* * *
Arc II - Bonding
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A pounding ache in his skull and harsh, glaring light greeted Syranon as his eyes cracked open. The sun was blazing in through a large window and filling his sight with pink and brown blurs. Blinking several times, the blurs resolved themselves into the library's shelves and Sukina looking down at him with her eyebrows knotted. "Nng...what happened? Suko? What...?" he started, voice a bit weak.
The demoness above him held a finger up to her lips. "Shh. Don't strain too much yet. Ame hit you pretty hard."
"She did? Why, what happened? I don't remember anything..."
"Really?" she asked. Her voice dripped with suspicion, though her expression softened somewhat. "You don't remember anything?"
He nodded to her with a wince at the pains the motion caused. "I remember passing out during practice with Ryo and coming inside with Gimlett to eat something. We stopped by Emerald's room because Asmodai asked us to and then...that's it. I don't know how I got here or what happened. I must have been exhausted, though."
"Why do you say that?"
"Well, most mortals dream when they're particularly tired, and I had the strangest dream..." His cheeks colored as he remembered it and trailed off.
The succubus looking down at him raised an eyebrow. "What dream?"
"I...uhh..." His hesitation confirmed what she guessed before he stated it. "I...went around the castle and...kissed-the-rest-of-the-girls." The last part of his sentence came out in a rush and his eyes went to the side.
Silence filled the space about them so thick that all he could hear was the blood rushing through his ears. First one minute, then two passed without a word. Finally Sukina let loose a sigh and spoke in a tone that all but accused him outright. "That wasn't a dream."
The succubus sighed again and rapped her knuckles on his forehead in irritation, eliciting an 'ouch!' from the beastman. "You weren't dreaming, Syranon. Amethyst told me about it when you were...after her. You really did kiss everyone else."
Syranon’s face paled as the blood drained from it in shock at the news. “I...really did that? B-but that isn’t like me at all, and why don’t I remember it clearly? It just seems...impossible.”
“Far from it, honestly. Did you spend much time studying Asgar demons?” She watched him shake his head no and went on. “I’m surprised at that. Even if you’re not fighting us anymore and we’re focused on the Outer Demon threat, it would have been a good idea to learn about us just to know your allies better. I read quite a bit about beastmen before coming here, you know. Regardless of that,” she said, leaning back a bit, “it’s well within the realm of possibility to do that sort of thing to you with a Charm or Domination spell. Succubi like Ame and I are generally quite adept at it.
“I’m sure you know the details of the spells themselves, but the part I’m referring to specifically is the victim’s level of awareness. Almost every instance of their use, the demon prefers the victim to remain fully aware of what’s going on. If used maliciously, which it usually is, then the powerlessness just adds to the demon’s enjoyment. However, we can also choose to have the victim blot it out completely or treat it as a vague dream they can barely recall.”
Tilting his head back to show his attention to her words, he raised one eyebrow. “I didn’t know that at all. So was I under some kind of Charm?”
“No surprise that you didn’t know that part. We don’t exactly advertise our abilities if we don’t have to, it helps us to keep secrets. I...don’t know if it was a Charm or just something similar. But it seems like a reasonable possi-”
A resounding crash echoed from the entrance to the library. Standing between the doors flung open, shoulders heaving, Teodora glared about. “WHERE IS HE?! Where are you hiding, beastman?!” Seeing Sukina on the next story up, she practically flew up the stairs in her search. “Suko! Where did he get to? I’ll teach him to go around kissing just an-YOUUUU FLEABAG!”
If the two had thought her loud before, her new volume set a new standard for the word. The blue haired succubus’ eyes blazed with a sapphire glow when she spied her target, and she hefted her hammer - almost unrecognizable with a different head on it - over a shoulder in preparation. “YOU! What kind of servant are you, passing around like you don’t belong to me already! K-k-kissing all of us...and you even have the temerity to rest your head in another’s LAP!” Her feet seemed to sink into the floorboards as she stomped forward with complete deliberation.
