Promises made, Promises kept

Introduction. On the road

It was a fine day, in the Time of Upheavals. The sun shone, flowers bloomed and birds along the road sang.

“A Dragon now… If ya come across some of her treasure and pick it up, the worst that’ll happen is that’cha get roasted.” Gust Natel chewed the straw wedged into one corner of his mouth as he spoke, audible even over the rumbling of the cart which he drove. “A Minotauride would deck ya-” A loud thwack sounded as his eyes bulged and his hands fumbled the reins. It was then that the other occupant of the cart spoke.

“Do stop complaining, thief. I shall not stand to listen to such inane mutterings. Keep your eyes and mind on the road.” The voice was cultured, more so than Gust had thought possible. “Fie and confounded! Stop the cart, thief, Marie Antoinette has lost her head again.” Gust sighed, gently calling to the horses as he twitched the reins.

He hadn’t the fancy words for it, as he’d say, but he was in a fine pickle, no doubt about it. And nothin’ of it were his fault, at least by his reckonin’. At least there was the promise to hang onto, for all the good it’d do him. From beneath the tarpaulin came muttered words, indistinct, yet… Gust would wager that she, his bothersome would-be mistress, was cursing him in that ridiculous and wordy way. She needed him to drive the cart to where they were going, but instead of being grateful, she seemed out to vex him into rage out of pure spite. “There we are, as good as new… or at least as usual. You need to keep a proper hold of yourself Marie Antoinette, for I can not and shall not order yet another stop. We need to clear more miles before night falls.”

Soon two small hands appeared and grasped the driver’s seat, hoisting a delicate face into view. “You may proceed again. Do mind the potholes and do not drive us off the road. We should arrive shortly” Gust grumbled, shrugged and urged the horses to start pulling again. His mind wandering back to just a little while ago, when everything was yet normal.

Chapter 1. A town and an inheritance

Eulea had been relatively late in joining the Luminaire Kingdoms, its ruling caste being less interested in actual piety than profit and its populace in general being poor. It would not be until a century later when miners, using equipment made to Luminaire design, discovered rich reserves in the bordering mountain range. Amongst those that struck it rich was an owner of a small mine and his wife. They paid their miners well and were said to be blessed in every aspect of life. Bar one, for they had no children and this weighed heavily upon their hearts.

Taking their wealth, they bought out other smaller mines and used the growing fortune to build the town known as Kalean. Kalean thrived as its residents, all miners and many of them those that had been bought out, wished to repay the generosity of the founders. Streets were fashioned from locally mined stones, the buildings also. The town was beautiful, though the church and the military were quick to stake a claim. The founders, now in their middle years, were said to love the town like a child. Yet in truth, there was one thing they held dearer than the town.

Years before, a talented craftsman had spent the night in their residence, fleeing persecution for his unwitting aid in an invasion set up by the Demon Kingdom’s most insidious tactician: Laerine vi Alloriel. The founders, who had taken the name ‘an Kaleandi’, smoothed the issues after sending the man on his way. Years later, a crate was delivered to their residence, containing an exquisitely crafted doll that was to become the centerpiece of their collection. The collection of dolls had started out small, a hobby to soothe the lack of children, but had over the years grown into something unique and impressive.

While the spirit may be willing, eventually the flesh gives out and so too did it come to pass that the founders of Kalean went to bed, never to rise again. Had one been present at that time, a quiet sobbing could have been heard. As it was though, the local guards found a written missive stating that the an Kaleandi couple had died in their sleep and that the services of the town undertaker would be required posthaste. The sender of the note was thought to have been the late lady herself as the handwriting bore a striking resemblance. The undertaker, upon conferring with the military sawbones declared them to have died of natural causes.

It was then that trouble entered Kalean. Elsewhere in town, a young man had grown up, a mop of dusty black hair covering a head filled with a big dream: to go beyond the town and get rich, get married and get recognized for being worth a damn. Gust Natel, son of a boisterous baker did not fancy staying in the place he had grown up in. Education had been thrown at him, but the town teacher had found the dreamer a touch hard to teach. Gust could not get employed easily, not after his early attempts at the apothecary and the explosives storage had resulted in town scandal that threatened to become regional news.

His father, a man by nature’s design outfitted with a hulking frame, had thought long and hard. The aid of a few bottled comforts let him dream of expanding the business by kneading Gust into a proper baker. Reality indicated that baking bread from rocks might be easier. Thus it was one day that Gust delivered a tray of baked goods to the estate an Kaleandi, where those so concerned were discussing the division of the inheritance. They had been at it for a whole week and even unconcerned Gust wondered if they might spend it with their squabbling. “Aaaahhhh, it’s too warm, I’d go back… pops do want that I reckon. But it’s too warm.” He sauntered over to the stables and sunk onto a bench in the shadows.

Two hours went by before Gust awoke with a snort. He knew he wasn’t the most observant person, but it amazed him to see a loaded cart with fresh horses so close by that he could have touched either easily. “Ya don’t see this every day… Now how did you git here without wakin’ me?” The horses looked soulfully at him, whickering peacefully. Gust patted them, then checked the driver’s seat. It was a good seat, as was the rest of the cart. It was in short a cart that he’d love to have. Part of his somewhat nebulous dream involved driving in a prestigious carriage through Kalean’s streets.

 

His wandering mind left his eyes to rove on their own and rather unexpectedly, they noticed something, drawing the mind back to the here and now. “Huh’n? What’s this?” On the seat lay an envelope, creamy beige in colour and before he’d even thought about it, Gust had opened the letter and read it. “To the des-ig..desig-nat-is-ted driver, in my… prior letter.. Blah, blah..” Gust could read and write, if not enthusiastically. “As agreed you.. will become the owner of this cart.. and the acco-companying horses upon delivery of the cargo in the town of Gravelhold.”

This caused him to drop his arm, blink and re-read the letter. “So.. take this cart to a place called Gravelhold? And then its for this designisted driver?” Gust whistled thoughtfully. “I could do that…” Moments later, he found himself seated and gently setting the horses to work. “Two birds with one stone, this is my cart outta town.” As he set a course for the nearest gate he was unaware of two important things. Firstly, his father had just received a letter addressed to Gust, one that he would never see or read himself. Secondly, his mutterings did not go unnoticed by the cart’s other occupant.

Gust could focus on a task, provided that it was more interesting than any available distractions. So he made it through the gate, stopping only for a few supplies in the market held just out of town before setting off on what he thought might be the right road. Gravelhold, a port on the Pridolae coast was something of a mystery to him. Would people spend time fishing or something like that? Or were there… water-mines or something? Having been raised in Kalean, Gust had trouble with the idea that a city could exist without mines. “Ya’d think they’d live off the water or sommat.” 

It was during the late afternoon that Gust felt the urge to stop for a bite and a drink. The fields around him had yielded fine crops during spring and would again this summer, but for now there was precious little hard work for the farmers to do. Bringing the cart to a halt near a small brook where a lone tree provided some shade, Gust intended to dismount. “Stop, thief.” Gust blinked, he’d heard a female voice speak to him, but… had he been in the sun too long? He tried again, only now something held him back firmly. Turning his head he saw a slender, small arm, whose hand had a very strong grip on his pants.

The tarpaulin stretched upwards as another arm moved it. Both were clad in a beautiful powder blue dress with a high neck that came up to the delicate chin of the head now emerging. “You have endangered a vital mission with your greed, thief and I shall not allow you to get away with that.” Gust chuckled, this was a precocious child. “Ya should skip t’home girl. An’ don’t ya call me a thief, I’m takin’ this cart to where the letter asked me ta take it.” In lieu of a reply, the girl glared at him before raising a tiny hand and smacking him with it. “Do not call me girl, thief. I had arranged for a chosen driver for this mission. Not some random sneak-thief.”

She smacked him again. “How will the designated driver feel? Had you thought of that?” As she raised her hand again, Gust gripped her wrist, firmly. “Enough of that, ya hear?” He paled as she effortlessly slapped him again and again until he let go, wanting to clutch his face and arm. “You ain’t no girl.” He probed gently with his tongue and with some relief noted that he still had all his teeth and no fractures. “How rude! I am a young lady!” She emerged fully from the tarpaulin and Gust estimated that she was at most half his size and nowhere near his weight.

“Not human, girls ain’t that strong.” His eyes roved over her form. “An they don’t have mammars till they is grown up neither.” This resulted in her glare intensifying, though one arm covered her bust. “I reckon ya are one of them monsters, a botherin’ motherin’ demon.”His tongue got caught between his teeth then, ending his accusations. “Incorrect, thief. You are not only rude, but poorly educated.” She stepped up onto the seat and rolled back one sleeve to reveal a pale, segmented arm. “I am Eira an Kaleandi. What I am is a mamonme of the Coppelia species. Wendy’s on the other hand are child-sized, commonly red-haired and in the possession of horns, wings and a tail.”

She clicked her joints. “Do not make the mistake of confusing me with something else again.” Gust goggled.

“A freakin’ doll!” This earned him another set of tear-inducing slaps, accompanied with the injunction to say Coppelia. “Let that be a lesson thief. I do not take kindly to willful stupidity.” Gust rubbed his red cheeks, smarting. “So now what? Ya plannin’ to hand me to the constables or sommat? They might not care for your complaints.” She in turn shrugged. “I am pressed for time. If you will drive the cart to the next village, I might summon my intended driver, a person of higher caliber than thee. I shall compensate you for this service.”

She blinked, fixing him with a flat look. “If you try to weasel out, if you betray me, then I shall kill you.” Gust sighed, living up to his name with a lengthy exhalation. He then ran a hand lovingly along the side of the cart.

“Well, them’s the breaks. Haven’t gotten ‘round to seeing what we’s haulin’ neither.” He pulled up on the tarpaulin and goggled. “More dolls?” He extracted one. “Hey! Innit this the old folks collection?” Small footsteps approached and a small hand retrieved the doll. “Indeed. The uncouth gathering of vultures sought to take my parents’ house. But they shall not have their dear collection. You yet owe me an answer, thief.”

Gust shrugged. “I’ll do it. But ya gotta consider lettin’ me drive all the way if mr. pleasant ain’t available.” Her smile was beatific. “But he will be. I simply know it.” She struck a pose and laughed condescendingly. 

