Juliana sat in her seat, gripping the armrests.
This… she wasn’t sure what to call it. Farce was a word that came to mind. Whatever it was, it had gone on long enough.
By the looks of it, Eva didn’t even know how close she had come to having her skull caved in while pulling off her cowboy impression on the back of that beetle. She had missed a broken plank by mere inches.
Glancing away from the giant theater screen, Juliana frowned at Willie. He had leaned over, barely touching his seat. In fact, most of him seemed to be held up by the wires coming off of his body. The smile on his face was an almost exact inverse of Juliana’s own expression.
“Precarious situation for the young miss,” he said, not removing his eyes from the screen. “What will she do next?”
He sounds like a game show host, Juliana thought, straining to keep her eyes from rolling. “You never answered my question.”
“You never answered mine.”
“I asked first.”
Scowling, Juliana turned back to the theater screen. Eva simply stood there, atop the rubble of the building she recently fought within. After a moment, she blinked up to a nearby roof and started looking around.
A sudden gust of wind picked up her hair. She brushed a handful back, over her ear and out of her face. Black strands waved in the wind over her shoulder. With the way the permanent evening sun glistened off of her skin, she ended up looking very dramatic.
So dramatic that Juliana almost missed the movement at the bottom of the screen. The tattered remains of her friend’s skirt flipped around in the breeze. Eva gave no indication of noticing or caring.
Juliana felt her face heat up as she turned away. With her shirt having been torn off, Eva was practically naked.
Coughing lightly, Juliana said, “I imagine she’ll be fairly happy. I don’t think Eva is enough of a team player to want too many people around her. Especially not people as worthless as those hybrids you gave her.”
Willie hummed lightly in acknowledgment.
“As for what she will do, probably find Arachne.”
“And fight her?”
“I doubt it.”
“Oh,” he said, “that’s gloomy.” After a moment’s pause, he opened his mouth again. “As for your question, whenever I get bored. You, of course, are free to leave at any time. And I will stick to my promise, if one of them kills another, I’ll let the other two go.”
Juliana grit her teeth. “You didn’t keep your other promise.”
“Milady, you wound me.” He clutched at his chest and flopped over to one side, limp save for his strings. “Our promise was so rudely interrupted when they cut your strings. Naturally, I could not allow them to simply leave after such a grievous insult.”
Glancing up at him with a frown, Juliana had to wonder what would happen if she cut his strings. Maybe it would incapacitate or distract him long enough for her to get everyone out. Or at least give them a chance to take him out for good.
Disappointment sunk into Juliana’s chest. Willie, being the first demon to seriously speak with her, hadn’t left a poor impression. He was supposed to have become her Arachne. After treating her to tea and being all polite, Juliana felt that he was trying to do the same; endear himself to her so that she would summon him out in the real world.
And then this happened.
Forcing her mother, her friend, and Arachne into some sort of battle to the death?
She certainly wasn’t going to summon him now. There were tons of other demons out there. The prison and Prax had taught her that, at least. Some of those demons had never stepped out of their domains. Surely they would be willing to be her…
Juliana pressed her forehead into her hand.
She saw the ease with which Arachne had barreled over skeletons and… and zombies, things Juliana had a tough time dealing with or locked up completely on. It reminded her of her mother.
Which probably said something very unflattering about her mother. It wasn’t a comparison she would be speaking aloud anytime soon, that was for sure.
The point was that it was a strength Juliana lacked.
In retrospect, borrowing Eva’s book was beyond foolish. Arachne could swat away zombies and skeletons with a flick of her finger. The same zombies and skeletons that had given her nightmares for weeks during that first semester.
Arachne should have been the one in those nightmares.
And now there was an Arachne-like being sitting just to her side, gleefully hoping that her mother or Eva would be dead within the next hour or two.
Sighing, Juliana looked back to the screens. Eva vanished here and appeared there, almost too fast for whatever relayed the image to keep up. Her mother continued to pace back and forth inside the city bank. And Arachne… Arachne had started brooding. Again. She wasn’t directing her swarm. She wasn’t even watching the little screens in her room.
