Footstep after heavy footstep jolted Juliana awake.
She immediately wished that she had stayed in blissful unconsciousness. Everything hurt. If she had thought she was in pain before, that had been nothing compared to what she now felt. Her leg had been dislocated, fingernails broken, ankle crushed, arms broken, back battered and bruised, and her head throbbed. And that was just the big things.
But she was alive. A painful existence, but she existed nonetheless. If she were the more optimistic sort, she might consider the pain a good reminder that she was alive and be a little more thankful for it.
The stomping around above slowed to a stop. The unintelligible shouting hadn’t, however. From what little Juliana could understand, the hunter couldn’t find the stairs. Juliana wasn’t sure if that meant that the stairs were gone or if the hunter simply couldn’t see them.
A moment after the stomping stopped, jack-hammering started. Dust rained down from the ceiling, forcing Juliana to pinch her eyes shut.
“Persistent, isn’t she?”
Juliana raised her head for just one second, thinking she might take a peek at Zagan. A pain up her neck and down her spine stopped her cold. She instead left her head lying on the cold floor.
“I don’t–” Her words died in a cough. Turning to the side, Juliana spat out a bit of coppery blood. Her entire mouth tasted foul. One tooth felt a little loose. That probably wasn’t a good sign. Though it was relatively minor when compared with everything else wrong with her body. “I don’t suppose you can fix me up?”
“Can? Why yes, I can.” His voice grew closer. After a moment, she could feel his hot breath just to the side of her head.
“But you won’t.”
“Why don’t we find out why you thought it was a good idea to summon me, yeah?”
“You didn’t leave Earth on your own terms, just thought I’d bring you back.”
“And who says that I didn’t intentionally allow myself to be banished?”
Juliana opened her eyes, intent on glaring at Zagan with all the disbelief she could muster. His gold eyes met hers the moment she looked. It was enough to make Juliana jerk back, causing a sting of pain up her side.
“Alright. I admit it. I didn’t plan on being banished. I wasn’t quite sure what he had in his hand, but he kept trying to hit me with it. I wasn’t expecting him to throw it down my throat. I’ll be sure to tear his out when next we meet.”
“Ah. Except he doesn’t have a throat. Or much of a body above his legs. Eva killed him.”
“Then I shall visit upon her my congratulations,” he said in a tone of voice that made her think the last thing he wanted to do was congratulate Eva. “But he doesn’t matter, I suppose. He isn’t why you brought me here. I believe I have told you before how I feel about people summoning me to solve their petty problems.”
“What, you can’t enjoy a free ride to the mortal realm?”
He stared for just a moment, eyes darkening in disappointment. “If you truly wanted nothing from me, I suppose I won’t have to kill you.” Zagan turned towards the opening. He reached out a hand, casually moving through it as if the barrier hadn’t ever existed. “Now, where oh where is little Eva?”
“You… You’re leaving me?” Juliana said through grit teeth. It would be just like him to leave and not deal with the hunter upstairs. In fact, she should have expected it the moment she summoned him.
He turned back with a frown. “Should I not? Was there something more you wanted?” Zagan stared down at her with his golden eyes strangely mute. They lacked their normal sheen, their lust for something new.
Juliana had a strange feeling that no matter how she answered, Zagan would not be happy. Would he kill her? That was a harder question to answer. But he definitely was not about to deal with any of her problems. It was all too old for him.
“Fine,” Juliana said in a whisper. She threw herself over, rolling up onto her back and ignoring the pain that spiked pretty much everywhere on her body. “Fine! You want something new! Something to ease your boredom? Something you’ve never done before?” Grabbing the tattered hem of her shirt, Juliana exposed her chest.
Before even starting the summoning circle, she had drawn out one other circle. Rather, a triangle with three circles around it and one in the center. The sigils within the circle came entirely from her memory. She hadn’t even paid it all that much attention the one time she had seen it. But Zagan should realize what she meant. He would fix it.
If he agreed.
For the moment, he just stared.
