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A Demon's Wrath (Demon King, #1)

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A Demon’s Wrath

Romance of the Nine Kingdoms: Demon King, Book 1

Alexia Praks

Xia Press

Contents

The Nine Kingdoms Map

The Nine Kingdoms

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Also by Alexia Praks

About the Author

Copyright © 2017 by Alexia Praks

All Rights Reserved

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without agreement and written permission of the author. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

Published by Xia Press

The author can be reached at: www.alexiapraks.com.

The Nine Kingdoms Map

The Nine Kingdoms

Welcome to the Nine Kingdoms, a world where humans, angels, and demons lived side by side. A realm where revenge passed on from one generation to another, wars between kingdoms raged for centuries, treachery and loyalty merged into one gray line, and love could heal the wound of hatred.

Humans ruled seven of the kingdoms: Niveus to the north, Virdis to the northeast, Oriens at the east, Bellaria in the mainland, Meridianus in the south, Dardania to the west, and Unda in the middle, surrounded by sea.

Humans were the weakest of the creatures, though they were the majority. Yet those weakest in strength were also the most cunning, twisted, and evil of all. For centuries, they waged wars amongst their own kind, their hunger for more land and wealth never satisfied. They plotted and killed their own bloodline to claim the throne.

The angels ruled and lived upon the Sky Kingdom, residing on the floating islands above the air, and were highly respected and honored for their beauty, wealth, and power.

The demons ruled and lived in the prosperous and fertile island to the southwest and were both feared and hated for their limitless wealth and power.

Alas, they lived amongst one another as friends and as foes, and here, one of their many stories began.

Prologue

Oakley House, Demon Kingdom

When Cecelia Van Zandt fluttered her eyes open, the first thing she saw was the bright blue sky through the enormous window on the east. Beautiful was the first word that came to her mind as she lay there marveling at the exquisite scenery of green woods and wildflowers, the smell of ripe fruits and blossoms, and the feel of the warm sunlight on her skin. In the distance, she could hear birds and crickets chirping, and instantly, her mind flashed back to those wonderful summer days years ago when she’d been back in Rosevalley Island, her home, with her family. Just as quickly, reality hit her like a splash of ice-cold water. Her heart raced. Her body became alert, and she was very much aware of what had transpired last night in this very large bed.

She was still a little sore, particularly down there where—

She shut her eyes again and gritted her teeth. She didn’t want to think of last night, but the images of the ruggedly handsome demon Drake McNamara refused to leave her mind.

She heard a chuckle and instantly knew he was there in the room with her. She had thought he’d left her alone after his successful, ardent seduction last night. But it appeared she was wrong.

A blush spread across her cheeks, and Cecelia clutched the blanket tighter against her naked body as she heard his light footsteps moving toward her. A moment later, she felt him sitting on the bed behind her.

Breathe, Celia, breathe, she told herself.

Her heart was still pounding madly when he said, “You’re finally awake, little thief?”

His voice, the deep timbre, did nothing to ease her awareness of him. She flashed her eyes open and turned her head, sucking in her breath once she saw him. He was wearing a white cotton shirt, unbuttoned and revealing his muscular chest. His dark breeches hung loosely about his long legs and waist, as if he’d just put them on in haste simply to cover himself as he went about the room. His chestnut-brown hair, a bit too long, was styled in a disheveled crop about his head and his face. He watched her, his gray eyes scrutinizing, pinning her where she was.

Cecelia thought about feigning sleep but knew it would be to no avail, as he’d already seen her looking at him.

“Yes, sire? What is it you want with me in such early hours of the morning?”

“Not early hours. Rather, ’tis nearly noon.” He grabbed ahold of the thin linen and pulled it off her person.

Cecelia gasped. “Sire!” she uttered, rushing off the bed to retrieve her cover.

Drake caught her wrist before she had the chance to touch the white material and pulled her to him.

Totally and utterly naked as a newborn baby, Cecelia found herself sitting on the demon’s lap, her long dark hair in disarray about her person and her eyes large as she gazed at him. She squirmed a little in his tight embrace as the warmth of his large body and his scent—pure male and spice and woods—did nothing to ease her fascination toward him.

He pulled her closer, his strong hand resting at the small of her back. She could feel him against her, the hardness and warmness of his lean body touching her soft one. Instantly, she felt her core heat up in response and became weak, as if she’d already surrendered to him.

Drake Oswald McNamara, demon king, gazed at the human woman who had stolen his precious jewel, the Pearl of Life. For thirty years, since the seed came to life when he was born, no one had even dared to think about stealing it. For to commit such an unthinkable crime, the punishment was death. And this slip of a female had disregarded the penalty, stolen the jewel, and used it for her own selfish reason. Now she had to pay the price. Death, however, was not on the agenda, and Drake had other plans for her yet.

He ran his fingers through her long hair, stroking the strands gently and then flipping them over her slender shoulder. Under the bright daylight, she was even more alluring, and it made his blood run hot with lust. He flicked his gaze to her flat belly, the belly that would soon be swollen with his jewel, his son, a future demon king. He noted the scar there to her right side just beneath her breast was quite prominent under the light. He brushed his finger across it, caressing the mark of a healed wound from long ago.

Cecelia involuntarily gasped at his feathery touch as a delicious tremor coursed through her being.

He flicked his gaze to her and smiled. “You’re as sensitive as ever.”

Cecelia didn’t like his arrogant remark, nor did she like the smug expression on his face. “’Tis broad daylight, sire. Are you planning to—”

“Aye,” he said, touching her chin.

“I refuse,” she said abruptly, brushing off his hand. Then before she lost all self-control under his masterful seduction, she shoved him back and rushed off his lap.

She wasn’t fast enough, and he caught her wrist again. With one fluid motion, he had her on her back and him on top of her. He chuckled, rather pleased at her retaliation.

“Playing hard to get again, are we? We both know where you’ll end up.”

Cecelia made an attempt to wriggle herself free. It was no use, as he was stronger, and the harder she struggled beneath him, the tighter he held on to her. It was made worse by the fact that he seemed to be rather enjoying toying with her.

She could feel him watching her, his hot, intense gaze burning her as he waited for her next move. Again, she struggled, letting out little grunting noises at the same time.

He tightened his grip on her small wrists. He suggested, “Fight harder.”

This drew a glare from Cecelia, and he laughed. “Go on. Fight me.”

To encourage her retaliation, he tightened his grip on her even more, which shot pain through Cecelia, and she gritted her teeth. She responded with a growl. Then quick as lightning, surprising even Drake, she moved, opened her mouth, and snapped her teeth onto one of his hands that held her captive.

Drake watched, fascinated, as her small teeth sank deeper into his skin. Odd that he should enjoy the pain she was inflicting on him. He felt his heart pumping harder and faster, and his body—which was usually calm, collected, methodical, and to be sure, utterly immune to pain—buzzed with excitement. Blood began to ooze from his skin as he watched her, a smile creeping across his face, enjoying the moment tremendously. Finally, he released her by pulling back his hand.

One hand freed, Cecelia made a move, her lips wet with his blood. She lifted her head and attacked Drake’s shoulder, sinking her teeth into his skin.

Drake was shell-shocked for a split second and then laughed softly. And here he thought she would have taken the opportunity to run off. Ah, but she really did surprise him, this mite of a human woman.

Cecelia didn’t know this demon king was enjoying her battle with him, and he was now gently embracing her, his large hand holding her at the nape of her neck as she ardently attacked him with her teeth.

Cecelia could taste his blood, salty and wet, in her mouth. She felt quite pleased with her small victory. Finally, very sure he would be begging for mercy now, she moved back. What she saw in his eyes the moment she faced him was nothing less than passion and hunger. Instantly, she felt her heart skip a beat and knew she was in trouble.

“My turn,” he said softly and crushed his lips against hers, his tongue plunging into her mouth.

Cecelia whimpered under his fervent kiss. She could taste his salty blood between them as their lips locked. Her body trembled weakly as he became wilder, thrusting and stroking his tongue vehemently inside her mouth, drawing her deeper into the darkness of his seduction. When he finally lifted his head, she was breathless and lightheaded from the experience.

He watched her as she tried to regain her sense.

“Don’t disobey your king again,” he said, fondly stroking her cheek with the backs of his fingers. Before she could respond to his arrogant remark, telling him he was not her king, he kissed her again.

He was softer this time, his lips warm and firm against hers, and suddenly, Cecelia felt herself lost. She couldn’t think. All she could feel was him—his warmth, his male scent, and his taste. She groaned, and Drake plunged his tongue deeper into her mouth.

Cecelia felt her core bursting as he played with her, wildly stroking her and exploring her. When he moved his head back, he continued his way down her throat. As he trailed lower to her breasts, Cecelia closed her eyes, losing herself once again to the seduction of the demon king.

Chapter 1

Two moons prior…

Van Zandt Palace, Dardania Kingdom

Lady Cecelia Van Zandt stared at her king sprawled back in his mahogany and golden chair, his plump hands resting atop his prominent belly. He was contemplating his giant ruby ring on his porky finger, ignoring her speech of plea.

She felt quite annoyed by his lack of interest. He looked as though he were about to fall asleep, but she knew he wasn’t because he was now playing with the ring.

How could he not care? He was her king and, more than that, her uncle. How can he act as though he has not a care in the world? My mother is dying, for God’s sake.

“Surely, sire,” she said, staring at his hazel eyes and chubby face. “Could you not send your most trusted and strong soldiers to fetch it?” She raised her hand in the air to stress her point. “There are many strong soldiers in our kingdom.”

“My dear child,” he said, finally looking at her. “You are young and your mind is weak with neither thought of danger nor death. Listen well, child…”

Cecelia grimaced. She wasn’t a child anymore. She had seen ten and nine summers past, and that made her a grown person. Of course, the king didn’t think thus.

She was petite and, to her annoyance, came short on all the womanly traits men seemed to adore. She was too thin, her hair too dark, and her skin not at all petal white, as fashion required. This was because she’d spent too much time in the sun. She knew people had been comparing her to Queen Eliza Van Zandt, Lady Rosanna Van Dyck, and Lady Juliet Van Dyck, who were all fair beauties.

“I will not send my soldiers to die,” the king said abruptly.

“But, sire, ’tis the only way Mother can live. The healer said she will soon die if we do not do something. The Pearl of Life will cure the poison.”

“There is nothing we can do,” he said slowly.

Cecelia was angry. There was always a solution to a problem, but the king was a narrow-minded man. She knew he would prefer to do what was safe for him.

She fisted her hands and said through gritted teeth, “You do not care for your brother’s wife, then?”

King Leroi Van Zandt turned to look at his niece, his hazel eyes narrowed in distaste as he took in her person.

“Child,” he said, sitting up straight in his large, dominating chair. “I do care for your mother.” He lied and felt no guilt because it came too easy these days. “It is simply too dangerous even for an excellently trained soldier. I do not care to let my men set foot in that forbidden land. The creatures that inhabit that sea of death and those monsters roaming in that forbidden forest, not to mention the demons themselves.”

“But Mother’s life depends on—”

“Have you ever met a demon?” he asked.

Cecelia closed her eyes. Her heart began to beat faster. Her mind flashed back to that night three years ago when she’d first sighted the demons. They were monstrous creatures with two thick, black horns on their heads, faces and large bear-like bodies resembling a beast. She shivered as she remembered the fire burning down walls and furniture, devouring everything in sight, and the figures of demons shrouding around her.

She fluttered her eyes open and looked at her uncle.

“Nay?” King Leroi smiled as he looked at her shaking her head. “I imagine they would give you nightmares for weeks to come.”

Cecelia was still shaking. It was not only weeks. It was years.

“Monstrous creatures they are. Met one many years ago. Killed ten of my soldiers on the spot, ripping them to pieces.”

Cecelia paled and her stomach hollowed.

King Leroi smiled inwardly. “You are afraid at the thought?”

Cecelia clamped her lips together in response.

“Aye, you are not unfounded to be afraid of them. I am a good king. You must appreciate that I am, and this kingdom is protecting you from them.” He leaned forward, his small eyes scrutinizing her. “Do you appreciate what I’ve done for you and your family?”

Cecelia couldn’t look at him. Instead, she stared at the polished marble floor of white and gold. She felt quite numb.

“Do you?”

“Aye, I do,” she softly replied.

He smiled, his plump cheeks nearly covering his small eyes as he did so. “Then you know it is for the best to leave things be.”

She looked up at him then, her brown eyes misting with tears. “You will not send the soldiers to the Demon Kingdom?”

“Nay,” came the harsh reply.

Cecelia had to control her anger by fisting her hands. Her knuckles began to turn white. She felt a sense of defeat. All of her planning from the previous three nights had come to naught. All her plausible explanations as to why this Pearl of Life—a mysterious seed that grew within a giant clam in the Demon Kingdom, which, according to rumors, had the power to cure her mother from the Westwick poison—was to no avail.

“We will not talk of this in the future. Perhaps it is God’s will that your mother would leave us soon,” he said, looking heavenward and crossing himself.

Nay! Cecelia cried in her heart. ’Tis not God’s will that Mother would die soon.

“You are dismissed.”

Cecelia curtsied, and turning on her heel, she left the king’s private study.

In the long corridor, she was still feeling defeated and angry when she met the two women she most wanted to avoid. Even though she’d heard the clop-clops of their backless mules, she couldn’t escape them as she did not know where an alternative exit was except for the one shown to her by a footman. That exit was at the end of the corridor, behind the two vile women.

“Lady Cecelia Van Zandt, already back from whispering your wicked thoughts to the king?” Rosanna sneered, folding her arms across her generous bosom.

Cecelia looked at the blond-haired woman. She was, as usual, exquisitely beautiful today, dressed in a silk lavender gown. Her silver-blond tresses were styled into ringlets about her head, thus showing off her slender, swan-like neck, which was adorned with a large ruby and gold necklace of an intricate design.

“What did you say to him?” Juliet, the younger sister, said, grabbing hold of Cecelia’s arm and nudging her toward them.

Cecelia glanced at Juliet. She was also very pretty today, dressed in a pastel silk gown and her honey-blond hair styled into ringlets on her head.

“Nothing that concerns you,” Cecelia said, shook her arm free, and moved aside to pass them.

Rosanna smoothly stepped in front of her, stopping her escape. “Tell me or suffer the consequence,” the woman said, her green eyes so sharp Cecelia thought if they were real blades, her smooth cheek would be cut by now.

Though she was afraid, she stood her ground and tilted her head a notch higher so her eyes met Rosanna’s.

“I said nothing that concerns you,” she repeated without showing her fear.

“Insolence!” Rosanna snapped and slapped Cecelia’s right cheek.

Cecelia took a deep breath as she fisted her hands. Slowly, she turned to glare at the woman. She itched to retaliate but knew she would only get into more trouble, for Queen Eliza would soon hear of their fights and would, as always, punish her.

“You will not talk of such to me again, do you hear?” Rosanna hissed. “I am the queen’s cousin. I have all the power, and you have none. It is as well that you know your place here. You should thank the good king for taking you and your family under his wing, for providing you and your family food and shelter after the attack. You should thank the Lord you are still living and breathing this day and not being ripped to pieces by those demons.”

Cecelia squared her shoulders and said, “I do thank God for his mercy every evening tide afore retiring to bed, Lady Rosanna.”

“So what did you talk to the king about?” Juliet asked, yanking at Cecelia’s sleeve.

Cecelia didn’t answer.

Rosanna frowned and her lips thinned into a line. “Tell me now!” she said and yanked her again.

“The Pearl of Life,” Cecelia said.

Both women stared at her in disbelief.

“The Pearl of Life?” Rosanna repeated. “You cannot think to ask the king to dispatch his soldiers to retrieve it, can you?”

Cecelia didn’t answer. She made a move to leave.

“Do you?” Rosanna snapped, grabbing Cecelia’s arm and yanking her back.

“Aye,” Cecelia said and shifted her arm free.

“But it is in the Demon Kingdom, somewhere in the cave deep in the forbidden forest where the terrible monsters live. ’Tis the demon king’s treasure. The creature won’t allow you. The men will die.”

Cecelia ignored the women’s barks of outrage and turned to go.

“You would let the brave soldiers die to save your useless mother?” Rosanna said.

Cecelia twisted around and slapped Rosanna on the cheek. She felt oddly satisfied. To hell with Queen Eliza, she thought. If the news of this small fight reached the woman’s ear and later she got the punishment, so be it.

Rosanna’s mouth hung open in disbelief.

“My mother is not useless,” Cecelia said in a low, heated voice. “She is a great woman, a great lady. She is Countess of Rosevalley, who loves her people.”

“And why is the great Rosevalley gone, turned into ash overnight? Because your dear father was useless, that’s why,” Rosanna snapped.

“It was the demons. It had nothing to do with him,” Cecelia said angrily, tears brewing in her eyes.

“It’s because your father was weak. That was why he couldn’t handle a few demons,” Rosanna said.

“It wasn’t just a few demons,” Cecelia defended. Inside, she felt hopeless, and she knew no matter how hard she tried to argue with them, she would still lose.

“How do you know it wasn’t just a few demons?” Juliet asked.

“I know,” Cecelia said and knew they were laughing at her acting like a child, defending her hero father, Prince Peter Van Zandt, Earl of Rosevalley. In her heart, she knew it wasn’t just a few demons. There was a whole army of them. She had seen them herself. They had attacked at night, killing anyone in sight. It was a miracle she, her mother, and her brother had escaped at all.

She looked at Juliet, and without another word, turned and walked as fast as she could from the corridor.

“Where are you going? Come back here. I’m not finished with you,” Rosanna yelled.

Cecelia ignored her shout of outrage and walked faster, her shoes clip-clopping against the polished floor.

She exited the king’s wing and entered the courtyard. Though the bright sun was shining, the birds were singing, and the flowers were beautiful and blooming in all different shades of the rainbow, she didn’t see them, and if she did, she wouldn’t appreciate them.

She ran across the courtyard, passing the exotic pond swimming with Koi and turtles, the great magnolia trees blooming with white and pink blossoms, and the bushes of bright-red roses that would have made her smile and entered the corridor of the north wing.

This wing was assigned to her family three years ago when they had arrived under the king’s aid after the demons’ attack.

Cecelia was very glad that this north wing was old and not very elegant as were the other three in the palace. And furthermore, because the wing faced north, this meant it was colder than the rest, which both the king and queen themselves, not to mention Rosanna and Juliet, disliked immensely. Hence, they had never come to visit. Not that they wanted to anyway. Queen Eliza had never liked her mother, a fact Cecelia found most suitable to her since her mother, and herself of course, had never liked her in return.

Cecelia came to a grand foyer decorated with a light rose-pink and royal-purple drapes over the long windows. The grand stairs were made of white marble and the large walls were hung with paintings of previous kings, queens, and lords of the kingdom—her ancestors.

She climbed the stairs and then came across the corridor. Turning to her right, she came to a huge door. She stood there for a moment to calm her nerves. Once she was composed, she walked into her mother’s bedchamber.

Closing the door behind her, she wiped her tears clean. She didn’t want her mother to see her crying. The woman already had enough trouble as it was.

“Mother?” she called into the large, elegant room.

“Celia, my darling?” She heard her mother’s hoarse voice and her heart nearly broke. She walked toward the large four-poster bed in the center of the room.

Lady Margaret Van Zandt, Countess of Rosevalley, was sitting between large pillows, and her fragile figure only confirmed Cecelia’s suspicion that her mother was getting weaker.

“Mother,” she said, taking a seat on the side of the bed. “How are you feeling?”

“Better,” Margaret said, trying to smile but failing.

Cecelia knew it was painful to even lift those once beautiful lips. Her mother tried for her sake, she knew.

“I can hear the bees buzzing and the birds singing,” her mother whispered. “So beautiful in spring, don’t you think, darling?”

Cecelia agreed without much thought.

“The festival will be so lovely with wildflowers everywhere.” Margaret reached out her frail hand to touch her daughter’s.

“I won’t be joining,” Cecelia said as she lifted her mother’s hand to her lips. She kissed it and then gently moved it to touch her cheek.

“Why?” Margaret asked, watching her daughter with interest.

“It will be no joy without you there.”

“Nonsense.” The countess frowned. “I want you to go and enjoy the festival. Take your brother with you. Perhaps this time, you will find a fine young man—”

“Mother, you are weak. Do not talk more,” Cecelia said firmly, resting her mother’s hand back on the bedding. She moved up to tuck the blanket around the woman.

Margaret looked at her daughter and knew Cecelia didn’t like talking about finding a husband. She knew it was the very least important matter for her daughter to consider, for her small shoulders were already heavily burdened with many other problems. She knew she and her sickness was one of them.

She changed the subject to ease her daughter’s mind. “Aye, I am tired. Pass me some tea, darling.”

Cecelia poured her mother a cup of tea and helped her as she drank the warm, dark liquid. After her mother had finished, she helped her settle back in bed. The countess was just closing her eyes when Cecelia broke the silence.

“I’ve been to see the king,” she began.

Margaret reached for Cecelia’s hand. “Do not bother him. He has enough on his mind already. The war—”

“Mother, please stop. Where have you heard of such?”

“The maid and the healer.” Margaret opened her eyes just a little to look at her daughter.

“They gossip too much. But you are important, too. The poison… the healer said it has reached your heart. I’m so afraid.”

“Perhaps it is time for me to go.”

“Please, Mother, do not speak of such.” Cecelia shook her head as tears started to brew in her eyes.

“We are only mortal, here to live in this world for a short time and then be taken away again. Even demons, they too will die someday—”

“Please do not speak of them. Not the demons. They have caused us enough pain,” Cecelia said, her heart raging with hatred at the mere mention of them.

“Your father was a brave man, Celia. He stood up to them. He was a great lord and a great warrior.”

“I am proud of him,” Cecelia said, touching her mother’s hand to her cheek again.

The countess sighed.

“The Pearl of Life—” Cecelia brought up the subject.

“Do not speak of it, Celia. Let fate take its course.” When Margaret looked at her daughter, there was a command in her brown eyes that Cecelia found hard to disobey. She was a good daughter, and she must do as she was told. So she dropped the subject. She didn’t want her mother to think too much, for the mere act of thinking itself, the healer had told her, would also increase the poison’s power.

“I will let you rest now,” she said.

After helping her mother comfortably settle in bed, she left.

In her own bedchamber, Cecelia was deep in thought, planning what would be the best course of action to save her mother’s life. There must be a way to get the Pearl of Life. Her previous solution was to plead with the king for his help, but now that wasn’t possible. Another idea that came to her mind was to hire a well-trained soldier to retrieve the item. But who would risk their life to go into the Demon Kingdom? There were too many unknown creatures along the dangerous journey already and many unknown obstacles they must overcome in order to reach the kingdom itself. The very word demon would send people shaking with fear. A demon could suck the blood out of a man and then rip his body to a thousand pieces.

There is no hope for her now.

Cecelia threw herself on her bed, helpless. She lay there for how long she did not know, deep in thought. She was also beginning to get a bad headache.

“Celia?”

She lifted her head and saw her brother at the door. She quickly sat up as her brother walked into the room. She saw his left boot was ripped at the heel, his breeches and coat were smudged with dirt, as was his young, handsome face, and his dark hair was tousled.

“How was the hunt?” she asked, not surprised at all at the fact that her brother looked like he’d been beaten severely. His skin was so pale that it worried her.

Brian Van Zandt came to sit beside her on the large, four-poster bed. She frowned when she saw his dark, scowled face. She knew he must have been silently raging inside. She knew he felt trapped and worthless. He craved to do much, much more. Her heart ached for him.

“They left you in the forest alone again?”

Brian frowned fiercely and then reluctantly nodded.

“They will get it back one day, Brian. You will see,” she said, wiping the dirt from his cheek.

“How is Mother?”

She didn’t know whether to tell him the truth of their mother’s condition or not. She knew if she lied to him, it wouldn’t sit well with her.

“She is getting worse, Brian.”

“Why isn’t the king sending his soldiers to fetch the Pearl of Life?” Brian snapped angrily.

“It is too dangerous. The journey is long and there are many unknown creatures. There are also the demons,” Cecelia explained.

“If only I were healthier, then I would go myself and fetch it,” Brian said, nodding his head and squaring his jaw Cecelia had seen their father do so many times before. She heard the bravery in his seventeen-year-old voice. “If only… if only I were not so sickly. This body of mine.”

He was referring to his chronic condition that had caused him much pain during the nights. Ever since the sickness had struck two and a half years ago, a sickness no one knew the name nor had ever heard of, he had been coughing and his whole body aching severely. He was always tired and so very pale. Most of the time, he couldn’t breathe easily. The healer said strenuous exertion could kill him, which she feared might just happen if he continued to burn himself out just to prove to those other youths that he was capable of standing on his own two feet, that he wasn’t just a pampered young lord.

Looking at him now, Cecelia thought how different he was years ago when they’d been back at Rosevalley Island. The younger Brian had always been so outgoing and active. He had love exploring and riding and practicing his smallsword against her, sharpening his skills. If it weren’t for the infection, he would have grown to be a fine young man, strong and powerful. A young man who could one day take back Rosevalley Island. But fate had dealt them a dreadful blow. Now he could do naught of those things he loved, those things that would make him stronger, for in doing so, it could kill him.

“And if only I were born a boy,” Cecelia said absentmindedly, nodding her head.

“Aye, then you could become a soldier and you could go to the Demon Kingdom and fetch the Pearl of Life.”

“You must not forget I must first fight the demon king, for the Pearl of Life belongs to him.”

“Aye,” the youth said, nodding. “I trust you would beat him. After all, you are very good with the smallsword. I know your fencing is unparalleled, but those teachers and lords, they don’t know you know how to fence, let alone lift a smallsword.”

“The demon king is a very powerful warrior, Brian. How could I defeat him? I am only a woman with a woman’s strength.”

Brian eyed her. The innocent look in his brown eyes nearly made Cecelia forget everything, and she wished she were once again a child. Then she would have no worries. But that is not to be.

“Father was huge, but Mother was still able to defeat him,” he said, thinking about those times long ago when their father had surrendered to their mother when they’d been fighting with words.

Cecelia widened her eyes. “They are different, Brian. The demon king is a demon. He is not a man.”

“What is the difference?” Brian asked. “Surely demons are like humans, too? Surely they look very much like us?”

Cecelia thought even though Brian was seventeen, his life had been quite sheltered, as was she, for they had been exiled here in this northern castle since Rosevalley had fallen. He didn’t have friends, nor she. They went through life without much experience of the outside world. Thus, he didn’t know demons were creatures to fear. He didn’t know they were monsters that killed without mercy. He didn’t know they were hideous beings with beastlike bodies and faces resembling wolves. But she knew because she had seen them.

“Well, for one thing, demons are demons,” she explained weakly.

“Celia, I just know you’ll defeat this demon when you meet him,” Brian said. “I will go wash up. I smell very bad.” He kissed her on the cheek, stood, and then slowly limped out the door.

Alone, Cecelia turned to look out her window into the large city below the palace. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She wondered if she were to meet this demon king, would she be able to defeat him? She doubted it. She would probably faint on the spot just looking at him. Nay, she would never meet him. That she was certain of.

Chapter 2

The idea came to her in the middle of the night. It was so simple, yet why had she not thought of it earlier? Cecelia was excited. She knew she must save her mother, and all she had to do was to fetch the Pearl of Life herself.

As soon as the idea formed in her head, she slumped her shoulders. The journey, as the king had told her, was fraught with danger and unknown creatures. Then there were the demons themselves to deal with. How was she ever going to get to the Demon Kingdom?

Nay, she must not think too much. She would just have to do it no matter what. Her mother’s life was very important. Without her, Rosevalley would not rise again.

Cecelia drifted off to sleep with the thought of her beautiful land coming back to life.

She spent the next three days planning and packing. She didn’t tell anyone, especially not her mother. She knew the woman would forbid her from acting out her plan.

Finally, it was her last night, and as usual, she and Brian were having dinner with their mother. The food was delicious, but Cecelia couldn’t taste anything apart from the bitterness in her mouth. She supposed it was because of the fear, the doubt in her own ability that she hid deep in her heart.

“You look pale, darling,” the countess said.

“Oh.” Cecelia turned to look at her mother.

“Is something the matter?”

“Nay.” Cecelia lowered her soft-brown eyes.

“Destiny, my darling, has a way of finding us.”

Cecelia lifted her face to look at her mother. The woman had a fatigued paleness about her that made Cecelia’s heart ache in her chest. “Mother, you are tired. Brian.” She looked at her brother.

The youth nodded, got up, and kissed Margaret on the cheek. “Good night, Mother,” he said.

“Good night, darling,” the countess whispered and touched his cheek. Brian nodded and then left the room.

“Was the food to your liking?” Cecelia asked, tucking the sheets around her mother.

Margaret nodded and yawned. Then she closed her eyes. Cecelia sat and clasped her mother’s hand in hers. She brought it to her lips and gave it a gentle kiss. “I love you,” she whispered with her eyes closed.

“Please don’t do it.”

Cecelia darted her eyes to her mother in surprise. “You knew?”

“I am your mother, Celia. You are so like your father, so determined and stubborn,” the countess said tiredly.

“I am his daughter after all.” Cecelia smiled.

“I know I cannot stop you. But I’m afraid. What if you are not here when—”

“Hush, Mother, do not speak of such. Milan the healer will look after you well. I promise I will be back with the Pearl of Life as soon as I get it.”

“When will you leave?”

“Before the sunrise.”

“How?”

“As a lad. There are travelers leaving the city. I will go with them, and then—”

“I am worried.”

“I will find a way, Mother. I’ve already packed. There are gold coins.”

“How will you protect yourself from thefts?”

“I have father’s smallsword and dagger.”

“And the creatures in the forbidden forest?” the countess prompted.

“I pray to God for his aid.” She bowed her head as tears flowed from her eyes.

“My darling, you will die,” the countess said in anguish.

“Nay, Mother,” Cecelia said, shaking her head. “I will not die. I will come back with the Pearl of Life… for you.”

“My life is not worth this dangerous journey. I am ashamed of myself. I am your mother, yet I bring danger to your life.”

“Nay, Mother, it is the demons that should be ashamed of themselves, for they were the ones that attacked our land and killed Father,” Cecelia said bitterly.

“You have hatred in you against the demons?” the countess questioned.

“Aye, I despise them.”

“Sometimes, my darling, the ugliest demon could have the kindest of heart. It is the one with beauty that is ugly on the inside.”

“You speak in riddles. I do not understand.” Cecelia looked up to her mother, frowning.

“You will in time.” The countess patted her daughter’s hand. “Will you look after yourself, my darling?”

“I will.”

“God be with you,” the countess said, closing her eyes.

Cecelia knew her mother was tired. She leaned down and kissed her forehead. “I love you.”

Countess Rosevalley smiled with her eyes still closed.

Cecelia left her mother and went into her own bedroom. She saw her brother sitting on the sofa near the hearth, reading the history of Rosevalley Island by Lord Mark Van Cortlandt, the wizard, died three years ago defending her father against the demon.

She came to sit beside him and looked over his shoulder.

“Halfway already?”

“Our island is interesting. I miss our home.”

“I, too, miss our home,” Cecelia said, resting her cheek against his. “I remember the rose field in summer, the wildflowers, the vineyard, and the smells of grapes and lavender and honeysuckle. I remember our castle, our bedchamber looking over the vast blue ocean. I remember seeing Father’s grand ship, the Lady Emerald, sailing into our harbor with goods from other kingdoms. I remember riding my mare, Snow, all white and so beautiful and so gentle. I remember many things, and I wonder, Brian, if we will ever have those things again.”

“Will the king restore Rosevalley for us?” Brian asked, closing the book.

“I hope so. He has promised.” When she said that, she knew in her gut that the king would not help them. He was too busy trying to sort out the war between his kingdom and Virdis Kingdom to have time to think about anything else, least of all the building of Rosevalley.

“He has done naught but promise. I do not trust him.” Brian turned to look at her, his hands clutching the book.

“You are wise,” she said. “The last I heard, the king has ordered the rebuilding of Rosevalley Castle. But why he didn’t allow me to go and see to its progress, no matter that I’ve asked him many times, I do not know. He said I am a woman and do not know these things. He has a lord there working for him. I wonder, I just wonder if he was ever going to let us return to our homeland.” Cecelia sighed after she had said that.

Perhaps, she thought, her suspicion of the king trying to imprison them here had gotten to her imaginative mind. Why would he want to keep them away from their home anyway? Sure, Rosevalley was a very rich island. Could that be the reason? Because the king wanted to control their vast wealth? By controlling them here?

“I only wish we didn’t have to live here. The place is big and nice, but the people…”

Cecelia turned her attention to her brother then. “I know,” she said, knowing those other youths who were sons of the princes, lords, and ministers living in the palace had bullied him, as had both Lady Rosanna and Lady Juliet who had always been bullying her. Not to mention Queen Eliza herself.

“Brian?” she started.

“Hmm?” The youth turned to her, his brown eyes very much like their father’s, large and warm.

She swallowed hard because she was afraid to tell him what she was going to do, afraid he would suffer without her here.

“I must leave for a time,” she began.

“Why? What for?” Brian frowned.

“Will you promise not to tell anyone?” She touched him, her hands clutching onto his shoulders.

“What’s this, Celia? Why are you being so secretive? Why are you leaving?”

“Just promise me, please?”

Brian stared and then nodded. “Aye, I promise.”

She took a deep breath and said, “I am going to the Demon Kingdom.”

He just stared at her as if she were mad.

“What? That’s suicide!”

“To fetch the Pearl of Life,” she explained quickly.

“But, Celia, ’tis dangerous!”

“I know, but Mother’s life… The king, I have pleaded with him. He would not agree.”

“Don’t go. You will die and Mother will die. I will have no one,” he said in anguish.

“Do not speak of such, brother. I will not die. Mother will not die. And you, Brian, will not be alone. That much I promise you.” She touched her fingers to his face and looked deep into his eyes. They stared at each other as they read each other’s thoughts and feelings.

