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A Whateley Academy Story

Tennyo Goes to Hell

Or

Good morning, and welcome to the lake of fire

by Babs Yerunkle

 

chapter 1 of 2

(Note: this horror story contains sexual violence, physical violence, and horror. For those that wish to skip that, you may jump to the end of chapter two, which is conveniently labeled “Epilog”.)

This story is darker and bloodier than anything you have ever seen in Whateley canon. In fact, it is darker and more violent than anything you have ever seen in Whateley non-canon, including April Fools' Day stories and fanfic. It contains graphic scenes of violence, rape, sexual violence, bestiality, violence, brutality, violence, raw sexuality, horror, cannibalism, violence, and insanity. Did I mention the violence yet? Okay. This is somewhere around FR21. You have been warned.

That said, this is a great story by a beloved Whateley author, even if some will find it very disturbing. It is not necessary to read it, because all key events will be covered elsewhere. But if you're interested (and in my personal opinion it is well worth reading). Continue reading only if you understand and can legally make the decision to subject yourself to this type of story. If you are under age or experience PTSD/trigger events due to the above things, we recommend you skip this content.


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In appearance it was simply a volcanic crater, a small circular valley ringed by craggy mountains like so many fanged teeth. In the center was a poisoned lake, and the cloying miasma that drifted off the lake had killed much of what lived within that isolated valley. But life is persistent, and it clung with desperate tenacity to the walls and floor of that sickly basin. There were patches of lichen, shiny and green almost to the point of luminescence. Several spots held copses of trees, though every tree was naked and dead-looking, stripped of all leaves. Many trunks had fallen and rolled down the slopes of the basin, providing tangled heaps of woody debris to serve as shelter for whatever wretched creatures chose to lair there.

The sky overhead was a perpetual overcast, brought on by the steam rising off the magma-heated lake. The cloud cover was so thick and roiling that the valley beneath was held in a perpetual twilight, eventually withering anything that depended upon the purity and life-giving light of the sun, presumably somewhere overhead.

In the absence of conventional plant life, the fungal kingdom thrived. Bathed in the perpetual steamy humidity that rose from the lake, a thousand varieties of fungus flourished. Fine mold seemed to cover every surface like a short fur, painted in colors of orange and pale green. Toadstools and other loathsome caps sprouted from the decaying litter of what had once been plants, and other shapes that seemed to resemble fallen animals of various orders. More disturbing than this were the obvious bites taken from the pale heads of toadstools, although it was difficult to decide which aspect suggested the more disturbing conclusion: that animals of some kind did survive here, that they were forced to consume such loathsome fare, or that the bites were always a single large gouge with no attempt to finish the meal. Perhaps it helped explain how there could be lumps of animal bodies that seemed only recently deceased.

The lake itself had a distinct yellowish tinge and smelled strongly of sulfur. It was heated to a near boil by energies concealed beneath its impenetrable depths, and by the strange gases bubbling up from its depths. Sulfur gases were the most common, but there were poisons and exotic compounds brought out of the unseen reaches that lay beneath. No explorer had ever ventured to this forsaken place to plumb the depths of this lake, but had one come it would have been no surprise to discover yet another caldera whose stygian floor lay, not a few hundred feet down, like a normal lake, but rather thousands upon thousands of feet below, as was seen with the more impressive volcanic basins. Some of the gases that rose from those occulted depths were of such potency that they immediately ignited upon touching pure air. Thus, the boiling lake was covered with spontaneous flickers of eldritch flame that bathed the entire shrouded valley in their wan and unearthly colors.

And while no human eyes had explored this realm – at least none that had ever returned to tell the tale – it was remarkable that it had been described so perfectly in human texts. Its first description having been in the ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. That description was later amplified by their escaped Hebrew slaves: a lake of fire that burns with sulfur.

This grim pool shared another trait with its other volcanic relatives: an island existed in the center. Unique to this island was the existence of a native population of creatures – all manners of mammals and lizards. How they came to be there was impossible to say. From the shore, they were only barely visible through the flickering of the unearthly flames that ignited at the water’s surface. It was clear that there were far too many of them for that small plot of poison-scoured rock. And yet, none of the creatures dared enter the water. And so they were forced to sit and watch, gazing with impotent longing across to the unreachable shore which might grant life and freedom. But such reflective longing never lasted. The prisoners would inevitably be overwhelmed by hunger. They would fall on one another with a frenzy, striving always to eat, rather than be eaten. At last some few would perish to feed their neighbors, and the prisoners would move again to sit and contemplate the taunting shore of freedom, forever unreachable.

And then something different happened. It can hardly be said, “one day.” Between the perpetual sun-shrouding overcast above, and the flickering unearthly flames below, day was no different from night in this accursed realm. The passage of time was measured by the interval between feeding frenzies on the hellish isle, or similar activities on the shore carried out by shadowy figures that would only dart from the concealing darkness for long enough to make their kill, before scuttling back into shelter and dragging the body of their prize with them.

Now something different happened. Something new rose from the depths of the lake. A creature of pure form and clear, unblemished skin. She walked up out of the lake as if ascending a staircase. First to break the surface of the water was her hair, a mass of blue strands that sprouted from her head like porcupine quills, except that each hair swayed with the breeze as if soft and pliable. Her face and head followed. Her eyes looked large and human, save that she had irises like a cat, though perhaps a bit more oval. Her ears were round and protruded significantly, reminiscent of a monkey’s features somehow. Her mouth displayed slight fangs, but her overall appearance was young and beautiful, perhaps even innocent enough to be labeled “cute.”

To say that this was an anomaly was a vast understatement.

Still the girl ascended her non-existent staircase. The rest of her body was lush and shapely, which was completely apparent as the girl was nude. Not “naked,” which implies an aspect of vulnerability, but rather “nude” which implies that one chooses to forgo clothing.

The girl, or young woman, finished her ascent and stood calmly on the air, an inch or two above the surface of the lake. She looked around in puzzlement, then began to walk toward the shore, ignoring the small fires that erupted under and around her.

At the water’s edge, the lapping action of wind and wave brought sediment ashore. This sediment came in the form of translucent chunks of gelatin, each colored with a tainted streak of pale color within. It was as if the shore were awash in so many dying jellyfish, and these seemed a welcome feast for the scavengers that gathered there. Rodents, or creatures that moved like rodents, hurriedly gnawed their disgusting treasures, all the while keeping a wary eye on their fellows. Larger creatures, the size of beavers or even small bears, lay in wait farther up, pouncing upon the rodents and swallowing them whole.

As the girl strode ashore, the creatures huddled there scattered, fleeing into tangled mounds of fallen tree trunks and branches.

The girl stood a bare inch above the ground, like an angel refusing to be profaned by contact with unholy soil. She peered this way and that, but no hint of wholesome life stirred. Finally she set her sights to the distance, where green and yellow glows leaked through the passes in the craggy mountain wall that ringed the lake. Picking the glow that seemed to promise the healthy green of thriving plants, she set her jaw and began to stride forward. But scarcely had she begun than there was movement.

From a rude heap of branches scarcely four paces ahead, a hunched shape scuttled out. Sized and shaped like a small bear, the lump turned and approached her.

The girl dropped a foot back, settling unconsciously into a stance.

The shaggy lump drew nearer. At two paces, it reared back, balancing on hind legs. Then, it stood. Suddenly it resembled a stooped man, rather than an upright animal. The thing stretched, attempting to shift to a completely upright posture, but it always retained a slight hunch, particularly in the upper back between the shoulder blades.

The thing appeared to be an Asian man, at the edge of being named elderly. Strong enough to be taken seriously in a fight, old enough to have gained wisdom and skill. His moustache was white and long, draping down over the outer edges of his mouth, and his fingers seemed drawn to play with it. His body and muscles seemed firm, and his hair was still jet black, save for his moustache. But while his features became more apparent his crude robe remained a collection of tattered skins, and he was as filthy as if he’d been rolling in mud.

“How do you do?” He spoke simply and graciously, in a rich voice that pronounced each word carefully, as if ensuring that they’d be understood.

The girl narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “Who are you?” she demanded. “What do you want?”

“I am, or was, called Mifruzli. Once upon a time.”

He woke in a shape that was not his own. This was so utterly commonplace that it didn’t merit a second thought, nor even a first. He was fortunate in that he possessed the skill of integrating memories. Where he had come by this singularly useful ability he couldn’t say, but he had vague recollections of being separate and then rejoining. It wasn’t clear what had been separate or what might have come to be after the rejoining. Perhaps it was himself he returned to. He seemed to recall deliberately splitting himself in some arcane fashion, venturing forth as a pair, and then joining back together once more.

That experience, faintly remembered though it was, served him well in this new place. Even more fortunate was that the skill had been learned to the point where it became as automatic as breathing. It occurred naturally and without thought. Conscious will could override and control the process, but as with breathing, it usually worked well enough on its own.

Within moments, he was controlling and dominating enough to afford himself an examination of his latest body.

This was another fortuitous circumstance, though he was not yet enough of himself to realize it.

His attitude was ideal for this awakening. He had few preconceptions as to what size and shape might be “proper.” Thus, it came as no great surprise to discover that he was now some unknown variety of scavenger. His form was small and weak, and seemed to be some loathsome combination of rat and snake, furred over most of his body except for the belly scales, a long, limbless thing with beady, forward-pointing eyes and ears, and long, durable incisors instead of fangs.

After taking stock of his new form and experimenting with the unpleasant process of undulating forward along the ground, he discovered that he was alive.

Why this should be surprising, he couldn’t remember, but he seemed to recall that most of his bodies had not been alive. Neither living nor dead, they had been simply… un-alive.

Had he been some type of undead, before? A ghoul, perhaps? That seemed to shake loose some recollections. Nothing so grand as a vampire, surely, although there were more distant echoes to that as well. All he could say for the moment was that the memories of the undead resonated within him.

Whatever the unpleasant and unremembered truth, he was alive now, in a strange body and an unfamiliar land.

There were many elements of note, each more disturbing than the last: his face was looking toward a lake – a lake which burned with wisps of eldritch fire and gave off the stench of brimstone. His face had, moments before, been buried in some sort of grotesque jellyfish that still quivered, even as the sickly yellow light faded from its dying mass. His instincts moved before he could counteract them, and his body lashed forward to swallow the mass whole, revolting him as the turgid slime slowly slid down the unnaturally long length of his throat.

A thrill of satisfaction came from within and without. It was not his own thought; there was a second mind coiled throughout his own! It had been the other mind, rather than instinct, which had consumed the revolting jellied mass. His awakening and adaptation had been so swift that the other had been caught by surprise. He had absorbed half the memories of this cruel animal before it had even recognized a threat.

Now, the two of them turned to face one another, metaphorically. They battled for supremacy, within the confines of the skull of the lowly thing he inhabited. The other fought with pure savagery, biting and slashing as if fighting with tooth and claw. But for all its uncouth savagery, in the end it proved to be little more than a rude collection of animal instincts. Man, gifted with thought and contemplation, arises from his own animal beginnings, and masters them before his first day of formal schooling. The contest of minds was no competition at all.

Swiftly, his new animal impulses were mastered. They were bested and controlled, then absorbed with little conscious attention. He became a thing that was mostly man, but with small threads of beast woven through his mind and soul.

The girl stared quizzically at the filthy old man. The man who had named himself “Mifruzli.”

He, in turn, stared at her. Though to be honest, his eyes kept drifting downward to stare at the gentle swell of her perfect breasts. It was as if her bare nipples were hypnotic treasures, and occasionally his hand would twitch, as if he longed to lunge out and paw at her pure flesh. His eye even drifted down to the alluring cleft hidden in that valley between her legs, unconcealed by any trace of hair. He gulped, as if desperately wanting, but deathly afraid of the punishment he would earn by acting on his bestial impulses.

Finally, he could control himself no longer. His hand flashed forward to grope the soft swell of her breast, his thumb positioned to rudely scrape across the tantalizing bulb of her nipple. But as he touched her skin there was a flash – a spark like miniature lightning – save that the spark bore an angry red color.

Then the man’s eyes were drawn to a briefly glowing birthmark that lay in the cleft of the girl’s cleavage: a thin triangle surmounted by a dot. The old man was wise enough to understand what he looked at, and was glad that he had gotten off so lightly.

The girl smacked his hovering hand away. This time there was no spark, though it still stung.

“Stop that,” she commanded.

“Your pardon, Mistress. I meant no insult.” The words might have been taken better had the man not displayed such a disquieting smile. “In this land, that is a form of greeting. For those who are fortunately enough to possess breasts, it is considered appropriate for the rest of us to express our appreciation in terms of worship and devotion. And for the blessed ones, it is a sign of favor and welcome for them to share their bounty with their fellows. I was merely following custom, and obeying proper decorum.”

She inhaled and stretched, displaying her perfect breasts to best advantage. They were large and full, but jutted forward pertly, without the slightest trace of sag.

“They are spectacular, aren’t they? Still, I don’t exactly feel like sharing myself with every pervert in the area. Favors, huh? Yeah, I bet I know what kind of favors you’re talking about.” She peered suspiciously at the hunched man. “Where did you get those clothes? Are they clothes?”

The gaze he kept locked on her was like that of a hungry man at a banquet. “Occasionally, scraps of cloth become tangled in the trees. Blown there by the wind, perhaps. If you can climb up to reach them, you can gather bits and pieces.”

She looked around. For the most part, the few trees were bare of branch and dead looking, but a closer examination brought a more troubling report. Each of the trees bore a disturbing aspect. They appeared to be deciduous, but of some nameless species that she was unfamiliar with. Their tangle of branches reached up and down, with little logic to their placement. But after all, there was no sun to reach for, no rain to shed, and no wind to guard against. And most unsettling of all – the trees almost seemed to hint at traits that were more common to animal life rather than the woody vegetables they posed as. It was hard to point to any one feature, but after studying the wooden titans around them, then turning away, the lingering impression was not that of dead plants, but rather of giant and unknown creatures that waited in patient silence. Branches – seemingly at random – shared the outline of arm and claw. Knots and whorls took on the appearance of agonized faces, or yet other bodily orifices. There seemed to be eyes and mouths everywhere, but upon a second look it was merely a chance resemblance, due to random whorls within the wood.

Up the hill a distance, one tree bore tattered shapes within its branches, as if a passing kite had become tangled. Depending on how one chose to look at it, the dark brown shreds might be some errant piece of fabric, or perhaps the flayed skin of some creature, displayed by the tree as a trophy of its triumph over the animal kingdom.

“If you want,” the disturbing man offered, “I could fetch that for you. Climbing trees can be…” he groped for a word “…dangerous, if you’re not experienced with properly … placating … them first.”

The girl was unwilling to indebt herself to the loathsome man. “No need,” she explained, as they approached the tree.

With that, she stepped forward and left the ground, smoothly gliding upward, until she could pluck the shreds from the branches.

An unfelt wind must have rattled the branches, because for a moment they seemed to shake and clutch at her, but she slid sideways through the air, avoiding them.

Then she settled to the ground, examining her new possessions.

“Not a lot to work with…”

The material was some sort of hide or skin, but already tanned and supple. Taking one long strip, she pulled it across her back, then brought it forward to cover each breast, crossing over her chest and tied it off behind the neck.

“Not much support – as if I needed it. A little scratchy.” She itched at parts of her anatomy in a way that deeply frustrated the hunched man. “And I don’t appreciate that rubbing when I move my head up or down. Still… it’ll do.”

Taking the widest strip, she wrapped it around her hips and tied it on the left side. The flare of her hips ensured that it wouldn’t fall. It was less a miniskirt than a microskirt, but it concealed her personal area and perhaps a few inches of thigh beyond that.

“I’m not even going to think about making underwear from this stuff, but this should preserve the basics of modesty.”

He decided that he must be starving. The pain in his belly had been relentless, forcing him down to the fetid shore and the beached jellies decaying there. He forced himself to latch into the bloated and slimy offal, choking down the scant nourishment it provided. Each contained some central energy still, as represented by the tainted glows that pulsed sickly in their centers. Perhaps the glows indicated some filament of life or soul, but as he consumed each nauseating mass, those glowing filaments flickered and died, as each was sucked into him.

But each morsel of nourishment brought life and strength to his body, and with each slimy swallow came a further awakening of his mind. Above all, he remembered his father – a towering man with rock-hard fists and a constant stench of stale beer. It was an image so inherently human that it seemed utterly irrelevant to this place.

Still, Jared forced himself farther around the lake, consuming all that he found.

The girl inhaled expansively, enjoying the secret stare and the obvious frustration that came with it. A little covering left her feeling much better about being stared at. And for some reason, she was enjoying toying with her disgusting companion.

He had claimed the remainder of her shreds of cloth, or skin, or whatever. Now he was slitting it on the rocks, making rawhide straps and then braiding them into durable cord.

“What is this place? Where are we?” she demanded of him.

“It is simply called the caldera. It is the center, the source for everything. But it is an unhealthy place. That which is able quickly seeks to escape outside.”

He pointed to a pass in the jagged wall that ringed the basin. His thin hand drew attention to his emaciated frame, and how wasted his body was.

“You’re sick!”

“Not sick, starving. I was… cast out. That’s why I returned to this place. If nothing else, there is food of a sort here. New pickings, without the dangers that lie outside the wall.”

She narrowed her eyes in harsh judgment. “Your fellows left you here to starve to death?”

Mifruzli jerked at hearing the final word. “Not to… death. Never that.” His voice took on a strange tone. “You would do well not to use that word here, ever again. It is forbidden.”

“You fear it so much?”

His grunt had an edge of harsh mockery to it. “Fear it? Hardly. We long for it, one and all. No, as I said, it is forbidden. By the very nature of this place it is forbidden. It is the final escape that is now forever denied us. Here, it is impossible, and we don’t like being reminded of the blessing we have eternally lost.”

The girl’s over-large ears also caught his final remark, added almost as an afterthought:

“In its place, we have other things which are much, much worse.”

