Blackstaff

Susan frowned as she browsed the board in front of her. She’d always assumed that being an adventurer would result in being inundated with cries for help from kingdoms under siege from evil wizards, secret missions from handsome princes and requests for legendary artefacts of great power.

In contrast, a worrying amount of the work on offer here was decidedly less heroic, essentially boiling down to the breaking up of new couples. She sighed, staring at one of the notices pinned to the wall. Apparently a young man was in dire need of rescuing from a Dragon in the mountains to the north.

It just didn’t make any sense, what exactly did he need saving from? He’d be loved and protected by his adoring new wife, never to be lonely again. Barging in and ruining all that wouldn’t be courageous, it’d be mean-spirited. To add insult to injury the completion of the quest didn’t even offer decent pay.

Susan began to question what she was doing here again. She’d been doing a lot of that this morning.

She turned away from the board to face the rest of the hall. There weren’t many people here today, and almost all of them had already seemed to have formed parties. Susan carefully scanned the group for any lone men, trying to ignore the confused looks and nervous whispers her presence here always caused.

It didn’t take long for her to find what she was looking for. A solitary man in a rather basic suit of armour was leaning up against the wall on the far side of the room, his face buried in an open scroll. There wasn’t anything particularly special about him, but he wasn’t staring or pointing, and right now that was enough for her.

Susan took a deep breath and marched forward, striding right up to the oblivious man and extended her hand. She gave a cough.

“Hi, I’m Susan! Can I join your party?”

The man didn’t look up from the scroll. “I’m good, thanks.” He said distantly. Susan was beginning to get used to this treatment, as much as it bothered her, and she forced her expression into a friendly smile that she hoped didn’t look too false.

“Oh, I think you’d find me very helpful!” She tried not to overdo the enthusiasm. It was unlikely to be the entire reason why all the others had turned her down, but at this point she wasn’t going to take any chances.

“I’ve already got a party,” the man replied. He rolled up the scroll and turned towards the now crestfallen woman. “But look, I know how tough it is starting out. The best advice I can give you is -”

“Hmm?” Susan stood patiently, her spirits lifted and her smile now genuine. She’d clearly been going about all this the wrong way for the last couple of weeks and was eager to find out just how it was supposed to be done. Her optimism was short-lived however, because the man had now trailed off and was simply staring at her, dumbfounded.

After a minute of so of confused silence he finally spoke. “You… want to be an adventurer?”

“YES?” Susan’s response came out more harshly than she had intended it to, but she was getting tired of this. “Why does everyone have such a hard time with that?”

The adventurer looked her over once again, if only to confirm what he was seeing. Eventually, he gave up and accepted that the sight in front of him was indeed real. “Well.” He said at last. “For starters, you’re a Kikimora.”

The door to Feywall’s Adventurer’s Guild was violently swung open, and a rather angry and depressed Kikimora stormed out. It had been two weeks since she started frequenting the guild in the hopes of getting a party, and things weren’t getting any better.

Just what was wrong with these men? Susan couldn’t understand it. Adventurers across the world had to raid ancient tombs and climb draughty towers in unironed clothing with improperly organised equipment every day. Yet here was a maid willing to give one lucky man the kind of service that would make him the envy of everyone in the profession, and they snub her.

At first, she assumed it was the maid outfit. She could understand that – it wasn’t the ideal sort of clothing for climbing things or battling evil in, no matter what popular fiction tells you. So she adjusted and customised her uniform to be more fitting for the occasion, which basically involved shortening the skirt and wearing cheap armour padding over her chest. It didn’t give her any more success, but at least people stopped mistaking her for the janitor.

Then she wondered whether her lack of weaponry was off-putting. That made sense too –  as unpleasant as the thought was, you can’t be an adventurer without having to defend yourself now and then from things like bandits and wild animals. So she strapped a broom to her back, safe in the knowledge that any trouble could be met with a nasty crack from the handle. It could also be used for sweeping floors, making it a multi-purpose weapon. Unfortunately, the members of the guild did not see the utility of Susan’s choice of armament, no matter how often she referred to it as a staff.

In the end, she felt like there was just no pleasing them.

Now increasingly bitter and frustrated, Susan did what any person would do given the circumstances and made her way to the pub.

