Interlude 1 – Claire

“Your majesty? Are you okay in there?”

“YES! I’M FINE! LEAVE ME ALONE!” Claire Valondrac, feared Demon Lord of the Dark Lands, master of the dark elements, overlord of the demon-blooded races and chosen champion of the greater demonic powers, yelled at her head butler through the locked door of her bedroom. 

She growled angrily, her pen scratching deep into her paper as she tried to figure out just what the hell was going on with her life. Ever since that gorgeous blond jackass decided to propose to her out of nowhere, like a damn lunatic, her life had taken a sharp plunge into some kind of ridiculous…something!

Now, granted, perhaps she hadn’t reacted to the proposal in the best way. Flying away was fine, sure. The rest…a little less fine, but fuck it, she needed some “me time” anyhow. Suddenly, literally interacting with him in her dreams? That was just insane!

Dapper audibly sighed from beyond the door. Sighed! At her! His lord and master! Like she was being ridiculous! “Your majesty, your generals are getting concerned-”

“THEN HANDLE IT!” she shouted back, keeping her eyes on The Ancients and the Outsider, a large tome of Ancient magics and information opened up on her desk. “Dream magic is connected to Stygian, it doesn’t make any damn sense for a lightlander to be able to use it…but maybe he didn’t do it deliberately? But then who would stick him in my head like that? And why the hell does he want to get the Temple Cores?”

“Your majesty, would you like me to bring breakfast up to your room then?”

“Hm…YES. THANK YOU,” she replied. There, that was better. Doing actual servant things. Proper servant things, not doing weird stuff that doesn’t make sense like suddenly proposing-

Claire groaned and pinched the bridge of her nose. Damn it, she wanted to cuddle with one of her plushies again…No, no, work time. Not laying in bed time. She had to figure out this stupid riddle or it was going to piss her off all day.

…Seriously though, who the hell proposes to a random stranger?! Especially one that’s about to kill you! And all while looking like a lovestruck puppy, all cute and-

“GRAUGH!” She clapped both hands over her eyes and let out an aggravated groan. What the hell was wrong with her? She’s a damned Demon Lord! A feared conqueror! She united the Dark Lands all under one banner! No one had done that since freaking Lusiarch, and he lived over three thousand years ago! Well, three thousand, two hundred and fifty-seven years ago, to be exact. 

Point was, it was a long time! The fucking Red Elder was still around back then!

“Hmmmm. Still moping?” …Ah damn it.

Claire opened up her fingers and glanced at the small white fly perched on top of her stack of books. “What do you want, Fester?”

“Oh, no hello? Fine fine, very rude, but fine.”

She sighed. “Hello Fester. What do you want?”

“Oh, me? Oh, no, nothing at all! It’s not a matter of what I want, no no, it’s a matter of what our mutual Matron wants.”

Claire propped her head up on a hand and stared right at the tiny demon. “And what does Mama Rot want, exactly?”

“To see her favorite Demon Lord, of course! It’s been so long since she’s last heard from you and you know how a mother worries!”

Knowing Rot, that actually was true, she just wouldn’t admit it. Still. “Really? She told you that?”

“Oh, no, not in so many words. No, no, she was much more vocal about how irritating it is that you’ve been moping in bed for two weeks now.”

“…I was not moping, and I wasn’t in bed all the time. I got up.” She frowned. “Hell, I’m up right now!”

“You’re at your desk, scribbling about your crush.”

“I DO NOT HAVE A CRUSH ON HIM! I DON’T HAVE A CRUSH ON ANYONE! IF ANYTHING, HE HAS A CRUSH ON ME!”

Fester just tilted his tiny fly head, doing that weird cleaning thing with his forelimbs. “Claire, my friend, you fled back to your castle and tossed and turned in your bed for hours before latching onto your stuffed oculothorax and refusing to leave.”

“You leave Lady Dovoni out of this,” she demanded, pointing her free finger at the tiny twerp. “And I have my communication stones in here! It’s not like I haven’t been active! Did you even see how many books I read?!”

“You read one romance book, laid face down, and didn’t move for three hours.”

“…I read stuff other than that.”

“Claire.”

She huffed in annoyance, leaning back and crossing her arms over her chest. “Fine, whatever. I talk to my stupid god-moms, okay?”

