Category Archives: Book 004

004.028

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Juliana awoke with a start, eyes stinging as a few droplets of sweat fell.

Another nightmare, she thought, lifting her head from where it rested on her mother’s bed. At least this one had something more than just her mother dying in various horrifying ways. It had been a reminder about something she had forgotten.

Something she couldn’t allow to remain forgotten.

“This is not a long-term care ward.”

The light in the infirmary was set as low as it could possibly go without actually being off. Still plenty bright to see, but it did give contrast to the bright light shining through a crack in Nurse Post’s office door.

“With your wife stabilized, I’m going to have to ask you to move her. We can handle the finer details, but we still need your approval.”

Juliana glanced down at her mother and got the impression of peace. Her sleeping face appeared at rest, compared to the contortion of pain she was in back in Hell. A remarkable state considering her sternum had shattered, several ribs were broken, and several internal organs and blood vessels were raw and fresh.

A machine was hooked up to her chest, acting entirely as her heart. That particular organ would need to be regrown entirely.

And yet, her face was calm as if she were resting on a sunny beach.

Painkillers worked wonders.

“I understand,” Carlos’ voice drifted through the office door. “Thank you for everything you’ve done.”

“Of course. Happy I could help. Now, if you’ll just take a seat, we can go over a few things.”

Juliana tuned them out. It sounded like they would be busy for a while and she didn’t want to disturb them. After scrawling a quick note on a tablet on the bedside table, Juliana left Brakket Academy’s main infirmary.

And promptly ran into a small entourage. Her breath hitched as she watched the members go by. Dean Turner led the group, followed closely by a man in a long dark coat. At his side was a primary source of Juliana’s consternation.

Zagan.

The devil moved with the group yet he felt distant from it all. The man in the dark coat was speaking to him, but if Zagan was listening, he gave no indication. He did not, however, miss Juliana standing stock still. Flashing his white teeth, Zagan gave a casual wave in her direction.

Which only brought everyone’s attention down on her.

Dean Turner was the first to angle towards Juliana. Zagan followed without hesitation, forcing the man in the coat and a fourth member–the secretary, if Juliana remembered right–to head over as well.

“Miss Rivas,” Dean Turner said in greeting. “Is your mother..?”

“Stabilized and resting. My dad is discussing what hospital to move her to for longer-term observation and treatment.”

“That is good to hear.”

Juliana nodded, leaving her head aimed at their feet after her nod; Zagan was looking at her as if expecting her to ask something of him and Juliana had no idea what. He had already made it clear that asking for additional assistance was grounds for termination. She was still a student and he was presumably still under contract, so he probably wasn’t expecting a comment about that.

Unless he wasn’t expecting her to ask for something. Looking up to meet his golden eyes, a response formed in Juliana’s mind. “Thank you,” she said, “for getting us out of there.”

His eyes widened a tiny fraction, giving Juliana the impression that he had been expecting something else entirely. Which was probably a good thing. He had said, upon being summoned, that the only reason she wasn’t dead was because of the novelty of a situation he had never experienced before.

So surprises were one of his weaknesses. She’d have to go and think up a bunch if she wanted to be in good standing with the devil who so casually dispatched the demon her mother, Arachne, Eva, and herself had all failed to inflict meaningful damage upon.

After his brief surprise passed, he gave a slight bow in return, saying nothing.

Both the secretary at his side and the man in the coat gave him something of an evil glare.

“If there’s nothing else,” Juliana said, “I was just on my way to my dorm room…”

“Oh, don’t let us hold you,” Dean Turner said. “You should be with your mother, family, and friends in times like these.”

Juliana nodded and slipped around them, ignoring the quiet remarks at her back. She wasn’t much interested in conversation with any of them.

Power-walking back to her dorm room, Juliana sang out a string of curses under her breath. All of them were directed at herself. Five days. Five whole days passed and she had let herself forget one of the most important things.

She was in an all out run by the time she reached the third floor.

Throwing the door open and flying into the room, Juliana skidded to a stop in front of her desk. It took mere seconds of rifling through her drawers to find the object of her current ire.

A small glass eye, fit for a doll.

Gripping the loathsome object in her hand, Juliana threw it with all her might.

It shattered against the floor, sending pieces every which way.

Not willing to take a single chance, Juliana pulled out the dustpan and brush from underneath the sink and set to work. Everywhere had to be checked. Under her bed, under her desk, Eva and Shalise’s beds and desks. Her meticulous sweep of the room reached everywhere even a speck of glass could have gone.

It wasn’t a short job. A full broom might have made it go faster, or at least easier on her back, but Juliana was somewhat glad she had to make do with the mini broom. It was just another sort of penance for screwing everything up.

With the pan full of glass dust, Juliana dumped it all into a plastic bag. She then embedded the bag into her armor, forming the metal around it to keep every last bit sealed off.

Now she just needed to find a fire mage capable of creating enough heat to melt glass. Professor Lurcher should do. He would probably be happy to get rid of a potentially dangerous object.

Back creaking as she stood, Juliana turned and promptly froze. Again. Second time in as many hours.

Ylva ducked into the room. Not quite fitting with her height, she had to keep slouched over. With a frown marring her sharp features and speaking volumes of her displeasure with the height situation, a pillar of fog enveloped the giant.

From the fog emerged a tiny version of Ylva that came roughly up to Juliana’s chest. Tiny-Ylva took one glance around the room, looking significantly more satisfied, before she focused on Juliana.

“Y-Ylva?” Juliana tried not to stutter, but having the demon just show up had all sorts of thoughts running through her mind. Especially given recent experiences with demons whom she thought were friendly. “What are you doing here?”

“We had little chance to speak after your ordeal and wished to ensure your wellbeing.”

“I’m okay, I guess.” Juliana shook her head, slumping back and finding purchase on the edge of her bed. “No, I’m not okay. I’m angry. I’m upset. Every time I shut my eyes, I see my mother lying on the ground, dying in various ways. Sometimes someone is standing over her, blood dripping from their hands. Willie, Arachne, Zagan, even Eva and you.

“But most of the time, it’s me over her body.”

Ylva stood still for a moment in thought. With a slight frown touching the edges of her lips, she strolled forwards. Eva’s bed sank slightly as Ylva hopped on top. Too short to reach the ground, her legs swung in the air.

“Blaming yourself will lead to misery. Willie should be the subject of your anger. He set up the situation and forced the others into it. Perhaps Zagan as well, for dropping you into Hell to begin with. Though We cannot agree with his methods, his discovery may have been well worth your sacrifice.”

Juliana shuddered, remembering his words to Eva back in Willie’s domain. “I don’t know what we’re supposed to do about that.”

“Perhaps nothing can be done. Time will tell.”

Frowning, Juliana nodded. Though it was evident that her attentions were well meant, it didn’t quite provide the comfort Ylva’s tone implied it should. None of her words did.

After sitting in silence for a long moment, Juliana looked tiny-Ylva in the eyes. “Can I trust you?”

“Have we given you cause to distrust Us?”

“No,” Juliana said after a moment of consideration, “but neither had Willie when he decided killing everyone was a good idea.”

Tiny-Ylva closed her eyes and crossed her tiny arms over her tiny chest, her tiny head nodded once. “Then We shall strive to not repeat his mistakes.”

Juliana supposed that was the best she would get. It wasn’t like Ylva couldn’t kill her just by reaching out a hand and touching her.

Lifting her ring finger into the air, she asked a single question. “What is this?”

“Our gift to you for services rendered.”

“Do I belong to you?”

“In a sense. Demons are selfish beings and possess ways of claiming property. Rest assured that We do not consider you as such. You are free to remove the ring and, should you so choose, never lay eyes upon Ourself again.”

For a moment, Juliana looked at the ring and considered removing the light devouring band. She ended up dropping her hand back to her lap with a shake of her head. Ylva hadn’t given a reason to distrust her. Not only that, but she had also helped Zoe, Eva, and her mother to find Shalise and herself.

Although…

“Why did you not come yourself? Willie was scared of you.”

Ylva closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. “We consider Ourself a ruler. Prior to our interactions with Eva, We have not had chance to exercise Our majesty. Delegation is key for one in power and We believed that your mother, Eva, and Arachne were sufficient for the task of reclaiming you.”

Juliana started to open her mouth to say how wrong that was, but Ylva was not finished.

“In addition, We lacked knowledge of Great King Zagan’s motivations. He would not have missed the ring on your finger. We considered his actions an attack on Our person. Extended absences from Our domain could see its connection to reality severed without a fight.”

“He still dropped us into Hell, you don’t consider it an attack anymore?”

“Perhaps. As We spoke of earlier, the knowledge he gained may afford him amnesty, such is the importance of the information. Even should it have resulted in your sacrifice.”

Juliana pulled her eyes off of Ylva, looking down at her hands. Of course, she thought, what measure does a mere mortal hold next to ‘Great King Zagan’ and Hell? Oddly enough, she didn’t think in a sarcastic tone.

“We say as much not to disparage or detract from your personal importance. We merely wish to impress the gravity of the situation.”

“I know,” Juliana said with a nod. That didn’t make her feel better. Though…

Juliana looked up, determination filling her eyes. “To confirm, you can’t heal my mom?”

“Our abilities take lives, not repair them. Were she mortally injured, We might hold Death at bay for a time. Eva has already performed that task most admirably.”

That was what she had expected to hear, so Juliana gave a short nod. “Then, perhaps you might be willing to assist me in a little side project that I’ve decided to take up.”

Ylva tilted her head to one side.

“I know it might not matter with the Hell thing, but there are books I’ve decided to collect. Or their pages, specifically. Anything related to talkina or Willie.”

