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I continued to relax in the bath. Sinking into the water, I carefully balanced Luminita atop my head and tried to emulate Ko. A peaceful break from life’s concerns was the most blissful thing.
I had started to nod off but the sound of the door opening roused my attention. Turning around, I stared up at the naked body walking towards the bath. Shapely hips swayed back and forth, long silver hair carefully framing the smooth skin and luxurious curves of the goddess.
“Shin-” I started to speak, but stopped when the goddess held a finger to her lips. Staring dumbly, I watched Shinki quietly saunter over to the edge of the bath, kneeling down behind Ko.
“Eh, what was that, Alice?” Ko asked me with her eyes clothes. The goddess was shaking her head, a mischievous smile adorning her face. Sensing the dangerous situation brewing, I picked Luminita off the top of my head and quickly scooted along the ledge to create some distance.
The redheaded demon opened her eyes when she sensed me move away. She took a moment to sit up and turn towards me. “Yo Alice, what are you doing- shit!”
Ko immediately began to dive away as soon as she saw the naked figure looming over her. It was a vain attempt; the goddess sprung just as Ko’s eyes widened, well-toned arms wrapping around the little devil.
Revenge was sweet. I laughed when the goddess fell forwards, dropping underwater and taking Ko with her. Waves and bubbles broke the surface before the two demons popped up, locked in a heated struggle.
The little devil was doing her best to thrash about and break free, but Shinki held her child in an inescapable hug. Much like a caged animal, Ko gave up her struggles, settling on looking annoyed and snarling whenever Shinki rubbed their cheeks together.
“Aw Ko, I’m so glad you came to visit me! You haven’t stopped in to say hello for awhile. It’s been so lonely without you here!” The amount of skin contact between the two was outright indecent, even if there were only the purest of intentions radiating from the goddess.
“I- I- I wonder- can I speak without you- without you- rubbing- I give up!” Ko’s response was unnecessary for the goddess’ enjoyment. Shinki twirled around with Ko in her arms, lamenting on the amount of time the two hadn’t spent together.
It must have been annoying for Ko to have a wet, silver mop of hair shoved into her face over and over again while the two demons cuddled. It must have been rage inducing to be treated as an over-sized doll, manhandled by the whims of a goddess. It must have been beyond embarrassing for the little devil, since I was watching it all.
Eventually, Shinki shimmied up next to me holding Ko in her lap. The little devil tried her best to appear seething, but the bright red flush across her face and the head wings laying flat against her hair betrayed her true feelings. I didn’t shy away from the goddess, since the feeling of the naked body leaning into me was more comforting than embarrassing.
“How was your day Alice?” The goddess’ smile was beatific.
“It was…eventful, but I’m okay.” Shinki listened while I recounted what had happened after I left Pandemonium in the morning. The goddess interjected playfully, chuckling at the various antics I described. She looked only slightly worried when I mentioned the close encounter with Erk’s magic and mildly disgusted when I provided graphics detail about Ko’s fight with the spider.
“Life is a strange thing, isn’t it? To think those little spiders might grow so large.”
“You mean you didn’t make it that big?”
“Oh dear, no! That would be far too icky for us, wouldn’t it?” Skinki laughed as she bounced Ko up and down, the redhead muttering a few choice words under her breadth. “I’ll keep the scary spiders away from you in the future, dear.”
“I didn’t know they grew that big…” It was rather troubling news. The last thing I wanted was for tiny house spiders to become man-eater sized.
“They don’t, Alice; at least not usually. Ambient magic tends to do strange things, though. I’m not sure how that spider’s diet developed, but anything is possible.”
I sighed in relief. “Does that mean you couldn’t create something like that?”
“If I tried I definitely could, but creating life is terribly taxing, dear.” The goddess promptly dealt with my curiosity. “One might think it as simple as recreating the necessary parts, but doing it with magic poses a problem. Can you guess what the issue is, Alice?”
“I’ve never created life. How am I supposed to know?”
“Oh my, I didn’t think you were a quitter.” The goddess’ accusation was frustrating. I buckled down and thought about it more, wondering why the goddess expected me to understand. I was no super powerful demon; I couldn’t create life. Yet, that wasn’t necessarily true.
“I’ve never created life…but I’ve made other things?” Shinki clapped her hands in excitement, using her legs to catch Ko when the redhead tried to escape. “The shields I made felt real, but they weren’t, were they? The metal was…full of magic; magic that kept everything together. Without the magic they weren’t shields, they were just blobs of metal.”
“That’s right. Creating things with magic, that don’t rely on magic to survive, is ridiculously difficult, Alice. Especially when they are made of so many vital parts – even if I get everything else right, a little slip-up on an organ like the heart would ruin everything.” I listened carefully to the goddess’ explanation. “Artificial things are easier, especially if you’re creating something made of a single material like those shields you mentioned, but it still isn’t a simple task.”