The Hobgoblin’s Bottle was a small and fairly standard establishment, notable only for being right next door to the town’s temple to Bacchus. At first glance this would seem like a fantastic business model, but as the owner soon discovered, a Bacchus temple is essentially a bigger and better pub in its own right, boasting the advantage of offering magic alcohol that didn’t cause hangovers or fights over random trivia. It often gave it away too, making it annoyingly competitive for prices.

That isn’t to say the Hobgoblin didn’t have any customers. The pub could still boast the advantage of being free of slurred sermons and drunken orgies, and was at least a slightly safer place to drink if you didn’t want monsters hitting on you all night. Susan just liked it because it was quieter.

She almost made it to the door before a commotion at the temple entrance drew her attention. Two priestesses were pushing a scruffy looking Satyros clutching a flute and bottle out onto the street as a high pitched whine echoed from inside. Contrary to the general public image of Bacchus worshippers, they were not being very gentle about it.

“There’s always someone who has to ruin it for everyone else!” One complained as she shoved the goat woman out onto the pavement.

“I can still hear ringing in my ears” said the other, cleaning her ear out with her finger. “I hope I don’t get tinnitus.”

“I can hear it too.” The first priestess stepped back into the building and rubbed her ears irritably. “Oh gods, when is it going to stop? How did she even-” The heavy door slammed shut, and the Satyros was left swaying gently on her own, confused. Now Susan recognised her – it was Kalista, an old acquaintance of hers and a regular of the Hobgoblin on the days the temple was shut.

Kailsta stumbled back to face the large doors. “Can I – hic – can I at leasht get hish name?”

– – –

“How the hell did you manage to get kicked out of a Bacchus temple for being drunk and disorderly?” Susan tried not to sound too impressed, but this really was a special feat. The temple was legendary for not giving a shit.

Kalista leaned forward, still swaying a little. “You ever hear of something called ‘Feeblemind’?” She asked with a grin.

“You mean that thing the Chaos worshippers drink for their rituals?”

“Yeah, that’s the stuff.” The cocky look on the Satyros’ face was replaced by confusion. She scratched her ear. “How’d you know?”

“You told me. You said you’d have to be insane to drink it.”

“…I did?” Kalista asked, looking distantly to the side in thought. Eventually she just shook her head and regained her cheerful composure. “Well, anyway, I was getting bored of the temple’s wine and fancied a change. So I got this bottle of the cultist’s stuff and thought it sounded like one hell of a party. Can’t really remember the rest…”

Susan sat upright with her eyes widened in horror. “You actually drank that stuff? Do you even know what’s in it?”

“Well, no.” Kalista said, downing the remains of her pint. “I wouldn’t really want to, either. I get the feeling it’d just put me off. Fancy another drink?”

As much as it pained her to admit it, Susan envied Kalista for her apparent ability to shrug off the worst effects of drunkenness. Even a substance as infamously awful as Feeblemind could only hope to affect her for the briefest amount of time before Bacchus’ blessing reverted its effects to a pleasant drunken haze.

“Oh yeah, how’s the adventuring thing going anyway?”

The face Susan made had the Satyros almost regret asking.

“Oh, that bad, huh?” Kalista said, vaguely looking in the direction of the bar. “I don’t know why you even bother really. That guild is full of guys living in the past, they still have the whole ‘slay the dragon, save the prince’ mindset going on. It’s so backwards.”

Susan remembered the quest back at the hall and winced.

“Point is,” Kalista continued, eyeing the empty glass in front of her. She stood up and fished around in her pocket. “You should wait a while until this place is more accustomed to us. Humans take to change slowly, and Feywall has only just started accepting us, so why not just wait it out?”

“Wait it out!?” Susan growled in a manner of which most people wouldn’t expect a Kikimora to be capable of. “The moment I give up is the moment someone else will try and take my place! Someone who won’t fold the clothes properly, or half ass the dusting, and then what?” Two feathered hands slammed into the table. “Maids will be tainted in the eyes of adventurers everywhere! No-one will see the value of having us in their party! We’ll be seen as dead weight!”

“Isn’t that basically how they’re seen now?” Kalista mumbled, squinting at the change in her hand.

Susan sighed and slumped on the table. “That’s because no-one has given me a chance yet! You’ll see –  the moment I get in a party everyone in the guild will want their own travelling maid!”

Kalista sighed too, but in her case it was at the price of the drinks and the insufficient amount of money she possessed for one. The Kikimora’s problems were petty in comparison. “Aren’t adventurers supposed to be good at fighting and exploring dangerous places? You’re also going to get dirty pretty much all the time, not to mention all the rips in clothing and bloodstains.” She slipped the few coins back into her pocket and sat down. “It doesn’t really feel like you thought this all through.”

