Acclimating

By Dream Big 
7 parts
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• Latest update: 4 April. Next update: 18 April. (Submissions welcome.)

• Latest from BRK: “The apartment”; “Changing Nick”, Parts 15‑16.

Part 1

You can get used to anything, really.

I’d spent thirty years of my life getting used to who I was: painfully average, modestly competent, and socially awkward. A paper pusher, a bit of a homebody. Not super close to family, not too many friends. Acquaintances, mostly—work friends, primarily, and a few exes. Still in the closet.

That part came gradually. There had been a moment in college when I’d almost come out, but then Karl and I had broken up. Therapists had told me I’d become too complacent, echoing Karl’s complaint. So what if I’d rather stay at home and cuddle? No reason to go out. No ambition, but I was willing to work, so I did well enough at the office. Reliable and competent. But never exciting, never a go getter. Had I ever really tried hard? Didn’t see the point, I got along well enough as I was.

So yeah, it kind of stuck. So did the routine of work, after college, and before long I was wearing out the couch, and slowly buying bigger pants. I was just kind of used to it.


Out of boredom, I’d joined an online game, and found myself looking forward to the quests, the lore, the leveling up. My willingness to grind away was uniquely suited to that style of gameplay where slow and steady really did win the race, and where a bit of cleverness went a long way. Months went by and I spent ever more time there, finding satisfaction in the routine.

Turns out you can get used to winning, too. And I had. I was good enough to solo play though group quests, which suited me just fine. It was mindless fun, it passed the time, and my hours passed.

So, there I was contentedly meandering through what passed for a life.

…And then suddenly I wasn’t. I was blinking in the sun, laying on what felt like stone and grass. It smelled of turned earth, fresh grass, leather, some kind of metal….

“Awaken, and heed my summons!” Wait, what?

“I bind you, demon, bind you to my service!”

I felt weird, tingly, and not quite myself, my head was pounding. I sat up. Felt like threads snapped around my chest as I did so, but I paid it no mind.

“Who are you binding?”

“Dear gods, he shook off the restraints like they were nothing!”

“Brace yourselves, lads! He can’t get all of us!”

My vision finally cleared, and I found myself sitting in some sort of circle, surrounded by small, aggressive men. A thin, nerdy looking guy pointed a crystal topped rod at me, nervously chanting under his breath.

What the hell?

Part 2

There were five of them in front of me. Thin, almost androgynous of build, looking much like the elfin inhabitants of the online game world’s Lianamar district. Lean, but muscled nicely, somewhere between twink and twunk. They were dressed in clothing that looked like a cross between the renaissance festival and Hot Topic’s discount rack. They had fear in their eyes and their body language, though also a bit of courage. Disturbingly well armed, some with swords and daggers, one with a nasty-looking bow, and of course the cutest of the lot with crystal-topped rod, the glow fading from the gem.

At their wide-eyed gaze, I turned to look behind me, but saw nothing—just a few more of these skinny guys, weapons held in protective stances. Then I realized.

They seemed afraid of me.

I mean, why? I was a dumpy middle-aged—-

Ever look at yourself, and your body image simply doesn’t quite line up? Yeah, it was like that, only in a big way.

Gone was my pale and flabby midsection; in its place, a thick and solid abdomen and deep adonis belt was inscribed on paper-thin, ruddy flesh. Above it, muscular pecs and pert nipples. I stared in wonder at my arm, itself a beefy work of art, with long, bulky-lean muscles and easily roused veins. I could almost feel the strength there, right down to my thick fingers. Hairless, but in the flickering light I spied some ink.

Below, it looked like the stout legs I’d imagined lumberjacks might have: thick, sturdy, carved hams stretched before me, with larger-than-expected feet at the ends. And between them, stirring like a dog whose master just called him, lay a rapidly expanding bulge.

“See! Its face reddens!”

Duh, I was embarrassed—I didn’t want to pop wood here while I was surrounded by fantasy twinks!

“Hold, demon! You are bound! You should be—”

“Whoa, whoa—I’m not a demon,” I said, but found myself shocked by the rumbling voice that I apparently now sported.

“He is within the circle of truth, Meider,” the one with the shaggy brown hair and the shiny medallion said. “Even if the binding failed, the truth circle should be in effect.”

“I have no idea what you are talking about. Truth circle? Where the hell are we? Who are you? How did I get here?” I asked.

“You are bound! By Hakar’s circle, if nothing else! It’s a foolproof means of binding any evil creature!”

“Ah, there’s your problem,” I said. “I’m not evil.”

They all stepped back warily when I said that, but nothing fancy happened.

“What happens if I tell a lie?” I asked.

“The circle will react and you will feel pain should you attempt it,” the one with the crystal rod said, in awe.

“Meider, was it?” I said. “I’m really confused now, I have no idea why I’m here, but I mean you no harm.”

His eyes grew wide. “Say a falsehood,” he implored.

