The Gang Goes Shopping
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Nyze stared at her breakfast plate, piled high with scrambled eggs and bacon, and slowly, cautiously, flicked out her tongue. The forked tip hovered an inch above the food, bathing in the waves of steam coming off it. Nyze then drew her tongue back into her mouth; after a moment, her eyes widened and her usually slitted pupils became round with astonishment.

“Hey, everyone!” she said excitedly to her fellow breakfasteers. “I just noticed, I smell things with my tongue now!”

Rixu, who had just bitten off a large piece of sausage, chewed and swallowed before answering. “I mean, isn’t that obvious? You’re, like, half snake.”

“Huh?” Nyze tilted her head.

“Snakes smell by using their tongues,” Valex added, nodding sagely. “If I remember correctly, there’s an organ on the roof of their mouths that detects scents the tongue pulls in. Cats smell the same way.”

“Oh! I never knew that!” Nyze said, lashing her tongue out for another sniff.

“You never knew that?” Metokai said around a mouthful of toast. “It’s common knowledge, serpent. Plus, you’ve been a lamia for a month and a half. You’re just noticing NOW?”

Nyze puffed up her cheeks in a slight pout. “Shut up. I’ve been busy.” She lolled out her tongue, used it to grab a chunk of eggs, drew them back into her mouth and began to chew noisily. Rixu, feeling a bit offput by the demons’ usual lack of table manners, looked over to Valex for validation... only to find her licking ketchup off her fingers.

It was now three days after the fateful dinner with the Demon Lord, where Rixu and Valex had sworn fealty to her and betrayed humanity. Valex was adapting to demonic society with alacrity; Rixu wondered privately if her adaptability came from her previous experience with covert infiltration, or simply her joy at being accepted so freely by the demons. The latter seemed more likely to him.

Rixu, on the other hand, was having a bit more trouble adjusting. The demons were friendly and cheerful to a fault, but their ways of doing things were... different than he was used to. Their lack of table manners was only scratching the surface; what shocked Rixu the most was the demon’s completely unfiltered honesty. They vocalized practically every thought that crossed their minds and refused to engage with those little white lies often told to save face. If you asked a demon “Do these pants make my butt look big?” they would respond “Yeah, go change into something more suited to your figure.” Rixu found that refreshing, but also exhausting. He was jealous of how easily Valex had taken to demonic culture.

His attention snapped back to the breakfast conversation. Nyze, still noisily chewing on her eggs, was asking Valex a question.

“So have you noticed any, like, weird fox stuff? Like different senses, or an overwhelming desire to howl at the Moons?”

“You’re mixing up foxes and wolves, Nyze,” Valex groaned, tearing off another chunk of omelet and shoving it in her mouth. “But yes. For starters, my hearing is a lot better than it used to be. I can actually hear every conversation going on in this cafeteria.” She motioned to neighboring tables. “Sometimes loud noises can get overwhelming though, and I have to flatten my ears against my head. I doubt I’ll be attending any concerts.”

Nyze nodded as she tongue-lashed another clump of eggs. “Lucky! My hearing’s pretty much the same as before. My eyesight’s a bit different, though... I can like, see heat? People’s body heat and stuff, overlaid onto my regular vision. It’s weird.”

Valex tapped her chin with a ketchup-stained finger. “Hmm, I remember reading that some species of snake can see infrared light. Your eyes are probably sensitive to it now, or maybe you have thermal-sensitive pits somewhere on your face?”

“Dunno,” Nyze shrugged. “How about your eyes? Anything different?”

Valex nodded. “My night vision is much better, thanks to the tapetum lucidum.”

Nyze gawped. “Tape... Lucy... what?”

Metokai rolled her eyes. “Goodness, serpent. It’s a reflective layer of cells in the back of the eye. Should I loan you a basic biology textbook or something?”

“Shut up!” Nyze shot back with her usual wit. “My education was focused on martial training, okay?”

