Worth the Candle, Ch 233: Tartarology

She was dressed in a cloak and simple clothes, barefoot, but she held a spirit blade in one hand, and looked set and determined, as she often did. She slipped into the room before I could say anything, in part because I had no idea what I was going to say, and she dismissed the spirit blade before looking us over.

“Alright,” she said. “We’re light on time and things topside have gone south.” She turned to me. “Juniper, it’s been nearly three years.”

“Shit,” I said. “My questions can wait.” She’d said we were short on time.

“Good,” she replied. She looked at Fenn. “Are you okay? Because I have a big ask coming.”

“Does it get me out of the hells?” she asked.

“Probably,” said Amaryllis. “Ideally, we’d have had another year of planning. I’m going to lay out the plan and its constraints, and I’ll take questions at the end.”

“How’d you get in here?” asked Fenn.

“I don’t really have time for your horseshit,” said Amaryllis. “I love you, and I’ve missed you, but shut your fucking mouth, ask only mission-critical questions, and then do exactly as I say, because there’s a good chance that things are going to get fucked.”

“She wasn’t this prickly when I was on Aerb,” said Fenn. She looked at me. “I’m sure it’s a coincidence that she also got married to you in the meantime.” She looked back at Amaryllis. “Sorry, that was the last time.” She made a motion like she was locking her mouth and throwing away the key.

“There’s a way back to Aerb from within the hells,” said Amaryllis. “It was extraordinarily difficult to find, and we’d wanted to use other methods, but there were some last minute problems. Unfortunately, our method is sitting at the very bottom of the hells, in the Omega Hell. Our weapon can provide cover and we have an array of infernoscopes to help monitor our descent in order to facilitate, but odds are we’re not going to be able to do this quietly. The plan is for each of us to kill ourselves as many times as it takes to get to the Omega Hell, then take conveyance to the Fortress of the Gilded Behir. Depending on the specifics of the fall, that’s going to be some ways away. When you get to the Omega Hell, someone will be inserted to help you. From there, we’ll break into the armory where the magical construct is and make our return to Aerb. This will be easy, because every infernal in a twenty mile radius around us is going to be killed, and it will be difficult, because there are other deterrents. It’s also unclear how quickly we can go about suiciding our way down to the Omega Hell. Now, any mission-critical questions?”

“What’s the best way for us to kill ourselves?” I asked. “The hells are variable, and if we wind up in hell 8999, we should be virtually immortal. If the weapons crew is on top of things there won’t be demons to kill us, and they probably wouldn’t anyway.”

“Destroying the brain usually works,” said Amaryllis. “Which hell you go to is random, a curve centered on roughly four hundred hells below, meaning an average of twenty-two suicides to bottom out. The lower ones will be more difficult, because blood loss or even major shock won’t kill you. Find something extremely heavy and squish your head, that should work. If you need help, we have volunteers who will be dropped in and assist, but that brings more people in, and there’s a risk that this doesn’t work. The spirit blade will stop being effective at a certain distance down, and it won’t be equally ineffective for every hell, because regeneration and resilience rules are different.” She was speaking quickly and precisely. I wondered what was going on topside, but it wasn’t mission-critical, so I kept my mouth shut.

“Why the time pressure?” asked Fenn.

“The short version is that it took us time to find Juniper,” said Amaryllis, grimacing. “Once we did, we scanned the area and found that word had somehow already gotten out, not just within the hell, but through all the hells, to a level that we couldn’t contain. They didn’t know much, but virtually our only method of interacting with the hells is killing infernals, and doing that puts us at risk. The infernals have had three years to put their systems in place, and they’ve gotten better at using methods that can survive our attacks. We’ve been in a state of cold war for most of this time, but they’re essentially at unification, and we don’t have the killing power to stop them if they mount an attack on Aerb. Keep security protocols in place, not that you need to be told. Infernoscopes might be pointed at us from higher hells at any moment.”

“How do they know about me though?” I asked. “I met one guy and one devil, and I beat the crap out of the devil. We should have had more time.”

“It was the person you met, we think,” said Amaryllis. “He ran off to report you. By the time we’d found you, you were already in the system.”

“Then why put me in?” asked Fenn.

“We thought the other extraction method would work,” said Amaryllis. “We thought we would be able to grab both of you without having to get the Omega Hell involved. I’m sorry, Fenn, I know you never wanted to go to the hells, but I’m not actually that sorry, because we’re very likely to be the first people to come back to life after dying.”

