6 – 22

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“Slowly,” Madeleine purred, replacing the stopper in the decanter and setting it down on her dining room table. “Hold a sip on your tongue and inhale slowly through your nose. Taste, smell, savor it. A fine wine is an experience for all the senses, my darling.”

“Mm,” Gabriel agreed wordlessly around a mouthful of crimson wine. He let his eyes drift close, inhaling deeply through his nose.

“This is so precious I may have to chew my foot off to escape it,” Triss remarked, lounging against the door frame. “That’s drugged, by the way. Nobody who cares that much about wine would have it already decanted before her guest even arrived, unless she wanted to tamper with it first.”

“Oh…wow,” Gabriel mused, after finally swallowing. “You know, I never expected that to be so…”

“I know,” Madeleine said with a pleased smile.

“I sort of assumed people only used alcohol to get themselves drunk. It’s just so delicious.”

“You were right the first time,” Triss observed, while Madeleine nattered on about wine. “Booze is for getting plastered, candy is for pleasing the tongue. Confusing the two is the province of pretentious twits. Well, this seems to be some kind of memory, so at least you didn’t die.”

She perked up, suddenly paying attention upon hearing Madeleine’s next line.

“Do you trust me?”

The girl was gazing up at Gabriel through her lashes, eyes limpid but her expression serious.

“What?” He lowered his wineglass, frowning at her in consternation. “You know I do. I thought we’d had all this out long before now.”

“That is what I’d hoped,” she replied, smiling somewhat wistfully. “I see so much potential in you, Gabriel. You’re going to do great things, and I hope to be a part of them.”

“Great things wouldn’t be any fun without you there,” he said, grinning and moving closer, setting his glass down on the table.

She stopped him by placing a hand in the center of his chest, still gazing seriously into his eyes. “No one should ride your coattails, my dear. I fully intend to earn a place at your side. There are so many things I can teach you, show you… Ways I can help you gain what you need. What you deserve.”

“Oh, she’s good,” Triss breathed.

“You don’t have to earn anything,” Gabriel said, frowning now. “I just want… I like being with you, Madeleine. That’s all I need.”

“Then you do trust me?”

“Of course!” he said fervently.

“You, sir, are functionally retarded,” Triss announced.

“Good.” Madeleine nodded slowly. “I’ve prepared something… Something that will help you. It may be a bit of a shock, darling. I just want you to know everything I do is in your best interests. Please believe that.”

“You know I do,” he said, taking her hand in his and raising it to his lips.

“Then I have something to show you,” she replied, stepping back and leading him along with her.

“This oughtta be rich,” Triss muttered, following them.

Madeleine led him through her kitchen to a heavy door which she unlocked with a slim key produced from her bodice. Beyond this, steps led down into darkness, with just a hint of eerie light staining the walls of the stairwell.

The hostess stepped to the side at the base of the stairs, allowing her guest to have a view of the cellar. He came to a dead halt on the bottom step, staring; Triss had to crane her neck behind him to see within.

The wine cellar was clean, well-built and well-stocked with neatly racked and labeled bottles. It was also dim, the only light coming from the spell circle currently inscribed on the floor in the center. Within, a humanoid figure rose slowly from a crouching position at their entry.

“What have you done?” Gabriel whispered.

“It’s not what you’re thinking,” she said.

“You’re a warlock!”

“I?” Madeleine had the nerve to sound amused. “A warlock would be able to let him out of the circle and control him. Sadly, I have no such power. Connections open many doors, my dear; gold opens even more. All it takes to summon a demon is the capacity to acquire some rather expensive reagents, and follow directions.”

“What is that?” he demanded.

“Bored,” said the figure in the circle, short tail waving behind him. “Extremely bored. You could’ve left me a book or something, you know.”

“This,” Madeleine said in a satisfied tone, “is a hethelax. He can teach you to properly control your—”

“No!” Gabe shouted, taking a step back up the stairs and crowding into Triss, which he apparently didn’t notice. “I don’t need to control that. I don’t need to know anything about it!”

“Gabriel, darling, the last thing I want is to insult your father, but that’s him talking, not you,” she said. He flinched when she approached, but allowed her to take his hand. “And I can appreciate his desire to protect you…but the method he’s chosen is foolish in the extreme. Your blood will not simply go away if you ignore it. It is there, and can be used against you. It will be used against you, one way or another. The only way around this is to understand it. If you will not make use of whatever gifts it brings, that’s up to you. But you must know the facts, or you will be vulnerable.”

“I have my doubts about this whole enterprise,” the demon said calmly, shifting from side to side. The motion made light glint of the carapace shielding his forehead and forearms; he wore a short, tattered robe without sleeves, which concealed the rest of his body. “My advice to you is not to mess around with anything demonic, kid. If you want to have any kind of a life up here on this plane, that will only make your options fewer. But she’s not wrong; what you don’t know can and will be used against you.”

“That’s true,” Triss murmured. “You’re being played like a fiddle, of course. The truth is a good bow.”

“And what do you get out of this?” Gabriel demanded.

