Worth the Candle, Ch 231: Hellfall

I was naked and falling, the cold air stinging my skin. By reflex, I tried to use still magic, but nothing happened, and with a terrible awareness, I realized that I didn’t have any of my extra senses either, no sense of water, no ability to feel the vibrations around me, nothing. There was no familiar HUD keeping track of my vital statistics. My body, at least, was intact, my arm back in place, but I had little else.

I slammed into the ground after not too long, and immediately felt a sensation across my skin like sunburn. I’d landed in something like snow, except it was slightly yellow, clumped up without being wet, and wasn’t nearly as cold. I slowly got to my feet, groaning, knowing that I would be bruised and scraped up the next day, if there was a next day.

“Good thing you picked Helldiver,” said a voice. “Otherwise we wouldn’t have gotten a chance to have this talk.”

I looked up and saw a familiar face. It was the Dungeon Master, standing in the midst of what I decided would be called yellow-fall. More of the strange substance was drifting to the ground all around us, obscuring my view of what was ahead, leaving him as the only thing to look at. The yellow-fall stung, like there was some salt or acid in it, and it clung to my body in every place that I touched it. It was cold, but not as cold as snow.

“You’ve changed,” I said. His beard was thicker and longer, and his hair was shaggy, unkempt. He still had on one of his idiotic hooded sweatshirts though. This one said ‘Tortured for Eternity in Heck’, which I suppose he must have found funny. Some of the yellow-fall was getting on my face, making it hard to see, and on my mouth, where it tasted of ammonia. I used my hand to wipe some away, which was only partially successful, and seemed to make the stinging worse.

“We had a good run, you and I,” said the Dungeon Master. “I guess we’re done then?”

“Guess so,” I replied.

“Come on,” he said. “I know you want to make some snarky comment. You want to compare yourself to Jesus and say you’ll be back after three days. You want to defiantly tell me that Mary is going to rescue you. Go ahead, you can say it, I have some time set aside for this conversation.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I guess it would be to highlight your megalomania,” said the Dungeon Master, which hadn’t been what I’d meant at all. I’d wanted to know why we were having the conversation. “One of the problems with making someone the center of a whole world is that they start to think like it. I suppose I can’t fault you for it too much. But you failed, and so we’re here.”

“I failed because you wanted me to,” I said. “It was never not going to be like this. You want me to grovel? I’ll grovel. I’ll beg.” I stopped myself, because I could feel a well of anger inside me. “Please. Please! I don’t want to be here, I want to keep playing your game,” it wasn’t coming out right though, there wasn’t enough honest emotion behind what I was saying. I wasn’t a good liar. It wasn’t convincing. I felt too much anger toward him. On the object level, I wanted to give him whatever I needed to in order to get out of the hells. On an emotional level, I wanted him to fuck off and die.

“I never wanted you to beg,” said the Dungeon Master. He waved a hand and a metal folding chair appeared behind him. He sat down on it and crossed his legs. “Though I did want you to suffer, at least a little bit.”

“A little bit?” I asked, feeling a rising indignation. “I was tortured, in so many fucking ways.”

“Not really a conversation that I’m here to have,” replied the Dungeon Master.

“So why are you here?” I asked. “To reveal your grand design?”

“Nah,” he replied, looking off to the side. “It just seemed appropriate to see you one last time. I told you there’d be a third meeting, didn’t I? Rule of three and all that.”

“What was Fel Seed’s weakness?” I asked.

“There’s an entity that exists above him,” replied the Dungeon Master. He pointed to himself. “But you already knew that.” He had already heard my prayers on the matter.

“So all I had to do was convince you to let us through?” I asked. “Convince you that he shouldn’t have killed us? That it wasn’t fun or entertaining?”

“Maybe,” he shrugged. “What would have convinced you, when you were the DM?”

“At the time, nothing,” I replied. “Except maybe if the characters had been thinking, feeling creatures, not just avatars.”

“That didn’t stop you from doing your best to inflict harm on the players,” said the Dungeon Master. “Anyway, it’s all academic, because you’re dead now, and there’s no escape from the hells.”

“Yeah,” I said. I tried to wipe more of the yellow stuff from my face, to keep my eyes and mouth clear. “What the fuck is this stuff?”

