No Friendlies in Sight
Shantae was sneaking through the jungle trying to be very, very quiet. Any dense forest is dangerous because of its limited visibility, you never know what is lurking a few fathoms(1) ahead. Even the jungles of her home, the Sequin Land, hosted some impressive creatures, like giant spiders. This alien forest in an unknown Hell realm would be no exception.
(1)Sequin Land fathom is 172 centimeters (5ft 7.72in), author's fiat
The dead silence was really freaking her out, only broken by buzzing of rare flies. There were no bird calls. The brown foliage was unmoving, the warm air permeated with stench of blood utterly still. You could hear your own heartbeat on the background of tension singing thinly in your ears.
Should she move down to the lowland, to travel along the criss-crossing channels of blood? On one hand, she'd be hard to surprise down there. On the other hand, she'd be in plain sight for anything that lurked in the jungle, hidden by the dense shrubbery. So no, she tried keeping to the top of this vaguely defined ridge. Without knowing what sorts of monsters lived here, without a way to replenish her supplies she had to avoid detection at any—
A branch snapped under her foot, angry hiss sounding immediately from her right.
Her heart pounding, Shantae took a combat stance. A brown, spiky ape emerged pushing branches aside, eerily silent. It was blending with its surroundings so well she'd miss it until it was too late, if not for its hiss.
"Um, hello?" Shantae tried. Its bloody-red eyes were conveying unthinking aggression, but you never know until you try.
The brown thing, a head taller and probably two times heavier than the girl, snarled as it leaped at her, its upraised hands bearing very large and dangerous looking claws, bone-white spikes bristling from its shoulders and extremities. She dodged, whipping it across its muscled chest. This one bled red. Snarling, it leaped again. She barely dodged in time, a bush getting in her way. Fighting this thing in this thicket was dangerous! Shantae began retreating rapidly. The spiky ape lit fire in its upraised hand, to lob a fireball at her a second later. She ducked, the projectile exploding against some bush to wash the bare skin of her back with a wave of heat. This one had ranged attacks too! Groaning, she went in close and personal, whipping and dodging frantically and even deflecting its slashes with her bracers.
Unlike the monsters of her home land, who either were magical clones exploding into trash after a couple hits, or could get a hint and run away with a tail between their legs after one good whack, this one fought stubbornly until she whipped it to death, its bloody corpse slumping to the ground. It took only three hits in total, but it took her a lot of misses and close calls to get these hits in: the memories of fish merchant gutting fish kept coming to mind, slippery innards falling out of a carcass cut open. If all monsters around here were so deadly and so brutally single-minded, she was in trouble!
Shantae froze, listening. Have the racket attracted anything else? The silence told her otherwise, at first, but then there were sounds of something moving through the bushes. Something massive.
Playing it safe, the girl climbed the nearest palm tree to freeze right under its crown. Exposed like this, someone could see her from the distance. But she decided that watching out for sudden fireballs was better than facing a heavily stomping unknown on the ground.
What erupted from the dense foliage below resembled a huge gorilla. If one was pink, bald and possessed a ridiculously over-sized maw with fangs that belonged on a hippo. Oh, and it had small horns and its feet were bird-like, with three fingers and backward-facing knees.
The pink thing poked at the spiky ape's corpse in confusion, sniffed around for a bit, then returned to grab the corpse in its maw. Tearing an arm off with frightening ease, it just stood there chewing.
Nope, nope, no way. Shantae wasn't going to test how tough this one was. Moving carefully around the trunk, she took aim then pushed off the tree with both legs, with a practiced motion pulling the pirate hat out of hammerspace to grab it with both hands. The pink gorilla grunted, agitating and scouring the bushes below. Thankfully, it failed to look up.
Holding the hat tightly, Shantae glided from the ridge down, over the slope and over the blood channel, to land on the opposite shore. Much closer to the channel now, because as good as the hat was, gliding it meant steadily losing your attitude.
She sat in silence for a long while until she was sure nothing else was chasing her. Then she began prowling again, cautious and nervous, afraid she'd only know of a spiky ape from its claws sinking into her back.
