Chapter 5,
Purple-haired Warrior Maiden

The giant cyberdemon was one mean beast. Fast, tough, throwing around overwhelming firepower, he was bred - or designed, or how else they give birth to these abominations - to be the ultimate showstopper, able to obliterate any number of forces in this masterfully organized chokepoint.

He doubled as a point defense platform too, our two lost copters being testament to that.

Anything our Marine Corps could throw at it, it would grind to dust.

Except me.

My aptitude for allotech was a weird one. A rare one. While your average test subject could hold one spare weapon in their hammerspace pocket, rarely two, I... I'm not really sure what my limit was. While most guys could manage a burst of super-speed, I could move continuously for sizable lengths of time. Are you trying to become a race-car, Blazkowicz, they joked good-naturedly. While my tech was in fact more like ice-skating. Across uneven ground. In combat boots.

There were so few of us, attuned to the alloenergies without nasty side effects. It's clear now, why. After the hell UAC had been courting came loose, the revelation where they were getting their knowledge from sent many of us reeling. Ancient Chinese martial arts my ass. Whatever those Chi-practizing grandpas use, I'm sure it doesn't come with corruption of the user's mind. Nor do they empower average Joes in the course of weeks. Me? I just grit my teeth and pushed my will against the temptations, the mindless bloodlust. I don't know if that Blazkowicz who put his bullet through Hitler's brain was really my great- great- great-, but the name obliges to carry it with honor. To give my inner predator purpose and unleash it at the hellspawn.

With most of us, the experimental super-soldiers, lost in the mess of the Incident, I remained only one — to my knowledge — who could challenge an APC in open field and win. Decisively. As many of the beefier demons didn't live long enough to learn.

This operation, this push back into the Hell, was organized on such a short notice. The Command was reacting to the unexpected, the unthinkable. That's why this entire offensive depended so heavily on me. It's not how things should be done, military operations should not hang on one unique asset. But the humanity — represented by the Marine Corps here and now — didn't have luxury of time to study the enemy, to develop strategies and war machines specifically adapted for the demonic threat. We only had me to be the point of this assault, the spear tip that penetrates the enemy armor, driven by the rest of the shaft and the arm behind it, to do the required work on the enemy's insides. Ripping and tearing them.

Being such a special snowflake, I had no right to fall here. So I didn't. I used my training, my allo-abilities and my dual plasma guns to their fullest effect. The giant cyberdemon never managed to land even a grazing hit on me.

Now he was still raining around me, blood and burnt ashes, his pillbox-sized hooves the only solid chunks left. And I could take a few moments to just stand there, reminiscing.

As soon as the elevator goes all the way down and back - a bloody long journey - my fellow Marines would establish their beachhead here. I only had to hold this position for them... And here we go. Hell doesn't play fair. The gate had opened at some point and there was a literal flood of pinkies stampeding towards me across a bridge, with a flight of cacodemons hurrying to give them air support.

My energy cells nearly depleted, I whipped out the bazooka walking out to meet them head on. That was hell of a lot of pinkies, coming faster than my weapon was eliminating them. I was mowing them down, but they persisted. Then the cacos went in, firing and moving to flank me. Just when I thought I'd have to pull out the super shotgun and dance, the cacos started exploding. Someone from the other side was firing rockets at them.

Had someone from the ill-fated recon drop teams survived? It seems I was not the first man to set foot here in the upper Hell. Anyway, this breather was welcome if not entirely necessary. I managed to blow the rabid pinkies up before they reached me, kicking the last straggler into the abyss: this bridge didn't have any railing. Whoever he was who helped me, he was under fire now, launching rocket after rocket at the cacos and missing. These beasts are surprisingly agile when they want to be, firing unguided rockets at them head-on is just wasting ammunition. Ignoring the incoming horde of imps for now, I switched to the minigun, spraying the cacos from behind. Me and that guy on the cliff quickly disposed of them. It was about time as the imps opened on me. Dancing between their projectiles, I began cutting them down. This push was becoming very ammunition-costly even for one-man arsenal like me.

In a show of quick thinking my ally fired into the crowd of brown beasts, using up only three rockets where I would have expended a sizable chunk of my rounds. Quickly eliminating the remaining few I jumped the last one to recharge my energy in a bout of mindless brutality.

