Chapter 8,
Culinary Habits

The castle ahead us was small, just three spiky watch towers over a battered two-story high wall of tan brick, with a modest-sized building behind them. Definitely just an another roadblock. Why make the road go up, then down again? Demons are not oblige to make sense. Maybe the owner of this castle had overinflated ego?

So many roadblocks marked this road as having strategic importance as it required cooperation of several leaders. In this Hell, that could only mean one thing: there was a bigger, badder demon above them, strong enough to make them cooperate with an "or else" threatening enough even for these stubborn beasts. Moving up the chain of command to find the supreme leader? That I could do.

Right now, though, there was a horde stampeding towards us across a wide wooden bridge over the chasm separating us from the castle. Pinkies first - not rabid, thankfully - mixed with imps and axe-wielding zombies. "Don't—" I began, but of course it was too late before I even finished switching to the flamethrower.

My companion sped forward with a battle cry, a blue-and-tan blur topped with purple, a black triangle of her pants seat in the middle. Less than a second later she exploded through the ranks, blood and viscera and body parts splashing around her like the wake of a ship.

The surviving monsters roared, some reorienting after her, imps lobbing fireballs. Their offense stalled, turned into a chaotic crowd trying to move in opposite directions at once. I switched to my trusty pump-action shotgun, backing away and to the side, killing the few pinkies still coming at me.

Of course, with the walls and towers festooned with dozens of imps, their fireballs like rain focused on me, the pinkies that managed to get close caught that barrage. squarely in their rumps. Most got set on fire - there was a lot of fireballs - but one survived, doing one-eighty, intent on giving the imps a piece of its tiny mind. Utterly pointless, of course, as the brown beasts were up on the wall and the pinkies are too dumb for such complex concept as "going around".

The roaring pinkies on fire fell into the chasm, I had culled the imp crowd on the wall quite a bit and the main horde began reorienting towards me when Shantae finally returned, exploding through the demons again, the blur resolving into a girl skidding to a stop beside me, making a face at all the gore.

Very efficient loose cannon she was, having mowed down a number equivalent to a dozen rockets, but her habit of rushing ahead... Vexing, was the polite word.

"Stand back!" I barked switching to the flamethrower while dodging a barrage of fireballs. The horde - still dozens strong - was stampeding at us now. Taking an extra second to make sure the hot-blooded maiden was firmly behind me, I let napalm fly. Then I had to dodge burning demons, roaring in pain, running each which way, falling into the chasm in droves. Those that happened to run back caused more roars of pain as they bumped into their still intact kin. Infighting followed as those responded to pain with vicious slashing and biting. The stench was outstanding, even by local standards.

"Theihr..." Shantae's voice was tight, choking. I allowed myself a brief glance back. She was just trying not to retch. Forcing it down with effort, she squeezed out: "There's... a bunch of knights and barons coming!"

Oh.

Moving onto the bridge quickly, I shot napalm again, turning the wide corridor beyond the gate into an oven full of screaming, overcooked demons. That should take care of the fodder.

Right on cue, green bolts of hellfire started flying from the smoke. I dodged, moving to stand beside the gate. Thankfully, whoever constructed this castle was an idiot: instead of being flush with the tower's face, the gate was sunk in an arch deep enough it concealed me from every imp. Allowing enemy concentrating at the gate unharrassed... On the other hand, if that cyberdemon was usually stationed here, that would be even helpful, like funneling all the meat straight into the meat-grinder.

Shantae fell back, harrassing the enemy from afar using her magical blaster, dodging the rain of fireballs with contemptuous ease. I switched to the assault shotgun. I don't use this silvery pig iron much: too heavy, has too much spread, packs noticeably less punch per shell than my other two and takes forever and a half to reload — but. But its twenty-shell magazine makes for unsurpassed endurance against tougher crowds. Like now, with knights, then barons coming out.

I kept blasting the bruisers in the backs of their heads. They were ignoring their beheaded kin, their hate firmly on Shantae. Had she not drawn it, now would be a good moment to provoke these heavy hitters into attacking the imps. But as they were, the multitude of fireballs hitting their broad backs was simply ignored. Finally, new ones stopped coming. The baron and the few knights already out there were coming too close to my companion, who had backed away to the edge of the abyss next to the roofed lift platform. My assault shotgun ran out and I was switching to the railgun when she suddenly employed her sword-dash, ramming the baron.

It didn't work. Like with that bephlegor earlier, she bounced back, unbalanced, while the reddish beast doubled over clutching at its privates and bellowing in pain. No! I raised the railgun to my shoulder, a knight's head in my cross-hair then gone in an instant.

My weapon whined, beginning its slow, slow recharging cycle. The three remaining knights launched their spread-shots almost point-blank.

Judging by the lack of charred body parts flying, Shantae managed to dodge somehow. The knights went swinging, aiming low. One second later my companion re-emerged from the cover of their backs in a sliding pirouette that ended in her hair-whipping at the leftmost knight. But the baron should be recovering right about now.

The railgun finished cycling. I lined my next shot up carefully, managing to hit the baron and two knights through the center of mass. The baron bellowed, attacking Shantae despite the ragged bloody hole through its torso. One of the knights collapsed and the other one was merely staggered, still alive somehow.

She went close in, dodged the baron's right swing, feinted an attack and ducked under the following left swing, stopping behind the bruiser's back. She then performed a mix of back kick and split stand: her right foot went under the enemy's buttock, with her left foot firmly on the ground. Overextended, the baron staggered, losing its balance. An impressive display of super-strength, she must be at least on the level of the strongest Marines.

