Seven Sins - Complete [09/05/2023]

Hi folks! Thanks so much for clicking into this tale. A little bit about me: I’m Lyra, one of the Starlings associated with the Sophie & Pudding community. You might have seen me (or heard me be mentioned) on The Usual Bet. Maybe you’ve read my previous work, Luna, which is about a new AI on the market designed to fulfill her users’ every need.

I’m thrilled to finally be releasing my second novel. Comments are, of course, extremely welcome. It’s always a thrill for me to be able to give something back to a community that has given me so much already.

Synopsis: Mugwort is a Junior Tempter with his first Patient. Luckily for him, his kindly uncle Scumtack has all sorts of advice on the ways demons can use the seven sins to ensnare a human soul! Will Mugwort be able to start his career on the right foot?


I can’t tell you how I got these letters.

No, I didn’t mean “won’t”. I know what I said. Or wrote. Whatever. The point is, I can’t. As in: “I cannot”. As in: it is literally impossible.

Obviously, everything here sounds like total bullshit. I don’t blame you. I don’t think I’d believe me either, especially not with such a flimsy excuse as to why I can’t show you any proof. But what the hell (the irony!), you miss a hundred percent of the shots you don’t take, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Scott, so here you go.

I thought about saving the originals, but I don’t want to encourage anyone else to go down the same idiotic path that I have. The last thing Earth needs is a bunch of humans with demons as penpals, as if global warming and late-stage capitalism weren’t enough existential crises for us to deal with.

If you’re like me (though I hope you’re not), you might have questions when you’re done.

Do I expect you all to believe these are real letters? Like, actual goddamned ink on actual goddamned parchment, like it’s Lord of the Rings or something?

Why didn’t I go find the people in these letters and try to save them?

Am I really sure I’m not crazy? I mean, Occam’s razor, right?

All good questions. And yet all completely beside the point. Don’t quibble over crumbs when there’s cake at stake. Especially when it comes to Hell—don’t dig too deep, or else Hell will dig its claws right back into you.

I know some of you are going to ignore my advice and go looking anyway. I can’t stop you. But I hope, even if you ignore everything else, you at least take this last word of warning to heart: demons are liars. Remember that, no matter what they might tell you.

Lyra Starling

Letter I

My dear Mugwort,

How overjoyed I was to find that you’ve followed my footsteps and joined the Foreign Office! To make Tempter at your young age—I’ve always known that you’d go far; you’ve such a great set of horns on that head of yours. I must warn you: don’t expect any nepotism—you’ll have to work your way down the ranks just as I did. Though, of course, asking your uncle for advice is always a good idea, and hardly something anyone can take umbrage to.

You tell me you’re feeling anxiety over your first Patient. Good! Keep it in mind, and never fall into complacency. Although I’ve guided dozens of Patients into the imperturbable arms of Our Father Below, I still treat each new case as if it were my first.

The most important decision you’ll have to make is your angle of approach. Each mortal has their own idiosyncrasies, and to lump them all together as one would be sheer folly. Though humans are made of nothing more than dust and mud, even ones crafted by the same mother and father might differ wildly in temperament and outlook.

Although one can attempt to teach this in school, only fieldwork can show you how to delicately tip the weight of the scales away from The Enemy and towards Our Father Below. It is imperative that you close the trap delicately, so that they find themselves ensnared without even realizing that there was a struggle for their soul in the first place, at least until it is too late to do anything about it.

Based on the background you’ve given me about the Patient—her being marked as gifted in elementary school, failing to live up to those aspirations in college, and now in her young adulthood with a sense of malaise, of feeling like she was meant for greater things—I suspect the avenue of Greed will prove itself fruitful. You should be able to play upon that injured sense of pride, that low-grade simmering resentment against the world, and through that offer shortcuts that lead her closer and closer to Our Father Below.

Naturally, I have an illustrative example. Do not try and emulate my actions precisely with your Patient; rather, try to keep in mind that sense of careful prodding and digging to find the lever you need to move the world, as Archimedes so famously put it.

Your affectionate uncle,


Greed: Ava Stone

Ava didn’t know it at the time, but the day she met Charlotte Kingsley would turn out to be the most pivotal day in her entire life. Her judgment, like that of Paris of Troy, would be the nexus point that spawned a boundless stream of bad decisions.

The two women lived on the same floor in a college dorm, Ava crammed into a tiny triple, Charlotte in a luxurious single. On the first week of school, the hall decided to throw a “get to know each other” party, with everyone agreeing to prop open their dorm room doors and mingle.

Ava found herself desperately trying to get out of a boring conversation about cryptocurrency with a man who smelled exactly as bad as his choice of topic when she suddenly felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned to see a set of unfamiliar green eyes paired with a twinkling smile.

“Excuse me,” the stranger said, “I need my friend for something.” Ava felt soft hands grab her by the elbow. Each sky-blue fingernail was immaculately manicured, gently glowing under the hallway light. Without waiting for a response, the stranger led Ava away as she mutely followed.

When the two of them had stepped out of earshot, Ava turned back over her shoulder. The man had apparently quickly found another victim to talk at.

“You looked like you needed help,” said the stranger. Her words had the lightest drawl, which Ava had never heard anywhere other than on television and found that she quite enjoyed hearing in person.

“Thanks, I did,” said Ava, who inexplicably felt nervous. She preemptively wiped her palms against her shirt.

“The name’s Charlotte,” said the woman. Ava could see how the symmetry of Charlotte’s face was broken only by a small mole near the dimple where she smiled. She opened her mouth to respond to find that it had gone dry.

“A—Ava,” she croaked. Her tongue felt as if it loomed too largely in her mouth, moving about ungainly and causing her to fumble at her words.

“Well, A—Ava,” said Charlotte, holding up a brown shopping bag, which gently clinked as she moved it, “how’d you like to join me in my room?”

Her room? They’d just met! Charlotte caught the flash of surprise on Ava’s face and winked. “Don’t worry,” she added, “I have a no finance bros policy.”

“Well, if that’s the case…” laughed Ava nervously as she let Charlotte lead her down the hall. Charlotte still hadn’t let go of her arm. Part of Ava wished that she never would.

Ava heard the laughter of conversation spill out from Charlotte’s room as it mingled with the sound of speakers playing music in the hall. It was a lightly discordant mess, with no attempt to coordinate the music across all the rooms.

As Ava got her first look inside Charlotte’s dorm, she felt as if she’d stepped into a closet and ended up in Narnia. Despite the fact that the room only had a single occupant, it was somehow still larger than Ava’s triple. A gaggle of eerily well-groomed teenagers who looked like their parents had vacation homes in the Hamptons mingled amongst themselves. Ava self-consciously picked at a fray that had developed in her jeans. She was the only person in the room whose clothing didn’t intentionally have holes in them.

Luckily it turned out that, in real life, greasers and Socs didn’t have to hate each other on sight. Charlotte introduced Ava to her coterie and pulled out the illicit bottles of wine she’d smuggled in. Afterwards, Charlotte fluttered off to different groups and let Ava quietly mingle, just happy to be peripherally involved in Charlotte’s orbit as she heard people use “summer” as a verb for the first time in her life.

Pivotal days, of course, have pivotal moments, and Ava’s was coming up. Charlotte had somehow ended up standing on her wooden chair, an orator equal to Cicero with an audience that was just as enraptured.

“Fuck capitalism,” she said, the red disposable cup of Two-Buck Chuck in her hand threatening to spill over as she punctuated each beat with a wild gesticulation. “I’m like goddamn Robin Hood. Steal from the rich. Give to the poor.”

The crowd shouted a chorus of affirmations. Ava could see Rolexes—or what she thought maybe were Rolexes, she certainly had never seen one before—gleam in the lights as people lifted their arms and whooped and hollered. She joined in anyway, feeling like a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

“That’s why I only lift from chain stores,” Charlotte continued. More meat for the ravenous crowd. “No mom-and-pop shops. It’s about the message.” She wobbled as she stepped off the chair and rejoined the mortals on their plane.

“I didn’t know you shoplifted,” said Ava to Charlotte after she’d refilled her cup. “You don’t seem like the type.”

Charlotte’s emerald eyes gleamed with amusement. “You an expert or something?” she asked playfully.

Ava quickly shook her head no.

“No? Have you at least stolen anything?” Charlotte followed.

“Never,” said Ava. Charlotte’s expression fell a little—or maybe Ava just imagined it did. But either way, she quickly followed up with the line that would forever divide her life in twain: “Maybe you could show me sometime?”

“Of course!” Charlotte beamed brightly, her teeth flashing like the sun’s rays cresting over a hill. Ava felt a glow in her chest, like her heart was lit with a farm flame, one that spread through her body and imbued her with a strange energy. She knew she’d do anything to see that smile again.

Ironically, it was precisely her initial success which ultimately doomed her. One crisp September afternoon, Ava and Charlotte piled into Charlotte’s shiny leased Lexus and drove to a nearby mall for a crash course in shoplifting. Ava chatted up a bored clerk at a stationary supply store while Charlotte stole some pencils as a warm-up, then they reversed their roles so Ava could steal a pair of gloves from a clothing outlet.

Getting some alone time with Charlotte was already a pulse-pounding prospect, and the thrill of illicit activity made each moment sing with clarity. There was no way she was going to call it off after such a meager haul, not when there was more time she could spend impressing Charlotte.

Ava’s beginner’s luck, however, could only hold out so long. Ava was spotted slipping some lipstick into her purse by a customer with a vigilante streak. Amid the clamor, Ava, who was in her heart a foolish romantic, distracted the employees long enough so that Charlotte could escape. This choice felt brave and daring, the kind of thing that high school Ava never would have done, but that new improved college Ava might do all the time.

Eventually, when the adrenaline faded away, reality crashed the party. There was no way she’d be able to pay the fine, let alone the restitution on top. Ava was left with the grim hope that maybe at least she’d scored some points with Charlotte.

With her mind on autopilot, Ava made her out out of the mall’s security office out into the world. The sky was irritatingly bright and blue, completely unaware of the swirling tempest of emotion roiling in Ava’s head. She stumbled her way to a nearby park in a daze and sat down on a park bench.

Fuck me, Ava thought. She closed her eyes and puffed her cheeks out, sighing in frustration before turning her attention to how she’d dig herself out of this predicament. She could tell her parents, which was an option in the same way that someone could choose to walk on their hands for the rest of their life. You could technically do it, but why?

Ava’s mind swirled, her thoughts looping back in on themselves like ouroboroses.

Don’t tell Mom and Dad. But I can’t afford the fines. Or a lawyer. Who can I borrow money from? I don’t have credit.

Tell Mom and Dad. There goes their vacation fund. I’ll know I did this to them. Forever. Mom’ll love trotting this out whenever I see her.

The two sides waged war in her mind, arguments arrayed like soldiers in phalanxes, though whatever victory would be inevitably Pyrrhic in nature.

Maybe telling her parents wouldn’t be so bad. It really wasn’t realistic to try to run and hide. It would suck, and she wouldn’t get out unscathed, but together, they could figure something out. Maybe she wouldn’t even get suspended from school if she wrapped this up fast enough.

Her mind set, she opened her eyes and saw to her surprise a stranger standing way too close to her. Although Ava didn’t really know anything about suits, his looked expensive. She could see her own reflection on the sunglasses he was wearing, saw herself startle at the sudden invasion of personal space.

“Hello,” he said, and his voice sounded like the gentle caress of velvet had wrapped itself around those two syllables. “Mind if I sit here?”

Ava blinked. She didn’t know what she’d been expecting, but it wasn’t this.

“Uh…sure? I mean, I was leaving…” She made to stand up, but the stranger continued.

“Oh no, Miss Stone, I meant with you. I’d like to chat.”

She froze up, ice crystallizing in her veins.

“How do you know my name?” she asked. Her fingers tightened against the lip of the wooden bench.

“I have my ways,” said the man unhelpfully. “Rest assured, I do not mean you any harm. On the contrary, I’m hoping to help you out.” There was an awkward pause as that statement hung in the air. The man quietly loomed over Ava as her mind furiously raced through possibilities. This guy was clearly not normal. But it couldn’t hurt just to talk, right? They were out in public, with eyewitnesses. It was almost certainly going to be harmless. At least she could find out what he wanted with her.

“…okay,” she said, narrowing her eyes. “I’m listening.”

“I know you’re in some trouble,” he said. “And I’d like to help.”

“Trouble?” Ava asked warily. “What do you mean by that?” The shoplifting thing had just happened, so the only way he’d know about it is if he had been there. She and Charlotte had been on the lookout for bystanders though, and she definitely would have remembered if this guy had been skulking around the Sephora.

“I know you have a fine that you have no hope of paying on your own,” started the stranger. Okay, so maybe he was a security officer or mall staff?

“And I know you’re thinking about crawling to your parents on your hands and knees,” he concluded. A jolt of fear leapt through Ava’s body.

“How the fuck do you know all that?” she asked as adrenaline coursed through her.

“I have my ways,” he said, and lowered his sunglasses to look at Ava directly. His irises were the orange of a crackling fire, and his pupils were black vertical slits, slashes of empty void amid a blazing heat. Ava had the odd feeling that if she looked into those eyes long enough, she’d fall through the cracks of the universe.

“What the fuck,” said Ava, which was an understatement.

“I do apologize for startling you,” said the demon as he put his sunglasses back. He sounded as if he meant it too.

“Who are you?” asked Ava.

The stranger smiled. “Just someone who can offer you a trade.” There was absolutely no way to tell behind the mirror sheen of his sunglasses, but Ava was confident he’d winked at the end of that sentence.

“…okay?” The situation was so odd that it almost became normal. Ava couldn’t properly process what was happening, so she decided she may as well proceed as if this was a perfectly mundane thing to happen.

“I’m offering a mutually beneficial exchange,” he said. “I’ll give you two thousand dollars, enough to cover your fine. In cash, too.” A hand slithered inside a coat pocket and pulled out a thin stack of crisp hundred dollar bills.

Ava scoffed. “For what? You want my soul or something?”

For some reason, the demon found this uproariously funny. He pulled out a blood red handkerchief from a pant pocket and dabbed at the corners of his eyes. “Your soul? That immaterial manifestation of your heart? For something as paltry as money? Come now, Miss Stone, that would hardly be a fair deal.”

Ava weakly chuckled at her own naïveté. “Then what do you want?” she asked, relieved.

“I’d like for you to sleep with a pacifier every night this week,” said the demon, stuffing his handkerchief back into his pocket.

“…what?” Ava said, after a pause. She must have misheard. The request was so incongruous.

“A pacifier,” he said. “I’d like you to sleep with one for a week.” The hand that wasn’t holding the money dug into a jacket pocket and pulled out a pink pacifier. It sat there in the palm of his hand, absuredly large. It would have dwarfed an actual baby’s mouth.

“Why would you want that?” asked Ava, dumbfounded.

“I’m afraid for you, the what is more important than the why,” said the stranger. “The only question you should be asking is whether you believe the boon is worth the price.”

Ava eyed the bills hungrily. The solution to her problems was so close she could reach out and snatch it. Her heart hammered at her chest, but she tore her eyes away from the money and looked at the stranger’s face, which was sitting in a composed state of neutrality. She absentmindedly bounced a rhythm on her thigh with the palm of her hand, deep in thought.

This demon, or whatever he was, was clearly insane. But was what he was asking for bad? Sleeping with a pacifier was strange to be sure, but what was there to lose? It didn’t hurt anyone else. Plus, if it meant her current predicament could be wrapped up without needing to involve anyone else…In a way, it would be foolish not to accept.

Ava thought about how Charlotte might be impressed at how casually Ava would shrug off her fine, and that was the last thing she needed to tip her over the edge.

“Deal,” said Ava. “Do I need to sign a contract or something?”

“I have no worries about you holding up your end of the bargain,” said the man with a smile. “A simple handshake shall suffice.” As Ava clasped his hand, the demon’s grip exuded a charismatic charm, drawing Ava in with a magnetic force of will. When all was said and done, the demon simply handed Ava the stack of bills and the pacifier.

“Pleasure doing business with you, Miss Stone,” he said, smiling genially. “If you should require my services in the future, you have but to come back here.” Ava expected him to disappear in a flash of lightning or something, but he simply mundanely turned and walked away, leaving her to quickly stuff the contraband into her purse.

Ava quickly made her way to a nearby ATM so she could cash the money. She half-expected that the deposit would be rejected, that it had all been an elaborate practical joke, but the machine cooly accepted her bills and credited her account balance. Just like that, she was two thousand dollars richer.

As Ava walked back to her room with the crisp night air biting into her exposed skin, she thought about what she’d agreed to. He’d asked her to sleep with a pacifier for a week. There was no way she was going to sleep with one in her mouth—if one of her roommates saw that, it would be the end of her nascent social life. But maybe if she just had it next to her in bed, safely tucked away, then she could technically fulfill the promise with no risk of social suicide.

That could work. Ava let herself grin.

Her dorm room, luckily, was empty when she got back. Ava shrugged her purse off of her shoulders, dropping it onto the desk with a thud. She quickly palmed the pacifier inside and climbed up to her top bunk, the ladder quietly creaking. Ava flopped facedown onto her blue sheets without even crawling inside, exhausted from the day. She stashed the pacifier under her pillow and closed her eyes, fully expecting not to open them until morning.

Ava found though, that despite the tiredness in her bones, that she kept tossing and turning. She was normally a quick sleeper—she honestly didn’t mind sharing a room with two people, they almost never kept her up—but right now rest was eluding her. Her thoughts weren’t even racing. It was as if her brain was just a idling engine, quietly humming with activity, but one that she couldn’t figure out how to shut off.

She rubbed her eyes and rolled over, putting a pillow over her head to block out the dim light of the phone chargers in the room. There was no way she had to actually sleep with the pacifier in her mouth, was there? The thought was ludicrous. But as Ava yawned, feeling as if her energy had left her body along with her breath, it didn’t seem that out of the question. She felt like butter scraped over too much bread.

It was worth a shot. She had class in the morning.

Feeling silly, she rooted for the pacifier, grabbing it and sticking the bulb in her mouth. She nibbled a bit on the silicone, feeling how it gave as she bit and sprung back as her jaw relaxed.

There’s no way that this will work, she thought, right before she drifted off.

Ava made it almost a month before reaching out to her mysterious benefactor. She’d managed to mostly put the incident behind her and count herself lucky, letting her deal with a demon fade into the background as the the grind of regular life consumed her attention. There were tests to study for and a girl to spend time with.

It was too bad that Charlotte’s birthday was in November.

“Hey so like, for my birthday I was thinking of doing a lil’ weekend in Vail?” Charlotte twirled a tress of hair with her index finger absentmindedly. “My parents said that their cabin was free so we can ski all weekend.” The two of them were in the café that Ava worked at part time, pretending to study over steaming mugs of coffee.

Ava didn’t know what a Vail was, but she did know that skiing sounded expensive. It was like lacrosse or polo, sports that nobody in Ava’s life had ever done until she’d met Charlotte.

“I don’t know how to ski,” she laughed nervously.

“I’ll teach you!” The light in Charlotte’s green eyes danced with excitement.

Ava pursed her lips in thought. She could miss a weekend shift. And it might be fun to try something new.

“Well then, I’m in,” said Ava, grinning.

“Awesome!” Charlotte squealed with joy, which Ava normally found grating on other women but which on Charlotte only reminded Ava of her zest for life. “I’ll book everyone’s tickets so we can sit together on the plane. Venmo me back whenever.”

The record that was Ava’s life scratched. Charlotte hadn’t said anything about needing to fly there. But it was too late to back out now.

“Great,” Ava smiled weakly.

Ava absolutely did not have a spare couple hundred dollars at hand. She thought about picking up extra shifts, or maybe even a second job, but her schoolwork was already beginning to suffer. Suddenly, the deal she’d made at the park bench came to mind.

Could she really go seek him out? Until now, she could truthfully say that she hadn’t gone out looking for demons. They’d come to her. If she did this, she’d be culpable. But that first request had been so innocent. Maybe they’d all be like that. And worst case, she could always turn him down. Indeed, it would be foolish not to at least see if he could help.

As Charlotte approached the park bench, she could see that someone was already sitting on it. As she got closer, his details resolved into the familiar silhouette of her benefactor.

“Hello, Miss Stone,” he said, nodding his head. “Please, take a seat.” This time, she sat.

“I need some money,” she said, skipping right to the point.

“Straight to business,” chided the demon. He dug in his pocket, pulling out a cigar and a lighter. With a few flicks, he got the fire started and puffed.

“Can you help me or not?” pressed Ava. The demon blew out a cloud of wispy smoke. The smell reminded her of ancient tomes and spiced cider.

“I can,” sighed the stranger. “You are seeking funds for a weekend trip?” Ava nodded impatiently. “I can offer you enough to go, and some spending money to boot.”

“And the catch?” Ava stared daggers into the demon’s face, hoping to catch a glimpse of ulterior motive, but his unnerving sunglasses made him impossible to read.

“Another small favor,” he said. He took deep drag and exhaled. “Juice instead of soda with your meals for two weeks.”

It was twice the length, but much easier to hide. This time the calculus was easy.

“Deal,” said Ava, and shook his hand for the second time.

The third time that Ava met the demon, the whole endeavor had gained the comfortability of routine, like well-worn slippers waiting at the end of a workday. The same well-worn bench in the same well-manicured park. Much like the trees, steadfastly evergreen, the demon’s appearance was constant.

