That was all he heard, now. Just the water falling from some basin or another. Whoever had made this dungeon was a horrible architect to let something like that happen.
Or maybe the wizard liked to torture his prisoners with the constant sound of water falling on stone. That would make some sense. Damn magic-users were almost always more shady than they first seemed. Sure, the wizard protected the city, but that didn't mean that he wasn't doing some dark magic on the side.
After all, there were a great many other prisoners here when he had first arrived. Now it was just him.
Julius sighed and stood from his sitting position, stretching. The dungeon was far from what he was used to, leaving him stiff and sore all the time. But then, what was he to expect? He had been a master thief for years, not having been caught once. His fence had been very, very good at what he did, allowing Julius to amass a fortune that rivalled a king.
Then, just his luck, he got caught. Some sort of demon had been the thing to catch him, with four arms and covered in scales. Whatever it had been, he hadn't seen it as well as he might've hoped to. If he had seen it, he would've gotten the hell out.
Then again, he never should've tried to steal from a wizard…
So now he was stuck in this damp dungeon for… who knew how long. Until the wizard came and took him away to sacrifice him to some dark god, at least. Who knew which of the billions of eldritch monstrosities the damn mage was trying to work with. Or imprison. Or worship. Really, just about any of those options spelled nearly certain death for Julius.
He didn't deserve it, either. Unlike all the other criminals that had been down here, he was just a thief. He'd never killed, or raped, or tortured, or anything like that. Hell, he'd never stolen from anyone who couldn't afford the loss. That was both bad sportsmanship, and bad business. If you stole from a poor man, he was broke and on the streets. If you stole from a rich man, you could steal from him again later. It was just sense.
Julius sighed again and looked around his decrepit cell. Well, decrepit looking. He knew very well how to get out if it was a normal cell, but this was a cell made by a gods-damned wizard. The bars were immobile, the mortar was self-replenishing, and the stones refused to shift. There were almost certainly monsters roaming in the halls, too. Things like that shadowy demon that had caught him. Probably worse, too.
Sighing for a third time, Julius sat back down and leaned against the wall. He was dead. It was more or less inevitable. Either the wizard would eventually forget that he was down there and stop sending the homunculus to feed him, or the wizard would sacrifice him to some dark ritual.
"Hey, how are you hanging in there?"
Julius jumped in surprise, scrambling to his feet. "Who's there?"
"A friend." The voice replied. It was feminine, but scratchy. Unused. It didn't seem to have any point of origin, not one that Julius could find. "One that hasn't been able to act until now."
A friend… that narrowed it down to a surprisingly small amount of people. That is, if they were friends he knew of. He had been careful not to make too many connections to people he wasn't sure he could trust. "Why not?"
"It's… complicated." The voice paused for a few moments. "I'll do my best to help you, but you need to not fight back when the homunculus comes to take you up. The wizard can turn you to dust in an instant."
"Noted." So. An inside man. Or woman, rather. That was… interesting. "What's your name?"
The voice didn't answer for a few minutes, but when it did, it said one word. "Aliya."
Aliya. The name sounded… vaguely familiar. It wasn't the name of anyone Julius knew, but it was a name he had heard at least a few times before.
"Aliya?" Julius called out.
No answer. She must've left. To be honest, he didn't blame her. He would be out of here in an instant if he had the chance.
Julius shook his head. He was probably going to be stuck here for a while. Or, maybe not. Aliya had said that the wizard was going to bring him to the higher levels, which probably meant soon. In fact, it probably meant today.
Sure enough, Julius soon heard the homonculus's wooden footsteps. The creature stopped in front of his door and reached out, using the keys held in its hand to unlock the cell door. The thing was taking forever, but that was to be expected.
Homonculi were like golems, really. Creatures made of material and magic, only able to do what their master directed. The difference, though, was that homunculi were usually more intelligent, and designed for assistance in complicated tasks. Golems, on the other hand, were creatures of war and battle. The wizard had a great many of both, and had a homunculus that was made of wood as the warden of the dungeons. The wooden creature was human shaped, but its head was featureless, and its joints were metal hooks.