The fireballs hit, having been focused more or less on the same area. The wounded knight went up in flames, the second one bellowed in pain, staggered, and the baron was still alive somehow, despite looking like shit: charred, dripping green blood from a gaping wound... and still attacking fiercely, its one remaining eye burning bright red like a laser sight.

I switched to the assault rifle and quickly whittled his remaining life to nothing with aimed headshots. Shantae was... dancing in front of the remaining knight, more sliding around than actually hitting. What was she... Oh. She slid to the side just before the next barrage of fireballs arrived, aimed at her but hitting the knight, turning it into a living, screeching pyre.

There was still a lot of imps up there.

We went to check the inside of the castle first. The wide corridor beyond the gate led into a spacious hall, two rows of golden chandeliers framing the central passage leading to wide, fifteen foot tall doors in the back wall framed by glowing pillars of blue skull ornaments. Requiring a key, obviously. There were also two doors in the front wall leading, presumably, to the side watch towers, one of them requiring a red key. Plus two doors in the side walls, the left one requiring a yellow key. Huh, this was probably a hub of sorts. We checked the right side door, only finding a store room and another door leading outside as the landscape beyond the window next to it indicated this was the outer wall.

With nothing of use readily available, exploring this castle further would only exhaust our ammo supply. We only needed to find a good vantage point to search for clues on the location of the overlord. Where did the road go? Coincidentally, the highest tower of this castle was that vantage point. So we had to clear the imps to allow Shantae safe access.

Imp sniping was a dangerous chore, but with caution we did it, even saving a few rounds thanks to my companion's blaster. She made to climb the wall, but I stopped her, berated her for running ahead without warning — she looked fittingly sheepish — and taught her to yell "hostiles" when encountering enemy, "clear" when she is sure there are no more enemies and "reloading" when she goes to reload her AR. Only then I let her loose.

Removing her boots, Shantae quickly climbed the wall while I kept watch thirty meters away, at the other side of the bridge. When she reached the top of the right wall section and leaned to look inside, there were faint hisses of angry imps.

"Hostiles!" she yelled, producing her AR and spraying down. Dodging a couple fireballs that splashed their burning residue on the wall, she then jumped down into the castle. A tense pause later — I couldn't hear what was happening over the wall — she yelled "Clear!" to appear a few seconds later in the main hall. "I was trying to conserve the ammunition," she explained perkily when she jogged up to me.

"I see," I said. I hope she took all necessary precautions doing that out of my range. "Please don't forget that even the wimpiest demons are deadly."

"Well, those spiky apes jump fiercely," she admitted, pleased with herself rather than being chastised. "But after that jump they pause, just long enough to kick them. One on one they are no match for me! It's their numbers... Anyway, let's go!"

She proceeded to climb, first the right wall section, then the central gate tower, disappearing in one of its big arched windows of the second story. A couple seconds later I heard a spirited "Oh, yeah!" — presumably, she found something. I had to teach her reporting such finds as well. Next, she leaned out of the left window to peer into the left portion of the castle... And jumped back with a girlish shriek, going so far as tumbling out of the opposite right window and arresting her fall with that purple bubble of hers. A second later mancubus fireballs sprayed the tower, setting stone walls on fire with splattered napalm - they actually use standard flamethrower ammo encapsulating it in magical fire. One missile went inside the left window, hit the ceiling and rained fire all over that room — it was a good thing Shantae got out.

"Hostiles!" she yelled belately, before folding her bubble and dropping down onto the wall. "Whew, what a scare! There is a lone mancubus in that yard. Just wait, I'll get him!" She began climbing the tower again, in its cover. This time she forgone the second story and the third one too. Reaching the spiky crown, she displayed impressive feat of acrobatics, managing to climb onto it over a negative incline: the wall there protruded a foot further than the wall she had been climbing! Finally reaching the edge, Shantae catapulted herself onto the flat roof, proving again she was both strong and light.

Then, walking boldly onto one of the huge iron spikes with the bazooka readied, she fired it almost straight down. She then made a surprised exclamation, aimed and fired again. That's right, you can't kill a mancubus with one rocket. These meaty beasts are too resilient, they require two.

Then she was walking around the tower top, staring into distance while shielding her eyes with her hand. Slowly and thoroughly, she surveyed the entire horizon.

Damn.

"I can't see the road from here!" she shouted at me leaning over the edge. "It's all the same jungle as far as I can see! Nothing big on the horizon too!"

Double damn. How far did we have to travel? Beyond the horizon and further?

"Wait," she continued. "I'll check from the roof of this building, the road must continue right after those blue skull doors, the whole thing is only long enough for that big hall!" She disappeared.

I hoped she'd see where the roads was disappearing to. Yet another underground passage?

It took Shantae a few minutes to return.

"Guess what?" she said jumping out of the gate tower's second-story window. "There is a blank wall there! This building has no other exits!"

"Say what?" This... actually surprised me, my train of thought grinding to a halt.

"There's a blank wall!" she elaborated. "It's not an illusion, I shot it. There is a sheer drop behind this building, no road or anything. But wait, there's more! I checked the side wings too, there is another blank wall where that door in the storage room should be. The window is there, but the door is not! Shall we...?"

"Yes," I grit. I swear, if this is some sort of devilry, demons making fake doors and roads leading nowhere would feel pain. On the other hand, I know portals do exist.

