She strengthened her grip on her sword, having barely managed to block my last assault. I roared my usual triumphant laugh. "Admit it, heroine, you are no match for my raw power! The throne will be mine!"
"Not as long as I'm still standing!" she replied, with the naïve bravery only the queen's appointed savior could have. She adjusted her stance, pointing the tip of her sword towards me.
"And how long will that be? How long will you be able to withstand my strength? You and I both know, heroine, that you are outmatched in both force and endurance." I approached one of the crumbled pillars of the hall, and did a show of crushing it into a thousand pieces under my armored foot, leaving a mark on the marble floor below. She barely faltered, obviously used to my showing off. Not that she could do much against it - launching a frontal assault, even a surprise one, would be suicide for her. "A formidable opponent you are, that much I'll admit, but you could never win against me. You know that. I know that. I know you are stalling for time, while the Queen is fetching whatever magical artifact she uses to banish me away, fully aware I will be back in two weeks' time."
"I will not let you harm a single hair on the Queen's head," she replied, standing impressively still and focused, but ever on the defensive.
"Exactly. I am so tired of you constantly blocking my path." I grinned, finally getting to the point of my little speech. "Which is exactly why, this time, I came prepared. Prepared with a tool that will give me such power! This little spar of ours will be over as soon as I use... THIS!" I flicked open my coat, revealing my plan with a mad smile. I had obtained a scroll of dark magic.
Her eyes flicked to it, and I recognised the emotion she was suppressing. It was panic. "Y-You can't! This is permanent magic! You're about to make a gigantic mistake!"
"Au contraire, heroine. It is finally time for me to taste the spoils of victory." I slid the scroll out of my belt, and showed her the runes adorning its seal. She knew their meaning of course, but I spoke it aloud anyway. "A scroll of 'the beast within'. It'll make me a being of inhuman strength, and finally I will defeat you and take my rightful place as king of this land!"
"Please, I implore you, don't do this! You don't even know what it'll do to you!" Her concern for my well-being was laughable. I knew it for what it was, an attempt at persuasion - she didn't care about me, she cared about the destruction I'd be causing. A small price for my crown.
"In this body or another, I care not. Power is worth any cost!" I tore open the scroll, releasing its magic from its infused runes. Immediately I felt a surge in energy lifting me off the ground, and I only had the time to throw a last, victorious look at the fearful (yet remarkably still not trembling) heroine before obscuring purple smoke billowed around me.
This tempest of mist made me unable to glance at what was happening to me. But it was fine, the sensations were more than enough for me to understand. I felt the magic tear my clothes to shreds, so that it could access my body. I felt it seeping in from my every pore, a tenebrous fire coursing through my veins, going straight for my heart. I felt it wash over it, reading it, and spread out to accomplish its task.
It started from the details, and built up from there. I felt tearing in my teeth, them changing into an aggressive shape. I ran my tongue over them, finding them pleasantly pointier and perfect for ravenous biting. My fingers split open at their tips, my nails slotting in to become claws. I poked at my palm with them, satisfied with their apparent sharpness. My ears twisted and turned and lifted themselves upward on my head, becoming beast-like and able to hear even the most minute details. My feet's soles retreated to my toes, as my heels moved upwards on my calves, giving me the legs of a monster no one could outrun. The fur came in next, surprisingly careful in where it appeared, my torso and face left barren - made barren, my beard vanishing off into the mist.
Things started getting harder to decipher. I felt my limbs stretch out, or at least I believed that's what that was. My pectorals grew and grew, I understood it as my torso gaining strength. I felt something push out above my butt, an element of beasts human didn't possess, I realised.
Then... something happened? In my pelvis. It was... I didn't grasp it. My mind would have shut down had I tried to comprehend it, so instead I forgot about it even happening. And when finally I felt a surge, my muscles trembling back and forth with strength - it was exhilarating. Another mad smile etched itself on my face as finally the power of the scroll coursed within me. I felt it go dormant, its task finished, but its presence was evident.
My monstrous padded feet touched the ground again, and I could smell precisely where the heroine was. But, thanks to the still present smoke, she couldn't see me. My grin unfaltering, I felt my strength build up in my legs, and I dashed towards her with the firm intent of tackling her into the wall behind. She didn't even have the time to register my attack that already there was a brutal impact for which I closed my eyes, followed by a sudden stop. I continued my smile, absolutely certain we had just rammed into the wall. I felt my new beastly appendage rock left and right like an overzealous pendulum. I opened my eyes smugly, fully expecting to see her lifeless corpse encrusted into the stone... But I found myself needing to stare upwards to get a look at her face...? And we hadn't moved an inch? ...And she was blushing?
"By the goddesses..." she mumbled and dropped her sword, making me quizzical.
"What?" I spoke, but it wasn't my voice. This one was childish? No, not childish. It was... Another kind of high pitch. I looked down at my body in concern.