“Oh, I have no idea,” he replied. “I only spent any time on two of the hells, Alpha and Omega,  and had the Architect handle the rest.” He looked around. “Seems like some kind of worse version of snow. It’ll stop in a bit. And I’m sure there are some plants and animals somewhere, and some infernals, since there usually are. That’ll be fun for you, huh?”

“You’re an asshole,” I said. I looked around at the yellow-fall, wondering how deep it would end up getting.

He looked me over. “Are you just going to keep standing there, or are you going to get moving?”

“You said we were kindred spirits,” I said. “I’ve got no idea what I did to make you do all this horrible stuff to me.”

“There are plenty of reasons to hate you, Juniper,” the Dungeon Master replied. “And I do hate you, maybe even more than I care about you. There’s something so contemptible about you, so weaselly. It makes a person want to grab you by the back of your head and bash your face into the pavement.”

“And here I thought I’d been doing better,” I said.

“A bit,” he nodded. “I’ll give you that.”

He showed no sign of moving. I was surprised. It felt like he would show up, mock me for a bit, drop some knowledge, then leave. It was what I expected of him. That this was apparently a long sit-down chat made me think that maybe he was serious about this being the end.

“I have questions,” I said.

“Go on,” he replied, nodding.

“Was there a DMPC?” I asked. “And who was it?”

He laughed. “Arthur put that idea into your head,” he said.

“You’re not denying it,” I replied.

“Did I sometimes take control of people, or put on an infallible disguise?” he asked. “Oh, certainly. I was never anyone close to you though. There was no need. You know the rules, and so do I. A DMPC is there to fill a role in the party that they were lacking, but they’re also meant to coast along, to not interfere, to have no grand moments of their own. There was never a need for that, with you.”

“And with Uther?” I asked.

“Arthur,” the Dungeon Master replied, regarding me with cold eyes. “I’ll admit to making some mistakes with Arthur. I wasn’t thinking clearly.”

“Vervain,” I said. “He was a DMPC.”

“Arthur wasn’t like you,” replied the Dungeon Master. “He didn’t want to go on an adventure. He didn’t want to fight. On Earth, he would have lived a relatively simple life, would probably have gone to law school and worked in some boring part of the legal sector, might have found a wife and had some children, watched the usual movies and television, gone on a few vacations … he was a thinker, in some respects, like you, but he wasn’t much of a dreamer. It made coming to Aerb difficult for him. Of course, some of the mistake was in not pushing him right away, but he would have collapsed, I could see that. Early on, I gave him so many opportunities, so many chances for adventure, so many clarion calls to do something about the Dark King and his armies. What he latched onto instead was a theater troupe.” He frowned. “He noticed that he was special. He noticed that he was getting in shape faster than he should have, that he could handle a sword with ease, or bounce back from injuries, but he didn’t do anything with it. In his mind, he thought that the Dark King’s reign would end on its own, and he could be with the sprightly girl he’d met in the troupe. There was a bit of a love triangle, not my original intention, but there because he refused to make a move.”

“I hated it,” the Dungeon Master continued. “He had seemed destined for greatness. I mean, he was, I had made that destiny for him, all kinds of powers ready to be awakened, all kinds of opportunities, and my will on his side. Instead, when I put him on Aerb, he was just … a person. A flawed person more concerned with the petty than the grand. I’d thought — well, I’d thought that he would like the adventures. I’d thought that it would be like playing out the campaigns. Instead, he seemed to just want to pine after some girl. The girl wasn’t even all that special, she just showed him attention and — do you understand how frustrating that was? It wasn’t why I’d made Aerb for him.”

I filed that bit of information away for later. “And thus, Vervain,” I said.

“Oh, no,” replied the Dungeon Master, looking at me in faint surprise. “I tried to kickstart things. The Dark King got wind of their subversive plays, something that Arthur had written to impress the girl, and sent a small attack force to put it down. A pitifully small attack force, truth be told, there more for intimidation than conflict. Arthur could have stopped it. He knew his own impressive skill with a sword, knew the athleticism he had. The moment was there for him to rise to, there was healing on hand, everyone could have made it out alive, with the orcs and dwarves the Dark King sent slaughtered, or at least driven off. Instead, he hid, then ran away. It made sense, I suppose, but it was so,” he clenched his fist. “I was offering him the part of the hero, the part he’d always loved to play. But to take it, to actually be that person, wasn’t, at the time, him.”

