Zoe pinched the bridge of her nose.
Wayne had to return soon with news.
Between Devon muttering to himself and the constant whining of the demon infesting Shalise’s body, Zoe was about ready to hog-tie the two of them and gag their mouths. Especially Shalise. Or Prax. Whoever it was. Keeping Shalise’s body available was a must.
The worst case scenario would be that entity deciding to return to that giant castle before Eva showed up.
Zoe wasn’t entirely certain that she could blame it if it decided to leave. At least the castle likely had seats to rest on. The tiny island they were currently standing on lacked such niceties. Her options boiled down to standing on the beach and getting sand in her shoes or sitting on the beach and getting sand everywhere else.
Not that Prax seemed to mind. It had–thankfully–accepted Zoe’s suit jacket, giving Shalise’s body some privacy. But he had otherwise just sat down next to the small tree in the center of the island.
“This domain,” Prax said, interrupting Zoe’s train of thought, “is pathetic.”
Zoe sighed. She knew she should interact with him, if only to keep him here. Couldn’t it be Devon’s turn?
A quick glance at the demonologist revealed him to be inspecting a handful of sand. Quite intensely, in fact. As if it were a handful of gold.
Frowning, Zoe looked down at her feet. Many things about Hell interested Zoe. Enough so that she was, frankly, overwhelmed. There were so many places to start. Especially around the water and the transportation method between domains. Overall, the feel of the place was very similar to Ylva’s domain. Which made sense given that hers was literally Hell on Earth.
With all the many things that interested her, the sand was not one of them. As far as Zoe could tell, it wasn’t significantly different from any other sand she had seen in her life. Perhaps Devon’s demonologist experiences lent some insight into the matter that she lacked.
When everyone was back home, safe and sound, Zoe was considering returning for a research expedition. No further than Eva or Ylva’s domain, of course. Though Eva’s–Zoe glared at Devon–treatments were upsetting, Eva’s domain provided a relatively safe location to poke around that wasn’t connected to Earth.
Blinking, Zoe realized that Devon was not about to humor the demon inhabiting Shalise’s body.
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean, Prax. This place is plenty interesting to me,” Zoe said, looking out over the endless sea of black liquid.
“Of course it is to you, mortal,” it said as if the word were an insult. “But can you honestly say that this tree,” it slammed Shalise’s elbow back against the trunk, “is more glorious than my castle?”
Wincing at the strike, Zoe simply shook her head. “It has a certain humbleness to it.”
“Wrong. It has the stench of a demon who knows nothing. A demon who cannot control their own domain. Even a hellhound can turn its domain into a land of crags and molten rock.”
“Perhaps she likes the minimalistic atmosphere of the beach.”
“Unlikely,” Devon cut in. “Eva’s been here once before and then only for an hour or two. In her report to me, she didn’t mention anything about even attempting to alter its appearance.”
“Only once before? What–” Prax cut off. A moment later, Shalise’s eyes widened to their fullest. “A human? With a domain?”
Zoe smiled. Not at his words, per say. No, she smiled at the small sign that Shalise was still in there somewhere. And apparently communicating with Prax.
It did such things every now and again. Knowing their names for instance. At first, Zoe had worried that Prax simply had all of Shalise’s memories. Things like being surprised by whatever had cut him off implied otherwise.
“I will believe it when I see it,” it said, crossing Shalise’s arms. After a brief moment, Prax’s expression twisted into a scowl. “And you are expecting this human to be able to help our situation?”
“It’s worth a shot,” Zoe said. “You said your domain was acting up because of your bonding with Shalise. What harm could there be in letting Eva try in her domain?”
“If only you knew. Though I suppose there might be some merit in making an attempt. At the very least, this human is inexperienced in the ways of Hell and therefore far less likely to enslave me, toy with me, or otherwise ruin the rest of my existence.”
“Is that much of concern?” Zoe frowned. “Arachne and Eva don’t have any qualms about being in Ylva’s domain. Catherine got in and out with only a light interrogation.” Not to mention all the rest of the ‘plain old boring mortals.’ Zoe had been inside plenty of times and even invited Ylva to live at her apartment for a time. Nothing happened to any of them.
Nothing except the rings, Zoe thought, moving one hand to cover the ring she had taken to wearing every day.
“You mentioned two of those names earlier. I believe the context was something about walking into a talkina’s domain?” Prax actually shuddered. “Clearly they lack the sensibilities of proper demons. You’ll probably never see them again.”