“When will you leave?” he said at last.

“Tomorrow, at dawn.”

“So soon?”

“Promise me you will look after Mother.”

“I… I promise.”

“Study hard. You are going to be the next Earl of Rosevalley. I love you, Brian.” She hugged him tight.

“And I you.”

“Now go.” She pushed him away. “I must get some sleep before the sunrise.”

Brian stiffly got up, clutching the book in one hand and the other still holding on to hers.

“You must go,” she said.

He nodded and lowered himself to kiss her forehead. “Good night, Celia,” he said and left her.

Cecelia went to her wardrobe and took out her packing. Her satchel wasn’t large. It contained only the essentials. She laid out the man’s garments on her bed, the set she had asked her elderly maid Agnes to steal from a stable boy the other night. A commoner’s clothing was what she needed for this journey.

“My lady, I know I shouldn’t speak,” the maid said at the door as Cecelia was brushing out her long tresses.

“Then don’t, Agnes,” Cecelia said, putting down the brush.

“But…”

“Help me off with this gown,” Cecelia instructed. “I must rest before the journey.”

The maid sighed and then said meekly, “Aye, my lady.”

Agnes helped Cecelia take of her sack-back gown. Once the heavy fabric was off her body, she felt light and airy. A feeling she wished she could experience more often. But it was impossible with these types of gown and the many petticoats, not to mention the corset she had to wear while at the palace. If she were back home at Rosevalley Island, she’d wear breeches. She smiled a little then. Aye, she’d wear breeches again soon enough.

“Don’t forget, if anyone asks,” Cecelia began, “tell them I’m with Mother, looking after her. I am sure none would visit her, for her condition is getting worse.”

Agnes nodded as she untied the strings of the corset around Cecelia’s back. “I am sure they will not visit her, my lady, for I have heard the maids have rumored that the poison is contagious and will spread to others within a foot away.”

“And you, Agnes? Do you fear the poison?” Cecelia turned to look at the fifty-summers-old woman who had been looking after her since she was a wee baby.

Cecelia lifted her hands and Agnes removed the corset from her body.

Agnes said, “Nay, my lady, I’ve known of the Westwick’s poison. It will kill the person it has infected but will not spread to others.”

Cecelia had to smile then. “You are not dimwitted like they are,” she said.

The maid grinned at the compliment.

Once Cecelia was in her nightgown, she turned to the older woman and said, “Do you think I am dimwitted, Agnes?”

Agnes looked at her beautiful lady long and hard. She sighed, her heart heavy in her chest. Then she shook her head and said, “You are not dimwitted, just too brave for your own good and for loving your family too much.”

“Thanks, Agnes.” Cecelia smiled.

“Sleep well, my lady. I will pray to God for you every night. May you return unharmed.”

“Thank you, Agnes,” Cecelia said as she climbed into bed.

Chapter 3

Cecelia woke up just before dawn and dressed herself in her male garments. The tight breeches fit her just right, though the shirt and coat was a bit loose on her small frame. The tall boots and hat completed her attire. She inspected herself in the mirror. She widened her eyes as she gazed at a young lad staring back at her.

I’ll fit in as a young man just fine, she thought proudly, thankful for her small breasts.

She inserted the dagger and then the smallsword beneath her belt at her waist and then turned to grab for her belongings. All set, she thought as she took a deep breath. She walked to the door and slipped out. She tiptoed across the corridor and then down the grand stairs. All were in quietness, and she was pleased the guards were fast asleep at their post.

The sun was starting to rise when she was standing just outside the palace gate, looking up at her mother’s window from the north side.

“I will bring back the Pearl of Life, Mother. Stay alive,” she murmured and turned toward the sleepy street of Zakynthus City, the capital city of Dardania Kingdom.

It didn’t take her long to get to the harbor. There were people everywhere, all of different color and dressed in different styles of garments. There were many ships ready for sailing that morning—all to different cities and kingdoms. She was thankful she had found a ship boarded to Kingsbridge City of Meridianus Kingdom, a route to the Demon Kingdom.

She bought herself a passage, and not long afterward, found herself in a small cabin with nothing more than a bunk. The bed itself was hard on her back, which was uncommon to her since her bed both back home and at the Van Zandt Palace were made of goose feathers. She sighed and closed her eyes for some sleep. It wasn’t long before she was swayed off and landed hard on the floor. She looked about her, her mind in a muddle of confusion. Where am I? Then her memory rushed back. She was about to get up when the ship swayed again and she was thrown on her backside.

Outside, she heard the ruffling of sea washing up on the floorboards and thunder booming. They were in the middle of a sea storm, she realized. Great, just what I needed. She hoped she wasn’t going to die before she reached her destination.

Staggering to stand, she went back to the bunk and lay still, trying very hard to ignore the motion of the ship rocking and the storm unleashing its anger on them.

It was bright and sunny after the night of horrible tornados. Cecelia found herself out and about, offering her fair and flawless cheeks to the sun to kiss.

On her fifth day, she was on the deck, looking down at the deep-blue ocean, when she heard a group of men talking behind her.

“It’ll have ta be done tanight.”

She glanced over her shoulder and saw five men talking. They were all dressed like commoners: boots, breeches, coat, and hats. Their clothing, however, was well worn, which indicated they had spent much time in the streets and seas. Their very stance was suspicious to her. It looked like they were conspiring.

“I dunno. What if t’ey found out?”

Ah, that certainly confirmed her suspicion. She moved closer to the corner so she could hear better.

“They’ll not find out. They’re dumb beasts,” one said, presumably the leader of the bunch.

Cecelia flicked her eyes to the five men again.

“What abou’ ta ‘reasure?”

“Nay, not talk ‘ere. Dangerous ‘ere. My cabin tonight…” the leader said.

Cecelia turned and saw they had already parted ways. [_The treasure? _]Were they intending to go to the Demon Kingdom to steal the Pearl of Life? The object was a rare piece indeed and would fetch a high price.

Cecelia returned to her room, deep in thought. She must find out more about the men. If they were intending to go to the Demon Kingdom, then she would be able to journey with them.

It didn’t take her long to learn of the men’s intentions. Two days later, she found them talking again, in a very secluded spot. Their talk concluded her suspicions. They did intend to go to the Demon Kingdom to steal the Pearl of Life. Knowing this was her only chance to have travel companions, she worked quickly in finding a plan to join them.

The next day, she pretended to bump into one of the five men. She introduced herself as a young lad in the process, traveling to different kingdoms to learn the art of exotic plants and such like. She explained she was particularly intrigued with the Demon Kingdom where various and unknown plants were located. She said she didn’t know how to get there, and she certainly didn’t know any ship that was going there anytime soon, which was true enough.

The man with the thick black beard looked at her, his large ears going quite red and his gray eyes sparked with interest when she mentioned she was quite rich and would offer any amount of gold coins, a universal currency in the nine kingdoms, in order to get there.

“Oh, aye, I do know of some who intended to go there.”

“Do you?” Cecelia smiled. “I would offer any amount as long as I get there and do some study of the plants. Surely you find them interesting, too? Such a mysterious place, don’t you think?” she said further.

“I will ask my people and give you the answer on the morrow.”

“Marvelous, my friend,” Cecelia said and turned to go. “Until the morrow, then,” she said over her shoulder.

It was midafternoon the next day that she saw the man she had approached the other day coming toward her.

“They agreed,” he said.

Cecelia smiled. “Good indeed. How much have they agreed on?”

“Ten gold coins.”

Cecelia raised her brows. The price was expensive indeed. But she wasn’t one to argue when her chance of getting to the island was more important.

“’Tis expensive.”

“The voyage is dangerous and long. Looking after a wee lad like ye would cost us much.”

“Indeed,” Cecelia said, nodding. “I will pay half when you get me to this ship that is to go to the island, and I will pay the rest once I land there, safe and sound.”

“I dunno.”

“I can always find another. How do I know to trust you? For all I know, you could be tricking me to steal my gold.” Cecelia narrowed her eyes at him.

“What cabin do you stay in?”

“I will not tell you. What is the answer?” She stared at him sharply.

“’Tis a deal,” he said. “The ship arrives at Kingsbridge City on the morrow. Meet me at the port, and I will take you. We sail then.” He turned to go.

Cecelia sighed with relief. She returned to her cabin and packed her belongings she had unpacked when she’d arrived.

The next day, the ship arrived at Kingsbridge City. She waited at the port. People were everywhere, shouting and cursing, jostling and running, shoving and pushing each other to get to their destination. There were carts loaded with stacks of hay, family’s bags, vegetables, and animals like pigs, chickens, and goats zigzagging hazardously along the so-called roads. There were men on horses making their way toward the city streets. Never mind that they might step on beggars with their begging bowls. There were drunken sailors singing and shouting to whores who happily yelled back with their rusty voice, luring these poor, stupid sailors of their money. Cecelia felt, for the first ten minutes, very confused and dizzy. When she got her bearings back, she looked for the man she’d talked to on the ship the previous day.

“Come this way. The ship’s not far,” he said, leading her through the massive crowd.

He took her for a great long walk, away from the main port, until there was no noise of any kind made by human, except for the waves of the ocean water lapping onto shore. Then she saw a ship. It was small, very easily hidden in the dark and behind cliffs or cave. As she came closer, she saw men at work. They were in the process of packing and setting sail.

Upon the deck, she gave the man her promised five gold coins. He grabbed the currency greedily and showed her to her cabin. As she was about to enter, she saw a man with a thick dark beard and piercing blue eyes staring at her. He was big and tall. What a menacing-looking man, she thought and then shivered.

“How long will it take to get to the island?” she asked, turning away from the imposing stare.

“Three days,” came the quick reply.

Cecelia dreaded the thought of spending that many number of days in the company of these men. She considered changing her plan.

“We travel light and fast. No time to waste,” he said and left her before she could ask for her gold back and run off the ship.

At dinner, she ate some cheese and bread and then went to bed, not wanting to go outside, for she did not want to bump into any of them. After all, she told herself, she only wanted to get to the Demon Kingdom. She didn’t need to make friends with these men.

The rocking of the boat woke her in the middle of the night. She was thirsty. Surely, she thought, the men will all be asleep by now. She wouldn’t meet any of them. She left the room then to find fresh water.

All was in silence as she made her way through the claustrophobic corridor. She was lost for a moment in the darkness. She looked from one end to the other. Then she saw one door slightly ajar at the very end. She went toward it and looked in.

It was dark, though the hint of light from the moonlight shining through the window showed her there were stairs leading downward. The storeroom would be down there, and water, she was sure, would be there too.

She carefully made her way down. Once she landed at the bottom step, she stood for a moment to get used to the darkness.

“No!”

Cecelia looked around. Her heart kicked in her chest. A cry, as though a child were whimpering for help. She scanned about her and made her way toward where the sound had come from. She found herself confronting a thick old door. The cry of the child was louder. She felt her heart burn in reaction.

Thud, thud, thud…

The whimpering was getting louder. Finding she couldn’t contain herself any longer, she opened the door, and to her horror, witnessed the most disgusting sight she’d ever beheld.

One of the men was whipping a boy no more than five years of age. So disgusted she was that without thought, she rushed to the man, grabbed him by the arm, and smashed her fist onto his face. The man fell against the wall, his lips bleeding from the attack.

He staggered up and stared at her. His eyes were wild. He sneered and shouted, “Out of me way!”

Cecelia knew a madman when she saw one. She cursed herself for not bringing her smallsword with her. However, if things did get out of hand, she still had her dagger.

“Don’t you come near!” she shouted back, moving to stand in front of the boy.

“Ye defend that demon, ye traitor,” he shouted.

Cecelia glanced at the boy behind her.

A demon? But how could that be?

The boy was no different from human. This man was so demented that he needed to be locked away for the safety of others.

“You’re mad!” she said. “May God have mercy on your soul.” She spit. Dismissing him, she turned her attention to the boy, lifting him. “Are you all right?”

“Traitor!” the man screamed and started whipping her with his strap. It slashed on her back, and Cecelia winced. She gritted her teeth and twisted to glare at the man. She jumped up, swiftly and expertly withdrew her dagger from her belt, and swung it across his wrist in one smooth motion. Blood spurted. The man screamed, dropping his strap to the ground.

“Me arm!” he shrieked.

Cecelia inserted the dagger back in her belt, rushed to help the boy up, and they ran to the door.

They were climbing the stairs when the thudding of footsteps reached their ears.

“Who goes there?”

Cecelia felt cold sweat settling on her body. She tried to drag the boy toward the top of the stairs. Just one more step, but the boy was quite heavy for a five-year-old. Once they were at the door, she saw the men appearing before them on the landing. She sighed with relief.

“Quick, that man, he’s mad,” she said breathlessly.

“Traitor!” the man from below shouted.

“Quick, seize him. He was beating this boy.”

When they simply looked at one another, as if they didn’t quite know what to do, she frowned at them for their lack of haste to help.

Finally, she saw the leader, Captain Jeremy Jackson, the one who had been staring at her that first day she climbed on the ship. He nodded in command. A man behind him came to her and grabbed the boy from her arms. The other seized her none too gently. Suddenly, Cecelia felt a coldness deep within her stomach.

“Lock them up and don’t let them get away,” Jackson snapped.

Cecelia widened her eyes. A sickening feeling lurched within her, and she wanted to vomit.

“What are you doing?” she asked, her voice a mere whisper.

“Don’t let him get away. He’s too precious,” Jackson said. He finally turned to her and glared at her with his malice-filled eyes. “I was hoping ye wouldn’t get involved, boy.”

Cecelia swallowed. She stared at the four men looking at her, their eyes dark.

What are they planning to do to us? More importantly, can I fight with all these men and escape with the boy?

She did some calculation in her head and found it was better to do what they wanted, because the boy, as she glanced at him, was tired and weak after the beating. Besides, where could they run off to in this small ship and the vast sea?

Cecelia heard groaning from behind her. She shifted and saw the mad man appearing from below the stairs.

“And you!” Jackson shouted. “I told you not to beat him.”

There was a low grunt and then, “But, master, he’s a demon.” He stared at Cecelia, his shaking hand was covering his bleeding wrist. “And that bastard, he cut me deep, master.”

Jackson turned to Cecelia. “Ye,” he growled, “ye know our plan. Ye won’t be leaving ‘ere alive. I’ll have to kill ye now.” He drew out his sword.

Cecelia stared at the sharp blade pointing at her. [Good Lord, _]she thought,[ this is the end of it, and I haven’t even reached the Demon Kingdom yet._]

Jackson moved the blade toward her. Cecelia hands reached for her dagger. She was ready to draw it out as Jeremy thrust the blade forward.

“Captain! The ghost birds, they are everywhere!” a man shouted from the door.

At this point, the blade halted near her neck and Cecelia’s dagger was halfway out of her belt.

“What?” Jackson shouted and twisted around. “Out with all the lights. Don’t let them see us,” he shouted. Then he turned his attention to Cecelia. “And, ye two, take them to the prison below,” he ordered as he rushed off toward the deck.

The men hustled off in every direction, blowing out candles in all the cabins and the torches in their hands. The corridor was suddenly almost in total darkness except for the small, flickering lit candle in a man’s hand, coming toward them.

He said, “Down ye two go,” as he pointed a sharp blade at them. “That’s right. Don’t ye struggle, demon, or this sword will cut ye alive.” And then he laughed as though he really liked the sound of that.

Cecelia stared at him and really would like to give a hard knock to his leering face.

“You too, boy, down you go,” he said, shoving the sword’s pointy end at her throat.

Gritting her teeth, she turned and walked back down the stairs, her arms around the limping boy. They were shoved into the wooden prison. The boy fell, and Cecelia quickly rushed to aid him. Once she got him lying down on the ground with his head resting on her lap, she looked up to see the man locking them up.

“Ye won’t live after we deal with the ghost birds,” he said, looking at her as he tested the locked door. “It’ll be a pleasure killing ye.” He laughed as he left them.

Cecelia turned to look at the boy. She saw his young face paled with fatigue.

“Were you kidnapped?” she asked as she stroked his blond hair.

The boy had his eyes shut. She heard his deep breathing and thought he was asleep. So she gave up waiting for his answer and closed her eyes as well.

“Aye.”

She flashed her eyes open and noted that he was watching her. She was surprised his voice was still strong after the beating.

“How are you feeling?”

“I’m awfully sore before, but I’m better now.”

She knew he was lying. No one could feel better that quickly after such a severe beating. But she said nothing.

“Do you miss your family?” she asked as a way to keep his mind away from the pain. She knew it worked when she thought of her loving family.

Once, she had fallen off Snow, her mare, and broken her ankle. The healer had made a potion for her to drink. It had been so bitter that most of the times she had spat the concoction back out. The healer had also bound her limb with a thick green mixture. The pain at night had been unbearable, but her mother had talked to her of her great ancestors on her mother’s side, of how bravely they had fought in wars, of how they had survived and were rewarded with an island called Rosevalley, of how they had turned that barren island into green, lush vineyard and farmland, and of how they had first built Rosevalley Castle with their bare hands. Her mother had also told her of how she’d met her father, a prince of the Dardania Kingdom, and of how they had fallen in love at first sight.

“I missed Mama and Papa,” the boy said, shifting his head so he lay more comfortably on her lap.

He was being very brave, Cecelia thought, remembering of how vicious the man had whipped him.

“Do you have any brother or sister?” she asked, thinking of Brian.

“No, but Mama promised to have more so I won’t be alone.”

“What’s your name?”

“Lucifer,” the boy said, shifting his head back again so he could look at her. “What’s your name?”

Cecelia thought for a moment. She didn’t know whether to tell him her real name or not. “Brian,” she said finally, using her brother’s name.

“You’re very brave for a human boy.”

Cecelia raised her brows at his statement. “I am not a boy, Lucifer.”

“Really? I don’t believe you,” he said firmly.

Cecelia smiled. “Think as you wish.”

Lucifer turned his face away again and closed his eyes. “Papa and Uncle Drake and Uncle Gerick will save us,” he said some moments later.

“I do not know if your papa knows where we are,” Cecelia said, closing her eyes to get some rest.

“He knows.”

“Those ghost birds, what could they be?” she said, wondering aloud.

“Ghost birds?”

Cecelia opened her eyes to look at him.

“They are birds that appear like ghosts.”

Cecelia was good at imagination. A dead bird was the picture that came to her mind, ones that could fly. But how could the men be afraid of some mere dead birds? She couldn’t imagine why. Then again, she reasoned with herself, she was green to this outside world.

“Thank you,” Lucifer said suddenly.

“What for?” She blinked at the boy.

“Stopping the madman.”

Cecelia smiled. “You’re welcome.”

“When we get home, I will tell Papa and Uncle Drake to thank you properly by giving you a big feast.”

“You must be very rich.”

“Aye, I live in a castle with Papa and Mama, Uncle Drake and Uncle Gerick, and Leon, and ugh, Julius…”

Cecelia saw that he went quiet all of a sudden. “That’s nice. They must love you very much, then,” she said, wondering from what kingdom this boy came from. And why had those men kidnapped him? Apparently, it must be for ransom. Lucifer did say his family was rich. She wondered if he was royalty, like herself.

“Aye,” the boy said proudly.

“I love my family, too,” Cecelia said, thinking about her mother and dead father.

Lucifer turned to look at her again. “Why are you so sad?”

Cecelia blinked. She didn’t know tears were brewing in her eyes. She wiped them away with the back of her hand and said, “My mother is very sick. I must find the Pearl of Life to save her.”

“What’s wrong with your mother?”

“She was poisoned.”

“Oh, that does sound bad,” Lucifer said.

She knew he didn’t understand anything about poison or the pain she had within her heart right then. He was just trying to help ease the hurt. But that was still kind of him.

“I was poisoned once,” Lucifer began, “with the white tiger butterfly. It stung so bad, and I cried. Mama kissed me so I wouldn’t feel the hurt. Usually I don’t like her kissing me so hard cos it’s embarrassing in front of my friends. But this time I like it. The witch made me a potion. It was so very bitter. I didn’t like it much, but Uncle Drake said brave warriors like to drink bitter potion, so I drank it anyway.”

“That’s nice,” Cecelia said. “What’s a white tiger butterfly?”

He stared at her, his eyes large. “Don’t you know anything?” he said.

Cecelia shook her head.

“It’s a butterfly,” he began. “They are very big, this size.” He held out his hand in the air as to indicate the size of the insect.

“Lord, that is large,” Cecelia said, looking at the empty space the size of a fat cat.

“Aye, they sting badly, too.”

“Lucifer?”

“Hmm?”

“You said you were kidnapped. Do they intend to get ransom from your parents, then?” she asked.

The boy nodded.

“We’ll have to escape.”

“I know. I wanted to escape, too. I want to do it myself. I don’t want anyone to save me,” Lucifer said.

Cecelia thought it odd that only a moment ago he had said his father and Uncle Drake would save them.

“I’ll think of a plan before we reach the island. Sleep now, Lucifer, so we can gain some energy for the escape. I am rather tired.”

“I know how you humans tire,” he said, closing his eyes.

Cecelia wasn’t listening to him; she had already turned her attention to the locked door. There must be a way out, she thought. Somehow, once they landed on the demon land, she’d have to find a way out before those men killed her and Lucifer.

Chapter 4

Demon Kingdom, McNamara Castle

Commander Leon McKnight made his way along the gigantic hallway, his steps quick and his polished boots clattering loudly against the marble floor. He turned to his right, then his left, and then left again before he came to a stop in front of a massive mahogany double door. He took a deep breath, lifted his hand, and knocked in a rhythm of three.

“Enter!” a voice boomed from inside the room.

He hastily opened the door and entered the conference room. He bowed slightly once he saw the king—not sitting in his large golden chair, but standing with his hands clasped behind him, his head tilted to one side, and his eyes gazing out at the clear, sparkling blue sea in the horizon. Bright sunlight shone on his aquiline features, silhouetting his form in a mysterious shadow.

Drake Oswald McNamara, the formidable, powerful demon king turned his attention to his trusted friend and distant relative, Leon McKnight, commander of the general army. “What news have you, Leon?”

“The ghost birds, Drake,” the soldier began. “They smelled Lucifer’s scent somewhere deep in the Siren Sea of Death.”

“Is he coming home?” a soft female voice that belonged to Lady Vera McNamara whispered.

Leon turned his attention to the beauty standing beside the king. Dressed in a flowing empire gown of a sea-blue color with gold trimming, her blond tresses styled into ringlets about her head, and the beautiful sapphire earrings and necklace that complimented her blue eyes, she looked enchanting. He stared at her, lost for a moment in her beauty. Then he remembered his place and said to her, “I’m not sure, my lady.”

“What else did the ghost birds say they saw?” a male voice that belonged to Lord Adam McNamara, Vera’s beloved husband and the king’s cousin, snapped.

Leon turned as he addressed Adam and said, “They thought they had seen lights.”

“In the middle of the sea?” Adam questioned gruffly.

“I believe we have unwanted guests,” Drake said chillingly soft.

“They have kidnapped my son and dare to even step foot on our land?” Adam growled, slapping his palms on the table.

The fact was Adam was very angry with himself and the incompetency of the Meridianus warriors. If only they hadn’t ventured to Meridianus Kingdom. If only Lucifer hadn’t wanted to celebrate the Summer Rising with his maternal grandparents, the Hemsworth, whom Adam still couldn’t get along with despite Vera’s effort. If only Vera hadn’t encourage the idea. If only he had said no to his wife’s begging to visit her homeland. If only Lucifer hadn’t venture so far off with those other Meridianus boys, then he wouldn’t have been kidnapped. The thought of those lawless Meridianus thieves who dared to kidnap his son sent Adam’s temper soaring. He growled loudly and sent his mighty fist down on the table again.

“They won’t hurt him, will they?” Vera asked, eyeing her husband.

“Lucifer can look after himself,” Drake said. “He is a demon after all.”

“I could not bear it if he is hurt,” Vera sobbed, throwing herself into her husband’s arms.

The moment he saw his wife’s tears, Adam forgot about his own temper. He hugged her tight and patted her slender shoulder to comfort her. “Lucifer is a brave demon. He will be all right,” he said softly. Then with a dark scowl, he turned to the demon with long blond hair and pale blue eyes, sitting behind the large table that separated them. “Well, Julius, use your damn globe to find Lucifer.”

Julius Falkland, the king’s adviser, glanced at Adam McNamara and said, “You cannot force the vision, Adam. It will allow us to see if Lady Fate wants us to see.”

“But surely, Julius, Lucifer is in trouble. My son, your student, is in danger,” Vera said, fresh tears threatening to spill out of her eyes.

Julius said, “I will have to use a lot of power to force the vision.” He stood up then and turned toward the door. “I will fetch the globe first, and Drake?” He glanced at the king. “I will need your superior power to help, sire.”

Drake nodded, and Julius left.

“Don’t just stand there, Leon. Come and tell us what else the ghost birds saw,” Adam growled.

The soldier nodded and took a few steps toward the table. At that moment, the door crashed open. Gerick McNamara stood there, hands on hips, as he surveyed the room at large with interest.

“What’s this? A conference without me?” he said.

Adam ignored the question from his younger brother and snapped, “Well? Any trace of the Meridianus bastards?”

Gerick frowned for a moment and then said, “My warriors and I have traced from the south to the north of the Meridianus Kingdoms using our flying steeds. The hounds smelled Lucifer’s scent. We followed it, and here we are.” He turned his attention to his cousin, the king. “Drake?”

“Gerick,” Drake said, a dark scowl on his face. “They have just arrived in our land.”

“They set foot on our land?” Gerick shouted, his brows rising dangerously. “Surely, they are not that stupid,” he said more calmly, walking into the room.

“What do you expect? They are human after all,” Adam said, helping his wife into a chair. Vera gave her husband a slight smile and murmured to him a thank you.

“Ah, Leon,” Gerick said, slapping the demon’s shoulder. “So you are the one to bear the news?”

“The ghost birds spied them in the night past,” the soldier said. “They reported back this morn.”

“I can’t wait to slice those humans’ guts with my sword,” Gerick said with one hand gripping the hilt of his weapon

“Gerick!” Adam snapped. “You will not talk of such in front of my wife.”

The gorgeously handsome demon thinned his lips and shrugged his broad shoulders. “Sorry, Vera,” he said. “Where’s Julius?”

“Getting his crystal globe,” Adam supplied, taking a chair beside his wife.

“Are we sight-seeing again?” Gerick asked, glancing heavenward.

“Are you trying to say my globe doesn’t work, Gerick?” Julius said from the door.

“Not at all, Lord Wise Wizard.” Gerick shrugged his shoulders.

Julius narrowed his eyes at Gerick. He walked into the room and placed the globe in the middle of the table. “Drake, I need your help.”

“Aye,” Drake said, making his way toward them.

Everyone circled the table. Drake placed both his hands on the crystal ball. Julius did the same. They both closed their eyes and summoned their inner demon power to the surface. Instantly, the clear ball turned cloudy with smoke and waves of blue-green color.

“I see him,” Julius said, his voice thick. “It’s so cold. The water is so deep. Lucifer is alone.”

“My poor Lucifer,” Vera cried, leaning against her husband for support.

“The storm is brewing, strong and evil,” Julius continued.

“Is Lucifer all right?” Vera whispered, turning her teary eyes from the misty magic globe to look at Julius. She saw that his forehead was starting to sweat, his face scrunched in concentration.

“Hush, love, Julius is working,” Adam said.

“Wait, I’m growing warm. I’m not cold anymore,” Julius said, frowning as though he were confused.

“Lucifer is all right,” Vera asked.

“Whoa, it worked?” Gerick said, raising his brows.

“I can feel his happiness. Nay, he is sad again. No wait. ’Tis a different color, a different warmth.”

“For God’s sake, Julius, make up your mind,” Gerick snapped.

“Perhaps Julius is seeing more than just Lucifer,” Leon suggested.

“That is possible,” Adam said.

“So is Lucifer all right?” Vera asked again.

“I don’t know. I…” Julius frowned for a moment. “Wait, I can distinguish the difference now. Lucifer, I feel him. I see him. He is in a small vessel. They have passed the Siren Sea of Death and are on their way to the Deadly Hollow Cave by the beach of our land.”

“They’ve arrived,” Vera said, her voice sounding oddly hoarse in her own ears.

Julius opened his eyes and released his hand from the globe. “Now we know they are here and Lucifer is with them.” He turned to Vera. “Don’t worry. We’ll save Lucifer from those human bastards.” He nodded and turned to look at his friend. “Drake?”

“Why is Drake still holding on to the crystal ball?” Gerick asked, looking at his cousin, wide-eyed.

“Drake?” Vera touched Drake’s arm.

Drake’s eyes were closed and his face was a composed mask. In his mind’s eyes, he saw the coldness of the sea, the whirling of ice-blue water rushing about him. The stormy wind gusted around him as he stood his ground. Then he was flying. He was in the air. He could feel the fresh, cold air fluttering against his skin. He looked down, and below him he saw a vessel. He felt himself descending toward the ship, and then his body went through ceilings and floors. Down below in the vessel was a prison. There he saw two figures lying side by side. He recognized Lucifer. The other boy wrapped his arms around Lucifer as a mother would to keep her child safe and warm. He saw the youth looked up at him, his soft-brown eyes begging him, and his delicate hand reaching out to him.

Drake felt a sudden coldness settling in his heart. A feeling he had never felt before. He opened his eyes and removed his hands from the globe. He looked around and saw his comrades watching him.

“What did you see?” Julius asked. “What happened?”

“I saw Lucifer,” he said. “They are coming up to the beach as we speak.”

“Then let’s go rip their limbs apart,” Gerick said, heading toward the door.

[_“Stop!” _]Drake shouted. “Don’t be such a hothead.”

“Well, we can’t just sit here and wait for them to come through the castle door,” Gerick snapped.

“Gerick, I won’t have your temper killing my son,” Adam said firmly. “What is it, Drake?”

“We will surprise them. I think they have more than ransom on their mind,” Drake said, narrowing his eyes.

“You don’t mean…?” Gerick looked at his cousin in disbelief.

“The Pearl of Life!” Julius said, his eyes wide.

“The gall of them,” Leon said with his hands fisted.

“It has been ten years since anyone has reached this far,” Drake said. “Come, we leave now.” He turned and led the way out of the study.

Chapter 5

As strange as it may be, Cecelia sensed as though someone was watching over her and Lucifer as they slept. In her fitful slumber, she dreamt of a pair of gray eyes boring into her, as if finding her interesting and seeking into her inner thoughts. She laid there on the cold, wooden floor with Lucifer snuggling up against her. A gust of cold breeze swirled into the room out of the blue. She sensed Lucifer’s shiver and wrapped her arms around him, pulling his small body even closer to her. The ship swayed, rocking them back and forward and side to side, reminding Cecelia once again of where she was and how she came to be there.

As she laid there with Lucifer in her arms, she remembered the gray eyes in her dream; the color bottomless and mysterious, giving her a sense of intrigue. It was a pair of the eyes that could only belonged to the demon king. A shivered coursed down her spine, and she tightened her arms around Lucifer as if for comfort.

A whimper escaped Lucifer’s lips, which drew Cecelia’s attention. His body shook violently as he cried out in his sleep, tears flowing down his cheeks. She held him tight in her arms as she soothed him with soft, sweet words. Poor boy, she thought, to be dragged into such a condition. Surely, his family must be frantic searching for him.

Eventually, his whimpering stopped and his body relaxed. Cecelia eased her holding of him and kissed his forehead.

“You are a brave little boy,” she said softly.

It was about an hour or so later that loud noises could be heard from upstairs and then the swaying of the ship came to a stop, telling Cecelia that they had reached land. She sat up in alertness, her eyes searching about her.

“Lucifer, I think we have stopped,” she said softly.

Lucifer frowned at her for a moment, as if confused. “What?”

“Come, we must try and escape before they come down for us.” She got up and walked toward the locked door. She wiggled it a few times. When it didn’t budge, she tried to pull the chains.

“It won’t work. It’s too strong,” Lucifer said, rubbing his sleepy eyes. “If only Papa were here, or Uncle Drake, or even Julius or Uncle Gerick,” he groaned.

Cecelia’s hands were getting sore. She slumped down and rested her head against the wall. She was tired and hungry. She would never escape this, she thought and felt very depressed.

“You two!”

Cecelia bolted upright. A man headed toward them and then unlocked the chain.

“Out!” he shouted, “and no funny business.”

Cecelia and Lucifer staggered out of the prison as he opened the door. They were rudely escorted with sword pointed at their backs up to the top deck.

Cecelia felt for the first time in days a gentle breeze caressing her face as they came up. She breathed in the fresh, open air and stared wide-eyed at the sight before her. The beach was long and wide, with white sand that stretched to the endless horizon. Behind the beach was a jungle of lush tall trees and exotic flowers of unimaginable sizes, shapes, and colors.

She searched around her and realized that not one man was in sight except for the one escorting them.

“Where are your men?” she asked curiously.

“No questions! Start moving!” he snapped, shoving his sword against her back. “There!” he nodded toward the beach.

Cecelia went to the floorboard and walked down the ship, Lucifer following behind her.

“That way!” he said.

The sands were deep and porous against her boots. She found it more tiring than walking on hard earth. Once they had reached the jungles, she found herself stumbling over vines and dead wood many times. Lucifer, on the other hand, seemed to know his way around. When she fell, he helped her up. He didn’t at all seem to be very tired as she was, which she thought a bit odd for a five-year-old boy.

It wasn’t long when they came to a small camp. The men were there with their tents and weapons. They were sitting around a fire with some unfortunate odd-looking bird—it had the head of a bird and the body of a cat—that had been stripped to the skin and now was roasting upon the pit of a fire.

“Go, sit there!” The man behind them shoved her.

Without a word, Cecelia went to sit by a tree. Lucifer made himself comfortable beside her.

“I’m hungry. Won’t they give us some food?” Lucifer groaned, looking at her with his sky-blue eyes large.