The wooden doll finally unlocked the door and tugged it open. Its featureless head turned towards Julius and it made a simple gesture, one that Julius had seen a great many times. It wanted him to follow.
Julius paused for a moment. He could try to resist, but that was entirely pointless. The homunculus was stronger than he was, and it would just drag him along anyways.
Shrugging to himself, Julius walked up to the homunculus. "Alright, where're we goin'?"
The homunculus didn't answer, of course. It didn't have any way to speak. Instead, it just turned and started to walk along the corridor. After a few paces, it stopped and turned back, looking at Julius. Knowing that it was waiting for him to follow, he quickly did so.
Julius looked around the inside of the dungeon as the homunculus led him out. Empty cell after empty cell lined the corridors. That was… odd. The city usually sent their criminals to the wizard for punishment and imprisonment. After all, nobody could escape from a wizard-owned jail. But the cells were empty now.
Eventually the homunculus brought Julius to a strange chamber with a glowing blue circle in the center of the floor. Before Julius could react, the wooden creature grabbed him by the arm and shoved him bodily onto the glowing circle.
For a fraction of a second, everything was normal. Then the world began to distort and change. The walls of the room stretched to the point where they seemed about to rip apart.
Then, with a disorienting pop, the world resolved itself.
The room he was in was different, very much so. Instead of cold stone, the walls were covered in tapestries and symbols. The whole room was in much better condition, with the stone blocks newly mortared together.
"Good, the last one."
A shadowy fog entered the room, flooding across the floor. Julius immediately stepped backwards off of the glowing circle on the floor, not even noting the fact that it had dulled and turned into a complex arcane rune. The dark fog began to shape up into a roughly humanoid form, though one a great deal taller than any human. Four scaly arms extended from the shadow creature's sides, one of them reaching forwards and lifting Julius by the throat. The luminous red eyes of the creature bored into Julius's brown, emotionless and cold.
"Bring him in here, demon."
The demon turned, bringing Julius with it, and walked into the adjoining room. A massive circular chamber with an incredibly complicated series of chalk-marks and runes on the floor. The chalk designs detailed two circles, a smaller one inside of a much, much larger one. The larger circle was covered in runes and magic symbols, both angelic and demonic, while the smaller looked more… mundane. There was one rune that stood out, looking like some sort of stream from the large circle to the small one, but Julius couldn't make sense of it.
Across the room was the wizard. A smug bastard who didn't much look the part. The wizard was overweight and ruddy-skinned, with a balding head and stubble on his chin. The wizard's eyes were sunken and tired, and stress was clear on his face. If he was anyone else, Julius might've been sympathetic.
"Put him down."
The demon's clawed hand loosened, dropping Julius to the ground. The young man rubbed his injured throat. "That wasn't necessary…"
"I have no patience for you." The wizard walked around the room and gestured to Julius. "Get in the middle."
"Alright, alright." Julius put his hands up in a calming gesture and walked into the smaller circle.
The wizard completed his walk around the magic circle, taking a deep breath. "Good, you didn't scuff the runes. This'll hold them off so I can get away."
"What're you going to do to me?" Julius raised an eyebrow in curiosity. He was terrified, truth be told, but he wasn't going to give the wizard the satisfaction of knowing that.
"You're going to be the reason that those moronic masses won't be getting me," The wizard answered, grinning evilly. "That'll show them."
Oh wonderful, it was the typical case of power-mad wizardry. Wizard does good work, wizard learns that he can get even more by sacrificing people to death god, wizard gets exposed, wizard runs, and wizard gets killed by adventurer. It was scenario that happened so often it might as well be a daily occurrence. So many wizards went crazy as they sacrificed people that they thought wouldn't be missed.
