In the end, Ruby's group came to Lily's mansion again. They knocked on the door and, when Lily called out for them to enter, they pushed open the door and stepped inside.

Lily approached. "So you've come to an answer?" she said. She looked around at each of them and her expression hardened. "…Though it seems it isn't to help me."

"We have come to an answer," Ruby said.

Ruby's group all drew their weapons and, in Micaela's case, also unveiling their halo and wings.

"We're decided to stop you," Pyrrha said.

"You m-might have good intentions, but you'd cause too much trouble if you spread this magic around!" Lime said.

"You've got a choice: give up on your plans, or we beat you up here," Alice said.

"Please reconsider this," Micaela said. "It wouldn't be a simple thing to spread tentacle magic around, and—"

Lily let out a frustrated sigh. Her skin began to literally crawl, as if there were countless worms squirming around underneath.

"I'm hardly even disappointed by this," Lily said. "I suppose it was too much to expect random travellers to see the value of my mission…"

Ruby felt a pang of guilt, but she said, "We can see the value in it, but the danger is too much—"

"The danger!? That's what's causing you to hesitate!?" Lily shouted.

Both of Lily's arms transformed into massive bundles of tentacles, nearly filling the entrance corridor with soft, slimy flesh. Her magical aura intensified… though it didn't seem that intimidating to Ruby, after everything she'd been through.

Then a magic circle appeared in front of Lily, glowing with red light. A torrent of flame erupted from this magic circle and rushed towards Ruby's group, leaving no room whatsoever to dodge.

Alice thrust both of her hands forward, casting a powerful ice spell to counter the flames.

"You're using that in your own house!?" Alice exclaimed. "Just how reckless are you!? This is—gah!"

Alice was overpowered in this contest of magic, causing her to be blasted backwards. Fortunately, Micaela came to her rescue by casting a beam of holy light, annihilating Lily's flames.

"Did that get her!?" Ruby asked, gripping her nameless scythe tightly.

"No… not at all," Micaela replied.

The beam subsided, revealing that it had left a gaping hole in the doors at the other end of the corridor. But Lily was nowhere to be seen.

"She teleported away…" Alice said. "This mansion is her place of power, so it's much easier for her to pull off difficult magic like that. She could potentially attack us from anywhere and at any time. And there could be traps as well. Stay focused."

Micaela looked around and frowned slightly. "I can't sense where Lily is now… nor can I sense anyone else, even though a mansion this size must have servants. That suggests we also won't be able to sense any traps Lily sets until we're almost on top of them."

It would have been easier to destroy the entire mansion, without going inside. Ruby thought. But, even if we weren't trying to catch Lily alive, doing that would kill any servants or other people in the mansion, and put the other villagers in danger.

Ruby's group began advancing. They walked down the entrance corridor, examining the rooms on either side, but these were empty. Then they passed through the blasted-open doors at the end.

…Just a few months ago, I wouldn't have thought of something like that. But now… well, I guess all of us are changing in order to survive.

I hope that no matter what happens, we don't forget who we are.

-ooo-

Over the next half of an hour, Ruby's group encountered more than a dozen attacks.

When they entered a living room, the air was suddenly filled with thick purple smoke—poison gas, conjured into existence by magic. At the same time, Lily appeared from a doorway to throw a fireball at them. Alice focused on dealing with the poison gas, during which the others held their breaths, and succeeded in dispelling it after a few seconds. Before the poison gas was dispelled, Pyrrha fired off a couple of shots at Lily, but the witch teleported away again.

Next, they arrived in a dining room and the gravity suddenly disappeared, causing them to all float away from the ground. This was a shock to most of them, especially Lime—the slime turned into a shapeless mass of blue liquid that flailed around in a panic. However, Micaela kept her calm and shot an arrow of light at some runes glowing on the floor, undoing the zero gravity. She was just in time because Lily attacked them again by firing off a lightning bolt from a doorway. Pyrrha blocked the lightning by using her Semblance to pull a nearby metal statue into the way, after which Lily retreated again.

