Had she done the right thing? The question kept bobbing back up to her thoughts, and Pasha couldn't put it to rest. She thought she had, of course, or she would have done differently. But doubt crept in again and again. And of course it did! She had failed in her mission, in her divinely-ordained quest. She had agreed to negotiate with the Demon King. She had lost the holy armor she had been entrusted with. In so many ways it was a clear failure, and yet it had felt right at the time, if not always easy. She wanted to believe in a peaceful end to the conflict in the world. And even if Euryale did need to be stopped, it didn't seem like she could have done it herself. Had she misunderstood the signs? The vision she had of the Demon King hadn't been quite right. Quite wrong, even. The Demon King she had been shown looked very much like the one she met, but was a man, while Euryale was very definitely another woman. Did that mean something?
She sighed, and set a hand to her forehead. There was too much to try and consider all at once, so soon. She needed guidance. She needed another sign. She shut her eyes and bowed her head, whispering a quiet prayer. "Highest and holiest Warren-Mother, as your humble servant I Pasha call upon you for succor. Please send me another sign, so that I might know if I have done right or wrong by you this day. And if you would so favor me, provide me further guidance that I might know what you wish for me to do. In exchange for your consideration of these requests, I vow you a measure of barley upon my return to my home, as well as what loyal service I can do you through such guidance as you give." She opened her eyes, and her heart felt a little lighter already.
Unfortunately, her feet still felt heavy. She was sore, hungry, and thirsty, although at least not particularly tired. Her gifts had been returned to her, and so she could have marched back to her home in little time at all. But she found herself curious, as she made her way down a path in the farmland around that stronghold. It looked very much like the farms around her home, although there were fewer homes amidst much larger fields. It wasn't what she imagined the demons' territory to look like. The city hadn't been, either. It was no nest of monsters, nor an overgrown barracks, but somewhere full of people. People who looked monstrous, but hadn't seemed particularly menacing, just crowds of onlookers and passersby. Maybe she was simply naïve, but it helped her imagine negotiating with Euryale would be the right thing.
She was jarred out of her contemplation by a voice behind her. "Hello there, traveler!" She turned to see a short, wizened old man stepping onto the path. He had one too-large watery eye, and a pair of curved horns jutting out from under a wide brimmed hat. A deep green tunic was draped over his thin frame, which contrasted with red-tanned skin. "Would you might have time spare to indulge an old man some curiosity? I can offer a meal in exchange." He grinned toothily.
Pasha smiled in return, somewhat hesitantly. He seemed friendly but it was still a surprise. She knew it wouldn't be wise to tarry among demons, but a part of her was newly questioning that knowledge. Perhaps this would be a good opportunity to understand demons better, and Euryale's rule specifically. And she was hungry. "I could try to answer what questions you might have, and would gladly accept your hospitality. Though, is there any reason I in particular would be able to sate your curiosity?"
The man grinned wider, and nodded enthusiastically. "Oh, sure. Mostly it's that I haven't seen any of your kind about here since the wars ended, you know? It's an auspicious sign to see ya here. Are more coming?" As he spoke, he started to walk towards a squat building a little ways away. He waved a hand for Pasha to follow.
"Oh... No, it's just myself. I'm here on personal business. My people mostly live within our own country, now." She followed along after another moment of hesitation. That wasn't the kind of question she had expected, though it probably should have been.
"That so? Well, hope that's doin' right by you all. Your kind's good folk, as I've known them, which I can't say about many that aren't demons." The man hummed for a second. "You got your own king, then? Is 'e strong?"
The man asked that question casually, but it made Pasha think for a few moments. "Oh, no, we don't have a king. We have a head chieftain, but he mostly helps settle issues between village chieftains and coordinate among them. I think I would say he is strong, but he doesn't usually have to use that strength." She had met the head chieftain, but hadn't interacted with him much. She had a high opinion of him from what she had heard, and in person he had seemed kind and considerate. He wasn't especially physically strong, or magically able at all, which was quite possibly what the farmer meant, but it didn't feel wise to clarify. She had still been honest; he had strength of character.
Regardless, the farmer nodded. "That sounds an interesting system. Good he's strong, though. A strong leader keeps enemies away when a weak one invites them near. I hope your ruler and country stay strong. Mine should be coming back together soon. We've got a real strong King, you know." He turned to look at her again with a grin, which she nervously returned. She did certainly know that strength. He reached his home, pulled the door open, and gestured for Pasha to enter.