What had appeared at the bottom of my back was a canine tail. And my limbs hadn't stretched out... They'd become lithe. If anything had stretched, it was the world around me - I was about half my usual towering height, merely reaching the heroine's shoulder when standing straight. The earlier trembling of my muscles had actually made them fade slightly rather than bulk up. And my pectorals hadn't grown in size for strength, but for femininity. They'd become... breasts. I cupped them and, overwhelmed, I screamed in panic.
I didn't understand. I didn't understand! I felt the need to immediately flee, hide and never ever show myself again, yet my feet felt immobile as stone, void of any strength to run away. I'd never felt such intense emotions in my entire life. I'd never felt fear, yet here I was under such a gigantic amount of it. And it wasn't fear of something else, or fear for my life, or anything of that regard. It was just... Fear unlabelled, directionless.
"What happened?" I asked. "What happened!?" I asked again, both times to no one in particular.
"This is amazing," I heard the heroine say. I glanced back up at her face to see her cheeks still painted red. "You look adorable." She looked so calm about this, it's like she'd been expecting this result... My mind jumped to conclusions.
"YOU," I crisply said. "You did this to me, didn’t you, heroine!?" With anger inhabiting me again, I regained my ability to act and threw myself at her, screaming and punching her with all my might. It didn't even leave a chink in her armor. My punches turned into mere banging on her torso in desperation.
I don't know what she replied, I wasn't listening. But she wrapped her arms around me and started humming a song. I was confused, and scared, and powerless, and here was my arch-nemesis trying to comfort me. I went to bite her shoulder in rage, discovering with glee that my mouth had at least gained enough strength to pierce through chainmail - a small consolation for my power lost everywhere else - but while I drew blood, she didn't seem to mind in the least and just continued her song.
Combativity escaped my body and I stumbled on my knees; she lowered herself in turn to follow my movement. I still had my teeth in her flesh, but I'd calmed down to a mere absent-minded nibbling, tears flowing down my cheeks, another new experience for me. I let go of her shoulder. "This song..." I'd realised…
"Magical lullaby. Calms down even the fiercest animals," the heroine replied gently, slowly caressing my hair and my back.
I looked down at the ground. "What happened?" I asked this question again, hoping she'd repeat her answer I hadn't heard.
"Nothing you didn't want, I believe. It was a scroll of the beast within, after all."
"What? But...!" I couldn't even express my thoughts aloud, barely articulate them to myself even. She was wrong! I hadn't wanted this. There was no way in the world this form was my interior beast. I expected a giant monster, capable of tearing down walls and killing any that dared oppose me in a single hit, not... Not this puny, fragile, feminine thing! "There must've been a mistake." That I managed to say. "This is not me, is it..." I wondered why I'd used that tone, let alone even said those last two words. It was supposed to be an affirmation, yet I'd turned it into a saddened question. This was not me... And again that 'was it?' creeped behind that specific thought, making me feel great discomfort. I didn't know where it came from... An internal voice's own internal voice was what it felt like.
"Hold on. We need to go see the queen, she knows more about magic than I do." She removed her first layer of clothes - her yellow tunic (leaving her chainmail exposed) - and she handed it to me. "Wear this and follow me."
"What!?" I exclaimed in embarrassment. I couldn't accept for so many reasons. Firstly, I wasn't her ally. I wasn't about to accept her help just because I suddenly needed it. Secondly, this tunic was iconic, it was hers. For every single one of our fights, she’d worn it. I knew its meaning, and had no claim to it. Thirdly, I wasn't going to just... wear her clothes. I'd rather go stark naked than be seen in women's apparel, even one meant for fighting. But those reasons could be flipped on their heads - she helped me, her mortal enemy, because that's just the kind of goody two-shoes she is, her tunic was mere clothes to her, and I just... wanted to hide my pitiful body.
I reluctantly slid the yellow fabric over my head and barely managed to poke my hands out of the sleeves. It was too big for me. How many more things could make me aware of my diminished height?
"Come." She held out her hand, a bit of blush peeking out of her cheeks - I still hadn't understood what about this situation she seemed to enjoy so much. I put my hand in hers without really thinking it through, and she beamed before tightening her grip and dragging me out of the room.
She guided me through a labyrinth of unfamiliar corridors and rooms - I'd never managed to progress this far into the castle before - her tight grip and sudden turns almost causing me to trip at every corner in her route.
I expected she was bringing me to the throne room, but after she made me climb the stairs of the highest tower, I realized it wasn't so. She flung open a wooden door that lead into a messy room that encircled the staircase, and shouted "My queeeen~! The castle is safe!" in an overjoyous fashion.
