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What do you see reflected in your shadow?

He stares into the empty mirror, gleaming in his finery. His helmet glares at him from the dressing table; no matter which way he faces it, he can see it watching. The pale golden plume matches his wings.

The sword at his hip is heavy, not just in the physical sense. His mother’s blade, now his, but he doesn’t see it like that. No-one does.

The smell of stale blood and sweat fills his nose as he paces the waiting area. Today. Today, the entire angelic host will be watching. He must prove he is worthy, prove it to everyone. To himself.

The bell rings.

Naturally, the initial skirmish is nothing much. A minor demon creature, snarling and biting as it rushes mindlessly forwards, and he dispatches it with no difficulty. Black blood stains the sands.

Next, an ariel foe. He breathes a sigh of relief, for his mother’s sword is useless in this fight. An insectoid thing, too fast to hit with a blade, must be taken down with magic. He summons sharp points of light to his fingertips, sends them curving in vicious arcs towards the beast. It falls in pieces.

The spectral hound ghosts past his blade and claws his arm; stupid boy!

A break, while the medic tuts over his arm and casts disproving looks his way when she thinks he’s not watching. She seals the pain, but leaves the wound open. The blood will clear out the toxins, she says, and it’s not deep. It stains his sleeves crimson.

The bell is underscored by a roar.

The behemoth lumbers into the arena, and his blood freezes. Its arms hang by its sides, muscles bulging obscenely beneath amber skin. Tusks, as long as his arm, protrude from a gaping, grunting maw, and its shaggy head is crowned with a pair of twisting, gnarled horns. Its thick tail drags behind it.

It swipes at him with ferocious speed, claws like knives whistling through the air. He throws himself aside, frantically parries the second blow. It sends shockwaves up his arm, turns his fingers numb. He lunges forwards, blade darting for its head. One of its horns falls to the ground, sheared off about halfway up.

His heart soars, and he strikes another blow, slicing deep into its arm. Stinking black blood, thick as tar, oozes from the wound and the beast bellows in pain.

The behemoth rears back, cuts dripping blood, and swipes at him. He dodges it easily, but forgets about its tail, which slams into his chest and sends him crashing into a wall. Gasping, he staggers to his feet, blood stinging in his eyes. Something catches his eye; across the arena. His sword.

He stands in front of his mirror, ribs aching, wounds aching, pride in pieces.

But he smiles, and reaches out a hand to touch the mirror’s gleaming surface.

The lonely mirror shows only his face, pale and drawn. He squares his shoulders, takes a breath to calm his nerves. His hands shake, until he balls them so hard he leaves bloody smears on his fingertips 

His leathery wings are the same dark red as his suit and he’s taken pains to tame his wild hair, but father still sighs when he sees. 

Stuttering, stammering, jangling nerves fill his body as he waits at the top of the stairs. He can hear voices beyond the doors, hear them talking and laughing, but the words don’t seem to make sense 

The doors open 

The first to greet him is his father, Lord of Ring Azimuth, fifth circle of Hades. They share the same white hair, the same high cheekbones and pointed nose. But only one set of eyes carries disappointment. 

His aunt bustles over to congratulate him; his birthday, such an event. Such a wonderful occasion. Of course, it’s a special day today, isn’t it? He must be so excited, mustn’t he? He only feels sick, can feel his heart hammering in his chest, but he smiles and nods. Of course he’s happy today. 

He takes a glass of wine, but his hand slips and he knocks it off the tray instead. 

Thanks to his suit, he can’t see the stain, but he can feel his father’s eyes boring into the back of his head. He tries to talk to one of his friends from his childhood, before his station tore him loose from everyone he knew, but she sneers that he smells drunk. 

His father ushers him up to the front. 

He stands before a sea of faces, staring hungrily up at him. Waiting, for the heir of the great Azimuth Ring to speak. Waiting for him. Devils of the highest ranks, some barely older than himself, watching with bated breath. After all, is Azimuth not highest among them, the most esteemed?

His speech has been prepared for months now, and he’s practiced it every day, in the mirror. But the weight of the watching eyes, alert to the slightest weakness, seems to drive the words from his brain. How did it begin? He begins with the formal greetings; safe enough, and at once the words come rushing back.

His mouth is working almost on autopilot, the words falling into place as though it is the easiest thing in the world. His forced smile becomes a natural one. 

Allegorical. That’s the word that gets him. A mispronunciation that would probably have gone unremarked, but it throws all his words out of his brain like a child throwing toys from a crib and he just stands there, mouth hanging open as he tries to remember what he was supposed to say.

He stands in front of his mirror, face tear streaked, eyes red and swollen.

But he smiles, and reaches out a hand to touch the mirror’s gleaming surface.

“Hey, pal. You look like you’ve had an awful day. Want to talk about it?” 

And so they sit down together, back to back, worlds apart.

Let the bells ring out

Let the bells ring out

What the night sky sees

What the night sky sees