Half an hour later she was still sneaking through the jungle, having grown more or less accustomed to the silence. Nothing had jumped her so far, but on the other hand she found out she was on a small island surrounded by blood channels. There was nothing of use here. The question was: should she use the scimitar dash, making her more or less invulnerable and unable to sink however deep these channels were? But the move was very loud and flashy, it'd attract every monster around. Then again, what sort of things could live in blood? Giant carnivorous leeches? Shantae shuddered scrunching her face up in disgust.
Still, the desire to stay quiet won. The girl approached the shore with caution. The ground here was soft, squelching under her pirate boots, slimy like coagulated blood. Or was it coagulated blood? Tense, she waded further, pushing reeds aside. Thankfully, the channel turned to be barely ankle-deep, its bottom muddy and slippery. She crossed it uneventfully, then sneaked deeper into the shrubbery. Was this another low island? How long would she have to sneak through this jungle with its deadly spiky apes? Wilderness could stretch for hundreds of miles! The girl eyed modest-sized cliff rising over the jungle a bit. Surveying the land from high up would have been nice. Alas, she couldn't becoma a monkey anymore to—
Wait, were these voices?
Doubling her caution, Shantae sneaked closer to whoever was talking. Peeking trough leaves, crouching low, she could make out three men in sort of blood-caked army uniforms, carrying strange thin muskets. They were milling across a small glade of sorts, separated from the channel by dense but narrow wall of shrubbery. Were they watchmen sitting in ambush?
She watched them for a while, more and more sure they were Zombies, not Humans. The overall shambling movements, the deep, unattended neck wound on one, the lack of visible breathing... Strangely, they weren't green as proper Zombies should be, but whatever. More importantly, she couldn't tell if they were wild mindless ones or sapient ones like Rotty. On one hand, mindless Zombies do not use tools. On the other hand, they never spoke, only grunting occasionally.
Deciding it was safer to check now, when there were only three of them, and making sure her retreat route was clear, Shantae tried:
"Um, excuse me?"
The triple shout of "You will die!", "Mortal!" and an inarticulate growl were answer enough, all three muskets pointed in her general direction. Suddenly, her danger sense screamed at her to move! Unthinking, the girl launched herself from her hiding spot, the bushes there perforated a split second later by a hail of bullets. These weapons were roaring like gatlings, not muskets, flashing continuously! Panicking, Shantae ran out of cover, her boots splashing thick liquid. Her danger sense screamed again, she was practically feeling the aiming lines swinging around, searching for her. She dashed away along the shore, zig-zagging as her danger sense was prickling haphazardly with potential hits, bullets zipping by.
And if that wasn't enough, angry hisses sounded ahead just as she was about to hide behind a bend as the channel was making a right turn. Two spiky apes jumped at her, erupting from bushes on the opposite shore. Shantae still ran to the right, dodging one fireball. Then, more angry hisses from behind! Dreading what she'd see, the girl took a look over her shoulder only to see the two brown beasts stalking purposefully towards the Zombies, ignoring her. What had just happened?
Then it dawned on her: some bullets must have hit the apes! So, were they enemies of each other?
She had no time to ponder that, though, as rapid splashes alerted her to an incoming pink gorilla, this one's eyes solely on her. And it was so fast! Her frantic flight brought her back over the bend where the Zombies resumed shooting at her. The spiky apes were almost upon their hiding spot, lobbing fireballs. Getting an idea, Shantae executed a very risky maneuver, over-sized jaws snapping inches from her side, but she was now on the opposite side of the pink beast from the Zombies... It worked like a charm. A stray bullet hitting its meaty rump, it took offense and turned around, abandoning its pursuit of her.
The spiky apes were among the Zombies now, the bushes where they hid erupting with roars of pain, haphazard shooting and sounds of tearing. Deciding she didn't want to know, Shantae made a hasty retreat, turning left this time, away from the channel, to hide behind a cliff where ground was higher and rockier, with much less plants around.
