Ilrune had been asking for a while if he could take me back to Synairn to present me to his people and, perhaps more importantly, to meet his parents. I have to admit, I guess I sort of looked for excuses not to go back. I would busy myself with the affairs of the dimension every time the topic came up. Now that I had been told by the council to take two weeks off to enjoy my marriage, I couldn't really refuse. Ilrune was delighted.
I hadn't been back for so long. Ilrune and I stood on a small hillock outside of the city, between it and the surrounding forests where the Careen lived. Merlas dropped her head, starting to graze quietly. Ilrune took my hand, squeezing it gently. Last time I had come back, it had been because of Arias and I had been too angry to really think. Now there was nothing to be angry about, nothing to distract me. Now all my thoughts were filled with that dark night that Armen had carried me though, bundling me onto Merlas' back and sending me on my way to a new life on Earth. The night Karthragan had killed Arellan.
"Worry not, Shadow, there is nothing here to harm you anymore," Ilrune assured me. I smiled faintly at him, squeezing his hand back.
The Careen villages were places that the Synari rarely ventured into. It was difficult to negotiate your way through the woodlands unless you either knew you way very well or had wings. However, the Careen also preferred to keep to themselves. Many did go to the city and were always very hospitable to the Synari who did make the effort to come to them. They were excellent healers and crafters, constructing their homes in the lofty treetops of the forest, accessible only by wing or magic. When Ilrune and I rode into the main village known as Kaliah, or 'home' in the language the Careen used before adopting Synari. Many of the winged people flew down from their homes, calling out to Ilrune, welcoming him home, saluting him and cracking jokes only they understood. I found myself under heavy scrutiny from them as well, mainly by the female population, as if they were trying to decide whether or not I was worthy of Ilrune's time. Without my mask to hide my face, I had to make an attempt to seem friendly, so I tried to smile as I listened to them murmuring amongst themselves. I wound my fingers into Merlas' mane, listening to her familiar snort as she judged my fears of rejection as silly. The Careen began to line the forest paths, watching and cheering their Wingless on. As we reached a particularly old and wide tree that I guessed had some symbolic meaning in their culture, Ilrune turned his pegasus round to face the crowd that had followed us. Taking my hand, he raised it above our heads.
"I present to you Shadow Roth of Aspheri, Princess of Darkness and my mate! Pray welcome her into the warmth of your hearts!"
I felt the blood rushing to my cheeks as a loud shout of approval echoed through the people gathered before they started to disperse. I breathed a quiet sigh of relief. At least for now, there hadn't been any outraged cries of 'half blood'.
"They will love you, worry not," Ilrune said, glancing at me. I snorted softly, shaking my head.
"I'm fine," I assured him, "simply readjusting to being in a dimension which has previously scorned me. It will take a little time for me to be at ease again. I'm still waiting for someone to twig who I am and start cursing me."
Ilrune reached over to plant a kiss on my forehead with a smile. "If anyone should do that to you, they would earn themselves the wrath of the Wingless. Now, I believe that there is a feast waiting for us at my home here."
That evening, I lay curled up against Ilrune's side, my head resting on his stomach as he gently stroked my hair. It seemed that the Careen preferred to have blankets piled into a depression in the floor for their bed. Ilrune had explained to me that it was easier to lie comfortably in them with wings. I sighed contentedly, which was echoed by Ilrune. We had eaten our fill of an amazing meal laid out for us with the upper crust of Careen society, we had no duties to worry about, just the sounds of the forest at night and each other. At least, until someone started banging on the tree the house was built in. I cast a puzzled look at Ilrune, wondering who could be calling at this time.
"Open up! City Guard!" Called a voice from below. Ilrune pressed a finger to his lips, listening carefully as one of his servants jumped down from the tree to confront the Synari.
"Please keep your voice down sir, I believe that there are many children in this village who are asleep at this time. What urgency brings you to call here?"
"I have an arrest warrant for Shadow Roth. It has come to High Priestess Arias' attention that she has somehow escaped her prophesised death. If she is in the dimension, we are under orders to arrest her and take her to the city!" Ilrune pulled me to my feet as silently as he could, terror in his eyes that I was sure was echoed in mine. If Arias was looking for me, it did not bode well at all. I wouldn't be able to escape if the City Guard caught me. Arias would make sure of that. He ushered me to a window, grabbing a knife from a drawer and handing it to me. I slid it into the empty sheath on my forearm, looking cautiously out of the window.
