I’ve heard there are places where a woman is considered the equal of of a man, places where a lady’s strength and intelligence are recognized and admired. This is not one of them.
“Look, the bastard girl’s got a stick!” one boy yelled.
“Wonder what she’s going to do with it?” another asked, elbowing his neighbor.
I was born out of wedlock. It didn’t matter to the townsfolk that my mother never chose the man, that she was raped, and then left like garbage. She was with child, and had no husband. Therefore, she was a whore.
I tested the strength of my weapon. It was from the rowan tree in our garden, and was as straight and strong as I could wish. I gripped it so hard my knuckles went white.
It didn’t help that my mother was naturally a shrinking violet. She rarely said a word in her own defense. Every cold look, every snide comment, just made her turn further inward. By the time I was six, she barely spoke, even to me. She gleaned after the harvesters every autumn, and accepted haughty charity with a quiet thank you.
My mother loved me, in her own quiet way. She went hungry so I would not. In the winter, I was the warm one, in a lovingly stitched coat, while she wore threadbare cloth. When I was sad, she hummed to me. When I was happy, she smiled a rare smile. I loved her with all my heart, because she was all I had to love.
And these boys were throwing garbage at her.
I took a careful stance, feet shoulder length apart, and raised my stick. “The next one,” I told the boys, “To throw anything over this fence gets a pounding.”
I lost, of course. I knew I would. But I made sure to give them hell.
Incubi are lovers, not fighters. If I had a copper piece for every time I’d heard that… And yet, here I was.
I looked around the barracks. It was a sorry lot. I was the only cubi, but the other demons were poor representatives of their respective castes. All of them were small, or slow, or had dull cow eyes. I wondered if the army deliberately grouped together the least promising recruits. Well, I’d show them. Resolutely, I began a set of push-ups.
I had to stop after the first ten, arms burning. I wasn’t disappointed, though. After all, only a month ago I’d barely managed one. I’d show them. I might have been born an incubus, but I would learn to fight.
I was 10 when the sorcerer came to town. His name was Jan. He asked the village headman to send all the village children to him to be tested for magic. Of course, none of the villagers thought to send me. I was the bastard child, and therefore worthless.
I watched Jan test the others, though, hidden in the bushes. He set out an apple on a stump. “Hold out your hand,” he told his prospective students. “Imagine the apple flying toward you, so you can catch it. You must really want this. At this moment in time, you must want nothing more than this apple.”
Two boys and three girls summoned the apple. The sorcerer was pleased. He told the headman, “I knew the emanations in this area would be good for creating wild sorcerers! I’ll stay and teach the children the basics. Any of them who are particularly talented may come with me to Windsvale. It’s a center for magical learning. They should be able to find teachers there.”
The headman frowned. “What will you charge for the schooling?”
Sorcerer Jan smiled. “My teacher never charged me for my schooling. I wish to pass the favor forward. I ask for nothing more than the pleasure of showing young sorcerers to use their power.”
After that I went home. When I got there, I set a wrinkled apple on the table. Frowning thoughtfully, I stared at the apple. I imagined it flying toward me. I tried to really want this, focusing all my mind on how badly I wanted this apple. I imagined catching it, and taking a bite. I imagined the taste of the apple, the delicious taste of success. My brow furrowed.
The apple began to glow green. My eyes widened. That wasn’t supposed to—
BAM! The apple exploded, spraying juice and apple bits everywhere. I frowned. Juice? That apple was all dried up! And yet… Somehow, the kitchen was covered in apple juice.
My mother entered the kitchen. “Jasana!” she gasped. “What did you do?”
I frowned. “I’m not sure…” I grabbed another apple.
This time, I focused on making the apple fill out, making it juicy and delicious. The apple began to glow green, and swelled. My mother gasped. I grinned in triumph. Then my eyes widened as the apple continued to swell, until—
Bam! This apple exploded too, spraying even more juice all over the kitchen. I began to cry. “I’m sorry, Mother. I made a mess.”
There was an odd look in my mother’s eyes. She grabbed another apple. “Try again. This time, when the apple is as big as you want it, focus on stopping it from swelling.”
My mother stood back. I frowned at the apple, and it began to glow green and swell. My brow furrowed further, and the apple’s growth slowed, and then stopped.
My mother picked up the apple and took a bite. She smiled at me. “Delicious.”
We had apple cobbler for dinner that night.
I looked up at the enormous building in front of me, and swallowed. This was it. I was going to try out for the Elite.
The Elite were a branch of the army, and were widely considered to be the best warriors in our kingdom. Normally they only recruited from the hellion, drone, and celer castes. To be another caste and to be inducted into their ranks was an honor. To be an incubus and inducted was unheard of.