He turned his rat-snake body to begin slithering toward safety. He needed to contemplate, re-examine his memories, and consider a course of action. But he’d barely moved when it was upon him. The predator moved fast, coming in from behind. He hadn’t seen it, hadn’t smelled it, but he caught a flash of its motion from the corner of his eye. New instincts commanded him to run!

And he did. Or slithered, rather than run, but the thing was too fast. The thing snatched him up in a clawed paw, and before he could blink or think or react, sharp teeth had snipped his body in half, slicing through his spine to sever his head and neck from all which lay below. He was dying, paralyzed in fear, his thin body slipping down the throat into the gullet, slimy walls pressed in a suffocating grip. Each fleshy wall oozed acidic slime that burnt him and disintegrated all that was him, burning and stealing his eyes, his nose, his tongue, skin, and finally drawing a dark curtain over his mind as well.

“But what can be worse than death?” she wondered aloud, as they trekked toward the upper edge of the poisonous basin.

The old man didn’t answer. What seemed a pleasant stroll for her was taking its toll on him. At last, he collapsed to the ground panting, and began to answer her between breaths.

“Death is a release, an escape, a final rest,” Mifruzli explained. “Imagine a world where it didn’t exist. You might be cleaved in twain, yet both halves would continue to live, in pain and anguish. Here, they eventually heal, but even that is no kindness. Stop for a moment and look around. Tell me what you see.”

She paused, taking in the full panorama.

They were three quarters of the way up the rim of the crater, and so the entire valley was spread before them. The crater itself seemed an alien place, almost an inversion of the proper order of things. It was lit by flickers of pale light at the bottom, covered with dark and oppressive clouds above. In the eternal twilight, all seemed still, only to have that stillness violated as shadowy things burst across the crater’s floor, moving in brief jolts of lethal speed. The stillness was only a fearful anticipation, waiting for that moment which came like the strike of a cobra – when the motionless peace was shattered by a sudden, lethal strike. Once that had reached its inevitable conclusion, the motionless waiting would commence once more.

But that wasn’t what caught her attention, as she turned around in place.

“What the—?”

“You’ve noticed.”

She turned through the full circle panorama again.

“It’s like, like I haven’t turned far enough, when I go all the way around. No, that’s not it. I turn all the way around, but then I have to turn even farther to complete the circle.” She studied the effect one more time. “And it’s even worse, overhead. Making the circle from ground to sky and back to ground again, it’s like I turn too far.”

“Where you and I hail from,” Mifruzli explained, “three hundred and sixty degrees constitutes a full circle. This place requires perhaps four hundred degrees to complete that same arc. Perhaps those extra angles were stolen from the sky. That seems to require a scant three hundred degrees.”

The girl stared at him in disbelief. “How is that even possible?”

“It isn’t. Everything about this realm is strictly impossible. But those oddities are least of what you’ll be facing here. I’m showing it to you now because it’s easiest to see up here with the view wide open. The effect is the same wherever you go, but it’s easiest to observe up here toward the rim. Even in the thick of the jungle though, it never quite goes away. You’ll always feel like there’s a little more space than you can keep an eye on. And in that extra place, that’s where they’re lurking. Just waiting to pounce on you. Waiting for their chance once you turn your back. Once you drop your guard. Once you look away. That’s when they get you.”

He woke in a shape that was not his own. This was so commonplace that it didn’t merit a second thought. He began to remember, sorting his various new memories into a single coherent narrative. This was a skill he knew. It was so automatic that he could (and did) do this in the middle of fights. Life-and-death fights.

It was different this time. Whole sets of his memories were not his. Worse, they were not the simple impulses of an animal, but the intelligent ravings of a mad savage. The opposing impulses were both insane and incoherent, but their very madness lent them a desperate strength which threatened to exceed his own.

But he had been a thousand creatures, each far stranger than this one. He’d been a sheet, a toy, a book that read itself. He’d been a golf ball, soaring high through the sky. The body was nothing. He’d taken his own soul and split it, then re-joined and integrated himself together once more. Through it all, he had always remained himself.

No, that was wrong. He had become herself. That was the key. He’d been a girl. Or… not quite. He’d wanted to become a girl; he’d spent every cent, every clever trick, every moment trying to become a girl. He’d had an intensity of need that could conquer anything, and he used that now in this struggle. If he lost now, his ambition would remain forever thwarted, but if he succeeded… who knew what might be possible in this stranger new land?

And with that driving motivation, he triumphed. The mind previously ruling his body disintegrated into fragments. Some, memories of savage battles and even more savage mating competitions, he kept for self defense. Others, brutish animal thoughts, he banished.

After a while his aching stomach settled. Rudely, like the animal he now was, he dropped his waste on the ground behind him.

The remains of my previous body? he wondered. But it no longer mattered.

He did not consciously notice that the psychotic memories he had rejected no longer troubled his mind. They were no longer even present. Neither did he noticed the twisted green shoots rising from his deposit of fertilizer.

That night she slept beside a smoky campfire, made of sticks that emitted black smoke and smelled like dung. It was repulsive, but better than forgoing heat and light. It was impossible to tell day from night in this place, but the presence of the fire was a comfort while she slept.

Her dreams were troubled. In them, echoing the actions of her slumbering body, she tossed and turned. She dreamed that she had rolled onto her back, and a weight was pressing her down. When she awoke, Mifruzli was kneeling between her legs and her skirt had been lifted up. His manhood stood stiff from where he’d lifted his robe, and he was trying to figure out how to penetrate her without getting shocked.

So loathsome was this image, that at first she thought she still slumbered, in the thrall of the most terrible nightmare yet. Then, the hunchback lunged forward, seeing his opportunity flee as she woke. Before his manhood could even brush against her cleft, a number of red sparks erupted from the exposed skin of her legs and hips. Most seemed drawn to the Mifruzli’s foremost anatomy, thrust forward like a lightning rod.

The man screamed, frozen in place while the damage tore through his most sensitive nerves. The entire caldera seemed to shake, as his screams echoed through the basin.

She scrambled backward, as quickly as she was able. “What the HELL are you doing?!” she demanded, pulling her top back down. Had he been touching her breasts? She pulled her skirt down as she fumbled to her feet.

Mifruzli just looked pathetic, weeping like his dog had died. “I have to! I have to! Don’t you feel it? Aren’t you driven, like everything else in this cursed place?”

She kicked him in the face, her heel making a solid strike to his nose. He toppled over, still weeping, still as fiercely erect despite his obvious burn marks.

She didn’t know much about herself, but she learned one thing at that moment. “I’m a virgin,” she realized, half in wonder. “I’ve never done that before. And if I ever do chose to do it, it sure as hell won’t be with you!

Old Mifruzli began to laugh, in a sound that was halfway between disbelief and pathetic sobbing. “A virgin! In this place? Of all the rare and precious gems in the world, has there ever been one that’s half so rare as a fertile virgin girl, in this accursed place?” He continued his bitter laughter, or perhaps crying.

She didn’t mind being a precious jewel, but was newly aware of her vulnerability. She wanted to leave this dangerous and disgusting old man. But… for all she knew, he was the only human being for a thousand miles. He knew this place and understood how it worked. She should just flee, strike out on her own. But as loathsome as Mifruzli was, wandering alone through this gloomy twilight world would be even worse. She wasn’t ready for that, not yet.

Still, she floated up to the top of a tree, and wrapped an arm around a branch so that the wind wouldn’t blow her away while she slept. That should keep the old man from getting to her in her sleep.

Jared’s current body had wicked claws and teeth, but his body was more prey than predator. He was like a round opossum, with a bulbous egg-shaped body covered with fur. His arms, legs, and head were naked and hairless, and he had a long rat-tail.

Life was savage here. When two creatures encountered each other it immediately led to combat, or else a long chase. He was slowly learning the strategy of the chase, since there were both lifeless trees and far-too-lively trees. Those were stationary predators that pretended to be trees, but weren’t. Fleeing around the edge of one of these planted monsters would often eliminate his pursuer.

The creatures he’d encountered had so far been recognizable as having originated in his world, before being put through a mixmaster. A frog with gazelle legs was just as likely as a millipede shark. In the beginning, the variety and insanity of it all had challenged his sanity. Now, after surviving so many days of the madness, he was adapting. After all, mad or not, he still had to eat. And the only available nourishments were the living monsters around him. He had to eat them, before they ate him. The once-impossible and once-grotesque were now simply identified as predator or prey, no matter how insane the combined body appeared.

But this day, he was to learn more.

His teeth and claws were good. If he could get in the initial attack he could usually win, at least against smaller animals. Against anything large, he fled, running one of the courses that he’d carefully mapped out.

Jared’s den was midway up the caldera, and like most animals he crept out to come down and feed at the shoreline. Food was also knowledge. That had been a breakthrough. Biting off and swallowing a monster’s flesh brought dreams of its experiences, as well. Eating all of it allowed him to remember its combat techniques, its hidden stashes, and any other secrets it kept.

He had no way of knowing it, but others would have had a more fragile mentality, clinging desperately to all that was human, while rejecting anything perceived as otherwise. Jared’s skill with memories was also to be his downfall in this regard. For not only did he rapidly learn skills and secrets from devouring the flesh of the monsters, with each memory retained he also gained some small aspect of their physical bodies. Having begun as an animal and having no mirror, it was difficult to understand the effects of this vile consumption. With each meal, he changed minutely – sharper teeth, thinner or thicker hair, a protective fat layer, slight changes to the eye. Early on he had begun to return to human form, but his predatory activity had become successful enough that he was on his way to becoming one of the more monstrous creatures in the small valley.

All that Jared knew was that following the first few dozen feedings, there was little new to learn. He was heir to hoarded memories of a hundred generations of desperate creatures – the end distillation of their many trials and struggles. But he judged their most precious legacy as redundant and unwanted. Memories of the stalk preserved by a conch-weasel – useless. A thousand episodes of fleeing and hiding in the deepest burrow – unwanted. A creature with actual awareness, a sense of self, went mad upon viewing a bubbling black pool that somehow solidified around its back leg. It chewed its leg off and escaped, leaving behind both the limb and most of its sanity. The now unfettered intelligence had allowed survival, until Jared caught and devoured it. But these memories were too unsettling, and were discarded. So many experiences were dropped behind him as waste, only to sprout into gnarled and twisted mockeries of plant life once he had moved on.

Bit by bit, he gleaned and collected, discarding the unwanted and unneeded. He strove to retain those original human memories – even the worst incidents of his father. His goal was to supplement only, gaining skills and knowledge that would permit survival in this maddening realm. But even with these goals in place, his only companions were beasts. His teachers and neighbors were creatures that would strip the flesh from his bones given half a chance. And he would do the same to them, without a pause or glimmer of remorse. Was it any wonder that his humanity was becoming gradually diluted?

Without realizing it, his goals were shifting. He began to seek the tougher predators, ambushing them and feasting upon their fresh carcasses. The weaker creatures still provided the bulk of his sustenance, but they provided no new experience. He no longer grew from them. The predators, though, opened the door to new ways of fighting, new tricks. And the diet was serving him well, as his form became sleeker and more powerful.

Creeping down toward the burning lake, he spotted the toughest predator yet and immediately halted, hunkering down protectively.

There was a black panther – a pure image of the predator from his world. The eyes, ears, fur – all were the well-remembered feline, with no added or alien bits to “improve” it. Jared immediately crouched, beginning to plan how this magnificent beast might be slain to his advantage. He chose to study it, first.

The behavior of the beast was extraordinary. Although pursued by a score of lesser creatures, it moved very slowly. At times, it simply stood there, tail raised high, and didn’t move. The monstrosities following behind would halt as well, until one of that band gathered courage to approach and sniff.

Jared was unable to explain this mystery. Where was the expected combat? Why was the prey attempting to wrestle down such an overwhelming predator? Why did the predator allow this?

Curious, he crept closer, until he caught scent of it. The aroma locked his mind, instantly. Female. More than that, female in heat.

This was something he had never before experienced. As a human, he had been too young. These were instincts that waited years into his future. As an animal, he had matured for an unknown time, days, weeks, or longer, there was no way of measuring. Perhaps there had been animal memories that might have guided him, but they had been alien and incomprehensible, and thus discarded.

Before he knew it, he had risen from his hiding place to join the other animals waiting – nearly two dozen other males. It should have been a frenzy of biting and clawing, but instead they all simply waited their turn. At the front of the line, the panther yoweled in pleasure as a winged lizard finished its last thrust. Both shuddered, then the lizard fell to the side and weakly crawled away. The pantheress dipped her tail for a moment before it shot up again, as stiff as the rigid member of Jared’s own body.

Jared’s mind was in a frenzy. This was not what he wanted! First, the idea of animals mating did nothing for him. Worse, the idea of different species of animals seemed… wrong. It was wrong in more ways than he could consider at the moment. And when he was in his right mind, he didn’t even want to be male. In his last memories of the real world, he’d been dressing, passing, becoming a girl.

Here there was no such thing as clothes. And it wasn’t as if the other creatures cared. They reminded him of nothing so much as a dog humping a table leg. Was the table leg male or female? Who cares! Just hump away. But while there were no clothes, there was also no such thing as choice. A compulsion had gripped him, and he was powerless to resist.

Here, being female meant having the anatomy and having that scent. That scent that had infected his mind and seized control of his body.

I will not do this! he told himself. I’m supposed to be a girl, not a boy!

But the stiffness at his groin denied that. Unable to resist, he drew to the front of the line. He fought feverishly to maintain his control, resisting rising and mounting her. But her backside was presented to him. Her opening was at eye level. He leaned forward and touched his nose to that entrancing ring of flesh.

At that contact, she bucked, burying his nose inside her. She gave an undulating yowl, and his mind shut down. He rose, placing his paws on her back, and entered her. Immediately, her slick warmth quenched his burning need. He began to thrust, completely overwhelmed by the sensation. The two of them began to move together, synchronizing as his need peaked. And then he seemed to explode, erupting like a fire hose. The pressure traveled down the entire length of him, to his very roots, and his balls themselves were pumped dry.

Ahead of him, under him, the pantheress yowled in glee. He slammed into her, doing his best to bruise her most delicate flesh. His brain was short circuiting. And then all his energy was gone. His heart strained to pump his blood; his lungs labored to take a breath. He fell away from her and crawled aside, giving space to the next in line.

He didn’t feed that day. He was barely able to crawl back to his den and sleep.

She woke safely, still tethered to the tree.

The old hunchback was gone from the camp, as she drifted down to the fire.

She didn’t set foot on the ground. During the night, a fine gray fungal fuzz had grown over everything. Instead, the cyan-haired girl walked forward, her footsteps several inches above the tainted soil. Because of this, she was utterly silent.

She rounded a hulking black boulder, large as a house. On the far side were a dozen animals – predators and prey – a zoo of monstrosities standing side by side in some sort of daze. Mifruzli was there as well, and the passive creatures all seemed to be staring at him. The old man was hunched over more than normal. He seemed to jerk convulsively, almost straightening to full height, before hunching over again.

She watched in puzzlement, as he repeated this motion several times. Finally he cried out with an inarticulate, “AAAAH!” and then slumped down again, as if exhausted.

She waited a moment, then when he didn’t move, she called gently, “Mifruzli?”

“Eh?” He spun round guiltily, his robe dropping as he did so. In his hands was a dog that he held by the shoulders, it’s tail pressed into his lap. Or rather, it was a dog-insect-thing. It’s coat was gray and its body resembled a German Sheppard, but it had six armored and segmented legs, and its head resembled that of a rat more than a dog.

“I’ve, uh… I’ve found dinner for us. I was just subduing it.”

“You plan to eat that thing tonight?”

“We all must eat. Lest we grow weak, and fall victim to predators… and other dangers. But no, not tonight. I estimate it will take about a week to… ripen.”

“What the hell are you talking about? Animals don’t get ripe.”

“Oh, you’ll see. You’ll see. We can use the time to prepare for travel outside the caldera. Then, once we’ve eaten, we’ll be ready to start the journey.”

He left the animal behind, approaching her to lead her back to the other side of the boulder, away from the strange scene. She thought it odd that he’d just released the thing he’d captured. The dog-sect, or whatever the loathsome monstrosity was. As she turned away, she just saw something like a snail with arms approaching the dog-sect. It seemed to… mount it?

But then they were around the rock, and she couldn’t see.

“Yes, we just need to finish a few preparations, first.”

That thought appealed to her. Leaving this place seemed like a very good idea. “What sort of preparations?”

“You can collect more skins. That’s usually one of the tougher jobs. I know how to chip rocks. I can make a hatchet chopper, some spear heads, and a fair knife. With those we can butcher the animal. For now, go get me the cord I braided.”

She brought that too him, and a little later he returned with the “dog-sect.” The cord was tied around its neck like a leash. It seemed subdued, or at least content to remain. She noticed Mifruzli feeding it scraps of something, and the nightmare beast accepted these as if it were well domesticated.

Jared woke, and remembered, and burned with shame. It wasn’t that he’d been an animal, rutting with rude, uncontrollable instinct. It was that he’d allowed himself to be male. He thought of the pantheress, and the only emotion that came to him was a burning envy. He didn’t want to mount her again, he wanted to be her. He imagined all those males in helpless thrall to his body, and it was more than he could bear. He thought of new life, stirring within the panther’s womb. Surely after such a marathon mating session, something would have caught inside her. They would be monstrosities, no doubt. He suddenly understood where the mix-and-match creatures of this world came from.

But secretly, he wanted to feel life stirring in his womb. He imagined giving birth to the entire cast of the Hello Kitty universe – dogs, cats, penguins, frogs, everything. And they would be his pets and friends and children. Even if they had monster teeth and venomous claws.

He hunted that day and made a satisfying kill. Not as good as a tougher predator, but a snail-faced grasshopper, a bit over two feet long. The larger insects had flesh like lobster, and were excellent eating. He decided to bring it back to his den, where he could eat it at his leisure.

