Tag Archives: Maoa

004.010

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“Stop,” ‘Shalise’ said. She dug a hand into Juliana’s shoulder and pressed her up against the wall.

Six demons of varying size and shape ran past without a second glance in their direction. All hurried on down the corridor towards the crystal room. Just like the last three groups had.

Prax held her for another few seconds, completely ignoring the metal flowing around his fingers.

Juliana couldn’t be entirely certain when that had happened. She only noticed that she had activated her ferrokinesis after Prax had started moving again. Presumably, something happened while she was unconscious. Some large magic suppressing device took damage from one of the earthquakes or something similar.

She wasn’t about to question her good fortune.

Instead, Juliana had set it to good use. The metal whirred and scrubbed away at her body. It wasn’t as good as a bath given that she still carried all the armor on her, but it was as close as she would be getting for the foreseeable future.

It was better than poor Shalise had, though Prax didn’t seem to care one bit. He strutted her body around without a care in the world.

Since he tore off the shirt, Juliana had found her eyes wandering on occasion. Whatever else happened, Shalise got some well sculpted abs out of the deal. Zagan’s were nicer, and Prax’s original body was bulked out almost to the point of absurdity. But if Shalise got to keep them after Prax got out of her body…

Well, envy should be the least of her worries at the moment.

Prax removed his hand from Juliana’s shoulder. Without a word, he started walking.

Juliana stood, watching her friend’s body move on. It was such a drastic change from her usual demeanor, it was hard to even recognize her. When they first got to the prison, she had been hunched over and scared of her own shadow.

The thing walking off now had confidence and precision in each step. Prax had become uncannily well versed in moving around in Shalise’s body. The muscles helped divorce the two in Juliana’s mind, but she was close enough to be disturbing.

Shaking her head, Juliana jogged forward to catch up. She stayed just a step behind and a step away from Prax. While it didn’t seem like he was about to attack, it never hurt to be careful.

Walking in silence was, unfortunately, awkward. Even more awkward than trying and failing to ignore him in his cell.

“So,” Juliana started, fishing for something to talk about.

Prax glanced over his shoulder. He turned back forward while rolling his eyes. “Must we engage in the inane mortal pastime of idle prattle?”

“You were awfully interested in talking all night in your cell. In fact, I was trying to ignore you. You wouldn’t shut up unless I was responding.”

“Ah, but I was attempting to get myself bound to you or my newest servant. Turns out that was a waste of time, was it not?” He threw a raised eyebrow over his shoulder. “All I needed to do was wait for dear little Shalise to wake.”

“And then you started calling her your servant,” Juliana said with ice in her tone.

It should have been her. She shouldn’t have let Shalise go through with what she was going through. Being trapped in her own body? Juliana shuddered at the thought.

“She has served me well so far, even if things turned out rather, ahh, unexpectedly. I see no reason to end our relationship.”

“What’s up with that, anyway?”

He turned over his shoulder with a look of puzzlement. “Try to be more specific with your queries. I humor you with our dialog, but we will be walking in silence if you continue to be incomprehensible.”

“The whole servant thing,” Juliana said with a sigh. “Ylva seemed very excited to get Nel as her servant, according to Nel herself. Then she gave me and another person these rings. I think she might have used the word ‘subjects’ once or twice when referring to us. And then there’s Arachne and her coddling of Eva, though I’m not sure that’s the same. You’ve–”

Prax stopped and asked, “ring?”

Juliana held up her finger. Just the one finger.

He gave no indication of caring in the slightest. “Interesting. I thought I felt something from you, but convinced myself I was hallucinating. It promises Death–with a capital ‘d’–to any demons who would dare attack you–”

“It didn’t stop the imps.”

“Ah, but the poor unfortunate captives here may be desperate enough to ignore such things. We are in one of the worst corners of Hell. And yes, that ring marks you as someone’s property.”

Prax glanced down at Shalise’s fingers, turning his hands over. With a shrug, he turned and started walking.

Juliana stood frozen as the cogs ticked on inside her head. She had to take a few quick steps to fall in line again. “Wait. Property?”

“You did not know?”

“She said it was a gift. A reward for a task.”

“Something so simple a child,” he glanced over his shoulder and gave a small snort, “would have no trouble completing?”

Juliana cracked her neck to one side. “Maybe.”

“Nothing to worry about. If she tricked you into being claimed and did not tell you after the fact, leaving you to your own devices, she probably just likes you.”

She mulled that over for a moment before nodding. “Which brings me back to my original question. Why all the servant stuff?”

“How much do you know about a demon’s domain?”

When Juliana did not respond, Prax continued.

“They cater to our desires, both conscious and subconscious. Anything we want just happens.”

“Sounds nice.”

