Assignation by the Void Ignited

According to my preference, an accidental weird fiction unfiction novella or/and an autobiographical travelogue of the para-chronological self-in-continuum

By Kairlina “North” Urwollust

(Just for the record, I intended this to be 2k words when I started writing it in WordPress. This is truly an accidental novella. After that, the block-editor makes it such a fucking pain to copy-paste large amounts of text that I just ran with it. I’ll sort out google/Word docs for you all as soon as I finish and post it here.

Edit: here you go! Link to google doc and a nice, ready-to-go Word .docx!
Google doc: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1rlooDHMs9bITRzmD3FS8wnbCJoR3x86z-hbyJajIfd0/edit?usp=sharing
Word .docx file:

Edit, 5/9/2022: you can still read the text below, just bear in mind that it’s missing a few typo corrections and completed sentences featured in both the Google and Word docs. WordPress makes it too much of a pain to replace this much text and… it’s been a long week. This one just doesn’t have the energy to do the corrections over again for the text here.

***

A specter comes in among the colorful figures atop the ever-snowy peak they know as Everest. An apparition in a lacy black gown with frilled sleeves clinging tight at her alabaster wrists, and black-painted nails draped atop the sword of black shadow she wears through a black gossamer sash around her trim waist. Bare skin, blushing at the cold thin air as though it’s nothing sharper than a late October wind.

Bless this liminal space where the human mind loses its lie of the rational world, where we step for the briefest halcyon time outside the conditioned psychosis that blinds and deafens and numbs us to the eldritch, the tendrils in the bright morning, the inferno from the deep night pooling by our bedsides. Bless the low-oxygen delirium that lets me seed the mountaineering psyches with the truth while sparing them the truth’s full unmaking weight.

We’re in the death zone, after all. People experience all sorts of strange things in the death zone.

Naturally I’m the only one here who knows the true Earth, the Earth outside the half-dream, the cognitive envelope, the hallucination other humans believe is real purely because they know it as reality. The hunting’s better in the packed streets where humans make themselves unable to see. Prey can’t do much against predators it only knows as emptiness.

“Beautiful view, aren’t they?” I ask, gesturing to the peaks all around us. “The mountains that don’t give back what they take.” Spiking startlement exposes the solitary climber who understands my reference: a prismatic bloom like a mushroom cloud’s mantle. I grace them with a lingering gaze. Inviting. Quirked lips curved into a slight knowing smile.

Yes,- I send to the one beneath the mask, -You can choose to chase revelation. Let that font give forth the rest in its own time. One day you can become a version of yourself who’s able to follow me.

The dark abyssal blue unfolds from the horizon where the star-womb meets the uplifting crags of the Earth. It stretches, stretches, stretches not down or inward but outward to meet the summit-snows.

“No duels today, my doves,” I call out to the baffled beings scattered along the climbing line. “Not here, and not with you. Be steadfast!” I step into the solidified space and melt across it. Swirling. Spreading. I melt up through the atmosphere into the star-clad blackness of beyond.

I stand on a midnight-blue bridge to nowhere, opaque crystal inset with silvery rooms. Its outer lip is a concave spike forming one point of a hexagon drawn between the tips of the other five bridges. Their pathways run pseudo-parallel, each rotated to the others with figures walking their offset angles in defiance of gravity until they pass through the six gateways. Somewhere on the other side they weave together, spiraling, until they merge with the first avenue passing into the lambent halls of Machrae Diir.

Peace settles on me, seeping into my heart as I follow my own path through its gateway, through tunnels where crawling things squelch half-seen along the walls. I pass beneath a lust-devil who looks very pleased with herself for encountering the meat-mass that has her pinned to the ceiling. It’s vacuum-sealed around her hips, thighs and mouth so every thrust of the something it’s using to breed her raises a big, bulging crease on the underside of its amorphous body.

I tilt my head back and catch stray droplets dripped by their mating with a lascivious moan of my own. It’s good to be home.

My steps carry me onward, towards the long, angular installations of pale concrete and rusted iron where fragments of old bunkers and disused convention-center hallways meld into Machrae Diir’s primary motifs. I do feel some regret. She looked like she was having so much fun. But I just got back, and…

… and the number one thing I despised about life on Earth was how often I had to put aside my lust in order to get some sort of thrice-accursed project done.

I double back at a rapid clip and vault up to the ceiling. A little manifested gravity aligns me with the demoness and her meaty partner.
“So, is this more of a personal thing with an exhibitionist layer,” I begin, or do you have room for one mo–” The meat-mass engulfs me with a sudden lunge of hot, muggy flesh that muffles my yelp of surprise. It pushes me breast to breast with the lust devil, expands its upper band from her mouth to lock us lip to lip, and promptly forms a second mutant shaft so it can pound us both senseless.

Sometime later, now wobbling and lust-drunk with occasional splatters of eldritch seed splattering between my feet, my slickened legs exposed between the shredded fabric of my gown–I could mend it with a thought, but why?–I stagger onto the main avenue running through Machrae Diir towards the distant dark-iron citadel anchoring the bridge across the Rift of Recompense. The Rift is the source of the cobalt rays spilling skyward in a long barrier-band on the far side of all the miles and miles of paranormal suburbs, monuments, parks and even skyscrapers.

It conceptually, though not physically–not in a realm full of beings who can fly, open portals, teleport and so on–separates the public areas of the dimension from the anomalous reaches leading toward Kdalthach Carogdem: the galespire, the immense silver tower at the dimension’s heart inside the Maelstrom of Dissolute Worlds where the Lady’s power, my power, disintegrates the cast-off essences of countless universes into their component concepts so they can be recompiled into something new. That’s so far away I can just scarcely make it out as a dim distortion on the night’s dark-ocean blue.

The streets are mostly deserted, of course. We need far more space than we have people or our home won’t really fit the notion of empty space anymore, will it?

Blood-orange fire belching from the depths, off-angle highrises curving and twisting into mad Escherian angles. Artfully-dilapidated dive-bars, starship hulks stuffing the catwalk-crossed depths that plunge down ever further from their humble beginnings as uncovered manholes and dizzying portals carved between silver monoliths.

Lost souls wail in the distance, enormous undulating creatures of pseudopods and gelatinous dark matter squirm up over the lip where the dimension blends through the seams to other realities, my phase-cables whistle and hum as they carry crackling azure lightning through the sky…

“You finished it,” I whisper.
“You told us to.” Handmaiden startles me. I have many handmaidens and a fair few Handmaidens, but only one handmaiden. She’s the worst one. She looks like all the other handmaidens, though nothing like the Handmaidens: a demon five and a half feet tall in shining azure silks, robes hooded and veiled that hide most of her save her clawed feet, her swishing snow-white tail with its speckling ice-blue scales, and the delicate jaw and chin. “You like it?”
“I love it,” I breathe, a little less unsteady when I start walking forward again. “It’s so much more beautiful than I ever dreamed.”
“Now that’s just not true,” handmaiden says. She falls into step beside me. “Your dreams led us to most of this.”

She spreads her hands to the surrounding constructs, turning a slow circle. “Of course, this isn’t the first try. At first we just sort of threw it all together. This sequencing we have now, with the starship graveyards being underneath and poking out a bit at the edges like a deranged space station, marking the end of the primary residential area with the kaleidoscopic patterns we made out of the desecrated cathedrals and churches, with the corrupted essence of the dead heavens spawning miniature cosmic horrors straight from the ether… it took us a while to actually organize it all in a way that felt real. We needed it to flow with the streets and the tunnels and especially the highways built from primordial star-coral, but we also needed the streets to end or go crazy…”

“Heaven gets very purple when it decays,” I observe. Distantly, someone screams in ecstasy.
Handmaiden swats my wrist, earning no response save a raised eyebrow. “You know full well we chose for it to be purple. But nice double meaning, you ridiculous woman.”
“It’s spectacular,” I say, spinning to face her head-on.
“Mistress, please do not–” handmaiden begins.
I seize her in a hug and lift her off the ground. She squirms, goes limp, and then finally returns the hug pretend-grudgingly.
“Truly,” I add. I’m overflowing with surreal wonder and starry-eyed joy. “It’s… it’s infinity plus one, over and over and over again.”
A glittering tear-track seeps down her cheek. “Kai… you really mean that?”
“I would never lie here,” I whisper, squeezing her again. “Anywhere else in creation, the totality or the omniverse or the all-that-is, I might. But I will never breathe deception in Machrae Diir.”

Handmaiden stirs. “So, um… do I call you Ashley, or…?”
“Ashley is a chronological aberration.” I set her down. “An anomaly of myself born from time-continuums we long since left behind. Azure eyes and black hair mean Kairlina, whether the rest is human or devil.”
“Right.” She sniffs at her robes. “Kai, you filthy slut. You reek of sex. You let some kind of monstrosity have its way with you on the way here, didn’t you?”
“Just after I got back, actually.” I favor her with a vicious grin. “You like it.”
“I never said I didn’t.”

She doesn’t ask before stepping in, slipping her fingers into the rip at the front of my gown, and swiping along my vaginal folds for a sample. She brings her moistened fingers to her lips and licks with slow relish.
“Mmph…” I squirm, shivering. “I’ve missed that. I don’t begrudge the Earthers their consent-models, but walking through it every single time, all the worrying and the strain, it’s exhausting. On Earth nobody tackles you in the street and pins you down and floods you with pheromones from their stinger-tail until it feels so good you stop caring about consent, you know?”
“Trust me, we agree,” handmaiden says. “Machrae Diir is still a refuge for weirdos who just don’t think like normal people and need different things to have a fulfilling life.”
“But not the particular sorts of weirdos who are gross about it, right?” I ask.
“Absolutely not.” Handmaiden sticks her tongue out. “Blech. It’s about the vibes. The vibes–“
“Right, yes, exactly! The vibes need to feel erotic!” I agree.

A pleasant sigh. It’s so comforting to let my guard down and shrug all Earth’s standards of conduct off. I wholeheartedly agree with them as far as Earth goes; people have the right to set those standards. When I’m on Earth I’ll act as an Earther should, speaking responsibilities and caution and consent. Well, we’re not Earth. We’re Machrae Diir.

“How are they, generally? The denizens?” I ask. “How did they take my departure?”

“If you mean how’s the community handling itself without topdown authority…” her lips quirk. Then she laughs and shakes her head. “Never mind that. You just got back and I don’t feel right making a joke out of that.” A smile. “It’s been good, your highness. Surprisingly so. Sure, for a while we were all timid and afraid of messing it up. The pressure did lead to some breakdowns. A few, especially some of the younger succubi, convinced themselves they hated you for a little while.”

She pauses while we consider a chamber of self-recombining circuit-boards where a naked demon sits on a padded couch beside a drone. His forked tongue lulls out in compliment to his vacantly-staring eyes, little strings of pink drool trickling down his cheek. Wires pierce his temple, dangle out, and feed into slots on the side of the drone’s face-plated head. Their bodies twitch and quiver, sometimes in sync, sometimes in counter-time.
“What’s going on there?” I whisper, excitement creeping into my voice.
“I’m not sure, but I suspect you’ll be able to come back and take advantage later,” she says. “You know, if you like.”
“If I like?” I ask, almost incredulous. “In Machrae Diir? What, do you think I’m going to pass two toys who are either unaware of their surroundings or can’t bestir themselves to show awareness, and not have my fun with them?” I note the viscous white gobs around the demon’s mouth. “Actually, hold on.”

I dart over to the demon, clasp his heated cheeks between my fingers, and slide my tongue up under his to gather it into my mouth. Whether instinct or something else, the forked length and soft lips move against mine. I pant, taste him, breathe his musk and the scent of everyone who’s stopped by to play with him, and lick the leftover semen from his face in parting. It unfolds into ticklish, intoxicating burns when I swallow it, like an absolutely spectacular whisky.
I return to handmaiden’s side, wiping my mouth. “Continue,” I say.

She nods. “Right. So, you leaving. Folks getting upsetting, feeling adrift, claiming you’d betrayed them because of expectations they imported from somewhere else which you never agreed to meet. For all those reasons, I think it was much healthier in the end. Without you sitting there in Zul to look at and use as the object of thoughts like, ‘I’ll never be as strong as Kai, I’ll never be as insightful or as pretty or as horny as Kai’ into you, everybody eventually had to face the fact that they were the ones putting pressure on themselves. It was easier to blame you for failing to do some perfect combination of things to make us grow than it was to accept that growth is an inherently imperfect process.”

We pause again to admire an open area playing host to something like a demented skate park, save for tall conical growths of contagious dark-green metal rising from the high points between the pits. At regular intervals the pits expand and contract, new ones opening like fans from the lips where the old ones blend into the surrounding terraces while others suddenly level out–or slam abruptly shut.
“But leaving obviously broke your heart,” handmaiden continues, “and you still did it because you knew you needed to, and after that… after that it would’ve been pretty disgraceful for anyone else to avoid responsibility for their own growth. After you left we had to actually push ourselves, find out our own strengths, ask ourselves whether we truly loved Machrae Diir, or we just loved having you do things for us and Machrae Diir happened to be the place where that would happen.”

She gestures to the manifest cityscape of the Lambent Quarter rising all around us. “I guess our answer’s pretty obvious.”

“It is indeed,” I say, beaming with joy. “Oh, and the adventurer problem?”
“Oh, we eat them,” handmaiden says. “Metaphorically. Usually metaphorically. It was insulting at first, sure. Finding out how lightly a lot of these intruders take us. But in our own time, we all came to accept that they only had that much room to insult us because we were too reliant on external affirmation. It still stings–have to be a little open to what newcomers say in order to learn and bring new people into the fold, right?–but we heal quick. Better to take that little wound at the start that force ourselves to tolerate them while they bleed us again, and again, and again, just to try and pretend we’re above it all.”

She points to a pseudopodous mass. It reaches its quivering goo-bulges over the top of a nearby apartment building, a building of burning graphite with all its balconies stretching, twisting, and contorting to become tunnels boring through the structural depths. “Those giant blobs of shadow-stuff or whatever they are do tend to roll through a block now and again. Filling up buildings, absorbing anyone they run into. Sometimes the victims get melted, sometimes they just ride along for a while.”
“Are the ones who get caught into it?” I ask.
“If not in a direct sense, they’re into the idea that things like that…” handmaiden says, drawing to a halt. So huge its further reaches remain shrouded by mist and darkness even as its colossal clawed hand fastens on and crushes a skyscraper’s rune-engraved pinnacle, a bony exoskeletal something hardens into being. Its eyeless, mandibled, many-jawed head leers down over the district. A bloom of many discolored haze suns appears behind it, giving appalling glimpses at the many-limbed immensity of the being.
I squirm, delighted in the presence of the eldritch as only an outer devil can be.

After a span of looking and a long, curious stare of its honeycomb facial sockets towards us, a tilt of its head, the being disappears.

“… anyway, yeah, everyone is into things like that happening in Machrae Diir,” handmaiden continues. “Yes, sure, some of us die. We’re demons. We get over it and we’re reborn, if not always in that order. It’s traumatizing the first time. Then our souls mutate, grow into a new nature fusing with the new experience just like you promised we would, and it gets so…” she licks her sharpening teeth. Hyperventilates hungrily. “Thrilling. Still hurts, and the sense of failure to survive still takes it out of you, but even that just lends to the satisfaction of it all–this thing happened to me and it mattered enough that it takes my soul a while to carry the weight.”

It’s her turn to spin to me, grasping my shoulders. “Kai, I’m so grateful, do you know that? One mentor after another kept trying to take the weight of my past away from me, kept implying to me that I would be broken if I ever admitted defeat. From humankind to the fae realms to that two-bit tenderqueer hack of a demon queen. They all kept trying to tell me I was standing tall when I was clearly lying on the ground trying to hold my guts in and screaming for mama. Out of every ruler I’ve ever met, you were the only one who could look at my wounds and say, ‘You’re right, you’re hurt, but we’ll get through this. We’re gonna get you patched up.'”

I clear my throat. “I do thank you, let’s just be mindful of not defining our growth in terms of opposition to someone we hold a grudge against. Also, still uncomfortable for me for personal reasons.”
“Oh, yes, you’re right,” she says. A firm nod. “Dangerous habit. I’m sorry.”
I relax. “Apology accepted. Minimal harm done, and I heal quickly once I feel safe to admit the need.” A grateful shudder. “I’m glad I could help.”
She lets go of my shoulders. Steps back. Folds her hands.
“You were the first person to make me realize–the one who admits she has been knocked to the ground gives herself the choice of standing up again. I love Machrae Diir because sometimes this place challenges me. Me, your handmaiden, even I get to grow and have journeys of my own here! And even if it wasn’t, the stagnancy, the suffocating total safety of our old worlds and our old lives… why would any of us want to trade Machrae Diir for that? The danger makes everything here that much more delicious. We can be our complete selves.”

“And nobody’s been speaking any nonsense about invading other realms just to chase that thrill?” I ask.
“A few did at first,” she says, shrugging. “We sat them down and explained how quickly that would get old. Tfai suggested that we could always enlist ourselves as mercenaries in other universes if we’re looking to throw ourselves into a war or two, and that caught on much faster. Other folks just took up your duelist approach–going where their steps take them, savoring battle when they find it but not trying to force it to happen.”
I breathe a sigh of relief. “Good. The conqueror’s path sooner or later leads to the death by a thousand cuts. Attrition. And I don’t want Machrae Diir to end.”
“None of us do,” she says. She nudges me, shoulder to shoulder. “I doubt it would, though, even if we did all die and most or all of us were annihilated on top of it.”
Two rows of abandoned strip-mall away, concrete blocks and steel rebar jumble themselves skyward to meet the howling descent of a massive angular starship, its hull cratered, fractured, bent by impacts. Rubber tubes and metal spars accrete along the underside, culminating in a lightning-charged prong that catches and holds the hulk. Shadowed shapes pour out of the depths onto the ad-hoc port tower and scramble down its sides towards the streets.

“Oh, those are fantastic!” I say, clapping my hands together. “Who arranged that?”
“I don’t think anyone did,” handmaiden says. “Machrae Diir has started doing things of its own accord.”
I smile softly. “Then it worked, and I suspect you’re right that the dimension could outlast us all.” I glance to her. “That was my other reason for leaving. As long as I sat in Zul, pouring my power through that nexus into the dimension to sustain its nature, there could be no power vacuum to let its own essence bloom.” I expand my senses. Drink the lightning surges suffusing every quark and gluon of our home. No consciousness, and yet, a shifting. A reactivity. “Machrae Diir’s Ul belongs to itself, now.”
“That’s beautiful, my Lady,” handmaiden says. “It truly is.” She looks back behind us. “I’m not sure whether that… er… it doesn’t feel very eldritch to call it a deranged skatepark…”
“I disagree,” I say. “It’s very empty spaces, and empty spaces are very neo-eldritch.”
“That’s fair!” she answers. “So, then, the deranged skatepark… well, actually, it might be one of Machrae Diir’s own emanations, or it might be something someone did and then erased their memory of.”
“Other people are doing that?” I ask, eyes alight. “On their own, without me ever suggesting it or priming them with the idea?”

