A pulsing entity.
It called out to him from within the torrents of rain, enticing with a promise of unimaginable power, demanding his full attention.
When Drayvex had first arrived and breathed the alien atmosphere, it had nudged against his senses. He’d almost dismissed it. But as he’d lingered at the point between worlds, he’d deduced that not only was the entity moving towards him, but its power was on a whole other level.
A low-level demon shot down the cobbled street below him. It took him a second to realise that it was, in fact, his demon.
Drayvex narrowed his eyes from his rooftop perch. Kaelor had followed him through the portal. On top of this, his idea of blending in was truly spectacular. Moron.
The rain lashed around him in waves, hurling itself at him, then evaporating into a fine mist upon contact with his hot flesh. He looked down at the village below, sharp eyes slicing through the downpour, and zoned in on the strange power.
What he saw threw him off his guard.
It was a girl. A human girl emanating a throbbing black aura.
Drayvex relaxed his jaw, allowing the tension to ebb from his taut muscles. She didn’t strike him as an unusual specimen. The girl wasn’t interesting to look at, nor was there anything about her that stood out. Nothing except that delicious black energy that gathered about her in a possessive miasma.
He watched the girl flee with mild interest, studying her as his minion blocked her path. Would this power weaken and die without its human host? He would soon find out. Kaelor was about to have his way.
As the demon below made to strike, Drayvex’s eyes remained on her.
Kaelor pushed off the stones, disappearing in a pop, teleporting with over-dramatic enthusiasm.
Unless, Drayvex mused, watching as the demon materialised in front of her. Unless, she was something more. A slick pretender that liked to play human. If that was so, Kaelor would be put in his place, permanently. The ultimate lesson in biting off more than one could chew.
The demon leapt for the kill. The human slashed out with perfect timing, a hidden blade in her hand.
Drayvex stilled. The human had teeth after all.
As the blade sliced into the soft abdomen of his demon underling, Kaelor vanished, fleeing like the miserable coward he was.
Drayvex stared, glued to the diminutive creature standing victorious on the soaked street below. It had been more panic than calculated swipe. A clumsy, last-ditch thrash; but frankly, this girl had the luck of the devil. For one, she’d hit him with her eyes closed.
Drayvex felt his eyes narrow, fresh suspicions emerging. He found himself studying the human with growing intrigue. It was then that he noticed what was around her neck.
It looked like a piece of jewellery: a ruby teardrop enshrouded in a delicate silver webbing. It hung on a worn leather cord, with the surrounding silver lattice pulled back on either side to reveal the gleaming face of the stone. The darker line running through the centre gave it the distinct look of an eye. Its slit pupil stared out at the world into which its power bled.
It looked like a pendant, but Drayvex knew better. He stared at the stone in revelation. It was unbelievable.
As the girl walked away with her life, his demon was long gone. Drayvex made a mental note to punish the worthless ingrate. If he'd wanted to be followed, he would have told someone he was leaving.
The pulsing presence lingered in his mind long after her absence.
Old notions of ambition seduced him where he stood. A venture like this would prove to be the best kind of distraction. The kind that would produce hard results.
Bringing up his hands, he studied the curved, black tips of his fingers. These would have to go.
Drayvex clenched his hands into tight fists, and then unclenched them, flexing his fingers anew. He examined the blunt human nails that had taken the place of his claws. Their subtle black sheen was the only thing that gave away his disguise.
His tongue wandered over an array of pointed teeth, and their tips dulled and shrank under its touch. The Lapis Vitae. He, like many others, had assumed that such a powerful object could never be outside the mythos of its own existence. Now that he had seen it for himself, he could confirm that it was everything it claimed to be and more.
The corners of his mouth lifted as he considered his fortunate position. He would do whatever it took to possess it.
The words that sprung to mind were ‘mangled cat’.
Ruby’s feet pounded the puddle-riddled pavements, explosions of water erupting around her. She sucked in breath after ragged breath, the chill catching at the back of her throat with each gasp.
It was one thing to run from danger, to flee for your life; it was another thing entirely to flee from a thing without quite knowing why.