“Um….I’m Gojira, king of the monster—aaaa!”

Yikes, that stung. Sure enough, a shimmering field. of reddish static flickered around me, and it felt like I’d stuck a finger in a light socket. Only, you know, my whole body at once.

“How can this be, Kendris!” Meider asked his friend. Kendris, the shaggy-haired one, gestured to his comrades to lower their arms but be wary. Then he approached.

“We slew the demon summoner mid-spell. Perhaps this is the result? Perhaps it brought something else, something unintended, to our world.”

“Demon summoner?” Oh, no.

“Yes, a fiend worshipper, who was intent on bringing his vicious master into our world to do harm. We stopped him,” he gestured at the slumped, bleeding robed form I’d somehow missed seeing. “Before he finished his master spell. Perhaps he misspoke when I slit his throat.”

“Yikes,” I said.

“What plane do you call home, stranger?” Meider asked as Kendris stalked around me, examining the symbols carved into the ground.

“Earth? I’m just an ordinary human.”

The field shuddered briefly and I felt a tingle. WTF?

“And this form, do you normally possess a form this….powerful?”

I looked down and nearly answered before remembering the liar’s penalty. “Not usually, no.”

“Then I ask your forgiveness, but please swear to us that you mean us no harm, and we will do the same.”

“I mean you no harm.” But I will reserve the right to defend myself, I thought.

Meider placed his hand inside the circle and looked me straight in the eyes. “So long as you mean us no harm, and pose no threat to our community, I mean you no harm.” He held my gaze, and nodded. “Your word is binding. What is your name?”

“Is it safe to give you that?” I remembered a few stories in which it really wasn’t wise to give your true name away.

“Ah, I apologize for any misunderstanding. What do you prefer to be called?”

“Eric,” I replied.

“Then, Eric, I am Meider and this is Kendris, and my brother and I will attempt to sort out what happened to you. If we can make it right, we will. Men, I think we are fine here, so you may continue with the clean-up work.”

Kendris, the burlier of the two, stretched out a hand in greeting, and offered to help me up. I accepted. And instantly I realized how different things really were, because my hand was nearly twice the size of his.

Standing up was a very different experience, suddenly.

As I got to my feel and caught my balance (abetted by Kendris’s surprisingly strong hand), I realized I stood a full head and a half taller than him, and that caught us both by surprise, though possibly me more than him.

I felt something brush my leg, and an odd sensation at the base of my spine. As I swung round to look, a serpent seemed to shoot through the air and hid behind me. And then I realized it was no serpent. I had a tail—long as a leg, and with a spaded tip. Much the same color as my own ruddy skin.

“Sorry, that’s… uh… new.”

“If you are normally a human, I would expect nothing less than surprise. You wear a form that… well, it is certainly not quite human.”

“You have no idea. At home, I’m very ordinary,” I said, reaching up to run my hands through my hair.

“Ahh!” I chirped, startled to find bone where I expected hair.

“No horns back home, I take it,” Kendris replied with a chuckle.

“Shit. I have got to be dreaming.”

“I am very much afraid not,” Meider said. “But come, let us play host and perhaps we can all find our footing.”

I glumly followed him, with Kendris trailing behind (watching me, no doubt, I could nearly taste his suspicion despite the apparently magical vow), and breathed deeply. This was unpolluted air, and apparently this form was allergy-free. Every scent seemed distinct and fresh, and unsullied somehow.

We walked through a line of guards, dressed in similar livery—I noticed coloration and wrist bands on the men that were echoed in the brothers’ garb—and through a camp that seemed all too familiar, especially once I spied a banner.

“The Jagged Crusade?”

“I thought you knew nothing of our world,” Meider said, a delicate eyebrow arched in suspicion. He ushered us into a lavish tent.

“I thought so too. But if this is the Jagged Crusade, you’re fighting the Hordes of Night, right? Near Bonifer Mountain?”

“You seem to know much.”

“Meider, on my world, there is a… a game we play, a sort of magical story simulation. I got really good at it. Good enough to be a ranked player. It can’t be a coincidence that I’m here.”

“I wonder. The summoner was rushing to complete his spell, attempting to bind a great demon lord to turn the tide of battle. Our team was dispatched to stop him, and we barely managed to do so—in fact, he seemed to complete the ritual just as he fell to the final arrows.”

Kendris leaned in. “As I said earlier, brother, perhaps he mispronounced something in his haste, or due to blood loss.”

“Possible. There are two parts needed—one is the summoning spell itself, but the other creates a form for the spirit to inhabit. It should take the form of whatever demon you intend to summon, so that the spirit and body align properly and ground the outsider to this realm.”

Meider pulled forth a massive tome and began leafing through it. “If we can find the form you match, that may be a clue.”

Kendris peered over his brother’s shoulder disapprovingly. “I thought you’d destroyed this book.”

“Of course not. It’s too useful. A unique source of knowledge of our foes. Ah! Here we are, does that look about right to you, Kendris?”

