Sethven HATED zombies.
Their rotting flesh and propensity to ravenously gnaw on anything warm-blooded was bad enough, but what really got to Sethven was the moaning. Zombies constantly emitted a grating, echoing moan as if they had nothing better to do. And with a veritable army of the soulless shamblers mere feet away from him, their compounded moaning was really, REALLY harshing his mellow.
He looked around the encampment. In the center was the zombie horde, fenced in by a crimson magitechnological shield that kept them more-or-less contained. Surrounding that was an assemblage of tents, sleeping quarters for the few soldiers and mages who stood guard and kept the zombie army from escaping. Wrapped around the whole shebang was a hemispherical glittering dome, softly pulsing violet. This was the illusion magic invisibility spell that hid them from the outside world. It was a five-line spell, emitted from a magic circle nearly a mile in diameter under their feet. It took a banker’s dozen mages casting in concert to maintain the dome.
Sethven winced as one of the zombies slammed its face into the shield, sending little ripples of impact force spiraling outwards. The zombie, now sporting a broken nose and jaw, shook its head in confusion, then rammed the shield again. Little globlets of blood and viscera dripped from its increasingly mangled face.
Sighing, Sethven incanted a two-line elemental spell, modulating it to pierce the shield, and zapped the offending zombie with a small bolt of lightning. The zombie yelped and leapt backwards, landing ungracefully on its behind, before scampering away on all fours.
“Must you be so rough with my zombies?” a grating voice complained from his left. Turning his head, Sethven looked at the necromancer with unbridled contempt. Sybar eschewed the traditional white robes of a High Breeder, instead cladding himself in pitch-black rags that obscured his entire body beneath their manginess. Even his face was shadowed by a hood, although Sethven could barely make out a pallid complexion split by a wide toothy grin if he squinted.
“I wouldn’t have to zap them if they stayed away from the gods-damned shield,” Sethven retorted icily. “Can’t you order them to keep back?”
Sybar cackled megalomaniacally. “I may be Saimonica's greatest necromancer, but even I cannot control such a huge host of zombies all at once. I just raise them, and they’re completely mindless and uncontrollable after that. That’s why you army boys are here… to HERD them for me.”
Sethven rolled his eyes. This was, by far, the worst assignment he’d ever had during his time in the Saimonican army. Everything about it annoyed him: the army of zombies, the egotistical necromancer who raised them… and above all the looming border of the Demon Realm, only a few miles to the south. Were it not for the illusion spell, Sethven was certain those annoyingly frequent airborne demonic patrols would have spotted their undead army long ago. He looked forward to the day they could ‘herd’ all these famished zombies straight into the Demon Realm and be rid of them for good.
“Anyway, look lively,” Sybar continued haughtily as Sethven resisted the urge to perforate his skull with his sword. “The High Militant will be arriving soon, and I’m told he wants to meet you.”
“Oh boy,” Sethven said with flat sarcasm. “I can’t WAIT to meet the High Militant again. I just LOVE his inspections.”
Sybar cackled again, and Sethven pressed his fingers to his temples, attempting to ward off his oncoming headache.
High Militant Frense Angeddo was a short and portly man, which lead many of his enemies to underestimate him. It was the last mistake they’d ever make, for he was not known to be merciful. One didn’t advance to high rank in the Saimonican army without martial skill, cunning and a certain degree of ruthlessness.
Not that Sethven cared much about the High Militant’s reputation. He was an enlisted man who’d had officer duties thrust upon him; this unusual career trajectory did not foster in him the respect one usually had towards their superior officers. Perhaps it was his abject, unbridled honesty that his superiors admired, but Sethven didn’t really care one way or another. He was just here to do his job, preening officers or batty necromancers be damned.
Frense stood before the shield, hands behind his back, examining it with intense eyes aglow with a manavision spell. He nodded along as Sethven spoke.
“As you can see, the shield is presently at 60% strength and continuing to decay.” He pointed to a zombie who was bashing itself into the barrier, trying to break through. “Every time one tries to escape, the shield weakens. Individual impacts have an almost imperceptible effect, but multiply that by 200,000 zombies over the course of months and…”
“Can we reinforce the shield?” Frense interrupted coldly, already moving ahead of the conversation.
That’s the first thing I thought of, you pompous ass, Sethven thought. He chewed his tongue, trying to phrase that diplomatically. “The magitechnologists tell me they need to take the whole thing offline for at least a week to perform the necessary maintenance on the emitter pylons and refresh the ritual components.”
