You must get up.
But the tiles were so cold.
At some point in her thrashing, Shalise’s shirt had come off. She couldn’t bring herself to care. With her bare stomach pressed against the floor, the metal tiles could take the heat away.
Get up, she thought in a masculine voice.
Grunting in resignation, Shalise pushed herself up to a sitting position.
“Oh,” she said as she glanced down. Her shirt hadn’t come off. Finger sized tears ran across her chest, centered around the black brand on her skin.
Shalise’s eyes went wide as she crawled backwards. She gave a light yelp as a stray shirt button dug into her hand.
The winged demon was gone. His restraints hung empty from the wall.
Despite the fresh marks across her chest–from her fingernails, if the bit of skin on her nails was hers–the marks she had drawn were burned in as clear as day. Prax was probably stuck inside her chest.
Shalise gave a light shudder at that thought.
At least her skin hadn’t turned red. That was what she had expected, anyway. That and growing horns, wings, hooves, and all Prax’s muscles. Transforming would have been helpful, true. As happy as she was that she hadn’t turned into a demon, she was still no closer to escaping.
Prax tricked me, Shalise thought with a frown. He was out of his chains, but failed to help her escape. He probably had a way to escape the burned in brand.
If he hadn’t already. If that was even the brand’s purpose.
Shalise could only blame herself. She had expected some sort of betrayal. She had just hoped it wouldn’t be until after Juliana was better and could help out.
Though the red barrier was still up. Shalise would have expected that to stop him from leaving so soon.
Outside the cell, the indigo demon still paced in front of the barrier. He had moved closer, almost touching it.
Juliana was still on the floor, drenched in sweat. Her breaths came out short yet steady.
That was good.
Well, not good good. Better than some alternatives.
Shaking Juliana did nothing to wake her.
There were clearly more desirable alternatives.
As amusing as watching you flounder about like some neonate is, we need to move.
Shalise screamed and jumped back from Juliana. That was not her thought. She did not use words like neonate.
She blinked. It actually sounded like…
Her query was rewarded with deep mental laughter.
“Where are you?”
Fool, she–HE thought. Figure it out quick. I can’t have such mentally deficient servants.
Shalise felt her breath catch in her throat. He’s in my mind, not my chest, she thought with no small amount of panic. Thankfully, it was in her own voice.
Prax did not confirm her suspicion. He didn’t do anything. After a moment of him not responding, Shalise took a breath and closed her eyes.
Prax is a loser. The worst demon I’ve ever met. Arachne could beat him with her hands tied behind her back without breaking a sweat.
Again, Prax did not respond.
Shalise allowed a small smile onto her face. “I’m not your servant.”
Yet, he said without the slightest delay.
Her momentary victory disappeared along with her smile. His tone was far too confident for her liking.
She needed to wake up Juliana fast. Maybe she would have some idea on how to keep Prax away. Failing that, she needed to get to Eva as soon as possible.
That seemed like a good idea in either case.
Priorities. Shalise glanced down at her friend. Juliana should be the top priority. Her life could be in immediate danger.
“How do we help Juliana?”
Later. First, kill the incubus.
Shalise turned to the leering demon. Since she started moving around, he had moved right next to the red barrier. As close as he could get without actually touching it.
Frowning at him, Shalise held her torn shirt together. It wouldn’t stay without her intervention, but at least it kept him from looking.
Do not be squeamish, servant.
The hairs on her neck stood on end. She could feel him roll his eyes.
Demons do not die when they are killed. They merely spend some time in the abyss of the Void.
“That’s not–What do you expect me to do about him?” Shalise did not bother hiding her irritation. “If I could have done something about him, I would have before I smeared your blood all over myself.”
Foolish servant. You were admiring my muscles–
I was not, she thought to herself.
“And how am I suppos–”
There was a tickling on her stomach.
Turning away from the indigo demon, Shalise opened her shirt and looked down.
And promptly gagged.
Cords of worms beneath her skin writhed around her body. The worms spread out, reaching down her legs, up her shoulders, and down her arms.
The only thing keeping her from all out panic was the lack of pain. There was just an almost pleasant tickle.
Like a cloth being tightened with a stick, the worms squeezed her. It lasted for only a few short moments before they stopped moving.
Shalise gasped as she glanced at herself.
While the more physically demanding nights in Professor Kines’ class had kept her in shape, she hadn’t spent much time actually building strength.
Her fingers ran over her new abs. Abs! A six-pack even. Genoa would be jealous.
Both her arms and legs were similarly beefed up.
She felt like she could lift a truck without breaking a sweat.
But… it was wrong.
“What did you do?”
Be more in tune with your inner demon next time, servant.
Shalise could feel him grinning at his little pun. She was too grossed out to care.
