ELH Sep 19th, 2015 (edited) 7,415 Never
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  1. (Superior G-Doc version:
  2. (Her gallery:
  4. Table of Contents:
  5. **Part One: Line 11
  6. **Part Two: Line 603
  7. **Part Three: Line 967
  8. **Part Four: Line 1324
  9. **Epilogue: Line 1627
  11. ~~~Part One~~~
  12. Hunting demon realm beasts isn’t the most glamorous of jobs. Sure, the payout’s good, and you’re always treated like a mini-celebrity when you show up on the edge of a town with a carcass in tow. But in the in-between, when you’re actually out there tracking and slaying the beasts, things tend to be messy. Especially so when you’re one of the rare few humans that does it these days.
  14. This particular hunt was no different. I’d been tracking this particular demon realm boar for several days before the storm hit. The forest that surrounded the beast’s usual haunts quickly became a quagmire of conflicting trails in the downpour. I couldn’t afford to wait the weather out, else I’d run the risk of another hunting party taking my prize. And with a boar this size it was a safe bet there was more than one such group out there.
  16. Where did you go from here, I wondered to myself as I eyed a broken bit of bark on the side of a pine tree. The mark was fresh. It had to be close. That or the blasted thing had circled back twice over in an attempt to shake any pursuers. I sincerely hoped it was the former, as the latter would mean I was already too late. And I couldn’t let yet another prize be ripped from my grasp.
  18. Not again.
  20. My grip tightened on the hilt of my axe as one such memory briefly came to the forefront of my mind. All those days spent cornering the beast only to have the kill stolen at the last possible moment. Had I been faster, or perhaps a tad braver, I wouldn’t have been left empty-handed and stuck watching helplessly as a Salamander walked away with my spoils. We beast hunters have an informal code after all. Whoever fells the beast has full rights to it unless you successfully win a duel against them. But I knew I stood no chance against a Salamander, let alone a weak Lizardman, in the state I was in. So all I was left with was fury and wrath. Two things I had an abundance of to begin with.
  22. Almost as if resonating with my mood, a clap of thunder peeled out from the clouds above, followed by the already torrential deluge doubling in intensity. The foliage of the forest offered little protection. If anything the greenery helped channel and focus the rain into streams of liquid. I could have probably gone swimming and been less drenched. The time I’d waste waiting for a break in the storm wasn’t worth the risk of losing my prize, so I pressed on through the murky, shifting shadows.
  24. Even with sense of purpose and fury driving me, progressing through the tree trunks along the beast’s path was difficult. I nearly lost the trail all together when it passed through a small clearing. The tracks in the black mud were being erased by the downpour. The only reason they weren’t gone entirely by the time I’d come upon them was due to their size. Thicker than centuries old tree trunks, the boar’s imprints were more like pitfalls than footprints. Luckily there didn’t seem to be any telltale signs of rival beast hunters. Which meant I could take a moment to assess the situation.
  26. A demon realm boar of this size wouldn’t fall easily to my axe. Forged from the finest metals, including demon realm silver, the oversized weapon had served me well against all manners of beasts. It could just as simply slice off a limb as drain the energy from it. The difference between the two being whether or not I kept the gem inset on the hilt covered. It was a trick of my stepmother’s, one she passed on to my father and I after relocating her forge. How it actually worked eluded me, but I know to trust a Cyclops when it comes to matters of weaponry.
  28. In any case, either form of attack would be like bee stings to the boar. Getting through the beast’s hard, sinewy muscles would mean staying in close proximity far too long. And simply trying to fatigue it through multiple hits in quick succession would be just as dangerous. One wrong move and I’d be sent soaring or torn asunder by the animal’s tusks. Truthfully, I would be considered mad by any other demon realm beast hunter for even thinking of taking on such a target alone. But I needed this kill. It was the only way, in my mind, to recover from such a long string of failed hunts.
  30. As I studied one of the hoof prints filling up with rainwater I realized I was being watched. At first I was willing to write the feeling off. It wouldn’t be the first time a stray shadow, combined with paranoia, had played mind games with a hunter. But then I noticed the large, red, gleaming eyes glaring at me from the edge of the clearing.
  32. There you are.
  34. Slowly I rose from my kneeling position, using my axe to steady myself. Any sudden movements would send the boar charging at me in a fit of rage. And now that I could see the beast up close and in person I knew that’d be a death sentence. Unless…
  36. I glanced behind me toward where I’d entered the clearing. There was a particularly immense boulder several paces beyond the tree line. If I could get the boar to charge and run into it I might be rewarded with a few precious seconds to attack without fear of reprisal. After that, though, I’d be in the thick of it. No chance of running away or escape short of playing dead.
  38. Just the way I liked it.
  40. By now pure adrenaline was flowing through my veins. Using the surge of energy and focus it provided, I shifted my stance and bellowed a challenge at the boar. Combined it was enough to get the beast to charge. It was almost unnatural, even for a demon realm beast, how fast the creature could move. I only had a few milliseconds to use my axe as a leverage point to fling myself out of the way. Even then I could feel the heat emanating off of the boar’s skin as it passed within a hair’s width of me. But I didn’t let that slow me down.
  42. As I’d thought, the boar was unable to stop itself before it rammed into the tree line and the boulder beyond. Before the severed tree trunks had time to do more than creak in protest I was already in motion. The gemmed hilt glinted as I dragged the axe along the ground, leaving a large gash in its wake. Then, right as I came into range of the beast, I drove the weapon upwards with a mighty roar. The axe-head passed right through its vulnerable underside, up through its body, and out its back, sapping energy as it went. Not enough to do any real damage just yet, but enough to give it pause and cause it to emit a squeal of alarm.
  44. I capitalized on that opening immediately. Using the follow-through from the uppercut, I let the axe-head arc over my head and fall behind me. Then, nearly straining my forearms, I put all my energy into a lateral cleave. Given the size difference between myself and the beast it meant my blow only impacted the two legs nearest to me. Which meant that the boar was more than capable of flinging itself at me in retaliation. Again using follow-through to my advantage, I let the momentum of the horizontal swing carry me sideways in a whirlwind.
  46. Time seemed to slow down. I could see every droplet of moisture as it dripped from my weapon. I could feel the ground give way beneath me as my weight shifted. I could smell the boar’s stench becoming more pungent as fear egged it onwards. But most importantly, I could hear the sound of its tusks flying towards me from in my blind spot. And I knew almost immediately that they’d hit.
  48. Milliseconds later I was slamming through tree trunks. Each one was its own brick wall. I couldn’t even keep track of how many I’d gone through before finally coming to a stop. I let out a muffled cry of pain and despair, fighting to remain conscious. The next few minutes were a blur. I remember wrenching myself to my feet, using my axe as a crutch. The boar pounding the ground with a hoof and charging at me. Desperately putting the axe between myself and the beast like a jousting lance. Then nothing.
  50. When I finally came to I thought I was dead. An immense, dark weight was pressing in on me from all sides. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move, couldn’t think. All I felt was anger. Pure rage that my hubris had been my downfall. Frustration that I had done nothing significant before passing on. But then the gem on my axe’s hilt flared with a brilliantly pure white light. I wasn’t dead. I was beneath the boar. And my axe was firmly embedded in its heart.
  52. Getting out from underneath of the beast took all of my remaining strength. As soon as I’d pulled myself free a voice to my left said, “Oh, she actually lived. Whaddya know.”
  54. Reflexively I reached for my axe, but it was still stuck in the boar. All I could do was blink and try to clear my vision as I searched for the source of the voice.
  56. There.
  58. I finally set my eyes upon a group of demon realm beast hunters: a trio of Salamanders, a Hellhound, and an Incubus. All of them were looking at me like I was insane.
  60. “It’s my…” Blood quickly filled my mouth as I tried to speak. Spitting it out, I continued, “ kill. Don’t you fucking dare… not dueling…”
  62. One of the Salamanders laughed wickedly, “You’re in no state to deny us anything. And we’re certainly not leaving here empty-handed.”
  64. “Seems rather cruel to take it from her though,” commented the Incubus. “Especially since she’s human.”
  66. “Then leave her a fourth of the meat,” replied the Hellhound. “It’s only fair since we provided the distraction that let her get in underneath those tusks.”
  70. I struggled to get to my feet as I shook from pain and fury. “No. No you will not take this from me. I won’t…”
  72. Before I could do more than bring my fist to bear in front of me a Salamander had closed the gap. Her fist swiftly knocked the wind out of me and sent me right back to the ground. “Learn your place, girl,” she commented as she stepped past my prone form. “You are out of your league and out of your element. You’re no match for any of us.”
  74. Then darkness took me again.
  76. This time when I awoke, I found myself leaned up against the same tree trunk I’d been slammed against by the boar. In front of me was a quarter of the beast (mainly its upper flanks and heart) and my axe. The latter was thoroughly embedded into the ground with a message scroll hanging from the hilt. Enraged, I pushed past the agony plaguing my entire body and stood upright. After all that, I still had a majority of my prize stolen from me. All because I wasn’t fast or strong enough. And this time the assholes behind it had dared leave me a note. Like that made it all better.
  78. I had to lean on my axe as I read the note:
  80. “If you want to keep doing this, I suggest you either find some friends or monsterize yourself. Because the next time you’re not going to have someone like me holding your rivals back.
  82. -M.
  84. PS: Oh and I am sorry about this. Your kill was clean. But we do have to make a living, after all.”
  86. It was all I could do to drop to my knees and scream in rage as another clap of thunder rang out from above.
  88. ***
  90. It took me several days to extract myself from the quagmire that was the forest with the boar’s meat in tow. Plenty of time to muse on my situation. My main hang-ups were that I hated relying on others and feeling useless. The former would mean admitting the latter, but the latter couldn’t be amended without the former. Short of Monsterization, anyways. Yet even that felt like an omission of weakness to me. So it was that I ended up venting my frustrations on some very unfortunate trees instead of working past my problems.
  92. When I finally arrived in the nearby town of Mythwall there wasn’t any fanfare to be had. Clearly the hunting party which had stolen my prize had been through judging by the glow the monster couples had about them. Demon Realm Boar meat is rather famous for its “invigorating” effect in addition to its high nutrition after all. It’s why it sells so well with Monsters. Unfortunately it seemed most in town had already had their fill of meat, meaning I was only barely able to make a profit from my diminished spoils. Not enough to do more than recoup my losses and gather enough supplies for the road ahead.
  94. After that I wandered for a time. I had no real destination in mind. I rarely ever did. Like most demon realm beast hunters, I followed the rumors and news surrounding sightings. It wasn’t all that strange to go without work for weeks at a time. Which just gave me more time alone with my thoughts. I found myself constantly mulling over the same thing again and again: Why was I failing so much lately?
  96. My only reprieve from the self-defeating loop came in the form of new leads. Yet even those turned out to be little more than temporary distractions. The simple fact of the matter was that my job was usually performed by a group of Monsters. I was but a single human. By the time I’d made any progress towards tracking a beast another group would have already dispatched it. That or I’d freeze up when it mattered most, letting my prey slip away. With each missed opportunity my will and pride was slowly replaced by fury and contempt.
  98. I soon stopped bothering to ask for information when I arrived in a new town. I hardly saw the point of it anymore. Even if I was given a promising lead I would likely just cock it up in short order. I honestly don’t believe I could have dispatched a single juvenile Sanri without getting sprayed, that’s how bent out of shape I was. My axe, which had once been a source of comfort and a cheerful reminder of home, now weighed heavily on my back like a fully stone-laden wagon. It was useless in my hands now. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of it. I was a failure in all things but taking care of it.
  100. At least, that’s how I saw myself anyways. I felt empty inside, like a cornered animal ready to lash out at anyone or anything even if their intentions were pure. It was better for me to avoid interaction with others entirely. Not like I had anything to offer anyone anyways.
  102. This downward spiral would persist for some four odd months after my last actual hunt. All the while I lived off the land best I could, interacting with no one. But even that simple task I found difficult at times. The realms I passed through were all demon ones, meaning most of the food and water was tainted with demonic energy. Too much of it and I’d become a hedonistic monster with little regard for anything but satisfying my lust. A small part of me often thought that a better alternative to my depressive state, but I rallied against such thoughts whenever they surfaced.
  104. Perhaps it was that small act of self-defiance that helped me “come to.” Three days after wandering into a desert I realized that I had to change. Sulking about and feeling sorry for myself wasn’t going to keep me alive. Not in a place like this, where the elements were as unforgiving as the ravages of time. It wasn’t a complete turnaround from some of the darkest and most depressing days of my life, but it was enough to relight some embers within me. Truthfully though, I would have likely perished among the shifting sands had I not come upon Arum Sedis.
  106. I found the glittering gem of a city almost entirely by accident. I simply crested a sand dune and found myself overlooking a veritable oasis. The city of Arum Sedis was built above the lush spring, held there by crystalline archways and what I guessed was pure magic. Nothing else could explain the shining castle and grand towers the surrounded it. I only vaguely knew about Bright Green Demon Realms, but this one in particular struck me as being something far more advanced than the usual kind you’d see with a Pharaoh or in Zipangu. Curiosity got the better of me, and soon I was heading towards the unknown.
  108. Luckily the city wasn’t a mirage like the little voice in my head thought it would be. As I got closer I realized that the flying buttresses were channeling massive amounts of water and magic both to and from the oasis. Combined with their crystalline nature it made for a spectacular sight as the colors shifted and played off one another. Whoever was in charge of this place had massive amounts of magic and power at their disposal. I could tell that much before even arriving at the city gates.
  110. The gates themselves lay at the end of four curved stone bridges set out equidistant from one another. Each was guarded by a quartet of Anubii. They were lazily scanning the small amount of foot traffic moving in and out of the city, and paid me no notice as I approached. It wasn’t until I’d actually passed through one of the gates proper that I realized how truly impossible this place was.
  112. I’d heard of magocracies before as well as technocracies, but Arum Sedis was some new combination of the two. Each gate seemed to have a crystal spire built into it someway. This crystal in turn seemed to link into a great network of arcing flows of light. All of it coalesced at the highest tower of the castle which lay at the heart of the city. Like the archways holding the city above the oasis, this magical lattice seemed to be bidirectional. It would certainly explain some of the strange things I saw as I wandered.
  114. But perhaps what astonished me the most about the city was the people themselves. Like all demon realms, there was a healthy blend of monster and human alike. However, unlike the other realms I’d been in, the populace here seemed far more relaxed and in harmony with one another. I wasn’t an anthropologist by any means, but I could pick out several overlapping bits of culture from the areas surrounding the desert itself. And yet instead of clashing they meshed together peacefully. Nothing else could explain the sight of a Baphomet dressed in a long white coat in calm discussion with a man in full plate armor about “magi-shielding.”
  116. Whoever was behind all this had to be a being of unbelievable power and wisdom. Driven by curiosity once more, I began asking passersby about them. It was odd to hear myself speak at first after having gone so long without talking to anyone, but that uncanny feeling vanished after a few conversations. I still wasn’t a socialite by any means, so it still took quite a while to get the full picture.
  118. Apparently a daughter of the Demon Lord, a lilim, ruled over this realm. Her self-stated purpose was to be a “cultural ambassador,” an individual who helped bridge the gap between Man and Monster. She was said to be adamant in ensuring normal humans weren’t corrupted inadvertently, and that those who monsterized did so of their own volition. It was an odd thing to hear to say the least. I did not often travel in Order-controlled areas, but the little I picked up while among them was that lilims were supposed to be a salacious bunch, corrupting others wantonly as their mood changed. They weren’t supposed to be… reasonable, like this one supposedly was.
  120. As the sun began to descend towards the horizon my mind was made up. I wanted to meet this individual, this lilim. If nothing else they might have a bit of wisdom that would help me change for the better. Even if it turned out my information was false, and I was forcibly transformed by her, I wouldn’t be losing much. I felt that I was a near soulless husk, desperately seeking a reason for being. Being Monsterized would at least give me that much, albeit a rather lewd one.
  122. It took the better part of the afternoon to work out how I might meet her. Apparently she lurked in a certain café this time of day. “Seeing the realm from her subjects’ viewpoint” was the rationale, or so I was told. So, with nothing left to lose but my life, I found my way towards a meeting with a demi-goddess.
  124. ***
  126. The café itself was sparsely populated, with only a few individuals inside apart from the Blue Oni behind the corner. Even then, picking out the lilim among them wasn’t as simple as I thought it’d be. I almost missed the white haired succubus in the corner booth in my first visual scan. She was clad in an outfit more fitting that of a commoner than a daughter of the Demon Lord, drinking tea and looking out of the window. The rest of the patrons paid her no mind either, like she was a staple of the place. Slightly eerie, but by that point I was too invested to let that worry sway me. I slowly made my way over to the lilim’s corner booth. But before I could do more than open my mouth, she spoke.
  128. “Please, have a seat. Oh and Usha, could you bring over a fresh kettle?” She didn’t even look away from the window as she waved at the seat opposite her. It wasn’t until I’d hesitantly seated myself that she turned to face me. “So my dear, what can I do for you?”
  130. I didn’t have an answer. Not at first. The mere fact that such a powerful entity was but an arm’s reach away made it hard to think. Luckily she helped me out in that regard once she saw my mouth open and close a few times without noise.
  132. “Your axe, who made it?” she asked with a welcoming smile on her face.
  134. I glanced to the side of the booth, where I’d leant the axe. “My Stepmother and Father made it for my sixteenth birthday eight years ago.”
  136. “Hm. Would I be right to guess it’s partially made out of Demon Realm Silver?”