“Vanquillon? Yes, it looks like a perfect match.”

A sinking feeling spread down my spine. “Did you say Vanquillon?”

“Yes.”

“Fuck. There was… there was a hidden quest, I’d just completed it. Clear out a pocket dimension of demons, and return with the Demon’s Sword. Thing is, if you acquire the sword, demons don’t attack you, they obey your commands. I just equipped it last night. So technically, at least on my home server, I am the lord of Vanquillon, holder of the Demon’s Sword.”

“I’ll give you two guesses,” Meider said, “as to which titles that fool probably used in the summoning spell.”

“Show me the picture, please. You haven’t got a mirror around.”

Yup, there it was, the demon I’d slain the other night. I remembered thinking, at the time, that some repressed queer artist had had particular fun designing this bit of muscle eye candy. In fact, the forums had a field day with him once the secret quest started to show up. Vanqueer-on, Lord of Sexy, was what he’d been dubbed in one chat room. Nearly seven feet tall, gorgeous, with a tail but no wings and sleek ram’s horns shooting elegantly back through his silky long hair. Hunky body that looked like someone added 50 pounds of muscle to a Hemsworth/Thor base and died it a ruddy shade.

And now, I was stuck in his body.

Part 3

“I take it by your expression that you know of this name?”

“I do. I defeated that creature a few nights ago in my game. It was a beta test.”

Meider frowned. “This says that Vanquillon is a title given to whoever defeats the title holder.”

“Shit.”

Kendris looked at me quizzically. “I assure you that is what this says.”

“No, I mean, shit, I defeated him, and so I hold the title.”

“You mean… human you defeated this demon? You claimed to be ordinary…”

“I am. It’s a game. I didn’t really fight him, I pretended to… it’s hard to explain. You have chess, right? It’s like that… sort of.”

“I think I follow. Your… avatar in the game defeated Vanquillon’s, in the game.”

“Right.”

“Hmm. Sympathetic magic. Symbols hold great power, and representations of things in ritual can tie to the thing referenced.”

Kendris mused aloud, “I wonder if he used a ritual to defeat him?”

“Yeah, I did, it was the Ritual of Asscrack, or something like that.”

I thought back—it was like an old school boss fight where you had to fend off the big guy while activating these ritual posts around a circle. You closed the circle and then cast the spell, before the candles burnt out. A lot of it was timing and avoiding his attacks while you worked. It was a tough fight.

Meider ran for another tome, flipping rapidly through the pages until he found a diagram.

“Does this symbol look familiar?” I squinted at the page Meider showed; the text seemed almost fluid but the diagrams were clear enough.

“…Yeah, it does. There were these five candles around the circle and I had to light them in sequence, activate a spell, and keep him busy in the center of the circle while dodging his attacks.”

“The ritual of Hazak. Also known as the Usurper’s Rite. It is designed for cases of possession, to evict some entity who has taken over a person.”

“But it was the banishment spell the game sent me after. I, well, my avatar, spent all day hunting for the ingredients.”

“Then you used the spell against someone in their own form? I’m sorry, but I fear that the Usurper’s Rite was never intended for such a purpose.”

“But it’s not… I mean, why would it work? I wasn’t really there!”

“Neither was the demon, and once you’re both at the same level of representational abstraction….”

Meider fixed me with an intelligent, piercing gaze.

“I am satisfied you mean us no harm. And that you are here quite by accident. I would like to help you, but I will need time to research this. It is fascinating.”

“So you think you can put me back?”

“If I can do so, I will. But I cannot promise that it is within my power.”

I must have slumped, but then I felt a warm hand on mine. It was Kendris.

“If my brother sets his mind to it, you have the best possible chance. But in the meanwhile, we must figure out what to do with you. You’re not exactly inconspicuous.”

I felt my emotions beginning to catch up to my predicament, and a tear began to well up in my eye. “I’m a monster. I’m a freak and stuck in another world.”

“Hey,” Kendris said. “Look at me. Really look at me.”

I did so. He was handsome; his shaggy brown hair reminded me of a carefree surfer’s.

“Good. Now. First things first. You should have the power to disguise yourself, your form, if you possess Vanquillon’s power. You need to focus on accessing that power, and altering your shape.”

“Are you sure about this, Kendris?” Meider asked.

“If he’s got Vanquillon’s form, we’d waste our time trying for force him into another shape. You know how shapeshifting works.”

“True. Any transmutation spell I placed would fight with his innate shifting ability, and that’s on top of his innate general resistance. I might manage a simple illusion but it wouldn’t hold for long.”

“Now listen, Eric. I’m going to ask you to concentrate on yourself. Touch your body with your fingers. Feel its edges. Close your eyes….and breathe deeply.”

I tried to comply. It wasn’t easy; there was a lot of me now, and it was unfamiliar. Hard muscle, broad flesh, silky skin that felt charged with sensuality. I felt my dick stir and immediately shut down any thought of that area; I had enough going on.

