Eva wasn’t jealous.
Not the slightest little bit.
Prax’s domain was something special.
Willie’s domain had been… less than entrancing. His theater was fancy enough, on the inside at least. But at no point could Eva recall just stopping and staring with a gaping mouth. The only thing of any real note was his golden bee statues. Those just didn’t appeal to Eva.
The first time she had entered Ylva’s domain, she was struck dumb with a sense of awe. The bottomless pit and the storm clouds overhead framed her throne, combined with the massive open space of her main room and it all added to her larger-than-life presence.
It was impressive, as was the rest of her domain, but it didn’t resonate with Eva.
Ylva’s domain fit her. It fit Eva’s regal image of Ylva. Yet, it wasn’t something that Eva thought she could spend an eternity within.
But Prax… he had a castle.
A big castle.
No. Not just big. Immense. Eva had to crane her neck to see the top of the tallest tower. It stretched so high into the sky–if sky was the proper word for it in Hell–that it took her stomach out from under her. The vertigo from staring had her stumbling a few steps as she fought to regain her balance.
That stumbling almost sent her over the edge of the bridge that connected the landing point to the main gate. The bridge was large enough that she should never have been within twenty feet of the edge, but Eva had wanted to see what they were bridging over.
A bottomless pit. Because of course it was a bottomless pit.
Jealous though she was of the castle itself, Eva could do without bottomless pits in her domain. Even if her domain ‘caught’ her should she fall, it really just seemed like an unnecessary hazard.
Moving away from the edge, Eva decided to focus on a portion of the castle a little lower. The main building.
Obsidian bricks that were probably larger than Eva standing on Arachne’s shoulders made up the entire structure. While the walls themselves were smooth and glossy, the shape was blocky and angled for the most part. No spikes adorned the walls, as she might have expected given how Shalise described Prax. The only thing similar were the four spires reaching above the tallest tower.
Now far from the edge, Eva felt safe glancing up once again. Dark clouds hung overhead, threatening rain. It probably wouldn’t start raining unless Prax or Shalise wanted it to, but the atmosphere was set.
As they approached the colossal wooden gate that separated the bridge from the castle proper, Eva’s initial shock wore off.
And she frowned.
Ylva’s domain fit her regal bearings. Willie’s domain had fit his theater-demon nature.
Eva hadn’t seen any other domains. She had visited Arachne’s domain, but had lacked eyes at the time. Same with the abattoir, if that was even an actual domain. As such, she didn’t have much to compare it to. But…
Prax’s domain did not fit him.
Not that she had ever seen or even spoken with the demon directly. But Shalise had described him and his mannerisms. A red-skinned muscle-bound hulk of a cambion did not quite mesh with the elegant structure before her.
Rather, this domain looked more like what she imagined Zagan lived in. He was titled the Great King, one of the seventy-two pillars of Hell, after all.
Eva wasn’t certain what did fit her image of Prax, but this… just wasn’t it.
Shaking her head, Eva glanced towards her companions.
Nothing bad had happened to Shalise upon dropping in. So that was.. good. But she also hadn’t said a word.
If Prax had done something to switch places with her again, Eva wasn’t certain what she would do. Zagan likely wouldn’t help out a second time. Eva still hadn’t made any progress on puzzling out what he might want that would be worth potentially drawing the Keeper’s attention by helping Shalise out of Hell.
But, Eva didn’t think that anything had happened. Shalise still walked with the gait Eva had grown used to over the past two years. Eva hadn’t seen much of her while Prax had been in charge–she had been far too concentrated on Genoa–but Prax had definitely carried himself differently. Stiffer and with a far wider stance.
Sister Cross–who, according to Shalise, was not a sister anymore–carried herself like a warrior. Her eyes were aglow with her brand of power, scanning each and every little detail for any kind of threat. She spent no time taking in the sights as Eva had.
After her fairly long nap, she was looking much better. The bags under her eyes were still there, but not half as dark. Eva had ended up fighting off two separate attacks of the enigmas while the former nun slept.
And yet, despite helping Shalise fend off the enigmas and keeping everyone safe, she still sent Eva a glare every couple of steps. And every single time, Eva tensed, just waiting for a bolt of lightning to fly in her direction.
Eva would not be missing the stress when it came time for her to return to the mortal realm.
“So,” Eva said, breaking the silence between glares, “who has control?”