“S-sure I have!” Susan said unconvincingly. “All I need is a chance to prove myself. I just have to complete a quest or two and then they’ll all know I’m the real deal!

“Uh huh.” Kalista leaned back into her chair. “Then why not just accept an easy quest at the guild and get it over with? It’s not like you’re going to get one moping around here all day.”

They both looked to the door expectantly.

And right on cue, nothing happened.

“I guess you’re right.” Susan turned back around to face the Satyros. “I’ll go in first thing tomorrow and-”

“BLOODY MONSTERS!” The door burst open as an old man in grey robes stormed in. He brushed his overly long beard aside, narrowly avoiding it getting jammed in the door as it slammed behind him. “I’ll have the strongest thing you’ve got!” He perched himself on a stool and began quietly grumbling to himself.

“Tough day, huh?” Kalista asked, putting on the huskiest voice she could. The guy might have been old enough to be her grandfather, but he was one of the few men present and Satyros weren’t exactly known for being picky. Especially after five or six beers and an eldritch brew of unknown origin. It only confirmed Susan’s suspicions that Kalista was in desperate need of a husband and some sobering up.

“Bloody awful!” The old man said as the bartender poured a dark liquid from an old and almost certainly watered down bottle. “I summon a creature from the darkest depths of the Abyss for a standard shadow ritual, and what does she do? She only goes and steals my apprentice and staff!” He took the drink and gulped it down eagerly. “You can’t trust anyone these days!”

“Aww.” Kalista sympathised in a way that Susan found slightly condescending. “Well, I wouldn’t worry about him. A lot of men these days find happiness in ways they wouldn’t even expect, I bet right now he’s-”

“Oh, sod the kid, I’m more worried about my staff.” Said the man. “Apprentices are easy to come by, but that was a genuine Blackstaff. They say those things were crafted in the deepest reaches of the Abyss by the Chaos gods themselves long before time itself began, when unspeakable horrors roamed the prehistoric lands and the fabric between dimensions was so thin that things from even darker places between the stars could seep out and consume the fabric of reality itself.  You can’t just get these things down the shops.”

“Ah.” Kalista said, uncertain on how to respond to this. She eventually settled on “I’m sure everything will work out for you in the end. Susan, stop smiling.”

The maid’s grin was starting to worry her. It wasn’t the kind of grin you wanted to see on a person sitting close to you, let alone in the same room. It was the sort of grin that heavily suggested its wearer was about to do something terrible, probably to you, and that the best course of action would be to run in the opposite direction as fast as possible. But in this case Kalista was drunk and behind her was solid wall, so all she could do is watch and hope that whatever was coming would be quick and painless.

“We’ll do it!” Susan announced, displaying levels of enthusiasm that probably contributed to her rejection back at the guild. Kalista couldn’t help but notice the word ‘we’ being thrown in there. She groaned internally, this wasn’t going to end well.

The old mage seemed to be taken aback. “Oh…” He said, now looking slightly startled. “Well… I was going to put a request in at the guild, but I suppose this could work…”

“Surely you’d want this handled by professionals?” Kalista asked, looking at him with pleading eyes.

“I could,” the mage said thoughtfully. “But then, this does involve dealing with a powerful monster. A Mindflayer, to be precise. Perhaps you would be able to reason with her, being monsters yourselves. Besides, the guild generally has a hard time getting any takers for jobs involving the Abyss.”

“Huh…” A nervous grin began to grow on Kalista’s lips as they formed a question she didn’t want an answer to: “… Why’s that?”

“Well, they’re all afraid of going mad. It’s the architecture from what I read. Cyclopean ruins, dimensions and angles that have no place being there, glimpses of horrors that break your very concept of reality and force the horrible realisation that you’re an insignificant speck in a cold, uncaring multiverse full of things far greater and much older than you could ever even hope to comprehend. Things that are neither good nor evil, but can utterly destroy the comparatively fragile mortal mind simply by existing, and gods help anyone who such beings notice.” He sniffed. “But then, you’re monsters, so you’ll probably be fine.”

“Oh… good.” Kalista said, now thoroughly convinced that she still wasn’t drunk enough for this conversation. Another desperate search of her pockets was in order.

“… Is Cyclopean architecture any good?” Asked Susan. “I’ve heard about their weapons, but I’ve never heard of anyone contracting them for construction jobs.”

