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Great [Monster] Journey 40

RSanon Aug 23rd, 2014 1,925 Never
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  1. Cool air carried a rush of hollow stench, thoughts of rats, filth, and stale air invading Seira’s mind through her nose. The thick wooden door groaned and creaked as Seira pushed it all the way open, then let it close with crash and a rattle behind her. Her footpaws soaked up cold and moisture from the stone beneath, hitting her senses in waves with each step. She extended her torch out in front of her, the flames pushing back the darkness of a hall with no windows, not even a whisper of wind from the outside. Twitching ears picked up skittering, shuffling, and breathing. It’d been ages since she visited the monster lord’s dungeon, and even then, always accompanied by her mother and a guard. She hardly missed it; the stench offended her nose, and the walls never stopped rasping with the sound of critters and insects.
  2.  
  3. Her steps echoed through the cramped hallway, carrying her down to the second cell on the right. A dark wooden door, decayed but still thick and sturdy, stood before her, with a small window broken up by iron bars letting the light of her torch inside. Eyes stared back at her--her guest had been waiting.
  4.  
  5. “Made up your mind yet? You waited almost an entire day to see me.” The voice was neither haughty nor teasing, not worried, or rushed, just curious. Seira let out a snort. Even with such a question, the woman managed to piss her off.
  6.  
  7. “You’ll know when I do,” Seira replied.
  8.  
  9. “Good. The indecision is killing me.” The woman paced a small circle, putting her hands behind her back. She acted as if she owned the cell. “I’m sure you would hate for me to lose my life in such an unimpressive manner.”
  10.  
  11. “Shut up.”
  12.  
  13. “Shut up? Why would you come here but to hear me talk? Or do you enjoy reveling in your victory so much? You had me escorted from the throne room so very quickly.”
  14.  
  15. Seira spit into the cell, but fell to the floor several feet short of Medusuub, who glanced at it with indifference.
  16.  
  17. “I don’t need to gloat because it’s already apparent to everyone who matters that I’ve won. If you’re to talk, you will do it without that insufferable tone. I’m your lord now, I control your fate, and right now, I’m not exactly happy with you.”
  18.  
  19. Medusuub shot Seira a smirk. “I already know my fate. I will see nothing but these walls for the rest of my life.”
  20.  
  21. “You’re far too sure of yourself for a prisoner. Maybe I’ll take you out and have you tied to a few centaur, then run you along the castle grounds for a while. Maybe I’ll have that ushi-oni guard come in here, leave a hundred cuts in that little body of yours, and leak her blood into it. You would take weeks to change, overwhelmed with lust you’d never be able to contain, never be able to seal.”
  22.  
  23. Medusuub took a step forward, into the Seira’s spit, as if she was doing Seira favor. “Threats do not become you, especially when I know they lack genuity.”
  24.  
  25. Seira exhaled sharply through her nose. “You don’t know a damn thing.”
  26.  
  27. “You won’t be doing anything to me but leaving me here and if that knowledge hasn’t already spread down to everyone in this castle, it soon will. You made quite a scene.”
  28.  
  29. Seira’s teeth gnashed together so hard they clicked. Her fist pushed up against the door as she fought to keep from hitting it and her grip on the torch tightened so hard it burned. “You don’t know a damn thing!”
  30.  
  31. “You’re repeating yourself. Should I do the same?”
  32.  
  33. “Shut UP!” While able to hold her fists back, Seira wasn’t as successful with her leg. The door felt a kick.
  34.  
  35. “There you go again.”
  36.  
  37. Maybe just her face, thought Seira. Maybe if she just broke her nose, burned off her taste buds and mangled her face, that would be alright. Seira’s eyes narrowed. She should be ugly. That bitch of a woman should be ugly, she should be fat, diseased, and disfigured. What did it matter to the rest of the world, anyways? No one would ever see Medusuub again. She shouldn’t even be calling this monster Medusuub--she hadn’t the title to back it up. A lesser name, Rat, or perhaps Bitch would suit her nicely.
  38.  
  39. “But you are right. I should not be teasing my interrogator. So why did you come?”
  40.  
  41. Medusuub shouldn’t have been the one to ask that, it should’ve been Seira making demands, instead. Had anyone accompanied Seira down here, they would’ve been embarrassed for her.
  42.  
  43. “I need to know how you got arachnes and lamia working together. Why dragons are fighting in defense of the monster lord when one thing they hate more than anything else in the world is fighting for something they don’t own. How harpies and mothmen fly the same sky with succubi and wyverns. I’ve seen monsters that wouldn’t be caught leagues within each other fighting side-by-side. You need to tell me why.”
  44.  
  45. “Not going to try to puzzle it out yourself? You could learn a surprising amount that way.”
  46.  
  47. “Cut the teasing. I’ve neither the time nor the patience.” That was something more like a monster lord would say. “Either tell me now, or tell me a few days from now after you succumb to the torture.”
