My gasp of pain echoed strangely as I awoke. My muscles pulsed, aching and burning with magic desperate to escape. The more I struggled to restrain it, the more it fought to escape. I had to let it go. I relinquished all semblance of control. It tore away from me, great talons ripping through me, white-hot claws raking through my skin. I don't know how long it lasted. The black energy poured from my body like a river bursts through the dam. Eventually it slowed to a trickle. Then it stopped. My throat was raw from screaming, my mind burning and my body a song of aches. Someone laid a cloak over me, blanketing me in its warmth. My tired eyes closed and I soon dropped into a sleep so encompassing as to be the eternal sleep.
I awoke again slowly, trying to piece together what had happened. It remained elusive. Every muscle and joint ached. My head felt as if someone was using it as an anvil. Even my hair seemed to hurt. I tried to remember what had happened, why I wasn't in my room anymore. Why I was lying on the earthen floor of a great cavern whose walls were blackened and burned. A solid looking door marked the only way out. I got to my feet, draping the cloak around my shoulders.
"Hello?" I called out. "Is there anyone there?"
The door opened to reveal Armen. He gathered me up in his arms, hugging me close, pressing his face into my hair as if he couldn't bring himself to believe that it was still me, that I had survived. I bit back tears again as I clung to him, unwilling to let go. I didn't want to leave the shelter and comfort if his arms where I knew I was safe. His voice was choked with unreleased desperation as he spoke.
"We thought we were going to lose you, between Meran's attack and the power surge. Merlas was restless so I thought I had better check on you." I looked up at him.
"Can I go see her?"
The first thing Merlas did was pin me down with one wing. Running a scrutinising eye over me, she started licking my face and arms. Armen leant against the wall of the stable, smiling at the sight. Only once Merlas deemed me to be clean enough did she let me up. I stayed lying down for a moment, enjoying the comfort of the feathers Merlas had moulted and that served as bedding. She lowered her head, letting me hang on around her neck as she helped me to my feet. For a moment, I kept my arms around her, breathing in her distinctive smell of grass and hunting, of dust and sunlight. She had saved me with her thoughts. She had taken me away from that situation and comforted me.
"You scared the feathers off me," she snorted in a very grumpy manner once I had let her go. I stared at her. Behind me, Armen chuckled.
"I forgot to tell you that the stories are true. War pegusi do talk." I turned back to Merlas, stroking her nose.
"Thank you for helping me," I murmured to her. Merlas nickered gently in reply.
A young carer stopped outside the stable, a terrified look on his face and his arms full of the cushion like saddle. He trembled as he bowed to Armen, unable to free his hands to perform a formal salute. Armen thanked him, taking the saddle from him. The hand couldn't have left quicker as he tripped over his own feet in his haste to get away.
"Today, I will introduce you to flying. This will become a reward for you, for good behaviour or work. This afternoon we will begin working with magic. You need to be able to harness it in order to defend yourself." He lifted the saddle up onto Merlas' back, showing me where all the different straps went: two around her belly, one across her chest and one around her hindquarters. A last, loose loop of leather around the base of her neck served as guidance. He led the pegasus out into the field adjoining the stable where a carer stood with a pretty, dainty looking brown doe. Armen lifted me up onto Merlas, tying the final straps around my calves and thighs, explaining that they would help me to stay on her back while flying. I fidgeted, unused to the position my legs were tied into, astride the doe, with my calves tucked under my thighs in a kneeling position so as not to get in the way of Merlas' wings. Swinging himself up onto his own mount, he imparted one last bit of advice as he tied himself in.
"Let her take off. Do not worry about it. She knows what she is doing."
He walked the pegasus to a long, fairly narrow strip of silvery grass. Merlas followed, prancing a little and tossing her head. She jumped forwards, barging Armen's doe out of the way, leaping into a gallop. I dropped the loop, terrified, grabbing onto the mane with both hands, the doe's gait pitching me back and forth. Then nothing. Her great wings stretched out on either side of me, beating gently as the ground dropped away beneath us. I snuck a peek down past her feathers. Everything seemed to be so small. I took hold of the loop again, but simply held it. I let her steer. She flew out towards the city, the warmth of daylight on our backs. Armen caught up with me, smiling. His mouth moved, saying something, but I couldn't hear what he said. The wind was whistling over my face, stealing all other sound from my ears.
