· Featuring Meri , Theli , Audrey

A despondent remote office worker forced to either follow a return-to-office order or resign is given another, far more satisfying alternative, for the small price of her soul…

Return to Office

Arilin Thorferra

“Audrey!” the barista called. “A triple vanilla lavender latte for Audrey?”

The red panda got up and trudged over to pick up the paper cup.

“Thank you,” the young cat behind the counter said with automatic retail blandness. Far younger than she was, although right now, her thirty-seven years felt far more ancient than they should.

“No, thank you. Needed one more before I jumped off the bridge.”

The cat looked at her blankly. “What?”

“Kidding,” she muttered, waving her free hand.

He gave her a doubtful look and turned back to his next order.

Sighing, she walked out of the shop onto the sidewalk, taking a sip as she started an aimless stroll. Good, if far from the best latte she’d ever had. That had been at a shop in The City. She doubted anyone else in town would think of that city as The City, given how many other cities lay between here and there. But that city, that fucking city, would always be The City to her.

Still, it was a good enough latte to be her last, ha ha. She’d barely been making enough to live in a suburb of The City the past ten years, even with what felt like a big pay increase that came along with the new job five years ago. Two years ago, that job had let her move back across the country when she had to come take care of her sister, and despite how tough that ended up being, she thought she’d be able to keep it together. Then came the “location-based salary adjustment” that cut her pay by thirty percent, despite her protests that she was already burning through savings now that her sister’s money was gone.

And, three months ago, as she was moving her sister into hospice, she got the return-to-office order. No exceptions, no exemptions. Move back or lose your job. The letter informing her that she would not be getting severance because management considered it a firing with cause came the day after the funeral.

This morning, she’d been told she was being denied unemployment benefits. Even living in this middle of nowhere town, she might not have made next month’s rent even with them, but now she was extra fucked with a cherry on top.

She hadn’t reached the end of the sidewalk, but she’d reached the end of what passed for downtown, about five blocks along either side of Main Street. It did, in fact, end at a bridge, an old trestle-style one about fifty feet long and maybe thirty feet over a dirty river.

She still had half the latte, but it had started to taste sour. She took off the lid, leaned over the railing, and poured the rest out, watching it fall, then set the cup down and stomped it flat. And did it again. And again. And again, growling louder each time.

“What did that cup ever do to you?”

She jumped, grabbing the railing to steady herself. A mouse woman watched her from a few feet away, expression amused. Clearing her throat, Audrey grabbed the battered cup and looked for a trash can.

“You were imagining that cup was someone, weren’t you?” The woman had an alluringly smoky, honeyed voice.

The red panda looked the mouse up and down—mostly up. At five foot ten, Audrey wasn’t short, but incredibly, the mouse had a full foot on her. Light tan fur, lush red hair, and a voluptuous build that a tight, sleeveless black dress did nothing to hide. “Depends. Sometimes I was imagining it was a lot of someones, sometimes I was imagining it was a very specific someone.”

“Both are better thoughts than jumping, aren’t they?”

Audrey looked abashed. “You heard me at the coffee shop, didn’t you? I was joking.”

“No, you weren’t, but let that go.” The mouse indicated the crushed cup with a finger. Her claws were unusually long, weren’t they? Almost…predatory. “Were you joking about that?”

What kind of question was that? “Obviously. I mean, I’d sell my soul to actually do that, but I can’t.”

“I thought you might say that.” The mouse laughed, stepping close enough to rest a hand on the red panda’s shoulder. “But be careful. It’s not something to say lightly around me.”

Audrey looked at the hand, then up at the mouse’s face. Her eyes widened. Did the woman have goat horns? No, that must have been…something else. Just like the way her eyes seemed to glow faintly red.

Am I talking to an actual fucking demon?

“Oh,” she whispered.

They kept looking into one another’s eyes. “Tell me your name,” the mouse murmured.

The red panda swallowed. “Audrey.”

