Juliana groaned out.
Fever heat had always bothered her. She hated the simultaneous inclination to both kick off her covers and gather them around her in a cushy pile. There was just no winning either way. The moment the covers were off, she’d be too cold. Gather them up and she’d be too hot.
And someone had the brilliant idea to dump an extremely heavy, extremely hot blanket on top of her.
Groaning again, Juliana reached out to shove the blanket off.
The tips of her fingers found themselves digging into something warm and sticky. Something wet.
Did I knock over a bowl of soup? Some drink?
Wrinkling her nose, Juliana opened her eyes. Just a crack. Not enough to let too much light in. Just enough to see.
Juliana clamped her mouth shut.
Screaming, her mother had said once upon a time, never helped anybody.
Everything came back at once. Shalise. Prax. Demons. The prison.
Feelings of dizziness while talking with Prax. Passing out almost as soon as she had lain down.
She pinched her eyes shut and counted backwards from three. There probably wasn’t enough time for a full ten. As soon as she hit one, she snapped her eyes open and shoved the leg off of her chest.
At least, she thought it was a leg. It was difficult to tell.
Carefully keeping her eyes off of whatever it was, Juliana looked around the room.
And had to immediately duck back down as something went flying past her. As soon as it hit the ground, a void opened beneath and swallowed it whole.
Two women fought in the direction it flew from. One, a purply-blue and very naked woman with horns. She fought with nothing but her hands, though they looked reinforced with clawed gauntlets.
The other looked human, if humans had silver hair–they didn’t, last Juliana checked. Gray maybe, but nothing quite as metallic as this demon’s hair.
A demon entered through a hole in the wall, a bulky one. Looked like he had swallowed a few elephants.
Before Juliana could even consider more than his initial appearance, the silver-haired demon appeared in front of him, cut him in two with a sword, and appeared back in front of the naked demon.
Both halves of the elephant demon disappeared into a void, something Juliana was extremely pleased with. It hadn’t been pretty. The putrid stench it left behind was more than enough to cause Juliana to gag.
The naked demon hadn’t been idle during the other’s absence. She made it a mere two steps farther into the room before the silver-haired demon knocked her back one step.
Juliana had to consciously close her gaping mouth and force her eyebrows back down to their regular position.
That the indigo demon was slowly yet surely making its way towards the crystal–Juliana assumed that was her goal–had her somewhat worried. It couldn’t be anything good.
Juliana kept the crystal only in the corner of her eye. She had glanced over it for a brief moment and almost got stuck, drawn in like some sort of hypnosis.
Neither of the demons so much as glanced in her direction throughout any of their fight. That was a small miracle in and of itself.
One thing was certain. This was definitely not Prax’s cell.
“Shalise,” Juliana hissed.
She couldn’t have–she wouldn’t have just left her.
Juliana scanned over all of the body parts littering the floor. There were surprisingly few considering that the sword-master kept flashing over to the hole in the wall and dispatching any that approached. Most of the parts likely vanished into the portals that appeared wherever a demon died.
There must have been a whole horde outside, clamoring to get in. Probably fighting one another to fit through the small hole. That none bothered to widen it was somewhat surprising. The silver-haired woman was fast and powerful, true, but anyone could be overwhelmed.
A messy set of wavy brown hair stood out against the background noise of body parts.
But the thing attached to the hair…
Juliana twisted up to her hands and knees. She cracked her neck from side to side. There was an absolutely awful kink like she’d been sleeping half off the bed again.
Right as she laid her hand on the muscled-over shoulder, ‘Shalise’ stirred. She pushed herself up onto her on knees with a groan, bringing a hand up to her forehead as she moved.
“Wha-what?” Shalise flipped back on her butt and started clawing at her arms, digging in and drawing blood. “No! This–this is not right.”
“Shalise, you have to calm down!” Juliana gripped Shalise’s arms and tried to pull her off of herself. Whatever had happened to her gave her enough muscles to overpower Juliana’s efforts. “Shalise!”
Shalise blinked and stopped struggling. Her eyes focused on Juliana.
Recognition took a moment. She pulled back and blinked again. “You! You mo–”
Shalise blinked again. “Juliana?”
“It’s me, Shalise. Are you… What happened to you?”
“I–” She looked down at herself.
For a moment, Juliana thought she was about to start clawing at herself again.
She didn’t. She almost snarled at herself. “I don’t want to talk about it.” Shalise jumped to her feet, narrowing her eyes at the naked demon and the sword. “This place is dangerous.”
“Yeah.” Juliana followed Shalise to her feet.
Oh, too fast. Juliana wobbled and pressed a palm to her own forehead.
Strong, iron-like fingers gripped her arm, holding her steady.
“Thanks.” Juliana glanced down at the fingers. “You’re going to have to tell me what happened.”
