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The flower floated upon the water within the little clay bowl. Cynthia gently blew on the blossom, causing it to spin and its colors to whirl. She was going to get in trouble for stealing it, but she didn’t care. There would be one less apple for the high-borns, but Cynthia wanted the beautiful flower for herself. Maybe they wouldn’t notice.


Cynthia gazed at the flower with adoration. It was a thing of beauty. The flower had five petals, each trimmed in vibrant pink. The pink tips of the petals tapered down to white. Several yellow stamens jutted out, surrounding its pistil. Cynthia leaned forward to enjoy its scent, letting the pleasant fragrance tickle her nostrils. The flower belonged to one of her stepfather’s apple trees. Its natural destiny was for grander things than to be condemned to float in a small bowl of water. Cynthia felt guilty for having denied the flower of its greater purpose, but she just couldn’t help herself. The flowers were small reminders that there was a better life out there somewhere, and that somehow gave her strength.


Her room was one of the constant reminders of how bleak her life was. Her bed chamber was once a dungeon cell. The room had a dank, foul stench of decay. There were no windows. There was no light. Only by the grace of her glowing eyes, was she able to see in places where light could not go. Yet, within her dungeon chamber, there wasn’t much to look at.


Cynthia turned back to the little floating blossom. She caught her reflection. Her glowing purple eyes stared back at her. Her long black hair fell around her as she leaned forward. Cynthia had to pull her hair back so it wouldn’t fall into the water. She smiled at herself, showing off bronze skin, soft lips, and dimples. It is not like I am ugly, she told herself. I am just as good looking as Maghella.


Even as Cynthia told herself this, her fingers absently went to the two diminutive horns on her head. They were at least half as long as her sisters’ and mother’s. She frowned, and her agitation caused her small bat-like wings to vibrate.


Cynthia often compared herself to her sisters. Each was full-blooded succubus. They were taller, with larger horns and wings. They could fly. The full-bloods were also physically stronger and empowered with the ability to wield magic. For all the things the full-bloods could do that she could not, there was one ability they had that Cynthia coveted. It was the one ability that made succubi indispensable to their masters: their ability to reap souls.


Cynthia mused on this. Is that what she was truly after? Do I want to reap souls? No, she thought. It was that succubi must go to the mortal world to reap souls.


She looked at the flower again. That is what she wanted. The flower was native to a place Cynthia longed to go; with blue skies and soft green grass. If she was jealous of the full-bloods for anything, it was their allowance into the mortal world.


Outside Cynthia’s chamber, the approaching clacking of boots echoed down the hall. She sat up straight and grabbed the bowl of water. The little flower sloshed back and forth within its container. Anxiety seized her chest as she looked for a place to stash it. The footfalls were getting closer, louder. Cynthia had no furniture, no drawers, no chests. Her room was bare. She thought for a moment to bury the bowl, water, flower and all, under the pile of straw she slept on, but she wasn’t quick enough.


The heavy wooden door to Cynthia’s chamber flung open with a crash.


Cynthia’s mother stood there. Tall. Beautiful. Deadly. She looked as if she was about to say something when she caught sight of the little blossom.


“Unbelievable.” Lilitu scowled.


Lilitu crossed the room in two menacing strides and stomped a heavy boot down on her daughter’s hand, pinning it to the floor. Cynthia dropped the bowl and water splashed everywhere. The flower fell to the cold stone. Releasing Cynthia’s hand, Lilitu raised her boot up again and stomped down on the flower, grinding it into the stone.


“Do you know how much I risk for you, you impudent thing?” Lilitu shouted. Cynthia scrambled away in a backwards crawl. Her mother took a step forward.


“It was just one flower!” Cynthia said, cradling her hand.


“Do you remember the last time you were caught stealing from your stepfather’s orchard? Do you remember how many lashes you received? Your wings were shredded and your skin was torn apart! It took you over a Light and Dark to heal!”


“Malbraxa will not even notice. It was only one flower!”


“I do not care about Malbraxa’s stupid apples! You have much bigger problems than that.”


Cynthia’s stomach twisted into a sour, acidic knot. Problems with Malbraxa always ended with a whipping. But, if this wasn’t about the apple blossom…


“Why? What did I do?”


