Demon Queened – Chapter 11

Written by Princess Kay

Edited by paradoxicalWitchling

Proofread by FallingLeaf

Warning: This is erotica, meant only for those 18 or older. Only those who have reached the age of consent in the country where they reside should proceed. If you are not at least eighteen, please exit this page immediately.

My eyes tracked the kitsune’s tail as it swayed back and forth. The hallways were full of beautiful paintings, opulent vases, and, of course, gorgeous maids, but my eyes stayed faithfully locked on this girl’s tail. Its sway was almost hypnotic and watching it helped soothe my nerves as I was led toward the Demon Queen. 

Or at least we were supposed to be going toward Queen Devilla. We weren’t walking down the usual hallways. Even distracted by the tail, I could tell that much. After all, I’d walked those hallways countless times, bringing Devilla reports from throughout the tower.

Though maybe “reports” was a bit generous. She could call me the general of the fortieth floor. She could even declare me her spymaster, but it wasn’t like I ever brought her any real information. That wasn’t my job.

My job was to find out what people thought of the Queen. Every day I found a few spiders to take control of, sent them throughout the tower, and tapped into their senses at random intervals. If I heard someone talking about Devilla, I’d write down what they said on a slip of paper. Then I would push that slip through the slit of a locked wooden box. And once a week, without fail, Devilla would call on me to deliver that box to her throne room. She always had to know what people thought of her, no matter what – even though it was almost always bad. 

Except, in the week and a half since Princess Devilla became Queen Devilla, she had yet to call me in even once. The slips of paper were piling up without anyone to read them, to the point where it was becoming an effort to fit more of them inside the box. Not only that, but the stories I heard about Queen Devilla lately were getting… weird.

Oh, there was still a lot of the usual stuff. Ill wishes, angry mutterings about how Queen Devilla didn’t care about her people, and a lot of talk about how disappointed Queen Grimmilla would be if she could see her daughter now. And then there was the rumor that Devilla had gotten angry at the sun for outshining her and blasted a giant fireball at it. That really did sound like the Demon Queen I knew.

But then there was strange new gossip thrown into the mix. Like how the Queen had apparently left the tower, and brought home a new type of food? I had trouble wrapping my head around that one. It wasn’t like her to do any work, let alone something that could help others, but it was true that a new vegetable had been introduced to the dryads’ and goblins’ growth rotation. Not only that, the other day salt began to appear in the market in large quantities. The first batch of it went fast, but over the last three days even more had come in and everything pointed to Queen Devilla being the source.

An even less believable rumor said that Queen Devilla had made friends with a servant. It was true that she’d gotten a personal maid, but there was absolutely no way Devilla was friends with the poor thing! In order to befriend someone, you first had to see them as your equal, or at least worthy of your time. I totally agreed with the rumors on this one: Devilla was just bullying a servant into acting like her friend. 

What I couldn’t figure out was why? Getting food for the tower, publicly treating this servant, Abigail, like she mattered – was the Demon Queen trying to change how people in the tower viewed her? But then why hadn’t she ordered me to deliver my findings? Didn’t she want to know if her trick was working?

Well, in the end, I wasn’t going to get anywhere just wondering about it. That was why I’d chosen to take proactive measures. I’d made my own request to meet the Queen and gotten it approved. Now I was marching down the hallways of the hundred and first floor, on my way to meet her.

In theory. I still didn’t recognize where we were.

“We’re here,” the maid declared, coming to a stop at the end of a hallway. Before me was a thick-looking wooden door, trimmed with gold. It was most definitely not the entrance to the throne room.

“Uh. Where is here, exactly?”

“The queen’s bed chambers,” the maid replied matter-of-factly, before rapping on the door.

“Wait, what!?” I cried out. I was supposed to meet the queen in her throne room. That was where I always met her! I wouldn’t say I was comfortable there, but at least it was familiar territory. How the hell was I supposed to interact with the Queen in her own bedroom?

The doorknob turned before I could get an answer. I hastily put on a smile, ready to meet the personal maid I’d been hearing so much about, but when the door opened, it wasn’t a servant standing on the other side.

It was Queen Devilla.

…Or at least it looked like Queen Devilla. She was wearing a lot more than she usually did when I saw her; a green top that fully covered her stomach, and barely showed any cleavage, as well as a black skirt that actually touched her knees. It was a weird look for her, but a quick glance confirmed that everything else about her was the same. Her straight white hair, which was long enough to brush against her well-cushioned ass, was as shiny as ever. Her purple eyes still had that glint of intelligence that I’d never actually seen her put to use. She was even still wearing her favorite pair of open-toed platform heels, colored black to match the tint of her nails. Every general knew that Queen Devilla would never be caught dead in anything less than three-inch heels and that she absolutely hated it when anyone brought up her real height.

“General Araina,” she said, greeting me with a strained smile. “I apologize for the informality of our meeting – I’m trying to stick to a schedule.”

“It’s fine,” I assured her, trying to hide my surprise at her apology. It wasn’t like the Queen to admit any sort of flaw on her part, but then again, I never thought I’d see her opening her own door, either. What was going on here? “I-I only came by to deliver my weekly reports. They’ve been building up…”

“Re…. ports.” Queen Devilla’s eyes flicked to the box I was holding, and then back to me. The smile on her face widened slightly, but seemed even more tense from the effort. “Right. I had managed to completely forget about those… Burn them, would you?”

“B-burn them?” I echoed, my fake smile shattering into an expression of shock.

“That’s right. And I’m ordering you to stop with surveillance while you’re at it. I’m afraid I need to give some serious thought to your position…”

“S-stop the surveillance?” I mumbled back, barely able to form the words. What was happening? Was this part of the Queen’s attempt to change her image? Had she come to the conclusion that a spymaster would only make her appear more deceitful?

But what about me? I needed this job. It was all I had left! My friends all abandoned me when it came out that I was spying on our people. Even the girl I was dating at the time called me scum to my face and broke up with me. I was probably the second least popular demon in the tower, all because Queen Devilla pressured me into taking this position.

And now I was at risk of losing it? It felt like my world was spinning. There was a tightness in my chest and this weird churning in my stomach. Queen Devilla was still speaking, but I could no longer hear her. The only thing going through my head was that I was about to lose everything.

“I… I need to get out of here,” I murmured, backing up from the door. 

“Are you alright?” Queen Devilla asked, frowning up at me. “Do you need healing?” Did she really think she could just pretend to be concerned, and everything would work out fine? That I would fall for whatever trick she was trying to play on the masses? I knew her too well for that.

“I’m fine,” I lied. “Peachy. Great!” I spun away before the tears could spring from my eyes, and raced down the hallway, not bothering to wait for the kitsune maid. 

***

“You’re sure you have everything?” Abigail badgered. “The gems you wanted to sell? The emergency food supplies? Your tent?”

