Bob strode out of his local Creation Hall feeling rather dejected and lifeless. Places of worship were supposed to provide invigoration and cleansing, but somehow Bob always experienced the opposite. Even the almighty White Monolith, which blessed all of Arcryid with its omnipresent white light, seemed intimidating and alien to him. People from across Saimonica made long pilgrimages just to bathe in that holy light for a few moments, so Bob knew he should be grateful he lived so near its blessed presence. He internally berated himself for his ingratitude.
Bob spotted his son, Nelvarr, leaning against a tree near the entrance to the Creation Hall; the preteen boy shared his father’s sky-blue eyes, but his brown hair came from his mother’s side. Nelvarr’s expression lit up as he caught sight of his father, and he bounded over. “How’d it go, Dad?”
Bob rolled his eyes. “The usual platitudes. Love, patience, gratitude, rededicate yourself to the Gods, blah blah blah. Nothing useful.”
Nelvarr giggled. “The Breeders sure do love to drone on, huh?” He covered his mouth and looked around in mock panic, pretending to be ashamed of his mild sacrilege. Bob chuckled at his son’s brattiness.
“So now that the day’s chore is complete, where shall we go? You SURE you don’t want to catch a battleball game?” Bob pressed.
“Nah,” Nelvarr said dismissively. “I don’t like battleball. Too much battle, not enough ball. It’s not fun to watch other people fight; seems like something demons do, not humans.”
“Good point,” Bob replied wryly. Personally, he loved watching battleball, but he wasn’t about to push his own interests on his son. The boy was slowly developing his own hobbies and passions, having quite a talent for art and music, and Bob wanted to encourage that rather than impose on it. “So what would you like to do instead?”
“Actually...” Nelvarr replied, suddenly shy, “I was wondering if we could do another glamour shopping trip?”
“Huh?” Bob hadn’t been expecting that answer. “You want me to...”
“Yeah!” Nelvarr replied enthusiastically. “Your glamours are so cool, Dad! And you seem so proud to show them off in public. I like seeing you happy.”
Bob’s heart was warmed by that remark; it was the other side of what his wife had expressed last night. Nelvynn was worried about his depression, and Nelvarr wanted him to be happy. He thought, for a moment, just how lucky he was to have such a caring family to help him through his recent troubles.
“Alright,” Bob said, grinning, “I’m game. Which one you wanna see?”
“The tall one!” Nelvarr said. “With the black hair and red dress!”
Bob focused his mind and incanted the spell. A moment later a swirl of violet mana surrounded him, then faded to reveal the glamour. Bob was now a 6-foot-tall leggy woman, with long raven-black hair that hung down to mid-back, and bright blue eyes that sparked with mischievous energy. The woman was poured into a red evening dress with a high slit in the skirt that bared the entire left thigh, and a plunged v-neck that showed off a generous amount of cleavage. 2-inch high heels, in the same shade of red as the dress, complimented the look.
“Damn!” Nelvarr exclaimed. “That’s so detailed! You really put a lot of work into your glamours, Dad!”
Bob giggled, quite pleased at the compliment, and his voice came out high-pitched and melodic. “Well, this is an important aspect of my work, kiddo. This scandalous style of dress is super-popular over in Arkaelia. I gotta look like the locals if I want to successfully spy on them, ya know?”
“I could never see those clothes catching on here.” Nelvarr mused. “Can you imagine what a Breeder might say? ‘Exposing that much skin is a temptation to sin!’”
They both shared a laugh at that, then set out for the merchant’s district for their day out on the town.
When Bob opened his eyes, he found his head resting on a rather underwhelming pillow stuffed with hay. He was laying on a simple cot in a windowless room carved of black stone and dimly lit by pink magelight; another cot was opposite his, and Rixu sat atop it with steepled fingers, watching Bob intently.
“Well. Seems like you had a much happier dream this time,” Rixu said.
“Where are we...?” Bob sat up, a bit surprised at his lack of grogginess. Instead, he felt refreshed.
“In the Demon Lord’s castle, locked in one of her dungeons. You’ve been out for around ten hours.” Rixu sighed heavily, his eyes aglow with unspoken accusations. “Bob, you and I need to have a long discussion about proper warding.”
“Warding?” Bob asked, his brain still firing up its cylinders. He desperately wished for a cup of coffee.
