Skellish’s domain is actually the very first universe, out of the whole infinite multiverse, to reach maximum entropy. Even the black holes and photons have long since faded away, leaving behind a perfect void of darkness and silence. Time has no meaning here: nothing ever happens, and it keeps not happening forever. It makes a peaceful backdrop for Skellish’s conversations with the centillions of souls that come her way.
Ironically, many of those conversations are far from peaceful. For example:
“FUCK!” Nyze screeched at the top of her non-existent lungs.
“Wow,” Skellish chuckled, her vibrant red eyes dancing mischievously, “you didn’t even give me a chance to offer my usual greeting.”
“I can’t believe I lost to her AGAIN! GODS DAMN SHIT OF FUCK!” Nyze continued to rant.
“If you’re having a moment, I can come back later.”
“UGH.” Nyze took a deep breath. “No, it’s fine, Skels. I was just letting out a little frustration.
Skellish cocked an eyebrow. “Skels? Are we now familiar enough for nicknames?”
Nyze shrugged, or at least had the aura of shrugging. “That’s what all the demons call you. ‘Skel-damned’ this and ‘Skel-damned’ that, ya know?”
“Never to my face, surely,” Skellish said. “And why am I always damning things?”
“Heck if I know. Language is weird like that.”
Skellish chuckled. “Well, if you stopped getting your tail kicked by Metokai, we’d stop meeting so much. Not that I mind the company, but I sense all this dying at the hands of your quote unquote “rival” is having a negative effect on your mental state.”
Nyze took that as an excuse to unload her woes. “Ugh, you can say that again. Just when I get used to this…” she made to motion at her body, before remembering she didn’t have one in the afterlife, “my lamia form, Metokai throws this whole demonic spellcasting thing at me. Sure, it’s way more POWERFUL than the human kind, but it’s gonna take me time to build finesse, yeah? So in the meantime Metokai has a huge advantage over me and keeps pressing it every time we fight!”
Skellish folded her arms and schooled her face in a motherly expression, with just a twinge of schadenfreude. “You know, there’s a saying from this little backwater universe that goes something like this: “As iron sharpens iron, so one demon sharpens another.”
“Ughhhh. I GET IT, OKAY?!” Nyze groaned, trying to head off the coming lecture.
“Metokai’s only pushing you because she knows you’re capable of rising to her level. She’s showing you respect by fighting at her full ability every time. That’s what it means to be a demon, hmm?”
“I KNOOOOOOOOOOW. That doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to be frustrated, though. Okay, MOM?”
Skellish snorted. “If I were your mom, your skin would be a lot more blue. How’d she kill you, anyway?” Her eyes unfocused as she cast her gaze across time, space and dimensions. Then she let out another snort, louder and more pronounced.
“Eviscerated by giant icicles, huh? I guess you could say you…”
“Skellish,” Nyze said, mentally folding her non-existent arms, “if you DARE finish that sentence, I swear I’m going to…”
“…really got your ICE kicked!” Skellish punctuated that remark with an inappropriately loud guffaw and knee-slap.
Skellish’s divine dad joke energy reverberated throughout the void, pummeling Nyze with levels of pun no mortal creature could survive; she let out a sound that was a horrifying mixture of a groan, a growl and a wail of pain.
“Oh, come now. Don’t give me the COLD shoulder,” Skellish continued, pressing her advantage. “You should really learn to CHILL out!”
Each pun was like another icicle through Nyze’s frozen soul. “See, this is why nobody worships you,” she growl-muttered. “Ugh. Skewered by Metokai for the tenth time, and now I’m trapped in the afterlife with a pun-drunk goddess. HURRY UP, RESURRECTION MAGES! I’M HAVING THE WORST DAY EVER!”
“Oh, come now. Try to have a sense of perspective,” Skellish replied. “Across the infinite possibilities of the multiverse, I’m sure SOMEONE is having a worse day than you.”
“Yup, he’s got sepsis,” Tessaria said, wiping the sleep from her eyes. Velour had woken her up to see to the extremely sick man he’d carted home, and now she stood studying him while picking at her pink bathrobe. “That wound is clearly infected, and his symptoms match.”