“So you can’t just poof things out of thin air?”
“I never said that, dear. ‘Poofing things’ is possible, but takes disproportional amounts of energy and concentration. Building objects up from an itsy-bitsy level isn’t exactly efficient. It’s much easier if you just transmute things; working with already existing materials makes it much less difficult.”
The goddess frowned when she looked at me. “Actually, I’m rather surprised. The shield that collided with Erk’s spell shouldn’t have remained, even if the metal was in a somewhat dismal state…” Shinki reached over and pulled me into a joyful hug. “How wonderful! My newest daughter is so talented at the art of creation; perhaps I’ve found the heir to the throne!”
I only stiffened in surprise for an instant, but it was enough for the goddess to notice. Shinki broke the hug off immediately. “I’m sorry Alice. I wasn’t thinking.” She looked like someone had punched her in the gut.
I took a deep breathe before smiling. Considering the emotional roller coaster of the day, I felt prepared to deal with the issue right then and there. “I…I wouldn’t mind being your daughter.”
Shinki’s expression improved from devastated to queasy. “Are you sure? I don’t want to be presumptuous.” My outburst that morning was still nipping at the goddess’ conscious.
I blinked, before reaching down to free Ko. The goddess gave up the redhead freely so I could pull the demon over to my side. Even trapped by the goddess’ legs, Ko had been paying attention to the conversation; she gave me a reassuring smile and a thumbs up. I appreciated the gesture but had to drop my gaze in order to speak my mind.
“I’m okay with it. Now, that is. Before I was…I still wasn’t okay. Now? I’m still…I’m still having troubles but- but I figured out that family is very important and it’s really tough to be okay if you don’t have family and, uhm…” I stopped and shook my head when I realized I was rambling. Instead, I tried a question to organize my thoughts. “Shinki, you think everybody in Makai is your child, right?”
“And some of them call you mother. Or they think of each other as brothers and sisters, right?”
“Yes, some do.”
“Makai is really just one big family then, right?”
The goddess paused, a troubled look briefly appearing on her face. “Maybe a very large one with bickering relatives, but yes, I think we are.”
“I…was an only child. I…I think it would be nice to have brothers and sisters.” I felt Ko rubbing my back and Luminita patting my arm, both encouraging me to continue.
“I’ve been thinking about it a whole lot, ever since I ended up here in Makai. Momma and daddy always wanted me to be loved and happy. Even if they couldn’t be the ones to do it, I think they wanted that. Momma and daddy will always be momma and daddy, but…I don’t think they have to be the only ones. Some of the other children in the village weren’t as lucky as me. They didn’t know who their real mothers and fathers were – but they still had family. They had people caring for them that they called mom and that they called dad.”
I looked up and saw the guarded anticipation in Shinki’s twinkling eyes.
“What I mean to say…is that family is everything. Momma and daddy will always be part of my family so…please Shinki…let me be a part of this family. Please let Ko and Yuki and everybody else be my siblings, or my aunts or uncles or crazy third cousins. Please let me be your daughter, Mom. Please.”
I was quickly enveloped in a group hug filled with love and comfort, tinged with the sense of belonging and relief. I didn’t even need to hear Shinki’s response, “Of course, dear, you don’t need to ask for that,” to feel the acceptance.
I cried again for the umpteenth time, but for an entirely different reason than in the past.
I wasn’t sure how long the embrace lasted. I didn’t know how many times I had been hugged and comforted since entering Makai. It still felt amazing.
Somehow, Ko and I both ended up sitting on Shinki’s lap. It was a bit of a tight squeeze, slightly awkward considering we were all still in the bath, but far too comfortable to try and move.
“How delightful,” Shinki laughed as she rubbed both of our heads at the same time, “spending time with both of my youngest daughters; truly fortunate for me.”
“Why are you even here in the first place, anyway?” Ko sounded grumpy but didn’t try to bat away the goddess’ hand.
“I felt you arrive, dear, and considering I’m usually the one that has to go find you I thought it prudent to take advantage while I could. Finding Alice was a joyful bonus!”
“Looks like I brought the heat down on you too, kid. My bad.”
“Oh, I’ve been too negligent – my own daughter must be desperately craving affection considering her despondent words.”
“Wa- No! No! Don’t you dare sm-mraagh.” The desire to escape the general area of the goddess was growing with every second Ko was trapped against Shinki’s impressive chest. I didn’t think moms generally acted that way – there was still plenty of adjustment to my new family that I needed to do.
“I’m so glad the two of you are getting along.” Shinki spoke with me nonchalantly.
“Ah, yes. We, uhm, had a rough start but I think we’re friends now.”