“Call me Meri.” She moved her hand, and then held it out for her smaller new friend. “Let’s talk.”

This is crazy. Run and don’t look back. Run. Run.

Audrey took Meri’s hand.

Wendell Saunders stared dully across the table at his IT director. “We’re actively recruiting for all three positions, Bob. I don’t know what to tell you.”

The lynx had remained standing so he could keep staring down the fox. “Four positions as of this morning, Saunders. Four. Twenty-five percent of my team.”

“Who’s leaving?”


Saunders shook his head. “Don’t think I know him.”

“That’s because you don’t know anybody under director level.” Bob rubbed his face, looking like he was going to say something even less tactful.

Saunders readjusted his polo shirt and laced his hands, waiting.

“Jones is—was—my database architect. He’s damn good, and he’s taking a job for less money than we’re paying.”

“Is he stupid?”

“He wants to keep working remotely!” Bob shouted, leaning over the table. “Just like the other three! I know mine’s not the only team that’s been happening to since your RTO order came down. DTX is forcing everyone back to the office, while some of our competitors are doubling down on remote.”

“It’s not my order, it’s the home office’s. We’ve been over this.”

“And as the Director of Personnel, you should be the one pushing back!”

“I’m the director of this office, Bob, and frankly I don’t think HQ is wrong.”

“That’s because you’re—”

The building shook violently, along with an explosive crash. Bob lost his balance, falling over with a startled yowl. Wendell’s chair rolled back, smacking into the wall, hard.

The fox stood up, blinking confusedly. Was that an earthquake? No. An explosion? A bomb? Was there a mad bomber? Were they under attack?

He hurried out of the room past the dizzy lynx, who yelled for help, but that wasn’t his job.

The building shook again, and the fourth-floor hallway ahead of him exploded. Dear Lord, it was a bomb—

No. Wait. Something had…fallen through the building? An unexploded missile? A giant tree?

It wasn’t until it started moving, lifting, that he grasped it was a leg. A gigantic, shapely leg, with a gigantic, shapely paw attached. Left paw, he thought. Impossible, but so realistic. Wendell blinked rapidly again, running a hand through his hair. Abstractly, he recognized that everyone else was running away from the leg, heading toward elevators, stairs, anywhere but here.

“Don’t go to the elevators.” His voice sounded thin and irrationally conversational to his own ears, but it was all he could manage. “In an emergency, you shouldn’t—”

“You wanted me to return to the office! Okay! I’m here, fuckers!” The thunderous, gleeful announcement vibrated the building almost as much as the immense stomp had. Everyone turned to look up at the ceiling for a moment, some rushing toward the windows despite that requiring them to rush closer to—whatever was out there.

The right paw crashed through the office building next, about thirty feet farther down the floor, taking out a break room. And the break room above that and below that and below that. The ceiling and floor between the two holes/gashes in the building began visibly crumbling.

He turned and walked, quickly, toward the stairs. Not the stairs everyone else was using—except for the ones ignoring him and going to the elevators—but the stairs past the badge point in the executive wing. They’d be less crowded. Bingo.

The CFO, a lion who worked out every day to hide the fact he was pushing sixty, glared at him as they both hurried down the stairs. “What the hell is going on, Saunders?”

“A monster attack.”

The lion narrowed his eyes at the fox. “A monster yelling about your return-to-office order?”

“I think it’s a woman who used to work here.”

“Who? How?

“I don’t know.” He pulled out his cell phone to dial 911, but the service was out. Naturally. Well, the authorities would surely see what was happening.

As they reached the first floor landing, the building shook again, more violently than before. A few screams came from above, followed by…directed-sounding crunches. Saunders’s eyes widened and he stared up. Was she right above them? She wasn’t stomping. What the hell was she doing?

The CFO bolted for the exit door.

“George, stay put.”

The lion ignored him. The muffled screaming from outside became much louder. “Oh my God,” he heard George say, followed quickly by “No!”

