There are three reasons I don’t fight demons: they’re rich, they’re arrogant, and they always, always cheat. Without fail.
“Lyric,” says a voice behind me. I pause and then resume putting one foot in front of the other.
“What’s the bet on me today?”
“Thirty gold. And a few silvers thrown in by the more hesitant bidders.”
I roll my eyes. “Am I allowed weapons?”
“No physical weapons, but magic is allowed.”
Of course a demon would want to use magic. “What’s up with this one? Needs a reality check?”
A pale form comes even with me, matching my stride. “More like an ego boost. Falling from favor with your social circle must be a huge blow.” Sora can’t withhold their sarcasm and their voice practically drips with it.
“Oh well, what can they do but go fight in thieves’ circles when they need to release their emotions,” I sigh, pretending to be serious. My face gives me away.
“Why’d you agree to fight it this time?” they ask me.
I shrug, trying to be nonchalant. If Sora realizes there’s more to it they don’t press. Instead they run a barely visible hand through their barely visible hair.
“Don’t tell me you’re worried about my odds?” I glance over at them in time to catch a concerned expression.
“More like worried about your change in standards. You know Stefan would have taken it in a heartbeat.”
“Well there’s someone who needs an ego check,” I say, avoiding their question.
“Yes, I suppose so…”
Before they can take another step, I whirl and grab hold of Sora’s hand. I’m always surprised how solid it is despite its see-through appearance. “Cut to the important stuff. What am I getting into?”
They glare at me for a full two seconds before giving in. “This one’s royalty.”
I let go. “Of course it is.” So it’s super rich, super arrogant, and will cheat more than play by any kind of rules.
“Not super high up. Some offspring of a cousin of the king’s. But still. Royalty.” A pause. “You picked a great time to switch tactics.”
I don’t answer and we continue walking down the corridor. The thieves guild is a large building, all gothic stone structure and spades carved everywhere. Somehow the architect managed to make it look larger on the inside than outside. Perfect for those who want to avoid the law. As much as the decree of a bunch of wealthy, egotistical cheaters can count as the law.
The closer we get to the center of the building the more black-cloaked figures we pass and the more Sora inches closer to me. Just because no one else can see the spirit doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be able to feel them. “You’re gonna have to stop haunting me for at least thirty minutes,” I mutter under my breath.
“It is so cramped in there Lyric I swear to our stupid demon leaders―”
I grip the pendant at my neck, whisper a few words in demonic, and Sora is out of sight.
Then, without anyone’s presence to chide me for my hypocrisy, I whisper a few words of prayer. Sure I don’t fight demons because they’re horrible. But I also never lose, and you never know exactly what combination of awfulness you’re going to get with those things.
Especially not me.
My footsteps carry me deeper into the building until finally I emerge into the beating heart of the place. A large ring is barely visible through the crowds of people in the center of a cavernous room, complete with gilded domed ceiling, tiled floors, and pillars lining the walls. Instead of fencing around the edge of the circle of sand there is simply a shimmer to the air around it. This will be a magic fight, so therefore the magic must be contained.
“This is such a bad idea,” I mutter to myself, pushing through the throng, head down so as not to attract too much attention before the fight.
Finally I make it to the edge of the flickering barrier, where Kodiak is waiting by his huge bracket, which sits on an easel beside him. In one hand is a piece of chalk and in the other is a sack which he holds up when he catches a glimpse of me. “Could be all yours in a matter of minutes,” he grins. “Unless, of course, it wins.”
“It’s not going to win,” I say through clenched teeth.
“Of course not.” Kodiak gestures with the money bag arm towards the ring. “Whenever you’re ready.”
I walk through the barrier, feeling a tingling sensation as I do. When I reach the center of the ring my hands dart to my sides to check for weapons that aren’t there, leaving me feeling uncomfortably exposed. Then, having nothing else to do to ignore the stares and chatter coming from around me, I flick sparks between my fingers, the only sign of any anxiety about the upcoming fight.
I don’t even have to look to know when the demon enters the room. Instantly, any conversation is halted and everyone goes still. It’s been ten years and still no one quite knows how to react among demons. Not that anyone did much to stop them from ruling us.
The demon crosses the barrier and comes to a stop in front of me. Finally, I look up and look it in the eye. It stares back in challenge.
One of the things that makes demons so terrifying is how similar they look to humans. You might never know you were dealing with one until it decided to tell you. This one is dressed all in black, dark hair slicked back and a glint in its eyes.
“What are you here to fight for?” I ask, letting a sneer come into my voice. “I thought demons were supposed to be all high and mighty.”
The demon stares back haughtily. Then it tilts its head to the side, eyes on Sora’s pendant. “I thought you were supposed to be too.”