Kalista sighed. “He’s referring to the-”

“Oh no, it’s terrible.” The old mage replied. “You’d have to be insane to use them for anything outside of metalwork, but that’s just the Chaos faction all over, really.”

“Well, this is all very interesting.” Kalista lied, regretting every bit of the conversation that she would later begrudgingly admit had started. “But I doubt we’d be able to even get to this place. It sounds a little out of the way.”

Susan’s face fell as this sunk in. Kalista would have felt bad, but there was drinking to be had and men to be chased, and a lifetime of these activities had left her lacking as far as adventuring skills were concerned.

“Oh, don’t worry.” The elderly mage chuckled. “It just so happens that there’s some ruins a few miles south from town that lead directly to the caverns from where I summoned her.”

“How convenient!” Susan said, smiling happily.

“Oh, it is,” The man nodded, “It’s always nice to know the reagents for your dark rituals are locally sourced. You can’t miss it, it’ll be the place with the black obelisks and strange geometry.” He shook his head slowly. “Those Cyclops contractors, bunch of cowboys if you ask me. It’s no wonder all the Old Ones are always so agitated all the time.”

Susan turned to face Kalista, who was shaking her head very slowly at her and silently mouthing ‘NO’.

“Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s go!” She grinned, ignoring the sudden outburst of angry gestures directed at her from across the table and disappearing through the door without a second thought.

“You don’t even know his name!” Kalista called after her, pointing at the old man on the stool.

“It’s Dorian.” He said, “I’ll be in the Mages Guild, should you succeed. Please try not to come back as raving lunatics, you wouldn’t believe how many of those I have to deal with in my line of work.”

Kalista sighed and went after Susan, leaving Dorian alone to order another drink and mull over how he was going to approach advertising for a new apprentice. It stood to reason that notices for such things didn’t write themselves, not without magical materials that most in the craft found prohibitively expensive. He began to grumble to himself again, with the cost of drinks here those wouldn’t be an option.

– – –

“Remind me again why I’m here.”

Susan stopped humming to herself. “Because everyone knows you can’t go adventuring alone. You need a party, it’s the rules.”

Kalista had genuinely meant everything she told Susan back at the pub, regardless of how drunk she probably was at the time. She really did want the Kikimora to find her perfect husband and go on adventures and do all the other batshit insane things she felt she needed to make her happy. She was just under the assumption that none of it would involve her.

They were only about an hour outside from the town gates and she was already worried. For someone so obsessed with becoming an adventurer Susan hadn’t prepared much for this journey. Sure, it would be relatively close to the town, but their destination was supposedly a place of horror and madness, a healing potion or two wouldn’t have gone amiss and Kalista didn’t share Susan’s faith in her choice of weaponry.

“Aren’t we a little under-equipped for this, though?” Kalista said. She looked behind them, where a mile or so of forest lay between her and a good drink. “I know you want the Guild to notice you and everything, but I’m not sure going up against eldritch horrors is first quest material.”

Susan shrugged. “How hard could it be? She’s going to be all giddy and lovestruck from meeting her husband, I bet she’ll just hand the staff right over if we ask nicely enough.”

Kalista wished she could share her friend’s optimism. She reached for the jug of wine she kept around her waist for emergencies but found it worryingly light. Peering into the empty vessel, the Satyros vaguely remembered the previous emergency a few nights ago, where the only drinks left were non-alcoholic beers. The jug was hurled to the ground in a minor fit of rage and the hope that brewers of such abominations had a special place in hell reserved for them.

This was getting too much already. It was bad enough that she was getting marched into almost certain insanity by a Kikimora who seemed to have a few screws loose herself, but expecting her to do this without alcohol was downright cruel. “Why are you doing this anyway?” She snapped, now far too sober for this shit.

“I told you, I need a quest or two under my belt so the Guild takes me seriously.”

“No,” The Satyros waved a hand dismissively. “I meant why are you doing it this way? She stopped in front of Susan and gently grabbed her by the shoulders. “This isn’t how it’s supposed to work with you guys. You’re not some Lizardman or Jinko. You’re a maid, you’re supposed to clean up mess, not make more. What’s so wrong with just breaking into some guy’s house one night and doing the chores until he likes it?”