On the trip back, his nose once more caught the mind-warping scent of the pantheress. Without even realizing, his path suddenly shifted, following her trail rather than the path back to his den.

Over the next rise, she was strolling along sedately. He stopped, stunned by her scent.

She turned and noticed him. She slowly padded toward him, beginning to crouch a bit as she came. He was helpless to move. He could see her feline expression – she was hungry. Using all his willpower, he opened his jaw and dropped the grasshopper, like an offering.

She relaxed, and came over to inspect the goods. She took it up in her mouth, the walked past him in full display of herself, before turning and passing in front of him a second time. Finally, she turned away from him and lifted her tail.

He couldn’t help himself. His nose quivered and he leaned forward to pressed into her flesh, just there.

Even before the physical contact, he had smelled his own scent in her. His scent and dozens of others. She was no longer in heat, but he was already there inside her, and she’d accepted his offering. Without conscious thought, he rose and placed his paws on her back again. Before Jared could understand what was happening, he was buried inside her body once more, thrusting himself into her.

She opened her mouth, dropping the grasshopper, as she yowled her approval.

He wept, as he pounded into the depths of her body. His climax was at least as powerful as last time. Spent and wasted, he practically fell off her. After a few satisfied shakes of her tail, the black pantheress turned to sniff at him. He knew the rules. Somehow, instinctively, he knew the rules. She hadn’t been in heat – there was no special protection for him now. She could kill him while he lay there defenseless.

She sniffed him, then picked up the grasshopper and bounded away. The energy drained from him seemed to have filled her.

Once his normal mind returned, the jealousy nearly consumed him. But this world had taught his lessons well. Distraction was death. Dropping his guard meant death. Any weakness was death. And so, instead of stewing in his personal needs, Jared dragged himself back to the den.

It was one more day that he didn’t eat.

She had to admit, Mifruzli knew his primitive arts. She used her talent to float up and gather the disturbing skins, which were then ripped into rawhide thongs and a variety of simple materials. And while she’d thought all the odd trees in this valley were dead, this latest one proved to be decidedly different.

She rose through the air, winding through the gnarled branches as she reached for the tattered skin. She barely tugged on the tanned flesh when the entire tree sprang to life and began clawing at her. The top of the trunk gaped open to reveal a woody esophagus lined with thorns barbed so that prey could only slide downward, rather than escaping. The branches clutched and grasped, pulling her toward that unnatural throat, but they apparently hadn’t expected her to move upward. She shot into the sky in full defiance of gravity, snatching the skin as she fled.

Once away from the trap she hovered above the monstrous tree, which grasped and clawed for the meal that floated just beyond its reach. Eventually it slowed, then resumed its pose as another dead tree, as still as its fellows. She peered at it closely, but could make out no flaw or distinguishing marks to differentiate the carnivore from the dead wood.

“Remember this tree,” the old hunchback ordered. “Those branches are stronger than normal wood. They make the best spear shafts.”

“Yes,” she agreed, panting, “but how do you harvest them?”

“Wait until it sleeps, then chop very fast.”

Now that she was safe again, she demanded, “Why didn’t you warn me?”

The man stroked his white mustache and gave an indifferent shrug. “Perhaps if you’d share with me what I wanted. But without that, why should I care? All you are to me is a source of pain and frustration.”

She didn’t know how to take that, so she thrust her chest out. “My body belongs to me. Don’t imagine you have any right to it.”

“There are no rights, in this place. Only strength and taking.”

That was an uncomfortable thought, so she crossed her arms under her breasts and glared at him.

“Your ‘dog’ doesn’t look so good,” she finally pointed out.

Indeed, the animal had a belly that was grotesquely swollen and distended, and seemed to visibly move at times.

Seeing those movements, the suspicion hit her, Could it be female? Is it pregnant? But the swelling came so quickly!

Flying low, close to the ground, she quickly slid up to the passive animal and lifted its tail.

Looks female, I think. It might be hard to tell with such a weird creature.

She set the thing back down and demanded, “Is it pregnant?”

“I told you. It’s ripening. I expect it will be ready to harvest tomorrow. Then we can leave.”

Weaker, Jared crept out again to look for food.

Priority one, he told himself, avoid the predators.

Though that was such a significant part of daily life that he didn’t really need a reminder.

Priority two, avoid that panther. In fact, I should probably avoid everything female. At first scent, it’s weak enough that I can move away.

Since his physical awakening, he’d been thinking about it a lot. Too much. Now everything he saw reminded him of something sexual. Before that event, his need to be female had been one of the major drives in his life. Now it had reached an intensity that was interfering with his hunt, and might get him killed.

It hadn’t been like this in the real world. He’d wanted to be a girl. Needed to be a girl. But it hadn’t been about sex back then, more about identity. It had been about the kind of person he’d wanted to be, and about being pretty and the things he could wear and the way he could act. He could talk about things that were important to him, like stuffed animals and cute little babies. Being “petite” had made him cute, instead of making him a loser. And he’d really liked the idea of playing the petite little girlfriend to some huge strong boyfriend who would actually love him. That role seemed really appealing, for some reason.

Back when he had made himself into Jade, it had been so much more innocent.

Now he thought about how everything would be fine, if he were female like he was supposed to be. He could accept life as an animal, if he could only experience the feel of life quickening inside him. But as a male – his needs had become half obsession and half guilt. He kept having dreams of hundreds of guys waiting in line, having their way with him. Being inside him, while he yowled in delight.

Unfortunately, he was thinking this as he trotted down to the twilight lakeshore. Cold eyes watched from beneath the tangles of branches, but Jared was too distracted to notice.

Before he knew what was happening, he was smashed to the ground.

He twisted frantically, rolling aside. The thing was no animal ever experienced by man. It had a bulbous head-body, like a jack-o-lantern face carved into a pumpkin. It seemed more vegetable than animal, except the body was covered with reddish fur and it moved very fast. From the top of the rounded, huge-mouthed body, eight vine-like tentacles lashed and grasped.

Its grotesquely oversized mouth closed on Jared’s back leg, and it bit until its teeth met in the middle. Half his calf muscle vanished down its throat.

He screamed, giving off a high-pitched bleating sound. Scrambling frantically, he rolled away from the thing.

The creature rose up. It could walk on the tentacle-vines, staggering like some clumsy drunk. Its preference was to lash the vines forward, like ropes, gripping high branches of nearby trees. Then it pulled and swung forward.

Jared ran, hopping awkwardly on his right back leg, since the left wouldn’t support any weight. The pumpkin-roper followed behind, swinging forward. It shot a tentacle for him, but he noticed a shadow moving and dodged to the side.

I have to— How am I going to— His mind raced, trying to come up with some strategy. The best he could think of, with the way the round-bodied roper swung from trees, was to lure it into one of the living killer trees. He scrambled around a turn, racing for the one active tree he knew of nearby. Then it was a matter of pacing things right. He needed to be ahead, but not too far ahead.

He kept watch on the shadows, dodging when he saw a thin, ropy shadow. But it wasn’t aimed at him, it was aimed at the tree ahead – which Jared had seen come alive on at least two other occasions.

Now the rounded shadow of the pumpkin-roper loomed larger. He dodged aside, just in case, and turned to look.

It swung ahead of him, wrapping close to a branch, preparing to shoot all its tentacles down to intercept him…

And the tree moved. The bark suddenly split open in a vertical mouth. Woody knotholes opened into eyes. The branches convulsed inward.

The pumpkin dropped, falling free, its tentacles already out to grab and pull it free.

Jared continued racing forward. He leapt awkwardly with his one working back leg, and rose up. He pressed both paws against the pumpkin’s face, pushing it back toward the tree in a sort of animal basketball.

The furred vegetable screamed in horror as it dropped into the maw of the tree. The bark slammed shut, severing the still-grasping tentacle-vines.

There was a grinding sound, then the tree was still once more.

Jared pulled slowly away from the tree. He choked down the still-writhing tentacle vines, but they were too fibrous to provide much nutrition.

He limped carefully back to his den, to recover.

The dog-thing was grotesquely swollen, so much so that she could barely allow herself to look at it. Mifruzli had a plan though. He’d fashioned a crude bag, forming patches of fabric then stitching them together with rawhide until he had a sturdy leather sack.

“It’s harvest time,” he announced. “You go make a fire. I’ll butcher the creature, then skin it and clean it, and bring it to you. You can cook the meat on the coals. Then we’ll go.”

“I should watch, so that I can help next time,” she suggested.

“No.” He was emphatic. “Maybe someday. But if you’re not even willing to offer a simple friendly fuck to a benefactor, you’re certainly not ready for this. Go. Prepare the fire.”

Stung, she drifted away. Was she being as unreasonable as he suggested? The thought of him touching her was so repulsive that it made her stomach roil. But he had helped her out. He was the only other human in this place. Was keeping him around worth… that?

While she prepared the fire, she tilted her head and thought. How did she really feel about sex?

She imagined some neutral boy. Friendly, supportive, someone who could capture her heart. The idea of sex was not bad at all. She realized that under the right conditions, she might actually be eager. But with the evil old man?

Never.

Silently, she floated through a field of rubble and jumbled boulders, peering over the top of one rock to spy on him.

He’d tied the bag around the animal’s back legs, so that its tail and entire hind end were enclosed in the leather sack.

Mystified, she pulled back and returned to the fire, feeding it more sticks and pushing them into a mound.

The next time she spied, the dog was panting, and it’s stomach was smaller. It convulsed and gave a yelp, and the stomach shrank slightly in size. The dog-thing seemed confused, dazed, and unaware.

She returned to the fire, carefully tending it so that it reduced to a pile of glowing red coals. Stinky coals, but at least there was no smoke.

The final time she spied on the man, the dog-thing was dead. Its throat had been cut, its skin peeled off, and its entrails removed. Mifruzli had gathered his bag closed at the neck, and was bashing it against the rocks, swinging as hard as his frail body was capable.

She covered her mouth and tried to keep from feeling sick. She sped back to the fire, more revolted by the man than she’d ever been before.

Later, the filthy old man returned. He had finished skinning and butchering the animal, so that the meat was in a form she found familiar and acceptable. Haunches, ribs, drumstick-like portions. They set them directly on the coals to cook, and the smell of the meat roasting was one of the first good smells she’d experienced in this place – sweet and flavorful.

For his part, Mifruzli set a white bowl in amongst the coals. It was a thin, white, rounded bowl, more oblong than spherical. He dumped the sack into the bowl to cook. From out of the bag poured a thick red paste.

“That’s mine alone,” he insisted.

“You’re welcome to it,” she agreed, barely able to control her gorge.

Jared lay on his side, deep in a hollow log. It had once been the trunk-throat of a living tree, and cruel thorns still lined the hollow cylinder. He’d managed to push rocks with his paws, breaking off the thorns in the middle to make a safe place to lie.

He lay there, feeling the agony of his leg. Why couldn’t he heal? He used to be able to heal!

Except… that was wrong, wasn’t it? His memories were clear, up to his arrival at Whateley Academy. He’d been able to make Jinn, and she had the experience of being a hundred different shapes. He had that experience, and it had served him well in this world.

He curled in on himself, animal-like, licking the gruesome wound. He could see it all, the way the muscle had been completely torn out. Hamstrung, that was the word. Only that only meant that the tendon was cut, not that the tendon had been ripped away and the muscle removed. Removed and eaten.

Why did he think he could heal?

He closed his eyes, concentrating on the agony of his leg. He knew he was dying, and perhaps it was the stress finally caused things to give way. His head exploded, with agony worse than his leg.

He whimpered and cried out, “No father, please don’t hit me again!” And then he passed out.

“Slow down, girl!” the old hunchback called. “It’s easy for you – you just float up. I’ve got to climb the hard way.”

She wasn’t inclined to grant him any favors, and she preferred it if he was a little on the exhausted side. The man scared her.

She’d been watching him extra close in the days since that meal. She’d kept her spying low-key, making sure he never saw her. The man would couple with anything. Animals, knotholes in trees, simple masturbation. She was as astonished by his perversity as she was by his endurance. At least once each waking period, he found some sort of “outlet.” Sometimes two or three outlets. When they were animals, he invariably captured the creature, and captured the resultant litter of pups (or whatever). Which he would then kill and consume.

She was still unable to accept the reality of this psychotic new world. Anything could breed with anything. She’d seen animals of completely different species coupling with each other. Lizards with mammals, birds with amphibians. It didn’t make any sense!

But the animals here were an insane combination of the different animal types from Earth. Was this how it happened? She shuddered, remembering one jellyfish thing, with its transparent body, and a visible womb filled with something like aquatic kittens.

How could a jellyfish give birth to anything even close to kittens? It didn’t make any sense!

But her suspicions, and fears, were growing. On Earth, it was ordinary and accepted that a dog would approach her and jam his nose into her crotch.

In this world, he might continue with mounting her, climbing up her body and physically mating with her. Which left her shaking in fear when almost any animal approached her. So far, the mysterious red spark had saved her from who knows how many impregnation attempts.

Perhaps it said something for her state of mind that when an animal leapt at her, she was more afraid of being raped than being mauled and eaten. Perhaps she’d been spending too much time with an insane hunchback.

Half-remembered combat training helped her. She had moves. She didn’t know where they came from. She could use the spear. She practiced every day – spins, stabs, slashes, and other moves to combine with that. Kicks and punches, flips that took advantage of her mastery of the air.

She practiced constantly as they traveled. And she was getting better, but she was a long way from the confidence she’d felt when she’d first entered this world.

The day she’d been born, or so it sometimes seemed.

When he woke, his leg was healed.

It was so surprising that he curled up on himself, animal-like, to lick and study his leg.

It was healed, perfectly. All his wounds were gone, there was no stiffness or soreness of any kind.

But… it didn’t make any sense! There was a special mutant ability for healing, but he didn’t have it. And his leg had been mangled. He could see the wound so perfectly in his mind. See it, and more importantly, feel it.

And when his imagination became crystal clear, a perfect image, something happened.

The flesh of his leg moved. It was like a time-lapse movie. Step by step, his leg changed. It moved and melted, growing worse and worse over the course of a minute. At the end of that time, he was wounded once more. Wounded with a potentially lethal injury, as the terrible wound pumped blood out.

What?! How could that happen?

He had remembered the wound – remembered it in perfect clarity. Now he tried to remember his healed leg – the healthy muscle, the shape of his leg, the healthy skin and fur. This task was easier than remembering the wound, since he had another healthy leg to provide a reminder.

There was a feeling, not quite in the back of his mind, more ringing through the breadth of his flesh. A feeling like the vibration of a huge, silent gong. And then his torn leg melted. Once more he watched the time-lapse scene, as layer after layer of healthy flesh built up. He could feel it growing, as the cells responded with hyper-accelerated growth. But it didn’t grow as if it were a simple healing – that would create scared and scabbed-over skin over a withered patch of crippled leg. No, this growth was new flesh being created to match the image in his mind.

A minute later, his leg was healed and healthy once more.

He lay there in shock. Again, he wondered how this could be possible. He knew what his powers had been, and they hadn’t included anything like this. Were mutant powers like a big spin of the roulette wheel? Maybe when he’d come to this world, or re-incarnated, or whatever, he’d kept the mutant-ness, but randomized the effect.

And then, as if looking down a long tunnel, he caught a flash of memory.

A bunch of girls were standing around him in a cottage room.

He recognized them. Seeing them in the memory, he remembered them. Chou the swordmistress, Nikki the elf queen, Toni the irrepressible kung fu genius, Sara the demon princess. Jinn was there, too, only she looked like she was about 17 years old.

How much memory have I lost?

He remembered what he’d said: “But the BIT-slicer worked – at least partly.”

And the demon princess turned to him. “Of course it did. Because you’re actually a repressed shapeshifter.”

He had no other reference. The memory stood alone – him, in a cottage room, surrounded by beautiful girls. Why did he think of it as a “cottage room,” and not a “dorm room?” And who was the last girl? There was a girl with a wild mane of cyan hair, with the cutest rounded ears poking out and oval pupils in her eyes. Of all the girls there, she was the only one that he couldn’t put a name to.

Which was particularly odd, since he knew immediately that he was in love with her. In love, or perhaps something far deeper.

At the pass, they paused to survey the landscape ahead. The trail descended down a rocky slope for a mile or two, as the plant growth became thicker and more established. Then the trail vanished in a thick, tropical jungle. In the far distance could be seen the sea, and just on that shore loomed another volcano. That mountain was composed of jagged black rock, lit by red glows scattered across the breadth of its cruel geology. Worse, much of it was shrouded in cloying, sickly yellow-green fog – a poisonous miasma spewed from the bowels of the earth.

Mifruzli thrust his arm out, pointing to the mountain.

“That is our goal,” he stated. “The mountain Xinchanru. In the hidden depths beneath it lies the underground city of Xinaian. In all these lands, the hidden city is the only refuge for people of our kind. There we will meet with the queen, Keh'Halna Aith, the Mistress of Flesh. She will be able to answer all your questions. There is nothing that happens in this realm that she does not see and command.”

“No sparrow shall fall?” the girl partially quoted. “Helluva queen.”

“Silence! Do not presume to blaspheme against Keh'Halna Aith!”

She waved him off. “Whatever. Still, I could stand to have a few questions answered.” To herself, she muttered, “I got pretty much nothing but questions at this point.”

“Keep your spear handy. There is a reason that I had retreated to the caldera.”

They descended farther. At first, the only vegetation was moss and lichen. Then there were creepers that almost seemed to move, as their shadows passed over them.

“What are those pods?” the girl wondered.

“They are a foulness. It’s best that you leave them alone.” He jabbed at one with his spear, and it burst like a sore, oozing a repugnant puss. In the center were bones.

“Ooookay,” she agreed. “Not exactly the melons I was hoping for.”

“Do not worry,” the hunchback told her. “We will find things to consume deeper into the forest. Remember that the higher the flesh, the safer it is to consume it.”

“The ‘higher’ the flesh?”

