As the days passed by, Arellan spent less and less time with me. Senate duties kept piling up, forcing her to stay away. I never thought much of it. The High Priestess has assigned a few Senators to educate me as it was deemed too dangerous for me to attend school with the other children. Armen was my favourite teacher. He treated me like a normal child, without the fear disguised as hatred of the other Senators. I wasn't allowed to leave the Senate Towers, so the Senate Towers became my playground. Armen taught me how to play like a normal child, playing hide and seek with me through the many corridors. But there was always one. One who hated every fibre of my being. Who resented my life with all his soul. Meran. For many years, I didn't understand his hatred. It wasn't the same fear-hatred I sensed from everyone else that I began to understand as time passed by. This was a deep-rooted hatred. One that came to light in every word he spoke to me, in every insult, in every glare he cast at me. I was three years old when the first incident came to pass, when his hatred of me finally came to light.
Meran was one of my tutors who, no matter how hard I tried to work hard, always found fault. That day, I had worked hard all day, learning to read and write with Armen. It was now early in the evening, the pale violet sky outside my window turning to deeper shades of purple. Meran's lesson was the last lesson of the day. I was tired and looking forwards to some food and curling up under my blankets. I blinked, trying hard to focus on the antidote to the certain substances that would become poisonous to me. It was complex, requiring exact amounts of each ingredients and timing. I added a Careen feather, concentrating hard on not doing anything wrong, on not warranting Meran's harsh words. I heard the subtle shift in his stature as he prepared to lash out. I must have made a mistake! I scrambled to my feet, darting for the door. I didn't want to hear his words. I wanted to get away! Sharp pain slashed across my back. I fell forwards, landing heavily on the floor. Black blood had splattered in an arc across the floor. Something in my mind snapped. Raw heat flooded through my muscles. Like a puppet with no will of its own, I got to my feet. I wasn't in control of anything! Everything I saw was tinted red. I saw more than before, in more detail. My head bowed, looking at my hand as if I had never seen one before. Meran cursed under his breath, backing away. My head snapped up to look at him. Fire flooded through my muscles. Darkness clouded my mind.
Waking up was difficult, as if sleep was a warm, heavy blanket you didn't want to crawl out from under. But there was something else there. A presence. I forced my eyes to open. For a moment, the bright light seared my eyes. My back blossomed in pain as I struggled to sit up. A hand touched my shoulder, gently pushing me back down. I stifled a squeal. The High Priestess Arias! She was sitting right beside me! I quickly made a formal salute, but she waved it away.
"We are not standing on ceremony here," she said. "The healers have informed me that they have done the best they can to aid your recovery, although they tell me that wounds inflicted by magic are more difficult to heal than others." She sat back for a moment, observing me with a critical silver eye. "When were you going to tell us about Meran? The Healers have told me that you talked while unconscious of his words to you."
I refused to look at Arias. I hadn't planned on ever telling anyone. What Meran said to me held no consequence for the Synari. They had no need to know. Instead of answering Arias' question, I asked one of my own. "What happened to me?"
"You underwent a Demonic possession. The other half of your blood manifested itself. It was to be expected. You are of the average age for this to happen. You will begin magical training as soon as I find a senator willing to take on the task." Arias stood up, marking the conversation as over, but she paused, one hand on the door frame. "In light of this occurrence, the Senate found it fit to rename you. The Synari child known as Alexai is no more. She is dead. You are a new being. A true hybrid. You will now be known as 'Shadow'. Rest well, little one."
For the next few days, no one dared come near my room apart from the elderly Careen who brought me food, but she always left as quickly as she could. Instead, I read. I devoured books with my eyes. Spell books, storybooks, even extracts from the part demon scriptures. There was one book, however, that I refused to touch. That sat on my bookshelves and gathered dust. Demons. The book that held the picture of the creature that was my father. The silver glass in the corner of my room had been shattered. I had broken it in a fit of rage. I had caught my reflection one day, a changing girl. My skin had turned a pale grey, my hair a mess of black and purple. My eyes were a mottled bruise of violet and blue, my teeth and nails lengthening. My senses became more sensitive, I became stronger. With each passing day, I looked less and less like Arellan, and therefore more and more like my father. It was that thought that had made me smash the silver glass so that I couldn't see the monster I was becoming.
Five days after the incident, Armen came to see me. He let out a quiet 'oof' as I jumped on him, hugging the Senator tightly. He smiled down at me."
"Come on, Shadow, I have a little treat for you."
He took me out into the city for the first time in my life. He had instructed me to keep the hood on my cloak over my head to hide my identity, but I didn't care. I allowed myself a moment of awe. After living all of my short life within the tall Senate Towers, I hadn't realised how big the other towers of the city were. They looked tiny from my window, but now it was I who was dwarfed by their stature. Armen, amused by the look on my face issued me with a challenge: I wasn't to step on the cracks between the cobblestones. Gleefully, I jumped from one cobblestone to another, playing the game that generations of children have done before me. We reached the main street, weaving our way through the crowd to the front. Barriers stopped anyone from going into the main street, leaving a wide, clear passage. I tried to ask Armen what was happening, but he smiled and shushed me.
