The surface of the liquid was so close. Juliana could see the light glinting off the surface.
She stretched high, pulling herself up through the murky liquid with a long sweep of her arm. Her metal was gone, left back at the prison. All that she kept was around her arms. The two bracers barely made up enough to form a dagger or two.
And Juliana was very seriously considering ditching that much.
Her movements were slow and sluggish. Like she was swimming in honey. The water she had entered at the prison hadn’t felt like this. It had been normal water.
Well, normal as far as Juliana could tell.
The fall from way up in the air had been bad enough. She hadn’t even been able to reorient herself to face what she was falling towards. It was the liquid. Had she known, she would have taken a deep breath instead of screaming her lungs out.
Screaming never helped anyone. Her mother always gave the best advice ever and she had gone and ignored it.
Now she was struggling through the liquid with no air and the bracers were at least partly to blame for keeping her down.
The surface was within her grasp yet her fingers hadn’t broken through.
Her lungs burned. She had to force herself to keep her mouth shut and not breathe in any of the sticky liquid.
There were spots forming in her eyes.
That can’t be a good sign.
Juliana thrashed in the muck until she felt the tips of her fingers touch air.
She was so close.
Her hand cupped and crashed into the honey, attempting to pull herself up.
The black spots in her vision grew larger and larger until her face broke the surface.
Juliana wasted no time in sucking in as much air as her lungs could hold. Some of the honey oozing down her face flew into her mouth with the intake.
And Juliana couldn’t bring herself to care.
She went still. The honey was thick enough that she didn’t need to tread it; it just held her up all on its own. Juliana didn’t move a muscle. The honey slowly seeped underneath her, pushing the rest of her body and legs up to the surface.
Juliana waited until her rapid breaths slowed down to a manageable level before even turning her head.
As the spots in her eyes disappeared, she realized that her eyes hadn’t been open at all; whatever she had seen of the liquid had been nothing more than oxygen-deprivation induced hallucination. They were almost glued shut by the honey.
Once she managed to pry them open, a thin film of the gunk spread over her eyes. It didn’t cause any pain, but she flinched back anyway. She had to blink several times before it cleared away enough to properly see.
There wasn’t much to look at.
The sky was pitch black save for a pale white orb. A moon, perhaps? The crater in the center and the lines spreading out from the crater gave it the uncanny appearance of an eye.
Raising her fingers in the air, Juliana allowed some of the liquid to fall between her fingers.
It was black, as the water in the prison had been. But it didn’t move like water. It slipped between her fingers and around the sides of her hand, meeting back up at the back of her hand. From there, it stretched long and thin while some of the greater mass of liquid rose up to touch the drip.
Only when it connected did the stuff clinging to the back of her hand finally fall into the pool.
There was a thin film left coating her hand and arm.
Juliana shuddered. It couldn’t be a good idea to stay sitting in it. Though, she noted as he tongue found some of the stuff inside her mouth, it doesn’t taste bad.
Sweet. Maybe with a slight acidic tang to it. Honey hadn’t been a bad descriptor; it was rather like licking honey off of a nine-volt battery.
Not that she had ever tried that.
Her stomach growled, its hunger reawakened at the taste of something edible. Juliana spat it out. She could go on a while yet.
“If this is some kind of a sick joke Prax,” Juliana said. “I swear, if you dropped me in the hive of a giant bee-demon…” She trailed off as she glanced around her. “Prax? Shalise?”
No one was around. Not even other thrashings in the liquid. Nothing but a small wooden boat with a single oar resting on top.
Juliana started paddling her way over. Despite being unable to sink, it wasn’t easy. The honey continuously sucked her back to where she was, only giving her a few inches with every paddle.
Moving those ten feet was the hardest workout she had ever had. Given who her mother was, that was quite the feat. By the time she made it up and over the edge of the boat, her arms were burning and she was panting as hard as she had been immediately after surfacing.
She laid back against the bottom of the boat and sat, once again recovering. Most of the honey dripped off while she waited. Juliana still felt sticky with a thin film over her body and the less said about her hair, the better.
Juliana couldn’t think of a single thing better than a hot shower at the moment. A hot meal came close.
Finally having had enough, Juliana sat properly within the boat and grasped the oar. With a final look around for any sign of Prax or Shalise–neither of whom were anywhere in sight–she plunged the oar down into the black honey and pushed.
The initial force almost threw her out of her seat.
She had expected to use a lot of effort just to move the boat a few feet.
She had not expected the boat to shoot off like a rocket powered speedboat.
