Chapter 7,
Quiet. Too quiet.

When the tunnel insides turned out to be utterly dark, Shantae was glad to learn that Doomguy's helmet had a lantern in it. The long, winding trek was tense, but uneventful. Eventually they settled on Doomguy sprinting forward and Shantae following his spot of light in bursts of scimitar dash. When the total absence of monsters began creeping her out, the tunnel ended at last.

The two unlikely companions stepped out under the light of a familiar crimson-and-black sky. There was a stocky, massive fort of gray stone in front of them... And they didn't have time to take a look because just then the gate was opening, releasing a monstrosity she had not seen before. It was some sort of centaur, with the upper body of a brown brute on the body of... some sort of lion?

And it was overwhelmingly huge, easily twice the height of barons and knights.

A sudden boss fight! The stab of fear she felt had transformed, as always, into a wave of scalding ice flooding her veins, giving her energy of desperation.

"Dodge!" Doomguy shouted when familiar green fire lit in the monster's upraised hand. And then he tumbled, rolling away from the line of fire in a display of acrobatics.

Shantae slid back and sideways, and again, and then the green fireball was flying and gosh, was it huge, its radiant heat washing over her skin. She let it pass harmlessl—


There was earth and pebbles raining down, smoke and stars swimming in her vision, her ears ringing. Shantae stumbled backwards past the edge of the left tower when her danger sense screamed a certain death incoming! Sliding forward, closer to the boss, she heard bullets whisper through the air, washing her back with air pressure and gnawing loudly at the cliff face to the right of her. She realized she and Doomguy were both trapped on a relatively small square between the tunnel exit - sheer rock wall included - and the fort entrance - when her partner opened on the monster with his... zooka.

Rockets exploding deafeningly close, barely far enough to not do the dancer girl in, only seemed to made the monster mad! It let fly another green fireball, then again, Doomguy rolling and tumbling to avoid them. Both exploded with great power, sounding boomier than even the rockets!

Fighting this thing in this confined space was suicide. On one side, a wall of bullets. On the other side, a ravine of sorts. The only options were into the fort or into the tunnel.

Shantae ran into the tunnel, leaving the sounds of battle behind her, hoping that Doomguy would be all right. Then she had enough space for a running start and scimitar-dashed back at the enemy, reaching the lion-brute centaur in a blink of an eye to ram one of its forelegs.

Both stumbled back, unbalanced for a fraction of a second. Then the beast reared, focusing its attention on the girl in red, aiming to crush her under its clawed paws.

Shantae dodged sliding back as hard as she could, with a twirl on one foot. The black claws crushed bare rock, missing her wide. Seeing Doomguy finish reloading his weapon, she slid backwards again, then turned to run away, zig-zagging as the monster looked like it was going to attack her with fireballs from distance.

She only dodged one ball of pale green death when rockets began slamming into the monster. Feeling no follow up attacks aimed at her, Shantae glanced back in time to see the enemy collapsing, bruised and bloodied, green blood streaming from its open maw. A belated explosion deeper in the tunnel hammered her ears with its boom wave.

"Wh..what sort of monster was it?" she asked Doomguy as she walked out of the tunnel, a bit out of breath. "Are they common?"

"A ᛒᛖᚦᛚᛖᚷᛟᚱ," he grumbled. Then repeated slowly, seeing her incomprehension: "Beph-le-gor. They are exceedingly rare, you are more likely to encounter a ᚲᛁᛒᛖᚱᛞᛖᛗᛟᚾ."

He then moved towards the corner of the left tower, to peek beyond it cautiously. He jerked back but a second later, a hail of bullets chipping and gnawing at the corner.

"Figures," he grumbled. "Those eich-em-gees at the foothill castle weren't their last. Just how deep was the collaboration running?"

"Uhh..." Shantae mumbled awkwardly.

"They got heavy machinegun turrets," Doomguy said, swapping his bazooka for a shorter cylindrical weapon, with sort of glowing glass windows running along its sides and top, tiny blue lightning bolts churning inside. "I'll go snipe them down." He pointed to one of the two lift platforms framing the gate room inside the tower. "Could you distract them? Carefully."

"All right," Shantae agreed easily. "Just how... Oh! You'll hear it!" She waited for him to ride the platform to the top - there were several meaty impacts, crunches and zombie moans of pain - before running outside and poking her head around the corner. There was a moat separating this gate tower from a much larger fort standing— Her danger sense screamed incoming death!

Jerking back sharply - she haven't even seen who shot at her - Shantae was peppered with chipped stone as hail of bullets gnawed at the corner. Then there was sort of sharp "pew" and the bullets ceased.

Shantae peered around the corner again. This time there was no sense of danger. She saw a wooden platform attached to the opposing wall of gray stone, supported by iron chains. It, and the wall behind it, were splattered with blood, a slight smoke rising above it. There was a weapon on a peg on the platform, kind of those gatlings Ammo Baron's men used. But muuuch deadlier. How did her companion call them? Heavy machin-o-guns?