“Now, imagine the tingling you felt with your fingertips, but stop touching your body—just put your fingertips together and feel that sensation flowing to the tips.”

It was working…or I had a good imagination.

“You have power within you—- call upon it, feel it flow to your fingertips, just as the sensation of touching your body did.”

So far so good.

“Oh my,” Meider said, “Your little apprentice centering ritual seems to be working.”

“It’s how I learned,” Kendris answered. “Now Eric, feel that power in your fingertips. Hold it there. And now, imagine a human form, and keep that image in your mind.”

“Yeah, I have an image.”

“Excellent. Now, imagine the power flowing back through your fingers, up your hands, through your body—all the while replacing your form with the form you imagine.”

I could feel it! Fingers felt a slow buzz, and then a buzzing electrical sensation traveled throughout my body (including the tail!) and ended at my feet and the tips of my horns.

“Excellent work!”

“Really?”

“Oh yes. Now imagine that you can hold that form for an hour,” he said. “That’s a start.”

“One hour… I can do this for one hour.”

“Ken, he might be a novice, but his natural energy is pretty strong.”

“Yes brother, this is about starting with the assumption of control. Eric hasn’t done this before, but Vanquillon has.”

“It feels done now, should I open my eyes?”

“Please.”

Success! I laughed aloud, delighted. Strong but sinewy arms stretched out before me, lightly tanned. Below, a trim physique and a narrow waist.

“How do I look?”

“It is a beautiful form,” Meider nodded. “Is this normally how you look?”

“My real body isn’t so…nice. I figured if I’m going to fake it, I might as well use a nice body.”

“So it seems,” Kendris said, marveling. “Amazing—both human and elven at once. Most attractive, though not all are so open-minded as we are,” he said, somewhat ashamed. “Such creatures are rare enough, but you could pass for either with little effort. Yes, that will do.”

“You’re too pretty to escape notice,” Meider said. “But garbed as you are, you may be mistaken for a camp-follower.”

“He’s about my size, I’ll lend him something,” Kendris said.

They didn’t know I was imagining Zac Efron and Orlando Bloom. Well, Legolas. I guess I wanted to fit in.

Part 4

Kendris was gone for a few minutes, so I spent it annoying Meider. I felt surprisingly bold, and attractive.

“So, Meider. Apparently you’re a wizard or something. And apparently I can do magic?”

“Sorcery, in your case, most likely,” he said. “But similarly arcane in source. At least for this sort of thing. May I?”

I nodded and he reached out, touching me in sadly safe places, as if testing the spell’s success. Then he mumbled and passed a few fingers over me.

“I can’t even tell now. It’s as complete as I could have managed, given time and preparation. It’s a fundamental shape shift. Until you will otherwise or it wears off, you are this creature, physically. I find myself torn between wanting to explore this power and wanting to send you home.”

“We can do both.”

“We will have to. I am a master of the arts, but this is beyond my skill and knowledge. For now, I will need to work with you to test your limits—and then I may need to borrow your power to send you back.”

“Will that work?”

“I don’t know.”

“What if you defeat me and claim the title?”

“The thought had crossed my mind, but I have no wish to become a demon. And if I repeat the Usurper’s Rite where would your soul go? Clearly your consciousness is here in this realm; how would it find its way back to your body, back in your world?”

“I’m glad you’re smart, Meider. I hadn’t thought of that. It’s a very attractive quality.”

Wait, what the hell? Was I hitting on him?

“Um…thank you.”

“Did I hear correctly that Kendris is your brother? You seem so different.”

Yeah, you’re a cute twink bookworm, and he’s a hunky surfer bro. Both kinda hot.

“He is, but by another father. I am the elder of us. And Kendris is a moon-worshipper whereas I chose a less spiritual path. I put my faith in books and knowledge.”

“But you both seem in good shape,” I said. Teasing. Most unlike me.

He fidgeted a little in his seat. “Well, to some extent. He’s always been the more physical of us, but I have found that I enjoy running and swimming. And it has probably saved my life.”

The thought of him swimming came strongly to mind.

“Do your people swim in the nude?”

“What?” He was surprised by the question. Hell, so was I. A bit forward for me.

“Nude. Naked Swimming.”

“Oh, yes, in private. Do your people bathe in your garb?”

“We have special suits to hide our private parts from view.”

“Oh, yes, that seems wise.”

He was nervously refusing to meet my eyes.

Push more, he’s into it.

“I’ve never really done the nude swimming thing, or even a speedo or thong. Never had the body for it.”

“Undergarments, I take it?”

“Yes, sexy undergarments,” I answered ,before I could stop myself. “They reduce drag and show off your pleasing form.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

“Ahem.” Kendris cleared his throat. “Was I interrupting something?”

“What? Oh, no, Eric was just explaining some of his home’s customs to me.”

“You seem to really enjoy talking about it,” Kendris said, nodding bemusedly at both of us.

