The homeless teen child slept in a back alleyway under a threadbare blanket, hidden well enough that not many people would bother him. The blanket wasn’t quite sufficient to keep out the winter chill, but he was too inundated with exhaustion and hunger to care. Dead to the world, he suffered through many twisted and nonsensical nightmares.
Something stirred him from that unhappy sleep. A prodding in his chest, directly beneath his solar plexus. Groggily he opened his eyes, and saw a booted foot pressed to his stomach. Too weary to panic, he looked up.
A soldier stood over him, dressed in leather armor whose breastplate bore Saimonica’s sigil, the Eleven-Spoked Moon. He was a tough-looking man whose jawline was peppered with slight stubble; his expression was unreadable.
“Hey. You. Vagrant child,” the soldier said.
The teen boy groaned. “Mrmph?” He tried to roll away from the prodding foot, to no avail.
“You seem exhausted,” the soldier continued. “Would you like a warm bed and a meal?”
The boy sat up slowly, studying the soldier with tired eyes. Nobody ever offered him food and bed for free. There had to be a catch.
“C’mon. Follow me.” The soldier grabbed his arm, lifting him up, and pulled him along. The boy knew better than to struggle.
The soldier guided him back to a large barracks building. There were few other people milling about this late at night, and none of them paid the boy any heed. The soldier guided the boy to a back room and laid out a plate of food, piping hot boar meat and hardtack. The boy, still suspicious, nevertheless gave in to his growling stomach and scarfed the food down.
After that, the soldier herded the boy to a cot in the corner of the barracks. The blankets were thick and rough, but very warm. The boy passed out immediately and slept more soundly than he had in years.
When he awoke, the soldier was there. Sitting up, the boy looked at him suspiciously.
“What do you want with me?” he asked quietly.
The soldier grinned wolfishly. “Let me ask you this, vagrant. Would you like a hot meal every day, and a warm cot every night?”
The boy just stared, too wary to answer.
“If you join the army, you’re guaranteed those things. It’s a tough life, but better than one on the streets, no?”
The boy kept staring.
“C’mon, kid. Offers like this don’t come along every day,” the soldier pressed.
The boy considered his options. He’d seen soldiers around Saimonica quite a bit, and they usually ignored him. Why was this one so interested? Why was he trying to recruit him?
A second soldier walked up to the first. “C’mon, man. He looks kinda young, doesn’t he?”
The first soldier shrugged. “Like he has an official birth certificate? C’mon. We gotta fill our quota for the week or we won’t get our bonus. That’s my drinking money we’re talking about!”
The second soldier rolled his eyes. “Yeah, but vagrant kids? Isn’t that a bit desperate?”
“Oy. Fifth Division had a lotta success recruiting vagrants,” the first soldier said defensively. “They made their quota all year.”
So that was their game. They needed fresh blood for the army and didn’t have any ulterior motive other than that week’s bonus. In a perverse fashion they were being very forthright about their intentions, insidious as they were.
The boy considered his options… or rather, his lack of options. A life of begging, or a life in the military. It wasn’t a hard choice.
“I’ll do it,” he said.
“See? What’d I tell ya!” the first soldier said, slapping the second on the back. “Welcome to the army, kid. What’s your name?”
“Rixu. My name is Rixu.”
Fifteen years later, Rixu stared up at the White Monolith and sighed tiredly.
It had been a full week since he had escorted Diarn back to Saimonica, and promptly watched the smug Hero get thrown out into the Outer District. Rixu had expected to be quickly sent back to his post at the Anti-Demon Wall after that, but he’d been mysteriously ordered to stay in the Central District of Arcryid and await further instructions. So instead he whiled away his time on city patrol, strolling around perfectly manicured parks and spotless roads. It was extremely boring.
Normally, this would have been ideal for Rixu; getting paid just to walk around and look sharp in his armor. However, he couldn’t stand the Central District; the people, the nobles and clergy, annoyed him to no end. These were the very same folks who had tormented him for scraps of food back when he was homeless; now that he was a professional soldier, they smiled brightly and said patronizing things like “Thank you for your service!” He couldn’t stand their two-faced tripe.