“Can you cure him?” Vel asked anxiously.
Tess cast a healthsight spell, her eyes flaring teal, and examined the stranger’s body in greater detail. He was presently sprawled out on one of the atrium’s couches, panting heavily despite being barely conscious. “It’s an extremely advanced infection,” she said grimly as she scryed the germs swarming in his bloodstream. “His organs are on the verge of shutting down. He needs professional medical attention, not two-bit healing from me.”
Vel frowned. “You’re a good healer, Tess. You’re trained.”
“Dammit, Vel, I’m a hooker, not a healer,” she responded sourly. “While it’s true I was trained in triage care by the Army, my knowledge is extremely basic. And treating sepsis is different from curing a venereal disease. Find him a proper healer.”
“He was on the streets, Tess. Do you really think a professional healer is gonna help him? They’d kick him out of any Creation Hall in a minute.”
“Ugh, true,” she grumbled. “I suppose I can cast a broad-spectrum antibiotic spell and patch up his organs. After that it’s up to him, though. Bedrest and liquid food should help him recover, maybe.”
“Maybe?” Vel’s voice squeaked like a frightened kitten. He hated seeing people suffer.
“Maybe,” she said firmly, not wanting to get his expectations up. “This man is extremely sick, and the damage may be too much for me to heal. Plus he looks malnourished. I will, however, do my best.” She pulled up the sleeves on her bathrobe and began incanting a healing spell, the first of dozens she’d cast on the man.
Diarn woke up in a lushly furnished, velvety room, on soft silk sheets. He groaned, his head pounding, and looked around. He didn’t feel good by any stretch of the imagination, but he certainly felt better than he had before. He wondered how he’d gotten here; all he could remember was something about a tall, muscular man and his warm arms.
He tried to move around in the bed, but found he couldn’t move much at all. Everything felt so heavy, and he was so weak. He just lay there, helpless to do much but blink, staring at the ceiling and wondering exactly where he was and why.
The door opened; with great effort, he swiveled his head to the side and caught view of a tall woman with long black hair and piercing purple eyes. She was holding a plate, with a bowl of something steaming atop it. It smelled delicious, and Diarn felt his stomach knot up in hunger pains.
“Finally awake, are we?” she said, a bit coldly. She walked over to the side of his bed and sat down, crossing her legs; thanks to the short hem on her dress, Diarn was treated to a full view of her thighs, although he was too tired and hungry to care much.
“Who…” he asked weakly, struggling to speak.
“Tessaria. I’d say I’m pleased to meet you, ex-Hero, but that wouldn’t be quite true.” She fingered something at her belt; straining his eyes, Diarn saw it was a knife.
“Mph…” he tried to say, his tongue fumbling over the words.
“Hush, no speaking. You need to eat.” She placed the plate with the bowl on her lap, then filled a spoon with warm cockatrice soup and brought it to his lips. He gratefully swallowed.
Tessaria fed him about half the bowl, then stopped. He made a hungry grunt, indicating he still wanted more, but she shook her head.
“Not yet. You’re malnourished, starving. If we feed you too much too quickly, it will cause refeeding syndrome. In your fragile condition, that could be fatal.”
Diarn had heard that before, last time someone had rescued him from near-starvation. “Rixu… said… that…” he said with great difficulty.
Tess’ eyebrows hit the ceiling. “You know Rixu?”
“He… we… during…”
“Nevermind,” she interrupted. “We’ll talk later. For now you need to rest and heal. You’re out of danger, but you’re gonna be bedridden for a few weeks at least. For some reason, Vel has taken a shine to you. He’s a sucker for hard luck cases, even taking pity on mangy Church dogs like you. Gods know why.”
She stood up and applied another healing spell, once more strengthening his body to help him recover. As she turned to leave, he managed to say one more word.
She huffed and left the room. Diarn drifted back off to sleep.
“How’s our patient do-ing?” Vel asked, stretching out the last word like an opera singer. He strode into the room, clad in his usual outfit of an evening dress and oversized beehive hairdo.
