Darkness surrounded me. Cloying darkness, stifling my breath. I felt shapes around me. Presences. Dangerous presences. I couldn’t run. Couldn’t even move.
Who said that? Was it me?
Yes, that was me.
“You’ve been selected for an experimental program.”
That wasn’t me.
“How did she escape? … What do you mean you don’t know?”
Also, not me.
“She’s stabilized, but after the trauma she endured…”
Gods, what? Just… ugh. Why can’t I speak?
“Trauma? This is Ashlynn Daray!”
I know that already. Why wouldn’t I know my own name? Who is he talking to? Why can’t I see anything? At least I can move my fingers. The skin on the backs of my hands tightens as my fingers curl into tight fists.
“Her hands just moved!”
Of course, they moved. I moved them.
“Major, can you hear me?”
Yes, but I cannot answer you.
“Give her a stim.”
I’d brace myself, but I can’t move that well.
A rod of pure, liquid flames jammed into my thigh. “Ahhhhg…!” My eyes flew open! Finally! My leg burned like the fires of Hell and Damnation, but I could see! I blinked. Too bright! Ugh. Come on! Adjust, already!
“Wh—why…” I gasped hoarsely. Gods, I was parched. How long had I been eating sand? “W…water…” I croaked miserably.
“Doc, give the lady some water?”
Gods bless whoever that man was.
A canteen pressed against my lips. Blessed, icy water rushed into my mouth, stinging the cracks and dry sores with wonderful, lancing pain. Stars danced before my watering eyes. I took a gulp. Half of the liquid went where it was supposed to. The other half…
I gagged, coughing. Water flew everywhere. I braced myself for the doctor’s curses, yet none came. A patient, smiling nurse dabbed my chin with a velvety cloth. I smiled, best I could, for those sparkling blue eyes. My lips cracked and split painfully for my effort. I coughed again.
“More?” asked the doctor gently.
I nodded. The canteen pressed against my lips again. I tilted my head back, this time more slowly, and accepted the blissful rush of lifegiving water. The cool, calm relief of it coaxed a memory to the surface of my groggy mind. My baptism into the Order as I felt myself anointed and awakened as a Hero. Such strength and focus spread through my body. I felt as if I could fly.
A poor reflection of my current state of being. I squirmed, shaking my head. The canteen withdrew, and I gulped down the last of the water. Squirming again, I squinted against the bright lantern hanging directly above me.
“Why… am I restrained?” I mumbled, glancing down.
Oh sweet, loving Goddess. Please. Tell me I had both of my legs. I knew my arms were still attached, and I had at least one leg. The fire from the needle continued reminding me of that. I couldn’t feel much else, though. My eyes fell upon a sheet, freshly cleaned, with even fresher stains from what was left of my armor underneath.
“Major, it seems you’ve endured quite an ordeal,” the man who ordered water for me noted. He stepped around and stood in front of me, his hands clasped behind his back.
My aching, parched brain couldn’t place the voice, but the face, matched with rank and insignia, could only belong to Colonel Dresden of the Crimson Wing Brigade. My arm instinctively snapped to salute. Or, it tried to, anyway. A powerful restraint held me fast to my reclined position.
“Sir, Major Ashlynn Daray, reporting for duty. Pardon me if I don’t salute. I seem to be… tied up at the moment, sir.” My words still spilled like gravel from a quarry, but at least he appeared to understand.
“At ease, Major,” sighed Dresden. Yet, he himself seemed anything but. Colonel Dresden, famed for his aggressive precision tactical strikes against mamono-held territory, earned him the respect needed to rise in the ranks quickly, as well as fear and loathing from the mamono themselves. It also earned him the silver streaks through the sides of his hair; the stress of his command aging him prematurely. It lent him the appearance of small wings, or so I imagined anyway.
“Yes, sir,” I nodded, relaxing.
“Major, we have a lot of questions for you,” he noted.
The doctor edged between us, working with limited space in the cramped infirmary. “I must ask you to keep it brief, Colonel. She’s in no condition to undergo an extensive debriefing.”
“Your concerns are noted, doctor,” sighed Dresden, “But after what she’s endured, we’re justifiably concerned.”
The doctor glared right back at him. “And I’ll reiterate. I’ve triple, and quadruple checked her for biological anomalies. Corren’s taken aura samples. So far, she’s clean. They didn’t effect monsterization. I doubt they had the chance.”
Oh… oh… oh goddess. Feeling returned to both feet and both hands. That tends to happen when your blood freezes with horror. “My… sir… my unit… Are they…?”
“All members of Aeria Gloris are now accounted for,” Colonel Dresden reported. Cool, soothing relief chased the ice from my veins. I released the breath I didn’t know I’d been holding.
“Are they safe? Did they make it back to—” I paused to cough, shaking my head. Filthy clumps of hair stuck to the sides of my face. Gods above, I itched. Everywhere. “What happened…?” I hesitated to ask.
“As the only one who didn’t make it back,” Dresden asked, “I hoped you would tell me. You and your unit managed to save the lives of almost six hundred soldiers, but when we threw the party, you failed to show.”
“My invitation must’ve gotten lost in the post,” I said wryly.
“So, where were you, that the messengers couldn’t deliver it?”
I coughed again. Ever tried to speak to someone important with a rocky canyon for a mouth? It’s damned difficult. That adorable nurse tipped me some more water. Goddess bless her.
I gulped the water and licked my parched lips, nodding in thanks to her. “I… I sensed something, sir,” I began. “A shift in the ground. Suddenly, they were everywhere. Scaled monsters. Thick, natural armor plating. Difficult to get a halberd through. Nakaan’s fire did next to nothing. Only Tannalise’s arrows could pierce them. I knew we’d be overrun in seconds, so I sounded the retreat, and ordered Worenvarre and Reidland to cover us. The scaled monsters surrounded me. I knew there was no way out. I decided to draw as much attention to myself as I could, and then dove into a hole.”
“A hole?” Dresden prompted.
“Yes, sir,” I nodded. “Holes. Everywhere. The scaled monsters burst up out of them like moles.”
The Colonel glanced over his shoulder and spoke to someone I couldn’t make out. “Get a recon team out there, sweep for tunnels. These beasts might try to squirrel their way in here.”
“Yes, sir,” a young man replied, his boots clicking together in a salute. His footsteps receded.
“So, then what, Major?” Colonel Dresden asked, turning back to me.
A smug grin spread across my cracked lips. “I led them on a merry chase, sir. Afraid I got lost in the tunnels, though. Had to dig my way out and then crawl across the DMZ.” I coughed at the gritty, painful memory of it. Or at least, I thought it was a memory. Whole damned thing felt like a dream. “How… how long was I gone?”
All of the blood drained out of my face. “Six… six days?” I gasped, gazing down at my hands. Bandaged fingers clenching with tension again. Oh goddess. Six days… my unit must be worried si—oh… Layla… oh my gods. My heart flipped in my chest. I wondered if anyone told her yet.
“So, let me get this straight, Major,” the Colonel repeated, “You called the retreat, dove in a hole, ran from some few hundred monsters in their own tunnels, eventually eluding them. You then proceeded to dig your way out and crawl through the highly scrutinized demilitarized zone and make your way back to base over a period of six days, with no food or water. Is that report accurate?”
“To the best of my knowledge, sir,” I replied. “Though I confess to still feeling a little groggy.”
The doctor cleared his throat pointedly. “That’ll be enough, Colonel. She needs to rest.”
“Very well,” nodded Dresden. “Evaluator Prescott will be by shortly to conduct a psychological assessment. Once the doctor has cleared you, of course.”
I was about to nod my agreement when something tickled the hairs at the back of my neck, sending a shiver down my spine. I sucked in a breath. My eyes darted around nervously.
“Major?” prompted Dresden.
“Shut up for a second,” I snapped without thinking.
“I… beg your pardon, Maj—.”
I hissed at him, shaking my head furiously. “Quiet! Listen!”
The room fell silent. There. A faint scraping sound. Like someone shoveling snow. Metal against rock. Scrape. Scraaaape. Scraaaaape. The hairs on my arms stood on end, my body clenching, coiling for a fight. Readiness built inside me. Damn these restraints!
“I don’t hear anything,” the Colonel said.
“Sir!” I cried. “I know that sound—it’s the same thing I heard just before we were overrun! The wurms! They’re under the compound!”
Right on queue, a cry of alarm rang out. Shouts. Ringing of bells.
“They’re here!” I shouted.
Dresden cursed and took off down the hall, barking orders.
“Damn it!” my breath hissed through my teeth. “Doctor, untie me!”
“I fear I cannot,” the doctor replied nervously, shaking his head. “Not without direct authorization from the Colonel.”
My hazel eyes burned with holy fury. “By the sacred vows I have sworn to our Savior, the Blessed Chief God, I implore you to release me, so that I may fulfill my oaths and defend this city!”
The doctor stood paralyzed until an explosion rocked the compound.
“NOW!” I bellowed.
Crossing himself against any sins he might be committing in doing so, the doctor tore off the restraints from my arms. Ignoring the stiffness in my body, I bent and ripped the restraints from my ankles and leaped off the bed.
…And promptly crumpled into a heap.
“Major, you’re in no condition to be up an about, much less engaging in combat!” urged the physician.
Goddess, give me strength!
I tilted my face up and gazed at the man through clumps of dark olive hair. “Holy Water,” I hissed. “Where?”
That cute little nurse already had two vials of it in her hands, holding them out to me. I wanted to kiss her. Snatching the first, I uncorked it with my teeth and consumed the entire vial with one noisy gulp.
Holy fire burned ignited in my chest and burst through my extremities. Snatching the other vial from the girl, I popped the cork and imbibed, more slowly this time, savoring it. Sweet, pure, glistening power, consecrated by the War Clerics of the Crimson Wing Brigade. I could practically feel myself lifting up off of the floor.
My hand reached and gently brushed the cheek of the nurse, who blushed and smiled at me. “Thank you,” I said softly.
She curtsied and stepped back out of my way. Tilting my head forward, I stalked out of the room and into the hall. Straight into Hell unleashed.
Holes. Holes everywhere. Goddess, they’d overrun the base! In the walls, the floor, littering the entire ground floor like mines. Some of them contained occupants. Spider-women. Insect-women. Other unmentionables. They swung with futile, untrained strikes to land blows upon me with their accursed weapons. I dared not pick any of them, even from defeated foes. I deflected one arachne’s assault and forced the blade into her chest with a swift kick.
So strange, were the weapons of the enemy. Instead of coughing up a gush of blood, the woman fell onto her chitinous abdomen, quivering with what was unmistakably a firecracker orgasm. It never ceased to intrigue me, as much as it disgusted me. This was a waste of my time.
Stalking the halls like a ravening specter in the scraps of my hospital gown, which I belatedly realized was probably wide open behind me, I proceeded unhindered. With a mighty kick, I hurled open the large, wooden doors the monsters had barricaded, preventing reinforcements from reaching the city square.
Good Goddess above.
Dozens of men had already fallen and stripped half-naked, pinned to the ground beneath various monster girls, well within the process of being violated. This would not stand. I knelt to fetch a pair of discarded Crimson Wing blades.
“I am Ashlynn Daray,” I called, my righteous alto piercing the din of sexual depravity. “I am the Dream in the Darkness. Chosen of the Goddess.” My steps carried me towards my target: A manticore barking orders nervously as she attempted to violate two men at once. One with her body, another with her tail.
“You are my enemy,” I called boldly to her. “Your darkness is the absence of light. The light of the Goddess shall banish your evil. I am the Left Hand of the Chief God, Her Emissary of Retribution…”
The manticore gasped and tried to pick up the men and run. If she’d left them, she might have escaped. Righteous anger fueled my strikes. With one slash, I landed a devastating blow against her tail. The chitinous material blunted the strike but cracked in several places. My second blade sliced her left arm, nearly severing it from her shoulder. The man caught within it fell to the ground, scrambling away.
“Agghhhh!!” screamed the manticore, flinging a set of spines at me. With a twirl, I deflected them with my blades. On the downswing, I clipped the tendon behind one of her ankles, crippling her. The other man escaped, shouting his thanks to me as he fled.
I stood above my defenseless prey and could easily have ended her with one last stroke. Yet, I hesitated. While I despised the evil and debauchery these foul monsters spread throughout the realm, I could not bring myself to hate the creatures themselves. Why was that, I wondered?
Perhaps either I believed they were once like us, innocent and Goddess-fearing, and later forced into these forms. Or, could it be, they simply did not know any better, and merely acted on instinct, like animals? I feared I would never find the answer. Neither causality seemed justification enough to simply butcher them. Especially when they took great pains not to kill any of us.
No, I had a better idea.
“LEAVE!” I cried, pointing one blade at the fallen manticore and gesturing at the other girls with my second. “Or I shall destroy her and send every last one of you to the depths of Hell from whence you came!”
Yeah, that got their attention. A smug smile spread across my face as the girls dropped their victims and ran, floated, slithered, or skittered their way out of the courtyard. Two of them gathered up the fallen manticore and carried her away. Most of the men reached out to me, their Guardian Angel, professing their renewed faith and gratitude. One or two of the men, however, attempted to pursue the girls. Their minds had been too badly corrupted.
“Apprehend those men,” I instructed of guards busy recovering their weapons. “And tell me where the fighting is fiercest.”
“They’ve destroyed the North Gate, Major,” one of the guards informed me as I glanced over my shoulder to him. To his credit, he kept his eyes on mine, and not my bare, exposed backside. Layla often praised the quality of the toned, powerful muscles deceptively hidden within the sensual, tawny skin of my back. Where was she now, I wondered? Hoping she was defending the North Gate, I nodded to the guard and took off, my feet barely touching the ground as holy flame enveloped my body.
In times like these, I imagined this must be how true Angels and Valkyries of the Heavenly Realms felt as they rushed to the aid of their charges. While no angel myself, the Envoy of the Goddess granted me a single wish when I awakened as Her Chosen. I asked Her to grant me the power to fly to the aid of the Faithful in times of great need. True to Her word, She granted my wish, yet its power only availed itself to me in times such as these.
No matter. It was my wish. Nothing more. Nothing less. I cherished it, like every other gift I’d been given. My flames gave speed to my feet, garnishing them with wings of red-gold fire.
The North Gate was the primary entrance into the capitol city in the Kingdom of Ravalia. Its massive, cast-iron doors could withstand the force of two dozen ogres carrying a lead battering ram. How they could possibly have destroyed it escaped me. That is, until I skidded around the corner and came into view of the spectacle.
Sweet Goddess, preserve us!
A series of sinkholes had opened underneath the gate supports, collapsing its foundation, and a solid blast from something extremely hot and forceful knocked the doors off their hinges. That source floated above the entrance courtyard.
One electric blue eye. One flame-orange. Golden blonde hair. Terrifying, jagged black wings, stained blue and red. Arm of a dragon and of a lion. Hissing tail of a snake that regularly spat poison into the melee below.
Goddess, she was as terrifying as she was beautiful.
Fire and lightning swirled around her, deflecting any bombardment from above and below. Even arrows from… Tannalise! The tall half-elf archer crouched upon a rooftop, raining a hail of arrows against the chimaera. The floating woman responded to Tannalise’s assault with a flick of her furry paw, sending a bolt of lightning towards the half-elf. Tannalise flipped out of the way, counterattacking with an endless stream of magical arrows.
The half-elf must’ve glimpsed me out of the corner of her sharp eyes. She pointed to me and called out to her comrades. My heart leapt in my bosom. Saskia Worenvarre, clad head to toe in impenetrable violet and red darksteel armor and holding a massive shield wall, staved off the advance of more monsters through the fallen gate. Her dearest friend, Kisa Reidland, skipped back and forth with the grace of a dancer, cleanly cutting down any who dared approach Saskia from behind. Her silver and red uniform blurred with the speed of her strikes.
Planted firmly between the two stood the short and slender Ellari Nakaan, hurling massive fireballs that belied her small stature, but her orange and red robes defined her role clearly. Together, she and Saskia prevented reinforcements from overwhelming the defenders. But where was…
My breath snagged uncomfortably in my throat as my eyes frantically swept the field for Layla. Tannalise caught my attention as she pointed. Ahh…
My heart swelled to glimpse the last of my unit, Layla Vitari, standing off to the side, shielded against one of the fallen doors, and surrounded with dark violet magic. The magic, which I knew had come from Tannalise, erected a kind of perception filter around Layla, shielding her from view as her soft healing magic embraced the other girls. Even I could barely make out her black and red robes against the shadows.
Unfortunately, the Chimera noticed and followed my gaze, aiming a spell in that direction.
Oh, no you don’t.
Arching my back, I dropped the two battered swords I carried and called upon the full strength of the Goddess’ gift. Vivid red-orange wings of flame burst from my upper back, lifting me skyward with one thrust. With the twist of my wrists, my true weapons of choice formed in my hands, one bit of metal at a time, clinking with satisfactory weight as each fragment lengthened the blades.
The monster girls fighting below all paused to look up and screamed at the chimaera to watch out. Their warnings nearly came too late. Slowly at first, curling my neck, I twisted my body into a spinning dive, hurtling towards the chimaera like a drill. As I drew nearer, I brought the blades closer, increasing the speed of my spin, until they pointed directly over my head.
The battlefield blurred into a psychedelic swirl of energy and activity. I connected with the chimaera as she blocked my assault with the draconic mass of her left shoulder. Deflecting my assault, she grunted with pain, nursing a wound on her shoulder that burned with holy flame.
I spun out of my twirl, slowly guiding myself to face her like the vengeful angel that I had temporarily become. A hail of cheers erupted from below at the spectacle. Their faith poured into me, their words encouraging me as if uttered from the Goddess herself.
“Ashlynn Daray,” the chimaera spoke, surprisingly stoically despite her grievous wound. “Are you what you say?”
“I am of the Chosen,” I replied firmly. “This will is not my own, but from Our Goddess Above. The blade that strikes you down is Hers. The strength that guides it comes from Her and Her alone.”
“You embrace servitude?” asked the chimaera calmly, “When you could live free?”
I twirled the blades around in front of me, weaving a spell. “You are either a servant of the Light, or you are its enemy. Those who are not willing servants to the will of Our Goddess Above are slaves to darkness, willing or otherwise.” My spell neared completion. My body blazed with the power of the Light! Yes! I lived for this!
The chimaera altered her stance, weaving a spell of her own, bringing the might of all of her twisted elements to bear against me. “In darkness is freedom,” chimed the girl, “Freedom from judgement and hatred. You will embrace this darkness, whether by your choice, or not.”
“I am a child of the Light, and the darkness cannot touch me,” I sang, twirling one blade towards her, and then the other. The holy magic I’d summoned twisted towards the chimaera in a spiraling vortex of pure, virtuous power. She met my strike with her own energy, a blast of venom, fire, lightning, and pure dark mana. The force of it knocked nearly every onlooker below off their feet. The magic collided, trembling erratically for an instant, and then stabilizing as the two of us channeled our respective power at each other.
The chimaera smiled, though sweat beaded upon her skin. “Is this all you have to bear, ‘Hero?’ You cannot hope to overcome that which has always existed.”
I smiled sweetly back at her. Deadly sweetly. “That was never my intent…”
The chimaera’s eyes widened in panic.
A beautiful arrow pierced her from behind, protruding from her left breast, arching her back like the bow from whence it came. The chimaera cast me one last look, a strange look, one of confidence, as she fell. My heart suddenly weighed heavily in my chest. What was that look? Why had she…?
The monster girls called for a general retreat. I waved for my unit to let them pass. We had won. They would remember this day for quite some time. A pair of ogres carried the limp chimaera out into the night. It was not clear to me if she’d survived. Tannalise kept her bow nocked at her as they fled, her eyes narrowed in pure contempt.
As the holy flames began to recede from my body, I allowed myself to float down to the streets. My chest ached at the sight as I drew nearer. Stripped men writhed against the cobblestones, pining for the women forced to abandon them. Several of them were stained with their own seed and the lewd fluids of the women who’d straddled them. Interspersed within the throng, women half-changed into monsters themselves moaned and sighed from the loss of their “sisters.”