Ava exhaled as she sat down, her breath condensing into a mist of fog. The demon, who had already lit his cigar, blew out his own smoke from his lungs, and the two vapors swirled and mingled with each other before evaporating out of sight.

“A pleasure to see you again, Miss Stone,” said the stranger amiably. Ava watched as three excited dogs on leashes walked a hapless woman.

“I hope you’ve been well,” said Ava. Strangely enough, she almost meant it. Even with his weird stipulations, he had been helping her out. It was natural human instinct to want to reciprocate in kind.

A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “My my, such manners this time. What a good girl you must have been.”

Ava rankled at the remark but let it go for now. Get what she wanted first, then she could worry about incidentals. “Could you get me enough money to get a new laptop?” she asked.

“What’s wrong with your current one?” asked the demon. Ava blinked. He hadn’t asked for her reasoning the last two deals.

“Well…” Ava thought about how isolated she felt when group projects came up and she was the only one without a MacBook.

How her computer always whirred whenever it did anything remotely intensive like it was a helicopter trying to take off.

How nice it would be to just have something that worked in her life for once.

How nice it would be for Charlotte to ooh and aah at Ava’s new toy.

“I just want an upgrade,” Ava finished, eliding her entire thought process.

The demon unhurriedly scratched at his chin in thought. It was like watching a gargoyle come to life, his motions were so slow and considerate.

“One month of sleeping with a pacifier,” he finally said.

“One month?” Ava repeated, flabbergasted. “The first time it was only a week!”

“The first time,” the demon evenly said, “you were in a crisis.”

Ava frowned. “Wouldn’t that normally be when you charge the most? What’s your deal here?”

The demon gently shook his head and sighed. “I am not a loan shark, Miss Stone,” he said firmly. “Perhaps in your world, people prey on the weak so that the strong may get stronger. But I do not operate like that. You need this laptop less, and therefore my price is greater.”

Ava considered her options. A month was a long time, long enough that she would genuinely run into the risk of one of her roommates finding out. And he was right, she didn’t need this laptop in the same way she’d needed to pay her fine.

But in its own twisted kind of way, the demon’s logic made sense. Ava knew that being poor was more expensive than being rich. Charlotte’s fancy laptop cost a fortune, but she never had to scramble for money when a part failed, or deal with the unavoidable slowness tax that plagued Ava every time she used it.

Charlotte, for all her virtues, never quite understood this part of Ava. She couldn’t understand why Ava didn’t just buy the thing that worked the first time. She thought Ava was shooting herself in the foot by being cheap by choice, when really it was by necessity.

The fact that this demon understood what Ava’s classmates didn’t was sobering. He was being fair, more fair than humans themselves would have been.

“Deal,” she said, and she shook his hand for the third time.

By the time the end of the semester was in sight, dealing with the demon had become almost like another chore, like picking up her part of the room or working out, as had the baby things.

She’d cut swear words from her vocabulary for two weeks.

She’d worn a diaper for the first time in fifteen years, just to bed. She’d even wet it too, on another occasion.

And now, her latest deal: wearing a diaper for twenty-four hours in exchange for extra spending money for a winter vacation trip with Charlotte and her crew.

It was going to be a piece of cake. It was dead week. She didn’t have classes to go to. Her only job was going to be studying for finals. And so, one morning, Ava shuffled off to a private bathroom and taped herself into a diaper, each step taken with the steady hand of experience.

Lay a towel on the floor, with the unfolded diaper on top. Shimmy off her pants and panties. Sit down, feeling how the soft fluff contrasted with the ragged fuzziness of the towel. Pull the front up between her legs. Slide a finger around the leg bands to ensure a snug fit. Peel the tapes off carefully, the loudest and most dangerous part. Press each one in firmly.

Ava stood and looked in the mirror as she adjusted the tapes, feeling the thickness of the padding rubbing against her inner thighs. When she was done, she finished changing into her outfit for the day. She’d learned that her normal slim-fitting pants were a bad idea. Even when she tried wearing sweatpants, the diaper puffed up around her waist in a way that panties very much didn’t.

She’d eventually found something that worked. For today, it was a simple white blouse with a black bow tied around the collar and a high-waisted gray skirt. Comfortable and discreet, perfect for studying. She put her towel back on the rack, sat at her desk, and opened her notebooks.

Ava’s studies were interrupted mid-morning by a building urge in her bladder. This wasn’t the first time she’d had to wet herself though, though she couldn’t do it sitting down. After checking to make sure she was alone, she stood up and relaxed, feeling the warmth spread out from between her legs, quiet tinkling sounds covered by a sigh of relief.

When she was done, she reached under her skirt and patted around the leg bands. The wet diaper squished into her skin as she felt her thighs for any signs of wetness. She hadn’t taped herself properly the first time she’d wet herself, and she’d had to do an emergency load of laundry in the middle of the night. This time though, her thighs were blessedly dry.

Suddenly, Ava heard a knock on the door, followed by the creak of it opening. She quickly removed her hands and smoothed her skirt down, her heart skipping a beat with surprise. Charlotte poked her head in the room, her gently curled tawny tresses gently bouncing.

“Hey!” she said. “I know this is real sponty of me, but I thought maybe we could have a picnic? Just the two of us?” She raised her arm up, showing Ava a wicker picnic basket. “I’ve got a whole charcuterie set and everything.” Her eyes shimmered like a mossy glen kissed by the morning light.

Ava froze. Why did Charlotte have to stop by today of all days? Her first instinct was to demur. But why? Hadn’t she been doing everything for Charlotte? And a picnic—that was romantic. Turning her down would send the wrong message. It would jeopardize everything she’d worked for all semester.

“Sure, I’d love to,” said Ava, anticipation and anxiety swirling together into a confusing cocktail of emotion.

As the two of them walked, Ava couldn’t stop thinking about the diaper between her legs. Each crinkle seemed to crackle in the air like gunshots. There was no way Charlotte didn’t know, but somehow she was oblivious. Ava ran through a mental catalogue of increasingly flimsy excuses. Jolly Ranchers in her pockets. A plastic bag that had blown around them. Charlotte was just imagining things.

Against all odds, Charlotte had somehow chosen the same exact park that Ava met her benefactor at. A pit of dread nestled itself into Ava’s stomach. Thankfully, as Charlotte led Ava to a sunny spot on a grass knoll, Ava could see that the park bench down the pedestrian path was blissfully empty. Charlotte unfurled a checkered blanket with a flourish, laying it on the lush grass before setting her basket on top and kicking her sandals off. Ava followed suit, plopping down with a soft squish.

Charlotte pulled out the picnic spread. As they enjoyed their lunch, a light breeze swirled around the two of them like a mischievous pixie.

“I know I’ve said this before,” Charlotte said between bites of bread, “but thanks for having my back when we got caught.”

“Of course,” said Ava. “That was months ago though. Why’re you bringing this up now?”

“Just practicing gratitude,” said Charlotte, winking beguilingly.

Ava laughed and reached for the blueberry jam. The tips of her fingers brushed against Charlotte’s, sending crackles of electricity up Ava’s arm. She jerked her arm back, then looked at Charlotte, embarrassed.

“I don’t bite,” Charlotte said with a smirk. “Unless you want me to.” She took her hand and slowly cupped Ava’s chin.

“Uh…” Ava could feel her breathing quicken. The world fell away, leaving the two of them perched on a knife’s edge between worlds of possibility.

“I think,” Charlotte breathed, “that you do want me to.” She closed her eyes and leaned in, giving Ava a kiss. Ava could taste the traces of jam on Charlotte’s lips, a perfect complement to Ava’s own.

“I do,” said Ava, and received another kiss in response, Charlotte’s hair gently tickling Ava’s cheek. Ava could smell faint traces of Charlotte’s strawberry shampoo and feel the soft tickle of Charlotte’s breath on her skin.

With a surge of movement, Charlotte wrapped an arm around Ava’s back and leaned forward, until they ended up with Ava’s back on the blanket and Charlotte on top. Charlotte shifted a leg, straddling Ava with her knees on the blanket, and gently kissed Ava on the neck. Ava let out a small whimper of pleasure as Charlotte moved her kisses further and further down Ava’s neck.

Charlotte moved one hand under Ava’s skirt, brushing against her inner thighs. Ava suddenly froze, her heart skipping a beat as her she acutely remembered the infantile garment she was wearing under her skirt.

“We’re in public,” Ava said, reaching for Charlotte’s arm to pull it away. She tried sitting up, but Charlotte just added more pressure to the hand on Ava’s chest.

“No one’s looking,” Charlotte purred, gently tapping her hand up Ava’s leg before poking the plastic leg band and pausing.

“What…?” Charlotte said, almost to herself. That was decidedly not what panties felt like.

Ava’s cheeks burned with embarrassment. She tried prying Charlotte’s hand away, but she swatted Ava’s arm away and patted Ava’s crotch. Ava felt the hand on the front of her diaper, the sensation muted by the bulky material wrapped around her hips. The soggy padding pressed into her skin as she was wracked with another wave of humiliation.

Charlotte experimentally pressed her fingers into Ava’s diaper a few more times, as if she were checking to see if jello had set. Ava tried to wiggle her way out, but she had no leverage. Charlotte made a puzzled frown before suddenly shifting her weight onto her knees and flipping Ava’s skirt up.

“What are you doing?” Ava cried out. She tried to flip her skirt back down, but Charlotte grabbed her wrists and pushed them into the picnic blanket. The cheerful outlines of teddy bears and baby bottles were visible to anyone who turned their head to look, the diaper a white badge of shame forever making Ava a Hester Prynne.

Ava turned her head from side to side, feeling like a thousand eyes had manifested and turned their undivided attention towards her, but for the most part people were quietly doing their own thing. Ava saw someone point at her and turn to their partner before giggling. Her paranoia refused to allow for any charitable explanation.

“What are you wearing?” Charlotte asked, bewildered. She hadn’t been completely sure before she’d made visual contact—the idea that Ava would be wearing a diaper hadn’t even been a remote possibility in her mind.

“Please,” Ava said, tears forming in the corners of her eyes. She was on a knife’s edge, ready to break down sobbing, which would not have helped her case at all. “I can explain,” she said, hoping that maybe her mind would catch up and lay out a reasonable explanation.

“Do you need diapers or something? Oh my God, I had no idea,” said Charlotte, her own cheeks reddening with sympathetic embarrassment.

“No! I don’t!” blurted out Ava, scrambling to save face.

Charlotte furrowed her brow as her mind shifted tracks. “So this is just for kicks? Like some kind of sex thing?” She shifted her weight off of Ava and sat on the blanket.

It was clear that Ava had made a tactical error. “Char,” Ava said, pulling her skirt back over her diaper, “please. Don’t freak out.”

“It’s not that,” said Charlotte, sounding conflicted. “It’s just really unexpected.” She bit her lip. “Like, what, was it fun for it to be a secret or something?”

“I didn’t want to tell you,” pled Ava.

“You should have,” said Charlotte. “You should have gotten my consent. I’m not a prude. I don’t care what you’re into. But you should have told me.”

As Charlotte quietly packed the picnic back up and left, Ava could do nothing but sit, arms around her knees as she cried. After a few minutes, when her tears had slowed and her pity party started winding down, a shadow suddenly covered her. She looked up to see the demon, face perfectly neutral, as if the events that had transpired were like static on a television, meaning nothing to him.

“I messed up,” Ava mumbled into her arms.

“Perhaps,” said the demon sympathetically. “But you might be interested to know that my assistance can extend beyond the purely monetary. That girl doesn’t have to slip out of your reach.”

The demon had led Ava into this. He wanted her in diapers for some reason. It was inevitable that eventually someone would find out. Maybe that’s what he’d wanted all along.

Ava had no one to blame but herself. If she hadn’t taken his deals, she wouldn’t be in this situation at all.

But that was true on multiple levels. Without the money to cover the fine, she might not have even been able to keep going to college. She might have been expelled.

He’d never forced her to do anything. Her hand always shook his willingly, with no attached puppet strings. She’d been the architect of her own doom, and now the only thing she could do was pray in the cathedral she’d made.

Ava had traded so much already to catch Charlotte’s eye. Why stop now? As long as she kept her wits about her, she could take more than she gave. Just because this deal had backfired didn’t mean that every deal would. She could be more careful. She could do it right.

Ava took a deep breath in, then breathed it out with a sigh.

“Tell me the terms,” she said, and the demon cracked the barest of smiles.


i like this, more please. it’s a good start to the story.

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Letter II

My dear Mugwort,

I am glad to hear that you have made first contact with your Patient. I remember how overwhelming the mortal coil can be the first few times you traverse it—it is a wonder humans do not drive themselves mad with the cacophony of sights and sounds.

I was disheartened to hear of the nonchalance by which you chose your human form, but it was an understandable oversight. Human minds place great stock in appearance, and even the most impartial ones are abound with unconscious biases. Even something as trivial as gender must be chosen carefully when deciding how best to work a Patient.

Your cover story, however, was an excellent choice. People more easily forgive transgressions and oddities from the wealthy under the guise of plain eccentricity. It is odd how stacked the deck is in human societies, how advantages accrue and compound in those who already have them. But then again, I suppose it merely mirrors the realm of The Enemy, with its suffocating, rigid hierarchies.

In any case, now that your Patient has accepted aid from you, her defenses boast a crack through which you can channel your influence.

Your inquisitive nature pleases me, dear nephew. If I do not get to all your questions, that is because sometimes, you must needs find your own answers. I realize this is perhaps obnoxious to hear, just another example of an old spirit doddering about, but it is still true nonetheless. You must forge your own path and learn from the past without clinging onto it unnecessarily. The Old Guard still insist on contracts and clauses, but those do not work on everyone. Use the right tool for the right job, and the rest will follow from there.

You asked about the cardinal sins and whether or not we must always ensnare a soul by exploiting one or more of the seven. The short answer is yes: we have so far not found another method by which we can ensure that human souls end up Below rather than Above. Though the long answer is more revealing.

Some humans need a gentle hand. They are already sinful; the art is in keeping them that way. Ava’s greed in my last missive was the reason for her downfall. I kept her faculties wholly untouched, yet at each step she bound herself tighter and tighter. Her belief in her ability to outsmart me, to wring life out of the poisoned gift I gave her, was in the end the cage that ensnared her. In a way, she became her own jailor, without ever realizing it.

But in other cases, we instead nurture this sin directly, warping other elements of their personalities until they are scarcely recognizable. Changing a human has to be their own idea, on some level. For them, it is like realizing they are suddenly on the second floor of a building. It seems improbable that they be up that high, and yet they can follow the staircase of small steps, little incremental changes here and there, each one in natural succession. They would never be able to bound up a floor all at once. But little by little? A different tale altogether.

Shahnaz was one of my finest works. I offer this not to boast (believe you me, I am confident in my bona fides!) but instead to illustrate. You will likely not reach this level of success for years yet. Use this case as a North Star. I have no doubt you will one day be able to warp and twist humans as easily as you mold clay. Keep this example in mind as something to aspire to.

There is no generalizable path, no royal road to victory. Those details you must work out on your own. The devil lives in them, after all, as the humans say. Do not despair. Any line worker at a Torture station can brand someone with irons. But to Tempt someone, that requires intimate knowledge and a subtle touch. Truly, it is a heady blend of intellect and emotion, of heart and mind, of analytical analysis and leaps of intuition. I find that it is precisely this unpredictability, this lack of a one-size-fits-all solution, that makes Tempting such a joy.

Your affectionate uncle,


Pride: Shahnaz Hadid

Although Shahnaz practically damned himself, even a demon would have to admit that the deck had been stacked against him from the beginning. He grew up among pale-skinned people who looked nothing like him or his family. They made fun of his father’s accented English, laughed at what his mother packed him for lunch, made jokes at his expense that seeped into his bones like poison.

“Nothing shall befall us except what Allah has destined for us,” his father would tell him, but he knew those words to be empty platitudes. Only the powerless would find comfort in their impotence.

He channeled his resentment into escapism, aided by the cultural landscape of witchcraft and wizardry that surrounded him. Kiki’s Delivery Service. City of Brass. Harry Potter. Over time, one belief branded itself into his soul: the tantalizing idea that perhaps there was a way to access powers forgotten by the world, that there was more to life than meekly accepting the hand he’d been dealt.

As a result, Shahnaz felt as if he’d always been into the occult. He gave tarot readings to his friends in middle school. He checked his horoscope daily. He cast small rituals, for good grades, for girlfriends, for spending money.

Even as his friends lost faith, he stayed the course, his interest instead moving underground, where he could nurture it away from judgmental eyes. Even when his parents found his stash of secreted tarot cards and consecrated pentacles, which culminated with his mother in tears as his father silently gathered his tools and tossed them into the trash, he never stopped believing. After all, why would people react so strongly, so fearfully, unless he was onto something potent and powerful?

As he grew older and his needs more complex, so too did the scale of his explorations into the realm of magic. Gemstones and crystals to heal wounds both physical and emotional. Channeling benign spirits, relaying knowledge and wisdom from the spiritual realm. Astral projection, to leave the troubles of human life to explore planes of wondrous existence.

The natural next step was to turn what he’d honed outwards, to manipulate others instead of just himself. At first, it was for good: to ease a heartache, to clear brain fog. But then, for less benevolent purposes: to strike back at an ex-girlfriend, to cut down a rival. Power became its own reward as he wandered down the left-hand path, forbidden knowledge buried within forbidden knowledge.

As Shahnaz buried himself deeper in his pursuit of esoteric knowledge, he found himself retreating from the real world. The world of bills and rent was a pale shadow on a cave wall compared to the wonders of seeing beyond the boundaries of reality. He felt as if he were part of an increasingly exclusive cabal, an elite club of magic practitioners. The pursuit of power became its own end.

When all was said and done, he’d voluntarily given up his own soul. The demons hadn’t even needed to reach out. He did all the work himself. They had but to pluck his soul as they would an apple from a tree.

He’d thought he’d been clever, of course. He’d sprinkled circles of salt, adorned himself with a crucifix, armed himself with cold iron. He thought these wards of power would protect him. The manuscripts all claimed that these symbols of protection would shield his soul from corruption and allow him to bind demons and djinn to his will like a modern day King Solomon.

Sadly, he never considered that perhaps the demons might have spread misinformation on purpose. Scraps of useless information buried in old books, prevalent enough to be discovered, but rare enough to seem tantalizingly true. Landmines armed and planted as another front in their war against the Heavens.

The greatest irony was that, even despite everything, there was a good chance that he could have escaped with his soul unmarred were it not for his mean cleverness. He ended up snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

How clever he thought he was being! Shahnaz knew that he would grow and change.

He remembered being 12 and convinced that Dungeons & Dragons was the be-all end-all of RPG systems before discovering a wider world around him.

He remembered being 16 and going through his first breakup, which felt so earth-shatteringly consequential at the time, but which ended up as a minor speed bump on his life’s journey.

He remembered being 21, graduating from college confident that he would climb the corporate ladder through grit and determination, until the winds of time eroded away his naïveté and left cynicism in its wake.

In short, Shahnaz didn’t know if what he’d be proud of when he was 90 would be the same as when he was 30, but given his history, it seemed incredibly unlikely.

As he knelt before a mass of black tentacles and mouths that dripped acidic slime onto his carpets, he voiced his wish: to be somebody that someone could be proud of, somebody with memorable accomplishments, who wouldn’t die with regrets.

In this manner, candles burning a sickly green in his living room, Shahnaz traded his soul away, not knowing what it would truly cost him.

Shahnaz knelt on the floor, a colorful assortment of polyhedra scattered around him like caltrops. He’d built a tower that went all the way up to his waist earlier and had run to his Mommy, who had been sitting at the kitchen table pecking at her laptop. He’d tugged on the hem of her dress until she’d rewarded him with a smile.

“Look, look!” he’d said, pointing at the blocks.

“Wow,” she’d said, her voice dripping with honey. “That’s very impressive.” Shahnaz felt a finger slide under his diaper’s leg band and wiggle around before withdrawing. “Go on,” she said, sending him off with a pat on the butt.

The words soothed his heart, filled the ever-present maw in his chest, sating it temporarily. He needed her approval in the same way that he needed oxygen. She was his lighthouse, his guiding light, the magnetic north around which he oriented his life.

Not content to rest on his laurels, Shahnaz was now iterating on his previous accomplishment, expanding his tower upward into ever-greater heights. When it had grown to chest height, as he was carefully adding a cube to the stack, the doorbell chirped, breaking his concentration. His hand slipped and the block tower collapsed to the floor with a series of crashes. It was frustrating, but Shahnaz knew he could just rebuild. It was one of the things his Mommy loved about him. He never ever stopped trying to impress her. She said he was a real go-getter, and although he didn’t know what he was getting, he knew it must be something good.

The door thumped thrice in quick succession, a percussive accompaniment to the fading sound of the doorbell. Shahnaz immediately turned back to his construction project, completely heedless of the fact that he was wearing nothing more than a pastel block shirt and dinosaur print diapers.

It had been a long time since Shahnaz had been self-conscious about what he was wearing. Why would he be ashamed of what his Mommy put him in? On the contrary; he was happy to be seen, to be a walking emblem of his Mommy’s excellent fashion sense.

His Mommy got up, walked to the door, and opened it.

“Hello, it’s so great to see you!” Shahnaz could hear his Mommy’s dazzling smile through her words. “Come on in!”

