“Stop,” ‘Shalise’ said. She dug a hand into Juliana’s shoulder and pressed her up against the wall.
Six demons of varying size and shape ran past without a second glance in their direction. All hurried on down the corridor towards the crystal room. Just like the last three groups had.
Prax held her for another few seconds, completely ignoring the metal flowing around his fingers.
Juliana couldn’t be entirely certain when that had happened. She only noticed that she had activated her ferrokinesis after Prax had started moving again. Presumably, something happened while she was unconscious. Some large magic suppressing device took damage from one of the earthquakes or something similar.
She wasn’t about to question her good fortune.
Instead, Juliana had set it to good use. The metal whirred and scrubbed away at her body. It wasn’t as good as a bath given that she still carried all the armor on her, but it was as close as she would be getting for the foreseeable future.
It was better than poor Shalise had, though Prax didn’t seem to care one bit. He strutted her body around without a care in the world.
Since he tore off the shirt, Juliana had found her eyes wandering on occasion. Whatever else happened, Shalise got some well sculpted abs out of the deal. Zagan’s were nicer, and Prax’s original body was bulked out almost to the point of absurdity. But if Shalise got to keep them after Prax got out of her body…
Well, envy should be the least of her worries at the moment.
Prax removed his hand from Juliana’s shoulder. Without a word, he started walking.
Juliana stood, watching her friend’s body move on. It was such a drastic change from her usual demeanor, it was hard to even recognize her. When they first got to the prison, she had been hunched over and scared of her own shadow.
The thing walking off now had confidence and precision in each step. Prax had become uncannily well versed in moving around in Shalise’s body. The muscles helped divorce the two in Juliana’s mind, but she was close enough to be disturbing.
Shaking her head, Juliana jogged forward to catch up. She stayed just a step behind and a step away from Prax. While it didn’t seem like he was about to attack, it never hurt to be careful.
Walking in silence was, unfortunately, awkward. Even more awkward than trying and failing to ignore him in his cell.
“So,” Juliana started, fishing for something to talk about.
Prax glanced over his shoulder. He turned back forward while rolling his eyes. “Must we engage in the inane mortal pastime of idle prattle?”
“You were awfully interested in talking all night in your cell. In fact, I was trying to ignore you. You wouldn’t shut up unless I was responding.”
“Ah, but I was attempting to get myself bound to you or my newest servant. Turns out that was a waste of time, was it not?” He threw a raised eyebrow over his shoulder. “All I needed to do was wait for dear little Shalise to wake.”
“And then you started calling her your servant,” Juliana said with ice in her tone.
It should have been her. She shouldn’t have let Shalise go through with what she was going through. Being trapped in her own body? Juliana shuddered at the thought.
“She has served me well so far, even if things turned out rather, ahh, unexpectedly. I see no reason to end our relationship.”
“What’s up with that, anyway?”
He turned over his shoulder with a look of puzzlement. “Try to be more specific with your queries. I humor you with our dialog, but we will be walking in silence if you continue to be incomprehensible.”
“The whole servant thing,” Juliana said with a sigh. “Ylva seemed very excited to get Nel as her servant, according to Nel herself. Then she gave me and another person these rings. I think she might have used the word ‘subjects’ once or twice when referring to us. And then there’s Arachne and her coddling of Eva, though I’m not sure that’s the same. You’ve–”
Prax stopped and asked, “ring?”
Juliana held up her finger. Just the one finger.
He gave no indication of caring in the slightest. “Interesting. I thought I felt something from you, but convinced myself I was hallucinating. It promises Death–with a capital ‘d’–to any demons who would dare attack you–”
“It didn’t stop the imps.”
“Ah, but the poor unfortunate captives here may be desperate enough to ignore such things. We are in one of the worst corners of Hell. And yes, that ring marks you as someone’s property.”
Prax glanced down at Shalise’s fingers, turning his hands over. With a shrug, he turned and started walking.
Juliana stood frozen as the cogs ticked on inside her head. She had to take a few quick steps to fall in line again. “Wait. Property?”
“You did not know?”
“She said it was a gift. A reward for a task.”
“Something so simple a child,” he glanced over his shoulder and gave a small snort, “would have no trouble completing?”
Juliana cracked her neck to one side. “Maybe.”
“Nothing to worry about. If she tricked you into being claimed and did not tell you after the fact, leaving you to your own devices, she probably just likes you.”
She mulled that over for a moment before nodding. “Which brings me back to my original question. Why all the servant stuff?”
“How much do you know about a demon’s domain?”
When Juliana did not respond, Prax continued.
“They cater to our desires, both conscious and subconscious. Anything we want just happens.”
