“I hope this washes out,” Eva said, tossing her sticky hair over her shoulder. No matter how much she tried to strain it out, it was like the gunk multiplied in her hair as her fingers ran through it.
Her fingers were covered in the stuff as well, so she probably was just wiping more through her hair than she was actually cleaning off.
“Better than sand,” Arachne said. She wasn’t even trying to clean herself off. The black ooze added a layer of sheen to her already shiny carapace.
Eva wiggled her fingers. Unlike the annoying grit of sand and large dust particles, the ooze… oozed out of the way as she flexed. Some of the sand left over from Ylva’s beach wound up caught in the gunk and pulled out as the rest of it moved. In that respect, it was somewhat helpful.
A short shout preceded a loud splash into the syrupy liquid to Eva’s side. She glanced over to find Genoa struggling in the liquid.
“Glad you decided to drop in,” Eva said, leaning over the side of the boat.
Arachne moved to the opposite side to keep it from tipping.
Spitting a large wad of the gunk out of her mouth, Genoa let out a sling of curses. “What is this stuff?”
“Something to break the fall,” Arachne answered. “Most civilized demons have something similar. Typically something that the demon has control over but would impede intruders.” A hint of pride entered her voice as she continued. “I use webs, of course. They entrap visitors until I choose to release them. Far superior to this muck,” she said, flinging a small amount of the goop off her arm.
Eva reached her hand over the edge of the boat.
There was a moment of hesitation in Genoa’s eyes before she clasped her hand around Eva’s wrist. An ache jolted through Eva’s back as she started to put weight on her arm. Eva winced, but did not let go.
With Arachne managing to keep the boat steady, Eva pulled Genoa up and into the boat. She lay on her back, ooze dripping off of her as she stared up at the sky.
Eva leaned back against the plank that acted as a bench. She took in a few slow and steady breaths. Zoe might have been more right than she thought. That had been decidedly unpleasant.
After a moment of rest, she followed Genoa’s gaze up to the disturbingly eye-like moon.
“So this is Hell? Not as hot as I expected.”
“That aspect has been grossly exaggerated in mortal culture. Though,” Arachne slid a finger down her own cheek in thought, “I suppose some demons play to that stereotype. Imps and other demons with high affinity towards fire.”
Genoa lurched into a sitting position and spent a moment glancing around. “So what now? This doesn’t look like a theater.”
“It is possible,” Eva said, “that we have ended up in the wrong place.” She licked one of her fingers. “Honey. Or it tastes like it. The color is wrong obviously.” Eva glanced over at Arachne. “Some bee demon’s domain?”
The spider-demon shrugged. “Don’t know of any, though that doesn’t mean there aren’t any.”
“So what, we jump back in and try again?”
“That,” Arachne said as she dipped a leg over the edge of the boat, “is not part of the waters of Hell.” Her voice dipped into a low growl. “I already said that this was a landing area. Somewhere in the middle of the domain, I’d say.”
“Great. Just great. So where do we go? There’s nothing around but more demon-honey.”
Eva picked up the oar. She almost pushed it through the liquid, but thought better of it and handed it off to Arachne. Best not to agitate her back at the moment. Not until it had healed more.
Arachne looked at the oar like she had never seen such a device. She looked up with the best questioning look Eva had ever seen her wear.
“No sense sitting around,” Eva said, gesturing towards the boat. “Pick a direction and get us moving.”
“I believe I have called you a slave driver in the past.”
“And I’m sure I will keep hearing that for as long as we know each other.” Eva brought a hand to her ear before swinging it straight out over the bow of their little rowboat. “Onwards!”
With a sigh, Arachne dipped the oar into the liquid.
Eva promptly punched a hole through the wooden planks of the seat in her haste to hold onto something–anything. Her other hand gripped something significantly fleshier than the boat. From the loud yelp that came from Genoa, Eva was fairly certain it wasn’t Arachne.
Her long hair was pulled almost perfectly horizontal behind her from the sheer speed of the boat as it twisted and zigzagged across the surface.
Arachne was, of course, laughing. Most of her mad cackles ended up carried off by the rushing wind.
It all came to a stop on the precipice of a hole in the liquid. Eva had just enough time to refill her lungs with fresh, unscreamed-out air before the boat plummeted over the edge.
Not a speck of light was showing inside the liquid tunnel. Had she possessed the ability to stand, her head would have been dragged through the liquid on the other side. It wasn’t that big of a tunnel. How she was managing to avoid falling out could only be explained by magic. Or demon domain cheating–basically the same thing.
Despite what it felt like, the ride didn’t last. Their boat emerged from the end of the tunnel and flattened out, moving much slower. If Eva had her sense of direction working properly, then they should be upside down relative to where they first entered the domain.
