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006.022

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Eva wasn’t jealous.

Not the slightest little bit.

Prax’s domain was something special.

Willie’s domain had been… less than entrancing. His theater was fancy enough, on the inside at least. But at no point could Eva recall just stopping and staring with a gaping mouth. The only thing of any real note was his golden bee statues. Those just didn’t appeal to Eva.

The first time she had entered Ylva’s domain, she was struck dumb with a sense of awe. The bottomless pit and the storm clouds overhead framed her throne, combined with the massive open space of her main room and it all added to her larger-than-life presence.

It was impressive, as was the rest of her domain, but it didn’t resonate with Eva.

Ylva’s domain fit her. It fit Eva’s regal image of Ylva. Yet, it wasn’t something that Eva thought she could spend an eternity within.

But Prax… he had a castle.

A big castle.

No. Not just big. Immense. Eva had to crane her neck to see the top of the tallest tower. It stretched so high into the sky–if sky was the proper word for it in Hell–that it took her stomach out from under her. The vertigo from staring had her stumbling a few steps as she fought to regain her balance.

That stumbling almost sent her over the edge of the bridge that connected the landing point to the main gate. The bridge was large enough that she should never have been within twenty feet of the edge, but Eva had wanted to see what they were bridging over.

A bottomless pit. Because of course it was a bottomless pit.

Jealous though she was of the castle itself, Eva could do without bottomless pits in her domain. Even if her domain ‘caught’ her should she fall, it really just seemed like an unnecessary hazard.

Moving away from the edge, Eva decided to focus on a portion of the castle a little lower. The main building.

Obsidian bricks that were probably larger than Eva standing on Arachne’s shoulders made up the entire structure. While the walls themselves were smooth and glossy, the shape was blocky and angled for the most part. No spikes adorned the walls, as she might have expected given how Shalise described Prax. The only thing similar were the four spires reaching above the tallest tower.

Now far from the edge, Eva felt safe glancing up once again. Dark clouds hung overhead, threatening rain. It probably wouldn’t start raining unless Prax or Shalise wanted it to, but the atmosphere was set.

As they approached the colossal wooden gate that separated the bridge from the castle proper, Eva’s initial shock wore off.

And she frowned.

Ylva’s domain fit her regal bearings. Willie’s domain had fit his theater-demon nature.

Eva hadn’t seen any other domains. She had visited Arachne’s domain, but had lacked eyes at the time. Same with the abattoir, if that was even an actual domain. As such, she didn’t have much to compare it to. But…

Prax’s domain did not fit him.

Not that she had ever seen or even spoken with the demon directly. But Shalise had described him and his mannerisms. A red-skinned muscle-bound hulk of a cambion did not quite mesh with the elegant structure before her.

Rather, this domain looked more like what she imagined Zagan lived in. He was titled the Great King, one of the seventy-two pillars of Hell, after all.

Eva wasn’t certain what did fit her image of Prax, but this… just wasn’t it.

Shaking her head, Eva glanced towards her companions.

Nothing bad had happened to Shalise upon dropping in. So that was.. good. But she also hadn’t said a word.

If Prax had done something to switch places with her again, Eva wasn’t certain what she would do. Zagan likely wouldn’t help out a second time. Eva still hadn’t made any progress on puzzling out what he might want that would be worth potentially drawing the Keeper’s attention by helping Shalise out of Hell.

But, Eva didn’t think that anything had happened. Shalise still walked with the gait Eva had grown used to over the past two years. Eva hadn’t seen much of her while Prax had been in charge–she had been far too concentrated on Genoa–but Prax had definitely carried himself differently. Stiffer and with a far wider stance.

Sister Cross–who, according to Shalise, was not a sister anymore–carried herself like a warrior. Her eyes were aglow with her brand of power, scanning each and every little detail for any kind of threat. She spent no time taking in the sights as Eva had.

After her fairly long nap, she was looking much better. The bags under her eyes were still there, but not half as dark. Eva had ended up fighting off two separate attacks of the enigmas while the former nun slept.

And yet, despite helping Shalise fend off the enigmas and keeping everyone safe, she still sent Eva a glare every couple of steps. And every single time, Eva tensed, just waiting for a bolt of lightning to fly in her direction.

Eva would not be missing the stress when it came time for her to return to the mortal realm.

“So,” Eva said, breaking the silence between glares, “who has control?”

“Don’t know yet.”

“Don’t know? How can you not know?”

“Neither of us have tried,” Shalise said. “Too afraid.”

Eva almost asked what she was afraid of, but Shalise continued without needing a prompt.