“Eh,” Devon grunted. “Our resident hel has taken a liking to the girl, Eva as well, if I’m not mistaken. If they’re not back soon, I’d bet money that she will find a way to resolve it herself.”
“And how long is that going to take?” Prax said, tapping a finger against Shalise’s elbow. “I could make further attempts on my own and possibly solve it before anything happens here.”
“At the very least,” Zoe said, “we should wait for Wayne to get back with news from Ylva and Nel.”
And hopefully that will be soon.
This whole operation could have been planned better. They knew that Genoa’s group was having issues. If she hadn’t just run off, blind to all except her daughter’s safety, then they might not be in this mess.
But there was no set time-frame for Wayne returning. And Prax’s impatience was clearly growing with every passing minute.
“Finally,” Shalise’s oddly accented voice said.
Zoe blinked. It took her a moment to realize what Prax meant.
That moment ended when Eva landed in the sand nearby, sending a few grains up into the air from the impact.
A heavy thud behind Zoe almost knocked her to the ground. She turned just in time to be pelted by falling sand. Zoe flicked her dagger, catching most of the debris on a hastily erected shield.
The cause of the shower of sand was a full-sized Arachne. In her arms…
“Oh no,” Zoe said.
Arachne shrunk down to her humanoid form, laying Genoa against the ground as she did so.
Eva brushed past Zoe and elbowed Arachne out of the way, sliding on her knees the last few feet before stopping at Genoa. The black dagger teleported from the hilt against her back to her hand. Without an ounce of hesitation, she pressed the dagger down into an arm-sized hole in Genoa’s chest.
Zoe took a step forward. “Eva–”
A light thump at Zoe’s side cut her off.
Juliana lay face down in the sand, groaning lightly. Using a single hand, Juliana pushed herself up. Upon seeing Eva and her mother, Juliana rushed over without taking a second to brush herself off, half limping as she ran. She shoved Arachne to the side in order to kneel down opposite from Eva.
The demon’s growls went unnoticed by either girl.
“Mommy,” Juliana said as tears streaked down her face. “I’m so sorry.”
“She’s still alive,” Eva said, her face scrunched up in concentration. “I can keep her blood moving and keep her from bleeding out, but her heart and lungs… I need potions. At the very least.”
Almost as if by instinct, Eva reached down to grab a small satchel at her side. It was a small brown potion satchel that Zoe had seen on Eva’s person relatively often during her first year. She couldn’t quite place when Eva had stopped carrying it, but she knew one thing for certain.
That satchel had not been there before she started speaking.
If Eva noticed the same, she did not comment. Instead, Eva rummaged through it before selecting three vials. A light-blue general remedy potion, a yellow blood stimulant, and a dark purple that Zoe didn’t recognize.
Zoe’s eyes widened as Eva uncorked the light-blue potion.
“Stop.” She almost slipped in the sand in her haste to stop the vial from reaching Genoa’s lips. As soon as she took hold of Eva’s arm, Zoe said, “you just said that she is having heart problems. You could kill her with that.”
“Considering the fact that I am essentially her heart at the moment, I don’t see how it could make things much worse.”
Up close, Genoa looked a lot worse than she did from afar. Her wound was mostly clean–likely thanks to Eva actively controlling her blood–but the sheer size of the hole in her chest was staggering. Clean as it was, Zoe could see the sandy beach on the other side. Her breathing came out as shallow, strained wheezes.
“Just keep her alive,” Zoe said. “Wayne will be here soon. Let him pick the potions.”
He had better be here soon. Even with Eva managing her blood, Genoa didn’t look like she could hold on much longer.
As if reading her mind, Eva glanced up at Zoe. “Don’t worry about her breathing. Anywhere it touches air, I’m spreading out the blood into very fine strands. It should be getting more than enough oxygen to keep her alive and well. Her shallow breaths are more out of psychological habit than need.”
“Still worrying,” Zoe said through pursed lips.
Eva nodded. “I’d much prefer her healed sooner rather than later. I read the book I got that tidbit of knowledge from way back when I first started blood magic. Hopefully I’m not misinterpreting it or anything.”
Zoe’s lips pursed firmer as she gave a curt nod. “I hope so too.”
Devon had walked up at some point during her brief conversation with Eva. He knelt down beside Genoa.
For a moment, Zoe was going to rescind some of the disdain she felt for the man regarding his treatments for Eva. Instead, she only felt her disdain grow as he ignored the wounded mage-knight to inspect the satchel of potions.
She was curious as well, but there was a time and a place for research and this was neither.
Ignoring the despicable man, Zoe maneuvered around to kneel at Juliana’s side.