Yes, I had succeeded in driving off the monsters, with the ever-resourceful aid of my dearest friends, but the victory felt hollow. Bittersweet. Honestly, had we achieved victory at all? The monsters hadn’t killed any of these men. No. The Order would see to that. Our own organization, government, and way of life led to many times more deaths than the monsters themselves.
I justified my conflicted feelings by telling myself these men and women were already dead. Their souls devoured, and wretched, demonic replicas of their former selves breathed back into their mutating bodies. Pity them, yes. We would show them mercy in the only way that we could.
I shuddered, revulsion squeezing bile up into my throat as the last vestiges of my angelic power faded away. The blessed blades in my hands fell, shattering into a million pieces. I gasped, staggering as the weight of my six-day ordeal finally began to catch up with me. Through hazy eyes, I witnessed yet another heartbreaking scene.
Many of the men who could still walk attempted to leave the city, chasing after the monsters they now pined for. Saskia had turned, her efforts now focused upon keeping the citizenry inside, versus repelling an invasion from outside. I moaned softly in a brief flash of despair. My eyes darted up to the rooftops, where, Tannalise crouched, ever watchful. Her eyes burned in livid hatred upon the spectacle before her, only softening when she sensed my gaze. She pointed towards my location.
Goddess Above. I sank to my knees, licking my parched lips with a dry tongue. I’d overexerted myself, and for what? Had we truly won? How could we possibly repel another attack? Shaking my head, I chased such unholy thoughts from my mind.
We would prevail. Our Goddess Above would not forsake us. A slight smile curled my lips at the comforting thought.
My heart flipped in my chest. I swallowed the bile back down into my throat; my relief at hearing that voice bolstering my hopes. My power had faded, however. I lacked the strength to even stand. That did not stop a bundle of black and crimson robes from assaulting me.
All at once, the warmth, the softness, tenderness, and gentle scent of Layla enveloped me. My arms remained by their sides, unable to resist or reciprocate. I squirmed slightly, eager to gaze into her eyes. She laughed, relief and emotion tuning the sound. Gently grasping me by my shoulders, Layla held me at arm’s length.
“My goddess,” she laughed. “You look as awful as I feel.”
I felt heat spreading through my cheeks, yet this was Layla, so my embarrassment refused to gain a rise out of me. Oh, Layla. Sweet, sensitive, sexy Layla. I studied her adorable, round face. Her plush, silky lips spread in a wide smile of relief and joy, dimpling her cheeks. Goddess, I loved her dimples. I wanted nothing more than to kiss her upon each one. Soon. My eyes continued sampling her warmth.
Layla’s eyes, arguably her sweetest gift, glowed a soft violet, colored by the magic she wielded. They glistened, dewy with tears of joy. Her thick, auburn hair tumbled out of her hood, clumped and unkempt. A strand clung to her face. With as much strength as I could muster, I reached up and plucked it out of her eye. She sighed, tilting her face into my hand so that the soft skin of her cheek rested against my palm and filled me with warmth.
“Ashlynn,” she murmured, her smile fading as her lips quivered and a tear spilled from her right eye. It nudged the tip of my fingers, and I brushed it aside. “I… I thought I’d lost you…” she confessed, swallowing a sob.
“You very nearly did,” I admitted, my eyes squeezing shut briefly as I braced against the shifting memory of it. My strength continued to fade, and I leaned into her body. Mmm. So soft. So warm. The gentle, feminine scent of Layla enveloped me. Her slight chuckle reverberated through her chest.
“Ash, what are you wearing?”
I gasped; momentary surprise lending me strength to pull back for a moment. A bitter gust raked across my bare back, sending a shiver up my exposed skin.
“Hot damn,” a younger voice remarked, whistling. I glanced up at the short pyromancer. Her icy blue eyes and lack of height contrasted sharply with her barely-checked powers of sheer, explosive destruction. Her ginger hair curled and spiked, frizzing wildly out of control, singed in multiple places.
“Did you see that, Layla?” Ellari prompted, her icy blue eyes wide with wonder. “Ashlynn kicked that chimaera’s ass. In an infirmary gown. A mostly-shredded infirmary gown. Looking like a half-naked angel of death…” she smiled, her eyes misted over dreamily.
I still held Layla’s cheek in my hand, so I felt her smile before it graced my vision.
“She was probably too busy keeping us alive,” remarked a gruff woman making her way towards us. Saskia, attempting to unclip her darksteel helmet as she half-carried her friend, Kisa, trudged towards us.
“I hate when we’re the ones being surprised,” Kisa groaned, nursing a cut in her side. She reached up and dislodged something from Saskia’s helmet, allowing the other girl to remove it.
A tumble of jet-black, silky hair fell around Saskia’s shoulders to frame her face. Sweat glistened upon her brown skin. She nodded in thanks to Kisa, then glanced my way.
“Ashlynn, you look terrible,” she remarked bluntly.
Kisa giggled at her. “And you look like you’re made of melting chocolate.”
Saskia smiled wryly at her. I inspected the armor-clad woman’s appearance and found Kisa’s description accurate. Saskia’s southern heritage afforded her smooth skin the color of milk chocolate, and while perspiring, she did appear to be melting.
“Ashlynn,” called Tannalise softly, landing soundlessly nearby. Still holding her bow at the ready, an arrow nocked within, she knelt beside me, her vivid lime-green eyes scanning me for injury. She relaxed only after I passed her visual inspection. “Well done,” she said, a slight smile of pride curling her lip. “That wretch will require weeks to recover after the opening you gave me, if it lives at all.”
Cool hatred burned in those lime-greens. Had I not lived and trained beside her for many years, it might’ve concerned me. Amongst all my beloved comrades and friends, Tannalise loathed monster-kind most of all. Perhaps due to the rapid decay of elven society, or the descent into depravity the monsters were leading her fairy friends, Tannalise neither hesitated nor showed any restraint towards the prospect of killing monsters. Perhaps that was why I kept her so close. My desire was borne purely from a wish to keep my friends safe. My people secure. And to display the power of Our Goddess Above. I left the judgement and slaughter to men and women like Tannalise.
Layla held my hand, the one that had cupped her face, and squeezed it gently, reminding me of her presence. As if she needed to do so. I smiled, relaxing in the presence of my closest friends. I wished for nothing more than to enjoy the freedom to remain together like this forever.
Alas, it could never be so.
I realized, at that moment, my bare backside remained exposed to everyone except my friends. Leaning upon Layla, I forced myself to rise up, stand, turn, and face Colonel Dresden. I even managed a salute.
“Colonel Dresden, sir,” I said hoarsely.
The Colonel stood some few feet away, inspecting my ragged appearance. “Major Daray,” he sighed. “I don’t seem to recall clearing you for active duty.”
I drew a breath to reply, but was not sure how to explain myself.
“That being said,” he continued, “Your exemplary performance has, yet again, saved the lives of countless soldiers and civilians.”
“Sir, I feel the actions of the women under my command are more deserving of that honor than I.”
Layla squeezed my hand gently. My blush deepened a shade.
“That’s what I like about you, Major,” said Dresden with a slight smile. “Valor and honor with selfless humility.”
“Thank you sir,” I replied. “I’d like to request return to active duty as soon as possible.”
The Colonel considered it, but shook his head. “No.”
“That was an inspirational display on your part,” he admitted. “However. Look at yourself. You’re exhausted. Dehydrated. Take a couple of days off, and then report to Medical for a physical and psychiatric evaluation.”
“That wasn’t a suggestion, Major.”
My shoulders slumped slightly. “Yes, sir.”
“Colonel,” Layla spoke up, “I’ll go with her and make sure she gets some rest.”
My heart did another flip in my chest, followed by a gentle tingling below the belt.
The Colonel cleared his throat. “Very well, Vitari, If I catch her running off, or flying, as the case may be, I’m holding you responsible.”
“Yes sir,” she nodded.
“The rest of you, snap to it. Tannalise, run a preliminary sweep with the scouts. Make sure we haven’t left behind any stragglers.”
The half-elf saluted and bounded lightly up onto one of the rooftops as she made her way to the top of the wall.
“Worenvarre, Reidland, work with the men to establish a perimeter until we can get those doors back up.”
“Yes, sir,” Saskia and Kisa both said, saluting and returning to the broken gate.
“Nakaan, I want you with the demolition teams sealing up those tunnels,” the Colonel told Ellari.
The short girl smiled brightly. Magic sparked in her eyes. “Yes, sir!”
I glanced down the four-inch difference in our height and met Layla’s gaze. She smiled wryly at me. “I don’t suppose I’m going to need to worry about you running off, am I?” she asked me.
I shook my head. “I’m all yours. Rest does actually sound rather appealing,” I admitted.
Layla shook her head. “Bath first.” I cocked my head at her. She wrinkled her nose at me in response. “You smell terrible.”
In spite of myself, I laughed and allowed her to guide me to the baths.
Well, wasn’t this something? A royal servant had crossed our paths on the way to the barracks, diverting us to the castle instead. The royal family had extended Aeria Gloris an invitation to freshen up in the heated baths as heartfelt thanks for protecting the city. Layla and I had gratefully agreed, and now found ourselves in an expansive bathhouse separated with mirrored partitions.
“This is incredible,” gasped Layla as her violet eyes took in the room offered to them. A polished marble tub, flush with the floor, steamed with heated water. The tub itself was larger than the single room I’d bunked in within the barracks. A blend of scents ranging from soap, bath salts, and perfumes reached my nose, banishing the acrid tang of sweat, blood, and grime that… had apparently been coming from me. Layla guided me to a gold-plated bar leading down steps that would take me into the water.
“Thank you,” I said softly to her. She smiled, her adorable dimples pinching her cheeks.
“Let me help you with this?” Layla offered, blush creeping into her dimpled cheeks as her fingers plucked the ties apart that held my tattered infirmary gown in place. The gown slid from my muscular body into her hands. She crumpled it up and tossed it into a bin behind her while her eyes remained fixed upon my reflection across the room.
My poise never wavered. Oddly enough, I’d not once felt embarrassed to have Layla’s eyes surveying my nudity. Her slender fingers rested upon my hips, the gentle contact sending small sparks of heat into my legs. Her pale skin contrasted with my tawny body; tight skin across powerful muscles barely shielded by curves of femininity. Layla’s fingers crept over my abs, testing each firm muscle. Goddess, her touch felt heavenly, leaving my skin tingling in her wake. She feathered her touch over a scattering of scars, healed cuts and other various war wounds without pause, lingering only upon fresh bruises.
“You’re so tense,” said Layla gently. Her fingers walked up my chest and stopped just short of my breasts. “You’re going to need a massage after we’re finished here.”
I nodded, my tongue attempting to moisten my lips as my heart struggled to restrain itself. Layla noticed, her eyes upturning.
“Are you thirsty?” she asked me.
“Are you reading my mind?” I replied with a coy smile.
“Get in,” she offered. “I’ll be right back.”
With a swish of her robes, Layla departed. I dipped a toe into the steamy water, pulling it back as the warmth of it bit into my cracked skin. Biting my tongue gently, I slowly inserted my foot, then my calf, immersing myself up to my knee. Next came the other foot. Gripping the golden support bar tightly, I descended the steps into the bath, my eyes fixed upon the water creeping up my thighs. When it reached my groin, I sucked in a gasp, almost as if something had bounced around inside of me at the contact.
Goddess! Was I really that jittery? My hand fluttered to my waist as I sunk deeper inside. Hah. What was I thinking? This was Layla. She’d caught my eye years ago at the academy. We’d crossed paths during our cross-training education. I studied martial combat, yet had been found to possess some magical potential. Layla studied to become a battlemage, and had reached the point in her training to study some physical combat. As there weren’t many women at my level of expertise, Layla found herself up against ridicule and teasing for her smaller stature and slender figure. While she’d decided to pursue support magic instead of frontline combat eventually, at the time, she’d interwoven magic with martial technique. The result became a girl capable of combat almost at Kisa’s level of gracefulness and prowess. She’d lost the taste for it after putting up with the toxic, elitist environment, however.
But she never forgot how I stood up for her on many occasions, and we’d grown close over the years. I hadn’t realized that I’d loved her, though, until she started dating men. My cheeks flushed at the memory of her reaction when I’d told her how I felt about her: startled and breathless. Were it not for those dimples in her cheeks, her wide-mouthed expression of shock could have been interpreted as anger.
And then, she’d kissed me. All other doubts and fears fell away.
I heard the door softly open and close, drawing me out of my waking dreams. I’d paused at the steps, water lapping at my waist. My eyes remained on the water as little ripples caressed my back at the movement of someone behind me. A hand rested on my shoulder. My gaze rose, meeting hers in the reflection of the mirror. She stood behind me, her nudity shielded by my body. She held a goblet in her right hand for me. I took it, finding it filled with ice water.
As I tipped the goblet up to my parched lips, Layla stepped into me from behind, curling her arms around my waist. My bottom nudged her stomach as her breasts pillowed against my back. Beaded nipples gently abraded the skin of my back, finding friction against the scars of old wounds. The icy water soaking my throat as I gulped contrasted sharply with the steamy water and the even steamier presence of my lover.
Gasping, I finished, setting the goblet down and turning around as Layla guided me into the deeper section of the tub and curled around in front of me. “Better?” she asked, her hand coming up to brush my face.
“Much,” I nodded, my powerful body held helpless in the tender mercies of the girl before me.
Layla bit her lip, her dimples straining against tearful emotion. “Ashlynn… I feel like I’m in a dream,” she said softly. “Are you real? Are you really here?”
“Layla,” I nearly cried. “You’re the reason I refused to give up. Lost in those dark tunnels, the weight of the earth closing in around me. I refused to let it have me. I’m yours. Only yours.”
Layla’s blush spread across her cheeks and bled into her ears. She sighed, casting her gaze aside for a moment before her violet eyes fixed upon mine. “Ashlynn, why do you love me?” she asked fearfully. “Of all the men and women you know, why me? I’m nobody special…”
Oh no… not this again. No matter. Not once had I balked at the opportunity to remind her, and I wasn’t about to start now. My eyes surveyed her presence. Smooth, pale skin, flawless and well cared for, a fitting match for her slender, feminine figure. A full, plump bosom capped with cherry-red nipples gave way to a sensually slim waist and flat tummy. My eyes traced lower, to her shapely hips framing a pure, virginal slit barely visible between her legs. Her legs… my mouth watered to gaze upon them. Smooth. Luscious. Sturdy. Perfect curves. She was just… simply… perfect. And then, after all of her defining features, her face. My gaze reserved the best of her for last. Full, wavy locks of auburn hair showcased a lovely round face with mesmerizing violet eyes. A girl could get lost in those eyes…
Even rarer was the sight of a woman with a heart as pure as her appearance. And that, above all else, was what made Layla so precious.
“Layla, when I look at you, I see the world as it should have been. How it was first made. Pure. Virtuous. Without blemish. Something the rest of us may never see again, but something… someone the Goddess chose to bless me with.”
Layla gasped, her arms tightening around my back, slipping up onto my shoulders behind me to knead the muscles of my neck gently. “Is that how you truly see me?”
“It is,” I told her. Smiling, I decided to turn the tables on her. “Question is, why do you love me?”
Layla gulped, releasing me and stepping back as she considered her words. My heated, aroused skin ached for the loss of her touch, but I listened eagerly for her reply.
“I suppose,” she said quietly, “When I look at you, I see a reflection of how the world should be now. Scarred, but healed. Full of life. Of Strength. And of uncompromising love.”
Tears stung my eyes. My heart began to melt with her words. I tried to smile, but my lower lip trembled. I reached out for her…
Except, Layla wasn’t finished. “Just look at us?” she suggested. “Saskia was a bandit in the southlands. Kisa, a mercenary hired to kill her. I still don’t know how you brought them together. Umm…” she paused, considering. “Tannalise. A half-elf, hated out of hand simply for being what she is, both by humans, and her own people. And then there’s Ellari…” Layla giggled. “Expelled from the academy for the sole reason that they were terrified of her.”
“She did blow up the Elucidation Wing,” I reminded Layla.
Layla burst into laughter, her soft peals echoing against the marble walls and glass mirrors. “That wasn’t her fault, though!” Her laughter died down.
I shrugged. “That’s what she says.” Wink.
“It’s true.” Layla winked back. “My point is, you don’t pick and choose. You just… love. Unconditionally. I can’t imagine who else I’d rather be with.”
“Layla…” I moaned softly, reaching for her. She turned away, though. Just for a moment.
Turning back to face me, she held a brush and a cake of soap. “Yes, you love unconditionally, but you still smell terrible. Turn around and come over to me.”
She sat upon one of the steps, water lapping up against her chin. I scooted in between her legs, availing my body to her. Her breasts nudged my back. She scrubbed the soap into the bristles, softening them and lathering them up, and then set upon me.
“Gird yourself, Ashlynn,” Layla breathed into my ear. “I’m not going to be gentle.”
“Agh,” I gasped raggedly. Layla attacked me with the brush, dragging it roughly against my back and shoulders. My bruised and battered body complained under her assault, and she spared me no quarter. The tub quickly milked up with the soap. A second brush joined the first as she finished with my back and came around my waist. One lingered there, the other drifted up between my breasts. Was she going to let up? Nnnn… no!
“Layla, that hurts!” I complained as bristles bit into my neck, down onto my arms and across to my breasts. She unwound the bandages on my fingers and attended those, thankfully a little more gently.
“For shining like a battle angel in flight,” cooed Layla as her merciless strokes continued, “You’re as fidgety as a toddler in here!” She giggled, her fingers dancing up my sides. The muscles tightened as I stifled laughter.
“That tickles!” I chuckled.
“Shush, now,” she cooed, setting the brushes aside to attend my breasts. Smaller than hers, due to my physical training, they still swelled large enough to fill Layla’s hands. Her wicked fingers curled into the plump globes, kneading soap into them, making them slick. Her fingers flicked and tweaked my nipples into aching pebbles.
“Is… is that necessary?” I nearly moaned.
Should have kept my mouth shut.
Layla stopped, picking up the brushes again to attack my legs. “Sorry, got a little carried away,” she said with a giggle.
“You… didn’t have to stop,” I admitted. Layla hummed softly and kissed the side of my neck, leaving a throbbing, longing ache behind.
“You still need a massage, remember,” she reminded sultrily.
I swallowed, my body flushing, heat swirling behind my belly. I spread my legs eagerly for her to scrub, leaning backwards into her as I closed my eyes. Yes… a little taste of heaven. I willed this moment to last forever. Consciousness faded from me, lost in Layla’s gentle touch.
Voices. So many voices. Whispering. Clicking sounds. Darkness. A soft, squishy sound. Moaning. Pain? Desire? I could not make it out.
“You’ve been selected for an experimental program.”
A woman’s voice. Cultured. I vaguely recalled the tone and inflections, but not the content. I felt hands on my body. Mmm. Layla. Oh. She was touching me… teasing… v-violating…
I won’t resist. I love you.
Say my name as you take me.
My eyes flew open. I gasped, nearly sucking in water. Water? Where was I? I felt fingers on my scalp. My eyes upturned, meeting Layla’s upside-down gaze.
“Layla…” I sighed drowsily.
“Ash, you were snoring.” She glared at me. I couldn’t help it. I giggled. She was so cute.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“No, you’re not,” countered Layla.
“I’m just going to finish washing your hair, then get you into bed,” she said, scrubbing soap into my hair and scalp. Oh goddess, it felt divine. Layla’s fingers, massaging my head. I closed my eyes, but her hand slapped my cheek. “No!” she whined. “Don’t fall asleep again!”
“But I feel so relaxed…”
“You saved us all from that awful monster,” she reminded me. “After having been lost for six days, you show up like an angel to save us, and then you drown in the tub. Wouldn’t that be rather silly?”