“Prax is afraid that I have control still. I’m afraid to mess up his domain beyond repair. Or, beyond my abilities to repair.” She took her eyes off of the massive gate to glance at Eva. “He’s not all that bad, so I’d rather not be needlessly cruel. It is his home.”

“Shalise,” Lynn Cross said, warning tone in her voice. “I would rather you not fraternize with the enemy.”

“It’s a bit hard when he’s stuck inside my head.”

Lynn’s lips pinched down to a single point. Eva watched as the flare in her eyes jumped up a few notches in intensity.

Eva quickly looked away before that glare could be leveled at her.

“As nice as it is that you’re so considerate of each other,” Eva said with her focus on Shalise and Shalise alone, “it would probably be a good idea to find out before anything happens. I’m already surprised that this place isn’t crawling with enigmas.”

Shalise tilted her head to the side, listening to whatever Prax was saying. “Depending on the exact nature of their origins, these creatures have likely gravitated towards domains of demons currently on the mortal plane. Given your frequent travels between here and there, the ‘walls’ may have weakened further in your case.”

“That,” Eva said, trying to keep her voice as neutral as possible for Shalise’s sake, “could have been useful information to have been told earlier.”

“He says that you never asked,” Shalise said.

Eva sighed. Well that’s just great. Her sigh cut off partway as a thought occurred to her. “Are you sure you want me in this domain then? Am I not knocking down walls with my very presence?”

“Could be,” Shalise said with a shrug. “Prax doesn’t think it will matter much. All of Void will be weakened to that point sooner or later.”

Turning away from Eva, Shalise looked up to the gate. She rested her hand on the dark wood. “But enough of that. Let’s try this. Do you want to, or shall I?”

Ignoring the look on Lynn’s face that said she wanted to interrupt, Eva fell silent as she watched and waited. Shalise continued to stare at the door with her head tilted to one side and her hand on the wood.

“But that won’t solve anything.” Shalise shook her head. After another moment of silence, she shrugged. “Alright, if you say so.”

With a ring of thunder, the door cracked open. Apart from the initial noise, the doors parted in a smooth and silent manner. The hinges, each as tall as Eva herself, didn’t even squeak.

It stopped only a sliver of the way open. A sliver relative to the size of the doors themselves. Eva, Shalise, and Lynn were all able to walk in shoulder-to-shoulder with space to spare.

“So?” Eva said as they walked through the courtyard up to the main entrance.

“Still don’t know. We tried at the same time. Count of three and everything.”

Eva rolled her eyes. “Well, at least one of you has it. Better than neither–”

“Wait.” Shalise glanced around, scanning the exterior of the castle. “Someone is here.”

Eva ignited her hands without hesitation while her dagger found its way to her hand. The three vials of Arachne’s blood at her hip quivered in anticipation, though she did not uncork them just yet.

Already combat-ready, Lynn only increased her vigil. Eva did shy away from a handful of sparks that started dancing across the backs of her hands.

“Who would be here? Not any humans, right? More enigmas?”

Shalise shook her head. “No. It is a demon. But who– O-oh.” She backed up a few steps. “Should we l-leave?”

Whatever Prax was saying, Shalise wasn’t liking a word of it. Her face drew back into a tight frown.

“What?” Shalise jumped. Muscles started growing beneath her skin.

Prax’s muscles.

Shalise hated Prax’s muscles. If she was growing them out, it was probably something serious.

Ignoring the disgusted look that Lynn was giving her own daughter, Eva brought Arachne’s blood up before her. Some went into a shield, ready to activate at a moment’s notice, while the rest started orbiting her shoulders.

“And what if she isn’t friendly?” Shalise shouted. “You do remember that you crushed her skull the last time you met her. I might hold a bit of a grudge if you did the same to me.”

“Who are you talking about?”

Shalise glanced to her side with wide eyes. “Prax’s mother.”

“Oh.” Eva frowned. Shalise had told her the story of her prison adventures, but couldn’t remember more than a simple mention of Prax’s mother. Something about Prax murdering her with Shalise’s hands. There was probably more, but that had been several months ago.

One thing was certain, this demon’s presence was doing a good job of frightening Shalise.

But between herself and Lynn Cross, they should be able to hold their own, right? Besides, this was Prax’s domain, not his mother’s.

Eva shook her head. She had made poor decisions in the past, especially regarding demons and their domains. If Prax ended up convinced to act against them, they could wind up in the same situation as when they had gone on their ill-advised assault against Willie. Depending on how much control he actually had and how much he could actually interfere with Shalise.

Backing up a few steps, Eva said, “we should leave before we get too far from the way out.”