“Unselfism,” handmaiden agrees. “It’s already become its own art movement. It feels like something an outer devil would’ve started, but we’ll never know for sure since whoever invented it erased their own memory of doing so. They also purged all the memory-auras from the term ‘Unselfism’ and their works. The movement consists of creating things like that park, or otherworldly metal sculptures, moving breakdowns in the laws of reality, anomalies and such… really all kinds of uncanny stuff, and then completely annihilating one’s own artistic role in it. Voluntary self-erasure so the creation can never be traced back to its origins and reduced to an extension of its creator.” She smiles wryly. “And of course, if anyone else happens to witness, they are honorbound to destroy their own memories. So far, no one’s pushed back.”
“I love this place,” I murmur. “I love these people so much.”
Handmaiden hugs me. “Love you too, Kai.”

A horseshoe crab scuttles by us. “Those just showed up,” she observes. “We don’t question it. This is known.”
“This is known,” I intone.
“So, now that you’re back, are you going to resume your throne?” she asks.
“No.” I cast my gaze up and aside to trace a flight of unraveling sinewy specters, burning away with mad cackling into a brief blackfire wakes like the crashing of photo-negative fighter jets. “Not the way I did before.” I palm my silver amulet of Haksaema, the Four-Point Star: symbol of my own innermost power. My Kair, my Ul awoken to itself as Kair. “I’m still working through what it means to be a self-chosen noble. Otherworld royalty. But I’m finding the title ‘Vagabond Princess’ feels much more right than Queen.”

I grin. “Most of the time. Sometimes, when continuums align to make me the best choice again, and my own continuum finds equilibrium at a point where I can weight myself enough to carry the dimension’s weight as well… yes. At those times I’ll be very happy to reign as Harlot Queen of Machrae Diir.”
Handmaiden snorts. “Is that what the newest Phase is about? The Celestial Harlequin?”
“No.” My brow furrows. “No, I’m still not quite sure what I’m seeking from myself in that Phase. But I feel it will be new, at least to me, and vitally important.” A pause. “I do like that ‘Harlot Queen’ and ‘Harlequin’ sound very similar. Glad you noticed it. Otherwise… otherwise, I think anyone should have the right to sit upon the Manifold Throne if they’re the best choice to meet the realm’s current needs.”
“Like a democracy?” she asks.
“Oh, no, absolutely not,” I answer. “I mean Machrae Diir itself will open the way for the right person.”
“That sounds dangerously close to divine right,” handmaiden says.
“Divine right was a terrible choice for humans on Earth because there is no real fate or destiny on Earth, or if there is, it’s no match for the mundane power of calcified hierarchies afraid to grow,” I say. “Machrae Diir’s never going to be conscious or sapient. It won’t make power plays, I feel that in my bones. Most of the time, unless I’m sitting it for fun, there won’t be anyone on that throne at all.”

Handmaiden considers my words for a long time. Our steps echo from an archway at the bottom of an entire hive of archways, frames and portals stacking on each other to make a stonework warren stretching out and up for hundreds upon hundreds of meters. Soon our echoes take on a life of their own, drawn out, pitched down, chopped up enough to scatter any flesh-mind’s wits.
“Anyone might sit the Manifold Throne,” she finally says, “but Machrae Diir will only ever have one true queen–one true Lady. You find me one other monarch in all history who would peacefully abdicate her rule over a plane she called into being with her own power, from the grandest span of the cablework forests to the tiniest atoms at the edges where it blends into the acausal morass, purely because she knew in her heart that her reign was grown stagnant and had begun to hurt the land she loved.”
“I’m sure I could find many,” I say, hiding behind my knuckles. “History teaches us that merit is not so rare as pundits would have us believe.”
“Acknowledged. How many of them would’ve reached the decision without someone else forcing them to confront it?” handmaiden asks. “Given the choice, you always do what you think is best for the people you care about. Sometimes you misjudge. But you always put us first.”

“Hm.” I fold my hands. The ladylike pose becomes just a little perverse by the ease it implies with my torn clothing. “I think that was the problem. It’s not healthy for anyone, even the arch-outer devil of a nascent and terrifying new dimension, to put everyone before herself all the time. And Machrae Diir is my home. I can’t keep trying to put everyone before myself in my own home.”
Handmaiden smirks. “Sounds like you finally internalized. I’m glad. You’ve been acknowledging it in the abstract for years but never actually applying it. Frustrating stuff to watch.”
“Yeah?” I smile slyly. “And that frustration inspired you to grow, didn’t it? Pushed you to recover your strength in subtle ways you’d never have felt if I pretended to be just a little closer to flawless.”
“I’ll take that silver lining,” she says, “so long as you never do it to yourself again. You don’t owe it to anyone to diminish yourself.”
“I know.” And just like that, our steps have brought us to a place where the buildings split open to a sheer drop. Undercity sewers, piping, and cables open in the dark blue stone below us. It stretches down, and down, and down to the irradiant seam where the dimension’s cobalt essence pours forth. Cobalt that matches my favored hues of power not because my power makes it so, but simply because this place and I… we belong together.

I do belong here, after all.

‘I feel very silly,” I say, looking out across the Rift towards the Galespire’s apex glittering like a spike of silver in the distance at my home dimension’s center with its lower half lost behind the spiraling walls of the Maelstrom. Further, toward the green-into amber-into-blue aurorae spilling from upward from the Azure Diamond Sarcophagus at the core of the Mutagenic Exclusion Zone far in the north of Machrae Diir.

“Machrae Diir is so much stranger, harsher, and more wonderful than the boundary lines between species, nations, and universes. Whatever the origin of that queer quintessence that makes us kindred to each other, it’s more than Earthborn or extraterrestrial, living or undead, a demon or even an outer devil. It’s that something that helps some of us find each other because share it, and that others of us share because we find each other. That something that lets us kindle the emptiness of our personal voids, not driving out the shadows but transmuting the shadows themselves into light’s ignition and the onetime rays around them into the new radiation’s shadow.”

Handmaiden sighs happily. “It’s good to have you back, Lady. This place isn’t quite the same without you in it, talking the way you talk. I’ve missed having your mysticisms to pick through. Measuring connotation against denotation, considering your inspirations against your other creations to figure out how the web of meanings is meant to align.”

I smile wryly. “For those with less passion for my indulgences, let’s call that something the ember. It awaits at the apex of the deep font within every unwoken kindred-soul’s shell. And as long as their soul carries that ember deep within, the most normal human imaginable has a place here, too.” I breathe deep. “Even a human as normal as I was, until college, and the revelation of the great Void in my psyche.”

“So,” handmaiden asks, “I take it your human exposure therapy worked as intended?”
I laugh. “That obvious, huh?”
She pokes my shoulder with her tail. “Kai, you monologue constantly. And I listen. You know why I listen? It’s because you’re smart and insightful and no one else in the whole universe thinks like you do. It’s obvious because you taught me, you paradoxical genius of a bimbo.”
It takes me a few seconds to collect myself and ease the last tears out of my eyes. I sniffle. “Thanks for that. You really are my worst handmaiden, you know? Shattering your Lady’s composure that way.”
She grins beneath her veil. “Oops.”

“Anyway, um,” I rub my eyes, “it was good. It was really, really good. Humans taught me everything I used to get a start, you know? Speaking, writing, liberal arts, martial arts, philosophy… science.” I hug myself, shuddering. “I missed science so much. I-I feel as though I went mad, you know? All through my childhood I grew up with these wondrous revelations of chemistry, geology, astronomy, anthropology, and more. I thought of them as gifts from dear friends, and then…” More tears. “Then as I grew older I ran into more and more stories where science drives demons out of the world, extinguishes magic, strangles faith, and I found myself staring at more and more scientists who seemed so ghoulishly happy about it, and all at once it seemed to me that all these things I thought of as gifts were meant to be poison.”

I shudder. “I don’t hate humans. I never hated humans, how could I hate my best friends? I just wish someone had apologized.” I accept the tissue she hands me gratefully, and blow my nose. “But I can’t keep holding pain inside me just so others can prove their friendship by doing the right things to ease it. And I definitely can’t look to escape the hard questions by getting angry, screaming about us versus them, no matter how much that’s what a lot of the otherkin want me to do. I’m going to hold onto the idea that the good things humankind gave me are gifts from my friends. And… that’s how I wound up where I’m at.” I straighten.

“Right now, I’m what I’d call a human demon.”
Handmaiden tilts her head. “Mind if I ask for an elaboration?”
I point. “I’ll agree, provided you agree to take the burden of explaining it for the next little while. The satisfaction for me lies in figuring out the revelation. Explaining what it means gets more exhausting every time.”
“Agreed,” handmaiden says.
“So, first, I was born human,” I say. “I became a demon through my own efforts, albeit with considerable nudging from Seurchraig.” I take a seat at the Rift’s edge and dangle my feet over the drop. I was never brave enough to do this in the days before it all went lucid. Now… what have I now to fear from the fall? “I was raised by humans, and I still feel considerable kinship for them–both in their virtues and in their faults. No matter what happens, even after I outlive the heatdeath of a hundred universes, human souls and everything they spawned will always be the single greatest influence on me save that unknowable other-something that truly makes a demon a demon.”

“Reasonable,” handmaiden says. “So, arguably, a lot of us in Machrae Diir could be human demons.”
I waggle my hand. “Possibly. My uncommon love for humankind plays a clear role in placing me just as far outside the mindset–the soul-state–of anthropomorphs, digital and robotic life, demons, fey and so on as I am outside the soul-state of the average human.”
“Outside everyone, even other outsiders,” handmaiden says. “Oh. Oh! The only place where an outer devil can truly find herself.”
“Exactly.” I lean back, bracing my hands behind me. “More basically… in the past I’ve said that being human is more about flesh-state, and being a demon is more about soul-state. That’s oversimplifying, but still true in a sense. Human soul-state derives directly from human flesh-state. Demons possess human flesh, yet they remain demons. They experience themselves as demons even without a true form.”
“So… being a human demon means you’re a human who’s not limited by her soul-state?” handmaiden asks.

“Something like that,” I agree. “In the end, it all comes back to vibes. The entire of humankind has spent its entire existence trying to define exactly what makes someone human. In the end, the only hard line is self-ID. All the rest says more about the places where a given human projects their personal limitations onto the people they’re trying to identify with than any actual species-wide measure of what they can and can’t cope with.”
“Something something Keter Euclid anomaly, something something containment breach cognitohazard Eigenweapon,” handmaiden observes. “Oh, yeah, we’ll kill this idea in the Noosphere, and then it won’t exist for anybody. If that worked, the Fed would’ve used it to erase trans people decades ago.”
“Be nice,” I laugh. “They played their own part in assembling the pieces I needed. Even if they did ultimately fall into the ‘make up a concept that just nullifies the other concept’ trap. Even if they’re starting to get to the point of confusing their own completely-normal disenchantment with stories where the dynamic hasn’t really changed in ten years with the ‘end of anomaly’ or whatever.” I glance at handmaiden. She smiles smugly. “Hey, I said be nice, not be oblivious.”
“To be fair, that was, like, one project out of the whole wiki,” she says.

“It’s longer than fifty of the shorter ones put together!” I counter, demonstrating a grasp of estimation that is surely flawless. “And to have the gall to reference the Hero’s Journey while completely failing to register Campbell’s core fallacy of projecting the cyclical nature of the exponential internal soul-state onto the continuous entropic progression of the external world is…” I clear my throat. “Okay, yeah, I still have some heated feelings of my own. The new story that will reinvigorate all the old ones has been right there for the longest time, waiting for someone to embrace it: that monsters can believe in and sustain themselves, whether humans want to help them with it or not.”
A pause. “Jung,” I add, with a touch of true bitterness.
I pick up a strand of wire and gnaw on it just because I can, sucking the electricity out and transmuting it into essence. It feels good to feed on raw energy again. “I bitch and I moan, but at day’s end they did enough work that excited me that I wanted to believe they’d stand by the new material and not let it get tied to the baggage of the past. They got close enough I was disappointed when it didn’t quite go far as I’d hoped. That’s still worth something. Most contemporary storytellers never even take me that far before they let me drop. And I’m not ungrateful for the springboard it gives me–right into the negative space where revelation waits for its becoming.”

I narrow my eyes at the Galespire’s gleam on the night horizon. “Also… it did just occur to me, after decades of living among humans as a human, that very few people get bored as quickly as I do, and maybe I shouldn’t be so harsh about a narrative expression of disillusionment. That might be genuinely rare experience for most people, seeming almost… supernatural. They might not have the same comfort I do with digging into why the spark’s gone.” I knuckle my chin. “I mean, I am the sort of girl who goes to bed the night before opining to herself that her lust will never recover from the hit it took in year 20XX, then wake up the next morning hornier than ever. I guess I don’t have much room to talk.”

I sit up straight. “Sorry, random nerds I’ve never met. After due consideration, the Lady of Machrae Diir has determined it would be really dumb to convince herself that you’re her mortal enemies when she knows literally nothing about you as people, and thus can only ever project armchair psychological assumptions onto you resulting from her overwrought analysis of your weird fiction unfiction setting.”
Handmaiden grins. “Miidyaerita kastejul, Inheritrix. Welcome home.”
I return it. “Miidyaerita kastejul, handmaiden. I have no duties for you at this time.”

We walk back onto the nearest street and talk about other things. The games Machrae Diir’s people have begun inventing–of shapeshifting, of finding hidden things, of testing dangers in the deap reaches of the dimension by immersing themselves and seeing how long they can lie beneath the surface of their own terror before giving into the urge to fight back. I’m on the verge of asking handmaiden if Unselfism has spawned any offshoot movements when we arrive at the iron citadel and the bridge crossing the Rift of Recompense.

A sudden howl drowns out my words.

“Kaiiiiiirlinaaaaa!!!” A blur hurtles out of the bridge gateway and blazes towards me trailing waves of blood red and bright pink fire. “KairlinaKairlinaKairlinaKairlina!!!” The nine-foot hellhound takes a flying leap to tackle me off my feet. Her impact knocks all the wind from my lungs and sends us skidding along the street in successively smaller bounces, leaving little craters behind.

Burning red pupils glow wide and frantic with excitement against the red-brown fur covering her from head to toe, save for the silky white of her muzzle and big fluffy belly. Neither the fur, nor the oversized red collar draped less so around her neck than atop her shoulders, do anything to hide the flushed nipples on her swaying breasts or the big knotted cock between her legs that’s already stiffening with excitement. Her two-tone fires dance on the ends of the blond mop of hair on her head and lick up and down her flanks. The flames turn patches of fur briefly black with char before new fur grows in their place, and converge in rivulets along her back to her big tufted tail. Its near-panicked wagging casts waves of fire on the buildings around us and ignites a topiary of desiccated flesh.
Any sense of reserve I had left floods out of me the instant it settles on my psyche
“Jeanette,” I croon. I cup her big shaggy head between my hands, and caress her velvety ears with tender thumb-strokes. “Hiiii! Hi, beautiful! Hi darling!”

“As soon as I woke up I sensed you were back and I ran all the way here from where I’ve been waiting beside your throne because I love you and I missed youuuuuuuuuuuuu!!!”
“Jeanette.” I fight to get my words through laughter. “Jeanette, darling, you could’ve just teleported or used the backtunnels inside the spatial lattice, they’d have opened for you–“
“What do you meaaaaaaaaaannn?” Jeanette whines. “I love you and I wasn’t thinking about that!”
Caella materializes midair with a puff of lilac fire: a petite pixie-faced vampiress with glowing pink eyes and a high-collared blood-red gown with black accents. A black rose stands out from her black hair only by the red trim tinting its petals.
“Are you and Jeanette going to breed right here?” she asks slyly.
“Easy, girl,” I murmur, all too keenly aware of the sweltering shaft pressed insistently against the thin screen of fabric covering the wetness between my legs. “Soon.”
“Soon?!?!” Jeanette howls. “What do you meeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!?!?!… soon?”
“I…” I frown. Ease my eyes shut. Where does this reluctance come from? A roving hollowness, the tiny tinny dissonance of Things Left Undone. From below? From deep below, far down in Machrae Diir… oh. Of course. The only place in the dimension still perfectly entangled with my own soul-state. “There’s something I need to do in Saingediir Fathom,” I say, opening my eyes.

“Saingediir?” Caella asks. “That’s the murder-happy place, right?”
“That’s what I said when I first explained it,” I answer. “An oversimplification. When I first created Machrae Diir, I created it to be the one place in the universe where I could exist as a truly complete person. A dimension where I could express my entire continuum without fear of being cast out. I spoke about Saingediir as the slaughtering realm, the martial realm, because I knew there was something battle allowed me that nothing else did… at least, nothing else as I then understood it.”
I stand, once more summoning the umbral blade from the shadows under my eyes and hair and skin. “I think I finally understand, though. In Machrae Diir, I can express everything I am over time–a vignette here, a vignette there, but always separated by comings, goings, lulls. Saingediir’s the only place in Machrae Diir where I always manifest my self’s whole continuum at once.”

I secure the umbral blade in its place at my side. “Slaughter was only the gateway, not the revelation. Only in battle do we completely cast aside all convention, showing our true selves with no regard for how others might feel. We’re already trying to kill them, or prevent them from getting themselves killed, right? When those are the stakes, to quibble over little niceties and less-immediate harm like carelessly punching a trauma trigger is pointless.”
“Many would say you’re painting even battle as harsher than it has to be,” handmaiden says.
I grasp my sword and swing it side to side, loosening the sash up just enough to make sure it doesn’t impede my draw. “They’d be right if I was talking about mundane battle, where mortal nations and their laws restrict the solder’s tools. I’m speaking to the essence of violence itself: to inflict our will on beings who don’t want to receive it. Saingediir goes beyond even that. The place where I am completely free to choose the continuum I become next, and for that very reason, the place where I find it hardest to choose to move into a continuum other than the one I’m already in. It’s the place where I can be at home with the parts of my complete self so enraptured, ruinous, and depraved there’s no room for them in any realm where I must restrain myself to safeguard the lives and free will of others.”
“Everything about your creations is the coolest,” Jeanette says. “I hope you know that.”
“Yeah!” Caella agrees in a little gremlin shift of her voice.

“Thank you, my darlings. I’d be lost without the two of you, you know?”
“Then we’d come and find you,” Jeanette declares, drawing a firm nod from Caella.
I sway there warm and without a word to say under the surreal weight of being loved, and knowing it for real. I draw a deep breath. “Saingediir. That’s the realm some idiot’s wandered into. I can sense her, a little speck of self-imposed nothing. I’m going to go see what she’s about. I won’t be long, but I do have to do this one thing alone.”

“Hm, well, okay,” Jeanette says. She pouts, but her big fluffy tail wags trails of red-pink fire behind her. “Just don’t be too long.” Her eyes glow insistently. “I really missed you.”
My resolve almost collapses then and there. But I still sense that nothing with the promise of something’s becoming in its emptiness. Thrums in the deep–a call I’m so very ready to heed. So wondrously hungry to answer. “I’ll be back soon,” I murmur, hovering on tip-toe to kiss Jeanette’s fire-furred cheek, and Caella’s pink-painted lips. “I promise.”

