Earth was colder than I remembered. I pulled my cloak closer around me, shivering briefly while I got used to the smells again. Oh, the joys of polluted air. It stinks. We had landed on the roof of an apartment building where I guessed Bart lived with Dominique. Both the Kraferrs' essences were infused into the building. Bart lead the way down a few flights of stairs, taking a set of keys from his belt to open a heavy front door. He gestured to me to pass, closing and locking the door behind him. I leapt back as a homicidal hurricane streaked past me in a flash of fur and metal, pinning Bart to the door with a formidable growl and a knife at his neck.
"Where the HELL have you been?!" Dominique snarled. The knife clattered to the ground as the Kraferrin crushed his ribs with a hug. Bart looked completely bewildered by Dominique's violent mood swing, wearing an expression that made me wish I had brought a camera.
"Dominique?" The Kraferr gasped, "Dominique, we have a guest..." The Kraferrin released Bart, but the glare she dealt him declared that she wasn't finished. She straightened her clothes, turning to run a critical eye over me for a heartbeat before her face took on an expression of forced welcome.
"Sorry about that. I'm Dominique..."
"I know," I replied. She looked a little confused by my answer. I reached up to pull off the mask. A look of delight crossed her face before she nearly bowled me over with a hug. I patted her back trying to draw breath under the affectionate attack. It was almost a relief when she let me go.
"I can't believe you're back! Bart told me that you had to go and take over from your dad!" She glanced over her shoulder at the Kraferr in question. She wrinkled her nose slightly. "Bart, why don't you go and take a shower while Shad and I catch up?" She turne back to me. "I'm guessing you're going to be here for a couple of days at least if you've crossed dimensions. You can stay with us." I opened my mouth to argue, but Dominique shot me a silencing glare. I shut my mouth again. I may rule a dimension, but I wasn't going to argue with a Kraferrin on her home turf. I kinda liked having all my limbs attached to my body, thanks.
Dominique showed me to a small guest room. I thanked her, putting my satchel down. I held my mask a little longer before placing it on the bed along with the circlet that told the world who I was; It felt a little odd to take it off. I had been wearing it for so long that I barely felt its weight. Now my head felt strangely light.
“What brought you back to Earth? I mean, Bart told me you weren't planning on coming back. That you were an important figure over there.”
“I rule the dimension,” I admitted.
“And you just left? Surely that's not a very, uh, royal thing to do?”
I sighed heavily, sitting down. “I had to get away form Aspheri. I've got to make a really difficult decision.” I rubbed my temples in an attempt to alleviate my headache. “To make a long story short, I either marry the prince of another dimension, or go to war and see Aspheri destroyed.”
“So there's a man who thinks he can bully you into marrying him because he can't get a girl any other way,” Dominique clarified. “Do you want to marry him?”
I snorted in laughter. “Alena's an ice dimension. Aspheri's fire. Even if I did love this guy, there's no way I am going to share a bed with an icecube in human form!”
Dominique smiled at that. “But you can't refuse him or you'll lose your dimension...”
I shook my head. “I'd lose Aspheri no matter which option I chose. I guess I'm just going to have to do a little diplomatic stalling until I can ally with a few more dimensions.” Dominique looked down at her hands, blushing a little. I could tell that there was something she wanted to talk about. Pushing my own problems to the back of my mind, I waited patiently for her to speak.
“Shad, is there any record of a part demon becoming a full demon?” She looked up at me, worry written on her face. I tilted my head to one side, inviting her to elaborate. “Well, there have been times when Bart's turned demonic and struggled to come back. I want to know if... if there's any chance he won't be able to come back.”
I leant back on my hands, trying to put my thoughts into words. “Part demon minds are complex,” I began, “We have our non-demonic sides, but there's also the demon. We can't survive without it. The two sides of us are constantly fighting for control, and only one can be in command at any one time. Bart was raised as a human. That part of him will always be stronger, but it also means that when he does submit to demonic possession, the demon will hang onto control with everything it has. There are ways to help someone come back, as well as training yourself to fight it, but it's a lot of work, especially for a Unborn like Bart. You have to help them focus on something very human to get them back from a demonic possession. The clan used pain, for example.”
