Author’s Note: This was supposed to be a quick thing. It got away from me. Rather than cut it down, I decided to post the entire thing. Make sure you have time for reading a full length chapter.
Nel’s body shook as a chilly breeze swept through the throne room. Her back pressed up against the marble throne. Nel tried to shrink her body in on itself without looking like she was.
A tight metal collar around her neck and a few leather straps around the rest of her body was not enough to keep her warm.
If she had her focus, the problem could easily be rectified. A simple warming spell was no issue for a mage of her talents. Warming spells shouldn’t be an issue for any thaumaturge that was not a water mage. The only real trick was not setting the temperature too high.
Thoughts of heat only made the next breeze feel colder. A shiver wracked up and down her spine. Her nose snuffled as she breathed out with a shudder.
It had been at least three days since she last cried. Maybe four. It was difficult to tell. She only had her meals and sleep cycle to tell the time. Those seemed to be further apart than normal meals might be, though not fasting breakfast was nice.
For almost two days after she started living inside Ylva’s domain, Nel felt certain she was going to starve to death. Eva stopped by with a handful of supplies and almost offhandedly mentioned that mortals required food and adequate rest among other things. After that, Ylva led Nel by the collar into one of the throne room’s antechambers.
A feast lay out on a table the size of a house. Every square inch had food piled on. Meats, cheese, wines, breads, and plenty Nel couldn’t identify. The smell upon entering the room overwhelmed Nel to the point where drool flowed freely down her chin.
She didn’t care in the least.
When Ylva finally released her collar, Nel all but dove into the table. She tried her hardest to sample one of everything. There was simply too much. Plenty of the food was sure to be against several Elysium regulations, the wine least of all.
Whatever rules the Elysium Order had just didn’t apply any longer. While the order didn’t fight demons, wasn’t meant to fight demons, and never sought demons out, any sister would still have been thrown out of the order for consorting with the creatures. An augur would be executed without hesitation or trial.
So Nel gorged herself on everything all the same. She was in tears by the end. Those tears were the first tears that weren’t from self-pity or general dysphoria.
With her stomach distending almost painfully against the leather binding around her waist, Ylva latched a finger on her collar once again. She led Nel out of the fanciful dining hall by the neck.
It wasn’t until two days and several meals later that Nel actually stopped to look around the dining hall. Six white marble pillars stretched high above her head. Crisscrossing arches held up a solid black ceiling. From the center dangled a massive chandelier. It was unlike anything she’d ever seen.
They were constructed out of bones. Because what else, Nel thought with almost a roll of her eyes the first time she saw it.
Six points spread out from the center. They curved slightly down before angling back up. Ribcages, arms, hands, feet, spines, and plenty more an osteologist would have a field day with. At the end of each point were six human skulls, each facing a different direction. Brilliant light poured out of the sockets.
After the first meal, Nel had been led by the neck to a bedroom. She hadn’t ever seen a room more fitting of the title. The bed occupied almost the entire space and that space was not small. The entire cadre of vampires she hunted with the Elysium Order over the summer would have had room to spare during one of their–well, they wouldn’t have taken up half of it.
Despite sinking into the bed like she was resting on a cloud, Nel got no sleep the first night.
Ylva decided to climb into the bed with her. She sat a foot away from Nel and stared. Her cold, gray eyes watched over every movement without a hint of life in them. They were impossible to ignore.
Due to her lack of sleep that first night, Nel had fallen asleep against the demon’s skeletal leg the next morning. She tried to fight it off, but recovering from the attack combined with a total lack of sleep had overpowered her will.
Ylva had simply sat on her throne and ignored it. At least, as far as Nel was aware.
The demon never made any mention of that transgression.
She hadn’t tried to watch Nel sleep since the first night. At least not when Nel first went to sleep.
More than once, Nel had awoken to find foot sized wrinkles in the otherwise smooth sheets leading to just near where she slept. The first time, Nel thought they were simply hers from getting into the bed. She quickly discarded that idea the next morning when there were two sets of footprints leading towards her.
