If you were to ask your handy computer companion for the definition of glamor, you would end up with his photograph. His smile gleamed in any light. His hair floofed and flowed like it was a star itself (and indeed, the fanclub for his hair alone was considerable). Wherever he took his famous strut, spotlights and squealing crowds found him. He did not simply enter a room, he sashayed in like he owned the joint. Yes, this man was the epitome of stardom, had dominated the galactic charts for years beyond expectations. He was known as The King.
The King alone made the moon Europa gleam as a hotspot for stardom, as bright as its icy surface. And his twelve gorgeous and glamorous daughters amplified that gleam until every star system knew of their names, faces, and styles. When they took off on tour, throngs of fans were there to greet them. These princesses were quickly becoming renown for their beauty and grace, and their incredible dance moves that made watchers faint with bliss. And yet, their father had not lost an ounce of his appeal in spite of his girls growing up into these talented shining women. Dance concerts for The King and The Twelve Dancing Princesses were known to sell out in half-seconds.
Of course, life on Europa wasn't all glitz and glamor in spite of the stars that lived there. Europa was a moon plagued by demons, nightmarish freaks that bewitched people with their moves and enslaved them to become mindless minions and back-up dancers. And once the demons were through with their human slaves, they would eat them, clothes and all. While the best technology and magic went into making the castles and forts of Europa safe for their residents, the demons were sly and could trick their way into nearly anywhere. It was fairly routine that entire castles fell to demons, to become nightmare palaces of sin and agony. Not only that, but they put together really tempting casinos as well to drain even more resources from the people of Europa.
The people of Europa weren't defenseless, though. It turned out that the demons' greatest strength, their bewitching dances, could be turned against them into their greatest weakness. For when a demon came across another dancer whose passion and rhythm outshone their own, the demon would die of jealousy. And that was how The King became known as The King; he'd used his incredible dancing prowess to destroy the pride of hundreds of demons. It was even said that he had challenged the Demon King of Disco and won that dance-off handily.
In fact, The King owned one of the greatest weapons against the demons of Europa: the most fabulous shoes in the universe. These shoes were magical, blessed far beyond ordinary footwear. They shone with divine elegance and righteous harmony. Rainbows glittered in their wake. However, these shoes were not for the faint of heart among dancers. It was said that one had to earn the respect of the shoes before they could be worn, by passing such challenges as dancing on the head of a pin. The mere sight of these shoes on the feet of a rightful owner could make demons weep with despair and defeat.
But then, The King and the twelve princesses was often away on dancing tours, enchanting the whole galaxy. Europa was still plagued with demons, slowly taking over one castle after another. There were rumors that the Demon King of Disco was back, leading the efforts to conquer the moon and eventually the whole galaxy. Many young dancers who'd flocked to Europa to find stardom ended up recruited as dancing soldiers to keep what castles were left safe. When The King returned home from one extensive tour, the people begged him to stay and fight stylishly once more.
The King agreed, but then a strange affliction began to spread among his twelve lovely daughters.
Vera was the seventh daughter of twelve, which should mean she was the lucky one. It never seemed that way. Not like the eighth princess Helena, who was actually clumsy but always managed to turn her fumbles into fantastic moves. Nor like the first Angelina, who always led routines and dominated practice sessions. Or like the twelfth princess Lucille, who was still just twelve but was already seen as the cutest and most charming of them all. Or any of the others; Vera actually had the smallest amount of dedicated fans out of all her sisters.
But, she appreciated her fans. She was grateful they'd think of her as Vera rather than Guinevere, just one of the twelve. Not only that, but she had a secret that she kept from nearly everyone: she much preferred working with her other father as the group's manager. Vera had always liked numbers and organizing, and all the background work that went into making a staged show into the height of visual and audio experience. But as she was one of The King's daughters, she'd learned to dance and be a part of their big show.
She was so tired today, though. She ended up napping through a lesson on accounting, something she was embarrassed to realize as she started waking up. Nearby, her parents were talking. "The servants are saying that the door to their bedrooms remains quiet and shut tight through the night, but they're still sleeping clear into the afternoon," her other father Mike said. "And their shoes are just worn to bits despite having been bought just that day. There's something really strange going on."
"Right, and the windows in there aren't the sort that can be gotten through easily," The King said. "But they're young and adventurous! It can't be anything bad to let them live freely for a while."
"Dear, Lucille, Karine, Juliet, and Ivania are all under sixteen. They're still kids and they could get into serious danger if they're sneaking away all the time. And it can't be healthy for them to be doing whatever intense activity they're doing all night, and then performing in the day. I've tried waiting up to see what they're doing, but always end up falling asleep before midnight. There's something wrong going on here."
"Well I've asked them and they say it's nothing to worry about, so I'm willing to trust them. Now, it's going to be a bit of trouble keeping their momentum as superstars if we have work to do here on Europa, but I've got some ideas..."
Mike must have smacked something on his desk; Vera tried to open her eyes, but she still felt tired. "This is about our daughters' health and safety, Theodore."
"N-now don't be calling me by that name, you know, it..." The King sounded sheepish. "Nobody can find out I have such a lame name."
Mike sighed. "Could you let go of your pride for a little while? You've changed so much over the years. Besides, what happens if one of them collapses of exhaustion during one of your shows? It'd be you who pushed them to that and you can't dazzle your way out of questions about that."
"I suppose not," he said, pacing. "We can't afford such poor publicity."
"I really don't want our girls to suffer needlessly; you already push them a lot."
"Okay, okay, I get it. Well… oh, I know! This is a mystery, right? Of what the princesses are doing at night and why their shoes are tattered in the morning. We'll say, whoever gains an explanation of what's going on and has sufficient proof to get an admission out of just one of them, they can have any one of the twelve for a wife and become my protégé!"
Another sigh. "Dear, we can't do that."