“You were running a sandbox,” I said. “But you weren’t listening to what he actually wanted.” I had to wipe the yellow-fall away from my eyes and mouth again. It was stinging all over, and I was worried I was going to suffer some kind of damage because of it, but I wanted the Dungeon Master talking for as long as possible. The more he talked, the more worried I got that he was going to leave me stranded there, that it would really be over.

“It’s true,” sighed the Dungeon Master. “A classic mistake, really. Amateurish. But Vervain was created out of a need to get Arthur back on track. He was a mysterious old wizard who was supposed to die early on, to explain the facts of the world that Arthur could have found out himself if he hadn’t spent three years hiding himself away and hoping that the problem of the Dark King would just solve itself. I didn’t want to give up Vervain though, and as a mysterious old wizard it was possible to step away on unspecified business at a moment’s notice. Vervain was real enough that I didn’t need to be there all the time. Through Vervain, Arthur learned that he was the true heir to the throne of Anglecynn. He gathered allies and fought against the Dark King, loved and lost, wept and raged, and — it was everything I had hoped for, really. You should have seen it when Arthur took the Dark King down. It was a thing of beauty.”

I stared at the Dungeon Master. I didn’t know why he was telling me all this, except maybe that he’d been wanting to share it with someone. Maybe he’d thought I would understand, because we were, after all, kindred spirits. I did understand.

“Then you kept going,” I prompted.

“I wasn’t satisfied,” said the Dungeon Master. “The Dark King was defeated, and … for a bit, that was enough, and then, it wasn’t. I wanted more. More of Arthur, more adventures, more companions, more stories.”

“Degenerate cycles,” I said.

“Yes,” the Dungeon Master replied. “I was still enjoying myself though, and Arthur was growing into the role. I could see into his thoughts, naturally, so there was nothing he could hide from me, and I would peek at the future from time to time, making course corrections.”

“But then what happened?” I asked. “He killed Vervain, he went insane, he’s been lost down the Long Stairs, he wanted to go home —”

“You didn’t get to that part,” said the Dungeon Master. “It seems unfair to tell you.”

“Then back up,” I said. “Zona.”

“Oh, I’m not going to lay out every twist and turn of his life story, and the part I played in telling it,” said the Dungeon Master. “You think of it as torture, but he was happy, for the most part, truly and genuinely happy. He didn’t have an itch for adventure, necessarily, but through it all, he took joy in it, barring a few bumps in the road. You understand he wasn’t insane, don’t you? There really was an entity above everything, pulling the strings, forcing his life into these narrative arrangements. I’m admitting to that. Though I did step away from the wheel a few times, especially in the later decades, letting the adventures happen without me. And as for everything else, I suppose it will have to remain a mystery, because you didn’t get there on your own.”

“I fucking tried,” I said. “We fought like hell against Fel Seed, we tried to get past your door, down the Long Stairs ourselves, you can’t say that was my fault. Fel Seed fucking cheated. I mean, I figured he would, but he did cheat. Look, if Arthur was something to you, I can understand making a world for him, setting him up on adventures, acting out fantasies, but why me? You don’t even like me.”

“Meh,” he said, turning away. “Does it matter?”

“Feels like it does,” I said. “Or am I going to get tortured in heck for an eternity without even knowing why?”

“That’s what everyone else gets,” he replied. He stood up, and his metal folding chair vanished. “I have regrets about how things have gone with you, too,” he said. “But I guess it’s all over. Ta ta.”

“Wait!” I shouted, and to my faint surprise, he stopped and looked at me, arching an eyebrow. “Second round against Fel Seed, if I get there. You’ll make it a fair fight?”

He regarded me for a moment, then tilted his head slightly and vanished.

I stopped for a moment, staring at where he had been. He hadn’t even left any footprints.

“Say sike right now,” I said. The joke felt weak coming from my lips, and it didn’t make me feel better.  “Come on, this can’t be it.”

There was just the sound of my own heavy breathing and the sting of the yellow-fall.