“I agree with the abomination,” Lynn Cross said. Ignoring Eva’s glare, she continued speaking. “The enigmas were known quantities. Annoying, but easily dealt with. If we are forced to remain within this nightmare, it is best we avoid demonic enemies.”

“Prax agrees,” Shalise said with a nod. “The reason he believes that she won’t attack us is because this is his domain. He possesses the power here. Theoretically, anyway. For her to willingly show up and wander about means that she likely came here seeking an alliance of some sort.”

“An alliance?” Eva frowned. “Against wha–Enigmas?”

“Possibly, Prax says. She was imprisoned for helping other demons join her on Earth in some sort of freedom fighting thing–” Shalise paused for just a moment. “Oh, that’s wrong. More of a conquering kind of thing.”

“Great for her. Doesn’t mean we should go talk to her.”

Lynn laid a hand on the younger girl’s shoulder.

“Shal, you’ve been repeating the words of this… demon,” she spat the word with clear distaste. “Even as he intrudes on your mind, you defend his opinion. One that may wind up with us all dead. You don’t feel this way. You’ve seen this demon before and she scares you; you want to leave.

“So trust your instincts, Shalise. Listen to yourself, rather than him, and let us be gone from this place before it is too late.”

Shalise’s eyes flared. Not quite a demonic flash of red, but there was unmistakable anger behind her eyes. The muscles in her arm tensed.

Eva tensed up, waiting for Shalise to strike first. She could imagine the words Prax must be whispering in her ear.

She thinks you’re weak. But you don’t need to listen to her, Shalise. We have the power here. She hates you and fears you for having me in your head.

Or something along those lines, in any case.

Whatever his whisperings were, they weren’t enough. Tension drained from Shalise along with her muscles. She slumped into Lynn, nodding into her chest.

“You’re right. Let’s go.”

Eva watched as Shalise’s face winced. Probably at whatever Prax was saying now–insults, Eva was willing to bet.

Keeping herself tense, Eva stayed ready for any sign of trouble.

But nothing happened. No pits opening beneath them. No hot tar pouring off the battlements. No sign of any domain manipulation acting against them.

Either Prax was more subtle than Eva was giving him credit for or Shalise still had power. Or Prax had decided that insulting Shalise was enough, probably deciding that speaking with a mother that had recently had her skull crushed by him was a poor idea.

Eva was somewhat hoping for the latter option as it would prove that Prax was at least somewhat reasonable.

With Eva watching their backs and Lynn watching just about everywhere else, they made their way back across the bridge and to the waters of Hell.

“Remember,” Eva said, “you don’t want to get lost and wind up in some other demon’s domain. Think of me, repeating my name can’t hurt either.”

Eva stood back and watched as they, hand in hand, jumped into the water.

Unlike hers and Ylva’s domains, Prax had his waters looking almost more like a swimming pool than a beach. Obsidian bricks surrounded a pit of water. It wasn’t actually a swimming pool–it lacked walls and a floor within the basin, as it was all part of the ‘ocean’–but it gave off the appearance from above.

There were no ladders or steps to get in and out. The water level was a good body-length beneath the top of the bricks. Arachne could probably get out without much trouble, but a lot of demons would have problems climbing out.

That tied into his defenses for the area. The landing into his domain was immediately overhead. A cushioned platform that looked as if it could be opened into a trapdoor, dropping any unwanted guests straight back into the rest of Hell.

Eva wasn’t certain that it was possible to re-enter the same domain that she was leaving from–she had never tried–but if it was possible, they would just land back in the waters a second time.

Willie’s domain had been almost the exact opposite of Prax’s domain. His started out with a boat ride designed to disorient and confuse, ultimately making it incredibly difficult to actually leave. His guests would be trapped in with whatever amusements he concocted until he decided to release them.

Prax seemed intent on keeping unwanted demons out of his domain. The castle, the walls, the gate, the easily defensible bridge, and this. They all deterred invaders.

Probably something Eva should set up in her own domain. Even if someone just landed in a solitary confinement cell until Eva set them free, it would at least be a start.

And it might contain the enigmas for easier disposal. A much better plan than the current ‘allow them to run free on the beach’ method.

Stepping up to the edge of the pool, Eva stopped with both of her feet half over the edge.

She glanced around the room. There was some kind of uniform light throughout Prax’s domain. No light sources, but Eva could see.

And something was casting a shadow. Probably nothing. She couldn’t see anyone through her sense of blood. Eva guessed that it was a trick of the light and nothing more, but…

“How long are you going to skulk about? If you wish to speak, speak.”