Ruby’s heart pounded in her chest. Curiosity buzzed within her like a trapped insect. It was large enough to be a dog, yet its features were distinctly feline. Clumps of fur were missing from its twisted torso and bones jutted out at odd angles, as though someone had pulled the poor animal apart and rebuilt it using the most basic of instructions.
As a child, she had possessed a wonderful knack for finding trouble, often in the most unexpected of places. Now as an adult, the only thing that had changed was that Ruby often found it on purpose.
Her footsteps echoed around her; the sounds magnified tenfold within the enclosed passageway. She knew this village and its secrets inside out. Maybe she could lose the cat if she—
A sharp blow to the middle of her back cut her musing dead.
Ruby gasped, the impact pushing her forward. She stumbled, adrenaline kicking in, and grabbed out at the wall beside her. Her palms dragged across the stone as she caught herself, its rough surface biting into her flesh. Her body reeling, she glanced up.
A jolt shot through her.
The animal was blocking her path. Its sinister silhouette, with its misshapen edges, was unmistakable.
A strong gust rolled down the cobbled passageway, throwing cold rain against her back. Ruby shivered and shrunk into her jacket, bracing herself against the spray. If she stopped running, what was the worst it could do to her?
Soggy ribbons of unnatural red hair tumbled out of her hood, the damp strands sticking to the sides of her face as it fell free. Those teeth alone could cause some real damage.
Stomach churning, she squinted past the cat. The hazy glow of the corner shop winked at her from the other side of the passage, an odd guiding light in the middle of the murk. People. She needed to surround herself with people.
Breathing through her nose, Ruby steeled herself. She would charge at it and catch it off guard. Then, she would vault straight over its head and make a break for the store.
But as her eyes fell back upon the cat, she started.
She hadn’t seen it move, hadn’t even registered its presence, yet there it was, almost close enough to stretch out and touch. Its twisted body was flat to the floor, yellow eyes fixed on her.
Ruby squinted through the unrelenting rain at the creature, and it stared back. Its muddy eyes were large and round, and glowed in the evening dusk.
An instinctual tingle shivered through her. As its lips rolled back into a silent snarl, she noticed its teeth. Its lips stretched back, contorting beyond what was cat-like.
The sound of the persistent rain was like white noise in her stuck mind. Licking her lips, she squeezed her eyes shut. Blinked. As she returned to the smiling cat, they widened. No, smiling didn’t do it justice. It was full-on grinning at her.
Ruby stepped back in slow motion, a soft undercurrent of fear oozing through her blood. Her hand gravitated towards her jacket pocket, to the comforting weight of the flick knife, and paused.
The animal bared its teeth in a silent hiss. Then, it sprang.
Ruby screwed her eyes shut in a knee-jerk reaction. A breathy scream escaped from her lips, body tensing for the painful impact.
Her hand closed around the handle and reflex gave way to instinct. That instinct demanded that she fight back.
Still with her eyes closed, Ruby tugged the flick knife from her pocket. She yanked the small blade vertical and slashed out at the space in front of her in one jerking movement.
Her heart sank at the pathetic display. Knife or not, she was not a badass.
When she felt the blade connect, she almost dropped it. A terrible hissing swung off to the left. A warm dampness, a contrast to the icy rain, spattered her fingers.
Ruby’s eyes flew open. Heart in her throat, she searched the passageway, frantically spinning.
She stopped and breathed out. The knife slipped from her fingers, clattering to the ground. Dark speckles dotted the stones at her feet. She’d hit it. Numb, Ruby lifted her hand and studied her fingers. Black.
Her sluggish mind twitched, coming back to life. She’d really hit it, and its blood was … black?
Heart pounding with the euphoric sensation of being alive, Ruby gazed down the passage towards the hazy lights of civilisation. The cat-shaped thing was gone. And now, like it or not, she would never know its secrets.
Drayvex tracked the pulsing entity to a dilapidated building a short way away. Its outdated roof was thatched, and positioned in gold lettering above the door were the words, ‘The Golden Spoke’. In the event that one couldn’t read a simple sign, wedged into the ground in front was a large, golden wheel.
He scoffed as he approached the door, his steaming skin ebbing as he stepped under the small alcove out of the rain. Humans were predictable to a fault, with their habits and their rituals. Their fear of rejection made them weak and dispensable, and inferior. This was a common opinion among demonkind.