Placing one arm around her shoulders was the trigger.
The floodgates opened.
Juliana clutched at Zoe’s shirt. Her other arm hung limp at her side. She pressed her face into her chest and started sobbing.
“Shhh.” Zoe gently brushed a few stray blond strands out of the younger girl’s face. “Your mother is going to be fine. She’s survived so much. A little hole in her chest isn’t going to stop her.”
“It’s all my fault.”
“No. You couldn’t have known that Za–”
A sudden cough from Eva stole her attention. Slowly shaking her head, Eva gave a quick nod back over her shoulder.
Standing just behind Devon was the sharp-dressed, golden eyed man she had met in Tom’s bar almost a year ago.
“Couldn’t have known what, Zoe?”
Devon let out a high-pitched yelp. Dropping the potion bag, he disappeared, reappearing on the opposite end of the island.
Behind Zagan, Shalise–no, Prax sat against the tree, remaining utterly still with a look of horror on Shalise’s face. Probably hoping that Zagan wouldn’t even bother glancing in that direction.
How long had he been standing there? Zoe wondered. Eva, Arachne and Genoa, and Juliana had all made noise upon their arrival. But Zagan had just been standing there, creeping behind her.
Zoe pulled Juliana closer as she tightened her grip on her dagger. “Zagan,” Zoe spat.
The devil smiled. “Come now, aren’t we on friendlier terms than that?” He gave an exasperated sigh. “Not a single person calls me Rex.”
If he thought his little play-acting was cute, he was wrong. Zoe had seen elementary school plays with better acting. Though maybe that was intentional, Zoe thought, frowning. “Leave, Zagan, you are not wanted here.”
“On the contrary, young Miss Rivas was the one to summon me here.”
Juliana stilled, though offered no protests.
“And,” he continued, “I will admit that I invited myself to Eva’s domain. However, it was with only the best intentions in mind.”
“I’m sure,” Zoe said. If he picked up on her sarcasm, he didn’t mention it.
“As long as I am repaying one favor, I might as well get them both done within one day. Less work, yeah?”
He started to turn.
Devon blinked again, this time straight over the water. There was a light splash and he was gone. He didn’t resurface.
Probably fleeing to Ylva’s domain. Coward.
But Zagan paid him no mind. He focused instead on Shalise.
Prax stood up and ran. Shalise’s muscled legs hit the sand, sending up nearly as much debris as when Arachne had landed. Being in the center of the island, it didn’t matter which direction Prax chose to run in. The demon didn’t need to think about it for a second.
Prax chose the direction that led away from Zagan.
It didn’t get very far.
Without the slightest motion on Zagan’s part, Prax was facing backwards. It took four steps before it realized that it was now running directly towards Zagan. Unfortunately for Prax, he didn’t realize in time.
Zagan reached out and gripped the edges of Zoe’s suit jacket that Prax wore.
“Praxtihr. You’re out of your cell.”
“What do you care, Zagan? You are not in the Keeper’s employ.”
“That is King Zagan to you, wretch.” He tilted his head to one side before straightening his neck again. “Or Great King Zagan. In fact, go with the latter.”
“You think you are so high and mighty. The only reason you are not a guest of the Keeper is because he could not find a cell that would hold you.” Prax hocked back and spat in Zagan’s face. “But it is just a matter of time. One of us will topple you.”
Holding Prax in the air with a single hand, Zagan wiped away the saliva with his free thumb. He looked down at it, turning his head slightly. As he watched, the liquid vanished.
The single gold eye that Zoe could see from her angle was glowing like a spotlight. Trails of golden smoke leaked from the corner of his eye.
“What is the phrase? Oh yes.” Zagan threw Shalise to the ground. Her head hit the sand. Before it could bounce off, Zagan planted one shiny shoe on her head, grinding her face into the ground. “Don’t impugn my honor. I am the pinnacle of demons. The perfect model of demonic citizenry. Pathetic peasants such as yourself cannot hope to measure up to my magnificent being. There is a reason I am King.”
As soon as Shalise hit the ground, Zoe had started to pry Juliana off of her. Once she got to her feet, a lightning bolt crackled out of her dagger. One of the strongest she had ever fired. The brilliant light illuminated the relatively dark domain to such a degree that she had to shut off her enhanced vision lest she go blind. The normally muted sound of thaumaturgical lightning thundered so great that it threatened to shatter her enhanced eardrums.
For all the power, all the strength, all the magic that she put behind her bolt of lightning, it did nothing.