Returning back to the storage room, we took positions to the sides of that inconspicuous door. Weathered wood planks with a circular ornament of a demonic face carved in the center, adorned with fresh blood like this was an idol they were making sacrifices to. I bumped it.

The door rattled up revealing a long corridor, its walls made of big white stone blocks, unlike the ubiquitous tan brick this castle was made of.

Shantae made an excited sound as she rushed to the window to confirm that yes, there was space overlap. "I never saw such magic before!" she gushed.

But I was focused on the stairs curving up ahead, a bit of sky visible through some sort of window.

A different sky, the color of dust, hazy clouds unmoving.

So, these doors were portals, after all. And judging by the size of that door back in the hall, we had to find us a blue skull. I crept cautiously forward, walking up the curved stairs slowly.

There were no demons up there, only a large bracket-shaped gallery with tall arched windows opening into a deep chasm on all three sides. I could see red hazy glow framed by a big arch ahead, through the windows on the opposite side. Another portal? The air stank differently here, dust and ammonia instead of sulphur and carrion. There were forested hills outside, various castles visible through dusty haze.

And then, the nearest door rattled up releasing zombies armed with... brooms...?

"Hostiles!" I switched to the shotgun, mowing them down as they rushed to get their weapons, stumbling into other zombies still coming out of that door. All went down under my fire. But there were sounds of weapons being cocked from that door. I grabbed a frag grenade shouting "fire in the hole!" as I threw it. Shantae squeaked behind me — making me remember I didn't teach her this particular command — and, judging by the sounds, fell down the stairs. Dammit.

Bouncing off the door frame, just as planned, the grenade exploded inside the room, followed by dying roars of a lone zombie, then silence. I glanced back. Shantae was walking up the stairs, rubbing at her side sheepishly. Shotgun readied, I charged through that door. Only shredded carcasses greeted me, scattered around a bare stone room. Beyond two low, wide barred windows the same hazy landscape could be seen, all forested hills and tiny castles.

Together, we checked three more doors, finding similar rooms but with huge cocoons of slimy, writhing flesh resting in pools of blood that seemed to eat depressions in the cobblestone floor. The view through windows facing in all directions confirmed that this was a lone building on a lone crag. We found one skull button but it was unresponsive, seemingly stuck in activated state with its eye sockets glowing.

We went to check the second portal but found nothing of use there, just an empty circular gazebo surrounded by endless expanse of boiling, glowing blood. The mirroring sea of blood overhead and the massive bloodfalls connecting the two planes were just scenery. The blood-caked, skull-themed pedestal in the center was empty.

Shantae then went climbing to check the small towers crowning the roof. Nothing, empty decorations. There were no other floors or windows we haven't seen yet, she said. Still there was one balcony, not quite reachable, ways off from the closest gallery window. She had no trouble getting there, found a room with quite an ammunition cache and a red skull key.

Red. Not the blue we needed or at least yellow to explore that other door, but a useless key to an empty yard.

There was also an apparent teleporter platform, or "warp platform" as she called it. Damn it to hell and again. I could, in theory, make a running jump there but it was hair-thin line between me landing just right and me plummeting to my death. So it was up to Shantae to explore where that went. "Don't worry," she said trying to sound brave and nonchalant, "That's what my spare lives are for." Suppressing the feeling of being a callous asshole I called go ahead. A tense moment later... She ported into the gallery not far from me.

Dammit!

I punted the closest puntable object - a tin bucket full of dirty soapy water. It splashed, tumbling and clanging against the wall and... disgorging a yellow skull key.

Shantae snorted, then laughed out loud, unable to help herself.

"Yeah," I said with relief, feeling a smile tugging at the corners of my lips. "That works too."

So we went exploring that other door in the first castle.

Beyond the yellow door there was another storage closet, full of wooden crates and barrels and imps. It only took two rockets to make a total mess of these. Shantae made a face at the gore-splattered floor and donned her magical pirate boots. After that, there was a curving staircase going through what should have been the empty space outside. It led us to a dark room, its wide windows showing equally dark landscape, visibility smothered by ash hanging in the air like a thick fog.

All right, here we go. Taking position at the next door—

"What is that thing?" Shantae exclaimed behind me. "Oh... Hostiles!"

I turned around aiming my shotgun at the window. The pain elemental that sneaked up on us was floating just outside, its huge eye blinking in confusion. I was switching to the minigun when it finally made that distinctive pain elemental-y grunt and opened its maw wide.

"Get back, they explode when they die!" I warned activating manual barrel spin-up. The latticed window frames were too narrow for the brown spheroid to get inside, but that half of the room was still threatened.

The first lost soul condensed from the flames in the monster's mouth before I could start firing, launching at my companion who just grunted and went hair-whipping at it. Then my minigun was up to speed and I shredded the blasted thing before it could build up its infamous ablative shield of lost souls. It exploded into gore and flame, a couple more lost souls emerging from the explosion. I switched to the shotgun to mop them up, conserving the minigun rounds I was still low on. The screech of a lost soul dying told me Shantae finished her opponent as well.

"I'm afraid to ask," she said, "But they... don't have a limit, don't they?"

"No, the pain elementals don't have a limit," I confirmed. "Let one live for too long and there's a swarm shielding it from your fire, soaking up your ammo. Shotgun doesn't stun them for long enough and bazooka is too dangerous because these damned skulls charge you all the time."

Moving further we found a prison. Dark, dank, stinky cells with heaps of hay and holes in the floor for toilets. And... Cacos, I could understand. But who in their right mind imprisons zombies with their weapons?" That one shotgun guy almost got us.