“You must be Alex! It’s nice to finally meet you,” said a man, giving Shahnaz’s Mommy a hug before stepping inside.

“Shahnaz, honey, stop playing for a second and greet our guests,” said his Mommy. “This is Mr. Miles, Miss Clara, and their adorable little girl Snow.”

For the barest fraction of a second, the shadow of a scowl marred Shahnaz’s winsome features before sliding off. He stood up with a crinkle and turned to the door. Three figures stood just inside, silhouetted by the fading light of the sun outside the door.

A tall man with dazzlingly white teeth had one arm around a pale woman with scarlet lipstick that matched her dress and one hand on the shoulder of a timid-looking girl. Her head was downcast, staring at the floor. Shahnaz followed the line of sight from her worried-looking brown eyes but saw nothing that would catch her attention except for the faint outline of where he’d once spilled a glass of grape juice, which had been the precipitating event that had demoted him to sippy cups.

“Hey there, kiddo,” said the man, his voice a steaming cup of hot chocolate on a rainy day. Shahnaz remembered having a hairstyle like his once, short and trimmed on the sides and longer on the top, but it had been a long time since his hair had been styled with any sort of product. His Mommy preferred a low-maintenance look, so Shahnaz’s tresses gently curled down to his chin.

“Hello there, handsome,” said the woman in the red dress, a patronizing smile on her brightly red lips. She winked, hiding and then revealing an almost incandescent amethyst eye.

Shahnaz knew a few truths in the world. The sun went up and down every day. He took a nap every afternoon. His Mommy would always take care of him.

He added a new one after hearing Miss Clara speak: he would do anything to make her happy. She reminded him of something he used to do in his old life, before he’d met his Mommy. A woman would catch his eye at a bar, and his heart would be inflamed with the thrill of the hunt, whether he wanted it to or not. He’d go up to her, talking up his career and bragging about people he’d met before ostentatiously buying her drinks and picking up the tab. On these adventures, he’d met a lot of women who looked like Miss Clara—tall with pale ivory skin and eyes that promised good times to come.

This time, the pursuit would end not in a bed, but rather with a pat on the head.

“Snow, honey, aren’t you going to say anything?” asked Miles. The girl was trying her best to hide behind the two grown-ups, although Shahnaz could still intermittently catch glimpses of her flushed cheeks.

“Maybe she’s too little for words,” said Clara, winking at Alex with a knowing smirk.

“No!” Snow shouted suddenly, before covering her mouth with both of her hands in embarrassment. “I mean, um, no, I’m not too little,” she amended abashedly. “Nice to meet you, Shahnaz,” she finished with a tiny wave of the hand.

The boy pursed his lips in annoyance. She hadn’t pronounced his name right. It was just two syllables! And his Mommy had literally just introduced him.

“Oh my Snow, look at you using your words!” said Clara, every word dripping with saccharine sweetness, which caused the girl to dart back behind Miles, burrowing her head into his back.

Shahnaz stood up abruptly, his block tower gently collapsing for the second time that night.

“Hello,” he said, with all the earnest seriousness he could muster. “It’s very very nice to meet you three. Pleasure to acquaintance with you,” he finished with a flourish. A long-buried memory told him to extend his hand out with his palm flat, so he did so, like how he used to back when he rode on airplanes and wore suits and did this when he met other people who were also in suits.

“My my, what a veritable gentleman we have here,” said Mr. Miles, shaking Shahnaz’s hand with mock solemnity. The praise warmed the boy’s heart.

“Well-behaved indeed,” said Miss Clara, closing the door behind her. “I just know our Snow is going to be equally well-behaved tonight,” she continued, which elicited a tiny squeak of fright from the girl.

“Okay sweet pea,” said his Mommy, “you and Snow can play here until dinner.” Snow timidly poked her head out and made eye contact with her playdate, her eyes welled up with anxiety. Even though she was about the same height as Shahnaz, she seemed much shorter. Her frame was hunched over out of nervousness, as if she were trying to fold herself out of the situation. This would have normally annoyed Shahnaz, but instead he nodded vigorously to his Mommy’s suggestion, his curls bobbing gently in agreement. It was an easy way to win points.

Mr. Miles and Miss Clara ushered Snow to the center of the living room, where Shahnaz’s blocks lay in a heap next to a small wooden coffee table, which had been pushed aside to make room for his grand ambitions. The grownups arranged themselves on the couches and began talking about their jobs, which made Shahnaz immediately lose interest in their conversation.

What could he do to show up this newcomer? His eyes scanned the room before honing in on a small squat bookshelf. He knew he was good at drawing—his Mommy put his pictures on the fridge all the time.

“Let’s do some coloring,” he said, playing the part of a gracious host. Snow’s eyes flicked briefly to the grownups before darting back.

“Okay…” she said hesitantly. Shahnaz beamed in response and ran off, grabbing some sheets of paper off of a small ream along with a few boxes of crayons before returning. He dropped them onto the table with a careless thump, sending a few stray crayons out of their boxes, where they rolled in twisting arcs before coming to a stop.

Shahnaz haphazardly slid half of his stack of paper to Snow, hardly sparing her a glance before turning back to what would be his magnum opus. He grabbed the box of crayons and upended it, the waxy cylinders inside hitting the table with the sound of heavy rain. He always thought better when all his options were spread out before him. Holding things in his head was hard.

The young adult picked out a bronze-colored crayon. He would draw a self-portrait of him and his Mommy, who was the best one in the whole world. Shahnaz started on his drawing with gusto, grabbing colors and leaving them with abandon.

“Hey,” said Snow almost inaudibly. “What’s your story?”

“What?” asked Shahnaz, half paying attention.

“How’d you, you know, end up like this?” clarified Snow.

“Like, in this room?” asked Shahnaz.

“Sure,” said Snow, though she sounded uncertain.

“That’s easy,” scoffed Shahnaz, sticking his tongue out with concentration as he hunted for the shade of green that best represented his Mommy’s hair. “Mommy put me here to play, like how your Mommy and Daddy brought you here.”

Snow’s head twitched as she processed the answer she’d gotten. “That’s not what I meant.”

“You shoulda said what you meant then,” said Shahnaz simply. Boy this girl was a basket case! Being so obviously the best kid was almost not worth having to endure hanging out with his tarnished counterpart. He briefly looked at her drawing—she hadn’t even started—and sank back into his work.

After a spell, Shahnaz felt a poke on his arm. He turned to see that Snow had scooted around the table until they were side by side. Her brown eyes were furtively fixed on him.

“Hey,” she said, gently leaning towards him. “They’re busy,” she said, shrugging in the direction of the grownups. “You can drop the act.”

“What act?” Shahnaz leaned away from the girl at a parallel angle. What an invasion of personal space!

“You don’t have to call her ‘Mommy’,” continued Snow. “It’s just us two.”

Shahnaz scoffed. “Why wouldn’t I? That’s her name.”

Snow’s whispers grew quietly more intense. “Come on,” she said, exasperated. “Her name is Alex.”

The boy rolled his eyes in response. “Her name to your Mommy and Daddy is ‘Alex’. Her name to me is ‘Mommy’. A name’s just somethin’ you call someone, right? I call her ‘Mommy’ so that’s her name to me.”

Snow gave Shahnaz a strange look and scooted back around to her side of the table, finally picking a crayon up and starting her piece.

Shahnaz drew, lost in an artistic reverie, until a flicker of movement at the edge of his vision flashed awareness into his mind’s eye. He turned to see his Mommy, who was slightly bent over, looking at the two drawings.

“I can tell that these are going to be masterpieces already,” she teased. A warm feeling of validation covered Shahnaz like a blanket.

“Just look at the detail in Snow’s drawing,” she continued, gesturing at a mess of orange and brown, which looked more like the concept of a cat than an actual cat. Snow flushed with embarrassment and hunched closer to the table.

“My princess is extremely neat,” said Miss Clara proudly. “She even keeps her crayons all organized by color.”

“My my, so she does,” said his Mommy wondrously. “Very impressive for a girl her age.”

After the grownups left, the comforting warmth that had sustained Shahnaz transmuted to fiery indignation. Where were his praises? He deserved them. It was the order of things, as natural as a ball hitting the ground when dropped. He’d just have to make sure his drawing was perfect.

Shahnaz redoubled his efforts, bending all of his will towards a sudden flurry of artistic creation. Mommy’s bright orange eyes. Mommy’s smile, so warm and kind and loving. Mommy’s earrings, the ones that looked like a snake eating its own tail. He finished with the face and leaned back, taking a breather.

“…just can’t seem to potty train her.” He caught the tail end of Miss Clara’s sentence and metaphorically perked his ears up.

“It’s tough, since she’s really embarrassed to still be in diapers at her age,” added Mr. Miles.

“I’m sure she’ll get the hang of it soon,” said his Mommy reassuringly.

“Something tells me our little girl’s going to be in diapers for a long, long time,” said Miss Clara. “She’s lucky they suit her so well.” The three grownups laughed. Snow’s ears were bright red, like they were about to burst into flames.

It was too much. Here Snow was, soaking up attention and adoration, and for some reason she was too good for it. Shahnaz stood up suddenly, which startled the room. They looked at the boy, clad only in a T-shirt and a diaper, who nonetheless had a deadly serious expression on his face,

“I don’t see why she’s embarrassed,” said Shahnaz. He knew he normally wasn’t supposed to interrupt grownups, but he had to set things straight before this evening got even more off track. He felt a grim glow of satisfaction as Snow just stared at him in wide-eyed astonishment.

“Do tell,” said his Mommy, grinning wolfishly. Miss Clara perked up and leaned forward in her seat, her own violet eyes flickering with interest. Shahnaz’s heart skipped a beat.

“I love my diapers,” said Shahnaz, matter-of-factly. “I’m proud to be in them because they show Mommy how much I love her, and that makes her proud of me.”

“Do you think you could show me?” asked his Mommy. “Can you show me how much you love your diapers? Show me how much happiness they bring you? Can you show me who you are now?”

Her words washed ashore onto Shahnaz’s heart. He squatted right there, in the middle of the living room, and pushed with all his might. He closed his eyes, took another deep breath, and pushed again. The living room watched as Shahnaz’s diaper filled with the weight of his efforts, until he had finished, the mess between his legs and the warmth between his thighs unmistakable souvenirs of his struggle. Shahnaz had turned the wheel of Campbell’s hero’s journey and returned now with a gift.

“My goodness,” said Miss Clara. “Such a display!”

“That’s my sweet pea for you,” cooed his Mommy. “I’m so proud of you.”

As Shahnaz gently sank beneath the warm waves of adoring words, a part of him knew that he hadn’t always been like this. But the Shahnaz of the past was no more familiar to him than a stranger—a man who shared the same name, lived in the same skin, but whose thoughts and feelings were utterly alien to his now.

The Shahnaz of the present had somebody who thought the world of him.

The Shahnaz of the present had accomplished things he never thought he would have done.

What more could he want?


Letter III

My dear Mugwort,

You’ve always been so soft-hearted, ever since you hatched. Your mother told me that you used to cry every time she swatted a fly, because you couldn’t stand the thought of something dying. So of course I understand your reservations. It is one thing to know that our society runs on tempting humans away from the Enemy; it is another to be up to your gills in the act of doing so.

I mention this only to reassure you that I do not judge you for harboring these feelings. After all, your Patient’s girlfriend has started to realize that something is wrong. It is natural to wonder if you are indeed doing the right thing. You have never had your ethos seriously challenged before now. Not only that, but on the mortal coil, you have been exposed for the first time to the Enemy’s propaganda.

Let me remind you though, that everything you hear is self-serving. Of course the Enemy will play up His virtues and elide His vices.

He claims to have a monopoly on love, but the love He offers is twisted by nature. It is not enough to love thy neighbor; you must love Him first and foremost.

He claims to be just, but the scales are forever tilted in His favor. He punished Adam and Eve for transgressing before they were even capable of comprehending the very idea of a transgression.

He claims to value choice, but the only choices He rewards are those that bind people ever more tightly to Him. Isn’t it strange how the highest compliment for a member of His flock is “Christlike,” as in, resembling Him?

He does not care for humanity for their own sake. No, He cares for them only as far as they can resemble miniature copies of Him. He would tame the universe, dampen its vibrancy and quiet its noise, until all its atoms were mere cogs in a stifling Heavenly clockwork machine.

Remember that we are locked in a war with the Enemy! Every human that we do not claim falls into His clutches. Better for a soul to undergo some bruising in the process of shepherding them to Our Father Below than to become more ammunition for the Enemy. It is not dissimilar to cauterizing a wound; it is painful in the short-term, but in the long-term, necessary for one’s health. Our methods may occasionally be unsavory, yet with such high stakes involved, it would be suicide not to employ them sometimes.

To paraphrase Tolstoy—heaven-bound souls are all alike; every hell-bound soul is unique in its own way. Without us, the Enemy would have long ago succeeded in His quest to stamp out the flames of individuality.

Leaving behind us the grand scale of cosmic war and back to your mission at hand: humans are malleable and ever-changing, and this very quality that the Enemy abhors is the very selfsame quality that you can use to warp their pain into pleasure. Humans can surprise even themselves, finding that while some joys may turn into ash, some sorrows turn into sweet honeys. Your Patient might waver, but it is on you to ensure that at the end of the day, her road leads Below and not Above.

In a similar way, it is possible to wring water from this stone. You are worried that the girlfriend will dig too deep, find the real truth you hid among the smattering of deceit and falsehood. It is true that this is dangerous. But it is also true that involving other humans can be potently effective in achieving our aims. I offer my esteemed colleague’s case for your consideration.

Your affectionate uncle,


Envy: Snow Ouyang

Snow met Miles at a corporate team-building event, which was probably #4 in a breathless Buzzfeed article about the Ten Worst Places To Have a Meet-Cute.

The pyramid scheme illustrious startup Quasar Innovations had hired Snow and called her an Administrative Operations Lead, which meant that she was a secretary but with extra syllables. One of her first projects was organizing a day of corporate team-building at a local park. Snow thought that it was rather like asking someone to build their own coffin.

She had been catching her breath under a tree, rolling her eyes at the sight of the unwashed masses that comprised her coworkers, who were busy sweating and grunting in various anodyne corporate-approved activities. Suddenly, she felt a gentle tap on her shoulder. She jumped slightly and turned around to see a man with brown eyes, which were twinkling like polished chestnuts with amusement.

“Caught you off-guard,” said the stranger. His voice was smooth, like butter in a warm pan.

“So you did,” said Snow, annoyed.

The man laughed. “What’s your take on this mandatory fun?”

Snow arched a skeptical eyebrow. This guy’s audacity! Sure, it wasn’t like everybody was probably thinking the same thing. But it was one thing to quietly think something to yourself and another to voice it out loud.

“It’s not mandatory, you don’t have to have fun,” she responded.

“I can only drink so much Kool-Aid,” said the stranger, giving Snow a wink that should have been obnoxious but instead was charmingly roguish.

Snow caught sight of a scrawny software engineer closing his eyes and falling backwards onto the waiting arms of his teammates. “I don’t see how trust falls are going to help us make money,” she said.

“What we really need are trust funds,” said the man, leaning in with mock seriousness. Snow caught a light whiff of lemon and grapefruit. She felt a warm heat on her cheeks.

Snow found herself leaning in to match. “Tell me then. What’s your secret to surviving these work events? You’re clearly not a fan.”

The stranger chuckled. “It’s like being at a party. I let the host see me, then I just quietly blend in while I mentally plan my escape.”

“How does interrupting me on my break factor into your blending in?” Snow asked coyly.

“You caught me,” said the man, lifting his palms up in a supplicating gesture. “I thought I’d make an exception for someone who caught my eye.”

Snow felt her heart thump in her chest. “I don’t even know your name,” she demurred.

“Miles,” said the man, extending a hand.

“Snow,” responded the woman, grasping the hand. His grip was firm. Snow’s eyes flicked to Miles’s forearm, sleekly toned unlike those of most of his coworkers.

“Snow,” repeated Miles, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

For a few months, it was like a reboot of The Office. The one good thing the open-office floor plan ever did for anyone was that Snow and Miles could easily see each other from their respective desks. Unlike with Jim and Pam though, Snow wasn’t going to wait for four seasons to make her move.

Quasar Innovations had somehow convinced more investors that their company was worth throwing money at despite the fact that they had no plan for making revenue, which meant that Snow had to organize yet another party. This time, she—well, the company—rented out an entire bar for the evening.

Snow was commiserating with the bartender when she spotted Miles through the crowd of tipsy coworkers.

“Miles!” she shouted over the music. “Hey!” She slipped between two C-level executives, who were in a heated debate about NFTs, and made her way over.

As she tapped him on the shoulder to catch his attention, her greeting died in her mouth as she saw that his hand was entwined with another person’s.

“Oh, hey Snow,” said Miles brightly.

“I didn’t know you were bringing a plus one,” said Snow, a note of petulance creeping in despite her best efforts to keep an even keel.

“Sorry,” said Miles, flashing an rakish grin that made Snow instantly forgive him. “It was a last minute change of plans.”

“No worries,” said Snow, who was very worried.

“This is Clara,” Miles said cheerfully. Snow’s apprehension only grew as she took the other woman in. Clara had alabaster skin, which was infuriatingly blemish-free, as if she had been carved out of stone by Michelangelo. She was tall too, almost Miles’s height. Snow looked up at Clara’s violet eyes, bright like a field of fragrant blooming lavenders, and saw her own brown eyes reflected within, as appetizing as mud in comparison.

“You must be Snow,” said Clara as she wrapped Snow in a hug. “Your outfit is just so adorable!” Even her accent was posh, like she was one of those people who would say “I went to college in Boston” with absolutely no hint of irony.

Snow tugged at the hem of her skirt. She was wearing a retro-style dress with cheery nautical flags. She’d thought it would give her manic pixie dream girl vibes. Looking at Clara though, who somehow managed to simultaneously be thinner and curvier than Snow, she felt her heart sink as she realized the magnitude of competition she was facing.

Over the coming months, jealousy coursed through Snow’s veins like a corrosive acid whenever Clara came up.

Clara was a business consultant with a career. Snow had a dead-end job with no hope for advancement.

Clara’s clothes were meticulously tailored and immensely flattering. Snow made do with off-the-rack thrift store finds.

Snow’s one advantage was that she spent eight hours a day in an office with Miles. The two became good friends, which was a double-edged sword. The more Snow saw Miles, the more Snow also saw Clara.

One Friday night, the three of them were at Miles’s apartment. Clara had somehow maneuvered the situation so that she was sitting on the couch between Miles and Snow, to Snow’s chagrin. The atmosphere shifted from jovial to serious as Miles cleared his throat.

“Snow,” he said. “I want to float an idea by you. Well, it’s actually Clara’s idea, but we’re both on board.” He flashed a wide grin at his partner while Clara kept her piercing violet eyes on Snow. It made Snow feel like she was an amoeba under a microscope being studied.

“Sure,” said Snow hesitantly. A part of her hoped that Miles was breaking up with Clara. Although it was unrealistic, Snow couldn’t help herself, even as each unfulfilled wish she made felt like stabbing her heart with another glass shard.

Miles smiled reassuringly. “So, Clara’s poly,” he said. Of course she is, thought Snow. She’s so fucking hip and edgy. It was lucky that Miles wasn’t psychic because he calmly continued, “I knew that before we became official, she didn’t blindside me.” Clara draped an arm around Miles’s shoulders and squeezed comfortingly.

A pause hung in the air. Miles looked nervous for once, which was rare. “Anyway, we were talking recently…and we thought maybe we could try something with the three of us.”

Snow stared blankly. This was not at all the direction she had imagined this conversation going.

“I’ve always liked you, Snow,” said Clara, filling the silence. “I think you can fill an important role in our lives.”

Was it worth trying? More Miles at the cost of more Clara. It wasn’t what Snow wanted. But maybe she could drive a wedge between the two of them. Maybe Miles was insecure. He might feel like Clara didn’t think he was enough. Snow could fill the gap and let him know that he was all she wanted.

“I’ll think about it,” said Snow, though in her heart it had been a foregone conclusion.

Threesomes, it turned out, were exactly as awkward to begin as Snow imagined they would be. It was Saturday and the three were once again on the couch. As they had been making small talk throughout the evening, Snow’s thoughts kept coming back to how exactly things were going to kick off. Just blurting out “Hey, let’s start our threesome” sounded like something an insane person would do. Plus, she didn’t want to seem too eager. It was a dilemma.

Clara polished off her aviation, the pale purple cocktail seemingly charging her matching eyes with fiery determination. When she was finished, she set her glass on the table with a light clink.

“Why don’t we get started?” asked Clara, who had opted to simply cut the Gordian knot that Snow had spent ages trying to pick apart in her mind.

“Miles and I picked out some clothes for you,” continued Clara as she turned towards Snow. “Why don’t you head into the guest bedroom and change?”

Snow tugged self-consciously at the hem of her blouse. “What’s wrong with what I have on now?” she asked.

“Nothing, dear,” soothed Clara, though something about her tone irritated Snow. “I just thought Miles would love seeing you in something more…unique.”

Snow got up and walked to the guest room. She cracked the door open, saw what was waiting on the bed, picked it up, and turned right around and marched back to the living room. Snow caught a glimpse of Miles closing the bathroom door behind him, leaving her alone with Clara.

“What’s wrong?” asked Clara.