Susan sighed. “It’s just… I want to stand out.” She stared at the floor, wringing her hands together nervously. “There’s just so much competition out there these days. Girls like me tend to get overlooked after a while because the market ends up saturated, if I want a better chance at finding a husband then I’ve got to set myself out from the crowd.”

“Yeah, but… adventurers?”

“I just like them, okay?” Susan said defensively. “Everyone’s got their own tastes, mine just so happens to be guys who have incredibly dangerous jobs and a loose definition of personal property.”

“They hate monsters.”

“I like a challenge!”

Kalista threw up her hands in defeat. This was going to happen no matter what she tried, the best she could hope for was to get this whole ordeal over with quickly and get back home for a drink. Maybe the temple would have forgiven her by then. It’s amazing how forgiving and forgetful a place can be when everyone staffing it is almost permanently plastered.

It didn’t take them much longer to find what they were looking for. Birdsong gave way to an eerie silence, and soon a handful of jagged spires and twisted arches snaked into the sky, breaking through the canopy to grasp upwards like charred, warped claws. The ruins themselves were more reminiscent of a mangled corpse than an actual building, with the many crumbling archways that passed for its roof giving the impression of a broken ribcage.

“You think this is it?” Susan said, casually stepping inside.

Kalista eyed a nearby pillar and noticed with some concern that it was omitting her from its murky reflection. “Yeah…” she said, thankful that she couldn’t read the strange carvings on the side. “Seems so.”

“I’m just really nervous.” Susan’s voice echoed. “What if it turned out these were the wrong ruins or something?”

Kalista cautiously poked her head through the entrance. Contrary to how it appeared outside the interior was fairly well lit, even if said lighting was an eerie purple glow with no obvious source. “Nah, I’m pretty sure this is it. Any chance we can hurry this up?”

“Hey, you even wonder why humans always build their towns so close to these kind of places?”

The Satyros paused briefly. She’d never really thought about it, but perhaps this gave credence to the long held monster theory that men secretly liked being kidnapped and that human civilization was just collectively tsundere about the whole thing.

She opened her mouth to reply but something in a nearby room caught her attention. It seemed to be an altar of some sort, decorated with a couple of small effigies depicting nightmarish creatures with tentacles sprouting from their faces. This wasn’t what held Kalista’s attention however. It wasn’t even the strange murals on the wall or the ancient book full of indecipherable characters and disturbing images left open for any poor unsuspecting intruder to stumble upon. No, Kalista’s gaze was firmly held by the bottle.

She carefully scanned the room for any signs of being trapped, a basic safety procedure that Kalista had noted Susan ignoring constantly since they arrived. She glanced back to her companion, who sure enough was making her merry way into parts unknown without a care in the world. The Satyros faltered for a second before she found herself once again drawn to the small and apparently unguarded vessel.

It appeared that this place still had the occasional visitor after all. Kalista’s fears and concerns melted away as she grabbed the bottle of Feeblemind like the desperate alcoholic she was. It briefly occurred to her how strange it was that the forces of Chaos could fill her with such terror, yet alcohol brewed with unknown ingredients from the Abyss itself left her nonplussed.

She shrugged to herself and popped the cork. Bacchus’ blessing was one hell of a safety net as far as strange booze was concerned, and Feeblemind was one of the strangest. It was supposedly invented long ago by one of the Chaos cults, with the idea being that while the average human mind was warped and destroyed by dealing with the Abyssal Lords, it stood to reason that one might fare better doing so shitfaced. The effectiveness of this was largely unknown, partially because worshiping such abominations required one to be insane to begin with, but mostly due to the drinkers gaining the same level of eloquence and mental ability as the more experienced cultists.

Kalista thought back to the last time she drank from one of these ominous bottles and hesitated. She still couldn’t remember the chain of events that had her removed from the temple last night, and it actually felt a little irresponsible to start drinking in her current situation. She mulled it over for a few minutes before the bottle met her lips, with the compromise that she now knew her limits and would only have a little. Susan could wait, she’d earned this.

Susan, on the other hand, wasn’t waiting. In fact, she barely noticed her companion’s absence, being far more interested in the surrounding architecture. As impressive as all this strange masonry was she couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. Dorian had warned of great existential terrors and otherworldly nightmares that would consume the very sanity of the casual observer, but the only concerns on Susan’s mind was in the logistics of dusting this place. Even the most basic cobweb removal would prove a challenge, given all the unusual angles everything seemed to have.

