Zoe’s chest heaved as she took a deep breath of the crisp air within Ylva’s domain. She turned to Wayne, letting all the air out in one long sigh.
She gave off a half-smile, full of nervousness and worry. “Are we really doing this?”
Wayne gave a short grunt. “I’ve done a lot of crazy things in my life. Jumping head first into Hell will be a new one.”
“You don’t have to come with me.”
Wayne frowned. He opened his mouth, ready to berate her for saying that. After a moment of silence, he shook his head. “I’ve had a long life. You should be the one staying here.”
A flicker of movement caught Wayne’s eye. Zoe was idly rubbing the dark band around her ring finger. Again. Just her thumb reached under her fingers to caress the ring.
“Eva and Genoa are already there–”
Idiots, Wayne thought.
“–and I can’t just leave them on their own. Shalise is on her own and shouldn’t be difficult to escape with.”
Wayne scoffed. “Minus the possibility of invisible enemies or the high likelihood of her being possessed.”
Zoe nodded. “I’ll be following Ylva’s advice and start with taking her to Eva’s domain.” The professor shook her head. “I still can’t believe… that despicable man.”
“He said it was willing,” Wayne said with a shrug.
“She was a child. She still is a child.”
“Still wasn’t complaining, last I heard. I imagine she would object if you intervened in her ‘treatments.'”
Pinching the bridge of her nose, Zoe shut her eyes. “You know, when I first learned about Eva’s involvement with demons, I assumed it was mostly Foster’s doing.”
Wayne did not miss her usage of the demonologist’s last name. Prior to their little briefing, Zoe had tended to use his first name.
“I figured that I could wean her away from diablery. Then I find out about her haemomancy and Arachne. Somehow she gets me reading books. I’m talking to demons on a daily basis. Living with them, even. Now we find out about this? And so off-handedly too. ‘Use Eva’s domain as a safe spot. Oh yeah,'” Zoe said, mimicking Foster’s more guttural voice, “‘did I mention she’s turning into a demon?”
Wayne stood still, trying to ignore the demon water seeping into his suit. He’d have to remember to burn it later. The liquid alone would ruin it, but that it was Hell water only made it that much worse.
As for Zoe…
He let out a sigh of his own. Situations like these were not his forte. One part of him wanted to place a hand on her shoulder and offer some consolatory words. What, exactly, those words were, he hadn’t the faintest clue.
But honesty was important. Words of comfort would end up being lies of one sort or another.
“She was a lost cause from the start,” Wayne said, trying to keep the ‘I told you so’ out of his voice. “Not something to beat yourself up over.”
Zoe laughed. The sound was mirthless and hollow. After a moment of silence, she spoke. “You know the worst part?”
Wayne shook his head.
“It is fascinating. It is fun.”
Quirking an eyebrow, Wayne prompted her to continue with a clipped grunt.
“Not right now, obviously,” she added quickly. “But when we get Shalise and Juliana home safe, and things calm down… I have so many notebooks filled up and so many more to fill up. Thaumaturgy feels so limited compared to the things I experience in my everyday life now-a-days.”
She pointedly glanced around the black ocean of water, sweeping an arm along with her gaze. “Would it be wrong to say that I am actually excited?”
Wayne followed her gaze for a moment. Excited wouldn’t be the word I would use, he didn’t say.
“How many humans,” she said, “actually get to experience something like this? Of their own free will with a high probability of getting back alive and sound.”
“Few. There’s probably a good reason for that too.”
And yet, Wayne thought, here I am.
Insanity. Pure and utter insanity. Willingly diving into Hell for a girl who, from the augur’s reports, might not even be herself anymore? Wayne knew people who had been committed to an asylum for less.
Zoe’s half-smile turned to a frown as the final member of their insane expedition sloshed through the water.
“Foster,” Wayne said, mirroring his coworker’s expression. “Nice of you to show up.”
“Can it,” he snapped. “Bringing the hel’s latest mark to it is the last thing I have to do to get out from under its thumb. I don’t give two damns about the girl or either of you.”
Wayne rolled his eyes. “Good to know that you have our back.”
“And,” he continued without taking notice of Wayne’s words, “if either of you tell anyone about what we discussed earlier, Arachne being after your lives will be the least of your concerns.”