Metokai smiled sweetly. “And yet I can defeat you in both a battle of swords, and one of wits. Seems like you have a long way to go, my rival.”

The two ‘rivals’ began their regular bout of verbal sparring, lightning flashing between their eyes both literally and figuratively. Valex looked at Rixu, and the two of them sighed and returned to eating their breakfast.

******

When Rixu and Valex had first set out from Arcryid, they used Saimonica’s point-to-point teleportation network to warp over to the city nearest the Demon Realm’s border, the fortress-town of Lyzikanth. However, they could not avail themselves of this option while travelling back; Saimonica’s teleportation circles, which connected all the major cities together, were enspelled to be unusable for demons. Even a glamour couldn’t fool the wards, and risking a foray through the circles would expose any demons who tried. For that reason, the planned counter-infiltration would have to proceed overland, eschewing rapid transit. Since a journey by foot would take upwards of six weeks, they elected to travel by serpenthedes.

The only problem… the demons didn’t really keep or breed serpenthedes. Their preferred mounts were wyverns, since they could go vertical in addition to horizontal. However, soaring through Saimonican skies on wyvernback would very quickly negate the covert part of their covert infiltration, so Metokai set about researching how to get her paws on some serpenthedes.

She’d managed to track down a lone demon who bred them, one who lived right on the border of the Ashlands and the Bladelands. However, her envoys had been rebuffed; it seemed this demon was a loner with a rather temperamental bent, and stated in no uncertain terms she would never give up her precious serpenthedes to any filthy mammalian riders. And so, reluctantly, Metokai had asked for Nyze’s help.

“Why me?” Nyze asked, her snake tail wrapped around saddle-poles attached to the large wyvern Metokai was steering from afore. “I’ve never been a good negotiator.”

“Because you’re reptilian.” Metokai replied, her eyes scanning the scenery hundreds of feet beneath them. “This particular person is a lamia, and famously eccentric. She is, shall we say… biased against non-reptilian species. She mainly gets along with other lamia, lizardkin, kobolds, dragons and the like.”

Nyze raised an eyebrow. This would be the second time she met another lamia in person; she sincerely hoped this upcoming encounter involved less black-out drinking.

“By the way, serpent,” Metokai continued, “precast an anti-petrification ward and keep it at the ready.”

“Why?” Nyze asked.

“Because the lamia we’re visiting is VERY temperamental.”

Well, that sounded ominous. Nyze did as Metokai bid, preparing for the worst, as the wyvern neared their destination.

The Ashlands extended as far as the volcanic ash spewed by the Burning Range covered the landscape; soon enough it gave way to the luscious grassy fields of the Bladelands, the breadbasket of the Demon Realm. In a particularly remote part of this border, located just beyond the ashline, sat a small ranch. A fenced-off pasture hosted some thirty serpenthedes, and adjacent sat a small fort-style house, hewn of granite.

As the wyvern touched down in front of the house and Nyze plopped down to the ground, she noticed the building was surrounded by dozens of serpenthede statues in a variety of poses. The craftswork was exquisite, almost lifelike. She stared at them in wonder, barely registering Metokai dropping down beside her with a little clack.

“Poor thing…” Metokai mumbled under her breath, stroking the stone-flesh of one of the statues. “An ignoble fate for such a magnificent creature.”

“Wait. You mean these were actually…”

Nyze was interrupted by a hissing screech coming from the doorway of the house. “I SAID NO VISITORS!” A spell, something primal and raw, came blitzing towards them.

Nyze quickly moved to deploy her precast ward, but Metokai was faster. She caught the attack with an angled shield spell, deflecting it upwards into the sky, then pulled her halberd out of hammerspace and leapt forwards with such speed Nyze momentarily lost sight of her. She tackled the figure in the doorway to the ground and pressed her halberd’s blade to their throat. A moment later, a cumulus cloud made of solid stone crashed to the ground, having fallen down from the troposphere.