Wendell winced, but risked a peek outside.

She was there. Right there. At least, her foot. And her hand, closing around the lion and lifting him up past the rubble—rubble from the executive wing he’d been in just a couple of minutes ago. Walls, tables, expensive chairs and desks, several bodies.

The woman was a red panda, fully in the nude except for a spiked collar and one matching anklet, fur still gloriously silky despite the dusting of concrete dirt it had begun to accumulate. Wild shoulder-length black hair, pierced ears with earrings—a definite punk rock vibe. Did she look familiar? Maybe, but he couldn’t place her. Workers outside the C-suite kind of blended together with one another. This one sure stood out now, though: the five-story office building barely made it past her knees.

The hand that didn’t have the CFO in it held five other executives—no, four, as the director of operations slipped out of the wah’s fingers and fell to the ground with a shriek. And she was bringing them up to her mouth. Her already full mouth, several flailing arms and kicking legs visible between her closed lips. Mother of God, she was eating the executive team.

“Mmm. Mmm!” Her tone was pitch-perfect between taunt and genuine pleasure as she swallowed. “Whoever said ‘eat the rich’ was so right. You guys are fucking delicious!” She licked her lips, then opened her jaws wide, licking the group greedily into her muzzle.

George shrieked and burst into incoherent begging for his life, quickly muffled as she pushed him between her lips with a single finger.

The fox looked around quickly. Trying to make a break for it this direction was clearly out, unless she stayed distracted long enough—

“Mmdll Snn—” She crunched noisily and swallowed hard. “Shouldn’t talk with my mouth full. Wendell Saunders?”

His ears went flat, and he dived back into the building.

“I’m going to catch you, Mr. Saunders.” She made his name a sing-song. “I’m going to catch you, and we’re going to have fun!” She made fun into a terrifyingly joyful roar.

Oh, God.

He dashed through the door back onto the first floor and straight into absolute chaos. Fire evacuation alarms buzzed out of time with one another across the huge open office plan room. Off to the left, the sprinkler system had gone off, equipment—and people—dripping wet.

And so many people were still inside the building. Dozens here. Which meant…hundreds? The parking lot had still been surprisingly full, hadn’t it? And more people were streaming in from elevators, from other staircases.

“Come on!” he yelled. “Make your way toward the exits!”

“The exits are blocked, you dipshit!” someone shouted back.

Abruptly, someone grabbed his shoulder. Wendell jumped, spinning to face the CEO, a grey-furred rabbit always dressed in five thousand dollar tailored suits. His soft-spoken, meek demeanor belied his brutally knives-out approach to management. “The floors above us are gone,” the rabbit said flatly.

“What do you mean they’re gone, Mr. Lee?”

“Not all of them. But she ripped parts of them off and piled the rubble in front of the main exits.”

Except for the executive exit she was using as a snack vending machine. Wendell forced down his mounting panic. “We need to find…” He trailed off, then lowered his voice. “We need to find distractions, Mr. Lee. Keep her occupied while the remaining management escapes.”

The CEO hesitated a moment, then gave a curt nod. “And how do you propose to do that, Mr. Saunders?”

“We…” He rubbed his face. There were evacuation points people were supposed to gather at in the parking lots. “She’s at the front of the building, still. Spread the word that we’ve got rescuers coming in, but we have to get everyone out the back to the remaining evacuation points.”

He expected token resistance, but Lee just nodded curtly again and waded into the midst of the workers, passing instructions to the more loyal flunkies.

Saunders glanced over the crowd again. Middle management he wasn’t concerned with, but some confused executives moved with the herd. He dove after them—and got carried along with the panicked mass, right outside. Dammit.

The crowd streamed through fire exits, into the back parking lot, trampling the neatly manicured Zen garden. So far, the monster red panda hadn’t seemed to have noticed.

He recognized Barbara Smith, another director, and grabbed her tail. The vixen barked in panic, turning around and slapping him.

