Metokai’s room was stuffed wall-to-wall with disorderly bookshelves, all dimly lit by a single skull-chandelier that dangled from the center of the ceiling. Each shelf was crammed full of grimoires, eldritch tomes, spell-scrolls and magical encyclopedias; if they adhered to any particular order or filing system, it was known only to Metokai. Several of the bookshelves jutted out at a right angle to the walls, creating little inlets that hosted wooden chairs and, sometimes, small end tables which were, naturally, stacked high with books as well. In the middle of this cozy chaos library was a large bed with green sheets and blankets; it was messy and unmade.
Metokai, currently dressed in a simple black tank-top and shorts and seated in one of the inlets with a massive grimoire sprawled out on her lap, looked up as Nyze entered her room. Her twitching nose caught a whiff of something bitter. “Serpent, what the hell is THAT?”
Nyze held a tray with three metal pitchers and empty cups in her left hand, and a full cup of steaming dark brown liquid in her right. The liquid smelled rancid to Metokai’s sensitive nose and she reflexively winced, her forehead crinkling. Nyze grinned from pointed ear to pointed ear as she took a seat next to the tiny baphomet.
“THIS, Metokai, is demon coffee!” she declared proudly.
Metokai retched as she caught another whiff of the strong aroma. “Coffee? That human drink you’re obsessed with?”
“It’s not TECHNICALLY coffee: no beans were harmed during the making of this drink. I got some of that ghostsilver bark you mentioned during lunfast and experimented with dissolving it in hot water to create an organic suspension. And voila, it’s bitter and caffeinated just like I wanted! It’s so much like coffee, it’s spooky!”
Metokai pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed laboriously. “I have several questions, which I will now ask in order of increasing incredulity. Firstly, what exactly is ‘lunfast?’”
“It’s a combination of ‘lunch’ and ‘breakfast,’ duh. We had our breakfast around lunchtime, hence ‘lunfast!’” Nyze stated as if this were obvious.
Metokai rolled her eyes. “Skel forfend, serpent. Think about it for a moment. The normal meal progression is breakfast, THEN lunch, THEN dinner. If you’re combining the two, the portmanteau should properly be rendered ‘brelunch.’”
Nyze dismissed that suggestion immediately. “Hmm, naw. That’s not as catchy.”
“If we followed your backwards logic, serpent, then we’d have to call dinner plus lunch ‘dinunch’ instead of ‘lunner.’ Madness, I say. Utter madness.”
Nyze stuck out her tongue and took a sip of her demon coffee. Metokai sighed again. “Well, putting aside your terrible taste in linguistics, let’s move on to your terrible taste in flavor. Why, oh why, would you drink that… ‘suspension’ without ANY matter of sweetener or milk? It must be incalculably bitter!”
“And that’s exactly how I like it,” Nyze confirmed. “I always drink my coffee black.”
“It’s clearly a very dark shade of brown, not black, but I digress. Are you intentionally trying to kill your tastebuds?”
Nyze rolled her eyes. “Not everything has to be sickly sweet, Metokai. There are other flavors as well.”
“I acknowledge that, serpent. There is, however, a concrete difference between appreciating salty, spicy and umami flavors and intentionally ingesting something unpalatable.”
“The bitterness is the POINT, Metokai. Well, that and the high concentrations of caffeine. I’m going to need it for this all-nighter you have planned. I brought extra coffee for you, by the way.”
Metokai retched. “I have no desire to ingest your bitter brown liquid.”
“See, I knew you were going to be like this. I got you covered, hang on.” Nyze whipped out a second cup and filled it 2/3rds of the way full of demon coffee, then quickly stirred in a white liquid from her second pitcher and a deep brown liquid from her third. She then handed the completed drink, which was now more light brown than dark, to Metokai. “Behold!”
Metokai looked at the cup curiously, sniffing. “What is this?”
“I mixed the coffee with bovitaur milk and maple dryad syrup. I call it my Demonic Double-Breasted Coffee Lesbian Special! Ya know, cuz both the milk and the syrup come from-”
“Thank you, serpent, I comprehend,” Metokai interrupted, thinking Nyze was getting a bit too enthusiastic about drinking food products obtained from monster breasts. She reluctantly sniffed the coffee, then took a sip. Her eyes widened.
“Hmm. This actually isn’t bad once you add some sweetness. Good job, serpent.”
Nyze preened. “Oho, is that genuine praise I hear?”
“Don’t let it go to your head,” Metokai replied with a wave of her paw. “Now, shall we begin our magic lesson?”
“I’m caffeinated and ready to go!”
Metokai took another sip of coffee. “Alright, we’ll begin with the basics. How much do you know about five-dimensional shapes?”
By the time Bob returned home, it was nearly three hours after moonset. He hadn’t planned to be out this late, but he’d gotten distracted.
