“Don’t advance,” Trissiny said quietly. “Any deeper into the room and we can be surrounded in an instant.”
“Excuse me, point of order,” said Ruda. “Didn’t you just launch a religious initiative to open up your cult to demonbloods?”
“Demonbloods,” Trissiny said, her voice rising slightly. “People, native to the mortal plane, with souls, like Gabriel.”
“I would love to not be involved in this, Triss…”
“These are the real thing,” the paladin went on fiercely. “Their existence is a state of perpetual war with our kind.”
“There are a good many ‘kinds’ represented here,” Shaeine observed.
“You know what I meant!”
“Do you think they know we can hear them?” Xsythri asked, turning to look up at Melaxyna.
The succubus drummed her fingernails once on the arm of her throne. “Let me tell you a story, children. Once upon a time I aggravated Arachne Tellwyrn and found myself with the choice of being stuck down here, sent back to Hell or blasted to atoms. This was the lesser evil. While I have done my utmost to thwart her intentions with regard to my fate, it is not lost upon me that if I actually managed to wipe out one of her student groups she would come down here and find extravagant new ways to ruin my day.”
“Isn’t that the whole point, though?” Ruda asked. “I mean…you’re a dungeon boss. If Tellwyrn put you here, it was with the expectation you’d try to kill us, and then we’d kill you.”
“Yes,” Melaxyna replied with a feline smile. “Hence thwarting her intentions. The Descent, my dears, is an instanced soulbound sub-dungeon. Do you understand what that means?”
“Um, no,” said Gabriel. “But I bet Fross does.”
“I sure do!” the pixie all but shouted, buzzing around in frantic circles above their heads. “It means there is a theoretically infinite number of Descents existing simultaneously, but experienced separately by each individual or adventuring party who enters!”
“Ah, but that rule applies to guests,” said Melaxyna languidly, raising one finger. “Those of us who are consigned to be fixtures of the Descent experience all of those realities. Our souls are bound to this place and we perceive all that happens in the various convergent realities, simultaneously.”
“Damn,” said Gabriel with a whistle. “What’s that like?”
“Bloody damn confusing,” Xsythri said.
“Demons don’t have souls,” Trissiny growled.
“Two kinds of people don’t know what they’re talking about,” Melaxyna said sweetly. “The ignorant, and the religious. The first group, at least, will sometimes accept correction. To continue my tale, Tellwyrn’s intention was to have me experience being killed and looted, over and over, often at the same time, while the Descent granted me a kind of twisted immortality. Had I understood the implications before being banished to the Crawl, I’d have just gone back to Hell.” Her flawless lips twisted in a sneer. “Tellwyrn isn’t as smart as she likes to believe, however. While she has a disproportionate influence on the running of things around here, that is because she has cultivated a positive relationship with the Crawl itself. The Crawl is the ultimate arbiter of all our fates, and it is amenable to making accords with other individuals, if approached the right way. I have laboriously built up such an accord, cementing my status as Boss here, and ultimately earning…an exception. Level 2 does not enjoy the sanctuary status of the Grim Visage, but it is outside the dynamic of the Descent. We all exist only once, in this place and time; all travelers through the Descent who pass this way converge in one reality and can interact. That is, until they proceed to another level. It’s a slow day, kids; you’ll usually find other adventurers coming through.”
“Wait, other adventurers?” Toby frowned. “The Crawl is supposed to be sealed except to University students.”
“At the top, yes,” the succubus replied with a shrug. “There are whole societies down here. The goblins and naga are quite organized, with other smaller groups in various nooks and crannies. Then, too, there are occasional Scyllithene drow who worm their way up from the depths, and once in a while a party of very lost gnomes. The Descent was designed to be a loot farm; it’s one of the only consistent sources of fresh resources in the Crawl. It never gets exactly crowded, but we’re rather popular. The point of all this, children, is that I am not asking for your trust. Only for you to acknowledge that I respect my own self-interest, and keep my subjects in line.”
Xsythri made a rude noise; Melaxyna ignored her. “You are safe here. Everyone is. Yes, the residents of Level 2 are all dangerous beings, to a greater or lesser degree. You may regard them as a sort of civilian militia. No one is going to do more than take your coin, and that only in exchange for fair value, but the whole population will descend on anyone who causes trouble.” She smiled again, grimly.
“That’s nearly a threat,” Trissiny said.
“Triss, come on,” Toby exclaimed.
“There’s no nearly about it,” Melaxyna replied, interlacing her fingers and resting her chin upon them. “It’s a threat. I’m hoping you turn out to be sensible enough not to provoke me to act upon it. So far, no group of Arachne’s students has done anything so pointlessly rash. You, paladin, are close to the most irritating guest we have had.”