Also, Shantae got her chance to observe an arch-vile in controlled conditions. Close up, even. Stuck in one of the cells, this monster provided an unusual challenge: it kept resurrecting inmates in adjacent cells until we finally put it down.

And then an unassuming side door rose without warning, revealing... A lot of demons. Revenants in front, bazooka jumped into my hands by reflex. Anti-tank rocket exploding in such close quarters was rattling - doubly so for Shantae, without hearing protection - but at least these most dangerous monsters went down. Barons and knights were coming next, filling a narrow staircase that led down. I fired two more rockets into that enclosed space, killing one knight and staggering other monsters, when the top half of one of the downed revenants rose on its arms, hissing angrily. I shifted my aim down, but the stubborn thing had already walked towards us, too close now. It was going to fire!

As I was switching to the railgun, Shantae ran forward with a wordless shout to perform a dramatic spin-kick that took the thing's skull cleanly off its shoulders. My old hand-to-hand combat instructor would have criticized the move for being flashy and full of openings. But she only used it against a target that couldn't strike back, didn't she?

The baron recovered, enraged, and raised his arms wide for a spread-shot. Shantae waited, jumpy and twitchy, until the last moment, then avoided the five-fireball salvo by dropping onto all fours. I dodged by strafing, then finished aiming and fired. Hyper-velocity plasma bolt tore through the baron and all the monsters behind him whose heads were in my line of fire. They all died. There were roars of pain from ones further down, wounded by the blast from the ceiling hit.

Shantae shuffled close to the door, peering inside. She then yelled "fire in the hole!" throwing a grenade down the stairs — and slid away along the wall in her signature motion that was not unlike my high-speed boot-skating.

The explosion brought more bellows of pain. "Grenades are wasted on tougher monsters," I explained as I switched to the bazooka and ran to the door. Confirming that the monsters were far enough, I fired a single rocket at them. Weakened by the earlier hits, all knights died. "It takes too many to bring one down and they rarely crowd densely enough. Your grenade weakened them, though, saving us one rocket." I squinted. Were these piles of meat...? "And it seems you got a couple minigun zombies for company. So don't—"

And then the chunks of pulped flesh flowed together with wet crunching sounds, mangled bodies turning back into intact knights and zombies, accompanied by very distinctive hissing grunts that sounded like mocking laughter.

"Archvile!" I shouted as I fired my weapon again and again, until the drum ran empty, dodging green fireballs from the resurrected knights. "Reloading!" I pulled away from the door, taking cover. "There's one wounded knight left, but the vile can raise others any moment!" I warned.

"I'll try სხიმიტარ dash!" Shantae proclaimed eagerly as she took position across the door, that huge sword in hand. "Here we go!" She ran, then blurred down the stairs, a huge wet impact accompanying her descent followed by a vile's scream of pain a fraction of a second later. I grit my teeth, staying patiently out of the reckless girl's return path. There were her spirited shouts, distinctive archvile grunts, then crackling of fire... Please hurry back!

A fiery projectile exploded out of the door like a cannon blast that hit the corner of the wall and ceiling opposite it. Shantae materialized there, dropping from fifteen or so feet up along cobbles knocked loose. She barely managed to land on her feet, stumbled and fell over, smoking a bit. "There are... two archviles," she managed dazedly, trying to get up. She looked intact, just stunned, despite having been blown up by arch-vile fire.

The knights bellowed their challenge, whole and healthy yet again. I switched to the super shotgun, waited for them to go up the stairs and beheaded them one point-blank shot each. The viles were welcome to try raising them here, from all the way down. News flash: they couldn't. Their vile magic needs line of sight.

I then threw two grenades down the stairs in quick succession. Contrary to my earlier teachings? Not at all. One vile was quite banged up from Shantae ramming it. My gamble worked, grenades finished it off. Their dying cry "yekhoyoy!" is quite distinct, whatever they mean to say. Don't know, don't care. Switching to the chainsaw — and warning Shantae to stay away, because her hair whip and chainsaws should never be in the same room, ideally — I dashed down the stairs. There were no other monsters in the small room the stairs led to, except the remaining vile and the minigun zombie it was raising, claws glowing crimson. I loped the zombie's head off in one swing. The vile raised its hands that began glowing yellow, crackling flame springing up around me. I revved my chainsaw, swinging at the abomination's side and pushing on the handle with everything I got. Its flesh was tough, but it was yielding. Its spell got interrupted two or three inches in. Blood flying, staining everything around but most of it landing on me, I kept digging the roaring blade into the demon's side until I cut it clean in two. With another "yekhoyoy!" it fell dead.

"That's one mean tinker-sword," Shantae commented from the stairs where she kept her respectful distance.

"It's a saw, really," I corrected her, cleaning the mechanized tool as best as I could. "For chopping down trees and stuff."

Surveying the small room revealed another staircase leading further down. It was impossible not to notice, what with the stench of stagnant water mixed with carrion and sewage. The stairs ended in a vast, flooded hall. Rows upon rows of columns were disappearing into pitch-black darkness, supporting vaulted ceiling. The air here was only breathable thanks to my helmet filters. Shantae made a face, pulled a skull-themed scarf from somewhere and tied it around her face. I swung my flashlight's beam around, bringing the columns into visibility. The far walls were still to be seen.

The cherry on top of this crap cake...? The blue skull key propped innocently on a wooden barrel, deep in the hall. Hard to miss because these keys glow.