There was a commotion further down the line. I craned my neck to see further. Then I saw them. They always featured in my favourite books. The pegusi! Elegant equine bodies with their noble heads and slender legs completed by their giant feathered wings. A whole herd of them were charging down the cleared lane, heads tossing, muscles rippling beneath their gleaming velvet coats. These were war pegusi, the mounts of the city guard. Smarter, stronger and faster than their regular counterparts, they chose a single rider and would only take orders from them. They even shared a simple mental connection, able to feel what the other was feeling. I watched as one faltered in its stride, ears swivelling and sniffing the air. Its eye surveyed the children leaning on the makeshift fence. It took one hesitant step forwards. Then another. And another. It calmly clopped towards a delighted looking boy on the other side of the aisle. I felt a pang of jealousy and longing as he stroked the pegasus' nose.
"This is the Choosing," Armen explained, "they hold one every so often to recruit new people to the city guard. Whoever is chosen by a Pegasus is drafted. Uh oh!" He pulled me back a little as a lone black Pegasus, a giant even amongst the tallest of its kind, charged along the passage, zigzagging in the form of a creature gone mad. It crashed into the barrier not far from where I stood. A spark of lucidity cleared its rolling eyes.
"Is it possible?" I heard Armen murmur distantly. The black Pegasus walked along the passage, sniffing at the people. A child reached out to stroke it, but the aristocratic creature snapped at him, sending the boy stumbling back. I squashed the tiny spark of hope. There was no chance that a being so beautiful would choose a filthy blooded half demon.
"Please, take me away from here," I pleaded to Armen. The Senator must have sensed my distress. He took my hand and started to lead me away. A loud braying neigh shattered the air. I dared sneak a look back over my shoulder. The black giant was watching me. Me! With a movement of personified grace, the pegasus unfurled its giant wings and soared over the barrier. It trotted towards me and nuzzled my hands. I smiled, limiting my emotion so as not to spark off any magic, reaching up to stroke her nose. On the collar around the top of its neck was inscribed its name. Merlas. I snuck a look between her hind legs. A doe, a female pegasus. Armen put a hand on my shoulder.
"Congratulations," he said quietly. He lifted me up to perch on her broad back. I suddenly felt a long way from the ground. After all, as tall as a seven year old, I barely reached the half way up her shoulder. I leant forwards, running a hand down her neck, feeling the fine, soft hair beneath my fingers. She twisted her head round to nudge my foot, snorting quietly. I giggled, winding my fingers into her long mane, feeling the contrast between the coarse hair and her coat. Armen laid a hand on her neck and walked with me back to the building on the outskirts of the city where the pegusi lived.
I sat leaning against Merlas' reclining form in her stable. Armen had shown me round the two stable blocks, introducing me to a few of the pegusi and explaining everything he knew about them. One of the blocks was for the Domestic Pegusi, used by those who weren't bonded, and the other for the War Pegusi. He also explained about the two different breeds: the slender, delicate looking carnivorous pegusi with their long, sharp canine teeth and dished faces and the heavier, sturdier herbivorous pegusi with long hair from their knees to their hooves and big, expressive eyes. I nestled against Merlas as I wound my hand into her abundant mane, I listening to Armen arguing with a Carer, a Synari who chose to work with and serve the pegusi.
"Senator Armen, you have to understand that we cannot accept a half blood amongst us. There is no way. It is too dangerous. The doe could give us so much more if we could get her to choose a different rider."
"How long have you been waiting for her to choose a rider?"
"How many Choosings?"
"Forty and three."
"If we separate her from Shadow, she will go back to her uncontrollable state. Do you really wish to return to that?" I could sense the defeat coming from the carer.
"I do not mean to say that she should join the City Guard. Goddess knows, Arias would not allow it, but do not separate them. Merlas will calm down and Shadow will have a reason to try to keep herself under control now that our beloved High Priestess has forbidden her mother to see the child. For us, it makes the situation easier. The demoness keeps calm with the doe, and the doe becomes controllable. It appears to be what is known as a 'win-win' situation, no?"
"Yane," Armen's voice held a hint of warning. "Merlas belongs to me. I agreed to let my own doe be used for that experiment, and it failed. Now, the two half bloods have found solace in each other andyou will not separate them."
That evening, I burrowed under the blankets of my bed just as Armen opened the door. He chuckled, shaking his head. It was common knowledge to him that I only went to bed when I sensed him coming down the corridor to make sure I was not staying up too late into the night. Peeking my head out from under the covers to look at him, I smiled faintly. He ruffled my hair gently, perching on the bed, gently chiding me in the way that had become a customary part of the routine.
"How is Merlas a half blood?" I asked, clutching a lock of coarse hair taken from the doe's mane tightly in my hands.
Armen sat on the end of the bed. "I should have known you were listening. Merlas was, as I said, an experiment. A crossing between the two main breeds of pegusi. Can you tell me what they are?"