  48.  
  49. Medusuub smiled. “Though it may surprise you, I actually have no issue with telling you. Whether or not you make the correct decisions with the information I give you concerns me much more.”
  50.  
  51. Seira stared into her opponent’s eyes, watching as the light of the torch danced in her irises. “I don’t know enough about you to be surprised. That’s why I bothered to come myself and didn’t skip straight to the torture.”
  52.  
  53. “Then perhaps there is hope for monsters yet.”
  54.  
  55. “And why do you care about that? Especially now that you’re a human. A certain succubus even told me your entire village was killed by monsters.”
  56.  
  57. Those eyes flicked away, a tangled line of thought running through them and catching Medusuub’s tongue for a moment. “Did she, now…” She tossed her hair back. “I suppose it wasn’t going to stay secret forever. But do my motivations even matter now? I’m clearly no longer a player in this scene.”
  58.  
  59. “Your motivations matter because I need context. Were you trying to destroy monster hierarchy as some kind of revenge? Or were you just looking to kill as many as possible in a ridiculous war?”
  60.  
  61. Medusuub chuckled--a low, hearty laugh which echoed through her lonely cell and made Seira’s ears twitch. “Did you really think this was all for revenge? Done in spite? No, Khertaleon, not at all. It actually has everything to do with your first question, the reason you came down here in the first place.”
  62.  
  63. Seira sneered. She couldn’t shake the feeling she was still being mocked.
  64.  
  65. “The first and most fascinating thing I learned after becoming a medusa was exactly how much monsters seem to hate each other. Not at all what I expected. As a human, monsters were always one mass of a threat. It mattered not whether they were allied or alone--an arachne, a harpy, a dragon, a manticore--none were human, and rape and murder end up the same regardless of who does it. Granted, certain species could be more… tactful about it, but there were always exceptions. Humans seemed united against monsters for the most part, so why wouldn’t monsters be the same?” Another step forward brought Medusuub right up to the door. She placed one of her small hands in the space between the bars of the window. “No, monsters are fearful in all the ways humans are. Fearful of what they do not understand, and with such variance between species, there was much misunderstood. Makes sense if you think about it long enough.” She gave a slight nod. “I decided to fix that. The first step, of course, was to take the title of monster lord for myself, but I don’t need to recant that tale for you, do I?”
  66.  
  67. Fresh anger boiled up within Seira, but she held her tongue. If Medusuub wanted to rant, then Seira would let her until she had what she’d come for.
  68.  
  69. “Monsters needed something to turn their misunderstandings toward other than each other, so I gave them humans. There were details to work out, of course, which is why it took so long to get to this point, but monsters were ready enough to redirect their ire.”
  70.  
  71. “That sounds like the making of a war to me. One which would end in many needless deaths and perhaps even the end of the monsters. You have to know how the last war ended.”
  72.  
  73. “I do. The succubi and slimes would undoubtedly take humanity’s side, even if it meant the extinction of every other monster race. They look out for themselves, I can respect that.”
  74.  
  75. “Then why bring monsters and men to the brink of war?!”
  76.  
  77. “Because I never intended to push them over the edge. That force outside Uuluth? How many do you think were armed? Armored? How many knew how to fight? How to take a city? How many monster generals do you think there are? How many do you think even follow the monster lord more closely than Poseidon?” Medusuub shook her head. “That overgrown scylla is subservient in words only. You would do well to keep caution around her.”
  78.  
  79. She had no idea.
  80.  
  81. “They needed an enemy, I gave them one. They needed to act, I gave them a means. They needed purpose, they needed to heal that aching wound the war had left and made no effort to soothe, and I gave them a bandage. Do you know what they were going to do after they’d finished gathering at Uuluth? Make demands. More importantly, make demands as monsters. Not as lamia, ushi-onis, wyverns, aluranes, or echindna, but monsters. They could share that title, at least. Do you know what monsters want? Not every monster, and not even the prevailing sentiment in some species, but still common enough? The chance to live without being alone. For whatever cursed reason, the great demon made no monster males, made us--no, not us anymore. Them. Made them dependent on human males and inflamed that dependence with desire. Even if they don’t choose or take a mate, they still want to live around others. Some want to live with other monsters, some want to live with humans. Maybe they want a husband, maybe they want someone to fuck, maybe they want no one. But they still want that chance, that choice. While it may have gone against instinct and years of tradition, I wanted them to do it how only a monster who was once human would do it--I wanted them to ask.” Medusuub leaned up against a nearby wall, intertwining her fingers as if praying. “I used the word ‘demand’ to maintain pride, but when you approach the most heavily-guarded human city with an unorganized mess of unarmed monsters, you are asking, no matter what you might think.”
  82.  
