The depths of Demonicon enveloped me in their cool darkness, my footsteps softly hollow on the polished stone floor. I resisted the childish urge to extend my right hand and run it over the roughened stone of the corridor as I often did when I was young, the wonder of this underground city more enticing to me than ever the surface of our world could be.
I was born for spaces beneath, for the shadows and the silence. Raised in secret by the Daeva of this plane to lurk in places other demons shunned, to seek out answers to queries they had no idea were even questions. To uncover the truths often wished left buried by those in power.
I bowed my head in recognition to a team leader on my way past, his scowl as familiar as the halls I strode. My shoulders remained erect, however. He might not approve of me or my unusual parentage, but the council long ago allowed my inclusion in our particular order and he hadn't the power to naysay it.
I was accustomed to their stares, their judgments, my fellow Daeva. It was part of the reason my hip length black hair hung in dreadlocks. I wore my pale, pink skin proudly, not bothering to disguise its human tint. Why I shrouded my large eyes in black makeup, dressed like a human teenager tuned into death metal music. Let them stare and whisper and judge my black boots and corsets, more familiar in the court above than in the reserved ranks of the Daeva. My mother chose to bring me here, to Demonicon, to be born and raised and I was grateful for her choice.
Any other demon family would welcome me. All but the mighty Daeva and their pure bloodline issues. Mother didn't care. She did what she wanted, always. I considered myself blessed to take after her.
Even though she managed to go and die on me. From what I understood, the group that shattered the stone effigy she used to cross to their plane and took her life were still in existence. One of these days, when I was free to act on my own, I'd make sure to take care of that injustice.
"Reena." I slowed, though I maintained my forward motion, as a pair of feet fell in time with mine, a slim set of shoulders swaying next to me. I should have felt her coming, but knew better than to judge myself in that regard. Raethnn had been around longer than most, millennia of practice carrying her between shadows in ways I was only beginning to understand.
"Mistress." The leader of the Daeva council was the only reason I remained here. I was quite cognizant of her support, though not surprised. I would never openly use the term, but my
mother's mother had my back for my entire life and I would remain grateful. For her support and her teaching.
Raethnn's long, skeletal fingers slid over my wrist, making me shiver. Make no mistake, her touch betrayed none of the weakness her physical body seemed to reflect. Power unlike any other I'd ever felt bumped me gently before she retreated, black nails scratching softly as her hand fell. "This assignment troubles me."
I was just on my way to a meeting. One she was meant to chair, from what I understood. But, though she was the defacto leader of our people, I knew it was sheer will and strength that kept her there, as was our way. And cleverness. More to be grateful for.
"Should I turn it down?" Doing so would instantly damage my standing. Unlike other demons, we didn't aspire to plane climbing, but to our own system of loyalty and success carefully tracked by those who thought such things mattered. But if she told me to decline, I would obey immediately. No questions asked.
"No," she said, "just..." Her crystal white hair shone crisp in the low light of the embedded glowdisks, sharp voice deep and precise. "Care and caution."
"As always," I said.
Her eyes glittered up at me, deep wrinkles hiding her faint smile from all but those who knew her best. I was honored to be one.
Raethnn pushed on, speeding her stride ahead of me as the meeting door loomed in the distance. I slowed on purpose, to put further distance between us, knowing she preferred it and agreeing with her. There might have been a time once I wished things were different, that the maternal feelings I had for her could be fully realized. But to show too close a bond to her could leave me open to either attack by her enemies-not that I cared-or advertise apparent weakness that I needed my grandmother to protect me.
No. The skills, training and sense of worth she'd instilled in me over my eighteen years had been more than I needed to handle the Daeva's criticism of my birth. I'd shown them over and over, with each assignment I accepted, just what being Raethnn's granddaughter really meant, but of my own actions and ambition. Let them wish it were otherwise. A fraction of their ages, I was already better at this vocation the Daeva claimed than the majority of my brethren.
Most likely the main reason they cared for me so little, bloodlines be damned. It wasn't the first time, though, my human heritage had been more a help than a hindrance. I knew very well I
didn't think the way most of my fellow Daeva did. As I entered the meeting room, that much was increasingly apparent. Ten faces looked up, most frowning at me, Raethnn's expressionless from her seat at the head of the table. I was last in, naturally. It was pure heaven to saunter to the final empty seat at the end of the room, slide into the chair furthest from her-a seat meant for the lowest, but one I flaunted as a place of power with my half-smile around at the others. They all saw me as a freak, as someone to be looked down upon with disdain. While they matched each other perfectly in dress and appearance, not a scrap of creativity among them.
No wonder I'd climbed so far so fast. They'd spent so long down here in the dark, they'd lost their willingness to take risks.
Human dad, whoever you were, I'd find you and thank you someday. Unless you were one of the people who took away my mother. Then, I'd have to kill you.
"Ruler is engaging in one of her non-standard city tours this afternoon." I crushed my grin of glee. I cut my teeth as a child on the streets of the capital, Ostrogotho, following our old Ruler, Ahbi Sanghamitra, and monitoring her in the guise of a simple wee one. Ahbi's predictability had left me annoyed even as a girl. But our new Ruler, Senne Hathenemeira, was her opposite, often shifting plans at the last minute or taking impromptu visits outside the city whenever the hell she felt like it. I was a whim kind of girl myself and, knowing our Ruler's young age, I'd always felt an affinity for her, a kinship of bold sisterhood. Not to mention her own heritage matched mine, though in her case it was a witch mother and a demon father that mixed her blood.
I would love to meet her someday, a secret desire, though I knew that likelihood was a dream. She was Ruler, First Seat and all powerful no matter her lineage, and I was just a fledgling Daeva assassin trying to find her way in the world.
