“What do you want to know first?” Tara asked as she tilted her head, her hair falling back over her pointed ears.
“My powers,” Palan said.
“You honestly have no clue, huh?” Tara said and smiled as she uncrossed her feet and lay on her side. “You practically cut your own arm off earlier.”
“If I had a clue, I wouldn’t be asking,” Palan said and narrowed his eyes.
Tara yawned and rotated her ankle. “A pride demon’s power is the control of gravity. Do you know what gravity is?” Tara asked and smiled. She giggled as Palan scowled at her. “It’s basically the force that pulls you down. Right now, it seems like you can only control the gravity of yourself and the things you touch. That’s perfectly normal. As you grow stronger, you’ll be able to influence things that are further away. Eventually, you’ll be able to control the gravity of people directly, as long as they’re weaker than you.” She smiled. “Just like how I can manipulate your body like a ragdoll.”
“So basically, I can make things heavier?” Palan asked as he recalled the knife that cut through his arm.
“Not quite heavier,” Tara said and tapped her fingers against her lip. “It’s more like, you make objects fall faster. You can also make them fall slower. I killed a pride demon who managed to make herself fly by making her body super light.” A grin split Tara’s face. “She was really disappointed when she found out I could fly better than her. Of course, that disappointment didn’t last long because I killed her soon after. A shame really. A little more anger would’ve made her taste better.” She licked her lips and sighed.
“Is that all I can do?” Palan asked.
Tara shrugged. “That’s all I know. It’s good to let your prey grow for a greater bonus when you eat them, but I know my limit,” she said. “I’ve seen pride demons make objects float, but that’s just a very crude version of my own powers. The most impressive thing I’ve seen is a demon who made a rock really light and threw it into the air, then increased the gravity around it. Its accuracy was terrible and killed around thirty spectators instead of hitting me though.”
Palan stroked his chin, a faint smiling dancing on his lips. “Is there anything I can’t use my powers on?”
Tara shrugged again. “I don’t … wait,” she said and frowned. “There are a few universal laws. If two people use their powers on the same object, the stronger one’s influence wins. Also, angels have a special metal that cancels out most powers. It’s the red one that their big walls are made out of. And anything in the area of a charity user’s zone of control.”
“Of course, that’s just the extent of my knowledge,” Tara said. “There may be more that I don’t know of. Especially if you become an archdemon. Treat me well if you ever do.” She smiled at him and rested her cheek on her palm.
Palan snorted. “Whatever,” he said. “And Haalbeh?”
“Don’t forget that a real man remembers his debts,” Tara said in a lilting voice. She fluttered her eyelashes at him and bit her finger.
Palan’s eyes narrowed. “Are you going to tell me or not?” he asked, completely unfazed. Cleo mumbled something in a language that Palan couldn’t understand.
Tara sighed. “You aren’t cute at all, you know?” she asked, making it more of a statement than a question. “Have you heard of Haalbeh before?”
“A few times in some towns,” Palan said. “Nothing in detail though. They were mostly just comments in passing.”
“So you were a bumpkin,” Tara said and nodded. “Where are you from? Sumalon, Zenoban, Esark, Redebeh?”
Palan stared at her with a blank look in his eyes. Tara blinked and waited. A minute of silence passed. “You don’t even know that? Tara asked and furrowed her brow. “Did you live under a rock?”
“For a while, yes,” Palan said and nodded.
“I knew there were some isolated weirdos, but I never thought I’d meet one,” Tara said and rolled over onto her back.
“My nickname was the hunter,” Palan said.
“Oh?” Tara asked and raised an eyebrow. The corner of Palan’s lips turned upwards. “Never heard of it,” Tara said and snorted. Palan’s forehead creased. “Forget it. You wanted to know about Haalbeh, right?”
Palan crossed his arm over his chest. “Yes.”
“Haalbeh is the center of the demon world, Eljiam. You knew that’s what our world was called, right?” Palan didn’t respond and Tara carried on as if she never asked the question. “Everyone, except for a few isolated weirdos, like you, knows about Haalbeh. It’s the holy land that connects us to the angel’s world, Div’Nya. The summoning portal’s to Div’Nya are super concentrated in Haalbeh, whether it’s because of how the angel’s magic works or because they realized the summoning would always succeed there since so many of us were waiting. I’m surprised you made it here.