— — —

“Do you understand why I am angry with you?”

“I hurt your mortal friend’s mother.”

“Wrong.” Eva stared at Arachne, waiting for any response. Eight red eyes stared back without wavering.

When she realized no response was coming, Eva shook her head. “You cheated. You liked fighting Genoa. Genoa liked fighting you. I’m sure she would have been happy to die in a real battle with you. But you cheated. Worse, you used me. You made her think that you were going to kill me. And she jumped in to save me, getting hurt in the process.”

Eva shook her head. “I thought you were going to kill me. Or attack me, at the very least.”

“I wasn’t going–”

“It doesn’t matter what you were going to do. When you turned your head in my direction, my heart just about jumped out of my chest. And then you started charging at me.”

Eva pressed a sharp claw against Arachne’s chest. “What if Genoa hadn’t jumped in the way? Would you have stopped? Kept going? Maybe you would have barreled over me like a rag on the floor.”

“That was not my intention. I was merely exploiting a flaw in humans to allow us to escape from the demon per his rules of engagement.”

The finger poking into Arachne’s chest remained there for a moment as Eva stared into Arachne’s eyes. Eventually, she let her arm drop with a sigh. “The worst part is that I don’t know if you can even be held responsible for your actions.”

That got a slight head-tilt from Arachne, causing her hair tendrils to slide off to one side.

“While we were all fighting,” Eva explained, “I got very wrapped up in the illusion. To the point where I was practically crying over one of things that passed as a minion. After they were all dead, it still took a few minutes before I snapped out of it. I don’t know if the same was true for Genoa or not, but you had a lot of minions still alive.”

Arachne opened her mouth. Only a sliver. Just enough to see the sharp tips of her teeth between the strips of carapace that passed for her lips. She closed her mouth without saying a word.

“Even beyond that, I hear voices down here. Or a voice, at least.”

“Void.”

Eva nodded. “You know what He tells me?” At Arachne’s slight shake of her head, Eva continued. “Promises of power, destined for greatness. Garbage like that. Shalise,” Eva pointed her thumb somewhere over her shoulder, “said that she gets ‘complained about.’ I have yet to ask Juliana, but while rambling at Genoa’s side, she mumbled out something about a voice helping her. What do you get told, Arachne?”

Arachne’s stiff lips opened in a sort of grimace. Her interlocking teeth grit together. “Complained about. That fits His words for me well enough. Typically, they’re single words. Pathetic. Imbecile. Fool. Disgrace. So on and so forth.”

“No whispers to attack the rest of us?”

Eva had to back slightly away. Arachne started shaking her head back and forth with gusto. “No, nothing like that. They’re always directed at me.”

“Well,” Eva said after a moment. “I suppose that’s good. That still leaves us with the problem of what happened to Genoa. I don’t know if you were affected by whatever affected me, I don’t know if you know whether or not you were affected. And I’m not going to try to figure it out. I’m going to assume you were, and I do not wish to hear anything more about it.

“Since I know you well enough to know that you would never even consider this, I’ll just tell you. Apologize to Genoa–”

This time, Arachne’s mouth opened wide. Some noise started to come out before Eva held up her hand.

“I’m not finished. Apologize to Genoa and Juliana–”

“She stole your book. Got us into this mess in the first place.”

Eva’s frown deepened. “Maybe true, maybe not. Zagan needed to pick someone and it probably would have been them anyway just because of their relation to us. Besides, I did the same thing. Remember me setting an imp on Master before he decided to sit me down and actually teach me a little about diablery?”

A small smile flittered across Eva’s face at the memories. A wistful sigh escaped her lips. “Good times. Of course, I had begged him several times to teach me things and he refused until I stole his book and set the imp on him, so there might be some difference there.”

“You’re not upset that she lied to you?”

“Somewhat, but I think Juliana is punishing herself more than I ever could.” Eva cracked her knuckles, though her exoskeleton lacked the typical sound. “I might have to impress upon her some proper demon handling knowledge in the future.”

Eva shook her head. “You’re getting me off topic. Apologize. To both of them. Maybe Carlos too. Get on your hands and knees and sincerely apologize. You heard what Zagan said. We don’t need Genoa coming after you for revenge.”

“She–”

“I don’t know if she will forgive you. I wouldn’t, in her position. She has every right to be angry. You’ve broken the trust she put in you.” As Arachne opened her mouth to protest, Eva spoke over her. “And don’t say she didn’t trust you. She fought mostly friendly spars with you. You said yourself that you two fought as a team against the monsters that attacked Brakket. And, most obvious of all, she let you near her daughter.

“So go, apologize. Maybe regain some trust, maybe to just keep her from killing you in a moment of weakness out of spite.”

Eva locked her gaze onto Arachne. She kept from blinking, focusing all of her attention on the demon in front of her.

Arachne stared back.

As the seconds turned to minutes, Arachne’s gaze started to waver. Eventually, she tipped her head to glance at the floor.

“Alright.”

It was almost too quiet to hear by normal means. Within her domain, Eva quickly found she could hear and see anything that happened.

“Good.

“We’ve talked about trust before; several times over the years, but I’m specifically thinking of the last time we were in Hell together. When you tricked me into exchanging hands.” Eva waved one of those hands around for a little extra emphasis. “This time, this one time, I will choose to wallow in ignorance. I will choose to believe that harming me never crossed your mind. That the talkina was controlling your actions, at least to an extent. All so we can maintain some trust between us.”

With a smile slowly forming on her face, Eva reached up and gave Arachne’s shoulder a comforting squeeze.

“You’ve been my friend for a long time, Arachne. Ever since that night you killed those bastards. Even if you saw me as nothing other than a pathetic mortal for a few years after that, I liked you. I want to keep liking you. So don’t, please don’t do anything to betray my trust.”

Arachne glanced up, sharp eyes boring into Eva. “I won’t.”

“I am happy to hear that.”

Giving Arachne one final squeeze of her shoulder, Eva turned away. Walking around the large couch in the room, she moved up to the window and looked out.

So long as she kept her eyes off the sky, everything looked just like the women’s ward courtyard. The sandstone walls and path, the dirt and weed covered ground, a few long dead rose bushes beneath the windows, it was all there.

Inside was even less distinguishable from the real world. The couch even had some dried patches of Zoe’s blood from when her home was attacked. With the ceiling overhead, the pitch black, starless void of a sky wasn’t visible.

Shalise lay on a clear patch of dirt with her hands clasped over her stomach, looking serene as she gazed up at the emptiness.

Opening the door from the fake-women’s ward, Eva walked out.

Arachne followed a few feet behind until she reached the doorway. There she stopped.

Upon reaching Shalise, Eva lay down on the ground next to her. For a few moments, no one said anything. Eva simply stared up at the sky alongside her friend and roommate.

The all-encompassing void was just so empty. There was nothing to look at. At the same time, it felt like it could reach down and swallow her whole. Not exactly a pleasant sensation.

As the silence dragged on, the shrinking feeling passed. Boredom replaced it soon enough. There was nothing to look at. At least a regular sky had stars or clouds. The sky in her domain was like staring at a wall. A very uninteresting wall.

And Shalise had been out here staring for at least an hour now. Then again, she had someone in her head to talk with. Something Eva both lacked and was quite glad she lacked. Though that lack did not help with the growing sense of boredom.

So Eva broke the silence first.

“Doing alright?”

In her peripheral vision, Eva watched as Shalise tilted her head to look at Eva. “I suppose,” she said. “Prax has stopped making a fuss for the most part. I told him that I would go back to the prison and figure out a way to get him back in his cell. He might have been lying to me when he said it in the prison, but seeing the world through my eyes for a few decades can’t be worse than staring at a hellhound every day.”

Eva gave a short, almost forced laugh. “I can see that being a pain. But it might be for the best if we tried anyway.”

“Still no plan?”

“Not a clue. Arachne doesn’t think that summoning Prax will work because you aren’t Prax. At the same time, you carry Prax so Ylva can’t let him pass through her domain into the real world. Not without going to the Keeper’s prison herself, that is.”

Stretching her arm into the air above them, Shalise started to fill it out with muscles. Her arm rapidly went back to normal before the tips of her fingers started being affected.

“That’s kind of disturbing,” Eva said.

“You have Arachne’s hands and legs.”

“Point,” Eva said as she lifted her own arm up into the air alongside Shalise’s arm. Despite moving it around in the dirt, not a speck of dust stuck to it. Thank you strange Domain magic, she thought.

They both let their arms fall at the same time. Shalise released a small sigh as hers hit the ground.

“It’s probably for the best. At least down here I don’t have to see the look on Sister Cross’ face when she finds out.”

Eva snorted. “At least you only have to worry about a look. She’ll try to kill me when she finds out about Prax, and again when she realizes you went to Hell, and yet again when she finds out you’re still here.”

That got a short laugh out of Shalise, though it died off with another sigh.

“We’ll get you out of here,” Eva said. “Or maybe it won’t even matter much in the future.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Just something Zagan said.”

Shalise let out a short huff.

“When he dropped the two of you into Hell, I don’t think you went straight to that prison. From what you told me, there was about a week’s worth of time that just went missing. I don’t know what he did with you two or your souls–and I am very glad you have them back–but he used them to figure out something disturbing.”

“More disturbing than losing our souls in the first place?”

“Maybe. Though, as disturbing as it is, it might mean a way home for you.

“Zagan said that someone or something is trying to bring Void–the Power that essentially runs Hell–and all of this,” Eva swept her hand across the sky, “into the mortal plane.”

>>Author’s Note 004<<

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004.027

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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.”

“Just…”

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.