Chapter 2. A mystery solved

Gust was glad to finally see the walls of the next village. Though small and probably as boring as home had been, it was a place he’d not been to. “Now do remember, thief. No fuss, play your part and you shall be rewarded. Fail to do so and you shall learn true horror.” Gust tired somewhat of the reiterated threat. “Them Dragons be mighty temptin’ about now.” A scoff sounded from under the tarpaulin. Gust set about stabling the cart in a barn with provender for the horses. All the while a soft scritching sound came from the cart, punctuated with soft humming until finally…

“Psst! Here, take this to the messenger bird office, then return.” The letter and a frugal ten copper léàns were handed over. “The name and address, thief. Can you read them?” Gust turned the letter over in his hands.

Five seconds later, he was holding on to the cart, trying to stay upright as laughter poured out of him in a torrent. Eira popped up, trying to glare, but looking flustered. “What’s so funny thief?” With an effort of will, Gust calmed down enough to explain his mirth. Not that he stopped laughing, or that tears didn’t spray from his eyes. “Ya have to be kiddin’ me. This letter’s for pops. He can’t read worth a bob and he’s scared of horses.”

He relapsed into laughter, Eira went to fuming before she grabbed him and administered another series of slaps. “A thief and a liar! My parents thought very highly of Drake Natel, and of his son-” Gust silenced her with an exceptionally goofy grin. “Gust Natel, me in other words.” Eira’s expression went blank for a few moments, as if she were an actual doll. Then she sat down with a clatter and swore. Her knowledge of animal husbandry, nautical terms and Akrufian dialect astounded Gust. “Golly, even old Bouffault the foreman can’t measure up to that.”

When Eira calmed down somewhat, she fixed Gust with a glare. “If the Gods did not shun my kind and the Demon Lord cared at all, then I would pray to both to smite you for this embarrassing situation. Why did you try to steal the cart? Did you not read my letter?” She looked brittle, as if the emotional outburst had taken a physical toll. Gust sighed softly as he chose his words. “Well, ‘cause I’d fallen asleep outside after deliverin’ to the house. Also, pops don’t let me read letters till the end of the day. Dunno when you’d sent it, but I sure hadn’t got it.” He scratched one slightly grimy ear. “So… what’cha gonna do now? Send for another driver?”

Eira shook her head and laughed despairingly. “Who? Who would I know? The majority of people my parents would have entrusted with this job have passed away before them. I’ve never been out of the house before.” She looked as if she wanted to cry, smaller than Gust had thought a monster could look like. Thus he made a promise he eventually did not regret so much. “Look, Eira, I took the wagon ‘cause I saw that letter on the seat and thought it’d be a good way to leave that boring place. I don’t think things through, least not always ya know?”

He gestured with his hands. “Just wanted to see more of the world than pops’ bakery. But if you let me, I’ll promise to get you to Gravelhold.” Eira gave a fleeting smile as she gazed into his eyes, then nodded.

“I’ll hold you to that then.” She sighed and stood up. Her long dress looked beautiful on her, its dark blue ribbons on the shoulders accentuating her ash-blonde hair and quartz-blue eyes even as its powder-blue folds hugged her figure. “I accept your promise, Gust Natel. Please help me deliver my parents’ legacy to Gravelhold.” That moment would remain etched in Gust’s memories for the rest of his life.

A few days and several score miles later he wondered if he shouldn’t have just walked away back then. In towns Eira kept quiet, bar for when she gave instructions and money for supplies. Eulea did not tolerate mamonme within its borders and she had no intention of endangering herself. Out on the road though, she sought to… fix his lack of knowledge. “Pay attention, Gust! Now according to the books I’ve perused…” The trip was probably taking twice as long as needed at this rate. She’d go so far as to declare her intention to make of him a scholar, then burst out in proud laughter.

He’d learned a few things about her as well. Though going by Eira, a name bestowed on her by her parents, she had not been made by them. She claimed not to know how she became a Coppelia, preferring to emphasise the love between her parents and their many achievements in raising Kalean to prominence.

He in turn told her of his own life. “Well, I don’t recall my mom rightly. Pops raised me on his own, but I’ve been thinkin’ that she might’ve been one of Fate’s Holies.” Eira looked surprised, it was an order she’d not heard of. “Well, them’s the breaks, they aren’t considered that holy by the church.” Gust shrugged.

“They’re also known as dice whores, though I reckon that’s wrong. They go from town to town and seek single men who meet critter’s ia’s or whatever.” Eira corrected him, it was criterias he meant. “Whatever, if that men then tosses a winning throw on the dice they pledge to stay with him until a year and a day have passed since they bore fruit. Or in normal lingo: until the babe’s been weaned.” Gust shook his head. “I reckon it’s a pious way for the human nymphos to help the war, no offense. More humans born means more soldiers eh?” Eira shrugged, then nodded thoughtfully.

“And what do they get out of it then? Not a happy family, so…” She turned her head sideways, blushing pink.

“I reckon they get off on giving birth. Their order has some spells to keep’m fresh, able and willin’.” Gust shugged as he reflected. “Means a lot of teasin’ for their kids, least in other towns I reckon. But in Kalean there ain’t a lot of women if ya get my drift.” Eira was somewhat shocked at this revelation. Her lips moved silently as a frown formed. “But how are the children raised then? Not just by men, right?” Gust shrugged and she felt a headache coming on. “It never fails to amaze me how stupid humans can be. I’ve read every book I could and even a casual glance at the histories makes one wonder how your species has survived.” She threw up her hands. “Or why mamonme are so reviled then? If we have children, we dote on them and make certain they grow up happily.”

Gust shrugged again, slowly, as if to emphasize a point. “Yer forgettin’ a few things Eira.” He held up his hand and counted off on his fingers. “Mamonme can’t get sons. Mamonme go crazy when they be wantin’ for sex. Mamonme give off magic that… I dunno, turns humans inna incubbels an’ more mamonme.” Eira interjected that he meant incubi. “Right. Mamonme also change the land. And finally, the Gods hate mamonme… least that’s what the preachers said.” Gust sighed as Eira assumed a thoughtful look that he was coming to recognize as her way of getting her arguments together before launching into a lecturing tirade.

“I am certain the books mentioned incubi being born to Mamonme. And the demonic energies we have been imbued with do reportedly have the power to alter people and areas, though none would willingly do so to harm others.” She jabbed his nose with a finger. “Humans go crazy as well if they are not loved. As for the Gods, I have no quarrel with them and thus far they have not presented such to me personally. Now, shall we confer on the next course of action?” Gust’s blank look elicited a sigh. “Talk-about-what-we-do-next. Really Gust, pay attention” Eira relented when Gust gave her a distinctly reproachful look. She apologized, but privately resolved that she would improve his breadth of knowledge a little more quickly. 

The next day they crossed the border between states, not knowing that their peaceful journey would soon end.

Chapter 3. A wink and a nod

Eira sighed as she once more retrieved Marie Antoinette’s head. As with most of the unique dolls in her parents’ collection, this one had a quirk of its own. Her head would slip the elastic bands with startling regularity, despite the fact that this was statistically impossible given how these were attached to curved hooks inside the head and torso. Everideey always managed to get a stain on her dress, even when Eira had protectively placed her in a glass container once upon a time. And Louni’s eyes changed colour each day. They were not Coppelia, but even so they had… call it a soul of their own that affected such peculiar happenings.

“If only you could talk.. What joy we might find in sharing memories.” She gently cupped a porcelain cheek and lightly ran a small comb through the doll’s hair. “Alas, I can’t imbue you with life, I wish I knew why. I can coat you in energies, make you stand up… walk around akin to a soldier on parade.” She sighed, switching hands and working on the other side of the hair. “But what I would not give to speak with you.. All of you. Maybe you can hear me… maybe not… but I’m determined to do my best for you regardless.” Finishing with the brush, she gently tied a spare cap onto the smaller doll’s head.

A wheezy snore came from besides the cart, followed by a muffled noise. Typical sounds for her confounding human companion during slumber. Because she had taken to naps during the daylight hours, she regularly found herself awake during the night. Gust had been worried for her health… but also about her libido if she was right. Honestly, she had more than enough stored reserves to last the trip to Gravelhold and then some, and it wasn’t as if she was powerless to dismiss the urges that were a natural part of her. But he’d insisted on sleeping outside of the cart.

“I do feel like he is a good person at heart… But he’s random, with a less than optimal moral compass.” She tapped her bottom with the comb, prompting a clear ceramic note. “And I’m sure he betimes sees me as a little girl… Maybe because he’s still afraid of Mamonme?” She tilted her head sharply. “Or maybe… No, that could not… Could it be so?” She silently lowered herself from the cart and approached Gust’s sleeping form. His snores spoke of deep sleep and Eira felt confident he would not wake. Carefully she teased the blanket back and beheld Gust’s smallclothes. “I shouldn’t… but there’s only one way to know…”

Though knowledgeable through the books she’d read, she herself had next to nothing in terms of practical experience. She’d spent some time with mirrors to learn her own anatomy, which had left her wondering if her maker was a pervert, or if her genitals were the result of being a Coppelia. Her books had mentioned how one could sense if a man was still a virgin by touch though, so she reached in carefully and touched something soft. She could not sense any Demonic Energy from that touch, but she was hampered by her lack of  practical knowledge on male physiology.

Did she touch the right thing? Or was this the umbilical cord that humans were born with, if she’d understood correctly? Sliding in deeper, she found something equally soft, yet hairier. “There’s… two things in there?” Suddenly she noticed something warm moving against her sleeve and quickly extracted her hand. “Ooohhhh… It got hard.” She stared mutely for a short while, blushing. Her instincts screamed at her to grab Gust’s member and extract all the spiritus she could. With a small sigh though, she tugged the smallclothes over his package and reached over to pull the blanket back over him. “Not like that.” Then she got another surprise.

Hours later, Gust awoke to a peculiar sensation. His right arm felt numb, as if he’d put a weight over it while sleeping. His face felt as if it were being tickled and he heard a soft, musical noise. Cracking open one eye, he noticed a tousled expanse of ash-blonde hair that bobbed slightly in time with soft breaths that sounded like they came from an ocarina. Gust was used to early mornings, but the last few days had made him more tired than usual. He’d ridden a different cart or two before, but those had been small trips never lasting more than half a day. Additionally, his father had been there to help rub the horse down, clean its hooves and feed it.