This was just how it worked, ever since the hell came loose. I am convinced it is either a natural law of this place or a plan of not-so-subtle temptation laid out by some intelligent arch-demon. Or both. So far I was able to resist succumbing to it, knowing firmly what I was fighting for. My cause was righteous, however banal that may sound.

Then my ally made themselves known, and... Have you ever felt awkward on the verge of mortified? Like walking down a street and then suddenly realizing you didn't have any pants on? Like making a casual comment and then realizing you offended your squadmate's beliefs something horrible?

It was one of those moments.

Instead of a fellow grizzled marine, a half-naked teenage girl was staring at me, leaning on a rocket launcher too big for her, already growing green around the gills at my... display.

I froze like a deer in headlights. The imp brains splattered around suddenly felt like a damning evidence.

The awkward silence was stretching, accentuated by distant sounds of gunfire. I forced myself to speak:

"This is... how replenishing energy works here. I'm not proud of this, and I know this is a slippery path, but I need every edge to make my job done."

I don't know what I was expecting, but...

"Oh!" She visibly relaxed. "You did that to recharge your mana!" Her voice was full of relief. "I... I don't think I'd be able to do it that way if I still had my magic."

Wait, what?

Making the rocket launcher vanish — so she knew that allotech? — the girl... Stepped casually off the edge! My shout died on my lips as a purple bubble inflated with a dull whomp in her upraised hands. She then proceeded gliding towards me like it was a high quality paraglider, not something barely two feet across. The white ornament of a skull and crossbones was just making it more incongruous.

So... magic. Overcoming my lingering awkwardness, I took a good, hard look at this cute little thing. An exotic dancer outfit leaving very little to imagination, the bottom of these flaring harem pants and the girl's bare feet stained with brown crust that was likely dried blood. Shiny but perfectly functional bracers protecting her forearms. Impossibly long hair done in this cliché "genie" ponytail. And finally her ears laden with large golden rings. Quite and unmistakably long and pointed.

Not a human.

You may have a first contact situation on your hands, Flynn, I thought numbly.

What I did, though, was clamping down on the "she's just a kid!" urge. Hard. Had to remember she was a fellow warrior, despite my fatherly instincts — I honestly didn't know I had fatherly instincts, until now — insisting that magical girls should live in their fairy-tale kingdoms fighting family-friendly cartoony monsters rather than going through this meat-grinder of a Hell.

The alien girl landed nimbly on the bridge close to me. I thought I noticed her gliding bubble collapsing into a fancy pirate hat before vanishing. Wary, perky and cute like... Like a mongoose, I suppose. You know, those critters, lean and flexible, merry and playful... Until they happen upon a snake.

I stood up wiping my fist, still self-consciously, to find she barely reached up to my chin. Including that high ponytail uplifted by a golden flute-like thing. "Gunnery sergeant Flynn Blazkowicz," I offered. "Allotech Division of Marine Corps. Callsign Doomguy."

"Shantae," she offered in return, smiling. Damn, that was some devastating cuteness. "Guardian Genie of Scuttle Town... Well, half-Genie... Former half-Genie..."

Then we noticed the elephant in the room, both seemingly at once:

"Hey, you aren't speaking English!" / "Hey, you are speaking the Old World Tongue!"

So, unless she was pretending — unlikely, if my hunch to be believed — there was some reality warping in effect. Focused either around me, her, or this place in general. I couldn't tell what language she was speaking, it sounded vaguely middle-Eastern. And yet, I could perfectly understand her. "Old world tongue", though?

But, first things first. Was she from a parallel universe? From the future?

"I don't know how or why we can understand each other," I said neutrally, "But this is quite convenient, don't you think? We don't have to resort to gestures and charades to understand each other."

"Yeah," she chirped happily. "You are the first person... that..." Her face fell. "There was another man in armor like yours, captured by these monsters. I freed him, but then... things went wrong. More monsters appeared suddenly. I... tried drawing their attention to myself while he was reloading his musket, but then he shot them all at once and they turned on him. And killed him before I could do anything. I didn't even know his name."

Now, that told me quite a bit. She was decisive and kind-hearthed enough to save a complete stranger, not shying from drawing fire to help him. Too bad she was obviously beating herself over her perceived failure. The demons, they only care about those they could subvert. The weak-willed, the dumb, the reckless. Those they treat with kiddie gloves. The real, unyielding marines knowing the meaning of duty and honor? They make bloody ikebanas out of them.

