“I see it!”
Ruda stood en garde while the boar charged her, whipping around it at the last possible second like a matador. She thrust her rapier into its side as she went, eliciting an agonized squeal. The pig staggered and lost its footing, down and thrashing all four hooves, but not dead. At least, not yet; its distraction gave her an opening for a more precise thrust, which took it straight through the heart.
Trissiny grunted as the other boar slammed into the golden corona surrounding her. The shield was holding, and likely would continue to do so. She felt no real strain from it; this was nothing like the wandfire she had taken in Sarasio. Her disadvantage was her height and her short sword. None of the cave boars stood taller than her waist, which meant that while she could stand around all day letting them bounce off her shield, fighting back meant kneeling or bending down—both positions that made it cripplingly awkward to fight.
Fortunately, she and her roommate proved a successful team, standing back-to-back. Trissiny’s shields (metal and magical) kept them protected, while Ruda’s agility, coupled with the long reach of her rapier and her shorter stature, made her an effective attacker.
If only the rest of the group were faring as well.
Level 3 had a smooth and obviously crafted stone floor, but it was littered with spires of volcanic rock, several of which steamed and emitted a sulfurous stench. Some stood alone, but quite a few were arranged conveniently to form barriers, making the chamber a kind of maze. There appeared, at least so far, to be nothing in it but igneous stone and cave boars, but even considering the relatively minor threat, the students had managed to rout themselves by the simple method of not having a strategy.
They had been charged immediately upon stepping foot into the level, and had now been broken up into smaller groups, each fending for themselves. Boars had come galloping in from around boulders and out of small canyons, rushing them from multiple directions and driving them apart. Now, though no one was yet down a crevice and isolated, several of them had gotten out of sight behind various outcroppings of rock.
Trissiny knew Gabriel’s position only because of the flashes of lightning that kept shooting out of it; he had climbed a steep slope and tucked himself into a corner from which he couldn’t be flanked, and was taking potshots at every boar that crossed his field of view. Not a brave tactic, but an effective one; more than half a dozen porcine corpses smoldered at the base of his hill. Toby stood nearby, probably the least effective of the group, protected behind a holy shield but his quarterstaff making no real impression on the four boars that circled, bashing their tusks against his barrier. She couldn’t see Fross at all, but streaks of ice lay all over the place, evidence of the pixie’s helpful efforts to deprive their foes of footing and in some cases freeze their hooves to the ground. This was causing more harm than good in the long run, though. Level 3 was too hot for the ice to hold them more than a few seconds, and the slippery patches were a hazard to the students as much as the cave boars, even as they melted. Vadrieny was out of her field of view, but the demon’s screeches were nearly constant and having their usual effect on the animals. Unfortunately, boars that ran away from her inevitably ended up running toward one of the others, and it seemed they forgot to be frightened as soon as they set their eyes upon a new target.
Ruda sidestepped around her, stabbing the boar that had bashed Trissiny’s shield while it was dazed. For a brief moment, they were not under immediate attack, and took the opportunity to size up the situation.
“What a glorious cock-up this is,” Ruda said flatly. Trissiny nodded agreement.
She half-turned to bring the rest of her classmates into her field of view. Shaeine was doing only slightly better than Toby; though she was unarmed, her skill with magical shields considerably exceeded his or Trissiny’s, and she was using them not only to protect herself but offensively, swatting boars aside and, when she could maneuver them into position, slamming them against the walls with crushing force. She had the leeway to do this because Vadrieny was hovering protectively about her, unleashing that hellish scream on any boar that looked in danger of slipping past her defenses.
Juniper was the only one of them currently on the offensive. None of the animals were attacking her; she was chasing after them. The spectacle was amusing and horrifying by turns; anyone chasing after a pig over rocks and patches of ice was fodder for pratfalls, but when she caught one, her methods were swift and brutal. She was splattered with blood and actually wielding a very fresh haunch of boar as a weapon. Trissiny thought that rather gratuitous, considering the dryad’s strength.
“We gotta get these boneheads into some kind of formation,” Ruda continued. “First one to slip and fall is gonna get gored to fucking shreds.”