More than that, I was 53, only two years over the minimum age for joining the army. Most Elite recruits were at least in their 70s. However, my training officer had recommended me to the head of the recruiting program, and she, after watching me fight, had agreed with his assessment. To refuse to try out after they’d recommended me to the Elite would be incredibly rude, not to mention ungrateful.
And this was, after all, what I’d been aiming for. Only, I’d expected to have at least 20 years in the army under my belt before I took this step. To do it now, when I had never fought in a real battle… I swallowed.
Then, taking a deep breath, I marched into the building. I went up the the celer at the front desk. Like all celers, he was slender, with no visible musculature, and covered in spines. His skin was cobalt blue. He smiled, revealing a large number of sharp, white teeth. “What can I do for you, incubus?” he hissed. His forked tongue darted out from between his teeth to taste the air.
He knew I was an incubus because my caste was as obvious as his. Cubi, unlike every other caste, looked almost human. An incubus’s only demonic trait was a long, slender tail covered in scales and tipped with a triangular point. My tail was silver, almost matching my silvery blond hair. My eyes were large and pale blue. I knew that, by human standards, I was attractive even for an incubus. By demonic standards, I looked like a wuss.
I smiled, nervous but determined not to show it. “I’m Lestre. I’m—”
The celer cut me off. “You’re joking. You’re Lestre? The demon all the officers are talking about?”
I blinked. “I guess? My name is Lestre.” They were talking about me?
The celer shook his head. “But you’re an incubus!”
My thoughts turned cold and sharp. “Oh, am I? I hadn’t noticed.” I gripped his desk hard enough to leave dents. “I have an appointment with the recruiting officer. Don’t you dare make me late.”
The celer glanced down at the dents in his desk and let out a low whistle. “You’re pretty strong. Especially for an incubus.” He stood. “I’ll escort you to the training courtyard where you’re to meet with them.”
I blinked. “Them?” Who else would be watching my tryout?
The celer, already walking down the hall, turned back to look at me. “Didn’t they tell you? King Horalo wants to see what you can do.”
I spend all week trying to figure out what I could do with my power. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make solid objects fly through the air, but I could make bright, nebulous balls that hovered. I could light the kitchen fire with a touch. I also managed to get an apple to split itself into two apples, a feat that made my mother clap in delight. Doing it more than two or three times made my head hurt, though. So did having more than five balls of light in the air at a time.
By the end of the week I found I could shape the balls of light into whatever I wanted, creating colored, glowing pictures in the air. It wasn’t terribly useful, but it was very pretty. When I made a green and blue dragon dance around the bedroom I shared with my mother, I heard her laugh for the first time.
The next day my mother and I were working in our little garden. My rowan stick was nearby, in case I had to chase off the boys. I was bigger than most of them now, and I could usually convince them that tormenting my mother and I was more trouble than it was worth.
When the boys came, the two boy sorcerers, and one of the girls, came with them. The boys began to gather mud and trash to throw while the girl stood by and smirked.
I sighed, and reached for my rowan stick. The girl laughed and gestured. The stick went flying out of my reach. I scowled, and went to fetch it. Just as I was about to grab it, it went flying out of my reach again. The girl laughed harder. The boys joined in. I began to get angry.
The two male sorcerers gestured, and I felt and invisible force grab me by my ankles. I yelped as my feet went flying into the air. Soon I was hanging upside down from the invisible grip on my ankles.
I scowled and grabbed my skirt, trying to keep my underwear from showing. “Put me down!”
The boys only laughed. The ones who weren’t holding me upside down began to pelt me and my mother with mud and rocks. The girl smirked and gestured. I began to feel an invisible force trying to pull my skirt from my hands.
My anger grew, and suddenly, I felt a hot, tight feeling inside my chest. I gasped as it kept building and building, until…
Red fire exploded from my chest. It struck the group of children, sending them flying. The grip on my ankles vanished, and my head struck the ground, hard. I scowled and sat up, rubbing the painful bump on my forehead.
I turned to my tormentors. Most were dazed. The three sorcerers were unconscious. Once boy, however, was running away, screaming for his mother and sorcerer Jan.
My mother joined me by the fence. She looked nervously at the children. “Don’t you think that might have been a bit much?”
I shook my head. “I didn’t mean to…” I started to cry. The tears trickling down my face glowed slightly blue, making me cry harder. What was this strange power inside of me?
My mother held me to her chest, rocking me slightly. “Shh, shh, it’s okay.” But it wasn’t.