  83. Seira couldn’t keep her mouth from cracking open in a slight gape. Ask? How could she ever have expected to gain anything that way? Humans still harbored plenty of hate for monsters, and gathering an army sure as hell wasn’t going to soothe any tempers. To top it all off, if she was to be trusted, the whole thing was just a feint. She’d gathered so many monsters together just to talk? How on earth were the humans supposed to realize that? She may have intended it to be a feint, but what was to stop Uuluth from striking first?
  84.  
  85. Her entire journey since Poseidon--the rush to Uuluth, to repair Toneruth, their desperate storming of the castle while thousands of lives stood in the balance--was unnecessary? “Are you saying this whole thing with Uuluth, with the war, was a misunderstanding?”
  86.  
  87. “A misunderstanding? No, no, not at all. I sent what amounted to an army to the king’s doorstep. I did that precisely so there would be no misunderstanding. It was a show of force, of intent. It was the only way to make the king take our--their demands seriously.”
  88.  
  89. Seira couldn’t decide whether she wanted to barge into the cell and strangle Medusuub, or fall flat on her ass. She ended up doing neither. What was the point in throwing a fit? Medusuub had spent her entire life throwing obstacles at Seira, it was no surprise she hadn’t stopped until the power to do so had been taken from her.
  90.  
  91. “Why, then? You still haven’t answered me about that. Why give a damn about monsters?”
  92.  
  93. Medusuub rolled her head along the wall to meet Seira with a lazy stare. “Some people have different reactions to the events thrust upon them. While you seem so dead-set--well, SEEMED so dead-set on revenge after the event which changed your life, my thoughts went elsewhere when I was met with mine. It’s not so bad being a monster, I decided, and I chose to do what I could to prevent what happened to me from happening to others.” Her lips curled into a slight smile. “A noble cause, yes?”
  94.  
  95. “Spare me. You trampled all over the concept of ‘noble’ when you murdered my family.” Her eyes narrowed. “There are ways to help monster-human relations that don’t involve gratuitous killing.”
  96.  
  97. “Methods which your mother was just so intent on following, right?”
  98.  
  99. “Do not even THINK you can talk about her.” Fire spouted out of Seira’s mouth with her breath. “I may not intend on killing you, but I can make every waking moment a nightmare.”
  100.  
  101. “Very well.” Medusuub shrugged, though her stiffness betrayed a lack of acceptance. There was clearly more she wished to say. “I cannot convince you any further. You have the truth, you can do what you want with it. My part is spoken.”
  102.  
  103. Seira wasn’t about to encourage her to ramble any further. She half-turned from the door, constantly looking back to the tiny barred window separating her from Medusuub. How much of her testimony could be trusted? Every monster feels themselves vindicated in their actions--Seira’s mother had taught her that. Seira didn’t doubt Medusuub saw herself as some savior of the monster races, didn’t put it past her to ignore the flowing river of blood she’d left behind her and the one she was about to create. Her results, however, could not be ignored. Monsters in numerous species had united under Medusuub, given a common cause. Would they stay united under Seira? She sighed, turning from the cell door. A long path lay ahead of her.
  104.  
  105. “How is he, by the way?”
  106.  
  107. Seira froze. Her footpaws curled up and dug into the cool stone. She sucked in a breath, only to have it catch in her throat. “Who?”
  108.  
  109. “You know who. I do owe him, I suppose. And I believe there was something in him I admired. Something… hmm, what would the word be? Worthy?”
  110.  
  111. Worthy. Seira grimaced. That wasn’t the first time she heard that word used to describe him. “I don’t know where he is and I don’t care.” She started to walk away but Medusuub’s voice called out once more.
  112.  
  113. “I think that would be a mistake.”
  114.  
  115. “All the more reason to not care.”
  116.  
  117. “He saved you.”
  118.  
  119. Seira spun around, slamming her foot against the door in a vicious kick. Splinters broke free of the weathered door, and pain surged down her leg, but dissipated under the heat of her rage. “He ruined me! I gave everything I had to kill you, to blast your blood all over the same castle to which you gave my family’s, and when I thought I’d finally gained my goal, he stood in my way! He had the nerve to call me a friend, to gull me into being his! He’s a traitor, a swine, a beast in human clothing! He even tricked me into l--“ Words lost the air that gave them life. Seira glared at the door before hitting it again. “Fuck that little goddess-spawn, that brainless monkeyfuck. Why should I give a damn about where he is? I want nothing to do with him for the rest of my life! If I ever see him again, I’m going to beat him within an inch of his life and throw him in that cell with you! You seem to care about him so much and he obviously cares about you.”
  120.  
  121. “You are deluding yourself if you think he acted in my interest.”
  122.  
  123. “You’re alive because of him, aren’t you?” Snarling so fierce her face hurt, Seira spat on the ground. “Fuck this. I’m not talking about that worthless pile of sl--of shit. And he doesn’t have a thing to do with you, either.”
