"Onwards!" the troubadour Lowell ordered his odd party, pointing his mandolin like a sword in the direction of the dilapidated castle sitting on the edge of a cliff. "The riches, I can already smell them!"
His beaming smile's brightness was only beat by his blindingly satiny clothing, a matching red ensemble and hat, decorated with bands of reflective fabric, given this property by the gold that was weaved in. His face seemed haughty, but his charm was genuine; angular, sharp traits enhanced by a pointy goatee at the end of his chin.
Roland the shieldbearer grunted, his entire, massive body covered head to toe in a steel armor with a decorative coat of silver painted over it. The same went for his shields, each as tall as himself, anchored to his arms. The group had been on a few adventures already, but none had promised such a hefty reward as this one.
Well, it was all legends and hearsay that Lowell had gathered, no one was paying them to go there this time - but apparently it was worth more than the trouble if the promised wealth was indeed in the dungeon of this castle owned by the Mad King, who had received his nickname from his eccentricity rather than any form of malice on his end. It was said he could glance into the future thanks to a pact he’d made with a deity when he was but sixteen and fresh on the throne, and as such that none of his properties nor their contents were the fruit of happenstance.
The last two companions, a mage and a ranger, stayed silent. The secretive mage, a scarred and bald man in a blue robe covered in sigils, was committing to memory his spells for the day, while the ranger Doan - youngest of the group, with an impeccably shaved face, wearing a bandana that was keeping his long hair out of his face, a brown leather garment and beige reinforced cotton pants - was silently brooding, glancing back and forth between the musician and the group's protector in a bit of a messy display of emotions. Shooting angry glances at the troubadour was nothing new, but the unclear situation with the shieldbearer came from last night's watch.
The mage closed his book with a clap and glanced at the gigantic metal bars signaling the entrance of their adventure of the day.
The metal splintered inwards, letting the group enter an imposing grotto resembling a hall. "You're welcome," the magician mumbled before lighting up his hand. This floor and its cells had long been emptied, leaving nothing to do but to progress further. Doan seemed inquisitive; he glanced at the circular stairs that lead down to the challenge gauntlet proper and thought for a moment, a sign his companions recognized as needing to wait for him to speak out his plan.
"I'm gonna go ahead and see if I spot any traps," he finally explained.
"Sure. Be careful, friend," replied Roland, dropping a knee to the ground to take a break under his weighty armor.
"We're rooting for you, brother in arms!" Lowell playfully sang, accompanying it with a couple notes from his instrument.
"Aren't you gonna need a light?" the mage offered.
"I'm properly equipped, don't worry," Doan replied, taking out enchanted lenses he'd obtained in one of their previous quests. Putting them on, he could see as clear as day.
He carefully went down the stairs, one step at a time, until the echoes of his feet were but a distant memory to the rest of the group.
Too few moments later they heard something crashing down on the floor below them. They rushed to their companion's rescue, the shieldbearer uncharacteristically taking the lead over the musician.
The door they found at the bottom of the stairs had had its lock picked open, and Roland continued his dash inside. The mage quickly followed behind to light up the room, only to find a gigantic stone slab easily taking up the two thirds of the room smashed against the floor, linked to the ceiling by a few wooden beams. A lever was on the wall on the other side of the room.
A simple crushing ceiling trap... There was no way Doan had fallen to that, right? He would never have made such a rookie mistake... He must be elsewhere, or the trap had a secret, or wasn't as it seemed... Roland started fearing for the fate of his companion, but knew he couldn't traverse the room in time to reach the lever, as the slab was already climbing back up and he didn't want himself trapped in the ceiling. Still, he was fearing what the panel lifting up was gonna reveal, as Lowell finally caught up and stopped right behind him.
With surprise, Roland discovered the bottom of the slab was covered by some manner of green jelly. He instantly recognized it as a gelatinous cube, though he'd never seen any spread so thin, nor what it was even doing as a component of a trap. His gaze didn't linger on the trap itself, however, as what he found underneath terrified him a lot more: Doan's clothes, covered in a brown goop that pulsated in rhythm with the trap's monstrous component. The armored man felt weak in the knees, and he stumbled down onto them, screaming at the top of his lungs the name of his now late best friend. Lowell looked away, consumed by guilt, but the mage only had to close his eyes for a second to keep his cool before concentrating his energy for a minute on a spell.
The result seemed to stun the mage for a moment. "I think it might be too soon to call it a death, my friend." He carefully put his hand on the behemoth's armored shoulder, transmitting him the thought he was hearing from the pile of colored goo on top of their friend's clothes.
"God dammit. I should've seen this happen. I'm scared..."
The goop seemed to slowly raise a formless appendage out of itself, sliding forwards and dragging the clothes along with its slug-like movement.
"Yeah, of course you should've seen this happen, Doan." / "Why are you accusing me, myself? How are we communicating like this?" / "Don't leave me behind, please!"