There was a brief mental sigh from Prax. It will have to do.
Her body looked normal. Normal for a bodybuilder, at least. Touching her new abs even felt normal.
But it didn’t feel normal. The worms were still there. Every little movement she made, she could feel them pretending to be muscles.
All at once, the worms started pulling back. Her fingertips returned to their normal definition, followed by her wrists and arms.
Cease this foolishness, servant, Prax shouted in her head. Dispatch the incubus before dismissing my gift.
Startled by his voice, Shalise allowed the worms to return to their places.
At least she could get rid of it.
“I don’t know how to fight,” Shalise eventually said. She ran her tongue around the inside of her mouth. Her jaw, her cheeks, her face, and her tongue all felt infested.
Do not fight then, he said. Reach out and grip his skull. Pull him into the barrier and hold him there until he disappears.
Taking a deep breath, Shalise clenched her worm-infested hands into a fist. “I can do this,” she mumbled as she turned towards the indigo demon. Resigned, she walked up to the barrier with her eyes staring at the floor.
She stopped just at the edge and looked up.
He licked his lips.
Shalise wrinkled her face in disgust.
Fool, Prax laughed. Grab him and end this.
At a speed that surprised Shalise, her arms reached out of the barrier.
The demon’s eyes and mouth widened in apparent shock.
He didn’t have time to react. Following Prax’s instructions, Shalise used her full weight to pull him into the barrier.
The sizzling and the screaming started at the same time.
Shalise closed her eyes.
She wished she could close her ears.
Claws raked against her hands, but whatever the worms were doing, they managed to keep her from feeling too hurt.
It took several agonizing minutes, but eventually the screams cut off and the clawing ceased. A minute later and Shalise fell backwards, landing on her butt, as the demon slipped out of her grip.
Opening her eyes, Shalise caught the tail end of a portal closing. One just like the portal that had opened beneath the imp that Professor Baxter had killed at her seminar.
Shalise got up to her feet and just stared. There was no evidence of the indigo demon except for a few splatters of blood. The blood blended in with the black tiles and was only noticeable thanks to the angle of the ambient light.
And, Shalise noted with a glance at her own hands, it might not be his blood.
The backs of her hands up to her wrists looked like they had been put through a meat grinder. Red blood dripped off her hands, pooling on the floor in front of her.
Though they wouldn’t look like that for long. She could see the muscles and skin knitting back together in real-time. Strands of flesh jumped across gaps, pulling the flesh back to its normal position.
Her stomach churned. Shalise knelt over and heaved.
Nothing actually came out. She had been trying not to think about it because she would have only gotten hungrier, but she hadn’t had food in who knows how many hours. Possibly a full day.
Shalise remained on her knees until the tingling in her hands stopped. Only then did she stand up and look over her flawless skin.
Acceptable, Shalise jumped at Prax’s voice. I suppose. Let us move on. Gather your mortal friend if you must.
Shalise put her foot down.
“Not yet.” She had a hardness in her voice that surprised her. Shalise did not allow it to distract her.
Shalise concentrated as she had before. The worms pulled back, returning to the brand on her stomach. She kept up her concentration until she couldn’t feel them any longer.
She stopped concentrating.
The worms did not return.
A sigh of relief escaped her lips. She had been worried about needing constant concentration to keep them at bay.
Amazingly enough, Prax stayed silent throughout the process.
His indignation was, however, palpable.
As soon as she finished looking herself over and confirming that everything was back to normal, he mentally shook his head. You would reject my perfection for your mortalness? Pathetic servant.
“I am not your servant,” Shalise growled. With a frown, she added, “is mortalness even a word?”
It matters not so long as you understand my meaning. Now get a move on, that last notification announced the release of the dolls. We do not want to get caught by those things.
That was something Shalise could agree with. She didn’t know what the dolls were, but the prospect of getting out sounded excellent.
Turning to Juliana, Shalise realized the first problem with escaping.
Juliana was small. A good deal shorter than Shalise. Easily the shortest person in their class. While she was nowhere near as muscled as Genoa, Juliana had a well toned body. She couldn’t have weighed all that much.
Carrying her would be clumsy and encumbering, but doable.
Except for one problem.
Shalise’s unenhanced muscles strained to lift the armor-clad girl. The metal had to weigh at least… a lot. Shalise didn’t have any good reference points for eye-balling weight.
But it was one major problem.
Worse, he was laughing inside her head again.
“I’m not leaving without her. We need to wake her up. If you don’t have any solutions, at least be quiet.”
Leave her or carry her with us. Her body is in shock. Likely thanks to the toxin of the imps’ claws. Debilitating, but only deadly to a babe. The shock, however, does not come from the toxin. Rather, she lacks something vital to jump-start her body. She will not wake on her own.
