Raea groaned as she sat up. The storage chest jolted, causing her to wince. Cleo scrambled to her side and asked, “You’re better now?” The lizardman tilted her head as she stared at Raea’s pained face.
“No,” Raea said and gasped. “Everything still hurts.”
“Then lie back down?” Cleo asked. “We made it to the checkpoint.” Cleo had poked holes into the side of the walls earlier because she got tired of climbing up and down to see where they were.
“I can’t,” Raea said. “Sely is going to be there. I can’t let her see me like this. I don’t want her to worry about me.” She bit her lip as her eyes grew wet. Her bones creaked as she stood up, wobbling slightly. Her legs trembled, and she fell over onto her butt, causing her to gasp. She started to cry.
Sally opened her eyes and blinked once at Raea. The harpy was still bound up by Danger Noodle. There were dark circles underneath her eyes, and her brown hair was frizzy. “Are you okay?” Sally asked and sighed, resting her chin on Danger Noodle’s spine. Her voice was thin and worn out. Her fear of Palan had long been conquered, but Danger Noodle loved stealing her warmth. It turned out Palan’s tail was cold-blooded even though he himself was not. Cleo was also cold-blooded, but she pulled a flaming bonfire out of her invisible space and showed it to Palan to explain why she didn’t get cold. The storage chest nearly burned down that day.
Raea turned her head and was about to respond to Sally’s question when a voice drifted through the storage chest coming from the holes Cleo poked into the wall. “Lady Raea is right inside that storage chest,” a male voice said. There was an unintelligible statement. “No, Professor Caelum, she’s perfectly healthy. She just overdrew her mana.”
Cleo peered out of the holes and flinched. She turned to look at Raea and then turned back to look through the holes. She blinked twice and looked at Raea again. “You’re walking towards us from outside,” Cleo said and pointed at the wall.
“That’s Sely!” Raea said and wiped away her tears. She took in a deep breath and gritted her teeth to stave off the pain. She attempted to maneuver herself into a more dignified position and managed to sit with her legs crossed and back straight. The side entrance to the storage chest opened, flooding the insides with artificial white light.
“Sely!” Raea said and waved. It was the best she could do.
“Raea,” Selena said and exhaled. Her baby sister really was alright. “I was expecting you to tackle me.” Raea let out a wry smile. Selena chuckled as she stepped inside and hugged her sister. She didn’t even flinch when she saw Raea’s serpentine eyes. “I’m kidding. How’d you manage to overdraft yourself?”
“It wasn’t my fault,” Raea said and pouted. “It was….” Her eyes shifted towards Palan as she shut her mouth. Sally let out a whimper and closed her eyes. She wished she could escape like Cleo who left the storage chest the instant Raea’s eyes moved.
“So it was you,” Selena said as she released Raea. “We meet—“
Raea covered Selena’s mouth with her hand. “You shouldn’t talk to him right now,” Raea whispered. She glanced at Palan whose head was lowered, staring at the floor. His legs were loosely straddled and bent at the knees while the backs of his hands touched the floor between his knees. His shoulders were hunched over, and his back was curved forward. His fingers occasionally twitched. Danger Noodle swayed back and forth, rocking Sally.
Selena frowned and pursed her lips. “What happened to him?” she whispered to Raea.
“I think he shut himself down,” Raea said and bit her lower lip. “He’s—“
Palan looked up. A strand of saliva ran down the corner of his lips to his chin. He wiped it away with the back of his hand and yawned. “Are we anywhere interesting yet?” he asked. Like a shark, he had set his body on autopilot while he was sleeping. He frowned when he found Sally wrapped up in his tail.
“Are you … normal again?” Raea asked.
“I’m always normal,” Palan said. “It’s you angels who’re the weird ones.” He glanced at Selena. “Raea number two.”
“My name is Selena,” Selena said and frowned. “You overdrafted my sister’s mana?”