“The larger animals; the more advanced mammals and such. Some of the more lowly creatures can have a … detrimental … effect on those who consume them.”

“What do you mean?”

The man straightened, and for a moment she could see how maybe he had once been something greater than he now was. She could see what his carriage had once been, and sometimes when he spoke he had a voice like an orator.

“One of the constants of this world is an element of mutability. Adult animals, particularly the higher forms, have a fairly strong constancy. Maintaining a variety in your diet is the best strategy. Because eating a steady diet of anything – fish, for example – would have a long term effect on your skin. The webbing between the fingers and toes would increase. Eventually you might notice slits forming on the side of your neck, and a disturbing change in your eyes.”

She gulped. “Uh… you know, I’m not really sure I need to eat. I haven’t been hungry since I got here. Maybe I’ll just have the occasional cool drink. The water’s safe to drink, right?”

“Usually. There are some disturbing parasites. Never drink downstream of a carcass.”

“Okay, wonderful! Well, let’s get to it! The sooner we get to this city, the better!”

His body was a work in progress, but he had reason to be proud of it. Of all the predators he had encountered, the one he’d admired most had been the black pantheress. He had become a fitting mate for her, a strongly muscled, (though slightly undersized) black panther. Then building on that foundation, he had crafted improvements. A few extra eyes – two small eyes to the side of his skull, a single larger eye to the rear. Integrating the vision was easy, since he already had the experience of Jinn’s all-around vision.

His legs and claws were perfect; he didn’t alter them at all. But his primary fangs were now the swing-out hollow fangs of a viper, backed by sacks of neurotoxin venom. They were also break-off, so that in a tough fight he could lose the fangs and continue to bite his target. His tail had become more maneuverable, with a venomous harpoon tip that could stab at a pursuer, or lash and snap off to throw in any direction. And for his body, he had adopted a set of armadillo plates under the skin, and porcupine quills on his back and sides.

Which makes me a panther-pine, I suppose.

He was adapting to this world. If it was monstrous, he was determined to become the nastiest monster there.

He remembered his mother reading him, “Where the Wild Things Are.” Max had become the most terrible monster of all.

Perhaps there’s a lesson in that?

The memory raised a distant hope that he might someday find a way back home, and perhaps even find a dinner that was still warm. But such thoughts didn’t belong in this world, and he forced the depressing realization away.

A more disquieting thought was that he was becoming the most terrible monster there. Each time he ate, he consumed his victim’s thoughts and memories, as well as its flesh. He tried to keep himself “pure,” to retain his humanity. He tried to purge memories of animalistic behavior. But when he learned of a new organ or body part, he had to remember that – for his own survival. And he had the slightest worry that perhaps some of the memories he’d eliminated might have been human memories. He told himself that he was retaining his humanity, but every day he seemed to slide further down the slippery slope. He now enjoyed ripping bloody gobbets of flesh from his freshly killed prey. He loved the taste of warm blood. Nearly every day the compulsions of his body forced him to couple with some obscene animal. Soon, he feared, he would choose to “eliminate” those parts of himself that saw shame in that.

But the only alternative was to give in. This was an eat-or-be-eaten world. If he wasn’t on the top of the food chain, he would soon be on the bottom. So he continued to perfect his form, more animalistic and more monstrous than the creatures he hunted.

Today’s exercise was to build his mass. He was only half the size of the pantheress. He needed to be her size or larger. As he loped down toward the lake of fire, he spotted a creature he hadn’t noticed before.

It had a rough, irregular shell like a limpet, or barnacle, but expanded to the size of a garage. He’d seen it many times before, but dismissed it as a huge boulder. Now the thing was revealed as a predator in its own right. And with the mass of its tremendous body – perhaps twenty feet wide – he’d be able to bulk up considerably.

The creature was hunting. All across its rocky shell, small ports had opened. From each one erupted a tentacle. Not the wide, fleshy tentacle of an octopus or squid, but a ropy, prehensile thing, like the body of a snake but boneless.

Over a dozen snake-arms waved. Two tentacles were wrapped around smaller creatures – a rabbit-snail and a worm-deer – the rest flailed and battered at the prey.

Jared leapt in, practicing his aim. He flicked his tail forward, launching the harpoon tip. He was aiming at one of the tentacle-holes, the only weak points in the shell. Unfortunately his aim was off by just two inches. The harpoon slammed against the shell and bounced off. Immediately that tentacle was withdrawn, and the port snapped closed.

Four of the tentacles, though, abandoned the prospective meal to reach toward him.

Jared skipped back, the eye in the back of his head making it easy.

How is that thing seeing me? I’d better avoid those arms until I know how strong and dangerous they are.

It was a tremendous amount of meat, but how was he going to beat this thing? He could already tell that his claws wouldn’t do much damage to the shell. If it was strong he would be in real danger. As he watched, a single tentacle wrapped around the rabbit-snail, crushing the shell completely.

Then, the limpet-creature made its mistake. With a meal of dripping flesh wrapped in one tentacle, the creature rose up from the ground. It was like a limpet, with a soft, fleshy foot underneath. A parrot-like beak poked out, and the tentacle brought the meal closer.

With human intelligence, Jared spotted his opportunity. He rose up and used both paws like hands, to push. Shoving on a round boulder, he rolled it downhill and forward, until it was just under the raised edge of the limpet shell.

A tentacle clutched at him, but he slashed and bit it. He clamped down his fangs, injecting a good dose of neurotoxin. Quickly, the tentacle drooped, but the rest of the monster seemed unaffected.

He skipped back again, finding another boulder, but the giant creature had finished crunching up its meal and settled down to the ground again. Except… his boulder was working! There was a three foot gap, where his boulder was pinned under one edge of the shell!

Wary of the waving tentacles, he dashed forward, quickly creeping under the raised shell. Inside was a foot, like a snail or clam. It was a tower of white flesh, bigger around than any tree – pure, defenseless meat. He bit with his viper fangs, injecting more poison. He slashed with his claws, gouging out huge chunks of meat.

The tentacles reached in for him, flailing. He moved, lashing out with his paws, slashing at them. Given another second of opportunity, he leapt again for the foot. There was a gap inside the shell, and he leapt up, clinging with his foreclaws. Once in position, he raked with his back claws, tearing out tremendous chunks of living flesh.

His rear eye revealed a sudden threat. Perhaps the limpet wasn’t as stupid as he’d assumed. One tentacle was winding around the rock.

For a moment, Jared considered staying inside. There was a gap large enough to fit his body. But he suspected the creature had other defenses. He’d already torn out as much as he could eat today.

He bent down and grasped the largest chunk in his mouth. It was smooth white flesh weighing a perhaps a third as much as he did.

The shell rose up and the stone was plucked away. Jared took the opportunity to run clear, then turned to look.

The worm-deer, crushed like a tube of toothpaste, was stuffed into the parrot-beak. The shell slammed down. A moment later, the tentacles withdrew inside the shell and the small holes were covered over. It looked like an innocent boulder once more, except for the blood strewn around it.

Jared would remember this site. Carrying his prize in his mouth, he trotted back to his den.

Mifruzli set a rapid pace.

How can a hunchback move so fast? she wondered.

Every threat in the forest was a new one. The creatures were obscene combinations of every creature imaginable. Things with poison-dripping spines that slithered on their mucus-covered bellies, winged chameleons that latched onto flesh with a thousand millipede claws, trees that shot out tube-like tongues ringed with an arsenal of grinding leech teeth. Occasionally she’d see things even more alien, creatures that seemed to include parts never seen on earth. They were often the most frightening of all.

The choice was hers – either to let her sanity slowly slip away under the daily assault of madness, or to numb herself to the horrors that surrounded her. Because if she wasn’t the jungle’s latest victim, something else was. Animals screamed with almost human voices, as they were sucked in by the feet, desperately scrabbling with arm and claw for freedom, only to be slurped into an insatiable maw like so much snack food.

The message was constant: the entire jungle is your enemy! Everything here wants to eat you, to lick the delicious tender flesh from your ribs and face!

And bit by bit, she felt her humanity slipping away. A lemur with a human face was snatched up by a huge, long-tongued spider. The spider made a game of its meal, plucking off limbs one-by-one to consume like individual delicacies. The lemur screamed and pleaded with what almost resembled words, living far longer than it should have, as it was slowly torn to pieces.

She merely shrugged and moved on. It wasn’t like she was under attack.

She’d grown used to things with claws and fangs and pincers. Sometimes there were stingers and other types of poison. She fought and fought, and tried not to look too hard at the face of what she was fighting. As soon as they touched her, always, there was that powerful spark of burning energy. It never hurt her, she barely felt it, but her attacker would take a nasty wound. Small animals were burned to a crisp. Larger ones were just hurt. Each and every time, the strange glyph on her chest would flash.

It wasn’t enough. It was a good defense, but it only activated just as the creature was touching her. Which meant that claws scratched, fangs pierced, and stingers stung.

So far, she’d healed up from every wound. She could almost watch her wounds closing. And she gained immunity to the venoms and poisons. As time passed, fewer and fewer of them affected her.

But still, she needed her spear. She’d replaced the shaft six times now, and chipped out a new head, when the old one was carried away in the fleeing body of a hawk-boar.

There was a rush of wings, as the flying things took to the air. Looking down, she saw a wave of creatures fleeing, the way animals fled from a forest fire: in total panic.

Looking down, the faster animals parted around Mifruzli, as flowing water parts around a still stone. She dropped closer to her deformed companion, and the hair prickled along the back of her neck.

“A turbooth!” Mifruzli yelled in alarm.

The approaching things were one of the alien combinations. Long gazelle legs gave them speed. Their mouths were nearly the full width of their bodies, apparently held permanently open, gaping in a perfect circle. Just inside was a row of long triangular teeth, seeming to slowly rotate clockwise. Behind that was another row of teeth, rotating counterclockwise, with more teeth behind that, and so on and so on. The body was a rounded bullet, facing backward. Four eyes evenly spaced around the rim of the mouth completed the creature. It was like a jet engine with legs, a turbofan with spinning teeth instead of fan blades. And everything near it was sucked into the gaping maw, then shredded almost as quickly.

There were three of them, working as a pack and guiding the flood that ran before them.

Mifruzli ran for all he was worth, but he couldn’t even keep up with the slower animals. The turbooth ran straight at him, and she knew that in minutes her guide would be shredded like so much chum through a shark.

She decided that she still needed his assistance.

She reached for a fallen tree trunk, grabbing it and lifting it with one hand. It was heavy, probably twice her weight or more. But she lifted it with one hand, and she didn’t even have a good grasp on it. As she lifted, her flight gradually failed and she sank to the ground, supporting her weight on her own legs. She flung the log, which smashed against the lead turbooth, breaking a leg. The other two halted, then withdrew slightly, closing ranks around their wounded comrade.

As soon as she released the log, she bobbed back into the air, surprising herself.

Mifruzli scrambled backward, eyeing the cautious monsters. Then he peered at the log, only then looking back at her.

“I continue to underestimate your strength,” he admitted.

“Adrenaline,” she explained.

Later, they sat by the evening fire. Mifruzli was baking some giant earwig insects, roasting them in their own shell. She had taken to not eating at all. She didn’t seem to need it. Besides, the food was loathsome, and it always gave her bad dreams.

While the hunchback preened his white mustache and tended the meal, she experimented with her grip. She had a small rock, the size of a cabbage. To lift it, all she had to do was palm it like a basketball. As she experimented more, she discovered that she could lift it while only touching a fingertip to it. When she pulled the fingertip slightly away, it still hovered there. Only when her hand moved six inches away from the rock did it finally fall to the ground.

Curious, she brought her hand near it again, just less than six inches away. She reached for the rock… and it lifted into the air!

More experimentation revealed that she didn’t need to use her hands. Things within six inches of any part of her body could be reached for and moved. Gradually, everything near her began to rise up into the air. Once she’d reached the approximate weight of the log, she felt herself sink the two or three inches down to the ground.

So, she decided, I can lift maybe two, two-and-a-half times my own weight, including me. This isn’t anything new, because I’ve been flying since I got here. But there might be new ways to use it. And I’d better try to be more observant, from now on.

The flesh of the limpet had fueled more growth. He estimated he now massed a hundred pounds, perhaps slightly more. He had learned from the limpet – learned how to build tentacles, and how to use them in a fight.

Two tentacles from each shoulder, he decided. Four total. Anchored to the shoulder blades, I think I could manage about a four-foot reach. I can tighten them up into little lumps when I’m not using them.

The best part about the tentacles was that they could be poisoned or slashed away without harming him too much. Later on, he’d just regrow them.

While he planned the new addition to his monstrous form, he ruminated on the limpet’s memories. There were a hundred battles where it used the tentacles to snatch up small food creatures. It seemed to have eyes all over the shell. Jared knew that small ports opened for each eye to look out of. He was considering the different small monstrosities the limpet had eaten, along with their well-savored and well-remembered taste, when a random memory caught his attention.

A naked human girl had risen from the lake, walked over the surface of the water, and left the caldera! Not just any human girl, but the one from his memory of the cottage, the only one he hadn’t been able to attach a name to!

She’d had spiky cyan hair that hung up and back, utterly defying gravity. The same protruding monkey ears, the same oval pupils, the same face. It was the same girl!

He couldn’t believe it.

He knew there were memories he couldn’t reach. He’d gone to Whateley Academy, he knew that. But everything that happened there – it was blocked. He’d been there for days, or months, or years. So much of his life. Who had he met? What had he learned? It was all blocked!

Somehow, he knew this girl was the key. More than that, having seen her, he knew he needed to be with her. He had a need to be with her and protect her that was as strong or stronger than his need to become a girl.

He delved into the limpet’s memories once more. Was there a scent? Yes. If she’d been through anytime recently, he could track her.

He rested, constructing the tentacles at his shoulders. He’d need them, for this new expedition.

She flew on ahead. So far, she’d kept her practice concealed from Mifruzli. She wasn’t exactly hiding it, just not showing him directly. Still, some changes were obvious.

She’d taken to calling her power The Grip, and she knew that it was the same power she used to fly. If she lifted too much, she couldn’t carry herself any longer. But no matter how she used the power, it didn’t seem to take any effort or tire her.

With a little practice, The Grip was more dexterous than she was. Her sewing skills improved tremendously. Moving a bone needle and thin rawhide strip, she’d retailored her outfit. Her leather panties were a much better fit, and sewn into her skirt. It was better protection and kept the perverts (Mifruzli) from getting a free show. Her halter was redone so that it didn’t wrap around her neck, but had a strap over her left shoulder. It was much more comfortable since she could move her head without tugging on her boobs.

Tailoring and stitching had been more like reawakening old memories, rather than learning a new skill. No actual memories surfaced, but the skills felt familiar.

Best of all, she was gaining new combat techniques. Out of Mifruzli’s sight, she swooped close to the ground, her hand passing close to the gritty soil. As she soared back upward, a handful of small rocks and sand came with her, hovering in the center of her half-closed fist.

As she concentrated, the grit began to move in a ring, a speeding circle. That split into two circles, then three and four. Now it looked like a tiny model of an atom, spinning like mad above her palm.

She slammed it into a tree trunk, shouting the name: “Rasengan!

This time, the racing grit gouged a hole four inches deep, before fading.

She knew the attack could be much more powerful. She just needed to keep practicing. The memory was faded and distant, but it was one of the only memories she had.

He’d found her scent, but it was so faint! He needed to be able to track her better.

He concentrated, searching through the memories of everything he’d consumed and learned from. None of the animals had a memory saying, “I have a sensitive nose.” But there were several animals that recalled vivid and powerful scents. He gathered the memories together and studied what they had in common.

Oh. That’s easy.

Focusing the memory of biological structures previously devoured, he extended more nerve endings for scent. His mouth changed so that he could reach through the top of his mouth, to the top of his nasal cavity. And finally, his tongue bifurcated and lengthened.

He practiced, sticking out his forked tongue and waving it through the air several times, collecting the precious aroma molecules. Then he retracted the tongue, pressing it directly against his scent nerves.

Oh. My. God.

The aromas were a dozen times as strong. It was no longer just smell, it was taste. He could taste the girl he pursued, and she’d gone to the left. To a panther’s nose, the trail was weak and faded, but with his new tongue he had no trouble picking up her delicious aroma.

And so, the five-eyed black panther-pine left its hollow log den for the last time, bristling it’s quills slightly as it tightened the four knobs at its shoulder blades. Its barbed tail lashed once as its forked tongue flickered out, then it began trotting up the side of the calderic bowl and toward a pass in the rocky mountains that ringed it.

She finally felt ready to openly confront Mifruzli. “What is this place?” she demanded.

He paused his rapid stride and peered back at her.

“Is it so different from what you remember?”

“I—” She didn’t want to reveal so much of herself, but didn’t know how else to get an answer. “I don’t remember anything. But I know I came from someplace else. And now I’m in this place.”

Mifruzli smiled to himself while stroking his white mustache. It contrasted powerfully with his jet-black hair.

“Yes. You came from what is mistakenly referred to as the ‘real world.’ It’s not. This world remains real, while that one changes at a whim. But what is important is not so much where you came from, as when you came from.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“The real world isn’t. It’s a gossamer fabric supported by the tentpoles of time. For example, you came from a when that came thousands of years after the Trojan War. That was a particularly important war, since it changed all that followed. And one young girl, stumbling through time, arrived at Troy and changed peace to war, creating the when you thought was real. Perhaps that young girl will travel again, undoing the war or perhaps creating others. Then your when will be wiped away, and replaced with something completely different. The so-called ‘real world’ is only a fragile veil, easily torn. Only this world remains stable, for all that it is one of the hells.”

She shook her head, unable to understand most of what he’d said. She focused on the part she did understand. “One of the hells? What do you mean by that?”

“Didn’t you know? This is the Hell of the Flesh. It’s the Land of Lust, the Field of Fecundity. It is the duty of everything here to breed, as often as possible, with anything available. That’s why these creatures around us are the way they are. They have a dozen, a hundred parents of wildly different species.”