While travelling through a corridor, two walls of flame appeared from either end and began converging, with Ruby's group between them. Ruby initially expected Micaela to take down one of the walls of flame, but Alice pre-empted the angel by destroying one of the wooden walls to the side, creating an escape route.

Then there was the larder, a room packed almost wall-to-wall with pots and barrels. When they entered the room, the door immediately closed behind them and began shining with a golden glow, showing it was now reinforced. At the same time, slimy tentacles shot out from one of the pots and towards Ruby's group.

In the next instant, Pyrrha cut off all of the tentacles with a single wide slash of Miló.

"Ow!" said a strange voice from the pot. "How could you do that!?"

More tentacles emerged from the pot and latched onto the ground, pulling the pot backwards. However, the limited space in the larder meant that it soon collided with another pot, causing it to come to a stop and cry out "Eep!"

"Is that a…?" Alice murmured. "It is. Come out, Honey Pot."

A humanoid body popped out of the pot. It was a monster who, like many of the monsters Ruby had seen, looked like an attractive naked woman. Her hair consisted of a mass of sweet-smelling golden slime, which also covered her tentacles and filled the interior of the pot.

Now Ruby remembered something she'd read in a book a few weeks ago, before her kidnapping. Honey Pots were a type of mimic that lived in large pots instead of the more typical treasure chests. Like other mimics, they were undead monsters who were relatively powerful… though it seems they weren't a major threat to Ruby's group in its current state.

"I was hoping for a tasty young man," the Honey Pot said, looking around at Ruby's group, "but it's only other girls here! Just what do you want?"

"We're here to defeat Lily," Alice replied. "What's your relationship with her? We haven't heard anything about you being here…"

"Lily? The one in charge of this place?" the Honey Pot said. "I was sleeping down here for a long time, and she was the one to wake me up… That was a few years ago. She talked to me a few times, took some samples of my honey—not sure what that was for. But why are you here to defeat her? Just what has she done wrong?"

This revealed a little more about how Lily had managed to invent tentacle magic and successfully apply it to many villagers. The Honey Pot's tentacles looked a lot like the ones that Lily and the other villagers now had.

"Have you heard anything about what's been happening in the village?" Micaela asked. "About the history of oppression, the killing of most of the men in the village?"

"Wait, what!?" the Honey Pot flinched in shock.

"It's clear she hasn't," Pyrrha said.

Over the next couple of minutes, Ruby's group explained the situation in Magistea Village to the Honey Pot. During this, Ruby kept checking the door—which was still magically reinforced to prevent escape—and at the potential hiding spots in the room, but there was no attempt by Lily to attack. Perhaps she thought the resident of this room would be enough to handle them. Also during this time, the Honey Pot's severed tentacles completely regenerated.

Finally the explanation was finished. The Honey Pot—whose name was apparently "Mitsuko"—was now trembling within her pot.

"I can't believe all of that happened… and it's because of me…"

"You shouldn't blame yourself for this," Ruby said. "It was Lily's, and the other villagers', decision on what to do with tentacle magic. And with Lily's magical skill, even if she'd never found you she probably would have found some way to start an uprising anyway."

"More importantly, what do you want to do now?" Pyrrha asked.

"I can't stay in a place like this," Mitsuko said. "I want to move to a bigger place, where there's lots of pots for me to blend in with."

"That… might be a bit difficult," Alice said. "This village is pretty remote, and the nearest big settlement to here is… Sabasa, which currently has its own problems."

"Then take me with you," Mitsuko said. "I'll follow you around until we find a good place for me to stop."

Ruby's group thus left the larder with one addition to their number, even if it was only temporary.

-ooo-

Eventually, after dealing with more magical traps and attacks, they encountered some more people who weren't Lily. Though it was an encounter that they certainly didn't look forward to.

Multiple women with tentacle limbs attacked when Ruby's group entered a study room. They each had just one arm transformed into tentacles, unlike Lily and like the regular villagers. They were also wearing simple brown dresses that suggested a life of labour.

And they weren't a threat to Ruby's group in the slightest. It took just a few seconds to knock them all down and hold them to the ground. Lime contributed more to this than the others, by splitting into two bodies to hold two of the servants at once.

"Where's Lily?" Alice demanded.