Her statement brought her target to the realization of where he was and a fresh rush of blood lit his cheeks. ‘I-I didn’t realize I was-!” Seeing her approach with a slasher grin, he rolled to the side away from Sukina. This proved to be a poorly calculated decision since it removed him from the only thing that had been making Teodora hesitate at all, the possibility of the younger Lashiec getting caught in the strike. She leapt towards him and brought the hammer down with both hands. Syranon scrambled backwards on his rear as she struck, eyes wide with alarm when the weapon dug into the wood despite what seemed to be an inflatable end on it that compressed with squeaking noises.
“Teodora, wait! He didn’t remember it at first!” Sukina jumped to her feet and tried to calm the diminutive demoness as she continued trying to play whack-a-beastman. “I don’t think he was in control of himself!”
Blue hair whirled when Teodora turned her head. “What are you trying to say? That this ingrate is so feeble-minded that he can’t even stop a simple Charm?”
“Charm? Oh, goodness me, I hadn’t thought of that possibility!”
All three turned to see Emerald, fixing her glasses and smoothing disheveled hair in the doorway. “But there was no Charm spell. It must have been a miscalculation somewhere, let me check my notes...” She pulled a dog-eared notebook from a pocket in her jacket and flipped through it to try and find what caused the problem. “I simply do not see what went wrong. That vial should have done nothing more than create a sensation of fullness and comfort, extending the body’s ability to process nutrients from food to make it last longer between meals.”
“So this was something you did?” Teodora asked, eyeing the science-obsessed demoness.
“Yes, I’m afraid so. Given what I witnessed and what I was able to get out of the others, it seems almost as if it drew out some sort of recessive personality traits. Whereas normally Syranon is anxious and lacks confidence, it seems that my vial turned him...well...” She trailed off when she looked at him, feeling an unexpected blush cover her cheeks. “What’s this, now?” she muttered to herself, writing notes in the few empty margins of her book.
The young Radinov looked with marked skepticism at Emerald and Syranon before turning away with a huff and striding out the door. “He wasn’t in control of his own actions, huh? Don’t think that lets you off the hook completely, beastman. You still have to make up for what you’ve done. I’m going to get some lunch.”
“Teodora, would you mind telling me about what happened with you during this incident? I would very much like to know for my notes. Perhaps something useful could come of this, if I can collect enough information...” Emerald followed after the noble demoness, pointedly not looking in the beastman’s direction.
Syranon rubbed the back of his head, demonstrating his confusion and hesitation. “I guess we should really go too, right?”
“Or at least you should, yes. This afternoon we’re supposed to start really showing what we’ve been able to learn, as short as our time here has been. Teodora and I, at least, will need you to make sure you’re not passing out again.” Sukina clasped her hands before her and looked to the side, face drawn and showing upset.
The beastman, for all his usual density when it came to dealing with his comrades, knew he had to say something to make things up to her. Thinking back later, he could easily have put things down to the lingering effects of the serum he had tested for Emerald, but for once he felt he knew what to say without putting his foot in his mouth first. “Suko...even though I was apparently not aware of my own actions earlier...I’m sorry. K-kissing everyone like that, without it being part of the Bonding ceremony, isn’t something I should have done. Is there some way to make it up to you?”
Sukina looked up at him with an amused expression instead of hurt and suppressed a giggle. “Well...I might be the only one you didn’t kiss today, but I think I can forgive that. I sort of got to experience that second-hand from Amethyst, after all...and your smooth talk during the incident was pretty silly. So just do your best today and we’ll call it even.” At his nod, both of them went to lunch as well.
* * *
A short while later in the afternoon, the whole six-person class stood in the training field before their instructors. Morgrehn and Asmodeus were conversing too softly for the others to hear while they prepared the lesson for the afternoon, leaving the class to speculate amongst themselves what would happen.
"What do you think they're planning this time?" whispered Gimlett from beneath a parasol. Her hands spun the cover in an idle fashion, keeping the harsh afternoon sun from roasting her pale skin and giving her a slightly cooling breeze from its propeller-like ridges.
Ryodalin, arms crossed, shrugged. "Who knows. We should be pretty close to graduation, so it'll probably be something fairly tough. I think Morgrehn hinted at starting combat practice against simulated Outer Demons. If that's the case, I'm looking forward to it."
