♛ prologue: one year ago ♛
Among all the boys Mother brought from Beyond-the-Veil, Donghyuck likes Mark the most. Mark is clever, hard-working, and genuinely good at everything he does, be it cleaning around the mansion, feeding the hounds, or attending to Mother’s insatiable hunger. Donghyuck’s Mother kind of likes him too - usually, but not always. Mark sometimes glares, talks back, he’s also self-righteous and stubborn, in an illogical, almost cute way that has Mother clicking her tongue and delivering punishment but that makes Donghyuck snort under his breath. A few times Mark catches him doing that. He doesn’t look away, he holds Donghyuck’s gaze until he leaves the room. Brave, endearingly stupid.
Donghyuck slips into the punishment room, that night. He doesn’t say anything, just looks at Mark. Mark looks back, covered in his own blood, tired, in pain. Unbroken. Donghyuck leaves there a jug full of water and waits for Mark to finish drinking before he takes it away so Mother won’t know. They don’t talk - they will the next time, but this time they don’t. This is how it begins.
♛ one ♛
Mark is brave and endearingly stupid and tragically, heartbreakingly naive. He’s quick to talk to Donghyuck like they’re equals and holds a mean grudge when Donghyuck doesn’t do the same for him. Donghyuck indulges him, sometimes, and what he gets is something no one else gets. Mark’s true smiles, his witty words, the way he rubs the back of his neck as he talks about the things he likes, his old life Beyond-the-Veil, the family he’ll never see again. He whistles songs sometimes, for Donghyuck and Donghyuck only. This, Mother will never know. This, Mother cannot ever know.
“Don’t you have a father?” Mark asks once. “How were you born?”
“Certainly not out of love. Mother ate all of her husbands before they could put a baby inside her.”
It’s Mark’s turn to laugh, even if it comes a little choked and nervous.
“Why don’t I find it that surprising?”
They’re sitting on the window of a room full of scary cursed paintings Mark has no permission to touch and Donghyuck likes to tickle until they whisper profanities at him, taloned hands coming out of the canvas to claw at his wrists. He bleeds black when they manage to get him. Donghyuck’s Mother hates the paintings, but they’re both artifacts of great power and gifts from demons more powerful than her that she can’t throw away, so she keeps them locked in that crampy, dusty room on top of the northern tower. Mark taught Donghyuck how to pick locks three days into their tentative friendship and that’s how they found a place safe from her. The paintings do scare Mark, Donghyuck can see it in his body language every time he has to walk in front of them, but Mother never comes here so they’re safe.
“Mother went on a rampage a few years ago,” Donghyuck explains, swinging his legs over the edge of the window. “She had cravings, apparently. Killed every single person in the household. When she was done, she was so powerful she could’ve taken out one of the Demon Lords herself. Instead, she gave birth to me.”
“Did she want to?” Mark asks, in the end. “To have you, I mean.”
Donghyuck looks down, at the dead rosebush that surrounds the mansion like a shackle keeping it in place. The roses have black petals and red leaves and thorns made to kill rather than to impress. The last time one of the boys tried to run away the roses ate him whole, didn’t even leave bones behind. Mother only sighed and commented that it was a pity they could not teach the fence how to give the boys back alive.
“I never asked,” he confesses. “But given how she treats me, no, I don’t think she did. I just think she wasn’t strong enough to control all that power and then I happened.”
“Just like that?”
Mark blinks, struggling to come to terms with something as simple as being born out of power. Donghyuck wants to gently scold him, because everyone knows that’s how demons originally came to be. Out of sheer power and will to survive.
“Just like that,” Donghyuck answers, shrugging. He doesn’t like the way Mark’s words make him feel. Scary, alien. Inexplicable. That’s how he is, but that’s not how he wants Mark to see him. His displeasure must show up on his face because Mark lands a shy hand on his leg, something that is probably meant to be reassuring but almost hurts Donghyuck in its simplicity.
Mark’s touch is awkward, his palm sweaty and rigid against Donghyuck’s thigh, but it still makes Donghyuck’s blood run wilder, shaking in his veins, charged with restless energy. Donghyuck closes his eyes, sees the purple sky painted on his eyelids. No one ever touched him before Mark. Probably only Mother, when she let him out in this world. But Mark sometimes curls an arm around Donghyuck’s back or leans against his shoulder or brushes his fingers against Donghyuck’s. His body speaks a language Donghyuck doesn’t know how to decipher, and he can only wonder about its real meaning. Even now, he can only sigh, quietly, as Mark’s fingers dig in the soft flesh of his thigh, the pressure coming more from nerves than real intention. Donghyuck wants to shuffle closer and curl around Mark like the hounds sometimes do, whine for his attention. Somewhere in the house, a bell rings. Mark takes his hand back as if burned.
“Fuck, I need to go. I’m on duty tonight.”
Donghyuck lets him leave. He feels Mark’s fingerprints burn on his thigh. He wonders how they would feel anywhere else.
♛ two ♛
Except for the bell calling the slaves into Mother’s room, marking the time of peace and pain, the mansion is always silent. The roses love their peace and quiet, get nervous when it’s too loud, so all the boys quickly learn to whisper even when they’re talking to each other, to tiptoe through the corridors and hold the doors until they click back into place. They are probably scared of the rosebush almost as much as they’re scared of Donghyuck’s mother, and Donghyuck doesn’t blame them. Donghyuck’s mother is hungry but she’s at least capable of rational thought. The rosebush is just hungry.