“I have everything,” I promised, trying not to roll my eyes. Abigail was only acting this way out of concern for me, after all. As strong as I was, even I might run into trouble while all alone in human territory. If I was being absolutely honest, I was perhaps a touch nervous myself.

Still, this was a journey that had to be undertaken. My people had been pushed to the brink of extinction thanks to the humans’ war against us. Our only chance at survival was making peace, and our only chance at doing that was to make a connection with the Heroine.

Technically, I still had three days left before my promised date with Lucy. I could stay and relax in the tower for a little bit longer if I wanted to, but I preferred to try and grasp the lay of the land before our meeting. Besides, I needed to make a pit stop before heading to Rendra City.

“What about teleportation magic?” Abigail pressed. “Have you mastered it?”

“Enough to cast the spell, at least,” I assured her with a smile. It felt good knowing I’d no longer have to depend on others to activate the circles for me. “I’ve already set up a teleportation ring in my closet. Though, actually, I’m not sure it’s completely necessary to have one. There are some things I’d like to try out when I have a moment.”

“Devilla,” Abigail said, her tone flat. She narrowed her pitch-black eyes at me. “Please tell me you aren’t planning to mess around with magic that bends the very fabric of reality!?”

“Well, it sounds a lot more dangerous when you put it that way…”

“Devilla! No experimenting with teleportation magic! What if you end up trapped on the other side of Solla, or something?”

“I suppose I’d have to figure out what went wrong and try again.”

“Be serious!” Abigail snapped, pointing angrily at me. “What do you think will happen to the rest of us if you just disappear like that? There are no guarantee things will go like they did in your ‘game,’ you know. We could all end up getting wiped out without you!”

“I wasn’t entirely joking… But I do understand your point. I’ll keep to traditional teleportation magic so long as I have a choice.”

“Why doesn’t that make me feel any better?” Abigail complained, cradling her head in her hands.

I was spared the need to answer by a knock at the door. Likely Araina, spymaster general of the fortieth floor. I wasn’t sure what she wanted, but since she’d gone through the trouble of requesting an official audience with me, it was probably important. 

Usually, I would meet a visiting general in my throne room, but I had yet to sit in that massive chair since officially becoming queen. While I used to perch there without a care in the world, I was now all too aware of the heavy responsibilities it represented and my own inadequacies in meeting them. I was hoping to avoid any official audiences in that room until I felt worthy of it.

I waved away Bailey, who was sniffing at the bottom of the door and turned the handle. I found myself staring into the blue eyes of a red-haired kitsune; one of my maids from her uniform. Possibly a new hire? I didn’t recall seeing her before, but it was just as likely that she was a long-time employee I never really bothered to note the features of. Yet another thing to correct… 

In any case, my current concern was the eight-legged woman standing behind the maid. She was an arachne: a woman with the upper body of a human and the bottom half of a spider. She was a sandy blonde, with kind-looking yellow eyes and rosy cheeks. She had a somewhat delicate, even dainty figure, with gently sloping curves and small breasts that were just barely big enough to fill one’s hands. Not that I could see them beneath the sky blue blouse she wore, but, for better or worse, the image of her naked body was burned into my memories both from my recent coronation and from Jacob’s memories of Tower Conquest.

And then there was her spider half. Where her upper form was pale, her lower carapace was almost pure black, except for a single white dot in the center of her upper side. It was a large, wide form that filled most of the hallway, in stark contrast to the small humanoid figure that sat where a normal spider’s head would be.

“General Araina,” I greeted her, smiling. Araina was doing the same, but her smile looked frozen in place as if she’d received a great shock. Well, not that I could say much about my own. I didn’t have a lot of fond memories associated with any of my generals. “I apologize for the informality of our meeting – I’m trying to stick to a schedule.”

Her eyes widened, and her smile came unstuck. “It’s fine,” she assured me. “I-I only came by to deliver my weekly reports. They’ve been building up…”

“Re … ports.” I glanced at the wooden box she was clutching against her chest. I knew exactly what was in it, and it wasn’t anything good. I forced myself to smile a bit wider, trying to hide my distaste for my past self’s ego. “Right. I had managed to completely forget about those… Burn them, would you?”

That box contained nothing but negativity. I would destroy it myself, but I really did have to finish running things through with Abigail if I was going to leave today and to be honest, I didn’t trust myself not to peek at the contents. I had already spent far too many nights locked in my room, breaking my self-esteem by reading exactly what other people thought of me. I didn’t need to return to such self-destructive habits.

“B-burn them?” Araina repeated, looking surprised.

“That’s right. And I’m ordering you to stop with surveillance while you’re at it. I’m afraid I need to give some serious thought to your position…”

“S-stop the surveillance?” she mumbled back, barely audible even to my impressive hearing. 

“You don’t need to worry about your job, of course,” I tried to reassure her. “But I do need to rethink your duties. I believe you were originally interested in joining the arachne communication relay? Perhaps I could put you in charge of that, or something similar.”

“I… I need to get out of here,” Araina murmured, backing away from me.

“Are you alright?” I asked, frowning. “Do you need healing?” She looked pale, even sickly; not exactly common for demons, who couldn’t normally get ill if they tried. 

“I’m fine,” she insisted. “Peachy. Great!” Then she spun away and skittered down the hall.

“…If you’ll excuse me,” the kitsune maid dropped into a curtsy before turning to follow Araina.

I didn’t bother responding, but simply stared down the hallway Araina had run through. It was obvious that I’d upset the woman, though I wasn’t sure how. I would have thought her happy to be relieved of spying on her own people. It wasn’t a job she’d ever sought out, and if she hadn’t been buried in debt when I first met her, I doubt she would have accepted the position at all. I certainly hadn’t made things easy on her, considering I made no effort to hide who was doing my spying.

Something odd was going through that girl’s head. It didn’t seem like she was in the mood to discuss it, but I’d have to find some time to talk to her soon. I did hope she wouldn’t do anything stupid in the meantime, such as trying to peek in on me or Abigail. There were, of course, countermeasures against spider spying, but if I had to go that far then we already had a serious problem.

Perhaps it was best that I warn her away? Just in case? Though if she wasn’t planning anything after all, that would only make things more awkward.

Then what about a warning she’d only come across if she tried spying? That was a bit more clever. Some sort of spider repellant, perhaps? My human mother, back when I was still Jacob, had been terrible with spiders. If I remembered correctly, she had a trick to keep them away. It wouldn’t stop one under the direct control of an arachne of course, but if she came across something that was obviously meant as a deterrent, then Araina would likely get the message. 

“Abigail?” I called out, closing the door. “While I’m gone, could you perhaps lay down some peppermint oil?”

