“Mother?” Shalise hissed, hoping she was being quiet enough that the demon couldn’t hear.
On the demon’s side of things, she did nothing but stand there, ignoring the ongoing battle out in the open area of the room. She wore a polite, almost regal smile. Nowhere near as elegant as some she had seen on Ylva. It might pass as an imitation in the right lighting.
Unfortunately, that smile did nothing to calm Shalise down. That wasn’t the kind of smile one greeted a friend with. It was something to wear when one had absolute confidence in her power over whatever was in front of her.
And currently, Shalise was in front of the her.
“I-is her being your mother good or bad?”
Shalise got the distinct impression that Prax was leaning back in a corner of her mind, sulking. Dearest mother did not free me. Maoa left me to rot. What does that tell you?
“That she didn’t know where you were?”
There was a mental scoff somewhere in the back of her head.
“Right,” Shalise muttered. Mentioning Prax wouldn’t help. In fact, it could get her killed.
Shalise swallowed despite her parched mouth.
Prax’s mother crossed her arms beneath her chest. She hefted herself up and down once as she adjusted her positioning. One glowing-violet finger began tapping against her arm.
The universal sign of impatience. Apparently it applied to demons as well.
“I’m sorry, I… um…”
Her lips peeled back to reveal a set of razor-sharp teeth. “And just what is a little human like you doing here?”
The demon took three sultry steps forward.
Shalise tried to take three steps backwards. Halfway through her first step, Juliana’s armor clanked against a wall.
She leaned down, putting her face right next to Shalise’s face. “Must I rend the answer from your mind?”
“It was an accident,” Shalise said as fast as she could. “I didn’t want to be here. Everything has gone wrong and my friend is sick. I just want to go home.”
“Accident?” she said with a frown. Maoa pulled her face away from Shalise, bringing herself back to full height. Her head turned back to the ongoing battle.
Shalise let out a sigh, glad to no longer have the demon’s immediate attention.
How the battle was going was anyone’s guess. Everything was such a mess. Demons torn apart by dolls. Machinery from the dolls lying around everywhere. There were more demons than there were dolls, but for all Shalise knew, the dolls were winning.
One particular doll–at least, Shalise assumed it was a doll. It didn’t have any rusted iron parts that she could see as its clothing covered it almost entirely, but it was fighting the demons. With a sword.
A very effective sword. Shalise winced and turned away from the demon whose waist no longer connected to his legs. She didn’t even see the sword wielder move other than a slight flicker.
At her side, Maoa’s saccharine smile twisted into a glower aimed at the sword woman.
Now that Maoa’s eyes weren’t on her, Shalise took a brief moment to look the demon over.
Like Prax, she had hoofed feet. Unlike Prax, tree bark-like armor covered her legs from her ankles to her mid-thigh. She wore similar gauntlets that ended in glowing violet points. Another bit of bark wrapped around her neck, ending in a glowing gem right on her sternum.
That was about all she wore. There were a few other ‘vines’ of bark almost mimicking a ribcage, but it did nothing to cover the demon’s assets.
A tail that looked like it was made from the same bark swished back and forth behind her. She had two straight horns poking out the top of her head and dark hair hanging down to her shoulders.
As Shalise looked at her, she said something that Shalise did not catch. Even if the demon had been louder, she doubted she would have understood. It sounded more like she was gargling curses under her breath.
Glancing back towards the battlefield, Shalise had a good idea at what.
Sword-doll stood over the pieces of at least four demons. All but one were being dragged down into some portal on the floor, much like the one that had swallowed the incubus Shalise had… killed.
Shalise shook her head. She couldn’t just stand around here.
Prax had been silent since his snipe gripe about being left behind. Shalise could feel him thinking and stewing, though she couldn’t tell what about. Probably his mother.
With all the speed of an extremely careful snail, Shalise inched a foot away from the demon back towards the direction from where they had come.
No! Prax shouted in her head.
Shalise froze as Maoa whipped her head around.
One gauntleted hand flashed out.
Shalise cried out as the nails of her gauntlet scraped against the top of her head.
With a fistful of her hair in hand, Maoa yanked Shalise’s face right up against hers.
In shock, Shalise nearly dropped Juliana. That she did not was thanks only to her fists involuntarily clenching.
“You escaped once before. I can,” she leaned in, nose touching Shalise’s hair, “smell it on you. A familiar scent. Thank you for not killing Orgaz and Tzlip. Otherwise I might still be stuck in my cell.”