Have they forgotten about her...? A sepulchral hiss made the girl jump whirling around... To see an opening in the cliff face, barred by columns whose faces were carved in the shape of rich blue skulls. There was a modest sized room beyond it, full of over-sized flying and flaming skulls. Shantae balked at that. She had seen many a weird cackler during her adventures, some of them with a candle on top of their skull, but these things were a bit too bizarre. Horned, too. They were just sort of milling around. One tried ramming her, its toothy maw opened wide, its eye sockets glowing like hot coals, only to bump into the columns barring the exit, spaced too close for the large thing to fit. It looked pretty dumb to her.
Her spelunking expertise told Shantae these columns were sort of a door, able to retract into the floor or the ceiling. Probably requiring a key of something like that. Also, there was an altar in the room, with a very obvious glowing yellow skull on top of it. Bring a key to get another key? Felt like usual dungeon trickery.
Just then the pink gorilla rounded the corner proving that no, it haven't forgotten about her. It was wounded but persistent. Luckily, one of the spiky apes followed close behind it, launching a fireball that naturally hit the pinkie's backside instead of its intended target. Roaring in pain, the beast turned around again.
Leaving the sounds of ferocious scuffle behind her, the purple-haired girl began climbing the nearest rock face, grabbing at shrubbery. Her slime-caked boots were slipping, losing purchase on the rock. Shrubs kept tearing out of the ground. She didn't want to fall back down. Thankfully, she managed to reach quickly found a rocky ledge with a sheer cliff below it, a waterfall of blood gurgling nearby. Was she good?
The pink thing was chewing, its mouth full, its muzzle crisscrossed with deep cuts. The bottom half of the spiky ape was lying nearby.
Shantae sat down with her feet dangling down the cliff and her elbows on her knees, to stare at the grisly scene. This may be a vital strategy of survival. Monsters back home never turned on each other.
This unfamiliar hell was so full of merciless brutality. And now she had to explore it, learn its secrets and find the portal or warp platform that led back to the Oubilette of Suffering. Which now felt cozy and safe in comparison, its monsters almost cuddly compared to the local denizens.
The thought that there may be no such portal was discarded as unproductive. She had friends back home who waited her back, who depended on her!
The pink thing, having finished with its meal, was running back and forth below the cliff now, growling, looking at her hungrily and even jumping at times. Utterly pointless with the good three fathoms separating them. It couldn't jump well, too. Well, knowing these were dumb was a relief.
Shantae pulled out the pirate pistol and began shooting the pink gorilla. The glowing magical bullets were making it flinch and roar in pain. Id didn't stop its pointless running back and forth, its feet splashing in the blood pond loudly, until it dropped dead, half a dozen or so hits later. Half a dozen! Even as it began severely wounded and she had the pistol upgraded to the max. Were all monsters here strong like mini-bosses?
The confirmation came in the form of a stray flying flaming skull that came from somewhere to beeline for her with frightening speed. Dodging it proved almost insultingly easy, though, as the dumb thing could only fly in a straight line, bumping into the cliff face and hanging there, disoriented, for a few seconds. Some hair whipping and pistol shooting later it crumbled to disappear in a burst of flame with a mournful screech. Definitely could take a hit, but not too dangerous — while it was alone.
That finished, Shantae took notice of a disturbing pattern. So far, neither the boss, nor the regular monsters had dropped anything remotely useful, like spell scrolls or items. She had to hoard her supplies carefully or find what items this... let's consider it an extended dungeon... could provide.
Finally free of distractions, she climbed higher, to the top of the rock, and took her first good look around. Where she came from — directions were hard to tell because there was no sun in the bloody red sky and the cloul movement was so slow it was hard to tell their direction — where she came from, the jungle was stretching as far as her eye could see, an endless plain of bushy treetops and protruding brown palms. There was only one, lone crag maybe a mile away, a black cutout against the glowing red haze hiding the horizon.
In the opposite direction, not far away a low plateau was rising maybe fifty fathoms above the jungle, its ragged cliffs stretching from far to the left to far to the right of her. And on the nearest protruding outcropping, there was a squat, dark red castle, fires burning along the top of its equally red wall.
A civilization! Maybe even someone non-hostle for a change!
Shantae took a closer look at the castle. There wasn't much, just a squat, flat building surrounded by a featureless wall, bonfires burning in iron cages on top of its square towers. More interestingly, there seemed to be a winding road descending from the castle into the jungle, cut into the cliff face.