“Remember that group with the priest and the vampire?” Xsythri asked brightly.
“I said ‘close to.’”
“And then there’s Admestus…”
“Xsythri, shut up.”
“Just so we understand one another,” Trissiny said coldly, “any attempt by your population to ‘descend’ on us will result in you needing a new population.”
“Trissiny,” Toby said firmly, “there does not need to be a fight here. Please stop picking at her.”
Melaxyna rose, snapping her wings once, and descended the steps from her throne. She stroked one of the hellhounds in passing. “There is that,” the succubus said, continuing to pace slowly forward. “A Hand of Avei is not a thing lightly dealt with. I, myself, am a schemer rather than a fighter, hence my status as second-weakest Boss of the hundred in the Descent. And then there’s that dryad; really, she’s a lot more of a game-breaker than you are. No, I don’t believe we could take you, not even close. I’m afraid the very gift that keeps Level 2 separate and coherent also makes us vulnerable. Dead, now, is dead.”
She came to within a few feet of the group, folding her arms under her impressive bosom, and stared Trissiny in the eyes. “Therefore, if it appears that you intend to destroy everything I have built up here and end the lives of the people I protect, I will simply trigger the destructive runes I have placed over every inch of the floor and collapse this entire level into the one beneath it. According to my spellcrafter, the force of that should break Level 3 as well, dropping the lot into the next one down. Any of you who survive the fall would find yourselves buried in rubble with three levels’ worth of severely irate monsters, and good luck to you. Do we understand one another?”
“Perfectly,” Trissiny snapped. “You remain true to your destructive nature.”
“Okay, so!” Gabe said brightly. “On to shopping, then? I for one can’t wait to see what’s available down here. The vendors in the Visage weren’t even up yet when we left.”
“You know what?” Melaxyna tilted her head back, still studying Trissiny’s face. “…no. I don’t believe I care for you arrogant little monkeys.” She turned and strolled away toward her chair, folding her wings tightly against her back. “Behind this throne is the door to Level 3. You may come and go freely, but that’s all. Consider yourselves banned. There will be no business or interaction for you, and I’ll thank you to leave my citizens alone.”
“Now, hold on,” Teal said soothingly. “There’s no reason we can’t reach an understanding…”
“Teal, leave it,” said Trissiny. “We’re better off.”
“Well, you heard the lady,” Xsythri said, folding her shelled arms. “Off you go.”
“Wait,” the bard insisted. “Just wait. You need the custom and frankly we need the resources. Not to mention any source of information and allies.”
“We do not—”
“Yes, we do, Trissiny,” Teal said in exasperation. “Will you please give it a rest?”
“I’m done with this conversation,” Melaxyna said, turning back to stare flatly at them. “And with you. Be gone.”
“Now, look what you did,” said Ruda, prodding Trissiny in the side with her fist. “You went and hurt her feelings.”
Teal drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “All right…fine.”
She took four paces forward, away from the group, and erupted in hellfire.
Vadrieny’s wings were wider in span than Melaxyna’s; fully extended, they seemed to fill the central open space, stretching so that her pinions nearly brushed the ceiling. She stalked to one side, her talons rasping against the stone floor, and angled herself to keep the succubus and the students both in view.
The effect of her appearance on the residents was instantaneous and remarkable. Melaxyna and Xsythri, with identical expressions of wide-eyed shock, immediately fell to their knees, gaping up at her. The two hellhounds went into a barking frenzy, spitting puffs of fire in her direction. All around the room, demons either knelt or fled and hid themselves behind whatever cover they could find.
“I have absolutely no patience for any more of this nonsense,” Vadrieny declared, her choral voice echoing in the long chamber. She pointed one saber claw at Melaxyna. “If you presume to be in charge here, stop acting like a brat! The children of Vanislaas are supposed to be clever, not prone to throwing tantrums when insulted. And you,” she added with obvious exasperation, swiveling to point at Trissiny, “grow up.”
“Excuse me?” the paladin snapped, reflexively resting a hand on her sword.
“Do you want to make this about force and strength?” Vadrieny shot back. “Fine. You have tried that with me exactly once, Trissiny, and got slapped across the quad for your trouble. And I’m sure I don’t need to point out how much of a chance you don’t have against me,” she added, turning her glare on Melaxyna.
