Shadow Heir – Richelle Mead

I’m sure Ohio’s a perfectly nice place, once you get to know it. For me, right now, it was akin to one of the inner circles of Hell. “How,” I demanded, “can the air possibly contain this much moisture? It’s like going swimming.” My sister, walking beside me in the late-afternoon sun, grinned. “Use your magic to push it off you.” “Too much work. It just keeps coming back,” I grumbled. Jasmine, like me, had been raised in the dry heat of Arizona, so I couldn’t understand why she didn’t have the same revulsion I did to the monsoon conditions of high summer in the Midwest. We both wielded weather magic, but hers was focused primarily on water, so maybe that explained her blasé attitude. Maybe it was just the resilience of youth, seeing as she was about ten years younger than me. Or maybe, just maybe, it was because she wasn’t nearly five months pregnant and hauling around an extra ten pounds or so of offspring who seemed intent on overheating me, sucking my resources, and pretty much slowing down every goddamned thing I did. It was also possible hormones were making me a little irritable. “We’re almost there,” said a polite voice on the other side of me. That was Pagiel. He was the son of Ysabel, one of the bitchiest gentry women I knew—and she didn’t even have excess hormones as an excuse.

Pagiel hadn’t inherited his mother’s personality, thankfully, and possessed a knack for crossing between the Otherworld and the human world that rivaled mine and Jasmine’s. He was roughly the same age as her, and the fact that I had to have a teenage escort to get me to my doctor’s appointments only added insult to the many injuries I’d endured these last few months. A block ahead, the Hudson Women’s Health Clinic stood among its carefully pruned pear trees and neat rows of geraniums. The business was right on the line of the commercial and residential zones of the city and tried to give the appearance that it was part of the latter. It wasn’t the pretty landscaping that made me keep coming back to this sauna, walking half a mile each time between the Otherworldly gate and the clinic. It wasn’t even the medical care, which was fine as far as I could tell. Really, when it came down to it, this place’s biggest appeal was that so far, no one had tried to kill me here. That cursed wet heat had me dripping with sweat by the time we reached the building. I was used to sweating in the desert, but something about this climate just made me feel sticky and gross. Fortunately, a wave of air-conditioning hit us as we walked through the door.

As glorious as it was for me, it was a miracle for Pagiel. I always liked seeing his face when he felt that first blast. He’d grown up in the Otherworld, where fairy—or gentry, the term I preferred—magic could work wonders. He wouldn’t blink an eye at magical feats that would make a human gape. But this? Cold air produced by a machine? It blew his mind every time. No pun intended. “Eugenie,” said the receptionist. She was middle-aged and plump, with a kindly, hometown air about her. “Back with your family I see.” We’d taken to passing Pagiel off as our brother, for simplicity’s sake.

Really, though, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine us all being related. Jasmine’s hair was strawberry blond, mine a light red, and Pagiel’s a true auburn. We could have done advertising for the National Redhead Solidarity Group, if such a thing existed. No one at the clinic ever seemed to think it was weird that I brought my teenage siblings along, so maybe that was normal around here. We took seats in the waiting room, and I saw Pagiel shift uncomfortably in his jeans. I hid a smile and pretended not to notice. He thought human clothes were crude and ugly, but Jasmine and I had insisted he wear them if he wanted to be part of my obstetric security detail. Normally, the gentry favored silks and velvet in their clothing, with flourishes like puffy sleeves and cloaks. Maybe he could have gotten away with that on the West Coast but not here in middle America. Both he and Jasmine stayed behind when the nurse came to get me.

Jasmine used to go in with me, but after an embarrassing incident when Pagiel had tried to attack someone with a Milli Vanilli ringtone, we’d decided it was best if he wasn’t left alone. Although, I admit, it was hard to fault his actions. I went to see an ultrasound tech first. As the mother-to-be of twins, I was knocked into a high-risk category and had to have more ultrasounds than someone with a “normal” pregnancy would. The tech situated me on the table and slathered gel on my stomach before touching it with her paddle. And just like that, all my crankiness, all my sarcasm—all the feelings I’d so haughtily walked in with— vanished. And were replaced with terror. There they were, the things that I’d risked my life—and the fate of the world—for. To be fair, the images still didn’t look like much to me. They were only sketchy black-and-white shapes, though with each visit, they became increasingly more babylike.