“I don’t think so,” she said, her mouth watering at the sight of the odd bird. The skin was turning, glistening and golden brown, and its fat was dropping from its skin, landing on the spiting fire.

She turned away, ignoring her hunger and diverting her thoughts to finding a route of escape. A man came to her then and tied her hands and feet. He did the same to Lucifer.

“To make sure you two stay put,” he said, grinning at them, showing his stained, yellow teeth. His breath was stinking and hot against her face.

She gagged in disgust.

They had their meal and gave none to her and Lucifer. She closed her eyes, pretending sleep so she wouldn’t have to watch them eat the bird while her tummy grumbled. She was drifting into a slumber when she was kicked awake.

“Get up. We’re moving,” a man snapped at her, and then he proceed to cut her and Lucifer loose.

Freed, Cecelia stumbled up, aiding Lucifer at the same time. They walked through the jungle for a long while before they came to the mouth of a cave.

“In there. Get the boy,” Jackson shouted.

Cecelia was alert because Jackson sounded rather excited. She watched as one of the men came to them. He stared at her and pulled Lucifer from her side.

“Come,” he said, shoving Lucifer so hard the boy fell to the ground.

“Don’t you touch him!” she snapped and shoved the man back. She bent down to help Lucifer. “Can’t you see he’s only a child!”

“Don’t care!” the man said, dragging Lucifer.

Cecelia would have none of it and pulled Lucifer to her side.

“Come!” the man said through gritted teeth.

Cecelia glared at him. She wouldn’t let Lucifer go. The boy turned and wrapped his arms around her waist for support.

“Where’s the boy,” Jackson shouted, looking at them.

“Come!” The man dragged them both toward his captain.

“You, lead us in.” Jackson pointed a finger at Lucifer.

“I won’t,” the boy cried. “’Tis against the rule. I will be punished.”

“Lead us in,” Jackson snapped, drawing out his sword. “Or bear the consequence.”

Lucifer widened his eyes as the sharp blade was pointed near his throat.

“Don’t do anything stupid!” Cecelia shouted, her body shaking with rage. “He is only a boy.”

“Now lead us in.” Another man shoved her from behind.

Slowly and hesitantly, his body shaking uncontrollably, Lucifer walked into the cave with his hands clutching onto Cecelia’s. The men followed them.

Inside was total darkness. The men lit their torches. Instantly, the flames lightened up the hollow passageway.

“Walk faster!” Jackson snapped, shoving both her and Lucifer forward.

“He’s only a child,” she snapped again.

Jackson only laughed. “Lead us, demon, to the Pearl of Life.” His callous voice echoed in the silent cave.

Cecelia’s heart kicked in her chest. So this was the Cave of Doom where the Pearl of Life was rumored to exist. She was right; the men did come to steal the pearl.

“How long to go?” a man asked.

There was silence except for the thudding of their footsteps.

“I said how long to go?” the man hissed again.

“I don’t know,” Lucifer cried, his grip tightening on Cecelia’s. She pulled him closer to her as they walked.

“There, I see it,” Jackson shouted excitedly, laughing. “There!”

“Let’s get it,” another man said, rushing toward the clearing.

He was about to reach the end of the passageway when he stepped on something that moved beneath his foot. He frowned, and before he knew it, the ground opened and swallowed him. He screamed to his mates for help. One rushed forward with his hands reached out, but he was too late. The man fell into a pool of molten lava below.

Lucifer shoved his face against Cecelia’s side. She could only stare at what had just happened.

“We must be careful. There are traps everywhere here,” Jackson shouted, nodding to his men. “You two!” he snapped, looking at both Cecelia and Lucifer. “Come here and lead the way. Everyone, stay behind them.”

What a clever ploy, Cecelia thought. Those coward men, they’d rather let a child and young boy die first.

“I’m scared,” Lucifer whispered to her.

She looked at him and patted his shoulder in encouragement. They both started moving again. They took each step carefully so they wouldn’t step into another trap.

Once they’d reached the opening of the cave, they were thrust aside as the men made their way toward the huge waterfall. High above them was the cleft of an opening. Clear blue sky from above shone upon them.

The shower of water streamed around a small island. There Cecelia saw the largest clam she’d ever beheld in her life. And inside its opened mouth was the Pearl of Life. It was a small thing and its pinkest color shone against the hot ray of sunlight.

“’Tis our luck all right, captain,” one man said, smiling.

“Aye, Joe, let’s get across,” Jackson said, pointing to his men.

“Is the water deep?” another asked.

One hopped into the stream. It barely reached his chest. “Nay, not at—” He didn’t finish the sentence, for he started screaming in pain. “Aaghh…” The agony in his voice echoed like death, and birds high above them hiding amongst the trees dispersed in every direction in fright.

“What happened?” Jackson shouted.

“Get me out! Get me out!” Joe screamed, his hands scrambling for his mates.

“Pull him out!” Jackson shouted.

Two men hurriedly pulled Joe out. As he landed, the lower parts of his body steamed with smoke. His breeches stuck to his legs; his boots were burned and melted to his feet.

“What kind of water is this?” Jackson shouted, twisting his face in rage toward Cecelia and Lucifer, demanding them to answer.

Cecelia turned her face away. Her heart sank at the thought of ever getting the pearl herself. If those men couldn’t get through, what chance had she?

“I said what kind of water is this?” the captain snapped. When none answered, he stalked toward them. “Tell me!” he growled, pulling Lucifer up and shoving the boy about.

“Stop it!” Cecelia snapped angrily. “You cannot treat the boy this way.” She pulled Lucifer into her arms. “Leave him be.”

“Get out of the way!” He slapped Cecelia with the back of his hand, sending her falling to the ground.

When she looked up at him again, she touched her sore face, glaring at him.

“You, tell me now,” Jackson growled.

“I don’t know,” Lucifer cried.

“You nuisance bastard! No point in keeping you,” he growled, drawing out his dagger.

Cecelia panicked when she saw the knife moving toward Lucifer’s stomach. She got up and raced to the boy, thrusting him aside. The blade slid through her arm as she and Lucifer fell to the ground.

“Damn nuisance, the both of you,” Jackson snapped, throwing away his dagger and drawing out his sword. Cecelia stared wide-eyed as he raised the blade high, intending to kill them.

“No!” she whispered, closing her eyes.

She felt the blade moving slowly down toward her heart, its sharp coldness inches from her breasts. That split second felt like an eternity.

The next moment, she opened her eyes and saw an arrow hit the captain’s hand, sending the sword flying, landing in the stream. The sword shriveled, and within seconds, it was destroyed into nothingness.

She looked up toward the entrance and saw giants. She was sure they were giants, for they were as big as pine trees.

“You scoundrel, you dare to hurt my son?” the man with dark-blond hair growled, his deep-set eyes glaring at the captain. The intensity in that gaze could send a man running in tears.

It almost did, but Captain Jackson stood his ground. “Give me a sword!” he shouted at his men.

“But captain—” one said, his voice quivering as his eyes flickered from one giant to the other.

“I said my sword!” the captain growled, reaching his hand in the air. One threw him a sword. He caught it and nodded toward the giant addressing him. “You, let’s fight man to man.”

“I am no man, you bastard,” Adam growled, taking a step forward.

“Look at all those scary little humans,” Gerick said from behind. “I’ll take those ten there.” He nodded to the bunch on his left.

“I’ll take the captain,” Adam said, taking a step toward the leader.

“You will not,” Drake said, handing his bow to Leon. “You will take your son home. He needs you.”

Adam frowned darkly. He wanted to kill the bastard human who had hurt his son. If that boy hadn’t shoved aside Lucifer to take the blade himself, Lucifer would be dead by now. He was still damn angry, but Drake was right. Lucifer needed him right now.

He grunted loudly to show his displeasure for not having the chance to kill the captain.

“I’ll take the captain,” Drake said, sliding out his thick, sharp sword. “We will fight man to man,” he said to the captain.

Jackson swallowed. “I’ll kill you all, demons,” he screamed and rushed toward Drake.

Drake stepped aside and rewarded Jackson’s neck with the back of his hard fist.

Captain Jackson fell forward. He scrambled up and rushed for an attack. They were fighting with their fists and feet—blow to blow. Both Gerick and Leon charged the other men and began their combat.

Adam went to his son. “Lucifer?” he said, kneeling beside the boy.

“Papa?” Lucifer said through the sounds of swords slashing and men grunting. He rushed up to the hug Adam. His tears flowed down his little cheeks. “Papa, I’ve missed you. I’m so scared,” he admitted.

“I’m here now, son,” Adam said, picking up Lucifer. He turned to look at Cecelia. “Come on, boy. Let’s get out of here.”

Cecelia stared at him, at a loss. She had never seen any man as tall and big and muscular as this one. His face, she saw, was quite handsome.

“Come!” he said again, dragging her up none too gently and leading her toward the passageway.

“What about the others?” she asked.

“Do not worry yourself about them,” he said, pulling her after him.

“But Captain Jackson has many men. There are only four of you, and now you left your comrades. They will not escape.”

Adam didn’t reply and kept dragging her toward the clearing. She had to keep up the pace by running so she wouldn’t fall. It was only a short time later that they were out again.

Out in the clearing, Cecelia saw four animals. She supposed they were horses of some breed, for they had horns like those of a unicorn. Their bodies were bigger and more muscular, however, which she supposed indicated strength. Their colors were of particular interest to her. One was beige, two were grey, and one was a sinful velvety black.

Adam led her to the beige one. When she was standing beside the horse, her head barely reached the saddle.

“CloudStorm!” Lucifer shrieked with delight, patting the animal’s long nose.

Adam placed his son on the ground and turned to Cecelia. She took one look at him and knew what he was going to do.

“Nay, I can’t—” She could go no farther, for she was being lifted up and swung over the saddle like a doll. “Thank you,” she said. Her backside was quite sore because he’d dumped her on the saddle none too gently.

Adam picked up his son and easily climbed on the saddle in front of her. He made his son comfortable sitting on his lap and took the bridle.

“Hold tight,” he said and slashed the reins.

The stallion hissed and rushed forward. Cecelia had to quickly grab for Adam’s coat so she wouldn’t fall back from the force. She didn’t know how long they were going to ride until they got to somewhere safe. But she didn’t care, for Lucifer was safe with his father.

Somehow, she knew she must find a way to get that pearl. The thought of her mother was at the forefront of her mind as she drifted off into a slumber.

Not long afterward, Adam heard the thunder of hooves approaching them. He didn’t slow down, for he knew they would catch up to him soon enough. Then three stallions were riding alongside him. Adam slowed his stallion to a slower pace. Gerick took the lead, while Leon took the rear as guard.

“How is he?” Drake asked, looking at his nephew.

“Doing fine,” Adam said, gazing down at his son. “Brave boy,” he said, glancing at Cecelia sleeping behind him.

“Must be tired,” Drake said. “Here, let me take him.”

They moved their stallions closer and Drake lifted Cecelia and laid her on his lap. She snuggled against his large chest, sleeping in contentment. Drake wrapped one arm around her and then kicked his stallion to gallop faster.

Chapter 6

Cecelia woke up to the sound of laughter. She turned her head toward the window as a gentle breeze caressed her face. She sat up and looked about her surroundings. The sun was starting to set. How long had she been sleeping? She was about to get up when she saw a woman standing at the opened doorway. Her blond hair floated all the way down to her waist. Her blue eyes and fair skin made Cecelia catch her breath. Never before had she seen such beauty.

Both Lady Rosanna and Lady Juliet could never compare to this one, she thought.

“I apologize if I bother you,” the woman said.

“Nay, you did not bother me at all,” Cecelia said, blushing, for she knew she was staring. She couldn’t help herself, of course. “’Tis me who should apologize. I’m ogling at you,” she admitted.

“I am used to it,” Vera said and laughed. She came to Cecelia and touched her arm. “I thank you for saving my son.”

Cecelia widened her eyes. “You’re Lucifer’s mother?”

The woman smiled. “Aye, I was told by the king that I should not be here disturbing your rest, but I cannot wait. You see, Lucifer is very dear to me.” Her eyes softened.

“I understand,” Cecelia said, thinking about her mother and Brian. Her heart suddenly constricted. It had been three full weeks now.

“Oh Lord,” Vera said, “do forgive me, but I am a bad hostess indeed.”

For a moment, Cecelia forgot she was supposed to be her brother. She quickly nodded at the woman who was now curtsying to her as to a king.

“Welcome, Brian, to the Demon Kingdom.”

Cecelia’s heart kicked in her chest. She blinked and stared wide-eyed at the woman. “Demon what?”

Vera looked up to her then and repeated, “Demon Kingdom.”

“You are?” Cecelia stared at the woman.

“Lady Vera McNamara, wife of Lord Adam McNamara who is a cousin of the king,” she provided.

“But… but,” Cecelia stammered, shaking her head in disbelief.

Vera raised her brows. “But what?”

“But you are not… demon-like, hideous,” Cecelia finished, blushing, for she knew she sounded stupid even in her own confused mind.

Vera laughed. She couldn’t help herself, for she too had once thought of demons as hideous, monstrous creatures who merely lived to kill. That, however, changed when she had met Adam.

“My dear boy, what did you expect? Demons looking like monster?”

“Well, yes, I saw demons. They have beastlike bodies and faces like wolves.”

“Do stop there, Brian. But if those are the demons you have just described, they are child’s play,” Vera said, though she didn’t at all sound very concerned or put off because Cecelia had just looked down on her husband’s kind.

“I didn’t expect demons to look like humans,” Cecelia said.

“Oh, do not be surprised, my dear boy. Demons are much the same as human.” She smiled. “Now enough talk. ’Tis getting late. Dinner is on soon. Would you like me to help you clean up?”

Cecelia clamped her lips and her cheeks turned crimson. “Nay, but thank you,” she said quickly.

“Very well, then. Those are your clothing for now. I do hope they will fit your small frame. Do you always keep your hair so long?”

Cecelia touched her messy hair that was still tied at the nape of her neck with a black ribbon. “Aye, ’tis our fashion at the moment where I come from,” she lied.

“Our men like to keep their hair short. It is a fashion led by Gerick. You could say he is the handsomest demon in our kingdom. The females fall for him no matter their age. Drake, our king, he is different. He likes his hair long. It reminds him of freedom, like when he was a prince. He likes sailing his own ship and does as he pleases. He has been to many kingdoms. But no matter, here I am muttering about things you must find very boring. I will leave you to your bathing now,” she said, thanked Cecelia once again for saving her son, and then left.

Not long afterward, two maids brought in a hot tub, which they placed near the brightly lit hearth. Cecelia was able to bathe in peace once they had left. She stayed in the tub for half an hour, enjoying the lovely scent of herbs and rose petals and the warm water. She closed her eyes and relaxed her tense, tired body. When the water had gotten cold, she climbed out and got dressed in the breeches, shirt, and coat provided by Vera. Once her dark hair was slightly dried by the fire, she tied it at the nape of her neck with her black ribbon.

She was walking out into the corridor when Lucifer rushed from the corner and wrapped his arms around her waist. “Brian!” he squealed.

“Lucifer!”

“Come, come,” the boy said, pulling her by the hand. “Dinner is starting. This way. I get the honor of showing you to the dining chamber.”

“Oh!” she said, allowing the young demon to drag her across the great hallway.

Without Lucifer’s aid, she was sure she would get lost indeed, for the castle was a maze of a place. There were so many doors that she couldn’t keep count. The castle was beautifully furnished and artfully designed. Numerous gigantic paintings of demons in generations past were hung on the walls. Many were males and a few were females. Their hair colors were all different, but their features, to Cecelia’s interest, were all very similar.

Lucifer turned to the right, and before she knew it, she was walking along a very high-ceilinged corridor with huge red drapes hanging against enormous glass windows. She looked about her in fascination, for there were more interesting paintings. One caught her eyes. She couldn’t help but stare at it as she walked.

The eyes in the painting gazed down at her as if perceiving deep into her soul. The dark-gray color seemed, to her very imaginative mind, to be burning with smoke. The shoulder-length, dark-chestnut hair, strong, prominent jaws, and high cheekbones quickened her beating heart. Surely, she had never seen a more darkly handsome man in her life. But then, she reasoned with herself, this was no man; this was a demon. But demons were supposed to be ugly, not so pleasing to look at that it set her heart to jumping hazardously. And it wasn’t even the real demon she was looking at. It was merely a painting.

“We’re almost there,” Lucifer said.

“’Tis rather a long way,” she said, tearing her gaze from the painting and concentrating on trying not to get lost the next time she was to come to the dining room. But then, she thought, there would be no next time, for she planned to get the pearl as soon as possible and leave. She knew her mother was getting weaker by the day, and it was wise not to waste more time.

They were turning another corner when she heard the humming of laughter and buzzing of conversation.

“We’re here,” Lucifer announced, leading her toward the huge open double door.

She hesitated. She wasn’t used to barging into a room full of people she didn’t know.

“Come on.” Lucifer pulled her hand.

She stood rooted to her spot. “I…” She wanted to turn back.

“There you are,” Vera called, appearing at the door. She glided toward them. “Come along, Brian. Do not be bashful.” She laughed, and Cecelia blushed.

Vera took her hand and led her into the dining room. Cecelia stared fixedly at the polished floor the whole time she was being dragged in. They stopped behind a huge mahogany dining table.

“Brian, ’tis a pleasure to have you here. We wanted to thank you for helping our son,” Vera started. “Brian, may I introduce you to our king?”

Cecelia didn’t turn her face to look at the demon king. She fixed her gaze on the beautifully designed cutlery and plates on the table. She was about to curtsy when she hesitated, remembering she was not Lady Cecelia Van Zandt right then, but young Lord Brian Van Zandt. She bowed her head instead.

“Lift your face, boy. I am not pleased to look at your head when I am addressing to you.”

Cecelia’s heart kicked in her chest. The deep timber turned her stomach hollow. She took a deep breath, and summoning all her courage, she lifted her head. Her dark-brown eyes met a pair of stormy-gray ones. Her heart drummed in her chest. The sound was so loud in her own ears she was surprised no one was complaining about it.

“That’s better,” Drake said, a hint of a smile on his lips.

Cecelia couldn’t stop staring at him. He was the demon she had seen in the painting. He was the demon king.

“How do you find yourself in such a situation, boy?” he asked.

Cecelia blinked. She didn’t know how to reply, and the room turned silent. Everyone was watching her and waiting for her answer. Her throat became dry and her cheeks reddened with embarrassment.

Vera saw this and said, “This is not the time to ask young Brian questions, Drake. Now, Brian.” She touched Cecelia’s arm and turned her toward her husband. “This is my husband, Lord Adam McNamara. That’s Lord Julius Falkland, the wise wizard.”

Cecelia turned to the long, blond-haired male with pale blue eyes nodding his head at her.

“Lord Gerick McNamara, the king’s cousin and my husband’s younger brother.” Vera introduced her to a very handsome young demon with pale gray eyes and ash-blond hair.

“And that is Commander Leon. He’s a distant relation to the king.”

Cecelia nodded toward the dark haired demon with hazel green eyes. He nodded back.

“Well, that’s everybody.” Vera sighed. “Let’s dine, shall we?”

They all took their places along the table. Drake took the head, while Adam took the other end. Everyone else took the side chairs. Cecelia found herself facing Commander Leon. On her left was Lucifer and to her right, Vera.

“’Tis great this night I get to dine with everyone,” Lucifer whispered to her.

She raised her brows. “You do not dine with them daily?”

“No.” The boy shook his head. “I am too young to dine with everyone yet, but tonight, it’s different. It’s a feast.” He giggled.

The first course arrived. Footmen with fine velvet uniforms of black and purple carried trays into the room. One placed a small round and deep plate of fairy-embossed design in front of her. She looked into the bowl. It was soup of a thick, creamy color.

“It’s seafood soup,” Lucifer whispered.

“Oh!” She nodded.

“How did you meet Lucifer?” Leon asked.

Cecelia turned to look at the demon. “In the ship,” she replied.

“How in the ship?”

“Err…”

“He saved me from those men’s beating,” Lucifer put in.

Everyone turned to look at Cecelia, including the stormy-gray eyes of the king. She blushed and lowered her eyes for receiving so much attention.

“Did those humans beat you, Lucifer?” Gerick asked, narrowing his eyes dangerously.

“Aye.” The boy nodded.

“What did he look like?” Gerick prompted. He needed to know which of those bastards they had killed that morning was responsible for Lucifer’s beating so he could throw his body into the wild and allow the beasts to eat his flesh. The rest he would be kind enough to bury in the forest near the cave, and maybe he’d consider carving their names on headstones, too, to warn off other stupid human intruders.

Lucifer cocked his little head to one side and said, “He has dark hair and he’s not that big, not like you, Uncle Gerick. You could beat him easily.”

Gerick smiled pleasantly at the compliment.

“Lucifer is a brave boy,” Cecelia said, looking at the cute boy smiling up at her.

“Of course he is. He’s my son,” Adam said, matter-of-fact.

“I don’t think I could have handled the situation as well as he did if I were five years old,” Cecelia said.

Drake looked at Cecelia. She caught his gaze for a split second and quickly lowered her eyes. She tried to concentrate on her food, but she couldn’t seem to do so because she could still feel his intense gaze on her person.

“I’m not five years old,” Lucifer announced.

Cecelia frowned and said, “Oh, I apologize. Six, then?”

Lucifer looked at her rather disappointedly.

“Lucifer, do not be rude,” Vera put in. “He didn’t mean to offend you in any way, Brian.”

“Aye, I’m six and a half,” Lucifer said proudly. “And I’m learning how to wield a sword.”

“Really?” Cecelia widened her eyes in surprise. “At six years old?” She turned to Vera. “But Lucifer is so young.”

“Brian, he’s a demon,” Gerick chimed in, as if that would explain everything.

Cecelia turned to Gerick even though she didn’t want to because she had to look at the king too, who was staring at her most intensely.

“And you, Brian?” Drake’s deep voice caused Cecelia to jump in her seat. “How many summers have you seen?”

“Nineteen summers, sire,” she replied without looking at him.

Drake narrowed his eyes and lifted a smile at her. “Nineteen? Where is your muscle, boy?”

Cecelia swallowed and blushed. She had forgotten she was supposed to be her brother. The fact that she was a woman meant her womanly body had no muscle like that of the males of her age.

“I, err…”

“Drake, ’tis no way to converse during the meal,” Vera put in, patting Cecelia’s shoulder. “I’m sure Brian has his reason for not telling the truth of his age.”

“Why do you lie about your age?” Julius put in, frowning at her. “’Tis unwise at best, for wizards can find out with a mere look into your eyes.”

Cecelia frowned and lowered eyes to avoid Julius’s gaze.

“Come, let me look into your eyes so I can guess how old you truly are,” Julius said.

Cecelia started to feel very uncomfortable.

“Julius, you are making Brian blush,” Vera snapped.

“Blush? He can’t blush. He’s a man,” Gerick said, looking at Julius, expecting him to provide them with answer with his limitless knowledge.

Julius thought for a moment and then turned to look at Brian. “Perhaps humans are different?”

“Aye, humans are different,” Cecelia said, nodding her head. “Lucifer.” She turned to the young demon. “Can you take me around for a tour?”

“Oh, yes,” Lucifer said excitedly. “I will show you our stables, our garden, and our castle.”

Vera said, “It will have to be tomorrow. You two are tired. You need your rest, Brian.”

Cecelia nodded.

Thankfully, dinner went smoothly after that for Cecelia. Once it was over, she begged tiredness and left immediately. In the guest bedchamber, she lay in the large, soft bed, thinking about her mother and brother, wondering how they were getting on without her. She’d have to somehow find a way to get the Pearl of Life and then travel back home. She calculated that it had taken her three weeks to get to the Demon Kingdom, so it would presumably take her another three to four weeks to travel back, if she were lucky. That meant there was no time for her to waste.

The stables. Lucifer had said he would take her to see the stables tomorrow. That meant there would be horses. If most of their horses were like those she had seen when the king and his comrades had come to save her and Lucifer that morning, then she’d have a good chance of borrowing one of them to fetch the Pearl of Life. Perhaps Lucifer would also show her their port as well, for Vera had said the king loved to sail.

Nodding, she closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep, dreaming of the misty gray eyes boring into her person.

Chapter 7

The demons didn’t like humans very much. They considered these beings twisted, cunning bastards with nothing more to fill their time than to get drunk, plot, plan, kill amongst their own kind, and of course, going to war with other kingdoms to conquer.

The Demon Kingdom was one of[_ those_] prized nations, with its fertile soil excellent for farming, lakes with an abundant supply of fresh water, woods full of wild animals, ocean copious with sea creatures, and mines rich with precious metal ore such as silver and gold. For centuries, the humans had their eyes on the demon land, their hunger for it driving them to a feverous pitch that led to numerous wars and millions of deaths. When they failed in their attempt, they spread lies and rumors that demons were monstrous creatures born to destroy and kill.

For the last few hundred years, the war against the demons had turned into a Holy War, brought about by the human Holy Knights to eradicate these nightmarish, malevolent beings from the nine kingdoms. They failed spectacularly, and now fifty years since that war ended, many still believe the demons to be these grotesque murderers the humans portrayed them to be.

Though Drake himself didn’t dislike the humans as passionately as his demon citizens, he still regarded them with disdain and preferred to interact with them at arm’s length. He understood that all races were of the same make, that the urge to lie, steal, or kill was fueled by the need to survive by some, passion by others, and greed by a fair few. Of course, this included those who were here to steal his treasure, and there had been many since this kingdom became his after the death of his parents.

As with anything, there was the exception of the very selected few whom he’d encountered and found very amiable. One of those was Lord Peter Van Zandt, the Earl of Rosevalley, whom he had met many years ago during one of his sea adventures. The man and his beautiful wife showed him the true meaning of being alive, being a part of a loving family and friends, and how one should always be true to oneself, whether a powerful king or a poor farmer. Of course, the earl had taught him the art of viticulture and viniculture as well. These were lessons that Drake cherished and knowledge he kept with him since.

He was currently sipping the fruit of one of those lessons now. The dry and sweet taste of the wine swirled playfully in his mouth as he carefully analyzed the current urgent state in which they were. Marcus Arthurs, who had escaped the dark prison four years ago, was now gathering troops, preparing for imminent war, with the help of what kingdom Drake had yet to find out.

As a young king, Drake had to show his demon followers his strength and capability to protect them from the continuous threats of wars that raged across the nine kingdoms. It was a hard job, one that required constant late nights, an alert and sharp mind, and wise decision-making, of which Drake possessed in abundance.

Now, however, it wasn’t that threat of war that put him on edge, for they had no fear of such things. Drake and his comrades were skilled, ruthless warriors and had trained their demon armies, which counted in the hundreds of thousands, the art of battle to perfection. They were always ready for any combat, and none were afraid to die for their country. Marcus Arthur, a demon and Drake’s ex-comrade, wouldn’t be able to withstand them, regardless of the influential and powerful help he managed to acquire from outside.

It was the imminent need for a blood heir that worried Drake. He was ready for marriage, but his pearl of life was still dormant, hadn’t yet informed him it had found a suitable bride for him to mate and bear his children. Such was the fate of a true demon king, for if the bloodline wasn’t suitable, the power within would die, and along with it the kingdom.

“Your scowl is darker than usual, Drake,” Julius said from the other side of the library. He had a book in his hands, his eyes scanning through the ancient text as he stated his next query. “Are you worried about the pearl?”

Drake, perched on the step of the stairs above, gazed off into the distance through the long window that overlooked the city below. Dots of bright light illuminated the vast kingdom like fireflies, an enchanting picture. This kingdom was his, and Drake loved and cherished it—his land, his demons, and all that was within the boundaries of his responsibility.

“Aye,” he replied. “The pearl isn’t yet ready.”

Julius took off his spectacle, resting it gently on the table, and lifted his head to look at Drake. “Well, there is naught we can do but wait until the timing is right.”

“Timing,” Drake said, “is not on our side. Marcus Arthur, as we know, is now gathering his armies. He knows I’m without a blood heir. This kingdom is vulnerable. He will challenge me and kill me if he gets the chance. If I die, this kingdom will die with me, and you know it.”

Julius was silent for a moment. The situation was dire. Unlike the human kingdoms, the survival and prosperity of both the Angel and Demon Kingdoms rested on the hidden power of the true blood king. If that king were to die without an heir to continue the line, so too would his land and, in turn, his followers. The Demon Kingdom had been blessed for the past few hundred years, for they had the blood line of the McNamaras, defeating that foolish war the humans regarded as holy, preventing them from ever stepping foot on their shore again. Before the McNamaras there had been the Arthurs, whose pearl of life wasn’t strong nor vibrant, thus marking the king’s power as weak and dark in both mind and spirit. That line had craved dark power and had put their kingdom in constant war and the civilians under threat of death for many centuries. None wanted a repetition of that.

Luckily, ever since Drake had come into power, the kingdom had grown in prosperity, even more so than his parents and grandparents before him. Yet the pearl of life, a seed that came to life when Drake was born, had not yet decided who Drake’s bride would be, the female who would carry Drake’s son, the future true demon king.

“I still can’t believe that bastard managed to escape!” Adam growled in disgust from across the room. He pounded his mighty fist onto the table for effect, just to show everyone how upset he was. “If only you’d let me kill him that first time, Drake.”

Julius frowned at Adam over his book. After all this time, he thought, Adam is still consumed with anger at the thought we managed to allow Marcus Arthur escape our clutches. Of course, the fact that Marcus had also very nearly killed Adam’s lovely bride Vera whilst the woman was with child didn’t help douse the fuel of rage within Adam either. If anything, it made the demon crazed for Marcus’s blood, whether they used to be best friends or not.

“Keep your voice down, Adam. I’m reading.”

Adam narrowed his eyes at Julius. “Aren’t you worried?” When Julius just stared at him, he turned to Drake.

Drake’s scowl darkened. “You know as well as I that we cannot eliminate the Arthur blood line. Marcus is the last. If I die without an heir, he will be the next demon king.”

“What? And let him waltz in and kill you when he feels like it?” Gerick voiced for the first time. “He’s a threat, Drake. He’s as strong and skilled as the five of us in battle.”

By the five of them, he meant Drake, Adam, Julius, Leon, and himself, who had been schooled and trained together since they were children, along with Marcus.

Adam was the oldest and the one with the hottest temper and the strongest sword, yet he was also the one with the gentlest feelings. He was simply a big bear with a hard exterior and a bountiful love for his family and friends. Marcus, the one who had betrayed them and was the same age as Adam, was the smartest and most resourceful with his unmatched ability in the use of dark power and strange magic.

Julius, with his know-it-all attitude, vast knowledge, insightful wisdom, a knack for white spells and magic, and a love for books was a year younger than the two previous demons. Drake, the most serious, responsible, intelligent, innovative, powerful, and skilled of the warriors, was a year younger than Julius.

Gerick, the handsomest, most flirtatious demon with an appetite for good food, fine wine, and of course, beautiful women and young men, was a year younger than Drake. There was, of course, another side to Gerick—seriousness and shrewdness with an art in war strategies and his loyalty to his comrades that was beyond compare. Leon, who was quiet, intelligent, and skilled as a commander of the armies, was a few months younger than Gerick.

“Demon’s blood!” Gerick said. “He trained with us, and we didn’t even know he was an Arthur. We all know what will happen if Marcus becomes king. That bastard practices black magic. We know how dark his pearl is. It will be a disaster.”

“I’m not about to let him kill me, Gerick,” Drake said. “I will kill him if he tries to lay his hands on me. Though, I still have hope we can return him.”

Julius looked doubtful at that statement. “Once the pearl is marked black, it cannot return to its original color, Drake.”

Drake ignored Julius and glanced at Adam, who looked both hurt and angry at the same time. His pale-gray eyes were dark with emotion. It was hard to lose one’s best friend and watch him turn against you, even though it happened many years ago.

Drake said, “For now, I need my pearl to be ready. I need it to give me a bride.”

Leon, who was sitting in a chair by the brightly lit hearth, suggested, “Why don’t we just do another presentation?”

Julius gave him a dry laugh. “We all know what happened last time.”

Gerick nodded in agreement, his face sour as a lemon. Leon nodded soberly.

Their last presentation, which was of course Julius’s cunning plan of a shortcut, was a chaotic disaster to say the least. They’d presented about a dozen beautiful female demons from noble families to the pearl. Most, however, couldn’t even get into the enchanted water. They were too afraid of the magical acid that would eat their alabaster skin. A very few managed but couldn’t go any farther than a couple steps before they came running out again, screaming as if death were after them.

All five demons were silent as they pondered on what the best course of action might be. When Gerick said, “What if Drake is meant to have a male lover?” Adam wanted to punch him in the face, and Leon managed to hide a chuckle.

It wasn’t because Adam had anything against that sexual orientation, since it was very acceptable in the Demon Kingdom to be either way, but because that implied Drake wouldn’t be able to have children and, therefore, no future demon king. And that would leave them very vulnerable.

Drake raised a brow at Gerick as he came down the stairs. He placed the now empty silver wine goblet on the table and said, “I know what I am, Gerick.”

“Oh?” Gerick raised a brow at his cousin. “The way you looked at young Brian back there at dinner…”

Drake narrowed his eyes dangerously. Adam and Julius looked to each other, sporting a suspicious look on their faces. Leon raised a surprised brow.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Drake said darkly. He himself wasn’t against male-to-male sexual orientation, nor was he against demons and humans or angels and demons for that matter. After all, Adam and Vera worked out just fine as a demon husband and a human wife, even though the marriage was for political reasons at the beginning.

“Well, if you say so,” Gerick said. “Then you wouldn’t mind if I—”

Gerick didn’t even finish before Drake moved in and grabbed his shirt collar. He pulled his cousin so close they were eye to eye and nose to nose. Drake’s eyes were scorching like a raging fire. “If you touch him, you’ll be sorry, Gerick.”

