Juliana peeled her cheek off the cold floor, wincing as she did so. Her skin stuck to the black metal tiles as if she had been lying there for hours on end.
But that was impossible. She had just been in class…
Juliana pressed a hand to her forehead. Her head felt about ready to burst open. Every thought sent another needle into her brain.
Shaking her head, Juliana grit her teeth as she took stock of her situation.
It didn’t take long. The room was roughly the size of a large closet. Completely unfurnished as well. Every square inch was covered in palm-sized tiles of the same black metal. The door as well, though the door did have a small barred window. It was not big enough to fit her head through.
The only source of light was a faintly pulsing orb of white light that had been inset in the center of the ceiling. Each pulse brought with it another thump of her headache. Whether that was because of the light itself playing havoc on an already existing headache or some magical effect, Juliana couldn’t tell.
The faint pulses did reveal a second form collapsed against a wall.
“Shalise,” Juliana croaked out. She descended into a fit of coughs. Her throat was cracked and dry. Licking her lips did nothing to moisten them.
Crawling over, Juliana put a hand on her friend and tried shaking her. “Shalise,” she coughed out, “wake up.”
Shalise made no response except to slide down the wall. Before her head could hit the floor, Juliana reached out and carefully set the brown-haired girl’s head down on the ground.
She was breathing, Juliana could see that much. But another minute or two of shaking the girl did not help.
Juliana turned away. She pulled herself to two unsteady feet. Leaning against the wall for all the support it could offer, she pinched her eyes shut.
Her head was killing her.
They were clearly in a prison of some sort. Neither of her wands were around, though she still had her ring foci and Ylva’s ring along with her clothes. Attempting to activate her ferrokinesis fizzled out. The magic simply wouldn’t gather.
Which Juliana expected. Only a fool would build a prison and not ward against magic.
It was a good thing she had decided to study medieval armor towards the end of the previous school year. Had she still been relying on her ferrokinesis to provide joints, she would be utterly immobile with suppressed magic.
Opening her eyes, Juliana stumbled to the door. She had to stand on her tip-toes just to see out the window.
More cells. Identical doors to her own lined the wall opposite from her door. A narrow catwalk extended out from both her own door and the doors on the other side with a small gap between. There were at least two rows of cells above and two rows below the floor her cell was on.
She couldn’t see the rooms adjacent to her cell, but Juliana had no reason to doubt that they were cells as well.
A big prison, Juliana thought as she slumped back from the door.
Losing her balance, she fell back against the floor and only managed to keep her head from hitting the hard tiles by quickly moving her hands in the way. The weight slamming her hands into the floor still sent a needle of pain through her knuckles and into her head.
Juliana groaned as her headache redoubled its efforts to rend her mind.
She lay there. Juliana shut her eyes to keep the pulsing light out and simply lay there. She didn’t even try to think of anything until her headache receded to more manageable levels.
They were in class. History. Juliana was playing with her ferrokinesis. They had to leave in the middle because something happened. Something bad.
Remembering hurt. And wasn’t much use, if she was honest with herself.
Whatever facility she had ended up at wasn’t a small-scale hole in the wall. That meant there would be people. Guards and other prisoners. Presumably, they’d be fed at some point. Hopefully they would be given water too.
A light groan from her cell mate roused Juliana from her thoughts.
“Shalise,” Juliana said as she crawled over, “are you okay?”
“My head…” Her voice came out as a dry rasp as well. Shalise propped herself up on one elbow while she rubbed the bridge of her nose. “I feel like I’m going to throw up.”
Juliana scooted back. “Please don’t.” Their cell wasn’t large enough and it definitely lacked the necessary ventilation.
When Shalise made no heaves or gags, Juliana cautiously moved back to her side. “Do you remember how we got here?”
“Where is here?”
“We’re prisoners of some sort. I haven’t seen any writing or signs to tell more. I don’t think it is Eva’s prison.”
