Chapter 1: Birthday Party
Book One of the First Plane Trilogy
My lips smiled as the strains of "Happy Birthday" filled the living room of Syd's house. I think I did a decent job showing enthusiasm when the song wrapped up and everyone clapped while staring at me with their great expectations written all over their faces.
No one seemed to notice my discomfort or the fact my mouth trembled a little. Four years on Demonicon as Ruler had given me enough presence I suppose I was able to hide from the very people who made my anxiety worse. Not because I didn't love them. But because I did.
Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised to find it was easier to pretend around those who hated me and watched my every move for failure, weakness or the merest flash of hesitation. Court and the nobles who pushed my limits every day had honed my ability. But sitting here in Syd's house - the house that used to be my home - stirred so many emotions I could hardly stand to be there, my human-appearing hands gripping the edge of the couch cushion beneath me so tightly I felt them cramp.
"Happy eighteenth, sweetheart." Mom leaned toward me from where she perched on the arm of the sofa, the ever-familiar floral touch of lilac making things worse. I hugged her quickly, knowing my embrace came across stiff, but unable to relax for fear I would weep all over my poor mother. She worried about me enough as it was. I saw it in her own trembling smile as she pulled away. It wasn't her fault I'd taken on a larger role than I likely should have at the tender age of fourteen. I wished I could assure her of that. I'd wanted my present position, craved it like the nectar that once possessed me. And when I looked up and into blue eyes watching me from across the room, I allowed the demon of jealousy living inside to surface and admit just why I pursued the First Seat of Demonicon so eagerly.
My beautiful older sister stood with one shoulder leaning against the entry, her long, almost black hair in a casual ponytail. Thick waves of it hung over her opposite shoulder, the ends curling upward around the curve of her chest. A plain blue t-shirt fitted perfectly over her flat stomach, skimming the waistband of her beat-up jeans. Sydlynn Hayle, coven leader and all-powerful maji, wore a pentagram necklace hung at the "V" of her neckline, sparkling in the light of the sun coming through the living room window. She looked so perfect standing there, casual, un-self-conscious, the burning envy I carried sizzled and popped to anxious life.
Syd c****d her head to one side, waves bouncing, eyebrows coming together. I felt her power reach for me and immediately blocked her, jerking my gaze from hers before she could force the issue.
I loved my sister with all my heart, but there were times like these when I hated her, too. I tried very hard not to allow the reality of being Syd's little sister weigh on me, but it was so difficult when my entire life was about scrutiny, either from those who couldn't wait for me to screw up, or from my family who watched with barely-concealed concern. Everyone waited for me to c***k under the pressure.
The next person who compared anything I accomplished to what Syd would have done was going to perish in flame and agony.
Gabriel perched next to me, my sweet nephew eagerly watching my human fingers fumble over shiny paper, uncoiling carefully tied bows and ribbon as my heart lay dull and apathetic in my chest. Even his smiling face, sparkling hazel eyes and sweet spirit did nothing to make me feel better today. It shouldn't have been like this, the hollow feeling, the sense of distance from the very people I craved almost every day. But seeing them smile at each other, laugh easily as though they had no cares or considerations, just drove home the truth to me with every single outburst of mirth.
I was alone.
If you're done feeling sorry for yourself, my demon grandmother's mental voice grated over my mind, let's finish up here and go home. You have work to do.
Not so alone, after all. But having Ahbi Sanghamitra's spirit living inside me didn't exactly make the pressures of who I'd become any easier. If anything, the very dead former Ruler of Demonicon in my head at all times, poking and prodding, judging my every decision, only made things more difficult. I tried not to resent her, knowing she didn't ask for this existence, meeting a gristly end at the hands of Syd's nemesis, Ameline Benoit. And yet, there were many times I had to clench my teeth to keep from asking Ahbi to just leave already.