Maoa gently, almost tenderly ran a finger over the brand on Shalise’s chest.
It felt like ice cubes.
Shalise sucked in her stomach, trying to put as much space between the finger and her skin as possible.
“Carrying out another prisoner? I should have thought of that first. Lucky for me, my imps proved worthless in killing you.”
The finger on her stomach continued dancing over her brand, tracing light circles over it. At the same time, Maoa’s grip on Shalise’s hair lessened, though she did not let go completely.
“W-what are you saying?” Shalise didn’t bother trying to whisper her words. Face to face as they were, there was no chance Maoa wouldn’t hear.
You escaped, Prax said. He sounded angry. The glare that Shalise could feel only emphasized his anger. But there was a hint of happiness. Or maybe smug pride. And she thinks that I am a genius.
That’s why he sounds smug, Shalise thought. If she wasn’t close enough to Maoa to smell her breath, she might have rolled her eyes.
Instead, her eyes widened. That was where she had heard her voice before. She was the person who had shouted at the imps just before they attacked.
Unfortunately, Prax spat out before her thoughts could go anywhere, I believe she desires a ride out.
Shalise’s heart skipped a beat. “A-a ride? My head is full enough with just you here,” she said.
Maoa nodded despite the comment not being meant for her. One lithe finger pointed up towards Juliana.
“I am happy we could come to an accord. This battle is–”
As she spoke, Maoa turned her head back towards the fight.
All at once, her eyes widened. She shoved Shalise back before leaping backwards.
Time slowed to a crawl.
No sounds reached Shalise’s ears. Her peripheral vision showed no movement in the battle to the side.
Despite it having been racing just a moment before, her heart didn’t beat.
Maoa’s expression had frozen in a snarl as she flew backwards in an arc.
Except, Shalise realized, Maoa isn’t the only thing moving.
From the very bottom of her vision, a shiny, silver line rose up a few inches from her nose. It was about an inch wide, but it stretched from one end of her vision to the other.
As it got higher, Shalise could see herself reflected in the edge. She only recognized herself by virtue of understanding how mirrors work. Her shocked expression had been bloated by Prax’s muscles.
The silver blade lifted up and out of Shalise’s vision.
And everything started moving again.
Shalise continued falling back until Juliana crashed into the wall with a loud clatter.
This time, Juliana’s leg slipped out of Shalise’s grip. She still had a hold on Juliana’s arms, but the sudden weight swinging down knocked Shalise off-balance.
They both fell into a pile.
Throughout her tumble, Shalise kept her eyes on what was before her.
Maoa landed a short distance back, bent over with her claws spread out down by her sides. She looked far more feral than the scary-yet-human-appearing demon that had been speaking to her just a moment before.
A lithe leather boot stepped lightly just in front of Shalise.
She followed the boot up past the tucked-in pants and brown long-coat to a pale face framed by silver hair. Two mercury eyes met Shalise’s own. The corners of her lips tipped down before she turned her head towards Maoa.
Heavy leather gloves tightened around her sword.
Shalise didn’t blink and she still missed the moment that the sword-doll moved.
Maoa, on the other hand, saw it coming a mile away. She moved her gauntleted hands up and caught the sword on a ridge in the tree bark.
Get up and run! Prax shouted in Shalise’s head.
Shalise wasted no time arguing. She didn’t believe for one moment that she could outrun that doll, but maybe it wouldn’t chase.
Scooping up Juliana, Shalise turned tail and ran.
“The other way,” Shalise said between pants, “leads through that battle. And that doll. And your mother.”
We cannot leave without first entering the armory.
Shalise slowed to a walk. “What do you mean by that?”
Consider the other demons’ presence. Despite being slaughtered, they have yet to flee as you have. He paused, giving a chance for Shalise to collect her thoughts.
It took her a lot longer to figure out than it should have.
Shalise knelt down and placed Juliana on the ground, propping her up against the wall.
The blond was still unconscious, even after being jostled around so much. She wasn’t sweating much and her breathing was steady. Placing two fingers on the side of her neck, Shalise decided that she had a steady pulse. Maybe faster than normal, but she didn’t know what was normal.
Shalise couldn’t use her pulse as a baseline. Her heart was currently making repeated attempts at breaking out of her chest.
As far as Shalise’s dismal knowledge of medicine went, Juliana was perfectly fine.
She just wasn’t awake.
Whatever had happened to her must have been some sort of sleep inducing toxin. Even deathly sick people would wake up after being dropped a few feet.