“…” 

“What?”

A fly shouldn’t be able to look skeptical. “Wearing your pajamas?”

“Oh shut up. I’ve met them wearing worse stuff. And you’re naked, you don’t get to talk!”

Fester shrugged. “It’s on your head then.”

Claire rolled her eyes and turned her chair around, before snapping her fingers. In an instant, her four poster bed, cozy desk, and bookcases, plus a few other furniture things, faded away as the violet walls and black curtains of her room melted into a large forest of crimson trees.

“Really? The forest again?” Claire grumbled. 

“Blame Marrow. She’s been on some stupid nature kick lately.”

“It’s not a nature kick. I just think trees are nice. Wood is essentially tree flesh, so clearly it should fall under my-”

[Girls, girls, you are both pretty. Now be silent.]

Well, whatever. The clearing was a nice enough place to meet. The canopy of red leaves overhead was pretty enough and the blue campfire in the center gave everything a neat glow. Still, it was getting boring coming to Phlegethon and just seeing one part of it. 

Anyhow, gathered around the fire were three Ouza, otherwise known as demonic gods and Claire’s very own patrons, for better or worse. Mostly better. Usually better.

First up, directly to the left of Claire, was Rot, the Conquering Plague, the White Death, blah blah, so on with a bunch of titles that really didn’t matter. The God of Conquest and Disease was a skinny, lanky being, way too tall and way too narrow to look natural, which left her sitting awkwardly cross-legged in the dirt, her bony knees jutting upward. Like usual, she was wearing a ragged, tattered, hooded cloak that somehow radiated ‘filthy’ while still being completely white. Much like the rest of her, really.

As befitting all her ‘white’ monikers, Rot was a completely alabaster god, her skin completely white in easily the worst way possible. Every inch of her skin seemed to be covered in bumps, lesions, scars and blisters, giving a patchy look to her if one looked close, and her emaciated chest clearly had her ribs showing through her taut skin. Oh yeah, and there was also the fact that anybody looking at her had to see her in all her glory since that ripped up cloak of hers covered just her shoulders and maybe some of her upper chest when she didn’t move much. She did have a blank white bird mask to cover her face though, which completely concealed the eyeless, rotted horror show going on under it.

All in all, she was a bitch.

Second up, directly across from Claire, there was Marrow the Butcher, otherwise known as the “Red Mother of Pain and Fear”, or Red Mom for short. As the God of Blood and War, she looked a good deal fancier than Rot. She was sitting on her knees with her hands on her thighs in full crimson plate armor that had screaming, golden faces carved into it. They moved and squirmed every so often, but didn’t audibly scream so it was neat instead of annoying.

A long red cape hung from her shoulders, covering her back, and her visored bascinet had a plume of red feathers sticking up from the top, plus two large, golden bull horns arching out from the sides. Unlike Rot’s eyeless mask, Mama Marrow’s flat helmet had four narrow slits in the visor, showing off some of her eyes. Her yellow pupils were bright in the firelight, set as they were in pools of pure night within oceans of crimson. Which was a fancy way of saying her irises were black and her sclerae were red.

She was easily the tallest of the three, and a whole lot broader in a very intimidatingly buff way, but she gave good hugs.

Third up, directly to Claire’s right, was Drought, the Hunger, also known as the Black Mother and a few other titles involving variations of the word black. Of the three, she definitely looked the least threatening. More like an unusually tall noblewoman that really liked black instead of the outright God of Starvation. She didn’t really look the part either. Rot was a whole lot skinnier than her, for one thing.

Drought had more of a full figure and just generally had a regal air about her, probably because she was also the god of the Aristocracy, along with Thirst and Starvation, as mentioned. In that regard, she definitely looked the part. Her skin and eyes were both pitch-black, like the depths of a tar pit, and her long, silky hair was braided and woven through with obsidian pearls. She wore a fancy, frilly ball gown that was just as black, but decorated with tons of little blue and purple gemstones that made it look like she was wearing a dress woven from a starless midnight. 

She was even sitting on a fancy pillow to keep her dress from getting dirty!