Gerick got his answer. Though, he doubted Drake understood his own action right then. Slowly, the younger demon laughed. “And you say you don’t give a damn.”

Drake released his cousin in an instant and snapped, “I’m a king. That boy is my responsibility.”

Julius and Adam once again looked at each other, wondering if Drake were truly attracted to Brian. Leon didn’t know what to think.

“I warn you, Gerick, keep your hands away from Brian,” Drake said as he walked out the door.

“And what if I don’t?” Gerick asked merrily after him.

“Then I’ll kill you,” came the reply.

Gerick laughed loudly and teased, “I’ll challenge you, cousin.”

“We’re doomed,” Leon said under his breath. Then to Gerick, he asked, “Are you truly going to challenge Drake? Sorry, but I’m not going to be your second.”

Gerick raised a brow at his comrade. “Don’t be ridiculous. I won’t last five minutes within Drake’s hands if he uses his demonic power.”

“Precisely three minutes,” Julius gladly pointed out.

“What about Marcus? How long do you think he’d last within Drake’s hands?” Adam asked curiously.

“Ten minutes if Drake uses his demonic power,” Julius said. “Then again, if Marcus got his hands on Drake’s pearl, that’s a different story.”

“Drake is a strong warrior even without his pearl and demonic power,” Leon said.

“Aye, but Marcus is cunning and resourceful. He knows dark magic and strange spells.”

“If that war starts before Drake has himself an heir,” Leon said, “our kingdom is doomed. We’re all doomed.”

“Nothing is ever doomed,” Julius said, returning his attention to his precious book and continuing reading.

Chapter 8

Cecelia was ready the next morning when Lucifer came to her room, running and jumping as though he couldn’t wait to see her and show her around the palace. As they were having their breakfast, which contained an array of delicious fare to choose from, such as toast, hot rolls, baked savory cakes, grilled asparagus and potatoes, and of course, tea to wash it all down, she wondered about the demon king and his comrades. Were they like her uncle and most of the nobilities and ministers residing in the Van Zandt Palace, still abed this late in the morning? Or were they like her father? Up even before dawn, training his small, loyal armies—an army that had died with him the night they had been raided by the demons.

It wasn’t long when Lucifer hastily came around to her and excitedly pulled her off her chair, leading her toward the door. Vera chuckled and followed closely behind them.

“You’ll love Storm,” Lucifer said cheerfully, his bright-blue eyes twinkling. “He’s my pony. Uncle Drake gave him to me last year for my birthday. He said he’ll grow very big if I take good care of him.”

Vera said, “Lucifer, my love, why don’t we show Brian the library first? Then we can show him the stables.”

Lucifer practiced his dark scowl with a pursed lip at his mother. “Do we have to?”

Vera couldn’t help but chuckle at her son’s funny face. He was trying to look like his father and uncle, of course, who, more often than not, sported a brooding scowl on their faces. Most of the women found them intimidating and wouldn’t go near them. Oddly enough, Vera found herself attracted to her husband, even with that dark frown on Adam’s face. She, however, couldn’t say the same for Drake. She loved and respected Drake as her in-law and her king, but at times, she still felt intimidated by him.

“Yes, love,” she said to her son.

“Why?”

“Because Brian is a good student. He studies plants in different kingdoms, and he would want to explore our library,” Vera replied. “And you, my love, would do well to follow him.”

Lucifer groaned, his lips downturned. “I don’t like studying. Julius makes me study so hard. I like going out hunting with Uncle Drake and Uncle Gerick.” He grabbed for Cecelia’s hand and then steered her reluctantly toward the library instead of the door that would lead them outside.

“Hey, Brian,” Lucifer said a few seconds later. “Papa is teaching me how to fence. He’s very good with his big sword. Can you fence, Brian?”

Cecelia said, “A little.”

“Only a little?” Lucifer sniffed and nodded. “Well, you humans are not very good at fencing like we demons are. Papa and Uncle Drake are the best. I’ll ask Papa to teach you. How about that?” Then he began to skip, but those animated steps stopped as quickly as they started once they came to a huge door leading into the library.

“Well, here we are,” the little demon said unenthusiastically, looking at the gigantic double doors.

“Why don’t you show Brian in, Lucifer?” Vera suggested.

With a big ill-disposed sigh, he nodded and headed into the library, pulling Cecelia by the hand along with him.

Inside, Cecelia could only stare wide-eyed at the thousands of books that surrounded her. The library was enormous and neatly furbished with thousands of volumes shelved on all sides of the two stories walls.

“Well?” Lucifer asked, looking at her with some expectation.

“Whoa,” Cecelia expressed, her breath taken away. “This place is amazing.”

Lucifer pulled a shocked face in disbelief. When he saw his mother laughing, he straightened himself and said, “Julius makes me read them, you know, the books.”

Vera, who finally managed to halt her mirth of her son’s peculiar face, said, “Lucifer doesn’t like studying, as you can tell.”

Cecelia nodded.

“Mama, can we go now?” Lucifer asked when he saw Julius coming down from the second floor with a book in his hands. He rushed to hide behind Vera as Julius came toward them.

“Ah, young Brian,” Julius said. “And is that my bright student I see hiding behind his mother’s skirts?”

Lucifer clamped his lips and poked his head to the side to peek at Julius.

Julius said, “A brave demon doesn’t hide behind his mother.”

Lucifer hesitantly stepped to the side and announced, “I’m brave.”

Cecelia said, “Of course you are, Lucifer. You didn’t even cry when that madman beat you.”

Lucifer widened his eyes as he looked at Cecelia. Clearly, he’d forgotten the fact that he was indeed very courageous when he’d been kidnapped by the pirates. He nodded furiously in agreement. “Yes, yes, see. I didn’t cry at all when that madman beat me. I am brave.”

Vera laughed. “Yes, you are, sweetheart,” she said, stroking his blond hair lovingly, feeling the urge to grab him in her arms once again just to assure herself he was back home with her, safe and sound. Last night she’d felt utter relief sweeping through her being and couldn’t help but cry her heart out as she embraced him tight against her in bed, with Adam hugging her and Lucifer in his strong arms.

“Is that the Pearl of Life?” Cecelia asked, staring at the colorful drawing in the book Julius was holding. On the cover page of the thick ancient book, in neat, big bold letters, it read: RECIPE FOR THE PEARL OF LIFE.

Julius said, “Yes, it is. This book contains the formula for the Healing of Life Potion and such likes. Its main ingredient is the elixir of the Pearl of Life.”

“I didn’t know the Pearl of Life needed a formula to work,” Cecelia stated, confused.

“Oh, yes, it does.” Julius moved closer to Cecelia and turned a page. At the top, in beautiful bold writing, it read, THE HEALING OF LIFE POTION. Cecelia read below the heading.

The Healing of Life Potion is used to heal life-threatening poison such as the Westwick Poison from the Northeast, the Naga Poison from the Southeast, and the Green Snake Poison from the East.

Below that, the book was set out like a normal recipe book with ingredients and methods.

“Mama, can we go now?” Lucifer whispered to Vera.

“I’ve never heard of the Naga Poison and the Green Snake Poison before,” Cecelia said, curious. She’d thought the only life-threatening poison she’d ever known was the Westwick Poison, created by the Westwick family from the Virdis Kingdom in the thirteen century.

“Oh, yes, the Naga Poison is very powerful indeed. When Drake, Adam, Gerick, Leon, and I were in our youth, we went exploring. One of the kingdoms we visited was the Moha-Angkor Kingdom. A very dangerous and barbaric place if you ask me.”

With Cecelia’s nod, he continued, “Gerick was, of course, very careless. He went swimming in the South Sea and a Naga bit him. Luckily, it wasn’t the Naga king himself. The poison isn’t so powerful. They were warned. I told them before we left that the Angkorian people are very superstitious. They believe and value their god-king as much as they believe and value their dead and many other unexplained things. And they should be careful not to cross paths with a Naga. We sailed back in a hurry to save Gerick. Thank God for the Pearl of Life.”

“Where does the Naga king live?” Cecelia asked.

Julius said, “Ah, I believe Lucifer can answer that question.”

All eyes turned to Lucifer expectantly.

Lucifer went bright red in the cheeks and said reluctantly, “Under the Southeast Sea. Their castle is protected by a powerful barrier.”

Julius said, “Who created the barrier?”

Lucifer sighed and then said, “The Naga king.”

“Who is the Naga king?” Julius continued quizzing his student.

Lucifer gazed up at Vera. He looked as though he really hated being there with Julius questioning him in such a way in front of his new friend Brian.

He sighed again, indignantly, and said, “The Naga king used to be Prince Jay in the Moha-Angkor Kingdom a hundred years ago. He got cursed and turned into a Naga by his mortal enemy, Prince Surya.”

“And who is—”

“Prince Surya?” Lucifer cut into Julius’s question.

Julius winked at Cecelia. He said to Lucifer, “Well done. You know my question before I even finish it.”

At this point, Lucifer was losing his patience and said quickly, “Prince Surya is Prince Jay’s mortal enemy. After using black magic to curse Prince Jay, King Naga got very angry and used black magic to curse Prince Surya into a Garuda. Prince Surya became a Garuda king living in the Cloud Palace.”

“That’s amazing,” Cecelia said.

“That’s only a little history of the southeast,” Julius said. Indeed, he sounded very proud of his student. And then he changed the subject, which made Lucifer sigh with relief.

“The Pearl of Life has special power only in the hands of the demon king and those very few who know how to draw out its magic. The Pearl of Life, however, is just like any other pearl in human hands. Unless, of course, the person knows the spell or recipe to withdraw its elixir,” Julius said as though he were explaining important history to Cecelia. He was, after all, a teacher, and if anyone showed any interest, Julius couldn’t help himself by granting such studious person his full knowledge of the subject.

“But of course,” he continued, “no one is allowed to use this powerful pearl without the permission of the king himself, for it belongs to him from birth. It is his gem. His seed, if you will.”

Vera said, ignoring once again Lucifer’s plea to leave, “One of the potions is Eternal Beauty.”

“Yes, that one. Hmm, I must warn you, Brian—though I can see from within your aura that you are not the type to want eternal beauty—that potion is very powerful.”

“Mama!” Lucifer whispered with cupped hand near his mouth so Julius wouldn’t notice. “Storm might be asleep when Brian gets there. Can we go now?”

With a raised brow, Julius looked down at his student through the rim of his spectacle. Lucifer blushed and quieted down immediately.

Vera said, “Black Potion, that one.”

Julius nodded. “Three generations ago, Queen Josephine was so vain she stole the Pearl of Life from the demon king and made the Eternal Beauty Potion. She became the most beautiful demon in our kingdom. Not only that, but she also became the most beautiful being ever to have existed in our world. But her beauty, it turned out, was only skin deep. She was so poisonous inside that she killed her own sisters, fearing they would one day exceed her in beauty. Eventually, she became so bitter within herself that she went mad and committed suicide.

“Of course, the wizard also found out later that she was poisoned inside. Her heart was dying from the toxin. That recipe, instead of extracting the goodness from the pearl, draws out the toxic chemicals that reside within the thin external layer of the pearl. Hence, they concluded the toxic chemical causes madness as well as slowly killing the heart muscles as it flows through the blood.”

“But that’s horrible,” Cecelia said.

Julius nodded. “Yes, it is horrible. Luckily, or not so luckily, the recipe for that potion was lost a hundred years ago. And our old king was only too happy to see it gone, as it caused the kingdom naught at that time but grief.”

“Mama, can we go now?” Lucifer begged once again, this time louder as he tugged at Vera’s skirt.

Vera turned her eyes to her beloved son and patted his head fondly. She said, “The potion is a horrible one. No one should ever use it again.”

“Mama,” Lucifer begged.

Julius shut the book then and looked pointedly at Lucifer as he said, “Showing Brian around, are we?”

Lucifer nodded enthusiastically, giving Julius a toothy grin.

“The stables?”

Again Lucifer nodded.

“We better go,” Vera said, “before this little demon gets annoyed with us.”

Cecelia nodded in agreement. They left the library, and Lucifer gleefully ran outside the palace toward the stables even before Julius could say good-bye.

The warm morning breeze was nice against Cecelia’s skin. The smell of wild lily and honeysuckle caressed her senses, which reminded her of Rosevalley.

Across the vast land to the north were orchards growing with pears, apples, stone fruits, and many types of berries. The vineyard to the east once again reminded her of her home and her mother and brother, which made Cecelia’s heart ache. To the south, spilled over across in the wide expansion was the city itself, with stone buildings, large and narrow lanes, markets, the town square, and demons going about their days and doing their business.

It was when they headed farther toward the west that Cecelia began to hear clanging noises of metal against metal and men grunting. She narrowed her eyes against the bright sunlight in search of the clatters that grew louder and louder. Then as they came around the thick stone wall and into the clearing behind the castle, Cecelia gasped in awe at the sight she beheld before her.

Demons. There were at least a few thousand of them in the vast open field, training, sharpening their battle skills. She blinked as she watched men wrestling, fencing, spear-throwing, fighting, and much more. She felt overwhelmed. This training camp was a hundred times bigger and a hundred times more energetic than the one she’d witnessed back at home in Rosevalley as a child.

“There’s Papa!” Lucifer shrieked excitedly. He jumped on his spot and waved to his father animatedly. When he saw his papa raise a sword at him in salute, he laughed elatedly. Vera giggled as she too waved back at her husband.

Cecelia couldn’t take her eyes off the scene before her. These demon warriors were terrifyingly skilled with their weapons and techniques in battle. No wonder the humans feared them.

It was then she noticed the demon king Drake amongst his soldiers. He was training a group of well-honed yet nervous-looking warriors. There were eight of them surrounding him, swords in their hands, ready to take him on. Drake, in only his breeches and a sword in his right hand, swung his sharp, lethal weapon forward and began the combat. He was quick and precise with his blows, and within a minute, the eight warriors were all defeated, lying flat on the ground, their bodies brutally beaten. Drake, who stood eyeing his crushed warriors with an unsatisfied frown, suddenly glanced up and caught Cecelia’s eyes.

Though she was trembling in the sheer awe and fear of the demon, Cecelia couldn’t look away. He fascinated her beyond belief as she stared at his half-naked body with bulging muscles that sent her body tingling. His bronze, smooth skin glistened with sweat and his chestnut-brown hair hung over his scowling face. His gaze was hot and intense, and even at this great distance, glued her to her spot. Then he gave her an astute smile that made Cecelia’s stomach flutter with an odd excitement in response. She caught her breath at the back of her throat and quickly glanced away.

“We’ll come back and watch them after I show you the stables,” Lucifer stated as he began leading her along the narrow path to the other side. Cecelia felt Drake’s fervid gaze on her person as they passed, and she held her breath until they were out of sight of the training camp.

“There’s the stables,” Lucifer shouted, dragging her across the clearing. “Storm, Storm, Storm,” he sang as he hopped along.

Cecelia glanced at Vera, who was smiling. “He loves Storm,” she explained.

Cecelia nodded. She understood perfectly how attached the little demon was to his pony. She herself had been very attached to her mare Snow.

“Here we are,” Lucifer announced. “He’s in here, he’s in here,” he shouted as he ran into the stables.

Inside, Cecelia saw the steeds were like those she’d seen the day before—beautiful, big, and strong. The place was warm and smelled of hay, earth, and animals.

“Come here, come here,” Lucifer shouted, his hand waving wildly at Cecelia. “Storm’s here. You want to pet him?”

“Of course,” Cecelia said, chuckling. She walked to the little, cute demon’s side and bent low to pat the gray pony that didn’t at all look like a pony she’d ever seen. “It’s, err, nice,” she stated and gave him a confused look that made Lucifer roll his eyes heavenward, informing her with his far more superior knowledge that she didn’t know anything.

“He’s a pony,” he stated, pointing to the animal that did indeed look like a pony, but at the same time didn’t. It had beautiful, fluffy fur, striped gold and black, almost like a cat. The animal itself, however, had pointy horns and a body like a unicorn. “See? he queried. “He’s more than nice. He’s the best.”

“Yes,” Cecelia said, nodding, “he’s the best.” She stroked the animal, loving the warmth and softness of the fur under her fingertips. The pony groaned in response and nuzzled closer to her.

Lucifer laughed. “See, he likes you touching him,” he said, nodding his blond head.

Cecelia smiled as the pony groaned some more and, shoving its head toward her, begged her to pet it again. It was then that a series of loud snorts came from the next stall. Cecelia jumped and glanced up, nearly falling on her backside in surprise. Another grunt came and went, and Cecelia was utterly scared and curious.

Slowly she stood, her eyes wide as she came to face the most beautiful beast she’d ever seen. Sinfully black, muscles firm and tone in stunning shape. Cecelia was mesmerized by the creature’s beauty.

“What a beautiful horse,” she commented, watching as the muscles of the animal’s hind legs rippled as it moved.

Lucifer straightened and stood on tiptoe so he could look at the animal. “Oh, that’s Wildfire. He’s being naughty. That’s why Uncle Drake put him in there.”

Cecelia looked at Lucifer with her brows raised. “Naughty?”

“Hum.” Lucifer nodded.

“Would you like to take Storm for a ride, Lucifer?” Vera asked behind them.

Lucifer turned to face his mother and shook his head. “No, I’m going hunting with Papa and everyone after luncheon.”

“What will you hunt this time?” Vera asked with interest.

“Papa said last night that we’re getting a wild boar,” Lucifer supplied.

Cecelia frowned and said, “But surely, hunting is very unpredictable. How do you know you’ll get a wild boar?”

Lucifer looked at her as though she didn’t know anything of importance. He said, as though lecturing somebody much younger than himself, “We are getting a wild boar. That’s what Papa said. And what he says goes.”

Wildfire hissed again, its hind legs kicking against the unstable wooden door. Cecelia worried the animal might break the door down and topple on them, especially Lucifer, who didn’t seemed to have a care that this might happen.

“He’s upset he’s stuck in there. Poor Wildfire,” Lucifer said, shaking his head.

“Does Wildfire not like to stay in his stable?” Cecelia asked, pulling Lucifer away from the door.

Lucifer looked up at her and said, “Wildfire doesn’t stay in the stable. He runs and flies around. If he’s in the stable, it means he did something very terrible that Uncle Drake doesn’t like, to teach him a lesson.”

“Fly?” Cecelia asked, looking at the young demon.

Lucifer nodded. Vera saw the look of confusion on Cecelia’s face and stepped in to explain. “Wildfire, Brian, is a special breed of steed in the demon kingdom. It can fly.”

Just then, Wildfire turned about and faced them. Cecelia widened her eyes at the twisted black horn on the steed’s forehead. Its eyes were pitch black. Then it started to snort at them again, tapping its two front hooves on the ground.

“Does it fly very fast?” Cecelia asked curiously.

“Oh, yes,” Vera said. “So much so that one couldn’t catch up on horseback.”

Cecelia stared at the steed long and hard.

Then Lucifer said, “Hey, you like Wildfire more than Storm.”

Cecelia didn’t hear what Lucifer had said. She was staring at the beast, her mind racing.

“Hey!” Lucifer said, nudging Cecelia’s hand.

Cecelia jumped. “I’m sorry. What did you say?”

“You like Wildfire more than Storm,” Lucifer repeated unhappily.

“Now, Lucifer, it is enough that you love Storm. It is, after all, your pony, not Brian’s,” Vera said.

Lucifer clamped his lips together and then nodded. “No, I wouldn’t like it if Storm liked Brian more than me. Okay, let’s go watch Papa train the younger warriors. I’m going to be like him when I grow up,” he thought to add before running out of the stables.

“Come along,” Vera said to Cecelia.

Cecelia turned once more to look at Wildfire and then followed Vera out of the stables.

Chapter 9

They watched the training for a little while before Julius came to fetch Lucifer for his lessons. After much groaning and moaning, the boy finally followed his teacher back to the study room that was joined to the library. Vera excused herself to attend to her work as mistress of the palace, a job she loved and found much comfort in.

Alone, Cecelia took the opportunity to explore the sections of the castle where she was allowed to roam freely, drawing a map within her mind of the palace’s perimeter and its surroundings. Her objective was to find a route to the Cave of Doom within the forbidden forest where the Pearl of Life resided. By midafternoon, she hadn’t accomplished much more than when she’d started. Furthermore, she was getting too sweaty and hot and a little dizzy from dehydration.

She was about to turn back when she heard water splashing. Curious, she rounded the corner of a bush and came to view a secluded, small lake that resided within the thick woods. She scanned about the place but noted no one was in sight. Thirsty as she was, she couldn’t turn down the sight of refreshment that was presented to her by mere incident. She thankfully went to the side where a series of big rocks stood, got to her knees, and bent down. She scooped water in her cupped hands and brought the clear, chilled liquid to her lips. Then she began to sip. The freshness and the coolness made her sigh with pleasure. She dipped her hands into the water again and splashed some on her hot face with a content smile.

“Care to join me?”

The query made Cecelia look up, and the moment she met the gaze of the demon king, she jumped back, her backside slamming on the bed of rocks, hard. She groaned in pain and embarrassment whilst Drake laughed.

She blinked and gazed in awe at the demon as a deep sound much like thunder roared up from within the depths of this throat and bellowed loud about her ears.

Drake crossed the small distance between them, and as he came up, Cecelia noted he was completely and utterly naked. She blushed and quickly averted her gaze from the lower portion of his body where his private parts nestled between his legs. She thought it was safer to look at his face. She was wrong. His eyes were deep and scorching with a hidden hunger that made her stomach flutter with exhilaration.

Drake caught her hand and pulled her up to him. Cecelia obeyed him, much to her dismay. He was a big demon, and standing this close to him really unsettled her. His skin, tanned and smooth, glistened with droplets of water, and his face, the aquiline features and deep-set eyes, did nothing to stop Cecelia’s heart from pumping out of rhythm.

Drake tilted up her face with his thumb at the small of her chin, as if to scrutinize her features as he did a horse. To Cecelia’s surprise, he wasn’t frowning this time. Nor, however, was he smiling. She wondered if he was always so broody looking.

“How do you find us demons, Brian?” he asked. “And our home?”

Cecelia blinked as her whole body tensed. He was now moving his fingers down the delicate line of her throat, as if he found that part of her anatomy very interesting.

“Why did you avert your gaze from me? Do you find me repulsive?”

Cecelia automatically shook her head. “Nay, sire.” She told him the truth. She found him fascinating and a bit too attractive for her liking.

“Then why do you avert your gaze?” His eyes were on her lips now as she bit the lower flesh.

She blushed, and he chuckled.

“Human and demon are not different, Brian. Your body and mine are but the same.” He moved his face closer so his hot breath fanned the skin of her forehead. “I am curious, however, if you humans accept same-sex lovers. Are you interested?”

Cecelia’s blush deepened, and confusion reigned over her eyes as to the meaning of his words. She brushed his hand off her and took a step back.

“I see,” he said quietly, accepting her withdrawal as her refusal to his proposal. He changed the subject. “Have you satisfied your curiosity yet of the perimeters of our castle?”

“What are you implying, sire?” she asked.

He mistook her query and cocked his head to one side. “Are you not here as a spy? I wonder. Or is it something else you’re after?”

That made Cecelia angry. She refused to let him go any further with his assumption and turned on her heel. “Good day to you, sire,” she said coolly and headed toward the woods, leaving Drake to stand there gazing after her with an amused smile on his face.

Her heart was still pounding from the run when Vera found her near the palace wall. The woman had a basket of sustenance in her hands. With Cecelia’s curious gaze, she said, “Our picnic.”

They had their luncheon picnic as planned near the stream to the eastern sector, close to the vineyard. Cecelia couldn’t believe just how beautiful this kingdom was. It was their summer, after all, and wildflowers were everywhere, with different shades of color unimaginable to her. The scent was lovely, rich with honeysuckle, wild lilies, and lavender. Bees and butterflies were everywhere. Cecelia closed her eyes, listening to the water running and the birds chirping.

Though the scene was indeed very beautiful, the air was lovely, and atmosphere was pleasant, Cecelia was tense. Surrounding her was not only Vera and Lucifer, but Drake, who was sitting slightly behind her to her left, Leon to her right, Gerick beside her, and Julius yonder to the front. Adam was close beside Vera, and Lucifer was sitting on his lap. She could sense the dark, intense gaze of the demon king on her person. Oddly enough, she felt her skin tingling with an unexplained excitement yet fear.

“How is your lunch, Brian?” Vera asked.

“It’s very nice, thank you,” Cecelia replied. “This place is wonderful.”

“Which is simply why so many wanted it,” Gerick said, moving closer to Cecelia. He rested his weight on his elbow, his body facing her. He took a peek at Drake and saw the demon king giving him a dark scowl, reminding him of his threat from last night. Gerick took no notice and returned his undivided attention to Cecelia.

Cecelia, in turn, looked at the handsome demon beside her, her brows raised in question.

Gerick said, “For many centuries, our kingdom had been at war with other kingdoms simply because our land is so rich. Not only is our land so fertile, but our sea is filled with great sea creatures. We have mines too, silver and gold.”

“Gold?”

“Aye, gold. And of course, since we have returned from our many sea adventures, Drake started his own vineyard.”

“Vineyard?” Cecelia fought the urge to turn to look at Drake.

“Aye, there.” Gerick pointed across from where they sat near the top of the hill.

Cecelia could make out rows and rows of grapes. A vineyard indeed. Just like Rosevalley.

“If you want to, we could take you to have a look,” Lucifer said, chewing his sandwiches. “You know what?” he said to Cecelia.

“What?”

“When I grow up, I’m going to go on a sea adventure just like Papa and Uncle Drake and Uncle Gerick and Leon.”

“And your teacher Julius,” Julius gladly corrected his student.

Lucifer rolled his eyes if as to say sure. He said, “I’m going to get myself a grand ship. You’re welcome to join if you want to,” he thought to add.

Cecelia smiled and thought that was very fine indeed. She glanced at Drake, who was resting his body against a tree. His sharp eyes were on her. She quickly glanced away, her mind once again examining the meaning of his question back at the lake.

“Have you ever been on a sea adventure, Brian?” Drake asked from behind her.

Cecelia shook her head. “Nay, sire. That is, until recently.”

“How do you find it?”

“Not to my liking at all, sire.”

He laughed. The deep, timber caused Cecelia to shiver deliciously. Her cheeks turned crimson and her heart jumped crazily in her chest. Him laughing at her comment was very disturbing indeed.

“A pity. You’ll meet many more cutthroats like those men in the future.”

Lucifer jumped up from his father’s lap and rushed around to where Drake was sitting. “I think it’ll be fun. You’ll have to teach me how to sail, Uncle Drake.”

“Indeed I will, Lucifer, in time,” Drake said, tousling his nephew’s hair.

“And you can teach Brian too,” Lucifer added.

“No, that won’t be necessary,” Cecelia interjected quickly. I will have to return home soon, she added in her head. Tomorrow if possible.

“Where is your home, Brian?” Julius asked as if he’d just read her mind.

Cecelia hesitated for a moment. “Very far from here. The vineyard, it reminded me of my home.”

“That vineyard reminded me of Rosevalley,” Drake said mildly, his eyes gazing off into the distance.

Cecelia turned to look at him. She was still afraid of him, but she couldn’t seem to take her eyes from his as he watched her.

“Yes, reminds me of that place too,” Gerick said. “Lord Van Zandt is such a stingy man. He wouldn’t give us any of his beautiful wine when we left.”

“You and your wine.” Adam snorted. “All you ever think about is drinking and wenching.”

“Hey, what better way to live than drinking and wenching?” Gerick said, laughing.

“What’s wenching?” Lucifer asked.

Adam glared at Gerick. “Nothing important, Lucifer. Take yourself off, Gerick, and prepare our horses for the hunt.”

“I want to come help,” Lucifer said, jumping up.

“Right, I’ll be off, then,” Gerick said and stood. “Come along, Lucifer. Let’s get the horses.” And then they were off, Lucifer skipping beside Gerick.

“How long ago were you in Rosevalley?” Cecelia asked Drake.

He closed his eyes. Cecelia couldn’t help admiring his physical appearance. He wasn’t that handsome. Not like Gerick, who she was sure even human females would fall head over heels in love with on first sight. Nay, the demon king had harsh features and a dark scowl that most would find petrifying upon first meeting him. Even then, she found him ruggedly handsome and simply too attractive for her peace of mind.

He opened his eyes and studied her intensely. Her throat became very dry at his stare.

“Many years ago, when I was but a young demon,” Drake said. “Have you been to Rosevalley yourself?”

Cecelia lowered her eyes. “I have heard of it. They say it is a very beautiful place. But it was destroyed by a raid three years ago.”

“Such a pity,” Drake said.

Cecelia gritted her teeth. What was he saying? Such a pity? Was that all he could think as a reply? He was the one who had destroyed her home. And here he was sitting there with not a care in the world. Oh, he was such a demon all right. He had no feelings whatsoever. He deserved no admiration from her, nor respect. He only deserved hatred from her.

“Come on,” he said abruptly and got up. “We go hunting.”

Cecelia looked up to see his hand before her.

“I’m sure you will enjoy the hunt,” he said, his gray eyes boring into hers.

Cecelia licked her lips and said politely, “Nay, thank you.”

“Come now, Brian, you will enjoy it,” Leon said, smiling at her.

She stubbornly shook her head in the negative.

Drake took matters into his own hands and caught her small arm. Cecelia jumped at the contact. His eyes were twinkling despite the dark scowl on his face. Amazing, she thought. Such mysterious, beautiful eyes. She was lost in the sea of gray clouds.

He jerked her up and dragged her after him toward the stables.

Vera shouted, “Have fun.”

Not long afterward, Cecelia found herself riding on a beige stallion. Leading the pack was Drake himself, riding on his sinfully black, dangerous steed Wildfire. Both master and beast looked foreboding to ones who didn’t know them. Even to her, Cecelia shivered at the prospect of meeting this demon alone in such a forbidden forest.

Lucifer was smiling with glee as he rode with his father. Suddenly, Cecelia had a longing. She longed to see Brian smile like that once again. She longed for him to enjoy such activity instead of dreading it and coming back hurt both physically and mentally. Those boys back at the palace, they were so cruel to have bullied Brian.

“Brian, I see it. I see it!” Lucifer shouted excitedly as he pointed his finger toward a bush.

Cecelia looked at where he was pointing. She saw rustling in the bush.

“Shh,” Drake signaled to Lucifer. When he winked, Lucifer nodded, his eyes twinkling with excitement.

All was silent as they watched. Then a boar rushed out. Cecelia gasped as the big animal ran toward the other side of the woods. In all of her life, she’d never seen a wild pig so big. A prize indeed, if caught. And Cecelia wondered why none of them were moving. They were just sitting there on their stallions, still as rocks, watching the creature running away. Cecelia couldn’t seem to breathe. She, too, stayed still, watching, wondering what they were doing.

Silence. And then whoosh!

Cecelia blinked.

At lightning speed, Drake and his stallion were off after the boar. Lucifer shouted, and he and his father were off too. Gerick and then Leon followed. Cecelia watched as they all raced after the animal. She couldn’t very well stay behind, so she kicked her stallion and went off after them.

They were going fast, zigzagging about the tall, thick trees. Her heart was pumping like mad as she concentrated on trying not to smash the stallion and herself into shrubs. She was scared, but she was also very excited.

“Whoa!” Gerick shouted into the hushed woods. The woods itself echoed back at him. Whoa!

Adam and Leon laughed. Their deep voices were like a lovely song in Cecelia’s ears. For the first time in weeks, she smiled. She felt light and happy. There was no heavy burden hanging on her small shoulders. She felt quite amazing. But that feeling was short lived when she felt something behind her.

She turned, and to her horror, another boar was chasing her. This one was even bigger than the other. She panicked when she saw the angry, determined look in the boar’s black eyes. It was huffing at her.

She kicked at her stallion to gallop faster. She turned back to look at where she was going. There her eyes widened in horror. She watched as Drake’s stallion jumped over a big log that lay across their path. Demon and beast were one, flying over that huge log with air and grace and strength. She caught her breath at the back of her throat and wanted to cry at the sheer awe and madness of it. She’d never done this before.

Then she watched, as her stallion took her nearer to the log, both Adam and Lucifer glided over and then Gerick and Leon after them.

She didn’t know what to do and so, as her time came near, she kicked her stallion once more and hugged her body flat on its back. She closed her eyes as the steed started jumping. She felt like she was flying, the hot wind on her face. Then suddenly, she felt she was pulled down, and in the next instance, she fell off the horse and landed with a thud on the hard earth.

She closed her eyes at the sheer pain in her body. She watched above her, the trees spinning around her. She squeezed her eyes shut and groaned in pain. When she opened them again, she saw Drake looking down at her. He was still saddled atop his steed. He glanced at something across from her. Then with his powerful hand, he swiftly grabbed her arm and pulled her up. Cecelia had to blink several times to clear away her confusion. That was when she saw her stallion running toward the other side of the forest. And there was the boar, charging toward her. Drake wrapped his arm round her waist and hauled her up onto the saddle in front of him.

Cecelia nearly fainted. She’d never fainted before, but with this demon’s hands touching her body and him so close to her, she really did feel like fainting.

Drake nudged his stallion. They raced toward the other side of the forest where the others were waiting. There they stopped. Cecelia wondered why they didn’t continue their escape. The boar was charging at them for God’s sake. Surely they must run. But she couldn’t tell them that because she was too busy trying to breathe properly and was too fascinated at the angry charging boar that was coming toward them.

Slowly, Drake drew out his bow and arrow. Cecelia became aware of this when she saw the lethal weapon in front of her. She was also aware of his heat behind her, not to mention his wonderful smell—the smell of the outdoors, pinewood and earth. Her whole body shivered deliciously in response. Then she nearly stopped breathing when he moved his face near hers, his lips near her left ear so she could feel his hot breath on her sensitive skin.

“Take the bow and arrow,” he whispered.

A nice, hot liquid thrill slowly glided its way through her being, and Cecelia held her breath.