Trissiny looked this way and that, thinking rapidly, then dropped to one knee as she was charged. The boar slammed head-on into her glowing shield and staggered to the side, stunned; she slapped it to the ground with her physical shield and stabbed it through the heart.
“I’ve got a plan,” she said, standing. “If I buy you time to get to Vadrieny and Shaeine, think you can persuade her to stop that screaming and actually use those claws? It’s nice that she respects Teal’s pacifism and all, but these are animals. It’s not like we can negotiate them.”
“I’ll see to it she gets the idea,” Ruda replied, grinning. “I am nothing if not silver-tongued.”
“Good. I’m going to go join Gabe and Toby; bring them to us as soon as you can.”
“Right on.” Ruda darted away, and Trissiny set off on a parallel course, first making sure the pirate wasn’t charged by cave boars before she got close enough to Shaeine and Vadrieny to fall under their protection. Only then did she head off to Gabriel’s boulder.
“Toby!” she shouted over the noise of battle around them. He glanced her way, then was immediately thrown off-balance by a boar’s charge and then turned to fend it off with his staff. Trissiny darted past him and kicked the animal hard. It squealed furiously, rounding on her, but before it could attack Trissiny hurled herself forward, coming down to one knee and slamming her shield into its face. A follow-up stab with her sword put it down for good. She stood and turned to find Toby staring at her, wide-eyed.
“Stand there,” she ordered, pointing with her sword at a spot just to the left of the slope leading to Gabriel’s hiding place. “That is your ground. You will hold it!”
“Yes, ma’am!” he said with a grin, dashing over to position himself as ordered. She followed, placing herself to the right of the ascent. She had to step carefully to avoid the multiple dead boars with burn wounds lying about the area.
“What’s happening?” Gabriel called out from above.
“Stay there!” Trissiny shouted up at him. “Keep firing as you get targets!”
His reply came in the form of a lightning bolt that ripped past her, striking down a cave boar that wheeled in their direction with Juniper on its tail. The dryad, skidded, trying to stop, then skidded even harder as her feet came into contact with one of Fross’s ice trails. Trissiny beckoned her urgently over; she rolled back to her feet and limped to the paladin’s side.
“What are we doing?” she asked, then they both had to stop and deal with a pair of charging boars before Trissiny could answer.
As they finished that little problem, by way of Juniper picking one of the creatures up and bludgeoning the other with it, Vadrieny’s screaming stopped. The air was still filled with noise, from squeals, hoofbeats, various crashes and the crackling of Gabriel’s wand, but it still seemed, blessedly, almost silent in the wake of the demon’s vocal magic.
Trissiny immediately took advantage of the quiet. “FROSS! Get over here!”
Almost immediately, the pixie darted across her face to indicate her presence, then rose to hover above Trissiny where her glow didn’t block the paladin’s vision. “I’m here! What’s going on? Please tell me you have a plan, I have no idea what I’m doing!”
“Stop that icing for the moment and disappear these corpses! I need a clear field of battle!”
“Aye-aye, General!” Fross swooped down, rushing thither and yon; everywhere she passed, dead boars shrank down to nothing and floated upward to vanish into her silver aura.
“Can she do that with live ones?” Ruda asked, dashing up to them.
“Not safely!” the pixie shouted as she zipped past.
“Shaeine!” Trissiny called out as the last two members of the party rejoined them, the demon holding one fiery wing protectively over the drow. “Bubble us!”
Immediately a silver semi-sphere snapped into place around the whole group, its shape interrupted where it intersected with outgrowths of rock.
“Thank you,” Trissiny said more quietly. Boars were dashing around the perimeter of the shield, a few butting their heads against it. “How long can you keep this up?”
“Not terribly,” the priestess replied with an audible strain in her voice. “I am unaccustomed to shielding this proactively for such a duration.”
Trissiny glanced at Juniper, thinking back to the Circles of Interaction. “Do you know the magic to convert fae energy into divine to power your shields?”
“I do not.”
“Nor I,” she said regretfully. “I’ll be correcting that the first chance I get, considering we have two basically bottomless power sources in the group that three of us could be using.”
“I’m not sure I like the sound of that,” Juniper said.
“All right… Can you make two walls to funnel them toward us?”
“Toward us?” Gabriel protested shrilly.