“P-prisoners?” Her voice came out at a high enough pitch to cause both of them to wince.
After a moment of mutual silence, Shalise scrunched up her round face in thought. “There was fighting. And you drew a circle… a summoning circle.”
In the blink of an eye–much faster than Juliana thought she could move–Shalise reached out and slapped Juliana across the cheek. Pins and needles laced through her face. Doubly so as Juliana lightly bit her tongue.
“You pulled me on top of it and now we’re prisoners? Why do you even know how to draw a summoning circle?”
Juliana reared back at the volume of Shalise’s anger.
“I stole a book from Eva.” Juliana flinched back and waited for Shalise’s slap. When none came, she continued with her head hung. “I just wanted to get stronger so that I could help out.”
A second slap–one she had been waiting for–came without delay.
“You beat students years older than us with hardly any effort. You train with your mother. Don’t complain about not being strong.”
“Not strong enough!” Juliana grit her teeth while counting backwards from ten. She didn’t open her mouth until she hit zero. “Not strong enough,” she calmly said.
“In case you forgot, I was right by your side while you were being eaten by zombies. I just stood there, frozen. There wasn’t any earth around to attack with. Even if there had been earth, I wasn’t in the right mindset to fight. I had some metal, not as much as I carry around now, but enough to fight with at least.
“You sat there, getting eaten in front of my face. It wasn’t until Arachne knocked that zombie off of you that I snapped out of it.”
Shalise went silent for a minute.
An agonizingly long minute.
Juliana’s throat was still parched. Talking loud and so much did it no favors. It was all she could do to suppress coughing in Shalise’s face.
“And you thought stealing a book from Eva would help? You didn’t even get her help learning? Now look where you landed us.”
“It wasn’t me!” The knot in Juliana’s throat tightened. She couldn’t help the coughs that erupted.
But it wasn’t her. She couldn’t even remember drawing a summoning circle. Even if she had drawn one, Juliana couldn’t see how that would wind up with them in prison. Not unless some demon hunter or mage-knight found her out. And even then, the later would likely need some specific contract about it. Unless there was a general bounty out on diabolists that she didn’t know about.
Shalise stood up, looking far more steady on her feet than Juliana had felt just a few minutes prior.
Before she could take a single step, she fell down and landed on top of Juliana.
It wasn’t her fault.
An earthquake had started.
Juliana pulled Shalise into a hug and maneuvered herself on top. Even if her ferrokinesis wasn’t active, she could still feel the plates of metal coating her body. It was much better protection than fleshy skin in the case that anything fell on them.
Walls cracked and Shalise trembled as the tremor wracked the prison. More than a few of the palm-sized plates of metal pulled loose from the walls. They crashed down against the ground with far more force than should have been possible.
The earthquake tapered out into nothingness, jiggling one last tile loose.
Juliana did not move. She kept one arm over her head and one arm over Shalise’s head.
Immediate aftershocks were no joke. There could be more of those tiles only holding on by a thread.
They stayed like that until Shalise started squirming.
Juliana carefully moved off the other girl. “Are you alright?”
“What was that?”
“An earthquake, I assume.” Juliana stood up and helped Shalise to her feet.
Oddly enough, she didn’t feel unsteady any longer. The pounding in her head had died away.
Ah, that explains it. The pulsing light at the top of the room no longer pulsed. It held a steady, faint glow. That must have been the cause of her headache.
Even her throat was feeling better. She still desperately wanted a glass of water, but some of the dryness had subsided.
Shalise walked right up to the door and looked out without going up on her tip-toes.
“What a mess.”
Juliana didn’t get a chance to ask. A deep, masculine voice boomed through their cell.
“Prisoners out of confinement. Keeper notified. Return to your cells at once or prepare for a journey to the abattoir.”
Shalise turned back, opening her mouth to ask something. Juliana could imagine a few possibilities, but neither had the opportunity to speak.