I step back slightly, eyes widening. “How do you―”
Instead of an answer I get a punch to the gut. Suddenly feeling like spitting fire, I dodge its next attack and return the punch. My fist collides with something much harder than flesh and I fight the urge to roll my eyes. There goes the no armor rule. In any case, I’m surprised the demon didn’t begin with a spell, but I’m not about to provoke it with one of my own.
It grunts slightly and before I know it, wind slams me back into the ground. I’m back on my feet in seconds, hurling a streak of energy at it. The demon simply holds up a hand and the energy is blown off course, forcing the audience to duck, awestruck. I’m not sure how many of them have actually seen me use my magic before.
“Seriously, why are you here?” I ask. “Don’t royals have anyone to beat up around the palace?”
No response, just another blast of air in my direction. Can’t be too powerful of a royal if this is all it can do.
But strangely enough, instead of trying to hurt me, the demon simply keeps trying to knock me to the ground. Why?
Instead of standing my ground, I let the next gust knock me flat. The crowd boos. The demon walks over. “Can’t you fight better than that?”
I don’t answer, taking advantage of its proximity to pull its arm down, pulling myself up and it down. Caught off guard, it falls, and I put a boot on its chest to keep it from getting back up. “Seems I could ask the same of you.”
But once again I don’t get an answer. The audience is cheering around me, clueless to any of our somewhat one-sided conversation. The demon‘s eyes are narrowed at me, full of suspicion. “Who are you?”
“If you’re not going to answer my questions, why would I answer yours?”
Still no answer. Instead, in one lightning quick movement, it reaches up and shoves the fabric of my sleeve up. To the rowdy drunks the mark on my wrist means nothing. But to the demon…It lets go. “You’re—you’re really—”
“What? I’m really what?” I ask in challenge, shoving my face closer to the demon’s.
No answer. Instead it stares at me, eyes narrowed, suspicious and fearful.
After a few seconds, I lose patience. I shove it down and walk out of the ring, grabbing the sack from a somewhat bemused Kodiak, refusing to acknowledge any of what just happened.
It’s back the next day.
“Why didn’t you leave?” Sora asks, after briefing me on the fight.
“I can’t,” I mutter.
“But it might figure out who you are.”
“That’s exactly why I can’t leave.”
“Lyric, you need to tell me why you’re doing this. I can’t help you if you don’t.”
I glare at the floor for a moment. “My mother sent it.”
“Anyone could tell you that. Even more reason to cut our losses and get out of here.”
“Kodiak has let me know that that won’t be an option again.”
“He did not.”
“We’ll find a new job somewhere else then.”
“We both know my mother will capture us on our way out of the city.”
A beat, then: “Yeah I suppose we do.”
“So we’re in agreement then?”
Sora gives a stiff nod. “But I swear to our somewhat questionable rulers, if you die I’m going to chase after you and slap you as hard as I possibly can for being an idiot.”
“Love you too Sora,” I say, then summon them back into my pendant.
When I get to the ring, the demon is waiting for me.
“Hello again,” it says, once I’ve joined it in the center. The crowd, larger than last night, is hushed, breathless, unable to quite make out what we’re saying but eager to witness the beginning of the fight.
“You agreed to fight me again.”
“You’re talkative tonight.”
“Maybe I want answers.”
“Who says you’ll get them?”
Its mouth twitches in some semblance of amusement. “I’ll get them.”
“I like your confidence.” I send crackling energy down my body, across the ground, and up its form, most likely only jolting it slightly, but its hair stands on end. The audience makes awed noises. Magic isn’t something everyone sees on a daily basis.
Well, most people.
“You think energy is powerful?” it asks me.
“So far all you’ve shown me is a few gusts of wind, so I wouldn’t be talking.”
The demon knocks me flat. It walks over and stands over me, a glint in its eyes. “A few gusts of wind?”
I electrocute it with all the strength in my body. “Yeah, something like that.”
The glint is gone as I get up, weight on my toes, ready for anything. “How did someone like you end up here?” it asks, then throws a punch. I dodge and land a punch in its side. No armor today. Interesting.
“Why would I trust a demon with anything about me?”
I dodge the wrong way and it knocks me to the ground. “Why wouldn’t you?”
I yank it down with me, using it as leverage for me to get back up. “Oh I don’t know, maybe because your kind took over, established a lawless government, and currently acts with the least amount of morals of any creature I’ve ever met.”
“My kind? You’re one to talk,” it says from the ground as the crowd hollers at it to get up or give in.
“You don’t know me.”
“I know enough.”
The next thing I know it has me wrapped in some kind of wind cocoon and I can’t move an inch. It gets up and right up close to me, inspecting my face.
