Juliana jumped to her feet. Fear beat in her chest.
That was… a lot of blood.
Eva pulled out her black dagger and jammed it into her mother’s chest.
Juliana almost started spouting a stream of profanity before she remembered what that dagger was for.
A moment later, the constant stream of blood stopped flowing from the arm-sized hole in her mother’s chest.
While the blood stopped, the wound did not heal.
“Eva, she is old.” Arachne moved closer as she shrunk down to her human form. “I am sure she would be happy to give up the short remainder of her life if it meant letting us get her daughter out of this place.”
“She isn’t that old,” Eva shouted back.
An ember of rage burned inside Juliana at the callous disregard for her mother. Arachne liked her mother. They enjoyed sparring together. This… This…
“She isn’t quite dead,” Willie said from her side. He too had stood up. He leaned over the top of the row of seats in front of them with wide eyes.
That ember of rage flared into a full-on bonfire.
He was at fault. This entire battle, setting them against one another. All of it was his doing.
If he wasn’t around…
Juliana’s grip on her dagger tightened to the point of her fingernails digging into her palm. She tried to ignore the warm liquid lubricating her hold on the dagger. Worried it would slip out, Juliana molded the metal around the back of her hand.
The only thing stopping her from lashing out with all of her anguish was the knowledge that her mother had failed not long before doing just that. Even with his back mostly turned towards her, giving her the element of surprise, Juliana didn’t know where to hit.
She would only be getting one chance, after all.
Head, neck, or even most of the chest area would take down most humans, but Willie was a demon. A demon with strings.
Juliana slipped the dagger out from underneath the hem of the green dress Willie had given her.
None of those ideas will suffice. A puppet master won’t be defeated through the demise of his puppets.
Juliana flinched. It had been a long while since she last heard that voice. Not since the prison. Still, the voice was probably correct.
She slipped her dagger back underneath her dress while eying the thin strings coming off the demon.
They didn’t go anywhere. A few feet above his body, the strings just faded out of existence.
There had to be a real body somewhere.
“Going somewhere, milady?”
Halfway out to the aisle, Juliana flinched again. “Just need to go to the bathroom,” she said.
“Do hurry back. I am not so certain that the show is over.”
Juliana gave a brief nod. She started walking out. That walk turned into a jog. Her jog turned into a full on sprint.
Soon enough, she burst out of the theater’s entrance and onto the small island.
As the doors swung shut behind her, Juliana collapsed to her knees.
Mom is okay, she told herself. Eva was patching her up. And Arachne… It must be a ploy. Something to put Willie off guard.
And if it wasn’t… well, her mother would be more than capable of paying Arachne back when she got better. It certainly wasn’t a fight that Juliana could hope to affect.
Her mother would get better. She had survived far worse. The scars covering her body stood testament to that. Arachne’s wound would be just another scar when she healed.
For any of that to happen, they needed to get out of here. And that meant dealing with Willie.
Juliana got back to her feet. Using the front of her dress, she wiped off her face. Ignoring the damp spots, Juliana took a step out of the theater’s entryway and onto the sand-covered beach leading towards the boat dock.
And promptly stopped.
Where was she to go?
Anytime Willie wanted her to be someplace else, he teleported her there. There was nothing to the island except for the theater as far as Juliana could tell with her strictly mortal senses. No bridges to the other places. She didn’t have a clue how to get to the old west town that currently held her mother.
And Juliana highly doubted that Willie would have taken her to see his real body.
To find the puppet master, one must simply follow the strings.
“I tried that,” Juliana hissed. “They just disappeared overhead.”
As she ranted at the voice inside her head, Juliana glanced towards the sky, pointing as if in demonstration.
An involuntary tremble shook through her arms.
The moon, shaped like an eye, stared down at her.
That couldn’t be it. It was a moon. Nothing more.
With a heavy weight in her chest, Juliana sank to her knees in despair. For some reason, she doubted the small dagger she had fashioned would be up to the task of killing whatever being existed behind that eye. The sheer size of it would mean her dagger would inflict nothing more deadly than a paper cut.