"Don't blame yourself," I said. "The demons only take the weakest soldiers prisoner. Those who doesn't even know to dodge."

"Oh." She perked up, her eyes lighting up with understanding. "Oh! But not dodging, that's... that's..." Her voice conveyed so much consternation I thought she wanted to call that guy a fucking moron but was too polite. "That's wrong!"

And here comes another tidbit. Combat style focused on dodging — if the lack of armor wasn't telling enough — could mean... In fact it could mean different things. That she was better at it than me. Or that she came from a place where they used only slow projectiles, like fireballs and arrows, and only sheer luck kept her alive in firefights so far. Calling a firearm one of our fellow marines carried a "musket" was telling enough.

"You wouldn't die on me, won't you?" she asked suddenly, both hopeful and fearful. "I don't want to be in this hell alone again. I know too little about it, I' was just stumbling blindly!"

"I won't." I smiled reassuringly. Then I remembered I still had my helmet on. "I'm not some weak soldier, I'm the best super-soldier there is." She smiled at that. It was just a stated fact, though. No bravado or anything of the sorts. "I won't fall while my country and my whole world are depending on me," I finished. Another flat fact.

"So your country is at war with this realm?" she said, concern evident in her voice. "Have they invaded you?"

"Yeah," I replied. "They have. Beyond this big tower," I pointed, "There is a huge portal they had opened into the heart of one of our cities. To send amassed forces through. It was... bad. Now we are pushing them back."

"Oh." Her face told me she understood. There are things you don't need to say aloud. It's enough to know these beasts and what they do.

"And you?" I finally got to ask. "What are you doing here?"

"I'm... trying to find a way home," she admitted. "I got stranded here because I mistook a warp platform for a pressure plate."

"A teleporter?" Wasn't that concerning. "Are your people using teleporters?"

"Yeah, but it isn't that widespread. It requires specific magic only the Warp Squids possess, they lend their services via guilds, warp pedestals and warp platforms but these are town amenities, paid for by the town. You almost never find them in the dungeons, that's why I failed to recognize that warp platform for what it was... Why? Are you worried?"

"This... This entire situation," I gestures around, "all those deaths are the result of some idiots trying their hand at teleportation. Their so called shining success had a teensy side-effect." My fists clenched. "It wasn't instaneous transfer from point A to point B. It was A - Hell - B. The demons took notice. And... talked to some of the people who got teleported."

"That's horrible!" She was upset. "How could... No, I see now why people rant about magic being dangerous. But going through Hell...? I hope Warp Squids back home know what they are doing. But I don't think they would risk like that. They were at it for generations and they are fiercely protective of their young..." Optimism was returning to her voice like anything dark would simply slide off her spirit like water off a water-fowl. "They don't share their trade secrets either, they only taught me warp dances in return for finding their babies from dangerous places. No, they definitely would not court demons!"

"I was just worried the things would find a way," I admitted.

"Don't worry,» she reassured me, "I found that one platform deep in a... different hell, you can say, although that one was much hotter and not nearly as nasty as this one. Its entrance is well guarded, I had to cheat pretending some sort of mutant buffalo to get in. Oh, the entrance itself is hidden deep inside a place where lost souls stay. And the entrance to that is well guarded too, I had to cheat pretending a twelve-thousand years old eldritch thing just to enter. And it's deep inside of a dangerous island no one in their right mind would visit. So..."

There was a long story behind her appearance, I just knew it.

And just then my radio crackled to life bearing... bad news. Capital "B" bad. Obviously, Hell wasn't going to run out of cannon fodder anytime soon. What we overcame on our way to the tower had just been a warm-up. The fortresses blocking paths on the plains below, weren't locked up anymore. They stopped waiting and watching, they joined forces to march against us, mortals. Gates barring pathways and gorges flung their doors open, unending hordes flowing through them like rivers. Our side would simply run out of ammo sooner or later.

Options were considered. Destroying the portal was useless, the demons would simply make the accursed fleshy arch grow in another place. The main force would eventually fall back to our side and hold the line there. But the command had me exactly where they wanted me: deep in the enemy territory. It was believed that if I moved quickly, only local garrisons would oppose me, due to hubris of their commanding officers. Yes, the analysts all but assured that Hell wasn't one big happy family.