Zoe blinked.

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.

More 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.

“No. Zagan–”

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.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


004.026

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“Tell me, Juliana Laura Rivas, what makes you better than those that have been felled by my hand?”

Juliana’s mind raced. This was yet another mistake. Diablery got her into this mess. Whatever could have possessed her to make her think diablery would get her out of it.

Stupid, stupid, stupid! The only bright side to this was the slim chance that Zagan might go kill Willie after he killed Juliana. It was his fault that she had called Zagan here in the first place.

Maybe if she made enough noise, Willie would come back down and they would fight right away.

Hot air curled around her face as Zagan spoke. “Well? I’m waiting.”

No. Whatever fuss she made would get her killed long before Willie could appear.

Juliana blinked. Willie wasn’t already here. Strange. When she had summoned him back on Earth, he had been able to sense Zagan from halfway across the city. Even though he was presumably overhead, he wasn’t rushing down here to eject Zagan from his domain.

A thought crossed her mind, eliciting a short laugh. Maybe he’s already run off, tail between his legs.

“Something funny?”

“N-no,” Juliana said. Her smile vanished from her face in an instant.

Nothing funny at all. Even if he had fled, Juliana still had no idea how to reach her mother.

For that, she would need Zagan’s help.

What, exactly, was Zagan hoping to hear from her?

Probably nothing.

A better line of thought to consider was what she could say that wouldn’t slot her into one of the two categories. Juliana certainly did not believe she could command or control the man. Her case was a whole lot closer to a wish.

Who am I kidding, Juliana thought with a sigh. It is a wish. She wished she wasn’t in Hell anymore. She wished Willie would go and die. Above all, she wished her mother would be okay.

Juliana’s sigh cut off part way. Zagan didn’t ask which category she fit in. He already knew. He had said as much. No, what he asked was what made her special.

What did make her special.

She was an above average mage thanks to her mother, at least in comparison to others her age. But what else? She knew plenty of demons, but did that count? That was more Eva’s thing. Juliana only got involved in that by chance. Had Eva been assigned one dorm room over, Irene and Shelby would be in her and Shalise’s place.

Ylva might be something special. The ring she had been given wasn’t regular in any sense of the word.

Juliana rubbed the smooth band with her thumb.

Even it was given almost on a whim. A ‘reward’ for a menial task. How much of a reward it actually ended up as was somewhat questionable. Sure, it kept a couple of demons off her back, Prax’s mother and Willie–at the start at least. But, according to Prax, she was now marked as belonging to Ylva in some manner or other.

No, that didn’t count. Anything unique about her could be attributed solely to the people around her. Chance meetings and chance happenstance.

Hanging her head, Juliana broke eye-contact with the still waiting demon. “Nothing,” she mumbled

“What was that?”

“Nothing,” she repeated, raising her voice. “Nothing makes me special, okay? I’m just a regular thaumaturge who has gotten in over her head in so many things.”

The grim line that made up Zagan’s mouth turned downwards into a frown. Juliana’s heart sank as he pulled away from her.

Closing her eyes, Juliana waited. She had a feeling that she knew what his decision was going to be. No way she wanted to see it coming.

“Not the answer I expected,” he said.

Juliana flinched back at feeling his hands touch her cheek. Still, she did not open her eyes. Not even as his moist tongue ran up her opposite cheek. Hot saliva dragged up from her chin to her temple. His hand gripped hard, preventing her from flinching back.

And then the tongue was gone.

The heat remained.

“I am old, Juliana,” he said, removing his hand from her face. “Very old. Were you to see my age written out numerically in mortal years, your brain could very well short out. The sheer incomprehensibility of my age to a mortal such as you should leave you trembling.”

Juliana did have a slight tremble in her arms. There were many causes for it–Willie kicking her around and Zagan carelessly dropping her on the floor for starters. None of it had to do with his age. The mild tone of amusement underlaid in his voice beat out even her injuries.

“In all that time, never once have I been summoned by a mortal to another demon’s domain. For that novel experience alone, I will grant you a stay of execution.”

Juliana let out a breath she hadn’t realized she had been holding. Gasping in a fresh lungful brought with it a strong stench of sulfur. Since that smell had probably come from Zagan, she must have been holding it for a long while.

“Not killing you has the added benefit of not pissing off your pet hel. That’s a nice bonus. I’m quite confident in my abilities provided she does not involve her mother. Even then, well, it would be quite the battle. However, not one I would look forward to.”

Breathing such large breaths hurt. Juliana clutched at the center of her chest, unsure if she should be pressing down or trying to get more room for air. The pain of having the wind knocked out lingered even several minutes after the fact. Holding her breath for who-knew how long couldn’t have helped much either.

“You are paying attention, yeah?”

“Yes,” Juliana said as fast as she was able. In truth, Juliana did not care one bit about him fighting Hel. Not unless it helped her in some way. Given he was just talking about killing her despite her ring, offending him did not seem to be the best idea.

“Good,” he said. “I should be most displeased to find myself wasting my words talking to the air. It’s bad enough that you’re going to be dying sometime in the next century or so.”

He flailed his hand out in a somewhat disturbing manner. It was something Willie might do with his flair for the dramatic. Like a Shakespearian actor. “Ah, how low I have fallen to be forced to talk with mortals on a daily basis. Though I do concede that you, being aware of my true nature, are far more likely to pay attention to my words than those mortal children I am forced to interact with.”

Juliana nodded along. He really enjoyed hearing his own voice. She wasn’t about to say anything to that tune, of course.

“Um,” Juliana started, “what now?”

“What indeed, Juliana?” He licked his lips. “As pleasant as our little dalliance has been thus far, I presume you called me here for more than stealing your first kiss?”

A burning sensation not unlike his saliva touched both sides of Juliana’s face. How did he know that? Shaking her head, Juliana put it out of her mind. It didn’t matter. And if he was about to help her, a little kiss was a very small price to pay.

“I got caught here by Willie, a demon,” she started to explain. “My mother and Eva–and Arachne, I guess–came to rescue me. They got captured and–and I just want us to go home.”

Zagan rolled his neck. Four loud popping sounds echoed through the small cell. “I suppose I might be able to do a small favor,” he said. “After all, I did collect a good amount of information from your soul. Thanks for that, by the way.”

Juliana blinked. Her eyes grew wide as her heart started pounding harder than it had been. “My soul? What do yo–”

“Don’t fret over nothing,” Zagan said with an exaggerated sigh. “It is back, safe and sound, within your body. No harm done. Let us get back to the topic at hand. We were discussing a favor for you.”

Slowly, Juliana nodded. Her mind raced over what exactly Zagan would have wanted with her soul. When had he done whatever he had done to it in the first place?

Probably before she awoke in the prison.

That had disturbing connotations. Had he done something to Shalise as well? Was that why Prax had taken over her body?

No. Situation at hand. Shalise wasn’t here right now and, though she only had his word to go off of, her own soul was fine.

“Can you get us out of here?” she asked in a timid voice.

Zagan hummed. He rolled his neck again. One of his hands scratched at his chin.

All theatrics. Juliana’s heart sank. He was going to say no.

“Pick one.”

Juliana started. That wasn’t a no. Though it might as well be. “One what?” she asked, already knowing the answer.

“One of the people you just named while explaining your situation.”

As expected, she thought with a nod. That might be as good as nothing at all. Still, she closed her eyes to concentrate.

If she picked her mother, herself, Eva, and Arachne would all still be stuck down here. The moment her mother recovered–if Zagan even dropped her off somewhere where she could get help–Juliana knew that she would be back. They would be back at square one.

And by then, Willie would likely have figured out how to keep her from summoning Zagan again. Even if she did summon him, Zagan himself would probably kill her.

No. Her mother wasn’t a good choice.

Juliana ruled out herself without hesitation. She couldn’t just run away and leave them behind. They had all come for her.

Eva was the most promising candidate. She could figure out something.

Probably.

Juliana frowned with a furrowed brow.

Maybe not. She had just jumped into Hell after Juliana without any visible plan. Juliana could hope that she would learn from her mistake and come up with something better, but it might not be enough. And Arachne had just let her do it, even following after her.

Juliana almost laughed at the idea of picking Arachne. That bitch had stabbed her mom. Even if she thought it was necessary to get them out, Juliana wasn’t about to forgive her that easily.

Besides, she probably had the same problem that Genoa suffered from. Namely, she would be rushing back in to save Eva, getting caught in the process.

No. Definitely not Arachne.

“Alright,” Juliana said. “I’ve made my choice.” She was feeling quite smug with herself in spite of the situation, though she tried not to let it show on her face. It was probably the choice Zagan wanted her to make anyway. Some secret test of character.

Taking a deep breath, Juliana opened her mouth.

“Willie.”

“The demon of this domain?”

“The same,” Juliana nodded. “If you’ll only get one of us out of here, I’d like it to be him. Preferably in a body-bag, or the demon equivalent.”

Zagan threw back his head and laughed. It was a full, mirth-filled laugh that almost seemed like it should be coming from Santa Claus. Certain depictions of him, anyway. Despite the jolly tone, the noise edged on her nerves.

It wasn’t something that should be coming from a powerful devil.

The laugh trailed off and Zagan looked back down with a golden glint in his eyes. “You have a bit of a vicious streak, yeah? I like that. Very well, Juliana Laura Rivas, I accept your proposal.”

Juliana let out a long sigh of relief.

“You’ll forgive me if I do not make this into an official contract. As I already have one with dearest Martina, I cannot enter into a second. Nevertheless, I am a demon of my word. Let us see what this talkina can do, shall we?”

He stretched out one hand towards her.