Admittedly, dwelling on such things could actually drive a Kikimora to insanity, so perhaps the old mage was right after all. She dismissed these thoughts out of a sense of self-preservation and passed a slightly lower arch than all the others, where the floor suddenly began sloping downwards. The entrance to the caverns had to be close now, and it occurred to Susan that she hadn’t really thought of how she would deal with the Mindflayer once she got there. What if Kalista was right, and she wasn’t willing to give up the staff? It was certainly a possibility, the Chaos faction was a relative unknown to Susan after all.

It dawned on her that their reputation implied they had their own rules as far as logic was concerned, similar to the denizens of Wonderland. She hoped that this was wrong. Crazy people could be very unreasonable at the best of times, and had a habit of causing stains that were hard to wash out.

“Tekeli-li~”

She could hear someone now, just slightly further down the passageway. Susan didn’t recognize the language but this didn’t matter to her. It was common knowledge amongst all explorers of strange lands that talking louder than usual and waving ones arms around in wild gestures would normally get the point across. This was a universal fact, so it stood to reason that it would also apply to whatever creature of the Abyss was waiting up ahead.

“Tekeli-li~ Tekeli-li~”

She turned the corner, a friendly smile on her face and her arms fully prepared for some very enthusiastic waving. She opened her mouth to shout the basic greetings and requests for directions but immediately froze on seeing the source of the mysterious piping voice.

It looked like a maid, sure. It was wearing a uniform and even swept the floor, but it was also a horrific bubbling mass covered in endlessly shifting mouths and eyes, with only the top half permanently fixed into the form of a woman.

Susan didn’t want to believe in Shoggoths. No Kikimora did. In fact, it was generally considered impolite amongst them to even discuss such inferior servants. The existence of Shoggoths, in general, were one of the few things in life a Kikimora was more than happy to sweep under the proverbial rug.

Yet here one was, sweeping things under a literal rug in the middle of the room.

She watched on, nauseous as the amorphous creature disregarded the most basic concepts of good housekeeping. It wasn’t a good idea to stereotype of course, it was entirely possible the individual Shoggoth in question didn’t approve of its Abyssal mistress, or that such households had different ideas on cleanliness than that of the surface world, but either way Susan took this things actions as a disgrace to maids everywhere.

“YOU’RE NOT EVEN DOING IT PROPERLY!”

Her hands clasped to her mouth in reflex, but it was entirely too late. The humanoid head of the Shoggoth twisted at an unnatural angle, and Susan found herself staring into two glowing yellow eyes.

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence. “What is this?” The Shoggoth finally said, bubbling and stretching its way to her. The multiple mouths forming across its base began to parrot its question repeatedly as it slithered around the nervous Kikimora in the closest approximation to pacing it could manage. “What is this? What is this?”

It stopped in front of her, neck craned to stare the intruder in the face with its horrid luminescent eyes. Susan began to tremble involuntarily at the unnaturalness of the creatures movements and felt the sudden desperate need to run back up the slope and get as far away from this place as possible. The Shoggoth smiled.

“Oooh!” It said, impressed. “Cosplay maid!”

Any fear Susan had felt immediately vanished. “C-cosplay!?”

“Cosplay!”

“I-I am NOT cosplaying!” Susan hissed. “If anything, you’re the one pretending to be a maid!”

The Shoggoth looked puzzled. “I am maid.” It said. “No cosplay.”

Susan pinched the bridge of her nose. “Fine, whatever. I’m looking for a staff. Do you know where it is?”

The Shoggoth smiled again. “You want to be staff? You talk to mistress!”

Susan was about to argue that she wasn’t here for a job. In fact, she was about to suggest the Shoggoth stick its broom in a place she wasn’t even sure they had before it occurred to her that this ‘mistress’ would probably know at least slightly more than her servant. At the very least she hoped they wouldn’t be so infuriating to deal with. “Uh, sure.” She said. “Take me to her.”

Wordlessly, the Shoggoth led her further into the ruin depths. The strange architecture that made up the bulk of the upper levels quickly gave way to natural rock, although the odd glow remained, intensifying the deeper they went. It was around now that Susan began to wonder where Kalista had got to, they were likely at the end of their quest and completing it without any party members present simply felt improper.

She supposed it wouldn’t really matter in the long run. She’d get the staff, get some credibility with the guild and find people to party up with who wouldn’t feel the need to spend the entire day drunk. They soon came to a gigantic hole in the wall that appeared to have been violently broken through from the other side. It opened up into a massive cavern, littered with even stranger ruins on the shore of a vast subterranean lake, clearly much older than the temple that had led here. The source of the purple glow was also now apparent, with one particularly large building in the centre of the ancient city emitting it. Something about the structure unnerved Susan, although she couldn’t quite understand why.