"Ah, that's a relief!" replied the voice of the person I hated the most in the entire world, while we entered the room. Further glances told me this was some manner of research laboratory, with many magical artifacts carelessly strewn about. After hearing a bell ring on the other side of the room, loud enough it could've been heard anywhere in the castle, I felt my blood boil as I prepared myself to meet the cause of all my woes. "Oh my, who is that next to you, Linny?" It was her, indeed. I recognised her face from the obverse of every coin in the kingdom, and of course, her voice from every time her spell cast me away. Queen Azathel. She was wearing inelegant but practical clothes one would find on an artisan, with the same yellow as the tunic I was wearing for their main color.
"That's Him!" the heroine replied cheerfully.
"Honey, that's a girl. What 'him' are you talking about?" I felt a bit of cold sweat crawling down my spine. 'Honey'? 'Girl'!?
"Well, you know,... Oh wow, we have never learned his name, have we?" I tried to take her aloofness as an opportunity to jump on the queen and tear her neck to shreds with my new bite, but found myself stopped by the heroine's hand still gripping mine, and I felt scared I couldn't escape even that grasp. Still, the queen read my hostility for her, and I noticed in her eyes a glint indicating she pieced together my identity.
"Wait... You mean, that 'Him'? The one you were just fighting and that I've had to teleport away too many times to count?" She covered her mouth in shock, and I felt even more humiliated and beaten than I already did.
"I... have a name!" I roared in frustration. "And you better remember it for when I'll have taken your place on the throne! It's..." I paused. “It’s…” My expression switched back from anger to terror. "It's...!" Trying to say it a bit more forcefully didn’t help. Both women had their eyes on me, and my name refused to come out of my mouth. After an awkward silence, I turned my head away, red as a beet.
"Beast within?" simply asked the queen, to both my and the heroine's surprise.
"How did you put that one together?" asked my nemesis.
"Well, until the name thing it could've been a cursed piece of armor or something of that kind, but with that specific element... Hold on, I'll fetch my book on scrolls," the queen said, and turned back behind the stone staircase.
"Goddesses do I love it when you get all bookwormy," she replied, confirming my worst suspicions.
The heroine was into women, in a relationship with the queen, and her blushing earlier was her finding me attractive. I WAS attractive? That last thought made me feel immense stupor, yet my tail couldn't stop wagging.
"There we go," we heard from the side of the room, before the queen came back in our field of view holding a gigantic encyclopedia. "Scroll of the beast within - turns the user into a bestial representation of their soul's inner-most desires, yadda yadda..." She skimmed through, looking for something specific. "Ah. The resulting beast bears its own name and refuses to use its old one to address itself."
"Wow. That's a potent spell," commented my naïve captor.
"Black magic tends to be, yeah. It's very dangerous stuff to use, even for an evil monarch-wannabe." She glared at me with daggers in her eyes.
But I'd been a bit too stunned by an element of her book's description of the spell to respond to her glance. I had to ask. "The soul's inner-most desires?"
The room fell silent. The heroine started ruffling my hair with her free hand in what I supposed was an attempt to make me feel better.
"But I never asked for this..." I added, hoping for an answer.
"One doesn't always know what their subconscious wants most," replied the queen dryly.
There was no way this was the truth… This inner-most stuff... I needed to see that book myself. I tugged at my hand, and the heroine let me go. In retrospect, I should've attacked the queen here and there, but that option didn't even traverse my thoughts. I just mechanically grabbed at the book until the queen let me read the page about the scroll I'd used.
And unless the book lied as well, what the queen had said was the truth.
"So, uh... Identity-shattering revelations aside, what's your name?" asked my rival, dragging me out of my daze. "Your beast-name, since apparently that's your new one."
"It's not just his new one," explained the queen, "It's even more his name than his human one ever was. It is, after all, a name his own soul came up with."
"Err, my queen, question... Shouldn't we say her rather than his, considering?" I looked at my pea-brained imbecile of an enemy with dread in my thoughts, and my tail excitedly rocking back and forth, revealing desires unknown even to me. How was my soul so discordant with the rest of me? ...Or, demons no, was I the one discordant with my soul?
"Ask him, not me," she replied dryly again. "But I want to know his name first."
"...How do I know my name?" I asked.
"It's literally the first thing that's gonna pop in your head when you ask yourself what your name is," she said with exasperation.
"Yeah, I... really don't think so." I hoped she was mistaken, even if up to now and to my great dismay it was likely she hadn't been. "So how do I actually know my name?"
"I just told you. You know what your name is," she replied, causing me to feel tense again.
"No I don't! There is no way what just appeared in my thoughts is my name!" It was just too embarrassing to be that.
"Yes it is! That's the name your soul chose! Now what is it!?" she shouted at me.
I stayed silent, refusing to speak this name, and now having the excuse of defiance.