Nodding, Juliana slipped her comparatively tiny hand into his powerful grip and allowed him to help her to her feet. She wobbled back and forth. Everywhere hurt.

Zagan moved his hand to her shoulder and waited until she found her balance.

When he wasn’t threatening to kill her, he could actually be kind of nice.

An incredibly stupid thought crossed her mind for the briefest of moments. Juliana dismissed it so fast that she barely had time to feel both horrified and awed at the idea of Zagan becoming her Arachne. There was no way in Hell that would happen.

With her balance regained, Zagan gave one firm squeeze of her shoulder.

And her world promptly turned inside out.

Starting at the point of her shoulder where his fingers touched, Juliana’s skin started peeling back. Muscle followed soon after. It pulled away from her skeleton, joining her flesh in a sort of prison around her skeleton.

Somehow, she was looking in on her own skeleton. It stood in the bubble of her flesh with her vision on the outside.

The skeleton cracked. Starting from her shoulder, it looked much like a piece of wood being placed in a grinder. Bone shards flew off somewhere behind Juliana’s vision. Thick red marrow followed after.

Skeleton mostly out of the way, Juliana could see her own internal organs. Heart, lungs, stomach, brain, it was all there.

But not for long. Like her skin, it flipped inside out, stretching back behind her sight.

As soon as the last of her intestines twisted around and vanished, a thundering crack echoed inside her head.

Juliana collapsed to a hard wood floor, landing in a rancid, steadily growing pool of her own vomit. Shaking as she was, Juliana only had the vaguest awareness of Zagan’s shiny shoes taking a single step away from her.

She caught the tail end of a sigh before finding herself on her feet once more. Her green dress had been fully repaired and not a drop of sweat, blood, or anything marred its cloth. And that was just the dress. She felt much better as well, though there was still a pain in her arm–likely broken–and center of her chest.

Whatever Zagan did, she wasn’t going to complain about the little things.

Looking up at him, Juliana took a step back.

Dark smoke leaked out of the sides of his nostrils, slightly occluding a bright gold glow from his eyes.

“Take care mortal. My patience is not endless. Had your vile liquids touched any part of me…” He shook his head.

The smoke started to disperse and the more subdued glint in his eyes returned as he looked back at Juliana. After tapping his thumb against his chin three times, he waved his hand in her direction.

A flash of movement caught her eye beneath her vision line. Juliana looked down. Her forest-green Victorian period dress had changed to a black and gold miniskirt. Very mini-miniskirt.

Juliana gripped the hem and pulled downwards. Her movements stopped with a jerk as she realized her top was connected to the skirt. And it didn’t go much higher than the skirt went down. Juliana didn’t have much chest to speak of, but she wasn’t quite ready to show it off to Zagan all the same.

Instead, Juliana just curled inwards, trying to cover as much of herself as she could. Not even Eva wore skirts this short. She shook her head. I’m alive. A little embarrassment is nothing compared to that, she tried to tell herself.

“Not quite what I was aiming for,” Zagan said. After a brief moment, he nodded. “It will have to do. I would rather not waste my efforts fiddling with attire that will be discarded or destroyed long before it sees any real use.”

Not trusting herself not to shout at him, Juliana clamped her mouth shut.

Zagan smiled before turning his head away.

Following his gaze, Juliana blinked as she realized where they were.

It was the theater room. They were standing on the stage in front of the giant screen displaying the battlefield.

That was a lot of pain for traveling upwards a mere ten or so feet.

Willie lounged in the seats a few rows back. Taking their glances in his direction as a cue to speak, he got to his feet.

“Milady, you truly are becoming a bother. It does not matter how many foolish demons you conjure up. So long as we are in my domain, I rule. You shall all be strung up in the end.”

Juliana blinked. When he had been summoned a few months back, Willie had been terrified of Zagan. Absolutely scared. And Juliana didn’t get the impression that he was faking it either.

Though, she considered, I didn’t get the impression that he was a giant asshole either. That was obviously incorrect.

“Ah,” Zagan hummed before Juliana had a chance to speak. “I forgot I was suppressing my presence. This domain is not mine.”

He made no motion.

Willie, on the other hand, flipped backwards over a few rows of seats. He landed in a pile of his own limp limbs before the strings dragged him up to a standing height.

“You’re a devil,” Willie said. Given how much he was rattling, it was surprising he hadn’t stuttered out every word.

Zagan cracked his neck back and forth, somehow managing to echo the sound throughout the large theater room as easily as he did in the small cell. “And you are one who has upset a dear…” He glanced back over his shoulder, sizing up Juliana. “Well,” he said, face going blank as he turned back to Willie, “this domain is mine now. I’ll not suffer intruders within my domain.”

Juliana tried not to feel too offended.

“You did this,” Willie said, voice full of accusation. “After I clothed and fed–”

“And set my mother and friends against each other? I agreed to your stupid play for my mother in return for you letting us go, and you went back on your promise? And you dare to play the victim.” Juliana spat on the floor. “I hate you.”

“I’ll be back.”

“Not before we leave,” Juliana said. And then she smiled. “You know what? I have some money–not a ton, but I can get more–and my mother has connections. I’ll put out a bounty on every tome mentioning you. I will burn every scrap of paper even alluding to talkina. You were gloating about how easy it is for you to be summoned? Well, good luck with that after you’ve been erased from earth.”

“Great speech,” Zagan said, sounding like it was everything but. “Remind me to be impressed when you pull it off. For now…”

Juliana blinked and Zagan had moved from her side to just behind Willie. The marionette-demon didn’t have a chance to react before Zagan tore his head off.

Flinching away from the expected blood, Juliana was surprised to see nothing more than splinters fly out over the seats.

Zagan gripped the wires above Willie’s body and yanked downwards. There was a knock on the ceiling before Zagan pulled again.

The mural of the demons versus angels caved in, the giant chandelier fell.

Juliana turned away, shielding her head from any debris coming her way. As the noise died down, Juliana peeked back.

Filling almost the entirety of the massive theater hall was a thing. Like somebody had wrapped up a meat locker in a circus tent. Fleshy arms stuck out at odd angles, bending in far more places than would be normal on a human. Several long, flat fingers spread out, each roughly the size of Juliana herself. Strings dangled off of each, terminating in a Willie-like person.

A more humanoid form–still dressed up like a meat carnival side-show–was tangled up in a multitude of wires around the center of the thing’s mass. It was still five times Juliana’s height.

And Zagan was climbing up its chest towards a porcelain face.

The thing swung its arms, puppets and all, trying to scrape Zagan off of it. Any time anything so much as looked like it might be heading in Zagan’s direction, it simply missed. And Zagan did not slow. His hands dug into the meat-like clothing. His feet kicked in foot holes with little effort.

When he reached the face, he placed one hand on either side and squeezed.

Cracks split across the porcelain. All of the puppets cried out in pain.

Shards exploded outwards as Zagan’s hands connected with each other.

Zagan jumped off of it, kicking the thing down towards an opening portal on the ground.

As the bulk of the thing disappeared, Zagan landed on the stage. He brushed some imaginary dust off of his suit.

Juliana turned away from him, facing towards the giant screen behind her.

It was blank, displaying nothing but the gray material it was made out of.

“Damnit.” I should have looked before Willie died. Hoping against hope that her mother was still alive, Juliana mumbled to herself, “where are they and how do I get there?”

“Careful,” Zagan said, voice turning dark. “Or I might think you’re asking for a second favor. I do believe our agreement was for one favor only.”

Juliana swallowed and nodded. She hadn’t been talking to him, but Zagan seemed the type to not care about such minor details.

“Now,” he said, voice returning to joviality as he clapped his hands together. “Where, oh where is my little embryonic one?” He started walking off back behind the screen.

Biting her lip, Juliana followed after him. She didn’t have anywhere better to go. Even if he was just heading towards the exit, at least she would know where it was for later.

Unless he was heading towards the summoning circle she had pulled him out of.

But he mentioned ’embryonic.’ Juliana knew what the word meant. Or at least, she could guess. Early in development was a definition that very much fit with Eva based on what she had said when she handed off her beacon.

And if Zagan was looking for Eva, Juliana held no doubts that he would find her.

Where Eva was, her mother would be.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


004.025

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“Mom!”

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.

Juliana struck.

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.

Eva too.

Juliana got to her feet. She wobbled side to side and back and forth. Reaching out to the bars, Juliana steadied herself.

And blinked.

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?”

“I don’t–”

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?”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


004.024

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Razor-edged talons sunk into the wooden wall next to Genoa’s face. The partially collapsed building groaned, protesting the force, but otherwise stayed intact.

Which was great. Genoa didn’t much care for buildings collapsing on top of her. She had enough of that raiding unstable ruins for the guild.

Though, at least she wasn’t being actively attacked by hundreds upon hundreds of monsters in those ruins. Maybe there was a tomb guardian of some sort, but that usually capped out at one or two.

The only thing that came close to her current situation was necromancers, typically after they decided to wipe a small town off the map. But zombies and skeletons tended to be physically weak. So long as they didn’t catch her off guard or find some way of trapping her, they were no big deal.

These giant bugs tended to be far more robust. They required a good amount of force to dispatch and, even if she hadn’t been hit until now, they looked like they could do a great deal of damage with a single lucky strike.

A faint sensation of pain tingled in her cheek, reminding her that she was in the middle of battle. Not the proper time or place for reminiscing.

It nicked me, Genoa thought as warm blood mixed with sweat before falling from her chin. It actually managed to cut me.

Genoa blinked straight backwards. Now behind the insect, she lifted both of her arms over her head. Tightening her grip on the massive sword in her hands, she plunged it straight downwards.