“I would never,” the succubus said hoarsely. “Forgive me, lady, I had no idea you were…”
“Excuse me just a moment,” Vadrieny interrupted her. The two hellhounds were still howling and snarling at her. She took two steps toward them, her talons sinking right into the stone of the floor with a crunch, leaned forward and let out a deafening scream, baring the full complement of her fangs. Melaxyna cringed; Xsythri clapped her hands over her ears. Trissiny reflexively surrounded herself with a bubble of golden light.
When Vadrieny’s scream cut off, there was complete silence. It held for a second, then both hellhounds whimpered and scurried off to hide behind Melaxyna’s throne.
“Much better,” the archdemon said, nodding in satisfaction. “Is everyone through behaving like squabbling children? Good. We will have a nice, civil interaction from here. We will be treated just like any other group of guests, and you, Trissiny, will behave yourself and not make our presence an undue burden upon our hosts. Is that clear?”
“Perfectly,” Melaxyna said, nodding vigorously.
“Well?” Vadrieny prompted, staring at Trissiny.
The paladin drew in a breath and let it out through her nose in a huff. “Fine.”
“I suppose that will do,” the archdemon said dryly. “Honestly, I shouldn’t have to tell you this.”
Ruda cackled and slapped Trissiny on the back. “You just got your manners corrected by a demon, roomie. I bet Avei’s so proud!”
“Ruda,” Toby said firmly, “can we all just stop, please?”
Vadrieny grunted in response to that, then receded. Fire and claws withdrew, leaving Teal standing alone. She shook her head once, stepped back over to the group and prodded the shredded remains of her sandals with a bare toe. “Well…nuts.”
Shaeine strode forward, reached out and entwined her fingers with Teal’s, smiling a hair more broadly than she usually did in public. The bard smiled shyly back.
“Who are you?” Melaxyna asked in a voice barely above a whisper.
“It’s a very long story,” Teal said with a sigh. “I’d rather not get into it.”
“Um,” Xsythri said hesitantly. “How…is it you didn’t know what a hethelax is?”
“I didn’t,” Teal said. “Vadrieny corrected me as soon as I asked.”
“So…you’re…two of you in there?”
“Xsythri!” Melaxyna snapped. “Don’t interrogate the..” She trailed off, looking warily at Teal. “…her. Anyway, we have guests, as we just agreed. I believe they need a tour.”
“Me?” the hethelax whined, hunching down in place. “Now?”
“Well, now I regret having the strongest stomach in the group,” Ruda grumbled. “Here we get real food and I have no more room for it.”
“Yes, your life is such a burden,” Gabriel said solicitously. “Will it make you feel better to fucking stab me?”
“It did last time,” she replied, grinning.
“Are you ever gonna let go of that?” Fross asked.
He huffed and crammed a strip of bacon into his mouth. “Don’ see why I shoul’.”
Trissiny watched them sidelong, the porkchop sitting on her plate untouched.
“It’s safe,” Toby said quietly from across the table. “We would sense it if it were demonically corrupted. Look, see?” He extended a hand over her plate, shining a soft light on her food.
“Knowing it’s safe and feeling safe are two very different things,” she muttered, but picked up the bent fork provided and began sawing off a piece with its edge. This took some doing; the utensil was hardly sharp, and the meat was quite tough.
“Of course, we do a lot more commerce in other kinds of meat,” their host said cheerfully. A sshitherosz demon, he resembled a skeletally thin man about four feet tall with wings and an elongated skull, and had a habit of climbing on furniture like a monkey. “Lots of snake and lizard! Which is actually quite good, not so heavy as this. But cave boars are plentiful in the Descent, and in my experience you surface folk do well to start off with something more familiar.”
“How are boars plentiful?” Juniper asked. Despite the full breakfast she’d eaten, she had tucked into the proffered pork without reservation, apparently not sharing Ruda’s limited capacity. “There’s no sun! I mean, they could eat mushrooms… I don’t see how an ecosystem can even work down here. Not with large animals like boars.”
“Subjective physics, remember?” Fross said brightly. “The rules are different in the Crawl.”
“Hmph,” the dryad said. “Some rules are there for good reason.”
“We do grow some vegetables, using alchemy,” said the demon chef. “But, you know…species native to Hell. Lots of inherent infernal corruption; they don’t tend to agree with mortal digestive systems from this plane. I’ll tell you what, though, if you can find me crop seeds, plus sun crystals and soil, I will fork over every scrap of everything in my possession. I bet I can persuade Mel to do the same.”
“Good bloody luck with that,” Xsythri muttered. She was lounging at the end of the table while the students ate, being as ostentatiously sullen as she could.
“That wouldn’t work in the long term,” Juniper noted. “Soil needs fertilizer… And plants need pollination. You can grow them indoors, but it’s really tricky.”
