The Demon Braves

Introduction

The Renaissance would become one of the best documented eras in Praxis’ history, a time when the Principal Goddess was known to dwell upon the mortal plain like none before her. The stories from that time fill a library, though in later ages one could carry said library in a magical bead. During this age, sages, scholars and others with time and brains to spare took to the task of sorting through history. The Demon Kingdom’s affairs had been a mystery wrapped in an enigma to those without, while many of those within could not be bothered with them. Yet a team of mixed species unearthed the facts behind the rumor of the Demon Braves, their story can now be told with the blessings of (amongst others) the three sister Goddesses.

Prelude: Ureonggaksi invasion

Seretique’s Villa had in the Renaissance become something akin to neutral territory. Inside its warmly decorated walls sanctuary and advice were given to those who still railed against the changes wrought upon the world at the beginning of the Renaissance. Seretique vi Alloriel had publicly acknowledged Clover Meadlowry, first as the new Demon Lord and later as the Matrika Beluaine. While she held no formal office, the former Demon Lord sought to encourage the most militant defiants to lay down their weapons and join the Matrika’s forces in order to bring about the world peace that she herself had failed to achieve. Thus, one morning Marisaelle vi Alloriel patrolled the halls while her crack command used affeine to rouse their minds from slumber.

She hated relying on that drink, preferring the rhythm of her boots on the flagstones to tease her to full wakefulness. She also preferred the solitude, her morning temper was legendary among those that had served under her. While she was halfway across the entry hall, a rapid series of knocks fell on the front door. She wrenched it open quickly. “Yeah?! What do you want?!” She demanded to empty air before a squeak made her look down at a very small Ureonggaksi hiding behind a child’s backpack. Marshalling her good will, she forced a smile and asked in a more friendly tone what the girl wanted. Her reply was: “Is Maraina home? Or mrs. Alloriel? I’s here to learn and play.”

“Ah, there you are Nelfi.” Maraina scooted under Marisaelle’s  impressive wings and gave the girl a hug. “Welcome to our home, I see you’ve met my sister Marisaelle. Marisaelle, this is Nelfi. She is here to learn about the history of the kingdom under mom’s rule.” They went to the kitchen, Marisaelle tagging along more out of curiosity about why her youngest sister had a snaily friend than anything else. “Is this some nonsense about you becoming a teacher again, Mai’na? Can’t do that until we win.” Marisaelle got a reproving stare from her younger sister. “I’m still just a student Marisaelle.” Maraina adjusted her latest ornamental glasses. “What I do later in my life is up to me. But it will be fun to help Nelfi, she’s part of a small nomadic community of Ureonggaksi and a cousin to a few friends of mine.” Nelfi nodded happily, then pulled two polished pebbles from her bag and put them in front of her hosts.

“I’s glad, cousin Rukia says Maraina knows everything.” Four yellow eyes shone with admiration. “There’s no skool near momma’s shell. But I’s wagering I do know more about stones. Those two are river polished inna blue river and gifts for you.” They got to work shortly after, Maraina did have a way with words and facts that Marisaelle secretly wished she could have herself. If the girl wasn’t so squeamish about combat, she could have been a fine military commander. Nelfi seemed eager to learn, even asking further about things when they were unclear to her. When break time came though… “Maraina, are there any heroes in the Demon Kingdom?” Nelfi looked hopefully at the youngest Serebim. Marisaelle answered though. “Yes, many. Including the Demon Braves. Korae could tell it better, since she was a part of them, but… It all started some six decades ago…”

Chapter 1. Paperwork and ethics

The Citadel of Desires had many qualities, being a nigh impregnable fortress as long as its defenses were staffed, its structure maintained and its traps serviced. Recent lapses in the latter two departments meant extra work for Korae of the Rose Twined staff. Punishment for the guilty parties was easy enough, an icy-shower curse that would reign in their libido was both effective and conducive to bettering their behavior. If only the other problems could be solved so easily. The citadel still was no place to raise children, despite the painstakingly purified and protected nursery area; so many horrible things had happened under prior Demon Lords that the Sorceress thought it might be better to either hire the Nephyrum for a thorough cleansing, or having Seretique destroy it with liberal use of Demonic Energy.

Yet neither option was feasible. The citadel was tied to the Demon Lord, even if lady vi Alloriel re-routed the flows of power, the structure itself had been host to them so long it would resist her. Or drain her to fend off the unholy Celestials of Limbo. So the gibbering in the walls, the hauntings and the general gloom persisted. At least some headway was being made with the records. Eclemata and her packmates were capable Grey Wolves and stood the best chance of untangling what had become known as Korragae’s Headache. Korragae, her name as a Sorceress, still did not feel as if it fit her. Hopefully it never would, though Korae wished she could recall more of her change from Magical Girl into her current form.

“More requests for advice. More demands that husbands be found for lonely Mamonme. Sere needs to step up the research into the DE issue.” Korae sighed. While she was centuries younger than Seretique vi Alloriel, the Succubus turned Demon Lord was her lover. True, Korae had to share her with Damien, and was a little jealous of his deeper connection to Sere… But their relationship worked wonderfully. Sere had confessed that Korae  filled the last hole in her heart. Explaining that to Sere’s children, especially Lokaeli, had been one of the few instances where Seretique had been blushing in utter embarrassment. Not that Korae had been anything less than rose-red at the time.

“Korae, do you have a moment?” Korae held up a finger, as she signed with the other hand, before turning to a rather different problem. Laerine vi Alloriel had at one time been the perfect exemplar of aristocratic beauty. She still was, if less so, with the scar tissue and the crystal eye. Her remaining organic eye veritably sparked with genius level intelligence and curiosity, a compliment to her personality, if it were not for a fatal flaw there.

Laerine had gained her scars through a total lack of moral consciousness in her experimentation. Over the last decade, Korae had tried to instruct the wayward Serebim, but…. Results may vary was an apt descriptor here. “Hello Laerine. Have you finished with your duties?” She asked politely.

“Easily. And I had thought to bring you the latest reports, letters and so on from the postal chambers.” Laerine sniffed as Korae tried not to grimace. “Sadly enough, I can summarize them as follows: when will the DE issue be solved and the promised era of peace begin? I considered lugging one pile here, but it is best to say that I authorized the temporary repurposing of the nearby parlor for mail storage.” Laerine sighed, before continuing in a sarcastic sing-song voice. “Did I do the right thing, tutor?” It was Korae’s turn to sigh before replying. “Yes. And you know it Laerine. We did not spend the last ten years together just so you could come only to that conclusion.” This earned her a frustrated raspberry.

“Perish the thought. Though I tire of these pointless repetitions of prior movements. You know as well as I do that mommy isn’t going to solve the DE issue on her own. If anything, she’s getting to be too discouraged to try.” Laerine frowned at this admission. “I don’t like that. And that is why I respectfully-” Without overt respect by her tone. ”Suggest that we two fine minds give her a hand.” Korae gave this due consideration before replying. “What do you propose then? And no, an icy-shower spell on Sere isn’t helpful.” Laerine smirked in response. “By Succubus standards, mommy is a thoughtful person. And an inordinately chaste one with but two lovers. She has used the DE to create new species of Mamonme, something which even I or my sisters cannot do normally.”

Korae nodded as Laerine spoke. “However, once a species exists it is but childsplay to us to change human women into said Mamonme. The process is rather involved and fast, so on the fly observations are next to impossible. Similarly, the process to make men into incubi. In short, we have next to no knowledge of what really goes on with them between one moment as a gasping human and the next as a newly reborn Mamonme. Now… human women in Mamonme-friendly, or even neutral settlements are known to make the change on their own, if the exposure to DE from their neighbours, even lovers, builds up too much in their own bodies.” Korae nodded again, motioning Laerine to get to the point.

“What I propose is that we start an… experiment. We’ll need samples of various species’ DE, human test subjects, your pet wolfpack, observational equipment and a suitable location. As for the subjects, simply going to town and grabbing a bunch would cause too much of a stir and most likely be too ‘unethical’ as usual. So… Instead, we cart in a bunch of undesirable humans. Those that have… defects of the body. That way, not only can we learn about the changes DE brings about, but also measure its efficacy as a curative.” Korae felt a headache coming on. “Cart in undesirable humans? Laerine, they are people too, can’t you see that there’s no difference between this nonsense and grabbing any old humans?” The Sorceress had an acute desire to strangle the smirking Serebim. 

“Oh, the ethical part is thought of as well. For the greater good they are removed from where they are not wanted. Once they’ve arrived, they get a choice: go along and get a healthy body, or say no and be deposited in a friendly town, no hard feelings, but no explicit help either.” She waved a hand dismissively. “It costs a lot more in resources, but whoopee, we get to feel good about giving some humans a choice.” She sighed. “I do try, you know. But being a born Serebim makes it hard to understand why anyone would want to remain a fragile and swift to wrinkle human, especially if they know the benefits.” Korae sighed in turn at this eternal puzzlement in her charge. Having been human, she privately thought being a Mamonme was better, the periods were infinitely less painful since her change among other things.

But Korae kept that thought to herself and gave a good answer, that hopefully would stick this time. “Because of free will. Yes, it might be more efficient to do as Marisaelle advocates and forcibly conscript every human, but that would make us as bad as the capricious Gods. Do not as thou wilt, but as is best by thought of a schtrümpfenficker in a toga.” This brought out a laugh. “True, but even if you present your immaculately thought out ideas in a full-on presentation then many humans will still say no. So frustrating…” Laerine rubbed her scarred face as she spoke. Her thoughts obviously less than pleasant. “But does this idea meet with your approval?”

Korae mulled it over while setting Laerine to sort through several lists. “The basic idea is good.” She finally spoke. “But we need to refine it. We’ll need DE samples from every species we can get, multiple samples at that, and your mother’s approval. I don’t suppose you’d be willing to try summoning a Shoggo again?” Laerine clutched her head in exasperation and remembered pain. “Mommy still is furious about the room with inverted gravity, and dealing with them is bad for what ethics and sanity I have. Something else was watching me when I last contacted them.” Korae blinked, this was more information than Laerine had ever willingly shared about those conversations. No matter, they’d work on it with what they had available.

Chapter 2. Arrival and exposition

“Greetings my guests. I wish to bid you all a warm welcome to the Aerdanic Gardens, though I imagine you might have some questions as to how you came to be here and why you are specifically here right now.” Laerine gave a radiant smile that brought out the best in her seemingly human, if still scarred, features. “I assure you that you are safe here and that, bar your delivery here, nothing will occur without your consent.” One of the women, a scarred knight errant by her looks, groggily raised her head and groaned. “The sedatives will wear off completely within a few minutes, then I’ll be available to explain, answer, raise, and answer again all your questions.” Saying so, Laerine sat down and read swiftly through a slim volume of poetry. A touch too sappy for her liking, but the style was aesthetically pleasing.

When her test-, eh.. guest-subjects, had finally regained full use of their faculties she snapped the volume closed. It was about time, by her reckoning. This human disguise grated on her nerves, if she were honest about it. While reading she loved to use her prehensile tail-claws to turn the pages and play with her hair. And this form lacked her tail. “Are we all fully awake then?” She hated repeating herself more than anything, but the fogginess had left their eyes. Well, the sort induced by the sedatives at least. Some had been so mistreated before that more time was needed before they would shed those chains of the mind. “Very well then. Once more, I bid you welcome to the Aerdanic Gardens.”

“That you have been brought here is both bad and good, with emphasis on the latter. Bad, because you were… well, lets face it. You were unwanted in the lands where you had been born. Because of some, oft minor, defect to your bodies or simply the fact that your relatives had more kids than they could afford. Hell, some of you are here simply because someone else wanted you gone. Bad stuff all around, boo hoo.” She waved it away. “The thing is, now that you are here, your lives are going to change for the better. All I ask is that you stay awhile and listen to an offer I have for you. If you do not decide to take me up on the offer, you will be sedated again and transported to one of many friendly towns where you can rebuild your life.” She sniffed. “Or grab a sword and go to your old home for revenge.”

“I’d recommend against that though, my scars can tell you why. As can my most ethical tutor when she gets here.” She ignored the silent rebuke Korae sent her. “Instead, I hope that you will be found willing to participate in a research project that is intended to bring about a better world. And maybe cure what ails you as well. I stress the maybe here though.” She knew that caught their interest. “We can but try, but I give you three guarantees. If you participate, you will receive the best care this facility can provide. You will be free, given citizen status and a reward, after the project has concluded. And  finally, you will not be lied to about the risks, purpose or anything else involved with the project. The sole deception, so as not to freak you out, is this human guise I have worn thus far. These guarantees…“ 

Laerine let the disguise melt away. “Are backed not just by my word, but that of my mother. Seretique vi Alloriel, the Demon Lord who has been working tirelessly to end the ages of hatred between mankind and monsters.” This brought more than a few startled exclamations. “My name, in full, is Laerine Austra vi Alloriel, though you can just call me Laerine if you wish. I’m sure you have a lot of questions, but let me snipe two before you start asking them. First off, you have been kept clear of Demonic Energy during sedation and transport. You are therefore as human as you were the last time we checked. Secondly, and I reiterate, if you decide not to participate, you will be delivered safely and unaltered to towns where you will be welcome to begin life anew while still human. Now then, I’ll answer your initial questions, then I’ll tell you what our research project entails.”

“You really are… the daughter… of the Demon Lord?” The voice was soft and breathy, the question followed by a cough, both coming from a girl in a bed. Laerine smiled demurely as she replied. “Yes, though I have many sisters. I’m in truth one of the younger daughters born to our parents, and a Serebim.” The girl nodded, raising a thin finger as she gathered breath for the follow-up question. “What is.. that? And why.. why.. go to so.. much effort.. to-” she coughed again, at length. Laerine patiently waited before answering. “To gather you all? True, we could have waltzed into any human settlement, nabbed the lot and brought them back here. But that would be… Unethical and counterproductive for our research goals.” She grinned. “That is why we collected those that were, horrible as it sounds, unwanted back home.”

“As for what a Serebim is?” She spread her wings and pinched the tip of her nose with her tail. “Children born to the Demon Lord. In essence, our bodies correspond largely to that of our mother, but we are not Succubi. Instead, we each have… additional genetic influences from Mamonme species serving under our mother. And we are much, much stronger than most. I’d estimate that I have… 0,81 to 1 as much power as my mother currently does.” This elicited more than a few gulps. “Anyone else got a question?” The scarred knight bit her lip in determination. “What is to stop us from making the world a better place by belting you over the head with an axe? Or just vamoosing? You do not look like a fighter, lacking calluses and such.” This caused Laerine to burst out laughing. Once she regained control of her mirth, she answered.

“Belting me over the head, and with an axe no less? I survived worse than what you can dish out right now, even with a magic axe. True, I am no club-wielding savage, but when I need to fight I can defend myself adequately.” So to underscore this, she let harmless sigils appear around her head. “Plus, you are free to leave in a bit, if that is your wish.” A different woman, apparently a drunkard, licked her lips and asked where the gardens were. “Ah, that is a little difficult to tell. I can’t tell you that unless you decide to agree to my proposal. This so we do not have an invasion of Luminaire dolts to deal with.” She snorted in disgust. “That their Goddess has lost control of them should clue you in as to how holy their mission is. Bah! But enough of these questions for now. Let us get down to business.” She snapped her fingers  and a soft light illuminated her.

Laerine secretly reveled in the exposition of her plans, despite Korae pestering her about the foils of ‘evil masterminds’ and how revealing all to (potential) heroes was a good way to acquire more scars. Even if Korae was right, Laerine did have the scars to prove the point, it would make her uncomfortable not to. Plus, in this situation it might be ethical to give these people a clue of what was expected of them. “I am going to assume that you know little of the Demon Kingdom. Long story short, the history of before my mother took over is something we would need years to simply discuss the basics of. So we’ll start from that point. My mother was originally but a supporter of a great general who desired change. She died though and mom took up the torch. Seeking an end to the senseless slaughter between mankind and monsters she and other parties, like the Dynasty of Aten, worked on a supreme magical spell.”

She sighed. “For the record, such spells cannot in truth be controlled. They can barely be steered and the side-effects are impossible to catalogue in full. Suffice to say that monsters became Mamonme and world peace looked to be a feasible thing. Bar the damned side-effects. Mamonme could only bear more Mamonme, or in rare cases incubi. The Demonic Energy inside each one can also corrupt their home environments, neighbours of different species including your own, and so on. The list is nigh endless as the DE is very reactive to stimuli such as species, environment and diet among others.” She pinched her thumb and index finger together. “And the how and why of it is like grasping at straws. Despite the efforts of so many, including my parents, the research is slow going and thus far about as barren as a Luminaire eunuch.” Laerine stuck out her tongue and blew a loud raspberry. “That is why we want to ask you for your help.”

Her tail drew an arcane rune in the air as her claws fidgeted with magical sparks. Once complete a series of carefully prepared diagrams sprang to life. “If you agree to help out, you will be interviewed in depth by Korae. Like you, she once was human and… probably still remembers enough to be a bit better in finding out more about you than I would be. Based on those interviews, you’ll be matched with a species of Mamonme and then slowly exposed to that species DE, gradually changing from human to mamonme.” This elicited more than a few gasps. “I can’t for the life of me imagine why you would want to remain human, but let me list the benefits: Mamonme spend most of their lives looking gorgeous, though we all are cute when we’re kids. Mamonme are physically stronger, have greater natural affinity for magic. We have, on average, longer lifespans and get way, way more satisfaction out of having sex.” She licked her lips leisurely.

“The changes will restructure your body wholly. Erasing any prior medical conditions, removing toxins, obliterating most diseases, or so we think. If I were to force such a change on you as Serebim can do…” One of the displays now showed this process. “It doesn’t work the same way and goes too fast in any case. You see, by studying you as your bodies change we hope to pinpoint the cause or causes of the problems our Demon Kingdom still faces. With those causes uncovered, we can then work to eliminate them. Make no mistake, our goal is world peace and this research would do so much to effect that.” She sighed and let this sink in. “Now, are there any more questions?”

Chapter 3. Questions and answers

Korae groaned inwardly as Laerine finished speaking. She’d come a long way, but the fact remained that she still was a bit too obviously dismissive of human lives. Then a cough sounded and the bedbound girl spoke again. “You… don’t know… what being-” She coughed. “human is like.” She shook her head. “So.. many… happy lives. Mamonme… do… they know… love? The.. joy.. of.. being with.. someone, not..-” She coughed harder. “Just… for… sex?” Laerine frowned slightly as she replied. “In a word: YES! And I need go no further than my parents to showcase this. Even the Demon Lord and her husband do way more than just have sex. Though… admittedly, they’ve done that everywhere they could as well.” She waved a hand dismissively. “For mamonme having sex is fun of course, but love is what makes their lives worth living.” She snorted derisively. “In some lands human women treat their men as garbage and their children as tickets to wealth and status.”

“Not so in lands under mommy’s rule. Mamonme dote on their children and husbands, wanting the best for them. And for themselves of course, but a large cornerstone of happiness for any Mamonme is giving love and being loved.” Laerine felt a mental tap on the shoulder that meant Korae wanted in on the action, she prodded her back. Then an older woman spoke. “You make it sound as if  we landed in a gravy ship, but do you have any idea at all what problems you’ve caused? My orphanage-” Laerine waggled a finger dismissively. “Its being taken care of. As is that greedy fellow who wanted it torn down out of spite. Seriously, I cannot overemphasize just how much effort went into this. Korae will share the individual details on who sent you here and for what reason though.” Korae took this as her cue and appeared in a shower of rose petals.

“That I will do even for those of you who choose to leave. But as Laerine indicated, there are benefits to becoming a mamonme. I myself was a human before I became a Magical Girl and later the Sorceress as you see before you.” She sighed. “My reasons for becoming such are my own, but suffice to say that Tann am Schnee was not a happy hometown for any who lived there as a villager.” One or two women scratched their heads quizzically as the name of said village had faded from memory. “Yet some things were lost, I cannot deny that. As mamonme you can forget any favors from the Gods, but given how kind they generally are, you’d be better off worshipping Seretique in any case. But we’re racing against time, so I hope we can restrict the remaining preliminary questions to less esoteric subjects.”

She drew a deep breath. “And for the record, yes, you will be in the mood more often. But no, you will still be yourself and be able to do the things you like. Unless your new species prohibits it, such as fire walking and Slimes or mountaineering and Merfolk.” After that several more questions were raised and answered, having to do mostly with what would happen after this experiment was done. Surprisingly, only a couple of women elected to decline the offer, stating that they wished to see more of the world and not be reliant on disguises then. Of the twenty that had been brought in eighteen would go through with the experiment and Laerine was forced to acknowledge that giving them a choice had begotten good results. She handed the women over to Korae who took each to a study she’d had built for this purpose. Tasteful art lined the walls, focusing on the beauty of the female form, chairs lined a long table and a small room to one side afforded her charges the privacy they might prefer.

“Okay ladies, have a seat and a drink of water from the carafes. I’ll collect you for your private interviews in there, after which one of the attendants will take you to a room suited to your needs. I urge you though to be careful with the objects, furniture and tools you are provided with. Even the Demon Kingdom does not have a money-tree.” She then turned to the girl in the bed. “Lets start with you, erhh… I hope I have the pronunciation right here… Seselie?” The girl nodded and weakly motioned for Korae to go ahead. Having a small enchantment on the bed helped maneuvering it through the doorway, though it would have fit sideways. Once inside, Korae closed the door and mentally nudged the lights into life. Though carved from wood and common iron, each showed the loving craftsmanship the Sorceress valued more than say it being made by a popular artist. Her desk had been crafted with the same level of detail and then polished with gentle care.

“Well, I hope you do not mind Seselie, but in light of how hard it was for you to talk normally… I intend to cast a small spell on you that allows you to vocalize your thoughts. It will be active when you touch this-” She plucked a single rose from her staff and pinned it to the girl’s gown. “Though I hope it is just a temporary measure.” Korae wove the spell, a waft of rose-scent signalling its success. “Try it.” Seselie nodded, then touched the rose. A confused babble came out of it then. “Focus! Think of what you want to say.” Korae instructed, getting another nod in the process. “Is this better then? It is? Is that really me?” Seselie looked perplexed. Korae smiled encouragingly. “Yes, that is you. The magic is merely a conveyance, much like the air.” Seselie smiled then.

“Incredible. I take it my touching it is to connect my mind or something? My bum itches.” She coloured red. Korae giggled. “Feel free to scratch, we all have that itch sometimes. But yes, it chooses what thought is foremost in your mind and vocalizes it. Now lets get on with this interview. Your parents own a mine and foundry in Mousterie if my information is correct.” Seselie nodded. “The cause of your… condition is that you once were too near a spill of molten ore and the fumes basically shot your lungs, right?” Seselie frowned, touching the rose again. “This is really soft. Ergh, still getting the hang of it. That is basically incorrect. The fumes and exposure to contaminants in the water they tried to cleanse my lungs with…” She coughed loudly. “They damaged quite a lot of my body. My lungs, bones and liver have become permanently fragile at best.”

They both shook their heads, then Korae sighed. “Those medical treatments your parents sought didn’t help much, did they? They did cost a lot and sadly enough that was in part the reason why they agreed to send you here. The other being that your life-expectancy is… well, they didn’t expect you to last the year it seems. Sorry, but our agents were thorough in their questioning.” Seselie shrugged before replying. “I figured as much. I am not without brains you know and given how often I find blood on my hands, sheets and such after coughing…” She sighed sadly, eliciting another cough. “I do not blame them. I just wish I could have said goodbye to Terim and them.” Korae nodded, filing this name in her mind. “A friend of yours I take it?” Seselie smiled mysteriously. “I once asked him to marry me, before the accident.” That elicited a giggle from them both.

“Well Seselie, what you need is an iron constitution. A body capable of purging those old toxins and regenerating what they destroyed. Unfortunately that means you might end up growing quite a bit bigger. The other option is that you take the plunge into death and let us try to bring you back as-” Seselie furiously shook her head. “Please, no! If I wanted to die then I would not have struggled to cling to life so long!” Korae smiled, this one had spirit underneath the fragile physique. Then she cast another spell and several forms floated into view. “I figured as much, but I owed it to you to at least discuss that option. Speaking of options, here are the ones I think will be best suited to your needs.” She listed them: Minotauride, Unicorn, Dragon and… “Ushi-Oni. Now the reason why I recommend you choosing one of these is that they all have very hardy bodies capable of self-cleansing. In particular the Unicorn and Ushi-Oni. I would say the latter is most suited for this as Unicorns are…”

Korae waggled a hand cautiously. “They can be overwhelmed by other mamonme’s DE and grow weaker as a result. Therefore I hope you do not fear spiders as that would be my top pick for your needs.” The spiked abdomen, muscular torso and wild hairdo were inspected furtively by Seselie. “Are they this messy? If that hair ever met a brush, it ate the brush I think.” Korae burst out laughing, needing some moments to compose herself again. “Ushi-Oni are survivalists. They love running wild through rough terrain. Which doesn’t mean that they abhor brushes. If you follow my suggestion then you will need some time to learn to control your physical strength. Ushi-Oni are incredibly strong and, importantly, very durable. A company of Luminaire stands little to no chance against one and even I have to take extreme care should one go berserk on me.”

Seselie agreed readily, but did request the continued use of the enchanted rose. Korae let her be taken away by Rudrahni and instructed the Grey Wolf girl to closely monitor her vitals. With a little luck she would survive and thrive. Korae entered the main room of her study again and chose the worried owner of the orphanage as her next interviewee. Once she was seated Korae felt slightly intrigued. Though a bit past the sell-by-date in the looks department, this one had a fiery spirit that was quite fetching. “Now, Reginne, you’ve worked at your orphanage almost your entire life, right?” She got a curt nod in reply. “You worked your way up and have raised several dozen children over the last four decades. Many of them did run into some issues with the Luminaire government though, as you have a habit of teaching the children to think clearly and for themselves.”

“Better that than that they are used as monsterfodder by cowardly idiots higher up in rank.” Reginne waved a hand curtly. “Make no mistake, I did not discourage them from a military career, but neither would I raise them to die.” Korae nodded, then asked several questions to get a better feel for the woman. Proud, like a queen, but wise. Intelligent, but self deprecating. “I think I’ve got a good idea about you. However,  there is one other thing I’d like to touch upon before we talk about the options I have for you.” She coughed, slightly embarrassed. “More than a few of your children ended up living in the Demon Kingdom and that, more than anything else really is why you were chosen for this. In short though, they wanted to see you again, but worried that their presence might endanger the other orphans.”

Korae smiled. “Though some have changed a little, I think you’ll enjoy meeting them again. But that is for later. As well, please be assured that your orphanage back there is in capable hands with Lemongrass who is posing as one of your nieces.” Reginne’s face went wooden, but for a twitching eye. “Yes, your sister is a bit of a sore point, but the fact is that her being one of Fate’s Holies saved us a lot of work. Skipping her then, I think you could do with a bit more flexibility. Stiff joints are a menace and countering them will take some effort. But there are several species of mamonme that would hook into your interests I think.” She again enacted her spell and the forms of several species hovered in the air. Reginne eyed them with hesitant curiosity before turning red and shouting: “Why is a child in these pictures?! I do not condone pedophilia!!” Korae sighed, it was expected, but the explanation was bothersome.

“No, no, no. Neither do I. However, some species of mamonme have a somewhat petite frame and not much padding on their chests. Such as this particular one.” She grinned. “Its funny though, these mamonme are called Wendy’s, though I’ve heard the term mothering-bothering demon used as well to describe them. A human disguise is something they can do through magic, as Lemongrass and ‘Poppy’ can both attest to. Basically, a Wendy is a born mother. As soon as they can talk, they will try to mother those younger than them. Soon after, those older than them, barring their mother, grandmother and so on. They remain youthful in appearance and definitely have a childish streak, but they are amongst the most responsible mamonme I know of. And my prime pick for you, actually. Though you could try a Lamia, quite a popular species and absolutely adoring of children.”

Reginne shook her head. “Sorry, but I’m afraid of snakes. But… Poppy? You mean little Archemonea?” Korae nodded, smiling before replying. “Yes. I told you a human guise is easy, even for the young ones. She got lost and would have died without your care. My prime source of expert information was her.” Reginne looked perplexed. “A serious child, but sweet. Very naughty too though, as I recall, but only when provoked.” She momentarily had a recollection of one little bully being hoisted to the top of the flagpole by the girl and her friends. And so on went the day until a tired Korae cracked her knuckles and wrote her final instructions. She still had the magic touch, and not just with Sere. Almost all had chosen the species she’d recommended and the three that had chosen a different one had cited a desire for a more drastic change.

Chapter 4. Changes and regrets

“I trust you’ve rested well?” Laerine smiled encouragingly as they nodded at her, though for the life of her she did not know why she’d agreed to this little silliness of Korae. Talking with her guest-subjects, stepping in if one needed magical aid or even dazzling them with her power was something she didn’t mind doing. But sharing breakfast and lecturing them about the food they would get here? Peculiar. Most peculiar. “We’ve taken care to import some unaffected human foods, which you’ll eat today. Pardon the lack of custard, but the sack we had got eaten by accident. We do have a Custard Slime on the premises currently.” She grinned. “I could put a berry on top of her, but then we’d be short one for when you will start on them.” So speaking she reached into a pocket and drew out a spiralling fruit.

“This is an Incarnation Berry, a staple fruit of the Demon Kingdom. Quite good on its own, but it does turn humans into mamonme. Succubi mostly if near mommy, though it varies depending on what DE is closest to the places they are grown. So you won’t get these for a while yet, but our team of researchers thinks it’s a good idea to let you get acquainted with things like these.” She bit into it, savouring the delicious flavor before showing the insides to her guest-subjects. “Are they used for drinks too?” Pamalee’s favor for strong drinks was readily apparent, but Laerine and Korae intended to keep her away from them. “They are used in many things, like jam. Strong drink would adversely affect this study though, so don’t expect to find any.” They spent the breakfast time amiably chatting until Laerine had learned a little too much of human life.

“He was doing what?” Laerine’s expression had a tint of green. Nalgeeia grinned as she replied. “He thought he could turn that bird into a lover with some Demon Kingdom medicine. So when they caught him, pants down and about to flip the birdy, my squadmates found out that this ripe idiot had fed his male Mozur a headache-cure for mamonme. Free of DE according to the wizard and priest.” They shared in the eww-moment. “Take it from me though, that’s not the weirdest thing I’ve seen while assisting the city guards. There’s also that rumor involving the Ureonggaksi, the Nandi, the rice seller and the sewer-worm. But erghh… even I don’t like talking about that at breakfast.” Nalgeeia grimaced, leaving her audience horribly curious. The knight had quite a good stock of stories and the scars to match them.

“I think we’ll save it for WAY later. But speaking of Ureonggaksi, wasn’t it your job to run them through on sight?” Ulrika coyly spoke from behind her mask. Nalgeeia shook her head. “Nah, you’d be surprised, but the mostly harmless mamonme were escorted out of the city holdings with a firm injunction to head to the border. And a small bag of rice or something.” Laerine smiled faintly and shook her head. “A bag of rice to feed a family would be… well, it would be a snack to an Ureonggaksi at most. My sister Lokaeli spent some time with that species before the Magical Girls and Sorceresses came to be and according to her…” She shook her head. “They have a Succubus’ appetite for rice. In any case, I think we’ve dallied here enough. You’ll soon be given the initial dosages of DE. I know this has been discussed, but for some of you this will involve needles. Don’t expect instant effects, but please notify your Grey Wolf attendant if something feels weird. Small details are what we like~!”

Minutes later Rudrahni had filled one syringe with what to the untrained eye might seem sparkly lemonade. “Okay Seselie, I know this one looks intimidating and it will sting a little. You’ll most likely need the bedpan too not long after, but grin and bear it please.” Seselie nodded, seeming a bit more concerned with wearing nothing much at all than the rather long needle being aimed at her liver. Rudrahni rolled her eyes, humans were so weird. And skinny. And smelling too much of metal, but that would hopefully change before too long. “Think happy thoughts.” About three hours later Korae and Laerine sat down for tea. “Not a bad start I think. Well, aside from that awful story.” Laerine grimaced. “But at least we know the spells work as intended, The team on my watch reported nothing too interesting yet.”

Korae smiled faintly. “Nor the one on mine. But that in and of itself is important. The DE will likely flush out of their systems initially, should we not give further doses. Seeing them flush pink though…” The sorceress sighed happily. “Yes, yes, though that was expected. I’d be far more worried if they hadn’t had those orgasms.” Laerine grinned behind her hand. “But their techniques could use more work. All that effort and so few climaxes to show for it.” Korae giggled and waggled a hand. “I could give a few pointers I suppose. But seeing where they were coming from I’m surprised they managed those at all.” She felt moved to say something to Laerine. “I’m glad that you’ve done well today Laerine. Very well indeed.” Laerine sighed in response. “Is that so? Then why don’t I feel like I’ve done something worth mentioning?”

“Maybe..” Korae intoned, “That is because it is not something flashy and instantaneous. You tried to be part of the group, which is progress from your previous way of dealing with humans. Small steps lead to big changes.” Thus the experiment continued and sometime later… “Is this supposed to happen?” Nalgeeia worriedly asked the Unicorn healer that had been introduced as the medical officer. Her toes had dropped their nails and were looking rather red while some of her scars had peeled off partially. In lieu of a reply she got a professional hum and a thorough examination of her feet. “Well, it does correspond with what I’ve read about the changes experienced by others before you. I recommend you do not pick at the peeling skin, or your toes, as the tissues are in a delicate phase.” The healer trotted around her patient, gingerly running fingers along Nalgeeia’s musculature and paying extra attention to her bottom. “Well now… I think you should avoid sitting down or lying on your back after the next dose, but otherwise I don’t think you need to worry.”

“That’s good to hear, lady Fernicia. Are we good to go then?” Seselie smiled, sitting next to a curious contraption made of wood that was worth its weight in gold to her. After some intense nights necessitating the construction of a seat with a large barrel underneath, she felt stronger than she had in years. Still too weak to walk completely on her own though, but the frame on wheels with its supports allowed her to move around under her own direction. “Yes Seselie, but remember: if your legs and arms start to feel numb you have to stay in bed again. Not fun, but otherwise you’ll hurt yourself. A few more days of patience and you’ll never feel that weak again.” Fernicia tossed her tail and hair firmly. “No buts. And be sure to report any pains to Rudrahni immediately, you’ve got… well, quite a ways to go yet.” Seselie grinned, nodding gently. “Will do. If you are done for the day, would you like to come along for a cup of tea?”

“I would love to, but Pamalee’s having the shakes and sweats again.” Fernicia sighed loudly. “Honestly, in my personal opinion she might as well be called a pickled woman. But she’s getting better… slowly. Catch you later girls.” Moments later they were outside of the office and Nalgeeia ran a hand through her hair. “Pffffh, I don’t know what you think about it, but I still can’t really believe…” she swept her other hand through an arc. “That we’re here and that all of this is really happening. I mean… Where’s the giggling Kaaiman?” Seselie sniggered. “In the west rooms, bemoaning her new hair colour. I mean, it is looking better each day, but I get why she wanted to wear a sack. Ah, I do know what you mean somewhat. It has a dreamy quality, this place.” She stepped forward slowly. “But being able to walk again? Better this than waking up in bed again, coughing my lungs up.”  Nalgeeia shrugged and walked along.

“True I suppose. Though I’m not too sure about this tail I’m supposed to grow. I mean, its meant to help with balancing and all, but…” She thrust her hands forward, scrabbling in irritation. “I can’t help but feel that tails belong on animals more.” Seselie laughed, softly and with that breathy quality that had marked her speech for so long. “I think it will feel natural before long. Honestly, I’m still coming to grips with… well, getting a body like Fernicia, but with spiderlegs instead of hoofed ones. Large hands though and strength? I can’t wait. And I like being less pale.” She paused to admire the slightly grayish tinge her skin had taken on. “I just hope I can forego another round on the commodity.” Nalgeeia giggled in response. “The feeling’s mutual. No offense, but my nose is getting kind of harder to tune out. I’m surprised you didn’t stick to lodestones though.” This earned her a playful swat.

“I’ll say~!” Reginne approached. She still looked like her old self, but at least a decade younger and with bright red strands amidst her gray hair. “Yrna told me they estimate you had enough metals in you that smelting the extracts is up for consideration.” She laughed. “She says a lot of things like that though. And she’s a lot like her mother, Yenni hopes I’ll visit soon.” She raised a finger and then reached into her hair, parting it around a small lump. “I am kind of curious about these horns I’m about to get. But I’m not sure about these moodswings.” She shook her head. “I’ve got this overwhelming urge to run around squealing at the top of my lungs. Or to help the cooks and get cookies.” Her stomach growled. “No~! Its almost dinnertime.” The growl was louder this time, to general mirth. “Truth be told, I am worried about something.”

Reginne paced around as she sought for the words. “My relationship with my sister has never been good. She disliked not being an only child and made it known. It was something of a scandal when she became one of Fate’s Holies…” She shook her head. “Her choice and something we could have lived with, had it not been for the fact that she took perverse pleasure in leaving a note with her children saying they could claim an inheritance from our parents.” This earned her a shocked look from the other two. “Yes, and after number twelve there was nothing much left. This did not stop the comers though and… Well, I don’t know if Lemongrass can handle them if even more come.” Seselie  scratched her ear, which had developed a slight point as she pondered this. “Because she’s only posing as your niece? But your sister is older than you, right? Wouldn’t she be… uhm… too old for that now?”

Reginne shook her head. “Not with the magical enhancements. I suspect that in part is why she joined that cult.” A soft tapping noise came along and Korae walked into view. “Ah Reginne, just the one I wanted to speak to.” She turned to Seselie and Nalgeeia and motioned them to wait ahead a little bit. They did and were pondering what might be for dinner when Reginne swore loudly. Korae placed a hand on the woman’s shoulder and insistently spoke in a tone that promised a silver lining to the clouds of darkness. Then Reginne practically ran down the corridor, shedding tears. “Not all news is good…” Korae slowly approached, shaking her head. “But it could have been much worse. Did Reginne share anything with you about her… family history?” Seselie nodded and Nalgeeia told the Sorceress what had been shared.

“Long story short, the guy who wanted Reginne’s orphanage demolished was in the pay of her sister. Lemongrass was found out, but she saved the children from being burnt by those malefic dolts.” An aura of darkness, similar to rose briars, shimmered around her form for a few moments. “Sorry.” Korae’s apology had a tired sound to it. “Old hurts.. I tend to get angry about Luminaire misdeeds.” Nalgeeia gulped softly, she’d had heard of angry Sorceresses before, but seeing such a reaction from Korae was shocking. “I.. I guess that is true. But, if I may ask, what did happen to you to… get so angry?” She waved her hands. “Not to pry, but I’ve never seen such anger from you since we got here.” Seselie hmhmd and with respect asked that Korae shared this, if possible. This got a barked laugh.

“The long version is something I’ve not shared in centuries. But the short one? I was born in the slave town Tann am Schnee, a ‘criminal reform facility’ run by the Luminaire. Never mind that innocents were forced into slavery there, or that many of them died hauling and cutting lumber. Enough money changed hands that the leaders didn’t want to care what happened there. I lost an arm and several friends one day… Had Lokaeli not saved me I would not be here.” She cupped a hand. “But a Magical Girl alone could not stop those slavers from eventually putting everyone into a sawmill and…” She shook her head. “Next thing I clearly remember is being in the care of Seretique’s family as a Sorceress. I have tried to move beyond that part of my past, Sere’s love has been instrumental there, but any Luminaire who crosses my path is dead.” She sighed.

“I do not wish to be a bore, but I trust that satisfies your curiosity?” Korae demanded. “Yes, though I am sorry to hear that you carry such heartache.” Seselie inclined her head ruefully. “But you are something of an enigma to us still-somewhat-humans, Korae. You are obviously very powerful, but don’t boast of it. You are a mamonme, but you are in love with a woman. That she’s the Demon Lord as well…” It was her turn to wave her hands apologetically. “Is a bit mindblowing. We can’t tell your DE from a wallflower’s, but we did notice this sadness around you. That’s why we asked.” Korae laughed then. “You’ll get to sensing DE soon enough. I don’t mind answering questions, but some things are hard to talk of. Not so about my Sere though. To me, she means the world. I just wish I did not have to share her with her husband… but that’s another matter.”

“In any case, I wanted to talk to you two as well. Nalgeeia, we finally got your heirloom sword in. A friendly Nandi managed to sneak in, put it in her sack and escape the city before your… guardsmen even woke up. Once you’re done here, it’ll be waiting for you. Oh, and the next dosage is expected to either give you a start on your tail, or on your fur. Expect some itching, but I’ve prepared a cream to help cope with that.” She turned to Seselie. “As for you, I think you’re done with chairs and such… I’m not sure what will happen to your legs precisely, but the next changes are most likely the big ones.” Seselie gulped loudly. “I know, it sounds scary, but I’ve tracked down a girl who has gone through it. She’s waiting in your room for a little chat.” So saying, she bade them goodbye and walked towards the common room. 

Seselie sighed and rolled her eyes. “I shouldn’t keep this visitor waiting then, I suppose… But Nalgeeia, I thank you for your company today. And I’d appreciate a visit later, if you’d like.” Nalgeeia nodded, distractedly running a hand along her back and feeling something shift slightly near the bottom. “Of course, but… be careful. On second thought, don’t be timid.” With that they parted and Seselie ambled to her room, from which an argument could be heard. Rudrahni growled while someone else made a loud, but indistinct demand. Opening the door just then took some courage, but the scene within was hilarious. “You need a bath, you dingaling! You’re shedding so much I can barely breathe in here. Now get down from there or I’ll take the blasted cabinet down with you!” The voice was controlled, but some genuine anger radiated from it.