Of course, the only real difference between the power-mad wizards and the socially accepted ones was that the crazy mages were caught…
In any event, it meant for certain that the wizard wasn't in the city any more. The teleporter that he had come here on was probably the only link between the wizard's tower and the dungeon. Not that that helped, anyways. Still, good to note, if Aliya was able to get him out.
Speaking of, where was Aliya? The wizard was going to start his spell any second, and if nothing happened then he was going to be dead anyways.
The wizard raised his hands to the air and closed his eyes. A faint glow began to suffuse the room, with the runes of the outer circle emitting a sinister red light. The wizard began to speak, his voice distorted and echoing. "Ezetharazael, Lord of Darkness, King of the Night, hear my call!"
At the wizard's words, magic began to swirl in a vortex around Julius. Red, orange, and purple lights began to rise out of the runes in the ground, and a black fog began to form just above the ground.
The wizard continued to chant in some demonic language, his eyes closed as the magic flowed from his fingers. Just as Julius was sure the spell was nearly complete, the wizard cut himself off with a gasp of shock.
Eight extraordinarily sharp points extended out of the wizard's torso, puncturing cleanly through his lungs. Two massive hands wrapped around the wizard's arms, forcing them out to the sides in a T pose. There was a sickening crack, followed shortly by the sound of flesh tearing, and the wizard was ripped cleanly in two. Blood spattered everywhere as the wizard's innards fell out of his destroyed body, spilling out to land on the stone floor.
The towering demon lowered its clawed hands, causing what was left of the wizard to slide off to the ground with a sickening splat. The shadow covered demon stepped forwards, the blood of the wizard splashing under its scaled foot.
Julius backed up. There was no way he could outrun the demon, but he could at least try. It didn't even matter, as it turned out. As soon as Julius reached the edge of the circle, a barrier of light appeared and pushed him back into the center.
For a moment, there was something in the shadowy demon's red eyes other than cold and unfeeling malice at the world. Julius couldn't identify it, but it seemed out of place.
The demon advanced on Julius, stepping over the runes of the outer circle. As soon as the demon was inside the outer circle, a wall of magic emerged from the runes inscribed on the floor. Glowing red lights began to circle the room, creating an impenetrable barrier.
Realizing its mistake, the demon tried to exit the circle, only to be pushed back in by the magic. The demon raised its four arms and attacked the barrier, only to find it completely immune to its attack. In fact, it seemed as though its attempt to escape only caused the magic to become stronger.
The shadows that cloaked the demon began to be pulled away from its towering form, flowing around the outer circle of runes until there was nothing more than a wall of shadows. The demon let out a wail of dismay as the shadows grew ever thicker.
The stream rune that Julius had noticed earlier began to glow a sinister purple. The demon let out another scream, this time sounding like it was in pain, and the shadows began to flow into the inner circle. Julius stepped back in horror as the shadows began to flood into the circle, swirling in a vortex around him.
"What the hells is happening?!" Julius asked, knowing that nobody would answer.
The shadowy vortex grew stronger and stronger, rising in a column around him until it reached the ceiling. As soon as the shadows touched the ceiling, the whole column turned into a funnel.
Then the funnel flowed into his nose and mouth.
It was like breathing fire, the searing pain that suffused his lungs was nearly unbearable. As much as he tried, Julian couldn't control his breathing, being forced to inhale until he felt as though his lungs would burst. He could feel the shadows filling his lungs, burning his body from the inside out. In moments, the shadowy vortex was gone, infused into Julius's body.
Julius fell to his hands and knees, retching on the floor. Everything hurt. Every part of his body burned. His skin felt like it was on fire. His muscles all ached.
"Wh-whats… happening… to me…?" Julius retched again, vomiting up the food that the homunculus had brought him for breakfast. His innards roiled as his arms shuddered with the effort.
"I'm so, so sorry. I never meant for this to happen."
That voice. It was… it was familiar. "A-Aliya…? Where… where are you?"
"Um… inside you."