“Don’t know yet.”
“Don’t know? How can you not know?”
“Neither of us have tried,” Shalise said. “Too afraid.”
Eva almost asked what she was afraid of, but Shalise continued without needing a prompt.
“Prax is afraid that I have control still. I’m afraid to mess up his domain beyond repair. Or, beyond my abilities to repair.” She took her eyes off of the massive gate to glance at Eva. “He’s not all that bad, so I’d rather not be needlessly cruel. It is his home.”
“Shalise,” Lynn Cross said, warning tone in her voice. “I would rather you not fraternize with the enemy.”
“It’s a bit hard when he’s stuck inside my head.”
Lynn’s lips pinched down to a single point. Eva watched as the flare in her eyes jumped up a few notches in intensity.
Eva quickly looked away before that glare could be leveled at her.
“As nice as it is that you’re so considerate of each other,” Eva said with her focus on Shalise and Shalise alone, “it would probably be a good idea to find out before anything happens. I’m already surprised that this place isn’t crawling with enigmas.”
Shalise tilted her head to the side, listening to whatever Prax was saying. “Depending on the exact nature of their origins, these creatures have likely gravitated towards domains of demons currently on the mortal plane. Given your frequent travels between here and there, the ‘walls’ may have weakened further in your case.”
“That,” Eva said, trying to keep her voice as neutral as possible for Shalise’s sake, “could have been useful information to have been told earlier.”
“He says that you never asked,” Shalise said.
Eva sighed. Well that’s just great. Her sigh cut off partway as a thought occurred to her. “Are you sure you want me in this domain then? Am I not knocking down walls with my very presence?”
“Could be,” Shalise said with a shrug. “Prax doesn’t think it will matter much. All of Void will be weakened to that point sooner or later.”
Turning away from Eva, Shalise looked up to the gate. She rested her hand on the dark wood. “But enough of that. Let’s try this. Do you want to, or shall I?”
Ignoring the look on Lynn’s face that said she wanted to interrupt, Eva fell silent as she watched and waited. Shalise continued to stare at the door with her head tilted to one side and her hand on the wood.
“But that won’t solve anything.” Shalise shook her head. After another moment of silence, she shrugged. “Alright, if you say so.”
With a ring of thunder, the door cracked open. Apart from the initial noise, the doors parted in a smooth and silent manner. The hinges, each as tall as Eva herself, didn’t even squeak.
It stopped only a sliver of the way open. A sliver relative to the size of the doors themselves. Eva, Shalise, and Lynn were all able to walk in shoulder-to-shoulder with space to spare.
“So?” Eva said as they walked through the courtyard up to the main entrance.
“Still don’t know. We tried at the same time. Count of three and everything.”
Eva rolled her eyes. “Well, at least one of you has it. Better than neither–”
“Wait.” Shalise glanced around, scanning the exterior of the castle. “Someone is here.”
Eva ignited her hands without hesitation while her dagger found its way to her hand. The three vials of Arachne’s blood at her hip quivered in anticipation, though she did not uncork them just yet.
Already combat-ready, Lynn only increased her vigil. Eva did shy away from a handful of sparks that started dancing across the backs of her hands.
“Who would be here? Not any humans, right? More enigmas?”
Shalise shook her head. “No. It is a demon. But who– O-oh.” She backed up a few steps. “Should we l-leave?”
Whatever Prax was saying, Shalise wasn’t liking a word of it. Her face drew back into a tight frown.
“What?” Shalise jumped. Muscles started growing beneath her skin.
Shalise hated Prax’s muscles. If she was growing them out, it was probably something serious.
Ignoring the disgusted look that Lynn was giving her own daughter, Eva brought Arachne’s blood up before her. Some went into a shield, ready to activate at a moment’s notice, while the rest started orbiting her shoulders.
“And what if she isn’t friendly?” Shalise shouted. “You do remember that you crushed her skull the last time you met her. I might hold a bit of a grudge if you did the same to me.”
“Who are you talking about?”
Shalise glanced to her side with wide eyes. “Prax’s mother.”
“Oh.” Eva frowned. Shalise had told her the story of her prison adventures, but couldn’t remember more than a simple mention of Prax’s mother. Something about Prax murdering her with Shalise’s hands. There was probably more, but that had been several months ago.