Dominique left me to change out of my dress, leaving with a thoughtful and slightly puzzled look on her face. I rummaged through my bag, pulling out the clothes Aleth had packed for me. I made a mental note to grant whatever favour she next asked of me. She had packed a pair of trousers, a hooded sweatshirt and my favourite pair of low-heeled boots. The demoness definitely knew me. I pulled my hair into a high ponytail, a style Aleth would never let me wear on the account that she had enough trouble trying to make me look like an adult, a complaint I always answered with: "It's not my fault I got stuck with a fifteen-year-old body!"
Within a few minutes of me changing, Dominique called me though with a cry of 'dinner's nearly ready!'. I have to admit that I had been smelling the food cooking and realised how much I missed earth food. More than that, I missed regular meals! I may be Princess of Darkness, but that doesn't mean I have the time to eat as much as people think I do. I was just too busy most of the time. Seriously, there's a lot any ruler has to do in one day. I laid the table, reveling in the normality of everything. My mouth was watering with the smell of the seasoned steak and potatoes. Dominique brought the food to the table, looking a little embarrassed.
“I know it's probably not what you're used to...”
I stopped her there. “It smells great.” Looking a little happier, she set the food on the table, and we began to eat. I watched Bart out of the corner of my eye. He ate little, a dark expression clouding his face. That troubled me greatly. What troubled me even more was the fact that he was playing with a breadknife. He held it in a way that was definitely not suitable for cutting bread. Throats, perhaps, but not bread.
“Get down!” He yelled a split second before a window shattered. A human, a man, grabbed Bart from behind. The Kraferr headbutted him, breaking the human's nose in a spray of blood, sending him staggering back while Bart dove for the knife he had dropped. I allowed my seething magic explode from my hands, pinning the would-be assassin to the wall, wrapping around Bart to pin his arms to his sides and flicking the knife out of reach of either the Kraferrs or the human.
“Useless slab of human flesh!” Bart snarled, struggling against my hold. “Every week you try again! Do I have to kill you all?!”
“bart,” I growled in warning. “Emotions in check please.” The Kraferr glared at me, but fell silent. Dominique stepped forwards.
“listen you, you can tell your employers that if they don't start leaving us alone, the next soldier sent here will find himself sent back to base in a matchbox while he's still alive, got it?”
“Ok, Dominique, I think you can stop threatening him now. He looks scared enough and we don't want to have to clean up the puddle.” Casting a final murderous glance at the assassin, she stood down. I released the magic, letting the human fall unceremoniously to the ground. With a look of absolute terror, he scrambled for the door, running away as fast as possible.
"Well, uh, I think I'll just, uh, go to bed," Dominique said shortly before dashing into her room and slamming the door. Bart shot me a dark look, moving to stand by the window, looking out over the dark city. I stood next to him, my hands in the pocket of my hoodie.
"If you're going to tell me off, Shadow, get it over with."
I leant against the wall, running a hand though my hair. "Bart, you have to learn to control yourself. You're a danger not only to yourself, but to others as well."
"I know, you keep telling me."
I had to grit my teeth and count to ten before answering the Kraferr. "You're not some low level demon with all the inherent magical ability of a wet paper bag! There's a reason Karthragan's line is the royal line! If you don't start stamping down on your emotions, you are going to turn this city and everyone in it to dust!"
"The demon's going to take over sooner or later. Why bother fighting it?"
I suppressed the urge to whack my head off the wall with some difficulty. "Welcome to the life of every part demon who had ever lived! You have another being in your head trying to take control! Most of the time, you can ignore it, but the rest, you have to actively suppress it with the sheer force of your will!" I paused and softened my tone. "I care about you too much to see you become the rogue demon the clan has no choice but to put down."
Bart grunted in response, glaring out over the sleeping city.
I sighed heavily. "I will be paying a visit to the clan tomorrow. I would appreciate it if you would come with me." Without waiting for an answer, I turned away and shut myself in my borrowed room for the night.