Iron cleaved the bug into two even halves.

An unnatural whisk of the wind caught Genoa’s attention.

No time to delay. She swung her arm back and upwards. At the same time, metal from her sword flowed up, forming a sharp blade along the length of her arm.

A metal clang rang out as her blade intercepted two talon-tipped arms. Putrid ichor slid down the blade at a steady rate.

It took a moment for the creature to notice. After a moment, a pain filled cry came from the beast in front of her.

Genoa kicked up. Her heavy combat boot met the gaping mouth of the insect, not only silencing it, but sending several sharp teeth straight into the brain.

She blinked again, barely vacating the area in time. A rain of acid ate through the ground where she had stood. She whirled towards the direction the acid had been launched from.

Just in time to see the snake-like worm eat a ball of fire. She raised a shield as the acid-soaked innards scattered into the air. Pieces came down, sliding harmlessly off of the faint bubble surrounding her.

The corner of her eye caught a wave of a black hand up high on one of the few still intact buildings.

Genoa nodded towards her partner in thanks even as she cut to her right with her reformed sword. Her blade sheared part-way through the chitinous armor of one of the bugs. It caught up on one armored plate, requiring Genoa to use both hands to force it the rest of the way through.

There was just no end to them. At least Eva was taking care of most of the acid-spitting worms. Genoa had her hands full with the dog-sized bugs.

Eva’s fighting style brought up bad memories in Genoa. It was far too reminiscent of guild recruits that had far too much confidence in their own shields.

Those recruits would sit back, playing the heavy artillery. Heavy artillery was well and good. Someone capable of unleashing a lot of firepower was quite valuable in a team.

Unfortunately, they tended not to move much. The moment something managed to shatter their shields, they typically wound up as paste on the floor.

Eva did have one thing going for her: she could blink. And she liberally used that ability to dodge volleys of acid or anything that got near her. Surprisingly, not much acid actually went her way. The city hall building was one of the taller buildings, and the clocktower on top taller still, but Genoa was fairly certain that it was still within range.

In addition, she had Arachne’s legs. If nothing else, they were quite adept at catapulting her from one place to another.

Given that she lacked the blood to create one of those powerful shields she had used back in the real world, she should probably thank Arachne for saving her life.

If only that same person–that same demon wasn’t trying to kill them at the moment.

Genoa spun. Her two-handed sword trailed behind her. Two separate dog-type bugs lost their upper limbs. She tilted the iron weapon down slightly, sticking it straight into the skull of a third. Momentum slowed by the limbs and the chitin, her blade stopped halfway through the creature

A rushing dog-bug forced Genoa to blink backwards. The teeth of one of the things she had just disarmed were far too close for comfort.

White hot plasma landed just beneath the rushing dog. It exploded outwards, sending pieces of the dog flying overhead.

And, it conveniently freed Genoa’s attentions so that she could focus on the dog at her backside.

She’d have to remember to thank Eva later. Even just another simple nod in her direction.

Her focus made up most of the hilt of her sword. Swinging it around, a pillar of earth erupted directly underneath the insect. The thing was launched up into the air.

Genoa ignored it in favor of two other fresh combatants approaching her. From prior experience, she knew that launched bug would have broken the rest of its limbs. Assuming the fall failed to kill the thing outright.

Genoa dashed forward, dragging her blade along the ground. She momentarily resized it, shortening the length. Once the length hit the sweet spot, excess kinetic energy acted as a spring, cleaving it straight up through the body.

At the apex of her swing, Genoa pushed out the metal. The length and end weight of her sword doubled in an instant. Using that weight, Genoa brought the sword down right between the eyes of the second beast.

Immediate area clear, Genoa took a moment to catch her breath. It was a good thing she had sparred so much with Arachne. Their fights had provided plenty of opportunity to sharpen up after having been retired for several years.

Not that Genoa would have considered herself out of shape prior to their daily spars. Just a little rusty.

Catching sight of a shadow from one of the giant beetles moving over her, Genoa blinked straight upwards.

The primary target swapped positions to be directly underfoot. Several feet separated her and the beetle. Several rapidly shrinking feet.

Her entire body’s weight was focused on the tip of her sword as gravity brought her back down. A full half of her sword plunged between armored plates at the beast’s neck. Given that the sword was as tall as she was, a good chunk of it was probably sticking through to the other side.

Before the beetle could do anything, whether that be dying or trying to knock her off, Genoa gripped her sword’s hilt and jumped off. Again, gravity gave her an assist as she swung down beneath the beetle’s head.

The six-foot sword pivoted in place. As soon as Genoa’s feet touched the ground directly under where she had been standing, the head popped off the body with a squelch. Ichorous blood exploded around her. Only a quick reapplication of her shield kept Genoa dry.

She blinked out from beneath the beetle’s torso before it had a chance to collapse on top of her.

“Is it just me,” Eva said at her side, panting slightly, “or are these things tougher than before?”

Genoa scanned the town before answering, updating her mental model of the battlefield.

It wasn’t looking good. Arachne’s forces had systematically destroyed most of the buildings. Very few wooden buildings were left. Some brick buildings were more or less intact. The city hall that she had blinked up to for one. The bank, the metal water tower, the jail, and a train station were a few of the others.

A few of the bus-sized beetles managed to get close to the city hall on occasion. Never for long, but Genoa had needed to patch up more than one hole in the building. Several outcroppings of spiked pillars were keeping most of the smaller bugs at bay.

Losing their height advantage would be somewhat devastating. Not irrecoverable; Genoa could burrow–something that none of Arachne’s swarm had demonstrated the capacity for thus far–but being trapped underground did not sound too appealing.

There were still so many bugs. They crawled over each other. It looked like an ocean made of black carapace.

Luckily, there were no more of the giant beetles in the immediate vicinity. Genoa used the reprieve to dig a few sinkholes and crush anything that fell inside.

She sighed. It was like trying to scoop out a river with a measuring cup.

Finally deciding to answer her earlier question, Genoa turned to Eva. “It’s probably your imagination. We’re getting tired and wearing down. They are not.”

Eva shook her head. Her long hair no longer flowed behind her in the wind. It was matted and clumped up on her back and chest, stuck to the thin layer of sweat that coated her body.

“I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” Eva said. “We teamed up. It might not be sporting in the theater-demon’s eyes if Arachne didn’t gain some extra advantage.”

Genoa considered that. It was true that this was far from the longest or most grueling thing she had experienced–it might be close to making its way to the top five, however. Yet her sword had been getting stuck in the chitin plates far more often lately, forcing her to blink out or yank it out of the creatures.

She had attributed that to nothing more than muscle fatigue. But if the theater-demon was upgrading their enemy…

“We’re going to survive this.” She looked out over the ocean of insects again, sinkholing another who-knows how many. “Cut off the head and the snake–or spider–dies, right?”

“Arachne will be hidden away,” Eva said. “The theater-demon knows that she won’t die even if she is killed. It would be less satisfying to him if she was out here from the start. The question is, where?”

“I was in the bank and you were in the jail. So either the train station or the city hall,” Genoa said, pointing downwards at the building they were standing on. “Or…”

Genoa smiled. Taking in a deep breath, she shouted out, “Arachne! During all of our little duels in the real world, I was holding back in every single one of them. You would have been paste on the floor had I been taking them even the slightest bit serious.”

A faint echo of her own voice was all that followed her proclamation. Even the mass of insects quieted down for a moment. It was ominous enough that Genoa started looking around for any hint of the spider-demon.

Eva, on the other hand, took her eyes off the battlefield. Crossing her arms, she looked up at Genoa with an almost incredulous look in those red eyes of hers. “Seriously?”

“I thought it might make her show up,” Genoa said with a shrug.

“I mean, were you or were you not taking your sparring seriously?”

Of course I was, she didn’t say. They were some of the most intense fights Genoa had fought. Part of that came from the uncertainty regarding whether or not Arachne would bother to stop before she died had she slipped up. And after Juliana had been taken…

Well, both of us needed a good outlet for our frustrations.

Fighting the demon was surprisingly cathartic.

Rather than respond Genoa just smiled.

That smile almost slipped.

She had had Juliana in her arms. Juliana was safe. Juliana wasn’t part of this death match.

Now all Genoa had to do was get out alive. And kick in the strings of that theater-demon.

Genoa frowned as a few vibrations reached her feet. That was all too familiar of a feeling. Another one of those bus-beetles was getting too close.

“Focus on finding Arachne,” Genoa said. She casted one last round of sinkholes, shored up the city hall’s damage, and refurbished the defensive spikes. “I’ll keep us safe until you do.”

With that said, Genoa blinked off the roof. She had a beetle to decapitate.

— — —

Eva watched the older woman dive back into the fray. Part of her wanted to join Genoa. She could. Her stepping would keep her out of trouble. Her hands were powerful and sharp–at least the one that hadn’t been damaged by acid.

Her wounds were holding her back. Most of the injuries on her back had already healed, save for the one inflicted by Sawyer. But she could feel slivers of wood embedded in her skin. Moving too much dug them in further, or caused them to poke out of her back.

Agitating them hurt.

It wouldn’t be a huge issue to dig them out with creative use of blood magic, but it would be time consuming.

Time she simply lacked at the moment.

So Eva merely watched as the retired mage-knight cut down enemy after enemy, offering only a modicum of support in return.

Eva had to admit one thing, Genoa was a vastly superior minion than even a hundred of the cat-vampires.

Maybe not a minion. Genoa was not beholden to Eva or her orders. Though Eva hadn’t actually tried to order her around. Sniping things from the roof while Genoa ran around dispatching the major threats was more of a mutual suggestion with the initial idea given by Genoa.