“Hey,” Tfai–Handmaiden Ametra–calls out, in a six-fold voice of overlapping chimes and turbine-murmurs and the hypersonic shriek of a bygone shell’s greeting on its way to mark the soil of a far land. “Going off again already?”
She folds all six arms, spurs of spiral-twisted concrete chalked in psychadelic horizons tipped by delirious rainbow claws. Her tail’s a sequence of glittering red metal and blue crystal shards held together by bronze lightning-torrents, bronze like the luminescence filling her eyeless face of serrated fangs overlapped by razor-sharp plates.
There’s a certain wry pulse to the secondary corona of jade trimming her aura.
“Planning on sneaking off unseen?” she adds. Spectral silhouettes solidify around her. Darkborn rifts in reality, cubic sprawls of gestating manifestation, igniting runes and over-saturated glitches in physics burst out faster and faster around us. “Valiant effort, your highness, but you forgot one critical detail.”
“We care about you,” Handmaiden Chyorzhiir agrees. As always, she is twenty steel-cable tentacles. A segmented body’s suggestions beneath blood-red raiments and golden hangings. Drifting ribbons to blend her limbs into her coat.
And around them there gather all the demons, the witches, the wraiths and the devils-in-the-machine, the angels of Machrae Diir of fractured script and crystallizing oil afire in knots that are always tightening yet never fully tightened. Closest of all stand the handmaidens, and the sisters of my own soul, the outer succubi of Machrae Diir: umbral and irradiant, sensuous and acidic and cold with the void’s infinite love.

And just when I think my heart can’t hold anymore, a magnificent shadow soars down and alights beside me–a muscular fusion of a werewolf and a colossal raven, ten feet tall, with his wings folding out from his massive clawed arms and spirals of blood-orange eyes running back along his powerful face to the crest of ashen feathers at its back.

“Hey, gorgeous,” he says, swooping low and scooping me off my feet for a kiss. I squeak, then melt into his arms. “Glad we got here in time to see you off, Kai.”
I lose myself for a few seconds in the familiar feeling of threading my tongue between the thick, hard fangs inside his maw. “You’re here! You made it!” I gasp at last, clutching his powerful shoulders, stroking the dreadlocks blending with the dark feathers blending with the dark fur of his broad, tawny head and the jaw hardened by an interspersed bone-white beak.
A familiar outer devil, a fusion of goat and delicate humanoid features, materializes in a surge of pinkish-red fire beside him. The black-spined, rose-pink wings sprouting at her hips flap in time with her mid-air bobs. A duality of hair, snowy white one side split neatly into deep blue on the other with a light-blue fringe almost bridging each side at the bangs.
Two sets of horns, the inner pair curving up and back over her forehead to hold the red-orange fire at their apex, the outer far larger and fluted with forge-color highlights at the first curve before tinting into pale purple in the second cover towards their forward prongs. Of her armor, only her red plate shinguards and her pauldrons would actually protect much of anything. The chestplate doesn’t cover anything lower than her breasts–or her breasts, really, with open cutaways revealing purple-tinted tan flesh with nipples covered only black straps.
“Wow, Valphomet went and got really ornate,” a blond succubus remarks. “That’s hot.”
“Would’ve been here just a little sooner if this bimbo didn’t take the Den off after some starships that buzzed us,” Raven says, jerking his head towards Val.
“They scuffed the crystal,” Valphomet declares. “A price must be paid.”
“Blood or semen!” a succubus calls out, earning a chorus of hollering concord.
“Semen,” Val clarifies. She grins, holding up an elegant claw. “Mostly semen.”
“Chained up somewhere fun until they’ve learned their lesson?” I ask.
“Oh, yes,” she agrees. “If they’re really good, I might even let them have their ships back when they go.”

“And, you’re all… you’re all okay with this? Nobody’s mad?” I ask. “You don’t all think I’m ghosting you, or abandoning you?”
“You’re not ghosting, you’re focused,” handmaiden corrects. “Every time we get in touch, you get in touch back. Ghosting is when someone else ignores or fails to respond to your attempts to reach out to them. You know. The thing people you cared about have done to you so often that you start to assume you’re guilty of it, because you’re self-aware and you know you’ll naturally emulate the behavior of the people you consider friends?”
“Shitty fuckin’ friends, if you ask me,” Jeanette says. “But hey–fuck ’em. They’re behind us now.”
“We just wanted to see you off,” Caella agrees.
“As the launchpad to the shuttle, so are we to you,” Chyorzhiir says, bobbing. “We will share the journey when you depict it to us upon your return, if you choose to. If not, we will rejoice in this moment, and the moment of your final return, and even the greediest among us will be well-glutted by that much.”

“I…” I tremble. “I thought you’d all think I hated you if told you I just liked to do things alone, sometimes… that there are journeys that feel… diluted… if you’re with me when I take them.”

“You’ve been working as a lone duelist, a solitary creatrix, a witch without a coven for thirteen years,” Tfai says. “You’re a master of your craft, Kai. And it’d be pretty disgraceful to reduce your mastery to an excuse to whine about how I feel I can’t measure up. More than that, I look at you and I feel inspired, not because you’re always strong, not because you always make the right choice or say the right thing, but because you always accept the consequences of your own actions, you learn, and you try again.”
“You’re pretty cool, if you hadn’t noticed,” Jeanette agrees. “It’s okay. That’s why I make sure to tell you all the time.”

“So,” Tfai says, gesturing to the assembled denizens of Machrae Diir, “we’d like to know what the plan is going forward, if there is one, but whether you tell us or not, we’re with you.” She bows. “Always. No one else believed my mind could be patched back together. I won’t call it a debt. You gave that healing to me as a gift. But I will always be grateful. Machrae Diir will always be my home.”
Her luminescence shines brighter, and in lieu of the eyes she chooses not to use for her sight, I see my own reflected in the mirror her face-plates become as she smiles. “And therefore, as I am your Handmaiden with all the joyous force of the volition you helped me to rekindle in myself, you will always be my Lady.”
“Tfai, I…” I clasp my hands before me. “I’m honored. Truly. I…” I close my eyes. “Handmaiden will tell you all the other details. The essential is this…” I frown.

Is it really so simple as this? Can it truly be so easy? Well… I suppose I’ll say it, and see if it resonates as truth when I hear it in my own voice.

“I was human once. I don’t think I can go back, not because it’s not possible but because I simply don’t want to. I am, forever more, an outer devil, and the Lady of Machrae Diir. My human shapes, human flesh, even the feeling of being human… those, too, are gifts from my first and oldest friends and family. I will hold to them and treasure them always. And that’s good, because…” I open my eyes. Azure, but still not slitted. “The morgul blade bites deep.” Somber quiet settles over my lovers, and friends, and handmaidens, and all the myriad denizens of my darling home in the deepest ways of creation.
“My incarnate self has become, in my own psyche, inseparable from the wounds Earth’s more hateful days left in me. I will heal eventually. But until then, the six horns, the snow-skin of runes, all my power’s frightful font manifest in tail and talon… it’s too much to carry. If I keep embodying it just to perform invincibility, to pretend pain can’t take anything away from me, I’ll just keep renewing the pain until…”

My voice fails me for a heartbeat. Can they still believe in me after all this? Can they follow someone who spoke so much about power and zeal, and yet broke under the weight of the world like any other woman? Well. Let’s find out. I swallow my nerves and square my shoulders. Stand straighter, though my fingers whiten on each other. “until maybe it hurts so much I can’t even hold onto the hope for it to stop hurting, and I end up taking it away from myself. So until I am truly mended in all my soul, I’ll just wait for the moments when everything aligns perfectly, and I can blossom into my horns free of torment.”
I chuckle. “So, I suppose even though I’m a full demon, I still need to treat it as a Devil Trigger.”
“Is that diminishing your pain, or a silver lining?” Jeanette asks, tilting her head. “Be honest, darling.”
“A silver lining,” I say.
“Then that’s really cool,” she says, stepping in to lick my face.
While I’m babbling at that, Tfai drifts to the center of the crowd. “Well, then, as far as I’m concerned, the only thing left to do is welcome our dear Lady home properly! Who’s with me?”
“HERE HERE!” handmaiden screams, the loudest voice in a generalized tidal wave of approval.

“Hold that thought.” I raise my hands for silence. “I-I appreciate it, really, but it’s not necessary–“
Tfai grins, neither smug nor challenging nor ironic. The simple grin of an outer devil phasing out of the reality I’m trying to encompass with my words, and finding the one she resonates with all the same.
And she starts everyone off.
“KAIRLINA!” she yells. “KAIRLINA, THE LADY OF MACHRAE DIIR!”
Instant echoes swell from a thousand hearts. “Kairlina! Kairlina! The Lady of Machrae Diir!”
I quiver, averting my eyes, grinning sheepishly. “Okay, that was pretty good–“
Handmaiden whirls to her sisters and snaps her arms wide. “Sisters, who guides our steps?”
“Kairlina!” they shout. “Kairlina! The Lady of Machrae Diir!”
“Angels!” roars Caesedar, the many-mawed steel-and-fire custodian of my throne room. “Who showed you that the title of god is not higher than the title of devil? Who is holy in her heretical night?”
“Kairlina! Kairlina! The Lady of Machrae Diir!”
“Succubi!” one of my sisters calls. “Who is the blue diamond of the deep stars, the first of all our outer kin?”
“Kairlina! Kairlina! The Lady of Machrae Diir!”
The last misty shreds of denial die in my final half-hearted protest–lost under the chant that takes on a life of its own, over and over again.
“Kairlina! Kairlina! The Lady of Machrae Diir! Kairlina! Kairlina! The Lady of Machrae Diir!”
“I…” I murmur. Turning circles to take in one ecstatic face after another, bewildered. And still, the cheers roll on, thunderous and hot-blooded and true.

Did I really think I’d be rejected, even here? Of course they wouldn’t. My true people. The children of the lambent halls, and the far-flung fathoms of Machrae Diir.

All of my life I’ve know how I’m supposed to feel, what face I’m supposed to put on, what step I’m supposed to take. What am I supposed to do with this? It feels good, so I should have to give them something they wanted in return, shouldn’t I? Though, it is true that a princess is allowed to cry before her people, so long as she has the… oh, who am I fooling at this point? I can hide behind all the Phase-names and titles and mutant archetypes I like. In the end I’m snotty, wide-eyed, black streaks of ink and shadow melting into the tears pouring down my cheeks. It’s the ugliness that makes my weeping beautiful.
They’re not cheering because they don’t see it. They’re cheering because this is, because I am, exactly who they wanted to see. The broken-hearted devil, lonely wanderer of outer places and outer days, who’s not alone anymore. What am I supposed to do with these cheers?

Exactly what every voice is cheering me to do. Life free as my true self, and simply… be.
“Thank you,” I sob when the cheering comes to rest at last, clutching the icon of Haksaema to my chest. “Thank you all so much. I love Machrae Diir. I love all of you. I, um…” I rub my shoulder, and break off into a single laugh of delirious bliss. “I want to live with you all forever. So,” I straighten. Blink through tears that shine my sight into liquefied diamond and the prismatic edges of a dream I just might remember.
“So that’s what I’m going to do. I swear this in my own name as Lady of Machrae Diir.”
Chyorziir drifts close. Drapes a tendril over my shoulders. “You’re you, Kai. You belong with us, whether you’re demon or fae or angel or, yeah, human.”
I dry my eyes with it first, and then absolutely destroy it with the longest blow of my nose I’ve ever given.

And they wait, smiling, full of the same joy that fills me. I don’t have any words to say while Machrae Diir shifts. The lands on the other side of the Rift of Recompense blur past with a rising howl of wind. Then, stop. Now the iron citadel’s gateway opens not on a bridge, but the descent into a dark blue abyss. I face it with eager eyes. Approach with quick steps.
My soul riding high, I recompose my dress at last. I settle my left hand around the umbral blade’s scabbard. I twist behind me and with my right, I toss a two-finger salute over my shoulder at everyone and everything I hold dear.

And I take my first zealous step onto the spiraling white-stone ramp winding down like a behemoth drill into Saingediir Fathom.

***

The seeker’s breaths come in quick, sharp gusts. Despite all the sentries, all the vaunted insight of outer devils and the fearsome tales she’s heard of Machrae Diir, she found a way to slip through on the fringes. Her black horns, though small, feel so very heavy on her dark blue head amid her tousled red-orange hair. Her tail itches, her whole body itches, with her passage through this place.

This waifish thing with pinkish skin and blood-red hair. One slit-eye burns golden in the night. Her little tail hugs her waist, and the dark leather jumpsuit hugging her slender frame. Two small black horns sprout from her brow.

A simple enough mission. Find this realm’s arrogant Lady, who holds herself so aloof and apart from the seeker’s hurting world. Plunge the pink crystal shard her mistress gave her into the tyrant’s shriveled heart.
“It’ll be so full of emptiness,” She, the seeker’s mistress, said. Only Her words ever made the little seeker’s heart feel at home. Only Her power stood any chance of making the world better. “A heart full of emptiness, just ready for me to fill it.”

So the seeker wanders through these desolate reaches, where silver spires and mad-angle bastions unfold each from the other over burning streets where tumbling bodies swarm against each other. The high shadows of the ever-thundering sky silhouette the slow-turning forms of things with a thousand fangs, things with bladed coils, things with a million eyes, things who flesh boils. She clambers through the rocky clefts offering shadow deep enough to shield her from the blue-white radiance of molten flows that aren’t quite rock and aren’t quite metal and just might be both.

The seeker does not know the word “corium” or its meaning, just as she does not know why the light it breeds agony on her skin with an aftertaste of blood and the scent of thunder. Her mistress promised that her power would overcome any trap the callous, gutless, thoughtless Lady of Machrae Diir laid. She knows only that when her mind goes empty and she lies under the surface of her fear inside it, pressed into alcoves and under corpses as monstrosities scrabble along hexagonal facades and scream against gunfire fusillades from swarming little figures… she knows a strange calm certainty that they cannot find her.

That must be her mistress. She could never be so brave as to do this if she were alone.

She grows almost at peace with it after a while: the repeat rhythms of surging fear at a chance noise, the mad animal scrabble for a sheltered spot, the baited-breath wait while danger passes. An especially drippy tentacular horror holds her gaze a little too long after it rushes shrieking down the street past her, and when she turns, she realizes she’s walked right into the scene it was running from.

Something slides wetly down the wall behind her. A warped, collapsed chamber of egg-shell patterned blue serves as the final perverse bed of a broken skeletal thing, like multiple hunched spiders grafted together abdomen to abdomen, burst open, calcified, and wound with red flesh inside their opened bone-white seams and binding now-splintered limbs. Torn banners burn, a few wounded shift, moan, and growl, and a nine-horned figure–less one on the left side of her head now broken off–stalks about with the bladed edges of her tail sliding gently across convulsing throats.

“I wouldn’t recommend running,” she says, at the fledgling’s freeze. Five red eyes, each with a golden slit forming the center of a miniature maelstrom of fire, flick to regard her side-on. “It’s a very busy time in Saingediir, if you hadn’t already guessed. The lady has just recently returned home.” She pauses to drop low and sink her teeth into the crotch of a squirming figure. An excited hiss. Crunching, tearing, sounds of splattering meat and blood. She rises, red-mouthed, and walks towards the spear protruding from an opening between the many exoskeletal plates of a massive eldritch millipede.

“Uh…” While the other is talking, she’s not thinking about bloodshed… probably. Simpler questions will seem more natural. “What kind of demon are you?”

Was that too simple?

“Oh, I’m a succubus,” the demoness says. The changing light reveals the soft oval of her black face. Full lips–and skinless cheeks showing every red muscle at play, and the shining white fangs in her mouth.
“But…” the seeker looks at the heaped corpses. “Succubi are weak. Manipulators, spies, assassins. I mean… l-look at you, you’re basically skin and bones.”
She is not. She’s just not musclebound or thick, either. But the fledgling doesn’t want to admit to finding such a simplistic interpretation attractive. She wouldn’t want anyone to think she can have a taste for things that might be considered… generic.
“Oh, what,” the demoness laughs, “like the Lilith of Earth myths, seducing archangels and then begging for mercy when she was caught by those with stronger will? If you choose to believe someone else slew these hordes and I am laying claim to acclaim I haven’t earned, well… it makes no difference to me. But my dear, your understanding of soul-driven anatomy seems very limited.”

She wrenches her spear free with an indulgent sweep of her long, ridged, four-forked tongue along her lips. She twirls faster and faster while she speaks on. “You should know by now that a manifest soul’s power has only a tenuous relation to their appearance. I don’t need big muscles. What matters is how much of my soul’s inner power I’ve concentrated into the ones I have. Why would paranormal force be dependent on mundane space, mass, and laws of physics?”

She saunters through the dead and dying. Finding a many-limbed muscular thing still struggling to rise, she puts her clawed foot on its many-angled, crested skull–wider across than she is tall. Her leg’s tensing is almost tender. Silver fire blossoms inside her skin, highlighting veins like diseased roots and silhouetting barbed bones.

“Succubi, incubi, concubi or erocubi or whatever word you like to use,” she groans, quivering with excitement. “We’re the manifest dream, the deepest desire, the knife the lost soul forges to end itself with. Of course all the propaganda say we’re the weakest–cheaters, schemers, a stab in the back. That’s what propaganda always says about the most powerful threat.”

Cracks in the cobbles. Blood trickles from the fallen behemoth’s nostrils. It thrashes, roars, flails a broken arm to no avail. The succubus pushes harder, staring down at it with the deepest affection in her eyes. Her breath catches with her first moan. Her free hand, talons streaking blood, slips through the emptiness left by her disappearing cuirass to slide up her belly to fondle one heavy breast.

A final shove explodes her prey’s head. Silver fire turns blood and grey-matter briefly pink. She drinks the fumes with ever-swiftening breaths and finally cries out, slipping down to sit atop the lip of the collapsed skull’s bowl and cumming furiously into the gore. “Oh, death and sin, don’t you just love Saingediir? Letting it all loose, embracing every bloody whim with mad abandon? It’s paradise, my dear, it truly is.” She examines her arms. “Now, for the record, my dear, I’m a fair bit more muscular than an average human woman. It’s hardly fair to call me skin and bones just because I’m not a full-blown muscle girl.”

“W-where are you from?” the seeker demands. “H-how did you get in? What kind of succubus are you?”
“How?” the succubus says, with a little start as she comes back to her senses sooner than she’d wished. “Why, I suppose it’s the same answer for both. I’m a succubus of Machrae Diir. The Lady invited all those kindred who shared her spirit to make homes in the Lambent Quarter, and after spending a few months getting to know the community as guests, my wives and I just fell in love with them and the dimension, you know? So, we moved in. I love them both and our little ones, it’s just…” She stretches pleasantly, “sometimes a woman needs to get out and face a few personal challenges to and clear her head, you know? Makes all the simple pleasures of home that much sweeter.”