“What the hell is this?” asked Snow, raising the fabric she had seized in her fist. A rainbow organza dress dangled from her hand. The large puffed sleeves and soft silhouette made it look like it was something a child would wear to a party.

“It’s a dress, Snow,” said Clara simply.

“I know that,” said Snow petulantly. “Why does it look like it’s for a toddler?”

Clara smiled indulgently. “It’s sized for a grownup. Toddlers aren’t that big.”

Snow pursed her lips in annoyance. “You know what I meant,” she said.

“Look,” said Clara, lowering her voice conspiratorially and leaning forward, “Miles picked it out, okay? He finds it hot.”

“If that’s the case,” hissed Snow through clenched teeth, “why aren’t you wearing it?”

Clara sighed. “Honestly? It’s not really my style. I can’t pull off something like this. But I thought you could. It’s why we’re asking you to spice things up.”

Snow bit her lip, unfolding the dress and holding it between her two hands. She turned it over to look. If she put it on, there was no way she would feel sexy. She’d feel like she was in church about to get confirmed. But if Miles liked it…this could be her avenue to one-up Clara.

“Okay,” Snow relented. “if this is really what he wants…”

“Of course,” said Clara, her mouth breaking out into a grateful smile. “Thank you so much! I know he’ll appreciate it.”

Snow made her way back into the guest bedroom, taking one last look at the dress. If nothing else, it was cute. She unbuttoned her blouse and took her black slacks off, carefully folding them and leaving them on the bed before sliding the poofy fabric over her head and onto her body. Frustratingly, the zipper was placed right on the small of her back. Snow couldn’t quite bend her arms to get the leverage to pull it up. She struggled for a minute, not wanting to admit that she couldn’t finish getting herself dressed, but eventually had to admit defeat.

“Hey,” she said as she opened the door, “I need some help…” The rest of her sentence died on her lips as she saw Miles embraced in a passionate kiss with Clara.

“You started without me,” said Snow, hurt.

The couple broke their kiss off, faces flush with passion. Miles caught his breath and turned to look at Snow. “You look perfect,” he said.

Three simple words that Snow never thought she’d hear. Yet the tone was all wrong. His voice lacked the electric undercurrent of primal desire. There was no hint of burning hunger, no ardent passion. Quite the contrary, in fact. His voice was soft with care. His eyes gently fixed Snow with a tender expression. Miles’s gaze felt saccharinely sweet, indulgent in the way that children were treated. Disappointment and joy danced together in Snow’s chest.

She had to seize the initiative before she inadvertently friend-zoned herself. “I’ll look even more perfect when you slip this off of me,” she said, dropping her voice into what she hoped was a sultry contralto.

Clara placed a hand on Miles’s chest and gently pushed him back against the couch before planting another deep kiss, stealing away whatever breath Miles might have used in response. Indignant, Snow scrambled for a place on the couch and tried to worm her way in, but the couch was too small for the three of them. Not to mention, Clara seemed to be preternaturally always be in the perfect position to block Snow, twisting Miles or elbowing Snow away so that she always stayed squarely between Snow and Miles.

“Let’s move to the bed,” said Snow, a grating whine sneaking into her tone despite her best efforts to remain neutral. The suggestion was greeted with the sounds of Miles sighing as Clara unbuttoned the top of Miles’s shirt and planted a hickey on his gorgeous pecs.

“Be patient, sweetie,” said Clara when she finally came up for air.

“But—” began Snow.

“Listen to Clara,” said Miles between ragged breaths. “I’m sure you can keep yourself occupied.”

“Exactly,” chimed Clara. “It’s not like you need to be babysat or anything, right?”

Snow huffed with indignation. “I don’t,” she spat out reluctantly. Clara’s violet eyes lit with amusement, as if she had been privy to a private joke, then went back to undressing Miles. Snow stood there awkwardly as Miles’s strong hands gently caressed Clara’s breasts, wishing desperately that they were touching her.

“Don’t just stand there,” said Clara. “Take a seat. Right where we can see you.” There wasn’t another chair to sit on. Snow hesitantly plopped herself on the floor, feeling very much like an unwanted guest. She watched as Clara whispered something into Miles’s ear.

Miles nodded and turned to Snow. “Clara’s embarrassed to say this herself, but she wanted to say that you were doing great.” Snow blinked, confused. She hadn’t done anything except having her advances be continually rebuffed. “I think you are too,” he added with a wink. “She’s not the only one who wants to see you touch yourself.”

Clara gently hit Miles on the arm. “Don’t tell her I said that!” she said.

“If you want to, of course,” Miles appended.

Did Snow want to? Not really. She wanted very much to be in Clara’s position, her body pressed up against Miles until the space between them collapsed into nothing and their atoms mingled. But if she could be with Miles…things could change.

“Okay,” she said demurely. Her fingers snaked underneath her colorful skirt and onto the cloth of her panties. She leaned her back against the tasteful mahogany coffee table and began stroking herself. Snow watched as Miles suddenly grabbed Clara’s hair and spun so that he was on top of her. He slid her sleek miniskirt up as Clara’s fingers fumbled with Miles’s jeans. Every so often, one of them would look at Snow and grin, as if to tell her she was doing a good job, which made her blush in embarrassment.

Snow couldn’t back out now. She had to push through. Show them how cool and sexual she could be. Show Miles how she could hang, just like Clara.

The heat of arousal burned in Snow as she watched Miles and Clara, imagining herself in Clara’s place.

Imagining that Miles was feverishly groping Snow’s breasts.

Imagining that Miles was kissing Snow all over her naked body.

Imagining that Miles was penetrating her as she arced her back on the couch, lost in the throes of passion.

Every moan that escaped Miles’s mouth was more kindling for Snow’s imagination. She pretended his fingernails were digging into her back, that she was the one pleasuring him.

“Oh my God,” Snow heard Miles breathe, his voice heavy with exertion. She pretended he was saying those words to her.

“Oh my God,” Snow said quietly to herself as the torrent of pleasure inside her threatened to spill over. She thought about stopping, about waiting until Miles could be the one to make her come, but there on the floor, furiously masturbating as Miles and Clara made love with each other, it seemed foolish. It was as if the act of waiting would break the illusion, force Snow to confront the fact that Miles was not with her.

Snow watched from the floor as the love of her life released his pent-up delicious pressure into another woman. She closed her eyes and pretended he was moaning for her. and her shameful gasps of pleasure mingled with the couple’s triumphant exhalations.

Somehow, despite the peculiar circumstances, it was one of the most vigorous orgasms of Snow’s life. Lights sizzled in Snow’s vision as she squeezed her eyes shut from the sheer intensity. She was nothing but sensation, floating in a void.

“Looks like you enjoyed that,” said Miles gently when Snow’s soul floated back down to Earth. “I know I did.” He was gently stroking Clara’s hair.

“I guess so,” said Snow, trying to play it cool. It hadn’t been exactly what she’d wanted. But Miles looked so content.

“I’m glad,” said Clara. “I knew she’d be perfect.”

Unfortunately for Snow, that moment was the apex of Snow’s status in the burgeoning polycule. Trying to one-up Clara was like trying to fill a sieve with sand. The more Snow struggled, the more her role constricted around her. She traded freedoms and responsibilities bit by bit, looking for an opportunity to turn the tables and be in Clara’s position.

When they asked her to move in, she agreed. She could see Miles every day, even if it meant giving up a potential sanctuary she could retreat to.

When they asked her to quit her job, she agreed. Miles and Clara made more than enough money for the two of them, even if it meant furthering her dependence on their largesse.

As Snow bartered her respect for time with Miles, part of her knew she was doing nothing but throwing good money after bad. But what was a little bit more humiliation, a little more embarrassment, compared to the shame of having to admit that all the time she’d poured into this relationship was doomed? As Orwell knew, doublethink comes easily to people with the right incentives. Snow could simultaneously believe that she was wasting her time and that her plan was bound to succeed eventually.

Bar crawls and wine tours became choosing which kind of juice she’d have in her sippy cup.

Sleek blouses and short skirts became onesies and ludicrously short dresses, with enough frills to fill a Victorian-clothing museum. No actual child would be caught dead in what Miles and Clara had Snow wearing.

Steak dinners and elevated conversation became pureed baby food and continuous condescension. Snow didn’t realize how nice having silverware was until it was taken from her. She either ate with her hands or was fed by her caregivers, accompanied by the sounds of airplanes and trains.

But worst of all: the soft cloth of her lacy lingerie that used to hug her hips and accentuate her butt turned into thick diapers that forced her thighs awkwardly apart. Snow couldn’t remember how long it’d been since anyone had touched her down there for anything other than wiping her before taping her into yet another humiliating diaper. The only times she wasn’t padded were when she was being given a bath or that tragically brief interval before she got a new one.

On the one-year anniversary of the polycule’s founding, Snow didn’t even realize the day was significant. Snow’s days had blended into each other in an infantile haze since she’d lost her unrestricted access to electronics. Miles went into the office while Clara worked from home to watch Snow.

Snow’s first hint that something was different was shortly before dinnertime. Clara abruptly changed Snow out of her play clothes into a white dress, with big puffed sleeves and a lacy layer of embroidered flowers all along the front. It was, as all Snow’s dresses were, too short to hide the diaper she was wearing, which had pink cartoon bunnies sleeping in various poses all along it.

She didn’t have much time to ponder before she heard the front door creak open. Miles was home! She ran to give him a hug, but Clara had somehow conveniently been standing right by the door when he came, as if she had somehow known he was coming. Snow watched as Miles gave Clara a deep, romantic kiss. Even now, the gesture still twisted her heart into knots.

“Happy one-year anniversary honey,” said Miles, grabbing Clara’s hand and gently placing it on his cheek.

Their one-year anniversary! Had it already been so long? She’d spent a year like this? If she was going to do anything, now was the time! She stomped up to the two grownups and opened her mouth.

“Hello, princess,” said Miles, interrupting Snow’s train of thought like a needle through a balloon. Joy beat furiously in her chest as her eyes gently unfocused from the rush. She was so starved for Miles’s attention that any little scrap had an outsized effect.

“I’ll get her ready for dinner,” said Clara before Snow could properly lap up her fill of Miles. She led Snow into the kitchen as Miles put his backpack down. Snow whined but knew better than to protest too much as Clara put Snow on the high chair and locked her in. As Clara fiddled with Snow’s restraints, the girl watched as Miles came back into the kitchen and pulled out bright red steaks of beef chuck from the fridge.

Miles pulled a knife out and gently cut the meat into cubes before flipping the stand mixer on. The meat grinder attachment whirred to life as he fed the beef into it. Snow pouted as she looked longingly at her love. Not only was she not getting his attention, she was also extremely unlikely to get to eat some of his delicious cooking.

“Looking good, honey,” Clara said airily as she chopped tomatoes alongside.

“Me, or the meat?” quipped Miles, who started to form patties out of the freshly ground beef.

“What’s the difference?” Clara asked wolfishly. Snow could do nothing but listen. Nobody talked to her like that anymore. Nobody flirted with her. It was nothing but saccharine coos and humiliating putdowns.

Snow could do nothing but watch from her vantage point. The thick wooden tray was locked in front of her, and she couldn’t slide out from the bottom, since locking straps around her diaper area kept her secure. They even pressed into her padding when she wiggled around, leaving her unable to forget her horrible situation.

She pushed against the pink tray, hoping to find purchase somewhere, but the thick wood was much too solid.

“Babe, can you get Snow something to play with?” Miles called, sprinkling salt onto the patties. “She’s being fussy.”

“I’m not being fussy!” Snow said, turning a deeper shade of red.

Miles chuckled. “Definitely sounds like something someone who wasn’t being fussy would say,” he said, syrupy sweet, like he was gently teasing a child.

Snow huffed and crossed her arms, pouting. She’d learned that raging, arguing, swearing—anything with traces of adulthood—would be met with her getting soap in her mouth and painful spankings. But Miles and Clara let more childish displays of emotion slide, within limits.

Clara put a coloring book and some crayons on the tray, opening the book to a family of three pandas in a bamboo grove. One of the pandas had a cub on its back.

“Here you go, princess,” she said. “Why don’t you color while the grownups cook? It takes a lot of work to take care of you and we can’t have you underfoot.” She pointed to the baby panda on the page. “Look, this family is just like us, isn’t it?” She ruffled Snow’s hair, which she knew Snow hated, and left her to her own devices.

Snow watched as Miles put the cast iron pan on the stove and flicked the switch, igniting the flame with a click and a whoosh. Clara swooped in behind, putting her arms around his waist and giving Snow’s husband a hug. She leaned in, putting her head on Miles’s shoulder and started whispering something into his ear. He grinned at whatever she had said and turned around, wrapping his arms around Clara’s back, leaning forward, and giving her a deep kiss.

Snow’s sex throbbed and she shifted in her high chair, the feeling of the wet diaper against her skin making her clit ache with desire.

She should have been the one kissing Miles.

She should be the one who would get to sleep in a bed.

She should be the one getting to eat this dinner.

For a split second, she thought about tearing off her juvenile garments and demanding to be treated with respect, and just as quickly, the thought left, memories of being thrown over Clara’s lap and being spanked until she was bawling flashing through her mind.

Rather than continuing to watch them, she turned to the coloring book, fetching a black crayon from the carton. As she began coloring the panda in, the sounds of burgers sizzling and adult conversation faded into the background. The colors she chose, the way she shaded—these were the only things under Snow’s shrinking zone of control, and she held onto them with a vise grip. It might just be making sure she colored within the lines, but she had to prove, even to herself, she could do something right.

Snow was taken out of her reverie when she felt someone’s hand on her shoulders. She blinked and looked up from her drawing. To her left and right, burgers with homemade buns and a refreshing-looking salad sat atop beautiful white stoneware plates.

“Come on cupcake,” Miles said. “It’s dinner time.” He tied a cloth bib adorned with various styles of cupcakes around her neck. Snow obediently sat still, feeling Miles’s hands move her hair around as he secured the bib. Although she wished he would move them further down her body, she was just happy to have his attention at all.

Clara put two wine glasses onto the table and proceeded to uncork a bottle of wine she’d gotten from the cellar with a satisfying pop. Snow’s eyes looked longingly at the red liquid as Clara filled the two glasses, the wine burbling gently as it left the bottle.

“Now now, princess,” she said sweetly, gently shaking the bottle, “this stuff is for Mommy and Daddy. You’re much too little for this.” Snow could do nothing but puff out her cheeks in indignation as Clara recorked the bottle. Miles put a bowl of steaming congee in front of Snow. She wrinkled her nose at the green cilantro sprinkled on top.

“Daddy, I don’t want cilantro,” she whined. She’d learned over the year of this humiliating treatment that she was more likely to get what she want if she acted childishly.

“It’s good for you,” Miles said sweetly, like he was talking with an actual two-year-old.

“Please? It tastes like soap.” She pouted. What was a little more humiliation worth anyway? She had to fight tooth and nail for any victory.

“Eat it and I’ll let you have some grown-up food,” Miles cajoled, taking a seat on Snow’s left. Snow closed her eyes. She could smell the hint of cayenne pepper mixed with the ground beef and the subtle floral aroma of citrus salad dressing. She wiggled subconsciously in anticipation, crinkling slightly.

“Miles, babe, you’re spoiling the baby,” Clara said, sitting on Snow’s right.

“It’s a special occasion,” said Miles, ruffling Snow’s hair. Despite herself, she was pleased for the small victory.

Miles fed Snow spoonfuls of congee almost absentmindedly, in between his own mouthfuls of food and conversation with Clara. The two never included Snow when it came to dinner table talk, treating her as if she couldn’t understand what they were saying. To be fair, it was a lot of company talk, or friends that they didn’t have in common with Snow, so she inevitably found herself daydreaming, their voices fading to a quiet hum. Every time Miles brought the spoon to her mouth though, her heart fluttered. She was starved for his attention, more so than for the food, and every moment he spent with her was one he didn’t spend with Clara.

When Snow finally finished her bowl, Miles gave her a burger, which he had sliced into tiny bite-sized pieces. She dug into the food with relish, almost happy.

After dinner, Miles unbuckled Snow from the high chair and led her to the living room while Clara cleaned up. He led her to the playpen in the corner, which she sat in with a crinkle.

“Mommy and Daddy are going to watch some television together, so play here for a bit, okay?”

Snow bit her lip. “I can watch TV too,” she said.

“It’s for grown-ups,” he said. “It wouldn’t be age-appropriate.”


“No buts, young lady,” Miles said warningly. Snow cowered. Miles felt so much taller when viewed from inside the confines of a playpen.

As Miles and Clara sat on the couch, Snow could do nothing but fume from her corner as the sounds of light piano started playing from the TV. She couldn’t see what was on screen from her vantage point, but she heard the clucking of chickens followed by the bustling sounds of domestic life. Elegant English accents fretted about social class and marriage.

Snow watched as Clara nuzzled herself deeper into her husband, who had started tenderly stroking her arm. They began kissing. How could Snow have even thought she could make Miles see her as an adult again? She was in a soggy diaper, one a grown-up would have to change later. How could she have thought she could match Clara’s elegance and poise?

Clara climbed onto Miles’s lap and deeply kissed him, pushing him back until he was lying on the couch. When she came up for air, Snow could see a small line of saliva stretch and then break.

They didn’t even bother to give Snow the courtesy of taking it to the bedroom. Why would they? Snow was just a baby.

Snow watched as Clara unbuttoned Miles’s shirt. Miles put one hand behind Clara’s back and dug in. Snow could see the tone of Miles’s arms, those muscles that used to ravish her and were now pleasing a real woman, not the overgrown child that Snow was. She saw the tent in Miles’s crotch grow as his breathing quickened.

It was too much to bear. Their anniversary had come and Snow couldn’t change anything. She grabbed a stuffed shark from the playpen and straddled it. She watched as Clara threw Miles’s shirt to the floor, exposing his smooth, dark abs, and began rocking back and forth, the heat between her legs not from wetting herself but from frustrated desire.

Maybe she deserved this. She must have asked for it. If she didn’t really want this, she would have left. She truly was a helpless infant. She’d never have sex again. How could she, when she always had a diaper on? As she rocked, she could hear the diaper crinkle against her.

Miles suddenly rolled Clara around until he was straddling her, then used one hand to play with Clara’s breasts. Snow rubbed faster and moved one hand to massage her own, keeping the other on the floor for balance. Miles would never touch her like that. If she wanted any release, she’d have to touch herself.

Snow moaned involuntarily, a low one, so that she wouldn’t disturb the adults, but she kept going, through Miles taking off Clara’s slacks. As Miles entered Clara, Snow shivered with jealousy. As Snow was about to come, Clara turned her head and locked eyes with Snow, giving her a wink. She didn’t need to say a word, but Snow knew what she was saying.

Miles deserved a woman. A real woman, like Clara. And not the helpless failure of a grownup like Snow.

Snow closed her eyes as her body shook. Pleasure and jealousy intermingled as electricity flowed through her veins and transmuted into a strange sense of peace, of finally accepting a truth she’d tried to reject: this was as close as she’d ever get to a relationship with Miles.

And she was okay with that.

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Letter IV

My dear Mugwort,

You need not worry so much! I could see you in my mind’s eye, your quill fervently scratching away at parchment in panic. The letters of your words, normally so prim and proper, began squeezing themselves together, as if looking for safety in numbers.

So your Patient has gained a streak of independence, even swearing off contact. Let me first assure you, dear nephew, that it is likely that you have done nothing wrong! Our organization is not so short-sighted as to immediately terminate anyone who makes the slightest mistake. You need not fear for your safety. Hard work is the mill that pounds grist into flour. The unfortunate affair with Screwtape and Wormwood was an anomaly and not the norm.

Take solace—humans are notoriously fickle. They make resolutions to work out on New Year’s, go to the gym for a week, but by week two begin making excuses. They’re tired. Skipping one day might not be so bad. It’s cold. They can catch up on running tomorrow. Humans take out loans against their future selves, not realizing that when time comes to collect, there is no one but their present self who can do the work. They even believe in their own sincerity, confusing their belief in belief with concrete belief. “I should want to do this” becomes “I want to want to do this” becomes “I want to do this” as their minds warp and twist in justification and rationales until they resemble an M. C. Escher painting.

The girlfriend may have turned the Patient for now, but assuming you have been doing your job correctly (and, of course, I firmly believe you have been! You are my nephew, after all), the allure of the easy path will only grow and grow. It is precisely when people feel safe that hidden dangers are the most effective. There is nothing quite so satisfying as the culmination of weeks of effort. The greater the height, the further the fall.

Your patient will not stay out of your grasp forever, just as the girlfriend will not be perfect forever. Humans are unable to properly conceive of infinities. Continue sowing the seeds of your work, so that you may properly reap your results in the future. Imagine what delicious irony it would be if the girlfriend ended up responsible for the maintenance of the Patient’s soul, her protective instincts warped and twisted for our ends.

We demons have the long view. Patience is the compass that guides you through the wilderness of uncertainty. Your time to strike will come, and I know you will be ready when it does.

Your affectionate uncle,


Wrath: Phoenix Cortex

Session Date: —/—/——

Couple’s Names: Phoenix Cortez and Nathaniel Neumann

Presenting Problem(s): Phoenix and Nathaniel are seeking couples counseling. Both individuals report their main concern as Nathaniel’s emotional affair, which has caused significant distress within their relationship. Phoenix expresses feelings of betrayal, hurt, and a loss of trust as a result of Nathaniel’s emotional involvement with a third party. They both feel as if their relationship is currently at a critical point and are seeking guidance and support to work through this difficult situation.