The interior of the home looked humble. Really, it looked bare. It was all one room, with most of the necessary furniture and some common goods around, but less than she would have expected. What first caught her eye was a large table and several chairs, all of them unpolished wood. One had been pulled out, seating a woman in a teal dress. She had dark hair, a tanned face, and large green-scaled hands. Her fingers ended in large yellow claws, but still delicately guided fibers from a distaff to a spindle. Pasha couldn't help but stare for a moment, even though it was fairly familiar work. The woman glanced up at the farmer and then at her, and smiled to both.
The farmer beamed, and gestured to the woman. "This is my wife, Emelenia. Oh, and I'm Surt. Please come in and make yourself at home for a bit." He turned his head towards his wife. "Emelenia, dear, I saw this young traveler coming down from the city way." She nodded, and stopped spinning, before standing up. She walked over to another corner of the room. Meanwhile Surt took a seat, and gestured for Pasha to do the same.
She did, pulling out a chair and sitting down. There was a large gap in the back of the chair, and she slipped her tail through. It curled back around, folding under the chair and laying between her feet. She glanced between her two hosts, and smiled again. "It's good to meet you both. My name is Pasha. I would like to thank you both for your hospitality. Did you have more questions for me, Surt?"
He nodded enthusiastically. "Oh, yes. You told me some about your people. But what about the city? I won't ask you about your business, unlessin' you want to share, but do you have any news?"
"Well..." Pasha hesitated. The biggest news of the moment had to be herself. With the way Euryale paraded her out, it wasn't any secret, either. She noticed the curiosity growing on Surt's face as she stalled, and shrugged. "I do, though I'm not the best to give it. Can you forgive me for that?" Surt nodded. "A Hero came to the city."
The easy smile disappeared from Surt's face. "No." Emelenia looked over, too, her face blanching. "You mean it, then? A real Hero came?"
Pasha nodded. "Yes, a real one. I'm entirely confident."
He nodded gravely. "I see. How many died? If you know." Pasha wasn't prepared for that question. After a little too much silence, she shook her head, and then he half-closed his large eye. "Too many to tell?"
She put up her hands, a little frantically. "Sorry, sorry, no! That wasn't what I meant. Nobody died. Zero."
"Oh." He smiled a bit, and then snorted. His wife laughed too, and the tension went out of the room. "Hah, sorry, I was being daft. 'Course our King was there to squash 'em quick. Like I said, this is a real strong one we have."
Pasha nodded, somewhat slowly. "She was. But I did mean zero. The Hero didn't die, either. The King let her leave, and announced something about her returning for negotiations."
"Huh." Pasha had expected more surprise or skepticism, but Surt just seemed to puzzle it over for a moment, and then shrug. "Well, she did as was best, I'm sure. Not sure how, but I can leave kinging to kings. Even if your folk are getting along leaving it to chieftains." He snickered, back to good humor. Emelenia stepped over then, with a plate of round loaves of bread. She set it on the table, then sat next to Surt.
"Thank you." Pasha smiled, and they both returned it. She reached out, watching carefully for some sign of her being rude, and took a loaf. She ate it, finding herself quite aware of how they were watching her take bites with a little fascination. But it was more than worth it to have something to eat, even if it was only rather unremarkable bread. She was still hungry afterwards, but she wasn't going to take a second, at least not immediately. She didn't want to impose. "I hope you can understand if that is most of the news I have from the city. I was not there for long. But I can try to answer any specific questions you have. Or that you have, Emelenia?"
At that, the couple looked at each other, and then back to her. Surt spoke. "Ah, well, thank you for offering. I might think of something. But, well, I know you didn't mean to be rude, since you're just from elsewhere. But taken women around here don't speak to soldier-men they don't know, as a rule."
Oh. Pasha shifted in her seat, as her mind started to imagine why there might be a custom like that. She laughed, slightly embarrassed. "Oh, my sincere apologies. I hope I didn't make either of you uncomfortable. Although, would it help at all to mention that I'm a woman?" She also wasn't a soldier, not really, but explaining that would be tricky. And she had been trying not to lie, other than by omission. Still, it seemed that was enough, and Surt and Emelenia brightened up.
"Oh! Hahah, I should have known better to assume. Guess I was the fool, yappin' off to another lady." Surt grinned at his wife, who patted him on the shoulder. She visibly relaxed, and finally spoke up.
"Ah well, no use in you clamming up now." She laughed a bit, and then looked back to Pasha. "It's nice to have met you, Pasha. I hope the custom didn't seem rude, much less how we mistook you for a man."
Pasha waved her hand in dismissal. "Oh, no, it's alright. I know it's often difficult for others to tell with my people." She hadn't ever actually been mistaken for a man before, herself. On those few occassions at home when she encountered someone from a people not her own, they had already been told about her. Lyari and Euryale had recognized her as a woman, though through magic, familiarity with ratfolk, or just her voice, she didn't know. Still, she had heard about it happening, and it wasn't hard to shrug off. "If I could ask an impertinent question, however, is that custom necessary here? We don't have anything like it among my people."
