Isla was in trouble. She had been in the midst of a battle between the elf kingdom and a dragon shifter’s army when her curved blades had fallen from her hands and she had collapsed. It had only been for a moment, but it had left her cold.
She was turning incorporeal again.
Part of her had known this day would come, and she had thought she would accept it, but now that it was here, she wanted to fight it. She had grown used to having flesh and blood, substance like her dearest sister.
Her hands shook as she raced up the white stone steps from the town at the base of the spire of rock upon which her sister’s castle stood, her eyes fixed on the towering fortress above her that glittered like snow in the waning light from the elf kingdom. Her long white hair bounced against her back as she lengthened her strides, taking two steps at a time now as she pushed herself to go faster. The demon soldiers of the First Realm moved aside for her as she rushed from her meeting in the garrison, driven to seek Melia.
She needed her sister, needed to speak with someone about what had happened. If anyone had an answer to her problem, it was Melia. She had been foolish to keep quiet about what had happened to her in the battle, had been stupid to believe it would be a one-time occurrence and that she would be fine. She should have spoken to Melia after the battle, but she had been too afraid to tell her, was still too afraid of what she might say. She needed to cling to hope, needed it with a ferocity that astounded her.
She had never realised just how much she had grown to love her life, had grown to love everything about it.
Except perhaps one thing—the reason she had sought the mage and subjected herself to the spell that had given her a solid form.
She reached the plateau where the castle stood and hurried across the courtyard, passing the beautiful white fountain that was the centre of so many happy memories of better days, long peaceful ones where she had spent all the hours with Melia, walking with her while she rocked her son to get him to settle.
The demons guarding the curved courtyard stood to attention, rising from the stone benches that surrounded the fountain and bowing their heads as they pressed their hands to the chest of their black uniform jackets. She nodded at each of them and slowed her pace, trying to collect herself as she approached the grand arched entrance of the white castle.
A few of the large demon males lifted their heads, their blue gazes inquisitive as they followed her. She knew she wasn’t acting normally. When she passed through the courtyard, she often spoke with the guards, seeing how they were and inquiring about the families of those who had one, and carefully avoiding mentioning mates around the males who wore thick torcs. The heavy twisted bands of pale gold and black, closed tightly around their necks, signalled they were widowers and had lost their mate.
Just as Melia had lost hers, the First King, Valador, in a battle close to a century ago.
A battle Isla had witnessed, a death she had seen, and shortly afterwards had forsaken her life as a true phantom, turning her back on her incorporeal form and the power it gave to her, in order to become flesh and blood.
In the name of revenge.
She had stepped into her corporeal life for that purpose, but she had come to love touching things, and the sensation of wind in her white hair or sun warming her bones through her blue leather clothes, and she didn’t want to return to an empty existence so desperate for the feel of another beneath her hands, pressing against her body, that she would lure them to their doom.
Isla entered the arched hallway of the castle, her pace quickening again as the feel of eyes on her faded. Her steps made no sound as she flowed along the corridor, her blue eyes fixed on the arched white double doors at the other end of it, beyond the hallways and staircases that branched off from it.
She pushed one of the doors open as she reached them and scanned the enormous grand room on the other side. The spiky white throne on the dais at the far end of the aisle and the white stone pews that formed two columns down the length of the middle of the square room were empty.
Where was Melia?
As acting king of the First Realm of the demons, Melia was normally in the grand hall during the day hours, receiving many from the kingdom and hearing what they had come to say. Of course, there were slow days, when few showed up to discuss anything from their neighbours and other demon realms, to new crops from the mortal world they wanted to attempt to grow in their fields of black earth.
Perhaps this was a slow day.
Isla had been too preoccupied with her current problem and her business advising on the movements of the legions around the realm to pay attention to her sister’s schedule today.
She backed out of the room, closing the door behind her, and turned back along the corridor, heading for the closest white stone staircase that would take her up into the castle to where those of higher ranks had their quarters.
She was close to the top of the staircase on the first floor when a male stepped into her path, the impressive breadth of his bare chest blocking her view of the corridor beyond him and thick legs like tree trunks encased in rich blue leather stopping her from passing him.
Isla looked up into pale blue eyes ringed with cerulean, set in a rough but handsome enough face. Pale golden horns curled from behind his pointed ears, showcased by the way he had drawn his long blond hair back into a thong at the nape of his neck. His firm mouth flattened and then the right corner twitched into a half-smile.
“Always in a rush, Isla. Do you never slow down?” His deep baritone was warm with his teasing, a familiar and playful note that she had always enjoyed hearing.
He had been her first real friend in this world, a male who had become like a brother to her, as close as Melia and just as beloved by Isla.
“Frey,” she said, a little out of breath which didn’t help. His smile became a smirk, as if he had heard it and had won their round of teasing. “Do you know where Melia is?”
He nodded. “With Tarwyn in his chambers. I have just been there, but now I must leave.”
“Leave?” Isla frowned and he sighed, the sound speaking of the weariness she could see in his blue eyes now she was looking for it. “You must rest.”
He shook his head. “I am afraid I cannot. The borders with the Fourth Realm are being tested and I must lead my men there.”
As commander of their legions, she could understand why he had to go, but as prince he had a duty in the castle too, one he often neglected in favour of the possibility of a battle. There hadn’t been a fight in the First Realm for centuries, not since they had signed a peace treaty and aligned themselves with the Second Realm and the elf kingdom.
Frey was old enough to remember the time before that treaty though, and she knew from speaking with him during long quiet nights at the castle that he longed for war. He had missed out on his chance at it, unable to attend the battle in the elf kingdom because of his duties as prince, forced to remain in the castle with Tarwyn to protect him.
Tarwyn was but a child, a toddler despite being near to a century old now. It would be another five centuries at least before he could rule under his mother’s and uncle’s supervision.