Lilitu stared up at the ceiling. She looked thoughtful. Cynthia knew when her mother paused to gather her thoughts, it was only the overture to a symphony of misery.


Lilitu was tall. At seven feet, she was a head taller than Cynthia. Dressed in fine wraps of turquoise and dripping in jewelry, Lilitu had all the trappings of the highborn devil she was. Her athletic body would have been enough to drive men to madness, to murder, or to war. In any other context, Lilitu would have been a vision of beauty. However, in her present demeanor, Lilitu was like a coiled snake ready to strike. Lilitu’s eyes burned bright red. Her large wings spread wide, and they vibrated in agitation.


When Lilitu spoke again it was with a measured control. “Malbraxa believes that when you are able to harness your magical abilities, you can find a way to reap souls.”


“Why does he think that? I have no magic. Nothing I do has—”


“I put my own blood and power into you when you were in the womb!” Lilitu shouted. “I know there is power in you.”


So much for calm and collective. Where was all this sudden rage coming from?


“I cannot protect you much longer, my daughter. Malbraxa is expecting results and his patience is less than mine.” Lilitu turned on her heel and strode toward the open door.


“Did you tell him that? That I could reap souls?”


Lilitu frowned. “He has grown tired of supporting you. Feeding you. Giving you a place to live, and you giving nothing back. He is ready to destroy you. I lied to him about your magic. I bought you some time. Remember our deal?”


How could she forget? It was her only way to the mortal realm. And it seemed forever out of her reach. “I need to learn magic and you would take me to the mortal realm. But I—”


“I do not want to hear your excuses! Your magic should have manifested when you aged twenty cycles. Two cycles ago! And nothing. I have invested everything in you. And now we are both out of time.”




It was an honest question. But she hadn’t meant it to come off so defiant. Cynthia winced a little.


Lilitu spun on her daughter again. She spoke slowly through clenched teeth. “What did you say?”


Cynthia kept her cool in the face of her mother’s baleful eyes. “Malbraxa has always been content to just ignore me. What made him suddenly lose patience?”


Lilitu shook her head and her wings drooped slightly. For a breath, she looked tired. She held her daughter in her gaze for a while before her frown returned. “If you must know, Sophielle is dead.”


“Dead? How?”


Lilitu shrugged. “Killed in the mortal realm and sent back to the river Styx to be reborn. She was ambushed on the shores by rival succubi and given her final death.”


No devil or demon can be truly be killed on any other plane of existence save the one they were born on.


“But we have soldiers along the river to collect Damned. Nobody could protect her?”


Lilitu shrugged. “We are reborn on the plane we are from. As it turns out, Sophielle was from the seventh circle. We have no soldiers there.”


With Sophielle dead, that left only a handful of succubi within Malbraxa’s fiefdom. Her mother seldom reaped these days. Mephandi, who was resigned to train succubi, did not reap either. Her job was to visit mortal worlds and learn culture and traditions. That left only Cynthia’s three sisters: Sarafine, Arachne, and Maghella.


Malbraxa was short on reapers who could harvest his precious Damned.


“You understand now?” Lilitu’s impatient tone pulled Cynthia out of her musings.


All Cynthia could do was nod.


“Consider it an incentive initiative. Malbraxa wants you cast magic or die. And, frankly, I am beginning to wonder if the power I have invested in you will ever bear fruit. As much as I need you for my plans in the mortal world, I will not risk exposure by continuously sticking my neck out for you.”


“Mother, I—”


 “Stop stealing flowers! If Malbraxa catches you again, I will not ask him for leniency. He is growing suspicious of it. Next time, you may very well die by the lashes.” She shot one final scowl at her daughter before turning and walking out, slamming the door behind her.


She glared at the place her mother had stood. Her heart sunk. Cynthia was no closer to casting magic than she was when she was two cycles ago. Nothing she attempted produced any sorcery. No amount of concentration on her part or screaming on her mother’s part made any difference. Worse yet, through all this despair, there was that damned nagging impulse again that seemed to yearn for Lilitu’s affection simply for the virtue of that woman being her mother.


She looked down at the flower, ground into the stone as it was. The petals, pistils, and stamen had all mashed together like an abstract collage of color on the cold floor. In a way, the remains of the flower were even more beautiful now than they had been when the flower was whole. The irony of this did not escape Cynthia.

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