He paused, and gave the girl a considered look. “But in the midst of this, I find you – a virgin girl. You are the freak here. Perhaps you don’t belong. Which is why we are traveling to meet the queen.”

She nodded dumbly, trying to determine how much of that was true. How much of it could be true?

He had entered the jungle and found the competition more challenging than around the lake of fire. His new body served him well; the quills protected him from constrictor tentacles, while his own tentacles remained free for attack. After that battle, he added powerful lobster claws to the end of each tentacle. Now, the tentacles could still fulfill their original purpose, but he could use the tips to pinch, gouge, or flail at an opponent.

The other problem was that of his physical needs. The feeling of lust was still new to him. The pleasure of release was nice, he admitted, but he was deeply disturbed by the way it took over his thoughts and seemed to almost control his mind sometimes. Almost every day he was driven to the point where he had to find a female. There was nothing of love or any finer emotion, it was simply the uncontrollable need to rut. A female in heat was best, but any female would do. He was now powerful enough to trace them down by scent, pull them out of their hiding place, and take them.

He’d done that, driven near to madness by his need, and after release he’d felt like killing himself.

What have I become?

A hundred rationalizations filled his mind.

She was only an animal.

But he was only an animal, too. How was he to say that her mind was any less than his? Even if it was, was the suffering of an animal less important than the suffering of a person? He might have tossed this thought off, before coming here, but now he had lived as a dozen different animals. The experience had left him certain that they lived and fought and suffered with the same intensity he felt. A little less intelligence, perhaps, but no less intensity in their emotions.

I had needs. I had to do it!

This rationalization was the least convincing of all. He always laughed at the actions of a dog rutting against a table leg. But now he understood a bit better. He’d seen animals here exploiting clefts in rocks, knotholes in trees, or even licking themselves into a frenzy. He decided that he could do the same. He wouldn’t take females anymore, he’d curl tight and lick himself to release.

She wanted it too.

This was the most convincing of the arguments. The last female he’d found had been something like a very large, furred turtle. She’d been clearly terrified when he pulled her out, but once she’d spotted his engorged member, she’d seemed almost eager, turning and making herself available to him. Clearly she didn’t want to be eaten, but had no objection at all to a coupling. Still, the memory of his brutality and force was bitter. At that point, it wouldn’t have mattered to him whether she was willing or not.

I kill and eat other creatures. Is this any worse?

Somehow, the ancient competition for survival seemed acceptable. It was brutal, even lethal, but it was the way the world worked. The drive to mate, to brutally force himself on a female – that was something new. He didn’t like it. It seemed to be the way this world worked, though. He wondered if the real world had been the same, only perhaps a bit less obvious.

I want to be a girl someday. Is this how I want to be treated?

That was a painful realization. In his dreams, there was loving acceptance, joining, and happiness. Sharing their bodies with each other was a joyful act, not a desperate animal need. That’s what he’d always dreamed of before. To be honest, he still dreamed of it, even if he was a bit more knowledgeable about the physical aspects involved.

He thought about this a lot, turning the details over in his mind. Finally, he decided that he couldn’t, wouldn’t force any more females. His recent resolve to self stimulate fell by the wayside as soon as the concept of mating filled his mind. He would find them, his new resolve promised, he would display for them his erect need, and if they responded… perhaps it was good for both of them. If not… then he’d see about using his own tentacles.

And then, he smelled/tasted something that overwhelmed those thoughts as unimportant.

He was still following the trace of the cyan-haired girl, but a newer, very fresh track crossed hers.

There was another human, right ahead!

“You need a name, girl. I’m tired of calling you ‘hey you.’ Give me a name or make one up, I don’t care which.”

“I’m sure I had a name,” she said, uncertainly. “I just don’t remember…”

“Well pick something.”

As always, they made rapid time. She glided forward, three feet off the ground, in an upright posture that was slightly tipped forward. The old hunchback clambered and scrambled in something between a jog and a run. Occasionally they would run into trouble – hanging tree vines reaching to entangle, or webs and spiders, fallen logs that suddenly revealed mouths and prehensile tongues, or simply a carpet of army beetles.

The girl would lift him above some threats, or fight beside him. She frequently used her ability to lift and throw large objects. She’d used the perfected power of the rasengan a few times, drilling through flesh. It was too slow to penetrate shell or carapace. So far, each use had been where Mifruzli couldn’t see.

“If this is world is the Hell of Flesh,” she asked, “are there other hells?”

“Not that we can get to,” Mifruzli barked back. “But yes, there are many, many other hells. There are hells of war, disease, entropy and insanity, carnivorous feeding, and so on.”

“But… why?”

“Think of them like laboratories. Each is set up to study a concept in depth, to plumb every variation and every combination of traits. This world, which I am most familiar with, is designed to study biology. It tests a million, million combinations. This jungle we’re in now tests mostly animal life, which is why I brought us this way. Other paths to the city are more dangerous, running through the swamps of disease, or the hivelands. The queen knows everything that happens in these lands. She is the Mistress of Flesh, and instructed us in the arts of shapeshifting and fleshcrafting. We learned all we know from her, but her own knowledge remained vastly, infinitely beyond ours. Everything that happens in this world only adds to her knowledge and power.”

She narrowed her eyes. “You are a shapeshifter? A – what was the word – fleshcrafter?”

Mifruzli’s face tightened in anger. “Once. Once I was one of the greatest. That was before my exile. My… brothers… stripped me of those powers.”

Her eyes opened a bit wider. This was more information than Mifruzli had ever revealed before! Perhaps she just hadn’t been asking the right questions. Instead of pressing him for personal details, she decided to probe more on an innocuous topic.

“I can understand why a queen or someone would want to learn all the details of a Hell of War, but what’s the point behind something like ‘entropy and insanity’?”

“According to some, entropy is one of the supreme forces in the universe. Stephen Hawking argues that it is entropy which creates the ‘arrow of time.’ If so, that god who controls entropy may trump all others. And the insanity? That’s just our interpretation. It may be that playing with those concepts is detrimental to the operation of four-dimensional minds, like ours.”

“Uh… sure. I guess. What about the Hell of Carnivorousness, or whatever.”

“A competitor to this realm, with a narrower focus, hoping for a faster, more decisive payoff. A demon lord with limited potential, in my opinion, holding his position only because The Kellith hadn’t actually been born yet.” He sighed. “Look, there are a lot of realms that I’ve heard of that I frankly don’t understand. The Hell of Fiery Immersion? What’s the lesson there? ‘Don’t touch the stove?’ There are a lot like that. But it is not for us to understand or challenge the Gods and Demons who rule those realms. Even those that might appear human, even appearing young and vulnerable, sometimes, they are truly as beyond us as we are beyond ants. I learned that, believe me.”

Aha! So did he challenge this Queen, or find some other hell-ruler that he thought he could overthrow? In any case, he was stripped of powers and turned into this pathetic hunchbacked exile. And he’s bringing me back because it will gain him favor, of some sort.

In an attempt to divert him from how much he’d revealed, the girl said, “I think I’ve chosen a name. You remember so much, while my memories seem to be completely absent.”

“Yes? And so?”

“Call me ‘Zero.’”

Walking through the clearing just ahead of him was the most astonishing thing he had yet seen in this insane world of jigsaw animals.

It was an eleven-year-old boy, completely normal. He had his hands stuffed in his pockets and he was kicking a rock. He was wearing a T-shirt from the real world, a black “Power Rangers” T-shirt, seemingly brand new. He wore regular jeans, also new looking, and had a pair of brown hiking boots.

Jared had been following the scent as he loped along. Hitting the clearing he dropped all four paws and skidded to a halt.

The kid looked up at him in boredom. “Tentacle panther-thing with spider eyes. God, this place gets so dull I swear I could die. Again.” He had a British accent.

Jared was so shocked he didn’t know what to do. A bit in shock, he called out, “Uh, hello?”

Except that the sound came from his panther throat as something between a growl and clearing his throat. Immediately, he concentrated on growing a human larynx. It took a minute. He concentrated, and the boy looked at him in growing consternation.

“You’re not a regular animal, are you?”

“Harrroookkkk.”

Damn, the snake tongue! He worked on changing his tongue and lips.

“A shape changer? I’m getting pretty sick of you stupid SabreTooths, too. You might as just get out of here. You may not know it, but there’s nothing you can do to hurt me, and I’m not so bored that I want to spend my time talking to another mix of you guys.”

“Hello. Ah, there we go. You’re a person! I thought I was the only one! Well, almost the only one. What’s a SabreTooth? I don’t think I’m one.”

“If you’re a person, they why do you look like that?”

“Uh… I’m not sure. I’m Jared. Jared Reilley. I was on my way to this special school, and… well, I remember getting there, but nothing after that. And then I woke up here. Well, not here, but in the volcano right over there?” He gestured with a tentacle. “And I was, like, this rat-snake thing? It’s really icky, but I sort of worked my way up the animal chain. Kind of a long story. But how are you so normal? And where did you get clothes?

The boy held his hand up. “Whoa, whoa! So… you’re a kid? No way I believe that. Mom wouldn’t do that. I know a lot of people wouldn’t believe it, but her guilt would be way too strong.”

Jared only had one word. “Mom?”

“Uh… never mind. Anyway, who are you, what are you, really?”

“Gimme a second!” Jared begged. “I can prove it!”

It had been a long time since he’d thought of his human body. He was starting to get a handle on his shapechanging ability, to the point where he could add a new limb or change his internal organs around. Could he do a large shift?

He tried to remember his body, imagining it in perfect detail. Then he made that extra little connection to his power, and shifted.

Again, it was like being in a time-lapse photo. No, he decided, it’s more like watching a wolfman movie, where the creature changes back.

Layer by layer he shifted. The hair receded, the tentacles faded, the extra eyes vanished. About a minute later, he was a naked human boy on his hands and knees.

Jared slowly stood up, marveling at his hands and body.

“I’m… I’m human again!”

“Yeah, and naked.”

“And vulnerable!” Jared realized. “This place is gonna kill me! I can’t fight all those things as a kid!”

“Tell you what,” the other boy offered. “I’ll protect you for a while. No long term guarantees, because I still don’t believe you’re not one of those stupid SabreTooths. I mean, that’s a little too much of a coincidence. I’m eleven, you’re eleven. Two young boys alone in the middle of the jungle. Right.”

“I’m not eleven, I’m fourteen!” Jared protested.

“You look more like eleven,” the Brit pointed out.

“Yeah, well, I think my body’s sort of, I don’t know, stuck or something. The last three years, nothing seems to make any difference. I’d work out – nothing. Haven’t grown an inch, and I look exactly the same.”

“You didn’t look very stuck to me. You just changed from an I-don’t-know-what to a kid. How’d you manage that, huh?”

“Uh, well, that’s a little hard to explain. You won’t freak out on me, will you?”

The British boy rolled his eyes. “Look around you. I think I can handle a little weirdness, right?”

“Okay. Well, the truth is, I’m a mutant. I mean, I used to be, before I ended up here. Only, I wasn’t a shapeshifter… I think. I had completely different powers, that I don’t have any more. Only I can shapeshift now.”

“Well, that part makes sense at least,” the other boy said.

“It does?”

“Yeah, once you know how this place works.” He thrust out a hand. “I’m starting to believe you. I’m Gary.”

“Jared.”

“Let’s get you a loincloth or something.”

The newly-christened “Zero” and Mifruzli made rapid progress toward the mountain that was their goal. But the deeper they progressed into the jungle, the fiercer the opposition became.

Zero had barely realized that she’d gotten tangled, when she felt a terrible pain. Her eyes sharpened, and she realized that the path was draped everywhere with loops of fine thread, so fine that it was almost invisible. Likewise, the trees were coated with fat-bodied spiders. The spiders’ “skin” was wrinkled and brown, blending with the bark.

Zero turned to her left hand, where she’d felt the pain. Her open hand had passed through a loop. It caught around her pinky and ring finger. Now the two spiders holding each end raced away from her. The loop tightened… and her fingers were severed.

“Back out!” Mifruzli shouted. “You can’t fight them!”

Her aura had flared. The loop that had cut her was burned to ash – but that did nothing to restore her fingers. Other strands touching her crisped and fell away. Growling in fury, her aura solidified, burning away anything that came near.

Rasengan!” she shouted, and grit spun up in her hand to create an orb of grinding destruction. It obliterated any strand it touched.

Mifruzli seemed to have gone mad, spinning and slashing with his spear. He spoke words of some foreign language, words that seemed to blister the air itself. Waves of power issued from his body and the spiders shuddered under some tremendous pressure that Zero was unable to feel. Suddenly they began to burst, like grapes pinched between the fingers, but the juices produced were yellow-green and filled with strange chunks.

The power being released seemed to affect the landscape, triggering tremors in the ground that were increasing in intensity.

“That’s enough!” Mifruzli shouted. “We need to power down!”

The energy waves from his body faded, and Zero followed suit. A moment later, the tremors also ended.

Mifruzli had not gone untouched. His right ear had been cleanly sliced away. He bore long, thin cuts on his arms and legs, like over-long paper cuts.

“Look for the mother. She may be nearby.”

While he thought she was distracted and looking away, he bent over and retrieved something from the ground.

My fingers! she realized. Was that why he fought so fiercely?

But he made no mention of them, nor did he offer the grisly trophies back to her.

Two can play at that game, she decided, spying an ear lying upon the ground. While he was distracted by the need to carefully remove each thread loop, she plucked up his severed appendage and tucked it into her waistband.

Through the rest of the day and that evening, he never mentioned his grisly collecting to her.

At dinner, he made a soup of boiled water and a mash of tiny monkeys, no larger than his thumb.

As always, she refused. She apparently had no need to eat, and when she did eat anything from this strange world, it gave her terrible dreams.

“Suit yourself,” he said, stirring his reddish soup until it began to bubble. Again, he was cooking in his white, oval bowl. “I see you seem to be healing already.”

She looked down at her hand, but her peripheral vision was sharp enough to spot Mifruzli trying to add an extra ingredient to his soup – but it seemed to have vanished from his bag. He felt around in growing distress, then emptied it all out. But there were no fingers.

Zero pretended not to notice.

“I’ve almost regrown to the second knuckle,” she admitted. “By the time I wake tomorrow, I’ll be fine.”

“Hmmm, yes. The rest of us here can also restore lost limbs. But it takes many days to do so and we have to eat well. And… depending upon what you eat, the regrown part may not be entirely human.”

“Which is why you killed all those tiny monkeys,” she accused.

“Yes,” he admitted calmly. “They are the closest available to the human pattern.” He rubbed the right side of his head, where his ear had been. “Even if I were to regrow a monkey ear, the difference would not be so noticeable.”

Zero scowled fiercely and spat into the fire. “I hate this place!”

“…favorite bar was a place called ‘Mike’s.’ I hated it when he went there. Best I could do when he came back was either to hide, or be really busy with something that he wanted done. Once he settled down in front of the TV, things were okay, so long as I kept him fed.”

“God, I hear you,” Gary said. “My foster dad, Bob, was like that. He just loved his Foster’s.”

Jared gave a mild snort. “Your ‘Fosters’ dad?”

“It’s a beer, where I’m from.”

“Were your walls all dented?” Jared asked, “From where he’d knocked you into them?”

“What? No way. He liked the way I’d sort of fold over. The gut shot was his favorite.”

“Wouldn’t have worked with me.” Jared wasn’t really bragging or asking for sympathy either. “I knew too much aikido by then. And Dad paid for the lessons, too. I never figured that out. He never respected the art. Called it ‘pajama fighting.’ And why pay for that sort of training, when he just planned to whale on me later on? I just never figured him out.”

“Bob’s still around,” Gary said, casually. “Mom sucked him in. I must have seen like fifty of him, around in the city, in different mixes. He’s pretty pathetic, so he’s always good for a laugh.”

“Uh, fifty of him? How’s that work?”

“Oh, right, I guess you haven’t figured out the rules of this place, have you?”

Jared shrugged. “Not exactly. It’s pretty weird.”

“How can I explain…?” Gary folded his arms behind his head, and stared at the sky for the moment. “You know how they say a person’s soul can never be destroyed?”

“I guess I’ve heard that.”

“Well it’s true, but only in a way. See, the soul is actually more like a tapestry. Woven of tiny strands of memory and soul fiber and stuff. It’s probably woven in more dimensions, like three or four or six or something. It’s the strands that can’t be destroyed, although they can join and merge. Also, and this is really important, they can be duplicated.”

“Where are you going with this?” Jared wondered.

“When you get pulled into this place, you end up in that volcanic crater. You woke up there, right?”

“The lake of fire? Yeah.”

“You come up through the lake. What it does is take your soul and unravel it, so that it’s in a zillion separate pieces. They all wash up on the shore. And it’s not just memory, it’s knowledge of your body, how your cells work, or how your arms are put together, all sorts of weird details like that.”

Jared suddenly shivered. “I was … unraveled?” He wrapped his arms around himself.

“Yeah, but somehow, most things end up gathering up the pieces of themselves. Mostly.” He reached over and pinched the flesh on Jared’s arm. “I’m not sure, but I think that flesh and stuff isn’t really real here. It’s just, like, a reflection of your soul-body-pattern-whatever.”

“But...” Jared was reeling with the concepts. “…if all that’s true, why is this the first time I’ve been human? I’ve had my own mind for a while now.”

“Yeah, but with lots of bits of animal mixed in.”

“Is it really possible to shred a person’s soul like that?”

Gary shrugged again. “What do you think you’re doing when you make this Jinn girl? You’re somehow splitting your own soul in half. But it’s like a really high-grade photo. You can make a dozen wallet-sized in the same space. They still seem like perfect, high-grade snaps, but they’ve each got less detail and sharpness. It’s just that the difference isn’t something we can really perceive. Then when you join back together, you re-weave. That’s pretty incredible when you think about it.”

Jared was starting to feel sick to his stomach. When he made Jinn, did he really rip his soul in half?