I had always thought there was a decent chance I would end up in the hells. I had ticked the Helldiver option, after all. Even beyond that, the katabasis was a central part of the Hero’s Journey. It was one of the most clearly identified parts in Hero With A Thousand Faces, and you could find examples in Sumerian, Greek, Egyptian, Roman, Norse, Buhddist, Christian — it was probably easier to list mythologies that didn’t feature a hero having a trip to the underworld at some point or another.

We had, of course, talked about it. It hadn’t been a part of the FSP, but we’d had conversations earlier, making at least the skeleton of a plan.

“In theory,” said Amaryllis. “If one of us dies and Val is still alive, she might be able to find us. She doesn’t have proper eyes into the hells, but she could kill her way around and hope to kill someone who had seen you. If you’re high enough, we could use infernoscopes, and we might have a chance of finding you if we knew where you died. I also think the infernoscope restriction can probably be overcome, given how simple of a device the infernoscope is, but that would take time and some engineering challenges. Which hell you enter is semi-random, distributed on a bell curve that’s centered on the upper end, but the actual location has a fairly tight, if complicated, correspondence. So, Val would know where to start looking. It would be a massive security risk, but not as massive as one of us getting caught and tortured for information.”

“And from there?” I asked. “We have no way to pull someone from the hells. We have no way to leave the hells if we find ourselves there. If we had either of those things, I’d have already used them to bring Fenn back to life.” It had been an obsession of mine for quite a while, but had never gone anywhere. There were stories, but none of them panned out.

“It’s impossible,” said Raven. “Flatly impossible.”

I nodded. “I know,” I said. “Death is permanent. The hells are permanent. Everyone says.” I couldn’t help but let a touch of sarcasm creep into my voice. Everyone had said that going to Earth was impossible too.

“What about the locus?” asked Grak.

“Even if she had more power,” I said. (This was before the expansion of her domain.) “It’s not something that a locus is ever on record as having done. That doesn’t necessarily mean a whole lot, but it’s hard to imagine that we would be able to coerce or convince her, or just have the locus do it on her own. I mean, right?”

“Infernals can travel to Aerb,” said Raven. “Part of our work at the Library was stopping them. Imps and lesser infernals can even do it without terribly much effort, but they’re poorly adapted and can wind up worse off than if they’d stayed in their mild hell.” The Apocalypse Demon was one notable example.

“So what stops the same thing from working on a person?” I asked.

“Power and risk,” said Amaryllis. “Risk, because to open up a portal for people would mean also opening up one for infernals. Power, because the reason infernals don’t do it all the time is that it’s incredibly fucking difficult, even if you have a society of billions devoting whatever resources they have to the problem.”

“Even then, it might not work,” said Raven. “There’s some indication that people can’t pass back into the real world at all. There’s something having to do with changes in the soul. Souls don’t decay or degrade in the hells, people regenerate beyond what’s possible on Aerb, and there’s the principle of planar disjunction.”

The phrase rang a bell. “Fallatehr mentioned it,” I said. “Only in passing though. He said … that the soul was incapable of crossing the planar boundary. I never really understood the implication of that, and at the time, we had more pressing issues.”

“The theories were never fully baked,” said Raven. “And the scholars were wiped out, along with a lot of the research. The basics I understood, at least. Entads and certain magics could access ‘the soul’, but that didn’t match what could be observed in the hells of the same test subject. There was an entad that could access a specific slice of a person’s memories, but it wouldn’t grab their memories that should have been generated in the hells. There were some other experiments that showed the same. It’s possible that the soul that exists in the hells isn’t like the souls that exist on Aerb. That might have some unfortunate implications for trying to get a soul out of the hells.”

“Why is Fallatehr the solution to every problem?” asked Grak.

“It’s a funny joke,” I said. “Hilarious.”

“We’ll work on it,” said Amaryllis. “I’ll put some clones towards it, talk to the goblins, see what can be done, but I’m not even remotely hopeful.”

Now I was left hoping that Amaryllis had found something and kept it in her back pocket, but it didn’t seem like the kind of thing that she would have done, not in the modern era, at least. If she’d made it out, which I desperately hoped she had, maybe she would figure something out. Who knew how long that would take though, and in the meantime, I was probably stuck in the hells unless I could find my own way back to Aerb, which … well, I wasn’t counting on it.