At the same time, Eva was certainly not Genoa’s minion. They were partners. A somewhat one-sided partnership with Genoa doing most of the heavy lifting.

Most of it.

Not all.

Eva brought her hands together, igniting both. Fire flowed down into a compressed ball.

It was her new preferred method of using her thaumaturgy.

So far, it performed admirably in tearing the insects to pieces.

High explosive fireballs. And what more did a good fireball need anyway? Absolutely nothing, that’s what.

The compressed balls of fire could do a better job of actually catching her enemies on fire. As it was, when she released her hold over the magic, it rapidly expanded to the point where the flames were less flames and more of intense heat.

The heat in her hands was intense. Her arms and chest could use a decent sized jar of burn ointment after all this. A proper thaumaturge should be able to direct all the heat away from their body, but Eva was just happy to have made it far enough to have useful fireballs.

She had ended up shielding herself from most of the direct heat by keeping the flames enclosed within one of her hands. The carapace making up her skin was more or less immune to the extreme heat. Actually holding the balls was a strange feeling. Almost like a solid ball so long as she kept her concentration up.

Losing her concentration and having it explode in her face would be unpleasant to say the least.

As such, Eva got rid of them as soon as she could.

Gripping the ball of fire in her hand, she wound up and tossed it out over the crowd. With only a few nudges in this direction or that, the plasma ball sailed true. One of the worms taking aim at Genoa swallowed the ball whole.

She had plenty of practice with aiming and had become quite good at it, in her opinion. It helped that the acid-spitting worms had wide mouths that were almost constantly open.

Acid and viscera rained down on all the nearby bugs. So long as Arachne kept everything grouped up, Eva got massive returns on effort spent. None of the smaller dog-type bugs had any protection to the acid, ending up with her killing a whole lot with a single strike.

As soon as Genoa decapitated the last of the smaller bugs around her, she paused her deadly dance to give a slight wave up in Eva’s direction.

Every time Eva assisted her in some manner, Genoa would do that. A nod or a wave. One of the earlier times, she actually blinked straight back up to give a verbal thanks.

Eva just frowned. It was an unnecessary distraction in the middle of combat. Not one Eva could understand. What did Genoa hope to accomplish? Eva wasn’t going to stop assisting her partner because of a lack of immediate positive reinforcement.

Unless, perhaps, she was worried that Eva would drop the plasma ball on her one of these times. It would be a quick way out of the theater-demon’s domain–assuming he could be trusted to keep his word–but of all the monstrous things people could do to one another, betrayal ranked up at number one.

And I am not a monster.

So insistent.

Eva shook her head. What an annoyance. Couldn’t it take a hint?

You’re destined for far greater things than a puppet of the puppet-master.

“There is no such thing as destiny,” Eva muttered.

Shaking her head again, Eva performed a quick scan of the area around Genoa.

No acid-spitter worms in sight. Good.

That only left the problem of where Arachne actually was. As she had told Genoa, Eva firmly believed that Arachne was hidden away someplace where she was unlikely to be discovered.

As such, she could rule out the city hall building. Not only was it the biggest and most obvious place, but Arachne had shown clear disregard for the building’s structural integrity. Assuming Arachne was actually in command of the insect army, of course.

With the bank and the jail having been eliminated as possible hiding places, that left the train station.

Are you so sure of that?

“No,” Eva mumbled more to herself than to the voice in her head.

While the train yard was on the outside edge of the town, it was still a brick building with a high roof. In other words, a decent place to take refuge. It would have been too possible for herself or Genoa to take it over, thereby discovering Arachne.

But where?

The rest of the town was nothing more than a pile of broken wood and nails.

Frowning, Eva tapped her claws against the hard carapace on her leg.

That wasn’t entirely true. There was one other structure still standing.

Turning back to the field of battle, Eva was pleased to find Genoa standing atop the corpse of her target. A large slab of earth had risen out of the ground and crushed most of the beetle. With a quick lunge with her sword, Genoa sent the blade through the thing’s compound eye.

A moment later, Genoa blinked straight up to Eva’s side.

“Any progress?”

“Possibly. I’m not going to point or look as I’d rather not tip her off, but would you mind knocking down the water tower?”

Genoa considered for just a moment. She started out facing the same direction as Eva. Raising her sword, Genoa created large sinkholes, eating up more of the bugs. Slowly, she started rotating. The clock tower atop the city hall wasn’t very wide, so she did not have to move much to continue her stream of sinkholes.

At the creaking and crashing sound of a tumbling water tower, Eva turned.

The swarm stilled.

Bingo, Eva thought. She peered deep into the growing cloud of dust, searching for any sign of Arachne.

Not that she was worried or anything. There was no way that Arachne would die from such an insignificant thing as having a water tower collapse with her inside.

Still, she searched.

It didn’t take long. It started out as nothing more than a silhouette. A black shadow moving inside the dust cloud. The shadow thickened into the proper form of Arachne. Each step was slow and steady, filled with menacing power.

As Arachne exited the cloud, Eva found herself giving an involuntary shiver.

Thanks to her arms and legs, she knew the horror of getting dust inside the joints of her exoskeleton. And Arachne definitely had more than a little dust coating her.

The shiny black carapace that normally made up her body had been replaced by a thick layer of dirt and grime.

“Now what?” Genoa asked even as she cast a wary eye around the unmoving swarm.

“Honestly?” Eva said, glancing up at the woman. “I haven’t thought that far ahead. Figure out how to get out of here–”

Genoa vanished.

It didn’t take long to figure out why.

Arachne, in her full-sized mode, landed on the roof. The spot where Genoa had stood caved in beneath the spider’s weight.

Lifting herself off her bulbous abdomen, Arachne pulled herself to her full height. She shot a glare at Genoa–who had blinked backwards to the opposite end of the clock tower roof. That glare turned down on Eva.

Before she could react, Arachne bent down and swept Eva off of her feet.

Eva hung limp against the spider-demon’s chest as her powerful arms pressed in tight.

“Your pyrokinesis is so much better,” Arachne said. Her face was so close to Eva that she could feel sharp teeth moving against her ear. “Perhaps that school isn’t as worthless as I thought.”

Most of that came from practice in that endless hallway, Eva didn’t say. “Arachne, you’re hurting my back. Set me down and we can discuss how to get out of here.”

With one last bone-crushing squeeze, Arachne gently set Eva down. “No need to discuss,” she said. “One of us dies and the others get to leave. I agree to these terms.”

“We’re not–”

Arachne placed a hand on Eva’s chest and shoved.

Eva flew through the air. She landed hard and rolled once. Only the lip of the roof kept her from plummeting off the edge.

Her back struck the lip causing Eva to cry out in pain.

She clamped down on the feeling, gritting her teeth.

Under control again, she opened her eyes and tried to get her barrings.

Only to find Arachne backhanding Genoa’s iron sword, snapping it off mid-way. The snapped-off segment spun through the air before embedding itself into the roof near Eva.

Far too close for comfort. A few hairs might have been cut short.

But Arachne was not finished. She continued her attack, striking forward with fervor.

Genoa blinked backwards again, leaving a few of her blond hairs behind in Arachne’s grip.

Her target lost, Arachne turned. Eight red eyes turned with her, each glowing with malice.

Eva felt something.

A tremble in her being. Something she had not felt from the spider-demon for a long time. Not since her first few weeks at Brakket, back when she was still adjusting to the idea of Arachne being constantly around, rather than her occasional appearances alongside Devon for a job or treatment.

Fear.

Eva pressed backwards against the lip of the roof.

Uncertainty mixed with her fear, locking her in inaction.

Arachne advanced. Her powerful legs slammed into the ground. The distance between them dropped to nothing in the blink of an eye.

There was a sickening squelch as chitin pierced flesh.

Hot red blood splattered over Eva’s body.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


004.023

<– Back | Index | Next –>

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.”

“Humor me.”

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…

Her what?

Friend?

Bodyguard?

Slave?

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.”

“To fight?”

Eva gave a callous shrug. “If that is what it takes.”

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004.022

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Zoe’s chest heaved as she took a deep breath of the crisp air within Ylva’s domain. She turned to Wayne, letting all the air out in one long sigh.

She gave off a half-smile, full of nervousness and worry. “Are we really doing this?”

Wayne gave a short grunt. “I’ve done a lot of crazy things in my life. Jumping head first into Hell will be a new one.”

“You don’t have to come with me.”

Wayne frowned. He opened his mouth, ready to berate her for saying that. After a moment of silence, he shook his head. “I’ve had a long life. You should be the one staying here.”

A flicker of movement caught Wayne’s eye. Zoe was idly rubbing the dark band around her ring finger. Again. Just her thumb reached under her fingers to caress the ring.

“Eva and Genoa are already there–”

Idiots, Wayne thought.

“–and I can’t just leave them on their own. Shalise is on her own and shouldn’t be difficult to escape with.”

Wayne scoffed. “Minus the possibility of invisible enemies or the high likelihood of her being possessed.”

Zoe nodded. “I’ll be following Ylva’s advice and start with taking her to Eva’s domain.” The professor shook her head. “I still can’t believe… that despicable man.”

“He said it was willing,” Wayne said with a shrug.

“She was a child. She still is a child.”

“Still wasn’t complaining, last I heard. I imagine she would object if you intervened in her ‘treatments.'”

Pinching the bridge of her nose, Zoe shut her eyes. “You know, when I first learned about Eva’s involvement with demons, I assumed it was mostly Foster’s doing.”

Wayne did not miss her usage of the demonologist’s last name. Prior to their little briefing, Zoe had tended to use his first name.