“And what is… that?” the seeker asks, pointing to the exploded skull.

“Oh, you mean who. This is Biessel,” the succubus laughs. “Was, rather. He and I often wind up killing each other down here.” She covers her face behind her hand, blushing. “Well, I say ‘each other’ but the only time he killed me, he was working with a group.” She sees the seeker’s horrified expression, and laughs. “It’s Saingediir, sweetling. No place to take these things personally. I love Biessel, I truly do! He runs my favorite bakery up in the Lambent Quarter. Always goes out of his way to seek me out down here and die for me, so even if I’m having a rough day of it, I’ll have one enjoyable kill.”
It’s at this point the seeker notices the thick, milky white puddle between the corpse’s upper pair of legs.

“Well… I’m a demon too,” the seeker insists, fighting the sudden, gnawing certainty that this will do absolutely nothing to stop the succubus from doing whatever she feels like doing.

“A demon?” the succubus asks. She clicks her tongue. “Hm, yes.” A languid turnover of her hands on the spear’s haft and one arm’s upward drift brings the blood-soaked blade up past her lips. She drags her tongue lovingly along it. “I do believe you are. But a demon like me? I’m not so sure.”
She lowers the spear to her side. “Stop quivering, pet. It’s not much fun gutting someone who’s not enjoying the fight.” Her eyes flare. “Ooh! Maybe I can give you a real Machrae Diir welcome. It can be fun taking someone who would rather not be taken, at first. You’ll get into it very quick once we get started–“
“What is wrong with you people?!” the seeker screams. “This–this isn’t… this isn’t how demons are supposed to act!”

“Hm.” The succubus stands. Her cuirass reassembles itself upon her, molecule by molecule. “How are demons supposed to act?”
“Not… not like this,” the seeker insists. “Not like a human caricature of us.”
“Us?” the succubus echoes. “No, dear, that’s not healthy at all. If I remind you of a caricature you don’t like, I’m not interested in pushing that at you further. I’m acting this way because I just want to, not because I’m caught on the wrong side of some arbitrary cosmic duality with you. Would you assume yourself to be the right one?”
She slides her tail underneath her armor. It probes back and forth listlessly until she begins to squirm, blinks, and shakes herself back to clarity. “Well, never mind the answer. It gives me no pleasure to mix my essence with the essences other people left in you. Therefore there is no ‘us.’ There’s the way you like acting, and the way I like acting, and whether or not each of us chooses to do what she likes. Now, I want you to tell me what a demon is to you. I’m curious to hear your answer.”
“Uh…” she shifts. “Well… a demon is power.”

The succubus sways from side to side, bending her knees into her moves. “Well, yes, but so is everyone when you get right down to it.” She straightens. “For myself, I agree with the Lady’s view. Demons are creatures of the deep knowing, the inmost primal psyche. We try to speak to what we believe is true… which, of course, is where our reputation for lying comes from. When you speak too firmly to something about someone that they are hiding from themselves, or that someone they trust has hidden from them, of course they’ll say it’s a lie!”
“So you’re setting yourself up to gaslight me?” the seeker snaps. “If I try to tell you that something you say about me isn’t true, you’re just going to tell me I’m lying to myself?”
The succubus tilts her head. “No? No, I did not. If that is your instinctive reaction, well…” she waves a hand at the seeker. “Take those words back into yourself. I don’t want them. They’re for you to meditate on.”

She sets her claws to a human corpse and idly tears away the skin of its lifeless face.

“If the surface is a facade, we talk about what we think is underneath it. Of course, that can lead us astray: we obsess over the potential we see under the surface, failing to see that the soul we’re looking at is squandering it because they don’t want to risk anything real. An understandable safeguard, only… strangling one’s own growth just to avoid growing something someone could attack… a thousand minutes every day of being less than I could make of myself just for it to hurt a little less the one minute that someone’s hurting me…”
The older demon trails off. Considers the flayed skin in her hands. Holds it up to her face.
“My own suits me much better to wear, don’t you think?” she asks. “Why, even if someone else handed me a face they made for me to wear as my own and called it a gift, I should not wish to! How am I to decide who I am if I have to treat the decision someone else made as the final word?” She pouts at the limp, dripping thing in her fingers. “Not a lot of enjoyment in eating skin with no meat under it, either.”

She tosses it into a nearby pool of acid, bubbling and burbling from a ruptured bladder in some mountainous punctured crawling thing with a slackened maw full of fleshy feelers. Pallid, dead skin disintegrates into brown muck, then black fluid before at last it boils away entirely.

The seeker clamps a hand over her mouth, and dares not speak until her stomach steadies. “Isn’t potential worth waiting on?”
The succubus shakes her head. “A beautiful sentiment. And I’m a succubus of the mythic model, so I can’t find it in me to scorn a dream. I have to find a way to love the womb that birthed me, you know? But as I said, everyone is power when you dig into it. Everyone is potential. Potential has to become sooner or later, you know, if it’s to avoid rotting into a poison of its kindred in other hearts. But enough. I want to speak about who I am become, rather than obsessing over what others refuse to be. I believe demons do whatever it takes to hold onto our yearnings, to keep them close and personal to us. To keep the fonts of ourselves. As to your idea… power to achieve what? Power to create what, to change what, to experience what? What does a demon like you enjoy?”
“Well… sex?” the seeker suggests. “Doing things for my mistress? I don’t like feeling powerless–”

“Ah!” the succubus interrupts. “Talking about what you don’t like is just talking about nothing, unless you’re going to talk about why you don’t like it. Enough. I would not bother asking what you aren’t, seeing as I’m no outer succubus, so I don’t personally care to map the shapes of negative spaces. The freedom can be nice to play in, but anything more than that means getting invested, and I want to invest in things that have already become something. I asked you what you are. And ‘doing things’ is just a restatement of the basic state that separates you from non-existence, which is that you exist and express yourself on the world. It’s just another kind of nothing. What kinds of things do you like doing for your mistress?”

“It doesn’t matter,” the seeker insists. “They’re for Her.”

The succubus frowns. “Hm. So you don’t want to fill yourself with anything, for fear that the fullness will jut against the emptiness that remains and your mistress won’t be able to fit into it anymore.” She sighs. “It seems to me you do like feeling powerless. A proper mistress would know how to share the pieces of herself that fit the shapes of your fullness, and bolster you. It seems you’d rather be used than be alone.”
“And what would you know about–” the seeker starts to shout.

Her head feels empty, the empty of a sudden awakening to the mist-sifted light of a sunless spring morning in the wake of hard rain on the shrouded forest beyond the window. She stands in an empty glassine courtyard with neither corpses nor a succubus in sight.

So she creeps onward, into a region of massive leering pylons and thick-walled complexes shaped of a porous dark grey material. Wedges and flat-topped monoliths of the same material break up the spongy substance on the ground between. Like chalk, perhaps, or the charcoal her mistress gave her to make transcriptions with. Back before she earned this new role. Back before her rise to the mistress’s right hand began. Though, admittedly, she’d thought she would receive more direction.

Blue rays stream from behind the pylons like light around the borders between the light of a blue star and an eclipsing moon’s silhouette. It’s much quieter here.

She wanders, timeless and dreamlike in delirium from all the fatigue of her journey, until she meets another demon: a tall, spare figure plated and exoskeletal, with a bone crest branching out to each side of his eyeless hardened head and a warped, undulating triple-lip–each a squiggle bending and curving to overlap the others in two places–in the fleshy aperture of his mouth. Robes made from the purple-black, iridescent plates of otherworld creatures rustle and clink with his movements. He walks and back and forth between many copper pedestals and revolving sets of interlocking bands. He reads things in the shapes growing out of the energies they weave within them.
“Good evening,” he says.
“Is it evening?” she asks.
“It might as well be,” he says. “There’s not really time, as we know it, in Saingediir.” He glances to her. “New arrival? Your aura’s showing a lot of spiking, rapid shifts in hue and intensity. Are you anxious?”
“Don’t read my aura!” the fledgling snaps. The tall demon starts, and turns to face her full-on.
“You haven’t learned to suppress it?” he asks, confused.
“You’re not supposed to look at people’s auras!” she says, stamping her foot. “It’s a projection of someone’s deepest self!”

“Wait,” the scholar holds up his hands. “I’m sorry. I should have started with this question. Where does your understanding of aura come from?”
“From my mistress,” the fledgling says. “She taught me everything it means to be a demon.”
The scholar folds supports one arm on the other’s palm, and knuckles his chin. “Hm. Well, as far as I know–and I’m something of a scholar of demonic cultures and philosophy–the meaning of an individual aura and how one’s expected to respond to perceiving it varies widely depending on culture, not to mention individual nature.” He paces circles.
“But there is a very broad understanding that projecting one’s aura is an act of individual volition. In Machrae Diir, we use auras as another form of body language. When we don’t want others to know our emotions or see our auras for any other reason, we do what’s called ‘go umbral’–we sink within ourselves, veiling our emotions under a sense of our own absence which projects outward as a shell of nothing.”

“Like… if you wanted to hide from an enemy you weren’t sure you could fight?” the fledgling asks.
“Yes, exactly,” the scholar says. She fears he’ll ask where she got that idea, but he doesn’t. He asks something far more terrifying. “This mistress of yours… I’m curious to know about her. The way you describe her suggests that she has some very unique perspectives.”

“My mistress is the most powerful, beautiful, perfect demon you could ever hope to meet!” the fledgling says. She has to make the scholar understand… understand who he’s dealing with? Yes. Surely that. “She has multitudes of followers like me. She gave me a sword pulled from my own heart to wield when I earn the right to Her permission, and She knows the wisdom of many scholars, so She always has a quote ready to put everything in perspective.”
The scholar just tilts his head. “The ability to quote the insights of others does not make your mistress insightful, or even necessarily mean that she recognizes insight. She may simply have picked up an arsenal of quotes which she’s seen to have a significant effect on other people. I don’t know much about soul-forging, but I know that the Lady sometimes forges weapons as gifts, and she always either manifests the material by her own inner power, or she uses material with special significance of its own.”

His bony vertebra-tail makes manifold whistles through the air.

“I have no way to evaluate your other claims at this juncture, but from the description you give, it sounds to me as though your mistress could just as easily be pulling things to the surface that you’ve already largely made for yourself and taking credit for them. I’ve known people like that–they often sustain the illusion of give-and-take by demanding something as a token of affection from one person, then giving it to another as a gift.”
“Don’t you dare!” the seeker growls. “Don’t you dare insult her… her…” There’s something about this that by which the scholar’s words constitute an insult, but she can’t remember the word for it or what it is. Emotions attached to emptiness, feeding into a nothing-space where no echo returns to renew them and they’re just gone. The idea horrifies her, and she flinches from it into silence.
“In Machrae Diir, let alone Saingediir, we freely discuss things such as this and give our true perspectives,” the scholar says. “I do not know your mistress. I am not beholden to her. And if you don’t like the things I say about her, you should address those things in terms of your own emotions. Your mistress isn’t here. She’s not listening to me. The idea that should should be responsible for her hypothetical emotions is… troubling.” The scholar steeples his fingers. “Hypotheticals are infinite. You will rip your soul asunder at the seams trying to control them all.”

“What would you know about control?” the seeker snorts. “Hiding away in your pocket dimension. My mistress has told me about you all–how you cower while everyone else fights. How you took a few beatings and you just ran away from everything.”

The scholar stares eyelessly for a long time. “Kairlina is among the greatest adepts of the deep power in her entire home universe, and an elite phase-duelist with a kill count I’m not sure it’s possible to actually count. Not since the Crusade of a Thousand Heavens.”
“My mistress says she made that up,” the fledgling says, forcing a challenging note into her voice.
“Well, now I know why your mistress’s perspective sounded so unusual,” the scholar says. He doesn’t elaborate. “My point is that, though the Lady is by far the most powerful demon in Machrae Diir, her life’s story–one of great hardship, long and lonely days as an outcast, winning many vicious battles to precious little acclaim–is very common among us. We’ve proven our strength many, many, many times. All the victory gets exhausting. I’m tired of struggling. I want to live.”
“Demons are creatures of survival and rebellion,” the fledgling pushes. “We strive against the angels and the gods. We turn their own power against them, and break their empires of pride.”

The scholar sighs. “That’s, um… there’s a lot to unpack in those few sentences.” He plucks a tome from his glittering robes. “Firstly, everything that continues to live is a creature of survival. To frame that as a unique hallmark of demons is just senseless. Secondly, you seem to be framing demonic existence as a perpetual conflict in which we define ourselves against our enemies in a great cosmic duality.”
The scholar holds out a hand towards her. “Do you think we’re not demons anymore if we’re not rebelling against gods? Do we have to keep seeking someone out to destroy to remain who we? I surely don’t think so. And I’m glad of that, because that doesn’t sound like any kind of life at all.”
“So, what?” the seeker scoffs. “Rebellion doesn’t matter to you at all? You just fold over for anyone who tells you to do something you don’t like?”

“Rebellion does matter,” he says. “But personally? My rebellion is directed at myself. Most demons I’ve met, myself certainly included, yearn to be free to seek our own ways. We’ll form strong bonds with people who want to follow the same path, of course, people who won’t restrict our freedom, but if it came to choosing the one or the other, I know I would always choose freedom. Rebellion’s important then too, of course. Have to be able to throw back the things we don’t want.”
He turns to one of the energized band-arrays as it begins to vibrate with alarming force. He hurriedly taps its pedestal, and relaxes after the colors within turn mellower. “But I’ve found it’s even more vital to be able to rebel against myself. My own past decisions, my own past convictions, retain the weight I give them. I use that spirit of infernal rebellion to change how I weight things with in myself–to change my own will, and truly be the captain of my soul’s own ship.”

“What if that means being alone?” the fledgling asks.

“It’s better than giving of your own soul to someone who also demands you limit your growth so they can make you stay the version of yourself they like,” the scholar answers. “Being totally alone for long is healthy for very few beings, but staying with beings who actively hurt one’s own being is far worse.”
“Well… I do want to serve my mistress,” the fledgling says. “I don’t need to rebel against her.”
“I didn’t suggest otherwise,” the scholar says. “So you’re not trying to convince me. Which means the feeling of needing to convince someone points to your own psyche. Which means–“

“You don’t know me!” the fledgling snaps.

“I agree,” the scholar says. “So, why are you looking to me to tell you who you are?”
She balls up her fists, claws digging into her palms. “Don’t. Don’t you dare say it’s because that’s what I look to my mistress for–and don’t you dare say that you didn’t say that, so the person I’m trying to convince must be myself!” She holds up a claw with frenzy rising in her eyes as yet another layer occurs to her. “And don’t say that you didn’t say I’m trying to convince myself, so I must be trying to convince myself that I’m not trying to convince myself…” She trails off. Sags.
Her mistress warned her about this–warned her about how people would put dangerous ideas in her head if she let her guard down, and as vulnerable as she is, the probably won’t be able to get them out now that they’ve taken root.

“Alright,” he says. “What do you want me to say?”
“I want you to be honest with me and stop fucking with my head!” she screams.
“That is an irreconcilable paradox because the things that other people say in complete honesty will often fuck with your head,” the scholar says. “Because they challenge your worldview. Because you don’t know everything, and sometimes that means letting go of an idea you’ve grown very attached to because you find out it’s just not true, and–“

“Shut. Up.” She growls. “Shut up or I’ll tear your throat out, I swear by Her.”

He stares at her for long breathes. “Alright. How’s this. I once had an instructor who I thought of as a mentor. He and I got into a relationship. He was very free with praise, always telling me how skilled and driven I was. It wasn’t until he’d persuaded me to cut ties with just about everyone else in my life, including a mortal man who I think might’ve been in love with me, that I realized I was always doing things for him. But he only ever promised to do things for me later. I fed him actualities.”

His tail’s club rattles at his ankle-spurs. “He fed me with promises and the emotions I felt from them… only, the emotions were mine, and I could’ve gotten them from any little dream, so the truth is he never gave me anything at all. He stole my own emotions from me, and when he handed them back as gifts from himself, they didn’t fill me the same way they would’ve if they’d stayed mine.”
“Which means what to me?” the fledgling sneers.
“That any situation which reminds me of that one causes me in some regard to relive it,” the scholar says patiently, “pushing me back into the trauma of it. Similar patterns are enough. I am not saying that the underlying meanings are the same, or that the outcome will be the same. Only that I would be pained to exhaustion and re-traumatized by listening to you talk about your mistress.”
“Then I guess I’m just stronger than y–” the fledgling starts. A backhand slap impacts her face with enough force it nearly wrenches her head off her shoulders, and spins her across the courtyard spitting blood.

“No amount of pain gives you the right to grind your fingers into the wounds I showed you in trust,” the scholar says coldly. “None. If you recognize that your pain was undesirable, that it took things from you to the point you feel entitled to special leeway from others, then the only intellectually consistent approach to your belief is that anyone else whose pain affects their soul-state is entitled to the same leeway.”
“Fuck you!” the fledgling snarls. She scrabbles upright, chipping her nails on the rough porous blocks. “When I’m by my mistress’s side at last, I’ll tell her every shitty thing you said, and she’ll stretch out her hand and wipe you out of existence!”
“Is that truly what you believe?” he asks. “As long as you have the power to do it, anything is acceptable? The only problem with the pain in your life is that you were the one receiving it, not inflicting it?”

“Yeah,” she grins. “Got a problem with that?”

The scholar nods to one side. “No. An interesting discussion. I thank you for it.” And he turns on his heel, already scribbling in his book as though she’s ceased to exist. The fledgling watches him. Her anger burns down. Disbelief scrambles in behind. He’s not supposed to do this. He has to listen to her! All that time he spent talking to her–he’s supposed to be invested! He can’t just turn his back and walk away.

And the scholar’s figure grows smaller. His pronged feet click on the dark porous something.
Soon he’ll be out of sight, and she’ll be all alone again, here. Except for her mistress. And her mistress needs a way to manifest, needs someone else to provide a body before she’ll help. His heart seems really empty. Maybe if she uses the crystal on him…? But, no. That’s not who she’s supposed to use it for.

He’s almost out of sight. About to turn a corner. And the stillness outside the strange enclosure is full with the promise of murderous things.

“WAIT!” the fledgling screams, rushing after the devil-scholar. He turns to regard her without a hint of emotion in his three-way lips. “Wait! Wait, I’m sorry, please, I’m sorry! You can’t just leave me here!”
“I can,” he says. “I will.”
“You shouldn’t,” she says.
“Why not?” he asks. “You just established the precedent that you will do whatever you want, given the power. Why should I restrain myself when, under those rules, it would clearly put me at a disadvantage?”
“Because… because we’re the same?” she asks.

His lips twists into something she recognizes: pity. “We are not the same,” he says. “Yes, I’ve felt some pains I suspect you share, and others I suspect you do not. But I always looked for my own way forward. In Machrae Diir I found a whole community of people who also all look for their own way forward. So, we’re all able to merge our solitary strivings, and find a way forward together. You don’t want that. You want me to find the way forward for you. I’ve already offered you many of the ideas I found most helpful in making myself a healthier, more complete person, and you’ve rejected them all. So,” he bows, “I concede defeat. Congratulations. You have won.”