I looked down, and my minimal loincloth was strained to the point of no return. How embarrassing!

“My apologies,” Meider said, scooting away. He wasn’t successful in hiding the tent in his trousers, though.

“Not the first time your wand has had a mind of its own, Mei,” Kendris chuckled. “Here, Eric. Hopefully they will suit you.”

I quickly pulled on the trousers—a little tight in the bum, but then I was built a bit differently than Kendris—and was momentarily confused by the shirt. It wrapped and tied a little oddly, but he stepped over to help. It was a little tight but the effect was nice.

“You look quite presentable,” he said, with an odd look in his eye. “Now, be careful—I want you to think about the form you wear now, and see if you can hold the shape until nightfall. That’s about four hours away. But as for the other problem, you might want to avoid waving that around, if you can. You’ll frighten people.”

Blushing, I adjusted myself. I admit to guessing about the size, but hell, if you’re going to pick one, might as well go big or go home? So I was probably dealing with about 9 inches of cock, and it was evident.

“Sorry,” I said.

“Don’t be. At least it’s smaller than you were before,” he grinned. “We are spared the terrors of the demon cock.”

I chuckled at that. Thank god he had a sense of humor.

“I don’t believe you, Ken.” Meider shook his head. “Mind in the gutter as usual. Perhaps you can feed our guest while I continue my research. You can bring me back a pie and a pint.”

Kendris nodded flippantly and took my hand. “Come, Eric, and we’ll feed you, before anything escapes and devours us.”

Part 5

I’ve already told you that I—- well, real-world, Earth-me—was, in a word, a schlub. Pushing 250 pounds at 5’8. I lumbered around rather than walking. I lounged. I worked, of course, but that epic fight last week had been a nearly 20 hour day—10 hours of real work and 10 more in that in-game quest. Lumbering and resting, and wheezing a little, had been an expectation so ingrained I barely thought about it.

But now…here, I moved with power and purpose. Lithe, in this form. Sexy. Strong, agile, hot.

And just below, that electric undercurrent that was apparently this form’s magical energy. If I willed it, I could alter that energy, and return to the other form. Vanquillon, a literal demon lord. Raw, chaotic sexual appeal and physical power, plus supernatural and magical power. I was still learning how it worked, but it was a lot more fun looking like a Legolas-meets-Zac-Efron morph. It was so easy to move, and apparently gracefulness was part of the package. and….I was hungry.

And Kendris had a very, very shapely butt. He walked ahead of me, wary-eyed as he measured the reaction of his fellows to the new arrival. If anyone noticed anything amiss, I couldn’t tell. Eventually we reached the mess tent.

If you thought fantasy elves were like Berkeley hippies, you’d be mostly wrong. At least not this crew. This was more like a health-conscious military hall. Greens and lean meats, and heaps of balanced carbs. Most of the stuff I recognized, but a few unusual shaped vegetables and some utterly unidentifiable cuts of meat gave away the alien nature of the feast. Good-natured bro types and naturally wiry, lithe, muscle abounded. The form-fitting but comfortable default garb, frequent presence of enticingly tight leather, and smiling earnest faces gave the place the relaxed feel of a college dining hall. But there was also an undercurrent of tension; these were warriors relaxing after a tough battle, not just bros chillaxing over food and drink.

“Eat, Eric. You must be famished.”

I realized I was. That energy I was burning to stay in this form had to come from somewhere, and I think some lingering sense of it being dinnertime back home was bugging me.

“Here, try the barley stew; if you like cooked grains. It’s particularly good. I’d avoid that cheese with the yellow rind unless you really like sour flavors. And if you like tart fruits, that dragon-egg fruit is quite good, despite the smell. Do you eat flesh?”

“What?”

“Meat. I eat fish, but we’re far from the ocean here. But I understand the venison is good as well.”

“Ah, yes. I’ll eat anything.”

Turned out I really was hungry, and as I tucked in, Kendris sat across from me digging into his. He shredded some herbs over the barley stew and I copied him; the flavor wasn’t too far from thyme, but unique, and he was right about the stew. And the venison, and the mound of steamed greens. Delicious.

I was still eating enthusiastically ten minutes later when he was finished. He smiled and asked if I wanted more cider. I nodded, mouth full, and he walked over to grab a hunk of bread and a pitcher. I was afforded the pleasure of watching him go—and man, those tight leather trousers showed off an awesome butt.

“It’s a great view, isn’t it?” This from the auburn-haired elf at the table behind me. He looked a bit older than Kendris or Meider, but I had no clue how elves aged. Still, his eyes suggested experience and it was clear he noticed me staring.

“Uhh…”

“Apologies, stranger, if I offended. I’m Greth.” He opened his hand in a particular way that I assumed must be a greeting, and I mimicked it a little awkwardly. He seemed satisfied.

“Eric,” I replied. “Was I that obvious?”