I heard running footsteps. “What the—” That was sorcerer Jan.
“My baby!” I winced, recognizing the voice. The village headman’s wife. “She attacked my baby!”
I heard a babble of voices, all demanding that I be punished for harming the children.
“Enough!” bellowed the sorcerer. “Punishing her is pointless. It is hard for young sorcerers to control their power at the best of times. When they have had no training… Why was this child not brought to me?”
“She’s Amela’s bastard!” snapped an older woman. “She’s worthless!”
The sorcerer’s voice was cold. “That’s not a good reason.” I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Turn around, child. Let me get a good look at you.”
I turned, still crying. I saw Jan take in my tears, my rumpled skirts, and the bruise on my forehead. His expression darkened, but his voice was soft. “What happened?”
One of his pupils began to speak. “She—”
Sorcerer Jan whirled around and cut him off. “I wasn’t talking to you.” He turned back to me. “What happened? How did you get that bruise? How did your skirt get torn?”
I looked down. My skirt was, indeed, torn. I scowled, and told the sorcerer the whole story.
“We didn’t do anything!” Protested the girl.
The sorcerer’s voice was still soft. Soft, but full of ice. “Are you willing to declare that while under a truth spell?”
The girl bit her lip, and shook her head.
“What was the first lesson I taught the three of you?” Jan snapped.
A boy raised his hand. “How to move objects without touching them?”
“No. Before that. When I lined you up in front of the schoolhouse on the first day, what did I tell you?” Jan asked. His voice had gone soft again. “I told you to never, ever use your power against someone without magic. Not if you have any other choice. ”
“But she has magic!” The other boy sorcerer protested.
“Did you know that when you started to pick on her?” Jan asked.
The boy hung his head. “No.”
Jan turned to me. “You said red fire came out of you.” He frowned. “That doesn’t sound like wild sorcery. That sounds like something you inherited.”
He turned to my mother. “What do you know about her father?”
She hung her head. “Very little,” she whispered. “But he had magic. That’s how he…” She choked off with a sob.
“How he what?” asked sorcerer Jan, voice gentle.
“He raped me.” My mother’s voice was soft, but clear. “There were bands of something like fire around my wrists and ankles. I could barely move.”
An old woman, the one who had called me worthless, snapped, “You never told us he had magic!”
My mother looked up, and then away. “I tried, mother. You didn’t listen.” She sniffed. “No one listened.”
Sorcerer Jan nodded decisively. “Well, that settles it. This young person must be trained, and I will train her.” He turned to his three wayward students. “As for the three of you…” His expression hardened. “Your magic is weak enough that it is no threat if it escapes your control. I need not train you. And I will not, unless you can convince me you will no longer use your power to bully and abuse.”
“That’s not fair!” objected the village headman.
My new teacher sighed. “Very little in life is fair. And I have made my decision. You will not sway me.”
He turned to me. “Come, child. Join me at the schoolhouse. I need to see what you can do.”
I stood in the center of the training yard, sword drawn. With a thought, I made my sword glow with red flames, aided by the runes I had painstakingly inscribed in the hilt and blade.
The recruiting officer examined my blade, eyes glowing slightly as she examined my magic. She nodded. “You are skilled in rune work.”
I smiled wryly. “I need to be. As an incubus, my reserves of power are small.”
She drew her own blade, which also burst into red fire. As a hellion, with massive power reserves, she needed no runes to aid in the magic’s flow. “You will face me in battle, and then a celer and a drone. I need to know you can counter different combat styles.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the King watching. He looked thoughtful. I swallowed. This was likely the most important fight of my life.
“Don’t watch him,” snapped the hellion. “Watch me!”
I turned my full attention to her. She looked magnificent, even for a hellion. Her skin, red like all hellions, had a faint orangish tinge. Her horns were long and sharp. Muscles bunched under her skin, and her tail, though shorter than mine, came to a wicked point. I glanced wryly at my own tail. Its tip was blunt, more for show than anything else.
The celer I was to face stood off to the side. He looked like the celer at the desk, except he was a paler shade of blue, closer to a mortal sky than cobalt. The drone flexed her translucent wings experimentally. Her entire body was sheathed in thick, green chitin. Her joints would be her weak points. Not that I had to do actual damage. I just had to disarm her. She favored a spear, as was typical for drones, held in her upper arms, which were humanoid aside from the chitin. Her lower arms looked like those of a praying mantis.
I focused on the hellion again, just as she lunged. I dove aside and rolled, coming up inside her guard. Her larger sword and long arms meant it was hard for her to attack opponents that were right beside her.