If it was nothing, it might have been embarrassing. But no one else would be around to know, so the point was moot.

If it was something, then calling out was just one step on the path cultivating her own appearance as a mysterious and omniscient demon.

Waiting, Eva stared around the room. Her gaze slowly swept from one side to the other, sweating this possibly non-existent person out.

Eva sighed. Guess it was nothing after all, she thought.

A flash of movement had Eva’s head whipping around before she could step forward.

It was nowhere near the shadow on the wall.

Keeping her blood ready for a shield at a moment’s notice, Eva watched as a silver-haired woman stepped around a pillar on the opposite side of the room.

Eva only absently noted her long-coat and boots, choosing instead to focus on the sword attached to the woman’s hip.

It was, thankfully, sheathed.

And yet, somewhat concerning. Eva could not think of a single demon that used tools. Every one of them chose to fight with bare hands. That included Ylva, possibly the most civilized demon that Eva knew of.

“You knew I was here,” she said, voice coming out cold and hard, though still in a whisper.

Too busy fighting the surprise off of her face, Eva couldn’t even celebrate the success of her seeming-omniscient plan. The woman’s voice itself was almost as bad as the voice Ylva used while speaking from her throne.

Worse, if not for trusting her own sight, Eva wouldn’t be able to tell that this person was in the room at all. She had no blood. At least not that Eva could see. She had no presence or bearing.

She wasn’t even breathing.

Had she stood still on a pedestal, Eva was certain that she would pass her off as a particularly detailed statue.

Eva slid her feet slightly closer to the edge, ready to drop off. If the woman suddenly attacked, her own domain would be far more defensible.

“You were following us,” Eva said. Again, she was bluffing and possibly pushing her omniscience too far. For all Eva knew, the woman had just shown up. But it had worked well enough the first time around.

Besides, this didn’t look like someone she should show weakness to.

“Why?”

“The Keeper is displeased. Cells that were once full must be filled again.”

Eva almost leapt off into the pool at that. Her first thoughts were that this woman was here for Shalise. If so, Shalise needed to be warned.

They really needed to get her out of Hell.

But Eva stayed where she was. There was another, more likely reason why this woman was inside Prax’s domain.

“You’re here for the demon hiding here. That demon is hiding from you?”

The woman nodded, sending her ponytail up and down in a light bob.

“Hiding here? Why? This isn’t her domain. She has no advantage or power over this place. Her own–” Eva cut herself off. That was a stupid question. Obviously, she was hiding here because they would look for her in her domain.

But if she left a place she had total control over for a place inhabited by a possible enemy… “You did something to her domain, you broke it or somehow made it inhospitable, didn’t you?”

“Not I.”

“The Keeper then.”

The woman remained silent, neither affirming nor denying Eva’s suggestion.

Neither spoke for a time. Eva watched the woman like a hawk while she thought.

Really, it was a pretty stupid decision in Eva’s opinion, showing up at Prax’s domain even though he had also escaped from that prison. At least, that was Eva’s first thought. Given how Willie had treated her, perhaps going with a known quantity was always better than going to some random demon’s domain. Together, they might have been able to fend off assaults. That was what Prax’s domain had been designed for.

Except Prax wasn’t here.

And now Eva might have given Prax’s jailers the key to finding him.

Eva gave a quick mental curse. “Well, don’t let me stop you. I’ve no love for the demon here.”

With that said, she stepped forward–actually blinking just above the surface of the water.

It engulfed her before the woman could respond. Eva felt the familiar yank as she was pulled off to her domain.

Shalise needed to be hidden better or cured of her Prax affliction. Immediately.

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004.009

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Juliana groaned out.

Fever heat had always bothered her. She hated the simultaneous inclination to both kick off her covers and gather them around her in a cushy pile. There was just no winning either way. The moment the covers were off, she’d be too cold. Gather them up and she’d be too hot.

And someone had the brilliant idea to dump an extremely heavy, extremely hot blanket on top of her.

Groaning again, Juliana reached out to shove the blanket off.

The tips of her fingers found themselves digging into something warm and sticky. Something wet.

Did I knock over a bowl of soup? Some drink?

Wrinkling her nose, Juliana opened her eyes. Just a crack. Not enough to let too much light in. Just enough to see.

Juliana clamped her mouth shut.

Screaming, her mother had said once upon a time, never helped anybody.

Everything came back at once. Shalise. Prax. Demons. The prison.

Feelings of dizziness while talking with Prax. Passing out almost as soon as she had lain down.

She pinched her eyes shut and counted backwards from three. There probably wasn’t enough time for a full ten. As soon as she hit one, she snapped her eyes open and shoved the leg off of her chest.

