We appeared in a room I recognised to be the throne room of Aspheri. It seemed like a very long time since I had stood there as a scared child. Now I had returned as a woman, ready to take over from my father. A group of black robed demons had gathered in the chamber as a welcoming party, a group I guessed to be the council. They stood in two lines with a passage down the centre so I could walk past them towards the black throne. I glanced down at my oversized, baggy clothes and thought of my unkempt hair. Next in like to the throne. Yeah. More like a scrap picked up off the street which, I realised, I was. I faltered for a moment, realising how monumental a decision this was. Was I really ready to take on ruling a dimension? I looked at the expectant faces of the council and remembered that I wouldn't be alone. Squaring my shoulders, I stepped along the line, walking towards the throne. The demons bowed, one hand fisted over their hearts as I passed them. When I eventually read the books on demonic decorum, I learnt that the salute was one of upmost respect to the receiver, showing you the location of their primary heart before it became normal for it to sit in the left hand side of the chest. Case in point for the phrase: 'old habits die hard'. It felt strange, this new behaviour. They were treating me with respect, not hatred or fear. I turned to face them again, taking a moment to look at the council before I sat on the throne. Applause rang through the room. The eldest member of the council stepped forwards with some sort of delicate crown cradled in his battle scarred hands and spoke in demonic.
"There will be an official coronation soon, but to set things in motion..." He lifted the piece so I could get a good look at it. It was a piece of craftsmanship I would have thought beyond the demons I had seen here before. Delicate strands of a silvery white metal had been intricately wound together in a circle, dipping into a point that would come down to rest between my eyebrows. A trio of black gemstones had been worked into the design around the point, glittering red in the torchlight. The council member bowed slightly to me before placing the circlet on my head. It was lighter than I had expected, but it fitted perfectly. I reached up a hand to touch it, barely able to believe that I had just been crowned as a ruler. The metal was warm to the touch. A smile crept over my face as I thanked him and the council as a whole in the demonic language that every demon knew instinctively from the cradle, the language I would be speaking for years to come. The council erupted in cheers.
"All hail Shadow, Princess of Darkness!"
Several hours passed before I was left on my own again. Well, I say left on my own. For the next however many years I would rule over this dimension, I would never be completely alone. Aleth was still at my side. I rubbed my eyes, trying to shake off the tiredness of the last few days. A lot had happened.
I stood opposite a trainer in a hall designed for arms practise, breathing heavily. I wielded two elaborate short swords. Over the last three days, I had undergone rigorous testing to determine my levels of competence in battle. I had been assured that it was simply to know whether or not I required further training. For the moment, I had been able to hold my own against the trainers. I had retained a high degree of control over my magic in this incarnation, thank the goddess, as that could have been a very big problem. I wiped the sweat from my brow, rolling my sore shoulders. This trainer wasn't mincing his blows against a young girl. Every strike from his two-handed sword that I blocked had reverberated through my arms and spine. He bowed respectfully to me.
"I apologise, Princess, for the rough play..."
"Don't," I interrupted. "It's what you're supposed to do."
"Well, you may rest assured that although you could perhaps be a little finer in your swordplay, you are a proficient fighter. You require little more training." He bowed once more before leaving the training hall. I carefully sheathed my swords, trying to ignore the symphony of aches running through my body.
"My lady?" Asked a timid voice. I smiled slightly to myself. Aleth, the demoness who had come to Earth to find me and who was now my lady's maid, had never really gotten over her timidity around me. I could understand the sentiment, although I was sorry that she felt the need to be nervous around me. "My lady, you must prepare yourself for your coronation. It is getting late..."
"Thank you, Aleth," I said, turning to face her. "Perhaps you could help me? I don't really know my way around the temple, or a wardrobe for that matter."
The demoness' face light up in a smile as she nodded enthusiastically. I knew that she enjoyed picking out things for me to wear, that she felt proud when I sat with the council dressed by her care. I allowed her to lead me from the training hall along a further maze of corridors I was sure I was never going to remember the layout of towards my personal quarters.