Having killed more hell-spawn by provoking infighting than I did with my own hands, I was inclined to agree. Unless I attract whatever eye of Sauron the mastermind devil was using, I could penetrate deep into Hell. Hopefully, finding the fucker himself and acquainting him with the business end of my biggest, baddest gun.

So... My chances of survival? Ha, very funny.

And then this alien girl, Shantae, piped in, fascinated by my radio. Wonderful. Now I had to report my first contact to the Command, apprehensive they'd demand something stupid. They chattered back and forth for a bit. There was shock of understanding her gibberish — only those currently in Hell could, by the way. Radio operators had to work as translators for the brass back on Earth. They were fascinated with the living confirmation of the many-worlds theory, mined the girl for information learning she was living happily in a world running on magic and weird technology while overall tech level matched our seventeenth century... And where English was a dead language of the ancients. The girl herself was sixteen. Probably. She was uncertain of her own age for some reason. Her language was tentatively designated as Bashkir.

While that was happening I kept watch, also surveying our surroundings. The outer gate of this castle was lowered into the ground revealing a small square yard with another, similar gate still up. Like an airlock-style batch bin for monsters, I suppose. There were two small doors in the side walls. I kicked both. The right one was locked while the left one rattled open revealing a dark tunnel. Caves of some sort? There were rocky outcroppings peeking from beyond this wall, not buildings.

Thankfully, level heads prevailed in the end. However much it pained me, this girl's life was irrelevant. Mine was irrelevant in as much as I was a unique asset tasked with sabotaging the enemy. This was just the brutal reality of the situation. After seeing what these monstrosities did in Los Angeles, nothing mattered but stopping them for good. Dying in the process? Losing my soul? Acceptable collateral damage.

I did what I could, offering her a chance to reach safety. With this magical paraglider of hers, she could just drop down the elevator shaft while the platform was still descending. There was a team in the foothills keep, they were going to hold the tower's base for at least a little while. They could evac her to Earth where she'd get help of the few remaining portal specialists. While most of UAC labs and personnel were lost, knowledge remained. This box of Pandora would remain forever open.

Guess what? She refused. Just flat out refused. Letting me go alone through this wasn't something her conscience could bear. Besides, the portal home had to be out there. She "had a hunch".

I tried arguing, I really did. I almost managed to dissuade her. Almost. In the end it was the argument about the way home being there — maybe, possibly — that tipped the balance. All I achieved was poking at this girl's insecurities about not being a proper hero or something stupid like that. Which made me feel like an utter asshole.

Teenagers. I am... patently unsuitable for dealing with them and their ridiculous sensibilities.

So I found myself on a suicide mission with an unexpected tagalong. Whose abilities were unknown to me and who had no idea of basic things like tactical signs, command slang and, I feared, even basic weapon care.

"Listen," I told her. "I don't think of you less because you're a gal. I don't think you are a bad hero either. But you are deep in unfamiliar crap and don't have time to learn the ropes. While I... My mission is so vital I can't afford being a decent guy. If you offer help, I would accept it. But if you get yourself into a tight spot I cannot promise I'd save you. If you get captured a bullet could be the best I could offer.

"That may be... preferable," she said quietly, shuddering at some memory. Then she lifted her gaze, staring at me with fierce determination of a cute attack kitten. It made my heart clench. "I wouldn't even think of slowing you down. If I fall behind, so be it. I'd just be on my own."

Guess, she wasn't your average teenager. Being a "hero"... Fatherly instincts, shaddap! Being a "hero", whatever the exact definition, implies responsibility, self-sufficiency and ability to take measured risks, not unlike an NCO. The very fact she didn't just survive here, but acquired a bazooka, was telling.

"So..." I said, breaking the awkward silence. "You came from the other side, right? What... points of interest could you tell me about?"

She hummed thoughtfully, chewing her lip, but stopped hugging her ridiculously long ponytail, a gesture that had been radiating timid inadequacy. Good.

"This entire mesa is cut across with gorges plugged with small castles," she began. "There are two paths that lead down into the blood swamp, one main route and one sort of back trail. The main road leads through this big castle ahead. I... don't know what is inside, but I don't think those beasts were all there was. I can, probably, lead you through the back trail because that was one castle more or less open that I could look into. But there are monsters waiting patiently on the approach to it, they set quite an ambush."

"And how did you avoid them?" I asked.

Could she turn invisible?