It came from an attractive girl in a maid outfit. Instead of normal arms and legs though, she was definitely inhuman. Her arms were broad and powerful, though they looked cute in their sleeves despite the claws capping each digit. Her skirt was draped across an abdomen that carried a chest, having openings for fierce spikes that curved slightly upward.  Underneath the skirt, strong armored spider legs tapped impatiently, scoring the floor. “I don’t shed! What little hair I lose I store in jars. Get that bath out of your head, I’m not stupid enough to let a siege weapon bathe me in any case.” Rudrahni scowled, then noticed Seselie standing in the doorway and used her powerful legs to launch herself across the room. “Seselie, I’m going out until that cleanfreak is done here.” Seselie gently gripped the Grey Wolf’s arm, smiling. “Have fun Ru, but remember to pick the burrs out of your hair.” Seselie then stepped inside, leaning on the frame gingerly before turning to meet her guest.

Chapter 5. Beyond humanity

“Welcome to my room miss, I am Seselie. Ms. Korae only just told me that a visitor had come, otherwise I would have-” Seselie coughed. “Been here to meet you earlier.” She longed for a sip of water, but propriety demanded that she didn’t act so rudely. “Might I know your name? And can I offer you some refreshments?” Her guest laughed with gusto at that. “Aren’t you the polite one, ha~! Well, thanks for the welcome. I’m Phrae, a maid at the Thyrfrôs College and once a human like you. Now get yourself something to drink, you’re gonna need one. Water’s fine for me though.” With amazing grace for such a large form, Phrae moved out of the way, squatted down near the cabinet and then cleaned it with a plumeau that had been made for large hands. Seselie got two glasses, then put them back and took out the heavier clay mugs and put them on the small plank that graced the walking frame.

Once seated, the two gazed at each other speculatively until Phrae frowned.. “For the heck of it, lemme start by telling you I ain’t buying it.” Seselie looked perplexed. “Buy what? An apartment here?” Phrae snorted. “No, that you AGREED to be turning inta an Ushi-Oni. What did they feed you? Cabbitgrass? Magic mushrooms?” A clawed digit prodded Seselie. “Or plain starvation by your skinniness? I’ll bust you out of here if you want, but you’re too far gone to stay human.” Seselie shook her head, smiling slightly. “You do not understand Phrae. True, I did not come here voluntarily, but I did volunteer to stay. And going Ushi-Oni… It was recommended to deal with… well, rather deadly metal poisoning. Not that spending days on the….” She searched for a polite wording. “The commodity, was any fun, but it has done wonders for my health. As have the meals I’ve been given, I’ve  even put on some weight.”

Phrae’s eyebrow twitched. “You don’t show it. Fuuuuucck~! Girl, you don’t know what they’ve done to you.” She slapped the floor, causing cracks to appear in the varnished wood. “I got used by a born Ushi-Oni as a helping hand to get off and now look at me! I’m freaking huge. I crush metal as if it were paper. Using the wardrobes? Forget it, I have to dig a pit of doom for my own privy. You think its all fun and being strong, but its a damn hassle!” She ground her teeth. “The old baron found me a new job at Thyrfrôs, cause he has a Jotunn aunt, but I had to spend a year learning to do my job again with this new body. And no, living wild like the gurphing rhyme says isn’t gonna work for you. Because you weren’t taught survivalcraft and probably never will. Damn woman who did this to me refused, saying no Ushi-Oni has the patience to teach anyone but a child of their own.”

Seselie calmly sipped her mug of water, trying not to let worry invade her. “It won’t be easy… But it beats being dead. Phrae, do you mind if I ask you what it was like… going through these changes?” The maidly Ush-Oni blew steam from her nostrils, visibly seeking to calm down. “It isn’t a fun tale. Both my arms had been… used by that woman. Though I washed and washed, they stayed reddish and… well, the next morning I couldn’t move them. Or my legs. If the baron hadn’t asked a couple of stablehands to hoist me into the air on a winch while the damn abdomen grew out I would have died in my too cramped bed.” She sighed. “And I get annoyed so easily! Blood and tears, I feel like I constantly have to tip-claw through life because of such easily broken things.” To punctuate this, she crushed her cup without effort. “Staying in civilized lands is a hassle, but I ain’t giving up. Now let me tell you about running, and more importantly, stopping. You’ll need to learn this right quick when you can walk again.”

About a week later Seselie knew what Phrae had been going through. “Blast it! Rudrahni, I’m itching horribly, can you please help?!” No answer came, the Grey Wolf must still be out. Lying on her stomach hampered her hearing somewhat, but worse was that she couldn’t move her limbs at all. Not to scratch, not to shift positions, not even to escape the rather invasive observational tools that had been inserted when the outward changes picked up pace and only recently removed. It was a bit of a shock, but she would lay eggs if she ever conceived. Her sole experience with egg-laying creatures came from the lone chick that had been her companion for a few weeks until a cat ate it. The process might be a bit different from how pebblyfowl handled things though. Seselie sighed, blowing out her breath in a long exhalation. Then the door opened and Reginne stepped inside, looking very cute, but grim.

“Hey Reginne, how are you doing? I don’t want to be a bother, but could you please help me?” The new Wendy sighed, shaking her head softly while grasping Seselie by the chin. “I have some bad news. Pamalee died.” Seselie’s eyes flew wide open. “WHAT?! But how?!” Reginne sighed. “Suicide is what they call it, but I don’t think it was intentional… Not wholly at least. She got the shakes again, went looking for a drink and…” Soft red hair swished as Reginne shook her head. “She drank a bottle of acid from the off-limits laboratory. Fernicia and Korae tried everything they could, but to no avail.” Seselie breathed harshly. “Shale and dross! That’s the third death now.” Two others had died as a result of an unexpected allergic reaction to the bodily fluids they were developing.

But then the door opened and Ulrika entered, slowly shuffling through the frame. “Oh, you’ve told her already?” She still looked mostly human from the waist up, but her legs had merged into a single foot that evidently also housed her stomach now. “About Pamalee, yes. Or was there something else?” Ulrika nodded, her face looking less scarred by pockmarks than when she came to reside here. “Well, Laerine returned. She asked me to fetch you, Reginne, and tell Seselie that she wants to have a word.” Ulrika sighed. “I kind of get why, but it would be nice if she’d asked someone faster. I mean, I’m shuffling about until I run out of slime anyway, but…” She threw up her arms. “I feel like I need to relieve myself, but I can’t! All this shaking and shuffling is giving me gas and I don’t know how to get rid of it!” She blushed red as she realized what she had said.

“Well, just burp it out Ulrika.” Laerine entered, looking sad. “You’re not yet fully an Ureonggaksi, but that’s how they get rid of that. I heard about Pamalee when I got here.” The Serebim looked sad. “She had such a lovely singing voice and that Minotauride look was growing on her. But now… I..” She bowed her head and remained quiet for a few moments. “Nothing to be done about it. Reginne, I’m sorry to bring this up, but there is some good news for you at least. Lemongrass and the kids are waiting for you in the big hall and Archemonea will arrive in a while too. I’m not sure what they want to talk about, but…” She sniffed, obviously peeved. “I’m not privy to that information.” Saying her goodbyes, Reginne practically skipped out of the door. “Much better, in my opinion. She has a young heart, as do you both.”

Seselie and Ulrika both nodded and the latter made for the door as well. “Thanks for the advice, I’ll have to try it in private.” Laerine grinned at her, then closed the door. “Well, what a day… How are you holding up?” Seselie explained, curtly, that she was itching something fierce and requested some assistance. Laerine complied, reaching underneath the sheet and gently soothing the worst itches. “You’re double your original size, but things are looking up. I actually needed to tell you a bit of news. Mommy is glad with our research so far, though…” Laerine sighed. “We mainly found out we knew less than we thought we did. She had a little surprise though and I’ve brought him along.” She undid a clasp on her bag and reached her arm in fully, retracting until she had hauled a head out.

Seselie screamed in disbelief. “TERIM??!?!?!” Laerine grinned, gently extracting more of the young man’s form. “ Yep, he actually made it to the Citadel of Desires. Moms caught word of what he came there for, and how…” She chuckled. “Turns out there was an old staircase going over the mountains near the Villa where I was born. But when he told her about how he’d come in search of you she called for me. And here he is. I’ll just leave him in the chair and undo the snooze-spell. You can’t go fully Ushi-Oni on him yet, but feel free to have a taste once he wakes.” She laughed again as she caught Seselie’s grouchy look. “You do want that, trust me. Your body is already desiring it, but its your mind that’s not yet accepting of wanting spiritus.” She leaned in closer. “If you won’t, there’s a list of mamonme wanting for a husband as long Gudri’s hair and then some. In a roll, so please think about that.” So saying, she reached in and tweaked one nipple. 

Seselie was acutely aware of a burning desire rising, but when she opened her mouth, Laerine was gone. Swallowing nervously, Seselie thought of things that helped to calm her body and resolved to give Laerine a dose of her own medicine. Maybe Korae would help. In the back of her mind though, a different voice spoke up. The one she habitually tried to keep to herself. It railed against her frailty usually, but now it spoke seductively of how she could do with a little happiness, and a lot of lovemaking. Vague, instinctual images floated through her mind and she sighed. Turning her focus back to the present, she heard a soft groan and utterings of pain. “Ow! Ow, ow, ow… Feels like I got grabbed by the hair and neck again…” That was Terim’s grumbling alright and she smiled. “I’m afraid so, you just got pulled out of a bag of holding.”

Seselie gave a friendly smile, then slightly frowned. “Its good to see you again Terim, but what were you thinking? They could have killed you for storming the citadel.” He turned to the sound of her voice and blinked.

“Seselie?” She nodded, feeling the desire build again. “Alive and well, if a bit confined again at the moment. I missed you… My departure was a bit unexpected to put it mildly. What in the world possessed you to hare off after me though?” She delicately pursed her lips, waiting for his answer. He laughed. “Some rescue, eh? Your parents tried to convince me you’d died, but then I found a letter and… well, I didn’t want to let you be hauled who knows where for illicit experiments.” Seselie smiled, that was Terim alright. He’d tried to protect her ever since they were little, the scar on his neck testified to this.

“That’s my knight in shining armor. But I agreed to these experiments Terim, and aside from… Well, a few inconveniences and embarrassments I’m feeling better than I have in more than a decade. Kill or cure, and it turned out to be cure.” A soft dripping noise drew her attention and her mind prayed it didn’t come from her. Leaking would be embarrassing in this situation. “Thing is though… Ehhehehe~! The cure means that my body’s changed a bit… But I was walking and will walk again soon.” A slight tingle spread down from her shoulders. Terim edged closer and stroked her hair. “I’m glad, but… what changes? Will you be able to live back home with a disguise or something? And what’s with this huge bed? It looks comfy, but larger than you’d need.” This caused Seselie to blush, her dusky grey cheeks turning stone red. “What’s the matter? Do you have a fever?”

She shook her head. “No, but… I’m actually not in a bed. The sheets cover my body while this pillowed harness supports me. I didn’t really know until Phrae visited, but I’m a bit bigger than before.” This caused him to gulp audibly. “I’m still me all the same. Just… a little bigger.” She sniffed and more tingles spread down her arms as his scent was enticing. She tried to ignore the soft plops from underneath the sheets that Terim didn’t seem to hear. “Terim, I still love you… But if you want to leave and marry a human girl then..” She sniffed again, edging her head closer subconsciously. “I-I’ll call Korae and…” A heartfelt sigh erupted from within. “I’ll beg her to send you home. Else Laerine will try to match you to some other mamonme. She is nice, but peculiar. Almost as if she’s… well, only just started to understand some things about humans.”

Terim knelt before her and looked straight into her eyes. “I kind of fought a daughter of the Demon Lord just to see you again, do you need to ask? Also, your eyes are kind of glowing. But tell me, what are they turning you into? A Succubus?” There was only curiosity and love in his gaze. Something gave within Seselie’s soul and her arms emerged, wrapping Terim in a powerful, but gentle hug. “Ushi-Oni actually. I wish we could do more right now, but I’m still mostly numb below my ribs, so….” They both goggled as they realized just how large her arms had become. One clawed finger touched Terim’s face gingerly. “Wow. I had no idea they’d get this big. Well, let me show you one of the practical things I’ve learned here.” Her digit removed his pants and her mouth stopped talking for a good long while. Terim’s fright dissolved into bliss, while a small part of his mind wondered how his Seselie could be doing this. Most thoughts went woo-hoo though. At least until a monstrous belch resounded throughout the complex.

Chapter 6. A new life

“Your attention, everyone.” Laerine’s smile was as warm as any they had ever seen, though sadness edged her eye. “I want to congratulate you, all of you, on having completed your transition from humans into mamonme. Your efforts here have been of tremendous value, even if we’re still a ways away from a final cure.” She sighed. “Eliminating theories and ruling out old assumptions gives us new handholds, though it has also shown that our equipment is lacking.” A grimace followed that statement. “Therefore, the Aerdanic Gardens will be sealed off. I really would prefer that we could keep them open, but that costs a lot of money. Money needed for the war-effort. I know that you’ve been planning things and I do know that I’ve said this before, but I would love to keep in touch with you. My home is always open to you and I hope to visit you. For now though, I must ask you to pay attention to a special guest.” Laerine threw them a kiss, then stood next to Korae.

Shortly after, several bursts of DE denoted the arrival of her sisters and father. The latter taking up station near the front of the platform and looking absolutely ravishing in his official outfit. She hoped to find a husband like him one day. Then darkness exploded out from the centre of the stage and her mother appeared. Laerine smiled warmly as she saw the loving gestures her mother’s tail made towards her, and to her sisters. “What a glorious day. I stand here before you, brave women who have become mamonme, with pride in my heart. Pride and gratitude, as your participation has advanced the Demon Kingdom’s knowledge and brought us that much closer to solving the reproductive issues that have stood as a barrier between us and peace.” Seretique vi Alloriel’s voice carried far and wide as she orated.

As far as speeches went, it was a good one, though Marisaelle had (as usual) trouble keeping in her laughter. She and their mother had what people called clashing personalities. Where Seretique was motherly and more taken to ruling through diplomacy, Marisaelle was as brash and blunt, if intelligent, as the mamonme she had gotten genetic influence from. Three hours later, her experiment was over, though she and Korae said goodbye to all of them personally. “So, have you decided where you want to go?” Laerine blinked back tears as Ulrika shook her head as she replied. “Nah, not really. I can finally go out in public without a mask on. Those Ureonggaksi you mentioned might be willing to teach me how to build a shell, but beyond that I’m putting my foot down all over Praxis.” All four of her eyes shined as she hugged them.

It was much the same with the others, Gudri had taken enough of a liking to the descriptions of Fernal Lake in the Gravsborough fief of the Demon Kingdom that she would go there. Lette would go to the Grazelands, bearing a breast-shaped pouch in lieu of the one that her transformation into a Bovitauride had not restored. When they came to Seselie and her claimed husband though… “Hi Laerine, Korae.” Seselie was a far cry from the frail girl they’d first met. Muscles gleamed as she effortlessly carried her prudent investments bought from skilled artificers. “You two look as if a Cat si swiped your meal, chin up.” She gave them a wink and wrapped them in a hug. “I’ll miss the place too, and your company as well, but it will be good to finally see the outside world.” Her sparkling eyes and the hint of longing in her voice bespoke her desire to do just that.

“We’ll need to go soon Seselie, especially if you want to go see them.” Terim looked a little bruised, but happy as he shook Korae and Laerine’s hands. “Thank you both for everything. The two of us have quite a bit of ground to cover I’m afraid, but if you’d like why not come with us for a part of the way?” Korae declined, but encouraged Laerine to see them out of the kingdom at least. While she had improved tremendously these past few months, more so than in the decade before, Korae knew that her charge had more to learn, yet. As they set off, she spoke briefly with Seretique. “..And that’s why I’ve sent her along with them. As far as she’s come, I can’t help her beyond this point, Seretique. But I feel it is important to give her so-whumph!” Seretique had thrown her over one shoulder and soon Demien was hoisted onto the other.

“I know, Korae. Now we three should have a look at your study and make use of it before we’ll seal the place.” It happened to be so that they were still inside when the seal was first cast. Meanwhile Seselie was covering ground at a steady pace while Terim and Laerine sat amidst the packages on her abdomen. “Its amazing, isn’t it? The church preached all too often that women who became monsters… or mamonme rather, that they’d lose their sense of self and become mindless beasts.” Terim patted Seselie’s back admiringly. “Instead I’ve found that my Seselie is not just physically stronger, but she’s quicker on the uptake too.” This elicited a chuckle from her as she replied. “Its just a little easier for me to speak my thoughts, but yes, I can spot a few things more quickly. Its a shame I can’t share this sensation with you two though.” She indicated her rapidly trundling legs. “Half dance, half scramble not to fall with a dash of running, but different from being on two legs more than anything.”

She suddenly swerved as a harsh call came down along with an aerial patrol made up of Harpies and Impundulu. “Halt, and be accounted!” The caller was an elderly Harpy who had a pipe stuck in one corner of her mouth. Spotting Laerine, she nodded. “Hello Laerine, out for a stroll with a bodyguard and a snack?” Laerine shook her head before replying. “No, out with a couple of friends who are on their way to visit their parents before going to see the world. Hello as well, by the way, Nimleine.” Nimleine gave a lazy look of surprise and landed, her flock setting down nearby. “Are they former participants of that investigative program of you and Korragae then?” Nimleine peered quizically at Seselie, who folded her hands over where her lap had been and ventured a friendly smile.

“Caw, you were that rail thin one?” Her pipe lit spontaneously, only a small sparkle in her eyes betraying the use of magic. “I’m glad you survived the change gal, Cicile right?” Seselie shook her head as she corrected Nimleine. Speaking with a flock was a new experience for both her and Terim. While Nimleine did most of the talking initially, before long a few of the younger recruits joined in. A Harpy with orange and blue feathers challenged Laerine to a quick aerial race while the rest, particularly the Impundulu’s, kept watch. While still well within the Demon Kingdom’s borders, Luminaire raiding parties were not unheard of. “I have bested several of their magi with a bolt from the blue.” The Impundulu who now spoke had a feral cast to her eyes. “Maybe one day, I shall lead this flock and then destroy the Luminaire.”

“Easy Randeia.” Nimleine gave an affectionate glare at her subordinate. “You’re too hotheaded, Luminaire do not waste their best spellcasters on these little harassments.” She scratched her nose deftly with a talon, something that Laerine whispered meant a friendly gesture to drop the matter. “I don’t doubt a Morguis will one day lead a flock. Maybe not this one, heh, but one of her own. But she’ll need to do more than just rant about destroying those misguided youngsters.” Pointing her pipe at Seselie and Terim, she asked a laden question. “These two want to visit lands under Luminaire control to visit their parents. How would you ensure that they do that, get back alive and not bring the full army of the Luminaire down on us?” Seselie, acting on an impulse, paid heed to these carefully disguised lessons.

Randeia snarled, not with malice, but out of frustration. “How? It’d be easier to fly in at night, grab the old coots and bring them over here for a hug. And a nip in the neck so we’d have some more flyers.” Then she mastered her inner turmoil. “Or we shrink these two with a little help from a Sorceress or the scarred princess over there-” She leveled her arm and finger with a finality at Laerine. “Then take them into town at night , find a good roost and take them back out after they’ve seen their parents. It’d have to be quick though, Ushi-Oni are hard to hide, nevermind that to seeker magi they stand out like beacon fires.” Seselie nodded, then asked a question while holding up one of a precious few bottles she’d bought. “Lets say I have a few potions of human form and Terim has been given a treatment by our Unicorn friend? Would that change your plans?” Nimleine grinned, nodding at Randeia to answer.

“Bloody tears! If you have those, then you can waltz in and out of town on your bleeding own feet!” She considered a little longer. “It wouldn’t hurt to have a roosting escort though. If they aren’t quality potions then you never know when you’ll explode into spiderlegs again and a speedy getaway is what you want.” Randeia clawed the air with her own talons, gnashing her teeth as a plan was formed.

Interlude: A question

“Urrrraggh!” Liccitia LaMont-Saerti roared as she lifted a particularly large boulder out of the way and set it down on a plateau of magical energy. “Pfoooh, it looks like we can finally get through. Korae, quit dragging your feet and put the plateau somewhere safer.” The Mahoumet Goddess wiped sweat from her brow and fought the urge to sniff under her arms. She lately was too prone to conjure a small raincloud and shower under it if she felt smelly. Given that this area of the former Demon Kingdom, now known as the Matrika’s domain, was rumored to hold some rebellious elements who wanted Seretique vi Alloriel back in power it would be folly to let down her guard completely. “I’m doing so.” The reply was snappy. “Unlike you, I have but five senses outside of my Perception Bauble.”

“If you want me to do it faster, these trees and mosses will be scraped off the landscape.” The Sorceress scowled a silent curse and got a rude gesture in return. “I know you’re being mulish Korae. You are the most powerful Sorceress to ever have worked for Seretique. Wanting to be back in her bed doesn’t magically change that or your knowledge of this place.” Liccitia sighed. “But we do need to check these Aerdanic Gardens quickly and secure them before those troublemakers do.” She groaned as the wind wafted her current aroma into her nostrils. Korae’s scowl softened. “I understand, but I feel angry still. I’ve got a ton of work to do, especially since Laerine is who knows where and I can’t count on Lokaeli’s help to track her down.”

Liccitia cast a sympathetic glance over her shoulder. “Lokaeli needs to atone. Those magical girls and sorceresses need someone to help them, really help them.” She shook her head. “I’m the just about only god-ish person around who can deal with their magical abilities, or would even try helping them. My sister’s diplomatic friend Myrrias tried as well, but… Well, rescuing her from that candyland was not something I care to repeat. And neither Eiraiha nor Clover has enough time to deal with their problems as personally as needed.” She shrugged again. “I’ll try to help you find this Serebim after. Anyhoo, you’ve told me what they did here. But why were those women called the Demon Braves? They didn’t get that moniker when they were here.” Korae shrugged. “Destiny has peculiar ways to work by, the reason behind their title though takes more time to explain.”

Chapter 7. Homecoming

Guard duty was something best left to those without imagination, Rasvelle mused. As commander of this western battalion she had to deal with the overactive imaginations of the new recruits, more than a few of which had resulted in alarms of ‘the Monsters are coming!!’ being raised. The only monster in recent times to have even been to the fortress had been an Ureonggaksi who’d gotten turned around while heading towards a particular town in the nearby neutral state of Maertel. Having got what she came for (directions), and a bonus (a bit of rice) she’d left peacefully. If not without blowing a few of the goggling recruits a kiss. Soon it would be a bit more interesting for the lads and lasses though.

The change in seasons meant that there would be the annual attempt by Harpy-kin to fly in and make off with a few lads. Presently, a knock was delivered to her door with gusto. Private Simmons panted his way into her office, out of breath and wild with fear. “FLOCK! Massive swarm of Harpies and worse!” Before Rasvelle could get out of her chair though, Simmons was knocked down gently by an older Harpy smoking a pipe. “Evening, lass. Sorry for the ruckus, the girls won’t ferry off anyone today. I’ve got a message from our Lady vi Alloriel to deliver though and guess what? Its your lucky day to get it.” Meanwhile Laerine shook her head, a motion which loosened her eyepatch. Having had no alternatives handy, she’d given her crystal eye to Nimleine in order to keep a literal eye on the mission she’d given the flock.

“They are unharmed?” Seselie peered over Laerine’s shoulder at the casting, though to her it looked more like a jumble of coloured mists. “Picture-perfect, but we’ll need to move if we’re to make the most of the distraction.” Laerine sighed inwardly. “I just hope they really don’t take any soldiers from there. It’d trigger another massive incursion and while Marisaelle would love that, it would mean more dead people. Fewer husbands, fewer wives. Nothing ethical either. Now please get us moving Seselie.” Three days later they came to a mining town typical to Luminaire lands: simple homes and commodities supporting state of the art mines, a foundry and no fewer than three smithies. And a tower occupied by a mage who doubled as a local priest.

Terim privately wondered how far they would get before they would be detected as Laerine had gone a little over the top in her bid to appear as a traveling doctor. Seselie had stared into the distance while she drank the potion. Its effects were hard to describe unless you were a seriously sauced Kaaiman, but eventually she wobbled about on two legs and was looking more like her old self. If far more amazonian. “Okay, pfeeww… I’m so used to having more than two legs now that I’m tottering like a sailor.” She swore softly as Laerine giggled. “That’s because this is your first time on two legs as a mamonme.” Laerine pointed a finger skyward. “The changes also gave your brain a once-over, the motion centre got retooled for more than two, so the knowledge of walking on two got erased.”

Laerine grinned. “You look stunning, but what does mr. expert think of my attempt?” Terim replied she looked a little over the top. “Aw pooh, its styled after Nauka’s formalwear.” She contemplated for a bit. “Ehhh, maybe you’re right though.” She snipped off the excess collar and with a word turned the coat a light brown. Thus they went into town. Dusk was edging in over the horizon and the townsfolk had mostly adjourned to their homes or the tavern. The guards did pass by, but aside from Joneth nodding at Terim with a grin they did not stop the three. Stopping by Terim’s house as it was on the way to Seselie’s home, they found it deserted with a note stuck to the door. “Hovel available for habitation, ask at the mines office.” Terim wanted to charge there, but Seselie and Laerine thought Seselie’s parents might know more of what had happened. Laerine inquired out of curiosity what the town’s name was again, her mind on reports read some time ago.

“Ternaasten, come on, I’ve told you several times.” Seselie’s smile was teasing. Laerine nodded, frowning as she replied. “We had a contact here, but she left sometime after you were… invited over. Something about a troop-buildup?” Too many reports read, Laerine supposed. She sighed and waved them on. Ternaasten wasn’t a large town, though Seselie’s parental home lay slightly secluded from the foundry. When they got there, they got a nasty shock. It had been remodelled to put it mildly. Where once there had been a small copse of trees now a wooden stockade rose with a training yard in front. The house itself had an entire floor added on, with an adjoining reliquary and office. In the rubbish pit a fire had raged some time ago, its ashes sprinkled with something that gave off a nasty aroma. At least to Seselie and Laerine, much to Terim’s wonder.

Laerine identified the smell as holy water, though of what God she could not say. Then something went click in her memory and she all but dragged them away from the house and out of town. “I’m sorry, but I’ve heard of something similar… I just hope that I’m wrong, but…” A figure crossed their paths and smiled at Terim. “Afternoon ladies, Terim.” Joneth’s smile wasn’t unkind, but it had a mischievous edge to it. “Surprised to see the changes in town? Things have changed since you hared off. Why’d you come back? Incubi and especially Succubi are not welcome here” Seselie stepped in front of Joneth and rolled her eyes. “Nice to see you again too, Joneth. I must applaud your skill in determining that we’re Succubi and an Incubus  simply by having been out of town.”

Joneth goggled, he’d never seen such a powerful woman before and having her know so much about him made him nervous. Until he glanced at her face. “Seselie?! But-,What-,How???” His jaw dropped in amazement. “I thought you’d died, how can you be this… this muscle mountain in good health?” Seselie laughed, a slight breathiness still colouring her laughter. “It was a near thing, but dr. Laerey here used an experimental treatment to save my life.” It was a story they had practiced together. “As a result, I’m in fine condition. But as nice as it is to see you again, I would like to know where our parents are and what the deuce has been done to my house?” She effortlessly loomed over Joneth, whose adams’ apple bobbed a few times before he answered. “The word is, they saw the light and donated the house. At least your parents. Terim’s old folks just left one day.”

He scratched his head, dislodging a few beetles that had roosted there, out of the wind. “The new military commander thought they might have defected to… well, you know where.” He indicated the direction of the Demon Kingdom, even though there were other nations before it. “But your folks still live here Seselie, just… a little further away since the commander found some potential contaminants inside his new base.” Joneth offered to lead them there and so they went to a part of the town’s outskirts where a few new hovels clustered together. They were not nice dwellings as such, but some effort had been made to make them more homey. Biedermeier flower pots lined the windowsills and some carving had been started on the crude wooden beams. Seselie recognized her mother’s hand in the pots’ decorations on the left most hovel and all but skipped to the door.

The reunion within  was one of unexpected joy. Her parents, though looking as if they had had a hard time now practically capered with joy in between intense hugs. By nightfall they settled down to dinner. “Seselie, are you sure you’re not tired?” Her mother asked this quietly as Seselie’s father loudly declaimed the forced relocation to Terim and Joneth. Seselie shook her head gently. “No mom, I’m fine. I realize it seems weird after all those years being bound to my bed, but…” She tapped her chin in thought. “I’m rather more buff than I seem.” Laerine nodded at Seselie’s mother. “She is. Though she isn’t yet wholly where she could be in that regard.” Laerine smiled. “I’m curious though, what do you think of her?”

As the older woman’s gaze settled on her, Laerine felt a small pang of elation, her gaze shone with joy. “My daughter is alive, she is herself still and she’s in better health than I could have hoped for. But… I do wonder.” She turned to Seselie. “Sweetie, is this really what you now look like?” Seselie glanced meaningfully over at Joneth before leaning over and whispering softly, Laerine leaning in as well, seemingly huddling for a gossip.

“In a word, mostly. I actually had to drink a potion of human form in order to get into town. The only way to cure me was… kind of intense.” She urged her mother to remain quiet, then whispered into her ears the less embarrassing details. “Laerey can affirm it, though the less pleasant details are under the doctor’s discretion rule.” Laerine grinned and nodded, drawing a little circle with her finger.

“If you can keep quiet a little longer? Seselie’s recovery was a great success, though the other participants fared well too, for the most part. But those of us who haven’t changed species… We learned a lot from all of them, though I’m admittedly still a bit mystified by humans. Cultural inhibitions, customs and so on vary so very much between nations… The only comparable thing in the same species that we know of is the division of pirate and forester Minotaurides. But Seselie has helped me tremendously even beyond what we’d hoped for with this research project. Therefore, do you really wish to stay in this town? If not then I could try to get you and your husband settled into a nicer community in that Karpathia place.” Laerine frowned. “I still can’t believe how that treaty came about, even though I watched Muntispeer sign it. But Karpathia is a bit more… openminded about mamonme walking the streets, though I’d be banned from living there.”

“It would be nice, but I worry for our friends in town. We’re a bit impoverished right now, but we still care about our town.” Seselie nodded at her mother’s words, though her happiness was tempered by the problems this represented and she said so. “I just hope to see you more often mom. Terim and I want to see a lot of the world, but I’ll try to send in some money if we can find a secure way to get it to you. Maybe once this trice-cursed war is finally over we can visit normally.” She gently cupped her mother’s hands in her own. “Maybe, by that time, we will have grandchildren for you and dad. I’m still a little rough because I’m learning to control my strength.” She noticed a slight tinge of grey creep into her skin colour. “Excuse me, I need to take my ‘medicine’ now, I think.” Together with Laerine she enacted the crafting of a harmless powder (brown sugar and mint) that she washed down with a potion of human form.

It had taken some practice runs with the apothecary, but she’d learned to time the dosages correctly so her body would not flush out an overdose immediately. Returning to her seat, they discussed what to do with Joneth for the night and when they would leave. When they left the next morning, Seselie wore one of the few jewels left to her mother, an heirloom with an obscure symbol encased in amber. “It gives me the creeps for some reason…” Laerine shook her head. “Probably just my imagination though, studying non-magical symbols was never my thing, especially as one elder tease of a sister liked to make up things for her younger siblings.” Seselie and Terim looked at each other, then burst out laughing. “We’ll have to take your word for it Laerine… I can’t imagine what its like to have that many sisters.”

Terim nodded sagely. “We were spared such. Though I hope our offspring will have siblings.” Seselie playfully pushed him off his feet, claiming she’d have to do all the work. Laerine smiled at them, feeling a deep affection for her friends that she never had thought possible.

Chapter 8. The high priestess and the mayor

Reginne paced nervously and checked herself in the mirror once again. She was more than a head shorter than she had been and her hair was a more fiery red than she remembered from her youth. It still felt odd to be here and odder still that she felt as young as she looked. Oddest of all was that she felt right at home in NeverNeverLand though this was her first visit. Presently she was to be introduced to the new mayor of Jamestown, a surprisingly gorgeous port full of would-be pirates and craftily disguised docks. A huge galleon was moored next to this mansette where Archemonea and Lemongrass had brought her in order to register her with the local government as a new resident.

Privately she wondered what the use was. She wanted to get back to her children and raise them, properly. She also wanted to get back to Praxis and see to it that her sister met with justice, full force for starters. Not that she didn’t value doing things properly and this was apparently mandatory for newly changed Wendy’s. After that though she would seek out a good place for her orphanage. Unbidden, a recent memory jumped to the fore and she wondered if she could build it in that stretch of woodland near the coast here. She shook her head as if to clear it, then doubled her efforts as that insidious longing for a husband flared to life again. When it subsided swiftly, she noticed a hand on her shoulder just before a calm, authoritative voice spoke up.

“Still learning to deal with your longings I guess? Please follow me, the mayor will see you now.” The hand was removed and Reginne turned to follow the speaker. A fellow Wendy, wearing something prim and proper that might have been a clerical robe on a human woman. A serious braid swung gently across her back and sensible brown shoes stepped underneath her clothes. As this Wendy opened the door, a mourning band on her other arm showed and Reginne wondered whom she’d lost. “Mayor Hook, I’ve brought Reginne for her interview.” She had addressed a large swivel chair that now slowly revolved to show another Wendy in widow’s garb clutching a somewhat savaged captain’s hat  and tried to offer a welcoming smile through her tears. “H-hello Reginne, welcome to NeverNeverLand and Jamestown.”

She indicated a plain chair in front of the desk and as Reginne sat down, she continued. “I am captain-mayor Rosebay Hook, and this is my sister: high priestess Alyssum p-Pan.” As Reginne’s eyes flew wide-open, the sisters exchanged a look before Rosebay resumed. “I’m certain that you’ll have some questions later, but for now let’s focus on the more pressing matters. You were human before, so you have quite a few things to learn before you can really be a resident. Tell me, what do you think of this realm?” Rosebay snuffled into a dainty handkerchief while Reginne weighed her answer. “Its beautiful, a little rowdy, but also peaceful. I… I feel at home here somehow, though its my first visit.” Both sisters nodded then and Alyssum spoke next. “It is, but it’s also fragile. Fragile in ways that mean all who want to live here will have to help protect it.”

Rosebay took over. “You were changed into a Wendy by followers of the Demon Lord. If you choose to affiliate with Seretique vi Alloriel-” Alyssum huffed loudly. “ If so, then you cannot, not ever, reveal NeverNeverLand to her. Regardless of our individual affiliations on Praxis, all mamonme here are sworn to first and foremost guard our home from those who might abuse it in their plots for world domination.” Reginne nodded, thoughtfully, and replied with deliberation. “I would not want to see this realm damaged either, but… aren’t all mamonme allied to the Demon Lord in any case? Or do some follow the fallen Gods of Limbo?” She nodded towards Alyssum, who frowned furiously before replying, her iron self-control evident in the clipped words she then spoke. “No. I.do.not.follow.the.Nephyrum! Nor that lackadaisical Succubus who makes grand promises and yet still has not delivered on them.”

“I am a priestess in the church of the Gentle Flame and vehemently detest both Seretique and Nephriel-” Rosebay pulled on her sister’s tail to silence her. “Easy Alyssum! Sorry Reginne, my sister can be a bit cranky. Some of her friends were targeted by assassins from those camps. But here there is no war, no Wendy will bring it here either.” Rosebay sighed wearily. “To prevent the war from spilling over, we are reliant on information from the outside world. If you choose to go to Praxis…” Reginne listened attentively, readily agreeing to keep NeverNeverLand a secret and grateful for the lessons on how to reach and leave it on her own. She shared, with only some slight hesitations, the details of the experiment. She didn’t notice the look of alarm that spread across Alyssum’s face at the mention of Laerine as the older Wendy had been pacing. 

“Her? Her again?” Alyssum’s pacing ended at Rosebay’s desk and she conferred with her sister. Both looked furious, until Rosebay shook her head in resignation. Alyssum did not look triumphant though, rather she looked grim. “Laerine vi Alloriel has committed some serious sins some years ago. We believed her mother had… taken her out of the public eye for that. If she’s back then my friends and my daughter are in grave danger. Please tell me what she has done now that this experiment is over.” Reginne told them about seeing Laerine go off with Seselie and Terim.  After a long conversation she left the mansette with the deed to the stretch of forest and permission to bring in the children. Rosebay turned the chair by nudging her desk with her feet until she looked directly at Alyssum. “Lyssie, we can’t afford a full scale war with the Demon Kingdom coming to our home. What possessed you to interrogate her like that?”

Alyssum worked her jaw for a moment before she replied. “I told you. My daughter, my friends, the town I helped found and our hopes to end the troubles for all the world.” She shuffled her feet. “For NeverNeverLand and you as well. We can’t afford to sit on our asses and wait for a Serebim or Hierophant to bring an army here and wipe out everyone.” Rosebay nodded thoughtfully. While she tallied facts like a pirate, she held deep regard for her sister’s devious mind. She’d been a fool to break off contact when that ripe bastard Peter fed TickTock her poor lost boy’s hand. Alyssum had come back immediately when James had died though and together they had grieved. Rosebay did not know if she’d ever cease wearing these black dresses, but she knew that she would never, ever, again take out her hurts on Alyssum.

“I’ll contact the flipping fairies, tomorrow. Will you stay the night though? And tell me how on Praxis you got a daughter all of a sudden.” Alyssum nodded, smiling widely. “Well, I’ve been trying to bring that up, but after the incident I went to Praxis to find a husband for that little strumpet. Things happened and I wound out helping Clover at Crystal Plinth, became a priestess…” She twirled the hem of her robe. “And then met Eihy in person. The last several years have been a blast, looking after her. She’s really sweet, but so innocent and blushy. I really want to introduce her to you… But I’m not sure she’d be allowed into NeverNeverLand.” Rosebay chuckled and leaned back as she replied. “Unless she’s some pre-hysterical cave-girl, I don’t see the issue. So tell me swabby~!”

Alyssum snorted in mirth, then blushed shyly. “No… remember when I told you I had found faith?” Rosebay nodded, signalling for speed. “Truth is, I found my daughter, a… an orphan by name of Lady Eiraiha, Principal Goddess of Praxis.” The next few minutes she spent extracting Rosebay’s tongue from her throat and calming her down. “By bloody old Roger! What the scurvy did you eat Alyssum?” Rosebay blinked repeatedly. “Nothing of the sort, Rosie. She’d visited Clover a few times, but I didn’t see her until I walked into the bar one day. There was this really awkward Lamia, we got to talking and it turned out to be Eiraiha, who’d tried to take some advice from Clover. I initially thought she was into girls, but nope… I’m glad to have her under my wing though.” Rosebay groaned. “I’ll fill you in on why this is a good thing, aunty Rosebay.” Under her sister’s giggles, Rosebay wished the croc had eaten her as well.

Interlude: Nap time

Lena Humblestone-Saerti looked down at the small sleeping form in the bed. Aerdayasêr was a very cute little boy, despite the rather explosive nature of his rear end. She could easily see why Metala, Emmy and Rukia were so hopelessly in love with him. She herself was as much in love, with her Perry. “Is he asleep?” Perry peered into the room, Lena’s eyestalks spotted him and she nodded before shuffling out and bestowing a kiss on his cheek. “Yes, with a little luck for the rest of the night. How is your chore going Perry?” Perry softly whistled, his equivalent of a sigh. “Slow going mostly. Aunt Eiraiha probably will be right, it’s not something I can finish tonight.” Lena hummed softly as she replied. “Then I’ll help. If Aered doesn’t wake we can make good progress on sorting those reports.”

Perry nodded, smiling happily and kissing Lena full on the lips. He loved how this made her blush. They used the big desk for this task, separating the stacks of old reports, some dating back decades. When a startled cry came from Aered, Lena and Perry took turns to shush him back to sleep. “He still has nightmares?” Perry’s tone was sad, Lena’s reply came from the same vein. “Yes, but at least he’s no longer scared of every Naga-like person. Rukia’s sworn that she’ll help him get over it completely.” Perry smiled, the crest of feathery hair on his head rising. “She will do that then.” He whistled cheerfully. “Its the last stack next Lena, lets finish it and see what we got.” As Perry shuffled the orderly pile they’d compiled from all those reports, Lena brought in Aered who had a picture of the three girls over his head and tears in his eyes.

“Can’t sleep, little guy? I miss Lena too when I’m on Ithus, but they’ll be back, promise.” Perry took the toddler from Lena and gently ruffled his hair. “Big cousin Lena and I have been helping your mom, aunt Eihy find a story.” Aered looked amazed, a picture of his mother forming over his head now. It was quickly replaced by a book, his way of asking for a story. “Uuhhh!” Lena and Perry laughed at that before Lena told him. “See Aered, the world is a big place and lots of people have lived here. Sometimes people did amazing things, had big adventures and became heroes. But sometimes their stories are lost because people didn’t write them down. Not properly. Aunt Eihy, your mama, said she doesn’t want that.” Aered nodded, gravely. “So she’s asked good people to help dig up these lost stories. But there are a lot of people putting in re-por-ts and those need to be sorted. So Perry and I are doing that.”

“Mhhhuhhh…” Aered tried to grab one of Lena’s eyestalks again, but she retracted it, not wanting another guided tour of his mouth, or a lick. A small cloud formed over his head, but it flew up and away when he spotted a sketch and grabbed that instead. A picture of a cat formed over his head. Lena clapped her hands and smiled. “Papa drew that picture from people’s descriptions of this miss Nalgeeia. She was a guard, like my papa….”

