[A/n]: For the prompts "Safari" (we're going demon-hunting, friends!) and "Collection" (for reasons which should be apparent after finishing the piece)... as well as "The Power Inside." Another myth/fairy tale reimagining, here we go!

Scheherazade

Summary: In a retelling of The Thousand and One Nights, a young woman faces certain death when she marries the bloodthirsty sultan.


It is not long before they realize the kingdom has fallen to the mercy of a tyrant. The sunset pours forth crimson over the streets, settling a reddish aureate haze over the golden city. And as the night shadows turn dark-edged with menace, her father arrives home from the grand palace. She looks up from her books, alarm etched still deeper into her brow.

This daily wedding is no longer a lavish affair; once a study in strained festivities and concealed grief, it is now a chilling task that has lost any false veneer of joy. Usually, the bride's veil cannot hide the shaking in her shoulders, the abject terror alight in her eyes; meanwhile the young sultan is breathtakingly pleasant for a cold-blooded killer.

At the dawn his wrath descends, and so does the executioner's blade. After the first few days, her father tells her, even his executioner had balked - the sultan had said nothing, but now the girls unfortunate enough to marry the sultan are found dead of new causes, each more suspicious than the last.

Even in his murderous fury, this monster of a ruler binds them all to him still; those who oppose him inevitably find themselves dead. That defiant executioner was found choked to death on a carrot in his soup, and the last grand vizier had mysteriously fallen to his death from one of the palace balconies on a stormy day. Regular smatterings of strange, unpredictable accidents, distributed with the precision of divine justice, imprison the high council and attendees in a never-ending fear of death. Meanwhile young women are plucked from their midst and led to the slaughter, and a cold fear constricts in the hearts of the people. How had their sultan turned on them so suddenly, and his rule become so abruptly, relentlessly horrific?

"No one understands him," her father says, and she can read the wary dread written in his face. "I would leave, if I weren't afraid for my life."

"So he kills his subjects as if he is swatting flies," she says, morbidly curious. "And no one can do anything about it. When did he ascend to the throne?"

"Three years ago," is her father's reply. "But—and I heard this from the harems, so you mustn't tell anyone—his first wife betrayed his trust."

She frowns. "Is that so?"

"And on this, I'm afraid, there are no facts." Her father rubs the bridge of his nose tiredly. "Many believe one of the demonfolk seduced her into treason."

Her eyes are wide. "The demonfolk?" She has only encountered these creatures in her storybooks. According to legend, to trust a demon was a grave error; they possessed an unnatural knowledge of the deepest faults of the human psyche. The myths of the demonfolk have, too, found their home in common, casual superstition. Any moments of chance weakness to temptation, any surrender to self-serving deceit or desire, are immediately blamed on lurking demons.

"That's what I heard," he continues, seeming unwilling to comment on the veracity of these rumors himself. "Demon or not, her lover was executed immediately, and even though the sultan couldn't bear to execute his queen, she committed suicide not two days after. I suspect that it changed him completely, made him suspicious that everything and everyone is bent upon destroying him. In his world, trust does not exist."

"I see," she says carefully, making a mental note to go back and study the tales of the demonfolk. Doubtless what was told of the sultan, the queen, and the demon contained some echo of the truth: perhaps her father knew bits and pieces of what really happened, but the accurate description of events could be entirely another story.

"Be careful," her father says finally. "My position at the palace protects you and your sister, but few are this lucky."

He finds her unusually quiet for the next couple of days; she has piled stacks of books besides her chair and reads intently late into the night by faltering lamplight. This is nothing new, but he discovers piles of notes written in flowing black ink, and her expression is preoccupied and shaded with worry in the mornings.

And then, quite abruptly, she announces before her father and sister at breakfast:

"I have volunteered to marry the sultan."

The ensuing silence is soon punctuated by her sister's nervous, faltering laughter. Her father tries to swallow the fear rising in his chest. How had she done so, and secretly at that? Despite his position at the palace, somehow she had managed to keep the secret from him. Don't tell my father, she had whispered, hoping to shield him from terror for yet another day.

But, to their abject horror, on this she will not be swayed. They tell her that this must mark the end of her life, that the sultan will kill her at dawn before she can utter a word in her defense.