He turned and sneered–a rather ugly expression on Shalise’s face. “For a time, perhaps. Imagine getting everything you ever wanted. For eternity. Any effort you put in, instantly invalidated. Constructing something specifically to be a challenge still feels fake. Designing a scenario where you purposely lose isn’t even a real loss. It feels fake and every demon knows it.
“This prison is massive,” he said, waving his arms around. “We’ve been walking for hours and we’re only just leaving the high security section. There was more back behind the room with the crystal that you never even saw. And all the cells are full.
“Millions of demons here still pale in comparison to the sheer amount of demons that lay down one day within their domains and never got up, giving in to the despair of our existence. Another set of demons chose to stave off eternal boredom by visiting other demons’ domains–always a risky prospect; the domain caters to the owner’s whims. If that owner so chose, they could easily turn their domain worse than this prison. Many in that second set get enslaved.
“The demon who gave you that ring? The other one you mentioned? They’re the lucky ones. Chosen in a random lottery to visit a world full of individuals, rather than constructs. Those that get summoned tend to get summoned multiple times. They will leave behind a book or notes, something to entice others into summoning them. The more known demons there are, the less likely it is for a random demon to be summoned.”
Prax’s speech was getting more and more heated as he continued. He was almost spitting as he spoke about the summoned demons.
Based on his talking, Juliana doubted he had ever been summoned.
“Why go for an unknown quantity when tried and proven demons are readily available,” Juliana almost whispered to herself.
“But mortal servants?”
“Prestige. As I said, few demons actually get summoned. Fewer acquire mortals. You mortals are short-lived, so those that constantly have servants…”
“Get summoned a whole lot more.”
“You retain your individuality as well. That is a major factor for some. Domain constructs cater to our whims as much as any other aspect of domains. You do not. It brings a little slice of your world down here.”
“So the stories about demons dragging people to hell?”
“The demon wanted a pet, slave, servant, attendant, follower,” he glanced over and Shalise’s eyes actually glowed red for a moment, “lover. Something that could think for itself.”
Juliana frowned as Prax went silent. How much of that, she wondered, does Eva even know? She glanced down at the ring on her finger, rubbing it idly. Was she going to get kidnapped by Ylva one day? Dragged down to hell, never to be seen again?
Did Eva know what accepting the ring entailed?
And Eva was trying to turn herself into a demon. It didn’t sound like a very pleasant experience. Then again, Eva was already on Earth. It wouldn’t be difficult for her to seed the world with plenty of summoning manuscripts for herself.
“And you plan to keep Shalise here, forever?”
“It is in the cards.”
“Let her go.”
Prax stopped walking. He turned.
The muscles beneath Shalise’s skin rippled and grew. Skin split at various points on her body, her biceps, stomach, sides. Her neck. Juliana could see the muscles through the tears–there was surprisingly little blood. They coiled and twisted around themselves.
Like the muscles on a tiger getting ready to pounce.
Shalise’s face took on a cruel grin as her teeth sharpened and her eyes flared red.
“And you plan to stop me?”
Juliana smiled, hoping he wasn’t hurting her friend too much, and shook her head. “Nope. I plan to summon you.”
Whatever he expected her to say, that wasn’t it. Shalise’s eyes lost their cinders and the smile faltered.
“Let Shalise go. Tell me how to summon you. You and I can write all kinds of books with your name in them. Maybe even find you a few willing servants.” There had to be some freaks out there ready to spend the rest of their lives with Prax.
Prax cracked his neck to one side then the other. His right hand curled into a fist, knuckles popping as it tightened.
Juliana prepared to jump back, out of reach.
He twisted and threw his fist directly over his own shoulder.
It impacted mid-air with a sickening crunch. Black liquid splattered over Juliana’s face. Most of Prax didn’t make it out unsoiled.
On the ground, a gaunt demon shimmered into being on the floor.
The void opened and swallowed him whole a moment later.
“I shall consider it,” Prax said. “For now, there are more around.”
Juliana formed a helmet and a dagger in each hand out of her flowing metal. “More?”
“At least three,” Prax said, slowly turning his head around the hallway. “Morail tend to despise others of their race, but I suppose that doesn’t matter here. They found and broke out others of their own kind.”
Nodding, Juliana looked around herself with her daggers ready to move the moment anything happened.
They were past the red barriers. Juliana never thought she would miss being able to see into the cells, but at least the barriers provided a good amount of light. The small white lights dotting the walkways left much to be desired.
Juliana couldn’t see anything. Being invisible wouldn’t do much good if she could see them, but she thought there might be some tell. Some shimmering against the background of the hallway or some glimmer in the faint light.
Even holding her breath, Juliana could hear nothing but the beating of her own heart.
Prax swung an arm through empty air.
His arm spun around his back and snapped with a crack.