Perhaps I shall explain on the way. Perhaps I will leave your mental faculties intact. Either way, lingering would be unwise.
Shalise frowned. “And you want me to use your worm things to–”
Do not compare my glorious muscles to vermin.
Crossing her arms, Shalise said, “you’ve gotten haughty.”
I am free of my bonds for the first time in tens of centuries. And we are so close to true freedom. I feel haughty. Though it will all be squandered should you fail to get moving.
Shalise bit her lip. She glanced between Juliana and the empty hallway. “Fine.”
With a distressingly simple thought, Prax’s disgusting muscles erupted from the brand. Shalise closed her eyes and thought about how nice a hot meal would taste right about now. She sighed once the squirming beneath her skin squeezed and tightened.
Opening her eyes, Shalise glanced down at her friend.
It wasn’t easy to pick her up. Not quite effortless. Shalise managed to get her slung over her shoulder without too much trouble. After ensuring she wouldn’t fall off by gripping her arms and legs in front and looping her around Shalise’s neck, they moved up to the red barrier.
Her hands had passed through it not ten minutes earlier, yet Shalise still expected it to block her passage. Perhaps by catching the brand on her chest.
The barrier didn’t even cause an itch as she walked through.
Now move! Left, further into the prison.
“I-into the prison?”
My gift will prove deadly enough against lesser demons. Yet it will not suffice against anything especially powerful, including the dolls.
There was reluctance in his voice that might have made Shalise smile had she not been heading deeper into the prison. She did not miss the fact that they were heading in the same direction that they had been moving in before returning to Prax’s cell.
“All the other d-demons came this way,” Shalise said.
That could prove to be to our advantage, if we can convince them to work with us. We will need equipment from the doll armory to facilitate our escape. Entering will be difficult with just us.
“Won’t the doll armory be guarded by dolls? The ones that you just said we wouldn’t be able to fight?”
As you said, all the other demons were heading in this direction. For the same purpose. We shall slip by. If that is even needed. It is entirely possible that the dolls will have been defeated by our predecessors.
As nice as that sounded, she doubted it would work out so cleanly. Not if this prison had any sort of decent security. And they could wind up caught between demons if there was another earthquake.
Sighing, Shalise picked up her pace as much as she was able without jostling Juliana too much.
Shalise slowed to a careful crawl and barely dared to breathe. Her eyes scanned over every inch of the hallway, looking for anything that might be a threat.
Anything that escaped.
Half the wall was destroyed around two cells. Neither had red barriers blocking the way in. Or out.
“This is where we found those imps,” Shalise whispered. “They were breaking away the wall when we got here.”
Looks like they finished.
Shalise tightened her grip on Juliana, readying herself in case she needed to run. It was a good thing she had armor on. There might have been some accidental crushing of limbs otherwise.
Pressing herself against the wall as much as she was able, Shalise peeked around the corner.
Shalise took a deep breath of air.
Unlike Prax’s simply empty restraints, both occupants of these cells had been far more destructive during their escape. The binding rings were bent outwards on one side. The other had broken the chain but, based on the lack of rings lying around, had kept the actual bindings.
Hmph. Seems like someone still has loyal minions. I wonder if I know who resided within these cells.
“Would it matter if you knew them?”
Perhaps, he mused. They could be old comrades.
“They didn’t come back for you.”
Watching out for themselves first. That or enemies.
“Great. Just what we need.”
Do not mention me. And keep your chest covered.
Shalise actually rolled her eyes at that. Keeping the remains of her shirt closed enough to hide the brand was an impossible order even discounting Juliana’s presence tying up her hands.
She was about to continue down the hall when a thought struck her. “Wait a minute,” she said slowly. “Arachne once said that she could sense other demons. Can’t they do that to you?”
Not as I am. Much like we can pass through the barriers, we can pass by other demons without them detecting my presence.
Shrugging Juliana into a more comfortable position, she started off down the hall once again, keeping an eye out for any more broken cells.
Couldn’t forget about them.
Who is this Arachne? Prax asked after a moment or two.
“A friend of mine,” Shalise said. “She comes from here.” Frowning, Shalise added, “well, not here here. But Hell in gen–”
A demon? And you think you’re her friend?
His raucous laughter sent a chill down her spine. An involuntary shudder worked its way up her spine, nearly dislodging Juliana from her spot.
“N-no. More of a friend of a friend.”
That only made him laugh harder.
“Stop laughing,” Shalise said. “Arachne is way–”
She cut herself off. Better not to antagonize the person she was sharing a mind with. Even if he couldn’t actually do anything to her–something Shalise wasn’t entirely certain was correct–he could definitely make himself annoying.