Wayne blinked, but Zoe beat him to speaking.
Or shouting, as the case was.
“You’re threatening us? You monster. I had a low opinion of you before finding out that you performed experiments on a little girl. And now you dare–”
“Please,” Foster said, waving one hand while the other scratched at his gangling beard. He acted completely unconcerned about the dagger that had slipped its way into Zoe’s hand. “It isn’t me you have to worry about. I would be displeased, but me and Eva? We can disappear easily enough. And I’m sure that with some effort, Eva could eventually convince Arachne not to murder you in your sleep.
“The simple fact of the matter is that you both have a lot tying you down. I don’t know if you’ve ever met true demon hunters, but they make the Elysium Order look tolerant and understanding. When they come knocking on your door to find what you know about us, I doubt they’ll like the look of that ring on your finger.”
Again, Zoe’s thumb darted to the dark band of metal.
Unlike Zoe, Wayne had encountered demon hunters before. Their feverish zealotry was as bad as demons themselves. If one caught wind of Zoe’s involvement in any sort of diablery, the most she could hope for would be a swift death.
It wasn’t, in fact, only Zoe that would be in danger. All of Brakket Academy and city would be in trouble. Spencer and her pet were not even the largest problem around. Turner staffed no fewer than four of the pests, probably more.
The zealots would be hunting down every single person in town, student or otherwise, simply for coming into contact with the demons.
Why, then, were they not around already? Surely the situation hadn’t fallen beneath their notice. Even if they couldn’t detect demonic activity–something Wayne was certain they could–there had to have been some rumors spreading around.
He hadn’t been present for the incident at Brakket, but the golems he had faced during the operation to recover Nel had been very obviously demonic. Someone at Brakket would have noticed and word would have spread.
Wayne’s thoughts led him to a single conclusion.
Someone, or something, was protecting Brakket.
Although, Wayne mused, who or what probably doesn’t matter much if I don’t make it back.
The water rapidly cooling broke Wayne out of his thoughts. He turned to one side.
Only the tips of Ylva’s bare feet had entered the water and it was already icing over.
“There have been no changes in Shalise’s abnormal condition. She has escaped her statues’ grasp and returned to the throne room. We continue to believe the best course of action will be delivering her to Eva’s domain until her… passenger can be extracted.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Foster said. “If you didn’t have anything new to tell us, you could have said as much. Or better yet, why don’t you go to Hell while we lord around the place.” His voice descended to low grumblings as he continued. “We’re not the ones who want a new servant.”
A lane of ice formed across the surface of the water. It wrapped around the demonologist’s arm.
He threw himself out of the way, grappling Zoe to keep himself from falling into the water.
She managed to stay up thanks only to Wayne reaching out and taking hold of her arm to steady her.
Zoe shoved Foster off of her, almost sending him beneath the water.
After regaining his balance, he twisted to glare first at Zoe then at Ylva. His glare died off as he glanced down to one side.
Which wasn’t hard to emphasize with. As much as Wayne disliked the man–on general principle and his distasteful personality–the glare Ylva leveled at him was both awe and terror inducing. Being on the receiving end of those cool eyes was something Wayne hoped to never experience.
“You test Our patience, Devon Foster. We will not be displeased to see you out of your debt. Finish your task and banish yourself from Our presence, lest We do it for you.”
Foster let out a long stream of unintelligible mutterings. As soon as he finished, he took a deep breath and ducked beneath the surface of the water.
Zoe pressed herself back against Wayne as a dark shape took hold of Foster and both vanished. Her eyes darted, back and forth over the small section of water that had just contained Foster. She looked torn between jumping out of the water as soon as possible and diving in after him.
There was an almost confusing amount of both eagerness and fear in her voice when she spoke. “Is this safe?”
“You should have little to fear regardless of what happens. Few demons would lightly harm you while wearing Our ring. Wayne Lurcher,” the demon said.
Wayne stiffened as he glanced up to meet the demon’s eyes. Relief almost allowed him to relax; her eyes were merely looking, not glaring. “Yes?” he said.
“Our interactions have been few, yet We do not find you distasteful.”
“We would offer a similar ring, yet none exist. We failed to foresee Great King Zagan’s actions and did not prepare adequately.”