"The carnivore and the herbivore."
"Yes. Merlas was born of a herbivore doe and a carnivore stag. In a sense, the experiment was a success. She eats both meat and herbage. But she was strong. Stronger and bigger than the other pegusi. She quickly became uncontrollable. It took three carers to do anything with her. The rest of the flock rejected her because she was a half blood."
Armen left, leaving me alone in the dark. I waited a few seconds to make sure that he was out of earshot before scrambling out of bed. I didn't have very long. Not if I wanted to escape. If I had enough time, I could escape. My fingers fumbles with the catch on the window. I heard the door slide open. I whipped around. Meran. Just because he wasn't one of my teachers any more wasn't reason enough for him to leave me alone. It had never been reason enough for him not to haunt my mind and dreams. Enough for him to stay away in the dead of night when he would pin me to the floor and project visions of blood and violence into my mind. It was too late to hide now. His eyes gleamed red in the light of the tiny orb of magic Armen had cast for me as a night light. The thought of my father scared me, but not as much as Meran did now. Meran was here and now. And he was dangerous. I backed up against the window, trying to plan a strategy in my mind. I heard him utter a spell, locking the door. There was no way out now.
He walked towards me lazily, as if savouring the terror that was starting to take a hold of my soul. I had to calm down. I couldn't afford to have an outburst now. I had to stay in control. I waited a few more seconds, waiting until he was nearly within an arm's reach of me. I ducked. I scrambled away from him, darting to the other side of the room. He growled in anger.
"You can't escape me, demon," he snarled, "I have waited too long for this."
I waited for him to approach me again. If I managed to keep this up long enough, he would run out of time and be forced to leave. Unfortunately, he wasn't going to wait that long. A net of dark blue magic ensnared my ankle, trapping me. I pulled against his hold. My magic started to spark in the air, uncontrollable. I didn't have the experience to harness its potential. He grabbed my arm, snapping a cuff of grey metal onto my wrist. I snarled in pain, wrenching my arm from his grasp. It burned as if I had stuck my arm into the very heart of a fire. The magic I couldn't control vanished. I had nothing to fight with.
Meran sneered to himself as I worked it out. My efforts to break free from his magic doubled, but I felt so much weaker with the strange metal. Tears were starting to gather in my eyes. He grabbed a fistful of my hair before pulling a slender vial from his belt. He pulled out the stopped with his teeth. I tried to twist out of his grasp as the smell hit me. It was acidic, sickly sweet. It promised pain. Every fibre of my being screamed at me to get away from it. Meran sniffed the clear liquid with an air of appreciation.
"Holy water, straight from the temple of the goddess. Perfectly harmless to most races, but deadly to creatures of the underworld. I am finished playing with you, daughter of scum. It is time this world was cleansed from this darkness." He pulled sharply on my hair. I gasped in pain. He upended the vial into my open mouth before clamping it shut and pinching my nose closed. Desperation rose in my soul. Swallow or breathe? I had to breathe. The poison burned like the acid it smelt like. It pooled in the pit of my stomach before spreading out through my muscles. My legs gave out beneath me. I curled up into the tightest ball I could manage. I wanted to scream, to alert someone that there was something wrong, but I didn't want to give him the satisfaction of hearing the ultimatum of the pain I felt. The burning shot up my spine, igniting a flame in the base of my skull. I couldn't hold it back any more. I opened my mouth to scream only to find my voice muffled by a bundle of cloth. Tears streamed down my face. I glanced at the door, praying for someone to come through it to save me. Meran's cruel laugh echoed through my mind.
"No one is coming for you, half blood. No one cares. No one ever cared for a demon."
Through the darkness of despair, pain and anguish, a wave of calm descended. A motherly warmth. My eyelids drooped, half closed. I exhaled a long sigh, my mind floating above my body. New sensations overruled the agony. The heat of the sun on my back. The rush of wind on my face. The sound of rain on the roof as I lay snug and warm indoors. Feather light caresses. I sighed softly, letting myself fall into the touch. It curled itself around me like a fuzzy blanket, reassuring and comforting. I surrendered myself to it.
Something started hammering on the door, breaking me out of my mental escape. Pain slammed back into my body with the force of a flock of enraged pegusi. Meran smirked, murmuring into my ear that no one could get past his spell. I could taste blood in my mouth. My stomach was twisting itself into knots. My chest burned with every breath I struggled to take. The a bitter, coppery had gathered in my mouth, my vision tinted red as blood trickled in the place of tears.
Silver light flooded the room, almost blinding me in its intensity. Meran scrambled away. Someone shouted my name. I screamed for help, the cloth muffling the sound once more. I began to cough. More blood trickled from the corner of my mouth as the cloth was taken away. Panicked voices erupted around me. I screamed in agony as another wave of pain slammed into me. Something pinned my shoulders to the ground. Cool glass touched my lips. I tried to spit out this new liquid but to no avail. It froze its passage down my throat to pool in my stomach. Darkness descended like a thick blanket.