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Chapter 75

Page history last edited by Anonymoose 6 years, 1 month ago

Dust clouds danced within rays of red moonlight. Wind-like storms of pulverized rock from a man-made explosion finally began to subside; the haze of grey finally started to settle. A chorus of coughing fits and pained moans filled the spaces in-between as the witches and orphaned girls alike were beginning to emerge from cover after sudden unexpected explosion of rock and debris that shook the entire cavern. Now stranded behind a landslide of rock was the hulking behemoth of someone who had once been a man. A girl who was less than a quarter his size, with what seemed like the slightest of efforts, had thrown him haphazardly across the cavern and embedded him into the cave wall which then collapsed on top of him. Now that same demon girl stood before everyone rolling her shoulders, cracking her neck and casting aggressive glances at everyone as they struggled to catch up with what just happened.


Everyone in the cavern had been coated with a fine layer of gray soot from the pulverized rock, everyone but the girl with goat-like demonic features. She was as pristine as ever, her little green cape billowing behind her. Isabelle and this girl at some point occupied the same space for a brief moment. I had a hard time accepting that. What little I had seen and known about the girl was blown away in an instant. Gone was the quiet and reserved little girl. Replacing her was a brash, rude and provocative demon. Crone had chanted her summons for someone named Ba'el. The demon answered.


The demon hopped on one trotter that clicked against the stone while she grabbed the other behind her and resumed stretching. While everyone else was shaking off the dust and putting their wits back together, this girl was calmly limbering up. Occasionally, her joints would crick and even pop which would cause her to groan blissfully.


While the demon flexed, The Crone emerged from behind the cover of her balcony. Her eyes were fixated on the demon with a shock and awe. The demon noticed she had gotten her attention right away and began to approach the arena floor right below the ancient witch.


     One of the Crone's witches pulled her self back up in front of Ba'el and spoke with reverence, “Is that- are you truly- have you come to-?”


The goat-demon stopped and turned her head toward the girl. With two of her claw-like fingers she plucked the glasses from her face and placed them gently over the witch's ears and nose. She was almost pushed backward from the sheer strength packed within the little demon's minor gesture. The witch accepted them with what looked like joyous tears in her eyes.


     “Nah. I'm the Equinox Rabbit,” Ba'el said matter of factually.


She held up her index claws to the sides of her head like little bunny ears, which looked rather comical next to the huge horns sweeping back over her head. Ba'el stared at the witch with a wide eyed and deadpan expression.


     “Can't you tell?”


The witch's look of reverence slowly disintegrated into confusion; everyone else who had shaken the ringing out of their ears had a similar expression on their face. They stared at one another intently until Ba'el broke out laughing very suddenly, and the tenseness of the situation vanished with her sweet childish titter. She lowered her hands from her head, slapped the witch a couple times on her shoulder, gently grabbed hold and then rocked her back and forth a bit in jest. The witch's shoulders heaved a couple times then she also began to chuckle a bit too. She was a little late to the joke, but that wasn't the punchline. A quick left hand jab to her face shattered the glasses on the poor witch's face and sent her flying through the air and crashing into the wall below the Crone's balcony.


I winced at the sound of the impact and the shattering glass before that. There was no way that witch's face should have survived the power in that demon's arm. Before colliding with her face, a brilliant flash of a sickly pale yellow sparked and was promptly shattered. When the back of the witch's head and spine slammed against the wall, the same flash of yellow lit off like a spark. It too also shattered like glass after the impact. Some sort of protective barrier had encased her before like a shield or suit of invisible armor. It was annihilated completely by the time she peeled off the cavern wall and slid down slumped over on the floor. The poor witch was KOed with just one punch.


The demon wasn't fazed by the gasps and shrieks all around her. She calmly lowered her fist back to her side and continued walking closer to The Crone. It was only then she was bothered to answer the poor witch's question.


     “I just threw your special ops through a wall. Is that not a big enough hint as to why I'm here? And while we're at it, thanks for showing me your whole ritual. I really hope you didn't spend too much time cooking that one up because it won't work again.”