For several minutes, no one so much as twitched. Eva carefully pulled her fingers out of Genoa’s shoulder. The older woman didn’t even move a muscle.
The only sound was Arachne’s dying laughs. “Maybe I should replace my webs. That was an interesting ride.”
Ignoring the spider-woman, Eva took a few deep breaths as she glanced around, looking for anything that might ambush them while they were still dizzy.
Apart from a single dilapidated theater, there was nothing on the island. A few bright lights blinked on and off around a ‘NOW PLAYING’ marquee listing a single title.
“What,” Genoa said as the boat pulled up next to a little wooden dock, “was that?”
Arachne let out a short laugh. “Something to disorient us. I’ve revised my opinion. The way out of the domain was probably very close to where we started. Now we’re lost and possibly trapped.”
“On the plus side,” Eva said as she raised one of her fingers to point into the distance. “That looks like a theater to me. We’re probably in the right place.”
“Reunion?” Genoa asked, earning a shrug from both Eva and Arachne. “Whatever. If this is the right place, that’s great.” Genoa smiled as she climbed out of the boat.
Arachne and Eva both climbed out after her.
“Let’s find Juliana and,” Genoa paused.
It didn’t take long to figure out why. As soon as Eva’s foot had left the boat, it started drifting off back towards the hole in the liquid.
“How do we get back?”
“Round the world and home again! That’s the sailor’s way!”
As one, Arachne, Genoa, and Eva all turned to face the new voice. All three of them dropped into combat stances.
Eva forced herself to suppress a wince. She had to shift her weight to the opposite foot.
Before them stood a man. He wore a long-tailed tuxedo and one of those theater happy-masks. Most of it was predominantly green. A sort of dark forest green. Both of his arms were spread wide and, as soon as their group was turned fully, he bowed.
A very strange bow. Everything above his hips simply went limp until his body was parallel to the ground. His arms went limp as well. They swung forward to hug some unseen ball in front of his chest. Both dropped to his side as he pulled himself back upright.
“Welcome. I am Willie, host of this domain.”
His voice was light and jovial. It had a cadence to it that almost turned it to song.
Eva didn’t like him. The way he moved and spoke was dipping into the uncanny. Based on her low and constant growl, Arachne wasn’t very fond of him either.
“Miladies dallied far too much. The show will be starting soon. You in particular,” he gestured straight at Genoa, “won’t want to miss it.”
“Reunion,” Genoa whispered. “Juliana?”
There was an almost imperceptible nod from Willie. As slight as it was, he hadn’t even finished it before Genoa took off in a half-run half-blink mad dash towards the theater.
Eva hesitated for just a moment. “You haven’t hurt Juliana, have you?”
“Milady,” one of his hands swung up to grasp his chest. “You wound me. I am a gentledemon. I would never harm my fair guests.”
“Good. Then we won’t have a problem.” Without any further delay, Eva stepped after Genoa, chasing her up the short path to the theater.
Given her head start and general haste, Genoa beat her there by a good deal.
Eva pushed open the theater doors and walked inside with Arachne hot on her heels. Inside the seating hall was nothing but empty seats. So, essentially nothing.
Only one seat contained an occupant. The theater-demon, Willie, sat up at the front. Upon Eva entering, he turned in his seat and pressed a finger across the wide smile on his mask.
Blinking, Eva glanced up towards the stage.
Juliana stood off-set to one side with her back towards the entrance. She wore a relatively simple period dress in a shade of green that matched Willie’s tuxedo.
Genoa stood off-set to the opposite side. Slowly, she stepped forwards and reached out with a hesitant hand. After a moment’s pause, her hand lowered to Juliana’s shoulder.
The younger blond spun around. “Mother,” she said.
They stared at one another. Both of their eyes watered up.
As their arms wrapped around each other, both equally pulling the other into a tight hug, the theater demon started up a soft applause.
It went completely ignored by the to Rivas women.
“I missed you.”
“I am so happy you are alright.”
Mother and daughter kept pressed against one another. Both of their words started to get somewhat drowned out by the tears.
“…lost and alone…”
“…drove myself insane worrying…”
Eva glanced over at Arachne who was in the midst of an extremely exaggerated yawn.
“Hush, this is a touching moment for them.”
And it was. Though, Eva had to admit to herself as their tearful discussion droned on, it would be nice if they wrapped it up sometime before Christmas.
“But,” Juliana said loudly. She turned around and moved just out of reach of Genoa’s arms. With her back facing Genoa, Juliana shook her head. “You shouldn’t have come for me.”
“Why not? Of course I am going to come for you.”
“Shalise and I… we,” Juliana paused and brought both hands to her chest. She turned back to face her mother. “There is something I need to tell you, mother.”
A heavy silence dammed any further discussion. It stuck around until Genoa broke the dam.
“What,” repeated Eva.
