Chapter 1: Bully
I stretched to my full height, magic rippling around me, blood burning with the need to draw more power from my foe, grinning down at the fallen demon at my feet.
"Well fought." My hand reached for his, but when Peridesenchal tried to grasp it, I pulled back with a laugh. Heart swelling at the echoed sound of my own mirth, surrounded by it as the watching crowd of fighters pointed and smirked, I prodded the fallen demon with the toe of my very expensive boot and winked. "You really thought I was serious?"
Peridesenchal's answering scowl was worth the taunt. "You're a bastard sometimes, Sassafras," he said.
The grin splitting my face almost hurt. "Sometimes?" I spun, arms out, welcoming the watcher's adoration.
"Always!" Their roar was delicious.
I stayed close, in Peridesenchal's space as he fought to rise. Stumbling, falling back, magic and feet making it impossible for him to retreat with dignity, finally ending up at the edge of the circled crowd of onlookers, my fans. I bent over him as he panted and scowled, letting out some the magic I'd taken from him, just a thread of it, winding it around his neck while inside I roared my triumph.
"Next time you think to challenge your betters," I let the thread tighten until he choked, my teeth clamping together as I fought the need to grind this piece of filth under my foot, "think again."
The thread snapped with a c***k so loud some of the gathered demons covered their ears, but it was music to mine. I let Peridesenchal go then, losing interest in the fallen, turning to the reverent faces surrounding me.
"Sassafras!" She had to go and ruin it. The moment my sister shoved her way through the ring to face me, my friends dispersed, most with a hand raised in salute. A few answered with snarls I knew meant fights were coming my way. I yearned to go with them, to keep the burning joy of victory fresh and hot.
Damn her for interfering. "You have terrible timing, Avenesequoia."
She dusted the front of my triple breasted jacket with both hands, adjusting the row of spines on each shoulder with a long-suffering expression.
"I have perfect timing. You are a scoundrel who will make me late." My sister sighed and looked up into my eyes. "And why?"
"I had important business, Bitty," I said with my best smile.
Her small hands packed a punch as she whacked me. "Don't tease me," she said. "And don't call me Bitty." My little Itty-Bitty. Torturing her was my favorite pastime when we were very young and I found I'd not lost the taste for it. "I'm the only one who loves you."
Love. The concept itself was as foreign to me as losing. Thanks to my delightful family. And my entire race, actually. Love. What a joke. Leave it to her to use such a manipulation.
"You were playing." Avenesequoia hooked one arm through mine, her pole-thin body a head shorter than mine, the most delicate demon I'd ever met. "Mother and Father will be vexed. And don't think I didn't see who crawled away with his tail between his legs."
I bowed a little to her at the entry to the sky train, following as she swept inside, shining black skirt so full she barely made it through the door. My sister knew how to dress well, I had to admit, with her sparkling bodice crusted in gems shooting off beams like stars as she sat under one of the overhead lights. I stood before her as the transport began its run to the Parade at the base of the Seat. The sight of the mountain, the center of Demoniconian leadership, always made my stomach clench, though I'd never admit it to anyone.
Showing weakness was a quick way to invite a challenge. Not that I was afraid of a challenge. I'd beaten most of the so-called royals who hid themselves away in the upper echelons, including some third planers, though I'd yet to get my chance at Cypherion, the heir to Second Seat.
What a coup that would be! If only I could convince him to challenge me. Wouldn't my family lose their minds if I was able to best the heir to the Second throne of Demonicon?
Delicious, truly delicious. And within my grasp. When I was ready.
Avenesequoia must have known I was still deep in the throes of battle, but she wasn't letting me off easily. "When Ruler finds out you've been challenging above your plane again, she'll be f****d to take steps, Sass."
I snorted and looked away, eyes fixed on the rapidly approaching polished stone of the mountainside. In my opinion, the weakling fifth plane lord I'd just bested was not worth another moment of my thoughts. "Peridesenchal challenged me, just so you know."
"After you tortured him for months until he decided to do something about it." She crossed her arms over her chest and rolled her very expressive eyes, larger than most. It was hard not to adore my sister, though to me she appeared more like a doll than a real demon. "Why aren't you happy being a Seventh?"
"Not my fault he decided to challenge." I offered my hand to her, hoping she'd just drop the subject. My happy after-battle mood faded, leaving behind the familiar feeling of loathing. The dark and angry core of me, bubbling, asking to be fed. With power. "Besides, I have six more planes to climb. Can't possibly do that without challenging."
She stopped me, placing her hand on my arm. "You're the best fighter anyone has ever seen." Her fingers tightened. "No one contests that, Sassafras. Even Ruler has honored you. But she personally asked you to back off, only two weeks ago. And you've continued as usual. You know she doesn't like to be pushed."
Ahbi Sanghamitra, of all people. She valued those who fought their way to the top. And despite what she said, I knew it was only family pressure that led her to order me to stand down. She understood me, and I her. I wasn't worried. Obligation or not, orders or not, I'd be out fighting again tonight. No question.
Avenesequoia eased up on her grip, face sad, but she kept her peace as we swept our way out of the train and down the steps to the Parade. I spotted Father and Mother on the elevator platform, my brother Jabuticabron between them. His glare was enough to finish the job my sister started.
Just what I needed. A lovely family reunion. Not like any of us normally spent any time together. This sham was for Ruler's sake, for the sake of the royal family. Appearances for Ahbi's favorite pet scientists, my parents, and their constructed brood.
Mother's eyes traveled over me before she nodded once as I took my place beside her. "You're late."
"Actually," I said as the elevator began its ascent, "it appears I'm exactly on time."
She didn't comment, though Father sighed and shook his head.
My brother didn't have the same restraint. Jabuticabron leaned past Mother and jabbed me in the ribs before I could stop him, a scowl on his enormous face. If my sister was the tiniest demon around, he was the opposite. It still shocked me anyone in our family could be Guard material, but from the way Jabuticabron was growing, that was where he was headed. And it suited his personality perfectly.
Then again, since Mother and Father grew the lot of us in test tubes as experiments to satisfy their scientific curiosities, it made total sense my brother and sister were polar opposites.
With me stuck in the middle.
"Don't embarrass us," Jabuticabron snarled. "We don't get invited very often." He gave me the impression, with his heavy-handed tone, he blamed me for the lack of invitations.
"And you remember to answer with words and not grunts," I shot back with a smile.
"Enough, you two." Mother's power crackled around us while Father ignored the conversation, fingers scratching at the air, calculations floating before him in amber fire. "Theridialis."
Father twitched, round face guilty, before his fingers flickered and the writing disappeared.
I would never know what Mother saw in Father and why the pair of them decided to have not one, but three offspring with each other. Or why they would ever even want to perpetuate the faked image of our "happy" family when everyone knew we were just their personal DNA experiments. The only time we were happy was when we were apart.
And since my happiness was of utmost importance, I'd be going my own way the moment I had the opportunity. Which happened right after the windbag porter announced us.
With a wink and a grin for Avenesequoia and a snarl for my brother, I dodged Mother's grasping hand and disappeared into the crowd of gathered demons.
Keep it civil, Mother sent in a very tight beam. Don't go looking for trouble.