Every trot forward caused the witches to retreat further and further as if there was an invisible wall keeping them a fixed distance away. There was only one person present that did not, and that was The Crone herself. As Ba'el approached, her face actually became brighter. Her face flushed red, and she was fidgeting like a school girl about to meet her idol. That little demon was the complete opposite; her expression grew increasingly disgusted as she got closer. The head witch didn't even seem the least bit off-put after observing one of her followers get savagely beaten.


     The Crone spoke with rapt breath, “It really is you. I've waited for this for so long... Too long.”


     “Not long enough,” Ba'el snapped back.


With one last clop, the little demon stood before the balcony and crossed her arms over her chest. The Crone leaned on the balcony and wistfully stared at the furious demon below. Ba'el's hostility toward her didn't seem to faze her at all. She just kept talking without skipping a beat.


     “I've longed to feel this aura of yours for centuries. Now we can finally be together again and-”


     “Did it ever occur to you that I wanted to be left alone?” Ba'el lashed out.


The Crone's eyebrows knitted, and the tone in the little demon's voice looked as though it hurt her physically. It was like watching someone get a dagger to the heart and then seeing it twist.


     The witch pouted, “Ba'el...”


     “Shut up! You don't seriously believe I wouldn't sense what you were up to, do you? If I ever wanted to see you again I would have done it myself. If you think you can just talk to me in that tone and with look on your face after everything you've pulled, you are in for a rude awakening.”


Now The Crone's face was slowly turning away from the vapid ogling. Her tone still had not a trace of hostility, but she raised her voice as if this was all the beginning of a lover's spat.


     “Ha! Don't be coy with me, Ba'el. I know you well. You think you're so shady and mysterious. No, you're not the tall, dark and handsome character you think you are. You did come on your own. Deny it all you want, but you and I are connected. I know... Even after all this time...”


But the witch couldn't stay mad for long. She was just as suddenly blushing again and caressing her own rosy cheeks with her hands.


     “I'm a little shocked how much you've changed, but I've changed too. Nothing will stop my-”


     “Shut! Up!” Ba'el roared.


The ground itself trembled; everyone but the two of them covered their ears and cowered from the powerful echos. A massive explosion of sound tore through the air from such a small body. It even kicked up some of the loose deposits of dust which had settled down a couple minutes ago.


     “You can't deny me!” The Crone yelled back with a twisted smile on her face. “I've fled for my life over countless years. I've cowered in the dankest and most terrible places imaginable for decades at a time. I've endured unimaginable pain and suffering... That's all over now. Now I have home and a family. After all these long centuries, I can finally face you again. That's why I've called you here. We can finally be a family again!”


     “What family locks each other in cages?” Ba'el snarled. “Do you take me for a fool?”


     “You're such a shy little child,” The Crone said apologetically. “I needed to make you listen.”


     “Don't 'child' me you vicious little whelp. I worked long and hard on that disguise. Even consecrated ground didn't make me break sweat. Can you even begin to imagine how many layers such a shield would have? I wanted to be left alone!”


     “Alone? Why would you want to be alone now?” The Crone thought aloud then began to shake her head. “No... No no no no. That's not right at all. The demon I remember was so big, so powerful, but in the end his eyes were so very sad. So sad... So lonely. Not a friend in the world or in all the hells.”


The head witch seemed to be sure of herself, but she stopped, and that expression on her face was wiped clean when the goat-demon began to chuckle and laugh. Ba'el couldn't hold on, and her chuckle became a cackle before she was laughing out loud.


     “Are those the thoughts you've had in that rotten head of yours for all these years?” Ba'el could still hardly speak as she had to force her laughter back down as she talked. “I hope you didn't spend too many decades cooking up all that... You're just as sloppy as you were all those years ago. It's like you haven't learned anything. 'Appear before me now'!” She said, imitating The Crone's voice in a mocking tone. “That's how it went, right? You didn't even say anything about appearing before you in that little trap of yours, did ya? Except I was already before you. See? Semantics. They are really important when dealing with these kinds of things, but you were always too quick. Too impatient... You really haven't learned anything.”