She looks very calm, and if a fear of death quavers in her dark eyes, they cannot see it. For she dares not speak her thoughts; her only advantage, trespassing into this world of death and lies, will be her cunning, the secrets she suspects, and her skill at keeping them all unreadable in her face. She cannot betray her doubts, lest her resolve weaken when spoken aloud. Her cool strength is the sort that only accompanies a desperate life-or-death gamble.

If she is right, she and her sister will not be safe much longer anyway.

In one night's time, the air is heady with the scent of lilies as dusk falls over the palace gardens.

Meanwhile, this wedding is no festivity, instead a ritual laced in dark fear and dread. The palace attendants have nervously dressed her in a lavish red dress meticulously embroidered in gold, then placed precious, jeweled ornaments in her hair—doubtless, she thinks, the last girl to wear these found herself dead. She smooths the heavy crimson fabric over her lap, trying to calm her tumultuous thoughts as she wonders about the countless doomed fates of those who came before her.

The wedding is an affair that takes less than half an hour in the palace gardens, with perhaps twenty attendees from the court lucky to remain alive in the presence of an indiscriminate killer. The sultan has just emerged from a meeting with his advisors and stands across from her, his expression amicable but deep in thought.

She carefully studies the sultan. His height and regal bearing lend him unusual gravitas, yet he seems younger than she had expected—perhaps even slightly older than her. Throughout the ceremony he seems elegantly bored, lost in his own thoughts and devoting little attention to her. He seems to consider this entire wedding merely another task to be completed. Has serial killing become this routine to him? She tries not to fidget when his gaze slides past her as if she were just another object, as if her impending murder didn't even matter anymore.

If she is wrong, then her life is forfeit. She had quickly forced herself to go through with her plan before she could persuade herself away from it; if she had, by chance, found out the sultan's secret, then this must be her duty before someone noticed her suspicions and had her put to death. Now, the only traitor to her plans could be her own wits, her own strength to see this through.

The sultan disappears to another meeting with his palace advisors before dusk. Those of the royal court are almost afraid to touch her, hesitant to meet her gaze. She watches them part before her in a silent hush and knows they are already mourning the death of another young bride.

So she fetches an oil lamp from a palace attendee and sits outside in the palace gardens in her extravagant jewels, the henna on her hands glinting red in the dying sun as she waits for the night. She bears no armor but the fire flickering faintly in her lamp, and is acutely aware of her vulnerability. If she is to break the web that trapped those who came before her, though, she cannot play by the rules; she must not do what is expected of her.

Surprisingly, no one comes to retrieve her and bring her back inside; the palace courtyard becomes eerily quiet and deserted at night. There is scarcely a sound to be heard except her steady, quiet breaths and her heartbeat thumping furiously in her ears.

She notices a tall and graceful shadow approaching: the sultan. The speed and agility with which he moves is captivating, and faint light has made his features more striking, more handsome as he approaches.

She reads sharp worry on his face as he sits beside her. "What's wrong?" she says, in spite of herself. The words have been coaxed out of her as if she's in the position to be worrying about anything but her own survival.

"All these murders," he says, his voice heavy with concern. "I don't know who's behind it. But I want you to know it's not me."

She lowers the lamp. "What do you mean?"

"No matter what I do, they always die," he whispers fiercely, voice ragged as emotion begins to emerge. "Every time."

"How?" she asks, cursing her curiosity. "How do they die?"

"At first the murders were mundane. I found the women hanging from silken scarfs or strangled with a gold-embroidered pillow, or they would have slipped from the palace balcony or perhaps fallen to an inexplicable dagger between the ribs." He stops to take a deep breath, his features anguished. "Then, when I ordered the palace guards to protect them at all costs, their hearts just stopped," he says. "That's when I knew."

"Well, nobody's making you marry a new bride every day," she says, trying to hide the sting of contempt in her words. "Are they?"

The sultan looks pained, his gaze searching hers. "This is a curse I can't escape alone. Their lives are the price. Don't you understand? It's too late if you don't believe me, too late already."

Thoughts are flitting through her head, one after the next, and she doesn't know what to believe. "A curse," she repeats carefully. "What do you mean?"