Shalise leaned up against the wall, staying on her knees. What a nightmare, she thought in her own voice.
“What is behind those dolls that is so important?”
None of us can truly escape without entering–
“Stop dancing around words.” Shalise felt like shouting. The words came out too tired. Too quiet. However much sleep she had managed to get was not nearly enough.
You are missing something, servant. How mortals can be so ignorant of their own being, I will never comprehend.
“I’m not your…” Shaking her head, Shalise sighed and closed her eyes.
I see you finally understand your position. Every word he spoke radiated pure smugness. It is about time.
Shalise snapped her eyes open. She put on a smile she didn’t feel. The smile was for Prax’s sake, not her own.
“If you do not explain, I will go back to that battlefield. There I will wait. Either your mother or the doll will come out on top. If your mother comes out on top, I will tell her who you are–”
You would not dare.
“I am tired. I am hungry. I have a headache. I want to go home. I just don’t care. It couldn’t be any worse with her yelling in my head than you.”
You have no idea.
“If the doll wins, well, I might die. But your mother seemed to think I was on their side or something? None of you people can talk straight. But the doll didn’t kill me when it clearly could have. I’ll take my chances.”
Her speech finished, Shalise shut her eyes and leaned her head against the wall. Neither was a chance that Shalise was all that keen on taking.
Contrary to her words, Shalise did care. She didn’t know enough to decide whether Maoa would be any better or worse than Prax, though she was leaning towards worse. As for the doll, it was true that she hadn’t killed Shalise. So she had that going for her.
There was the possibility that the doll had simply been concerned with the obviously bigger threat, but there was something about the way the doll glanced at her.
It reminder her of her youth in Mrs. Mendoza’s home. Usually when Shalise did something she knew she wasn’t supposed to do and Mrs. Mendoza found out anyway. A look full of disappointment.
But Shalise was unsure what kind of disappointment someone here would have in her. She was probably just misunderstanding things in the heat of the moment.
However, if it got Prax to answer her, the threat was worth it.
His presence in the back of her mind had been stewing in his own rage since Shalise closed her eyes. It was like the lid on a pot of boiling water, just shaking back and forth as the steam escaped.
Of course, the pot was inside Shalise’s head.
Shalise opened her eyes, wide in alarm.
Prax was laughing.
The boiling pot of water turned to ice.
Do you know how Keeper creates his dolls?
Shalise frowned. “N-no.” Cursing her stutter, Shalise bit her lip and waited.
After a turn through the abattoir, Keeper offers a mortal a choice. Death or doll. Most mortals are not in much of a position to respond, but he is fairly liberal in interpreting their screams, cries, or stillness.
And then, he strips their soul and hands it off to Hel or Aosoth. You saw what happens after. They become those half mechanical monstrosities.
“S-so what?” Shalise took a deep breath. “You think that doll wanted to turn me into one of them?”
Another chill came from Prax’s section of her head. Maybe not. But she is sure to report to Keeper that two little mortals are running around without souls. The last time a mortal was in charge of her faculties enough to respond to him, that mortal became the sword wielder.
The small chill in the back of her mind expanded outwards, encompassing her entire body. “W-what do you mean? ‘Without s-souls?'”
As I said, I fail to comprehend how mortals can be so ignorant of their own being. Surely you have attempted some kind of magic and have found yourself lacking.
She actually hadn’t. Juliana had said it wasn’t working and Shalise had taken her word for it.
Pulling up the hand that held the ring Juliana had given her, Shalise tried to channel magic into it. The effect didn’t matter. A gust of wind, a spark, anything would prove him wrong.
Nothing happened. She couldn’t even feel her magic moving. It just fizzled out somewhere deep inside her.
Sweat started dripping down her back as she strained from the effort of casting.
No amount of concentration did anything.
“It-it’s not working.”
Of course not. You have no soul. I can feel it. I am inside you, after all.
“That doesn’t mean anything,” Shalise said as a thought occurred to her. “It is a prison. Of course it wards against magic.”
I would know far better than you.
“You’re lying,” Shalise shouted. “L-liches can use magic. They don’t have s-souls.”
Prax didn’t laugh at that. He rolled his eyes. You are no lich, servant. Your education is woefully lacking. Fear not, in time I shall educate you.
Shalise slammed a fist into the ground. “I’m not your–what does it even mean? Am I going to d-die?”
Do not be foolish. So long as you reacquire it soon, the disparity should be kept to a minimum.
“What does that mean?”