Juliana waited with bated breath. If he didn’t agree—or worse, if Juliana was wrong and someone in the past had tried to do what she was doing—he would probably kill her for having the audacity to suggest such a thing. In fact, she could see him phrasing it exactly like that. And then when her mother bound her as a ghost to the deepest pit on the face of the Earth, he would probably come to kill her then as well. Which might be a good thing, now that she thought about it.
A sharp sound split the silence. Juliana flinched backwards. She didn’t have the energy to shield her face from whatever was coming, not that it would have helped.
But it didn’t matter. The sound had been a laugh. A single burst of a laugh that quickly descended into raving chuckles.
“Do you even understand what you have failed to smear over your chest?”
“I was working off my memory, okay!” Juliana shouted just before she collapsed onto her back, unable to take the strain of propping herself up on one elbow. “I saw it once and I didn’t even have my soul at the time.”
Zagan turned away from the open doorway, approached Juliana, and squatted down just to her side with the heels of his shiny shoes pressed flat against the ground. He reached out. A leather-gloved hand brushed over her ribcage just beneath her breast. His finger traced a circle before he pulled back.
“If that is even a half-accurate recreation of what was on your friend’s chest, it is no wonder she and her demon wound up so inside out.”
Juliana opened her mouth to respond. She didn’t quite make it. Though Zagan had both of his hands clasped together, she could still feel his finger pressing into her chest. It pressed deeper and deeper.
“What did you do?” The pressure started turning to pins and needles.
He just grinned.
Juliana couldn’t do much beyond squirm as the pins and needles turned to a hot branding iron. She opened her mouth to scream but all that came out was a strangled squawk. Then she realized something. Her body had been lying to her. Broken and mangled though it was, it hadn’t been in pain. What she had felt had merely been light aches.
As midnight black scars traced over her chest, Juliana realized exactly what real pain felt like.
Her hands clawed across her chest. Bones unbroken or broken, fingernails intact or not, it didn’t matter. Just so long as she tore off the skin on her chest.
But she never quite reached her chest. Zagan moved forward, pinning her hands beneath his shoes. Juliana could do nothing but sit and writhe.
Juliana didn’t know for how long it lasted. It couldn’t have been long, as Zagan would surely have grown bored of standing over her. However, end it did. All at once too. Juliana blinked her eyes in a daze, half wondering if she hadn’t just imagined all the pain on her chest. Everything else still hurt again, but nothing more than the same amount of hurt she had been in before Zagan touched her. In fact, it was strangely muted now.
She could still see and feel all her injuries. Zagan hadn’t cured her.
Letting out a short breath, Juliana raised her head just enough to see just what had happened to her chest. The blood she had smeared over herself had vanished entirely. In its place, deep black lines marred her chest. Neat lines as well. Like they had been drawn with a steady hand in permanent marker.
The sigil on Shalise’s chest had been a triangle. Of that, Juliana was certain. That was what she had drawn using her own blood. The markings in the circles had been the fuzziest part of the whole design in her memory. As for what was on the chests of the Brakket students who had bound demons, she had no idea. Anderson had tried to get her to bind a demon only for her to rebuff him.
Her mother wouldn’t have been happy.
Hopefully she wouldn’t kill Juliana for this.
However, the marking on Juliana’s chest wasn’t a triangle. A five point star sat on her chest within a larger circle. An endless string of words ran around the edge of the ring. Though Juliana couldn’t read whatever language it was written in, it seemed like the words changed the longer she followed the text. Like there were more words written in the space and she had to continue looping around to read them all.
It actually made her dizzy trying to stare at it.
Dropping her head back to the cement, she just breathed. The cool air soothed her throat and her lungs definitely needed the oxygen. All the while, Zagan stood over her and stared down. He kept her hands pinned beneath his shoes.
“What did you do?” she asked again, finally feeling ready to talk after a moment of silence.
“I corrected your mistakes. I gave elegance to your crude scrawling. I made it worthy of a higher being.”
At first, Juliana felt the beginnings of a scowl cross her face. Zagan’s words sunk in just a little deeper and the scowl shifted to a trembling smile. “So… You are agreeing?”
