Misha entered the final chamber cautiously. She knew she was facing one of the most dangerous creatures yet in this insane tower whose bowels she had made her way through with little more weapon than the jeweled wand the insane spirit haunting the place had gifted her.
"So you've found me," the singsong voice said. The voice she'd been hearing from enchanted mouths and hollow tubes all through the ascension of the tower. Misha looked up, ignoring the inane natterings she had become used to hearing from the voice, to see the face of her foe.
It dangled from the ceiling, a slimy pillar with tubes and tentacles coming out of the sides, and four large eyes peering in different directions. The eyes seemed to gaze around blindly, but Misha knew that there were probably more of the hidden crystals in the walls that it had been using to spy on her up to now. The eyes themselves didn't seem to focus on anything in the chamber. Misha wondered if they were actually blind, or if they were even eyes at all. One of them seemed to be attached to a patch of discoloured flesh on the side of the pillar, but perhaps that was just a trick of light and shadow.
"I have a surprise for you..." the voice trilled, the pillar began to sway back and forth, and then there was a wet sucking sound and the discoloured flesh gave way. One of the eyes landed on the stone floor with a thud--not wet and meaty, like she had been expecting, but more solid, as if it were a skull. "That wasn't supposed to happen," it said. "I guess I've been alone up here too long...with nothing to eat...except for cake, of course." The voice giggled again, and Misha winced at the loud, shrill echoes.
Misha held back for several seconds, expecting a tentacle to swoop down and scoop up the eye, but nothing happened except more giggling and muttering from the pillar. Carefully, she ran forward in the boots which were the only other thing she had been provided in this place, and scooped up the eye. Tiny, incomprehensible whispers came from the eye, as if inside it had its own mouth.
"What do you think you're doing with that?" the voice said, sounding concerned in spite of itself. "That's not important, you know." Misha smiled to herself; this demonic thing that had been tormenting her didn't seem to understand the human mind at all, and had only the most basic grasp of deception. Now if only there were...yes, there it was.
Earlier in the ordeal, Misha had been briefly gifted with a small golem made of stone. She had been able to use it to deflect deadly fireballs aimed her way, it had helped boost her onto high ledges, and provide an extra set of hands. But before she could move further up the tower, the voice had relentlessly informed her that she had no option but to kill her companion golem. She had railed and wept against the remorseless judgement, while the golem stood mutely by, waiting for her decision. Finally she had even been forced to use it to trigger the opening of the trapdoor which led to the hell-furnace below. Once the golem had been released into the fire-pit, the voice had congratulated her on her achievement and she had been able to climb to the next level.
Now, at the back of the chamber, she saw another such trapdoor. There should be a runic pathway leading to the trigger point...yes, there it was. Up on a ledge, and partly concealed, but with her wand... She dropped the eye next to the trapdoor and waved her wand in the way the voice had taught her. The sapphire first, then the jacinth, began to flash, and then she stepped through the air and found herself on the ledge. She pulled the lever with all her might, and heard the hissing and smelled the stench of brimstone. Stepping back, she found herself next to the trapdoor again, now open, and she heaved the eye down it just before it snapped closed again.
There was a monstrous groaning, and then the voice chuckled. "Well done, my student. You have released the bonds that were placed upon me by my summoners, so long ago, to keep me from harming them. Now your life will be mine." A noxious green mist began to ooze down the walls, and one tentacle from the pillar began to drop down towards floor level. An eye on the end of the tentacle spotted her, and it hissed. Misha had encountered one of these a few levels down in the tower, and she knew what to do when she heard the hiss. She leapt and dodged out of the way, feeling only a burst of heat on the back of her legs as she dove for safety.
As she continued to dodge the tentacle's blasts, and the green gas began to accumulate along the floor, Misha tried to think of what she could do. Could she use the tentacle as a weapon against the demon itself somehow? The wand should enable her to teleport other items besides herself, but using it on a fireball traveling towards her? She would have to try.
The next time the tentacle was pointing towards her, she began waving the wand, aiming her teleportation at one of the eyes in the side of the pillar. She kept her thumb on the jacinth until she heard the hiss, and then at the last second she rubbed the orange gemstone and closed her eyes. She couldn't keep herself from leaping to the side, but the blast of heat didn't hit her; instead, she heard the explosion from far above her head, and another roar of pain from the demonic pillar. The eye fell down, but to Misha's surprise, it bounced, landing on another small ledge high on the wall. The tentacle had frozen, as if confused, and Misha took advantage of that to teleport herself up to retrieve the eye, which chattered to itself in a childlike voice, then back to the fiery trapdoor. She dared not make a mistake, with the green mist still piling up, already stinging her nose with its acrid scent, but she duplicated her maneuver, hurling the second eye down the trapdoor.
"Oh, a great triumph," the mocking voice came again. "You've now freed me from my inability to see the colour green. Which is probably the last thing you're going to see before you die from poisonous gas."
The tentacle's eye began tracking after her again, but this time she was ready for it, more easily sending the fireball hurtling into the side of another eye high up on the pillar. This eye, though, got caught in a loose fold of flesh halfway down the side of the pillar, and the tentacle had once again lost focus on her. She squinted at the flap of skin, did a quick estimation of her path, as the demon had also taught her throughout the tower's tests, and sent herself flying through the air to land on the shelf of flesh protruding from the pillar's side. The boots cushioned her impact, as they had done in countless falls during the demon's insane gauntlet, and she grabbed the eye and jumped down to the floor.