“You’re dead?” asked Fenn.

“How do you think I got here?” asked Amaryllis. “I killed myself and then had my soul injected. We have volunteers to do the same in any of the other hells, if we have trouble. They understand the importance of the mission. If possible, we’ll take them with us, but they signed up for a temporary eternity in whatever hell they go to, just to help us.” She summoned her spirit blade. “Do you two understand? Which hell you end up in is random, but the geography will be mostly the same. The suicides will separate us, but we’ll be able to meet back up in the Omega Hell, or if separated, meet at the Fortress of the Gilded Behir. Grak will be injected there to help Fenn.”

“Kill myself twenty or so times,” I nodded. “Got it. I just hope this isn’t fire magic all over again.”

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” said Fenn, grimacing at the blade in Amaryllis’ hand. “I picked a bad time to stop sniffing glue.”

“Wait. There’s a devil I made a deal with,” I began.

“Already dead,” said Amaryllis. “As is every other infernal in this compound who has any knowledge of you. There might be others who know though, if the interrogation was monitored by infernoscope.”

“Oh,” I said. I really had intended to honor that deal.

“Are you ready?” asked Amaryllis.

“Yes,” I said.

Amaryllis stepped towards me, and it took every ounce of my willpower not to move out of the way as she swung the blade at my neck.

The hells weren’t quite mix-and-match, since each was a coherent whole, but it was hard to see that from a distance, and if I’d been a DM tasked with designing nine thousand hells, I would have just whipped up some kind of random generator that pulled from long lists of plants, animals, and geographic features, then paired them with things that were gross or dangerous. A sea of mucus, a river of acid, a bunny crusted with scabs, grass that was sharp enough to effortlessly cut flesh … simple enough, if you didn’t want to create a new ecosystem from whole cloth. Maybe I was a simpleton, but the results seemed roughly the same as if it had been done that way, rather than having more work put into it.

In the second hell, I dropped into the midst of a small town surrounded by red moss with tongue-like things coming up from it. There were no more than twenty or so buildings, all made of a dull green brick. I got to my feet at once, and even as I did, I saw demons and devils around me getting burnt out and falling to the ground as though they’d had their strings cut. I summoned my spirit blade and tried to figure out the best way of killing myself. Eventually I settled on cutting my throat and wrists, and if I thought that standing still for Amaryllis to cut off my head took some nerves, that was nothing compared to running a sharp sword across my throat, then doing the same to my wrists as great quantities of blood were pouring out of my neck and down my naked body.

If this didn’t kill me, it was going to severely wound me, enough that I would need time to heal in order to figure out a different solution. I was only at one of a projected twenty-two ‘jumps’ until I bottomed out.

Thankfully, I lost consciousness pretty quickly, and the next thing I knew, I was falling down into a blue hell, with water surrounding a small island farm.

I had time to think about how fucked up it was. It wasn’t just fucked up in the usual sense, killing myself and descending through the hells, it was fucked up because I’d tried to commit suicide back on Earth, I had survived that experience, been marked by it, and grown, at least a little bit. I had a relationship with suicide, and suicidal thoughts. Now here I was, trying to commit suicide over and over, because it was the only way for me to live. If things had been a little less fucked, or if I had been watching it from a distance, maybe I would have appreciated the reversal, or taken some pleasure in the irony, but I was mostly trying to get through it as quickly as I could.

(If I was being charitable, and I definitely wasn’t in the mood for that, then the message was that you had to get through some heinous shit sometimes, and that was a part of life, of getting to the good stuff, but it wasn’t a message that resonated with me. It was a message I’d heard a lot, but that had never landed for me when I was in the depths of suicidal depression. Being told that you have to wade through shit while you’re wading through shit isn’t actually helpful, and I didn’t know why people thought it was.)

I drowned myself in what passed for the sea around the island, carrying a heavy rock with me until I was deep enough, then setting it on top of myself and taking in giant gulps of water. The blue sands shredded the skin of my feet, so I was inhaling some of my own blood as well, and by both smell and feel, the water wasn’t proper water at all. I managed to get the rock off me in my panic, and though I started vomiting ‘water’ back up, I still managed to choke enough that I lost the strength to get myself out of the water again. I’d hoped that it would be better than bleeding out, and it really wasn’t.