“What,” Arachne said, “is the big deal?”
The theater-demon turned. “Quiet!”
“It’s true, mother,” Juliana turned her back on her mother once again. “We wanted to hide it from you. We knew you and father wouldn’t approve of our relationship.”
Genoa stepped forwards and gripped Juliana’s shoulders. Juliana flinched away as if struck.
For a moment, they stood at arm’s length. Genoa then pulled her daughter in for another hug.
“Of course I would accept your relationship. Though, Juli, I might have done a poor job explaining some things. Maybe we’ll get your father to talk to you when we get home.”
After a brief session of tears, again, Juliana pulled out of her mother’s grasp. She moved out on the stage, getting closer to the seats.
Eva’s eyes zoned in on a faint glimmer of light a short way above Juliana’s head. It took some concentration and focus before she realized what it was.
“Arachne,” Eva ordered. “Strings.”
The demon didn’t nod, she simply charged.
“Shalise. She has cancer. It started as a cough. Then blood started coming up. Now she–”
Arachne jumped. All of her spare legs swept through the air above Juliana. The shorter blond crumpled to the floor in a heap of her own limbs.
Stepping forwards, Eva placed herself between Arachne and an angry Genoa. Infighting now could be problematic with Willie standing off to the side.
At least, she expected Genoa to be angry. Eva half expected to be trampled in Genoa’s mad rush to Arachne because of some perceived threat to her daughter.
By the time Eva was on stage, Genoa had her daughter cradled in her arms.
“Juli,” Genoa said, squeezing her daughter to her chest.
“I’m not pregnant.”
“I–That’s good, sweetie. And did–”
“No, no, no, no, no!” Willie marched up onto the stage. His mask was shoved off to one side. Age lines cracked on his face as it twisted into a scowl. “It was going so well!”
His arms swept out in a wide gesture towards the two Rivas women.
“Their passionate reunion, so strongly desired.” His hands clasped together. One moved up to wipe an imaginary tear from his eye. “Yet their reunion was marred by strife, illness, and forbidden love. They had to push one another away.
“It was perfect.”
“You didn’t have to stop it. I wasn’t going to keep her. Not with that Damned ring on anyway. She even agreed to it.”
Everyone glanced down at the rapidly reddening face of Juliana. She opened her mouth to speak, but the demon beat her to the punch.
“I thought it would make for an excellent jest. Entertainment for my guests.”
Willie’s body bent at the hips, his arms dangled in front of him as he twisted his torso to face Eva. “And you just had to ruin it. They didn’t even get to the best part! Young Juliana was just about to learn that not only did her lover have cancer, but her father does as well.”
The demon had gone completely limp from the waist up. His head hung, lolling from side to side.
Eva blinked. She couldn’t see his face to even guess if he was being serious. Slowly, she turned her head to glance at Arachne.
The spider-demon had her lips partially parted in a look Eva had long since come to recognize as disgust. Every one of her legs twitched at her back while her hair tendrils jittered lightly.
In other words, murderously irritated.
“I didn’t know they aired bad soaps down here,” Genoa said from her place next to Juliana. “Though, it might make sense if a few of them came from here.”
A small seizure jiggled the theater-demon’s strings as he turned. “And you,” he said, “you were doing so well. Then ‘what.’ It wasn’t even a question! No emotion. And everything you said after that paled in comparison to your earlier, tearful meeting.”
Willie sighed. His white-gloved palm met his face. “I know I am working with amateurs here, but the least you could do is have some real genuine emotion at meeting your daughter for the first time in weeks.”
He gave a quick glance over at Juliana. “Oh, don’t worry milady. You performed admirably.”
Looking down at Juliana, Genoa gave her a tight squeeze. Juliana looked up at her with a small smile. “There are some things that are just too strange to hear. I started suspecting something around then, but did not exactly have a way to disprove it. It wasn’t until I saw the strings–and Arachne is lucky I saw them when I did or she would be short several limbs–that I realized what happened.”
Arachne gave a small scoff along with a few mumbled words.
Genoa ignored her and talked over the noise. “When we get home, there will be several talks. Some will surely be joyous reunions. A few will embarrass Juli beyond belief–”
“Mom. I didn’t think I was pregnant with Shalise’s bab–”
“And one,” Genoa said with her voice as hard as stone. Her grip tightened on Juliana’s shoulder. “Will be all about how we don’t allow demons to control our bodies. Isn’t that right, Juliana Laura Rivas?”
Juliana bit her lip–Eva could see the blood break free from her skin. Slowly, meekly, she nodded.
“I believe I asked you a question, Juliana.”
“Yes, mother. That is correct, mother.”
“Excellent,” Genoa said. She stood up, helping her daughter as she went. “Let’s get out of here and have a party–”
A deep, rumbling laughter echoed through the theater hall. “Out of here?” Willie laughed again. “Who said anything about you being allowed to go?”