My quarters were comprised of three rooms: a bedroom, a bathroom and a receiving/living room kind of thing. Aleth ushered me through to the bathroom where I was delighted to see that the pond-like indentation in the floor had been filled with hot water. She took charge, now in her element, telling me to strip off and get clean while she rooted through the mounds of clothes, some made especially for me, others left by previous female rulers. I gladly wriggled out of the skin-tight clothes I wore while training, slipping into the water and ducking my head under to get my long hair wet. The pool was deep enough in the centre for me to stand on the bottom and be completely submerged, but I stayed on the outer edge, where the water reached my midriff while I was standing. I picked up a bottle of soap, lathering myself up before ducking back underwater. I held my breath, enjoying the serene, silent realm below the surface before I had to come up for air. Aleth had found a mass of black fabric, which I guessed was what I was going to be wearing, but first she had me climb out of the pool so she could dry me off with magic. Clicking her tongue, she dashed around, fetching this and that before handing me the first garment to put on: a pair of skin-tight trousers. She then helped me struggled into a dress, lacing up the back of it as tightly as she could. After that came a sort of corset-style bodice that forced me to stand up straight. I glanced at the silver glass propped up on the wall. I couldn't believe my eyes. The sleeves of the dress hugged my arms like a second skin, leaving only my shoulders bare. The under bust bodice emphasised my curves to a degree I didn't think was possible, ending just above my hips to taper into a central point. The skirt was slit up one side to the hip, showing my black clad leg. Around my waist went an intricate belt holding a double-handed sword I would be required to carry at all ceremonies as well as a dagger concealed under my skirt. I pulled on a pair of heeled, knee-length boots, wondering how on earth I was going to walk in them. Aleth then clasped a light cloak around my shoulders, finishing off the outfit. I stared at myself in the mirror. I looked like some strange warrior queen. It seemed alien at the time. It would grow to be the norm. Aleth fussed around me, brushing my hair until it fell in a soft curtain down my back. I stared into my own violet eyes, trying to prepare myself to do this.
The coronation was being held in the town so that everyone could see. I was escorted by several heavily armed soldiers down through the main street, at the end of which stood the council. A hush fell over the crowd as I walked past them. I snuck several discreet glances as my soon-to-be subjects, noting with a hint of amusement that they had all preferred their more human appearances. I vaguely wondered why: was it because of me or because they enjoyed having opposable thumbs? The council stood in a semi circle, in the centre of which I knelt. The eldest member of the council lifted the circlet so that everyone could see it. I bowed my head, listening to him intone in demonic the proper rites and blessings that accompanied the coronation of a new ruler. The static feeling of magic flowed through the air. I held my breath as he lowered the circled onto my head and bade me to rise. I did so as gracefully as I could, allowing myself to be turned around to face my people.
"Look well upon our princess' face, for it is the last time we will see it for the last time during her reign!"
I sat on the throne only an hour or so after the coronation, listening to the last of dozens of ambassadors who had come to present their congratulations upon my 'ascension' to the throne. I inclined my head in Graceful Gratitude as instructed by Aleth. He soon left. Aleth stepped forwards from her place concealed behind the banner of the dimension that hung behind the throne.
"Oh, you're a goddess, I swear," I said as I noticed the cup of tea in her hands. She blushed slightly, stepping forwards onto the raised dais the throne sat on. I tugged on the knot of the black ribbon that held a mask over my face. I glanced down at the mask. The black face stared back at me. It was one of the laws of the dimension. The face of a female ruler may not be seen by anyone other than their lady's maid and their husband if they are married. It was supposed to protect me from unwelcome suitors and guard the ruler's appearance of innocence yet bad assness. This particular mask had been made to measure for me. The black face covered mine completely with only one eyehole for my right eye. A concealed slit allowed my voice to be heard clearly. It disgusted me to have to wear it, but it went with the station. Aleth passed me the cup of tea, taking the mask from my hands and putting it on a small table beside me. I took a sip of the strong, sweet tea. It invigorated me again as the warmth spread in a pool in my stomach. I leant my head back against the throne. One of the good things about the mask was that I was free to look bored without anyone realising. I carefully set the delicate cup down on the table.
"So, Aleth, what's next today?" Aleth started braiding my hair back as she replied.
"You will be introduced to your guard units, after which a meal will be laid out in your private chambers. The rest of the evening will be yours, although I recommend that you try to sleep."
