Vesper had stayed too long at the Hierarchy. With slow steps, the platinum blond boy made his way to the vestibule, the one area on campus where residents could teleport outside of the enchanted school. He had lingered for reasons he hadn’t wanted to admit, the main one being to catch a final glimpse of a certain dark-eyed, angry boy he could not stop thinking about.
His demon hellspawn had already slipped away into a foul puff of smoke, returning to its true master where it would undoubtedly become as talkative as it had been silent now that it was free of Vesper’s presence. Vesper had plenty of justifications for why he had stayed as long as he did and had little fear of being found out, especially since he had failed in his endeavor to actually say goodbye to Evan. Instead, he had spoken nearly two hours to Master Cantorous about apprenticing with the man, and he had gotten pulled into a deep conversation with Mistress Nox, the resident demonologist. The woman had been intrigued with his tattoo and the bond that would soon be activated. He would be more than happy to give the sorceress the information she wanted next year when he was forced to endure first hand the bond she had been gushing over in her excitement.
Demons were as alien to Earth as the fae were but they originated from one specific world in the outer realms while the fae had come from many worlds. It was the newness of their discovery that set the demons so apart, for there had been many fae with many different powers that could be just as unsettling. While the fae had populated the earth hundreds of thousands of years back, mixing with humans until they were at times indistinguishable, demons had only been discovered far more recently and through a magical means that few people agreed was acceptable. It was a one-way trip and no demon, to the best of Vesper’s knowledge, had been given a choice in being brought to Earth.
There was still a difference to the demons, one that made even fae avoid them when they crossed. They were all on some level essence eaters. While a fae could choose to consume a being safely of their superficial energy, demons were known to drain their victims of their life force, be it through blood, flesh, or even soul. It made them dangerous on a different level, one that for whatever reason had justified the absolute control of the demonic population as they came to arrive on the planet. Demons were supposedly too dangerous to be allowed free even though the demons had not had any choice in their arrival in the first place.
Most demons became slaves to the sorcerer or sorceress that summoned them. Being essence eaters still didn’t necessarily make them powerful. Demons were rare and some magic users made a habit of bonding the creatures to their own power, allowing them to exploit the creatures. Then there were demons like Vesper’s soon to be master. Beyond powerful, vicious, and with no known rival to defeat him, Heiden could have been a fae god, or so Vesper liked to pretend when he dared to try and comprehend how he had found himself in his dismal situation. Heiden was so powerful, he enslaved demons and when he fancied it, humans and fae as well.
Kruck, the flaming eyed, cracked face demon that had kept student and professor away from the blond’s allure was one of the few of Heiden’s slaves he had met so far. He knew the demon master had more even though he had yet to meet them. Vesper had a natural curiosity of the demons and, perhaps, an affinity seeing as he too was to be a slave. Knowledge of these rare demonic fae was of interest to many a magic user, especially to the sorcerers that would not dare to summon and enslave a demon to satisfy their curiosity. Because of his unique circumstances, Vesper had more than enough information to share with such magic users. He didn’t dare hope that it would one day free him from his demon master but he could at least dream the information might provide a way to free his descendants in the future.
The outdoor vestibule was alight even though evening had fallen hours ago. Beautiful trees framed the domed ceiling that opened up to reveal the clear, dark sky above. It could have been daylight in the area, except there was a quality to the glow that tinged everything a soft blue reminiscent of moonlight. Vesper stopped once stepping through a tall archway, his eyes drawn to the large fountain in the center of the expansive stone patio where a slender, dark-skinned boy sat watching him. It was Asher Vah, still and calm, his long black hair loose around his shoulders and shimmering in the light that bounced off the pool of water.
This was not the first time Asher had sought him out. Of all the peers that knew of his situation, Asher had been the least squeamish to be around him. It might have been companionable if Vesper didn’t have to wonder if the boy was looking for a way to slice his veins open.
The breeze shifted, Vesper’s skin tingling at the nape of his neck when he caught the scent of fresh blood. All his senses warned him of Asher. The boy was a predator, cold and calculating, and he viewed sentient being just as edible as mindless animals. But he could see the tanned boy had fed, Asher showing a slight daze to his pale leaf green eyes that spoke of being sated. The Hierarchy did not lack for anything, nor did the students that attended. He might not have fully trusted Asher, but he could trust that if fed, the boy would be less a danger to his health.