Prax gave a mental shrug. You would have to ask Death, though I doubt He would share. Demons do not possess souls, though we have a similar concept.
Which brings me to my point. Upon being brought here, we are forced to touch a very specific crystal that strips our ‘soul’ until such time as we are to be released–should we ever be released. That crystal is the reason every demon ran into that fight.
Shalise slumped against the wall. “How does any of that help me?”
You are within this prison. Is it inconceivable that your soul is contained within that crystal? What harm could there be in touching it to be certain? Perhaps having her soul back will even assist your mortal friend in her recovery.
Shalise glanced down at the sleeping form of Juliana. She looked peaceful. Too peaceful. She placed her hand over Juliana’s open mouth to double-check that she was still breathing.
Everything seemed fine. Or the same as it had been for however long it had been.
“I don’t remember touching any crystals.”
Your mortal friend had many gaps in her memory surrounding your internment. Is your memory so perfect?
“No,” Shalise mumbled.
So get up, servant, and return to the battle before it ends. Use my kin as distractions.
“Touch the crystal and leave.” Shalise slapped her cheeks. She had to drag herself to her feet. The rest was nice, but she had a more important job. “Nothing else?”
She could feel his grin in the back of her mind. His eagerness was almost infectious.
Shalise found herself smiling as she reached down and slung Juliana back up around her shoulders. After taking a moment to adjust Juliana into what would hopefully be a comfortable position before taking a step down the corridor.
Alright, she thought, I can do this. I have to do this.
I so cannot do this.
Maoa and the sword-doll blinked around the wide open space faster than Shalise’s eye could track them.
Except she did not think they were blinking. Not the thaumaturgical teleportation. They were simply moving that fast.
At any point, the sword-doll or Maoa could notice her and take her head off before she realized what was happening.
The rest of the battle hadn’t settled down in the least. Twenty or so dolls were engaged with about the same amount of demons.
That building, Prax said, is our destination.
For the first time, Shalise looked beyond the bloody battle.
It was no wonder she had completely ignored the building before. It was a plain cylinder maybe three stories tall. No windows adorned its walls, only a single entrance facing her. A red barrier was stretched across the opening.
Prior to paying attention, she had assumed the room was triangular in shape with the building making up one wall. Looking around, it was clear that the battle was taking place within a diamond-shaped room centered around the cylinder.
At least there wasn’t a locked door. The other demons likely intended to break down the walls as they did to some of the cells. Unless that barrier was different from the cells, she could walk right though.
Now she just had to get there.
Sneaking will be difficult unless you abandon your mortal friend–
“Not a chance.”
Do not interrupt me, servant. You asked for suggestions. I am providing.
Shalise bit her lip, barely paying attention. One of the dolls stared straight at her.
A six armed demon gripped both of the doll’s arms before anything more than eye-contact could happen, but it still sent a jolt of adrenaline through her body.
Join a side and hope that whichever side you pick will not stab you in the back once the fighting has ceased–if not prior to that.
“I-I can’t fight. What happened to using them as a distraction?”
By edging along the wall, you may be able to bypass much of the fighting at this entrance. Be warned: I would be surprised if there is not a battle going on of similar scale on the opposite side of the armory.
“Between the two fights.” Shalise swallowed a dry lot of nothing. “Okay.” Her dry tongue scraped across her lips, feeling like sandpaper. “Okay.”
Cease your panicking and get on with it.
Shalise spoke too loud.
One doll turned a birdcage-entrapped head to look straight at her. To do so, it had to turn its head almost completely around.
As soon as their eyes met, the doll’s plain expression turned into a smile.
Taking advantage of the doll’s distraction, a demon thrust its fist into the cage.
The dented cage came clean off the doll’s shoulders, flew through the air, and rolled to a stop only a few feet from Shalise. Despite losing its head, the doll continued to fight. It impaled the demon on a rusted spear.
Shalise bit down on a shriek and started running along the wall.
Juliana’s weight did not make it easy. She almost fell off Shalise’s back as she started running. Shalise had to stop and heft her up more than once.
Prax was correct. The other side of the cylinder had another hallway leading away. At least twice as many demons and dolls were locked in combat.
Wasting no time gawking, Shalise ran for the cylinder.
“You’re not getting away from me, doll,” a voice rumbled.
Shalise skidded to a stop.
An arm as thick as her entire body smacked into the ground, cutting her off.