***

My black wings beat against the air, stirring up dust on the dirt road as I slowed my descent enough to touch down. Getting ready had taken a little longer than anticipated, mostly because of Abigail. My loyal maid absolutely insisted on reviewing everything with me, from the items I planned to carry to the backstory I would give anyone who asked. She also took great pains to warn me against drawing attention to myself, as if that wasn’t a given. Personally, I didn’t think it would be much of an issue. The heroine was bound to attract far more attention than a nameless traveler in her company. 

Somehow that didn’t do much to relieve Abigail’s worries, and in the end I wasn’t able to fully banish her fears no matter how much I reassured her. Still, if going over things managed to help even a little then I considered it time well spent.

I’d landed just as the sun was beginning to set, the timing of which worked out in my favor. With the light of day leaving them behind, most humans would be wrapping up their work by now. That hopefully meant Lissera would be free to deal with me.

I dismissed my wings and made my way on foot past the outer wall which surrounded the fields. I didn’t see anyone working them, so it seemed that my assumption about work hours was more or less correct. Humans didn’t have the same night vision we demons boasted, after all.

When I reached the inner wall, I reached through the barred gate to undo the latch and stepped inside without a moment’s hesitation. A few people, walking down the street as I entered the town, turned to look at me with suspicion as I navigated their simple security measures. One of the villagers, a blue-haired young man with green eyes, said something. The fickle wind blew most of his words in the wrong direction, but I was fairly certain I heard the name ‘Eena’ mentioned. After that, the stares seemed to change, shifting from suspicion to gentler, if no less intense, curiosity. Perhaps my reputation preceded me?

I smiled politely, then began to walk away. Abigail’s warning aside, it was a little late for me to avoid drawing attention in this town. I didn’t want to attract more of it than needed, though, especially with my disguise in its current state. We didn’t have ready stores of hair dye in the tower, and I wouldn’t have been able to secure any without drawing questions. As such, I was simply using a spell to make my tresses appear brown. I had plenty of magic left in me, and there was little risk of me dropping the spell by accident, but there was always a chance that something would catch me off guard. Not to mention the fact that I couldn’t cast any other magic while I was maintaining this spell.

A few more people’s gazes swung towards me as I made my way down the street, but I did my best not to make eye contact with any of them. Fortunately for me, Lissera’s home was close to the outer wall. Unfortunately for me, the small size of the town meant that word of my arrival was spreading quickly. Instead of suspicious glares or surprised looks, I was getting friendly waves. I was used to being recognized, but it was a little strange to see recognition repeatedly turn to happiness instead of revulsion. My cheeks were starting to tinge pink under the attention.

I ducked my head down and pretended not to notice. Even when someone called out to me, I refused to turn around. If anything I picked up my pace, knowing I was only a few steps away from Lissera’s home and my own safety. The voice had come from some distance away in any case, so it was easy enough to pretend I hadn’t heard it, but even as I stepped up to the house I heard the sound of hurried footsteps as someone raced after me, apparently desperate for my attention. 

“Eena!”

I recognized that voice. I spun away from Lissera’s house to see Lissera herself, bent over and clutching at her thighs, breathing heavily. She held up a finger, then dropped her hand back to her leg again. I waited patiently as she caught her breath, then closed her eyes, stood up straight, and appeared to settle herself.

Then she glared at me.

“Why didn’t you stop?!”

“I don’t suppose we could discuss this inside?” I requested, glancing meaningfully around us. Up until that point most people had only smiled and waved at me in passing, but with Lissera stopping me in front of her house to shout at me several of them had actually paused to gawk.

Lissera, noticing the direction of my gaze, opened her mouth into a small “O” of surprise. “Huh… Never took you for the shy type. It’s cute, though.”

“I am not shy,” I grumbled, crossing my arms defensively. “I simply don’t think it’s a good idea for me to attract attention. I thought you, of all people, would understand that.” I lowered my voice to a whisper for that last part. It was possible someone could overhear me, with magic, but that was precisely why I kept my words vague.

“I think it’s a little late for that… But if you really want to escape your fans, then come on in.” She grabbed ahold of my arm and led me into her home. 

It was small inside, just as I remembered. The house was comprised largely of a bedroom, which was mostly filled by a double-sized bed. Still, it felt much more spacious than it had when I’d been trapped in the room with Lucy. It was a bit hard to see her as a threat, now that I’d gotten used to her, but coming face to face with the Heroine for the first time really hadn’t been great for my heart.

“So what can I do for you, Eena?” Lissera asked, smiling brightly. “I mean, if you just want your potatoes, you should see the Village Head.”

“The Village Head?” I asked, tilting my head to one side. I hadn’t come across anyone with that title during my last visit.

“She was laid up in bed last time you visited,” Lissera explained. “She’s pretty old and doesn’t leave her house much. But she wanted to thank you in person anyway.”

“Perhaps another time,” I told her, shaking my head. I wanted to build good relations with this town, but meeting with the leadership of a village seemed a serious step. I’d want to be properly prepared – and properly dressed, too. I was wearing more than usual, in a vague attempt to mimic human modesty, but it was still a far cry from their formal wear. Not that I was entirely certain what humans wore when meeting those in power, but I somehow doubted that they’d go with a backless green top or a skirt that barely brushed their knees.

“I’m not here for potatoes, in any case.”

“You’re not?” Lissera ran a hand through her hair, looking at me almost nervously. “Then what are you here for? We’re just a farming village, you know. We don’t exactly have a lot to offer a literal queen.”

“You’d be surprised,” I muttered back. I didn’t wish to discuss the state of the demon tower with a human, no matter how friendly she might be, but the truth was that we were lacking in certain key resources, such as salt and other minerals. While we weren’t entirely without luxury goods, especially in the upper echelons, there were certain things one simply couldn’t get at a moment’s notice. Especially not if they were trying to avoid attracting undue attention.

“I require hair dye. Preferably of the same shade you used when last I was here. I… Do not have any human currency as of yet, but if you can accept a gem in trade, or if you’re willing to let me pay you back down the line, I would very much appreciate it. It would be even better if you could teach me how to make my own, but I’m aware that might be asking a bit much.”

“It was just walnut dye, Eena. It’s pretty easy to make – you break up some walnuts, boil them in water, simmer them for about an hour, and then let the liquid cool overnight. I’ll borrow some of my mom’s supply, again – she always makes way too much of it, anyway.”

“That would be appreciated,” I told Lissera, allowing my shoulders to slump a little as a tension I didn’t even realize I was holding left me. “And as for your preferred method of payment?”

“Geeze, don’t worry about that! Like I said last time, Eena, you’re the hero who saved my town. Helping you not get mobbed while traveling human lands is the least I can do. Even if I am sort of nervous about what you might be doing away from the demon tower…”

“Nothing nefarious, I assure you. Not that I expect you to take me at my word alone.”