That made no sense. Either Julius had misheard, or…
"You're the demon," Julius gasped. It made sense now. Aliya had said that she was only now able to help. Seeing as the demon had just torn the wizard in two, the old man's control over it, or rather, her, must've been waning.
"Probably the worst demon in the realms…" Aliya's voice was… apologetic? An apologetic demon. That was unheard of.
Julius coughed, an action that caused his whole body to shudder in pain. Flecks of blood peppered the floor beneath him, mixing in with the vomit. Looking down at his hands, he saw that his fingers were twitching, the muscles beyond his control.
"Your body can't contain my energy…" Aliya said sadly.
"Th-then that's it then…" Julius coughed again, even more blood coming up this time.
"No. not if I can help it."
As if strings were pulling him up, Julius rose to his feet. Someone – no, something – was controlling him. His body took two steps to the side, stumbling, then continued towards the doorway.
"Wh-what're you doin'… to me…?" Julius mumbled, his mind numbing.
"Getting you out of here. I am not letting you die. I've already let too many others die at that mage's hands."
An immense pain alerted Julius to his arms. Looking down, he saw faint shapes under his skin. A faint pattern, all up and down his arms. His skin was itching, fitting wrong. Julius's right hand reached over to his left arm and dug his nails in. Although he was faintly expecting pain, he didn't feel any. Tugging on his skin, he found that it came off easily. Scales. He had scales under his loose-fitting skin. Julius's hands continued to peel his skin off, revealing more and more black scales.
But it itched. It itched all over. He wanted the itching to stop. Needed the itches to stop.
"I can't let you slip."
The puppet strings tugged his hands away from his skin, forcing him to stop. Julius's body continued towards the door, reaching out and shoving the wooden portal cleanly off of its hinges. He stepped over the door and began to stumble down the spiraling stairway outside. He knew his head hit the stone walls a couple times, knew he slipped on a couple stairs, but he didn't feel it.
Julius didn't notice when his body reached the bottom of the stairs, shambling down a corridor. He did, however, see the homunculi that were guarding the exit. Two stone creatures, both embedded in the walls, glared at him as his body continued to the exit.
As they were made to do, the homunculi both began to spew fire on him.
The flames didn't even hurt, they were just… warm. The rest of his old skin burned off, though, causing the ceaseless itching to stop. It was freeing, not having that ill-fitting layer any more.
Julius continued on.
Next were the golems. Massive creatures made of clay, stone, metal, or anything else the wizard could get his hands on. The hulking constructs stood ten feet tall, each one designed to hold off an army. They probably could, too. Golems were tough, able to survive almost anything. It took a whole army armed with warhammers to stop a single clay golem, and a powerful wizard was needed to dismantle a metal golem. The constructs could even survive being crushed under a mountain, as ancient golems from collapsed mines showed.
Aliya brought Julius's body to a halt, his eyes staring blankly at the magically animated creatures. His right arm rose, the newly grown claws flexing. Wisps of shadowy magic twined around his fingers.
The golems didn't stand a chance.
A sharp pain alerted Julius to his forearms. All along the outside of his arms, tiny spikes began to poke through the scales. It itched, but not nearly as badly as the old skin had. There was a final shredding of flesh and skin, and the spikes lengthened. Each one was as long as his hand, and tipped with a point that looked sharper than any spear.
Just as well, too. He noticed the homunculi that were just outside the gate, all armed with crossbows. There were… more than he cared to count. It didn't matter. A swipe of his arm and the spikes dislodged, flying towards the homunculi with deadly precision. Each one had its head removed by a carefully placed spike.
The once-human passed through the gate.
Once he passed through the gate, he felt free. More free than ever before. Like a weight was lifted from him. Julius let out a cry of triumph, one echoed closely by the creature that was currently inhabiting his body. Aliya tugged his body onwards, making him break out into a run. Despite all the pain he had experienced, he felt full of energy. Rejuvenated.