     The Crone raised her voice, “Don't forget you came her of you own will to-”


     “I knew you would eventually try to drag me here kicking and screaming,” Ba'el interrupted coldly. “I know you far more than you claim to know me. Why else would you gathering so many girls to drain their mana? Why would you do it at the same time there was going to be a Red Moon? Why would I ever not assume you wouldn't try to rope me into it after all these years?... That's why I decided I needed to see it for myself. But I'd never get close enough without being caught, right? Well, I happened to stumble upon the perfect piece of cover. An opportunity beyond my wildest imagination.”


Ba'el turned around to look at me. There was a wide grin on her face, a single fang overbiting her lower lip. I stared back at her, and she greeted me with a wink. That gesture worried me, but before I could implore her with my confusion to explain herself, she turned back to face The Crone.


     “So I decided to follow where you were taking everyone, and you never saw me coming... So you plan to corrupt the entire Marches. Quite a feat. Very audacious of you... It's also really damn stupid.”


     “You'll come around to it, Ba'el.” The Crone said; her patience now starting to wear thin. “We'll talk all this over... Very thoroughly-


Without another word or gesture of acknowledgment, the little demon turned around and trotted away from The Crone. It took a few seconds for the witch to react.


     “Ba'el! Don't you dare ignore me now!”


     “We're done here,” She replied curtly. “I got other things to do today.”


     “Don't forget where you are, my dear old master. You have come to my domain. It is my ley lines that crisscross this place. And gathered here is my family!”


Snapping to attention, the gathered witches sensed the change of tone in The Crone immediately. Ba'el still didn't have a care in the world, and she kept on walking while the witch was fuming. She was once again standing right next to me. She muttered something under her breath. I could swear she said something like, 'get ready'. When I looked back at her, she was busy watching the witches around the room readying themselves.


Get ready for what?


     “Seize her. Restrain her! But don't hurt her. That will be my job later,” A wicked sleazy smile spread across her face. “Alone.”


The dead silence that lingered between their spats had died a sudden death. Magical energies now crackled all around. Half a company of witches surrounded the two of us and all the girls from all directions. They brandished their staves and wands, and I'm positive their safeties were off. Even I could feel the roiling energies at play. Hairs on the back of my neck stood up as though all those arcane powers were static readying to collect into one massive thunderbolt... And I was still flat on my stomach at where it was all gathering. I wasn't properly grounded for this.


I felt a fuzzy claw pat me on the ass a couple times. The sudden sensation caused my lethargic and aching body to jolt back to attention. I wanted to scream and yell to vent the frustration of being so casually violated, but it all got caught in the back of my throat when Ba'el clicked her tongue disapprovingly.


     “What was another important thing I always told you Crone? Before you plan to get yourself into deep shit, always prepare a way to dig yourself out.”


A flash of green light shone on the floor beneath the two of us. It banished the dull red light from the moonbeams with ease, and its intensity stung my eyes. Two green lights streaked across the ground, forming bright neon lines on the stone floor. They quickly darted forward and back, turning at sharp and sudden corners until they finally met after the lights burning across the floor formed a complete pentagram. While I stared on at the light show, Ba'el dropped down on top of my back, and I felt the lukewarm steel underwear of hers collide with my aching spine. She then wrapped her arm around my neck in a chokehold and pulled my head back. I felt my throat close up just below my larynx; and tried as I might to breath, my lungs were completely cut off from the world. I tensed up, and my body panicked on instinct. All my senses focused on the smooth skin of her bare armpit and back of the elbow which I clung to desperately but couldn't even budge with every last ounce of my strength as I flailed like a wild animal caught in a snare.


     She leaned over and whispered directly into my ear, “You'll thank me later for this.”


My eyes were too busy bulging out of their sockets to appreciate anything.


     “You don't want to breathe during this.”


Not buying it! My vision felt like it was going black and- No, it wasn't going dark. I was moving. My body was sinking into the floor. I watched the witches scamper and scurry in a hurry to close in on the two of us, but we weren't sticking around for long it seemed.


There was a sensation overwhelming my body, besides the suffocation, that I had never felt before. My body melted into the stone floor, and Ba'el on my back followed as we sunk into the floor, but then we very suddenly entered a free fall. My first instinct was to scream, but I was being choked in the vice-grip of this demon, so I never got the chance. I could feel the inside of my mouth, but I felt outside of it was nothing but solid stone. My vision went completely black, and my eyelids and lashes brushed up against something that was pressing right up against my face. Everything went completely silent as well. Just beyond my ears was nothing but stone, and there was nowhere near anything big or loud enough to vibrate it.