Vesper slowly crossed the distance, taking note of the few people in the vestibule that had chosen to give Asher a wide berth. Asher looked up at him calmly, meeting his curious gaze before looking him over. Vesper was used to Asher sizing him up but he had yet to figure out just what the intention behind it was. The short boy was difficult to read. Sometimes he was certain Asher was trying to figure out if he a worthy opponent, other times he could swear there was a sexual undertone to the boy’s stare. But most times Vesper thought Asher was just looking for a weakness so that he could slash an artery and feast from him.
Fuck, it was Asher Vah. He wouldn’t put anything past the little brat.
“I was curious,” Asher finally spoke, his clawed hands looking deceptively delicate as he braced the marble seat of the fountain on either side of where he sat.
Vesper raised a brow, waiting silently for the boy to continue. Asher was hardly a social creature. He was there for a reason and he’d figure out how to communicate it eventually.
Another moment stretched out, Asher Vah scratching lightly against the stone before speaking again in his lulling voice. “I was curious as to why you interfered yesterday.”
Scowling, Vesper took a gliding step forward, standing directly in front of the slender boy so he could glare down. “You attacked an innocent, Asher Vah. Did you expect me to do nothing?”
Asher tilted his head, a small smile twisting his lips as his hair fell across an eye. “You had to know I wouldn’t kill the boy. You exerted an unneeded amount of energy to save a young man that didn’t need saving.”
“Just because you weren’t going to kill him didn’t mean he didn’t need saving,” Vesper muttered, his glare burning into the tanned boy’s form.
Asher smiled wider, a fang peeking from between his lips. “It was very out of character for you.”
Vesper pursed his lips at the accusation, trying to deny it even though he knew it was very true. He was not the type to get caught up in the stupid games of others, especially of predator and prey. But he had the moment he’d seen Evanel Reed in danger and he couldn’t, for whatever reason, seem to stop himself even now in his desire to protect the boy.
“What was your intention, Asher Vah?” Vesper demanded lowly. Yes, he had been out of character, but so had Asher. The boy was usually controlled but he had given in to the draw of Evan just like the rest of them. Vesper had not been the only one to crack yesterday at orientation. “You risked your life. I have never seen you gamble so much. Why reveal yourself to some null and risk retaliation?”
“You think him null? Truly?” Asher shrugged the blond’s assessment away with a bored sigh. He adjusted the dark silks over his narrow shoulders, wrapping his neck idly. Asher’s tanned skin shone in the magical light, his dark hair and green eyes gleaming; the boy was truly beautiful. Unfortunately, he was a blood drinker, one demented enough to actually bathe in the life-giving fluid.
Vesper wasn’t sure if it was an intimidation ploy on Asher Vah’s part, painting himself in gore to combat his petite frame and sweet face. Asher seemed to take pleasure in fucking with people’s heads in subtle ways. A mindfuck of blood for those foolish enough to see him as weak didn’t seem beyond the boy. It was either that or Asher actually absorbed the blood through his skin. There were demons that had the ability, the djin among them. Except, Asher was only half djin and the rest of him very much human. He could simply eat a damn meal if he was hungry enough.
Vesper had been exposed to demons of all types in preparation for bonding with Heiden. Some of them had been so disgusting and cruel that to see Asher Vah was to know an invaluable jewel with sharp, deadly edges in comparison. The slender boy was a demon/human hybrid, rare and endangered the way anything with demon blood was. There would always be someone, be it concerned citizen, magic user, or more powerful demon that would think Asher better to be owned than allowed free. Vesper sometimes wondered if the boy sought him out as much as he did—little as that was—because of their shared fate.
“I heard you offered him an informal entreaty to court,” Asher finally said, a smile just teasing at his lips.
“You’re mistaken,” Vesper grunted, straightening his stance.
“I know you and the incubus had a rendezvous with the angry thing,” the slender boy countered lightly. “You risk battle and your master’s wrath for the boy. Surely you must have just as compelling a reason as I do for seeking the boy’s attention.”