That’s why it surprises him when Yunho barges into his room slamming the door open later that night. The boys are not terrified of Donghyuck as they are of his mother - or the roses - but they don’t like to talk to him either. It must be the horns, he realizes, or the reddish glint in his eyes. Donghyuck is Uninitiated, as powerless as a human, but his demon heritage is clear like the magic that sometimes cracks through the Veil, unleashing thunderstorms over the Dead Lands. He doesn’t have his mother’s wings, but he has his mother’s eyes, her cruel mouth, the same curved horns. Mark probably got used to it, or he just pretends not to be bothered, but the other boys usually avoid Donghyuck like the plague.
So Yunho, big guy, big hands, quick to follow orders, the kind Mother likes the most, crashes in Donghyuck’s room panting, and says - says, not whispers - “Mark is not waking up,” and Donghyuck’s heart would fall if he had one. He doesn’t - black blood, no heartbeat, just trapped magic, greed, want in his veins. Donghyuck is young and Uninitiated, nothing more than a pet for the mother who never wanted him, but he’s still a demon and he doesn’t have a heart, so his heart doesn’t fall.
“Why did you come to me?” he asks, keeping his voice even.
And he sees it, the instinct, the way Yunho’s body tenses, ready to punch him. He would hit Donghyuck if he could. He can’t.
“Because, before he left, he begged me to come and find you if something happened to him. You must come. If he dies now, you’ll never see him again.”
Oh, Mark, so perceptive, so good at reading through Donghyuck’s lies, inside his black and purple eyes. If he dies, Donghyuck will never see him again. And demons don’t have hearts, so Donghyuck doesn’t have a name for the part of him that is hurting right now, squeezed raw, he doesn’t have a name for this feeling because demons can’t feel anything.
“How long was he with her?” he asks, softly, as he follows Yunho through the dark corridors.
“Three hours. Longer than usual. She’s not done, though. Haknyeon is inside with her now.”
Good, Donghyuck thinks. Haknyeon is one of her favorites. And he’s been here for less than Mark. He can feed her without dying. But Mark… Mark has been here for too long. Three years of the world Beyond-The-Veil. And he’s one of her favorites. She’s taken her sweet time sucking him dry. He resisted for so long. Once he said he did it for Donghyuck and Donghyuck did not find the words to answer.
Donghyuck purses his lips and tightens his fists so hard his claws dig into his palms as he follows Yunho through the mansion, into one of the crowded rooms where Mother’s boys sleep all together, cramped, like cattle. A bunch of them is standing around a bed, and the feeling Donghyuck can’t name grows restless and ugly and he lets out a sick, angry sound. When they see Donghyuck, all the boys step aside, leaving only Mark, lying on that bed, barely conscious, his neck covered in hickeys, his face pale, eyes and lips purplish, hands trembling imperceptibly.
Donghyuck sits down next to him and takes his hand, holds him tight between his own, and Mark’s eyes flutter open at that. It takes a moment for him to be able to focus on Donghyuck. When he does, he attempts a smile. He fails.
“Your mom is insatiable,” he says, weakly.
Donghyuck sighs and squeezes Mark’s hand.
“You won’t be able to see her another time, Mark.”
Finally, Mark manages to stretch out a smile.
“Well, I will have to see her one last time. But I’m afraid I won’t be able to see you again when she’s done with me.”
Donghyuck moves Mark’s damp hair away from his forehead with a gentleness he didn’t know he could muster.
“Is that why you asked for me? You wanted to see me?”
The other boys keep their distance, but Donghyuck can feel their eyes on them. They listen. He doesn’t care if they judge, he holds Mark’s hand tighter.
“You know I can’t save you, Mark. I never could.”
Mark nods. He knows. Everyone knows. The only son of the Queen Succubus of the demon world is nothing like a hindrance to her. She wouldn’t listen to him. If he asked her to spare Mark’s life, she would kill him out of spite. Not that there’s a lot left to kill in him.
“Come on,” Donghyuck says. “Get up.”
“You know I can’t.”
“Oh, you can. Get up you fool. Get up. Eat. You need to eat. You’ll die if you don’t eat.”
Mark closes his eyes.
“I’d rather die here, holding your hand, than going back in there one more time. I’m so tired, Donghyuck.”
Donghyuck closes his eyes too. The room is silent. It stays silent until Mark falls asleep again. He didn’t die today, but he won’t last another week. They all know. That’s the destiny that awaits all the boys who crowd the dungeon of the mansion of the Queen Succubus, to feed her, again and again, and to die for her, and to be replaced by other boys foolish enough to fall for her spell.
When Donghyuck opens his eyes again, the room is still silent, the other boys are still waiting for him to leave. Mark’s breathing is labored, faint.
“Make sure he eats,” he says, careful not to look at any of them in the eyes. “Put him back on his feet.”
“Will you let him die?” Chan asks - the first time he dares to speak to Donghyuck, but Donghyuck is not in the mood for any talk, either big or small.
“Keep him alive. Just do that.”
♛ three ♛
It is two long nights before Mark can get up and walk again. Donghyuck sees him dragging himself around the mansion as he waits for the call that will end his life, the bell of life and death. Mother bids her time - Mark is one of her favorites, after all, and she wants to have him all for herself one last time. Donghyuck lights up a candle, the fire a blue glow against his fingers as he protects it from the cold drafts with his palm, and sneaks into the painting room and looks at the dark sky, the neverending night of the Dead Lands. Soon, they will glitter with light. After Mark’s death, the Veil will part again so that the Queen can go on the other side and seduce another boy, lure him into her reign of darkness.
The door softly clicks open. Mark’s cold feet don’t make any noise on the cold stone.
“How did she appear to you?” Donghyuck asks Mark, when the other boy joins him at the window.