"Um, by sneaking along the top of the mesa? They don't look up." She demonstrated by climbing up the wall of red stone blocks framing the closed inner gate.

That you don't see every day. Even famous climbers can't move that fast so effortlessly. So. Superhuman strength? Most likely.

"See?" The girl turned around looking at me from the top. "I can—"

And then she was suddenly on fire. Goddamn viles!

Yelping, she dove from the wall to tumble through the air and land on her feet like a cat. And like with cats, it looked absolutely effortless but the sound told otherwise, a resounding thud of a fifty-kilogram girl dropping ten meters.

"It happened again..." the girl complained. "And I still don't know what caused it." She was visibly unsettled, staring up at the last flickers of dying flames.

"It was a vile," I grit through clenched teeth. "I hate viles, these motherfucking pieces of—"

She coughed, blushing. Oh, snap.

"So, there is a monster that sets you on fire by just looking at you," she said, visibly relieved.

I can relate. There is weird shit that just happens and there is weird shit thrown at you by enemy you can fight back. Makes all the difference.

"Don't be complacent," I warned. "If you don't break line of sight soon enough, that fire explodes blowing you to cinders."

"How soon?" she asked, shivering a bit.

"About two seconds," I said, forcing my fists to unclench. Her pose made it painfully clear she had been miliseconds from being incinerated at some point. "Thankfully, they have rigid timing to their... spell, they cannot interrupt it and are forced to stand still." I demonstrated the interval by opening, then closing my hand. "But!" I accentuated my voice, like when addressing a green recruit — which wasn't far from reality. "If you stick your head out before that interval runs out, they re-acquire and you are toast. In fact, they can freely change targets at any time until it goes off. Maneuvering so that a knight or baron hits the vile may save your a— hem... bacon."

She made a thoughtful sound. Damn, even her grunts were devastatingly cute. "Are there other monsters I should be wary of? I mean, I learned of invisible pink gorillas by accident, almost jumped into a pit with them... Oh, and my danger sense is pretty good, but three zombies firing their gatling muskets at me at once would be too much of a gamble."

"Run that by me again?" I wonder what she meant by 'danger sense'. And "gatling muskets"?

"Well... Here." She produced a bog standard AR-97 holding it out to me. "They were using these things."

"Oh. This is what we call assault rifle. Uh, because the barrel is rifled to spin-stabilize the bullet." I checked the safety. It was on full auto.

She noticed my actions and explained: "I keep that lock lever thingie turned to gatling mode because I am only going to have it out when I am about to fire it."

That... actually made sense. With hammerspace arsenals, gun safety rules had to be adapted. Still, one question remained. "What did you mean by danger sense?" I inquired as I handed the assault rifle back to her.

"Well, when you sense someone aiming at you," she explained like it was obvious, "and dodge bullets, arrows and other nasties before they are even fired. Don't you have that as well?"

That was impressive. Really impressive, on the border of real superpowers.

"No," I admitted. "Those who trained us... Didn't quite have that technique down. I rely on my basic human senses and reflexes to avoid enemy fire. And when that fails there is my armor. But most important rule is killing them faster than they can shoot at you. No dallying, no playing around, always eliminating the bogeys as quickly and efficiently as you can. Dead do not bite... Uh, if you count zombies as alive, which they sort of are."

"That seems like a good strategy. Only... When I just got here, I had problems doing enough damage," she admitted. "You see, I'm a melee fighter most of the time, and without my magic my only ranged attack is this pirate pistol." She demonstrated a bulky handgun that looked like it belonged in a museum. "It got unending magical ammo, but..." She fired what looked like a baby plasma bolt into distance. "It's a pea-shooter. I hit harder and faster with my hair. So when I found myself in a locked room with a brute, it took me a while to wear him down while he could have ended me with a single hit. Was a pretty harrowing experience!" she finished on an incongruously upbeat note.

"Your... hair?" I asked, feeling incredulous. "And... which of the demons do you call brutes?"

She then proceeded demonstrating the most ridiculous fighting move I ever heard of, flexing her entire body back and forth to strike at the gate with her hair like it was a whip!

And at such fast rate too! How doesn't she get whiplash? Why doesn't become dizzy from whipping her head back and forth like this?

But, however ridiculous, it was functional. There were little dents left in the rock-hard wood, the gate being chipped a bit.

What is functional is not ridiculous.