I stood a little way off from the clearing where the clan had made their home. I tried not to think of them as my family now. Every time I did, the scar from Vrael's arrow ached. I glanced back at Bart, who gazed at the house with mixed emotions on his face. Tearing my gaze away, I spotted my old sword, still planted upright in the ground, marking the head of my grave. Moving to stand next to it, I touched the blade Shaeman had forged for me, that Amarath had taught me to wield. The long sword I carried on my hip was perhaps a finer blade, but it still paled in comparison to the one now rusting in the ground. Dropping my hand to my side, I turned back to Bart and then looked up at the trees.
"Ok, you can come down now, I know you're there."
With a couple of muffled curses, my guard unit dropped from the trees. Captain Nergal looked particularly uncomfortable.
"My lady, you were not supposed to be aware of us."
"Captain, since you and your demons follow me everywhere you can get a trace on my magical signature and that I know you post a guard in my room while I sleep and carry more weapons than my sister whether you're on duty or not, it was safe to assume you had followed me here."
The captain turned an interesting shade of grey which, given that our blood is black, equated to him blushing. I guessed tat it was because, as new as he was to being in charge of a guard squad, he wasn't used to people noticing his tactics. Smiling slightly to myself, I headed towards the clan's home.
As soon as we got within smelling range of the cottage, an earth-shaking, braying neigh shattered the air. I shook my head to clear the ringing noise from my ears. At least Merlas was still around, acting as a smell activated doorbell. Within moments, Amarath, Shaeman and Vrael stood outside the house, armed to the teeth, but thankfully defensive. Vrael and Shaeman were the first to realise that they were facing the ruler of Aspheri, dropping immediately into a bow, Shaeman's hand dragging Amarath down with them. We came to a stop a few metres away from the trio, my guards fanning out around me to take their positions. In a flurry of thundering hooves, Merlas came charging around the corner. The guards raised their weapons. Their intent towards the doe was clear.
"Stand down!" I commanded. Merlas snorted at them as they lowered their weapons. She stepped past them, lifting her hooves high, ears pinned back and baring her teeth. She came to stand in front of me, head turned to one side to get a better look. Her ears flicked back and forth, as if trying to work something out. She had a sniff at my hair. The tension was tangible. The trio of part demons needed to know what Merlas was up to. My guards had no idea what a pegasus was, let alone whether or not it was dangerous. None of that mattered to me somehow. All that mattered was if Merlas recognised me as the same Shadow that lay six feet beneath a sword gravestone. I had never thought about how much I had been changed by the reincarnation. The clan had rejected me vehemently. Would Merlas? I prayed that she would accept me. The doe lifted her left hind leg, watching me with a critical eye. She pawed the air a little. Memories of Synairn surfaced in my mind, of Merlas and I by the little stream in the mountains, learning to walk on four legs. I raised my left leg, mimicking her movements. She squealed, almost barrelling me over as she charged at me, thrusting her head into my hands. I laughed aloud, throwing my arms around her neck. After allowing myself a few moments to be deliriously happy about being reunited with my first ever friend, I came down from that high. Amarath, Shaeman and Vrael looked highly confused. My guards doubly so. I turned my strictest gaze to them.
"You will not speak of this," I warned. Realising what I was about to do, they averted their ees, finding somewhere to look that was most determinedly not at my face. As I pulled my mask off, Vrael growled and raised his bow. Shaeman ripped the weapon from his grasp.
"First of all," Shaeman growled to his brother, "if you so much as draw that string back, those guards with tear you apart. Secondly, if you want to argue with Merlas, be my guest. I wouldn't, and definitely not just after she finds the rider she thought was dead."
Amarath just watched me, as if trying to convince herself that Merlas was right. I wound my fingers into the doe's mane. For a few moments, we simply stared at each other. Amarath shook her head.
"Who am I to argue with Merlas about her bonded rider?" I stepped forwards to hug her tightly. After a moment's hesitation, she hugged me back. "Goddess, my sister's still alive!" The sisterly affection turned into a group hug as Vrael and Shaeman joined in. When we eventually let each other go, Shaeman gestured towards the house.
"I guess you should meet the latest additions to the clan." His eyes drifted over to the guard unit. Captain Nergal raised to hand to ward off the forthcoming question.
"We will keep eyes on the perimetre."