“Hrm,” Frense replied, eyes narrowing. “Obviously not feasible.”
“That’s not all,” Sethven continued. “We had another illusion mage burn out last night. Maintaining this massive invisibility field around the dial is taking its toll.”
“I’ll have another squadron of illusion mages sent out here immediately,” Frense said.
“…While that is appreciated, High Militant, it’s merely delaying the inevitable. Between the strain on our illusion mages and the rapidly decaying shield, I estimate we’re less than a month away from one of three operation failure conditions.”
Frense turned to look at Sethven for the first time, and the soldier found his gaze unsettling. “And those three conditions are?”
Sethven grit his teeth and counted on his fingers. “First, the shield fails and the zombies escape and eat all the soldiers. Second, the illusion fails and we’re exposed to the demons. Third, a demon patrol stumbles across us despite our invisibility dome. Their airborne patrols have been getting more frequent this past month, as I’m sure you read in my reports.”
Frense sighed. “We have orders from the Supreme Breeder. We keep this operation going, no matter what. When the time is right, we’ll unleash these zombies on the Demon’s capital and watch the carnage from afar.”
“Yes, but how much LONGER will it take?” Sethven asked, completely out of patience. “You’re talking in absolutes, but I’m just trying to safeguard the lives of my men!”
“Should they perish in service to the Gods’ glorious cause, it would be an honor. Their salvation in the Divine Realm would be guaranteed.” Frense said tersely.
“Oh, of course. That thought is VERY comforting,” Sethven said acidly. “Are there any options where we DON’T all die?”
Frense seemed unbothered by Sethven’s casual heresy. “We currently have intelligence assets infiltrating the Demon Realm. Once we receive their report, we’ll proceed with the next phase of the plan. Tell your men that, one way or another, this operation will be over by month’s end.”
Sethven didn’t find that tidbit terribly comforting. His superiors promised timetables always seemed to slip into an ever foggier future. Nevertheless, he recognized there was nothing to be gained by further arguing with the High Militant. “Very well. I’ll inform them.”
“Also, tell the necromancer we’re sending him another 200 corpses to raise. They’ll be arriving in four days.”
Sethven cringed; he hated receiving the corpse wagons. “Where are they from THIS time? More plague victims?”
“Better that you don’t ask.” Frense said curtly, before going back to studying the shield.
After Frense departed, Sethven beelined for the command tent, exhausted in body and mind. He was not in the mood to speak with anyone, Sybar least of all.
“How’d it go?” the necromancer asked, following Sethven into his tent and chuckling at his exhausted expression.
Sethven channeled all his rage into his fist and smashed it into Sybar’s face. Sybar rolled with the punch and didn’t go flying, but several of his teeth did.
“Ow. What was THAT for?!” he groaned as he rubbed his jaw.
“Get the fuck out of here.” Sethven growled. “Go see a healer and get your teeth fixed, or go get drunk. I don’t care, as long as you are OUT. OF. MY. SIGHT.”
Scowling, Sybar slinked out of the tent. Sethven collapsed in a chair and let out a long, frustrated wail that echoed that of the zombie horde outside.
Valex, who was rocking an absolutely stunning emerald dress with little violet gemstones inlaid, shrieked at the top of her lungs. “You’re doing WHAT?”
“I’m defecting,” Rixu repeated. “I’m gonna join the Demon army.”
Rixu shrugged. “The pay is good, and they’re willing to post me somewhere boring. Guard duty at a distant outpost, where I can take it easy and watch the scenery.”
“You’d betray humanity over THAT?! Don’t you have any PRINCIPLES, Rixu?!” Valex asked incredulously, every hair on her tail standing on end.
Rixu tapped his chin in mock thoughtfulness. “Hmm, let me see. I grew up on the street in abject poverty, got pressed into the Army and run ragged in exchange for a pittance and three squares, and all of my friends are considered damned sinners by the Church. Now why would I ever want to turn my back on that?” He wasn’t so much dripping with sarcasm as taking a hot shower in it.
“That’s… that’s not…”
“Besides, the demons are alright. Kind of intense, but their hearts are in the right place. I mean, they’re very accepting of you, aren’t they? That’s a stunning dress, by the way. Looks great on you.”