The demon chuckled, spreading his hands; the shells over his knuckles sparked against the invisible cylinder in which he stood. “I’m not really in a position to dictate terms, am I? But she’s promised to send me back after I help, and this I don’t mind doing. I’ve not sired any half-bloods myself, but I know those who have. You kids have it rough up here. It’ll make me feel good if I can actually lend you some insight.”

“I…” Gabe glanced rapidly between the hethelax and Madeleine, stepping back and eliciting a grunt of protest from Triss. “I…need to think. I’m gonna go.”

“You’ll go talk to your father,” she said with a wry twist of her pouty lips, “and your friend Tobias. And then I will be arrested for unlicensed demonology. You’re here, Gabriel, and so is he. Take advantage while the offer is available, then decide what you want to do about it.”

“I’m not going to just turn you in, Madeleine,” he said, practically vibrating with tension. “But this is too much. I really need to reconsider some stuff.”

“Gabriel,” she said firmly, “if you walk out that door, you will be placing yourself and everyone you meet in serious danger.”

“What?”

“I know you too well, my darling,” she said with a sad little smile. “I will spend whatever years it takes atoning for this, but to protect us both I had to take steps. In a very short while, your blood will rise, and you will need to learn to deal with it.”

“What? What did…” He trailed off, then raised a hand to his lips. “What did you do?”

“Fucking called it,” Triss grunted.

“I’m curious about that myself,” the hethelax said sharply. “This isn’t what we discussed.”

“It’s a simple demonic accelerant in the wine,” Madeleine said calmly. “Very mild. Not even dangerous to handle or injest, but where infernal magic is already present, it enhances it. In your case, once fully absorbed, it should induce a berserking state.”

There was a moment of dead silence.

“Lady,” Triss marveled, “you are either really evil or really fucking dumb.”

“I wish you’d shared more of your plan with me,” the demon said icily. “I could have warned you not to do such an utterly harebrained thing.”

“How could you do that to me?” Gabriel whispered. He was beginning to shake. Triss stepped backward up the stairs, putting a little space between her and him. “I trusted you.”

“He can tell you how to cope,” Madeleine said, staring intently up at him. She stepped backward, pulling him down into the room; in an apparent state of shock, Gabriel let himself be led. “You can do it, Gabriel. I know you can. I have unequivocal faith in you. And I…” She languidly lifted her free hand, dragging her fingertips slowly up the deep arch of her bosom, and carefully unfastened the top button of her dress. “I will provide you with an outlet.”

“Sinister, stupid and awkward,” the hethelax snorted. “I’m so happy to be included in this.”

“You creepy piece of shit,” Triss hissed. “And I’m not talking to the demon!”

Gabriel’s breath had begun rasping; he suddenly hunched forward, pressing his free hand to his chest.

“It’s all right, my love,” Madeleine said firmly, pulling herself closer. “You are in control.”

“Woman, shut up,” snapped the demon. “Gabriel, listen to me. The berserking state is a simple one, it shuts down all unnecessary thought. You can’t control it, but you can influence it heavily. Keep one thought firmly in the forefront of your mind right now and it’ll carry forward. Focus on your positive feelings for her. This is your woman; concentrate on love. You can hash out this argument later, just remember right now that you love her!”

“Right now, I don’t think I do,” Gabriel growled. He actually growled, his voice rasping heavily, as if his vocal cords were no longer designed for human speech.

“Love may be too complex,” said Madeleine, taking another step closer, almost near enough to embrace him. “Sex is simple. I know how much you want me, Gabriel. You can have me.” She lowered her voice, looking heatedly up through her lashes, and firmly placed his hand upon her breast. “You are about to have me. You, not the monster. You are you, and you are in control!”

He snarled and snapped at her like a wild dog; she did not so much as flinch as he seized her by the neck with his other hand. It wasn’t big enough to encircle her throat, but he clutched her viciously, his thumb digging into her jugular.

“I want you to know I’ve worked for two incubi and had a fling with a succubus,” the hethelax grated, “and none of them were are sexually freaky as this idiocy.”

“You…backstabbing…whore.” Gabriel’s speech was only barely recognizable as words. Madeleine emitted a soft sound of pain as he forced her head back, but her expression did not change in the slightest.

He flung her fiercely away; Madeleine careened off a wine rack, sending bottles crashing to the floor, and lost her footing in the resulting mess. She cried out as she landed on broken glass.

“Gabriel!” the demon shouted urgently, waving frantically at the half-blood, who was now stalking toward Madeleine, claw-tipped fingers flexing menacingly. “Gabriel, listen to me! Focus on my voice! Just take her. You can sort out your issues later. Take what she’s offering; it’ll keep you grounded. There’ll be no coming back from this if you kill her!”

“Hell with it, I don’t care how this was supposed to end,” Triss said, and launched herself onto Gabriel from behind.