In any case it seemed they didn’t have much further to go. As they made their way down some slippery stone steps to the seemingly abandoned city entrance Susan could hear the distinctive sound of couple’s happy giggling. The stairs ended close to the water, where a young man sat blissfully in the lap of a tall purple woman. Tentacles snaked out of the sides of her head, affectionately tickling and caressing the comparatively smaller man whom she clutched tightly to her ample chest.

“Mistress Yotua!” The Shoggoth said. “Is visitor!”

The Mindflayer glared at them with crimson eyes. “Can’t you see I’m busy?” She said, tilting her head to the man snuggling up to her. She glanced at Susan. “I told you to stop bringing those lousy drunks down here! I swear to Yggotha, if I get my hands on the guy who thought up that stupid drink…”

Susan fidgeted a little. “Well, actually…”

“We’re sick of all this, you hear?” Yotua said, ignoring her. “Every few months yet another one of you staggers your way down here ranting nonsense. How many times do we have to tell you lot that we aren’t interested? Go back up to the surface and-” She stopped as her gaze shifted to Susan’s clothing and a look of realization dawned on her face.

“Ah…” She said, nodding slowly. “Sorry, I thought you were… never mind.” She made an apologetic gesture with her hand. “If you’re here for work I can’t help you. I appreciate you’ve probably come a long way but we’re doing fine with the Shoggoths we have, thank you.”

“Is cosplay!” The Shoggoth added.

“Actually, I’m not here for a job.” Susan said, glaring at the Shoggoth from the corner of her eyes. “Dorian sent me to-”

“Oh, I’m happy here, thanks!” The apprentice smiled, looking up to the Mindflayer with lovestruck eyes. “I know it’ll probably sound crazy to him, but Yotua’s a wonderful person and everyone down here is just so nice. I really don’t want to leave all this.”

“… He sent me to ask for his staff back.”

“Oh.” The apprentice said, looking a little disappointed. The tentacles slithering over him froze along with Yotua’s face.  “I really do like it here,” he added, “It’s just it’d be nice to hear he cared a little, that’s all.”

Yotua exhaled deeply, visibly relieved, and the tentacles resumed their affectionate groping. “At any rate,” she said sternly, “the answer to that is no.”

“Why not?”

“Because,” the Mindflayer said, “Dorian isn’t going to learn his lesson if I just hand it back. Do you have any idea what he wanted from me?”

Susan shook her head. It hadn’t even crossed her mind why Dorian wanted to summon something from the Abyss in the first place, but then she figured it was just the usual mage-doing-mage-things.

Yotua sighed. “You know, it’s hard being in league with the Abyss. Human attitudes to us are so outdated, they still think we devour men’s souls and shatter their sanity. Okay, so we’re a little bit different to what they’re used to, but the old days are over!” She sat back and stared out into the lake. “We just want to modernise our image, make ourselves a more attractive prospect to all the men out there, but it’s next to impossible when those stupid cults keep popping up and perpetuating the negative stereotype!”

Susan sat down next to her. “Oh, I know what you mean.” She said. “Humans can be so stubborn sometimes.”

“Tell me about it!” Yotua said. “So one day I finally get summoned and think this is it, this is my chance to leave a good impression on the world. Only this jackass doesn’t care. Wants me to flay the minds of everyone in the building so they’ll accept him as the new Archmage. As if I’m going to do that! It’d only reinforce the notion that we’re all sanity-eating abominations!”

Her husband reached up and tenderly ran his hand down her cheek. Yotua’s rage faded and a smile spread across her lips as she looked down at the man on her lap. “So I taught him a little lesson. He needs one of those staffs to complete the summoning ritual. Without it, he’s stuck.”

“…And his apprentice?”

Yotua’s smile widened into a knowing grin. “It gets a little lonely down here sometimes.”

Susan frowned. “That puts me in a bind. I really need that staff, but if he’s going to do things like that with it…”

“Oh, there’s no need to worry!” The Mindflayer said, in a manner that Susan found a little too cheerful for her own liking. She noticed a couple of the tentacles snaking their way over to her and immediately began to regret sitting so close. “You’re going to go right back and tell him the staff is gone. You won’t even have to lie, you’ll genuinely believe every word you’re saying…”

Susan attempted to get up and back away, but was quickly held in place by multiple shifting appendages. She struggled against the Shoggoth’s hold, but it proved far too strong to fight against. The Mindflayer’s tentacles edged ever closer, prompting Susan to pull her head away.