At least, she thought it was a leg. It was difficult to tell.

Carefully keeping her eyes off of whatever it was, Juliana looked around the room.

And had to immediately duck back down as something went flying past her. As soon as it hit the ground, a void opened beneath and swallowed it whole.

A demon.

Two women fought in the direction it flew from. One, a purply-blue and very naked woman with horns. She fought with nothing but her hands, though they looked reinforced with clawed gauntlets.

The other looked human, if humans had silver hair–they didn’t, last Juliana checked. Gray maybe, but nothing quite as metallic as this demon’s hair.

A demon entered through a hole in the wall, a bulky one. Looked like he had swallowed a few elephants.

Before Juliana could even consider more than his initial appearance, the silver-haired demon appeared in front of him, cut him in two with a sword, and appeared back in front of the naked demon.

Both halves of the elephant demon disappeared into a void, something Juliana was extremely pleased with. It hadn’t been pretty. The putrid stench it left behind was more than enough to cause Juliana to gag.

The naked demon hadn’t been idle during the other’s absence. She made it a mere two steps farther into the room before the silver-haired demon knocked her back one step.

Juliana had to consciously close her gaping mouth and force her eyebrows back down to their regular position.

That the indigo demon was slowly yet surely making its way towards the crystal–Juliana assumed that was her goal–had her somewhat worried. It couldn’t be anything good.

Juliana kept the crystal only in the corner of her eye. She had glanced over it for a brief moment and almost got stuck, drawn in like some sort of hypnosis.

Neither of the demons so much as glanced in her direction throughout any of their fight. That was a small miracle in and of itself.

One thing was certain. This was definitely not Prax’s cell.

“Shalise,” Juliana hissed.

She couldn’t have–she wouldn’t have just left her.

Juliana scanned over all of the body parts littering the floor. There were surprisingly few considering that the sword-master kept flashing over to the hole in the wall and dispatching any that approached. Most of the parts likely vanished into the portals that appeared wherever a demon died.

There must have been a whole horde outside, clamoring to get in. Probably fighting one another to fit through the small hole. That none bothered to widen it was somewhat surprising. The silver-haired woman was fast and powerful, true, but anyone could be overwhelmed.

There!

A messy set of wavy brown hair stood out against the background noise of body parts.

But the thing attached to the hair…

“Shalise?”

Juliana twisted up to her hands and knees. She cracked her neck from side to side. There was an absolutely awful kink like she’d been sleeping half off the bed again.

Right as she laid her hand on the muscled-over shoulder, ‘Shalise’ stirred. She pushed herself up onto her on knees with a groan, bringing a hand up to her forehead as she moved.

“Wha-what?” Shalise flipped back on her butt and started clawing at her arms, digging in and drawing blood. “No! This–this is not right.”

“Shalise, you have to calm down!” Juliana gripped Shalise’s arms and tried to pull her off of herself. Whatever had happened to her gave her enough muscles to overpower Juliana’s efforts. “Shalise!”

Shalise blinked and stopped struggling. Her eyes focused on Juliana.

Recognition took a moment. She pulled back and blinked again. “You! You mo–”

Shalise blinked again. “Juliana?”

“It’s me, Shalise. Are you… What happened to you?”

“I–” She looked down at herself.

For a moment, Juliana thought she was about to start clawing at herself again.

She didn’t. She almost snarled at herself. “I don’t want to talk about it.” Shalise jumped to her feet, narrowing her eyes at the naked demon and the sword. “This place is dangerous.”

“Yeah.” Juliana followed Shalise to her feet.

Oh, too fast. Juliana wobbled and pressed a palm to her own forehead.

Strong, iron-like fingers gripped her arm, holding her steady.

“Thanks.” Juliana glanced down at the fingers. “You’re going to have to tell me what happened.”

“Later.”

Shalise released Juliana’s arms, walking towards the red barrier and away from the fighting demons.

Her walk was unsteady. Stumbling almost.

Juliana wasn’t unsympathetic. A few steps of her own had her legs feeling like jelly. At least she knew why she wasn’t walking properly. Her dizziness and the lost time between Prax’s cell and this crystal room… it was obvious that she had been unconscious.

But the way Shalise was walking, something about it unnerved Juliana. Whatever was causing her movements to be unsteady was slowly getting better.

Or whoever.

Signs of a battle lay strewn about outside of the crystal room’s barrier. The remains were far messier than inside. Half-machine humanoids lay in pieces. White blood was splattered around each corpse, so they weren’t demons. Or not demons that she had ever heard of.

