Before going out of her carriage to greet Demi, Phobos had worn the softest pair of gloves in her possession to hide her inflamed hands and arranged her expression into her most reassuring smile.
Apparently, the results were underwhelming because Demi’s brow wrinkled with concern when she laid her eyes upon her.
Phobos saw her nose twitch. The floral fragrance she had rubbed into her wrists seemingly weren’t enough to conceal the stench of her vomit.
She needed a bath but none were forthcoming on the road. The next city was yet another day away and for the purpose of hurrying along, the carriage train wouldn’t be stopping there for more than the few hours required to restock their supplies.
Hardly enough time for the relaxing soak she wanted.
As she followed Demi towards the campfire where Husband and his parents were waiting for them, her sensitive ears picked up the gossip in the rest of the camp while she passed by.
“Oi. Ain’t that the First Princess? I ‘eard that she locked ‘erself up in the cells ‘cause the Second Princess awakened at seventeen and even at eighteen, she has yet to awaken.”
“Oh… yeah… I was there when the Second Princess came running with the injured Prince in her arms and they spent the whole night with her, convincing her to return to her room.”
“I dunno why they bothered… I’ve ‘eard that ‘er talent is mediocre and it’ll be good if she manages to awaken at the age of nineteen.”
“Shh! Keep yer voice down! Be careful that she doesn’t hear ye. She’s known to be vindictive… what with how she maltreated her opponent in last year’s competition.”
“I dunno ‘bout last year, but she won’t be mixing any positive outcome if even a few days of travel makes ‘er sick. Pampered is what she is… why, I ‘eard from some good sources that the Prince only married ‘er ‘cause she enticed the Second Princess ‘fore they married.”
“True that… there be a lot of talented girls in the clan for him to choose… take that girl Fifa for instance… downright stunner is what she is… talented too.”
“Yeah… ‘eard she’s slated to awaken any time now… and man those things on ‘er chest… she’s wasted on that midget cousin of the Second Princess. She’d look mighty fine with the Prince… at least he wouldn’t ‘ave to tiptoe to give ‘er a kiss. Ha-ha.”
The gossip turned towards puerile speculation on the figures of the various women in the clan and Phobos clenched her teeth as a blue vein throbbed on her forehead.
She wanted nothing more at that moment than to walk up to the vulgar boors and rip out their tongues.
She had spread the excuse that the travel had caused her health to deteriorate so that none would find it questionable that she spent so much of her day cooped up in her carriage. That didn’t give the plebeians the right to insinuate that she was weak behind her back.
She was sure they would squeal like stuck pigs if even one of the monsters she unleashed upon herself on a daily basis was to sink its jaws into them. And yet, they had the gall to call her weak.
Good, she might not be talented in magic like Demi and her martial skills were better than average at the best of times. Compared to Husband’s skill in martial arts, hers was pitiful.
Yet, she had kept up with the geniuses that surrounded her, hadn’t she? Her will and perseverance were unquestionable.
Uninformed louts that they were, they were questioning her very efforts. maybe the world would be a better place if they all just died!
Sensing her agitation and having picked up on the gossip with her equally sensitive ears, Demi squeezed her hand comfortingly, making her wince as pressure was applied on her still raw skin.
Misinterpreting her flinching as the signs of her depression due to the comments, Demi pulled her out of sight behind a tree and hugged her tightly, muttering, “Don’t feel bad ya, Phi-Phi. They don’t mean it.”
Deeply inhaling the comforting scent of the petite girl in her bosom, she hugged her back, pushing her overly dark thoughts to the back of her mind.
Shaking her head to clear it, she introspected. She must be cracking under the pressure if a few thoughtless words could evoke her killing intent.
Withdrawing reluctantly from the hug, she smiled at Demi and said, “Don’t worry Demi. It will take a lot more than words to keep this girl down.”
This time around, her smile was genuine.
Grinning widely, Demi pulled her along by her hand towards the campfire around which the family was gathered and she had to struggle to prevent the pain from showing on her face.
As they walked into the firelit clearing, a glint on Demi’s left bicep drew her attention.
It was her Heavenly Silksnail.
She watched as Demi released her arm and skipped to the empty seat on Husband’s left. She patted the space to her left, “Come on Phi-Phi, sit here.”
Epione, who was on Husband’s right said, “I’m sorry dear, there’s no cure for motion sickness, though it certainly is my first time seeing a case so severe. You’ll just have to tough it out until your body gets used to it.”