"Why not? It will cause wonderful excitement."
"Because galactic laws concerning marriage and similar ceremonies clearly state that no one can be forced into them. Offering one of the girls as a prize is tantamount to slavery, as well as being completely heartless, Theodore."
"All right, all right, sorry. You know how I get caught up in the drama of a moment."
"This is more than just over-dramatic, dear." At the desk where she'd fallen asleep, Vera smiled a bit that Mike had stopped the marriage offer. But she had to fight to keep from dozing off again.
"What bout that Dancing With the Stars competition? We could say that the one who solves the mystery will get a chance to compete with the princess of their choice in that extravagant gala. It won't be marriage, but will be quite a boost in popularity for them, and will draw in people to solve this in droves."
"That's..." Mike sounded like he didn't like that idea much either, but he relented. "All right, that should work."
The King seemed excited for that. "And if the prospects do not solve this mystery, they will be put to death!"
There was a moment of silence. "You had better be kidding," he scolded.
"Ah, aheh heh… of course, dear, I wouldn't put people to death so flimsily. Well then, those who fail to bring an explanation, proof, and admission will have their names posted on the internet as failures of this challenge. That's about as bad as death, and more legal. That will get the prospects to be serious and focus on solving the mystery instead of fabricating something for fame and glory. How's that?"
"Better, but not..."
"Great! And don't you worry, just leave the posting of this challenge to me! Now if you'll excuse me, I want to get that done before I head out to fight for the glory of Europa!" He then waltzed out of the room.
Mike sighed again. "You really have changed; you're nothing like the brave man I married, even if you were always a bit clumsy with my feelings. This is being careless… but I dread to think what would happen to the girls if I left them solely to you."
"Mmm, Papa?" Vera mumbled, feeling more awake with worry for him.
"Oh, sorry dear, I hope we didn't disturb you," Mike said, more kindly than he had been to The King. "You can go back to sleep if you need it."
"Mm okay," she said, rubbing her face and trying to get fully awake. "Sorry, about taking a nap there."
"It's fine; we can change this lesson to the afternoon if that's better." He went over to his desk and picked up something. "Oh, right, there was a call earlier this morning that I forgot to tell you about sooner. Reisa's in the hospital."
That got her fully awake. "Huh, what?" Vera said, slamming her hands down on the desk without meaning to. "What's she doing in the hospital?! Is she really badly hurt, or, or, what is it?"
Mike came over and rubbed her back. "It's okay; she's actually been there a few days, and the call I got was saying that she could take visitors now. There was an incident at the guardhouse she'd been stationed at and she ended up on continuous duty there for fifty-six hours, when the demon threat level was severe. Actually, they're talking of giving her a medal of honor for it, but it seems like she was worn to the bone for the effort. I meant to tell you sooner, but your father made such a huge fuss about your return and then… well, things have been crazy around here."
"Aw man, I thought she was out in one of the outposts or something since she hasn't shown up since we got back," Vera said, leaving her study desk. "Can I go out and see her right now?"
Thankfully, he nodded. "Sure, I'll have you excused from practice later on. Make sure to cheer poor Reisa up; she's a true defender of Europa."
"Of course, thanks Papa," he said, giving Mike a hug before hurrying off.
Even though things had been crazy since they got back to Europa, it still didn't excuse her missing the fact that Reisa was in the hospital. Vera grabbed a jean jacket and made sure her pigtails were fine before leaving the royal quarters of the castle. While her sisters and father might bug her later about going out so plainly as one of the dancing princesses, it didn't matter now. She picked up a few gifts along the way to make up for things, then arrived at the hospital and asked to see her.
Reisa was dressed even plainer, but she had the excuse of being in the hospital. She was in the hall specifically set aside for the dance soldiers who combated the demons of Io on a daily basis. While she had a thick blanket for comfort and warmth around her as she sat by the window, she seemed as tired as Vera had been feeling lately. A hologram projector nearby was playing one of their recent dance concerts, although Reisa had seemingly slipped off to sleep.
"Reisa?" Vera asked quietly, setting a vase of flowers and balloons on the counter.
"Hmm? Oh, sorry," she said, shaking herself awake. She smiled the instant she realized who was visiting. "Vera! It's great to see you again."
"Yes, but I'm so sorry I didn't realize you were here," Vera said, then offered her other gift. "I did get you a cute bunny plush to make sure you get better soon."
"Thank you, he's adorable," Reisa said, taking the plushie and hugging it close. "I didn't mind not hearing from you right away. I knew The King had big plans to deal with the demons and that you'd get involved too."
"We princesses are doing something big, but I can't say anything about it yet," she said, feeling guilty for not being able to tell at least Reisa about it. "What happened to you? You don't seem too bad."
She looked a touch wearier for a moment. "I'm better now, but they took me in for exhaustion and completely tapping out my magic."
Vera got another seat from nearby to be near her. "What, seriously? But, you're one of the top talents in the troops now! You have a load of magic in you and shouldn't be able to tap it all out."
"That's what had to be done," she said, putting her face between the rabbit's ears. "Things have gotten really bad. We expected them to lighten up once The King and you all got back, but it hasn't. I wasn't even posted far out from the castle when we got word of your return. Some of the others relaxed, and thus we got slammed when a powerful demon with a large dancing troupe ambushed our gatehouse."
"Was if the Demon King of Disco?" Vera asked, feeling a chill in her blood. She couldn't remember a time when a large batch of demons had gotten so close as to attack the gatehouses.
Shaking her head, Reisa said, "No, it was more of a cha-cha gal. I dispatched a number of her troupe, but by the time I got into a duel with her, the others stationed at the gatehouse were dazed and partially brainwashed. I gave all that I had to do the best dancing I'd ever done, all just to beat her. While that dispersed the demons, everyone else was unfit for fighting. So I had to call for back-up and emergency care for everyone." She sighed. "But it took two days for anybody to come out for us."