After a moment―”What’s your name?”
I stay silent for a few moments, squirming against the invisible restraint, but then, “Lyric,” slips out.
The glint returns. “Karel.” Then it steps back and throws something on the floor. When the smoke clears, it’s gone.
The crowd agrees with me and I grab the bag from Kodiak.
“Lyric, no. He’s cheated twice. And you told him your name.”
“It’s not my real name. And I’ve gotten the money both times.”
“That doesn’t mean you’ll get it again. It’s playing at something larger,” Sora protests.
“Of course it’s playing at something larger. Mother isn’t an idiot.”
I get an eye roll for that. “But she’s not unbeatable.”
I smile. “I’m still fighting it.”
“Don’t worry so much, I have a plan.”
Karel doesn’t look the least bit fazed by all the booing that’s coming from the audience today. They don’t like cheaters. I could’ve told them it was coming though. Haven’t they ever met demons before?
“You’ve cheated twice,” I point out.
“You’ve gotten the money both times,” it says, arms crossed.
“Why do you think I’m here right now?”
“Yes, we both know what matters most to you.”
I raise an eyebrow. “Oh yeah? Well then, if money matters the most to me, what matters the most to you? Cheating your way out of a fight? Why are you here? And why do you keep coming back?”
“Do you really need the answer to that question?”
“Would I ask if I didn’t?”
All I get is a smirk as the audience clamors for us to start already.
I anticipate the first blast of wind, but get buffeted by the second.
“These fights are getting a bit repetitive don’t you think?” I ask, ducking a punch.
“The audience sure seems to think so,” it responds, dodging out of the way of an energy blast. Indeed, the cheering was more muted and I could swear the bet numbers were down.
“Kodiak isn’t going to let these fights keep going like this,” I mutter to myself. “He’s going to want more variation to keep the crowds up.”
“Then I suggest you figure out what I’m up to before our fight ends today,” it says. “Or are you just going to rely on your little ghost?”
I’m not sure how it knows about Sora but I don’t acknowledge that. “How am I supposed to find out what you’re up to when you won’t answer my questions?”
“A question for a question then.”
“How am I supposed to know you won’t leave once you’ve found out what you’re digging for?”
“Who says I’m digging?”
“I do,” I say, panting slightly. “Why are you here?”
“Family issue. Why did you break your policy to fight me?”
“Call it a whim. What happened to make you fall from grace?”
“Who said I fell from grace?”
“My ‘little ghost’ as you put it.”
All of a sudden it pauses, eyeing me. The booing resumes full volume. “Why did you leave?”
“Leave where?” I ask, feigning confusion. My pulse skips.
“You know where.”
“Oh please. You can’t expect me to believe I’d fall for your whole thief, underground fighter charade.” It steps closer to me, eyes narrowed. I clench my fist, energy building in my palm. The audience goes quiet, perhaps sensing the unusual tension in this fight.
All of a sudden Karel grabs the chain around my neck. “My mother was the one to give this to you, Calyra. Don’t think you could rewrite your history so easily.”
“Maybe not,” I hiss. “But I can rewrite my future.” It glares at me. “I know they’re using you. Did they tell you the reason I left?”
It doesn’t answer.
“I thought so.” I grab it by the collar, pulling it close enough it’s the only one that can hear me when I hiss, “You tell my mother I have no interest in being heir. You be heir for all I care. Just leave me alone.”
“Then why did you pay attention to the note she sent? Why’d you agree to fight me?”
“To send a message you idiot. And the money. I hope you didn’t think it was anything more noble. Or the exact opposite of noble considering what you want me to go back to. I mean, please, do you really care if I come back or not? We hadn’t even said three words to each other before.”
The look in Karel’s eyes proves I’m right.
“You won’t be seeing me again,” I say, backing up slowly as Kodiak begins to walk over to either end the fight or restart it.
Karel takes a step toward me. “Maybe not. But your family will never stop.”
Sora was probably right. I shouldn’t have fought this one. Allowed it to fuel the fire that keeps them searching for me.
I don’t respond, turning my back on my opponent. It is a clear sign and the audience picks it up clear as day. Some even gesture wildly at Karel, for him to attack while I’m not looking at him. When the “boo”s resume I smile to myself and step out of the ring, facing Kodiak.
“I’m done with that one.”
“Good,” he says. “The audience is too.” A beat. “You’ll be back tomorrow for your usual?”
I nod and walk away, already spotting Sora’s flickering form in the corridor. I’m going to get a talking to but they’ll help me stay hidden. Just like they always do.
I should have added a reason I don’t fight demons. They’re rich, they’re arrogant, they always cheat, and I want nothing more to do with them.