Nyze drew her own sword from hammerspace and approached the prone figure of their attacker. Sure enough, she was a lamia… but a different subspecies from Nyze. Instead of hair, a half-dozen snakes wriggled from her scalp, each one of them glaring hatefully.

“Get off my property,” the medusa spat. Her eyes, and those of her snake-hair, began to glow mottled teal-orange. Metokai pressed her halberd’s blade an inch deep into the medusa's throat, drawing blood and eliciting a pained gasp.

“If you try to cast another petrification spell, your entire head comes off,” Metokai said coolly. “Surrender, or I will kill you so gruesomely even Skellish will retch.” She pressed her halberd blade another inch in to emphasize the point.

“FINE!” the medusa hissed. “I SURRENDER!”

“Good,” Metokai replied, withdrawing her blade. “Don’t get any funny ideas. If you so much as twitch suspiciously…” She drew one of her claws across her throat in a slicing motion. The medusa, rising up off the ground, nodded her understanding, though her eyes lost none of their fury.

“Now,” Metokai said, clapping her paws together and changing the subject with inappropriate briskness, “shall we talk business?”

Nyze pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. Today was going to be a very long day.

******

Rixu and Valex stared up, wide-eyed, at a tall, muscular and intimidating centaur woman. She glared right back at them with intense indifference.

“Uh, h-hi…” Valex squeaked, her ears flattened against her head. She was a good two-and-a-half feet shorter than the centaur, so she had to crane her neck.

“Greetings,” the centaur woman responded in a bassy, authoritative voice that seemed to shake their bones. “I am Corporal Yerpe of the Demon Lord’s personal guard.”

“H-Hello, Corporal Yerpe,” Valex stammered, shuffling nervously. “I’m, uh, V-Valex and this is…”

“Rixu,” said Rixu.

“I am aware. High General Metokai has assigned me to escort you to Yandar on…” she frowned, brow creasing in minor annoyance, “a shopping trip.” Her tone made it clear she thought the task was unworthy of her time, but she was just a smidge too polite to say it directly.

That wasn’t the reason Rixu and Valex were so nervous, though. They’d faced down intimidating people before and held their own. No, they were jittery because they had an unfortunate history with this particular centaur. You see, two weeks ago and before their defection, they had killed her.

To be precise, it was Valex who killed her with twin knives shoved through the bottom of her jaw and into her brain. She was better now, thanks to Metokai’s resurrection magic, but Valex couldn’t help but wonder if she held a grudge.

“S-Sorry…” Valex meeped, her tail drooping. Rixu placed his hand over his chest and bowed slightly in a show of respect.

Yerpe tilted her head. The remark caught her off-guard, which was a terrible position for a professional guard to be in. “You’re apologizing? For what?”

“You know… for k-killing you…”

The centaur was well and truly nonplussed. “There is no reason to apologize. It was a good hit. Next time you won’t be so lucky.” She thumped her chest, her rock-hard fist making a clang against her metallic breastplate.

“N-Next time?” Valex squeaked, one ear popping back up.

“Next time we fight, little fox. I’d greatly enjoy a rematch.” The hard lines of her face did not betray any emotion other than austere professionalism, but Valex sensed a quantum of joy in her tone. It was just fleeting enough that she thought she might have imagined it.

“You… you’re really not mad?” Valex asked, her tail swishing back and forth with increasing speed.

“Why would I be?” Yerpe replied, watching her tail with narrowed eyes.

Valex nodded her understanding, slowly regaining her confidence and deciding to change the subject. “Well, with that said… I have another question.”

The centaur stared at her quizzically, her expression the only response Valex needed.

“Can… Can I ride you?” Valex asked, both ears popping up and swiveling forwards eagerly.

“VALEX!” Rixu shouted, astounded by how quickly her mood shifted. He wasn’t sure if centaurs had some sort of cultural or religious taboos around allowing other people to ride them. “You can’t just ASK that kind of-“

“Sure, why not?” Yerpe knelt down next to Valex, and the excitable foxgirl jumped up on her back.