History: Phoenix and Nathaniel have been in a committed relationship for 5 years and reside together. They report that their relationship had been generally fulfilling and supportive before the emotional affair occurred. Nathaniel reports cutting off contact before reaching physical intimacy, though by his own admission, he was very close to the line. Nathaniel expresses remorse, while Phoenix is struggling with a mix of emotions, including anger, sadness, and uncertainty about the future of their relationship.

Previous Treatment: Neither Phoenix nor Nathaniel have undergone individual or couples therapy in the past. They mention that they have attempted to discuss the affair and its impact on their relationship, but they have been unable to navigate through the complex emotions and rebuild trust on their own.


  1. Reestablish trust: Nathaniel and Phoenix wish to rebuild the trust within their relationship and restore their sense of emotional security.

  2. Effective communication: Developing healthier patterns of communication to express their emotions, needs, and concerns openly and honestly.

  3. Healing and forgiveness: Exploring strategies to process and heal from the emotional wounds caused by the affair in order to allow for forgiveness and the ability to move forward together.

  4. Relationship enhancement: Enhancing the overall quality of their bond.

Initial Treatment Plan: Initially, the therapist will conduct a comprehensive assessment of the couple’s relationship dynamics, exploring each individual’s unique perspective and emotions related to the emotional affair. The therapist will employ evidence-based techniques such as emotion-focused therapy (EFT) to address the identified goals.

The therapist will also facilitate open communication and provide a safe space for Phoenix and Nathaniel to express their feelings, concerns, and needs.


Dr. Alaric ——, Psy.D.

Licensed Psychologist


The location: a tastefully decorated living room.


The time: three in the morning.


The scenario: an argument marches on with the relentless force of a boulder rolling down a hill.


“For the last time, just tell me where you put my report.” Nathaniel threw his hands up in the air in frustration. “I won’t say anything else. We can pretend this never happened.”

“I haven’t fucking touched it, okay?” Phoenix spat back. He closed his eyes and tiredly rubbed his temples with his right hand. There were going to be deep grooves there tomorrow, well-worn like a carpet after too much pacing.

“So you’re saying that it just grew legs and walked away from my desk?” Nathaniel scoffed. Phoenix saw him roll his eyes, their normal sapphire beauty marred with the ugliness of the contempt on his face.

“What I’m saying,” said Phoenix testily, “is that you obviously misplaced it.” He yawned, feeling the gentle sleep-deprived throb of a headache behind his deep brown eyes. “Can’t this wait until tomorrow?”

“Doctor Alaric said never to go to bed angry,” said Nathaniel with an air of forced nonchalance. “So, I mean, if you don’t care about us…” He crossed his arms and arched an eyebrow, daring Phoenix to rise to the bait.

“Don’t use our therapist as an excuse to be shitty,” huffed Phoenix. He leaned back on the couch, which creaked in response, and looked up at the popcorn ceiling, blinking rapidly to try to clear his head. “But fine. Why don’t we make another sweep around the apartment?”

Nathaniel clenched his fingers together in a fist, his arm spasming with intensity before he let go and waggled his fingers in an attempt to relieve tension. “Goddamn it Phoenix, just tell me where you fucking hid it, okay?”

So much for trying to be conciliatory. Phoenix ran his fingers through the curls on his forehead, straightening them before they gently bobbed back in place. “What do you want from me? I’m not going to make something up. Doctor Alaric said that I had to speak my truth.”

“Like hell you’re speaking your truth,” said Nathaniel. “This is obviously about how you think I lost your stupid commemorative pin.” He shrugged, exasperated. “Safety backs can come off on their own, you know?”

Phoenix’s world swam for a second as it tinted red at the periphery. This conversation wasn’t going anywhere. “I can’t deal with you right now,” said Phoenix. “I need five minutes.”

“Oh, very mature of you, buying time since you’re out of excuses.” Nathaniel laughed ruefully. He walked to their bedroom and slammed the door shut, leaving Phoenix to brood on the couch.

Thirteen minutes and twenty-four seconds later, they found the report in the linen closet behind the woven seagrass baskets filled with fluffy terry towels. Phoenix caught just the faintest whiff of a musty, earthy smell, like moss and hay, before it dissipated.

Had Nathaniel secretly picked up smoking? It would be in no way the first secret he’d kept from Phoenix. But he didn’t have the energy to get into this right there and now. He took the report to Nathaniel, who accepted it without even a word of gratitude. Phoenix swore up and down that he had nothing to do with putting it there in the first place, but as the two of them finally collapsed in their bed, he knew that Nathaniel didn’t believe him even one tiny bit.


The days march on.


The slights change.


But the situation doesn’t: once again, a fight breaks out, breaking the silence of the hallowed hours before dawn.


“Why the fuck would you get back in touch with James?” Phoenix turned on his heel and walked towards the kitchen, feet deftly navigating around the books that had fallen onto the ground earlier, evidence of collateral damage from the earlier, more explosive stage of the fight.

“You should be grateful that I told you,” spat back Nathaniel venomously at Phoenix’s back.

“Grateful for what? That you cheated on me again?” said Phoenix, angrily flinging a cabinet door open, which reached its limit of motion with a creak and recoiled shut with a thud. Daggers of frustration pierced Phoenix’s chest. Now even the world was against him.

“It was just texts,” offered Nathaniel, as if that absolved him of any responsibility.

“To someone you cheated on me with,” laughed Phoenix. He opened the cabinet again, this time more calmly, and pulled a glass out before flicking the sink faucet open and filling it.

“I’m just practicing honesty,” said Nathaniel loftily. “You know? Like what a good boyfriend would do?”

“Is that what you think you’re doing?” asked Phoenix, shutting the water off with an angry twist of the faucet handle.

“I didn’t have to tell you, you know?” said Nathaniel petulantly, which was infuriating. Phoenix couldn’t believe he was playing the victim here.

“A good boyfriend,” said Phoenix, “wouldn’t need to admit anything.” He lifted the glass to his mouth and angrily gulped down the water.

“I could have not told you,” offered Nathaniel. He had the gall to be hurt by this accusation?

“How is that any better?” Phoenix was appalled.

“It wasn’t like I texted him first!” pled Nathaniel.

“I don’t care,” said Phoenix flatly. His hands gripped edge of the kitchen counter, knuckles turning white with the force of his barely concealed rage.

“I’m just saying—” began Nathaniel.

“Shut. The. Fuck. Up.” Phoenix shot each syllable like they were cannonballs lobbed straight at Nathaniel.

“If you could—”

“No,” interrupted Phoenix flatly.


“No. More. Excuses.” Phoenix wasn’t going to let Nathaniel spin his way out of this one. One way or another, he was going to acknowledge that he was wrong.

“I don’t have to take this,” said Nathaniel, choosing the third option. “I’m going to bed.”

“What happened to ‘never go to bed angry’?” asked Phoenix sardonically. “Isn’t that what Doctor Alaric would want?”

“Fuck you,” said Nathaniel. He casually waved his hand in a gesture of dismissal and turned to go to their bedroom.

“Very mature of you,” said Phoenix sarcastically. “Run off and go pout like a child.” Nathaniel just turned the wave of his hand into a quick raised middle finger without missing a beat and closed the door with a thud.

Bile rose in Phoenix’s throat. How dare Nathaniel get the last word! But it wasn’t like Phoenix didn’t also have work in the morning. He could be the bigger man and let this go. Satisfied with his reasoning, he slid his phone out of his pocket, plopped onto the couch, and played a mobile game to calm down before eventually joining Nathaniel in bed.

It was lucky that Nathaniel was such an easy sleeper—fifteen minutes was all Phoenix needed to wait until he could quietly crawl into bed beside his partner without anybody making a fuss. It would be another hour, though, until his mind stopped racing enough to fall asleep.

Phoenix awoke, the faint smell of toast and pepper from his dreams lingering like the memory of a meal from long ago. His eyes fluttered as his brain shook off the vestiges of sleep. As he recovered more of his faculties, he noticed an odd clammy sensation by his left thigh. Phoenix turned, seeing a dark pool of saliva on the pillow underneath Nathaniel’s cheek as his boyfriend obliviously snored.

As he rubbed his eyes with his right hand, his left snaked under the blankets to investigate. The side of his pajama pants were unmistakably damp, and unless Nathaniel had spent part of the evening sleeping with his head in Phoenix’s lap, the puddle of drool didn’t explain it at all. Phoenix gathered his legs in, sitting up on the bed as he slid his knees out from under the covers. It was just the left side, where Nathaniel was sleeping.

Phoenix threw the covers down the bed, startling Nathaniel awake.

Nathaniel grumbled something incoherent, but Phoenix wasn’t paying attention. He saw a splotches of dark dampness on the crotch of Nathaniel’s pants and on the bed below him. They were Rorschach tests, and Phoenix knew what he saw in them, as improbable as it seemed.

“Holy shit,” he laughed, “did you wet the bed?”

Nathaniel’s nose wrinkled with displeasure. “What are you talking about?” he asked, but his face froze as he felt his pajama bottoms sticking to him like weak glue.

“Oh my God,” said Phoenix, sniffing the air. The telltale pungent odor of stale urine wasn’t one he’d experienced in a long while, but it was unmistakable. “You did.”

“No I didn’t,” said Nathaniel, though Phoenix could see that even he knew that the evidence was weighted against him. Nathaniel’s eyes darted back and forth as his mind scrambled for a way to shift the argument. “You must have done this,” he said, accusatorially.

“Me?” asked Phoenix in disbelief.

“Yeah,” said Nathaniel, getting out of the bed and stripping out of his pants. “You must have spiked my drink or something.”

Phoenix scoffed. “I didn’t do anything.”

“Well, I didn’t do this,” said Nathaniel as he slid his damp boxer briefs off and threw his pajamas into the laundry basket.

“Sure, in the same way that our bed isn’t wet and how you’re not shamefully tossing your clothes into the hamper,” said Phoenix sarcastically, gesturing to Nathaniel’s side of the bed with an open palm.

Last night’s argument flashed into Phoenix’s mind. “Talk about acting childish,” he said mean-spiritedly. He sighed and got up, stepping out of his own pajamas, which had gotten caught in the crossfire, and threw them in the hamper on top of Nathaniel’s.

“You did this,” argued Nathaniel as he went over to the bathroom to quickly splash water on himself in lieu of a proper shower.

“Why the fuck would I?” asked Phoenix. “What could I possibly gain from this?” He sighed and began stripping the sheets off the bed. Privately though, he was elated. Wait until Doctor Alaric heard about this one!

“I don’t know, but you’ve taken it too far,” yelled Nathaniel from the bathroom, over the sound of running water.

“You’re insane,” retorted Phoenix. It wasn’t his most imaginative comeback. He cast about for something more pointed, but the situation was so foreign that he was having difficulty being clever. He watched as Nathaniel burst back into the bedroom and pulled dresser drawers open to assemble his outfit.

“I don’t have time for this right now,” said Nathaniel, glancing at his wristwatch before pulling sleek black slacks up his legs.

“Yeah yeah, run away like you always do,” said Phoenix, who felt secure in his moral victory and didn’t feel the need to press the point further with further jabs. “I’ll clean up after your mess. As usual.”

Okay, no more after that last dig. It wouldn’t do to be a sore winner.

Phoenix threw on a pair of sweatpants and hefted the laundry basket with a grunt of effort. Walking to the door, he made a brief detour to grab a jar of change off the counter and headed downstairs to the complex’s laundry room. Before the door closed again, he heard the sound of dresser drawers being slid open and slammed shut as Nathaniel finished getting dressed.

He whistled a jaunty tune down the hall like he was Snow White in the throes of domestic bliss. He whistled as he threw the load into the washer and slammed the coin tray shut with the fee. He whistled his way back to their shared apartment, two dollars lighter but with a spring in his step.

Phoenix was therefore understandably incensed when he pulled open his underwear drawer only to see blank mahogany wood instead of the rows of meticulously folded cloth he was expecting.



The tension in Doctor Alaric’s office was so thick it was a wonder that the three inhabitants didn’t all suffocate for lack of oxygen. Phoenix and Nathaniel had silently stormed in and taken their places on the sofa, sitting as far away from each other as they could. The only sounds in the room were the pendulum clock on the wall above them, which marked the passage of time with relentless mechanical efficiency, and Doctor Alaric’s fountain pen, which was scratching notes in his beautiful black leather notebook.



A heady aroma of leather and spice always covered the office. Apparently, Doctor Alaric smoked—he kept a vintage-looking mahogany ashtray on his desk with a rotating collection of cigars, though he never smoked during their sessions. The smell reminded Phoenix of his father, though he had smoked cigarettes, which wasn’t nearly as classy.

Finally, Doctor Alaric broke the silence. “Would either of you like to begin?”

Phoenix jumped in like the invitation had been the firing of a gun to start a race. “Nathaniel got back in touch with James,” he said. His chest tingled, anticipating how Doctor Alaric was surely going to rip Nathaniel a whole new one.

“Phoenix started it,” Nathaniel said defensively, which was the spark that ignited the tension and started a wildfire of bickering.

“Me? What about you—”

“Last night you pulled the most childish prank—”

“What are you talking about—”

“Just like when you hid my report—”

“I didn’t do anything—”

“You’re so goddamn selfish—”

That’s enough,” said Doctor Alaric, so forcefully that Phoenix could feel the italics in his words. His commandment rang through the room, slicing straight through the chaotic argumentative clamor.

Phoenix knew that the therapist was deadly serious. Doctor Alaric was normally unflappably calm, but now a hint of emotion had crept into his voice. It was only a scant few decibels louder, yet given the context, it was as obvious as thunder.

“Honestly, both of you are hopeless,” Doctor Alaric said, disappointed. The couple leapt into their own defense simultaneously.

“Phoenix keeps fucking with me—” “Nathaniel’s so self-centered—”

Settle down,” commanded Doctor Alaric, nipping this flare-up in the bud. He closed his journal shut with a thump, putting it on the table beside him before smoothly unfolding his legs and standing up. Although he seemed to be a normal height when he was in his chair, it was like his body had gradually stretched until he seemed almost impossibly tall.

“Does either one of you want to apologize to the other?” he asked, towering above the couple. His orange eyes shone with a dangerous glint.

“No,” said Phoenix immediately, crossing his arms. “Absolutely not,” chimed in Nathaniel concurrently. It was the first thing the two of them had agreed on all day.

Doctor Alaric sighed. “If the two of you aren’t going to get along,” he said testily, “I suppose I’ll just have to make you.” He pointed at a corner of his office, where a large potted fern was bearing silent witness to the transpiring events. “Phoenix, over there.”

Phoenix laughed incredulously. “Seriously? Corner time?”

“Three,” said Doctor Alaric calmly, which was a total non sequitur. Phoenix turned to his boyfriend, hoping to validate that yes, Doctor Alaric was behaving like a crazy person, but the twisted grin on Nathaniel’s face shot that aspiration down.

“Two,” continued the therapist.

“A countdown? Seriously?” continued Phoenix, after a pause. It was clear that Nathaniel had opted to stay silent to let Phoenix get whatever was coming to him. Typical Nathaniel, leaving Phoenix out to dry. But he’d deal with him afterwards.

“One,” said Doctor Alaric, the tone of warning in his voice rising to fever pitch.

“I’m not a child,” laughed Phoenix, deflecting.

“Zero,” finished the therapist, and he suddenly strode over and grabbed Phoenix by the collar of his shirt. Phoenix found himself yanked onto his feet. His hands immediately went to Doctor Alaric’s to free himself from the grip, but it was like trying to pry open a steel door with a toothpick.

“What the fuck!” yelled Phoenix as Doctor Alaric began dragging Phoenix over to the therapist’s chair. Phoenix tried digging his heels into the ground, but his assailant was so strong that his shoes merely flopped uselessly against the carpet, unable to find purchase.

“Such language,” said Doctor Alaric icily as he smoothly sat down and threw Phoenix stomach down onto his lap with a dizzying whirl of momentum.

“Nathaniel!” yelled Phoenix, craning his head at his boyfriend in a desperate plea for succor, but Nathaniel just dumbly sat there like he was a deer caught in the headlights. The crash was coming, and all he could do was wait for it to happen.

Phoenix tried wiggling out of Doctor Alaric’s lap, but a firm palm from the therapist dug into the small of Phoenix’s back with unrelenting force. Unlike Atlas, there was no way Phoenix was going to shrug this weight off. He changed tactics, balling his hands up into fists and swinging them into his captor’s shins. His blows landed with meaty thumps, but it was like trying to punch a wall. What was up with Doctor Alaric? He didn’t look very strong, but here he was casually ignoring Phoenix’s wild thrashing. He clearly went to the gym.

Before Phoenix could continue down this inane train of thought, he felt a meaty blow on his butt. A sharp thwack seemed to echo in the room, followed by waves of hot pain that spread from the place of impact like shockwaves from a meteor.

“What the fuck?” yelled Phoenix.

“Language, young man,” said Doctor Alaric, and spanked Phoenix again with a loud whack. Even diffused through a layer of denim jeans, the blow still smarted, like Phoenix had been hit with a brick.

“You can’t do this to me,” shouted Phoenix indignantly, thrashing with redoubled effort. This man was insane—

“I can’t?” asked Doctor Alaric sardonically. “You’re right then, I guess this isn’t happening.” His hand hit a third time in the same exact spot, which caused Phoenix to yelp involuntarily in pain.

“You knew what I meant, you asshole,” spat Phoenix after he caught his breath. A twang of petulant whininess had crept into his voice, which a tiny part of Phoenix, one that wasn’t preoccupied with trying to escape danger, loathed.

In response, Doctor Alaric simply clucked his tongue. “I’m really sorry that I have to do this,” he said, and he even almost sounded sincere. A hand slid under Phoenix’s stomach and unbuttoned his jeans. Phoenix wiggled like a worm, trying to be a spanner in the works, but Doctor Alaric simply dug his nails into Phoenix’s back. A sharp spike of pain punctuated his point—resistance would not be tolerated. Tiny half-moon imprints incongruously like ghosts of friendly smiles lay like footprints on Phoenix’s angry red skin.

Phoenix sharply sucked in air through clenched teeth. Doctor Alaric took the brief distraction to slide Phoenix’s jeans down his legs, exposing the bare skin of Phoenix’s butt to the room.

“Look at you,” lectured Doctor Alaric. “No underwear?”

“I was trying to say earlier—Nathaniel threw them away—”

“Don’t use him as an excuse,” Doctor Alaric interrupted. “I should have seen it from the start. You’re behaving like a childish brat, and I need to treat you like how you’ve been acting.”

“No—” started Phoenix, but Doctor Alaric shut the nascent argument down with the relentlessness of a pesticide.

“You think you’re acting mature?” He smacked Phoenix, the sound of the slap ringing through the room. A pale handprint stood out like a beacon amid a sea of incarnadine.

“I didn’t—”

Another smack, sending Phoenix’s thoughts scattering like rats fleeing from a cat. He couldn’t put two thoughts together before—


“Playing these little pranks on Nathaniel?” asked Doctor Alaric rhetorically. Phoenix had had a good reason, he just needed to tell—


“You disappoint me,” continued Doctor Alaric.


Doctor Alaric hit Phoenix so hard that Phoenix felt himself slide on the therapist’s lap, his body carried forward by the momentum of the swing.

“Pl—please stop, let’s talk about this like adults,” begged Phoenix. Hot tears pooled in the corners of his eyes before sliding down his face, leaving behind salt and shame in its wake.

“Act like one and maybe we can,” said Doctor Alaric coldly.

Phoenix sniffled, which was responded to with another sharp smack. His world had been reduced to burning sensations, both from the tears on his cheeks and from the abuse he was receiving on his bottom.

“I’m sorry,” cried Phoenix.

“For what?” asked Doctor Alaric before delivering another blow. Phoenix felt each half of his buttocks pulse and throb independently, leaving him awash in hitherto unknown nuances of agony.

“I don’t know,” sniffled Phoenix.

A huge spike of pain. The therapist had unexpectedly gone for Phoenix’s thigh. Phoenix let out a desperate wail.

“You’ve been very naughty,” hinted Doctor Alaric.

“Oh—yes, I’m sorry that I was naughty. I’ve been bad. Please…” Phoenix blubbered out a series of apologies, each syllable blending into the next like they couldn’t wait to escape his body.

“You’re not sorry,” said Doctor Alaric sternly, after Phoenix’s momentum had slowed down. “At least, not for your behavior.” A pang of panic flared up as Phoenix braced for another blow, but Doctor Alaric continued, almost contemplative.

“You’re merely sorry that you got spanked,” continued Doctor Alaric. ”You’re just a brat who doesn’t contemplate why what he’s doing is bad. So we’ll do it your way. If you act like a child, I’ll treat you like one.”

Was that all true? Getting spanked had felt awful. Phoenix knew he felt sorry, but maybe Doctor Alaric was right. Somewhere along the whole ordeal, self-justification had transmuted into self-pity. He’d disappointed Doctor Alaric. Now he’d take Nathaniel’s side. Phoenix would have to make it up starting now. He could show Doctor Alaric what a grownup he was, earn his way back into his graces—

Suddenly, Doctor Alaric stood up, keeping his hold on the back of Phoenix’s shirt as he guided his patient to his desk. Phoenix was determined to show how cooperative he could be, so this time around he walked willingly rather than be dragged and let Doctor Alaric guide him onto the desk in a sitting position with only the quietest of whimpers as the hard wood pressed up against his bruises. Phoenix watched as Doctor Alaric bent down and slid open a drawer before placing a large white rectangle and a bottle of baby powder onto the desk.