Jumping forward, Juliana thrust out with her knife where she thought the demon would be. She took care to avoid accidentally skewering Prax.
Something clamped down on Juliana’s arm and started to twist.
Juliana hardened all the metal in her arm. The knife in her hand was reabsorbed into her armor.
In an instant, Juliana’s entire arm turned into a sea urchin.
Black blood dripped down several of the needles.
Swinging her other arm, her dagger cut through thin air.
Juliana brought her dagger down on top of Prax’s captor. She flinched away from another splatter of black blood.
“See,” Prax said, patting her cheek with blood-slick fingers, “you can be worth something after all.”
“Yeah, you’re welc–wait, you thought I was worthless?”
Prax swung a fist over Shalise’s shoulder. Something cracked, but no void opened on the floor.
“There was only one unconscious body being lugged around for the last day or so,” he said. Prax swept a hand down Shalise’s chest. His eyes went wide and he sported a crooked grin. “And it wasn’t this one.”
Juliana opened her mouth to respond, but something crashed into her helmet. She stumbled around, trying to dampen the reverberations. Having a gong go off inside your head hurt.
Right, she thought, no discussions while fighting.
Lashing out with her spiny arm, Juliana tried to catch her attacker before they moved away.
Her arm sailed through the air and nothing else.
“Stop being such cowards and fight!”
“Oh, they cannot help that,” Prax drawled. “When your primary ability is to cower in the shadows,” Prax kicked a leg out.
Something cracked, cracked again as it hit a wall, and fell into a dark violet void portal.
“You learn to avoid confrontations.”
Juliana was only half listening to Prax; the knock on her head had been unpleasant enough the first time around. She slowly rotated in place, keeping her arms ready to strike.
Not hesitating for a moment, Juliana thrust her elbow straight back. The spines on her arm withdrew and formed into a single, barbed spike at the tip of her elbow.
Juliana jerked her arm upwards, ignoring the pain stricken cry, and dug in deeper. Her metal spike spread out into another urchin-like implement of misery.
Fingers ran over her armor as the demon lashed out. He started trying to twist and squeeze.
Juliana was fairly certain that there were teeth involved as well. She responded with tiny hooks covering the surface of her armor.
He tried to pull back and ended up dragging Juliana down onto the ground.
With her on top.
Knives erupted from Juliana’s back.
There was a small gasp followed by a release of air not unlike a punctured tire. A gurgling tire.
A strong scent of nothing in particular wafted over her. It didn’t smell good, nor did it smell bad. However, it did block out all the smells she had been smelling in the ambient air.
Juliana realized with a sudden clarity that she stunk. So did everything else in this place. It had been so permeated in everything that she didn’t notice until it was gone.
Then the purple tendrils of the void portals reached up around her sides.
Juliana started to thrash and struggle to get off of the demon. She did not want to get dragged down to whatever hell demons went to when they died.
She couldn’t retract the barbs in time. The demon’s body was already falling and Juliana along with it.
Juliana hit the ground with a clatter.
The demon was gone.
And she didn’t go with it.
That’s nice to know, Juliana thought as she got to her feet. “There’s still one left?”
“Fleeing,” Prax said with a gesture down the hall.
Juliana turned just in time to watch a body appear a short distance away.
The body slumped to its knees before falling on its chest. His head rolled across the floor.
A void portal opened beneath both parts and swallowed them whole.
“Did you do that?” Juliana whispered.
Prax shook his head. He gripped his fingers so tightly that his arms shook.
“Well, well, whatever do we have here?”
The indigo skinned demon walked–sauntered–out of the shadows. It was a bit disturbing how she could move like that despite the massive gash in her thigh and across half her stomach. Black blood oozed from the wound a whole lot less than it spurted forth.
“Pathetic imbeciles, cannot even dispatch one little human. But, it served as a worthy test, I suppose.”
Juliana glanced towards Prax with an eyebrow raised. “Test?” she half whispered.
Prax didn’t so much as flick his eyes in her direction. “You are going to have to try harder than that if you want to kill me, Maoa.”
The demon reared back as if Prax had slapped her. She regained her composure with a fury-filled glare. “You dare speak my name in this despicable tongue?”
“If you take issue, try to stop me. Though that might waste time. I wonder, Maoa, how hot on your heels is the sword-wielding doll?”
She flinched back again at the mention of her name. “You,” she pointed a narrow finger at Juliana, “will have the pleasure of being my host.”
“Maoa,” Prax cut in with a voice as cold as ice, “surely you are not so far gone that you have failed to notice.”
Prax stepped forwards and gripped Juliana’s wrist. He twisted it around and held it up around eye level.
For a moment, Juliana was about to attack him. She realized what he was doing the second before small spikes jutted out of her hand.