“I figured that I could wean her away from diablery. Then I find out about her haemomancy and Arachne. Somehow she gets me reading books. I’m talking to demons on a daily basis. Living with them, even. Now we find out about this? And so off-handedly too. ‘Use Eva’s domain as a safe spot. Oh yeah,'” Zoe said, mimicking Foster’s more guttural voice, “‘did I mention she’s turning into a demon?”

Wayne stood still, trying to ignore the demon water seeping into his suit. He’d have to remember to burn it later. The liquid alone would ruin it, but that it was Hell water only made it that much worse.

As for Zoe…

He let out a sigh of his own. Situations like these were not his forte. One part of him wanted to place a hand on her shoulder and offer some consolatory words. What, exactly, those words were, he hadn’t the faintest clue.

But honesty was important. Words of comfort would end up being lies of one sort or another.

“She was a lost cause from the start,” Wayne said, trying to keep the ‘I told you so’ out of his voice. “Not something to beat yourself up over.”

Zoe laughed. The sound was mirthless and hollow. After a moment of silence, she spoke. “You know the worst part?”

Wayne shook his head.

“It is fascinating. It is fun.”

Quirking an eyebrow, Wayne prompted her to continue with a clipped grunt.

“Not right now, obviously,” she added quickly. “But when we get Shalise and Juliana home safe, and things calm down… I have so many notebooks filled up and so many more to fill up. Thaumaturgy feels so limited compared to the things I experience in my everyday life now-a-days.”

She pointedly glanced around the black ocean of water, sweeping an arm along with her gaze. “Would it be wrong to say that I am actually excited?”

Wayne followed her gaze for a moment. Excited wouldn’t be the word I would use, he didn’t say.

“How many humans,” she said, “actually get to experience something like this? Of their own free will with a high probability of getting back alive and sound.”

“Few. There’s probably a good reason for that too.”

And yet, Wayne thought, here I am.

Insanity. Pure and utter insanity. Willingly diving into Hell for a girl who, from the augur’s reports, might not even be herself anymore? Wayne knew people who had been committed to an asylum for less.

Zoe’s half-smile turned to a frown as the final member of their insane expedition sloshed through the water.

“Foster,” Wayne said, mirroring his coworker’s expression. “Nice of you to show up.”

“Can it,” he snapped. “Bringing the hel’s latest mark to it is the last thing I have to do to get out from under its thumb. I don’t give two damns about the girl or either of you.”

Wayne rolled his eyes. “Good to know that you have our back.”

“And,” he continued without taking notice of Wayne’s words, “if either of you tell anyone about what we discussed earlier, Arachne being after your lives will be the least of your concerns.”

Wayne blinked, but Zoe beat him to speaking.

Or shouting, as the case was.

“You’re threatening us? You monster. I had a low opinion of you before finding out that you performed experiments on a little girl. And now you dare–”

“Please,” Foster said, waving one hand while the other scratched at his gangling beard. He acted completely unconcerned about the dagger that had slipped its way into Zoe’s hand. “It isn’t me you have to worry about. I would be displeased, but me and Eva? We can disappear easily enough. And I’m sure that with some effort, Eva could eventually convince Arachne not to murder you in your sleep.

“The simple fact of the matter is that you both have a lot tying you down. I don’t know if you’ve ever met true demon hunters, but they make the Elysium Order look tolerant and understanding. When they come knocking on your door to find what you know about us, I doubt they’ll like the look of that ring on your finger.”

Again, Zoe’s thumb darted to the dark band of metal.

Unlike Zoe, Wayne had encountered demon hunters before. Their feverish zealotry was as bad as demons themselves. If one caught wind of Zoe’s involvement in any sort of diablery, the most she could hope for would be a swift death.

It wasn’t, in fact, only Zoe that would be in danger. All of Brakket Academy and city would be in trouble. Spencer and her pet were not even the largest problem around. Turner staffed no fewer than four of the pests, probably more.

The zealots would be hunting down every single person in town, student or otherwise, simply for coming into contact with the demons.

Why, then, were they not around already? Surely the situation hadn’t fallen beneath their notice. Even if they couldn’t detect demonic activity–something Wayne was certain they could–there had to have been some rumors spreading around.

He hadn’t been present for the incident at Brakket, but the golems he had faced during the operation to recover Nel had been very obviously demonic. Someone at Brakket would have noticed and word would have spread.

Wayne’s thoughts led him to a single conclusion.

Someone, or something, was protecting Brakket.

Although, Wayne mused, who or what probably doesn’t matter much if I don’t make it back.

The water rapidly cooling broke Wayne out of his thoughts. He turned to one side.

Only the tips of Ylva’s bare feet had entered the water and it was already icing over.

“There have been no changes in Shalise’s abnormal condition. She has escaped her statues’ grasp and returned to the throne room. We continue to believe the best course of action will be delivering her to Eva’s domain until her… passenger can be extracted.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Foster said. “If you didn’t have anything new to tell us, you could have said as much. Or better yet, why don’t you go to Hell while we lord around the place.” His voice descended to low grumblings as he continued. “We’re not the ones who want a new servant.”

A lane of ice formed across the surface of the water. It wrapped around the demonologist’s arm.

He threw himself out of the way, grappling Zoe to keep himself from falling into the water.

She managed to stay up thanks only to Wayne reaching out and taking hold of her arm to steady her.

Zoe shoved Foster off of her, almost sending him beneath the water.

After regaining his balance, he twisted to glare first at Zoe then at Ylva. His glare died off as he glanced down to one side.

Which wasn’t hard to emphasize with. As much as Wayne disliked the man–on general principle and his distasteful personality–the glare Ylva leveled at him was both awe and terror inducing. Being on the receiving end of those cool eyes was something Wayne hoped to never experience.

“You test Our patience, Devon Foster. We will not be displeased to see you out of your debt. Finish your task and banish yourself from Our presence, lest We do it for you.”

Foster let out a long stream of unintelligible mutterings. As soon as he finished, he took a deep breath and ducked beneath the surface of the water.

Zoe pressed herself back against Wayne as a dark shape took hold of Foster and both vanished. Her eyes darted, back and forth over the small section of water that had just contained Foster. She looked torn between jumping out of the water as soon as possible and diving in after him.

There was an almost confusing amount of both eagerness and fear in her voice when she spoke. “Is this safe?”

“You should have little to fear regardless of what happens. Few demons would lightly harm you while wearing Our ring. Wayne Lurcher,” the demon said.

Wayne stiffened as he glanced up to meet the demon’s eyes. Relief almost allowed him to relax; her eyes were merely looking, not glaring. “Yes?” he said.

“Our interactions have been few, yet We do not find you distasteful.”

Gee, thanks.

“We would offer a similar ring, yet none exist. We failed to foresee Great King Zagan’s actions and did not prepare adequately.”

Wayne blinked. Was that supposed to have been an apology for not seeing the future? Not for the first time, Wayne was wishing that the hel was a bit more down to Earth. Arachne and Catherine both could at least talk like normal people. Hell, even ‘Great King’ Zagan was more personable–from the few conversations they had had prior to Wayne’s extended hospital visit.

“Thanks for the sentiment–” I think “–but I believe I would decline your offer.” Not without reading the fine print and even then, not likely.

His stomach dropped to his shoes. Ylva’s eyes hardened as her ice blue lips pressed into a thin line.

It was stupid to decline. She didn’t even have a ring, there was no need to throw the offer back in her face. He could have dealt with declining later.

The intensity on Ylva’s face died out as quick as it came. With a graceful brush of her hand to one side, she said, “We find your rejection disappointing. Nevertheless, should you wish to ensure your own safety, remain at Zoe’s side.”

Wayne gave a slow nod. He hadn’t been planning anything different. “I can do that.”

“Very well. We do not believe Chance cares about the actions of mortals, yet We wish you luck in your endeavor.”

“Thank you,” Zoe said from his side.

There was the slightest of nods from the statuesque woman before she marched off down the beach, returning to Nel and Ali.

“Alright,” Zoe said to Wayne. She took several deep breaths. At the apex of each, she looked ready to jump in. The breath then deflated as she lost her nerve.

“You sure you want to go through with this?”

“Of course. Shalise is my responsibility. I can’t just leave her.”

Wayne shook his head. He doubted he would be so interested in jumping into Hell after his students. Of course, Anderson and Weston weren’t the type to find this kind of trouble. Weston was far too timid and Anderson… well, there wouldn’t be much left of him by the time his father finished with him.

But, he thought, I’m here now.

“Together, then?”

There was a moment of hesitation before Zoe nodded. She held out her hand.

Wayne took it.

“On three?”

“Works for me,” Zoe said with a nod. She started counting and Wayne started thinking.

A medieval castle with statues of Ward. Vain–even Ylva didn’t have a single statue of herself around her domain–definitely not something he would have suspected from the girl. Further evidence that she was not herself.

As soon as Zoe said three, both ducked down beneath the waves.

— — —

Shalise blinked.

Or rather, Prax blinked and Shalise merely took notice of the brief blackness.

It is about time, Shalise thought. I don’t know how it is with demons, but human eyes need to be kept moist.

Prax’s continuing control of her body was doing a number on it. At least she had finally convinced him to eat something. Only after he had collapsed after not recognizing the signs of hunger.

She was fairly certain that her body had not slept since she woke up in the prison either. Not unless she counted the brief periods of him shutting his eyes in concentration. Shalise did not count that.

No progress had been made towards removing Prax from her body, either. It was starting to make Shalise nervous–as nervous as she could be in her current state. The longer they went without any progress, the more Prax’s thoughts drifted towards killing himself–along with Shalise–to escape.