  138. I nodded. “Last I knew, yes.”
  140. Her grin widened. “That at least partially explains the buildup of demonic energy about you. What is it you do for a living, Miss…?”
  142. “Ilothe,” I replied with a small, respectful bow of my head. “I am- was a demon realm beast hunter.”
  144. “Ah. Yes that would be it then.” She paused as the Blue Oni waitress came over to our booth with a tray in hand. On it was a fresh, hot kettle of tea along with a saucer and cup that matched the lilim’s. Once she set it before us the Oni bowed and returned behind the counter. “How do you take your tea, Ilothe?”
  146. “Honestly? I’m not sure. Never had much of it before.”
  148. That got the lilim to raise an eyebrow. “Oh? Well if I had to guess…” She then set at filling my cup, carefully balancing the amount of liquid with sugar. Once done she slid it over with what seemed like an ever-present smile. “Try that.”
  150. I picked the cup up off its saucer and eyed the contents. Then I took a tentative sip. It was smooth, sweet, and lasting. Not amazing enough to replace my favorite beverage, but certainly something to enjoy. “It’s lovely. Thanks… Uh…”
  152. “Ilassa. It’s a pleasure.” She returned my head bow with one of her own. “Now then… what is it that brought you to see me? I certainly don’t mind sharing a cup of tea with someone but I sense a bit of purpose about you.”
  154. This time I had an answer. Or at least something resembling one. “Curiosity. At first. I mean, seeing this place…” I motioned out of the window. “I figured you must be wise beyond your years. And I’m a place right now where I desperately need some advice.”
  156. Her gaze narrowed a bit. Was it concern perhaps? “Ah, seeking guidance then. That is indeed something I can provide. But are you sure there isn’t more?”
  158. I tilted my head to the side in confusion. “How do you mean?”
  160. She again pointed at my axe. “By all rights the amount of energy contained within that should have caused you to monsterize thrice over. But here you are, human as the day you were born. Best I can tell anyways.”
  162. Oh. That’s what she meant. “You want to know whether or not I want to become a monster,” I replied.
  164. “Indeed.”
  166. Her eyes roved over me, scanning for any hints or clues as to how I might react. After all this time ruminating on “M’s” note I’d come to accept the fact I’d have to compromise at some point. Whether that meant giving up my humanity or not was something I was still very much on the fence about. I certainly wasn’t as “puritan” about it as I once was. But I couldn’t, wouldn’t, just throw it away frivolously just to be “better.”
  168. “Honestly? I don’t know,” I admitted. “Right now I’m a failure of a beast hunter because I’m neither strong, nor fast, enough to compete with the other parties. And I like working alone. Others just would weigh me down.”
  170. Admitting that little out loud felt like a small weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. But at the same time my temper flared, as it had done these past four months whenever I was forced to reflect on my failings. I had to actively work to make sure venom didn’t creep into my voice accidentally. Ilassa didn’t seem to mind when it did though.
  172. “Hm. If I didn’t know any better you’re asking for advice how to live with yourself. Or, at the very least, cope enough to get back to doing what you love.” She reached for her own teacup, putting it to her mouth. “That about right?”
  174. I nodded. I wasn’t all that thrilled about being read like a book but she was a lilim. I expected that sort of thing from her on some level. “I suppose so. But accepting myself for who I am won’t cause boars or their ilk to impale themselves on my axe. And I’m not so sure I want to just toss my humanity away either.”
  176. She sat her teacup down then placed her hands neatly upon her lap. “Of course not. It’s human nature to cling to the idea of ‘purity.’ You want to be in control of your own thoughts, actions, and feelings, not guided by some unseen puppet master. And most humans out there have been fed Order propaganda that monsterization turns you into a brainwashed, sex-crazed fiend.”
  178. “Does it?” I asked bluntly.
  180. Her smile returned. “If you do what my elder sisters tend to do, perhaps. But I prefer to take a very careful and calculated approach when monsterizing someone. It has such a profound effect on who someone is that forcing that change upon them ‘stains’ their identity. Which is why I only transform those who specifically ask for such.”
  182. It made sense. Perhaps too much sense. One thing above all else bothered me: “What do you get out of all this then? Surely you’re not just doing it out of the kindness of your heart.”
  184. “You’d be surprised,” she replied with a chuckle. “With each ‘project’ of mine I help create a new monster that is more inclined to contribute to the melting pot here in Arum Sedis. But even if they don’t stay here I’ve helped my mother’s dream along in my own way.”
  186. “And what’s that, exactly?”
  188. “A world where man and monster live in harmony. We might not agree on the means, per say, but we definitely want the same end.”
  190. If I had to guess, she must be the black sheep of the family. That or the Order really had a skewed version of lilims in their minds. “I see… So if I was to ask to be transformed, you’d do it without question?”
  192. The lines on her face sharpened and her tone became slightly serious. “Oh heavens no. We’d need to discover your ‘true self’ before I even thought of providing the push that’d cause you to turn.” Then, after a pause, she added, “And I want to have some of my scientists take a look at your axe. If that’s alright.”
  194. I eyed my axe anxiously. “I’d get it back unharmed, right?”
  196. “Of course.”
  198. “Then I suppose that’d be alright. But how do we go about finding my ‘true self?’”
  200. “Start at the beginning.”
  202. ***
  204. “I didn’t have a mother figure for most of my childhood,” I began awkwardly. The words were slow coming at first, but soon they came flowing out. “My biological mother died giving birth to me. My dad took it pretty bad at first, or so I’m told. Relative to me, though, he was always kind, but firm. I guess you could say he treated me more like a son than a daughter.”
  206. “How did that work out for you?” asked Ilassa.
  208. “Well I think it helped me to become a tomboy for one. I never really was interested in the usual ‘girly things.’ Instead I found activities like my father’s blacksmithing far more engrossing.”
  210. “And what about now? Do you still shun those ‘girly things?’?”
  212. It was a fair question. Though perhaps one that should have been somewhat evident given my current state. My cocoa-tinted skin was rough and sported several scars from my days hunting beasts. Though it was severely in disrepair, the metal plate I sported left much up to the imagination. Even my mid-back length, ruby-red hair was unkempt. Only my ice blue eyes were alluring from my point of view, though they did have a sort of contained blaze within them. If anything I should have been far more embarrassed to be seen in public than I already was.
  214. “I don’t go out of my way to pursue them if that’s what you mean. If it’s a choice between dresses and flowers, or armor and swords, I’ll pick the latter every time. Though I’m not ashamed at all to be seen in something frilly.”
  216. She nodded, though I could tell I hadn’t quite satisfied her with that reply. “Is it the same when it comes to men and of sex?”
  218. I let out a small huff at that, “Somewhat. There was no end to the suitors when I was still a teenager in my father’s town. I had plenty of opportunities to experience sex, but I only ever did so twice.”
  220. Ilassa raised an eyebrow. “And?”
  222. Funny how talking about things like this was far easier than talking about my failures. “And it felt hollow. I mean maybe it’s better with someone you care about but the entire act was basically meaningless. So it really isn’t a driving factor for me.”
  224. “Ah~ Then you and I share the same mindset,” remarked Ilassa. It was the last thing I expected a lilim of all things to say.
  226. “We do?”
  228. “Indeed. When you can force someone to instantly be enamored with you, intentionally or not, it’s the sort of thing that weighs heavily on your mind. Whether or not their feelings and actions towards you are at all genuine. It’s why I’ve never even had a lover of my own. But I digress…”
  230. With a snap of her fingers, Ilassa conjured up a stack of paper, writing quill, and ink bottle. As she scribbled down a few notes, she asked gleefully, “How would you describe your libido then? If you did have that special someone, how often would you go at it?”
  232. “I don’t know,” I answered. “Every couple of days? I guess I have a somewhat high libido, but that may just be my inexperience talking. It’d really depend on what my partner was comfortable with. And whether it’d interrupt my work or not.”
  234. “So would you say you prefer to be on the receiving end more often than not?”
  236. “Hah. No it’s quite the opposite. I prefer to be in control and ‘running the show.’”
  238. “Ah, there’s a smile,” Ilassa pointed out. I instinctively brought a hand to my face to confirm it. “First one in a while?”
  240. “You could say that,” I replied.
  242. “A pity. It brings out the gleam in your eyes. You should do it more often.”
  244. “Well…”
  246. She waved me off before I could get too far into the doldrums again. “Alright so tell me more about your childhood. What stands out in your mind?”
  248. I paused, considering what to say.
  250. “I was, and still am, fiercely independent. Though my father could always reign me in if need be, he encouraged letting me learn and figure things out on my own. For some that might have led to a spoiled existence I guess. But me? It made me a cynical realist.”
  252. “One who favors self-depreciating humor and sarcasm I see.”
  254. Another smile slipped out. “I suppose so. I never really relied on others if I could help it. I saw it as a form of weakness. Or perhaps it’d be better to say trusting in others has never paid off for me. The saying ‘a group’s only as strong as its weakest member’ is more a cautionary tale in my mind than a piece of advice.”
  256. “Hrm. I’d say that matches with what you said moments ago about sex. You can’t be submissive to others if you can’t trust them. And you wouldn’t be attracted to someone unless they were someone you could depend on. Which for you I’m gathering is a hard quality to find.”
  258. I shrugged. “You could say that. It might again be my naivety when it comes to men but I’ve yet to find one who didn’t let the head between their legs drive a relationship. Or one that didn’t treat women like some prize or doll needing constant supervision and/or control.”
  260. Ilassa grinned and took a sip of tea. After doing so she remarked, “There are definitely men like that out there. Finding them, however, is rather hard. I share your despair in that regard. But I’d say that answers the initial questions I had save for one.”
  262. “That being?”
  264. “What are you afraid of, Ilothe?”
  266. I shuffled uncomfortably in my seat. Up until now I’d largely been decompressing. But this was something entirely different. I leaned in over the table with my arms out. “You see this here?” I asked, pointing at a cluster of scars on my left arm. She nodded, and I continued. “Those aren’t from my days hunting demon realm beasts.”
  268. A look of concern crossed Ilassa’s face. “Self-inflicted?”
  270. A grimace served as my reply at first. “I… had a bad week. I lost a dueling tournament, my work in my father’s forge was slipping, and to top it all off I had a pair of particularly persistent boys trying to court me. Eventually it got to the point where I could no longer contain my rage. I lashed out at the two when they tried to accost me on my way back from training in the mountains.”
  272. “What I did to them wasn’t unnecessarily cruel or punishing, but it definitely put them out of commission for close to a month. When my father found out he didn’t scold me like I feared he might. Instead he simply said that he was disappointed in me. It was like a mirror being broken. All at once my emotions vomited forth and I tore at myself for being so rash and reckless. I wasn’t a good person. I couldn’t do anything right. I needed to be punished. I…”
  274. The warm touch of Ilassa’s hand upon mine stopped me mid-rant. “That’s enough for now. Here, you’re crying.” She offered up a handkerchief, of which I gladly took to begin dabbing at my watering eyes. “I think I understand. Not completely, but enough for me to see the crying little girl underneath that’s terrified of disappointing her father again. Of being a failure.”
  276. I couldn’t muster a reply apart from a few shuddering sniffs through gritted teeth. She was right on the money, I could feel that much. But I couldn’t say it out loud. If I did I felt like I’d end up lashing out at her despite myself.
  278. I guess she picked up on that, because soon after she said, “Part of coming to accept yourself is realizing your mistakes and failings. It’s not going to be a one day process. It could even take the rest of your life. You just have to take things slow and let me help you see the beauty within you.”
  280. “Thanks. I guess. I don’t know,” I mustered. I suddenly very much wanted to be anywhere but here. It was as if everyone’s eyes were upon me, judging me.
  282. “It’s alright, Ilothe. Now, I want you to take this.”
  284. Ilassa passed over the sheet of paper she’d been scribbling on. On it were several species listed:
  285. Dragon*, Minotaur, Salamander, and Hellhound. Next to each was a little description of them and a name. For some reason, the Dragon had an asterisk next to it.
  287. “Based on what you’ve told me so far and what I’ve observed, I believe one of those four species would be the best fit for you. Those names are individuals here in Arum Sedis who you can go talk to about their species. If nothing else they should be able to answer your questions about the positives and negatives.”
  289. I took up the paper with a shaking hand. “I… I see. But how did you narrow it down so far so quickly?”
  291. That knowing smile crept back onto Ilassa’s face. “Well it’s actually quite simple. You have to be able to wield a weapon, your axe, post-transformation. That automatically rules out any in the Harpy, Plant, and Slime families. Following that line you have to also be agile on land in order to hunt beasts. So there goes all the Aquatics, Lamias, and Undead. You’re independent to the point where any submissive-leaning species are off the table as well. Finally, you have such a raging wildfire within you that it has to be expressed in some way.”
  293. “Makes sense, I guess. What about this asterisk next to the Dragon though?”
  295. “Ah, well you see, changing someone into a Dragon isn’t easy. It requires them to possess certain qualities in addition to having a large buildup of demonic energy. You easily satisfy the latter due to all your years beast hunting, but I’m not so sure about the former just yet. Even if you did there’s no guarantee I’d succeed in doing so.”
  297. “I see,” I said as I slowly slipped the parchment away into my pack. “Thanks for being honest and walking me through it.”
  299. Ilassa bowed her head slightly. “No problem. Now go try to relax. When you’ve had a chance to do so and to talk with those people I’ve listed there come find me again. We’ll pick up from there. Of course if you should change your mind about the entire process simply carry on as you are. This is your choice, Ilothe. I can only guide you.”
  301. ***
  303. For the next several days I spent my time tracking down those individuals Ilassa had listed for me. The Minotaur, Moghen, was the first I came across. She worked in one of the farms contained within Arum Sedis. Unlike the usual farm, though, this was more like a massive greenhouse than a proper stretch of land. Moghen was one of many groundskeepers, and had no problem taking a few minutes to answer my questions.
  305. “You want to know what it’s like being a Minotaur?” she said, leaning on her shovel. “Well I suppose it’s pretty great. You’re way stronger than most monsters, and your endurance rivals that of an Ushi Oni. Though I will say your emotions tend to get the better of you. We’re a very temperamental species. And sometimes getting us to do something outside our comfort zone is near impossible.”
  307. I bit my lip upon hearing that. Being a Minotaur would be way too similar to how I was now. I might just end up right back at square one, wandering around as an empty shell. Still, I thanked Moghen for her time and went to find the Salamander, Caesyx. She was a member of the Arum Sedis Guard, so I was able to catch her during one of her patrols.
  309. “Thinking of becoming a Salamander? I don’t blame you, we’re pretty awesome,” she boasted, her tail fire flaring. “I know a fellow warrior when I see one, so I think you’d fit right in. We’re some of the best fighters around. When we have a target we don’t give up until it’s ours. Oh, and I suppose having a portable fire with you is damned handy out in the wilderness.”
  311. From that I basically gathered that being a Salamander would give me an unprecedented drive and enough strength to match other demon realm beast hunters. But the fact I had been beaten by one in “M’s” group had soured me on the species as whole. Again I thanked the monster for her time and moved on.
  313. The Hellhound, Ceru, worked as an opera singer of all things. I ended up sitting through one of her performances in the Arum Sedis Amphitheatre before finally getting to meet her face to face. Unlike the other two so far she was far more modest.
  315. “Hmmm… We’re a very passionate species. We have to be dominant, the alpha, in whatever we do, including sex, which can lead to conflicts of personality at times. But we do make for excellent trackers thanks to our keen sense of smell. So you might do well becoming a Hellhound should you choose to continue beast hunting.”
  317. I had to know one thing before moving on though. “So why are you an opera singer anyways?”
  319. She smiled. “Like you I used to be human. Then I met with Ilassa and we explored my passions. I wasn’t an amazing singer before being transformed, but one of my dreams was to perform on stage. It just so happened that Hellhounds have a slight preference for singing due to their ancestors’ need to howl at the moon. And I couldn’t see myself as a harpy, so here we are.”
  321. It made sense. And seeing the direct result of Ilassa’s process definitely helped put my mind at ease about the entire affair. I made sure to thank Ceru profusely before moving on to the final individual, the Dragon Gwaine. Almost stereotypically, I found her heading up one of the banks in Arum Sedis. It wasn’t until I had assured her I wasn’t there to open an account that she made time to talk with me. After hearing my story and my request, she mulled over her words carefully.
  323. “Dragons are king of the Reptile family. We are among the highest level of monsters as well. We’re capable of tearing through steel and incinerating anything in our path. Assuming we can’t use our minds to solve the problem, that is. But I can’t say I’ve ever heard of one of our kind working as a beast hunter. Usually we’re far more interested in adventuring or other such activities that would add treasure to our hoard.”
  325. “Is having a hoard mandatory?” I asked.
  327. Gwaine laughed heartily. “Not necessarily, but it is a poor Dragon who doesn’t at least have a meager collection. You wouldn’t be considered great by your fellows without one. A lot of our instincts and preferences are remnants of the time before the current Demon Lord came to power. It’s hard to say how much of them would arise in someone who became one via a lilim, though. It’s not something I’ve heard happening except a handful of times.”
  329. “Hrmph. That doesn’t sound good,” I grumbled. “Ilassa made it sound like I had to possess a certain number of qualities in order to ‘qualify.’ But I have no idea what those might be.”
  331. “More than likely she wants to make sure you’re not the type who’d abuse the power being a Dragon would afford you. The kind who’s able to resist temptations and won't become haughty and arrogant towards others. Demon Lord knows we already have far too many dragons like that already.”
  333. It made sense, though I suppose only Ilassa knew for sure. Still, there was one more thing I had to know about Dragons.
  335. “And what about your sex drive?”
