Bob opened his eyes… no, wait, that’s not quite right. Bob didn’t have eyes anymore, or a body for that matter. He was just a wisp of essence, a floating consciousness in a pitch-black void.
“Where… where am I?” he asked.
“You’re in my realm. Welcome, mortal.”
Bob’s perception focused on the source of that voice and experienced a jolt of panic as he saw a demon woman. She was similar in appearance to the Demon Lord, with long pointed ears, ashen blue skin and red-on-black eyes. In other ways she was different: her body was curvaceous instead of muscular, and her horns swept upwards instead of backwards. She also had a pair of small batlike wings and a long, prehensile tail that ended in a spaded tip, features not typically seen on ashen demons. She wore a black minidress that clung to her body like film, in a style similar to current fashion in Arkaelia.
“Who…” Bob began, before trailing off.
“My name is Skellish, shepherd of lost souls, Goddess of Entropy and patron of Demon Lords,” the demon answered, smiling.
Skellish? Bob had never heard that name before. She wasn’t one of the Thirteen Gods.
A brief twinge of bitterness crossed her face. “Indeed I am not, Valex. The Gods of your universe are worms to me, infusoria almost beneath my notice. In fact, I resent being compared to them.”
Bob stared at her in wonderment. He hadn’t said anything, but she’d responded to his thoughts.
“Correct. Your thoughts are plain to me, mortal. I can hear them as easily as your speech,” she said haughtily.
“That’s… unsettling,” Bob replied warily.
Skellish shrugged. “You’ll get used to it. Oh, and as an added trick, let me answer your next question before you ask it. You are here in my realm because you died.”
The memory of his death suddenly came rushing back to Bob. He’d been confronting the strange orb-demon when he and Rixu had been attached by a technique unknown to them, a technique involving sound. He remembered pain, unbearable pain, and then darkness and silence.
“Wow. I really did die, huh?” Bob said in detached disbelief. He thought about what the Church taught about the afterlife; the God of Death, Grentha, was supposed to escort faithful deceased souls to paradise, where they’d live with the Thirteen in eternal bliss. The fact that he was now in another place must be a result of his unfaithfulness, his secret desires and sin. Despair began to overwhelm him.
“None of that now, Valex,” Skellish said in response to his thoughts. “Firstly, the whole nonsense about Grentha and eternal paradise is a lie.”
“Indeed. All souls, regardless of their beliefs in life, are cast into the cycle of reincarnation after death, to be reborn anew in another universe. I should know, I’m in charge of that cycle. Secondly, you’re not permanently dead. Even as we speak, your demon friends are preparing to resurrect you.”
“Demon friends? I don’t have any demon friends,” Bob replied skeptically.
“Oh, is that right? Hmm…” Skellish said, tapping her chin. “Apologies, mortal. I perceive all moments in time simultaneously, so I get a bit muddled when talking to linear beings like yourself. Well, just forget about that little spoiler, okay? The point is, you’ll be returning to life on Goezia shortly.”
Bob was having a very hard time believing all this. A demon God of some sort was telling him everything he knew was a lie; it was hard to see it as anything other that sinful temptation designed to further ensnare his damned soul. At least, that’s what a Breeder might tell him.
“It doesn’t matter if you believe it or not, Valex,” Skellish replied breezily. “I have no reason to lie.”
“Another thing,” Bob said. “You keep calling me Valex. That’s not my name. I’m Bob.”
“You sure about that?” Skellish said with a knowing smile. “Bob is the name you were given. Valex is the name you chose. The second is far more meaningful to me.”
“Okay, but… Valex is a girl’s name. I’m not a girl.” Bob replied.
Skellish guffawed. “Bullshit. You clearly have a female soul, Valex. You were merely born with a body that didn’t match your soul, although that problem will be rectified soon enough.”
“Rectified? What are you…”
“Time is short, mortal,” Skellish interrupted. “The resurrection spell is almost complete. I usually try to give a bit of advice in these scenarios, so here is my advice to you. Very soon you will be forced to make a decision: either continue lying to yourself and living in denial, or embrace who you truly are and begin the long, slow process of finding true happiness. Neither path is easy, but I sincerely hope you choose the latter.”
The void began to fade, eclipsed by teal light interlaced with shocks of yellow. Bob tried to speak, but found he no longer could.