It was far from her first time ambushing someone. She wrapped her arms around him, neatly pinning his own arms to his sides with one move, and twined her legs over his upper thighs, squeezing hard enough to impede his steps. He staggered, making her fear for a moment that they’d both fall into wine and broken glass, but caught his balance, twisting furiously this way and that. Triss could feel hardness along his arms beneath his shirt, where scales or carapace were forming, and only squeezed harder. Berserking or not, he wasn’t preternaturally strong, only preternaturally durable, and while she was in excellent shape, the Gabriel who’d never taken any of Professor Ezzaniel’s classes was a scrawny layabout. She held him firmly; his struggles gained nothing.

“The key to tricking people is to help them trick themselves,” she grated into his ear, grunting with each abrupt shift of his body. He staggered back and forth, at one point barely avoiding a fall, but couldn’t dislodge his invisible attacker. “People want to see what makes sense to them. You don’t know I’m here, so you’ve gotta—nf!—create your own narrative.”

He careened into another wine rack, sending another cascade of bottles crashing to the floor. Triss yelped, her right bicep taking the brunt of the impact, but tightened her grip, refusing to yield.

“That’s right,” she growled, “you can’t attack and there’s no outside explanation, so it must be you. You’re not attacking her because you don’t want to. Figure it out!”

Gabriel toppled to his knees, momentarily catching her foot painfully between his thighs. Still she clung to him.

“Listen to the monster and the creepy bitch,” Triss said into his ear, more calmly now that his struggles were starting to abate. “You’re in control. That’s the only thing that makes sense.”

He panted heavily, shoulders heaving with each breath, and slumped forward.

“You’ve got this,” she said. In the relative quiet, her voice was soft, calm. “I believe in you, Gabriel. Not because I have plans for you, but because I’ve seen you in action. You’re a good friend. You’re a good man.”

She slumped forward, resting her forehead on his shoulder, feeling his breath grow calmer.

“I just wish you knew that.”

Above them, the cellar door banged open. Mist poured down the stairs, silent but furious as a waterfall. In seconds it had washed over them, rising above the level of their heads, obscuring everything from view.

It was absolutely quiet. There was nothing to be heard except their breathing.

She could no longer feel his labored heartbeat through her breastplate.

Gabriel laboriously raised his head. “…thanks.”

Tentatively, Trissiny relaxed her grip slightly. “You okay? Are you back?”

“I—yeah. Yeah, I’m okay.” He shifted slightly to look over his shoulder at her, bringing his face very nearly into contact with hers. “…you?”

Finally, she let him go, settling back to the ground behind him. “I’m fine. Everything’s…back. I think.”

Slowly, he stood, self-consciously straightening his coat. Trissiny shifted the weight of her shield on her back experimentally, grasping the hilt of her sword for reassurance. When he finally turned fully to face her, they could only stare at each other in a painfully awkward silence.

Eventually, he cleared his throat. “You, uh… How much do you remember?”

“Everything.” She swallowed. “You?”

“Same.” He tore his gaze from hers, peering around them. “Well, it’s… Here we are, again.”

The hall was exactly as it had been at the beginning: broad, apparently infinite, and empty except for the omnipresent mist.

“So…did we win?” she asked cautiously.

Gabriel sighed heavily. “Do you feel like we won?”

“I—” She broke off, clutching her sword again. He followed her gaze and pivoted to face down the hall, reaching into his coat for his wand. A figure was approaching them, its feet resounding softly against the stone, gradually resolving itself out of the gloom. So dense was the fog that they couldn’t get a clear view until he was only a few yards distant.

Toby came to a stop, studying them closely. His face was drawn, expression guarded. He’d lost his staff somewhere, but flexed his hands in a very uncharacteristic display of martial readiness.

“I only caught the tail end of that,” he said quietly. “Are you two okay?”

Trissiny and Gabriel exchanged a glance.

“More or less,” she said cautiously. “Are you…you?”

“Gods, I hope so,” Toby replied with a humorless smile. “To be frank I don’t know if I can be sure anymore. This place…”

“Yeah,” said Gabe, nodding. Suddenly he grinned. “Hell, Toby… Nightmare vision or not, I’m really glad to see you.”

Toby nodded, not returning the smile. “There’s a nexus up ahead, with halls branching off from it. Eight of them, almost like this place was tailored to us. I came looking when I got out of mine; I bet the others are in there, too.”

“We’d better go help them, then,” Trissiny said firmly, taking a step forward. “How far is it?”

“Not very.” Toby shifted his gaze to her. “The things you saw… Is this place showing truth? Or just things that might have been?”

Again, Trissiny and Gabriel looked at each other.

“I think…both,” Gabe said slowly. “Whatever accomplishes its goals. Whatever those are.”

“That night on the quad.” Toby’s voice was quiet. “When you two had your… Gabriel, you told me it was your fault. You said you started a fight with her.”

“Uh, is this a good time or place to talk about that?” Gabe said nervously, glancing around at the ominous emptiness surrounding them.

“I want to know if what I saw was the truth,” Toby said flatly. “You yelled at her. Made demands and insults. That was it?”

“That was it,” Trissiny said quietly.

Toby looked back at her, in silence for a moment. When he spoke, finally, his voice was heavily strained. “And for that, you came at him with a sword?”