“No. I trust you. Or rather, I’m choosing to trust you? I mean, you could have turned us all into demons or had monsters devour us whole, but instead, you put yourself at risk to save our town! And I’m… I’m still sorting out what that really means, to be honest? But I want to believe you aren’t as bad as Mother Reliz says you are.”

I was silent for a long moment, not quite certain what to say. Lissera was trying to believe in me. She was fighting against what she had been told her entire life, on the basis of a single good deed. But to think that we would still be this far away from properly understanding each other… 

“There’s a lot I want to say to that, but I suppose I should start by thanking you for your trust. You will have to decide for yourself what sort of person I am, but for now, I hope I can leave the matter of walnut dye in your capable hands?”

“Of course! Just wait here. I’ll tell everyone you only have time to stop by for a quick visit – maybe make up some excuse about you having to meet the Heroine. Someone started a rumor that you joined her party? So maybe they’ll believe that…”

“I am meeting Lucy, actually, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve joined her party. I have no intention of charging into Dimona Tower at her side, in any case.”

Lissera, who had been reaching for the doorknob, suddenly froze in her tracks and turned back toward me, her motions so stiff I could practically hear her creak. “You’re… Meeting up with the Heroine again? …You call the Heroine… Lucy?”

“It is her name. I’m fairly certain she’d prefer more people use it.”

“B-But she’s the Heroine!” Lissera protested, voice rising several octaves. “She was chosen by the goddess to… To… Well…”

“Kill me?” I finished for her, frustration leaking into my gaze.

Lissera’s gaze dropped to the ground, and a conflicted expression crossed her features. Her mouth opened, only to shut again, her lips pressed tightly closed as if she were trying to keep the words from leaving her throat.

“I… I’m going to go get the walnut dye,” she said at last, turning back toward the door and hurrying outside.

I watched Lissera leave, sighing when the door closed behind her. It was becoming clear to me that I’d been too optimistic about her. She had helped me; considering I was unconscious for three days, with the Heroine present, one could even go so far as to say that she had saved my life. As weak as Lucy currently was compared to me, I couldn’t say I’d have come out unscathed if she’d had access to my unmoving body. I wanted to pay Lissera back for that someday. 

But to her, I was the Demon Queen, the bringer of doom upon her world. I could tell she was trying hard not to see me that way, but it was always there in the back of her mind. She was scared of me and worried about what I might be planning. In the worst case, she might decide that I was a threat to humanity’s precious Heroine and opt to turn me into the Village Head.

“Perhaps it would be best if I just left,” I muttered to myself, staring at the door. To be fair, it wasn’t as if I were in any danger. Even if the whole town came after me, I could simply fly into the sky where they wouldn’t be able to follow. Even if I waded out among the hypothetical mob, I rather doubted any of them had the strength to actually injure me.

But I didn’t want to witness it. I didn’t want to see the happy faces of these townsfolk twisted in hatred and fear. I could already imagine the panic as they ran away from me, pointing up at the black-winged figure who had come to savage their livestock and corrupt their souls. So what if I had saved them? I was only a few days earlier than the Heroine, and being rescued by her might have put them on the map again. What had I really done for them, in the end? Merely killed some wolves. That couldn’t possibly be enough to overturn a lifetime of the church’s propaganda, let alone millennia of bitter feuding. I knew how to make the walnut dye. It was best that I simply left before anyone noticed.

I took a hesitant step toward the door. I doubted I would ever have the courage to visit Derrin Village again, and yet I still hoped that the townsfolk would remember me fondly. To that end, I would have to deal with the crowd during my exit just as I had during my entrance. Word would probably spread quickly that I was leaving. Perhaps Lissera would hear about it before she even reached the Village Head? That would be best. 

I was perhaps a foot away from the door when I heard a high-pitched squeak, coming from the direction of the kitchen. It was a small noise, but in the silence of the house it sounded as loud as thunder. 

My head snapped to the side, and my hands clenched themselves into trembling fists. That sound. I knew that sound. There was no way I could ever forget what that creature sounded like, nor would I ever mistake it for one of its harmless cousins. And sure enough, when I turned my gaze to the floor, there it was. A rather large specimen, measuring perhaps a foot in length, with another eleven inches of naked tail stretching out behind it. It had dirty brown fur and little pink feet that looked like creepy little hands. It stared at me with its beady black eyes, and despite my best efforts, I could not tear my gaze from it. I was terrified that it would dart off to who knows where the moment I turned away.

I do not know how long we stared at each other, caught in that awful stalemate. It made the first move though, and in so doing made its first mistake. The moment it turned away from me, I held out a hand and blasted electricity from my palm toward the horrid thing. Literally traveling as fast as lightning, it should have been impossible for the creature to dodge. Perhaps the shaking in my hand was what caused my aim to be off, for I only succeeded in scorching the woven rushes that were laid upon Lissera’s floor. 

The detestable thing stiffened in response to my attack. It didn’t move, didn’t blink, didn’t even breathe. I had more than enough time for another shot, but my hand wouldn’t stop trembling. If I was careless I could light Lissera’s house on fire. Not the goodbye gift I wanted to leave her.

I forced myself to calm down and think. Rationally, I didn’t need to kill it. I was fleeing this house anyway, so it would be enough to merely remove it from my field of vision. Then I could work on regaining composure and bleaching the sight of it from my brain. I was sure there was a way to drive it off, but the icy terror gripping my heart was making it rather difficult to think. Perhaps I should simply use less flammable attacks? I had been hoping to reduce it to an unrecognizable lump of ash. But if I couldn’t vaporize it then I’d settle for making it very obviously dead.

Not taking my eyes off the foul beast, I cast my magic down toward the earth beneath my feet. Not wanting the creature to sense my spell, I moved the energy underground until it was right below the thing. Then I pulled my magic upward, manipulating the earth to drive a spike into my foe.

Somehow, though, that crafty creature sensed the danger and jumped to the side at the last second! What’s more, the attack seemed to jolt it out of its fear, and it began to scurry. Not away, as I had hoped, but straight toward me! My entire body trembled, my legs barely capable of holding me upright. I shot blast after blast of compressed air after the beast, but my attacks were wild and succeeded in nothing but tearing up the rushes underfoot. The beast scampered closer and closer, and yet still my attacks wouldn’t connect, until finally, it was running past my foot, its pink tail striking my ankle.

The world started to go black. A high pitch scream tore itself from my throat as my legs collapsed, and I fell to my knees. I was dimly aware that I had destroyed the rushes by my feet, meaning that I was now kneeling in dirt. I would need to wash up at the earliest opportunity, though that was a given, considering what had just touched me. The mere thought caused me to wail, as hot tears began to slip from my eyes.

***

“Eena?” A familiar voice called out from above me. My eyes slowly opened to stare at the tiled ceiling. I realized with a start that I was lying on the floor, bits of plant matter plastered against my face and hair. I vaguely remembered curling up to try and stop the sobbing before Lissera returned. I must have passed out from there. “Eena, are you okay? What happened? The floor’s an absolute mess!”