  124.  
  125. “You gave everything you had for your dream. He gave everything for his. Would you begrudge him that?” A short pause broke up her thoughts. “Monsters and men are not so different, I think.”
  126.  
  127. “Your lecturing is boring and pointless. And I said I wasn’t talking about this.” Seira spun on her heel and trudged up the steps to the dungeon door as loud as she could. Throwing the door open, she shouted one last rebuke down to Medusuub. “He’s nothing to me.”
  128.  
  129. “And yet I still live.”
  130.  
  131. The dungeon door closed with a slam, echoing throughout the empty castle halls. Seira shoved the torch back into its brace and stomped toward the throne room, trying to throw off the strange weight pressing down on her shoulders, but each step only made it heavier.
  132.  
  133. Medusuub was right: she was still alive.
  134.  
  135. Storming down the hall, mind so focused on the conversation she’d just had, Seira jumped when someone tapped her on the shoulder with a cool touch. She spun on the intruder, ready to spill out the breadth of her frustration, only to stop with her mouth half-open when she recognized the one who’d stopped her. A slime, small and grinning, with clear intent in her eyes.
  136.  
  137.  
  138. **
  139.  
  140.  
  141. Galen collapsed into the tree’s embrace, breathing heavy but sighing at the chance to rest. The sun had not been kind today, beating on his back as he’d worked, not an ounce of remorse in its heat. Galen was fresh out of self-pity, however, and had plowed through the day as if nothing else mattered. He needed to be done by the end of the day so he could finally leave. The place had grown sickeningly stale and thick with the threat of regret. The humidity made his breathing taste like stagnant water. Air caught in his lungs like grease. With the last of his strength, he drove the shovel into the ground and let his arms flop out, worn to the bone.
  142.  
  143. He squinted into the sun. Late afternoon. Too early to escape the brunt of the heat, yet sunset was still so far away. His work had burned away the hours as he’d hoped, but not enough of them, it seemed. Leaning his head back, he licked the sweat from his upper lip. Day’s end would come, no matter what. He just needed a little more patience, then he could be gone, on his way back to Uuluth and his father. A small smile grew on his lips. His father had probably figured out where that light had come from, what it meant for the city, and, unlike everyone else, exactly who had caused it. That suited Galen perfectly fine. He didn’t need to be a hero, didn’t need the parade and grand welcome home, for he finally held that pride he’d been aching for, one which he could carry back to his father walking tall and straight. Doubt nagged at Galen, asking if Uuluth had truly come out unscathed, if everything ended how they planned it. It was possible the light of Toneruth had spurred the monsters onward, as foolish as the act may have been. It was possible people fought and died--but somehow, that doubt never gained weight with Galen.
  144.  
  145. He wondered why.
  146.  
  147. Grunting, he rolled over to his side, looking out at the beach. The Kraken was still wading in the shallow water, and upon seeing him watching her, threw him a kiss and waved with several of her tentacles. He did his best to keep from rolling his eyes and turned back. Now that he was all alone, he’d have to keep an eye on her. They would be together for the journey back to Uuluth, at the very least. After that, who knew? She was loyal to Poseidon, but she also appeared fiercely interested in Galen. Groping him right in front of Seira, cooing whenever she spoke to him, and reacting very openly to anything he might ask of her.
  148.  
  149. Except for his request to leave, of course. Her reaction to that had struck him speechless.
  150.  
  151. “Go?” she had said, “But you’re all alone, and there are naughty monsters in the sea.” Her grin had widened and those eyes had dripped with seduction.
  152.  
  153. “I… Yeah, I am alone. And I don’t think anyone else is coming.” He’d waited until sunup outside the castle for Mino to show, but she never did. He had no way to contact her, but surely she would be able to figure out where Galen was? His exit hadn’t been exactly subtle, and there was only one location they were all familiar with. If she had left the castle, Galen would’ve seen her, or at least she would’ve seen him.
  154.  
  155. “Are you sure you’re alone?”
  156.  
  157. He remembered being unable to keep eye contact. “I’m pretty sure.”
  158.  
  159. “You don’t sound so sure. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to wait around a little longer, just to be safe.”
  160.  
  161. He tried arguing, of course, but the conversation never progressed beyond that. “Stick around, just until the end of the day,” she’d said. Whatever. He’d used up all his energy in a different argument. Of all the places to run into complications, the Kraken was certainly not one he’d anticipated. Hanging his head, he’d trudged off the beach, accepting her compromise with grumbling.
  162.  
  163. So now here he was, sitting under the shade of a tree, waiting. Thinking. He’d tried pushing the thinking away with a task and pursued it single-mindedly. It’d fit the moment and his attitude well. Mindless, repetitive, and relentless, the task had eaten away at his stamina and his aching thoughts. Whenever his mind would wander, he’d attack the ground with renewed vigor and pull his thoughts back. The last thing he needed to do was think.
