Lyari Viviparides. Archmagus, Grand Sage, High Priestess, and Lady General of the Demon King's Army. Never before had one single demon held all those offices at once. There was a very good reason for that. The very purpose of the offices in the first place was to divide subordinate authority and empower extraordinary specialists. Someone who excelled in so many different fields would be a valuable asset—provided they were loyal. It would be better to keep them in direct and flexible service to their liege, rather than vest them with formal hierarchical authority. As well, such talents were well and truly rare. Lyari was not one of them.
Oh, she was uniquely fit for such a conglomerate position, but that owed more to her ability to be in multiple places at once. Or at least her ability to approximate it much better than most people. There was also the fact that anyone else who had been in line for the positions, or otherwise exceeded her in rank, were all dead. The generals and advisors and dignitaries of the Demon King had all, to a one, perished in his defense. Even she had fought, in her own way, although it had been her homunculi that fell in her place. She sighed. It was absurd, but she couldn't shake the feeling that she should have died for him, too. But it would have accomplished nothing. He had been slain, and there was no way she could have prevented it.
But what she had done was escape their crumbling fortress with his heir, who was no more than a babe. Thankfully the days where "Royal Nursemaid" counted among the list of her titles were long past. His heir, the rightful Demon King, was almost an adult now, hearty, clever, and strong. Cowardice had won the day. Over the years they had managed to coalesce a following. Scattered soldiers, workers, and refugees had slowly but steadily found them and recognized their rightful king, and a barebones stronghold had grown into a secluded city. They were only one of many, many petty states in the rubble of empire, but that was no matter.
Reclaiming rightful glory could wait. Surviving to do so later took the highest priority. Even now the young Demon King had power unmatched, but it was not power absolute. Those who had slain her father, the chosen Heroes were still out there, Lyari was sure. She couldn't forget, as much as she might have wished to, how they had cut everyone down without suffering a single casualty themselves. Alone, they would have fallen, but together... Even a decade or two of mortal aging and the sloth brought by peace wouldn't dull them enough. The new Demon King's whereabouts needed to remain a secret, lest they come in force to complete their regicide.
So the subordinate hollering his head off that they were under attack by one such a Hero nearly stopped Lyari's heart. In a moment, after only a hurried warning to her liege not to follow, she went to confront the threat herself. The world lurched and then so did she, stepping from the air before their main gate with less dignity than she would have liked. But it was not the time. She cursed her official regalia as several of her homunculi ran towards the throne room she had just vacated. She looked forward, and then downwards, narrowing her eyes as they landed on a diminutive figure, covered almost entirely in shining armor. She sighed.
"Guards. This is the Hero you sent me warning of? I expected more discernment. I have every one of those miserable mortals' faces burned into my memory, but I don't need that to tell you this whelp was not among them." She shot a glare back at the watchers on the wall, and then fixed her gaze back at the intruder before her. Not that either gesture was that clear, with the bangs that concealed her eyes entirely. "Did you claim the title of Hero, little one?" Her voice was softer, carrying notes of pity.
The armored figure nodded, the oblong helmet bobbing almost comically. "Yes. I am a Hero." The voice was high-pitched, feminine, with a metallic reverberation. She sounded more confident than Lyari expected. "I was not among the party that slew the previous Demon King, as you say. I was only chosen by the goddess shortly before his defeat."
"Ah, that would explain it. There indeed wasn't one of your people among those dreadful attackers. Although, I must ask something. You said the former Demon King? Just what do you expect to find here? I'm no pretender to my old master's throne." This wasn't good. Hero or not, the fact the Demon King had a successor already should have been secret. It wouldn't be the first time a dynasty came to an end, succeeded only when another warlord subjugated the splintered remnants of the last kingdom and claimed it as their own. And that certainly hadn't happened yet.
"I said what I meant. You are not the Demon King, but there is a new one, and here, I've seen it. And now I will slay h—" The rest of her words were drowned out by rolling thunder as a bolt of lightning struck her from the clear sky. It was followed by another, and another, and then a torrent of fire. Lyari had her eyes shut as tight as she could hold them, only the eye on her staff staring unblinking as the guards atop the wall cried out at the sudden brilliance. A force hammered her staff down into the rock, and the stone at the interloper's feet caved in and sank. Lyari heaved a breath, pulled her staff free, and opened her eyes.
The ground before her was scorched and sunk into a pit, and looked almost as if it was molten. But it was solid underfoot as she approached the lip and glanced downwards. There at the bottom was the prone form of the supposed Hero. Lyari allowed herself a sigh of relief. That had taken almost everything she had, but—she leapt backwards with an agility that surprised herself when she saw that figure stir. Curse those despicable gods and their wretched servants. Of course that hadn't been enough, even for one still a child. She barked orders to the guards on the wall to muster all the magical strength they could at the gates and prepare for an evacuation.