She walked cautiously out, surveying the width of the main fort. It was stocky and inelegant: massive, angular corner towers connected by a stretch of wall of the same height, spiky apes behind grated windows lobbing fireballs at her. She just walked forward, unconcerned, approaching the massive stone bridge connecting the small fort to the main fort entrance, when her danger sense suddenly screamed again! She saw a duo of gatling zombies in red armor on a balcony overhanging the gate, but it was too late! Unable to dodge backwards - she'd just run right into the fireballs - she slid forward, and again, and again, as the zombies followed her with their aim. Bullets humming through the air chillingly close, pattering on the ground behind her, she had no choice but to fall into the moat!

Thankfully, blood there proved shallow enough to avoid flooding the boots. Hidden safely in the moat - a small gorge, really - Shantae got a good look at a blue spiral that flashed between the tower of the small fort where Doomguy was and the balcony. This second sharp "pew" was accompanied by bits and pieces flying, some even landing in the moat. So, that weapon was at least as strong as the bazooka. Also, ew. However necessary, exploding your enemies was still gross.

Shantae glanced at a human eye floating in the blood lapping at her boots. Right. She had a way home to find and evil to stop.

She began searching for a way to climb out of this blood-filled ravine without having to take the boots off. Because going barefoot through blood and gore was a whole special kind of gross and wrong.

Doomguy was going to enter the fort — he found a lever that raised the giant grate barring its gate — but Shantae offered to scout ahead first. Scaling the wall was relatively easy, even as her arms were beginning to burn with all the exertion. She was used to jumping around, rarely using her arms for anything but blocking enemy attacks.

She found the fort shaped more or less like a horse-shoe, with only a thin balcony and a giant grate — now raised — separating its inner yard from a bridge connecting to the crag looming ahead. Basically, Doomguy could enter the yard by simply going around the fort because the bridge wasn't separated from the narrow strip of land surrounding the walls.

There were a couple moments when zombies in the yard opened fire on her, but that was just the routine of exploring a dungeon. Dungeons are never empty of hostile creatures.

She shouted her directions to Doomguy below. Him going around the fort could be easily heard as some monsters obviously tried to stop him, for their own peril. When he entered the yard, Shantae began popping above the roof edge, shooting the zombies below then disappearing again. There were lots of bullets chewing at the stone parapet, some of the zombies were those gatling-toting ones in red. She was so scared of them she had to exert an effort of will to keep doing her distraction.

Thankfully, soon the shooting ceased. Shantae peered over the edge. There were only dead bodies and Doomguy, standing near the blood fountain in the center and reloading his weapon. She jumped down into the yard joining him.

Surveying the surrounding landscape led both the companions to conclusion that they should head into the opening in the bluff across the bridge. There was a small problem, though: a giant iron grate barring the way. Shantae squeezed between the bars easily, ascended short flight of stairs into a hall cut into solid rock... and was stopped by a locked door. Requiring a red skull key, judging by the glaringly obvious ornaments framing it. There was no lever nor button to lower the grate either.

The dancer girl in pirate boots returned to the bridge. Frustrated, she eyed the crag. It was stretching up, and up, and up, impossibly tall, imposing and towering, its top indistinct against black clouds. Her arms and feet ached from the thought alone. No way.

Resigned that there was no avoiding exploring the fort, the two returned into the yard, going up the stairs to the twin gates leading inside. A small lever in a niche between them made them rise. Beyond, there was just a cavernous entrance hall, split into two halves on slightly different levels, separated by a thick wall and connected by stairs along the side walls so that the gates leading into the yard weren't visible from the main gate.

There was nothing and no one there, only barren cobblestone floor, unadorned gray stone walls and a lot of those metal barrels full of glowy green liquid stashed near the main gate, almost blocking it.

Doomguy decided to explore the right wing — if one looked with their back to the main gate. The interior was a drab twisting hallway with doors here and there. Doomguy took the point. Some doors were locked. Some revealed small, sparsely decorated rooms, empty or with a few zombies whom the stoic hero always smeared across the walls, often before they even knew what hit them. She would never be able to hear words "paint red" without flinching, she was sure.

At least they got a yellow skull key for their efforts, it was stuffed into a dresser in one of the rooms.

An iron satyr face spitting fireballs at regular intervals was something Shantae was familiar with, even if it differed a little from the snake heads of her home land that spit fireballs in a more elaborate rhythm of one-pause-three-pause.

Doomguy couldn't just hop over the fiery projectiles as she did absent-mindedly. He had to barge through a nearest door, to the detriment of zombies dwelling in that room.

Shantae tried another door, only to meet face-to-face with a hell knight who roared his challenge. She almost had a heart attack! Yelping, she began backing away, mindful of fireballs. The brute followed her. Then he was shot dead by Doomguy leaning out of his room.