The problem with the hells, from the perspective of someone doing their best to die down to the bottom, was that nothing really wanted to kill me. The various ecosystems of the hells were arranged around human suffering in one way or another, or at least human bodies, and actually killing a mortal meant that they would leave the hell forever. Given how comparatively rare mortals were, anything that killed one was almost certainly maladaptive.

In the fifth hell I landed in, I was almost immediately set upon by a pack of scaly chickens with red skin and sparse feathers, their beady black eyes bulging from their heads and their pecks razor sharp. They stripped flesh from me, ripping out chucks, and I screamed at them, which did nothing to deter them. I summoned the spirit blade and cut at them, injuring a few, but not enough, and a sword wasn’t the kind of weapon you wanted for killing small things that were low to the ground. After I’d bled out enough to get weak and fall down, the chicken-things slowed their attack, not wanting to kill me, whether that was through instinct or a conscious choice on their part. I was worried that I wasn’t going to be able to stand, but after three attempts I lunged to my feet and looked around. The chicken-things were still there, backing away from me so they wouldn’t get hurt, but staying close enough that they could nip at me, ripping away more flesh as they did. I had dropped my spirit blade, and was feeling weak, which gave me trouble summoning it again. I stumbled forward, blood streaming down from all over me, until I got to a building that was close by. There were three infernal corpses in there, clustered around an elf that was strung up in some kind of horrible device that was holding him still. He was screaming and crying, and I briefly thought about trying to save him, but I had lost a lot of blood, and the chicken-things had followed me in. There were torture implements on the table, and I grabbed the sharpest looking on, then stabbed myself in the throat as many times as I could before losing strength and falling down.

In the ninth hell I landed in, there was nothing and nobody around. It was a vast expanse of rock, looking like it had been worn away into interesting shapes by strong winds, but without any evidence of those winds. I summoned the spirit blade and cut at my wrists, but they didn’t bleed. Whatever the rules of this hell were, they didn’t allow blood to flow from a body. I didn’t know what I was going to do, because there was no water to drown myself in and nothing that it seemed like I could drop on myself to crush my head. Eventually I set my eyes on a cliff and started climbing towards it. I was halfway down the hells though, or should have been somewhere close to that, and while it was hot enough that I was dripping with sweat and the rocks were rough enough to scrape skin, I could tell that the regeneration factor had really been ramped up. I wasn’t sure that a fall from a hundred feet up would actually kill me. I set it to myself to try anyway, and began climbing the cliff face. It was hard going with no shoes on, and I scraped myself up on the rocks, but a minor scrape would evaporate away in a minute or so. Getting to the top of the cliff took me twenty minutes, and at the end of it I took a brief look at the view of this wide, windswept, and seemingly empty place, then looked down at the rocks below, trying to figure out the best place to land in order to ensure my death. I steeled myself then ran forward, jumping to get myself as much height and distance as possible, then transitioning into a swan dive with my head pointed straight at the sharpest rocks I’d seen. I didn’t think it was perfect, but the death was almost instant.

In the thirteenth hell I went through, the regeneration factor worked differently, which I learned when I tried to push the spirit blade through my neck. Instead of piercing though, it painfully pushed into the skin, which stretched to accommodate it. A quick test after that showed that I wasn’t able to pierce my skin at all, though it was still plenty painful to try. It was the kind of thing that I’d have seen as a boon, if it weren’t stopping me from completing the mission, and if it weren’t a part of how this particular hell allowed people to be indefinitely tortured. Of course the regeneration and resilience worked differently in each of the hells, but this was an extreme case, and I wished that we’d had time to go through a plan for the different scenarios. Eventually, after a half hour of walking, I found a small town where Valencia had already killed the infernals, and after a brief conversation with a mortal who spoke Anglish for once, I was able to convince her to kill me, which was done via something approximating a blast furnace.

In the seventeenth hell, something must have misfired, because the infernals I almost immediately found myself around didn’t drop dead as soon as I looked at them. Valencia was shepherding the three of us down, assisted by an array of infernoscopes and a team of people, and I waited on them to find me as the hungry infernals turned toward me, feeling my fear and pain. They began trying to grab me and take me, each of them fighting for itself, hoping to get this prize that had fallen directly into their lap. They tore me apart, ripping off my arms, then tearing me apart at my waist, before finally there was only my head left, being carried like a football by a powerful demon. I could still feel every part of me, all of which was still being scrambled over, and I could still see, still think, even torn completely apart. Another demon clashed with the demon carrying me, and my head went tumbling to the ground, where it was crushed and trampled on until even the absurd resilience granted by the hell failed.