“WOOHOO!” she shouted. “I’ve always wanted to ride a centaur!” Her tail was now wagging eagerly.

Rixu pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. Today was going to be a very long day.

 ******

Private land ownership did not exist in the Demon Realm. In practice, all land was the property of the Realm itself and jointly administered by the Demon Lord and the Evil Council. Residents were granted permits by the Evil Bureau of Land Management to utilize parcels of land for various purposes, such as residence, farming, dojos or especially elaborate art projects.  Of course, many demon species had ancestral claims to particular lands; the Screaming Forest, for example, was regarded as the true elvish homeland since time immemorial, even if the population of the Elvish Diaspora was far larger. On a smaller scale, various demon families and dynasties also claimed demesnes, and the Evil Bureau of Land Management rubber-stamped this most of the time.

Which is to say, the serpenthede ranch was not technically the private property of the famously ornery Malphys the medusa. However, her family had run the ranch for nigh on two centuries, passing it down from progenitor to spawn, so she considered it her property by default. If she attempted to assert those squatter’s rights in the Evil Federal Courts, she’d be smacked down faster than a pixie fighting a flock of sentient fly swatters… but that was neither here nor there.

As such, Malphys had not invited Nyze and Metokai inside her granite ranch house; the trio stood on the front porch, glaring especially jagged and sharp daggers at each other. Nyze was perfectly fine with this, as she preferred to keep her guard up and wasn’t terribly keen to enter the house of a weirdo who petrified thedes for fun; Metokai’s sentiments were similar, although she seemed rather relaxed even bathed in the waves of sheer hostility Malphys was giving off. Perhaps she was merely confident in her ability to bring the medusa to heel should she become martial once more.

“I told your envoys already,” Malphys spat, hissing with a dozen mouths. “I will not give my serpenthedes to the likes of you. Bringing along one of your lamia lackeys won’t change that.”

“Did you hear that, Metokai?” Nyze chuckled. “I’m your lackey now.”

“How unfortunate for me,” Metokai responded, playing along with her usual straight face. “You were already enough trouble as my rival; as a subordinate, I fear you shall become intolerable.”

“Don’t think you can trick me into lowering my guard with humor,” Malphys growled.

“It wouldn’t make any difference if your guard were lowered or not,” Metokai replied. “The amount of effort I expended to defeat you is so microscopic, even bacteria cannot perceive it. Were I to delegate the task to my quote-unquote ‘subordinate’ instead, she would no doubt find the task soporific.”

Malphys glared at them hatefully. “Are you TRYING to piss me off?”

“‘Pissed off’ is your default state of existence, Malphys. Nothing I do or say will change that,” Metokai shot back.

While the two of them traded insults, Nyze rolled her eyes and slithered over to the fence, eager to get a closer look at the serpenthedes. She had not seen one of the creatures since her fateful foray into the Demon Realm and was feeling a bit nostalgic. She’d trained in thedeback combat extensively during her time at the Crucible and had developed a fondness for the beasts. There was a lone thede with brownish-red scales who was grazing near the fence, and Nyze approached him carefully.

Serpenthedes had main bodies which resembled large cats, albeit coated in reptilian scales instead of fur, and stood about five feet high at the withers on average. At the base of their torso sprouted three long snake-necks, which extended upwards the length of the body and each ended in a serpentine head. Overall, they looked like a crossbreed between a panther and a hydra… and, indeed, that was one popular taxonomic theory as to their origin. Due to their friendly disposition, general adaptability and omnivorous diet, they had been extensively domesticated by humans as mounts, beasts of burden and general companions. They were far more popular in human lands than other domesticated species such as horses, camels and laser yaks, to the point of being ubiquitous.