"That's one unconventional technique," I commented. "But, whatever works. And the so called brutes are...?"

"Ummm... Big, twice taller than me, all solid muscle, have goat-dog heads and hooves, their hands glow dangerous green? It took more than a dozen of hair whips to bring that one down while staying out of his reach, especially when he got angry and I couldn't get a hit in. I was on my last legs when he finally fell... Oh, and it was a brown one, not red one."

That was... Simply and undeniably badass.

"We call them Hell knights," I told her. "I am impressed with your skill and bravery. Truly impressed."

She may have the form of a teenage girl, but her heart was that of a warrior. A... warrior maiden, if you have.

"I was just very, very scared," she tried downplaying it. "Normally I can deflect sword blows with my bracers. Even strong ones. But that green flame around that thing's hands... It looked like it'd cleave straight though my bracer with its claws, or worse, grab my arm and tear it off. I really couldn't afford to be hit here. I mean, in this hell in general."

"Then viles and revenats are the most dangerous foes for you," I told her. "Viles, of arch-viles, are the smart ones. These moth— scum are the masterminds. They look like very tall naked men with yellowish skin and large horns. You saw their flame attack. They can also raise dead demons by just gesturing at them. It is very important to take them out first, otherwise they'd just drown you in endless cannon fodder."

"Got it." She nodded seriously. "And the reveeh... nats?"

"Revenants are those giant skeletons in armor. They are most dangerous to you because some of their fireballs are homing. Your danger sense would be useless against projectiles that chase you like bloodhounds to catch you when you are least expecting them and explode with a powerful concussive blast so that even dodging the fireball itself doesn't guarantee you avoid taking damage. Thankfully, they do have limited turning radius, you can make them steer into a wall by hiding behind a corner. But never assume a revenant had missed until you hear the explosion."

"Oh... There were two of them in a crater over there." She pointed to the left of the main route. "Along with half a dozen of those red spheres and lots of spiky apes."

"We should get moving," I said. "Before that vile decides to sic more demons on us."

She gasped. "You're right! The pink gorillas that went out to the bridge... I thought that was all of them, but now I'm thinking back, and... This entire castle," She gestured ahead, "was full of them. There must be three times more beyond this gate!" She was now looking at the gate with apprehension.

"Any ideas where does this lead?" I pointed at the left door.

"To that gorge with a big ambush inside," she replied without pause. "Oh, that's why they left the door open!"

That made sense. Confirming the maxim about commanders being dicks to each other as well. Why waste your own pinkies when you can funnel the enemy into your neighbor's keep?

Shantae — and I made effort to think of her by her name, not "the girl", this was the least I could do for her — suggested we'd climb onto the mesa top and avoid confrontation altogether. Alas, while I could outrun a race horse I have the climbing ability of a lead brick. While we did not have any rope. Half a kingdom for a rope.

So I handed her all my grenades explaining briefly the dos and donts. She was a smart girl and knew the power of modern weaponry already. In return, she handed me three scrolls of dense paper saying she was at her capacity and this magic was useless in this hell anyway. I tucked them into a free pouch on my belt.

Then we strolled through the dark tunnel out into a suspiciously empty looking gorge. This place was a mess, with jutting chunks of rock and craters filled with boiling magma. Did the giant red cyberdemon throw a fit here or something?

Waiting until Shantae climbs the jagged rock wall - she was fast - I strolled forward into the ambush, shotgun in hand. A couple imps jumped out at me, I mowed them down without slowing. Was this to lull me into complacence or had those been just impatient?

There was a small castle ahead, with the gorge opening wide on the approach to it, rocky walls curving out of my sight. The imps manning two guard towers framing the castle gate noticed me and began lobbing fireballs.

I haven't had a chance to reach the main ambush spot when these baby plasma bolts flew across the gorge, from high up to the left to somewhere to the right hidden from my sight by the rock wall curvature. There were roars of pain as hidden zombies opened on the cliff top. Followed by more roars of pain from the left, then retaliatory fireballs. That was clever! Zombies have horrible aim, always spraying wide so making them instigate infighting is relatively easy.

I stopped, waiting for more demons to bring each other down. The fight was gaining in intensity as more zombies hit by stray fireballs opened fire at the imps and more imps hit by stray bullets took offense.