  337. Another laugh came from the Dragon. “Depends on whether you’ve got a mate or not. We tend to get a little baby-crazy if the right guy comes along. They become our most valuable ‘treasure,’ so to speak. But if such an individual isn’t present in your life it’s not something that bothers you. At least, not to the degree it does other species.”
  339. Like with Ceru, I extended my gratitude towards Gwaine for being so thorough before departing. I returned to the room I’d acquired in one of the many inns in Arum Sedis and weighed my options. Both the Hellhound and the Dragon seemed appealing as a species. They were a definite upgrade from the other species, even when it came to appearances. But choosing between the two was difficult.
  341. I could see why Ilassa thought being a Dragon would suit me. A Dragon Demon Realm Beast Hunter wouldn’t need any backup whatsoever. They were independent and weren’t as driven by sex as the others. Or, at least, that was the vibe I had gotten. Hellhounds were definitely a good choice as well, but they seemed far too eager to dominate men. And they wouldn’t be as resilient as a Dragon in a fight. Still, if becoming a Dragon wasn’t something Ilassa could facilitate, being a Hellhound was a solid second option.
  343. Something Gwaine had said resonated with me though. I didn’t see myself becoming as arrogant as the monster in “M’s” party if transformed, but I realized that it was a sister emotion to all those negative ones I’d been experiencing for months on end. It would be so easy to lash out and take revenge on anyone who slighted me that I actually started to worry whether monsterization really was the best thing for me. With conflicting thoughts looping in my head, I called it a night early into the evening hours.
  345. ***
  347. Finding Ilassa again the next day was a simple affair. Though she was reclused within her castle, the kikimora service staff said I was expected. I was taken up the main tower to a grandiose sitting room that overlooked the western side of Arum Sedis. Ilassa joined me shortly after the Kikimora left, literally popping into existence in the chair across from me.
  349. “Welcome back, Ilothe,” she said with that smile of hers. “How did your ‘homework’ go?”
  351. I returned her smile. “It went alright. After talking with all four of them I understand why you thought they’d fit. But I think I’ve made up my mind, or something close to it.”
  353. She raised an eyebrow. “Oh? Do tell.”
  355. “I’d like to be a Dragon. Or a Hellhound if that’s not possible.”
  357. “I see. But surely you must have some misgivings about them. They aren’t perfect, after all.”
  359. “You’re absolutely right,” I conceded. “I’m worried about whether I’m strong enough to not abuse the power a Dragon has. Hellhounds aren’t as strong in combat, and they seem far more likely to get sidetracked by sex. Not that sex is a bad thing, but…”
  361. “But you don’t want to it to be a primary focus in your life,” Ilassa finished for me. “Not at the moment, anyways. Dragons can go their entire lives without even having sex, yet that attitude can make a complete 180 if their beloved comes along. That much I’m sure Gwaine told you.”
  363. “Not in those exact words, but close enough.”
  365. “Hm. Well I certainly don’t have objections to your choice. For what it’s worth, you don’t strike me as the sort to lord your ability or strength over others. Pride might be a slight concern, but that’s why we still need to talk some more.”
  367. She waved at the window and at the glittering city outside. “Tell me more about what lead you to take a break from beast hunting. About what lead you here and to me. I know it’s a touchy subject but it’s a very important one.”
  369. I let out a heavy sigh before answering. It felt like admitting this and embarrassing myself was the true price I was paying to be monsterized. “I was doing fine as a hunter until I hit a rather bad string of targets. Either they were of a caliber I had no chance defeating, or they were stolen from me at the last possible second. Eventually I got so angry that I let my hubris get the better of me. I settled on a boar that was out of my league.”
  371. “To prove you were still capable?” she asked.
  373. “Sort of, I guess. It was the kind of target that would make up for all my recently failed hunts. And for a while there I actually held my own against it when I finally cornered it.”
  375. “But?”
  377. I shook my head in disappointment. “But I was still too slow. I did kill the boar but was injured in the process. Which meant that when a rival party of hunters came upon me and the carcass they were able to take most of it from me.”
  379. My rage at that fact became evident as my hands shook, something Ilassa picked up on. “Don’t you hunters have a code?”
  381. “We’re supposed to, yes,” I spat out venomously. “But this group just saw a ‘lowly human’ and took what was rightfully mine. The only reason I didn’t completely lose my prize was because of an incubus named ‘M’ among them.”
  383. “They sound like a delightful bunch. But tell me, if you had the chance to see them again, what would you do?” asked Ilassa.
  385. “For starters, I’d demand a duel to restore my honor,” I shot back. “That or I’d knock some sense into the Salamander that attacked me.”
  387. My counterpart frowned slightly at that. “So vengeance then.”
  389. I shook my head. “Not entirely, no. But hunters that cruel, that don’t follow our code, shouldn’t exist. They harm us all in the end. So yes, while part of me would love revenge, they need to be brought to justice in some way, shape, or form.”
  391. “Hrm… Did you hurt yourself after this all happened like when you disappointed your father?”
  393. “No. I thought about it but never did. Instead I pressed on and tried to keep going.”
  395. Ilassa produced her writing kit once more and began scribbling. “And yet it didn’t work out, did it?”
  397. “No. After being knocked down, both literally and figuratively, I couldn’t seem to properly hunt even the smallest of beasts. It tore at my confidence, to the point where I had no drive to continue beast hunting. I felt empty, like a soulless husk.”
  399. “Did you ever try and talk to someone about it? A friend of sorts by chance?”
  401. I lowered my head and stared at the floor. “Hah. I had no friends. I still don’t. But even if I did I wouldn’t have wanted to dump my emotions on them like some whiny teenager. Like I am now with you.”
  403. “Please,” waved off Ilassa. “You’re not whining at all. But you do seem to be highly self-critical, which I’m sure didn’t help your situation at all.”
  405. “Not in the slightest. I avoided people entirely after the first month.”
  407. “Hm. How long did you stay like that?”
  409. “Four months, give or take.”
  411. “And all that time, did you ever consider returning home?”
  413. I had. But to return home with nothing to show for my efforts over the past six years? I couldn’t. “Once. But I didn’t want to disappoint my father again.”
  415. “Why do you say that?” Ilassa inquired.
  417. “I left home at 18 like most warrior-types in my village,” I replied. “It’s tradition to go out into the world and make a name for yourself before coming back. All I’d managed to do was slay some beasts now and again. So if I went back…”
  419. “Tell me, did your father ever say he was disappointed in you aside from that one time?” she interrupted.
  421. “Y-” I stopped myself from replying. He hadn’t. “No. No he didn’t. And even after that one time he sat with me until I stopped crying and tried to make me understand. I… I had forgotten that until now.”
  423. “You were so focused on not being a failure in his eyes that it blinded you to the truth,” offered Ilassa. “Something I can empathize with, believe it or not.”
  425. I raised my head to stare at her quizzically. “I find it hard to believe a lilim could ever have that sort of problem.”
  427. It was Ilassa’s turn to sigh. “Believe it or not being a lilim doesn’t mean your life is instantly rainbows and puppies. We have the same problems and feelings everyone else does, but because we’re daughters of the Demon Lord we’re expected to be ‘perfect.’ So we wear masks to conceal our true selves, more so than normal individuals do.”
  429. “I… Sorry I didn’t realize…” I apologized.
  431. “Don’t let it worry you,” she assured me. “These days I try to be my genuine self with everyone. I simply wanted you to know that I went through a similar period in my life. That I can understand why you were so focused on proving yourself as worthy to your father when he still loved you either way.”
  433. I mustered a shaky smile at that as I turned to look out the window. “I suppose that’s true. I’ve been a rather horrible daughter, haven’t I?”
  435. “Not in the slightest.”
  437. For a time we simply sat in silence, which was fine by me. It let me fight back a wave of emotions that would have caused me to cry again. Ilassa seemed to be able to pick up on this, as she didn’t speak again until I’d calmed myself down.
  439. “The only thing I think I’m missing at this point is your inner fire.”
  441. “Huh?”
  443. She brushed her hair out of her eyes, revealing the one that had been covered until now. “Your drive, your self-consciousness, your rage. It’s all very potent. I’ve picked up on that much. I’m slightly concerned that if I do monsterize you you might lash out at someone somewhere down the line.”
  445. It was a perfectly valid concern. One I shared. I communicated as such. “That same worry is why I stayed away from people all that time wandering. I didn’t want to hurt anyone over a minor slight or because they looked at me the wrong way. I knew I didn’t have the self-control at the time.”
  447. Ilassa’s eyes seemed to sparkle at that. “And yet doing so means you had all the self-control you needed. Still, I do think you should find someone to vent to at the very least. A friend, perhaps. Because otherwise you’re going to go through this cycle again and again in some form, even as a monster.”
  449. “I think that’s probably reasonable. But perhaps easier said than done.”
  451. “Perhaps.”
  453. Another bout of silence passed between us. Just when it started to become awkward, I asked, “So, what now?”
  455. “Now you make the decision. Are you ready to embrace your true self, with all its failings and rewards?”
  457. I didn’t reply for another ten minutes. During that time I watched the sun creep down to touch the horizon. The moment the sky started to turn orange, I opened my mouth.
  459. “I’m ready.”
  461. Ilassa clapped her hands and rose to her feet. “Good. Now I warn you that this process may not be entirely pleasant. Not at first. As you don’t seem to have a man in your life, or one of interest, the intense sexual desire that will arise during the transformation may manifest itself as pain or some other negative motion. It’s hard to say.”
  463. I followed suit, rising from my seat as well. “If I’ve learned anything from these past four months, it’s that temporary pain is nothing compared to hating one’s self.”
  465. “A wise observation.” She rose a hand and produced within it a pulsating black mass of energy. “Now the moment I press this into you there’s no turning back. You will be a monster for the rest of your life. You need to be absolutely sure.”
  467. I stared at the ball of demonic energy. “I… I’m sure.”
  469. “Wonderful. Then strip. You’re not going to want to be wearing anything for this lest you want it ruined.”
  471. ***
  473. Once I stood naked as the day I was born, Ilassa led me over to an open part of the room. Then she circled me, tail twitching back and forth as she split up the ball of energy and placed the parts at varying intervals around my body. All said and done close to twenty or so little dark spheres encircled me.
  475. “And here, we, go,” Ilassa said, snapping her fingers. As she did all of the spheres launched at me and started to embed themselves into my skin.
  477. The moment the spheres touched me I felt a massive wave of heat begin to build up inside. My entire body was burning up, both in arousal and with something that felt like literal fire. I started to fall forwards as the sensation caused my vision to flash, but I was caught by something before hitting the floor. The something turned out to be dark tentacles protruding from a ball of energy that Ilassa was sitting upon a little ways away. They simply held me up in midair, restraining me slightly as my muscles twitched and spasmed.
  479. Just when I thought I couldn’t be any hotter, I felt several somethings building up beneath the skin of my arms and legs. They were pushing out, trying to break through the skin. With bursts of literal fire, scales erupted along my limbs. Each one popped up through my skin brought me a tiny bit closer to the edge. How such a thing could be sexually stimulating I didn’t know. But it certainly was.
  481. In any case, the scaling didn’t seem to be as compact as Gwaine’s was. The dark bits of keratin were outlined by what looked like literal lines of magma. Gouts of fire erupted from them regularly, as if conduits for the wildfire within me. I was so lost in the high that I missed a group of lines merging and forming a blazing patch towards the ends of the scaling.
  483. Almost simultaneously, a similar pressure to the scales arose in my forehead and just above my rear end. The former broke out into a large head crest, forcing its way out between my hair. It too had the same magma lines as my other scaling did, though I didn’t know it at that moment. I was too focused on the electric shocks that resulted when a tail sprung from the end of my spine.
  485. I moaned with a mixture of pleasure and pain as the orgasm brought with it a sudden surge in the heat I felt in my chest. I was burning up, in all senses of the term. I desperately wanted it to stop, at first anyways. But the longer it went on the more it felt natural. Like being on fire was the most normal thing in the world. My panting slowly lessened and became normal breathing. Even the overwhelming desire in my loins abated. To a degree, anyways.
  487. Eventually I was able to see straight again. And when I did I could see Ilassa staring at me in wonder.
  489. “Well, you’re a Dragon, that much is certain,” she remarked. “But you’ve ended up as the Vesuvia subtype.”
  491. “Vesuvia-hn~” I gasped as one last wave of pleasure flowed over me. When it passed I noticed that the mass of fire at the ends of my scaling had become patches of beige fur. “What do you mean?”
  493. “Vesuvias are Volcanic Dragons. I had a hunch something like this might happen but it’s always something special to see.”
  495. “I… see.”
  497. I looked down at myself, noticing the tentacles holding me as if for the first time. “Could you let me down?”
  499. “Of course.”
  501. Without word the wiry limbs gently placed me upon the floor and withdrew into Ilassa’s new chair. As I pushed myself up I stared at my new hands in wonder. Even the scales there had lava flowing between them. Yet I didn’t so much as scald the carpet beneath me. Once I was upright again, seated cross-legged, I took inventory of myself.
  503. I liked what I saw.
  505. As a surge of confidence and self-acceptance flowed through me the bits of fur I had metamorphosed into literal fire again. I yelped and quickly beat at them to no effect. But again, like with the magma flowing across parts of my skin, it didn’t seem to actually harm my surroundings. When I forced myself to calm down they returned back to being bits of fur.
  507. Ilassa laughed as I looked at her in confusion. “Vesuvias have complete control over their fire. It can either be just for effect or actually be capable of burning something. It will take time for you to master it, but eventually you’ll have the power of a volcano at your disposal.”
  509. “What about the fur though?” I asked. “Is that normal for them too?”
  511. That got her to shrug. “I think so. They’re supposed to be indicators of your mood. I’m sure you could probably repress that if you really wanted to but I think it suits you.”
  513. I didn’t have any real argument against it.
  515. “One more thing, is this…” I motioned at my crotch, where a small puddle had collected beneath me. Even now the overwhelming desire to be filled was present. “Something I’ll be able control?”
  517. “Haha, of course it is. Though I think you’ll find yourself drawn to sex and masturbation for the next several weeks. I both infused you with and unleashed six years of collected demonic energy from your beast hunting. Had you a man in your life, I’m quite sure you’d break his pelvis with the amount of love you’d impart on him. But, as you don’t…”
  519. Ilassa waved her hand and caused a chest of various sex toys to appear in front of me. “Take and use those for now. Though should you want an actual guy just say the word. I’m having my staff prepare you a room downstairs.”
  521. “That’s rather kind of you,” I replied, trying my best not to immediately grab at the chest. She really wasn’t kidding. “It’s probably for the best. I feel like I wouldn’t be able to stop myself jumping the first guy I see right now.”
  523. “Welcome to my world~”
  525. ***
  527. True to her prediction, I was rather occupied for the next couple of weeks. The kikimora maids would stop by my room every day to bring me refreshment to replenish those liquids I’d lost and to change the sheets. Honestly they were the only real indicator of time I had. I was that consumed. Still, all said and done, I was able to finally get a hold of my new libido. Once I had I flagged down a maid and had her bring me a set of clothes. Then I set out to find Ilassa.
  529. I ended up finding the lilim reading a book in the castle’s garden. As I approached she marked her place and looked up at me with a smile.
  531. “Ah, Ilothe. Got it out of your system then?”
  533. I nodded, blushing slightly. Though my fur was far more honest, the ends crackling. It made Ilassa giggle.
  535. “That’s simply adorable. You’re definitely going to want to master that before some guy starts teasing you about it. But anyways…”
  537. She lightly tossed her book behind her, sending it into what I assumed was her little pocket dimension. Then she rose and circled me once more. “I don’t see any signs of rejection. All of you that should have emerged has. You shouldn’t experience any more changes. Although…”
  539. Ilassa stopped and poked at the middle of my chest. “You’re supposed to have a gem here. But I have a working theory on that. Come, you’ll want to see.”
  541. From there she led me back inside the castle and down into the lower recesses. It turned out that she had a string of laboratories researching all manner of things down there, from demonic energy application to new breeds of harvestable crops. In particular, though, Ilassa brought me to a room where several Baphomets in white coats stood around my axe upon a pedestal.
  543. “And here we are,” Ilassa said. “As you can see we’ve been looking into your axe as you had fun.”
  545. I raised an eyebrow at her. “And what did you find?”
  547. Ilassa motioned at the Baphomets. One of them stepped forward and replied, “The gem on the hilt seems to be a much smaller version of the ones we use in the tower and above the gates. Sabbath-design, best we can tell. How they’ve managed to reduce the size that much, though, is something we still don’t understand.”
  549. “Uhh…”
  551. The Baphomet sighed. “Right. You’re new.” She pointed back over her shoulder at my axe. “That gem there is meant to capture demonic energy from its surroundings and store it for later use. Said use can be anything from a power source to a weapon. The Sabbath, a group of witches and other magic users, have used such gems to power their inventions for quite some time now. But here the only gems we have are the size of buildings.”
  553. The other Baphomet pipped up and added, “In your case we think the reason you didn’t transform for all these years is because this gem has been absorbing the worst of the demonic energy. You said that this axe was given to you by your parents, yes?”
  555. “Yes,” I replied. “My mother and father forged it for my sixteenth birthday.”
  557. “And your mother, is she by chance a member of the Sabbath?”
  559. I shrugged. “I don’t know. Are cyclops usually members?”
  561. The Baphomets looked at one another. The first to speak looked exasperated, while the latter looked amused.
  563. “Not usually no,” replied Ilassa. “So two mysteries then. In any case…”
  565. She walked over and plucked the axe from its pedestal. Then, much to the protest of the first baphomet, offered it out to me. I took it back, nodded respectfully, and gave it a test swing. I nearly flung myself into a nearby wall doing so.