I supposed this was a marked improvement, since for a while there, I was certain I’d be giving birth to aliens and nothing human or gentry at all. “Ah, there’s your son,” said the tech, gesturing to the left side of the screen. “I was pretty sure we’d be able to spot him this time.” My breath caught. My son. As she moved the paddle to get a better angle, his profile flashed into stark relief, small arms and legs and a rounded head that looked very human. This tiny creature, whose beating heart was also clearly visible, hardly seemed like a conqueror of worlds. He seemed very small and very vulnerable, and I wondered not for the first time if I’d made a mistake in continuing this pregnancy. Had I been tricked? Had I been taken in by this innocent façade? Was I even now nurturing the man who prophecy said would try to enslave humanity? As though sensing my thoughts, his sister stirred on the other side of the screen. She had been a large driving force in my decision to keep this pregnancy.

If I’d terminated it in an attempt to save the world from my son, I would’ve been responsible for ending her life. I couldn’t do that to her. I couldn’t do that to him, even. It didn’t matter what the prophecy said. They both deserved a chance to live their lives, free of what destiny had allegedly dictated for them. Now, if only I could convince all the people who were trying to kill me of that. “Everything looks great,” the tech told me. She put the paddle away, and the screen went black, shrouding my children in shadows once more. “Perfectly normal.” Normal? Hardly.

Yet, when I was ushered into an exam room to speak to the doctor, her opinion was the same. Normal, normal, normal. Sure, twins required extra watching, but otherwise, everyone seemed convinced I was the model of a perfect pregnancy. None of them had any idea, not even the tiniest clue, of the daily struggle I went through. None of them knew that when I looked at my stomach, I was tormented with the image of violence done in my name and the fate of two worlds hanging in the balance. “Do you feel them move yet?” the doctor asked me. “It’s around that time.” Images of Alien came to mind. “No, I don’t think so. How will I know?” “Well, it’ll be pretty obvious in later pregnancy.

This early, you start to feel fluttering sensations. Some people say it’s like a fish swimming around. You’ll know when it happens. Don’t worry—they won’t be trying to kick their way out. Not at first.” I shuddered, not sure how I felt about that. Despite the changes in my body, it was still easy to regard this as some physical ailment. It was only the ultrasound that reminded me there were actually people living inside me. I wasn’t sure I was ready to also start feeling them squirm around. The doctor glanced at her clipboard.

“Honestly, everything looks great,” she said, echoing the ultrasound tech. “I’m tired all the time,” I countered. “And I keep getting short of breath. And I’m having trouble bending. I mean, I can still do it, but it’s not easy.” “That’s all normal.” “Not for me.” I used to banish ghosts and beat up monsters for a living. She shrugged. “You have two people growing inside of you.

It’s going to get worse before it gets better.” “But I have a lot of things to do. My lifestyle’s pretty, um, active.” She remained unmoved. “Then you’re going to have to adapt.” Despite my whining, I was sent off with a clean bill of health and instructions to book my next appointment. In the lobby, I found Jasmine and Pagiel exactly where I’d left them. She was leafing through a copy of People and trying to explain to him both the definition and appeal of reality T V. Maybe the office didn’t bat an eye at my “siblings” because I simply had too many other weird habits. Like, for example, I always paid for each visit in cash.

When you tacked on things like ultrasounds, blood work, and other medical testing, the final price tag was pretty high. I always felt like I was one step away from pulling out a Mafia-style suitcase filled with hundred-dollar bills. There was no alternative, however. I couldn’t do anything that would allow my enemies to track me. Medical insurance claims would create a paper trail, as would even paying with a check or credit card. For the majority of gentry, none of that was a concern. Most were like Pagiel and could barely grasp the idea of banks or the postal system, let alone using them to track me. Unfortunately, my enemies in the Otherworld had very good connections here among humans, those who knew our systems inside and out. It was because of them I was in Ohio in the first place. Tucson had been compromised.