I had no idea where to go or what to do. With the yellow-fall, it was hard to see more than a hundred feet away from me, and all the directions seemed to be the same, except maybe for some slight changes in elevation. If they were searching for me with infernoscopes, or Valencia … but there were lots of hells to search and ground to cover. For Valencia to find me would require some kind of infernal to see me, and I wanted to put that off for as long as possible. To get myself noticed by an infernoscope, it would be best to write something on the ground, but with all the yellow-fall, that wouldn’t work, since it would be covered in just a moment.

I was naked. The yellow-fall stung and was leaving my skin red where it touched. I could barely see anything. I closed my eyes for three seconds and no interface showed up. I was still tall, still strong, and my arm was back, but I had none of the magic that I’d had on Aerb. Magic mostly didn’t work in the hells, but I’d been hopeful that I’d get something. I tentatively tried to summon the tuung spirit blade. I’d never really put in enough time with it, not when there were so many other skills to work on, but I’d been able to summon it on a few occasions. It was supposed to work in the hells, that was one of the reasons that the tuung had spent so much time and effort on something that was outclassed by a steel sword in most ways. After a few seconds of effort, I was able to make it appear in my hand. The other thing to check was spirit, but that didn’t seem to function in the hells. The pain I was feeling was enough to let me know that the modifications I’d done had been undone when my transition happened.

I took a few deep breaths to calm myself and went to work meditating on the spirit blade. Blade-bound, and the rest of the pseudomagics, worked in the hells, and I was going to take every advantage that I could get. With the spirit blade bound, which took some time, I was able to summon and dismiss it with a little more ease, and having it in hand meant that at least I had something.

I picked a direction and trudged forward. The yellow-fall clumped up until it was an inch thick on my feet, slowing me down. It was coating my hair and getting all over my body, caking on, and while it was possible to wipe away, there was always residue left.

After an hour of slow movement in what was probably the wrong direction, if there could be said to be a right direction, the yellow-fall started to let up. I wiped more of the crud away from my face, and tried to peer out through bleary eyes to see what was on the horizon. To my left, I saw a structure, one that I might have gone straight past if the yellow-fall had kept up. There were spindly trees next to it, their limbs caked in yellow-fall, and the whole thing had a crudeness to it, built of jagged chunks of something, with a roof that was caked in yet more yellow-fall, like some bastard version of snow, almost looking like play-doh. I stared at it for a moment, trying to decide.

I was somewhere in the upper hells, at a guess, a place where the infernals weren’t terribly powerful. I’d been able to make it an hour or more without being horribly mutilated, so that was something, but even in the lowest hells it was usually possible to have a bit of a grace period, at least from what I’d read. It was definitely horrible, don’t get me wrong, but most of the horribleness came from the infernals, who used the natural environment to inflict their tortures. I hadn’t met one yet, and wasn’t looking forward to when I did. I was still tall and strong, and while I had no magic and none of the usual tools, there was a good chance that I could take on a very low level infernal, especially with the spirit blade.

I went for it, trying to keep low to the ground. I had no idea what kind of tech level to expect in this hell, what kind of amenities they would have, and who I would find in there. If there was an infernal, there was a chance that I could overpower it, possibly even trap it, then hide out, or figure out a way to make a message that could be seen from an infernoscope. There were stories of people doing things like that, though they only tended to work in the short term, and it wasn’t like you could carve out a good life in even one of the upper hells. Eventually, you’d get caught in routine sweeps, or the major powers of the hell would learn about you, or something, and then you’d get captured and become part of the mortal economy, with the right to torture you sold to the highest bidder, your suffering commodified and utilized. In the short term though, it was a halfway decent plan, assuming that I was able to temporarily take down an infernal while naked, using the spirit blade and nothing else.

As I passed by the spindly trees, I could feel them sucking at my skin, like they were trying to rip off pieces from a distance. I made my way around them, keeping my distance. With the yellow-fall basically stopped, it seemed like things were starting to wake up and shake some of it off, and I saw crimson bushes pushing their way up through the yellow-fall, spreading out red leaves as they did so. There was no sun in the sky, just a slightly dull ambient light, which made me wonder what any of this stuff was feeding on. As I got closer, I saw more buildings off in the distance, maybe a football field away, and only two of them. I decided to avoid them, at least for the time being.