One thing was certain, this demon’s presence was doing a good job of frightening Shalise.
But between herself and Lynn Cross, they should be able to hold their own, right? Besides, this was Prax’s domain, not his mother’s.
Eva shook her head. She had made poor decisions in the past, especially regarding demons and their domains. If Prax ended up convinced to act against them, they could wind up in the same situation as when they had gone on their ill-advised assault against Willie. Depending on how much control he actually had and how much he could actually interfere with Shalise.
Backing up a few steps, Eva said, “we should leave before we get too far from the way out.”
“I agree with the abomination,” Lynn Cross said. Ignoring Eva’s glare, she continued speaking. “The enigmas were known quantities. Annoying, but easily dealt with. If we are forced to remain within this nightmare, it is best we avoid demonic enemies.”
“Prax agrees,” Shalise said with a nod. “The reason he believes that she won’t attack us is because this is his domain. He possesses the power here. Theoretically, anyway. For her to willingly show up and wander about means that she likely came here seeking an alliance of some sort.”
“An alliance?” Eva frowned. “Against wha–Enigmas?”
“Possibly, Prax says. She was imprisoned for helping other demons join her on Earth in some sort of freedom fighting thing–” Shalise paused for just a moment. “Oh, that’s wrong. More of a conquering kind of thing.”
“Great for her. Doesn’t mean we should go talk to her.”
Lynn laid a hand on the younger girl’s shoulder.
“Shal, you’ve been repeating the words of this… demon,” she spat the word with clear distaste. “Even as he intrudes on your mind, you defend his opinion. One that may wind up with us all dead. You don’t feel this way. You’ve seen this demon before and she scares you; you want to leave.
“So trust your instincts, Shalise. Listen to yourself, rather than him, and let us be gone from this place before it is too late.”
Shalise’s eyes flared. Not quite a demonic flash of red, but there was unmistakable anger behind her eyes. The muscles in her arm tensed.
Eva tensed up, waiting for Shalise to strike first. She could imagine the words Prax must be whispering in her ear.
She thinks you’re weak. But you don’t need to listen to her, Shalise. We have the power here. She hates you and fears you for having me in your head.
Or something along those lines, in any case.
Whatever his whisperings were, they weren’t enough. Tension drained from Shalise along with her muscles. She slumped into Lynn, nodding into her chest.
“You’re right. Let’s go.”
Eva watched as Shalise’s face winced. Probably at whatever Prax was saying now–insults, Eva was willing to bet.
Keeping herself tense, Eva stayed ready for any sign of trouble.
But nothing happened. No pits opening beneath them. No hot tar pouring off the battlements. No sign of any domain manipulation acting against them.
Either Prax was more subtle than Eva was giving him credit for or Shalise still had power. Or Prax had decided that insulting Shalise was enough, probably deciding that speaking with a mother that had recently had her skull crushed by him was a poor idea.
Eva was somewhat hoping for the latter option as it would prove that Prax was at least somewhat reasonable.
With Eva watching their backs and Lynn watching just about everywhere else, they made their way back across the bridge and to the waters of Hell.
“Remember,” Eva said, “you don’t want to get lost and wind up in some other demon’s domain. Think of me, repeating my name can’t hurt either.”
Eva stood back and watched as they, hand in hand, jumped into the water.
Unlike hers and Ylva’s domains, Prax had his waters looking almost more like a swimming pool than a beach. Obsidian bricks surrounded a pit of water. It wasn’t actually a swimming pool–it lacked walls and a floor within the basin, as it was all part of the ‘ocean’–but it gave off the appearance from above.
There were no ladders or steps to get in and out. The water level was a good body-length beneath the top of the bricks. Arachne could probably get out without much trouble, but a lot of demons would have problems climbing out.
That tied into his defenses for the area. The landing into his domain was immediately overhead. A cushioned platform that looked as if it could be opened into a trapdoor, dropping any unwanted guests straight back into the rest of Hell.
Eva wasn’t certain that it was possible to re-enter the same domain that she was leaving from–she had never tried–but if it was possible, they would just land back in the waters a second time.
Willie’s domain had been almost the exact opposite of Prax’s domain. His started out with a boat ride designed to disorient and confuse, ultimately making it incredibly difficult to actually leave. His guests would be trapped in with whatever amusements he concocted until he decided to release them.