Thus might it be excused that he didn’t rightly know what was lying on his arm. A bit heavy for a cat… Maybe a lonely fuzzle? It would need a trimming. Then Gust spotted a delicate ear as Eira’s sleeping form rolled over. “Whaaat!” His exclamation startled her awake. One delicate yawn later she slapped him. “Finally! Let go of me, you pastry fiend!” Gust’s expression was comical to say the least. “Pastry fiend? Why in the Gods names were you under my blanket?” Eira dared not look into his eyes. “You kicked off your blanket and when I restored it to you, you grabbed me, mumbling about muffins of all things.”

Gust laughed then. “Muffins? That was our cat’s name.” He rubbed his cheek. “Durned critter prodded me everywhere until I pulled her under the blanket at night.” Eira was glad that he could not see her blush in the shadowy stable. “Well, best make ready quickly, Gust. We are nearly there.” Eira tapped her chin thoughtfully. “We crossed the border, but I’m not sure if I can yet ride publically aside you on the seat. Would you inquire with the stablemaster?” Gust nodded, gathering his clothes and heading for the pump. Gorseloft was a small village just on the inside of the Pridolea border that relied on its smith and stables for most outside income.

Gust had intended to seek the inn, but there was none, the locals made their own entertainment and drank the cider made by the smith in winter. The stables were almost as nice though, they were warm and clean if smelling of animal flatulence. A beady-eyed mozur peered groggily at Gust and made a half-hearted attempt to bite him. “Sheeesh, ya ain’t bein’ friendly birdo.” Gus nearly collided with the stablemaster, a broad man named Edvar with a huge belly. “Good morning, young Gust. Ah-ah-ah, I see you had a wild night~!” His grin was as wide as his belt and was decidedly edging towards a leer.

“Huh?” Gust’s reply wasn’t nearly as eloquent as his confused look. The stablemaster tapped his own cheek and gave a knowing look. “I figured you might have a lady friend hidden in that cart, what with those little noises yesterday. But you can tell her to stop hiding, we’re a bit more worldly here than the folks over the border. Care to introduce us?” Gust rubbed his cheek again before replying. “Thanks for tellin’ me, but its not like that. She ain’t interested in me. I get more slaps than a novitiate inna church.” Gust wished he had not spoken then, as the stablemaster laughed aloud, slapping his gut in mirth. 

“Don’t that beat all. Well son, I do know Wendy’s enjoy mothering folks, so if she bothers to slap you, you’re practically in the bag.” His tone grew a bit more serious though. “You might want to know where the nearest Unicorn gal lives though. If you are not willing to become an incubus you’ll need to speak with her quick about weekly purifications. Folks here don’t mind mamonme, point in case being the missus, but we don’t want to turn the place into a small outpost for the Demon Kingdom.” He gazed upwards reflectively. “We get all sorts here though. Some we had to turn away, others leaving while still welcome.”

Edvar shrugged. “In any case, freshen up and let her do so too. Then please go to the house. I’ll spot you both breakfast for a tale.” With that, he left a bewildered Gust to perform his morning ablutions. Several minutes later Gust and Eira sat down at a kitchen table as Edvar and his wife welcomed them. “Interesting, I have not had the pleasure of meeting a Coppelia before.” Eira smiled charmingly and replied that she had not met a Grey Wolf before either. “I did read that Grey Wolves are very knowledgeable, mrs. Phelia. And may I say that your collection of books is impressive? Quite a few town and business records, but also philosophic publications and historical works.”

Phelia preened a little. “Its the mixed blessing of my race to be able, almost compulsively so, to value information. Honestly, I’m glad my Edvar managed to convince the farmers to help build the repository.” Edvar laughed, toying with his wife’s tail affectionately as she continued. “We’ll need to expand in a decade or so and maybe get a few levels below the ground as well. The area’s suited for excavation.” They spent two more days in Gorseloft before resuming their trek to Gravelhold. Eira spent a lot more time sitting next to Gust on the seat, discussing her plans and seeing to his continued education.

“I am to deliver the collection to Yvar Lochat the sculptor. My parents have always held him in high regard for his artistic skill and his desire to improve the world. There was that unfortunate incident of course… He’d been duped into helping with a failed incursion by the Demon Kingdom in some place called Cannaegh.” She sipped cold tea from a water skin before continuing. “But mother and father saw to it that his escape was smoothed over.” She sighed. “Well, if it were not for that then I would not have been able to do ought. It was he who made this lovely, if small, body. The thought of meeting him though…”

“Ya feelin’ nervous? Don’t be.” Gust switched the reins to one hand and patted Eira’s shoulder with the other. “If he’s all that, it’ll be a happy meetin’ I’m thinkin’. If not, then ya know at least. But what’cha doin’ after? Ya keep dodgin’ that question.” Eira sighed and was silent for a few moments, Gust knew that she was mulling it over. “Honestly? I’m not sure. I’m good at maintaining the dolls, but I do not think that is a valued skill for one seeking employment. My funds are not infinite and thus I must find a way to sustain myself beyond them.” She sharply flipped her hair, exposing the seam between her neck and jaw.

“I would like to find someone to share my life with, but not as a dependent moocher. Nor as some dictatorial Impundulu imprisoning another being. Do you think my skills would stretch to my becoming a teacher?” She chewed her lips while Gust mulled it over in his mind. “Maybe, ya do know things. But I reckon teachers can’t strike poses and laugh at kids. Or slap the snot outta them.” Gust grinned as he spotted Eira’s blush. “Ya know, if’n this Yvar don’t need no assistant or somethin’, why not tag along for a bit longer? I’m gonna keep rollin’ an’ see the world, might be that ya find what’cha want out there.”

Eira smiled then and ran a hand through her hair. “That is certainly appealing, Gust. However…” She cupped her breasts and gave a shyly seductive look into his eyes. “I think it might mean more than just travelling together. Despite the rough beginnings of this journey, the emanated spiritus coming from you does smell nice.” She dropped her hands into her lap. “I will not force myself upon you, but I have to stress that you are attractive in more ways than one. If you desire to marry a human then parting at Gravelhold might be for the best.” She did not notice anything then, not that her hands were wringing nervously nor that a familiar rolling sound came from underneath the tarpaulin.

Gust was keenly aware of her waiting stare and privately noted she looked adorable. “I did say ya could tag along.” He put his arm around her. “Just don’t be expectin’ me to be less of a goofball.” In return she snuggled close, smiling widely. Gust did have a pang of worry that he’d gotten in over his head again. Still, Eira’s soft body felt comfortable next to him, even when she fell asleep and her musical breathing piped up. As dusk crept over the coastline, the port of Gravelhold came into view and Gust waked Eira gently to help make camp.

Chapter 4. Arrival

Gravelhold was a different town back then, its harbor not yet graced by an extending pier, nor were there many mamonme evident. A few Ureonggaksi were heading back towards their camp after purchasing rice and sending a few letters to relatives by ship. Gust and Eira shared a meal with them and thereby learned that mamonme were welcome as long as they left by sundown, or if an inhabitant vouched for their behaviour. As they left, trekking across soft grasses, Gust checked the cart while Eira fussed over the collection. She wanted  the dolls to look their best and thus spent the morning brushing hair, cleaning dresses and shining little shoes.

All this time she was aware of Gust’s furtive looks. She could not resist giving a few intentional wiggles, or showing her curves off. Before noon though, they were rolling along again. At the gates to Gravelhold the guards noted their names, intentions and place of origin before giving directions to the Lochat manor. The streets were partially paved with cobblestones, though the gutters were muddy. Amid the squawks of gulls and other birds Gust drove the cart through the streets, noting a few mixed couples who nodded not unkindly. When they finally came to the manor though, Gust was having some second thoughts.

“Ya gotta admit, Eira, this looks deserted almost.” He scratched his head and indicated the sagging shutters, peeling paint and poorly kept garden. She tapped her cheek in thought before replying. “He is not exactly a young man anymore Gust, maybe he’s too proud to ask for help though?” So saying she effortlessly jumped from the cart and skipped to the manor doors. While evidently not recently painted, their fading dark red finish and slightly tarnished brass knockers still exuded an artistic dignity. Lifting one of the knockers, Eira found that it did not squeak or grind, yet slammed down harder than she intended. 

Moments after the dull boom, a jangling as of many keys bashing together resounded  and the ornate lock clicked. “Who is there? You need not knock the house down you know.” A woman opened the door who might have been beautiful once, before age crept up on her. She spotted Gust and eyed him beadily. “Why did you run back there young man? I’d have thought you wanted to  enter by that knock.” He pointed down and she caught Eira’s patient clearing of the throat. “Greetings ma’am, and pardon for the loud knock, I misjudged the requisite force. However, may I inquire if this is indeed the domicile of Yvar Lochat?”

The woman took a step back and peered at Eira’s small form. “Eh? Who’s asking? I haven’t got my glasses on and you’re awfully close.” Eira took back a step or two.”Eira an Kaleandi, and Gust Natel. It is imperative that I speak to ser Lochat, so I reïterate: is this his place of residence?” She tilted her head sideways, smiling disarmingly. The old woman withdrew a pair of glasses on a sight-stick and peered critically at the Coppelia.

“You’re an awfully short gal… wait a minnit! You’re that doll he made years ago.” A faint smile creased the many wrinkles. “Welcome back. What took you so long though?”

Eira’s smile turned into a puzzled frown. “Erh… was I expected earlier? Either way, I am here as executor of my parents’ last will. They named ser Lochat  as the one who would inherit the collection.” The old woman crowed with delight. “Lovely, the mistress will be glad too. Hey you!” She addressed Gust. “That cart can go under the awning on the right side of the manor, go in through the door there.” Then she returned her beady gaze to Eira. “Come along deary, no use standing on the steps.” Eira followed inside, taking measured steps in order to pace the older woman’s slower gait. Gust shrugged, drove the cart underneath the awning and  freed the horses from their harnesses.