He turned and sneered–a rather ugly expression on Shalise’s face. “For a time, perhaps. Imagine getting everything you ever wanted. For eternity. Any effort you put in, instantly invalidated. Constructing something specifically to be a challenge still feels fake. Designing a scenario where you purposely lose isn’t even a real loss. It feels fake and every demon knows it.

“This prison is massive,” he said, waving his arms around. “We’ve been walking for hours and we’re only just leaving the high security section. There was more back behind the room with the crystal that you never even saw. And all the cells are full.

“Millions of demons here still pale in comparison to the sheer amount of demons that lay down one day within their domains and never got up, giving in to the despair of our existence. Another set of demons chose to stave off eternal boredom by visiting other demons’ domains–always a risky prospect; the domain caters to the owner’s whims. If that owner so chose, they could easily turn their domain worse than this prison. Many in that second set get enslaved.

“The demon who gave you that ring? The other one you mentioned? They’re the lucky ones. Chosen in a random lottery to visit a world full of individuals, rather than constructs. Those that get summoned tend to get summoned multiple times. They will leave behind a book or notes, something to entice others into summoning them. The more known demons there are, the less likely it is for a random demon to be summoned.”

Prax’s speech was getting more and more heated as he continued. He was almost spitting as he spoke about the summoned demons.

Based on his talking, Juliana doubted he had ever been summoned.

“Why go for an unknown quantity when tried and proven demons are readily available,” Juliana almost whispered to herself.

“Exactly.”

“But mortal servants?”

“Prestige. As I said, few demons actually get summoned. Fewer acquire mortals. You mortals are short-lived, so those that constantly have servants…”

“Get summoned a whole lot more.”

“You retain your individuality as well. That is a major factor for some. Domain constructs cater to our whims as much as any other aspect of domains. You do not. It brings a little slice of your world down here.”

“So the stories about demons dragging people to hell?”

“The demon wanted a pet, slave, servant, attendant, follower,” he glanced over and Shalise’s eyes actually glowed red for a moment, “lover. Something that could think for itself.”

Juliana frowned as Prax went silent. How much of that, she wondered, does Eva even know? She glanced down at the ring on her finger, rubbing it idly. Was she going to get kidnapped by Ylva one day? Dragged down to hell, never to be seen again?

Did Eva know what accepting the ring entailed?

And Eva was trying to turn herself into a demon. It didn’t sound like a very pleasant experience. Then again, Eva was already on Earth. It wouldn’t be difficult for her to seed the world with plenty of summoning manuscripts for herself.

“And you plan to keep Shalise here, forever?”

“It is in the cards.”

“Let her go.”

Prax stopped walking. He turned.

The muscles beneath Shalise’s skin rippled and grew. Skin split at various points on her body, her biceps, stomach, sides. Her neck. Juliana could see the muscles through the tears–there was surprisingly little blood. They coiled and twisted around themselves.

Like the muscles on a tiger getting ready to pounce.

Shalise’s face took on a cruel grin as her teeth sharpened and her eyes flared red.

“And you plan to stop me?”

Juliana smiled, hoping he wasn’t hurting her friend too much, and shook her head. “Nope. I plan to summon you.”

Whatever he expected her to say, that wasn’t it. Shalise’s eyes lost their cinders and the smile faltered.

“Let Shalise go. Tell me how to summon you. You and I can write all kinds of books with your name in them. Maybe even find you a few willing servants.” There had to be some freaks out there ready to spend the rest of their lives with Prax.

Prax cracked his neck to one side then the other. His right hand curled into a fist, knuckles popping as it tightened.

Juliana prepared to jump back, out of reach.

He twisted and threw his fist directly over his own shoulder.

It impacted mid-air with a sickening crunch. Black liquid splattered over Juliana’s face. Most of Prax didn’t make it out unsoiled.

On the ground, a gaunt demon shimmered into being on the floor.

The void opened and swallowed him whole a moment later.

“I shall consider it,” Prax said. “For now, there are more around.”

Juliana formed a helmet and a dagger in each hand out of her flowing metal. “More?”

“At least three,” Prax said, slowly turning his head around the hallway. “Morail tend to despise others of their race, but I suppose that doesn’t matter here. They found and broke out others of their own kind.”

Nodding, Juliana looked around herself with her daggers ready to move the moment anything happened.

They were past the red barriers. Juliana never thought she would miss being able to see into the cells, but at least the barriers provided a good amount of light. The small white lights dotting the walkways left much to be desired.

Juliana couldn’t see anything. Being invisible wouldn’t do much good if she could see them, but she thought there might be some tell. Some shimmering against the background of the hallway or some glimmer in the faint light.

Even holding her breath, Juliana could hear nothing but the beating of her own heart.

Prax swung an arm through empty air.

His arm spun around his back and snapped with a crack.

