It was heat and scratching that dragged the Devil from unconsciousness. He couldn't see and he couldn't breathe and he couldn't feel. There was a burning heaviness everywhere, covering him, drowning and burying. Overtop, a long haunting howling punctuated by the booming rumble of an irregular bass drum.
He pushed and lifted himself out of the sharp sand of a low dune. He couldn't find purchase. The more he moved, the more the shifting sand tried to pull him under. He tried to call out only to have fine grains pour into his mouth. It ground and stabbed at open wounds. It flowed against his efforts. And always, an ever-present, over-whelming heat.
A hand grasped his arm. The other hand joined it, working with difficulty to hold on. They felt weak and thin, unable to maintain a grip. The Devil grabbed back blindly, desperately. The two fought against the sand until, with sudden release, they pulled the Devil free and hauled him onto a square outcropping of rock.
The Devil collapsed, hacking up grit. Looking about, he could see endless desert interrupted by black stone squares, similar to the one they were taking refuge on. A long wind was blowing, picking up loose dunes, shifting them up and over and around in an ever-moving landscape. It gave everything a burnt look, a rising sea of sand that just faded without an horizon. The only thing cutting through the leather-colored sky was the sun, massive and oversized, ten times larger than it should be.
Turning his head, he saw his rescuer, faring worse than he was. The Super Wizard From Space was only a wisp of presence now, a transparent outline defined more by the wind and sun than anything else. He looked withered, starved, old, a ghost on the verge of not-existing. The only thing that was keeping him together was a pale-white liquid that clung to his visible veins, like dew on his insides. It dribbled along, only a memory of his own blood, coalescing to a thin sapling-shape where his spine should have been. And up from that, to golden branches intertwined around the cosmic crown.
"You're looking right dauncey, you are," the Devil said in a raspy voice, the air sucking away all the moisture from his breath.
The wizard nodded. Or more accurately, the pale-white drips of power that stuck to branching network of veins and nerves moved in an approximation of a head nodding. "I feel so… undefined. There's so little left. Don't know what I have of me anymore." The words echoed the wizard's determination, half-remembered.
"This far down, its only the core character of you that survives," said the Devil. He stood up uneasily, brushing the desert grit off his jacket and pants. "Under the blistering critical light of Quinto-Hell, all the shallow layers are burnt away."
"The crown and challenge are rooted so far into me. They won't let go."
"Probably the only thing holding you together," the Devil said grimly. "Where's Ron at?"
The wizard pointed to the edge of their square obsidian island, where the cab was half buried in the sand. It was upside down, at a sharp angle, and sinking into the shifting dune. The paint had been scraped away by friction and abuse. The tires reduced to a few dry strips. The few windows they could still see, shattered.
Ron was crawling up onto the car, like a swimmer dragging himself onto a sinking raft. He looked horrible, the tearing, blistering desert having shredded away his flesh. All that was left was a bent skeleton, half hidden by the fluttering rags of what his clothes used to be. His patched beard and the spats of stringy grey hair that clung stubbornly onto his skull were the only way they were certain it was him.
The skeleton gripped a bent axle, wrenching himself onto the car. It glared and snapped at the Devil. "Thats it! I'm done! You're on your own now."
"What? You can't be serious!" the Devil shouted back. He stomped demonstratively against the black stone underfoot. "You can't leave us here. How are we supposed to get in?"
"Do I look like a locksmith to you? Thats your problem, now, ain't it?" The sand became a ravenous hole. The car sunk quickly. "You paid fare to get here, and as far as I give a care, I've ferried you as far as I'm obligated. Piss on the both of you."
The Devil didn't bother throwing insults back. The cab was gone.
"What's happened?" came the wizard's whisper-weak question. "Has he expired?"
The Devil didn't take his eyes off the spot the car had been engulfed. Or tried not to. The sand was so repetitive that it was impossible to judge distance. "No. Just… just done," he tossed off over his shoulder. "Horses for courses, its just his way."
"But he was our transportation. How is he supposed to decamp us hitherto?"
"He won't be. His role in this is finished. From now on, we either sort this malarkey out or the lot of us are going to be trapped here."
"Trapped? In this insensate, infecund desolation? Tell me you're being obdurate for the sake of raillery."
"My my, what big words you have," he sneered, turning around.
The wizard 's phantom shape stood a little firmer than before, but the liquid gold roots and branches were now tangled up in sickly green-grey webbing, getting denser the farther up it went. At the mass of light and shape that was his head, the webbing became sharper. Malevolent. Claw-like. Shapes that dug into the brain and tainted the colors of the light. The strands snaked out the back into spidery mass of Secret Living Language's brittle charcoal fire, bunched up chaotically like a rolling thunderstorm sitting fat upon the ground.