Wayne blinked. Was that supposed to have been an apology for not seeing the future? Not for the first time, Wayne was wishing that the hel was a bit more down to Earth. Arachne and Catherine both could at least talk like normal people. Hell, even ‘Great King’ Zagan was more personable–from the few conversations they had had prior to Wayne’s extended hospital visit.
“Thanks for the sentiment–” I think “–but I believe I would decline your offer.” Not without reading the fine print and even then, not likely.
His stomach dropped to his shoes. Ylva’s eyes hardened as her ice blue lips pressed into a thin line.
It was stupid to decline. She didn’t even have a ring, there was no need to throw the offer back in her face. He could have dealt with declining later.
The intensity on Ylva’s face died out as quick as it came. With a graceful brush of her hand to one side, she said, “We find your rejection disappointing. Nevertheless, should you wish to ensure your own safety, remain at Zoe’s side.”
Wayne gave a slow nod. He hadn’t been planning anything different. “I can do that.”
“Very well. We do not believe Chance cares about the actions of mortals, yet We wish you luck in your endeavor.”
“Thank you,” Zoe said from his side.
There was the slightest of nods from the statuesque woman before she marched off down the beach, returning to Nel and Ali.
“Alright,” Zoe said to Wayne. She took several deep breaths. At the apex of each, she looked ready to jump in. The breath then deflated as she lost her nerve.
“You sure you want to go through with this?”
“Of course. Shalise is my responsibility. I can’t just leave her.”
Wayne shook his head. He doubted he would be so interested in jumping into Hell after his students. Of course, Anderson and Weston weren’t the type to find this kind of trouble. Weston was far too timid and Anderson… well, there wouldn’t be much left of him by the time his father finished with him.
But, he thought, I’m here now.
There was a moment of hesitation before Zoe nodded. She held out her hand.
Wayne took it.
“Works for me,” Zoe said with a nod. She started counting and Wayne started thinking.
A medieval castle with statues of Ward. Vain–even Ylva didn’t have a single statue of herself around her domain–definitely not something he would have suspected from the girl. Further evidence that she was not herself.
As soon as Zoe said three, both ducked down beneath the waves.
— — —
Or rather, Prax blinked and Shalise merely took notice of the brief blackness.
It is about time, Shalise thought. I don’t know how it is with demons, but human eyes need to be kept moist.
Prax’s continuing control of her body was doing a number on it. At least she had finally convinced him to eat something. Only after he had collapsed after not recognizing the signs of hunger.
She was fairly certain that her body had not slept since she woke up in the prison either. Not unless she counted the brief periods of him shutting his eyes in concentration. Shalise did not count that.
No progress had been made towards removing Prax from her body, either. It was starting to make Shalise nervous–as nervous as she could be in her current state. The longer they went without any progress, the more Prax’s thoughts drifted towards killing himself–along with Shalise–to escape.
“Silence, servant. I am considering nothing of the sort. Yet.”
That’s very reassuring.
“Someone,” he said, “has entered my domain.”
Really? I didn’t notice anything.
“You may have some modicum of control here,” he all but growled out, “but this is and always will be my domain.”
Shalise gave him a mental shrug. She didn’t want control of it. “So,” Shalise said before he could start complaining about her again, “who showed up? A friend? It isn’t your mother, is it?”
“Mother will be… busy. The damage to her body was minimal, thanks to the eternal kindness of her spawn, yet it is far too soon for her to return. One month of your realm was her usual time to return in the past. After centuries of imprisonment, it may be far longer.”
Ah, Shalise said. So–
“It is a human.”
Shalise sat at attention within her own mind. That might be the first good news she had heard in a very long time. Juliana?
Prax laughed. His deep laugh came out strange in Shalise’s voice. “Not unless she has had some very interesting experiences since our parting. The human is a man with a beard.”
Trying to think of everyone she knew that had a beard, Shalise came up with only one real possibility. Assuming the man was someone she knew. But why would a human show up in Prax’s domain if not for her?
A few of the teachers at school had beards. None of them had any real reason to come after her. In fact, it was doubtful that they knew where she was in the first place. But there was a man with a beard that might come for her. Eva’s mentor, Devon something-or-other.