"We won't let you hurt Lady Lily!" one of the tentacle villagers, presumably a servant of this mansion, shouted.

"She's the reason we can actually live now!" shouted another servant. "The old masters of this place treated us like playthings!"

Ruby hesitated. Lily was a saviour to these people, that had never been in doubt, but hearing such a raw reminder of this fact made her almost drop her scythe.

"Get your hands off them!"

Lily burst out from a nearby door and lashed out wildly with her tentacles. She didn't have any of the strategy from her earlier attacks; she was just moving like a crazed beast… or a person desperate to protect others.

I can't hesitate now! We came here—knowing what it meant!

Ruby activated her Semblance and ran to the left of Lily, cutting off the tentacles on this side. Pyrrha did the same to the tentacles on Lily's right. Lily cursed and tried casting a spell, only for Micaela to point a sword of light at her throat.

"Yield," Micaela said. "We will not harm your servants, nor will we kill you. Yield."

"I cannot," Lily replied, though she glanced fearfully at her servants on the floor. "I must… give this power to all those who need it…"

"Even if your goal is noble, your method would cause too much trouble in a world already full of it," Alice said. "Sorry, but it ends here."

Lily clenched her teeth in frustration. The flesh at the stumps of her tentacles wriggled around as it began to regenerate.

Finally, Lily nodded.

-ooo-

Predictably, there was chaos in Magistea Village when Lily's defeat was announced. Many of the villagers looked ready to take up arms and attack Lucia's faction as they began moving back into the village. The only thing that stopped conflict from breaking out again was Lily ordering her own supporters to stand down.

"I hope you're happy about all this," Lily said, gesturing at the crushed expressions on the villagers' faces using her now-human arms. "If you didn't want to support me, you could have simply left. And now… all this is thanks to you."

Ruby felt guilt pierce through her heart again. No matter how much logic there was behind her—behind everyone's decision, it didn't change the fact that their actions had hurt the people of Magistea Village.

"They aren't the ones you should be blaming," Lucia said, walking up to Lily. "I was the one who put this idea in their heads."

"Lucia," Lily growled. "You were my friend. You were at my side no matter what."

Lily marched closer to Lucia, close enough that their noses were almost touching.

"When I was in my room, bloody, beaten, defiled, you were there to comfort me," Lily said. "Just as I was there for you. I thought we would always be walking the same path together. What changed?"

"…Neither of us changed," Lucia replied. "I still agree with what you've done. It's what you planned to do that I couldn't allow. I… wish you'd chosen to stay in this village, to act as its proper ruler. Then… we could have continued walking the same path."

Lily lowered her eyes to the ground. "And I wish you were willing to leave this village with me, and help the world. But in the end… we disagreed, and one of us inevitably had to come out on top."

Then the two wielders of tentacle magic walked away from each other, not looking back.

After that confrontation, things began settling down. There was still a lot of discontent, so Lucia stayed around for several hours to discuss the new management of Magistea Village. She told Ruby's group that they'd done enough for her and should take the time to enjoy themselves; specifically, she recommended that they go to see the nearby coast. They thus left the village, though not before Alice passed some notes on monsterisation to Lucia to help out the villagers.

A short while later, Ruby found herself sitting on a sandy beach and watching the crashing waves beneath the afternoon sun. The others were all doing their own things: Alice and Micaela were sparring with magic, Pyrrha was practicing her Semblance by manipulating iron sand from the beach, Lime was throwing her boomerang out over the sea and then catching it again, and Mitsuko was playing with a crab she'd found in the sand. It reminded her of her experience back at the north coast of the Ilias continent.

Back then, we just had fun at the beach, clueless about the world… and about how weak we really were, Ruby thought. No… aside from Micaela, how weak we still are.

Ruby then started thinking about plans for her new weapon again. She couldn't afford to waste any time.

Let's see… is there anything I can learn from today? Tentacle magic… it lets a human turn parts of their body into something else, but two important things is that it can change the mass by a lot and it's easy enough to use that an entire village could learn it. Could I… use that principle to hide my weapon inside my body? It would be even more concealable than Pyrrha's new Miló and Akoúo̱…

Ruby imagined a massive scythe bursting out from her flesh. It was a grotesque idea, to be certain… but after the Battle of Beacon and all of her experiences in this world, Ruby couldn't rule out the idea immediately.