“Good, good! My second-youngest is behaving her self, yes? She’s setting a wonderful example for her younger sister?”
“Of course I am, so if you just let go of me- waaagrah.” Perhaps Ko acted as a type of drug, causing the goddess to behave in a terrifying manner.
“Hmm, I thought I taught my children proper manners. At least Alice is a good girl!”
“What? I didn’t even curse or any shit- bwaragah.” All of the splashing Ko caused was rather unpleasant. Every flailing arm that didn’t land on the goddess’ chest ended up sending a spray of water into my face.
“Where did I fail this poor child? How heart breaking.”
“Goddess- wagha- Shinki- bwargh- Mom, please!” The redhead fell backwards as soon as the goddess released her, landing in the center of the bath and kicking up a sizeable wave. Luminita managed to block most of the water from hitting my face, but she was none too happy with being used as a shield.
“Ow, Luminita, don’t pull my hair! I’m sorry, please- ow, let go.” By the time I had separated the doll’s hand and my hair, Ko had clambered back up onto the ledge, dubiously reclaiming her seat on the goddess’ lap. She must not have hated the hellish treatment as much as I thought.
“You have such a happy relationship with your doll, don’t you dear?”
“Yep, thank you for giving her to me.”
“Hah, no need to keep thanking me Alice.” Shinki watched me and Luminita with a raised eyebrow. “It’s quite strange though.”
“Is something wrong?”
“No dear, nothing wrong. Just, unexpected. You see, although it’s in the shape of a doll, that focus is, well, a doll.”
“That was a spectacularly eloquent example of our goddess’ spee- wait, no, I’m sorry! Not again! Whew, that was close.” I found myself agreeing with Ko’s unfinished sentiment.
Shinki sighed before she tried again. “Perhaps I should say it more blatantly? The doll isn’t supposed to move on its own.”
I held Luminita out and looked at her. She shrugged and shook her head, just as unsure as I was.
“It’s alright dear, don’t worry about it,” the goddess assuaged any worries I might have had. “You might just be projecting – things like this can happen with magic. If anything, this just further shows how talented you are!” I sat there and soaked up Shinki’s praise like a sponge, much happier with pats on the head than the intense affection Ko received.
“Anyway dears, as much as I love spending time with you two, I believe little Alice has things to do.”
It was news to me. “Huh?”
“Lessons,” Shinki said with a smile, “arranged by Mai. Such a dutiful child, that one. They just arrived at Pandemonium, so you might want to go get ready, dear.” I nodded, remembering Mai’s concerns after class had ended.
Shifting to climb out of the bath, I stopped momentarily. “Ah, uhm, t-thank you…Mom.” I gave Shinki a quick hug and a peck on the cheek before fleeing the water. I might have been blushing rather profusely, but nobody could see with my back facing the bath.
The sudden whistling that rang out when I bent over to put on my panties didn’t help my embarrassment problem at all. I managed to derive some satisfaction from Ko’s screams as I quickly dressed into the provided pajamas.
Sticking my tongue out at Ko (who promptly cursed at me and was once again rewarded for her efforts), I bid farewell to the two demons, leaving the younger one to her one-on-one time with the goddess.
I arrived at my room with some time to spare. I was finishing brushing my hair when a polite knock on my door signaled the arrival of three demons.
Yumeko was the expected guide for the visitors and left after she inquired if we needed anything. Mai looked just as she had a few hours ago, if not more haggard looking. The other visitor was someone I hadn’t seen before. He was taller than the average adult male, and much better looking. His features were angular and sharp but alluring. What was strange was the black cap he wore alongside the black trench coat, black pants, and black boots. The demons of Makai seemed to think that dressing up in a single color was the secret to success.
“Alice, is now an appropriate time for a short tutoring session?” Mai asked, all business.
“Yep! Nice to meet you mister…”
“Minamimoto. ’Sup,” the male demon greeted me, an easy going grin plastered across his face.
“Yes, well then, good luck. Behave yourself Minamimoto.” With those few words Mai left, not even saying farewell.
I harrumphed after the witch disappeared. “That was rather rude.”
“You’d be too - she’s been flying towards her limit to get this little shindig together.”
“Ah, I’m sorry, that was careless of me.”
A heavy hand fell on my head, ruffling my hair. “I don’t care, bwahaha! Let’s start iterating, yeah?”
My first tutoring session was surprisingly fun. Although eccentric, Minamimoto definitely knew math. The demon was a genius – not only did he understand crazy mathematical ideas, he could explain them too. After a few questions to figure out how much I knew, Minamimoto launched into an excited lecture about division. Considering that his exclamations referenced super advanced math that I didn’t even know how to try and understand, it was surprising that the demon could enjoy explaining such simple concepts to me. It wasn’t just a lecture either as Minamimoto included copious amounts of theoretical examples, real-word demonstrations, and word problems. The lesson lasted only an hour but the time passed quickly. I felt like I had a solid understanding of a fundamental mathematical concept. Before the strange demon left, I asked him why enjoyed math so much.
