The air shivered as violent magical energy opened a portal from the demon world into our own. A tall, slender female demon emerged, followed by two shapes roughly the size of men and finally a hulking ten-foot mass of moving muscle. The four demons took a few steps away from the portal and stopped at the center of a dusty square surrounded by dilapidated wood houses.
“Remember the plan,” the male demon on the left said to the female. “Once your display of power is done, they’ll be pissing in their pants. Someone is bound to crack and make a move against you.”
“Understood, uncle,” the female demon replied, not looking at him. “I will complete my purpose.”
“Good girl,” her uncle said with a sharp-toothed smile.
“Make sure you leave some for me, girly,” growled the giant creature that towered behind her.
“Of course, tutor Khrex. I will do my best not to destroy them too fast,” she said with a tone implying she would do no such thing.
The hulking mass called Khrex shifted forward, but the figure on the right raised a hand. Khrex’s froze in place.
“They’re almost here,” said the figure whose hand had stopped the creature in its tracks. “The girl can destroy you with just a thought right now, Khrex, so save your posturing for later. This is an enterprise our whole species has undertaken for some centuries now, and I will not allow you to muck it up at the very end. Jehma, back straight, head held high. Show no weakness to these…lesser beings.”
“Yes, father,” Jehma said, setting her jaw and leveling her chin.
She watched the humans arrived in the square and spread out like insects.
Rog walked in the middle of the tight military formation. His attention was first caught by the giant creature he hoped he wouldn’t have to fight.
“Keep focused, boy!” a hobbling man in robes chided Rog.
“Apologies, magus,” Rog said, rubbing the back of his head where his light blond hair became darker, looking almost as if licked by flames.
“The preparations are set, so all we need you to do is damage that thing,” a short, burly man spoke from behind Rog’s back. “We’ll take care of the rest, lad.”
Rog thought he’d feel different when this old square had demons in it and wasn’t empty like previous years. He thought it was going to be more frightening, but the training had done away with that almost a decade ago. Anger was something he thought he’d finally feel again, but it wasn’t there. What he did feel was interest in the shorter female shape in front of the bigger demons. Coming closer, he caught glimpses of her facial features, which looked very regal, and those backward curving horns on her head made her look dangerous and exotic.
“Caught your eye, did she?” said a lavishly dressed man and poked Rog’s side. “A lot of men dream of being with a beautiful woman during their last days. Life is beautiful, and women are beautiful as well, so I understand their sentiment very well.”
“That’s not a woman, lord Vandia. That’s a demon,” Rog said as they drew closer to the otherworlders. “And besides, she might just be a tutor and not the actual champion.”
“I’ve taught you better than that, Rog,” Vandia said, looking up at Rog from under his eyebrows. “The demon society, as far as we know, is much like our own and that there is a beautiful, young demon woman, roughly your age. My bet would be that she’s their champion. Look at her poise, the way she’s on edge and ready for a fight.”
Rog nodded his head in agreement as he looked over the demon woman. She was few inches shorter than him, with an athletic build. She wore plain, comfortable-looking brown shoes and dark trousers. A sleeveless blouse, which showed her arm muscles. Rog noticed they were well defined, but not because of training but due to lower weight. Still, that didn’t make her less imposing. Her neckline was free from jewelry, and Rog saw black freckles run from the blouse’s collar along the sides of the neck and up into the back of her hair. Her face had high cheekbones and was much too angular for Rog’s taste, but she was no doubt beautiful, by any species standard. Her mouth was locked into a line that showed no emotion. Her nose had a few of those dark freckles, but they were much less distinct here. Her eyes were violet and very discerning. As she watched him, Rog began to feel anxiety about how he walked and almost tripped on flat, paved ground. The final thing that caught Rog’s attention was her horns, which began a few inches behind her hairline, curved back horizontally, and at the tail end shot straight up into the sky. Her hair was jet black and reached just beneath her ears. Her companions were a stark contrast to her as their hair was tangled with their horns in hard-to-understand shapes. No doubt this was the fashion in the demon world, as even the giant monstrosity behind her had braids running along its horns.