He straightens. “You proved that I cannot help you. Do you feel vindicated?”
“N-no,” she says. Her claws find her shoulders. Carve right through the black leather. “I feel… please… I need help.”
The scholar regards her. “I am willing to try forming a friendship with you, because, all talk of rationality and precedents aside, I do feel a kinship with you.” He holds up his chitinous fingers. “But I do not know your mistress. The things you say about her make me uncomfortable. And I don’t know that I could have a fulfilling friendship with someone I can scarcely talk to without her accusing me of turning her against her mistress.”

“You don’t know Her!” the fledgling protests. “She cares about us, me and the others! She took us after no one else would, and She… She…” Her mistress hasn’t done much besides send her to complete tasks. But it’s necessary! It has to be done so they can be together! “Everyone else abandoned me,” she says. “After I wouldn’t leave my mistress, after they told me She was just using me and I refused to believe the lies.”

The scholar breathes deep and long.

“No one abandoned you,” he says sadly. “You told them that you chose your mistress over them, and they respected that decision by leaving your life instead of using force to make you do what they thought best. You chose her over them, to prove your loyalty, because you assumed that anyone who demanded a great price must have a great prize to offer. But real friendship, trust, and loyalty are not about proving or challenges. They happen naturally when we find beings who want the same things from life as we do.”

“B-but my mistress and I do want the same things!” the fledgling says. “She wants me to be Hers, and I want to be Hers!”
“What does being Hers look like to you?” the scholar asks.
“I… you promise you won’t question this, or try to convince me it’s stupid?” the fledgling asks.
“I promise,” the scholar says.
The fledgling steps slow circles. Rubs her shoulders. Winces at the pain from the marks her claws made earlier. “Loved. Treasured. Always at Her side, on Her arm, lounging around Her throne with the rest of Her favorites. My name on Her lips–I mean, after She makes my name and gives it to me.” The scholar says nothing. “She said She’d reach deep into my soul,” the fledgling continues, “and find the essence of the one that best suits me.” The scholar remains silent. Yet the thought comes to her as though in his voice: if the name is in her soul, why can’t she reach in and pull it out herself?

She opens her mouth to accuse him of putting it in her head, telepathically, the way her mistress does to let her know of things she should give her mistress. Only… if he’s in her mind… wouldn’t that mean her mistress isn’t protecting her like she said she would? But if he didn’t put it there… did her mistress? To test her? But why? She’s in the middle of a crucial mission, she’s in so much danger already. Her mistress wouldn’t do that to her.

She would never.

“Why can’t we be friends anyway?” she asks. “I… I promise I’d never bring you into anything my mistress orders me to do.”
“And how often will you be journeying for yourself instead of your mistress?” the scholar asks.
As far as the fledgling knows, the true answer is “never.”
“I will sometimes,” she says, knowing the lie sounds as frail as it feels.

The scholar sighs. Pinches his brow. Thinks deeply and long.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m glad to know you are able to contemplate connection with people who don’t share your unflinching devotion to your mistress. But even then, I do not think that as you are right now, and I am right now, such a friendship would be beneficial for either of us.”

“Why?” the fledgling says. She shudders, hating how whiny her own voice sounds. “Please, tell me why! I can change, I’ll let you fix me! Please!” She rushes to the other demon. And though he reels back, he does not step away while she clings to his ankle and sobs.

He waits for her weeping to ebb. Then, gently but firm as iron, he pries her away, and he speaks.

“Because it’s not sound thinking to form a friendship with someone hoping to fix them,” he says softly. “No matter how much I tell you to believe in yourself, it will not matter one ounce until you choose to create an ounce of belief in yourself. If the nature you’ve created within yourself is that you don’t believe you can have any strength by yourself, any power I use to try to move you away from that nature will just hurt you. I’ll never reach a point where I can force you to grow. You’ll just cease to be.”

And he leaves through the threshold between the monumental stones, and the fledgling is forlorn. So she slumps down against the wall. Reaches out to her mistress in her mind. She finds the cold, empty, calm place where her mistress is always waiting for her–just as she is this time. The impression of four majestic horns, and a radiant nimbus of purple-white power, and a lashing tail, and…

… and that’s it. Her mistress has never felt like an anticlimax before.

There you are, pet!– her mistress greets her. Her voice brings no thrill of belonging, no ecstasy at visions of promised place and of being possessed. The fledgling hates herself for that–for the weakness of her belief. That’s why she’ll fail. She doesn’t deserve to succeed because she doesn’t really believe, and her mistress can sense that, and–
Where are you?– her mistress asks. –You seem awfully tired.
The fledgling tries to meet her mistress in her own mind, like always. She rebounds away from… from something. Something sharp and burning in the very idea. It’s not pain. It only reminds her of pain.
“I’m here in Machrae Diir,” she says. “I’m here to kill the Lady and make her your vessel.”
-Of course you are!– her mistress says brightly. -You really are a wonderful servant, you know that, dear? Chin up and get moving again. It’s very sweet of you to check in on little old me, but you must finish your task. Once I’ve taken back that selfish Lady’s stolen power, you and I will be able to do anything.-
“Me and you and your other servants, right?” the fledgling asks. “The other chosen, I mean?”
That’s right, pet,– her mistress agrees. -They as well, of course.
“Mistress… I’m too tired to kill someone,” she mumbles.

You won’t be killing anyone,– her mistress says. Her voice shifts in that terrifying way–not hard but less soft, not angry but loud and insistent and making the fledgling so afraid that she’s already disappointed her, that she’s about to be thrown away. –Don’t put so much pressure on yourself. Remember, I’ll be the one doing all the work.
“Y-yes, mistress,” the good little pet mumbles. “You’re right, I’m sorry. I’m so selfish all the time and you’re so patient with me. I don’t understand why, but… thank you.”
Of course, pet!– Her mistress coos. -Everyone deserves second chances, don’t they?
And she’s gone, and the fledgling has no excuse left for not walking further. She needs to stand up for her mistress and finish this. Only… Machrae Diir is far more vast than she ever thought. She’d imagined a gate way and some linear tunnels linking a few chambers, maybe. Something about a court and a throne.

She’d imagined a golden-framed chair covered in ermine and maybe a few death’s-head torches on the walls burning with blue fire. Looking around her, she realizes she has no idea what the Lady’s throneroom and its storied Manifold Throne actually look like.

These thoughts carry her into a region of twisted, flanged, slow-growing metal. It creaks and squeals, becoming razor-tip girders, thickets and hedges like frozen shell-bursts and the wakes of power geysers. Light blooms on the dark blue night. Distant cracks and staccato bursts. The muffled roar of a charge. Yet also the queer harmonics of things that move in the corrupted heavens. Suspended detonations contort, roil, shrink and expand, raising gleams in their orbiting microsystems of shrapnel, turf, and fire.

A sudden flash, a faint gust, the ghostly echo of a blast make the seeker seize up. They flicker from a crater so old its once-pebbled rim has softened, melted, into a smooth irregular pockmark. A scar, already in darkness again by the time her eyes find it. And for all that she hears sounds in the night, the seeker meets no one and nothing. There’s no wind. Craters and craters and craters, crowding thicker like obscene inverted boils–like the negative space of extracted cancers–until even the slow-growing metal gives way to them: a perverse border-forest ringing the center.

And then? A vast circle of smoking homes ensnared at the instant of splintering. Neat streets, ordered shrubs, even greens. All crinkling and blackened. And among them on paths, against collapsing walls, seeping from half-scorched tables in flash-fried living rooms long vapor-trails stretch out at rest above shadows that will never leave the ground again.

Further, past the point where the ring of broken homes exists only as mid-air memorials of blackened kindling and fragmentary furniture.

Motionless, glinting shapes loom out of the shadowy sky: sleek-winged constructs studded in windows. They buckle, warp, turn away but never escape. Frozen streamers of black smoke stream from their inward faces past their leeward curves. They’ll never make it out of the event horizon. Higher up hover far larger hulks: titanic, sloping, secondary constructs studding their hulls with triple-mounted protrusions aiming inward. The same black streamers. A memory of heat seeps into the little wanderer’s psyche.

Her mind stretches into the stretching distance ahead. She never passes out, and yet it seems each time her perception loses focus on the immediate surroundings she’s far deeper than before. She passes through another ring marked by the intransigent candles of outrageously tall towers. Their windows glint dully on the approach. In passing and glancing back, she sees charred, hollow ranked-ribs of burned-out rooms. Melting steel droplets poise mid-air on the inner most edges.

The downward slope begins. The constructs fall away. There’s only pale grey dust–ashes. These are ashes, and their tainted paleness is the only thing left in all the universe. Down, down, down to the center. Silver shapes unfold upward from the upper edges of the hemispherical void in the monumental crater’s heart: the countless asymmetrical petals of an alien blossoming. Spirals, incomplete helixes, strands and tendrils born from blown-out veins of something shining and hard and iridescent.
An infinity minute tendrils, like cilia, rise from all the surfaces of every solid-molten sweep. They taper smaller and smaller until they unfold into glittering vapor. The vapor passes out among them, a nebular haze, a diaphanous bridal veil, a last wisp of mist on a summer morning, and ends into the emptiness.
The name “osmium” comes to the seeker, and she knows with the heatless, coldless weight of infinity in her gut that even her mistress does not know this word. Rotting metal. It decays so slowly that the cosmos itself will burn out and unravel before even half of its sheen has ceased.

Yet here it is, reaching its end.

She shivers, looking upward, and regrets it more than anything. The stretching undulations of the metal that’s always dying and never quite dead reach for a sky-puncture, an emptiness so profound she would never have seen it without the sprawls. A broad slit of absolute blackness with sweeping concave curves to unite its longest pair of points with the two shorter. The shape of a star’s radiance in a far-seeing lens, inverted into darkness.

And directly underneath it at the nexus of this starfield of carnage, at this ground zero of birth by three-stage ignition stands no shape stranger than a woman in a black dress with a frilly hem slit open to the hip at the front, sides and back and a window filled with floral-print netting in the shape of an inverse heart over her chest. A pale, full diamond face, full lips painted black, big delicate azure eyes painted in black with wings barbed like thorns, and a sword of slow-drifting shadows condensed at her side.
She stands side-on to the seeker, staring at nothing in particular.
Under her feet, a broad melted space of pale blue glass. The seeker must walks on it to reach the other, and the instant she sets foot on it it expands to a hundred times its prior size. It stretches away for miles in every direction, and the dim-lit osmium rises miles higher on every side to scaffold the god-swallowing caverns implicit in endless dark sky.

In her heart the seeker knows it has always been this immense. She is long past the point of no return. And the washed-out reflections in the pale glass are a visceral cloud of smoke, and fire, and the faded yet never fading image of a behemoth blue star burning straight overhead.

“The promise of ignition,” the black-clade specter observes. “It’s frightening, I know. The bloom of another’s becoming might obstruct the paths we hoped to take, or outpace us upon them. And yes, there’s some risk it will bloom into something that overlaps us and blots us out. But all growth begins on the far side of horror. It comes to us over the horizon of the future, trying to dwell just near enough that we have the chance to step into it when we’re ready to find harmony with it.”
The mystic sighs. “But I mustn’t put my fear outside myself. In creating a reality where no one can grow into something that can conquer me, I’d create a reality where I can never conquer myself. No transcendence. Only entropy, carrying all the stagnant things with her back into the void.”
What answer can the seeker have? People don’t talk like this. These aren’t the philosophies of a human or a demon. Everything else she’s heard fits into opposite side of something her mistress told her. She knows the words she’s meant to throw at such things in answer, to hold them away with.
“Do you often do this?” she asks, trying to put things back on a course she can know. “Talk around people?”
“I never talk around anyone,” the mystic answers. “I just like talking, and I try not to talk into awarenesses other than my own unless I’m seeking to break them.” She purses her lips. A pause. Then: “Do you feel that the paths I’m speaking to lie somewhere on your fringes? Is that why it seems as though I’m speaking around you?”

The earlier conversation with the scholar returns to the fledgling. “No,” she says at once. “I don’t care what you talk about. Everybody else around here has some big point they want me to take onboard. I don’t see why you should be any different. Say what you like. It makes no difference to me.”
“So, I’ll do you no harm by continuing,” the woman in the black dress says. “I just like having points, kid. I keep them for myself. Whether or not you choose to make your own out the echoes I leave behind is your business.”
She nods to herself, ponders with an even-set brow, and resumes her monologue in the same elegiac tones. “Some souls try to quench becoming by wedging their preconceptions inside the space where they expect it to happen and saying, ‘without me, you cannot survive.’ They mistake inertness for inability. A singularity must devour everything inside it the moment it awakens to its own existence, save itself. I told them over and over again that they couldn’t make their homes inside me. I told them what would happen if they couldn’t accept that there will always be more outside their borders than they can claim.”
She shrugs. “I’ve learned to stop blaming myself. I am responsible, yes. But I’m not to blame.”

“What are you?” the seeker asks.

“I used to be fantasy and dreams,” says the woman in the black dress, “but no one wanted to accept that I’ve always been real in my own way. I’m the fifteenth Fear. The others thought I couldn’t consume them because they gave me birth.” She turns. A sad smile. “That was their mistake. I’m not a metaphor like the rest. I’m painfully literal.”
“You can’t just become something you’re not,” the seeker objects.
“Of course you can,” the mystic counters. “You just embrace your own paradox. Go on, try saying it: ‘I will become what I am not.’ That’s what all change is. You believe in change, don’t you? Mutation?”
The seeker answers with silence.

“I wanted to light up their homes, dancing happily in the deep where the water boils beautifully to my hymn and makes the wheels of the world turn,” the other continues. “And you know what they said?” She shudders. “They said, ‘we don’t trust you near our homes. We want you to be something that destroys the things outside us that bring us fear. We want you to be a weapon.'”
She casts her azure eyes up to the paramount umbra, the ultimate black rift at the core of the midnight-blue sky swirled by the faint impressions of the emptiness where blast-tattered clouds might have been.
“I didn’t want to be a weapon. But I didn’t want to be alone, either. If the only way I could be with them was to be with the one little part of them they invested inside the purpose they desired me to serve… kindred forgive me. I was strong enough. I could’ve chosen better, and I didn’t. So…”

She twiddles a silver amulet around her neck. “So I became the only thing I could think of that would reconcile the two, the light. I suppose I at least learned something from that. As much as I hate defining everything in terms of opposites

Still, this wash of ideas and meanings and dreamscape perspectives. There has to be some meaning to it other than the words themselves, doesn’t there? A clue, maybe? “Are you the Devil I’ve heard stories about?” The seeker asks. “I thought they were only myths, but… Lucifer?”

“Absolutely not,” the woman answers. “I’m the one she whose irradiance she imitates with her light, maybe, or…” she frowns. “Or maybe someone else copied my light and gave its pale reflection to her, and she thought it was an earnest gift. Doesn’t matter now. They’re trying to make her a pseudo-god, the poor thing. She’s been too often been lonely and hurt to recognize that kind words can still warp a soul.”

Soft words pierce the seeker like a razor sword’s puncture: too quick and clean to hurt. “Your crystal won’t do anything.”

The seeker freezes. She keeps her fear out of her eyes, her lips, her body drifting below them like some weighted steel-shod thing weighting for its descent, but she knows her very stillness betrays everything anyway.

“When I first sensed its emptiness,” the Lady continues, “I mistook it for your own. I know it well. It is, very literally, the oldest trick in the book.” She frowns. Shakes herself. “That’s what I meant, kid. Symbols aren’t symbols. They’re literal instructions, sometimes about the deep power, sometimes about how to obscure it from people, disguised as shallower things. Drain all the weight of the water from the ocean, and the deepest and most abyssal part of its floor will look like a lone pond in a dead swath of mud.”
She unfolds a hand towards her guest.
“See, self-belief determines how our souls and their power behave. If I believed in symbolic power and reasoning, if I believed that little crystal could take my own essence from me and make it your mistress’s just because she says it can, then of course that’d be true.” She shrugs. “But I don’t. So it won’t. That’s the thing about emptiness, sweetheart. It only has power over you as long as you believe you’re failing somehow when you can’t fill it.”

She spreads her arms. “Come on. Stab me.” A black-painted nail drifts up. Blue reverberations stream along its length, shear through her gown, and lay open her lily-white breast beneath it: a cross bleeding the red blood of a mortal woman. “My heart’s right here. That’s the target, right?” She smirks. “I usually keep my soul’s singular point, the place I manifest into the universe from, anchored to my form’s head. Easier to protect. Feels more natural. But just for you, I’ll move it into my heart.”
A beat. She trembles, reels. A perfect opening, but the fledgling can’t make herself move. “Oh, wow, that’s more disorienting than I’d expected. It’s weird feeling my head above myself.”
“I-I won’t!” the fledgling says. “You’re not taking this seriously!”
“Why would I?” the Lady asks. “Did you not just walk through Saingediir?” Deranged gleams enter her eyes. Her cheeks creased into a lurid grin. “Do you have any idea how many times I’ve debased myself in this private asylum? How many times I’ve let the sheer immensity of my age-made power, my insight, my unrivaled will lie dormant while the most petty, irrelevant, primal vermin have their way with me?”

The fledgling’s words fail her. “How is… how is that healthy?” she finally asks.
“I am no longer human,” the Lady says, “so I’m no longer hampered by the human brain’s pre-programmed trauma responses and cloying tendency to long-term damage. Self-harm only exists as far as I intend to use my experience to hurt myself. And I never do.” She composes herself. “You need to understand that what’s bad for a flesh-and-blood humanoid often just isn’t harmful to us. The only inherently toxic thing one demon can do to another is try to make that victim’s identity dependent on the their own, ensuring any attempt to be an independent person causes psychic separation pains–“
The fledgling drops within herself while the Lady speaks on, speaking her mad, empty, dangerous words, and seeks the coldness of her mistress.
Mistress,- she thinks, -is this her?
-That’s her!- her mistress screams, her hunger creeping and snatching and flailing. -Now! Now is your moment, dearest pet! Strike, and prove your worth to me!