Chapter 9. The haunting, part 1

There’s some truth to the saying that you can’t ever go back, not really at least. Nalgeeia had gone to the city that had been her home for almost all her thirty years and found it changed. Nevermind that her sense of smell and night vision afforded her a new look on familiar turf, something was profoundly different and that bothered her. Lochmer was but one of the cities in Beestaere and not particularly one known for hosting more than one regiment of the unified army under the Luminaire banner. This build-up would have made her nervous even before her transformation into a Cat-si, but right now it made her tail want to stand on end. Not the most comfortable sensation in this bulky armor.

It had been customized for her new body by its previous owner, a Luminaire captain captured fifty years ago, who had become an incubus and one of the better armorers in the Demon Kingdom. It still felt like she was wearing a very constrictive tin can, but it was the only way she could do what had to be done. Not vengeance, though she wouldn’t mind clawing the eyes out of Nalpeter’s face if he happened to cross her path, but to see justice done. She’d been removed, according to Korae, because she had come a little too close to uncovering the truth behind what might very well be the  biggest criminal mystery in human history. She no longer was human, a small part of her whispered in a catty voice, why should she care? She wasn’t a Gan Ceanne or Hussenkiar, she’d passed both those up to become this pretty kitty, right?

The bulk of her mind shushed that part though, reminding itself that she’d chosen this species not for its looks, but for its agility, reflexes and enhanced senses. If she merely had wanted to be prettier, which she was anyway, she might have become a Succubus or joined Ulrika as an Ureonggaksi. That poor gal had been dealt a horrible hand by fate before her transformation, being ‘blessed’ with a bland face that had served as ground zero for acne, pox, warts and just about every other deformative condition. Since Nalgeeia had worn her share of scars, the two of them had found some common grounds over the months in the Aerdanic Gardens. The Grey Wolves had been particularly interested when for the both of them most of the scars had peeled off of their bodies. Ulrika’s warts falling off like discoloured peas had not been good to view on an empty stomach though.

Rising carefully as if from an afternoon nap, Nalgeeia wandered alongside the canal that was Lochmer’s first defense against outside threats, be they mamonme or bandits, or even bandit mamonme. That brought a chuckle bubbling up her throat. While there were mamonme engaged in banditry, even piracy, the vast majority of them would not harm their victims beyond relieving them of things they themselves needed. Or slinging them over a shoulder and proving that bandits made good wives in a more comfy setting than the middle of the road. One advantage of the armor was that it could hold her heirloom sword, another that it deepened her voice as long as she had the helmet on as well. Seselie, who had become a dear friend as well, had invested in potions of human form, but Nalgeeia’s plans relied on her making full use of her Cat-si form and thus had invested in the armor and non-magical lenses that were beyond merely useful.

Some mamonme wanted to spice things up by presenting new eye-colours to their partners. While magic could certainly accomplish this, even giving spiral-shaped irises as desired, it was not always possible to reverse it. A skilled artificer though had experimented with Ureonggaksi gel and slime samples from the diverse Slime mamonme to create these lenses she now wore. Essentially, you wet your eyes slightly, then dropped one on to each, carefully. The lens would then bond with your eyes and disguise them. Spiral iris patterns worked too, though you actually had to look through the slime part then as your eyes didn’t really change. If kept away from excessive amounts of water, the lenses would remain in place, drawing slightly from moisture in your tear ducts to keep fresh as it were. Without them, as was the case with Laerine’s lost eye, these lenses would not last very long.

Inside the helmet, her ears twitched. Nalgeeia knew she was near the gate and gently straightened the sash proclaiming her as a justifar, a roaming judge with nearly unlimited authority to investigate wrongdoings. The style was a little old fashioned, but then again, so was the armor. A perfect match for the usually grim justifars she had met, unconcerned with fashion or politics, strict adherents to the laws laid down long ago by Principal God Eiraiha at the founding of the Luminaire. Not that this would stop some crooks from trying to kill her if they got the chance. Justifars had all the power within the bounds of the law, but no supernatural protection from poison or some such. She made a point of it to formally address the young guards and inquire about the usual necessities: bed, food, prayer space and where to find the local commanders of both the civilian and military power. They being green recruits made it easier for her to avoid being recognized.

Inside the gates, Lochmer was a changed town. Old roads had been dug up, filled in and were busily being cobbled by sweaty soldiers. On the one hand, this made it easy for her to remain solitary, but on the other, it meant slogging through muck more often than not. Eventually she reached the Praying Hands. Once a rowdy tavern, its current owner had turned it into a respectable inn in less than ten years, though one room had remained a problem for all that time and before. Nalgeeia wanted to try that room. Maybe she would solve its sad mystery, maybe she would find an ally. Or she would end up seriously injured and potentially exposed. This thought made her ears lie flat on top of her head. “Greetings lady justifar, what may I offer you? Some refreshments and a light meal? Or will you be staying with us?”

Nalgeeia smiled before raising her visor. “Goodman Koster, I would assume? I am justifar Tachene. May I inquire if I heard correctly that this inn suffers from a haunting?” Koster nodded, then folded his cloth over one arm. “Indeed, though it has yet to be resolved. Our local priests have tried and failed to evict… her… from the room. To no avail, bar that several of them were banished for their unwilling liaison with her. I do not know if you could…” Nalgeeia nodded, placing one hand on his shoulder and making an old religious sign with the other, a ritual assurance that she would attempt this task. For the meantime though, she requested a simple meal of fresh fish and goat’s milk, ate it at a small table in a dark corner and then asked Koster to gather all other guests in the main room of the inn.

Ascending the stairs in her armor was a slow business. To avoid breaking through one step or the other, she spaced her feet wide and supported her weight with her arms as well. Doing so without her tail being able to help balance her steps was annoying, but doing so in this armor was a right trial. The haunted room had been a part of the building for as long as anyone could remember. Some claimed the spirit to be the lost love of the original builder, others claimed her to be a victim of a crime within these walls. Yet all acknowledged that she was now an undead mamonme as no man left her room with his pants on. Women on the other hand left looking older than they were, drained in part of their life. Nalgeeia intended to avoid that fate in her new form and therefore had asked for a universal greeting among the undead as she reacquainted her old friend with her new form.

She knocked on the door politely, catching a mildly surprised ‘yes’ from within. When she entered, she spoke swiftly to the apparition within. “Lemonbread ashes and spidersilk tea. I am not an enemy.” Nalgeeia closed the door and locked it with the simple sliding bar present in all rooms here. Her hostess tapped one translucent white finger against dull grey lips and spoke. “What is up with that? I expected something on the lines of:’Begone, foul fiend!’ Not this weird nonsense. Tell me, did you hit your head or something? It doesn’t matter, really.” She floated towards Nalgeeia, arm stretched to grasp. She stopped though when Nalgeeia wrenched off her helmet. “I gave the undead greeting. Even if that Banshee was fibbing about the ritual greeting, I did say I’m not an enemy.” Nalgeeia shook her head vigorously, airing out her ears.

“Well, well, well… A cat woman? It doesn’t really matter to me. What matters is that others in armor tried to evict me… But I’ll forgive you if you leave now and leave me to my vigil.” She turned back to the window, not bothering to put up a visible defense. “I am not here to harm you, Glastine van Murein.” Nalgeeia gulped as the undead woman spun back to face her, but she pressed on. “I am here because I need your help and because I believe I can help you as I promised to you years ago.” Glastine’s face took on a look of intense scrutiny as she floated closer. “The girl who made that promise was human, and she didn’t have azure eyes.” Nalgeeia smiled in reply as she lifted her heirloom sword from its compartment. “I did have my sword. And while I actually do still have grey eyes, they’re concealed behind these lenses. Glastine.”

Nalgeeia licked one of her fingers and gently peeled back part of one lens, exposing a grey iris with a now vertical pupil. As it slipped back into place, she removed the bottom part of her armor, letting her tail get some air and freedom. “I’ll bet that you’re wondering how I ended up like this? Long story short, I think I got too close to solving a big crime tied in some way to your death and was sent to the Demon Kingdom where… well, I became Cat-si. But there’s more to it than that.” She rapidly explained what her plans were and promised to reveal in full what had happened, but only if Glastine agreed to a little ruse. Goodman Koster was as surprised as his guests when Nalgeeia returned, apparently unharmed and fully armored up again.

“Goodman Koster, I have both good and bad news. The good news is that I have determined the cause of the haunting, and the means to end said haunting. The bad news is that this will take some time and, so I fear, will also require some measures that might inconvenience you for the next week or so.” She leveled her hand palm down and lay two fingers across it. A feat unimaginable in less functional armor. “By the Lady I ask that you make that hallway inaccessible to all guests. That none shall go near that room during this time, not for food nor slumber. That none will run to aid me, even if unearthly sounds are heard.” As if to underscore this, a gust of wind rushed down the stairs and all the oil lamps burned a sparkling silver for a few moments. “I will also need a set of chisels and hammers. Have those readied before I return. For now, I shall see to getting you reimbursed for the inconvenience.”

Having spoken, Nalgeeia walked out of the inn and headed towards the Luminaire compound. Secretly, she worried the charm that masked her Demonic Energy might not hold up to close scrutiny, but she had to do this or her ruse would fall apart and she’d feel bad in any case. Then she would rest for the remainder of the day and go about her business at night.

Chapter 10. The haunting, part 2

Lochmer at night was a mixture of old and new for Nalgeeia. Familiar was her route over the rooftops, but the sounds, smells and sights had been… sharpened by her new senses. Glastine was singing back at the inn, part of an opera that she had played the female lead in, but which had not been heard in over forty years. Add to that the haunting quality of her singing voice and Nalgeeia was glad she’d gotten Koster a compensation. This allowed her to slip out of of the window and onto a gabled roof that had a sturdy carved gutter on the side away from the streets. She’d first made the run when she was twelve years old and had gone on a dare to see the spook at the tavern. Her friends had left to change their pants while she had gone right up to the window and spoke to Glastine, who had been a little confused at the polite speech of a slightly mannish girl.

That said girl would become a knight and an investigator for the watch didn’t change their relationship much, though Glastine would give her the sharp end of the tongue if Nalgeeia returned with a new scar. They’d spent the first night talking about all that had happened and the subsequent two had been spent prowling. That came so much easier as a Cat-si, especially in these clothes. A faintly bluish grey outfit that somehow got lost in the shadows, weighed next to nothing and yet was as warm as a whole fur robe. One of Laerine’s sisters had recommended it in fact during a visit to the gardens. That Lokaeli might have seemed a little ditzy and unwilling to do harm, but she had a sharp mind and a vicious streak where it came to protecting her family. Nalgeeia had thought that Laerine was a little weird, but those visits from her sisters had changed that perception. Laerine was actually somewhat ‘normal’ compared to some of her sisters.

She made an effort at the least. Still, Nalgeeia might return and take that Marisaelle up on her offer to wield her blade with honor as part of the Demon Kingdom Army. Pretty kitty or not, Nalgeeia loved swordplay and her new form complimented her style of fighting. Her inner voice spoke again that kitties wouldn’t purr unless they had someone to pet them. She sighed, almost inaudibly. Getting used to her inner Cat-si was still something she struggled with, especially in the light of her vows. Those vows included putting the common good before her own desires and not stealing for her own gain. Admittedly, getting the Luminaire to pay for the inconvenience to the inn was edging those vows’ boundaries, but it was for the common good. She flowed like a shadow across the roofs of the sleeping town, skirting past an impromptu camp for mercenaries.

Tallying those to the official army numbers disclosed to ‘Tachene’, it was obvious that a major battle was being planned. Though where it would strike? Nalgeeia felt a knot of worry in her tail for her friends, not just the gals from the gardens, but her old friends here as well. Focus! She could worry later. Eventually, she reached an old crypt. It had not been tended during this past year and her need for haste warred with her desire to maintain the resting place of her forebears. A compromise, cutting the weeds swiftly and piling them near, cost her less time than she’d feared. Finally, she slid her sword from its scabbard and slid it into a groove in the mural decorating one side of the gate. It slid in with but a faint scraping and the gate opened. Nalgeeia steeled herself as this part was something she could not prepare for.

Beyond the entry hall two unlit torches rested below a sconce that burned with an eternal flame. Speaking the archaic formula that allowed her to light this torch from the sconce and went below. A spiraling staircase led to what had originally been a shrine to Demara, a Goddess whom had died a hero. With the advent of Eiraiha, the shrine had been partially rededicated, as she was Demara’s only daughter. The ancient murals depicted a valiant Celestial woman with wings, one of which was damaged. The statue of her daughter seemed to be grieving, despite the beautiful carved features. Nalgeeia bowed to their likenesses, praying silently that they would postpone smiting this technically fallen woman at least until after she had brought into the light the evidence she’d stored here almost a year ago. She nearly jumped out of her skin when a soft humming started and a gentle light approached from another corridor.

What floated out into the shrine was very small, almost like a baby Zvezda, shimmering with her own radiance and carrying a sack full of dust. Small, milky wings fluttered lazily as this tiny woman set down her burden next to several other sacks. Then she turned and shot like an arrow at Nalgeeia. “Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii~! Welcome to Demara’s Shrine Nally.” Up close this being resembled Eiraiha, if made very small and somewhat simplified. “What, a cat got your tongue? Teehee. You prayed to big me, and moms, so I could tell you were here.” She clapped her tiny hands happily. Nalgeeia goggled, trying to find her words. “P-p-p-p-please pa-a-a-a-rdon-n m-e-e-e. AreyouLadyEiraiha? I’msorryfordefil-” A small hand was pressed to her lips while two rainbow eyes and a mischievous smile looked into her eyes.

“No-no. I’m not big me, I’m a sending. Lets see, kind of like…” She looked a little muddled. “Like a bundle of little thoughts and energy sent out to do a task? Big me could explain it better. But you’re not defiling anything.” She grinned. “You cleared the grass and… you’ve got a big task, right? I wondered what those silly big bags were for.” She hummed and flew slowly away. “Little Lady Eiraiha? Sorry, but I…I’m Cat-si, not a human anymore. Shouldn’t you smite me?” Nalgeeia looked perplexed. The miniature sending turned around and giggled. “No-o-nope. Big me doesn’t like smiting anyway. Plus, last time she checked on me, she mentioned a new friend who has roots. I gotta get this tomb cleaned, buhbye.” The tiny being flew away, trailing a faint rainbow afterimage.

Nalgeeia swallowed. Had she accidentally eaten some hallucinogen? Nobody had called her Nally since she was a child. She scooted over to the bags of dust and gingerly prodded one. It felt real, as did her nails when they pinched her arm. “Stranger things…” She stood upright and moved down one corridor, as she had done regularly for over a year all those months ago. The tomb did look cleaner. No spiderwebs or dust remained, but for one carefully gathered little pile atop the casket shared by her parents. Nalgeeia thought for a moment, then extracted a small pouch and transferred the dust into it. She rested her hand on the casket as she had done so often, reflecting that this time would be her last, most likely. “Mom, dad, I’d hoped to see you two again after death… I don’t know if I’ll be allowed to go where you are though. But I’ll see justice done, I swore it and I intend to keep to that oath.”

Ignoring her own tears, she gently pushed the casket aside, noting how much easier this went with her newfound strength. In the alcove thus revealed, several sacks were stashed. In each sack rested documents, physical evidence and a hard copy of her investigation log. The original had been lost when she had been sandbagged. Technically she had not supposed to be in Nalpeter’s home, never mind the hidden room with its complicated ledgers. But obtaining a permit to enter would have allowed him time to remove any incriminating evidence. She gathered all that she had stored here and prepared to move out, finally sliding the casket into its alcove and scrubbing the ledge with a cloth. When she got to the shrine again, the miniature sending was happily twirling around the floor with a small broom. “Ah? You got what you needed? Bye then.”

Nalgeeia bid her goodbye and was nearly at the entrance when a thin shouting reached her ears. “Waaaaaaaaiiiitttt~! Big me told me to give you this.” The tiny woman placed a hand on Nalgeeia’s tail  and vanished in a shower of rainbow sparks. “It won’t last long, but you’ll be able to go outside now and talk without a hassle.” Nalgeeia gulped as her tail and ears seemed to have vanished. At least visibly, she could still feel them as attached to her body. Shrugging, she went outside, almost running into another person. “Omph-tt!” He went down, hard and with some clattering of armor. Nalgeeia rubbed her shoulder and blinked in the early light of dawn at the face of sir Rowdrake, a friend of her parents and her instructor. He’d gained a few more gray hairs and lost a few pounds since she’d last seen him.

“Nalgeeia?” Rowdrake struggled upright and stared at her as if he’d seen a ghost. “Nalgeeia, is that you girl?” He grabbed for her hand, but caught one of her bags instead. “What are you doing here? Where have you been this past year?” Her resolve notwithstanding, Nalgeeia could not ignore the man in front of her. “Hi Rowdrake, its me. I’d love to stay and tell you everything, but I have to return to my to cover.” Acting on impulse, she dropped one of the more bulky sacks, the one he’d grabbed. “Praying Hands, haunted room, ask for Tachene and tell Koster this is for the exorcism.” With that she ran off, nimbly vaulting onto a ladder and from there onto the roofs. Shortly after, Tachene would go downstairs and await a ‘special delivery’. She actually wanted to curl up in front of the fire and snore, just one more unearthly sound involved in the exorcism.

Not that she had long to wait. The moment her shaloop was placed in front of her, the door opened and Rowdrake entered. He’d gone the extra mile and was dressed up in a severe brown cassock, heavily patched and laden with several chains full of charms. She waited until Koster directed him to her table, they exchanged a few pleasantries before she guided him upstairs as he chanted nonsensical verses while rythmically hitting himself on the head with a prop book. The Order of Saint Mont ý Pythorin was wholly fictional, but it was believable enough that in all the years he’d used this pantomime, Rowdrake had not once been caught while in this guise. Nor had Nalgeeia on the two ventures she’d partaken in. She fought down a giggle as she knocked in code on the door to Glastine’s room.

Chapter 11. The haunting, part 3

“This is… different from what I had expected.” Rowdrake drank deeply from his personal water canister. Nalgeeia lay in front of the room’s small fire, curled up on the rug, her snores interspersed with purrs. “Certainly, I can credit Nalpeter with Demon Kingdom trafficking, the guy has contributed to the study of Demon Artifacts extensively. But that he’s involved in your murder?” Glastine floated just above the floor, her spectral dress flowing like tethered mist. She arched an elegant eyebrow and shook her head in gentle rebuke. “He did not partake himself, but rather was the prize for his father’s knifework.” She gingerly poked a finger into a hole in her dress that showed ribs beyond. “That man is dead, no skin off of my bones, but the woman who ordered my death still lives. Exposing Nalpeter will… inconvenience her to say the least. With a little luck, it will be her downfall and my key to salvation.”

She sighed. “I still can’t believe you took this long to meet me here, Rowdy. You’ve grown up to be a fine man, even if I did catch you making a mess under my window all those years ago.” Rowdrake laughed. “Sorry, kids have less choice in that matter. I’ve not forgotten what your sudden appearance did to my digestive system though.” Glastine laughed, smiling mysteriously as she recalled cursing him a blue streak. Rowdrake sighed, leaning back. “So the plan is to relocate you tomorrow? I just hope we can remember the ploy to convince the folks downstairs. Can I take a nap without your hunger overcoming you?” Glastine nodded, explaining that she had plenty of reserves, for now. As Rowdrake slumbered Glastine again went over the notebooks. She still remembered her life, of having been a socialite heiress to Lochmer’s coaching company, which at the time had been housed here, in the original building on this plot of land.

One day Nalpeter’s father had barged into town, swept her off her feet and married her. She had been happy at first, but that man was obsessed with wealth. Several disastrous investments shrank the company and her marriage dissolved into a bitter feud as her husband took out his frustrations on her. It had left her barren and him open to the suggestions of the one they called the Holy Mother. Less friendly souls had named her mother Severance. Glastine had been led to believe that she would help salvage their marriage and help her conceive in return for a handful of shares in the company. The first meeting had been cordial, though Glastine had goggled at the woman’s grotesquely enlarged cooter. When she’d sat down, it seemed as if a pumpkin was outlined under the dress. She’d mentioned it to be a mark of the blessings bestowed upon her order. The second meeting though…

Glastine’s fury roiled within her and made all the lamps in the inn flare. She’d refused to sign over far more than the initially posed handful of shares, had called that woman a charlatan and bidden her to be gone from her home. Then, while Glastine slept, pain awakened her. Red pain, red blood, red fury! Glassware shattered below, followed by a wail torn from her spectral throat. She roared her anguish out until Nalgeeia hugged her and she fell silent with some effort. “Easy Glastine, easy. We’ll get her, just let it go for now.” Secretly, Glastine was glad for Nalgeeia’s transformation. Since the girl now possessed Demonic Energy, she could touch Glastine unless Glastine really concentrated. Before, Nalgeeia would only have been able to make the motion of hugging unless Glastine concentrated enough to be touched. 

As noon passed, Nalgeeia and Rowdrake went downstairs with the chisels and hammers and asked goodman Koster to let them into the basement. Behind the façade of bricks along the far wall lay their destination. Chipping away at the mortar they extracted the bricks until a ghastly mural appeared. Beyond the bricks, the basement had been sealed by a thick wall of clay. Embedded in this was a shrunken corpse. Well preserved, but sucked dry by the clay. Extracting Glastine’s body took well over an hour, both it and the gloves Nalgeeia and Rowdrake had worn were deposited in a cleverly concealed bag of preservation. What came next would eventually be worked into a theatrical production played throughout the Luminaire kingdoms for over thirty years. It was over the top, nonsense cooked until it shone, but Glastine was summoned downstairs and publicly sucked into the bag of preservation while screeching all sorts of ghastly oaths. Rowdrake’s performance grew in the telling, as did ‘Tachene’s’ until a new local legend was born.

Nalgeeia took the supplies she’d asked for from goodman Koster and carried the bag ceremonially out of the inn, Rowdrake chanting and smacking himself with his book all the way out of town. Lochmer would enjoy peace for a few weeks and the Praying Hands inn did business as never before. That is, until sombre figures on horseback appeared. Justifars in truth, they adhered to the old doctrines of Eiraiha’s law like barnacles adhered to ships and they took the evidence deposited by sir Rowdrake very seriously. Lochmer was shocked by the public trial and execution of Nalpeter and his associates, many of whom had been projecting an image of reliability and respectability. Yet the Luminaire commander managed to halt investigations towards Nalpeter’s biological mother, the Holy Mother of the order of Fate’s Holies on account of there being no direct proof of her involvement. He decried that a letter written by an undead abomination could not be seen as evidence. Observers noted a severe man standing behind the commander, with a face incapable of smiling, but noble in a sense.

In a small village near Karpathia, Nalgeeia sipped from the jack of susu-moo. Made from Bovitauride milk and susu-roses grown by an Aluraune, served with cubes of ice, it was both delicious and refreshing. She needed it, after catching the news from the harpies now roosting at the inn she and the others shared. Glastine was declaiming her fury and Rowdrake simply shook his head. But Nalgeeia felt… detached. She’d kept her vows and done all she could to solve a murder-mystery that had inadvertently allowed her to meet someone very dear to her. It had cost her what others would call her humanity. But she could not care about that, or the job she’d lost. The only lingering attachment to Lochmer was that her ancestors were buried there and that a few friends remained. Her heirloom sword was once more in her possession and she was as free as a cat. Why then did she not yowl loudly in joy?

Partially, she reflected, because Nalpeter had been but a pawn of a greater evil. Partially, in truth, because she’d ignored the demands of her body in favor of this quest. She’d written bonds of debt that it was now very eager to cash in on. Shifting her tail into prowl mode, she made her way over to Rowdrake’s seat and leaned into his shoulder. “You know something, sir Rowdrake? While I have fulfilled my oaths now…” Her tail looped around the back of the chair and tickled him. “I’m still going to see if I can’t bring that freaky woman to face justice. But I’d like to do so with you. We make a good team, right? And maybe… mroooowwwwlll… we’ll make a good couple?” she suddenly felt a cool touch on her breasts and noticed that Glastine had her other hand in Rowdrake’s pants. “A better threesome, I should think. I could call earlier dibs on Rowdy, but sharing….” Nalgeeia grinned as she put her hands to work as well. “Is caring, right enough!” Rowdrake had a little trouble articulating, but he didn’t mind.

Interlude. Goddess in trouble, maidens in training

Eiraiha had faced many dangers in her life, but she’d rather go through a gauntlet of those than be where she was now. Inside a large shellhome and comfortably seated in a chair literally made for her by her dear adopted cousins. Ten eyes focussed on her, sending a clear message that their owners wanted an explanation. Prior Principal Gods would not have bothered, but that was not her way, especially with family. Kaori Wayfarer-Saerti belonged to a relatively frail species of mamonme, not much stronger than humans, but she had a glare that one could believe would kill. “Eiraiha, we’d like an explanation. Not this century, but right now, please.” Kaori produced two small fuzzy balls from a box while her sister Miho retrieved a scaly one from the same.

“Ahaha..haha…ha.. Oh dear.” Eiraiha took a quick sip of her glass of water, nearly choking when the balls extended small limbs and chattered. “The girls have been practicing I see.” She sighed deeply. “I’m sorry, but I had to keep quiet until things got set in motion.” She bowed her head deeply. “I did not want to, but there was no other way.” A sad grey cloud formed over her head and snow started to fall from it. “Rukia, Metala and Emmy are in danger, but not the sort of danger that can easily be solved. I’ve been working on a solution and… well, these…” She pointed at the balls. “Are a small part of it. You know well that they are the destined beloveds of my little Aered and that they have performed heroic feats beyond the norm.” Damast and Henry nodded, the human and incubus sharing a worried look.

“Were they human, they would have been universally lauded by the Gods and other Celestials for that, potentially allowing them to ascend on the spot. But being mamonme, even if Emmy is technically an honorary one, complicates that.” Eiraiha hunched closer to her knees. “And they tried to cure several less progressive Gods of grumpiness. Some of them have declared the girls a menace. While the majority of Celestials do not feel that way…” She gulped audibly. “There is consensus that they are too strong to remain on Praxis, especially since they technically also beat me in ‘combat’. Nevermind that they merely tickled me into accepting their cutesy cure, it is still counted as a loss.” Miho looked on the verge of tears and the limbed ball occupying her hands crooned in response. “Instead of depowering or imprisoning them, or risking civil war in New Heaven, I’ve figured out a solution.”

“Tell us about it Eihy. And why these cute and creepy things are a part of it.” Kaori’s tail vibrated, but her glare had softened. Eiraiha smiled and pointed at them. “Those are miniature sendings, or at least the girls’ attempts at them.” Reaching over, she tickled each in turn until  they dispersed in a spray of lights and giggles. “Because they are relatives of several Celestials and Emmy is a Hainu there’s a little loophole. An important one, for all mamonme.” The small cloud over Eiraiha’s head turned darker and small flashes of lightning skittered across its surface. “I can’t simply give the okay yet for mamonme to enter New Heaven, no matter how I feel about it personally. The other Celestials have to agree to it as well and there lies the problem.” Lightning gathered and struck down in the glass Eiraiha held, a strong smell of separated ozone and hydrogen boiled out of the small pool of water now left.

“I’ve got a work-around plan for that in the making, a haletide blessing to ensure that good people like yourselves will live to see New Heaven. But to get there, aside from Myrrias and her diplomatic corps working around the clock, I’ve registered all three of the girls as little Celestials approved for divine schooling.” She gently held up a hand to forestall protests. “It means that they are safe, for now. It also means that other Gods will regularly be exposed to cute mamonme in a non-threatening manner, preventing them from just hiding from reality in New Heaven.” A small rainbow dispersed the clouds. “I know the girls can do this, I believe in them. Especially since I’ve… well…” The rainbow was squashed slightly by a small grey cloud. “I have had to break my promise to her, but Teacher will educate them, if I can convince her.”

“Who is this teacher, Eihy?” Miho’s question was punctuated by her eyestalks stretching forward. “I’m worried she might hate mamonme too.” Eiraiha laughed and shook her head. “Teacher… She is the Goddess of Education. Practically every God and Goddess, including me, has been taught by her. Including all those who ascended in ages past. If Teacher gives her approval…” She smiled widely. “Then it will be irrefutable proof that mamonme belong in Heaven. I just hope… well… Teacher actually retired when I was a very young Goddess. Asking her to come out of retirement, especially in light of all she has done…” Eiraiha shook her head, a small tornado spinning her hair into a mess. “I’m breaking a promise made to her there. One that’s only barely below sacrosanct.” They nodded, slowly but in unison. Most of the remaining questions were thankfully easier to answer, being reassurances that the girls wouldn’t be taken away or brainwashed.

“Mooooooooooooommmmm~!” Three little girls barreled into the room and hugged their mothers, fathers and aunt in rapid succession before Rukia spoke. “Granny Bala says we did nice on learning basic medicine~! Emmy even got a star!” Emmy grinned with quiet pride and showed a small paper star stuck to her dress. Metala tugged on her mother’s dress. “I got to help Granny mix a potion! And Rukia-” Rukia placed her hands over Metala’s mouth, blushing. “Nothin’ special! I gotta practice more.” A deep chuckle resounded through the room as Balase and an older Ureonggaksi relative named Kusuhimi entered the room. “Nothing? Rukia cured an old coot of his backache and got proposed to on the spot.” Balase slapped her knees with laughter. “But they did well. In fact, I want them back for the next course when they can actually reach a patient on an operating table.”

Turning to Eiraiha, she gave a wide grin. “And your little idea seems to work, though I have several suggestions for fine-tuning.” Kusuhimi laughed as she snatched a cookie from the tin on the table. “Having a full set of teeth again does wonders for my appetite, Balase. Hmmm?” Her eyes had spotted a folder Eiraiha had brought along. “The Demon Braves? Eh? I know this girl.” She pulled out a factsheet showing a scarfaced Ureonggaksi. “Miho, your Henry drew this, but I didn’t know you two met my Ulrika girl. Or did you, young Eiraiha?” Henry rose from his seat and shook his head. “I drew her and the others from gathered descriptions given to me by Antimony, but great-grand-aunt Kusuhimi, where did you meet her? And why didn’t you tell us? We did put the word-”

Kusuhimi shushed him. “I was wandering a bit, mentally, remember? That request…. I might have heard it, but it didn’t reach me then.” She blinked. “I’m well over seventy, though I feel more like fifty now, maybe less. But I was in Maertel, heading for the Grazelands when I met her. It was a rainy day when I did.”

Chapter 12. Do it right, or not at all, part 1

Ulrika sneezed, shivering under the soaked-through blanket as she shuffled over rain-slick grass, desperate to find an inn or something similar where she could dry off and warm up. Preferably with a hot meal and some friendly company. She hated being alone, especially after she’d become an Ureonggaksi. If she ever saw those… tramps again though, she would-. No, she could not kick their behinds anymore, but she would slap them silly. A good shell, her foot! The dainty thing they had shown her how to build needed patching every twenty miles. And when the rains started… She sneezed again, repeatedly, until she gasped for breath and blood leaked from one nostril. It had melted on her. She’d dug out what could be salvaged, but so many of her belongings were ruined by the sludge. And now she felt as if she had a cold clogging up her nose and her foot at the same time.

The sneezing didn’t help at all with that sensation, nor did scooting under the canopy of the few trees in the area. She was sneezing violently when she bumped headfirst into something solid. Exhaustion followed the impact and she collapsed onto her foot. When she came to, she felt miserable, but warm and dry. Her right eyestalk had a black eye from whatever she had crashed into and her nose ached as well. A gingerly made touch revealed a bandage on the latter. Her left eyestalk spotted the bruising on her right one and Ulrika grimaced. The colouration reminded her of some of her conditions before the change. “Oh?” A gentle hand pulled her own away from the bandage. “Its good that you are awake, but please don’t touch that or it will not heal right. Now lie still for a bit, I’ll bring a little food. You look emaciated.” Ulrika tried to nod, but had to settle for spinning her working eyestalk, she just hurt too much.

Emaciated? She had been feeling a little hungry, yes, but she ate nearly double what she used to eat and surely that was enough? A gurgle from her stomach indicated otherwise and she nearly didn’t register what was fed to her then. Brown rice and buckwheat had disgusted her as a little girl, but her hungry body snarfed it down as if was the most delicious meal she’d ever had. “Thna-ck yuw.” It hurt to speak and her hostess giggled. “You’re welcome. But you need to take it slowly. We don’t want those meals coming back up, right? Now, put this between your lips. Don’t swallow.” It felt like an old piece of bread, soaked in water, but far more firm. Within moments, she slipped back into sleep. What followed were long periods of sleep and short awakenings, mostly to feed and drink. Eventually though, Ulrika awoke and noticed that her bed was moving. 

In fact, it felt as if the entire cottage was moving, swaying softly as it edged forward. Part of her thoughts wondered why there were no scraping sounds, but an increasingly large portion demanded that she find a bedpan or suffer the consequences. Her struggles did not go unnoticed, a soft but loud scrape sounded as the cottage came to rest and Ulrika’s hostess shuffled inside. Seeing the plight of her guest, she swiftly handed a bedpan over. Ulrika thanked her, but though the woman in question politely turned around, her eyestalks seemed to peek behind now and again. Ulrika’s own eyestalks did an inventory as well. Though resembling a cottage like the one she’d been born in, this house curved inwards near the floor and ceiling and her hostess was definitely an Ureonggaksi. Albeit one with a far wider foot than Ulrika had seen before.

“Ooo-ooo-oooff… Sweet relief…” She blushed, noticing that the bandage over her nose was gone. Having finished, Ulrika looked to set the pan down and noticed that the bed she’d been in was actually a part of the house, a bowl-like recess in the wall large enough to hold an Ureonggaksi. Eventually she managed to get out and resume her life. Not that long after, she and her hostess ‘sat’ at a table suspended from the ceiling and engaged in the gentle battle of getting to know each other. “I’m called Ulrika and I’d like to thank you for saving my life.” Her hostess chuckled, waving her thanks away. “Don’t mention it, any Ureonggaksi worth her shell-” Ulrika flinched. “Would have done the same. I’m Kusuhimi Satoshi-Saerti. You were kind of out of it when you crashed into my home, but you’ve healed up well.”

She had shared a few cookies, with rice baked into them, as she spoke. “But I’m curious, what happened to get you there, tangled in a wet blanket in the rain?” Ulrika looked down at the cookie in her hands, up at Kusuhimi and back down again before she answered with an embarrassed blush. “I was looking for an inn to dry off in. Then next thing I know my sneeze lands me on something hard and wham-oh. After that, you found me.” She shrugged. “I’m glad to be up and about, but I must have hit my head harder than I thought. I could’ve sworn this cottage was moving when I woke up.” Kusuhimi laughed, her eyestalks winking with mirth. “My shell is movable, but its not a cottage. I might build it out a bit if I get a husband, but for now its more than enough for my needs.” She noticed the disgruntled look on Ulrika’s face. “Eh…ehehe, is something the matter?”

“A shell?” Ulrika’s tone was borderline belligerent. “I’m not buying that shell nonsense, not again. I heard rain falling on the shingles when I woke before.” Kusuhimi sighed and reached over to check Ulrika’s temperature. “You don’t have a fever, but… are you feeling a little off in the head?” Four friendly eyes cast a worried glance over Ulrika’s face. “You have been in my shell for days, I’m still trying to patch up the spot you cracked with your sneeze.” Ulrika’s eyes twitched. “Please, pull the other one, its got bells on. I know that whole shell business has got to be a joke Ureonggaksi play on people. I lugged one of those useless things around for over a month only to have it melt on me on the road. It was leaky, drafty and nasty all round. This place is a nice cottage, though…” She tapped the nearest wall. “Tiles on the wall is a new one for me.”

Kusuhimi scratched her head vigorously, then shuffled over and picked Ulrika up under one arm, shuffled out the door and put her passenger down. “My home, my shell.” She pointed to it and Ulrika stared with an open mouth. It was a shell, similar to one worn by snails, but evidently a human-sized home as well. A curtain lined one curved wall and a small gable extended over the door. “Was your mother human then or something? How can you not know about shells? And what is up with asking me to pull…. What? Your nipples or clit? I didn’t notice any bells there” Kusuhimi looked miffed. “Well…” Ulrika swallowed. “I was human, once.” She told Kusuhimi all. How she’d been labeled as the most hideous woman in her native Elegie, her abduction and eventual rebirth as an Ureonggaksi. When she came to describing those who had shown her how to build the melted shell, Kusuhimi snapped.

“They researched your transformation, but they left teaching you about OUR species to a pair of SLUGS?!” Ulrika felt a great need to rush inside and hide in the bed when Kusuhimi roared the last word. A Lichen in a nearby tree poked her head out of the canopy in alarm. Kusuhimi fought to calm down, visibly shaking in anger. When she calmed down, she started talking. “I cannot believe that they would be this careless. Ureonggaksi might not have been Dragons in the first monster era, but without my ancestors there would not be a Demon Kingdom today.” Kusuhimi spat in disgust. “I will bring this to the next family gathering, don’t you doubt. But what to do about you, Ulrika?” She shuffled towards Ulrika and grabbed her hands in a grip stronger than anything a human might give. “Do you really want to be an Ureonggaksi and discover the world? Or do you just want to laze around, waiting for a turn with some incubus or the other?”

Ulrika was scared. Kusuhimi had saved her life, but this anger was monstrous. “I-i-I-i-I… I want to see the world, don’t kill me!” This earned her a sigh. “Silly girl, what would I want to kill you for? I want you to give me a real answer: either go away and live your life as a damned SLUG, too lazy to earn a living, or become a proper Ureonggaksi capable of seeing the world and adding to it?” Ulrika did want to see the world, and she did want to make a living for herself, not be locked away again as something unwanted and useless. “Please, teach me. I don’t know how I will repay you, but I’m no tramp and I don’t want to become one either.” Kusuhimi gave her a smile both radiant and mischievous. “I knew you’d say that. Now lets start off by showing me what you have been taught by them, in full, so I know just how bad the damage is.”

Ulrika nodded and led the way to a nearby stream where she pulled some clay from the bank and mixed it with slime from her foot. Shaping it like a miniature palanquin, she handed it to Kusuhimi, who frowned and crushed it. She had Ulrika explain just how much she’d been told to eat, what she knew of Ureonggaksi illnesses, how to care for her foot and eyestalks and a great many more things. Come the finish, she was thoroughly disgusted. “I’m not doubting you, Ulrika, but you have been sent off worse than I thought. They might as well have dropped you in a saltmine, or dropped sopstone on you.” Kusuhimi grunted and spat. “It goes to show how much the Demon Lord’s children care. Now, I’m not sure how old you are… and frankly I don’t want to know right now. YOU! ARE! HELPLESS! So prepare to cram like a kid, your life depends on it.” Ulrika nodded glumly, realising just how true that was.

Chapter 13. Do it right, or not at all, part 2

“First things first, your foot. I can’t imagine what having two that work without slime is like. But as an Ureonggaksi, your foot is the most important part of your body. Your arms are strong, but they can’t walk you everywhere, or carry your shell for long. Your foot is where your stomach is, your gel-glands, most of your muscles and where you heal best. That is needed.” Kusuhimi lectured as she pointed out areas of interest. “To keep your foot in working order, you need to eat right. Rice is an ideal food for us…” She wiped off some drool. “A good dish made of rice can even make you have a little foodgasm. As can spiritus. We can digest most things, and quickly, for we need our gel. Call it slime if you want to, but that is what keeps our foot healthy and able to move about.” She admonished Ulrika about paying attention to terrain, how to move across different types and how to deal with hazards like sharp rocks and grass.

“Grass is not nice, if you are out of gel, it will cut your foot up badly. Its a poor meal as well, so don’t bother eating it unless you’re desperate. Look for mosses instead on both counts.” There was so much more to caring for her foot than Ulrika had ever imagined. She worried that she’d never remember even half of it, but Kusuhimi assured her that this was a matter of repetition. By evening they discussed Ureonggaksi culture, which was frankly far more intricate than the tramps had indicated. “Ureonggaksi weren’t monsters before we became mamonme.” Kusuhimi sighed. “Its said by some that humans and Alva descended from monkeys, but I know for a cold hard fact that Ureonggaksi came from giant snails kept for transporting goods and cleaning… carcasses… by a prior Demon Lord. After the Great Changing we got this form, a different form of sentience and a whole heap of troubles.”

“Those slugs you met… Seretique offered their ancestors, or maybe just them, a position in her court. But they are pets at best. Some cute girls with an atrophied foot more interested in servicing the court than living. That’s why we call them slugs and why the slug queens aren’t really mamonme queens. Ureonggaksi are stubborn, curious and… not that brave. I mean, sure, who won’t fight if backed into a corner… But we either run or hide if we can.” Kusuhimi then nodded towards a carved set of wooden figures, some decorated with white cloth dresses. “We also care about our family. Mine in particular is known to adopt people at times, but practically every Ureonggaksi is part of a family, large families are also called clans. A clan forms around one Ureonggaksi with a mission, like Saerti.” Ulrika wanted to know more, and asked for a bit more information on this Saerti. “She was one of the second or third generation of Ureonggaksi, centuries ago.”

“Saerti might have helped shape our culture, but she shaped our family more so. Each member of the Saerti-clan adds her name to their surname in her memory. And we’re still looking for her first daughter, Messhral, who was lost ages ago. Its been hundreds of years since we started looking, but…” Kusuhimi laughed. “Stubborn as an Ureonggaksi, right?” She told Ulrika about holidays, customs, and what a husband might end up with. “Papa was this big, when fully extended.” Ulrika gulped, that would not even fit into that Unicorn Fernicia’s… “Don’t be fooled though, normally he’d be more like this.” Kusuhimi moved her hands closer together. “But sometimes it’d get bigger. Remember what I told you about foodgasms? Ureonggaksi do have a specialty since we have… a long esophagus. And only incubi made by Ureonggaksi can enjoy it fully.”