"The moment I turn my back on you, you will die," the sultan states flatly. "I've figured out that much. They always die when I'm not looking, when I can't save them. When no one can save them. Like the subject of some terrible, twisted joke."

She doesn't want to believe him. She can't believe him. Yet against her will, a tiny part of her starts to accept his words as true. He's clearly haunted with unspeakable ghosts, the burden of innocent souls hanging upon his shoulders.

"I'm about to give up," he says finally, looking straight ahead into the darkness. "I explain the rules to you all every night, feeling that maybe this time, it'll make a difference. Sometimes I think I should just accept it, leave you all to your deaths. But you don't know what it's like, watching someone die every night in front of you."

She is silent, imagining.

"Seeing you today, I thought you might be different, that you might know something I didn't," he adds quietly, and she sees him considering her carefully, as if measuring her resolve. His words linger in the air, but she is unwilling to answer them. Had he been watching her? She had only seen a studied indifference in his eyes.

He scans their surroundings, obviously ill at ease. "We should get inside."

"It sounds like I'm not safe anywhere," she says, her throat dry as she gets up to follow him. What difference did it make, sitting indoors or in the palace courtyard? She would be in danger anyways.

"Stay by my side," he says, voice low. "I'm not about to make promises I can't keep, but I will do everything I can to make sure you're safe."

She steels herself, remembering a stray piece of information tucked away in her thoughts, and lifts the lamp higher so its fiery light squarely hits his face. His eyes glint a beautiful, deep gold in the lamplight.

Buried in the storybooks of old, in tales of those hoodwinked by demons, she read of soul-snatchers with shimmering yellow eyes, of evils that surfaced at night in unsuspecting bodies. These were myths of long ago, and now demons are an everyday superstition capable of hiding in any shadow. It is far from common knowledge that demons had golden eyes in stories long past.

But she is gambling with her life, and if he is a demon—

"Put that down," he says urgently, clearly uncomfortable. "Put the lamp out. What if it…they…see us?"

She lowers the oil lamp, her brow furrowed. It is said that demons despise non-magical fire, but she doesn't know if she wants to bet her life on that supposition. Still, she has no choice but to assume the worst.

The demonfolk come to you as everything you've ever wanted. That is how they kill you. He is offering her everything she has ever wanted, twisting her thoughts, her plans, awry in an elaborate lie. She nods and extinguishes the lamp, and so they walk in the darkness. If she had thrown the fire upon him, it might have caused him pain but he would realize she sees through his ruse; no, best take the advantage and pretend she is gradually treading further into his palace of lies.

Isn't that what she wants? For this to all be a terrible mistake, for him to be blameless? Hadn't every girl wanted to be the one that he would protect until the end, the only bride who would truly become queen and end this killing spree? If she truly faces one of the demonfolk, he will speak until his words find her defenseless, until she can no longer reach for reality to keep herself standing.

For the demonfolk are storytellers, liars of the most devastating kind: they will seduce their prey into believing nearly anything. Only then can the demons lay a finger upon their victims, once their senses are beguiled with fantasies that could never be true. It is said that demons wield lies because only once the victim has fallen do they belong to the demon's world, only then is their soul ripe for the taking.

So she'll be left dead like all the rest, fallen to a gorgeous deceit. The sultan was innocent. The murders were all due to a terrible curse. I must stay by his side if I want to survive and become his queen, his beloved sultana. And the final, damning lie that is most beautiful of all: he loves me, he will protect me until the end.

There are legends, though, of those who have outwitted demons.

"I am sorry it has come to this," he says sorrowfully as they walk. "Let me tell you a story, to pass the time."

She takes a deep breath and steels herself as he continues. "Once upon a time," he says quietly, his voice her only guide in the shadows, "there was a sultan. Wise in his deeds, bold where he walked, beloved by all. He learned the art of combat, studied military strategy, scoured the libraries for knowledge that would keep his empire safe. He vowed that he would see his people prosper and thrive beneath his rule, that he would devote himself wholeheartedly to their happiness. And he had a love, whom he had sworn himself to above all others: her eyes shone like stars in the night, her voice sweeter than any harp, her radiance rivaling the sun itself."