“Take the weapon,” he repeated. When she didn’t respond, he caught her hand and guided it to the bow. She couldn’t resist his gentle command.

“Just aim,” he said.

Cecelia shuddered. She just realized what he wanted her to do. He wanted [_her _]to kill the boar.

She shook her head and said, “I can’t.”

“Yes, you can,” he replied. “Aim.”

Cecelia was pretty good with bow and arrow, but not with him so near. She couldn’t concentrate. She was too aware of him to focus on anything else.

“I’ll guide you,” he whispered as he stared at the boar charging at them. “Pull!” he commanded.

With his hands over hers, guiding her, she pulled the bow. And then they both released it. The arrow flew across the distance and smack. It hit the charging boar right on the forehead.

Cecelia stared with wide, disbelieving eyes at the dying animal.

“Well done, Brian,” he whispered softly into her ear.

Cecelia shivered deliciously again and felt her body melt weakly. She turned back slightly to look up at him. What she saw in his eyes was pure darkness and passion. She caught her breath at the back of her throat as Drake wrapped his arm around her waist.

“You’re too soft, Brian, even for a human,” he said playfully.

Cecelia didn’t have time to respond, for he kicked on his stallion, jerking them both forward, riding toward the dead boar.

“Yeah, Brian, you killed the boar,” Lucifer shouted.

“Good on you, Brian,” Adam said, patting Cecelia’s back as he rode past.

Gerick jumped down from this horse, picked up the boar as if it were a kitten, and laid it across his stallion’s back.

“Come, we have a feast tonight,” he said, climbing onto the saddle and laughing as he rode away. Lucifer and Adam followed behind him.

“That was a very good shot, Brian,” Leon said as he trotted past.

Drake started forward, when Cecelia said, “Wait, what about my stallion?”

He stated, “It’ll find its way home.”

With that, they followed the others back to the palace.

Chapter 10

Lucifer was laughing loudly, reciting to Vera how Cecelia had killed the boar. Cecelia herself could only smile and shake her head at the animated tale that was the center of everyone’s attention.

“And then Uncle Drake showed him how to use the bow and arrow. And Brian shot it right in the forehead.”

“My, my, how marvelous it is, is it not, Brian?” Vera asked Cecelia.

She said, “I couldn’t have done it without His Highness.” Heat rushed to her face as she remembered his warm breath against her ear and his hard body against her as he guided her hand about the bow and arrow.

“Aye, that was a very good shot indeed, Brian,” Adam said. “I’ve never seen one like it with a human before.”

“Indeed,” Drake said. “Perhaps you’ve had practice with the bow and arrow before?”

“I have, sire,” Cecelia said. “When I was much younger. My father taught me.”

“A scholar taught his son how to shoot?” Drake chuckled. “How fascinating. Come, tell us more, Brian, about yourself and your vast knowledge of plants. Surely, you must have encountered many during your adventure across a number of kingdoms. Perhaps your father taught you with swords as well?”

“I haven’t yet had the pleasure of visiting that many kingdoms, sire,” she said honestly but haughtily. “So I have nothing much to tell you. And yes, my father did teach me with the sword.”

Drake raised an eyebrow at her.

Gerick laughed. “Well done, Brian. Well done. Shall we have a duel? I’m eager to test your swordsmanship.”

“A small thing like you can use a sword?” Adam asked, incredulous.

“I can use the sword, Papa,” Lucifer said, pulling at his father’s sleeve.

“Aye, love, a wooden sword,” Adam replied.

Vera cleared her throat then and said, “Come, we should retire to the drawing room so Robert can summon his team to clean up our mess.” She stood, eyeing the butler who was hovering to one side of the dining room. “I see he is impatient to get started.”

Robert nodded his gray head politely with a slight smile. Cecelia sighed in relief, and as everyone stood, she hastily got out of her chair as well and headed to the door beside Vera and Lucifer. The boy was skipping and humming when he suddenly stopped and asked his mother, “Do I get to have port?”

“Nay, you may not. You will have chocolate,” Vera replied firmly, in which case, Lucifer proceeded to practice his scowl once again.

In the corridor, after all the men had entered the drawing room, Cecelia stopped and turned to look at the end to the door that would lead her around the corner to the library on the other side of the building.

“Is something the matter?” Vera asked.

“I was just wondering if you would excuse me. I need fresh air.”

“Why, of course,” Vera said. “Go along, then. The air is especially cool at this time of night.”

Cecelia nodded with appreciation, and Vera and Lucifer walked into the drawing room. Alone, Cecelia turned and headed toward her intended destination. She was just turning the corner when her arm was caught and she was shoved around none too gently. The action was so quick she was out of breath as her face met a wall of dark coat.

She looked up to see Drake close above her.

“Getting lost already? Outside is this way,” he said, and still with his hand wrapped firmly around her arm, he led her toward the door.

Cecelia wanted to tell him she didn’t want to go out for the fresh air and what she really wanted was to find the Pearl of Life Potion Book. But she couldn’t really tell him that, now could she? So she kept quiet and allowed him to lead her into the exotic garden outside.

The smell was wonderful, and Cecelia closed her eyes and simply inhaled the pleasant scent.

“Do you like the fragrance?” Drake asked.

She nodded without looking at him. Her heart started to beat outrageously fast and loud. She moved her arm so he could let her go.

“And the flowers?”

She nodded.

“Can you only nod your head?”

She shook her head.

“Can you actually speak?”

She nodded.

“What are you, Brian?” he said to himself.

“What do you mean, sire?” she asked.

“Your aura tells me something, yet you present yourself as something entirely other. What are you really?”

“I don’t understand, sire. What do you mean by that?”

“Are you a man, Brian? Or are you a boy? Or are you something in between?”

Cecelia could only smile at that. “Perhaps I am in between. Neither a man nor a boy,” she suggested playfully.

“Nay, Brian, you confuse me very much. Your aura is so clear, yet you are so blurred. You are neither a man nor a boy. And nay, neither are you in between a man and a boy.”

“What do you see in me, sire?” Cecelia asked, very curious to know what he thought of her.

“Can it be that you are in between?”

“But you just said I am neither man nor boy, nor am I in between these two,” she replied, looking at him with interest.

“What I mean, Brian, is that perhaps you are between a man and a woman.”

Cecelia blushed and her eyes widened in shock. “Sire, I assure you I am not,” she said. Angry at his odd assumption of her gender, she turned on her heel. She’d taken a couple steps when Drake roughly caught her by the slenderness of her arms and drew her back to him. She nearly collided against his massive chest as she came to him, out of breath.

Drake moved his hand and tightly cupped her delicate chin as he gazed down at her. “You draw me to you like no other I have ever met. Why?” he said more to himself than to her as he looked deep into her eyes. “There is something about you. Something…”

Cecelia licked her lips and swallowed. The touch of his fingers was making her feel rather weak. No man had ever touched her this way before. No man had ever been this intimate with her.

She tried to pull back, but Drake only held her tighter. Then he chuckled. “Ah, I see now,” he said, as if he had her figured out.

Cecelia panicked, thinking he’d figured out her plan, and struggled harder. Oh God, she hoped he hadn’t deduced she was a female and she was here to steal his Pearl of Life.

“You’re hiding your intention, Brian. And I don’t like that. I’ve had my suspicions since I saw you yesterday. You too are here for the Pearl of Life?”

Cecelia blinked and her face became red with dread. She noted the bright glint in his eyes. He knew he’d hit the spot.

He chuckled. “Perhaps I should put you in the dungeon to prevent you from acting out your plan?”

Cecelia glared at him and finally managed to free herself from his imprisonment. She staggered back a little before finding her footing.

“What evidence have you that I plan to steal your precious jewel?” she managed, her voice shaking along with her body.

“I warn you, Brian. To steal the jewel is a serious crime in this kingdom. The punishment is death.”

Cecelia’s heart skipped a beat. Death was it? To steal this powerful jewel of his?

She took another step back. “Only a barbaric kingdom would commit such a barbaric punishment,” she stated. “What if the act was to help the life of another? Would that be considered a crime too?”

“Indeed, Brian, it is a crime. Like I said, perhaps I should put you in prison—”

“I refuse to be imprisoned, sire. Least of all here in this barbaric Demon Kingdom with a king such as you who only kills because you want to and considers it appropriate,” she spit venomously. Suddenly, no matter how much she tried to forget, the images of her home being burned down and her father killed by these demons were strong in her mind. And now, to stand here before the very demon who destroyed her family, she just couldn’t handle it.

“You, sire, are the worst creature within these nine kingdoms. I will tell you now that I will avenge my father no matter what may come.”

Drake had no idea what she was talking about. He roughly caught her wrist, pulling her to him. “Then avenge him now, this father of yours, whomever he may be.”

“Let me go, you beast!” she snapped, swung her small fist up, and got him in the chest. He caught her wrist and before he could think or stop himself, he grasped her roughly by the nape of her neck and crushed his lips against hers.

Cecelia was shell-shocked for a moment that the demon king was kissing her. Though his lips were firm and hard against hers, she found it oddly pleasant, and her body became weak from the warmth and nice sensation. When he deepened the kiss, urging her lips to part for him, she came to her senses and tried to fight her way free.

Drake finally decided to let her go, and she staggered back, breathless.

Blushing intensely from the short, intense experience, she turned on her heel and ran back into the castle. In the hallway, she stopped, leaned on the wall, and took deep breaths. Her heart was still pounding hard as she thought about that kiss.

Why? Why did he kiss me? Why do his touches stir something deep inside me?

Perhaps he was playing with her. Perhaps he knew of her plan to steal the Pearl of Life and now he was playing a game with her?

But he was kissing her as Brian, a boy. What was wrong with these demons? And how did he come to know she intended to steal his pearl? Cecelia shook her head. Nay, that couldn’t be. Demons could surely not read minds. Perhaps he just guessed and she responded too hastily.

“Brian!” Lucifer suddenly appeared beside her, which made Cecelia jump in surprise. “You look upset. Are you angry with Uncle Drake?”

When she saw it was only Lucifer, she told herself to calm down. It wasn’t Drake here to claim her and throw her into the dungeon. Smiling at the boy, she shook her head vigorously. “Nay.”

Lucifer, however, wasn’t convinced. He cocked his head to one side and said, “Are you sure?”

“Very sure,” she said, nodding.

“All right. Come along. Tea is ready.” The little demon grabbed Cecelia by the hand and led her into the drawing room.

They had their tea, and Cecelia was glad Drake didn’t join them. About an hour later, Vera told Lucifer it was time for him to go to bed, which the boy expertly begged and pleaded to stay for just another ten minutes but failed miserably. Cecelia excused herself as well, begging that she was very tired after the hunting.

Drake suspected he was going quite mad. Nay, not mad. Perhaps he’d finally realized he preferred a male lover after all. Perhaps Gerick was right. That was why he’d surprisingly kissed Brian in the heat of his impulsive enthusiasm. And Drake had never been impulsive nor that enthusiastic for sex before he met Brian. That was why he rarely bedded any woman that came his way. Even though those women were few and far between since they were too frightened of him and his dark scowl to consider him a bedmate.

Aye, there was no doubt about that. He was attracted to the boy. A human boy at that. In that, the Demon Kingdom was doomed to suffer because if he had no proper bride to bed and she couldn’t bear his blood, it would mark an end to all demons.

Despite such a dire situation, Drake couldn’t help himself and laughed loudly until his stomach hurt. It was a good thing too that he was alone. If anyone were to witness him laughing this much, his fearsome, infamous name would be ruined. Be damned, but he didn’t want that.

Once he’d managed to calm down, he viewed his situation more objectively. Aye, he couldn’t afford to choose who his lover was to be. He was a king, and his kingdom came first. He didn’t have the luxury like Gerick, who had both male and female lovers yet was bound to none. Drake was a principled demon. He would stick by his bride’s side, regardless if he loved her or not. Aye, he needed a female tonight to prove that his comrade down there was still working in proper order. And he would find such a female even if he had to leave the castle for the city to get one this night.

Chapter 11

In her bedchamber, Cecelia forced herself to go to sleep, for she would need the energy for what she was about to do come early morning. Yet all she could think about was Drake and his kiss. Instantly, his image appeared in her mind’s eyes, and her heart skipped a beat. She gently felt her lip, the spot where he’d touched her with his, and groaned.

She turned on her side and hit a fist against the soft pillow. “You disgusting demon!” she whispered softly between her lips. “How dare you kiss me? I am Lady Cecelia Van Zandt.”

Even as she said that, her heart ached. Aye, she yearned for him to kiss her again. She longed for something else as well, something deeper and hotter that burned within her core. For the first time in her life, her nether space hungered with a heat she’d never experience before, making her utterly restless.

She lay there for a long time, thinking about Drake and his kiss, her dead father and the destroyed Rosevalley Island, and her brother Brian and her ailing mother, until she eventually drifted off to sleep.

She woke again with a start a few hours later, her heart pounding. She sat there for a few moments, trying to calm down. Once she’d gotten her bearings, she saw it was fully dark and all was quiet within the castle. She quickly got out of bed, dressed herself in one of the maid’s uniforms she’d stolen before dinner, and slipped her father’s dagger into the under sleeve for protection. She decided to leave her long hair down, as she wouldn’t be recognized as Brian if she were to be seen in the dark. Whomever chanced upon her would simply think her nothing more than one of the serving girls working within the palace, going about her chores this late at night.

She took a candle and then slid her slim frame out into the corridor. Inspecting across the dimly lit length, she found the place was deserted and silently rushed through the maze of hallways toward the library. At last, she found the room she was looking for and slipped in. She thanked the gods it was deserted.

Holding the candle in front of her, she went in search of the recipe book for the Pearl of Life, her fingers frantically touching each thick volume in turn as her eyes hastily scanned shelf after shelf. After a long while of fruitless searching, she wondered if she would be able to find the precious item this night, as the library was a big place with thousands of books. Where had Julius put it after they’d left the library yesterday morning?

She turned, looking up to the balcony where Julius had descended from yesterday. It must be on the second level, she thought and hastily ran up the spiral stairs. She noted there were hundreds of books along the shelves here, too, and her heart sank at the thought of going through all of them.

No. She mustn’t give up, she told herself firmly. Thus, she went to the end of the shelves and started there. Thank the heavens, for it wasn’t long before she found it. The book wasn’t stored like the rest. It was sitting alone in a secured glass box at the end of the room. She rushed to it, her legs weak at the sight of it.

She started fiddling with the glass door, her hands shaking uncontrollably. Miraculously, it opened. She wondered if Julius had forgotten to lock it up yesterday. Whatever the reason, she was glad she was able to get into it.

Once she got the glass case opened, she took the book out and hastily flipped to the index pages. She scanned down until she found the HEALING OF LIFE POTION. Page thirty-two, it read. She turned to page thirty-two and started reading.

***

THE HEALING OF LIFE POTION

***

The Healing of Life Potion is used to heal life-threatening poison such as the Westwick Poison from the north, the Naga Poison from the southeast, and the Green Snake Poison from the east.

***

Ingredients:

1 Pearl of Life

10 Cups of Water

1 Cup of Honey (to taste)

Handful of Lavender (flower and leaves)

Handful of Rosemary (flower and leaves)

Handful of Sage (leaves only)

***

Method

Put water and Pearl of Life in a pot. Bring to boil. Then add honey, lavender, rosemary, and sage. Stir until liquid thickens. During this time, the powerful essence of the Pearl of Life will infuse into the liquid mixture. After half an hour, take out the Pearl. Then drain the liquid into a jar, leaving only flower and leaves of Rosemary and Lavender. These leftovers can also be used to wrap skin wounds. Drink one tablespoon of potion three times a day for eight days.

***

Cecelia was excited. She scanned through the book two more times to commit the recipe to memory.

Just then, a door slammed shut with a bang. Cecelia jumped, her heart pounding hard and fast within her chest, wondering who’d just entered the library. She hastily shut the book, her hand shaking. She rushed over to the other side of the small room and peeked out. In the distance below, she saw a dark shadow in the form of a male. He was heading toward the stairs to where she was. Panic seized her and she started to tremble.

She bit her lip and told herself to think of something fast before whoever it was caught her red-handed. She took another peek and saw he was coming closer and closer.

Think, Celia, think!

She held her breath as he came up the stairs and called out, “Staying up so late studying, Julius? How very like you.”

Cecelia swore silently in dread once she heard that voice. Drake McNamara, the demon king. What was he doing here in the library this late at night? More importantly, what would he do to her if he found out the person in the library wasn’t Julius, but her, Cecelia, here to steal a recipe?

A deep laughter followed, and then he said, “Perhaps you will ease my boredom tonight, Julius. Accompany me to the city, why don’t you? That boy Brian really unsettles me. There’s something about him that doesn’t fit. He frustrates me, both in body and mind.”

Cecelia was sure her heart was going to pump out of her chest any moment now if Drake didn’t turn back and leave the library this instant. Oh God, he was coming closer and closer.

What should I do? she questioned herself.

When he came around the corner, Cecelia knew she had to make a run for it before she got caught. Without further ado, she turned on her heel and dashed back.

Drake was quick. He saw the slight shadow sprinting around the corner away from him and knew instantly the person wasn’t Julius. He went after the culprit and, in the flip of a second, caught Cecelia by her slender arm.

He pulled her around, but was caught off guard when Cecelia swung her dagger against him with her free hand. The blade flew across Drake’s chest by mere inches as he dashed back. Within seconds, he pounced on her again, caught her wrist, and twisted her hand. The knife dropped to the floor with a clang. Cecelia swung her free arm around and managed to bash her puny fist on his massive chest. Drake let her go in response. Cecelia took the opportunity to take off through the opened door. Drake was after her in an instant.

Cecelia ran through the maze of corridors, her heart pounding hard and her mind searching for a way of escape. He was still hot on her heels, chasing her as if as she were a criminal. She supposed she was, trying to steal a jewel and a recipe.

Finally, she found herself running toward the back door of the castle, and then she was out in the cool night. She couldn’t see much, though the moon did provide some guidance in her surroundings. She sprinted even faster, knowing her hunter was still behind her, and it wasn’t long before she found herself in the thickness of the woods that surrounded the castle to the northwest.

It was here that Drake roared out with laughter, as if he were thoroughly enjoying himself, which frightened Cecelia witless. She stumbled, felt her arms caught by his strong hand, and found herself in his arms. He pinned her back against a tree with his large, warm body.

He lowered his face to hers in the darkness. Though she knew he couldn’t quite see her and she prayed to the gods he didn’t recognized her, this didn’t put her mind at ease.

Her heart was still racing when he said, “Who are you and why were you in the library?”

Cecelia sighed in small relief. She took the advantage by not answering him, and that was when he laughed, long and loud. She could feel it rumbling out from within his broad chest.

He lowered his head so his nose and lips were now almost touching hers. “Were you by any chance waiting for someone in there?”

Cecelia thought for a moment. Anything to get out of this. Thus, she nodded.

“Ah, I see. Gerick, was it?”

Nay, Cecelia wasn’t waiting for Gerick, but she nodded anyway.

Suddenly, Drake stroked her long hair and whispered into her ear. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. But Gerick is already with another tonight. ‘Tis fruitless waiting for him. Perhaps I can help you?”

Cecelia blinked. His closeness was making her weak and too warm for her liking. And the meaning of his words?

“Nay, sire,” she said quickly.

Drake cocked his head to one side. “Ah, so you know who I am, then?”

Cecelia caught herself and silently cursed. “Nay,” she whispered just as quickly.

Drake laughed again. “No one refuses a king’s offer, sweetheart. What should I call you?”

Cecelia bit her lip and stayed silent.

Drake said, “No name, eh? Very well, I shall have to give you one. What about Selene? For it is beautiful and bright tonight. Though, I’m eager to see your face, Selene. Should we move into the castle?”

“Nay, sire, please. I must go,” she begged.

“Leaving so soon? Were you not here to have some company tonight?”

“Nay, sire, I’ve changed my mind. Please—”

Cecelia was cut short when his lips brushed against hers briefly and gently. That smallest touch did amazing things to her, and she groaned softly.

Drake was quite pleased that he didn’t have to venture into the city to find himself a woman after all. This one was presented to him on a silver platter, and within the thickness of these woods of all things. Aye, she might have come here to spend her night with Gerick, but with that handsome demon too busy with another interested party, Drake was only too glad to step in.

He was also quite pleased that it was dark, and this slender, soft young woman couldn’t see his face. He had no doubt she’d fear him the moment she saw him. Most females did. Even some younger, newly recruited soldiers feared his scowl. Tonight, he didn’t want to seduce a frightened, witless female.

Drake wrapped his hands around the back of her head, his fingers interlacing through the strands of her long hair as he whispered softly into her ear, “Will you allow your king to make love to you tonight, or will you refuse him, Selene?”

Cecelia shivered deliciously at his query and closed her eyes.

“Tell me now, my sweet. Don’t prolong this torture on your king.” He brushed his lips against the sensitive spot of her ear and then lower, his hot tongue licking the side of her throat. “I’ve never forced myself on any female before and am not about to now. Give me your word, sweetheart.”

All Cecelia could feel was his closeness and warmth and the smell of his unique scent. Aye, she wanted him. That much she knew. All thoughts of the book and the pearl scattered off into the breeze as her core burned with a frenzied heat, needing to be touched and cherished by this particular demon.

Slowly, she nodded and whispered softly, “Aye, sire.”

The moment she uttered those words of acceptance, Drake felt a rush of hot desire searing through his being. His lips claimed hers in a scorching kiss.

Cecelia whimpered deliciously as his firm, warm lips grazed against hers, and a moment later, his tongue slipped into her mouth. She’d never felt anything like this before as he explored her, his tongue playing and stroking her own. When he moved back, she was marveling at his harsh features that seemed even more foreboding than normal. Oddly enough, it made her blood run hotter, wanting him even more.

Drake gave her little kisses along the length of her slender neck and then lower to her breast. There, he easily pulled down her dress and claimed a nipple in his hot mouth. He kissed and suckled the little pink bud, sweetly torturing it until it was fully engorged and glistening wet.

Cecelia groaned softly, her mind screaming at the delicious torment and the pleasure he bequeathed her with his practiced tongue. Her inner core was burning with an inferno that desperately wanted to be filled and then release.

It was then she found herself on the ground amongst the tall, soft grass, and he was on top of her. His hands were under her gown, caressing and stroking her bare skin. Cecelia caught her breath at the back of her throat at the exquisite sensation his bare hands gave her, for she felt delightfully lightheaded. Her midsection was begging for more, wanting more of his touches and caresses.

Drake chuckled in approval and whispered, “Have I pleased you, sweetheart? I will make you think of only me. Forget about Gerick. He doesn’t deserve your attention tonight for leaving you behind. Tonight, you shall be mine.”

Cecelia heard his words and could only smile at his remark. Aye, she wanted to be his and only his. She wrapped her arms around his head as he wonderfully tormented the sensitive peak of her other nipple with his hot mouth, teeth, and tongue, suckling her and then kissing her and nipping at her. She bit her lips, trying very hard to stop herself from screaming out in pleasure.

So this is lovemaking, she thought with wonder. The secret topic the maids in the castle back home had always whispered about? The wonderful nights with the warriors they craved? And now Cecelia understood why. It was heaven. There was so much pleasure as one allowed her body to be touched and caressed and stroked and kissed.

Oh, the kisses. Hot and soft. Gentle and wonderful. The demon king’s hand was touching her moistened valley now, and Cecelia couldn’t help but cry out. She bit her lip, but even then she couldn’t stop the groans from escaping her mouth as Drake’s hand caressed the folds down there and then inserted a finger into the small, sweet, hot, eager channel between her legs, relieving her ache that began when he’d kissed her earlier that evening before she went to bed.

Cecelia arched her lower back, allowing Drake more access as he played with her. Then he had her completely naked, and rather than feeling shy, she was pleased to feel the cool night air against her scalding skin. She was so consumed with the burning heat of wanting to be filled completely that she didn’t realize she was caressing him, too. Her inexperience hands frantically moved about the muscles of his smooth, toned body. Her cry of pleasure sang loud and clear within the woods.

Drake was pleased to see his midnight lover responded to his seduction. By God, but she was passionate, and Drake loved that. He loved her eagerness and he loved her cries. He loved how her body danced beneath his touches. And he especially loved her lips as he kissed her now. When he was satisfied with that, he moved his head down her naked body to her breasts once again. There, he took a nipple into his mouth and sucked.

She groaned some more, and he chuckled lowly at her response. His stroked along the length of her thigh, up to her small waist, and then to her belly. That was when he felt a scar, long and big, across her right side.

[How did she come about this? _]he wondered. An accident? Or something else? _Ah, my poor Selene, he thought and moved to kiss the healed wound. When he was done with that, he sat up straight and lifted her to him. He surprised her by inserting his hard, erected shaft into her hot, tight tunnel.

Cecelia gasped. Since he’d started kissing her, she’d wanted to be filled, though she didn’t know how or with what. The moment Drake inserted his sex into her, it felt so right and so good. She smiled and groaned in pleasure, but that didn’t last as Drake thrust through and broke her maidenhead. She gave out a little gasp as the sharp pain shot through her being in a hot burst.

“Demon’s teeth!” Drake swore under his breath once he realized she was still a virgin. He became still, knowing he’d committed a grave felony. “Sweetheart, did I hurt you? I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

Cecelia’s heart pounded madly within her chest. The demon king had taken her virginity, she knew, as Agnes had told her since she’d grown of age about the marriage bed. But Cecelia wasn’t in a marriage bed. She was with a demon king who thought she was a maid waiting for Gerick.

Oddly enough, however, she didn’t feel any remorse for this loss, nor any shame. Both Lady Rosanna and Lady Juliet had lost their virginity long before Cecelia met them. She herself, come hell or high water, wasn’t going to get married, regardless if it were arranged or not. Thus, she had nothing to worry about not being a virgin before the marriage bed.

Cecelia lifted herself and wrapped her arms around Drake’s muscular neck. She kissed his lips softly and gently.

Drake smiled in relief, for in her action, he knew she’d accepted him, allowing him to take her. He started thrusting, burrowing his root deeper. They both groaned in pleasure as Drake continued his gentle pounding. Then he moved so Cecelia lay on her back, and he brought her legs higher around his waist.

He thrust in harder, pulsating into her as she cried out in wonderful agony. She bit her lip as Drake continued his rhythm, thrusting deeper and deeper into her secret place, her cry of pleasure singing loud into the night. Then she fell apart in his arms as he came inside her, long and hard.

Drake carried his exhausted weight on his elbow for fear he might crush her with his body if he were to collapse on top of her. He stroked her hair from her flushed face and brushed his lips against her forehead. Then again on the tip of her nose and finally her lips, where he lingered, licking her flesh with the tip of his tongue.

Cecelia fluttered her eyes open, still utterly breathless from the experience. Above her, she could only see the darkness and the slight shadow of her demon lover. She gazed up at him long and hard, and then reality hit her and her stomach lurched. She sat up and hastily grabbed for her clothing.

She was about to rush off when Drake caught her by the arm and said, “What’s the rush, my sweet?”

“Please, sire, I must go,” she begged.

Before he let her go, however, he pulled her into his arms and kissed her on the lips again, hard. When he reluctantly allowed her to escape him, he said, “I will meet you again tomorrow night, sweet Selene, here.”

“Please, sire, I must go,” she said pleadingly.

He held on to her tight, wouldn’t let her go, until she agreed with a nod of her head.

Cecelia rushed off as Drake chuckled, watching the shadow of her slender form disappearing from sight. He rested his head back and gazed up at the dark sky spotted with countless stars. He wondered what his sweet Selene looked like in daylight. Did she have blond, red, or dark-brown hair? What was the color of her eyes? Though he wouldn’t bet on it, he was very sure she was quite pretty.

Pretty or not, she was his, and he’d make sure she’d be his alone. That was until the pearl chose him a bride.

A knot formed within the pit of his stomach, and Drake cursed fluently. What would he do with his sweet Selene once the pearl had found him a wife?

He immediately dismissed the thought that suddenly turned his stomach sour. He dressed himself and then headed deeper into the woods. There, he found his favorite spot, a thick, big tree near the lake. Just as soon as he got himself comfortable amongst the branches that supported his weight, his mind flipped back to Brian. He sighed. And here he’d thought he’d forgotten about the lad altogether.

It was a few hours later, after he’d dozed off a little, when he felt the burning heat rising within his being, the torrid intensity surging through every nerve of his body. He was glowing, the bright golden light radiating with powerful magic that made him almost breathless.

Drake sat up, his heart pounding, and as this magic slowly receded within him, he knew as if he knew the sun would rise again, in just a few hours’ time, the pearl had found him a bride. All of a sudden, Drake didn’t know what to think. Should he be relieved that he would now be able to sire an heir? That now the kingdom would be saved if Marcus Arthur managed to kill him during this upcoming war? And what of his Selene?

He shut his eyes, trying not to think, but it was impossible. He jumped down from his hard trunk bed and practiced his fencing with a makeshift wooden blade. He trained until he was exhausted, his body soaked with sweat. It was only then that he stripped himself naked again and jumped into the cool lake for a swim.

It was dawn by the time he headed back into the castle. He was just walking past the library when he remembered his night mistress had forgotten her dagger.

He came in and found the blade on the floor. He picked up the sharp, cool metal, feeling the light weight in his hands. That was when, in the dimness of the dawn light, he saw the crest of Rosevalley, a crest he’d seen many years ago when he’d been a young demon.

He frowned and his mind raced, flipping through every possibility imaginable. There was only one outsider who could possibly acquire such a precious weapon. It only belonged to the royalty of Dardania. Brian!

He raced out the door in an instant, along the maze of corridors, and came to Cecelia’s room. He burst in through the door and found the place empty.

“Demon’s blood!” he swore loudly, his scowled face dark with wrath.

Chapter 12

Cecelia had never been this miserable in her life. Failed. She had failed in the most spectacular way imaginable. She couldn’t attain the Pearl of Life. Now still dark, she stayed in bed, staring up at the tastefully designed ceilings of fairies and gods. Her stomach kept flipping, her body tingling, her heart racing, and her woman area sore. It wasn’t so painful that she couldn’t ignore it and carry on with her life, or better yet, go in search of the Pearl of Life. It just reminded her of what had transpired some minutes ago in the woods.

She closed her eyes, and instantly, the image of Drake McNamara appeared. She cursed. Aye, she was angry with him that he should come into the library and trap her acting out her plan. More so, however, she was angry with herself for not being able to escape him in the first place. Then she remembered his hot breath against her bare skin, his gentle touches and warm kisses.

Cecelia caught her breath at the back of her throat and groaned.

“Oh, Celia, please stop thinking about him,” she whispered to herself. “He will cause you naught but trouble.”

She sat up and nodded her head in agreement with that statement. Aye, for all she knew, he would have already forgotten about her by now. Perhaps, she thought unhappily but with relief, to reassure herself of course, that he had always done that, going out at night to make love to girls. And she was just one of those girls. Surely, he must have forgotten her by now.

She nodded at that logical reason. Aye, she needed to concentrate on her mission to find that pearl.

Without further ado, she changed into her male’s garment. A few minutes later, she poked her head out the door. Luckily, the corridor was still quiet at this very early hour of the morning. She silently made her way to the back door where she sneaked past the guards and then down the stairs. She slipped out of the palace and ran toward the stables. The stable master was still not yet up for his duty, and she thanked the Lord for that, heading straight to the black beast Wildfire. She knew it would be hard to tame him, to calm him down so she could ride him, but Cecelia was good with animals. Thus, she closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths. Then she moved toward the sleeping creature. Slowly and gently, she touched its nose and whispered soft words into its ears.

“There, there,” she said. “You’re a beautiful beast, aren’t you?”

Not unlike your master, she thought. Then she started rubbing its nose gently, and before long, the beast looked at her with curiosity. She smiled. It was working. She moved around and grabbed onto his long mane.

“Will you let me ride you?” she asked softly.

As miraculously as it might seem, the beast nodded its head. Cecelia couldn’t help herself. She kissed the beast on the nose and then climbed onto its bare back, not without difficulty, however, as she was quite small next to it.

Once on, she bent down and whispered into the animal’s ear, “We must be silent, my love. We do not want to wake anyone. Understand?”

The horse snorted. A moment later, they silently headed out of the stable.

It didn’t take them long to disappear into the forest during this time of the night where guards were few and far between on their rounds. It was as if the steed knew where she wanted to go, and in only half an hour, she found herself at the cave once again. Relief swept through her as tears threatened to pour out of her eyes. She left the animal outside tittering there near a tree and headed inside with a made-shift torch in her hand. She remembered her way from the previous time the pirates had taken her here. She remembered the steps, too, and thus she was able to reach the clearing without killing herself.

Finally, she came to the pond with pristine water that sparkled with enchantment. Immediately her eyes darted to the precious gem, the Pearl of Life that resided in the giant clam in the middle of an island surrounded by magical water. Suddenly, she felt as though she were pulled by it, drawing her to it with an undeniable spell-binding bond.

She shook her head to clear away the enchantment and proceeded to search a way to get to the small island. It was then the dark cave oppressed upon her, and she felt a little dizzy. She turned her eyes back to the pearl to concentrate. It shone bright against the darkness, illuminating with power, as if to remind her of the reason she was there. Aye, her mother would live. A smile formed on her lips at the thought, and she knew she had to find a way to get the pearl without getting herself disintegrated by the magical acidic water.

She picked up a small rock and threw it into the pond. The hard item shriveled and sparks popped about everywhere, surrounding it like fireworks. In only a matter of seconds, the thing was eaten and remnants of it disappeared.

She sat down on the bed of rocks, her eyes on the glistening water as she wondered miserably how she was going to get through. She was, however, determined not to go back empty handed. She’d done so much to get this far.