Her spirits lifting, Shantae ran towards where she assumed the road was hidden in the jungle, jumping off the edge when the rock ended to glide on the pirate hat. To her luck, she managed to reach the narrow beaten path in one go, before descending into shrubery. It wasn't much, just a strip of trampled earth traveled on foot. There were lots of hoofed imprints but not a sign of groves from cart wheels. Hoping she wouldn't bump into another goat-headed brute, she ran quietly towards the castle. Soon she began her ascent, striding silently but briskly, watching her back. The uneven rocky slope had sort of a beaten path winding up, rough but wide. No cart could pass here and some steps were too tall for a human, but the torches were marking is as a traveled path. How peculiar. There should be something up there on the top worthy of her attention!
Hiding up here would be difficult, but that went for monsters as well, she was unlikely to be ambushed in close quarters. Her danger sense would warn her of anyone sniping her. And finally she could always use the scimitar dash to run back to the swamp and hide in the jungle. Or even fly away on the hat, like a bird. An overfed bird unable to climb, unlike the harpy she would never become again.
She was sure she'd have better luck with the castle than down there. The blood swamp was gross, her pirate boots now caked in sticky, drying mess, the original purple color wasn't even visible . The jungle was nerve-wrackingly dangerous because the brown spiky apes blended into brown foliage too well.
The vista opening as she climbed higher revealed nothing new. The jungle threaded with blood channels was really stretching as far as she could see. At times the path was cutting into the mountainside with roughly cut terraces obviously hand made.
When Shantae reached the top, not having encountered a single monster, she couldn't see the castle because the road ended in a massive gate in a crimson wall rising out of the uneven slopes.
And here went her hope for a peaceful civilization: the small guard towers framing the gate were manned by familiar spiky apes mingling with familiar non-green Zombies toting those deceptively thin tinkertech muskets. So these sorts could get along? Go figure.
What to do next, though? Definitely not walking up to the gate and knocking. Shantae reviewed her options. Normally, she'd transform into a monkey, climb the sheer rock walls and be inside in minutes: the wall was broken in many places by rocky outcroppings . Not having her Genie magic was making things harder, but not impossible. Human body is much less suitable for climbing, but she still had the memory of doing it as a monkey. Plus, the pirate hat guaranteed she'd land safely even if she slipped.
Deciding to give it a try, Shantae sneaked along treacherous rock ledges far to the left of the gate. The cliff was curving to the right, revealing a vista of a similar crag. This looked like a ravine cutting into the plateau, its bottom overgrown with the familiar jungle. But what else was this cliff hiding? Curiosity demanded to climb up and see!
Replacing the pirate boots in hammerspace to climb barefoot, the lithe girl began trying to imitate a monkey. Huh, this wasn't as hard as she'd thought. Finding purchase in small bumps and cracks was a second nature to her, the human body felt ungainly and overweight for the task, her fingers and toes were smarting as she strained them to grip at the rough stone, but... it was working! She just had to be careful when judging distances, how far up could she leap to grab at holds out of reach.
Why haven't she ever tried climbing in her birth form? Maybe because transforming into a monkey was so easy?
Some effort and two near slips later, Shantae cautiously peeked over the edge. Instead of a single castle, or a town, as she expected, there were several separate squat towers blocking sorts of gorges cutting through a serrated mesa. The castle was further ahead, still unreachable, surrounded by another wall with huge bonfires burning on top of its towers.
Deciding to scout the general layout first, she went left, along the edge of the plateau. This way she could just jump off the cliff to get out of sight fast and land safely on some ledge below.
The vista gradually opening to the left revealed a thin, tall tower in the distance, its roof so pointy it was like a needle aimed at the sky, perching on the very precipice of a sheer cliff. The rock wall was falling down sharply, stretching down and down into abyss, its bottom hidden in darkness hanging down there like black fog. But further ahead, there was only emptiness, only endless expanse of blackness under the crimson sky full of dark clouds, the red glow along the horizon fading into nothingness further down.