  164.  
  165. Yet, a worn-out husk of a man lying beneath the slowly-setting sun had nothing else to do, nothing to distract him any more.
  166.  
  167. Mino. Hopefully, she’d made it out okay. He’d left her atop the battlements, most of her body used up to cover his and Seira’s sprint. Mino had shown she had the tools to be springy and tough to catch, but that didn’t make her opponents any less capable or overwhelming. Did the fighting even stop after Galen had unleashed Toneruth? Surely the entire castle had heard and felt it, but how did they react? Galen laid his hands on his chest, feeling his chest deflate with another deep exhale. Callouses had formed on his fingers and the hard nubs rolled across his chest as his hands slid off. He’d left so much behind in that castle… maybe it was best Mino stayed there, too. She could’ve lived, she could’ve died, but could he continue on with her still by his side? Besides, she still had a curiosity to satiate, and his journey was now over. An entire continent waited for her, why stay with Galen?
  168.  
  169. His stomach twisted and churned. Beneath his hands, his face writhed in discomfort, an alien uneasiness spreading throughout his body. Knowing he would be leaving Sybyll behind didn’t make it any easier. She’d just found herself again! Why did the world--no, why did he have to take that away? Like giving her a present then snatching it out of her hands before she had the chance to appreciate it. One hand went to his waist, grasping at the air where a sword should’ve been. Did Sybyll hate him for it? She certainly had the right to. A surge of nausea hit Galen and he sat up, holding his stomach and ready to puke. The sweat dripping from his face wasn’t only from exhaustion. Sybyll deserved so much more. When he returned to Uuluth, he would have to tell Edward about what happened. Cea, too, when he could make it down to her house. He lifted his gaze to the spot where he’d been digging. All that he had left was the hope it was enough.
  170.  
  171. His eyes glanced to the searing sky once more, blinding him for the moment they touched the sun. Still too long to sundown. The towers of the monster lord’s castle--Seira’s castle--stood within sight, a reminder which refused to stay hidden. His gaze followed the castle to the cliff, to the sea. A second Scar cut deep into the land, not quite parallel to the other, and not quite the same width, at least where Galen could see it. The patch of land between them was completely free of water, an awkward island between two monstrosities. Galen worried for a moment that the second Scar would topple the castle, but whatever magic had kept it stable in the first place still held strong. The castle hadn’t moved an inch since he’d Cut into the land.
  172.  
  173. He hugged his legs to his chest, staring out into the distance, sometimes following the new Scar, sometimes trying to make out details in the cliffside, sometimes watching the long grass sway back and forth. A stronger breeze would’ve been nice. It had no right to be so hot at this time of year. When he made it back home, he could look forward to some clothes other than this simple shirt and pants. Resting his head on his knees, he stole another peek at the castle. He wouldn’t be back here again probably ever again--would be a pity not to enjoy the sight of it while he could. If he squinted, he could make out the aerial patrols in the sky. One of the larger specks he concentrated on. A dragon, maybe? It was far too large to be a harpy. Maybe it was a mothman? Their wings could give it the appearance of a larger monster. He squinted harder. Was it growing? The speck was far too large to be a single monster. What the heck was it? Or was--
  174.  
  175. Galen lifted his head. Someone was coming. Someone with wings. Someone who knew exactly where he was. Unable to bring himself to stand or even move, he watched, and he waited.
  176.  
  177. The monster landed as if in slow motion, her wings breaking her fall and bringing her to a hover with just a few beats before letting her drop onto the ground. Galen swallowed. She shouldn’t be here. Not after what he did. When he looked at her face, he could only see it enraged and screaming, pouring out her life and anger in scorching words and spit. Slowly, he stood, his legs shaky but unwilling to give up. At least, not in front of Seira.
  178.  
  179. She stood straight but not stiff, arms at her sides but not quite touching her body. The backdrop of her wings shrunk until they folded up nicely behind her, the tops still peeking out over her shoulders as if they, too, wanted to watch the encounter and were unwilling to disappear completely. Her braid swung back and forth in the gentle breeze, the one part of her that never seemed to change. A burnt orange, almost like dying leaves in fall. His eyes met hers. That crimson struck him from across the distance, piercing and vigorous as ever, unyielding and determined. Galen recalled a night shortly after meeting her, one where he lit a candle in the depth of night to illuminate that face and those eyes so uniquely hers. And now he learned why it had made him so uncomfortable.
  180.  
  181. “Galen.”
  182.  
  183. She said his name less like a name and more like a punctuated statement meant to place upon him a title. He could draw nothing from it.
  184.  
  185. “Seira.”
  186.  