I shrugged. Her glare intensified. “I am looking forward to that massage,” I admitted. Goddess, was I ever. My insides squirmed with anticipation. Felt like I had butterflies in my stomach. We’d been lovers for months, but Layla, oh… my lovely Layla. Each time we joined felt like our first. Blissful. Breathtaking. And, at its peak, mind-shattering. We’d tried to keep it a secret, and, for the most part, succeeded. I wondered if the other girls in Aeria Gloris knew, but none of those girls would divulge even if they did.
“There,” she said at last. “Let’s get you up.”
Oh goddess, I can’t. Layla rose from the frothy water like a vision of Eros herself, holding out her hand for me. Beaten, battered, ravaged, me. I slipped my hand in hers, and she tugged my groggy body up out of the water with surprising strength. Standing me up on the very first step, she bade me remain there, and fetched a bucket of steamy water.
“Close your eyes,” said Layla with a smile. I nodded and complied. A gush of fresh water poured onto me, cleansing every inch of my skin. I stood there, feeling reborn, and ready to embrace… ack! A second bucket doused me. I coughed and sputtered.
Layla giggled at me as she doused herself. “I didn’t say you could open them yet! Well, you can now, actually.”
I opened them only to find a towel smothering me, rubbing me down head to toe. Layla wrapped a smaller one into my hair to dry it, and tied a similar turban for herself. Holding up a silk robe, she beckoned.
“This robe bears the royal seal of Ravalia,” I mentioned, slightly awestruck as the white silk settled in around my body. Layla donned a similar, ice blue one.
“I didn’t ask questions,” she said with a shrug, tying our robes with velvet sashes. I followed her out of the baths. A dapper servant awaited us outside.
“Ladies Daray and Vitari, would you please follow me?” He offered with a polite gesture.
He led us up a posh, crimson velvet staircase, open on both sides, up to the second floor. My bare feet felt weightless against the yielding material. Layla gaped openly at the Zipangunese tapestries and far-eastern murals lining the walls.
“The Ravalia Royal Family celebrates blood ties to both the nations of Mist and Zipangu,” the servant remarked, noticing Layla’s fascination. I’ll be the first to admit being fascinated only by Layla’s back. The way the silk draped from her shoulders drew my eyes lower, to the curve of her waist. I longed to curl my fingers into it, to stroke the silk until she sighed happily. My lower body complained with every motion while demanding Layla’s attention. The skin of my thighs burned with a dull lustful ache that slowly spread upwards.
The servant continued describing the artwork and color patterns. My attention wandered to the dreams I kept having. Had I volunteered for something dangerous? And what exactly happened to me in the tunnels? I believed what I’d told the Colonel, but something definitely felt… missing. Yes. A good way to put it. I lacked pieces of my memory needed to fill in the puzzle.
I began to wrack my brain in earnest when we suddenly stopped. I nearly bumped into Layla. The servant ushered her inside one of the rooms. She stepped inside, winked at me, and closed the door.
“Lady Daray, if you please,” he motioned for the next room over. He opened the door and guided me inside.
“Oh… oh my…” I gasped in awe. A huge four-poster bed sat opposite a large mirrored wall, with vanities and wardrobes lined along the wall. A privacy screen shielded the corner. The far wall opened into a window large enough to admit a small squad if fully opened, granting access to an elevated balcony outside. Colors of crimson and gold defined the room, with crimson velvet carpet, cushions, and pillows. Embroidered white and gold sheets decorated the bed, with organza dangling from the posts.
“Is the room to your satisfaction, Lady Daray?” the servant asked. I glanced back at him. Handsome, distinguished, wearing a butler’s uniform and a monocle in one eye.
I nearly lacked the voice to answer the man. “Y-yes… please convey my gratitude to the royal majesties.”
“Pull the rope if you require anything at all,” he said with a nod, indicating a large rope dangling from the ceiling next to the bed. “Good night, Lady Daray.”
The man saw himself out. My feet crept soundlessly towards the bed, velvet caressing my toes like a lover. Oh, goddess that bed looked inviting. My whole body ached and felt warm. Maybe I had a fever coming on. Strange, though. Since ascending as a Hero, my body fought off all infection and sickness without fail, allowing me to attend the deathly ill without fear.
A knock on the door drew me from my thoughts. Ah. That must be Layla. I hurried to the door and opened it but found no one outside. Hm?
“Ashlynn…” a soft voice spoke from somewhere behind me.
I drew a quick intake of breath and glanced over my shoulder. Layla stood beside the huge mirror. She’d left her sash in her room and allowed her robe to slip. It opened up all the way down her front. I closed the outer door and turned to her.
“Layla?” I spoke, my voice catching in my throat. Waves of lustful heat throbbed in my chest. The fever was spreading.
“I specifically asked for two rooms with a connecting door,” she said, indicating the mirror. With a tug, she swung it open far enough that a person could slip through. Closing it gently, she approached me, her gaze steady and level. When she reached me, she gathered my hand in hers, stroking the silken sleeve. “Would you like your massage, now?”
I nodded, returning her caress. “Very much.”
“You won’t be wanting this, then,” she remarked, tugging my sash open. Her gentle, elegant fingers brushed the sash away and nudged my robe apart. My abs tensed at the pleasure she offered as her hand slipped inside and began to touch me.
Her head remained level; her eyes upturned, and she smiled, pinching the hems of the robe apart. The cool, white silk spread apart, revealing my muscular, battleworn body for her enjoyment. The silk slipped off my shoulders, catching on my arms. Layla stood back to observe. I lowered my arms to my sides, allowing the robe to fall to the floor. Her gaze drank in my features unabashedly. My head turned to the side, appraising my profile from the mirror. Standing three inches shy of six feet, my tawny body benefited from years of physical training and combat, yet I still possessed the desirable curves of a woman that so obviously enticed Layla, who ran the tip of her pink tongue around her lips.
“Mmm,” moaned Layla. “How aroused was Our Goddess Above when she sculpted you?” she remarked huskily.
I gaped at her. “Layla!”
She smirked, nibbling on her lip. “Lie down on the bed?” she suggested.
I obeyed, entranced by the violet of her eyes. Spreading my arms above my head, I crept up onto the sheets, resting face down and waited with hitched breath for Layla to melt my senses. Yes… The sheets shifted under her weight as she climbed up beside me, sitting astride me.
“Ohh, Ashy,” she cooed. “You’re such a mess. Look at all these bruises? This may take awhile…”
“I certainly hope so,” I told her, smiling with closed eyes. The fluttering of silk suggested she’d stripped, but I decided to use my imagination. I perceived a small clatter of metal before…
I gasped, firmly depressing my tongue between my teeth.
Smooth, warm, slick oil dripped upon my sculpted back. Layla’s nearly-frictionless fingers followed, splaying out against my tanned skin, and spread the sinful substance all across my upper back. Softly, she hummed a melodious tune with angelic words woven within. I felt her magic awakening all around her, which she soon focused into me.
“Mmmnnn… Layla…” I gasped. Gentle healing magic flowed from her fingers into the stubborn knots and bruises marring my back. My tension began to ebb at last. Worries about the dream and about my ordeal slipped away, nudged aside by Layla’s seductive touch.
“I love the feel of your skin, Ashy,” gushed Layla softly. Her slender fingers dutifully attended every inch of my back, slipping into my lumbar curve as she inspected every scar and continued sending healing into my bruises. I bit my lip, panting softly, not caring about the pain it caused. Everywhere Layla touched me left behind a burning ache for more. More magic. More touches. More loving care.
“Ashy, oh Ashy,” sighed Layla. “I’ve never felt you this tense,” she said sadly. “What manner of hell did you endure for those six days?”
“I scarcely r-remember,” I stammered; Layla’s fingers crept lower, dipping into my bottom. She released me briefly, but only to spread oil onto each cheek, and then down my thighs and calves. She attended each one individually, cupping each leg. Her fingers coiled around the firm skin, slipping up, and then back down, to spread the oil evenly. She then returned to my bottom and squeezed firmly, injecting a large infusion of mana.
I gasped, lustful heat coiling inside me. “Mmm,” she cooed. “You love it when I do that, don’t you, Ashy?”
“Goddess, yes!” I cried softly. “More…”
Layla repeated the action. I cried out; oil began to creep into my bottom and trail onto my sex, joining with the moisture already present. She sighed, her breaths quickening in response to my pleasure as I practically writhed on the bed beneath her.
“I love seeing you like this,” Layla told me, her soft voice turning me on just as devilishly as her hands. “You present such a tough face towards the world.” Her fingers slipped between my powerful thighs, kneading the tender flesh. Very few scars marked me there, leaving that part of my body especially sensitive. “But with me, you show your true feelings,” she sighed, swirling her hands around on my inner thighs.
“Layla…” I panted.
“You’re soft,” she said, her contented smile evident in her voice. “Gentle. Tender. Affectionate. A side you only show to us. And to me.”
Her fingers crept upwards, kneading into my hypersensitive skin. “Nnnn… Layla… Yes… I dare not… s-show anyone th-this side of myself… Only y-you. All f-for you…”
I nearly cried out to beg her to take me when her hands slipped lower, to attend the rest of my legs. “You risk so much for us,” she remarked fondly, feathering my legs with a maddeningly gentle series of strokes. “I’ve lost count of the times you rush in to create an opening for one of us, or to save one of us…”
I basked in her words; allowed them to seep into my mind and coax me into a blissful state of contented pleasure. I scarcely registered what she said next, but she repeated it.
“Don’t go to sleep, Ashy,” she said firmly. “I still need to massage your front.” My heart flipped in my chest. “Well, go on,” she urged.
“Nnnn…” I grunted. “Layla, I can’t move.”
Layla sighed. “So hopeless.” She giggled and flipped me over, gasping at the state of my arousal. At least, I assume that’s why she gasped. I opened my eyes to gaze up at her.
Hmm. She was still clothed. Sort of. I could glance inside the robe and feast upon the full curves of her breasts if I so desired. A small golden bowl sat beside her. Her left hand dripped with oil from its contents. She sat as motionless as a statue.
Layla simply gazed down at me. “You’re… oh Ashlynn… you’re so… beautiful…”
I smiled faintly, my face heating as blush filled in my cheeks. “Now you know how I feel every time I look at you.”
Layla’s turn to blush. She couldn’t speak, nor could she act. I decided to help her. I reached and gently took hold of her wrist, dipping her hand in the oil, and guided it to my shoulder. Coating my skin with a deep layer of oil, I continued guiding her until her hand rested upon my breast. I then covered her hand with my own, and together, we teased and fondled my right breast.
“What did I ever do to deserve this…” breathed Layla as she grasped me firmly. Her other hand dipped the oil and came upon my left breast. “Ready, Ashy?”
I nodded, exhaling for what would come next.
Layla gripped my breasts tightly and sent a powerful pulse of mana into me.
“Ahhhnnn!” I gasped, my back arching slightly as I writhed against the bed. My fingers clawed at the sheets and I could feel my toes curling as my feet pawed against the soft sheets. Layla repeated her gift, sending me another pulse. “Mmmmnnn… ohhh!” I panted heavily, squirming in her grip. My sex glistened, leaking between my legs. I craved her touch. Her tongue.
“Are you… ever… going to… tell me… how you do that?” I gasped, my pleading eyes imploring her. She smiled and shook her head, her hands spreading up my chest to attend my bruises and sores.
“You wouldn’t want me to, Ashy,” Layla told me as her fingers worked lustful miracles upon my skin. “If I do, it’ll never feel the same.”
I moaned sadly but forgot all about it as she continued to attend me. Once again, she hummed softly, working angelic words into her touches. I felt weight and physical limitations drift away with each touch, each application of pressure. Each tiny injection of mana deepened our bond all the more. I wondered, for a brief moment, if I’d become a slave to her touch. Her eyes. Her voice. Her presence.
I found I did not care. I loved her. And she loved me. Unbidden tears blurred my vision. Layla noticed and leaned close to me. “Ashy?” she asked gently. “What’s wrong?”
My throat produced a sound like that of a sob and a laugh together. “I… I love you, Layla…”
“If you’re just now discovering that, Ashy,” Layla said with a coy smile, “You have no idea what I have in store for you.”
Her hands settled upon my belly, directly above my womb.
Oh no, no, no… nononono… I’m not ready!
“Layla, wait, I—”
A massive burst of mana pulsed from her wicked hands, directly into my womb. I screamed, my body thrashing with a sudden, ruthless orgasm. Goddess!! I can’t…! My senses failed me. I fell, weightless, helpless, shaking and screaming, held aloft by my loving mistress, Layla Vitari. Warmth enveloped me. Skin. Soft, naked skin pressed against me. Lips came upon me. Arms held me steady. Lips enveloped my open mouth, feasting upon my screams. She fed me giggles in return.
I gasped, sucking in her breath as she held me tightly, pinching my nose so that all the air I received came from her. The lightheaded rush of her taste overtook me, and I almost passed out. Only my strength as a Hero kept me conscious. Slowly, gradually, I regained my senses. Something wet and slick nudged my side. Layla let go of me and giggled.
“Aww… you spilled it,” she whined.
“Lay…la…” I panted. “Warn… me before… you do that…”
My lover giggled, her laughing escalating until she cackled like a hag. “Haha! Oh Ashy, I love you so much…”
“Goddess,” I gasped. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d wonder if you were a monster.”
Layla flashed me a wicked grin, curling her fingers at me like claws as she arched her back, thrusting her breasts forward. “Rawr.”
“Nope,” I giggled. “Way too cute.”
“Be nice,” she warned. “Or no more for you.”
I gulped. She meant it. She’d denied me before. I nodded contritely. “I’m sorry…”
Layla melted in front of me, pressing her hands into the soaked sheet beside me to gather as much oil as she could. “You’re evil,” she accused, coating my hips and legs with oil. “You know that? You know I can’t resist you when you act pitiful.”
Actually, I’d forgotten that. Thanks, Layla. Heh.
“No more infusions, though,” pouted Layla as her hands gripped my thighs. “If you want to come again, we’re going to do it the old-fashioned way.”
“I think I can live with that,” I told her softly, stroking her arm. The bowl of oil had spilled all over my right arm and hand, drenching them utterly.
“Mmm,” sighed Layla at my touch. “Ashy, these scars,” she indicated, gently running her finger over a rather nasty one on my left thigh, “Do you remember the wounds that caused them?”
“The ones I received after my awakening, yes,” I nodded. “Every one.”
“What about before?”
“Only some of the more memorable ones, like the one there,” I told her, smiling as she stroked it. The gash traveled from my kneecap in a wicked curve up the front and outer side of my thigh. “If I’d dodged left, instead of right, for that one, I’d be dead.”
“A lot of these look almost fatal,” Layla remarked fearfully. She finished with my legs and moved back up, cupping my waist. Her hands slowly crept down my hips and moved inwards.
“Th-they nearly were, b-but… why are we talking… about that…”
Layla smiled seductively. Her hand slowly crept down onto my sex. “Can’t have you coming again so quickly, my dark angel…”
“Lay…la…” I moaned. Her hand covered my sex, squirming around on top of it without otherwise moving. My stubborn legs weighed too much to move, so all I could do was roll a little side-to-side.
Layla giggled. “You’re so wet…” She winked. “Almost wonder if I can fit inside again.”
My breath hitched in my throat. “Take me,” I implored her. “Please…”
“Mmm, let’s see, then?” she cooed, slipping her middle finger inside. My instinctive response was to tighten around her, clench around her slim finger for some sexual friction. She was far too slick for that, and it would hinder her progress, so I forcefully willed myself to relax and remain open for her. Another finger entered. And another. Her thumb nudged into my clitoris, coaxing it out of hiding.
“N-no… Layla… d-don’t…” I moaned. “Want… to come… when it’s inside…”
“You’re so tight, Ashy,” Layla sighed, working a fourth finger within me. “We’ve only been able to do this once.”
“Please…” I begged her.
Her gaze met mine; she nibbled her lip. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“I’ll go slowly, carefully, all right?” she offered. I nodded, so she wiggled her fingers…
“Ahn…” I cooed. She paused, but I nodded to her. “Keep going.”
Layla’s brow furrowed gently in concentration. She pursed her lips, showing her dimples, while carefully inserting her thumb. I willed myself to relax, breathing steadily.
“I’m going to try and push, all right?” Layla said.
“Yes,” I agreed.
“Stop me if this hurts in any way,” she told me. Like I was going to ask her to stop. I craved her. I couldn’t get close enough to her. I desired her entire being. Her hand began to enter me, spreading my sex open. I gasped, my back arching on its own.
“Yessss!” I hissed. “Keep g-going!!”
Layla pushed. My legs began to spread, bending at the knees. Wasn’t sure where I found the strength to do that, but whatever. More. More!
“I’m… I’m stuck,” Layla said sadly.
“Push!!” I cried desperately. “Please!!”
Goddess!! Her hand! It… it was…
“It’s going in…” gasped Layla. “Oh, my goddess, this is so amazing…”
So close… I’m getting so close…
“It’s… it’s in!” Layla cried with triumph. “What does this feel like?”
It took me several tries before I could reply. I would only have the willpower to say a few words, and I wasn’t about to waste them on a description that could never truly define what I currently felt. A part of Layla was inside me. Her fingers shifted slightly and I nearly fell apart.
Grinning, Layla subtly shifted her hand, knuckles, and fingers around inside me, reaching for my pleasure points. I drew a shaky breath, trailing my tongue across my lips. Oh gods, her purely sexual stare nearly drove me over the edge, especially as she lowered herself and feathered the tip of her tongue across my clitoris. A lightning bolt of pleasure streaked through me. I wanted to touch her so badly. I lacked the strength to sit up and do so.
“Infuse… me…” I gasped.
“But, you’ve been naughty,” Layla chided. “You’re close, I can feel it.”
“Please!!!” I screamed.
Layla bit her lip, holding still. My eyes wept to gaze at her. “All right,” she said at last. “Get ready…”
“Just… just do it… I’m never going to be ready for this.”
Layla nodded, her eyes beginning to glow as she built power. “I’m going to make this one stronger than the rest.”
Oh, Goddess. She was going to kill me this time. My heart would explode, or something similar. Maybe I’d lose my sanity. I truly did not know. The way Layla’s eyes were shining, I’d only ever seen that kind of intensity in combat.
“Link… with me…” I offered. “Feel it… with me…”
Layla swallowed uneasily. “That’s dangerous, Ashy,” she cautioned.
I reached up, plucked a small pillow from the stack, and stuffed the corner of it into my mouth. I nodded to her.
Layla returned my nod, slipping off as much of her robe as she could, and insinuated herself onto my body. “I’m ready. Are you?”
I squeezed her shoulder in response. Her mana swelled within her, building like an orgasm to release. It traveled up her arm towards our connection.
Nothing could have prepared me.
I barely felt the infusion. My consciousness fled, ejected from my body. My very soul lay exposed, desperately clinging to my body as it writhed and screamed uncontrollably. Layla clung tightly to me, her one free hand drawing blood as her fingers dug into my waist. I didn’t even feel it, but she dragged deep furrows into my skin, leaving behind wounds that healed instantly. I wondered if Layla felt even a fraction of this? Could she, even? As a Hero, I could endure far more extremes of pain and pleasure than a normal person.
Goddess, this felt divine. My orgasm was endless! I honestly wished it would die down a little so that my consciousness could return and experience it. Yet, I almost felt like I’d achieved a higher level of understanding through this experience. Layla’s soul lay exposed beside me. I reached out for her. She drew me into an ephemeral embrace, and the both of us experienced something I wonder if any mortal ever has. A true bonding, sharing of spirit.
I changed my mind.
I didn’t want this to end.
I no longer cared if I died. If I could float like this with Layla forever, that would be enough for me. Through our joining, I knew she felt the same way.
And then, my consciousness returned.
The full force of physical pleasure gripped my soul, ripping me from Layla’s soul’s grasp, instead offering me a different sensation. One of indescribable physical ecstasy. I… felt… everything. Every fiber within the bedsheets. Every strand of hair and inch of skin rubbing against me from Layla’s body. Every molecule of air she panted against my chest. Every drop of oil. Every bead of sweat. The individual hairs on my head.