Eventually they reached the hallway end.

"It's a trap," Shantae stated the obvious as they stood side by side eyeing a spacious room with a rather high ceiling, its entire front side a single large opening. There were two big, black rectangular things with a glowing orange strip sitting enticingly in a niche in the far wall.

"It is," Doomguy agreed. "And I have a bad feeling about this one. Let's go."

There was a narrow curved staircase opposite the room, leading up.

"Wait," she stopped him. "Do you need these... boxy things?" She peered at irregularities in the ceiling. Because if her hunch was right...

"That's how bulk ammo for my best guns looks like," her companion grumbled, frustration seeping into his voice. "Which I'm almost out of, after that— No, stop!"

Shantae had already strolled into the trap, her steps light. The rusty creak followed by a mighty slam still made her flinch: she was high-strung, apprehensive of this trap springing unexpected surprises on her as she sprung it. She took a quick look around. A grate of metal bars, thick like tree trunks, now blocking the entrance? Check. The ceiling descending rather rapidly? Check. Also, it had sprouted rusty blades caked with dried blood. Ew.

Whisking the boxy things quickly into her inventory, Shantae jumped to the grate. Where she proceeded to slip between the bars, almost effortlessly. She was proud of how flexible her body was! The hardest part was getting her ears through without scraping them badly. Because head, sadly, doesn't compress. But she managed, wriggling it around carefully, just before the descending ceiling almost clipped her nose.


And then the ceiling was ascending, the bars following it as the trap re-armed itself.

"Here," She beamed presenting Doomguy with her catch.

He looked like he was going to berate her for recklessness. Then he just sighed and touched the boxes with his foot disappearing them into his own inventory.

The curved stairway ended in a locked door requiring a blue key. The heroes had to backtrack. A flight of stairs led up to the corner tower, connected by a long gallery to the second tower on the other side of the fort. Hi, pink gorillas, meet Doomguy. Bye, pink gorillas.

There were barred windows in the outside wall, dead spiky apes lying below them. When did her companion manage to shoot them? The middle part of the gallery was open, forming that balcony above the main gate, painted with gatling zombie innards.

Then, another door. It lifted opened a crack then jammed. There was no getting into the left tower this way.

Shantae offered to sneak along the walls but there was an elevator platform, taking up almost the entire width of the hallway, and Doomguy wanted to check where it went. He pushed a button, the floor lowered revealing an empty hall with long tables full of tankards and roasted meat, chairs lining them haphazardly.

Shantae felt a pleasant, inviting smell of barbecue. It was so strong it was even overpowering the everpresent stench. She then noticed a roaring fireplace with mutilated human bodies roasting inside. She had to fight a powerful bout of nausea.

"Wait, I hear voices from there," Doomguy whispered urgently, pointing at the door that led, probably, into the entrance hall.

Shantae nodded, still ill at ease, and checked the other door on her own initiative. She only found a short hallway running in parallel to he dining hall, with empty shelves running along its entire length. She then joined Doomguy in peering into the entrance hall.

Which wasn't empty anymore, there were many zombies in black armor busy dragging those barrels of glowy green liquid towards the dining hall. Seeing the hero and his sorta-squire through the opening door, they scrambled for their weapons dropping the barrels, which splashed and sloshed. One even fell to its side spilling its contents onto the bumpy cobblestone floor.

Doomguy, against Shantae's expectations, backpedaled back into the dining hall rather than engaging the unexpecting enemies. She added two and two rather quickly:

"Are those barrels dangerous?"

"Quite," her stoic companion affirmed. "They explode rather violently when hit. With larger blast radius than the rockets."


"Zombies never seem to mind that danger," he added. "Usually I let them blow themselves up, even provoke them into doing so, but there are too many barrels in there for my comfort."

Shantae agreed that bringing the fort down on their heads wasn't a risk worth taking. So they played it safe, waiting for the zombies to shamble through the door.

They weren't that different from the wild zombies of Sequin Land, she decided after the fourth one fell. They were drawn to their adversary like moths to the flame, never regrouping or trying any tricks. Their only power was in their deadly firearms and in their numbers. One well-placed, alert Doomguy was enough to spell doom for them all.

Tiptoeing between ruined, bleeding corpses — zombies back home didn't bleed, but this Hell had its own reality with its rather gruesome rules — Shantae checked that there was no one provisionally alive in the hall.

"Hmm," she hummed, staring curiously at the glowing green puddle on the floor. Even through the ever-present stench it smelled weird, bitter and charged, like aftereffects of her lightning spells. "What is this stuff?"