Jumping forward, Juliana thrust out with her knife where she thought the demon would be. She took care to avoid accidentally skewering Prax.

Something clamped down on Juliana’s arm and started to twist.

Juliana hardened all the metal in her arm. The knife in her hand was reabsorbed into her armor.

In an instant, Juliana’s entire arm turned into a sea urchin.

Black blood dripped down several of the needles.

Swinging her other arm, her dagger cut through thin air.

Juliana brought her dagger down on top of Prax’s captor. She flinched away from another splatter of black blood.

“See,” Prax said, patting her cheek with blood-slick fingers, “you can be worth something after all.”

“Yeah, you’re welc–wait, you thought I was worthless?”

Prax swung a fist over Shalise’s shoulder. Something cracked, but no void opened on the floor.

“There was only one unconscious body being lugged around for the last day or so,” he said. Prax swept a hand down Shalise’s chest. His eyes went wide and he sported a crooked grin. “And it wasn’t this one.”

Juliana opened her mouth to respond, but something crashed into her helmet. She stumbled around, trying to dampen the reverberations. Having a gong go off inside your head hurt.

Right, she thought, no discussions while fighting.

Lashing out with her spiny arm, Juliana tried to catch her attacker before they moved away.

Her arm sailed through the air and nothing else.

“Stop being such cowards and fight!”

“Oh, they cannot help that,” Prax drawled. “When your primary ability is to cower in the shadows,” Prax kicked a leg out.

Something cracked, cracked again as it hit a wall, and fell into a dark violet void portal.

“You learn to avoid confrontations.”

Juliana was only half listening to Prax; the knock on her head had been unpleasant enough the first time around. She slowly rotated in place, keeping her arms ready to strike.

“Behind you.”

Not hesitating for a moment, Juliana thrust her elbow straight back. The spines on her arm withdrew and formed into a single, barbed spike at the tip of her elbow.

It caught.

Juliana jerked her arm upwards, ignoring the pain stricken cry, and dug in deeper. Her metal spike spread out into another urchin-like implement of misery.

Fingers ran over her armor as the demon lashed out. He started trying to twist and squeeze.

Juliana was fairly certain that there were teeth involved as well. She responded with tiny hooks covering the surface of her armor.

He tried to pull back and ended up dragging Juliana down onto the ground.

With her on top.

Knives erupted from Juliana’s back.

There was a small gasp followed by a release of air not unlike a punctured tire. A gurgling tire.

A strong scent of nothing in particular wafted over her. It didn’t smell good, nor did it smell bad. However, it did block out all the smells she had been smelling in the ambient air.

Juliana realized with a sudden clarity that she stunk. So did everything else in this place. It had been so permeated in everything that she didn’t notice until it was gone.

Then the purple tendrils of the void portals reached up around her sides.

Juliana started to thrash and struggle to get off of the demon. She did not want to get dragged down to whatever hell demons went to when they died.

She couldn’t retract the barbs in time. The demon’s body was already falling and Juliana along with it.

Juliana hit the ground with a clatter.

The demon was gone.

And she didn’t go with it.

That’s nice to know, Juliana thought as she got to her feet. “There’s still one left?”

“Fleeing,” Prax said with a gesture down the hall.

Juliana turned just in time to watch a body appear a short distance away.

The body slumped to its knees before falling on its chest. His head rolled across the floor.

A void portal opened beneath both parts and swallowed them whole.

“Did you do that?” Juliana whispered.

Prax shook his head. He gripped his fingers so tightly that his arms shook.

“Well, well, whatever do we have here?”

The indigo skinned demon walked–sauntered–out of the shadows. It was a bit disturbing how she could move like that despite the massive gash in her thigh and across half her stomach. Black blood oozed from the wound a whole lot less than it spurted forth.

“Pathetic imbeciles, cannot even dispatch one little human. But, it served as a worthy test, I suppose.”

Juliana glanced towards Prax with an eyebrow raised. “Test?” she half whispered.

Prax didn’t so much as flick his eyes in her direction. “You are going to have to try harder than that if you want to kill me, Maoa.”

The demon reared back as if Prax had slapped her. She regained her composure with a fury-filled glare. “You dare speak my name in this despicable tongue?”

“If you take issue, try to stop me. Though that might waste time. I wonder, Maoa, how hot on your heels is the sword-wielding doll?”

She flinched back again at the mention of her name. “You,” she pointed a narrow finger at Juliana, “will have the pleasure of being my host.”

“Wha–”

“Maoa,” Prax cut in with a voice as cold as ice, “surely you are not so far gone that you have failed to notice.”

Prax stepped forwards and gripped Juliana’s wrist. He twisted it around and held it up around eye level.

For a moment, Juliana was about to attack him. She realized what he was doing the second before small spikes jutted out of her hand.