The sensation of this held me in thrall, completely still, for several seconds. And then, the waves of orgasm forced my body into motion again. Oh goddess, it was too much. I’d tasted the forbidden fruit. Surely. No mortal could ever return from this. Every single fiber, droplet, bead, and part of Layla touching me rubbed against me as I writhed and screamed. Each one injected its own, unique trickle of pleasure.
I gripped Layla as tightly as I could. Her hot breaths assured me she hadn’t perished from the overwhelming pleasure, but she did not moan or speak. I spent several seconds in drugged, ecstasy-stained thought before I wagered Layla had fainted.
I lost all track of time. The orgasm was endless. Sometime during the physical aspect of it, her hand slid out of me. My sex complained with the lack of her touch, and it brought me back to my senses.
At last, I could move again. Sort of. My legs felt made of jelly. I spat out the pillow. Ugh. Saliva soaked over half of it, and I’d bitten through into the stuffing. At least I still had a tongue.
“Layla…?” I murmured weakly. She clung to me, lost in unconsciousness, her body twitching with orgasmic aftershocks. She’d indeed fainted. I smiled in spite of it, reaching down for her and lifting her into my arms. Carefully crawling up towards the headboard, I rested upon the pillows and nudged my legs under the covers. With a lot of wriggling, I managed to tuck us both in. Cradling my dearest love against my body, I drifted off to sleep.
“You’ve been selected for an experimental program.”
Not this again.
All right, this was different.
“This one is special,” the first voice said. “She’s already sampled the forbidden.”
My blood froze. Oh Goddess… what? What could this be?
“Many others have, before her.” Some other woman. Younger. Almost childlike.
“Yes, but there are none like her. She is unique.”
Wake up, Ashlynn. Wake up! Please!
“Are you ready?”
No… no! WAKE UP!
“You think this is a dream?” the sinister woman asked.
My blood froze again. No, that’s impossible…
“It really isn’t,” she countered. “You formed the connection, not me. You asked for this, and I chose you.”
I never asked for this!!
Her voice was suddenly very close to me. “Oh, but you did. Would you like a reminder?”
“No? Very well, then, it’d spoil the surprise anyway.”
“Hee, hee, hee…”
I gasped, startling myself awake. A comforting presence laid within my grasp. Layla’s body, her torso swelling and falling with the slow intake of breath. She was still asleep, resting in my arms, spooned in front of me. I smiled, nuzzling my nose into her hair, her scent chasing the dream imagery away.
Mmm. We were both still slick. Especially between our legs. Yes. Oh. My hand… heh. Firmly between her thighs. Two fingers inside. Except… there was something else inside her. Huh?
I slowly removed the covers and sat up, releasing her. Peeking over her slumbering figure, I peeked between her legs. Whatever it had been was gone now. Must have imagined it? I checked myself, slipping a finger inside. Thoroughly moist, almost frictionless. Aching gently from our escapade last night. My entire lower body throbbed, in fact. I tugged the covers back over Layla and slid off the bed.
…Only to promptly slip and land on my rump. Ow! Or… not ow? Huh. That hadn’t hurt a bit. Why was the floor so slippery? I checked, and, oddly enough, it wasn’t. Velvet carpet. Did we spill oil on the floor, too? I giggled like a perverted schoolgirl. Goddess, we’d gone wild!
Rising slowly, I inspected the area, but no oil. Huh? Wait. Oh, it was my feet that were slick. I needed to sponge myself down soon or return to the baths. Fetching my robe, I slipped into it, and nearly tumbled again. Ugh. What was that oil Layla used on me? We were going to need to find more. What we’d done together transcended any and everything else since we’d first held each other in our arms. My body craved that experience again. So soon, too. Just thinking about it stole the strength from my legs. My knees wobbled. Nnnn…
I cocked my head, glancing back to the bed. Layla’s arm waved around, searching for me. I sped to her side, climbing back up onto the bed and kissed her cheek. She smiled, caressing the side of my face as she opened her eyes.
“Good morning, sleepy girl,” I cooed, smooching her hand and adding a touch of tongue.
Layla sighed happily. “That was something,” she whispered. “I’ll never question your love for me again,” she vowed, her eyes gazing up in awe at me.
Tears welled up in my eyes. Gently I cupped the side of her head and guided her to sit up, so I could kiss her. “I love you, Layla,” I practically sobbed, embracing her tightly. “I cherish your trust.”
Our lips met. Our eyes closed. Our arms entwined around each other. Our tongues touched, gently stroking. Our lust pulsed between us yet remained restrained against the force of our love. I did not feel the need to seduce Layla. I simply wanted to kiss her. To love her.
“Mmm,” Layla moaned softly. We broke the kiss and just gazed at each other for several minutes, not saying anything. After what happened last night, what more needed to be said? Our foreheads rested against each other. I sighed, brushing her arm. The soft, morning light filtered in from the window, casting its light upon us.
“I should go…” sighed Layla sadly. “I need to get dressed and report in for the repair efforts.”
I nodded, resting back against my legs. “I understand.”
“Except, I don’t want to go,” she complained.
“You’re still on active duty,” I reminded her.
“You’re not,” Layla grinned, crossing her arms under her ample breasts. “You can’t order me to report.”
A wry smile crossed my lips. “Technically true,” I replied, cocking my head. “But Colonel Dresden could kick your ass. And I’d rather no one touch your ass but me.” I reached around her to grope.
Layla socked my arm playfully and hopped off the bed. “Fine! Be that way. You rest up, now. Take another bath if you like? I’ll be back for you tonight.”
Layla blew me a kiss, snatched her robe up from the floor, and slipped out. Stretching languidly, I flopped back down onto the bed. My lower body still felt warm. Mmm. So, did my womb. Gracious. Layla’s power really had affected me. My chest swelled with pride. She’d make a formidable Hero someday.
This felt so strange. I was unaccustomed to lazing about. I tried closing my eyes to go to sleep, but without Layla, sleep eluded me. My hand rested upon my bare thigh. Still slick. Hmm. Bath. Yes. I sat up, carefully slid off the bed and stood. Tying my sash around my robe, I pulled on the rope nearby. A few moments later, there was a knock on the door.
“Good morning, Lady Daray,” a cute maid with dark brown hair smiled up at me. “How may I be of service?”
“Turn down the bed, please?” I requested. “I’m going to the baths. I’ll need to have someone fetch me a change of clothes from the barracks.”
“Would you like some breakfast, milady?” the maid reminded me.
My tummy grumbled. “That sounds delightful.”
“I’ll have a selection prepared for you in your room,” she chirped, curtsying. “Enjoy your bath, milady!”
I returned her smile and headed down to the baths.
A flood of fresh steam greeted me as I stepped inside. Selecting an empty room, I let my robe fall from my body and began immersing myself. This… this felt…
My legs practically sang with pleasure as the water rose up my thighs. I slipped again, catching myself against the gold-plated bar. Carefully, I lowered myself, gasping in pleasure as the water immersed my body.
“Nnnn…” I moaned, reclining against the underwater stairs. W-what was this? The pleasure surrounded me! My eyes closed on their own; frothy water caressed every inch of me, sparing only my face. The aftereffects of Layla’s magic? Whatever it was created ripples in the water. With my eyes closed, I imagined Layla lying beside me. Her lithe fingers teased my skin, kneading my toned muscles, seducing me with her tongue.
Goddess! It felt so real! The magic assailed me, torturing me with its insistence, laving across my skin. My body tensed. I clutched my breasts tightly, girding myself against my impending orgasm.
“Nnn…! Ahhhnn… Layla… Lay…la…” I gasped, panting heavily. “Yess… mmmm! Ohhhh!”
My back arched. My ragged breath caught in my throat as my orgasm took hold. I released my breasts, unable to function coherently for several seconds as pleasure overcame me. Gasping, I came back to the land of the living, trembling as I climbed out of the tub. As my foot rested on the top step, I slipped, tumbling in midair.
Oh, no… This was not velvet carpet. It was polished marble. This was going to hurt like hell. My skin slapped against the marble, my hip connecting with the edge of the tub at a forty-five-degree angle. I braced myself for a torrent of pain, half submerged in the water.
My arms trembled, supporting my weight as I pulled myself up out of the water. Instead of trying to stand, I rested my bottom on the marble, stretching my legs out before me. Gingerly, I checked my side for bruising.
Nothing. Not even a tint.
What was more, lubrication still coated my hip. No. My entire leg. Both legs! The oil glistened upon my skin, from the tip of my toes to halfway up my waist.
“What the hell…?” I murmured, ever-so-carefully rising to my feet. “Layla, what did you do to me?” I asked the ether. Climbing back partially into the tub, I picked up a body brush, lathered it up liberally with soap, and ran it down my side.
I gasped, my body trembling as electric pleasure shot through the affected locations. The bristles failed to elicit any pain response, regardless of how forcefully I abraded myself. Curling my fingers into a fist, I slammed it down on the side of the tub. The marble cracked. Oops. Yet, only a slight twinge of pain throbbed in my hand, and it faded quickly.
Raising my leg up onto the side of the tub, I did the same. Brought my foot down upon the marble. My powerful legs were strong enough to break bone and my kicks could split a boulder. While I did not wish to damage the tub, I brought my foot down in such a way that I would certainly injure myself.
In fact, the heel of my foot did not even feel the same as it had before. It sort of… bounced. “What… what is this?” I asked no one in particular, clutching my foot fearfully. I kneaded my toes, my blood icing at the final realization.
There were no bones in my foot.
It retained the shape of my foot. Perfectly, in fact. But my skin took on a different consistency, like a polymer. Slick, smooth, almost rubbery. I wiggled my toes. The action felt perfectly natural, but something… something was different. I gripped my foot around my toes and stretched. My limber body afforded me the freedom to hold my leg all the way up to the side of my face. Smiling briefly, I remembered the surprise on the faces of my instructors when I mastered axe kicks.
I shuddered; I’d continued tugging my leg upwards, somehow bending it back behind my head. I’d never been able to achieve a stretch this deep. I let go, my leg falling to slap against the marble floor. My fingers kneaded my kneecap and the bones in my lower leg.
They met stiff resistance, yet encountered the same “give” as my toes. Frantically, my hands swept up and down my legs. It was the same everywhere. Something, whether by Layla’s magic or the combination of her oil and our lovemaking, had altered my body. This was no illusion.
My fingers shook, trembling with fear as they skimmed up higher on my body. Thighbones, gone. Pelvis, gone. Ribs… oh. I still had ribs. The transformation was incomplete? I shuddered, a brief quailing of fear overtaking my entire being. My body ached… I was burning up… My legs were so slick, I couldn’t stand. The skin of my arms slapped against the smooth marble, dragging me forwards.
My thighs burned, tingling. I dared not even look at them. Was I dreaming, still? I squeezed my eyes shut briefly. “Wake up, Ashlynn… please…” I moaned. I reached up for the door. Its handle taunted me, too high up to reach. Just a little further…
I stopped. “Uff…” I grunted. Had I gotten caught on something? No… something caught me. I gasped, glancing back, but whatever it was pulled my slick body back, across the floor, into the tub.
“Noooo!” my useless cry cut off, water gushing into my mouth as whatever gripped my legs pulled me under. I briefly struggled and pulled my head above water. My arms slapped against the edge of the tub. Frothy water roiled around me.
Oh, my goddess. There was something alive in here with me… Was it a monster? How had it gotten in? I glanced back to the water. Damnit, couldn’t see a thing! Gods… gods, my legs felt strange. It didn’t hurt. Dozens of fingers groped at me, teasing my slippery skin. No… please! No! Thick, smooth ropes coiled around my waist, pulling me back into the water. I scrambled, flailing about like a drowning child.
The creature’s presence surrounded me, questing tongues and fingers squeezing and licking, spreading their lubricant all over me. My lungs burned for air. Was this… it? To have survived for six days in enemy territory, coming to my comrades’ rescue in their time of need, only to die in the safety of the castle?
Would anyone believe it?
Oh gods… Layla. I couldn’t just leave her.
Damnit… I willed the power to flare within me. I had to live. For Layla.
Relaxing, I willed holy light to ignite within me.
Nothing happened. Dimly, as my consciousness began to fade, I remembered. I hadn’t wished for the power to protect myself. I wished for it to aid me in protecting others. I could take care of myself. Never had a problem before.
I couldn’t help it. My mouth opened. I would inhale water, and drown.
“Mmmpphh!” I grunted. One of those slick ropes rushed into my mouth as my lips parted. I gripped it roughly, but its slick surface slid easily into my mouth and wormed into my throat, a distinctly strange sensation, but not altogether unpleasant. The moment it did so, my body stopped fighting to breathe. I no longer required air.
None of this made sense! I relaxed momentarily to consider my options. And my situation. A few facts became apparent.
Fact one: The creature was not trying to kill me. On the contrary. It was keeping me alive.
Fact two: It hadn’t taken anything from me. Not my blood, or my flesh.
Fact three: It wanted something from me that it had yet to make known. I had the distinct impression I would not like this when I found out.
The creature sensed my tension relaxing, and apparently interpreted it as acquiescence. The slick ropes tightened around me, changing position and behavior. Instead of restraining me, they began to tempt me. Caressing my erogenous zones, the texture and gentle, insistent movements mirrored Layla’s touches.
What… this was impossible!
Layla’s fingers and tongue were everywhere. Along my waist, Massaging my back. Kissing my breasts. Flicking my nipples. Feathering the insides of my thighs. Testing the texture of each and every one of my scars. Gentle magic coaxed its way inside my most vulnerable places. Her tongue and fingers pushed inside me. So deep. Impossibly deep. The rope in my mouth throbbed. Fluid secreted from it, traveling down into my stomach, burning and spreading through my blood like alcohol. My eyes closed; heat spread throughout me.
It felt so good.
My cares fell away. My resistance forgotten. I gave myself over to Layla’s hunger. My body shook, trembling as an impossible orgasm drew near. This one felt different. I was changing inside somehow. If I let this pleasure consume me, I would never be the same.
Oh, my goddess! Our Goddess Above, I should fight this. I should… ahhhnnn… I… I can’t… Just… just take me!
As if reading my mind, the creature embraced me from all angles simultaneously. With each touch, each lick, and each caress, it reminded me of Layla’s presence and love. My mind crumbled; I gave in to it. I didn’t care. I wanted it. I needed it.
Oh Goddess. Forgive me.
I couldn’t scream. Couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t even move. The creature held me firmly, caressing each convulsing muscle in perfect sequence. The heat in my body spread, wholly enveloping me. I was changing. Transforming. Was I becoming a monster? Is this truly what it felt like? I pictured unmitigated agony. The pleasure would come later. But this… this was fundamentally different.
I closed my eyes, drifting away on a sea of pleasure. I no longer cared what I became. Layla’s love remained paramount. I knew monsters hungered for men. Lived for their pleasure. I would not give up Layla for that. Not for anything.
My love for her would conquer this evil.
Consciousness gradually returned to me. I found myself floating, Gentle, steaming water held me aloft. Strange memories floated about in my mind. Memories of loving… me. Of touching me. Caressing me. Learning of my love for Layla and developing it. Encouraging it. So strange… To have another person’s memories merged with my own.
The creature. The monster! I sat up, sinking, beginning to tread water. There was no sign of it. Quickly, I climbed up out of the tub. I’d halfway tied my robe in place before realizing I could stand properly. My legs. I gasped, tugging the robe open and brushed my fingertips across my thigh.
No oil. Just moist skin. My body felt warm, contented, like an afterglow. But that was all. Had it been another dream? Was I losing my mind? It felt so real.
A maid ran up to me as I stepped out of the baths and into the entrance hall. A mortified expression darkened her face. “Lady Daray,” she gasped, coming to a skidding halt in front of me. “Messengers have been looking for you! You’re needed at the base infirmary at once.”
I fled from her presence and practically flew from the castle. I drew stares dashing barefoot through the city in nothing but a bathrobe, but I ignored them, an awful, sinking feeling gripping my chest. My steps slowed as I entered the base, carrying me forward as I endured the stares and salutes of the men. The time spent reaching the infirmary felt like an eternity. As I descended the last set of stairs, my unit awaited me, lined up along the wall. Saskia… Kisa… Tannalise… Ellari… Layla? Where was Layla? My eyes locked upon Ellari’s. The fat tears clouding her icy blue eyes provided me the answer.
A staff sergeant opened the door for me. A group of men, Colonel Dresden included, stood in a semicircle around a bed. The circle parted for me as I approached. Dresden’s eyes met mine. A weary sadness clung to him, scoring years into his face.
My eyes darted to the bed. A ragged gasp crossed my lips as I cupped my hand to my mouth. No… oh please, Goddess, no…
What was left of her.
Her battered body laid upon the bed, bloody rags and makeshift splints bracing numerous fractures and open wounds. My training kicked in, suppressing my horror to assess her injuries objectively.
Multiple compound fractures in her legs. At least one simple fracture in her left arm. A puncture in her left side. Fractured collarbone. Major concussion, based on the matted blood gluing her hair to the left side of her face. She was likely bleeding internally. And yet, through it all, she smiled as I approached.
“Layla…” I said softly, biting my lower lip to cease its trembling. “I leave you alone for five minutes…”
“You should… see the other girl…” Layla said weakly, coughing up droplets of blood.
“What can I do for you?” I asked her, resting my hand on her right shoulder, the only place I could find without any damage.
Tears burned my eyes. Hot, acidic, bitter. To hell with that. I turned to the physicians standing in the corner with the Colonel and stalked towards them.
“What happened?” I growled. “Who did this to her?”
“Tannalise spotted a formation of wurms beginning to dig a new set of tunnels from the other end of the DMZ,” Dresden told me. “I ordered a preemptive strike. We routed the wurms, but one of the tunnels collapsed under Vitari.”
“How long…” my voice cracked.
“An hour at most,” the physician said with a sigh. “Realistically she has a few minutes of consciousness left. The rest of her time will be spent in agony.” He tensed, his left hand, balling it into a fist before he managed to stifle his expression of frustration. I could tell this hurt him almost as much as it did me. “There is nothing more we can do for her,” he admitted.
Boiling, seething anger simmered within me, flushing my face. The men before me withered before it. As well they should. “I… don’t… accept that…” I growled menacingly. “There has to be something!”
“Believe me, Major, I sympathize,” Dresden sighed wearily. “These are unholy times, of monsters and demons. Sometimes, the faithful fall. But there can be no greater honor than to give one’s life for one’s fellow man.”
“She’s not in her grave yet,” I countered. “Doctor. Something. Anything.”
“I normally wouldn’t,” the physician said, handing me a strange herb. “This will ease her passing. She’ll feel no more pain.”
The physician pressed it into my numb palm. My lips parted, yet no words came out. Fingers closed over the offering, and my feet carried me back to Layla’s side.
“They… explained… my condition?” she moaned up at me.
I nodded, tears streaking down my cheeks.
“I’m… so glad… you’re with me…” Layla cried softly. “Want… the last thing I see… to be you…” She coughed briefly. “Please don’t cry?”
My jaw clenched, working the muscles in my face. I glanced over my shoulder. “Get out. All of you.”
The men filed out without protest and closed the door behind them. Ellari’s sobs filtered in just before the door sealed shut.
“Layla…” I sobbed. “Are you… in pain?”
She hissed, gritting her teeth. “Y-yes… But it’s… good pain. I’ve… served well.” She grasped my free hand. Sticky blood coated my skin, but I squeezed her hand gently regardless. “When… the Goddess asks me… how I lived my life… I’ll have a pretty good answer!” she giggled, coughing weakly.
I can’t… I just can’t do this…
Please… someone, anyone! HELP ME!!
I can’t lose her!!
“Don’t cry, Ashy…”
My body ached. My skin crawled with revulsion. After my long years of service, this was how I was to be repaid? To hell with… yes. I’d even appeal to the darkness if it would save Layla.
I felt a strange power shifting within me, in response to those thoughts. Memories. Memories of touches. Caresses. Loving. A love borne from me. I could feel it… A strange, forbidden power welling up inside me, manifesting outside my body. It slithered into my robe, traveling up my waist, curling around my shoulder, and sliding down my arm. It paused against the inside of my wrist, waiting for my command.