“Toby,” Gabe said sharply. “This is ancient history. It was months ago. We have long since talked it out. Both of us screwed up badly that night, but we learned from it.”

“You’re right,” Toby replied. “I guess that’s the difference. You’ve had time to get used to it. I only just learned that one of my friends tried to murder another because he was rude to her.”

“It wasn’t as simple as that,” Gabriel protested.

“Why do I get the feeling that’s your guilt talking again?”

“You’re both right,” Trissiny said wearily. “It wasn’t that simple, and I was completely, inexcusably in the wrong. What do you want from me, Caine? All I can do is apologize and try to do better. I have, months ago. I hope never to blunder that badly again.”

“Blunder?” Toby’s voice rose in pitch. “You attacked my best friend with a blessed weapon and all the power of Avei over—”

“Enough!” Gabriel shouted. “For the gods’ sake, that’s enough! You two want to have this out? Fine, we can have it out, clear the air. But we can do that later. This, right here, is not the fucking time!” He glared at them in silence for a moment until they both dropped their gazes, then continued. “Think about what’s happening here, will you? The Crawl set this whole thing up to mess with us, to screw up our heads. Well, right now, I’m the one telling you two to shape up and behave yourselves. Ladies and gentlemen, that’s the sign we have been successfully messed with. So suck it up, deal with it later, and keep your minds on the task at hand. Okay?”

“Right,” said Toby, nodding. “You’re right. We need to go find the others.”

“Yeah, Trissiny agreed. “I hope a few of them have met up, too. Otherwise this is going to be a very long day.”

They set off into the mist in strained silence.


 

“You’d better shift back.”

“Hm?” Teal twitched slightly at the sudden comment, half-turning to look at Ruda without stopping.

“If this fucking place keeps playing the same tricks,” Ruda said, “Vadrieny’s chief fear seemed to be getting buried inside you. Once she came out, she was in control and managed to save our asses, too. Might be best if she takes the lead in here.”

“Oh. Yeah, that actually makes good sense.” Teal stepped to the side, giving Vadrieny room to extend her wings without hitting her classmates with them. A moment later, the demon was padding along beside them, her talons clicking against the stone floor.

“Fross, you okay?” Ruda asked. “Need to go back in the bottle?”

“I don’t think so,” the pixie demurred, orbiting her head once. “The need didn’t develop last time. If this place is picking out deeply-held fears, that sorta makes sense in hindsight. Ending up like the other pixies back in the glade was basically the worst thing I could think of happening to me, but it’s not something I’ve ever been particularly afraid of. I don’t see any way it could happen.”

Ruda nodded. “Small blessings, then. All right, ladies, keep—”

“Punaji!”

She groaned. “Oh, for fuck’s sake.”

“This is absolutely your final warning,” Mr. Jones proclaimed, stalking forward out of the mist. “if you are not back at your desk in—”

“Fuck off, needle dick,” she said curtly, brushing past him.

He gaped at her. “How dare you—”

Ruda stopped, whirled, and punched him in the eye. The reedy little man was bowled head over loafers, tumbling against the wall of the corridor.

“I quit,” she announced, then turned her back and stomped off up the hall. Vadrieny paused to grin at the felled accountant before following her.

“Something’s up ahead,” Fross reported, dropping back to eye level; she had been periodically floating higher to get a better vantage. “My augmented sensory spells aren’t working in this mist, but I think it’s a person.”

“Doing that?” Ruda asked tersely.

“Sitting.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“Sounds like a trap,” Vadrieny said, flexing her claws. “Be ready.”

Within moments, the figure coalesced out of the mist as they approached, and all three came to a stop, studying her.

Shaeine sat cross-legged in the center of the floor, robes arranged neatly around herself and hands resting on her knees. Her eyes were closed, her spine perfectly straight. She was breathing so slowly it took a few moments for them to be sure that she actually was.

“Is that…her?” Fross asked hesitantly. “Shaeine? Is that you?”

The priestess made no reply, nor any indication that she’d heard.

“It’s her,” Vadrieny said firmly, stepping forward and kneeling beside the drow.

“What kind of primal fear is this?” Ruda asked, lifting her hat momentarily to scratch her head.

“It’s not,” the demon replied, pride filling her voice. “She’s won.”

“Won? She’s just sitting there! It’s like she’s asleep or something.”

“Meditating,” Vadrieny replied, glancing up at her. “And do you see any nightmares or visions taking shape around us? A stilled, controlled mind isn’t susceptible to such manipulation. She found a way to beat it.”

“I can’t say that’s much of a strategy,” Ruda snorted. “Just sitting down isn’t a way out of trouble.”

“It is,” Vadrieny said firmly, “if you know help is coming.”

Very gently, she picked Shaeine up, arranging the drow in her arms. Shaeine didn’t move or apparently react at all, but allowed herself to be cradled a little too neatly to have been dead weight.

“If you know someone will always come for you,” Vadrieny whispered. Then she turned without another word and strode off the way they had come.

Ruda glanced up at Fross, shrugged, and followed. “Well, okay then. At least one of us got the better of this thing.”