“Now what,” she said. It wasn’t a question so much as it was a statement of defeat. Even if she had a magical knife of instantly kill demons, there was no way to actually reach the eye.
“Well?” she asked, clenching her teeth as her anger grew. “What do I do now?”
It was probably foolish to shout at the voice in her head. Especially underneath the watchful eye of the moon. But Juliana couldn’t help it.
“You dragged me out here and showed me what must be done. And now what? Was it just to show how hopeless my situation–my mother’s situation actually is?
“What do you expect me to do‽”
Juliana stared up at the sky. Not at the moon. At a blank spot off in the vastness of the darkness. Whatever entity had taken an interest in her clearly had some level of omniscience to it, so it probably didn’t matter where she looked. If she hadn’t already heard the voice in the prison, she would probably have dismissed it as Willie further messing with her mind.
What’s more, she could feel its intent. She wasn’t entirely certain how. If asked to put the feelings she received into words, Juliana would find herself at a loss.
Juliana wasn’t deluded enough to believe that the voice was benevolent–this was Hell after all. Nothing about the voice screamed that it was warm and fuzzy.
But the feeling wasn’t malicious. There was no cruelty in it. Just cold truth.
Perhaps it was an enemy of Willie. Or some other demon that wanted to make her into its pet.
At the moment, Juliana cared little. So long as it helped her, helped her mother, Juliana was willing to repay the favor with interest.
Nothing but silence answered her.
Juliana’s head slumped to her chest as her palms pressed into the sandy beach. She gripped the sand in her hands, lifting it up and watching it fall.
“Fine,” she said, again moving to stand. “Fine. I’ll save my mother myself. And I’ll owe you nothing.”
Turning back to the theater, Juliana started forwards. Even if it wasn’t his real body, perhaps killing the puppet would buy enough time to get her mother out of this hellhole.
Reentering the theater, Juliana found it mostly unchanged. Willie still stood facing the screen. The intensity in his eyes had died down somewhat compared to the first few moments after her mother had been injured.
It was with some small reluctance that Juliana looked up at the screen.
Her mother was still alive if her laborious breathing was any indication. Her chest heaved up and down as Eva knelt over her with her face twisted in concentration.
Watching Arachne look bored off to one side renewed Juliana’s anger.
A sinking sensation of disgust welled up in Juliana realized that a good portion of that anger was more towards herself than the spider-demon.
Shaking her head, Juliana focused back on Willie. He made a suitable target for her anger.
Juliana walked up next to the demon and stood for just a moment. He made no motion to acknowledge her presence or even indicate that she had returned. That set off more than a few alarm bells in her head. But as she watched him, she got the feeling that it was more a simple case of him caring more about the others than her.
And if she waited too long, he might sit down again, ridding her of the opportunity to strike at his back.
Taking in a quiet breath, Juliana performed one last self check. Her dagger was about as sharp as it could get. She hadn’t been able to scrape together enough metal for a decent armor set, but if she kept a small patch flowing, intercepting some attacks might be possible.
Deciding to go for the strings first, she swept her arm in a wide swipe designed to cut as many as possible as fast as she could.
There was a momentary tension in each string her blade passed through. One lashed back as it snapped, drawing a thin line of blood from her wrist.
The strings pulled, leading off towards the stage. Willie followed an instant later. His legs kicked against the tops of the lower rows of seats as he ‘flew’ across the room.
Juliana wasted no time in chasing after him. She had to end this fast or he would tie her up in the same wires and strings that had trapped the others.
“What is this?” he proclaimed as Juliana ran up the steps to the stage. “Betrayal? Treachery? After I took the time to feed and clothe you.”
Juliana had nothing to say in return. No time for banter. She crossed the stage in hasty silence.
Willie’s arm hung limp at his side. Her blade had severed all the strings attached to his fingers and up his right arm to his shoulder. The strings dangled a few inches, hanging off of him like he walked through a bunch of cobwebs.