The brown-red thede looked up from his grazing and emitted a low hiss; Nyze knew from experience this was a casual greeting with a minor territorial bent. The creature was probing her intentions. Taking advantage of her newfound snake physiology, Nyze hissed right back in a slightly higher tone, essentially saying “Hello there, I’m a friend.”

The conversation continued via soft hisses, with Nyze drawing upon both her lamia nature and her training to quickly establish a rapport with the beast. Flicking out her tongue, Nyze recognized the thede was emitting friendly pheromones… and hoped she was too. She wasn’t sure if she had control over that aspect of herself yet. The thede lowered his three heads, pressing one against Nyze’s torso, and she gave him an affectionate scratch behind the eyes.

“There, there. You’re a good boy, aren’t you?” she cooed softly. It was then she realized that Metokai and Malphys had stopped arguing and were both staring at her.

“What do you think you’re DOING?!” Malphys said in a half-panic as she slithered towards Nyze. She froze when she saw the thede was in a delighted mood, nuzzling Nyze and begging for more scratches.

“Huh,” Metokai said with a slight smile. “The serpent is good with other snakes. Who’d have thought?”

“They’ve… they’ve never… anyone but me… how did you…” Malphys rambled, seeming caught in between confusion and betrayal.

“They’re good thedes. Healthy, well-bred. You’ve raised them well.” Nyze responded as she continued to scratch the beast. She let out a whoop of surprise as his center head grabbed her by the scruff of her armor, sweeping her through the air in an arc before depositing her on his back. Nyze coiled up, letting up a squeal of delight as the thede began to trot around proudly, displaying his new friend to his companions.

Malphys emitted a defeated sigh, then turned towards Metokai. “Fine. Since the thedes seem to like your ‘subordinate,’ I will listen to your proposal.”

“A wise decision,” Metokai gloated, grinning widely as if she knew this would be the end result all along.

*****

Meanwhile, Rixu and Valex were experiencing one series of shocks after another. The first came while they were walking to the castle’s teleportation nexus, when Yerpe presented them each with a large sack filled with demonic coinage.

“This is your first installment of UBI, courtesy of the Evil Ministry of Economic Security. Congratulations on officially becoming residents of the Demon Realm, by the way,” Yerpe said as she handed them the hefty sacks.

“UBI?” Rixu asked, peeking inside his sack. The demon coins glowed a soft maroon, indicating they were enchanted, likely as an anti-forgery measure.

“Universal Basic Income. It’s a monthly stipend of 1000 quantex paid to every resident of the Demon Realm.” Quantex, short of ‘quantum of expenditure,’ was the basic unit of currency in the Realm, minted and heavily regulated by the Evil Treasury.

“…Hang on,” Rixu said, eyes widening. “The government pays demons a thousand, uh, quantex every month just for… what? Existing? Why?”

Yerpe rolled her eyes, her patience stretched thin. Clearly she wasn’t in the mood for explanations, but too polite to actually tell Rixu to piss off. “The Demon Realm ensures the prosperity of all its citizens, even should they be engaged in activities that aren’t linked to immediate monetary gain, such as undertaking a long training journey or caring for a child. As such, monthly income, guaranteed housing, transportation and unrestricted access to professional-grade healing mages is provided by the government at no charge.”

Rixu, who had spent most of his life in abject poverty, listened with widened eyes and slackened jaw. What Yerpe was saying was almost unimaginable to him. If he’d had access to these programs growing up…

“Wow, that’s really great!” Valex said from atop Yerpe’s back as she stowed her sack away in hammerspace. “Hey Rixu, keep up, will ya?” Yerpe’s trotting had taken her several paces ahead from Rixu, who was still rebooting his brain.

“Oh, right, yeah…” he muttered, breaking into a jog to catch up.

The second shock came when they teleported down to Yandar’s central transit hub. Valex, who had visited the city before on her previous infiltration mission, was practically buzzing with anticipation. As soon as they materialized, she leapt off Yerpe’s back and darted out into the street like, well, a scurrying fox.