 

She paced slowly around in a circle, giving Teal and Shaeine some space and carefully not looking in their direction. They weren’t doing anything but tightly hugging and rocking slightly back and forth, but given how Shaeine generally felt about displays of emotion, it was obviously an intimate enough moment to deserve a little privacy. For a wonder, Fross followed suit, hovering silently around Ruda’s head without a hint needing to be dropped.

“Hey,” Ruda said suddenly. “Look alive, girls, we’ve got company.”

She gripped her rapier and half-drew it, watching shapes form in one of the nearby halls. As Trissiny, Toby and Gabriel emerged from the mist, however, she re-sheathed the weapon, a grin blossoming on her face.

“Guys!” Teal exclaimed, approaching. She and Shaeine were still holding hands. “Gods, it’s good to see you. Are you okay?”

“We’re…here,” Toby said tersely.

“Okay is probably pushing it,” Gabe agreed. “Man, I’m getting really nostalgic for the Descent. This place is doing a number on my head. How’re you girls?”

“More or less the same,” said Ruda, glancing back at the others. “We have considered the matter carefully from all angles and come to the conclusion that fuck this shit.”

“We’re still missing someone,” said Trissiny, her eyes darting over the group. “Have any of you seen Juniper?”

“We have only seen each other,” said Shaeine, “and now, you.”

“Great.” Gabriel dragged a hand through his hair. “Hell…she’s all alone in there. Okay. Which halls have you checked?”

“That one, that one and that one,” Ruda reported, pointing to each of the three in question.

“I came out of there,” said Toby, jerking a thumb over his shoulder, “and found these two in the one right behind us there.”

“That was Gabriel’s,” Trissiny added. “I entered it from a cross-hall, so…I started in that one to the right.”

“You had a cross-hall?” Ruda demanded, planting her fists on her hips. “Man, why the fuck do you always get the good stuff?”

“Easy, there,” Fross chided. “We jumped halls too, remember?”

“Yeah, but that’s cos you’re smart. It wasn’t handed to us.”

“Let us focus, please,” Shaeine said firmly. “There’s no telling what Juniper may be suffering while we dally. It sounds as if we have to check those two adjacent halls across the way, yes?”

“Right,” Trissiny nodded. “Does it matter which?”

“Not that I can see,” said Gabe. “Start with the one on the right?”

“There is the question of what lies in the final one,” Shaeine observed. “Apparently Fross and Ruda were deposited together, and of course Teal and Vadrieny are inseparable. The nine of us were distributed through seven of the eight paths.”

“I think whichever one we try will have Juniper in it,” said Fross. “Geography is very malleable down here, we’ve more than established that. It makes the most sense for the final hall to be the way out. We won’t find that until everybody’s done.”

“All right, then,” Ruda said grimly. “Forward march, troops. Let’s go right. It’s a good, honest direction.”

They started moving, falling unconsciously into the formation Trissiny had drilled them on over the last few days. Up ahead, another misty opening loomed, tendrils of white fog beckoning them silently forward.

“To state the obvious,” Trissiny said quietly as they walked, “we all know what’s been bothering Juniper the most lately. Or at least the general shape of it. Given what this place does, turning our memories against us…”

“Odds are good,” Ruda finished, “we are about to see something seriously fucked up.” She glanced around at the others. “I think it’s a good idea that we decide up front not to judge anybody based on anything we see in here. You don’t know someone’s story till you’ve walked in their boots, and I’m pretty sure this fucking place is picking whatever shit will screw us up the most. I refuse to give it the satisfaction.”

“Well put,” Gabriel agreed.

“A nice thought as far as it goes,” Toby said more quietly. “I think a few of us are going to need to talk some things over once we’re out of here, though.”

Nobody had a response to that. In the next moment, they stepped into the mist.

They drew together as they continued down the path, not speaking, but taking comfort in one another’s presence after their recent trials. Fross darted ahead and then back, then rose upward, continually scouting around for a better view.

“I think I see something,” the pixie reported, her shrill voice echoing startlingly in the quiet. “It’s either close or a lot bigger than—”

A deafening roar cut her off, and the group instantly halted, each of them settling into a combat stance with weapons up. Teal shifted forms, Gabriel sidestepped to have a clear shot ahead and Shaeine lit with a soft, silver glow. The footsteps rapidly approaching them were terrifyingly loud.

In the next seconds a true nightmare stomped forward out of the fog.

It was easily twelve feet tall, and looked like it might have been part tree at one point. At least, its legs ended in broad, flat stumps lined with stiff tendrils resembling roots. Vaguely humanoid in shape, it was the mottled brown and green of rotting meat, and smelled much the same. Viscous slime dripped from it all over; near its squat head, enormous translucent sacs inflated rhythmically with its breathing, lit from within with a pale glow like the luminous mushrooms of Level 1. Whatever heritage it owed to the plant kingdom, the claws and spikes protruding from its misshapen limbs at odd intervals were very clearly animalian. Two tails extended from its back, of unequal lengths, arching forward and tipped in massive stingers.