Still, a girl could dream.
The group muttered their unhappiness while I pondered the chance I might get close enough to have Ruler notice me in some small way. I knew Ahbi had seen me, that clever old demon as formidable as my grandmother. But our new Ruler seemed less aware of the world around her, as though she carried its full weight on her shoulders, too heavy to see up close the details that might keep her safe. Considering her sister, Sydlynn Hayle, had saved the Universe several times and our own Ruler herself presided over the near fall of Demonicon, she was allowed her
distractions. I had made it my mission, though no one asked me to or even knew I did it, to monitor her young daughter, Zuzameirhaylynn, while Ruler toured. Just as a private precaution.
"Assignments." Raethnn began listing them off, as usual the most important-immediately in front of the caravan-going to the most venerated. I ignored Phygon's grin in my direction as his name was called. The tall, though soft bodied demon had a few centuries on me in age, but acted like a bratty kid. Still, he had support on the council and, unlike me, was more than willing to use his father's position to bolster his own ranking and gain prime assignments. In other words, the ass kissing sack of useless had set himself up to never, ever fail.
I hated him so much I could taste it.
"Reena." Shocking to hear my name so early. Yes, I was doing well in rankings, a regular on this high-powered squad now, but I was typically the last one called. I met Raethnn's eyes and did my best not to show my surprise as she went on to the muttering unhappiness of the others. "Surveillance of suspect targets in lower Ostrogotho."
I almost groaned. That meant no following of the caravan after all, my usual assignment, and bottom of the barrel as most dangerous. But, from the angry outcry from Phygon, this new post was a good placement, enough to make him speak up.
"Hurthisa is much more qualified-" His face darkened to a deeper red than usual as my grandmother gestured for his silence, a push of power behind it sealing his throat. I wished she'd leave him that way. Bulging eyes and lack of breathing became him.
"Do you accept, Reena?" Her gaze returned to me while Phygon struggled in her grasp. I pondered the question, partly out of spite and partly because of her warning in the hall. Did she switch me out or fight for this? It was impossible to know.
I finally nodded and she released Phygon who gasped as his torso fell forward.
I didn't hear the rest of the assignments. I was too busy worrying. Overthinking things often kept me on my toes and out of trouble. But I'd been known to obsess to the point of explosion.
No time to work out if Raethnn had helped me or I was on the trajectory she'd warned me about. We departed immediately, splitting up as we reached the surface. I hung back as was my way, though I had the right to walk among the others. No one said anything, but they didn't have to. I already knew they were waiting for me to screw up.
As I slipped into the street through the heavily damaged doorway that hid the lower entrance to the Daeva underground, my brain spun even as my instincts took over. There had been enough
unrest on Demonicon since Senne gained Ruler's Seat we'd been on the alert about assassination attempts and attacks on the royal family from, not criminal elements, but the damned Family itself. When Ruler faced down the evil Planeless cult leader, Xeoniteridone, her enemy aided by her own grandfather and Second Seat, she was forced to allow the Node holding our planes together to collapse. At least, that was what I was able to ascertain from Raethnn and sneaking around during private meetings so I could overhear what was going on. With the help of her sister and some strange white power I'd never seen before-or since-Senne collapsed the Node before rebuilding it again. I was fortunate enough
yes, I considered myself fortunate despite the desperation of the situation
to be one of the Daeva present when Senne faced down the Planeless leader and was still in awe of her power and poise.
I'd never tell my grandmother, but as much as I admired her, I did everything I could to make sure no matter what I engaged in, I'd never be ashamed to stand before my Ruler and speak of my accomplishments. That meant Ruler-and Demonicon-came first for me, not the almighty Daeva.
But it seemed not everyone was as impressed with Senne's actions and subsequent successes. In fact, the entire Ruling Family, initially grateful for rescuing their sorry behinds, immediately turned back into the seething cesspool of wretched they'd always been and, emboldened by Senne's more lax nature and distraction with Universal problems, had begun braver and more open attempts to remove her from the throne.
Demons. I shook my head a bit, dreadlocks swinging together, as I crossed to the other side of the street, boots thudding on the stone walkway, dodging down an alley. Regular demons were cracked. No one hated you more than your own blood.
What the Family didn't know was the Daeva had Ruler's back. I would like to see them try anything out in the open and with me or any of my people present. Had, actually. And observed the inevitable satisfying outcome of their power loss and retreat with their tails between their wobbly legs.
I positioned myself down the street from the caravan route, power open, scanning for trouble.
It wasn't long before I felt Phygon's magic approaching, sloppy and pulsing. So obvious. I wanted to jab him to remind him of the import of his role, but he wasn't alone. Deragors lingered with him and, though he had no love for me, he was at least good at his job and would keep the idiot he was saddled with from screwing up too badly.
Again I wondered at my assignment. It was plum, after all. In other words, out of the line of fire. Since when did I earn such a position and, did I really want this for my life? Give me risk and danger any day. Any day. This standing guard against something that probably wouldn't happen went against everything I believed in.
I needed to talk to Raethnn. Maybe this was what she meant. They would elevate me to get rid of me. It made total sense standing there, chewing my bottom lip, letting my human/demon mind work over the scenarios unwinding before me. This was their plan, it had to be, paranoia told me. Raise me up until I was off the street and unable to "embarrass" them by being in public, doing what I was born to do.
My heartrate increased, blood heating up. Over my dead body.
Rough with growing anger, mind carrying me into the myriad of ways this could go horribly wrong for me for the rest of my life, I was too late to do anything about the sudden crack in the veil that opened right in front of my face. I only had time to catch a gasped breath as something tumbled forward through the gash and into my arms.