I expected her next move to be an attempt to force me back with her magic. I was not disappointed. A ring of red fire blasted out from her chest. I shielded. The amulet that supported my magical shield glowed violet, as did the bubble-like shield itself.
I had to end this quickly. In a long battle, her greater stamina and magical reserves would ensure her victory. I attempted to disarm her, but she blocked. I disengaged before she could bring her superior strength into play, and rolled between her legs to come up behind her.
She wasn’t expecting that. I thrust a green glowing elbow into her lower back, forcing all the air out of her left lung. A downside to a hellion’s thick muscle was that, once you had knocked the air from them, it was hard for them to recover. Gasping, she attempted to whirl to face me, but I darted around to stay at her back. Another green glowing blow, this time with my hilt, and her right lung was empty.
The hellion staggered dizzily, trying desperately to take in air. With her in that state, it was easy for me to blast her sword from her grip. Then I held my own sword to her throat. “Yield,” I told her.
In a real battle, this is when she would bring her horns, claws, and hooves into play, but we weren’t really trying to hurt each other. Still unable to bring enough air into her lungs to speak, she nodded. I lowered my sword and placed my hand on her stomach. A burst of green helped her reinflate her lungs.
For a moment she just gasped. Then she nodded, a look of surprised respect in her eyes. “Very nice.”
I realized that she hadn’t been going easy on me, and she hadn’t expected me to win. I looked down, embarrassed. “I’ve practiced that move a lot,” I mumbled.
She nodded. “And you backed it up with runes.” She gestured to a charm on one of the bracelets I wore, which was still glowing green.
I nodded. “Yeah. I do that with pretty much every important spell.” Most of the runes were on the charms in my bracelets. Some charms were single use, for emergencies only. Most were not.
The celer stepped forward. “I hope that that wasn’t your only trick. I’d hate for this battle to be easy.” He smiled a sharp toothed grin. I noticed one of his fangs had been replaced by a golden one.
I grinned in return. My smile was far less intimidating. “Of course not. I have plenty more tricks up my sleeve.” Or, rather, on my charm bracelets.
The celer ignited his weapons, a pair of daggers. Ideal for a demon whose primary strength was speed.
He moved in a blur. I barely blocked his attempt to disarm me. A single spike sliced my arm. I winced.
The hellion recruiting officer growled. “Xanders! Disarm only!”
The celer growled back. “If he wants to be one of us, he’d better be able to take some pain!”
The wound was already starting to close, but it was still slowing me down. I blocked blades and spikes in rapid succession. Xanders wasn’t staying in one place long enough for me to disarm him, so, if I didn’t want to kill him, I could only defend. The problem with that was that I had to be lucky every time. He only needed to get lucky once. One good hit, at that speed, and I would be done.
The hellion snarled. “Xanders! Stand down, now!”
I blocked a blade headed toward my throat. My eyes widened. This demon was actually trying to kill me!
I swallowed and activated one of my one use only charms. I hadn’t tested this one in battle yet. I’d barely tested it at all.
A golden glow surrounded me. Through the glow, the scene in front of me slowed. The celer was moving as if through thick molasses. The hellion recruiting master, who seemed to be getting ready to break up the battle, was moving even slower. I could see every grain of dust kicked up by our battle, drifting gradually along parabolic trajectories.
The only demon in the courtyard who wasn’t affected by my time dilation spell was the King. He smiled.
I slammed the hilt of my sword into the side of the celer’s head. Red fire raced to surround his hairless cranium, and I released the time spell. Suddenly, everything was moving in real time once more.
The celer went flying through the air to slam into the courtyard wall. Then he fell to the ground, where he lay still, hopefully unconscious. I hadn’t intended to kill him. The hellion slowed to a stop, looking around in shock at the golden sparks drifting through the air. Then she looked over at the unconscious celer. “What was that?”
It was the King who answered. “A time dilation spell. Very well done, too. It almost affected me.”
The hellion blinked. “Time dilation?” Her voice was slightly shrill with disbelief.
King Horalo nodded. “Yes.” He turned to me. “I think we have seen all we need to see. You are now a member of the Elite. Moreover, I wish you to be a member of my personal guard. Do you accept?”
My eyes widened. “Yes, my liege. Of course!”
The King smiled. “Good.” He turned to the drone. “Drone, can you escort him to his new quarters? After that spell, he likely needs to rest.”
“I can keep going!” I protested.
“I’m sure you can, but there’s no reason for you to work yourself to exhaustion right now,” the King said with a chuckle. “Especially since I expect you to report for duty tomorrow at dawn.”
I bowed my head. “Yes, my liege.”