The flight ended too soon in my opinion. Landing was even more uncomfortable than taking off, the sudden transition from smooth flight to rugged gallop. If it were not for the straps holding me to the saddle, I would surely have fallen off. I loosened the knots, but was then stuck. I couldn't get down. The ground was a long way off. I desperately looked around for something I could use as an intermediate step. The doe solved the dilemma herself She suddenly pitched forwards, her front legs folding beneath her. I slid down her neck to land in a tangled heap on the grass. Merlas snickered behind me. A hand pulled me to my feet, supporting me until my legs realised that they were supposed to hold my weight again.
"Did you enjoy your flight?" Armen asked.
I couldn't find the words to explain it. I just nodded.
I stayed in my room without protest the next day, thoughts of Merlas and the flight still fresh in my mind as I lay back on my bed and daydreamed. Night was falling rapidly outside, the light gradually dimming, the shadows lengthening. A strange tingling sensation shot through my body, not unlike a shiver or the feeling of someone stepping on your grave. I ignored it, rolling over onto my side. My rebellious hair fell over my face. Huffing, I raised a hand to push it out of the way. I froze. Nails, not claws, tipped my fingers. Scrambling off my bed, I darted for the silver glass. My shattered, distorted image looked back at me through blue eyes. Black hair, blue eyes, fingernails... I let out a yelp of surprise. What had happened to me?!
Armen burst into the room, his concern apparent in his expression. He found me curled in a corner, shaking uncontrollably and tugging on my hair. I couldn't summon my magic. I couldn't even feel it, just ice where its warmth usually ran through my blood.
"Shadow?" He asked, crouching next to me. "What happened?"
"I don't know, it just happened!" I wailed, "I can't even feel my magic!"
Armen barely suppressed a chuckle as he pulled me in for a quick bear hug, ruffling my hair. "It is nothing to worry about, Shadow, it is natural for part demons such as yourself to experience a 'vulnerable period' once a moon. You regain the form of your non demonic side for a period of three days and three nights. This means that you will be unable to use magic for the same period of time. You will be, as the name states, more vulnerable than normal. Wounds will heal at a much slower rate, you will find yourself weaker than you are accustomed to. But in light of all that, worry not. We will keep you safe."
As promised, three days later, a tremor passed over my skin as I sat at my desk with yet another scroll from the Part Demon Scriptures. A glance at my hand confirmed my thoughts. Thicker, harder, sharper claw had replaced the delicate fingernail. Heat suffused my muscles as magic coursed through my blood. I willed it into shape as Armen had begun teaching me to do. An orb of my black magic, glittering in the light of dusk, shimmered above my palm. A half-smile twisted one corner of my mouth. I released the magic, stretching my arms over my head. As much as I loathed being a half breed, being forced into a form where I was unable to defend myself was truly frightening. I wandered over to my window where, if I tried hard, I could catch a glimpse of the pegusi stables. I could feel Merlas' presence and her emotions, but I couldn't talk to her. It was hard when we were so far apart. I peered around the towers, trying to see the red tile roof of the stable, but something else caught my eye. Out on the plains surrounding the city. Flickering red light. In the streets below me, people began to throng, shouting to each other. The Senate Towers burst alive with activity. The door slammed open. Armen stood there, his expression serious and afraid.
"Synairn is under attack. Arias has commanded that you fight with us."
I didn't understand what was going on. I didn't even knowwhatwas going on. Armen swept me down to the lowest levels of the Senate Towers, protecting me from being jostled or trodden on as what seemed to be the entire population of Synairn was headed in the same direction. We emerged into a cavern that rang with the sound of metal on metal. I found myself face to face with a Senator who looked none too kindly at me.
"Demoness or not, I find it difficult to believe that out benevolent ruler has decided to send a child into battle. It seems wrong to lay such scars on a young mind."
"We have our orders, Rai. Equip her as best you can. I will return for her soon." Before I could utter so much as a word, Armen left me in the care of the scar-handed Synari. I swallowed hard as I looked up at him, wishing Armen hadn't left. Rai held my gaze for a moment before he shook his head, muttering under his breath as he searched through piles of metal plates. I stirred not one foot. More Synari swarmed around me, but I dared not move, not even as they glared at me with open hatred. I simply bowed my head and wished the ordeal, whatever it was, to be over. Rai returned moments later, metal piles high in his hands.