The house hadn't changed much. A few more painted-over scorch marks on the walls. A little more clutter. New teethmarks on the furniture. But it was still the same. I could still see old, familiar marks: patches of not-quite-concealed black from Vrael's experiments with electricity, a line of claw marks on the door from a frustrated babysitter, a slightly green ceiling from a failed attempt to teach Amarath how to brew a decent painkiller. I ducked as a hawk came swooping down the staircase, straining its wings to keep ahead of a determined looking dove. Amarath sighed, shaking her head before calling out to the two birds.
"Keegal! Archangel! Fall in and leave each other alone for once!" The two birds stopped mid-flight, dropping back to solid ground and morphing back into their human forms. One young boy I didn't recognise, the other, my Archangel,, who narrowed her eyes as she caught sight of me.
"What's wolf doing here? You banished her!"
Raven glowered at the young part demon. "If you want to argue with Merlas as well as an entire dimension of demons about your mother being reincarnated, be my guest." To her credit, Archangel didn't look too happy about that prospect. I made a mental note to ask Merlas exactly how much she had terrorized the clan to make them that afraid of her reactions. Archangel gazed at me critically, as if trying to spot all the tiny indicators that I wasn't actually Shadow. After a few tense moments her gaze softened.
"You really are Shadow, aren't you?"
I smiled a little, ruffling her hair in the way I distinctly remember her detesting, which was why I used to do it. It was hard not to get on each other's nerves when your family was basically comprised of your siblings."I should hope so," I replied. "Otherwise, these memories I have of giving birth to you are false." I turned to look at the boy who she had been chasing through the air. "And who's this lad? Karthragan manage to spawn another kid before I put an end to that?"
Strangely, Amarath blushed deeply. "Keegal? Uh, he's your nephew."
I stared at her. "Are you serious? Who're the parents?" I glanced at Archangel. She snorted, raising an eyebrow and putting her hands up in a surrendering gesture.
"Don't look at me, I'm your daughter, despite the fact that we have the same dad, which is justwrong."
I turned my gaze back to Amarath, who was fidgeting with the hem of her cloak. I waited patiently for her to explain.
"When I was back in Synairn, before the fight with the Redeamer, I fell in love with a captain of the city guard. He was a part demon as well, but one who had never developed the use of magic. A non-manifested part demon. He claimed he loved me back." She gritted her teeth, anger flashing briefly across her face.
"Yes, got me pregnant and left. I could have killed the... idiot."
"Mum usually uses words a lot ruder than that when she talks about Captain Dementius. She just tries not to say them in front of me or Draconiss," Keegal added.
"Dementius?" I clarified. Same last name as Teran as well as being a part demon. I made a mental note to look up the bloodlines when I got back to Aspheri. There might be some kind of connection.
Amarath looked at me a little strangely. "Yes, Marcus Dementius." She shook her head a little. "In any case, that's over and done with. There are still three more new kids for you to meet." She took one look at my expression of shock and laughed. "Keegal's twin and two more of Karthragan's offspring Shaeman and Vrael adopted, don't worry."
Amarath called the other three demon children, each one standing next to their twin. I should have recognised Keegal and his twin as Amarath's children. They looked very much like her, especially Draconiss. The other two, Cika and Mairae, looked very uncomfortable, holding on to each other for support. They didn't look like twins. Cika didn't even look like a part demon. I reasoned that it was possible that he was on his vulnerable period. The pair scarpered as soon as Amarath said they could, disappearing back up the stairs. I glanced at my sister for an explanation. She ran a hand though her short bob, sending her hair sticking up in all directions.
"Cika's a non-manifested. He's finding it a little hard to adapt to being with us. Shaeman found him in a children's home trying to figure out what was different about him. We found his twin a couple of months later, a manifested demon dying of cancer in an alley. Vrael had to bite her to save her life, so she's having to learn to deal with the whole vampire thing. They refuse to be separated." She shrugged. "It's easier just to leave them alone. Anyway, was there a particular reason you came all this way to visit?"