Aside from that, it would be good to give it various element options, for greater versatility… There are plenty of melee weapons in this world that can be permanently imbued with fire, ice, lightning or other elements, and it doesn't use up limited ammo, just the user's mana. If I could give my weapon multiple elements… it's a difficult thing, from what I've heard, but not impossible… Maybe Sylph could help? She is one of the four greatest spirits…

Ruby noticed Lime walking up to her, so she filed her thoughts away for future reference and then stood up.

"What is it?" Ruby asked.

"Can we… talk?" Lime asked, glancing around the beach. "Just the two of us?"

"Sure, what is it?" Ruby said.

Lime wrung her hands together. Due to her amorphous body, this caused her hands to temporarily fuse together.

"Ruby… do you think there's any point to me still being around?" Lime asked.

Ruby's instinctive response was "Of course, don't worry about that!". But by looking at Lime, she could tell the slime was feeling some genuine anguish, so she decided to try something different.

"I think there is," Ruby said. "Just how long have you been feeling like that?"

"For a long time, actually," Lime said. "It started as far back as when we first went into a Tartarus… I was terrified, but I managed to keep myself together. But then we ran into enemies that we didn't stand a chance against, like Neris, Morrigan, Granberia… and you were kidnapped by one of them. And I couldn't do a thing…"

"I couldn't do anything, either," Ruby reminded her. "I lost to all of them, I got kidnapped by Granberia, and I needed Nero to save me."

"But even then, you still do a lot more than me," Lime said. "Today, for example, you helped out in the fights, but I barely did anything. I… I'm weaker at fighting than almost everyone else in the group, except maybe Chrome. And Chrome's really smart and can make new things, so can you and Promestein, but I… there's nothing I can do that someone else can't do better—"

"I can't split myself in two," Ruby said. "I can't fit through any gap. I can't have my body crushed and then recover instantly. No one else in our group can do that, Lime."

"That's… That's…" Lime said, her body wavering in doubt. "Any slime could do those things…"

"You're wrong about that," Alice said, slithering into view. "At least, you're wrong about the first part. Only experienced slimes can divide themselves. You should be proud of being able to do that."

Micaela and Pyrrha also walked into view. The latter looked into Ruby's eyes and, judging from her brief nod, understood what had been going on here.

"Maybe…" Lime said. "But there's still lots of other slimes who are even better at this than me…"

"And how many of those are willing to help us?" Alice asked. She gestured around at the beach, which was empty except for the six of them. "I used to literally have the strongest slime in the world, Erubetie, serving me. But even though she should have heard that I'm still alive, she hasn't even tried contacting me."

Alice approached Lime and placed her hands on the latter's shoulders.

"I would take you over a hundred of Erubetie," Alice said. "It might sound meaningless when I'm in this weak state, but it's the truth. You've gone into places where the strongest of this world fear to tread, and survived. Not because we've been carrying you along, but because you've been pulling your own weight."

"I haven't known you for as long as the others," Pyrrha said. "But in the time I have known you, I have never once thought you were a burden. And along with Luka, Sonya and the rest of Iliasville, you played an important role in helping Ruby settle into this world."

Micaela also entered the conversation. "I've been alive for longer than the rest of you combined, which I hope gives my words some weight," she said. "Lime, you've made an incredible amount of progress in the few weeks I've known you, more than most other slimes I've known. You do have an important role to play in our group, and you should be proud of that fact."

"I… I…" Lime said. "Thank you so muuuuchhh!"

Lime threw herself at the other four, pulling them into a slimy hug and babbling incoherently.

After what we did today, it's nice to do something that feels good for a change, Ruby thought, returning the hug.

-ooo-

When they returned to the village, Lucia was waiting there for them. She now had a travelling cloak on… though this left a gap at the front that still exposed lots of skin.

"Everything is… settled now," Lucia said. "I won't keep you waiting any longer. Let us be off."

