Chapter 1-Extinction

In a horrifying instant all I saw was the dagger blade entering my right eyesocket. Then my assassin slashed my neck arteries wide open. I fell like a crashing vase next to my dead maid Gisela and bled out on the marble floor of my new husband's hallway. As my blood seeped onto the exquisite embroidered rug, my very last memory was staring at my beloved servant's freckled face. The haunting sight of her pallid skin, sightless blue eyes and curly ginger hair filled me with despair as I had never intended my adorable and innocent companion to end up as collateral damage. I noted with fascination that the blood stains down the front of her starched apron looked like a scarlet scarf. Then all was blackness.

Unexpectedly I cried out in shock as I suddenly inhaled stagnant air. I was so stunned at drawing breath again that my head spun and I immediately passed out again. An indeterminate amount of time later, I woke up again and groaned as I realized that I was, in fact, still alive. With my eyes closed I tried taking deep breaths as I felt over my undamaged neck and my miraculously restored eye. By fumbling around, I found myself pinned under a smooth stone structure. I felt over it with my fingers and deduced that it was a finely decorated pillar. I blinked in the utter darkness and could already tell that whatever mortal or cosmic force saw fit to revive me had not restored my freedom. Although my lower body was well and truly pinned, both of my arms were free in the cramped space. I clawed at my left side and instantly encountered a wall of sharp-edged debris. To my right was an open void plunging down. I also felt something curiously rough to the touch; dragging it over revealed that it was a human long bone. I winced in horror as I let the poor sod's remains clatter to the floor noisily. I made a silent prayer to Lycindia, the goddess of mercy over this luckless wretch's gate. I also fervently wished that poor Gisela's soul would have better fortune in her next life; her mistress Adette wasn't off to a great start thus far.

Suddenly thoughts of that smugly smiling backstabbing blackguard invaded my mind, and I felt an irresistible urge to flay my spouse's face off with a rusted knife. He had all too easily seduced a naïve, ugly, flabby, low class noblelady just to secure her substantial dowry; then he had cheerfully sent his murderous bitch maidservant to dispose of both of me and my chambermaid once we had caught him in bed with his retainer. I hollered hoarsely, and I felt a surge of impotent rage as I knew that I was a quivering weakling and that my threats were meaningless. I wished fervently for my revenge when suddenly felt a whoosh of air as something cool and metallic came into my grasp. Just as I rued my inability to see in the pitch darkness, a golden light harshly illuminated my surroundings. After my eyes adjusted to the brilliance, I could now see I was trapped in the ruins of what had once been a splendid yet eerie-looking palace. Both the pillar lying across me and the floor were black marble crisscrossed with red veins. The brightly incandescent spherical gemstone atop the two cubit-long magic stave shot a shaft of light straight up. I gawked stupidly as the eerily quiet magical beam incinerated layer after layer of stone, metal, wood, and tiles until it punched a hole into the open sky above. I shivered as I basked in the inrush of delightfully cool and fresh air. As a last gesture of its insanely incredible power, the beam also neatly bisected the pillar atop me and I was abruptly freed. The light went out and I was left with innumerable questions; a few choice queries flitted to the top of my muddied brain.

The first and foremost question burned in my mind: why wasn't I dead? I was spent from burning through my mana, and I couldn't keep my eyes open. I let my head flop back onto the unyielding marble and soon my brain fell into darkness.

I lay in the chilled darkness for gods knows how long. I groaned as I rubbed my temples in a combination of frustration and anxiety. The other queries started to rudely intrude of my thoughts.

How did I end up squashed flat in a forbidding castle that had been in ruins long enough for its former occupants to turn to skeletons?

If I was alive, how by the gods was it accomplished?

Why had my voice dropped to a husky alto after being saddled all my former life with a squeaky high-pitched voice that grated on all of my noble brethren that I had ever met? I was stumped for a rational explanation. I couldn't square the idea that my throat had been damaged by my assassins' blade when I clearly had been healed of my fatal wounds.

My body felt just wrong. Whose body was I possessing anyway?

How had I just blasted a four cubit diameter shaft through rubble at least a dozen rods deep? I hadn't ever been able to light a lantern with flame magic before, much less conjure up a beam of light that could punch through solid rock.