I took a deep breath. "I came to mark you as my heir. I'm running into problems on Aspheri that made me realise that if I don't mark an heir now, should I die, the dimension would fall into hands would rather it didn't." I met her gaze fully. "It means I have to give you a scar around your eye, if you decide to accept the position. Karthragan didn't give me a choice, but you do. You can choose to refuse or accept."
Amarath watched me for a few moments before reaching up her sleeve and pulling out a dagger. She handed it to me, hilt first. "Do it. Give me the scar."
I took the blade. Summoning up every scrap of courage, I raised it against my sister. I rested it against her skin, next to her eyebrow. Her eyes bored into mine. A bead of blood dripped from under the blade, testament to how sharp she kept it.
"I'm really sorry," I murmured. "but this it going to hurt." With one quick swipe, the knife parted the flesh. Blood poured down Amarath's face as she jerked away. The dagger clattered to the ground. Vrael burst into the room, closely followed by Shaeman and my guards not far behind.
"What the hell did you do to Raven?" Shaeman thundered.
"I told you we could not trust her!" Vrael muttered as he escorted Raven towards the treatment room. Shaeman stopped me from following, his throwing knives at the ready. The captain of my guard placed himself in front of my.
"The princess has granted her sister a high honour by scarring her in such a way."
"Honour?" Shaeman spat, glaring at me. "What honour is there in blood or betrayal or pain?"
"Honour because I marked her as the first in line for the throne!" I snapped back. How easy it was to change anyone's mind if they didn't know all the pieces to the puzzle. Shaeman stared at me as if I had just announced to him that he had just turned into a fish.
"In order for Amarath to take over from me when I die, I had to give her the same scar Karthragan gave me," I touched the pale scar-tissue that proclaimed my rank. Even though it had been so long ago, it still pained me to feel it. To feel what my father had done to me, to remember everything he had taken from me."Without it, she won't be recognised as my first-in-line. You have on good authority that I am still Shadow, the sibling you buried a long time ago. Think about that. Since when would I ever, willingly, raise a weapon against my sister unless there was a very, very good reason behind it?"
Shaeman's mouth flopped open for a brief moment before he managed to come to his senses and claw back some modicum of composure, stowing his knives away with a look of deep embarrassment.
"Princess," a guard stooped to murmur in my ear. "We should be returning to Aspheri. You have been absent long enough."
I apologised once more to Amarath explained myself to Vrael and made my farewells. I knew that they could easily find me if they needed me, and the clan had agreed to help Bart get to grips with his demonic side and powers. That was at least something off my mind, and knowing that Amarath was going to take over from me instead of Teran was a relief in itself. Now, if only the Alena problem was as easy to solve. Tying my mask over my face, I let the captain teleport me back to Aspheri.
As soon as my feet touched the ground back in Aspheri, a tremor of ice flashed through my muscle. In the way that had been drilled into them over the years of practise, my guards surrounded me and escorted me to the safe room.
I don't normally mind the safe room. It was the Aspherin's way of trying to keep their ruler safe. As soon as they had found out that I was only half demon, and therefore had periods of time where I was forced into a form that was no stronger than a human and certainly magicless. So they did what seemed to be the best option. They built a safe room. The black stone room was sparsely furnished: a bed, a table and two chairs, with a small alcove furnished as a bathroom, separated from the rest of the chamber by a curtain. There was a gun concealed within the masonry, a habit from my days on Earth that was hard to kick. The strongest spellweavers in the dimension had placed magic around the walls that prevented anyone, save myself and Aleth, using their powers. Aleth was only allowed to teleport in once a day to bring me food. No one was allowed in and I wasn't allowed out. Bolts both inside and outside of the door ensured that. The only way for me to get out was to teleport. If I could teleport, then there was no point in me being in there. Someone had thoughtfully left a couple of books on the table, but I ignored them. They couldn't be dangerous. The guards would have inspected them thoroughly. Instead, I paced the length of the room. I was no further forward with the Alena situation. I rubbed my temples, my mask abandoned on the table. I still didn't know whether or not to go to war or to marry this guy. It was a lose-lose situation for me. I couldn't risk a war. The dimension's army had largely been left to ruin under Karthragan's reign and was nowhere near ready to confront an army like Alena's. We wouldn't be ready for another few years by the time we managed to make all the weapons and train enough soldiers. On the other hand, I couldn't marry the prince. Being in the presence of such a powerful ice mage for the length of time required in a marriage would weaken me to the point of death. Fire and ice don't mix, and I couldn't leave Aspheri in Prince Melek's hands if I died. That would end in disaster. I sighed, turning on my heel and throwing myself into another frantic bout of pacing. I ran my hands through my hair, trying to think of a way out of the situation. I needed advice, but there was no one who had enough knowledge of being a ruler without having political ties to the dimension. I could have hit my head off a wall. It was staring myself in the face. Kaleb. Of course. The refugee king from another dimension. I stopped pacing, and tried to concentrate.