Another woman, far more pregnant than me, was just entering the office as the receptionist printed my receipt. A gust of wind swept in behind her, and she had to fight to catch the door and make it close. Pagiel, though inept at technology, had been trained in the gentry ways of chivalry and jumped up to help her. “Thanks,” she told him. She flashed the rest of us a cheery smile. “I can’t believe how fast the weather turned on us. A cold front came out of nowhere.” The receptionist nodded sagely. “That’s how it is this time of year. We’ll have storms tonight for sure.

” As if I needed another reason to dislike the Midwest. God, how I missed Tucson’s unchanging climate. As I walked out with Jasmine and Pagiel, I knew I had an unfair attitude. I was simply feeling the woes of my self-imposed exile. I didn’t really hate Ohio so much as I missed Arizona. Once we were back in the Otherworld, I could visit the kingdom I ruled and practically be in a mirror of Tucson. I’d designed it that way. And yet … it wasn’t the same. I kept blaming everything on the weather, but a place was defined by more than just that. There was a culture and a vibe, driven by its people, that was unique to every location.

The Thorn Land was great, but it would never replace my hometown. “Damn,” said Jasmine, trying to pry her hair off of her face. A fierce wind had whipped it right at her as soon as she stepped outside. “That lady wasn’t kidding.” I pulled myself from my self-pity enough to note that she was right. The temperature had dropped, and that thick, suffocating air from earlier was now in motion as fronts collided. The cute ornamental trees swayed back and forth, like synchronized dancers. Dark clouds, tinged with a sickly green, gathered above. A chill that had nothing to do with the cool-down ran over my skin. My asshole gentry father, aside from getting me stuck with a prophecy that said his eldest grandson would conquer humanity, had also passed on his prowess with weather magic.

I was tuned in to all the elements that made up a storm: the moisture, the air, even the charged particles that heralded lightning. My senses were open to them, and the intensity of all those factors hitting me at once now was a bit overwhelming. “So much for a candy run,” I muttered, peering at the angry sky. I was out of Milky Ways and pretty desperate for some. “We’ll be lucky if we don’t get drenched before we reach the gate.” Not for the first time, I wished I had a car during these Ohio trips, but it was pointless. The only real reason I came here was for the clinic, and it was within walking distance to the gate that led back to the Otherworld. There’d be no practical way to keep a car here. Plus, riding in one would probably kill Pagiel. I’d glanced at the sky, mostly verifying that things looked as bad as they felt, when something suddenly jerked me to a standstill.

If I scanned to the north, looking above a stretch of trees, I could see the edge of the storm clouds. The black ceiling above us only extended a mile, and where it ended abruptly, I could see sunshine and blue sky. I was willing to bet the air was stiflingly hot and humid there too. Looking around, I saw that was the case everywhere. Directly above us, the sky was dark, but those clouds extended in a very finite, very clearly defined way. It was like being under a perfectly round dome. All around those hard edges, sun fought to get through. My companions came to a halt beside me, and I met Jasmine’s gaze. “I feel it… .” she murmured.

“I didn’t at first. There was too much going on… .” “Me too,” I said. Along with feeling storm elements, she and I were also sensitive to magic specifically acting on them. What we were feeling now wasn’t a natural occurrence. There were so many stimuli that the magic behind it had remained hidden to me initially—as was no doubt intended. There were Otherworldly forces at work. And with that realization came another: we’d been discovered. My Midwest safe house was no longer safe. “Fuck.

” Pagiel’s young face was grim as he glanced at me. “What do you want to do?” Pagiel had inherited his mother’s magical prowess with air, so he too had probably figured out something was amiss. I began walking again. “We’ve got to get to the gate. There’s no other choice. Once we cross, we’re safe.” “Whoever’s doing this must know about the gate,” pointed out Jasmine. “They could be on the other side waiting.” “I know. But that also means they would’ve had to defeat all the troops left behind.

” This gate in Hudson didn’t open within the borders of my kingdoms in the Otherworld. It was close enough to my allies, however, that the journey had always seemed worth it in order to get safe medical treatment in the human world. Still, we never made the journey without a considerable and armed escort on the other side. The wind seemed to increase as we walked, blowing against us and slowing our progress. I could’ve used my magic to control it but was holding back until faced with the storm’s creator—or rather, creators. There were only two people in known gentry history who could singlehandedly summon and control a storm like this. One was my deceased father. The other was me. My bet was that this was the work of a number of magic users, a thought that made me grit my teeth in frustration. A lot of planning would’ve had to go into this, which meant my enemies had known about Hudson for a while.