As he rubbed them down quickly and set them at an open stall he was glad that they had camped last night. As it was, the two beasts were nowhere near tired, but still eager for the oats he fed them. Finally, Gust headed towards the door. As he opened it, an arm shot out and yanked him inside. The door closed quietly. Meanwhile, Eira was privately glad that the old woman did not move too fast. Like the outside, the entry hall was an exhibit of fading splendor. Many statues stood on the floor and on plinths while the spindleflax-and-oak panelling on the walls was nearly obscured by paintings and embroideries.

“Yeah,there’s a lot of things here. I’m not glad that there are so many things in this hall, but he’s kept every gift from his students over the years.” The old woman paused to wipe one corner of a plinth with a scrap of cloth. “All talented artists and all open minded towards mamonme if you can credit it. So I’m stuck chasing dust and dirt.” At that moment a clear chime sounded. “Looks like the mistress is ready to receive you. Please keep in mind that she’s… well, call it nobility. Kind and all that to visitors, but a bit tetchy if you are impolite.” She led the way up the stairs, wheezing audibly.

There were several doors on the next floor, but they passed them by as the old woman headed unerringly towards the double doors at the western end. Beyond was a marvelous room that stole Eira’s breath. Light streamed in from a glass roof bedecked with tinted glass that perfectly mimicked the subtle colorations of a springtime forest. Large blocks of stone stood throughout the room in various stages of being turned into statues. A soft spinning sound entered her ears, coming from behind a screen. “Welcome little one.” A beautiful woman had stepped into sight and was walking towards Eira.

“Mistress, I’ve brought you our overdue guest. Should I-” The old woman was silenced with a raised hand. “That will be all for now Margram, please return to your duties, I’ll see to our guests.” The old woman curtsied, then left. “Sorry about that. But I reiterate: welcome, welcome home to the house of your birth.” Eira thanked her hostess, but a burning question edged its way unto her heart. “Pardon me for asking, but might I enquire your name? And are you, as I surmise, the wife of ser Lochat?” This brought a mysterious smile to the woman’s lips as she  turned to a small table with wide but low chairs.

“Ara, ara… You are just burning with curiosity, aren’t you? I suppose I can spare some time to answer your questions, but you might not appreciate the answers straight off the bat.” She tapped a small silver bell and as a panel shut off the outside soft light came from small crystals embedded in the walls. “I presume that you do know what you are? If not, you are a Coppelia. A kind of mamonme unique to civilized lands, though you are a little different from the norm in that your body was crafted by the greatest artist of this era.” Eira privately wondered what this woman was building up to.

“Yvar Lochat has been an acquaintance of mine for many, many years and it is therefore that I’ve provided him with this manor, the materials he needs and so on. Everything needed to excel in his art. But I am not his wife, but rather his matron of the arts. You may call me Laerine.” Laerine let this sink in before continuing. “I can guess what you are thinking: the place is a mess, right?” Eira nodded shyly and shrugged in apology. “That is in part a front to cover up the truth. My manor also doubles as a… call it a sanctuary for those seeking to escape persecution. And as a laboratory where means to world peace are researched.”

“Do you mean mamonme?” Eira cocked her head to one side quizzically. “Or humans and such as well?” Laerine pursed her lips thoughtfully, raising a warding hand as she pondered her answer. Eira waited patiently, her gaze caught by a graceful curve on a statue in the making. Curiously enough, it was covered in dust. “All who need the sanctuary are welcome, even Taintpledged or Nephyrum, provided that they obey the rules I’ve set down.” Laerine waved a dainty hand that glowed with such power that the room seemed darker by comparison. “Rest assured that I can enforce them.”

Eira nodded. “I take it then that you are one of those… Circeressys? If I haven’t mis-read that name and description.” Laerine blinked in stunned surprise, then laughed. It was a curious sound, being dignified yet almost exploding with exuberance while actually quiet as a stage whisper. “Oh my, I think you mean Sorceresses. Circeressys being a quaint local variant in Cambris. But no, I am not one of my sister’s pets.” A shroud of shadow flowed over Laerine’s features. When it lifted, her blonde hair had turned a gorgeous shade of white-grey and flowed in long bangs over half her face.

Wings sprouted from her back that resembled those of a bat, but curved more gracefully than those of the flying mammals. They trailed shadows, as did the tail now lazily weaving back and forth behind them. Curved horns branching up and down as they swept backwards  added a regal note to a face of preternatural beauty, which showed cute fangs as the lips parted in a smile. “I can’t stay in my true form for too long as that would warn certain parties of my presence and thus imperil my charges. But I want you to know that I am a Serebim. Laerine vi Alloriel, daughter of our Demon Lord Seretique vi Alloriel and her husband Damien.” With a slurping sound the shadows enveloped her and Laerine returned to the form she’d inhabited earlier.

Eira goggled. “You are… the daughter of the Demon Lord?” Laerine nodded, causing Eira to gulp audibly. “Definitely. Though that should be a daughter. I have more sisters than the average mamonme, all dedicated to the goal of creating a world where mamonme and humans can coexist in happy, lustful peace.” The disguised Serebim laughed. “Since you appear to enjoy having knowledge, I’ll tell you a little bit of information concerning Serebim. Our mother Seretique was a Succubus before she became Demon Lord, thus our bodies mostly conform to that species physical appearance.”

“However, we are daughters of the Demon Lord. The influx of DE, prayers and what not fed back to our mother influences us further, bringing genes from different species into the mix. These affect our looks, personality, powers and so on. I’ve done a little research, but each Serebim has between three and five different influences from species serving our mother at the time of our birth.” She waved her hands anxiously. “Nothing freaky there, just a normal pregnancy, though the influences can come from species that exist in potentia as well. For example, my sister Lokaeli is definitely part Ureonggaksi and part Kaaiman. Notably, she brought into this world the species known as Magical Girls and their… evolved form, the Sorceresses. Finding their influence was a cinch once we knew of them.”

Laerine sighed. “I’m not quite that exotic by comparison: Vampire, Hobby Har, Shoggo and maybe some Coppelia influences.” She shrugged. “But enough about me. Lets talk about you, your maker and what you can do to make the future so much better.” Laerine’s smile was predatory.

Chapter 5. Escape

Eira shivered as she acknowledged the truth, this had been less a homecoming than a nightmare. She replayed the day’s events in her mind as she crept towards the prisoner rooms. Laerine had explained quite succinctly that Yvar Lochat had been deeply indebted to her personally and that his half-heartedness towards the goal he’d promised to help attain had caused the first plots to fail in Cannaegh. He’d fled, thinking to start over and her parents had helped him. Laerine had tracked him down anew and ensured that he would not escape again. She’d allowed him freedom, taking apprentices and learning from fellow artists.

It was around the time that he’d started on a series of artistic dolls that she had asserted herself again, insisting that he make powerful bodies for the army of Coppelia that Laerine wished to use to destabilise the Luminaire Kingdoms. Eira had been a prototype apparently, one allowed to run free while Lochat was forced to improve upon her design by Laerine. The Serebim had proudly stated that the new and improved bodies would be able to overtake each territory with ease. Yet they could not be made into Coppelia due to unforeseen complications. “I have tried everything.” Spoke Laerine with a bitter sneer on her face.

“But they are so different from normal Coppelia, which can form even from rag-dolls, that they need more than just the usual things. Lochat was not happy about my experiments on his assistant, or about those on the homeless before.” She’d snorted in disgust. “What use is it anyway if our project could not work?” She’d gone on about how increasing male spiritus output seemed to be the key and what those experiments had entailed. “Eventually though, Lochat refused to stand by idle any longer and I had to take measures against him. The experimental treatment worked well on him by that time. Too well…” Eira fought down the revulsion as she remembered the sight of the artist, reduced to an insensate drooling husk with hugely mutated balls sporting pseudo-phalluses currently in use by different mamonme as they desperately sought to extract spiritus.

“His original one is the only virile one, but when it comes…” She’d shown Eira a few shards, the sole remnants of another Coppelia that had been involved in the experiments. “It comes with explosive force, so we had to write him off for that. And for making art.” Eira trembled with rage as Laerine had gleefully informed her that she intended to ‘enhance’ Gust, transplanting the artistic knowledge and increasing his spiritus output. Tomorrow, so she explained, Eira would be able to make the first attempt to breathe life into the waiting shells. Eira had wondered how Coppelia could reproduce, but she would be damned before she allowed this.

She was no match for a Serebim in direct confrontation though, both her mind and her instincts knew this, so she’d kept up the pretense of being a little overwhelmed and begged off to check up on her parents’ collection. Laerine nodded, stating that as soon as Eira had helped activate the new shells she could bring the collection to life as her personal children. Eira had waited until the Serebim left, apparently to meet with less easily concealed agents in order to discuss which ‘shipment’ would go where tomorrow. Eira had no intention to go along with those plans and thus she crept to the rooms where Gust and other men were held against their will. Not that the mamonme had it much better…

The experiments had ensured that they got spiritus, but otherwise these women were confined to the house and the tunnels underneath. Not happy places by the sobs and cries of despair. But Eira’s mind could work out plans quickly and once she overcame the shock upon learning these things, she acknowledged that a Coppelia’s ability to punish wrongdoers came in handy here. The final part of her plan was to release Gust, she crept from room to room and did what she could before reaching the final door. Opening it carefully, she nearly gasped aloud when she saw the young man she’d come to care for.

Gust wept, even when sleeping exhaustedly.  Sturdy ropes tied him to the chair and spread his legs. A bowl filled with alchemical substances stood on the floor in front of him, a harmless enough fine paint brush laying inside. Gust’s balls  had been decorated with the fluids, weird symbols crawling over them. Eira threw caution to the wind and rushed in, a waterskin held in one hand. She almost did not notice movement until the other Coppelia was almost on top of her. “Petty, pretty, pity. You’re up to no good, no? Mistress said to keep an eye on you if you came here.”