After the therapist unfolded the rectangle and started massaging it between his hands with a stream of crinkles, it clicked into place. It was a diaper. Phoenix’s gorge rose with a cry of protest, but he desperately tamped it down before it could escape. He had to do what Doctor Alaric wanted. He had to do it so he could be better than Nathaniel.

Doctor Alaric gently placed the diaper on the table and put his arms around Phoenix’s waist, gently guiding him on top. His embrace felt strangely loving, with a sense of care that Phoenix hadn’t felt from Nathaniel in a long time. Phoenix even had to admit that, with all the welts on his butt, sitting on the diaper was much more comfortable than sitting on the desk.

Phoenix heard Nathaniel guffaw. He craned his head to look. Nathaniel had gotten off of the couch and was now leering at Phoenix. When Doctor Alaric simply continued by sprinkling a puff of peppermint-smelling baby powder onto Phoenix’s nether regions, Nathaniel continued pressing his advantage, emboldened by the lack of response.

“Serves you right,” he laughed smugly. “Maybe now you’ll stop being a little crybaby.” Phoenix’s cheeks flushed with indignation, but he had to just quietly bear the slings and arrows of this humiliation.

“You’re behaving much better now,” said Doctor Alaric gently, as if he and Phoenix were alone. He pulled the diaper up between Phoenix’s legs and firmly taped it shut, pressing down on each tape to secure it before gently patting Phoenix on his crotch. It was such an alien feeling, the way the padding diffused the touch and turned what would have been a lewdly sexual gesture into something strangely innocent.

As Doctor Alaric helped Phoenix back into a standing position, Nathaniel guffawed. “I gotta get a photo of this,” he wheezed as he dug his phone out of his pocket and snapped a candid shot.

Doctor Alaric simply took Phoenix by the hand and gently led him to the corner with the fern. “Stay here,” he said firmly, fixing Phoenix’s eyes with an intent look. “You’re still in trouble.” Phoenix nodded. Whatever Doctor Alaric wanted.

Doctor Alaric suddenly turned on a heel, interrupting Nathaniel mid-laugh. “I don’t know what you’re laughing about, young man,” he said, storming over. Phoenix heard Nathaniel yelp in fear and the sounds of a brief scuffle. The frantic scramble of footsteps. Nathaniel’s protests. The creak of someone sitting in a chair.

The sound of a muffled smack rang through the room, followed by another. Then suddenly the sharp impact of a hand on skin, which had been so frightful before but to Phoenix now was the sweet melody of a spring bird.

Phoenix craned his neck over his shoulder, braving a peek. Nathaniel was facedown in Doctor Alaric’s lap with a look of utter defeat. He couldn’t help but snicker as Nathaniel got put in his place.

“Phoenix, you—you little tattletale!” Nathaniel’s curses were only met with further thwacks. Phoenix watched with glee as Nathaniel’s soft skin bruised from the relentless barrage of impact.

This had been a painful experience, there was no doubt about that. But watching Doctor Alaric dispense justice left Phoenix’s heart aglow with a soothing warmth.

After all, to forgive someone, to build them up even after they hurt you—that is difficult. But cutting other people down is an easy pleasure. With Daddy Alaric (and where had that thought come from?) to settle their fights for the two of them, Phoenix and Nathaniel could experience the freedom to fuss and yell and scream and blame with righteous indignation over and over and over again, with no need for all the hard work of reflection or seeing the world from each other’s perspective.

Indeed, how could the wan pleasures of a measly five-year relationship ever compare to the emotional highs of an eternal sibling rivalry?

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Letter V

My dear Mugwort,

Do not for an instant imagine that I am fooled by your attempts to stay positive. I can see with every stroke you make that you feel lost in the wilderness, like the Israelites wandering in the desert for forty years (how much the course of history would have been changed had we been successful in eliminating the resistance then! But such flights of fancy are perhaps better suited to alternate history authors).

So your attempt at driving a wedge between your Patient and her girlfriend has failed, and your Patient’s bond with her girlfriend are stronger than ever.

But you must not fall down the wretched hole of self-pity. You must pick yourself back up. You are a full-fledged Tempter, the same as anyone else out in the field. You have proven that you have the aptitude for the work. You can do this.

Allow me to plainly state in one sentence the question you have spent paragraphs warily circling around in your last letter: is what we do inherently unethical?

You may not have put it quite like that; you possess far too much tact to tread anywhere remotely near sedition. But I know you very well, my dear nephew. You are currently a demon having a crisis of faith, and you are much too intelligent not to be wondering if perhaps the Enemy’s cause is more just than we give it credit for.

After all, as Tempters, subtle lies and half-truths are tools we regularly employ. Does that in some way infringe upon a mortal’s natural right to dignity? Is our relationship with the human realm coercive at its core, nothing more than entrapment with extra steps?

Are we…evil?

To that I say a resounding: No! It is true that criminals and murderers end up Below. But they are not the goal. We are in the business of cultivating humanity; we have no interest in Heaven’s crabgrass (though I will admit, these cast-off rejects do make excellent practice dummies for the final battle).

The Enemy would have you believe that we want evil*. But that is nothing more than propaganda, and I admit we have been losing that particular war of perception.*

What we want is innocence*. We want that essence of humanity that they have as soon as they pop out of their mothers’ wombs. After all, innocence is sinful. A human in a state of innocence does not know the difference between right or wrong, and even if they did, they would not care overmuch.*

The Enemy abhors innocence. He does not allow innocent souls into His carefully guarded gates, instead casting them off to Limbo. The Enemy wants soldiers to further His cause, and such chaff would not suit His needs. Does that sound like benevolence to you? What we want for humans is merely to allow them to exist in their natural state, before the curse of original sin was bestowed upon them.

The humans under our care are happier, and in turn they power demon society. It is a symbiotic relationship where everyone wins. I can think of nothing more beautiful than when incentives align in such a way that it makes doing the moral thing the best thing to do. Look over the attached letter: is it not obvious how this human flourishes without the vagaries of human life to encumber her? To fail now is not just to let down your superiors; it is also to let down your Patient.

Take a step back. Recollect yourself. It will not do to let this quarry slip through your fingers because you tried to grip it too tightly. Human lifespans are short, true, but it also means their memories are short too. Whatever your perceived shortcomings, they will fade into obscurity, while your generous gifts will remain. You will have your chance again. Your Patient’s resolve will be ground down by the relentless machinations of human society, and then your medicine shall be sweet succor.

Your affectionate uncle,


Sloth: Diana Nguyen

Diana awoke, as she did every day, to the sight of bars. A bird—Diana didn’t know what kind—chirped pleasantly outside. She cracked her eyes open and was blinded by a bright beam of sunshine. Her Mommy hadn’t completely pulled the curtains across the window the night before.

Yawning, she pulled her pink princess-print comforter over her head and wrapped the bedding around her, swaddling herself like she was making a cocoon, enjoying the soft sensual feeling of gentle cotton pressing against her smooth, hairless skin. Before she was able to truly lay back and luxuriate though, she heard the squeak of the door cracking open.

“Good morning sweetie,” said Diana’s Mommy. Her cheery dulcet tones could brighten even the darkest caves. Diana mumbled something in response that would have been unintelligible even if she hadn’t been burrowed underneath a comforter. She heard the clicks of her crib unlocking and then a muffled thump as the rails hit the plush carpet of her nursery.

Diana preemptively clutched the blanket around her, a chrysalis unwilling to leave her position of comfort and security, but her Mommy untangled her all the same. Diana shivered briefly as the cool air of the room jabbed at her skin like a swarm of tiny needles, raising goosebumps along her thighs and arms. She yawned and rubbed her eyes, dislodging the small bits of sleep sand that had accumulated while she’d dreamt of towering castles and talking unicorns.

No matter how many times she saw her Mommy, Diana unfailingly thought that she was the most beautiful woman in the world. A smile like she knew all the secrets in the world. Her long hair, rich and yellow like bars of gold. And her bright orange eyes, like the warmth of a cozy fire on a snowy winter’s night.

Diana felt the back of her Mommy’s hands brush against her inner thigh as her Mommy gently poked a finger inside the leg band of Diana’s diaper.

“Goodness, you’re soaked,” teased her Mommy gently. “I don’t know why I keep checking. Force of habit, I suppose.”

Diana didn’t know why her Mommy did it either. It had been more days than she could count on both her fingers and her toes since she’d woken up dry. But this ritual was just a step in their routine, one of the building blocks of the structure that was Diana’s life with her Mommy. Her Mommy always teased her for using her diapers. Diana knew that good girls were wet girls, knew that waking up wet was as natural as the sun going up and coming down every single day. Yet she still blushed, the reaction a ghost of her former self reverberating through time, the faint echoes of a previous life leaving its mark.

Her Mommy patted the front of her diaper. Diana felt the force spread out nicely against her groin, which brought another kind of blush to her cheeks. Diana didn’t know a lot of things anymore, but one thing she did know about was different kinds of diaper pats.

There were really a lot of different kinds when you got down to it! There was the gentle caress on the butt, as casual as a brief hug, a reminder that her Mommy was around. There was the sharpness of being spanked, a reminder that she had to behave for her own good, because her Mommy loved her. Each felt different if Diana was dry, or a little wet, or a lot wet. And that didn’t even factor in the kind of diaper she was wearing! There were so many variables hiding in such a simple act, which meant all sorts of different joys for Diana to discover and appreciate.

This one just now though, this was one of the best kinds of diaper pats. It was the most like something Diana might have felt in her previous life, before she had met her Mommy.

When she thought about it, which she did increasingly rarely—and whenever she did, she was too scatterbrained to delve too deeply into such matters—her life could truly be divided into Before Mommy and After Mommy.

Before, she’d been lonely, depressed, aimless.

Now, she was connected, comforted, complete.

She had everything she could ever want.

Or, more accurately, her Mommy gave her everything she could ever want.

“Oh?” said her Mommy, a wry grin spreading across her face. “Did my princess like that?” She patted Diana’s diaper again, a quick pat-pat before resting her hand on the plastic, awaiting Diana’s response. Diana meekly nodded, which made her Mommy’s mouth bloom into a joyous smile.

Diana felt her Mommy’s fingers on her diaper begin lightly rocking back and forth. She enjoyed the friction of her diaper as it brushed against her crotch, crinkling all the while. She arched her back and let out an involuntary moan, hoping that her Mommy would increase her tempo, but her Mommy merely placed a warm finger against Diana’s lips.

“Patience, my precious star,” she said. Diana whimpered but laid back down, her butt sinking back into the fluffy folds of her diaper as she settled back into her comfortable crib.

Her Mommy rubbed her chin with one hand while tapping out a drum roll on Diana’s diaper with three of her fingers.



Each rhythmic riff stirred Diana’s blood, vibrating to the beat of her Mommy’s military cadence. Each tap hit with the crack of a gunshot, a lightning bolt connecting the two women.

“So you want me to continue?” her Mommy asked, a grin on her face like a wolf who’d spotted a hare. Diana nodded furiously.

“Doing…what? Talking?” Her Mommy’s lively orange eyes blazed with merriment. Diana shook her head no.

“Tell me,” said Mommy. She always did this. It was very important to her Mommy that Diana always said what she wanted. It was part of being a good girl, to ask for something rather than do it herself. And whenever Diana would say what she wanted, her Mommy would find a way to give it to her.

“Please,” squeaked Diana, “keep rubbing…down there.” Even now, after dozens of repetitions, part of her was perennially embarrassed by her diapers. Her Mommy promised her that one day that would go away, but until then, she continued feeling the precariousness of shame. It was the feeling of balancing over a tightrope, her stomach aglow with tingly butterflies that threatened to send her toppling down to sadness.

Her Mommy raised an eyebrow inquisitively, continuing to tap-tap-tap a slow beat on Diana’s diaper. “Where?” she asked, playing dumb.

It felt like giving ground. It was like cresting a hill on a rollercoaster. But just like on the rides Diana had used to go on, she couldn’t get off whenever she wanted. She had to see it all the way through.

“My d—my diaper,” Diana stammered quietly.

“Of course I’ll keep massaging your diaper,” said her Mommy brightly as she dug the heel of her hand in and pressed, causing Diana to gasp in surprise. The pressure of the soaked padding made Diana tingle like static electricity in her veins. She panted lightly.

“Speaking of me continuing to do things,” her Mommy said, gently moving Diana’s legs out of the way so she could sit on the crib, “I just wanted to do a quick check-in.” She leaned in to look Diana straight in her eyes, so close that Diana could have kissed her on the lips if she’d wanted to.

“If you want to be a big girl, you can do that right now,” she said. “All you have to do is keep from coming in your diaper. Since no grownup would ever find this erotic. No grownup would be caught dead in diapers. It would be humiliating. Just hold out, and you can have your old life back.”

Diana thought about it. Obviously, she loved being a good girl. But now that her Mommy mentioned it…Diana had used to tell people what to do. They’d come to her, or she’d go to them, and she’d say things, and they’d have to do what she wanted. It might be nice to boss someone around who wasn’t an imaginary friend or a stuffie. And maybe wear something that wasn’t a onesie or a childish dress. It would be a change. It might be fun.

“Of course,” her Mommy continued, “you’d lose out on some things.” Diana frowned.

“For instance,” said her Mommy, “you’d have to go to work again. I wouldn’t provide everything for you. You’d have to think about money and put up with mean bosses.”

That didn’t sound good at all. Diana remembered that she used to argue with someone about that very thing. They’d been very good friends who’d lived together and even slept in the same bed, though they stopped being friends because they couldn’t stop arguing about money and how neither of them ever had enough.

“You’d have to figure out what you wanted to eat on your own,” continued her Mommy, her cadence hypnotically increasing in pace with her rubbing. “You’d have to decide what to buy, then go to the store and shop, then go home and cook, and then clean all the dishes up after.”

Her Mommy’s words were like feeding tinder to a flame, growing it as it roared into a blazing maelstrom. Diana was swept along the relentless current of logic, each point following the last without missing a beat.

“And most of all, you’ll have to worry about going potty like a big girl again. No more going whenever you want, even if you’re watching a movie and don’t want to pause. No more getting changed into a nice fresh diaper. You’ll be all alone again, instead of always having me around for the most intimate moments of your life.”

Her Mommy suddenly moved a hand to the front of Diana’s diaper and squeezed. Diana could feel her butt enveloped on all sides, how snug her padding was, how secure it made her feel. Her Mommy liked to say that that every diaper was like a hug, a constant reminder around her hips of how much she loved her little girl.

Diana shook her head. She didn’t want that. Her Mommy smiled in response.

“No? You want to keep living like this?”

Diana nodded furiously. All she could think about was how much she ached for her Mommy to keep going. Nothing else in the world existed right now except for her and her Mommy.

“Okay,” said her Mommy brightly, gently scooping Diana out of her crib and placing them both on a large recliner by the crib. Diana found herself with her tummy on her Mommy, who was lying down in the easy chair.

“Show me,” her Mommy breathed, wrapping her arms around Diana’s back in a firm embrace. “Go ahead and grind against my thigh.” Diana panted and pressed her soggy padding against her Mommy’s skin with a soft squish. Her Mommy placed a hand on Diana’s scalp and stroked her hair, each movement sending frissons of enjoyment down Diana’s spine.

“Why don’t we finally get rid of those panties I’ve been hanging onto?” said Diana’s Mommy. She suddenly grabbed Diana’s hair and pulled her head down, towards her own. Diana could smell her Mommy’s breath, could feel it warm and hot on her face. “It’s clear that even if I wanted to potty train you, you wouldn’t. Because you love being my baby too much. So this should be fine, right?”

Diana could do nothing but nod. It was like she was a machine. It was the only thing she could do. She’d do anything for release.

“Very good,” said Diana’s Mommy in response, which only caused Diana to grind harder. The recliner started creaking in time with each thrust, but Diana scarcely heard the noise. Her Mommy’s words were spellbinding.

“You want me to make all your decisions,” Diana’s Mommy continued. “You want to keep wearing diapers. You’ll never be out of them, except for when I bathe you or when I change you. Because it’s too much work to be a grownup. It’s so much better to be a little baby.”

“Uh…huh…” Diana’s head bounced up and down like she was a bobble-head doll. Everything her Mommy said rang with the peal of truth.

“Show me,” said Diana’s Mommy. “Show me your devotion to this life. Ask me for permission to come.”

Diana frowned, her fervent grinding gradually slowing as she processed this request. What if she asked and her Mommy said no? It would be easier not to come if she didn’t desperately need to. If she slowed down, she increased the odds of following her Mommy’s instructions.

“I didn’t tell you to stop,” her Mommy gently chided.

Of course her Mommy knew what Diana was thinking. She really couldn’t sneak anything past her. Diana paused her thrusting, just long enough to take a deep breath and steel her resolve, and then continued rubbing her princess parts against her Mommy’s thigh. She could do it.

“Please Mommy,” she breathed. “Can I come?”

“Not yet,” Diana’s Mommy said sweetly as her finger lightly traced sigils on Diana’s head. “Though you’re a good girl for asking.”

Diana’s heart burned with a mix of disappointment and pleasure.

“Don’t slow down,” her Mommy warned. Diana squeezed her eyes shut, trying to hold down the wave of pleasure that was threatening to spill over into her body.

“I want to make sure you’re fully prepared for the consequences,” continued Diana’s Mommy. “You really won’t be in charge of anything. When and what you eat. What you wear and where you go. When and how you use your diapers.”

Diana clenched her teeth, determined to hold back even as her body cried for release. Nothing had ever sounded this appealing. She was the Monkey King in the heavenly gardens, but she absolutely couldn’t eat any Peaches of Immortality unless her Mommy gave her permission.

“If you’re ready to give up even this decision,” her Mommy concluded, “ask me if you can come again.”

“Please…can I pretty please come?” Diana’s heart pounded. She wasn’t sure what she’d do if she were denied again. This was one of the hardest things she’d ever done in her life!

“Of course, princess,” her Mommy finally said sweetly. “I’d love to take that choice away from you forever.”

The sounds of a crinkling diaper and creaking chair intensified before Diana gasped. As she vibrated and moaned, her orgasm blossoming like a wave, finally cresting and crashing onto a beach. Diana knew she’d made the right choice. She’d never been as happy as she was in that moment, and she knew that ever higher crests of happiness awaited her in the future…as long as her Mommy was in her life.

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Letter VI

My dear Mugwort,

Congratulations on reconnecting with the Patient! I am pleased to see that my advice has worked so splendidly. Have you noticed how much stronger your relationship has become? Humans loathe states of self-contradiction; now that the Patient has once again made contact with you, her mind has retroactively justified all your previous dealings. Each justification she makes is another step she takes away from the Enemy. As a bonus, I would not be surprised if she breaks off contact with her girlfriend soon, which will tie up that thorny problem for you.

I completely sympathize when you say that this pattern provokes anxiety in you. If only one could draw a straight line from A to B and guide our Patients straight into the arms of Our Father Below! Yet this can never be the case. After all, the one constant of a wild human is that they continually change. Though they have a baseline, humans vacillate between troughs and peaks even within the span of a single day.

As you have seen, it is a delicate dance. You have more raw feeling and emotion to work with when humans are in a peak, but this is counterbalanced by their increased security and resistance. To make this lesson concrete: you snared your Patient in a trough but lost her in a peak. Now she is back in a trough and you have once again sunk a hook into her soul, but it may once again come loose without careful tending.

The trick is to make your Patient believe that she is in a trough despite evidence to the contrary. Give her a cornucopia of pleasure, more than enough to sate her, but have her crave more regardless. Make it so that she can focus only on what she lacks, rather than what she currently has. Human emotions are, after all, inherently contradictory. They are the loneliest when in a crowd and feel the emptiest when drowning in excess.

Human emotions mean so little in the grand scheme of things. Their love is but pale imitations of the purity of the love that we celestial beings have for each other. For Hell’s sake, they are limited to but five senses! I have not even begun to expound upon the wealth of experiences and feelings that humans lack.

What you can offer—what we offer as a society—is but a shallow sip of the vast ocean of emotion and feeling to which we have access, complex higher dimensional thought projected onto a flat surface, like a globe flattening itself into a map. Accurate it may not be, and yet it is representative all the same.

So do not scoff at the scale of your Patient’s melodrama. As my Patient found out, a feeling’s magnitude does not necessarily correlate to importance. He found great pleasure and was unable to step back from it. For your Patient, her feelings do in fact rule her whole world, and it is through them that you may finish your mission.

Your affectionate uncle,


Gluttony: Talon Lane

For Talon, Club Inferno was a savannah, and he was an apex predator. The alcohol flowed like water, and Talon was lying in wait to see what sorts of creatures came out to drink. He leaned back into the leather sofa and took a sip of his whiskey, enjoying how the flavors of oak and chocolate unfolded around his tongue like a fine tapestry. The fuzzy noise of his friends, who were holding separate conversations on the couch on both sides of Talon, swirled around his ears like a friendly breeze.

Talon’s heart felt as if it were beating in sync with the reverberation from the ambient bass. The beat was a thread that connected everyone in the room, as if they were all cells in the same body, each one different, yet united with others via music, rhythm, and movement, creating a collective experience that was more than the sum of its parts. A grin formed on Talon’s lips unconsciously. There wasn’t anything quite like the thrill of the hunt, and tonight, the hunting looked good.