Layla smiled, shaking her head. “You… don’t need to say… anything…” She gasped, wincing. She had seconds. I slipped the herb into my pocket.
“Layla, please forgive me…”
She smiled weakly, shaking her head. “It’s… all right… Send me off?”
I rested my hand against her cheek, moving my palm to cover her mouth. With rueful determination, I willed the extension of myself to proceed. “I can’t let you die, Layla. Please forgive me…”
I glimpsed it, then. A tendril. A rope, about as thick as two of my fingers held together, rested against the inside of my arm. I pinched off Layla’s nose and held my hand over her mouth to stifle her scream as it crept between her lips and penetrated her mouth.
Layla sucked in a ragged breath, struggling; her eyes widened, narrowing in painful concentration as her throat triggered its gag reflex to expel the foreign object. She failed. I was too strong.
I felt… everything. Her teeth. Her tongue. Her bloody throat. The tendril inside her bisected. Half of it continued down into her stomach. The other half diverted into her lungs, bisecting again so that one part entered her left lung, and another her right. The one inside her left lung expanded, sealing off her chest cavity from the inside, and re-inflating her lung. The other tendril began drawing fluid out of her right lung. Layla jerked and thrashed at the odd sensations. I let my head fall back and willed more power from my body. Tendrils drifted out from beneath me, coiling around Layla’s arms and legs, slipping into her wounds and repairing the damage.
Goddess, they were everywhere…
I could feel each one of them. Individually. I’d never experienced anything like this before. I availed myself of every inch of Layla’s battered body. My legs melted, taking on a practically gelatinous consistency. Each time a tendril or rope finished with one part of Layla, it withdrew into me and another replaced it, of a different size and purpose. The one inside Layla’s stomach swelled and injected a calming medicine, soothing her stomach and stilling her pain.
At last, Layla began to relax. I turned back to her, smiling. “You may never forgive me for this, Layla. I’m not certain anyone could. I am not even certain how this is possible.”
I knelt beside her, leaning close to kiss her cheek. “I sense your question,” I said softly, my breath heating her cheek. “When did Ashy become a monster?” Yeah. I wondered that myself. “I’m not sure, to tell you the truth. Am I, though? Am I a monster?”
Layla shook her head slowly, a tear trailing down the side of her face.
My heart swelled with relief. “Ohh Layla,” I moaned with joy, licking her tear up with the tip of my tongue. “You mean, you aren’t repulsed by me?”
Layla shook her head, blinking slowly. She tried to smile, but found that difficult with a hand pressed against her face. I withdrew my hand, no longer needing to stifle her, and cupped her left cheek instead.
“I love you, Layla,” I told her gently. “Nothing will change that. Nothing.”
My precious Layla lifted her arm, surrounded by my ropes, to brush the backs of her fingers against my cheek. I nuzzled into her touch, my heart warming. A new pulse nudged against my arm. A different kind of tendril, one with a bulbous tip. This one carried something inside. Something precious. I gazed down at Layla.
“My love,” I cooed gently. “I want to join with you. Make you like me. Will you accept my gift?”
Layla tensed, eyeing the new rope warily. Sweat beaded on her forehead.
The ropes, an extension of my body and love for Layla, conveyed to me that this was the only way Layla would truly survive. I could repair the life-threatening injuries, but she would remain bedridden for the rest of her days. While I did not mind having my precious Layla to care for and love, I wanted her to be free from the burden of pain and weakness.
“I won’t lie to you, sweetheart,” I explained, “Without this, you’ll live, but you’ll never leave this bed. I won’t force you, but I want you by my side, together, with me, always. Is that what you want?”
Layla thought about it, finally nodding and squeezing my hand.
“Good,” I smiled, my hand drifting between her legs. I nudged the sheet aside, exposing her, and tested her entrance, smiling with relief to find it undamaged. She would feel no pain. With a smile, I guided my rope to her sex, and stroked her slit with my fingers, enticing her in just the way she enjoyed most. Her breathing quickened, the passage of air expedited by the ropes in her lungs. Spreading her open, I gently guided my rope inside. It required no further assistance, slick and smooth as it was.
“Oh… g-goddess, Layla…” I moaned, my body trembling with the overwhelming sensation of Layla all around me. “I… I can feel you… I feel… all of it… Is this what… how you felt when you…”
Layla nodded, smiling as best she could with her mouth full of my life support. She sucked in breaths as quickly as she could through her nose. Her back arched gently, supported by my ropes coiling around her chest. Sweet goddess, she’d broken nearly every damn bone in her body! I ached to see her in such pain.
Layla’s hand guided mine to her sex. Ah. Of course. Chase her pain away with pleasure. Carefully, lovingly, I parted the sheath and feathered her clitoris. Her breath hitched, releasing in a ragged gasp. My rope inside her nudged against her cervix, pushing deeper inside, and encountered the entrance of her womb. The rope peeked inside and deposited its gift. I could stop there, if I wished. It would only be a matter of time, now.
My eagerness betrayed me, however. I craved to speed up the process. If she came like this, with me wrapped all around her and inside her, she’d blossom rapidly. Our fingers interlaced, guiding her pleasure along together. As it should be. I leaned into her, kissing her cheek, licking her ear.
“Layla,” I whispered huskily. “I want you to do me a favor. Can you do me a favor, sweetheart?”
Layla nodded, squeezing my interlaced fingers as we toyed with her clitoris together. I grinned, curling my tongue into her ear and summoned two more tendrils to lovingly attend her breasts. She’d sustained wounds there, after all.
“Good,” I whispered, trailing the edge of her ear with my tongue. “I hope you’re enjoying your massage. I just want you to do one, little thing for me. Come for me.”
Layla stiffened, drawing a ragged breath. She nodded vigorously, firmly pressing down on herself between my fingers. My ropes curled around her breasts, thinning out to envelop her nipples with suction. Her body shuddered as she drew deep, trembling gulps of air.
Mmm. I hadn’t noticed how delicious she tasted before. My ropes sampled any part of her undamaged skin, not bothering to taste the wounds. Her wounds only received my medicine. Her sexual walls clenched in around my ovipositor. It wouldn’t be long. Our fingers danced together upon her clitoris, each of us fighting for dominance. I would loved to have been the one to carry her over the edge, but it would be her choice.
Just as it had been her choice to keep loving me.
“I love you so much, Layla,” I spoke directly into her ear, my lips brushing its surface. “My parents abandoned me because they wanted a boy, not a girl. Other children laughed at me for years. No family. No home. So, I found a new family to love in the academy. I found you…”
Layla trembled at my words, tears streaking down her face. I nuzzled my cheek against hers, staining my face with her tears. The tender action sent her over the edge, constricting her sexual channel around my ovipositor in powerful, rhythmic waves. I practically melted. Rather literally, this time. Her desire ignited the offering I’d left inside her, stimulating growth, feeding her its power as it blossomed inside her. I smiled, withdrawing my ropes. The first to touch her were the last to leave. My legs re-solidified, and, as the final rope slipped from her mouth, I touched a kiss to her lips.
“Ash…lynn…” she gasped.
I pressed a gentle finger to her lips. “Shh, my love. We must keep this secret, just as we have secreted away our love. I will cover you with this sheet. When the time is right, make your life known.”
Layla nodded as I tugged the sheet up over her head. Smoothing myself down, I checked for any stray tendrils or ropes. Nothing. I parted my robe to be sure. Even my legs appeared normal and healthy. Wryly I noticed the strange augmentation hadn’t healed any of my scars. Oh, well. Couldn’t have everything.
Bracing myself, I willed tears into my eyes. Had to make this believable. I imagined Layla having actually died. Gods… the terror of that possibility twisted a knife into my chest. Tears spilled out onto my cheeks. I opened the door.
A small crowd had formed outside.
All eyes fell upon me.
Ellari took one look at my face and burst into tears, wailing loudly. She clung to the tall half-elf beside her and buried her face into Tannalise’s thigh.
“I curse these beasts to the pit of Hell,” spat Tannalise. She rested her hand gently upon the top of Ellari’s head, rubbing affectionately despite her simmering fury. She gripped her bow in her free hand. A terrifying weapon, crafted with the best materials available to mankind, elves, and fae. She called it by the ostentatious name, Godslayer, for she had sworn to kill Maou with an arrow loosed from its strings. Tannalise guided Ellari to Saskia’s side, and stalked off.
“Tannalise,” I called. She paused. “Where are you going?”
The half-elf glanced back over her shoulder. “To hunt. I will smite the hillsides of Darkhaven with wailing and pitiless death, until the rivers run red with blood.”
“No,” I said firmly.
“What!?” hissed Tannalise, turning to face me.
“I’ll not split this unit again,” I told her. “The monsters shall face judgment for what they have done, but we shall meet them on our terms. Not theirs.”
Tannalise’s body tensed; she gripped her bow tightly, her knuckles whitening against the shaft. “My friend is dead. I must have retribution!”
“We must honor her memory, Lise,” said Saskia, resting a firm hand on the half-elf’s shoulder. Tannalise glared into the dark woman’s eyes. She might’ve had better luck glaring at a mountain. Saskia’s eyes shone with tears, but her solid resolve never wavered.
“The unit stays together,” I announced. “What’s left of it,” came my sigh, but my hard edge returned pointedly. “That’s an order.”
Tannalise hissed in anger, but stood at attention as she faced me, and returned her bow to its place against her back. “Yes, Major,” she replied tersely.
“Maybe it would help if we all said a few words for Layla?” Kisa offered gently.
My voice choked with emotion. I nodded. “Yes, thank you, Kisa.”
We filed into the room; the men stepped aside, making way. I stood at the head of the bed, my hands resting on either side of the sheet-covered pillow. No one said anything at first. Ellari’s sniffles were the only sounds keeping the silence in check.
Poor Ellari. At barely nineteen, sequestered in mage towers for years at a time, she was still practically a child. Kisa spoke up first. Why did that not surprise me? Not normally as cheerful or enthusiastic as Ellari, the blonde mercenary’s tenacity and steadfast determination met its match only in Saskia’s stoic bravery.
“I remember when Layla and I first met,” said Kisa quietly. “She saved my life. I’ll never know what she and Ashlynn were doing that far into the Southland desert, but when that sandworm burst up out of the ground, I was sure. That was it. So much for hunting down Saskia the Unscarred.” She smiled wryly up at the dark girl, who cast her a bemused sidelong glance.
“Did you kill it?” Tannalise asked, her eyes narrowed.
“Kill it?” repeated Kisa. “Lise, have you seen a sandworm? A mass of rock, chitin, sinew, and anger as wide as a mansion and fifty times as long, borne from the sphincter of Hell. I ran. I ran my ass off. Came upon a cliff. Jumped. Didn’t even think twice. Probably fifty feet across to the other side. Yet, somehow, I made it. And there she was. Layla. Lightening my feet with her magic.”
“That was quite a jump,” Saskia remarked.
Kisa gaped at her. “Wait, what? You saw that? You never told me that!”
“Who do you think lured you to the sandworm’s lair?” the dark girl remarked with a coy grin.
Kisa blushed, her light brown eyes blinking rapidly. “We… we’re not friends anymore.” She crossed her arms and thumbed her nose at Saskia.
Saskia chuckled. “This is what Layla would have wanted. Her life, celebrated.”
“I agree,” I nodded. “Kisa, what happened next?”
“Oh, you just want to show off,” Kisa scoffed with a grin.
“I wish to hear this as well,” Tannalise said.
“Alright Lise, for you,” Kisa replied with a smile. “So, I made it to the other side, but apparently sandworms can jump too. It barreled straight for us! Layla grabbed me and ran to Ashlynn, who stood a ways off, unafraid as the monster rushed in for the kill. Its jaws were opening… oh gods…” Kisa shuddered. “I couldn’t look. Ashlynn slung one arm under my shoulder, and another under Layla’s. And then… she flew. She actually flew! I looked up and saw angelic wings of flame, like the Phoenix of eld!”
“I’ll never forget that…” murmured Saskia. “The sandworm crashed into the hardened sand, curling up to watch you flying off. Its mouth hung open like a surprised child. I gauged Ashlynn’s trajectory and made to follow.”
“So that’s how you found me?” Kisa asked, bewildered. “I thought you showed up to turn yourself in and plead your case to a Hero, fearing for your life.”
“Would you have killed me?” the dark girl asked her. “I was the one you were hunting, after all.”
Kisa shrugged. “Yeah, probably.”
“I’ll never understand why you two are friends,” I admitted.
“Mutual respect, I suppose,” Kisa replied. “That, and after seeing your power, and Layla’s, I began to wonder if I was wasting my life.” She sighed, gazing sadly at Layla’s body. “Your awesome power, Ashlynn, and Layla’s gentle magic. I wanted my life to mean something, you know? You’re an awakened Hero, but Layla was a saint in her own right.”
I nodded with a sad smile. “I was going to submit her candidacy next year…”
“I doubted I would ever be considered,” admitted Saskia. “But I’d made a reputation for myself in the Southlands underworld. I thought if I could bridge relations with the Order, I might be able to wipe the slate clean and protect my homeland from the monsters at the same time.”
“If I recall,” I mentioned, “I wasn’t too keen on the idea.”
“Neither was I,” agreed Kisa. “It really was Layla who convinced me to give her a chance.”
“Here I stand, a Hero chosen by Our Goddess Above.” I could barely force out the words. I knew Layla was alive under that sheet, yet still… “Yet, I truly believe Layla was the best of us. Each of us had our prejudices. Dark pasts. In some cases, explosive ones.” I smiled at Ellari, who blushed through her tears. “But, none of that mattered to Layla. She could gaze into your eyes and see your heart. The purest gift of all.”
“W-when I… w-was expelled,” Ellari spoke through choked sobs, “No one w-would believe me… I d-didn’t mean for anyone to get h-hurt…” She coughed, her small body shaking with silent sobs. Saskia rested a firm hand on her shoulder, steadying her. “Thank you,” she said, smiling up at the dark girl. “B-but it wasn’t enough f-for them. They w-w-wanted to hold me f-f-for sedition hearings… They w-were gonna kill me!”
“You destroyed an entire wing of the academy,” Tannalise remarked, her voice free of emotion. She was simply stating a fact. “Had classes been in session, the death toll would have been astronomical.”
Ellari wailed, resting against Saskia’s hip.
Kisa glared at the half-elf, but I arrested her rebuke with a gesture. Tannalise never issued pointless insults, threats, or taunts. I wished to hear her out.
“I have encountered many mages over the span of my long life,” Lise continued. “Some sought wealth. Others, power. Each, motivated by selfish desire, threatened life and limb in some way or another before being vanquished, or tamed.” She paused to allow consideration of her words. “When I first encountered Ellari, she was still enrolled in the academy. The instructors occasionally tapped me for my mastery of illusion magic to test the skills of their fledgling Elucidators. A curious gathering, the Elucidators. Training the eye to see the truth takes years of earnest practice. It is not a skill chosen by those who desire wealth, as selfish motives, by nature, occlude the truth. Ellari’s skill surprised me. Her balance between the destructive arts and the penetrating power of her elucidation techniques rested in perfect balance.”
“So…” Kisa prompted, “Why did you blow up the Elucidation wing?” she asked Ellari.
Ellari brushed curls of ginger hair out of her moist eyes. “I only ever told Ashlynn and Layla,” she admitted. “I w-was studying alone… a-and I noticed something. Dark shadow. Coming from behind a w-wall.”
Saskia stiffened, her gaze hardening. “What!? An illusion inside the Elucidation tower?”
Ellari nodded mournfully. “I should have turned right around and reported it, but I got curious. I used my power to dispel it. Didn’t think it’d be… a t-trapped spell…”
“What happened, Ellari?” I urged her to continue. Layla had never spoken of this.
“I… It opened up, and the shadows attacked me,” she said with a tremble. “So, I fought back. I hurled a f-fireball at it. Whole thing… exploded…”
“That would not have destroyed the tower,” Saskia noted. “Unless…”
My fingers balled into a fist. “Unless the spell wove through the entire wing.”
Ellari nodded. “Layla h-had been appointed to be my advocate. S-she researched the scene and… the… the… b-bodies… She discovered they were a-agents of a terrorist organization c-called… Tenebrae Vincunt.”
“Damn…” whistled Saskia.
“Why didn’t you tell us any of this?” Kisa asked gently.
“She fears retribution,” I answered for her. Ellari nodded. “So, Layla settled the matter in court. Neither side wanted the truth revealed. They buried the incident and expelled Ellari.”
“And then, Layla submitted Ellari’s induction papers for Aeria Gloris to me,” I said with a nod. “I’d never seen her so adamant about a candidate, so I decided to trust her judgment.”
“I knew something was amiss,” Tannalise added. “I decided to follow your campaign.”
“You mean, you decided to stalk us,” I said wryly. “Except, you ended up saving our lives on several occasions. “I was impressed. But, I still found your intent questionable.”
“I owe my candidacy to Layla as well,” Lise confessed. “And, to Ellari. For her part, she never cast me a prejudiced eye.”
Ellari gasped. Lise was smiling at her. I nearly balked as well. Lise never smiled.
“Let us all spend this moment to remember Layla Vitari,” I urged. “Her quiet compassion and tireless support will be sorely missed.”
We joined hands, bowing our heads. Anytime now, Layla… This was going to become rather awkward soon.
“Wait,” Ellari spoke up, raising her head. “Something’s not right.”
Tannalise’s smile faded. “What is amiss?”
Ellari’s eyes glowed as power sparked inside her. “Layla’s mana isn’t dissipating. That doesn’t make sense, unless…” She peered at the sheet, her eyes shining brightly. Suddenly, she gasped. “She’s not dead!”
Saskia sucked in a breath, released Ellari’s hand, and pulled the sheet off of Layla’s face. Layla’s eyes flew open and she gasped, sitting up suddenly, clutching the sheet to her naked chest.
“Sweet Goddess!” cried Kisa.
“DOCTORS!” I bellowed.
The door burst open. Physicians strongarmed us out of the way and swarmed around Layla. The one I’d spoken to snapped his head to me. “The herb! Did you give it to her?”
I shook my head. “Didn’t need to… she… she’d passed quickly…”
“What herb…?” Lise questioned. I whispered its intent to her. Livid anger boiled in her eyes. “What!?” she hissed. I reached up to steady her, shaking my head.
“It doesn’t matter,” I whispered. “Layla’s alive…”
My steps took me back towards the castle. I’d been asked, and then ordered, to go back and rest. Await instructions. There would be questions for Layla. Many questions. I hated the notion of leaving her to their interrogations by herself. But I could not defy orders. Somehow, the mamono force within me that had transformed me into a roper could elude the barrage of medical and spiritual exams directed at me. I hoped above all else, the same would be true for Layla.
“Lady Daray,” a maid called to me as the guards permitted me entry to the castle. “Please follow me?”
I studied her face and recognized her as the maid who’d attended my room earlier. “I apologize for leaving so suddenly. I asked you to prepare some food for me, but…”
“Think nothing of it,” she cooed, “Your desire is my compulsion.”
A strange feeling curled within me. Her compulsion? What was that supposed to mean? And why had she led me to a secluded corner?
“Miss?” I prompted, a sliver of anxiety skating up my arm. Her eyes met mine, staring intently. She took a step towards me. Then another. My back bumped into the wall. Her gown feathered against my body.
“I’m Kania,” she whispered huskily, tucking a strand of my hair out of my face. “I have something for you. Please accept it.”
She cut me off. With a kiss.
The maid’s arms curled around me in a passionate embrace. Her plush, soft lips eased mine apart. My heart fluttered in surprise. I braced for her tongue, yet it did not come. Instead, something wholly different flooded inside my mouth.
Pure, sweet, heady power.