Most of the actually fighting moved on to gather around the hole in the crystal room’s wall.

Shalise strode on, uncaring and oblivious to the fighting.

Juliana narrowed her eyes.

She could keep Shalise in sight. She would keep Shalise in sight. Until she was sure, Shalise wouldn’t be at her back.

— — —

Nightmares were just dreams that had gone wrong. Instead of a normal day at school, it was a day without pants. Or instead of a normal haunted house, it was a haunted house with a serial killer actively in pursuit.

In fact, Shalise was quite certain that she had had this nightmare before. The feeling of being trapped in her own body while it walked around was oddly familiar. She could see through her eyes and hear through her ears, but she couldn’t move her eyes or turn her head.

Except this time, it wasn’t a nightmare. Or perhaps it was, and it was just a really long and terrible nightmare. One thing after another kept going wrong. If it wasn’t being stuck in a prison full of demons, it was Juliana getting sick.

Or her body getting stolen.

At least Juliana had woken up on her own. Shalise very much doubted that Prax would have continued to carry her had she stayed unconscious.

She should have listened to that doll.

Of course, she was planning on touching the crystal anyway. Even if the earthquake hadn’t pushed her into it. Prax hadn’t been lying about that–Juliana got better, after all. So something good must have come from touching it.

For Juliana.

For Shalise, that seemed to be the catalyst needed for Prax to assert control. If he could have done it earlier, he probably would have done it earlier.

The only real consolation she had was that Prax seemed to be heading towards the exit with all haste. So much haste that Juliana was having difficulty keeping up.

Escape to where, she didn’t know.

His feelings were easy to get an idea of, though he hadn’t felt much aside from barely constrained rage since they had touched the crystal. But Shalise still could not hear his thoughts.

“I wish I could say the same. Your thoughts are broadcasted for all the world to hear.”

His voice came out barely above a whisper. Shalise still jumped. Or she would have; her body was not currently obeying her commands.

Give me back my body!

“I would if I could. You think I want to be stuck in this worthless mortal meat sack?”

Shalise sulked back in her mind, wishing she could do something to show her displeasure. If Prax didn’t want her body, he shouldn’t have taken it in the first place.

“I was not trying to take it. You cannot make a decent servant if I have to do everything in your body.”

I’m not your servant!

“I must have overestimated you,” Prax continued on without even acknowledging her. “Disappointing really, given how little I thought of you. Whatever you did to screw up the brand must have been grand indeed.”

Screw it up? The brand did this? That was worrying. If something went wrong there… well, magical medicine could do a lot. Healing her skin might fix things, or at least give her a second shot at drawing out the brand.

“Second shot? Fool. Your brand goes far deeper than a mere etching on your skin. You should have ensured it was correct the first time.”

I followed your directions! You were even watching me. If anyone screwed up, it was you. How long has it been since you last did something like this? A couple thousand years at least, right?

Prax didn’t respond. Not verbally; his anger was starting to bubble though.

Good. If he was going to lock her away inside her own body, he deserved it.

With a mental sigh, Shalise thought, what did you mean by deeper than my skin?

“A bond like that etches straight onto your soul.”

According to you, I didn’t even have my soul at the time.

“A miscalculation.”

So this is your fault.

“You should have kept better track of yourself, foolish mortal.”

Shalise tried to bite down on the edge of her lip. It didn’t work, of course. With another sigh, she asked the one question to which she had been dreading the answer.

D-do I have my soul back?

There was a brief pause. For a moment, she thought Prax was going to bite his lips. Or her lips. Whatever.

“Yes,” he finally said.

Had she been in control of her body, Shalise would have smiled.

That was a relief all on its own. It almost made up for Prax. In fact, if not for him, she would never have known her soul was missing. She and Juliana might have found a way out and only realized too late. Prax had mentioned ‘disparity’ after time passed without her soul and body being one.

And, even better, maybe her etchings were only skin deep. Her soul was left nice and untarnished.

Was that even a thing?

She didn’t know. She didn’t think about such things during everyday ordinary life.

My life has been anything but ordinary for a long time, Shalise mused.

Prax gave an amused snort out of her nose.

Shalise closed her eyes. It didn’t actually close them, but it cut off the sight to her mind. It was very disjointed. She was still getting the information from her surroundings. The endless walls of red-barrier cells and the occasional glance Prax made over her shoulder towards Juliana.

She knows, you know. There’s no way she hasn’t noticed. You don’t act like I do.

“If she attacks, I will take her head.”

D-don’t do that! She won’t hurt me.

“I would not be so confident regarding her inclinations towards me.”