Shalise released Juliana’s arms, walking towards the red barrier and away from the fighting demons.
Her walk was unsteady. Stumbling almost.
Juliana wasn’t unsympathetic. A few steps of her own had her legs feeling like jelly. At least she knew why she wasn’t walking properly. Her dizziness and the lost time between Prax’s cell and this crystal room… it was obvious that she had been unconscious.
But the way Shalise was walking, something about it unnerved Juliana. Whatever was causing her movements to be unsteady was slowly getting better.
Signs of a battle lay strewn about outside of the crystal room’s barrier. The remains were far messier than inside. Half-machine humanoids lay in pieces. White blood was splattered around each corpse, so they weren’t demons. Or not demons that she had ever heard of.
Most of the actually fighting moved on to gather around the hole in the crystal room’s wall.
Shalise strode on, uncaring and oblivious to the fighting.
Juliana narrowed her eyes.
She could keep Shalise in sight. She would keep Shalise in sight. Until she was sure, Shalise wouldn’t be at her back.
— — —
Nightmares were just dreams that had gone wrong. Instead of a normal day at school, it was a day without pants. Or instead of a normal haunted house, it was a haunted house with a serial killer actively in pursuit.
In fact, Shalise was quite certain that she had had this nightmare before. The feeling of being trapped in her own body while it walked around was oddly familiar. She could see through her eyes and hear through her ears, but she couldn’t move her eyes or turn her head.
Except this time, it wasn’t a nightmare. Or perhaps it was, and it was just a really long and terrible nightmare. One thing after another kept going wrong. If it wasn’t being stuck in a prison full of demons, it was Juliana getting sick.
Or her body getting stolen.
At least Juliana had woken up on her own. Shalise very much doubted that Prax would have continued to carry her had she stayed unconscious.
She should have listened to that doll.
Of course, she was planning on touching the crystal anyway. Even if the earthquake hadn’t pushed her into it. Prax hadn’t been lying about that–Juliana got better, after all. So something good must have come from touching it.
For Shalise, that seemed to be the catalyst needed for Prax to assert control. If he could have done it earlier, he probably would have done it earlier.
The only real consolation she had was that Prax seemed to be heading towards the exit with all haste. So much haste that Juliana was having difficulty keeping up.
Escape to where, she didn’t know.
His feelings were easy to get an idea of, though he hadn’t felt much aside from barely constrained rage since they had touched the crystal. But Shalise still could not hear his thoughts.
“I wish I could say the same. Your thoughts are broadcasted for all the world to hear.”
His voice came out barely above a whisper. Shalise still jumped. Or she would have; her body was not currently obeying her commands.
Give me back my body!
“I would if I could. You think I want to be stuck in this worthless mortal meat sack?”
Shalise sulked back in her mind, wishing she could do something to show her displeasure. If Prax didn’t want her body, he shouldn’t have taken it in the first place.
“I was not trying to take it. You cannot make a decent servant if I have to do everything in your body.”
I’m not your servant!
“I must have overestimated you,” Prax continued on without even acknowledging her. “Disappointing really, given how little I thought of you. Whatever you did to screw up the brand must have been grand indeed.”
Screw it up? The brand did this? That was worrying. If something went wrong there… well, magical medicine could do a lot. Healing her skin might fix things, or at least give her a second shot at drawing out the brand.
“Second shot? Fool. Your brand goes far deeper than a mere etching on your skin. You should have ensured it was correct the first time.”
I followed your directions! You were even watching me. If anyone screwed up, it was you. How long has it been since you last did something like this? A couple thousand years at least, right?
Prax didn’t respond. Not verbally; his anger was starting to bubble though.
Good. If he was going to lock her away inside her own body, he deserved it.
With a mental sigh, Shalise thought, what did you mean by deeper than my skin?
“A bond like that etches straight onto your soul.”
According to you, I didn’t even have my soul at the time.
So this is your fault.
“You should have kept better track of yourself, foolish mortal.”
Shalise tried to bite down on the edge of her lip. It didn’t work, of course. With another sigh, she asked the one question to which she had been dreading the answer.
D-do I have my soul back?
There was a brief pause. For a moment, she thought Prax was going to bite his lips. Or her lips. Whatever.
“Yes,” he finally said.
Had she been in control of her body, Shalise would have smiled.
That was a relief all on its own. It almost made up for Prax. In fact, if not for him, she would never have known her soul was missing. She and Juliana might have found a way out and only realized too late. Prax had mentioned ‘disparity’ after time passed without her soul and body being one.
And, even better, maybe her etchings were only skin deep. Her soul was left nice and untarnished.
Was that even a thing?
She didn’t know. She didn’t think about such things during everyday ordinary life.
My life has been anything but ordinary for a long time, Shalise mused.
Prax gave an amused snort out of her nose.