Nel tried to simply ignore it.
Overall, her situation wasn’t so bad, if she was honest with herself. There was plenty of food and despite whatever happened at night, she got a good amount of sleep. A lot more than she got the last few months during the constant surveillance on Eva.
The best part was that no one was trying to kill her. Probably. Eva seemed to gleefully allow her to fall into this situation. Then again, Eva essentially saved her from a death by starvation. Unless it was all a ploy to–
Nel shook the thought out of her head. No. No one was trying to kill her here. Not yet at least. Even if someone did try to kill her, they wouldn’t succeed as long as she had Ylva’s favor. She didn’t know where the demon ranked on the power scale–she’d been too scared to try connecting–but it had to be quite high.
Bony fingers ceased scratching Nel’s head at the sudden movement.
A chill ran up Nel’s spine that was completely unrelated to the cool air of the throne room. She’d completely forgotten about Ylva’s near constant massage of her scalp. Why the demon was so obsessed with running her skeletal fingers through Nel’s hair, she couldn’t guess.
“Is something troubling you?” Ylva’s voice carried command and authority with every syllable despite the soft tone it was spoken in. It wasn’t the booming voice that Nel first heard. The demon hadn’t used that since the school teacher fled from her presence.
It might not be the booming command, but it was not something Nel could ignore.
“Nothing, Lady Ylva.” Nel tried to quell the trembling in her voice. “I was merely lost in my thoughts.”
“Be honest,” the demon commanded. “Never before has a mortal been in Our service. We admit We are learning. If there are additional mortal desires you require, We will oblige.”
Nel bit her lip. She shut her eyes and drew in a deep breath. Nel sat between Ylva’s legs on the cold marble floor. Despite facing away, she was sure the demon could see her sigh. “Clothes, maybe?”
“Proper attire is already in production. It will be ready soon. We request you wait.”
Ylva resumed her petting of Nel’s hair. A shudder ran up her spine as the fingers ran down her skull. It was a confusing shudder for several conflicting reasons.
On one hand, Ylva could kill with a touch if she so desired. Eva checked in on her a few days after mentioning food and they had a few minutes to talk. Telling her about the touch thing almost sent Nel into tears again.
On another hand, the petting was a sign of affection. At least, Nel hoped it was. So long as the demon enjoyed her company, Nel was safe.
The final reason, it started to feel good at some point. Something Nel hated to admit even as she leaned into the gentle strokes.
Nel stopped herself and pulled away. “If it isn’t too much to ask,” Nel said as she shuffled her knees against the hard floor, “would it be possible to get a pillow or even just a blanket for me to sit on here? I mean, my legs are aching.”
There was a pause as the hollow clank of bones bumping each other sounded just above Nel’s head.
She leaned back to look up. Two empty eye sockets stared straight down at her.
Nel clamped down on her jaw and tried to avoid making any sounds or sudden movements. She stared back, wide-eyed, at the polished white skull of her…her master.
She tried not to think of Ylva as her master. Master implied owner. Ylva was her boss, her queen, her savior. Not her master.
Arachne’s words echoed in the back of her mind every time she thought of Ylva. Her words about how the demon wanted to be owned stuck out the most. That could just be a difference in owners.
From what Nel had observed of the two, Eva and Arachne tended to treat each other more as equals.
Whatever it was that Nel had with Ylva wasn’t anything along those lines.
“We understand.” Ylva’s soft voice broke Nel out of her thoughts. “We will make arrangements before you wake.”
“Thank you, Lady Ylva.” Nel said as she bowed her head back down.
She heard Ylva’s bones clatter as the demon leaned back in her throne. The bony fingers against Nel’s skull resumed their massage in a light circular pattern.
Nel relaxed into the massage once again. She closed her eyes and sighed.
It really wasn’t so bad.
“Eva has returned.”