Her jaw dropped. "Two days?! But that's awful! What could take them so long, especially for somewhere like a gatehouse?"
"I don't know what went wrong," Reisa said. "We should have at least gotten the replacement guards a few hours after the attack, but even those didn't show. While I could last through even the cha-cha demon's battle, keeping the guardhouse secure basically by myself too all my energy. I collapsed shortly after our replacements did arrive and they seemed shocked at the state of things."
Vera reached over and patted her arm. "Well don't worry, I'll work really hard with my sisters to make our plans happen, so that Europa will become safe enough that you can retire from soldiering. For now though, do you think they'll let me take you out to lunch? I'll bring you somewhere really expensive and fancy, my treat."
She smiled, still seeming tired. "Vera, you're so quick to spoil me."
Grinning, she said, "Well of course I'm gonna spoil my brave and wonderful soldier girl. So can we?"
"Let me call the nurse to ask," she said, gesturing to the call phone in the room.
Vera got up and brought the machine closer to her. She'd make sure Reisa was happy.
'It's been three months, but no one has been able to solve the riddle of the dancing princesses. Many have tried and have not been able to stay up all night to find out what is going on. Others have fabricated evidence, but were quickly proven to have done so. Still others have tried questioning the princesses, but they remain quiet in spite of the problems this strange curse has caused them."
In an enclosed tunnel, Reisa blazed down the road on her aerobike. "What are they doing?" she mumbled to herself. It worried her as Vera seemed to be growing paler and weaker. However, she still wouldn't tell what she and her sisters were doing all night.
The radio host continued on. "For the sake of their health, many shows have been canceled and the girls have been sequestered to their home castle to be watched over by a team of skilled doctors. But even the doctors are unable to find out anything of their mysterious activities. Meanwhile, demon activity has only increased all across Europa, with sightings of the vile creatures being reported on Io in the past couple of weeks. With all this, a disturbing trend has been discovered in that all those who tried to solve the riddle have died or disappeared within a week of their attempt. The King has expressed his sorrow over these losses, but many are coming to suspect him of..."
A blaring bass-boosted song cut into the news report. That was characteristic of demonic power. As for the song itself, Resia quickly recognized that this was going to be a rap genre demon that bewitched with lyrics more than pure dance. She had chosen to wear a gray solider uniform today, which was going to be passable for this primarily because she was wearing the male's style today. It wasn't her preferred style of dress, but it was easier with the aerobike and generally neutral to whatever style of dance she needed to match.
When she got to the scene, there was a merchant's van stopped in the road. No other cars were on the scene; such traffic had slowed down as people were rare to take the roads with the swelling of demons lately. She didn't see any humans right off. Hoping that the merchants had kept inside, she swung her bike around and jumped off into a pose. Catch the beat right… "Watch it devil, authority's here, swinging by swiftly to kick your rear."
Much of the demon's entourage fainted right away at her entrance boast, but those were peons that never lasted long. The leader himself, decked out with huge gold and diamond jewelry, spiked belts, and not much else, smirked at the sight of a new challenge. "Buzz off soldier girl, with us you don't belong. Unless you'd like to strip and hop..."
Reisa quickly tapped out a censoring counter, causing the rap demon to howl in being repressed. While it made him angrily belt out lines that needed more censor counters, it had been something she wasn't about to let pass. His buddies fell to the censors until it was just him, staggering but clinging to his pride. She would need a strong set of lines to stop him, but her attention was on trying to keep up the censoring.
Then the door to the van opened, making her worried as a little old lady came out from the driver's seat. "Pipe down ya big lug, shut your ugly mug!" she broke into the rap, shaking her fist at the demon. "You think you've got might, but the angels will make things right!"
"Wh-why do you have to bring up the angels?" the rap demon wailed, gripping his head and falling on his knees. The heavy music broke up instantly, causing the demon to fade away in despair.
"Hmph, if I'd a'known that rap could drop the demons too, I woulda stopped him before he got started," the old lady grumbled.
"It's only demons that fight with rap that can be countered with rap," Reisa said. "Are you okay, m'am?"
"I'm fine, they didn't even get in my van," she said, glancing at the tires just in case. "But thanks for responding so fast; it could've gotten ugly real quick. You've got some nimble feet to put up that many censors."
"It's necessary for that kind," she said. "I can escort you to The King's Castle from here."
The old lady rubbed her chin. "Hmm, I usually use masking shields on slow days like this, but that didn't stop that bunch of ruffians. All right, I probably should." She then dug in her pocket until she pulled out a bracelet of clear beads. "Ah, I do have one of them. Here, take this as a reward for your efforts. It's an invisibility bracelet which will make you disappear. No need to strip either, it'll hide your clothes too."
"Thank you, m'am," she said, accepting it. Although, what was she going to do with an invisibility bracelet?
Giving a mischievous smile, the old lady said, "Now I know you dancers have got to be seen for your powers to work. But you clearly know the value of a good entrance. If you ever wanted to pop up suddenly to stomp them demons down without them being any wiser, that's your method of doing so."
Reisa smiled at that. "That would be a good asset."
As she escorted the old lady back to the castle, Reisa began to have some other ideas of what the bracelet could be good for. Perhaps with this, she could make headway into figuring out what Vera and her sisters were doing all night. The trouble was that all who'd attempted it so far had fallen asleep. Reisa knew some of the older girls were sly and could put together a sleeping enchantment disguised as a friendly tea and snack offer. To solve the problem, she'd have to get into their bedroom hall and stay without them being aware that she was there.
Back at base, she sent a text off to Vera asking if she could come over. Her family was used to that; she and Vera had become close friends due to taking the same dance lessons well before they'd started dating, so Reisa knew the royal home well. All she'd have to do was drop by for a visit, then act like she was leaving when she was actually staying. Hopefully Vera would agree to that.
