Balrok was perturbed.

Ever since he’d gotten out of bed that morning, he’d been plagued by a nagging sense that something somewhere in the Cave was wrong. His demon senses were very sharp, but often frustratingly vague. All he could tell was that something was out of order, but he had no idea whether it was something as minor as a leaky pipe or as major as an impending incursion from another dimension. Finally unable to ignore it any longer, he went for a walk through his underground home's many tunnels, hoping to find out what was up and settle his nerves. When he entered the Cave’s TV room—to call it the living room would be too generous; it was all about the TV—Webberly the fact rat was sprawled on the couch eating Cool Whip straight from the tub. He was engrossed in a documentary about Germanic barbarian tribes that was playing on the enormous flat-screen, the tub balanced precariously on his furry chest. Balrok stopped at the end of the couch, eyeing him warily. “Dude, are you having a tub of Cool Whip for lunch?” The fact rat looked up, whiskers dotted with white blobs, the spoon poised halfway to his mouth. “Um....” He pondered the possible options that deception offered, and found them lacking. “Yeah. Sorry, was it yours?” Balrok shrugged. “I think it’s shared household goods. It’s just... it’s not really a food item, you know? More of an accessory.” Now Webberly shrugged. “I don’t know why they call it a ‘topping’—it’s great all by itself. Creamy-smooth and soft as a cloud—it’s like eating the ghost of a bowl of ice cream. That is, if ice cream had a soul to linger on the Earthly plane. Which I guess would make eating it kinda evil.” His whiskers drooped as he paused to ponder this hypothetical ethical dilemma. The demon stared dubiously at the thoughtful rat, who soon resumed spooning the white goop into his muzzle. Becoming aware of the demon’s scrutiny, he raised his eyebrows and let out a garbled “Whaf?” “You know, No Name can eat whatever he wants because he’s a zombie, and it doesn’t technically matter. How do you manage?” Another shrug, and a mighty swallow. “I’m a rat. I think as long as whatever I eat is organic and isn’t fiercely poisonous, I’ll do fine. At least it’s a philosophy that’s served me well so far.” He hoisted his spoon in triumph and resumed eating his ghostly lunch. Balrok shook his head and resumed his wanderings through the Cave. Something had set his demon senses to tingling, but he was a loss as to what might be wrong. Everything appeared copacetic in the kitchen, where No Name was... what was No Name doing? Sitting at the kitchen table, chin propped on one hand, staring intently into space, obviously, but why? His wide-open eyes stood out against their dark sockets, unblinking, making him look rather like a very alert panda. Balrok took a seat next to him, at first attempting to divine the object of his attention before giving up and asking, “Hey, buddy. What’s up?” No Name, his gaze never wavering, answered with a terse, “Staring contest, man.”

Balrok pursed his lips reflectively and nodded. That made a certain sense, up to a point. “So, your opponent. He’s, uh...?” “Gremlin. Little guy, big ears. Huge fuckin’ eyes, thinks that’s gonna win him this game. Not on my watch, pal.” Balrok looked very carefully at the space into which No Name was staring, just to be sure. “I’m not looking to wreck anyone’s fun here, and far be it from me to question your sanity, but I’m not seeing a gremlin.” The zombie, eyes still fixed rigidly forward, said, “Nah, he bailed about ten minutes ago. Said he had a dentist’s appointment. But the contest is still going, man. I don’t fuckin' forfeit for anyone.” “You think he’ll be back?” “He’d sure as fuck better be if he wants to find out who’s gonna win, man. Hint: me!” No Name cackled with satisfaction, while still remaining skillfully motionless, eyes never twitching. Balrok, not wanting to risk disrupting the zombie’s equilibrium with a pat on the back, instead rapped on the table and offered an encouraging, “Strong work, pal. Strong work.” Leaving No Name to his one-sided contest, he resumed his patrol of the Cave. The elevator lobby was properly bland and lacking in apparent danger. The studio was quiet, the next broadcast of their show still several days away. He wended his way through assorted tunnels to his laboratory, where everything looked to be proceeding as expected. He paused to fine-tune the drip rate on a pair of burettes as they leaked colorful fluids into a maze of tubing, beakers, and flasks. The whole mess served no purpose beyond moving sciency fluids in bright colors from place to place, but it looked amazingly impressive to visitors. Guesses as to the arrangement’s purpose ranged from distilling a new sports drink and/or floor cleaner to creating a new rave drug. Balrok would just smile enigmatically and change the subject. Leaving the lab behind, he wandered onward. Try as he might, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something in the Cave was amiss. He hoped it didn’t involve the Darker Levels. You never knew what might accost you down there in the perpetual dimness, where most light vanished into the walls, eaten by a spreading growth of lichen. Only last month he’d had to severely discipline a young kobold that had tried to eat his head, holding it by its ankles and battering it against a wall in the demonic equivalent of a spanking. It had staggered off afterward, apparently chastened, but you never could tell with kobolds. He would save those levels for last as he made his rounds. He wondered if his handling of the unruly kobold had sparked unrest among their ranks, though he wasn’t sure there were enough of them lurking in the tunnels to form even a single rank. Still, he wouldn’t mind a little hand-to-hand combat to liven up his day. Cracking a few kobold skulls would really get his juices flowing. He missed the old days, before the growth of the city above had driven away most of the ancient folk. True,

it made for a much more peaceful and relaxing abode, but there were days when a demon just wanted to punch something. Or a whole pack of somethings, even. He wondered if there were any witch-burners at large in San Francisco. Ripping into a pack of those morons would make his whole month.

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