She had only spoken a handful of words to him, but maybe Eva was trying to rescue them.
“And here come two more. A man and a woman.”
Eva and… and who? There wasn’t anyone else. Not unless Juliana’s dad had decided to come.
Actually, that wasn’t so far-fetched. His daughter was somewhere around Hell. He was probably looking for her. But that meant that the woman was probably Genoa and not Eva.
“You are assuming that it is easy to locate an individual in the vastness of Hell.”
Well, we know a woman who is covered in eyeballs. Finding people is kind of her thing.
“I will concede that human visitors are a rarity in Hell, unless they have been brought by some other demon. But generally, those humans would not leave their patron demon’s domain for fear of becoming lost, stolen, or damaged.”
All the more reason to believe that I know them. Aren’t you going to go greet them?
“I would rather not be seen in this sorry bit of flesh.”
Do it anyway, Shalise ordered in her most authoritative thought-voice. Or else I’ll start changing your domain. This place is so drab, it could use more greenery to change up the scenery.
“Servant! Do not dare to–”
It was too late. The moment her thoughts drifted towards how the place could be spruced up, the throne room changed.
Prax’s head whipped around as the faint sound of two trickling streams of water carved their way out of the wall behind the throne. The water flowed along the ground, digging in shallow canals that looped around either side of the throne.
Lush grass grew out of the islands formed by the streams of water. Thick trees–spruce, if Shalise was not mistaken–sprouted and stretched towards the ceiling.
A sickness in Shalise’s metaphysical stomach grew along with the daisies. She could feel Prax’s ire sizzling beneath his calm exterior.
Both armrests on the iron throne bent and crumpled under his grip.
Maybe not so calm.
I’m sorry, Shalise quickly thought. I didn’t mean to–
“Every time this happens, it becomes ever more appealing to simply end you.”
I know, I couldn’t help thinking it. Just, please go talk to them? Surely they can help us.
“I fail to see what a mortal would know of our situation that I do not.”
That was true enough. Shalise didn’t understand much of anything that Prax did not explicitly explain.
Except we know more than mortals. There is Ylva and Arachne. And… It felt like there were more, but no names were popping into her head. They could at least give you a second opinion on what went wrong.
He did not move. His emotions were going topsy-turvy.
Shalise kept silent, not wanting to garner further anger.
After several minutes of him emotionally debating with himself, Prax got to his feet. “I can hear them out. Given our current situation, assistance may be required. If they are not who you think they are, you must be prepared to defend us.”
Like how I kept you from torturing us earlier?
“Exactly,” Prax said through grit teeth.
As they moved down towards the castle entrance, Shalise kept her thoughts carefully in check. She did not want any chance of naked golden statues of herself to assault their visitors.
Shalise’s mind blanked out in a brief moment of static.
The demon controlling her body stopped moving with a wince. “What is it this time?”
You can’t go down there while naked. Put on some clothes. Anything.
Even as a rack of clothes appeared in front of them, Prax shrugged and walked by. Rack after rack of clothing slid in front of Prax. Each one, he simply sidestepped and moved on.
Until a solid brick wall appeared in front of them.
Scowling, he tore a one piece dress off of its hanger and haphazardly draped it over himself. “Happy. Now?”
The black dress had huge cutouts at the sides and one strap was torn from his handling. Far from anything Shalise would wear, but she didn’t exactly have fine control over what appeared. The only reason it covered anything was because of Prax’s bulky muscles holding it in place. But, it was better than nothing at all.
With a mental nod, Shalise said, I suppose so. At her words, the brick wall melted away.
Prax stalked off down the hallway, grumbling under his breath as he went.
When they finally reached the main entryway–Shalise had to open the giant gate–they found three people standing on the other side.
Devon was one of them–as she guessed–but the other two would have had Shalise’s eyebrows halfway up her forehead had she had any control over her body. Professors Baxter and Lurcher? Why are they here?
“Professors Baxter and Lurcher,” Prax repeated. “Why are you here?”
The voice that came out of her mouth was hers, no doubt about that, but it was tainted with Prax’s lack of proper inflection. His question came more as a statement than any real question.
Devon and Professor Lurcher stiffened in an almost identical manner. Professor Baxter, however, took half a step forwards. “Shalise?”