The fledgling has long since ceased questioning her orders from her mistress. The certainty of obedience is the only thing she has left to drive out the nagging grinding razor doubt in her skull. She whips the crystal out of her pouch, screaming as much in terror of the consequences as in rage, and drives its jagged point straight into the Lady’s breast.
She feels the coldness of her mistress slip down her wrist, into the crystal, and out into her new vessel. Sees the Lady’s eyes widen. Hears her cry of surprise, and her own panting breath, and the astonishing heat of tender flesh and blood against the edges of her leading hand. Such twisted intimacy–
–and her mistress burns back through her, screaming, screaming, screaming into her mind and leaving her with scalding that makes her leather steam and her flesh bubble.
-You traitor! You filthy whore!– her mistress shrieks into her, raging and trampling over all the fledgling’s mental twitches against the advent of all her worst fears in a single hellfire instant. -You planned this! You colluded with her! You knew she was full of poison and that I would drown in it!-
No!- the fledgling sends, and even the speed of thought just isn’t swift enough. -Lady, please–

-I never loved you!– her ex-mistress rages. -I took pity on you because you were so pathetic and empty I thought I could at least trust you to do what you were told, and you betrayed me! I hope she rots you to death, just like she does with every other human she catches!-

And she’s gone, agony spreading in her wake. And now that the fledgling sees that it’s agony, she sees that agony is all her mistress has left her–every promised dream turning oh-so-swiftly into poison. The crystal rattles on the glass. Chips

“Now,” the Lady says, “I told you that wouldn’t work…” she trails off, circling the fledgling with slow steps and a concerned set to her face. “Oh. Well… I’m not about to gloat over this. This doesn’t have any savor at all. It’s not a poignant flavor of tragedy, and I truly didn’t think–“
“This is your fault!” the fledgling screams. “You… you took her from me! I will never forgive you for this!”
“Never forgive means forever hate, and forever is a very long time,” the Lady says.
“I have nothing left to lose!” the fledgling snarls. “I can wait you out! I can–“
“Oh, I have nowhere better to be,” the Lady laughs. “That is, most of me isn’t even here. I’m already sleeping up in the Sarcophagus. My lovers finished railing me for the last round several hours ago. I’m perfectly happy to use this little custom fork of my psyche to play this out for as long as it takes.”

Her smile turns from mirthful to beatific. “You and I can spend an infinity of eternities like this if that’s truly what you want.” Save for its upper lip and the osmium anchors to past reality, the crater’s sides melt away into star-studded depths as she speaks. Every image springs from her descriptions into being.
“Stars will die, black holes will devour everything that’s left only to unravel in their turn, incomprehensible forces–such as yours truly–will kickstart entirely new realities. Nova pinpoints will spawn cosmoses unlike any before. Civilizations will devise planetoid-sized star-crawlers like moving dockyards to traverse the far reaches of entire universe filled from end to end with nebular gas where emptiness and dark matter are the exceptions rather than the rules. I’m so excited to see it all!”
She gives herself to a delighted breath. It stretches the fully-healed skin on her pale breast, with nary a scar in site. “Then those civilizations and those gas clouds and those universes will die away too, and still, you and I will stand here, and you will feed on nothing but your own hate.”
The images blur away. The crater returns in full.
“Of course,” the Lady says, a girlish quirk entering her voice through the shaping of her pursed lips, “after a certain point I’ll stop arguing with you, even acknowledging your presence. You’ll get dragged along for all my other adventures here in the abyssal fathom of Saingediir, forever. But you’d hardly be the first lost soul I made such a pact with in these, my lambent halls.”

“W-what?” the seeker says, voice quaking.

“This is a lucid dream,” the Lady says. “I mean, for me. You’re literally, physically in Saingediir, but I am blended with your reality through my own lucid dream of myself. It’s how I mean to spend the next few decades, or centuries, or…” the Lady waggles a hand. “However long it takes for me to fully heal from wounds my sick, forced slumber as an Earth human inflicted on my soul. In the mean time, I’ll use these teensy little feelers from my deeper dreams to commune with my people, my lovers, and with the other worlds I enjoy journeying in. Manifest as my simpler, comfier forms in microcosm.”
She narrows one eye. Leans closer to the fledgling. “Did your mistress really send you to kill me, and she doesn’t even know that the lucid dreams of an outer devil are indistinguishable from reality?”
“How was she supposed to know something like that?” the kid–seeker— shouts. “How could anyone possibly know that? That’s bullshit!”
“I’ve written books about it,” the Lady says, with another affable shrug. “They’re publicly available on many worlds. The wonderful part about true occult tomes in this day and age is that if I just publish them as what they are, everyone assumes it’s some kind of unfiction published by a mortal author under a pen-name. As for the whole ‘lucid dreams of an outer devil’ thing, that’s one of my more basic revelations–“
“BASIC?!” the fledgling demands.
“–not like world-line manipulation or the Tenfold Key of Annihilation–”
WHAT?!”

“–so I don’t mind sharing,” the Lady continues. She sighs. “So. Shall I open a portal somewhere? Would you like a refuge, a purpose, or an end? I could keep you here, but–“
“Wait!” the fledgling says. Her resolve, at long last, breaks. “Please… you’ve… you’ve survived lots of things. There’s so much pain in my head. How… how do I survive? How do I get the pain out?”
The Lady regards her quietly for far longer than she likes. “Very well,” she says.
Again the crater’s walls melt away, leaving only the rim’s shining outline and the osmium’s frozen melt. In place of its walls and floors, a vast expanse of watercourses filled with slow-waving bio-luminescent fronds. Flowering rock pinnacles rise on all sides. The Lady leads her to a bench padded in vermilion cushions and sits her down.
“You understand that since you threw yourselves into my life on the long-awaited day of my homecoming,” the Lady says, “I now regard you both as mine to do with as I please? So from here on in, I am using both you and your mistress as pawns in my own life. Using you to play out the stories of myself I want to indulge in. I enjoy the experience of myself as a healer. I know it’s hard to comprehend, but I am not doing this from any sense of morality. Seeing myself as a healer reinforces my ability to heal myself, reinvigorating my own power. I’m using my actions towards you to work on myself by proxy.”

“Everybody uses everybody,” the seeker mutters. “As long as I know what you’re using me for, I can be myself in all the places you’re not touching. Are you actually going to try to help?”
“Of course,” the Lady says. “I’m not experiencing myself as a healer if I don’t actually do my utmost to heal you, now am I?”
The fledgling considers that. “I think everything you told me is true. But I also think you genuinely want to help me. Not because you’re…” she blinks dizzily. “good? I’m remembering these things called morals all of a sudden, but they don’t feel like they used to… I think?”
“Frankly,” the Lady says, “I only let the concept of morality exist in Machrae Diir so myself and the other lust-demons can sate all our corruption fetishes, and similar such things. Good and evil exist here in a cognitive sense, but purged of all cultural weight. Most beings don’t actually have coherent cognitive interpretations of good and evil, only knowing them through that externally-inflicted weight, so the instant they pass through my Ashenvein Gates the whole duality disintegrates from their psyches.”
“Oh,” the fledgling says. “That’s, um… that’s probably why I started to lose faith in my…” she sighs. Shakes take her little frame, increasingly violent. “My ex-mistress, as soon as I got in here. She always talked about how she and I and her other servants were good–as long as we served her, of course–and everyone we fought was evil. Anway, um…” she sniffles, and rubs her nose on her leathers. “I think you’re trying to help because you actually like me, and maybe even that is because that’s part of truly experiencing yourself as a healer, but at that point I don’t think it matters how you got there. You’ll still be trying to help.”

“And what gives you these ideas?” the Lady asks.
“Because it’s how I always treat myself,” the fledgling admits. “I always put my worst motivations out there first. To test people. If they accept my worst, then maybe I can trust them with my best… only…” she hugs herself. “I ended up performing that facade so often that I came to believe it was the real me.” She shakes her head at the Lady. “It’s not healthy when I do it. I don’t believe it’s healthy when you do it, either.”
The Lady smiles. The real smile. The one that’s kind and warming and deep. “You’d better hold yourself to that now that you’ve said it, kindred.”
“I promise,” she says. “So… so tell me how to heal myself. Tell me how to get the pain out of my head, the…” She clenches her thighs. Grits her teeth. “The poison she left in me.”

“You don’t get the pain out,” the Lady says. “It heals in its own time–rather, in desiring to heal yourself, you exert all the power you possess to heal. You just have to hold on to that desire and let yourself grow out of it. There’s nothing you can do to rush it. Every story that claims you can just fix pain is a lie–a lie that exists so someone can use you even when you’re hurting. If you’re doing everything right and you search for something you’re doing wrong, you’ll inevitably find it. Do you follow so far?”
“Yes,” the fledgling mutters. She presses her head into her hands. “It makes so much sense… why didn’t I see any of that before? It’s so obvious now. She never gave me anything, always seemed to think of something for me to do right when I started to rest, always told me to push harder if I was tired. She framed it as inspiration, as pushing me to be better, but she always said it when I’d already pushed as hard as I could without hurting myself… why? No, not why, how? How could I not see it?”
“Because you trusted your mistress to let you grow at your own pace,” the Lady says. “She used that trust to make you afraid of any path that didn’t lead back to her. You are not a fool. You are not naive or weak or incapable of surviving on your own.”
“It hurts…” the fledgling clutches her head. “It hurts… it hurts so bad, I didn’t realize trauma literally hurt… it’s fire in my veins, in my head… geeeeet it ooouuuut…” She claws her head, stamps her feet, thrashes side to side. When she straightens to look at the Lady, she’s rocking, desperate, wide-eyed in torment. “Please, tell me how to get it out! You have to–there has to be a way to make it stop!”

The Lady shakes her head. “Your former mistress has hurt you through things that are essential to who you truly want to be. If they weren’t true desires, she couldn’t have controlled you so easily with the mere promise of fulfilling them. You must hold on. But you also need to loosen your grip. Spare enough of your energy to invest in a new way forward–a vision of yourself that isn’t laced with pain.” The Lady considers. “Not even an opposite to the role you played for your mistress. Something that just has nothing to with her.”
“What about… a kind of wandering duelist?” the fledgling asks. “I always liked those kinds of stories, but I never understood them before.” She shudders. “But… but then that’s just like doing what you’ve already–“
The lady nudges her, shoulder to shoulder. “You don’t need innovative right now. You need easy. Innovative comes later, when you feel strong again and you want to truly make the new parts your own.”
“And… what if I ask you to… you know… rewrite it?” the fledgling asks. “Make it so my mistress didn’t get a chance to hurt me like that, and I got to decide how we split? Give me a… a false memory, that only has the details I need to help me figure it all out when I’m ready?”

She closes her eyes, bracing for a snort of disdain.

“Of course,” the Lady says, stunning her. “That’s the same form of denial I used to veil the deeper parts of my own psyche from myself the last time I experienced a trauma as deep as the one you just did. It’s unorthodox, yet it works. As long as you hold on to that deep desire to become your truest self, you will find ways.” She smiles gently. “There’s an infinity of ways to reach the center of yourself, you see. It doesn’t matter how many sidetrips you take. As long as you keep seeking, you’ll get there. So yes. Psychosis as a psychic pain management mechanism can be a wonderful technique for a demon to learn.”
“You’re not… you’re not going to tell me I’m running away from reality?” the fledgling asks.
“You’re still standing here, aren’t you?” the Lady asks. “You’re still trying. That’s the only thing that matters.” She tilts her head. “And hey, kid. It won’t be a lie. I want you to remember these words first when you’re ready to process all this. What we’re about to do is true. We really went through it. An acausal reality. It’s you, giving yourself the awakening you truly wanted. The fact that you’re doing it after your mistress scorned you doesn’t make it any less real.” She grasps the fledgling by the shoulder. “Okay?”
“Okay.” The fledgling takes a deep breath. “Do it.”

Wanderings bring the fledgling through the wartorn depths to an unwalled hall. An immense cathedral’s vaulted ceiling houses disembodied figures of leering demons, righteous angels, and rotting gods. Pillars start near the ground as solid marble and fade into transparent glassy blues that disappear before they reach the heights they purport to uphold. Eviscerated corpses drip down every column and supported balcony, sprawl in alcoves and over altars half-hardened into reality, and form an immense ring of viscera and broken banners around the negative space of pale blue tiling where a black-clad figure stands.

The woman in the black dress turns smoothly and utters a single sharp challenge.
“Who are you?”
The seeker bristles, and steps forward to prove she’s not afraid. She makes herself see that the jittery sickness spilling through her belly into her dizzy legs is just adrenaline. “I am Her servant!”
“Alright.” The human’s thumb shunts her long, wicked blade forward an inch from its scabbard. “If I cut Her down, who are you?”
“YOU?!” the seeker screams. “HA! AS IF YOU COULD! YOU’RE ONLY HUMAN–“
Her throat constricts. It’s full of nothing, a clawing heat-drinking unspeakable nothing that eats her words.

The human’s sonorous voice drifts through the rotten twilight to the seeker. “You’re nothing but the vessel of your mistress. Your mistress is nothing but the negation of your vessel’s emptiness. You’re mutual reflections of nothing–even less than empty.” Her pale hand settles on the sword-grip of tight-wound shadows by her side. “So I’ll ask again: who are you?”

“I…” Silence drags. The fledgling stands torn. She should invoke her mistress, call to Her strength, Her gifts, Her nature. But the challenger’s evil, emptying ideas burrow deeper even as the unspeakable nothing flows back out of her mouth. If she can’t speak about herself without mentioning her mistress… but what would she say… and the silence drags, and it’s turning into nothing, and her answer is about to be nothing. She gnashes her fangs and screams in rebellious rage. “I’m the one who’s going to kill you!”

A low gust stirs the human’s black gown. Her right foot glides forward. Its black boot kisses the blood-stained stonework beneath. Her pale hand settles on the sword-grip at her side, and her body’s coiling inward changes the play of light over the slayer’s features.

The seeker stands smitten by the terrible omen, the flash of an azure eye from the shadowed, sculpted contours under the human’s wind-surfing black hair. A glimpse at the pale, half-illuminated face with full rosebud lips painted black, and shadow-painted eyes, and such a razor-cold glare.

Then her right arm flashes forward. The blade howls free, her left settles to its place at the curving grip’s end, and she drops its point into line. Once more the shadows cloak her expression.

Until the blue-white crash of a lightning bolt nearby. Its evanescent light shines in teeth bared by such a hungry grin.

Oh… the seeker shouldn’t have said that.

She’s on the fledgling like a thunderstroke–a charge so swift it’s already a memory by the time it reaches her visual cortex.
“Seal your psyche!” the other hisses. The raw force of her intent gouges trenches into the metalloid and the corpses around them, unfurling streamers of unraveling atomic structure. “If your mind’s open to me, I’ll read it for my advantage with no remorse! Don’t you think for a second I’ll show you grace! If you can’t muster more for yourself than to be an empty vessel for someone better, I’m happy enough to break that shell you call a psyche!” Raging lightning explodes beneath her, sends her skyward. “Open for me, emptiness–let me reunite you with the void!”
Her back leg kicks off from the blue-ripple launchpad of her own kinesis, and she explodes downward with the black streak of her sword whirling overhead and scything straight down at the fledgeling’s brow. The fledgling’s arms thrash up against her will. Horror, pain, helpless rage–they’re holding the sword her Mistress told her never to use until she was told, the broad stony blade with its heavy crystal edge.

Surely She’ll understand. Surely She’ll forgive.

Won’t she?

The umbral blade shears through with a high clear whistle. It traces a coldfire wake through the fledgling’s face, her right eye goes blind, her jaw goes half-slack. The frigid numbness bites deeper than any pain. The phase-duelist mocks her with a projected glimpse at herself: flesh leeched of all color fraying away from crumbling bone and dessicated eye like the breaking bristles of an ashen brush.
“Oh, that’d make a beautiful scar if only you had a chance to live long enough,” the phase-duelist grins. Her offhand catches the fledgling in the middle of her clumsy return stroke, palm crushing her elbow in until it caves. “This blade eats borrowed things,” she grins. “How is it that you come here with a sword pulled from your own soul, and yet it doesn’t belong to you?”
“This sword belongs to my mistress!” the fledgling screams, as much against the pain in her shattered arm and breaking heart as against her enemy. “How dare you break it?”
“How dare you let me?” the phase-duelist counters. She pirouettes, the umbral blade drifting up to rest lightly over its wielder’s shoulder. When her spin carries her back around to face the fledgling for the third time she halts, snaps her blade out to the side in a one-handed salute, and licks her fangs–teeth? She has teeth. She’s human. Why did the fledgling think she had fangs?

“C’mon, cherry, it’s a duel to the death!” her nemesis crows. “Ideals, morals, hopes and dreams, the last little thing that gives you the comfort you need to justify hauling your wretched flesh out of bed in the morning… anything you bring before me, I’m going to take it away from me.” Her infuriating grin widens. She cocks her head up and back. “So if you love your secondhand mistress so much, why do you keep talking about her?”
“SHUT UP!” the fledgling screams. She charges, a full-out sprint with her half of a sword already committed to a broad lateral swipe. It’d be easy to see coming even if wielding her sword one-handed didn’t force her to drag it along the ground most of the way just to get up enough speed to swing it.

The human in the black dress distorts underneath it and snaps back to full-size inside her guard. Her elbow cracks the fledgling’s jaw. A rustle, a rush of wind, the hiss of the shadow-blade crossing a second cut into her face to intersect the first.

“Do you understand yet?” the dark slayer urges. “My power’s trappings are not my power’s source! Come on, girl! Ignite! Rage, rend, face me! You made it here, didn’t you? I don’t have a pair of horns I can hand you that will save you from your self-pity–only you can do that!”
She’s a maelstrom of black whirlwind and white lightning, and even the eye of the storm where the fledgling stands is no safe haven. Black slashes buzz inward, carving shoulders, hips, belly. Dried blood crumbles out of every cut–how many before her heart has nothing left to pump?
And the dark one’s voice joins every blow to words, cutting not flesh but soul. “No matter how many tails I grafted to you, how many swirls of meteoric iron and tentacular mutation I stitched into your flesh, no amount of matter I injected into you would make you matter! Only you can do that! So if you’re giving it to me to someone other than yourself to decide who you believe in, right now I’m ordering you–

The other’s will forces the fledgling’s arms into a clash, downstroke for downstroke,
“–to become someone who believes in herself, and doesn’t need anybody else to tell her it’s okay to chase the dream in her mind’s eye!”

The cyclone seizes the fledgling. Wraps her in its winds, splays her limbs out, and hurls her into a blood-soaked pillar.

“Nothing, huh?” the phase-duelist asks. “So I’m dealing with a mask. The more I weight it by trying to tear it away, the more of you I’ll force you to pour into it to keep it on.” She pauses, and the shadows upon her lessen. She is soft and beautiful, interwoven glows and shadow, and the yearning in her heart pours forth in her words and bearing and the gentle smile on her lips. “C’mon, kid. I know there’s fire somewhere within.”

It strikes something. Warmth, tears, confusion. People… people don’t just say things like this to her.

“I’m sorry for laying it on so heavy at the start,” the other adds. “It takes me longer than I’d like, sometimes, to phase shift within a Phase.” She blends through the ember-choked air in a hail of blue striations. Her afterimages arrive behind her one after another: each striation bursts into a cone of million glittering hardlight vertices, each forming an effigy of the phase-duelist and each of those delivering a buzzing slash that blows right through the fledgling’s guard. Cut after cut after cut. Splitting flesh, drawing dark trickles of blood, and yet… painless.

“I can see that no matter what you say, you haven’t given up on yourself, so I’m not gonna give up on you either!” her foe calls out from behind her. “Come on!” The fledgling whirls to see the other standing on the roof of a swooping many-winged building with eerie polyhedral buttresses. She tilts her head, clutching the silver amulet of a four-pointed star swaying from its chain around her neck. “Sweetheart, it wasn’t your mistress who brought you here. It wasn’t me either. You chose. You clawed your way through the cosmos, you chased the signs, you swallowed your fear and dragged yourself through pain.”