“The beast,” I whispered, looking up at Lissera. “Did you see what happened to it?”

“You mean that giant rat? It squeezed under a crack in the door right before I got here. Is that what has you on the floor?”

“Don’t say its name,” I hissed, flinching at the word. “You might call it back, or something…”

Lissera stared down at me; her confused expression took up the majority of my vision. “Eena. Are you… Scared of-”

“Don’t say it!” I snapped. Lissera took a step backward in surprise, and I blushed bright pink from embarrassment and shame. “I… Apologize. I shouldn’t have yelled. It’s hardly an excuse, but I have… issues with that particular species of rodent. Just hearing its proper name is unpleasant.” 

“But… Eena… Aren’t you the Demon Queen? The only thing that can defeat you is the Heroine, right? Why are you so scared of some ra…” She paused, no doubt noticing how I winced at her half-spoken word. “Rodents. Why are you so scared of rodents?”

“It is difficult to explain… I don’t suppose you’d simply accept that I have a history with them?”

“Eena, you ruined my floor. I think I at least deserve to know why!”

 “…I suppose you’re right,” I begrudgingly admitted, slowly getting back onto my feet. “Though it’s not exactly a story I wish to see spread. It is simply that I was bitten on the ear by a rat when I was still a child before my invulnerability was fully in effect. The wound grew infected, and there was even some concern that I might lose part of the ear. It all worked out in the end, of course, but I’ve been rather terrified of the things ever since…”

The words I spoke were true, in a sense. The event really had happened as I described, but there had never been a period in this life where I was so defenseless that a mere rat could have broken my skin with its teeth. The events I described were from Jacob’s life, and the infection in question had been bad enough to permanently reduce his hearing in one ear.

To think that trauma would haunt me across worlds and lifetimes. How frighteningly persistent. 

“Wow,” Lissera breathed, bringing me back to the present. “That must have been terrible if you’re still dealing with it after all this time…”

“It was unpleasant, to say the least, though that is an ill excuse for what I’ve done to your floor…”

“It’s fine, Eena! I just need to replace some rushes. Though if you could maybe fix what you did to the ground…?”

“Ah…” I quickly placed my hand on the floor and sent my magic out toward the earthen spike I’d formed earlier. After pulling it back into the ground, I pushed off the floor, myself, using another spell to quickly rid myself of dirt. “Apologies.”

“I said it’s fine, Eena! If you want to make it up to me though, you could consider making some time to meet with the Village Head.”

“Again with that? I suppose I could do so, since you’re so insistent, but are sure it’s a good idea to put me so close to your village’s leader? I am the Demon Queen. I might do something awful to them.” I forced myself to smile as if it were a joke, but I was watching Lissera’s reaction carefully. Would she deny that she saw me as a threat? Or would it finally spill out into the open?

“…You really have no faith in me, do you?” Lissera asked, looking down at the ground. “I mean, I’m pretty sure I told you, didn’t I? I’m choosing to trust in the woman who saved my town. And I don’t really know if it’s the right move or not. Maybe you really are as bad as Mother Reliz says you are. Maybe saving my town, collapsing, everything has just been a plot to do something horrible to the Heroine. Maybe… Maybe I’m betraying the whole world, helping you? But…” She took a deep breath, then lifted her gaze back up to meet mine. “But I’m going to put myself in your corner, anyway. And if the whole world burns because of my mistake, then so be it. Because I won’t ever betray the one who saved the people I care about. Not ever.”

I stared at Lissera, not entirely certain what to say. Her response was a little childish, perhaps, but it also seemed open and honest. How was I supposed to respond to her, in light of my own doubts about her? I felt foolish and ashamed, and in the end, the only thing I could do was nod.

“I-I’ll make time for your Village Head tonight, and head to Rendra city in the morning.”

“That’s great!” Lissera rejoiced, grinning so brightly it almost hurt to look at. “Now maybe I won’t have to sit through another lecture…”

I balked. “A lecture? That’s why you’re so determined to have me see her?”

“You have no idea what it’s like to sit through a three-hour lecture on proper village etiquette. Apparently, you should have been staying with her, not me, and I should have introduced you before letting you go out to fight the wolves.”

“I… see…” I murmured, fighting to keep the worry from my face. Three-hour lectures? Just what sort of stamina did this sickly old woman have?

“Anyway, if you’re going to go see her, you’re probably going to need this,” Lissera said, reaching into a pocket in her dress and pulling out a glass bottle, filled with a dark brown liquid. “It’s pretty concentrated, so this should be enough. Any more and mom would notice the drop in her vat, so you’ll need to make your own from now on.”

“Vat?” I asked, uncorking the bottle and taking a sniff. I almost expected a chemical smell, but it was only the pleasant scent of walnuts that tickled my nose.

“That’s right,” Lissera confirmed. “My mom is a seamstress, and my dad is a tailor. And since mom often dyes clothes for the job, they have a whole vat of this stuff.”

“Convenient.” I channeled my magic into the vial, pulling every last drop of liquid from the glass vessel. It floated up above my head, and then descended down in a trickle upon my hair, slipping down among my tresses as I magically forced the pigment to bond with each strand.

“I think that’s my line… I mean, I’d be exhausted in an instant if I tried using magic like you do.”

“I suppose we’ll simply have to be jealous of one another then,” I teased, then let out a short laugh. “How do I look? Did I get everything?” I spun myself around so that she could see the back of my head.

“Every strand!” she confirmed, astonished. “I’ve never seen anyone’s hair take to it so well! It’s literally the same color as the walnuts.”

“I suppose it’s due to my hair having no pigment of its own,” I theorized, running my fingers through my hair. Hopefully, my precise mimicking of the dye wouldn’t lead to anyone seeing through my disguise. It wasn’t as if I could change the coloration after Lucy had already seen it.

“Now, if you wouldn’t mind leading me to your Village Head?”

“It’s the tallest building in the village,” Lissera informed me, shrugging as she gestured in its vague direction out the window. “You really can’t miss it.”

“Good. Then you should have an easy time guiding me there.” I insisted, refusing to move from my spot.

“No, really, it’s not the sort of thing you’d need a guide for. Just walk down the road toward the center of town. You couldn’t miss it if you tried!” Her smile seemed a little strained, and there was an edge of panic in her voice.

“Why do I get the impression that you don’t wish to guide me?”

“I don’t want to get a lecture on ‘proper dress for a lady’ after you’re gone!” Lissera complained, her smile breaking apart like waves on sharp rocks as she lifted her hands to clutch at her ears. “It’s almost as bad as the lecture I’ll get if I let you go without seeing her! I’m telling you, there’s no way for me to win here!”

“Then I suggest you accept your fate with grace and show me the way. Running will only make it worse, no?”