“An academy senior. A little older than me. She had a ponytail. We assigned to the same patrol team…” He clicks his tongue. “The fact that no one even recognized her is so fucking dumb. I can’t believe the summoners were so blind.”
Donghyuck has only a vague idea of what summoners are, and the reality of the academy Mark is talking about is quite obscure to him. He nods because he doesn’t know what to say.
“I’ve heard she takes the form her victim likes the most.”
That makes Mark frown, and then he scoffs.
“That’s… fucking funny.”
“Well, I didn’t really like her form. Never did. I don’t really know what compelled me to follow her home. As today, I still wonder.”
That makes Donghyuck genuinely confused. “You don’t like her? I thought it was, you know, part of the spell. Once you taste her, you can’t get enough.” He waves his hands in the air awkwardly, and Mark leans over to catch one of them.
“I feel desire for her - that is part of the spell - but no, I don’t really like her. The more time I spend with her, the less I like her. And she knows. She doesn’t really like it. I think that’s why she’s trying to finish me off.”
Mark stares into the distance and doesn’t notice Donghyuck’s dumbfounded face. He’s still holding one of Donghyuck’s hands.
“You’re resisting her spell? You’re… Do you have any idea how… How powerful she is? You’re…”
“I’m amazing, I know.” Mark’s eyebrows shoot up. His lips curl into a smug smile. “Mark Lee, strong enough to break a Queen’s spell. And what have you done in the last two centuries?”
Donghyuck tries to hit him with his free hand because he’s a brat. Mark huffs and catches that too, holds Donghyuck’s wrists tight enough to hurt and stills, unsure of what to do, and for a moment they’re not a human slave and a demon fledgling sitting on the edge of a window that dives into a bush of man-eating roses, for a moment they’re two boys sitting on the edge of a kiss.
Donghyuck licks his lips nervously and Mark’s eyes are drawn to it, his hold on Donghyuck’s wrists loosening as he instinctively falls into him.
That’s when the bell rings.
Mark’s eyes widen, his expression dramatically sharp in the blue light of the candles. Normally, he would let go of Donghyuck and scamper away. This time, he doesn’t. He looks down. They’re not on top of the tower, but there’s at least eight floors of gravity between them and the roses, and Mark looks mesmerized. He holds tighter on Donghyuck’s wrists, as if he was begging for Donghyuck to keep him from falling - as if he wasn’t the one who looks ready to jump.
“I’m not coming back there,” he murmurs, and Donghyuck knows he means it. He’s spent the last days carefully considering the weight of this awareness, trying to decide what to do with it. Not that he really has a choice this time.
“No,” Donghyuck murmurs, as he shakes his left until Mark lets go of it, only to lace their fingers together instead. He carefully climbs down onto the cold floor, taking Mark with him, and picks up the candle, casting blue ghosts onto the dark walls. “No, you aren’t.”
♛ four ♛
They’re almost at the front door when the paintings start screaming, a piercing sound, nails on glass, nails on blackboards, high enough to shatter glass. When Donghyuck looks up, he can see the shape of the window burning like a supernova stuck in the walls of the tower, licks of blue flames dancing from the edge like curtains of fire. When they step into the garden, the paintings are angry, but the roses are furious.
“Wait, Donghyuck,” Mark cowers, as he tries to put his foot down, eyeing the hissing, clicking mess that is the rosebush. The whole fence shakes in rage, but Mark shakes harder, in fear. Yet Donghyuck pulls, unrelenting.
“Don’t you dare stop, we only have a few moments before she realizes what we’re doing.”
“They’ll eat us alive!”
Donghyuck ignores Mark. He holds tight as he jumps among the vines, dragging the reluctant boy with him. He ignores the bite of thorns on his forearms, cheekbones, on his calves and ankles, he ignores the pang of guilt in his heart as he thinks of what his mother could do to the other boys in retaliation - as he thinks of all the boys she killed under his bored gaze, all the boys she will kill in the future. This time, if he gets ger angry enough, she might try to kill him too. Let her try, then. He pushes forward.
“Shut up and don’t stop! They’re focused on the house, they won’t even see us if we go quickly!”
Despite his worst fears, Mark doesn’t protest further, he doesn’t ask to come back for the others, he doesn’t hesitate. He follows Donghyuck under the labyrinth of angry vines, holds back his cries when the thorns tear at his skin and clothes.
Donghyuck heads towards the back gate and follows the wall until he finds a small hole in the ground. A boy once ran away from there, and Donghyuck told Mother the roses had eaten him. His name was Hansol, and he was the only one who ever got away. Donghyuck wonders if he survived long among the desolated, naked rocks of the Dead Lands, he wonders if he died happier than he was under Mother’s care. But what matters is that there’s a way to get out, and Donghyuck hurries Mark to go before him, follows him immediately after. The roses are not longer hissing but screaming, he realizes, as he crawls on the ground under the old stone. Mother must have come out to look for them. Oh, but they’re furious, they will not let her through. They have time. They still have time.
“Come on,” he says, panting, once they’re on the other side. He takes Mark’s hand in his own again. “There, on the hills. We have to be quick, there are creatures on these lands, and I cannot keep them from killing us.”
“Where will we go? The Veil is closed.”
Donghyuck shakes his head.
“The Veil will open, Mother prepared for it in advance. She knew you would die today. When a boy dies, another must take his place. She was getting ready to cross.”