The house itself, if it was a house, was made of jagged bits of metal, each bit of metal a foot or so across, all sharp edges, stuck together with a mustard-yellow mortar I assumed had something to do with the yellow-fall. There were bits of the spindly trees used in the construction too, sparingly, with evidence that the wrist-thick trunks had been straightened out, cut to length, and bound together. There were no windows, and only a single door, which was made of a heavy metal and had no obvious handhold. I waited beside it, wiping off as much of the yellow-fall as I could, hoping that something would change.

In the distance, I heard an unearthly scream, long and high-pitched. I steeled myself. They had trackers in the hells sometimes, creatures that would seek out any defenseless people they could find, and naturally, the infernals used them. I’d been in hell for maybe an hour and a half, and I hoped that I had a lot more time than that left.

The door to the house creaked open and I got ready to lunge forward and attack whoever came through. Infernals came in all shapes and sizes, and fighting one while naked didn’t appeal to me in the slightest, but it seemed like a necessity. I needed clothes, at the very least, something to keep the yellow-fall off me, and I needed a place to stay while I waited for rescue, or at least for Valencia to get a bead on me.

Instead of an infernal, it was a man. He was dressed in simple, ill-fitting clothes and carrying a bucket that was filled with something thick and brown. He didn’t see me, maybe because he was intently looking at the yellow-fall in front of him. As I watched him, I realized how broken and beaten he was, not just in the downcast eyes and grim expression, but scars and wounds wherever his skin was showing. He was missing fingers, and something was wrong with his eye. His hair was messy, with scars going through it. With a grimace, he stepped out, barefoot, into the yellow-fall, carrying his bucket with him.

I waited until the door closed to approach him.

“Hey,” I said. “Hey!”

He turned around and looked at me with wide eyes, slop coming out of his bucket.

“Zu ɦa a?” he asked, though I could only assume it was a question. His eyes kept going to my spirit blade, which was held at my side.

“Do you speak Anglish?” I asked.

“Bi ɦa a khu i wa? A r̊eni kha oma?” He asked.

I tried the languages I knew, Groglir, Gimb, even Kindeh, which so far as I knew was a dead language (that I still knew those languages was another sign that while the game system was gone, the changes it had made to me persisted). There was no telling where he was from, nor how long he’d been down here. I didn’t even know if this place had days or years. For all I knew, he’d been there for centuries, maybe even millennia. If he was here, in this geographical location, it was entirely possible that he’d been one of the many killed during Fel Seed’s initial takeover. Or maybe even earlier, before anyone had known much about the hells.

“Daṭide ɦita zura gi we a ḷama,” he said. “We olau ḷaḷukha ṭa o olau r̊ane.”

“Hey, it’s okay,” I said. “I’ll overpower the infernal in there, if I can, and we can be free. We can help each other.” Talking to him wasn’t doing an ounce of good, but he was letting out a string of words at me, so I was answering back. “Juniper,” I said, pointing at myself.

“A ḷaḷukha,” he answered.

“Lalezhe,” I said, trying to match his pronunciation. He nodded vigorously. “Stay out here, I’ll — go look at the door.” I tried to back that up with pantomime, but there was no way of knowing whether it stuck. I had hoped I’d be able to pick up his language, but there was no notification, and no click of sudden understanding.

I crept toward the door, wishing again that I had something besides just the sword, and feeling fortunate for having that. I diverted closer to one of the spindly trees, and found that it was, in fact, covered in both small needles and a dark red sap that the yellow-fall was now sliding off of. It was pulling, sucking at my skin from a distance, painful but in no danger of actually making a tear. I opted not to spend my time trying to turning it into an off-hand weapon, not if the needles or sap were going to fuck up my hands.

I opened the door slowly, working my fingers into the crack, as it didn’t have any handle. The interior was bathed in a red light, so completely red that it washed out every other color. I saw a table, chairs, and a counter filled with strange oblong shapes, and beyond that, a door to another room. I moved in quickly, keeping low to the ground, looking for the infernal. How many would I be fighting? One? Two? Even one might be a problem.