Stopping just in front of them, it roared again, its lower jaw not so much opening as unfolding, to reveal a saw-like arrangement of teeth. It stuck out a long tongue at them, which was tipped in yet another stinger, flanked by a nest of writhing tendrils. If it had eyes, they were obscured by the crazy crown of slime-dripping thorns that wreathed its head.

“Fucking goddamn ew,” Ruda observed.

“Looks fae,” Trissiny said tersely. “Vadrieny, Gabe, hang back; if this thing is powerful enough to scare Juniper it could really hurt you. Light-wielders to the front; Ruda, be ready with that sword, we’ll try to make you an opening. Anything that unnatural will suffer if you stick mithril in it.”

“Wait!” said Fross. Whatever she had been about to add was cut off by another enraged howl from the monster. It charged forward, lashing out with tongue, limbs and stingers, and slammed against a huge silver shield that appeared across the entire hall in front of them.

Shaeine actually grunted with the impact, wincing. The creature, though, fared much worse, reeling backward; it was actually smoking in several places where it had come into direct contact with divine magic.

“Remember your Circles,” Trissiny said urgently. “Demons, back away; we need to flare up!”

“Wait!” Fross shouted.

The howl unleashed by the monster was its loudest yet, and filled with a wordless rage that flirted with insanity.

“Shaeine, hammer it!” Trissiny cried.

“STOP!” Fross shrieked, darting across the hall in front of them. A spray of water fanned out form her aura, coalescing into a waist-high wall of ice. She quickly made a second pass, then a third, completely walling off the corridor in seconds.

“Fross,” Trissiny said impatiently, “advise on the go! We don’t have time for this, that thing has Juniper!”

“No,” the pixie cried, “no, that’s not what this is!”

Shards of ice sprayed over them as the wall cracked with a hammer blow from one of the monster’s colossal fists. A second caused a section of it to collapse; a stinger probed through the gap.

It didn’t roar again, though, giving Fross an opening to speak.

“That thing is Juniper!”

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25 thoughts on “6 – 22

  1. If you support confronting the inner monster, vote for The Gods are Bastards!

    I am pleased with how this one turned out; my pacing decisions in the previous chapter, though they looked a little awkward at the time, have paid off, I believe.

    My thanks to everyone who has voted, donated, pledged on Patreon and in any other way supported the story! You guys keep me motivated when I feel myself dragging. I’m curious what you all think of the site and the state of TGaB in general. My original intention was for the current setup to be a kind of interim thing; I was gonna get better art, find a more attractive theme, and add several quality-of-life improvements. Overall I haven’t found upgrading it to be necessary, but there’s room beyond necessity for enhancements. Anything in particular you’d like to see?

    In any case, hope you enjoyed the chapter and I’ll see you Friday.

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    1. I think the layout’s fine, and you seem to have enough on your plate with 3 chapters a week and regularly being screwed over by RL.

      Like

    2. The theme is absolutely fine, I like high contrast text. It hasn’t been as much a Western as you might have expected at first, so the banner’s a little out of place, but it’s not bad.

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  2. Aiieeeeee! This was the best chapter for me in I don’t have the slightest clue how long! YES! So many high points! Thank you!

    Calming down a little-
    -The hethelax was a delightful, thank you for that.
    -Assuming we’re going to see Madeline again, I really want to know what the hell she was trying to accomplish there. That wasn’t a simple attempt to have sex with her boyfriend, obviously, but I can’t think what plot or exploit she could have been planning. On second thought, maybe I don’t want to know precisely what she was going to do with him.
    -Triss Locke, as much as I dislike her as a person (eserites, blech), was a really fun character.
    -Thank all the gods, someone’s actually calling Trissiny out explicitly on the sheer batcrap insanity of that moment in the 1st or 2nd book.
    -Go Shaeine! ‘Oh, reality-warping genius loci has decided to terrify me out of my mind (and I come from a place where children are tortured half to death/insanity for being rude in public)? Eh, I’ll just ignore it all, and I’ll be fine!’ Winning at life.
    -I find it interesting that the Descent decided the best way it could screw with Toby is by showing him Trissiny and Gabe’s fight. I would’ve thought he would’ve been more scared of something like a crowd of angry bigoted Omnists threatening him or something.
    -Oh my gods and devils, what happened to Juniper? ‘The beast within’? You cruel rascal😉 ! Dang, is it just me or did she get the nastiest hell of any of them? Transformed into a monstrous, killing body of rotting flesh…

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  3. Typos:
    “The motion made light glint of the carapace” – “glint off”.
    “I’m not going to just turn you in” – weird italicisation.
    “injest” – “ingest”

    Thoughts:
    Well, that was awesome. I’m with Webb on the pacing: it worked out rather well.
    I’m glad to finally get more on Madeleine. I’m kind of hoping she turns out not to have any ulterior motive at all – sometimes, we can screw up the people we love through sheer stupidity, with no malice required. With that said, drugging one’s boyfriend is not generally what a good-guy technique.
    I have mixed feelings about the Triss/Gabe fight being brought up again. It feels a bit unfair, somehow, because it seemed like the characters had progressed past it already. On balance, though, I agree with Toby – Triss got off far too lightly from that whole deal. I doubt we’ll see a fair punishment, as to my mind that would involve her being stripped permanently of her powers and weapons and going to jail for a few years, but I’ll take what I can get.
    I look forward to finding out what each of the characters actually learn from this.