"I... I'll scout ahead," Shantae whispered stepping into the water with a shudder. The foul, muddy liquid proved to only be ankle deep, not enough to flood her boots but enough to slow her down.

I switched to the minigun, the universal weapon effective against almost any target without switching.

She made maybe three steps when she froze, shuddering and hyperventilating. I tensed. She made stumbling, involuntary steps back until her back hit the walls next to the entrance. She didn't seem to be noticing that, still trying to back away, her teeth chattering.

"What's wrong?" I asked quietly. "Get a hold on yourself, you're panicking!"

"R..right." She forced herself to take a deep breath, heedless of the miasma here barely passing for air. "Right. Panicked relic hunter is a dead relic hunter. Fear snuffs reason. Right. I—" She took another deep breath. "Hostiles. There are eyes glowing in the dark. Only the eyes. It's them. The invisible pink gorillas."

"All right," I said pulling back up the stairs and pulling her after me by her arm. "Here's what we do. I go down there and torch that hall. I don't have much napalm left, but I see no better alternative. That would draw them all out. We fight a retreating battle up these staircases, turning them into killzones—"

"No," Shantae refused firmly despite her voice shaking. "Fears are to be faced head-on lest they fester poisoning your resolve. The ceiling there is high enough. I got another სხიმიტარ move, it allows me bouncing on their heads if there are enough monsters."

"You'll get killed for nothing!" my outburst was almost too loud. What was she thinking!

"Don't worry, I had a lot of practice on feral zombies back home," she said trying to reassure, it seems, not just me but herself as well. "That blue spiral cannon can shoot through any number of monsters, right? Then you can slay a lot in one or two shots as they gather under me!"

Was she tempting me with ammo economy?

"Come on," Shantae continued. "We'd save so many charges at the cost of a small-small risk to lose one spare life!"

She was. Like she wasn't the one to be torn apart viciously if her gamble failed!

"All right," I agreed grudgingly. I was really quite low on ammo for most convenient guns. We were both stocked with rockets but using the bazooka against spectres in such enclosed spaces is trying for Darwin awards. They close in too fast and sudden!

Twenty or thirty cells for a few railgun shots I could spare, on the other hand. Then polish the stragglers off using my assault shotgun.

Stepping carefully into the foul water I took position near the exit, trying to stay concealed for the time being.

With a loud shout, half terror and half challenge, Shantae power-dashed right up to the barrel with the key - running on top of water, I noticed - which was accompanied with snarls of alerted spectres that rolled across the hall like a wave. At the key she stopped, sinking a bit, replacing her sword...? Oh, she used the little time she had to throw two grenades deeper into the hall. Then she tensed, bouncing on the balls of her feet but still sans her sword. I had railgun out and primed, not that I could save her if her plan didn't work. But I sure as hell was going to try.

The ring of splashes converged on her, closing... Shantae jumped good ten feet up, bringing her sword out and mounting it like a pogo-stick. Then she descented into the snarling, snapping mass of flickering pink shadows — and went literally pogoing on the sword, each bounce accompanied by a grunt of pain. She was twisting and shifting, focused completely on searching her next landing spot. The spectres were crowding, getting in each other's way, their awkward lunges cut short. The plan was working!

Aiming a bit to the side - because my companion had to bounce off something solid which guts and chunks weren't - I fired as she reached another apex. The explosion of gore was even more massive that I had anticipated, bloody mist actually denying me line of sight. Thankfully, it cleared enough by the time my railgun finished cycling. I fired again, with much the same result. Shantae's bouncing was steady, there was still a solid foothold of densely packed spectres below her. The demons were growing wise to my presence: a wave of splashes, snarls and very visible glowing eyes was stampeding towards me. I waited until the railgun finished cycling and fired for the third time, shredding both through this group and Shantae's. Then I switched to the assault shotgun and was busy for awhile, retreating into the staircase. I hurried back into the hall as soon as I was out of demons. There was no sign of Shantae, just spectres running somewhere, judging by the splashes they were making. Then a line of blurry afterimages and gory explosions zipped across the hall between the column rows. The stampeding splashes reversed their direction. Like moth to the flame. Or lemmings. The inventive young lady made two more passes before dashing towards me. I finished a couple stragglers off, and that was it. Shantae was smiling under the scarf, pleased with herself. She wasn't even breathing hard. But boy, was she splattered with blood and gore, her skin and clothing now the same color: messy red. I suppose I wasn't looking better: CQC using chainsaws does that to you.

"Eww!" Shantae hair-whipped at the nearby wall a couple of times, her ponytail coming out mostly clean. Her bangs were still glued to her forehead and tiara, though. "So gross...! Well, I guess this was inevitable." She sighed, tugging at the blood-soaked scarf still covering her face. "Shall we?"

And then we had to search for the key in this murky cesspit because the barrel propping it got, of course, trampled.

It wasn't pleasant. But that had very little relevance.

Finally, we were standing in front of the tall doors leading into yet another dimension. Readying my plasma guns, I touched the doors with the still stinking blue skull.

The wings swung open with barely a sound revealing... a grand hall of white marble, its arched windows showing yet another vista of muddy brown clouds over pitch blackness. The hall was well lit by torches on the walls and golden chandelabras on the floor. We found ourselves on a balcony of sorts, running along the wall and descending down in two symmetric grand carpeted staircases. This was the richest decorated place I've seen so far - a good sign.