“Let me make a few things clear,” he said, squatting down while still keeping his feet on her hands—something she was glad to not be able to feel all that well with all the rest of her muted pain. One of his hands moved out to place a single finger beneath her chin. “You are likely not the first to have come up with this idea.”
Zagan stopped talking. His lips closed and he simply stared.
Once or twice in the past, he had grown extremely irritated when Juliana had interrupted his talking. But, at the same time, he might get angry if she didn’t say something. She swallowed, feeling the pressure of his finger beneath his chin, before looking up at him. “Likely?”
“It’s hard to say. I likely killed my summoners before they could think to ask.”
“You are in an interesting position. Martina is dead. My contract keeping me from harming school children is null and void. I could kill you for having the audacity to try to contract with me. But…” He trailed off, removing the finger from under her chin as he stood. “Is that not also boring? I have killed people before for a myriad of reasons. This… could be something worth trying once.
“Of course, how interesting this is will be entirely dependent on you. I am not like that cambion that infested your friend. Displease me and I will claw my way out of your body leaving nothing but a ruined husk behind.”
Juliana brushed her tongue across her dry lips, tasting tried blood as she went. Really, whether he killed her in the future or left her to die at the hands of the hunter, it probably wouldn’t matter. She would be dead either way. One of those ways sounded like she might at least be able to get revenge first.
“Fine,” she said. “I can keep you entertained. Even if I have to go to the ends of the Earth, Hell, or some other plane of existence.”
He leaned down again, grabbing the back of her hair with his hand. “I shall keep my hopes low,” he said, yanking her head to meet her eyes dead on. “For your sake.”
Juliana glared. Or tried to. As Zagan pulled back on her hair, her chest started burning. Quite a separate sensation from what she had just felt when he corrected her binding circle. It was… almost pleasant. A certain warmth. Like being stuck out in the cold for hours only to come home to a roaring fire. Except centered on her chest rather than her entire body.
Above her, Zagan wasn’t looking quite his usual self. He had turned transparent. Though not a ghostly sort of transparent. More like a black smoke in the rough shape of a man. His only real defining features were his gold eyes that lit up his smoggy face.
She breathed in before she could stop herself. Zagan’s smoky form flooded into her body, pushing up into her mouth and nose, and even her eyes and ears. She couldn’t stop him. She couldn’t breathe.
It only lasted a moment before every last wisp of Zagan had disappeared. Without him holding her head up, she fell, knocking her head against the ground. All at once, she could breathe again. Her blocked airway cleared and Juliana sucked down fresh air.
Zagan still squirmed around inside her. Heat still poured off the sigil on her chest. Just as she wondered how long it would go on for, the sigil pulsed a faint red. After it faded, she couldn’t feel anything. No heat, no Zagan.
And no fixes to her body. Her bones remained broken, even if the pain felt considerably muted. For some reason, she had thought she might heal. Prax inside Shalise altered her body. She had said that she healed better as well as had those giant muscles.
So shouldn’t she be able to do something similar? Zagan could probably heal extremely rapidly. Better than Prax.
Of course I can. But there are simpler ways to fix your body. Faster ways.
“Zagan,” she whispered. Obviously he was still around. He wouldn’t just disappear. And Shalise had said that she could talk with Prax while he had been inside her head. “How do I heal?”
The sigil on your chest grants access to all of me. If you wish to turn into my demonic bovine form, do so. If you wish to grow horns and wings, do so. If you wish to access my magic, do so. And my magic will allow you to heal your body instantly.
“But you’re not going to tell me.”
There is a certain amusement to be gained from watching you struggle. Do try to avoid erasing yourself from existence, however.
“That’s a possibility?” She didn’t get an answer, though she did get a strange sensation like she wanted to laugh except she really didn’t.
Instead she focused. She had never really needed to think about magic before using it. The effect she wanted from her magic, yes, but never magic itself. Now, however, she could feel something else. Something only barely tangible. She could feel it slip through her fingers—metaphorically—when she tried to draw on it. She had the idea of healing her body in mind, but it just failed to do anything.