I could easily have blamed her for ruining my birthday moment. But I'd done that for myself. The cake tasted of ash in my mouth, the well-wishes as empty as my soul. I allowed the hug from Charlotte, the were bodyguard-turned-princess of her own people. Her blonde hair tickled my cheek as she released me. Gram was harder. No longer the old lady I grew up with, instead revitalized and renewed by the sorcery she claimed after giving up her witch magic, she nevertheless still had the ability to see through me with her piercing blue eyes. I loved her, always had, but didn't share the close bond she'd always had with Syd. So when she looked at me the way she did, it felt less like concern and more like she was judging me, weighing my worthiness against her favorite granddaughter.
Demetrius was different, at least. The diminutive sorcerer, his cherub face soft and smiling, kissed my cheek with enthusiasm before stepping back. I turned to hug my brother-in-law, the scent of chocolate and the touch of spicy magic traveling between us as Quaid kissed the top of my head.
"Sissy," he whispered. "Miss you."
I could have stood there in his arms for much longer, but doing so meant pushing the limit of tear control and I just couldn't have a breakdown here and now in front of the people I loved - and hated - the most.
Little three-year-old Ethie's soft, black curls brushed past my cheek as I lifted her into my arms. Bright blue eyes, the picture of her mother's, gazed at me with much more maturity than should have been available to a little girl.
"Meira," she said, tiny hands holding my face between them. "You 'kay?"
Almost undone by a serious toddler with a soul older than mine. I swallowed hard, kissing her before handing her with some haste to her father. I simply couldn't bring myself to release my control.
Sassafras watched me from the corner of the couch, amber eyes burning, though he didn't once say a word to me. It hurt, his silence. Of everyone here, he was the one I had been able to turn to in times of crisis. But no, not here and now. Allowing him in would mean a catastrophic meltdown, the exact thing I refused to show the people around me.
Dad was the hardest. My resentment burned against him as I turned to accept his hug. Resentment growing worse by the day as I dealt with the mess he'd left behind. His stint as Ruler might have been brief, but he succeeded in creating a singular hell I now lived and thanked him for with great sarcasm when I wasn't cursing him for his ideals.
He held me at arm's length as the family dispersed, frowning despite the small smile trying to lift his lips. He appeared as handsome as ever, though his demon form of red-tinted skin and curving black horns was long gone, perished with the destruction of his effigy. The diamond ring Syd forged from the shattered remains caught the sunlight and threw a stabbing ray into my eyes. I flinched, from more than the brightness, pulling free of him as my anger bubbled.
Ahbi wasn't much help. I'd stopped thinking of her as my grandmother, unable to keep the emotional connection between the two of us so simple since she insisted on trying to run my life. I understood Syd's more detached mode of address, though I would never admit it to her. It wasn't Syd who was the issue, it really wasn't, I knew so. But it was hard not to target my perfect sister who could do no wrong, the savior of everyone in the Universe when my life was falling apart.
"How are things at home?" Dad's rumbling voice offended me as much as the question. He didn't get to ask me such things. But instead of lashing out at him as I longed to, I drew a breath and faked a bright smile I knew did nothing to mask my anger.
"Just great," I said, the brittle edge to my voice cutting through me as Ahbi grumbled her dissatisfaction. If it were up to her, I would have given him an earful. But he was my father, and I loved him no matter what his plans for Demonicon had devolved into. And, at this point, yelling at him, throwing a tantrum, would do me little good. The damage was complete and Dad could do nothing to repair it. Not now he'd abandoned Demonicon for this plane and left me to wade into deep water without a lifejacket.
Us, Ahbi grumbled in my head. You keep forgetting you're not the only one in this equation.
I took a step back from Dad, smile cracking as she interfered.
If you don't mind, I shot back to her.
More grumbling echoed as Mom joined Dad. She was an entirely different story and, as she moved forward to hug me again, I had to backpedal quickly to avoid her, my shoulders hitting Quaid square in the chest. He caught me, kept me level, let me go, all in silence. Mom, meanwhile, watched me with growing sadness as I rubbed my upper arms where my brother-in-law had gripped me. I needed to wipe away his empathy before it cracked me further.