“Stop your babble, Vandia. You’re distracting the boy,” the magus chimed in. “Don’t get distracted by her beauty, or you won’t be able to do the only thing you’re useful for. And you, Vandia, why are you dressed like a street performer? This is a holy and official function.”
“Judging by your choice of outfit, magus Dran, I wouldn’t get that impression,” Vandia said looking over his shoulder at the smaller man. “As for me. I’d like to look good when I die, and if that’s today, I just hope the foul demons have at least a modicum of understanding for fashion so I may be labeled the best-dressed corpse.”
Rog tried to stifle his laugh but couldn’t. He laughed, despite his situation and the prospects of his survival. He was here of his own volition, so dying was okay. The demons stood motionless and waited for Rog and the others to arrive. Close as they were now, even someone as uninitiated in magic as Rog was able to feel the raw pulsing power coming from the demon woman. Rog carried a magical instrument on his right hand in the form of a gauntlet, which provided him with means of magical defense, but the power infused into that device by all the available magicians of the empire paled in comparison to the aura emanating around the demon woman. In terms of ferocity the magic the demons brought was aggressive and dangerous. Rog imagined it like a giant, red wolf, stalking its prey. Following that analogy then, the magic in the gauntlet was like a small baby bunny. Rog glanced over at magus Dran and saw the man’s face was as white as a cloud. This confirmed the dire situation. He turned forward and met the woman’s eyes.
Jehma had a good look at the man who was the champion of the humans. His build was strong. He was maybe a head taller than her, short blond hair on top and by the ears. As he came closer, he turned his head, and Jehma saw the color of his hair change from soft yellow to burned orange. The skin on the back of his neck looked pink and reddish as if recently burned. His face was long and narrow, his cheeks were a bit sunken, and his eyes, while showing a vibrant spark as he laughed, looked tired and somehow somber. He was clean-shaven and dressed in intricate armor. His shoulders were covered by bulky pauldrons inscribed in fortifying runes. The inscribed metal continued down the upper and lower vanbraces that covered his biceps and forearms, and on the right hand, ended in a gauntlet that radiated such pathetic amounts of power that Jehma almost chuckled. Remembering Khrex’s tutelage to never underestimate one’s foe, she continued her inspection of the armor. Besides the gauntlet, she felt nothing even remotely threatening, so she only had to worry about the man inside the suit. She began to call upon the power within herself and looked the man in the eyes. It was a shame she’d have to kill him. He wasn’t unpleasant to look at.
Jehma’s father stepped forward and spoke.
“Hail hated enemy,” he said, watching the older, shorter man behind the humans’ champion.
“Hail hated enemy,” Dran replied, his voice cracking.
“This is our champion, the strongest amongst our ranks,” the regal demon waved his hand at the woman and continued. “As per the rules of the ancient pact, she will now display her power. Our species obviously being stronger, it falls to you then to choose the nature of the contest in which the champions will compete.”
The demon spoke the common tongue, but it was the highborn version of it, the one that Rog heard around the streets spoken by people with their nose turned upward most of the time. Rog felt a deep hatred for the demon, not because of his race or his intentions, but at the obvious air of superiority around him as he spoke. If he was the champion, Rog would’ve already punched him in his smug face and doomed his entire race, so he took a deep breath and calmed his thoughts.
“Proceed,” Dran stammered and slinked back with the speed that normally wouldn’t be attributed to one so old.
The demon leader waved his champion forward with a curt movement of his slacked wrist. The gesture had so much boredom infused in it that Rog had to close his fists tight to stop himself from lunging forward. The woman took a confident step forward and raised both of her hands. A howling wind began to circle around the gathered crowd. It quickly picked up speed nearing that of a hurricane. The boards on the old houses began to groan and break under the strain of the brewing disaster. The woman seemed to be the focal point of the demon-made storm, so those around her were spared, but the houses away from them began to breakdown and fly up into the sky. Doors, glass, and boards spun wildly as the sound became deafening. The power swirling around Rog was so much that if he wasn’t wearing protection he was sure that he would pass out. The woman’s arms began to shake slightly as the winds became even faster still and the debris flying around began to grind to dust. The sunlight became obscured by the obliterated houses, so the gathered were now in near darkness, the only visible light was violet, and it came from the beautiful eye of the storm. Rog met the gaze and did not look away as the woman ceased calling upon the terrible winds and began to pull the house-dust together, forming it into a big, dense ball over her head. Once the house-ball formed, she lowered it into the palm of her right hand and held it there by sheer strength alone. Rog knew that the body of someone could be magically infused to raise its physical potential, but this was absurd. Even by his meager understanding, Rog knew that this woman had to have been exposed and infused with wild amounts of magic for years for something like this to be possible. With stark clarity, he understood that the demon woman was a walking weapon of mass destruction. The thought made him smile. The woman took that as a challenge, so she hurled the impossibly heavy ball behind her back to where there used to be houses. It landed a few feet behind the still open portal to the demon realm.