"I have nothing that will fit a soldier as small as you, but what I have will have to do. Time is of the essence." He started to put together various pieces of mismatched metals. A plain helm sat upon my head, although it seemed to fall easily over my eyes. A shirt of leather fell to my knees, smelling of sweat, terror and blood. My soft indoor shoes were replaced with heavy boots of a material I couldn't identify. Plates of mismatched, dented metal were then strapped over my forearms, shoulders, torso and legs. I felt so heavy that if a person should touch me on the shoulder, I would fall over and not be able to stand up again. Armen reappeared at my side, resplendent in his pieces of metal plate that fitted him like a glove.
"Armen, what of arms? Surely the High Priestess cannot expect her only to fight with magic?"
"Find her a long knife or a short sword. She had practiced with neither, but they remain among the simplest weapons to wield with any degree of accuracy."
Rai wrapped a belt twice around my waist, on which was a scarred leather sheath. I pulled out the blade it housed, a single edged knife common among the Synari who hunted the abundance of wildlife that teemed in the forests around the city. The blade itself was chipped and dented with use, but its edge still gleamed with a deadly air. At Armen's command, I hurried after him, trying to keep up as he strode out of the hall and out into the city.
The sight that met me as we stood on the brink onto the plains was not one I was prepared for, let along the wall of sound, smell and emotion that assaulted me until my head reeled from it. The fear and pain and anguish. The clanging of metal and cries and howls. The blood and sweat and cloying smell of death. Dry sobs caught in the back of my throat. I started to back away, wanting to flee, run, just get away from this place. Armen's hand on my shoulder stopped me. I glanced up at him. With infinite sadness in his eyes, he drew a sword that was almost as long as I was tall.
"I'm sorry, Shadow, but today, you must fight, for the good of our dimension."
I had no choice but to follow him as he and countless others rushed into the fray with metal in their hands. Jostled by their movements, I fell onto the battlefield, into the heart of the fray. I screamed aloud. A man with nothing but rage in his heart raised his sword. My fear took control. A blast of magic threw him far away. I pulled out the knife I had been given as I tried to make sense of the goings on. Not far above my head, metal clashed. Another creature tried to separate my head from my shoulders. I squeaked, slashing at him with my knife before running as fast as I could in the other direction. I tripped on something soft that I didn't want to think too closely about, falling to the very solid ground with a bone-jarring thud. I tried to scramble to my feet, but the metal plates were so heavy. They dragged me down, robbing me of the ability to run. A short sword stabbed through my calf as if it were no more than a piece of wet paper, impaling it to the ground. I screamed in pain.
"Now ah've gotcha, ya little stinka! Yer no' ge'in' away again!"
Panic gripped my heart in its ice cold talons. Fear numbed my mind. Then the burning started. The power surge. Oh goddess, the power surge. My hands dug into the blood-drenched ground. My heart beat so fast. The fire built within every fibre of me until it spiked in my head. A wave of black magic erupted from deep within me, knocking back my attacker and everyone around me. Darkness overtook my mind and I fell back onto the gore splattered ground.
The first thing I noticed was the smell. The smell of blood and death and burnt flesh. It almost choked me in its intensity. I could barely breathe. I opened my eyes. I saw the empty, glazed eyes of a dead man in front of me. With a shriek, I sat up. Pain lanced through my leg, still staked to the ground by the sword. Somewhere not far off, I heard the moans of a wounded soldier trying to get to his feet. Tears began to drip down my face as I stared at the violet sky. What had I done? I slumped back to the ground. My muscles protested, but I ignored them. How many had I killed? With one wave of magic, how many had I killed? Maybe I was just like my father. A ruthless and coldblooded killer. Not fit to live. Maybe a demon's only use was for destruction. Somewhere far above my head, something screeched. I took no notice. Something thudded to the ground. I did not turn to look.
"Little one," crooned a soft voice. Still, I did not acknowledge the presence of anyone else. Merlas lay next to me, harrumphing softly. "Oh, my little one..." She murmured in deepest sorrow before shielding me from the world in a cocoon of black feathers.