The door collapsed outwards. Its hinges pulled straight out of the wall with a crack.
Shalise gasped and threw herself to the side. She cowered in a corner, out of view from the cell’s exterior.
Juliana was quick to join her.
Demons were running along the catwalks. She couldn’t name any specific one, but what else could they be? They weren’t human, that was for sure. Wrong colored skin, glowing eyes, horns. Those were just the human shaped ones. One amorphous blob fell through the grated catwalk before Juliana hid from view.
They were in some sort of demon prison after apparently screwing up some summoning circle.
Nothing like this had been mentioned in the book.
Shalise moved her head right next to Juliana’s ear. Her words came out as mere touches of air, barely discernible from the ambient noise. “What do we do?”
Juliana bit her lip, considering her options. There were two obvious choices. “Stay here, hide from all the demons that might decide they want a snack on their way out, wait for whatever is going to come and fix the door, and hope that our imprisonment isn’t too long-lasting. Or flee. Escape. Try to get into contact with mom or Eva or someone.”
“We’re not going to get our one phone call if we stay, are we?”
Shalise sighed. “You’re leaning towards escaping? What about all the demons?”
“Hiding, avoiding, and hoping that they’re too busy with their own escape to pay us much attention. Here,” Juliana removed one of her rings and handed it over to Shalise. “Can’t use magic in here, but maybe out there. I know you’re used to a wand,” Juliana gave a little shrug, “better than nothing.”
While Shalise fitted on the ring, Juliana took a peek around the corner.
There weren’t all that many demons, considering the amount of doors. In fact, there were only three that she could see. Given that most of the cells were still closed, Juliana didn’t quite know what she expected. All the demons who could get free had likely already fled.
The few demons who were around had the poor fortune of being far less mobile than a square-wheeled caboose.
All of them were on catwalks unconnected to her own. Glancing further around the corner revealed only one damaged door on her floor and side of the cell block. By the look of the bent in claw marks on the catwalk railing outside the door, its occupant had already fled.
“Come on,” Juliana said as she grabbed Shalise’s hand.
Neither direction on the catwalk looked any more appealing than the other. Both stretched endlessly as far as Juliana could see. However, one direction had something the other lacked.
While there weren’t many demons visible anymore, Juliana had caught a glimpse when the door first fell down. All the demons were moving in the same direction. Presumably towards some exit.
Hopefully towards the exit.
Alongside Shalise, Juliana made haste. They weren’t sprinting, but there was no dalliance either. Running into a demon that was less interested in escaping would not help matters.
It had to have been an hour before the scenery changed. And it wasn’t all that great of a change.
They came to a crossroads. Their corridor of cells met up with another, perpendicular corridor. The catwalks criss-crossed every which-way and even wound around to the other floors.
“Up or down? And after that, which way?”
“I don’t know.”
No matter which direction she looked, there was nothing but more cells. No demons in sight.
Some of the catwalks had claw marks, and one had collapsed completely across the way. She couldn’t tell which direction the fleeing demons had run.
“Well, let’s go down first,” Shalise said. “Get on the ground floor. Maybe they will have a sign somewhere.”
Juliana doubted that. There hadn’t been any signs so far. None of the cells even had numbers on them. “What if we’re underground. Then we should be heading up.”
“Do you really think we’re underground?”
“Just pointing out the possibility,” Juliana said with a shrug. “We can go down, though we might get lost in this place. I don’t suppose you’ve got some chalk on you?”
“I don’t. Oh!” Shalise gripped the top button of her school uniform and yanked down. The button came off with a pop. She pressed the light circle of plastic against the black wall with all her might. Dragging it across the surface, Shalise drew an arrow.
It was very faint, hardly noticeable even when looking directly at it.
Better than nothing, Juliana thought with a small frown. “I don’t know that there is a good reason to relocate our cell, but at least we’ll know where we’ve been.”