Shalise closed her eyes. It didn’t actually close them, but it cut off the sight to her mind. It was very disjointed. She was still getting the information from her surroundings. The endless walls of red-barrier cells and the occasional glance Prax made over her shoulder towards Juliana.
She knows, you know. There’s no way she hasn’t noticed. You don’t act like I do.
“If she attacks, I will take her head.”
D-don’t do that! She won’t hurt me.
“I would not be so confident regarding her inclinations towards me.”
Not while I’m here. P-probably. But you have to tell her that I’m here. Though if she thought Prax had killed her and was just wearing her skin or shapeshifted into her, things might be a little different. If she was even close to half her mother’s daughter, she could easily hurt Prax.
“You think I would lose to a pathetic mortal?”
Juliana’s strong. Way stronger than I am, especially if you were right about regaining our magic after touching the crystal. And, as you mentioned before, you’re currently in one of those pathetic mortal bodies.
Shalise felt her body flex. Prax made no large movements, he just tensed as many muscles as he could.
Part of Shalise’s uniform tore around the shoulder.
“As pathetic as this body is, it is far superior to her with my gifts. She is not the only one who regained something they lost from the crystal.”
Just talk to her. If you tell her, Shalise thought to Prax, she will probably try to get you out of my body.
“Then our goals are aligned.”
Prax stopped. He stopped and turned to face Juliana.
She jumped back, dropping into a fighting stance.
Oh yeah. She definitely knows. It was a strain to try to roll her eyes, but Shalise tried to anyway.
And it worked. Her vision twisted up for a brief moment before centering on Juliana. Unfortunately, it was not thanks to her efforts. Prax rolled her eyes on his own. She could feel his amusement as he looked over Juliana’s stance.
Prax brought his hands together, pressing down on each finger individually. Each pop gave Shalise a little mental jolt. She had never liked seeing people pop their knuckles. Popping her own felt disgusting.
But Prax continued, ignoring her silent outbursts.
“Are you wanting to fight me?”
“Maybe.” Juliana cracked her own neck, giving Shalise another shudder. “What did you do to my friend?”
“You follow me this far and you have to ask that question? What would you do if I said that I merely took on her appearance. The real one is back near the crystal.”
Don’t taunt her! Just tell her. You’re wasting time. Shalise wanted nothing more than to slap him. Or herself. Or whatever. This is going to get annoying really fast.
Prax rolled his eyes again as Juliana tried to both keep her eyes on him and glance back over her shoulder.
Not that she would see anything. They had come too far for them to even hear the noises of the battle echo down the corridor.
Juliana’s fingers tensed into fists. The metal coating her arms and chest started moving and flowing, though she took no note of it. Subconscious activation?
Prax was telling the truth about that as well, it seemed.
“I’d say you’re lying.”
Juliana’s eyes looked her up and down. “You did such a terrible job of looking like her, there wouldn’t be any purpose to changing your shape. And that mark on your chest,” Juliana pointed a finger out.
Prax made a show of gripping the rag that had once been a shirt. The demon tore it off without a second though. Shalise didn’t even get a second to protest the impropriety of it all.
Interestingly enough, even though she felt embarrassed, none of the associated actions came with it. No glance to the side or heat in her cheeks. Just the vague feeling of being embarrassed without actually being embarrassed. It was an awkward sensation.
Probably because Prax felt absolutely no embarrassment or shame at being half-naked, save for a partially damaged bra. None of the demons Shalise had seen in the prison actually wore clothes.
Maybe a security measure, but Arachne never wore anything either. Not unless the armored chitin counted. Now that she thought about it, she had never actually thought of Arachne as being naked.
Ylva, on the other hand, wore clothes. They were very bad at covering anything. It might have been less lewd had she worn nothing at all.
So it was probably a cultural demon thing, rather than any real disregard for Shalise’s modesty in particular.
Shalise mentally frowned. Thinking about that brought another distressing topic to mind.
There was a very-definitely-with-no-doubt-about-it male demon inside of her body. More than that, there was a male demon in control of her body.
And that male demon had just started to make her body chuckle.
Shalise did a quick mental rewind to see if Juliana had done something chuckle-worthy. Unless gaping counted, she hadn’t.
He was laughing at Shalise.
I-I swear, if you do anything to my b-body. I’ll–I’ll–I’ll sic Arachne on you. You’ll be sorry.
That only made him laugh harder.
Juliana glowered. “What’s so funny?”
“Inside joke,” Prax said. And then he laughed again.
Juliana frowned, shook her head, and glared at Prax. “Those markings bind you to her body, don’t they?”
“More of a gateway in and out, but close enough. That is pretty hefty knowledge there. More than I would have expected from a budding diabolist, even in light of our conversation.”