“Toodles, Valex. We’ll meet again the next time you die. Until then, do try to enjoy your new body, okay?” Skellish saw him off with a friendly wave.
Bob’s eyes fluttered open, and he found himself staring at an obsidian ceiling and a rather ominous-looking chandelier that seemed to be constructed entirely of skulls. Each of the skulls was lit from within by red light; magelight was typically pink, matching the color of the mana used to summon it, but this light had somehow been red-shifted, seemingly for the sole purpose of appearing more sinister.
Bob sat up slowly, gingerly, and looked around the room. It was actually a rather nice room; two large, comfortable beds with nightstands and desks next to them, a barred window with curtains, an ajar door that seemed to lead to a small bathroom, and a dining area with a kitchenette and table surrounded by four chairs. Of course, the fact that all these furnishings seemed to be made of bleach-white bones lended the whole absurdly domestic scene a decidedly demonic edge.
Rixu was seated at the dining table. Opposite him coiled a large half-snake half-woman, a lamia, whose fiery red hair and eyes matched her scales. The two of them each had an arm extended, elbows on the table, fists clamped together.
“Uh...” Bob chirped. He frowned at the sound of his voice. It sounded too high-pitched, too soft.
The two turned to look at him. “Hey, you’re finally awake,” Rixu said, breaking into a grin.
“About time,” the lamia added. “You were crossing the border between consciousness and unconsciousness quite a bit over the past few days. We were starting to wonder if you’d ever come back to us.”
Bob had a lot of questions. Had he truly been insensate for several days? Why were they in a seemingly nice room, instead of back in the dungeon? Why were Rixu and this snake-demon woman so cordial with each other? And, most importantly of all...
“Are you two... arm wrestling?” The sound of his voice bothered him again, but he ignored it for now. Maybe his throat was just raw from being asleep for so long.
Rixu shrugged, still grinning. “We got bored.”
“He’s very strong, for a human,” added the lamia. “I still win most of the time, though.”
Bob felt anger rising. “Rixu, she’s a DEMON! She’s our ENEMY! You can’t go being all buddy-buddy with her!”
Rixu’s grin faded, and he released the lamia’s hand. He stood up from his chair and walked over to Bob. “You still haven’t realized, have you?”
“Huh?” Bob tilted his head to the side. “Realized what?”
Rixu sighed. “Look down.”
“Down?” Bob complied, then started at the sight of two mounds beneath his nightgown. Breasts? He wondered vaguely why one of his glamours was up, going through the mental steps to dispell it... only to realize, with a start, there’s no way he could have been maintaining a glamour while unconscious.
Eyes wide, he looked back at Rixu. “What... I...” He then jumped out of bed and rushed into the bathroom, stopping in front of the mirror above the sinks. What he saw reflected there made his stomach drop.
A young demon woman was staring back at him. She had Bob’s olive skin and sky-blue eyes, but that’s where the similarities ended. Her hair was silvery-white, and two fluffy fox ears poked out of the top of her head; a matching tail extended from her behind. She seemed young, perhaps in her late teens or early twenties. She was far, far younger than any glamour Bob had ever worn, and far cuter too.
Bob stared in disbelief. The tail in the mirror swished back and forth rapidly, almost seeming to wag, and he could FEEL it swishing behind him like an extension of his body. One of his forehead muscles twitched, and the corresponding ear flicked. There was no denying the woman he saw in the mirror was him, and it was no illusion this time.
Somehow, he’d been transformed into a demon.
As the implications of that began to press down on him, he saw his tail still, his ears press flat against his head, and a small whimper escaped from his throat. He turned to the bathroom doorway, where Rixu and the lamia were both standing, giving him looks of concern.
“I... what... how... I...” he stammered, in his cute voice.
Rixu took his arm and gently guided him back to the bed, where he sat down in a daze. Rixu sat down to his left, and the lamia coiled up in front of him and began to speak. “So, yeah. We’re not sure why, but somehow our resurrection spell transformed you into a demon. Metokai is researching the exact mechanisms of this, but it seems like your demonic transformation is highly similar to... er... the standard method.”
“The... standard method?” he asked in a small voice.