Rixu nodded. “Yeah. I assume you cast defensive wards every morning when we break camp? I’ve seen you do it.”
“Of course I do!” Bob responded defensively. “Standard anti-spell and anti-projectile wards, every morning!”
“What about a ward against sleep magic?”
There was a long, awkward silence. Bob looked at the floor guiltily. “Is that how they captured us? Sleep magic?”
“Yup. One blast and you were out like a light. It was embarrassing, frankly.” Rixu replied, not holding back on his harsh assessment.
“I didn’t even realize I needed to...” Bob began, before trailing off.
“Direct physical and magical attacks are the bare basics. There are lots of other ways to incapacitate someone, sneakier ways from every school of magic,” Rixu explained. “That’s why it’s important to cast wards against sleep magic, time magic, soul manipulation and entropy magic at the bare minimum. Anti-scrying is important too, and I usually throw up a diffusion barrier against laser magic too.”
This was the fundamental difference between Rixu and Bob; Rixu was a trained soldier who had proper warding and precast preparations drilled into him as part of his lifestyle, whereas Bob trained for a covert life in the shadows. Rixu was expected to fight every day, but if Bob got into a fight it was because his mission had failed and he’d been exposed.
“Shit, Rixu, I’m sorry,” Bob said, genuinely contrite. “I didn’t expect to get stopped by a patrol; I figured the glamours and backstory would be enough to get us through any trouble we ran into. I mean, it worked last time.”
Rixu's expression softened; he was glad for Bob's apology. “Something’s raised the demon’s hackles, and they’re being a lot more cautious than usual. If I had to hazard a guess, it’s probably the Hero’s attack. They’re closing their defenses tight to prevent a repeat. Looks like they were wise to your backstory as well.”
Bob experienced a brief pang of despair upon realizing his plans had been so easily undone; he stifled it, since now was not the time for self-pity. Now was the time for action. “We need to get this information back to Arcryid immediately.” He looked around, wary that they were being eavesdropped on. Then he stood up, walked across the room and sat down next to Rixu.
“We need to figure out a way to escape,” he said in a low whisper. “Before they come to torture or execute us. I can’t cast any spells with these mana-dampening cuffs shackling me.” He motioned to the two silver bracelets glowing with yellow demonic runes that encircled each of his wrists.
“Way ahead of you.” Rixu whispered back, grinning. He held up his hands and flicked his fingers a bit, and his cuffs fell to the floor with a clang.
“They ESCAPED?!” Psytalla thundered, claws digging into the arms of her throne. Metokai cringed and knelt deeper, ashamed. Even Nyze felt a twinge of guilt by association, even though she had nothing to do with the situation up until now.
Metokai spoke through gritted teeth, frustration souring every word. “Somehow the soldier, Rixu, managed to get out of his mana-dampening cuffs. He then cast a spell to neutralize the cuffs on the ninja, Bob. The two of them are now roaming the building, probably looking for an exit.”
“You know, Metokai, I’m getting tired of all these security breaches in my castle,” Psytalla said in a low growl.
Metokai cringed, her frustration drowned out by shame. “I can only offer my deepest apologies, Demon Lord, as well as my assurances that it will not happen again.”
“Please ensure it does not, High General,” Psytalla said curtly.
Nyze cast a sidelong glance at Metokai, who seemed to be shaking a bit, and suddenly felt very sorry for the little baphomet; in her opinion, there’s no way the High General could have foreseen a human prisoner having the frankly unheard-of ability to break out of mana-dampening cuffs. The situation was certainly tense, but Psytalla’s tone was still too harsh for her liking; perhaps she just didn’t like seeing any anger directed at Metokai, since the two of them had grown quite close recently. She bit her tongue and didn’t say anything, though. Now was not the time or the place.
“Now, what measures are you taking to recapture them?” Psytalla asked, her temper cooling a bit.
Eyes glued to the ground, Metokai gave her report. “The entire castle is locked down. We’ve quadrupled patrols, calling in all off-duty guards and the whole reserve to enact a search. We’ve also shut down all the teleport points and physical access points, plus I have a full squadron guarding each wyvern stable. The castle shields have also been raised. There is no way for anyone to enter or leave.”
“Very good. The three of us will join the search as well,” Psytalla said, standing up. “Bob and Rixu MUST be recaptured, and I want them ALIVE.”