The only really off-putting things about her were her antlers, which were far larger and sharper than most races that shared that trait, and her sewn-shut mouth, which no race naturally had. The black threads woven between her lips kept them held tight together in a painful-looking smile, which was why she usually had some type of familiar nearby to do the talking for her. In this particular instance, it was a black crocodile lying content in her lap, which was clearly enjoying how Drought was slowly petting them.

“So what is it this time?” Claire spoke up, trying to convey how irritated she was at being interrupted in her super important work.

“Hmph. Impertinent. You were so much more respectful when you were tiny, brat,” Rot complained, propping her head up on a narrow arm, her long fingers curling up her chin.

“Yeah, yeah, sure. So? Why’d you send Fester to get me?”

“Right, him. Fester, dismissed.” Rot waved her free hand and Fester, who had taken to hovering after his perch disappeared, bobbed once in a bow before vanishing in a flash of smoke. Once that was done, Rot ‘looked’ back at Claire. “Because you’re being ridiculous.”

“I AM NOT!”

“Yes, because yelling at me says that for sure.”

“Rot, calm down. You’re being far too acerbic-”

“Shut it, Marrow. You keep coddling this brat and she’ll turn out just like that Corso prick.”

“Hey!” Marrow actually glared at her. “Corso was a fine champion!”

“He was a dandy prick who decided he’d make the world’s first ‘blood angel’.”

“And how was that a bad thing?”

“Oh, I don’t know, maybe it was the mass-slaughter of his own followers instead of going after his enemies like an actual conqueror.

[Past servants aside,] Drought interrupted, turning her gaze and the conversation back towards Claire. [Your recent inactivity has been rather obvious, dearheart. While your generals hold true, the rabble wonder at your absence. They fear another inactive lord, waiting for their coming demise.]

“I am not being inactive. I’m taking a damn break!” Claire snapped. If those lousy bastard nobles were questioning her just because she was taking some time to herself…

“Yes, your ‘break’. Why exactly have you been hiding away in your castle like a frightened child, brat?” Rot questioned, tilting her head.

“I’m not hiding, and I’m not frightened! I can take breaks when I want, you ass!”

“Watch your tone, brat. Is that any way to talk to your damn god?”

“Damned god is right, you titless scarecrow.”

“Ka!” Rot barked, cackling for a moment. “Kahahaha! Ah, you’re damned lucky none of those rotted priests of mine are around to hear your heresy, brat! Seriously though, did the hero fight go that bad?”

Claire blinked at the sudden shift in Rot’s tone, then felt her cheeks start to heat up at the reminder of that particular night.

“Hm. That’s a reaction. What happened, brat?”

“N-Nothing. Nothing happened.”

“No, there’s definitely something. You’ve been hiding away for some reason, and you’re going to tell us what it is.”

“I don’t have to tell you shit!” she snapped, her fingers fidgeting in her lap.

“Oh? No? Really? Now when was that true? I could’ve sworn that whole fancy pact we made back when you were a tiny little shit included something about telling us when you fucked up.”

“I DIDN’T FUCK UP!”

“Then what happened!?”

“Rot.” 

Rot went stiff, her skin rippling as the sound of buzzing insects filled the air and she growled, her head audibly snapping towards Marrow. “What!?”

“Stop your questioning.”

“Why!? She’s keeping secrets from us!”

“And you’re not helping,” Marrow chided, “Isn’t this your fault in the first place?”

“What!? How?!”

You were the one who insisted she ‘take the initiative’ and attack the hero before either of them were ready.”

“She’s plenty ready! She’s easily the most powerful lord we’ve found in centuries! Killing the chosen hero early before it could become a threat is just being practical! Something you should love with that ‘hard men doing hard things with hard cocks’ fetish you’ve got going-”

“Utilitarianism is not a fetish and you’re an idiot.” Marrow sighed, a harsh, metallic sound. “I can’t believe you’re still this stupid. You should know there’s a procedure to these kinds of things!”

“Oh for fuck’s sake, you’re still on that ‘fate’ bent!?”

“It’s not a ‘bent’ to recognize patterns!”

“Pattern recognition is bullshit and so are you! Nothing changes unless you change it for yourself!”

“Just let me speak to her,” Marrow demanded. Rot growled again, then turned away from her, obviously sulking. Marrow sighed, turning her gaze back to Claire. “Child, please. We simply want to know what went wrong.”