"Shadow," Ilrune said in a low, urgent tone, "I will divert the guards. Flee into the forest and wait for me. No not use your magic, not even to contact me. They will be able to track you if you do." Looking down at the tree, I felt infinitely glad that I had elected to wear leggings under my dress. A mass of vines clung to the truck which would make it easier to climb down. After hugging Ilrune tightly, I turned away, straddling the window ledge, planning the jump I needed to grab hold of the vines. If I missed, I would definitely be noticed by the City Guard. I had to be as discreet as possible. Taking a deep breath, I brought my legs up so that I was crouched on the ledge and jumped.
I leapt with a little more force than I needed. I collided with the tree trunk hard, my fingers scrabbling for a purchase on the thick vines, the toes of my boots scraping against the wood. For a few heart-stopping seconds, I thought I was going to fall. My fingers were starting to scream at me to get a move on. Slowly, hand below hand, foot below foot, I began to make my way slowly down the tree.
At long last, my boots touched the forest floor. I didn't hang around asI heard Ilrune's polite tones contrasting with the City Guard's harsh demands. I had to get out of here. Ilrune was safe. Ilrune would be ok. They wouldn't dare arrest him for fear or outraging the Careen. They would be outraged on my behalf as well, although whether it was enough to make Arias release me would be another thing.
I started to run uphill, towards the top of the Deas mountains, where Ilrune would be able to come and find me later, when the City Guard had gone. There was no point in me trying to teleport away. Arias would have closed the dimensional barriers as soon as she realised that I had returned. Why she was intent on catching me, I had no idea. In the evening I had been here, I was fairly sure I hadn't broken any of the laws. Oh wait, there was always that bee in her bonnet she had about me still being alive, despite efforts made by Karthrgan and Meran. That was probably enough of an offence to her, the fact that I was still breathing. Unfortunately for her, I intended to keep on breathing.
"There! Get her!" Came a cry from somewhere far enough behind me. Panic surging through my mind, I started to run as fast as I could. I had to get away from them. I couldn't let them catch me!
Stones scattered under my feet as I scrambled up the mountain. They were getting closer now, closer than ever. Their mount's hooves clattered on the rocky surface as they leapt after me. My skirt tangled around my legs, slowing me down. Gritting my teeth, I tore the material with my claws, tossing it to the side, running in the leggings I wore underneath. My breath came in ragged pants, no matter how much magic I used to aid my race and no matter how fast I ran, the City Guards were gaining on me. I took a sharp turn, hoping to throw them off. No such luck.
I broke out of the forest onto the summit of the mountain itself, skidding to a halt on the edge of the cliff, looking down. The edge of the dimension. The only thing down there was the void. An expanse of nothing that claimed the souls of the dead, isolating them for eternity. Not even Kaleb ruled over that domain. Arellan was down there somewhere. I could only hope that Karthragan was there as well. Glancing back over my shoulder, I could see the City Guard getting closer, their mounts slowing a little to negociate the tricky terrain, stopping just on the edge of the trees.
"Halt there, Shadow! You are under arrest!" Called out one of the guards.
"Not in your life," I muttered, taking another step towards the edge of the cliff. They wouldn't come this far out to get me, no matter how much High Priestess Arias wanted me caught. The fragile ground beneath my feet began to crumble a little. I narrowed my eyes at the guards. Would they attempt to catch me if I decided to jump? If I let them catch me, what would my future hold? Either way, I lost. Either I died, or I died. Well, screw that! Closing my eyes, I took another step back, a step into nothingness, and started falling.