My powers as a Synari had never properly developed, mainly because of the demonic magic overtaking it and superseding it. I couldn't manipulate Synari magic the way they could. I couldn't even summon the stuff more than a spark not even good enough to light a fire. Nor could I speak freely with my mind, nor determine the cause of emotions. All I could do was sense the emotions and touch nother's mind to convey a vague idea. I prayed it would be enough, and that his magic was different enough to bypass the protective wards. I reached out with my mind as best I could, seeking his alien consciousness. Within a handful of heartbeats, he was standing in front of me.
"Your Majesty, you have summoned me?"
"Kaleb, yes, I did summon you," I replied, turning back into the room and taking one of the two chairs. The very fact that I had turned my back on Kaleb meant not only that I trusted him not to try to kill me, but also that my intentions were non violent. It was a point I considered rather important since I didn't know the extent of his powers.
"I will stand, my lady, it would appear you have been left unguarded. That was a relatively foolish decision. I offer you my protection, so you may be safe in these times."
I nodded once to acknowledge Kaleb's decision to stand. "I am not completely unguarded, as I am not unlearned with sword. In usual times, no one may enter this room during the short time I am rendered no more than a normal mortal, but these are no usual times. I call you here on graver matters, and I am in need of advice from one who has no political ties to this dimension. It would seem that, using an Earthern expression, 'we are caught between a rock and a hard place', and you were the first person that came to my mind who could give me such advice, as you are not blinded by the needs of or love for the people who reside here.
"My father left this dimension's army in ruins and on the brink of a war with another warrior dimension known as Alena, a world of ice. An ambassador arrived in this dimension a fortnight ago, and he brought a choice with him from the ruler of his dimension. In shorter terms than the ambassador's speech, I must either endanger the lives of everyone in this dimension by entering a war, or I cede and bind this dimension with his by the joining of the rulers, which would also endanger the people."
"I could kill him for you."
As amused as I was by this, rather direct, statement, I shook my head. "I think that would be unwise from a diplomatic point of view."
"Then perhaps I could help you give the Prince a war he cannot win?" I tilted my head to once side, intrigued by his statement, inviting him to continue. "I can combine my army to yours. It will be a battle they will not forget in a hurry."
"No," I answered, getting to my feet in order to pace again. Kaleb's eyes followed me as I walked back and forth. At this rate, I was going to wear a hole in the floor. "I cannot allow you to put your people and your dimension at risk in order to save mine."
Kaleb let out a hollow bark of laughter. "If anyone is at risk in this alliance, it would be Alena. My people are the undead nations. They fear no death for they are already dead. They hunger for a use."
I sighed, running a hand through my hair. "In any case, you suggest we engage in warfare?"
"I wish you to know that you will not be alone in waging war against this tyrant." He paused for a moment, thinking. "When will you be delivering your choice?"
"In three days."
"Is it agreeable to you if I accompany you? To keep you safe?"
"Yes, I think that would be a good idea."
Three days later, I stood in front of the mirror in m private chambers, shaking off the last fingers of cabin fever from the safe room. Aleth was fussing around me, putting the finishing touches to the dress I was wearing. I swirled a thick, heavy cloak around my shoulders. I would need it to ward off the chill of the ice dimension. I carefully tied my mask over my face, setting the circlet over it. Looking myself in the eye, I tried to steel myself towards going to Alena and telling Prince Melek to, in much politer language, stick his proposal of marriage where the sun don't shine.