She nodded, her cheeks flushing a bit. “That is to say, your soul has been transformed by exposure to demonic energy. It turned into a demon soul, and your body shifted to match. And since demonic transformations are affirmational, you, uh...”
The lamia scratched her head. “When a human transforms into a demon, they gain a body that makes them happy. A form they desire, a body to match their soul. In my case, that meant a big snake tail with red scales. In your case, uh...”
“But!” Bob interrupted. “This isn’t a body I’d want!”
The lamia and Rixu exchanged a meaningful glance, then Rixu placed a hand on his shoulder. “Bob, this isn’t the way I wanted to have this conversation, but I don’t see much choice at this point. I’m going to ask you a very important question, and I want you to answer it honestly. Please understand, regardless of your answer, I am not going to judge you, or hate you, or think any differently of you. I will continue to be your friend and ally, no matter what. That said, I really would like you to be completely, totally honest, okay?”
Rixu took a deep breath. “Do you wish you’d been born a girl?”
Bob froze, that question piercing his core. A thousand memories came rushing back to him; staring at the girls in school with burning jealousy, crafting his first glamour will full knowledge he wanted it to be a pretty woman, working up the courage to try on dresses in a boutique the first time, feeling jubilation every time he could shift his form with illusion spellcraft, and dread every time the spell wore off. And the secret pleas he made to the Gods in the deepest hours of the night, begging them to make his transformations permanent. Just once, make an exception, so he could finally be happy.
Bob looked at Rixu, tears welling up.
“Yes,” she responded.
Rixu nodded, smiling gently. “I thought so. You were, uh, showing a lot of signs. So, I’m going to call you Valex. It seems like a more appropriate name. Is that okay?”
“Y-Yes,” Valex said, feeling giddiness mix with dread in her stomach.
“It’s a good name,” the lamia said. “Elvish for ‘mischievous fox,’ right?”
“So, Valex,” Rixu said, hand squeezing the foxkin’s shoulder tightly, “that’s the reason this transformation made you... like this. Because, deep down, this is what you wanted.”
“This is... what I wanted...” Valex looked down at her slight arms, her smooth hands, her breasts. She felt indescribably happy, knowing that this body was well and truly hers. But to become a demon in order to attain it... that meant she had finally, completely turned her back on the Gods. That made her a traitor, to Saimonica, to the Church, to everything she had once stood for. Was this all worth it? What would her wife and son think?
“You look like you’re having some very complicated emotions right now. Want to talk about it? I’ve been through something similar, so maybe I can help,” the lamia said.
“You… you have? Wait, who are you anyway?” Valex asked, eyeing her suspiciously.
She grinned. “My name is Nyze.”
Valex reeled; she knew that name well. “Wait, you’re THAT Nyze? Top-ranked spellblade, formerly of the Hero’s party, turned traitor and defected to the Demon Realm?”
“The very same. And also, obviously, a human who turned into a demon. So, Valex the foxkin, what do you say? Shall we talk?” She leaned forwards, her slitted pupils studying Valex intently. “Believe me, we have a LOT to discuss.”
As the conversation progressed, Valex realized Nyze was interrogating her. She was subtle in her probes for information, but Valex was a career spy and recognized her queries easily.
“You still don’t trust me, do you?” Nyze asked with a sigh.
“You’re a traitor,” Valex replied curtly, although her voice was too cute-sounding to carry much threat.
“Gods, Valex, cast a chill spell,” Rixu groaned. “We got caught, twice. You DIED. What’s the point in being hostile? The demons are being very hospitable.”
“That’s just because they’re fishing for information.” Valex shot back. “Once they’ve learned all they can, all these niceties will vanish and we’ll be right back in the dungeon.”
“My, what a grim view you have of us,” Nyze chuckled. “Although it’s a view I held myself not so long ago myself, so I can’t really blame you.”
Valex glared daggers. Imaginary ones, but Nyze winced nonetheless.
“Oy, don’t give me that look. If it makes your self-righteous indignation feel more justified, then yes, I freely admit my decision to defect was a selfish one. You see, the Demon Realm is far friendlier to people like you and me, Valex.”
Valex frowned. “What do you mean, you and me?”
“I’m lesbian,” she responded. “I’m a woman who is attracted to other women, not men. As you can well imagine, I hid this fact while I was in Saimonica. Just like you hid the fact that you were a girl.”