As he ran, he felt his legs begin to strain. Not the strain of trying to run without energy, or the strain of injured muscles. No, this strain was on the bone. Mid step, his legs began to change. With two cracks, his legs broke below the knee, forming into a second, backwards joint. When his foot hit the ground again, it was a dexterous claw.
Running even faster now, his body continued to accelerate. The second joint in his legs allowed him to put more of his newly-enhanced power into each step. The claws on his feet allowed him to dig into the ground, giving him the ability to traverse the rocky ground without fear.
In time, he reached a cave.
The cave was far larger than he initially expected, honestly. And far, far brighter. Or… maybe his eyes had changed so that he could see in the dark. It was impossible to tell, really. It was rather nice, though, for a hole in the ground. Crystals growing out of some of the walls, a pool of clear water in one corner, and a spring that fed into that pool.
Julius confidently walked over to the pool and looked down at it, bending over to take a drink from the clear water.
Except that, for some reason, up and down seemed to be spinning…
Julius was unconscious before he hit the floor.
"Wake up. Please, please wake up."
Julius groaned. His whole body was sore, for some reason. It felt as though he had done the most strenuous exercise on the planet, after being completely dormant for months. His arms itched and felt dry. His mouth was just as dry, like he hadn't had water in a week. Letting out another groan of pain, his eyes fluttered open.
Immediately his gaze met two luminous red eyes, set in a face covered in black scales. The creature's nose was nothing more than two slits in the middle of its face, set just above a mouth that had no lips. The sides of the creature's head had two pointed, almost elf-like ears. Horns jutted out of the creature's head just above the ears, fitting close to its scalp and curling backwards.
"Thank the gods, I was worried that you might have been lost forever."
The creature's voice was soft and kind, an incredible clash from its monstrous appearance. Julius quickly scrambled back, pressing himself against a rough wall behind him. "B-back off, demon!"
At his words, the demon froze, its face assuming a look of disappointment. "Right. Never mind."
The towering demon backed away, going to the opposite side of the cave to sit on a rock outcropping. Julius glanced at the demon, then at the mouth of the cave. If he was fast, he might be able to get out before the thing caught him. Then again, it was a demon. Demons used magic, were faster than they looked, and some of them could teleport or use their limbs as projectile weapons.
No, he would be better off if he didn't try to fruitlessly escape. He had no doubt that the demon could catch him. Especially with how sore and tired he was feeling.
Julius glanced around the cave, his eye catching on a pool of sparkling and clear water. He was parched, and seeing as there was no way he could get out of here with the demon watching, he may as well drink.
With a grunt of effort, Julius tried to rise to his feet. Something was wrong. His legs felt like they were bending the wrong way. Letting out a gasp of pain, he fell back down. No walking, then. Julius dragged himself over to the pool using his hands, finding it surprisingly easy to find the rock outcroppings to pull himself along.
As soon as he reached the pool, Julius cupped his hands together and gathered water in them. Moving quickly to prevent the water from flowing out, he brought his hands to his mouth and drank. After repeating the process a couple more times to slake his thirst, Julius looked down at his hands.
They were covered in black scales, with extended claws in place of fingernails.
"What the hells?!" Julius looked down at his arms, noting the spikes that ran along the outside of his forearms. "What happened to me…?"
Something caught Julius's eye. Looking down into the clear pool, his eyes widened in surprise. His slitted, luminous, purple eyes. Every inch of his skin was covered in black scales, just like the ones that were on the demon. His now-lipless mouth was filled with incredibly sharp teeth and a forked tongue. His ears had become pointed, like the demon's were, and all of the hair on his head was gone. Instead he had horns that stuck close to his skull.
His hand shaking, Julius reached up to touch his face. Scales touching scales.
"What am I…?" Julius whispered.
"I tried to preserve you as best I could, Julius."
Julius jerked around, his eyes locking onto the demon from earlier. "What did you do to me?"
The demon looked at him sadly. "You don't remember, do you…?"