The message she sent back was worrisome, though. 'Is this about the riddle? I didn't want to get you involved, but I'm scared now. Something bad is going on, but I can't stop the others. If you do come to solve it, be prepared for a showdown.'
"A showdown?" Resia wondered. But if it was to help Vera out, she'd do anything. She'd have to make this good.
She got off duty shortly after noon, so she took a nap at home to make sure she was in good shape. Not knowing what was ahead of her, she decided to dress in one of her favorite outfits. It wouldn't hurt to be prepared for anything. After taking a shower, she sat in her stylist chair. "Short wavy bob with some shine, and the gold beaded headband," she instructed the machine. "For make-up, smoky glam."
"Yes, m'lady, here's the preview," the machine replied, showing a virtual model of herself with the requested style. "Any adjustments you'd like?"
After giving it a moment's thought, she answered, "No, that's fine."
"Good, let's glam it up," the machine replied, bringing the styling mask down over her head. It took longer than usual, but good aesthetics gave a boost of power.
She then went to her closet for the dress and accessories. A gold flapper's dress would do, with lots of shimmering beads and a matching gold-sequin bag. At her jewelry chest, she picked out a set of jangling bracelets, with clasps to hold them quiet for when she needed to sneak around. She needed to be careful with her shoes as well. Since tap dance was her primary style, most of her shoes were crafted for that. Fortunately, she had a pair of beige and gold ballet-style tap shoes that went with the dress and came with silencers. Because she loved the look of it, this outfit was one of her most powerful in dance magic. It was excessive for daily patrols, though, and impractical for driving an aerobike.
After calling a carriage to drive her across the large castle, Reisa entered the royal residence. Vera was quick to greet her; her black pigtails were streaked with a rainbow of colors today. She bounded over to hug her. "Reisa," she said, her voice breaking up some.
She hugged her tight. "What's going on, Vera?"
"I can't say," she answered in hushed tones. "B-but I think they're gonna kill me no matter what. I'd run, but Papa got caught yesterday trying to figure stuff out on his own. I'm not as good a dancer as the others, so I won't be able to rescue him on my own. But you're here, we'll free him and then he can tell you since he's not caught up in this. That is, if we can get you to… the place."
"Don't worry, I have plans for that," Reisa said. "If you think it's going to be a showdown, let's get you dressed at your very best."
She nodded. "Okay, thanks. Oh, and you'll need a therma-coat to get to where we're going; you can borrow one of mine, it should work since your dress is short."
A therma-coat? That was very strange since they were meant for explorers going directly out into Europa's unearthly frigid environment. But later on in the evening, Reisa was able to slip the invisibility bracelet on, then put on the fully enclosing suit and have even that completely unseen. She stayed hidden in Vera's room until Angelina called them all to her room.
All twelve of the girls were wearing therma-coats. And, so was a thirteenth person among them. "All right, girls, this should be a magnificent night," that person said in an unmistakable voice. That was The King? What was he doing with them.
"Yes, father!" the twelve girls all chimed in, most of them giggling with anticipation. Vera was acting now, pretending to be as agreeable.
"Perhaps we can finally succeed," The King said as Angelina pulled away a rug to reveal a transport pad. "I am just itching with anticipation! And I have a good feeling about tonight, yes, a very good feeling..."
There was something very troubling in his tones; Reisa moved quickly to get on the pad to transport with Vera and two of the other girls. This brought them to a dock in massive cavern of ice, lit up with ornate hanging lanterns so that every surface shone and sparkled. Seeing the dark waters of Europa's underground ocean ahead, she wondered just how deep they were, and who had carved out this tunnel for the thirteen boats waiting on them. There were sixteen black-suited beings there… demons, with orange-tinted skin and coiling horns.
Glancing around, she noticed the webbed mineral stalagmites hanging off some surfaces. This must have been a natural air pocket at one point. These stalagmites formed when the thermal vents started to melt the ice slowly, leaving minerals to cluster in conical forms. While it was usually discouraged, Resia snapped off a small silvery one from a nearby overhang to tuck into the coat's sample bag. It would prove where they'd been as she couldn't get her phone for pictures with the coat on.
"Wh-what was that snap?" Francine asked, jumping nearby at the sound. She had always been a nervous one.
"It's probably just the ice, nothing to worry about," The King said, brushing it off. "Come on, let's hurry onward!" He strutted ahead to the largest boat.
While Reisa would have liked to join Vera on her boat, the ones for the princesses were small with one oarsdemon. She'd be noticeable there. Instead, she hurried after The King and joined him on the large boat. The King ordered them to set off down the tunnel once he saw that all of his daughters were on board their own vessels. It was difficult to see his expression with the therma-coats, but it was clear from how he stood at the front of the boat that he was eager to arrive.
The dark waters under the bright silvery ice would have made for a romantic voyage, Reisa thought. But this trip felt ominous with the demons along. Eventually, one of them grunted. "Sir? Have you gained weight recently?"
"No, how dare you suggest such a thing?!" the King snapped, turning abruptly and stamping his foot down in a way that made the demons wince.
"But it's taking more effort," the demon tried to explain. Even if they looked strong, the four demons were working hard at their oars.
"It's just your imagination!" he shouted, then paused as he heard the echoes. "Hmph, just keep going," he said, turning back around. Reisa and presumably the demons could still hear him mutter on, "I'm as a fit as a fiddle. Gaining weight would mean I'm growing old. Not a chance, I'll be a star forever, glamorous to the end of time."
After a long trek, they arrived at another dock where the ice had been carved into an ornate archway over the teleport pad. 'Crystal Gala Palace' was written into the arch; it wasn't a castle name that Reisa was familiar with. And why go to this trouble with two docks and teleport pads? Couldn't they simply warp directly to this palace?