An intense and vivid feeling of claustrophobia overwhelmed me. This was more than just being crammed into tight quarters; every bit of space beyond my body was occupied with stone. But that wasn't enough; there was also a sensation of vertigo as I felt the organs in my body churn as my body fell downward and neared terminal velocity.


It was the strangest thing though. I was falling without the feeling of air rushing past my face. There was nothing I could do though. My mind had retreated to this calm and isolated place while my body thrashed desperately in fear while the last life in it was being squeezed out.


It must have only been about ten seconds or so, but my body registered much longer than that. After picking up enough speed to reach more than halfway to terminal velocity, the sensation of entrapment left me very suddenly. I opened my eyes and still saw only darkness, but I could feel wind rush past me, and I could hear the whoosh of it as it brushed past me. A fizzle of light like a set of freshly lit flares shot out, and a series of four bright lights arced out from somewhere on my back and hung in the air. The darkness was banished instantly, and a quick panicked look at my surroundings showed an absolutely massive cavern.


Ba'el's chokehold let go, and when I finally felt the pressure against my throat release, I gasped to desperately fill my lungs with air. The air felt stagnant but at the same time cool and crystal. I don't think anyone, or anything, has been down her for a long time. I got one look upward and saw no possible hole we could have entered in from... But that wasn't possible. Was it? The drag pushing against me, along with my general lack of aerodynamics, soon caused me to go into a wild tumble. Ba'el's miserly bulk which had been clinging to my back had disappeared. I could only catch sight of her every so often, she had detached from me at some point and was a couple meters below me now.


Looking down was perhaps my worse decision today.


Approaching fast was a vast expansive body of still black water. I wasn't sure if this was part of the plan, but there was no sign that either of us were slowing down at all. Hitting that water going this fast would not be much different from hitting stone. There wasn't a thing I could do; the only thing that was within my power was to eye the fast approaching body of water for a split second as I spun around helplessly in the air. At least I could scream while I did it now. That was a marginal improvement to just a few seconds ago.


Ba'el hit the water first, and the sickening sound of a body crashing against the tense water surface greeted me before I also hit the water. I was more fortunate because I fell directly onto the roiling water which the demon had broken for me. But that only meant I would be conscious, or even just alive, for the bone chilling freeze of the hidden lake. I went from about fifty meters per second to zero in the blink of an eye as my own natural bouncy fought against the downward pull of gravity. I had only just gotten reacquainted with being able to breathe, so I frantically thrashed and kicked my legs to head back up toward the lights which I could still see hanging near the ceiling high above.


My legs felt like they were tied together. There was just too much extra cloth floating around, and all the extra weight from it being soaked wasn't helping much either. The only thing I had to keep me going was a burst of adrenaline I had been saving up ever since I nearly soiled myself when that freakish oaf was descending upon me with his meaty, bone-pulverizing mitts. A few thrashes, kicks and flails later I managed to break the surface and tilt my head back in order to fill my lungs with air. Another bonus was the lack of any serious current or waves. My throbbing chest calmed, and I looked around as I treaded freezing water.


But I didn't see the girl anywhere.


I desperately spun around as I kept my head above the water, but I didn't see anyone else floating nearby or far away. All I saw in the distance was dry land about thirty meters away. When I looked down... I couldn't see the bottom. The four lights handing up near the ceiling were not bright enough... Perhaps nothing could be bright enough to pierce that darkness.


     “Ba'el!” I yelled out, hoping in vain she might be out there in the darkness and out of the water.


It was obvious where she was. She was below. I pumped my arms and circled around the area as I looked down into the inky black water. The heat at my core was starting to flicker, and my limbs were starting to be robbed of their warmth. It wouldn't be much longer till they were frozen, and the muscles in my arms and legs gave out. If I swallowed too much of this water, any of it at all actually, I could easily drown. If the girl had already done so...