“Wait a minute,” he realized. “That can’t be right. You remember what I told you. Jinn’s a girl! And if you’re right, that proves that I’m a girl, just like I always thought. So how come I’m not?”

“I don’t know. Maybe you got mixed in with too many male animals. Maybe you left the girl pieces back in the volcano. Or maybe they got together on their own, and left.”

Jared’s eyes popped wide. The girl he was following, the one he remembered! There was an attachment there, it was like he was a part of her!

She didn’t look like Jinn. In fact, she looked like the unnamed girl from his memory. He hadn’t figured out what was going on with that. But he was suddenly convinced that it was true. If his soul had been torn apart, she must be his missing half!

“Oh, duh.” Gary said.

“What?”

“You’re a shapeshifter, idiot! When you turned human, what did you try to look like?”

Mifruzli’s swearing woke her up.

“Where did they go, dammit! Where did they go?”

She floated down from her resting perch, sporting an angry scowl and a leveled spear. “You sure as hell better not be talking about those fingers you stole.”

Upon seeing her, the hunchback pulled back, glaring. “No, of course not,” he muttered angrily. “Let’s get going. We’re wasting time.”

Why am I following him? she asked herself again. Oh yeah. He’s the only person around, until I get to the city.

For perhaps the hundredth time, she considered her options. She could pick some spot and try to build a home there. It hardly seemed like a good idea in this forest of death. She could explore. She could wander at random.

Traveling to the city still seemed like the best idea, which meant that she needed the hunchback for a little while longer.

“I’m coming,” she muttered.

“I— I’m scared to try,” Jared admitted.

“What’ve you got to lose?” Gary asked. “What was the name of your girl half? Jinn? You could be her.”

“I, ah, I didn’t actually tell you this part,” Jared admitted. “After spending enough time as Jinn, I started dressing like a girl. When I went to Whateley, I was dressing as a girl. I made up a new name for myself and everything.”

“You were still a guy, but pretending to be a girl?”

“Uh, yeah. Is that disgusting?”

“It’s weird is what it is. But I’ve seen a lot of crap from adults. It sounds like you weren’t hurting anyone, except maybe yourself. I guess I can deal with it.” He seemed to think about it for a minute.

“My other friend, Chaddy, is around someplace,” Gary continued. “He’s about six. He used to be a girl for a while. Mostly girl. I’m a little confused by his explanation. I sometimes get the impression that when Mom gives birth to me, I’ll be a girl. So I guess I ought to just get over it. But I like being a boy.”

“I really, really, really liked being a girl,” Jared admitted quietly. “As much as I could be, anyway.”

“So you’re a shapeshifter, just do it.”

“Will you hold me?” Jared begged.

“Ew, holding another guy? Isn’t that a little gay?” Gary saw the look on Jared’s face and finally relented. “Oh, fuck it. We’re in hell. I guess holding a guy is no big deal.” He sat on the ground, back against a tree, and spread his legs. “Here. I’ll (ugg) hold you, you big baby.”

Jared untied his loincloth and set it on the ground, to sit on. Then he sat down in the circle of Jared’s arms.

“My name was Jade,” he admitted. “Jade Sinclair.”

“Oooh, sounds like an adventure girl. I like it. Okay, do it already.”

It had been Jared’s greatest wish for so long. He sat there naked, looking at his ugly male body. “Maybe … a breast? To see if it’s possible?”

“Don’t look at me,” Gary answered. “I don’t know shit about shapeshifting.”

Jared concentrated. Just by the way Gary was holding him, Gary’s hand was over his left chest area, over the heart. He couldn’t see the skin, but he could feel. Closing his eyes, he remembered being Jinn. He remembered the details of her body. It was like he could imagine every organ, every cell. He held that image in his mind and slid it over to the left side of his chest. And then he gave it that extra little push that triggered shapeshifting.

Like a time-lapse film, he could feel his body changing, bit by bit. His chest began to swell on the left side, growing and enlarging under Gary’s hand. He wasn’t that big, perhaps an A cup, but he had a real breast. His nipple seemed to have changed the most, becoming gigantic (it felt) and much more sensitive. He was keenly aware of Gary’s hand over him.

“Whoa, freaky!” Gary decided, squeezing his hand and stroking his fingers around. “I mean, it’s not like I’ve felt a ton of tits, not like I’d really know, but it feels pretty real.”

“Yeah,” Jared admitted, huskily. “It does.”

“Do the other one,” Gary ordered. “And can you make ‘em bigger?”

Jared closed his eyes, imagining the changes. Again, he felt his flesh shift, growing fast enough to see as his chest swelled. His eyes snapped open and he watched himself change. It was the most incredibly magical thing he had ever experienced.

“Well, you’ve got a pretty good rack for a guy. Time for the main event, I think. Hey, and can you make ‘em bigger?

Jared closed his eyes once more, picturing Jinn’s body. He didn’t see an image. It was a shapeshifter’s feeling and understanding of how bones and organs fit together. He focused particularly strongly on the womb – the ovaries nestled gently at the trumpet-horn openings of the fallopian tubes, the womb itself and all the ligaments that held it firm in the bowl of the hips, the cervix that joined it to the vaginal canal. And, of course, the external genitalia.

After embracing those ideas, the rest of it – the shape of the waist and hips, the different placement of the legs and the slight differences in musculature, these were modest changes. The other big difference was the brain, where there were subtle but significant differences in everything from the corpus callosum that joined the two hemispheres to the thickness and composition of the gray matter.

He held all of these differences in mind, and gave that twist that triggered the change.

Opening his eyes, he watched. It happened fast enough to watch, fast enough to both terrify and delight. His most obvious organ, his penis, was already shrinking. It had never been that large, although it was larger in this over-sexed world. Now it shrunk, changing to a more banana shape that vanished into the forming slit. His balls popped inside his body cavity, as the flaccid sack of his scrotum split and began to stretch across the span of his underside.

He could feel his urethra moving, down, down, to stop just above the growing indent. Such a slight mound, thickening and swelling every so slightly, and he could feel the lips growing and thickening there as protective paddings of fat swelled the outer lips, even as delicate inner folds formed.

She couldn’t see it, but she could feel the hard knot of muscle forming inside her pelvis. Her most special place, the place where her children would be created and grow within her.

Her hair lengthened, becoming a bit ragged, even as her cheekbones and larynx shifted. She’d targeted the age of sixteen. And, as requested, her breasts swelled again, achieving her dreamed-of “C” cup size.

All at once, a tingle of pure ecstasy traveled down her skin, bringing her nipples to an erect sensitivity that was so hard it was almost painful.

And with that, the change was done.

“Lord, Jared, that was fantastic! And thanks, mate, tits are about the coolest thing ever, aren’t they?”

She arched her back, pressing herself into his cupped hands.

“Yes,” she agreed, dreamily. “Yes they are. And my name is Jade. And… I think I need something.”

He eyed her expectantly. “Yes…?”

“New clothes!”

The animal varieties changed as they approached the city. Zero spotted it in the eyes, first. For many animals, the iris and pupil covered all the visible portion of the eye. The eye held a color, perhaps amber, and contained the black void of the pupil in the center. She noticed it first on a tremendous anaconda, lying in wait on an overhead branch. The snake’s pupil was round, not slitted. As she and Mifruzli moved to the side, avoiding it, it rolled its eyes like a frightened horse, displaying the white of the eye. Too much white for a normal snake. Too much intelligence for a normal snake.

Closer yet and the animals altered further. A pack of coyotes trotted across their trail, just ahead of them. They didn’t have muzzles. Each had a fully human face. They eyed the approaching pair, insightful eyes studying the potential prey and evaluating. They communicated with each other through yips and barks, and as Zero listened, she almost heard words of some kind hidden within the animal noises.

With a final, disdainful yip, the animals turned their backs on the approaching pair, and trotted quickly into the depths of the forest.

Now and again, animals would include full human heads. They would pass through swarms of insects, which included countless white-headed flies. The high-pitched voices of those flies spoke in understandable human phrases when they stopped to alight. Zero waved her hand, swatting them aside.

The upright rats were a problem. They were as large as German sheppards, and forced to walk on their hind legs, because their forelegs were human arms gripping small bows.

Zero used her ability to hold heavy objects, moving a section of collapsed tree trunk like a shield. She hurled it at them and they scattered, moving swiftly to approach again from behind her. Mifruzli spoke a guttural word that resonated in a way that twisted the guts. The standing rats rolled their too-human eyes and collapsed to the ground with a squeal of despair. They lay there, helplessly twitching. When one would touch another, they would grasp the offending limb and begin to chew on it. The victim didn’t seem to notice their plight.

“We may pass now,” Mifruzli commanded, looking suddenly drained.

A herd of deer suddenly rushed by them, leaping over the trail with high, arching bounds. Each had the head of a young man, and they turned to look, fearfully, over their shoulders. Behind them flew harpies – like pigeons with ten-foot wingspans. They had the bodies of birds, but the heads and protruding breasts of human women. Long black hair was swept back by the wind, trailing to the end of their pigeon tails.

“The more you flee, the hungrier we grow,” the lead bird called to the fleeing herd.

And then both groups had passed.

Still, they continued their approach to the city.

Jade wore a simple tabard-like tunic, belted with a length of rawhide cord. It hung to her thigh and covered her, but from the side Gary could see in to glimpse her full breasts pressed against the cured skins.

“Damn, I wish I had a bra!” she bitched. “You might not know it, but breasts are really sensitive. Every time I take a step, I’m rubbing against this damned piece of hide. I’m going to end up with a rug burn on my tips.”

Gary licked his lips. He might have been eleven when he ‘died,’ but in this world, creatures achieved sexual development very rapidly.

Jade, for her part, was feeling a growing compulsion.

“Um, I have something to admit,” she began.

“Yeah? Let’s hear it.”

“Well, maybe it’s something in the water here. I don’t know. But as a guy I kept getting… horny. You know? I mean, to the point where I couldn’t control myself.”

“I’ve seen that,” Gary admitted. “Never quite got it. I think Mom must have protected me when she gave me the rest of my protection. Chaddy, too.”

“The one bad thing about being a girl is that the other females I’ve seen go into heat. We put out this scent that says, ‘baby time,’ and pretty much everything for miles around comes to dip his wick.” She shuddered. “I’m really afraid of that.”

“You’re still a shapeshifter,” Gary pointed out. “You could change back to a guy. I mean, it would be a little weird dealing with Jared or Jade, depending on what time of the month it is, but I can cope.”

“Never!” she said vehemently. “I never want to be a guy again!”

“Okay…”

“What I hadn’t realized,” she rushed on with, “was that girls get the everyday build-up, just like guys. I mean, even when we aren’t ready to make a baby.”

“Would you stop saying baby already? It’s creeping me out, the thought that you… and you’d grow… and arggg!”

Her face softened. “But I want one. I really want to hold my child and nurse her, to protect her and teach her. I really want to be a mother someday.”

“You got one thing right,” Gary said, in typical eleven-year-old disgust. “You are such a girl.”

“Thank you for noticing!” she squealed, giving him a big hug.

“Not like I can help noticing,” he muttered in disgust.

“…anyway,” Jade forced herself to continue, “I, um, the feeling, it’s sort of growing. I mean, not uncontrollable. Not yet. But I’m even starting to notice some of the animals. You know, like whether they’re male or not.”

“Shit. You got it bad.”

“And, I think it’s getting worse. It wasn’t so bad this morning.”

“What are you gonna do?” Gary asked, with simple directness.

“I…” she lowered her voice to a whisper, “I’m still a virgin. As a girl, I mean. I gave myself a hymen and everything. I’ve never done it before. I mean, not as a girl.” She took a deep breath before making her pitch. “I know that in this world I’ll probably be driven to give myself to animals and who-knows-what sort of gross things. I guess I’ll just have to learn to deal with it. And I will! …eventually. But every girl wants her first time to be special. If I have to give my virginity up, I want it to be a friend who takes me. Someone who will be gentle, and might even care about me, a little.”

Gary gulped. “You mean – me?” His voice suddenly cracked.

“Could you?”

“I’m only eleven! Well, I mean I was eleven when I got here. I’m not sure how many years ago that was.”

“Could you? If you wanted to, I mean?”

“Well, yeah,” he admitted. “I mean, I did a couple of times before. Some of the women in the city. I was sort of curious, and they were, like you said, really kinda half nuts or something. And it was okay. They seemed happy enough. I think Mom sort of changed me down there, ‘cause I didn’t used to be that big back when I was alive.”

“Gary,” Jade turned and rounded on him, wrapping her arms around his neck, “could you please… make me a woman?”

“Uh, well, those other girls were bigger than you, and I’m not sure I…”

She released his neck and hefted her breasts, under the tabard. “Would it help if I were bigger? I can do that.”

“No, I mean, they were taller and older and stuff. I actually like it that you’re closer to my age. I wouldn’t mind if you were even younger and shorter.”

She closed her eyes and concentrated, then shrunk down until she was half a head shorter than the boy. She looked to be eleven herself, but with a lush, developed figure and firm B-cup breasts.

“Like this?”

“Shit, that’s way sexy. Um, I mean, you’re a friend and all. Are you sure? You’re asking me to fuck you?”

She untied her belt, and then pulled off the tabard. “The need is getting really strong, Gary. Please? I don’t want my first time to be with some animal.

She knelt on a patch of moss, her knees apart in a V formation, exposing herself.

“I… I guess it would be okay,” he admitted. Roughly, he lay down beside her. “How do we do this?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “Touch me, please. And, I guess I should help you take your clothes off, too.”

She unbuckled his belt while he kneaded her still-substantial breasts. The feeling was incredible, but, “Too rough, lover. Don’t squeeze quite so hard, and my nipples are really sensitive.”

She was long past ready, feeling herself dripping with moisture. It felt like she had melted inside, and she was practically aching with the need to have him inside her. Still, she tried to control herself, as he undid his belt, and pulled the pants off of him. He even gets underwear! she noticed, in jealousy. She got that off, as well, pulling his shoes and socks off as she removed it.

His size made it look like he had fully matured. The rest of his body looked eleven, but his manhood was substantial, growing even larger as she touched it.

“There’s something I haven’t told you yet,” he gasped out. “The souls, the unraveling and all that?”

She moaning, trying to make it sound like a response to him.

“Well, like I said, the little threads of soul can be copied. In a guy’s nuts, or in a girl’s eggs or whatever they’re called—”

“My ovaries,” she gasped out.

“—yeah. They copy you. Threads of soul and memory, body design, personality, everything. If you get…”

“Pregnant,” she gasped in delight, as he touched her and she stroked him.

“Yeah. The baby is really a combination of both of us. Our souls and memories. Half of each.”

“Gary,” she begged, “come into me. Please!

With that, she lay back down on the moss. Gary kneeled between her spread legs and positioned his stiffness to barely touch her lips. She moved his hands so that he was grasping her breasts. It was harder to breathe, but worth it.

He pressed forward, gently parting her lips. Then, the tip of him was inside her. It was a feeling she’d never had before, and it made her feel completely feminine.

“I, uh, I can’t seem to get in any farther,” Gary said in frustration.

“It’s my hymen. My cherry. I’m a virgin, Gary. You need to push as hard as you can, and break it.”

“Won’t that hurt?”

“For a minute. But I need you to do it. Please, Gary,” she begged.

He gathered his will, and took a couple of tentative motions, sliding in and out in the brief space of her opening. Then, with a look of determination, he thrust hard and Jade felt a tearing inside her most private area.

And then, she was filled to overflowing. Gary was inside her completely, sliding his thick length fully within her. There was still a stinging, at the ring of her opening, but it felt so good inside her. His hands pressed and kneaded on her breasts, flicking her nipples too hard, and it was wonderful.

“Ohmygod. That’s so wonderful,” she breathed. “You’re so wonderful. Oh, Gary, I’m so happy!”

He didn’t understand why she had all those tears if she was happy. He pulled almost all the way out, before plunging back to full depth again.

“You’re so tight,” he admitted. “It feels really good.”

In return, she said, “I love when you’re all the way in, and your hips bump mine, right in that really good spot.”

She shifted her hips, wrapping her legs around his back. “Ohmygawd. I can feel you touching… oh, it’s the perfect spot!”

She began to buck her hips gently, as his stroke passed the spot, rubbing his tip, his shaft, against her inner walls.

“I can feel it growing. I mean, the feeling. Oh, it may be too much for me…”

Gary was really getting into it. The older women hadn’t been like this at all. He felt like a king. Holding onto to her hard little tits, pumping in and out of her tight, wet hole, and best of all was the knowledge that he was fucking a friend and she seemed absolutely delighted by every little thing he did to her.

Jade couldn’t believe the feeling growing inside her. It was like a spring was being wound tighter and tighter. Suddenly, the moment arrived and everything was calm. Gary was buried to the hilt inside her… She hovered on the precipice… He gave one more squeeze to her breasts… and that was the trigger that pushed her over the edge. Her nipples felt like they were as hard as steel. Her belly felt every breeze that caressed it. Her calves felt the working of Gary’s back muscles, while her thighs appreciated the rhythmic strength of him. And inside, she felt herself tighten and pulse, like her throat swallowing, drawing him into her with a feverish, unstoppable need.

“Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod. Gary, don’t stop, whatever you do, don’t stop!”

Her squirming and writhing and screaming set him off. Either that, or it was the way her pussy had tightened even more, milking him for everything he had. And suddenly, he exploded, shooting deep, deep inside her recently-virgin snatch. With every thrust, he pumped another load into her, and it felt far better than he remembered.

Jade felt him. She felt the warmth of him as he squirted inside her. It sent her to new heights, as she writhed in utter feminine delight. He had her pinned to the mat, helpless and oh-so-vulnerable. A boy was planted inside her, coating her receptive interior with his masculine fluid. She shook her head from side to side, trying to keep from screaming in his face.

Finally, his pace slowed to a stop. Gary lowered himself to lie upon her, though he was still buried inside her.