Was my dead body-

Enough ruminating, I angrily told myself. I knew blasting my 'beloved' husband's face off wasn't an option as he was on another world entirely; forever out of my grasp. I swore that I would somehow forge a new life and do what I could to acclimate…and survive. I gritted my teeth as I looked futilely for handholds to start my ascent. I felt a renewed sense of shock as I felt bi-hinged wings automatically unfurl from my shoulders. Clearly another recent addition to my upgraded body was leathery wings stretched tightly over thin bones. With my mind in a haze, I gracefully sailed upwards and into the winter night under a dome of countless stars and a pair of crescent moons hanging in the cloudless sky. The…wait; two moons? "What by the gods happened," I gasped out loud. Obviously the human world only had one moon in the night sky. Two was excessive!

The larger moon was a sliver of silver; the other luminescent arc was a third its size and it was a deep maroon hue. I now knew that I was trapped alone in the Demon world. I huffed as I weakly sank to my knees atop the ruins dotted with towering trees.

I shivered in the icy gusts of winter wind. My trauma overwhelmed me and I started to scream in anguish as I used the staff's power to blast trees over, melt boulders and topple shattered walls. I threw a fit as my pent up rage poured out like an exploding geyser. I felt white hot ire over struggling so hard to gain acceptance from the other nobles, and enduring rejection after rejection. I seethed over constantly being taunted for being plain in face and plump in figure. I finally had thought that Viscount Roterwald von Grauestor has seen past my physical flaws and simply was charmed by my shy and unassuming demeanor. Instead he had used me and then threw me away like a soiled dishrag. Even if my death was integral to his schemes, he had slaughtered my blameless Gisele for laughs. I would never trust anyone ever again. Eventually my anger crumbled into self pity as I started to howl with grief at being fate's pincushion. I collapsed to my knees in the snow and started to sob.

A faint crunch of footfalls drew my attention to the sound of someone directly behind me. I whirled around with my mage staff clenched defensively in my hands; and confronted a terrified young man creeping up behind me with the moonlight glinting off an ax blade. He had long dark hair and a wispy attempt at a beard. His eyes were aglow with a hue towards maroon. Instead of human ears, I could see pointed dog-like ears. So he obviously hailed from the lupine demi tribe. Clutched in one shaking hand was a small, roughly hewn hatchet. He softly barked at me, "G-g-give me back my daughter, villain!"

In my previous life I was unfailingly polite, and reserved special sympathy for those with tragic circumstances. Times had changed. For one thing, my father had warned me that surviving in the Dämonenlands meant you constantly had to display indomitable strength of will. My face splintered into a scowl as annoyance burned in my eyes. "I didn't kidnap her, you stupid mutt! However, if you insist on acting like a shitehead, than have at me. You wouldn't be the first to try to kill me." I kept my staff pointed down at the frozen ground to signal to this fool that I wouldn't strike the first blow.

He glanced at his axe, then at me and finally decided that dying horribly in a suicide attack wasn't going to help him rescue his daughter. He stuck the tool in his waistband and raised his hands up, "I'm Kastanbruna. I do-don't have much money….but take it all if I can have my Orasuna back."

I shook my head while wearing a tight frown. "Knave. Someone else took her. Why would I bother with petty crimes like taking hostages when I can incinerate my foes with a flick of my wrist?"

My adversary bowed humbly. His face paled as he seemed to sense something threatening nearby.

Before I could react properly, he withdrew the hatchet and flung it at me! I screamed as I dove into the snowbank as the whirling weapon passed harmlessly overhead, but then I heard a juicy thud behind me. I lifted my head up and gawked at a filthy, portly man with a drawn bow stupidly stare down at the thrown blade embedded in his chest. He quickly toppled over and twitched a few times before lying still.

Several arrows suddenly rained down on us from a nearby toppled wall. I prayed to the gods for protection, and one of my defensive magical skills activated at my subconscious plea. Much to my surprise, a faintly golden barrier appeared around us and caused the incoming missiles to burn to ash before they could hit us. Was that my doing? A second volley of fire was also destroyed. Apparently this defensive hemisphere could be conjured up if I was fixated on survival. I cautiously stood up with madly trembling legs now that I had some sort of protection. I then used my casting staff to return fire; unfortunately the beam reflected off the barrier uselessly. I cursed silently and dropped the barrier to shoot a lethal beam at the first sniper. I heard a brief cry of terror and then silence. Before I could strike the next target, a black-shafted arrow struck my shoulder. I grunted in pain and berated my knavish error for not getting behind cover before dropping my shield. The wound immediately started to burn like it was on fire.