Misha's confidence was increasing. The demon had made no exclamation of triumph, or even of mock unconcern, as if it could tell that it was doing nothing to discourage her. Elsewhere in the tower Misha had found the remains of others who had failed to pass the testing, though at least one had managed to leave cryptic messages and arrows pointing the way. Obviously none had managed to do as much damage to the demon as she herself had, though, so she must possess some qualities that the other had not. Once, when she was climbing the back corridors of the tower, hidden from its crystalline eyes, the voice taunted her that the only reason she had succeeded so far was because of her ruthlessness and violence. Perhaps that was true, but perhaps that was what would be necessary to cleanse her world of this abomination.
Disposal of the third eye, which seemed to be muttering to itself some obscure alchemical formula, was almost routine, though Misha's eyes were beginning to water. The demon's voice was beginning to babble, about people and places that Misha hadn't even heard of, making threats that verged on the meaningless. The gas was reaching higher, and Misha had to stop herself from doubling over in a coughing fit, putting her face even closer to the ground. She considered teleporting to one of the high ledges, but her only means of damaging the creature, its own fireball-shooting tentacle, didn't seem to be able to see her up there, so she'd only be delaying her demise. She didn't think she'd be able to teleport herself close enough to the last eye to try to rip it off on her own, since the wand only seemed to work in proximity to stone. Unless...
She focused the sapphire as high up on the stone wall as she could reach on the side closest to the last eye, and teleported herself up. As she fell, she hurriedly refocused the jacinth onto the floor where she thought she would land. She held her breath and closed her eyes for a second as she neared the floor, and then found herself flung back up into the air, but this time with all the momentum from her fall. She opened her eyes again in time to fling out her arms and try to grab hold of the side of the pillar. It was too slippery, though, and she began to slide downward; she pressed herself against it, trying to slow her fall, and then struck something hard with a jarring impact that almost shook her loose; she felt the wand slip out of her hands and clatter to the floor far below. She looked down to see that she was straddling the last eye. Now that she was here, she wasn't sure how she could get it loose--she didn't have as much as a knife with her. She slid down further until her hands were wrapped around it, then began to claw and dig at the flesh at the base of the eye with her fingernails.
The pillar began to sway back and forth vigorously, trying to shake her off. Encouraged by this sign that the demon might be afraid of what she was doing, she pressed her efforts as hard as she could. The eye was lodged in the membrance of the pillar, but as she dug deeper, only a narrow cord actually seemed to attach it. Once she had loosened the membrance all the way around the base of the eye, she timed her pulls to the pillar's swaying to increase their force. Her hands screamed at the effort, and her muscles began to tire, but she held on, and then, suddenly, there was a ripping sound and she was falling.
She couldn't even see the floor beneath the green mist, and the length of cord that was still attached to the final eye was lashing around like a whip, but the boots still worked to arrest her momentum. She had taken a deep breath just before entering the green mist, now up to her chest, but had to keep her eyes open as she searched frantically for her wand. Without it, she would have no chance to keep the trapdoor open long enough to dispose of the last eye.
"You will be dead soon," crooned the demonic voice. "And we both know how evil a person you are, so when you die your spirit will come to hell to join your faithful companion golem. Then you will know eternal punishment for your crimes. But if you stop now, then I will see that you escape the worst of the torments. Not all of them, of course, nothing can stop that now..."
Misha was feeling dizzy as she stumbled around trying to peer through the green smoke, so she almost missed the clatter at her feet. Taking a chance, she tipped her head up, gasped another breath, then ducked down to grope along the floor. It was an eternal few seconds before her fingers grasped the wand. She felt almost remote from her hands as they performed the actions so well trained into them by now, as she stepped through into the clearer air near the trapdoor switch (she gasped again for breath, but couldn't linger), then back to the trapdoor itself, to heave the last eye into it... Time seemed to slow to a crawl as she watched the trapdoor begin to swing closed, but only in time to give the eye a final push as it fell downwards into hell.
The pillar screamed, a piercing sound that was the last thing Misha heard for some time. The green gas stopped flowing from the walls, and even seemed to thin out. Soon Misha realized that was because the chamber was beginning to crumble, the walls and floor and ceiling all shuddering and sprouting cracks as the pillar began to disintegrate. Great gobbets of flesh began to peel off the outside, but somehow they disappeared before they reached the floor, probably back to the creature's home plane.
The immediate threat of the poisonous gas was gone, but the crumbling chamber was at least as dangerous. But it was a different kind of danger, almost familiar, given the ordeals that Misha had been through in the last days. Automatically she was scanning the gaps in the walls and floors for some opportunity, something she could exploit, if only by the narrowest of margins. Then she saw a piercing light--could it be actual daylight?--coming through one of the ceiling cracks. Taking a chance, she waved her wand--the gems were no longer glowing, but maybe it would still function anyway--and cast herself as far up into the air as she could, through that tantalizing crack.
She awakened under a blue sky and green trees, with no clear memory of how she had managed her final escape. Rolling over to examine her surroundings, she teetered briefly on the edge of the gigantic pit below her before she was able to scramble back to safety.
She began to weep for what she had done and seen deep in the demon's caverns. But she was still alive.
I did try to finish The Duke's Portrait today, but I ground to a halt after 500 words, so I decided to pursue the other idea that had been nagging at me instead. I'm going to be a bit coy about my inspiration for those one, but to some people, at least, it may be fairly obvious. A month ago I probably wouldn't have got it either, but sometimes I'm a bit behind the times...