“Dammit, Barbara!”

“Sorry, sorry.”

He dropped his voice. “Execs need to go out to the front and be ready to get to their cars when the giant comes around the building.”

Her ears folded down. “What? The rescuers—”

“There’s no cell service, Barbara. We have no idea who’s coming, when, and where.”

She stared at him incredulously for a full second, then bared her teeth and slapped him harder.

“What is wrong with you, bitch!” He backed away hurriedly.

Then the ground shuddered, hard. People stumbled, car alarms began blaring; with a shriek, Barbara fell over onto her side, staring up as Audrey thundered around the building.

“Oh, you thought I didn’t know which exits I left unblocked? You’ve got to be more creative if you want to make it out alive! How about you, marketing team?” She pointed at a knot of marketers. “Give me a fucking slogan. You’re all at the office now, so collaborate!

The group collectively screamed, not as much scattering as trying frantically to push their way back through the crowd.

“Come on!” she roared, charging forward. “Give me slogans!” She slammed a paw down on five of them at once. “Fluffy death!” Stomp. “Cute atrocity!” Stomp. “Give me something!”

A serval marketing middle manager stared up at her. “P-please,” she screamed. “I don’t want to be here! Let me go!”

Audrey looked down at her. “Bitch, you are not even trying.” She stomped down a third time, flattening the manager and a half-dozen people standing too close.

Then she stopped, leaning over. “Hey, is that you, Debbie?”

“Holy shit, that’s really you, Audrey?” someone said loudly, distinctly.

Saunders couldn’t see who it was, but Audrey’s voice shifted to be startlingly conversational. “Yep, it’s me. Hey.”

“Seriously, what the fuck?” The speaker, who proved to be a coyote woman, climbed on top of a car. “You’re the monster destroying the office?”

“It’s me.” The red panda grinned. “Sold my soul to a demon in exchange for fucking over the office hard. I’m gonna eat or stomp all the managers.” She reached down and picked up Barbara between two fingers. “You see any other executives in the crowd?” She tossed the shrieking vixen into her mouth like candy.

Debbie’s ears twitched back and forth, her eyes growing impossibly wide.

“Say no,” Saunders whispered under his breath. “Say no say no—”

The coyote pointed. “Lee’s over there, the director of finance is making a break for it that way, and that shithead Saunders is there.” She pointed directly at him. “Oh, and Simmons is over there staring at your tits.” She pointed in another direction.

“I am not!” a terrified voice came.

“Yeah, you are. Still.” Audrey sneered, and abruptly dropped to all fours, causing another momentary earthquake. “Here, I know you always wanted a real good look.”

Despite himself, Saunders moved forward enough to see the wolf guy she was tormenting, who was both backing up quickly and, yes, staring fixedly at her left tit, despite how much bigger it was than his whole body—and how rapidly it was descending on him.

He ran a hand through his hair. He usually did his best not to objectify employees, but it was awfully hard not to stare at Audrey’s body, and he had to admit it was a really nice one. She was, as they say, quite well-endowed.

Simmons’s enjoyment of her endowments quickly turned to terror as he was forced flat under that breast, though, and then disappeared. Audrey arched her back, eyes closing. “Mmmm.” She wiggled in place, two hundred feet or so of colossal wah grinding on not only Simmons but, as far as he could tell, dozens of others caught along her body.

“Mother of God, Audrey!” Debbie squealed.

The panda looked over at her tiny former coworker and grinned wickedly. “I can’t tell if you’re terrified or kind of turned on, Debbie.”

“Yes to both. I always thought you were cute, but didn’t think you swung that way.”

“That’s a shame. Probably too late to ask now.”

“Too late?” The coyote ran a hand through her hair. “You’re gonna kill me?”

Audrey rolled onto her side, several bodies falling off her form, and waved a hand dismissively. “Nah, I meant that after I’m finished, the demon’s gonna come claim my soul. And let’s face it, you shouldn’t date murderous giants anyway.”