Zoe watched in a combination of dismay and confusion as her bolt sailed straight past Zagan. The endless sea of black water lit up as the bolt disappeared into infinity.
I missed? Zoe blinked. It wasn’t possible. She was a class one air mage. Redirecting natural lightning to strike what she desired was within her power. A human-sized target ten feet away should have been child’s play.
Shaking her head, Zoe tightened her grip on her dagger. Lightning crackled at the tip, building up to be even more impressive of a bolt than her last one.
She wasn’t going to miss twice.
Of course, even if she hit, she wasn’t sure what it would accomplish. Zoe had watched his fight with Lynn Cross. He shrugged off plenty more than a powerful bolt of lightning during that fight.
Still, she had to do something. That might be Prax in control, but Shalise’s body was paying the price.
“I won’t say it twice,” she ground out. “Get off of her.”
Zagan stood with his back to Zoe. He kept still for a moment before his head moved–only his head. It tilted back just enough to look at Zoe through a single glowing eye.
“And just who is it that thinks they can…”
Trailing off, Zagan’s eyes lost some of their luster. “Her?”
Glancing at his feet, Zagan removed his shoe from the side of Shalise’s head. “Oh. I forgot about her.”
He reached down, gripped the lapels of the suit, and lifted Prax to its feet. Putting barely any effort into it, he brushed some of the sand off the side of Shalise’s face.
“I couldn’t very well ask what you want if you’re dead. So tell me, Shalise Ward, what is it you desire? One single favor is all I shall grant.”
Prax spat in his face again. Or tried to. This time, the spittle sailed harmlessly to one side as if space itself warped around Zagan’s head.
“Ah, of course. You cannot very well tell me as you are. However, I’m sure I can guess what you want.”
He released his hold on the suit. Prax immediately turned and ran. After two steps, Prax stumbled and fell to the beach.
Zoe watched as Shalise’s muscled body deflated. It started at her fingertips and toes, working its way up her body. Despite the jacket covering her arms, it was blatantly obvious the muscles were disappearing. The tight fabric became loose on her body.
She lay there, shaking slightly, just long enough for Zoe to grow worried.
There was a soft giggle–a very Shalise giggle–before she pushed herself up to her knees. She patted herself down from her head to her toes, not even caring that she was covered in sand and small cuts along one side of her face from Zagan.
“I’m back,” she said. “Oh, I’m–” Wincing, Shalise put a hand to her forehead. “Ugh, he is still in here.”
“I have neither the inclination nor the time to see Praxtihr back to his cell,” Zagan said, all anger in his tone completely gone. “You can be his jailer for the foreseeable future. But, when you feel like dying, come see me. I will not forget his words. Allowing him to roam free would be a disappointment.”
With a light groan, she turned to Zagan. “Is there any way to make him shut up? He is saying very unkind things about your mother.”
“I have no mother.”
Shalise just nodded. Her nod cut off half-way. “That’s disgusting,” she said, putting on an expression that echoed her words.
“You’re the warden. I’m sure you can find some way to assert power over your prison. Good luck,” he said. Clapping his hands together, he turned to the rest of the group.
Lighting from her dagger dispersed as he glanced over it. Zoe frowned, but didn’t build up another charge. He had fixed Shalise. Though Zoe wasn’t about to forgive him, it was his fault in the first place. And Genoa was still injured thanks to him.
Glancing down at the woman, Zoe had half a mind to ask Zagan to fix her. So long as he was in a helping people mood, anyway. As she looked up towards Zagan, Zoe caught Eva’s eye.
The girl hadn’t even turned around during the whole ordeal behind her, instead focusing on Genoa. It wouldn’t surprise Zoe if she knew exactly what went on. Even aside from her ability to sense blood, this was Eva’s domain.
But Eva just shook her head slowly and solemnly.
Zoe nodded and decided not to ask anything of Zagan.
“I think that is everything on my to-do list for today,” he said. “My little embryonic one, do remember what we discussed. It especially applies to you, but also your little mortal friends. Well, back to…” His smile slid off of his face as he started walking towards the water. “I think I’ll bully Catherine into taking over my job for a few more weeks,” he mumbled just loud enough for Zoe to pick up.
With that, he dove into the water and disappeared.
Zoe sighed, tension disappearing from her shoulders. “Shalise,” she said, “are you alright?”
The brown-haired girl nodded. “I’m okay, just tired. I don’t think Prax slept at all in my body.” She paused for just a moment before a horrified look settled over her face. “They know I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Sleep,” Eva said. “You’re safe here. Unless Zagan comes back in a hissy-fit, that is. But that could happen anywhere. I don’t know how to make beds, but last time I was here, I found sleeping half in the water to be fairly pleasant.”