“I’m doing go-” Diarn said, freezing as he caught sight of the very muscular man rocking a dress. “Wha-”
Vel ignored his surprise, sashaying over to the bed and petting Diarn on the head like one might pet a small animal. “Glad to see you can form complete words now, little Diarn. Tess says you should recover just fine, though it will take time.”
“Right, I… why are you dressed like that?” Diarn asked.
Vel rolled his eyes. “THAT’S what you’re worried about? I’m a drag queen, Diarn. This is a brothel. Don’t let that overwhelm your delicate Church sensibilities. We saved your life, hmm?”
“Yeah. Thank you for that,” Diarn replied. “And… me and the Church don’t have much in common these days. Sorry if I was rude.”
“It’s fiiiiiine,” he replied. “How you holding up? Comfy? Enjoying the food?”
“Very comfy, and the soup is… well, soup. And Tess is kind, although she doesn’t seem to like me much.”
“Hah!” he scoffed, placing his hands on his hips. “Couldn’t imagine why THAT might be!”
“I…” he fumbled.
“You’re the Hero, Diarn. Or were, whatever. You’re a symbol of the Church that keeps our kind under their heel. Tess doesn’t HAVE to like you, because you represent a very deep source of trauma for her.”
“I’m sorry, I never…” Diarn said, suddenly feeling incredibly guilty.
“Well, don’t worry too much about it. Just be polite to her, okay? If I hear you weren’t, I’ll bash your face in and shatter every bone in your body.” He flexed his muscles to prove the point, then laughed as if the whole thing was a big joke. “You’re free to rest and recover here for as long as you need. After that I can hook you up with some merchants who are hiring. It’s tough work, but it pays decent.”
Gratitude swelled up in Diarn’s breast, and he felt undeserving of such magnanimity. “I don’t… I don’t know what to say…”
“Well, you already said thanks. Not gonna stop you from saying it again, though!” Vel laughed loudly.
“I… thank you. I owe you my life.”
“Don’t mention it, Diarn. Helping people in need is my life’s work. Well, that and running a brothel. Anyway, see you around. Toodles~!”
As Vel left the room, Diarn thought very long and hard about how the righteous and ostensibly moral Church had kicked him to the curb, and those he’d regarded as sinners had saved his life and welcomed him with open-ish arms. His entire understanding of the world turned upside down, and the inversion gave him vertigo. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
A week later, Diarn had successfully graduated to sitting up in bed, using pillows to support his back, and eating solid food. He was still too weak to leave bed, completely reliant on Tessaria (and occasionally Vel) for all his daily needs. He had come to regard the two of them as saints, despite their profession.
“So?” Tess asked as she cleaned out his bedpan. “You gonna tell me how you know Rixu?”
“Ah, that’s… a long story. One filled with, well… I made a lot of mistakes.” Diarn said, wincing painfully at the memory.
She shrugged. “So does everyone. Lemme go dump your shit in the toilet and then you can tell me.” Her tone made it clear she wasn’t going to tolerate any argument, loath as Diarn was to discuss the details of his recent humiliations. When she returned, he reluctantly began to tell his tale.
Diarn manifested a lot of self-deprecation when he spoke, describing his own actions as loathsome. Clearly he’d been building up a surplus of regrets, and they all came gushing out as he narrated how he alienated his own party, got trounced by the Demon Lord, watched his ex-girlfriend dump him for said Demon Lord and had his divine blessing sealed before being kicked out of the Demon Realm in disgrace. He bitterly recounted how the vaunted Church toss him aside when it became apparent he was no longer useful, and how thanks to his own lack of practical life experience he finally wound up on the streets with no coin or food.
“That sounds like the Church alright. Bunch of abusive hypocritical bastards,” Tess said. “Still, you deserved every ounce of misfortune you got.”
Diarn chuckled humorlessly. “You’re not wrong.”
She frowned, disappointed at his capitulation. “You’ve got the script wrong, ex-Hero. Now’s the part where you double down on your divinely-inspired chauvinism. Now you puff up your cheeks and defend your pride.”
“Pride? That’s for people who are worth something,” he muttered back.
She looked at the broken man filled with shame, and the deepest cockles of her heart felt a tiny burst of sympathy. She quickly shooed it away.