I took a break in the eighteenth hell, or at least as much of a break as I could take. I didn’t know how far down I was, but I hoped I was getting close. Valencia could kill the demons and devils, but there were other threats lurking in the hells, things that would make the place still proper hells even if we ever managed to kill all the infernals. I was able to just sit there for a moment, contemplating, trying to get up the will to go on, because if I stopped pushing on,  then I was never going to escape. I was hoping that Valencia could see me this time, and that she knew I was going to be fine, because I didn’t want someone to get dropped into the hell to help me. Eventually, I got to my feet and walked for a bit, trying to find something that I could use. I was deep enough that I doubted I could properly choke myself to death, and I didn’t want to try using the spirit blade again, not when it had been consistently failing me. I had a walk of at least a mile before I found any kind of settlement, and when I did, all the infernals were dead. It wasn’t too long after that before I rigged up a table to fall and crush my head, which thankfully worked.

At the twenty-second hell I went down into, I was hopeful that I was in the Omega Hell, but I knew enough about the hells to know that I wasn’t quite there. I was hoping, praying that this wasn’t going to be some bullshit like the fire magic trial, but after my conversation with the Dungeon Master, I was more willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. He’d revealed something to me, something about himself, and it had connected with me. While it was possible that he’d bowed out, this all still smelled like his style.

Maybe that’s what the story of Job was about. But Job liked his god, and I didn’t particularly like mine, even if we were kindred spirits.

If you ever get stuck in the hells, The Commoner’s Guide to Being Stuck in the Hells (which bears only a satirical relationship to the series of beginner books) recommends that you do your best to stay where you are, get captured by an infernal, and be a ‘kept’ mortal. What you didn’t want was to be a single mortal held by multiple infernals who would trade you around, milking you for every last ounce of suffering that you were worth. The best place to become a kept mortal is the Omega Hell, because it’s the only place in the hells where there’s a large supply of souls, and infernals powerful enough to keep them. ‘Kept’ mortals were ones that lived relatively decent lives and were allowed to slowly build up hope and lose their calluses, which made the torture all the sweeter. Therefore, in the dark humor that served as the whole point of The Commoner’s Guide to Being Stuck in the Hells, it was suggested that your best bet was to kill yourself, over and over, until you landed in the Omega Hell, were picked up by an infernal there, and then only subject to torture when you weren’t being pampered in preparation for torture. Or maybe you would end up as one of the famed nerve mats, stretched out so that every inch of your nervous system could be individually tortured.

They offered some advice, as well, in their style of dry humor, which was mostly their chance to give a long list of all the horrible ways there were to die in the hells. Still, I thought that I could probably write a serious version, one for someone in a position like my own, not that there were many. Finding civilization was a good start, as was staying as whole and intact as possible until you found a method of execution. Of course, the whole finding civilization thing probably wouldn’t have worked for anyone else, given that Valencia was eliminating infernals left and right, but for me it was handy, because the infernals had all kinds of things on hand artfully to bring a person just to the brink of death. It took some time, but eventually I escaped using one of those implements, stripping out my entire nervous system until my brain itself was being pulled apart.

And then, for what had seemed like a fairly long journey of killing myself twenty-one times in a row, it was suddenly over, and the Doom Sun of the Omega Hell was above me, instantly starting to flay my skin from my body. I ran as soon as I hit the ground until I found a scrap of shade behind a tree, which gave me a brief reprieve. My body didn’t handle the flaying well, as bodies don’t, and given extended time in the Doom Sun, I’d have been ripped to shreds, muscle torn off millimeter by millimeter, then bone, until finally my brain was gone. And then, because it was the Omega Hell, I wouldn’t even die, I would reform somewhere else a moment later. It was said some people spent their time dying over and over, unable to get to shelter with their reformed body.

The damage I’d taken was uneven, and I took a moment to assess myself with shaky hands. I was missing skin mostly on my front, with my back intact, and the skin was regenerating as I watched it. I took in a few deep breaths. As it turned out, I wasn’t a fan of dying.

There were bodies of infernals around me. They weren’t subject to the Doom Sun, nor was any of the flora, fauna, or land, but Valencia had gotten to them, apparently in advance of my arrival. Two of them were large, and would have been twenty feet tall if standing, but the third was smaller, probably a devil, and not more than eight feet tall. 