It was when she concentrated on one spot for a long while, thinking, searching for a way, that she noticed all the sea creatures living within this water. It was a coral reef with thousands of polyps everywhere. The harder she looked, the more she saw. The array of color and sea creatures residing in the shallow of this pure water took her breath away. There were sea slugs, clams, starfish, sea urchins, sponges, and many types of sea fungi. Hope rose within her chest. If living creatures could survive within this water, why then would it kill her? Thus, to test the water, she closed her eyes and cleared her mind. Slowly, with her breath held, she dropped her hand into the water.

She waited for the acid to eat her flesh, for the unbearable pain to come. It didn’t. Surprised, she opened her eyes and looked. Her hand was fine. She dropped it into the water again, this time deeper, and the material of her clothing with it. Instantly, the water started eating at it. She gasped and quickly pulled back.

She sat up straight, and a beautiful smile formed on her face as her eyes sparkled with realization. She quickly took off all of her clothing. Naked and her long hair flowing down her back, she dipped her foot into the water. Nothing happened. It was like a normal pool of water where one goes to bathe or swim.

Slowly, she dipped her whole body into the water, still praying very hard that the enchanted liquid wasn’t going to kill her now.

She dived deeper, her eyes wide open, marveling at the beautiful coral reef about her. It was when she couldn’t hold her breath any longer that she popped her head out again and then swam across and came to the mounted island. There, she crawled to the giant clam that was like none other she’d ever seen. This one was indeed colossus, almost the size of a child’s bed, and the interior of the thick crystal shell was perfectly white with swirls of sapphire blue. Apart from the single Pearl of Life residing in the middle of this massive bivalve mollusk, there was nothing else. This clam was dead yet still alive by some powerful magic.

Cecelia made herself comfortable inside its opened mouth. She stared long and hard at the pearl that was the size of a goose egg, fully round and pinky white, shining and translucent, swirling and radiating with powerful magic as if it were alive. So much trouble for such a small thing, she thought and caressed it. Instantly, the clam shut itself, trapping her inside.

Panic seized her and her heart raced. She frantically tried to open the shell with her hands, but it was to no avail. Suddenly, the pearl glowed, emitting a crushing fierce energy, and Cecelia felt a powerful magic saturating into her body. She felt light and tingling and, oddly enough, not so different from when the demon king had made love to her. Once the feeling disappeared, she took the opportunity and tried to open the thick crystal shell again. Immediately, it opened by itself. Cecelia sat up, surprised. Then she thought perhaps she’d gotten caught. She scanned about her surroundings, wondering if the demons had realized she was there to steal the pearl. There wasn’t a soul in sight, however, and she was relieved.

With the pearl tight against her chest, she jumped back into the water and swam as quickly as she could back to the landing. Once she was out of the water, she got dressed and then raced back out, remembering to not step on any trap.

Wildfire was still there once she was outside. Glad it hadn’t deserted her, she climbed on its back and kicked the beast to start galloping. It wasn’t long before they came to a cliff at the end of the island. Below was a deep drop to the sea, and before her to the horizon was the sapphire-blue sea. Behind her was the Demon Kingdom and Drake McNamara the demon king himself.

It is either now or never, she thought. She didn’t know how to make this beast fly, but surely, running off a cliff would be a good start. But what if she were to fall into the ocean from this great distance? Killing herself and the beast? Then her mother would die in vain. Her brother Brian would be alone with no one to care for his fragile condition.

Nay, she just had to take the chance.

Thus, she closed her eyes and said a prayer. Then she whispered into the animal’s ear, “I’m sorry I brought you into this, my love. But please just one more time, aid me. Take me home to Dardania.”

Then she made it run. As it did so, she held her breath and her heart raced. Here we go, she thought and closed her eyes as they got closer to the cliff’s edge. Then once they were off, they were falling and falling and falling, and Cecelia knew this was it. This was the end. Her endeavor was in vain. She had failed and killed herself in the process.

Suddenly, she felt them ascending—up and up and up. Cecelia opened her eyes and shockingly looked down. They were flying. She couldn’t believe it and laughed loudly, tears in her eyes. She leaned down to kiss the beast and closed her eyes once again, pleased, happy tears streaming down her cheeks.

“Thank you,” she whispered into Wildfire’s ear.

Chapter 13

It was midnight three days later when Cecelia reached home. Since she’d left the Demon Kingdom, she only stopped to rest three times in small towns along her journey. On her first evening, she stayed on St. Bart Island, the small state belonged to the Meridianus Kingdom. There in a small village, she bought some supplies for herself and Wildfire with what little gold she had left. The villagers were very friendly to her, commenting she was such a cute demon and a lucky lad indeed to have acquired such a powerful warhorse of a demonic breed.

“Shouldn’t you be joining the demon army, my boy?” a baker asked her as she picked up a loaf of bread.

She gave him a quizzical stare.

“Aye, with a beautiful warhorse like yours,” he said, “bound to be helpful with the upcoming war.”

“War?”

The baker looked at her, astonished that she didn’t seem to be aware of the goings-on with her own country.

“Don’t you know? You’re from the Demon Kingdom, aren’t’ you?”

With Cecelia’s nod, he continued. “Marcus Arthur, the demon prince, has declared war with the demon king to claim the throne. If he succeeds, the kingdoms will return to the Dark Age.”

At this revelation, Cecelia paled and felt dizzy. “Marcus Arthur?”

“Aye, lad. Marcus Arthur is an exiled prince. He holds the blue pearl, inherited from the Arthur bloodline. The current king, His Highness Drake McNamara, holds the white pearl. It is his power.” He smiled then. “Aye, it is said his scowl is like a dark, angry storm, but he is a kind and just king. The kingdom prospers because of him and his power.”

At the mentioning of this, Cecelia tightened her hold on her satchel where she kept the pearl, her mind racing.

“Are you buying that, lad?” the baker asked.

Cecelia snapped back to reality and nodded furiously. She paid for her bread and headed out the door after thanking the man for his supply.

As she walked down the streets, Cecelia realized she was so green in the goings-on around the nine kingdoms. The Demon Kingdom was in chaos and was about to go into war. At their most vulnerable and when they most needed the power of the pearl, she had stolen it. Suddenly, tears flooded her eyes. Aye, she was the most selfish person on these nine kingdoms, and at that moment, she’d never felt so revolted with herself.

That night she stayed in an isolated cave deep in the woods with Wildfire by her side. Though Cecelia didn’t know it, the pearl had enchanted her and Wildfire, protecting them during their journey from dark magic and strange spells, and of course, thieves and murders.

As she lay there by the fire, she hugged the precious pearl within her embrace, protecting it from the harsh environment and thieves. She vowed after she’d saved her mother, she’d travel back to the Demon Kingdom to return the treasure, even if it killed her.

“I will return you to your owner. I promise,” she whispered, tears flooding her cheeks. She kissed the pearl before closing her eyes and snuggling her whole body into a cocoon within her coat.

As she drifted off into her slumber, she dreamed of the demon king searching for her. She woke early the next morning, and she and Wildfire ventured northward to St. Louis, a small town in the northern territory of Meridianus. By the end of that second day, she crossed the border to Dardania and stayed the night in a small village where the culture and people were more familiar to her. Wildfire, however, with its sinfully black skin and eyes and twisted horn, brought shocked looks and fear from everyone they happened to pass. Cecelia ignored them and, from then on, preferred to keep to isolation.

It was during this night that her dream of Drake became more prominent, his stormy gray eyes fervently searching for her. His essence and his demonic aura enticed her body with a hidden seductive power, making her restless and hot. Her aroused core screamed and ached for his touches, his kisses, and his sex to enter her, claiming her his. She was writhing and heaving with the need as the pearl glowed warmly against her chest. She woke the next morning feeling cold, alone, tired, and frustrated. She dismissed the thought of the demon king and prepared Wildfire for another long day of riding.

Finally, by midnight that day, she landed in the quietness of the night in the northern courtyard of the Van Zandt Palace. The guards, she knew, were busy with their rounds in the southern wing, so she and Wildfire were safe from their bark of attack.

Brian came running for her the moment he’d seen the shadow of her figure out at the courtyard with her newly acquired beastly steed. They hugged tightly, brother and sister, with tears in their eyes.

“You’re safe. You’re back,” Brian said. “I cannot believe it.”

“Brian, I have missed you so. But how is Mother?”

Brian’s handsome face fell immediately, and Cecelia knew if she didn’t hurry, she’d be too late.

“I will see to your beast,” Brian said. “Many will wonder where such an animal would have come from if I do not hide it.” He nudged his sister toward the door. “Hurry, Celia, before ’tis too late.”

Cecelia nodded and ran to the castle, her aching body and tiredness forgotten. Inside, she raced up the three flights of stairs, taking two steps at a time. Once she had reached her mother’s bedchamber, she stopped, took a deep breath, and then opened the door.

The figure of her mother so frail and small on the bed made Cecelia’s stomach knot with dread.

“Oh God, please let me not be too late,” she chanted to herself. “Please.” She rushed over to Countess Rosevalley and took the woman’s cold hand within hers. She watched her mother’s sleeping form, noting the deep lines and dry, pale skin. When the woman opened her eyes, they were clouded and dull.

“Mother,” Cecelia whispered, her voice weak. “I have returned. I’m back with the Pearl of Life.”

Lady Rosevalley blinked for a moment, not registering what her daughter was saying, for she could not see nor hear clearly now that the poison had damaged most of her being. She stared at Cecelia long and hard. Then slowly, as if she finally recognized who the girl was, she smiled. Her pale hand, shaking and trembling, reached out to touch Cecelia’s cheek.

“Why, Celia, my darling. You’re safe,” she whispered weakly, tears rolling down her cheeks as her heart soared with relief.

Cecelia nodded. “I am safe, Mother. You will be healed. I have retrieved the Pearl of Life.”

It was then that Brian came into the room, followed by Martha, Milan, and Agnes. Cecelia looked up and said to Milan the healer, “Quick, we must prepare the potion.”

“Aye, my lady,” Milan said.

“Boil some water,” Cecelia said to Martha. Turning to Agnes, she instructed, “Bring some lavender, rosemary, sage, and honey.” Then back to Milan, “I will show you how to make it.”

The two maids and healer rushed to do as they were instructed. It wasn’t long when the water within the small clay pot started boiling in the burning hearth. Then Cecelia started making the potion according to the recipe she’d memorized. First went the single gem. The instant this particular jewel hit the water, it glowed as if by magic of different shades of colors. Cecelia herself had never seen such enchantment before and stared in wonder, as were Martha, Agnes, and Milan. Next, Cecelia dropped in the lavender, rosemary, sage, and honey. Then she stirred, as according to the recipe. It wasn’t long when the solution boiled once again within the little pot, turning the liquid a golden syrup color and giving off a sweet scent that none had ever smelled before. Once the potion was made, Cecelia herself fed it to her mother, slow and gentle, a few sips at a time, whilst Brian sat beside her and watched.

“Rest now,” she said finally, once the last drop in the small bowl was spooned cleaned. “You will have to take this potion thrice daily for eight days for it to be effective.”

Once her mother was again asleep, she turned to Milan and Martha and told them to bottle the remaining medicine for her mother to drink for the next coming days. The two did her bidding, and once everything was in order, Agnes begged her to retire to her own room for some rest.

“Agnes is right,” Brian said. “You look exhausted, Celia. Please rest. Mother is well taken care of.”

Martha nodded. “Milan and I will be by her side, my lady. Have no worry.”

At Milan’s nod, Cecelia gave in, for she knew she couldn’t very well hold out much longer. She was barely holding on by a thin tread before she’d collapse.

Agnes, after preparing a hot bath for her, helped her undress.

“My word, my dear lady, but dressing as a lad?” the woman said. “I have never seen such a thing. I suppose the situation calls for it. But you must never again, my lady, dress yourself as men. And God, I prayed every night for your safety, my lady. I feared you might have been hurt whilst on your journey, pirates and thieves and all. I feared you would be killed by those demons if you chanced upon one, which I prayed you did not. Monstrous creatures they are, my lady. Did you happen to chance them, my lady?”

Cecelia turned to look at her maid now, wondering if the old woman would still think demons were monstrous creatures if she were to see the demon king himself, or Gerick, Adam, Julius, and Leon for that matter. Then, of course, there were Vera and Lucifer. They would surely shock the old maid with their undeniably gorgeous guises.

Monstrous creatures. The word kept echoing within her head. Were they really monstrous? Surely they were, despite their handsome appearances, which were a complete contrast to what she’d originally thought. They had killed her father that night and, along with him, thousands of innocent lives who had lived on Rosevalley Island. But why that night three years ago had she seen monstrous creatures that looked nothing like the real demons she’d met? Was it merely her hallucination? Was it some kind of trick within her own mind that she’d created to hide the horrid truth? Was that night too much for her to bear that she must create such an ideal creature to protect her own mind from going mad?

Agnes was still waiting for her answer, and Cecelia decided not to give the old maid any. Agnes nodded her head at Cecelia’s silence, assuming the young woman’s answer was none.

“Aye, else he wouldn’t have let you go, I believe,” the maid said. “And thank God for that.” She stood back and nodded her head at that sound logic. “I will leave you to it, my lady. I shall be back once you are ready.”

“Please, Agnes,” Cecelia said. “’Tis getting very late. I will manage. You need your rest, too. I will be all right. Go back to bed.”

The maid reluctantly nodded. “As you wish, my lady.” Then she really couldn’t help herself and mumbled on, “I am so glad to see you back. I am so, so glad. I must pray again tonight and thank the Lord for protecting you and bringing you back.”

“Thank you for praying for me, Agnes. Good night,” Cecelia said, nudging the old woman to the door.

“Yes, yes.” The maid chuckled. “Good night, my lady. Rest well.”

Cecelia shut the door once the maid was gone. Alone in her room, she rested her head against the wooden frame and closed her eyes. Instantly, the image of the demon king emerged before her, and her heart gave out a little skip.

“Stop thinking of him,” she muttered to herself.

She flashed her eyes open and headed straight to the bath near the warmly lit hearth. She stripped herself naked and climbed into the tub.

The moment her body met the warm water, she sighed in bliss. She lay back and let go of all of the tension that had built up within her since the day she’d decided to leave the safety of this palace to fetch the Pearl of Life herself.

She sighed deeply, glad the scented water was just the right temperature for her liking, not too hot and not too cold. Then she remembered the pearl. She reached over to the chair and searched for the item. It was neatly wrapped within a white silk cloth. She brought it to her and stared long and hard at the thing within her hand, marveling at the pink-white color of the round gem and swirl of glowing energy that exuded from within. She wondered what made it so powerful. What essence was in there that could heal such a strong and life-threatening poison?

Slowly and lovingly, she began to caress the egg-sized gem. Suddenly, as if by magic, her body became warm and weak, and instantly, she felt sleepy, as if her consciousness were snatched away by some enchanted force. Slowly, she closed her eyes, and not a moment later, her breathing became slow and even.

She was drifting and floating about in warm air. It was very pleasant, nothing like she’d ever felt before. Then in her mind’s eye, she saw a shadow of a man appearing as if out of the blue. He was just standing there before her by the door, watching her. Then slowly, he made his way toward her, and before long, he was beside her. As he got closer, she realized who he was and her heart skipped a beat.

She straightened up in alertness and only then did she realized she was still naked in the tub and the demon king was standing before her, watching her with interest.

Her heart raced. How did he find me? she wondered. More importantly, how did he know the pearl was missing and she was the one who had stolen it?

Suddenly, he was beside her, his face inches from hers. Cecelia stared deep into the grayness of his eyes, and she licked her lips involuntarily. Then she felt his hand against her cheek, caressing her. His touch was so gentle it made her feel weak and warm and oddly pleasant. He was moving his lips to her ear, and the warmness of his breath did nothing to ease her craving for more of his touches. He whispered softly, “So you’re the little thief who has stolen my pearl?”

Cecelia licked her lips again, her mind in a muddle of confusion. Dreaming. I am dreaming, she told herself.

“I’m coming to reclaim my pearl. I’m coming to claim you,” he said.

She stared hard into his eyes, chanting silently to herself that he was merely a figment of her imagination. That he wasn’t real. That she was dreaming of him. Then before she had time to utter one word or escape his clutches, he claimed her lips with his. He kissed her long and hard, and Cecelia felt herself soaring with undisguised pleasure. Dream. Just a dream. No harm in kissing a demon in a dream.

But then it was too real to be a dream and Cecelia became suspicious. She tried to push him back, only to make him retaliate by thrusting his tongue into her mouth, exploring her innocent sweetness. As he kissed her wilder and deeper, Cecelia tried her best fighting him off, her small hand pushing at his massive chest. The process, however, was to no avail as he easily caught her slender wrist and stopped her in her tracks. She groaned and whimpered at the same time, and when she finally managed to free her hand and shove him off her, she woke up with a start.

Still breathing heavily and breathlessly and her heart still pounding madly, Cecelia scanned about her surroundings, searching for the demon who was haunting her. It was only after she was sure no one was in the room with her that she truly believed it was merely a dream.

She closed her eyes and told herself to calm down. But she couldn’t calm down as his voice, which sounded and seemed too real to her, was still echoing within her head.

“I’m coming to reclaim my pearl. I’m coming to claim you.”

Cecelia shivered and hugged herself. Then she realized the pearl was no longer in her hand. Panic seized her and she froze for a moment. Then she saw the thing shining and sparkling in the water by her feet. She sighed in relief. She must have dropped it while she was dozing off.

Not wanting to doze off in the tub again, she picked up the pearl and stood. Suddenly, she realized her body felt heavy and weak. She wrapped herself in a towel and headed straight to bed after laying the pearl on the bedside table.

Just resting for a little while, she told herself. Will get up and change in a moment.

But she fell asleep there with nothing to cover herself but a small towel.

Chapter 14

Drake had been silently raging for three long days since he’d found out his precious pearl had been stolen. He had no doubt it had been Brian, a disguised human female he’d shared a passionate night with, who had cunningly sneaked away with the item and his beloved beast Wildfire. The news greatly upset Vera and caused Lucifer to cry and become withdrawn.

“I am sure Brian, or whoever she is, isn’t that kind of person,” Vera said adamantly to her husband Adam. “You’ve read her aura, have you not, Julius?”

At Julius’s nod, Vera continued. “You see? Her aura is pure. She probably has her own reason for stealing it.”

It was Lucifer’s turn to beseech his father and uncles. “He didn’t even say good-bye,” the young demon sobbed. “Please, Uncle Drake, don’t hurt him. Papa, Brian needs the pearl for his sick mother. He said so on the ship. His mother is dying.” He was tugging at Drake’s sleeves now, tears in his eyes. “His mother is poisoned. You won’t hurt him, will you? He’s my friend.”

Gerick gathered the little boy into his arms and picked him up. “There, there, little demon. Uncle Drake won’t hurt your friend. He just needs to find her and bring the pearl back.”

Lucifer blinked his tears away and snapped, “Brian is a boy. He’s a he.” Turning his attention back to Drake, he begged, “And bring Brian back too. You like him don’t you, Uncle Drake? He’s your friend, too.”

Drake’s scowl darkened as he looked at his nephew. Lucifer tried to match his scowl but failed because tears kept pouring out of his eyes. As sad and dire as the situation might be, Gerick, Leon, and Julius wanted to laugh at the boy’s cute, contorted face.

“Brian, or whoever she is, is not my friend, and I don’t like her,” Drake said darkly. “She’s stolen my pearl, Lucifer. She’s a thief. A thief is a criminal and must be punished.”

Lucifer released a big hump and said, “Don’t lie, Uncle Drake. You told me never to lie ’cause it’s sinful. You like Brian. And Brian is a boy so you have to call him a he.” More tears flowed down his face and he wiped the damn things away with a rough brush of his sleeve. “Aye, you like Brian. I saw you kissing him that night after the dinner feast.”

Gerick widened his eyes in shock at this information and turned to his cousin with an accusatory expression. Drake, in return, shot Gerick a murderous glare and told the younger demon with his dark scowl that if he were to utter a word about the incident, he’d kill him. Julius and Adam glanced at each other, thus confirming their previous suspicions. Leon just did an ‘[_I see’ _]type face. Vera was confused.

Drake didn’t like the fact that his beloved nephew had spied him kissing the female Brian that evening. Damn, he really needed to make Lucifer see reason about the missing pearl and that the female Brian needed to be punished for stealing it.

He began calmly, “Lucifer, you must understand that—”

“Maybe you kissed him too hard; that’s why you made him angry and he ran away,” Lucifer put in, his eyes large.

Drake’s dark scowl changed to one of shock. Gerick burst out with a roar of laughter. Leon and Julius hid a smile. Adam frowned at Gerick. Again, Vera was totally at a loss.

Adam stepped forward and took his son from Gerick’s hands. He, of course, blamed Gerick for his son’s odd behavior. And about kissing of all things.

“Where did you learn of such a thing, Lucifer?” Adam asked, clearly upset, his face was red with rage. “Uncle Gerick?” In which case, Adam gave Gerick a death-warning glare.

Lucifer wiped his tears with his sleeve once again and said, “I speak truth, Papa. I saw Brian got angry ’cause Uncle Drake kissed him so hard.” It was then he took a peek at Vera and continued lowly. “Mama kisses me very hard, too, sometimes. And I get very angry ‘cause it hurts and is very embarrassing in front of the other children. So I run away to hide from her.”

Vera, who was sitting in a chair on the other side of the room, widened her eyes in shock at this revelation. With trembling legs, she rushed forward and took her son into her arms. “My love, I didn’t mean to hurt you by kissing you so hard. I just love you too much and can’t bear to leave you alone, that’s all.” Then she proceeded to kiss him again, very hard, which made Lucifer perform another unsuccessful scowl.

At this, Gerick burst out laughing once again. Once he managed to calm down, he said, “Lucifer, do you think your Uncle Drake loves Brian too much? That’s why he kissed her very hard?”

Lucifer nodded without hesitation.

Their conference about the lost pearl and the missing female Brian ended there, where Drake promised Lucifer not to hurt his friend if he ever found her. Hence, their search began immediately. Drake, Adam, Gerick, Leon, and a hundred warriors searched across the land and the sea for the young woman and the pearl. Thus far, however, they couldn’t find any evidence of either the person’s or the pearl’s existent.

A few days later, Julius suggested it had probably left the kingdom, which was why they couldn’t trace it. Hence, they had turned to Julius’s vision, but that was to no avail, too. By the third night, Drake was more frustrated than ever and decided to turn to his own power to aid him.

Now alone in his bedchamber, he closed his eyes, summoning his demonic power to the forth. Instantly, he could feel a warm glow radiating about his body, and soon he felt himself moving out, his mind drifting off and farther away. His soul, one could say, had left him.

Drake was now flying, light as air. He was moving and floating. He was slipping out and about, and he saw many things. People walking and talking and going about their chores. Men drinking in a tavern at this time of the night, warriors practicing with their swords, family sitting down for the evening meals.

In the distance Drake saw the golden halo glow of his pearl. He felt it calling out to him, singing his name. With a swoop, he dove and descended. As he came closer, he saw that the light was coming from within a distant castle from a distant kingdom.

“Dardania,” he said under his breath. He was right in that Brian was in fact royalty and thus a relation to Lord Peter Van Zandt of Rosevalley.

Royalty or not, Drake was determined to get his pearl back and claim the thief. No matter that this might start a war between the two kingdoms. And if the female Brian were truly royalty, why then a war would certainly take place. Oddly enough, though, Drake quite liked the sound of that. It was about time that obese King Leroi be brought down from his crown a nudge or two.

Drake descended faster and then he came down through a ceiling into a bedchamber.

It was a pretty room, suited for a young woman. He eyed the large-sized bed with its pastel purple covers, the sofa with plush cushions and chest and drawers full of dresses and gowns. It was then the pearl called out to him again, and when he turned, he saw a girl in the tub.

Slowly, as if in a dream, he came to stand beside the bath. The girl was sleeping, he realized, whilst bathing. He got down to his knees, his face close to her, his eyes examining the exotic beauty before him. Playfully, he dipped his hand into the warm water, causing a ripple. This drew his attention to her naked body that was barely hiding from his view. He appreciatively noted her breasts were full and round and the nipples were pink. Her stomach was flat and legs were long and slender. It was then he saw the pearl within her hand.

He returned his attention to her face, and gently, with his hand wet from the water, he stroked her cheek.

“So you are Brian. I was right to suspect something was amiss with you,” he said.

He watched her fluttering her eyes open. He marveled at the long, dark lashes and at the brownness of her irises. She stared long and hard at him, and only a moment later, Drake knew she recognized him. He noted she was afraid, and why not? He was a demon king suddenly appeared as if out of the blue in her room.

Aye, he loved this game. He loved seeing the fear within her eyes. He also loved her lips, for he simply wanted to kiss them. He moved closer so their faces were only inches apart. Then he caressed her cheek with the back of his hand. “So you’re the little thief who has stolen my pearl.”

He felt her stiffen. She licked her lips, which drew his undivided attention.

He whispered, “I will come to reclaim my pearl. I will come to claim you.” Then he really couldn’t help himself. He claimed her lips and kissed her hard. Her flesh was warm and soft and very intoxicating. It was driving him mad with lust. Though she didn’t respond, Drake wasn’t in the least bit put off. Indeed, he thrust his tongue into her mouth, exploring her uncharted territory. He felt the power surge within him and found himself wanting more. He dug his hands into her wet hair, interlocking her fingers within the thick strands as he licked his tongue against hers, tasting her sweetness. It was only when she’d started to struggle that Drake realized he’d lost himself in her.

He silently cursed.

Suddenly, as if a force pulled him, he found himself back in his own bedchamber, back in the Demon Kingdom.

He got up from his position and cursed loudly this time. He couldn’t believe it. He wanted the girl. Aye, he was hard and ready for her, and he’d only been there with her in his apparition form.

Who is she? Drake wanted to know.

A moment later, he came to sit on the chair by the warmly lit fireplace and closed his eyes. Again, he summoned his inner power, and soon, he found himself back at the scene where he’d left off. Instead of seeing the girl in the tub, however, she was now lying on the large bed, still naked and with only a small towel to cover herself. He couldn’t help but smile as he came toward her. There he stood, watching her, his eyes roaming from the tip of her dark head to her face, lower to her breasts, lower still to her middle, then her legs.

He sat on the edge of the bed beside her. As if it were simply natural, he started caressing her cheek. Slowly, he moved his hand down her jawline and farther to her neck, loving the feel of her warm and soft flesh. Then his hand was at the tip of the thin, wet towel. He undid it and peeled away the offensive material. Her breasts, round and full, joyfully greeted him. Drake was a young demon, and his lust for a woman, particularly this one, wasn’t something he took for granted. Aye, he wanted her, and he would have her.

He caressed her nipple, playing with the bud between his finger and thumb, molding it until it hardened. He heard her groan, and he smiled arrogantly.

“Wake up, Sleeping Beauty,” he whispered. “Your king is here to claim you.”

Cecelia opened her eyes with a start at the sound of Drake’s voice. Her heart was thumping away within her chest as she stared at the stormy gray eyes of the demon king above her.

How did he get into my room? was the first thought that came to her mind. How does he even know where I am?

Then she told herself it was merely a dream and nothing more. There. Aye. It was only a dream, for she could see the halo around him, glowing of white and gold. But how odd it was for him to feel so real. She felt his warmth above her. She felt his touches. And more importantly, she felt herself responding to him.

She licked her lips and said to herself, “This is a dream. A dream. You’re in my dream and nothing more. So I shouldn’t be afraid of you, sire. I shouldn’t.”

Drake chuckled. “Are you afraid of me?” he whispered into her ear.

The warmth of his breath caused Cecelia to shiver deliciously. She groaned and said softly, “No. I am never afraid of you, sire. I am just not very comfortable with you. Why you appear before me in my dream is beyond me. Perhaps I am afraid even though I thought I’m not. Perhaps I’m afraid you’d come for me. Take me away from my family. That is what I am afraid off. No one to look after them. No one to care for them.”

“Oh, and what if I am coming for you?” he asked, his lips now mere inches from hers.

Cecelia swallowed. “I’d rather think not, sire. For you do not know who I am and you do not know where I live. So this is a dream.” She sighed pleasantly. “It is unbelievable, is it not? That I am dreaming of a demon king?”

Drake wanted to laugh at that. Did she not know how wrong she was? That he had already found where she lived. But a matter of who she was, was indeed another story. He needed to get his confirmation.

“Tell me your name,” he said softly. “Tell me your name.”

Cecelia blinked, wondering why such a question was being asked in a dream. “Cecelia Van Zandt, sire. That is my name.”

Drake looked deep into her eyes and knew she was Lord Peter Van Zandt’s daughter. It had been perhaps ten years ago, when Drake himself was but a young demon, and he and his friends had made a short stop on Rosevalley Island. Cecelia herself was but a child, brave and daring, wearing breeches, carrying a sword, and climbing on trees. She’d been a beautiful child. During that short stop, he’d seen her four times, though each time he’d never officially met her. He had seen her from the far distance whilst he’d been with Lord Van Zandt. The father pointed her and her brother out to him and his comrades during their exploring trip.

“There, my daughter and son,” he’d say with sparks of love in his brown eyes. “Aren’t they a pair?”

Drake cocked his head to one side now as he watched his little thief who had stolen his pearl.

“What are you doing to me?” she asked suddenly. “I feel wonderful. My body is feeling pleasant. Perhaps, sire, you are making love to me in my dream?”

Drake raised his brows at her.

“Do you want me to make love to you, Celia?” he asked.

She sighed pleasantly. “It is very nice, sire. In my dream, yes. I would like you to make love to me. But in reality, no, because you are the demon king and I do not like you very much.”

Drake cocked his head to one side, amused. So she didn’t like him very much, did she? Even during that loving they had together in the woods?

“And do you consider this a dream, Celia?”

Cecelia watched him as he was now playing with her nipple. She shivered deliciously as a groan escaped her lips. “It feels too real for it to be a dream, sire.”

That being said, she pushed him off her, which Drake reluctantly obliged. She rushed to the other side of the bed and clutched the thin material of the towel against her person as she eyed him, trying to make sense of what was happening. Surely, this must be a dream, for the demon king could not have found out where she lived so quickly. Furthermore, he couldn’t be present here at this time of the night. There was also that white and gold halo about his person. Surely, this was her dream and he was in it.

Drake was fascinated as he watched her shuffling through her thoughts, trying to make sense of it all. He shifted his gazed from her face to her body that was eagerly awaiting him to make love to.

In a flash of a moment, he moved and caught her wrist. He pulled her to him and made her sit on his lap. Cecelia struggled in his arms and demanded he let her go immediately. He silenced her with his kiss. His hot mouth and tongue ravished her as she tried to free herself.

Drake dug his fingers deep into her hair, holding her there, preventing her from escaping his clutches.

Knowing she very well couldn’t win him, Cecelia mellowed her fight. Drake took the opportunity and pulled the towel off her, throwing it away to the floor.

Cecelia gasped at his brute treatment. “My towel,” she gasped. “You cannot do that in a dream.”

Drake laughed. “Still thinking this is a dream, eh?” He brought her closer to him and ran his hand down her front. It was then he felt the scar across the side of her belly.

“I suspect right it was really you that night,” he said, referring to the young woman he’d made love to in the woods.

Cecelia raised her head haughtily and said, “Aye, sire. It was I.”

He laughed harshly. “Ah, I see now. You meant to steal the pearl that night? I came in on time and caught you? Oh, how stupid I have been,” he said more to himself than to her.

“You’re in my dream,” she said, closing her eyes. “You’ll be gone in a moment.

“I will not be gone, sweetheart. Not yet,” he said, running his hand across her scar and then lower to the valley between her legs. There he dipped his finger in and stroked her folds.

Cecelia gasped and then groaned loudly. Drake kissed her again, driving his tongue into her mouth while at the same time his fingers caressed her down there.

Cecelia’s body was shivering and shaking as he sweetly tortured her with his expert hand. He was thrusting his finger into her wet secret spot, loving the feel of her tightness and the silky, soft texture of her nectar. She clung onto him as he continued the process.

“A dream,” she whispered in between groans and moans. “Just a dream. Oh God!”

Drake moved his lips down the line of her throat and then lower to her breasts. There he took a nipple into his mouth and sweetly sucked and teased it until the bud engorged to a marble of pinkness. Cecelia whimpered and squirmed in ecstasy as she clutched onto his head for control. Drake felt her melting on him, restlessly writhing and moaning and groaning in response to his touches. He laid her back so she was beneath him, and then he thrust his hardened shaft into her.

Cecelia gasped at the intrusion while Drake gritted his teeth. Holy Mother of God! But it felt so real. His body stiffened at the hard pleasure and wondered how could this be? He’d used his power for the vision before, but none had ever felt as real. The power only allowed him to see his target and its surroundings. Not make him feel as though he were actually there in the flesh.

And indeed, right now, he felt as though he were actually here in the flesh with his little thief. Though, he must admit he’d never done anything like this before either, making love to a young woman in his vision.

“Sire,” Cecelia groaned. “I… Please move inside. I’m begging you. I can’t take it much longer if you just stay still.”

Drake eyed her, his face hard. “My pleasure, princess,” he said, a smile on his lips. Thus, he moved, at first slowly and then more forceful. His hardened member thrusting back and forth within her silk tightness, increasing the pleasure that was coursing through his body by more than a hundred folds. He gritted his teeth, his muscles tense as he continued the process.

Cecelia couldn’t believe the pleasurable sensation running through her being as the demon king drove into her. She couldn’t believe something like this existed in a dream. As if by instinct, she raised herself up and wrapped her arms around the apparition of Drake, drawing him close to her and at the same time feeling him getting deeper into her womb.

Drake pulsated into her, in and out, in and out, as she danced below him, singing, “Sire! Sire!”

He chuckled breathlessly. “Drake. Call me Drake.”

Celia hid her face against his muscular neck as she felt she was going to come soon. She couldn’t handle it anymore. “Sire… Dra… Drake, I can’t take any more.”