One side of the boat dipped almost into the liquid while the other side rose up into the air as the boat banked around in a tight circle. The raised side and lowered side reversed as it turned again. None of it was her doing. The boat was moving all on its own.
The boat came to a sudden stop, almost throwing Juliana over the bow. If she hadn’t been gripping the seat with all her might, she would have gone over.
As it turns out, she needn’t have bothered. The boat was sitting on the precipice of a sort of circular hole in the liquid. A waterfall–though none of the liquid actually appeared to be flowing. Before Juliana could try paddling backwards or jump from the boat, it tipped forwards.
Juliana’s iron-like grip on her seat was augmented by actual iron from her bracers as the boat sped vertically through the tunnel of honey.
The boat stopped once again before tipping over onto another flat plain.
By all means, she should have been upside-down. Or falling.
She wasn’t. She simply sat in the boat as it lazily drifted into a worn wooden dock. The moon was even still above her.
With rubber legs, Juliana made her way out of the boat. She did not want to stay on that wild ride any longer.
The moment she was safely onto the dock, the boat reversed, spun around, and dove out of sight down the hole in the liquid.
Turning away from the hole, Juliana looked over the rest of the little island attached to the dock. It didn’t look very big. She could probably run a lap around the perimeter in less than ten minutes.
An old single-room theater building sat at the center of the island. It came complete with a ‘NOW PLAYING’ sign, though the ‘Y’ was hanging upside down beneath the rest. Whatever was playing was missing far too many letters to read the title.
The rest of the building was in much the same state of disrepair. Wood panels had warped and broken. Most lightbulbs around the marquee had shattered and none of the whole ones were lit. Cobwebs stretched from corner to corner over the entrance.
Juliana looked around. She considered walking around the building to see if the island continued straight back. Prax had said his domain was a great castle. This was neither great nor a castle. After a moment of thought, she decided against wandering around. May as well start at the start and avoid backtracking later on.
To the haunted theater, she thought with a sigh.
On her way up the splintered wooden steps, Juliana kept a sharp eye out for any metal. She felt naked with only her bracers. Part of that could be that she actually was partially naked; her clothes had been damaged during her unconsciousness back at the prison.
There were nails holding down the steps and in the walls. They could work for extra metal, but individually, they weren’t worth much. Pulling them out would not only take a lot of time, but… well, the building looked unstable enough without her pulling it apart.
She did take the iron handles off the entryway doors, though that barely added enough to cover up her upper arms.
Juliana pushed open the doors.
And promptly froze in an open-mouthed gape.
Red velvet chairs with golden trim filled the theater hall. White marble pillars stretched up the walls to the ceiling. Craning her neck, Juliana stared in awe at the painting on the ceiling.
The chandelier–roughly the size of a car–covered half of it. White winged, halo capped angels wielded golden spears against red skinned, horned and winged demons who used nothing more than their bare hands for weapons. The chandelier obscured the far demon side, but at the back of the angels was a massive winged being, cloaked in golden armor and wielding a sword.
She hovered, observing the battlefield through a thin ‘Y’ slit in her helmet. Both hands were around her chest, holding her sword point down. The sword was big enough to reach below her feet.
The mural was so lifelike. They looked like they were moving.
They were moving. Juliana followed one of the angels’ arms as it reached forward, sending its golden spear through the face of one of the demons. The spear came out, looking as pristine as it had before entering the poor demon.
Juliana gave a light whistle. “Michelangelo has nothing on this.”
When she finally tore her eyes away from the battle overhead to continue her inspection of the theater, Juliana barely had time to duck.
Falling back on the instincts her mother had drilled into her, the golden spear sailed harmlessly over her head.
She moved her hand to grip the spear. The moment her fingers brushed over it, the gold flowed out of the hands of the angel and over her arm.
It was not as heavy as she expected. Gold was supposed to be some of the heaviest stuff out there.
Looking down, Juliana gasped. Her skin was red. Her muscles had bulged out to be as thick as Prax’s had been. Her meaty fingers ended with sharp and black nails.
With her mouth open in a gasp, Juliana could feel her tongue. It reached out of her mouth almost on reflex. She could see it easily and there was still plenty left. She could have probably licked her own forehead if she had the desire.
She sucked it back into her mouth, feeling it as it brushed over a set of razor-sharp teeth.
Wide eyed, Juliana stared back at the angel.
And she gasped again.
The angel got over its shock of losing its weapon far quicker than Juliana got over being a demon. His white eyes brightened as he reached out a glowing hand.