  567. “See! I told you it’s better that we keep it here!” exclaimed the first Baphomet. “She can’t even wield it properly right now!”
  569. Ilassa opened her mouth to say something, but stopped when I shook my head at her. She nodded and stepped aside as I rested the axe on my shoulder and stepped in front of the baphomet.
  571. “This is MY axe,” I said calmly and forcibly. “You had your chance to examine it, which was the original agreement.”
  573. “But think of all we could learn! We’re straining our Khepri as it is keeping our crystals functioning, and Demon Lord knows if it’ll be enough-”
  575. “Shush, Teni,” interrupted the second Baphomet as she glanced anxiously at Ilassa. “She’s right. We have no right to keep it from her.”
  577. “Hmph!”
  579. Teni threw up her hands and left the room. After she had gone the remaining Baphomet said, “Sorry about that. My sister doesn’t often consider others feelings when it comes to her research. Blinded by science, if you will.”
  581. Ilassa bent down to pat her head. “It’s alright, Rapecea. Still…” She stood, looking back at me. “She was right. We would learn much by further study. I don’t suppose your parents ever taught you how to make such a crystal?”
  583. I shook my head. “Sadly no. But I could return to my village and ask.”
  585. Rapecea and Ilassa looked at one another. Then the former said, “We’d be in your debt if you could bring us back a crystal or two. Or even just the means to make such things. Ones that size could let us bring untold advances into the homes of everyone in Arum Sedis.”
  587. I smiled widely. “Then I guess I should head home right away. Though fair warning: it will be some time before I return. Arum Sedis is on the opposite side of Zipangu from where my home village is. Even heading straight there and back it’ll take me close to a month.”
  589. “Actually, I have something for that,” remarked Ilassa. “A personal, one-use portal back here to Arum Sedis. We’ll pick it up on the way back.”
  591. “Oh. Well I guess that works. Though I did kind of want to try a few hunts along the way to get back into the swing of things.”
  593. “We’ve lived this long without the crystals, we’ll continue to do so,” commented Rapecea. “Though obviously the sooner the better.”
  595. “Of course.”
  597. After that Ilassa and I excused ourselves and returned upstairs. Rather than take me back to my room, however, she brought me to the front entrance. There a maid waited with my pack and my armor. The latter of which I mentally noted would need reforging to fit my new physique.
  599. “This is where I leave you,” said Ilassa. “It has been an absolute pleasure getting to know you and an honor to be a part of your monsterization. Remember what I said about finding a friend though.”
  601. “Certainly,” I replied, giving her a proper bow. “Hopefully I’ll be back within the month.”
  603. ~~~Part Two~~~
  605. Somehow leaving Arum Sedis and the desert it resided in took me far less time than going the opposite way. As I plodded onwards I mused on the fact that me encountering the city (and Ilassa by extension) might not have been a coincidence. But even if that was the case, and that it turned out the lilim had been watching me for weakness (or something to that effect), I wouldn’t be too troubled. I was the one who chose to become a monster in the end. It was a choice made of my own free will. And I definitely wasn’t regretting it.
  607. I found I had easily ten times the stamina and strength I had as a human. I didn’t require breaks nearly as often, and my stride was such that I could cover almost a day’s worth of travel in a single afternoon. For the first few days on my journey north I held this steady, quick pace, both to test my new body and to get closer to civilized lands again. I wasn’t exactly yearning for company, even with Ilassa’s “request” that I find a friend present in the back of my mind. No, instead I wanted to find a simple demon realm beast to hunt. The sooner I got back into the swing of things the better.
  609. Still, the distance between the edge of the desert and the nearest town meant that, even at my speed, it took me the better part of a week to get even close. When the sun began to set on the seventh day out from Arum Sedis I started to make camp. As with all the nights previously, my body reacted without conscious thought to the dimming light. I didn’t feel cold, per say, but I definitely felt the inferno inside me burn just a tad hotter against the chill of the night air. The magma lines between the scales on my skin brightened as a result, providing me with plenty of light to work with long after the sun had set proper.
  611. My new body certainly held a plethora of surprises. I had discovered most of the sexual ones during my two week “vacation,” but the rest were as varied as the ways to slay a beast. for example, I easily started my campfire by placing my hand upon the tinder and focusing. When I did small jets of fire emerged from my palm. Intuition told me I could make far larger flames than that, but I was hesitant to try anything larger for the time being. Mostly for fear of accidentally starting a wildfire.
  613. What mattered, though, was that by the time the moon appeared in the night sky I was well on my way cooking dinner. I had caught a rabbit earlier in the day by flicking a stone from my hand into its head. A quick, clean kill that caused the animal little suffering. I would have needed a bow and arrow and a massive amount of luck to pull off such a feat before becoming a Vesuvia. But now such a thing seemed trivial. Even skinning the carcass was easy. A single swipe of my claws was all it took to flay it open. The only thing my new form didn’t do was provide seasoning. So I had to make due with the little I had on hand.
  615. As I worked around the fire, I heard a rustling off to the right. My campsite was in a small clearing within a pack of trees off the main road. Just far enough in that my fire wouldn’t be especially visible from the thoroughfare. But it seemed I had a visitor. One who either lacked any subtlety whatsoever or one who genuinely had no idea I was there. By shifting my attention from my cooking I was able to discern the sound of hooves upon the pineneedle-strewn ground, as well as the sound of two people talking.
  617. “...not sure,” said a male voice. “We’re probably three days out at best.”
  619. “Well if you’d just ride me we’d get there faster,” chided a female’s.
  621. “Nuh uh. You’re already doing more than you should by carrying everything. It’s not fair to y-”
  623. “Samuel I swear. If I didn’t love you I’d… Oh!”
  625. A Unicorn laden with several large several saddlebags and someone I instinctively knew was her husband stepped into the clearing. I hadn’t moved or bothered to get up as they approached. They had given me little reason to worry after all. Plus I had a rabbit to cook.
  627. “Sorry,” said Samuel as he stepped forward. “We didn’t know anyone else was here. We’ll go make camp in the next clearing over.”
  629. I waved him off. I may not have liked working with others, but I had no qualms about sharing a campfire. “No need. There’s plenty of room here and I don’t mind letting you use my campfire.”
  631. “But-”
  633. “Oh hush, Sam,” said the Unicorn as she began to remove her bags and set them aside. “Don’t mind him. He’s got the chivalry bug something fierce as of late.”
  635. “I do not!”
  637. She rolled her eyes at that, moving to sit across the fire pit from me. “I’m Evelyn, and this is Samuel. You can call us Eve and Sam though. And you are?”
  639. I nodded then grunted, “Ilothe.”
  641. “It’s a pleasure, Ilothe,” said Eve. “What’s that you’re cooking there?”
  643. “Rabbit,” I simply said. Not so as to be curt, more that I didn’t see any value in being verbose.
  645. “Ah. Say Sam, do we have any…”
  647. The man, no, incubus, sighed and began going through their packs. “Yes I’m sure we’ve got some spices somewhere.”
  649. “Wonderful. If you’d like, Ilothe, we could probably make a lovely stew with your rabbit and some of our supplies.”
  651. I shrugged. “Sure. It was probably going to be bland as hell anyways.”
  653. With that I let Eve and Sam take charge of handling dinner. As they worked I found myself keenly aware of each of their movements, whether I wanted to or not. In an attempt to distract my senses I looked up at the twinkling stars above. I must have appeared bored or agitated because Eve tried to make conversation after a few minutes.
  655. “So Ilothe, where are you headed?”
  657. I kept looking up for the time being. Again not to slight her but because I’d fallen back into my old habits from being on the road again. “Gamasari, you?”
  659. “Us too,” she replied. “We’re looking to do some trading and earn some coin with spellcraft. You?”
  661. I lowered my gaze to meet hers, mostly due to a nagging in the back of my head that I should at least try to be friendly.
  663. “I’m hoping for some news about local demon realm beasts that need slaying.”
  665. For added effect I patted my axe which lay behind me. Sam looked up at it from his careful stirring.
  667. “You’re a hunter then? Do you work alone or…?”
  669. “Alone,” I replied. “Always have.”
  671. He grunted as he returned his attention to his pot. “So you’re not with them then. Good.”
  673. “Who?”
  675. Both of them shared a worried look, then Eve said, “Lately we’ve noticed a certain group of hunters taking a majority of the work in the places we’ve been through. A majority of the bulletin boards have been filled with their mark.”
  677. “It’s not uncommon to mark your current target,” I replied. “But you’re saying this group is doing more than that?”
  679. If it weren’t for my keen senses I would have missed the near-imperceptible twitch of Eve’s mouth. “It feels like they’re trying to corner the market. A lot of the other merchants we’ve talked to have all shared the same feeling.”
  681. “Whatever this group marks they kill,” piped up Sam. “And they’re not above wounding or trapping other hunters to do it. I would’ve thought that code of yours would be enough to stop them but…”
  683. I frowned. “But if there’s no one strong enough to defeat them in a duel or challenge them otherwise, they’d have almost free reign to do whatever they wish.”
  685. “Exactly. The good news is they were heading to the west last we knew, so you shouldn’t run into them.”
  687. I found myself looking down at my clenched fists while they continued talking. The group they were describing certainly fit the bill of the one that attacked me many months ago. But could they really be the same one? Even if they were, I couldn’t just abandon my missive from Ilassa to go off and pursue vengeance, tempting as it was. The mere thought of reclaiming my honor was enough to cause my fur to smoulder and crackle.
  689. Needless to say, I didn’t pay much attention to the rest of Sam and Eve’s small talk. I contributed only as was necessary until the stew was ready. Once it was doled out I ended up devouring my portion so fast that Sam and Eve were still love-bickering when I finished.
  691. “Thanks for the meal,” I interrupted, standing as I did so. “You’re free to use the fire for however long you wish.”
  693. Both of them looked at me quizzically. “But where are you going?” asked Eve. “It’s pitch black out right now.”
  695. I let myself glow slightly brighter for effect. “Not to me. And besides, I still have a lot to ground to cover if I want to make it to Gamasari in the morning.”
  697. It has a half-truth. While getting to the town quickly wouldn’t hurt, I was mostly seeking a quieter place to rest and think. Demon Lord knows I wasn’t going to get much around these two without being exceptionally rude about it. They seemed to take my words at face value though.
  699. “Well stay safe,” grunted Sam.
  701. “And if you happen to need a heal or two while you’re in the area just leave us a note in the usual places,” added Eve.
  703. “Dear, she said she’s a Vesua Dragon-thing. An entire mountain could probably fall on her and she wouldn’t feel it.”
  705. “I’m just trying to be polite!”
  707. They probably didn’t even notice I was gone until longer after the fact. Strange way of showing affection for one another, that.
  709. ***
  711. I only made it another hour or two closer to Gamasari before turning in. This time my campsite (if you could call it that) was underneath a rocky overhang just off the road proper. As I settled down against the rocks I actively focused on reducing the amount of light I put off. I still lit up the rockface all said and done, but it was more akin to a campfire than a wildfire. Mostly I was trying to sate my old habits from when I was still human. A human woman traveling on her own ran the very real risk of being attacked by man and monster alike. I highly doubted anyone would want to confront a Vesuvia.
  713. It took awhile for sleep to find me. Until it did I was stuck with circling thoughts. I wasn’t ready to confront “M” if his party was still out there, but that didn’t stop me from imagining all the different ways of exacting my revenge. I wasn’t sadistic by any means, yet the thought of removing that Salamander’s tail was highly appealing. She was part of the reason I ended up the way I was now. It was only fitting I scarred her in a similar fashion.
  715. When I awoke in the morning I felt far less vindictive. After checking that nothing had gone missing during the night I was back on the road to Gamasari. The town ran right up to a bend in the Kaljin River, the river itself nestled between two mountain ranges. The resulting temperature differential made it so the town and the surrounding valley was almost perpetually covered by mist. The sun typically burned most of it off by midday, but the fog always rolled back in overnight. In the end, it made for a rather tropical feeling atmosphere. One that would make hunting demon realm beasts somewhat more challenging.
  717. The abnormal weather was partially why I’d avoided Gamasari in the past. The other reason was that the town was on the edge of the demon realm extending out from Lescatie. Had I stayed there too long as a human I would have become a succubus in short order. That’s how prevalent the latent demonic energy was in the area. But now that I was a monster such matters weren’t troubling at all. Well, almost, anyways. The abundance of demonic energy made for stronger beasts, which in turn made for a more difficult hunt.
  719. This would be fun. The perfect way to get back into the swing of things.
  721. The town guards, all Soldier Beetles, paid me no attention as I entered Gamasari proper and headed for the main square. Like most towns, the main square held a massive bulletin board. There people posted advertisements for jobs (and husbands), news from the surrounding areas, and all sorts of rumors. I was only interested in the former for the time being, though I did make sure to glance at the rest of postings to see if anything stood out. Sure enough, one did.
  723. Nestled just off-center was a wanted poster. It detailed a group of beast hunters that were violating both the Hunter’s Code and countless laws of the realm: A trio of Salamanders, a Hellhound, and an Incubus. I instantly knew it was the same party even before I compared their mark on the poster with that on “M’s” letter.
  725. I must have started to visibly fume, as one of the guards passing by stopped to ask, “Is there a problem, Ma’am?”
  727. I clenched the letter in my hand and shoved it back into my pack. “No. Not really.”
  729. The Soldier Beetle looked me up and down, then shrugged. “Please do not burn down the board,” she said as she started to walk away.
  731. “Wait a moment!” I called before she got too far away. She stopped and turned back towards me. “What can you tell me about this ‘Mavik’ group?”
  733. I pointed at the poster on the board for emphasis. She stared at it impassively, then replied, “They came through here about a month ago. Put every local hunter out of business and even injured some. By the time we of the guard were ready to arrest them they had moved on.”
  735. “Cowards,” I spat. “Er, not you. Them.”
  737. I received another shrug for my troubles. As the guard walked away for good this time I returned to the board. There were very few advertisements for rogue beasts, as if someone had purposefully slain far more than was necessary. It didn’t take my newfound draconic intellect to put together who that someone might be.
  739. The bastards…
  741. Still, there remained one large target that I guess had eluded even the Maviks. By the looks of the weatherbeaten ad this was a beast that had been around for quite awhile - a massive demon realm bear, known as “Phantom.” The name seemed to come from the fact it was able to use the local mist to disappear and reappear seemingly at will. Though it mainly hunted other demon realm beasts, several missing caravans were attributed to Phantom. The reward listed for its removal was more than enough to have my armor reforged, trimmed with gold, and still have plenty left over. But the mere fact that the Maviks hadn’t been able to slay it was enough motivation for me. It would be a moral victory, not a monetary one.
  743. ***
  745. I wasted no time in leaving out of the northern gate and heading towards Phantom’s supposed stomping grounds. The deeper I went into the valley, the thicker the mist got. Eventually it got to the point where I would have been lost several times were it not for my keen tracking skills. By the time I reached the last place Phantom had been sighted, the Sun had only just started dispersing the haze. The landscape around me took form as it did, rocks and trees now fully distinguishable from one another. I could now see that I’d arrived at a spring about the size of Gamasari’s town square. But Phantom was nowhere to be found. That was alright, though. If the beast had been there it would have just been anti-climatic. Lucky perhaps, but definitely anti-climactic.
  747. It didn’t take long to verify that the bear had been there in the past fortnight. I found a set of tracks leading off to the East on the side of the spring opposite where I started. The prints themselves were easily wider than some tree trunks. Judging by them, I surmised that it only came to this waterhole to bathe and drink. Two activities which would mean it’d be extremely wary for anything out of place. I would have to lose my scent and conceal myself tremendously well in order to catch it off guard. If I had to guess, that’s why the Maviks failed. There was simply too many of them. For a beast like this all it takes is one mistake to send it fleeing. If you don’t keep it in the “fight” mindset you may never see it again. And no beast is going to stay and brawl against several assailants at once. Not unless they’re protecting something, but I’d yet to see any indication of such for Phantom.
  749. Since I had time to spare, I cased the surrounding area for potential camping spots and other signs of Phantom’s passing. The former yielded several results, ranging from a particularly dense patch of berry bushes to a quartet of massive rocks that could be moved to lay against each other. I opted for the bushes for the time being, as their scent would better mask mine. Which just left the process of losing my scent in the first place.
  751. Two options came to mind. Either I could use the spring and risk Phantom catching wind of me, or I could strip naked and smear myself with the local mud and dirt. The simple fact of the matter was that my current clothing was made of cloth. It’d absorb my sweat and all sorts of smells. And my armor wasn’t yet reforged to fit my new form. So that meant returning to basics, the kind any Amazon would applaud.
  753. If only you could see me now, I thought as I stashed away my belongings sans axe underneath the aforementioned rocks. My combat mentor growing up happened to be an Amazon. She was heavy-handed, arrogant, and rather blunt. Half of her lessons seemed more like punishments. But as I aged and garnered actual experience in the “real world,” I came to realize how fruitful even those lessons were. Coating yourself in mud and sitting still for an entire day might seem mind-numbingly boring to a girl of sixteen, but to a beast hunter it was a quintessential skill.
  755. Once I stood stark naked I approached the shore of the spring and began taking great handfuls of mud. Every square inch of me had to be covered: the underside of my tail, my hair and fur, underneath my headcrest, and especially all of my magma lines. Then I had to repeat the process with my axe. All said and done I could have easily dropped prone and blended in with the shoreline. With that accomplished, I began digging a hole underneath the berry bushes where I would wait. It had to be big enough to facilitate any waste I put out, while being deep enough that the scent of such wouldn’t waft out and give me away. Needless to say I was the very opposite image of femininity, even for a monster, by the time I wormed my way into my hiding spot.