He tightened his hold on her and propelled into her faster and harder as she cried out louder and louder. Then it happened. Her whole body contorted, her hips buckled against him, and she came, long and pleasant and in wonder. Drake watched her as he too came with her. He held his breath as he did so, his body exploding with an unimaginable pleasure.

Breathless, Cecelia relaxed and closed her eyes. She rested against him, her face hidden in the crook of his arm. Drake moved slightly so he could see her face.

His heart skipped a beat as he felt the wind knocked out of him. Aye, she was a beauty all right. Without thinking, he gently kissed her on the lips. He stayed there, watching her, sketching her features within his memory. Then, as if he fully came to his senses again, his face hardened and his usual scowl appeared in full force. He moved, laid her down on the bed, and covered her with the blanket.

He stood watching her, a smile about his lips. “I will come to claim you, Celia.”

Chapter 15

The demons arrived without announcement seven days later, killing at least three hundred of their strong soldiers guarding the palace and injuring about a hundred more. What was more embarrassing was there were only thirty demons, and not one of them were injured during the whole carnage that took less time than a proper dinner. King Leroi, the coward that he was, wanted to flee for the safety of his precious life. He’d thought the threat he’d received from the demon king one week ago regarding a thief and his missing jewel had been a mere jest. But now he knew better, for standing before him was a demon that was as fearsome as his infamous name. Tall, big, dark-headed and with a fierce scowl on his face, the demon king sent King Lerio’s legs shaking with fear. His gut was churning with dread as he approached the demon with all the strength he could muster. Instantly, he felt as though his dinner wanted to come back out of his stomach.

“King Leroi,” Drake sneered, his eyes as dark as the night and as intense and hot as the raging fire.

King Leroi swallowed hard and looked over to his guard to make sure they were at a good distance to protect him from the slaughter. His guards, puny weakling beings compared to the demons, stood nervously with their swords drawn, ready for battle.

Drake paid no heed to the pathetic soldiers. His sole attention was targeted on the trembling king who looked as though he were about to wet his pants.

“I’ve warned you, King Leroi, have I not?” Drake drew out coldly. “I’m here for the thief and my treasure.”

King Leroi shuddered. “What treasure? There is no treasure of yours here, demon! You have merely used such accusation to raid my kingdom. To kill us!” He pointed a shaky finger at Drake and his comrades Adam, Gerick, and Leon who were flanking on either side of Drake. They looked as angry as Drake and were ready to go in for the kill with their mighty weapons drawn.

“Do you want an all-out war, King Leroi?” Drake asked harshly. “I will only be too happy to oblige.”

King Leroi paled at the thought. “Nay, ’tis not what I want. But I am telling you the truth. There is no treasure of yours here. As for the thief, I will only be too glad to hand him over to you.”

Drake glared at King Leroi in disgust. The greedy man valued treasure more than a life. As far as Drake knew, that life was also King Leroi’s niece, his bloodline. That man was as worthless as a rat. Drake was physically repulsed at the sight of the fat man adorned in silk and jewels. No doubt this king had never seen a battlefield in his life. Well, that was until tonight.

“Cecelia Van Zandt,” Drake growled loudly, causing everyone in the room to shrug back in fear. “Bring her to me!” He scanned around the room, his eyes sharp. When no one moved, he shouted, “Now!”

Again, the room was silent, and Drake’s mood changed from that of impatient to anger and lethal. With his scowl now darker than ever, he marched forward, his sword drawn, ready for the kill. The Dardanian guards rushed to their king, but they couldn’t do much more than that, for they feared the death look on Drake’s face and the demonic power radiating about his form. The force field kept them at a distance as Drake headed toward his intended target.

King Leroi panicked, took a step back, and fell on his backside. Just as Drake was about to come up to him, Queen Eliza intercept him by standing in front of her husband, her gown blowing in every direction from the force of energy Drake emitted.

“Agnes!” she shouted to the maid who was hovering about the room. Her voice was shaking as she continued, “Go get her.”

Agnes nervously curtsied and rushed away.

Queen Eliza, tall, pale, quite beautiful, and at least two decades younger than her husband King Leroi, sailed toward Drake once he calmed his power, reduced to nothingness by his command. Eliza gave him a nervous smile. “I do apologize, my king, for not granting your desire sooner,” she said. Then she slowly curtsied. “Please, sire, make yourself at home whilst we wait for that little thief.”

Drake wasn’t interested in pleasantry, and it disgusted him that this queen was trying to do just that. He’d murdered more than three hundred of her men, for God’s sake, and she wasn’t at all tormented by that thought.

Gerick came forward and queried, “Queen Eliza, isn’t it?”

Eliza turned her attention to the younger, more handsome demon. He really did take her breath away, and she wondered instantly what this demon was like in bed. She was really tempted to find out, and no doubt, so were her two cousins, Rosanna and Juliet, for they looked as though they wanted to drag him to their bedchambers and do pleasurable things to him despite the dire situation they were in at the moment. And all because of that stupid little chit Cecelia. If they got through this, and the little rebellious monster didn’t die under the hand of this fearsome demon king, then she’d kill the girl herself. Then again, only if she were allowed to because, from what she knew so far, Marcus Arthur was also interested in Cecelia.

“Why, yes,” she said pleasantly to Gerick.

Gerick cocked his head to one side and gave her a devilishly handsome smile. Then he turned his attention to the two women who were batting their eyelids at him. “And who might you ladies be?”

Rosanna eagerly stepped forward and said, “I am Lady Rosanna Van Dyke, my lord.”

“I am Lady Juliet Van Dyke, my lord,” Juliet said, not to be outdone by her sister.

Adam rolled his eyes. “We’re not here to make pleasant talk with these people, Gerick,” he reminded the younger demon.

Gerick laughed. “Come now, brother. Loosen up. Can’t you see these ladies are just trying to make us comfortable whilst we wait for Lady Cecelia?”

Drake narrowed his eyes at Queen Eliza. Under the current situation, he deduced immediately that it was the young queen who held the true power in this kingdom, and King Leroi himself was but a mere pawn. Ruthless, cunning, and hungry for power was what he saw within Queen Eliza’s aura.

“My Lord is right,” Eliza said, nodding her head. “Please, gentlemen, draw down your weapons.”

Drake eyed Queen Eliza and then turned his attention to the king. They both watched him nervously with dread.

Drake turned on his heel and went to stand by the window, looking out at the dead bodies in the courtyard. In the distance, just outside the great gate, an army of soldiers had just arrived. No doubt to take them down.

Drake began to laugh, louder and louder, drawing everyone’s attention. He turned to the queen and said, “Do you wish more death on your warriors, queen? If not, then give words to send them back.”

Eliza turned to look at her husband she never love, the man she used her body to seduce and manipulate. She saw him nervously nodding at her. Eliza tried hard to hide her anger. “Very well,” she said through gritted teeth and waved her hand to one of the commanders. “Tell them to stand down.”

The commander nodded nervously and quickly ran out the great hall to inform his superior. Drake turned his attention to Gerick and gave him the signal. Gerick nodded his head, a knowing, obedient smile on his lips. Then he bowed lowly to Queen Eliza, to which she frowned in suspicion, and then to both Rosanna and Juliet, smiling gleefully at him. That done, he turned on his heel and strode out the door.

“The north wing, was it?” he said to himself and headed that way, his footstep light and quick.

Chapter 16

Cecelia felt sick to her stomach the moment she heard the cry of dying men and the sight of demons in the midst of the battle across the courtyard. With legs trembling, she sank onto the floor, her breathing heavy, her heart racing and her stomach flipping with nausea.

What have I done? She had stolen the Pearl of Life, and now the demon was here, slaughtering soldiers within the castle walls to get their pearl back.

She was still shell-shocked that she couldn’t even think straight when Brian came to her, taking her into his arms.

“He’s here for you,” he said.

Cecelia nodded, tears in her eyes. “I know,” she whispered. She knew she must face the consequences. She had stolen the pearl, and she had vowed to return it even if it killed her. “I must go to him. I must go to the king and return his pearl.”

Brian frowned darkly at her decision and said firmly, “I won’t let him take you. I promise. Come, we must take you away from here.”

He pulled her to him and led her out the chamber, his hand tight around her wrist.

“Please, Brian, wait. I must return the pearl to the king,” she said hoarsely.

“Don’t be naive, Celia. He won’t let you go,” Brian said. “We must make haste.”

As they hurried out the door into the lit corridor by the courtyard, Cecelia said, “But he is here for the pearl, Brian. I must return it to him. It is no use to us now that we’ve made the potion for Mother. Besides, I promised I’d return it to its owner.”

Brian turned and said impatiently, “Aye, he is here for the pearl, Celia. But it doesn’t mean he’s going to let you go once you’ve given it back to him. And who did you promise to give what back?”

“But—” was the only word Cecelia managed to get out. A large body suddenly swung from above the side of the roof and landed before them silently on the cold stone floor.

Brother and sister stumbled back in shocked surprised, colliding against the wall. The instant they got their bearings back, Brian shoved Cecelia behind him to protect her, thinking it was one of the demon soldiers.

And indeed it was, and one of their best too, the lethal charmer and strategist Gerick McNamara. The tall, handsome demon cocked his head to one side as he appreciatively eyed Cecelia and then her brother Brian. A dark, devilish smile spread across his face as he noted brother and sister weren’t much different after all. Both with black hair and faces very pleasing to look at. Cecelia was slim and very enchanting in that pale-lilac gown that Gerick knew would indeed shock Drake to his core. The fake Brian turned out to be a beautiful woman in disguise after all. And as for the real Brian? Gerick returned his attention to the more interesting brother, his eyes twinkling with unmasked fascination.

The young man was slim, tall, and quite attractive, and Gerick was pleased in more than one way.

Gerick bowed to Cecelia and said, “Lady Cecelia Van Zandt, I am pleased to make acquaintance with you.”

Cecelia’s response was, “Gerick.”

Gerick nodded his head and then turned to Brian. “And you must be the real Brian Van Zandt.” He chuckled, his eyes glittering with interest.

“Celia, who is this?” Brian asked his sister, not liking the way the demon was looking at him nor the fact there was that glint in his eyes that made Brian just a little bothered.

“He’s Gerick McNamara, the king’s cousin,” Cecelia said.

Brian widened his eyes in shock and uttered in disbelief, “He’s a demon?”

Gerick laughed. “Aye, I am a demon and you are a human, young Brian. We are of different races, but nonetheless, we are still the same. Do you not like us demons?”

“You killed our father and destroyed our land,” Brian spit out. “And now you’re here to kill my sister too?”

Gerick cocked his head to one side. “I beg to differ. I don’t remember us ever killing your father nor destroying your land. Rosevalley, was it? Ah, yes, I remember the place. An island away from the main land. A beautiful place. We were there a long time ago. But trust me when I say we didn’t kill your father nor did we destroy your land.”

Brian pulled his sister to his side again, after noting she was making her way toward Gerick. He said coldly, “Whether you and your comrade did or did not, that is to be decided on a later date. For now, get out of the way. I will not let you take my sister away to be killed.”

At this point, Brian had his sword drawn and directed the sharp blade at Gerick. “Stand back, Celia. I will have to kill this demon to keep you safe.”

Cecelia clutched at her brother’s arm. “Please, Brian. Gerick means us no harm.”

“No harm?” he shouted out. “He bloody killed at least fifty of our soldiers.”

“Eighty,” Gerick corrected. “Leon killed fifty. Adam one hundred, and Drake, well, you don’t need to know.”

Brian was flabbergasted. He looked at his sister and said, “See how barbaric they are?”

Cecelia was impatient. “Brian, please. I will return the pearl back to the king. That is what he is here for.”

Gerick ignored the pointy sword at his belly by shifting it aside with his hand and walked toward Brian. “Come on now, Brian. Let’s be logical.”

Brian wasn’t listening. All he worried about was his sister’s safety, and thus, he thrust forward, slicing his sword through the air toward Gerick.

Gerick swung to his left, missing the sharp blade by an inch. He charged forward, sent his free hand onto Brian, and disarmed the young man in an instant. With his strong hand tight on Brian’s wrist, Gerick twisted him back against the cold stone wall of the castle. With his face close to Brian’s, he said, a smile on his lips as per usual, “Who taught you how to fence, Brian? It’s pathetic. You can’t even hold your ground against me. Now be a good boy and do as I say.”

Brian was seething with rage. He glared up at the larger demon, his brown eyes dark. “I trained myself,” he said through gritted teeth.

Gerick stared long and hard at the young man and, instantly, felt a warm feeling in the pit of his stomach. Demon’s blood! But he was attracted to the youth. Then something else caught his attention. The paleness in Brian’s skin tone. The dull color in his eyes. The poisonous aura radiating from within the youth’s body.

Gerick cursed, long and loud. Brian was poisoned on the inside with the black rose elixir. He was slowly dying and he didn’t even know it. Pity shone in the demon’s eyes and Gerick slowly let Brian go.

Brian fell to the ground, heaving from pain and exhaustion. Cecelia kneeled by his side, aiding him to sooth his agony. It was then Agnes finally arrived at the scene. She looked confused for a moment at the demon who’d been in the throne room before she’d left and wondered how he had gotten here before her so fast.

“Agnes,” Cecelia said, looking up at the old maid. “What is it?”

Agnes curtsied and said, “Please, my lady, the demon king, he’s asking for you.”

Cecelia got up. “Then I must go to him.”

Brian took his sister’s hand before she could take off. Still heaving with exertion, he said, “Then… then I will go with you.” He staggered up and turned his attention to Gerick. “Don’t you dare touch my sister. I can see it in your demonic eyes what you’re thinking.”

Gerick understand Brian’s meaning. Any beings—humans, angels, or demons—would be a fool not to fall for Lady Cecelia Van Zandt, for she was an enchanting beauty indeed. But Brian missed the irony of his own accusation. Gerick wasn’t in the least bit attracted to Cecelia. He was interested in Brian himself. It was too bad, though, that the young man was dying.

Gerick watched as, hand in hand, brother and sister made their way across the courtyard to the southern wing of the castle. He turned his attention to Agnes and said, “Pack Lady Cecelia’s belongings, maid, and be quick about it. She’s coming with us.”

Agnes blinked thrice before Gerick frowned darkly at her to get a move on. In which case, she curtsied nervously and did his bidding.

Gerick followed behind the siblings, his footsteps light. It wasn’t long before he noted Brian turned to give him another good glare. He returned the greeting with a playful smile that usually sent his intended soaring with happiness. But not this one. This one looked a little confused at his approach.

Cecelia’s whole body was shaking the moment they were standing at the door to the throne room that held these uninvited guests. She took a deep breath and, before she lost her nerve, she opened the door and stepped in.

The room was filled with Dardania soldiers with their swords drawn. To one side was her uncle King Leroi, Queen Eliza, and of course, Rosanna and Juliet and notable noblemen and ministers serving the court. On the other side, as she glanced in that direction, stood Drake the demon king, Adam, and Leon, and a small number of their warriors.

The instant her eyes met those of Drake’s, her heart skipped a beat and her stomach flipped uneasily. With her head held high, she moved slowly into the room, with Brian and Gerick following closely behind her.

Drake felt his breath snatched away from him the moment he laid eyes on his little thief Cecelia Van Zandt. He had known she was a beauty. To see her now in such an elegant gown, however, she was more than just beautiful. She was enchanting.

Cecelia nervously came to a stop right in front of the demon king, looking up at him with her head tilted right back. Though her whole body was shaking from both fear and anxiousness, she was determined to face the king and right the wrong she had done. She’d return him his pearl and be done with the whole sorry business.

Drake gazed down at her from his great height and snorted. “Here’s my pearl,” he said. His hand came to the back of her head, his fingers digging deep into her thickly coiffured hair as he nudged her to him. “You’re coming with me, thief.”

The moment he said that, Cecelia caught her breath at the back of her throat. Brian took a step forward and was about to say something when Gerick caught him by the arm and pulled him back, a hand clasped over his mouth.

“Shh! Brian, you don’t want to anger the demon king, do you?” he said softly into the young man’s ear. “It’ll be a bloody mess. Bloodier than it already is.”

“I… I can’t, sire,” Cecelia said.

Drake raised a brow at her as he moved his darkly scowled face closer so they were nose to nose. “You have no choice in the matter, sweetheart.”

The warmth of his large being and the sensation of his words so close to her skin made Cecelia feel lightheaded and dizzy. Drake noticed and gave an arrogant smile that turned everyone’s eyes to him in pleasant surprise. He was quite handsome, and that was shocking to everyone except for his comrades.

“What of my mother and brother?” she asked. “I am returning your pearl to you, sire. Is that not what you want? Why would you want me?”

Drake suddenly became quite impatient. He simply wanted to take her and his pearl and be away from here. “I want both you and my pearl. You are linked to it and to me now. You will make me another pearl, my dear.”

She blinked. “How?”

He roared out with laughter then, loud and long, causing everyone in the room to look at one another nervously and in confusion.

When he stopped, he said, “I will show you.” He moved and claimed her lips with his in a scorching kiss.

Rosanna and Juliet looked as though they were about to faint. Queen Eliza pulled her face in disgust. King Leroi crossed himself and looked heavenward in despair.

Brian’s anger flared, and he rushed forward to stop the sexual attack. Gerick, however, caught him once again, imprisoning the youth in his strong arms. “Your sister belongs to the king now. Don’t interrupt them. It’s rude.”

Brian shot Gerick a look and told the demon with his dark eyes that he’d punch him in the face when he got the chance.

Drake finally stopped the kiss and moved his head back. “Now then,” he said, “get the pearl, Celia, and let us be off.”

Cecelia took a step back and nodded. Before she turned, however, she said, “Please, sire. Allow me to see my mother one last time.”

Drake impatiently nodded and headed out the door. Adam and Leon followed suit behind him. Gerick reluctantly let Brian go and said, “A pity you’re not coming with us.”

Brian replied with a dark scowl, to which Gerick simply merrily laughed and headed out the door as well.

Chapter 17

Along the corridor, Cecelia turned to her brother and told him to go and see to their mother whilst she fetched the pearl. Brian nodded without hesitation and headed in the other direction. Cecelia herself rushed up the stairs and headed to her own room. Once inside, she noted that some of her clothing was on the floor and some in a chest, as though she were packing to leave. Agnes looked up from her position and rushed up to her.

“My lady,” the elderly woman sobbed. “The demon said you’re going with them. You can’t, my lady. You simply can’t. They are beasts. They will kill you.”

“Hush now, Agnes,” Cecelia said, soothing the woman. “I will be fine. They will not kill me.”

“They are demons. We cannot trust them.”

Cecelia took a deep breath and sighed. “Agnes, I promise I will be all right. Please help Martha and Milan look after Mother.” When Agnes was about to protest again, she shut the woman up by putting a finger to her own lips. “I must get the pearl and then go to see mother before I leave. You must understand that if I don’t go with them, there will be war.”

Agnes’s eyes rounded with horror at this realization. Then mutedly, she nodded her head.

“Now go,” she said.

Again, Agnes mutely nodded and then rushed out the door. Alone, Cecelia rested herself against the doorframe and slid down as exhaustion overtook her. She sat there for a few moments, her eyes closed. So it had finally come to this? To save the two kingdoms from going to war. To keep the peace.

She sighed and got up again, quickly searching for the pearl. She found it in her bedside drawer. It was wrapped in the silk fabric, and she quickly put it into the pouch dangling on the side of her waist. It was then that Queen Eliza and Rosanna suddenly appeared at the door.

Cecelia jumped in fright at their entrance.

“You know you don’t have to go with those beastly creatures,” Eliza said softly.

Cecelia moved away from the woman’s cold touch and said, “If I don’t go, there will be war. Do you want another war upon our kingdom, my queen? Bloodshed would be endless. They are demons. I have seen their soldiers. They are ruthless. They are powerful. You have seen them in battle with your own eyes, have you not? In a mere half hour, they’ve killed over three hundred of our men.”

Eliza’s eyes turned cold as she said, “Of course I do not want another war upon our kingdom. But then again, you are of royal blood. No matter what, you should never be treated like a prisoner.”

“What are you doing here, your highness?” Cecelia asked straight out.

Eliza took out a silk handkerchief from within her bosom and said, “To save you.”

Cecelia wasn’t prepared for what happened next. Eliza charged forward and covered the scented cloth over Cecelia’s face.

Cecelia struggled to free herself, and it wasn’t long before the smell of poison overtook her, causing her body to go limp and her mind to become unconscious.

Eliza dropped Cecelia to the floor and then busied herself searching for the pearl.

“Is she dead?” Rosanna asked, her face paler than usual.

“Of course not,” Eliza said in annoyance. “She’s just unconscious. She will be awake in an hour or so.”

Then she found the pouch and chuckled. She quickly undid the string and took out the pearl. Her eyes darkened with desire as she stared at the gem.

“It’s beautiful,” Rosanna said.

Eliza clutched the gem against her breast so as to hide it away from Rosanna’s eye. “Quickly, get the guards. We must get her away from here before the demon finds out.”

“Of course,” Rosanna said. She was about to rush out the door when she halted on her spot and stared with wide eyes at the man who was entering the room.

Tall, big, blond hair, and bright-blue eyes with aquiline features, Marcus Arthur was the picture of an angelic prince in dark armor.

The moment Eliza met the prince’s black, sharp gaze, she bowed and presented him the pearl. Marcus cocked his head to one side as he eyed the precious jewel, a slight smile on his lips. He reached out his hand, intending to touch the gem, but the force diverted him back with blast of energy, almost throwing him off balance. Aye, the Arthur’s line had been cursed to never again be able to touch the McNamara’s pearl.

Marcus frowned darkly at the gem for a moment and then said to his manservant Hamish, “Take it and leave immediately to Rosevalley.”

Hamish nodded and took the pearl from Eliza’s hand, who couldn’t seem to part her gaze from the gemstone. The servant then bowed low and rushed away toward his waiting steed.

Marcus turned his attention to Cecelia. He casually crouched next to her and stared long and hard, caressing her cheek with the back of his fingers. Slowly, a smile formed on his lips, turning his cold face to one that was very handsome. In a flash of a second, he scooped her into his arms and took her out the door.

It was half an hour later when Rosanna ran out toward the demons in the courtyard, her breasts bouncing and her pale skin as white as the moon. She was playing her part well, she thought with triumph, as she took some deep breaths and came to her knees before the demon king.

“Sire,” she said to Drake helplessly. “Please, sire, we have failed you. Lady Cecelia escaped. Please, I beg you. The queen and king beg you. Have pity on us. Allow me to replace that imprudent girl. Let us amend our wrong.”

Drake narrowed his eyes dangerously at the woman before him, a dark scowl on his face. Ignoring Rosanna, he turned to his comrades and soldiers and barked out orders. “We’re leaving now.”

His warrior saluted him and roared with affirmation. Adam and Leon took the lead and headed out of the courtyard within a second flat. Drake turned to Gerick and said, “Brian and the Countess Rosevalley, bring them.”

Gerick raised a questioning brow at his cousin. When he saw the glint within Drake’s gray eyes, his confusion turned into enlightenment. Thus, he nodded his head with a hint of a secret smile. “My pleasure,” he said, turned on his heels, and headed back toward the northern wing of the castle.

Alone, Drake returned his attention to Rosanna, who was still at his feet. She raised her face up to him now, hoping he would find her attractive. Well, she was, after all, one of the most beautiful ladies in all of Dardania. She had no doubt the demon would find her pleasant enough to replace that useless Cecelia.

“Where did he take her?” he asked coldly.

Rosanna caught the breath at the back of her throat and blinked. “I beg your pardon, sire?”

Drake bent down, wrapped his large hand about her small chin roughly, and said, “Where did Marcus Arthur take Cecelia? Answer me, my lady, before my patience runs out. And trust me, you don’t want to see me in my… What do you humans call me when I’m angry?”

Suddenly, tears welled up in Rosanna’s eyes as fear threatened to suffocate her alive. “Wrath,” she whispered, her throat dry, her voice shaking. “A demon’s wrath.”

He gave her a dark smile. “Good girl. Now tell me. Where is Lady Cecelia?”

Rosanna blinked and tears did flow down her flawless cheeks. She said, “In the woods to the east. She is in a carriage, leaving the city as we speak.”

“Thank you, my lady,” Drake said. With a blink of an eye, he was up and headed to his sinfully black beast Wildfire who had obediently returned to him the moment he stepped foot on Dardanian land. He climbed onto its back whilst Rosanna watched, her eyes large with apprehension as Drake pulled the stallion’s reins. In an instant, the beast flapped its wings and took off into the air.

Rosanna watched until the demon and his beast disappeared from sight before she collapsed there on the cold stone ground, sobbing for her life. He was about to kill her, wasn’t he? She sobbed with relief that she’d escaped his wrath.

Chapter 18

When Cecelia came to, she saw only the orb of darkness enveloping her, suffocating her to the brink of death. She gasped, struggling to breathe, fighting the invisible power that threatened to consume her whole.

Help me! she wanted to scream out, but her body was stone stiff, as if she’d been encased within her own dead being. Her physical form was unable to move with her command. God, help me. Get me out of this, she prayed, tears in her eyes.

It was then she saw a fluttering of pale-blond hair in midair above her. Pearlescent skin and emerald-green eyes with the most beautiful face Cecelia had ever seen stared down on her, a leering smile greeting her.

“I want you,” the woman sang seductively. “I want your body. You’re perfect.”

Something in the woman’s frosty eyes frightened Cecelia, and the child within her wanted to scream in fear. Instead, she shut her eyes to block away the bloodcurdling image. I am dreaming, she told herself. Just a dream. When she opened her eyes again, however, the woman was still there, looming ever closer to her.

Terror penetrated deep within Cecelia’s heart as the ghostly female and the black, shadowy energy around her hugged tight around Cecelia, suffocating her within its cold, empty embrace.

Cecelia whimpered, losing herself as it further claimed her mind and soul. She was going to die. She knew it was inevitable as she watched the apparition opening her mouth wide, intending to swallow her whole.

It was then a glow emitted from within Cecelia, originating from within her womb, and shone bright, bursting with a golden halo. The blast of light frightened the pale apparition of the woman as the ray blinded her. She screamed in anger and frustration as her image shook and then shattered and disappeared from sight.

Overwhelmed, exhaustion overtook her, and Cecelia fell unconscious.

When she opened her eyes again, it was to the sight of fire burning, devouring everything that surrounded her. Heat blistered at her skin as she sat up. Panic seized her the moment she realized her bedchamber was on fire and she was being roasted alive. She rushed off the bed, her bare feet hot against the cold stone floor. As she ran out into the corridor, searching and screaming for help, it was then she realized the sight she beheld was familiar to her.

She was back at Rosevalley Castle. She was back to three years ago, during the night of the raid.

Her legs weakened and she fell to the floor. It was then she glanced to her right and saw herself in the mirror. Looking back at herself was a younger girl in a nightgown with long black hair in wild disarray, face as pale as a ghost, and large eyes reflecting with fear.

Her mother’s ear-splitting scream caught Cecelia’s attention. In response, she rushed up from her spot and raced toward the noise a couple doors down. Within seconds, she came into the main foyer of the castle, and as she came through the door, she saw them.

Demons stood amongst the gusting blaze. Skin of dull gray, eyes of blood red, twisted horns, and faces and bodies resembling beasts. Cecelia felt her breath caught at the back of her throat as she stared wide-eyed at these monsters. It was then, through the haze of the smoke and flames, she saw a man standing in the center of the chaos. He was tall and big with pale-blond hair and burning blue eyes. He was handsome, yet she felt only darkness radiating from within him. Beside him stood the most beautiful female she’d ever seen. Long, pale-blond hair and eyes of emerald green, she was the woman Cecelia had seen trying to possess her.

It was then Cecelia saw her father, his lifeless form amongst the tangle of dead bodies by the man’s feet. Shock and fear consumed her, and Cecelia shut her eyes and screamed until she woke up.

Her heart pumped loud and fast within her chest as she lay there staring up at the ceiling of a moving carriage. She blinked and turned her head, her mind dull and confused. The moment she saw the demon sitting opposite her, she bolted up and hastily searched for her dagger about her body.

Marcus Arthur gave her a handsome greeting, a bright glint within his blue eyes.

“Lady Cecelia Van Zandt,” he said smoothly. “I’m glad Queen Josephine hasn’t yet taken over you.”

Cecelia stared at him long and hard, analyzing the meaning of his words. Then she realized what he meant. The dark orb. The beautiful woman with long blond hair and emerald-green eyes. The woman called Queen Josephine. Was she the same Queen Josephine Julius had told her about? The one who had stolen the king’s pearl and used its power for beauty and black magic? But she was dead over three hundred years ago.

She flicked her eyes to him again, questioning who he was. The longer she stared at him, the more certain she was sure she’d seen him somewhere before.

Marcus cocked his head to one side as he watched her, waiting for her to pounce on him.

Cecelia said through gritted teeth, “You killed my father!”

Marcus didn’t deny this. He simply nodded. “Aye, and many thousand others.”

Anger engulfed her, and Cecelia leaped forward, her hands outstretched. Within a split second, she had her fingers around Marcus’s throat, tightening around his flesh, ready to kill him.

Marcus didn’t budge from his position as Cecelia tried to murder him. He closed his eyes, a sad smile about his face.

Tears flooded Cecelia’s eyes, as her inner self was conflicted between killing her father’s murderer and pitying the man who looked as though he’d welcome death. Suddenly, a force blasted against her, throwing her back against the seat, knocking her unconscious.

Marcus closed his eyes as though he were really upset she’d managed to hurt herself. He moved forward and whispered into Cecelia’s ear, “You can’t kill me, my dear, for I am cursed.” He smiled a dark, sad smile and gently kissed her on her soft lips. “But thank you for trying.” He murmured darkly, “Only one can kill me.” He glanced up as the noise of a demonic steed fluttering through the woods reached his ears. “And he’s here.”

The carriage came to a sudden halt, which was followed by the sound of men shouting as in battle and metal clashing against metal. Marcus knew the Dardanian soldiers would put up a fight against this one demon. Marcus also knew, however, that it wouldn’t last. They’d all die in vain in a split second. Of course, Marcus decided he’d leave them to fight for three minutes before presenting himself to his ex-friend. After all, there were at least fifty human warriors against one demon. Well, not just any demon, but a demon king with great demonic power at that.

Marcus listened to men crying out in agony in quick succession and then dead silence. It was two minutes. Marcus had underestimated Drake’s growing power. Good, he thought, a smile creeping upon his lips. That way Marcus himself could die a quicker death.

“Marcus!” came the cold, hard voice that belonged to Drake McNamara.

Marcus scooped Cecelia up in his arms and carried her out of the carriage. As he came to face his opponent, he presented his nemesis the beautiful prized prisoner.

Drake was seething with wrath the moment he’d seen his ex-comrade carrying Cecelia. He jumped down from Wildfire, his sword drawn, ready for battle. Marcus wasn’t surprised to know Drake didn’t even need to leave his steed to kill fifty strong soldiers.

“Release her!” he demanded.

Marcus said coldly, “Kill me first.”

Drake cocked his head to one side and sneered, “That can be arranged.”

Marcus laid Cecelia back down in the carriage. He slammed the door shut and turned to the driver and a soldier who miraculously survived the carnage.

“Leave now!” he bellowed. The two men nodded, and within a second, they were out of sight.

Drake, eager to be done with the fight so he could retrieve Cecelia, growled and lunged forward. He slammed his mighty weapon onto Marcus.

Marcus took a step to the side and quickly released his own weapon, raising it up high in midair to counter attack Drake’s mighty sword. Drake slammed another hit on him, which Marcus protected himself with his blade again. The force, however, was harder this time, and it threw Marcus back.

Drake leapt forward, bashing his strong fist onto Marcus’s side, sending Marcus sprawling against the tree. Marcus sprang up and sent Drake a dark orb of attack as he chanted a black spell. The enchanted power hit Drake on the chest, hurling him across the distance, and smashed his body against a thick pine tree. The tree split and broke, falling to the ground, Drake along with it.

Drake growled as he flipped himself up. He gathered his inner energy; his body began to glow as his demonic power rose, a force field expanding around his form. Marcus summoned his demonic power as well, a halo of blue around him. The demons charged toward each other, each growling, shouting battle cries that echoed within the hushed woods.

They fought each other, giving each other blow after blow, the force of power emitting from within their bodies blasting everything that surrounded them. A golden halo against a blue one, glowing strong and flickering within the darkness of the woods, detonating trees and everything that stood in their way.

Drake wielded his weapon higher and forced a blast of demonic power into his words. Then he forced the energy and targeted it at Marcus, who was now exhausted from the combat.

Marcus emitted his own demonic power, but he was no match for the demon king and found himself at the receiving end of the explosion. A flare engulfed him, throwing him across the distance and smacking his body against a tree. He fell to the ground with a thud, unconscious. Drake headed toward the half-dead Marcus, his sword ready for the kill.

Feet braced apart and his face contorted with rage, Drake raised his sword high. He stood there, staring down at Marcus Arthur, his childhood friend. Memories flooded his mind, memories of them spending time together: Drake himself, Adam, Marcus, Julius, Gerick, and Leon. Learning how to use the sword for the first time. Learning history, geography, mathematics, science, astrology, and magic. Going out exploring the realm of the nine kingdoms, getting into all sorts of trouble and having all sorts of fun.

His heart constricted as his hands tightened on the sword above him. His friend. He was about to kill his friend, and Drake felt a sickening bile rise up within his throat. Why did Marcus have to betray them? Why did he want to claim the throne? Why did he want to return the kingdom back to the Dark Age where fear and terror ruled?

Drake hesitated too long. A blast of darkness materialized out of the blue, surrounding and protecting Marcus. A female figure in a dark robe appeared. Long blond hair fluttering in the wind, emerald-green eyes glaring at Drake with a promise of death.

Drake felt his whole being stiffen as he eyed the woman. “Queen Josephine,” he said darkly.

The woman gave him a sneering smile as she raised her hands, emitting a black, angry energy at him.