Mark completed, Juliana and Shalise headed down a staircase that wrapped around the entire intersection. At the center of it, Juliana noted as they reached the bottom, was a massive elevator. There were tracks on the walls and gears to raise and lower it. No obvious means of activating it, however. No buttons, or knobs, or dials.
Shalise made a second mark at the bottom of the staircase, right on the floor.
Basing their direction on a handful of claw marks on the floor, Juliana walked with one hand on Shalise’s shoulder. So long as whatever demon made the tracks didn’t have backwards feet, they should be heading in a proper direction. They would still be traveling in a direction even if that was the case.
“This place is creepy.”
Juliana jumped half a foot in the air at Shalise’s voice. She gave a light squeeze on Shalise’s shoulder. “Don’t scare me like that.”
“Sorry. Just… Where are all the guards? Or other prisoners? After that earthquake and seeing other demons escape, I’d be at the bars watching them go. Probably shouting obscenities.”
“There was that voice saying demons had escaped. And then it mentioned ‘Keeper.'”
“I don’t know that we should–”
The floor shook as a thunk resounded down the cell block.
Juliana stumbled forward, catching herself on a combination of the wall and Shalise.
“What was that?”
“Aftershocks?” Juliana said as she pulled Shalise closer. She moved up against the wall with a safe distance between her and the cell windows on either side.
It wasn’t the best place to stand. If the aftershocks shook the catwalks loose, they could fall right on top of her. They could swing out into the middle of the hallway as well, but that was probably less likely.
Still, something made her want to press up against the wall. A little nagging in the back of her head.
Another four thunks followed the first. They came unevenly, as if it were an animal with a limp. Each one rocked the world.
Each was slightly louder than the one before.
“Those are not aftershocks,” Shalise said with her voice barely above a whisper.
Juliana didn’t dare speak that loud. She suppressed her voice to the quietest level possible. “Something walking?”
Every thunk reinforced that idea.
Juliana wanted to run. Each of the steps shook the ground enough that she had trouble just standing still while leaning against the wall.
Shalise went down on her knees and held onto Juliana’s legs.
That did not help matters.
Even if she could run, there was nowhere to go. Towards the noise or away from the noise, it was a single corridor with no alcoves aside from the closed cell doors.
And the noise was moving fast.
“What do we do?”
Juliana hushed the girl clinging to her legs. “Don’t move, maybe it won’t see us.”
“That only works on T-Rexes.”
Juliana did not dignify that with a response.
Another thunk interrupted.
At the edge of her vision in the direction from which the noise came, a metal pole appeared in the dim light.
A second pole slammed into the ground with a resounding thunk, followed by a third, fourth, and a fifth.
Following the poles upwards, Juliana had to crane her neck to see the top. Almost five stories up, a man had been impaled on top of the poles. Each arm and each leg had a thorny metal pole piercing straight through for several feet.
A fifth pole ran through his neck.
He lifted a leg, bringing up the pole with it.
His leg only moved forwards by a few inches, but the five-story pole swung out half the distance between him and Juliana.
It crashed into the ground with an ear-splitting thunk.
That broke whatever spell they had been under.
Shalise cried out.
It was all Juliana could do to clasp one hand over her mouth.
Her action came too late.
The impaled demon stopped moving. All the poles settled down before dragging themselves closer together.
It didn’t take long for Juliana to figure out why.
As the distance between the poles shrank, the human-shaped body impaled at the top moved, sliding downwards at an alarming rate.
Every inch the demon descended had it grow in perspective. Ylva towered over everyone in any given room. Arachne wasn’t far behind.
This thing would dwarf Arachne standing on Ylva’s shoulders.
The demon stopped a foot off the ground. Ignoring the pole piercing his neck, he twisted his head around, searching with milky-gray eyes.
Juliana’s own eyes were as wide as they went when his gaze met hers.
The moment lasted forever. All time and space expanded into an eternity while its eyes stared into her own.