Nel opened her eyes, half expecting the little ab–the little girl to be down at the main entrance archway on the outer ring. She really was making a conscious effort to avoid thinking about her the way Sister Stirling would have thought about her. Despite her current station in life, Eva did hide her away from Sister Cross.
“She’s reading with Arachne?”
“That may be the case in the near future. For now, she makes attempts to recover from the travel.”
“It is Saturday then,” Nel said as she leaned back against the throne.
Two weeks since the demon attacked her. Two weeks minus a few days since she first came to Ylva.
“Mortals use Saturdays as days of rest. Sundays as well, if We are not mistaken.” It came out almost as a question. It felt more like an order to the universe itself. “Do you require days of rest?”
Nel glanced up at the demon. The question smelled like a trap. If she answered yes, she would be punished or perhaps even killed for impertinence. If she answered no, she would be punished or killed for refusing the demon’s offer.
Her brain wracked back and forth over what answer to give. One of them had to be the right answer. Ylva wouldn’t give her an impossible choice so soon. She can’t have tired of Nel’s presence already. What was two weeks to an immortal?
Doubt crept into her heart. It beat furiously trying to push the fear away.
The demon seemed to sense Nel’s raging heart. There was almost a sigh as the demon removed her hand from Nel’s skull.
“Go. Your services are no longer required today. You may resume your duties on the morrow.”
Nel blinked. Relief flooded into her as she let out a long breath. She shook her head and all but slumped against the throne. Of course Ylva hadn’t grown sick of Nel so soon. The demon was honestly asking.
It took a minute for her mind to actually register what the demon had said.
Services? Duties? As far as she knew, Nel hadn’t done anything that would be considered a service. She merely sat in front of the throne with Ylva day in and day out.
“Feel free to explore Our domain. Within, We imagine there is a plethora of wonders to the mortal eye.” One of her skeletal hands pointed off to the front of the room. “That chamber contains water and sand. We recommend you avoid it. The tedium of you becoming lost and tracking you through the Void may tax our patience.”
Nel sat there, staring blankly until everything finally registered. She stood up and gave the slouching skeleton a deep bow. “Thank you, Lady Ylva.”
The skeleton dismissed her with a wave of her bleached arm.
Nel turned her back on her master and moved down the steps from the throne.
There were thirty-six archways along the outer ring. One was off-limits–being lost in a place called the void sounded horrible–one led to the bedroom, one to the dining room, and one outside. There was a bathroom attached to the bedroom, though it was depressingly lacking a bath.
Nel froze at the edge of the hanging platform as a thought occurred to her. Did demons even need to use the bathroom? And what about sleep. Did Ylva need sleep? She had a bedroom. A bedroom that Nel had been sleeping in for the past several nights.
Unless she misheard something, Ylva gave her free roam of her domain. Even the water and sand room was a recommendation rather than an order. Did she have private quarters that she just allowed Nel access to or were they simply hidden somewhere Nel had no hope of accessing.
Nel shook the thought off. If one of the rooms looked like it was dangerous in any sense of the word, she’d skip it and check the next room.
With a deep breath, Nel put a foot down over the gaping pit. She hated this part since the day she moved in. Ylva had to all but drag her across by the collar the first few times. It was just unnatural stepping over a pit.
Whatever magics decided she was a valid member of Ylva’s domain took hold. A small platform formed exactly beneath her foot.
Parts of her could see a solid floor connecting the white marble ring to the black marble throne platform. Other parts of her could clearly see that nothing was around her. Most notably, her regular eyes. The ones she trusted the most.
Halfway between the outer ring and the inner disc, Nel looked down. She couldn’t help it. Every time she crossed she had to look down.
Six white pillars held up the outer ring. Whatever they were resting on was too far to be seen. Nothing but darkness lay beneath her. A light could be dropped down and she was sure it would fall forever.
A wave of nausea gripped her stomach as vertigo took hold.
Nel stumbled the rest of the way across the pit until she found herself pressed against the pillar of an archway.
If Ylva ever had guests, Nel would have to hide out of sight. Otherwise she would embarrass her master to death.