"Even as he sought to keep his borders safe," he continues, "the new sultan could not have known that he faced the greatest dangers from close quarters. He was unaware of the plots that threatened to take his life, the great truths and lies that nearly swallowed him whole. So he returned to the palace one day as dusk fell, utterly weary and unsuspecting, and confronted what he would never have wished to see. His love greeted him," he adds sorrowfully. "She kissed him as if saying farewell, her eyes like starlight in the darkening skies. She asked him if he would do anything to save her, and he said yes."

She feels as if she is drowning in his voice, a rich and mellifluous baritone, as if she has become so lost in his story that nothing else matters any more.

"He swore his love for her, again, and so a demon stepped forward from the shadows." He paused. "So you have given me your kingdom, the demon said. Kneel before me and perhaps I shall spare her life. He knelt, because he did not know she had betrayed him. He knelt, because he did not know what he had done. You fool, his love smiled, and he heard the sound of glass shattering, as if his heart had broken cleanly in his chest."

"He called for his guards, but the demon was gone, and so was she. Shaking with fury and despair, he ordered all of his forces to find them, but to no avail. Later they would find her, but she decided she would rather kill herself than tell him where the demon had gone; and thereafterwards his kingdom slipped into disarray. As if he had truly given ownership of his lands to the demon when he swore he would surrender anything for the woman who no longer loved him, as if he no longer was the rightful king."

Her breath has been stolen from her chest. She watches his every move, spellbound. "So he watches his people die before him," he says, "watches his rule decline day by day into the rule of a monster, and knows his days are numbered. So he commits unspeakable wrongs, leads a new bride to her death each night, because the demon hides in the shadows of the palace. So he is threatened with a multitude of fiery punishments, such terrors that the world has never seen, if he does not obediently play along."

And then he turns to face her, so earnest and true, that she takes in a sharp breath.

"There is not much I can do now," he says. Does she see tears shining in his eyes? "But I pray that you and I can somehow outwit this demon together. My soul has been shattered into nothing, but for you I'll try once more." He offers her his outstretched palm as if hesitant, and alarm floods through her.

They offer you everything you had ever wanted. The world you live in becomes theirs. Once you accept their world, you become their prisoner, and your soul belongs to them.

"My sultan," she says demurely, continuing to walk past him. "Let me tell you a story."

"Of course," he says, a twinge of hurt in his words as he strides to catch up. If her gambit doesn't strike true, she will pay dearly for this… but her intuition was right, her demise had been waiting in the palm of his hand.

"There was a ruler," she says. "Brilliant, capable, skilled in all knowledge and arts that a sultan could wish to learn. He fought to protect his nation, yet found himself deeply betrayed by the one he loved the most. But when he said he would give everything for her safety, the demon strode forward and grinned. Everything, the demon said. Did you really mean, everything?"

His gaze turns cold, but she forces herself to continue.

"He felt dread coil in his heart, but then the world faltered to darkness. For, you see, he had surrendered his very soul to the demon; now, a demon walked about in his body… now, a demon truly ruled his grand empire. The demon disposed of the girl who had helped him, for he had no need of her and she had long since accepted the beautiful lie that the demon loved her. Deceiving her too was child's play. So he has ruled, almighty and terrifying, atop a golden throne where none can touch him. A demon has many uses for power, after all."

A deadly silence. She clutches the lamp more tightly, as if it is any defense.

And then he laughs, the sound menacing. "Very good, very good," he winks, and she splutters with shock. "This one has wits."

"You're not going to try to convince me-" she begins, but he holds up a hand.

"It's more fun if you know I'm a demon," he says, striding on forwards. "Thrill of the chase, you know. Can't remember the last time someone figured it out." He turns back and meets her gaze with a malicious smile. "The terror in your eyes was entirely worth it."

"If I do not believe your lies," she spits, refusing to follow him, "you cannot touch me."

"Ah," he muses, his back to her, "I wouldn't be so confident if I were you."

And, too quickly for her to follow, he turns around a corner and abruptly disappears from sight. She wavers between sitting outside and walking inside, but decides to favor the brightly lit indoors. So she sits in one of the lamplit rooms of the harem, amidst the riches and finery that have surrounded every other one of the demon's victims, and stares at the inky black sky outside.