There were various grunts and other quiet sounds coming from down in the hall, telling us it was full of demons. We crept cautiously towards the railing to take a look.

"It smells so nice it makes me sick," Shantae whispered looking like she was ready to hurl. "Just thinking what they are probably roasting there..."

Damn, I hadn't felt that. Probably, because of my helmet filters choked by shit.

Down there, the demons were... feasting. A huge table surrounded by a good two dozen of barons, filled with goblets and dishes and pans, all garish ornate gold, full of roasted meat. Was that a human ribcage on the dish that baron was emptying with gusto...? Yep.

Honestly, the sight didn't even fill me with outrage. It was just demons being themselves. My attitude towards them is sealed, there is no point in focusing on the obvious. Shantae, on the other hand, had to resort to breathing exercises.

But that was just minutae. The question was: what to do with this herd? There was a lot of barons down there, accompanied by a few sullen knights drinking from smaller goblets and a lot of imps and pinkies milling around begging for scraps. I matched the amount of cannon fodder down there against my ammunition reserves and the result wasn't pretty.

And then, the grand doors on the far end of the hall swung open revealing a cyberdemon, late for diner. The great demon walked towards the table like he owned the place, the crowd parting fearfully, giving him a wide berth. The barons bowed a little, in an unusual show of respect.

Me? I grinned viciously. The "us versus the army" just turned into "us versus one scuffed cyberdemon". I just had to play the dodge-ball right.

A crowd of zombies rushed in, laden with a huge dish and a metallic barrel of nukage. I paused: what were they going to do with these?

Both the oversized dish - with a whole pinky roasted on a spit - and the barrel were put on the table before the cyberdemon. Leaning down, he grabbed the barrel with his one good hand, raised it to his head and... started chugging it down...? What the hell...?

Downing the whole barrel, the cyberdemon threw it aside, burped contently and leaned again to grab the roasted pinky. He looked not pacified - I don't think that's even possible - but less murderous than usual. The other demons were giving him a wider berth now, though. I was wondering why when a series of small explosions raised dust and smoke behind the great beast who paused, then continued tearing into the roast.

"They... literally eat nukage and fart thunder," I voiced my disbelief. "Well, at least we now know what they need this green shit for." Indeed, some of the goblets down there were showing characteristic green glow.

I warned Shantae to stay away, back in the entrance hall. Because when dealing with cyberdemons one stray shot is all that takes to become a collateral smeared across the walls. She agreed, sounding apprehensive. Can't blame her.

Then it was time to rumble. Switching to the assault shotgun again, to get rid of small unexpected obstacles quickly, I tiptoed down the stairs, then rushed along the table to stop directly across the cyberdemon. The imps and pinkies were snarling, turning towards me me while the barons were oblivious yet. "GO FUCK YOURSELF!" I screamed at the great beast, flipping him two birds at once.

His bellow of rage shook the hall. I dashed further along the table, buffeted by shockwaves, imps and pinkies behind me exploding, barons roaring in pain. The cyberdemon unloaded at me with all he got, oblivious to obstacles in his line of fire.

Respectful the barons may be, but they don't take such offense lying down. A furious battle sounded behind me. But most demons in the hall were now gunning for me: pinkies stampeding, barons unleashing a torrent of green fire, imps adding their relatively puny fireballs.

It all went as well as you could expect from a mix of species that barely tolerate each other at the best of times. The pinkies soaked the baron balls, some exploding into charred meat, some doing one eighty to go give the barons a piece of their mind. Imps hit some baron or other, resulting in vicious mauling. I made a sharp turn to keep going around the table. The feast was quickly turning into a mess, goblets and dishes flying every which way, partly soaking up the baron fire aimed at me. A crowd of zombies rushed me, armed with frying pans and cleavers. I ignored them, leaving them behind as I dodged incoming cyberdemon salvo. There were explosions behind me, bloody splatter flying. The cyberdemon got hit in the back with a lot of baron balls - and that was enough to redirect his rage. Turning around, he unloaded into the still intact barons, shredding some and offending more, the wounded demon elite now returning fire deliberatedly. I was mostly dodging fire from the few bruisers still aiming at me and mopping up rare surviving imps.

The barons, however tough, did not last long against the angry cyberdemon. The two dozen became one, then half-dozen. Unrelenting, they rushed into melee - and were obliterated by his mighty stomp, together with half the table. Seriously, it's more like explosion, so much allo-energy he puts into his stomp...

Maneuvering carefully to place the few remaining knights between me and the cyberdemon, I fooled him into obliterating them as well while I made my escape up the stairs, out of the great demon's line of sight.

Now, a million dollar question: was the beast looking damaged enough not to survive a single BFG shot?

"Stay behind me, at any cost," I warned Shantae as I switched to the gun in question. "You can't help me here, this thing obliterates everything in a wide arc in front of me."

Here we go. I ran down into the hall, entering the cyberdemon's line of sight. Dodged his salvo - still enraged, still a six-shot burst instead of four. Then I pulled the trigger, causing the monster of a gun to begin powering up with ominous hum. I then moved so that the balcony was behind me - just in case - all the while closing in. The cyberdemon abandoned aiming at me in favor of raising his steel hoof, preparing to stomp me. Then my BFG finally fired, blinding me with a massive, brilliant green flash.

I don't know how they made it so that the blast doesn't harm the shooter, even point-blank. This gun's secondary tracers are weird as well - something related to subspace manipulation, I guess. They are probably a side-effect, a quirk of this super-prototype - because who in their right mind makes anti-tank weapons most effective point-blank? But the wide-spanning tracers do pack more hurt than the primary plasma ball. And the cyberdemon caught them all.