There wasn't any time. I took a deep breath and dove straight down. My arms flailed around wildly as I paddled deeper into the near freezing water. I hoped against hope that my hand would hit something, anything. My hand eventually brushed against something almost as fluid as the water itself, but I just barely felt it against the back of my hand. My reaction was instant, and I grabbed hold of it tight. It wrapped around my fist; it was cloth, cold damp cloth. I yanked upward and felt a weight on the other end. That was good enough for me, and I swam back up and broke through the surface once more. I pulled on what I believed was her cape until I got a grip on the girl herself. My arm wrapped underneath hers, and as I kicked my legs, I brought her head above the water.


     “Hey! You alright?”


She didn't respond. I looked around till I found the shore I spotted before. We couldn't stay in the water any longer, and my strength was starting to fade fast. I had about another minute and no more until I risked passing out myself. With the girl's back resting against my chest, I wrapped my arms underneath her own and started kicking as hard as I could. She couldn't weight much more than twenty kilos, so at least I had that going for me as I fought against slipping deep into the deadly cold water.


Every last bit of energy in my body seeped and poured out of me as I burned what adrenaline I had left to swim my way back to shore while carrying the child sized monster with me. I nearly poked my eyes out on her giant, swept-back horns a couple times.


When my back hit stone, I got the best grip that I could with my sopping wet leather shoes and pulled the girl up with me. The shore was steep, but not so sharp that it was impossible to merely back up onto flat ground. I figured this whole place was not just a natural cave formation; it was dug out and leveled by hand or magic. Traces of erosion and wear told me it was all done long ago. Luckily, it was still serviceable.


With the girl on her back and out of the water, I briefly collapsed onto my back as well and heaved heavy breaths which I tried to suppress as my cold shock nearly caused me to genuinely hyperventilate. I checked on Ba'el to my right, but she still hadn't moved at all. My blood went cold again.


I scrambled over to the demon and raised her tiny thin arm. I checked her wrist for a pulse and didn't feel a thing. My panic was very real now. I rested my ear against the center of her flat chest and didn't feel or hear a thing. My fingers against her neck didn't feel anything either. It was a race against time now, so I grabbed hold of her head, struggling with her horns and goat heads coming out of the sides of her head, and titled it back. With one hand I pinched her nose and a took a few breaths.


Now wasn't the time to worry or get flustered, Laven.


I leaned forward until I could feel the faintest body heat coming from her face, until I was stopped dead in my tracks. A fuzzy hand with a thumb against my left temple and three digits on my right pressed inward on the pressure points just beside my eyes.


     Ba'el's nasally voice growled, “What in the hells do you think you're doing?”


Before I could give a sigh of relief or explain myself, my head felt as though it had been stuffed into a compactor. I thought my brains would pop out from the top of my head or out of my ears. The sound of creaking bones from my skull filled my ears as my cranium was almost ready to fracture and burst like an overripe tomato if she squeezed any harder. Before my head was flattened, I was thrown off into the distance—I got some good air—landing about eight meters away further down the shore.


     I heard Ba'el growl in the distance, “Since when did I give you permission to touch me like that?”


My poor back took yet another blow, but this time I sat upright quickly despite the crippling pain. I looked back at Ba'el who was now sitting upright and glaring at me furiously with a flushed face. I felt relief at her being at first, but the uncharacteristic coyness on her face shocked me. Even her arms were now crossed over her chest and latched onto her shoulders.


Her back went rigid as though she had been suddenly shocked by a bolt of electricity. She quickly realized the state she was in and lowered her arms. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and got back onto her hooves. Still dripping wet, she shook her head which caused her twin tails to spin around like rotary blades. She kicked her legs and spun her arms, and her damp fur released sprays of water. The fluffy goat tail jutting out from her behind and the goat ears on the sides of her head shook and dried themselves off as well. She eventually noticed I had been watching her.


     “What do you think this is? A wet tunic contest?” She snarled.


She went from comatose to bitch in a flash.


     “No, but be glad it isn't. You'd be far from taking first place.”


I wasn't much better. Her eyes narrowed, but this time she placed her hands on her hips and learned forward in my direction.


     “I pulled you out from the water before you drowned. Then I thought I'd have to resuscitate you when your ass was lying unconscious after I pulled you out.”