The limbs multiplied fast, going from one to five, then from five to fifteen. The brown goo seemed to shift colors, splitting into three the closer it got to the other side of the room. One of its sides was turning red, the second purple, and the last, a bright yellow.
Roland was utterly stunned at the spectacle, a glint of recognition in his eyes. Something about this was... Well, he'd somehow expected it. The three sludges of unicolor slime really were his friend - his friends. Roland's mind drifted back to the conversation of last night.
Roland was stirred awake by the sound of stifled sobs. Opening his eyes and scratching the back of his short blond hair, he realised it was coming from the ranger in charge of this half of the night's watch. Something very out of character for the one who usually switched between calculating and impulsive. Roland's protective instincts kicked in, and he quickly found himself approaching Doan.
"Hey," he said, trying to get his companion's attention.
Doan turned around relatively suddenly, and went back to his frequent anger. "Dammit. Hey. Tell me you haven't just seen this."
"Well..." Roland scratched his head. "I've heard it, mostly. Mind if I sit next to you?"
Doan replied with a groan and let him sit, then his demeanor changed once more to his collected side. "Should I tell him?"
He engaged in a dialogue with himself, Roland awkwardly being placed in the role of the spectator. "Am I out of my mind!?"
"No, I am not. If I think about it, we're gonna travel with this group a while longer. It'll do me good to have someone to confide in."
"So I'm just gonna select him out of the bunch simply because he heard me sob at night!?"
"No, brain, that's just not fair. Roland isn't just anyone. You know what happened with the lizardmen ambush just as much as I do."
Roland decided to use this as an excuse to butt in to what seemed to be this self-imposed mental dialogue spoken aloud. "Ah, the lizardmen... Bet their chieftain is still finding a tooth in his tent every once in a while after that shield bash of mine." The reminisced adventure brought a tentative smile to the ranger's face, his crisped body loosening a bit. "Look, Doan. I don't really know exactly what's troubling you. I can more or less see the effects, but I'm very lost regarding the reason why. But if there's one thing I know, it’s that I want to be here for you no matter what's happening in that little brain of yours. I want to be here for everyone here. I have way better things to do with my energy than to judge."
"I understand that, yes," replied Doan. "Which is why I am deciding to tell you now."
He groaned at himself for a moment. "If this goes belly-up, I do not take responsibility for this one."
"It won't," Roland assured him.
Doan collected himself once more, sat up straight, and went over how he would say this once in his thoughts before starting to speak. "I am sure you're aware by now I have... Well, I call them two modes of thought."
Roland nodded in silence, letting Doan talk about this at his own pace.
"I have this current one, which most of the time appears relatively calm and collected, though that'd be untrue. It is more that I think things through before taking any decision. And I have this other one, where I think on my feet and go with my gut. When I don't know what to do, I let them bicker and reach a conclusion."
"Yeah," affirmed Roland. "So far, there's nothing there that I didn't know. You know your two kinds of thought have busted our asses out of some complex situations, right?" He gave a warm smile to his friend and offered him a hug, and once the embrace was exchanged, he went back to a more serious look on his face. "But I'm guessing that's not the whole story?"
Doan sighed. "Nah. It's not. Again, don't tell anyone, you got it?"
Roland replied by gesturing zipped up lips.
"Okay." Doan's thought-through mode slipped out again. "The thing is, and it is hard to admit, I have this third mode of thought. But it's a little bizarre. I don't really see its use, beyond that... Let me think... It is comfortable?" he chirped, testing out the word before nodding to himself. "Really comfortable."
"Hmm. Was that the one I heard sobbing earlier?" asked Roland with care in his voice, trying not to sound aggressive nor mocking in any way.
"Yes, that was the third mode. It is soft and empathic, I guess I would describe it? It cares more about seeing the good in everyone. And tonight, it felt like crying, because we have been under a lot of stress, with the constant danger our lives have been lately. It really helped, letting it all out."
"I'm glad," Roland replied with another smile. He let the silence linger for a minute or two as they both laid down to look at the stars. Anything that could attack them, they would hear it anyway. "May..." the kind man tentatively tried. "May I meet this third way for you of being yourself?"
Doan chuckled, taking on his quick-thinking voice again. "From the way you're talking of it, it's like the thought modes were different people."
His smile dissipated for a moment as he pondered over this new thought. "That doesn't sound right, does it...? Hmm. Probably not."
"Well, a probably not is not a no? It could be," tried Roland.
"I suppose," Doan replied. "Anyway, promise you won't hurt me in this third mode. I really care about it."
"I understand. And I won't."
Doan closed his eyes, then, to Roland's surprise, scuttered over in his arms. "Thank you," he said, teary-eyed.
Roland didn't know what to do with his hands, so he let them rest under his head, looking at the stars.
"Isn't it lovely to be alive...?" Doan muttered...
It was Roland's turn to chuckle, hearing the question.
"Actually, I think I might have another secret..." he continued, his voice still just as sweet.