He exploded.

"We won!" Shantae exclaimed with light-hearted joy as she jumped over the railing to land next to me. "This cannon is terrific!"

"It is, indeed," I said surveying the hall. "At the cost of fifty cells, equivalent of five railgun shots or a very long plasmagun burst, it devastates large crowds all at once. Or kills a fresh cyberdemon in two shots."

"They really did it to each other," she said with disgust, looking around. Once fancy, the hall was trashed, walls cracked and blackened, floor a multicolored mess of shredded demon, broken furniture and scattered tableware. With pieces of human roast seeping fat here and there.

We headed for the far door. Its fifteen-foot tall wings wouldn't budge. There were no signs this door would require a key, so we started exploring. Checked the kitchen first. Should have made Shantae stand outside.

It wasn't the sight of whole bodies roasting over roaring fire, nor the butchered, flayed corpses on the tables, no.

It was the stock of fresh food, marines impaled on stakes like living kebabs, through their ass and out their breastbone, gasping, clutching at their stake in pain or crying haltingly. There was half a dozen of them, among even more mauled to death already or turned into zombies, squirming ceaselessly.

She was upon them like a frightened nurse, flitting to and fro, twitching to help. "Doomguy!" She turned around, her expression uncharacteristically helpless. "We should help hem!"

"Yes, we should," I replied, switching to my sidearm, making my intent crystal clear.

Her face went pale with horror. "I... I mean, we must save them..."

"And we will." I grit, suppressing emotions while cocking the slide. Because I wasn't a stone block either. But this had to be done.

"Wait! Stop!" She threw her palm up in a universal stopping motion. "No... I understand. Leaving them suffer is beyond cruel, and we may never have enough healing items..." She was beginning to cry, tears making messy tracks through the blood crusted on her face. "But... What if... We should at least try first!"

"Even if that means causing them agony?" I asked, lowering my sidearm. "Look at them - no, look at them. They are stuck firmly. How much force, do you think, is necessary to pry them free?"

"Ew..." She did as told and failed to suppress a shiver. "Well, pain is just pain. It passes. Had I chickened out that time instead of hopping all three miles back with a broken leg, I wouldn't be here. We should try!"

I looked her in the eye. There was resolve, despite tears still flowing freely. I walked around the prisoners, assessing how better to pull them off. "Three miles with a broken leg?" I said, just to distract my companion.

"Well, I wasn't as prudent and careful as I should have been, back when I was thirteen," she admitted following me like a puppy. "But I think I caused Uncle Mimic more pain than myself."

Oh, the horrors of raising kids. I felt for the man, whoever he was. Logically thinking, skilled battle-ready maidens don't grow on trees, aren't they? Otherwise there would be more. The process must make normal parents gray early.

"All right," I said stopping at one of the impaled marines. He was clutching at his stake so tightly that the wood and his gloves were creaking. "Let's begin with this one. I pull at the upper body, you push at the legs."

Because if we cut the pole and tried this on the ground, we may never have enough grip on the slippery wood.

"All right!" She nodded furiously, grabbing at the guy's legs.

We pulled and pushed, the marine grunted in agony and it felt like would finally dislodge him when he suddenly broke apart. The chest pulled free, remaining in my hands, guts dangling below the diaphragm. The legs stayed in Shantae's grip, one arm under each knee. The rest... just unraveled unnaturally, splattering the determined maiden with blood and shit and guts.

"Ack!" she coughed, dropping the legs and wiping at her face, then looking up like she was tracing something rising with her eyes. "This could prove more hopeless than I thought."

"What do you mean?" I asked as I put the nameless now dead body down. The chips in their armor were all destroyed by the impalement, probably deliberately.

"Well, the spirit realms like this hell," she said trying to clean herself of gore, "they all have their own laws." She hair-whipped at the wall, making her ponytail clean again. "The natural philosophy of the human world... Make it worlds, only applies to a certain extent. It's... Let's just say spirit realms could be very dangerous for the weak-willed and the unprepared. I, myself, haven't even noticed because I'm very stubborn, or so my friends say, but as a rule of thumb humans have to be on alert, ready to assert themselves, or the realm's rules take hold."

"You mean, one has to exert willpower here just to say himself?" I asked. "Then deploying troops here is more dangerous than we thought!"

"More like exert willpower to keep existing under your own rules," she corrected. "I've already noticed, this world is skewed toward living things exploding gruesomely. So those who give up..."

"Accept this place's rules," I finished for her, looking down at the body parts and gore.

"So we could only save someone who hadn't given up," Shantae said straightening up. "I... I can't imagine myself holding for so long... It must hurt so much..."

I glanced back at the impaled guys. If my hunch was right, this could be even more hopeless. Because why were they still alive? The stakes stem the bleeding, but that only goes so far. I had a suspicion this place was also skewed heavily towards suffering, thus keeping those with mortal wounds alive far longer than was natural. Was there even a clear line between us and the zombies who often sport gruesome wounds and sometimes even walk around and shoot without their heads?

We took hold of the next guy. "Duh... Don'.. bother..." he rasped, twitching. We pulled anyway. As he was going to budge... his innards came out of his ass, remaining on the stake while he slipped off without any resistance. He screamed in agony, then went limp.

"This one too," Shantae commented with sadness as she let go of the legs, following something invisible rising with her eyes.

"Are you sure?" I asked because the body was still twitching.