Emelenia shrugged. "I wouldn't say it's ever necessary, exactly, but it can be a good idea. Especially with foreign soldiers, like we thought you were. Another army, or soldiers who come from elsewhere in the empire, but there's not much of that anymore. These days, the soldiers are all in the city, and mostly settled. Only ones that come out here in the fields are the ones who came from here. Our eldest boy, he's one of them. Couldn't be prouder." She grinned when she mentioned him, and Surt did too. They certainly did look proud.
Pasha nodded, and canted her head slightly. "Your King is raising an army, then?" She hoped it sounded casual, rather than suspicious, or like she was prying for information. Emelenia and Surt just looked slightly puzzled.
It was Surt who answered. "Well, course so. Though I'm not sure what you mean by raising? There's always an army. The question is just whether it's the Demon King's army, or a warlord's in one of the bad times. If there wasn't an army, what would the soldiers do?" He looked over to his wife, who nodded.
"Go back to farming?" Pasha thought it was obvious, as she said it, but she was met by confused looks. "Or weaving, smithing, dyeing, mining, building, trading? Whatever your soldiers did before they become soldiers or do afterwards."
Again, the couple exchanged looks. This time, Emelenia spoke up. "But that's what I don't understand. They're soldiers, that's what they do and what they've always done. Some come from a family of farmers or laborers, when they prove especially mighty and strong, like our eldest. But then they become soldiers. And their children will be soldiers, unless they're too weak and wind up being left to laborers. But that's rare, of course, rarer than a weak family producing a child strong enough to become a soldier."
Pasha nodded slowly. That sounded more like the demons she had thought she knew. She wondered how many soldiers she had seen in that city. Was it only the guards, or were some of those seeming citizens among the crowds soldiers without any duties to perform? "Thank you for explaining that. It seems strange to me, but I think I understand it now. Oh, again if it would not be rude, I've thought of a question. You mentioned your eldest son, earlier. Does that mean you have other children?"
Surt nodded. "That we do. Another son, he's still performing a chore in the field. He should be back in soon, I think. And a daughter, although as of late she's been with the priest." That thought turned his face a little sullen again.
It also surprised Pasha quite a bit. He'd said it like unfortunate news, and... Why did demons have a priest? What did it mean to be with one? "I'm sorry, but I'm a little confused. You have priests here? Do you demons still worship the gods after all?"
That was met by stern expressions and emphatic shakes of the head. "No, of course not. The gods are the enemy of our kind, and they strive to curse and hinder us in all we do. It's their fault our girl is suffering, and that's why the priest can help. He's from the Army, and he's got magic that's good for undoing and blocking their influence. Nothing like the Demon King or the High Priestess in the city, 'course, but hopefully enough to help our daughter. Ah, that's right. Your people use 'priest' and 'priestess' for those working for the gods, don'tcha? I think we use those same words to spite them. I hope when your people finally realize the gods aren't on your side, it won't be anything too harsh."
Hesitantly, Pasha nodded. She supposed that made sense, but... It didn't sit right with her. She knew the gods had cursed demons, obviously, that was what it even meant to be a demon. But the thought of some innocent farmer's daughter afflicted with something that required magical assistance... That wasn't what the gods did. It couldn't be, could it? "I see. Well, thank you for that. And I'm sorry to hear about your daughter. You've been more than kind, and your company was good to have. You've helped me understand your people a little better, and I hope I have sated your curiosity somewhat in return. If I might ask one last favor, could you tell me where to find the priest you mentioned?"
Surt answered again. "Oh, sure. Just go down the path, the way you were headed when I saw you. A little ways down, on the left, you can find his house. Can't miss it, there's a sign."
"Thank you again." Pasha stood up, and bowed her head to her two hosts. "Have a good day, Surt, Emelenia." They waved her off, and she left their house. She started walking down the path again.
It would indeed have been difficult to miss the home of the 'priest'. In addition to the rather plain sign, the building was larger than the other houses she had seen in the field. She stepped up to its door, which had the word "Knock" painted onto it. She did just that, and a minute or so later the door opened. A man who underneath a thick robe and capelet looked like a fairly normal elf looked her over. His eye landed on the hole in her gambeson, and he shook his head. "Can't heal chest wounds here."