When it was already dying down, I saw movement on top of the left guard tower. Shantae's purple hair was unmistakable. Leaning over the edge, she pulled out a grenade, fumbled with it for a bit, then tossed it into one of the wide windows. And pulled back sharply, ducking out of sight.

The explosion blew dust out of the windows, body parts flying, some demons roaring in pain. But the spirited girl wasn't wasting time, already on the second tower, leaning down and pulling out... that fancy pistol of hers?

Three shots later, roars of angered knights told me, why. Shantae pulled back and ducked out of sight just as barrage of green fiery projectiles hit the tower, some of them hitting imps inside through the windows. One became charred meat instantly, another one roared in pain and lobbed its own fireball in return. The resulting shootout was brief, the knights quickly ran out of imps to snipe.

And were greeted by my shotgun. With the demons distracted, it was easy to shoot them precisely in the heads. One, rarely two shots was all it took for beheaded hulks to slump to the ground. I then quickly mopped up remaining zombies on the right, followed by remaining imps on the left.

Shantae, meanwhile, slid into the right tower's window. There was a snarl of a pinkie, a girlish yelp, then frantic automatic fire in ragged bursts followed by a dull thud of the beast falling dead. Then I was greeted by the sight of an imp being kicked over the wall, Shantae's red pants and dirty heel flashing briefly. The beast grunted petulantly before crunching dead. And then the gate began rising, releasing a small crowd of imps. Shoot, shoot, shoot, reload, shoot again. Not a single shell wasted, I finished the last one with a kick of my own. There was no need for brutality, I felt fine.

I walked into cavernous interior of the castle. There was a thud as Shantae landed beside me, forgoing the slow elevator. "There's that cauldron-like crater," she whispered, pointing to the left. There was light of the... Could we call it a day? coming from that direction. To the right, there were two arches facing an open, empty yard. I followed my guide there. The yard was framed by a wall with huge teeth, a dark plain covered in brown trees could be glimpsed in the gaps.

"Now if—" Shantae began but suddenly emitted a strangled yelp. I turned around in an instant. She was jumping around on one foot while clutching at her other foot with both hands and hissing in pain. "Careful," she grit out. "The blood here is boiling hot!"

I eyed the red, steaming pond taking a good chunk of the yard, flowing out through a break in the wall. "Why are you barefoot anyway?" I asked.

"I don't want to lose my last good shoes." She demonstrated what was essentially a pair of flats with pointy tips curved upwards. "These are hardy, usually I don't mind going through wilderness in them, even bogs, but wading through blood would ruin them." She put the shoes away.

"Wading?" I asked, puzzled.

"D'uh, I told you: blood swamp. It's just that: a swamp filled with blood instead of water, with reeds and bushes along the shores and stuff. Only with blood. Or did you think," she smiled impishly, "that I just asked some monster to name geographical features...? Come on, let's... Oh, wait, I got an idea! She climbed onto the rightmost wall tooth deftly like monkey to jump onto neighboring cliff and disappear among rock ledges.

I sighed. No warning, no asking for confirmation. Her teamworking skills needed lots work. Still, while she was scouting ahead I used the chance to approach the wall and take the first good look in the direction we should be traveling.

What should I say? The vista ahead... wasn't looking promising. The Upper Hell the command envisioned to be a hive of demonic activity was turning out to be a carbon copy of Yucatan someone had spilled a bucket of brown paint over. The jungle stretching only fifty or seventy meters below seemed quite uniform, stretching monotonous and unending to the very glowing red horizon. Granted, there were jutting rocks towering in the distance — no doubt with a castle on top of each one — but what I wasn't seeing was some central hub of activity: a city, a giant castle, a dark spire piercing the black clouds overhead.

There was no such thing in sight. No castle was big enough to be fitting of the overlord I was tasked to find.

Searching through the jungle... The compass isn't working here, I checked. I could only put my hope in the roa my companion had found. Every road leads somewhere. A lone road coming from a fortified area had to lead to something of strategic importance.

"I'm back!" Shantae announced appearing on the same wall tooth like a jack-in-the-box. "And there is indeed a path to sneak around! First, let's get you onto this მერლონ."

"Uh, did you mean this wall tooth?" I asked. This was the first time the mysterious translation effect failed me, probably because our vocabularies weren't overlapping entirely.