I hadn’t known much about the Omega Hell, except for its famed Doom Sun, and the wealth of mortals there. Hellology, which was definitely a real word and not something that I just made up, had never been a particular passion of mine, not when Aerb had so much fun and interesting stuff that wasn’t going to leave me depressed for the remainder of the day. Given the swollen red Doom Sun, I had expected it to be warmer, but no, it was nearly freezing, meaning that even if I could stay in the shade, there was a good chance my body would slow down and die. There were a fair number of trees scattered on the plain though, with green leaves, even, not looking terribly threatening, though of course I knew better than to think that meant anything. It was one of those trees that I’d taken shelter under, though its trunk was only barely wide enough to give me protection.

In the distance was a castle, built tall, but I had no illusions that this was the place we were meant to be going, not given the facts at hand. Each of the hells was roughly as large as Aerb itself, which was ten times the surface area of Earth. Given that the geographies roughly mapped to each other, and would hold unless you were doing something weird, we were ‘below’ Fel Seed’s domain, and there was no particular reason to think that the door, portal, or whatever it was would be anywhere near there. I’d tried my best not to stray too far when I’d been repeatedly killing myself, because I wanted to be able to meet back up with the others once they finished their descent, but we were looking at a grim trip of possibly thousands of miles.

I waited. My skin healed. I wished that I knew what horrible secrets the Omega Hell held for me. I watched the shadows closely, trying to see which direction the Doom Sun was moving, and hoping that I wouldn’t have to experience high noon, when the trees would do nothing for me. Of course, once nightfall came, I would get to experience the Chaos Moon, which was arguably worse: it was like a microwave, and would cook you from the inside out if you stood in its light.

It had been about twenty minutes when a woman came falling down from the sky. I sat where I was, waiting, but she was slow to get up, and far away from a tree, so I ran out, braving the Doom Sun, and picked her up. From the red hair, I’d assumed, or maybe hoped, that it was Amaryllis, but as I picked her up and ran with her to the relative safety of the shadow, I realized that I was wrong, and it was someone else. It wasn’t until I set her down, fully in the shade, that it occurred to me who it might be.

“Lisi?” I asked.

She gave me a weak nod, then sat up. “We need to go,” she said, groaning.

“Why you?” I asked.

“Volunteered,” she said. “Prior relationship with you.” She looked at the damage she’d taken, the places where flesh had been removed. “How fucking long is it going to take for my skin to grow back?”

“Ten minutes,” I said. “I’d have thought you were watching from above.” She was naked, and I was studiously avoiding that fact, because even though we were in the hells, some part of my brain still felt the need to be embarrassed about it.

“We were,” she replied. “It was rhetorical. Once we have our skin back, we need to grab a corpse and make coverings for ourselves.”

I looked at the corpses, which were still sitting there in the sun. The little one, who wasn’t even that little, would be the only one that we had a hope of moving. “Fuck,” I said. “How are we going to do that? With what tools? And where are we going?”

“A thousand miles due east-north-east,” said Lisi, twisting her fingers but not bothering to point in the actual direction. “Don’t worry, there’s transport to steal. About making the shields, I’ve no idea, rip off their claws I guess.”

“Good to see you again,” I said. “I guess you … graduated?”

She looked at me. “Are you trying to make small talk?”

“I’m just wondering what happened while I was gone,” I said. “I was trying to be polite. To take our minds off things.”

“I got fast-tracked,” said Lisi, watching her skin slowly grow back. “A lot of people died in Li’o. It’s been three years, I’m middling at best.” She looked at me. “Do you actually enjoy this?”

“Being in the hells?” I asked. “No. Learning what happened to you … I guess? Amaryllis didn’t feel like she had the time to give me the details.”

“She didn’t,” said Lisi. “The infernals have planned for this moment. They have counterattacks prepared. Things aren’t going great on Aerb either. If we have downtime, I’ll fill you in, but right now we need to get protection, get transport, then meet up with the others.”

“They’re through?” I asked.

“Fenn is, Amaryllis is still falling, she’s had bad rolls and it looks like she’ll be off course,” said Lisi. “It’s very important that no one dies, because grabbing them from somewhere else in the Omega Hell is going to cost us time we probably don’t have.” She looked at the infernal corpse, then down at her hand, where the skin was still growing back. “What do these trees do?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “They might just be trees. I don’t actually believe that, but it’s possible.” I paused. “Shouldn’t you have done recon of the Omega Hell before all this?”