"With that sour expression? Could've fooled me," teased Amethyst with her arms behind her head. The wait was made worse for her because she couldn't get overly involved in her muse, so she jumped on the opportunity to harass someone for entertainment instead.
The red haired woman's comeback was merely a glare with any words cut off by the instructors approaching. "Thank you for your patience everyone," began Morgrehn. The elder beastman looked at each of them and nodded to himself. "I'm sure most of you have already guessed that we're nearing the end of your training. As such, it becomes quite imperative that you prove yourself against the enemies you are to be defending against. Asmodai and I will be creating a number of them for you to fight against, constructs that should mimic them without actually being them. You will be expected to fight against two dozen Murklings, an Azal, and a Babau."
Sukina raised a hand to get his attention. "All of them at the same time?"
"Yes indeed. This is about the ratio you can expect to fight on a regular basis - anywhere from 20-40 Murklings to an Azal. The Babau you are likely to encounter less frequently, but you must grow accustomed to fighting all three at once. The Outer Demon Lord nearest your Pillar, Eluria, prefers this force for her armies."
"For those of you who have forgotten what you studied...Babau are large, bipedal, muscular creatures with massive hands and thick hides. Azal are thin, spindly humanoids with tentacle beards. Murklings...well, they're Murklings. Little lupine creatures with mandibles instead of normal jaws. All of them are generally dark toned, in blacks and shades of gray. Likely this is due to how they are summoned."
"Are we...are we ever going to have to fight her in person?"
Morgrehn snorted and Asmodeus shook his head, the latter answering this time. "Not likely at all. Demon Lords, even our Queen Lilium, don't often take combat into their own hands. No, you are very unlikely to ever encounter Lady Eluria first-hand. Very few have and survived to return here, even on a strictly diplomatic mission. What we know of her will be available at the Pillar.
"Now, prepare yourselves while we create your opponents," he said. Both instructors stepped back from the group and started chanting arcane words, the unnatural wind of strong magic flowing about them. All of the trainees scattered, no sense of order to their placements.
Syranon saw this and frowned, seeing how ineffective they would be. "They're not even giving us a chance to figure this out...I see. Amethyst, Teodora! You two stay close, make sure that Babau is occupied," he started, thinking of each member's strengths before they had to start fighting. He could see the Murklings taking form and the beginnings of the Azal and Babau.
Both demonesses started to protest. "Who do you think you're talking to, servant," and "Why should I listen you you," were two of the phrases that came back at him.
"There's no time to argue! Look!" He pointed to the now half-made enemies. "Please just listen or we might not defeat them! Do you want to risk losing over your sense of pride?!" Seeing them both take grudging acceptance of his directions so far, he continued. "Emerald, you and Gimlett stay farther back. You both can use guns, so stay away and pick off some of the Murklings! Ryo, you stay with me between the groups. You can use your guns until they're close enough to knife, same with my magic! We'll focus on the Azal. Suko, you help keep the Murklings off of us!"
Everyone had moved into a new position just as their enemies came to life. The group of Murklings chattered a cacophanous series of yelps and barks before looking as one at the Azal. At his gesture the swarm charged forward, followed by the much larger and slower Babau. It did not need any instruction - it saw opponents for itself.
The Murkling horde was between the two melee bruisers and the large beast. Amethyst and Teodora, while they weren't intending to focus on the small fry, both made paths through the Murklings in their own ways. Teodora rushed forward with wide sweeps of her hammer, sending the vaguely dog-like creatures flying with each strike.
Amethyst, meanwhile, charged up a spell. Crying out, "Devil Drive!" she sent a blast of dark energy in a line through them all with much the same effect as Teodora's hammer swings. "Hah! Easier to make a path with one move, you diminutive dope!" she taunted, rushing through the cleared path. Unseen by her, one of the Murklings to the side leapt at her, mouth open and claws extended. Her eyes widened in surprise and she raised an arm to defend herself, but an Aegis barrier appeared between them and the creature smashed into it face-first.
