His winter was melting into greenery, into rebirth.
Damian shivered and shut his eyes. He didn’t want to look at the abandoned cottage, forlorn and alone amidst the lush greenery reaching for the sunlight.
The voice was older than it had been on the day of his Marriage Feast, deep with a maturity unknown to the males of his kind. Damian was the only one who’d survived his sixteenth birthday, much to the scorn of the other boys.
Or so he’d thought.
“Dyvian Ashelocke,” Damian murmured, turning towards the owner of the voice.
The purple flowers of his Feast Day were still fresh, caught in the long tresses of Dyvian’s silvery white hair. Damian and Christopher had picked them themselves, trying to fake an enthusiasm for the day which was so natural to other arachnocratic boys.
Dyvian had smiled with the same blissful joy every bridegroom showed, but his pale, violet rose eyes had been sharp and shiny as reflected sunlight on a glacier. Only when Christopher leaned forward to whisper something in his ear did his expression change. His white cheeks colored, giving him more of a marriage blush.
“Is this where your spirit fled after Vanessa feasted upon you?” Damian asked, taking in the open, lavender robe his kinsman wore, exposing his hairless chest. Typical attire for a feast night, but Dyvian was far more wiry and muscular than any arachnocrat bridegroom could ever be. “Your flesh remains in its consumated form, within Vanessa’s garden.”
“Someday, you’ll be here, too,” Vanessa had whispered into his ear, snaking her tongue into his ear. “Once Duessa gives you to me.”
Damian tried not to shiver, tried to swallow the sickness which made his knees weak whenever he thought of being Vanessa’s Marriage Feast. He hadn’t visited again, no matter how many times she invited him.
This hadn’t stopped Vanessa from coming over to see him. Whenever she could.
Damian gritted his teeth. This was why he was here in the Shadow Forest. To get stronger. To let go of the fear of being feasted upon by Vanessa or any other arachnocratic lady.
“You shouldn’t be afraid, kinsman.” How gentle, how kind Dyvian’s voice was. Deep with confidence, a purring assurance Damian imagined Sebastian Ashelocke must have had. “My spirit didn’t flee. It sought strength and power.”
Dyvian took a step towards his cousin. He was taller than Damian, with broader shoulders than he should have possessed. Damian had only seen such a thing in another male outside of the arachnocratic lands.
“How is it possible?” Damian marveled, taking in the play of muscle. Dyvian’s chin was completely untouched by any trace of a beard. His hands were still slender and uncallused, yet they were long and strong. “You’re a man, yet not like any man I’ve ever seen!”
“I’ve have realized our true potential.” Dyvian moved with an almost feline grace towards his kinsman. It was an invitation to a dance, yet the air quivered with unrealized peril. “Marriage isn’t the end for us, kinsman. Not if we’re strong enough.”
Damian took a step back, away from the unspoken offer. He wasn’t quite ready to meet it, not yet.
“You said he was hungry.” Damian turned back towards the cottage. Every leaf and frond of ivy clinging to the house quivered with need, with longing. It stretched out, silently pleading, almost like a small, pale hand reaching out from Damian’s own memories, trying to return to him.
No. Don’t think about Christopher. He’s safe back in Omphalos. He’s real, enjoying the existence that never quite satisfied Damian.
Perhaps he was, but just how much of Christopher had Damian pulled from the Shadow Forest? Some of him might still linger here in the leaves and grass.
Or in the cottage.
“Boys get hungry, too,” Dyvian murmured. He took a flower from his hair. Someone had painted his fingernails purple. They were longer and sharper than Damian remembered. “Among arachnocrats, only girls get to eat, growing extra arms and eyes from their marriage feasts.” He lifted the flower to his nose. “I wonder what we’d grow, if we were allowed to blossom?”
“In order to blossom, we must eat.” Damian glanced back at the cottage. “What’s his name?” He gave his kinsman a sly glance. “I’m guessing he has another form, other than this.”
“Leiwell.” Dyvian shivered at the sound, the taste of the name on his lips. “He’s mine, Damian.” His eyes glistened with an emotion arachnocratic ladies revered, but seldom allowed themselves to feel. “Mine to create and feed without the interference of Duessa, Vanessa, or any other lady. He’ll never be anyone’s marriage feast!” The pupils of Dyvian’s eyes darkened and elongated. “Except, perhaps my own.”