And the demon’s head continued sweeping the area. He didn’t make any moves or acknowledgment.
Taking much smaller steps, the demon walked forwards before beginning his search again.
It gave up searching after a few minutes. It ascending to the top of its poles was one of the most painful things Juliana had witnessed. On several levels.
With the thing right in front of them, yet no longer actively searching for them, Juliana took note of a few smaller details. The poles were not smooth shafts. Spines and barbed hooks staggered along the metal. The demon used the spines to climb the poles. Its flesh tore open, dripping black blood as it went.
Most agonizing of all was the sheer time it took to ascend. Its arm slid up, catching on a hook. Then a leg. The other arm.
By the time it reached the apex, Juliana’s arms and legs had completely locked up.
And then it started moving.
Juliana winced at the thunderous thunk. That single step took it almost to the edge of her vision. Two more and the only sign of it was the sound.
Even with the ache in her joints, Juliana did not move a single muscle until the last of the demon’s heavy thunks had quieted to murmurs.
Shalise moved far sooner than Juliana had wished. She peeled off the fingers blocking her mouth and took a deep gasp of air.
“W-what–that thing–it was enormous.”
“Y-yeah.” Juliana closed her eyes and took a few calming breaths. Her words were not as steady as she wanted. As she needed. It was her responsibility to get Shalise through whatever mess they had gotten themselves into. Especially if it was her fault they were here in the first place. “P-please don’t scream again.”
Juliana took a step in the direction the impaled demon had gone.
Shalise didn’t move except to grip Juliana’s arm. “We’re f-following it?”
“It’s either that or go where it came from. We might as well continue in the direction we were going. It didn’t see us, so it should be safe to come across as long as we don’t make noise.”
Shalise’s face was twisted in an expression that Juliana wasn’t sure what to make of. Instead of puzzling it out, Juliana wrapped her arms around Shalise.
“We’ll get out. We’ll be fine. We’ll get back to mom and Eva and Zoe and we’ll have a great story to tell. Adventure, danger, and all that. We could even write a book and sell it!”
Probably not. Telling people they interacted with demons wouldn’t go over well, not if what she’d heard about demon hunters had any grain of truth.
Maybe anonymously? But how would royalties be received? Any competent tracker could follow the money trail.
Perhaps a work of fiction pretending to be real. That might work.
Shalise sniffled, interrupting Juliana’s thoughts.
Juliana moved back, giving her some space. She kept her fingers interlaced with Shalise’s as reassurance.
She just hoped she believed her own words.
Keeping their hands together, Juliana started off after the demon.
It took half an hour of walking–at a decent pace, no less–before the scenery changed again.
Changed might be an understatement, Juliana thought as she glanced around.
The cold cell corridors changed into a series of much larger, open-front cells. Each one had a glowing red barrier capping the open end.
Juliana stopped at the first one and looked in. A gasp came from Shalise at her side.
It was easy to see why.
Ylva was one thing. Regal, tall–a giant, even–and radiated an air of power.
Arachne was another thing. Violent, twisted, and had an eightfold glare.
Neither of them quite measured up to what Juliana would have identified as a demon before actually meeting one for real. And, in fact, very few of the demons she had summoned resembled classical demons. Perhaps the imp. But things like the marionette theater-demon? Not a chance.
The creature chained to the back of the cell was a demon in every sense of the word.
Red skin, hoofed feet, curled horns sprouting from his forehead. His–and it was a he without a doubt–legs were the size of tree trunks and his arms weren’t much smaller. The demon’s stomach looked like it had been chiseled out of a mountain.
A very buff and well-toned mountain that Juliana found difficult to tear her eyes away from.
He looked on with glowing red eyes, somewhat reminiscent of Eva’s own. Surprise turned to curiosity turned to mirth.
A deep laugh reverberated in Juliana’s chest.
When he spoke, his voice rumbled in a deep baritone. Borderline bass.
“Mortals. Free me.”