My head ached as I woke up. For a moment, disorientation claimed me. Piece by piece, the fog started to lift over the last few conscious moments I had experienced. My head span wildly as I sat up, my stomach lurching. Fighting to keep from throwing up, I looked around the room with apprehension. I shouldn't be alive. I jumped into the void. I should be dead, yet another soul lamenting in the endless dark. Instead, I was... Oh Goddess, I was in a cell! The stupid City Guard must have caught me! I pushed my hair back off my face, trying to think of some way to escape from this place. A flash of metal caught my eye. Around my arm, a thick bracelet had been clasped. Reaching out a hand to touch it, I hissed, pulling back sharply. Looking a little more closely, I could see a thin line of metal just a slightly different shade worked into it. Silver. Nice one. Now I was definitely not getting out of here. I had more chances going head to head against Teran while in human form.
The door creaked open to show four City Guards, their expressions set in stony glares. Returning the look, I got to my feet, making a show of dusting off what was left of my dress. The captain of the squad made an impatient noise in the back of his throat.
"Come on, half blood, we haven't got all day. Get a move on!"
I treated him to another cool glare as I stepped out of the cell, allowing two of the guards to take my arms, leading me out into the city itself, where the Synari waited expectantly. I looked down at them, raising an eyebrow. What were they all gathered for? High Priestess Arias stood in front of them, saying something I couldn't hear. The High Priestess Arias, beneficent ruler of Synairn. Yeah right. No one in the crowd moved. No one spoke. Her silver hair glints like a thousand daggers in the biting wind despite the darkness. The towers loom above the people, casting bitter shadows as they block out the despairing warmth of the sun struggling to heat the streets.
The High Priestess lead the procession, with me escorted behind her, to the temple of the goddess. A statue of a woman with her arms outstretched in benefaction stands at the top of a sweeping flight of stairs. As Arias strode up the stairs, the cracks of age in the temple's impassive face seemed to deepen. The dark oak doors lost their warm look, turning to a glaring hole in the face of the pallid stone. The loving face of the statue turned to the empty look of a mother holding an unwanted child before her family. The altar in front of the statue loomed above the crowd. The susurration of Arias' voice passed over my head. I couldn't be bothered to listen to her. At least, until the final sentence.
"And to appease our beloved Goddess, who has seen fit to plague our lives with misery these past many years, I offer to sacrifice the cause to our goddess! The half blood Arellan brought into this world!"
Whoa, sacrifice? Forget it! I had died once, not again! I started to pull against the guards holding me, determined to escape, but the silver was doing its job. I was no stronger than a human. All I could do was make it as hard as possible for them to drag me towards the altar. Digging my heels in, biting at them, headbutting one of them, I tried every single dirty trick I knew, but they had armor in all the appropriate places. The only piece of grim satisfaction I could draw from my fight was that it took four guards to drag me to the stone table, and a further two to make sure I stayed down as they threaded ropes through convenient little notches, keeping me in place. Arias stood by the table, looking down at me.
"You have had this coming for a long time, demoness."
I didn't deign that with an answer more than spitting in her eye. She wanted to kill me, fine. Don't think I was going to respect her for it. She growled in anger, wiping her eyes with her hand before raising a long, ceremonial knife. I glared at her, daring her to do it. The knife plunged twice, through both my hearts. Pain lanced through me briefly as blood began to spill from the wounds. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I began thinking about the life I had lived. About my family. For a cursed half blood born into a world that didn't want it, I had done well. In my mind, I could see Amarath, who taught me how to really fight, who had saved my backside more than once, with her limp, sarcastic quips and sharp tongue. The blood was starting to run down the sides of my chest, dripping down onto the stone. I could see Shaeman, the big brother, who tried in vain to teach Amarath how to ride a pegasus, his strong bond with his brother, his coffee strong enough to keep you up for a week. The blood outlined grooves carved into the altar's surface, starting to trickle down to the ground, staining the white stone black. Vrael, with his quiet disposition, his vulnerable periods spent shut away in his room with nothing more than three vials of blood and a book, his measured tones and his determination to help creatures, from nursing back a bird that had crashed into a window to helping Amarath and I deliver children. The pain was barely there now. I stared at the sky, my breath rasping in my chest. From somewhere close by, I could hear Ilrune's voice screaming my name. Ilrune's voice, Kaleb's voice, Amarath's, Vrael's, Shaeman's. I didn't turn my head. Then Arellan's voice.
"Take my hand, Alexai, it is over. It is all over. No one can hurt you now. Take my hand."