“This was the third contingency,” said Lisi. “The other two plans should have worked, but didn’t. We got an exclusion.”

“Which?” I asked, frowning.

“Rune magic,” said Lisi.

“Fuuuuck,” I said.

“Yup,” replied Lisi. “No rune magic, no soul spikes, no way to prevent people from going to the hells, not unless they have a hundred thousand obols and a week to prepare … there are reasons time is of the essence, and that’s one of them.”

“How is me getting out of the hells supposed to help?” I asked.

“Amaryllis is going for a second attempt at Fel Seed,” said Lisi.

“Fuck,” I said. “And I’d guess I’m a key part in that.” I moved slightly, to keep myself in the shade of the tree. I was starting to feel nauseous, and my teeth were aching for some reason. I hoped that the tree wasn’t slowly killing me, or draining me, or some other horrible but mostly invisible thing. I was hoping that the Omega Hell, absent the infernals, wasn’t going to be that bad, that it would be more about the tools that the infernals had than the ambient dangers themselves.

“It would be better for you to get the corpse,” said Lisi. “You’ve got more skin to spare.”

“Okay,” I said, getting to my feet. My skin was almost entirely back, but I was understandably worried, because if the Doom Sun started eating away at my muscles, I wouldn’t be able to move. I braced myself though, and raced out toward the smallest of the infernals, gripping him by his legs and dragging him over while I screamed in pain. He was fucking heavy, and unfortunately for us, not wearing anything. I collapsed into the shade of the tree, next to Lisi, and panted hard as I endured the pain of cold air on my missing flesh. It wasn’t numbing, as cold sometimes was, it was just cold, like icicles being driven into me.

Lisi started work, using her whole body weight to get the corpse in closer. I summoned my spirit blade, but even with a heavy swing, it couldn’t even break skin. Lisi did her best to get one of the claws off, first by trying to twist or use leverage, then by using her teeth, neither of which worked. Finally, she turned the claw in and tried using it to cut the demon’s skin, but that was slow going, since apparently the demon’s defenses were better than its offenses. There was no guarantee that it would skin easily, and it was rough work. I also wasn’t looking forward to walking around under whatever skin we could get from it.

“If this doesn’t work, our other option is waiting for twilight,” said Lisi. “At this time of year, there’s maybe twenty minutes when the Doom Sun is down and the Chaos Moon has yet to rise.” She paused. “Are you feeling nauseous?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“You look it,” she replied. “Green in the gills.”

“Might be the tree,” I said, looking up at it. “Might just be this place. Might be something in the air, or … anything, really.”

“I’m feeling it too,” Lisi nodded, then went back to her work. Once she’d made the initial cut, it was easier, because the skin of the demon pulled back, separating from the under layer fairly easily. It would be big, but I didn’t think it would be big enough to cover her, let alone me. There would also be the issue of getting it to cover us completely, because if our destination was the nearby castle, we were going to have to go for quite a ways under the glare of the Doom Sun.

“Try biting the intestines,” said Lisi. “Or use a claw to cut them. We can use them as gloves to keep our hands safe.”

“How is Fenn doing?” I asked as I tried to get to the demon’s guts. It was horrible, frankly, and I was skeptical that any of it would work. While I was trying to use a claw to cut the guts open, my elbow went out of the shade and I pulled it back immediately, cursing.

“Fenn is fine,” said Lisi. “She rolled well, got to Omega quickly, and found shelter right away. Grakhuil is with her, and they’re making their way to the meeting point.”

“Grak came down too?” I asked. “Fuck.”

“We’re putting all our eggs in one basket,” said Lisi. “I agree with it, or I wouldn’t be here, but if this all falls through, we, and Aerb, are completely fucked.”

“Who else is on the team?” I asked.

“Everyone,” she replied. She seemed content to talk so long as we were both working. She was still going on the skin, and I was trying to figure out how the fuck to make gloves and boots out of demon intestines without any tools. “Beth, Val, Pallida, Figaro, and Doris are staying up top, all for obvious reasons. A few of the tuung loyalists volunteered for descent, if it was needed, and the infernoscopes are being monitored. Amaryllis has chosen to go alone once she arrives in Omega, with Raven as her backup in case things go wrong.”

She finished getting the skin off, and I vomited off the side, dry heaving, because I was pretty sure that this body had never eaten anything, and was ‘new’ in the sense that it had been created not long ago.