“Mmmmm!!” I moaned passionately. I could not help myself. My arms entwined around the girl, drawing her into me. Ropes distended from my thighs and curled under her gown… and they met… ropes of her own. She had become like me. Her tendrils caught mine in individual embraces. Intimate, yet not sexual. That much became apparent as the kiss lingered. She wasn’t seducing me.
She was feeding me.
My nascent mamono instincts told me what this power was. Spirit energy. Energy she’d collected and stored for me. After a few moments, she finished and released me. Our tendrils released, and she stepped back, leaving me breathless and gasping against the wall.
My body thrummed with power. The very air around my fingers shimmered, rippling like heat off of sunlit cobblestones. My eyes locked on hers, and she smiled sultrily.
“Do you find my tribute acceptable?” she cooed, trailing her tongue across her lips.
I nodded, my mind awash in ecstasy. “Thank you…” I managed to gasp.
The maid curtsied. “I’m so glad, my queen. I will inform the others to prepare their tributes for you as well. Please be patient with them.”
She turned to leave.
“Wait, Kania,” I called softly. She paused and glanced over her shoulder. “What… others? What happened to you?”
She turned and approached me, leaning to whisper in my ear. “You presented me an egg in your room,” she informed me, her hot breath tickling my ear. “I have been made aware of the nature of your desires, my queen, and will supplement them with my tributes.”
I gulped. “There will be… more?”
She leaned back, smiling coyly at me. “Of course, my queen.” She held her hand over her heart, extending a tendril up from the fabric of her gown. It seemed to be coming from the gown itself as it slid up around her arm to link with it.
“This, I swear to you,” she stated resolutely. “I am yours to command, my queen. Your lust is my craving. Your wishes, my instincts. Your desire, my compulsion. Your words… my life.”
I shook my head slightly. “You’re not a slave, Kania.”
The maid smiled brightly, dropping her arm. Her tendril wriggled back into her gown. She knelt before me, taking my hand and pressing it to her lips before gazing back to me with upturned eyes.
“Of course not, my queen,” she said softly. “I desire to serve you. The tributes I will offer you will strengthen you, and in turn, empower me. And the others. The pleasure is like none other. I want for nothing else.”
Kania grinned, standing up as her thumb massaged the back of my hand. “Your influence spreads even now,” she told me with a wink. “It will begin in the castle, and then, the city. Soon, Ravalia will be yours.” She flashed me a wild, hungry grin. “I must go. There is much to be done.”
The maid fled before I could reply. I simply lingered there in my spot against the wall, my heart pounding in my chest, as my mind struggled to process what had happened. I’d left eggs behind? As a Hero, or, well, I suppose “former Hero” would be more appropriate, I’d studied monster-kind in great detail. Of all monsters, dark slimes, ropers, matango, and any species that transformed through utter corruption or parasitical infection terrified members of the Order above all else. I’d studied these types in particular so that I could protect my friends and fellow soldiers.
The roper. A creature that implants an egg directly to symbiotically fuse with a woman. I should not be capable of simply laying eggs like a chicken. Kania seemed confused by my question. Had I implanted her and forgotten? I decided to go back to my room and lie down to think about it.
On the way there, I drew the eyes of several maids, each one harboring that mischievous glint in her eyes, same as Kania. Half of me almost wanted to warn the base. Then I remembered, I was the cause. I did this to them. To Layla.
Oh, gods. Layla.
My legs tingled; my body ached. I desired her so suddenly fiercely. One of the maids seemed to notice and approach me, leaning close so that I might rest against her shoulder.
“Are you well, my queen?” she whispered urgently.
“Layla…” I moaned.
“You desire your consort,” the maid nodded. “Of course. I will dispatch someone to check on her whereabouts at once. Please, lie down. My tribute is incomplete, but I will offer you what I can.”
My aching, confused body collapsed onto the bed, guided into a comfortable position with the help of tender, young hands. The maid climbed up upon me and straddled me, leaning down upon me. I grasped her shoulders to ease her descent.
Her lips brushed my mouth, and my lips parted. Her eyes fluttered closed and a rush of power flooded into my mouth.
“Mnnn…” I sighed, embracing the girl with my arms and my ropes. The power transfusion ended all too soon; a whine escaped my lips.
“Forgive me, my queen,” the dark-haired maid apologized ruefully. “As I said, my tribute is incomplete. Please be patient while I collect more.”
“I will,” I promised her. “Find Layla. Make sure she’s well.”
“At once, my queen,” the maid nodded and left me.
I sighed and closed my eyes. The maids’ tributes eased me off to sleep as my body worked to absorb the power.
Darkness greeted me. Voices.
“You’ve been selected for an experimental program.”
“I never asked for this,” I spoke into the darkness.
“Of course you did,” the sultry, taunting voice answered me. “You said, adoringly, ‘Please, I’ll do anything. Just don’t hurt my friends.’ So sweet. Yet, so unnecessary! I would never hurt those darlings!”
“What did you do to me?” I demanded.
“Haven’t you already figured that out?” the woman inquired teasingly. “Hee, hee, hee…”
I gasped, waking up with a start. The room glowed auburn with the setting sun. No one was around. A platter of inviting food lay on a pedestal nearby. I wasn’t hungry. At least, not for food. My eyes closed again. Layla… where… where are you?
Strange shapes pulsed against my eyelids. I sighed, relaxing into a meditation that I often employed as a Hero to focus my thoughts. But, instead of the Goddess’ will illuminating my mind, I touched other dark minds instead. They danced around my vision, indistinct orbs of dark, red energy. I focused on one of them, and the vision sharpened. Our minds connected.
I heard sounds first. Moaning. Struggling. Tearing of clothing. Gasps. Cries of climax. The sounds of sex. I wrinkled my nose at the pungent scent of it. I beheld a woman, squirming against a dozen ropes and tendrils pinning her to the ground, and splaying her nude body wide open. My perspective hovered from a vantage point close by, directly above the woman, and bouncing slightly as she fought her captor.
“Please…” moaned the woman, a guard of the citadel from the looks of her, though difficult to tell without her uniform.
“Oh, look…” cooed the woman from who’s eyes I peered through. “My queen is watching us…”
I swallowed loudly, but the fascination of it all held my attention. I sensed the girl blushing, her heart swelling with pride at having been observed. Her ovipositor slid into position between the guard’s legs.
“Watch, my queen, as your will touches a new mind!” she squealed with glee, thrusting it inside the girl.
Oh… oh, my goddess.
I could feel everything. Every inch of that girl’s insides through the touch of the tendril. I even became aware of the girl’s body by extension of the other ropes holding her. She trembled with fear as the thick rope inside her crept deeper within.
“She’s enjoying this,” the young roper moaned. “I can feel her pleasure licking every inch of me… mmmmnnn…” She thrust inside the guard as deeply as she could, bending and curving the tendril to gently tease the guard’s sensitive pleasure points as she went. “I’m ready to give you an egg,” she cooed. “Are you ready to receive it?”
“Don’t,” I commanded the roper. “Not unless she desires it.”
I felt the girl’s blush deepen. “Of course not, my queen,” she assured me. “Did you hear that, my sweet?” she asked the guard. “My queen is offering you a choice.”
“Nnnn…” the guard winced, her body shuddering. The tendril wiggled inside her, stirring up lust. “I… I can’t… please, give it to me…” Ahh. She sounded just like me that first time…
“As you wish!” the young roper gushed, pushing in the rest of the way. The guard cried out, shaking with climax. “Ahhnn!” squealed the roper. “She’s coming! Oh, my queen! It tickles so much!”
Deep, gnawing hunger for possession of this woman gripped my body. “Give her my gift,” I commanded.
“With pleasure, my queen!” she moaned, tossing her head back as she sent an egg into the ovipositor. I felt every inch of its sensual passage until it slipped into the guard’s womb. The guard’s climax set its hatching off immediately. A new mind reached out for me, terrifying and adorable at the same time.
“I accept you, my child,” I told it, smiling fondly. “Transform your host and fuse with her. Grant her pleasure unending.”
I scarcely believe I’d just done that. I released them both from my vision, gasping upon the bed. The sheets between my legs glistened with my arousal, and small tendrils extending from my inner thighs moistened themselves in it. They receded back into me as I woke.
Layla, where are you…
I stiffened. Another dark mind was calling out to me. I closed my eyes.
“Darkling, I listen,” I replied.
You must come. I believe your consort is in danger.
I sucked in a breath. “Where!?”
Reach out for me when you are ready. I will guide you, my queen.
I bounded off the bed, glancing down at the sorry state of my clothes. Damn! I needed my uniform and armor. Oh, well. There was nothing for it. I stalked towards the door but paused as my ropes swirled around me. They attacked my robe, pulling it apart and stripping me naked.
“What…?” I gasped. The ropes slithered around me, holding my legs apart and my arms up at shoulder-level. The tendrils pressed into my skin, solidifying, forming a perfect replica of my uniform, complete with polished armor plating.
I glanced at the mirror on the wall. The ensemble gleamed in the dying light, perfectly immaculate and polished. The members of Aeria Gloris each dressed in a specific color scheme to easily identify them on the battlefield. Ellari wore orange and red. Saskia, violet and red. Kisa, metallic silver and red. Tannalise wore the green of her elven kin with the red of Aeria Gloris. I myself wore white and red to signify angelic purity. Hah. Hopefully it would fool the officers of the compound.
Power pulsed around me. I would not need angelic wings to fly to Layla’s aid this time. I reached out for the dark mind that alerted me and felt an instant connection. I knew what to do. Dashing from the castle, my feet barely touched the ground, cushioned with small tendrils, that no one could see, with each step. The officers and soldiers looked surprised to see me rushing through with heartfelt abandon, but none stood in my way.
A maid stood nearby a large, guarded door, trying not to draw attention to herself. I skidded to a halt next to the guards. “Major,” one of them said to me, holding a spear crossed with the other guard’s.
“What is going on here?” I demanded.
“I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to disclose that, Major. Please clear the hall.”
My hands balled into fists. “Step aside, soldier.”
The two men glanced at each other nervously.
“You know who I am,” I told them. “I am Major Ashlynn Daray, Hero and leader of Aeria Gloris. You are holding one of my unit inside, and I demand you step aside.”
“With… with all due respect, Major,” the other man stammered. “We were instructed not to admit you. Please do not force us to raise the alarm.”
The audacity! My mouth hung open. The maid met my eyes with a determined stare. “Rielle,” I murmured. She snapped to attention.
“Yes, my queen?”
The men exchanged a worried glance.
I nodded to Rielle.
“As you wish,” she replied.
Before the men could react, multiple ropes shot out from the maid’s gown, binding and gagging them. I took their weapons from them as their eyes widened in terror and disbelief. The ropes tightened, pinning their arms behind them.
“Don’t hurt them,” I told Rielle sternly.
Rielle cast me a wounded glance. “Of course not, majesty.”
“Keep them quiet and secure,” I instructed. The maid nodded and dragged them men off to a storeroom. Strapping the two spears to my back, I thrust open the doors and stalked inside. Kicking them closed behind me, I proceeded down the hall, and faced off against two more elite spearmen guarding another door.
“Major Daray,” one of them declared as they both drew their weapons. “You are not authorized to be here.”
“Stand aside, gentlemen,” I sighed, drawing one of my spears. “I don’t want to hurt you.” They nodded at each other and approached. “You can’t stop me. Remember who stands before you.”
“We will do our duty, even onto death,” they declared, and charged.
“That won’t be necessary,” I assured, parrying their strikes. While I much preferred halberds, few could match my skill with a spear. The lighter weapons were designed purely for thrusts and basic slashes. As with any longer-ranged weapon, the trick when going up against one is to get close. The guards did not expect this with one in my hands as well. I twirled practically into his embrace and delivered a quick upward snap with the heel of my hand to his nose, stunning him. He coughed, backing into his companion, the clatter of armor and metal spear-tips ringing in the hall. A swift kick in the chest—soft, yet powerful enough to knock them on their haunches—knocked them down. Sweeping with my leg, I relieved them of their weapons.
“I’m sorry,” I told them. A rap from the pommel of my spear knocked the first man unconscious, and then the next. Kneeling to ensure they were alive, yet dazed into stupor, I replaced my spear against its twin against my back and opened the second pair of doors.
“Major Daray!” bellowed Colonel Dresden as I stepped forward. Half a dozen men nearby drew their swords and pikes. “What in blazes is the meaning of this!?”
My eyes swept the room for Layla. She was nowhere in sight. My heart sank as my gaze took in the setting. “I could ask you the same thing, sir,” I practically growled. “If one of the members of my unit is to be court-marshaled, I would expect to be present for the proceedings.” My voice spat at the word, “present.”
“It’s rather interesting you knew about the trial,” Dresden replied, “Considering its top-secret nature precluded all but the handful of men and women in this room.”
My gaze swept the room again. I recognized only Dresden and the physician who’d treated Layla, and subsequently handed me the deadly herb. The others appeared to be Order Operatives and special forces officers.
“You didn’t answer me, sir,” I hissed.
“You didn’t ask me a question, Major,” the Colonel shot right back. “However, since you’re here, perhaps you can shed some light on recent developments.”
Relaxing slightly, I asked, “What developments?”
“A dark presence is forming somewhere in Ravalia,” Dresden told me. “Such power hasn’t been detected since the fall of Lescatié.”
I gulped. “What… what are you saying?”
“What I’m saying, Major, is that there is an evil presence in the city, and it has begun taking hold of the populace.”
“And you think Layla is responsible?” I demanded. “The monsters nearly killed her!”
“And yet, her miraculous recovery,” the doctor noted.
“I would call that an answer to prayer,” I countered. “We do still believe in miracles, do we not?”
“We do,” the physician agreed. “However, like any unexplained phenomenon, we scrutinize them to ensure darker motives are not at work. The Demon Lord is quite capable of miracles herself, after all.”
“What did you find?” I asked him. Damnit… I should not have implanted her so soon. This was all my fault!
“While I could not find anything physically wrong with her,” the doctor said, “I determined most of the internal wounds had healed, yet a majority of the external, superficial wounds remained. These were still causing her a good deal of pain. A miracle from Our Goddess Above would likely have not stopped with the internal injuries. My opinion is, this is some effort at deception.”
“What kind of deception?” I prompted. “Why? Who would want to do this to her?”
“Calm down, Major,” sighed Dresden. “The sad fact of the matter is, we believe Captain Layla Vitari has been infected by some kind of mutagenic energy.”
No, no, no, no! “How… how did you come to that conclusion?”
Dresden snapped his fingers. A side door opened, and someone stepped out with a tearful expression.
Oh gods, no. Ellari was the best damn Elucidator I’d ever seen. I’d never keep my power hidden from her if she turned her magic on me. I needed a distraction.
“My subjects. I call upon you. Create a diversion, quickly.”
“What is she doing here?” Ellari asked. “Ashlynn, we didn’t want to involve you until we knew we were sure. Something’s happened to Layla…”
“Right, it’s called a near-death experience,” I implored her. “I think if the monsters wanted to corrupt her, they wouldn’t have risked her life.”
Ellari tilted her head as she thought about that. “I wondered the same thing. I don’t think she’s the cause. I think she’s a victim.” She tapped her cheek pensively. “Did something happen while you were in the room with her?”
“Yes…” I sighed. “She died.”
Ellari peered carefully at me. Her eyes shone dimly. Damn!
The door burst open. “Colonel!” cried a soldier. Ellari gasped, her concentration broken. That was too close… “Colonel, we’ve got trouble!”
The alarm sounded the moment he’d said that.
“What’s the situation?” Dresden demanded.
“Monsters have somehow breached the city and taken the castle! The royal family is being held hostage!”
Hmm. Had to admit, that was a pretty good diversion.
“Colonel!” I cried. “Shall I deploy?”
Dresden stared hard at me for a moment. “No, we need to get eyes on the situation. Can’t risk the monsters killing the royal family.” He snapped his fingers at one of his men. “Find Tannalise. Tell her to get in there, find out who’s coordinating this.”
“Right away, sir!” The man ran off.
“I can’t just stand here!” I bellowed.
“Captain, take the Major with you and question Vitari together. Maybe Daray can get through to her. And hurry. We may not have much time.”
“Yes, sir,” Ellari sighed, tilting her head in a gesture to follow her.
The moment her back was turned, I called out to my sisters. “Well done. Hold the castle. Be alert. Tannalise is on the way. Do not permit her into the castle.”
Ellari led me into a secret passage and into a room—no. This was no normal room. It was a torture chamber. Layla lay against a rack, shackled in multiple places, her skin polished with sweat. Hot, sickening anger enveloped me. It was all I could do to maintain my disguise. Ellari glanced up at me with a sorrowful frown.
“I didn’t choose this,” she sighed. “When I discovered the infection, the physicians said she needed to be restrained. I agreed, but didn’t think they would do… this…”
An Operative stood nearby, working the controls, keeping Layla strained to the point of breaking, and holding her there. Metal spikes nudged her skin and would pierce her if she tried to fight back in the slightest. Cuffs covered in the things covered her arms and legs, and one around her throat.
“Oh, Layla,” I sighed sadly.
“Ash…lynn…” she moaned.
“Is this what the Order does to its former champions?” I demanded of the Operative.
“We see this more as an opportunity,” the Operative replied dispassionately. “A chance to glimpse into the minds of monsters as they change. Perhaps gain some insight onto their culture and motives.”
“Is that how you feel?” I asked Ellari, fearing what I might hear.
Ellari bit her lip, weighted down with indecision. “I don’t like it,” she confessed. “But if she’s falling, maybe we can help her somehow?”
I sighed bitterly. “You can’t possibly believe that?” I pointed at the Operative. “He’s not in the least bit interested in ‘helping’ Layla! He just wants to study her until she transforms, and then kill her!”
“A childish reaction,” the Operative droned. “My actions are purely academically motivated.”
“No…” murmured Ellari. “Ashlynn’s right.” She glared at the man, her eyes shining. “You’re only telling us half of the truth.”
What? I turned to him. Hadn’t expected this. “Explain yourself,” I demanded.
“This is pointless conjecture,” the man sighed.
“Tell us,” growled Ellari. “Or I’ll dig it out of you, and it won’t be pleasant.” Her eyes shone brightly, terrifying orbs of electric blue.
The man staggered backwards against the surprising might of Ellari’s elucidation. “We… we received a report…” he grunted, unable to stop himself.
“Go on,” the girl urged, gritting her teeth. Her power shimmered around her.
“Stop this at once!” growled the Operative. “Agh… we… the report detailed… a Lilim’s plans to… aghhh! To destroy the city from within!”
“Wrong,” hissed Ellari. “Let’s try that again.”
Icy flames licked Ellari’s body from every angle. She pointed at the Operative, guiding the flames over to him. Oh goddess, she was terrifying when she wanted to be. I cringed at the thought of her focusing on me.
“They’ve developed an experimental program!” cried the Operative as the flames singed his uniform. “They’ve been searching for someone special! To… to…”
“How are you resisting me?” demanded Ellari. Suddenly, her hand clapped to her mouth. “Oh, my goddess! He’s an Incubus!”
“Hahaha!” cried the man. “Foolish whelp.”
I drew my spear and pointed it at him. Now what?”
“Perfect…” Ellari grinned wickedly, cracking her knuckles. “Always wanted to try this on a monster.” She twirled her hand around, focusing the flame straight between his eyes, and tipped it forward like a spear. It slid right through his head and stuck in his brain.
“Urrghh!” the man grunted. “You’re wrong… not…”
“Huh?” Ellari cocked her head. “Hang on. He’s not an Incubus. What the Hell is going on? Ash, take off his clothes.”
“Just do it, I got a sinking feeling about this.”
I slid the spear back onto my back and reached forward, tearing the man’s uniform open. “Woah…” I gasped, darting back.
His chest and sides were covered with strange runes. “Ohhh,” gasped Ellari. “No wonder. Saw these before.”
“Tenebrae… Vincunt…” moaned Layla.
“Darkness Prevails!” bellowed the Operative.
“You assholes almost got me executed,” Ellari hissed. “This is gonna hurt. A lot.”
Ellari formed more flaming spears and sent one each into the runes. The man’s body ignited, and, in a burst of energy, he vaporized.
