word 'gone'.
But that's exactly how my family would see it. I'm gone. Never to be seen again. Something Layla's family would have realised when she disappeared. My poor grandmother; losing a sister and granddaughter the same way twice in one lifetime. We've broken her heart, Layla and I, for the love of monsters.
"Let's find my dad's dream then," I say, trying to clear the thickness growing in my throat.
Thankfully, Asmodeus sees the shift in my mood and immediately obliges. He gently flicks Layla's dream back into the abyss and with the same hand, summons another golden rope of sub consciousness. This one is corrupt though, infected with bronze strands so dark they look black.
My father's nightmares.
I sigh, apprehension flooding through me. The last thing I want to do is watch the horror which disturbs my dad's sleep. But seeing the choking hold of the bronze-black strands smothering what should be peaceful dreams is more than enough to strengthen my resolve. I lace my fingers with Asmodeus' and say, "Let's do this."
Wordlessly, he draws a darkened thread closer and expands it. I see an image of my father searching frantically for something, angry tears rolling down his cheeks. Asmodeus expands the strand until it becomes a doorway of sorts, made of light, with the now full sized image of my dad pacing restlessly within its depths. Asmodeus directs his hand, palm up at the portal in an 'after you' gesture. Taking a deep breath, I walk into a foreign nightmare.