“I think it’s the tree,” I said. “Usually my stomach is a little better about gross stuff.” I had been on Aerb, anyway, if not necessarily on Earth. Having a strong constitution was tied to Endurance, and it really did seem like though the game layer was gone, I’d still kept all the other enhancements that had come with leveling up.

“The nausea has hit me too,” said Lisi. “We’re going to need to get moving. I don’t think we can wait until twilight to make a run.” She finished a crude cut and pulled the skin around her. “How does it look?” she asked.

“A bold fashion choice,” I said, smiling weakly. I felt like throwing up again, and I was getting more and more convinced that the tree was doing something to my intestines.

“Do I look protected?” she asked, glaring at me.

“Yeah,” I said, looking her over. “Covers more than I thought it would. I’m not even sure you’ll need the gloves.”

“I will,” she replied, looking at my work with a frown. “Do you think if I make the run, you’ll be able to survive here alone? The tree might be making you sick, or harvesting us in some way, but it’s unlikely to kill you. You just need to stay well enough to move with the Doom Sun.”

“Right,” I said, then threw up again. “And you’re getting what, a car?”

“Something like that,” she said. “Here, give me those.”

I handed over what I had ‘made’, the intestine that had been cut with the demon’s own claws. Without hesitation, she slipped the pieces over her feet and hands. It was slippery, but she was still able to hold onto the skin around her.

“If I don’t make it,” she said. “You’re fucked. But if you die, or I die, they’ll send someone for us, probably tuung, but possibly someone else, depending on circumstances. We have the respawn pattern mapped. You’re going to the Fortress of the Gilded Behir. Conveyance is on the roof of that castle,” she said, gesturing at her destination.

I nodded, and desperately hoped that I didn’t have to go it alone. Lisi had never really been much of a friend, but I’d killed myself twenty-one times going down through the hells, and aside from meeting some lost souls, I’d been alone for it.

I watched her go, occasionally stopping to vomit. I wondered what the point of these trees was, whether they got something from the vomit. They had leaves, did they have something like chlorophyll which fed on sickness instead of light? Aside from the three dead infernals, and the castle in the distance, there wasn’t much around, just the trees, without anything obvious to sustain them aside from the Doom Sun and the Chaos Moon. It was entirely possible that they were nocturnal, and once night came, they would turn into something more horrible. I was praying that I didn’t get a chance to figure out what.

Lisi trudged on, moving low and slow, with her devil skin wrapped around her, protecting her from the Doom Sun. The castle wasn’t even that far away, almost close enough that I thought I could make the run while under the effects of the Doom Sun as it stripped my skin and later flesh and bone, but with how sick and cold I was feeling, I was probably overestimating myself. I shivered somewhat, then threw up again, losing my balance for a moment and momentarily slipping a hand out of the shade. I yanked it back with just the top few layers of skin removed.

Lisi got to the castle and with some effort, opened the large front door, slipping inside and out of view. The road, if you could call it that, was crude, but the castle itself was well-made, with large bricks of regular size that bespoke a developed civilization. From what I knew of the Omega Hell, it was the place where the richest and most powerful of the infernals were, and they had been adopting human inventions and advancements in the wake of Uther’s technological crusades on Aerb. Lisi had said that they had conveyance, and I was wondering what the horrible twist was, because there had to be a horrible twist.

An hour passed, and then a second. Lisi and I hadn’t discussed how long I should wait before assuming that she wouldn’t return, but I was throwing up every five minutes or so like clockwork, and the cold was really starting to get to me. By my best guess, it would be twilight in another half hour, but with where the Doom Sun was positioned, it would be behind the castle, affording me extra time where I could walk and still be in shade. I was feeling quite ill, but the illness, like the cold, seemed to have peaked at a certain level of horribleness that still allowed me to move and have the occasional scattered thought.

As soon as the Doom Sun was behind the castle, I set off, crawling at first, then staggering to my feet and stumbling forward. The sickness started to fade as soon as I was beyond the trees, but the last little bit of it stayed with me. With the Doom Sun down, the cold was getting worse, and I was still completely naked. I also hadn’t eaten at all, nor drank anything, not that there were things to eat or drink. I was feeling weak and helpless, and it did occur to me that if Lisi had run into trouble, I was probably going to run into the same trouble. The infernals would all be dead, Valencia would have seen to that, but there were plenty of other things that could be in a compound like this. There were things you’d put in a compound like this, if you wanted to defend it against people who could kill you from a distance, either out of deterrence or spite.

