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.
“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.”
“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.
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.
* * * * *