They didn't even warp into the palace. Instead, they arrived in the midst of a strange dream-like forest. The glittering trees had silver bark and golden leaves; some boughs were weighed down by crystal fruits. Clusters of colorful flowers grew rhinestones instead of petals; the grass was white and papery, a snow-like backdrop more than anything. How much work had gone into this? It couldn't be natural.
The golden canopy prevented Reisa from seeing much of the palace. Since all the others knew where to go, she followed them. She took a second to pick a rhinestone daisy, as that was a quick grab that none of them noticed. But at one of the turns, she noticed a tree hanging its fruit-laden branch in their way. Bernice brushed it aside, making it bounce. As it was already moving, Reisa caught it and tried to snap off a crystal apple with a golden leaf on its stem.
Instead, she got a handful of the silver branch with a dozen leaves and three apples. She hastily drew it close as Francine yelped again. "Eek, we're being haunted!"
"There are no ghosts around here," Edith said. "And even if there are, they're allied with us."
"We just need to remind the staff to harvest the apples before they start dropping," Charlotte said, sounding annoyed that it hadn't been done already.
They took another turn down the road and the palace was revealed. It was a vision of the fantastic, shining like the ice of Europa's surface. A kaleidoscope of patterns ran all over the walls in candy-like decorations. In elegant balance, towers and spires were spread everywhere. The roofs were all black with starry crystals imbedded in them. It was gorgeous, but then she recalled how afraid Vera had been and saw it all as ominous.
Even to how cheerful all the girls seemed to be as they went inside to change into their dance clothes. Reisa got out of the therma-coat and set it in the corner of the closet they were being stored in. that way, she would know which one had her evidence inside. Vera was quick to come out of the changing rooms. As she had gone with distressed glitter jeans and a sequin decorated neon pink top, she didn't need any extra primping. "They could be at it for another hour," she said. The demon servants nearby would think she was talking to herself.
Reisa went over to take her hand to let her know where she was. "Lead the way," she said softly.
"I'm just gonna walk around," Vera said, then went down one of the side halls. Once they went into an even smaller side hall meant for the servants, she hurried them ahead. "They took him to the kitchen last night; I hope they haven't done anything with him yet."
After taking a flight of stairs down and passing down a dim hall, they came to the kitchen. It smelled of smoke, meat, and a stifling amount of herbs. Somewhere in the damp warm clutter, a boisterous voice sang along with their cooking. To the side, Mike was sitting in a boxy cage, dressed as he normally did in an unobtrusive way unlike the rest of their family. He seemed fine so far, with things enough that he glanced over as they entered. His eyes widened, but he kept quiet.
The keys to the cage were on the wall by the door, just out of reach of Mike. Vera grabbed them and let him out. "We'll talk in a bit, come out of there," she said to him as she opened the door.
He nodded and crawled out. When they left the kitchen, he said, "Let's get up to one of the guest rooms of the casino; they shouldn't think anything of humans talking around there."
"Okay, and Reisa's with us," Vera said. "She's using an invisibility bracelet."
"Good, then I can make sure we're all unseen," Mike said, taking out a calculator. "Could you make yourself visible so I've got this right?"
Reisa took off the bracelet. "How are you going to make us all unseen?" she asked quietly. "There were a number of demons we passed by and they just ignored Vera."
"Being a manager to a magical dancer requires all kinds of skills," he said. Once he finished up the calculation, the device chimed. "Got it, now put that back on and it'll affect all of us."
When she did, their images all became foggy to her. The demons would pass by and not notice them at all.
In the kitchen, a rotund chef of an ogress took a ladle for a sip of the sauce base she'd been busily working at. And… good for now, would be complete with drippings from the meat. "Boys, bring me the main dish!" she bellowed, then went to gather ingredients for the rub.
A few seconds later, there was a panicked screech. "Aiyiii, the human course is gone!"
"WHAT?" she replied, turning around with wobbles of fat.
"Uuuuh," the assistant ghoul gulped. "He, he's just gone. The cage is open."
"Hmm..." the ogress turned to her spice rack array. "Well, I wasn't looking forward to cooking him. Not worked out enough for muscle, nor was he lazed out enough for fat. It would have been a tough balance. Meh, bring out one of the demon bulls and kill it. When I'm done with my kitchen magic, they won't know the difference."
Before long, she was singing again with the joy of demonic cooking.
Last night, Mike had used some of his backstage magic to follow The King and the twelve princesses out to the Crystal Gala Palace. He'd known of the place as something that The King had wanted to build, as a place more glamorous than the castle built out of protective necessity that they currently lived in. But the manager had not been aware that the palace had already been built, even elaborated on to this degree. It would have been absurdly expensive, even with the help of demons. But then, The King was absurdly rich and Mike had discovered that not all of his earnings had been properly recorded.
He discovered many disturbing things about this place, including what the girls were doing all night. Mike went to confront The King about it in his dressing room. "Theodore."
"Who's calling me by that awful name?" The King snapped, then saw that it was him. He spoke in a way that was much colder than usual. "Oh, you. Finally had to sate the curiosity, hmm?"
"Why are you having our girls summon the Demon King of Disco?" Mike asked in a rebuking tone.
"That is not what they're doing," The King said, waving his manservant to continue the preparations. "I defeated him, remember? They're dancing to turn me into the Demon King of Disco. We're so close, but for some reason it has yet to work."
He had to hold back on showing how repulsed he was at the idea. "Why would you do that? We've had to fight these demons to survive and you want to lead them?"
The King nodded. "Of course, for there lies the real path to stardom! I've attained great heights with a wee boost from defeating the last demon king, but people are already whispering about my age, of how I'm bound to fade as I grow old. I cannot stand for that to happen! But when I become the demon king, I will be an eternal star, to forever dazzle the whole universe. Didn't you see how blissfully happy my audience was? Soon, everyone will be like that!"