“Ellari!!” I screamed. “You just murdered him!”
Ellari gasped, her shock mirroring mine. “I… I didn’t use that much power! I’m… oh gods, I’m such an idiot…”
“Talk to me,” I urged, reaching over to release Layla’s restraints.
“They were developing techniques to eliminate themselves if they were caught,” Ellari sighed. “I must have triggered a suicide spell.”
“We have Tenebrae agents in the compound…” I gasped. “Ellari, can you find them?”
“Maybe, but what are you doing?” she pointed at me. “I wasn’t wrong about Layla. She’s changing.”
I froze. Hadn’t even thought about it. I had just… done it. Damn… I observed the girl carefully. Her eyes began to glow again. I released the restraints, having only opened the ones on Layla’s arms and neck. Stepping back, I eyed Ellari warily.
“I thought he was using a spell to make you believe she was infected?” Yeah. Even I wouldn’t believe that, but I had to say something.
“Ash, you’re… lying,” Ellari said softly, her fingers over her lips. “You’ve… you’ve never lied to me before.” Her eyes gleamed brightly.
My throat tightened. I’d had Elucidators question me before, especially when I awakened as a Hero, but I’d never had anything to hide before. Ellari’s gaze burned straight to my heart, exposing my very soul.
“Oh… my… goddess…” gasped Ellari, both hands over her mouth in a futile attempt to stifle her horror. “It’s you… You’re the source…”
“DON’T LIE TO ME!” she screamed, tears flinging from her eyes.
My eyes fell. “You’re right. I’m the source.”
“Why? Why, Ash?”
I looked deeply into those blazing eyes, weeping with disbelief. “Make me tell you.”
“Wh-what?” she gasped.
“I don’t remember what happened!” I cried. “But you can make me remember. Force me to tell you.”
“This… this is going to hurt like hell,” Ellari warned me.
The girl moaned sadly. “I can’t believe I have to do this to you…”
“Just do it!” I shut my eyes firmly. Her magic washed over me, holding me in place.
“On the night we were separated, what happened to you?” she asked me.
“I… don’t remember… AGGHHHH!!” Oh, goddess this hurt! Now I knew what death by a thousand cuts must feel like. Except these were tongues of flames.
“Stop it!” implored Layla. “You’re going to kill her! She doesn’t know!”
“If she didn’t, it wouldn’t hurt,” countered Ellari. “She’d be telling the truth.”
“I can’t… I can’t… agghhh!”
“TELL ME!” bellowed Ellari.
My body snapped, jerking against the pain. The ropes inside me begged to release, to protect me. I denied them. No. I deserved this. That, and, I had to know.
“I… I was captured!” I cried. “I fought, but… the rest of you escaped. I didn’t need to protect you anymore! The power left me. Even without it, I’m strong, stronger than a dozen monsters. There were hundreds.”
“Then what?” urged Ellari.
“They took me to Darkhaven, their distended demon realm adjacent to Lescatié,” I recalled, remembering as I spoke. “Led me to a mansion, and a succubus greeted me. Except, as the monsters pulled me closer, it wasn’t just a succubus. White wings and tail. Red eye sigils on her wings, horns, and dress.”
“A lilim,” Ellari gasped.
“Not just any lilim,” Layla noted. “That sounds like Druella.”
“Gods!” cried Ellari. “Druella is leading Darkhaven?”
I shuddered. It was true; I nodded. “Yes. She stripped me and examined me. Learned my secret.”
“What secret?” Ellari asked.
“Nnnnhh… please, don’t…”
“What… secret?” she insisted.
“I’m in love with Layla Vitari!” I cried. Couldn’t keep it in. I peeked at Layla, who blushed, smiling sadly.
“Woah, really?” Ellari asked with a raised eyebrow. “You know, that doesn’t surprise me. I’ve seen how you two look at each other.”
“But, it’s forbidden,” Layla reminded her.
“Eh.” Ellari shrugged. “So are a lot of other things Aeria Gloris does. But nobody cares, because we kick ass.” She sighed, her shoulders caving. “Or… we did…”
“Don’t… stop…” I grunted. “Make me tell you the rest!”
Ellari gazed up at me. “What happened after Druella found out?”
“She got… excited…” I hissed, my body seething with pain. “Sealed me in a special chamber that would… protect me from spirit energy corrosion…”
“Woah!” cried Ellari. “That actually exists? Why would she want that?”
“Nnng… don’t… know…”
No pain. It must have been the truth.
“Alright,” shrugged Ellari. “We’ll have to look into that, though. Why did she put you inside?”
“To… turn… me into… a spy… I think?” I murmured. I really wasn’t sure. “Saw her… talking with a Baphomet. Observed me for days… designing something in another… chamber…”
“She… let me out,” I grunted, shuddering. “I begged her… not to hurt the rest of you. I’d do anything…” I gulped. “She said she had selected me for an experimental program.”
“What does it involve?”
“I… don’t know…”
“No!” I cried. “Don’t stop. Make me tell you! I have to know!”
“I can’t,” sighed Ellari. “You were telling the truth. You don’t know. I’d have to question Druella herself to find out.” She shrugged. “What then?”
“She did something to me. I think she inserted something. Implanted it in me. Infused it with a massive amount of her power. But only what she put in me. She left me alone otherwise. She then dumped me in the tunnels to dig my way out.”
“What happened to your memories?” Ellari prodded.
“I think it has something to do with the symbiote.”
“S-symbiote?” the girl gulped.
“I’m… I’m a roper queen,” I confessed.
Ellari’s eyes dimmed as panic set in. She was alone, in a room with two ropers, one of them a queen. “Uh… riiiiight… I’ll just… um… Go report what I’ve learned.” She stepped back, towards the door. “Eeeep!” she squealed.
Layla caught her. She’d slipped through her bindings somehow. Oh, right. At the adolescent stage, my changing body had very slippery legs. She’d squirmed right out.
“No, Ellari, we can’t let you go…” Layla said softly, right against her ear, embracing her from behind.
The blue flames around me faded. I approached the two girls, dodging as a fireball whizzed past me. Layla grabbed Ellari’s wrists and held them behind her back.
“Now, Ellari, none of that,” I cooed. “We’re all friends here.”
“We’re really not!” squealed Ellari. “You’re a roper queen!? How did that happen!?”
“Druella must have put an egg in me,” I replied, kneeling before her. “And infused it with enough power to make it a queen egg. I don’t really know. All I know is…” I stroked the girl’s cheek with the back of my hand. She was trembling. “I want you to be part of my family.”
“No, please,” moaned Ellari as I began unbuttoning her uniform.
“Sweet, innocent Ellari,” cooed Layla, kissing her neck. “Ultimately, it’ll be your choice, but we have years of indoctrination to squeeze out of you before you can make that choice properly.”
“I think I know what I’m gonna say!” Ellari moaned, squirming as her jacket opened. “Willingly accept a parasite that’ll corrupt me beyond recognition!? HELL NO!”
I paused, leaving her jacket hanging open. “Beyond recognition? Do Layla and I not look like ourselves?”
Ellari’s eyes appraised me. “Alright, you got me on that one. You two LOOK normal. I thought you were supposed to be ooey, gooey, icky below the belt.”
“Promise not to incinerate me?” I asked her.
“Then, I can’t let you feel for yourself.”
“Fine, if you promise not to turn me, I’ll promise not to incinerate you.” Ellari glared at me.
“I promise not to turn you unless you ask me to.”
“Like HELL that’ll ever happen,” she grunted. “Fine. Lemme go.”
She stood up, and Layla removed the girl’s jacket as she did so.
“Hey! You promised!” Ellari protested.
“I’m not going to turn you,” Layla assured her, but kept the jacket out of reach.
“Ellari,” I said, my voice a tad misty. “You’re so cute…”
“Hey…” Ellari blushed brightly, crimson spreading over her freckled cheeks as she crossed her arms over her petite chest. Ah. Freckles. Freckles everywhere, all over her shoulders, face, down her arms… Fair, alabaster skin beneath. Slender, demure figure.
Layla tickled her gently.
Ellari giggled nervously. “I’m so… gonna die…”
“We are not going to kill you,” I promised her. “Look. Touch me. See for yourself that I’m not disgusting.” I offered her my leg.
Ellari reached out and tentatively touched the armor plate protecting my thigh. I smiled as her finger feathered it; I felt her touch just as plainly as if she’d stroked my skin. Technically it was my skin. Mmm. A massive store of spirit energy filled this girl to the bursting point. My ropes craved to envelop her, but again, I denied them.
“Well, it feels normal enough,” Ellari noted.
My eyes fluttered closed. “Yes, sister?”
The half-elf has breached the castle. We could not stop her.
“I did not expect you could hold her for long. Impede her progress where possible, but do NOT engage her. She’ll kill any of you without hesitation.”
“Ashy?” Layla prompted.
I shook my head with a smile. Odd that I could not hear her voice through the link I held with the others. Ellari poked me.
“So, you can wear this armor without it getting all gooey?”
“It’s not armor,” I said with a smirk. “Not in the traditional sense.”
“Huh?” Ellari murmured, then yelped, jumping back, and landing in Layla’s arms. “Your pants WIGGLED…”
“They’re not pants. It’s a disguise.”
“You mean… you’re technically…”
I winked at her. “Naked.”
Ellari’s blush spread; Layla’s hands probably weren’t helping. She was unbuckling the girl’s belt.
“I’ll admit, you ropers weren’t what I expected,” she admitted. “Hey! What are you doing?” She smacked Layla’s hands, but her pants fell to the floor. Layla picked the squealing young woman up, kicking her clothes out of reach. I knelt close.
“We won’t hurt you, Ellari,” I promised, slipping my hand around her bare waist. “Not at all,” I soothed, tugging her towards me.
“You promised you wouldn’t eat… mmmmm…”
I devoured her words with a kiss. Mmm indeed. She tasted of berries and spice. Much different than Layla, who tasted of a heady, fine wine. My heart fluttered just to think about it, but I wished to devote this moment to Ellari. Layla dipped in next to me and touched kisses to Ellari’s neck, cupping her small breasts over her underclothes.
“Haah… haaahhh…” panted Ellari as I released her. My lips trailed to her cheek and down to her neck, kissing the opposite side Layla attended. “Mmmm… that’s… actually not so bad…”
“You see?” Layla soothed, squeezing her breasts gently as she kissed down Ellari’s shoulder, giggling at the goosebumps she evoked. “This is barely a taste of what we can share.”
“I… haven’t decided yet… show me more?” Ellari offered.
“As you wish,” Layla cooed, untying her shift. The thin garment opened up and came off in her hands. My fingers worked upon the rest of it, slipping it off her hips.
“Nnnn…” hissed Ellari as two sets of foreign hands set upon her naked body. “Gods… I’m so going to Hell…”
“Not if we can help it,” Layla countered, her voice misty as she cupped Ellari’s petite breasts, gently tweaking the pink nipples.
“I… I can’t believe I’m… being seduced by… Ashlynn… and Layla… in a torture chamber…” gasped Ellari. “Definitely… not what… mmm… Not what I thought… ahhnnn…”
“Shush,” I protested, kissing the tip of her nose first, and then her lips briefly. “Just enjoy what we offer. And then, make your choice.”
“If… If I’m going to become like you…” gulped Ellari, “I need… to know what you’re really like…”
“She has a point,” winked Layla.
“She does,” I nodded, standing up and turning my back to them. Rolling my neck sensually, I willed the ropes to release me from the disguise. They came off sticky and slick, sliding back into my body, leaving me glistening and nude.
“That’s so weir…” gasped Ellari. “Oh, my goddess you’re hot…”
I blushed, turning slowly, displaying myself for the girl. Her eyes feasted upon my body, from the top of my broad, sturdy shoulders, to my full breasts, my slim, toned waist, shapely hips, and powerful legs. Every inch of me glistened. I bit my lip…
“Nnnn…” I moaned. “You have no idea how hot that disguise made me, having been wrapped up and embraced so tightly for so long…”
Ellari gulped, gazing up at my face. “All… the paintings of roper queens we have depict them in… slimy dresses with teeth.”
I let out a peal of laughter. “Would you like me to wear that?”
Ellari shook her head vigorously.
“I don’t think I have one in my wardrobe, anyhow,” I replied. Layla giggled. “Honestly. How ostentatious could you get? They’re just showing off.”
“And you’re holding back,” Ellari noted, her eyes shining. “Show me what you truly are.”
“As you wish,” I curtsied. Rolling my head again, I stretched my arms up into the air and let the ropes have their way. Ooze slicked my legs as my sex leaked freely with arousal. Ropes distended from my legs, hips, and waist, touching the floor, and exploring its surface. Some of them snaked around the torture equipment in the room, quietly disabling them. Wish I’d thought of that sooner. Some of the thicker ropes appeared to have eyes with red sclera, icy white irises, and slit pupils. If I concentrated, I could peer through them, the effort becoming easier as each moment passed.
“Mmmmnnnn…” I moaned throatily while flexing my power. The room pulsed with it, filling it to the brim. Ropes writhed everywhere, leaving only Ellari untouched. That included Layla, who received a few to caress her cheek and neck. Yessss… such power! If I could no longer summon my angelic wings, possessing this instead, I would not shed too many tears.
“Uhhh…” Ellari pointed at me.
“I thought you said you didn’t have one in your wardrobe,” Layla giggled.
“Wha?” I lowered my arms. Gasping, I gazed down at myself.
I wore a terrifying roper bell-gown of snow white and crimson. The sides—the bodice and corset—were dyed a vivid, bloody crimson. The organza-like ooze comprising the sheer middle was a milky snow-white. If I gazed carefully enough, I could glimpse my nude figure within. Running my hands over the sides of the gown drew a shudder of pleasure from my lips.
“Goddess, you look amazing,” Layla whistled.
“Totally getting eaten now,” moaned Ellari.
“How much must I tell you,” I sighed, my voice echoing with power, “I will not hurt you. Come. Touch me?”
Slipping out of Layla’s lewd grasp, Ellari raised her hand and touched the side of my gown. The ropes along the edge quivered with pleasure.
“Yess…” I gasped softly.
“What… does this feel like?” the young woman asked as she poked the milky white center. I relaxed its consistency upon the second poke, letting her finger slip inside.
“It feels like my lovely friend is finally beginning to accept me,” I told her, smiling as a tear slid down my cheek.
“This is so strange,” Ellari admitted, pushing her whole arm inside my dress. My ropes ached to embrace her. Patience, yes… patience. I couldn’t help the power seeping into her, though. If she kept this up, she was going to transform into a monster whether she wanted to or not.
“Ellari,” I hissed through the electric pleasure her presence offered me. “You must… make your choice soon, or flee.”
“Why?” she murmured, mesmerized by the liquid silk around her arm.
“Spirit energy corrosion,” reminded Layla. “Ashy is a roper queen. Just being near her will change you if you stay with us for too long.” She curled her hands around Ellari’s waist and nudged her forward, into the milky white that was my dress… and my body.
“Oh goddess!” cried Ellari, tossing her head back as the liquid silk enveloped her body. I knelt, embracing her gently, holding her against my chest. Her heart beat wildly against my breasts. “Nnnn… Mmmmnn… You… you’ve convinced me…”
“I have?” I asked hopefully, gently tucking her chin to tilt her face up to mine. I smiled down at her like a mother to her daughter.
“Yes…” she moaned. “I’ve never felt this alive… not even when playing with that boy in the alchemy wing.”
Layla gasped. “Why, you little liar! You denied that!”
“So, I’m not your first?” I pouted.
Ellari bit her lip and shook her head. “Kinda wish he was here, actually.”
“I’ll do this for you,” I offered. “Then, you go get him.”
“You’ll let me go?”
“We’ll always be together,” I promised, tilting her close for a kiss as I enveloped her with my ropes. My ovipositor coiled around her thigh, seeking her center. It nudged her entrance and slipped inside. “Always…”
“Ahh… mm… nnn!” she gasped in surprise. The rope sank deeply within her, creeping along her pleasure points. At least, I thought they were her pleasure points. She seemed to enjoy different stimulation than Layla. My kisses were arousing her just as much as everything else, and she only truly jumped for joy when I squeezed her bottom. Ahh. I gripped her plump rear firmly and squeezed.
Ellari moaned, trembling all around me. I knelt lower, taking her with me, pulling her deeper into my gown. She sank lower, deeper; melted silk crept up to her face. With a whispered promise, I nudged her under. She sucked in a breath and sank inside. The instant she did, her orgasm crested. My ovipositor waited. I sent an egg inside but held it within my rope. Ellari’s own orgasm would draw it in. The girl shook, trembling and shaking as she came. Her sexual channel gripped my rope, drawing it—and the egg—deep within, until it reached her womb. With a gasp of ecstasy, I threw my head back and felt the egg release inside her. Layla noticed and gently reached inside my gown, helping the girl out.
“Guhh… ahhh… haah…” gasped Ellari. “That was mind-blowing…” Her body came out slick and polished, but not slimy. “What happens now?” She asked as Layla helped her back into her clothes.
“Go rest, now,” I told her. “The symbiote I gave you needs some time to grow.”
“Yes, my queen,” giggled Ellari, offering me a peck on the cheek before skipping out.
It was just me and Layla, now.
“You do look incredible,” she said with a lustful smile. “A bit terrifying, but incredible.”
“I can change that,” I boasted, closing my eyes. Except… “Uh oh.”
“Let me guess, you’re stuck like that now?”
I groaned. “I must have extended my power too far. I can’t draw it back in. At least, not yet. Maybe in time.”
“Except, we don’t have time,” Layla sighed, nuzzling against one of the eyed ropes caressing her cheek. “We need to convert Saskia, Kisa, and Tannalise.”
“That’ll be difficult,” I mused. “Saskia and Kisa don’t know us as well as you or Ellari. And Tannalise… she’d never agree. No matter what we do. Her hatred of us will be matched only by her loathing of Druella.”
“What’s the plan, my queen?” Layla asked me.
I smirked. “You, of all people, need not call me that. As for the plan, I’m afraid I can’t move from this spot for now. I need you to go to the mmmmph…” Her sudden embrace and steamy kiss cut me off. My ropes latched onto her, gripping her body tightly. Nnnhh… I needed her naked!
“No,” Layla smirked, touching her finger to my lips. “You need to get this under control. I’m not leaving your side.”
“Fine,” I sighed. “Come here. Need you to borrow some of this damn power so I can recede.”
“Can’t say no to that!” giggled Layla as she embraced me again. Her body sank into my gown and ohhh my goddess, she felt so wonderful… I tilted her closer and kissed her, spreading her lips open like the maids had done for me, and breathed raw power into her.
“Mmmm,” I moaned. Feeding her power felt better than I thought it would. Her body jerked and spasmed inside me. She thrashed, twitching and… changing. Oh. Right. Feeding her energy was going to force the symbiote inside her to mature and fuse with her. Perfect!
“Ahhhh!” gasped Layla as her head tilted back. I kissed her neck, licking her throat hungrily. “Ashlynn!!” she cried. “Going to… c… ahhhnnn!!”
Mmmm. Yes, love. Come for me. Fuse. Join my—! My breath hitched in my throat. Suddenly, finally, our minds linked, far stronger than any of the other roper sisters. I felt every pulse of her life. Every twitch. Every lighting flash of orgasm. I nearly came apart, melting on the floor. When the stars faded from my vision, I was back in my armor again, with Layla lying on top of me.
“How do you feel, sweetheart?” I asked gently, stroking her cheek. She smiled, nuzzling into my hand.
“Good.” We kissed briefly. She stood first, holding out her hand to help me up. As I rose, I surveyed our surroundings. The torture chamber lay in ruins, splinters and twisted scraps of metal littering the floor. “In much the same way, we will root out the dark intent of the Order, freeing the people from mysterious disappearances and backroom tribunals such as this.”
Layla held the secret door open for me. “Shall we?”
We departed into the night, gazing up into a sky that would never be the same again.