She followed the arm up to the hulking brute of a demon. If his arms were the size of her body, a single tooth was the size of her head. And he had a lot of teeth. Thorns and spikes protruded from his dark skin at various, asymmetrical points.
Shalise gaped, open-mouthed. I am going to die, she thought.
He thinks you are a doll. Show him my brand. Quick.
Shalise didn’t argue with Prax. She tore her shirt even further trying to get the scraps out of the way without dropping Juliana.
“I’m not a doll,” she protested as fast as her mouth would move.
A steady, deep tone came from the back of his throat for a few seconds.
It stopped as his hand swung backwards, knocking an approaching doll all the way back to the mouth of one of the hallways.
“You are a coward. Fight with your familiar or pre–”
Whatever he was going to say got cut off as his head slid from his neck.
A pair of leather boots stood on one of his shoulders. Some specks of black blood clung to the blade in the doll’s hand.
Again, that disappointed frown flittered onto her face.
As the behemoth sank into a void in the ground, the doll thrust her sword out towards Shalise.
Shalise flinched backwards.
When she opened her eyes, she was still in one piece. The doll had disappeared, leaving a splattering of black blood on the ground in front of Shalise.
Not wasting her good fortune, Shalise stepped over the line of blood, closing the distance between herself and the cylindrical building. After taking a short breather at the building’s wall, she edged around towards the entrance.
A few combatants noticed Shalise as she slunk around. None of the demons were in much of a position to approach. The dolls were doing a good job of keeping them away.
The few dolls that glanced her way unnerved her far more than any demon. They either turned back to their fight or worse, offered a small smile.
“Are they intending to help me? The sword one could have killed me again and passed it up. There’s no way she didn’t see the mark on my chest.”
Shalise waited a moment in silence, but Prax said nothing.
Shaking her head, Shalise slipped through the red barrier. “Where to now–oh.”
That had to be it.
Shalise stared into the pitch black crystal floating above them. Jagged tendrils poked out at various points.
It was transparent.
At least, it felt transparent. Shalise couldn’t see through to the other side. There was nothing but darkness contained within. Her gaze stretched off into the infinite distance despite it being only a few feet away. Like the horizon of the ocean stretching around her, about to swallow her whole.
Shalise shook her head, but her eyes followed the crystal. It was so difficult to turn away.
Stop staring and touch it, Prax shouted in her head.
Blinking at the noise, Shalise looked down at the ground.
“W-what is that?”
Void. Prax’s excitement was palpable. His feelings set her hands to shaking in anticipation. Touch it. Your mortal friend as well, I suppose. Then let us be gone from this place.
“Juliana first,” Shalise mumbled. Especially if it could help her wake up.
Keeping her head off of the crystal as much as possible, Shalise lifted up Juliana’s hand and placed it against one of the crystal tendrils.
Juliana gasped, coughed twice, and slumped back over Shalise’s shoulder, breathing normally.
“What was that? W-was that supposed to happen?”
I guarantee that she has a soul now. Touch the crystal.
Shalise bit her lip. I hope this is the right thing to do.
Squeezing her eyes shut so as to not become enraptured with the crystal again, Shalise stretched her hand out.
And froze an inch away.
Cold metal touched against her neck, just under her chin.
Shalise only moved her eyes.
The sword-doll stood to Shalise’s side with her sword out.
She looked… sad.
“The crystal,” she said, “you must not touch it.”
Her voice came out with such intensity that Shalise started shaking against her will. At the same time, it was soft-spoken–barely above a whisper. That the doll’s lips were all but touching her ear didn’t help calm her down.
Slowly, the doll leaned back. Her metallic eyes meeting Shalise’s own.
They stood, staring at one another. Shalise tried to remain entirely unmoving, not wanting to give any reason for the doll to strike. At the same time, her legs were trembling in fear, trying to run out from under her.
Her eyes flicked away to a wall behind Shalise.
The wall exploded inwards an instant later.
The doll whirled, her sword vanishing from beneath Shalise’s chin.
Maoa’s outstretched gauntlet stopped in its tracks as the blade made contact. She screamed out in fury and frustration at failing to reach the crystal.
Before any fight could break out, the ground shook.
Shalise stumbled forwards as the earthquake pushed, brushing her fingers against the crystal.
Two brief shocks pulsed against her finger. Nothing more intense than licking a nine-volt battery.
Her fingers broke contact as the earthquake pulled her back.
Shalise’s feet spread apart, widening her stance to help remain steady against the shaking ground.
There was a burst of confusion from Prax. The confusion gave way to laughter.