Valex’s cheeks flashed redder than a blushing tomato. “Wh… Thank you, but what does my dress have to do with anything?!”
“Think about it, Valex. You can wear that dress freely here, be a woman freely here, and the demons will accept it without a second thought. Don’t you find that kind of environment much more liberating than dour ol’ Saimonica?”
Valex felt another existential crisis coming on, and she’d had just about enough of those. “That’s… I mean… it’s nice they’re all treating me like a woman, but… I can’t just… I have a wife, Rixu. And a son! I can’t just abandon them because of some demonic flight of fancy!”
“So bring them here,” Rixu said, smiling. “I’m told the Demon Lord will offer sanctuary to anyone who wants it.”
“I don’t know if they’d accept that!” Valex protested. “I… I don’t even know if they’d accept ME! I’m… I’m different now…”
Rixu, realizing he’d been a bit too forceful, softened his tone. “Hey, hey. They love you, right? I’m sure they’ll accept you, cute fox ears and all.”
Valex didn’t say anything, merely walked over to her bed and slumped down, sitting on one corner and staring at the floor. Her aforementioned ears flattened against her head, indicating distress and fear. Rixu sat beside her and placed a hand on her shoulder.
“We’ll figure it out together, okay? I’ll come back to Arcryid with you, help you explain it to them. I have a lot of experience with this stuff.”
“Mmhmm…” Valex said, her ears drooping.
“It’ll turn out alright.”
“You can’t know that,” she muttered.
“We’ll MAKE it turn out alright,” Rixu stated firmly. “You’re happier than I’ve ever seen you, Valex. This change has been good for you. So we’re gonna seize that happiness and twist it into joy, aight?”
Valex looked up at him, doe eyes aglow with tears. “R-Really?” she sniffled.
“Really,” he responded, projecting confidence.
She nodded, slowly, and her ears perked back up.
“For now, though… we have a date to keep,” Rixu said, smiling gently. “The Demon Lord has invited us to dinner.”
“Another interrogation?” Valex asked warily.
“A conversation,” Rixu corrected her, gently but firmly. “One to be had with open minds on both sides, okay?”
She nodded, then suddenly jumped up. “Oh no! If I’m going to be meeting the Demon Lord, I need to find a good dress for the occasion!”
Rixu gawped. “You… You’re already wearing a wonderful dress.”
“Don’t be silly, Rixu,” she lectured. “This is a moondress. I need an EVENING dress. Something nice!” She dashed off into the walk-in closet, and the sound of shuffling clothes followed soon after.
Her energy was infectious. Rixu looked down at his own simple shirt and trousers and wondered if he should spruce himself up too. Surely not, right?
When Valex and Rixu walked into the dining room, looking sharp in their matching evening wear, Nyze glanced down at her own leather armor and felt distinctly underdressed. “Was this supposed to be a fancy-dress dinner?” she asked Psytalla, who was similarly clad in her usual plate mail.
Psytalla shrugged. “Not that I’m aware of.”
Valex wore a sky-blue dress that matched her eyes, sewn of sparkling fabric that reflected glittering light and made her glow softly. The low neckline and high slit showed off her body beautifully, and she walked with confidence, as if daring the world to drink in her splendor. Rixu wore a dark-blue tuxedo hemmed with sky-blue highlights, and carried an entirely superfluous cane topped with an amethyst.
“Goodness gracious,” said Metokai, who was also wore leather armor. “Are you two attending a wedding or something?”
Valex blushed. “I mean… we figured if we were meeting the Demon Lord, we should dress nicely…”
Rixu stared at his shoes sheepishly, avoiding the disbelieving gazes of the demons. “I-It was her idea…”
Psytalla chuckled. “I’m not one to stand on ceremony, but the sentiment is appreciated. You two look great.”
“Th-Thanks…” Rixu and Valex replied in unison, even matching up their awkward stutters.
“Am I missing something here?” Metokai asked. “You two were invading this castle less than a week ago, and now you’re dressing up for an evening soirée?”
“Oh, hush,” Nyze said, bonking her lightly on the head. “They’ve been through a lot. Be nice.”
Metokai grumbled, but complied. “Fine, fine.” She clip-clopped over to Valex and held out her paw in greeting. “Rixu I’ve talked with extensively already, but this is my first time seeing you conscious, Valex. Shall we begin with introductions, then? I am High General Metokai of the Grand Unified Demonic Army.” Valex took her paw and shook it gingerly.