Hopefully, she was thinking up a way out of this mess.
One thing still rankled at her thoughts. Something Prax had said–assuming he hadn’t been lying, of course. If Hell was such a hellish place, even for demons, why was Willie burning possible bridges out?
Surely he wasn’t so foolish as to believe that this battle royale would make Juliana want to summon him.
Having stewed in her own thoughts long enough, Juliana decided to simply ask him.
“What do you gain from this?”
He looked over, the movement caused the mask on the side of his head to slide slightly forwards. It wasn’t enough to cover his face, but it hid one eye. He simply stared ahead without blinking or moving it back. “Gain?”
“I’m not going to thank you for this. I doubt I will summon you because of this. In fact, I’ll be destroying the doll eye you gave me as soon as I leave.”
Willie smiled. Not an Arachne smile. Just a regular, human-kind-of smile. He reached up and pinched the side of Juliana’s cheek.
Juliana slapped his hand away.
“Oh milady, what an inflated sense of self-worth you have. Adorable in a delusional manner. You believe that I need you? That you summoning me would ‘make my day’?”
He scoffed. Twice. The second time, he swung his arm from side to side in a dismissive gesture. “You think you’re the only one to have summoned me in forever? Do you fail to realize that talkina–a species of which I am a most exemplary member–are listed in every treatise on diablery?
“I have been summoned more times than I can count in the last three decades. And that rate has only been increasing as of late. Do not presume yourself to be important on account of one destitute demon of Death deciding to take a liking to you. You, milady, are as desirable to me as a dainty bacterium.”
Juliana bristled all while shrinking back in her seat, away from the demon. She opened her mouth, but Willie was not finished.
“Initially, you were to be a source of amusement. Then you show up here. What a delight, claiming that others would surely be coming to your rescue. Of course you wanted to leave. A distraction here, a tea party there. You never insisted on leaving so I never showed you out. Well, I couldn’t allow that, not while there was a chance of others showing up. Others who had the possibility of not being bound by that Damned ring.
“I could hardly contain my anticipation.” He took in a deep breath.
“This,” he swung his arm out from one end of the giant screen to the other, “is entertainment. Entertainment on my terms. No mortals ordering me around. No humans making me their puppet.”
Willie sighed, apparently content with his speech. He sunk back into his chair, staring intently at the screen.
“Perhaps if they fail to kill one another, we’ll start up a new event with a point system. For motivation, of course. The one with the highest score will be allowed to leave. Second place will stay with me forever. And last, well, I have been thinking about brushing the dust off the old guillotine.”
He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. It visibly brightened, like the blazing of an ember getting fresh air. “Now silence, milady, or get out.”
Juliana just stared, wide-eyed.
“Ah, your dear mother is finally acting. I had been considering burning the building down to force some action on her part.”
Slowly, Juliana creaked her head back towards the screen. Sure enough, her mother had thoroughly exploded the entire front of the bank. Bug splatters lay everywhere in the blast area, quickly added to by pillars and spikes made of earth dispatching more of the critters.
Juliana bit her lip. She needed to get rid of Willie. Either that or her mother and Eva needed to kill Arachne. Arachne could survive, even if it would be a while before she would be back.
More importantly, her mother and her friend would be alive and, assuming Willie would actually keep his word, would be home.
— — —
Genoa kicked a stone out of her path. Without expending even the slightest amount of magic, it homed in and gouged out the eye of a nearby monster.
Her ‘troops’ trailed after her, sending occasional attacks at the enemy that drifted too close.
Genoa paid them no mind. It wouldn’t be any skin off of her back if they went and got themselves killed. They were efficient and respectably good at fighting, but they weren’t real.
Worse, they were ultimately under control of their puppet master. From a short discussion she had had with the things, Genoa knew without a doubt that they would stab her in the back if she attempted to act outside this little scenario. In that regard, having them die would actually be the better option.