"Honestly? I don't know," Doomguy admitted. "Officially it's nukage. But I call bullshit. Not only isn't it radioactive enough, everyone around would drop dead like door-nails after just one barrel exploding if that was the case. It's tied to nuclear power plants, though. Half the facility on Mars was flooded with this shit. What I can tell, it's harmful to us, humans. So don't go stepping, much less falling into it. Not as harmful as running across molten lava, but it drains you making you feel like shit."

"Oh." She backed away from the unassuming pool. The glow was even pretty, to be honest. "Why do they have so much of it then?"

Doomguy shrugged. "By some reason demons absolutely love this shit and hoard those barrels wherever they can, without regards to danger. They even managed to turn a whole river back home into it, I don't know, how, but it had this green shit flowing instead of water."

At closer inspection it turned out that one of the zombies had dropped a red skull key! Now they only had to find a way to lower that giant grate before they could move further.

Exploring continued. That corridor behind the dining hall led to a prison, all its stinky cells empty, their doors opened. There was a yellow key door across the prison, incongruously open, leading into a small room with a... warp platform. Shantae shivered.

Doomguy agreeing that braving an unknown warp location wasn't in their best interest right now. They turned back and rode the lift to the outer gallery. Where Shantae used the scimitar dash to ram the jammed door making it unstuck.

The tower was empty. The wooden platform with the weapon on a peg — the so called "eich-em-gee" — was accessible, if splattered with zombie. Doomguy even entertained the idea of taking it with him... But alas, it proved too heavy to put into his inventory.

From the tower, a balcony ran along the length of the fort towards the crag they had to climb, providing a good view of the drab landscape to their left. The brown jungle was beginning right on the other side of the ravine-like moat, overgrown hills stretching into distance between crags towering in the red haze.

There were no monsters in sight, this emptiness was starting to make Shantae a bit unnerved.

"I think we are early," Doomguy said when they stopped in front of yet another blue skull door. "We caught them flat-footed, with only a skeleton crew manning this fort."

"Uh, I think you lost me here," Shantae complained, her eyes drawn to the right, at a large cache of goodies seen through a barred window. "I don't think there were any cacklers around."

"What's a cack— Uh, right, that's pretty obvious. I meant this fort is staffed by a minimum crew, enough to keep it in order but not much else," Doomguy explained. "That's what we call a 'skeleton crew'."

"Oh! I see," Shantae replied, almost not listening. The treasure room had a door lined with yellow. "I believe we have a yellow key?"

"This one requires a yellow key card," the man in green corrected her grumpily. "While our key is a skull. It's useless here, believe me."

"In that case!" she proclaimed, rising up to the challenge of this arrogant treasure room. She walked to the window, placed her face against the grate and tried pushing her head through. The rusty bars of spiraling iron objected. Owie.

But she persisted. Treasure sitting in plain sight was an offense to any self-respecting relic hunter! So what if she had to twist take her earrings off prying the gold rongs open, then push so hard that her pointy ears and the sides of her head felt raw and bruised?

Wriggling the rest of the way in was a piece of cake after her head was through.

She heard Doomguy sighing.

Now, there were lots of ammunition on the shelves. She sucked the magazines into her inventory stacking them neatly with the assault rifle where they belonged. Then, rows and rows of those small red cylinders, ammo for the grapeshooter. Which she currently did not have, so she had to find a free mental space for it.

The inventory was a strange thing, full of illogical limitations. The things habitual, like her clothing, she could store with no limits. The things that had a purpose, like quest items — or pirate gear, thankfully — without limit as well. But supplies, she had trouble storing them at first, until one traveler taught her a meditation technique of building an imaginary grid and keeping items in its cells. She trained it year after year — because while boring it was mightily useful — so she was up to a four by three grid now. Let's see... six doses of healing potion, four auto-potions, assault rifle with eleven magazines, bazoooka with four drums. Empty, thirty two grapeshooter charges, one sushi, empty. One invisibility sphere, two soul spheres, one demon strength rune, four med-kits.

Yep, she was down to two free positions again and there was yet un-picked treasure. Namely, seven glowy blue cuirasses, hilariously too big for her lithe dancer form.

"Are these—" she began, pointing at them, when she had an embarrassing mishap.

She touched one of the cuirasses.

There was a blue flash, she yelped... And stared at her bracer.

Because it was dark blue instead of gold!

"This is blue armor power-up," Doomguy explained patiently. "It makes your armor stronger, nigh impenetrable. Lasts until enemy blows wear it down. The more armor you have, the better it lasts. In your case..."

"I wasted it," Shantae said sullenly, looking down at her clothing, now light blue where it had been red. Even the pirate boots were dark blue. "So what if I can probably block a blow from a baron now? It'd send me flying anyway." She put the six remaining cuirass-shaped artifacts into her inventory. Down to one free slot now.

Crawling out was no less painful.

"Say," she said nursing her tender, throbbing ears, "we got the red skull key for that door across the bridge and we got two blue doors leading to that balcony overhanging the bridge entrance. I have a hunch that that's where a lever lowering that huge grate is. How about I climb to that balcony while you head to the bridge now? I bet we can skip searching for the blue skull."