  757. Then I waited.
  759. ***
  761. I fell into a pattern after a week. From before dawn to well after dusk I’d wait motionless beneath my berry bush. Then I’d scarf something down and attempt to catch some sleep, only to apply a fresh coat of mud when I awoke. Most of the time I was in a zen-like state. I had to simultaneously be on alert for any sign of movement, fight off the natural impulse to fall asleep, and consciously keep my emotions in check. The latter was the hardest to do, especially since the lack of stimulation meant my mind wandered.
  763. Sometimes it went to the same dark places it had during my sojourn. Others it ruminated on how to deal with the Maviks when the time came. Both required me to focus on my breathing and release tension into the ground through my tail. Otherwise I would have burnt off my mud coating and lit the immediate area up like an Ignis. Not exactly something I wanted happening when lying in wait for a bear the size of a house. Had it not been for Aeda’s, my mentor’s, lessons in self-control I would have very likely given myself away.
  765. All my efforts finally paid off midway through the twelfth day. Just after noon, the sound of muffled thumps caught my attention. After another ten minutes of waiting, a gigantic, jet-black bear came into view. Its head swung back and forth, sniffing, as it made a complete circle around the spring. All the while I held my breath best I could. Finally, Phantom settled on creeping into the water proper. Then it began rolling around and bathing. The perfect time to strike.
  767. I slowly reached to my right where my axe lay in wait. Gripping it, I got my legs underneath of me and prepared to leap. I’d only get one, maybe two, strikes in on the beast before it’d either retaliate or start to run. They needed to count. My timing needed to be perfect.
  769. When Phantom rolled onto its back, head facing away from me, I sprang from the brush. A mighty, draconic roar passed my lips as my entire body erupted with great plumes of fire. Somehow this passed onto my axe, the edge of it burning with the same ferocity as the flames that licked my skin. I must have been truly a frightening sight, as Phantom completely froze while I hurtled through the air towards it. But before my axe could connect, the beast brought up its front paws in an attempt to bat me away.
  771. Oh no. I didn’t wait for you this long to be swiped aside NOW.
  773. I bellowed once more. This time actual magma spewed from my throat, though not through any conscious effort. The caustic, seething liquid sprayed over Phantom, sticking to it and setting its fur alight. It howled in agony, rolling about and swatting itself in an attempt to extinguish the unnatural blaze. Which gave me more than enough of an opening to bring my axe up behind me. Then I brought it back down into the bear’s head with every bit of force I could muster.
  775. The bear convulsed violently as my flaming axe passed through its head. It was a testament to how much demonic energy it had built up that such a blow only disoriented it. Between that and the magma, though, I had plenty of time to act. After pulling my axe free of the crater I’d just made I unleashed a flurry of blows. Every strike that connected caused my wildfire to flare even greater. It was as if I was the conduit for a great and terrible force, one fueled by my rage and my determination.
  777. I now understood what Gwaine and Ilassa had meant. It would be so easy to lord this power over others. Or harm them even by accident. This was something that needed to be controlled. Or, at the very least, something I would have to learn to control. For the time being, though, I simply let the fire flow through me. It felt almost orgasmic. Even when Phantom was nothing more than a glorified pile of meat, and I had ceased swinging my axe, the feeling lingered.
  779. I stood over my kill and let out a triumphant roar. In that moment, I felt whole again.
  781. ***
  782. Returning to Gamasari with Phantom’s corpse was somewhat tricky, both due to the creature’s size and how badly I’d eviscerated it. I had to sling half of it over my head, dragging the rest. Even with my new draconic strength it was quite a chore. I didn’t reach the edge of town until that evening. By then I was drained. But I didn’t have to carry my prize much farther.
  784. Like the days of old, once someone spotted me a cry went up. Despite the late hour I was soon surrounded by all sorts of individuals: children wanting to see a “great warrior,” monster couples hoping to get some of the meat for themselves, other hunters wishing to hear how I’d managed it, and more. I held off most of their advances until I reached Gamasari’s lit town square. Once there I plopped the bear down right in the middle and sat atop it.
  786. “Whoever so wishes to purchase meat from the elusive ‘Phantom’ step right up,” I shouted. “Those wishing to hear the tale of how I felled it will have to buy me a drink first.”
  788. I soon had a bulging coin purse and an array of beverages before me. It was all probably a bit much, but I felt as if I’d earned it. I certainly gleaned joy from hearing the bright-eyed children gasp during parts of my story, and satisfaction from the elders whispering about my technique. Even when I reassured them that my molten breath wasn’t intentional I still had people begging for a demonstration. Some were even taking to calling me “The Mistress of Magma.” Though I had to stop that nickname before it stuck. I hadn’t earned it, and that sort of thing was bound to cause problems down the line.
  790. That night I boarded in one of the finest suites available in Gamasari. It even had its own bath, something I took immediate advantage of. The scalding water felt heavenly, especially once I’d extricated myself from the last of the mud. It was so relaxing that I ended up drifting off to sleep. My dreams were just as peaceful. At first. But soon they warped into hellish nightmares. I had visions of me standing helpless as my home village burned down around me. All the while voices shouted things like “why didn’t you control yourself better?” and “how could you let this happen to us?” Needless to say, I awoke with a start.
  792. I guess my emotions had bled through into the waking realm, as my once-full bath seemed to have evaporated around me. I quickly glanced around to confirm nothing else had been affected by the flames about my limbs. Everything else in my suite seemed to be in order. But before I could breathe a sigh of relief, there came a knock at my door.
  794. “H-Hello? Ms. Ilothe?” called a shaking female voice.
  796. “Yes? What is it?” I replied back as I clambered out of the bath.
  798. “I think it’s best if I come in…”
  800. I sighed and walked over to the door, not even bothering to cover myself up. When I opened the door I was taken aback to find a Nightmare standing there, scythe and all.
  802. “Was that you then?” I growled, unsure.
  804. She shook her head. “N-No! But I saw it and thought that maybe…”
  806. I looked out into the hallway to make sure there were no wandering eyes. Then I let the purple centaur in. Her hooves didn’t make so much as a single clopping noise as she came inside. I shut the door behind her, turned around, and waited.
  808. “I’m a few doors down,” she mumbled, avoiding my gaze. “And I guess I wandered into your dream by mistake. I-It happens sometimes, especially if there’s strong emotions involved.”
  810. My fur crackled with my discontent. “How much did you see?”
  812. “Just the last bit with the fire. Sorry…”
  814. A low rumble passed from my throat as I stepped past her to grab my clean robe. The Nightmare let out a small “eep!” as I did. Once I was dressed I sat down on the edge of my bed.
  816. “What’s done is done,” I said, trying to keep my voice level. I was annoyed for multiple reasons, but mostly because a rather private moment had been noticed by someone else. I was okay with revealing my private thoughts and feelings to Ilassa weeks ago because I instinctively felt she wouldn’t share them. But I didn’t know what this Nightmare would do. “What is it you want?”
  818. She clutched her scythe closer to her before replying, “I thought you might like me to shepherd you into more pleasant dreams. Or something…”
  820. She fell silent mid-sentence as my eyes bored holes through her. Encountering a Nightmare in the physical realm is rather rare, and her being nearby when I had an actual nightmare was entirely too coincidental for my liking.
  822. “What is your name?” I asked.
  824. “Alybes,” she answered to the carpet.
  826. “Right then, Alybes. What do you get out of helping me?”
  828. “I-I’m sorry?”
  830. I sighed and rubbed my temples in frustration. “Are you after money? Or perhaps a rival beast hunter is after my secrets?”
  832. “No!” Alybes exclaimed. “Nothing like that. It’s… um… I wouldn’t be able to get much sleep myself if you have another dream like that.”
  834. “And no one put you up to this?”
  836. She shook her head, finally meeting my eyes with hers. I didn’t see any of the usual tells that would indicate a bluff or a falsehood. For all intents and purposes she seemed to be telling the truth.
  838. “Right then,” I sighed. “What do I do? Just fall back asleep with you watching me or something?”
  840. “Yes,” she half-whispered back. “Once you’re safely off I’ll go back to my room.”
  842. “That’s not awkward at all. But fine. Just so we’re clear, if you tell anyone about what you saw or what you might see I will personally make sure you never speak again.”
  844. Perhaps I was more intimidating than I sounded in my head because she started to tremble. “I-I won’t tell anyone!”
  846. “Good. Don’t steal anything either.”
  848. ***
  849. True to her word, Alybes was nowhere to be found when I awoke. It had been the most restful bit of sleep I’d had since I was a child. I felt somewhat bad for having been so cross with her, so I tried to seek her out to apologize. Yet when I asked the Innkeeper where the Nightmare was staying she told me that no such monster had been there.
  851. Wonderful. Just great.
  853. I assembled my belongings and prepared to get back on the road towards my home village. Originally I was going to stay another day or so to enjoy my spoils, but this incident had turned me off of that idea. If I had a spectral centaur haunting me the only way I’d catch it was by moving on. Or perhaps it was all a dream? My thoughts were racing with possibilities as I left Gamasari behind. I could think of little else for the rest of the day.
  855. When I made camp that night I made it a point to double back a few times to see if I was being followed. Finding no one, I let myself drift off into an uneasy slumber. Again my dreams were normal at first. But much like the night before I soon awoke ablaze and sweating. Much to my surprise (and frustration), Alybes was there when I awoke.
  857. “You again,” I snarled as I stood and put my axe between us. “I don’t know how or why you’re following me but it stops now.”
  859. She put up her shaking hands in an attempt to placate me. “T-That’s not what the unwaking you wants though. She’s going through a lot of turmoil right now. That is to say, you are…”
  861. I scoffed at that. “So what, you just happened to float by my dreams yesterday, where ‘I’ called out for your help? That I’m having nightmares not because you’re forcing them upon me, but because I’m what, insane??”
  863. “I um, wouldn’t say you’re insane, but yes. That’s about it.”
  865. “I don’t believe you.”
  867. Alybes set her scythe down. I guess she thought it would make me more inclined to trust her. “Well it’s the truth. As promised it’s stayed between us, but I worry about what might happen if you have such a dream and I’m not around to wake you.”
  869. I growled and drove my axe into the ground. “So you’re following me to make sure I don’t inadvertently incinerate something in my sleep? If your job was to make me not trust myself, well fucking done. I already was worried about what might happen if my flames grow out of control. Now I’ve either lost my mind or I’ve inadvertently press-ganged someone into making sure I’m under control.”
  871. “I-It’s the latter. But I’m here of my own free will.”
  873. I threw my arms wide, motioning at our surroundings. “So why didn’t I catch you earlier then? Or back at the inn? Why didn’t you just tell me this before during the day?”
  875. She cringed a little at the harshness in my voice. “I can become immaterial. It’s how we get close to people when they sleep. And um… I don’t like being out and about while the sun’s up.”
  877. “Fantastic,” I grumbled. “Next you’ll tell me you can fly.”
  879. “No. Not outside of dreams.”
  881. “Great. So we’ve established one weakness. All I need to do now is figure out if Vesuvias can fly or not.”
  883. I sat down on one of the nearby rocks and cradled my head in my glowing, fiery hands. I was frustrated beyond belief. I would have much rather spent another month being drilled by Ilassa than be where I was now. This was supposed to be something I figured out on my own. I didn’t need help. I didn’t-
  885. A hand on my shoulder caused me to flinch. I looked up to see Alybes smiling timidly at me. “I can go i-if you want. But I think you’re lonely.”
  887. I opened my mouth, ready to send her off. But then Ilassa’s words about finding a friend came to mind. Truth be told, I didn’t have friends growing up. I always held my acquaintances at arm’s length, never letting any get close. But in this instance Alybes already knew what lay underneath whether I liked it or not. And she seemed to be benign. Mostly.
  889. “That may be true,” I admitted in a low mumble. “But if you’re going to stick around we are setting some ground rules.”
  891. “Like?”
  893. I held up my hand and began counting off, “One, I’m not doing extra hunting for you. You’re on your own for food.”
  895. “That’s fine,” she replied. “I don’t eat ‘normal food’ much anyways. You don’t need to worry about me starving.”
  897. “Two, you’re not to interrupt anything I’m involved in. Hunting, talking with someone else, whatever. I don’t need someone getting in my way constantly.”
  899. “I just won’t phase into the physical realm until night then.”
  901. “And finally, three, if at any point I say to leave, you go without complaint. Got that?”
  903. Alybes wringed her hands for a moment, then nodded. “Yes.”
  905. I sighed and stood. “Then let’s just get this night over with. Same as before?”
  907. ***
  909. Despite my paranoia, the next couple of days were all the better for her company. We didn’t talk much, but I had a feeling she interacted with my subconscious in my dreams a lot more than she let on. I somehow knew things about her, like her favorite color, without ever having asked. And I guessed the reverse was true. I was only vaguely aware of my dreamself, after all. Most nights I didn’t even remember having dreams to begin with. But those I did never turned to nightmares under Alybes’ watchful eye.
  911. The end result was twofold. First, I was far more rested in the morning than I would have been otherwise. Second, I was less prone to mood swings. All this without much interaction or spoken word. It didn’t feel wrong, per say, but my paranoia wouldn’t let me just accept the benefits at face value. So I brought up the matter two days out from my home village.
  913. “What are you getting out of all this, Alybes?”
  915. She stamped lightly at the ground with her front hoof. “Friendship is nice. But I guess you’re also taking me to someone who can fix my scythe.”
  917. I eyed her weapon appraisingly. “There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with it.”
  919. “It’s not properly cutting things it should,” she replied, avoiding my gaze.
  921. I decided not to press the subject. “Right. In any case, what is it you’re doing when I’m asleep exactly? Why do I know that your favorite drink is strawberry milk? Hm?”
  923. Alybes brightened at that. “Well sometimes the other you lets me stay in a dream rather than forcing me to be an impartial observer. She’s very talkative, you now.”
  925. A growl of discontent rumbled through my throat. “I don’t like that idea one bit.”
  927. “Why?”
  929. “Because it means that my subconscious is more messed up than anyone knows.”
  931. Alybes shook her head before replying, “I don’t see it that way.”
  933. I raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
  935. “Indeed. Like I said before, you’re just lonely. You subconscious is more willing to talk and be friendly though. Why is that?”
  937. “Why?” I said, mulling it over. The answer was something I didn’t like admitting. “Maybe since I don’t want people to get close to me.”
  939. My counterpart waited for me to continue. I did so with a sigh. “I never saw the benefit of friendship, especially when all other people did was make me angry. And I always thought that made me far too angsty. Too prone to rage at them over something trivial. Who’d want to put up with that?”
  941. “You know what I think, Ilothe?” mumbled Alybes. “I think you’re deathly afraid of anyone getting close. Why I don’t know, but the result is the same.”
  943. “Glad to see I’ve picked up someone who likes playing psychologist. Like I didn’t get enough of that in Arum Sedis.”
  945. “Arum Sedis?”
  947. I let out another sigh and gave her a quick rundown of my experiences in the desert. I was a bit more thorough than I had been with Sam and Eve, though I still left out the more personal bits like the discussions with Ilassa. Alybes seemed satisfied with that much regardless.
  949. “I kinda like you as a Vesuvia,” she mused. “I don’t think I would have run into you at all had you become a Hellhound instead.”
  951. “Why’s that?” I asked.
  953. She cast around for the right words. “Dragon types are really magical. Some of the most magical species out there. Nightmares like me are drawn to large concentrations of such energy. Usually it’s a guy and his spirit energy we go after, but now and again…”
  955. “Now and again you see someone like me boiling away an entire bath and intervene.”
  957. “Sort of?”
  959. I let out a small huff at that. “Close enough for me. So you’ll only stick around until I’m ‘fixed,’ then?”
  961. It was her turn to shrug. “Maybe. I don’t know. I think it’s far more likely you’ll send me away first.”
  963. I missed the subtle jab at my current state of being at first. But by the time I’d rolled over in an attempt to sleep it was far too late to bring it up. She really was doing a good job at causing me to doubt my self-control. It was both a good and a bad thing, though at the moment I wasn’t ready to admit the former.
  965. Regardless, my journey North with Alybes over the next three weeks was somewhat pleasant. I didn’t run into anyone on the road, and I could skip having to pass through towns for supplies thanks to my draconic endurance and hunting prowess. The only sore spots were when my constantly circling thoughts got snagged on something negative, like the Maviks. In those instances I’d fume for a good portion of the day, both literally and figuratively. My mood was as volatile as an actual volcano’s. Something my traveling companion hinted at but never explicitly said. After being reminded constantly of it for so long I vowed to work on it after meeting my step-mother. Assuming the process to replicate my axe’s crystal wasn’t a lengthy endeavor, that is.
  967. ~~~Part Three~~~
  968. My home village of Frostvault was nestled at the foot of a massive mountain chain that spanned the northern end of the continent. The name was a reference to the fact the world beyond was a frozen tundra, and to the vast amount of ores and minerals that lay beneath. It was the perfect environment for blacksmiths. My family was one of the many in Frostvault.
  970. Bernth, my father, wasn’t even the best of them, yet somehow he landed my step-mother, a cyclops. They’re said to be the end all in the realm of blacksmithing. Though Asme never flaunted her skills. If anything, she just enjoyed working alongside my father. My axe was the only instance in memory when she put forth her full potential. I always found that strange, but I chalked it up to love more than anything else.