Nyze grinned. “You both already know me.”
“And I,” Psytalla said, standing at her full height and letting out just the slightest burst of intimidation, “am Psytalla Sidealestes, the Disaster Demon Lord. I am pleased to meet you under better circumstances than our last encounter.” She smirked a bit as she watched her two guests eyes widen in awe, and tremble a bit.
“Sh-Should we bow or…” Valex whispered to Rixu.
“Not unless she asks,” he whispered back. “Just play it cool.”
“Right. Play it cool in front of the gods-damned Demon Lord. No problem.” Valex stood up straight as she dared and flashed what she thought was a winsome smile, although it seemed more nervous than anything. “Greetings, your, uh, your majesty? My name is Valex Argenta.”
Psytalla smiled gently, although it came off more savage to her guests. “Just ‘Psytalla’ is fine. As I said, I’m not one to stand on ceremony. I trust you’re adjusting well to your, ahem, changes?”
“Y-Yes, Ms. Sidealestes,” Valex said nervously.
Psytalla grimaced. “Please don’t call me ‘Ms. Sidealestes.’ That makes me sound like a frumpy secretary.” Beside her, Nyze giggled, which she ignored. “As I said, ‘Psytalla’ is fine.”
“O-Oh, right. Psytalla…” Valex said uncertainly. “I’m adjusting very well, thank you for asking.”
Rixu grinned. “She’s tried on every dress in that closet TWICE. I’d say she’s definitely adjusting well.”
“RIXU!” Valex cried, going redder than an ironically named blue streak. Her tail wagged back and forth.
Psytalla belted out a long, deep laugh. “I’m glad you’re enjoying them. Well, shall we continue this conversation over dinner?” She motioned to the long table behind her, piled high with steaming-hot food.
Rixu and Valex’s growling stomachs overcame their trepidation, and they nodded.
“MMMPH! What IS this?!” Valex exclaimed between large, eager bites. “It’s delicious!”
“Deep-fried wyvern tail,” Psytalla responded, watching the small foxgirl eat her own weight in fried food with a wry smile.
Valex paused, fork halfway to her mouth. “Wait, you EAT wyverns? I thought they were for riding!”
“Both are true,” Metokai said, switching into lecture mode with ease. “There are many different breeds of wyvern. Some are beasts of burden, others are ridden, and others for consumption. I believe you humans breed serpenthedes much the same, no?”
Valex nodded. “Yeah, we do. Although I’ve never been a fan of thede meat… too stringy and tough for my liking. But this is delicious! It melts in your mouth!” She eagerly resumed her om-nomming.
Rixu watched her with fascination; she was devouring the meat like, well, like a ravenous animal. At first he wondered if it was a fox thing, but the other demons ate much the same. Even the Demon Lord’s dignity was forgotten as she stuffed her face; table manners seemed to be an afterthought in demonic society. Rixu realized why they’d been so shocked when he and Valex showed up dressed to the nines; why bother wearing something nice when you were just gonna get food all over it?
Metokai wiped her mouth on her sleeve and burped. “Valex, it might interest you to know I’ve arrived at a working theory with regards to your transformation.”
Valex chewed and swallowed, then set down her fork and dabbed her mouth with a napkin. “Oh?”
“To explain succinctly: demonic spellcasting differs from human spellcasting in one important respect. Instead of channeling mana from the Moons, we pull undifferentiated creation mana from the cosmos itself and refract it into the necessary color using our soul ribbons as hyperdimensional prisms.”
Valex understood maybe half of that, but she nodded along anyway. Rixu, lacking her discretion, looked completely lost.
“In the process of refraction, the mana takes on signatures that align with a demonic soul’s inherent energy; in essence, we change the mana to be a little more like us. Now, as I’m sure you’re aware, spiritualism is the only school of magic capable of directly targeting the soul.”
That part Valex understood. Spiritualists, or ‘mystics’ as they were sometimes called, used their unique school of magic to peer into a being’s soul, study it, and implant spell circles upon the soul ribbon; for this reason, spiritualists and their artifacts were essential to bestowing access to spells upon all mages. Darker applications could damage or destroy souls, but such things were forbidden by Gods and demons alike.