She giggled, then raised her skirt. “That brings me to the last bit for today: the purple special. Most of your gel-glands are in your foot, but three are in here. Two to help… lubricate things, including your eggs. But also one that stores your DE. And that one will make purple special gel. Have you had that come out yet?” Ulrika shook her head, having no idea what this was supposed to be. In response, Kusuhimi grabbed a small jar and held it to her womanhood. One loud moan later and a third of the jar was filled with purple gel. Pink striae shot through it and seemed to sparkle. “Huh? This is the stuff they rubbed onto my face, but… its…” Ulrika turned green and grabbed for the small bin near the table. When her foot was partially emptied, Kusuhime gave her a reproving look. “Its not something gross like that bloody stuff I’ve heard humans discharge every few weeks. Really Ulrika, perhaps its better not to eat before our lessons if this upsets you so much.”

“Sorry…” Ulrika spat once more. “Its just that… it gave me a funny turn of the stomach.” Kusuhimi tsked, explaining how this was not so different from other gel, besides being laden with Demonic Energy. “Its why you need to be careful. No matter where you go, you’ll fill at least a jamjar per month… maybe a month and a half. Ureonggaksi are tolerated, slightly, in lands where other mamonme would not be if we can prove that we don’t dump this all over the place. And you need to be careful never to give it to humans, it will turn those into Incubi and Ureonggaksi. If you forget this then those nasty tin armor wearers, the lummin-oxes, will roast you over a fire dedicated to some awful Goddess.” Kusuhimi thought for a moment. “At least, that’s what I’ve heard. I’ve never met a Goddess before and I should reserve judgement till I do.” At the time she had no idea of what her future would include.

So each day passed with Ulrika learning more about being an Ureonggaksi. Learning to craft a shell took more time, as it was a process normally learned over the course of an Ureonggaksi’s youth. Together they made their way across Maertel towards the Grazelands, Ulrika doing her best, but still failing betimes. “Don’t worry, just don’t give up either.” Kusuhimi didn’t show it, or at least tried not to, but she was proud of Ulrika. She’d thought about mentioning that her own mastery of shellbuilding had taken a bit longer than usual, but decided against it with a faint blush. By the time they reached the border, Ulrika was a changed woman anew. Her foot was twice as wide as it had been and she’d taken a few turns carrying Kusuhimi’s shell. It still felt weird, but beyond that it felt nice as well, knowing you had a mobile fortress at your back, hah, and call.

Her own attempts at making one were still… Less than optimal. Honestly, part of her just wanted to try and move in with Kusuhimi, but that would be giving in. No longer an abomination with an ugly body, but a beautiful snail girl. Not a moocher dependant on others to live, but someone able to provide for herself and for those in need. She oddly felt like she wanted to make Kusuhimi proud as she had never been able to make her own mother proud. “So, why are these called the Grazelands again? Lots of farms with planteaters on them?” Ulrika grinned, her eyestalks roaming at their own leisure. Kusuhimi giggled behind her hand. “Nopski~! Up until several decades or so ago, the lands where we are headed used to be a part of the Palachian Heartlands, ruled by the Karpathian kings.”

She wiggled on her foot in a motion similar to a rocking chair. “It was mostly a land where Bovitaurides and Minotaurides lived though. Their Queen, a beautiful gal named Muntispeer, managed to get in good graces with King Oskhar the umpty-something though and after a while convinced him to sign a treaty. Its an autonomous state, friendly home to many mamonme and the reason why Karpathia’s pretty welcoming as well.” She leaned in conspiratorially. “I even heard the royals there actively keep hooved attendants as confidants and… more sometimes. Don’t repeat that though, it can and will make people angry. With a little luck we’ll be able to sell some of our gel there and get you a new dress as well.” She teasingly ruffled Ulrika’s hair. “Maybe something blue though? The traditional brown wouldn’t bring out the colour of your eyes” Ulrika laughed, feeling giddy with joy. “Maybe I’ll see you in something green then? Either way I’d like to see if we can’t find Lette.”

“She too was a part of that experiment, only she wanted to go mooh. If you can credit it.” They shared a giggle and then shuffled onward. The Grazelands were renowned throughout Palachia, even as far as Zipangu where Kusuhimi’s family had an ancestral home on a relatively small island. The border was easy to spot as Maertel’s government had elected to place a small checkpoint next to the road they were on. Beyond it, the landscape changed dramatically. Rich soil and vibrant growths covered the fields in a beautiful tableau of colour. Flagstones had been laid to serve as roads and farms dotted the rolling landscape in abundance. C’try mice worked in the fields while strong Bovitaurides and their husbands worked the dairies. A smithy  near the road was a gathering point for an unusual sight. Young girls with ears like all mamonme floated on the wind, giggling as they worked the breezes to carry the smoke far away.

“Maraiah’s, they are a kind of elemental. Friendly, but very, very teasy.” Kusuhimi consulted a letter and then cringed on the spot. “Urgh. Mahina and Sharine wrote that I’ll have to ask them for directions though.” This resulted in the two of them being ‘helped along’ to a small campsite where several shells stood. Once Kusuhimi and Ulrika had their hair untangled from their eyestalks, the former motioned the latter to pay attention. “Hello~oh! Ho the shells~!” She then spoke more quietly. “I’m pretty sure these are my cousins’ shells, but it never hurts to say ho the shells. Raise your voice, but don’t scream it or shriek. Its our way of letting people know we’re friendly, civilized mamonme.” She drummed her fingers on her own shell as they waited. “I wonder where they’ve gone off to, but let’s get the shell into place. I’m a little tired from the trip and could do with a nap.” Ulrika nodded, helping to taxi the shell to its place.

Sometimes she wondered if she shouldn’t speak a warning, just to avoid backing the shell into say a sleeping Shongororo? Or maybe use some honking horn? Ideas for another day as Kusuhimi deftly slid the shell from her foot, stretched and went inside. Ulrika helped her get into bed and gave a quick footrub before returning outside and settling down next to the door. Stars shone in her eyes as she pondered the future.

Chapter 14. One Moon, part 1

Lift, turn, walk over to the tun. Pour, lift, turn, walk back to the churns, put the empty one down. Rince and repeat. Fill the tun up, add a quart of acidic fruit juice and warm. Add nettleblend and stir while keeping it warm. Lette watched the mixture start to curdle, semi-liquid lumps of what would be cheese forming. Once it was sufficiently done, she poured it through a cheesecloth, removed the curds and added a few pinches of salt. Kneed in cloth, drain more whey, let it settle, repeat till only whey and cheese was left… And finally… “These look good Lette.” A soft sigh escaped two pairs of lips. “It should be ready, but let us give it another hour to be sure.” Lette nodded towards Hoofleaf, who owned the dairy they stood in. An elderly Bovitauride, still beautiful, but showing slight grey hairs and fine wrinkles around her eyes. More telling was that she produced less milk than before, but she did not let herself visibly be bothered by it. Or anything else, it seemed like.

Lette was glad that Hoofleaf thought her cheese looked good. Though other young Bovitauride could easily put out double what Lette could, on account of having but one breast. Hers produced a good quantity on its own though, with a creamy taste. She was filling those churns and making a living by working in the dairy, but if she wanted to be self-sufficient, then she would need to be able to make cheese. Not just from her own milk, as dozens of Bovitauride in this small town alone had their own unique variety of milk. But rather blended cheeses. Some contained nuts, berries or leaves, betimes tricky, but manageable even for humans. She’d tasted some more exotic varieties, like rock-salt cheese and glyph-malt cheese, at the Aerdanic Gardens and had begged Laerine to tell her who’d made them. That information and a letter of introduction had been her most precious possessions on the long road here.

The Grazelands were still a relatively new land, formerly a part of Karpathia’s domains and technically a part of what was officially named the Stablefields governance. Hoofleaf had been youngish when the treaty was signed and the Grazelands were granted to Muntispeer. She’d also become one of the very best cheese makers in Praxis. Her daughters ran the Leaf and Hoof dairy and caravan now, but Hoofleaf refused to sit idle waiting for a Reaper to claim her. Lette had first been refused by Leaftongue, on the basis that her output was too small for the company, no matter that she had the letter and was willing to work harder than anyone else. But Hoofleaf had wandered in, yanked her daughter’s tail and reversed that decision. Pending review of what Lette would make after a few weeks of apprenticeship she was at least fed and had a warm place to sleep. Young Bovitaurides could and would sleep under the stars if no other option was open, but Lette was shivery.

No money, no warm inn. Or firewood. The forests and any gathering from them was Minotauride-handled. Those relatives of the more gentle Bovitaurides could and would bring any illicit choppers to justice, as their mazes needed the woods in some ways. No matter. Lette would do her best and see to it that Hoofleaf would not regret taking on an obsessive former human as her apprentice. Their hooves clopped on the carefully maintained dirt path as they made for a small meadow. Hoofleaf sat down as she had done for many years before and selected a few large leaves from three butterstem plants. Lette instead went for a dandelion. It was funny, humans ate some flowers, but were practically carnivorous compared to Bovitaurides. She could still digest meat, but it had an unpleasant taste these days and these… She rolled the dandelion across her tongue, savoring the different textures in the flower as its flavor painted joy on her senses. “Hmm… Seems like I should’ve gone for a dandelion. These taste dull.” Hoofleaf shook her head ruefully.

“Its kind of early in the season still. Or maybe its just that medicine’s residue?” Lette enquired, her fuzzy ears rotating once. Hoofleaf shrugged, then pulled a stone from her pouch and licked it. It helped, licking stones. Some of the embedded substances like sauce or medicine would latch onto certain sorts of stone and thus allow you to taste fully again. “No luck. Still dull. I’m looking forward to your cheese, it should taste well, no?” Hoofleaf’s question seemed devoid of guile, but Lette knew it was a test of sorts. “I’m confident it will taste good, though I still have a long road ahead to get it to taste excellent.” A friendly snort and chuckle was followed by a shaking of the head. “You try to sound sincere too much. Don’t bother giving me the answer you think I want, gimme the one you’d give yourself.” Lette laughed in embarrassment.

“Okay, I think it’s my best one yet. If we can keep it down, I’ll consider it a win. If not, then you’ll have fun scolding me.” Hoofleaf nodded, scratching one ear absently. “Its amusing yes. Teaching you is, too.” She followed with a quiet sigh. “My own daughters make good cheese. But they found their pails swiftly… too swiftly. Now, I’m just old mom, still good at what I do, but firmly in the ignore zone as well. You’d think they reckon I’ll keel over tomorrow.” She stood up and dusted her knees. “Not happening. Maybe, with your help I’ll finish one more new cheese.” Lette nodded, her ears betraying her eagerness. Hoofleaf simply laughed at the sight. “Still can’t believe you lost one though. And I know humans. You told Leaftongue how it happened, but not me. Humor an old lady, would you?” Lette shook her head in resignation, stood up and dusted her knees as well. The pollen in her fur would ensure new plants would replace her meal.

“A close shave with death… I was just a kid who got too close to a dangerous animal. They patched me up,  but when this one developed…” She patted her lone breast. “It didn’t even get the ghost of a companion. Still, one’s all I need, especially as a Bovitauride. But since we’re humoring people, mind telling me how you got a name like Hoofleaf?” The older Bovitauride snorted in mild amusement and annoyance. “Its a literal translation of my birth name. My father came from some random little village across the ocean. Very poetic language, his. Unlike our own.” Her ears perked up and so did Lette’s. A pitter-patter of footsteps approached the dairy and a strange staff bedecked with rings rapped on the door.”Hourai~! O-hai-oh~!” Those were the only identifiable words in a seemingly breathless litany delivered at speeds almost beyond hearing. “Crudflies. The bunny again.” Hoofleaf shook her head as she set a strong pace towards their visitor.

Visitors rather, both wholly unbeknown to Lette. One did indeed resemble a bunny, having legs like a rabbit, a rabbit’s tail and rabbit ears. A mamonme by her human-like, if slightly exotic, face. Her outfit, Lette noted, was most unusual. Seemingly made of a single piece of green cloth and wrapped with bands of a darker hue while a high dark green cap perched between her ears. A satchel hung over one shoulder and a long stave of dark wood capped by a double T-shaped head bedecked with rings rested in one hand. Her companion had orange hair and a pair of fox ears. The soft silk robe on her body seemed somewhat stained and worn from travel. “I told you, floppy-eared galoot, that I don’t know what you’re babbling about!” The fox-woman seemed agitated by Hoofleaf’s tone and started whispering in a language Lette had never heard before. The bunny-woman nodded, rolling her eyes. In response, the fox-woman adjusted her jaw and spoke in a different language, asking a question.

When it failed to register, she tried another, and another, and another until Lette thought she recognised one that Korae had betimes mumbled in. That gave her the idea to try her hand at it.“Kein iddeeh. Wir nift sprichen. Sprichen si Eligin?” The fox-woman cringed at the pronunciation, then tried Elegin, but was equally incapable of making herself understood. Lette was about to grab the stick of charcoal and sheaves of lowgrade paper she kept in her breast-shaped pouch and suggest they draw things when  four Ureonggaksi shuffled into view. “LETTE~!” One shot forward on a small jet of slime and wrapped her in a hug. “Huuuuffh! Ulrika?” Lette returned the hug, then looked Ulrika over. She looked gorgeous, even with the remaining scarring and the far wider foot she now sported. “Wow! You look great, so how’s the milk business? Have I got a story to share with you. But let me introduce you to my saviour and friends, then please introduce your friends too, okay?” Ulrika seemed to bubble with happiness and Lette wished she could return the feeling, but this situation felt surreal. Then the other Ureonggaksi started bowing.

Chapter 15, One moon, part 2 

A half hour later, things were much clearer. “I’m too old for this brand of weirdness.” Hoofleaf snorted and shook her head while a healthy dent was put into the surplus cheese by Ulrika and the Saerti’s. “You’re telling me that a princess-” She pointed a finger at exhibit A. “Came all the way across the ocean, through Luminaire controlled lands and into some unknown place she doesn’t speak the language of, for CHEESE?” Kusuhimi nodded, gently dabbing at her mouth with an embroidered napkin.”Basically, yes. Lady Sukina may be the daughter of the Empress, may she live forever, but she and her sisters do not shirk their duties. Their position though… can lead to these little situations.” She translated it for Sukina and Ammeirolil. The latter then spoke, her eyes going back and forth between Hoofleaf and Kusuhimi. “Lady Ammeirolil would like to remark that this mission is of vital importance to the Empire’s continued stability. And that is why she herself was dispatched, as a translator proficient in several languages. A pity not your own is not among those.

Hoofleaf nodded, then drummed her fingers on the table. “I do apologize for being in such a huff, you told them that, right?” Kusuhimi nodded, then popped a whole small cheese into her mouth. Lette watched, mesmerized, as the little lump was swallowed whole and yet visibly made the journey down. “Then, why me? There are dozens of cheesemakers that live across these lands, some of them do deliver to the Demon Lord herself.” After a slight translating over and across, Kusuhimi spoke solemnly. “Because the Empress fondly recalls the time she spent in these lands, eating at your table. She isn’t that young anymore and wants to recall her days roaming freely.” Hoofleaf went cross-eyed for a moment. “Her?! The last time I saw such a rabbit was decades ago. Couldn’t speak the language either, but we made due with tradespeak.” Hoofleaf blinked. “She was the empress of Zipangu???” Kusuhimi nodded, but admonished Hoofleaf about the earned capital E in Empress.

“She was then the heir of the Empress of that time. Within a few years of her journey west, she had to assume the throne. A time of some turmoil.” Kusuhimi shook her head ruefully. “But will you go with them? They assure me that you’ll be treated well.” Hoofleaf shook her head, grasping her greying hair and presenting it. “I can’t. My days are coming to an end and I want to spend them here, in my home.” She released the hair and smiled sadly enough to evoke tears from a statue. “These pastures are in my soul, and I want to leave my bones in them. If I go along and die, who would bring my bones back to be buried here?” Lette privately wondered what Zipangu was like and had tried to engage Ulrika in conversation about it. Ulrika didn’t know much, bar what her new friends had told her. And those were rather weird to believe. An island owned by Ureonggaksi, a small continent ruled by lunar rabbits and foxes who could be kind or malicious where the winds were ridden by weasel-women with sickles on their arms. Even some weird living clay creatures, though Ulrika had a feeling they were making that one up.

Getting back to the conversation, she noticed Hoofleaf getting up and into her private cheese storage cellar. When she came back out, Lette rushed over and took the massive heap of cheese from Hoofleaf and brought it to the work desk on the side of the room. “Whew! That felt heavier than it looks. Hoofleaf, please let me help next time, okay?” In reply Lette got a tsk and an angry retort. “The day… I can’t bear my own cheese… is the day you can put me to bed with a… shovel.” Her shortness of breath belied that statement, but Lette let it go. When she turned back, she noticed that Ammeirolil was staring bug-eyed at her chest. Following that gaze, Lette noticed that she was missing her pouch. Her face burning with shame, she turned around and saw it had caught on one of the hard triangular cheeses. Her bending to put the pile down had lifted it from the little button latch on her dirndl. While she collected and reattached it, there was a hurried whisper, a scrape of a chair and slamming of the door.

Lette wiped her tears before taking her seat again. “What?” She addressed Sukina. “Your friend has never seen a mutilated woman before?” When Kusuhimi translated, Sukina replied slowly and with gravity. “She says that Ammeirolil was asked to look for signs and contact her mentrix when some came up. A Ushi-Ioh with one moon was significant, but Sukina knows not why.” Kusuhimi tried to hide her anxiety. “Zenko have unique magical abilities, some are lauded as the best diviners known to Zipangu. I just hope that her reaction is due to youth, not due to anything serious.” Ulrika reached over and squeezed Kusuhimi’s hand while her cousins softly whispered to each other. “I’m not sure I understand it either Kusu.” Ulrika’s eyestalks looked to each other in confusion. “But it was a little rude to Lette to stare like that.” They both reached out to Lette and tried to distract her with questions about milking and those silver pails they’d seen people lug about.

When Ammeirolil entered again, her dress was as pale as bone and she knelt in front of Sukina. What she said next caused the princess to burst into tears. Kusuhimi and her cousins nearly swallowed their tongues, then bowed low, urging Ulrika, Lette and Hoofleaf to do the same. “She received a message…. The Empress is dead. Lady Sukina is-is now Empress. Long live the Empress, may she live forever.” Ulrika joined in the shivering as Kusuhimi spoke. “Zipangu will face turmoil. Oh Ulrika, it will be horrible. My great grandfather lived through the last succession and there will be blood.” Hoofleaf sighed, then clomped over and wrapped Sukina in a gentle but firm hug that helped to anchor her. Three hours later things that had been set in motion reached a boiling point. “I have to go.” Kusuhimi looked as furious as Ulrika had ever seen her. “I can deal with losing my shell, making a new one is no problem. But I don’t want to leave you alone Ulrika.”

Ulrika nodded. “I feel the same way. But they are having trouble enough as it is to bring just five people across that distance.” She sighed and kissed Kusuhimi on her cheek. “It sounds silly, but… You’ve become like family to me Kusu. The least I can do then is make sure  your shell and those of your cousins are kept safe for when you get back.” Ulrika smiled broadly. “I just know we’ll see each other again soon enough, maybe by then I’ll be able to show you a proper shell of my own.” Ulrika actually felt like crying, but she didn’t want to add to Kusuhimi’s burdens. She and her cousins were accounted as dignitaries of Kaku-an present when the new Empress got the news. Hence, they were required to appear in the Court of the Moons as witnesses. No cozy job that, each coronation had been attended by at least a handful of would-be usurpers. Usually descendants of feudal lords from before the Tsuki no Usako had landed there in their star-barges. Last time they had invaded Kaku-an.

Travel by magic was not something anyone could accomplish easily as massive reserves would be needed for the distance involved. When they had said their goodbyes, Ulrika joined Lette inside Hoofleaf’s dairy. “Definitely not something that happens every day, right Ulrika?” Lette felt relief, and guilt about feeling relieved. She was still acceptable with but one. She however did not like that Sukina would now have to live a life she did not care overmuch for. “I wish it hadn’t happened at all Lette.” Ulrika looked small, alone and lost. “I miss Kusuhimi already. And poor Sukina…” She started crying and Lette wrapped her in a hug. Zipangu entered a period euphemistically referred to as interesting times, though the Grazelands would soon enter into a state of turmoil themselves. Hoofleaf meanwhile climbed to the small bed in the attic of her dairy, pondering what the future might hold for the world.

Should she have gone with her? Her heart said yes, but then something else had said no. She did not have the seeing, as her grandmother had told her some folks had. But something inside her mind had spoken against leaving the Grazelands. Maybe she’d feel less conflicted after a nap.

Interlude. Memory of loss

“I should have stayed with her!” Kusuhimi looked apoplectic. “When I finally got back, they couldn’t even show me her body!” She shivered with remembered rage. “I swore I’d never, not ever, forgive any of them from separating me from poor Ulrika.” She tried swallowing her tears. “She was family to me!” Miho and the girls wrapped her in a warm embrace, shedding tears. Kaori sighed and looked to her husband. “I’ll start on the paperwork. Ulrika will have to be added post-mortem and that will mean a lot of talking to the family… You know how stubborn they can be, especially with superstitions. Remember when we added Ashtynn, Demara and Ayesylha?” Damast nodded, stood up and squeezed her shoulders. “Nothing my world-warmer can’t handle with a little help from me.” He headed towards the entry hall, but rushed back soon after. “Emmy, papa needs his shoes. Where have you hidden them this time?” Emmy sniffled sadly, but gave a dapper smile and said they were over the door. Damast sighed, shaking his head at how innocent mischief ran deep in his daughters.

Eiraiha had summoned a fresh glass of water for Kusuhimi and promised to do her best to find Ulrika’s remains. She then contacted her offices in New Heaven’s first city. Sanctus Celestine was hardly a city yet, much of its infrastructure still being built, but there the governance of New Heaven took place. Kimochié took the call and said that she would set several attendants looking through the records of the deceased. This would take some time though. Meanwhile she also passed along that Eiraiha’s husband Antimony had called in earlier to say that all was well and that he’d be home soon. Meanwhile, in what once was Labriene, a man stood looking at what had been his home once. Briene au Mer had been spared most of the debris from Old Heaven, but the city was a ghost town for the most part.

Many of the residents had packed up and gone to the Laramies rather than live under what they considered the Shadow of Eiraiha. Antimony shook his head at this. The shadow was of their own making, sins garnered by the nation and the spanning governance of the Luminaire by straying from Eiraiha’s path and into malice, greed and murder. He didn’t discount his own share in those, though he had been but a boy. In fact, his guilt over the whole mess had once led him to attempted suicide. Had he not been found and brought out of his shadow of guilt alive, would Labriene be an emptied land? Would Eiraiha have won the war and began her true rule as Principal Goddess? Would she have become so happy as she was now? Would their friends, their family, be where they were now? That line of thinking was detrimental, at least according to Puyo, a Witch specializing in Headology from Balase’s medical centre in Gateway.

She’d recommended that he hunt down the causes of his lingering guilt, and one big root might be that he never had learned what had become of his sister. She’d been run out of town on suspicion of being a Magical Girl and Antimony had been helpless as a much younger child to help her. But seeing his nieces being older sisters to each other had reminded him of her. While he wanted to fulfill his duties, both Puyo and Eihy had told him that seeking her out now would help him become a better and happier man. He went into the repository, a forbidding building that had housed all criminal records in the city. If any of these remained? He could but hope. The exodus of the Luminaire had in other areas been accompanied by at least partial burning of their records. Particularly those dealing with the slave trade, espionage and for some odd reason jubilee funds. While he had some suspicions towards the latter, he couldn’t prove anything yet.

When he tried to enter the building, he felt a sharp prod against his spine. “Cease and desist! I’ll not stand for looters in my block.” The voice was vaguely familiar and Antimony turned around to face the older man. “Arbunt? Officer Arbunt?” A smile stole over Antimony’s face as the old man peered at his face. “You look familiar, somewhat. Not a scar to your face, so…. One of the nobles brats?” Antimony shook his head. “Not even close. Come on, you let me walk the beat with you when I was a kid.” Arbunt shook his head, then closed one eye to peer more critically. “Huhhh? Antimony? Weren’t you listed as dead years ago?” He shook his head. “Probably went awol with some monster chit, eh? Incubi aren’t welcome around here either. Can’t have you hog the ladies.” Antimony shook his head patiently. “No luck on that score as well Officer Arbunt. I’m not married to a mamonme, though she’s accounted an honorary status there, and I’m not an Incubus either. I’m certainly not here to loot.”

Antimony turned back to the building. “I’m here to look for information. Would you help me, please?” Arbunt scratched his head, then produced an old key from within his tattered greatcoat. While they talked inside, a stack of old wanted posters was disturbed by their passage and toppled to the floor in a flurry. Antimony gathered them by hand and was shocked to find a familiar face on one of them. “You know of her? She might still live, damn magic maniac. She sprung a crazy Kaaiman from the death cells and went on a killing spree.” Arbunt scratched his brow. “My old sarge told the tale when I was a lad like yourself.”

Chapter 16. Stirrings of war

Gudri groaned, her head resting against the cell’s wall. Briene au Mer was as she’d remembered it, but she’d found out that even here there were mamonme. Even with the precautions she and her hostess had made, they had still been found out though. Curse her curiosity! She should have stayed at the lake, but no! She’d been there when they asked for volunteers to get communiques from the hidden mamonme residents of Labriene and homesickness had kicked in. Nevermind that she’d mostly detested the place when she was still human, a girl without any hair at all was considered wicked from the get go, but she missed the food they had here, the sort she’d stolen from foodcarts. Not healthy stuff, especially for a Kaaiman. She ran a hand through her hair and smiled. Tomorrow it wouldn’t matter anymore, but she was glad for the luxurious mane she’d grown in the Aerdanic Gardens, even if she was continually thirsty outside of water and all thumbs when it came to illusions.

Sure, she’d taken some lessons, and she really could do the simple things, like lights and sounds, but even the kindly girls who’d taught her at Gravsborough thought it would be a long while before she could put on a show. That was fine by Gudri though, her other skills could compensate. Except when it came to escaping this cell. Her minty new lockpicks, which doubled as hair-ornaments, could not pick the lock on her cell door. Dwarf-made. That summed up her admiration and desperation. Dwarves were not common within Labriene, but the small group of traders that visited her former home now and again had got a red carpet treatment when they did. They specialized in mechanical utilities, such as locks. Those made by their apprentices could be picked, most of the time, but this lock had been commissioned to a master locksmith. Immune to magic through a negating stone inside the mechanism and keyed to open only when a specific knob-like key was inserted in the circular opening.

Brutal jabs struck the knob and thus allowed the key to turn freely. The guard had been all too willing to demonstrate as an additional lock higher up the door held it closed. Elsayist! He’d gloated over her impending death and had proudly opened his jacket to display several mamonme’s ears. Trophies! That lowlife had not wanted for anything in his life, had not fought for anything in his life, but he considered himself a splendid man for collecting those ears from corpses, maiming the dead. If she could, she would do him serious harm. She tried once more to look at the far corner. Maerdua had been beautiful, now… she was dead. She’d tried to climb up and out of the hole in the ceiling. Gudri had done what she could, but the burning trap and the fall meant that it was a futile effort. Their jailer had but laughed. Tomorrow, Gudri would be beyond caring. But until she died she would fight tooth and nail to avenge Maerdua and herself.

Moonlight streamed into the cell from the airhole. It wasn’t water, but it did something to refresh her and she returned to the lock. With the additional light she could see more clearly into the lock, all out of reach was a single spring that might have opened it. Or sprung a particularly nasty trap. Traps were interesting mechanisms for their makers, after all. She heard a vague sound, a soft tap-tap-tap that steadily drew closer. When it stopped in front of the door, she scooted to the side. “Psssst~! Maerdua? Are you in there?” Soft folding noises sounded and the light from the lock faded as an eye was pressed to it. Gudri carefully peeked and spotted an eye vaguely familiar to her. “Who is there?” The eye scooted back a little. “A friend. Can you tell me if you know where-” Gudri sobbed. “Maerdua’s body is here. She tried to escape, but got caught by a trap. That, and the fall killed her.” This produced a particularly spectacular bout of swearing.

“I… I could be wrong, but… that language? Korae is that you?” The eye blinked. “Gudri? How did you end up here? Nevermind, stand back, I’ll remove the door.” Gudri shook her head and whispered urgently. “WAIT! The lock is Dwarf-made, magic doesn’t work on it.” Korae sighed on the other side of the door. “Typical. Then stand well back, Gudri. The door may be proof against magic, but the hinges aren’t, I’ll bet.” Gudri scooted back to the far wall and hugged a corner. She kept her eyes on the door though. Her Kaaiman friends had emphasized on one skill she’d already possessed in abundance: observation. Casing a house for burglary had honed that skill, but for a Kaaiman it was vital to observe and take those observations along when crafting a powerful illusion. At first nothing seemed to happen. She could hear Korae whisper an urgent chant and then something liquid hit the stones in front of the door. Small tendrils curled around the frame of the door, pulsing like slime mold as they thickened. Then the door, frame and all was crushed by a fist carved out of a rose briar.

The forces involved tore stones from the wall as well, some of which clacked together like beefed-up castagnettes. Gudri gulped  as she saw the wriggling roots and tendrils break the stone in ever smaller fragments, until nothing but dust remained. Beyond them, Korae was wrapping her hand with a strip of clean cloth and humming. “Blood is useful like that, it can empower different spells involving living components, like my rosy friend. Now let us have a look.” Looking Gudri over swiftly, Korae handed her a small flask of water before turning to the body of Maerdua. In death the woman had reverted to her natural shape, that of an Aranei. Gudri shivered at the sight of the remains. Korae seemed calm, but a furious light danced in her eyes. “A killing trap, keyed to her species specifically. I don’t feel any remnant lifeforce either and her body is entering the stiff stage.” She uttered a short, ritual eulogy before destroying the corpse with a spell of withering.

“Did she fight them?” Korae’s face was still turned from Gudri.”No. They had us surrounded before we could do anything useful. I tried to distract them, but their spellcaster dispelled my petty illusion. Maerdua did manage to toss the missives into the hearth of her home, so with a little luck the others haven’t been found.” Gudri punched the floor. “I still can’t believe they’d trapped the hole in the ceiling. Even in her human form she couldn’t get through.” Korae nodded, when she spoke again, bubbling rage marked her words. “Torture! Simple torture! Maerdua was claustrophobic to a degree. This just shows….” She fell silent, tapped her staff and fumed. “This shows they knew this of her. It means…” She rapidly cast a spell, barely catching the first volley of crossbow bolts as they thudded into the shield. “A silly little trap. I hope it was worth it for you, Luminaire spume. Just because this is the last trap you will lay.”

Gudri was horrified at what happened next. Korae plucked one small rose from her staff, kissed it, and threw it into the still kneeling crossbowmen. It exploded into a rose of fire that consumed them, leaving only remnants outside of its shape to clatter to the floor. “Are you coming Gudri? We’re not out of here yet and straying too far has lethal consequences.” Gudri nodded, picking a dagger out of a bootsheath while trying not to look at the scorched bone protruding a finger’s width to the side. “Ready, just… lets try not to scorch too many people, okay? Killing guards brings more guards.” Korae snorted. “Let them come, my staff needs the fertilizer.” Despite her callous words, Korae did not kill unless attacked first. Each death was an execution, Gudri wondered about the lives lost until they came across her jailer. Things became really simple then. Some people deserved to die and she was better with a blade than with her illusions.

The jail was located inside a fortification and while nowhere near as large as some castles or citadels, this fort had purposefully been lined with many halls, tunnels and ramparts so that unless you knew where you were headed you could wander around for hours and become thoroughly lost. They had to force a young recruit to show them the exit, but beyond that point they no longer encountered others who wished to fight. Gudri did marvel at the ingenuity of the builders. Living off the streets had given her some knowledge of constructing shelter and digging burrows. As a thief she’d learned to look for flaws in construction that could give her hand- or fingerholds. The fort had none of those and certainly looked sturdy. In truth, had she not known the horrors of the jail, she could believe this was a bastion of good in the world. She talked to Korae about this and in reply was told that evil was evil, no matter its outward appearance.

Eventually, they came outside. The city was quiet, so very, very quiet. “Pssst! Over here.” The one calling them had features similar to Laerine, but with sharp blue eyes and spiky wings. “Lyrabaelle? What are you doing here?” A shrug and huff told them volumes. “Marisaelle was driving me up the wall. She needs something to take her out of big-sis-worried-for-little-sis mode. I wanted to check on some strange flashes coming from a small star that can be seen from this area. But I saw something that means trouble. A sizeable contingent of armed forces  is heading to the west. More than would be needed for just a quick foray.” The Serebim thought for a moment. “Maybe enough to be a threat to our allied fiefs.” She shrugged. “Nothing papa and Mari can’t handle I’m sure. I’m heading back ‘aunt’ Korae, will you and your… friend come along?” Korae shook her head. “No, and you should know better than to slack off.” She pointed her staff towards the slumbering city.

“Maerdua was murdered inside that jail. I’m not leaving here  until I have checked on our other citizens in this hostile territory. And between us three we can do that more quickly. And more safely.” Lyrabaelle grumbled, feeling put upon, but agreed. Briene au Mer yielded few answers, all mamonme seemed to have vanished from the city with their homes destroyed or inhabited by new people. Only a Schwarz Alva, on the brink of a paranoid breakdown, had managed to escape and begged them to take her away from here. From her they learned that the armed forces had been gathered by Fate’s Holies for an unspecified effort. They left the city and decided to put the Demon Kingdom and its allies on alert.

Chapter 17. Sidestepping a war

Men who married mamonme, especially former humans turned into mamonme, had to learn to deal with their wife’s little habits while asleep. Some woke covered in lovebites, others had to risk baldness if they wanted the missus off of their heads. Terim though was learning bladder control. Seselie tended to hug him while they slept, with all of her limbs elaborately folded around and over him. Beyond the occasional struggle to awaken her if the need was high, it was actually very endearing. It allowed him time to reflect on their life together and on the changes she had undergone. He recalled feeling her ribs when she was still bedbound. Those were now covered in muscle and would probably stand up to being hit with a battering ram. Laerine snored in her bedroll off to one side of the camp. Terim was grateful for her presence, but… at the same time, he’d prefer a bit more time to privately talk to Seselie. She was almost out of potions of human form and they needed to cross the border soon before she ran out.

Additionally, some definitely unfamiliar mamonme called Zvezda had warned them that winter was fast approaching and in Wolstolyn, it didn’t drop many hints. He felt it in the biting edge in the breeze across his face. Seselie kept him warm during the night, but even she had taken to wearing a lent bracelet of warmth that Laerine said was worn by Lamia normally. Ushi-Oni could and would thrive in harsh environments, but acclimatizing took long for a former human. He gently prised one of her legs up a little and felt along the tip. Though it resembled a single digit from almost every angle, Seselie’s spidery limbs actually had two small claws  on the inside, similar in size to one of his thumbs. When opened, he could feel her heartbeat by pressing his thumb in the soft flesh there. For some reason, this was comforting to do, though her squeezes back could be a bit… hard. She happily sighed and nuzzled the crown of his head.

“Heyyoooo~!” This produced a snort from Seselie, who took all of three seconds to spring awake fully. It was one of those things they never would be able to convey in books, one moment Terim was warm and cozy with a nice view of approaching dawn, the next he was in a protective cage of spidery limbs underneath Seselie. “May I approach? I mean you no harm.” A small form fluttered into the camp from on high, dressed in a fur jacket that for some reason had been dyed blue, if not expertly. Laerine grunted awake. “A Wendy? Urrgh, lemme be and you can approach.” The Wendy landed, if not exactly gracefully. “Ooopffh! Thanks. Sorry I’m not used to landing in snow and I kind of got turned around.” She removed the hood and shook out her red hair, which was done up in a sensible ponytail and bow. Seselie started, then calmly ambled up to her, all wariness flown, and wrapped her in a hug. “Reginne~! Its good to see you again!”

Reginne let out a startled eep before returning the hug. “Seselie? By my stars, you look even more buff than when we said goodbye. And… Terim and Laerine?” It was a happy reunion, though Laerine suffered from a morning headache. Reginne had much to tell them. Her orphanage was back in business, if resembling a boat somewhat due to a little habit of the carpenter who’d built it. All was fine and dandy, though she skirted away from where the orphanage now was. Except that… “Well, we had an unpleasant visit, if not an unpleasant visitor. The Zvezda brought in a Lichen girl, who’d actually been Pirri. You know, one of the two who wanted to remain human. She was badly hurt, but… Our local doctors managed to save her. She’d been travelling hereabouts when the cold got to her and a Lichen saved her. With predictable results in the end.” Reginne laughed in resignation. “She told me though that she’d been attacked by a contingent of soldiers and her friend did not make it.” She sighed sadly. “What brought me here though is that those soldiers, men and women alike, wore a badge with the emblem of Fate’s Holies on it.”

She gestured to a patch of snow and the emblem pressed its shape into the crystals. “I hope I’m wrong, but… One of those described was a nephew of mine, one who made a big stink when my parents could not give monetary aid.” She scowled. “I worry that my blasted sister is up to something and that’s why I’m here.” She fidgeted a little, then sighed and put her tail under the long scarf depicting a small winged figure booting a smaller, but somehow less friendly winged figure. “Forgot a warming bracelet, Reginne? Sheesh, its a good thing I have these spares…” Laerine reached over and clipped it around Reginne’s tail. She gave a little shiver in return. “Brrr! Anti-cold shivers. Funny how that works, eh? And thank you Laerine.” She sighed. “I… had actually been hoping to have a word with you.” Pointy ears angled down in sadness. “Laerine, there is no right way to say it. But I met another Wendy who had some things to say about you and what happened in Gravelhold. Not nice things.”

She shrugged. “I would like to hear your side of things so I can give that little busybody a thorough talking to. I don’t doubt that she has… feelings for these people she mentioned, the Natel family. But I can’t argue against her without knowing what happened in Gravelhold.” Laerine sighed, deflating from her usually poised posture into a very distressed one. “That damn doll.” She rubbed across her face with one hand. “I did mess up back then, though it has taken me frankly a long time to know what I had done that was wrong.” She started to tell them about her project for creating a more combative sort of Coppelia, but was rudely interrupted when a furious bellow rolled into their camp along with a man wearing nothing much but a cloud of steam rising from his body and a huge sword. “Bärsärker! Let me handle him!” He actually did last all of one minute against Laerine before sagging into the snow with a goose-egg on each of his temples.

“Break camp now! There’s never just one of them!” Laerine frantically started shoving everything but the campfire into her small bag while Seselie did the same. Reginne and Terim looked around, but did not see any new bärsärkers even after they left the camp. Seselie ran like an avalanche across the firming steppes, batting away shapes in armor that crossed her path. “SHALE AND DROSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!” Her breathing was still easy, but her speech came out in geyser-like eruptions. “WHY ARE THERE SO MANY? LAERINE! USE A SPELL OR SOMETHING!” She couldn’t quite catch the reply, but a tiny bead of fire sailed over her shoulder and the road ahead became a wall of flame, soldiers shooting to the sides away from the explosion. Seselie charged through the dissipating flames, feeling more than hearing the texture of the ground change as it went from frozen, to molten, to hard-baked. Laerine patted her, to make her slow down.

When she looked ahead, she knew why. A group of crossbowmen stood with their weapons sighted on them. In front of them stood a man approaching middling years, calmly smoking a long-stemmed pipe. “End of the line, ladies. You’re trespassing in these lands where your ilk certainly is not welcome.” He blew out a stream of smoke. “Don’t bother with magic either, I’ve got you covered in more ways than one and I’d prefer to make this as painless as possible.” He glanced over their bodies. “Ushi-Oni? Two Succubi and an Incubus? Its not often you see such a group in our lands. Care to tell me where your hidden base is?” Laerine desperately wanted to lash out with her spells, but Reginne halted her, giving a confident nod. She clambered off of Seselie’s abdomen and walked up to the officer. “I see your eyesight is as bad as ever, Claudinh. And you still haven’t given up that filthy habit either, hmm?”

She crossed her arms silently and calmly walked around him, ignoring the crossbows trailing her. “Jaleth, tuck in your undershirt! I’ve told you a thousand times, keep it tucked in or don’t bother at all. Mindey wipe your nose. I don’t care to see green ice on your face, not now and not before. Pomdall, have you been in the cookie jar again? I’ll have you know you’re doing twenty laps today and twenty tomorrow and twenty more each day until you fit that armour normally.” She sighed, shaking her head. “Children, have I taught you nothing then?” Her crisp, sad tone and sweet voice had a jarring effect on the soldiers. “Think for yourselves, think of your actions and act accordingly.” She prodded Claudinh in his stomach as he hurriedly extinguished his pipe. Confused, the other soldiers likewise tidied up. “That’s a bit better. Now then, I do think you know who I might be, now?” They looked on the verge of tears as they replied in almost unison:”Aunt/Mater Reginna.”