Suddenly, Rixu heard loud yelling from the next street over. He placed his hand on the hilt of his sword and sprinted towards the sound. On the mostly-empty street, he found two merchants, a man and a woman, riding a single-serpenthede cart. They were being confronted by a clergyman, a High Breeder by the look of his white robes.
“I said this isn’t acceptable!” the High Breeder screeched, waving around a piece of paper. “It’s obviously fake!”
“I-It was issued directly by the Commerce Authority,” the man responded in a timid voice.
“Don’t you talk back to me, LOWBORN! The sight of your kind, scuttling around the Central District like you own the place… ugh, it makes me sick!”
Rixu slowed to a walk and stepped between the clergyman and the merchant couple, locking his gaze on the former. “Is there a problem here?” he said in a low, threatening voice.
“Ah, a soldier! Excellent!” the clergyman said, grinning wickedly. “Now we’ll get this settled! These two LOWBORN merchants are trespassing in the Central District using a fake permit!” He brandished the piece of paper he was holding.
Rixu snatched the paper from his hand and studied it. He’d read hundreds of these permits before, usually while working checkpoints, so it only took him a few moments to fully comprehend the pertinent details. Foremost, this was clearly an official stamped document, not a forgery.
“Everything seems to be in order to me,” he said to the clergymen, trying and failing to keep ice out of his voice. “This permit is completely legitimate.”
“What? That’s not… you…” the clergyman fumbled, momentarily distraught. “What are you talking about? It’s obviously fake! As a taxpaying citizen and faithful member of the Church, I demand you remove these LOWBORNS from the Central District immediately!”
De-escalation was not part of the official army curriculum, but Rixu hated confrontation and had picked up some techniques during his service. He reached into his satchel and pulled out a notepad and pen. “If you’d like to lodge an official complaint, sir, I can get that process started for you immediately. I’ll make sure a DETAILED report reaches the City Guard’s highest echelons without delay. First, may I have your name and place of residence?”
“WHAT?!” the clergyman sputtered. “Why do you need MY name?! Look at my robes! I’m a High Breeder! You should be asking them for THEIR name!”
“As you are the one lodging the complaint, sir, I need to get your information first,” Rixu said, his tone cool and level. “Both parties will be equally represented in the claim, so that the magistrates may reach a fair verdict. Your name, please.”
The clergyman stuttered in half-panic. “Wait, magistrates? You’re going to involve the courts?”
“That would be standard procedure, sir.”
“FORGET ABOUT IT! This isn’t worth the trouble!” the clergyman screeched, before scampering off like a frightened horned rabbit.
“…Have a nice day, sir,” Rixu called after him, snapping his notepad shut and returning it to his satchel. He turned to the merchant couple, who were staring at him in awe. He walked over to the large serpenthede that was hitched to their cart and started tenderly scratching the middle of its three heads. The beast hissed in satisfaction.
“It’s a good ‘thede you have here,” Rixu said, smiling. “Strong, calm, well-trained.”
“Oh… th-thank you…” said the merchant woman, still clinging to her husband’s arm.
Rixu walked over to them and handed back their permit. “My apologies for the trouble, sir and ma’am. I’d be happy to escort you to your destination to ensure you face no further trouble.”
“Th-Thank you, sir… I…” the man stuttered. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
“Rixu. My name is Rixu.”
Rixu chatted amicably with the merchant couple as he guided them to their destination, an upscale restaurant where they delivered a load of fresh vegetables. He then had a quick chat with the restaurant’s owner, advising him that the couple had some trouble with a High Breeder and suggesting he hire an escort for them going forward, a proposition the owner eagerly accepted. Then, Rixu left to return to his rounds.
As he exited the restaurant, he noticed a woman leaning on a nearby tree, dressed in simple coveralls and a wide straw hat. She had sandy blonde hair which complimented her olive skin, sky-blue eyes and stood about five foot six, almost half a foot shorter than Rixu. The woman grinned at him slyly.
“That was mighty neighborly of you, Rixu.”
Rixu walked over to the woman, staring curiously. “Sorry, have we met?”
“Nope! But I’ve read all about you!” she responded, still grinning.
Something tickled Rixu’s manasense, a wisp of violet-tinged energy. “A glamour? You’re using illusion magic?”