Something shakes in Mark at his words, but Donghyuck doesn’t give him the time to be angry - it’s unfair, of course it’s unfair, but they’re running for their lives and there’s no time for Mark’s little righteousness. He leads him up the hill, through the fields of dead, pearlescent grass that surrounds the mansion. Its spikes are almost as tall as the both of them, and they run crouching so that not even the top of their heads can be seen. The rocks are harsh and unforgiving on their naked feet, the cuts left by the roses are bleeding open, and Donghyuck’s lungs burn from the effort of actually doing something instead of lounging around the house. His body is weak, hollow of power. He doesn’t have his Mother’s superhuman strength, the magic running through his veins is still inert, he cannot fight. Yet, he decided to save Mark’s life. This is not a resolution he can back off from. So he pushes forward.
“Here,” he murmurs, once they reach the top of the hill. The wind whips his face, makes tears glisten in his demon eyes, and shakes the tall grass, drawing silvery waves on the weightless blades. Donghyuck lets go of Mark’s hand and the boy collapses on the spot. “Here is going to be fine.”
“Won’t she find us? She just has to come where the Veil will open to find us.”
Donghyuck shakes his head. He drops down next to Mark, lets the grass close around him under the red sky.
“And how do you know?”
Donghyuck points down, at the bottom of the hill, towards the house. Even from up there, they can see the rosebush shaking.
“They won’t let her through. Too angry. Not even Mother can go through that unscathed.”
“She’s a queen.”
“Queen of what? That’s a title she gave herself. The Queen Succubus of the West Gate,” Donghyuck scoffs, “protected by her impenetrable rose fence. What a fucking joke.”
“What do you mean?”
Mark blinks at him in confusion.
“The roses have been there long before Mother was even born. Long before humans ever happened on the other side of the Veil, when it was just thorns and vines in your land. Demons’ true form is just power, we just take a human form, it makes us more appealing. More complex. But back then there were no humans.”
“Wait, the rosebush is a demon?”
“One of the first demons, a primordial creature. It doesn’t even have a sliver of consciousness, as far as I know. It doesn’t care about my mother and it certainly doesn’t want to protect her. Mother can barely keep it from eating her too. It seems to be a fucking family tradition.”
“She’s its daughter. She was born in there, from the vines. Not that it matters, to either the roses or her. It certainly doesn’t matter to me.”
Mark swallows. Donghyuck wonders if he understands. Probably not fully, but it’s going to be enough. He doesn’t need to understand how things work here, he just needs to get away.
“Will we make it?” Mark asks..
“Well, Mother is going to have to fight the cursed painting and the roses. It might take her hours. The Veil will definitely open before that happens”
“What about the others? What if she takes it out on them?”
Donghyuck takes a moment to answer. It’s different, for him. He knows Mark cares, he knows what care is because he talked to Mark. That doesn’t mean he can feel it as if it was his own.
“I can’t save the others, Mark. I was barely able to save you.”
Mark doesn’t answer for a long time. Donghyuck doesn’t try to talk either.
“Will the Veil just… open? And then what? We walk through it?” Mark asks in the end.
Donghyuck looks up. The sky above him is starless, and the moon is red, bloody and alluring. The grass around them shivers. It’s always been there, and it will always be there, unchanging, unchanged. Nothing grows on the Dead Lands, nothing beautiful at least. Donghyuck makes no exception.
“Well, you walk through it. I cannot.”
♛ five ♛
It’s not their first fight, and the least Donghyuck can do is make sure it’s the last.
“I’m not going without you,” Mark says, and Donghyuck laughs in his face.
“You are though. I didn’t put myself through all of this only for you to die out of stubbornness.”
“I’m not going without you,” Mark repeats. “She will kill you if you come back.”
“No, she won’t.”
“Why wouldn’t she? She doesn’t care about you, she never wanted you.”
“Good thing she didn’t,” he shoots back. “Look at what she does to the people she wants.”
Mark sneers and pushes him. Donghyuck pushes back. Normally, he would give up first. He knows Mark’s patience is thin, his pride thick enough to break instead of bending. This time, though, this time he cannot let Mark win.
“So, you’re ready to leave all your human friends behind to save yourself,” he hisses, “but me, the demon, is where you decide to draw the line?”
Mark freezes. It hurts. It’s a little satisfying to see it on his face, the satisfaction to hit the target so flawlessly, but then his hurt turns into anger.
“Fuck you, Donghyuck. Fuck you.”
His hands fall at his side weakly.
“Everyone will die there,” Mark murmurs, “and you want me to lose you too. What am I going back for?”
“To live. To start again. I don’t know! I don’t know what it’s like on the other side.” Donghyuck takes a step back. He feels as defeated as Mark sounds. He doesn’t want to end this with a fight. He just wants Mark to touch him again before he leaves. “I can’t cross with you, Mark. It just… it doesn’t work like that. I’m a demon. It’s not my place.”
“Some demons live on the other side.”
“Yes they do, as slaves,” Donghyuck answers.
“I was a slave for the past three years,” Mark says, and they both wince at that. It’s the meanest Mark has ever been to him, and if Donghyuck wasn’t feeling so hurt he would feel almost proud of Mark. He’s always so soft, too soft.
“And who would ever want me, even as a slave? You? It doesn’t work like that, Mark. In the thin eventuality they don’t kill me on sight, any summoner would soon realize I never had an initiation and I have no potential for magic whatsoever.”
Mark bites his bottom lip. He wants to say something dumb, Donghyuck hopes he doesn’t, but of course he does.
“Then what? You go back, and if you don’t die you’ll be forced to stay there, with your moher, and watch her kill people like me forever? Is that what your life will ever amount to? Don’t you want to be something more, something better?”
He looks so wronged out, so insulted on Donghyuck’s behalf. It’s lovely that someone would ever feel so much for Donghyuck. It’s lovely, because Mark was the first person who made Donghyuck feel something.