Doomguy reluctantly agreed. The near lack of monsters was unnerving him as well.

Shantae quickly climbed up the wall beside the blue door, jogged across the almost flat stone roof and jumped down on the balcony.

A chorus of angry hisses made her start. Spiky apes from the left, in the corridor she just merrily skipped above!

Cringing inside at the necessity, Shantae pulled the scimitar out running at the brown beasts with a battle cry. Their fireballs splashed harmlessly against her invulnerability, then the monsters themselves splashed and splattered against the walls. She dropped out of the dash, skidding to a stop. There were no survivors. She went back to the balcony, gore squelching underfoot. What a mess.

A lever was there, just as she predicted. The giant grate went down and she jumped down onto the bridge to wait for Doomguy.

Hmm, what was taking him so long?

Black clouds moving above the towering crag had sort of savage beauty to them. If only the stench of blood from the moat wasn't so distracting. Overall, this place wasn't that much worse than the Mud Bog Island, which was also dreary, dirty and stinky and full of strong monsters.

..wait, what was that sound?

The red skull door was opening, only the bottom of it visible through the opening in the crag. Shantae tensed. The door revealed a pair of immense hooves, one brown of demonic flesh, another shiny metal, attached to a mechanical leg.

No, please, no.

The hooves began descending the stairs with caution, the steps too small for them. Gradually revealing immense legs, one a metallic contraption beneath the backwards-facing joint.


Shantae found herself backing away involuntarily, her body growing numb and weak.

The immense demon walked beneath a decorative gate. Stopped to look around imperiously. Then it stepped onto the bridge, towering, all bulging rock-hard muscle and thick shiny metal, the eyes on its flat, wide head glowing baleful red.

Intellectually, Shantae knew this was but a little brother of That Boss. It was brown, not red, it only had one mechanical leg, and only one of its arms was replaced with a bulky, boxy cannon, and that cannon was only the size of a bull, not the size of a house.

But try telling that to the liquid terror that was coursing through her veins.

The Boss looked at her. Then it let out a terrifying roar, a screeching cry of primal hatred, the hulk shaking with it.

Shantae only managed not to faint because of special training, repeating the mantra "a fainted hero is a dead hero" from the very beginning of her relic hunter career when she turned twelve and could finally beat weak monsters on her own as she began exploring dungeons worrying her Uncle sick.

This monster wasn't something she could hope to beat. No way, never.

But standing still never got anyone anywhere. Except early grave, maybe.

Trembling in fear, she pulled out her bazooka and shot The Boss in the face, replacing the weapon immediately after the shot and pulling the scimitar to dash away.

She never got the chance as the demon responded with a quadruple blast from its cannon in rapid succession, not even fazed by her rocket. Shantae dodged four bright, compact fireballs with ease. Then explosions blossomed behind her, pelting her back painfully with dirt and stone chips. Such overwhelming might! All the tanks and cannons of Ammo Baron seemed like toys in comparison, the bosses of the Sequin Land silly and weak.

She glanced around. The way along the fort walls... Was impassable: to narrow! Even if she dodges these missiles, the resulting blasts as they hit the wall would splatter her across the moat.

The only way now... She dodged four more shots... was back into the yard. Which looked so small now, so cramped, with so many obstacles for the missiles to explode against. Trees, the central fountain. Upraised rectangles of garden beds surrounded by stone walls... Jump down into the moat? The same problem as with fleeing sideways. She'd be trapped under the bridge and who knows if The Boss could simply bring it down on her head? Or just lean over the railing and shoot down, blasting her like a fish in a barrel?

It was utterly predictable, so far, always shooting straight at her in series of four. And it was slowly crossing the bridge, pausing to shoot. Driven by terror, she did the rational thing closing the distance. Maybe it would stop advancing if she was close enough?

The thought of dying horrible, fiery death if this one could breathe fire... just wouldn't leave.

The Boss reacted to her joining it on the bridge by lifting its metallic hoof high. A shockwave stomp! A familiar move of many monsters back home, even Squid Baron used it. Scared of how powerful this one's stomp would be, she jumped as high as she could to float in the air on the pirate hat.

The Mighty Stomp came out deafening, dust rising from the crushed cobblestones, stone chips flying. Cowed, Shantae floated backwards, dropping down just in time to dodge anotherfour shots. Shouldn't Doomguy be here by now? She gasped, imagining him laying fallen into some trap and requiring urgent help. While this monstrosity was pushing her further and further into the yard, backing her into a literal corner!

The initial rush of terror subsided to a slow, steady burn, the icy feeling in her veins making her reflexes faster, her perception sharper. Backing away, she kept glancing back, keeping the obstacles behind her in mind. When one of the blasts hit the fountain in the yard center but failed to smash it to pieces, she noticed. When another hit but the decoration still stood, blood flowing serenely, a plan began forming in her head.

