They spent the next two days combing through the pillar room with minute attentiveness, hoping to find something. However, they were out of luck. There was no other secret passage, nor hidden mechanism that could give them an inkling of what to do next. Sogdrith eyed them from his room with malicious intent, his pincers bashing against each other with tik, tik, tik sounds.
[Soon they’ll come to me. Breaking humans is always such fun. First, I’ll give them a faint ray of hope. Then, when they notice that this ray of hope is unreachable, they’ll despair. In the final moment, when death is looking at them in the face, they’ll accept any terms I give them,] the devil laughed internally.
“This can’t go on, we need a plan,” said Ben.
“What do you suggest? At this point I’m all out of ideas,” sighed Liza.
“Maybe we should talk with that devil,” he said with a trembly voice.
“Is there no other way?” Liza frowned.
“Let’s just talk with him for a bit, Liza. We don’t need to agree to anything he says or asks us to do,” encouraged Fang Chu.
“All right. But be careful! Don’t go revealing things to him.”
They gathered themselves and walked towards that open passage. The devil eyed them with interest and got up from his lazy, lying down position to address them.
“Well, well, well, what do we have here? Coming back to talk?”
His entire demeanour was so poignant and affected that Liza’s face twitched in anger. She was in the mind of tossing something at that smug insect face and turn around to leave. Unfortunately, Liza knew she was trapped here and that pissing a devil off had no upside besides make her feel better for a while. Thus, she took a deep breath and just signalled to Ben to do the talking. She wasn’t sure she could keep her cool while interacting with him.
“Previously you asked what’s in it for you. What exactly do you want?” asked Ben after gathering his courage.
“That depends on what you want from me. If you want me to bust you out of this place, I’ll require a hefty payment. Something like your souls after death, for instance.”
Everyone felt a cold shiver run through their spines when hearing this.
“What if we just want you to answer some questions?” asked Fang Chu.
“Questions, eh. Tell you what. I’ve been in this place for so long that I haven’t tasted a good meal in a while. Why–”
“We won’t give you our blood or body parts!” interrupted Liza.
Sogdrith looked at Liza with his pincers wide open and a look of shock.
“Why, I’m offended! Do you think I’m some kind of barbarian? I was just talking about a good meal with some wine! Oh, golly me! It’s because of my appearance isn’t it? I totally forgot about that.”
After saying so, the devil was enveloped by rays of light. Liza and company could only avert their eyes from the blinding radiance. When things returned to normal, they turned their heads back to see a dashing man standing tall where the devil once was.
“How is this? More to your liking?” he asked while adjusting his fancy clothes. After waiting for a few seconds without getting an answer, he ignored their confusing gazes and continued.
“Like I was saying before I was interrupted, make me a sumptuous meal and throw in some good wine. Then I’ll answer some of your questions based on how well I’m satisfied. Now off you go,” he shooed them with his hand.
They hated to admit it, but his new appearance matched perfectly with his dandy and careless disposition. Just the fact he no longer looked like a monstrosity made the group unconsciously less guarded against him. It wasn’t much, mind you, but at least Liza didn’t feel like lashing against him all the time. They returned to the maze, which was their current base of operations. It was a place they could talk and “relax” far away from the devil’s gaze.
“That was… unexpected,” said Ben.
“Right, just a meal and some wine? That’s too easy,” said Fang Chu.
They failed to realize that this was Sogdrith’s first attempt at an insidious strike. To them, losing a few days’ worth of food to make the devil a sumptuous meal meant little, since they’d enough supplies for six months with the way they were rationing it. To another group however, cutting a few days of food from their supplies while trapped in this place would be a heavy blow.
It was also true that Sogdrith had been trapped here for too long and missed savouring the tastes of the human’s cuisine. His deal of asking for food in trade of answering a few questions had thus three purposes. Fulfilling his cravings, reducing the party’s food stock and offering his prey that little ray of hope with his answers. Only then he’d be able to crush them completely.
“How can we trust his answers? What if he lies?” asked Ben.
“From all the stories I heard and records I read, devils never lie when it comes to a deal they made. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t hurt if we were careful,” said Liza.
“What are we cooking then?” asked Fang Chu.
“He said that the number of questions he’ll answer will depend on how well we satisfy him, so we’ll leave it to you Ben,” said Liza.