Unable to let her guard down, she paces throughout the harems, hyperaware of every rustle of fabric she makes, of the sounds of the night, of her heartbeat thudding in her ears. But when she steps outside into the warm night, she cannot stop her curiosity when she hears voices — women's voices—in the tall shrubbery maze that houses the wishing fountain at its center. She turns around shadowy corner after shadowy corner, and then comes to the center.

A hushed silence falls over the gathering, and then the women turn to her. But they are not solid: they are merely imprints of themselves hovering in the darkness. All young women, and very beautiful, dressed in rich finery.

"Hello?" She says, lifting the lantern.

"She's alive," one of them whispers, and the others nod. "Amazing."

"Are you…" she takes in a deep breath. "Are you the new brides the demon has killed?"

They exchange looks. "Well," one of them says anxiously, "it's a little complicated, you see. We are dead, yet our souls have been trapped here. But our time will be over soon. In two night's time, the demon said, upon the thousand-and-first-"

"I see you've found my collection," the demon's voice booms behind her, and the ghosts become quiet. "Charming, hm?"

"You must let them go," she says stoutly. "I do not know what you play at, but it is despicable." But she is thinking, her mind racing too fast. He has kept all of their souls… trapped? How is that even possible? There must be some reason, she thinks.

"There is a way," he shrugs, "but I doubt you would be interested."

Again he means to mislead her. "Is that so?" she says.

"Once upon a time," he begins, and she feels the weight of his words closing on her, another story she will have to struggle to escape. "A demon killed a new woman each night, killed the executioners who didn't want to help him in his deeds, killed the recalcitrant advisers near him, killed anyone in his way. But it was all so tremendously boring: the pain, the suffering, lasted for only seconds, minutes if he tried. Mortal lives are so fragile that they ceased to entertain him. It was so, so terribly easy to do whatever he wished in this silly world they had created. And so this demon began collecting souls, watching them cower in their abject terror when he approached. He began to take special care to preserve the mortal souls, for their exquisite agony gave him much more entertainment than their deaths ever could. How else was he to stay entertained during the nights after he killed, during the days after he extinguished their lives?"

It is all so convincing, and makes terrible sense. She feels his tale encircle her, trapping her in a world he has created. She is already losing her footing, and he is watching her with glowing golden eyes and a knowing smile.

"Once upon a time," she begins, a little unsteadily, "a demon thought he could become a ruler. He thought that murder was the best way to show his might." She is slipping, she is slipping and she knows it. Her story is no different than his. "He… killed and gathered so many souls…" she pauses, and has the distinct sense of drowning, drowning in words she must persuade herself are not true.

Utter silence. She forces herself to keep talking, even as he watches in growing glee. "He killed to show his might, and now he has only two nights remaining." His expression shifts imperceptibly, and she grasps for air, for salvation. "Because he is collecting a thousand-and-one souls…"

Why is he still in the sultan's body, and not ruling with the might of a demon unleashed? Demons didn't often possess people in the stories, instead preferring to take their true forms and unleash torrents of sorcery on their opponents. "…To find his true form," she continues, her words growing stronger. "If he gathers enough souls, he can sacrifice them in exchange for a demonic form strong enough to wield immense magical power. He only needs two more souls, and then he will be rid of this human form and this empire will be his."

She knows she has spoken the truth: it rings in the air, clear and true, and the demon backs away. The ghostly women begin to smile, and she turns to leave the fountain.

Two more souls. She is one of two things standing between this demon and utter, merciless domination of this land. Even though the night air isn't particularly cold, she shivers.

She opts to sit indoors again, and resolves to remain in place while she mulls over what lies the demon must be planning to tell next.

She doesn't know how many hours she waits like that. But she is too nervous, knowing her life is in such danger; she scarcely suspects she would be able to hear the sound of someone approaching over her own heartbeat.

"It's you again," the demon says from behind her, and she nearly leaps out of her seat.

"No need to be frightened," he shrugs, walking around the divan to sit beside her. "I'll make this as painless as possible, hm?"

"I'm not going to lose to a worthless demon like you," she says through her teeth, and notices the beginnings of the sky lightening through the window. "I'll bring you to justice."

"All right," he says easily, completely ignoring her furious looks. "Here we go. Once upon a time…"

"This is essentially guesswork on my part," she interrupts. "Making me guess your past, your motivations, your future."

