The trip out of the Wastelands was easier than Raela had feared it might be, especially since Andrea wasn’t the helpless princess they’d been expecting. Instead of being weak and without endurance, the young woman, who Raela couldn’t think of as a demon, kept up through long days of hiking without complaint and did any chores that she was asked to. They encountered a band of orcs on the third day which had proven only briefly a threat, and Andrea had moved quickly to avoid them, managing to hold the one which got near her off with a dagger until one of them dealt with her assailant.
Her misgivings about Calvin’s attitude had eased, though, as he worked through his shock. Once she thought about it, Raela honestly couldn’t blame the young man for being taken aback by what had happened. From what she’d heard, the young man had spent four years undergoing daily, punishing training from the kingdom’s master-at-arms in order to rescue Princess Andrea. After that he’d gone on the pilgrimage to both the temple of Gathir and the White Host in order to get the assistance he needed to hunt down Tallet the Black. After five years of effort, finding out what had happened to Andrea almost had to be a crushing blow.
Despite his understandable distress, the young man had recovered from it quite admirably. Instead of pulling away from Andrea entirely, he’d tried to help her as best he could, and Raela’s respect for Calvin had grown in the process. Still, it was Andrea who impressed her more, for the young woman had recovered from her ordeal and pushed on unflinchingly. After seeing Mindeth’s ability to heal after the encounter with the orcs, she’d expressed an interest in the art as well, and over the last couple of days had diligently practiced the instructions the priest had given, though she seemed to be quite a distance from being able to heal even the smallest of injuries.
As they approached yet another ridgetop, Raela hid a smile as Calvin offered Andrea a hand to get over the last rock in her way. The young woman took his hand as he spoke. “There we are, Fort Alstad. We’re almost there, Andrea.”
“Thank you, Sir Calvin.” Andrea replied unsteadily, her face slightly flushed, in a way that caused a spike of concern for the young woman to rush through Raela. It wasn’t too worrying, but it occurred to her that Andrea had looked a little bit the worse for wear that morning.
“You’re most welcome. Just a little further, and we’ll be in civilized lands again.” Calvin replied, nodding toward the stout walls of the fort that guarded the pass.
The fortress came into sight as Raela topped the ridge, and she smiled at the sight of it. Many humans thought most elven cities were built like those of Clan Sylvan, all wood and natural lines. Those people had never seen the cities carved by Clan Kortak, Chosen of the Guardian. Stone walls jutted from the earth seamlessly, forming graceful but looming parapets and towers, all around the gates which blocked the pass. The sight of it always made Raela feel better, growing up as she had within similar walls.
“Indeed, and such will be a great relief.” Mindeth chimed in, his words close enough to what Raela was feeling that she nodded firmly in agreement.
“In that case, why don’t we hurry? I’m a bit anxious, but there’s no reason to delay on my account.” Andrea offered, and Raela chuckled, shaking her head.
“No, no, let’s take this at a regular pace. We don’t want to run headlong into an ambush because of haste. The fort won’t vanish because we took a fraction of an hour longer to reach it.” Raela replied, smiling. “Now, forward, all of you.”
They continued onward, but despite her words Raela noticed that all of their paces quickened slightly.
After reaching the fort and being ushered inside, Raela took a moment to slip up next to Andrea. The two men were talking to one of the fortress magi, checking for any reports or messages for their expedition. It looked like they probably had gotten something back, but what was another question. She was far more concerned about the young woman they’d rescued.
“Ms. Esren? Are you feeling well?” Raela asked softly, glancing at the young woman in concern. “You’ve been looking a little unsteady today.”
“I… I think I’m alright, Lady Raela, but it’s hard to say. I’ve just been feeling oddly hungry, which is a change for me.” Andrea replied after a moment’s hesitation, looking at Raela before flushing. “And I’ve also felt… well, warm, and my desires are stronger than normal. I’m not sure why, since I’ve never felt quite this way before.”
“Oh. Oh! That explains it.” Raela replied, her eyes going wide as she flushed slightly, then shook her head. The young woman’s explanation had brought to mind a few of the comments from her studies of demons at the temple, and it explained everything.
“What is it? It isn’t… bad, is it?” Andrea asked anxiously.
“That depends on your feelings about… carnal pursuits.” Raela replied, trying to be somewhat more delicate than her teachers had been. “You said he turned you into a lust demon. Demons named for a particular emotion or act tend to feed on that emotion or ability. I suspect that he didn’t leave you alone often.”
“Oh! N-no, I…” Andrea paused, her cheeks bright pink as she looked away, then murmured softly. “He was a randy old goat. That… that does explain, somewhat. Am… do I have to, to survive?”
“I see. Well, fortunately or unfortunately, the answer is no.” Raela explained, watching Mindeth follow a man into the local chapel, while Calvin unsealed a dispatch. “See, demons don’t need anything to survive. That said, it won’t be pleasant to attempt to subsist without sustenance, and I’d recommend trying to find those who are willing if you can’t resist. Your particular variety does no harm in feeding, at least.”
Andrea glanced at her in obvious shock, opening her mouth to say something, just as Calvin suddenly spoke, swearing loudly. “What the blazes are they thinking? Black blood of the gods, those idiots!”
“My apologies, Andrea, but I think I need to check on Sir Hovar.” Raela told the young woman, only a moment too late realizing she’d called Andrea by her given name. “My apologies, I meant to say Ms. Esren.”
“It’s fine, Lady Raela. I… I suspect that it’s about me.” Andrea’s voice was soft, and her eyes lowered to the ground as she shook her head. “I’m guessing that they don’t want me back.”
“I hope that isn’t the case. If it is, they’re fools.” Raela replied, nodding and stepping away as she added. “I’ll be right back. Don’t move, hmm?”