But as she thought and focused, Juliana realized something. The hammering up above had ceased. She wasn’t sure when it had ceased, but she couldn’t hear anything. No heavy footsteps as the hunter walked around either. She might have given up and taken a seat or she might have left.
Juliana was leaning towards the latter. Especially once she got a whiff of the smoke.
The hunter hadn’t been able to break through the floor, probably because of Zagan, and was now trying to burn the place down?
She had to move quickly.
My power does not do anything directly. You must take a more… inverted approach to your problems.
“What, I have to try to hurt myself?”
Getting warmer. But skip the process. Hurting yourself is a process. Healing yourself is a process. Focus on your current state and how it relates to your desired end result.
Juliana remained still as she thought, glad she was on the floor. The air overhead was looking a little hazy. The black plastic around the chimney pipe had melted away. The hunter must have thrown something down there, but Juliana couldn’t see anything from her angle on the floor.
“End result,” Juliana mumbled to herself. “I am injured and broken. I want to be alive and well. But inverted? So dead?”
The intangible feeling of Zagan’s power vanished, torn from her grasp.
“Aww, worried about me?”
I’d rather not have my fun ended before it can begin.
“So that’s wrong then.”
You’re inverting the wrong part.
“I’m injured. The inverse of injured is healed?”
The power came back… and Juliana still didn’t know how to use it. It was just there, swirling around within her. Trying to grasp and use it still had it just falling from her metaphorical fingertips. It was almost like trying to use magic without a focus. Except she knew that Randal hadn’t used a focus to throw around his anti-magic orbs during the first event.
One time, Zagan said, irritation palpable in his voice. Watch closely. You must frame your current state properly in your mind. If you try to consider the opposite of your arm, you may wind up with nothing attached to your shoulder. For simple things, adding a simple opposite qualifier works nicely. The current state of your arm is broken. The opposite is unbroken.
As he spoke, she felt a tendril of his magic brush against her arm. With absolutely no flair or flashes, it fixed itself. There were no intervening states. One moment, her arm had been twisted to the side. The next it was straight on and fully healed. There wasn’t even a bruise left over.
“Alright. Okay. I think I can do that.”
She lifted up her arm, first inspecting it to ensure that it really had healed properly. Finding nothing wrong, she moved her gaze up to her fingernails. Or where her fingernails had been before pulling them off in trying to escape from the enigma. She started with one that was merely cracked and not completely missing. Start small, she thought. If something went wrong, she probably wouldn’t erase herself just trying to modify her fingernail.
“So it is broken, right?” Receiving no protest from Zagan, she grabbed hold of his magic and pushed it into her finger. “I want my nail unbroken.”
The second she spoke, her fingernail was back to normal. With a slight giddy feeling in her stomach, she moved on to one of her fingernails that had snapped off completely. “It’s off. And now on?” Juliana grinned as the fingernail reappeared on her finger.
To her surprise, the fingernail that had been lying on the cement near the shackles vanished as well. With a furrowed brow, she moved on to her next finger. “There is no fingernail here. And I want there to be one?” Again, her nail appeared in place of the slightly bleeding meat on the end of her finger. This time, however, the fingernail half dug into the cement was still there.
“Seems like kind of an obtuse way of thinking about things.”
Perhaps in the way you are using it. Come complain again after ten thousand years when you’ve discovered the possibilities of turning losses to victories, ups to downs, and love to hostility.
“If you can do that, then how did you lose in the first place?”
There are a few limitations, yeah? I cannot directly kill a sentient being. Not usually a problem as I can strip away defenses and then just tear them apart with my hands. I also don’t resurrect beings with souls as Death gets antsy. The hunter also had a sword and a ring made explicitly to counter demons. A couple other things that you’re not likely to encounter in the immediate future.
“Right,” Juliana said with a slight cough. “Well, I suppose I can do a similar thing to the smoke?”
I believe you have exhausted my assistance.
With that, his voice faded away, simmering in the back of her mind.
“Zagan?” Juliana tried. But he did not respond. “Fine. I can do this myself.”
First her body, then her escape.