“To me, yes. Many of us have been waylaid by the charms of that posterior, but sadly, I fear it’s a lost cause. For all that Kendris has the eyes of an eagle when on the battlefield, he is, if I’m honest, utterly clueless about the effect he has on others.”

“I’ve met more guys like that than I care to think about. But then, there weren’t many guys who looked like that who were interested in me.” I’d said it before I even realized, I knew nothing of their customs beyond half-remembered game lore and fan theory. I hoped I didn’t stick my foot in my mouth.

“It’s the only failing he has as commander, in my opinion,” Greth said. “He fights like a devil, he heeds wisdom offered, and he uses his head. And the men here would follow their young commander to their death. But that is in part because most of them want to share a bed with him, and he remains unaware. I,” he said, taking a strong gulp of what I guessed was a sort of beer, “have been more direct, but he politely declined. Shame. A few of the lads remain a little heartbroken, but I’ve made it my business to smooth things over for them. Good for morale!”

This was not an earth-normal conversation. But as I looked around, the casual intimacy, the physicality of how men and women interacted here, was a lot more than at home. I’d missed the innocent hand-holding, shoulder stroking, and sheer proximity and openness of everyone in the room. Hands on thighs, and a lot more physical contact than I was used to.

“Where are you from, Eric?”

“A very long way away.”

“Apologies if I seem forward, but I know not all the tribes share our customs. Have I offended?”

“No, but I was a little surprised.”

“Oh, are you from one of the tribes where sex is taboo?”

“No, but it’s a lot less open than yours seems to be,” answered, as truthfully as I could.

“We are a dying people, and worse, we are at war,” he sad, a little sadly. “As such, pretense serves little purpose. We must take our pleasure where we can, and we share in our fate and leave good memories for the survivors.”

Whoa, that was a little maudlin.

“But you are young,” he said. “And such talk is best suited to the old.”

He didn’t look old to me. “And you’re an old man?”

“Hardly! But six score summers on, I’m not a young one!” He smiled, and I found myself charmed. He was easy to like. “How old are you?”

“How old do you think I am?”

“Well, if you are as I think, my guess may be far off. You don’t look more than 25 summers, but that may be lucky parentage.”

“I’m 36,” I said.

“Oh, well, that’s basically the same. Wait another 30 years and see how you feel!”

By then Kendris was returning with a pitcher. “Cider, Geth?”

“Pass—I’ve got a nice beer I’m working through, and I don’t like to mix.”

“Your loss,” he laughed, and then refilled my mug and his. “It’s here if you change your mind. Meanwhile, you should stop flirting with my guest.”

“Fine, keep him all to yourself. I’ll just have to settle for my usual bedmates,” Geth laughed, standing up. . He clapped me on the back. “Good luck, Eric. May fortune smile on your pathfinding efforts.”

“Uh….thanks?”

“Kendris,” he said, with what had to be a salute, “I’ll take my leave now. Pleasure to meet you.” And then he left us alone.

“Honestly,” Kendris said. “So many of the old guard are incorrigible. I mean no judgement by it, but …. well, it may not be safe to fraternize. Not until you’ve got better control over your form.”

“Is there something wrong with it?”

Fuck, he actually blushed!

“Oh! No, not at all, it’s very nice,” he stammered.

“Should I try to improve it or change it?” I asked. Damn, it was like I couldn’t stop myself from asking suggestive or leading questions.

“I am no judge, but it depends on whether you seek beauty or power. As you are now, you exude beauty; as were earlier today, you cast a wide net of brawn and power.”

“So, I am sexy either way, apparently. Any preferences?”

“Sexy?”

Really. Of all the TV-tropes bullshit, the “your earth language is so confusing” nonsense was a particular annoyance of mine.

“As in, sexually appealing?”

“Oh, most certainly you are that,” Kendris smiled.

“Greth seemed to think you weren’t interested in that stuff,” I offered cautiously.

“Greth is a dear friend who loves to tease. What did he tell you?”

“Well, first he caught me staring at someone’s butt, and then he said you were clueless.”

“Probably told you half the company wants to share my bed,” he said. “But there’s only so much time, and I’m a busy man.”

I nearly sprayed the cider I’d just gulped.

Part 6

His laugh was delightful, even if it was at my expense.. I found myself laughing ruefully along with him.

“Ah! Your expression!”

“Was this a set-up?”

“Ha ha! No, I just saw an opportunity. I am glad to make you laugh.” His expression changed. “And, I confess, it was a bit of a final test. True demons are not known for possessing an actual sense of humor. They laugh at pain and suffering, or enjoying reveling in power.”

“Glad I passed.”

“You did, and I got the unexpected pleasure of watching you.” He drank from his cider. “May I ask, how close is this to your native form?”

“Not very. I was thinking of two famous young performers I find attractive.”

“You have very good taste.”

Shit, he was flirting with me?