“Demonic resurrection magic includes both healing and spiritualism components: healing to regenerate and rebuild the body, and spiritualism to capture the deceased soul and rejoin it to the flesh. Since my demonic mana bearing the signature of my soul, made direct contact with your soul, my demonic imprint transferred to you. Your soul was then remade into a demonic one, which subsequently caused your physical changes. The process is similar to the usual method of demonic transformation.”
Valex recalled that Nyze had mentioned something similar earlier. “What is ‘the usual method?’” she asked, glancing at the lamia.
Nyze lowered her eyes to the tabletop and blushed brighter than a chili pepper with hives. Psytalla looked over to her and grinned smugly. Metokai seemed unperturbed. “The usual method is sexual intercourse.”
Valex wished she had been drinking something at that moment, just so she could spit it out in shock. Alas, she settled for gasping, hand to her mouth, instead. “S-Sexual…”
Metokai continued casually, as if she were discussing Moon phases instead of something highly embarrassing. “When two or more individuals, human or demon, have consenting sex, their souls mingle. They exchange a small part of their metaphysical self with each other. In the case of a demon and a human, the demonic imprint will be transferred to the human soul. Oftentimes this is referred to as ‘demon life energy corrupting a human’ although this description is inaccurate at best.”
Valex now understood why Nyze was blushing. “Nyze, is that how you…”
“No comment,” she responded tersely. Psytalla’s grin grew wider.
“So…” Valex said slowly, trying to pick up what was being put down, “you’re saying it’s like… you and I had sex, Metokai?”
Rixu, who HAD been drinking a sip of water at the moment, spat it out. Valex felt a twinge of jealousy at his perfect comedic timing. Metokai, once more, seemed entirely unflustered.
“Not as such, Valex. Our souls never mingled. Instead, demonic elements from my soul were imprinted upon yours by the transitive properties of mana. I posit the results would be the same if any demon were to cast a spiritual spell on any human, even something as innocuous as soulsight.”
Nyze, who had finally conquered her embarrassment, guffawed. “I love it when she talks dirty.”
“Your attempts to humiliate me are just as pitiful as your attempts to defeat me in battle, serpent,” Metokai shot back.
Valex regarded the two verbally dueling demons for a moment, wondering if they were enemies or extremely good friends, before trying to steer the conversation back on course. “Is… Is there a way to undo my transformation? Make me human again?”
All eyes turned to her, and smiles vanished. “Do you WANT to undo it?” Psytalla asked.
“That’s… I’m not… I mean…” she stammered, feeling another one of those reprehensible existential crisis come on. Her ears flattened and her tail drooped, but she was reassured by the heavy, steady presence of Rixu’s hand on her shoulder.
“Don’t think about it. Just answer honestly, with the first thought that comes to your mind,” he said gently.
She felt like she was about to cross a threshold into something unknown, but she took his advice. “N-No. I don’t want to go back.” Putting it into words solidified something inside her… determination, perhaps. She clenched her fists, her heart beating fast, and drew strength from the steadying grasp of Rixu’s hand on her shoulder.
The Demon Lord nodded. “Then perhaps we can look on this as a happy accident. We didn’t intend to turn you into a demon, and certainly not against your will, but if the end result is validating for you, all the better, right?"
Valex nodded, slowly. “It’s just…”
Valex stared at the table, no longer able to meet the Demon Lord’s gaze. “I… have a family. Back in Arcryid. A wife and son.”
“Ah.” The entire room turned to ice as the implications of what Valex said sank in.
“I’m… not sure if they’ll accept me… accept this,” she motioned to herself, eyes still cast downwards.
“If there’s anything I can do to help…” Psytalla said softly.
“I want to go back to Arcryid,” Valex said firmly, raising her eyes again. “With Rixu. I want to… explain this to them, and if they’re open to it, bring them here, to the Demon Realm. I’m told you will give sanctuary to anyone who asks?”
Psytalla nodded. “Yes. All who wish it have a place in the Demon Realm, human or otherwise.”
“Is it really wise to travel back to Saimonica right now?” Metokai interjected. “Tensions are… elevated.” She didn’t elaborate, but everyone knew exactly what she meant.
“You’re talking about the war,” Valex said, gritting her teeth.
“Anything you care to share?” Psytalla said carefully, her eyes narrowing. “Every piece of information you reveal helps both your cause and ours.”
Valex ruminated on that for a moment, before figuring she’d already crossed one line. Might as well go all in. “So… Rixu’s probably already told you that our mission in the Demon Realm was to ascertain the damage caused to your leadership by the Hero. Diarn claimed he killed several of your highest generals, which the Supreme Breeder hopes threw your military forces into disarray. Obviously, that’s not the case.”