Keeping the lessons drilled into her by her mother in mind, Juliana aimed for all soft targets. She would have to find out the hard way whether or not they worked on demons.
Juliana’s dagger swiped through nothing but air. Her target–his groin–just wasn’t where her dagger was.
The strings on his backside and legs pulled back and up, dragging along her target. The rest of him did not move.
So Juliana followed through. She pushed her dagger upwards towards his chest and, more importantly, his neck.
Willie did not stay idle. The upper strings snapped back, leaving a small cracking noise in their wake.
Juliana’s eyes widened as she saw the feet swinging back in her direction.
She parried his kick with her knife arm, using the small patch of metal coating the outside of her arm to tank the hit.
It felt like a jackhammer on full throttle. Never-mind that she hadn’t ever been hit with a jackhammer, it still rattled her arm up her shoulder and into her chest. The only reason she retained a hold on her dagger was that the metal was shaped in such a way as to make it extremely difficult to drop, if not impossible.
Willie pressed his advantage. His still strung arm swung forwards.
No time to move out of the way or attempt to block.
Juliana took the blow to her chest.
Considering he was essentially floating in the air, his punch did not want for strength.
With a grunt, Juliana was forced to backpedal several steps. Only because her mother had trained her reflexes did she keep from falling flat on her back.
Those same trained reflexes screamed at her to follow up his opening with an attack.
The jitters in her arm kept her wary just long enough to see his next strike.
He never stopped his punch. He spun in a full circle. His other arm was kept horizontal to the ground thanks to the centrifugal force. It probably wouldn’t have been as powerful of a blow without the strings driving it, but it wasn’t anything she wanted to get hit by.
As it was, Juliana had to take another step backwards to avoid the severed strings.
And he didn’t stop there. He continued to spin like a top. The strings above his head wound around a single point.
Juliana waited. There might have been openings between the arms as there was a good space between each fist, but he was speeding up. Juliana wasn’t about to take the chance at getting knocked on the head.
Especially because he was lifting up and going lower every few rotations.
The spinning came to an abrupt stop with his back facing Juliana. His unstrung arm immediately fell to his side.
Juliana saw her chance and took it. She jumped in, swiping at another set of strings that were all running past his back. The ones attached to the backs of his legs and feet.
She jumped back just in the nick of time. The tension in his strings forced him in a backwards spin. Without the strings keeping his legs steady, they also flayed out at the force.
All in all, his attack, if it could be called such, was rather impotent. Perhaps if he used those strings to move about the room rather than remain in place, it would actually be somewhat threatening. All it really did was keep her at bay.
Which, Juliana thought as she slashed down at a wire that had appeared just in front of her, might be the point. Time is not on my side. She was uncomfortably aware of the happenings on the screen above her.
Standing there, waiting for him to unwind enough to attack while keeping an eye out for wires attempting to trap her, Juliana desperately wished that she had spent her time doing anything besides summoning demons. Learning how to conjure earth would have been extremely useful. Launched earth would at least be an attack in some form. Something she could do aside from standing around ineffectively.
That she likely wouldn’t be here in the first place had she not dipped her fingers into diablery did not escape her.
As before, his rotation stopped far too suddenly to be natural. The strings were entirely untangled. No extra rotations that she would have expected from inertia.
Juliana rushed in, slicing at another wire that had appeared between them as she moved.
Her knife thrust was a feint. She turned her motions into a heavy hit with her elbow along his cheekbone.
There was a crack. His head lolled off to one side. The lump of a displaced bone stuck out of his neck.
Juliana clamped down on the queasy feeling in her stomach. He wasn’t hurt. He was a demon. Even if he was hurt, good. That’s what she was aiming for.
Her momentary distraction at the sight of Willie’s broken neck gave him the opening to deliver a punch straight to her chest. Right in the pit of her stomach.
Juliana staggered backwards, clutching at her chest. She crouched down, collapsing at the shock.
Air wouldn’t go into her lungs. Each gasp was more like a choke. The pain in her stomach burned.