A less common viewpoint—one that involved thinking outside the rather battered box your average knucklehead demon clung to with extreme prejudice—was that at their worst, humanity wasn’t so far removed from demonkind at all. Greedy, selfish, violent. Oozing with lust. Rotten at their core. Acknowledging these ties to a species that was best served raw and wriggling was just too much for some.
Drayvex frequently walked that fine line. He violated every rule when he world-hopped on the sly, abandoning his morals to indulge in the simple, sordid pleasures humanity had conjured to keep themselves buzzing in this dismal life. And when he was done, he slipped back into the vicious world that had spat him out and smiled as though he’d never left.
Regardless, he knew how to get what he wanted from these people—specifically, from the girl with his prize. He pushed against the door and stepped over the threshold. This would be child’s play.
The girl was sitting alone at the far end of the dim tavern. As before, his eyes were drawn to the stone that dangled at her throat, to its steady sway as she shifted in her seat. As it moved, the air around it rippled and distorted in distracting ways.
The Lapis Vitae. The stone of life. Its power was absolute, sought out by weaklings and powerhouses alike for one reason: it made the claimant untouchable.
Drayvex ran his tongue along the tops of his pitiful human teeth, resisting the change as his fangs fought to emerge in the presence of the stone. The claiming of a Lapis Vitae was more than a one-off power surge; it was a contract. Once sealed, it protected its owner with unflinching loyalty.
The only way it could safely change hands was if the current owner discarded it or died with it. This made it almost impossible to steal.
Drayvex smiled, feeling his ego swell in anticipation of a challenge. Persuading her to cooperate would be simple. Whatever she loved, he could track it down and break it piece by piece until she begged him to take the stone off her hands. Child’s play indeed.
It was too simple. No, he could think of an even better way to get what he wanted. A method worthy of his time. He tore his eyes away from the stone, and with great reluctance, made himself look at the girl.
She was petite, with a slight frame and bottle green eyes. Her hair fell down her back in a soggy cascade, its rich burgundy sheen a stark contrast against her anaemic complexion. The small stud in her nose, along with the unnatural shade of her locks, appeared to be her small attempt at human individuality. There was something about the way she held herself that made her seem older than she looked. Drayvex narrowed his eyes as he drank her in. Her body language hinted at insecurity, but her sullen pout said, ‘bite me’.
As far as humans went, this one would be easy to manipulate. Maybe, when he was done with her, he would devour her. He smirked in response to that last thought and slipped across the room towards her.
The girl was oblivious to his presence as he approached her table. Despite having just battled a demon, she’d already dropped her guard.
He pulled out the chair opposite her, allowing the legs to scrape against the hard-wood floor, and sat down uninvited.
She glanced up at the sound, a smile forming on her lips. It slipped when she saw him.
She was expecting someone. Drayvex folded his arms and lounged back in the chair, making himself comfortable. He gazed at her with open curiosity, picking her apart.
The girl stared back with big eyes. As her blatant surprise morphed into something resembling the suspicion he’d expected, she pulled back from the table, her mouth setting into a sullen line. The corners turned down in the smallest of movements.
Drayvex could almost hear the cogs grinding inside her head as she looked him up and down, her attempts at subtlety falling short. He smirked, careful once again not to trigger the natural sharpening of his human stumps into fangs. It was harder than it should have been.
She broke the silence.
“Can I help you?” The tension was audible in the tightness of her voice. She lifted a hand to twirl a lock of hair around her index finger. A nervous habit?
Drayvex didn’t immediately answer, allowing the moment to stretch and distort. A candle flickered in the centre of the glass-strewn table, throwing patches of moving shadow across her unblinking face. The living darkness at her throat throbbed.
When he was satisfied that he'd got under her skin, he leaned forward, resting an arm on the table between them. “Maybe you can.”
He smiled, catching and holding her gaze, confident of his abilities. She may be physically untouchable, but Drayvex knew that there was more than one way to crack a nut. She was, after all, only human.
The girl lost her focus for the briefest of moments, her serious mouth falling slack, before bouncing back to its previous shape. She sat upright in one movement, her spine pressing into the padded back of the bench. The stone bounced against her chest and fell still.