Just as I rolled behind a nearby rock outcropping, I heard a horrifying howl and the sound of one of the brigand's flesh being torn asunder. The last of our attackers ran off the rockpile into the snowdrifts in a white-eyed panic. Then I saw the wolfkin dash across the field in his hunched over feral form. The luckless archer never stood a chance. After crushing the criminal's throat in, the wolf beast loped back towards me. He was roughly humanoid, although he walked on all fours. His bare skin had been replaced with grey, white and black fur. His hands and feet were now enlarged and tipped with black nails. He flashed me a feral canine smile as blood dripped off his razor-sharp teeth. He lowered his head in deference to me, although I was at a loss as to why.

I had just killed. My hands shook uncontrollably at the realization that I was now a tainted soul. Being left with no choice to strike my foes down did not salve my conscience. I shook my head and muttered softly, "Raise your head."

The man reverted to his human guise. He stood shirtless in the biting chill as he pleaded desperately, "Lady, you are as powerful as a Stihi. You protected your humble servant when you should have killed me. I will never forget your beneficence."

I wondered with confusion why he was comparing me to a fire-breathing storm demon. After a few seconds of unbearably awkward silence, the metaphorical copper coin dropped and I recalled that I had blasted half the countryside like a maniac within sight of this poor man as he was desperate searching for his beloved child. I waved him over and winced as he carefully wrenched out the arrow and bound the wound with a medicated poultice and secure wrappings. He also gave me impressively bitter antivenom to swig down. I muttered quietly after nearly gagging, "Lady Stihila will do. Let's retrieve Orasura."

With a fang-filled smile he changed back to his half beast form and guided me to the thieves' hideout using his keen sense of smell.

The snow was falling heavily now as we followed the dead men's footprints backwards towards their den; however the trail abruptly ended. I sighed in frustration, but Kastanbruna chortled as he upended a wooden framework convincingly disguised as a boulder. He went down the ladder first and I followed him down a multiple story descent; I was briefly stuck as my tightly folded up wings both got tangled up against the rim of the opening. After a brief struggle I huffed in annoyance as I maneuvered them past the restrictive aperture. Whoever had been at this had been toiling for innumerable moons. We emerged into a giant cavern space illuminated by hovering gemstones. The vast cavern was nearly halfway filled up from massive piles of debris from the excavated ruins. At least half a dozen tunnels bored through the foundations of the palace. Most of the shafts looked disused, but at least two were lit from within. This operation was apparently designed to loot the decimated castle's treasury room. Most nauseatingly, there was a semicircle of cages for the slaves imprisoned by this band of cretins. About a third of the enclosures were occupied by foul-smelling demis. A half dozen human guards sat around the cooking pit filled with flameless gemstones. Using a smokeless energy source was a truly clever way to heat the space and cook without giving away the secret location of the excavation. A scrawny and pale female centaur in rags emerged from the mineshaft towing a cart laden with rocks on a set of wooden rails. She had deathly pale skin, white dirty hair and despondent blue eyes. A few other demis with whip marks across their backs and limbs started to unload the rocks into wheelbarrows as the centaur girl was unhitched. The burliest guard roughly groped the poor girl's chest and laughed as she blushed with mortification.

I felt uncontrollable heat radiate from my body as I seethed. Maybe the venom from the arrow strike had tainted my mind, but I had reached my limit. I knew well that I had fallen into a black pit if I was willing to stoop to the use of ambush tactics, but indulging in slave labor and torture was a sin I could never forgive. I used my wings to silently glide off the ladder to the floor and my hands tightly clenched on my casting stave. My temporary wolfkin ally gave me a toothy grin and then vanished into the flickering shadows. I saw the foreman start to yell at the laborers, some of whom were still teenagers, and unfurled his whip. I angled my staff slightly and angled the gemstone so the beam wouldn't strike an innocent. I wiped away a stray tear at the sight of the sheer heartlessness of men and then my soul hardened into solid iron. A silent brilliant flare of golden light shot across the room, striking the target, the roof of the cage behind him, and the stalagmite behind that. I grimly sneered as the guard's disembodied lower half toppled to the ground.