Jade’s tunnel was still twitching in reaction, giving him convulsive pulses that milked yet more fluid out of him. Her entire skin felt like it had sparks traveling over it. She wrapped her arms around his neck and began to madly kiss him.

“Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. I don’t think any girl has ever been so well fucked by her stud. You were magnificent. I was trying to keep from yelling at the top of my lungs, there. Did I succeed? Ohmygod, I can still feel you stretching me wide. Can you feel that outer ring of me? You’re so big! I’ve never felt anything like this! Ohmygod. Whenever, I mean, whenever you want me, I’m yours, studly. I would do you again in a second. Oh, that was so perfect! It felt so beautiful, so wonderful. And I can still feel you inside of me. Oh, God, I knew it was good to be a girl, but I didn’t realize that it was this good! I don’t remember when I’ve ever been this happy. Thank God you aren’t in the real world. You’d deflower whole nations, as young virgin girls gave up their innocence to your incredible skills.”

Gary lay there on top of her, catching his breath and half-listening to the happy babbling of the manic girl. His hands still held her breasts, and through his right hand he held the breast over her heart. He could feel her heartbeat, transmitted through the mound to his hand. Her heart was hammering at a mile a minute, while his was slowing.

That was good sex, he decided. Really good.

It felt nice, being inside her. Her cunt was giving small twitches and squeezes that were like a pleasant after-massage. And it didn’t hurt that her manic babbling was all about how great he was.

He thought about that incredible scene, when she had transformed. He felt a little gay, holding the boy Jared. Holding this sparrow of a girl, though, he felt nothing but satisfied accomplishment.

Yeah, he decided, definitely a girl.

And with that, he fell asleep.

As they approached the forbidding mountain, they began to encounter scouts. There were jaguars, lying still in the crowns of trees, unseen until they suddenly raced off. Monkeys, likewise, exhibited the same behavior. Squirrels, birds, all manner of creature spotted them and fled.

Zero was trying to spy on the animals themselves. Each seemed more like a pure form than the partly human hybrids they had recently passed. The jaguars were the size and shape of real-world jaguars. Likewise with the monkeys. But there was still something wrong with them. With the distance and the quick motion of the animals she couldn’t tell what yet, but she tried to prepare herself.

The route they had taken had broadened to an animal trail, then widened further to something that might almost be a dirt road, albeit one that was still covered by the canopy of the trees overhead.

“Follow my lead,” Mifruzli ordered. “Before we can enter the city, we will be intercepted. Intercepted and judged. Follow my lead and rely on the power of your mark.”

That left her more than a bit disturbed.

They progressed father down the dirt road, making good time. There were no more animals that scattered at their arrival. Instead, there was no motion at all. In the heart of the jungle, the trees suddenly seemed to be empty of life.

Suddenly, a voice called out, “HALT!”

Zero spun, looking for the source, which seemed to come from all around them.

Something dropped from the trees ahead of them. It looked like a man! For a moment he crouched there, holding a spear with its butt grounded in the soil. Then he straightened and rose, and Zero saw that she had not been entirely correct in her assessment.

The figure wore a loincloth, of the same crude skin that she wore. For the most part, though, he was bare, exposing his body which was coated with a short fur. The fur was spotted like that of a jaguar. The finger seemed gnarled and arthritic, but a moment later it flexed, and she saw the tips of its claws emerging, for just a moment. The “gnarled” fingers seemed a compromise between human hands and the retractable claws of a cat. The face had a human nose, with the slightest hint of a muzzle. The top lip was split, like a cat’s. The eyes were nearly human. The pupil was round, but some element of the iris were odd. The ears seemed human.

Overall, the thing seemed to be primarily a man, with the fur and a scant few features of a great cat. For this world, it seemed practically mundane.

“Mifruzli,” it gasped, surveying them. “You were barred from this place!”

“Except for emergencies or extraordinary circumstances,” the old hunchback answered. “I bring this girl to meet the queen. She is certainly extraordinary. Whether this constitutes an emergency is for the queen to decide.”

The jaguar man thumped his spear once.

Immediately, other creatures dropped from the trees. A skunk girl, who still retained her lush tail. A snake man, with completely human arms and legs, but a slender, flexible torso. His head was half-human and half-other, being wedge-shaped and triangular. Several of the creatures had pink skin. Their torsos were large for their height, with undersized arms and legs. She thought them wholly human except for their extreme, upturned pug noses. There were other differences, too subtle to make a pattern. Then she spotted one of them with a more obvious snout than his fellows. Suddenly her image of the creatures twisted, and she was realizing that they had the pink skin of pigs, not men.

There were creatures that resembled wolves, bears, and stags. All surrounded them, staring at Mifruzli.

“You no longer rule the House of Pain,” the bear-man rumbled. “The new Mifruzli rules us now.”

“There will be a reckoning,” the old hunchback promised. “We would have had it out long before, had he not held the queen’s favor. Let him beware this time. I bring her a gift that will excuse all.”

“So he shall be informed,” the jaguar answered. “But the girl must be examined. This is the law.”

“My usurper’s law! I warn you, do not touch her!”

Ignoring that, the bear approached, wrapping a huge hand around Zero’s upper arm. Immediately, that spot flared with a glow of angry red, and sparks erupted from the point of contact. The bear jerked free, while the girl seemed unaffected. The mark on her chest glowed.

Their guards flinched, and drew back, then suddenly dropped to the ground, bowing to her.

“Holy one! Forgive us, holy one!”

She glanced at her hunchbacked traveling companion. The man nodded back.

“Yeah, fine, whatever,” she replied, waving her hand dismissively. “Get up already. But we’re moving on, whatever you say.”

“Of course, holy one.”

The men and women surrounding them parted, opening to allow them to continue along the road.

The old man spoke up, stroking his thin, white mustache. “Inform Mifruzli that if he crosses me, it will be at his peril.”

“As you say, former master.”

Jade and Gary continued together. She wanted to continue following the trail of the mysterious girl that echoed in her memory. He enjoyed being with her, and had no place better to go.

“It looks like she’s headed for the city,” he finally decided. “But how did she know?”

“There’s another smell with hers,” Jade told him. She’d shifted to have a forked tongue again, which was very strange to kiss with. “The smell is kind of that unwashed gymnasium aroma that some guys have.” She smiled shyly. “Not you.”

“Umm.” But Gary was smiling in return. “Then she’s got a guide. Probably one of the SabreTooths.”

“What’s a SabreTooth?”

“A grown man. Muscular, adult, nasty attitude. I think I can protect you from them if we meet just one. If there’s more than one, you should run. Shift and run. We’ll meet up later.”

“What about you?”

“They can’t hurt me,” he said, confidently.

Indeed, Gary’s blessing seemed proof against anything this world had to offer. Against animal attacks, a curved barrier of green light formed, twelve inches out from his skin. The green barrier was like a solid wall to attackers. No matter how hard they hit it, it was immovable and impenetrable. Further, the momentum slamming into the wall wasn’t transferred to Gary. And contact with the green field became progressively more painful, as it began to burn with a green fire that eroded flesh like acid. He could also use that to attack, pursuing them and pressing against them.

Jade was more than a little happy that the green field seemed to be able to differentiate between friend and foe. She had never experienced it.

Furthermore, since Gary never seemed to get hungry or thirsty, he wasn’t forced into dangerous situations to hunt. Even his clothes regenerated. He’d offered her his T-shirt, but it evaporated after about a half-hour. At around the same time, it “grew” on him.

“So… who’s ‘mom.’ And how’d she give you those powers? For that matter, how’d she get so powerful?”

“Her name’s Sara Waite,” Gary began.

“Hey! I know her!”

Gary nodded. “Makes sense. She’s a demon, but a nice one. Nicer that any of the people I’ve ever met.” He gave her a sideways smile. “Uh, present company excepted. Anyway, she eats souls. A tentacle lashes out, captures the soul, and the body collapses into this blue powder.”

Jade shook her head. “Doesn’t ring any bells, but I only have a flash of memory of my time at Whateley. Sara was standing there, explaining about me being a shapeshifter. For some reason, it was a surprise to all of us.”

“Weird,” Gary decided. “And that’s the only memory you have of that time?”

“Yeah. It’s like they’re, I don’t know, blocked or something.”

“Maybe you remember too much about Sara. Demons can do a lot of unbelievable things.” He leaned against a tree and flared his power, dissolving a hole into the trunk, as a demonstration. “If your memories contained personal details about Sara, maybe she sealed them, as protection.”

“Wait, she killed me? She ate me?”

Gary waved his hand in a calming gesture. “She definitely ate you, or you wouldn’t be here. But she didn’t kill me. I got shot by these creeps that were chasing her. I was about to die, and then she brought me here. Took her a while to set up my ‘blessing,’ but the world wasn’t so crazy back in those days either. Anyway, maybe something like that happened to you.”

“It would help if I could remember,” Jade grumped.

“Yeah, so I was telling you about Mom,” Gary continued, dismissing Jade’s problems. “I mean, she’s not really my mom, but I kinda guilted her into it. It was just when I was dying, and I asked her if, next time, I could have a mom like her. Or something like that. Anyway, I think that’s why she brought me in here, instead of just letting me die.”

“So… wait.” Jade shook her head. “We’re — all this — we’re inside Sara?”

“Well, in a sort of metaphysical sense. This is her world, her universe. Everything she eats comes here. This place is like her laboratory, or her inner mind. She tries out all the things she wants to experiment with, all the combinations. Other stuff she just lets percolate at random. But since she rules here, she’s sort of in, like, total control. So when she visited last time, some of the more dangerous guys here grabbed me and tried to use me as a hostage. That really pissed her off, so she fixed it so that I’d never have any problems again.” He looked down at himself. “Although I could go for some different clothes. I think this is what I was wearing when I first met her. A little nicer, maybe. But I could really go for something like a black leather jacket, you know?”

Zero followed the old hunchback cautiously, but with a bit more respect. He clearly knew his way around here. To listen to things, maybe he’d even been in charge for a while, of this corner of things. That would explain why he was passing this way again. Or… maybe not. Would it have been better to travel through an unknown area, or an area where you’d once been in charge, before being kicked out?

Still, it wasn’t like she had other options. She wasn’t about to just fly away at this point.

A moment later, loops of vine and rope dropped from the trees overhead. Before she could move, her arms were bound at her side. There was a red flare, at the contact, and her protection began eroding away the vines, but the process was slow. More and more ropes dropped on her, further diluting the effect of her protection.

A deep, rich, orator’s voice rang across the open road.

“Blessed and protected, clearly, but I think it was not by the Kellith.”

“Iä Kellith!” Mifruzli echoed.

“Iä Kellith!” the voice responded. A man stepped onto the road ahead of them.

Zero looked, then gave a double-take. It was Mufruzli! Only this one was young, perhaps only twenty-five years old. He had the same thin mustache, but it was still black. And he wore actual clothing – the first she’d seen in this world! He was draped in some sort of ceremonial robe, of red and white silks.

“Iä! Iä Kellith! Dakeit-cthoagna’nachahazoiz’wlli! Iä!”

“Hello… son,” the hunchback ground out.

The younger, robed man smirked at that. “I am no more son than you are. I—my people—captured Grandfather.” He licked his lips in remembrance.

The hunchback’s eyes widened. “Truly?”

“He escaped again, of course. But not before I began to practice my art upon him. I had relieved him of his left arm by then.”

The hunchback’s eyes narrowed. “And you plan the same for me.”

“Perhaps,” the younger man allowed. “It depends on how cooperative you are. I think my mistake last time was beginning with the arm, instead of the leg. Missing a leg makes it so much harder to flee.

Zero watched the interchange with growing terror. She knew she was missing a lot of the implications here. There were rules and secrets to this world that the old man had never shared with her. Whatever the more subtle secrets, “danger to life and limb” was pretty easy to understand.

She concentrated on the mark on her chest, reaching into it, calling to it, forcing her emotions through it, whatever she could manage. In response, her power flared. The ropes, all of them, began to burn. A moment later, a tremble ran through the ground – the precursor to an earthquake.

“None of that, I think,” the younger Mifruzli said, making a pointing gesture with his hand.

Something slammed Zero in the back of her head, and her world went dark.

Jade and Gary continued on, holding hands. If attacked, he would physically stand between her and the attacker. That gave her time to shift and either escape or help. Other times, she had to take on the panther shape to hunt. Gary wasn’t bothered by that need – he never required food or water himself.

Even as a panther, Jade remained female. She hadn’t had a period or gone into heat yet. When she did go into heat, she hoped that Gary would be there to soothe and protect her. Despite the danger, though, she remained female.

She was still learning from the animals she fought. They were getting more varied, and tougher. But each time she killed and ate, she gained an understanding of their forms, down to the cellular level. There were other memories that came as well, sometimes simple visions of hunting, sometimes more nightmarish concepts. Those last, Jade had learned to push aside and eliminate.

So her “panther-pine” form continued to evolve. In appearance it hadn’t changed drastically. The spines had vanished, replaced by the more typical hair. She’d learned how to secrete a corrosive slime, when necessary. Using that, she could slough off the hair and slither free from all but the tightest grasp, leaving her foe covered with a deadly acidic slime.

She’d learned the secret of nematocysts, the deadly stinging cells of the jellyfish. The “unprotected” skin of her tentacles were now covered with enough stingers to kill a hundred men. And at the inner “throat” of each claw that tipped the tentacles, a dozen giant-sized stinger cells lay ready to fire. Each one was capable of dropping a normal dog, a dozen should stop an elephant.

She’d learned even more internal changes. Her immune system protected her from all of her own venoms, and those of every creature she’d experienced. Her kidneys retained every drop of moisture, lowering the need to drink. Her respiratory and circulator systems had been vastly improved; her natural healing and blood restoration had skyrocketed; while her senses were unimaginably keen, including features like the telescopic vision of a bird, the underwater vision of a shark, and night vision that combined the best features of the cat and snake families.

The internal changes she carried over into her human form.

And still, there were creatures here that were more than a match for her. The trees, those that were active, had a strength and durability that was hard to match. Her venoms did nothing, her claws barely scratched, even her powerful hind paws struggled against the strength of the larger branches. The best she could do was to break free early, when it was only the branch tips holding her. That, or cry for help from Gary, who could destroy the entire tree.

The megafauna were also a problem. There were gigantic animals that fed directly on the living trees. Herbivores, she would have called them back in the real world. Here… well, the trees fought back – hard. So the animals had armor and razor-sharp teeth, and they were able to grind an entire tree into sawdust in a matter of minutes. And from what she’d seen, the “herbivores” wouldn’t pass up the occasional meaty treat that might come their way.

There were matching predators, who filled the niche of the tyrannosaurus, but with different starting points than that of a dinosaur lizard. Each one seemed unique. There was the mega-elephant, whose trunk had split into four crushing tentacles. There was a beetle of enormous size that was both armored and able to crush virtually anything inside its prodigious mandibles. There was a thing that was like a gigantic, flat piece of liver. When unrolled, it displayed trees and apparently-normal flora. When enough weight pressed in the center, it rolled up, completely engulfing its prey. One creature seemed a cross between a gigantic octopus and a dirigible – never touching the ground, just reaching down to pluck up an interesting looking meal.

So when the earth shook, or gigantic shadows covered the land, she and Gary made themselves scarce. Even so, they found time at least once a day to share the pleasures of the flesh, sometimes while they were hiding from a passing monstrosity.

“Normally, I’m not like this,” Jade said, after a desperate and frenzied coupling. “It’s just, I can’t seem to control myself.”

“Just part of being in this world,” Gary explained. “If I can really call Mom my mother, then grandpa was a demon of lust and perversion. His influence comes through a lot, I think. From talking to people who’ve ‘come down,’ I think that out in the real world most people think Mom is some sort of lust demon, too.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Jade said, relishing the post-coital moment, and the feel of him lingering inside her.

“Yeah, there’s a pretty huge jolt to the old sex drive for pretty much everything that lives here. I’m immune, but not many others are.”

“I guess you aren’t entirely immune,” she bantered, squeezing him gently.

“Naw, that’s just regular, healthy adolescence. I mean, what guy would turn down a cute, nympho girlfriend?”

She involuntarily squeezed him again, upon being called “girlfriend.” But she still had to say it. “I feel kinda weird, since you told me you were only eleven.”

“In the outside world. I’ve been in here forever, it seems like. And I think Mom kind of ‘adjusted’ me when she gave me that blessing thing. I mean, I told you I’d done it before.”

“I’ve done other sex in this world,” Jade admitted quietly. “As a guy. You’re my only, as a girl. But it’s different, being with you. It’s a lot better than just the sex.”

Gary was still on his previous thought, though. “People think it’s just about the lust and sex, but that’s not it at all. They’re as wrong about that as they are wrong about Mom being a demon.”

Jade just lay back, and enjoyed the way she could feel the vibrations of his voice, through strange parts of her body.

“She’s not! She’s one of the Great Old Ones. And she’s practically a baby, by their standards.” He gestured around them. “When I first came here, this place was almost empty. It hasn’t been very long, but the way it’s changed…

“I spent some time with some of the people here who know something. They’ve studied the GOOs, learned what little a human can understand about them. It’s like, all of these GOOs focus and begin to totally obsess on just one idea. I’m not sure that Mom has quite settled down yet, but it looks like she’s picking offspring and variation, or genetics, or biology, or maybe just life. It’s something like that. This world is getting deadlier and deadlier, and Mom instinctively knows everything that happens here. If there’s some new killer creatures that evolve down here, I’ll bet that out in the real world Mom can make them appear, or turn into them or something. She could make an unstoppable army of those turbooths you hate so much. Then she could take over the world!”

“Is that what she’s doing?” Jade asked, suddenly fearful. “Is she trying to take over the world? Maybe I was fighting her! Is that what I’m doing here?”