“I never wanted to be better, I never cared enough for that. Demons don’t want to be better, Mark, the only thing they ever want is to survive. But I don’t even care about that anymore. I just want you to survive, is that too much to ask? Can’t you just do this one thing for me?”
Mark doesn’t answer. He shakes his head and takes a step back, away from Donghyuck. He looks up at the sky, taking a deep breath. The dead grass of the hill flutters under his palms. They seem to have reached an impasse. Donghyuck doesn’t know what to do, what to say, how to convince him. He never did anything like this in his life. This, too, is a gift.
“No one ever touched me before you did,” he blurts out, and that surprises Mark, makes his frown falter for a moment.
“What?” he asks. Donghyuck uses the split moment of surprise to take both Mark’s hands in his own. They’re warm, and even though Mark doesn’t seem to know what to do with them, his touch feels nice. Donghyuck puts them on his shoulders, in what he’d like to be a very loose hug. He holds them there, not daring to touch Mark back.
“You’re the first person outside my Mother who talked to me, the first person who touched me. I never felt anything before you came, can you understand that? I never… I was like the roses, even less than the roses, they at least felt hunger, but I just existed. Endlessly. I didn’t even know I was hurting before you came along. You gave me so much, and I would follow you to the end of your stupid human world, Mark. But if I did, Mother would find us so easily. I’m her blood and flesh, she will always be able to find me. I can’t come with you, and I won’t come without you, either, so I will just stay here. Is that enough of a reason for you to leave me here?”
Oh, the look on Mark’s face. The devastation. Donghyuck would kiss it, if he knew how to.
“It’s not fair,” Mark says, only.
It is not, but that’s the demon world for you. It’s not in its nature to be fair.
Donghyuck gasps quietly when he feels Mark’s fingers close around his wrists, loosely. Mark’s hands creeps up, circling Donghyuck’s forearms, his elbows, until they settle on Donghyuck’s shoulders again, right where Donghyuck had put them, but this time they’re firmer, surer, thumbing down on his collarbones. It’s almost too much for Donghyuck, it’s more than Mark ever touched him, and he tries to take a step back, but Mark’s hands hold him in place.
“I want you to come with me,” Mark says, and Donghyuck can just stay still, paralyzed under his touch. Mark blinks as he realizes he might have the upper hand, and cups Donghyuck’s face. “I want... a way to make it work.”
There is no way. If just wishing could make things real, Donghyuck’s dreams would have lit up the sky a long time ago. Mark’s touch is featherlight against his throat and yet Donghyuck is choking.
“You don’t remember, but the first time I saw you I couldn’t even breathe. You told me your mother takes the form her victims like the most. But for me, she was never anything special,” Mark says, as his fingers smooth down the hair curling at Donghyuck’s nape, gently, almost reverently. “I spent a long time wondering how she managed to seduce me, because even though I did find her attractive, I really didn’t like her, you know? Every other boy is bound body and soul, they hate her and they love her at the same time, but I didn’t, and I never understood why until I saw you.”
He pulls a little on Donghyuck’s hair, and Donghyuck swallows, and it feels like Mark is drinking in the sight of it, memorizing every single breath for the future they won’t get to spend together.
“What about me?” Donghyuck asks, in a tiny voice, and Mark traces the curve of his face, his ears - Donghyuck shivers when Mark’s fingers grace his horns, so similar to his mother’s.
“You look so much like her, but somehow, even if I didn’t like her, I really fucking liked you, fell at first sight like a fool.” Mark smiles when Donghyuck gasps. “And then I realized that I didn’t fall for you because you look like her, I fell for her because she looked like you.”
There is nothing instinctive in the way Mark approaches him. It’s like, after three years being used, unable to say no, Mark wants to prove himself he can want something for himself, and he will get it. It’s slow and deliberate and full of purpose, and yet it still takes Donghyuck by surprise. When Mark finally leans in, Donghyuck makes a small, helpless sound. It dies against Mark’s lips like a droplet of water crashing against a cliff, dripping down after the crash to go back to the sea.
♛ six ♛
It is a farewell, Donghyuck realizes, as Mark licks into his mouth like he wants to steal away his taste, commit it to his memory so he can bring it back home. Donghyuck closes his eyes and tilts his head and lets him because he wants to remember too, even more than Mark. Mark will only have to remember for the next decades, but if Donghyuck survives he will have centuries to cherish this memory. And he needs it dearly. So he lets Mark push him down until there’s only grass around them, beneath, above, crouching over them in a featherlight, silvery flutter, until in the world there’s only dead silver grass and the red sky and Mark’s hands in Donghyuck’s hair, on his neck, dipping in the hollow of his collarbones or against the sharp jut of his hips, where the bone pushes against the skin. Donghyuck bucks into the touch, breathes deep - the air on this side of the Veil smells like smoke, but Mark still smells like Mark, in a way Donghyuck wouldn’t be able to describe but with Mark, Mark, Mark, and Donghyuck would like to take it home except it’s his home that’s running away with Mark.
Mark’s right hand brushes against the front of his pants and Donghyuck jolts, as he feels magic awaken inside him.
“Wait, wait,” he murmurs, “how do we know this is real? What if I’m just like my mother? What if I’m seducing you?” he asks, but Mark laughs in his left ear.
“That’s ridiculous and you know it.”
“It’s a legit concern, I don’t want to take advantage of-”
He yelps when Mark bites down on his neck. He feels it so deep in his core that he kicks helplessly, his body jerking, and that makes Mark laugh even more.
“It’ a dumb concern. You can’t use magic, plus you don’t have a single seducing bone in your body.”
“And yet here you are, utterly seduced.”