Valex’s frown grew deeper, and one of her ears twitched. “I’m not a girl.”
Rixu and Nyze both started at her, scowling in frustration. “Really? After all this, you’re still clinging to that?” Rixu said.
Valex shrank back a bit, her ears flattening against her head. “I-I mean, I wasn’t born a girl! I was born a boy! You demons may be perfectly fine swapping your genders as you please, but humans are created in the image of the Gods! And the Gods don’t make mistakes!”
Rixu planted his face in his palm. “By Sykzet’s infernal cloaca, I knew this would happen. Tess warned me the Church messed with your head bad.”
“Huh? Messed with my head? And who’s Tess?” Valex asked, one ear peeking back up.
Rixu ran his hand through his hair. “She’s a very good friend of mine. One who’s just like you. That is to say, a girl born into a man’s body.”
“The demonic term is ‘transgender,’” Nyze offered.
Rixu nodded. “Right, transgender. The point is, the two of us were serving in the army together when, one day, we got super drunk and she confessed a bunch of stuff to me, including the fact that she wished she were born a girl. Just like you, Valex.”
Valex’s other ear peeked up, and both of them swiveled towards Rixu, listening intently. Could it be true? There were others like her? Rixu took this as a good sign, whereas Nyze silently mused how cute the foxkin was when emoting with her ears like that.
“Anyway,” Rixu continued, “she’s living as a woman now, with a little assistance from some apothecary poultices and shaping magic to help her body match her identity. My point being, Valex, that wanting a body that matches the gender of your soul is not simply a demonic thing. There are plenty of humans who feel the same way.”
“B-But I’ve never met…” Valex said weakly.
“Because they’re keeping on the down low, obviously,” Rixu responded. “You’d never find them in the Central District. The influence of the Church is far less in the Outer District, or even outside Arcryid itself. People are freer there.”
“Or they’re like I used to be,” Nyze added, “constantly hiding, pretending to be ‘normal’ to avoid suspicion. I started a false relationship with the Hero just to have plausible deniability in case anyone asked.”
“That’s… that’s…” Valex looked around in confusion. She was having a hard time processing all this new information, her eyes darting everywhere around the room as her brain worked furiously.
“Valex,” Rixu said, placing his hand on her shoulder and locking her gaze to his. “If you want to be a girl, then be a girl. You’re allowed to be happy, no matter what those stuck-up Breeders say.”
“B-But the Gods… and the Church…” she protested weakly.
“Fuck ‘em,” Rixu responded, rising to his feet, his tone growing angrier with each word. “Those Gods are the ones who let me, and countless other children besides, grow up starving on the streets, having to beg and debase ourselves so the Breeders might toss us a copper or two. Those Gods are the ones who forced you, Nyze and Tess to live in hiding, constantly afraid of being true to who you are. THOSE GODS are the one who caused this whole stupid conflict with the demons in the first place, driving us towards a genocidal war that will kill millions. THOSE GODS are not WORTHY of your worship.” Spittle was flying from his mouth as he finished that tirade.
“Gosh,” Nyze said, applauding. “And to think you’re the only human in the room. Bravo, Rixu.”
Suddenly self-awareness crashed into Rixu, and he blushed and sat back down. “Sorry. I have a lot of pent-up rage.”
“S-Still!” Valex protested. “I can’t just abandon a lifetime of belief because of a silly little feeling I have! The Gods, the Church, they’re part of my identity! Part of EVERY human’s identity!”
Rixu set his jaw, then looked very deeply into the foxkin’s eyes. “Valex.”
“You are extremely cute.”
“W-W-WHA?” she stammered, face turning red.
“Especially those ears,” Rixu continued with kind mercilessness. “The way they reflect your emotions is adorable. And your tail? It’s wonderfully fluffy.”
“W-WHAT ARE YOU EVEN S-S-S-S-S-SAYING?” Valex’s face, ears and neck were now flushed, and her tail wagged back and forth furiously.
Rixu grinned. “Now, tell me. Between every sermon a Breeder ever delivered to your ears, and that one simple compliment I just gave you, which brought you more joy? The religious screeds, or being called cute?”
Valex looked at the floor, fidgeting. “Th-That’s not fair…”
“Isn’t it? Answer the question, Valex,” Rixu pressed.