Well, deather, Nel thought with a glance up to the skeleton slouched on her throne. She made not a movement to indicate amusement or annoyance. It was so hard to tell the emotions of a skinless skeleton.
Picking herself up off the wall, Nel turned to one of the open archways. None of them were labeled, but the throne didn’t rotate. At least, not that Nel had ever seen. Outside was directly in front of the throne with the sand and water room to one side. The bedroom was behind and one door to the left. The dining room was straight on the right hand side.
She imagined she’d mix up ones that weren’t on cardinal directions, but that didn’t matter while exploring.
The first room that really interested Nel was full of eyeballs.
Long meaty stocks held them up to the level of Nel’s chest. Each eye was about as big as Nel’s head. They squirmed and slithered on their stocks as they gazed towards an empty sky.
It was a far cry from the prison and torture chamber she already visited. They were exceedingly normal as far as Nel could tell, even if they looked like they had been used far too recently. When Ylva found the time to torture someone, Nel wasn’t sure. The demon was almost always upon her throne.
Nel stood at the entrance and stared. Half of her wanted to turn and vomit. The other half wanted to rush forward and touch them.
As a former augur of the Elysium Order, Nel knew a scrying setup when she saw one. Probably. That was her best guess in any case. She’d never seen anything even remotely similar to it before.
What else would it be.
After watching them writhe for a few minutes, curiosity won out. She had to know if they were better than she was.
She strode into the room. Nel did her best to ignore her bare feet stepping off of cold, hard marble and onto something warm and squishy. There was no central dais or obvious control point, so Nel walked up to the nearest eye.
It ceased its squirming at her approach. The stalk bent, almost bowing to her. It hovered right at her waist.
Nel reached out. Slowly, carefully, Nel brushed her finger against the moist membrane of the eye. When it failed to react, Nel placed the palms of both hands against the sides of the eye.
She shut her eyes and concentrated. Focusing on Sister Cross’ name and face, Nel channeled the barest amount of magic into the eye that she could. If she was making a mistake, she didn’t want it to explode or anything.
Sister Cross could hide from an augur in possession of a strand of her hair. She was probably a poor target.
Instead, Nel focused on the headquarters of the Elysium Order. A warehouse-like building on the outskirts of town.
Nel frowned. Perhaps it isn’t for scrying. Or it requires a specific way to use it.
She released the sphere. Gooey mucus stuck to her hands as they pulled away. Long strands dripped down to the ground where her feet were undoubtedly becoming just as disgusting. She didn’t even have her scapular to wipe her hands off.
Disappointed and feeling decidedly unclean, Nel stalked out of the room. She skidded across the marble floor and nearly fell. A well placed pillar arrested her momentum. Hand shaped streaks of goo covered part of the pillar.
Nel sighed. She needed to find a way to clean this up.
In the main throne room, Nel opened her mouth to shout out at Ylva. Her heart hammered as she realized what she almost did. Her jaw snapped shut with a click.
She took a moment to compose herself. Several deep breaths later, Nel felt ready. “Lady Ylva,” she said. “I don’t suppose one of these rooms has a good way of cleaning myself.”
The skeletal woman draped across the throne turned her head just to one side. Her jaw twitched open for the barest of seconds. She might have missed it had she not been using her glimpse to get a closer look at her master.
Laughing? Amusement? Disgust? Annoyance? Nel tried hard to keep her face neutral. I can’t tell without skin.
Without a single sound, the queenly woman raised one of her hands. She pointed at the archway nearest to Nel that wasn’t the prison.
Nel gave her a deep bow. “Thank you, my lady.”
Steadying her footsteps, Nel carefully made her way to the next room.
She froze at what she saw.
Water stretched out before Nel. It was at least as big as the bed, if not bigger. A thick layer of steam hung above the pool, thinning as it rose in the air. Faintly glowing red lines wisped through the basin in large curls. Water poured down into the pool from above.
Nel strode forwards, entranced by the magnificent wonders of the room. Her steps stopped again as her eyes flicked up to the source of the waterfalls.