My bones creaked. Perhaps a few were ready to snap when I stood up, but I wasn't about to keep lying down and let this girl talk down to me. Her eyes tracked my every move, and she had to lean her head back to follow me. A small victory.


     “Good to know a selfless act is still given plenty of thanks,” I quipped.


     “You're not getting one now. Not with that attitude.” She snapped back as she straightened out her back. “Don't forget my only competition right now is you.”


She pointed a finger at me accusingly; me who was wearing a drenched brown dress with a tattered hem as it all clung to my skin. My broad shoulders screamed masculinity, and any stretch of the imagination that my disguise would work was blasted away. We glared at one another trying to drill holes into the head of the other with our eyes. Snarls and growls in the back of our throats probably made us look like a couple of feuding mutts. I shrugged my shoulders with my palms raised slightly in the air. Ba'el bared her teeth but suddenly chuckled.


     “I like you. We'll get along just fine.”


I sighed with relief, but suddenly a nagging thought in the back of my head boiled over to the front. I looked all around and noticed it really was just the two of us all the way down here.


     “Wait! All the others-”


     “Forget it,” Ba'el said.


I turned back around and glowered at the demon in disbelief.


     She waved her claw dismissively, “There isn't anything we can do right now.”


     To say I got a little irate would be an understatement, “We're just going to leave them all behind?”


Now it was the demon's turn to sigh.


     “The Crone ain't got a leg to stand on for tonight. And I can't just make everyone incorporeal. Besides that was all very risky business. There's a reason why people don't practice those kinds of spells often anymore.”


Wait. What?


     She continued to talk about very macabre things in a very calm disinterested voice, “Not everyone is powerful enough or has enough concentration to keep that kind of thing forever. What do you think happens when your body and something solid like rock takes up the same space? What wins, flesh or stone? Let's just say there have been a few wizards and witches over the years who have lost some limbs.”


     I shook my head to banish the image she put in my head, but I also had to ask, “And the falling part? We could have died hitting the water like that?”


     “I thought I'd miss it,” She said casually.


     “Hitting stone isn't any better!” I screamed.


She stared at me with a puzzled look on her face. Then it dawned upon her face as she studied me; she gently pounded her fist into her open hand.


     “Right. Mortal. Sorry. Forgot about that.”


Hold on. She overlooked the possibility that my hitting the ground at that speed would most certainly kill me?


     “Anyways, they'll be fine. The only ones who should be worrying right now is-”


As the demon spoke I realized she had been leaning further and further over. Any second now she'd stretch her center of mass to the limit and-




The demon tipped and fell face first into the floor. A hollow clonk of her horns struck first and broke her fall. At least it wasn't a splat. She didn't stay motionless for long, so she seemed to still be okay. Mostly. I stood in the distance and watched as she struggled to pull herself back onto her hooves. With stubborn bullheaded determination she managed to drag herself back up, but after her eyes stopped spinning inside her head, she glared at me furiously.


     “Why didn't you-”


     “Semantics,” I said. “I'm not supposed to touch you, aren't I?”


     “...Fair Point,” She replied while her legs were still a bit wobbly.


I think the reason for our hasty retreat was painfully obvious.


     “From now on... Just keep that slobbering maw to yourself.”


I decided to get the obvious question I had off my chest.


     “...You couldn't fight with her right now if you tried...”


Ba'el slapped her cheeks a couple times between her claws and shook her head violently to snap herself back to attention. I walked a bit closer in case she did begin to fall over again.


     “Ding ding ding!” She said, mimicking a game show buzzer. “Give the man his prize! Right, I've lost my sea legs, so to speak. Haven't had the chance to recharge in... Actually I don't want to think about how long... Just know I spent too long cooped up in that boring polymorph.”




     “That was no mere illusion, boy,” She said, painfully thrusting her finger into my chest. “This is real professional spell craft. Altering your real physical form... Of course the furthest I could get was still just a little girl, but it worked. It worked for decades... What? You've never seen something like it before?”


I thought about that one for a bit, but I'm pretty sure I actually had.


     “No, I have,” I replied. “A princess who was actually a dragon all along.”


     “Ha!” the demon laughed. “People think they can just turn a cliche on its heads and that makes em real clever. A genuine Matthias Stonewrit.”