“If they are not actively attacking said walls…yes, I believe so.”
“All right, here’s what we’re going to do,” Trissiny said decisively. “Shaeine will set up angled walls to give the boars a single approach directly at us. Fross, I want you to ice the ground within it to make it hard for them. That means slick floor but also big chunks of ice to break up their momentum; we don’t want them sliding at us too fast to handle.”
“Gabriel, your job is to shoot them as they come. Ruda, Juniper, you’re on either side on the rocks right there—go on, get into position—and if any get close enough to start climbing the slope, you deal with them in close range. Gabe, that means if a boar gets into melee range, you stop firing. Don’t risk shooting your teammates.”
“Got it,” he said, sticking his head out to nod at her.
“Toby and I will be right in front of you two, blocking access to you—the shield within a shield, so they charge right into Gabe’s field of fire and not at our melee fighters. Toby, you’re on defensive; we don’t strike at the ones coming down the center, but do what you have to to fend off any who try to flank us. I think the rocks are too steep, but be prepared.”
“Vadrieny, you’re in the field; drive them toward the entrance to the trap.” She glanced around, studying the boars through the silver translucence of the shield. They had stopped pouring out of side chambers, so this was hopefully the final number. She couldn’t get a solid count with the way they were milling around, but there were easily over a dozen. “That means no screaming, that just scatters them. Try to herd them with your claws. And for the gods’ sake, don’t be afraid to actually claw one!”
Vadrieny nodded at her, making no response to the implied rebuke.
“All right,” said Trissiny, glancing quickly over her classmates. Everyone had stepped into the appropriate position as she spoke, Shaeine clambering carefully up to sit just beside Gabriel’s nook, well away from where the action would be. “Fross, get started on that ice. Everyone ready? Good. Shaeine, as soon as you switch the shields, we’re in action.”
“Changing in three…two…one!”
The bubble vanished and two silver walls appeared directly before them, angling outward and forming a trapezoidal space with its narrower end pointing at the ascent to Gabriel’s perch, surrounding the patch of ground now covered with a sheen of frost and littered haphazardly with chunks of ice as much as shoulder-high on the boars. Immediately, several went straight for the group from the side, but Vadrieny landed right in front of them, raking the pack with one clawed hand and sending the animals flying, along with a spray of blood. Her claws were simply too huge to avoid doing some damage with them.
Once in a while, things really did come together.
Once in motion, the plan went off with almost eerie perfection. Vadrieny was bigger than the boars, but also faster and more agile, and after that first rush prevented them from flanking the group again. In fact, she didn’t have to go far to herd them into the trap; they seemed maddened and determined to attack, and so long as she warded them away from the sides of the students’ formation, they charged obligingly right into Fross’s obstacle course, where their slipping and stumbling made them easy fodder for Gabriel’s wand. Trissiny only had to employ her weapon once, when one boar bounded off the corpse of its most recently felled comrade to land halfway up the incline, right beside Ruda and inside the reach of her arm.
It was over in less than half a minute. The final boar made it as far as the base of the little hill before being blasted by lightning. A couple of the larger specimens had needed to be shot twice; Gabriel had all but filled the channel between them with lightning, but had not been overwhelmed. Everyone’s hair was standing up slightly by the time they were done, and the air was heavy with the reek of ozone and charred pork. Shaeine let the glowing walls flicker out of existence, slumping back against the rock with a deep sigh, and the two paladins allowed their own shields to wink out.
“Holy shit, we won!” Ruda crowed. Around her, the group finally let themselves relax, grinning at each other in the sudden silence.
The noise that answered her, echoing around the chamber from a point of their sight, might have been called a squeal if it were about half as powerful; as it was, it was at least half roar. It was immediately followed by the rapidly growing sound of hoofbeats. Much louder ones than any they had heard thus far.
“Yup. That’s my fault,” Ruda said with a sigh.
“Levels have bosses,” Fross said grimly. “Trissiny? What do we do?”
Before Trissiny could answer, it rounded the corner ahead and skidded to a halt, glaring at them.