"Amethyst, please be careful of your surroundings!" shouted Syranon, face creased in concentration. He then turned to the Azal, which was holding up a barrier of its own to fend off a barrage from Ryodalin's pistols.
The succubus frowned and resumed her charge towards the Babau, seeing Teodora ahead sparing a moment to raspberry the elder Lashiec daughter. "No one asked you for help, cat!" she snapped as she ran. She saw Teodora bring her hammer down on the Babau's foot and leapt up when it stumbled, punching it in the jaw hard enough to send it reeling. "Stupid..." she muttered, still angry.
Meanwhile, Ryodalin and Syranon had their hands full. Besides trying to wear down the defense of the Azal, they had to deal with the Murklings swarming around them. Despite Sukina's efforts, the beastman's barrier flared a number of times around them as the small beasts swarmed about, breaking his concentration from offensive spells. Ryodalin was also having to split her fire between targets to buy the two of them some space. "Syranon, we aren't going to win like this!" she growled, reloading one after its action locked open.
"I know, but there are too many Murklings!" Managing an offensive spell, he sent a bolt of light energy flying at the Azal before turning back to Gimlett and Emerald. He could see the both of them firing, but Gimlett was showing her usual lack of capability. Emerald, much to his surprise, was also having a difficult time with her weapon, a carbine. "We need you two to help keep these Murklings off us! What's wrong?!"
"I-I'm still learning how to use these!" answered Gimlett, struggling with the small caliber rifle she held. While not terrible for a beginner, she was far from a proper help in combat yet.
Emerald, he could see, was panting and flushed from trying to control her weapon. "I apologize...I seem to be under the weather. This should not be a problem for me normally, but I seem incapable of handling the recoil today..." She nearly dropped it after her next shot.
Syranon shook his head and dropped all efforts at defense. "Ryo! Keep the Murklings off of me with Suko!" At her unsure nod, he began casting a spell to deal with the Azal. "Lords of light, heed my plea..." he began, his clothes swirling around him.
The red haired human stretched her arms from one side to another, each firing its weapon at a different target around the two of them. "Hurry up, Syranon, we can't keep up with this many for long!"
Sukina nodded in agreement, smashing one of the creatures away with a mace. "They're a lot more resilient than their size would suggest! Please try to be quick, Syranon!"
He nodded in response and continued chanting, trying to finish his spell. After a moment he managed the final phrase. "...of Judgement on my foes! Searing Light!" The beastman held up his arm, palm outstretched, and instead of a bolt of light came forth a blinding beam. It lanced out in a brilliant line towards the Azal. Murklings in the way disappeared like shadows in its path without seeming to alter the beam at all. When it hit the Azal, it flared against its barrier for several moments before shattering it, eldritch symbols vanishing into air. The Azal itself tried to withstand the blast and survived for a whole two seconds before disintigrating into nothingness.
Syranon, sweating and panting, dropped to a knee after unleashing his spell. The counter on his amulet was drained down to nearly nothing before his body began regenerating the energy he had spent. While he was theoretically in danger from the Murklings, the pack had lost all sense of cohesion on the Azal's death. Many were attacking each other, and the other candidates began clearing out the remainder in relative safety - Amethyst and Teodora had finished off the Babau at roughly the same time as the Azal fell.
Pushing on his knees, the beastman rose to his feet and looked about as he regained his wind. "I was worried that might not work," he said, wishing he had a staff to lean against. "Good to know our research seems right about their hierarchy in combat."
"You left yourself unacceptably open," frowned Ryodalin. She emphasized her disappointment with a smack to the back of his head. "If that hadn't worked, you could have been torn to shreds!"
Sukina stood on his other side, nodding at the human. "Yes, you must be more careful with your energy. Even if it ended the fight quickly, you must remember that Teodora and I - at least just the two of us for now - can't afford to have you incapacitated. Oh, I'm starting to sound like a broken record," she muttered.
"Yes, I know, but I had a reason!" he said in an attempt to defend himself. He turned to the green haired demoness behind them. "Emerald...what's wrong? You're acting like you haven't eaten Heartcores in too long."