"Are you sure about this?" Ruby asked uncertainly. "Leaving the village, after that conflict…"

"I've found some trustworthy allies of my own, who'll stay behind to keep an eye on things," Lucia replied. "And even if Lily were to revert to her own ways immediately, she used up so much energy when fighting the five of you that she won't be able to fight again for a while."

"Then I guess it's time for us to leave," Alice said.

Ruby's group thus walked away from Magistea Village with one permanent and one temporary addition to their ranks. Though as they walked away, Ruby glanced back at the village one final time.

I'm still not entirely sure about what we did here was right… and maybe it's one of those things we'll never be certain about.

-ooo-

In a dimly lit stone room, Cinder lay down in the middle of a large, elaborate magic circle. She was naked and countless runes were drawn all over her body. A dozen large crystals were positioned carefully on the perimeter of the magic circle, each giving off a powerful aura of dark energy. And sitting just outside the perimeter of the magic circle was Lilith, the eldest of the Lilith Sisters.

"It's almost over," Lilith said, a serious look on her face. "There's just the final step left. Are you ready for this?"

"I gave you my answer when we began this ritual," Cinder replied. "Go ahead."

Lilith nodded and placed both hands on the magic circle, causing it to shine a brilliant purple. At the same time, a dazzling pain filled every part of Cinder's body.

Argh! This is—!

Cinder was no stranger to pain. Even from her earliest days in the orphanage, she'd been bullied and harassed by the other orphans and by the staff. After that was several years of slavery enforced by shock collar. Joining with Salem had improved her life, yet it had also meant harsh training to become a worthy agent of the Grimm queen. But now… it felt as if thousands of burning-hot insects were burrowing through her flesh, chewing and devouring her with jaws that dripped with acid.

I… will not… succumb to this! I did not… come this far… from being discouraged… by mere pain! I will… be reborn!

The pain was so intense that it nearly caused Cinder to twist around in agony. But she forced herself to stay in one place, well aware that leaving the magic circle risked disrupting the ritual. Yet even with all of her willpower, she couldn't stop her body from shivering. She must have looked a pathetic sight right now, but this wasn't the time to feel shame.

After a few seconds that felt like hours, the nature of the pain changed. While it was still mind-blowingly intense, it now felt like Cinder's body was being rearranged by a very clumsy surgeon. Muscle fibres tore and reconnected, bones cracked and knitted back together, even internal organs shifted and distorted. But it was her head that felt the worst pain: a tremendous internal pressure, as if her brain was about to burst free from her skull.

This… it can't possibly be… a way of killing me!? No one would… go to such lengths… just to…

Then, just as quickly as it had appeared, the pain subsided. Cinder gasped and sat up reflexively.

Did it… work?

Cinder looked at her hands, which were now covered in purple skin. She then used her hands to touch her face gingerly. There was still a slight tingling sensation in her body, but even that was gradually subsiding.

Lilith approached with a small mirror in hand. "Congratulations," she said, a smile on her face. "This was a resounding success."

Cinder examined herself in the mirror. Her face and figure were largely the same, but her skin had turned purple and a pair of silvery horns now jutted out from the top of her head. Moreover, there were now crimson tattoos running down the left side of her face, neck and chest.

No, these aren't tattoos… Cinder recalled. These are the markings that naturally appear on the skin of powerful monsters, analogous to how some birds have markings that advertise their fitness to mates. For me to gain them… it's a good sign.

Overall, it was clear that the monsterisation ritual had succeeded. Cinder had become a yoma: a humanoid monster with great physical and magical power… and a particular affinity for fire.

Cinder glanced at the crystals on the magic circle, which were now depleted of energy. These had formerly been charged up with energy from several powerful yoma, and said energy had been used by Lilith to achieve Cinder's transformation. Without these, the only option for Cinder—as Lilith was either unwilling or unable to bring in any helpers—would have been to become a succubus.

And I'm certainly glad it didn't come to that. While succubi do have many useful abilities, the mere thought of becoming a monster with a biological drive to act like a whore… it makes me want to vomit. Even if it sounds like it might be entertaining—no, I shouldn't think that way.