“Urk…” From the grimace on Lissesra’s face, I’d hit the nail on the head. “You can only say stuff like that because it doesn’t affect you, dammit!”

“True,” I conceded. “Which is why I won’t stop you from slipping away when we get close enough, but I will have you guide me.” Truthfully, I simply didn’t wish to wander around town by myself. I seemed to be oddly popular in this village, and the discrepancy between who I was and how they saw me was uncomfortable. Even if Abigail was right about my worth, I still wasn’t the hero they saw me as. A true heroine was someone like Lucy, who risked her life for what she believed in, with no expectation of reward. All I had done was inconvenience myself for the sake of some potatoes.

“Fine…” Lissera let out an exaggerated sigh, then held out a hand.

“I don’t need to be led around like a child,” I protested, starting to walk past her toward the door. To my surprise, however, Lissera grabbed hold of my hand as I passed her, squeezing my fingers. 

“That’s not it,” she said, shaking her head. “This is my… payment. If I’m going to get lectured for three hours or more, the least you can do is let me hold a pretty girl’s hand.”

“A pretty girl’s…?” I stared at her, baffled. “You can’t tell me you’re still hoping to bed me? I know I keep saying this, but I am the Demon Queen, you know.”

“Maybe? I’m not sure how bedding you would work, to be honest. I mean, putting aside you being literally made of sin, I don’t know what I’d do with the whole mouth and tentacle thing you’ve got going on down there.”

“Made of…? Mouth and tentacles!?” I pressed my free hand to my forehead. Even though I knew it was impossible, I sincerely felt that I was starting to get a headache. I was definitely going to have to look into the church’s teachings, and soon. I was tired of getting caught off guard by the lies they told about me. 

“If you think I’m so disgusting, why do you even want to hold my hand?”

“I never said you were disgusting! Just different. But there’s a line in the holy scriptures that says the best way to understand someone different from you is to take their hand and realize you aren’t so different after all. When I feel your fingers with my own, it’s hard to think of you as evil, or gross. You’re just another pretty girl holding my hand.”

I stared at her for a long moment, not sure what to say. From the earnest look in her eyes, I could tell that she meant every word she said… for better or worse.

“Lissera,” I said, at last, speaking slowly and deliberately. “I do not have tentacles. Or a second mouth. The only thing ‘down there’ is my vagina, plain and simple.”

“Huh? Really?”

“Really,” I insisted, choosing to ignore the mix of doubt and disappointment I heard in her voice. “And I’m not ‘literally made of sin’ either. I was born to parents, the same as you. You might remember me mentioning my childhood?”

“I thought you meant right after you… ‘formed’,” Lissera admitted, shyly glancing away from me. 

“I meant what I said. The question is whether you can say the same. Even if you’ve accepted that I’m not pure evil, you can’t accept that I might be good, can you? You don’t want to think that everything you’ve ever learned might be a lie.”

“I-I’m trying, Eena. I’m honestly, seriously trying! But even if everything the church says is wrong, I still don’t know what’s right. How can I tell the truth from falsehood when I don’t know anything about you?”

“Did you ever consider asking?” I countered, anger simmering just beneath my words. “You might find it works wonders.”

 “Then next time I’ll ask you,” Lissera promised. “But for this time, can I just hold your hand?”

“Why?” I challenged, gritting my teeth as I tried to hold back my tongue. “Because of some line in the scriptures? It doesn’t even make sense! What could you possibly get from holding hands with someone like me?”

 “It’s not just a line! It’s a reminder to look for commonalities between people. We both have ten fingers, right? And we both feel warm to the touch. We’re both here, in Solla, touching each other’s hands! So… maybe it’s not so impossible for us to understand each other after all…”

“…Do what you will,” I uttered darkly, turning to walk out the door. Despite my cold words, there was a faint flicker of warmth in my heart. Lissera and I were still worlds apart from truly understanding one another, but the fact that she was trying gave me some hope.

“Hey, wait a second,” Lissera protested, hurrying to get out the door ahead of me. “There’s no point in me guiding you if you’re leading the way, you know!”

“Then be a good guide and take me all the way to your Village Head.”

“There’s absolutely no way I’m doing that!” Lissera boldly declared, dragging me down the dirt road. It seemed that the village was somewhat starved for strangers because I started drawing attention again the moment I was past Lissera’s door. No one called out to me, however, and I ducked my head, moving past them as quickly as I could and forcing Lissera to move even faster to keep ahead of me.

“And, stop!” Lissera called out, lifting my hand alongside hers to indicate a house. “You see that big house three doors down? That’s her place. Just knock on the door, and she’ll let you right in.”

“Very well,” I relented, pulling my hand from Lissera’s grasp. “May we meet again when next I visit.”

“You mean you’re not going to come back to my place for the night?” 

She looked crestfallen, but I still gave her a firm shake of my head. Spending the night with Lissera likely meant her attempting to sleep with me, and I wasn’t sure I wanted that. It wasn’t as if I hated her or anything, and I certainly didn’t object to casual sex… Sleeping with her might be a good way to convince her we weren’t so different from one another, for that matter. But, truthfully, her treatment of me so far hadn’t really put me in the mood.

“I’ll be heading back out into the woods to make some walnut dye tonight,” I informed her, hoping to mollify her.

“And after? You’re not going to be sleeping outside, are you?”

“Don’t worry about me,” I insisted. “I can look after myself just fine.”

I could feel Lissera’s eyes lingering on my back as I walked toward the Village Head’s house. I didn’t turn to face her, though, and instead knocked upon the wooden door.

“One moment!” I could hear the age in the hoarse voice that called out, but also a definite firmness and strength, like that of a grand old oak.

The door opened a few moments later, revealing a very small woman; she couldn’t have been more than five foot three. She was wizened with age, bent forward and leaning on a gnarled wooden cane. Her face was wrinkled with frown lines. Surprisingly, for all that, there wasn’t a hint of grey in her hair. It was brown, and a shade very near my own at that.

“Well, what do we have here?” she drawled, her sharp yellow eyes locked upon me. “If it isn’t the adventurer who saved our town. How nice of you to finally come pay me a visit.”

“I-”

“Well, come on in,” she interrupted, turning back around and gesturing for me to follow her. Despite being hunched over and reliant on a cane, she moved with surprising speed and soon disappeared into the house. That left me hesitating in the doorway, uncertain how to proceed.

“Come on in, I said! You trying to let the flies in?”

“Apologies,” I answered, trying not to roll my eyes as I entered the house and shut the door behind me. After walking through the parlor, I found myself in what appeared to be a dedicated dining room, with a large table and several chairs set about it. Two bowls had been placed on the table, one at the head and one at the upper right seat. “Were you expecting someone? I can come back later, if so.”