The woman’s grin vanished, and her eyes widened. “Damn. I’m impressed you noticed. Most folks ain’t sharp enough to see through my illusions.”
Rixu shrugged. “I worked checkpoints for nearly a decade. Lotta smugglers use illusion magic to try and sneak forbidden stuff past regional borders, so I got real good at seeing through glamours.”
The woman chuckled dryly for a moment before dispelling her glamour in a twisting torrent of violent mana. When the torrent vanished, a man stood there instead; six foot five, lightly muscled, perfect posture, dressed in a shirt and slacks that were a bit too large. His olive skin and blue eyes were the same as before, but his blonde hair was shorter and slicked back. He strode forwards and offered his hand to Rixu.
“Pleased to meet you. I’m Bob, from Special Tactics, Infiltration Division.”
Rixu took the hand and shook it firmly. “Bob, huh? That’s a really unusual name.”
The man sighed heavily. “I know, and I’m none to fond of it myself. I can’t count the number of times I wished my parents had named me something normal, like Gheizyn or Frabble or Rexardilon. Yet here I am, stuck with Bob.”
Bob was amicable and self-deprecating; Rixu got a good vibe from him. “So what does a Special Tactics ninja want with me?”
Bob the ninja grinned again. “I’ve got your marching orders. Is there somewhere we can talk in private?”
Despite the good vibes he was getting from Bob, Rixu’s heart sank when he heard about ‘marching orders.’ That meant he wasn’t going back to his cushy, boring posting on the Wall. And now a ninja… ninjas were bad news, every time.
The two men entered the restaurant Rixu had just left and rented a private room in the back. After a light lunch, Bob cast sound-absorbing illusion spells on the walls, floor and ceiling to ensure they could talk in complete privacy. Then he handed over a thick sheaf of papers.
Rixu scanned the military dispatch, and his sinking feeling grew. “A covert infiltration of… the Demon Realm? Seriously?” That sounded like a suicide mission.
“That’s right,” Bob confirmed. “Spec ops, highly classified. That’s why they recalled me from my posting in Arkaelia. Something’s got the brass rattled, and they want us to look into it.”
Rixu looked at Bob askance, before sighing and running his hand through his brown hair. “Why me, though? I’m just a grunt from the Wall.”
“Because you’re already involved,” Bob said, smiling lopsidedly. “You know about Diarn’s defeat and the defection of his party. You heard his detailed report, including his claims of slaying several of the Demon Lord’s top generals. You’re waist-deep in this, Rixu, whether you like it or not. Plus, according to your personnel file you speak Low Demonic.”
Rixu rolled his eyes. “The only reason I took those classes was for the money. You get moved up one pay grade if you pass a Low Demonic language certification.”
Bob laughed dryly. “Well, congratulations. You accidentally qualified yourself for this mission. According to your file you’re a competent soldier, well-liked and amicable, consistently high marks on every metric from martial skills to operational knowledge. The only negative thing I could find was your commanders saying you ‘lacked ambition.’”
Rixu folded his arms behind his head and leaned back in his chair, perching it on the back two legs. “It’s not that I ‘lack ambition,’ Bob. I’m just LAZY. I hate conflict, I hate excitement, I hate adventure. I’ve had enough of those things to last a hundred lifetimes. I want to be posted somewhere quiet, some isolated guard tower in the boonies where I can watch the scenery and do nothing whatsoever all day long.”
That didn’t sound quite right to Bob. “If you hate excitement so much, why did you spring to the rescue of that merchant couple earlier? You could have just ignored them and walked the other way,” he pressed.
Rixu returned all four legs of his chair to the ground and leaned forwards, looking deep into Bob’s sky-blue eyes. “Look, dude. Just because I’m lazy doesn’t mean I’m an asshole. If I see someone in trouble, I’m gonna help them out.”
Bob smiled again, his expression warm and genuine. “I see. You’re a good person, Rixu. I think you and I are going to get along nicely.”
Rixu leaned back again and groaned. Why, oh why, could he never achieve the boring, drama-free life he so craved?
Most of Saimonica’s intelligence assets were focused on its rival human superpower, the Arkaelian Empire. Comparatively, infiltrations of the Demon Realm were relatively rare; the number that had been successfully conducted in the last century could be counted on one hand. Bob the ninja was a veteran of one such infiltration, the only one still active in the Army, which made him the logical choice to spearhead this new mission.