"Ok, will do." Aleth tied off the plait, picking up the mask and securing it back over my face. I touched her handiwork, glad of the tight weave that kept my hair from getting too tangled and being near impossible to brush. A foot soldier stepped into the throne room, his eyes averted until he realised that I was masked. He bowed low, announcing the arrival of my guard unit. I inclined my head in acceptance, shifting on the throne into a more comfortable position. I guessed that I had a long wait ahead of me before being left alone, so might as well sit it out as comfortably as possible. A group of five demons filed through the door, lining up in front of me. I will admit that I was interested by the uniforms chosen. I already knew that my guard was to be composed to the most elite of the dimension's warriors. To put none-too-fine a point on it, these guys werefine. They wore the traditional male dress of the dimension, also known as nothing but a pair of loose trousers and a cloak. They carried long broadswords across their backs, a shorter sword on their hip and an expression of 'tangle with me and your great grandchildren will feel the blow I will deal you'. These were not people that even the bravest of demons tangled with. The most suicidal perhaps, but not the bravest, nor even the stupidest. I ran an admiring eye over their musculature, similar to humans, but divine in mass. These were lean, mean fighting machines. I listened distractedly as the captain, Nergal, introduced them to me: Aym, Vetis, Ose and Furfur. I did manage to commit their names to memory, but telling who's who is another kettle of fish altogether.
"And finally, my Lady, the guards who will remain at your sides at all time: Phantom and Wraith." I couldn't stop a look of delight flash across my face as Wraith sat at the end of the line, tongue lolling and tail wagging. Phantom was another wolf, who I guessed was the same as she was, graced with a human intelligence. He, however, sat ramrod straight with an expression of seriousness on his face.
"Thank you, Captain Nergal," I said, inclining my head to him. He bowed gracefully in return. All of the guards except my new wolf companions filed out of the room. Wraith and Phantom took up positions on either side of me, lying down like sphinxes on the dais. I rubbed the silky fur on Wraith's head, smiling slightly to myself. Maybe ruling wasn't going to be so hard after all.
I take that last statement back. Three years on, ruling a dimension was not as easy as it first looked. For a start, the council argued with each other about the most trivial of things until I told them to shut up and made the decision for them. I had near constant ambassadors clamouring for my attention, invitations to dine with heads of state, my people needing my attention to solve their problems, the list was never-ending. If it wasn't for Aleth, I would have gone crazy within the first few weeks. She schooled me in the appropriate ways to evade the ambassadors, how to behave at important events and dinners and taught me to limit the things I was taking on. She was always there every few hours with a cup of tea or a piece of helpful advice. She even had an indoor garden created for me, where I could go and no one was allowed to disturb me unless it was really important and could only be solved by me. My guard was, thankfully, understanding of the fact that I was having difficulty adjusting to the new lifestyle required of me. If they had to follow me when I would rather be alone, they shadowed me as discreetly as possible.
I lay back gratefully on the bench thoughtfully placed in my little garden, my mask left at the door, gazing up through the leafy canopies. Most of the plants were a sort of greyish green, the flowers all red, purple or black, but I didn't mind. Aleth had tried her best to instruct the demons on how a garden was supposed to look from pictures in books from Earth, but they didn't have a lot of imagination. They had tried their hardest, even creating a pond with a small waterfall feeding into it, filled with fish. Fish the same colours as the flowers, but I wasn't complaining. It added soothing, unobtrusive sound to the otherwise silent room. There was a knock on the door. I opened one eye irritably as Aleth stepped inside, looking very nervous about something.
"My Lady, there is a demon here who insists on seeing you straight away... He won't tell us his business, although he has told us that his name is Teran Dementius."
I sighed, getting up and taking my mask from her trembling hands. "I'll deal with it. Better hope he has a good excuse for this." I muttered, tying the mask over my face. I swept out of the room, lifting my skirts with one hand. I no longer wobbled in the high-heeled boots Aleth made me wear so that I stood equal in height with the majority of demons. Phantom and Wraith, who had been patiently sitting outside the garden room as always, fell into step with me.