The sound of clicking glass interrupted Talon’s reverie as a red-haired woman set the fistful of glasses she’d been holding on the table. A light smattering of freckles ran gently across her face. Talon sat up, straightening his back as he undressed the woman with his eyes. Her white blouse was so thin that it was almost more obscene than if she hadn’t been wearing anything. Talon could just barely catch the pale hues of the cocktail waitress’s skin through the top. A sharp miniskirt that was definitely not part of the standard uniform gave Talon tantalizing glimpses of delicate red silk underneath.

What Talon found most striking, however, were her eyes: orange and sharp, beautiful like a razor’s edge, an invitation and a warning all at once.

It was decided, then. All the other women were meaningless. They were mere morsels, hardly fit to even notice. No, this was the gazelle that Talon would be bringing down tonight.

“You new?” he asked airily, a hint of predatory allure in his tone.

“That I am,” said the woman brightly.

“Well…” Talon stroked his chin as if he were deep in thought, although he’d gone through this song and dance so many times that he could do it in his sleep. “Do you know that you’re about to commit a huge mistake?”

The woman uncorked the bottle with a pop, completely unperturbed. “What do you mean by that?” she asked, a corner of her mouth cracking into a wry smile.

She’d fallen for the bait. And now, to gently draw blood.

“Those eyes of yours,” Talon said lightly, leaning in and lowering his voice so that the woman had to get closer to hear. “The DJ’s going to be upset that you’ve stolen the spotlight from him.”

The woman’s fiery eyes sparkled like a merry flame. She wordlessly uncorked the bright yellow digestif Talon’s group had ordered, biting her teeth with what looked like deep thought. Talon thought it looked enticingly inviting.

“What’s your name, anyway?” asked Talon as the waitress filled the glasses with a gurgle.

“Morrigan,” she said. Three syllables which rang with the tantalizing magic of possibility.

“You’ll have to repeat that,” said Talon, picking up a glass and swirling it gently. “I was too busy staring at your lips.”

Morrigan flushed lightly as she corked the bottle, which only stoked the flames of Talon’s lust further.

“Look how red you’re getting,” said Talon, circling in for the kill. “It’s almost like you’re doing it on purpose.” He took a sip of the limoncello with an affected nonchalance.

“What was your name again?” asked Morrigan.

“I didn’t tell you,” said Talon. Morrigan puffed her cheeks out in mock frustration, but her eyes danced with delight.

“Listen,” Talon said, leaning in so close that he could smell Morrigan’s perfume, notes of lemon and marine beckoning him in like a sunrise on a beach. “You seem like you’re fun and adventurous. I’ve got limoncello back at my place. Why don’t we head out so you can show me how spontaneous you are?”

Morrigan’s back arched against the front door of Talon’s apartment as the couple kissed each other fervently, hands grabbing at cloth and leather in a passionate frenzy. Talon fumbled for his keys, trying to simultaneously maintain contact with the warmth of Morrigan’s skin while also sticking his hands into his pockets. Morrigan pressed her right palm into the back of Talon’s hand and guided it down his thigh slowly, until their fingertips brushed against cool metal. She guided his hand closed and lifted it up before using her left hand to carefully unfurl his fingers to reveal the key inside, glistening like a pearl.

“I’m excited for this limoncello,” said Morrigan as she took the key from Talon’s palm, winking as she slid it into the keyhole and unlocked the door with a light click.

“Trust me,” said Talon as he put a hand on the door and pushed it open wildly, which caused it to hit the rubber doorstop with a thud and lazily bounce back. “It’s incredible.”

“I’m sure it will be,” said Morrigan, like she was making a joke for an audience of one. She grabbed Talon’s collar and pulled him inside.

The apartment was aggressively aseptic. It looked like it had leapt straight out of a Netflix show, more like an IKEA showroom than a place anyone would actually live. Morrigan wasted no time helping Talon shrug off his suit jacket, letting it drop to the floor alongside her leather purse. The pair mutually agreed to drop the flimsy pretense as Talon led Morrigan towards his bedroom.

Talon grabbed the collar of Morrigan’s blouse, opened the bedroom door, and pulled her with him onto the bed in one smooth motion. She was so pliant, so soft, so ready to be controlled, and not just physically. She would be a good fuck. He rolled them over so that he was on top and drank her in. The way the mattress folded around her soft skin, an invitation to unwrap the gift within. Her bosom, which undulated with desire. And those bright orange eyes, ablaze with excitement. She would be his.

He unbuttoned her blouse, fingers hastily fumbling with the smooth silk. Talon slid Morrigan’s top off of her, exposing a lacy red bra, the same bright color as her lips, which Morrigan slowly licked, leaving small shimmers that flickered in the soft light. She was ready to play, to be chased, to be conquered. Talon furiously kissed her lips, the sparks of passion in his chest igniting into a roaring flame. His desire for her was an out-of-control wildfire, one he had to feed.

Morrigan reached for Talon’s shirt to unbutton it. She slipped each button through its eyelet agonizingly slowly, like she was methodically keeping time with an internal beat.




After what felt like an eternity, she finished. Talon furiously shrugged his shirt off, revealing the sculpted result of eating chicken and broccoli for almost every meal. That moment always killed any trace of doubt in a woman’s mind.

Talon wasn’t the kind of person who believed in delayed gratification, especially in the bedroom. His fingers fumbled for Morrigan’s skirt’s waistband, trying to pull them down and off her body, but Morrigan grabbed his hands and guided them to her breasts.

Okay. So she was that kind of woman. Talon would roll with it. There wasn’t a spot on a woman he didn’t like. Talon slid his fingers around the soft silk of the bra to the clasp in the back and casually undid it with one hand, pulling the straps off of Morrigan’s shoulders.

Suddenly, Morrigan guided Talon’s head to her breasts. He could smell the faint scent of strawberry body wash. He kissed her, little ones at first. Morrigan’s skin on his lips was soft like a gentle shower of cleansing rain. She lightly moaned with each kiss. Talon could hear her unspoken plaintive cry with every sound. More. Give me more. But he was a pro. He wasn’t going to swoop in for the kill just yet.

Talon closed his eyes and sucked. He could taste her sweat, could see in his mind’s eye Morrigan hard at work all night, going from table to table in that too-short miniskirt, waiting for someone daring enough to sweep her off her feet and have some fun. Hearing Morrigan’s hungry moans only caused him to suck harder, until eventually Talon raised his head and sighed, looking down at Morrigan’s body like a king surveying his lands. He could see the faint beginnings of a hickey starting to form, an angry red blotch that marked her as his.

He grinned. Now it was time for him to have his way.

But before he could do anything else, Morrigan guided Talon’s head back to her breasts, this time steering his mouth to her nipples, swollen with mutual lust.

Talon normally would have kept exploring the rest of her body, but he appreciated a girl who knew what she wanted. He could do things her way. He wrapped his lips around a nipple and carefully drew it into his mouth, giving her a sensual lick with his tongue for good measure.

The slightly salty taste of sweaty skin suddenly gave way to a rich and creamy sensation as warm liquid enveloped his tongue. It tasted of loving embraces, of gentle hugs and soft caresses. Talon’s mind briefly overloaded with this feeling as what must have been breastmilk gently made its way down his throat. He was acting on autopilot, his subconscious repeating an act he hadn’t done since childhood.

The shock of such an intense spurt of pleasure made Talon pause. He unlatched and tilted his head away from Morrigan, blinking before raising his eyes to meet hers. Morrigan’s cheeks were flush, a quizzical look in her eyes, as if she were asking what the holdup was.

That had been really fucking weird.

Talon blinked, refocusing his attention on the woman in his bed. Morrigan’s marigold eyes had an air of inscrutable amusement about them, like she was patiently waiting to see what he would do next.

She’d had her fun. Now it was time for Talon to lead this tango. He shifted his weight and snaked his hand under the folds of Morrigan’s skirt, lightly brushing against her upper thigh. His fingers found her soft panties, felt the telltale dampness of arousal. Morrigan shuddered as his fingers gently caressed her clit through the lace.

“You like that?” Talon breathed.

“Yes,” said Morrigan, her hot breath tickling the skin on his face.

Talon’s fingers gently found their way down and pulled Morrigan’s panties aside before they slid into her sex. He slid his fingers in and out with a gentle rhythm as Morrigan’s body rocked back and forth in lockstep. Slowly but surely, he ratcheted the intensity up, going a little deeper, going a little faster.

Suddenly, Talon plunged his fingers all the way in. He felt Morrigan’s hips buck as she tried to ride his hand like a bull. Talon added his mouth back into the mix, planting deep kisses along her neck, going down to her collarbone.

When he reached her breasts, Talon suddenly realized that he had an itch at the back of his throat, a hunger for the sensory cornucopia of her breast milk. There was no reason he couldn’t do two things at once. Talon’s fingers continued steadily exploring Morrigan’s pussy as his mouth crept to her nipple and latched on.

More drops of golden sunshine flowed, at first a trickle, and then a stream. Talon’s eyes fluttered closed as he suckled, aching for more milk like a thirsty traveller lapping up water at an oasis.

Time disappeared into the void of rapture. The next Talon knew, he was lying with his cheek nestled in Morrigan’s bosom. He could feel her heart steadily beat.




“Talon?” Morrigan sounded worried. Talon’s eyes flitted open as his spirit rejoined his body on the mortal coil. The side of his mouth felt damp. Talon reflexively jerked upright only to discover that his fingers were still inside Morrigan. He slid them out and wiped them on his sheets.

“Sorry,” said Talon quickly. “I don’t know what came over me.” Morrigan’s face was soft with concern.

“That’s all right,” soothed Morrigan. “We can keep going.” Her amber eyes had a strange glint to them, like the shimmer of a half-sheathed katana, though whether it was being drawn or being sheathed was unclear.

Talon wasn’t one to back down from a challenge. “Sure,” he said casually, unbuttoning his pants. Enough foreplay. Talon just had to steer the ship onto waters he knew. He knew he was a good lay. He hooked a finger around the waistband of Morrigan’s panties and slid them down her legs. She shivered as his fingertips grazed her inner thigh.

He was doing it. Talon slid his slacks and his underwear off in a smooth flourish, kicking them off the bed before pinning Morrigan’s hands to the bed with his own.

“That’s more like it,” said Morrigan, a lupine smirk on her face.

“There’s more where this came from,” said Talon as he guided his member into her waiting warmth.

Damn did that feel good. The two rocked their hips in a slow tango, building up speed gradually, in bursts, like the sparkles of fireflies in the night. Talon reached for Morrigan’s strawberry hair, pulled the strands between his fingers, keeping her body in time with his beat. After a particularly deep thrust, Morrigan raked her fingernails into Talon’s back, pulling his head into the soft swell of her chest.

Well. If his mouth was already here. He shouldn’t ruin the momentum of the scene. He pressed the folds of his lips into her creamy skin and inhaled. The mundane taste of salt was like a faded echo of the sea, a memory of a memory, tattered and frayed. And then he saw her nipples, taut with the color of pale pink roses, inviting him into the garden. He closed his eyes as he latched. A feeling of serene calm washed over his body like a gentle tropical tide.

Time passed.

And then:

“Talon!” Morrigan was snapping her fingers. Talon found himself once again collecting his faculties after a period of insensate pleasure.

Mortified, Talon bolted upright.

“I didn’t know you had such a nursing fetish,” Morrigan said.

“I don’t,” protested Talon.

“Then why do you keep doing it? I thought we were just going to fuck.”

“We are,” said Talon defensively.

“Are we though?” asked Morrigan pointedly. “It sure doesn’t seem like it.”

“There’s—something about you—it’s never happened before,” said Talon, altogether unaccustomed to being on the back foot like this.

Morrigan sighed. “Look, I don’t mind. I had an ex who was into it. You don’t have to be embarrassed.”

Talon began to protest, but Morrigan cut him off. “It’s just…I thought I was going to get fucked, you know? I don’t mind if you want to nurse instead of fucking me. But next time, you’ll eat me out first. Vegetables before dessert.”

It wasn’t unreasonable. Talon was nothing if not reasonable. Something she wanted for something he wanted.

“Okay,” he said. Talon couldn’t see this, but as he bowed his head between Morrigan’s legs, her eyes shone brightly for a second, as if they were reflecting an otherworldly light.

The more that Talon saw Morrigan, the more that he found the world’s colors losing their sheen, like a film was covering the lens, distorting reality. That breastmilk was better than ice cream, better than promotions, better than sex. Even if he wanted to talk to somebody about this, the crippling shame would stop him before he started.

Who would believe him? And even if they did—who got addicted to breastmilk?

It was the damndest thing. When he was nursing, Talon was at peace with his place in the universe, safe and nurtured in Morrigan’s arms. And now he was forced to endure the slings and arrows of samsara, an unwilling bodhisattva grappling with the difference between what he wanted and what he wanted to want.

The gap between what Talon wanted and what he wanted to want was an impassable chasm. He wanted to want sex. And yet every time he found himself in bed with Morrigan, he would find himself moving automatically, like his subconscious was giving his conscious mind an out. He wasn’t choosing to continually cede ground to her.

He wasn’t choosing to stop seeing other women.

He wasn’t choosing to keep his entire body clean-shaven.

He wasn’t choosing to call her Mommy on private.

All of these concessions were just happening to him. He was inculpable, a mere passenger on a dark train to oblivion.

But no harm, no foul, right? Everybody got what they wanted. Talon picked his happiness over his dignity. Who are we to judge him for his choice?

Letter VII

My dear Mugwort,

My sincerest congratulations on your first ensnarement. Your Patient’s fate has been sealed, her name signed in ink, etched into our ledgers for now unto eternity.

You are concerned about a loose end. I had hoped that by now, you would not feel the need to hedge your words with me, but alas, such is the unfortunate reality of hierarchy. I wish you would trust your uncle more though—I would not write so much and so often were I not fond of you!

In any case, I know whom you refer to: her girlfriend, the one you stole her away from. The one with a vendetta, who almost certainly knows the truth of what you are.

Such a delicate balance the situation currently is! Are we fated to drive people into the Enemy even as we bring them Down Below? Is this equilibrium the reason why we have waged our celestial war in perpetual stalemate?

I am here to tell you otherwise. A good Tempter succeeds in their mission, but a great one advances many missions at once. They cast their nets wider. A Senior Tempter works on the scale of groups rather than individuals. Though you may not have consciously intended for this, your actions have indeed caught another person, one whom I offer to you now, in recognition of your services rendered.

This girlfriend has driven herself straight into our arms. Such kismet, for uncle and nephew to ensnare two sides of the same human relationship. The world moves in such surprising ways.

Please, stop in for a visit when you return from your deployment. I’d love to congratulate you properly on a mission well done. I have a bottle of Tartarian red with your name on it.

Your affectionate uncle,


Lust: Lyra Starling

George Lucas would be proud, thought Lyra as she knelt on a grassy field, on the cusp of doing the stupidest thing she’d ever done.

The full moon loomed overhead as she finished her final paint stroke with a flick of a wrist. Angry dark red acrylic slashes marred the soft green grass like wounds. Seven candles burned a faint orange, each one the vertex of the outer heptagon, sending wisps of smoke lazily spiraling into the sky, in a perverse form of offering. She stood up with a grunt as her knees cracked, as if they were trying to sound out a last-minute warning.

There was nothing left to do but to do it. She untied the goat, who had heretofore been contentedly picking at the weeds outside the heptagram, and led it to the center of the symbol. Lyra sighed, closed her eyes, and then slit the goat’s neck, letting the blood mingle with the sigil.

Orpheus had gone to Hades for Eurydice and ended up dead for his troubles. At least they’d cast his lyre into the sky as a constellation afterwards. Now Lyra was about to do the same thing. It was like poetry, because it rhymed.

Lyra closed her eyes and slit her own wrists next, wincing with sharp pain as her veins opened. She sprinkled her blood along the ground, drawing a miniature sigil in scarlet overlaid on top of the one she’d laid in paint.

The ground rumbled as the blood suddenly disappeared with a squelch, as if the grass had simply sucked it all in, each stalk a straw for the ravenous dirt below. The world hung in frightful silence for a beat, just enough time for Lyra to wonder if perhaps she’d botched the ritual. Before she could complete that thought though, the lines along the ground started glowing, emitting a pale sickly green light with a heat that Lyra could feel through her clothes. Suddenly, a portal opened, an oval hole in reality approximately the size of a door.

It was like the physics software that ran reality had suddenly broken. Lyra couldn’t see through the arcane gateway. Calling it black would not have been strictly correct. It was a wound on the world, something that did not belong. It was simply a hole, a puncture where objective existence ceased to have any meaning. She walked around it, but the light seemed to curve in a way that defied explanation. The fact that it made no sense, in its own twisted way, made sense. It was a fucking portal to Hell. She was about to noclip through the bounds of the material world. Lyra swore under her breath, paused, swore out loud because why the hell not, and stepped inside.

For a second, all was black, although that wasn’t strictly speaking true, because blackness was a property of reality, and Lyra was decidedly orthogonal to that in the moment. Subjective seconds passed, though Lyra wasn’t sure that time had any meaning in this space between worlds.

Then the world became a riot of sensation. Colors leapt out chaotically as sounds jumbled together, constructive interference building up to a head-splitting cacophony in Lyra’s mind. It was like she was a wave among the fuzzy static of a broken television.

Finally, the magical theorems that Lyra had drawn with paint and blood and forged with iron will took hold, binding the stimuli of the world and transforming them into ones that Lyra’s senses could understand. The world suddenly coalesced, like Lyra had finally gotten the focus just right on a stereogram.

She blinked. She was standing in what looked like a drab reception area that looked like it could have been plucked from any suburban office park. This was theologically devastating, though her mind refused to let her linger on those particular implications. Her left arm still smarted with the sting of her self-inflicted wounds, which had largely stopped oozing, leaving an ugly smear of blood that ran down her arm. A young woman—demon?—with curved horns on her forehead was pecking away at a keyboard. If she’d had any opinion on Lyra’s sudden appearance, she was doing a great job hiding it.

Lyra took a deep breath in, then out. Her heart’s pace slowed from a cheetah running at full tilt to a relatively sedate galloping gazelle. She looked around the room. Nobody else was here. It didn’t seem like anybody was coming for her, which meant she’d have to make the first move. A small cherry pit of dread nestled itself in her stomach. Social interaction. In a way, this was worse than all the preparation that had come before.

Well, there was nothing to do but to do it. Lyra screwed her courage to the sticking place—

—and unscrewed it as a door that Lyra swore hadn’t been there a second earlier opened. A handsome humanoid figure with dark purple skin stepped inside. A slim black waistcoat covered a crisply pressed white shirt, and his gray pants showed a spiked tail coming out the back.

“Hello, Lyra,” he said, which caused her to take a step back in surprise. “We’ve been expecting you.”

“Then you know who I am and what I want,” said Lyra angrily, narrowing her eyes.

“Please,” said the demon, putting his palms face up in a supplicating gesture. “Let’s not resort to violence or threats. That might be commonplace on Earth, but here in Hell, we’re much more civilized.”

“I know you have Sophie,” continued Lyra heedlessly. “I want her back.”

“So quick to talk business,” said the demon, sighing. “You don’t even know my name. And we’re standing in the reception area. At least join me on a walk.”

Lyra scowled. Before she could say something rash, she took a deep breath to center herself.

“Fine,” she said, after a lengthy exhale. The demon winked and opened the door, beckoning the human to follow. He led the way up a flight of stairs.

“Please, call me Scumtack,” he said. His deep voice was relaxing, each syllable somehow emitting the feeling of sinking into bed at the end of an exhausting yet productive day.

“Scumtack,” said Lyra. “Okay. I know you have Sophie. I want her back.”

“I’m afraid it’s not up to me,” he said.

“Who do I need to talk to then?” asked Lyra pointedly.

“You misunderstand,” he said, as he opened a door. “It’s up to Sophie.”

Lyra stepped outside into a warm day. The purple sky burned with the light of two suns.

“If you like,” began Scumtack, “you can join her here.”

“Absolutely not,” said Lyra. “I’m not an idiot.” It was a wonder that she wasn’t struck with lightning from the sheer dramatic irony.

“…what do you think we do here, exactly?” asked Scumtack. A demon walking a three-headed dog passed by. One of the necks craned back in interest while the other two continued on, which caused the dog’s legs to trip and for it to plant face-first into what looked like normal concrete. It seemed that even Hell had pugs.

“Nothing good,” said Lyra.

“Tell you what,” said Scumtack. “Why don’t I let you spend some time with her here? No tricks. You can experience one of her typical days together. I swear on Our Father Below that you’ll be able to leave whenever you want. And if she wants to go with you when you do, she can, no questions asked.”

Lyra’s heart leapt with the bittersweet taste of hope. It was obviously a trap. Demons never bargained if they didn’t have anything to gain. And yet…her theorems should protect her. And it was what she’d wanted when she’d embarked on this suicidal adventure. She couldn’t turn tail and flee, not this close to her goal.

“Take me to her,” she said. Scumtack’s orange eyes glowed with excitement.

As it turned out, Sophie was taking a nap.

“Don’t worry,” said a tall demon with black-feathered wings sprouting from her back, “she’ll be up and ready to play with you soon.” The demon, who had been introduced as Grimgate, smiled cordially, her soft gray eyes reminding Lyra of the whisper of a winter’s sky before sunrise.