  972. As promised, Alybes didn’t follow me into Frostvault. She simply said she would stop by my family’s forge later in the day, then vanished into the ether. With her out of the way I was free to wander into town without worry. Well, no more worry than usual. In any case, I soon found myself surrounded by old haunts and faces.
  974. Most of the people I passed treated me more like a newcomer than an old acquaintance. To their credit, my new form was quite different than the Ilothe they remembered. Only those who I had seen regularly, such as the butcher and the foreman of the mines, saw past it and greeted me warmly. I didn’t linger with them long though. Instead I continued on to my parent’s forge. It was as I remembered leaving it. Nothing about it had changed in the past six years. Right down to the same rickety sign above the entrance. Not to mention the sound of steady hammering coming from the back of the forge.
  976. “Dad? Mom?” I called out. “I’m home!”
  978. The hammering paused for a moment. Then my father called, “Ilothe? Is that you? Come back here, girl. Let us see you.”
  980. I hesitated. What if they disapproved of my monsterization? There was a remote chance they might. But at this point there was nothing for it. So I steeled myself and walked deeper into the forge.
  982. As I expected, my father and stepmother were working on a set of blades. The former was working the furnace, while the latter was pounding the heated metal into shape. Both stopped what they were doing when I came into view.
  984. “Good lord girl,” my father exclaimed, upbeat but slightly concerned. “What happened?”
  986. I puffed out my chest a little, feeling proud. Even my fur crackled slightly. “I chose to become a monster, one that fit my personality and aspirations.”
  988. My step-mother’s singular, oversized eye roved over me. “What species are you though? And who or what caused you to transform?”
  990. “I’m a Vesuvia, the magma subspecies of Dragons. As for who, it was a lilim by the name of Ilassa.”
  992. My father grunted and came over to give me hug. “Well it’s good to have you back. ...Huh.”
  994. He stepped back when he noticed my fur was ablaze with glee. “Cold fire? How does that work then?”
  996. I shrugged. “Most of the time it mirrors my mood. Most of the time...”
  998. Both of my parents laughed at that. “It’s a wonder you’re not on fire all the time then,” jabbed Asme. “You’ve always had such a temper.”
  1000. “It’s something I’m working on,” I admitted. “I haven’t made a tremendous amount of progress, mind you, but some.”
  1002. “That’s good to hear. But what brings you back?”
  1004. I reached behind me for my pack, placing it before me on the ground with a metallic rattle. “I kind of need my old armor reforged to fit my new form. That and…”
  1006. “And?” prodded Bernth.
  1008. I produced my axe and offered it out so that the gem in the hilt was visible. “I was hoping Mom could teach me how to make these.”
  1010. Asme frowned at that, her eye narrowing. “So you’ve figured out what it is then?”
  1012. “Kind of,” I said. “It absorbs and stores demonic energy. It’s probably why I didn’t monsterize despite all the demon realm beast hunting.”
  1014. “That is mostly correct, but why do you want to know how to make them?”
  1016. “Apparently such crystals and gems would be of great use to Ilassa and her city. Something about how they haven’t figured out the trick to make them this small. I kinda wanted to thank her for working with me during the monsterization process.”
  1018. My step-mother grumbled and resumed her hammering. “I don’t mind sharing the process with family. But someone else, even a lilim? That I don’t know. Why doesn’t she just ask the Sabbath to make them? They’re close enough to what you have there.”
  1020. I shrugged. “I have no idea to be honest. I got the feeling she wasn’t on the best terms with the Sabbath. Now that I think about it, my time in Arum Sedis was rather odd.”
  1022. “How so?” asked my father.
  1024. “Well for one, there weren’t a lot of people around, monster or otherwise. And there didn’t seem to be much traffic in or out of the city. Like it was a secluded realm amongst the sands. Plus, Ilassa herself was nothing like the way stories painted lilims. She didn’t just monsterize me on a whim. In fact I had to open up and reveal a lot of things to her in order to narrow down what species would fit me best.”
  1026. Bernth grunted and returned to the bellows. “Sounds to me like you ran into a lilim that follows her own code. I can respect that. But I do get the feeling she might just have been using you to learn about the gem-making process. Then again, she did let you keep your axe, so who knows?”
  1028. I looked to my step-mother for answers. She had none for me. “I’ll need to think about it,” she stated. “Having a lilim in your debt isn’t a bad thing, but it’s something cyclopes have concealed for generations. A trade secret, one of many.”
  1029. “I defer to you then,” I said reverently. “I suppose I’ll be in town for awhile anyways waiting on my armor. Take all the time you need.”
  1031. “Good. Was there anything else you needed? Not that we don’t enjoy seeing you again, but we’re running behind on a rather large order.”
  1033. I shook my head. “Nope. That’s all. Actually wait, one last thing. Supposedly a Nightmare, Alybes, will be stopping by later to have her scythe fixed.”
  1035. Asme sighed. “If it’s what I think it’s for then we’ll have to do it later, after this order.”
  1037. “Could I help in any way?” I inquired.
  1039. “If you feel like it, sure,” said my father. “How hot can you make your fire?”
  1041. “Only one way to find out.”
  1043. ***
  1044. As it turned out, being a Vesuvia made forge work much simpler. I had a hunch it would, though more than I’d expected. I could easily heat up a blade to the required temperature just by holding it. And I didn’t require heavy gloves or tongs to hold it in place during the hammering process. I could do the jobs of both my parents at once without issue. It felt good to work in the forge again, and soon I fell into an focused, trance-like workflow.
  1046. It wasn’t until Alybes arrived later that afternoon that I snapped out of it. The pile of blades had more than doubled in size thanks to my handiwork. And although they didn’t say anything about it, I could tell my parents were pleased. Both of them went out to see Alybes at the front of the forge, leaving me to continue chugging along. When they came back, Asme had the Nightmare’s scythe in hand.
  1048. “Ilothe,” she said. “Do you feel up to going to mines? I’m going to need certain ores to fix this. Demon Realm Cobalt and Copper, to be precise. Your father and I have to finish up this order, which, thanks to you, will actually be completed on time.”
  1050. “Sure,” I replied. “Just those two?”
  1052. “I’ll also need some rubies and sapphires in order to teach you about gem-craft.”
  1054. “Ah. So you’re going to show me the secret then?”
  1056. “Yes. But only on the condition that you never reveal the process to anyone outside of the family. Even a lilim.”
  1058. “Fair enough. I’ll see what I can dig up then.”
  1060. I finished up the blade I had been working on before leaving my parents’ forge. Alybes was waiting for me outside.
  1062. “They said it might be a couple of days,” she murmured in her typical meek fashion. “Would you mind if I stayed in Frostvault?”
  1064. “Do as you like,” I replied. “I have to go do some digging in the mines.”
  1066. “Ah. For your gem thing?”
  1068. “And for your scythe, yes.”
  1070. “Well have fun then, I guess.”
  1072. The way she avoided my gaze more than usual made me curious. “Is something wrong?”
  1074. “No. Um… I may have sorta sawaguy…” she whispered quickly.
  1076. I laughed and patted her on the head. “No need to keep watching my dreams. Go have fun. If I end up burning something in my sleep I’m sure you’ll be the first to lecture me.”
  1078. “Only a little bit.”
  1080. ***
  1081. The benefit of being a blacksmith’s daughter is that no one bats an eye at you heading into the mines. A few miners looked at me strangely due to my new form, but the badge I wore (courtesy of the foreman) meant their gazes didn’t linger. I paid them no mind as I headed into the deeper tunnels. Cobalt and Copper, especially the Demon Realm variety, were somewhat difficult to find. Most of the larger veins had been excavated already, at least those in accessible locations. It was simply more profitable (and safer) to dig further into the mountain than to dig downwards. Which meant that I had my work cut out for me.
  1083. Some twenty minutes after entering I finally hit the edge of the lantern lights. The passageways beyond were pitch black, with signs over them that read “ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK.” It was a warning to the human workers more than anything else. Monsters such as Wurms tended to live this far down. It wasn’t unheard of someone going missing and reappearing months later with a new wife in tow. That aside, sometimes the corridors caved in without warning. So one had to be especially wary of their surroundings.
  1085. For a time I let my body’s fire light the way as I wandered. Every once and awhile I’d come across a discarded tool or other such sign of someone’s passing. But rather than feel anxious like I did in my teenage years, I felt somewhat at home. Like this would be the perfect place to carve out a little place of my own. The thought certainly gave me entertainment while looking for signs of an ore vein. I figured a Vesuvia, being a draconic subtype, would find solace in this sort of environment. It was only natural for those instincts to crop up now and again. Though it was still peculiar to find myself picturing such oddities as literal lava baths.
  1087. Eventually I hit a dead end. I retraced my steps until I hit a fork, marked off the way I’d come, and headed in a new direction. I must have repeated this process at least a dozen or so times before finally finding a sign of a vein. I almost missed it at first due to the reddish tint of my natural light. Along one of the walls, a string of oxidized iron had flecks of blue in it. There wasn’t enough cobalt there to bother excavating it though, so I kept following the flow of the rock. When it tapered off I doubled back to where the cobalt impurities were strongest and began digging. I ended up carving out a good sized pocket into the wall before finally hitting something.
  1089. It was a decent find: about five or so kilograms of cobalt, copper, and arsenic all mixed together in rock form. Not enough to fix Alybes’ scythe, but that was alright. For some reason, when I held the rock in my hands, I had an overwhelming urge to smell it. Were I still human I’dve written the idea off as lunacy. But now that I was a Vesuvia I figured there had to be a reason for the instinct. So I took a tentative wiff.
  1091. What I felt next is hard to describe. It was as if I had the faintest idea where similar rocks were. Certain parts of the wall seemed to jump out at me, as if saying, “Dig here!” Sure enough, when I did, I found similar amounts of the ore from before. And the more I dug the more I felt the itch to tear it out of the wall with my bare hands instead of the pickaxe. I supposed it was more draconic instinct coming into play. They would have an innate desire for valuable metals and gems. Certain subtypes must experience that lure in different ways, or so I guessed. In the end I opted for a combination of axe and claw, which seemed to work quite nicely.
  1093. Overall, I filled my pack with close to fifty kilograms of the stuff before calling it a day. I hadn’t found any gems to learn my step-mother’s technique, but I could easily trade some of the ore for some topside. When I finally reached the mine’s exit, though, it was already well into nighttime. I’d spent far longer in the depths than I’d originally thought. Only a select few lights were still on in the windows of Frostvault. My family’s forge being one of them. Sure enough, when I entered, both Bernth and Asme were still hard at work.
  1095. “And our triumphant daughter returns!” shouted my father when he noticed me. “What spoils have you brought us?”
  1097. I took off my pack and set it down against one of the walls. “About fifty kilograms of ore, give or take. It’ll need refining, of course, but there should be plenty there for the scythe.”
  1099. “Wonderful,” replied Asme. “What about gems? Find any of those?”
  1101. “Sadly no. But I can always go dig up more ore to trade with. I seem to have a knack for it now.”
  1103. My father laughed heartily. “Is there anything that new body of yours can’t do?”
  1105. “Pretty sure I can’t fly,” I half-joked back.
  1107. “Hah. Give it time. Asme here set up your old room while you were out. Go get some rest.”
  1109. “You sure? How many more blades do you have left to forge?”
  1111. “About ten,” sighed Asme. “But we can knock them out without issue. Well, assuming your father stops giving me those eyes.”
  1113. “Hey you were the one who slapped my ass first.”
  1115. Oh lord. They were flirting. No wonder they were behind before. “Yeah… I’ll just go do that then. Keep it down, would you?”
  1117. ***
  1118. My room seemed to be largely as I remembered leaving it. There wasn’t much in it to begin with: a fur-covered bed, a trunk of clothes at the foot of it, and the first sword I ever made on the wall opposite the window. Cozy, and thankfully somewhat soundproof. I was barely troubled by my parent’s shenanigans as I drifted off to sleep.
  1120. That night I dreamt of volcanoes. Of great eruptions, plumes of smoke, and rivers of lava. At the forefront of each was the sensation, no, the desire to be a part of them. I could picture myself immersed in the magma, working upon a great anvil. The specific object of my attention changed each time the dreams shifted. Sometimes it was a weapon, others a set of armor. And rarely, far less clear, what seemed to be great gemstones and crystals.
  1122. I awoke in the middle of such a dream ablaze. I began to panic and tried to beat myself out before I realized the flames were harmless. Luckily Alybes didn’t seem to be around to laugh at me, so no one saw my face flush. Still, despite my best efforts, I couldn’t make my tufts of fur return to normal. They were stuck as wreaths of flame.
  1124. “Why won't you change back,” I grumbled to myself. “You’ve always changed back.”
  1126. My body had no answer for me. It simply remained alight, casting flickering shadows about the room.
  1128. Great.
  1130. After at least an hour of trying, I gave up out of frustration. If anything all I’d managed to do is burn brighter - the exact opposite of what I wanted. I certainly wasn’t going to get any sleep like this. Not without Alybes or someone around to make sure I wasn’t burning the forge down. And for all I knew the Nightmare was currently having the ride of her life with some beau. No. I’d have to deal with this on my own. Somehow.
  1132. I donned one of my old frocks and wandered outside. Not a single light was on in Frostvault, which meant I stood out like a sore thumb. I needed to go somewhere secluded, somewhere dark.
  1134. The mines…
  1136. By now I was beginning to worry. I was being driven towards something unknown by instinct. Instinct that was completely alien to me. I didn’t like the idea of being manipulated, not one bit. Yet I also knew there was nothing for it. Whatever was going on was connected to me being a Vesuvia. The only person who could help me at this point was myself.
  1138. Or a lilim. But I definitely didn’t have access to one of those at the moment. I’d just have to work through my exasperation and see where it all led.
  1140. I ended up back in the same tunnels I’d mined earlier that today without conscious thought. Right to the pocket which once held the cobalt ore. I felt a wave of relief wash over me as I stood before it, but something still felt wrong. I found myself reaching out to the wall, hoping the answer would reveal itself. Sure enough, my entire body erupted in a blaze, instantly incinerating my clothes. I grew so hot that I was able to melt the rockface just by touching it. So I did what seemed natural: I climbed into the hole and rolled around.
  1142. As I did, the various ores and minerals liquefied around me. I soon had a molten coat that covered every inch of my body. It felt absolutely heavenly. Far more soothing than any fancy silk or pillow could ever hope to be. I was safe here. I was at peace.
  1144. Well, almost. The immense heat swirling around me had the curious side effect of setting my loins on fire. It wasn’t nearly as influential or prominent of a desire as when I had transformed, but it was still very much a “need.” I let one of my fingers tentatively brush against my thighs. Sure enough, the resulting jolt caused me to let out a rather loud moan. I knew that I’d experience this sort of thing more often, being a monster now, but it did feel rather silly. Not that I cared how ridiculous it was in that moment. All I was concerned with was abating the wildfire within me.
  1146. ***
  1147. “Someone’s had fun…”
  1149. I awoke with a start. My molten blanket had cooled to the consistency of a sort of gel, meaning I was free to writhe about in search of the source of the noise. Sure enough, Alybes was standing a little ways back in the corridor.
  1151. I brought a hand to my forehead with a sigh. “How long have you been standing there?”
  1153. She shrugged. “Not long actually. Your parents were wondering where you’d wandered off to in the middle of the night. I figured the mines might be a good place to look.”
  1155. “Why’s that? Didn’t you have a boy or something to haunt? How could you know I was here?”
  1157. “Because you’ve been dreaming about this sort of thing for months now. Not knowingly, of course. Every time it’d happen your dream-self would throw me out. But I saw enough to guess what was going on.”
  1159. “That being, what exactly?” I growled.
  1161. “You’re um, trying to figure out who you are now. You’ve worked out some of it, like what you stand for and how you feel about certain things, but not others.”
  1163. “Sex. You’re saying that I have a nymphological problem. Like having an anger one wasn’t enough already.”
  1165. “Honestly, you probably think about sex far less than a normal monster should. Even in your dreams. Even compared to me.”
  1167. I raised an eyebrow at her slightly jovial tone. “You? Is that why you stutter sometimes?”
  1169. “No! I just um, have trouble finding the right words sometimes!” She fidgeted for a bit, then continued, “But yes. Your dreams have been your outlet. Not often, but definitely growing in intensity.”
  1171. “And you didn’t tell me this before… why?”
  1173. “Because I thought I was helping you by keeping them under control. Being a new monster and all. But now I worry I’ve just made things worse.”
  1175. I sighed and cast off my semi-solid blanket. “I don’t know that I’d go that far. No harm’s been done. And it seems I’m back to normal as well.”
  1177. Sure enough, my fur had returned to being fur. It still cast off a faint light at the edges, but it was definitely not the out of control inferno it was when I came down here.
  1179. “I guess it all fits now that I think about it,” I continued. “Like an actual volcano I just kept repressing emotions and thoughts I didn’t like. So it just built up more and more until…”
  1181. “Until I wasn’t around anymore and it came rushing out all at once,” finished Alybes. “I’m just glad you ‘erupted’ safely.”
  1183. Another sigh escaped my lips. “I don’t suppose you brought me a change of clothes?”
  1185. “Nope. But I can certainly go get you some.”
  1187. “Could you? I might as well do some digging now that I’m down here. Assuming I didn’t melt it all.”
  1189. “That is a pretty big hole…”
  1191. “Shut up Alybes.”
  1193. By the time she returned I’d found another two chunks of ore that were suitable for refinement. The rest of the vein had been slagged. I tried and failed not to pout at that fact as I got dressed.
  1195. “So what about that boy of yours, him?” I asked.
  1197. “W-what about him?” replied Alybes.