Almost as annoying as being found out was having to deal with my own physical limitations. I wasn’t crippled, not by any means. I wasn’t even waddling. But, as I’d told the doctor, I just couldn’t quite do the things I used to. A half mile was not a huge distance, not at all, especially on suburban sidewalks. In my pre-pregnancy state, I could have easily broken out into a run and covered the distance quickly. Now, my best was a half-ass jog, and I was very aware of the fact that I was slowing Jasmine and Pagiel down. We exited off the main road, cutting through the outskirts of a vast, wooded park. Otherworldly gates were rarely found in heavily populated, urban areas, and this one lay deep within the park’s grounds. The trees blocked the direct force of the wind, but the branches were shifting wildly, showering us with twigs and leaves.

We were the only ones out here, since most reasonable humans would’ve long since taken shelter. “It’ll be here,” I called to my companions, forcing my voice to be heard above the wind. From the satchel I wore across my body, I produced my wand and an iron-bladed athame. “If they’re going to attack, it’ll be—” They attacked. Five spirits, two water elementals, and another elemental who glowed like a will-o’-the-wisp. Elementals were gentry who could not cross fully into this world in their original forms. They manifested as vaguely anthropomorphic creatures, composed of whatever element most strongly tied to their magic. From the scope of the storm, I suspected more were lurking nearby, but they were probably the weaker ones. It would take all of their power just to maintain these weather conditions, with none left over for fighting. These sent to battle us were the strongest, and the spirits were a backup choice I’d seen frequently.

Spirits who hadn’t moved on to the Underworld had no care for who ruled humans or the Otherworld. They were therefore easy recruits for the gentry who opposed me. They weren’t the only ones with help from beyond the grave. “Volusian!” I called. I quickly chanted the words that would summon my undead minion. The sounds were lost in the wind, but it didn’t matter. My intent and power were what counted, and within seconds, Volusian materialized. He was shorter than me, with pointed ears, red eyes, and smooth black skin that always reminded me of a salamander’s. “The spirits!” I snapped. Volusian needed no further urging.

He hated me. He wanted to kill me, even. But so long as I bound him to my service, he was forced to obey my commands. He attacked the spirits with a fury, his magic flaring bluish white in the shadowy landscape. Jasmine had already set herself on the water elementals while Pagiel took on the will-o’-the-wisp, whom I assumed had some connection to air or the charges in the atmosphere. And me? I hung back. I hated doing it but had no choice. We’d rehearsed this over and over. The decision to have these twins meant nothing if I let myself get tossed around or—worse—killed. In protecting myself, I protected them, even though it went against every fighter’s instinct I had.

Fortunately, I wasn’t entirely useless. Our attackers wanted me but were too distracted by my allies. This freed me to use my magic to diminish some of the more annoying effects of the weather. It also allowed me to banish the spirits. Volusian was well matched against them, but obviously, the less he had to deal with, the better. I extended my wand at one of the spirits as it ganged up with another against Volusian. They were translucent, wraithlike creatures who floated in the air and would have been almost impossible to see outdoors in the sun. The shadows and clouds made them eerily discernible. Opening my senses, I reached past this world, past the Otherworld. I brushed the gates of the Underworld, establishing a connection that was solid but wouldn’t pull me in.

Banishing spirits to the Otherworld was easier and used to be my tactic when I was eliminating them for frightened suburbanites. Spirits sent there could return, however, and I couldn’t take that chance anymore. The less of them around to come back for me, the better. It was the Underworld or bust. I focused my will on my target, using the human magic I’d learned as a shaman to drive the spirit out of this world. The creature shrieked in rage as it felt the Underworld’s tug, and seconds later, it dissolved into nothing. I immediately set my sights on a second spirit, briefly allowing myself to assess Pagiel and Jasmine’s progress. To my astonishment, Pagiel had defeated the will-o’-the-wisp elemental already. I hadn’t even seen it happen. I had the power to banish elementals back to the Otherworld as well, but for my two sidekicks, physical confrontation was the only option.