"Remember what?" Julius asked harshly.
The wizard smirked as the spell started…
The demon ripped the wizard in half…
The vortex of shadows flowed into his lungs, suffusing his whole body…
"You…" Julius blinked a couple times as the memories came back. "You saved me."
Aliya smiled sadly. "Father's power would have destroyed your mind entirely. As it is, you're lucky to be alive."
"Father?" Julius mumbled. Then he remembered what the wizard had said. "Then you're…?"
"Aliya, princess of shadows, at your service." Aliya curtsied, an odd action for a towering creature with four arms.
Now that Aliya's shadows had dispersed, and Julius wasn't cowering in terror, he could take a good look at her. Her entire body was covered in the same black scales as he was, covering her soft spots. Speaking of, there were prominent breasts on her chest that clearly defined her as female. The rest of her body was muscular, especially her four arms. Each of her fingers was tipped with an incredibly sharp claw, already proven to be enough to easily pierce through a man. Her legs were two-jointed, like those of an animal, and ended with dexterous claws.
"So why did you help me?" Julius asked, shifting on the stone in an attempt to get into a more comfortable position. His newly changed lower body was awkward, and would make it difficult to walk.
Aliya was silent for a few minutes. When she spoke, her voice was low and sad. "I used to be like the others. That was… three centuries ago. I killed people, accepted sacrifices, wreaked havoc on the world. I used to think it was fun."
Aliya shook her head in disgust. "I never felt emotions. Not really. None of my kin know joy. None of them feel happiness. They've never grieved for the lost. They just laughed at the pain of others, even if those others were their own.
"It took millennia to realize that the humans didn't think the same way. That they didn't reform after death like we did. No demons ever died for long, not unless something really drastic happened. We never did anything on that scale to humans, so we assumed that when we saw more humans, they were the same ones reformed." Aliya barked out a bitter laugh. "I'm sure I don't need to tell you we were wrong.
"I only found out because I was still relatively young, only a couple millennia old. Unlike older demons, I wasn't set in my ways." Aliya's voice caught, something that it never seemed would happen to a demon. "I killed a child and laughed about it. When the child's mother burst into the room and began to cry, I was confused. It wasn't the tears of fear that so many humans had, but tears of grief. She attacked me with a broom, not even stopping when the broom broke in two on my body. I was so confused. When I asked her why she was attacking me, even though it was futile, she just screamed. So I snapped her neck.
"But she made me think. And watch. I watched the humans without them knowing. I learned what they do in their lives. How they interact." A tear ran down Aliya's face, her crying visage clashing harshly with her demonic form. "Mindless slaughter quickly lost all appeal. The other demons became repulsive in my eyes. I left the dark realm immediately. For over two hundred years, I wandered. Sometimes I helped humans, but more often I hid. Then the wizard bound me to his will, and… well, you know the rest."
Julius sat there in shock, the story almost too odd to believe. Almost. He believed her, as strange as that may be. She had saved his life, after all. "So what do you want now, since you don't want what other demons want?"
"I… don't know." Aliya hesitated. "I guess… companionship. I've been so lonely."
"If you want companionship, why do you look like that? Can't demons change their forms?" Julius asked.
"Not… really," Aliya said sheepishly. She gestured at herself with her upper arms. "My form is shaped by what humans think I look like. That's how demons work. Anything I change into is temporary, not to mention painful. Eventually I'd just change back and scare everyone off."
"You aren't scaring me off."
Aliya's head jerked up to look at him. "What do you mean?"
"I mean you saved my life." Julius looked down at himself. All things considered, he could've been turned into some tentacle monstrosity instead. "Even if you didn't do so perfectly. At least I'm alive. I'll stick by you."
Four well-muscled arms wrapped around Julius's body, pulling him into an embrace that was far softer than he ever could have expected.
Sure, he lost his humanity, and any chance at rejoining society, but he honestly couldn't care. Humanity was overrated anyways.