Claire grimaced, leaning back in her seat. She was doing that stupid ‘mom voice’…

“…Fine! Fine, I’ll tell you what happened! The stupid hero was completely useless and his dumbass mentor…” she trailed off, before groaning and letting her head flop back. “Stupid pretty jackass…Hey!”

She sat back up, immediately glaring at all three of them. “Did you put him in my dreams!?”

Marrow and Drought both blinked while Rot tilted her head. “Brat, be smart. How the hell would any of us put some random moron in your dreams?”

“With your…god magic!”

“We don’t even know the guy.”

“Ah, uh…you don’t! What if these two do?”

“Er, no, Claire. I’m afraid I don’t know who you’re referring to.”

[I honestly thought you would have killed the mentor while going after the hero. That is something of a tradition at this point.]

“Ugh, no. I was going to, but then the idiot proposed to me.” Claire huffed, holding her head in her hands, then raised an eyebrow at the silence around her. 

Rot tilted her head again, ‘staring’ quizzically at her. “What did he propose?”

Claire blinked, staring blankly at Rot, then shivered as a muffled hissing noise echoed out. Both Rot and Marrow stiffened at the sound and she immediately glared at Drought. “STOP LAUGHING DAMN IT!”

Drought kept up her hissing little giggles, her shoulders shaking with mirth until she looked up at Claire, saw her flustered glare and immediately threw her head back and laughed even harder. “Drooooought! Stoooooop!”

“Hold on.” Marrow held up a hand, slowly moving her gaze from her demonic sister towards Claire. “…Did he…Did he ask to marry you!?”

Claire clapped both hands over her face as Drought’s wheezes slowly started to subside.

[Indeed! Indeed he did!] She giggled to herself again, then raised an eyebrow at her sister, her lips stretched as she smirked. [Have you not been married yourself? Multiple times, I might add. You should know very well how a marriage proposal works.]

“That’s different! Marrying a demon prince is perfectly acceptable! This man is supposed to be one of the heroes! He can’t just propose like that! There are traditions here!”

“Wait, wait, what? Some guy wants to marry the brat?” Rot finally asked, her head tilting the other way now.

[So it seems.]

“…But she’s like nine.”

Claire slowly dragged her hands down her face as she stared at Rot. “I’m thirty-eight, you complete dumbass.”

“Then you’re like thirty-nine! That’s still way too young!”

[Human ages~] Drought replied. A crocodile shouldn’t sound so teasing…

“That’s bullshit! I don’t let any of my kids marry until they’re at least two hundred and I’m not starting with her!”

“I’ve been married be-…Wait, isn’t Labatu the only one you haven’t disowned? And isn’t she three hundred and twenty-seven?” Claire asked.

“Irrelevant and she is far too sheltered for that kind of commitment!”

“You were the one that sheltered her!”

“We are getting off topic!” Marrow barked, crossing her arms over her armored chest. “Who even is this bold ‘mentor’ here? What makes him think he’s good enough for you?”

“Is that really the issue here?!” Claire snapped.

“Answer the question, brat,” Rot added. 

With two gods staring at her intently, and one just watching curiously, Claire finally buckled and gave in with an exaggerated sigh. “Fine! Fine! It was one of the old heroes, okay? The ones that killed Kigalori and her stupid bitch demon lord.”

It wouldn’t be obvious if she wasn’t already looking, but Marrow went still and her eyes brightened. “His name, child.”

She stared back, frowning. That was an interesting reaction. “Julius. His name was Julius.”

“Hm.” Marrow straightened. “So, he returns to battle once again. Good.”

“…So you gonna fill the rest of us in on the backstory here?” Rot asked, leaning to stare at Marrow.

“That bastard rejected my offer of power. He drew strength from his wrath and reveled in bloodshed. Hatred guided his blade. He was a man who could truly embrace the drive to Slaughter.” 

…Okay, hot.

“And yet, when my offer came, he turned his back.” Red mist was starting to leak from Marrow’s armor. “The damned fool returned to the Rakuli’s accursed land and put down his sword in favor of becoming a smith!” She growled, then audibly took a breath, calming herself. “No matter. The past is the past, and I have a far greater chance now. Claire, as my vassal, I offer to you a quest-”

“No way,” she immediately and flatly denied.

“What.”

“I am not seducing a guy for your revenge fetish!”