Mad laughter came from a face criss-crossed with faint fracture lines, the head held together by bands of imbued zinthem. “Nononono, no boy for you nonono. He’s mine now. I’ll heal and take your place, make mistress happy.” Eira was appalled at the creature’s ranting. She must have been a porcelain doll once, from a wealthy household, but her body was broken in places. Odd parts had been grafted on, fitting in the metallic frame, but sticking out as well. “Who… what are you?” Eira’s breathless question elicited a grin, her aggressor flexing metallic wings and showing more teeth than should be possible. “Rethice, and I am a Coppelia… more than you. Yessss, more, more, more than you. You have a pretty, petty, pity face that makes me puke.”

Retching sounds came from Rethice’s armpits. “Easy life, no experiments. No work to make a better world. No more, nononono.” Eira ducked the attack that followed, dodging left and right as Rethice advanced. She did not have time for this at all. “I’m sorry for you, but given what your mistress has done to you… I hope that your life will be better next time.” Eira’s other hand shot out with the small hammer she’d found in the cart’s toolbox and smashed into the zinthem support bands on Rethice’s head. The broken Coppelia tottered for a few more steps, hands sluggishly raising towards her head as pieces fell off, but then she collapsed into fragments.

Gust had woken up from the sounds, and was staring groggily at Eira. “Eira?” She rushed forward and placed a finger on his lips. “I’m getting you out of here Gust. We’ll talk later, but I need to wash this goop off of you first.” She unstoppered the water skin and squirted some water on one of the symbols. It liquified and ran off. Working as fast as she could, she removed the magical graffiti and untied Gust’s bonds after. “How do you feel Gust?” He stood up gingerly and balanced on his feet. “My legs are stiff. An’ my balls still feel funky.” In the light Eira saw that though the symbols had washed off, some… bruise-like shapes remained. “I think they’re swollen or something.” He gingerly touched them and a spasm of pain crossed his face.

“You need a healer, quickly. I’m so sorry Gust, I didn’t know this would happen.” Eira quickly explained what she had learned, what her plans entailed and especially the need for speed. A lone cart left Gravelhold that night, its small driver anxiously keeping part of her attention on the young man lying amid the dolls under the tarpaulin. Meanwhile, Laerine skipped happily back to her base. Eira’s body was the key to her plans and that doll was as easily impressed as the clay that her ceramics had been made of. She didn’t notice the absence of the cart those two had ridden in on, or that Margram failed to greet her at the door. The daft old bat still thought becoming a mamonme would solve her issues.

Laerine wanted to retire to her bed, maybe invite some of her live-in friends and have a wild party to celebrate, but first she went to check up on Yvar Lochat and the shells he’d made for her. His room was dark though, contrary to what her standing orders allowed. “MARGRAM!” No reply. Conjuring an orb of light, she worried that the old woman might have either snapped, or died. Either would be a bother that messed up her schedules and thus warranted punishment. She dropped the orb when the light shone upon an empty seat and shards of ceramic bodies scattered around it. “By the unholy teats of that bloody goddess!”

Her towering rage and confusion were cut short as a splintered beam slammed into her face. “Payback time, Laerine.” Yvar Lochat stood, naked and permanently relieved of his unnatural burden, his higher voice trembling with fury and pain. “You wretched piece of spume. I will see you destroyed this night.” He raised the beam again, but Laerine’s hand stabbed out and a lance of dark energy pierced the artist. “My face! My Coppelia shells! Bastard, DIE!” She slashed the dying man left and right, but when her eyes met his… “Why are you smiling?” Without speaking, Yvar Lochat grinned, his fading eyes going to a glowing point near the rim of a bucket.

Three seconds later, Gravelhold awoke to a spectacular explosion that would be talked about for years after. The exodus of mamonme and incubi earlier that day had caused almost as much of a stir. For decades after, the inhabitants were far less accepting of non-humans.

Chapter 6. Hope and despair

“Well… I’ve done what I could.” Eira wrung her hands as the Unicorn healer sat down on the large and sturdy mattress and blew out an exhausted breath. “Will he be alright?” She asked. The reply nearly broke her heart. “I wish I could say yes, miss Eira. I’m confident in my skills as a healer and my husband is a skilled magus… But this is something else entirely. Its a magical curse that incorporates alchemical concoctions to create a specific sort of incubus… Given that a Serebim was involved in its creation adds to the potency.” She shook her head, soft hair dancing over the pure horn jutting from her forehead. “I can’t reverse the changes already made and there’s a distinct chance that the curse is still working on him, but we managed to… slow it, contain it somewhat.”

Eira mulled this over. “What then? Will he end up like my poor maker mrs. Saineé?” She silently beseeched the fates that Gust would be spared this misery. “I dare not say. He needs more help than we can give him here. Its fortunate though that you came to me…” She cocked her head, letting her tapered ears scan for any indication of a spy. “I dare say most Unicorns would be stumped and advice you to go to the Demon Kingdom to live there with him. But I know of one possible cure. Possible, bear that in your mind.” Saineé turned to a small dresser at hand and took from a small carved box a few folded letters. “In my maiden days I travelled the world and made many friends. I still correspond with them, though not as frequently as I would like.”

Sorting the letters, she came upon the one she sought. “Here we go. This one’s of some use I think. Serafina’s been badgering me to get one of those ARE’s, but they are beyond our means. Else I could verify this.” She re-read the letter quickly. “Ah yes, one of her close friends, a mrs. Meadlowry has come into some sort of power… Serafina’s a bit hazy on what precisely, for safety. But she does mention that this woman has been able to remedy several curses.” Saineé sighed, looking sad. “But she’s gone into the wilderness to the west  in order to found a new town on the Crystal Gulf coast with some friends and followers. I will tell you what I can on how to find them, but if you are willing to chance that perilous journey or not is wholly up to you.” Eira nodded thoughtfully, accepting of the blunt risk.

Later that night, an eye opened in the Citadel of Desires, the movement was followed by a groan. “Ah? Mom, dad, she’s waking up~!” Laerine could not grimace, though Lokaeli’s cheerful call sent pain through her head. Light, urgent steps followed and Seretique vi Alloriel came into her daughter’s view. “Sweety? Mommy’s here. Everything will be alright.” Laerine tried to reply, but no words came from her mouth, only a groan. “Save your strength sweety. You were hurt pretty badly.” Her mother then laid a hand on her forehead and spoke a word of power. Laerine found herself in a space that was not, her mother with her. “This will be easier. Oh Lae, what happened to you?” Laerine sighed, then tried to piece things together.

“Lochat escaped somehow and tried to kill me. I got him, but he’d set a bucket with something explosive and a lit fuse under a table.” She shivered as she again saw the angry flash of the explosion. “How… how bad is it, mother?” Seretique remained silent, but folded her daughter’s mind in a hug. Laerine felt tears flowing down her back. “You’ll live.” Said her mother. “But you’ll be long in mending according to the healers. I’ll see my little bat girl gets the best our kingdom can give, you know that.” Laerine shivered, hugging her mother back. “Lokaeli will handle those plans you mentioned so you can rest and get better.” Laerine nodded, numbly. She worried about her eye not opening. “My eye, mom?” No reply came, just more tears of the spirit.

Hours later, she woke to the impatient grunts of Marisaelle, her second-eldest sister and general of the armed forces. “You wanted me, so wake up!” Marisaelle was a fantastic tactician, but blunt and arrogant, especially when emotional. Laerine could not speak, but Marisaelle used the same spell as Seretique had to talk. “Finally, I thought you had croaked on me, dingbat. Now what’s so important that you needed me? Not just for a hug?” Blushing, the general hastily did just that before Laerine even could reply. “That’s sweet of you Marisaelle and I appreciate it… But I know how valuable your time is and how much I need rest to recover. Yet there is something that could not wait any longer. Something I’ve mulled over and over.”

Laerine glared balefully at the ceiling of the place that wasn’t. “My plans, which were intended to help defeat those Luminaire dolts, were foiled. All that hard work over decades, down the drain. And the root cause? One bratty Coppelia. Only she could have been thoughtless enough to do this, I think. No, I know it was her. And that after considering all other avenues.” Laerine shuddered. “I know my eye is gone.” Marisaelle nodded, uncomfortable with the admission. “I fear my good looks are ruined as well. I want revenge.” She said this with such cold fury that her sister only nodded. “We’ve never seen eye to eye on how to win the war, sister. But I need your help in finding and punishing that lowly doll. Did you remember to feed IT?”

The next day Eira watched Gust as he walked up to the wagon and sat down on the driver’s seat. Those baggy pants Saineé’s husband had given him looked good, She’d admit that, though Eira had at first glance thought they looked like a skirt with leggings sewn on. When worn though they looked almost normal, bar that they hid the apple-sized testicles that Gust would have to live with for the moment. “I’m fine ya know?” Gust grinned at her. “They don’t hurt no more and though I’m still walkin’ funny, I feel loads better.” Eira smiled, throwing her arms around him and whispering that she was so happy. Saineé trotted up then, an intent look on her face as she handed Gust a sealed scroll. “Okay you two, just give this letter to mrs. Meadlowry… If you can find her there.”

She then grasped Gust by the forearm. “You though, be extra careful. The curse is contained for now, but exposure to dispelling magics or excesses of Demonic Energy may unleash it again. Don’t starve Eira, but do not overindulge. This bottle holds water imbued with purifying agents that I urge you to sip once per day. I wish I could give you more, but the mixture declines in usefulness over time. So make haste.” They both promised her that they would, and thanked both Saineé and her husband for their help. Three hours later, with the main road a fading ribbon on the horizon, they entered the wilderness west of the Pridolae area. The landscape was both beautiful and extremely unusual. Throughout the topsoil, small ridges of pridolate stone rose.

The stone was found throughout the coastal regions, hard as granite, but slightly translucent and as blue-grey as a stormy sea. Wild animals eyed the cart curiously before resuming their daily business. “Eira?” Gust looked down at her with some concern as Eira had been silent for a while now. “Ya bugged by somethin’?” She shrugged listlessly before replying. “I guess.” The following sigh came from the bottom of her soul it seemed. “Gust, I am scared. You didn’t see what Yvar Lochat had become… what I had to do to set him free.” Shivers ran across her frame. “I castrated my maker to achieve that. His… mutations would otherwise have kept their claws in his mind.”