“No problem! What do we still have on store that’s not rations or travelling potions?” he asked.
With the help of the others, Ben started to make an inventory of everything they had available. It was a lot. Flour, meats, fish, cheese, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, basil, oregano and a bunch of other ingredients, spices and condiments. Fang Chu surely didn’t mistreat herself.
“Wow, with this much stuff I could try to make pizza!”
“What’s a pizza? Is it good?” asked the others.
“It’s amazing! One of the best foods there is! If only we had an oven,” he said while eying Fang Chu with anticipation.
“What? Do you expect me to have an oven? Sure, I carry a lot of stuff around, but there’s a limit you know?”
“Oh… I thought… woman’s purse and all that, maybe,” he mumbled dispirited.
“What are you muttering about?”
“Nothing. Anyway, with this much stuff I can make something delicious for sure. I’m glad you have potatoes, I haven’t seen one in ages. Let’s start with french-fries, there’s no one in the world that could dislike french-fries.”
Fang Chu had an oil-based burner, something convenient that let her cook anywhere, provided she’d enough fuel. Ben’s cooking area was limited, since he could only work on top of the cutting board or the pans, but he made do. His plan was to make fried chicken and french-fries, a KFC menu. It wasn’t the healthiest of meals, but that wasn’t something he was worried about. The important thing was that it was novel and delicious. So far, all the fried foods he saw in Flanac were made directly on the pan with a bit of oil or butter. Nobody used flour, eggs or breadcrumbs. That was such a waste!
Ben spent two hours getting everything ready. The others looked at his meticulous care and wondered why he needed to take this long or take these many steps. What was the point of cutting potatoes in thin slices and let them soak in a bowl of water for that long? The same went for the pieces of chicken. He let them soak on the spices for ages, then doused them on flour, then on the eggs, then on small pieces of breadcrumbs. What was the point of such mixture?
All their doubts disappeared the moment he started frying. A strong smell welled from the pans, stirring their stomachs. The sliced potatoes and chicken fillets were changing colour, making them look delicious. Liza and Fang Chu unconsciously gulped down a mouthful of saliva, while Eliot and Boro were actually drooling.
“Let me just drain this for a while, add a bit of salt to the fries and done. Now we just need to set this on a bowl and deliver to Sogdrith.”
“Can we eat some?” asked Fang Chu.
“Here, everyone can grab a couple fries for now. There are still ingredients remaining, later I can make some more for us. Right now, we need to serve the devil and get our questions answered.”
They all grabbed a handful of french-fries and munched on them with glee. None of them had tasted anything quite like this before. For a moment they were all silent, appreciating the taste.
“I don’t think I can stand watching that bastard eating such good food in front of us. You should know what to ask right? I will stay here with Eliot and Boro,” said Liza.
“But I want to go over there,” complained Eliot.
“Stay with me, will you? Pretty please?”
Eliot couldn’t resist Liza’s pleading gaze and sat down beside her. The half-elf put her arms around his shoulder and rested her head on his while thanking him. Ben set the three large bowls of food on a tray and carried it forward, followed by Fang Chu. When they were some distance away from the others, the redhead muttered quietly.
“That was really sly by Liza.”
“Why do you say that?”
“What do you think are the odds of Eliot wasting one of our questions by asking something stupid in a moment of impulsiveness?”
After a period of silence, Ben conceded. “I could see that happening.”
As they approached his room, the devil’s eyes lit up when he sensed the delicious smell coming from the tray. He got up with a jump and rubbed his hands against each other.
“What do you have for me?”
“Something you’ll like. Now back off to the end of the room, or I won’t be sending this tray in.”
“My, my, so distrustful. Okay, I’m going!”
When Sogdrith reached the end of the room, Ben pushed the tray inside and quickly backed off. The devil didn’t try to jump and grab his arm like he thought, but calmly walked back and sat before the tray he’d put down. Eyeing a french-fry tentatively, the devil grabbed it with his fingers and pushed into his mouth, chewing it with a crunching sound.
“Oh, this tastes wonderful!”
For an entire half-hour, the only thing that could be heard were Sogdrith’s chewing sounds and his endless exclamations and praises. After he was finished, the devil wiped his mouth with a napkin and belched contently.
“All right. I was going to let you ask three questions at most, but your meal was devilish indeed. You can ask six questions. Go ahead, you earned it.”