I swept into the throne room in a flurry of skirts, seating myself on the throne and casting an eye over this Teran Dementius. The surname rang a bell. I remembered it from somewhere. I pushed those thoughts from my mind. Now was not the time. I had to admit that he was a handsome demon. His hair and eyes were a golden colour that reflected the red of the torches illuminating the room. His face was all planes and angles, his body lean muscle and a stance that told the world that he may not look like much, but he could probably best any opponent. Most young demoness would be panting after this specimen of demonhood. I would have joined those ranks had it not been for the look of extreme arrogance on his face. He knew how he looked and he knew that he could use those charms to beguile any female into doing his bidding. The part of my mind that still retained Holly-like characteristics didn't mind about that though. In fact, the exact words going through my head were 'oh, I would'. I mentally shook myself, trying to bring my head back into the present. Whoever this guy was, he was trouble and I couldn't afford to lose face. For the sake of my dimension.
"What urgency has brought you here that couldn't wait?" I asked
"My lady," he said, a hint of mocking in his tone as he bowed in supposed respect. "I know that you have probably not had time to review the traditions of succession, especially since you have only recently come to us, but I wish to inform you that you are, in fact, not the true successor to Karthragan the Destructor."
Behind the mask, I frowned. What was Teran up to? It was true that, age wise, I wasn't the direct successor. Vrael and Shaeman were. But the prophecy had named me. Karthragan himself had marked me. I raised my chin a little in defiance, determined not to let this demon think that he could intimidate me. "Who else would take the throne?"
Teran didn't answer me directly. Instead, he turned his head slightly so that his left eye caught the light. A scar that mirrored the one I bore curved around his left eye. I clenched my teeth. He smirked a little. "He marked me as his first heir. That you bear a similar scar around your right eye means that he marked you as his second."
I raised an eyebrow. That didn't make sense. If he was truely the first heir, then why would Aleth have come to find me on Earth when he resided in Aspheri, ready to take over from Karthragan? But if he was lying, then why had Karthragan marked him like that? Why did I have the scar around my right eye when it was common knowledge that the devil was always on the left? I softly called my lady's maid's name. Aleth was by my side in an instant, looking a little worried. Of course she did. I never called for her during an audience.
"My lady?" She inquired.
"Could you please summon the council? I need to speak to them."
Within moments of Aleth's departure, the council congregated in my throne room. A collective scowl appeared on their faces as each one clapped eyes on the golden haired demon that happened to be stirring up the trouble.
"Lucas," I said, addressing the elder demon of the council, "could you tell me about the marking done by scarring? More specifically, that done by Karthragan to mark his succession?"
"My lady, the crescent scar that you bear marks you as the first successor."
"And if it were to be around my left eye?"
"Then it signifies that you are second in line for the throne."
I leant back in my throne. "Lucas, what would happen if I died without marking an heir?"
"We would seek the demon with the left scar."
"Thank you, Lucas, you have been most helpful and given me much to ponder. You may depart, and please take Teran with you."
Aleth appeared as soon as the council had filed out, having a quick word with the guard on duty outside the chamber before returning to my side. I glanced up at her before taking my mask off. Goddess, I was tired. I had my first major rival. I wasn't sure, but I got the feeling that he wouldn't hesitate to stoop to the lowest means of gaining the throne.
"Aleth, could you bring me a sword, by any chance?"
"Of course, my lady." A few moments later, I belted a short sword around my waist and concealed a dagger within my bodice and a second up my sleeve. No way was I going to let Teran get the better of me. I hadn't spent the best part of three years trying to repair the dimension left to ruin under my father's reign to just let someone who was likely to undo all that work take the throne. I leant back against the elegant chair, rubbing my temples. My vulnerable period was coming up. It always gave me a massive headache and I had a tendency to get rather irritable. Holly used to call it 'PMS', and joked that although he was a guy, Jamie suffered from it permanently. Sighing heavily, I dropped a hand to scratch Wraith's head. She wagged her tail happily. She tensed, looking at the door. She seemed ready to bolt after whatever it was that had caught her attention, but her sense of duty forced ehr to stay. I grabbed my mask again, tying it over my face.
"Ok, Wraith, let's go see."
Still quivering with anticipation, Wraith set off at a controlled trot. I strode after her, wondering what had excited the wolf so much. Phantom loped alongside me with an easy grace, completely undeterred by his partner's excitement. When she darted down a dimly-lit passage, I hesitated slightly. For all I knew, Teran was waiting for me down there. On the other hand, I was probably just being paranoid. I had to start being more like Amarath, sticking my hand into the box even though I didn't know if the contents would be friendly or whether it would bite me. Squaring my shoulders and straightening my spine, I followed Wraith.