"They were in a brainwashed daze and won't remember any of this as more than a dream," Mike said. "It's disgusting."
"How can you say that when they're so happy to see me dance?" he said. "They're even happy when they wake up, not thinking of the cares of the world unless they miss one of my performances. How should I turn away such devoted fans, hmm?"
He pushed the demon manservant away to make him face the conversation. "You've got them addicted to you. That's not what a star is supposed to be. And you're driving the girls into early graves, putting on this farce so that no one suspects that you're the cause of their problems."
However, The King frowned. "Ugh, them again? You're delaying my next number, get out of here."
"They're our daughters, we need to treat them that way," Mike said angrily.
"No they're not," The King said, rolling his eyes. "They're demons too, raised as humans to become my back-up dancers until they were able to do this. Besides, I recall you telling me to stop bringing home princesses. You should have noticed sooner."
It was enough of a shock that he lost his anger. "The girls have been demons all along?"
The King frowned. "Of course, that's what I just said. I named them all after my various lovers, albeit some of them like Charlotte and Edith had to be changed to make them less awkwardly feminine. But they don't matter. They're designed to love me and do anything for me, although silly Guinevere has turned into a nerdy punk somehow. It's really a shame since that has cut into her star power. Must be your influence since she's hanging around your office all the time. They probably will die when I become the Demon King of Disco, but that's fine. I'll be able to call them back to life immediately and they'll still adore me."
"But that's not love, just like those fans don't love you," Mike said, at a loss of how to respond to this. "They're thralls who are addicted to you. But why are you doing this? This isn't like you."
He sighed, then snapped his fingers. A much larger demon swiftly appeared behind Mike and grabbed his arm. "You mean this isn't how I act around you, but I'm tired of that act. I'm tired of your incessant nagging; you should have stayed properly adoring of me as you were when we got married. That's becoming a real obstacle too, especially since you won't give me the drama I crave."
"Theodore, I believed in you when no one else did," he said, trying to stay brave. But this was worse than he feared. "I helped you to defeat the Demon King of Disco; I've helped you all that I can."
"Come on now, I keep telling you to stop using my stupid old name," The King said. "Anyhow, I don't remember you helping much; you just hung around in the shadows and took care of the boring parts of stardom. Managers are a dime a dozen, and far too much hassle when they try to step in. And I can have any lover I want."
Putting a hand on his forehead, he whined, "And you can't even take this properly. You know, there was a line I always wanted to say to a jealous spouse: the moons of Jupiter are named after his lovers, so as I am the star of Jupiter, shouldn't I be allowed to take any lover I want? But you won't act as the jealous spouse that fuels gossip and tabloids. Instead, you're turning yourself into a weeping wreck who's trying to change me through tears. Well that's not going to work; it's never worked, you should realize that by now. Take him away, we'll find something to do with him. He might even be able to contribute to my ascension after all."
"Then he was planning on eating you?" Reisa asked as Mike finished up his account of the previous night. She was able to keep her cool thanks to her military training, but it was sickening.
"Yes, that is a demonic thing to do," he said, shaking his head. "It might have helped his ambitions, although I don't know if it's the act or just the willingness that will push him to his goal."
"Are you okay then?" she asked. "That's really rough."
He gripped his arm. "Well, I had a lot of time to think about things in that cage. Some of the other girls came by and proved that they were demons after all. Now I want to set things right before they get out of hand. We still have to think of the safety of Europa."
"But what about me?" Vera asked, anxiously looking back and forth between them. "I don't want to be a demon! I had no idea until early last morning when the others were all giggly about revealing their true selves."
While Reisa wasn't sure what to say right away, Mike took Vera's hand. "Hey, it's okay. You're not a demon; you're the only one that I'm sure is not a demon. And I want to make sure you're safe and happy. I'm sure you'll be happy just staying with Reisa, so we just have to deal with the rest. You're my only true daughter after all."
"Huh, the only one?" she asked, putting her other hand to her cheek.
Mike nodded. "I was silently jealous and suspicious that Theodore kept bringing home baby girls, on the same day every year after I had told him that I wanted to have children with him. But, I convinced myself that they had to be born from science to be ours. I wanted to stay by his side, always faithful and supportive as a spouse should be, no matter how obnoxious he could get. Still, it made me feel depressed and when he brought home Francine, I went to a family planning center alone and requested a child."
"So Helena and I aren't twins?" Vera asked.
"No," he said. "It was actually simple to tell because the other girls all had hair from the start and you were more normal in not. I tried to tell him; I'm sure I actually did, but he was barely listening to me at that point. Eventually, I stopped trying and took some comfort in being certain that you at least were my child."
She hugged him. "Thanks, Papa, I, I'm sorry you had to live with all that."
"It's okay, don't worry about me," he said, patting her back. "I really don't want to push you, but we need to stop Theodore from becoming the Demon King of Disco. If you danced with Reisa, it'll be far more effective against such selfish beings."
"But I'm not actually that good, they always put me in the back," Vera said.
"It's okay, Vera, just leave all the technical parts to me," Reisa said. "As long as you dance with your love for me and your Papa in mind, and against the betrayal of your father, I'm sure it'll turn out wonderfully. I'll be happier just to dance with you." Then she smiled. "And afterward, you can be lazy for a week and I'll spoil you into good health just like you did for me."
"Sometimes I feel like I could sleep a week," she said, letting go of Mike. "Well, if it's for a chance for Reisa to spoil me, and for you Papa, and for the sake of Europa, I can't really refuse that kind of request. Okay, I'll do my best. "
Mike smiled proudly. "Good. And, there isn't the time for the official rigamarole of contracts and agreements, but for tonight, I'll be the manager for you both." He got out his calculator as a natural habit and put it to his chest. "He said managers are a dime a dozen, but he doesn't realize what an asset a good manager is. I'll prove it tonight; you both will shine far greater than him, I know it. But to do that, we need to go get something for Reisa in another part of this palace."