The impact nearly shook everyone off their feet. The demon woman began to gather power once more. This time Rog really did feel faint. One of the mages that Dran brought fell to the ground. As the grand magus knelt to attend him, another of his pupils raised his hands and called upon the power, closing the portal to the demon world. A devious smile spread across the lips of the demons’ leader.
“Proceed,” he said, dragging out the word with visible pleasure.
Rog saw the demon woman’s demeanor change for a split second. Her determination waned, and her eyes looked as tired as Rog had seen many times in his own reflection. He wasn’t sure if what he saw was really there, but he made his choice. He only saw her shoulders move slightly forward before she vanished. Rog was already moving, so his gauntleted hand made it in time to protect the young mage’s throat. The woman’s dark crimson fingers were embedded into the metal. She moved only her eye to look at Rog’s face. Looking down, he saw her other hand had two outstretched fingers pointing at his abdomen, slowly rising to target his heart.
“Was that wise, champion?” she said, her fingers stopping their movement just as they aligned with his heart. “Sacrificing this powerful magical instrument, powerful for you maybe, for the sake of one life?” The edges of her lips moved up in a snide smile.
“Apologies for my companion’s behavior, lady…” Rog’s voice trailed off as he felt the gauntlet crack under the power of the woman’s fingers.
“Lady Jehma,” she said and lowered her right fingers because of the wild energies she felt around them.
Jehma ceased pushing and relaxed her body to an upright position. All around them, the sky began to hum and vibrate with a slow, steady beat. Rog saw only glimmers of the new arrivals but felt their primordial power immediately. The spirits judging the contest had arrived. Rog smiled and knelt immediately. His life was saved, for now.
Rog saw the shimmers briefly before bowing his head. They ranged in all shapes and sizes. Some even made his eyes hurt even though he had only fractions of a second to glimpse them.
“Great spirits!” Dran’s hoarse voice made Rog wince. “Thank you for blessing us with your presence.” He finished his greetings and went down on his hands and knees, forehead digging into the ground almost.
“Revered judges,” said Rog and Jehma in near unison.
Rog threw a glance at Jehma and saw her move her head slightly forward and spread her arms wide, almost like lifting a gown. Even though her gesture looked very unrespectful, Rog still had the breath catch in his throat at Jehma’s graceful movements.
“Great spirits. Thank you for attending this long-awaited day,” Jehma’s father said as he rose from a much deeper bow than his daughter. “I believe you saw the humans’ provocation, so please allow us to dispatch them with great haste.”
“Hold,” said a voice that sounded like the sky itself. “Know your place, mortal! We are here to judge, not play into your pitiful machinations.” The voice’s ire was so noticeable that Rog was too afraid to even try to look up and sneak a peek at the speaker.
He did, however, catch Jehma’s father bow deep once more and step back to his companions.
“Rog, champion of this realm,” the sky spoke again. “You protected your fellow man even at the expense of your life and valuable weapon. If you so choose, you may request an additional allowance of time so that your realm may repair the lost asset.”
Rog bowed his head nearly to the ground, and on the way up, he looked back at Jehma, who had her eyes locked on him.
“No need, great spirits,” Rog said calmly, taking a gamble and deciding to believe his hunch. “There was a simple misunderstanding between us, but nothing that would warrant the challenge to be postponed. Please continue to provide us with your valuable wisdom and oversight.”