Though Genoa very much assumed that the minions of both Eva and Arachne would turn on them as well. As such, she wouldn’t lose any sleep if her troops managed to take out a decent sized chunk of their forces on their way to oblivion.
Genoa flicked her dagger behind her. A dust cloud erupted from the ground, enveloping her. Remembering exactly the layout of everything in sight, she blinked forwards and up. Upon reappearing on the roof of a nearby building, she spun around.
The henchmen were scrambling about, being unable to blink themselves. Genoa ignored them in favor of watching the giant beetle that had charged towards her.
Unthinking, it continued its charge straight into the cloud of dust. The moment it disappeared from view, a multitonal cry of pain echoed out over the town.
Genoa twisted her wrist, settling the cloud of dust.
There it was, hanging slightly suspended in the air upon angled pillars of sharpened rock. Fetid ichor leaked from its underbelly. Using its own strength and momentum against it to puncture its relatively soft underbelly was pathetically simple.
Absently, Genoa considered whether or not the same tactic would work on her own henchmen. Probably, came the conclusion. They acted smart, but the way they sat down there panicking about her disappearance left her wondering all the same.
It wasn’t like she was trying to hide herself. Did they possess absolutely no battlefield awareness? At least they made a decent distraction. Their panic pulled all the bugs’ attention.
Oh well. Might as well make use of their worthlessness.
Sweeping her dagger from her left to her right, she created sinkholes directly beneath many of the smaller bugs. Not all of them, of course. There were so many filling up every available spot in the street. Even to the point of crawling over one another.
A group of five all fell into a single hole. That was a personal record, even if the top-most one managed to get all out save for a leg before she could collapse the hole. A few pillars of sharpened earth jumped out of the ground to finish the job.
Her efforts barely put a dent in the total amount of bugs in the pit. “Bugs,” Genoa said, “why couldn’t it have been snakes?”
“Ah,” Genoa let out a stilted sigh. She pressed her empty hand against her forehead. “Those idiots.” Or they were trying to get her killed on purpose.
One of her little minions had noticed her. With an over-exaggerated gesture, the mage had lifted his hand and pointed. He had given a shout to his comrades, alerting them to Genoa’s position.
Them and all the bugs.
Seemingly as one, the entire army about-faced and stared up at her.
For one pregnant moment, an unnatural silence hung over the assembled bugs.
Broken by the multitonal noise of one of the beetles, they rallied into a frenzy. Bugs scrambled in her direction. Many larger ones barreled over their smaller brethren, completely uncaring of any damage they were doing.
In fact, Genoa thought with a frown, they are doing more damage to each other now than I managed just a few moments ago.
Not about to be outdone by the enemy, Genoa lifted her dagger. A rapid series of loud cracks fired off. Sonic booms from breaking the sound barrier. Each crack accompanied a human-sized spike lifting out of the ground, angled off towards the oncoming bugs.
The sheer speed at which the pillars erupted from the earth completely and totally vaporized the parts of the bugs that they touched.
Which was good. There were plenty of bugs far too close to the building upon which she was currently standing on. Sure, she could teleport away again, but that would ruin her plan.
With the first row finished, half encircling her building, Genoa started on a second row. She staggered it, filling in the gaps so as to catch as many of the bugs as she could.
Sonic booms fired off loud enough to threaten her eardrums. Ignoring the reverberations in her chest and skull, Genoa grinned.
The spikes were performing better than expected. The large bugs in the back essentially pushed the smaller bugs upon the spikes. More bodies piled up thanks to the force. Technically, they were still killing themselves. Genoa was going to count it as her win anyway.
Each spike filled up more and more, becoming a shish-kebab of insects.
If she had a decent fire mage around, they could have a nice barbecue.
Genoa’s thoughts ground to a quick stop.
Wincing, she shook her head. While she had tried a scorpion on a stick–on a dare–one time, it didn’t bring up the most pleasant memories. And scorpions looked far more appealing than these demon-created abominations.