"You have many nights of this left to look forward to," he says, as if they are good friends, and she feels the telltale siren song of a lie gather around her heart. "I'm sure you'll make a misstep eventually, dear." He takes another breath, ready to weave the falsehood still further-

"No," she says slowly, resisting the urge to remain quiet and listen. "You need me dead by dawn. That is why you marry a new bride every day."

"How much longer can you go on-" he begins, and then stops, looking distinctly annoyed.

"You need the souls," she says. "Why make sure a new girl is killed every night, specifically in that time frame? You need them to sustain you in this form. You're weak in a human form, aren't you? If I resist until daylight, you'll be done for."

A long silence stretches between them.

"Once upon a time," she says evenly, "a girl battled a demon. The demon had already gathered nine-thousand, nine-hundred and ninety-nine souls from her beloved kingdom; the girl was determined he would not gather more. She knew the stories too well, and so the demon could not deceive her with his lies. She sits here with him now, and knows she shall succeed. While lies are spun to taste sweeter, her salvation lies in truth."

She looks around, though, and realizes that if he needs two more souls, they needn't necessarily be her; the demon could find any living soul and decieve them into becoming his. Is there enough time, though? The demon has mere minutes left until the dawn, but she cannot let her guard down.

"You're worried," the demon laughs. "You're worried I'll kill someone else. You may have saved yourself for now, but you've doomed a few other unfortunate souls. Ha, isn't that so?" He sobers quickly. "There is a way, dear, for you to have what you seek."

"What?"

"Once upon a time," he says, and she tenses, "there was a demon. He realized he had met a very wily girl indeed, and so she saw past several of his falsehoods. But he was running out of time until the day came, and knew what he must do. He promised the girl that he would stop his collection of souls here, that he would no longer collect souls in this empire, in exchange for her." The demon pauses, eyes glittering.

"You lie," she says.

"Ah, ah," he says. "I swear an unbreakable vow, upon the blood that runs in the veins of this body I possess. The only true thing a demon can swear upon." He smoothly unsheathes the dagger hanging at his hip and slices through his palm, red blood spurting from his hand, as if he feels no pain. She glares at him, eyes narrowed. In the stories, such oaths were the only thing upon this earth that could bind a demon, the only way to acertain that they did not lie. But even though all this is hearsay and myth, she is caught off guard at the thought that, maybe there is a way she can end all this for good…

"For, you see," the demon says, lowering his bleeding hand, "this girl was very smart. But she had decieved herself in something very fundamental, something all mortals fail to see. She told herself she wished to fight for a world where demons do not rule, a world free of terror and struggle, a world at peace. But in reality she sought another thing entirely: power to bend, power to create, power to destroy. She believed she fought for justice, and yet lacked the tools with which to create it for herself."

She fights for breath, hearing echoes of herself in his words.

"The demon understood this very well," he continues, and she struggles to keep her bearings. She cannot let herself think about how entrancing his words are, how perfectly they fit around her, how she feels as if he has seen right to her core. "He saw her cunning, her ambition, her brilliance that was outmatched for this world she lived in, and he knew he could take her far father than any fool here could."

Her heart thuds in her chest. If she agrees, could she save the kingdom from the reign of a bloodthirtsty demon seeking to crush it beneath ashes? Her own life, the sanctity of her own soul, is a small price to pay for peace.

But there must be a lie somewhere in his words, there must!

"So the demon shall collect no more souls," the demon said quietly, "by only unbreakable oath that binds our kind, and she shall surrender herself."

She stares into his eyes. They are nearly nose-to-nose now, and she's shaking. She wishes she could see the lie, that she could tell a story to match his own, but there is none.

There is none.

Except…

"So," she says, her voice barely audible. "He said he would stop his collection of souls in exchange for her soul only, but it would be enough."

"Don't be foolish," the demon says gently. "You know what I'm offering."

"The tale of a thousand-and-one souls. The sultan's is the last soul," she says, as if in a trance.

His expression becomes icy, menacing.