I’ve described Kendris, but I didn’t do him justice. As noted, he had a perfect ass, compact but strong-looking, supple and rounded but probably tight as a drum. He was probably 5’9 or 5’10, and built like a surfer—but a surfer who loved to do push-ups. His shoulders were broad and his arms were thick, but not body-builder thick. Wide shoulders and muscular arms, the sort you’d get if you spent most of your days swinging a sword or firing a bow. Like most of his people, his form began with lean muscle and narrow waist, and I guessed his added bulk was hard-won. He stood out among a tent-full of warriors. And that was with his clothes on. With his face, though, he’d be a star on a superhero show. Piercing blue eyes with a twinkle; artfully messy brown hair. It wasn’t as long as his brother’s, but the shaggy length worked for him. Cheekbones, of course, because, well, elf. And the ears were, if I’m honest, adorable. And somehow, a dimple, which I hadn’t noticed until just now when he grinned.

He lounged attractively as he nibbled at a hunk of bread, finding a reason to look away. I don’t think these folks had to worry about carbs.

I realized I’d probably chosen this form, borrowed from two attractive movie stars, just to try to fit in amongst the hotties.

Anyway, we were having a moment, apparently. And suddenly, I realized that I knew that he was interested.

Let me explain.

Back home, I was notoriously bad at picking up on signals. Oblivious, clueless, whatever—it was like any interest on my part rendered me unable to read the person I was interested in.

But here? I could tell, somehow. No, I take that back. I could tell that he was thinking about me and that he was curious. And almost separately, I could sense something else: sexual interest.

This was new. I scanned the room, testing whether it was just Kendris, but sure enough, I could, with a little effort, read the surface emotions of most everyone in the room. And yeah, I could also sense a bit of arousal, even when it wasn’t aimed at me.

“Eric, did I offend?”

“What? No!”

“I had hoped I held your attention.”

“It’s not that—- it’s that…well, apparently I am becoming attuned to other abilities. It’s a little distracting.”

He arched a delicately angled eyebrow. “What is it? Please tell me you won’t suddenly set the tent aflame.”

I beckoned him closer and whispered. “I seem to have developed a sort of empathic ability.”

He made a face. A flush of embarrassment that didn’t require any sort of supernatural ability to read. “Oh…”

“Yeah. It was a surprise to me too.” I smiled a little naughtily. “Wish I’d had this ability at home.”

“We, uh, should probably get back to my brother. Meider will want to know about this.”

Man, he was adorable when flustered.

…cent;… …… …… cent;… …… …… cent;

As we walked back to Meider’s tent, my senses continued to expand. The tall female in the corner thinking about sex. The lean twins with a secret lust for each other. Half a dozen generic soldier-type bromancing in the corner, two of them afraid to admit mutual attraction.

Ever change a channel and suddenly the volume is way up for a commercial? And you dropped the remote and can’t change the volume? Yeah, like that.

“Ahh!” I said. A stray beacon of lust to the left lit up my senses like a flare. I saw a shy elf lass with an awkward demeanor, staring at another fine specimen.

Kendris grabbed me protectively and hurried me along. “I think haste is needed, friend,” he said, as we bounded the corner and entered Meider’s tent.

“I must not be dis—-” Meider spun round, testily, before he realized it was us. “Oh, what’s wrong?”

“I can sense too much,” I said, looking at him.

That…that was a mistake.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this.

Smart, skinny Meider was consumed with lust. Lust aimed in my direction.

“Meider, he has become empathic, and it’s overwhelming him.”

“Oh. Fuck,” Meider said. “well, first of all I apologize. Your form is very pleasing. And it is likely that your, well, Vanquillon’s natural form, has some supernatural attractiveness at play as well. All the better to enthrall souls, no?”

“How can I make it stop? It’s blinding. Deafening. But not…” I could barely think.

“We could try a binding circle,” he said. “It should keep your powers in check, but it will likely be uncomfortable.”

“Do it!”

It took five excruciating minutes for the brothers to mark out a chalk circle with runes and symbols all around it, while I sat on a chair in the center.

“Are you ready?”

Yes.

Meider hummed something I couldn’t quite grasp, and then suddenly I felt the tingling wash over me, forcing me from the Efron-Bloom shape I’d taken earlier, back to that of the hunky demon Vanquillon. Then the circle lit up, and it was like a gauzy blanket fell over me. Sight and sound and smell were dimmed noticably, but the empathic reading lagged a bit—and notably, Meider’s lust hadn’t dimmed when I shifted form. Then, the pain subsided as the veil settled. Everything was less intense.

“Is that better?” the thin elf’s voice, muffled, inquired.

“Yes,” I said, “But I can’t see or hear very well.”

“It’s a nondetection shroud, focused inward within a magical circle of binding. Normally, such a spell would prevent someone from being scryed—but in this case, I’ve bent that energy into the weaving of the protective circle.”

“It won’t last long,” Kendris said, “But it should give you a moment to breathe and regain control.”