“…Your friend certainly is eager, isn’t she?” Yerpe said dryly as she trotted along behind.

“Yup. She’s a bundle of eeeeeeeeee….” Rixu trailed off as his jaw impacted the pavement.

He found himself in a canyon hewn of obsidian, with walls composed of grand gothic cathedrals. From their parapets and spires draped banners, flags and tapestries of every color, and their walls hosted massive, elaborate murals that depicted everything from beautiful natural landscapes to groups of succubi engaged in what can charitably be described as ‘having fun.’ In the well-paved streets which formed the canyon floor, a throng of demons thousands strong walked, hopped, slithered, trotted and glided along. Hundreds more flew through the air above their heads. Rixu had never seen so many people gathered in one place, not even in the Central District of Arcryid during the annual Grand Ecliptic.

While Rixu craned his neck as far as it would crane, trying to glimpse the tops of the massive cathedrals, Valex bounded up to him and poked his arm. “See? Isn’t it great? I told you Yandar was amazing!” she gushed enthusiastically.

Yerpe folded her arms and stared down at the pair. Somehow, she knew this would happen.

“Tourists,” she grumbled under her breath.

******

Metokai had come bearing gifts. While Nyze doted on an ever-increasing cluster of serpenthedes, Metokai pulled out a large bag of quantex from hammerspace, along with a sheaf of papers, and presented them to Malphys.

“This is all… very generous…” Malphys said as she flipped through the papers. “You want to help me expand my operation? Why, though?”

“In simple terms, we want you to provide serpenthedes to the government on a regular basis,” Metokai responded.

“For what?” she scowled. “Use in the Army? I thought you lot were all too wyvern-happy to give a damn about thedes.”

“I do not know to what degree you have been following current affairs,” Metokai replied, “but the Evil Council just declared war on Saimonica. Various elements of the Army will require thedes for transit in order to retain a low profile while in human lands.”

“So you want to send my babies off to war. Absolutely not. They live peaceful lives here. I won’t deprive them of that.”

Metokai raised an eyebrow, glancing over to one of the petrified thede statues. “Don’t you, though?”

Malphys folded her arms and glared at Metokai, her snake-hair hissing harshly. “You don’t understand. NONE of you understand. I breed and care for and cherish these thedes, then at the prime of their lives I petrify them so that their radiance will live on forever. Flesh decays and wrinkles over a matter of centuries, but unyielding stone can last millennia. I’m PRESERVING their beauty, whereas you simply want to DESTROY it.”

Nyze, who had steered her new thede friend over the fence and towards the arguing pair, rolled her eyes. “Right, that’s not creepy at all.”

Malphys looked up at the red-scaled lamia, whose arms were tenderly wrapped around the center neck of the thede she now coiled astride. Clearly, the two were made for each other. She let out a laborious sigh.

“Ugh. So I give you four thedes for your mysterious mission, and in exchange I get a big pile of quantex and government assistance in expanding my ranch.”

“Exactly,” Metokai said. “Spreading your love of serpenthedes to others in the Demon Realm would surely be a more fitting tribute than simply sealing them in stone, wouldn’t you say?”

“Spare me your moralistic judgements, mammal. I need to give your overarching offer some thought. As for your immediate offer…” she looked at Nyze again, who waved back cheerfully, “…you shall have your four serpenthedes. At the very least, I know the red lamia girl will take care of them.”

“Nyze. My name is Nyze.”

Malphys glared up at her and narrowed her many eyes. “I don’t care.”

*****

“How does this one look, Rixu?” Valex said, emerging from the dressing room for the umpteenth time. This time she was wearing a yellow moondress with a matching wide-brimmed hat.

“Fine,” Rixu said flatly.

Valex stamped her foot on the ground and puffed up her cheeks. “You said that about the last three dresses!”

“They looked fine too.” Rixu replied. “Valex, this is the fourth boutique we’ve visited. I might remind you, we came here to buy supplies for our journey into Saimonica.”