“But did I do the right thing? He insisted on staying behind to destroy Laerine and her wicked plots… or die trying. I have no doubt that she was committing atrocities, and that she did not deign to see the pain her plots brought to those people under her thumb. But in stopping her, did I not also harm the ideal world the Demon Lord envisions?” She sobbed. “Worse, I left him to face her alone. Worst… I killed Rethice…” Eira broke down in tears and Gust pulled her close, gently holding her until the calmed down. He blew out a breath he’d not known he was holding as his mind worked.

“Did ya now? I’ve been thinkin’ a lot about what happened too.” He stopped the cart and held Eira up in his arms so they were face to face. “Ya did the right thing. Holdin’ people against their wishes? Changin’ them for uneth-, unethible experiments? I don’ wanna live in a world made real by that kinda thing.” He stroked her hair gently. “Yeah, cuttin’ the nuts off’ a Lochat weren’t pretty, but it gave him his mind back, right?” Eira nodded. “An’ that Rethice? She were held together by bands and crazy as a coot. Ya ended her pains. Here’s the thing, ya saved me. Ya could’ve left me an’ skedaddled off by yerself. I’d not blame ya, with a Serebim on the loose.”

“I couldn’t leave you. Or the others that she’d enslaved.” Eira’s small hands grasped his head and her lips rose to kiss him. “But I’m dangerous to you as well. Coppelia are powered by Demonic Energy. Unless we can get that curse off of you, prolonged contact with me might set it off again.” Gust shook his head and grinned. “We’ll cross that there bridge when we get to it.” His grin widened as he laughed gently. “Ain’t that a first though? A mamonme bein’ reluctant to bed a guy?” Eira pouted and gently slapped him, claiming he made too light of their plight. Yet she no longer cried, instead busying herself with the collection and wondering what she should do with the dolls.

For the next few days they travelled ever west, across the beautiful, but rugged landscape. It held dangers of its own, not allowing for the passionate lovemaking that Eira and Gust wanted. One week into the wilderness, Eira had taken to trying to blow Gust occasionally, though she found that instinct was no substitute for practice. One day however, a strange cry came from the way they had come. “What in heck is that Eira?” Gust shivered subconsciously as the mournful wail came again. Eira lifted her hair away from her ears and listened intently. “I don’t know Gust, but that direction? Let us make haste.” She clambered over the cross-beam and used some of her reserves to magically boost the horses.

“I do not wish to take chances, those cries are coming from behind us, but they are not made by any creature I know or have read of.” Gust nodded thoughtfully as he pulled her back besides him and spurred the two horses to a run. By evening though, they spotted what was now undoubtedly chasing them and Eira ordered Gust to drive the cart into a sheltered alcove while she pulled two souvenirs of Gravelhold from underneath the tarpaulin.

The thing that chased them looked from a distance somewhat like a mamonme. A feminine figure loped along the trails, sniffing the air as if blind.

“Stay back, whatever you are!” She twirled the two chef’s knifes with her innate skill. A bemused grin appeared on the shadowy figure’s face and it rapidly lunged towards her. Massive claws capped long, triple jointed arms that barely showed under the starlight. “By the mercy of the departed… What are you?” No reply came and Eira knew somehow that this… thing could not reply with words, only actions.The battle that followed was fierce, Gust watched it from the confines of the cart with unadulterated amazement as Eira dodged, struck and spun around her opponent as the unnatural being clawed wildly. Its stunted legs, all four of them, scrabbled madly even though only two touched the ground at any time. Gust noticed two things in the moon’s slight glow.

Firstly, it wore a crystal between the two hard mounds on its chest that drank in light rather than reflect it. Secondly, light was streaming from Eira into the crystal, her movements slowing as if she were becoming fatigued rapidly. Though there had not been any practical demonstrations of such in Kalean, the Luminaire theologists that had visited the town had been keen to warn of lights coming from mamonme. Though not always visible, their Demonic Energy could manifest as an aura of light in a variety of colours. And he knew Eira needed hers to live.

His hand scrabbled under the tarpaulin, desperately seeking the small toolbox and the hammer within. His hand closed on the head of the hammer, though he thought he felt something… small brush his thumb in the process. Seeing Eira collapse he didn’t think further, just threw the hammer in an underhand throw that shattered the crystal and drove several shards into the thing’s chest. Not daring to wait, he leaped clear of the cart, ran over and dragged Eira away while the creature screeched abominably until its movements stilled. “In ya go Eira, we’d best skedaddle.” Gust was worried when there was no reply, but urged the horses into a near gallop. A mile away he stopped to check on Eira.

“Eira?” Gust grasped the inert form and pulled her out from underneath the tarpaulin. “C’m on Eira, please!” Her once soft body now felt as hard and rigid as a ceramic statue. Gust recognized the pose though, Eira had been fanning her Demonic Energy, something she had assured him was not just masturbating. It had not worked though apparently as her immobile fingers attested. Blushing heavily, Gust thought about what he should do. Eira’s lessons had touched upon spiritus, and thus he now knew what he had to do. “Easy’ll do it.” Gus tried to move Eira’s hands, but they seemed glued to her nethers. 

Spiritus might work, he thought, and tried licking around her fingers, hoping the small amounts of it present in his spit would help. Yet her pussy lips were hard as a dinner plate. Thinking further, Gust recalled that she’d mentioned the varying softness of her bodyparts indicated the presence and intensity of DE. “I can’t lose ya Eira.” Tears pooled in his eyes as he rested his head against her upraised bottom. Two things hit him then, her rear was soft, and by the squeaky noise now escaping, still functional. Gust just knew this was going to get him more slaps than anything before though. “Sorry Eira, I’m gonna do this to save ya.”

Eira floated in a state of limbo. That thing had seemed manageable, but it had somehow drained energy from her. If Gust hadn’t thrown that hammer, it would have killed her then and there. As it was though, his intervention had come too late. She’d desperately tried to stoke what little reserves remained, even as her body lost sensation and her soul steeled itself for what might follow. Would she be trapped here ad eternam? Would she… die and go to the hereafter? She felt some slight tingles then, a memory of the shy kisses she and Gust had shared. Her thoughts turned to him and her soul uttered a prayer to the world.

“Please save him, someone… I’d endure this limbo if only Gust can be saved from that curse and live a happy life.” Her soul sighed, but then was bowled over by a surging wave of energy. In moments she was desperately trying to swim in a veritable sea, something she had never experienced before. By the time the raging waves calmed she passed out from exhaustion. When Eira woke, she felt sunlight dapple across her face, the returning bodily sensations bringing tears of joy to her eyes. As she tried to sit up though, they turned to tears of pain and with a shriek she fell back, clutching her bottom. “OWWWWWW!” 

As she vented her pain, gentle arms cradled her and eventually she emerged from the agony. “Eira, ya came back.” Tears plopped onto her head as Gust cried his relief. “Ya came back, I was so afraid ya’d died.” She patted him on the shoulder, haltingly as each pat agitated her rear, but knowing he needed her she didn’t stop.

“I.. I’m here Gust. Owwww! What happened though? You stopped that thing, but… then it went dark. Did it hit my… posterior or something? I feel as if I have been stabbed.” She gingerly shifted in his arms as she waited for a reply, but when it didn’t come she lifted her gaze to Gust’s face. It was redder than she’d ever seen it. In her mind certain conclusions were drawn and she acted upon them.

Chapter 7. The maiden, the mother and the school

“Sorry Gust…” Eira pressed a scrap of cloth filled with a piece of magically frozen ice to the red mark on Gust’s cheek. He curled the other side of his mouth into a smile though and patted her fondly on the head before replying. “I figgered ya might want ta smack me. How’s your butt doin’ though?” He gently rested his hand against her lower back, frowning as she inhaled sharply. “Still stinging, oww.” Eira replied as she sought a more comfortable position on the blanket he’d put on the seat for her. “I’m grateful for what you did Gust, but you’re sure you couldn’t have just.. Dribbled it in after…” She motioned unmistakably with her hand. Gust snorted and shook his head. 

 

“I dunno know if that’d worked in time. Ya were turnin’ ta stone quick-like.” Gust pouted. “It weren’t my first pick neither, but ya were a dinnerplate with hands on it elsewhere.” Eira blushed at this revelation. The day continued on warmly as the foothills and woodlands gave way to fields of flowers and dunes of sand. “Gust, shouldn’t we be looking at this new settlement by now?” Eira gazed at the  surrounding landscape while trying not to move too much around yet. Gust scratched his head and stood up straight. The air tasted differently here, somehow salty and flowery, yet wholesome. From behind one of the dunes he spotted a plume of white smoke rising. “There I reckon.”

 

He turned the cart slightly more to the south and west on a route that would take them into a low point between the dune and its neighbour. On the other dune they spotted a small girlish figure wearing a very large round hat and a blue dress whose only response to Gust’s shouted question was to lazily extend one leg and point onwards and wave away the thanks that followed. Apparently she had a lot on her mind as she unceremoniously turned away on the small carpet she lay on, exposing a pair of dainty wings and a tail that seemed a little stiff from having been laid on. “I.. I think that’s a Wendy, Gust.” Eira was a little unsure as they hadn’t been  assaulted with a few well-intentioned instructions yet, something her books had claimed to be synonymous with meeting a Wendy.

Beyond the dunes a river came into view and close to it stood a collection of small wooden houses with new tilling fields nearby and one large building that was either a library or a school of all things. A Lamia was soaking old skin in a tub while her apparent husband nearby was finishing a pair of sturdy boots made from the same material. A much smaller girl played with a doll next to him, her tail barely wrapped around his ankle. Several men, women and mamonme were at work in the fields, or busy planing wood for the ongoing construction. Eira even spotted the wings of a Harpy disappearing behind one of the buildings, though they were of an unusual white colour.

One of the men in the field spotted their approach and whistled to the others before approaching cautiously. “Good day to you folks. Call me Erien, may I know your names and the reason for your visiting here?” Eira thought for a moment as she gazed at the man. Not the most handsome person maybe, but he had kind eyes and a stance that indicated he knew how to fight. “Good morning mr. Erien, I am Eira an Kaleandi and this is my darling Gust Natel. Our purpose here may require some lengthy explanation to tell in full. But in short, we seek one who is said to be able to break even mighty curses. A mrs. Meadlowry whom was recommended by mrs. Sainée the healer.” In response they received a look that was hard to read.