“That’s right. I may have changed a little in form, but I’m still myself. And I’m still a part of your family. Now then, can we please talk civilly? I have much to ask, and more to share.” So said, so done, though the hidden mages kept wards up against corruptive magic. Claudinh looked sad. “Aunt, how did you come to be this… pint-sized Succubus? Mother sent word that the Demon Kingdom had abducted you.” Reginne chuckled before she replied. “I’m a Wendy, but how I came to be one is tied up with what your mother did, nephew.” She shook her head sadly. “For years she tried to close down my orphanage and have me removed from her ‘perfect’ life. According to what I learned since the last attempt, she tried to sell me to the Demon Kingdom, but got a bum deal out of it.” Reginne scowled. “She’s only added to her crimes since then, burning the orphanage down, though the children are in a safe place now. I’ve learned much about illicit things she’s got a major hand in as well, but I was guessing at the reason behind it. And now I find soldiers, including her own children, marching under her banner.”

Claudinh sighed, rubbing his face. “Mother issued an order to all children born to Fate’s Holies. Aid her in destroying the Demon Lord, or die a traitor’s death through her blood-link magics. I’ve seen it happen as well. We’re in the clear, for now, because she is on the move, but we’ll still have to go to war for her. Aunt Reginne, please hear me for a moment, then leave as fast as you can.” He detailed as much of the marching plans as he could, suggesting they use a small passage that would not admit an army, but would lead to a more friendly land.

“I heard more troops are converging at the borders. Take my advice, aunt, and seek out the rumor I heard about. In lands far to the west there is apparently a land where mamonme are not aligned with the Demon Lord.” He bit his unlit pipe. “Some say the Goddess favors them, but which Goddess I would not even guess at. It is best not to go to the territory surrendered by Karpathia though. Mother’s missive mentioned it being a good prize to conquer.” Reginne nodded, soon after she and the others said goodbye and left. 

One of the few soldiers not familiar with the head of the orphanage spoke up. “Sir, why did you tell her that? She could still be in league with the Demon Lord. Should I and a few others take care of the situation?” Claudinh calmly filled his pipe, thinking his pipeweed rather fresh to the touch. “No. Whatever she might do with it, we owe her a warning at the least. She took me in, even though mother’s lies had left her near bereft. And as did she for others. If she’d been a mindless convert, then no. But that was my aunt in that small form.” He chewed the stem of the pipe. “And besides, it is not as if one Wendy, one Succubus, one human-” He rolled his eyes at the thought of how long one could remain human with three mamonme in his party. “And one Ushi-Oni can change the outcome of this war.” The soldiers nodded, some with more gloom than others. “I’d much rather not fight at all, but the Demon Kingdom is pushing humanity to extinction, one way or the other. Okay, break is over! Break camp and be ready to march!” As he lit his pipe, he coughed, tears streaming from his eyes. When he’d thrown away the burning mess, he checked his pipeweed pouch, it was filled with grasses and weeds.

Meanwhile Seselie was swearing softly. Due to her bulky lower body, she had to claw her way across the side of the pass’ wall and her hair was constantly snagging on shrubs. Laerine would see them to the border before using magic to go home and raise the army. Seselie was tempted to go west, but… part of her felt it would mean abandoning her friends to fight a war that no matter what rumors might be true would come to her in the end. Reginne was oddly subdued, deep in thought. Terim managed to keep up, but he was more easily tired due to not having wings to step over large rocks. All four of them knew of danger lying ahead, but none knew then what the scope of it would be.

Interlude. Karpathia’s involvement

“Good morning.” Daegra called to the rafters of the castle library. “Can we come in? Are you decent to your own liking?” A loud yawn came from above and a strange, high-pitched voice answered. “Yeeees. I no change dress night. Is early!” Daegra chuckled. “It is almost noon and we do need to get started.” A grumble was heard, followed by folding and tapping noises that eventually brought a gigantic vampire bat into view. It then changed to a surprisingly scrawny figure in a one-piece nighty who rubbed his face. When fully dressed, he could come across as intimidating, but at the moment he seemed more like a ragdoll with fangs stitched on. “So, still having trouble sleeping I take it?” Her guest yawned, somewhat rudely and flapped his hand. “Sleep? I find book, interesting.” His mastery of Karpathian was growing, but wasn’t completely there yet. His voice was almost down to its elegant resonant pitch in this form. “I go, change clothed. You, sit at desk, reed notts.”

She did as requested, while her foreign guest left for the empty storage room that had been converted to a bedroom of a sort for his needs. Her husband, king Oskhar the thirtieth, had at first been less than enthusiastic about the whole venture. Not only because it let a foreign duke interact with his wife and his library, both treasured whole-heartedly, but because the man in question was from another world and resembled a male vampire of yore. Duke Francis st. Germain was no threat to their marriage, though poor Oskhar had learned the hard way that the man was a terror when it came to discussing proper library maintenance and book care. On the plus side, the library was much improved and the rather unpleasant nobles of the nation were mystified to such an extent that they treated his abrasive manner as one befitting an emperor, whilst quietly withdrawing to their summer estates. And Daegra honestly did like him, this man from the Kingdom of Logendra, though she still had a hard time believing the rumors surrounding him.

An expedition to Logendra was planned for early next year and she planned to be on it, along with her friends. Maybe Oskhar as well, though she’d layer a few protective spells on him till he hummed. Due to the portal close to Gazpescht, Logendra was a near nation, it was irrelevant that it is on another world. As such, a state visit was required. No matter that it involved a trek through one of the deadliest dungeons in the universe or that king Valhart was technically a temporarily diminished emperor who outranked them. While Francis still lacked full command of the spoken language, his skills with the written languages were amazing. And he offered them for free, though he had begged leave to purchase books locally, all because of how he ended up on Praxis. It had started with rumors of cryptozoïc sightings in a marshy town on the south-western borders of the Heartlands and well… here they were.

Daegra read through the notes that while containing some unusual uses of grammar did shed quite a lot of light on her current pet project of discovering the truth behind the Demon Braves. A dark time for Karpathia that had been meticulously buried by noble attendants of Oskhar’s father and only saved from destruction by the efforts of Danthra, her husband’s second mother and his father’s bodyguard. Daegra hoped to conceive before the elderly Minotauride left the mortal plane.Her eyebrows drew together at what she read here though. Regicide! Attempted usurpation and flagrant abuse of power not bestowed by station. When the duke st. Germain re-entered the library in his immaculate costume and spotted queen Daegra, he quickly slipped a ring of protection onto his finger. “You dislike, my findings?” Daegra shook her head, stating that the findings simply made her angry for the stupidity they unveiled in her country’s past.

The heart of the land in her soul throbbed as she read on. It was almost like having a trained hound at her side who’d woof if she was uncertain what was true or not. “Francis, could you please find my husband and tell him to gather the troops for an expedition? I think this one yet lives.” The next day she watched as her husband roared for admittance into the Jaglin estate, then called for Antosh Jaglin to be brought forth. What was wheeled out, blinking at the sun, was an ancient looking man with sharp eyes and a perpetual scowl. “Lemme guess, you pissant monster, you want me fer doing the right thing? I’ll see you removed from my home!” He was silenced, none too gently, by a younger man with an apologetic glance at Daegra. “Pardon my grand-uncle, he’s been getting more and more cantankerous lately.” 

The old man reached over and pinched, hard. “And why wouldn’t I? The land’s gone to pot. We have a lowborn monster on the throne. Don’t you dare cuff me, nephew!” This got him a slap from the lady of the house. “Quit insulting our Queen and do not presume to pinch my husband.” Eventually, after they had ceased quibbling, Daegra could come to the matter that brought her here. Antosh relished telling his tale. “It was solving a problem, one growing in our land!”

Chapter 18. For the country, not the king. Part 1

Oskhar the twenty-eight of Karpathia had been an imposing man. Strong, wide, known for his rolling laugh and amazing singing voice he was beloved by the people. Except for those who questioned his decisions with regards to monster kind. A group of them now stood over the body of the monarch, a mixture of fear, elation and revulsion at what they had done crossing their faces. “Congratulations gentlesirs, for starting Karpathia ‘s return to the right path.” The speaker had a confident, inspiring voice and despite being but a priest in service to a deity that was less revered in the Heartlands than others, he was held in high regard. “The crown prince is secured, for now, and we can wait until the inevitable corruption is revealed before disposing of him.” He said this in the same easy manner as if it were a planning for the near future to remove some unfortunate bit of rubbish from the temple hall. Those gathered nodded, hesitantly for some, eagerly for others. 

Paedric Fent kept a solemn look on his face, but inwardly he sneered at these fools. Let them think they were in the clear. Regicide was such a tricky business and a few handy scapegoats at hand would compliment his plans nicely. “Do be so kind as to sprinkle that solution on the body, ser Jaglin. Don’t let it fall on you though.” Demonic Energy was handy in this respect: it could be captured in liquids such as water, but it left a trace to those skilled in the arts of detection. Hence Paedric took grievous care not to handle it himself, not even indirectly. He’d seen what even a small dose could do during test runs on one less than useful acolyte. Once the business was done he left for his own chambers in the small, but respectable temple and prepared to give his report through this contraption called an articulatory relay engine. Once the magic activated, a cold voice rang out. 

“Report. What is your status Paedric?” The voice was still strong, but radiated age and ambition, like a queen from a forgotten era. “The deed is done, sadly enough without flourish. It will be some time before Karpathia’s throne is filled again mother. And I and the Lord concur that it would benefit immensely from your wisdom.” A dry, mirthless chuckle was relayed. “Good. What of the prince and his… pet? I trust there will be no trouble from them? Or the king- the old king’s friends?” Paedric sniffed, mildly peeved. “None that I can foresee. Junior and his bull girl are locked in rooms painted red. By the time you and the army arrive, we can denounce him as an incubus and end the infernal royal line. Or play it out a little if Isgarn is suitable to our needs.” He grinned. “After all, his brother had him sent into near exile. A pity that his lance is unfit for jousting.” A titter of laughter followed. “I am glad that you are doing so well, my son. But perchance that lance can be mended and a little brother be placed upon the throne to legitimize our good intent.”

Paedric grimaced. Yes, his mother could still bear young, even if he was finding more gray hairs in his beard daily. But that still did not sit well with him on some level. Decorum demanded he master his revulsion and he did. Not without notice though. “Fear not my son. My time on Praxis is limited enough as it is, I do not intend to birth a new dynasty with that man. Even your Lord of Decorum though, knows it is for the best that I handle the start at least.” The remainder of their conversation detailed the expected time of arrival, Paedric’s role in keeping the country running and ensuring that sufficient stockpiles  were in place. Whilst they spoke, the other conspirators raided the wine cellar, much to their later regret. In a small apartment, Danthra studied the wall. It was reddish with poorly made paint, somewhat more orange, but it did not evoke any sensations of lust in her. Rather, it galled her to think that those utter spume thought this would make her lose all sense of her duty and rape the prince.

Yes, he was a boy with all the bits. Yes, he was attracted to her, especially since she was naked. She could clearly see the effect she had on him, despite his hands covering most of it. His blush might even be considered cute. But she had sworn an oath, one enforced by Queen Muntispeer herself, that she would protect the king and his son. Bedding either and thus starting a war was out of the question. Her nipples were hard and distractive, but she willed her fury to the front of her mind and glared as if her gaze would make the wall crumble into dust. “Danthra, are you looking for a secret door?” The prince’s slight gulp was audible. Even to ears less acute than hers. “Yes, your royal highness. There appears to be none, but I might make one if I can find a thin enough spot.” She resumed her study and rapped her knuckles on different spots. “B-b-ut there isn’t. Father told me these apartments were meant to keep people out.”

Danthra chuckled. “That means there’s definitely a way out though, beyond that door.” She shook her head. Not on this wall though. “I apologize for the lack of clothes your highness, but could you perchance stand by this wall while I go over the floor?” She stomped across the floor as he skittered over. Finally, her hooves elicited a slightly hollow thump from one of the stones and she pounced on it. There was no way out, but something useful was underneath the slightly thinner than its colleagues stone. Her liege and his wife, may they rest in peace, had always insisted on secreting cachets of magical items in the event some… unexplained threat would come to the palace. The late queen had mentioned Vygo once, but she’d been slightly delirious at the time. What was important though is that they had shared with Danthra the general command words for these emergency items. “Harkukin!” She said in a harsh whisper while touching the wand.

The wand responded with mental images detailing its powers and the requisite command words. “Termites! Just one wand in here and its that useless?” Danthra snorted in frustration, then pointed the wand at the prince and triggered it. ”Damoti Mas!” When the smoke cleared, a flabbergasted prince was wearing an outfit most often seen on a mason. Replete with stone dust and tools. “Huh? So, you get tools along with clothes. This might work. ”Danthra pointed the wand at herself and spoke a different command word. “Damoti Kesl!” She spent the next minute coughing as the discharge of magic came with a puff of smoke. When she could see again she was wearing a forester’s outfit and a small, if serviceable axe was suspended from her belt. “Wow! You look great in that.” She turned a slightly bloodshot eye on her charge and shook her head. “Quit ogling me, prince. We need to get out of here and rally the army. Those wastrels will be back soon enough to finish you.” She grabbed the tools from his belt and appraised them as good enough. 

Minotaurides are incredibly strong and have massive stamina, so she had to be careful not to break these tools. She moved to the furthest room, one that had a clear view of a small courtyard through a barred window. Dispensing with further talk, she slowly dragged the needle-like marker across the mortar of the adjoining stones several times, to test the strength of the material. Then, using the mallet and bodkin she created several small holes and the beginnings of promising cracks before tossing the blunted instrument aside and taking the chisels and looking at them, momentarily stumped. She knew these worked somewhat like the wedges her kind used to split logs evenly and fill gaps in carpentry. And, so that particular part of her mind sneered, to fill in for a husband for the elderly spinsters. But these were of a metal unknown to her. Should she just go for it? If only there were more of each, but she only had the three and she dare not break the larger ones by accident.

“You know? They use the smaller one for starters, its harder and has a special head to slip in between cracks.” The prince was making an effort not to stare at her breasts, instead pointing to each chisel and speaking of their uses. “Father was insistent that I learn something every time he took me to see some of our people at work. I’m glad I remember this.” Danthra nodded, giving a fleeting smile before asking the prince to gather the one bench in the rooms and using the wand on it repeatedly. When dusk approached she had removed a large section of wall and with the ‘rope’ made from the magically created clothes she managed to evacuate the prince and herself from the prison. “Danthra, you’re amazing, but what do we do now? Should we visit-” Danthra cut him off and brandished the axe as someone alighted over the courtyard wall. A sleek, female form it was, covered by a hooded outfit. She sensed them and momentarily put a hand on an old sword carefully worn across her back. Studying them for a moment, she instead raised her hand in greeting.

“Lady Danthra I presume? And you must be prince Oskhar?” Her other hand removed the hood to reveal an attractive Cat-si with a knight’s demeanor. “The grass is greener where the hills are cleaner.” Danthra’s eyes flew wide open, but before she could reply their visitor continued. “I’m sorry, but further explanations will have to wait until we reach the safehouse. Follow me please, and keep quiet.” So speaking, she led them out of the courtyard and through the neglected garden into the city.

Chapter 19. For the country, not the king. Part 2

Karpathia had been a large city, worthy of being a capital, for ages, ever since its founder had gathered his people and bade them build it. By ancient decrees, the main avenues could let an army march through ten abreast. Connecting lanes would allow carriages manned by crossbowmen to rapidly move in great circles around the palace to deliver troops and supplies where needed. The canals, safe repositories of water during sieges, served additional purpose as they could field troops by boat. These defenses were planned meticulously and spoke of military intellect. The cue for strategic genius though came from the Warrens. These cramped, narrow streets in between the broad avenues effectively mazed enemies while citizens had a chance for escape. Consequently, it was easy to lose pursuit in them as well, as Danthra noted with some detached amusement. Their guide led them through several alleys, shops and taverns catering to the poor before finding a door seemingly no different from the others in this part of the city.

Inside, she closed the door again, locking it and sliding a weighty bar across the portal. “Phew, I still am getting used to the local smells here.” She rubbed her nose vigorously before offering them a hand in welcome. “I am called Nalgeeia, a knight errant currently in service to the crown.” She smiled disarmingly. “Welcome to the Sanctuary of Preïdes, I hope you’ll allow my employer to have a word before you decide on your next course of action.” So speaking, she opened the inner door. In the hall beyond decorative arms lined the walls and suits of armor stood at regular intervals as a counterbalance to the many pillars. Danthra noted that all the arms were fully functional and only had been disguised as decorations. She’d bet her tail that there were traps here as well.

As if reading her mind, Nalgeeia tsk’d. “Keep from exploring too closely please, not all of this passage can be made visitor-safe.” Two rooms further she opened a double set of doors flanked by suspicious flowerpots that audibly turned as she put her hands on the handles, but she apparently manipulated them correctly.

Inside the room several men were seated, though one stood before the fireplace, a goblet in his hand. “Sir, I’ve brought them. They had managed an escape of their own, but hadn’t yet made it out of the castle grounds.” The man nodded, taking a slight swallow of his drink before replying. “Thank you Nalgeeia. Could I trouble you to pour some refreshments for yourself and them?” As she moved to do so, he moved towards them. The lighting obscured his face somewhat, but Danthra’s nose noted three things: this man was an incubus, definitely married by the pheromones on him, and he was related to the royal family. She and Oskhar gasped as he finally stood before them. “Welcome to the Sanctuary of Preïdes my nephew, and you as well miss Danthra. I am Isgarn, head of the Preïades Society and your uncle. Though for many reasons I’ve been keeping to the fringes of the social life here in the Heartlands. Danthra might be able to guess more than one reason.” He placed both hands on Oskhar’s shoulders. 

“I wish I could have prevented this tragedy and saved my brother’s life. But these are done things and cannot be undone. Now that you are here, we can take steps to reclaim the country from these insidious Luminaire insurgents.” An aura of power roiled around his shoulders for a few moments. “They will answer for this!” As one, most of the other men in the room chimed in. “For Karpathia!” The one that did not rose quietly and spoke solemnly: ”For the future of our world. Rest assured that it is at stake.” Nalgeeia soon nuzzled him and much to Danthra’s surprise, so did a ghostly woman who just materialized around the man. Isgarn noted her surprise. “Sir Rowdrake is a man of many talents and his involvement has been a real boon. As has that of his wives. Nalgeeia has a real passion for justice. And for fish lately, or so she tells me. Glastine has… issues at times, but she’s got a sharp mind and surprisingly a lot of knowledge on all sorts of vehicles.” At that moment a pair of shapely arms encircled Isgarn’s torso and a happy little sigh sounded from behind him.

“And it seems someone else is impatient to meet you, my nephew.” Isgarn fondly smiled as he reached behind and gathered a beautiful woman in his embrace. Petite, orange-haired and slightly freckled, with an angelic face and a figure that made Danthra feel as uncomely as a bargain-bin oxen. Yet definitely not human, with wings, horns and a tail commonly seen on Succubi. Her eyes opened only after Isgarn had kissed her, showing no pupils, but irises as blue as a midnight sky across which ripples and unfamiliar symbols played. She was modestly clothed, though her dress was of phenomenal quality. She gave a small smile and an appraising look as Isgarn introduced her. “My lady, may I present the crown prince in exile, Oskhar the twenty-ninth. Nephew, this is Rainette vi Alloriel, my beloved wife.” Both the prince and Danthra dropped their jaws, though for different reasons.

“Y-you! You’re the Demon Lord’s daughter?” Rainette responded with a firm shake of her head as she replied, her voice as rich and gentle as honey. “No, dear girl. Though I have a familial connection to the Demon Lord, I am but a Succubus.” She flexed her wings slightly. “And to nip the next question in the bud, I am not allied with my ‘aunty’, instead being wholly devoted to Karpathia.” She winked. “Or rather the bit of Garn-ish in it that I love the most. But what a mess, no?” A symbol of power entered her eyes. “We only knew something was happening, but not what, because someone was interfering with my sight.” Isgarn stroked her hair and explained. “Rainette is a seer, naturally attuned to foretelling the future.” He lightly nibbled her pointed ear, eliciting a gasp. “She’s actually blind in the normal sense, but can see through her magic.”

The prince stammered then. “U-uncle Isgarn, how in the world did you-?” Isgarn smiled wolfishly. “How else? I was young, foolish and without a direction in my life. Your father had the throne and Awrinoë’s love. So I went to test my mettle on a grand quest across Palachia. I ended up in the evacuation of Llinnoril. Truth is, I gained a lot of respect for Minotaurides that day, though I earned some as well.” Rainette tittered. “Or so he hopes. Isgarn is a good warrior, but Minotaurides can be slow to acknowledge this.” Danthra snorted and shook her head. “Those that I know would call a warrior a warrior. Even if he can’t match our brawn.” Isgarn laughed, though it sounded more embarrassed than mirthful. “In any event, I found Rainette held in one of those Gann Ceanne carriages when I made a last sweep behind the enemy lines. She had been apprehended for aiding and abetting the enemy to escape.” Rainette blushed.

“I was supposed to be aiding and a-bedding captured enemy soldiers to join the Demon Kingdom. And the townsfolk should have been rounded up by myself and the other Succubi.” She fondly tickled the muscles on Isgarn’s side, causing the Incubus to twitch slightly. “Throwing a wrench into the works was a good idea though, as I saw what would most likely have happened after. I was blindsided by Isgarn though, the good luck heading my way.. I figured it was just a sign that I would survive relatively unharmed. Admittedly, being in that damned carriage was right torture.” Her delicate nose wrinkled disgustedly. Isgarn ran his hand along her tail. “Some rescue though, when I saw her fully, I had an ‘oh shit’-moment. Thought she might have been their secret weapon. But… long story short, we escaped from there together and have been a couple since then. One missed appointment with the Unicorn though…” He shook his head. “Oh well, its not as if I wanted the throne. The added powers make my job a little easier. But the whole charade does grind a bit. Now let me show you where you can rest a while and get some proper clothes back on.”

Hours passed and Danthra found herself getting restless. Numerous couriers came and went while she piddled about with useful, but unfulfilling tasks. Then Rainette walked by and asked  Danthra to come along, a troubled expression on her face. Once inside her private quarters and seated with a surprisingly un-dainty mug of tea in her hands, the Succubus seer looked Danthra over with a frown of profound sadness on her face. “Danthra, we need to talk.” Rainette sighed. “Please listen, just for now. I am a seer. People think that means I can flawlessly predict, right down to the wording on the surrender, how for instance a war might end or how one’s descendants  will shape the world.” Her tail made a slight scraping sound as it ran along the back of her seat. “I cannot. Nor can any other seer that I know of. Instead, those with the talent see, to some extent, the branching pathways of the future. For some their ability shows them so much that they are incapable of… normal life. Even my ability can be overwhelming, which is why I am grateful for Isgarn. He helps me focus, quite aside from being a wonderful husband.”

She smiled briefly, before the sadness returned and old symbols of loss crossed her eyes. “We will most likely win the coming battles, though not without sacrifices.” Danthra nodded, no large battle she heard of ended without some casualties. “It is about what will come after that I need to talk to you about.” Rainette’s eyes clouded over then. “I cannot see my own future, nor that of Isgarn. Not after we hooked up, since my emotions can and do disrupt my abilities. But I still have… call it a hunch, that this won’t roll smoothly.” She spread her hands. “That’s why I have looked at the future of the others present. And while I see many things, the paths before you are those that concern me.” Danthra snorted as she replied. “I don’t fear death. If you want me to-” A powerful hand was pressed to her lips and Rainette requested she listen. “I see you survive, unless you take your own life or goof up.”

“Out of all the people present here, you have the best chance to survive. But you also pose a threat to the Heartlands and Karpathia by that virtue.” Danthra felt a red fury begin to boil. “ARE YOU SAYING I’M A TRAITOR?!?!?!” Rainette shook her head. “No! In fact, you are probably more devoted to the country and the king in most of the paths than I could ever hope to be. The latter part though is where the danger lies. Far into the future a great danger looms. Karpathia needs to weather it.” Tears rolled down her face. “I see several futures where Queen Danthra and King Oskhar rule jointly, despite the scorn this garners from other nations. I see such joy, despite the hardships. But I also see a bloody end to that happy life. Karpathia razed to the ground and the world being abandoned as the consequences of that threat come to bear like the poisonous fruit of doom.”

“I see only one path to a future where the country not only survives, but thrives, because it has enough influence to positively affect the world. And I can show it to you.” She bit her own hand, hard. Blood stained her teeth as she motioned Danthra to do the same. When they clasped hands, a spark of energy reached through the blood. Danthra unclasped her hand, feeling weirdly stiff in the fingers. No, not just there, all over. As if she’d sat down too long. As she glanced back at Rainette, she was met with a concerned gaze. “I was afraid I’d lost you there. You kind of froze up.” Danthra blinked, her dry eyes welcoming the slight film of moisture that the eyelids brought. “What happened? You were going to show me something and then?” Rainette shook her head. “I see. The vision must have overwhelmed you. Then I’ll have to do this the hard way. Danthra, I need you to make a choice.” This was met with another slow blink.

“Whu? What choice?” Danthra was more concerned with the fact that the light in the room had changed, had it been hours? Rainette’s voice cut through her thoughts. “You do not recall the vision? You need to decide on whether or not you will pursue my erstwhile nephew.” Danthra sighed, then shook her head. “What makes you think I’m interested in that runty kid anyway? I’ve sworn to protect the king and this country.”

Rainette clucked as if pondering the answer. “I don’t need to be a seer to know why. Both of you might be in the denial phase, but… You’re showing subtle signs of being interested in each other. That will grow and blossom into a wonderful, but disastrous love. Unless you trust in what I have shown you.” Danthra snorted vehemently, then left without another word. Rainette desperately wanted to know what the Minotauride would do, but that was something she could not. The one path where there would be a tomorrow beyond the next age for the Heartlands, one where neither the Demon Kingdom, the Luminaire nor the implausible C’try Mice rebellion would claim them and raze Karpathia… It was a long shot, especially when weighed against the pain of a lonesome heart.

Chapter 20. For the country, not the king. Part 3

Paedric Fent was not prone to worrying and resented the feeling intruding on his thoughts. Yes the cow and the boy had escaped, somehow finding a cachet of tools in the rooms. Blast and damn the inadequacy of his adherents, they would not be spared the rod when time came to answer for their failure. But it was a trifling matter. He held the palace, and more importantly, Isgarn had responded favorably to the offer made by his quite holy mother. The letter Paedric had received bore the official seals and signature, even if the contents were hardly poetic. “I will see you tomorrow and I look forward to meeting your mother. Please prepare an overview of what you would advise me to do and air out the palace if you could. It is that time of the year, a good airing will prevent fungi from settling.” Three somewhat short lines on expensive vellum. Paedric did not think these were rude, the wording could easily be read in many ways quite devoid of complicancy in the removal of the former monarch.

His Lord Laudican had seen to it that Paedric was schooled properly, without the seeming of nepotism that his unfortunate paternal connection would bring. Hierophant Darbus Fent had done his part of course, but the truth was that the tired old man lacked the pure flame of faith. He still observed the decorum, but was less interested in spreading their religion these days than in basking in comfort. Paedric thought differently, and so did Lord Laudican. After this was done, Paedric would be recalled to the faith’s capital and named as Prophet. The last Prophet had  been dead for over ten centuries, a trifling amount of time to their Lord, but long enough that the faithful were clamoring for a new saviour. With mastery of decorum came power. He sniffed. In civilized lands at least. And civilization would hit the world with a vengeance. His hands ached with the desire to write the orders to draft armies and send them to change the world. That would in turn empower his Lord… Who knew where that might land them both?

A far younger part of him wanted to shout it from the rooftops, but Lord Laudican had been adamant that he keep as discreet as a hierarch in the church could be. While the eventual defeat of the Demon Lord was something Lady Eiraiha supported, she would react explosively if these steps towards that goal became public too soon. Paedric knew that she would not be the only one. Hence it was vital to mostly coax things along. The disposal had been a bit drastic, if needed. A gamble, but one within bounds set by the tenets of his faith. It still gave him a leaden feeling though. He walked through the humble halls of his temple to alleviate the sensation. King Oskhar had not been a pious man, in the traditional sense, he had in fact stopped Paedric’s bill of laws concerning forced baptisms for unbelievers from being enacted. Years before though, he had fought like a lion to let smaller temples, like that of Laudican, set up their sanctuaries. 

He had even allowed a minor shrine to the Demon Lord, and that had been the final straw for Paedric. No matter that Paedric’s own mother was barely better than a Succubus, he had risen above his deplorable beginnings in order to ensure a better future for mankind. And that did not entail letting a ruddy excuse for a king ‘share and share-a-like’ his way towards human extinction. If only the man had been more interested in decorum, he could have been reasoned with. Maybe. As it was, Paedric thought it best to have the crown prince gone as well. A likeable lad, to be sure, but already corrupted by his father’s views. And that thrice bedamned bull-girl. It would have been poetic justice had she but acted on her urges. Paedric shook his head. No, it was his own fallibility that had led to this.

Part of priestly curriculum was a study of mamonme species. But due to the temptations inherent to the monsters of today, the materials were as dried and boring as the tutoring brothers could make them. A soft laugh tickled its way out. With the right spin on a speech, even the finest and most enjoyable things could be used to bore the brains out of studying neophytes. A far less militant part of his mind thought it would be good for the world to write a book on this, maybe with a treatise in that vein on war. He would write that book later, when he was too old to do more energetic things. The problem was, this had led him to believe on some level that Danthra would do as presented in that dry lesson so long ago. He admired her for not doing that, even if it muddied his plans. So many humans would not, could not, resist temptations in front of them. Had she not been a mamonme, he might have proposed to her, so strong did his respect flare. Of course, he would have done so with proper decorum.

He remembered his first meeting with her. At a glance a savage mamonme dressed like a forester, with that cow Muntispeer’s emblem on a sash carelessly slung over her shoulders like a scarf. Yet polite, in a self-conscious fashion that got a brash edge when her anger was tickled. Paedric shook his head, dismissing her and the vague fantasy notion of converting mamonme into human women. He spent the remainder of the day preparing for the meeting on the morrow and the arrival of his mother soon after. Maybe that would end the nightmares of impending doom as well. When he finally slept, it was an oddly dreamless slumber. Meanwhile Karpathia’s night was interrupted as several small groups of men and women, some of the latter mamonme, went about their tasks. Some rousted soldiers from the barracks, others spoke to neighbourhood spokespersons while a few had the thankless job of entering the homes of the noble regicidalists to secure these in some fashion lost to the passage of time.

Danthra wanted to swear. She wanted to empty her bladder, which had not been so full before she followed Isgarn across the roofs to this… impoverished, but starkly maintained temple. The iron rings attached to her hooves held spikes to help her climb, but she would be damned if she called them useful. A Minotauride could survive a fall from this height easily, she’d be bruised maybe, but she’d walk away from it. Yet, the noise would give them away. So she suffered these embarrassing horse-shoes and tried to think of more fun uses to put them to. As she grabbed a stone rose that decorated an abutting balcony, she felt faint for a moment. “My lady, are you well?” Danthra nearly pulled a muscle as she turned to regard the human girl. Confusion gave way to clarity and she answered with a smile. “Yes, Clara. Its just that I remembered seeing a rose like this one, on that night.” She shook her head. “Guess I’m more nervous than I thought.” Clara tittered, then approached to adjust the slightly skewed bridal crown.

Danthra snorted, her tail standing on end. What by all the boles and thorns had just happened? She shrugged. It must’ve been those turnips at dinner. Minotaurides weren’t meant to eat only vegetables! Her stomach disagreed though, bringing not so much as a burp to protest the food. She swiftly climbed across the roof, catching up to Isgarn, who regarded her with a sort of detached curiosity. He had explained that he tried to let go of all intruding thoughts when he went on missions such as they now attempted. “Everything alright? Did you spot a guard or something?” Danthra shook her head and indicated they should move on. They reached their destination, using a grappling hook and rope to make the final crossing. As she was securing the rope, Danthra felt off-balance. She had not been paying attention and the delicate sash was fraying after she’d secured it around her waist like she was mooring a boat. “What was I thinking?! Urgh, its ruined!” She cried, softly muffling her sobs in her hands. 

“Hey! You shouldn’t cry on your wedding day Danthra.” Queen Muntispeer tsk’d and took the sash, it glowed in her hands for a moment. “There. As good as new.” Though a Bovitauride by birth, Muntispeer was revered by Minotaurides as well as her own kind. It was an incredible honour to have her attend the wedding, even though Oskhar had expressed shame over the state of the kingdom after the Luminaire invaders had been driven off. “Thank you, my queen.” Danthra shuffled her hooves. “I don’t know what it is, but I’ve been having these moments where a memory just comes in and takes me back to that night.” Muntispeer nodded, her regal beauty slightly obscured by the worried look she gave the younger Minotauride. “You shouldn’t apologize for it. Given what I heard happened, I feel it would be hard to shake those memories. Just give it some time. Now, the guests have all arrived, including that boorish Serebim.” The sound Muntispeer then made spoke volumes of her annoyance.

As they walked to the festival square, Danthra felt her spirits lift. Cheers came from all citizens who’d made the journey, even if they wore tightly wound bandages, missed limbs or a relative. The bunting was simple, but Aluraune and Lichen had worked together to make flowers grow and bloom in ensconced pots. Suddenly she blinked and was greeted by a severe stinging sensation on her cheeks and a very worried look on Isgarn’s face. “Danthra, are you with me? I need you to answer- nghhh! -me this, did Rainette try to share a vision with you?” He alternately flapped and rubbed his off hand. Danthra nodded, then told him what had happened. “Great, just great!” Isgarn snorted and touched her on the forehead with a faintly glowing finger. “There! Now then. I’ve used a spell I devised to help Rainette focus on the here and now on you. I just wish she didn’t do these things regardless of the situation.” He explained how the blood from Rainette could impose her gift, if temporarily. And rarely in a timely fashion.

“My spell can’t shut these visions out completely, but will give you a chance to… ahaha… bull through them, no pun intended. It keeps you from being overwhelmed by what you see.” He sighed and leaned against the rather unappealing belfry. “Lets just hope it didn’t trigger any alarms. I didn’t formally study magic, you know? So my grab-bag of spells is a bit on the raw and iffy side.” He smirked in a way that had nothing to do with humor. “If I had, then I would be dropping fireballs on this damned place instead of sneaking in.” Danthra nodded, though she worried that dropping fireballs might kill innocents as well as their quarry and his minions. “I’m okay now, I think. But don’t forget that we’re not here to kill. Fent needs to be judged for his crimes, or he’ll be a martyr to those blighters who like his sort of megalomania.” Isgarn nodded, but a glint in his eyes bespoke an inner struggle with his desire for revenge.

Danthra understood it all too well, King Oskhar had been a good man. Maybe a bit too progressive for humans, but with a set of horns, hooves and breasts he’d have been a great Minotauride. Not entirely her type though, but certainly someone she deeply cared for. As had been Queen Awrinoë. Though fully human, and sadly enough now gone, she’d been more than just regally kind to Danthra. The Minotauride had even offered the Queen her blood in a last-ditch effort to save her life. But the wasting sickness had claimed that life before the syringe could be used. Isgarn composed himself again and then slipped into the belfry. A human would not have been able to, but his incubus body was quite more flexible than a human’s. Moments later, a window opened below and Danthra swung in, trailing a rope. Her left hoof connected with what felt like a head, producing an unhealthy clonk and a muffled sound of a body hitting the floor before she did. “Bloody teats! Isgarn, are you alright?” She turned the body over and was greeted by the unconscious visage of an old man in servant’s clothes. 

Isgarn seemed to appear at her side out of thin air. “We were fortunate. I could have handled him, but your early arrival expedited things. Funny though, that he opened the window.” Isgarn blinked for a moment, rubbing his face. Danthra wanted to reply, but again felt a flash of experience wash over her. Elation, passion, flashes of a wedding night to make even Succubi blush and an incredible sense of joy. The sensations were less intense though, thanks to the spell. But it left her feeling like she was listening to them from behind a door, while the emotions flared within her own breast. They made their way through the corridors and into a bedroom she actually liked. It was sparsely decorated, but each functional piece of furniture had carved decorations worked into its design. Another flash came then, she felt nauseous, clasping a hand to a belly bulging out with twins, the onset of labour and the joy of holding HER children for the first time.

She barely came out of it when a thin whine reached her ears. Isgarn straddled the man on the bed, one hand clamped over the other’s mouth and his dagger drawing lines on Paedric Fent’s flesh. “I told you I looked forward to meeting you, and the pleasure is all mine you filthy murderer in vestments.” He stabbed slowly into the priest’s arm. “You murdered my brother. And now I will have vengeance.” Dark power roiled over his head and a hellish light shone in his pupils until Danthra physically removed him. “Stop! You know he needs to be brought to justice.” Isgarn shuddered as he tried to master his emotions. “You’re right.” He visibly shivered as the aura of power subsided. “My emotions got the better of me, being an incubus only worsens that.” Danthra recalled hearing that not all incubi were fully in control of their imbued power. One might run amok despite being known for self-control. Her own father had related a tale of his friend losing control and turning a maze into what was mockingly called a very efficient net for moths.

Her other hand still gently held the stabbed priest in an unbreakable grip. “Justice is coming for him. Let us leave this place now, quickly.” She released Isgarn  and bundled Paedric in his own bloodied sheets after ensuring his wounds were not life-threatening. When they exited the temple, dawn was sending its first messengers across the sky.

Chapter 21. For the country, not the king. Part 4

There must be some truth to the saying that people only scolded you if they cared about you. By Danthra’s reckoning, people cared about her a lot. Oskhar had scolded her, he’d scolded Isgarn and Rainette. They had scolded each other, Oskhar and her and she herself had harangued them all at length. Though she felt conflicted about it as well. She’d come to know Oskhar well enough, but Isgarn and Rainette she’d only met the other day and while there was a click with them it still felt odd to care so much about them. In part she attributed this to the continuing flashes of her other, future life. Those gave an odd comfort, in a sense. She knew that they probably would survive, unless something drastic happened. Oskhar was being prepared to assume the crown, but she tried to keep away from him as long as these visions continued. Instead, she saw to the defenses of Karpathia. Riders on Mozurs and Harpy-kin had been sent out to call in those living in smaller settlements.

More messages had been sent to other nations, along with requests for reinforcements to be prepared. The Heartlands had not enforced conscription in recent decades, due to the relative stability of the region and its kindly relations with the neighbouring states. Hence, while there were enough professional soldiers and volunteers being trained as fast as she could get done a question remained. Would it be enough? So much to do, so little time to do it in. “Hey Danthra! Catch~!” Danthra threw out an arm and caught a slightly greasy breadshell, which she cracked open. “Urgh, fish again, Nalgeeia?” The feline knight grinned as she stalked over, a sad light in her eyes belying the grin. “Yeah, just so you have something to remember me by. I wish we could be here though.” Danthra snorted indelicately, to cover up her own feelings she bit into the bread and its haddock filling. “There, I’ll be sure to remember that you put me in the outhouse just before the battle started.”

Nalgeeia laughed then. “Haddock is a staple fare of Minotaurides over in the Demon Kingdom, or so I’ve heard. Those in the Pirate Isles aren’t shy of fish either by the same account.” Her short hair had one small vanity braid and she played with it absently. “All jesting aside, I really do dislike having to leave. Rowdrake and Glastine feel the same way. We may not be natives, but Karpathia’s made us feel at home and with friends.” Danthra nodded, placing one muscular hand on Nalgeeia’s shoulder. “I know what you mean. This city has that effect on people, myself included.” She considered things for a moment. “They didn’t go into detail much, but the late king and queen did tell me that in some mystical sense the land is alive and therefore will try to keep people it likes.” She shrugged. “Maybe that’s just hootenanny, but its a nice thought, y’know?” Blushing slightly, she mulled things over for a moment. “But sending you on this mission is a sign of trust from Oskhar I think. Queen Muntispeer and the folks living in the Grazelands aren’t warriors, so they need what help we can give them.”

“And sending a battle-proven party on speedy horses should get it there on time.” Nalgeeia shrugged. “But I want to come back. Even if the milk is better there, its a little too rural for me. I used to say I’m a city girl.” She presented her tail, which was slightly ruffled. “Now I’m an alleycat I suppose.” Danthra bellowed out a laugh and the two of them made their goodbyes. Meanwhile Paedric Fent was praying for salvation to his Lord Laudican. He knew his situation was hopeless unless something drastic happened. With some luck his mother would arrive soon and he could get out of this waking nightmare relatively unscathed. His arm hurt abominably, but it had been cleaned and bandaged. Yet staying here meant certain death, he’d read that much in Isgarn’s eyes, though more shocking was the truth that the brother of the dead king was an Incubus. Just how corrupted had his Karpathia been in truth? “Paedric…” His mother stepped out of the shadows. “I’m disappointed to find you here, but given that your Lord broke the news I’m prepared to accept that it was at least partially out of your hands.”

She sat down next to him and gave a look not often seen on her face, genuine grief mingling with aggravation. It was the closest that she’d ever been to him emotionally, Paedric realized. “I will do what I can at the trial, my boy. But just in case things go wrong, I want you to keep this with you. It will set you free if nothing else will. She kissed him lightly on his head, as she had done only a few times in his life. “Stay strong in your faith, my son.” With that she left the cell as mysteriously as she had entered it. Paedric wondered what this small talisman was and what it could do. The following morning brought an unusual situation to Karpathia. “Who brings an army to the Heartlands?” The boldest gate guard called out. The answer came from a man in humble apparel, with but a leather hauberk for armor. “The Crusaders of the Children of Fate. Our commander, the Holy Mother Sefrana requests an audience with your king, to ask for aid and succor.” The gate guards scoffed and jeered in response. 