Shantae hurried forward, jumping from rock outcropping to rock outcropping or flitting over chasms on the hat. Then she froze taking in the vista ahead: this was really the edge of the world. The rock wall was protruding into the emptiness in crags and cliffs, fading into the darkness below. And this edge was stretching to the left and to the right as far as she could see.
And against this bottomless darkness a lone round tower loomed, its proportions titanic, the merlons of its embattled crown the size of buildings. It was growing out of a rock protrusion, like a lone crag rising from the darkness a small distance away from the rest of the rock wall. The scale was dazzling. There was a central structure on its top, probably the size of Sultana's palace's central tower, with wide cylindrical roof and some huge spikes protruding out of it horizontally.
There was a thin black line of an obsidian bridge connecting the crimson castle with the tower, resting on two pillars above a mess of ridges and ravines.
The air of it, the aestetics, this lone tower of granite and iron standing proudly was all but screaming: "here lives the boss". Shantae just decided it was the last place she'd visit if she had a choice when something moved. She rubbed at her eyes. No, they weren't deceiving her. A dull red shape taller than the high walls, more massive than the building-sized merlons, a literal mountain was walking there, circling the tower top unhurriedly.
Its shape humanoid, at least what was visible above the wall, from the waist up, its flat head bearing huge horns, its flesh all grotesquely bulging muscles, its forearms immense rectangular cannons.
That was the boss.
The brute she fought? It was but a mouse. That thing could have stepped on it without even noticing.
Gulping as her throat was suddenly bone-dry, Shantae crouched, moving away. Then she caught herself. She wasn't here to clear this, ahem, dungeon. She didn't have to fight the boss. Her goal was to watch, learn and find a way home. With as little fighting as possible.
Leaving the boss be, she climbed up the wall. The huge blocks of crimson stone had enough gaps between them that climbing it wasn't harder than climbing a wall of wild rock. Now she could peer into the yard of this huge castle! Pulling herself up, Shantae carefully leaned over the fence of iron spears crowning the wall. And only saw the uneven surface of the mesa top. Why make a wall if there's nothing beyond it? For the sake of looking good? To make the castle look bigger on the outside?
Shrugging, the girl sneaked across the open, rocky ground towards the drop into real castle yard further ahead. She felt unease under the scrutiny of those black pits of the central building's windows. But there was finally the edge. She leaned cautiously... and saw a literal sea of pink. Meep. The spacious courtyard was packed with pink gorillas, just milling about, grunting and bumping into each other. So many!
Intimidated, Shantae was thinking of retreating to try in another place when she was suddenly enveloped in flames. Ack! Jumping to her feet, the girl sprinted away with inarticulate yells of terror. The flame was clinging to her, growing in intessity. Hot! Hot! Hot! It burns!
And then it was suddenly gone and she could breathe again.
Glancing over her shoulder, Shantae saw the flame just hang there in place, flickering before dying.
What was that? What had just happened? Did she trigger a trap? Was it an enemy attack? Was there a monster that could just set her on fire with a glance?
Shaken, she stopped at the cliff edge, trying to gather courage to investigate the fortress further. Then it was shot and buried when she saw a numerous flock of large red spheres rising from one of the lesser buildings. Slipping over the edge to hang with her hands, only the top of her head visible, Shantae watched this new kind of monsters warily. No legs, no wings, just bumpy red spheres with horns and wide, wide maws, almost splitting in half when they opened. Big enough to swallow her whole!
A single flaming skull mixed in the flock provided her with useful insight as it bumped one of the flying heads, which took offense. Its maw lit up to belch a powerful thunderball. Outclassed, the skull none the less tried ramming the red monstrosity again and again. The huge spheroid displayed unexpected agility, dodging swiftly to the side. It took a lot of haphazard shooting but only three hits to destroy the skull.
Notably, neither the ball bumping into its brethren nor its thunderballs hitting them fazed them. So, these were immune to their kind's attacks at least. Good to know, provoking infighting could be not as easy as it seemed at the first glance.
Circling a couple times lazily, the flock of maws descended out of sight. Shantae climbed back to the top to put the boots on and jog warily away, backtracking her steps. Investigating a fortress choke-full of monsters proved too dangerous, maybe she could find some safer options in the swamp?