    Like

    1. I don’t think Triss got off lightly. She got to talk to her goddess about it later and I doubt Avei was happy with her.

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      1. She said she got a talking-to, but come on – the appropriate penalty for attempted murder is not getting yelled at. If one of my colleagues opened fire on me, no matter the provocation, I’d expect that person to be court-martialed, imprisoned for a long time, and banned from ever touching a weapon again.
        Actually, now that I mention it, Trissiny is a general. If Toby went to the Silver Legions’ equivalent of the military police with this, wouldn’t they be forced to respond, if only for PR’s sake? It’s not the kind of thing you can keep under wraps.

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      2. Eh, she’d get off easily enough because it was self defense. Gabriel was already shifting into his demonic form before she attacked him.
        It would be difficult to prove that she wanted to kill him, too.

        Everyone involved agreed that Gabriel was at fault, even himself. Triss realized she played a part too and apologized for that.
        Toby involving himself into this mess now doesn’t change the facts nor is he helping anyone with it. People apologized, made up and progressed.

        Triss is a paladin of the goddess of war, her solutions are usually martial (she’s getting better though). Toby is a paladin of the god of peace, of course they are going to clash. Not that he would have had a working solution for that situation either.

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      3. Are you sure? If I remember correctly he dropped the c-bomb on her and she went at him with the sword and the light. If he did attack first then yeah, that’s obviously self-defense.
        I’ll admit that Toby getting involved now doesn’t help anyone; it just bugged me how little consequences the incident had, other than as a learning opportunity.

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      4. https://tiraas.wordpress.com/2014/09/22/1-14/

        The sequence was:
        Gabriel was verbally abusive.
        Trissiny drew her sword.
        Gabriel continued the verbal abuse.
        Trissiny hit him with holy magic.
        Gabriel starts to change.
        Trissiny attacks.

        The statements about Avei’s reactions are in:
        https://tiraas.wordpress.com/2014/10/01/1-18/

        “It…wasn’t one of the more pleasant conversations I’ve had with her… I think she has an even lower opinion of Gabriel than I do.” [statements not about the event omitted]

        So, Trissiny escalated both times (magic, then sword) and Avei was unhappy with it but the reaction was to send Trissiny to learn diplomacy from Shaeine.

        So, yes, attempted murder over verbal assault, with no real fear on her part that he was a serious physical threat. And Avei didn’t like it but there was no obvious punishment.

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      5. @Daemion


        Toby said flatly. “You yelled at her. Made demands and insults. That was it?”

        “That was it,” Trissiny said quietly.

        No, it decidedly wasn’t self-defense of any kind. He, even back then, was a snarky, sexist asshole, not a bloodthirsty lunatic fixated on suicide. He turned into a berserking demon against his will from her blasting him with divine light:

        “I’m just standing here,” Gabe shot back, spreading his arms as if to embrace Trissiny, sword and all. “Just existing. We’re just now finding out how much of a problem she has with that.”

        “You want to stand here?” Trissiny pointed the blade at him. “Then let’s see you stand here.”

        A pure, golden glow sprang up around her, it intensity enough to illuminate the lawn. Gabriel screamed in pain and stumbled desperately backward, covering his face with both hands.
        …[People trying to calm Triss down, her being racist…]
        Gabe let out a long, animalistic sound that started as a groan but morphed into a serpentine hiss halfway. He parted his fingers to glare at her. His eyes were totally black, with no whites or irises.
        …[fight, fight, fight!]

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  4. Please, Sir/Madam, I’d like some more…

    Well, that’s my reaction to most of the chapters, especially the recent ones in this twisted fearscape. The character of Triss Locke made me so curious! I had this mental image of her coming out of the Crawl still as alternate-version-Triss, and Gabe trying to explain to the Sisterhood what had happened to their paladin…. I knew it wasn’t likely, but it was amusing. I really can’t wait to see the rest of the adventure in the Crawl! (Please please PLEASE don’t shift to Bishop Darling’s or anyone else’s p.o.v. on Friday! I want to see what happens with Juniper! You wouldn’t be that cruel… Would you? Would you?)

    I think the banner art could maybe stand to be updated, but that’s the only suggestion I have, and it’s not that it’s bad, it just doesn’t really fit the story that well. I find it a pleasant change to read black text on a white background. So easy on the eyes!

    Like

  5. Maybe not everyone expected it, but Juniper turning into a monster is totally what I expected. The entire story we have the contrast between the gang who are friends with Juniper and think her harmless, and the more experienced people and protocols who think Juniper is a nightmare.

    Here we get to see a more nightmarish side of her. To me it seems that the moral of her story is that both are wrong. Juniper IS a nightmarish creature, but she does not have an utter blue and orange morality, and is actually learning more human morality all the time, thus she is not an unreasonable monster.