There was flashes of black inspiration, silhouetting the power of the folded triangles within. The invasive opinions snapped along the edges of the cloud, spat out a licks of jade embers, and jabbed back along the strands into the wizard. "This is your malfeasance," said the wizard, vile color tainting his voice. "You've manipulated us into coming here."
"Oh yes, 'the devil made me do it'," the Devil retorted, "like that ain't the oldest excuse is the book."
"There is nothing but nescient granules present."
"There's a lot more than there seems. But not much here for you, no. The remaining, defining idea of a thing trapped here, it just gets dried up and eroded away, until all that remains is just more sand. Same as will happen to us, I figure."
"Yes. Unless." This went along so much smoother when they followed along. "With Ron gone, the only blokes that can get you out of this dead end are the same fellows trapped by their own legal tomfoolery…" He shrugged, somewhat embarrassed, but not so much that he wasn't enjoying this. "…myself included, now that I've got the wizard this far. My contract only gave me leeway so long as it was to fetch him and bring him to the others. Until his Challenge is dealt with, nobody is going anywhere."
"And where exactly are your mestophilian collaborators friends ensconced?"
The Devil tapped his foot on the black rock below them. "Right here. Each of these obsidian cubes are sepulchres that entomb some right foul folk. The one directly underneath us is our destination. Assuming we can get inside."
"And I speculate you are contemporaneously aware of an ingress."
"Well, I was hoping that Ron would be a little more lenient… but yes, I have a 'Plan B' as it were.
"See, you've been a right little piece of shit this whole damn trip. I was expecting you to knife us in the back, but congratulations, you exceeded even my expectations. But all that, that has to end right here.
"I don't want to be stuck here any more than the rest of my brethren. Even the Mondo-Devil hates it here… and he runs the place. So I'll work with the Super Wizard From Space, even though he screwed me over. And I'll work with you, even though you're an insidious carnivorous snake. And if I have to bribe you to get you to behave for five freaking seconds, then fine.
"So, no more pissing around. What do you want? What will it take to get you to just cooperate?"
The roiling Language slowed down a bit in consideration, then gathered itself up. It pulled itself up along its tangled tendrils, pulling its almost-mass together onto the black stone. The charcoal and smoke and green flame tightened together around the cosmic power of the folded triangles, into a humanoid shape. Female, reminiscent of the stolen fury. Its gigantic size gone; it was shorter than either the wizard and the devil, hunched forward in thought.
Her hair looked like a mix of fat dreads and wet snakes, pulled back behind her. They fell down her back to become an impossibly-massive number of tendrils that slithered everywhere. Along the floor, down into the sand, spiralling up her legs like amorous pets, and coiled within the wizard's shape, still irradiating thoughts in toxic directions.
"I will not be occluded in this vacuous, cadaverous realm," it said.
"Yes, yes, its total pants, we get it. No one wants to stay here. I don't want to stay here. That's a given. What else?"
The Language crossed its arms and rubbed its chin in a mechanical way. It already knew what it wanted. The Devil could see it in the pieces of burning green coal that sat as eyes, the envious jade embers of space-green piercing and hungry. It was just going through the motions.
"The further we descend, the more desolate each exegesis of your Hells becomes, this one the most destitute so far. I presume that the apical realm is the most populated."
The Devil gritted his teeth in frustration. "Is that what you've been stropping on about? What you've done to the last three underverses aren't enough yet? You still want more?"
The green flames bled out from the coal eyes like tears, then spread along the coal-form and twitching tendrils. A furious hungry impulse that shot to every tip and back again. He could see that it would never be enough.
But it would have to do for now. If this is what it took. He could deal with the consequences later. "Fine. I'm not going to whinge about this. You cooperate from here on in, you do things my way without any more faffing about, I'll take you to my Hell. Personally. You can run rampant over the whole place for all I care. Deal?"
The Language did its best to hide its satisfaction behind an all too serious nod. It pulled itself together, dragging in its smokey influence. The spits of flame died down to green embers along its face and shoulders. The snake-like tendrils shortened to a single mass at her feet. The weblike twisting along the wizards spine and mind released.
And the needle-like claw slipped out of the back of the Devil's skull without the slightest sensation, leaving just enough of foreign influences behind.
"Okay," said the Secret Living Language, "I'll acquiesce to your proposition. We'll do this your way."