As he entered his house, he found his wife Nelvynn sitting at the kitchen table, dressed in a bathrobe and reading the day’s newspaper. Nelvynn glanced up at him, one eyebrow raised.
“You’re home late again,” she said in a slightly bitter voice.
“I’m sorry,” Bob said, cringing with guilt. “I did some errands after work, but they took longer than I expected.”
Bob didn’t mention the reason those errands had taken longer. Before entering the merchant’s quarter, he’d glamoured himself up in one of his female disguises, and gotten so into trying on clothes at a local boutique that the hours slipped away without him realizing. Of course, he’d never admit that to his wife.
There was a long, awkward silence as they looked at each other. Bob scratched his head. “Is Nelvarr asleep?” he asked, referring to their preteen son.
Nelvynn nodded. “He conked out a couple of hours ago.”
“Crap.” Bob said, regret creeping into his voice. “I’ll have to make it up to him tomorrow. Take him out to a battleball match or something.”
“You definitely should. He misses his father,” Nelvynn said softly, standing up from her chair and stepping over to Bob. She placed a hand on his shoulder. “Bob, what’s going on with you?” she asked in a gentle tone, her brown eyes searching his.
“We barely ever see you these days, even when you’re here in Arcryid. You’re always out late, and when you ARE home, you seem so… sad. Lifeless, tired. Depressed, even. What’s bothering you, Bob?”
Bob placed his hand over his wife’s and sighed. “I don’t know, Nelvy. I just have this… odd sense of ennui lately. Like there’s a massive weight in my stomach, or like I’m walking through life in slow motion and everything is muted and colorless.” He didn’t mention that the only times this dreariness seemed to lift is when he was using his glamours; he didn’t think that detail was particularly relevant.
Nelvynn nodded her understanding. “Maybe you should see a Breeder. They might have some advice.”
“I dunno,” Bob shrugged. “Last time it was just a bunch of vague platitudes about ‘the Gods love you, so love yourself.’ Not super helpful, you know?”
“It still can’t hurt,” Nelvynn said. “Something’s eating you from the inside, Bob, and neither of us know what it is. We have to find out, before…”
“Before?” Bob felt his stomach sink even further.
“…Before it tears this family apart,” Nelvynn said sadly. “It’s bad enough that you’re always away on long assignments in other countries, but even when you’re here, you’re distant. Nelvarr needs his father, and I need my husband. You’re the rock of our family, Bob. Please, at least go see a Breeder tomorrow. I don’t know if it will help, but something has to change.”
Bob nodded. “Fine, I will.”
“Good.” Nelvynn turned and walked away, heading for their bedroom. “It’s late, I’m going to bed.”
“I’ll be behind you in a minute.”
Bob watched his wife’s shrinking back and frowned, not really sure what to do.
Bob’s eyes snapped open as he felt someone shaking him. He looked up to see Rixu above him. He groaned as consciousness returned.
“Hey, you alright?” Rixu asked, voice full of concern.
Bob blearily remembered their situation as the fog in his mind cleared. They had crossed the Anti-Demon wall a day ago and were now near the foothills of the Burning Range. When they made camp that night, Rixu had offered to take first watch and Bob had tried to get some shut-eye.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Bob replied, wiping the sleep from his eyes. His fingers came away oddly wet.
“You sure?” Rixu said skeptically. “You were, uh, crying in your sleep.”
“Oh,” Bob said awkwardly, looking away. “I, uh… was dreaming about something that happened a few months ago. Family trouble, you know how it is.”
Rixu shook his head. “Sorry, I don’t. Never had a family. Still, if you want to talk about it, I’m willing to listen?”
Bob grimaced; Rixu seemed nice enough, but he was still just a casual acquaintance, not a friend. “No thanks. I’ll be alright. I’ll go ahead and take over the watch, if you don’t mind.”
Rixu stared at Bob long and hard, wondering whether to pry further, then gave up and shrugged. “Fine. I’ll get some sleep.” He lay down, squeezing into his sleeping bag, and shut his eyes.
Bob sighed and sat down, cross-legged, near Rixu. He looked up at the night sky; only the Pink and Blue Moons were out tonight, so the sky was dim enough to see the legion pinprick gleams of distant worlds, each millions of miles away from Goezia. There, bathed in a galaxy of flickering worldlight, Bob stared at nothing in particular.
What exactly was wrong with him, he wondered? Why did life feel so hollow most of the time? Breeders and High Breeders alike hadn’t been able to offer any answers, nor had his frequent supplication to the Gods provided any relief either.
And if the Gods couldn’t help, who could?
“FIVE-dimensional shapes? THAT’S the basics?!” Nyze shrieked, fingers gripping her coffee cup.