    Like

  6. Typos:

    injest
    ingest

    “if you are not back at your desk in—”
    “If you are not back at your desk in—”

    and none of them were are sexually freaky as this idiocy
    and none of them were as sexually freaky as this idiocy

    Reactions:

    OK, I was wrong about what the Crawl was trying to do with the Triss/Gabriel segment. Why it had to switch to Triss instead of Trissiny to do it is an interesting question.

    Well, that explains the breakup with Madeleine. The use of Triss to lock him down from harming Madeleine is odd – didn’t he do it on his own in the real event? Or did he actually have sex with her? Either way, that would have been the end of it.

    People do really, really stupid things for sex – IMO that explains some of Madeleine’s interests quite well, without resorting to much other explanation. Other than the obvious that she must have had very little actual interest in his welfare to get to that situation at all.

    I had forgotten or overlooked that Toby wasn’t with Gabe during that encounter with Trissiny. The follow-up from that should be interesting.

    Juniper’s transformation makes sense in retrospect, but I didn’t predict it. Believe you are a monster, become a monster. What to do about it is less obvious. In a narrative sense, a show of trust, i.e. one of the characters going to meet it without weapons and shields, makes some sense, but it looks like that’s a good way to get really dead.

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    1. I actually am quite curious how the episode with Madeleine ended, because if he’d killed her he’d almost certainly have been hunted down and executed (and I’d think have even more psychological instability/problems than he already does) and if they’d had sex then Juniper’s virgin-sense wouldn’t have registered him as a virgin before they had sex for the first time in book 1.

      Like

      1. Altered states might throw Juniper’s radar off…:/ But, given who Gabe is, he might well have found a remote, third option that allowed him to cling to the non-action fence for as long as possible.😉

        Either way you slice it, though: Madeleine was beyond dumb to push her luck that way. -_-

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  7. Two things of Note. One is too those who are talking about the Gabe/Triss stuff and the other is to the author. Just as a note, cause the thing to the author is as much a partial apology as it is comments I’d like him to see.

    Oh man. So much I keep trying to say. Ultimately, they were both wrong. But gabe was definitely not an innocent, no matter his reasons. Do you want to know what Teal said when he started?

    “Damn it, Gabe!” Teal yelled. “Do not throw gendered insults at a Sister of Avei! What kind of death wish do—”

    Death wish. Because yes, Sisters of Avei beat the living shit out of sexists pigs and probably kill ones that have hurt women. I’d argue, despite his argument about belonging he might actually have been trying to get himself killed.

    Triss overreacted, no one is denying that, but what Toby seems to be forgetting is the one thing that has made him a pretty damned good mediator till this point. His ability to see both sides. Triss was vulnerable, feeling quite alone, and was having a great many of her beliefs tested, challenged and even straight up broken. And here comes some sexist asshole who also happens to be a demon with killer rage problems spitting words I’d kick peoples ass for saying to women in her face. He deliberately tried to goad her into attacking him and no one, not Shaeine, Teal or even Tellwyrn who also said something to the affect of ‘you are lucky to have survived you moron.’ The fact that he did is not thanks to Triss, I know, but ultimately Gabe was a moron. And now Tobby is being one too.

    I’ve wanted Gabe and Triss to have a serious discussion forever ago. Sit down, apologize straight up for what happened, and talk about why. It’s an old wound but it really is one that needs to be cleared up. They’re amicable right now, but the entire Triss/Gabe nightmare stuff showed how much closer they could be as friends, and just how distant they really are. They understand each other to a small degree but have never tried for more. They’re… work buddies, is the best term I can think to describe them, and I’m always hopeful when it comes to characters like these.

    As a side note, I guessed it was Juniper the moment I saw ‘tree like’ in the description. Bit of a telegraph, but overall a very disturbing visage to greet people with. Unfortunately I’m just kind of eh about Juniper being the focus of anything that happens, even for half a chapter. Explained in my reply to your questions on the chapter when I originally brought up why. I do apologize for the delay it took to get it (I honestly forgot I had posted that until I started looking through my history). I also apologize if it came off as mean. I want to clarify that I loooove this story. You keep mentioning how this chapter has been slow but I’ve personally loved every second of it, in both areas.

    Not perfectly executed perhaps (apparently people have been complaining? I actually only read the comments on a few select pages so I don’t know) and a bit slower then some stuff that happened in the last book but man is it nice sometimes to have a breather where characters can stretch their legs, particularly these characters with each other. I intend to read what you have up again, because it’s so much fun, and what I said about Juniper… It’s really not meant to be an insult. She was always sort of a balancing act in keeping my interest and the way you ended up going with her just didn’t work. I’m hoping a reread might renew my spark of interest for her but I actually fear it might do the opposite for the character as well. But I said all this so that you might understand it wasn’t meant to be an insult toward you or your writing and I apologize if it came off as such.

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  8. Was Gabe’s vision a fear or a flashback? Cause its hinted that he must’ve had sex with her to not kill her but near the beginning Juniper said he was a virgin, right?

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