At the mention of Heiden possibly discovering what he had done, cold flooded through him. Vesper’s eyes shuttered, his expression closing off, his chest clenching painfully tight. “I proposed no such thing. Devlan suggested there was a choice. There is not. I am not available, nor will I ever be.” That it was true only made it hurt more, something inside him rattling in defiance.
He went to turn, done with all reminders of the hell he had gone through yesterday but Asher moved. It was just a twist of one of the boy’s dangling bracelets but it was enough to freeze the blond, warning prickling through him.
“I have never known you to draw your sword, Vesper. Not among your peers. Not in the face of a being like me.” Asher paused, combing claws through his dark hair. “You were going to kill me. All for a boy you didn’t even know.”
There was a new tone to Asher’s voice, unfamiliar and tinged with regret. Vesper sought his gaze, confused. Had Asher been hurt by it? Had he somehow missed that this demented, vicious halfling might actually consider him to be his friend? “Asher Vah, if you hadn’t attacked—”
“Evanel ensnared you much faster than it took to get that tattoo carved into your flesh,” Asher interrupted smoothly, his voice back to its purr of before. “I would have expected far better from a Candidate.”
It was a slap in the face, the words coming from nowhere but stabbing deep and true in a way Vesper could not have prepared himself for. Gritting his teeth with a hiss, he whirled, his hands clenched into fists despite his efforts to control his anger. “Do not approach him again,” he warned, his anger darkening his words. “I will show you no mercy, Asher Vah, no matter how long we have known each other.”
Asher’s eyes glinted and his dark hair rippled in the night breeze as the blond stalked away angrily. “I would expect no less, Vesper.” Looking down, Asher caught his reflection in the water, blood spotting his otherwise clean cheek. He carefully wiped it with his thumb, licking the bloodied digit as he watched Vesper teleport home.
Vesper seethed inside, a storm of emotion trapped in a place of darkness within. Cracking into awareness at the foot of the Sunfall Mountains just shy of the arctic circle in Canada, he kept his head down, ignoring the swirl of white and walls of rock around him and the wind roaring outside the arrival chamber of stone. It was daylight still near the Western Coast of the continent where he had teleported to. His home was above, a castle built and hidden into the highest peaks. The only way to access it was through the mirrored portal before him, but he hesitated, fighting to control his anger.
Asher Vah had dared to insinuate he was a Candidate—The boy had to be out of his fucking mind! Surely he was just trying to piss him off and get under his skin. A game. A game of predators that Vesper just didn’t have the fucking mettle for at the moment because he was facing his birthday, his exritus, and his bonding to a demon that would drain him dead.
Damn. A Candidate.
Sighing heavily, he tried to steady the drumming of his heart while running fingers through his long, nearly white hair. Why would Asher have said that? Did he know something? The Malice bloodline always held the possibility but the last time the Candidates had been called forth had been over a thousand years ago. There was no way it would happen in his generation and sure as fuck not to him. Not with the fucking tattoo. Not with Heiden looking to sink his fucking claws into him for a limited eternity of hell.
Scowling, Vesper strode across the rocky footpath, thin powdery snow dusting his way. The steeps around him rose up like the steps of giants. His mother used to tease him, saying the dragons had carved them into the land so that they could reach the sky. But no dragon could be large enough to use the mountains as a stairway. Vesper glared up at the banded rocky wall, bitterness he tried so desperately to keep at bay rising up in him. Another lie told to him as a child to dull the pain of life. He had grown up faster than his cousins. He had been forced to face reality at ten. Now even the suggestion of such childish fantasies made his heart clench painfully. Vesper had grown up faster because his death was already near and though he had accepted it as inevitable, there was nothing in him that would willingly welcome his fate.
Taking a dagger out, he sliced the inside of his palm, then pressed it to the surface of the mirror. Ancient magic, natural terrain, and hazardous weather protected the castle he called home for as long as the Malice line had lived, possibly even longer. They had little fear of losing their mountain fortress, but then, it had done little to protect any of them from Heiden in the end.
Vesper’s reflection rippled in the portal, his glaring face disappearing to reveal the familiar scene of his home on the plateau above. He took three calming breaths, internally kicking himself for having let Asher Vah get to him. His expression schooled again into one of indifference, he stepped through the portal and into the warm air of Celestial Keep.