Juliana was spared the touch of the light by another demon flying in from behind her and tearing the angel’s head clean off. White blood splattered over her face.
She almost lost her lunch then and there–not that she had anything to lose, having not had any food in a while.
Turning to block the sight of the corpse, Juliana gasped again.
She was at the head of the army of demons. At the very back, she could see a man-shaped amalgamation of rock and fire. His eyes blazed hatred out at his enemy.
For a single moment, his eyes met her own.
A burning vengeance filled her very soul.
Gold formed into a two-handed sword.
Juliana charged her enemy.
— — —
Where are you?
“Servant,” Shalise’s own voice came out of her own mouth, twisted by Prax, “your thoughts are too loud and they serve no purpose. Your mortal friend is not here nor could she hear you were she here.”
Where is she?
Shalise’s shoulders shrugged on their own.
What are you going to do about it?
Rather than answer, Prax directed her body up the carved stone steps leading to the massive castle. He had barely glanced over it when they arrived, but Shalise had a feeling–based on his emotions that she could pick up on–that he was attempting to act far more subdued about being in his own domain than he actually felt.
Prax approached the wooden gate. It was tall enough to fit a couple of elephants all stacked on top of one another.
And he promptly marched right into it, face first.
Prax stumbled backwards, rubbing his nose.
That’s my body. I’d appreciate it if it wasn’t battered and bruised when you get out of it.
He didn’t respond, instead using the next several minutes to look up and down the door.
When he finally decided to start pushing against the door, it took a good ten minutes to open it wide enough for Prax to slip through.
“Might be a little rusty,” he said.
“Me. Inside my domain, I should have been able to open it with barely a thought.”
Are you sure that we’re in your domain?
“Of course I am,” he grumbled as he started moving through the courtyard.
It wasn’t that impressive of a courtyard. Most of the square area was paved over with flagstone. The corners held small grassy areas, each with a tree. In the center was a large reflecting pool that, from the angle she managed to see as Prax walked, held the entirety of the castle’s tallest spire.
For a moment, she almost asked him to stop and look on for a few moments. She bit her tongue–metaphorically. There would be plenty of time for sightseeing after Juliana arrived.
Prax weaved through the corridors. He had to physically push open several doors on his way, though none were as large and heavy as the main gate.
The hallways weren’t much to look at. Save for the red rug in the center, everything else was gray granite stone. After a few turns, Shalise was completely lost.
Every hall looked exactly the same as the one that had come before it. There were no landmarks, no swords and shields hanging from the walls, no suits of armor or statues, no tapestries or flags. There weren’t even any fiery torches lining the halls.
Thinking about it, there wasn’t any lighting at all. Prax didn’t look down enough, but she was fairly certain that her body wasn’t casting any shadows. There was just some uniform ambient light that gave the place no tasteful atmosphere at all.
Disappointing, really. Prax desperately needed to hire an interior decorator.
Prax rounded another corner.
That hallway was everything Shalise had imagined.
Red tapestries with black horns and wings–reminiscent of Prax’s regular body–lined the walls. Flames danced atop torches placed between the tapestries, giving the room a very warm color that moved as the fire moved.
There were no suits of armor, but plenty of statues. All of them depicted Prax in his normal body fighting elves. Utterly dominating them, really. Most had been torn apart violently.
One statue had him holding the head of a fallen enemy over his wide open mouth, letting the blood drip in.
Shalise was beyond happy that the statues were made out of bronze and not something extremely realistic.
It took her a moment to realize that Prax had stopped moving and was staring at the room as much as she was. Showing off for her.
A-a bit narcissistic, don’t you think?
“This is not supposed to be here.”
Where is it supposed to be?
“Nowhere.” He walked up and shoved one of the statues off its pedestal.
Hey! Shalise thought as it fell to the ground with a loud thud. It didn’t break. The floor wasn’t even damaged. With a mental sigh, Shalise thought, they’re better than empty halls. Though they are a little tasteless, I suppose.
Prax blinked, forcing Shalise’s vision dark for an instant. When her vision returned, the statue was back on its pedestal.
And it had changed. All of them had.
Shalise felt her embarrassment shoot through the roof as Prax turned to survey the room.
Gone were the scenes of battle. Half of the statues consisted of a very nude Prax performing muscle-man flexes in different poses.
If that wasn’t embarrassing enough, the other half of the statues were Shalise in similar poses. It wasn’t even her Prax-muscled body. It was her regular body.
“What are you doing, mortal?” Prax said. He had her teeth clenched together hard enough that she was worried they might crack.