"Yeah," She sighed. "Didn't you see his soul depart?"

Say what...?

"I... can't see souls," I admitted cautiously.

"You can't?" She sounded surprised. "Then... Oh! Ooooh! This must be a special ability of mine, just like the inventory. And here I always assumed... Gah! We got no time for this! They are suffering!"

We tried the next guy, and the next, and the next, all expiring in various gruesome ways before they were off their stakes. Shantae was growing resigned, her face sullen. But she didn't let her determination waver.

The last one we gripped by route. I pulled, my companion pushed... This one was stuck more firmly than the rest. We strained, lifting the guy with all we got, he grunted in pain, we pulled even harder, he began budging... I was fully expecting him to explode into body parts, not come loose with a scream of agony.

We... did it?

I hurried to pull the marine off the stake and all but throw him to the floor, because there was a lot of blood streaming out, we had maybe seconds. Shantae threw a soul sphere at him. It merged with his body with a sound reminiscent of a chord. The flow of blood stopped. Shantae threw a blue armor power-up for a good measure. His armor glowed briefly, turning pristine. Even most of the grime fell off.

"We did it!" Shantae shouted with joy, prancing around like a bunny on steroids. Can't fault her.

"Of all the—" A woman's voice interrupted my train of thought. The marine we rescued took their helmet off revealing the face of a Greek goddess framed with short-cropped blonde hair. "Fly! Where did you find such a cute miracle-worker?"

"Arlene...?" One can't fault me for my disbelief. This was one of the best marines from from the same Allotech Division as me. "I thought no one from Mars survived!"

"Well, I thought too: no one, including me!" She grinned, standing up and turning to Shantae. "I feel like a brand-new woman, how did you do that?"

"Oh, I just used magical items collected here and there," demurred the blood-caked dancer.

"Meet Shantae," I said. "My sidekick and expert on supernatural matters. Shantae, meet corporal Arlene Shneider, the best marksman of our division."

"Glad to meet you," Shantae smiled at her. "You wouldn't believe how glad I am that we managed to save you!"

"Hah, I bet I'm glad even more you did it!"

Shantae giggled. Then added: "And I'm not just his squire, I'm also his magic item bearer."

"Hey...!" Arlene finally noticed the elephant in the room. "You aren't speaking English!"

"Welcome to the club." I chuckled. "This translation effect is very convenient, considering the hell connects not just to our world. But take notice how meaning could change subtly. Between sidekick and squire, for example."

"Umm, it's the same word repeated twice, right?" Shantae said, confused.

"See what I mean?"

We walked out into the ruined hall.

"So nice to see the fuckers get fucked as deserved," Arlene commented with bloodthirsty glee. I saw Shantae's face fall a little. Yeah, sorry, kiddo, but even girls swear when they are marines. "Where's the rest of the army?"

"I'm... Sorry to say this," I began in a roundabout way, "But our counter-offensive faltered. No one expected there to be so many demons. So... There are now exactly two marines still deployed in Hell, performing sort of guerilla warfare. Someone has to find their leader and um..." I glanced at Shantae, "unleash a can of whoop-ass on him."

"Only you, Fly..." She shook her head. "So how about providing me with anything to fight with...? Come on, cough it up, I know your gimmick."

I parted with the railgun and one hundred cells. Shantae offered Arlene all her weapons saying she rarely used them at all. But Arlene's aptitude only allows her to hold one weapon in hammerspace, which was now taken by the railgun with its bulky ammo. And Shantae did need something in case she found herself surrounded.

After trying this and that, passing weapons around, we stopped on this loadout: Arlene with assault rifle and bazooka slung over her shoulder, one spare drum on her belt, the rest of her pouches filled with spare magazines. The standard assault rifle may be too weak against meatier demons, but that's at medium to close distances. Its accuracy allows sniping them from afar, and even a baron could only take so many headshots. In short, the AR is very good for the warfare how it has been until the demons turned it on its head.

Shantae, in turn, got my two SMGs and all ammo for them. She would only use them at short distances. We made sure she could dual-wield easily, she surely had enough strenght for that, and if she needed reloading mid-battle it meant she was doing it wrong: her primary weapons were her magical sword-dash and her ability to dodge bullets.

I told Arlene all that briefly, to get her accustomed with our quirky companion. Also noted Shantae's daredevil tendencies. The girl in question reacted self-consciously. Good.

Finally we found the lever that opened the grand doors. We came prepared for a fight, but were greeted by an empty yard. There was a central path framed by sickly-looking trees, shrubbery and fancy fountains gurgling blood. But not a single demon.

My attention, though, was on the multi-tiered city looming a ways ahead like an enormous red hedgehog resting on raged cliffs, the dark bristle of its innumerable spires threatening the burning sky overhead shaded with ragged clouds.

"That," I said feeling an eager, bloodthirsty grin insinuate onto my face, "looks like the boss lair we are searching for."


( 。◕ シーンブレイク ◕。)


A/N:

1. That was actual game strategy. Let me quote the Brutal Doom manual by Sergeant Mark IV: "A common trick used by the community is to piss off Cyberdemons, because they fire twice as often and twice as fast when enraged. When this tactic is employed correctly, you can trick a Cyberdemon intro crushing an entire army of enemies for you but usually flipping off a Cyberdemon is a stupid of an idea as it sounds." So without that dual-wielded birdie chance was the cyberdemon would have fallen to the barons.

2. The tortured marines were there in v21 beta, removed in the final version for some reason.