The metal making up her gauntlet flowed over and down her arm to pool around her wrist, revealing a black ring with a skull etching prominently displayed.
“It is not a figment of your imagination, Maoa. That chill you feel is Death.”
Prax let go of her wrist and Juliana let it fall to her side. Maoa kept her wide eyes glued to the ring as it swung down.
For a minute, everyone stared at each other in silence. Prax was the one to break it.
“Come, mortal, the exit is not far.” With one last look at the demon, he turned his back on her and started walking.
Juliana shrugged and followed after him.
“Wait. The exit will have a barrier. The walls will be too thick to breach.”
“We will walk through,” Prax said without turning.
“There will be dolls.”
“They did not attack earlier. The sword-wielder had her blade at this one’s throat,” he said with a gesture towards himself, “and did not remove her head. You will be the only one who finds difficulty bypassing the dolls.”
The succubus narrowed her eyes to thin slits.
“You are strong, but not infallible. If you are unable to cross the barrier, you will eventually be caught. The way I see it, Maoa, you have two choices. Attempt to break out and risk the dolls dragging you back to your cell. Quite a high risk, if I may say so. Wherever Keeper has gone off to, he won’t be gone forever. Should he return, your reimprisonment is assured.”
Maoa scowled, baring her sharp teeth. “And the other choice?” she ground out.
“Simple.” Prax stopped moving. His right hand clenched into a fist, knuckles cracking as he moved. “I tear out your heart. Simple, clean, easy. You will regenerate fast enough and escape the Void in record time. Besides,” Prax shrugged, “what is a little time in the Void compared to freedom?”
Juliana could see the boiling anger all but steam out of Maoa’s nostrils. The pungent scent of sulfur filled the air. Juliana tried not to show any discomfort.
Ring or no ring, she wasn’t going to risk drawing the succubus’ ire.
“You dare to tell me to give up?” she snarled.
“Most certainly not, Maoa. You fought the good fight. You reclaimed your core. Allow me to send you back to your domain, safe, sound, and ready to fight again. You are going to continue the crusade, are you not?”
“I am,” she said. The smoke curling out of her nose died down to a low simmer. For a long moment, she went entirely silent. Barely moving at all.
While Prax mimicked her stillness, Juliana was forced to shift her weight side to side several times before anyone spoke.
“Your words are not without merit. Very well, make haste in your deed.”
Prax nodded, twisting Shalise’s face into a cruel grin that didn’t suit the kind-hearted girl in the slightest. “Of course.” He moved forwards, reaching an arm out just beneath her left breast.
The succubus gripped his hand a mere inch from her skin. “Tell me,” she said, jutting her chin out, “which of my loyal followers resides within that meat-sack? I wish to reward you upon my return for your clever thinking.”
“Even inside this pathetic mortal body, I’m hurt that you do not recognize me. After all…” Prax’s unrestrained arm shot out in the blink of an eye, burrowing wrist deep in her chest. “I am your son.”
Maoa’s eyes went wide, but the portal to the Void had already opened beneath her.
As she sank into the ground, Prax clasped his hands around her head and pulled. He introduced his knee to her forehead with a resounding crack. With a disgusting snort, he hocked back and spat, catching the succubus’ caved in face just before she disappeared into the portal.
“That,” Prax said, laughing, “will keep her down for a month or two.”
“You killed your own mother?” Juliana half-shrieked, eyes about as wide as Maoa’s were in her final moments.
“Bah,” Prax said, waving his arm at the spot the portal had occupied. “I would do it again and again and enjoy it every time. She’s half the reason I am here in the first place. ‘Families’ here in Hell have a far different meaning than what I understand mortals consider families. More of slaves than anything else.
“Come,” he said, “unless you wish to linger as food for the less savory of my kind.”
Prax did not look back at the stunned Juliana as he walked off.
Not wanting to be left behind, Juliana slapped her cheeks before running after him.
For what had to have been a half a day, they marched through the prison in utter silence. No one spoke save for Prax mumbling to himself under his breath every now and again.
They walked until they finally found a wall stretching high into the air. A flat wall with no cells set within. A barrier-covered door lay directly in front of them along with three dolls–at least, Juliana assumed they were dolls. They looked like the stereotypical iron maidens, though they moved and shifted like people.
Juliana opened her mouth to speak to Prax, but found her mouth and throat parched from the lack of use. She had to take a moment to lick her lips. A bottle of water would be heaven at the moment.
“So that’s it then, we’re out?”
Prax kept silent as he nodded his head. “We walk out into the waters beyond the dolls.” He looked back, behind Juliana. Shaking his head, he said, “I wish I could burn this place to the ground.” After a second shake of his head, he turned to Juliana. A genuine grin spread across his face.
“Well then mortal, shall we retire to my domain?”