The other guards looked at me with expressions of pure panic. Three ran in my direction with unsheathed swords and spears, just as the centaur viscously kicked the mining cart down the guide rails. It ran over one man's foot, causing him to trip and smash up his face. The cart then struck the muscular lewd man who had molested the centaur straight in the back. He got smashed down onto his belly as the cart's iron wheels overran and snapped his leg bones. The load of rocks kept on going even as the cart stopped and spilled over the rim, braining the crippled man. The third mercenary got blasted into ash with my stave's attack before he could reach me. One of the three remaining slavers was bit on the neck from behind by a berserk Kastanbruna. The two last henchmen took one look at the insane situation and ran for their lives down a disused mineshaft. However the feral wolfkin dashed after them with a murderous gleam in his eyes. I heard, but did not see the screaming and cacophonic din of men getting ripped to pieces.

By now, the toxin in my bloodstream and mana drain had clearly caught up to me as I started to see double. I wobbled into the center of the bloodbath, numbly collapsed down on a bench in front of the flameless hearth, curled up, and fell unconscious.

"…do you think Lady Stihila is of noble blood?"

"Of course she is, you idiot!"

"She's so pretty. Will our lady be alright, Miss Cielo?"

"Hush now. Don't wake her up. Give her some space, please."

I heard several strangers quickly scurry away. My eyes cracked open again as I looked up at a blurred face I was sure I recognized. I softly groused, "Give me a few more minutes Gisela."

"Shhh. Be still, my lady." A chilling cloth was placed on my forehead. I started awake as my wings unconsciously jolted open from the shock. I started to sit up, and collapsed instantly on the crudely fabricated cot as my limbs had no strength. I gaped open-mouthed as the centaur girl knelt by my side and tended to my feverish body. Despite looking sleep deprived, she was washing my face and neck with wet compresses. Up close she was a strikingly adorable albino girl with neatly braided flaxen hair, pale skin and hide, coral pink hooves, and penetrating sky blue eyes. Even her long eyelashes were nearly white.

I murmured in wonderment at her vastly improved condition, "Gods. If you had time to take baths, then I fear to ask how many hours I was out."

A new voice chimed in, "Wow, she's finally awake! Her red eyes are so lovely." A stranger's face loomed overhead as a beaming preteen girl in a soft grey dress regarded my prostate form with a look of utter awe in her amber eyes. I noticed the familiar shape of black-furred lupine ears atop her head. Her tail drooped as she whispered in a worried tone, "Mi-milady? Are you okay?"

"Miss….Orasuna," I guessed. I noted with a puzzled frown that she thought my eyes were of a crimson hue. My eyes were hazel surely?

Her hands flew to her mouth as she gasped. The she whirled around. "Papa! She's awake!"

The burly Kastanbruna soon knelt by my side. "Milady. Words fail to describe how happy I am to see that you're alive!" His intense reddish brown eyes looked at me with indescribable gratitude and he placed a muscular tattooed arm around his precious child. "I owe you everything, my lady. If not for you, I would have died in a futile attack and my only family left would have perished in bondage."

I waved my hand dismissively and softly groaned, "You would have found…a way. You are a resourceful wolfkin."

He shook his head and mused sadly, "No. You were the one who figured out a way to win."

The heaping praise made my conscience twinge. I never could possibly be worthy of being admired. Maybe I was now stuck in an attractive winged sorceress' body, but my heart still belonged to an unlovable, obese, ugly maiden. My sole advantage in my prior life was that most of my noble peers assumed that a frumpy daughter of lowborn merchants couldn't possibly possess brains, wit or guile. I sighed and waved them away, "Just help the others, for now. Both of you."

Both father and daughter beamed at me with slightly unnerving smiles before bowing and returning to their tasks. After they were out of earshot I glanced over to my medic. "Miss. How long have I been unconscious?"

The albino girl twirled one of her braids as she glanced away at the nearby hearth. "Two days, milady. I'm…I'm Cielo Blanka of the Cevalo tribe." Her pale cheeks took a slight pinkish hue. "I attended to you night and day."