What followed though was one of the most awkward moments in history. The Children of Fate felt slighted, but once it became known that one of their own had been instrumental in the murder of a beloved king they swallowed most of their ire. Yet they could have taken the city, not without severe losses, but readily enough that the assembled citizens were relatively less belligerent than they would otherwise have been. Not cowed though, for it had become known that this army was not backed by the Luminaire’s central command, being but a peasant militia by their standards. Danthra smirked though, when the flashes weren’t distracting her. Rainette claimed these would continue until the power had run its course. In the meantime, they showed her such sights of happiness that the warnings Rainette had spoken seemed inconsequential. Such as her twin daughters trying to boss their little brother and father around, without much success. What bothered her though was that nearly none of the people she knew now appeared in her visions.

She’d focused on the coronation, by which time Oskhar looked and acted the part. She saw through his front though, grief and anger lay under the carefully presented image of an upcoming monarch and it hurt her heart to see him so. She knew he’d pull through though, and did her best to support him. With her carefully polished great-axe and parade armor she cut an imposing figure herself. Yet shortly after, they would have to deal with the traitors and the Children of Fate. Oskhar received the time-honoured blessing from an ordained priestess of Principal God Eiraiha. Danthra had been surprised to note that the woman’s sister was also ordained as this one had spent a little too much time around Werewolves. Both looked good in the ceremonial garb and seemed honest enough, though their story about a crystal tower in the city where they’d joined the temple seemed far fetched. Nevermind their furtiveness when asked how both had gotten ordained. They had asked Oskhar to consider a diplomatic visit to this Crystal Plinth during his reign for a full explanation. Danthra shook her head though, Principal God or no, that Eiraiha had unleashed the Luminaire on the world and then basically thrown her butt against the cradle, leaving the world to its own devices. Danthra could believe a desperate clergy would take any one on.

When the time came for the trial, a small party escorting Holy Mother Sefrana was allowed inside the city. Men and women with grim dignity, including an aging justifar and baroness, rode in on strong and expertly trained horses, one pulling a wheeled throne on which sat an imposing figure. Holy Mother Sefrana was still a woman of great, if cold, beauty. The greyness of her otherwise strawberry blonde hair did not detract from this as it was elaborately coiffed and decorated with modest holy symbols. Many an experienced soldier noted though that her eyes were as devoid of human emotion as the stones themselves. She was dutifully escorted to the palace where her entourage was subtly, by the careful planning of Isgarn and the other Preïades Society members, divided into manageable groupings. Danthra admired their skill as the secret society of Karpathia’s protectors did so in their day-to-day guises ranging from humble tradesmen to decorated officers to courtesans. Were it not for the fact that she had met them otherwise, she would not pick them out.

Oskhar wore the warcrown and was coldly polite as he questioned Sefrana and told her that Karpathia would not succor the Children of Fate. Not after she herself had written documents implying at the least knowledge of and at the most giving orders for the assassination of Oskhar the twenty-eighth. She in turn skillfully maneuvered around this with an explanation that she had only been informed of the monarch’s death. She had been asked by her son Paedric to offer her assistance in ensuring the royal bloodline would continue. News that the death had been a murder was as shocking to her as it must have been to the good citizens of Karpathia. She went as far as to include the mamonme present, as they ‘clearly did not follow the Demon Lord’. As a result of which, Oskhar could not denounce her, something they had planned for though. Sefrana requested to be present at the trial of Paedric Fent and the nobles, and plead for the life of her son. They were led in front of the king and their crimes listed.

Evidence left very little room for doubt, but the justifar and Holy Mother Sefrana still sought to avert the penalty all knew would follow. Insanity was blatantly claimed, as was manipulation by a Demon Kingdom magus and a Demon Double being the actual slayer. Each was countered, though even those in the back could hear the grinding of the new king’s teeth as this tried even his patience to the limits. Present Ureonggaksi sought a more safe place behind their husbands or nearby other men, eyestalks peering over their shoulders as curiosity warred with fear. At the end Paedric Fent admitted his crimes, but plead for banishment rather than death. Oskhar the twenty-ninth roared that he would not escape punishment and that was the moment where all hell broke loose. Holy Mother Sefrana buried her face in her hands, though one survivor claimed it was not to shed tears, but rather to whisper into a bead of her own blood.

Paedric screeched in horror as the charm she had slipped him the night before activated a potent magic that affected him more than any other of the Children of Fate. His garments tore as muscles bulged grotesquely and his humanity was lost. The others went berserk, while Sefrana fled. Danthra and Isgarn lept to the fore and she dragged Oskhar bodily from his throne and rushed him away. The Preïades fought like lions, despite being severely outmatched by the unnaturally empowered warriors trying to kill as many as they could. Though losses were great, eventually only what had been Paedric Fent stood against the surviving members of the society. Its only features still human were its eyes, which showed a maddened grief. Otherwise it resembled a mismatched muscular monstrosity with tiny legs and massive arms that melded into a maw at what would have been shoulders. It bowled into them, but Isgarn managed to push most out of the way in a heroic, superhuman effort. Danthra meanwhile had secured Oskhar, she and two others guarded his room while the king donned armour.

But then the wall collapsed. On the other side of the bricks and rubble a bloodied pseudo-hand clawed madly to widen the gap and a ghastly head replaced it. Danthra wanted to throw up, as she saw Isgarn’s arm impaled on one of the growing tusks. “Orrrrrssssskkkrrraaaaaaaaaahh!!!” The voice was inhuman. It was as tortured as the flesh from which it came. In moments she and the two guards were in desperate combat. This thing, this unnatural un-being had to be stopped, but it was all she could do to keep them alive against it. “You two, fall back!” She bellowed a primal cry, dropped all attempts to defend herself and launched herself axe-first. Paedric’s paw lost one massive finger, but he batted her aside as if it were nothing. Danthra rolled with the blow and reversed direction by kicking at a pillar. Then a new flash hit her. She was old, gray hairs evident in her hair and a slowness to her movements that shocked her. Karpathia was burning and she was using her royal axe to cut a way into the nursery. Little Oskhar the thirty-second was in there, her great-grandson was in there and… Tears burst anew in her eyes. He was the last prince of the Heartlands. 

Even if the city was lost, even if her life lay in tatters and they had to rebuild from scratch, she would see to it that her Heartlands would have their king of the old blood. Damn Seretique’s tardiness. Her own granddaughters had gone on a suicide run to get any reinforcements from their less than reliable allies across the borders. With a wheeze she finally broke through the door. In the present her unintentional cleave severed half the thing’s foot before it again swatted her. The older guard sat seemingly peacefully against the far wall, a fracture behind him and a pool of blood spreading from his broken back. She wobbled onto her hooves. “Ah, the bull-queen. I was wondering where you’d hidden away from my troops.” A man stood in the nursery, a vice-like hand holding the crushed corpse of little Oskhar. Wings spread from his back as a humorless grin unfolded under his moustache. “You have lost. Behold the new Principal God and prepare to die, whorish beast!” She knew this being as a God worshipped by the Luminaire, one Malus Lockedheart.

“How could you?!” Danthra knew she was going to die, but rage fueled her shivering body. “How could you do this to the world? How could you murder so many innocents?” He bleated a parody of laughter. “How not? The world needs to be cleansed in the fires of war. Your existence tainted these lands and doomed them from that day onward.” Fury had overtaken her, transcended into primordial wrath as she raised the axe and charged headlong into her final act of defiance. Danthra slipped, narrowly avoiding decapitating herself as she crashed into the wall. Oskhar appeared in her vision, along with the remaining guard. “Danthra? Danthra, how did you do-???” The look on his face was one she’d never forget. “Whut’d I’do??” She accepted their help, once they were certain she had no damage to her neck, to stand up. Looking behind her, she goggled before vomiting. The thing that had been Paedric Fent looked like it had been shredded by a brutal saw. Wiping her face, she uttered an epithet so foul that even she blushed. 

“M-my king. Gather-r the troops. I-I’ll get that blood brooding whore!” Without further thought or comment she charged through the hole in the wall. Oskhar and the guard stood dumbfounded, the king prodding the hacked up mess gingerly with his sword before coming to a decision. “You heard the lady, lets go to the ready room.”

Danthra raced through the maze-like corridors, feeling the fury of her older self still as she did the same. Flashes came again, more erratically, they beat the Luminaire off, barely. Malus had been so shocked by her wrath-empowered assault  that he’d retreated and ordered his troops to abandon looting the city in favor of pressing on. His efforts failed ultimately, she knew. But whatever victory the Demon Kingdom under the new rule of Marisaelle vi Alloriel claimed, was but pyrrhic. Aged queen Danthra saw the collapse of civilization on Praxis. What she salvaged from Karpathia and the ruins of the Heartlands would last some days beyond her life, but then desperate people would come seeking food and sanctuary. Finding neither, they brought the final end.

Tears streaked down Danthra’s face as she rounded a final turn, catching a whiff of perfume and spotting a furious tangle. A spot of painful light shone from Sefrana’s medallion, but Rainette clawed at her, enraged beyond caring of the garish wounds opening all over her body. Danthra bellowed, her axe once more trailing a crimson aura as she flung it ahead of her charging horns. Sefrana, Holy Mother of the Children of Fate kicked free and spoke a magical command and was gone before the axe shattered the wall. Danthra stopped, but barely in time to avoid trampling Rainette as she fell to the ground. As it was, she slammed into a pillar and knew no more for a while.

Interlude. The two lives

Daegra winced as she finished reading the accounts left by Oskhar the twenty-ninth. Her husband had speculated that if any such survived, they would be in an old hunting lodge that had all the attributes, but none of the trophies usually found within. It had been a place for the old king to reflect on his life and get away from the stress of being a monarch. Apparently he’d not penned the whole story as instructions had been left for his son to ask Danthra. Her Oskhar had grown agitated over the last few days and thus Daegra had read these books while in a hastily commissioned cart of sorts. Tulpa thankfully could cope with physical discomfort by making it not be there. It was an incredible feat if you thought about it, but the trick was not to think about it. An irrational part of her mind was fussing about what she should expect when she got home. Several beguiling nightmare scenarios formed and were dismissed, all but one. She was terrified of what would happen if she found Danthra to have passed away. Her mind tried instead to focus on a scenario inspired by one of Lysl’s family stories, where they’d merely find most of Karpathia under assault by mischievous baby Celestials.

When the entourage finally reached the mansion beside the palace, Oskhar’s family home, she noted Lysl’s shell next to it, as well as a different one that seemed to encapsulate a shrine and martial arts hall. Gynnaefi rushed out, the Revenant still looking slightly uncomfortable in her royal armor. “Thank the small graces! Daegra, you wouldn’t believe what just happened. Lysl and another Ureonggaksi just went into Danthra’s rooms and ordered me out. She said to bring you and Oskhar in as soon as possible.” Gynnaefi didn’t have time to dodge as Oskhar growled like a distempered bull and charged in, carrying her bodily along. “Corpsebile! Daegra, a little help here, please?” Daegra couldn’t suppress a chuckle as she bent down to retrieve her friend’s head and then used a teleportation spell to get there ahead of Oskhar. “Oof, I think I just hurled over your husband.” Gynnaefi looked more green than just her usual pale grey. “Please don’t do that, kayyyyy? Having an upset stomach is worse when you’re in two different places at once.” Daegra apologized, then opened the door. 

Inside was a surreal sight. Danthra sat wrapped in a blanket in her chair, asleep. In front of it a small altar of a sort had been positioned, with a stuffed doll representing Lady Eiraiha serving as its idol. Daegra nearly dropped Gynnaefi in shock as Danthra had repeatedly stated that the moment she would be caught sleeping wrapped in a blanket like some old lady was the moment someone should do the kind thing and put her to bed with a shovel. A gentle hand was placed over her mouth and Lysl motioned for them to step outside. She did so and a different Ureonggaksi followed right after them. After they closed the door, eight eyes stared imploringly at her. “Daegra, we need to tell you some things. But hi and hi to you as well Gynnaefi.” Lysl grabbed the Revenant’s head gently before hugging it to her bust. “I want to introduce you two to my cousin Chichi, who came here all the way from Meliddis.” Daegra blinked in surprise, that was a long trip. “How do you do, your majesty?” The girl was barely an adult Ureonggaksi, but she was surprisingly buff and polite. “I am Chichi Humblestone-Saerti. I apologize for entering your home without your permission, but-”

At that moment Gynnaefi whistled and a rapidly approaching roar became apparent. Daegra winced inwardly just much as she admired her husband for having run through the inner maze in record time. He looked like a berserker and was covered in debris while Gynnaefi’s body looked worse for the wear as well. “PÉEEEEEEEEEEÉEEÉEEÉÉÉEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEÉRRRRRRRRRRRRRRKKKKKKÈLLELLÈEEEEE.” Before she could stop either of them, due to Lysl trying to hide behind her, Chichi shot forward and knocked Oskhar off his feet with a footsweep and followed up by placing the stunned monarch in an armlock. “Quiet! I don’t know who you are, but who do you think you are to run around with a girl under your arm and screeching while in the queen’s home?” Gynnaefi laughed aloud even as her body grabbed its sides. “Should I tell her, Daegra?” Daegra huffed, then walked over and put a hand on both Chichi and her Oskhar. “Chichi, I appreciate your ‘help’ but could you please unhand my husband?” This caused Chichi to almost go into a panic, but unlike other Ureonggaksi she fought it down. “Sorry, m’m. I didn’t know, though he needs to keep quiet.”

She put a finger to her lips and asked them to retreat to a room on the other side of the hallway. Once inside, she and Lysl tried to explain. “Your majesties, I know you know whom cousin Lysl and I are related to. Our aunt Eiraiha has been working to put the world to rights.” Lysl nodded and added in: “Our family’s been helping her where and when we can, ever since aunt Miho and aunt Kaori met with her. She got adopted as well, later.” She twiddled her thumbs. “But while Praxis just means a lot of elbow grease and travelling-” Both laughed then and Chichi took over. “The problem is that mamonme still aren’t allowed into new Heaven. Aunt Eihy is working on that too, with her friend Myrrias working as head on the diplomatic end. I understand why she can’t just wave a finger and make it so, but the slow pace at which Celestials debate…. Well, normally we’d be looking at a centuries long waiting time.” Lysl affirmed this, but let Chichi have the word again. “In a nutshell, she has flat-out refused to let all those who worked so hard for this new chance for Praxis just die and…”

She bit her nail. “Fizzle out in the Astral Seas. So she cooked up this haletide blessing and let Granny Balase test it for flaws. Since lady Danthra was…” She and Lysl exchanged a glance. “About to die from old age, aunt Eihy asked me to come here with a prepared package. Once Granny Balase gave the thumbs up through the ARE, Lysl and I charged in here and used the package on lady Danthra. She’s sleeping off the initial effects, the ceremonial cloth protects her soul and prevents it from escaping.” Lysl sighed then and put a hand over her eyes. “Its still such a rough process. But that’ll be refined before its our turn, I hope.” Chichi nodded. “She had it rough Lysl, because her body was far gone. Aunt Eihy had to add an additional blessing to it.” They laughed then, shaking their heads.  Presently the door opened and a loud yawn sounded. “Uuuuooowf! Morning!” Danthra entered the room then, though Daegra only recognised her by the clothes she wore. “I’ve got a tree to fell with you crazy snails. Huh?” Danthra noted Oskhar and Daegra. “Hey kiddo’s, how did the trip go?” She stomped over and hugged Oskhar vigorously before treating Daegra to the same.

“Danthra, mom? What happened to you? You look decades younger.” Oskhar looked as surprised as he sounded. Lysl giggled behind her hand and got Chichi and Gynnaefi going as well. “It worked, that’s what happened.” Though a celebratory mood would hold the Heartlands for the next several days, Daegra did worry about what the haletide blessing might do to Danthra’s memory, so she caught her and asked her to relay what had not been in the accounts. Danthra sighed. “I really don’t like talking about it. But in a nutshell, once I hit that pillar I kind of was knocked out. When I got to, that evil woman was gone. Problem was, so was Rainette. Those Children of Fate, poor expendable fools they were, were driven off by Oskhar’s dad and the army. No, not just by him and the troops. I couldn’t be sure how they got word, but when night fell reinforcements from the mountain mamonme attacked them. I wish those girls hadn’t captured their poor sods though, by the next morning those had died, horribly, from that hag’s blood magic.” Danthra spat in disgust. “But the aftermath  was bad. The Preïades were all dead, or missing.”

She groaned at the memory. “Hossy’s dad and I did our best, but in the end those conspirators that lived were not killed. Rather, we placed what was left of them in their families’ care with the notion that we could destroy all traces of those families firmly hinted at.” Danthra’s smile was decidedly wicked then, before she dropped it. “Oskhar the twenty-ninth was a good man. We both wanted to get married so badly, but I told him what my visions had shown me and… we worked something out.” Daegra was at the receiving end of a glare that told her not to share this information. “In my other life, Clara had become my best friend. So in this life I set her and him up… Broke my heart. But she died not long after giving birth. I took over as Hossy’s mom, in private at least. Outwardly, Oskhar and I were just master and servant, but…” She shed tears then. “We did have a wonderful time together when we could. The sight never completely left me though. I knew when Rainette died. I had a minor edge when deciding what would be best, to work towards this time of peace and wonder.”

“Replacing the Preïades took time though, so those damn nobles could order a cover-up for the histories they disliked now and again. At least till my network was working.” She bellowed a laugh. “I thought I’d die though. The last vision I got, was me nodding off in the chair. But then those two shot in and now…” She made a fist so forcefully you could hear the bones creak. “I’m feeling good as new.” Daegra nodded, then asked her questions. “We’re grateful for that. But what will you do now? I’d understand if you wanted to get outside a bit more, but-” Danthra cut her off with a vigorous shake. “Karpathia is MY city. I’ll never leave her for long, nor Hossy. Damn me if that kid-” Danthra winced at the appellation. “-hasn’t mazed my heart but good. But I think that he might finally get you with a child if old moms² isn’t around for a little while. I’ll go visit the Grazelands for a bit, soon. And… The graves of my friends near the Bloodknoll.” Danthra sighed. “I’ll need to bring the shrine kit though, or I’ll wrinkle up again.” Queen Daegra watched her depart through the door leading to the battlements, then took her own crown off and bowed in respect. Still… “Maybe I should call Oskhar Hossy too?”

Chapter 22. Calm before the storm, storm before the war

While Karpathia struggled to drive off the Children of Fate, Nalgeeia and her party managed to reach the Grazelands. There they were surprised to see most of the others from the Aerdanic Gardens gathered there. Each with her own adventures to share and sorrows to relate, which they did while sharing a meal at the private dairy next to the Leaf and Hoof premises. Rooms were no problem as Ulrika had opened the shells she was looking after, though Seselie couldn’t fit into one without expending her last potion. She was happy to see her friends again and proved that when an Ushi-Oni was in a hugging mood, you’d be hugged, though Hoofleaf complained after the umpteenth bit of affection. “I don’t mind you gals staying here, but by the moons let me down!” Nalgeeia and Rowdrake would shortly thereafter be summoned for an audience with Queen Muntispeer. Despite the good cheer there was one thought that kept intruding: the approaching army of the Children of Fate. “What I don’t get-” Lette demurely peeked up from playing with her tail. “Is why the Luminaire allow this.”

“I mean, sure, maybe a few of those people are in it by their own free will, but using blood-link magic to force the rest to go along? Even before I became a mamonme that would have sickened me.” Glastine answered, hovering over her seat. “Little one, it is disgusting, no matter what species we are. Alive or dead. Human, mamonme or otherwise. It is a betrayal not only of Luminaire law, but worse. It is a betrayal of motherhood.” All nodded, though only Hoofleaf had borne children. “Yet true as that is, the Luminaire as a whole won’t bat an eye over it. They’re looking for any advantage to win the war, not to mention increase their influence. Sure, they may bemoan things if word gets out, but that is all. If the Children of Fate win this battle for the Grazelands, the Luminaire will be right behind them to push into the Demon Kingdom. Karpathia will fall then as well.” Glastine sighed and an aura of gloom emanated from her form. “Truth is, the war needs to end, sooner rather than later. No matter which side claims victory, problems are piling up and in my view, that doesn’t bode well in the long run.”

Hoofleaf nodded, stating how in her youth things had been different. “But that was then, this is now. Got nothing against Seretique vi Alloriel being our Demon Lord, but she’s been loafing about too much, instead of doing something about the issues. Heck, that her daughter got the research further ahead just by helping you all out. That makes me feel bad for those that will come after us.” They nodded, with varying degrees of sadness. “Korae did mention that the experiment had given lady vi Alloriel a second wind on where to go next.” Gudri sat with her feet immersed in a pail of water, a wet cloth slung across her shoulders to ease the dry breeze’s effects. “But if it will make her succeed? I don’t know. All I can say about it is that getting her motivation back is probably better than nothing.” Ulrika hummed as she hurriedly swallowed her food. “Mhhh~! But motivation or not, I don’t see how she can solve things. I mean, she used to have help, right? Those Aten people?” Then she burped, to general amusement.

At that time, Hoofleaf sighed, then stood up as she spotted something approaching. Reginne, who’d been nursing a glass of milk, picked up on this and flapped her wings to get a better view. As it rolled across the road, a cart was approaching. It had seen quite a lot of travel it seemed, though it was lovingly maintained and obviously familiar to Hoofleaf. “Heyyy~! I didn’t expect to see you here this season. What brings you here?” The driver chuckled as he waved in greeting. “A fine day to you mrs. Hoofleaf. Ain’t it the truth, I’m not here for the regular run.” He scratched his head in a slightly embarrassed fashion. “Though the missus was hoping ya might have some blackcrust cheese available.” This brought a hearty laugh from the old Bovitauride. “I might have, though not much longer. What with your wife and my guests munching it regularly. But you didn’t just come here for her cravings, eh? Join us at the table, I’ll introduce you to the girls.” So speaking she led the man to the table and asked the others to make some room.

“Young’ns, this is one of my customers. Not exactly a master merchant, but dependable. His wife likes my cheese something fierce, right mr. Natel?” He affirmed this with a laugh. “Innit the truth, though I’d not say no ta a piece neither. Ya make some fine cheese and then some, mrs. Hoofleaf. But is this some sorta cheese-lovers meetin’?” Reginne sighed and replied. “Not exactly, just a reünion of friends. But I am curious about this: your cart has seen a lot of miles obviously, you are a long-distance carter?” He nodded and showed her his palms. Each bore the marks of holding the reigns of his horses for a long time, yet appeared supple. “Been doin’ that about eleven years now, though most of the year I keep it a little closer to home on account of my sweet wife and kids.” He sighed. “Its honest livin’, but it ain’t easy since we live in a young town. Means not gettin’ some goods them folks need hits harder’n in the town I was born in.” He smiled. “Its a beautiful place though, with good folks. Just a bit different, since its got more than humans an’ mamonme livin’ there.” He took a small slice of cheese from the platter Hoofleaf proffered.

“Splendid, its a right winner. Ya think it’ll travel, mrs. Hoofleaf? If so I’ll get a wheel for m’self.” He grinned in a slightly goofy way. “If not, then I’mma gonna stay a bit longer.” Hoofleaf chuckled in an indulgent fashion as the man made small talk with the others. Seselie tapped Reginne on her shoulder though and asked in a whisper: “You think he’s that Gust Natel Laerine told us about?” Reginne shrugged as she replied: “He might be, but should we ask him?” As they looked back to where he’d been sitting, they noted that he’d left his seat and was leading Hoofleaf to the dairy, obviously seeking some privacy and potentially more cheese. While the conversation was beyond their hearing, it was obvious this possible Gust Natel was feeling like he was treading on thin ice. His body language was all but screaming not to shoot the messenger. Hoofleaf looked thoughtful, shrugged, and patted him on his shoulder before shaking her head and replying. “Looks like she’s giving the same answer she gave Sukina to him.” Ulrika had slid under Seselie’s legs to look at the conversation. “I can’t make out what they’re saying, but her posturing is almost exactly the same.”

Her eyestalks strained forward. “I’m guessing he got sent here to pick her up. And on that note, I’ll bet she’s had to say no quite a lot, mrs. Hoofleaf makes fine cheeses.” Seselie and Reginne nodded, together the three of them watched as the man gave Hoofleaf what appeared to be a small scroll wrapped in Aranei silk, curiously the vellum appeared to be exactly the colour of milk. She accepted this graciously, and as they returned, she seemed to be assuring him that the messenger need not fret about the cheese he liked passing him bye. “What? Can’t an old woman talk to a man without you gossiping?” Hoofleaf shook her head, then perked up as a very tired looking Nalgeeia and Rowdrake strode in from the road. “Children, get yourself seated. You look more tired than I do after three all nighters.” They happily accepted and Nalgeeia all but inhaled the glass of milk Glastine handed her. “Whewwwwrlllll~! I needed that. Official meetings take forever, even here.”

“How’d she take it? Grumbling, I’ll bet.” Hoofleaf shook her head with mock resignation. “Actually better than we’d hoped.” Rowdrake wiped the sweat off of his forehead. “Queen Muntispeer is readying the militia and the harpy-kin have been sent to gather volunteers from the wild lands to the north-west.” Nalgeeia nodded, eyeing the bottom of her glass like a hungry kitten. “And she sent really fast ones to the Demon Lord’s Generals and the other Queens.” A somewhat perplexed look came onto Gust’s face then. “Huh? What for?” Nalgeeia turned towards him with a surprised look on her face. Some hurried introductions later, she explained the situation and the threat of the approaching Children of Fate. “Dang, that’s the other shoe then.” Gust sat down heavily, almost on Lette’s tail, and put his hands on his shoulders in a gesture of helplessness and hurt. “Couple’ a months ago, I an’ a couple o’ neighbours got woke up on the road. Some sorta spell’d brought us sleepwalkin’ there. Mrs. Alyssum’s daughter saved us, but she dinn’t know what spell it was.” He shivered. 

“Only that ta break it, she had ta hurt the one callin’ us. Ya know who that were?” He gave a soulful but grim smile. “Our bi-a-logical mam. I found two sisters, nice ta know, though Beltha was scared of dolls. Bit of an issue since the missus an’ our kids are Coppelia.” He sighed. “But ya know… I dinn’t think there’d be so many an’ all’a them enslaved by ya’r sayin’.” He stood up and resolutely slammed one fist into his palm. “I ain’t no warrior. But ta sit idle ain’t my gig. I’mma gonna try an’ get ya some help. Mrs. Hoofleaf, can ya forgive me if’n I leave again?” Hoofleaf gave him a wordless hug for a good long while before speaking. “You do what you need to. But I’ll get you some cheese before you go. Lette, Ulrika, come.” Gust was left at the table, sunk in gloom until Seselie and Reginne sidled over. “Uhmmm… Pardon me.” Seselie gingerly prodded his shoulder with a clawed finger. “But are you that Gust Natel, who was involved in the Gravelhold… event?” Reginne placed a hand on his shoulder and spoke up as well. “If so, could we speak to you about that?”

Gust gave a mirthless bark of a laugh. “What about it? Got horribly mis-used there, though ta tell the truth all folks there did. Dunno what ya heard, but it were worse than that.” Seselie lowered herself so she was closer to eye-level to Gust. “We heard two accounts, one by that mrs. Alyssum and the other… well. It doesn’t excuse what she did there and then, but Laerine told us as well.” Gust noticably stiffened, Reginne quite gently responded as if consoling a frightened child. “Please don’t be alarmed. She can’t harm you, nor would we.” Seselie nodded. “Its just… well, she saved my life, and reunited me with my Terim. But she underwent a lot of changes since we met her. Would you be willing to consider accepting her apolo-” Gust sprang up with enough force to lift Reginne, turning red with anger. “NO! I never wanna see her again! That hell-spume HURT me. Treated ME like a lump’a clay ta play with! Not as a person! Friggin’ CLAY! An’ ALL others she took!”

He poked Seselie while a slightly stunned Reginne hung on. “Ya say she saved ya? Then ya were useful ta her! That’s all anybody ever were ta her!” At this moment he removed Reginne and stomped to his cart, turning the horses and all around with practiced ease and drove off, much to the chagrin of Hoofleaf who scolded the two former humans something fierce. She made them return most of the cheese and then take two wheels to the messenger roost for an intercept-delivery. “That durned boy had a hard life. Your poking and prodding made it harder.” She sighed with emotional fatigue. “Should’ve had some more time to speak with him. He lives in the same town as one of my cousin’s daughters. Girl got into trouble, married some ex-Luminaire and got strange ideas. Ideas those fanatical loyalists didn’t like.” Hoofleaf looked as old as she felt. “He tried to patch things up.” With that she left the party and retired to her bedroom. The place looked as old and worn as she herself felt, but it was hers. 

Laying down on the bed, she blinked as she felt a small lump in her dress. It was the scroll that Gust had given her. Though Hoofleaf had built her dairy business on knowing the value of what she bought and sold, the scroll was made of a material she’d never seen. Probably valuable, since it was protected by an Aranei silk wrapping. She had no doubts as to the value of that, it must have been woven by a mistress of the silken arts. Now what’d he say again? That she’d need to read it before he’d have to leave? A bit late then. Maybe it’d be best to leave it for the morning. By Io, she’d been so busy with the party and then that argument. It tired her, to the bone. Sleep claimed her soon after, her mind filled with memories of a small hovel where her father and mother had raised their young. By the time Lette came by to check on her, Hoofleaf had passed away into the night. In this she was spared the days to come.

While the others insisted on sharing in the wake that Hoofleaf’s daughters and Lette organised, Nalgeeia worried some foul play might have contributed to the old Bovitauride’s death and insisted on inspecting her bedroom. Every item, every piece of furniture and every scratch on the woodwork looked to have been there for decades, bar drawings made by Hoofleaf’s great-grandchildren and the scroll given earlier that day. It became the focus of Nalgeeia’s investigation. Teasing the silk wrapping off, she unrolled the scroll and stared in amazement at its contents. Basically, it held an outline of a hand and the words “Place your hand here”.

On impulse, she did so, feeling foolish until a flash of light engulfed her vision. When she could see again, she stood on a glass platform amidst mists. As she tried to take in the view, a bright light shone behind her and a chord of exquisite beauty sounded. Turning, she blinked, then her tail fluffed like a plumeau and she nearly bit through her tongue.

“Well, you’re not whom I was expecting Nalgeeia.” She saw the Principal Goddess Eiraiha before her and couldn’t get a word out. “Did Gust accidentally give the scroll to you? Oh dear, cat got your tongue again?” Striding confidently, Eiraiha closed the distance and lightly held Nalgeeia by the shoulders. “I mean you no harm, but I do need to know what’s going on here. Will you tell me?” Twin rainbow-banded eyes looked at her, as they had months before on a much smaller face. It gave Nalgeeia the confidence to answer. “Lady Eiraiha, I did not expect to meet you here either. Mr. Natel did deliver the scroll to mrs. Hoofleaf, but I have to report that she passed away in her sleep.” This caused a small thunderstorm to appear over Eiraiha’s head. “I-I-I… I wanted to be sure that this scroll hadn’t harmed her.” The dark cloud lightened slightly, dispensing snowflakes that drifted down with gentle sadness as Eiraiha replied. “I see. I see and it saddens me. Clover… I’m not sure how to break this news to her.” She stopped speaking, cocking her head to one side as if listening.

“Okay Gust, get back home. I’m afraid Hoofleaf is no longer in Praxis.” She turned her attention back to Nalgeeia. “Sorry, I just got a message by prayer from Gust. Is it true that… Laerine vi Alloriel is a friend of yours Nalgeeia?” Almost imperceptibly the grip on her shoulders intensified. Nalgeeia took refuge in honesty, come what may. “To some degree, yes. We heard the story about Gravelhold from Reginne and Seselie. And that mr. Natel’s reaction to their attempt to ask him about it….” She shook her head. “All I can say is that matching those actions to Laerine as I’ve come to know her doesn’t add up. Not anymore at least. Seselie, Reginne and Terim have had more contact with her and they told me she is trying to make up for it.” This produced a sigh filled with barely contained anger. “I hold that all sinners should be allowed to atone if they are sincere. But Laerine’s sins-” The word was sharp and unpleasant, wholly unmusical. “They are severe indeed. To such a degree that I would incinerate her if she caught me in a bad mood.” Eiraiha released Nalgeeia, straightening her dress in an obvious attempt to calm down.

“I have had to heal more than a few of her victims.” This was followed by a shrug and a severe look. “The coming days will be hard, Nalgeeia. I have heard of the approaching army as well. They are not sanctioned by me and I intend do what I can about their divine sponsor or sponsors. Beyond that though, I can only help a little bit. I do not have an army at my command on Praxis that I could send. But I’ve called for volunteers and hopefully they can make a difference.” She looked sad at the admission, but grasped Nalgeeia by the hands. “Here, take my blessings. If you place your hand on someone and speak the word æstus, evil will not strike easily at them.” Nalgeeia looked at her hands, which glowed, but then on an impulse hugged a very surprised Eiraiha. “Thank you, Lady Eiraiha. I will try to use this gift wisely. And thank you as well for taking care of my family’s tomb.” Nalgeeia was surprised by the emergence of a small rainbow and giggles. “Don’t mention it.”

“Now, be careful out there. If you like, come visit Crystal Plinth. Just… be careful whom you bring.” With that she waved goodbye and Nalgeeia awoke, blinking in the gloom until her pupils dilated. The scroll had turned into faintly luminescent motes. An… interesting encounter to say the least. But it had brought home the danger still to be faced. Nalgeeia resolutely left the room and headed to the wake.

Interlude: Ruination

Korae and Liccitia entered the Aerdanic Gardens, each with mixed feelings. To the Sorceress, it was akin to coming back to a house that had been home once, if for but a brief few months. Now it was a ruin that tore at her heart. To the Mahoumet Goddess it evoked a sense of danger akin to a dungeon, but also a feeling of reverence. While not exactly a holy place, her senses told her that the hopes of many people had been pinned here and that the ruins were a bastion of good will. “Talk to me Korae, what haven’t you told me about this place? Even if you had Genies from Ithus involved in the construction, this never could have been built and then discarded in such a short time.” She gingerly traced a carving of a naked woman of indeterminate species while Korae quietly contemplated. “Well…” She answered. “The fortress known as the Citadel of Desires was the seat of power for the Demon Lords. But the Demon Kingdoms did not always have the same borders. We both were born, and reborn in your case, long after Seretique took over.” Korae tapped the floor with her staff.

“In between times, some histories were recorded and subsequently lost, thereby making it extremely difficult to know the exact origins of this location. You are correct, we did just… renovate a little in this place. The name was found chiseled into a slab of stone, though if that is the original name?” She shrugged. “If you were to try to plough through the walls you’d probably get hurt, badly. Laerine had brought in a Dragon to knock an old wall down, one of the Lyndwyrm family no less. Seeing her get up to speed was something, but after the dust cleared we had to treat her for a fractured skull and severe concussion. The oldest foundations are impervious to harm, we learned.” Licci shrugged in response. “Another ye olde mystery in a nutshell. Praxis, Ithus and just about every other world we’ve discovered is riddled with them. I’d almost give up my hooves just to find some explanation for one of them.” She stretched out her wings as far as they could in the corridor. “Though sometimes, when we do find an answer its bizarre. You heard about that strange barge they found buried near the Ridge of Sky’s Edge?”

“No, not as such. In between atoning duties and spending time with Sere I’m not yet up to speed on all things that happened.” Korae looked slightly embarrassed at the admission. Licci grinned. “Well, this ought to make you laugh then. Some Mudwasps had been asked by C’try Mice to dig up some specific rocks there that would be good for their fields. And see if the area didn’t contain something in terms of old treasure or interesting bits of history for the rewards issued by Karpathia’s queen.” She flipped her hair dismissively. “But then they struck gold, literally. The Mudwasps unearthed a large metal and stone platform, on which sat a… well, what they figured was a skybarge from the Age of Marvels. Lost technology! Worth enough to buy half of Praxis with!” She barely contained a grin. “So when they had invited the Tsuki no Usako over, and several others, like that old crotchety God Wieland and presented it to them? It turns out that the ‘skybarge’ was a cargo-cult idol.” She laughed. “Primitive people living there had traded with sky-people, up until the Tsuki no Usako evacuated to Praxis.”

“When they no longer came by, the inhabitants poured all their wealth into making a lure for the skybarges. The Mudwasps, C’try Mice, humans and others who’d hoped to get rich from the find felt a little disappointed. They still got something though, Wieland declared the platform to be a landing-dock and promptly remembered how to make the ‘stone’ for one. Thanks to that, we now have a new kind of concrete. Even with all the hassle, getting anything useful out of that old shut-in is worth it.” Korae thoughtfully considered this and nodded. “I think that is true. But to imagine these sky-barges… I can’t fathom how they could work. We did try getting Harpies to fly to the stars, but even with warming bracelets and a bag of air they only got so high before the air got too… thin, in their words, to fly in. It was one of the few times Seretique got directly scolded by the Empress of Zipangu’s Court of the Moons for recklessly endangering those girls. Apparently, between Praxis and the stars there’s a void.” 

Licci nodded. “Eiraiha showed it to me and its a dangerous place. Meteors the size of cities hurtle by there sometimes. And there are all kinds of rays, dust and foreign objects that can harm a body.” She sighed. “Some folks call it the playpen of the Gods, but really its more like being at the forefront against a riot. Only the stones are bigger. Let’s continue though, I want to check all the rooms.” Though the Aerdanic Gardens were showing definite signs of neglect, Licci privately concluded that most of the damage was superficial. Maybe this was a good site for her Sorceress recovery centre? Eventually they ended up in Korae’s former study and she exclaimed in consternation: “Augh! I’ve been looking for this book for the past sixty years! I wish the author was still alive, but alas, its the final book she wrote.” The Sorceress tsk’d and carefully put it in her bag of holding. Licci meanwhile cocked her head to one side and listened. What she heard was alarming enough to reach for the crayon at her side, which unfolded magically into her favorite scythe. “Defenses up Korae! We’re not alone!”

The doors to the inner chamber blew off their hinges, revealing a darkness that burned. “DEFILERS! TRAITORS!” This was gonna be one of those days.

Chapter 23. Battle of the Bloodknoll

“Do you think this will work?” Seselie ran her hand across the surface of this.. this… this wall with a roller that Ulrika had built. It mostly was soil and Ureonggaksi slime plastered over a wood and metal frame, studded with pebbles on the front and possessing four vertical slits for the few archers they had to fire from. Had Seselie not seen Ulrika shape it, she’d have been at a loss how it could have come to be short of magic. “I think it will, Sese. I mean, Kusu could have made it better and I can’t yet completely make a shell, but this-” She bonked the outer surface with a large stone. “Should withstand an army. I even think you’d have a hard time cracking it, hihi~!” Seselie could only nod. The idea was that Ulrika could provide mobile cover while the archers moved along and sniped incoming footsoldiers. Its ridged front should absorb even a catapult thrown stone without suffering too greatly. “They still haven’t found any armor for you though?” Four eyes cast a worried glance over Seselie’s body.

“Nope, Terim’s kitted and he’s trying to get a breastplate for me. My horns aren’t handy with helmets. Not even those of the Minotaurides since theirs are a different shape.” Three spidery limbs stomped the ground. “Might as well pull a leather cloak over my head and use dishcovers as shields, if either were available here.” Ulrika laughed at this unsightly prospect before shaking her head and grasping Seselie by the arm. “None of that. Look, its not rock, but I had some spare soil and slime to make these for you.” Shyly she pointed to what at a glance appeared to be mismatched pottery. “Its not much, but it covers most of you.” Quickly she slipped parts over Seselie’s body. It flowed like mud under Ulrika’s direction, but was solid as stone when Seselie touched it. “Amazing, how do you do that?” Ulrika giggled and claimed a trade secret. Elsewhere Glastine and Rowdrake were directing the Bovitaurides’ effort at digging trenches. While C’try Mice and Ureonggaksi had salvaged as much of the harvest as possible, they lacked the expertise to dig as deep as needed in the time remaining. Nalgeeia and Gudri kept track of the approaching army as scouts while Lette took turns at the cooking fire.

Meanwhile, Reginne had cowed three wandering men into chopping a log into small stools. From the relative safety of one of the shelters dug into a low hill she could keep an ear on things while she taught the gathered children several new things about life in Luminaire lands. Though some were human and two were incubi, the rest were little mamonme who definitely had slightly possessive streaks towards the boys. Privately she wondered just how safe this little classroom was until she spotted a tunnel behind a screen. 

By late afternoon the first sortie came. Nalgeeia watched as rather old men and women in homespun woollens and bark armor charged at the defenses, lobbing small amphora’s with a lit fuse at the wooden barricades. These burst into flames upon shattering, but failed to ignite the wetted timber. Instead of retreating, they plodded onward, oblivious to the missiles hurled their way. The expressions on their faces held pain and grief, much to the defenders’ astonishment. Then suddenly their bodies swelled at an alarming rate, prompting Nalgeeia to yowl a warning. The Minotaurides hurriedly launched a smoothed timber that crashed into the bloated forms.

They exploded a moment later. The force involved was  enough to rock the barricade and rain fragments of wood and soil on the defenders. “The fuck was that?” A Minotauride who’d sighted for those who’d thrown the timber peeked over the barricade again, plucking a sliver of wood  from her shoulder. “They… they’re all gone.” So was much of the terrain. A deep pit had appeared and blasted soil pattered down with a rather unnervingly soft sound. The barricade still held, but it looked as if it had been hit by a meteorite. “Behold our power, beasts of misery.” The voice held no malice, just as it held no compassion, sounding in each ear. “We are the Children of Fate, holy warriors on a quest to slay the vile being known as the Demon Lord. You, as her spawn, are not wanted on Praxis. We can kill you! We can erase you from existence! But by the Gods’ light, you can avoid that fate. Surrender now and join us in our quest. Once Seretique vi Alloriel dies you will be sent to a world of your own, where you may live in peace. If you do not, then death shall claim you and your spawn today.”