She didn't laugh for long though. She soon turned her eyes up to the ceiling. With a flick of her wrist, the white lights which had been hanging above came crashing back down to the ground. They shrunk in size and brightness and started to orbit closely around her index claw. She then tossed them up one more time, and they started to circle in the air above our heads.


     "If it was boring then why do it?" I asked.


     "Didn't you hear me? Are you deaf? I want to be left alone."


     "And you have to go through so many hoops, why?"


The demon cleared her throat.


     "I suppose I should introduce myself proper. You don't speak Infernal, do you? No. Didn't think so. You wouldn't be able to pronounce my actual name if you tried without it..."


With her soaked cloak in one hand, she wrapped it over her chest and face then threw it aside in an exaggerated manner.


     "You can just call me Ba'el," She said in a very official heraldic voice while she stood valiantly, yet childishly, with one hand on her hip and the other with her palm facing toward me. "Duke from the Third Hell. Baphomet of the Dark Heart Order. Master of the Magmatear falls. Corrupter of man. Defiler of the Sacred... Retired."


She counted off each title on her fingers and thumb, clenching them into a fist which she held up into the air for the last... Wait... Retired? Six instead of five? I couldn't suppress my surprise. Hearing that a demon could retire from their duties is now in a long list of things which in hindsight I never expected to hear.


     "That's right. Retired. Sick of it all. After the last war, I didn't want any part of all this nonsense any longer. I gave my two weeks notice then hit the road. Found a place and slumbered... I think."


     "You think?"


She lost interest in playing her little game, and her attention went elsewhere lightning quick, conveniently ignoring me and my additional questions.


     “We can't stay here for long. We need to get moving.”


     "No. You wait a moment. What did you just-"


Ba'el turned and started to walk away but turned around when I failed to follow her immediately.


     “Come on. We just fell through a mountain, but we did it in a straight line. They're going to catch up if we just wait around here.”


I was confused, wet, tired, cold and apprehensive, but she wasn't going to have any of that. Her claw wrapped around my wrist, and she continued walking. It was like my feet were cemented in the ground, but then a rope lasso from a runaway train tore me out by the roots. I still couldn't wrap my head around it. She had to weigh almost third of what I did. If you could only trust someone as far as you could throw them, then I could trust her quite a bit. Then again, she could muster enough strength to lift me above her head and break me in half on her knee like a baked potato if she really wanted to. For now my arm felt like it was going to rip free from its socket if I didn't start walking.


     “Whoa whoa, hold on!” I protested.


     “Bitching and moaning later,” She said mildly irritated. “We're walking here.”


     "Yeah well, I didn't even introduce my-"


     "Yeah yeah. Save it for later. I know enough for now," she said dismissively.


     “No. Listen. I'm not walking deeper into the earth with a demon from hell without understanding exactly what the fuck is going on.”


     “We're looking for a place to start a fire and hide till tomorrow evening.”


     “That's not what- Achoo!”


I sneezed. Hard. Oh yeah, all these cold water drenched clothes were going to give me pneumonia very soon... I might already be in trouble if that's as worked up about it as I could get.


Ba'el turned around, took one look at me, snapped her fingers and shook it while pointing back at me.


     “Right. Mortal. Sorry about that.”


     “Can you stop rubbing that in?”




She had a grin on her face when she turned back around to look where she was actually going. We passed though the threshold of what looked like old service tunnels which were conveniently straight and rarely turned, and when they did they did so very gradually. They really were bare bone though. There was hardly enough head room for myself, and sometimes my hair brushed against the roof which caused me to wince in fear that I'd smash my forehead against something sometime. At least firefly-like lights floating around us made darkness the least of my concerns. I had my doubts that we had any real direction.


     “Do you have any-”


     “Nope. No clue,” she answered immediately.


Not very reassuring.


     “Who do you think I am? A titivillus? If we get lost, then that just means they'll have an even harder time finding us.”


Not very reassuring at all.


     “Stop being such a damn baby. We'll be fine. Save your strength.”


     “Excuse me for being defensive,” I said lashing out. “I'm still stuck at the point where everything went to hell twenty minutes ago.”


     “We're on the same side for now, okay?”


     “Are we?”