The sshitherosz blinked his beady eyes. “Um… Seeds, sun crystals, soil and a book on agriculture,” he amended.
“We’ll keep our eyes peeled,” Ruda promised.
“This is really generous of you,” Teal said again, smiling at the cook. “I hope it’s not too much of an imposition.”
“Pshaw!” he waved a long, bony hand dismissively, then hopped up onto the sign (lettered in unreadable demonic script) over his grill, grinning down at her. “Not often we get such exalted company! Just so y’know, your ladyship, I really can’t afford to splurge more than once, yeah?”
“I would never ask you to,” she said firmly.
“What the hell are you staring at?” Xsythri burst out, grabbing everyone’s attention. “Never seen a hethelax before?”
“Sorry!” Gabe stammered, his cheeks coloring. “Um, yes, I have, but… I mean, not a female. That is, well, I guess I did once, but I don’t remember… Uh. My mother was a hethelax.”
She snorted. “Well, don’t look at me, kid. I’m glad to say I’ve never been that desperate.” She straightened up, at least partially; she appeared to have a habitual hunch, keeping her knees and elbows slightly flexed, as if the joints didn’t extend fully. “Are you lot about done abusing our hospitality? We’ve got other stops.”
“Damn, lady, what crawled up your butt?” Ruda asked, producing a bottle of ale from within her coat and pulling the cork free.
“Eight rude interlopers and an invisible VIP,” Xsythri said curtly.
“Okay, well, let’s be fair, here. Trissiny’s the only one who was trying to start shit up.”
Trissiny, now chewing a mouthful of stringy pork, glared at her but didn’t attempt to speak.
Xsythri shrugged; her armored plating making a soft rasp. “The boars come from Level 3. Smithic here will pay you to haul more back for us. C’mon, there’s really only one more thing worth seeing.”
“Aw, but we’re all tired from our adventures!” Ruda said merrily. “How much is it to get beds at you very charming little inn?”
“Ruda, enough,” Toby said quietly, pushing his plate back and rising. “Fross, would you be so kind as to preserve the food?”
“You got it!” The pixie darted across the table, hovering momentarily in front of each piece of meat and making them vanish.
“Hey!” Gabriel protested at the sudden loss of his bacon.
“We can finish up next time we halt for a break,” Toby said. “Our guide seems to be in a hurry. I think it’d be better not to ruffle anyone’s feathers more than we have.”
“Well, well,” Xsythri said dryly. “A polite cleric. Now I have truly seen everything.”
“Clerics are usually pretty polite, aren’t they?” Fross asked.
“Not to the likes of me, firefly. Ready? Good. C’mon.”
She strode away, not waiting for them. The students straggled to their feet and trailed after her.
In the far corner of Level 2 stood the big metal arch, linked up to a ramshackle variety of magical equipment, unmistakably a portal of some sort. Beside it stood the hulking form of a baerzurg, a bronze-scaled behemoth with no neck and a head sunken into its upper torso; at their approach, the demon turned from fussing with a rack of control runes and stood patiently watching them.
“This is our real bread and butter,” said Xsythri in a bored tone. “I’ll let Khavibosh explain it to you.”
“Welcome, guests.” The baerzurg’s voice was deep and very hoarse, with wet, raspy sounds underlying each syllable as if his mouth hadn’t been designed for speech. “This is our portal. It can be used to send travelers to any level of the Descent. Not to bring people back, however; it only operates one way.”
“Hey, sweet deal!” Ruda exclaimed. “We can skip right to the end of this horseshit and get Tellwyrn’s box!”
“No,” said Khavibosh. It was hard to read emotion in his voice, if indeed there was any.
“Nothing’s ever that simple,” Toby said fatalistically.
“You may travel only to levels you have previously cleared,” the baerzurg continued. “We exist on the Crawl’s sufferance, and it chooses to enforce certain rules. Much of the impediment of your mission is simple travel time: the Descent is a hundred stories deep, and you must fully cross each level to reach the next stairs. It is unsafe and unwise to camp in the levels, even if you believe them cleared. You will have to travel back and forth, a trip that will grow quite unmanageable as you delve deeper, to rest and resupply. Our portal will remove half that burden. The Crawl permits this simple time-saving measure, but it does not allow cheating.”
“We don’t push its buttons,” Xsythri said flatly. “If we help people cheat, things start to go wrong.”
“Torches won’t stay lit,” Khavibosh rumbled. “Leeches in our water supply. Sudden infestations of bats.”
Xsythri grinned unpleasantly. “Rocks fall, everyone dies.”
“So,” Ruda said, “I guess bribing you isn’t really a prospect, then?”