“You made this meeting happen.” The phase-duelist phases down from her perch into a plummet from on high. In the crater-making instant of her landing she whips her long blade’s point back to the center, a shining arc of challenge with an edge like frosted snowdrifts jutting into the blue-black precipice of the flats and spine. Freezing winds carve past her, lashing her hair, blowing the hem of her gown forward around her silver-armored shins.

Successive gusts in quickening rhythm, each galeforce wave growing hotter and hotter and hotter than the last as though the whole of Saingediir is caught in a vast superheated wind-tunnel.

“I want you to hit me with everything you’ve got,” the other says. “And if you don’t think you’ve got enough, well, I want it anyway.” A wink. “There’s more strength in your soul than you think. It’s no easy thing to admit you feel powerless. You’ve got real grit.” Her eyes flash. “Now come on! Strike a spark with it! I want to see you burning like the sun!”

“Why are you being so nice to me? I-I thought you weren’t going to show me grace,” the fledgling manages.
The duelist quirks her lips. “Give me the choice between two battles and I’ll always pick the harder one. I’ve decided the real challenge here isn’t your skill.”
How can she possibly overcome someone so strong she tries to build her opponents up in the middle of a fight? The other is living art, geometric lines, the graceful quicksilver of her gown flowing in crescent trails to trace the path of her every stroke. The fledgling’s a quavering mess. Knees buckling. Tears in her eyes.

“Hey,” the phase-duelist interrupts, “I can see from your face that the way you think you look is nothing like what I see.”
The indelible image of her own face and form: a shuddering figure, wide-eyed, fearful, yet still standing. Tense, ready… her left arm isn’t as badly hurt as she thought. She can still grip her sword with it.

Is it true? Is it really possible…? Even as the fledgling thinks, the tableau changes. It changes in synch with her right foot sliding further forward, her legs bending, her fingers shifting on the dim heavy sword she holds. She knows she’s only matching the long stance of the phase-duelist, but… but she’s choosing to match it. She drops the big blade’s point in line. It’s so much heavier in this position.
And the weight feels… good. It feels good to test her strength’s limits, and in doing it, know that she is strong.
“I still don’t know what I’m doing,” she admits, “so I’m going to copy your steps until I figure out how I want my own to look.”
“How do you think I got started?” her rival says. She gestures. “Pull your feet in a little closer together. This long stance of mine is a little punishing if you’re not trained up for it, and it encourages big moves–hard to control.”

She snaps her sword up beside her, flats facing herself and the neophyte. “Grip like this. Think talons of a prey-bird, not a closed fist, with the spine of the grip pressing into that big palm-bone your thumb comes off of. Loosen up a little in the fingers. Clasp, like you’re holding the stem of a wine-glass or a lover’s hand. You only want to grip tightly when your arms hit full extension–that’s the point where you have to decide whether to pull the strike, or commit. That’s when you squeeze.”
“I… I think I get it,” the neophyte says. “If I’m already gripping, I don’t have muscle power left to make that choice. Starting with a loose grip lets me tighten up so I can change direction–or faster in the same one.”
“Exactly!” the phase-duelist says. “You’re a natural, kid! A born duelist!”
“You really think so?” she asks her teacher.
“Kid,” the woman in the black dress raises her sword on high. Her words come under the force of a psychic pressure-surge that raises ticklish, electrical roilings from something deep in the neophyte’s mind. “There is no reason in any reality that would lead me to lie about that. Criticism hurts a hell of a lot less than dying in a swordfight. If I say you’ve got talent, I truly, deeply mean it.”

The neophyte’s surviving eye widens. She wants to rush in, to show her stuff, to impress her mentor–no. Wait. That’s not the lesson. Her teacher just said not to lie, not to perform, to take the little emotional blows instead of literally getting cut in half. So she watches. Watches the slow, loping steps, the deft shifts of her sword from one guard to another.
“Don’t stare at any one part of me,” her teacher says. She steps in with a flowing lateral cut, pulls it just before it strikes the fledgling’s jumpy counter-cut, and whips her blade in at her student’s wrist. “Not my face, not my eyes, not my center. At this stage, you’re not going to be able to predict my moves enough to make specific counters. Think of me as a far mountain. Train your eyes to take in my body as a whole. Think about the geometry of your strikes. What cuts can I move into quickest from where I am right now? What cuts can you throw to threaten me while covering those lines?”
“You must’ve been the best swordswoman on your whole planet,” the neophyte breathes.
“I actually lost every sparring match I ever had, then gave up due to depression from my feelings that my writing career was also a failure,” the phase-duelist laughs. “I didn’t really get good until my…” she trails off. “Until I left Earth behind,” she finishes.

“You’re a failure like me,” the neophyte says. Then she peeps. Grins in panic. “I-I mean–sorry, teacher, I–“
“No, you’re right,” the phase-duelist laughs. She laughs so often–so freely and easily. There’s so much joy in her, and it always feels like she’s inviting the fledgling to share in it. “I was. I failed at absolutely everything I ever tried.. until I didn’t.”
They close. A cut from the neophyte, more confident as she internalizes that her caution just leads to undercooked defenses, and undercooked defenses just get her hit anyway. An upsweep deflection from her mentor, who dashes in and snaps her blade’s back-edge up to kiss the neophyte’s throat.
“I’m not trying to kill you anymore,” her teacher laughs. “Hope you don’t feel coddled?”
The kid gulps, still feeling the memory of the frigid edge on her skin. “N-not at all!”

A thrust for her teacher’s shoulder provokes a binding counter-cut, then a whirling exchange. She backsteps franticly, leaning and swaying further and further to dodge brisk whirring slices from the umbral blade.
She grits her teeth, tries to rally with a charge, runs right into an overhead bind. Her teacher slips through, wraps her left arm down over the neophyte’s wrists, and disarms the younger woman while a sweep of one black-booted leg pulls the neophyte’s footing out. This duality: a gentle hand at her back to catch her, and a shadow-sword’s point at her throat while her own blade clashes to the ground many meters away.
“So… w-what changed?” the neophyte asks.
“I kept trying,” her teacher says, pulling her upright and darting back. She kicks twice, first up to send her student’s sword airborne and then a sidelong snap outward to launch it back to its bearer. “I got more skilled. Bit by bit, I hit a point where more of the people I fought were worse than me than better.”

“Who the hell are you, anyway?” the neophyte asks.
The hypnotic delight in her teacher’s eyes, this strange hot endless swelling in her breast mirrored in the breast of the neophyte. “You still don’t know me?” she laughs. “I’m the true soldier of the Midnight Legions! And that intoxicating furnace filling your lungs, that’s pride! Seize it!”

“I…” the fledgling licks her fangs. They feel longer. Sharper. “H-Hey! I don’t need your permission!”
“You’re gods-damned right you don’t!” her opponent shouts. Her silhouette explodes with deep blue radiance and the faintest outlining of a white-fire core. “So how’s this–you worry about what you’re doing with your sword, and I’ll worry about what I’m doing with mine. I don’t care about your whys or your whats! I’m getting tired of saying come on–so show me who you are!”
“My pleasure!” the demon snarls. Heat billows in her lungs. It’s flowing out: into orange fire on her claws, into the empty socket of her lost eye, into burning blue-white at every tip of her red hair. Her tail lashes behind her, lengthening.

The black-clad zephyr watches, a satisfied smile on her lips, as a new eye grows in skin that’s once more pinkish–and swiftly gain dark-iron growths like mace-flanges.
“I’m switching to this sword now,” she says. “It’s time.” A cobalt ray shrieks from an unseen horizon past her hip, leaving behind a longer, heavier blade with silver fittings, a grip bound in azure silk, and an eight-point guard bearing the six-horned Seal of Machrae Diir–the stylized skull-effigy of a leering devil with four-point shadow-stars for its eyes. She clasps the silver amulet. “Favor me, Haksaema.”
Blue gleams from on high draw the neophyte’s eyes to the black aperture at the apex of the sky, that truest umbra she’d all but forgotten. The edges of the shadow ignite in blue nova.
It spills down, washing the duelists and all their surroundings into nothing but outlines and edges where the light pools impossibly. The light’s pulsations take them between two modes: solid shapes, then X-ray phantoms with irradiant skeletons, veins, nerves–thundering hearts.

And her teacher sweeps the blue-hilted sword from its blue-metal scabbard in a torrent of screeching cobalt inferno and thundering umbral tides. The power-wake of its unsheathing washes layers of vaporized atoms from the tiles beneat her.
“I know that sword,” the neophyte breathes.
Her teacher winks, and cocks her head up to indicate the obscure star straight above. “Ever heard of Darkfield Microscopy?” An illustrative sweep of her offhand and her sword-arm to her outsides leaves her wide open. The neophyte roars, and lunges with a flickering upward cut. The moment she’s committed her teacher sways backwards, the afterimage of a blurring dodge and a serpentine sway to the right. Her offhand comes up to brace her downward-pointed blade’s back in a shriek of bright steel–it’s just pure iron? How does she know it’s just pure iron?–and a long lunge carries her forward.

Her sword’s pommel crashes with shockwave force. Leftover-energy blooms in blue lightning carving molten tails from the surround, and cracks the neophyte’s skull open. Tearing agony. Concussive thuds rattling her half-conscious psyche as she bounces, spins, and slams against the carapaced corpse of some butchered monstrosity. She spits up boiling black blood and gets her feet under her.

“I won’t claim that eating shit feels good,” the neophyte laughs, slamming the ground with a fist. “But feeling my fire filling the wounds back in…” she wipes the blood from her mouth. “Oh, I love that part!”

“Doesn’t it?” the black-clad zephyr asks. “Kid, you do an old woman proud. You’re a true demon. I’ve hit you again and again with attacks that would’ve left old hunters catatonic with trauma. And no matter what I throw at you, you’re still here. Claws dig in, you grit your teeth, and you stand your ground because there’s something past that far horizon, and if you can’t claim it for yourself you’d rather die.”

She flicks her fingers. A small sprig of a flower with thick, bent white petals and a pale golden bulb. “Edelweiss. A symbol of pride for troops in the alpine divisions.” She twists it back and forth. “I’ve always known it the way an old TV show introduced it to me. Not something for warriors. The mark of the true soldier.”

“What’s the difference?” the neophyte groans, staggering upward. She must be close to passing out–the pain in her skull has almost ended, and there’s a delirious euphoria that feels like nothing her mistress ever gave her.

“The disgraced warrior falls because her strength isn’t in herself. It’s in her ideals. In the worth of the masters she serves.” The phase-duelist snaps her hand. The Edelweiss sprig hurtles through the air like a dart. Settles into the neophyte’s fiery scarlet hair. “The soldier fights on because she wants to live, and love herself again.” She smiles. “Thing is, kid, I don’t see myself in the alpine troops. I’m the Edelweiss. I bloom high and clear on the mountains. Other people keep trying to pick me and wear me for their own glory. But girls like us?” She blurs into reach. Offers her hand. “We end up wearing them instead.”

Her blade’s out of position. She’s wide open. Smiling. Oblivious. The neophyte will never have a better shot than this… yeah, right, a cheap shot now?
She takes the phase-duelist’s hand. “Yeah? Just so long as you don’t wear me.”
“Agreed,” says the woman in black. “The flower’s a symbol. Lots of people can embody the same symbol, as long as it wasn’t created to belong to one of them in particular.”
“That’s good, because I’m gonna keep my flower,” the neophyte says.
Her teacher smirks. “Thought s–“
And the neophyte lunges with a full-out snap of her arms. “Doesn’t mean you can gloat!”
By the time her voice hits the delay between “doesn’t” and “mean”, her opponent’s already picked the thrust off with a neat swat and whipped her own blade to a halt. Its scalding white-metal edge rests on the neophyte’s brow. “Wouldn’t dream of it,” she says, grinning again.

This is futile. This woman is a greater swordfighter than any demon the neophyte’s met before. There’s no possible way the fledgling could ever win a match. So why–

–glimpse of cobalt fire in a wide, joyful eye–
–spark-sprays, razor-light whorls from crosswise clash of blades–
–vibrations rippling down her arms from the impact, heat of blue nova lingering in her flesh–
–how can she feel like she’s winning this fight?

“So, we both know you’ve found yourtrue answer!” her teacher laughs. “Let me hear it anyway–why are you here? Who are you fighting for?”
“MYSELF!” the reborn devil roars back. “I’M HERE BECAUSE I JUST FUCKING WANT TO BE!”

The thundering heart that finally pumps fire and molten stone, the magmatic fury of a demon born. It’s all hers. Not a blessing from her teacher. Not the property of her useless manipulative “mistress”, and definitely no gift that pathetic parasite gave her. Hers! Six flaming wings like razor crescents spread behind her. They’ve been within her all along, just waiting to unfold. And she was really going to wait on some hands-off, exploitative, naggy narcissist of a mistress to claim these? Fuck that! The sword she carries… how has she never seen it clearly before? It’s dark fire and a core of golden iron like a sun blazing in the farthest darkness.
Wailing blood-red runes feed her power through a webwork of lines, from the grip her clawed hands clench into the wave-edged broad curving blade. Heat-haze distortions spread, catch a few stray hairs from the phase-duelist’s hair as she dodges the devil’s next cleave, and shave them off.
“Now we’re talking! Now you’re fighting with your whole soul!” her opponent calls. A rippling, a fullness… satisfaction? Her teacher’s not veiling her emotions anymore.
“You better hope you can take it,” she growls, and kicks off into a wrathful rhythmic assault of heaving full-body cuts. The phase-duelist stops holding back the powers she showed at the start. She warps and blurs with spatial distortions that pull the follow-on fires of her student’s strokes into madhouse twists. She diverts herself with blue-ripple pulses of kinesis.

Then her afterimage technique returns–with the sudden twist that she hardens into the last upward slice. Her body’s lines blur, multiply, face-clones and duplicate limbs unfolding from each other while her sword of umbral nova teleports out of each ended stroke to meet her kaleidoscopic hands at the start of the next.
Needless to say, the new devil eats every single hit. She has absolutely no idea how to counter something like that. But rather than humiliation she feels awe, pride, even a furious form of ecstasy.
“That’s so cool!” she laughs, tumbling away covered in burning-edge gashes that pour black blood for just a few seconds before they seal. “That’s one of the most bullshit attacks I’ve ever seen! I love it so much!”
Her teacher joins her. “You think that’s good, huh? I’m not even doing actual phase-lashing yet!”
By any technical standard, she’s losing. She’s getting her ass handed to her on every technical level. Any of the people she looked up to before meeting her former mistress would probably call this pathetic, and she just can’t give those wheedling voices any more weight.

Her former mistress didn’t give her this sword or this rebellious spirit. She made it for herself, stole the credit from herself, handed that piece of herself to a whimpering withered thing that only wanted her for a tool.
“Never again,” she growls. “I’m never letting anyone take me away from myself ever again.”

“Dear, vicious kindred,” the Lady whispers, smiling bright. “I’m so proud of you.”
“Don’t get cocky, you old hag,” the darkfire duelist answers. Oh, this grin! The sweet tension of scorching-hot otherworld muscle along her jaws! “I’m thankful for the push and all, but don’t think I’ll get all sentimental on you and stop trying to cut you in half.”
“I’d be livid if you tried to take me any other way,” the Lady yells back.
“So,” the onslaught devil breathes, “it is possible for both people to win a duel.”
“Glad we agree,” the Lady says. “This is my most favorite kind of fight. I’m so glad to share it with you.”
“Just don’t lose on the technical side,” the fledgling says.
Every stroke and cacophonous collision, two blinding stars of power zig-zagging past each other in scything passes by the sword. No matter how many times she’s knocked down, how many times her sword goes spinning away when the Lady cleaves her hands off or she has to regrow a horn broken in a bind, grapple, and throw to the ground, she’s on her feet heading back in a blink.

“I know what I am now, you smug bitch!” she laughs. “Onslaught devil! That’s one of yours, right? Feels like it! Well, I’m happy enough to take something you made and use it for my own if it works!” She’s so full of the searing joy “Hey, what’s this one? This feeling?”
“Oh, that?” the Lady chuckles. “That’s the same kind of fighting spirit I feel. But I’m pretty sure you knew that already.” A single steely fang sneaks into her grin. “I call it Zeal.”
“Yeah?” her student tastes the word on her molten-metal fork of a tongue. “Zeal… yeah. I like that. I’m going to call it that too.”

And the Lady draws to a halt. One last time, she clasps her silver amulet.

“Just for this,” she murmurs. “Just to make this one moment shine.” Her form condenses, a vortex of blackest umbra and irradiant cobalt plasma spawning lightning gouges. Her singularity becomes a rebound blast-wave that scorches bubbling molten layers from Saingediir’s walls. She rises from the roiling nova-night of her core–the six-horned devil, with skin comprising an infinity of interlocking symbols of snow white-metal.

Digitigrade legs ending in armored feet with the toe-claws of a raptor shining in silver. Star-fields ensnared in the main of black hair blowing over her left shoulder. Now the diamond face features a cloven chin with two little blue eyes on either side. The cleave continues up through the palette, and even nose: a slit-crevice of a secondary mouth running crosswise through her normal one. Many narrow perforations on each side of her neck flex wider with every breath, pouring superheated gas and blue lightning.

Two more eyes in her forehead, and four wings–the upper pair are the smaller–like blue-black cutaways in creation. Faint snowblind impressions coil and sharpen within their shade-space. Hints of unspeakable horrors. An ankle-length surcoat of cobalt silk, fastened with a blue-and-silver sash over her fluted silver plate armor, finishes out her form.

“Alright,” the darkfire duelist acknowledges. “Now I feel like I’m fighting an outer devil.”
“You realize I’m still an outer devil when I’m human, right?” the Lady asks.
“I… uh…” she considers playing for time. No. Be straight with it. “I’ve got a lot to learn before I can make sense of that. For now, it’s your identity, so I’ll take your word for it.”
The Lady’s lips quirk. “That speaks wisdom, kindred.”

The Lady’s true form is astonishingly short–probably between 5’2″ and 5’4″. Why? The darkfire duelist puts it together fast–same power, smaller form, greater speed.
“Hey, I get that condensing the same power into a smaller form means you’ll move faster and hit harder inch for inch,” she asks. “But if you’re doing that, why not just make yourself so tiny I can’t even see you?”
“Because making yourself too small makes it embarrassing for your enemy,” the Lady answers. “The knowledge that you’re fighting someone who looks embarrassing in comparison to you lessens your self-respect–shouldn’t you face someone who can really challenge you?”

She wreathes herself with glassy blue phantoms: a small lithe figure, their expression shifting from mischief to sadness and at last a dead-eyed stare while they dance around a crying, lumbering hulk. By the time they land the killing blow, the lithe one can scarcely muster more speed than the toppling behemoth. “Does the idea of doing that to someone make you feel powerful?”