Cave boars were essentially just pigs—big, aggressive pigs that tended toward pale pigmentation and had larger tusks than usual. This creature was the size of a bison, and the differences between it and its lesser brethren did not stop there. In addition to long, curving tusks bigger than a ram’s horns, it actually had horns, arching upward over its head. It had a mane of what were either very large bristles or rather diminutive spikes, which looked like the difference would be academic for anyone unfortunate enough to come into contact with them. Worse, the thing was armored, with segments of glossy chitin flanking its vulnerable sides.
“I’ve got this,” Juniper said, pushing past Trissiny and sliding down the slope.
“Wait,” Trissiny began, but got no further as the boss boar let out a bellow and charged her.
The dryad stomped forward, slipping once on Fross’s ice before catching her footing, and planted herself directly in the boar’s path. Head high, she held up a hand imperiously at the charging monstrosity.
“Stop right there!”
The boar rammed into her head-on.
The dryad was actually shifted backward by the impact, stumbling slightly before regaining her balance. The boar, not quite felled, nonetheless staggered, shaking its head and huffing in protest.
“It attacked me,” Juniper said, sounding utterly shocked.
“I can’t get a clear shot!” Gabriel said, scrambling out from his perch and leaning around Trissiny. “June, get out of the way!”
“Animals aren’t supposed to attack me!” Juniper exclaimed, offended. “I’m a dryad!”
The boar squeal-roared again, loud enough to make Shaeine wince and clap her hands over her ears. It backed away from Juniper, reddish eyes fixed on her, and pawed at the ground with its front legs.
“Oh, for the—Vadrieny!” Trissiny shouted. “Get her out of there!”
“I can’t touch her,” the archdemon protested.
“You can’t what?”
“BAD PIG!” Juniper roared, stomping forward and landing an open-handed slap against the side of the boar’s head. It was lifted right off its hooves and hurled to the side by the blow.
“…or, we could all wait up here while she deals with that,” Gabriel said in a smaller voice.
The dryad lunged furiously after the boar, grabbing it by its right tusk and left horn, and wrenched it sideways. The creature, squealing in protest, was lifted again and flipped onto its other side, where she leaned down, keeping up the pressure despite its desperate attempts to scrabble free. She didn’t have very good leverage from that position; this went on for a disturbing span of seconds, with the boar’s pained outcries growing steadily more frantic, until its neck finally broke with a sickeningly loud crunch. It kicked a few more times before falling still.
“You don’t attack dryads,” Juniper said severely, standing up and dusting off her hands. Then she kicked it for good measure, flipping it back onto its other side.
“You tell ‘im, Juno!” Ruda called out.
“Or,” Toby said quietly, “we could not encourage that, maybe?”
“I’m sorry,” Trissiny said, turning to Vadrieny. “that was my fault; I wasn’t thinking clearly, apparently.”
“No harm done,” the archdemon replied with a faint smile.
“Wait, what are we talking about now?” Gabriel asked.
“Telling Vadrieny to move Juniper,” Toby explained. “Remember, when the centaurs cornered us in Horsebutt’s tomb? We went over this then; Vadrieny’s physical form is an infernal spell effect, which means touching Juniper would probably just snuff it out.”
“Probably,” Ruda grunted. “It occurs to me we’ve never actually gotten around to testing that.”
The flames dimmed and receded, followed by the claws, and then Teal was standing there, shaking her head. “Juniper’s the daughter of a goddess. However impressive Vadrieny is, I don’t think she ranks with a dryad. I mean…we could try that sometime, just to find out, but…”
“I don’t mind,” Juniper said, rejoining them. “Can we take a break first, though? That was kind of a bit…much.”
“I second that motion,” Gabriel said firmly. “And this might be kind of weird, but uh… Considering we didn’t get to finish our bacon earlier, and with the smell of all this…”
“Yup, that’s fuckin’ weird,” Ruda said, grinning.
“I don’t think it’s weird at all,” Juniper replied, tossing her head. “I’m not really hungry, but seriously—the rest of you haven’t eaten nearly enough today, and we just got a lot of concentrated exercise. There’s probably more up ahead. You should finish your meal.”