"Oh, no, that's alright. I'm not in need of healing magic. In fact, I'm not in need of anything. I—" She blinked, as the door was unceremoniously shut in her face. She sighed, and then grabbed the door handle. The door was locked, but it opened for her anyways. That surprised the man, and he quickly stepped back into the doorway. She smiled. "Sorry, your door and lock are fine. I don't mean to trouble you. I think I can help the people in your care. I'm good with healing magic, and..." She looked at the door. "Other kinds."
The man, who she imagined was the 'priest', seemed to consider her again for a minute before sighing. "I get the feeling I couldn't keep you out. But unlocking a door is one thing. Just why do you think you can help? Why should I trust you to be any good at healing, other than you say so?"
"Well, I can understand your caution. And I suppose I can't exactly demonstrate healing magic, not without a subject. But, if you'll believe me," She turned around, and pointed a hand to where she thought the other hole in her gambeson was. "I was wearing this gambeson when this damage happened. And I healed myself. I want to help. I know I can help. And..." She turned back around again. "I met Surt and Emelenia and heard about their daughter."
The man sighed again, but nodded his head. "Okay. I'll let you try this. But if you harm anyone in my care, or make their conditions worse, I will inflict twice as much suffering on you."
"Of course." Pasha followed the man into the building, and her eyes were immediately drawn to three people laying on beds. One was a flush-faced old man who was drenched in sweat even while sleeping, another was a very large young man with a bandaged hand, and the last was a young woman with one big eye and scaly hands. Her face was screwed up in apparent pain. They weren't pretty sights, but Pasha had seen much worse. She had fixed much worse, too. She stepped over to the young man first, since his issue was the most clear. "Hello. I could try to help, if you might let me. What happened to your hand?"
The man looked over to the priest. Pasha couldn't see his expression, but he said "It's up to you. I'm afraid I don't have more than their word either." That seemed enough for the young man, regardless.
"Well, doubt you can make it worse, huh? My hand got mangled. Came down to the priest's here, not much he can do for my hand but help ward off the gods festering it or jinxing my recovery. He insisted I stay here for a bit so he could catch the things trying." He shrugged. "If you think you can help with that, be my guest."
Pasha nodded, and gently touched one hand to the bandage. He didn't wince, which was good. She couldn't see it of course, but looked at his other hand, a large grey thing with thick fingers. A white light started to shine from under the bandages, as his hand knitted back together and formed back into its proper shape. She used a little more power, just to make the bandages unravel. The man stared at his hand in surprise, as Pasha smiled. "There. That should be good as new."
The man stared at it for a few moments, and then laughed in joy. He flexed his hand, formed it into a fist, and looked it over while shaking his head. "You didn't. You've got that kind of healing magic spare for someone like me? What do I owe you?"
"You don't owe me anything. I could help, so it was simply the right thing to do so. Just keep that hand safe going forward." He nodded happily at that, and whistled. The ruckus seemed to stir the old man, and Pasha stepped over to him. "What's the matter? Can I help?" The questions were directed as much to the priest as the man. That was just as well, as the man started to hack and cough. Pasha decided not to wait for an answer, and pressed a hand to his forehead to sense it for herself. He was sick, that was all. Something nasty, it got in his lungs, but just a disease. A bright white light trailed down his body, and then he stopped coughing. She looked to the priest. "Was there anything but the sickness?"
He shook his head. "No, I don't think so. If you cured what was laying him down with coughing fits and fever, at least. So this is what real healing magic can do, is it?"
Once more, Pasha nodded her head. Healing magic could be very potent, and very effective. She had particular strength or skill with it, and even without that, she enjoyed much more magical potential than most. She could afford to be thorough where others might have needed a subtle trick, or to make tough decisions about priorities. That was just one more reason it was better she heal others. She felt like she was in her element again, for the first time since venturing into the demons' territory. It made sense that, rather than curses from the gods as Surt had said, these were simple maladies.
She stepped over to the young woman, the farmers' daughter. She had watched the other two healing incidents, and her large eye was centered on Pasha. It could be difficult to tell with other peoples at all, much less demons, but Pasha thought she looked like a teenager. Younger than she would have imagined from how old Surt looked. It seemed she was still in pain, and Pasha tried to smile in reassurance. "Hello. I'm here to help. Can I ask where it hurts?"
The girl took a deep breath, and then almost hissed out her response. "All over. Head most. Comes and goes." Pasha nodded, although she wasn't sure what the cause was this time. She gingerly touched her forehead, and tried to feel out what was wrong. At first, she couldn't tell what was out of place. It wasn't exactly familiar anatomy, after all. But after a little more energy and effort... Nothing. Pasha flicked her tail, and glanced over at the priest. "What do you know about this?"