“You have nothing to offer that would make the loss of our livelihood worthwhile,” Khavibosh replied.
“And it costs what to use the portal?” she asked.
“One silver coin per person.”
Ruda grinned. “Pixies ride free?”
“One silver coin per person,” the baerzurg said inexorably.
“Hm.” Gabriel rubbed his chin. “That waystone Shamlin had is starting to look real attractive. Between that thing and this, we could cut out travel time altogether. Set it to Level 2 and just zip back and forth.”
“We could even skip going back to the Visage!” Fross said.
“We will go back to the Visage,” Trissiny said firmly. “I am not sleeping here.”
“And who’s gonna buy the waystone, hm?” Ruda asked, turning to Gabe and planting her fists on her hips. “I don’t see you coming up with ten decabloons.”
“Well,” he grinned. “Of course, we’d have to owe you. But hey, we’re here to look for treasure anyway, right?”
“Maybe we can spare you a little coin,” said a voice from behind them. The group turned to behold Melaxyna approaching, her hellhounds flanking her. The succubus wore a grin and was bouncing an object in the palm of her hand. “The thing about waystones is they require both a skilled magic user and a great familiarity with the dungeon to make. They’re rare, sure, if you’re stuck gathering up leftovers like Shamlin is. Khavibosh, however, has the skill.”
“Hey, that’s really impressive!” Fross said. “I thought baerzurgs weren’t even intelligent.”
“FROSS!” multiple voices shouted. The pixie dimmed slightly, fluttering down toward the ground.
“What? What’d I say?”
“Baerzurgs are sentient,” Melaxyna said with a grin. “Most are…well, intelligent might be overstating it. The high-caste baerzurgs, though, the magic users, are as smart as anyone, and Khavibosh is definitely one of those. Thus, we can provide you a waystone for mere pocket change. Ten silver bits and you can basically cut out all the walking.” She held up the waystone, giving them a good look.
Unlike the smooth, pale stone Shamlin had shown them, it was glossy and black, apparently carved from obsidian. Diamond-shaped, it was composed of hard edges, and had a similar spiraling rune, though this one glowed a dull red-orange and was a series of straight lines and sharp angles rather than one smooth curve.
“That’s made from infernal magic,” Trissiny snapped.
“See, you’re just leaping to conclusions, now,” Melaxyna said smugly, bouncing the waystone in her palm again. “I know this because it is completely, entirely sealed. No magic leakage of any kind, and fully safe for anyone to carry without risk of infernal corruption. Your vaunted sense evil trick wouldn’t even register this stone.”
“It’s hard to tell,” Toby said carefully. “The room’s full of demons… It’s like trying to find one leaf in a forest.”
“I’ll remind you of my previous speech about how we do business here, then. It gains me nothing to trick or trap you, kids. This stone is made with infernal magic, yes, but causes no infernal radiation. It’s completely harmless unless you crack it open. Which… Don’t do that.”
“What would happen if we opened it?” Fross asked.
“Well,” the succubus mused, “you would die. And then some other stuff would happen, which you’d be in no position to care about.”
The students exchanged a round of glances.
“It sounds like a good deal,” Teal said hesitantly.
“Let’s think on it,” said Trissiny. “Clear a few levels, get a feel for—”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, we’ll take it,” Ruda exclaimed.
“I will take it, then,” the pirate said, grinning at her. “You may all use my waystone if you wish, just because I’m so generous.”
“It’s linked to Level 2,” Melaxyna informed them. “And that is not changeable. Trace the rune with a fingertip and you, and anyone holding onto you, will be brought back here. Just link arms when you’re ready to travel and have one member of the group activate it.”
“Of course it’s linked to here,” Trissiny muttered.
“Lady, you got yourself a deal!” Ruda reached into her pocket and pulled out a handful of coins.
Melaxyna studied her thoughtfully for a moment, then turned her considering gaze on Trissiny, then Teal. “I must say… Despite your several faults, you seem to be a trustworthy group.”
“We do our best,” said Toby.
“Mm.” The succubus tossed the stone to Teal, who, taken by surprised, fumbled in catching it, just barely avoiding dropping it.
“Hey!” Ruda protested.
“We will call that…a loan,” Melaxyna said with another catlike smile. “An investment. If Arachne hasn’t changed her pattern, you have three weeks, yes? Splendid. You may pay me for the stone before leaving the Crawl… Or.” Her smile broadened into an outright grin, her tail beginning to lash behind her. “If you can tempt Rowe out of his little hidey-hole and into my clutches, that stone, and anything else within my power to grant, are yours for the taking.”