“Mostly a guess,” Juliana said with a shrug. “Read it in the book, but it didn’t actually show the designs. Wait. Our conversation?” She relaxed slightly, moving from her ready stance to standing with her head quirked to one side. Her metal armor flows slowed but did not stop completely. “Prax?”
“In the flesh,” Prax said, spreading his arms wide. “Or my servant’s flesh.”
“Servant?” Juliana pressed her palm to her forehead. “Shalise,” she mumbled, “what did you do?”
Nothing! I’m not his servant.
Juliana narrowed her eyes. “Is she still in there?”
Once again, Shalise’s eyesight rolled. “Just how would I do that?”
“Tell me something only Shalise would know.”
Something only I would know. Shalise mentally frowned. It couldn’t be something that only she would know or how would Juliana know it was true? Something instead that only they had experienced. Oh, remind her about me being eaten by the zombie and she helped save me.
She could feel Prax raise an eyebrow along with a low undercurrent of both disbelief and amusement. “And you would believe anything that I said came from Shalise and was not something I either pilfered from her mind or learned from her after you passed out.”
That’s not what I said! If Juliana thought she wasn’t Shalise anymore, she might attack. And Prax might hurt– Wait. You can pilfer things from my mind?
Shalise’s lips curled into an unnatural smile just as Juliana responded.
“It couldn’t hurt, but no. Not really.”
“Then,” Prax said slowly, “you will simply have to extend trust towards me. Or take your chances in combat.”
There was a tense moment while Juliana glared. “No,” she said eventually. “I’ll not fight you.”
Shalise let out an immaterial sigh of relief.
“Isn’t that sweet.” Prax shook his head side to side. “You mortals–”
“Don’t make me regret this, Prax.”
Prax tilted his head. “Regret what? Not attacking your mortal friend? Why ever would you regret–”
Juliana stumbled forwards as a low rumble shook the floor. She stumbled right into Prax’s arms. He caught and steadied her, holding her close to his chest while the ground shook. Juliana actually started to blush.
If Shalise had control of her eyebrows, they would have been up in her hairline. She had to shake herself out of her stupor to ask the important question.
Does Hell always have so many earthquakes?
“Is an earthquake still an earthquake when there is no Earth to quake?”
Before Shalise could come up with anything to say to that, Prax threw Juliana to the ground. He dove after her just in time to avoid a falling hunk of rock.
It slid into a wall, knocking out the barrier to a cell.
“I believe,” Prax said with a glance towards the now violently thrashing demon chained within, “it is time we cease existing within this place. We have overstayed our welcome and I have long since tired of its walls. Mother will be getting reinforcements. As valiant as the sword-doll may be, she can only lose her battle of attrition.”
Prax stood up. A few other cells had been damaged, though no demons were pouring forth. “I wonder where Keeper has gone.” He took one step only to frown and look down. “Servant,” he said, “your body is failing to heal.”
One pant leg had a tear at the knee. A small amount of blood soaked into the cloth around the hole. The injury wasn’t worse than a skinned knee.
Idly, Shalise noted that while she could feel things that Prax touched, she couldn’t feel whatever pain had to be coming from her knee. Concentrating harder, she found that wasn’t entirely true. She could feel it. The stinging was dull and plain in comparison to what skinned knees normally felt like.
As you keep mentioning, I am a mortal. We don’t heal fast.
“You did earlier, if you recall the incubus clawing out your arms. My presence alone should be healing this pathetic excuse for an injury.”
Well, there’s another thing you’ve screwed up, Shalise huffed.
“Worthless squishy mortal meat sack,” he muttered as he glanced down to a wide-eyed Juliana. “Get to your feet.”
“You saved me,” Juliana said with a slowly growing smile. “You pushed me out of the way to save me. I knew you had a soft spot for me.”
“I said as much earlier. Why would I discard tools before their value has expired?” Before Juliana or Shalise could say anything, Prax turned and started walking. “Remain where you are or follow, I care little.”
“You just said that I have value to you,” Juliana called from behind. With a few quick footsteps, she was right alongside Prax. “Clearly you care a little.”
Prax snorted without even a glance in Juliana’s direction. From the corner of her eye, Shalise noted that Juliana was smiling.
Shalise, however, frowned. There had been concern there for a moment. But she didn’t get the feeling that Prax was lying. He truly felt no different about Juliana than Shalise might about a good pen. It was nice to keep around, but it wasn’t a big deal if it got lost. There would always be plenty more pens.
Prax, Shalise said in as neutral a tone as she could get while being nothing more than a mental voice that apparently could be mind read at least a little. Why did Juliana relax when she found out you were the one possessing me?
His answer consisted of a deafening silence and the curling of her own lips.
Shalise’s metaphysical stomach twisted into a knot.
“We have an arduous task ahead of us. If previous patterns hold true, demons will be coming towards us. Many may pass us by, many may not. Be prepared.”