Eva tensed. The moment she moved, wires drew taut around her entire body. Without a moment’s hesitation, she stepped.
There was a brief moment of freedom before more wires stretched around her body. A sharp pain shot through her left calf–straight through her hardened carapace–that would have sent her to the floor had the wires not been keeping her up. Within her blood sight, Eva could see a steady stream of her blood dripping out of a needle-thin hole in her leg.
It didn’t just fall to the ground. The blood dripped along a fine line stretching out parallel to the ground.
She had clipped herself on a wire. An idiot mistake. Looking harder, Eva could see the glint of several thin wires stretched haphazardly around the theater room.
Eva didn’t attempt to teleport again. Instead, she tried to pull on her vials of blood.
It wasn’t responding. The blood didn’t even dance around inside the vial. It stayed still and unmoving.
Eva could think of only two possibilities. Either Arachne had forgotten to dip her dagger into the shed blood or Willie was doing something.
Since Arachne had not charged ahead or stopped by to cut her out, Eva could only assume her companion was trapped as well.
Genoa was under no such complications. She charged the short distance between her and the theater-demon. Both of her daggers seemingly teleported from their holsters to her hands with how fast she drew them. An iron pole started to form in mid-air behind her shoulder, but Genoa did not wait.
As soon as she was within range, Genoa let out a flurry of slashes, jabs, cuts, and strikes.
Not a single one found her target.
Willie flopped around. The sharp blade of a dagger would home in on his eye and Willie would simply fall backwards. His back bent beyond the point where even an accomplished contortionist would be able to extend.
As Genoa reaimed her missed attack to swipe down towards his thigh, the demon slid straight to one side.
Not slid. He was dragged by thin strings holding him up. The higher points of his body were dragged first with his feet scraping along the ground to follow after his body.
Genoa’s blade did manage to clip one of the strings. Despite it being severed completely, both sides reconnected before the cut portion could fully succumb to gravity’s grip.
She jumped forward to strike again.
Willie’s head hit the floor and his feet swung up into the air. A polished shoe knocked into Genoa’s hand.
One dagger went flying. It spun end over end before landing, point down, in the wooden floor just in front of Eva.
Undeterred, Genoa gripped the iron rod out of the air and started shaping it into a blade even as she brought it down upon Willie.
Who, once again, jerked to one side as the strings yanked him around. By the time Genoa’s attack had failed, he was back on his feet.
Throughout their fight, Eva was not idle. She struggled against her restraints. Even with Arachne’s sharp claws, she was unable to cut through the wires faster than they could regenerate around her. Given that the spider-demon was still restrained as well, Eva wasn’t feeling too put out by her inability to escape.
Arachne had an extra three sets of limbs and was still trapped.
Fire did not appear to help. Burning her hands as hot as they would go only left her with a few blisters near where her carapace ended and fleshy skin began.
Both of Juliana’s arms were bound to her side. None of her struggling produced anything but small cuts against her bare arms.
A moment of silence brought Eva’s attention back to the ongoing fight.
One combatant was panting and clutching her side. A small trickle of blood leaked between her fingers. The cut was extremely shallow, nothing dangerous. Though it was less of a cut and more of a tear. She must have tried blinking herself and wound up pulling the wire out while fighting.
The demon stood still in contrast. Absolutely and totally still. His arms were crossed in front of his chest.
For just a moment, they stared at one another.
Genoa lurched backwards. Her back struck a pillar near the edge of the stage. The pillar cracked with a loud snap in the silent theater.
She hit the ground, tumbling. Wood splinters scattered around her as she turned her tumble into a lurch to her feet. She blinked.
Gone from near the pillar, Genoa reappeared right in front of the demon. Pinpoint holes appeared in her body, mostly centered around her right side–her arm and chest.
Whatever pain it caused went completely ignored as she thrust forward with her left hand, burying her dagger inside Willie’s chest.
The theater-demon staggered backwards, taking the dagger with him.
Limp and unmoving, he hung in the air.
It didn’t last. He straightened out as the strings attached to him pulled him up.
“Foolish fighting fair maiden. My delightful domain does defy any attempt at defeating me. The very world itself despises the thought of my demise. Now disarmed of your dagger, you find yourself at the villain’s devious dispensation.”
“Don’t hurt my mom!”
“Sorry, milady, but entertainment must be had.” The demon slid his mask back over his face as he turned towards the three strung up women. “A human, a spider, and a…” He turned to Eva. “A whatever walk into a domain. Sounds like the start to a good joke. And the best jokes always have an air of tragedy.
“Unlike dear Juliana, none of you have Rings of the Damned on. That means,” he broke out into a short laugh, “we can have some real fun.”