“That isn’t her,” Devon said. “Even discounting the physical changes, there was no recognition in that thing’s eyes when it saw us.”
“Partially correct,” Prax said. “Shalise is here, though not in control.”
Professor Baxter pulled back, giving Prax a glare.
A glare that Shalise could almost feel. It wasn’t a very nice glare. The professor’s arms were shaking. One of which, Shalise noted, had her silver dagger gripped tight with white knuckles.
“What did you do to her?”
Prax ignored her. “Though the situation is unusual, but she is alive and well. Very noisy too. I assure you, this situation is not by either of our choices. Shalise seems to be under the impression that you mortals had some insight I lack.”
“The nun said you had a familiar brand, but the demon is in control?” Devon scratched at his scraggly goatee. “Let’s see it.”
Shalise gave a mental sigh as Prax gripped the already torn strap of the dress and pulled. The fabric tore right down the middle, revealing a full half of her chest, including the mark.
So much for wearing clothes.
Professor Lurcher immediately spun to one side, averting his gaze. Professor Baxter first glared at Prax, then at Devon.
Who, notably, did not turn away. Rather, he walked forwards and knelt down right in front of Prax.
A scary look came over Professor Baxter as Devon started poking and prodding around the brand. She looked about ready to stab him in the back.
“This is a regular familiar sigil,” he said, oblivious to Professor Baxter’s continuing glare. “But you are a cambion. You shouldn’t be able to take over your host. What did you do?”
“The biggest difference would be the state of her soul and my core. Neither of which were inside our respective bodies at the time of our familiar bond.”
Professor Baxter’s anger faded in the blink of an eye. Her face turned white as a sheet. “Her soul?”
“We got them back,” Prax said.
Juliana got hers back too.
Shalise’s vision rolled up to the black sky as Prax said, “Juliana as well. And everything was normal up until we regained our souls. Then, our control switched and I have been unable to break our bond thus far. I believe that my core and her soul have been muddled together.” Prax spread his arms wide as he put on a smile. “Now, mortals, what makes you so special that Shalise thinks you can do anything at all?”
Professor Baxter’s already sheet white face turned several shades paler. Professor Lurcher still faced away from them.
On the other hand, Devon scratched at his chin. “Merged souls? But you talk about her as if she were her own entity still.”
“She is,” Prax agreed.
“Fascinating. I wonder if there were a way to properly get you two tog–”
“Foster,” Professor Baxter snapped. Her voice had a slight tremble to it, but most of her paleness had vanished and had been replaced with anger. “If you say one word that does not involve returning Shalise to normal, I will personally dose you with so much memory potion that you will be unable to remember how to learn.”
Something must have happened, Shalise thought. I only ever saw Devon about three times and talked to him less than that, but I don’t think Professor Baxter was ever as angry with him as she is now.
Prax gave a subtle shrug and nothing else.
“Ylva,” Devon said after scratching at his goatee again. “It should have a way of separating their souls. Let’s carry through with our original plan of taking it to Eva’s domain, then see about contacting the damn hel.”
Prax’s emotions jumped into turmoil again. There was a sliver of hope alongside a bout of trepidation. The later was primarily focused on the idea of entering another person’s domain. “And we cannot simply bring Ylva here?”
“I’m not about to suggest that to it,” Devon said with a glance at the professors. “It will probably kill me. Or worse.”
“Eva is a neutral party,” Professor Baxter said. It almost sounded rehearsed, or perhaps something she was repeating from someone else. “She cares about Shalise, but with both you and Ylva in her domain, neither of you has to fear anything from the other.”
“And what makes this Eva so trustworthy?”
We can trust Eva.
Prax considered for just a moment before nodding his head. None of the others even had a chance to respond. “Very well,” he said. “If this is a trick, trap, or simply fails to work, I will do everything in my power to make all of your lives living hells.”
“No trick,” Professor Baxter said. “Eva is currently fetching Juliana, so she might not be there right away. However, we all just want everything to go back to normal. As long as you don’t hurt Shalise, we don’t have a problem with you.”
“Besides,” Devon said, “I don’t intend to return to Hell. Ever. This could be my only opportunity to see my subject’s domain.”