“Anyways, summoning portals don’t open frequently, and there were a lot of demons that came back to tell us about the conditions in Div’Nya: fresh water everywhere, abundant prey, easy mana sources that you can eat to get stronger rapidly. I wasn’t there when the city was first founded; everything was already ingrained in the culture and taken to be truth by the time I arrived. Now, I think angels sent those demons to trick us into working for them.” Tara narrowed her eyes and sighed. “Haalbeh had a ranking system. Only the top ten were qualified to take the summoning portal when it arrived. Rankings were decided through fights in the arena. It was only when I was about to take the portal that I found out an archangel named Meffi was in charge of the city. He marked me with some kind of magic before he sent me through.”
“Didn’t you say you were the champion for three years?” Palan asked.
“Yeah,” Tara said and yawned, causing a single tear to roll down her face. She made a motion to wipe it away, but decided against it and yawned again. “But I was always asleep when the portals popped up, and everyone learned not to wake me due to a certain incident where a hundred demons died.” Tara shrugged and closed her eyes. “It couldn’t be helped.”
“So that’s why demons keep asking me about Haalbeh,” Palan said and nodded as he recalled the words that Anidun’s greater demon had said to him. “I see.”
“Uh huh,” Tara rolled over and affirmed. She waved her hand and Palan stiffened as his body was lifted into the air and brought next to Tara. The blanket by her feet curled upwards and wrapped the two together like a cocoon.
“What are you doing?” Palan asked, unable to move any part of his body.
“Making it easier for you to do your part,” Tara said and smiled, her nose nearly touching his. She ran her fingers through her hair, making it disheveled. Moments later, Palan heard footsteps approaching their room. The doorknob turned. Cleo wriggled around uncomfortably before hiding herself under Palan’s bed.
Raea and Uzziel walked into the room. Raea’s mouth fell open as Tara quickly separated herself from Palan and bit her lip. “Hi, Uzzy,” she said and smiled. “We didn’t think you’d be back so early.” She combed her hair with her fingers.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Uzziel asked and furrowed his brow, his face turning pinker. “I’m an angel of chastity and you just … forget it.”
“Well. We were about to mate, obviously,” Tara said and nodded. Raea blinked a few times as her gaze shifted towards Palan. He raised his head and smiled at her—if you could even call it a smile. It seemed as if invisible hands were tugging the corner of his lips upward. Tara stroked Palan’s cheek as she glanced at Raea before turning back to face Uzziel. “How about this? If you promise to keep Palan’s owner close, I’ll promise to be more agreeable to your orders from now on. You have to keep her and Palan safe, especially during the war. I don’t want to lose such an interesting toy.”
Uzziel grabbed Raea’s arm, her mouth still open in shock, and exited the room. Tara turned towards Palan who still had the awkward smile on his face. She narrowed her eyes at him as she undid the blanket and pushed him out. “I just set up perfect conditions for you. I know the contract had a year-long time limit, but if you screw this up … you won’t even be around to see the end of next month.”
Palan scowled. “It seems like you’d kill me even if I did succeed.”
Tara smiled at him. “Are you not planning the same?” she asked. “We’re both demons. Let’s not pretend to be something we’re not. As long as you leave me alone when we’re done, I’ll let you live. Then, when you inevitably succumb to your pride and come back to kill me, I’ll rip you to pieces and eat you for a power up. It’s your choice. I think I’m being really generous.”
“Are you sure you’re not part pride demon?” Palan asked.
“No,” Tara said and shook her head. “I’m confident, not arrogant. By the time you become a greater demon, I’ll be an archdemon.” Palan remained silent. Tara blinked at him. “Shouldn’t this be the part where you interject and declare some kind of oath swearing to kill me and feed me my limbs one by one? That’s what all the other pride demons did.”
Palan snorted as he rummaged through the drawer beside his bed and pulled out his leather pouch and dagger. He tied on a belt and hung the two on his waist. He sat on the edge of his bed and crossed his legs, placing his hands in his lap. His back glowed blue as a pair of translucent wings formed behind him.
Tara rubbed her chin. “It seems like you’re not an ordinary pride demon. Maybe you have some wisdom or temperance mixed in,” she said and frowned. “Well, whatever. In front of absolute strength, nothing means much.” She pulled the blanket back over her body and rested her head on the pillow.