  1199. “I don’t know. How’d it go? Just trying to make conversation.”
  1201. She giggled at that. “A bit more sociable than usual I see. I like it. But um… yeah. He was nice. Didn’t even realize it was me in his dreams.”
  1203. “Oh? How far did you go?”
  1205. “Ilothe!”
  1207. “Hey you just caught me after masturbating. Cut a girl some slack.”
  1209. Alybes’ back hooves pawed at the ground. “N-Not very far! I just introduced myself!”
  1211. Teasing her was definitely helping me feel less awkward. And she was making it far too easy. “And?”
  1213. “A-a-and maybe I raped him a little! Okay?!”
  1215. I laughed heartily, “See? Not so hard to admit, is it?”
  1217. “Says the dragon who’s terrified of admitting she masturbates!”
  1219. “Hey now, let’s not throw stones in glass houses.”
  1221. “Meanie.”
  1223. “Nope,” I said as I walked over and offered out my hand. “Just trying to be friendly in the only way I know how.”
  1225. ***
  1226. The next couple of days passed without major incident. Each morning I’d return to the mines to excavate additional ore, and each night I’d seclude myself away and let off some steam. As a result I was much more personable and nice to others. Or, at least, I certainly felt that I was. The old Ilothe never cared much for small talk. I still didn’t, but I could at least humor it for a time without growing annoyed. As it turned out, that sort of thing was essential to appearing pleasant. Who knew.
  1228. In any case, I soon had amassed enough cobalt and copper for my step-mother to fix Alybes’ scythe. She shooed my father and I out of the forge when she worked on it, something we’d simply come to accept about her. Certain times she had to be alone to work her Cyclops forging mastery. My axe was one such instance. It really wasn’t surprising that a monster’s weapon would fall in the same category.
  1230. When Asme emerged she brought with her a scythe that hardly resembled the one that she started with. It had a wicked blue, patterned edge that gleamed impressively despite any direct light upon it. The rest of the blade met with an impressive copper rib that was fused with the snath. In a way it resembled my axe. They certainly shared similar styles of construction.
  1232. “All done,” my step-mother said as she presented the weapon out to Alybes. “I hope you don’t mind that I gave it a little of my personal flair.”
  1234. Alybes took it gently and gave it a few practice swings. “It’s… It’s lovely. You’ve done more than I could have ever hoped. But um… what do I owe you?”
  1236. Asme laughed. “Don’t tell anyone where you got it. And don’t abuse it. Otherwise just try to keep my daughter here company.”
  1238. “That’s very generous of you,” replied the Nightmare. “I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
  1240. She turned to me and smiled. “Whenever you’re ready to move on, just shout. Until then I have a boy that needs a few more wet dreams.”
  1242. Then she vanished before our eyes.
  1244. “Never thought I’d get to work on a Nightmare’s scythe,” mused my step-mother as she walked back into the forge with me in tow. “They’re more reclusive than we Cyclopes. Still, I think it’s time I made good on our deal. Did you bring the gems?”
  1246. I produced three good-sized emeralds that I’d traded for earlier that day. “Will these do?”
  1248. “They will do just fine. Lock the door behind you so your father can’t come in.”
  1250. I did so, much to his protests. Then I walked over to where Asme was waiting.
  1252. “The process is relatively simple,” she began. “You need to infuse the gem with something that attracts and/or manipulates demonic energy. Any idea what that might be?”
  1254. I reflected on the basic teachings I’d received. “Spirit Energy, right?”
  1256. She nodded. “That’s one such thing, yes. But the problem is the only thing that produces it is a living male. Unless you steal a portion of their soul that’s not an option. I’m sure your Ilassa knows this and objects to it. Otherwise she’d use the Sabbath-method which does just that.”
  1258. “But your method doesn’t?”
  1260. “Nope. It utilizes the same principles Khepri do when they gather up their balls of demonic energy and store them for later use. It took my great great grandmother close to a decade of constant close study to crack the secret of it. Another two to refine the process so it could be passed onto gems and crystals.”
  1262. “So how does it work then?”
  1264. Asme looked over to the door to make sure it was shut. Then she moved over to her personal vault that lay in the ground near the back of the forge. “You need to infuse the gem with a certain amount of a substance that mirrors the Khepri’s golden natural armor. For lack of a better term, I’ve taken to calling it Kheprite.”
  1266. “And where do we get it?”
  1268. “Short of taking it from an actual Khepri? You don’t. Not easily. The temperature required to smelt and purify demon realm gold to the required level is beyond any mortal. But as it so happens, I have a small amount here.”
  1270. She reached into her vault and produced a ball of sparkling gold about the size of a fist. “This is just enough to infuse two of your emeralds. All we have to do is set them in a bath of sorts in a kiln while infusing it with small amounts of our own demonic energy. Eventually the Kheprite will react to it and fuse with the gems.”
  1272. “Seems simple enough,” I wondered aloud. “Well, assuming you have this Kheprite stuff. How did you get it in the first place?”
  1274. “I did not. It was my great great grandmother who acquired a very large amount of it and passed it down. This is the last of it.”
  1276. “From mother to daughter, like an heirloom. I’m honored, mother.” I bowed my head reverently. “But how did she get it?”
  1278. Asme closed up her vault and brought over the Kheprite. “She was granted a boon by one of the Pharaohs for her work on the tombs. She chose to ask for the remnants of Khepri who had passed on, so that their will could be carried on. Were it anyone else, I’m sure they would have been denied. But anyways…”
  1280. She motioned at the workbench. “Pick the two emeralds that ‘feel right.’ Then we can start the process.”
  1282. ***
  1283. Several hours later I had two gems that matched the one in my axe. The process was far more taxing than I thought it might be, leaving me exhausted. Asme picked up on this and offered me a shoulder to lean on.
  1285. “Come on, let’s get you to bed.”
  1287. “Thanks,” I mumbled, pocketing the emeralds.
  1289. As we walked, she said, “Now promise me once more that you will never share this knowledge with anyone besides your own daughter. In the wrong hands it could very easily lead to people hunting the Khepri or worse.”
  1291. “I promise,” I replied as sincerely as I could muster.
  1293. “Good. Now I know you wanted to send Ilassa a token of your appreciation. I’d recommend only sending one gem and keeping the other for yourself. She won’t crack the secret of it, but it might at least satisfy her curiousity.”
  1295. “One can hope. Thanks again, Mom.”
  1297. “Of course, dear. Now do get some rest. No late night masturbation sessions, you hear me?”
  1299. I sighed exasperatedly. “Why does everyone know about those?”
  1301. “A mother always knows.”
  1303. ***
  1304. The next morning I focused on writing Ilassa a letter. I never was one for writing letters, but in this instance it seemed important since I wouldn’t be returning to Arum Sedis. I’d only be using the return-scroll I’d been given to pass along the missive and an emerald. Then I’d return to my wanderings.
  1306. After several attempts at trying to jot down something my fur was beginning to crackle. None of the words felt right. I just couldn’t convey the emotions and thoughts I wanted to in a satisfactory way. It seemed too stiff, too abrupt. Even for me. Still, after a few more attempts, I gave up and simply wrote:
  1308. “Ilassa - Thanks again for your help. I can’t share how this gem was made, but I hope you find it to your liking. I’ve found a friend, I think. We’ll be wandering together like I used to. Maybe we’ll find our way back to Arum Sedis, maybe not. May the Demon Lord watch over you. -Ilothe”
  1310. Before I could change my mind again I sealed the letter up and tied it to one of the emeralds. Then I dug through my pack until I found the return scroll. The instructions on it called for it to be placed in a doorway, then activated via an incantation. When I did so a portal opened up right into the sitting room where I was transformed. I couldn’t see anyone inside, but I figured someone would collect my package in due time. So I threw it in and stepped back. As soon as I did the portal swirled out of existence along with the scroll.
  1312. “Done?” asked Alybes from behind me.
  1314. I jumped and whirled on the spot. “What have I told you about- never mind. Yes I’m done. Are you sure you want to leave your boy behind?”
  1316. She smiled. “Oh, he was a nice boy to rape on occasion, but not someone I’d want to marry. Don’t you worry about me Ms. Volcano.”
  1318. “If you say so, Ms. Stutterer.”
  1320. We shared a laugh, then she asked, “So where to now?”
  1322. My face tightened as my thoughts drifted to the Maviks. “I have unsettled business with a certain group of demon realm beast hunters...”
  1324. ~~~Part Four~~~
  1325. “So how do you plan on finding them anyways?”
  1327. I looked up from the pot I had been stirring on the campfire and sighed at Alybes. We were a few days out of Frostvault now. I’d just finished explaining why the Maviks needed to be dealt with. And while her question was perfectly valid it annoyed me for some reason.
  1329. “Well there’s two ways that come to mind,” I replied. “The first is I start putting up notices in towns we pass through calling them out. Crude, but effective as word would travel fast. The second is we catch them mid-hunt. They certainly seem to like leaving a sizeable trail based on what I’ve seen so far.”
  1331. “I couldn’t help but notice you used ‘we’ there,” Alybes pointed out. “I thought you didn’t want me involved in this sort of thing.”
  1333. I bit my lip and let out a soft tsk. “I don’t there’s any way for you NOT to be at this point. I may be stronger than I was, but there’s no way I can handle five on one.”
  1335. “Do you really think they’d attack you all at once like that?”
  1337. “It’s certainly a possibility. They’re definitely not following the traditional Hunter’s Code. It may be more a set of informal guidelines than actual rules, but it’s still a code. Really I’m surprised they’ve gotten away with so much already.”
  1339. Alybes raised an eyebrow. “You mean that it’s odd that no other group or local guard force has stopped them overhunting at least, don’t you?”
  1341. “Perceptive as usual,” I remarked, returning to my stew. “For some reason no one’s rallying against them. Or if they are they’ve failed and have covered up their shame. Something is keeping them in the clear and we need to know what that is.”
  1343. “Maybe they’re simply fast? As in they swoop in, slaughter, then split before any can properly react?”
  1345. “Maybe. Then again it could just be they have silver tongues. The incubus among them certainly seems like the type.”
  1347. “Based on that letter of his, you mean?” asked Alybes.
  1349. I nodded. “He certainly didn’t write it out of the goodness of his heart, that’s for sure.”
  1351. “Hrm. Well what do you need me to do?”
  1353. “Well for starters, try the stew and let me know if it needs more salt.”
  1355. After she’d done so, I continued, “You could help me actually track them once we find their trail again. With your incorporeal nature it should be pretty trivial for you to search unhindered and unnoticed. Until then it’s really just a matter of asking around whenever we arrive somewhere new.”
  1357. “Seems simple enough,” she replied. “What about if/when we actually ‘corner’ them?”
  1359. My fur flared momentarily. “I won’t force you to fight if you don’t want to. But as I said if they jump me all at once…”
  1361. Alybes matched my sigh with one of her own. “Well we’ll see what happens. We have plenty of time to figure things out.”
  1363. ***
  1365. The next several weeks passed in a similar fashion. We’d arrive in a new town or city, soak up what news and rumors was available, then move on. The farther south we went, the more we heard about the Maviks. It seemed that they were carving a swath across the land, both good and bad. Much like with Gamasari, the group would slay all the “weak” beasts and put all but the most skilled of hunters out of work. They’d then turn a quick profit on the meat and other materials before anyone realized just how much of a deficit they’d been left with. It was as Alybes had thought. Unfortunate for those markets in the Maviks’ path, but fortunate for us in how easy it made for following in their footsteps.
  1367. Eventually we caught up to their trailing edge in the farming village of Keleth. The entire populace was abuzz with speculation and worry about the upcoming harvest. It seemed that the Maviks had slaughtered the seasonal group of demon realm insects before they arrived in the fields. Without the insects and the copious amounts of demon energy that followed in their wake, the crop yield would be drastically lower than usual. As a result, the village’s ability to trade was severely hampered. But what really enraged me was what one of the farmers told me.
  1369. “...and so they came up to my front door,” said the Holstaur. “The incubus did all the talking while two Salamanders hung off his arms. He offered me a deal: Pay them and they’d let the insects spray my fields with their magical liquids. If I didn’t, the insects would ‘find greener pastures.’”
  1371. “So they’re running a protection racket now too,” I growled through gritted teeth. “Please tell me you didn’t pay them.”
  1373. She shook her head. “I couldn’t have even if I wanted to. They were asking for a lion’s share. No one around here could afford it.”
  1375. “Did you consider grouping up and defending yourself?” questioned Alybes as I fumed silently.
  1377. “I mean some of us thought about it, sure. But we’re mostly just farmers here. None of us have any combat experience, let alone weapons to use. So we were forced to watch helplessly as our usual insect-based boon was taken from… um, are you alright?”
  1379. The farmer and Alybes looked at me with concern as I literally was set alight by my fury. “I’m fine,” I replied. “I’ve just decided what I’m going to do to them when I find them.”
  1381. After that Alybes and I retired to one of the inns to discuss a plan of action over dinner. All the while I remained ablaze with smouldering anger.
  1383. “Do I want to know what you have in mind?” asked the Nightmare.
  1385. I grumbled, “No, no you really don’t.”
  1387. “Well hopefully it’s not too violent. I know you want to bring the Maviks to justice, but that look of yours earlier had me worried.”
  1389. Despite my anger I could see what she was alluding to. “I don’t plan on killing them, not to worry. But simply defeating them in a duel won't be enough. Nor will locking them up to rot somewhere.”
  1391. “Glad I’m not them then. I’d hate to be on the wrong side of your temper.”
  1393. That gave me pause. Was she afraid of me on some level? I supposed given my temperament and predisposition to anger it was understandable. But that didn’t make it any more palatable.
  1395. “I’d like to think I’m only this way towards people who deserve it,” I put forth. “You’ve never shown me any reason to think otherwise of you.”
  1397. Alybes sighed. “I guess that’s true. If you were going to blow up at me you’dve done it already.”
  1399. “Likely after catching me in the mines,” I joked.
  1401. “Funny. But returning to the issue at hand - where do we go from here?”
  1403. I cleared a spot at our table and spread out a map. “Based on how fast they’re moving, I think we can head them off… here.”
  1405. I prodded a mountain pass that lay between Keleth and the nearest major city, Trena. Alybes looked at it and tilted her head in wonder.
  1407. “You want to set a trap then?”
  1409. “It’s either that or we go to Trena, wait for them to show up, and then demand a duel from them.”
  1411. “Which they’re not likely to accept,” finished Alybes. “I suppose it makes sense. Still, we wouldn’t have any support out there in the wilderness.”
  1413. “Oh don’t worry,” I rumbled. “After today I’m not worried what happens to me. So long as we stop the bastards from terrorizing anyone else, that is.”
  1415. She shot me another worried look. “I don’t know that that’s the best attitude to take. But knowing what I know about you I don’t think I’ll be able to change your mind.”
  1417. I forced a smile, though perhaps more fiercely than I intended. “No you won’t. Though I’m not suicidal before you concern yourself too much.”
  1419. “If you say so. How do you want to trap them then?”
  1421. “Well if this map’s right, we might be able to use the pass to our advantage. It narrows down enough that a well-timed rockslide could split their group up.”
  1423. “Making it so you only have to fight two or three at once instead of all five. I imagine you want me to handle that?”
  1425. “Indeed. I’ll run distraction until the trap’s sprung. With any luck you won’t have to get involved past that.”
  1427. ***
  1429. The two of us had to double our usual pace to make it to the pass ahead of the Maviks. Unfortunately it meant we had to bypass another village. We only lingered just long enough to confirm the group was still in the area before moving on. We couldn’t afford to confront them there, much like we couldn’t wait for them to reach Trena. But that did mean leaving another town to their mercy, something that didn’t sit well with me at all. All I could do was channel that feeling into focus for the task ahead.
  1431. Boobytrapping the narrow pass was simple enough. The sheer rock walls of the neighboring mountains made for multiple natural choke points along the road. At each Alybes and I set up a rockfall that’d wall off the passage completely. With that done I sent Alybes off to scout ahead while I lay in wait. Much like with Phantom, I ended up lurking for several days before my quarry arrived. Alybes returned and gave me just enough warning so that I was waiting in the middle of the gorge when the Maviks arrived.
  1433. The group of five was led by the Hellhound, with the incubus at the center and the three Salamanders bringing up the rear. The former’s eyes flared when she noticed me meditating. She flung out a hand and brought them to a standstill just out of earshot. They conferred with one another, then sent two of the Salamanders ahead. As they approached, I noted that one of them was the same one who’d knocked me out so very long ago. That smug grin and bobcut had haunted me for far too long during those dark days.
  1435. She’s first.
  1437. “What’s this then?” called out the first Salamander as the two approached. Their hands rested on the hilt of their swords, and their stance was defensive.
  1439. Good. They’re afraid.
  1441. I rose from my cross-legged position and pointed at the one with the bobcut. “You and I have a debt to settle,” I snarled.
  1443. “Do I know you?” she asked, her tail fire instinctively flaring at my words.
  1445. “More likely she’s another fool who thinks she can stop us,” answered her partner. “I think we’d remember someone like her.”
  1447. Until that point I had been concentrating on keeping my rage, and thus my flames, under control. But as I spoke the magma lines between my scales erupted with fire. “Oh you wouldn’t remember me. After all, I was just a human when you STOLE. MY. KILL.”
  1449. As my roar echoed off the rock walls, Alybes set off the rockslides. At first the trio who’d stayed back tried to rush forward, only to retreat when they realized they wouldn’t close the gap in time. The barrage of rocks quickly filled up the pass and left no avenue of escape for the two Salamanders before me. They whipped out their swords without a moment’s hesitation and charged.