"And once the demon has led her into the dark," she says, "once she has bargained her very soul in exchange for the justice she seeks, he plans to use her soul as the thousandth soul. And after sacrificing the sultan too ,the demon shall light the world on fire. It does not matter that he stops collecting souls - once she surrenders, he believes he shall already have a thousand-and-one souls to complete his terrifying reign."

She sees true rage in the demon's eyes. And dawn begins to creep up in the windows behind him, the beautiful, golden dawn.

"You're weakening," she says, folding her arms. "And once you're gone, those souls you've sequestered about the palace-"

"Shall haunt you for all eternity," the demon says, his words chilling, and her hands clench into fists. "I wll send them after you. Death shall be a preferable alternative to the endless torment you shall face. No sleep, no rest, no reprieve. I send my regards, dear. Best enjoy your last moments free, before you descend into an unspeakable insanity."

"And so the demon wished that the girl would fear his words and fear his wrath," she intones, "and he told her of spirits sent to make her life a misery. He hoped that she would end her own life before dawn, thus granting him the strength he needed. But no such thing was true, and he had lied once more: his death meant the souls' release, and he could not torment them anymore."

She rises and presses a palm to the glass, watching the sun rise.

"No more," the demon says, and when she turns back to him she realizes with a jolt that his eyes are beginning to turn a normal brown color that should be expected of humans. "Get out this instant," he says, furious. His gaze turns to her, as if only just realizing she's there. "Give me a moment," he says apologetically, "I'll be back."

She waits for perhaps ten minutes, and tiredness washes over her. She had been so busy feeling anxious and doing battle with demons that she hadn't even let herself feel fatigue.

"Thank you for getting me out of what was the most hellish ordeal of my entire life," he tells her, appearing again from around a corner. His eyes are dark brown now, and she thinks it's much better suited on him. "What a nightmarish experience. Luckily for both of us, I happen to know quite a bit about battling demons. Except," he raises an eyebrow, "apparently not as much as you."

"It wasn't that much," she begins, looking down, but he waves his wounded hand, which has now been bandaged with cloth.

"Nonsense! I saw the whole thing." And then his face becomes solemn. "Having to murder some of my closest advisers, scores of new brides, anyone who had a modicum of reason, peasants who crossed my path… it's insane. I still don't know how I'm going to recover from the guilt, the terror of it. But," he says, looking at his own hands in joy, "at least I'm alive and can control my own body again. I thought I was done for."

"Once upon a time," she begins stubbornly, on the off chance that the demon's tricking her again, "the demon took the form of the sultan past the dawn, and successfully changed the color of his eyes-"

"I'm going to pardon you now because you just saved my life," the sultan says, holding a stern finger in the air, "but I'll have you know I'm not a demon anymore. I've been planning what I was going to do in case I was able to overpower him, and he's now trapped in a lamp. Great, huh?"

"Wait," she says. That raises more questions than it answers. "How, exactly…?"

"Demons may seem all-powerful," the sultan tells her, "but really, they need our weakness to survive. They need us to believe in their lies. He lost his ability to continue controlling me - I made a mistake the first night, but thereafter fought him every step of the way, you know - and so, when you left him without continued sustenance until the dawn, I was able to bind his spirit to an enchanted lamp. He'll be forced to grant wishes to whoever picks it up… I believe the term is a genie… but I definitely won't be going near that lamp anytime soon."

"Very nice," she nods, tucking away that knowledge about genies for future stories and finding herself still studying his features in awe. It's so strange to see him smile genuinely, to watch him stride about with energy, eagerness, and conviction. No demon could mimic that. She knows—with the full certainty that accompanies the truth—that she has succeeded.

The sultan has caught her staring, and clears his throat. "Anyway," he says, steepling his fingers, "uh, you were pretty good with the whole demon situation back there."

They both look sideways, and she gets the sense she isn't the only one furiously trying to think of things to say.

"I would be more than happy if you wanted to… help me rebuild the kingdom's trust," he says, stealing a glance at her. "There's certainly a ways to go to restoring this place to what it once was. I think you've more than proven your mettle."

"Really?" she says, brightening. That sounds better than a thousand demon's offers combined. She, of all people, should know.

"On that note," he asks finally, "what are we going to tell them?"

"My sultan," she says, gathering the full force of her wits and gesturing for him to sit beside her, "let me tell you a story."

Fin