“Fair. Now I’m just gonna have inappropriate dreams about one for the rest of my life. Um, I probably shouldn’t wish the murderous giant good luck, so, uh, thanks for letting me go?”

Audrey blew her a kiss. “You’re welcome.” She sat up, then looked to the side. “Oh, hey, director of finance, you’re still here? Hey, think of how much money I’m saving you on personnel costs!” She brought her fist down on him like a sledgehammer. He didn’t even get time to scream. “That just saved the company a half-million in salary, for instance. You’re welcome!” She looked around. “Shit, I lost Saunders again.”

The crowd was thinning out, which would make him more visible. He ducked down behind a hedge, whining. Maybe he could get to the separate single-story annex building, which looked mostly untouched.

“Don’t see him,” Debbie said.

“Slippery fuck.” Audrey stood up. “The executives sent you guys over here as cannon fodder so they could get out the front, so I gotta go catch them now.”

“They did what?” Debbie’s voice rose. “Are you kidding me?”


Saunders’s ears folded down. Dammit, how did she know that? The remaining crowded exploded in conversation and shouting, and he could feel the mood turn all at once—they might still be terrified of the self-described murderous giant, but they were getting angry now, and not at her.

“Changing my mind about wishing the murderous giant good luck,” Debbie yelled up. “Stomp those fuckers.” A dismaying number of survivors cheered the sentiment.

Audrey gave her a wink and two thumbs up, then started walking to the front parking lot—this time, not around the building, but through it, giving it kicks to level the parts still standing.

As a kick passed by right overhead, Saunders shrieked, covering his head reflexively. Oh God oh God. He had to get to the annex building without being seen. These bastard coworkers would probably drag him to her if they spotted him.

Staying close to what was left of the building, the fox slunk as quickly as he could to the far side, then watched Audrey lumber around to the front. When she turned to face toward the main building’s other side, away from him, he sprinted desperately toward the annex. It took an agonizing twenty seconds to make the run, past people shouting his name. The life-ending stomp he expected didn’t come, though; he made it through the front doors. Only when he was in the lobby did he turn around and get new bearings.

Most of the remaining executives, dozens of them, had made it to the parking lot, but they’d formed a frantically honking line of cars trying to get out. What? He walked back to the entrance, craning his neck as best he could to see what had happened.

She’d blocked the exit road by ripping down the DTX Logistics sign and piling a few smashed cars around it. When could…oh, God, she’d prepared for this, hadn’t she? She’d done that before she started the attack. He saw police and emergency lights on the other side, lining the street, but they couldn’t get through yet, either.

“Traffic jam!” Audrey boomed, starting to slowly walk over the line of cars from the rear, slowly crushing several at once with each step.

It only took about two steps before executives—and in some cases, their drivers—started streaming out of their cars in a panic.

“Where do you think you’re going? Home? Come on, you can’t do your work from home!” She pounced to one side, running both hands parallel to the line of cars, gathering four or five executives in each between her fingers and lifting them to her face. “You can’t get serendipity like this over Zoom meetings, am I right? All this innovation?”

Saunders rubbed his face. The annex building seemed empty. Everyone had evacuated like they were supposed to have, he supposed. Just as well; otherwise they might be pointing him out to her.

Audrey seemed to be listening to someone in the squirming group in her left hand. “Did you seriously just ask me if I know who you are? Of course I do, Mr. Lee. You’re food.” She tilted her head back, opened her mouth wide, and dropped everyone in her right hand inside, swallowing them down. Then she held her left hand in front of her muzzle. “Say it. Say you’re nothing but food.”

Saunders cringed reflexively. He thought he could hear begging and pleading, but maybe it was just his imagination. From this distance, only her booming voice carried.

“Say it!” she commanded.

After another second passed, she grinned, then opened her fingers, letting the group—and Lee—tumble between her teeth to be swallowed, too.