Two youngish-looking female elves, decked out in armor that indicated their status as castle guards, briskly walked down one of the myriad corridors deep in the castle. They seemed to be speeding along at a hurried pace, while taking care not to break into a run so as not to arouse suspicion.
These two were not elves, of course. They were Bob and Rixu, wearing new disguises and trying very hard not to attract any attention, hence the run-walking. Since ‘Valex Argenta’ and ‘Sarega Argenta’ were known to the demons, Bob had come up with a couple of new disguises on the fly. He was presently glamoured as a stocky elf woman with red hair and green eyes, whereas Rixu was a lanky elf woman with black hair and blue eyes.
This was proving to be something of a problem for Rixu. As he’d observed wryly back in Arcryid, all of Bob’s glamours were women, and since a desperate chase through the Demon Lord’s castle was not terribly conducive to creating entirety new glamours from scratch, Bob had simply applied old ones (modified with pointy ears) instead. And thus, for the first time in his life, Rixu was in the body of a woman... and it felt very, VERY wrong to him. The weight on his chest, the gap between his thighs; every little sensation reminded him this body wasn't his.
“Rixu? You alright?” Bob called back as Rixu fell behind for the umpteenth time.
“Yeah, yeah, sorry,” Rixu groaned, struggling to catch up with a burst of speed. “This body, it’s... not right for me.”
“Huh? How so?” Bob tilted his head.
“Well, y’know, it’s a girl’s body, and I’m a man...” Rixu explained.
“That’s never been a problem for me,” Bob replied quizzically.
Rixu opened his mouth, then closed it again. Now was not the time or place to have that conversation.
“Maybe I’m just more used to illusion magic than you?” Bob proposed as they turned a corner. “Like I’m desensitized to it and stuff?”
Rixu didn’t even have to think about that one. He’d met illusion mages before, both civilian and military, and all of them experienced bodily dysmorphia when glamouring a form they weren’t comfortable with. The fact that Bob WASN’T... well. The implications were obvious to Rixu, and not so much to the poor, sheltered, dense Bob.
Before Rixu was overwhelmed by the awkwardness of the situation, the pair spotted two guards approaching from the other direction of the hallway. One was a centaur woman, large and strong and imposing, and the other looked like some sort of humanoid weasel man.
“HALT!” said the centaur woman, who seemed to be an authority figure. Bob and Rixu stood stock-still, sweating bullets under their glamours.
The centaur trotted over, with the weasel right behind her, and asked “Name, rank and passcode?”
Bob and Rixu had come up with fake names and ranks, of course, but neither knew about any passcode. Bob decided he’d try and fake it. “Sizlar Vrelnex, Commander, 42D19.”
The centaur’s eyes narrowed. “They gave you an ALPHANUMERIC passcode?” Her muscles tensed up, and she began to lower her center of gravity. Behind her, the weasel was muttering something under his breath.
Bob shrugged. “I don’t know what to tell you.” Then, suddenly, he leapt forwards, a space magic spell on his lips. He reached into hammerspace and pulled out two long, serrated knives. Before the centaur could react, he drove them through the bottom of her chin. The tips peeked out the top of her skull, and she slumped to the ground, dead.
The weasel man, shocked, forgot about the spell he’d been incanting; ribbons of unused orange mana arced off him and dissipated back into the cosmos. A moment later he felt a sharp pain in his chest and looked down to see Rixu’s broadsword embedded in it up to the hilt. He opened his mouth to speak but only blood bubbled out, and soon enough he joined his comrade on the floor.
“Well,” said Bob, shaking his knives to rid them of blood, “I guess there’s no point in disguising ourselves.” He dispelled the illusion magic, and Rixu breathed a sigh of relief as he returned to his regular body.
“Let’s make a break for it,” Rixu suggested.
They started running at full speed.
“Damn,” Nyze said as she looked down at the two slain guards. She was quite used to the sight of gore, but the centaur’s BRAINS were leaking all over the floor, which was a disgusting sight for human and demon alike.
“Well, at least we know they came this way,” Psytalla quipped. Her mood seemed to have improved now that they scent of blood and battle was in the air; her earlier grumpiness was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps she was simply pleased that they were closing in on their quarry.
“Metokai, would you do the honors?” she said, motioning to the corpses.