“Are you looking for someone?” she asked.
The air around it thrummed. His demon blood screamed in his veins. His teeth throbbed.
Searching for a distraction, Drayvex looked down and noticed again the array of glasses on the table between them. He snagged a stray bottle cap and rolled it between two fingers.
“No.” Hearing the new edge to his voice, he blocked out the stone’s influence and continued. “I was wondering why you’re drinking for two. Are we drowning our problems in whisky?”
The girl gaped at him, her small eyebrows raising, as though every pint-sized human drank this way. Maybe they did. Or maybe he was simply the first to call her out on a bad habit.
“Excuse you?” She moved in to grip the table. “What did you—”
As she leaned in, her arm collided with her current drink, sending it straight off the edge. She gasped and swiped for the glass, her delayed reactions not unlike those of an inebriated troll.
Making a conscious effort not to blur, Drayvex moved with preternatural reflexes. He produced the sloshing glass and placed it back on the varnished surface, sliding it towards her with the push of a finger.
The girl veered to catch it.
“Good save.” She laughed once. The sound had a warmth to it, and he found himself wondering how often she genuinely used it. “Thanks. God, I’m a klutz.”
Drayvex leaned forward, letting the table take a portion of his weight. Ignoring her gratitude, he picked up the discarded cap and span it on the tabletop. “Have you been stood up?”
She blinked. “Stood up?” She laughed again, this time without warmth. “No. I prefer my own company.” Her eyes danced to the side of the room and then back. “Not that it’s any of your business.”
As he watched her stare at an interesting patch of wall, it was obvious that she thought she could lie to him. However, he didn’t find it hard to believe that she preferred to be alone. “That so?” he murmured, using his mind to spin the cap. “Well, then you must be good company.” He let it wobble and drop.
Drayvex turned and clocked the tall, ginger mop bobbing towards their table.
“Ruby!” The mop stopped to hover behind Drayvex’s left shoulder. “How are you, girl? Haven’t seen you in ages.”
The girl visibly cringed as the boy fixed his attention on her, something that Drayvex took an odd iota of pleasure in watching. “Gary,” she said, sounding resigned. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“You wanna join us? We’re over in the other corner.” The level of hope his voice projected was pathetic.
Drayvex watched the girl named Ruby flounder as the human named Gary mouth-breathed down the back of his neck. Then, after what looked like a fair amount of effort on her part, she smiled back.
“Actually, I—” She paused mid-sentence. Her gaze fell on Drayvex from across the table. “I’m here with someone. Sorry.” Her eyes pleaded with him. She didn’t look sorry.
Drayvex bit down on his lip, fighting to conceal a smirk. He glanced up at the full-length mirror on the wall opposite and studied the boy.
His beady eyes were gawking down, as if he’d just noticed Drayvex sitting there. His clenched fists told a different story. With the red clouds blooming on his cheeks and the indignant bulge of his eyes, he look as though he’d just been slapped.
Drayvex bristled, his irritation overriding his previous amusement in watching the girl squirm. I’d be happy to slap you, he thought, but I won’t stop there. Ignoring the weed, he focused on the girl as she communicated with him using subtle-as-sledgehammer eye gestures. He rewarded her with a smirk. Okay, I’ll bite.
“Gary,” he drawled.
It took the boy a moment to reply. “Who are you?”
Drayvex smiled without humour. Then, he rose to his feet and turned to face the boy. “I’m busy.” He met the boy’s gaze and straightened, matching him in height. “In fact, we're both busy. Ruby and I have a lot to talk about, and you’re holding us back.”
Drayvex moved in closer, putting his mouth next to Gary's ear. “Later,” he murmured, allowing his voice to drop in both tone and volume, “we may not talk at all.” And just because he could, he winked.
Gary’s flaming face glowed as he stared back over at Ruby. She smiled at him, giving him a semi-apologetic shrug that was vague enough to confirm anything Drayvex could have possibly said. It was the final note in a short-lived, ginger opus.
As the boy turned and skulked away, Drayvex smirked, amused at how easy it had been to bait the boy.
Humans really were a cinch.