The red mist outright froze in the air. “W-What!? That isn’t-!”

[Marrow does make an interesting point here, dearheart,] Drought noted, tapping her chin.

Claire blinked. “…And how does she do that?”

[Gaining the figurative heart of a hero, particularly a former hero of great experience and immense skill, would be quite the boon to you.]

“A-An excellent point, Drought!” Marrow said, grateful for the agreement.

[Was it not your point, my dear sister?]

“I…Y-Yes, I suppose it was.”

“Hm. Yeah, yeah, I think I’m starting to get the point here,” Rot murmured, her head tilted back the other way. “More vassals is always a good thing. Though she definitely needs to show she’s in charge here. She can’t let some pathetic waste dominate her.”

Claire blinked again, feeling her cheeks heat up again. “W-When did domination come into this?”

“I wouldn’t say he’s a waste,” Marrow replied, ignoring her. “He’s certainly wasting his potential as he is. Hence my suggestion.”

Rot snorted. “Yeah, sure. Look, as long as the brat tops the bitch, I don’t really care.”

“…” Claire blinked yet again, suddenly struck by the deeply unpleasant realization that Rot had a sex life.

[Then it is settled. Claire is free to pursue the former hero, Julius, however she may wish.]

“Ehh…I guess,” Rot mumbled.

[Sister, were you not just saying-]

“I know what I said! Just, no marriage. And if he breaks your heart, I’m killing him.”

[You do recall that we cannot-]

“If you say anything about that interference shit, I will find your favorite chef and give them tapeworms!”

[Rude.]

Marrow clapped her hands together. “Very well then. The course of action is decided. Claire, I wish you very good luck in your future endeavors. Don’t be afraid to call, okay? I always have time for you.”

Claire scratched her cheek, blushing a little. “Y-Yeah, sure. See you.”

Marrow nodded, clearly smiling under her helmet, before shifting into a fine red mist that flowed up into the air and dispersed completely.

“Feh. Show off,” Rot grumbled, then ‘looked’ at Claire. “Good luck, brat. See ya around.” And with that, Rot flopped backward into the dirt, like a puppet with its strings cut. In an instant, her body dissolved into a herd of worms that promptly dug themselves into the soil.

Claire huffed at the melodramatic matrons and their antics, then glanced at her remaining patron. “…So, what exactly was that?”

[Whatever do you mean?]

“Why did you support the ‘seduce the hero’ plan?”

[I do not think I ever stated that I supported such a plot. I stated that Marrow had an intriguing idea, and put forward the decision that you are free to proceed with the former hero as you wish.]

“Including seduce him.”

Drought smiled her wide, sewn smile. [If you so desire. I do find it intriguing that you yourself assumed that Marrow would command you to seduce this Julius for her vengeance.]

Claire frowned, trying to ignore her stupid face and how it kept heating up. “…Well, thanks, I guess.”

Drought giggled, daintily covering her mouth. [Best of luck in your seductions, dearheart. Do try your best. We are all rooting for you.] She winked, and then faded back into the shadows as the forest dissolved back into her bedroom.

Claire sighed, closing her eyes, and then started to chuckle. Well, if she had the gods’ blessings and all…

“Ahahahah….hahahahahah…hahahahaHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!” Her chuckles quickly turned into full blown maniacal laughter as she threw her head back and cackled to the ceiling. Fuck it! If that bastard wanted to fuck around with her heart, she’d fuck right back! Harder even!

Claire leapt to her feet, a wide, almost unhinged grin on her face as she walked right up to her door and kicked it straight open. “DAPPER! SUMMON EVERY GENERAL THAT ISN’T ON A MISSION AND GET ME EVERY COMMUNICATION STONE WE NEED! WE’RE HAVING A MEETING!

With that, she yanked the doors shut again, already giggling to herself again. She definitely needed to get out of these stupid comfy pajamas, and once she did, Julius Goldforge would never know what hit him.

Meanwhile, outside her door, Dapper Carver, head butler to Castle Valondrac, let out a little groan as he stared up at the ceiling. It was good to see his mistress was active again. He would need to replace his monocle though. 

Idly, he felt the wood of his mask. He would need to fix that too. And clean off the eggs and sausage on the floor.

He groaned again. Doors hurt.

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