Metokai clacked over to the centaur and began to cast a resurrection spell. Nyze raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t realize you knew resurrection magic, Metokai.”
“Metokai knows EVERY kind of magic. She’s a magical genius,” Psytalla explained, pride in her voice. “That’s why she’s training you, Nyze. You couldn’t ask for a better instructor.”
Nyze saw Metokai’s cheeks flush a bit at that remark, and wryly thought to herself that the little baphomet would be far happier of Psytalla praised her more often, instead of letting that Demon Lord’s temper flare up now and again. She filed that thought away for later and focused on watching Metokai cast the spell; this would be her first time witnessing resurrection magic up close, and she didn’t want to miss a thing.
“Skellish, lord of souls, I command you,
Release this warrior from your grasp,
So they may once again walk this cursed world,
In service to your sinful benevolence.
Mortal, rise from your grave and take revenge!
It was a five-line spell, extremely complex expert spellcasting, but Metokai wove it together effortlessly. Nyze also noticed the spell used two kinds of mana; yellow spirit mana to retrieve the person’s soul and rejoin it to their body, and teal healing mana to regenerate the body itself. Using dual colors of mana in a single spell was unheard of in human spellcasting, as one couldn’t draw from two Moons at once; the demons seemed to lack this limitation, which went a long way to explaining the more varied and powerful effects they could achieve with magic.
Nyze experienced a moment of inspiration upon witnessing this; if she could master the whole hyperpyramid prism thing, then she’d be able to use two (or more!) kinds of mana simultaneously as well. The possibilities sent her head swirling, and she barely noticed as Metokai moved on to the other slain demon, a weaselkin, and resurrected him too.
“Ow. FUCK,” the centaur woman said, shakily rising to her hooves and slapping her cheeks. “I’d forgotten how much a dagger through the skull FUCKING HURTS.” Suddenly she caught sight of the Demon Lord and stood ramrod-straight at attention. “S-Sorry, my liege. I didn’t see you there. I didn’t mean to use such unprofessional language in front of your esteemed, uh...”
Psytalla smiled and waved her hand. “Don’t fucking worry about it. Which way did the fucking prisoners go?”
Nyze slithered over to Psytalla and bopped her on the head. “Settle down, brat.”
“Ow!” Psytalla said cheekily. “That fucking hurt!”
The sight of the Demon Lord and her girlfriend goofing around caused the centaur’s eyes to go wide, whereas Metokai simply rolled hers with a slightly bitter frown.
“Th-They were heading… that way…” the centaur peeped, unsure of the mood.
“You heard the lady. THAT way,” Psytalla began to run down the hall once more, Nyze not far behind.
“You two head to the barracks on the next floor and have a proper healer check you out,” Metokai ordered. “We’ll take it from here.” She dashed off as well, following Nyze.
The centaur looked at the weaselkin. “What the skel was THAT about?” she whispered. “I’ve never seen the Demon Lord so act so… playful before.”
The weaselkin simply shrugged.
Bob and Rixu caught sight of the Demon Lord, the Gods-damned DEMON LORD, rounding a corner, and promptly turned tail and ran headlong in the opposite direction. After a few twists and turns, they dove into a door and slammed it behind them, hiding inside the darkened room on the other side.
“FUCK!” Bob cursed. “What is SHE doing here?!”
“Well, we are in her castle,” Rixu replied dryly.
“Yeah, but… shit, Rixu. We can’t go up against the Demon Lord, of all people. Even the Hero couldn’t touch her. We need to find a way out of here.” Bob started to search the room they were hiding in, his brow furrowing in confusion. It looked like a dungeon of sorts, filled with all manner of nasty torture implements… but something was off. There were also tables and chairs all over, the kind you might find in a restaurant, and a long bar in the back stacked high with bottles of alcohol.
“Is this a… bar?” he muttered.
A terrifying voice came from the darkness, sounding like a blizzard of razor blades slicing into a decrepit chalkboard. “Indeed it is. Welcome to the Iron Maiden. You two must be the humans that are raising a fuss.”
Bob turned towards the source of the voice, blades raised, and saw something incomprehensible. A being which looked like a miniature gas giant in accelerated time drifted out of the shadows. Rixu, who was directly behind Bob, clenched the hilt of his sword tightly.
“What the fuck are you?” Bob asked through gritted teeth.
“I’m Gary,” responded the orb. “Proprietor of this bar. What the fuck are YOU, little fleshling?”