The woman who made this declaration tried to keep her composure. “We are prepared to die! We are prepared, man and woman, to make the final sacrifice as our some of our elders did just now.” A simple gesture sent an image floating over the field, depicting a tortured succubus on a frame of ironwood. “We have already defeated a powerful member of the vi Alloriel family, we can and will bring down the rest of those degenerates. You have one hour to surrender!” She ended the magic that carried her words and reached under her mask to wipe away the tears that ran freely from her eyes. Her own father and mother had died in that senseless display of violence that she herself doubted would bring these inhuman beings under control. The threat to their children was even less likely to produce results. But the Holy Mother had dictated this strategy, claiming that a victory here was essential. It still did not stop the tears, nor the sense of hopelessness that surrounded this entire venture. “Shantal, she’s asking for you.” The speaker was a youngish man trying not to scratch at his beard. “I thought she would. But Baram, you should shave, I can spot the rash from here. I’ll go see her, but that doesn’t mean I like it.” He nodded in response. “I hear you sis. Careful with your tongue though.” Shantal nodded, patting him on the shoulder as she passed.

The camp was almost completely dismantled, but she saw the depressions in the ground where supplies had been stored, squashed plantlife where tents and tarps had been pitched. One tent still remained, that of Holy Mother Sefrana, where she sat upon a seat most deceptive. The design was inornate, practical and comfy. Unless one paid attention to detail and noticed that it was upholstered in rare leather, that platinum banded ironwood instead of iron banding starplumwood and that even to a novice the chair sparkled with magic. “Shantal, its good to see you. Now come to your grandmother and report.” Sefrana patted a smaller chair, more a footstool with attitude, with an air of indulgent patience. “Honestly, you really shouldn’t wear that mask,  it is most unbecoming of you.” Shantal shrugged in reply. “It is the mark of my calling, Holy Mother.” She reported, sparing no details and adding her own thoughts on the needless sacrifice. Sefrana admonished her. “We cannot afford to show weakness. That display should keep them off kilter so that they consider us capable of anything. That we are the bogeypeople that can destroy monsters. Besides which, I have assurances from Heaven that those that make the sacrifice will not be forgotten when we claim victory over the Demon Lord.”

While historians later agreed that while Sefrana’s strategy might have worked against humans, it effectively prevented a bloodless outcome. The inhabitants of the Grazelands had seen a suicidal attack turn into a suicide bombing and from that (some would say rightfully) concluded that surrendering would be equivalent to throwing their lives and those of their loved ones into hell’s maw. Their fear and anger gave way to determination, which galvanised their actions. The army of the Children of Fate had become something of a cohesive yet irregular armed force, but instead of facing a demoralized and frightened mob, they faced an impromptu militia that to the core was vastly more motivated to end the threat invading their lands. Classic tacticians would have been shocked. Human ground troops charged in, headless of the mangonel stones flying barely ahead of them, each group trying to isolate and attack the links in the enemy line they perceived as weak. Bovitaurides were poor combatants, but were capable wielders of the large shields they bore. Minotaurides gracefully arced over and between them with their axes while human and incubi husbands employed pikes.

While the line might have been broken by sheer effort, the Children of Fate were repelled time and time again by Ulrika’s mobile wall. The archers firing from the slits in it drove attackers off, while a support team behind gathered the wounded. Some of the invaders were steamrolled by the wall and more than a few were scared senseless by the cheese-induced burps Ulrika made. “Hard left Ulrika! Whoops, there goes another one.” Ulrika made the turn, trying to ease some of the wall’s weight of the screeching man. It wasn’t as hard to carry  as Kusuhimi’s shell had been at first, even when the girls leaned on it for support in fear of being left behind. She glanced over to the other side of the battlefield where Seselie, Lette and Terim worked in tandem. It was inappropriately funny to see Seselie pluck weapons out of attackers’ hands and toss them aside like dead rats. The armor worked quite well too, she was glad to note. Then three mangonel stones crashed into her wall and Ulrika swore as part of it cracked inwards. She angled towards a large boulder relatively safe. Repairs on the fly were no issue if she had but a moment.

Glastine meanwhile vented her pent-up rage, aided in this by Gudri’s illusions. The display might have seemed comical from a distance, but the Phantasm’s fury jangled the emotions of those attacking her. Nalgeeia and Rowdrake worked efficiently, using leather bonds to bind stunned men and women alike. From her command post, Sefrana scowled. Things looked to be devolving into a stalemate at best. Seeing some of her stratagems being countered left her mystified, mamonme weren’t psychic, right? Reaching inside, she tapped into the reservoir bestowed to her by Laudican and his associates, mentally selecting the less useful of her forces for a bout of mayhem. It was fighting fire with fire, shadow with shadow, as Demonic Energy was not that different from the pool of power that she had at her disposal. Pomdall, Asthreta, Binok, Tarreep’ta. Yes they would do. Sefrana connected to them through the blood and pushed the power into their bodies, which reacted spectacularly. “Ahhhh… to glory my children!” Each screeched as their bodies warped, taking ferocious shapes and shutting their human souls in a small mental compartment. 

Her other children knew what to do, retreating back without protest, though almost all shared looks of revulsion and horror. It mattered not. The four changed ones she prodded into action towards the barricades, which shattered under their might before her control slipped. Free  of restraint, each went ballistic, seeking to slaughter any and all that stood before them. It gave her no pleasure as such, to see them in their current form. No matter how many fell to their claws, these children of hers had lost their humanity and only death would set them free. Tarreep’ta ‘s warped body was the first to fall as Harpies used hooked ropes to lift it off the ground while battered Minotaurides hacked her form apart. Sefrana willed a pulse of devastation, but her daughter’s lifeforce was gone and therefore no explosion followed. Meanwhile Pomdall’s distended jaws clamped down on another Bovitauride hiding behind a shield. Useless cows, bah! The hellspawn embodiment was originally intended as a last gambit, yet she found it so very useful in this war she intended to wage. She noticed that Pomdall’s efforts were hampered by the Ushi-Oni who fought like a dairy-farmer. She ripped his maw open with her hands, using her spidery lower limbs to bat his flailing ones away.

Sefrana noted that the hapless Bovitauride who’d been inhaled struggled for freedom while another tried to pull her out. She blinked as that Bovitauride lost a breast to Pomdall’s claw, without even a hint of discomfort. Was there some truth to the notion that monsters could ignore pain, even convert it to pleasure? Asthreta and Binok were doing well, incubi and Minotaurides flew like pins in front of a heavy ball. There! There was that damn wall again! It turned and she could see now that one of those supposedly harmless snails was driving it, until several faster mamonme started pushing it along. Binok barely spun out of the way, but Asthreta was squished. “Manda! Destroy that abominable wall, QUICK!” Manda, or Mandarus the Magnanimous as he preferred to be called, was one of her greater joys. Like his father, he was an accomplished battle-magus. The difference was that Manda had eschewed common pyroclastic spells in favor of rather… unusual ones. As Sefrana watched, he drew an arcane symbol in the air, then cast strange components at it. As these passed through, a ball of darkness and unnatural energies formed and eventually sped off.

The effects were spectacular, the wall and the mamonme driving it seemed to be pulled towards an unseen hole, a mage of sorts on the other side tried to dispel it and save them, but all it did was expand the hole, showing some things vaguely resembling trees undulating in the distance. Shrieks came from those being dragged inside, including the damn Ureonggaksi, good riddance to her. On the other side of the field Nalgeeia shrieked Ulrika’s name, as did others call for their lost friends and loved ones. Seselie heard Nalgeeia and gasped as she saw the wound in reality close. “N-no!” Her momentary lapse in attention allowed the thing that had been Pomdall to close its jaws on Lette, whose legs toppled to the ground separately. It was the last mistake the thing made as Seselie roared in utter fury. She had no recollection of what she did, only that when next she came to, Terim was calling her name and holding her hand and someone was chanting close by. A woman, holding Seselie’s other hand as if she held hands with Ushi-Oni daily and thought nothing of doing so. Seselie blinked, looking at Terim with a lopsided smile before studying the woman.

She was garbed strangely, dressed in a cloak that seemed to blur slightly, despite being a warm, light colour. “Feeling better? I was afraid you’d lost too much blood for me to call you back.” The voice had a slightly unusual cadence, as if the speaker was inhaling air, rather than exhaling it to speak. Seselie blinked. “Wh-whut? What happened?” Terim held her close, wordlessly, until Nalgeeia stepped into view, her tail fluffed to spectacular proportions. “What happened…” The knightly Cat-si swallowed. “We were being beaten by those things and their army until you went ballistic and these folks showed up. Seselie, I can hardly believe it, but you tore two of those… Hellspawn? You tore them to pieces with your bare hands.” The robed woman nodded. “I saw it as we approached. Never before have I witnessed such battlefury, such reckless abandon. You were hurt, badly, by a ballista bolt. Yet you fought on.” She stood up, dusting off her robe. “Stay with your lover and rest. I must attend others now.” Seselie felt tired, but she reached out and gently gripped the woman on her leg. “Th-thank you. But who are you? What’s your name?”

The woman looked conflicted for a moment, then gently touched Seselie on her hand. “Ladina. Ladina of the-” She abruptly stopped as another woman in robes charged up, revealing intricately worked metal boots and a hint of a braid. Silvery blonde hair was something Seselie had not seen before. “Ladina. We cannot share that. Go tend to the others now.” Ladina nodded, patted Seselie on the hand in farewell and left. Nalgeeia cautiously saluted the remaining woman, who nodded in a military fashion before addressing Seselie. “You’d make one incredible soldier, spidergirl. With sufficient training. But for now I order you to rest. We’ll help the wounded before going after the greater evil and its army.” She snorted. “Confound it though, a great test of our mettle and we nearly missed it.” She turned to Nalgeeia. “We both were lucky that a certain someone cared enough about you to personally ask us to do this. But we cannot disclose who that is, or whom we are. So count your blessings, Nally.” With that and a flourish of her robe, she was gone.

Nalgeeia sat down next to Seselie and Terim with a sigh harboring pain. “It would seem we did well. But the losses… I didn’t know everyone, but losing Ulrika and Lette like that was awful. I’m just glad you survived Seselie. And you too Terim.” Terim sighed, nodding with grief evident on his face as he replied. “I’m still… I don’t know. In shock? Seselie is alive though, as are many more thanks to those people.” He indicated the robed women, some of whom knelt by wounded and chanted what appeared to be healing spells. Others patrolled with oddly concealed weaponry. “Do you know whom they are Nalgeeia?” Nalgeeia’s ears flattened to the sides. “Honestly, I do not know them. But she called me Nally and recently there’s been only one person who did that. But I can’t say more, they might leave then.” She scooted to the side slightly as Glastine rose from the ground like mist and tutted with a hint of disapproval. “You need to rest, all three of you. Rowdrake has gotten some food for us. Seselie, can you walk, or shall I try levitating you?” The Phantasm wore a look of concern as Seselie clambered to her limbs, shakily wobbling as she struggled for balance.

Seselie shrugged. “A little help would be nice, I feel weak…” She heaved a sigh as Glastine’s touch took the weight off of her limbs. “Thank you.” They made their way towards Hoofleaf’s dairy, which served as a hub for the militia now. “Lette, Ulrika… those other folks… We lost many, Terim?” Seselie’s questions was met with a resigned shake of her husband’s head. “Too many Sese, too many. We’re lucky that those robed women and reinforcements from the Demon Kingdom came. You remember those Harpies we met? But the hill where we lost most people… Where they are digging graves now? Its been named the Bloodknoll. And even at that awful cost we just fended off that evil army and their horrors.” He shook his head and gently patted her on her torso. “But you need some rest and food dearling.” As he hastened to lead Seselie to the rug-and-pillow bed they’d made for her, a struggle of a different sort took place a mile from them.

“You still live, Nimleine Windblade? Somehow I am not surprised.” The tone was airy, but there was a wary undercurrent to the speaker’s voice. Nimleine eyed her damaged pipe critically, affecting an unconcerned air. “I do at that Valhyringe. Though I’m surprised to see you and your girls near this battlefield.” She gazed at her opponent as she put the pipe in a pouch. “Fighting against human zealots? Have you taken leave of your senses?” Nimleine shook her head in shock that was only marginally exaggerated. Valhyringe bowed her head, heaved a sigh and then replied. “No. Had someone told me ten years ago that we would meet without fighting one another on sight, I would have dismissed them as insane.” Nimleine nodded, gesturing for her to get on with it. “Yet here we are. And fighting to save mamonme. The reason why is… complicated though. But we got a direct request from a sword-sister’s daughter to do that. Know this: she vehemently argued for this intervention.” Valhyringe pulled back her cowl, revealing her silver-blonde hair and winged helmet. “I was sceptic. I even asked our Nornir to dispel any enchantments on her. But having spoken to these people who live here and having witnessed their valor, I could not agree more. That still does not apply for the whole Demon Kingdom though, but I suggest we part without further bloodshed.” Nimleine agreed, promising not to mention the intervention by the Valkyriar to her commanding officers. Yet this peaceful parting was but a lull in the storm.

Interlude: Cube puzzle

“You see Nelfi, it moves by electricity. If you put in enough it will move for approximately twenty minutes.” A slender hand marked by calluses blocked the metallic cube’s path as it marched along the table. “It doesn’t think, but it can react to changes in its surroundings by going over a little ‘list’ I put into it.” The cube whirred and started to move away from Nauka’s hand, off to the left. Nelfi watched with four eyes shining in amazement and her mouth open. “That is sooo~o great miss Nauka! But how does it go over a list without a brain?” Nelfi cupped her hands as the little automaton neared the edge of the table. Instead it stopped when one of the brace-like outer legs tapped down and didn’t encounter a floor. The little limb dipped lower and swiveled from side to side, causing the cube to whirr anew. Nauka grinned at Nelfi, who kept her eye-stalks on the cube belonging to the latest Serebim to join them at the table. There was quite a lot to discover for her, as Nauka’s outfit had several pockets full to bursting.

“That’s a big secret! No, actually it was pretty easy for someone with my intellect. On the inside is an action grid. If there’s an obstacle, then my Mk4.56 QT-Cube idles while a ratchet inside runs down the grid. It checks first if there’s a step below the edge that it can safely get to. If there is, my little friend will activate stair-mode. If there isn’t?” Nauka grinned, her eyes flashing. “Well, then it will move back a bit and go in a different direction.” She clapped her hands and pointed with both her index fingers at the little cube as it encountered Marisaelle’s plate and cautiously tested it. Then it wobbled in place before springing up slightly and landing on the plate. “Figuring out how to make it climb stairs was a lot harder. Right now it uses a spring coiled around the rotational limb, but I have to adjust that regularly, or either will break eventually.” Maraina smiled, Nauka was more introverted than  other Serebim, but she had discovered that she loved to teach children. Bringing her in had been a stroke of genius she reflected as she adjusted her glasses. 

Meanwhile, Marisaelle wore a look that their father swore had not changed since he’d tried making her eat green sprouts as a toddler. The senior Serebim did not like the cube. It’s movements reeked of magic, but she couldn’t detect anything of that in the little critter. “This thing gives me the shivers. And I don’t see the point. If I want something actually cute and brainless moving about the house then I would let you bring that slime girl over.” Nauka coloured red and seemed fit to spit lightning, which she couldn’t actually. But it was Nelfi who got her words out first. “For shame miss Marisaelle! I’s just a lil’ Ureonggaksi, but that wasn’t nice, neither ways.” She gently grabbed the cube and put it down in front of herself, encircling it with her arms. “Slimes is smart enough to raise kids, right? An’ this cutie-cube is amazin’. Cousin Rukia’d say it better, but I’s seeing it can do more.” She absentmindedly scratched her nose and examined her finger. “Maybe bringing things to people, like drinks or meals?”

Nauka squealed with delight. “It could, if I made it bigger. But dear Azul is in possession of a mind and her body is in part a brain, as it is (in a sense) with all slimes. Mhmmmh~!  But my little friend can become so much more, if I can just figure out how to make it do some things and work on from there. I do not have magic, so I have to figure out how it can be done without that.” Marisaelle shook her head. Privately, she wished with all her heart that she could grant Nauka that talent, as she loved all her little sisters. Almost as if they were her own daughters in fact. But this was messing with technomancy, something that invariably ended in an explosion. Giving a shrug, she conceded that the blasted little thing might have some potential, though she doubted it could ever wield a sword or become a cute mamonme without some serious magical additives. Marisaelle sighed softly as the little cube sprang onto Nelfi’s hands and skidded down to the table.

“Maybe cousin Rukia an’ aunt Licci can help, miss Nauka? My cousin’s got a big brain. Aunt Licci too.” At that moment, the front doors slammed inwards and a shout was heard: “SERETIQUE! MARAINA! ANYONE? WE NEED HEALERS!!” Marisaelle ran ahead of the others and found a singed and bloodstained Korae stumbling in, followed by a massive dark orb of magical power. It was crawling with strange symbols and being carried by a freaking Celestial! Shouting a call to arms, Marisaelle sprang to the attack; her sword materialising in her hand. Today she would punish those conceited bastards who’d been responsible for the downfall of her ancestors. Korae’s staff intercepted her. “Don’t! Liccitia’s all that’s keeping Laerine alive!” Korae turned to Maraina. “Get on the ARE, call Luminance or Mistburg and get Eiraiha, Balase or any other powerful healers here!” As Maraina shot off, wings beating furiously, Marisaelle fought down her rage and mentally screamed at her unit’s healers to get to the infirmary, NOW!

Nelfi and Nauka followed along, the latter searching her pockets for the vials of healing salve she normally carried. Inside, as the ball dispersed, the emaciated form of Laerine vi Alloriel lay on the padded table, bloody rags around her wrists and torso. With old fragments of bone touching down around her. A massive finger, a moldy hoof, broken teeth and a mostly intact skull. It rolled as it landed, stopping in front of Nelfi, who squeaked and hid behind Nauka’s legs. “Ufff… Damn, that spell tires a body.” Liccitia LaMont wiped the sweat from her forehead, then cleansed her hands with a divine ability. Seeing the healers get into the room, followed by Seretique and her husband, she started barking orders, telling those who couldn’t help to vamoose. Nelfi brought the Serebim to a small parlor, where Maraina sat. “How is she?” The shrug she got in reply brought tears brimming in her eyes. Nelfi squeezed her hand and spoke. “She’s in good hands. Aunt Licci’s the best at healin’. I’s would not be alive if she wasn’t” She pointed at a scar on her foot. “But that skull had Wendy horns?” Marisaelle nodded. “Yeah, its from one of them.” Her mind raced back down the years to a battle nearly lost.

Chapter 24. The Demon Braves. Part 1

“I can’t believe this! Lette and Ulrika…” Reginne held her apron in front of her mouth and chewed it while wrestling with her emotions. “And the others, Reginne.” Gudri hissed in pain as stitches were applied to her face. Despite staying near Glastine she had been forced to fend off a scrawny man in thieves’ garb and a peculiar mask. Had he not been fatally distracted by a fierce Impundulu in a bloodstained fury, Gudri knew that she would likely be buried just about now. “We almost lost Seselie as well when she went into a berserk rage.” This earned her a frustrated sigh from the healer, who urged her to sit still. By the time he was done Glastine and Nalgeeia entered the kitchen turned treatment room. Glastine drifted over to Reginne and tried to comfort the shaking Wendy. Nalgeeia plopped down next to Gudri, idly swaying her tail and attempting not to show just how badly she was shaken by the sight of the body on the cot.

Rainette vi Alloriel had been a beautiful woman. The tortured form laboriously drawing breath was not healing. She was not waking. Even the robed women had only been able to ease her suffering somewhat, after she had been recovered from a wheeled rack. Her hair had been burned off in large clumps. Her tail and wings had been meticulously broken and not even firm massaging while healing spells were employed could restore the blackened fingers and toes. Nalgeeia badly wanted to help her, but a different part of her mind wanted to run away, screaming. Gathering her courage, she walked over and knelt by the cot. Placing her hands together, touching Rainette’s scarred neck, she uttered a prayer in a whisper. It was not a formal prayer, but every soldier, every knight, every watchman knew it by heart and Nalgeeia put all of hers into it. “Nally…” Nalgeeia opened her eyes and saw the miniature sending she’d seen in her family tomb sitting on Rainette’s pillow. “Big me can’t help her either. This woman doesn’t want to live anymore.”

The tiny sending looked tired and Nalgeeia wanted to ask if she needed help, but was silenced by a small hand placed over her lips. “No, you can’t help me. My energy is nearly gone and I’ll return to big me soon. Big me asked little me to watch over you for a while. I did and that was fun. But sendings have to return.” She hefted a tiny sigh. “You need to be more careful from now on Nally, but maybe I can do one last thing.” So saying she placed both hands on Rainette’s temple and glowed for a moment ere she burst into fading rainbows. “Was that?” Reginne, Gudri and Glastine stood by Nalgeeia, all four were surprised when Rainette’s eyes opened. A single symbol floated over the one intact orb as the Succubus took them all in. “Nalgeeia.” Unlike her normal voice, the sound was a burbling gasp. “Have… have to stop her. Sefrana… has-” She coughed up a wad of bloody slime. “Has! Vile magic! It can hurt.. all! But vi Alloriels more. Keyed to our blood.” She shivered. “Her blood magic.  Controls the army. Destroy her. Defeat the army. Save them. I…” The shaking lessened “I go to my husb-.” With a last rattling cough, Rainette’s life ended. 

While Nalgeeia and the others did cry, as later stated by the son of the healer, the women who walked out of the room did so with determination burning in their eyes. They found Rowdrake conversing with Terim, to the accompanying snores made by a blanket-covered mound that was Seselie. What they spoke of then was lost to history, but not what they decided on. In a display of magical power, rose briars shot from the ground, forming a magical portal through which stepped Korae in what could only be described as a combat-robe. Her hair, normally messy in an absentmindedly attractive way, had been styled to fit inside a helmet. Behind her, Laerine stumbled out of the portal, followed by three Gray Wolves whom the women recognized easily. “Yrna? What are you doing here?” Reginne spotted a bandage on the girl whose mother had been an orphan she’d raised. “Were you in the fight as well?” Yrna shook her head as she spoke. “We didn’t make it in time for the battle here Reginne. I was scouting that army when one of their archers managed to surprise me. But he won’t surprise anyone else, for a spin or two.” She grinned, showing off sharp teeth.

Laerine was jittery, but embraced them all swiftly. “I am glad you’re still alive, everyone. But Lette and Ulrika?” She cried when she got the answer. Nalgeeia wished she did not have a burden to add, but she knew this needed to be told. “And Rainette vi Alloriel as well. I didn’t know her long, but your cousin and her husband were an inspiration to me.”. Laerine and Korae looked at each other, then at Nalgeeia. “Rainette? Nalgeeia, the only Rainette vi Alloriel I know of was a Succubus. One who betrayed mom and everything the Demon Kingdom stands for. She cut her ties to our family when she deliberately sabotaged several projects intended to stop the Luminaire and their allies.” Laerine spat. “She is no cousin of mine.” This earned her a serious look from Nalgeeia as the Cat-si knight replied: “Be that as it may, she did stop Luminaire encroachment in the neutral territories, helped to turn the Heartlands into a stable buffer and has promoted peace.”

Nalgeeia sighed. “That alone got her my respect, as a knight. But you should honor her as well. Despite dying from the horrible tortures she received, she asked me to warn you-” Nalgeeia’s tail wanted to flick at this extrapolation bordering on an outright lie. “That the Children of Fate have a magical spell keyed specifically to the vi Alloriel family. If they hadn’t, I doubt they’d been here for the battle. Or that they would march for the Demon Kingdom.” Korae tapped her staff thoughtfully as she took in this information. Laerine was silent as she pondered as well. “Maybe… Maybe that changes things. A little.” Korae sighed as she spoke. “But that is moot unless we can stop this army of malice. Laerine?” The Serebim perked up a little as she gave Korae her full attention. “I need you to bring Rainette’s body to the Demon Kingdom, then you will need to warn Marisaelle and your other sisters in the army.” Korae’s upraised hand showed the crest of the Demon Lord, forestalling any protests. 

“No buts. As it was I had intended to let you protect the people remaining behind. But with a keyed spell targeting Serebim, this takes priority. In the name of the Demon Lord, so be it.” Laerine’s look was filled with grief, hanging her head as she replied. “I hear, and I will obey, in my mother’s name.” She raised her head and glared at Korae. “But I don’t want to lose any more friends. Don’t you dare draft them. In fact, I will bring-” Korae slashed her hand through the air, cutting off Laerine. “NO! Passing people through the portal drains magical power. I will need our magi to keep some in reserve if things go badly during the battle.” She eyed the women, flashing an apologetic smile. “They’ll be safe here for now, and if worse comes to worst, the evacuation plan will give our friends a good chance to escape.” Both the Sorceress and the Serebim hugged their friends, Laerine practically begging each to stay safe before retrieving Rainette’s body and passing through the portal, which withered after. 

Korae gathered Nimleine’s flock and several other fighting fit soldiers before heading after the army of the Children of Fate. Those that remained, many of whom were wounded, set to restoring their land. The Bloodknoll would look its part for some time to come though. But the women who’d changed so much in the past year did not join in. Seselie had awakened refreshed and recovered, though scars showed where near-fatal wounds had been. She doodled in the dirt with her clawed fingers, barely listening to the conversation being held around her. “-but the dairy will probably be torn down to expand the business. I’m glad Lette didn’t see this , she worked so hard to-!” Seselie smashed her fist into the ground, drawing ragged breaths as she glared around. “Lette, Ulrika, all the others! They deserved to live. We all fought to protect this land, but now they are dead! And that unbelievable blood brooding whore!” Seselie’s eyes shone with fury. “She’s the root cause of it! She forced those poor fools to form an army, committing thousands of crimes to get there.”

Terim tried to calm her, but his efforts merely galvanized her thoughts. “I am not going to sit here on my huge spiderrièrre. I want to make her pay!!” Glastine’s eyebrows shot to the skies. “Seselie… she means that. But dear, we are not soldiers. You nearly died as well. Because these opponents, willing or not, are an army trained to defeat mamonme.” The Phantasm sighed, touching down on the ground with visible legs and paced. “Of course I feel the same. Her machinations killed so many, myself included. But the strongest warriors of the Demon Kingdom will face her. Including Korae, whom has frightening amounts of power.” Nalgeeia and Reginne nodded at that. “I don’t think we could catch up in time, or make much of a difference.” Glastine launched into a lamentation, until Reginne spoke up. “Maybe we can.” The Wendy had been forced to put up with a lot of passive malice from her sister over the years. While, to her credit, she had never taken out her frustration on the seemingly endless slew of nephews and nieces looking for any legacy, the battle and loss made her adamant to remove this blight.

“I’m sure this will mean breaking some of the rules, but so be it.” She fixed each in turn with a stern look. “Never speak of what we’re about to do, to anyone. Never share it. Go grab some weapons and armor and meet me in the dairy in twenty minutes.” So speaking, she ran off into the dairy and started casting the spell to bring herself to NeverNeverLand, where she ran to the offices of Rosebay Hook and cornered the mayoral Wendy. Explaining her need, her plan and capitalising on the absence of Alyssum to convince Rosebay to help, which the latter later recorded in her log, she managed to secure a passage. Going back to the dairy, several Wendy worked with her to open a portal, through which she led her friends. In NeverNeverLand, a young Sorceress hiding from the Demon Lord managed to scry for the clashing armies and another portal was opened for the group. As Reginne started to walk through as well, Rosebay yanked on her tail. “Reginne! This endangers our homeland. As it is, I’m barring you from it.” A sharp flash came from her hand and a brand appeared on Reginne’s tail. “Seek Alyssum in Crystal Plinth if you want any hope of getting back in. Move scab!” With that she released the tail and all but booted Reginne through the portal.

On the other side, it was sheer bedlam. The Children of Fate had been encountered by the Demon Kingdom army and Korae’s harriers were attacking from the opposite side. Logically, the weathered army should have been crushed easily, as Marisaelle vi Alloriel and several of her sisters would be fighting along with the troops. Only the Serebim Gatebreaker herself could be seen today though, directing from the rear. But she and evidently her troops as well were fighting with a severe handicap. Over the field of battle hung what appeared to be a second sun, an oval radiating energies. “That-that-that?” Nalgeeia stuttered as she looked at it. “That seems like a Portal of Glory from the books, but its all wrong!” She felt her hackles rise as she gazed up. Instead of a disc radiating pure divine energy, it mostly leaked a sickly grey ooze and emitted bursts of white and black energies. The mamonme and incubi close to it could barely move, shrieking in pain when the bursts of energy flared. Their human opponents seemed to be affected differently, swinging between manic glee and despairing rage as they tore into their opponents.

“I’m not feeling so hot.” Gudri emitted a loud eructation, raising her shield. “But we’re here, so let’s do something, quick.” Rowdrake and Terim were scanning the field, until they spotted something odd. Several hulking forms rampaged across the field, but seemed more intent on guarding a knot of warriors surrounding robed women. “Weapons, everyone! Seselie, I need you to batter us a path to that group.” Rowdrake pointed with his sword and Seselie nodded. Placing one hand on the ground, she scraped her spiderlegs along the trampled path before launching herself. Grasping a massive metal door in both hands and roaring her fury, she thundered across the field, the others running to catch up.

Interlude. Blessed be ye cube

“COUSINS!” Nelfi couldn’t help but feel happy as Rukia, Emmy and Metala entered the room, the latter carrying her favorite boy cousin Aered. “I’s very happy to be seeing you!” She hugged them all, lifting Aered from Metala’s back and putting him on hers. “Miss Marisaelle, miss Nauka, these are my cousins Emmy, Metala, Rukia an’ Aered. They coming here means that Granny Balase is here to help miss Laerine, right?” She swivelled her eyestalks and caught the nods. Rukia smiled as she spoke: “Yes, an’ aunt Eihy as well. Granny Bala said its a lil’ too advan-ced medicine for us though. But you is Maraina’s sisters?” She politely extended a hand to Nauka while Emmy vigorously pumped Marisaelle’s arm and Metala gave Maraina a polite bow. Nelfi meanwhile endured Aered’s lick across her eyestalk. “Nnnnngh! I’s not a lolly, Aered. That tickles bad.” He chuckled in reply and hugged her head, giving off a feeling of niceness that lifted Nelfi’s spirits.

Nauka meanwhile leaned forward in her chair, glad to have something to take her mind off of the tragedy in the infirmary. “Well, I’m glad to meet you, but I would have liked it on a less tragic day. Nelfi told us quite a bit about you, but I’m at a loss at determining your species.” She pulled a tape-measure out of her pocket and measured Emmy’s ears. “Emmy might be a Werewolf subspecies, but your ears are not like any I have seen before. Nor Metala’s scales. Is she a Dragon of a sort?” Emmy shook her head, her ears were kind of ticklish if someone else touched them. “I’m a Hainu, Rukia’s an Azeban Danuki and Metala’s an Azure Dragon. We weren’t born on Praxis, but…” She spread her hands and twiddled with her hair. “We love this world.” Metala nodded, grinning as she spoke up. “We’ve got a big family, and I’ve got the best mom in the universe.” Rukia put on a mischievous look and countered that by saying her mom was the best. This led to a giggle. “I’m glad you three feel that way.” Marisaelle wanted desperately to hit something, but she would not and could not hurt children in any way, no matter how keenly she felt her misery.

“Our mom is… well, she was the Demon Lord. I don’t like her that much, but she is my mom. But there are mamonme elsewhere then?” Metala answered with a smile. “Yes, we saw a lot on different worlds. Ithus, were Rukia and I were born, that Nerana place and many other places where we had to get an aunt back from. Or a big cousin. Ureonggaksi get around. A whole lot.” Nelfi nodded, blushing slightly. Nauka ruffled her hair and then did the same for Aered, who promptly snuck a hand into her wide sleeve, inadvertently drawing a giggle. “Ooh my, he’s a charmer. But Rukia, Nelfi mentioned as well that you might be able to help me with my little friend, the magnificent QT-Cube.” Nauka reached into her pocket, then into a different one, a look of panic crossing her face. “Where is it, please don’t let it have fallen out of my coat.” Nelfi patted her hand, pointing to Aered, who had the small cube in one hand and was cautiously peering at it. “Wa-wa-wa-wait! Its delicate, please give it back!” Marisaelle was thoughtfully rubbing her chin. Perhaps she could recruit mamonme from these other worlds. Maybe that would allow her to finally defeat Clover Meadlowry, storm this New Heaven and reclaim her ancestral rights as the Demon Lord of the new age. 

Nauka was now all but begging the boy, who appeared wholly engrossed with the cube. Then he gave a happy  little cry and Marisaelle’s eyes shot wide open. As did those of Nauka. Above Aered’s head a blobby picture had appeared of the cube, flying through the night sky and grabbing at floating rocks with extendable pincers. Marisaelle focussed and noticed something else. On his back, he had two tiny winglets covered in down. “How does he do that?” Nauka blinked as Aered licked the cube and gave it back. “Oh, its what lil’ Celestials can do. Its handy, ‘cause he can tell us what he needs, like a nappy.” Metala’s smile was infectious. But it didn’t catch Marisaelle, who huffed loudly and left without another word. “Don’t take it personal, Maris probably figured out whom Aered’s mother is.” Maraina sighed, rubbing her eyes and setting her glasses off to the side. “Not all of my sisters care for the way things have turned out, Maris in particular. But she’s a good person, just don’t try to cure her grumpiness, please!” Rukia and Metala shrugged, and started talking with Maraina and Nauka while Nelfi fussed over Aered. Emmy though had caught the hand sign from Rukia and quietly followed Marisaelle.

The warrior Serebim was being silly in Emmy’s opinion, grumbling as she marched through the mansion and stopping at times to bonk her head against the wall while saying bad words. Emmy was confident though, getting papa’s slippers off was not easy. This was, very much so. Then a door opened and Granny Balase stepped out of the privy, rubbing a sore spot on her back. “Beat it kid, I’m not in the mood.” Marisaelle would probably have scared even other adult mamonme, but Balase just gave her what was known as an old look. “I appreciate the compliment, missy, but I’m several centuries your senior.” The Baphomet sized up the furious Serebim. “You’re Marisaelle, right? I’m Balase, but you can call me Granny, most people do. I need to talk to you about your sister. We’ve managed to close her wounds,but…” Emmy felt her ears droop and her tail pulled itself between her legs. They were dead, all those heroes known as the Demon Braves, except for Korae. But Emmy heard Granny ask if there was a chance of someone, anyone who might be alive still? Marisaelle thought it over, admitting that they had never found all their bodies. But then Emmy heard something that made her take off at a run.

“Ruuuuukiiaaa!” Emmy had to grab the doorpost to make the turn, pouncing on her slightly older sister and whispering furiously in her fuzzy ears while urging Metala and Nelfi to come closer for this. “Really?” Nelfi’s eyes shone with wonder, though one was now inside Aered’s mouth, a happy starburst over his head. “Then we’s going, right? I’s not missin’ another adventure!” Seconds later whirling dust and a slight trail of Ureonggaksi slime were the only hint that the children had vacated the room. “Maraina, did you catch any of that?” Nauka was examining her cube, which faintly shone with the brightness of having been blessed. “I think I got the gist of it, but with them? Who really knows, they’re little tornado’s.” She grinned. “But I’m curious, you were there right?” Nauka shrugged, looking at her youngest sister with an earnest but bleak look. “I wish I hadn’t been, war is nasty. But while I wasn’t near the front, I did see some of what happened. Maris might have gotten a better look, but… It started when some of those Children of Fate took to the air, involuntarily.” Nauka silently decided to tell Maraina everything, exempting the little ‘incident’ with a bedpan.

Chapter 25. The Demon Braves. Part 2

In storybooks the charge of an Ushi-Oni against an army was likened to a flying battering ram. Practically, it actually involved a lot more footwork as Seselie had since discovered. The door helped though. Even if she giggled inwardly at the ease with which she wielded it, and marveled at how it sent people flying without injuring them too badly, it had saved her life more than once already. Fragments of arrows lay in her wake, along with a few larger bolts fired from small arbalests and rocks from mangonels. Terim and Rowdrake had clambered onto her abdomen, using smaller shields and pikes to deal with stragglers. Seselie’s keen ears picked up Reginne’s wingbeats and Glastine’s wild screaming that induced fear in the soldiers.

Nalgeeia and Gudri brought up the rear, the Kaaiman doing her best to ‘augment’ reality on the battlefield, not with fullscale illusions, but with multitudinous bangs, flashes and slight muddling of senses. In this bid for speed, that was for the best. “Careful Seselie!” Rowdrake had spotted a masked woman and a burly man moving directly at them, the former seemingly chanting a spell. Seselie nodded, shifting her door to one arm as she pulled a rock from the cachet on her belt and casually threw it at the chanter. As that one sunk to her knees, stunned, the man drew back in a protective stance, only to be bonked on the head by Reginne and as gently as time allowed eased to the ground. “Shantal, Baram, stay down for now. We’ll sort that sister of mine.” Reginne took off anew, revelling in the sensation of flight. It was her only defense against the heartache bashing against her resolve to see this through. She dodged arrows, fought against her revulsion as the unnatural portal in the sky vomited forth its energies. And all the while she kept one thought at the forefront of her mind: Sefrana must pay for her crimes.

Below her, Gudri and Nalgeeia were barely keeping ahead of the onrushing soldiers. Reginne banked and kicked at those heads she could reach, squeaking a sorry for each child she recognized. “Hanging in there, girls?” They nodded, wincing as Glastine screeched by, wailing like a Banshee stung by hornets. Nalgeeia shook her head, grabbed the Phantasm and pulled her along. “Pace yourself Glastine!” The look of fury lessened and together they pulled Gudri along at a speed the Kaaiman could not reach by herself on land. Finally, Seselie barrelled into the knot of soldiers and flung several of them away. What stood beyond them gave her slight pause though. Women, motherly women. Each wearing robes bedecked with symbols of chance and fate. They chanted, tying together magical energies in preparation for a tremendous spell. Seselie somehow… instinctively almost, knew. She reacted, throwing the door at such speed that she didn’t realise what she’d done until it flattened the Fate’s Holies.

What it didn’t flatten though, merely rocked, was the throne-like conveyance around which they had been clustered. It was empty. “Where is she?!” Reginne had removed one priestess from under the door and was glaring at the woman. “Yuloni! Where has that vile sister of mine gone?” She sobbed, clutching at a broken arm and tender ribs before stating that the Holy Mother was directing the fight against a Sorceress of great power. Seselie peeled the door off of the others, wincing as she saw the battered bodies beneath. “I.. I didn’t want to hurt them…” Terim peered over her shoulder, then gently embraced her. “I know Sese, but this is a war. I don’t think they suffered though.” Privately, he hoped this was true. “Lets bury them, later. But we need to keep moving!” Not that far from there, Korae was impressed. Her opponent could almost pass for a regal noblewoman, bar that a lump showed even while she stood and that Korae’s magic had a hard time touching her. Sefrana smiled, though without warmth, merely amused it seemed. Her elite warriors and magi dealt with the Harpy-kin, Grey Wolves and other monsters so she could focus on this one tenacious bitch. Despite herself, she was impressed by Korae, who parried her surges of profane and pure energy from the gate of Severance.

It was a marvel of magecraft, though it ran on siphoning energies from certain areas of Heaven. Mandarus, for all his skill as an archmage could never hope to cast it. Well, unless he acquired a divine patron and endured the absorption process. Still, he could maybe handle this one as well. But Sefrana felt old. She wanted to feel alive like only a duel could make her feel. Feel close to her true self. Korae grinned at that moment, leveling her staff with one hand while shooting a small crossbow with the other. Sefrana barely dodged the bolt, using a more conventional deflection bracer just in case. This provoked one of her changed ones into breaking off from fighting a vicious trio of Impundulu to take a wild swing at the Sorceress. Sefrana drew deeply on her internal reservoirs of power, pulling in more from her fellow priestesses, until she stopped with a gasp. Agony felt by others flowed in, then nothing… almost nothing came from them anymore except one mental blaring of pain. Risking it, Sefrana glanced at where they’d stood, seeing only a handful of soldiers fighting against a group of monsters and two men.

Sefrana cursed, Korae didn’t have time to look as the abomination in front of her still lived. She could hardly discern remnants of a human in its mawed visage. Luckily, her magic affected the beast profoundly, but she could not risk it surviving as earlier creatures fought by her squad had proven capable of regeneration. Nimleine’s death at the claws of one such had been a blow to the Kingdom and Korae therefore had no intention of even a tactical withdrawal. As this one was slowly consumed by rose fire, she pulled most of her body into her perception bauble, pulling deeply on an area of dislike. What emerged from it was a nightmarish mechanical creature, seemingly built out of sawblades and blood. She sent it after the abominations that were still moving and mentally contacted her troops, ordering to converge on her location. Surprisingly, Sefrana called her troops on as well, but not for defense. As each came closer, he or she started to swell. “Damn you, you ünmensch! Is there no abyssal depth to which you will not stoop?” The reply she got was a near orgasmic laugh.

Her troops were fighting for their lives again, but then a massive door crashed into one of the beasts and roars of fury resounded. Korae nearly fumbled her staff as she saw the women she and Laerine had hoped to keep from further fighting charge into the abominations, Seselie using the full power of her body in order to fling their attacks away. Nalgeeia used her heirloom sword to sever limbs and Gudri stabbed where she could with a flensing knife. Yet she couldn’t dodge one massive fist in time and was sent sprawling, several teeth flying in a glittering arc. The human knight Rowdrake held off the vile things while Terim, who definitely shouldn’t be anywhere near a battle, was kneeling at Gudri’s prone form while Glastine and Reginne… Korae focussed and turned back to Sefrana, who looked dumbfounded, but was already drawing in power for a new spell. It took all of her devotion to training for Korae to hiss one out first. Briars were handy for tangling feet, and her personal touch on the spell ensured that thorns grew in abundance on the magical plants.