My eyes quickly adjusted to the gloom. Being a part demon thankfully brought good low-light vision. A dull torch flickered, throwing dancing shadows across the black walls. A new smell wafted past my nose. A familiar smell. One I hadn't smelt in so long. Just over three years, in fact. It couldn't be... He had to have really screwed up. Purple fur glinted a little in the firelight. Red eyes gleamed from the shadows. Wraith barked.
"You," I spoke the single word, the English sticking a little in my throat after years of only speaking demonic. An air of slight confusion
"I don't think we've been introduced," growled Bart's voice. I couldn't help but smile. Of course he wouldn't remember me like this. Last time I had seen him, I hadn't made the transition to ruler.
"No, you wouldn't remember me. I shall introduce myself. I am Princess Shadow Wolf Alexai Roth."
The red eyes widened in the gloom. He tried to speak, tripping over the word 'princess'. After a moment, he sank into a deep bow. Resisting the urge to roll my eyes, I placed two fingers under his chin, lifting him out of the position of subordinance. For a handful of heartbeats, I studied his face, smiling a little behind my mask.
"You really messed up this time, didn't you?"
"Yeah, I really screwed up. I don't even know how I managed to change dimensions, your highness!"
"Not 'your highness'," I corrected, "Shadow."
"My lady?" Called Aleth's voice. I turned to see my lady's maid hurrying towards me. She looked flustered. That wasn't normal for her. She was usually so calm and composed.
"What has happened?" I asked, switching back to Demonic.
"An ambassador from Alena has arrived, my lady. Alena is an ice dimension close to ours and he suffers here. We were also on the brink of a war with them while under your father's rule. It is most urgent that you receive him immediately!"
"I sighed, a little irritated. "Ok, Aleth, could you take Bart to the garden hall? I will receive the ambassador in my private reception chamber. It's cooler in there." I smiled briefly at Bart, but then remembered that he wouldn't be able to see it through the mask. I glanced down at Wraith, motioning for her to follow Bart. Her tail drooped a little, but she obeyed, trotting reluctantly after the Kraferr. Gritting my teeth and preparing myself for the worst, I strode towards my private chambers, Phantom following close behind me.
I paused at the door, letting my eyes adjust to the dimmer light. The usual torches had been replaced by orbs of magic that gave off light, but not heat. I gazed at the ambassador, catching my first glimpse of an Alenian. I had never even heard of them, let alone seen one. He stood on two bird-like legs, the knee joints facing the opposite way to a human's, with four toes apiece, each one tipped with fearsome talons. His upper body and head were human enough, although his hair was composed of long feathers, the pack of his arms also lines with softer looking plumage. A pair of wings were folded neatly against his back. His skin shone a little with sweat despite his only clothing being a knee-length skirt that resembled human kilts. What struck me the most, however, was his pallor. His skin was only a couple of shades darker than his white feathers and, when he turned to face me, eyes that were such a pale gree that they were hardly distinguishable from the white. He bowed low to me.
"Princess Shadow," he murmured respectfully.
"Ambassador," I replied, inclining my head and gesturing for him to take a seat. "I believe that we should dispense with the usual formalities. It must be most uncomfortable to be in this dimension."
"Thank you, your highness." The Alenian seemed somewhat relieved as he folded his awkward limbs to sit down. "My Lord and Master, Prince Melek of Alena wishes to mend bridges that he burned with your predecessor and hopes to build new, more intimate bridges with you."
I had to process that information for a moment, but still had to ask for clarification. I had an idea about what he was saying, but you can never be too careful when it comes to diplomacy. That and, if I was right, I really didn't like the idea of what he was proposing. The Alenian ambassador laughed coldly.
"Why, he means to unite our dimension through marriage."
Damn, just what I didn't want to hear. Now I had to dread really carefully for fear of starting the war Karthragan had nearly managed to begin. Marriage between dimension rulers was a finiky subject at best, and this was definitely not 'at best'. "Hypothetically, and this is by no means my answer, what would happen should I decide that it was within the best interests of my people to decline his offer?"
The ambassador seemed aghast. "No female could refuse my Lord andMaster! His wings are strong, his talons sharp and his eyes bright! He is the perfect male! But he has told me, and I speak his exact words: 'should she decide to refuse me, I will raze Aspheri to the ground'."