Layla and I drifted like ghosts through the eerily quiet, deserted streets. Everyone had either barricaded themselves inside their homes or swarmed around the castle to aid the soldiers. A hastily-constructed forward command center replaced the one at the city gates, its assets having been moved as quickly as humanly possible to deal with the crisis.
“Major Daray!” Colonel Dresden called to me from the commander’s tent as I approached. The tent’s position from within the blockade kept the castle gates within view. Two maids stood guard at its entrance. “Major, why is Captain Vitari with you?” he demanded.
“Inside,” I told him, ushering him and Layla inside the tent. “The Operative was a member of Tenebrae Vincunt in disguise,” I revealed once we were alone.
“Good gods,” muttered Dresden. “Monsters on both sides and Vincunt roaches within our walls.” He sighed, running his hand through his greying hair. “Good that you’re here, though. We’ve held off the monster insurrection for now, and they want to negotiate, but will only speak with you.” He glanced at Layla. “Where is Nakaan?”
“Resting,” Layla advised. “She was the one who discovered the terrorist, absorbing the brunt of his malice.”
“I see,” noted Dresden. He turned to me. “Major, I’m not going to make this an order. You’ll be stepping through the gates of Hell if you agree to set foot in that castle.”
“Do we know what kind of monsters have taken it?” I asked.
The Colonel swallowed uneasily and nodded. “Ropers.”
Layla wiped her brow nervously. Goddess, she was a better actress than me! “How did ropers get inside the castle?”
“I believe we have a traitor in our midst,” said the Colonel grimly. A wave of guilt washed over me. I wasn’t sure what to say.
“If she goes,” Layla said, “She can’t ever come back. She’s offering herself up to be a banquet.”
“Hence my reluctance to make this an order,” Dresden replied.
“No, I’ll go,” I announced. For better or for worse, I needed to draw this to a close tonight.
“Are you certain, Major?” Dresden asked me solemnly. “You agree to this, and, more than likely, it’ll be the last order I give you.”
“I will do whatever it takes to keep my people safe,” I said.
“Gods help us if they take you,” sighed Dresden. “A greater Hero, I’ve not known. Go, then. May the blessing of Our Goddess Above go with you.”
“I’m going with her,” Layla announced. “If things get ugly, she’s going to need my help.”
Age and weariness weighed down upon the Colonel. “Losing two of my finest in one night? If either of you come back from this…”
“Before we go,” I interjected, resting a hand on Layla’s shoulder. “We learned something in that room before the terrorist took his own life. We learned who Darkhaven’s commander is.”
“Dare I ask?”
All of the color drained from the Colonel’s face. “Damn…” he wheezed. “Of course. This has her M.O. written all over it. If she were to attack now, we’d lose the city for sure.”
“The city may already be lost,” I warned him. “Get ready to pull your troops out. If I don’t make it back, get everyone who isn’t prepared to be transformed out of the kingdom.”
“Understood, Major. Goddess be with you.”
Layla and I departed for the castle. As we crossed into roper territory, I glanced at my beloved. “Are we doing the right thing?”
“It certainly does feel rather lopsided,” she admitted. “As licentious as she may be, Druella is a clever strategist. All this will be hers, soon.”
I stiffened; Layla sensed my anger and paused in her steps. “No,” I growled.
“No?” she inquired, raising an eyebrow.
“She split my family in half,” I spat angrily. “Yeah, fine, I’ll call off the assault on Darkhaven, but I’ll be damned if I bend my knee to her. This kingdom is mine. Not hers.”
Layla’s misty eyes gazed deeply into mine. “I love you,” she said softly.
My anger softened, tempered against my beloved’s affection. I nodded with a slight smile. “Come, let’s finish this.”
The castle awaited. Many of the exterior lamps and lanterns dimmed from lack of fuel, a thin mist replacing them. The mist drifted from the castle gates and meandered in from alleys nearby, a sure sign of mamono corruption beginning to take hold. As we ascended the steps to the castle gate, the two maids guarding it extended their ropes and drew the gate open. “Welcome, Queen Ashlynn. And Layla, Favored Consort of the Queen. Please enter.”
“Consort?” Layla asked wryly as we stepped into the main hall. “What am I, your concubine?”
“You’re my love,” I told her, brushing her cheek. A small throng of maids and guards descended on us from the upper hall.
“My queen,” the lead maid called.
“Kania,” I addressed her fondly. “Where is Tannalise?”
“She was last seen in the east wing,” said the girl as they began to surround me. “Before you go, please accept our tributes.”
My heart began to race. “Um… Layla… I… mmph…” I tried to explain what was about to happen to Layla, but Kania’s kiss cut me off. Gowns, skin, ropes, lips, and tongues set upon me from all sides. I gasped against the onslaught; pure, sweet, sensual power flooded my very being. The girls took turns kissing me, giving me brief tastes, passing me around in sequence, maintaining my pleasure as they lifted me to impossible heights. The air around me shimmered and rippled with my power, extending out into the main hall, passing through the walls, and leaking out into the outdoors.
I gasped, tossing my head back as the girls sent me to heaven. “Yessss… ahhnn… mmmnnn…” Lips and tongues caressed my neck, unable to reach my mouth. That was no longer necessary. My ropes thrashed about in ecstasy, embracing every girl around me. I reached for Layla, my very body dripping with need. She smiled and stepped out of reach.
“No, Ashy, this is for you. I can wait,” she said softly.
The kissing and groping against my body turned fierce. My aura stained everything around us a dark red, filling the air with a heady scent of debauched mana. I could feel it… I was ascending. Or descending, as the case may be. When the girls finished with me, they stepped back, licking their lips. I shuddered, reclining against the wall. My ropes supported me; several of them having punched holes in the walls after having run out of room.
I stood before Layla and my sisters in a gown so sensual, it could draw the covetous eyes of Druella herself. The crimson sides hugged my sensual figure tightly, the sleeveless, strapless material cupping my breasts—though not quite covering them—and extending down my sides all the way past my ankles. It was completely open in front and in back, held together with liquid, milky-white silk, that I could thicken or clear up as much as I wished. The liquid permitted me to spread my legs or close them, and the dress would conform to me. Upon my head, nestled against my glossy, dark olive hair, a red crown rested, a white winged eye crest in the center. I observed myself through the eye of one of my ropes. My glowing, wine-red eyes shone brightly as I smiled. All of the girls surrounding me knelt in respect. I held out my hand for Layla.
“My queen,” she spoke softly. “You look absolutely ravishing.” She approached slowly and knelt before me, bowing her head.
I swallowed, the heady power emanating from me clouding my mind. I bit my lip to steady myself and knelt down to Layla, tucking her chin. “My beloved,” I spoke, my voice echoing eerily through the halls. “Do not prostrate yourself before me. I am yours. And you are mine.”
She peered up at me. “Ashlynn?”
I smiled and drew her into a kiss. Short, but sweet. “Yes, my love. My appearance may have changed, but my love for you has not. Come, let’s finish this.” I stood, taking her with me, her hand in mine. The other girls rose as well, and I glanced at Kania. “What is the status of the conversion?”
“The castle is yours, my queen,” she curtsied. “We sensed your will and allowed any who did not succumb to temptation to leave freely. This included all but one of the former royal family.”
“One remained? Which one?”
“Princess Annastashia Mistralle Ravalia.”
“Why her?” asked Layla.
Rielle spoke up. “I believe she is curious about us. She said she would stay as a consolation for letting her family go, but she harbors feelings of desire compatible with our own.”
“First thing’s first,” I noted, drawing Layla into my arms, “I go to Tannalise.”
“We’ve contained her in the east wing, but we are not certain where she hides,” Kania informed me.
“Stay here. She’ll kill you if given the chance,” I cautioned. “Ready, Layla?”
Layla nodded, resting her head on my bare shoulder. My ropes tightened around us and I sent magic into them. Our forms dissolved and flew through the castle, reforming in the east wing.
“Where is she?” Layla asked stiffly, remaining in my embrace.
“I’ll locate her; just a moment.” I closed my eyes, extending ropes borne purely of magic throughout the wing. Within moments, I could see within every room of the wing at once. “There.”
Down the hall, past a large, winding staircase, tucked away in a dark corner, a pair of glowing lime-green eyes. Layla peered in that direction. “I don’t see anything,” she admitted. She tried to step out of my embrace, but my arm tightened around her.
“No, Layla. She knows. She won’t hesitate to strike you down.” I gazed in the half-elf’s direction. “Tannalise. Show yourself. You might as well. I can see you, plainly.”
The half-elf emerged, quick as a flash, and blurring with the power of her illusion magic, making her difficult to focus upon. She stood at the end of the hall, her bow nocked with an arrow aimed at my heart. A look of sickened anger twisted her face.
“You… it was… it was YOU!” she hissed. “All this time! The lie… The monstrous lie! How could you DO THIS to us!?”
My words fled. My voice tightened. I withered to see Tannalise like this. Wounded. Betrayed. Layla spoke first, bless her. “The lie you speak of does not solely pertain to us,” she said softly.
“Quiet!” snapped Lise. “Still your forked tongue!”
Layla gasped at her. “Lise… you’ve never silenced my voice before…”
“You have aligned yourself with the enemy,” hissed Lise. “Your words mean nothing. I wish to hear from the source of this evil before I put an end to it.” She faced me again.
“If you desire to question the source, I am not the one you seek,” I told her. “You seek Druella.”
Tannalise’s face paled. She gripped her bow even tighter as she snarled. “I might’ve known. That gods’ forsaken bitch. I shall part the seas of Hell and Damnation, that my arrow’s path to that monster’s heart be favored.”
“I am half tempted to aid you in that endeavor,” I murmured, my ropes twitching against my gown angrily.
That got the half-elf’s attention. “What? Speak plainly, demon.”
“Druella rent my family in two,” I said simply. “For that, she has earned my ire, regardless of my current state of being.”
Tannalise lowered her bow a notch, measuring my words.
“It’s true, Lise,” Layla added. “And partly my fault. I always worried my love for Ashlynn might ruin her career. Druella used that against us.”
“Precisely why the Order forbids love amongst Heroes,” sighed Lise bitterly. “How long have you loved her?”
“Since the academy when we met,” she admitted.
“I suspected as much,” the half-elf said.
“Lise, come closer,” I offered. “Look upon me with your keen elf eyes. Brush aside the Order’s prejudice and your own bitterness. Evaluate me impartially.”
“I… cannot,” Lise shook her head.
“I will not harm you,” I promised her.
“I cannot say the same,” the half-elf warned me. “Ashlynn. Were you any other woman, I would have struck you down without a second thought.”
“I appreciate that,” I said with a smile.
The half-elf glanced around, indicating the castle grounds. “So, this is your legacy? The Fall of Ravalia?”
“My legacy will not end here,” I swore.
Lise shook her head. “Remain in Ravalia. My respect for you stays my hand. However, if you leave this kingdom, the next time we meet, it will be as mortal enemies. I will not hesitate.”
I sighed, closing my red eyes. “If that is the way it must be.”
“What do you intend to do with the royal family?” Lise demanded.
“I set them free. Only the princess remains, and she does so by choice. Take the rest, along with the Order’s forces, and leave this kingdom. Anyone who remains, I shall assume wishes to join me.”
“Ellari, Saskia, and Kisa?” Lise asked bitterly.
My eyes opened halfway. “Ellari is one of us, now.”
“Agghh…” cried Lise, aiming directly for my heart.
“Tannalise!” screamed Layla.
“No, Layla,” I shook my head, holding her back. “Lise, if you wish to kill me, I’ll not stop you.”
“Will that put an end to this horror?” she demanded.
I averted my gaze as I thought about it. “No,” I said finally, shaking my head. “You’ll dissolve the link I formed with the others. They’ll each react differently, I’d wager, but more than likely, they’d go insane. Attack anything and anyone in sight. Druella would detect the commotion and attack. She’d take every single one of you.”
Tannalise hissed a curse.
“Please, Lise, just go,” I implored. “You will not receive such an offer of mercy from Druella.”
“Don’t give in to hate,” Layla begged the half-elf. “Think about what you’ve seen. There is a better way. Love conquers all.”
Tannalise didn’t even look at her. She turned and darted up the stairs without another word. Layla turned to me, collapsed into my arms, and wept.
All the power of the tributes and the swelling mana around me, and I could do nothing but hold her.
The Fall of Ravalia proceeded apace. With the news that I, Ashlynn Daray, had fallen and taken control as a roper queen, the military command structure collapsed. Half of the Order forces fled, likely to be captured by Druella’s merciless minions. The other half remained, terrified men and women having been laid low by their own fears. They decided to meet their fates head-on. I sent my maids into their midst to welcome them into my kingdom.
I would have inducted them myself, but my work was not yet finished.
Saskia and Kisa faced me on the outskirts of the city, the last two to leave my realm. The moon hung overhead, nearly as red as my eyes. We gazed at each other for several minutes, not saying anything.
“My friends…” I started to say.
“Former friends,” Kisa corrected me, her tearstained eyes narrowing bitterly. “I guess there really is no hope, is there?” she sniffled. “If even you can become… this.” She indicated my appearance. I stood before them in my slender red and white gown, holding my ropes close to my body. At a distance, the dress appeared lascivious, but otherwise normal.
“I am not your enemy, Kisa,” I tried to tell her. “Say the word, and I’ll welcome you with open arms…”
“We are happy the way we are,” Saskia said firmly, her hand on Kisa’s shoulder.
My gaze fell. “As was I…”
“Do you mean that?” Kisa asked me.
I nodded. “I do. The five of you were my family.”
“So, come back to us!” she implored.
“Would the Order accept a roper queen into their midst?”
Kisa bit her lip.
“They would not,” Saskia said simply.
“Hatred and prejudice are the true enemies here,” I told them. “If you would but come, and embrace me, I can free you from it…”
Kisa and Saskia remained where they stood.
“Please, I’m begging you, my friends…” I cried softly. “Tannalise would not be parted from her hatred. I fear it will devour her from the inside out. Please, come to me. Let us mend our wounds together.”
“Yours is a siren song of temptation,” Saskia said coldly. “Admittedly softer than I imagined it would be; though sung by such a dear friend, that should come as only slight surprise.”
“Is it evil to want to have my family together again?” I asked mournfully, tears trickling down my face. “I knew no dearer friends than the five of you…”
“And yet, you did not speak of your romance with Layla with any of us,” Saskia countered. “If you could not trust us with that, how can we trust you with your intent?”
Her words stung me surely as if her hand crossed my face. I covered my eyes with my hand and cried. “I’m sorry… I’m sorry! Please, don’t go…”
“We fought evil, side-by-side, tirelessly and tenaciously,” Saskia sighed. “My love for you prevents me from striking you, so I leave that to others greater than I. May they be as tenacious in their hunting of you.”
Saskia turned to leave. The weight of the world settled on my shoulders, and I fell to my knees, weeping for my loss. Kisa gazed sadly at me.
“I’m sorry, Ash. I can’t,” she said dejectedly. “When the end comes for you, I pray it’ll be painless.”
Painless. As if. Her words twisted a knife into my heart. I held my face in my hands and cried with unrestrained wails. Hours passed in the space of a single moment. No one came to me. Voices lingered at the edge of my mind, available to me with a wish or command, yet I ignored them. I glanced up, peering through my tears.
Saskia and Kisa were gone.
In this moment, I was alone.
My steps echoed like the hollow husk of my heart, beating instinctively, out of necessity. I felt numb. My body and soul reeled from the pain, like it so often did when dealt a grievous wound.
“My queen,” Rielle bowed to me as I passed her in the castle walls. “The princess will wake soon. Have you selected a husband for her?”
I shook my head. “Allow her to choose for herself.”
“Of course, majesty. Oh, there is one other matter,” Rielle noted. “You have a visitor.” She pointed down the hall. Half a dozen maids surrounded a tall succubus with white wings, chatting animatedly.
My vision burned; my numbness sizzled away as my veins boiled with anger.
Rielle sensed my fury and wilted, stepping back out of my way. The other maids also reacted in turn. The throng parted as they snapped to attention, granting me the space to stalk up to the lilim.
“Ohh, there you are!” cooed Druella. “My, my! Don’t you look lovely? How has—”
Damned if I was going to let her finish. My ropes lashed about, thrusting towards her, binding her fast against the wall with a crunch. The maids gasped in shock.
“You…” I growled.
“Ufufu!” giggled Druella. “Such strength! I hadn’t anticipated you’d grow this pow—”
“Shut up,” I snapped, whipping a tendril around her throat and squeezing. “How dare you. How dare you intrude here!? After the pain you caused me!!”
Druella’s eyes widened in shock, then narrowed as her power flared, dislodging my ropes. She dropped to the floor softly, peering at me. “Pain?” she murmured softly. “What pain?”
“Well, you ripped our family in half, for one,” Layla said stiffly from nearby. She slipped next to me, insinuating herself under my arm. I embraced her gratefully. “Look here,” she added. “Ashy’s tears have barely dried, and here, you come to us to gloat? I echo my love’s words. ‘How dare you?’”
“Oh, your friends will come around,” Druella sighed. “You could have just taken them. You had the power. They couldn’t have resisted you.”
Gods I wanted to rip this bitch to pieces.
Layla stepped forward. Probably the only thing that stopped me. “Choose your words carefully, Lilim,” my beloved warned her. “Those girls were family. Sisters in arms. No one understood us like we ourselves. We delivered each other from the slavery of prejudice and oppression. And while I have you to thank for being able to love Ashlynn publicly, we will not force our ideals on anyone. For you to continue to do so would be to lower yourself to the level of the Order.”
Druella sighed. “Breaking shackles is often painful. It seems the two of you still cling to some of them.”
“Pure power can’t cure all ills,” Layla cautioned the lilim. “If you wish to learn from this experience, I may be able to convince Ashlynn to admit you to Ravalia on a regular basis.”
“I beg your pardon?” Druella asked, splaying her hand over her chest.
“Since you can’t seem to comprehend polite subtlety,” I growled, “Let me be blunt. You hurt us. You tore our family apart, and yes, while I could have forced us back together, what sort of family would that be? Oh. I know. Just like my birth family.”
Druella’s smug smile melted. About damn time. “I don’t understand,” she admitted. “You shouldn’t be burdened by those awful feelings anymore.”
“Perhaps your little experiment failed,” I snapped. “Or you misjudged how deep my wounds go. I will not force anyone to join me. Never ever. I will not become my parents. Nor will I abandon anyone who wishes to be apart of this family. You have much to learn.”
“So it seems,” the lilim confessed. “I relish the challenge. The pleasure we gain when we ultimately succeed will cure all ills.”
I stared hard at the woman. She was not smiling. She truly meant her words.
“Go,” Layla commanded. “Leave us to grieve.”
“We’ll build our power,” I swore. “You can tell your mother, we will not shirk our duties. Royal Ravalia shall expand, its borders eventually caressing Lescatié’s. Warn anyone who enters, as we shall. I shall assume anyone who sets foot within my borders is offering to join me.”
Druella said nothing, waiting for me to finish.
“That being said,” I countered, “If you encounter any of my family in your travels, do not harm them or corrupt them. If they wish to join me, it’ll be their choice. Bring them to me. Unharmed and uncorrupted.”
I stared at Druella for at least a minute before she spoke. “Very well,” she replied simply, her smile returning.
“Now, get out.”
“You’re welcome in Lescatié and Royal Makai anytime!” gushed Druella. “Farewell, lovelies!”
With a twirl and a poof, the lilim disappeared.
I growled, gnashing my teeth as bitter tears burned my eyes. Couldn’t tell if Druella was being sincere or not, or if she’d taken any of our words to heart.
Layla curled against my side, buffering my anger. “What happens now?” she asked softly, reaching up to brush aside my tears. Her gentleness never ceased to amaze me.
“Now?” I echoed. “Now we teach them. Freedom comes at a cost. Hatred and prejudice are both shackles that bind the heart against happiness and joy. But forced freedom is no freedom at all.”
“’Them?’” asked Layla. “The Order? Or Druella and her followers?”
I smiled down at her, tilting her face up for a gentle kiss.