Pagiel had used his magic to destroy the elemental outright, obliterating it into nothingness. I’d known he was a strong magic user but had never truly seen him in battle until now. He was stronger than Jasmine, I realized. He immediately joined her side against a water elemental, blasting it with a wind that brought it to a standstill while she used her magic to call on the water of the elemental’s form and rip it to pieces. Meanwhile, I banished a second spirit. “Eugenie, go!” cried Jasmine, barely sparing me a glance as she and Pagiel sparred with the last elemental. Volusian was down to one spirit. The odds were in our favor now. None of these attackers would have a chance to break away and come after me. I grimaced but didn’t hesitate.

Again, this was part of the plan we’d established. These Otherworldly denizens were here for me. If I was gone, and they weren’t destroyed first, they’d likely leave once they realized only Jasmine and Pagiel (and Volusian) were left. I felt like a coward and had to keep reminding myself, If you die, the twins die. I took off at that half jog, continuing to use my magic to lighten the storm and make my passage easier. Ahead of me, a ring of bright yellow buttercups stood out in sharp contrast against the park’s green grass. No matter how many times the landscapers mowed them down, the buttercups always returned within a day. They marked the gate. I was steps away from it when something hit me from my left. The force knocked me over, and I only barely managed to twist my body in a way that minimized the jarring as my knees hit the ground.

It had been foolish to think the gate wouldn’t be guarded. My attacker was another elemental, seemingly composed of moss and leaves. They decayed and shifted before my eyes, marking just how weak the elemental really was. It could barely exist in this world. The creature’s chances of survival were slim, yet it had apparently thought it worth the risk to its life to come and take mine. I struggled to my feet as it came at me. In one leafy hand, the elemental held a copper dagger, honed to a fine point. Copper was the toughest metal gentry could wield, and even if it wasn’t as effective as steel, it could still kill. The elemental’s moves were awkward and lumbering, giving me enough time to get to my feet, even in my addled state. I still held the iron athame and felt some satisfaction that pregnant or not, I was faster than this bumbling creature.

It swung at me, and I easily dodged, giving me an opening with my athame. The blade made contact, slashing across the elemental’s green chest. It shrieked in pain, and I made an instant decision not to finish it off. I didn’t have the luxury of playing hero. That injury was more than enough to slow the elemental and let me spring for the gate. I hurried into the ring of buttercups and reached toward the Otherworld. The gate was a strong one that worked at all times of the year and required hardly any effort from someone who knew how to use it. It was another reason we’d selected this area. The paths between the worlds opened, and I felt a slightly disorienting sensation, like I was being taken apart and reassembled. Within seconds, I found myself standing in the Honeysuckle Land, surrounded by my own soldiers.

There was no sign of any foes here, and from the startled looks my guards gave me, my battle-marked state was totally unexpected. They wasted no time in responding, however, and had their weapons drawn the instant the elemental followed me through the gate. Only, it was no longer an elemental. It wasn’t even an “it.” It was a she, a gentry woman no older than myself with brown hair braided into a high bun. She staggered two steps toward me, still holding the copper blade, before falling to the ground. Blood spilled from her chest, showing the severity of the wound I’d given her. It had been done with iron—the gentry’s bane—and occurred in the human world, where she was at her weakest. Maybe she could have survived a similar injury in this world, but now, it was too late. The blade fell from her hands as she feebly clutched at her bleeding torso.

All the while, her eyes never left me. “Death … to the prophecy… .” she gasped out, just before death took her. The light left those hatefilled eyes, and soon she saw nothing. I felt ill. New arrivals from the gate immediately drew my guards to attention, but it was only Jasmine and Pagiel. They looked as if they’d been in a fight but otherwise showed no serious damage. Jasmine looked at me first, and despite her hard face, I knew she was checking me for injury, just as I’d done for her. It was hard to believe we’d once been enemies. Satisfied I was okay, she then glanced at the dead woman before meeting my gaze.

“Well,” Jasmine said, relaxing slightly. “At least you don’t have to go to Ohio anymore.”

.

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