Three pairs of glowing red eyes glared down at her.
A short squeak escaped Nel’s lips as she fell backwards onto the cold marble. It took a minute of stunned horror before she realized none of the creatures were moving. Nel pulled herself to her feet as a hot flush burned her cheeks. She used her glimpse to garner a closer look.
Three females appeared to have been carved from obsidian. They squatted on large pedestals with their knees spread apart and their hands placed in the center. Their very clawed hands.
A massive tail sprung from their lower back and wrapped around their pedestals. Wings reminiscent of a bat spread out from their backs. Their hair had been sculpted in a way that made it look like a strong breeze rushed past them before time stood still.
Each of their faces were uniquely carved. Thicker lips on one, wider eyes on another. None of them looked anything short of the noble beauty present on Ylva’s own face when she actually had skin on.
To top it off, each had glowing red lines that intricately ran up their legs, belly, breasts, and arms, before coming to a point at their eyes. Their tattoos were very reminiscent of the patterns beneath the pool.
Two of them had their mouths wide open. Water poured out into the pool below. The center one had its mouth carved in a closed position.
Minor heart attack over, Nel resumed walking towards the pool. She hesitated once again. Contaminating the water with the slime on her hands seemed like a poor idea. She looked around, hoping for some towels to wipe it off with.
Instead, Nel found another gargoyle. It perched on a far larger pedestal–almost as large as its body–just over a small depression in the floor. As Nel approached, its jaw snapped open.
Water spilled forth before Nel could stumble back.
A shower, Nel thought. That would work.
A sudden fear struck Nel. She hadn’t had a shower in two weeks. With a small groan, she realized both Eva and Ylva had the misfortune of being in her presence.
After rinsing off her hands, Nel detached the leather straps that served as her only clothes. An unpleasant odor wafted from them as she tossed them to the side. Cleaning them or just plain getting new ones might be something to bring up with Ylva sometime.
Clothes gone, Nel stepped into the shower. She washed out her hair and soaked for a long while. Eva might need to add a some toiletries to her list. A new focus as well.
Underneath the just-shy-of-scalding water, Nel fiddled with her collar. Unlike the rest of her clothes, it had no latches, no seams, no hooks, and it didn’t stretch. It was made out of some deceptively heavy metal with a small black skull hanging on a ring at the dead center.
She couldn’t remember how it got on her. She couldn’t remember when it got on her. That the only way to remove it seemed to be with the removal of Nel’s head was telling.
Nel shook her head before any tears could well up. She glanced at the olympic sized bath tub and a fire lit in her eyes.
She jumped out of the shower. A pause came over her for just a moment as she realized the leather bindings had been replaced by a stack of towels. Nel decided not to complain and maybe bring that up with Ylva later. She used one to dry off quickly.
Running back to the main hall, Nel bent over and started wiping up her slimy footprints with one of the spare towels. She wanted nothing more than to jump into the pool of water, but better to clean up before the slime hardens. Whatever took her bindings could probably clean the slime, but the slime was her mess to clean up.
Tracks clear, Nel sprinted back to the bath chamber. She carelessly tossed the slime covered towel near the shower. If the towel didn’t disappear, she could find a way to get rid of it later.
A sparkle lit in Nel’s eye as she approached the water. She slowly, almost reverently stepped down the first step. And the next. And the next.
When the water level was at her shoulders, Nel swam over to the side. Rows of seats lined the walls. They had headrests, armrests and what looked like adjustable leg rests.
She quickly took a seat. Her legs spread in a giant stretch. Her feet pointed and her toes curled and extended to the point just before where a cramp might hit.
Nel went limp. All of her muscles relaxed more than they had since her memories began. She sank with the relaxation to the point of her head keeping just above the water as the chair caught and cradled her body.
Yeah, Nel thought as her eyes fluttered shut, I could get used to this.
The seat even had the little jets of water massaging her entire body.
Her life of servitude might not be so bad.