An hour later, and Kendris’s patient coaching had helped me get a handle on my newfound ability. I could, with a little effort, keep it suppressed (I visualized a mute button), but it wasn’t too hard to turn back on. Adjusting the volume, so to speak, would take practice.

“Truly, your powers are growing,” Meider said, worried. “And that means you are reaching a state of compatibility with your form.”

“But that’s good, right?”

“I can’t be certain. If I read the weave correctly, your soul and this body are becoming accustomed to one another, which is helpful to some extent—because Vanquillon’s powers, uncontrolled, pose a real threat. But the other side of the leaf tells me that the more proficient you become with these powers, the more entangled your soul becomes. If unchecked, you may not be able to extract your soul safely to return you to your home.”

I looked down at my default demon-shape. It was undeniably powerful and sexy, but also inhuman. Did I dare to get too comfortable in it?

“I see by your expression you understand. Be wary of that power, Eric.”

“I will.”

Part 7

Ever watch the old Get Smart show? Or the movie? There’s a thing called the Cone of Silence. The gag was that it was supposed to keep secret conversations from being overheard by nefarious foreign spies.

Problem was, anyone inside it had to shout to be heard by anyone outside of it, and it was essentially worse than useless.

Being in this magical circle felt like that. Kendris and Meider had encouraged me to meditate, drawing on our previous attempts to put me in touch with my newfound power, but to avoid actually using them, for fear of what we’d come to refer to as “entanglements”—the merging of my soul into the demon body I was stuck in. Too much, and I’d be stuck here. Too little and I’d lack the power to help free myself.

It was a hell of a situation.

Luckily for me, once I got the empathic vibe thing under control, it seemed safe to take down the circle and verify that my new senses didn’t overwhelm. Meider, possibly hoping for a little break from my relentless questions (I quietly ignored the fact I’d sensed his raw lust for me and knew I’d be a distraction), had asked Kendris to find me a bunk, and I shifted to Legolas/Efron form again. It only took a moment, and very little effort. I could tell that maintaining it would be simple. It was certainly less impressive and scary than the demon prince’s muscles and raw power look, but it carried its own risks—without the fear of Vanquillon’s obvious power, everyone’s libido was free to make itself known. Even with the low-level filter I’d mentally erected, I could sense spikes of lust here and there. My current form was good looking enough to rouse interest. And it seemed like a fair amount of jealousy, as I was following the hunky Kendris around like a lost puppy.

It seemed that the brothers were well known, and respected, in the camp, and assumed an air of easy authority wherever they went. Currently, we were headed to the quartermaster, but I’d picked up a little of it in the mess hall, and as we passed others.

“So is this an army thing, or a militia, or what?” I asked. “I’m curious about ranks and everything.”

“As I understand human custom, a militia seems about right. Similar, at least. Our forces are mostly independent, but united in purpose.”

“Who’s in charge, then?”

“Depends on the decision to be made. Some things require consensus, others do not. Sometimes it’s dated tribal custom from the old days, sometimes we vote, sometimes we simply follow the strongest leader.”

“Politics?”

“As I understand the term, yes, of course. Being strong-willed and powerful leaders of smaller forces, by whatever custom, means that all the leaders jockey for position and influence. Fortunately, I am given fairly free rein because I have won many battles. And my brother’s requests are typically heeded because they need his power. He’s quite a strong mage,” he said, with a little pride, and perhaps a hint of jealousy. “Whenever we have been outnumbered, it has been Meider’s spells and tactics that have made for our victories.”

“I can believe it, on both counts.”

“In truth,” he said, in a lower tone that neared a whisper, “I believe there are many here who are at least my equal in battle, and whose skills exceed my own. But for whatever reason, I find eyes drawn to me when I speak, and other men and women listen and heed me.”

Probably because you’re just about the hottest man in this camp, and you’re genuinely decent, I thought.

“Being attractive probably helps,” I said, tentatively.

“I suppose it must,” he nodded, as if being complimented like that was the most ordinary thing. “But it is nothing I have earned by skill or effort. It seems unfair.”

“Do not tell me your muscles just happened.”

“Why not? Yours did, if I understand you correctly,” he grinned back. “No, those I have earned—I dislike being weak, and it was obvious from a young age that I didn’t possess the same aptitude as Meider does for the arcane. I focused on my body for several years, before the campaign.”

“Makes sense. But you seem smart, and you clearly picked up on a lot of what he said. Most of it went over my head.”

“In truth, I know the basics, but I understand much more than I can actually do, when it comes to magic. Theory is fine. But I lack the raw mystic energy to be the wizard he is. So he bounces ideas off me, and I flatter myself that I sometimes have ideas of my own.”

“Whereas I am apparently stuck with power I shouldn’t really have and don’t know how to use, but I have this amazing teacher who is good at coaching me in how to use it.”

Yeah, that got a hint of a blushing smile. Unfortunately, we’d reached the quartermasters’s lair, so I had to relent a bit.


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