“I was expecting you,” the Village Head snapped, pulling out the chair at the head of the table with a little more force than necessary, before dropping herself into it. “And a lot earlier, at that! The food’s grown cold waiting. It’s been sitting here since I first heard you’d wandered back into town! What sort of hero doesn’t come to visit the Village Head first thing? Bad enough you left the first time without so much as a hello or goodbye!”

“I never claimed to be a hero,” I corrected her. “And you can lay the blame at the feet of your own townsfolk for my not showing up last time. They rather neglected to mention an authority figure when we were making our deal.”

“And what sort of town wouldn’t have a leader, hmm? We might be small, but we’re not that much of a backwater.”

I looked away, having no answer to that. I couldn’t tell her I was so unfamiliar with human government that the thought had simply never occurred to me.

“Well, done is done I suppose,” the Village Head sighed, rubbing her temples with her fingers. “If you’re finished making excuses, you should settle down and eat.”

“Did you not have something to discuss with me?” I probed, settling into what was apparently my chair and poking at the food with my spoon in annoyance. The lumpy white food looked familiar, though not from this lifetime. “Are these mashed potatoes?” 

“Oh? It seems you really do know your potatoes. That’s right. These are mashed potatoes – with a little butter, and some salted pork too. It’s as luxurious a meal as I can manage, though it would have been better hot…”

“It’s not a problem,” I calmly assured the Village Head, focusing my gaze on her bowl. After a moment, steam began to rise from the top of her meal, and I shifted attention back to my own.

The Village Head frowned at my display, then poked at the potatoes with her spoon. “Huh. You move the heat source around during the heating or something? You managed to warm the whole thing without burning anything. Still not as good as a consistently heated meal, though.”

“Is that so?” I murmured, wondering if perhaps I had made a mistake of some sort. For humans, with their limited magic, allowing the warmth to spread from a handful of spots was no doubt the most efficient way of reheating a meal. But I’d chosen to prioritize taste instead, and had simply heated the whole bowl in one go. It seemed that the Village Head noticed it too because she let out a small grunt and narrowed her eyes at me.

“Well. Maybe there’s some truth to you taking out all those wolves with magic, after all,” she muttered between bites of potatoes. She ate as fast as she moved, and within a few minutes, her bowl was empty.

I, meanwhile, had only taken a few bites. Truthfully, even with the salted pork and butter, the food was rather bland. Now that I was over the sheer excitement of eating actual potatoes, I couldn’t help but think I’d prefer a properly seasoned meal. Perhaps something with a little spice? I had quite a few meals packed away in my Empty Bag, and I really wished I could pull out a hot plate of fries.

“Not your thing, is it? I’d think someone who’d save a town for potatoes would be more than a little interested in a meal made of them.”

“I have my own preferences for their preparation. Perhaps I’ll introduce you to them someday, Miss Village Head.” I smiled as I spoke, forcing myself to take another tasteless bite.

“Alorie,” the Village Head corrected, reaching across the table to grab my bowl and pull it toward her. 

I stared at her in surprise, unsure what to say. She’d been rude throughout the evening, but this seriously took the cake. Before I could say anything, however, she again began to speak.

“The name’s Alorie. And if you’re not going to enjoy your food, then you should give it to someone who will. That’s just common manners, isn’t it?”

“I wonder about that,” I muttered, wondering if I should kick up a fuss. It was true that I had other food, but surely she had no way of knowing that? I was worried that if things kept going this way she would end up walking all over me.

“Look, let’s go straight for the tower, here,” Alorie said, pushing aside my bowl. She’d already eaten half of it, somehow.

“Excuse me?”

“It means to get to the point. Thought someone as well-traveled as you would know that. But to follow through – what would it take to get you to stay here for a few weeks?”

“Stay here for…?” I shook my head. “I’m afraid that’s impossible. The Heroine is expecting me in Rendra city before long.”

“The Heroine, is it?” Alorie questioned. “I did hear you two were traveling together when you left. If you really did beat up those wolves, it’s no wonder the Heroine became interested in your strength. I’m sure she’s looking for all the help she can get defeating that thrice-damned Demon Queen… Looks like her gain is our loss, though.”

I kept my expression steady as she spoke, even as she cursed my name. This much was nothing, really. I knew how humans viewed me, though I was growing a little weary from all the reminders.

“Can I ask why you need me? Maybe I can still assist.” It wasn’t as if I were obligated to help a bunch of people who hated me. No matter how often I rescued them, they would no doubt continue to curse my name. Still, I had made inroads here, and if I truly wished to make peace with humans in the long run I would likely need whatever toeholds I could make.

“I’m surprised you don’t know, considering how close you are to the Heroine,” Alorie remarked, snorting. “The church decided not to send us a new guard.”

“A new guard?” I asked. “You mean for the town?”

“For the church,” Alorie clarified. “Though I suppose you could say for the town as well. Guessing you haven’t been to many small towns like this, but out in the boonies, church guards are the first and often last line of defense we have. They kill off the smaller monsters that try to make trouble, and they stand in the way of bigger threats until adventurers can be called to handle them. Or at least they’re supposed to. Ours ran off before you even got here – guess twenty wolves was a bit much for him.”

“And the church won’t replace him?”

“It might have something to do with the letters I sent to the city. Something about calling them all incompetent baboons who can’t tell a proper candidate from a basic thug didn’t go over too well, I suppose. But they’re claiming we insulted the Heroine, instead. Apparently, she didn’t take too kindly to us giving the job to some unregistered adventurer when she was already on her way here.”

“I can assure you that’s not the case. You had no way of knowing Lucy was coming, and she’s hardly the sort to judge someone for trying to survive.”

“…So you call the Heroine ‘Lucy’, do you? Awfully chummy with the chosen one of the Goddess, don’t you think?”

“I was taught it was polite to call your acquaintances by name, Alorie. Perhaps we were taught differently in such matters?” I kept my tone light, almost mocking, trying to hide the irritation I felt. The title of Heroine sounded fancy, but it referred to nothing more or less than a cog in the angel’s war machine. Lucy deserved to be seen as her own person, not merely as an embodiment of that awful title.

Alorie scowled at my words. “Well, do as you will. I’m not the one who’s risking the chill of Hell. But you’re right about one thing: No one chosen by the Goddess would be as petty as Father Molae is claiming. He’s just trying to make us scrape and bow for forgiveness. I thought maybe if we had you protecting us for a few weeks, I could put the screws to him – say we might not need a church presence after all.”

“It’s certainly a courageous plan. But if it’s only a bluff, surely the townsfolk can protect themselves for a few weeks? I would hope at least some of them know how to fight.”

“Most of them, actually.” A small, prideful smile flitted across Alorie’s face. “Part of our old guard’s job was teaching people how to defend themselves. And my people took to it well – there’s a strength in them you won’t see in any big city folk. A determination to do whatever it takes to survive. But determination will only get you so far, little miss hero.”

