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