She tried to calm herself. It was just the wind getting knocked out of her. She knew that.
Knowing did not help the suffocating sensation go away.
Something hard met the side of her face.
Juliana’s vision went dark for a mere second.
The hard wood of the stage floor was there to greet her as she recovered. Her breathing came slightly easier. She pushed herself up onto her hands and knees.
Only for something to kick her in the side.
Juliana went back down. Her face pressed against the wood.
The wood fell away.
A hole opened in the floor, dropping Juliana down.
Painful groans escaped her mouth as she hit a cement floor hard. An unpleasant noise cracked out of one of her arms.
Juliana lay on the cool floor. Nothing was more enticing than lying in one spot until all the pain went away.
I can’t do that.
She clenched her jaw tight, pushing the pain away.
Mom is still in danger.
With her arm that hadn’t made a noise, Juliana pushed herself up.
Juliana got to her feet. She wobbled side to side and back and forth. Reaching out to the bars, Juliana steadied herself.
A weight dropped in her stomach. Bars, she cursed.
On the other side of the bars stood Willie, all strung up and looking like new.
“You just sit tight, milady. I am beyond certain that I’ll find interesting diversions involving yourself after the current show ends. Now I must return or I shall miss the climactic ending.”
With that said, Willie’s puppet slumped over. A trap door opened in the ceiling with a creak. After a brief pause, the puppet was pulled by his strings straight through the trap door.
It shut, leaving not even a trace of a seam.
Ignoring the aching in her chest, the thumping in her head, and the steadily growing pain in her arm, Juliana gripped the bars and shook.
The metal did not move.
She tried her ferrokinesis.
While it worked on the metal still on her–her knife, mostly–it failed to so much as touch the black metal making up the bars.
Changing tactics, Juliana formed up some of her knife into a serrated blade. With it, she set to filing away at the bars.
Juliana couldn’t keep it up for long. After only a few minutes, she had sweat out a kiddie-pool worth of perspiration. Her arm was sore. And, looking closely, Juliana couldn’t see the faintest hint of a scratch on the metal. Her own blade had dulled and required almost constant reinforcement.
Juliana sunk into the corner of the cell and slumped down.
She had failed.
Her mother wasn’t bleeding out, but only so long as Eva kept up her magic. If Willie decided to hasten matters by doing something as simple as tossing a monster into the picture, she wouldn’t be able to keep it up. Even if he didn’t, Juliana doubted that Eva would be capable of holding on indefinitely.
Hot liquid started to stream down the sides of her face.
Wiping her face on a torn piece of dress did nothing to help. It made it worse. Liquid smeared over her face as more continued to flow.
Everything was her fault. If she had never touched that book, she would never have summoned Willie. He wouldn’t have separated her from Shalise. And, as Shalise said way back in the prison, neither of them would have wound up in Hell had it not been for her.
Mom is going to die and it is my fault.
Such folly of the talkina. So confident is he in his control over my realm, he thinks he doesn’t need to block magic.
“Oh? You’re back, are you?” Juliana’s voice peaked and broke as she shouted at the words. “Come to offer me some more half-advice? What is it now, ‘a cell is only prison to those within?'”
Panting, Juliana took a breath before letting out an inarticulate scream. She pounded her fist into the grimy wall.
There is little shame in seeking help to accomplish tasks clearly beyond you.
“Oh, and I suppose you’re offering?”
Of course not, Juliana thought as the silence droned on. They were just words in her head. What were they supposed to do about anything?
Probably a sign of her own declining mental state.
But, she thought, not entirely sure whether it was her own thought or not, the idea might have merit.
Standing, Juliana took a moment to steady herself. She wiped her face again. The cloth did nothing between the sweat and tears already soaked in.
Extending some of her blade into a long pole, Juliana traced a wide circle in the grime of the floor.
A summoning circle works cross-plane only. You will find yourself unable to summon any demon currently within Hell.
“Shut up,” Juliana said as she continued to draw. Despite her words, she heard and understood the voice. None of the demons that she had already summoned would work.