Then a shadow passed overhead, followed by a splat as a horrific form was unceremoniously dumped in front of the cart. “Erien, I found this thing trailing after these two. They’ve also got some magic I don’t trust, in there.” The Wendy from before descended swiftly and pointed at Gust’s pants. “I think its best if we… curtail their freedom a little. At least for now.” In short order Gust and Eira were shackled inside a small hut with three fierce mamonme on guard. “Well, we’re in a fine pickle again, Eira. Ya reckon we’ll get outta it though?” Eira shrugged in response to Gust’s question, feeling too worn out to respond vocally. “Well, least that thing got splat for good. I thought it were dead when we left it… but, dang me if it didn’t end up here still.”

Eira shrugged again, murmuring softly that she felt so tired of it all. Gust held her close and spoke gently of inconsequential things to take her mind off of the situation. The warm rays of the sun lulled them to sleep until a commotion occurred outside. “No, no, no! Clover, we don’t know what these two can do.” Gust and Eira recognized Erien’s voice and more felt than heard that a finger might have been put on his lips even before a woman’s voice answered him. “It’ll be fine Erien. I’ve recovered now and I don’t agree with Alyssum’s assessment. She’s still upset after losing him, you know that. Now open the door girls and let us in.” Gust blinked as the door opened and a vision of feminine beauty entered, outlined by the sun’s rays and flanked by the glowering man.

“Good afternoon you two, and welcome to the Crystal Gulf Coast settlement. I apologize for your current captivity, and hope we can end it soon.” Eira saw the woman was a Bovitauride with impressively large breasts and a look of sad wisdom in her eyes. Gust was a little intimidated, so Eira stood up as far as the shackles allowed and curtsied. “Good afternoon miss, or is it mrs?” She looked in Erien’s direction before continuing. “I mentioned this earlier to mr. Erien, but I’m Eira an Kaleandi and this is my Gust, Gust Natel in full. We came here looking for a mrs. Meadlowry on the recommendation of mrs. Sainée in the hopes that she might be able to help with a… curse that has been placed on Gust.”

Eira sighed. “We may also have gotten on the bad side of someone quite powerful, if the pursuit is any indication. But we do not wish to bring harm to this settlement.” Gust nodded, not wishing to interrupt her. “If so asked, we’ll leave, but I hope that you believe us and relay our request to mrs. Meadlowry.” Eira felt scrutinized by the soulful dark-blue eyes and fidgeted unconsciously. Then the woman spoke up. “I see. But why mrs. Meadlowry specifically? And what is the nature of this curse?” Eira requested that the latter not be made public, but thoroughly explained what had happened, mentioning twice the sealed letter still in the cart.

“And you fear your lover might end up like your maker? Most mamonme I’ve met would dream of their lovers having inhumanly large balls.” She rested a hand on her forehead momentarily. “I apologize, but it has been a trying time. You do not know much about us it seems. Or why we need to be so careful.” She stepped boldly forward. “We do not follow the Demon Lord. She has abandoned her promises long ago and is now content to let the world slide into ruin. In the past several months we’ve had to ward off several hired slayers. This is why we have had to relocate here in part.” A long, tired sigh escaped her beautiful lips. “I don’t know if Seretique vi Alloriel even knows of that, her spawn tend to concern themselves with those matters. Which tells you enough about their nature.” 

“Moreover, we are not friends with the corrupt Luminaire, the infernal Nephyrum or the vile Taintpledged. But we first and foremost oppose the Demon Lord.” She sighed, passing a hand over her eyes. “I want to believe you, truly I do. Moreover, I want to help lift that curse… But we need to be so careful these days.” At that moment the door opened again and the diminutive Wendy from stepped inside. In her hands she carried a baby Bovitauride with an intense gaze and oddly uniform fur on her little legs. “Clover, Ellie is hungry. She kicked the bottle again though.” She handed over the baby, who cooed happily in her mother’s arms, before stepping forward and gazing sternly at both Gust and Eira.

“Very well. Clover, I have to tell you some things.” She glanced sideways at the nursing Bovitauride. “I shall have to make some arrangements back home, but I’ve basically accepted. Both the proposed duty and… another duty.” Her heart-tipped tail wove gently through the air. “A certain person whom we both know has been talking to those dolls these two brought in. She says to free them and bring them to the school, right now. There’s more, but she’ll tell you that herself.” Her gaze focussed on Eira and Gust again. “I shall unlock your bonds and escort both you and the Meadlowry family thence. I am mrs. Alyssum, please be on your best behaviour.” She grinned like a child. “Or I will spank you.”

Shortly after, the group walked over to the settlement’s largest building. “Here we are.” Alyssum fished a key out of her dress and opened the door. From the doorway came soft, musical humming. Clover smiled and rushed in, tugging her husband along. Alyssum motioned Eira and Gust in, smiling encouragingly. Though the sun was nearing the end of its daily toil, the school building was lit within by a gentle light. “Hey Clover, hi Erien, hello Ellie~! Pookie-pookie-poo, how’s my little goddaughter do?” The voice was sweet and musical,  obviously the source of the prior humming. Elie’s baby chuckles spoke volumes. “So… Is Alyssum bringing them along?” Clover affirmed this, saying she was glad to see her again, as was Erien.

Eira walked along behind Gust, still feeling down, when she walked into his legs and heard him utter a startled gasp. Peering around them, she saw a beautiful foot set in an intricate sandal emerge from underneath a gorgeous white dress. Peach-coloured arms held little Ellie close to a modest bosom, both covered by a mane of honey-blonde hair. Wings as vividly white as cream emerged from behind the woman and as Eira’s gaze travelled upwards, two rainbow-banded eyes gazed friendly, if slightly nervously at her. “Welcome Gust and Eira, to the Meadlowry School for Mamonme. Please have a seat as there are… some things we need to talk about.”

“A… A Goddess?” Eira was utterly baffled. Gust on the other hand shook his head so fast it must have hurt. He sank down on his knees and protectively held Eira. This elicited a sigh. “You don’t need to be afraid. I am called Eiraiha, a Goddess as you guessed.” Eiraiha flexed her wings slightly, causing a few feathers to twirl down, dispersing into motes of light as they touched the floor. Gust shivered, but he found the courage to speak. “Eira, I’m seein’ and hearin’ things. That can’t be the head Goddess, right?” Eira turned her head sharply from him to Eiraiha. The latter sighed and put her head into her hands while a small snowcloud formed over her head. Erien now carried Ellie, but still put a comforting hand on Eiraiha’s shoulder, followed by Clover and Alyssum.

“Yes. I am the Principal God, or Principal Goddess as the folks here like to call me.” Eiraiha shooed the cloud away, though it drifted back shortly after. “The one who… made such a mess of things with the Luminaire. I am fully aware of that.” Soft snow and a few drops of rain fell onto her hair. “I am trying to atone for my mistakes… Thankfully, Clover, Erien and now Alyssum as well, they have come into my life and well…” She gently touched all of them with a tiny smile on her face. “They have accepted my attempts at atonement, and have been so very, very supportive.” She huffed and the cloud finally drifted away, out of the window. Both Gust and Eira were filled to the brim with questions.

“Milady, it is a lot for them to take in…” Clover spoke up, gently flicking her tail. “Allow me, please.” So speaking, she told Eira and Gust the story of her life. How she had journeyed with a small herd of other Bovitauride until she met Erien, of their unusually long (by mamonme standards) courtship, marriage and the things she had learned from the books he’d kept from his youth as a Luminaire soldier. Pain was evident in her words when she described how a wicked man had raped her, his design being to enslave her and force Erien to commit suicide. And of the aid she’d received, not from the Demon Lord, but from Lady Eiraiha, of whom she spoke with gentle reverence.

She then spoke of her first school, its destruction by fervent supporters of the Demon Lord, the long months on the road while carrying little Ellie, meeting Alyssum for the first time and finally arriving here. The shock of being welcomed by none other than Eiraiha herself, the tragedy that led to Alyssum’s return to the group and which other folks had joined, stayed, left or died. Even Clover’s gentle exposition left Gust a little flabbergasted, though Eira nodded and began asking questions that were met with frank answers. Clover thought of herself as just a Bovitauride, but it was clear that just any Bovitauride would not have accomplished what she had.

Erien still bore the knowledge of a skilled commander, but he’d sworn an oath not to fight again. Yet when it came to Eiraiha… “I… I did not wish to become the Principal God. Rather, my mother campaigned against Malus Lockedheart for the position. But then…” Eiraiha fell silent as tears streamed down her face and a small shower broke out over her head. “I wanted to become a teacher. But it was either take on the duty, or let mom’s hopes for a better future fade away.” Eira nodded in response and, feeling moved, offered a small handkerchief. It was accepted with a sad smile as evening crept over the lands that would be known as the Lands of the Gentle Flame some short years from now.

Chapter 8. The founding of Crystal Plinth

A couple of weeks later Eira was busy preparing breakfast for herself and Gust in their new home, an expertly made small cottage with a barn large enough to house the horses, cart and the pebblyfowl that added eggs to their table. The Bovitaurides of the town produced milk in abundance, and once you got past the fact of where the milk came from it was indeed a delicious drink. Gust had been freed of the curse, though his balls were still larger than they had been originally. Not that it mattered to her, as long as her goofball was himself she was happy. He’d been using the cart to deliver the milk around the houses, move timber with the help of a young Minotauride and haul other supplies as needed.

As for herself? Eira reflected that she liked attending the classes at the School for Mamonme. Clover Meadlowry was a born priestess maybe, but teaching others how to deepen their love beyond lust was her passion. And large parts of what she taught resonated within Eira like the chiming of bells. Gust though… He had made it clear that he did not in fact want other women ogling his bits, so he refused to take part in the physical demonstrations in class. Perhaps though, Eira could one day convince him otherwise. She had hopes to graduate and become a teacher at the school within the year, but more than that… She glanced at the wedding band around her wrist and grinned. 