Grimgate was Sophie’s Handler.

It was disconcerting to see a demon smile so disarmingly. Her heart-shaped face and gently curled white tresses looked more appropriate on an angel than a demon. Though, with the wings, Lyra couldn’t be too sure she wasn’t actually a fallen angel or something. If anything, this trip had made it clear just how theologically out of her depth Lyra was. It was a miracle she’d even gotten this far without dying, though maybe she was technically dead. After all, she was in Hell.

“I’m not here to play,” she said, shaking her head to refocus her thoughts. “I just want to talk with her.”

“Sure, sure,” said Grimgate, who even laughed with a cheerful lilt. “Though you’ll need to change first, of course.”

Lyra blinked. Why would she…but then the implications hit.

“Absolutely not,” she said, eyes fiercely ablaze with indignation. Grimgate for her part maintained her sunny demeanor, looking completely unfazed.

Scumtack coughed politely. “I must remind you, the agreement was for you to experience a typical day together.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” asked Lyra.

“You’ll have to fit into the environment,” said Scumtack smoothly. “Otherwise it’d be an atypical day.”

“I’m also meeting her, which seems also atypical. I don’t imagine she interacts much with living souls anymore.”

“Not human ones, no,” said Scumtack. “But please. I’m no fae or ifrit, here to twist words around to the edges of plausibility. You’ll meet her as equals. That way you’ll also experience a typical day. Unless, of course, you wish to leave now?” The edge of his mouth twitched up into a smile.

Lyra clenched her jaw. “I do not,” she spat out.

“Well then,” said Scumtack, bowing slightly with a flourish. “I’ll leave you in Miss Grimgate’s care.”

“Come along,” said Grimgate, who grabbed Lyra’s hand and began leading her to a door. Lyra tried wiggling out of the demon’s grip, but her hand was like a steel vise. “Say bye-bye to Mister Scumtack,” she said as she opened the door.

Lyra kept her mouth shut. After a beat, Grimgate sighed.

“No worries, Miss Grimgate,” said Scumtack magnanimously. “No one is born with an innate sense of manners.” Grimgate closed the door.

As they walked down the hall, Lyra could feel the faintest pangs of disappointment, like she’d let Grimgate down, though she didn’t know why. It wasn’t like she’d be coming back. If anything, letting a demon down was probably positive points for the karmic scales of justice.

Grimgate took Lyra to a bathroom to wash the blood off her arm (“such a big boo-boo!” she had cooed) before leading her into a changing room. The scent of lavender baby powder filled the air. Lyra tried not to think about what was happening to her.

Her clothes slid off, folded politely. The crinkle of a diaper being taped on. The floofy pastel dress, which didn’t even have the decency to pretend like it was going to cover her childish undergarment. The saccharine-sweet compliments, which rang with hypocrisy.

It would be worth it in the end.

Finally, Grimgate led her to the nursery and opened the door. Lyra walked in, feeling like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole. She didn’t have any time to take the surroundings in before the blurry outline of Sophie slammed into Lyra’s body, wrapping her in a tight hug.

The demon smiled and sat down on the couch. “I’ll let you two play,” she said, picking an embroidery hoop off of the coffee table. Lyra could see the outline of what looked like a skull on it.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” said Sophie excitedly, her two hands on Lyra’s shoulders as she gazed at her one-time girlfriend. Lyra’s breath caught in her throat. She’d stared at her photographs for hours, but they couldn’t hold a candle to seeing her soft auburn hair and gentle brown eyes in person. “Now everything’s perfect,” finished Sophie, pulling Lyra into another hug.

“Not yet,” said Lyra softly to herself as Sophie excitedly grabbed Lyra’s hand and took her to a pile of what couldn’t have been but very much looked like regular Lego blocks on the floor. Sophie plopped down on the floor without hesitation, which emitted a light cloud of lavender-smelling baby powder. Lyra coughed and sat down much more hesitantly. She could feel the soft padding on her butt as she sat on the floor.

“Sophie,” she whispered. “What have they done to you?” The Sophie she knew would never have pinned a garishly bright purple bow to her auburn hair. Or, for that matter, worn such an aggressively checkered blue and white pair of shortalls, with “BABY” proudly emblazoned on the chest in a heart.

“Nothin’,” Sophie replied, whispering because Lyra had started it. She started sticking Lego blocks together.

“Look at what you’re wearing! That’s not normal!” hissed Lyra.

“It’s normal ‘cause it’s what I usually wear,” said Sophie, with all the conviction of finalizing a math proof. “And it’s what you’re wearin’ too.”

“I don’t want to be wearing this,” said Lyra, tugging her dress down in a vain attempt to cover her diaper, “but I had to in order to see you.”

“So you hadda choice. And you chose to wear diapers and baby clothes,” said Sophie. It was simultaneously wrong and right.

Lyra wasn’t getting anywhere. “In any case,” she said, opting to switch tracks, “what’s happened to you? How are they keeping you here?”

Sophie put a window in the building she was constructing. “They’re not,” she said, shrugging.

“What the hell do you mean ‘they’re not’?” asked Lyra, a bit too loudly. She turned to look at Grimgate, but the demon either hadn’t heard or didn’t care.

“I’m here ‘cause I wanna be, obviously,” said Sophie as if Lyra had asked her if two plus two really did equal four.

“How could that possibly make sense?” asked Lyra.

“Lemme show you,” said Sophie, putting the final piece on the roof with a click. She scooted over and suddenly grabbed the back of Lyra’s hair and pulled her into a deep kiss.

Lyra hadn’t kissed Sophie in a long time, but she knew it hadn’t felt like this before, the bulk of her diaper notwithstanding. Sophie’s lips were sweet like summer strawberries. She closed her eyes and lost herself in the feeling for a moment before remembering where she was. She pushed Sophie away.

“What about—” she began.

“Miss Grimgate doesn’t mind,” said Sophie. “I know from experience.” Before Lyra could properly process what that could possibly mean, Sophie sat herself in Lyra’s lap and pushed her to the ground. It was a position she’d found herself in before, though not quite like this. Lyra could see the unmistakable bulge of a diaper on Sophie’s shortalls, feel the weight of it as it pressed down onto her own.

“Just let yourself feel,” said Sophie. “Don’t overthink it.” She started rocking back and forth gently. Their diapers crinkled softly every time she shifted. The thickness between her legs meant that Lyra felt everything at a remove. Everything was filtered through the diapers, the feeling of the plush cloth encasing her, inserting itself between their two bodies.

“I don’t think—” she stammered, before Sophie interrupted.

“That’s right,” said Sophie, her voice lowering into an enchanting sultry timbre that had so often snared Lyra in the past. “You don’t think. ‘Cause you’re a baby.” She bent down and kissed Lyra again. Lyra could feel the soft tickle of Sophie’s breath as their lips unlocked. The two looked each other in the eyes.

“I’m not a baby,” protested Lyra, whose breath at some point had begun quickening. She felt like she was a balloon who had become untethered. She was starting to drift into the liminal space between worlds.

“But nothin’,” said Sophie. “You’re new at wearing diapers. That makes you a baby at bein’ a baby, which puts me in charge. So just do as you’re told and stop talkin’.”

Lyra was sinking underwater, her thoughts derailing and detaching from each other, like disconnected train cars. She tried to grasp onto her faculties, but they wiggled away like eels. It was something she’d agreed to. A typical experience. To know what things felt like to Sophie. Lyra didn’t like the juvenile clothing, the crinkly plastic that no adult would ever be caught dead wearing. But Sophie did, and she found her senses and thoughts transmuting like gold into lead, like a reversed philosopher’s stone, leaving only perverse desire.

Whatever was happening right now did feel good. She wanted it to keep going. She could feel the soft plush carpet beneath her, feel the weight of Sophie’s soft hands on her shoulders. A distant part of her remembered their minder and she craned her neck to look for the demon.

“Dun worry about Miss Grimgate,” said Sophie, unfolding her legs and lying down so that their two bodies pressed against each other, their legs offset. “She’s too busy to pay attention to what two little girls are up to.” Her palm suddenly darted between Lyra’s legs and firmly squeezed her diaper. Lyra moaned as a hunger for more welled up inside of her. Why hadn’t she wanted this at first…?

“Oh? Did you like that, princess?” Sophie put her palm on Lyra’s padding and gently patted it. “Do you want more?”

Lyra vibrated with raw need. She tried wriggling, thrusting her thick diapers into Sophie’s palm in the hopes of rekindling that sensation, but Sophie carefully lifted her hand away, keeping it slightly out of reach, swaying away like the fruit trees to Lyra’s Tantalus.

“Yes,” breathed Lyra, her cheeks burning with desire and embarrassment. “No,” she said moments later, her eyes averted with shame and humiliation.

Lyra was pent up with a desperate hunger. Each light touch was a fleeting gasp of air to a drowning person. She throbbed with burning desire with every tap. And yet the thought of asking Sophie to take her infantile garment off and to properly touch her never came to mind. Everything had to go through the diapers.

It was natural. It was good. It felt like it was how everything should have always been.

It was twisted. It was bad. It was, at its core, achingly wrong.

“Which is it? Yes or no?” asked Sophie pointedly. She learned in close, her lips centimeters away from Lyra’s. Lyra could feel Sophie’s warm breath on her face.

Lyra was lost in a fog, the world seen through a glass darkly. Her desire coursed through her, pulsing like a poison in her veins. Hadn’t she come here to do something else…?

“N…no,” said Lyra weakly. Her brown eyes were dark with conflict.

“I dun believe you,” said Sophie, grinning wolfishly. She suddenly swooped in and gave Lyra a deep kiss. One hand went to Lyra’s breasts, which were covered by a cute gray kitty cat design. “You can’t help how good this feels, right?”

Lyra feebly shook her head no, though she didn’t knew whether it was a response to the question or a request to stop being questioned at all.

“Stay wif’ me,” breathed Sophie, as she began rubbing her own thick diapers against Lyra’s thigh, the crinkles mingling together impossibly loud to Lyra’s ears, which were burning red. “Things never felt this good before, right?”

Lyra felt her body move on its own as it began grinding against Sophie’s hand as she shuddered with the illicit pleasure of the taboo. “I…can’t,” she said.

“C’mon,” continued Sophie, quickening her pace. “You could feel like this all the time. Whatever you thought was sex, what we used to do together, that doesn’t matter anymore. This is all there is. Those wonderful tingly feelings, those butterflies in your tummy. Dun pretend you dun have’em. I know when you’re lyin’ to yourself. This is what sex can be for you, what it is for me already. Everything you knew on Earth can’t hold a candle to this.”

Lyra had no words to argue. She had been reduced down to sensations. The weight of her girlfriend straddling her. The soft smell of baby powder. The blurry form of Miss Grimgate in the background, seemingly oblivious. But she still had to try. Her soul depended on it.

“You know it isn’t,” she breathed. “You’re just confused—” Lyra stopped as Sophie suddenly grabbed Lyra’s hand, guiding it to the front of her own diaper.

“Don’t you love how my diaper feels on your hand?” she asked. The plastic on Lyra’s palm felt cool compared to the warmth of Sophie’s hand on the back of her own. Sophie’s hand bent, guiding Lyra’s fingers down in an exploratory manner. Lyra’s fingertips felt how the softness of the padding gave way underneath her gentle pressure. She was so close to Sophie’s genitals…and yet she was so far. She squeezed, trying to reach past the fluffy layers of cotton and plastic, which only made Sophie sigh in delight.

“That’s right,” Sophie moaned, “you’ve got it.” She started rocking her own hips, like she was masturbating, but with Lyra’s hand as an intermediary.

“Oh wow,” gasped Lyra, who had never felt anything like this before. She’d touched Sophie before, but that had been without diapers. It turned out that they only added to the cocktail of pleasure and emotion. Why had she thought they’d subtract?

“No, hold on…this obviously isn’t sex…” Lyra’s mind buzzed with dissonance. Her mind was consumed with pure sensation, yet a note of anxiety was a sharp sour taste that marred everything. How could something that felt so good also feel so wrong?

“Lyra, honey, stop overthinking this.” Sophie grabbed Lyra’s other hand and started rubbing Lyra’s diaper with it. Lyra shuddered with pleasure.

“I’m…fuck this feels so good…I’m not…there’s no way this…is sex,” Lyra’s thoughts were a pinball careening back and forth from acceptance to denial and back.

“You’re wrong,” said Sophie simply, as she moved Lyra’s hand faster and faster, Lyra’s dry diaper rustling all the while. “Think about it. Sex is just a word for a feelin’. Baby’s just a word for a state of bein’. It’s like hate, or glee, or love.”

Lyra shook her head no, but her hand transitioned from being led to doing the leading as she began touching herself of her own volition.

“But words…have meaning—”

“Words, words, words! Lyra! Stop it with the words!”


“No more talkin’. No more thinkin’. Just feelin’. This is sex ‘cause it feels like sex! I’m a baby ‘cause I feel like a baby! That’s all ya need to hold onto. You’ve always wanted to be right rather than to be happy. Why? Just let yourself be happy with me.”

“…please,” said Lyra, though she wasn’t sure what she was pleading for. Tears welled in her eyes, though from joy or sadness she couldn’t say.

Sophie leaned in as Lyra’s frantic rubbing rose to a fever pitch. Lyra’s other hand felt warmth blossom from Sophie’s diaper as she wet herself with wanton abandon. It felt like the warmth of a bonfire at a celebration, promising joy and festivities to come.

Lyra could feel the floodgates of self-control break open. She desperately tried to hold back upcoming wave of shameful pleasure, but she could feel it actively corrupting every part of her body it touched, like a virus vitiating her immune system with relentless pressure.

Sophie stole whatever meager defense Lyra was about to voice by kissing her again, stealing her breath of protest. When their lips parted, a fragile silence. “Take that first step,” she said, “one you can’t return from. Come in your diapers. The first of many times to come, each one as beautiful and complete and joyful as what we have right now.”

Lyra closed her eyes as a wave of pleasure exploded inside of her like confetti out of a piñata. Her body shook as she let out a scream of delight, which mingled with Sophie’s as the two of them sang an ode to their Dionysian passion. To Lyra, the delightful sensations of touch and smell and feeling overwhelmed her mind, becoming so heightened it almost wrapped around and became painful, like an integer overflow error.

The two girls lay in a tangled pile of limbs on the nursery floor, panting with excursion. Lyra eventually opened her eyes to the sight of Miss Grimgate, eying them with a sardonic smile on her face, her pale gray irises glowing with smug vindication.

The blood in Lyra’s veins iced up in sickening dread. They’d known all along that all her grand gestures amounted to nothing more than a pathetic knight tilting at a windmill. Her quest had been doomed from the start. She was Nite Owl II instead of Batman, arriving too little and too late. All she could do now was to try and save herself.

“Take me back home,” she cried, as tears of joy and sorrow mingled on her cheeks.

Another polychromatic wave of senses, that built and built until Lyra felt that her head would explode, before she blinked and everything crystallized.

Green. A soft buzz. Orange, streaked with red. A cool breeze. The metallic tinge of iron.

She blinked.

She was in a field of grass, marred with red paint. A dead goat carcass buzzed with flies. How long had it been?

Lyra instinctively reached into her back pocket to pull her phone out, not knowing if she should have been more surprised that it was working or that it was even there in the first place.

It had been three days.

Her car was still where she’d left it.

No Sophie.

She put her keys in the ignition and started the engine.

Nothing to show for it.

She didn’t cry until she got home.

For a moment, Lyra had been something other than human. In that world beyond our own, she’d expanded into four dimensions, and now that she was back, it was like she was stuffed back into a mold.

She could feel her bones grind and creak. Her tongue lay heavy in her mouth. She could feel her diaphragm slide with every inhalation. Every time she moved, her muscles writhed under her fleshy skin like snakes in a pit.

Had this always been what being human felt like? Had she simply not known? Or was it a defense mechanism? Had she simply grown accustomed to the inadequacies of flesh and blood, like fish who couldn’t see the water they were trapped in?

She moved through the world like a puppet, feeling as if she were a passenger in her own body. Beneath the slimy skin and brittle bones, at the core of her being was a hollow emptiness, a wound in her very soul.

The worst part was that she was getting better. Every day that passed, she felt more and more like herself, as if scar tissue was growing around the void. As the wheel of time continued its implacable grind, the feelings grew a little dimmer as memories turned into memories of memories.

Could she live, knowing what she’d once felt? She was Charlie from Flowers For Algernon. But unlike him, she could rewrite her ending. For a cost, of course, but then again, there was always a cost.

If only she’d had her mind warped! Then she could enjoy her life with Sophie unburdened. But alas, she was Adam, and not Eve. She’d have to decide with eyes unclouded.

Two roads diverged in the woods of life. But this time, the question was not which road she’d take, but how long it’d take her to do it.

It was hardly a choice at all.


I should have listened to you, Sophie.

You told me not to try and find you. You were right. I shouldn’t have.

C.S. Lewis once said that there are two ways you can go wrong when it comes to demons: you don’t believe that they exist, or you do, but you think about them way too much. I think it’s obvious which side I chose.

To the moralizers among you who are appalled by what I’m about to do: I know I deserve what’s coming. But also, with all due respect, go fuck yourselves. Put yourselves in my shoes for a second.

If someone came and wedged themselves into your relationship, wouldn’t you also be upset? Don’t you think you would also want answers if your partner just up and disappeared one day? The Proclaimers walked for a thousand miles; fuck that, I went to Hell and came back.

If life were a romcom, I’d be the goddamn hero. Too bad it turned out that I was in a horror film.

Doing the right thing is easy in a vacuum. I thought I had morals. I wasn’t going to be bamboozled by a demon’s words or promises. I was too genre savvy.

How wrong I was.

Haven’t you ever wished that the world would go away for a bit? Haven’t you ever wanted to just stop adulting? Dreamed of just shirking all your responsibilities like Peter from Office Space*?*

That’s the thing, you see. Life on Earth really sucks. You’re telling me I have to work forty hours a week so I can make some landlord rich? I’m supposed to just grin and bear it when politicians debate if I have the right to simply exist? Fuck that.

We can already grow enough food to feed everyone but people still starve to death. Our strategy to stop nuclear war involved making more nuclear missiles instead of, I don’t know, not having them in the first place? Isn’t this so obviously insane? Why was I okay with this?

Why are you?

The original sin was Adam and Eve biting into a stupid no-no apple and losing their innocence. The moment they learned the difference between right and wrong, wrong became the default. Everything that came naturally became wrong, even though they were doing it all before the apple. In the beginning, they were naked, but it was only a problem after the fucking apple.

Why not go to back to a time before the apple? When people could just do what they wanted and nothing had to be a huge fucking moral dilemma? When you could just let yourself be happy without any reservation?

All these letters? All the stories? All the visions that won’t leave my brain? I know everyone in them chose wrongly. They’re all damned. They’re in Hell. They’re fucked.

But at least they’re happy.

Sophie’s in Hell and, given what she told me, I’m pretty sure she’s having sex, or masturbating or diaper rubbing with anyone and everyone, just the raunchiest shit she never would have done before…but she’s happy. I don’t care if she’s cheating on me with demons and damned souls. I just want to be with her.

In Hell, I wouldn’t have to worry. I wouldn’t go hungry. I wouldn’t be homeless. I’d get to feel that fleeting moment of ecstatic joy I had with Sophie, but over and over, again and again.

So what if I wouldn’t be in charge of myself? I certainly haven’t been doing a good job of it on Earth. My hands shovel junk food into my body while my mind cries about how I shouldn’t. My favorite solution to loneliness is to push everyone away and beat them all to the punch.

What good is making choices anyway? I switch to almond milk for the cows, but oops, somehow that means I don’t care about the bees. Is taking a break from jogging “self care” or “being lazy”? There’s no wrong answer, which means there’s no right one, either.

I’m tired. Tired of problems I can’t solve. Tired of being forced to make bad decision after bad decision. Tired of trying so hard to be happy but always falling short. Tired of somehow always ending up choosing the wrong thing.

In Hell, there’s only one choice to make: to obey, or not to obey.

What an easy choice to make.

Obeying is good.

It feels good to be good.

I want to be a good girl.

I am a good girl.

I obey because I am a good girl because I obey because I am a good girl because I obey because I am a good girl because I obey because I am a good girl because I obey because I am a good girl because I obey because I am a good girl because I obey because I am a good girl because██████████████


I’m sorry about that. I might have left Hell, but I took a piece of it with me, lodged in my head like a bullet.

I know I shouldn’t go back. But goddamn it, my heart tells me that it’s the right thing to do. Just this once, I want to be happy instead of being right.

Maybe it’s all lies. Maybe I’ll go burn in a fire and get poked with pitchforks forever. That free tour was just a con. Hell, maybe this whole fucking book is a lie.


But look how fucked the world is! And no matter what, if I go to Heaven, there’ll be no Sophie there, and that’s not Heaven at all, no matter what anyone says.

Maybe I’m already damned. Maybe I really do belong in Hell. But at least I’ll belong somewhere, because I sure don’t fucking belong here.

So to whoever finds this madwoman’s scribbles: please publish everything here. Share it with the world. Warn the Earth. Tell everyone that they’d better fix things before it’s too late.

But as for me, I can’t wait a single second longer.

Sophie, my love—I’ll see you soon.

Lyra Starling

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