"Sure, what are we after?" she asked.
"The most fabulous shoes in the universe," he said.
The… those shoes? Gasping, Reisa said, "R-really? You think I could wear them?"
Nodding, he said, "I know you can. It was another thing I should've paid attention to, but Theodore hasn't worn those shoes since our victory over the Demon Lord of Disco. I mean, I even knew that the pair he had on display in our gallery was a pair of fakes. He's been keeping the real pair here, I presume so that no one can claim them and fight against his demonic ascension. Prove yourself to the shoes and they will be yours."
Vera beamed at that. "Oh yeah, and they'll go great with your outfit today! I know you can master them, Reisa. Let's go!"
She smiled and nodded. "Yes, I'll be honored to wear them."
After leaving the casino, which was already full of sleepwalking victims, they ascended one of the taller towers in order to reach an out of the way room. Glass walls surrounded a room that was set up solely for displaying the holy shoes. They were placed upon a red velvet display pillow, on a single white pedestal with lights cast upon them to make them shimmer even outside the room. But when Mike fiddled with a control panel near the stairs, a number of red lasers appeared, criss-crossing the room entirely.
"Now, Theodore has exaggerated the shoes some," Mike said. "They are blessed with incredible powers, but the trial is done unconsciously while you're putting the shoes on. You will need to demonstrate some dancing ability to touch them. If your soul does not suit them, the shoes will force you to dance until you lose them. If they do accept you, you'll be free to move as normal. I think that if you can dance your way past the security lasers, that should be sufficient proof of ability."
"There's an awful lot of them in there," Vera said, worried.
But on observing it, Reisa saw what could be done. "Yes, but it won't be a problem. I'm going in."
It would certainly be easier than dancing on the head of a pin, she thought as she entered the room. She shifted off the silencers on her tap shoes so she could start tapping out a beat in a safe spot. Once she got to the pattern of lasers she wanted, she twirled and tapped her way through them. Reisa had to avoid the lasers, but swept her hands near them anyhow to put on a good show. She had to skip-dance backwards at one point to make sure her motions didn't disrupt security.
In that way, she turned and faced the shoes on their fancy pedestal, where the lasers couldn't hit her. The shoes really were as glorious and fabulous as rumored; they could steal a show all on their own. Currently, they were in a male's style of platform shoe without a plate for tap dancing. Mike had shut off the security now, allowing Reisa to take off her ballet-style tap shoes and set them aside.
When she turned to take the fabulous shoes, they had already changed to match the ones she'd just been wearing, long golden ribbon straps and all. If they could always change to match the rest of her attire, then they really were the most fabulous shoes in the universe. She could feel their power through her soles. They kept still as she put them on. As she gave them a few experimental taps, she had complete control over how she moved. Reisa walked a short ways to prove that she had control, but couldn't help a little flourish as the crossed most of the room. Just wearing them made her feel wonderful.
Vera laughed and hugged her when she came out. "You look perfect wearing them! The demons are gonna be in such awe that they fall like dominoes around you!"
"Yes, now we can truly take back Europa," Reisa said. This war with the demons could be over soon; it was an exciting hope to have.
If you were to ask your handy computer companion for the definition of glamor, you would end up with his photograph. His smile gleamed in any darkness. His magnificent hair trailed over his powerful chest in a way that made hearts race when he bared it. Wherever he took his famous strut, spotlights and squealing crowds found him. He did not simply enter a room, he sashayed in like he owned the joint. Yes, this man was the epitome of stardom, had dominated the galactic charts for years beyond expectations. He was once known as The King.
But now, he would be known as the Demon King of Disco, soon to be the Ruler of the Universe.
"Where is Guinevere?" the Demon King asked, pausing to look around before leaving the buffet table. "She's been causing problems all evening by not showing up and now she missed the transformation."
"Who knows?" Angelina asked, stroking her newly revealed horns. "More importantly, who cares?"
"It does not look right for us to have eleven dancing princesses and one understudy all night," he said, stomping his foot down. "The little detail throws everything off."
"She was always in back, so nobody will notice," Ivania said.
"She said she would take a walk," one of the maids said. "But then she just vanished even though I tried to trail her for service."
"We'll just make sure to leave some meat for her too," the Demon King said. Whines and pleas replied. "We must have a full set, so leave a portion! We'll have plenty to feast on now. Anyhow, we're on a schedule, so let's get moving!"
This was the life: an audience full of adoring fans, a glamorous setting that served to make him even better, music and routine written precisely to his glory. But the stage was simply too small without cameras to capture the magic. Once those were installed, he could dazzle everyone who tuned in, leading them to draw in more fans who would also be dazzled and draw more in… eventually, everyone in the universe would need to watch him in order to feel happy. They'd shower him with money and presents, but it was the fame that he craved. His peak needed to be infinite! The love they gave him should never falter.
He'd always been praised for his looks and talents. Long ago, when he had just been Theodore, he had risen up as a child star, then a teen idol. He took to dance battles with demons to continue his renown. But then, his fame started being eclipsed. Other stars rose up and took the public's attention off him. While he tried to recapture the attention, the fans lost interest even more. For a time, he'd felt worthless, old and crumpled before he turned twenty. He took some security from Mike's adoration; even though the manager was plain and could barely dance, his love had buoyed up Theodore for a short time.
And then came that fateful clash with the previous Demon King of Disco. Theodore had challenged him feeling that people had to give him acclaim and praise if he claimed victory in such a duel. While they did, the more valuable reward was in a ring that he had taken. There was a voice that guided him into reclaiming the limelight from the thieving stars who took it from him. A wonderful luscious voice, one that led him to this great ascension. Soon, the people of the universe would change their minds about the demons of Europa.