The estate stretched out before him, a fertile oasis among an otherwise desert of rock, scrubby brush, and snow. Below in some of the valleys, thin trees grew, greenery dotting the craggy landscape. But at the top of the plateau where his ancestors had made their home, magic had been used to create a hospitable environment. Orchards dominated the majority of the land, gifting a bounty of fruit and nuts that fed the humans and animal alike that had been transported to the three acres of land. Sitting above, sturdy and oppressive with its tall towers was his family castle made of the magic imbued rocks of the cliffs around them. Some stone repelled magic, others enhanced. Celestial Keep was crafted from a stone that was fortified against magical attack. It truly was a fortress and Vesper breathed a sigh of relief to be home.
He rarely left his family estate. His tutors came to him and besides the few visits to relatives and the occasional party, he had little desire to leave Celestial Keep. His trip to the Hierarchy had been his longest away that he could remember. Stepping back into the magical boundary felt significant, some of his tension slowly unkinking from his muscles as he was engulfed in familiar scents and sounds. It was as if the magic that cultivated growth from lifeless rocks was trying to do the same to his otherwise numb existence. Something within him welled to see his home again. It was the one place he was certain he truly belonged and the place he would soon be leaving forever.
Heiden wouldn’t force the issue; the demon would be happy to move in. No matter how much he would miss his home, Vesper would never invite the monstrous creature to enter Celestial Keep and put his family at risk. It was just another sacrifice he had resigned himself to, another internal wound that would eventually dull and numb like all the others had. He was just the walking dead at this point. A ghost that had haunted his home long enough. Once he left, his aunts, uncles, and many cousins could finally return to the Clan’s castle. It would give his parents the companionship he had failed at no matter how hard he’d tried to smile if only for them.
Depression was not new for Vesper but he was surprised to be aware of his state of being. Something had changed in him, something unsettling and disturbing on as many levels as the mountains around him. His weekend at the Hierarchy had been worse than he had anticipated. Mostly because of one strange, confusing boy that he hadn’t been able to stop looking at the moment he had caught sight of him.
He could have easily named twenty men more beautiful than Evanel Reed, most of them from his own Clan. He could have likely named a hundred more powerful than the angry-eyed boy who had been able to avoid Vesper’s allure but not much else. But for whatever reason, he could not stop thinking of Evan. Even now, when back in the familiar surroundings of the Sunfall Mountains while standing in the shadow of his family’s castle, he could see the blond in his mind’s eye. He could nearly remember Evan’s scent and hear those damn near silent whimpers the boy had made—
Fuck. What the hell had the boy done to him?
He had drawn his weapon on a classmate. He had used his power to intentionally pull. Hell, he had agreed to let Devlan call Evan and feed off of him, just so he could have an excuse to see the boy again. It was unforgivable. This weekend had marked not only Vesper’s acceptance into the Hierarchy as his power demanded, but also his first test to see if he could control himself away from the protection of his family and home. He had failed. He had failed on nearly three separate occasions all because of that boy. How could he trust himself to keep the masses safe from Heiden’s possessive rage if he couldn’t even control himself over one damn boy?
Vesper had run the memory of orientation through his mind a dozen times, each recounting more damning than the last. It wasn’t that his actions had been questionable but that his emotions had been joined in them as well. He had wanted to use his power. He had truly wanted to kill Asher Vah. He had been damn near giddy with the idea of slicing the small, vicious boy to pieces. The feeling had almost been as exhilarating as the idea of fucking Evan after in reward.
Vesper raised his clenched fist to his mouth, resisting the urge to actually bite his own flesh as the same feeling rose up inside him unbidden. His hand was healed, the blood still wet from where the portal had sealed the wound. He licked it idly as he thought.
He was just some boy. That he had made it to the Hierarchy at all was a wonder because, for all intents and purposes, Evanel Reed was a null to his senses. He was weak, ignorant of magic and physical defense—An absolute victim too blind to even fear for his own safety. And if Vesper had only felt a need to protect the boy, that might have been acceptable. But it wasn’t protectiveness seething inside him when he thought of Evan. It was definitely something along the path of defilement and enslavement bubbling through his very core. He wanted to possess the boy at every level, kill any that would dare challenge him, and then be free to do whatever dark, delicious things he pleased to Evan.