“Bob. Bob the ninja.”
Gary laughed, which sounded like a flock of rusty bicycles crashing into an ice floe. “What an odd name. Well, contrary as this is to my usual principles of outstanding customer service, I’m afraid I must detain you two. You're wanted by the Demon Lord.” He floated towards them ominously, humming like a rusty buzzsaw.
“We’re aware,” Bob said dryly, quickly releasing a precast spell. A ball of pink magelight and a large spell circle-lens flared out in front of him; the magelight poured into the lens and focused into a single, coherent beam that sliced towards Gary.
The laser attack didn’t seem to faze Gary in the least; he threw up a shield that easily diffused it. “You will need to do better than that, Bob.”
Bob just grinned and stepped aside, revealing Rixu whose fingertips were crackling with lightning. Gary wondered what the soldier could be up to; lightning magic was extraordinarily powerful, but also extraordinarily hard to control. Lightning tended to follow its own path to the ground, regardless of the summoning mage’s original intentions; its unpredictability made it a poor choice for attacking, especially in an enclosed space.
“Release Magic: LIGHTNING STORM!” As Rixu spoke the words, the lightning arced out in all directions... and quickly found the path of conductive ionized air that Bob’s laser attack had left into its wake. There was a brilliant white flash and peal of thunder as the lightning followed the laser-induced plasma channel straight into Gary’s shield, overwhelming it in seconds. Gary shrieked in pain as about half his body was blasted away. His formerly spherical body was now shaped like a crescent moon and leaking little trails of rapidly-evaporating hydrogen.
As the critically wounded Gary wobbled unsteadily, Bob readied another spell to finish the job. Suddenly, Gary emitted a horrifyingly eldritch sound, which slammed into Bob and Rixu with the force of a meteor. Gary’s usual vocalizations were terrifying and grating to the ears, but this was about a thousand times worse, a sound so WRONG that it defied description. All around the bar, glasses shattered and tables splintered, and the room itself seemed to distort under the stress of that unholy wail. Bob and Rixu fell to the ground, bleeding from their eyes, mouths and ears.
Guttering like a stalling motor, Gary floated over to the two humans warily. Rixu was unconscious, but Bob wiped the blood from his eyes, rising to one knee, and extended his palm towards Gary, desperately trying to summon another spell.
Gary hit Bob with another blast of sound, this time higher in pitch and more directed. Bob’s body exploded outwards, pulverized into fragments of meat and bone. Blood splattered across the entire room.
With the two humans down the room stilled and Gary looked at his handiwork, still unsteadily wobbling. After a minute, the door burst open and Psytalla came charging in. She skidded to a halt, looking at the severely injured Gary and the mess of gore with wide eyes.
“What the skel happened in HERE?!” she asked.
“I made a bit of a mess,” Gary responded, with a pained chuckle.
Gary teleported back to his home dimension to regenerate and Metokai took charge of the situation. She restrained the unconscious Rixu, placing two mana-dampening cuffs around each of his wrists and ankles, then tied him up so tightly he couldn’t move his arms or legs. She cast just enough healing magic on him so he was out of danger; his eyes fluttered open and widened in fear when he saw the Demon Lord, but he kept his mouth shut.
“What do we do about... THAT?” Nyze asked, pointing to the pile of gore that had once been Bob.
“Hrm. We still need to question him.” Psytalla turned to the baphomet. “Metokai, is there any reason resurrection magic wouldn’t work on a human?”
Metokai shook her head. “I’ve never tried it on a human before, but it should work.”
Psytalla nodded. “Do it.”
Rixu couldn’t quite believe his ears. Were they actually talking about raising Bob from the dead, simply so they could interrogate him? Was such a thing even POSSIBLE?! He stared in fascination as Metokai began to incant a strange-sounding spell, one which invoked an unknown God and used two types of mana. Bob’s shattered flesh crawled back together, reforming his body.
Rixu’s eyes grew even wider as he realized something wasn’t right about Bob’s newly mended body. He looked... different. Exceptionally so.
Nyze, Metokai and Psytalla noticed it as well. “Hey,” Psytalla said, tapping her chin, “he… they didn’t look like that before, right?”
“No, they did not.” Metokai responded, equally confused.
Bob returned to life and drew in a sharp breath, eyes slowly opening.