“I know that!” Valex replied defensively. “But this is my first time in Yandar, and I wanted to see the sights!”

“There are more sights here than clothing stores,” Yerpe said, rubbing her forehead.

“Fine, fine! I’ll finish up here, and maybe we can take a quick peek at that cute shop on the corner, then we’ll go buy our supplies! I promise!” Valex said enthusiastically.

Rixu looked at Yerpe. In that moment, the two of them shared a deep, unspoken camaraderie.

“How I wish I were back on boring guard duty right now,” Yerpe complained.

“You have NO idea,” Rixu agreed.

From shared adversity, friendship blossomed between them.

******

Many hours passed, and much coin changed hands. The White Moon sank below the horizon, and night dawned. Back in the castle, an exhausted-looking Nyze and Metokai had encountered an exhausted-looking Rixu and Yerpe, plus an energetic and bubbly Valex, and invited them out for an evening of drinking. Rixu had been apprehensive over going to Gary’s bar at first, but Nyze assured them the mathematical hydrogen-ball would hold no grudges.

“So, despite the initial hostility, you got the thedes in the end?” Rixu asked as he sipped a flagon of beer.

“Yup! We even got a half-sized one for Metokai,” Nyze said happily, nursing a bourbon. “That Malphys bitch was a handful, but we’ll leave her to the army of bureaucrats Metokai will send her way after she agrees to the broader proposal. So, how was y’all’s day?”

“Great!” Valex exclaimed at the exact same moment Rixu and Yerpe said “Horrible!”

“So mixed opinions then,” Metokai said wryly, sipping on her strawberry daiquiri.

“I swear to Gods, Valex visited EVERY boutique and clothing store in that damn city,” Rixu complained.

“I thought I had good endurance from all my combat training, but keeping up with a fashionista on a shopping spree was a trial unlike anything I’ve ever faced…” Yerpe added wearily, downing an entire pint of beer in a single gulp.

Valex puffed up her cheeks and stared at them defiantly. “You two are exaggerating! Besides, clothes shopping IS important!”

“I might remind you, we went to Yandar to buy supplies for our upcoming journey into Saimonica, not to get thirty MORE outfits,” Rixu complained.

“Twenty-two! STOP exaggerating!”

Suddenly, their eardrums were pierced by a voice that sounded like a herd of insomniac cats experiencing a collective bowel movement. “Looks like somebody needs a refill!” Gary said as he floated over to Yerpe and telekinetically poured her another pint of beer. “Anyone else need a top off?”

Everyone except Valex raised their hands and paws. Gary quickly darted around the table, filling everyone back up, before retreating with a wry laugh.

“You did get the supplies we need, right?” Metokai asked, suddenly concerned.

“Yes, despite the distractions. I loaded up on salted meat, water skins and other camping supplies,” Rixu responded.

“Good,” Metokai replied. “We leave for Saimonica tomorrow. Time is of the essence; Valex must deliver her false report to the High Breeder no less than three weeks from today, before the end of the month, if the Demon Lord’s plan is to be successfully enacted.”

Everyone turned towards Valex, only to find her wide-eyed and flat-eared. Rixu placed a concerned hand on her shoulder. “Valex? Is something wrong?”

“It’s just… it’s just…” she stammered, before taking a deep breath. “I don’t want to leave the Demon Realm. I don’t want to go back… THERE. To my old life, to the lie.”

There was a long silence, which surprisingly enough was broken by Metokai. “You won’t have to. We’re going there to plant false information, set up safehouses with teleportation circles and rescue your family. No matter how things play out, you will return safely to the Demon Realm. On my honor as High General, I promise you that.”

Nyze piped up next. “And when the High General promises something, it’s not to be taken lightly. She could outfight an entire army singlehandedly if she wanted, so nobody’s going to be able to stop us if shit goes sideways.”