“Such a naughty thought!” Damian grinned at the novelty of it. Play and romance happened between boys, but to actually feast on each other? It wasn’t just outrage, it was deliciously obscene.
Ah, but who was he to judge? Hadn’t he let Christopher claim him right in front of Duessa herself?
He turned to Dyvian, only to find his kinsman grinning back at him.
“Ah, Damian! How I’ve missed you!” Dyvian’s grin softened into something more grave. “All the confidence of a lady and the shamelessness to back it up! One might also imagine you to be an incarnation of Sebastian Ashelocke.”
“No need to flatter me,” Damian said, feeling a flush creep up his neck. Sebastian Ashelocke had been his secret hero, the only male in the Ashelocke line who’d ever studied magic.
“I don’t.” Something glimmered in Dyvian’s eyes, caught in his silver eyelashes. “You were always the clever one, the strong one, yet it never diminished your beauty. You outshone us all, except perhaps Christopher.”
“Don’t mention him,” Damian murmured. Leaving Christopher, hearing Christopher cry out, when he stepped through the Door had been the hardest thing he’d done. Damian had thought his resolve was solid, but one thought of those liquid, imploring eyes, looking up at him with refound innocence was enough to shake him to the core.
Damian couldn’t let himself be shaken. Not if he wanted to be strong.
“Why not?” Dyvian asked. “Christopher was the loveliest of us all, the perfect ideal to aspire to. Delicate, slender, and filled with the yielding grace we tried to possess, yet something in him never yielded.” Dyvian brought his slender, white eyebrows together in a frown.
Dyvian never frowned like that. He always tried to smile, to please, to win others over, to charm them, seduce them into following him. Somehow, it made Christopher and himself recoil, although neither of them had been sure why.
“Did you take that frown from someone else?” Damian asked. He took another step back from Dyvian and the cottage. “Is that why you’ve managed to grow?”
“Yes, but it’s an ugly strength from an ugly lady.” Dyvian twisted his generous mouth in a sour grimace, but his eyes glittered with childish glee. “It is possible for us to feed on ladies, you know.”
“True, but I doubt you want your Leiwell to taste such fare,” Damian countered, glancing at the house. Everything about the greenery suggested youth, inexperience, and need. If only he wasn’t so like Christopher. It made Damian want to yield to that need. “Which is why you lured me from the path.”
“Don’t hate me, kinsman, but I want my Leiwell to have the very best.” The light dimmed in Dyvian’s eyes. “No one could ever compare to you, unless it’s Christopher.”
“You’ll never touch him.” At last, Damian voiced a jealousy he’d never admitted back when the three of them had been boys. “No matter how much you might seek him out, he’s found a place in a real world you and the other shadows can’t dislodge him from.”
“Ah, but what if you were in peril?” A sly smile tugged at Dyvian’s long mouth. “Once you leave the path, you’re fair game.” He dropped the flower from his hand. It drifted, slowly spinning to the grass. “What would Christopher give to steal you back?”
“He knows better than to return here.” Damian looked down at his feet. Darkness pooled around them, gathering, hissing. “To open a Door is to lose part of yourself.”
“He’d rather lose himself than you.” Dyvian allowed his smile to grow. “He’ll come, searching for you. He’ll find us.” Dyvian glanced the shadows swarming across the ground. “My boy and I have need of your strength. Yours…and his.”
“So do I.” Damian smiled back at Dyvian, delighted to feel the sharp curl of fangs, peeking out. Here, in the Shadow Forest, he was a lady’s equal. “Perhaps I’ll leave you a little, once I’ve feasted on yours.” He glanced at the cottage. “Both of yours.”
“Perhaps.” Dyvian moved with a swiftness Damian couldn’t follow with his eyes to stand between his former kinsman and the cottage. “Shall we find out if you can, Lord Damian Ashelocke?”
“I do enjoy being called ‘Lord’.” Damian allowed his tongue to caress his fangs, pricking it. A single drop of blood fell among the shadows, coloring them red.
Dyvian’s own shadow grew, spreading out from his form to meet it.
Did you enjoy this Ashelocke exchange? Curious about what’s going to happen next? Look for my ‘Tales of the Navel/The Shadow Forest’ books, when they’re released. Also keep an eye of both of my Cauldrons and this page. There’s a lot more of the Shadow Forest and its denizens to come…