Metokai chuckled dryly. “Rumors of my death are not exaggerated. However, I’m feeling much better now.”
“Right,” Valex continued. “The Church leadership doesn’t know about the existence of resurrection magic. The goal of the Hero’s attack was to decapitate the Demon Realm’s leadership or, failing that, to at least damage it severely. They’re hoping the second still holds true.”
“For what purpose?” Psytalla asked. “Demon Lords have fallen to Heroes before and the Realm didn’t capitulate. Someone always steps up to take the mantle.”
Valex took a deep breath, and everyone leaned forwards to listen to what she had to say. “What Rixu doesn’t know is that the Hero’s attack was only phase one of their plan. Phase two is a direct invasion of the Demon Realm.”
“By the Saimonican Army?” Metokai asked, leaning forwards.
“Partially. The main invasion force will consist of zombies.”
“Zombies?” Metokai asked disbelievingly. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but human necromancy spells don’t rejoin the soul to the body during the reanimation process. So the zombies are… soulless, mindless creatures guided only by instinct?”
“Correct. Are… are zombies different in the Demon Realm?” Valex asked curiously.
“Yes, but that’s a topic for another time,” Psytalla replied firmly.
“Right. Well… the Saimonican Army is currently operating four sites on the border where zombie armies are poised to attack the Realm. Each site plays host to approximately 200,000 zombies, plus a handful of regular forces to shield and herd them. The sites are disguised by powerful five-line illusion spells, which are being maintained around the clock to render them invisible.”
Metokai whistled. “That many?”
Valex nodded. “The closest site is due northeast of here, in the foothills of the Burning Range on the human side. Their planned invasion route is through Jagged Teeth Pass, with the ultimate goal of overrunning Yandar itself.”
Metokai raised her hand to her ear, and her eyes flashed blue with the telltale color of psychic magic. She was sending a message to someone.
“I’m not sure of each site’s exact location, but I do know the invasion routes,” Valex continued. “As soon as the Supreme Breeder receives my report on the readiness of the Demon Realm to repel the attack, the plan is to either commence or cancel the operation.”
Psytalla steepled her fingers and smiled. “Then, in that case, it seems we have an opportunity here.”
Valex saw the glint in her eyes, and her stomach twisted in knots. She’d just willingly given the Demon Lord the key to winning the upcoming battle, which would allow her to gain a strong advantage in the war. The weight of that decision pressed down on Valex.
“How so?” she asked flatly.
Psytalla’s gaze sharpened, like a blade pressed against Valex’s skin. “First, let me ask you this. You’ve freely revealed this intelligence to us. Are you prepared to take the next step? Are you prepared to betray humanity, completely and utterly, and aid me in my campaign to bring Saimonica and the Church to heel?”
Despite her trepidation, Valex didn’t hesitate. “I-If you can fulfill my request, yes. Whatever is coming, I want my family safe.”
“You have my promise,” Psytalla responded. “I believe we can kill two birds with one bolt. Valex, I would like to send you back to Arcryid, undercover, with Nyze and Metokai as companions. They will assist you in evacuating your family, and will establish safehouses for future covert operations. And you will deliver a false report to the Supreme Breeder, indicating that the Realm’s forces were severely weakened by the Hero’s attack. Tell them that we’re ripe for conquest.”
“Huh?” Valex stammered. “You WANT them to attack?”
The Demon Lord’s grin was wide and bloodthirsty, her eyes aglow with crimson fire. “Yes. Because we’ll have laid a trap for them. Their armies will be annihilated the moment they shamble out of the Burning Range, and we will launch our counter-invasion. Then, the war begins in earnest.”
Valex looked at the Demon Lord, who was radiating a powerful aura of malice, and gulped.
“Well!” said the Demon Lord, “the food was good, but the conversation was grim. Here’s hoping our next dinner together is more lighthearted, hmm?”
Valex nodded. “A no shoptalk dinner, surely."
“It’s a date,” she said, grinning. “I’ll even wear a dress next time.”
“Ooh, wear the slinky black one. You know, that shows off your thighs!” Nyze said with far too much enthusiasm.
Psytalla tilted her head towards Nyze. “If you want to see my thighs, you can just ask.” They shared an affectionate laugh, and Valex's cheeks flushed vivid red.