“–nicer than you,” she finished. “She saved my life once. On orders from someone else.”
Does not sound like a decent demon.
Shaking her head, Shalise decided to change the subject. “How long are you planning on staying inside me.”
There may be more barriers I cannot cross without my servant. Until we escape from this place, at the very least.
Shalise stopped in her tracks. “A-at the very least?”
Continue moving, servant.
Shalise grumbled under her breath, but started moving again. “What do you mean by that?”
Leaving so soon may open me up to recapture. While I do not intend to trade one prison for another, this is by far preferable to staring at that blasted hellhound for the last nine centuries. Besides, mortals live for a century at the most? It will be temporary.
“I don’t want you in me for the rest of my life. I don’t want you in me now!”
You shall do as I say, servant.
“I’m not your servant,” Shalise said. And you’re not staying, she thought. Eva would have a way to get him out. She had to. Or maybe Sister Cross would know a way to exorcise him.
In the meantime, she grit her teeth and tried to ignore his laughter.
Red barriers stretched out as far as Shalise could see. Glancing behind her, the cells extended forever in that direction as well.
There was no end to this place.
They had passed by a crossroads. Prax had insisted on continuing in their current direction. His reply when she had asked if he even knew where they were going was less than reassuring. It boiled down to one corridor ‘feeling’ better than the others.
But even that had been an eternity ago.
Her feet were killing her. Her stomach clamored for food every dozen or so steps. And her back…
Shalise shrugged Juliana up her shoulders again. She kept slipping off.
At least Shalise hadn’t dropped her. Yet.
People, especially those clad in metal, were heavy. Prax’s muscles might have given her the strength and endurance to carry Juliana around, but she lacked the seemingly endless stamina that Arachne displayed during her fights with Juliana’s mom.
Every step wore her down that much further. She needed Juliana to wake up soon.
Juliana did not feel quite as hot as before. Neither was she as sweaty. Whether those were good signs pointing towards recovery or something far worse such as dehydration, Shalise was not qualified to say.
There was one thing she was qualified to say.
“This place is too big.”
It has not changed sizes since the last time you mentioned that. His tone was the very definition of exasperated. Probably.
“That doesn’t mean it–wait, probably?”
Relax. I doubt Keeper has had a chance to expand and inter new prisoners while all this is going on.
He gave a little mental nudge towards yet another barrier-less cell as they passed by.
Shalise had long since stopped slowing down and carefully creeping around the open cells they found. Both she and Prax agreed that no demon, sane or not, would willingly linger in their cells after having been freed. The damage around the cells made it clear that someone was purposely freeing the inmates. Given that, it was likely that all the freed demons were traveling as a group.
A group of demons that lay in the same direction she was moving in.
She tried not to think about that as she trudged along.
Another hundred or two cells passed before a small tremor forced her to stop.
Shalise waited, keeping her feet steady and stable.
The tremor never built up into a full-fledged earthquake. It died out as quickly as it came.
A faint cry of pain echoed through the prison corridor.
“W-what was that?”
We are closing in on our destination. Prepare yourself.
Shalise took a step forward. “F-for what?”
The same faint voice cried out again, this time more in rage than anything else. Another tremble ran up and down the corridor a moment after.
Biting her lip, Shalise continued forward at a glacial pace.
Sounds of battle became louder as she walked forward. The occasional loud cries followed by shockwaves interspersed more mundane noises of metal scraping against metal.
It was terrifying.
Shalise could barely keep her legs steady as she moved forward. She’d never been in a fight before. And she didn’t count being eaten by a zombie as a fight.
And yet here she was, marching closer to the noises of an obvious war with a demon in her head and an unconscious girl on her back.
Shalise slugged ever onwards, wishing for the millionth time that hour that she was anywhere else.
Cells along the wall ended abruptly. For a good dozen paces, the walls were nothing more than the black metal. Beyond that, the corridor opened up into a much larger plaza-like area.
A plaza full of demons and what could only be the dolls–half rusted iron and half flesh.
Shalise shuddered. A massive bolt ran through one entire shoulder of something that otherwise looked like a little boy. Hanging off the bolt was a claw that it used to tear into a small imp.
The imp never stood a chance.
Three larger demons turned on the doll and set to tearing it apart.
Shalise looked away.
And promptly met the eyes of a violet-skinned woman. Two red eyes narrowed.
“Humans,” she said. She turned to face Shalise as if the battle raging on did not matter in the slightest. “The ones from earlier? And what’s this, a bonded familiar?”
Shalise took a step backwards. “What do I do?” she hissed to her ever-present companion.
Prax did not immediately respond except to let out a brief wave of anger. An anger that fed into Shalise, making her grit her teeth.