Backing to the side, always aware of obstacles for the missiles to hit, Shantae backed away rapidly to crouch down behind the fountain. Blast after blast was hitting the simplistic decoration of a thick, short column with a thinner one on top of it, covered in streaming blood. Was it enchanted? No matter. This was her chance.

The monstrosity stopped shooting and started walking around the fountain, moving to her right. Shantae ran around it on the other side, pulling the scimitar out. Three blasts buffeted the unyielding fountain, one demolished a tree to her left.

Then her invulnerability was on, she was tearing across the bridge at breakneck speeds. Mindful what happened with Doomguy's rocket — the bruise on the small of her back was still smarting a bit — she twisted her path as best as she could, a couple missiles overtaking her slowly to explode against the cliff face.

Blurring up the stairs, hoping to reach the red key door, she... barely managed to stop in time not to ram an army disembarking from the lift platform that had just arrived. A densely packed crowd of huge cuirass-wearing cacklers, more than twice her height, was just unentangling from each other, bulky forms of fire-throwing fatsos visible behind them, spiky apes and zombies hurrying to climb out to avoid being trampled.

Shantae froze, the only thought going through her head were Doomguy's words "danger sense would be useless against projectiles that chase you like bloodhounds". That, and the image of him devastating hiding spiky apes in the blood swamp with exactly the same shoulder-pad mounted mini-cannons that adorned the armor of these big bony monsters.

The ree-veh-somethings let out a chorus of angry hissing. A hasty spiky ape launched its fireball at Shantae, hitting the cackler in front of it. The bone hulk responded by grabbing the smaller thing by its ankle to slam it repeatedly and violently into the ground, bones cracking and blood splattering with each hit.

Shantae unfroze, running down the stairs, scimitar already out as half the cacklers fired their shoulder cannons while others went down in a tangle of skeletal limbs.

Even speeding away, towards the approaching Boss, she was feeling their fireballs gaining on her, washing her back with heat even through invulnerability of the dash, promising fiery demise. She dodged four missiles from The Boss, barely: it was hard to steer while in this magic-empowered dash. Then the towering hulk lifted its foot, aiming to stomp her into paste. Unable to steer away, Shantae grit her teeth and held her breath as she dashed under the upraised hoof, the curve of her ponytail clipping it.

A split second later shockwave buffeted her, sending her on uncontrollable collision course with the fountain.

The macabre decoration withstood Shantae slamming into it, its blood-soaked column blurring and doubling in her vision as she stumbled, momentarily dazed... The Boss! The missiles! She was already backsliding to the side, whirling around to to face the monstrosity when... she was presented with the view of its immense, chiseled buttocks. What...?

Several more fireballs popped against The Boss like paltry firecrackers, doing absolutely no visible damage but offending it greatly, judging by the roar it let out. Still stunned by this surprise turn of events, Shantae began half-consciously backing towards the gates leading inside the fort. She just needed a second to pull the lever and wait for the doors to rise. A second she would never have had if the giant monster's attention was still on her.

The Boss began firing at the army of assorted cacklers and other monsters. As densely packed as they were? She'd bet on The Boss any time of the week. The army stood no chance against its might.

She slipped inside before the doors were even halfway up. And flattened herself against the wall, not taking... Uh-oh, the entrance hall was still full of those glowing barrels scattered all around. If a missile, no, if even just one bullet or fireball gets here...

Yelping, Shantae fled left, not waiting for the doors to begin closing. Judging by the sounds, the fight between The Boss and the other monsters was gaining in intensity. Those barrels could blow any moment!

Back in the somewhat familiar corridor, she finally stopped to wonder where her companion could be. Everything here... Wait, wasn't this door locked before? She peered into a passage leading down into the cellars. It was very dark down there, the space cluttered with wooden barrels, crates and other obstacles.

"Hello?" she called into the darkness. "Anyone in there?"

"I ssmelll human!" a creepy, hissing voice crowed from the darkness. "I ssmelll fear!"

Followed by Doomguy's desperate "Run, Shant—" and buzzing, tearing sound of tinker gatlings, muzzle flashes throwing the dark space into a flashing, strobing chaos.

She wanted to stay, to help but her legs betrayed her making her take a step back from those sounds that brought up flashes of painful memories of dying to such a weapon.

A good thing, too, as a man in familiar-shaped but dark, somehow corrupt-looking armor jumped out of the door, the glass of his black helmet backlit with twin beacons of hellfire that were this thing's eyes. A hail of bullets hit the door-frame only for the dark one to jump effortlessly, almost as high as Shantae could, much higher than Doomguy ever could, disappearing from the harm's way completely.