“D’aww, look at that. The cute lil’ fox is blushing!” Nyze cooed teasingly. Her compliment only made Valex brush brighter.
“Indeed. If she turned any redder, she’d look sunburnt.” Psytalla added with a laugh.
The conversation stopped, and everyone turned to look at Psytalla. “What-burnt?” Nyze asked.
For the first time in anyone’s memory, Psytalla looked a bit unsure of herself. “Er, nothing. A slip of the tongue. I meant to say ‘moonburnt.’”
Nyze didn’t think it was a slip of the tongue, but decided not to press. She could ask about it later, after all. With a bit more joking at Valex’s expense, the party dispersed.
“Well,” Valex said wearily as the two returned to their room. “That went both much better and much worse than I expected.”
“Things are really escalating, huh? I hope we didn’t make it worse,” Rixu replied, flopping down into a chair and undoing his bow tie.
Valex shook her head. “War was coming, regardless of what we did. We’ve just… crossed a line, and there’s no going back. I… I still can’t quite believe I’ve betrayed humanity like that.”
“It’s for the best.” Rixu said gently. “And… what you said about protecting your family made me think. There’s a few friends I’d like to bring to the Demon Realm as well. If we’re going to Arcryid, I want to try and evacuate them too.”
“Your trans friend?”
“Yeah. Tessaria is her name. She’s currently living with… well, with a drag queen named Velour Intervention.”
Valex’s eyebrows shot up. “Seriously?”
“Don’t judge, Vel is a good person. I… I want to bring them here, show them what I’ve seen. I think they’d both be a lot happier, a lot freer. If we get the chance, that is.”
“Yeah,” Valex said, collapsing on her bed and staring at the ceiling. “If we get the chance.”
“I’m heading out! See you later!” Velour shouted.
A jaffled Tessaria stumbled into the main foyer of the Crimson Coterie. She yawned and looked at Vel with something resembling annoyance, but more low-energy.
“You’re leaving NOW? It’s three hours past moonrise!” she said wearily. “What if one of the city guards catches you?”
“What if they do?” he shot back defiantly. “I’m dressed normally.” He motioned to his floofy, lacy white blouse and tight-fitting brown trousers.
“You look like a horny pirate,” she groaned. “You are INCAPABLE of dressing normally, Vel.”
“Whatever. Anyway, I need some groceries. We’re completely out of thede meat, and that just won't do.”
Tess rolled her eyes. “I’ll never understand why you like that leathery stuff. Eh, whatever. Stay safe. I’ll be asleep by the time you get back.”
“Toodles~” he responded, and strode out onto the street with swagger.
A half-hour later, he bid the greengrocer farewell, one large bag of foodstuffs on each arm, and headed back to his nightclub slash home. On the way, he heard a low moaning coming from an adjacent alleyway, one of the dark and foreboding ones. Now, a normal pedestrian would have just ignored this rather ominous portent and gone on their way… but Vel was no normal pedestrian. He was confident, perhaps foolishly so, and he would be thrice-damned before he ignored a soul in need of help. So he poked his head in the alley to take a peek.
There was a man there, dressed in the barest of rags. He might have been handsome, once upon a time, but the ravages of the streets had long ago worn that away. He looked up at Vel with sunken, dull eyes.
“Food?” he asked.
Vel studied the man, not moving closer but not running away either. The man appeared to be shivering, despite the balmy weather, and his skin was blotchy; his breathing was rapid and shallow. Vel saw a large infected gash on the man’s arm, surrounded by darkened veins.
“Septicemia…” Vel muttered.
“Please… I’m very hungry…” the man begged.
“You’re very sick.” Vel said, moving over to the man and casting the one low-level healing spell he knew. The man seemed to relax a bit, his body warming slightly. “That’s the best I can do, I’m afraid. You’ll need someone specialized in disease magic to help further.”
The man stared, silent, his heart beating faster than it should.
“I know someone.” With a single, smooth motion, Vel swept the man up in his arms, effortlessly hoisting him into a princess carry. “Tess knows disease magic. She’ll be able to help you.”
He started walking quickly, back to the Coterie. The man stared at him, or perhaps past him. It was hard to tell.
“Stay with me, kid. What’s your name?” Vel said as he carried the man to safety.
“…Diarn,” the man responded weakly. “I’m… Diarn.”