“Silence, servant. I am considering nothing of the sort. Yet.”

That’s very reassuring.

“Someone,” he said, “has entered my domain.”

Really? I didn’t notice anything.

“You may have some modicum of control here,” he all but growled out, “but this is and always will be my domain.”

Shalise gave him a mental shrug. She didn’t want control of it. “So,” Shalise said before he could start complaining about her again, “who showed up? A friend? It isn’t your mother, is it?”

“Mother will be… busy. The damage to her body was minimal, thanks to the eternal kindness of her spawn, yet it is far too soon for her to return. One month of your realm was her usual time to return in the past. After centuries of imprisonment, it may be far longer.”

Ah, Shalise said. So–

“It is a human.”

Shalise sat at attention within her own mind. That might be the first good news she had heard in a very long time. Juliana?

Prax laughed. His deep laugh came out strange in Shalise’s voice. “Not unless she has had some very interesting experiences since our parting. The human is a man with a beard.”

Trying to think of everyone she knew that had a beard, Shalise came up with only one real possibility. Assuming the man was someone she knew. But why would a human show up in Prax’s domain if not for her?

A few of the teachers at school had beards. None of them had any real reason to come after her. In fact, it was doubtful that they knew where she was in the first place. But there was a man with a beard that might come for her. Eva’s mentor, Devon something-or-other.

She had only spoken a handful of words to him, but maybe Eva was trying to rescue them.

“And here come two more. A man and a woman.”

Eva and… and who? There wasn’t anyone else. Not unless Juliana’s dad had decided to come.

Actually, that wasn’t so far-fetched. His daughter was somewhere around Hell. He was probably looking for her. But that meant that the woman was probably Genoa and not Eva.

“You are assuming that it is easy to locate an individual in the vastness of Hell.”

Well, we know a woman who is covered in eyeballs. Finding people is kind of her thing.

“I will concede that human visitors are a rarity in Hell, unless they have been brought by some other demon. But generally, those humans would not leave their patron demon’s domain for fear of becoming lost, stolen, or damaged.”

All the more reason to believe that I know them. Aren’t you going to go greet them?

“I would rather not be seen in this sorry bit of flesh.”

Do it anyway, Shalise ordered in her most authoritative thought-voice. Or else I’ll start changing your domain. This place is so drab, it could use more greenery to change up the scenery.

“Servant! Do not dare to–”

It was too late. The moment her thoughts drifted towards how the place could be spruced up, the throne room changed.

Prax’s head whipped around as the faint sound of two trickling streams of water carved their way out of the wall behind the throne. The water flowed along the ground, digging in shallow canals that looped around either side of the throne.

Lush grass grew out of the islands formed by the streams of water. Thick trees–spruce, if Shalise was not mistaken–sprouted and stretched towards the ceiling.

A sickness in Shalise’s metaphysical stomach grew along with the daisies. She could feel Prax’s ire sizzling beneath his calm exterior.

Both armrests on the iron throne bent and crumpled under his grip.

Maybe not so calm.

I’m sorry, Shalise quickly thought. I didn’t mean to–

“Every time this happens, it becomes ever more appealing to simply end you.”

I know, I couldn’t help thinking it. Just, please go talk to them? Surely they can help us.

“I fail to see what a mortal would know of our situation that I do not.”

That was true enough. Shalise didn’t understand much of anything that Prax did not explicitly explain.

Except we know more than mortals. There is Ylva and Arachne. And… It felt like there were more, but no names were popping into her head. They could at least give you a second opinion on what went wrong.

He did not move. His emotions were going topsy-turvy.

Shalise kept silent, not wanting to garner further anger.

After several minutes of him emotionally debating with himself, Prax got to his feet. “I can hear them out. Given our current situation, assistance may be required. If they are not who you think they are, you must be prepared to defend us.”

Like how I kept you from torturing us earlier?

“Exactly,” Prax said through grit teeth.

As they moved down towards the castle entrance, Shalise kept her thoughts carefully in check. She did not want any chance of naked golden statues of herself to assault their visitors.

Shalise’s mind blanked out in a brief moment of static.

Prax!

The demon controlling her body stopped moving with a wince. “What is it this time?”

You can’t go down there while naked. Put on some clothes. Anything.

Even as a rack of clothes appeared in front of them, Prax shrugged and walked by. Rack after rack of clothing slid in front of Prax. Each one, he simply sidestepped and moved on.

Until a solid brick wall appeared in front of them.

Scowling, he tore a one piece dress off of its hanger and haphazardly draped it over himself. “Happy. Now?”

The black dress had huge cutouts at the sides and one strap was torn from his handling. Far from anything Shalise would wear, but she didn’t exactly have fine control over what appeared. The only reason it covered anything was because of Prax’s bulky muscles holding it in place. But, it was better than nothing at all.

With a mental nod, Shalise said, I suppose so. At her words, the brick wall melted away.

Prax stalked off down the hallway, grumbling under his breath as he went.

When they finally reached the main entryway–Shalise had to open the giant gate–they found three people standing on the other side.

Devon was one of them–as she guessed–but the other two would have had Shalise’s eyebrows halfway up her forehead had she had any control over her body. Professors Baxter and Lurcher? Why are they here?

“Professors Baxter and Lurcher,” Prax repeated. “Why are you here?”

The voice that came out of her mouth was hers, no doubt about that, but it was tainted with Prax’s lack of proper inflection. His question came more as a statement than any real question.

Devon and Professor Lurcher stiffened in an almost identical manner. Professor Baxter, however, took half a step forwards. “Shalise?”

“That isn’t her,” Devon said. “Even discounting the physical changes, there was no recognition in that thing’s eyes when it saw us.”

“Partially correct,” Prax said. “Shalise is here, though not in control.”

Professor Baxter pulled back, giving Prax a glare.

A glare that Shalise could almost feel. It wasn’t a very nice glare. The professor’s arms were shaking. One of which, Shalise noted, had her silver dagger gripped tight with white knuckles.

“What did you do to her?”

“Nothing irreversible.”

I hope.

Prax ignored her. “Though the situation is unusual, but she is alive and well. Very noisy too. I assure you, this situation is not by either of our choices. Shalise seems to be under the impression that you mortals had some insight I lack.”

“The nun said you had a familiar brand, but the demon is in control?” Devon scratched at his scraggly goatee. “Let’s see it.”

Shalise gave a mental sigh as Prax gripped the already torn strap of the dress and pulled. The fabric tore right down the middle, revealing a full half of her chest, including the mark.

So much for wearing clothes.

Professor Lurcher immediately spun to one side, averting his gaze. Professor Baxter first glared at Prax, then at Devon.

Who, notably, did not turn away. Rather, he walked forwards and knelt down right in front of Prax.

A scary look came over Professor Baxter as Devon started poking and prodding around the brand. She looked about ready to stab him in the back.

“This is a regular familiar sigil,” he said, oblivious to Professor Baxter’s continuing glare. “But you are a cambion. You shouldn’t be able to take over your host. What did you do?”

“The biggest difference would be the state of her soul and my core. Neither of which were inside our respective bodies at the time of our familiar bond.”

Professor Baxter’s anger faded in the blink of an eye. Her face turned white as a sheet. “Her soul?”

“We got them back,” Prax said.

Juliana got hers back too.

Shalise’s vision rolled up to the black sky as Prax said, “Juliana as well. And everything was normal up until we regained our souls. Then, our control switched and I have been unable to break our bond thus far. I believe that my core and her soul have been muddled together.” Prax spread his arms wide as he put on a smile. “Now, mortals, what makes you so special that Shalise thinks you can do anything at all?”

Professor Baxter’s already sheet white face turned several shades paler. Professor Lurcher still faced away from them.

On the other hand, Devon scratched at his chin. “Merged souls? But you talk about her as if she were her own entity still.”

“She is,” Prax agreed.

“Fascinating. I wonder if there were a way to properly get you two tog–”

“Foster,” Professor Baxter snapped. Her voice had a slight tremble to it, but most of her paleness had vanished and had been replaced with anger. “If you say one word that does not involve returning Shalise to normal, I will personally dose you with so much memory potion that you will be unable to remember how to learn.”

Something must have happened, Shalise thought. I only ever saw Devon about three times and talked to him less than that, but I don’t think Professor Baxter was ever as angry with him as she is now.

Prax gave a subtle shrug and nothing else.

“Ylva,” Devon said after scratching at his goatee again. “It should have a way of separating their souls. Let’s carry through with our original plan of taking it to Eva’s domain, then see about contacting the damn hel.”

Prax’s emotions jumped into turmoil again. There was a sliver of hope alongside a bout of trepidation. The later was primarily focused on the idea of entering another person’s domain. “And we cannot simply bring Ylva here?”

“I’m not about to suggest that to it,” Devon said with a glance at the professors. “It will probably kill me. Or worse.”

“Eva is a neutral party,” Professor Baxter said. It almost sounded rehearsed, or perhaps something she was repeating from someone else. “She cares about Shalise, but with both you and Ylva in her domain, neither of you has to fear anything from the other.”

“And what makes this Eva so trustworthy?”

We can trust Eva.

Prax considered for just a moment before nodding his head. None of the others even had a chance to respond. “Very well,” he said. “If this is a trick, trap, or simply fails to work, I will do everything in my power to make all of your lives living hells.”

“No trick,” Professor Baxter said. “Eva is currently fetching Juliana, so she might not be there right away. However, we all just want everything to go back to normal. As long as you don’t hurt Shalise, we don’t have a problem with you.”

“Besides,” Devon said, “I don’t intend to return to Hell. Ever. This could be my only opportunity to see my subject’s domain.”

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