“Bite me,” Palan said as he stood up. His body rippled like a wave, and a continuous string of cracking noises resounded from his body. He yawned again and walked past the pair of sisters, hopping out of the storage chest. Sally took one last glance at Raea before she was turned around by Danger Noodle.
“So he’s always like that,” Selena said as she watched him hiss at a nearby soldier. “Even when he’s around you?”
“Did he hurt you?” Raea asked as she grabbed onto her sister’s arm and pulled herself up.
Selena hesitated after seeing the worry in Raea’s eyes. “I wasn’t really hurt,” she said. “Just a bit startled. Is he a pride demon?”
The relief coming off Raea’s body was palpable. She had been extremely worried after Palan refused to comment on hurting her sister. “Yes,” she said. “He’s a pride demon.”
Selena helped her sister walk out of the storage chest. “Are you happy with him?” she asked. “You always dreamed about getting a demon partner for yourself. How do you feel about that now?”
“I like him,” Raea said. She paused as her face turned a darker shade of red. “He can be rude, mean, very blunt, and overall, err, bloodthirsty, but he has his soft spots. He really loves his sister, and I can tell he cares about me. At least my well-being…. He’s really smart too, but sometimes he really worries me. Like a lot. I can’t believe the things he does sometimes, but that’s just how he was raised, right? He’s very different from angels, and that’s refreshing sometimes. I feel like I learned a lot from being with him.”
“You sound like you’re happy,” Selena said and smiled. She didn’t have the heart to tell her sister to stay away from that demon anymore and held down the sigh that wanted to escape. She didn’t want to comment on the change in her sister’s eyes or the scales she could feel through the thin cloth on Raea’s arms. “That’s good. I was worried you’d be constantly crying your eyes out.”
Raea lowered her head. She was sure her eyes were still puffy from crying earlier. “How about you, Sely?” Raea asked, still looking at the ground. She recognized the path she was walking on. “You were working on a long distance communication device, right?”
Selena sighed. “It’s very difficult, but there have been some breakthroughs. We have a small prototype wire that can transmit mana. We can send mana through one end, and it’ll come out through the other. If we assign codes to every letter, we could potential send messages by sending mana in patterns conforming to the codes,” she said and shook her head. “But the wire loses too much mana as it travels through. The distance we can send a message is about ten feet away, which can easily be done by talking. Apparently, this checkpoint has an alarm system that works similarly to our prototype. I was hoping to examine it before I returned.”
Raea bit her lip. “Return?” she asked. “When are you going? Palan told me you were looking for something in the ground. Did you find it?”
Selena smoothed down her hair. “I think I found it, but I really hope I didn’t find what I thought I was looking for,” she said. Raea had to take a second to interpret that. “Don’t worry. I won’t be going anywhere until the capital replies to my message.” Selena paused. “I forgot about Elrith. Where is he?”
Pyre stood inside of a glowing red cave, standing over a dwarf who was hammering at a lump of glowing white metal. Pyre was completely naked. “More heat!” he shouted as he stared at the metal. Sparks flew off of it as the red hammer struck against it repeatedly. A forge burned with lava boiling at the center.
“If we add anymore heat, the surface dwellers will notice,” one of the dwarves fanning the forge said. Sweat poured from the pale creature’s forehead.
“Fuck the surface dwellers!” Pyre shouted. “More heat!!!”
The dwarves looked at each other before nodding. They fanned the flames while another dwarf emptied the mana of a lava orb into the bottom of the forge. The hammering dwarf stuck the lump of metal into the forge and waited before taking it out again to resume pounding. The lump was gradually taking the shape of a rounded sheet. Pyre laughed as the red metal cooled down and the sheet was added to a pile of curved sheets. The room gradually cooled down as the dwarves shut off the forge and took a break. Solra wanted to build a giant cannon. Pyre was going to build the biggest damn cannon the world had ever seen. He let out another maniacal laugh that traveled through the caverns and reached an entrance to the tunnel systems way off in the distance. Madison wrinkled her nose when the laughter reached her ears. It sounded like giggling.