That was fine. None of the demons she had already summoned would be able to stand up to Willie. He was at the back of the only book she had read on diablery for a reason.
Although your benefactor has free access to the mortal plane, she still resides within her domain. Her domain is still a part of my plane.
That caught Juliana’s arm partway in her drawing motion. Ylva. That had to be who the voice was talking about. Shaking her head, Juliana continued her work.
Soon enough, the summoning circle was complete.
Juliana stared at it. Everything looked right. The only thing missing was an enticement.
Stand within the circle yourself.
“W-what?” Juliana bit her lip before she could stutter anything else out. Of course he would need a virgin as his enticement.
Fire burned on Juliana’s face as blood rushed to her cheeks. The memory of him without his shirt on danced in her mind. The rippling muscles covering his well-toned body.
Juliana shook her head. With only a modicum of hesitation, she walked onto the summoning circle.
It was a small sacrifice if it got her mother out safe and sound.
Taking a breath, Juliana started channeling magic into the circle. Some demons needed to be called out with actual words, others simply needed their enticement in the circle. Since the voice hadn’t interrupted, it was probably the latter in this case.
The summoning circle started to rotate.
Juliana closed her eyes, hoping this wasn’t an even bigger mistake.
Ha, as if things could get worse.
Something pressed against her mouth.
Juliana snapped her eyes open, finding herself face to face with two golden orbs.
And a tongue worming its way between her lips.
Pressing her hands against a muscled chest, Juliana pushed as hard as she could.
Two arms wrapped around her body, drawing her in tight and lifting her up off the ground.
His tongue met her teeth. Despite her clenching her jaw as hard as she could, it pried her mouth open with the barest of efforts, moving to wrap itself around her own tongue.
Hot, Juliana thought, too hot. Everywhere his tongue touched felt like it had been coated in hot sauce. The burning did not cause quite the same need to find a carton of cold milk. In fact, the more his tongue moved in her mouth, the less it burned and the more it–
The pressure around her body vanished and Juliana found herself falling. Her body crumpled to the floor.
Juliana stared up at him. His long tongue ran across his own lips before snaking back into his mouth. She found herself mirroring his actions for a split second before she could catch herself.
“Salty,” he said. “Pathetic though you are, your tears are a redeeming factor. Delicious.”
Juliana swallowed. Trying to ignore the burning sensation sliding down her throat, she wiped off her face on the sleeve of her dress. Once finished, she sat there and waited.
He did not move.
“A-aren’t y-you…” Juliana bit down on her lip, she was talking as poorly as a nervous Shalise. “Aren’t you going to t-take your enticement?”
He blinked before bursting into raucous laughter. “If you’re so insistent,” he started.
Juliana involuntarily swallowed again.
“You will have to resign from Brakket Academy.”
It was Juliana’s turn to blink. “What?”
“My current contract includes a clause against, shall we say, ‘laying hands’ upon students. Tempting though you may be, it is currently against my interests to void said contract.”
“So, you’re not going to…”
“Since you are so insistent,” he said with an exaggerated sigh, “I promise to visit you the moment my contract ends. You can wait, yeah?”
He clapped his hands together, creating a sound akin to thunder. “You’ve summoned me, Juliana Rivas.
“There are two types of people who summon me. The first foolishly believe that they can command me. ‘Zagan,’ they say, ‘go forth and defeat my enemies.’ I slaughter them for their hubris.
“The second come to me with wishes, as if I were some ill-natured fairy ready to grant their every desire. ‘Great Lord Zagan, with a snap of your magnificent fingers, solve my problems.’ Them, I kill for daring to bother me with petty problems.
“Being the pathetic mortal you are, I suspect you fit within the second category.”
He leaned down. As he did, the lighting in the cell flickered and died. Two glowing gold eyes moved down, just a few inches from her face. This time, he kept his lips off of hers. His hot breath, on the other hand, washed over her face as he spoke.
“Tell me, Juliana Laura Rivas, what makes you better than those that have been felled by my hand?”