Metokai rolled her eyes. “Fine. We’ll go even more basic. I assume you know the three fundamental steps of spellcasting?”
“Of course!” Nyze responded defensively; this was the first thing a mage learned. “First is mana collection, second is spell circle formation and translation, and third is incantation!”
Metokai nodded. “Correct, serpent. Now, for demonic spellcasting, the second and third stages are fundamentally the same as human techniques. However, the first stage, mana collection, is entirely different.”
That much was obvious to Nyze. Humans sourced their mana from the Thirteen Moons, the skyborne domains of the Thirteen Gods that hung omnipresent in the skies over Goezia. The moon that provided daylight, the White Moon, was the dominion of the Nameless God of Creation and represented white-colored creation mana, which was too powerful for any human to channel directly; the White Moon acted as a giant prism, splitting white mana pulled from the cosmos into twelve different colors which projected as other twelve Moons. The colors of each of the Moons and their attendant mana, along with their ruling Gods and associated schools of magic, were as follows:
White – Nameless God of Creation, Creation Magic
Blue – Shadre, God of Peace, Psychic Magic
Orange – Aspecta, God of the Four Elements, Elementalism
Green – Letrune, God of Nature, Shamanism
Teal – Raydra, God of Life, Healing Magic
Pink – Kaltine, God of Light, Laser Magic
Grey – Pyzu, God of Time, Time Magic
Violet – Sykzet, God of Illusion, Illusion Magic
Indigo – Grentha, God of Death, Necromancy
Maroon – Vexide, God of Wisdom, Magitechnology
Yellow – Initress, God of Spirit, Spiritualism
Red – Atrem, God of War, Warrior Magic
Black – Aserti, God of Destruction, Space Magic
“We demons don’t need to rely on the cosmic crutch of the Thirteen Moons in order to channel the appropriate color of mana for our spell,” Metokai declared proudly. “Instead of pulling mana from a Moon, we pull white mana directly from the cosmos, then form our soul ribbon into a five-dimensional prism to refract the mana into the color we need for the spell.”
“Hang on,” Nyze said. “White mana can’t be channeled directly. It’s too powerful.”
Metokai chuckled smugly. “Too powerful for humans, maybe. Demons are considerably stronger, and lest you forgot, your soul is demonic now. You simply need to pull in white mana from the cosmos directly, change the shape of your soul ribbon from a mobius strip into a five-dimensional hyperpyramid, then adjust it to refract the white mana into the proper color required for your spell. This gives you a direct cosmic source of mana far more powerful than anything you could pull from the Moons. You’ll find all your spells will be vastly increased in power by using this method, and certain God-imposed limitations on spellcasting will be nullified as well. That’s the primary reason demons can use unique magic unavailable to humans such as resurrection; we operate entirely outside of the Gods rules and their system of control.”
Nyze groaned. “Five dimensional… hyper… I barely understood half of what you said.”
Metokai half-smiled. “In that case, I will go over it again, slowly. Pay close attention, serpent.”
Nyze was filled with dread; this was going to be a very long night. She took another big gulp of coffee.
After a very long and sleepless night, followed by a pot of cold coffee accompanied by hardtack, Bob and Rixu set out again, finally reaching the foothills of the Burning Range around mid-morning. Just as they were preparing to begin their ascent into the volcanic mountains that defined the border of the Demon Realm, Bob’s eyes narrowed and he held up his hand to signal Rixu to stop.
“What’s wrong?” Rixu whispered.
Bob wordlessly pointed to the sky. Rixu could just barely make out a pair of dots, which seemed to be rapidly diving towards them.
“Demons. I don’t get it… there weren’t any patrols this far out last time. I’m going to apply our glamours now,” Bob muttered. He pulled mana from the Violet Moon and muttered the complicated five-line spell under his breath. When he completed the incantation, a torrent of violet mana transformed him and Rixu into their elf personas. Bob was, of course, disguised as the short silver-haired female elf Valex Argenta, whereas Rixu’s disguise just looked like his normal self with pointier ears.
The two stood and waited, tense, as the demons dove towards them. When they were close enough, Rixu was able to make out their outlines; they had humanoid heads and central torsos, but hawklike wings instead of arms; from the knee-down their legs and feet were birdlike and clawed. Rixu recognized the species from depictions in army field manuals… harpies.
The two harpies landed gracefully in front of Bob and Rixu. The shorter had purple hair in a side-shaven butch cut, and purple feathers on her wings to match. The taller had long jet-black hair styled in a princess cut, and matching feathers as well. Both were dressed in lightweight leather armor, which bore the official insignia of the Demon Realm on the chestplate: an inverted green pentagram with a purple fanged skull overlaid.