“If it’s not too much of an imposition, Fross,” said Toby, “could you please get rid of the rest of these corpses, first? Something about eating surrounded by the dead…”
“No imposition at all!” the pixie said brightly, already setting to work. She continued chattering as she swooped down on each felled boar, shrinking and storing them. “I dunno if there’s any actual treasure here, but considering the socioeconomic situation in the Crawl, a big ol’ pile of pork is a really good haul! Much better than the mushroom level. I mean, aside from the trading value of all this, we’ve basically got our food covered for the whole rest of the trip!”
“I think I’d be okay with that,” said Juniper, “but the rest of you really can’t live on just meat. You need a variety of nutrients from plants.”
“There aren’t any plants,” Gabriel pointed out. “I mean…except mushrooms.”
“Those are fungus, not plants,” the dryad said patiently. “And they’ll go part of the way, sure. Maybe we should check with the vendors back at the Grim Visage. They probably have nutritional supplements. They’re pretty much have to.”
Fross had finished clearing away the boars—even the big one—and now re-materialized their plates of pork chops and bacon from the makeshift inn on Level 2. Gabriel immediately seized a handful of meat, the others following suit more slowly.
“I’m okay with just trading the carcasses,” Ruda said firmly. “Otherwise, we’d have to do all the butchering ourselves, and…just, fuck that, is all. Do you guys remember the bison?” She grimaced. “I remember the bison. Fucking ew. Didn’t the demons up there make a standing offer for meat? It was the little guy with the wings, right?”
“We’ll clearly have to pass through Level 2 regularly, what with their portals and the waystone,” said Trissiny, after swallowing a bite of bacon. “I see no good reason to loiter there one second longer than absolutely necessary.”
“Oh, here we go again,” said Ruda, rolling her eyes.
Trissiny gave her a hard look. “What?”
“No offense, Triss,” Gabriel mumbled around a mouthful of pork, “but…aren’t you backsliding a little?”
She set down the bacon she was holding. “Excuse me?”
“Well, it’s just…” He paused to swallow. “I dunno, it seems like you’ve been opening up a bit as time goes by. Being a bit less hostile to…y’know, things outside the Imperial norm.”
“The Imperial norm,” she said, very evenly.
“Oh, I don’t think we need to make a big deal about it,” Toby said quickly.
“No, no. Please,” Trissiny said quietly. “What’s on your mind, Gabriel?”
“Hell, Boots, it’s not just him,” Ruda interjected. “First day we met you practically drew your sword on Shaeine just ‘cos she was a drow. And then there was that thing with you and Gabe, with all the clawing and stabbing. But you’ve been getting better! Or were, anyway. Then we meet the perfectly nice demons on Level 2, and it’s like you wanted to line ’em up and chop their heads off.”
“Perfectly. Nice. Demons.” Trissiny’s voice was icy.
“Yes,” Ruda said firmly. “They were perfectly nice.”
“They kind of were,” Juniper agreed. “They gave us food! Which you’re eating right now.”
“I don’t think it’s exactly fair to put Trissiny on the spot like this,” said Teal. “You can’t reasonably expect a paladin of Avei to be calm when surrounded by demons.”
“Can’t expect me to be calm,” Trissiny said softly. “How charitable.”
“Oh, come on, you know I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Well, whatever, the point is not to start an inquisition,” said Ruda, gesticulating with the half-eaten pork chop in her hand. “We’re just sayin’, Triss, if we meet any more demons, how about waiting to find out what their intentions are before going for your sword, yeah?”
Trissiny stared at her in silence for a moment, then looked around at the rest of the group. “Is this how you all feel?”
“Let me turn that question around on you,” Toby said quietly. “Why are you averse to learning someone’s motives before assuming they’re hostile?”
“The presumption of innocence is not always warranted,” Shaeine added, “but it is a cornerstone of diplomacy.”
Trissiny stood up slowly. “Do you know how many major invasions of the mortal plane there have been from Hell?”
“Oh, here we go,” Ruda groaned.
“Answer the question,” Trissiny snapped.
“Nine recorded,” Fross said. “We covered that in Professor Tellwyrn’s class!”
“Exactly,” said Trissiny. “Nine. In the span of eight thousand years, with the resources of an entire dimension to draw on, Elilial launched a large-scale armed assault exactly nine times. You don’t find that a little…underwhelming?”
“Uh…I guess?” Gabe said hesitantly. “Is this going somewhere?”