"Yep," was her upbeat reply. "Or, you can go through that door over there, and tear your way through who knows how many monsters. Pink gorillas, I can vouch for: I saw them through a window. Lots. But if you climb onto this, you can then jump onto that rock ledge over there and I believe you could then bypass this castle completely. Well, almost: there were two red brutes, I mean barons, miling around on the bridge."

"I'm sorry," I apologized measuring the tooth that was higher than I was tall. Counting from the gap between them, not from the ground. "I don't think I can climb that."

"Oh come on," she said. "I'll help you."

"I weigh a ton," I warned. "With my armor, plus the weight of my arsenal partially transferring..."

"So what?" She took that as a challenge. "I am stronger than I look!"

So. Helping me onto the gap between the teeth was easy, it wasn't that higher than your average parapet. Getting me to the top, though... We tried this, and tried that, until finally I had to concede to the most ridiculous method of using Shantae's ponytail as a rope while she was clutching at the top, grunting and groaning in exertion.

In the end we succeeded. Damn, but this gal got one hell of a neck! After pulling me up she just cracked her neck a couple times and was on her merry way. The path wasn't as easy as she made it sound, but we made it to a bridge. I had pleasure watching through a glassed window as monsters inside the last room scrambled into monster closets, no doubt to wait for me. And we just sneaked by.

The two barons guarding the bridge weren't that much of a challenge, to be honest. Shantae made it even easier, shooting one to attract its fire, then jumping into the void to glide in circles and loops on her purple bubble. I beheaded the barons with my minigun one after another, then began crossing the bridge. When I reached the other side, both Shantae and six cacos caught up with me. These things must have been laying in ambush waiting for sounds of gunfire!

I began quickly mowing them down one after another. Damn, I was running low on ammo for the minigun. I switched to the shotgun. The flying beasts were troublesome as always, dodging and backing away and moving in short bursts of speed sideways after being hit. Very deceptive: leave one behind your back and it'll close up rapidly to bite you in the back. With jaws that put any gator to shame.

That was exactly what happened to Shantae: carried away with dueling one caco from the bridge, that pistol versus its thunderballs, she missed a second one that dove at her from behind. The warning shout died on my lips as I missed — why now, of all times! — and the huge spherical beast fell on the girl, its jaws snapping shut with a clang of metal. Thankfully, she managed to stick her bracers out in the last possible moment. I shot again - and missed again as the demon pressed down practically crushing Shantae into the narrow gap between the parapets! Its jaws began snapping and I was about to scream in anger and avenge my fallen comrade by tearing the thing's eye out with my hands when it suddenly froze, lifting up with ridiculously lost expression on its leathery face, its cyclopic eye blinking in confusion.

Notably, there was no sign of Shantae, or any pieces of her, or any traces of blood whatsoever.

What. The. Fuck.

Then its maw began opening slowly, accompanied with cute girlish grunts of effort. Lo and behold, Shantae was standing there, looking unhurt, pushing against the jaws with her feet and shoulders. The expression on the cacodemon's face was priceless. But if it tries to fire...

"Are we... Above the bridge now?" the unyielding girl grit out.

"Yes, square and center," I confirmed, not risking another shot at the moment.

"Good." There was suddenly a huge curved sword in her hands. The next moment the caco snapped its jaws shut, resistance seemingly vanishing. Resulting in the tip of the sword emerging from its face with a wet crunch, right through the huge green eye.

Twitching, the round thing fell onto the bridge with a meaty thud, the sword sticking out even more.

Finishing the last flying caco almost as an afterthought, I ran to help my partner get out, carefully pulling the toothy jaw open.

"Yeech," Shantae complained good-naturedly. "This thing last brushed its teeth, like, never!"

"Please," I grit out, "Don't scare me like that again."

"I'm not planning to," she promised walking after me across the bridge. "I won't forget how sneaky these balls are. It's a good thing I got lots of practice with those maw plant things back home... Well, they try chewing you but if you angle yourself just right, they spit you in the direction you need, lets you reach some wildly hard to reach places... Shall we?" She stepped absent-mindedly into a pool of blood cut into the flat portion of this outstanding rock spire.

"Um, are you...?"

"Don't worry," she replied airily. "The blood here is just hot, not boiling. It gets even colder down there in the swamps." She then disappeared over the edge.

I followed, finding a treacherous path winding down rock ledges. Shantae was skipping down it, incongruously upbeat. I began descending after her.

( 。◕ シーンブレイク ◕。)