Isla couldn’t openly wish Frey war, but she did so silently as she stepped up into the corridor, tiptoed and pressed a kiss to his whiskered cheek.
“Try to find some rest.” She settled back onto her feet and clasped his thickly hewn right shoulder. “You look awful.”
He chuckled and waved her away, and she paused to watch him heading down the stairs.
With his back to her, he reminded her of Valador. Noble, kind and gentle Valador. Frey had the same qualities as his older brother, but it was balanced by a thirst for war, a hunger for violence that many demons possessed. Valador had always been happiest away from the battlefield.
Frey was happiest on it.
When he disappeared from view, she headed along the corridor, passing the white wooden door to her room and then the one just up the hallway that belonged to Frey, and then banked left at the junction. She stopped at a room on the right and knocked softly.
After a few seconds, the door opened to reveal Melia’s smiling face. Her blue eyes seemed brighter today, but they were troubled, as they always were after Frey’s visits.
Sometimes, Isla thought that he stayed away from the castle as much as he could not because he wanted to avoid his duties as a prince but because he wanted to avoid paining Melia with his presence. They both knew that Melia saw echoes of her lost love in Frey.
Just as her sister saw echoes of Valador in her son.
Isla’s gaze sought Tarwyn and found him sitting on a brown fur near the fireplace to the left of the room, his focus locked on the wooden animals in front of him. His dishevelled sandy hair fell across his brow in unruly curls and his tongue poked from between his lips as he concentrated, pale blue eyes fixed with determination on the toys. Isla had brought them to Hell for him as a present from one of her trips to the mortal realm, hoping they would be educational for him.
A moment with Frey had prompted it when he had called a bear a donkey when she had been showing him photographs of the time she had spent in the region of Canada and had then called a deer a bear. Of course, he had known a wolf when he had seen one. No surprise since werewolves made the free realm in Hell their home. She had expected the demon to know a bear though. He must have fought in at least one battle involving shifters of their kind.
So she had purchased the wooden zoo animals when she had seen them in a store.
To this day, part of her still wondered if she had done it to educate Frey too, intending for him to play with them with Tarwyn and learn the difference between a bear and a damned deer and donkey.
“He seems well today,” Melia said in a hushed tone, her voice a soft melody in the quiet white room.
Isla knew Melia wasn’t talking about the boy she watched, but the man who had just left.
“Impatient,” she said in response and Melia’s pale lips curled into a faint smile. “He wants war.”
Her sister glanced across at her and sighed softly, her shoulders shifting with it. “He has not forgiven me for making him remain in the castle while we answered the call of the elves.”
“He will in time. He’s stubborn.”
Melia looked away from her. “Like his brother.”
Isla’s heart ached for her sister as she drifted into the room, the long white skirt of her corseted dress gliding across the wooden floor in her wake, the pure colourless fabric matching her fall of hair that draped across her slender shoulders.
Isla closed the white door and stepped into the room, wishing there was something she could say to take her sister’s mind off Valador, even when she knew it was impossible. Melia saw him every day in their son.
Tarwyn lifted his head, noticing her at last. He was on his bare feet a second later, rushing across the room to hug her legs. His cerulean trousers blended with hers and matched her corset, but where hers were traditional leather, his clothes were soft cotton more suited to a child. He tipped his head back and beamed up at her, his blue eyes sparkling, and began prattling away in the demon tongue about his animals and Frey’s visit.
She listened to him for a while, aware that Melia was watching them from near the arched window. She petted his messy head of blond hair, teased the small horns that were growing in nicely now he was nearly one hundred, and looked at her sister. Melia smiled back at her, the hurt in her eyes gone, replaced with affection and warmth.
Tarwyn took hold of Isla’s hand and tried to pull her towards the fur rug.
“I will play soon. I must speak with your mother first,” she said in the demon tongue and he huffed and pouted, but released her and went back to his toys.
Isla waited for him to sit back down before she crossed the bedchamber to Melia.
Melia’s gaze was on Tarwyn again, a softness in it that made Isla want to sigh and wish for her own child.
Tarwyn was a little miracle, probably the only child of his kind in existence. Phantoms normally bred other phantoms, but the spell that gave Melia substance had allowed her to bear the offspring of her mate, bringing not a phantom but a demon into the world.
“You seem troubled today. What is wrong?” Melia said in English and Isla realised her sister had stopped looking at Tarwyn and was staring at her now.
She wasn’t sure where to begin.
She searched for a starting point, and the courage to tell Melia what she had done and what was happening to her. Her sister wasn’t going to be happy with her. Isla had kept the true reason behind why she had chosen to become corporeal hidden from her sister. Melia had a kind heart for a phantom, a quality that had made her perfect for Valador.
Isla lacked what her sister had been given by the gods. She had kindness in her, but not as Melia did. When faced with someone who had wronged her, or brought harm to her kin, she was as cruel and lethal as any other phantom. Cold. Heartless.
Melia’s sky blue gaze drifted down to her left hand and Isla stilled as she realised she was playing with the braid that hung from her temple on that side. The crystals at the end of the plait were warm beneath her fingertips. She looked down at them, the crimson stark against her pale skin.
She had found the crystals the night she had broken from Grave, had run headlong into the darkness and hadn’t stopped until she had been close to collapse, surrounded by an unfamiliar town and strange faces, leagues away from the comfort of his arms.
She had found a place to rest and an elderly woman at a stall in the market had tried to sell her craft to her, and Isla had seen the crystals and silver wire.
She had braided a length of her long white hair on her left temple, close to her ear, and had woven an intricate knot with the silver wire, slipped the red crystal on and then made another knot below it. On the right side, she had done the same with a blue crystal.
Red for the vampire in her heart.
Blue for the phantom she would become again.