Cinder stood up and walked over to the side of the room, where her clothes were in a neat pile, and began to dress herself. Lilith followed her.

"Just as you desired, your body is mostly the same shape, so your fighting style should be unimpeded," Lilith said. "And if you wish to return to your previous appearance, for whatever reason, you can learn simple spells to do just that. With your skill at magic, it shouldn't take you long to learn them."

Cinder accepted the compliment for what it was. She wouldn't let it go to her head, since that was the path to her ruin. No matter how helpful this succubus seemed, Cinder was well aware that she was helping because their interests were aligned… for the moment.

"And on that topic, your magical power has greatly increased," Lilith continued. "You'll need some practice controlling your magic again, lest you blow away a building when you only intend on killing one person. I would suggest going to an open area and practicing with all kinds of magic, from offensive to supportive."

Raising one finger, Cinder wordlessly cast a very weak fire spell. Normally, this would have created a tiny flame no bigger or hotter than that created by a lighter. Instead, it created a flame bigger than a grapefruit and hot enough to—for example—char flesh with a second's exposure.

"Thank you, Lilith," Cinder said, ending the spell. "You've fulfilled your end of the bargain perfectly. As promised, I'll help you—and your backers—using the resources at my disposal."

Lilith nodded. "It was a pleasure working with you, Cinder Fall. I hope we meet again soon."

With that, Lilith teleported away in a flash of purple light.

As soon as Lilith was gone, Cinder closed her eyes and focused on the state of her body. She felt the air moving through her lungs, the blood flowing through her veins, and the mana circulating through every single cell and tissue.

It seems… that Lilith didn't try anything outside of our agreement.

Of course, Cinder wasn't foolish enough to just trust a strange succubus, no matter how great the potential benefits were. Even before that fateful day when Lilith's sister contacted her, Cinder had read about the abilities of succubi. She'd taught herself how to recognise the signs of succubus mental magic and how to resist them when needed.

As a further countermeasure—since one could never be too careful—Cinder had swallowed a certain magical stone before undergoing the monsterisation ritual today. If Lilith had tried to turn Cinder into her puppet, this stone would have reacted by forcing clarity into the latter's mind. Then Cinder would have reacted by killing the succubus.

Fortunately, she knew better than to take such a risk. Now then… it is time for me to resume my usual work.

Cinder left the ritual room and began walking down a corridor. She was within a mansion she'd bought in the city of Grandeur, which had become her new base of operations.

Sabasa was a good place for me to get a start. The incompetent queen allowed plenty of room for crime to thrive. But if I'm to obtain real power, I cannot be limited to one city.

Grandeur was an ideal place for her to expand to. Not only was it close to Sabasa and reasonably big, it was a world centre of entertainment… including the more illegal kinds. Illegal gambling and drugs were among the quainter activities that one could do in Grandeur.

I'll need to meet with the leader of the criminal world here. My newfound power will be very useful in… making him understand the importance of cooperation.

Cinder spotted a small marble statue of an angel on a nearby podium. It was an ornament that came with the mansion, and presumably quite valuable… but with Cinder's current resources, she could easily purchase a dozen of these out of pocket change. She therefore picked up the statue in one hand and began squeezing. Before she was using even one-tenth of her full strength, the statue shattered into a dozen pieces. A smile spread across her face.

I'll need to check on paperwork first, make sure my business deals are going as planned. And I'll need to check on the reports from my spies. I must find that insolent brat… I can't believe they actually lost her…

When Astaroth had revealed how her allies had captured Ruby, Cinder almost literally jumped at the opportunity for revenge. But the Lilith Sisters hadn't taken her to Hellgondo immediately, citing unspecified disagreements with their allies. And just a few days later, Ruby had somehow been kidnapped again by a mysterious man of unknown origins, leaving her out of Cinder's reach again.

I don't care how long it takes. I will find that brat again. And with this power that Mistress Lilith gave me, I will make her pay.

Cinder stopped in her tracks. She felt a faint sense of unease. But then she decided it was nothing, and moved on.


AN: To be clear, Mitsuko is not going to stay in the party for long. One of my goals with this fanfic is keeping the main cast at a manageable number.