“Dear goodness Donghyuck, can you fucking shut up?” Mark whispers, and he kisses Donghyuck again, lays a hand in the middle of Donghyuck’s chest to feel the rising and falling of his lungs splayed under his fingers. There’s no heartbeat, but there’s Donghyuck’s quick, labored breathing, the way he swallows nervously and licks his lips, his whole body tightening in response to Mark’s touch.
“I must be crazy,” Mark mutters when he emerges from the kiss, lips wet-slick and puffy and shiny. “Falling in love with a fucking demon. Do you even know what love is, Donghyuck?”
The words alone are enough to take Donghyuck’s breath away, his chest expanding beyond the confines of his ribcage because there’s not enough air for him to answer.
“If I don’t know you can just teach me,” he exhales, quite too breathy to come off as taunting, “I’m a fast learner.”
“That you are,” Mark says, almost tenderly. His fingers come to rest on Donghyuck’s ribcage, while his mouth kisses the place where he bit down earlier. Donghyuck feels himself shaking, and it’s only when Mark stops kissing him and the shaking doesn’t stop that he realizes that it’s not him but everything else. Well, it’s him and everything else. The world quakes at the rhythm of the crazy beat in his chest, and it’s only when Mark stops touching him abruptly that the shaking stops. Donghyuck exhales nervously.
“Did you do that?” Mark asks. “I thought you didn’t do magic.”
Donghyuck doesn’t, he never did, but when Mark touches his skin something within him goes wild, something within him comes loose. It’s terrifying and fucking liberating.
“It’s me, but I don’t know how I’m doing it. I guess I’m finally presenting, after all.”
“My mother is a Succubus, what did you expect? Sex is what feeds us.” He whines, a little exasperated, when Mark draws back. The ground rumbles when he does. “Fuck, come back here. It hurts.”
It feels like being on the verge of being split apart, when you can’t go back to being whole but you’re fucking terrified of breaking. Will the remaining pieces be enough?
“What will happen to you after this?” Mark asks, cautiously rubbing Donghyuck’s cheek, and Donghyuck throws his head back and moans, trying to focus on words and not raw want.
“I don’t know,” he manages to mumble, “I guess I’ll just… awake? I’ll probably become an Incubus.”
“Because of me?” Mark asks, and panic bubbles in Donghyuck’s chest. He tries to pull Mark in, but he’s too afraid of disgusting him, so in the end he just pushes slightly against his chest to catch his attention.
“Would it bother you?” he asks, and he’s fucking terrified of the reply, but Mark doesn’t say yes, nor he does say no.
“Is it something I should care about? You becoming a demon, I mean. Would you come looking for me in the future?”
Donghyuck snorts. “You wish.”
“Oh, I do. Will you become like your mother?”
“She wishes,” Donghyuck replies through gritted teeth. But he is afraid - not of turning like his mother, but of Mark stopping. If Mark goes through with this, if he turns Donghyuck into a real Incubus, there will be consequences, there might be victims. Donghyuck doesn’t know, he has no idea, he can’t even make promises and he doesn’t care about promises. But Mark is different, he’s human. He cares about other people, he cares about responsibility and duty and doing what’s right, and Donghyuck has never been right.
Mark hesitates, going rigid on top of Donghyuck, as magic charges the air. Mark has always known about Donghyuck being a demon - and Donghyuck has always looked the part, in the red light in his eyes, the horns, the thick darkness of his blood - but to be the one who awakens his power... Donghyuck is not sure Mark has the guts to go through this. Donghyuck wants him to though, desperately.
“Don’t stop,” he begs again. “It hurts. If you stop now, I’ll die.”
He’s lying, he probably wouldn’t die, but he doesn’t know how to come back from this either. Everything pulses, his black blood racing in his veins as Mark looks down at him for a moment, teeth catching at his bottom lip. Something in Mark’s expression shifts and he kisses the top of Donghyuck's head. He’s shaking just as much as Donghyuck.
“I’ve got you,” Mark whispers, holding Donghyuck tight as he imprints himself into him.
And Mark has given so much of himself to Donghyuck, he gave him love and he gave him guilt, he gave him his stupid righteousness and his sense of moral and his idealism. But maybe, just maybe, Donghyuck also gave him something too. Just a little bit of selfishness, just enough that in this moment Mark can choose not to care what is right or wrong, just that he wants this last moment with Donghyuck, he wants it and he’ll get it, right before the end.
“Don’t worry, I got you,” he whispers again, right against Donghyuck’s temple, before he braces himself and kisses Donghyuck on the lips again.
♛ seven ♛
Donghyuck is a fast learner and Mark is an experienced lover. Where Mark gained that experience, Donghyuck doesn’t want to think about. He doesn’t want Mark to think about it either.
“Here,” he says, when Mark grimaces and his rhythm falters, “look at me, think only of me.”
He wants Mark to see him in every person he’ll be with from now on, and it’s only when Mark answers, “Don’t worry, I will,” that he realizes he’s said it out loud. Mark leans his forehead against Donghyuck’s as he rocks into him, gently, linking their fingers together, and Donghyuck looks up and the sky is slowly turning blue as the Veil starts parting, the curtains between the world getting thinner and translucent.The whole world looks drowned in water. It can’t be raining - it’s not water when it rains on this side of the Veil - but maybe it’s raining on the other side. Or maybe Donghyuck is just crying. Mark lays a kiss on his eyelids and hides in the crook of Donghyuck’s neck, gasps into it. Magic coils within Donghyuck, sparkling in his lower belly, and Donghyuck closes his eyes, hugs Mark tight, rides the waves coming from within him, from within Mark, crashing against each other like the sea at storm.
♛ eight ♛
Donghyuck’s birth wasn’t a mistake, that’s not how he chooses to see it. It was a consequence.