Then she looked down, flashed a grin, and started chasing the rest of the executives. Her huge fluffy tail waved behind her as she smashed a paw down there and there and there, playing a brutal game of hopscotch. Smashed cars flew into the air like crumpled litter.

Saunders retreated into the building, whining. The emergency teams were right there, the police were right there. The military had to be on their way. He heard helicopters. They’d take her out soon and this would all be over. It had to all be over.

It took several minutes for the thumping, crashing, crunching and screaming outside to stop.

Then things went deathly still.

The fox looked out the front glass walls, the side, the back. Depending on the direction, it looked like a war zone, a demolition derby, or a confused tailgate party. But no giantess. What was happening?

The building shook hard enough to rattle all the furniture. Anodyne corporate-approved “art” fell off the walls. Coffee carafes shattered.

The ceiling ripped off in a shower of plaster dust and shredded insulation, and a giant red panda face grinned down. “Hey, Mr. Saunders!”

His pupils dilated. He tried to run, but his legs wouldn’t listen to his brain.

“Okay, so.” She reached down with both hands, corralling him with her fingers and then hauling him up into the air. “What’s my name?”

“I-I…I…” He swallowed. “Audrey?”

“Audrey what?” She grabbed one of his hands between her thumb and forefinger.

“I don’t…please…w-was it…Jones?”

“Oh, so close! It’s Jensen.” She lifted him up by that hand, letting him dangle. “You don’t know me, but I know you. Everybody knows you, Wendell. The guy responsible for just about every decision that made our jobs worse.”

“I’m not—”

“The new crappier ticket system.”

“It saved millions!”

“Getting rid of cubicles and going to open offices.”

“It encourages collaboration!”

“Putting spyware on our laptops.”

“There’s no spyware—”

“There are fucking keyloggers on the laptops, Wendell, and you fire hourly workers who take too many bathroom breaks at their own fucking homes.

He swallowed again, and stopped protesting. His arm hurt a lot.

“And, now, your fucking genius return to office order.”

“I’m not,” he whispered hoarsely. “I just enforce it, but I have to. It’s orders from the home office.”

“Isn’t it this office’s job to push back against their orders when they’re stupid?”

“L-look, I know you, uh, clearly didn’t like being told to return to the office, and I’m sorry.” He glanced around at the devastation nervously. “But it’s better for business. Most employees liked it.”

“Bullshit. They just put up with it. Except for the ones like me who couldn’t. I’d have been out on the street in a podunk town in the middle of nowhere, even though I could do my job for this fucking company from anywhere and all of you know it, but you insisted I come back anyway.” She bared her teeth in another feral grin. “Here I am.”

“I-if you just set me down, I’m sure we can—we can work something—”

“Like this?” She let him go, and he dropped, screaming, for the half-second it took for him to land in her other hand.

“Oh God.” He sprawled in her palm, looking up at her, breathing hard.

“Or like this?” She lifted him up again, this time by one leg, and dangled him over her mouth, licking her lips and then parting her jaws slowly.

He whined. “No! Please don’t eat me! Please don’t.”

“Don’t think of it as being eaten, Wendell. Think of it as going to the new executive wing. Everybody else is already there.”

She let him go. He landed on her tongue, still screaming, and started to slide forward as she closed her mouth. She held him against the back of her teeth with her tongue for a few seconds, the oppressive, moist heat building in the darkness, then let him slide to the back of her throat and swallowed.

The pressure from her throat almost crushed him, but he made it into her stomach alive. He got to scream along with everyone else for a couple more minutes.

Audrey sat cross-legged in the destruction, watching emergency vehicles approach. She furrowed her brow as they drove right past, paying her no mind, racing to tend to survivors.

“They can’t see you,” Meri’s voice said from above. She jumped, looking up.