Andrea didn’t reply as the paladin walked away, causing another spike of concern to wash through Raela. She didn’t have time to worry about Andrea’s reaction, instead approaching Calvin. The prince was glowering at the parchment angrily, and she took a moment to study him.
“What is it, Sir Hovar?” Raela finally asked.
“King Gavin Esren has declared Princess Andrea Esren dead, but has thanked me for my service in delivering justice to her murderer. He promises to deliver me both her unclaimed dowry and the reward.” Calvin ground out quietly, then took a deep breath before continuing. “He also offers five hundred crowns for the… the head of the abomination claiming to be her. I don’t… how could he possibly say something like that about her!”
“That is… particularly foul, yes. He could not have had our report for more than a day before dispatching a letter that might reach you. That doesn’t bode well.” Raela replied, her heart sinking as she considered the matter for a moment. She shook her head, then focused on Calvin, her eyes narrowing as she asked. “And what will you do, Sir Hovar? Will you attempt to do as he requests?”
“Gods strike me down if I lie, but I will never commit such an atrocious act!” Calvin spat out, his eyes blazing with his anger. “I’ve half a mind to confront him about his duplicity and cowardice for this!”
“As much as I agree with the sentiment, to do such might be a touch… unwise. Kings have had foreign envoys executed for less.” Raela replied gently, her unease finally dissolving entirely. “The question truly is, what will you do?”
“Honestly, if it’d been just that, I would have simply wed her as I intended, as long as Andrea was willing to have me. Unfortunately, it appears my father caught wind of what happened as well, and he made it known in no uncertain terms that if I attempt to do such, he’ll disown me entirely.” Calvin seethed, growling under his breath. “I’m tempted to defy him anyway. This is not how they taught me to act when I was growing up!”
“Don’t.” Andrea’s soft voice interrupted, and Raela almost jumped in surprise. She hadn’t noticed the young woman get close, but Andrea was simply looking at them, weariness and the hints of tears in her eyes. “Don’t, Calvin. I’m not worth it.”
“What are you talking about? You were idolized when I was growing up, one of the most beautiful, kind women in all the neighboring kingdoms! They said you had a potent magical talent and had been trained to equal or exceed your elder brother’s skill at governance! How could you say you aren’t worth it?” Calvin demanded, gesturing to the southeast. “They’re talking about throwing you away, for something that was no fault of your own! You don’t deserve this!”
“No, I don’t. But you’re wrong. Father and Mother… they likely see me as a threat now. I’m a demon, hated and feared by almost everyone.” Andrea replied, allowing herself to revert to her demonic form, and all around them came a chorus of gasps and curses from the elven soldiers, and more than one blade cleared its sheath in response.
“Hold!” Raela bellowed, looking around the courtyard with an angry glare that froze the soldiers in place. Yet Andrea didn’t pause as she continued.
“See, Calvin? I’m never going to be accepted, not anymore. Thank you, though. You saved me at no small risk to yourself, but… I’m not worth it.” Andrea replied, blinking slightly as a tear began to trickle down her face. “Go back. Be the beacon of honor that you obviously are. Try to change what it is that you despise. It’s better than simply leaving. Not for me. Change your homeland for the better.”
Andrea turned toward the gates they’d come in through and started walking toward them at a slow, measured pace.
“But… what about you?” Calvin protested, looking almost lost.
“They declared me dead, so I’ll just have to disappoint them. I’m going to practice what Mindeth taught me, and we’ll see if I can’t prove them wrong.” Andrea replied, glancing over her shoulder at them. “At least I don’t need to eat or sleep. It gives more time to practice, at least unless someone kills me first.”
“That’s quite enough of this.” Raela almost surprised herself as she spoke, her voice sharp. “That’s quite enough self-pity out of you, Andrea. You’re still in my care, so stop right there.”
“Why?” Andrea asked, turning back toward Raela and reaching up to brush away another tear.
“Are you serious about learning what Mindeth taught you? You’re a demon, so healing magic will be difficult for you to learn at best. Not nigh impossible like light magic, but quite difficult.” Andrea asked, then nodded at Calvin. “Also, are you serious about turning Calvin down? He spoke of you a great deal on the way to rescue you.”
“I… I am. I just…” Andrea paused, then shook her head. “I’m sorry, Calvin. I just can’t. Not with what’s become of me.”
She stopped for a long moment before looking at Raela and nodding. “Yes. I’m… I’m certain. I don’t want to hurt people, I never have. That’s why I was going to learn to heal, even if it is difficult.”
“Then come with me back to the temple of the White Host. Come and learn the arts of healing properly, with teachers who know what difficulties you will face.” Raela told the young woman flatly, offering her a hand. “It won’t be easy. Your very body will ache at the radiance holy ground, but you can learn what it is you desire, and I guarantee you’ll be given a chance.”
“I…” Andrea paused, then slowly approached, one hesitant step at a time. Finally she began extending a hand, but stopped a moment before it touched Raela’s. The young woman swallowed, then asked hesitantly. “Why? Why would you offer this to someone like me?”
Glancing around the courtyard, Raela’s determination grew still stronger and she looked Andrea in her bright emerald eyes before finally speaking again, her voice loud and firm so that everyone could hear her. “Everyone knows that angels can fall. It’s terrible and horrifying, but the fall can be sudden and hard. Yet despite knowing they can fall, they never consider that the opposite might be true as well. Just as angels can fall, demons can rise above their nature. The journey is long and hard, but if one has the personal fortitude to take that path, it’s possible. Do you have the courage to try, Andrea?”
As tears began to spill down the demon’s cheeks again, Andrea didn’t answer verbally. Instead, she simply took Raela’s hand.