While the man in black was descending from his jump, already struggling to point his gatling at her, time slowed to a crawl in a surge of desperation. Shantae realized: this was it. The end of the line. Unless she manages bringing him down fast, her painful dying experience would repeat itself. But she couldn't...! Or could she?

The bazooka would kill her as surely at such point-blank distances. The assault rifle wasn't feeling powerful enough. She couldn't jump onto his head with scimitar pointing down because he could jump as well. Other local items? Invisibility would be no help against a hail of bullets. A soul sphere would, probably, prolong her agony. A rune...

A rune could work, being akin to super-super monster milk. Right?

Shantae activated it as she pulled it out of her inventory.

A wave of burning, blinding rage washed over her, bubbling in her blood as she whipped at the air in front of her blindly, overcame by desire to destroy, to kill someone!

The hateful enemy descended into her view, she began hitting first his feet, then his torso, his armor warping and splitting under her blows, gashes opening in his flesh as Shantae let out a roar, craving for blood and carnage. More! More warm bodies! The man in front of her stumbled backwards. Then he fell, his innards spilling out, his body caving and splitting. More rage! More hate! Her vision all shades of red, Shantae continued whipping the dead body, crouching down as it fell to the floor, turning her adversary into unrecognizable meat with inarticulate roars of joyful rage. Never in her entire life had she felt so free, so powerful!

"You know, your hair turns red when you use it," Doomguy's quiet words reached through the haze of red, slamming onto her like a bucket of icy water.

Shantae froze, staring in mute horror at shredded and scattered meat in front of her. The colors were returning. She stood up on shaky legs and hugged her ponytail tightly. It was crimson. And not from the blood, no, it was pristine, nothing would stick to her magnificent hair. No, crimson was its natural color, down to the last strand.

"Are... Are my eyes white?" she squeaked, fearing the answer. She was still feeling a faint urge to maim, to lash out at Doomguy, but she was too horrified for that to matter.

"Yes," her companion replied cautiously. "But anyone's eyes turn solid white and glowing when they use the demon strength rune."

He wouldn't understand. Not without knowing about her past. So she tried telling him, halting and fumbling for words. About her magical half being torn out of her, turned evil and turned against her. About having to kill her magic. About her evil twin having crimson hair and glowing white eyes. How horrified she was of having turned evil. All the signs were there! She should have never used that rune, should just have let that creep kill her and be done with it.

"I, uh, think you got the wrong idea," Doomguy said after a pause, trying to scratch his head, his armored fingers clacking against his helmet. "Look, I'm not that good with this stuff, but... Evil is inside everyone. You just keep it buried, suppressed, sleeping... whatever. Civvies... I mean, normal people living peaceful lives, leave it at that. You, as a hero of your homeland... I suppose, too, if you had no trouble fighting as you were. But when you face Hell and your strength is not enough, your punches not powerful enough, your ammo pool not deep enough... Then stepping onto that slippery slope could be the only thing that lets you win. You... ah hell, you fight evil with evil, to put it bluntly."

"Fight... evil with evil?" Shantae mumbled, uncertain. Yes, she sided with Risky Boots to thwart much greater evil, but...

"It's very simple," Doomguy said. "You wrangle your inner darkness into submission and ride it, not letting it ride you. That guy," He pointed at the bloody mess making her squirm uncomfortably, "he succumbed to it. He let it rule him and turn him into a monster. You... I believe you are better than that. You can do it."

"I... succumbed to it," Shantae said quietly. "I... felt so much joy breaking this inferior—" She wrestled a sadistic grin off her lips, hard. "You see? I can't! I'm not strong enough! I lost myself in it the moment I activated that accursed item!"

"Naw," Doomguy reassured her. "The first time gets into your head hard, it's like a strong drink..." He paused, then asked in a strange voice: "You are old enough to drink where you are from, right?"

"Eeh...?" Now she was completely lost. "What do you mean? If I couldn't drink before certain age, I'd die! Everyone needs to drink! And how could drinking get into your head? I admit I drink hard after a long trek through burning sands, but..."

"Uh, no," Doomguy said. "I meant, ᚹᛁᛊᚲᛁ, ᚢᛟᛞᚲᚨ, ᛒᛝᚱ. Stuff like that?"

"Sorry." She tilted her head in confusion. "Those words just now were gibberish."

Doomguy stood there for a moment, his posture conveying incredulity.

"ᚹᛁᚾᛖ?" he continued. "Alcohol? Designer medicine? Do any of these ring a bell?"

"Eeeh," Shantae scratched the back of her head. What was he going about? "Alcohol is what the Doctor uses to swab at your wounds. Burns like fire ants but kills all the evil bacilli good. Designer medicine, I understand the words but they make no sense together. Medicine made by a designer...? Oh, and the first one was gibberish."

"Opium?" He tried without any hope.