     “I just saved you from being pounded into ground beef. Then I saved you from being raped and disintegrated... Or disintegrated then raped.


I stared at the back of the girl's head. She turned around and looked at me to meet my puzzled expression.


     “Believe me: they're an innovative lot,” She said casually.


We continued walking for a while and took a couple more turns at some intersections until she decided to keep talking.


     “Look. The Church sent you here, right? Right. They know The Crone is up to something, and they want to bring that back down. I don't know why you agreed to do it, and I don't care. You want to stop her, and so do I.”


     “I got the impression she and everyone else were ready to worship you,” I said.


     “Maybe, but I also don't want to plugged in as some pedo power plant slash sex toy.”


That... Was hard to argue with. But I still had to know what was up with those two. They seemed to know each other. Perhaps intimately.


     “But why would she-”


     “Less talk. More walking.”


     “Are you actually going to seriously answer any of my questions?”


     “Walk,” she said menacingly.


I didn't have to see her face to imagine the kind of expression she was making right now. At least it confirmed my suspicion that something ran deep between this girl and the witch. She began to pull harder on my arm as she picked up the pace. Perhaps hoping that I would forget about it if I had to focus more on where I stepped to keep my balance. I don't think she would stop moving just because I tripped. She'd drag me if she had to.


     “In exchange for shutting the hell up and covering me, I'll answer whatever question ya got when we've found a place to hide. But for now, shut your damn mouth. Don't make it any easier for them to find us.”


That would explain the death grip. If she was a walking flare of magical energy, then I guess that would make me the flash suppressor. Perhaps that was the only reason she bothered to escape with me in tow to begin with.


We continued walking through the maze of paths and auxiliary bunkers. Old, rusted and broken down equipment that looked as though it had been stripped of parts was strewn everywhere. Flood gates, old storerooms, everything to maintain a large facility. Most of them were crumbled. Some rooms had half of the roof caved in. In other places there were less refined artifacts. Old pickaxes with rotten wooden handles and turned over mine carts. I remembered what had been said about this long ago. There used to be an irrigation system here, but it was also a mine.


Several obstacles stood in our path during the whole meandering journey. There was nothing that could stop this demon though. She lifted boulders blocking our path, and she leaped up walls of rubble just as agile as a mountain goat... At least that second one made some sort of sense. But just as soon as things began to obey physical laws, her spindly girly arms somehow single handedly hauled me up all these roadblocks.


Maybe it was only a mine later on. It could have also turned into a salvage operation. Either way it all happened a long time ago. Now this place had been all but forgotten. It would have to be. The Church didn't even know about this place it seemed. How else would a coven of witches get away with practicing magic so openly? But to carve all this out, with a water reservoir that huge which has stayed contained for perhaps longer than a thousand years... It would be quite a feat for a pre-industrial society. There was always the magic element, but-


     “Finally!” Ba'el said exhausted.


I turned from my thoughts and saw that we had come to what looked like a wooden shack lost deep within the mine. I guess calling it a shack would be too fair. It was a wood wall that separated this part of the tunnel from whatever laid on the other side. What gave both of us hope was that there might actually be something behind that crumbling wooden door. All Ba'el had to do was roll a few boulders of the way and clear a path. The door itself was stuck, due to how the wood and cave have shifted over many years, so the demon just ripped it off.


     “After you,” she said, holding the door aloft with on hand and gesturing me to enter with the other.


Inside was what appeared to be an old foreman's quarters. The place had been abandoned for decades, perhaps longer, but there was still the furniture and gadgets which made it someone's home away from home. I wasn't sure any of it was safe to sit on or turn on, but it would do at least for a night.


With a thump and a crash, Ba'el dropped the door back into place and let it lean in place against the door frame. She walked past me and inspected the room for a long while, nodding the whole time. She grabbed an old lantern and went searching for some lamp oil. With a source of actual heat and light, she killed the dancing fireflies at last and set it down upon the rickety rotten table at the center of the room.


     With the shadows from the lantern dancing across her, she turned her green eyes toward me and said, “Now... If we're going to stop this witch, you need to know some things. Things about this world that everyone else but her, I and the immortals have forgotten.” I caught a faint smile for a moment before she continued, “We're also gonna have to make some preparations.”

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