Unfortunately, there was limited space on each kebab. Only so many bugs could be skewered before enough of them had piled up for the others to climb over.
All at once, her line of death simply became a platform for the bugs to leap straight to her wooden roof.
Genoa blinked again.
From a safe distance, Genoa watched as one of the giant beetles actually used its wings to fly. It came down right where Genoa had been standing only seconds before, crushing several of the smaller bugs.
And promptly caused the collapse of the entire roof.
Turning her attention from the swarm around the now collapsed building, Genoa glanced over the rest of the street. There were still so many of the things left. A not insignificant segment of the army had been left behind around the four–three henchmen. One had become nothing more than a bloodied lump of snacks for a handful of the bugs.
The rest were quickly becoming surrounded.
For a moment, Genoa almost stepped in. There was a decent pile of bug carcasses littered around the group. Even if they kept up the pace with one of their number down, it was clear to see that they wouldn’t be walking away.
In the end, Genoa decided they were a liability more than anything.
Turning from the soon-to-be massacre, Genoa felt a few hairs rise on the back of her neck. Just a subtle tingling feeling.
Genoa blinked to the side without hesitating in the slightest. She hadn’t survived her years as a mage-knight through ignoring her instincts.
No attack came.
Frowning, she glanced around for anything that might have given rise to her hackles.
It didn’t take long. Genoa prided herself on her ability to keep total awareness of the battlefield in her memory. She quickly honed in on a building, specifically a window on that building. It was darker than the others around it with the shadow of something within.
There was a quick movement behind the glass as the shadow disappeared.
A brief disturbance in the air set Genoa on edge. She tensed, swinging her dagger out to the side.
It managed to cleave through nothing but air.
Genoa hopped backwards across the roof, keeping her dagger ready for anything.
Anything turned out to be a young girl with Arachne’s arms, legs, and long black hair.
“Eva,” Genoa said. It was a terse greeting, but then again, they weren’t allies according the puppet demon. Hopefully, she wouldn’t do anything drastic.
The lack of any sign of her little monsters was either a good sign or an ambush.
Genoa decided to keep her guard up in either case.
“You sure make a lot of noise,” Eva said as she crossed her arms beneath her bare chest. One hand reached up and brushed at some blood that had smeared across her face. “I could hear you clear across the town. It sounded like a machine gun.”
“Just taking care of some irritants,” Genoa said with a nod towards the bug-kebabs. Glancing in their direction for a moment brought a frown to Genoa’s face.
They appeared to have finally realized that the large beetle had not, in fact, crushed her. The littler bugs were scampering about each and every direction. All looking for her.
Provided they had any range on their vision, it wouldn’t be long before one of them noticed. Genoa wasn’t exactly trying to hide. It was a wonder they hadn’t noticed her up on the rooftop already. Sure, it was one of the taller buildings, but she was still standing in plain sight.
It seemed as if even the mutant monsters fell prey to the old adage of failing to look up. Most of them had the excuse of not having proper necks that could tilt upwards, but they could still angle their bodies.
Without her mercenaries to foolishly point her out, Genoa was feeling surprisingly safe up high.
From the bugs at least.
Genoa turned back to Eva.
The girl was also looking out over the street below. Her hair flowed in the wind, continually hovering behind her. Unlike Genoa, Eva had completely turned her body away. As if she had already dismissed the idea that she could be harmed by Genoa.
There might be some merit to that. Genoa had no plans to attack the girl until she felt especially threatened by her. And unless Eva had been keeping a whole lot more secret than some blood magic and demon limbs, feeling threatened by her would take something extreme.
“So,” Genoa started. She still had to ask to be certain. “Are we going to fight now?”
“I’d rather not,” Eva said, finally turning her attention back to Genoa.
It had only been a few seconds, but a few seconds could be an eternity on the battlefield.
“Have you seen Arachne?”
Genoa shook her head, using the opportunity to glance about for any potential ambushes. “Not since the demon split us up.”
“We should find her.”
Eva gave a callous shrug. “If that is what it takes.”