  187. What was he supposed to say back? Hi? She wasn’t supposed to be here! What he did to her… had their places been switched, he, well, he didn’t know what he’d do, but he probably wouldn’t be seeking her out again so soon. To have someone you trusted sweep your legs out from underneath you like? That’s not something you can so simply recover from. Could she be here to take her anger out on him? He would deserve it. If she was here for that, he would stand and take it without a word of protest. Swallowing a mouthful of air, he pushed out his chest and stood tall.
  188.  
  189. She wasn’t saying anything, only staring. Unable to match her gaze, he focused on the sky behind her. She’d be able to tell he wasn’t looking straight at her, but he had the shame to at least pretend. Doing nothing but standing and staring, she bore down on him. With every moment he felt smaller and smaller. Quivering lips struggled to say something, but no words came to mind. Despite all he had to say, he kept silent.
  190.  
  191. “Why are you still here?”
  192.  
  193. Her question echoed through his head several times before he mustered up a response.
  194.  
  195. “I was going to leave, but I couldn’t get my boat moving.”
  196.  
  197. Seira glanced behind him to where the kraken was roaming in the water. Her gaze returned to Galen a moment later with no change in intensity.
  198.  
  199. “You have the means, don’t you?”
  200.  
  201. “Well, ‘the means’ were actually the problem.”
  202.  
  203. A twitch in her eyes. She hadn’t expected that either.
  204.  
  205. “What have you been doing?”
  206.  
  207. “I was going to give Sybyll a burial, but then I realized halfway through digging… I had nothing to bury.”
  208.  
  209. For some reason, the truth of it, even when laid out so bare, didn’t seem important right now. The shovel and mound told the story well enough.
  210.  
  211. She crossed her paws, then began forward, toward Galen. He took a step back, only to bump into the tree he’d been leaning up against. He lost his balance, sliding down the tree trunk, and sort of fell into a sit. Seira said nothing. Her eyes didn’t leave Galen until she was standing next to him, indifferent to the breeze swaying her braid back and forth. Nimbly and silently, she took a seat next to him, just far enough away their bodies didn’t touch.
  212.  
  213. “Where are you heading?”
  214.  
  215. “I, ah, I’m going back to Uuluth. My dad’s probably still there.”
  216.  
  217. “And after that?”
  218.  
  219. Really? Is this all she really came to say? Where was the screaming? The punching, the crying, the… the SOMEthing! He deserved her wrath, yet all she wanted to do was talk! Galen grabbed at the ground, feeling the dirt dig under his fingernails as he curled his hands into fists. He wanted to grab her by the white fur on her neck and beg her to lash out. But maybe this punishment was enough.
  220.  
  221. “Probably going to head back to Nox. I mean, that’s what I assume my dad will want to do, and there’s not really…”
  222.  
  223. No, there WAS. It wasn’t his place to say, however. He’d given up that right last night.
  224.  
  225. “Hmm. Makes sense.” She leaned forward in her sit. “Where’s Toneruth?”
  226.  
  227. His hand went to the empty spot on his hip. “Gone. I never told you, but it, uh, it was part of our, of my agreement with Ahdria. She didn’t give us the key for free--she made me pledge Toneruth to her after I was done with it, and put a spell on it so it would return to her.” Galen frowned recalling the discussion. Back then, the choice had weighed so heavily on him, but now the loss of the sword seemed like something less than an inconvenience. He didn’t even know if he wanted it around any more.
  228.  
  229. From Seira’s mumble of acknowledgement, he imagined she felt much the same way.
  230.  
  231. “Would’ve been nice to have for show,” she mused.
  232.  
  233. As the new monster lord, she must’ve been going through a lot. Toneruth as the magic weapon was basically useless now, but monsters seemed to put a lot of value in appearances. Too bad he couldn’t offer her at least that.
  234.  
  235. He blinked. That’s right. She was the new monster lord now, wasn’t she? Odd to actually put to words, to accept they’d accomplished that. The terrible storm of light and oblivion he’d unleashed last night had secured Seira’s title. Shouldn’t he be congratulating her, or something? Would she even want to hear it? A stealthily as possible, he stole a glance over at Seira. Some of her intensity had dulled off to a pensive aura. Speaking up might break her out of it.
  236.  
  237. As the seconds of silence turned to minutes, however, he couldn’t keep quiet. He’d shrivel up to nothing if he did.
  238.  
  239. “After you left--back then, in Mallus--Ahdria… told me about your mother. What she was like and such.”
  240.  
  241. Seira gave a weak smile. “I have a feeling she had a very specific image of who my mother was.”
  242.  
  243. Queasiness took over. Maybe he should’ve kept his mouth shut. “She told us about her campaign to become monster lord. At least, what Ahdria knew of it. And what sort of a leader your mother was.”
  244.  
  245. “You don’t need to go over it all. I have an idea how the succubi saw my mother.”
  246.  