Madness. Goddess, but he was going mad.
Scowling to himself, Vesper expanded his magical senses, seeking out his mother’s presence. She radiated from the direction of the library and he turned himself towards the imposing building, barely seeing the beautiful gardens as he passed.
Maybe it was the change coming. His birthday was upon him and his exritus was due. Vesper had been so focused on his upcoming bonding that he hadn’t given much thought to the possibility that he might end up becoming some barbaric, bloodthirsty fae. It was not as if his last name was a coincidence; there had been more than a few Malices in the past that had ended up more chaotic and destructive than anything much else. Was that why Heiden had chosen him? Had the demon sensed he would be a monster among his family?
He should have dismissed the invitation to the Hierarchy. Even now, Vesper was thinking of never returning. Exposing people to whatever the hell he was turning into had no useful value beyond his selfish fear of dying alone. Maybe a part of him had hoped the demon would choose to drain him less if there were people to see him falter, to see him grow weak and frail. Now he knew how foolish a dream that was. Heiden would want an audience to his slow death.
The castle was colder than the outside, the properties of the stone keeping the environmental magic from affecting the building. Vesper barely felt it even though his torso was mostly bare. They had personal enchantments and furs if they grew cold but, unlike his father, he rarely had to make use of them with his higher body temperature. His body had been born for the cold, as had all the Malices. They were descendants of the great Fae Ezella, the Celestial Dragon that had birthed his mother’s family. In the foyer was a mural depicting the fae goddess in dragon form, scaled and sinewy, her coloring like the pure snow that fell among the untouched mountain tops. She dazzled in the light, a creature of such power, even her own had feared when she approached. But Ezella was a mother, a protector, noble of heart and true to what was right even if the shadow she cast was dark and impenetrable.
The Malice line may have strayed too far for even Ezella’s mercy. The demon Heiden was a curse on their bloodline, one the goddess had allowed for nearly a thousand years. No one had intervened to save them and Vesper could not expect anyone to. Not after so long. Ezella had pledged her loyalty to the shadow faced god and with that promise, the lives of her descendants had been pledged as well. Neither god or goddess had stepped forth to repay that loyalty and no Candidate had been called. After a thousand years of silent deities, who could expect them to return?
Maybe that too was the way of the gods. Sacrifice the loyal so the weak had a chance to flourish. It wasn’t as if the Malice line had been decimated. No, they had just been culled in such a ghastly manner that many refused to continue the bloodline for knowledge their children could be the next victim. Vesper certainly had no interest in siring an heir.
He found his mother in the library, shimmering in the light from the large picture window that looked out at the mountains. Slender and willowy, Leandra’s white-blue hair reached down to her knees, the locks kept in perfect tight curls. She was pure elegance but Vesper would expect no less from a dragon queen even if she had no Clan to rule. His mother was clothed in a silky blue dress, the material draped straight down to accent her gentle curves. The sleeveless sides revealed the delicate silver tattoos that decorated her otherworldly pale skin from her biceps to the tips of her fingers.
Vesper regretted seeking her out once catching sight of his mother, pity and guilt hitting him in a familiar wave. Leandra looked weaker today than when he had left her Saturday. He knew it was his imagination; the baby growing inside the woman had yet to start redirecting her magic into its protection. Still, it was a reminder of the dangers facing his parents, especially when Leandra turned her pale blue gaze towards him, something mournful just beneath her beautiful surface.
“I felt your power. I was concerned.” Leandra placed her book on the windowsill, standing from her cushioned perch. At Vesper’s expression, she stilled, refraining from approaching her son just yet. “Was there a problem?”
“Potentially.” Vesper winced internally, hating to admit to it. But there was no escaping his parents’ ever watchful eye. If his mother had sensed his lapse of control, his father had as well. Goddess, what was happening to him?
Leandra’s gaze hardened, the woman straightening until she was facing her son not as his mother but as the queen she doubled as. “Your exritus is soon and your bonding sooner.” She swept forward, her dress swishing around her legs. “You lost control at the Hierarchy during orientation. You were hardly in the door. Can you explain yourself? Must we lock you away to protect the world from you?”