"Thanks for the party." My smile returned, just as fake as before, but present, at least.
"We see so little of you these days, sweetheart," Mom said even as her hand slipped into Dad's. I saw them squeeze, felt my anger stir all over again. They had each other. I should have been happy for them instead of gripped by this irrational fury.
"A Ruler's work is never done." The joke came out easily, practiced and polished to a sheen from four years - longer, even - of needing to show the world I could handle it. That I was, in fact, just as good as my sister.
Speaking of whom, Syd joined our parents, frowning again, Quaid leaving me to join her. Gram and Demetrius, their youthful faces also drawn into concern, hovered behind.
I couldn't stand it. They would break me at any moment and I would finally confess what I feared was the truth. I'd made a terrible mistake. The role of Ruler was too big for me, far too vast, devouring me every moment, every breath until I could no longer take in air. That without Ahbi inside me I would have broken long ago, fled for home in disgrace.
How long had I stood on the sidelines while Syd saved the world? She'd suffered through hating her magic in her teens to grow into one of the most powerful magic users on this plane. Could I be the weak, fragile, helpless sister I believed I was and retreat, return to my family and be mediocre?
Ahbi snorted in my head. Quit, then, she sent.
I had to blink several times, use magic at last, to keep myself from bursting into tears. Blame and anger and guilt raced around inside me, a monster as huge as the one I carried in demon form, though this one demanded I break and let it out to expel all the pent-up emotion I suppressed.
"You know if you ever need anything..." Syd's frown deepened. Did she sense what I was feeling? Or was she just being her normal meddling self?
"Thank you," I said, the words emerging cold and crisp, "same to you."
I retrieved the two overflowing gift bags from the floor, heading for the hall and the kitchen without another word, and my family let me go. When had I become so irrational, so burdened by this bitterness refusing to release me? I heard her footsteps behind me as I descended into the basement to return home and part of me was glad.
While the rest of me wished Syd would just leave me alone.
The pentagram etched into the middle of the floor beckoned. I spun in place in the center of it, feeling the family magic of the Hayle coven caress me sadly, though I'd given up my connection to it long ago. One last layer of regret.
Time to go. I reached for the veil between planes, feeling the stretchy, slick surface answer my call even as Syd's power did the same. Impulse and anger moved me to block her, Ahbi responding with the same arrogance and my sister backed off.
"Meems, something is wrong. I know it." Syd didn't move, remaining on the edge of the pentagram etched onto the floor. "It's been getting worse the last year or so." She noticed, how incredible. I thought she only cared about herself and her own problems. I kicked myself mentally, furious at how unfair I was being, but unable to stop my bitterness. Syd's shoulders sagged forward as she brushed her hair back from her face. "I know you can handle whatever it is and that it's none of my business. I've always believed in you and I believe in you now. You were raised by the same mother I was." My sister's lip twisted in a half-smile. "You're a Hayle, no matter your status now. And Hayles are made for power." Her wry grin faded. "But we all need help sometimes. All of us. I just wanted you to know I'm here for you, no questions asked. Always."
Hate and tears and the need to lash out at her while I hugged her and cried on her shoulder warred in my soul.
"I have to go." How I managed to speak, I have no idea. The veil responded to my hasty jerk, tearing wide, the red-tinted gold light of Demonicon calling me back. For the barest instant, I felt my throat tighten, my stomach clench. I didn't want to go. How easy would it be to run back upstairs, to my old room, bury my head under the covers and just be Meira again?
But my room wasn't mine anymore. Syd's coven second, Sashenka Hensley, claimed it long ago. Nor was I Meems, Syd's little sister.
No, Ahbi sent with heat and frustration. You are Senne Hathenemeira, Ruler of Demonicon. Exactly who you wanted to be.
It didn't help my grandmother was right.
While Syd's power reached for me again, I crossed over, sealing the gap behind me.