“I will kill you, Drake McNamara, Demon King.” Her voice echoed within his consciousness. Then she covered herself over Marcus, and in seconds, they both were gone.

Chapter 19

When Cecelia fluttered her eyes open once again, she saw only darkness. Though this time it wasn’t the darkness that engulfed and suffocated her, threatening to overtake her. She was still in the carriage, she realized, and sat up abruptly, searching about her surroundings for Marcus Arthur. He, however, was nowhere in sight.

The rocking motion told her the vehicle was on the move. She shuffled over to the side and parted the thick curtains. Outside, she noted they were traveling at a fast pace along a deserted road in the woods. Suddenly, the vehicle came to a halt and voices could be heard.

“Who goes there?” someone shouted.

Cecelia waited, the pumping of her heart loud in her ears.

“Who goes there?” the driver shouted again.

The carriage rocked violently, which was followed by men screaming in agony and then dead silence. Cecelia kicked the door open and rushed out, nearly falling to her knees on the ground as she did so. She staggered up and paced toward where the scream had come from. She found two men, dead, on the ground. In the darkness of the night, she glimpsed a dark shadow watching her. Her heart skipped a beat. She knew who it was immediately and swallowed.

“Running away, are we?” Drake said, his deep timbre voice echoing in the hollow woods.

“I…” Cecelia didn’t know what to tell him, for she too didn’t know how she came to be here. There had been Queen Eliza and Rosanna and then Marcus Arthur. Now it was the demon king himself.

“I…”

In a flash, he was beside her and had her slender arm within the tightness of his grip.

Cecelia whined at the pain. “Sire, I…”

He moved and had her imprisoned between the tree and himself, his large body covering hers. Cecelia caught her breath at the back of her throat as she could feel the whole length of him against her, the hardness, the strength, and the warmth.

“Nobody steals my precious items and ever gets away with it, not least you, thief.” He lowered his head to her so his nose nearly touched hers and their lips were a mere inch apart as he gazed intensely into her eyes.

Cecelia blinked. What would he do to her now? Would he kill her here? Odd enough, she wasn’t frightened of that. She knew he had a right to slay her for stealing his precious seed.

“Will you kill me now?” she asked, her heart racing, her body trembling beneath his. “But before you do, I beg that I see my mother and brother once again to say good-bye.”

Drake frowned for a moment and then he snorted. Such bravery, he thought for a mere human girl who he could snap lifeless with a flick of his hand. But she fascinated him. She stirred something deep within his being that he couldn’t deny. And demon’s blood! She was enchanting. Why men didn’t fall at her feet was beyond him. Why men found those three useless, pale women beautiful was beyond him. But this one, this one had spirit. This one he’d gladly take with him to enjoy. It would be a pleasure to have her. Aye, a pleasure indeed.

“What made you think I’d kill you now? It would be too easy,” he said softly. “You will make me another pearl, my sweet.”

Cecelia looked at him, confused as to the meaning of his words. “But I thought…”

“You thought wrong,” he snapped. “I intend to have you make me another pearl.” He shifted his gaze to her lips. “And I intend to enjoy it in the process.”

Cecelia blinked and before she knew what was happening, he had his lips pressed hard on hers.

Cecelia’s whole being shuddered in response as his warm tongue clicked the softness of her lips and then plunged into her mouth, stroking and caressing her sweetness. Just as quickly, he moved back, releasing her from his hot embrace.

He scooped her in his strong arms, which surprised Cecelia and made her squeak, and carried her to his steed. There he tossed her on top of Wildfire, climbed on, and nudged the animal to start.

They were riding fast, and Cecelia had to hold on tight so she wouldn’t fall. Drake noticed and pulled her into his arms as the steed released its wings and started ascending in the air. Cecelia gasped and held on to him, her small hands tight on the thickness of his arms.

Once they were up in the air and flying steadily, Cecelia was able to relax and turned her gaze to her captor. “Where are you taking me?”

Drake turned his smoldering gray eyes to her and gave her a slight smile. “To your prison.”

She swallowed. What did she expect? Aye, he would toss her into his merciless, dark dungeon, and then he’d torture her until he was satisfied. By then, she’d probably be dead, for she’d heard of the horrendous method these demons used to torture their prisoners, and none would last that long. A day at most.

So she was to be killed by torture. As he had said as much, he would not kill her himself. And he wouldn’t even allow her to see her mother and brother one last time.

Tears welled up in her eyes, and she willed them away angrily. Nay, she would not cry, least not in front of him.

Drake scolded and nudged her face to his so he could see properly in the dimness of the passing moonlight. He noted the defiant brown eyes, the flushed cheeks, and sensuous lips he’d kissed many times and, be damn, still wanted to do more. He remembered the softness and warmth of her flesh against his, and his blood rushed with pleasure once again.

Aye, he’d have her soon enough, this brave human girl who had the body of an angel and spirit of a demon. It would be a pleasure to drive his hardened shaft into her sweet, moistened channel again and again, a pleasure to have her as his and his alone, and to have her sire him another pearl.

He couldn’t help himself and brought his lips down to kiss her again, at the same time placing one large, strong hand behind her head. He plunged his tongue into her sweet mouth and explored her with a consuming passion.

Cecelia’s head spun with swirling sensation she couldn’t describe. Delicious excitement coursed through her being, and the spot between her thighs felt hot and willing. Aye, she wanted him to ravish her. She wanted him to fill her emptiness that was craving for him and him alone.

She groaned and felt her body respond with yet another thrill when his hand touched the roundness of her left breast.

Drake couldn’t help himself. He had to touch her, had wanted to touch her and feel her since he had seen her rushing out to face him that evening to prevent future bloodshed.

He controlled Wildfire with his thighs as he continued to kiss her, exploring the deepness and sweetness of her, his tongue stroking and licking as his finger molded her engorged breasts.

He released her abruptly, knowing he would lose control any moment if he didn’t.

Cecelia stared up at the demon who had the power to vanquish her thoughts to the wind and brought forward these newfound feelings and sensations she didn’t know she possessed. She cast her eyes and gazed at the musculature of his chest instead. She shuddered involuntarily at the smoothness of his skin his parted shirt revealed.

“How will I make your pearl?” she asked absentmindedly. “If there is only one Pearl of Life?”

“There will be another,” he said quietly.

She glanced up at him then, wondering how there could be another Pearl of Life when only two already existed in the realm of the nine kingdoms. There was the white one, which belonged to Drake himself, the one she’d stolen and now lost. There was the blue one, which belonged to Marcus Arthur, the exiled demon prince who desired to claim the throne.

A gust of cold breeze blew across and Cecelia shivered. Drake noticed and drew her closer to him, leaving one arm over her. With her face snuggled against the base of his neck, she suddenly wondered why he should act so chivalrous by protecting her against the cold.

As though he understood her thoughts, Drake said, “I will not allow you to be sick and unable to sire me another pearl.”

Cecelia bit her lip and wondered yet again how she was to sire, as he so called it, him another jewel. But she didn’t argue with him and, instead, rested her head against his shoulder, her face snuggled against his chest, and closed her eyes as she was suddenly very exhausted and felt very dizzy. Before long, the world around her slipped away into a fatigued darkness.

When she came to, she was in a large, luxurious bed. She had difficulty breathing and her head was aching. She groaned and sat up, wondering where she was. She noted the chamber was enormous, beautifully designed with dark blue and gold. The bed was as soft as a goose feather beneath her and she knew she must be in one of the guest rooms or—

She turned to her right and saw Drake by the window, watching her.

His. But how? Why? Shouldn’t she be in a dungeon? Then her stomach knotted as he paced toward her.

He seized her wrist and pulled her to him. She fought to free herself, but it was to no avail as he was so much stronger than her with that momentous, powerful demon strength of his and she was but a mere human girl.

“Stop fighting me, sweetheart. You will only tire yourself,” he said coolly, his warm breath caressing her skin. He carried her in his arms and paced to the door leading to the adjoined room.

Cecelia found it was a bathroom, beautifully designed and decorated. There was a big built-in bath made of white marble. In it, fresh water flowed in from the mouths of cupids and fairies.

He put her down and began to undress her.

She twisted around so fast her head spun from the speed of it. “What are you doing?” she asked, unable to hide the fear within her voice.

“A bath,” he said simply and thus began to undress her again.

She protested with all her might but couldn’t budge his intent, and in the end, she was in naught but her shift, standing there before him, hugging herself to hide her nakedness.

“Human is no different from demon nor angel for that matter,” he said, noting her blush.

“We are different.” She protested, her eyes on him now. “You were supposed to be ugly,” she said, and wanted to add not so pleasing to the eye that even the most handsome human male could not compare.

He raised a brow at her.

“You were supposed to have horns on your head and your skin is supposed to be gray like soot and blistered everywhere, like it has been boiled. Your eyes are supposed to red,” she added quietly. And not such a beautiful silvery gray that every time he looked at her, she became breathless.

He regarded her with that cool, composing stare, which she began to get used to, that stare that sent a liquid pleasantness down her spine.

“Pray tell, when and where have you seen such a creature? I would like to see one for myself.”

She noted the challenge in his stance and his eyes was growing darker. She swallowed and backed away from him.

He cocked his head to one side. “Where are you going, Celia? Come here and let me take that shift off you. You will not bathe with it on.”

Cecelia moved farther away and then rushed to the other side of the bathing pool.

“Sire, please. I can bathe myself. Must you be here to witness?” she queried in dread.

“Aye,” he replied. “Now come here and let me take that off you.”

Cecelia shook her head, and as he paced to her impatiently, she rushed away. So frightened she was that he might see her naked, she slipped by the edge of the pool and nearly toppled over. In a flash, he caught her by the small of her waist before she had the chance to go flying into the pool.

He brought her in this strong embrace and scolded her. “Can you not walk properly?” he muttered. “You will break your neck if you keep this up.”

She bit her lip and flushed intensely. Then she realized she was in his arms, too warm and comfortable for her liking, and quickly struggled to get free.

He wouldn’t let her go, instead grabbing the hem of her skirt and tossing her shift up and off her body.

Naked, Cecelia shrieked in dismay. The cool night breeze caressed her skin and she shivered in response. Realizing she couldn’t hide herself from him, she resigned her fight and bowed her head in shame.

Drake noticed her suddenly easing in her struggle and that she was now hugging herself as if she were wounded in the stomach. When he grabbed her wrist to ease her, she struggled again.

That was when he realized she was embarrassed of her scar. He wrapped his warm hand over her stiffened wrist. He was gentle but persistent as he moved it away from her belly.

The scar, thick and ugly against the softness of her flesh, indicated a cutting wound intended for death. Tonight was the first time he’d seen the scar in reality. The first time he’d known of its existence was when he’d felt it during their loving in the woods. The second time was in the dimness of the darkened room when he’d been in his apparition form, making love to her. Now he felt anger rising within his being knowing this mark was evidence of an intended murder.

Drake had to grit his teeth to control himself. “How did you come by this?”

Cecelia did not dare look up at him. “’Twas long ago when I was but a child.”

By instinct, Drake moved her around so he could examine her body. When he lifted her long hair away from her back, his scowl was dark and smoldering hot. Her slender back was crisscrossed with scars from a whip.

“You are a lady, yet you have these marks of torture?” he asked coldly. “Is this the way of the human?” he said with disgust.

Cecelia couldn’t reply. What could she tell him? That these scars where from the whipping she’d received from Queen Eliza herself because she’d defended her brother by teaching those older boys a lesson with her smallsword? Though this was true, it was ridiculous to say the least.

“You have no answer to that?” he asked, twisting her around. He nudged her face up with his finger and thumb. He smiled then, though it did not reach his eyes. And finally, he brushed her long hair back to look at her properly.

By heaven, but she was a beautiful creature. She had an exquisite body. He noted her round breasts that perked at just the right angle. He felt his blood sing in response, and it took sheer willpower to prevent himself from tossing her on her back and taking her there and then.

Cecelia’s blush intensified under his scrutinizing gaze. When he finally led her by the hand toward the pool, she sighed with relief.

He didn’t find her that repulsive. And why was he staring at her so long? She knew she was ugly, as she had been reminded too many times by Rosanna and Juliet, not to mention Queen Eliza herself. She knew no man wanted her, especially with all the scars on her back and stomach.

He made her step down into the pool, and she was surprised the water wasn’t cold, but warm. She glanced up at him, wondering why he made her bathe here and now and in his presence too.

“Go in,” he said.

She obeyed his gentle command, for the faster she got this done, the faster he’d leave her be.

At least she hoped so.

He was watching her every move; Cecelia could sense it. She got to the middle and was pleased the water hid her body from his eyes.

“All the way in,” he said.

Cecelia glanced up at him. “I am in and I am having a bath,” she snapped back. “Now please leave. Or do you want to watch me clean myself too?”

He ignored her. “Dip your head,” he commanded. When she glared at him, he told her to do it, this time with a threat. “Would you have me coming down there to aid you?”

Cecelia gritted her teeth but did as she was told. She dipped her head under the water a moment and then popped it out again. Then she watched in horror as Drake took out his dagger.

[_Is he going to kill me now? In the pool? _]She had thought she’d been ready for death but now realized she wasn’t and backed away in fright.

“I told you I will not kill you, my dear,” he said as he crouched near the pool. “Ease your retrieving.”

Cecelia stopped and held her head a notch higher. Then she watched as Drake cut his palm and then squeezed his blood into the pool. She blinked, wondering what he was doing.

The moment the drop of blood hit the water, it disappeared and dispersed, forming a golden halo. The spectrum spread everywhere within the pool, bright colors of the rainbow bursting forward all around Cecelia until she too glowed with a golden halo.

Cecelia looked around her in confusion and fascination. She twisted around in her spot, taking in the beautiful aura from the pool.

Drake had his answer. So Julius was right that the Mother Pearl had blessed this human girl and she was to bear his son, the next demon king. At that moment, with the theory proved correct with his bloodline mixed with the sacred water that flew from the mountain into his private bathing pool, Drake didn’t know what to think. For centuries, the female who was blessed by the Mother Pearl to bear a demon king’s son was of demon’s blood. Now she was a human, and how was he to explain that to his comrades? How ironic it was about this damned situation.

He stood and left, his face a dark scowl.

Cecelia watched him go and sighed. Some moments later, the pool returned to its normal pristine clearness, and she continued bathing, cleaning herself with the beautifully scented soap. Once she was done, she got out and picked up her clothing, wondering if there was a towel to dry her body. When she couldn’t find any, she put on her shift again and poked her head out the door to see if Drake had left the bedchamber as well.

No such luck. The demon was still there, now standing by the glowing hearth with his back to it. He was watching her, though his face was expressionless.

“Will you be taking me to the dungeon now?” she asked, dreading his answer. But she really couldn’t help herself.

He cocked his head to one side, again examining her person. With the thin material of the shift clinging to her, she was too enticing by half, and again, Drake felt his blood running hot wanting her.

“There is no dungeon here.”

She blinked. But how could there be no dungeon? Surely, McNamara Castle was enormous, and to not have a dungeon to hold a prisoner…

“This is not McNamara Castle,” he said. “This is Oakley House, my private retreat. This bedchamber is your prison. This house is your prison. You are my prisoner, my servant. I will do with you as I please.”

Cecelia felt her throat tighten. So this house was to be her prison, then. And what will he do to me? she wondered contritely.

As if to answer her silent question, he cupped her chin and moved his face so close she could feel his warm breath on her skin. “You will sire me a pearl, my dear, not unlike the one you have stolen from me.”

“But I do not know how,” she protested, thinking the demon was truly mad. “I will find your pearl for you, I swear.”

He laughed—that low intoxicating sound that warmed Cecelia to her core. “I will worry about that later. For now…” He moved his face closer to hers and nestled his nose against her rose and lavender-scented hair. “For now, let’s concentrate on creating me a new pearl.”

Cecelia swallowed hard as she watched him move his lips to hers, and before she could draw away from him, he kissed her.

He was firm and warm, and Cecelia responded by closing her eyes, losing herself within the heat of his touches. Drake urged her lips to part for him, and like an obedient child, she did, allowing him to plunge in his tongue.

She groaned softly as he played with her, stroking and caressing the groove of her mouth with his expert tongue. When he released her, he moved down her throat, licking and kissing her sensitive skin, and then once he got her to her breasts, he took one into his hot mouth and suckled and grazed and nipped.

Cecelia cried out in pure agony of pleasure as he continued to pluck her nipple until the little bud turned as hard as marble and glistening pink like a rosebud. Once he was done with that one, he turned his attention to the other and did the same—grazing, nipping, and teasing her until she cried out some more. By the time he was finished, Cecelia was breathless and her body ached to be filled with hardened sex. Drake, however, wasn’t done with her yet. He trailed little kisses between her engorged breasts, lower to her soft belly and then lower to her hot scented heat between her legs.

Cecelia blinked and whispered, “Sire, what are you doing?”

Drake flicked his dark eyes to her and gave her a devilish smile. Cecelia knew he was about to do something that’d shock her to her core. She could see it in his eyes. Fear enveloped her, and with shaky legs, she pulled herself away from him and rushed off the bed.

Drake laughed, amused. “Where do think you’re going?”

Cecelia didn’t reply. She grabbed hold of the thin sheet, wrapped it around herself, and took off, her heart beating outrageously fast and loud and her body trembling with the lovemaking experience.

Drake rushed off the bed after her, and in a flick of an instant, he caught her arm and pulled her to him. He scooped her up and carried her back to bed.

“Playing hard to get, are we?” he teased. “Well, I like games, Celia. Let’s play one.”

Cecelia looked up at the huge demon and shuddered in both fear and pleasure. What was wrong with her? She felt her own body trembling with need, yet she wanted to run away from him.

Drake laid her down on the bed, and before she could run off again, he took out a black thin silk material and tied it around one of her wrists to the side of the four-poster bed.

“I don’t like games, sire,” she said. “And why are you tying me like this?”

“So you won’t run off,” he said, a grin on his face.

Cecelia decided then that he was too handsome by far for her peace of mind. She struggled once again to release her wrist. Drake noticed and said, “It’s futile, sweetheart.”

He cupped her chin and drew her face to his. Before she could protest, he kissed her hard. When he released her again, he moved his hand and palmed the valley between her legs. He felt the warm heat within her yearning for his touch and her sweet nectar flowing across his fingers, readying her for his entry.

Before Cecelia could stop him, Drake moved his head between her legs and licked her lips. She sucked in her breath and groaned loudly, her voice trembling.

“Sire!” she screamed when Drake parted her lips and nibbled her hidden pearl. Cecelia clutched onto the pillow beside her and her body tensed with an indescribable, exquisite sensation as he continued to feast away. When he was done, she was spent and exhausted.

Drake, however, wasn’t done yet. He pulled her to him and sat her on top of him. Cecelia gave out a loud pleasured cry when she came down on him, his thick hardness penetrating deep into her sleek tunnel. With one hand, she automatically wrapped around his muscular neck as he guided her to move in a rhythm, making her dance with him as his shaft drove deeper into her.

Cecelia buried her face against his broad chest, her eyes closed as the thrill and ache and warmth and exquisite pleasure inside her built higher so she couldn’t control herself and whimpered. It was too much. She felt too wonderful yet too painful.

Drake moved his face down to her, gathered her long hair to one side, and buried his own face at the nape of her neck. Slowly, he began to kiss her, licking her warm flesh as he thrust deep into her. When he looked up, he saw tears in her eyes and frowned darkly. He stopped his thrusting, which surprised Cecelia. She blinked and gave him a questioning look.

Drake freed her wrist from the tie, moved her position so she lay on her back and he on top of her. He gently wiped her tears with the back of his fingers and said, “Did I hurt you?”

Cecelia felt her throat tighten with emotion. She wanted to laugh. A demon king had just asked her if he’d hurt her. How should she tell him? That his lovemaking to her was sheer barbaric yet sheer beautiful at the same time? That it made her feel so intoxicated she wanted to run away yet wanted him to do so much more to her at the same time? She wanted him to thrust so hard and so fast that it’d drive her mad.

She shook her head at his question, which made Drake smile.

“Well, little thief, in that case, let’s continue this creation of my new pearl.”

Cecelia gazed up at him, confused. Drake saw the look on her face. He knew she didn’t understand the meaning in his words. She’d understand in time, of course.

Without further ado, he dipped his head and kissed her as he continued to thrust inside her.

Cecelia cried into his mouth as he continued the rhythm. When finally she reached the tipping point, she came, long and hard, and her body shuddered with the sheer delight of it all.

Drake came after her, ejecting his seed into her womb as he arched his back. When he was done, he rested on one elbow beside her, staring at her flushed face.

Cecelia avoided his gaze, embarrassed all of a sudden at the way he was looking at her. Drake nudged her face to his with his fingers and thumb, and when she did turned her gaze, he said, “You’ll do, thief, you’ll do.”

Cecelia blinked and Drake came down and kissed her softly on the lips. Then he chanted something to her, soft words floating across her face, luring her to close her eyes, making her drift off. A moment later, she was fast asleep. Drake moved his hand to touch her belly. He felt it, the warm heat and the glow inside her. He smiled.

“You’ll do, bride, you’ll do,” he whispered to her.

Chapter 20

When Cecelia fluttered her eyes open, the first thing she saw was the bright-blue sky through the enormous window on the east. Beautiful was the first word that came to her mind as she lay there marveling at the exquisite scenery of green woods and wildflowers, the smell of ripe fruits and blossoms, and the feel of the warm sunlight on her skin.

In the distance, she could hear birds and crickets chirping, and instantly, her mind flashed back to those wonderful summer days years ago when she’d been back on Rosevalley Island, her home, with her family. Just as quickly, reality hit her like a splash of ice-cold water. Her heart raced. Her body became alert, and she was very much aware of what had transpired last night in this very large bed.

She was still a little sore, particularly down there where—

She heard a chuckle and instantly knew Drake was there in the room with her. She had thought he’d left her alone after his successful, ardent seduction last night. But it appeared she was wrong.

A blush spread across her cheeks, and Cecelia clutched the blanket tighter against her naked body as she heard his light footsteps moving toward her. A moment later, she felt him sitting on the bed behind her.

Breathe, Celia, breathe, she told herself.

Her heart was still pounding madly when he said, “You’re finally awake, little thief?”

His voice, the deep timbre, did nothing to ease her awareness of him. She flashed her eyes open and turned her head, sucking in her breath once she saw him. She thought about feigning sleep but knew it would be to no avail, as he’d already seen her looking at him.

“Yes, sire? What is it you want with me in such early hours of the morning?”

“Not early hours, little thief. Rather, ‘tis nearly noon.” He grabbed ahold of the thin blanket and pulled it off her person.

Cecelia gasped. “Sire!” she uttered, rushing off the bed to retrieve her cover.

Drake caught her wrist before she had the chance to touch the white material and roughly pulled her to him.

Totally and utterly naked as a newborn baby, Cecelia found herself sitting on the demon’s lap, her long dark hair in disarray about her person and her eyes large as she gazed up at him. She squirmed a little in his tight embrace as the warmth of his large body and his scent—pure male and spice and woods—did nothing to ease her fascination toward him.

He pulled her closer, his warm, strong hand resting at the small of her back. She could feel him against her, the hardness and warmth of his lean body touching her soft one. Instantly, she felt her core heat in response and became weak, as if she’d already surrendered to him.

Drake ran his fingers through her long hair, stroking the strands gently and then flipping them over her slender shoulder. Under the bright daylight, she was even more alluring, and it made his blood run hot with lust.

He flicked his gaze to her flat belly, the belly that would soon be swollen with his jewel, his son, a future demon king. He noted the scar there to her right side just beneath her breast was quite prominent under the light. He brushed his finger across it, lightly caressing the mark of a healed wound from long ago.

Cecelia involuntarily gasped at his feathery touch as a delicious tremor coursed through her being.

He flicked his gaze to her and smiled. “You’re as sensitive as ever.”

Cecelia didn’t like his arrogant remark, nor did she like the smug expression on his face. “‘Tis broad daylight, sire. Are you planning to—”

“Aye,” he said, touching her delicate chin.

“I refuse,” she said abruptly, brushing off his hand. Then before she lost all self-control under his masterful seduction, she shoved him back and rushed off his lap.

She wasn’t fast enough, and he caught her wrist again. With one fluid motion, he had her on her back and him on top of her. He chuckled, rather pleased at her retaliation.

“Playing hard to get again, are we? We both know where you’ll end up.”

Cecelia made an attempt to wriggle herself free. It was no use, as he was stronger, and the harder she struggled beneath him, the tighter he held on to her. It was made worse by the fact that he seemed to be rather enjoying toying with her.

He suggested, “Fight harder.” This drew a glare from Cecelia, and he laughed. “Go on, little thief. Fight me.”

To encourage her retaliation, he tightened his grip on her even more, which shot pain through Cecelia and she gritted her teeth. She responded with a growl. Then quick as lightning, surprising even Drake, she moved, opened her mouth wide, and snapped her teeth onto one of his hands that held her captive.

Drake watched, fascinated, as her small teeth sank deeper into his skin. Blood began to ooze as he watched her, a smile creeping across his face, enjoying the moment tremendously.

Biting him so long her jaw would have to be sore by now, more blood ran from his injured flesh and then he felt the pain. It slowly began eating at him. The slow, dull ache mixed with the burning pleasure was quite delicious and intoxicating.

Finally, he released her by pulling back his hand.

One hand freed, Cecelia made a move, her lips wet with his blood. She lifted her head and attacked Drake’s shoulder, sinking her teeth deep into his skin.

Drake was shell-shocked for a split second and then laughed softly. And here he thought she would have taken the opportunity to run off. Ah, but she really did surprise him, this mite of a human girl.

Cecelia didn’t know Drake was enjoying her battle with him, and he was now gently embracing her, his large hand holding her at the nape of her neck as she ardently attacked him with her teeth.

Cecelia could taste his blood, salty and wet in her mouth. She felt quite pleased with her small victory. Finally, very sure he would be begging for mercy now, she moved back. What she saw in his eyes the moment she faced him was nothing less than passion and hunger. Instantly, she felt her heart skip a beat and knew she was in trouble.

“My turn,” he said softly and crushed his lips against hers, his tongue plunging into her mouth.

Cecelia whimpered under his fervent kiss. She could taste his salty blood between them as their lips locked. Her body trembled weakly as he became wilder, thrusting and stroking his tongue vehemently inside her mouth, drawing her deeper into the darkness of his seduction. When he finally lifted his head, she was breathless and lightheaded from the experience.

He watched her as she tried to regain her senses.

“Don’t disobey your king again,” he said, fondly stroking her cheek with the backs of his fingers. Before she could respond to his arrogant remark, telling him he was not her king, he kissed her again.

He was softer this time, his lips warm and firm against hers, and suddenly, Cecelia felt herself lost. She couldn’t think. All she could feel was him—his warmth, his male scent, and his taste. She groaned, and Drake plunged his tongue deeper into her mouth.

Cecelia felt her core bursting as he played with her, wildly stroking her and exploring her. When he moved his head back, he continued his way down her throat. As he trailed lower to her breasts, Cecelia closed her eyes. Drake devoured a pink nipple into his mouth and continued to sweetly torture her until she groaned out in pleasure. He did the same to the other side before moving down to her belly where he gave little kisses to her sensitive scar.

Cecelia writhed beneath him as he moved lower, and then before she could stop him, he was between her legs, devouring her sweet nectar. When he was done, she was breathless and shaking from the experience, and her need to be filled was driving her to the brink of insanity.

She clutched her arms around his muscular neck as she searched his lips for a hot kiss. Groans escaped her sweet lips as she wrapped her legs around his torso, driving his shaft deep into her moistened channel.

Drake chuckled lowly as she danced below him, pleasing him so much he flipped her around to take the lead.

Cecelia cried out in pleasure and then bit her lip as she continued to move above him. Drake watched her, his heart glowing with a golden halo as he smiled. She was exquisite, and knew he was falling in love with this human thief who had stolen his pearl.

He shifted his gaze from her face down her aroused breasts and then to her flat belly. There he saw the flickering of a golden glow, very much like the light of a fluttering candle.

The new pearl inside her womb was bright and strong, and Drake’s heart radiated with love. He wrapped his hand around the back of his future bride’s neck, brought her down to him, and kissed her on the lips as they continued to make love to each other.

Chapter 21

Rosevalley Island

Alone and in the darkness of his isolated chamber within Rosevalley Castle, Marcus Arthur groaned in agony as the invisible, long, frosted hands wrapped about his neck, tightening around his flesh as if to suffocate him. Tears welled in his eyes as he held the mind barrier that protected him further from losing himself into the seductive voice that echoed deep within his head.

Queen Josephine Arthur whispered into his ears, her icy voice resonating in his mind, her tongue licking his senses, causing him to shiver in both trepidation and disgust.

“Draw out the power,” she whispered. “My dear Marcus, draw out the power from within the pearl. It will kill him. It will kill Drake McNamara.”

The delicate invisible hand slowly slid from his thick, muscular throat, releasing Marcus from the brutalizing pain. Her hands glided farther down to his chest as if in a caress. There, the skeletal fingers moved in through Marcus’s broad chest and grabbed his heart. Queen Josephine squeezed the vital organ, hard, as if intending to kill it.

Marcus’s eyes widened in shock, tears blinding him in agony as he growled aggressively into the night.

He howled, long and hard, as he forced all his power into releasing himself from the spell that had enchanted him since he had been fifteen years old. A spell that had made him turn against his friends and comrades, kill many innocent lives, and now made him he who was. A fallen, tormented demon living like the dead.

With all his might, with all his power, and with all his will, he fought the black magic that had crushed his spirit and was controlling him and using him like a puppet. With a push, his core glowed blue, thrusting out the dark orb that had engulfed him in the night.

“Leave me be, you bitch!” he growled, forcing the dark magic to disburse about and then disappear into the night.

Marcus sat there heaving with exertion as he gazed off into nothingness. He knew, as he knew war with Drake McNamara was imminent, that he could not be released from this curse. That Queen Josephine Arthur, the most beautiful creature who had stolen the king’s pearl for beauty and power, would return to him and make him do her bidding, for he was bound to her by blood. Aye, he was her puppet. He was her dog, ordered to do as she pleased. If he were not to do as she asked of him, why then, more torture would follow. One that would surely make him go mad.

Marcus cursed, both in his own inability to fight back and the fact that he couldn’t kill himself to be released, for the queen had spelled him so. Only one creature could kill him, and that was Drake McNamara.

Marcus laughed lowly, looking forward to the day his ex-comrade would finally slay him and liberate him from this torture.

“We’ll meet again, my dear friend,” he said softly into the night, a handsome yet sad smile on his lips.

The story of Drake and Cecelia continues in Romance of the Nine Kingdoms, Demon King Book 2: A Demon’s Bride, which is coming soon.

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Also by Alexia Praks

FANTASY PARANORMAL ROMANCE

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Romance of the Nine Kingdoms

A Demon’s Wrath

A Demon’s Bride (coming soon)

A Demon’s Love (coming soon)

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NEW ADULT CONTEMPORARY ROMANCE

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Dark Billionaires Series

Chained to You (James x Mia)

Chained by Love (William x Savanah)

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Billionaires’ Brides Series

The Billionaire’s Hired Girlfriend

The Billionaire’s Kiss

The Billionaire’s Love

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Falling for Sakura Series

Falling for Sakura

A Secret Proposal

A Secret Affair

About the Author

Alexia Praks is a medical laboratory scientist and self-confessed hermit whose undying love for books leads her to naively abandon the generous warnings of failure from numerous individuals and dive into the publishing world to claim a spot as an author.

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In the romance realm, she thinks anything goes as long as there’s love involved—be it contemporary, historical, fantasy, paranormal, or a combination of any of these. In the young adult territory, she leans more toward fantasy, science-fiction, dystopia, mystery, and of course, romance.

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Alexia lives in the historic, student-infested Dunedin, Aotearoa (land of the long white cloud), aka New Zealand. It’s a lone, isolated, picturesque country with ranges of exquisite mountains and breathtaking rivers, which she considers a perfect setting for her reclusive lifestyle.

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Apart from writing and occasionally losing herself in her own dream realm, she loves self-cultivation, is fascinated by Chinese metaphysics, and spends her spare time watching anime and TV dramas and, of course, reading books and manga.

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You can contact her via her website at alexiapraks.com/contact.

For more information:

@AlexiaPraks

AuthorAlexiaPraks

www.alexiapraks.com


A Demon's Wrath (Demon King, #1)

When the formidable warrior Drake McNamara discovers his precious Pearl of Life, a powerful treasure that has the ability to cure any poison, gone missing along with Cecelia van Zandt, the spirited young woman he saved from a cruel death—he unleashes his demonic wrath by taking Cecelia as his prized prisoner and promises her a dark, rapturous torment. In order to save her mother’s life from a deadly poison, spirited Cecelia Van Zandt must retrieve the Pearl of Life, a powerful treasure that belongs to the fearsome demon king Drake McNamara. After begging her uncle for help to no avail and against her mother’s wishes, Cecelia disguises herself as a lad and leaves the safety of the palace to find the item that resides in the depths of the dangerous Demon Kingdom. When Drake saves her from impending death, she finds she is strangely attracted to him and beguilingly loses herself in his hot seduction. The formidable warrior Drake McNamara must save his nephew from the cruel human’s hands that cunningly kidnapped the boy. After a powerful vision, he and his comrades rescue his nephew and a young lad named Brian. Drake suspects Brian, who is in actual fact Cecelia, has a hidden agenda. When he finds her missing, along with his Pearl of Life, he unleashes his demonic wrath by raiding Dardania Kingdom, takes Cecelia as his prized prisoner, and promises her a dark, rapturous torment she richly deserves.

  • ISBN: 9781311194329
  • Author: Alexia Praks
  • Published: 2017-03-13 11:05:25
  • Words: 57104
A Demon's Wrath (Demon King, #1) A Demon's Wrath (Demon King, #1)