“Naw.” Gary pulled out, much to Jade’s regret. He pulled his pants up and began to fasten his belt. “In here, it feels like years have passed since I first arrived. Maybe decades. So much has happened… But I think up in the ‘real world’ only two, two and a half months have passed. Mom’s trying to be a student. I think. Although there seem to be an awful lot of fights…”

Zero awoke, strapped to a table. I don’t exactly remember, she thought, but somehow this scene seems far too familiar.

“That was quick,” the younger Mifruzli said, moving into her field of view.

She realized that her head was clamped in place. She couldn’t move at all.

“Let me tell you a little bit about what we’re accomplishing here,” the man spoke, becoming carried away with his own grand schemes.

“This world is not like the world that you and I grew up in. And the most notable change is not the vastly increased libido we all inherit here.”

Huh? she thought. While he was talking, she tried to activate her protection. She concentrated on the mark on her chest, feeling it blaze up in energy. Likewise, she could feel flares of energy all around her body – ankles, upper thighs, waist, neck, upper arm, wrist, the crown of her head.

The hut began to shake around them.

“None of that!” young Mifruzli ordered. “If you’re going to use the mark, I’ll just have to knock you unconscious again or kill you. Then continue my work.”

Zero stopped concentrating and the energy seemed to die back down. It wasn’t gone, but it was much weaker.

“Excellent! Now let me explain about the exciting discoveries that you will help us explore. The first thing you need to know is the Big Difference in this world. It concerns the nature of the soul. Think of a protein molecule, composed of thousands of different atoms. In the Old World, by and large, you needed a living body to house a soul. When the body dies, the soul left, traveling off to its eventual destination. Some souls reincarnated, others passed on to we-know-not-where. But the soul, the protein molecule, remained whole and untouched. Which is interesting, because you’ve heard that the soul is indestructible. This is true, but it’s not the protein molecule, in our analogy, that is indestructible, but rather the atoms that make it up. In this New World, the natural laws are different. First, the natural tendency is to break that molecule apart, to revert to the thousands of atoms that make it up. Those then form into new combinations with other atoms, creating a thousand variations of souls.

“Second, there is no soul/body dichotomy here. An ‘atom’ of soul is expressed in this world as a physical substance – the flesh of your body, the wood of a tree, even the bits of crap you leave on the ground. Except for the rock and air, everything around us is soul, or soul fragments. Every time you eat, you take in bits of soul. Every time you crap, you leave behind bits of spirit or memory that your body has decided that it doesn’t need, or doesn’t want. The soul doesn’t dissipate, like in the Old World, it remains around for endless recycling.”

She decided that she had to get away from this maniac, and soon! Once he finished his ranting, she had no doubt that he would begin doing terrible things to her. And from the sound of it, he would be trying to do something to her very soul. That wasn’t something she planned to stick around for.

But she had nothing to work with. She realized that she was naked on the table. None of her weapons or tools was nearby. There was nothing but the dust and grit on the table.

And, thinking that, she knew.

“It’s just that a person, with a complete soul, doesn’t have thousand of ‘soul atoms,’ but billions, perhaps trillions. The complete soul, as we think of it, isn’t a simple construction like a protein molecule, but something enormously complex. But in this world, each piece of soul is attached to a physical chunk. I don’t know the truth of it, perhaps these physical bodies are an illusion, and this place is nothing but some sort of complex simulation on the recombination of souls. Whatever the deeper truth, the truth for us, in this world, is that each piece of meat, each gobbet of flesh, is inextricably wound up with a thousand million bits of soul. Your memories, your abilities, and the very shape of your body are not contained in your head and brain, they are spread throughout your body. They are your body.

“That was my breakthrough, my key realization.”

Zero had reached out with her power, the same ability that let her pick up entire logs, just by touching them with a fingertip. She gathered the dust and grit to her. Unlike the rasengan, she spun this in a single circle. A tiny and hopefully unnoticed circle. With this tiny saw blade, she began to grind away at the woody vines that bound her right wrist.

“After much contemplation, I decided to investigate two key questions that have plagued our race since civilization began: First, what makes a man? What makes him different and greater from the animals we exploit? And second, knowing that, can we somehow make something better than man? Can we create a superior being? Can we become superior beings?”

Zero could feel that it was working, but so slowly. She knew she’d have to keep her arm perfectly still afterwards. She was concentrating so hard that it was like she could actually see the action of her grit-saw upon the tough vines.

She blinked, realizing that she could see it! Not through her eyes, but some sort of black-and-white vision allowed her to focus on the place where the grit circle was grinding away at the wood. It was like a distant vision. She had no time to experiment with the discovery, she used it to concentrate her efforts on cutting more efficiently. And she decided to leave one tiny, breakable strand in place, so that she could pretend to be still imprisoned.

“I began my study with pigs. Such rude, coarse creatures. And yet, they’re also very close to people in many ways. Naked skin, rather than fur, very similar digestion. And in temperament, I think it no accident that so many people are called ‘pigs’ or ‘swine.’ Could I take a pig and form it into a man? And so long as I was attempting that, could I take a man and make a pig of him? Perhaps an easier task.

“And my method of achieving this feat would be nothing more than simple surgery. It followed my key realization that in this world, the soul and body were equivalent. More – soul, body, memory, form, function – all are bound up in the flesh, which is so easy to manipulate. So by transplanting pieces from a man into the body of a swine, I was increasing the pig’s intelligence, causing his body to mutate and heal into a more human form, and grafting in the memories of man – bits of language, perhaps a glimmer of table manners, who knows what odd pieces of knowledge?

“And at the same time, when I transferred swine organs or limbs to the man, I was identically devolving him into animal form, teaching an appreciation for slop, or perhaps the skill of how to properly wallow in the mud.

“Let me show you.”

With that, he unlocked a pin on the bottom of her table and pivoted her upright, though the vines still held her rigidly in place.

Now she could see the entirety of the crude hut. Across from her, visible for the first time, were other tables like hers. Six other tables. On them were two men and four animals – a doe, a huge anaconda, a badger, and a wolf. Every creature had been opened from neck to groin, exposing the internal organs. Worse, it was clear that there had been transplants, new hearts, an entire intestinal tract, smaller organs like the kidneys or gonads – all had been stitched into place and not original to the animal. Beside the horror of that, the mismatched limbs seemed almost mundane. All of the creatures lived, driven by their unceasing agony past suffering into a glazed state where they might escape the unbearable pain they suffered.

The worst, perhaps, were the two men. One was being transformed into a doe, with the womb and genitalia seeming to be the most recent additions. His still-human arms and legs had been thinned considerably, and his hands and feet transformed completely into hoofed instruments that still possessed opposable thumbs. The other was becoming a snake, his body being lengthened by some process she didn’t care to know, and his skin being progressively exchanged with that from the animal.

The greatest horror, though, came from the faces. She wasn’t sure whether it was worse to see human eyes in an animal face, or snake and deer eyes implanted into a human face. The nose, mouth, and ears were likewise being reshaped. Even the man’s tongue had been surgically altered, to split like that of a snake.

“Ah, there were so many difficulties at first. How to make surgical tools in a world without refinable metals? Fortunately, there are rocks, and we can make crude knives, yes? And volcanoes, allowing for obsidian and glass tools of a sharpness that surpasses that of Old World scalpels. Thread for stitching was simple, and certain thorns made the perfect needles. My only lack to date has been anesthesia, but I haven’t let that impede my great mission. Fortunately, creatures in this New World possess an amazing vitality, an endurance which far surpasses that of our old world. And after an exchange of flesh, there would be the most amazing healing, with unexpected aspects of the body or mind healing into the form that was my goal.”

Zero had moved to cutting the vine on her ankle, but she needed more time! She sensed that Young Mifruzli was drawing to a close in his psychopathic rant. Desperate to stall, she tried to get him talking again.

“If you’ve learned all that, what do you need with me?”

“Well, the first thing is that once I’ve finished with one of my subjects, I release them to join our little community here. After their experiences here in the ‘house of pain,’ they are remarkably pliable to my will. So I’ve given them the vestiges of civilization, clothing, weapons, laws. Listen, here are some of the laws, as expressed in their somewhat degenerate version of our language:

“Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
“To cover our bodies and sex; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
“Not to go on all-fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
“To walk on two legs; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
“Not to claw the Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
“For only full men to enter the city; that is the Law. Are we not Men?”

Mifruzli idly picked up a shiny, ebony-black scalpel, toying with it. Zero realized this was one of his obsidian instruments.

“Apparently,” he continued, “after their time in the House of Pain, they feel that others who would join their ranks must undergo a similar initiation. They almost seem aroused by the thought of others screaming in pain, while they have escaped. Perhaps that is why they picked you. Perhaps they were simply attracted, and wanted you as one of their women. But you have broken their law. You didn’t walk on two legs, you floated through the air. And—” He reached toward her face, stroking his hand up her forehead and brushing back the mass of her hair. “—to be honest, you are not what they see as a ‘true man.’ This hair has to go. That should be a simple scalp replacement.” His hand slipped lower on her face, a horrifying caress. “And these ears are plainly a simian artifact. I should be able to reconstruct them out of spare parts. The eyes – I don’t know where you got those. They’ll have to go. Perhaps doe eyes would do. They might give you a properly wistful expression. A shame, since the man – well, female now – is nearly healed.”

His hand trailed down her face and neck, coming to rest on her chest, between and just slightly above her breasts.

“But for me, this is the prize. A demon mark! And not the mark of our Mistress, so I won’t be invoking the wrath of our god. This is so rare, so unbelievable. I cannot understand how you even got here! But this will be the focus of my true research. The mark is said to be indelibly branded into the soul, permanent and eternal. But does that mean each atom of the soul, or simply one corner of it? We’ll try lifting out the mark itself, first. I don’t expect that to work. If I were to split you evenly in half, would one half get the mark, or both halves? And what of the other side? Doe and snake, or should I fetch fresh animals? Will they be infected by the mark, or will it avoid them?

“There is so much to learn, so many combinations to explore. I’m afraid my tribe outside will never receive their new breeder, as you are certain to become my new master work.”

He smiled then, and by appearances it was a perfectly happy, perfectly pleasant smile.

Zero began to shiver uncontrollably, and couldn’t stop.

Gary led the way.

“The path you were following leads past the House of Pain. That’s a pretty psycho place, even for here. I wouldn’t send you through alone, but I have a special relationship with the beast men. If you keep to your human form, my protection should cover you. I mean it! Once we get to the road, you can’t shift or alter your body in any way. You need to stay completely human. They’ll be watching.”

She nodded, accepting his lead.

“The beast men are—”

He stopped, as a grown man stepped onto the path ahead of them. The man had a broad, hairy, very muscular chest; thick arms that were corded with muscle; an abdomen that clearly displayed the “six pack” of heavy exercise; and legs that were like small tree trunks of hard muscle.

“Jade, stay behind me. SabreTooth, step out of the way.”

“Hello, Gary,” the man answered in a deep, taunting voice. “I thought I heard a call, and came. But look what prize it’s won me!”

“You SabreTooths should know by now that you can’t beat me!”

In an eye blink, the man’s face changed. It was the same hyper-developed Mr. Universe body, but with a different face. “I’m not quite a SabreTooth any more, Gary-boy.”

“Shit, it’s Luther! Run, Jade! Shift and run!”

She turned and fled, assuming her panther form, complete with an eye in the back of her head.

Because of that, she saw Gary “fighting” the man.

The man never came close enough to feel the sting of Gary’s protection. He flowed around the boy like water. That was literal, not figurative. He didn’t use grace or martial arts or any such skill to avoid Gary’s touch. Instead, his flesh melted, instantly and completely, and became a liquid wall that flowed in a wide circle around the boy. Once past, he resumed human form, then shifted and melted again. His body dwindled while his legs extending, giving him the enormous stride of a stilt-walker.

Jade raced ahead, while simultaneously keeping watch behind. She’d gained on him considerably, but now he began making up the distance. Worse, her body was make for sprints, not endurance runs.

She decided her best bet was to keep the lead she’d gained, then go to ground. She zigged wildly off to the size, vanishing in the underbrush, then quickly circled around coming to rest high in the crown of a (normal) tree. Once settled, she concentrated on her skin, changing it to the texture and color of bark.

She tried to control her panting, to eliminate any sound she made.

After a minute, she began to feel a little safer. Had she lost him? Her heart was just beginning to return to its normal rate when she was engulfed by a wave of black substance. Faster than she could react, it engulfed her, contained her in a suddenly-transparent bubble, then extended thick black cords that twined themselves around each limb, even trapping her tail and all four tentacles!

The bubble ripped open and receded; the black goop formed into the shape of a naked man, with corded black tentacles emerging from the sides of his torso – the tentacles that held her trapped!

He laughed madly. “Another shapeshifter! Marvelous! Though not quite so adept as me, obviously.” With a look of concentration, he clenched hard with his tentacles. “If you don’t want me to squeeze you like a banana, you’ll resume your human form.”

She’d already been trying to sting him. Obviously, the nematocysts that coated her tentacles did nothing to harm him, nor did the caustic slime on her body. Relenting, she slowly returned to her human form, forgetting that she’d lost her bikini outfit when she’d first shifted.

“Oh, I like!”

A black, cable-like tentacle wound around each breast, squeezing and flicking over her nipples in a way that was far too rough to be pleasant. Two more of the black cables wound around her upper thighs. Even as he descended to the ground (more of the ropy tentacles doing the work), he pulled her legs wide.

“Here’s the game, little shifter. I fuck your brains out, shifting all the while. You use your powers to try to keep up with me. If you live, you win, and I’ll leave you alone after that.”

Jade was desperate. “No! That’s… this is rape! I’ve only ever been with Gary! Please, why are you doing this?”

“Why?” The man leered, and leaned in for a grotesque kiss with suddenly oversized lips. “Because I can! That makes you my meat, little shifter. It makes everything in this whole damned world my meat.”

He stretched her legs wider still, and she looked down to see his erection, about the same size as Gary’s. She wasn’t ready, not even close. She didn’t want to be ready, either.

He closed the distance between them, then almost casually forced his way into her. It was like a sandpaper broomstick forcing its way down a sore throat.

Already crying, she concentrated on shifting her cells, making herself moist enough that this wouldn’t kill her.

“There’s that pussy lotion I love! God, you chicks can’t resist me, can you? It’s always ‘no, no, no,’ but as soon as I’m plunging in your snatch you go crazy with the love goo.” He grunted a few times, getting into a good rhythm. “You’re pretty tight. I like that. Let’s see if we can make things tighter.”

With that, Jade felt him swell and grow inside her. Both longer and thicker, but still plunged to the hilt within her. She felt like she was one step away from tearing open. It was intensely painful, in one of the most sensitive areas of her body. Concentrating with the desperation that survival lends, she altered her body, growing large enough to contain him.

“Aw, she passed the first test. That’s almost too bad. Nothing I like more than pumping my seed into a girl that’s hemorrhaging. Well, maybe we’ll turn this into a little game of follow the leader. And let’s see if you can manage so well with a few distractions.”

One tentacle slithered up to wrap around her left breast, squeezing painfully hard in time with his thrusts, while the tip of it roughly flicked her tip. Another tentacle slithered around her right breast, doing the same. And a third tentacle wrapped around her neck, squeezing in choking pulsations timed with the monster’s thrusts.

She thought she was probably bleeding now, with how roughly he was treating her. Still he continued to lengthen and swell, and still she enlarged her vaginal cavity. She bypassed the womb. It was an unimportant opening halfway down her soft cavity. Now her intestines and bowels were displaced, as his ever-growing organ required more space.

He’s toying with me, she realized. His changes happen in an eyeblink. This is slowed to be just where I can keep up with him.

She knew it, but she didn’t see how the realization helped her. She was at her limit. Actually, she was being pushed faster than her limit.

“You probably haven’t run across too many shifters, have you? See, I’m sort of the top predator of the shifter world.”

“Ah! Ah! Ah!” She was gasping now, giving soft moans. They weren’t moans of pleasure, but rather agony. She felt like she was nothing but vagina at the moment, one huge cavity to contain and restrain his terrible, humiliating, agonizing invasion of her body. She’d grown as large as she could. The top of her vagina bumped against the bottom of her diaphragm, and each thrust he gave actually forced the air out of her lungs.

“I do this to every shifter I come across. The boys, I knock ‘em around until they get the idea of changing to somethin’ more suitable for me. If they don’t, I take ‘em anyway, only I don’t spend so much time on the lovin’, and lots more on the dominatin’. Girls, why I just love ‘em to death. What I really love is when I can get ‘em to turn human, like you. That makes it so special, you know? So I just wanted you to know why you hadn’t seen other shifters. It was because I got there first, and did this to ‘em.”

He was still larger. She could accommodate his girth, although he was splitting open her pelvic girdle. She’d opened herself, like for childbirth, and it still wasn’t enough. But his length was jabbing her diaphragm hard.

“Here’s my favorite part. There’s one last trick I have to show you.”

Just for a second, she felt him coming. To match his enormous size, he was filling her was an enormous amount of sticky fluid. For an instant, she thought that might be the end of it. Then, thorns or claws or she didn’t know what, wicked curved blades, erupted from the sides of his monstrous penis. A set of barbed hooks shot out from the tip. Her vagina was shredded, along with her intestines and most of her internal organs. Her diaphragm was pierced, and a moment later her heart.

She gave one last gurgling cry and collapsed dead, hanging lifeless on his enormous, still erect penis.

“Oh yeah, that’s the rush I love.” He gave a few last thrusts, ripping her further as he unloaded the last of his seed. Then he allowed himself to shrink back down, as he withdrew and dropped the body on the ground.

“And best of all,” he muttered to himself. “No super-shifter kids that are going to cause me problems later in life.”

With a self-satisfied smirk, he headed into the jungle, master of all he surveyed.

to be continued


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0 # TheShadow 2017-05-22 20:32
.... :eek: ....UMM....UMM....WHAT THE FUCK...I do not know why, but I feel like I HAVE to read part 2...Jade...Jade, WHY DID SHE HAVE TO DIE LIKE THAT?! I MUST FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.
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