“The first two were by Elilial herself during the first millennium of her incarceration in Hell,” said Trissiny. “The rest mostly over the three thousand years following, at various times, with the aim of establishing various Black Wreath cells in different parts of the world. The most recent, coming thousands of years after those, was sixteen centuries ago, and that was started when the Sorcerer-King Atromax actually bored a massive gateway into Hell. And in none of these cases did Elilial send a large enough army to actually overwhelm the mortal world, but only to accomplish specific, smaller objectives.”
“Well, maybe she doesn’t have all that much manpower,” Ruda suggested.
“Or maybe,” Trissiny shot back, “that’s just not what they do. Will you all please think? One floor up from us is a succubus, who is near the top of the Descent because she’s apparently the second-least threatening thing it has to offer. And yet, we were just discussing the fact that finding an incubus or succubus on the loose is considered a major crisis by modern civilizations. You don’t find a little bit of a disconnect there?”
Gabriel frowned. “Well, now that you mention it…”
“It’s because succubi are not fighters,” Trissiny said. “In an enclosed space, against the eight of us? She’s little more than a pincushion waiting to happen. But up above, where she has freedom to maneuver, resources to access and people to manipulate? Frankly, I don’t think this group could take her on. Her kind have brought down entire kingdoms. Alone. They assuredly didn’t do it by force of arms.”
“Now, hold on,” said Toby.
“You do know what sshitherosz do, I hope?” she barreled on. “They find people in vulnerable positions, people who are outcast, or alone, or for whatever reason weak and needing some kind of support. They coax people into reaching for the power they offer, and lead them into becoming warlocks. That is where the majority of warlocks come from! People who are foolish and power-hungry enough to actually seek out infernal power are vanishingly rare. Those scrawny, ugly, disturbing-looking demons are masters of the art of getting on people’s good sides. You think they do it by brute force?”
She glowered at the group; they all stared back, mutely. Nobody was eating now.
“The demons don’t come for us with rampaging hordes and fire from the skies. They come with pretty faces and kind smiles, with nice words and very reasonable offers of trade. They find common ground, stay polite, act forgiving and fair-minded, and when you give them an inch, they start in with the hints about how unfair it is that they’re so ill-treated just for being what they are. One little step after another, until you’re riddled with cancer because you got suckered into channeling powers your body isn’t designed to contain, and you’ve opened all manner of portals for all their equally harmless friends to come through. All because you stopped to chat with a poor, mistreated, lonely figure who was nice you to, and fair, and reasonable. Does any of this sound extremely familiar to anyone?”
“None of us is going to—” Gabriel broke off as Trissiny carried right on, talking over him.
“Are any of you people actually arrogant enough to think that you’re the first individuals in eight thousand years to have the brilliant idea of trying diplomatic relations with demons? Seriously? It’s been tried. It’s been tried over and over and done to death, often quite literally, and it has always ended up the same. They wiggle in, the persuade, seduce, and corrupt, and when they’ve got enough power to do so, they destroy. That’s why every established nation, religion and organization of any kind immediately greets a demon with outright violence. That’s all you can do. The cults of Omnu, Izara, Themynra, and everyone else who abhors violence doesn’t raise so much as a peep of protest! But no, I guess you know better than the entire world.”
She bared her teeth at them, clenching her fists at her sides; they stared back in numb silence. “After all, it’s just Trissiny spouting off again. Who cares? Trissiny is a hothead, a racist, a stuck-up fanatic. Trissiny is needlessly hostile and always angry about nothing. Well, Trissiny will keep protecting you, no matter how much she might want to let you get tangled up with demons and learn the only way you apparently can.”
She snorted in pure, wordless disgust. “Come on, we’ve wasted enough time. There are ninety-seven more levels; I’m sure we can find something good and venomous for you guys to snuggle with. Juniper! Gabriel!”
“Yes?” he squeaked.
“Stay right behind me,” she ordered, turning on her heel in the direction of the stairs to Level 4. “Since none of you saps intend to preserve your own well-being, at least you two won’t die in one hit.”
Trissiny stalked off, leaving the group stunned behind her.
“I…I think she’s mad at us,” Fross whispered.