She nodded in acquiescence as she took her seat. Husband leaned over Demi and spoke to her, “Eat up, even if you don’t feel like it. Maybe you’ll be able to keep it down this time and anyway we’re quite close to the capital… it’ll be just a few more days and we’ll be done with the journey.”
Turning his head towards the command tent of the temporary camp, he said, “We were waiting for Father to be done with his work but he sent a message that he won’t be able to join us today and that we should start off without him. So since you’re here, let’s begin, shall we?”
She smiled at him and replied affirmatively and they began their dinner. She participated in the small-talk absent-mindedly as her thoughts still dwelt on the Heavenly silkworm on Demi’s arm.
The silksnail like the fire ants was another one of the remnant beasts. Although in this case, instead of natural disasters, it had become a part of daily life.
As its name suggested, it was a snail that secreted silk. It was a symbiote that latched onto a host and fed off the mana they provided. In the process, they would wrap the host in a tunic of ephemeral silk.
The silk was quite sturdy, providing a good amount of physical protection and doubling as a means to absorb the mana emanating from the host.
When one wanted to remove their clothing, all they had to do was feed the silksnail mana directly and it would retract its silk, surrounding itself in a cocoon as it detached from its host.
Over the next few hours, the cocoon would be compressed and merge with its own shell, making it sturdier. Then it could be reattached to a host. Once its shell grew to a critical density, it would stop growing further and any further mana would be used to create silk to bolster its cocoon and hence, the tunic it wrapped its host with would continuously strengthen till it almost resembled a set of light armour.
Beyond a point, it would create a new individual by splitting off a part of its soft fleshy body and wrapping it with the silk from its cocoon.
In the era of Beasts, they had been regularly used to substitute clothing as the Beasts were widely divergent in physical form.
Vita and Mortem had passed over them due to their asexual method of propagation and hence, they survived the apocalypse, finding new hosts in the emergent Bestia.
As the silksnail tunics could morph their form according to the body of the host, they were necessary items for women who had awakened as regular clothing would be shredded during the transformation to their Feral form, leaving them naked when they transformed back.
As such, a tradition had formed for the husband of an awakened woman to gift her a Heavenly Silksnail. The one on Demi’s arm was an offshoot of the one worn by Epione. It was a beautiful specimen. Not only was the tunic it formed in possession of a strong defensive capability, it had inherited an affinity to light due to its long association with Epione’s mana, causing each thread to glow with a soft internal radiance.
Over its lifetime, Epione’s silksnail had only produced that one offspring and it would take several years yet for another to be born.
As such, Demi and she had already decided that the first one to awaken would get it. Indeed, she had happily watched on as Husband had foregone his gift in his coming of age ceremony to beg the silksnail from his mother.
Yet, now as she looked at it, a spike of jealousy ran through her. The ugly emotion making the food in her mouth taste bitter.
A sudden spike of pain from her hands distracted her. They had finally begun to swell from the effects of the residual venom and even the soft fabric of her most expensive gloves irritated the tender skin. It was a reminder of her inferiority. While she had to resort to desperate measures, fighting tooth and nail to stay at their level, they made it seem easy.
Maybe, those gossips were right and the only reason she was in this relationship was because she had enticed the unsuspecting Demi into a lesbian relationship when she was too young to know what love was.
In the last few days Husband had barely visited her, busy as he was with the training to control his wind mana and integrate it into his martial arts. Due to the limitations of the carriages, they had been sleeping separately too, with him and Demi sleeping together in a larger one, since regular intercourse was required to stabilize her Feral form post-awakening.
Although, much of the reason she was sleeping separately was due to her fake sickness and their belief that she needed her rest, she couldn’t help but feel left out.
She wondered whether her desperate efforts were but an exercise in futility, doomed to remain unknown and unappreciated.
Her thoughts kept going down depressing pathways and she grew sullen, participating in the conversation less and less. Setting her cutlery down, she noticed that somewhere down the line, the Shadow Stealth magic she had been maintaining on her hands to detract attention from their inflamed appearance had expired.
Reapplying the magic, she begged indisposition and took her leave amidst the concerned inquiries of the others, fending off their offers to accompany her by pointing out that it was a short walk to her carriage and that she could manage.
As she walked towards her carriage, the birthplace of her misery during the last few days, she felt an immense, ancient hatred bubble up within herself.
Unbeknownst to her, beneath her gloves, the welts on her hand were healing at a rapid pace and being replaced by jet black fur.
Under the moonlight, her shadow seemed to stretch and morph…
… into that of a beast.