  247. Galen’s body began to churn and his limbs started tingling, but still he went on. “She--Ahdria--said V-Vessuub,” he said, struggling to push the words out. That name was awkward on his mouth, but Seira didn’t protest. “Well, she was very motivated. More than Ahdria had ever seen from a monster. She said Vessuub didn’t just snatch up the throne from some weakling like so many monsters before her, but actually earned it through how hard she fought for it. Ahdria said your mother had a unique group of allies who helped her take the monster lord’s castle, and that that was the main reason she succeeded.” Galen tried to gauge Seira’s reaction, but she remained stoic. “Lots of monsters couldn’t figure out what drove her, apparently, but Ahdria said it had something to do with your father.”
  248.  
  249. Seira’s nostrils flared. Was that a sneer or the beginnings of a laugh?
  250.  
  251. “Your mother’s determination showed in her rule as well. Ahdria told me what a large family you had, and how everyone did what they could to help, how the castle always seemed so busy. She said things weren’t too bad when your mother was in charge, that things had started to move, and though a lot of monsters resisted it, change was necessary. The lamia had always hated your family for taking the throne away from one of theirs, and that was something impossible to overcome in the monster’s world, yet somehow, your mother was making progress. Even with all the disarray surrounding the monster lord, Ahdria said order was seeping through the chaos. And despite all the mistrust, Vessuub had found friends.”
  252.  
  253. He lowered his head. After that, of course, Ahdria had gone into detail about how Vessuub had fallen victim to that very trust which had given her friends. How Medusuub had used the lamia’s hatred against her and built her legacy atop Vessuub’s remains.
  254.  
  255. “Hmph. I guess there’s some truth in that,” mumbled Seira.
  256.  
  257. Galen waited for her to add something more. Did it hurt that her mother’s reign could be summed up so simply? Or did she like the sound of it? Those thoughts stayed with her, however. He almost reached out to touch her shoulder, but instead curled his toes and puckered his lips in frustration. Was there no one to hear these things for her? Did she keep it all bottled up inside? Kind of like Sybyll, in a way. He mustered up the strength to push the conversation forward again.
  258.  
  259. “I guess, if it’s not too presumptuous, I’d say you’re a lot like your mother.”
  260.  
  261. Seira looked upward, watching the tree leaves rustle, a gentle chorus always in the background, practically impossible to hear unless you listened for it. Those eyes shifted to Galen. “Did she tell you how my mother died?”
  262.  
  263. “N-not exactly…”
  264.  
  265. Seira looked away, biting her lip as her face twisted to a half-smile, half-frown. “She had the Covenant, just like Medusuub did, but you can’t touch anyone while you’ve got it on. It’s a little awkward, but you can manage. At night, though, she took it off.” She winced. “She took it off so she could feel my father as they slept together.”
  266.  
  267. A lump formed in Galen’s throat, one he couldn’t force down. “I didn’t know.”
  268.  
  269. “No one does, ‘cept for the monster who killed her.”
  270.  
  271. The wind picked up a little, running across Galen’s clothes, through his hair, against his skin. He watched it pick up Seira’s braid and play with it. Seira’s mother, in defiance of all that ruthlessness and the risk of her position, still had her own needs, her weaknesses. “I don’t think taking it off… well, it wasn’t entirely a mistake. There’s value in something like that.”
  272.  
  273. Seira closed her eyes. Her body tensed. “Are you sorry?”
  274.  
  275. “What?”
  276.  
  277. It wasn’t that he objected to the question, it had just come out so suddenly he couldn’t formulate a better reaction. Seira got to her feet, taking several steps away before stopping. She didn’t turn around.
  278.  
  279. “Are you sorry? I have to know.”
  280.  
  281. Her voice cut more decisively now, her words curt and punctual. Galen stood up as well, taking a deep breath and breathing it out slowly. His eyes locked onto the back of Seira’s head and he cleared his mind. He pushed out the beating of his heart, the thick sweat on his chest, the pins and needles on his toes and fingers, and his burning body. Pushed it all out to say the absolute truth and leave nothing behind.
  282.  
  283. “No. I’m not sorry for what I did.”
  284.  
  285. Her ears twitched. Her wings unfolded then folded up again. Her braid swung back and forth. She said nothing.
  286.  
  287. “No, I’m not sorry for turning Medusuub into a human instead of killing her. I’m not sorry I stood in the way of your revenge, that I argued against it with all I had. I know how much it meant to you, how much you needed it, but I also knew how important my decision was. How important you are to me.” He took a step forward without realizing it. “No, Seira, I am not sorry. In fact, what I did last night may be the very first thing I’ve ever done without the stain of regret. It feels so weird to the point it’s funny.” That was no exaggeration. He was almost smiling, thinking about it. “Out of everything I’ve felt since then, every wild emotion, every stray thought, there’s not an ounce of regret. Like it was a cloak or something I just left behind in the throne room.” He looked at his hand. At some point he’d raised it. “Am I sorry for some things? Yes. I’m sorry our journey had to end on such a sour note. I’m sorry I won’t be able to help you any more, that Toneruth is gone and useless. I’m sorry Sybyll disappeared and I’m sorry I never told you about that. I wish I--I wish she could’ve had more time to figure things out. I wish I could’ve gotten to know her better. I wish I could’ve gotten to know YOU better. There are so many things…” A knot rising in his throat choked off his words, but he swallowed it back down. His vision blurred, but still he made out the form in front of him. It was all he cared to see. “You can ask me a hundred times, but you will always get the same answer. I will never be sorry for THAT.”