“The world's made up of numbers, and life is just one big equation. How can I not enjoy math?” Grinning at me, the demon placed his cap on top of my head. Business concluded, he strolled out of my bedroom.
“Uhm, do you want your hat?” I called out.
“It’s yours! It’s on a whole different magnitude than that garbage sitting there; a present for my rising investment. Keep your development exponential and you’ll be differentiating in no time.” Sighing, I placed the stylish black-baseball cap next to the yellow hard hat sitting on my drawer.
Looking at the worksheets Minamimoto had left me, I took a bit of time to finish a few problems on my own. Nodding in satisfaction, I closed the door, dropping my room into the darkness. Then I grabbed Luminita and crawled under my sheets. Sleep followed soon after.
The girl lit the incense, carefully trailing after the older woman in front of her. They stopped briefly at the fifth body of the day, the village’s shrine attendant offering basic respects to the deceased before moving on. The dead man’s remaining family, two boys, fell to their knees and wept after the girl and woman walked away. The woman was stone-faced as she went about her duties, treating each body equally but briskly.
The girl helped with the proceedings impassively. It was nothing new to her – this had been her daily life for the past week. She could complete her responsibilities without tears, without worry. The girl ignored the weeping children, the sobbing wife, and the barking dog. She ignored the silent eyes watching from draped windows, the worried faces glancing over, and the grim sentinels standing watch over the funeral.
Thirteen bodies in total were buried that day, graves shallow and given the minimum treatment to be proper. It was a necessity. Manpower was lacking in the village, most of the strong men already sleeping in the earth.
“Let’s go, Alice.” At the woman’s command, the girl hurriedly grabbed the rest of their things and left, not sparing a second glance at the devastated families sitting near the mounds of the dead.
She managed to copy the woman’s stoic expression all the way home. The two females put their supplies away as they tried to relax. The woman left to clean herself while the girl sat down.
Her tough face couldn’t last. Quietly, alone in her home, the girl broke down. Tears that had been dammed were released, the façade of strength shattered once she was away from the public eye.
Ms. Inoue wasn’t able to recognize her youngest child in her final, feverish hours.
Sora had gone trapping in the forest – his father found him hanging from a tree with his stomach ripped open.
Mr. Mizushima stumbled around the plaza, vomiting blood, before tripping into the well and falling twenty meters to the stony bottom.
Lily’s throat had tightened and closed off after a side performance, slowly choking her to death over the course of an hour.
The Yoshida twins had been playing in an abandoned house when a wooden beam had fallen, snapping one’s neck and driving a spike into the other’s brain.
Mr. Moreau’s legs had shattered while scouting for a wild youkai, the hunting party finding his dismembered corpse hours after.
Maki had simply collapsed dead in the middle of the street.
The girl was insulated at first, the initial deaths at the river all she saw. The village was quiet but peaceful as those who had survived recovered, and life went on for a few days. Then the deaths began all over again, strong men and women falling alongside the weak. The girl traveled from body to body, incident to incident, assisting the woman’s failed attempts to save the dying. The girl saw it all, from the bakers she met every day to the farmers she welcomed back in the evening. Then someone in the grieving family would die, and the girl was forced back again, and again, and again. She cried for the dead and for those left behind, for the ones whose lives ended abruptly and without reason.
She hoped that the deaths would end, that the remaining villagers would remain strong and healthy, new families forming from the broken and devastated bonds. She hoped that life would return to normal.
Her hopes were just that, hopes. Friends and family continued to fall around her, until everything collapsed.
I woke up with a yawn. My motions were mechanical, my body somehow knowing to drag itself to the washroom and clean up. Slightly more awake, I thought about the day ahead. Ko and I were going exploring, but not until after class had finished. That left me with a few hours of free time.
Considering my options, I decided to…
[ ] Head into the city and…
-[ ] Look for something exciting
-[ ] Search for more clothes to wear
-[ ] Visit <someplace> to do <something>
[ ] Stick around Pandemonium and…
-[ ] Explore the other rooms
-[ ] Sneak into the magical vault
-[ ] Work on my crafts
-[ ] Practice my cooking
-[ ] Read <something> in the library
-[ ] Practice <something> in the training room
-[ ] Examine <something> in the armory
[ ] Find <somebody> to bother
[ ] <Write-in>
Pick a bunch, pick a few, write-in, don’t. Last minute preparations for the cautious or time to goof-off for the confident!
Fair enough; pretty dumb of me I admit. I’ll try harder in the future. Maybe.