"A very dangerous painkiller," Shantae recited. "Best left for hopeless patients with incurable diseases. It dulls the pain but eats at your mind. If you lose an arm or a leg, better tough it out and hobble to nearest place where you can get your hands on a healing potion... Well, that's what the Doctor said. Why are you..." Then it hit her. "Oh, ohhh! You listed names of mind-altering potions, haven't you? But who in their right mind would drink such stuff? And why?"

"Uh, to relax in a good company," Doomguy said defensively. "To drown your sorrows. To prove you are man enough... Lots of reasons."

"Your people are weird," Shantae concluded with a smile. "I hope Rotty never gets her hands on any of these. She'd find too many uses for practical jokes, for my comfort... But I understand what you wanted to say. Evil is a strong and treacherous mind-altering force, it requires focus and dedication to master it and not let it master you. I believe I can do it. Uh... How long would this effect last? I'm itching to hit someone, it's manageable but irritating."

"About ten, fifteen minutes." She finally noticed that he was wounded, his armor battered, seeping blood. "Mind if ask you how it went for you while I'm patching myself up? I can hear quite telling footsteps from here."

The floor was trembling almost imperceptibly showing that that monstrosity with its iron leg was walking around.

"Only if you take healing potion after," she declared with finality. "I know we should use it sparingly, but I also know that non-magical medicine only goes so far. And then, this." She pulled one of the blue armor power-ups from her inventory, letting it hover above the cobblestone floor, glowing.

"Aye-aye, Doc," he replied good-naturedly, beginning to remove parts of his armor.

That was... a lot of bruises. And those puncture wounds...

In short, Shantae had to refresh her firmly forgotten first aid lessons when she was helping to pull those bullets out. Not a completely foreign experience, because she had a couple embarrassing mishaps where she had to pick stuck arrowheads out of her own body. One word: Ouch.

"So, I stand on the bridge when this red key door opens," she was telling. "And out comes a little brother of That Boss. Well, you know. Made me flit around on wings of terror, figuratively."

"It's called ᚲᛁᛒᛖᚱᛞᛖᛗᛟᚾ(robodemon)," Doomguy elaborated. "One mean son of a— Nevermind."

"Mean and pretty powerful," Shantae agreed. "When it started shooting I realized I had no way but back into the yard as he had all the squares along the walls threatened, so to speak. Uh, you are familiar with Chaturanga, right? Anyway, I moved in close..."

"Many good men died thinking that was a good idea," Doomguy groused checking that the gauze was wrapped tight.

"I know, right? That stomp is frighteningly effective, but I've seen it before a hundred times! So many bosses of Sequin Land like flinging shockwaves around that I got jumping over them down to an art. The pirate hat helps too. Anyway, I got saved by the fountain, of all things. Let me circle around and dash away. But that's when I found an army crawling out of that lift straight beyond the red key door!"

"An army?" her companion tensed.

"Don't worry!" Shantae reassured him. "They shot at me, I dashed back under the robodemon, all the fireballs hit him, he took offense... Deliver and convert, or how it goes? I think there is only the boss remaining now."

"We should get going," Doomguy said quickly fitting all the armor pieces back together, then touching the blue item. All the dents and holes in his armor disappeared — so this was like a healing potion for equipment? — as his armor glowed briefly. It didn't change color, though.

"I agree," Shantae said. "Maybe there are still monsters left, I have to test this superpowered evil mode on something hostile, learn how it works without blood rage... In case I have to use such items again." She paused, thinking. "Say, what do you think of jumping out of windows? I think there were unbarred windows facing outside in some rooms and it wasn't that far to the ground..."

They left the fort that way, sneaking quietly across the bridge as the scuffed robodemon kept walking around the fountain kicking at loose cobbles. The bridge was painted red, blood running in rivulets along the parapets to soak the soil. Judging by the quantity of remains, several lift platforms worth of monsters perished there, including even one still recognizable bephlegor. The most hilarious detail was a blue skull key embedded in the gore. Obviously, one of the monsters was carrying it. So this fort hadn't really been passable without Shantae's sequence breaking climbing until the monsters came and took their places.

Thankfully, the unstoppable behemoth haven't noticed the two heroes tiptoeing away from him towards the lift.

Then a creaking platform was carrying them upwards, toward new kinds of hell.

( 。◕ シーンブレイク ◕。)

Yes, the cyberdemon in Brutal Doom has a mighty stomp attack. You failed to dodge? Rest in pieces.
Yes, the revenats (knights and barons as well) do have this "smacking an imp/zombie against the ground" finisher. They also throw the hapless body at you for massive damage.
No, revenants don't tangle in each other's limbs and fall down. I postulate they were packed too densely in this case, their hitboxes overlapping. Which doesn't happen in the game.

( 。◕ シーンブレイク ◕。)

Last updated: Feb 26, 2020 with just three sky descriptions; Mar 08, 2019, with minor bug fixes: I caught some while translating this chapter to Russian.