She wanted to express her love to Gust every chance they got. Apart from the band and a ribbon in her hair she wore only an apron, having decided to wash all her clothes, including the new dress Alyssum had brought from her home dimension as a wedding gift. Gust should be here any moment now and Eira worried that the moist trails along her legs might reveal how eager she was. “Eira, I’m home. Ya gotta see what I got from that trader in the Pristidae port.” Gust opened the door, looking exceptionally happy with himself and bounded over without noticing Eira was practically naked. One sweet kiss later and he handed her a parcel wrapped in sackcloth.

“Welcome home Gust, my darling.” She turned around and gently unwrapped the gift he’d brought, curiosity momentarily overruling her desires. What came out of it was a doll, an ancient one by the looks, dressed in a faded green shift and bearing pointed ears like an Alva. “Ohhh, how cute Gust~! Tha-” She gasped as Gust had finally spotted her naked behind and sank down onto his haunches to tend it. A warm, moist tingle told her he’d started licking her inner thigh just the way she loved it. Reason started to fade as a warm tide entered her heart and mind. Gust might not be the most skilled lover, yet, but he learned swiftly. 

Since their wedding they had wasted no time in seeing to this part of their education and as a result, Eira was brimming with excess spiritus. She could afford to use magic, employing telekinesis to fetch things out of her reach, and keep her body soft and sensitive. As Gust lifted her though, something felt off. Though not excruciatingly painful, something within detached sharply and flowed outwards. Eira struggled and squealed, prompting a worried Gust to pause and exclaim in wonder. Through her tears, Eira saw a ball of melded energies emerge between her legs and flow towards the still form of the doll she’d been given.

The ball sunk into the torso, which glowed softly, a spreading ripple of change passing through each part as they took on the glow. Oddly enough, the doll shrank slightly as well. Their ardor all but forgotten, the couple watched as tiny limbs shook, the formerly solid mouth opened and a shrill cry emerged. “Eira? What’cha just do, give birth or sommat???” Gust stared as if he expected a Kaaiman to be pulling a prank here. Eira though blinked in amazement, instinct prompting her to hold the baby. “Yes… But… How?” Using one hand, she removed the top of her apron and prodded a breast speculatively. 

Though Coppelia did not produce milk, concentrated spiritus beaded on her nipple and instinct again took over. 

Tiny suckling noises made her smile and she looked at Gust. “She’s a perfectly cute baby. Our baby.” Gust softly sat down and rubbed their daughter’s head, nodding in perplexity. “Who’d’a thought it? How are you Eira?” In reply she smiled widely, if tiredly, and snuggled onto his lap. Her thoughts turned to Gravelhold, her maker, and the long journey that had brought Gus and herself to this moment. Gust held them both close, his thoughts on the future. They were surprised when a knock fell on the door. It was not a polite knock. Eira inquired: “Who is it?”

At that moment, the door departed from Praxis permanently. From the smoke stepped forth a figure clad in golden dragonscale armor bearing a sword enveloped in purple flame. “I’ve found you! You’ll pay for what you did to my sister, scum!” Before they could react, Gust and Eira saw the figure stumble and drop to the floor. A sound drew their attention, Alyssum stood victorious, a damaged terracotta brick juggled in one hand. “Tch, you’d think they would stop at some point.” Shaking her head, she extracted one tough tail from the armor and started hauling the prone Serebim outside. A worried face appeared from the wall and Eiraiha whispered to the new parents. “Sorry, we’ll handle her. Just take care of your baby, she looks soo~ooh cute.”

Later they returned, explaining that a slight memory modification and a letter from a fictional Sorceress would hopefully end the threat for good. Gust quickly repaired the door that day while Eira tended their newborn. By nightfall they had chosen Alyssa as her name and the invasion of their home seemed but a fading nightmare. Several days later in the Citadel of Desires, Laerine vi Alloriel wondered why she had been summoned to her mother’s throne room. She barely managed to sit upright in the bed-chair as the attendant Ushi-Oni trundled  towards their destination. The real shock came when she spotted Marisaelle slumped in a chair and their mother’s occasional lover Korae hovering over her with a frown on her face.

“Laerine…” Seretique’s voice held a hint of winter, not a good sign. “I am severely disappointed in you. Your sister was dumped on the doorstep of one of our hidden strongholds with a letter pinned to her armor.” Laerine tilted her head and used sign language to ask how and why, but her mother cut her off. “That letter detailed the experiments you held within that damned manor in Gravelhold. Your father spent the last two days tracking down those that lived there and he returned in tears. All accusations were confirmed.” Raw darkness boiled around her physical form and Laerine whimpered in response.

“I will not allow my children to become spume. Sacrifices for the greater good are one thing, but blatant disregard for life is another.” Seretique sighed heavily. “I’m curtailing your freedom Laerine. You need to learn why what you did was wrong. And how you can correct those mistakes. We lost a lot of goodwill with those mamonme and incubi, which we cannot afford to lose in any amount.” Teeth ground audibly. “That’s why you are grounded. Korae will re-educate you and supervise any experiments you might be allowed, once you’ve shown a substantial improvement in knowing what is right and wrong.” Seretique glanced over to Marisaelle. 

“And I am putting an immediate end to both of your efforts to get back at that Coppelia. You will be bound by a geas on that.” Korae glided over and gently touched Seretique’s shoulder. The slim woman, still human in appearance for a given factor, waited until she got a nod from the Demon Lord who’d started sulking, one hand under her chin. Korae was barely a year older than Laerine, but shared the Serebim’s passion for research, though her area of interest was mostly magic and the transformative effects of Demonic Energy on humanoid physiology. “That is for the better Sere. The signature on the letter is quite likely fake, but the damage to Marisaelle’s memory clearly shows that only one as strong as a Sorceress could have done it.”

She stalked across the floor towards Laerine and sharply grabbed one arm. “Laerine… Understand me well, I think that what you did is evil. For Seretique’s sake, I will do what I can to save you from becoming hellspawn. One wrong step though… and black roses will bloom on your grave.” Laerine’s one eye blinked, a mute appeal going between Korae and her mother, which was ignored. “Do you understand?” She nodded, sinking into such gloom that she hardly noticed the sympathetic look on her sister’s face and missed the flash of anger towards their mother and the Sorceress. “Mother! That Korae is going too far. Laerine’s experiments…” Marisaelle was silenced by a band of energy wrapping around her mouth.

“Not another word. Acceptable losses on the battlefield and damn thoughtless experimenting are not alike at all. I have spoken and I expect you to obey me in this. As your mother, as your Demon Lord.” With that she vanished in a puff of acrid smoke. In her heart, Seretique hurt as much as her husband did, though she had kept from crying in front of their wayward children. In their own room though, solace came from gentle touches and longing kisses and the mind-clouding loving that followed. Yet something irreplaceable had been lost, the notion that at least one of their current daughters’ souls would not be consumed by the endless war between mamonme, man and the heavens. A hope smothered for many decades yet to come, if not lost forever.

Back in the settlement, Eira and Gust joined the few townsfolk as they all got a summons early one morning at sunrise. Clover and Alyssum both wore fine clerical garments, leading a chant about love and home. At the crescendo, a soft white light enveloped the field where all gathered and from it stepped Eiraiha, a shining crystal held between her hands. She spoke, clearly and sweetly. “Everyone, thank you for coming. I know that the past year has been a trial and I congratulate you for persisting despite all that. Yet today I hope we will put those hardships behind us and start building a new future. This settlement will become a peaceful haven for all those who want to make Praxis a better world. To ensure that peace, and to prevent DE from corrupting it, I bring a gift from Heaven.”

The crystal shone brightly as she raised it overhead, her spreading wings denoting how heavy it was. “Today we lay the foundations for the future. Today, our small settlement will take a name: Crystal Plinth!” So speaking, she levitated the crystal to a minor dell in the field, speaking in the musical language of Heaven. As all watched, it sprouted roots, burrowing deep underground while the top of the crystal swelled. A titanic pillar formed and a soft hum came from it, spreading a sense of peace and purity. Gust held his wife and child close even as in the distance a cart bearing an unusual apothecary rumbled down the paths. Whatever the future might hold, they would help shape it.

Epilogue. At the graveyard

“So what happened then aunt Clover?” Metala Humblestone-Saerti swished her long tail, curiosity foremost in her mind. She, along with Rukia, Emmy and their cousins Nelfi, Untli and of course Aered all wore cute yellow outfits against the rain that drizzled steadily over the metropolis known as Crystal Plinth. The Matrika Beluaine smiled, resting a hand on her bosom before replying. “Well, we all worked hard. We worked together and thus the city grew up around us. Gust Natel used his cart, not only to bring in supplies and new settlers, but to export books we’d made here. He’d read from them in different towns to those that would listen and much like your uncle Damast he invested here and there. If on a smaller scale.”

Clover Meadlowry sighed, a wistful smile on her face. “Eira, though balancing unexpected motherhood, keeping the house and the course at my school… well, she excelled. She actually became the third teacher there and eventually head mistress. Together they brought the entire collection of dolls to life as their children, effectively creating the largest group of Coppelia on Praxis.” Sadness overtook her smile. “Sadly enough and despite aunt Eihy’s rejuvinations… well, Gust died in Mistburg under the Fay-Thest’s assault when the war started. Eira knew, their bond was that strong… But we lost good, dear friends that day as she refused to live without him.” She sniffed, extracting a handkerchief from between her breasts. “They ended up together at least, but they could not return.” She omitted mention of the tracers Eihy had put on the souls of all their friends and family.

She sighed even as Nelfi touched a small hand to her knee. “Aunt Clover, I’s thinking you are missing them. Lots.” Nelfi’s small eye-stalks drooped as Clover nodded slowly. Then she took the children over to a lovingly maintained tomb. “This is where we’ve interred their remains, though for Gust we had to substitute a pottery shell with what of his ashes we could find. Oh?” The door opened and two Coppelia stepped out. “Hello you two… How are you doing? Is it okay if I show my nieces and nephew the inside?” They replied that they’d love to show it to the children, regaling them with seven decades worth of anecdotes. One hastily swallowed a curse as her head disconnected, the other merely sighed in accepting familiarity. While lives may end, the shared dream of a better tomorrow did not as long as new generations picked up the cause.

In her heart, Clover felt a weight lifted as the past that had shaped today would not be lost to the mists of time just yet. Maybe, just maybe, the promises made then could be kept today… even tomorrow.

 

The end.

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