Not while I’m here. P-probably. But you have to tell her that I’m here. Though if she thought Prax had killed her and was just wearing her skin or shapeshifted into her, things might be a little different. If she was even close to half her mother’s daughter, she could easily hurt Prax.

“You think I would lose to a pathetic mortal?”

Juliana’s strong. Way stronger than I am, especially if you were right about regaining our magic after touching the crystal. And, as you mentioned before, you’re currently in one of those pathetic mortal bodies.

Shalise felt her body flex. Prax made no large movements, he just tensed as many muscles as he could.

Part of Shalise’s uniform tore around the shoulder.

“As pathetic as this body is, it is far superior to her with my gifts. She is not the only one who regained something they lost from the crystal.”

Just talk to her. If you tell her, Shalise thought to Prax, she will probably try to get you out of my body.

“Then our goals are aligned.”

Prax stopped. He stopped and turned to face Juliana.

She jumped back, dropping into a fighting stance.

Oh yeah. She definitely knows. It was a strain to try to roll her eyes, but Shalise tried to anyway.

And it worked. Her vision twisted up for a brief moment before centering on Juliana. Unfortunately, it was not thanks to her efforts. Prax rolled her eyes on his own. She could feel his amusement as he looked over Juliana’s stance.

Prax brought his hands together, pressing down on each finger individually. Each pop gave Shalise a little mental jolt. She had never liked seeing people pop their knuckles. Popping her own felt disgusting.

But Prax continued, ignoring her silent outbursts.

“Are you wanting to fight me?”

“Maybe.” Juliana cracked her own neck, giving Shalise another shudder. “What did you do to my friend?”

“You follow me this far and you have to ask that question? What would you do if I said that I merely took on her appearance. The real one is back near the crystal.”

Don’t taunt her! Just tell her. You’re wasting time. Shalise wanted nothing more than to slap him. Or herself. Or whatever. This is going to get annoying really fast.

Prax rolled his eyes again as Juliana tried to both keep her eyes on him and glance back over her shoulder.

Not that she would see anything. They had come too far for them to even hear the noises of the battle echo down the corridor.

Juliana’s fingers tensed into fists. The metal coating her arms and chest started moving and flowing, though she took no note of it. Subconscious activation?

Prax was telling the truth about that as well, it seemed.

“I’d say you’re lying.”

“Why?”

Juliana’s eyes looked her up and down. “You did such a terrible job of looking like her, there wouldn’t be any purpose to changing your shape. And that mark on your chest,” Juliana pointed a finger out.

Prax made a show of gripping the rag that had once been a shirt. The demon tore it off without a second though. Shalise didn’t even get a second to protest the impropriety of it all.

Interestingly enough, even though she felt embarrassed, none of the associated actions came with it. No glance to the side or heat in her cheeks. Just the vague feeling of being embarrassed without actually being embarrassed. It was an awkward sensation.

Probably because Prax felt absolutely no embarrassment or shame at being half-naked, save for a partially damaged bra. None of the demons Shalise had seen in the prison actually wore clothes.

Maybe a security measure, but Arachne never wore anything either. Not unless the armored chitin counted. Now that she thought about it, she had never actually thought of Arachne as being naked.

Ylva, on the other hand, wore clothes. They were very bad at covering anything. It might have been less lewd had she worn nothing at all.

So it was probably a cultural demon thing, rather than any real disregard for Shalise’s modesty in particular.

Shalise mentally frowned. Thinking about that brought another distressing topic to mind.

There was a very-definitely-with-no-doubt-about-it male demon inside of her body. More than that, there was a male demon in control of her body.

And that male demon had just started to make her body chuckle.

Shalise did a quick mental rewind to see if Juliana had done something chuckle-worthy. Unless gaping counted, she hadn’t.

He was laughing at Shalise.

I-I swear, if you do anything to my b-body. I’ll–I’ll–I’ll sic Arachne on you. You’ll be sorry.

That only made him laugh harder.

Juliana glowered. “What’s so funny?”

“Inside joke,” Prax said. And then he laughed again.

Jerk.

Juliana frowned, shook her head, and glared at Prax. “Those markings bind you to her body, don’t they?”

“More of a gateway in and out, but close enough. That is pretty hefty knowledge there. More than I would have expected from a budding diabolist, even in light of our conversation.”

“Mostly a guess,” Juliana said with a shrug. “Read it in the book, but it didn’t actually show the designs. Wait. Our conversation?” She relaxed slightly, moving from her ready stance to standing with her head quirked to one side. Her metal armor flows slowed but did not stop completely. “Prax?”

“In the flesh,” Prax said, spreading his arms wide. “Or my servant’s flesh.”