  288.  
  289. The great void of words, the alien calm that followed threatened to consume him, but Galen pushed it back. He held his ground. Every muscle tensed as if pulled by a string. His body grew light, weightless, waiting for the silence to shatter. How could time move so slow? He’d said it. That’s what she was here for, that’s what held him down, and now he’d said it. The thoughts he’d forced from his body no longer bound him to his pain, but that chain now laid in someone else’s grasp. This was what his father had told him about, what his father had fought for so many years to get into Galen’s head, and now Galen had finally figured it out. He’d left fear behind in favor of confidence and decisiveness, and in the process, left regret behind as well.
  290.  
  291. Now, in the gaping silence, he hung on hope. And Seira answered.
  292.  
  293. “Then, I think it might not be so bad to have someone like you around.”
  294.  
  295. Galen had to take another step forward to keep from falling on his face. Was that…? Did she…? His eyes burned into her as she turned around slowly, so slowly he feared she’d never finish her turn. Everything about her exuded power, and she stood as if atop a mountain. Her wings spread, her leer cut through him and she took in a mighty breath. The manticore before him boasted a frame he’d never seen before, one stronger than iron, forced through a forge hotter than any flame could heat. Galen shrunk back on the inside, but outside, he couldn’t bear to step away. For there was still one part of her he recognized.
  296.  
  297. Her eyes.
  298.  
  299. “I claim you, Galen. As the monster lord, as Seira Khertaleon, as the manticore you’ve traveled with. You are now my mate.”
  300.  
  301. Her voice boomed in haughty and rigid tones, but Galen knew what she was really saying.
  302.  
  303. ‘Have me.’
  304.  
  305. The space between them became nothing. Galen crashed into Seira with the intention of taking her to the ground, but with the help of strong legs and wings, she stayed upright. He wrapped his arms around her and hugged like he’d never hug again, like if he let go he’d die. He crushed his body to hers, taking in a thousand memories of her he’d never forget again. The way her chest pressed against him, the curvature of her hips, the muscles on her legs and where skin became fur. Shoving his face against her neck, he squinted his eyes shut and breathed. She smelled of sweat, of damp fur, of dirty hair, but all so much HER. When her arms accepted him, he committed to memory every curling finger, the way the wind blew her fur, and the touch of smooth paw pads against his back. His hands stuggled to grab more of her, to hug her tighter, to feel more. He would’ve died of happiness if he could just experience her more, bleed into her body and know her very soul.
  306.  
  307. His eyes opened to blurry shades of bright and dark. His nose was running for some reason, and he kept having to suck in short breaths. Why couldn’t he see so well? Blinking didn’t solve the problem, it only made things worse. He brought up a hand--though not daring to break from his embrace --and wiped his eye.
  308.  
  309. “I think I got some dust in my eyes,” was all he said.
  310.  
  311. Seira inhaled loudly through her nose and he felt one of her paws leave his back for a moment. “I think I got some in mine as well.”
  312.  
  313. “We’re hopeless, aren’t we.”
  314.  
  315. “Just one of us.”
  316.  
  317. Galen hugged until the muscles in his arms screamed in protest, then squeezed Seira to him even harder. Her paws tightened and she pulled him in closer in response. Her heart beat against his chest, just as his did hers. Galen liked how it sounded. Lifting his head off her shoulder, he sought her face, and when she looked back, he leaned in and kissed her. Not with the violence he hugged her, not with desperation or fervor, but as a matter-of-fact. He chose to kiss her, then he did. Her lips glided smoothly over his chapped lips, and their tongues met each with no hesitation. Their mouths matched like puzzle pieces, each movement of his jaw met with a corresponding movement from hers. Wet, eager tongues twisted, slipped, and caressed. Seira tasted of fire.
  318.  
  319. Galen broke away, grinning as wide as his face would allow, cheeks straining from effort. “I lo--“
  320.  
  321. Seira clamped a paw over his mouth as soon as he started talking, smiling and shaking her head at him.
  322.  
  323. “Sweet demons, you’re corny. Just shut up and hug me, alright?”
  324.  
  325. He smiled back, basking in the beauty of those crimson eyes. For all he’d sacrificed, the only thing he ended up with was a monster he’d found something in, a monster who saw something in him as well.
  326.  
  327. All in all, a good beginning.
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