“My name is Eena. And I don’t understand. If they have the capacity and the will, then what’s stopping them?”

“Weapons. Or a lack of them, anyway. Oh, we’ve got some pitchforks, some scythes, a couple of beaten-up spears, and a rusty sword or two, but nothing that can take on a pack of wolves. If something comes after us, and we’ve got no guard, we could all be wiped out before an adventurer even hears the news.”

“I see… That would be a problem.” I kept my face carefully neutral as I thought things over. Weapons, hmm? I was sure the tower had plenty. It was rare for me to visit the armory, and I’d certainly never paid much attention to its contents, but I had no doubt that it was well stocked. With all the losses that we’d suffered in our retreat to the tower, we likely had more weapons than we could use, even if I failed in my goals and things came to war.

Still, arming humans wasn’t something to do on a whim. It would be one thing if they truly wanted to break away from the church, but I wasn’t about to empower a town loyal to my enemies. Though letting this village get wiped out would leave a bad taste in my mouth…

Well, perhaps I could talk to Abigail about it when next I saw her.

“You’re being awfully quiet,” Alorie accused. “Something on your mind?”

“Nothing vital,” I assured her, forcing a smile as I stood. “Thank you for the food.”

“You aren’t planning to head out, are you?” Alorie demanded, her lips curling into a disapproving frown. “It’s getting dark out.”

“I’ll be fine. I have somewhere in mind to stay for the night.” I moved toward the door, letting the smile drop from my face as I turned away from her.

“Well, alright. But be careful with Lissera, you hear? That girl pays more penance for sex than anyone else in this village, and everyone in town knows you’re on her list.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I replied, mentally adding sex penances to the list of things I needed to investigate. Of course, I wasn’t planning to sleep with Lissera in any case, but I couldn’t tell Alorie that I was passing up her hospitality for the chance to sleep in the woods, even if it was simply because I needed to make more hair dye.

I stepped out of Alorie’s house before the Village Head could add any more warnings, closing the door behind me and hurrying down the street. I headed toward the opposite end of town from where I’d entered, fumbling momentarily with the simple lock before opening the gate and slipping through. I walked past the fields, beyond the second wall, and followed the road among the trees until a bend in the path obstructed the town from view. Then I moved off to the side of the road, took a deep breath, and began to let my magic flow.

My goal was walnuts. By focusing my magic energy into four walls around me, and then slowly expanding those walls outward, I could detect all the walnuts in the area. Then, pulling the walls back, I pulled the walnuts out from the trees and up from the ground, causing them to fly through the air and roll across the earth to land at my feet.

The second part was even simpler than the first. I reached into my Empty Bag for a large pot and placed it on the ground. Then I used my magic to gather up clumps of walnuts and crush them, dumping them all into the pot. Once I had them all inside, I pulled some water from the humid night air and dumped it in the pot as well, using my magic to heat it to a boil and then lowering the temperature of my spell to bring it down to a simmer.

Staring at the pot and waiting for the dye to finish cooking proved a boring task. Sitting myself down on the ground, I reached again into my Empty Bag, pulling out a plate of fries that were still hot from the oven. I followed that up with a romance book and began to read while I ate. 

When I judged that about an hour had passed, I put my book away, released my heat spell, and placed my hand on the ground. Taking hold of the earth beneath me with my magic, I dragged three walls of dirt and stone from the soil and enclosed the pot within them, making sure to leave gaps for airflow. That would be more than enough to keep the pot safe and still for an evening.

“And now it’s my turn…” I shot another pulse of magic through the earth, forming three walls of earth beside my little pyramid, and then adding a roof. I walked through the opening and, with a wave of my hand, sent ripples through the ‘floor’ of my makeshift hut, smoothing out the ground into a solid, flat surface. Kneeling, I dug back into my Empty Bag and withdrew a rolled-up quilted mattress, which I unfurled on the ground. Since I seemed largely immune to the effects of heat and cold, I didn’t need a blanket, just something soft to lie on for the night.

I was about to crawl inside and raise the final wall of my shelter, to close myself in for the night, when I heard a familiar voice calling out to me.

“Eena!? Eena, are you out here?”

“Lissera!?” I called back, not bothering to hide the shock in my voice. “What are you doing out here?”

The light of a lantern swung toward me, a familiar smile illuminated by its glow. “I brought you my blanket! I thought you might be cold? You can just drop it back off in the morning, so don’t worry about that!”

“You should wrap it around yourself, instead. I barely feel the cold.”

“…Oh. Well, maybe you could use it for padding, then? It must be hard sleeping on the cold ground.”

“I brought plenty of padding with me,” I informed her, trying to keep the irritation from my voice as I gestured to the quilted mattress behind me. She was worse than Abigail, honestly.

“…Oh,” she repeated, nudging the toe of her shoe against the forest floor. “Well. Maybe you can take it anyway?”

“Why?” I demanded, unable to hold back an irritated huff. “Why is it so important that I take this blanket?” I pressed her, spreading my arms to make myself look just a bit more intimidating. Why was she so insistent? She would need it more than I ever would. She likely thought I couldn’t see it in the dark, but she’d been shivering throughout the entire conversation.

“Because if I give you my blanket, you’ll have to give it back.”

“And what would be the point in that?” I sighed, resting my forehead atop my fingertips.

“It would let me know you’re alright, for one thing! I know you’re strong, Eena, but even you can’t defend yourself if you’re asleep! Lots of monsters come out at night, too. They don’t bother us in town, but if you sleep out among them who knows what’ll happen? I know I can’t convince you to stay with me tonight, and… I know that’s sort of my fault, but at least if you bring the blanket back, tomorrow, I’ll know you survived the night! And I won’t have to worry about what happened to you, even if you never visit again…”

I stared at Lissera for a long moment, before releasing a long sigh and dropping onto my mattress. “Get in.”

“Huh?” Lissera’s brow wrinkled in bewilderment. “What do you mean?”

“I meant exactly what I said. There are monsters out, are there not? And you are freezing, besides. We will cuddle under the blanket together tonight, and you will return home in the morning. That way neither of us will have to worry between now and my next visit.”

“Really? You mean you’ll visit again? And I even get to sleep with you!?”

“I’m starting to regret this already,” I muttered, laying down upon my bed. It seemed I’d have to spend the night clothed. Sigh. “Just get in here already.”

“Right away, Eena!” Lissera gleefully replied, throwing her blanket over my body before hunching over to crawl into my shelter herself

“That’s not my real name, you know…”

“It isn’t?” Lissera’s mouth popped open in surprise. She didn’t stop moving, though, rushing to get under the blanket and snuggle up against me. 

“If you’re this determined to entwine your life with mine, you might as well know. My name is Devilla. Devilla Satanne.” 

With those words, I closed the final opening of our shelter and settled down to sleep.

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