The thing is, demons are not big on reproduction. Humans do that, because their lifespan is limited, and they feel the atavic, desperate need to leave something of themselves behind. It is only natural. Humans want to live through their descendants. Demons just want to live. And they do live, for a long, long time, for demons do not die of age, they just keep existing until something strong enough wipes them off the surface of their tiny, merciless world. And in a world where the fight for the control of resources is a fight for survival, and it can last centuries, millennia, until the end of time, in the world of demons, descendants are not a legacy. They are competition.
Mother never wanted any competition, Donghyuck is quite sure of this. But a world without competition is a world without evolution, and a world that doesn’t evolve can only fade in ruin and decay. Nature cannot be stopped, it cannot be reined in. Nature happens on its own terms. And Mother, a thousand years old, a daughter of the first demons, wasn’t strong enough to withstand it.
Donghyuck’s birth was a consequence of her own greed, spending ages amassing a power she could not control - she would never be able to control. It was only natural that all that power would channel itself into something else, someone else.
(Donghyuck could feel it sometimes, all of that energy, all those lives she took. It floated lazily under his skin, dormant. Potential.)
Mark doesn’t look back as the Veil opens in front of him. Donghyuck can’t see him, but he knows he’s crying. He’s been crying for the past hour, clutching Donghyuck’s hand in silence as they waited. Donghyuck made him promise not to look back because he was too afraid Mark would refuse to leave if he did. Still, he does wait for Mark to look back right until the last moment, but Mark is a good boy. Brave and endearingly stupid and tragically, heartbreakingly naive, but the kind of boy who keeps his promises. He moves on, disappearing through the folds of the Veil, to a world that doesn’t welcome Donghyuck.
“You know I can always trace him back, don’t you? He’s mine, has always been and forever will be.”
Mother is angry. She’s tired too. All these centuries, they have started weighing on her recently. She always looked unbreakable, out of reach, but now fatigue, even disease, can be seen through the cracks of her composure. Donghyuck could not see them before, but the world now opens for him with untold stories, shimmering traces of power he could only imagine before Mark came and kissed them alight for him.
“He hasn’t been yours in a long time. He was mine, and I let him go,” he says, and Mother smiles. Her teeth are sharp, inhuman, her lips thin and hungry, so different from the plump lips Mark thought he was kissing. Donghyuck asked Mark to describe her appearance once, and quickly realized that they were seeing completely different things. Donghyuck never told Mark about it. Humans are fragile, easily scared. Who knows if he would’ve stayed even knowing where Donghyuck really came from, what gave birth to him. In Donghyuck’s eyes, Mother is thin and sharp, almost skeleton-like, hollow from a hunger she can never satiate, with saggy, plucked winds that drag behind her when she walks like a trail. Her taloned hands are swollen, burnt by all the magic that passed through them.
“Then I just have to make him mine again, don’t I? I spent too much energy to seduce him to let him escape with all that life still left.”
Donghyuck takes a step to the side, standing between her and the place of power where the Veil can now be crossed.
“I will not let you.”
“What a pretentious brat,” she muses. “I should’ve drowned you when I had the chance.”
“We both know you were too afraid to do that. What about now, Mother? Aren’t you afraid of me?”
The wings he spread are bigger than hers, pitch black and lucid. She can’t help the snarl that builds in her throat, her claws growing bigger in response to immediate danger - to Donghyuck. Oh, how sweet it is, after centuries of abuse, to finally have become a danger to her.
“So you let the boy touch you. What a slut, Donghyuck.”
“I am your son, indeed.”
“No, you’re no son of mine. You’re nothing like a disgusting hybrid, the son of all the humans I’ve fucked in the last centuries.” The line of her lips is mean and terrified. “Don’t you agree? There’s more human in you than there ever was in me, despite how much I’ve taken from them.”
“There was never anything human in you, Mother. Even for demon standards, you’ve always been quite a bitch. But considering the only parental figure you’ve ever had tried to eat you multiple times I wouldn’t have expected any less from you.”
Her fingers tremble with the need to curl around his throat, but she doesn’t dare. She didn’t dare before, when he had no power in him, what could she ever do to him now?
There’s a reason Mother never tried to kill him, there’s a reason Mother never Initiated him. Donghyuck is a son of power, all the power she had carefully collected, and in his birth he took it all from her. Such a big power cannot be suppressed, nor unleashed. In the world of demons, Donghyuck is a ticking bomb that refused to be defused. In the world of demons, Donghyuck is the evolution.
Mother knows. She knows and she hates it, but there’s nothing she can do about it. She is old and frail and Donghyuck is young and as powerful as she never was. She acknowledges it, at least. She takes a step back, giving up the fight.
“Well done, son. You have finally outgrown the confines of my house. You’re free to go wherever you want and I will not chase you, nor your boy. Just never appear in front of my sight again.”
And Donghyuck laughs at that, high and clear in the heavy air of the Dead Lands. Freedom, bestowed upon him like a gift and not like he could fucking kill her if he wanted. Behind him, the Veil is closing. It will never open again in the same place, nor in the same time. Donghyuck hopes Mark went home. He hopes he found the right century, the right continent.