Prax seemed intent on keeping unwanted demons out of his domain. The castle, the walls, the gate, the easily defensible bridge, and this. They all deterred invaders.
Probably something Eva should set up in her own domain. Even if someone just landed in a solitary confinement cell until Eva set them free, it would at least be a start.
And it might contain the enigmas for easier disposal. A much better plan than the current ‘allow them to run free on the beach’ method.
Stepping up to the edge of the pool, Eva stopped with both of her feet half over the edge.
She glanced around the room. There was some kind of uniform light throughout Prax’s domain. No light sources, but Eva could see.
And something was casting a shadow. Probably nothing. She couldn’t see anyone through her sense of blood. Eva guessed that it was a trick of the light and nothing more, but…
“How long are you going to skulk about? If you wish to speak, speak.”
If it was nothing, it might have been embarrassing. But no one else would be around to know, so the point was moot.
If it was something, then calling out was just one step on the path cultivating her own appearance as a mysterious and omniscient demon.
Waiting, Eva stared around the room. Her gaze slowly swept from one side to the other, sweating this possibly non-existent person out.
Eva sighed. Guess it was nothing after all, she thought.
A flash of movement had Eva’s head whipping around before she could step forward.
It was nowhere near the shadow on the wall.
Keeping her blood ready for a shield at a moment’s notice, Eva watched as a silver-haired woman stepped around a pillar on the opposite side of the room.
Eva only absently noted her long-coat and boots, choosing instead to focus on the sword attached to the woman’s hip.
It was, thankfully, sheathed.
And yet, somewhat concerning. Eva could not think of a single demon that used tools. Every one of them chose to fight with bare hands. That included Ylva, possibly the most civilized demon that Eva knew of.
“You knew I was here,” she said, voice coming out cold and hard, though still in a whisper.
Too busy fighting the surprise off of her face, Eva couldn’t even celebrate the success of her seeming-omniscient plan. The woman’s voice itself was almost as bad as the voice Ylva used while speaking from her throne.
Worse, if not for trusting her own sight, Eva wouldn’t be able to tell that this person was in the room at all. She had no blood. At least not that Eva could see. She had no presence or bearing.
She wasn’t even breathing.
Had she stood still on a pedestal, Eva was certain that she would pass her off as a particularly detailed statue.
Eva slid her feet slightly closer to the edge, ready to drop off. If the woman suddenly attacked, her own domain would be far more defensible.
“You were following us,” Eva said. Again, she was bluffing and possibly pushing her omniscience too far. For all Eva knew, the woman had just shown up. But it had worked well enough the first time around.
Besides, this didn’t look like someone she should show weakness to.
“The Keeper is displeased. Cells that were once full must be filled again.”
Eva almost leapt off into the pool at that. Her first thoughts were that this woman was here for Shalise. If so, Shalise needed to be warned.
They really needed to get her out of Hell.
But Eva stayed where she was. There was another, more likely reason why this woman was inside Prax’s domain.
“You’re here for the demon hiding here. That demon is hiding from you?”
The woman nodded, sending her ponytail up and down in a light bob.
“Hiding here? Why? This isn’t her domain. She has no advantage or power over this place. Her own–” Eva cut herself off. That was a stupid question. Obviously, she was hiding here because they would look for her in her domain.
But if she left a place she had total control over for a place inhabited by a possible enemy… “You did something to her domain, you broke it or somehow made it inhospitable, didn’t you?”
“The Keeper then.”
The woman remained silent, neither affirming nor denying Eva’s suggestion.
Neither spoke for a time. Eva watched the woman like a hawk while she thought.
Really, it was a pretty stupid decision in Eva’s opinion, showing up at Prax’s domain even though he had also escaped from that prison. At least, that was Eva’s first thought. Given how Willie had treated her, perhaps going with a known quantity was always better than going to some random demon’s domain. Together, they might have been able to fend off assaults. That was what Prax’s domain had been designed for.
Except Prax wasn’t here.
And now Eva might have given Prax’s jailers the key to finding him.
Eva gave a quick mental curse. “Well, don’t let me stop you. I’ve no love for the demon here.”
With that said, she stepped forward–actually blinking just above the surface of the water.
It engulfed her before the woman could respond. Eva felt the familiar yank as she was pulled off to her domain.
Shalise needed to be hidden better or cured of her Prax affliction. Immediately.