“Indeed,” Metokai added proudly. “And Nyze is nearly as powerful as I. We have no desire to turn this journey into a bloodbath, but if the humans stand in our way we will not hesitate to annihilate them. Your safety is guaranteed so long as you stay by our side, Valex.”

Rixu shook his head and took another sip of beer. “Damn, you demons are scary.” That earned a small chuckle from Yerpe.

Valex clenched her fists. “Yes, they are scary… but I’m also glad they’re on our side.” She looked over to Rixu and smiled. “And I’m glad you are too.”

Rixu blushed, just a smidge, then smiled. “Happy to help.”

Nyze held up her tumbler towards the center of the table. “A toast, then? To our ragtag little band of misfits who found happiness in the Demon Realm.”

Metokai clinked her cocktail glass against Nyze’s tumbler. “May we triumph in battle and perform valorous deeds worthy of Skellish’s attention.”

Rixu added his mug to the pile-up. “May we bring wealth and prosperity to all the destitute Saimonican children and orphans who are living in poverty.”

“May we bring my family to safety,” Valex said quietly.

Yerpe, who had been feeling a bit like a fifth wheel, said a mental ‘fuck it’ and clinked her mug as well. “May all you weirdoes make it safely home.”

Nyze was a bit struck by the revelation buried in her words; it had been only a month and a half, but this was now home to her. The Demon Realm meant more to her than Saimonica ever had, and she suspected the same was true of everyone else around the table. She looked on all their faces solemnly before breaking into a huge smile.

“Yeah," she said, echoing Yerpe's sentiment. "Let’s all make sure we get safely home.”

Everyone brought their cups to their lips and drank.

******

By the time Nyze and Metokai stumbled into Psytalla’s chambers a few hours later, they were both pleasantly drunk but not quite shitfaced. One might say they were two sheets to the wind instead of three.

Psytalla, who was seated at her desk and buried in paperwork, looked up at the pair. “Good evening. Sorry I wasn’t able to join you.”

“It’s fiiiiiiiiiiine,” Nyze said, slurring her words only slightly. “I feel all warm and fuzzy and I wanna cuddle!”

Psytalla chortled. “Very well then.”

“In that case, serpent, I shall take my-“ Metokai began, before Nyze interrupted her with a finger across her lips.

“Don’t you go anywhere, Metokai,” Nyze said firmly. She slithered over to Psytalla and brought her lips to the Demon Lord’s ear. “Tonight’s gonna be our last night in the Demon Realm for a while,” she whispered.

“…Yes?” Psytalla responded, unsure what Nyze was playing at.

“So I want us to cuddle until we fall asleep. All three of us,” Nyze said conspiratorially.

Psytalla wasn’t sure what to make of this. She’d seen Nyze and Metokai cuddle up while drunk plenty of times, but had never regarded herself as a component of this unspoken romantic tension. Metokai was just an old friend and co-worker. Whatever the baphomet had going on with Nyze surely didn’t involve her.

Right?

She tried to ask Nyze about this, only to find the lamia had already coiled around Metokai and dragged her to bed. Both of them were now staring at her. Nyze was blushing, whereas Metokai looked… longing? And was that the barest hint of pink at the tips of her ears?

No way, it couldn’t be. Psytalla dismissed that silly thought.

Still, she was hardly in a position to refuse her girlfriend. With a flourish of her hand and brief incantation, she stored her plate armor in hammerspace, leaving her clad in nothing but undergarments. She raised her hands above her head and stretched, yawning.

When she looked back down at the bed, she found Nyze was now blushing bright red while staring at her bare thighs, while Metokai’s ears had gone bright pink. She decided to process the broader implications of this later. She slid into bed, wrapping her arms around the two of them and her legs around Nyze’s tail.

Entwined in triplicate, the three drifted off to a peaceful sleep.

This was supposed to be everyone's big chance to rest and unwind before they dive back into the shit, but it looks like only Valex had any fun...

Oh Psytalla. You are a disaster in every conceivable sense. Wake up and smell the roses already!

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