I dismissed the Alenian as quickly as the rules of diplomacy allowed. My hands were shaking as I tried to calm myself. Aleth poked her head around the door. She gasped as she saw my state, rushing to my side, grabbing a goblet ofStykka. I gulped the sweet, spiced juice. She waited patiently for me to tell her what had happened. She could wait a little longer.
"Prepare a small bag for me. I will accompany Bart back to Earth and remain there for a couple of days. On my own."
"But my lady..."
"Now, Aleth!" I felt my voice take on the deep rumbling of my demonic side. Aleth squeaked and darted away. I listened to her rummaging through my clothes for a good few minutes before she returned with a satchel, looking distinctly unhappy. I took the bag, apologising for my outburst before setting off for the garden.
Another messenger intercepted me looking harried. I ground my teeth. I had to get away and deal with getting Bart back to Dominique before he managed to get himself into even more trouble. Deciphering some message about an uninvited warrior appearing in the main courtyard, I fought down my anger and turned around, heading towards the doors that would lead onto the courtyard.
What I saw there made me realise exactly why the messenger had been in such a state of panic. The being in front of my eyes certainly looked humanoid enough, but there was an air of evil that surrounded him so potent I could almost see the darkness around him. Drawing myself up to my full height in an attempt to look in charge, I strode towards the entity, passing through the ring of guards.
“Who are you, stranger to my realm?”
The being looked down at me through strange turquoise eyes. And when I say 'looked down', I mean that this creature stood at about my height and half again. A giant, even by the terms of the demons who more often than not stood a good head and shoulders over me. His pale skin seemed all the more pale because of the spiked, black armour that covered the majority of his skin. A helm had been tucked under his arm. Dark hair had been left loose to fall to brush his shoulders and, when he spoke, he showed two rows of teeth sharpened to points.
“I am Kaleb of the Dead.” Although he spoke in a quiet voice, it seemed all the louder and more powerful by his presence and what his name meant.
“The Would-be King...” I murmured. That's what legend called this creature. The Would-be King of the dead dimensions. Named so since he ruled over everything dead and dying, but it was considered that, since the dead were the dead, he ruled over nothing. For species such as demons, who knew about the legends of the great legions of the undead who resided in other dimensions, this was untrue. So he was named the Would-be King. Many religions paid tribute to him to watch over their ill and deceased. Yet, here he stood, in my dimension. He chuckled deep in his chest, his eyes fixed on my mask.
“I believe that it what they call me.” His eyes fell to Phantom. Unsure of his intentions, I laid a hand on the wolf's head, unnerved. “May I become aquainted with your wolf friends, my lady?”
“I have only one of my guards at my side for the moment,” I explained, “his name is Phantom.” The wolf curled one lip back, showing his teeth. Phantom's usual way of greeting people.
"I am gifted with Truesight. I am able to see your other companion inside the palace, as well as the Kraferr. I see what things really are, no amount of magic can disguise anything. Your mask provides no challenge for me, you are quite lovely, if I may say so without sounding disrespectful, my lady. I know it is by law that you wear it."
My hand flew to my mask, my eyes widening. The guards had raised their weapons, but I motioned for them to stand down. There was no need to antagonise the Would-Be King. If legend was accurate, he could obliterate the dimension in the blink of an eye. I closed my eyes briefly, regaining my composure. I had to try and find a way around this.
“Why have you come here, Kaleb of the Dead?”
“I seek companionship, my Lady, a place to stay where the inhabitants will not be put off by my presence.”
I nodded once, turning to one of the guards near by, instructing him to find suitable quarters for the Would-Be King. Turning back to Kaleb, I inclined my head. "You will be given a place to stay here for as long as you wish, Would-be King. Should you allow me to excuse myself, I have affairs that require my attention."
Bart was sitting on the bench, waiting patiently. He jumped as I walked in. His eyes dropped to my shaking hands, but to his credit, didn't comment. Instead, he enquired about the bag across my shoulders.
"I'll be taking you back to Earth and staying there for a couple of days," I explained. "I don't want you messing up again and ending up in yet another dimension." Without another word, I held out my hand for him to take. He took it immediately. Smiling slightly, I focused my mind, and teleported.