I exhaled sharply in recognition that I had been very lucky that these former slaves were friendly. I easily could have ended up with a slit throat again if circumstances had been different. I noted darkly, "That poisoned arrow really took me down for the count." I glanced down at my crudely woven dark grey dress. Cielo's ministerial duties apparently included changing my clothes. I knotted my brow as I pondered the implications of the mining encampment still being occupied. These demis had every reason to slay me when I was helpless. Why had they saved the life of a demon of the Stihi tribe; one of the most notoriously vindictive overlords of the Dämonenlands?

With a grunt, I heaved my protesting body up.

Cielo looked alarmed as her eyes widened in shock. "Milady! Please don't-"

I sniped at her, "…don't what? Arise?" I wobbled to my feet and took in the scene. Although it was still the same cavern, the cages had been dragged to the side and hand made canvas tents had been erected in their place. Numerous demis were hard at work cooking, building, or standing watch over the tunnels and entry ladder.

One of them was apparently a scholar as he directed others on the construction of ad-hoc cots. He was tall and slender with elongated fingers and predominately blue-green scales all over his body topped by a black crest over his skull. His independently moving vermillion eyes both swiveled in my direction. He bowed deeply and spoke in a reedy voice. "Lady Stihila, it is a most joyous occasion to see you have recovered."

I snapped at the lizardkin as I wobbled slightly, "Fool! You know the slavers will be back for your heads. You should have fled."

He flinched as his thick tail swished to and fro nervously. His broad mouth pulled into a tense frown as he bowed apologetically. "I humbly beg your pardon, my most powerful and mighty ladyship. After our captors were put to the sword, just over two-fifths of the former slaves elected to stay behind. As you can see we have made amazing progr-"

I yelled as my eyes watered in helpless fury, "You had no right!" Everyone stopped dead and stared at us. I couldn't comprehend why the rest of these insane ex-prisoners hadn't simply escaped into the snowy-filled darkness like their wiser brethren. Hadn't the demon race left this realm in ruins three generations ago? Why serve a blue-blooded demoness that was instrumental in our kingdom's destruction?

The lizard man prostrated his body out on the rock floor. "I take full responsibility for this situation. Punish me as you see fit."

"Get up," I snapped. I waited for him to gracefully rise before continuing. "Telling me your name and then answer my questions."

"Certainly. I am Steward Eidechse Skalagrun. My family faithfully served House Dambalia until the cataclysm over seventy jaroj ago. Although most of my lineage was slaughtered during and directly after the great collapse, I am one of the few survivors to retain some of the old family secrets. That is why I was captured by human slavers and brought to the Ruga Infera palace. I was forced to use my knowledge to tunnel for the treasure room." He took a deep breath. "The other answer is that you seek is that you bear an uncanny resemblance to the last monarch; Queen Vana Malamiko Vesperto Rugokulo Mago Dambalia. I would know those crimson eyes and silvered hair anywhere."

I felt my face drain of color. Oh shite.

He smiled thinly, "My lady, it is unforgivably rude to ask if you are of the Dambalia bloodline; thus I will simply state that I believe it was the Infernals' will that I serve you." He bowed courteously. "My life is yours."

I stared at the circle of demis who quietly faced us in a rough circle. I took the steward firmly by the shoulders to convince him to forgo his insane vow. "Steward Skalagrun…your fellow prisoners who sagely fled for their lives a few days ago had the correct idea. I am commanding you to abandon this death trap. Take these people and escape to safety."

"The nine of us that remain voted to do so, my lady." His strange, yet oddly soothing reptilian eyes met mine as he sadly shook his head. "You can have me executed for disobeying your order if it will please you. It is my unshakable duty to serve at your left hand…" He broke into a smile with short peg-like teeth, "…come what may."

I let my hands drop as I glared over to the brave pair of foolhardy wolfkin. "Kastanbruna and Orasuna, you are ordered to leave this place."

The father got on one knee and pleaded, "We will happily obey if you allow us to escort you into the forests, milady."

"It is the least we can do," Orasuna added cheerfully.

By now I felt at a loss. "Cielo…"

The pretty centaur curled up down on her folded up legs as she placed her hand over her heart. "I cannot abandon my savior."

The rest of my new underlings also bowed before me with hushed reverence. Why were these stubborn blockheads sticking by a cursed soul? "Damn you all," I cursed under my breath as tears started to stain my cheeks.