The sky vibrated and shifted for a few moments, then spoke again.
“Very well. As per your wish, the challenge may resume. Name the contest as it is your realm’s right.”
“Thank you, gracious ones,” Rog bowed less deeply this time and got to his feet. “I would like the contest to not be one of violence and destruction, so I choose the field of compassion as our battleground. The loser will be the first contestant to show, in a physical way, affection or genuine understanding for their adversary. As for the place where we shall compete, there is a yearly festival for young couples that is held in our city today. I propose we compete there.” He lowered his head in reverence and looked over to Jehma, flashing her a toothy smile.
Jehma found this amusing. Her right eyebrow arched, and her mouth went up in a smug half-smile.
I’m master of all! What does this lowly human think he’s doing?
Out loud, she said nothing and bowed her head as well. The power held within her was so great and vast that she felt nearly unstoppable. That being the case, she liked the human’s ingenuity. He had managed to level the playing field, even if he still had a minimal chance of winning, this way, it wasn’t a sure zero.
“I accept,” Jehma said and raised her head.
Her father’s gaze was more than disapproving. It looked like he was trying to force his ire through her forehead. Rog felt very awkward, even standing in proximity to that look. Vandia pushed him to the side and stepped close to Jehma.
“It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Lady Jehma,” he said and lowered his head and torso until they were parallel to the ground. “I am lord Vandia, a humble tutor to our champion.”
The palm of his right hand faced the sky and stood just above his head, waiting for Jehma to place hers on top. She did, and Vandia pulled it close, placing a soft kiss just above her fingernails. Jehma knew enough human etiquette to know this gesture meant that the colorfully dressed man was showing her the highest possible reverence for a stranger.
“Pleasure,” Jehma said, coquettishly placing her free hand on her chest.
She felt a bit odd at the respectful greeting, and it showed on her face. Vandia rose and smiled at the uncomfortable Jehma.
“You may be our enemy, but that doesn’t mean I should be rude to an elegant vision such as yourself,” he winked at her and stepped back.
Rog admired how Vandia’s impeccable, as always, timing. The situation was defused, and the gaze of Jehma’s father had softened. Jehma’s hands rose up, and she spoke.
“Exalted spirits, if I may?” her hair began to whip backward from the power she was emanating.
Rog saw Jehma’s father put up a barrier for him and his companions.
“Proceed,” the sky answered.
Rog saw Jehma’s body change. Her dark-red skin became softly tan, her black hair became as blond as his, and her eyes became fair. The horns on her head disappeared, and her freckles turned a soft gold color. She made an obvious first attack, by giving him a warm, inviting smile with her new, pink lips.
“By the spirits,” Vandia said, looked at Rog with resignation in his eyes and patted him on the shoulder, then moved away.
Rog looked at Jehma’s camouflage spell, and although she looked more human, he felt she was not more beautiful, as was her obvious intention. She met his gaze and saw the desired effect wasn’t achieved. Her face became sullen for the briefest moment.
“Could you make me see you like before? Like you really look?” Rog said.
Jehma’s head tilted back slightly, and she narrowed her eyes at him.
“Sure,” she said, a sly smile on her lips. “A hunter of the exotic. I see, nothing wrong with that. Would you like some embellishments with that?”
Lifting her right hand up, she moved each finger back and forth, which changed the proportions of her hips, thighs, and breasts.
“No need,” he said smiling, then closed his eyes. “I’d really like to compete against the whole of you, not the outward appearance you just created. The way you really are is great.”
Jehma didn’t expect to hear that, and the innocent smile on Rog’s face didn’t help her keep calm at all. She was glad demons weren’t able to blush.
“Done,” she said after excluding Rog from the spell’s effect. “You can open your eyes now.”
He did. The smile didn’t leave his face.
“Like I said, great.”
His face was earnest enough, and Jehma didn’t even need to use her power to find out if he was lying.
“Shall we?” he asked after extending his right arm towards the city gates.
“Yes,” Jehma said, her voice breaking slightly, “but you’re getting me a hat.” She put her chin up when walking past him.
“Whatever you need,” Rog agreed and followed his adversary towards the city.