The Hero clambered her way out of the pit, one handhold at a time. The rock turned to mud in her grip and she fell back to the bottom, but Lyari couldn't stall her second ascent as she reached the top. Her armor was misshapen and blackened, but still intact. She was panting, but didn't sound pained. After a few moments, she found her breath. "Your sorcery is impressive, but it pales before the work of the gods. (Huff.) You don't need to evacuate this place, demon. I am here to kill your King, not your innocents."
Lyari swallowed, and tried not to look nearly so nervous as she felt. She had taken the opportunity to strike first before, but it seemed the Hero was still going to insist on talking. Good, she could use that. "Oh, is that so? Very noble of you to plan your murder so mercifully. I must admit, I am genuinely impressed that you even consider there could be innocents among our ranks. It's better than your predecessors. Yet you seem convinced my King isn't innocent. For what crimes, exactly?" She mustered as much bite as she could put into her voice, even though her backhanded compliment was genuinely true. Strange.
The little Hero even seemed taken aback by it. She shifted in place, and several seconds passed before she settled on an answer. "It is my duty." She didn't sound as confident as before. Lyari wanted to grin, although she made sure not to. The resilience of a chosen Hero already, perhaps, but this was still some child, or new adult at best. A little younger than her King, she thought.
"Of course, of course. Your duty. Meting out the gods' justice for crimes you aren't even aware of. Perhaps even for crimes that simply don't exist. My word may not carry much weight to you, but I know of no crimes my liege has committed. Or is this for the last Demon King's sins, a guilt inherited with the title? Was the blood of my former liege and all of his loyal servants at the hands of your fellow Heroes not justice enough? And if you are simply following your duty, why spare any of us? The gods command our destruction, each and all." Lyari took a step forward. "You know what you're doing is wrong, don't you? And so you commit to it as little as you can get away with. You'll kill the Demon King and save the demons, is that it? Childish. I'll gladly perish in my King's defense, and I know many others here feel the same way. Others will only see the fighting and rush to defend their friends, family, home, or simply themselves, not knowing you would have spared them. So, are you going to slaughter your way through us all, Hero, to blindly obey your vengeful goddess? Because we will not bring our King out for you to murder."
The Hero girl was actually shaking. Lyari could hardly believe her words were working so well, after her spells had thoroughly failed. She was full of pride, and opened her mouth to drive home the final nail. "What's going on here?" Lyari nearly cursed aloud. That was the last voice she wanted to hear in that moment. She whipped her head back to face the Demon King herself, striding out through the gate. She was tall, pale, and visibly muscular. She was draped in loose bright fabrics, neither proper royal regalia nor combat wear. The nest of vivid red serpents that took the place of her hair were coiling and twining together, a few darting forward and all of them hissing. "Are you the Hero who has come for my head? You're wearing more slag than I would have imagined." Damn it all.
That was enough for the Hero to rally. "You! You're the Demon King, you..." Lyari almost thought she heard a gulp. "You aren't exactly as I saw, but there is no doubting it. Have you come out to face me, and meet your divine judgement?" She shifted her stance, assuming a firmer footing. Lyari stepped away, trying to keep herself between the two, but that impudent child of a King stepped right past her.
"You could say that. I must admit, I wasn't expecting to confront a Hero so early on in my rule. I've been warned about you all, well, not you. Lyari here had never mentioned a ratling. In fact, at the time I think most of your people were helping to serve my father." The Hero shifted in place, and it almost look like she bristled under her armor, her long tail flicking. Lyari couldn't help but sigh aloud this time. So much work, already undone by stupid provocations and pointless talk. Why must she have inherited that awful habit from her father? "But you are a Hero, I'm sure. You're still walking after Lyari did all that to you." Almost lazily, she pointed a finger.
"Yes. Like I told her, the work of my goddess is stronger than whatever magic your ilk can throw at me. You cannot win against divine righteousness. If you surrender yourself now, I can make your death painless. But as the Demon King, you do need to die. I will not hesitate to kill you painfully, if you force my hand." Despite her words, she didn't draw any weapon. Looking more closely, Lyari couldn't tell if she was even carrying one. She knew that didn't make the threat empty.
"Oh my, oh my, how noble of you to offer! But I'm afraid I must decline. I didn't come out here to surrender myself to you. Really just the opposite, in fact. Now, I do know you Heroes are particularly troublesome opponents. Even for one of my stature, the strongest creature alive. Oh, don't look at me like that, you know I am." The Demon King laughed. "But we both know that isn't enough, don't we? My father tried to fight your comrades like they were warriors, maintaining his defense, wearing them down, and pouncing on every exposed weakness. Judging by the state of things, Lyari tried to fight you as though you were an enemy mage. Quick, decisive strikes, attempts to overwhelm you with pure force before you can retaliate." She shrugged her shoulders, and held her hands out in front of her. "But I know better. You see," She clapped her hands together, and when she pulled them apart there was something floating between them. The Hero braced herself, but didn't dodge as the Demon King sent whatever it was hurtling towards her.