“Good morning to you,” said the taller harpy, eyeing the two apparent elves suspiciously. “My name is Nilah, and my comrade here is Relah. We’re soldiers from the Grand Unified Demonic Army, Skana Patrol Division, 43rd Airborne Unit. May I ask who you are?”
“My name is Valex Argenta, of the Elvish Diaspora,” Bob responded confidently in fluent Demonic. The two harpies exchanged meaningful glances upon hearing that name, although Bob didn’t catch that. “This is my cousin, Sarega Argenta, also of the Diaspora. We’re both freelance merchants returning from a trip to the Blood Waters with goods we obtained from the mermaids there.”
“And you’re travelling NORTH of the Burning Range?” Nilah asked. “Not many demons get this far north.”
“Ah, it’s quite silly.” Bob responded with a wry smile. “Sarega here had never seen the Anti-Demon Wall before and wanted to glimpse it from a distance. That’s why we took a northerly route instead of a southerly one.” Rixu silently nodded along, not saying anything.
“That’s incredibly dangerous.” Nilah lectured. “If any of the humans on the Wall spotted you, they’d exterminate you on sight. Better to stay safely south of the Burning Range in the future.”
“Ah, you’re quite right,” Bob responded. “It will be the last time we do anything so foolish, I assure you.”
“Say…” the shorter harpy, Relah, said. “If you’re merchants, where are your goods? I don’t see any carts or wagons.”
“Ah, we have a small quantity of pearls, which we stored in hammerspace,” Bob explained. He incanted a short spell, twisting black mana to open a portal into his personal storage dimension, and pulled out a handful of the giant clam pearls the mermaids were known to harvest. “See?”
“Hmm.” Relah said thoughtfully. “And that’s all the goods you have with you? Pearls?”
“That’s correct,” Bob confirmed.
Nilah frowned and turned to look at Relah. The two harpies shared another meaningful glance, then each beat their wings once to rise a few feet into the air. They released precast hammerspace spells and pulled out halberds gripped in their foot-claws; they pointed the tips of the blades at Bob and Rixu. “You’re lying,” Nilah said coldly.
“Huh?!” Bob yelped, moving backwards a step.
Nilah explained. “Mermaid pearls are not valuable or rare, and certainly not worth enough to justify an entire merchant trip. Plus, when you cast that hammerspace spell just now, you channeled mana from the Black Moon. A demon spellcaster would have refracted mana with their soul ribbon. And finally, ‘Valex Argenta’ is the name of a human spy disguised as an elf who infiltrated the Realm five years ago. I assume that was you.”
“You two humans can drop the act now,” Relah added. “We’re not fooled.”
“SHIT!” Bob cried out, starting to release another hammerspace spell and draw his weapon. Before he could, he and Rixu were hit by a wave of teal mana released by Relah; a powerful sleep spell. Bob keeled over instantly, snoring loudly. Rixu was unaffected, although his elf glamour dissipated as Bob slipped into unconsciousness.
“Oho?” Nilah said as she pressed her blade’s tip against Rixu’s throat. “You actually warded yourself properly against sleep magic. Impressive, human.”
“I’m a career soldier,” Rixu shrugged, raising his hands above his head. “I’m meticulous about preparing my daily wards and precasts. I also know when I’m beaten. I surrender.”
“Smart,” Nilah said, keeping her blade raised. “Now lie face down on the ground with your hands above your head. If I detect even the faintest hint of mana, I’ll skewer you.” Rixu complied.
Relah pulled some rope out of hammerspace, along with two pairs of mana-dampening cuffs, and began to restrain the two humans. Meanwhile, Nilah cast a psychic magic spell and established a mental link with her commanding officer.
Yes, ma’am. That’s correct. Please notify High General Metokai. We’ve captured two humans who were attempting to infiltrate the Realm.
By mid-morning, Nyze had successfully formed her soul ribbon into a five-dimensional hyperpyramid and refracted a small amount of mana, although it took intense mental concentration for her to do so. Sweat rolled down her face as she clenched her jaw, focusing.
“This is extremely hard,” she complained.
“It gets easier with practice,” Metokai responded. “You’re doing well, serpent, keep it up.”
“Urgh. I need more coffee,” Nyze groaned.
Just then, Metokai’s eyes unfocused and she raised one hand to her right ear. Nyze sensed faint tendrils of blue mana twining around the baphomet’s head; someone was using psychic magic to send her a long-range message. After a moment, Metokai scowled and turned to Nyze.
“Practice is over for now, serpent. There’s a matter we must both attend to, alongside the Demon Lord.”
“What is it?” Nyze asked curiously.
“One of my patrol units caught two humans attempting to infiltrate the Realm. They’re being brought to the castle now for interrogation.”
“Humans?!” Nyze exclaimed in surprise. She hadn’t seen a human since Diarn left over a month ago. Somehow, she doubted the upcoming meeting would be very nostalgic.