The priest shrugged. "Cursed by the gods. Worse than most of us, I mean. It happens at times. I can't seem to do enough to lift their influence off her. Would probably take one of the higher priests. I don't think healing magic is what she needs, I'm afraid."
"Okay." Pasha swallowed as the girl looked up at her. She could tell she was worried, and she didn't want to dash the hopes she had gone and raised. It didn't come so simply or easily to her, but she tried to reach out again and gauge any magic working on the girl. And immediately she could notice the problem, the strong effect that was circled around her. It felt familiar, but overpowering. She could tell that, if she could see it, it would have shone white as her own magic did. But instead of a soft glow or brilliant flash it would be the searing light of something glowing white-hot. As stark as that difference felt, Pasha knew it was slight. The more she tried to get a sense of it, the more it seemed almost like one of her own gifts. But it clearly wasn't any gift. It really was a curse, and indeed the work of the gods.
Doubt immediately welled up inside her chest. Surt hadn't been wrong. The gods had done this; perhaps not the Warren-Mother, but the gods. What right did she have to undo something they had done? And how foolish would it be to turn against their will so plainly? Then she looked back at the way the girl winced in pain and made up her mind. She would follow her conscience, and trust the Warren-Mother's will, at least, to align with what was so clearly right.
But that still left actually undoing the curse. Euryale had suppressed her gifts for a time, but Pasha had no idea how, and needed a permanent solution besides. She closed her eyes, and tried to picture the magic in the way that made the most sense. A ring, glowing white-hot, constricting tightly and biting into the figure it was wrapped around. It was a lot of power. Not as much as her gifts, but not something she could trivially overpower and dissolve. Something she could overpower in the end, but she feared what might happen to the girl if she tried. Her magic was so similar it might worsen the effects before it could sweep them away. And the curse wouldn't necessarily cause harm that she could fix afterwards.
She thought about herself, and her gifts. If she imagined them the same way, then perhaps they were a multitude of softer rings, floating about and around her. The largest floating over her head, while others ringed her fingers, limbs, or tail. Floating around with gaps, rather than tightening onto her and burning with that touch. It was just an analogy in her mind's eye, but it reflected something, and that was enough. She let a little bit of her power flow into the curse, but carefully. She tried to—she imagined it as stretching out the ring, and putting her softer power on the inner edge that retreated away.
It seemed to work, and she opened her eyes. The girl was smiling in evident relief, and Pasha let out her breath. She hadn't realized she'd been holding one in. "There. I think I've helped, though it's possible it isn't entirely resolved. How do you feel?"
"Better. A lot better. Even better than when..." The girl trailed off, and her eye unfocused. Horror welled up in Pasha's stomach as she felt the delicate balance she had struck spin itself apart. There was a bright white flash, and she reflexively shut her eyes. When she opened them again, she saw the girl blinking. She put a hand to her forehead, and then laughed. "And I feel even better now! I don't know what you did, but I am so grateful. Are you a priestess?"
Pasha laughed out of relief. She took another peek, and it was as though the ring had been cracked and broken. It still glowed harshly, but it was laying at the girl's feet, not biting in anymore. That was probably for the best. After all, would what she had attempted have left that girl with a gift? "Oh, no, not exactly. I'm just someone who could help. I'm glad you're feeling better. I'm more confident about the solution now. But if you start to feel like you used to, get help from one of your priests, alright?"
"Of course. Thank you so much!" The girl grinned, and shifted to set her feet on the ground. "I haven't felt like this in... ever. Nothing hurts, and I feel so full of energy. My parents are going to be overjoyed. How can I repay you?"
"You really don't need to. I'm just glad I could help you. If you still feel indebted, then just help others when you can. And now I really should be going, I'm afraid."
"Oh! Are you sure? If you could stay a day, I could help you patch up that gambeson. Not to anything like new, but maybe a little less of a target over your heart? My mother's shown me how to quilt."
Pasha snickered, and shook her head. She put a hand to the exposed patch of fur, and tousled it. "I appreciate the offer, truly. But this is a badge of my own foolishness, and something for me to repair myself." One of her fingers brushed against something.
The priest spoke up. "I have no idea how you could do all of this so casually, but thank you for it. You'd be welcome to stay around here as long as you want, you know. But if you must go, that's fine. You've done more than we could possibly ask of you." There was a murmur of agreement from the three others in the room. Pasha grinned, laughed a little nervously, and then stepped out of the building. She took a deep breath of the fresh air and let it out slowly. Then she reached back into the hole in her gambeson, slid her fingers between two of the layers, and felt warm metal. She teased it out, closed her hand over the little silver trinket, and took another deep breath.
She started back towards her home, each stride carrying her much faster and farther than they should have. She had done right.