The red-headed mouse stood there, even taller than Audrey’s giant form, horns leaving no doubt about her demonic nature. She looked even more dazzling unclothed than she was clothed, which was saying something. Another giant demon mouse approached from behind her, this one with ram’s horns and black hair, just as drop-dead attractive.

“Really?” The panda looked around. “I was wondering how this was all going to be reported on the news. I mean, I haven’t ever seen recordings of giant attacks. But I guess it…isn’t, is it.”

“It will, but as a natural disaster, not a supernatural one. The survivors will be haunted by dreams of you, but there won’t be any proof.”

The second mouse chimed in, “Although in a few cases ‘haunted’ might not be the right word. Your little coyote friend is going to have some terribly distracting erotic dreams for years. I have to say, Meri, you were right about this one.”

The first mouse laughed. “Never doubt me, Theli.”

“I know, I know.” She raised her hands in mock surrender.

Audrey looked back and forth between them. “I don’t understand.”

“Audrey, this is Theli.” Meri indicated the ram-horned mouse. “Or, to give our proper names, I’m Meridoris, and this is Thelixia.”

“Nice to meet you both.” She ran a hand through her hair. “Actually, I guess it isn’t nice? You’re about to take my soul, aren’t you.”

Meri nodded. “I am.”

“Is that going to hurt?”

“Oh, incredibly.” Theli spread her hands. “Tortured for eternity. You know the stories.”

Audrey winced and sighed, nodding. “I understand.”

Theli grinned. “But I want you to know, you were fantastic.” She touched the red panda’s nose. “Most mortals get all, ‘Oh, no, I can’t really be mean and destructive. Blah blah blah, great power, great responsibility, blah blah blah!’”

Meri rolled her eyes. “So predictably boring. I’m just thrilled you weren’t.” She held out a hand for Audrey. “Now, it’s time.” Theli held out her hand, too.

Taking a deep breath, Audrey nodded, taking both their hands—

The world vanished. Pure black surrounded her, all sensation vanishing but for a cold so deep it burned like fire. She tried to take a breath to scream, and couldn’t.

The pain and pressure increased. She waited to pass out, to just die, but it wasn’t happening.

She didn’t know how long it lasted, every nerve overloaded. Seconds. Centuries. Everything but the pain vanished. This was it. This was her eternity.

“Was it worth it?” both mice said simultaneously, one in each ear.

Somehow, the question brought an emotion flooding back into her: fury. “Yes!” she roared. “I’d do it again!”

Abruptly, the world lit up, and the pain ended so quickly the lack of sensation itself hurt.

As the world slowly returned, she realized she was crouched on the ground, panting. No, on a floor. A red-veined marble floor, cool to the touch. She swallowed, wiping away drool, and slowly sat up. It looked like…a museum? An ancient palace courtyard?

Meri and Theli stood there. They reached down, helping her rise to unsteady paws.

“What…” she croaked through a dry throat. “I thought…my soul?”

“We took it,” Theli said. “You’re quite soul-free now.”

Meri nodded. “And your eternal torture will be just what I was hoping for.”

Bewildered, she let them turn her around, to face a full-length mirror.

She looked…better than ever. Stronger, curvier. Taller, too, eye-to-eye with the mice. Her claws and teeth gleamed in perfection.

As did the ebony ibex horns curling out of her head.

Audrey gaped, rapidly blinking eyes that shone with a faint crimson undertone. “This is…I’m…”

“Damned to be a demon.” Meri put her arm around Audrey’s waist. “Beyond horrifying, isn’t it?”

Theli nodded, putting her arm around the red panda’s waist from the other side. “Unimaginable torment.”

“It’s amazing!” she blurted.

Theli and Meri both kissed her cheeks at the same time.

“Should we show her around the palace?” Theli said.

Meri hmmed. “Well, I was thinking of what that presumably delicious Mr. Wendell said about the return-to-office order really coming from the ‘home office.’ Why don’t we stop there for a buffet lunch first?”

Audrey grinned wickedly.