I was feeling less sick once I made it into the compound, but then I had no idea where I was going. The infernals in this hell were taller, some of them twice as tall as a person, or more, and the hallways and rooms were built to accommodate. There didn’t seem to be anyone there, or at least, there were no sounds. I was moving slowly, and feeling … not better, actually, but less bad. I continued to pad my way down the large corridors, trying to find some sign of Lisi. When I saw the trail of blood, my heart dropped, and I started running, knowing that whatever had happened, it had likely happened hours ago.

I found her in a compound, torn apart into several pieces, with no sign of what had done it. She’d been completely decapitated, and some kind of creature had mauled her head, gouging out her eyes and tearing the flesh from her face until only a nose hole and bright white teeth remained. Her body was elsewhere, spread out in a pool of her blood, with her limbs separated. One of them looked like it had been thrown against a wall hard enough to shatter the brick there. I was on my guard, trying to listen as best I could with my stupid non-enhanced senses, so I just about shit myself when I heard a wet smacking sound.

It was Lisi. Her mouth was moving, not capable of making sounds.

It took me a bit to realize that she was still alive. Once I did, and having no better options, I gathered up the pieces of her and placed them back together in approximately the right spots. I had been decapitated in one of the hells, and lived through it for at least a little bit, but with so much damage — I’d known the Omega Hell was bad, and that you could survive an incredible amount of punishment, all of which you’d feel at full force. When I’d looked at what had happened to her, it hadn’t immediately occurred to me that she could still be living.

It was slow going, watching her regenerate. I moved her, partway through, into what was probably a small closet, then I closed up the door and pushed whatever I could in front of it. I was worried that it wouldn’t work, but the various bits of her began to reconnect, with veins and tendons wriggling out of her and flopping back and forth like a worm coming out of the ground after a big rain.

It was twenty minutes before she could speak again, though she had some false starts of wet gurgling before that.

“They evacuated, or tried to,” she said. “Probably got killed. Left behind that thing. It played with me, then left, flew up and away.” She coughed up a gob of clotted blood and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Fuck.”

“We should go then,” I said. “If the ride is still here.”

Lisi nodded and ran her fingers through what was left of her hair. She was shaking, badly. “Fuck. Give me a minute.”

“Take your time,” I said.

“No,” she replied. “We don’t want to be the holdup.” She held her hand out in front of her, willing it to stop, but it kept shaking, and she clenched her hand into a fist. “I,” she said. “I’ve been watching the hells. Looking at them, learning about them. Preparing. We didn’t think that we’d have to go with the Omega plan, but here we are. I knew it would be brutal.” She held out her hand again, and it was still shaking, and this time she glared at it, like it was a traitor. Most of her nose had grown back. “It’s hard to die in this hell, but it’s easy to stop moving. I was out of the fight right away. I wasn’t doing much thinking, just a blinding wall of pain. On Aerb, you’d pass out, or go insane, but here, you get kept intact enough that they can go on almost indefinitely. Maybe there was a moment when I hoped I’d be thrown into the glare of the Doom Sun, so that I could die.”

“Yeah,” I said, frowning.

“There are people who live here, Juniper,” said Lisi. “Even before the rune magic exclusion, which is now — I don’t know, two days old? But now that it’s happened, now that we made it happen by trying some things that weren’t meant to be tried, there are three people dying every second, and they’re coming here, or places that aren’t all that much better.”

“Yeah,” I said, letting out a soft sigh.

“I don’t want to sit around because my stupid fucking hands won’t stop shaking,” she said. She held her hand out again, and this time, by sheer force of will, she was able to keep it steady. “Come on. Let’s go. Let’s figure out a way to save this miserable world.”

I helped her to her feet, and followed her as she made her way through the castle. She seemed to know where she was going, and I had to wonder how long she had been in here, looking around, before that thing had struck. I was hoping that it was gone, and I asked questions, which she answered in clipped tones. It had been as large as a horse, with huge claws and long, leathery wings, blisteringly fast except when it took off into the sky. I might have scared it, she thought, or maybe it had just decided that it’d had its fill. It was something of a pet to the infernals, or a guard dog, but not one that was willing to stick around if they might come back.

“Here,” said Lisi, pushing open one of the large doors after we’d gone up two flights of stairs.

Sitting on a large landing was a sophisticated contraption with clean lines and four blades on top.

It was a motherfucking helicopter.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 233: Tartarology

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