When he came out on-stage with his eleven gorgeous demon daughters (and one demonic understudy, curse that Guinevere), the people screamed of happiness and jumped in glee. The Demon King of Disco smiled lovingly at his fans and was about to go address them when a trapdoor on the stage opened up. And there was Guinevere finally, clasping hands with a shining flapper beauty with fabulous shoes… wait, those shoes…
"Hold up, Demon King of Disco!" Reisa said, putting a foot down with the tap of a tap dancer's shoes. They kicked up holy sparkles that made all the other demons around gasp. "You are not going to take over Europa, not on our watch."
"No, what are you doing with those shoes?!" he shouted. "Those are my shoes! Thief! Imposter!"
"You can't wear them anymore," Reisa said with confidence. "We're going to stop you before anyone knows what you turned yourself into. But they will know the depths of depravity that you've sunk to and no longer admire you."
So the fans would no longer love him? "No, you can't do that! Girls, let's take them out! They will perish in infamy, no, with the world being ignorant of them!"
"Yes, father," the eleven other girls said in delight. "We are as one for you."
"I'm not!" Guinevere said, being ready at her lover's side.
"Not now, but perhaps this will awaken your demonic nature," the Demon King of Disco said, gleefully anticipating their fall. He lead off and the princesses, minus one, all fell in place behind him. The tiles on the floor lit up in flashing colors and the giant mirror ball overhead spun bright rainbows everywhere on the selectively lit stage. In the seats, the fans began to cheer for his victory.
The one with the fabulous shoes was a talented dancer, confidant too. That gave Guinevere a previously unforeseen boldness in following Reisa's lead. In the darkened lighting, the shoes gave off a heavenly glow, making their tango seem to glide across the stage. Not wanting to give them any quarter, the Demon King signaled the DJ to increase the beat to a hellish tempo. A couple of the older girls excitedly began to strip, making the audience eager with passion.
However, Reisa was quick with a powerful censor counter that made a golden fog descend. When it lifted, the demon princesses were covered in obscuring leaves. They shrieked at the unwanted modesty and seven of them fell simply to that. Four were still going, although only the youngest showed any confidence now.
Barely a few notes later, a heavenly chorus broke in, drowning out the passionate music he had chosen. A group of five shining angels appeared in a flurry of white feathers, putting off such light that everyone could be seen. As the two girls started off a tap routine with the angels, they shone with love and joy that made the audience begin to cheer differently for them. Three more of the princesses gasped at the sight and collapsed in the agony of jealousy.
"Don't steal the show!" the Demon King shouted, pulling off a move that should darken the area again. The angels kept dancing and nothing darkened.
"Don't worry, father," the youngest princess Lucille said, tapping and twirling her way forward. "Hah, you think you can beat me in tap? People call me underdeveloped, but the truth is that I will forever be a child tap dancing star!"
A sharp pain of jealousy shot through the Demon King of Disco. Enraged, he grabbed Lucille and went to end her before she could really start. "No, no one steals the stage from me! No one gets away with stealing my spotlight!" Someone in the audience actually booed him. Flames burst out around him. "No one…!"
He got stopped short by one of Reisa's censor counters. Lucille's eyes widened in despair at the glamorous power of it; she faded away into nothing. Reisa danced closer to him. "You are a fallen star now. When word of this gets out, that you caused the deaths of your daughters, your fame will always be tarnished by your selfish greed." Then she kicked up an angelic glow around them. "And no one will love you."
"No, noooo!" he wailed, grabbing his hair and tearing it out. The shame was terrible, but the fear of losing his fame cut into his heart the deepest. As he faded away, a large sparkling ring dropped onto the floor.
Worst of all, his dark muse completely abandoned him to his fate.
Reisa had not wanted fame. When the Demon King of Disco's ring tried to speak with her, offering to turn her into an everlasting superstar, she denied it. She asked the angels to destroy it. Once it was gone, the demons went into a panic about no longer having a leader. It led to a desperate series of conflicts, the demons growing weaker with every failed wave. Now there were only a few lurking around Europa's icy landscape. Reisa and other dance soldiers were finally able to be put off-duty, to put together more peaceful lives.
In between his work, though, Mike often got lost in wondering what could have been. What if he'd confronted Theodore sooner about the dark path he was traveling? What if there'd been some way to turn the other eleven girls fully human instead of fully demon? And, what if he'd been able to talk Theodore out of putting on that ring in the first place? It hadn't seemed so dangerous, but then the holy shoes began denying him as their rightful owner.
If there was a way to go back in time…
However, that was also a power that demons tempted with. If such wishes were actually granted, one never heard about them. The people were making Europa a more peaceful place now. The Crystal Gala Palace was now a huge tourist attraction, although some spoke of the loss of the casinos as unfortunate. But as a result, people could build the lives that they deserved and find real happiness.
And if one looked to the new queens Reisa and Vera, one would think this was a happily ever after situation. Reisa hadn't wanted fame, but she'd earn widespread respect for her deeds and her name was spoken warmly throughout the galaxy already. Mike had a feeling that such respect would last much longer than a star's fame. As for Vera, she found her true calling as a manager and ruler, taking care of the practical aspects of leading a moon colony while leaving the defense and public speaking to Reisa. She often laughed in a way that she'd not done when she'd simply been one of the princesses, dancing just for the joy of it.
And perhaps it was time for Mike to shake off the chains of regret. It had been stressful being the partner of The King, giving so much out of love when he was afraid that little caring was being given back to him. Mike had made many mistakes too and had suffered for them. Now that he was free… he still felt the shadows of sadness often, still asked himself these unanswerable questions. But he knew he was loved now, by his dear daughter and daughter-in-law. He also had grandchildren to look forward to.
There might be a way for him to rediscover himself, even to find happiness.