  1451. I removed my axe from my back and brought it to bear. Due to the narrowness of the ravine my opponents had little recourse but to face me head on. Their swords came whistling at me in short order. I deflected the first barrage and returned their attacks with several of my own. Soon the clash of metal on metal rang through the canyon, far louder than the still tumbling rocks.
  1453. I fell into a sort of trance. I acted without thinking, letting my instincts and training guide my actions. Feint to the left. Parry the first. Block the second. Slice and uppercut. It was a deadly dance, one I soon found myself leading. My dance partners were certainly skilled. Where they had the advantage in speed and numbers, I had the advantage in reach and strength. All three of us soon sported numerous cuts and gashes.
  1455. “Well you’re good, I’ll give you that,” cried the first Salamander between blows. “But soon our fellows will be here and you’ll be through.”
  1457. I risked a quick glance at the pile of rocks behind them. Sure enough, the three on the other side were about halfway through the blockage. In that moment, though, the Salamander with the bobcut managed to disarm me. My axe spun off to the side and lodged itself in the ground a good distance away.
  1459. Not again, you fucking bitch.
  1461. All at once I became a living ball of fire. My claws literally dripped with magma as I flung my arms wide in a taunt, “COME AT ME THEN, YOU COWARDS.”
  1463. The one with the bobcut hesitated. Her fellow, however, did not. She rushed forward at me with an overhand strike. I intercepted it, catching her arm just above the elbow and flipping her over my head. She howled in agony as my claws left scalding lines in her skin, her pain doubling when I turned and slammed my tail into her chest.
  1465. As I did, her fellow tried an attack of her own. I only had just enough time to twist so that her sword stuck my arm’s scales. Despite their protection I could feel the blade sinking into my skin, right up to the bone. But much to the Salamander’s surprise I didn’t recoil. Instead I brought up my knee and slammed it into her groin. She winced, giving me enough leverage to wrench my arm free. Magma erupted from the gash, coating the sword and sealing the wound all at once. So hot was the lava that the weapon began melting in her hands.
  1467. “What the hell are you?!” she exclaimed, dropping her sword and stepping back. But it wasn’t far enough. I swept behind her and pinned one of her arms.
  1469. “I am the woman who’s going to take your tail,” I barked into her ear.
  1471. “You’re wha-AGH!”
  1473. My talons easily sliced through the muscle and sinew connecting her tail to her spine. In their wake, a blazing liquid instantly cauterized the wound. Meanwhile the severed limb spasmed violently in my grasp.
  1475. “You’ll pay for that!” spat the other Salamander while her fellow howled in agony. I quickly kicked the one with the bobcut into one of the walls and returned to the first.
  1477. “No I won’t,” I snarled back at her. “Consider this a warning. If I ever hear the Maviks are terrorizing someone again, I’ll come back and finish the job.”
  1479. Before she could reply I beat her over the head with the tail. Then I tossed it aside and let out a draconic roar. I was seeing red, both from pain and from anger. Had Alybes not shouted then I likely would have continued to maim my opponents.
  1481. “Ilothe! We have to go!” she bellowed. “They’re almost through!”
  1483. For a brief moment, I considered staying. But then all the pain from my arm and other wounds caught up with me. Biting back the pain, I rushed over to my axe and collected it. As I turned to flee, the tailless Salamander screamed a curse. Yet the sudden pounding in my ears was too great to make out the actual words. It was all I could do to flee at that point before the adrenaline wore off.
  1485. In my wake Alybes set off the rest of the traps, giving me a clean getaway. I kept running until I’d made it out of the ravine and to our predetermined meeting point outside of a cave. Alybes was there waiting for me.
  1487. I was only able to make out a few of the words. “ alright..?” she asked, her face the very picture of concern.
  1489. I opened my mouth to reply, only to find myself stumbling and falling forward against the cave wall. Then nothing.
  1491. ***
  1493. The first sensation that broke through my unconscious haze was the throbbing emanating from the gash in my arm. It came in agonizing waves, constant and unyielding. Eventually they swept me back to the waking world. I was in the cave, leaned up against the wall. Alybes was near the entrance tending a fire. A grunt from me caught her attention.
  1495. “Ah, you’re awake,” she said, turning away from the fire. “I was beginning to wonder whether I should try to carry you into town to get that looked at.”
  1497. She motioned at hastily cauterized wound on my arm. I followed her gaze and winced. I knew I’d felt the Salamander’s blade hit bone, but the tear was grizzly. It was a wonder I could still move my hand at all. A thousand “what-ifs” came to mind when examining my injury. What if I had been faster? Or if I’d let Alybes help me sooner?
  1499. I shook my head to clear the circling thoughts. Then I replied, “I may still need a doctor yet. I have no idea what my healing factor is like now as a Vesuvia. All I can tell is that it sealed cleanly.”
  1501. A slight frown crossed Alybes’ face. “I’m no expert in dragons, let alone matters of healing, but I do know one thing. Usually we, monsters that is, use spirit energy to heal their wounds.”
  1503. “Something neither of us has on hand,” I continued for her. “And it’s not like either of us has a boyfriend, husband, and/or incubus on hand.”
  1505. “Unfortunately not. But thinking on it that might explain the Maviks tenacity. They’ve got an incubus being ‘fed’ the energy of four monsters at once, which in turn produces four times the usual spirit energy. He’s quite the power source.”
  1507. It was my turn to scowl. “I should have dealt with him instead then. Without him they’d probably crumple.”
  1509. “About that…”
  1511. Alybes bit her lip in worry as she debated her next words. I knew that look by now. It was the same one that came up whenever my temper was concerned.
  1513. “I think you maybe went a little too far by taking that Salamander’s tail,” she finally said.
  1515. “Why’s that?” I asked. Subconsciously my fur began to spark and fizzle.
  1517. “Because… Well because a Salamander’s tail is their pride and joy. To be without one is like… a dragon without wings.”
  1519. “I don’t have wings,” I pointed out in an attempt to lighten the mood. It didn’t quite have the effect I wanted though.
  1521. “You know what I meant,” she quipped back. “If the Maviks didn’t have a thing for you then they certainly do now. I wouldn’t be surprised if they made it their goal to slay you.”
  1523. I scoffed and puffed out my chest. “Let them come then. Makes my life easier and keeps them from harassing villages.”
  1525. Alybes had never once raised her voice in all the time I’d known her. So when she did so I was taken aback. “That attitude is going to get you killed, Ilothe. It’s terrifying enough that you fight like a raging berserker, without care for your personal well-being. There’s absolutely no way you’ll be able to handle them as you are now.”
  1527. As her words sunk in I saw the truth in them. But that didn’t make them any more palatable. I clenched my good fist and drove it into the wall next to me in anger. Alybes winced at the sound.
  1529. “Then what was the whole point of me tracking them down in the first place?” I retorted. “Or becoming a monster for that matter? I refuse to be helpless ever again. I’d rather die fighting than bow my head to those bastards.”
  1531. “Then don’t. But you can’t keep doing this. It’s not your job to bring them to justice.”
  1533. “And yet if I don’t then who will?! I’m the only one who seems to give enough of a damn to even try standing up to them!”
  1535. Alybes clenched her scythe closer. “I get it. You don’t want to be a failure again. But giving up this senseless violence isn’t failure. If anything perpetuating the cycle of hatred is. No one wins that way.”
  1537. A clap of thunder echoed outside of the cave as I opened my mouth. By now I was fully ablaze with fury. I couldn’t admit to myself that she was right. Not in this state. And the more I argued with her the more fearful she looked. Was she afraid of me lashing out at her?
  1539. I stood, using my axe as a support. “I’m going for a walk to cool down,” I said through gritted teeth. Alybes simply bowed her head and let me pass. On my way out I lashed out again at the cave wall, leaving a sizeable, molten pocket in my wake. Then I was out into the rain. It was far from a downpour. Instead, the rainfall was constant against my skin. Each drop that impacted the flames caressing my limbs evaporated and sizzled off almost immediately. Still, I could feel the fires dying down ever so slightly as a result.
  1541. I don’t know exactly how long I wandered among the rocky terrain. By the time my fur had started to reform I was completely drenched. And yet I still kept walking. I needed to think. Until now I had simply assumed that my new form would be enough to deal with the Maviks. But clearly I had yet to tap into my full draconic potential. At least, that’s what I told myself. The alternative was to admit that I was just as weak as I had been when I was human. My pride wouldn’t allow me to do that. Not even to myself.
  1543. A cry in the distance caught my attention and broke me from the self-defeating spiral. I readjusted my grip on my axe and slowly moved to investigate. After pushing past a bit of shrubbery I found myself watching as a jet-black, demon realm wolf gnashed his teeth at a group of deer twice his size. The deer were too fast for him, though, and kept dodging out of the way or brandishing their horns. It seemed to me a futile exercise. There was a reason wolves hunted in packs, after all. Strength in numbers and all that. Despite lacking such, the wolf kept trying. The longer I watched the more I empathized with him. He was just as stubborn as I was. If not more so by the amount of times he got thrown back by those antlers.
  1545. Eventually all but two deer had managed to escape from the wolf. Crimson streaks marred his fur, the rain causing blood to drip from his sides. I could tell that he’d go hungry unless something or someone helped him soon. The rules of nature dictated that only the strongest would survive. If this wolf couldn’t hunt for himself then he himself would be hunted in time. And with those injuries that’d be sooner rather than later. A part of me wanted to put the beast out of his misery. Another wanted to aid him. It wasn’t until my eyes came to rest on a nearby rock that I made up my mind. I picked it up and judged its weight. Then I sent it flying with a flick of my wrist.
  1547. The small boulder flew true, smashing into the head of one of the deer and knocking it out cold. Its fellow scampered off as the wolf lunged to grab its neck before the body hit the ground. A single crunch sealed the deer’s fate. I began to move away, only to stop when the wolf turned and growled.
  1549. “You’re welcome,” I said to it. In return, he dropped the corpse and nudged it towards me with his bloodied snout.
  1551. “No you keep it.” I certainly wasn’t an animal whisperer by any means, but I could sense the canine’s confusion. It probably didn’t understand me to begin with. And yet I continued to talk to it.
  1553. “At least I was able to help someone. Even if that someone was a wolf. Just get stronger, yeah?”
  1555. The wolf turned back towards his meal and began chowing down without a second thought. I watched him for a time, thinking. As a demon realm beast hunter it was my charge to slay the more troublesome beasts and to provide a source of demon realm meat. I didn’t do it for fame or for wealth. I did it because I liked helping people. Yet I’d forgotten how to be selfless in my crusade against the Maviks. No one had asked me to stop them. It was just my lust for revenge that blindly drove me. Like with the wolf, I had acted on impulse, without considering the long term implications of my actions. Unlike the wolf, though, the Maviks were going to be a problem long after the fact. And there was no one around to throw a rock at them for me.
  1557. I quietly slipped away and started trudging through the rain back towards the cave where Alybes was waiting. She was where I left her: at the mouth of the cavern. As I came into view, she nodded and said, “Welcome back. Better?”
  1559. “I suppose,” I admitted.
  1561. “Good.”
  1563. A bout of silence passed between us as the fire crackled. Then she asked, “So what do we do now?”
  1565. I shrugged, wincing as a streak of pain shot through my wounded arm. “The way I see it there’s two options. First, we recruit more to our cause so it’s not just me fighting the Maviks alone.”
  1567. Alybes’ face made it clear what she thought of that plan. “And the other?”
  1569. “The other is I turn around and go back to demon realm beast hunting, letting someone else deal with them.”
  1571. “Had you not taken that tail I would have suggested the latter,” she said. “But as I said earlier you crossed a line. You made it very personal for them. They’re not going to stop until they get payback.”
  1573. “Sounds familiar,” I admitted begrudgingly. “Except that only leaves the first option, which, as you’ve pointed out, just feeds the cycle even more.”
  1575. “Not quite. There is a third option, but you may not like it.”
  1577. “If you mean to suggest apologizing to them…”
  1579. She shook her head. “Not at all. I know you well enough that that’ll never happen.”
  1581. “What then?” I questioned.
  1583. “You could change professions,” she proffered. “They’ll be looking for a demon realm beast hunter that matches your description. And since you’re unique it won’t be that hard to track you. But if you were to do something else, far away from the usual hunting grounds…”
  1585. “That still sounds like running away,” I interrupted.
  1587. Alybes let out an exasperated sigh. “Why is it your problem though? You’ve already achieved catharsis, so why continue?”
  1589. I balled up my fists, ignoring the sting of pain that accompanied it. “Because hunting and fighting is all I know. Because I like helping people and having a place in the world. Without it I’d have to return home empty-handed and without honor.”
  1591. “I don’t think dishing out vigilante justice is earning you much honor to begin with, Ilothe.” I grunted at that, then she continued, “But I think you’re forgetting something.”
  1593. “That being?”
  1595. She pointed at my axe. “You come from a family of blacksmiths. And from what your parents said about you you’re damned good at forge work.”
  1597. “So you’re suggesting I hang up my axe and make farm tools instead?” I asked. “Like some war-weary veteran?”
  1599. “That’s exactly what I’m suggesting. Though what you make is entirely up to you. Hell, you could make weapons for beast hunters if you wanted. Then you’d still be aiding the trade without actively participating in it.”
  1601. She had a point. But something about her words scared me. Perhaps due to fear of failure and the unknown. Or perhaps because working in my family’s forge might paint a target on them. I vocalized as such. “So let’s say I return home and work there, what’s to stop the Maviks from finding me and my family? From hurting them to get to me?”
  1603. Alybes smiled. “Well lucky for you you’re not exactly the most personable individual out there. You could probably count the number of people that know about you and your connection to Frostvault on one hand.”
  1605. I crossed my arms across my chest. “That’s still a non-zero. No, if I were to truly give up hunting I’d have to make a brand-new forge somewhere far away from them.”
  1607. “So what’s stopping you?” she questioned.
  1609. A low rumble came from my throat. “I’m having a hard time letting my fury go. Even if it’s a reasonable alternative I want to be damned sure no one else is hurt by the Maviks first.”
  1611. Alybes stamped on the rock floor with her hoof. “Ugh. We’re going in circles. Damn your draconically thick-skull. I’ll make this simple then.”
  1613. She drew herself up, then stated, “If you keep going after them then this is where we’ll part ways. I won’t stick around to see you go down this dark path.”
  1615. Despite her bravado I could see that she was trembling. Between that and the way she avoided eye contact told me all I needed to know. She was afraid of me, of what I’d do. Realizing that crushed me. I felt helpless and estranged from my only friend. I would have much rather taken another hundred gashes than see her like this. I was no better than the Maviks, using fear and power to get what I wanted.
  1617. “Okay.”
  1619. Her eyes began to water as she replied, “Okay. I’ll just be going then…”
  1621. “No you stupid horse. Okay as in ‘you win.’ I’ll give up my vendetta if it’ll get you to stop being afraid of me.”
  1623. Alybes sniffed at that. “G-Good. I’m g-glad.”
  1625. It was as if a great weight had been lifted from my body. I still felt my rage bubbling inside, but now I could look past it. Rather, I had to look past it for both our sakes. Otherwise I’d end up right back where I started: alone, angry, and mindless. It was worth the blow to my pride to avoid that fate.
  1627. ~~~Epilogue~~~
  1629. Five months later…
  1631. I never did find out what happened to the Maviks after my encounter with them in that mountain pass. Either they disbanded or stopped being a nuisance, as word about them dried up after Trena. Whatever drove them in the first place also remained a mystery. I eventually settled on the fact they were simply acting as attention-grabbing bullies until someone stood up to them. Childish, perhaps, but most fitting. I try not to imagine what might have come to pass had I continued hounding them. Besides, I had a forge to take care of now.
  1633. The hardest part about setting up my own forge was finding the perfect location for it. I wanted to leverage my being a Vesuvia best I could, which meant I had to consider the more “exotic” locales. I eventually settled near a volcano a week’s journey north of Frostvault. After redirecting some of the lava flow into an empty cavern I set about making a proper forge. All said and done I had two lava tubes feeding magma into a small caldera. The pit itself was then split into several smaller pools to give me better control of the temperature. On the edge of those lay my workshop proper, with several massive anvils before each basin.
  1635. Over time I built up a cache of resources by trading with the local monsters (often Wurms.) Through them and Alybes word of my forge spread. But what really cemented my place in the trade was my duplication of Kheprite. My ability to work with temperatures beyond the normal monster meant I could properly purify demon realm gold. Admittedly, my first hundred or so attempts were failures. But when I finally managed to produce a gemstone similar to the one in my axe I was ecstatic. I ended up laying it into the pommel of a blade and sending it as a gift back to Ilassa in Arum Sedis. Her response was to not only order several such weapons, but also to further spread rumors about my forging capabilities.
  1637. When it’s a lilim hyping something up people tend to listen. Soon I had countless people trying to visit my forge in person, seeking my skills amid the frozen tundra and blazing mountains. Not many succeeded, mind you, which just made the perceived rarity of my work soar. I did my best not to let it get to my head, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like the stories Alybes brought back when she delivered my orders. Speaking of the Nightmare, she and several others ended up making a hot springs resort of sorts nearby. In a way the resort acted as a front for my forge. Not openly, mind you, but enough so that it too had its place in the rumors.
  1639. ***
  1641. And so my story comes to an end. I do hope that’s enough for your “World Guide,” Scholar. Just remember to leave out the part about the Khepris as we agreed upon. Else you’ll find my rage redirected from anvil strikes towards you instead. If there’s one thing worse than a Vesuvia in heat, it’s a Vesuvia scorned.
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