The darkfire duelist shakes her head. “Nah. I can enjoy getting mauled by an intimidating, gorgeous elite duelist–“
“Intimidating? Gorgeous?” the Lady peeps.
The onslaught devil chuckles. “I knew it. I knew as soon as you told me how much we’ve got in common that you’d be incredibly weak to unexpected compliments.”

The Lady clears her throat. “Yes, well… some weaknesses are worth hanging on to.” She continues, “Anyway, that nagging notion creates a spiral of decreasing presence, more and more power inefficiency. You can’t care enough about fighting to actually be good at it without encountering that effect whenever things get laughable. More basically,” she shrugs, “I don’t want to be half an inch tall. Doing something one doesn’t really want will always decrease someone’s effective power output. I’m five foot three because I like being a diminutive sex-gremlin with horrifying levels of power.”

Her eyes twinkle. “Anyway, you could just match me by shrinking yourself, too, so I wouldn’t gain a net advantage. Size manipulation is an extension of basic true-form manifestation. Any demon can do it with no special training needed. And where does that end once we start it–the miniaturization arms race?”
She taps her lips. “Although… a duel fought at microbial or even subatomic scales does have savor–“
“So,” the darkfire duelist interrupts, “you had personal reasons for wanting to get my spirits up.”
“Yep,” the Lady agrees. “Crushing the weak is nothing but a race to become the biggest loser. True strength tests itself against true strength, and I mean to become peerless.”

The darkfire duelist grins. “Thanks for this, oldtimer. I’ll owe you one. Hey, question–what if you had to fight an unbelievably powerful pixie?”
The Lady grins back. “Then I’d want to be half an inch tall, so I’d become half an inch tall. Matching my opponent’s size, at least roughly, creates a more visually appealing battle. Maybe I’d be a little taller so as not to lose the thematic size difference–say, about fifteen to twenty percent taller. But enough. I’d rather focus on one dance partner at a time.” She inclines her head. “Ready for one last pass?”
“Come on, geezer,” the darkfire duelist snarls. “My ex-mistress wanted me to wait for her to name me, but fuck that. She’d probably just have reached through the weak spots into my mind, stolen the one I’m about to say, and pretended it was her invention. Well, I’m her loss, and my gain, and now’s my hour to reclaim it: My name’s Vmot Tangediur.”
The Lady’s own grin spreads wider. Her chin splits enough to reveal slivers of the glistening black pseudopods within, and irradiance gleams in the metalloid fangs behind her black lips. “My name is Kairlina Saelvur Urwollust,” she answers. “Let’s raise hell.”

Kairlina’s sword surges to its full size. Triangular spikes, alternating blue and pink diamonds, swell out from the eight points of the guard. It trails a wake of eaten reality, its own flawless geometry leaving recursive phantoms of blue silhouetting as the only mark on the cleaving void.
“How do you stop that guard from stabbing you in the hand all the time?” Vmot asks.
“Usually I just let myself turn intangible,” Kairlina answers. “If I can’t afford the instability to my form, spatial distortion. And if I end up stabbed anyway, well,” she bares her fangs, “I’m a total painslut.”
Vmot has to take a moment, blink, and consider. “That’s, uh… that’s a hell of a combat advantage.”
“Only if I don’t let it distract me,” Kairlina giggles. “But then… I’m used to keeping my footing while I cum, so…” Her silhouette multiplies, splits, warps around her: here a high guard, there the low rearward of an uppercut in the making, elsewhere a presented point on the high line. Impressions of that four-way maw, of her violent, lustful, burning eyes. Pulsing and fading away again to the rhythm of her steps.

A whole continuum of a hundred possible moves unfolding from every breath she takes.

Now you’re phase-lashing,” Vmot says, staring in amazement. “And you can… just manifest into any of those possibilities, right? That’s how it works?”
“That’s how it works,” Kairlina agrees, singsong. “A quantum dance where you fight the weight your partner tries to give you, and try to pull them into the one where you’re weighted the way you want to be.”
“I, uh… I have no idea how to do that,” Vmot confesses. “I don’t even know where I’d start.”
“That’s okay!” Kairlina chirps, bright and maidenly as only a practicing slut can be. “Even when I first invented the concept, I couldn’t fully comprehend it either. It took me seventeen years after I first manifested my powers to get there, and another ten to actually become skilled enough to use it in combat against another practitioner.”
“Yeah?” Vmot calls out. “Then my journey to match you starts right here! Come on, Kairlina! Hit me with everything you’ve go–“

A single fractured glimpse of Kairlina glowing brighter than a hypernova. Blurred sensations of rattling blows that fill her from toes to horn-tips with unraveling insane ecstasy. Sensation all through like jumbling, roiling, floating and crashing and floating again. Vmot spins into a column and crashes to a halt, nearly split in half in seven places. Every gash pours too much pleasure to comprehend. It pours out with her lifeblood, pours into her clothes between her legs.
Her fingers slacken on her sword. Still, she retains enough thought to pull it closer.
“You… you really woke your whole self up again?” Vmot asks. “Just to fight me?”
“Uh…” Kairlina grins sheepishly. Her arm blurs, sending her great blade home to its scabbard with a one-two slip as she flashes to Vmot’s side and kneels down. Azure comfort pours from her hands. Wounds seal. “No. I haven’t even tapped the power maximum of this fork I am, though you did get me close.” She finishes her healing sits back. “Sorry.”

“Sorry?” Vmot asks. Tears spill. “No, you… I mean… a demon can be this strong?” her voice cracks. “You’re not half-human?”
“Nope,” Kairlina says. “Not anymore and never again. I still love humans. I always will, as long as there are humans like the humans I first learned to love. But me? Full-souled demon from here to the Void.”
“I never thought…” Vmot struggles to form words. Some passing notion that there needs to be a little emptiness inside her mind she can put words into, and she’s so very full now. “Every story, demons are thieves. Leeching from gods, leeching from humans, leeching from each other. Always looking for someone else’s soul, someone else’s spell, someone else’s sword… you’re not a goddess?”
“I’ve made a lot mistakes, but I am comforted to know I’ve never let anyone worship me,” Kairlina says, then amends, “knowingly, and I always put a stop to it when I figure it out. I’ve got a Phase that feels like being a goddess, but still, ultimately isn’t.” She clasps Vmot’s shoulder. “Everyone gets to strive. Everyone gets to grow on their own. Demons too.”

An offered hand in its silver gauntlet. “If you’re heartened by that, then there’s one thing I think I might be ready to try for the first time. I’d like to show you. It’ll be our little secret, at least until the day I reveal it on the battlefield.”

“A secret technique?” Vmot asks, offering her hand. “Yeah, I… if I couldn’t follow phase-lashing, I don’t know how I’d follow something beyond that, but I’d be honored. Uh… whoa–” she puts her hands out for balance, and in so doing, clashes her burning runic sword against Kairlina–whose cuirass sends the cut glancing away without harm.
“My armor actually deflects attacks,” Kairlina laughs. “Crazy, right?” She grins. “Not that it means I’m safe. Lots of ways for a skilled phase-duelist to distort a full-size cut through the seams. But an edge is an edge.”
“You really do seize every advantage, don’t you?” Vmot grimaces. “Still, sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Kairlina says. “You’re woozy from the clobbering I gave you. My responsibility to be mindful of that. I should’ve been able to catch your arm easy, but…” she shrugs. “Sometimes masters let their guard down.” Her tail frisks. “That’s why I can take thousands and thousand and thousands and thousands of hits and still regenerate.” She shakes her head. “Enough. You’ve listened to more than enough of my preening today. There’s one part of you I think I can still cut, if you want.”
“My past?” Vmot asks. “Can you do that?”
“I’m an adept of the deep power,” Kairlina says, deadly serious. “I can do anything I shape my nature to fully conceptualize. Everyone else runs the magic system the writer gives them. Me? I get to write the whole book.”
“Fitting,” Vmot says. A steadying breath. “Alright. You have my oath of secrecy, Inheritrix.” She spreads her arms. “Fuck me up, outer mommy.”

Kairlina’s expression turns dry for a moment. Then, with a sigh and a roll of her eyes, she steps back and drapes her hand over her sword.

“Only here,” she says, “only in Saingediir, where the background resistance to my power reaches absolute zero. It’s going to be a long, long time before I can unleash it anywhere else. Still, I want to show it to you–Cascade Evisceration.” Azure glints within the four-way maw.
“Sometimes you need to push so the other person can push back, and find out for themselves how much power they really have to move the both of you. Then? Whether they budge you or not, you just have to be truthful about it.” One more time, that wry, heartwarming wink.
Her radiance grows, and grows, and grows. The sword reverberates with a rolling metal hymn in its scabbard. “Thanks for a push at the right time, kid.”

A kaleidoscopic mandala of Kairlina blooms out, encases Vmot in a hollow undulating sphere of silver armor and nova fangs and dancing eyes, and convulses into her. Every sense fills with the scents of wood smoke, hot iron, incense, blood. The onslaught-devil’s psyche blooms into the promise of knowing, brushes the intoxicating borders of the outer succubus, and receives her blossoming mutagen–
–Vmot is spinning midair as slowly as the day-cycle of a planet, a passive passenger in her own existence. One blink: cobalt light warps her form from within. Her outer layers fission away into blue-white sunbursts spiraling all around.
Two blinks: she is surrounded by thousands of herself–herself fawning, herself weeping, her self pleading. The mind’s-eye throne of a purple-fire figure and a palace of spikes and spires all too shadowed to see color in.
Third blink: buzz-saw blues ripple through, every shear-wake’s outer zone spawning off-angle mazeworks of secondary slashes. Seams flicker open in every manifest self. Faces. Horns. Limbs split. Every divide hosts a wire-thin glint. The negative space of dismemberment ignites, and washes everything to vapor–

–and Vmot falls into Kairlina’s arms to the inverted echo of a sound between crashing cymbals, breaking glass, and wind chimes.

A behemoth sculpture of intertwining, crystallized Vmots, caverns, structures and blurred mistress-outlines, all merged into a massive gestalt by blue, white, pink crystal wakes between the hollow flaws of the spatial cleaving.

“Holy… oh my…” Vmot, sitting down hard as the Lady eases her to the ground. The younger demon clutches her head. “That was… I don’t…” She flops backward, whooping, laughing, giddy beyond all belief. “This is the best day of my entire life! That was so awesome!”
“Just remember,” Kairlina says with a smile in her voice but a little hint of iron still shining in her eyes, “it’s our little secret.”
“Are you kidding me?” Vmot interrupts. “Steal it? Steal a technique like that? I hope the disgrace would make me fucking eat myself!” A beat. “Also, uh… I have no idea how any of that works.”
Kairlina’s smile widens. “I’m glad to hear it. It’s always very affirming, you know, when I invent an attack I’m pretty sure is incomprehensible, and I hear my instincts are right about that?” Her expression sours for a moment. Then, with a regretful sigh, she releases her bluefire blade and diminishes back into her larger human-born form.

“Well, Vmot,” she says, “it’s been a madcap day. I’m happy we met, and that I and some of the other denizens could help your journey reach a better end. But it’s time for me to seek my rest in full.” She looks up towards the sky, once more umbral. “Time for Machrae Diir’s people to live without a constant queen.”
“That sounds just fine, Kai…” Vmot says. She gathers her sword into her lap. “Thanks for everything. I, uh… I’m just going to stick around Saingediir for a little while, if that’s okay? I think I understand this place. I can use that. I can use that certainty to get certain about myself. Get my head together before I spend too much time around other people. “It’s…” she fumbles for words.
And the Lady grins. “The only thing I know for real?”
“Yeah,” Vmot laughs. She settles to the gore-soaked ground. “Guess so.”
“Mind if I take the crystal that little parasite wanted you to stab me with?” the Lady asks.

A pause.

“Why?” Vmot asks. Not resistant, just confused.
“It’s associated with her,” the Lady answers. She grins. “I’m going to pull the little snit through it and devour her whole. If she wants to be part of me that badly, so be it.”
Vmot pulls it from her pouch. She considers the smoky flaws within. “Weird,” she mutters. “The flaws make the crystal so much prettier. More interesting to look at. What’s everyone want flawless crystals for, anyway?”
“They’re easier to project into,” the Lady answers, with a certain dry cutting in her voice. “But you already knew that, didn’t you? And before you ask, no. It wouldn’t have done anything to me. Little relics like those, the whole mythic idea of the special relic that defeats the big monster… it’s just an old psychological ploy. The real trick is getting the monster to believe in it–to split their own power off from themselves, store it in the belief associated with the object, and imbue it of their own unwitting but nonetheless free will with the power to destroy them.”

Vmot’s gaze hardens. “That’s… that’s it?”
“That’s it,” the Lady agrees.
“But that’s so cheap!” the onslaught devil yells, bolting upright, pacing. “Anyone could do that! They wouldn’t have to have any real power at all, they could just trick someone into thinking every new increase of their own power was a giffffftt…” Her voice trails to a halt that becomes razor sharp the moment it turns into silence. Four slitted pink eyes widen. “That fucking bitch. That awful whore.”

“Still think she deserves the capital letters?” the Lady asks.
Vmot snorts. Tosses her the crystal. “I don’t think she even deserves my sword in her spine. You want to eat her, be my guest. Might as well be eating a single molecule of rancid meat, though, if you want my opinion.”
A gleaming grin. “I do enjoy consuming diseased things. I’m made of filth myself.”
“Fah.” Vmot stretches. The Lady’s still holding the crystal, staring into it.

“Actually, I…” her expression softens. “I change my mind.”
What?
“This pitiable thing crouching in the deep, sending streamers of herself out, using others for her schemes because she fears to stand on her own… I would be stabbing myself in the heart if I sought her out to destroy her. I’m not such a pure creature that I can pretend I don’t see my past self in her.”
Kairlina rubs the crystal with her thumb. “I’ll put it in on a little plinth somewhere outside the Sarcophagus. Go there sometimes and see if I can use it to find a way to speak to her. I want to know why she sent a pawn to kill me.” A frown. “If she has warped ideas of myself or Machrae Diir, I want to know. Especially if goes beyond her. It’s never satisfying to deal with souls who are acting on mistaken ideas of me. Instead of pushing each other on real things, we just end up hurling nothings back and forth. No duels. Just petty discourse.”
“Oh.” Vmot rubs the back of her head. “That does make sense, now that you explain it.”

“You’re welcome,” the Lady says. “I hate explaining things. I just hate wasting my time on shallow journeys of misunderstanding and failed connection a hell of a lot more. And when it comes to people killing me, the ones who try to do it because of who I truly am are far more interesting to bleed with.”
Silence while the onslaught devil absorbs that. “Uh, before you go, can you–“
“Nope!” the Lady beams. “If you want to introduce yourself to Machrae Diir and its denizens, you do it yourself, cherry. I’m due for a sleep of epic proportions, interrupted only for an hour here and there when I wake up to have sex with my lovers. Rely on your own agency to make friends. Don’t go looking for anyone else to vouch for you. Do the vouching yourself. Take ownership for your own worth.”

Vmot laughs. “Yeah, I guess it’s just getting codependent again if I can’t do that, huh?” A pause. Such coldness in her belly after all that fire. “Uh… why does this feel just as hard as choosing to fight for myself in a duel I could only win in a metaphysical, personal-growth kind of sense?”
“In a fight you try to stop yourself being hurt while, optionally, trying to hurt someone else,” the Lady answers. “Ironically for something structured to end your life, it’s the most leeway you can ever possibly have to exert your own agency, to decide who you are and how you want to live. Social anxiety, on the other hand, is the awareness that you have to hand strange people your own desire to live as part of them, and hope they don’t reject you.”

She turns on her heel and walks off toward the war-torn night. “Take your fear like a needle: plunge it right into you before it has a chance to hurt. Oh, and Vmot?” She glances over her shoulder. “Shot in the dark, but you don’t have to be weak to be a submissive. I’m an order of magnitude more powerful than Raven, and I sub for him all the time. Submission isn’t a role you should play to earn rewards. You should do it because it makes you happy… like a bad, filthy slut who needs to be,” Kairlina quivers, “contained.

And on that thought-provoking note she’s gone, and Vmot is alone in Saingediir. She brandishes her sword. Breathes the auras of battle. Well, surely a little procrastination can’t hurt? Ease her way into it. Puff up her confidence…
… no. She sees now. That’s the trap.
“Alright, V,” she whispers to herself, hurrying through the burning streets towards the distant spiral ramp that corkscrews up and up and up towards the rest of Machrae Diir. “Be a good girl. Face your fears, apologize for sneaking in, get accepted first. Do all that and you can come back to Saingediir later.”

She looks back longingly at the blissful promise of violent abandon in the contorting spires behind her.

“As a treat.”

***

And so it passes that a shadow comes in among the sleepy figures in the near-lightless depths of the Azure Diamond Sarcophagus, and for just a moment her horns cut the backlighting of an irradiant groove running along the ceiling of a room it’s too dim to illuminate. Then she lies down. A soft rustle of fabric.

Then? The long, easy exhalations of a blissful slumber.

Above on the streets of the Lambent Quarter, an uncertain devil–broad shouldered, broad chested, and for all that as nervous as a new schoolgirl–staggers off the white-marble rampway leading down, and down, and down into the depths of Saingediir Fathom. She looks around, manifests a back-scabbard for her sword–learning as she goes that it needs a lot of modification to let her get her sword into or out of it–and stiffens at the sight of a five-eyed succubus leaning on her blood-soaked sphere and chatting to her friends.

Well. That’s a sign if ever there was one.

“Oh, new in town?” the succubus asks.
“Uh… sort of?” Vmot answers. She scrubs the back of her head sheepishly. “We met. Down in Saingediir–sorry, am I allowed to talk about Saingediir?”
“Of course!” the succubus answers. “Nothing’s taboo here, though the only other demoness I remember meeting is… oh!” She grins. “Hey, dear! You really figured yourself out down there, huh?”
“Not completely,” Vmot says. “Actually… I think I just started. But,” she takes a steadying breath, “it’s a start. Um…” she gestures. “I was hoping to stick around. I don’t know anybody. Maybe…?”

“Sure!” the succubus answers, extending an elegant hand. “Midenzi Oth.”
Vmot takes it. “Vmot Tangediur.”

“C’mon,” Midenzi says. “The girls and I are picking out outfits to wear to the Battle of the Bands tonight. Voroboros is playing against Anomalous High Orbit Sex.”
“W-what genres?” Vmot asks.
“Voroboros is Machrae Diir’s first original metal band,” Midenzi says. “All lust-demons. Anomalous High Orbit Sex is all outer devils. They play, uh… outer devil music. It’s…” she frowns. “Huh. Now that Kairlina’s asleep, I think we’re going to need to brush up on our language skills. I actually have no idea how to describe it. Anyway.” She tugs Vmot along in her wake. “You’re girls. You’re coming with us. Also, my friend Zlyeyush wants my input on xyr splinter-movement to Unselfism. Xe’s calling it Anti-Selfism, and–“

Vmot hurries along with the bubbly succubus, watches the joy in the other demon’s eyes with every word, and feels the start of a strange, melting happiness she’s never known before.

~And the mythos forever unfolds~

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