If it was up to him, he would follow him. They could find a place, at the end of the world, where they can be together. They could pretend Mark tamed Donghyuck. They could do many and beautiful things under the sun and under the moon Donghyuck only saw in old books about the human realm. But Mother is right, there’s more human in him than there ever was in her. And it’s not because, like she thinks, Donghyuck was born from all the energy she stole from humans over the course of many centuries. It’s Mark, it’s always been Mark, who poured so much of himself in Donghyuck. Donghyuck gave Mark enough of his selfishness that Mark would want Donghyuck to come with him, to cross the Veil together, to leave everything behind - “Just forget about it and come with me,” Mark said, “I love you,” Mark said. But Mark gave Donghyuck love, he gave Donghyuck care, not for himself but for others. Mark gave Donghyuck wings. He gave Donghyuck the key to a power so big he can barely understand it, a power strong enough to never let his mother do what she did to Mark to someone else again. And even if Mark would want him to just forget about it, he also gave Donghyuck the ability to choose not to.
That’s why Donghyuck doesn’t turn back. Instead of crossing the Veil, he takes a step towards his mother.
“Oh, did you change your mind? Want to be a good son and come home with me?”
“Hush, Mother, we both know you’re never coming home again.”
♛ epilogue: five years later ♛
Jisung is only twenty-five years old when he gets assigned to Mark Lee’s task force unit.
“You were lucky to get in,” Senior Field Officer Na tells him. “With the whole Treaty bullshit going around right now Mark didn’t want to have anyone new on the team. He only made an exception for you, you know? Don’t disappoint him.”
Jisung nods excitedly. Disappointing Mark Lee is the last thing he would ever do. The man himself is a legend, one of the most decorated officers in the militia and one of the few humans who’s able to resist a demon’s charm, which made him the militia’s strongest weapon in the last two campaigns against demons, quickly pushing him to the highest positions of the military force in only a couple of years.
Mark Lee is also probably the strongest advocate to the Demon-Human Amity Treaty that will be signed in just a couple of days, if today’s meeting with the envoy from the demon world doesn’t go awry. His position is as controversial as it is curious, considering how much he’s always hated demons and how strongly he fought to eradicate them. Most people think that, for being someone so merciless with the demons he captured in his years of service, Mark Lee is a little too eager to sign this treaty. Jisung doesn’t really care about Mark Lee’s controversial opinion of demons. He would easily hang the moon for the boy who saved him when he was just a recruit doing his military service and he got seduced by an Incubus during night patrol like a fool. Mark was just an ordinary officer back then. He just appeared out of nowhere and nearly gutted the damn creature on the spot. Jisung owes him his life.
“Stop scaring the new kid Jaemin,” Senior Field Officer Lee Jeno says, as he walks closer. He stops fussing with his uniform and flashes Jisung a bright smile. “Congratulations, Officer Park. I saw your technical scores. You really did break Mark’s academy record. You totally deserve to be here.”
“Yes, yes, all good, all good. Now can we get back in formation? Not knowing what kind of monster will come from the Veil is making me fucking nervous.”
“Well, Mark does not look nervous.”
“When does Mark ever look nervous though?”
They all look towards where Captain Mark Lee is standing in his uniform, a face of steel. The messenger from the demon world who will come today to sign the treaty could be just a trap, a ruse to lure half of the militia in the same place and decimate it easily, and they’re all aware of it. Mark has been told he should’ve brought more soldiers - he’s even been told to capture the envoy as soon as they step outside the Veil - but the last four wars against the demons have been too bloody to attempt something that reckless. They all need peace.
Jisung shuffles towards his position, at the back of the formation. He knows the higher-ups opposed his presence here today because he only just joined the force last week, but Captain Lee vouched for him and so here he is. As if he needed more reasons to love the man.
Officer Na waves them off as he goes back to his position and Officer Lee stops just enough to pat Jisung on the back.
“Don’t worry. If Mark is right - and he always is - this is a legit thing and we won’t get eaten by a fucking Behemoth as soon as the Veil parts. Just worry about standing here and looking handsome for our guests, okay?”
Jisung shallows a knot of nerves. Easier said than done. All the soldiers and the summoners who will work to open the Veil are scared out of their wits. They don’t know who the chosen envoy of the demon world will be, and they’re definitely not ready to face a Lord, or, may the Veil protect them, a Demon King, if they ever decide to turn on them and kill them all.
The air is crisp, almost prickling their skins. The Veil is shaking, even if only a couple of them can see it, the rest of them blind and deaf to the power cracking in the sky. Jisung sees Captain Lee tightening his fists behind his back and slowly releasing, flexing the fingers. He graces the blade he carries at his side for a moment before letting it go. He doesn’t look nervous, he just looks ready.
The Parting of the Veil is not accompanied by lights or any special sound. They all expect it to happen in some sort of special way, but no one notices it when it actually happens. Jisung only knows because of the way Captain Lee straightens up, flattens his hands at his sides, away from the weapon.
The demon who appears out of nowhere in the middle of the clearing looks like an image ripped straight out of one of the textbooks about Incubi at the Academy. Everything, from the luscious wings to the elegant curled horns to the crimson glint in his eyes, screams high level demon. He doesn’t have a crown, but Jisung can feel deep in his gut he probably deserves one.
The demons blink, raising a hand against his face to shield his face from the scorching sun. Most of the soldiers instinctively try to unsheath their blades at the movement, but Captain Lee stops them with an imperious gesture. The demon barely seems to notice anyway, he just shrugs and looks directly at the sun caged between his fingers.
The herald clears his voice. “Welcome to the human world, visitor. How may we call you?”
The demon looks down at the man. He’s pretty, even in the distance Jisung can see it clearly. He’s pretty enough to lose one’s damn head for. He scans the crowd, eyes stopping on Captain Lee, who’s standing at the head of the formation. It’s a pity that Jisung can’t see his expression well but it seems, to him, that his back loosens when his eyes meet the demon’s.
“King Incubus of the West Gate, that’s how you should call me,” the demon answers. He points a finger right at Mark Lee. “But he can call me Donghyuck if he wants.”