There was a knife sitting on the table next to a small puddle of something that was almost white in the red light, maybe blood. I looked the knife over and picked it up. The blade was a faint green, which meant that it must have been making its own light. I tested holding it in my offhand, then set it down again, because the weight and balance was off. The spirit blade was a single handed weapon though, and I didn’t have a shield or something else to complement it. I was worried. You couldn’t kill an infernal, but at least in the upper hells, you could injure them badly enough that you could restrain them, at least temporarily. There was infernal magic that made that not a great idea in the long term, at least most of the time, but I was still hoping that this was a short term kind of situation.

I found him in the next room, back turned to me. He was doing something with a set of ceramic jars.

I ambushed him, rushing in quickly, and as it happened, I realized that I might have fucked up. He had known I was coming, either because he’d heard me beforehand or felt my emotions. He turned to face me even as the blade moved toward him, revealing a face that opened like a flower to show off hundreds of teeth in uneven rows. Maybe he was expecting me to startle and back off, but I had faced worse, and I jammed the blade into his neck, which looked plenty fleshy. The gurgling hiss he’d been making turned into a bit of a scream, and I wrenched the blade free, backing away. If he’d been human, it would have been enough to decapitate him, but whatever was going on with his biology, it had only given him a wound.

The light was red, so it was hard to see him, and fuck if I knew what colors he actually was. In appearance though, he was surprisingly humanoid, with knobbly knees and turned-out toes, two long arms that seemed like they might reach the ground, a cluster of eyes behind the flower-head, and something at his crotch like a bunch of grapes that was all swollen, black, and shiny. He was a devil, I was guessing, because he didn’t seem to have any natural weapons except what I was generously calling his mouth.

“Zu wu ṭa?” he asked, his mouth parts moving in impossible ways to make the sound. He was clutching his neck, which was seeping out something viscous.

Step one in dealing with devils was not talking to them, and luckily, he didn’t seem to instinctively know the language I spoke. He could probably feel my confusion though, probably got off on it in some sick way, and if he spoke Anglish, it wouldn’t take him long to figure out that he could use it to speak with me. Infernals were famously good with languages.

I lunged at him again, slicing with the blade. It cut through his skin easily enough, but at least in his chest there seemed to be a lot of bones that stopped me from going further, not orderly bones like a rib cage would be, but like moguls on a ski hill hidden under his flesh. I tried piercing him from the side, but that did nothing but get my spirit blade stuck, and I was worried that I wasn’t good enough at summoning it to dismiss it and call it again.

He lunged for me again, trying to snap at me with the flesh-petals of his mouth, and again he misjudged me, because I blindly grabbed the knife from the table behind me, reared back, and then drove the knife straight down his throat. He was trying to snap around my arm, and I was cutting him up on the inside. It fucking hurt, the first time I’d felt that level of pain in a long time, and shoving a knife down someone’s throat, especially a guy with that many teeth, would probably have been a smarter move if I’d still been as durable as when I was alive.

I pulled my bloody hand from inside his throat, still holding my knife. He was looking worse than I was, choking on his own viscous fluids, clutching his throat. I let go of the spirit blade, which was still sticking in his side, then switched the knife to my uninjured left hand. I started stabbing him wherever looked least defended, occasionally slipping the knife between bones, more by luck than skill. After just a moment’s hesitation, I started stabbing at the black grapes where his crotch was, popping more of them with every thrust. They were juicy, bursting with a liquid that smelled so bad I almost stopped. The devil was losing energy though, so I continued on, over and over, until I was driving the knife into a patch of juicy black flaps.

He never actually stopped moving, just slowed down enough that I wasn’t in any real danger. You couldn’t kill a devil, not unless you were Val or something equally scary, you could only injure or incapacitate, and I had to remind myself of that as the haze of adrenaline fell over me. I tried to break his arms, but they were beyond what strength I could bring to bear, especially as I was without clothes. The resistance of the infernals to incapacitation varied wildly across the hells, and in this particular hell, it seemed that relatively rapid regeneration was combined with a nearly indestructible skeleton and joints that were stronger than anything I could bring to bear, even once I’d retrieved my spirit blade. He was down, but I would have to keep up the assault. There would be no way to leave him alone for any period of time, not unless I could tie him down and bury him, and there were probably some kind of defenses against that, even if they were slow defenses.