It was a dark blur, and seemed to strike the Hero in the chest before disappearing, dissipating, or something. Lyari couldn't even tell what it had been, and she had taught her liege most of her magic. It didn't seem to have any visible effect, and the Hero didn't lurch or cry out. She looked back to the King, who was bending over to pry a chunk of stone free from where Lyari's staff had earlier cracked the ground. She hefted it back and sent it hurtling towards the Hero. It didn't bear much of a point, but even so it punched clean through the armor. Twice, as Lyari saw it fly through the Hero's back, trailing blood as it went. There was a strangled noise, and the Hero collapsed to the ground, one hand feebly clutching at the wound.
Lyari stared at her King, mouth agape. It took her a good few seconds to even muster a response, as her liege nonchalantly approached the corpse. "How did you—What did you do?" Even if it was only one young, inexperienced Hero, she was still young and inexperienced herself. How had she done that so easily? "She shrugged off all the magic I threw at her, and that was nearly all I had. And you used less, I could tell!"
The Demon King smirked. "I used a rock." She laughed at her own joke, and then bent over the fallen Hero. "But first I cursed her. Every protection the gods grant, every boon, it can all be suppressed. Perhaps not permanently, but certainly temporarily. Very much so for an hour. And as you can see, that was rather pessimistic. Anyways, she was left to fight on her own merits there, with only whatever her natural affinity is. She would still actually be rather powerful, but much more vulnerable. Not that she actually fought, regardless. Is that usual?"
Lyari shook her head. "They do usually talk first. Levy accusations, declare their righteousness, and preen like that. But she really should have attacked before the end there. Or before you arrived, when I spoke to her. I think she was hesitant. Probably hadn't actually fought for real in her life. You know I think I might have talked her into leaving, before you came out here. But you handled it nicely enough." It was an unfortunate resolution, but at least it was one less Hero to worry about. And a very heartening sign they might not need to stay hidden away for much longer.
"Oh, did you? My apologies." The Demon King shrugged her shoulders, and tapped the armor with a pointed nail. It cracked, and the cracks radiated out in a spiderweb pattern. Then the metal started to melt, sloughing off the body, flowing into a puddle, and then began to reform into ingots. No use wasting good steel. "Get back!" Lyari did as she was suddenly told, then saw a soft white glow shine from the Hero's back. The Demon King stepped back herself, watching carefully. The light subsided, and where there had been a gaping wound was a patch of white-blonde fur.
The Hero pushed herself off the ground, and rolled over onto her back. She took a deep breath, and stared at Lyari and the Demon King with wide blue eyes. She opened her mouth, but didn't find any words. She looked dazed.
"I thought you said you suppressed all her divine gifts?" Lyari swallowed. Were slain Heroes really revived by their gods then and there? How could they possibly ever be defeated, if that was the case? She readied herself to cast as many spells as she could still manage to cover her King's retreat, if need be.
The King had tilted her head, with a strange look on her face. "I did! Whatever she just did, she did with her own magic. This is really the wrong time to be swooning, but that is so impressive. Did you actually just heal your own destroyed heart? I wouldn't have thought that was possible." Her sharp eyes stared into the other girl's, her expression more curious than concerned.
The ratfolk Hero blinked, and slowly nodded her head. "I—" She started, faltered, and then realization seemed to dawn. She looked aghast and tried to scramble to her feet. The Demon King reached out to her, and the Hero struck her with a palm that glowed with a bright white light that burst with a pop and concussive force. She didn't budge, but the Hero was knocked back to the ground. Then the King grinned and spoke up sweetly. "Oh dear. You know, considering what you've withstood and come back from so far, I'm wondering if I could actually even kill you. And it looks like you definitely can't kill me. So perhaps we should calm down and start talking?"
"What is there to talk about?" The Hero looked incredulous, as much as Lyari could read any expression on that oversized rodent's face. She got back to her feet again. "You're the Demon King, and I'm here to slay you! And you've already tried to kill me! I... I should..." She trailed off, wavered, and then fell face-first onto the ground. The Demon King looked over to Lyari, who shrugged.
"I put her to sleep. I guess you did properly dispel her protections, that would never have worked otherwise. You should be able to kill her now, however proficient she is with healing magic." She stepped closer to the Demon King, who was looking down at the fallen Hero with what Lyari recognized as false impassiveness. The snakes on her head were practically frozen in place. Lyari sighed. "Just kill her already! You heard her, she had given up on talking. Imagine the prestige if you kill a real Hero, you could—" Lyari saw the look on her face, sighed in exasperation, and reached up to set a hand on her liege's—her ward's shoulder.
"Don't kill her for me, Lyari." Gently, Lyari set her staff back down on the ground. She squeezed the hand on the other woman's shoulder. "You're right, this is a major opportunity. I'm going to make the most of it. After all, this is about more than just what I want. I'm a King, and I must act with my entire kingdom's interests in mind and at heart." Lyari nodded. She felt quite proud. She had her doubts, but it was truly a worthy successor she had helped to raise.