“So, obviously, illusion magic is the name of the game here. When we venture into any demonic cities or towns, I’ll use glamours to disguise us both as elves. That way we won’t draw any suspicion.”
“Elves?” Rixu asked, tilting his head. Elves were among the most populous and widespread of the demonic species, and their diaspora could be found in every corner of the Realm.
“Yup! I developed an elf persona during my last infiltration. Here, check it out.” Bob stood up from his chair and began to incant a spell, pulling in mana from the Violet Moon. A complex spell circle, filled with runic formulas, formed around his feet.
“Sykzet, master of sight and sensation.
Grant unto me a new form.
An illusionary puppet to shroud my body.
Let all who see me believe the lie.
As Bob spoke each new line of the spell, the violet spell circle twisted and changed. When he spoke the spell’s name, he was enveloped in a small tornado of mana; when it dispersed, an illusory young-looking elvish warrior woman stood there instead.
Bob’s glamour stood about five six, same as his last disguise, and a full foot shorter than his actual height. The elf shared Bob’s olive skin and sky-blue eyes; however, the similarities ended there. The elf was lithe and curvaceous, with silver-accented leather armor that showed a lot of skin, long pointed ears and radiant silver hair that reached down to mid-back.
“Pleased to meet you, Rixu. My name is Valex Argenta, wandering merchant,” Bob said in a sonorous feminine voice, giggling. "How was that? Pretty convincing, right?"
“Valex… Argenta?” Rixu asked.
“It’s Elvish for ‘mischievous silver fox.’” Bob responded, still smiling. “Silver because of the hair, right? A fitting name for a nomadic elf. This is the infiltration persona I used last time.”
Rixu leaned forwards, resting both of his elbows on the table and steepling his fingers together. “Bob, do you mind if I ask a slightly rude and prying question?”
Bob shrugged. “Go ahead, I guess.”
“Why are all of your glamour disguises… girls?”
There was a long silence, the air turgid with awkwardness. When Bob finally spoke, his voice was soft. “I find it arouses less suspicion if my disguises are nothing like my, ahem, real self. And women generally attract less attention than men, y’know? Since the various institutions of power are so male-centric.”
Rixu pressed his lips together, doubtful. For a covert operative, Bob was surprisingly bad at lying. That excuse was flimsier than wet tissue paper: both Arkaelia and the Demon Realm had egalitarian societies that didn’t elevate men above women in the way Saimonica did, so operating as a woman while infiltrating either nation would confer no stealthy benefits. Furthermore, Bob knew that glamouring yourself into a body that didn’t match your self-image could cause no shortage of mental stress, something illusion mages called ‘body dysmorphia,’ hence why most self-applied glamours tended to only change small details like hair color and eyes. Still, he decided to be polite and not press the issue further.
“Oh, that makes sense. I assume you’re going to be casting a glamour on me as well?” Rixu said evenly, changing the topic as smoothly as he could.
Bob nodded. “That’s the idea. If I’m just glamouring myself, I can keep this up for around four hours.”
“That’s impressive,” Rixu said. Most illusion mages could manage maybe twenty minutes at most before succumbing to channeling fatigue; Bob was clearly well-practiced.
“However, if I’m maintaining glamours for both of us, that uptime is halved. That means we can use the disguises for two hours. We’ll have to plan our excursions into inhabited areas with extremely tight scheduling, accurate down to the minute.”
Rixu groaned. “Great, more hard work. Are you gonna disguise me as an elf too?”
Bob nodded. “That’s the plan. Just some pointy ears and different armor, and you’re good to go.”
“Just, uh… don’t turn me into a girl too, alright?” Rixu said gingerly.
Bob laughed awkwardly, looking at the ground. “Relax, Rixu. I won’t. It’s just an illusion, anyway. It’s not like people can just change genders in real life, right?”
Rixu wasn’t prepared to have that conversation at the moment; Bob was nice enough, but he was also a member of the Central District nobility, tight in the Church’s vise and awash in self-delusion. Rixu decided to simply agree, wary of raising Bob’s hackles by pressing for an epiphany.