“So you have regrets. Lah-de-dah. If you could do it again, would you go back? If you could be the Hero again, would you scurry back to the Church, tail wagging?” she pressed, stripping away his veneer as if expecting to find rot underneath.
He shook his head. “No, I… I couldn’t. The Church that I served my entire life betrayed me in an instant. How could I ever trust them again? You and Vel have been kinder to me than they ever were.”
She folded her arms and glared down at him. “Rather late in your life to have that revelation, isn’t it?” she said in a tone seething with the love child of derision and hate.
“Yeah,” he replied, with no argumentativeness at all. “And… I think being the Hero is what made me think I was better than everyone else. Better than… better than Nyze…”
Her eyes narrowed. “She was special to you, hmm?”
“Did you love her?”
He shook his head. “Back then I thought I did, but… no, not really. I… she was a good friend, and I betrayed that friendship. We can never go back to that thanks to my own stupidity, but I wish I could… apologize to her, at least.”
“She doesn’t owe you forgiveness,” Tess said firmly. She’d cut many toxic people out of her life, some of them family, and never felt the least bit of regret even when they came offering profuse apologies. Those apologies often had caveats, after all.
“I know,” Diarn replied. “I still want to say it, though. Not because I expect anything to develop between us again, but merely because I feel like I owe it to her.”
“And if she doesn’t even want to see your face?” Tess pressed.
“Then so be it. It’s not my place to press her, regardless of my own guilt.” In that moment, Diarn looked very small and pathetic to Tess. She noticed his eyes were beginning to tear up.
She sighed, finally admitting to herself that the ex-Hero might have a fragment of something redeemable inside. “You are an odd one, Diarn. Full of pain caused by your own bad choices, wallowing in a pool of regret. There’s more that needs healing here than just your body.”
He stared at her, unsure of what to say.
“I know a lot about living with regret. I spent over half my adulthood pretending to be someone I wasn’t, and the truth crashed into me like a hammer shattering a mirror. But, picking up those pieces, I was able to rebuild myself in the image I wanted.”
Diarn wiped his eyes, and his perplexed expression made it clear he had no clue what she was saying.
She took a step forward and jabbed a finger into his chest, punctuating each point with a poke. “Ugh, do I have to spell it out? You can either keep living with this regret for the rest of your life, like a warmed-over zombie, or you can take the next step to improve yourself. Learn from your mistakes, purge your toxicity, iron out your flaws, become a better Diarn.”
“But…” he stammered. “There’s no way I could make such a… drastic transformation.”
“Why not?” she scoffed. “I managed it, and I’m just a hooker living in the slums. You telling me the gods-damned ex-Hero isn’t up to the challenge?”
He stared at her curiously, and she rolled her eyes. The question went unspoken, but it hung in the air regardless, impossible to ignore. What transformation had she gone through herself? What experience had informed her well enough to impart such wisdom?
“If you MUST know, I wasn’t born a woman. Until three years ago, I was a man,” she said.
Diarn’s eyes became wide as lunfast plates. “Wh-What? How… how did you?”
“Hormones from a shady apothecary and some illicit shaping magic,” she responded.
Diarn was speechless. He simply couldn’t imagine the confident, beautiful, leggy woman in front of him as ever having been a man. “I never… I never would have guessed. You look incredible. Amazing, even,” he said with awe.
“Thank you.” She smiled at him, genuinely, for the first time since they met. “Anyway, back to my point. I lied to myself most of my adult life, and was consequently miserable, until Rixu and Vel helped me find my truth and live it. If I could make such a drastic change, so can you. There’s no need for you to be the Hero. Try and figure out who you want to be instead.”
Diarn nodded, slowly, thoughts whirling around in his head.
“Anyway,” she said, striding over to the door, “I need to get to work. Holler if you need anything.”
Diarn sat there, staring at the velvet-draped wall, trying to process everything. She’d given him a lot to think about. He stayed up long into the night, thinking about possibilities. Dreams.
In that moment, after teetering on the brink for many months, the Hero finally died. He was not slain by the Demon Lord, but by a broken man named Diarn.
The person who took his place was something else entirely.