“You made that potion satchel,” Zoe said.
“Yeah, and I don’t know how I did that either.”
Arachne moved forwards and opened her mouth.
Eva sent her a glare, flaring her eyes bright red.
Arachne’s mouth shut with and audible clack.
“It would be best if you were to remain silent for now, Arachne.” Eva took a deep breath before half glancing over at Shalise. “So just pile up some sand into a pillow and take a nap.”
Shalise nodded, then shook her head. She walked over on unsteady feet. “I’d rather know what happened.”
“As would I,” Zoe said.
“It’s my fault,” Juliana said with a sniffle.
“I stole Eva’s book. Not Zagan.”
Zoe glanced at Eva. The black-haired girl didn’t react. She kept her focus on Genoa.
“Me,” Juliana continued. “I summoned that stupid demon. I drew the summoning circle Zagan used to send us to Hell. I played nice with the demon that forced my mom and Arachne to fight. And it is my fault mom’s–” Her voice cracked into a sob. “It didn’t look as bad on-screen. But part of her heart is missing.”
Zoe frowned, deciding to change the focus away from Juliana. That could be dealt with later. “Forced them to fight?” she asked Eva.
“The talkina dropped Genoa, Arachne, and myself into an arena. One of us dies, the others get to leave. Arachne was,” Eva glared again, “overzealous in her attempts at getting the rest of us out. If she had waited ten minutes, Zagan would have burst in to save the day without any of us significantly injured.”
“That’s not true,” Juliana said. “I summoned Zagan too. I only summoned him because mom got hurt. If Arachne hadn’t–I would have just kept sitting on my ass until Willie got bored enough to kill you all himself.”
Zoe pursed her lips, glancing between Juliana, Arachne, and Eva. Her gaze stopped at Genoa. Her mind raced over the sparse description of the events. She could probably ask for more details later, when Eva wasn’t concentrating on Genoa and Juliana wasn’t so hysterical. But her mind accurately summarized the events in three words. What a mess.
And, she thought, irritated, where is Wayne?
A gust of wind sent sand flying around.
Zoe erected a quick shield around their group. She didn’t want Eva to suffer any further distractions.
Wayne landed somewhat roughly on the beach a moment later. As clumsy as he was with his air magic, he still managed to cushion his fall enough to avoid Juliana’s fate of falling on his face. He carried a large case Zoe recognized as a portable potion kit and had a bandoleer of already made potions across his chest. More importantly, he had someone hanging off of his arm.
Laura Post. Brakket Academy’s head nurse. In the hand not wrapped around Wayne’s arm, she carried a large bag with a red cross on the front.
She took one look around the domain. One eye was covered with gauze and medical tape–the same eye patch she had worn since Zoe first met the nurse. Her single red eye did not widen in the slightest. No hint of surprise appeared on her face.
Her eye settled on Eva and Genoa. Without a word to Wayne, she unhooked her arm and half ran over.
Eva immediately started going over everything that was wrong and everything she had done to keep Genoa alive.
Not wanting to be in the professionals’ way, Zoe stood and moved next to Wayne, pulling Juliana along with her.
The blond gave no protests aside from a few sniffles.
“Nel told me what happened with Genoa before I came back,” Wayne said, answering her unasked question. “Figured Post was the best choice.”
Zoe leaned in and spoke quiet enough that Juliana shouldn’t hear. “Is she a demon?”
Wayne glanced at her with an eyebrow up.
“The red eye,” Zoe said. “It didn’t click until now, but it is a common feature among demons.”
“She’s been working at Brakket since you started school. Long before Martina showed up with her freak show.”
“When she looked around, she didn’t look surprised.”
Wayne’s frown deepened. “Are you going to complain if she can save the woman’s life?”
Zoe glanced down at Juliana. Demons had gotten them into a lot of trouble. But Laura hadn’t, to Zoe’s knowledge, ever done a thing aside from help the students. At the moment, she could be the only one who could stabilize Genoa enough to move her somewhere for real medical treatment.
Shaking her head, Zoe answered. “I suppose not.”
“Lurcher,” Laura’s voice called out, “I need some potions here.”
Wayne gave a grunt of acknowledgment as he started walking away.
Zoe sat down on the beach, uncaring of the sand, and wrapped her arms around Juliana. Shalise moved up next to Juliana, though kept a short distance away.
With bated breath, they waited.