My nemesis wrapped her arms around me again, and hummed her magic song once more. I hated that she had this tool to force me to calm down, but it was so good and relaxing. Once she felt my muscles release their tenseness, she took her turn at asking me a question. "What's the thought that appears when you ask yourself your name?"
"Lilac," I replied.
"That's an adorable name."
"That's the problem," I muttered.
"That's a problem?" she asked, incredulous. The queen got disinterested and went back to her research.
"In case you have forgot, stupid heroine- "
She interrupted me. "Call me Linny."
"In case you have forgot, I am not a... frivolous she-beast! I am a man with strength such that I should be the one wielding power here!"
She hummed her song again and I cursed under my breath.
With my anger dissipated, I spoke my thoughts a bit more freely. "...But I guess I'm not that anymore..."
"Lilac, you were never that," Linny replied. "No one is beholden to power through their abilities. It's the actions that matter. I know other monarchies tend to function differently, but my queen here had to always do what was right to obtain her position." I didn't care for the lesson. "...Plus, if this is what your soul is... Well, it's a shame that something so beautiful was hidden beneath this angry facade this whole time." Demons no, her words hit me stronger than any of the cuts her sword ever gave me. I felt tears build up in my eyes and blood pooling beneath my cheeks... And, of course, this traitorous tail that spoke the loudest. This body was nonsensical in its honesty, saying things I was the one incredulous about, yet that I could only suppose were the truth.
She smiled, her cheeks red as well.
"My queen?" she queried her attention.
"Yes, love?" the queen replied without digging her nose out of her studies.
"Can I court Lilac?"
"WHAT!?" I exclaimed in surprise. "But I thought the queen and you were..." Why was that even my primary concern?
"Oh, I love many people! My queen Azathel, Katie, she’s the adorable milkmaid, Josephine, who’s a badass kitchen hand... That's just the girls I'm in a relationship with, there are many others I just adore but haven't asked out yet." I was again surprised by how sincere she seemed to be - she truly loved each of them, as indicated by the fondness-filled smile that adorned her face.
"Goddesses, are you cute when you fangirl over your loves," Azathel added, mirroring her knight's earlier compliment. "Sure, do as you please with 'Lilac', but you're not gonna change them in a day."
"Well I don't need to, she's already changed! The rest will come naturally," the woman that still was supposed to be my nemesis replied with a smile I would have qualified as naïve earlier that day.
I glanced at the door and considered here and there to just make a run for it. Ignore Linny's craziness, flee the castle, dedicate my life to trying to find a way to change back, and come back to claim my throne once that was done. The problem with that plan was that Linny wasn't crazy... If anyone in that room was, it most likely was me.
Plus, my legs refused to move again.
And I... wanted to try this. I believe. Maybe it was my ‘soul’ speaking. But, as my soul was me… I was speaking.
"V-very well, heroine," I stated, doing my best to focus my glance as far away from her face as possible, as otherwise I might not have been able to finish my speech. "I shall allow you to... go ahead with your attempts at courting me." My tail wagged ferociously. "That does not, however, mean that I will renounce on my attempts to take hold of the throne that is rightfully mine, and as such, I demand that we spar once a day with the goal of determining on which head, between the queen’s and mine, the crown should rest!"
Queen Azathel audibly groaned in jest. "What a terrific training partner she's going to be, Linny. Be careful not to be repeatedly swatted by that hurricane of fur on her back."
"Take me seriously! It will not be training! It will be genuine fighting for the fate of this kingdom!" I replied, trying to hold on as much as I could to the fragments of my ambition.
"I'd love to train with you, Lilac!" Linny said with enthusiasm, before giving me another hug and humming her song again.
"I said it'll not just be training..." was all I managed to speak out before calm got to me again, and I mindlessly started chewing on her shoulder.
The sparring sessions with the heroine were my modicum of familiarity in this new life I pursued. Not able to rely on my strength anymore, I had to relearn how to use a sword, like I used to in my teen years. My presence at the castle was cause for panicky glances in the beginning, which I took in stride - as I after all used to make alarms need to ring, a couple surprised looks were nothing in comparison.
Linny took little time to introduce me to her loves, Katie and Josephine first, so they could be aware I too was with Linny now, but her numerous crushes as well. I swear by the demons and the goddesses, there wasn't a single woman in this castle she didn't have her eyes on. In time, I appreciated this aspect of her, and learned to push her to pursue her heart, even if only a rare few of them didn't end as rejections... There was nothing wrong with just not being interested, but I still decided to make a game out of scaring those that refused, until Azathel heard of it and I was scolded into not doing it again.
Eventually, I was made a knight of the kingdom, and given a tunic identical to Linny's, only tailored to my proportions and my 'hurricane of fur'. A new undesirable had gotten its sights on the crown. He reminded me of my old self a lot. I hated him. Out of curiosity, I slipped him a scroll of the beast within... A lot of running away from a giant boar was done that day.