Sefrana fumbled her spell, the poisonous thorns tore through her dress and slippers as if they were so much gas. When she gasped for breath, an angelic figure descended, about bloody time. “Finally! H-has your master finally decided to commit?” She was wholly unprepared for the barrage of slaps that followed. “All those innocents killed! All the children sacrificed! You horrible woman!” As Sefrana’s eyes focussed she saw her sister’s face. Reginne looked impossibly young, despite tears streaming down her cheeks. “But you never cared about anyone but yourself, eh Seff?” A pink blur swung towards her, leaving incredible pain as it struck her. “A ruthless wastrel. Killing and maiming at random. But those you wronged remember that, unholy bitch!” Against all odds, the pale visage of Glastine van Murein glared at her, the icy cold from beyond the grave biting into Sefrana where her hands clawed. Reginne appeared again, holding a thin but extremely sharp blade. “This is the end for you! I will not suffer your presence on Praxis a second longer. Beg forgiveness from those you killed, hellish sister!”

Sefrana didn’t feel a thing as the blade cut through her neck, though a moment later agony spread through her being as her body dropped. Her head barely hung on by a strip of ligament and skin. Reginne meanwhile landed next to the twitching body and cast a spell so her voice would carry. “Children! Stop fighting! Sefrana is dead!” Korae felt relief, even as she hurried to where Gudri lay, tended to by Terim. When the Sorceress got there, she knew that she was too late. Gudri’s neck had hit a stone at the wrong angle; If the blow hadn’t killed her, the landing assuredly had. Terim glanced at her with grief before nodding. Korae sighed, turning her attention to the remaining abominations. One of which was now a mess of broken flesh, another felt the brunt of Seselie’s fury as she finally broke the door over its head. Korae sent out runners of fire akin to rose-briars, letting the cleansing element eradicate the unnaturally altered humans. Nalgeeia and Rowdrake had gained help from Randeia Morguis and her flock in battling another. 

Korae saw the army focus on the far ranging ones, now that the majority of the Children of Fate had started to surrender. They would win the day, thanks to the actions of the brave few. A rare smile of gratitude spread across the Sorceress’ lips. “If only we had a thousand like them… Troops! No heroics, just whittle them down to size and burn the remains.” A shriek sounded behind her, Korae turned to see Reginne stare in abject horror at the corpse of her sister, hands clamped over her mouth and her eyes bugged nearly out of their sockets.

The corpse twitched, violently, repeatedly. “What in hell is happening there?” Korae fought against a rising revulsion, deeply drawing on her powers to prepare for what might happen.

Interlude. The Shellmounds

Eiraiha frowned as she surveyed the privy. Yes, this was one inside Seretique’s Villa. Yes, the home of a former Demon Lord and a Succubus. But really? Even here? The walls were covered in tiles depicting in graphic detail various carnal acts. Admittedly, these were artistic depictions, evidently made with sublime skill. She could deal with them. But the seat? No, it just was not done. The Principal Goddess of Praxis couldn’t use a privy that had multiple dildo’s on retractable arms for the occupant’s enjoyment. After warring with herself, she adjusted the room with a small use of her power. A pleasant creamy cloth covered the walls, the privy being replaced with a modern toilet and a bottle of rose-water. The dildo’s though… she gated them to the public stash Seretique kept as a matter of pride.

Eiraiha smiled, basking in the blissful sensation of sweet relief. Yes, she could at need have whisked the waste away, with less use of power as well. But that carried an inherent risk as her body would eventually ‘forget’ how it was normally done. In all honesty, she was glad for the short reprieve. Laerine vi Alloriel was someone she’d hoped never to meet in person. Having to work on saving her while Seretique and Damien looked at Eiraiha as their last hope was… difficult. Eiraiha ticked it off on her fingers. Her Granny Balase was a superior doctor, but couldn’t connect to her patient’s soul like Eiraiha could. She had in fact done just that, but hadn’t been able to coax Laerine’s will to live back to a flame of vitality. Her soul was just too deeply immersed in self loathing and grief. Yet Eiraiha scoured her own mind and soul, looking for any hint of her holding back. She found none, as she had gloomily known. Liccitia was also a capable doctor and none too shabby either as a divine healer, but her younger sister did lack somewhat in patience at times.

Principal Goddess or not, Eiraiha still felt like she was inadequate for this task. If only Antimony were here with her, as he brought forth reserves of capability Eiraiha didn’t know she had. Maybe Granny’s plan could work, if only there was one of the souls they could reach. Eiraiha had tried a tracing on the few bodily remains, but… no luck so far. Spraying the rosewater as she left the redecorated privy, she nearly bumped into Tella Morguis. The Impundulu’s mother had been there, but sadly enough had perished some years later. “Lady Tella, thank you for coming.” Eiraiha and the hot-tempered commander spoke for a short while, before the latter left, claiming a need to kiss the sky. In her place came a glare. Cleramelle vi Alloriel had been one of the foremost critical thinkers of the Demon Kingdom, but she had thus far not sought any confrontations with Eiraiha or Clover. Contrary to prior reports, her hair was a mess. Two tufts stuck upwards, defying gravity. “You! Will you please get this thing off of me?!” Tears of pain shimmered in Cleramelle’s eyes.

Eiraiha looked perplexed, until she spotted a movement at the base of one of the strands. A small creature perched on the Serebim’s head, it was as unnatural a form as any Eiraiha’s eyes had beheld. The body was like the bell of a carnivorous plant from the Akrufian jungles with no face to speak of, bar a mouth and two fuzzy ears peeking out of a mop of unruly hair. “Yo! I found you!” The miniature sending, for that it was, leapt from Cleramelle’s head. It landed in Eiraiha’s hands, wagging a stubby tail and flapping small draconic wings.

“Big me’s say tell you-” It prodded her with a stubby arm. “They got lost thingy. You go shell-pounds. Bring healy!” It belched, tooted and then plopped onto its back, rolling like a sausage. “What is that disgusting thing? It rubbed boogers into my hair.” Cleramelle was rubbing her head, especially two small bald spots that Eiraiha quickly healed. “Its… Its a miniature sending, but… somehow a combined one.” Eiraiha quickly tickled it until it dispersed with a disconcerting wet noise. “Pardon me, Cleramelle. I can’t do anything more for Laerine as matters stand, so I’ll have to hope that I can snag a Shoggo for some unusual advice.”

She opened a window and dove out, her wings spreading just in time to catch an updraft that lifted her effortlessly into the sky. Below, she kept an eye on the road leading away from the villa. A certain distance later and she spotted a relatively plain marker. Eiraiha opened a gate a little ways in front of herself and accelerated. In the countryside near Meliddis an abandoned fort stood. Overhead, the exit of the gate opened and Eiraiha shot through, trailing a ‘wheee!’ as she neared the speed of sound. A figure trudging through the grass of the overgrown road nearby blinked and headed back to town, thinking the sun had gotten to him. Eiraiha landed on a patch of beach that was perfectly normal, unless you knew how to do this~! The small piles of shells grew into bizarre homes inhabited by Shoggo, the sand underfoot becoming volcanic rock inlaid with a material grown by the Shoggo. As she did, a quintet of cheers, one wordless, greeted her. Metala, Nelfi, Aerdayasêr, Rukia and Emmy were sitting around a low table on which a big bowl of cream and berries stood. A few young Shoggo hid under the table itself, evidently having scooted there when Eiraiha entered the refuge.

“Hey girls, hey Aered. Hello you three under the table.” Eiraiha quickly scanned them all for signs of Shoggo-induced insanity, but found none. Nor had they been biologically altered, something Eiraiha had made a specific agreement with the local moot about. “Hello aunt Eihy, I’s finally getting to go on an adventure with my cousins.” Nelfi grinned from ear to ear as her eyestalks did full circles. Rukia nodded, patting her shoulder. “We didn’ leave Praxis though, aunt Eihy. But Emmy heard Marisell an’ Granny talk about where those heroes ended up.” She held her hands up, palms up, and shrugged. “Maybe Ulrika an’ some others visited the Outer Plains an’ got lost. You know how aunties an’ big cousins do that. So we asked an’ the peoples here are helpin’ a bit. An’ we get to play with our new friends.” Metala held onto the table, peeking below. “Hey! Aunt Eihy doesn’t bite.” She looked up at her aunt, wrestling slightly with what she knew. “Well, unless you’re our uncle.” This caused Eiraiha to blush, she had indeed tried her hand at love-bites, but with a bit too much enthusiasm. The three little Shoggo emerged, clearly not entirely at ease, so Eiraiha concentrated and changed her form.

“Look at it like a little experiment.” She lifted a translucent arm, showing off bubbles that blinked like eyes and smiled disarmingly. “Fear can be an impediment to learning, especially when it is unfounded.” She copied Maraina’s habit of adjusting her glasses, or clear frames of slime-like material in this case, much to the amusement of her nieces and their new friends. ”So, tell me, why did you combine your sendings? And how?” Emmy giggled, wagging her tail. “Aunt Eihy, we tried it, ‘cause our own sendings can’t talk good yet. An’ it worked, right?” She tapped her fingers together. “So we did what you told us to, only puttin’ the en-er-gy between all our hands. Even Aered an’ Nelfi helped.” Nelfi looked less than convinced and shook her head. “I’s just got to hold it a lil’, really.” Then an adult Shoggo approached the table, a look of concern on her otherwise impassive face. “Greetings lady Eiraiha. May I speak with you in private?” Eiraiha nodded graciously, stepping after the real Shoggo and resuming her own form along the way. She marvelled at the architecture of the house they entered, even if it was weird. Pools lined the roof and coloured liquids flowed from one to another, expressing a form of discordant harmony.

“I apologize, Teke-lili! Your nieces explained your research into heroes of yesteryear and what they hope to find with us.” Her agitation showed in the frothing of eye-bubbles. “Please call me Alistra-li. I’ve got good and bad news. The good news is that we think we’ve found her. The bad news is that she…” Alistra-li momentarily retracted her head into her body, so that her words seemed to come from her belly. “She did not arrive safely there. Her body was damaged in part by the unstable portal and such is beyond our ability to heal.” Eiraiha sighed. “B-but, Me-te-lili used an experimental procedure to store her until we could. I can take you there.” Eiraiha nodded, feeling sadness over the fear so many mamonme still had about her. Ten minutes later she collected the kids, carrying a large canister filled with a suspension gel and a mangled body that had been kept in stasis for six decades.

Interlude continued. Awakenings

Soft, warm sheets. A light blanket over them and a room kept warm by a fire crackling merrily. She didn’t know where she was, or why she was there, but lying in such conditions was nice. A dull ache did try to intrude, so she turned on her side, groaning slightly. The pain sat in her stomach, as if someone larger had stomped on it. Shortly after, something furred brushed up against her forehead and a glass needle was put between her lips for some reason. “35, maybe 36. She’s warming up well.” The voice sounded young, but had an undercurrent of age. “Thank goodness, Balase. Do you think she’ll awaken today?” The reply was felt rather than heard as the needle was removed, but the furry thing moved as if the one who held it shrugged. “Maybe. No promises, Kusu. This is one field of medicine where I’m not as confident as I’d like. She’s been through a lot and while between the three of us we patched her up physically, I haven’t a clue what her mind will be like.”

A soft shuffling noise drew nearer and a thin, but tender hand held hers all of a sudden. She opened one eye, hissing in pain as it was too bright. She tried another, with the same results. “Too! Bright!” The furry object was removed and shortly after the light dimmed. “Sorry, try again.” She did try again, blinking ferociously as each eye opened in turn. The hand holding hers was shaking, but it held on with secure power. “Ulrika, please… Please wake up.” She had trouble focusing, but a whiff of scent made her think the vague figure might be- “Kusuhimi?” The next moment Ulrika was enveloped by a crying Kusuhimi. The other person in the room, who had some sort of high twintails in her hair, was still indistinct, though Ulrika thought she saw a smile. “You’re alive! I’m not letting go! Never again!” This elicited a sigh from the other one, Balase? “Easy Kusu. She’s awake, but you need to take it easy.” Kusuhimi was gently pried from Ulrika’s body, but refused to surrender her hand.

“Okay Ulrika, I am Balase. Call me Granny, everyone does. I’m a doctor and I’m here to help you recover. How do you feel? Any sharp pains?” Ulrika blinked anew, feeling her eyes and eyestalks blink in turns. “Just a dull ache in my stomach. I can’t see clearly though. But tell me: What happened? Did my wall fall on me or something?” A whispered exchange followed, until Kusuhimi spoke up. “Not… quite. But the important thing is that you are safe and sound. Balase says that your eyes are just a little sensitive right now, correct?” Balase grunted, examining Ulrika’s eyes with that furry object. “Just needs some rest I think. But if you don’t improve in the next few days I’ll have to cart you to Gateway, where I have all my equipment.” Kusuhimi drew in a sharp breath. “What? You’ll be tagging along. I just hope it won’t be a family parade if it comes to that. The munchkins…” Ulrika snored into slumber and knew nothing for a while longer. When next she woke, her eyes could make out more details. 

Kusuhimi reclined in a chair made for Ureonggaksi, snoring softly. Ulrika managed to roll over and slid out of bed. When her foot took her weight though, she groaned, grasping at the soft edge of the bed. Biting through the pain, which was spread over her slimy appendage, she started shuffling along the bed. Her muscles felt weak and using them required a lot of effort. Eventually, she had to stop, panting. Her foot was out of slime. The door to the room, which was incredibly opulent, opened quietly and a figure slunk in. “Its a trick, can’t be, can’t be.” Ulrika looked up into a familiar, yet different visage. “Hey Laerine! Good to see you. I-I’m a little tired though.” Ulrika frowned as Laerine, now possessing both eyes again looked at her with a rictus grin and a fixed stare. “Voice from past, illusion? Must be. All gone. Trapped, trapped.” This elicited Ulrika to frown. “Did you eat some funny mushrooms? I’m right here. Sore though.” She patted Laerine’s hand, who snatched it away and started howling like a mad thing. “GHOST! DOPPLEWANDRER!” The door to the room banged open and a pair of small figures rushed in and tackled the Serebim to the ground, a flare of potent magic later and she was as asleep as Kusuhimi. 

“I told you, you can’t leave her alone Balase. In her current state, she’s simply a danger to herself.” The smaller of the figures stood up, adjusting a petite pointed hat. “Sorry Puyo, I should have assigned someone else to watch over her when that Gann Ceanne demanded a moment.” The second figure had horns and pawlike appendages on her arms, but the voice was that of Balase. “You’re Balase??? Aren’t you awfully short to be a doctor? And what have you done with Laerine, what made her act like that???” Balase stepped over to Ulrika and effortlessly scooped her up, placing her in a chair similar to Kusuhimi’s. “Kiddo, I’m around eight hundred years old, though I hardly look it. Laerine has had a… difficult time. I’d been hoping to let you recover a bit more before filling you in, but…” Two paws were raised in supplication. “Here we are. And you need to eat. Let me put Laerine onto the bed first.” As she did so, Puyo stepped forward and gave a polite bow. “Hello Ulrika, I am Puyo Popuy. A Witch and a headologist.”

“I’m here to help you adapt to… well, this situation we’re in. On one hand, you’re safe and getting well, bar this unfortunate incident. On the other, there is a lot of information we need to give to you. But slowly as not all of it is… nice. But I want you to know that you can trust me. I’m here to look out for you and the first order of business is to have you start eating normally again.” An hour later, Ulrika was glad for the meal, even if passing it  down took effort as well. It had been a human-sized portion of rice and thinly sliced beef in a sweetish sauce. Kusuhimi awoke promptly, demanding to get a portion as well. Eventually, they set down to business. “I know its kind of hard to accept, but you took a trip away from Praxis due to that unusual interaction of spells. You were… hurt pretty badly, but in better shape than those that went through it before you.” Balase sighed, pouting with a look of consternation on her face.

“For all everyone knew you-” She poked a digit at Ulrika. “Were as dead as a doorknob. Eaten by spells going wrong. But in truth, you ended up on the Outer Plain, where a Shoggo found you and basically put you in stasis as she couldn’t heal you. A lot has happened since then.” Kusuhimi nodded. “But a little bit of thinking on things led our hyperactive munchkins to hatch the idea that you might, might just be with the Shoggo. They went looking.” Kusuhimi sighed and shook her head. “They are smart children. I owe them a life-debt for finding you, and Balase and her granddaughters for your recovery.” She chuckled. “I reckon I do have the time to repay the debts. But I’ve missed you, Ulrika. The years have been-” Puyo sealed Kusuhimi’s mouth with a small spell. “Careful! Let me say it.” She turned to Ulrika. “You have in a sense jumped ahead in time, to a new age where some unusual truths have become public.” Ulrika put a hand to her mouth, digesting this information. “But it can’t have been that long, right?” She caught the silent exchange between Witch and Baphomet, whom struggled to fit the truth into a cushioned explanation.

“Mwhuuu!” Kusuhimi tore off the seal. “I wish it was a shorter time… But you were gone for sixty years.” she glared at Balase and Puyo. “I’m in my nineties, though I’ve caught a bit of a second wind, thanks to Balase’s granddaughter.” Ulrika blinked. “SIXTY YEARS?!?!?” She shook her head, laughing. “Kusu, you’re pulling my leg here, right? You have a few laughter lines, but no way you’re that much older, right?” Puyo forced herself into Ulrika’s view. “It seems unreal, yes. But it is the truth. It is not the end of the world though. Far from it. But you will need to learn to accept it. Time travel backwards in time is not something easily done, or…” The door opened with a bang and Korae marched in. Spotting Ulrika, she cried in joy and wrapped her in a hug. It took some time for things to settle down, but Korae managed to confirm what Ulrika had been told. “I still can’t believe you’re alive. Yes, it has been that long. And unfortunately…” She spoke of the final battle, all hanging on her lips.

Chapter 26. The Demon Braves. Part 3

There is an unfortunate truth about Praxis. No matter how bad things are, they can get worse. On the flipside, they could get better. Some day. This principle was betimes referred to as ‘Jam Tomorrow’, or the basis of hope. Terim had been praying for some of that elusive jam, that they would not lose another friend this day. Gudri’s broken form lay there as a reminder that not all hope was fulfilled. He gingerly touched her jaw, re-aligning it and her broken neck in the way of funerary rites taught in Ternaasten. Reginne’s shriek pulled him out of his contemplations and back to the battle. Though older than he and Seselie combined, Terim had only known Reginne in her present form. Therefore he mentally thought of her more like a girl than as a woman. Her shriek had been filled with horror, one that he echoed as he gazed on the body of Sefrana. It twitched spasmodically and from the severed neck  something unnatural rose, probing the air before burying itself into the nearly free head and pulling it back to the body.

“Foooooooooooolllllllliiissh!” The voice issuing from Sefrana’s mouth was way more gutteral than it had been. “One can always count on fools to cry victory early!” The wound did not heal, Sefrana’s head had in fact begun to bleed from its orifices as gristly cracking noises escaped it. “Did you really think it would be that easy? That I’d just rely on spells to challenge the Demon Lord herself?” Her mouth closed and a swallowing motion passed through the connecting tentacle. As the head flopped freely again, tearing free of the last ligaments, its insides appeared hollow. Sefrana’s body swelled, her legs spreading as unnatural growths forced them apart. It was like watching a birth taking place, though what emerged was more like an antithesis of life than anything else. It had been her womanhood, in life resembling a pumpkin, but now growing grotesquely, even as the slit shifted into a mouth and a multitude of tentacles grew, some with eyes, some with hooked claws. Below the bulbous top, a large sack with wriggling orbs on short stalks hung, that could only have been her womb and ovaries before. Within moments, they became obscured by extending spines.

“Behold! You unworthy worms can behold the birth of a Goddess!! A TRUE GODDESS!!!!” They had seen many horrors on the field of battle. Bodies warped by unclean spells, the death of friends, the insanity of war. It all paled in comparison to this most unholy abomination. What remained of Sefrana’s original body had stopped twitching. It resembled a deflated cocoon, something emptied and discarded. “I make the righteous path! I shall bring a rebirth to these forsaken lands!” A tentacle lashed out, catching Reginne by the neck. “Little spawn of unloving parents… Do you know why I did what I did?” Despite Reginne’s efforts, she could not break free. “I did those things, because THEY DID NOT WANT ME TO! Petty, small, insignificant parents who couldn’t understand MY POTENTIAL!!!” The thing that held Reginne roared in a mad fury. “Nothing gave me greater pleasure than to bring them down! But they are gone and you….” It slowly tightened the tentacle, ignoring the efforts of the others as they hacked at its grotesque body. “ARE OBSOLETE!” Reginne’s head flew free with such force that it would not be found until much later. 

REGINNE!!!” Theirs was a scream uttered in unison. Seselie felt a fury incandescent descend over her mind. Not a berserk state, but rather a focused wrath that spoke to her, to grab that enormous sword discarded by an earlier abomination and hack this one apart. Nalgeeia, Rowdrake and Glastine circled to the side while Korae dodged the small corpse hurled at her. Sefrana meanwhile beckoned towards the portal still discharging its sickly load. The impure charge she sent towards Glastine, who shrieked in agony, but the pure charge was swallowed. “Delicious! Heavenly! I have THE POWER!” She casually batted Seselie away. ”Ugh, who in their right mind would want a spider for a wife?” Sefrana waggled a clawed appendage in mock-scolding as Terim passed her field of vision. This was fun, she reflected. “Now then, you two have been a thorn in my side for far too long, after sweet little Reginne of course…” She jabbed her tentacles in lazy sweeping strikes while seeming to ignore Korae and again drink of the pure energies.

Korae felt the fury build within. Sefrana might not be the slaveholders of her youth, she might not even have been unattractive to the unknowing eye, but this ünmensch had done too much harm. Korae barely dodged the streak of black energy, which seemed to turn fertile land barren. As she rolled, she called forth her Perception Bauble and ordered it to unleash the stores of Demonic Energy she kept there. As the torrent of Seretique’s donated might enveloped her, Korae let her staff burn. “You will face justice, Sefrana!” The energy, the flames, the rage in her heart, they swept Korae’s form up, descending in a dark shape reminiscent of a Dragon of yore. It breathed a ghastly flame, greenish with a venomous glare to it. When this struck Sefrana’s abominable form, she screeched in genuine pain. “MONSTERRRRRRRRR! DIEEEEE!!!” Bubbling tentacles wrapped around the shadowy Dragon and threw it away. Korae landed with a sickening crack, howling as her legbones poked through the skin. Nalgeeia and Rowdrake supported Glastine, sharing a look that spoke of a regret shared. But moreso of determination.

Sefrana was weakened by Korae’s flames, so Nalgeeia took her sword, kissed the blade with a prayer to Eiraiha that Rowdrake mirrored, they charged and struck where the clitoris had been, hoping to find a brain there. With a soul-piercing shriek, Sefrana shuddered, collapsing into a mass of flesh. The day was won, right? That hope was etched onto every face even as Nalgeeia hissed her fury, hacking at twitching tentacles. But then the mass heaved. Lips parted and caustic fluids gushed out, splattering Rowdrake, who groaned in agony. Seselie, Terim in tow, grabbed Rowdrake and poured water from a flask over his smoking form. Nalgeeia desperately dodged, hoping that her shared husband was alive. As the fluids poured, a pale light emerged, resolving into a figure both semi-Angelic and unnatural. Brilliant wings connected to a head both beautiful and deadly. Four arms hung from a torso terminating in a tail. “Birthing is such a pain. And I still do not have full power. Hmmmm….” Sefrana’s new form shot at Nalgeeia, latching onto her neck with razor-sharp claws and tearing through her torso as if it were butter.

NALGEEIA!!!!!!!!!!!” Glastine saw the light of life leave her eyes, knew that Rowdrake had perished as well even without hearing Seselie roar another futile challenge. Something gave within and she flew at Sefrana, beyond reason and put forth every ounce of anguish in a scream. The watching armies could only shield their eyes as the result of a Phantasm giving herself to destruction was unlike anything they had ever experienced. There was a blinding light that bled into shadows, a dome of impenetrable energy that exploded. Those too close to the blast were bowled away. When reports of this were eventually shared with the Tsuki no Usako in the Renaissance, the closest they could compare it to would have been a bomb strong enough to destroy a colony-barge from their space-faring age. In the aftermath, Marisaelle vi Alloriel shone as a commander, streaking across the landscape in search of survivors and seeing to it that they were tended. She found Korae barely clinging to consciousness, shielding herself and the soldiers who’d been tending her.

Seselie was found clinging to Terim’s body. Her survival was miraculous, but she’d lost an arm. A month later a report was filed that stated the Demon Braves would be honoured posthumously in the annals of the Demon Kingdom for their sacrifice.

Interlude. Grief of the survivors

“Noooo!” Ulrika’s grief-filled shout of denial echoed through the Villa, tears streaming from her eyes. No eyes in the room were dry and the loss was felt as fresh and keenly as if it had happened just then. In a sense, it had. The quest for knowledge of the Demon Braves had brought memories flooding back to Korae and Kusuhimi, as well as to Laerine, whose fragility of mind had resulted in a suicide attempt. Though still not wholly believing of her survival, or that of Ulrika, Laerine was forced to admit that they did seem to be here together. Alive, dead, whatever. Though shackled now, a precaution according to that horned goatling and her friend, Laerine was able to share in the emotion. At least until the door opened and her father stepped through, with Eiraiha in tow. “HOW CAN YOU?! Father!!!” He silenced her gently, kissing her on her forehead and letting his potent spiritus speak for him.

Damien vi Alloriel had possessed extraordinarily pure spiritus as a human, as an Incubus he could feed many mamonme simply by sweating near them. Being kissed by him was all that, and more. He could share his soul that way. “She… She’s not here to harm?” Damien sat next to Laerine, gently grasping her shoulders before replying. Eiraiha had hugged Kusuhimi and Balase and shyly shook Korae’s hand with her free arm, a sleeping Aered on the other. “No Laerine, Lady Eiraiha has come here to speak with Ulrika and you. She wouldn’t have restored your eye if she meant harm. I’m just here to support you.”

Eiraiha nodded, handing Aered over to Balase without waking him. She then gently reached forward and took Ulrika’s hands in her own. “You’re awake… I’m so very, very grateful that you’ve awakened Ulrika. We haven’t met in person before, but I knew Nalgeeia for a short time and Kusuhimi is… well, an aunt of mine, legally. I’m sure you have many questions, but I hope that you’ll be willing to let me answer a share at least.” Balase poked Eiraiha gently. “She knows, Eihy. About the end of the battle.” Eiraiha blinked, then sighed with a small raincloud forming over her head. “I wish it had been different. Ulrika, I trust my Grandmother to have told you why, but at that time I was incapable of affecting the outcome of the battle. Powerful as I am now, at that time I barely had the power to work miracles.” 

“Though we caught Laudican and Sefrana’s other sponsors, by the time that was done I couldn’t find the souls of our friends anymore.” She momentarily glanced at Laerine, a slight sparking of lightning playing across the cloud. “I didn’t know they had died there until some time later, the fact that they were honoured by the Demon Kingdom for a while also eluded me.” Hail and snow poured from the cloud. “Some Principal Goddess, huh? All I can say is that we’ve been trying to get to the bottom of things and see to it that everyone is remembered. I’m hoping that you’ll be willing to attend the ceremony we’ve got planned. But I just wish I knew where Seselie was buried. A report we unearthed mentioned that she’d survived, but… She was later listed as deceased as well.” This evoked a bout of barked laughter from Laerine. Damien tried to calm her down, but she sprang at Eiraiha and growled at her. “Seselie died! But not then and not there! YOUR LUMINAIRE MURDERED HER!!

Chapter 27. Last stand of the Demon Braves

Agony. Worse pain than anything her body could have imagined. Terim was gone. Everyone was gone. But for her. Seselie groaned, straining against the restraints holding her arm and legs in place. Arm. She only had one left, the other having been cleaved from her shoulder by a blade sent flying by Glastine’s explosion. Had she not hoped that Terim was merely knocked out, she would have finished the job before they could do this to her. Leather groaned as muscles bunched, but then a sound intruded. It was the rolling of wheels as a bed was wheeled past. Then Laerine stood beside her, crying. “Oh Seselie… Poor Seselie. If only…..” She shook her head, sitting down on a chair. “I can’t begin to tell you how…. How awful this all is.” A glassy look muddled the eye of the Serebim. “Korae will recover, others will recover. Mom’s rule will be more stable and countless innocents will live thanks to what you all did. But I cannot bring THEM back.” She kissed Seselie tenderly. “I’d gladly give my own life if only that were made possible.”

“Cut the crap! Let me die! Terim’s gone, everyone’s gone! Why not me?” Laerine visibly shuddered, but Seselie could not feel the compassion she wanted to. Just a numb hollow where her heart had sat. “NO! I cannot let you die. And you’ll want to live, Seselie. The healers… Well, they know about these things. They discovered that you’re gravid.” Seselie gave no indication whatsoever, what did that mean? A part of her wondered, but the majority had decided she wasn’t interested. Laerine sighed. “You’re pregnant! With Terim’s baby! Or… babies. It depends on how many eggs will come out of you.” Laerine put a gentle hand on Seselie’s abdomen, rubbing a part that was more tender than Seselie recalled. “Call me selfish, but if that doesn’t mean anything to you, Terim was a wonderful friend and… being allowed to share on those evenings when I was low on Spiritus reserves? I don’t want the children he sired to die. I don’t want the woman he loved above all else to die. You’re my friend especially, Seselie. I don’t have many and I’ve lost most now. Please, let me try to help you find a new life.”

A month later, Seselie stood on a rise leading into a small valley, Laerine standing besides her and *oomph* some very feisty eggs wanting to get outside of her. “So… This is the place?” Laerine nodded, smiling as she faced Seselie. She felt like she could become happy, after so many, many life-shattering pains, here was a glimmer of what was good. Yes, this was the place where she could realise a living monument to her friends. “Yes, this is a little side-project of mine.. In a sense. A little hidden community that cares for… well, children and aged relatives, mostly. You see, while the Luminaire would gladly kill all mamonme, they sometimes do not kill the children. Thinking themselves the height of compassion while leaving kids to starve. Hence…secluded villages where they can be brought and given a comparatively normal life. Now, I’m really obligated to visit the Citadel often, but between the two of us, and with a little help…” She pointed at a small new cottage carved in a familiar style. “The kids will grow up just fine and we’ll be happy. Trust me.” Seselie grunted, shrugging her shoulders as emotions warred within her. Speaking with her parents might help.

In the present Laerine teetered on the edge of sanity. “But of course!!!! That’s not allowed to last, is it?!?!?” A few decades later found Seselie a changed woman. She had eventually accepted her own survival. The going had been rough at first, until her eggs hatched. Three healthy daughters with their father’s eyes and a zest for life that had reïgnited her own had saved her. Seselie still missed Terim, but over the years she had accepted some… casual liaisons as Laerine brought home men to satisfy their need for spiritus. No love, just lust for the interchangeable ones and what they could do for them. No children though. Only Terim had been worthy of that. She would dote on her grandchildren, the moment her daughters nabbed a man and started laying their own eggs. While she waited, she doted on the children in the village. The human ones were a bit scared at first at the sight of a huge, one-armed spider woman bedecked with scars looking at them. She reflected that even the tlc from a Serebim could not erase all such things. No matter, her actions spoke louder than her scars. 

Still, she wondered how much longer she would have. It was a thought that intruded betimes, mostly when Laerine was called away to help her mother with one thing or another. Seselie would have liked to tag along this time as a new Serebim had been born. Marrin or something, the missive had been a bit smudged. But she was officially ‘dead’, a hero passed away so as not to be paraded in front of the masses. Good call that, but… In hindsight, Seselie would have liked to end the charade, at least in private to Korae. The Sorceress had recovered, though she’d had to regrow her staff from a seed apparently and was known to visit the graves often. Seselie never did go there. Not only to avoid Korae, whom she felt as if she’d betrayed, but also to move beyond her haunting past. She mentally forced herself away from those thoughts, snuggling deeply in the basin-shaped bed and the soft pillows covering her body. These last few years had seen more orphans being ferried in though. Had Reginne not died, then she would have had her work cut out for her.

Seselie recalled how she’d looked, the little Wendy who’d been an older human. She remembered Reginne’s face well, but her human appearance… A fuzzy memory mostly. Nalgeeia’s was mostly intact, bar the toes. Ulrika’s mask floated in her memories as well. Something must be in the air, for she could not catch the elusive sleep tonight. Rising without even being conscious, she looked at her reflection in the tin mirror. Would they know her? She thought so, just a touch… less lean than before, in her face. A bit more mature, but still Seselie. Her reverie was broken when hoarse shouts came in with the wind. Just drunk teens, maybe? That notion was dispelled when the emergency bell rang and the light of fires raging wildly came through the blinds. As the bell cut off suddenly, Seselie knew something was seriously amiss. “It can’t be the Taintpledged, right?” She grasped her woodcutter’s’ axe and dexterously slung her leather mantle around her shoulders.

Outside, Meliddis was a scene from her nightmares about the last battles she’d been in. Soldiers, more like young recruits, were tearing through the village and killing all they could. A tight knot of villagers stood back to back, hollering defiance. But it was clear to Seselie that they didn’t stand a chance. Many of the corpses were too small to have defended themselves. But… She looked back, seeing the hall of welcoming. It was where most children were housed. It still hadn’t been assaulted. She made a decision then and there. The children had been awakened by the sounds and lights, terrified of what they saw. Seselie could smell the accidents they’d had. “Lenneliss! Annmille! Morocil! Listen to me, you need to be brave and get the little ones out of here! Grab the blankets and follow me everyone, quietly!” She led them to the entrance of an old series of tunnels that predated the village and spoke to the eldest children. “Go through here, keep to the tunnels with green stone until you come to the sea. Blow this horn there and let the Merfolk know what happened! We’ll pick you up as soon as this is over, okay?” She accepted that she hadn’t convinced them, but gave them no chance to disagree. 

With her one fist, she collapsed the entrance before turning back to the village. Pockets of resistance still held out. She felt the fury rise again, the unquenchable wrath at the injustice done to so many. Uncountable lives lost and for what? She tasted her own blood, having bitten her cheeks and charged. To her these Luminaire were hellspawn. She didn’t allow herself to see them as anything else. Rallying survivors around herself, she committed to ensuring none would go look for the children and praying that those she hadn’t guided would escape too. Randeia Morguis appeared in her vision then, the former Impundulu commander showing something of her age, yet sharing Seselie’s determination to make the Luminaire PAY! Even so, the tide was against them. By morning, Randeia had died, a bolt sticking out of the bottom of her chin and into her skull. The defenders lay where they’d fallen, bar Seselie. She clawed weakly at the spear slowly killing her. “At least they didn’t get all of the children… That short distraction gave me enough time to put a few in the old tunnels…” Her final words were ignored in favor of more young fools jabbing at her body to claim part of the kill. Part of Seselie knew then, this had been a blooding, a blooding for something worse yet to come. She could but hope that Laerine would see this truth, as her soul left Praxis behind, hoping to find her friends again.

A week later a small group of Demon Kingdom commandos visited, quickly and for little more than to note what had happened. Luminaire troops patrolled the surrounding areas still and resources did not permit transporting the entire army there by magic for mere retribution. Laerine held the corpse of her dearest friend, having to be dragged away physically by those who did not know the truth. In the bushes nearby, a lone youngster watched them leave, wondering why he had not been able to prevent this evil deed. A memory that would haunt him for years to come, even as some inner spark prevented him from taking his own life. 

In the present, as Laerine concluded her story, thunderclouds rolled across the landscape and a howling wind blew in from across the sea. The door slammed open and Seretique vi Alloriel strode in. “Blast it, Eiraiha keep yourself under contro-!” She had to flap her wings in order not to fall down as the children ran into the room. “Aunt Eihy! You can’t get grumpy now! Think of uncle Ant-Money” They tackled Eiraiha to the ground and pressed a sock to her nose while holding a drawing of her husband to her face. “Its not me! I’m not grumpy! And… ugh, is that the sock Antimony was missing?” Though Eiraiha loved her husband, she did not think an old sock of his smelled appealing. “Its just a storm, everyone. They happen without Eiraiha as well, remember?” Ulrika gulped as an impressive set of breasts preceded the owner of that voice into the room. However, there was no mistaking that face. “You… You look like Hoofleaf? How is that possible???” She felt a gentle hand touch her shoulder. “Hello Ulrika. I am Clover Meadlowry, current Matrika Beluaine of Praxis and… well, Hoofleaf was an aunt of mine.” They spoke quietly, of friends lost and of what the future still held. 

A week later, Korae stood next to Ulrika and Danthra on a platform in front of a massive assembly. The Sorceress still sought to come to terms with Laerine’s revelations. Yes, a part of her had suspected something. Laerine had been happy for years without a known cause, but after Meliddis? A mental patient in need of constant minding. Now that the secret was out, she might recover. Yet that didn’t ease Korae’s mind. A part of herself had been all too ready to accept the death of them all and that troubled her deeply. Not so that Puyo woman. She’d steadily chipped at the walls of Korae’s heart and had proclaimed her anything but a-typical as far as survivors went. “Nervous?” Ulrika had focussed both eyestalks on Korae. “A little. I’m not comfy being this far into the stagelights. How about you?” Ulrika sighed in response, shrugging expansively. “Me either, but I’m hanging in there for them, you know? And Kusu thinks it is good for us as well.” Korae smiled at that. “Let us hope that she is right…” Eiraiha appeared on the stage in a burst of lights, accompanied by her husband, sisters and as many of the contributors as they had been able to coax out of the woodworks.

“I thank you, all of you, for attending this ceremony today! As you know, Praxis’ history has oft been clad in mist, willfully or unknowingly obscured… Yet due to the efforts of many, we can finally claim to know the truth about a particularly dark area of recent history, and the heroes that fought to preserve the light of hope. We honor the three here before you, and those that passed away. We choose to know the past, so that we can step towards a better future.” As far as speeches went, Korae had to admit that this was a good one. She just wished that she felt more worthy of being present. And less out of place with the children that wanted to meet the heroes. Still, it would be good while it lasted.

Epilogue. History in the future

“So what happened then?” A breathless little voice asked. A more mature, yet enthusiastic one answered. “Ulrika would travel for many years across Praxis, just living her life mostly, but always eager to stop conflicts if she could. But eventually she left Praxis, shuffling off with Kusuhimi to New Heaven. Neither went alone of course, as both had added some to their family before then. Korae and Danthra went there as well, eventually.” The teacher sighed in remembrance. “The world has changed so much since then, and will continue to change. But it wouldn’t have gotten here without them. As I look at each of you, I see something there. A potential for you too, to become heroes of this time.” She smiled at the hopeful little faces as the children cheered. By the time she released them to their parents, a melancholy smile played across her lips and a twitching of her tail indicated just how busy her thoughts were. Nearly twelve centuries onward and she still had to struggle to keep these bits of history known.

It said a lot about her that she tried, that even during her mandatory stay on Praxis she felt the need to relay events from so very long ago to the next generation. And the next. And so forth. Would Ulrika approve? Maybe she should ask if they met in New Heaven during the big meeting. “There you are! Cousin Rukia, you need to come right now!” Abbyl Humblestone-Saerti was notably one of the most stubborn Ureonggaksi of this generation, which was part of why Rukia cared so deeply for her and had declared them to be cousins. “Okay, okay! Is this the super secret school play of Iris’ class?” Abbyl grinned, even as she sped them along on a clear trail of slime. “Yes! She doesn’t want to start without you. Petrovich is so shy sometimes, so I went to nab you. Oooooohhhhh~! You’re going to love it, I’m sure. Now put this on!” Abbyl slid to a halt and handed Rukia a blindfold. “Ehhh… Okay cousin, I’m guessing the ‘other senses’ need to be toned down as well?” She knew Abbyl nodded, so she sighed and stumbled blindly along.

When the blindfold was taken off, she was seated in the front row next to the stage of the little school where her niece went. In Rukia’s experience, this was a good thing. Early schools had not focussed on the merits of the theatrical arts, sadly enough. The backdrop for this opening scene was a modern interpretation of the Citadel of Desires, where Matrika Maraina vi Alloriel held reign. Based on the details, whomever painted the backdrop had at least been there. Rukia’s excellent hearing noted that her arrival was known. A little boy, barely bigger than the placard he held, stumbled onto stage and declaimed in a squeaky voice: “Hear ye, hear ye! The true story of heroes! The Demon Braves save Praxis!” Rukia blinked, gaping at Abbyl with open mouth. “Guess who plays the female lead?” Abbyl’s eyes shone with motherly pride that Rukia found very much infectious. 

The play’s story was simplified, the gory details edited out or toned down. But the important bits were there, though the mutating Sefrana was now a garishly painted Aluraune girl with a pumpkin tied to her skirt. Rukia was grinning ear to ear when they went to Abbyl’s shell, where she shared Iris’ room. “Aunt Rukia, what’cha think? Did I do Seselie right?” An oversized thumb was stuck into a small mouth with a little effort. “She’d be proud of you, I’m sure.” Maybe the people of this future would still care about the past…. What she kept secret for a little longer was that she had done her best to track down Seselie’s daughters and… well, when Abbyl hatched a little Ushi-Oni she had run some tests. But Iris needed to sleep, so Rukia put that memory back into the part of her mind where she kept things to tell Iris later. As she lay down to sleep, perchance to dream of her husband and sisters, a happy smile spread across her lips.

The end…
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