My arm was bleeding heavily, and I was feeling the blood loss. I was still totally naked, without any tools but the spirit blade and a very small knife. The hells usually came with some level of regeneration, but the upper hells had less of it, and I wasn’t sure that I was actually going to make it. If you died in hell, you ended up in a lower hell, and as a general rule, lower hells were worse. It was also probably not where they expected to find me.

I laid the devil out on the floor, then flipped the table over and pressed it down on top of him before piling as much junk as I could on top of it. I didn’t think it would hold him for long, but I didn’t have many other options.

I wondered how long it would take either Valencia or someone with an infernoscope to find me.

There was a chance they wouldn’t save me. Valencia could kill the infernals around me, but doing that would send up a red flag to the infernals, and keeping the secret of so many deaths contained — well, I didn’t know that it was impossible, but it would be difficult. There had been other buildings in the distance, and I assumed that they had infernals of their own, but it also seemed like we were in the middle of nowhere. If the party could find me somehow, then maybe it would be safe to kill those infernals. Eventually though, someone would come out to this place, either attempting to track me or trying to get in contact with someone they expected. Maybe that would be fine, in the short term, days, not weeks. That would still leave me stranded in the hells though, with no way home.

I picked the knife back up from the floor and walked to the front door, peeking through the crack slightly to see whether the guy I’d seen before was still there. He had vanished. I didn’t know how long it would take the devil to come fully back to life, nor whether it would be able to move the weight on top of him, but I couldn’t just hole up in there indefinitely. I went through the house as quickly as I could, eventually finding a cloak that I could wear and some pants that I couldn’t fit into. There wasn’t much in the way of clothing, just another cloak that seemed sized for the infernal, and I put it on as well. I tore off a leg of the pants and wrapped it around my arm, which was already clotting. I looked for something to wash up with, but eventually settled for wiping off as much yellow-fall as I could with what was left of the pants.

I stepped outside, looking in the direction of the other buildings. The remainder of the yellow-fall had cleared, and I could see that I was in a valley of some kind, though there was no river. At the tops of the hills were more buildings, and I wondered how many had infernals inside them. Probably a lot. That didn’t bode well for me, especially not with how comparatively badly that first fight had gone. With the blood loss, I wasn’t sure that I could win another.

I heard a screaming sound from above, and looked up. I couldn’t remember how long I’d fallen, but it had seemed like a long time, though the impact hadn’t been nearly as hard as it should have been. Instinctively, I expected it to be another person falling, and I could vaguely see the shape. They were far away, back the way I’d come, and I started walking toward them even before they hit the ground. Most of the yellow-fall was gone, evaporated, or whatever had happened to it, but what remained quickly caked my feet again, stinging the skin, which didn’t do much to take my mind off the cuts all over my arm.

I was worried about the new arrival. If this rough geographic area corresponded to Fel Seed’s domain, then someone who arrived was likely to be someone killed there. Lots of people lived in the City of a Thousand Brides, but I was pretty sure he didn’t often kill them for sport. I counted myself lucky to have been killed by him, in fact, if that was what had happened. Someone arriving here meant that it might have been one of my people. I couldn’t account for the time difference though. It had been two hours, or something like it, maybe as much as three. I had been the last one left, or I should have been. Bethel would have needed to dump the people we’d tried to pick up, so it was possible she’d done a short-range transport before teleporting out, if she hadn’t just killed, bottled, and incinerated them during the fight. Had Fel Seed made a capture I hadn’t seen, then waited to murder one of my companions? Had no one else actually escaped? Was the hope of rescue from without actually doomed?

Whoever it was had landed in what was left of the yellow-fall and gotten coated with the stuff, same as I was. She — obviously a she, given the lack of clothes — let out a groan and got to her feet, then let out a primal scream of anger. I had sped up, because I knew that scream of anger. Even if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have missed the pointed ears or the scarred arms.

“Fenn,” I said as I reached her. “Fenn!”

She looked me over. “You look like hell,” she said.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 231: Hellfall

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