She stared at the floor for a very long time. Then, in a small voice, she said, “I l-l-like being called cute.”
Rixu nodded. “Most girls do, I suspect. Valex, you deserve to be happy, and wear pretty dresses, and be called cute and beautiful and all the positive things in between. Don’t let all the crap the Church shoved into your head prevent you from enjoying these things. I know this isn’t an ideal situation, and you have a lot of shit to figure out, but please try to make the best of it. For your own sake.”
Nyze, who had been silent for a while, chuckled. “Damn, Rixu. You really are evil.”
“I don’t want to hear that from a demon,” he responded, sticking out his tongue.
Valex, meanwhile, was still fidgeting. “Skellish said I’d have to make a choice…”
“Oh, did she?” Nyze asked gently.
Valex nodded. “She said I could either continue lying to myself and living in denial, or embrace who I truly am and begin the long, slow process of finding true happiness.” She looked up, eyes searching Nyze’s. “Tell me, Nyze. Are you happy here?”
“Extremely happy. Moreso than I’ve ever been before,” Nyze responded without a moment’s delay.
Valex searched Nyze’s eyes for a minute, then clenched her hands into fists. “Then… then I’m willing to give this a chance. The whole ‘being a girl’ thing, I mean. I’m s-still not sure about the demon part.”
“Take your time,” Nyze cooed. “Although, now that you’re awake, the Demon Lord will be wanting to speak with you.”
Valex eeped, ears flat against her head again. For some reason, the prospect of meeting the feared Demon Lord provoked a very strong fight-or-flight response in her… stronger than she’d ever felt before. She wondered if that was an aspect of her new foxkin nature.
“I’ll ask her to wait a few days, so you can adjust,” Nyze added, her expression growing serious. “We will be leaving a guard in the room with you, however. You two have already proved yourself to be quite dangerous, so until we have certain assurances, we’re keeping you under observation at all times. The mana-dampening cuffs stay on too; Rixu, should you get any funny ideas about removing them again, please understand I am powerful enough to take you apart piece-by-piece with both hands tied behind my back.”
Rixu chuckled and grinned. “A threat?”
Nyze smiled thinly. “I don’t make threats, Rixu. You’re a decent person, and a good friend to Valex, but you are presently enjoying the Demon Lord’s hospitality. Wear that hospitality out, and I’ll throw you back in the dungeon so fast your head will spin. We clear?"
“Crystal,” he responded, his grin unwavering. Valex marveled that he could stare down the big, intimidating lamia like that without so much as flinching, and wondered what life experiences forged him to possess such nerves of steel.
Her point made, Nyze’s expression softened. “Aside from that caveat, please do make yourselves comfortable. Oh, and Valex?”
Valex eeped again, quieter this time, and stared wide-eyed at Nyze. “Y-Yes?”
Nyze pointed to a door adjacent to the bathroom. “That’s a walk-in closet. You’ll find a lot of very pretty girl’s outfits in there, including some absolutely stunning dresses.”
Valex’s eyes locked onto the door, focused like a blast of laser magic, and her tail began to wag again. These demons were trying to tempt her into willingly joining them, and their temptation was strong indeed.
Nyze set up an unfolded privacy screen around Valex’s bed and the bathroom door so she could try on outfits in peace. Rixu and Nyze both heard excited fox-girl noises from within, and exchanged knowing smiles.
“You know…” Rixu said in a hushed voice, so Valex wouldn’t overhear, “you demons are alright.”
“Are we?” Nyze asked. “You think so, even after I laid down the law?”
Rixu nodded, smiling warmly. “I mean, we were in the wrong to begin with, so nothing you said was out-of-sorts and I’m not one to hold grudges at the Church’s behest. Besides, you accepted Valex instantly for who she truly was. Tess had to fight very hard for even a modicum of acknowledgement from her peers. I think… I think she’d be happier here, among more accepting people. Provided everything you said about the Demon Realm was true, of course.”
Nyze broke into a grin. “Oh, it’s all true. Now you understand why I defected. So how about it, Rixu? Wanna betray humanity too?”
Rixu hummed and tapped his chin thoughtfully. “Well, that depends.”
“One very simple question. How’s the pay?”