“Relax,” Yotua said reassuringly, “this won’t hurt a bit…”

There was a noise. It was quiet at first, barely noticeable above the ambient drips and distant echoes, but was rapidly increasing in volume. Soon it drowned out all other sounds, a horrific high-pitched piping that assaulted the ears of everyone present.

The tentacles reaching for Susan’s head retracted as Yotua looked to the city, but noticed with some surprise that the source was the cavern entrance. This wasn’t much of a revelation to Susan, because she was beginning to recognise the sound.

Someone was playing the flute.

Only playing wasn’t really the right word for it. Abusing would have probably been a more accurate term, or perhaps murdering. To call it playing would be to imply there was anything remotely enjoyable or pleasant about the violent noise the instrument was emanating.

Susan craned her neck. She could just make out the silhouette of a Satyros clumsily staggering down the great staircase towards them, merrily butchering a popular ancient ballad. When played on a magical instrument by a skilled musician the Dance of the Lonely Succubus could charm the most pious monk and warm even the coldest of hearts, but right now Kalista was very, very drunk.

“Oh no!” Yotua wailed, barely audible above the magically-augmented racket. “Not another one!”

Susan winced as Kalista swaggered uncomfortably close by. Fortunately for her ears the Shoggoth’s grip had lessened considerably thanks to the Satyros’ audio assault, and she was able to snatch the flute from her inebriated companion’s hands. It was too late, however – the damage was done, and an unpleasantly high pitched whine echoed throughout the cavern.

There was a deep rumble far off in the distance, and for one terrifying moment Susan thought the entire structure was about to cave in on itself. Instead there was a voice. It was unlike anything Susan had heard before, and not just because it somehow lacked what could be traditionally described as sound.

[<WILL YOU KEEP IT DOWN SOME OF US ARE TRYING TO SLEEP>]

“Oh, now look what you’ve done!” Yotua angrily jabbed a finger towards the city. “You woke the Abyss! I hope you’re happy!” She reached down behind where she was sitting and retrieved a jet-black staff, ornately decorated with swirling patterns and figures bearing a strong resemblance to the ones featured in the murals upstairs. Yotua forced the thing unceremoniously into Susan’s unwilling hands. “Here, take the bloody staff and get out of my sight!”

“Oh, thatsh… thatsh jusht rude.”

Susan looked down at the object in her hands and fiddled about with it uncomfortably. “Um… about what you were saying earlier…”

“Oh, it’s not like losing that staff would have stopped him anyway!” Yotua said as she rolled her eyes. “I only confiscated it as a matter of principle, you can find these things in pretty much any magic store if you actually bother to look.”

Kalista sleepily rested her head on Susan’s shoulder and giggled.

Susan remained silent. The gradually diminishing whine permeating throughout the cavern was briefly interrupted by the sudden dry sound of snapping wood and the splashing of a broken staff being hurled into the water. She then turned and marched back up the stairs towards the surface, dragging the drunken Satyros along with her and leaving one final syllable echoing the streets of the ancient sleeping city:

“FUCK!”

– – –

The sun was beginning to set by the time they reached the entrance, casting irregular and ominous shadows across the ruins. The worst effects of the eldritch brew had mostly left Kalista at this point, who was now enjoying a light stupor instead. “Well, lesson learned, huh? Never take jobs from strange men in pubs.” She stopped and scratched her chin thoughtfully. “I guess that’s why there’s a Guild in the first place, come to think of it.”

Susan stared at the setting sun and sighed softly. “You know, this adventuring business is a pain in the ass…”

A comforting hand was gently placed on the maid’s shoulder. “Hey, I know things didn’t go like you planned, but at least you got a little experience out of it.” Kalista said, smiling warmly. “How about we go back to the Hobgoblin for a couple of rounds? It’s on me.”

Susan shook her head. “I’ve got other plans tonight.”

Kalista tried to hide the concern and disappointment in her voice as she slowly led her friend back towards the town. “Oh… You’re going to try the Guild again?”

“No…” Susan said, with a slight smile. “I was thinking more along the lines of breaking into some guys house and doing the chores until he likes it.”

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