Nothing! This is your stupid domain. I don’t want any of this!
As soon as the words came out of her mind, everything vanished. The castle’s hallway returned to the single red carpet and plain gray walls.
Shalise had never been happier.
Prax, Shalise could feel, was the incarnate of rage.
“What,” he said, “did you do?”
— — —
Her bloody sword cleaved through another angel. She pressed her foot down on the golden spear laying in its grip and added its metal to her twisted armor.
Nothing had been able to pierce her armor for some time.
The demons rallied behind her unstoppable might.
The enemy was in disarray.
All except for the judicator. She stared, unmoving save for the slowly flapping wings.
Juliana snarled. Her earth magic propelled her across the terrain. Her sword swept left and right, cutting down the retreating angels as if they were nothing more than flies.
The judicator finally made her move. With glacial power, she hefted her sword to an upright position.
And she moved.
Juliana brought her sword down to meet the upward swing of the judicator.
A demon dove at the judicator while their blades were locked. It simply exploded. Black blood splattered over Juliana.
Not a drop touched the judicator.
Juliana licked her lips, tasting some of the blood that made it through the holes in her helmet.
With renewed vengeance for her fallen comrade, Juliana kicked off the ground. Earthen spikes pinned down her opponent as Juliana’s blade came down on her head.
The ground shook, breaking down her spikes and sending dust into the air.
That didn’t stop her attack. The judicator couldn’t move in time.
Juliana’s eyes widened as her sword plunged through empty air and buried itself within the ground.
She tried to jump back.
A white-hot pain seared through her chest before she could move.
Looking down, Juliana saw the judicator’s massive blade sticking out of her armor. She hadn’t even felt it go in. It passed through like butter.
She looked back up to the glowing white eyes in the darkness behind the ‘Y’ shaped visor.
They looked… sad.
What was I doing?
Juliana’s sickness returned in full force as whatever possessed her died out. She promptly vomited black blood.
The judicator removed her sword. Again, not a speck of filth touched any part of the angel. She slowly turned from Juliana–who was standing solely through virtue of her ferrokinesis failing and hardening her golden armor around her.
She watched the wings sweep the angel away as her vision darkened.
The pain in her chest vanished as a light clapping noise echoed inside her head.
Juliana blinked. The theater was back. She was on the stage, looking out over the seats.
“Bravo, bravo. Good show, milady.”
Before Juliana could turn her eyes towards the front seat, she collapsed. First to her knees, then her face met the floor.
She gave a light groan as she manipulated as much gold off of her as she could manage. That stuff was heavy after all. Especially now that she was back in her normal body.
“Bit of an overenthusiastic bow, don’t you think?”
Juliana pushed herself up to a kneeling position and looked over at the marionette demon. As she watched, he reached up and slid a featureless mask off his face and over to one side. The strings puppeteering his hands danced around him as he moved.
“Willie,” he said, standing from his seat and performing a bow of his own. “I cannot recall whether I introduced myself or not during our first meeting. I was in a bit of a rush before.”
Blinking, Juliana grasped her chest, feeling all around. There was no sign, not even the tiniest mark, of the angel’s spear or the hole it had made.
Juliana bent over and gagged. She could remember every moment of what happened. Cutting down all those angels. The blood. The liking it.
She spat out on the floor in front of her and tried to control her breathing. Juliana didn’t know how long she sat there, but it was a good while. All constantly thinking about what she had done.
It wasn’t real, she thought. Like a video game.
As she finally calmed down, Juliana looked up. Willie hadn’t moved. He just stood there, watching. It had to have been more than an hour, but he didn’t move.
Juliana spat on the ground one more time, trying not to think about tasting anything. “What was that?”
“I provided you with entertainment upon being summoned. As a theatergoing demon, I expect the same of visitors in my domain.”
“Your domain? How–I was supposed to be in Prax’s domain.”
“The gift I gave you marked you–”
“Like this?” Juliana held up her ring finger, wishing Ylva’s ring was on a different finger.
Willie tilted his head with a pained expression. “Not quite that strongly. Just enough that I could tell you had entered the waters of Hell. Quite the surprise. Nearly missed my chance to nudge you over to my humble abode.”
Juliana half rolled her eyes and half glanced around the exorbitant theater. From the stage, she could see a second floor. The place had to be bigger on the inside. Each of the second floor seats were filled by golden statues of half-humanoid bees. None of them were moving; given the honey outside, there had to be a connection.
“What are you doing in Hell, milady?”
Juliana frowned, wishing she had a proper answer.