Licking suddenly dry lips, Vesper forced himself to stand taller and meet his mother’s disapproving gaze. He could see the concern beneath her stern exterior but it wasn’t important. She was very much right. If he had touched anyone at the Hierarchy, be it for fighting or saving, he would have doomed them to a terrible, unwarranted death.
“I believe I may be in the throes of a mating courtship,” Vesper answered carefully, silently cursing Asher for the boy’s choice to be cryptic when bluntness had been needed. “I did not see the reasoning behind it earlier. I was caught up with just… so much. But looking back, it seems to make sense.”
Leandra inhaled sharply, the warmth draining from her face. “Son, you know you cannot—”
“I know,” Vesper replied swiftly. “It is not a courtship of choice, mother. I was blindsided. I could not have expected such a thing but I will surely be prepared next time.”
She shook her head, a pinched expression of anxiety marring her delicate features. It made Vesper’s stomach twist to see. His mother was not one for emotional displays outside of flashes of anger. She had spent his lifetime pretending all was well while a demon waited at their door.
“We will speak with your father.” Leandra turned back to the window, picking up and holding her discarded book in hand like a shield across her chest. “Perhaps Ryder will know some way to curb the mating urge.”
“Mother, there is no need. Bringing more attention to this will only—”
Leandra shook her head sharply and he fell silent. “Your father sits beside me on a tarnished throne while a demon ravishes our bloodline. There is a great need.”
Vesper’s father was not a Malice. Vesper had inherited his mother’s name as all fae born did, along with much of her genetics. Ryder’s great fae ancestor was Avem, a lesser being compared to the celestial dragon, Ezella. Even still, his father had chosen to marry his mother after everyone knew that Heiden had been feeding on their line for centuries. Vesper had assumed it was out of some great love that his father had thrown all sensibility to the wind to stand beside Leandra. Now seeing his mother’s face, he had to fear that it had instead been a biological drive that had overridden his father’s rational mind.
Not that love couldn’t be called the same. A mix of chemicals that addled beings long enough to ensure that a mating occurred. Except the fae had magic to add to the insanity of the hormonal cocktail that was mating. Vesper gritted his teeth as an image of Evan flashed in his mind again, the boy’s bare torso covered in scars and old wounds, his eyes full of something dark and pleading.
Goddess, but he was such a fool.
It was more than just attraction, more than just the lure of the boy’s unique scent and defensive glare. Vesper had felt an underlying recognition the moment he had watched Evanel Reed huff into the orientation with his standoffish posture and haunted gaze. Curiosity had immediately turned to something else. He had wanted Evan to see him as much as he had wanted to know the boy. Had he turned one fucking moment into an absolute fantasy? Had he sought a companion in the only face he hadn’t known because all his other peers had already chosen to withdrawn from him in self-preservation?
There was a painful tearing inside him Vesper defiantly ignored. In the most unassuming of moments he had proven weak once again and a boy had nearly died because of it. He would not allow the mistake to occur again.
He knew what it was like to have been marked in life early on. Heiden had singled him out among his family and sealed his fate. Vesper had endured the endless whispers from his cousins as to why it had been him and not them. He had seen their unspoken relief, their pity, and never-ceasing fear every time they looked at him. Just because one boy had looked at him differently did not excuse his loss of control.
Vesper could not share his fate with anyone, even if he did see a kindred spirit in the angry blond. He was destined to walk his path alone, protecting all he could until death took him. He would hold out as long as he could so that his unborn sibling could have a chance at a life and not face the fate he had been given. It was his duty whether he had chosen it or not.
Leandra turned from her study of the mountains, her expression again controlled. She offered her son a small smile, leading them to the library door. “Your father returns later tonight. He’ll know the best approach in this, Vesper, I’m certain.”
Meeting his mother’s gaze, Vesper simply nodded in agreement. Something inside struggled to be heard but he pushed it down as he had been doing since he had first caught the eye of Heiden. He could only hope the caged being inside him would one day stop rattling, stop slamming at the bars for a freedom he had not been fated to have. Surely it would make it easier once all of him finally gave up.