By the time Roland was back in the moment, the Doans had finished splitting apart, and were making their way to the lever, the red and purple one pulling on the yellow one's arms, barely missing being crushed a second time as the trap activated again, having sensed movement on the ground. In an instant, the red one reached up and pulled the lever with all its weight, but the purple one had to join in and recruit the yellow one to total enough force to pull the lever down.
With a click, the trap immediately stopped dead in its tracks, then slowly receded into the ceiling, probably to stay in there permanently. The rest of the group cautiously traversed and made their way to their split companion, and the first two observations they could make were that the Doans were notably naked, with only one set of clothes that were way too big for them anyway, and they were just as notably female.
The red one still had a boyish quality to her, with gel in guise of hair that dripped from her head into the approximation of a pixie cut. The purple one's hair was the most similar to what Doan had before, stopping just above her shoulders. And, last, the yellow one's hair was so long it was hard to determine where it ended and her back started, the slime flowing uniformly between the two without any indication of a seam.
Roland was stunned, the mage sighed and pinched his nose bridge, and Lowell sneered.
"So I guess we really were different people in the end," Purple Doan said, her hand resting under her chin. "I would've given me a couple weeks before figuring that out without this."
Red Doan stomped towards her and went to grab her chest, eliciting a yelp from both of them as her hand sunk in instead. She pretended that was the plan all along. "And what about this, how long 'til that bit would've been figured out?"
Purple Doan took a step back and looked down at herself. "Okay... No, this is new, I agree..."
"Girls..." Yellow Doan meekly said. "Girls, I knew."
"Well, why did you not say anything, then?" complained Red Doan.
"I'm sorry... I thought I was the only one... That only in my thought mode we were a girl..." She seemed to get teary eyed already.
Red Doan rolled her eyes and closed the distance, giving her yellow twin a hug. "I'm here," Purple joined in. "We're here."
"Uuurrgh, this is so complicateeed!" Lowell complained, in a tone that was so forced it was clear he was going out of his way to be a dick. The mage was sitting alone in a corner of the trap room, reviewing his spells once more, and Roland was mind-numbingly petting Anna.
"Okay, last time I'm going over this, I've already wasted half an hour trying to get it into that thick skull of yours," Drix growled, somehow still trying to go past Lowell's bad-faith concern. "I'm Drix. Smarty pants over there is Orwenna, and if you touch just one hair... drop of goop on Anna's head, I'm kicking your ass. And us three together, we were Doan."
"But how cooome you were three peooople? And girls at thaaat!" Lowell sneered again.
"Let it go, Lowell. Or I'll join in the ass kicking," Roland warned.
"Thanks, Sir Roland..." Anna muttered.
Roland managed to stop most of the blush going to his head.
Lowell stood back up. "Anyway, ranger shenanigans aside, we really can't bring three naked child-sized slime women with us. I say we abandon the frea-" He took a shield to the face, shutting him up for the time being.
It was Anna's turn to blush, she hadn't even had the time to react to Roland standing up.
"Why are you being insufferable today, Lowell? You're not like this usually," questioned Roland.
Lowell refused to answer, simply spitting out the blood in his mouth.
"I hate to admit it, but Lowell has a point," Orwenna announced. "I do not want to stay naked when we're on a potentially mortal quest. I do not know how much my, or rather our, new bodies can take, but this really is not convenient."
The mage closed his book with his trademark clap and approached the rest of the group. "Why don't you just fuse back? You are made of amorphous jelly now. Surely that's feasible."
Orwenna and Drix looked at each other for some time, then at the mage. "It's worth a try," Orwenna tentatively admitted.
The slime women grabbed one another's hands in what Orwenna called "the procedure", though it was but a fancy and unnecessary way of melding back together. They wanted it to feel important for their first time. So they'd prepared a whole little pseudo-choreography, where they'd first grab their hands, then slide their arms against one another, before embracing into a full hug. The colors melded into one another the further contact was made, but they somehow never mixed together. Instead of turning back to the earlier brown, the purple, red and yellow shimmered next to one another like oil as the slime figure lost the shape of the three women and a new one, still just as humanoid, rose up from the slime pile, correctly sized. When finally the limbs and head emerged, it was undeniable this woman was what Doan would've looked like had she been born a girl (and a slime). Doan looked at their multicolor body with appreciation. "I'm still me," they muttered to themselves. "I'm more me than ever."
They slipped on their clothes from earlier, which would've been notably tight in some areas had they not been made of free flowing goop. In this form, the notion of tightness meant very little as they could slip into even the smallest crevice.
"Wait, hold on... Where did the lenses go?" They thought for a moment. "Mage, can you turn off your spell?"
The aforementioned obliged for a brief moment, before lighting his hand again to avoid letting his companions in the dark.
Doan had stars in their eyes. "I have permanent night vision..."
As the group continued on their way through their adventure, while Roland was grateful for this newfound smile on his friends' head, he couldn't help but feel a churning in his gut as he thought of what else the Mad King could have put down there...