“Servant?” Juliana pressed her palm to her forehead. “Shalise,” she mumbled, “what did you do?”

Nothing! I’m not his servant.

Juliana narrowed her eyes. “Is she still in there?”

“She is.”

“Prove it.”

Once again, Shalise’s eyesight rolled. “Just how would I do that?”

“Tell me something only Shalise would know.”

Something only I would know. Shalise mentally frowned. It couldn’t be something that only she would know or how would Juliana know it was true? Something instead that only they had experienced. Oh, remind her about me being eaten by the zombie and she helped save me.

She could feel Prax raise an eyebrow along with a low undercurrent of both disbelief and amusement. “And you would believe anything that I said came from Shalise and was not something I either pilfered from her mind or learned from her after you passed out.”

That’s not what I said! If Juliana thought she wasn’t Shalise anymore, she might attack. And Prax might hurt– Wait. You can pilfer things from my mind?

Shalise’s lips curled into an unnatural smile just as Juliana responded.

“It couldn’t hurt, but no. Not really.”

“Then,” Prax said slowly, “you will simply have to extend trust towards me. Or take your chances in combat.”

There was a tense moment while Juliana glared. “No,” she said eventually. “I’ll not fight you.”

Shalise let out an immaterial sigh of relief.

“Isn’t that sweet.” Prax shook his head side to side. “You mortals–”

“Don’t make me regret this, Prax.”

Prax tilted his head. “Regret what? Not attacking your mortal friend? Why ever would you regret–”

Juliana stumbled forwards as a low rumble shook the floor. She stumbled right into Prax’s arms. He caught and steadied her, holding her close to his chest while the ground shook. Juliana actually started to blush.

If Shalise had control of her eyebrows, they would have been up in her hairline. She had to shake herself out of her stupor to ask the important question.

Does Hell always have so many earthquakes?

“Is an earthquake still an earthquake when there is no Earth to quake?”

Before Shalise could come up with anything to say to that, Prax threw Juliana to the ground. He dove after her just in time to avoid a falling hunk of rock.

It slid into a wall, knocking out the barrier to a cell.

“I believe,” Prax said with a glance towards the now violently thrashing demon chained within, “it is time we cease existing within this place. We have overstayed our welcome and I have long since tired of its walls. Mother will be getting reinforcements. As valiant as the sword-doll may be, she can only lose her battle of attrition.”

Prax stood up. A few other cells had been damaged, though no demons were pouring forth. “I wonder where Keeper has gone.” He took one step only to frown and look down. “Servant,” he said, “your body is failing to heal.”

One pant leg had a tear at the knee. A small amount of blood soaked into the cloth around the hole. The injury wasn’t worse than a skinned knee.

Idly, Shalise noted that while she could feel things that Prax touched, she couldn’t feel whatever pain had to be coming from her knee. Concentrating harder, she found that wasn’t entirely true. She could feel it. The stinging was dull and plain in comparison to what skinned knees normally felt like.

As you keep mentioning, I am a mortal. We don’t heal fast.

“You did earlier, if you recall the incubus clawing out your arms. My presence alone should be healing this pathetic excuse for an injury.”

Well, there’s another thing you’ve screwed up, Shalise huffed.

“Worthless squishy mortal meat sack,” he muttered as he glanced down to a wide-eyed Juliana. “Get to your feet.”

“You saved me,” Juliana said with a slowly growing smile. “You pushed me out of the way to save me. I knew you had a soft spot for me.”

“I said as much earlier. Why would I discard tools before their value has expired?” Before Juliana or Shalise could say anything, Prax turned and started walking. “Remain where you are or follow, I care little.”

“You just said that I have value to you,” Juliana called from behind. With a few quick footsteps, she was right alongside Prax. “Clearly you care a little.”

Prax snorted without even a glance in Juliana’s direction. From the corner of her eye, Shalise noted that Juliana was smiling.

Shalise, however, frowned. There had been concern there for a moment. But she didn’t get the feeling that Prax was lying. He truly felt no different about Juliana than Shalise might about a good pen. It was nice to keep around, but it wasn’t a big deal if it got lost. There would always be plenty more pens.

Prax, Shalise said in as neutral a tone as she could get while being nothing more than a mental voice that apparently could be mind read at least a little. Why did Juliana relax when she found out you were the one possessing me?

His answer consisted of a deafening silence and the curling of her own lips.

Shalise’s metaphysical stomach twisted into a knot.

“We have an arduous task ahead of us. If previous patterns hold true, demons will be coming towards us. Many may pass us by, many may not. Be prepared.”

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