The metal making up her gauntlet flowed over and down her arm to pool around her wrist, revealing a black ring with a skull etching prominently displayed.

“It is not a figment of your imagination, Maoa. That chill you feel is Death.”

Prax let go of her wrist and Juliana let it fall to her side. Maoa kept her wide eyes glued to the ring as it swung down.

For a minute, everyone stared at each other in silence. Prax was the one to break it.

“Come, mortal, the exit is not far.” With one last look at the demon, he turned his back on her and started walking.

Juliana shrugged and followed after him.

“Wait. The exit will have a barrier. The walls will be too thick to breach.”

“We will walk through,” Prax said without turning.

“There will be dolls.”

“They did not attack earlier. The sword-wielder had her blade at this one’s throat,” he said with a gesture towards himself, “and did not remove her head. You will be the only one who finds difficulty bypassing the dolls.”

The succubus narrowed her eyes to thin slits.

“You are strong, but not infallible. If you are unable to cross the barrier, you will eventually be caught. The way I see it, Maoa, you have two choices. Attempt to break out and risk the dolls dragging you back to your cell. Quite a high risk, if I may say so. Wherever Keeper has gone off to, he won’t be gone forever. Should he return, your reimprisonment is assured.”

Maoa scowled, baring her sharp teeth. “And the other choice?” she ground out.

“Simple.” Prax stopped moving. His right hand clenched into a fist, knuckles cracking as he moved. “I tear out your heart. Simple, clean, easy. You will regenerate fast enough and escape the Void in record time. Besides,” Prax shrugged, “what is a little time in the Void compared to freedom?”

Juliana could see the boiling anger all but steam out of Maoa’s nostrils. The pungent scent of sulfur filled the air. Juliana tried not to show any discomfort.

Ring or no ring, she wasn’t going to risk drawing the succubus’ ire.

“You dare to tell me to give up?” she snarled.

“Most certainly not, Maoa. You fought the good fight. You reclaimed your core. Allow me to send you back to your domain, safe, sound, and ready to fight again. You are going to continue the crusade, are you not?”

“I am,” she said. The smoke curling out of her nose died down to a low simmer. For a long moment, she went entirely silent. Barely moving at all.

While Prax mimicked her stillness, Juliana was forced to shift her weight side to side several times before anyone spoke.

“Your words are not without merit. Very well, make haste in your deed.”

Prax nodded, twisting Shalise’s face into a cruel grin that didn’t suit the kind-hearted girl in the slightest. “Of course.” He moved forwards, reaching an arm out just beneath her left breast.

The succubus gripped his hand a mere inch from her skin. “Tell me,” she said, jutting her chin out, “which of my loyal followers resides within that meat-sack? I wish to reward you upon my return for your clever thinking.”

“Even inside this pathetic mortal body, I’m hurt that you do not recognize me. After all…” Prax’s unrestrained arm shot out in the blink of an eye, burrowing wrist deep in her chest. “I am your son.”

Maoa’s eyes went wide, but the portal to the Void had already opened beneath her.

As she sank into the ground, Prax clasped his hands around her head and pulled. He introduced his knee to her forehead with a resounding crack. With a disgusting snort, he hocked back and spat, catching the succubus’ caved in face just before she disappeared into the portal.

“That,” Prax said, laughing, “will keep her down for a month or two.”

“You killed your own mother?” Juliana half-shrieked, eyes about as wide as Maoa’s were in her final moments.

“Bah,” Prax said, waving his arm at the spot the portal had occupied. “I would do it again and again and enjoy it every time. She’s half the reason I am here in the first place. ‘Families’ here in Hell have a far different meaning than what I understand mortals consider families. More of slaves than anything else.

“Come,” he said, “unless you wish to linger as food for the less savory of my kind.”

Prax did not look back at the stunned Juliana as he walked off.

Not wanting to be left behind, Juliana slapped her cheeks before running after him.

For what had to have been a half a day, they marched through the prison in utter silence. No one spoke save for Prax mumbling to himself under his breath every now and again.

They walked until they finally found a wall stretching high into the air. A flat wall with no cells set within. A barrier-covered door lay directly in front of them along with three dolls–at least, Juliana assumed they were dolls. They looked like the stereotypical iron maidens, though they moved and shifted like people.

Juliana opened her mouth to speak to Prax, but found her mouth and throat parched from the lack of use. She had to take a moment to lick her lips. A bottle of water would be heaven at the moment.

“So that’s it then, we’re out?”

Prax kept silent as he nodded his head. “We walk out into the waters beyond the dolls.” He looked back, behind Juliana. Shaking his head, he said, “I wish I could burn this place to the ground.” After a second shake of his head, he turned to Juliana. A genuine grin spread across his face.

“Well then mortal, shall we retire to my domain?”

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004.007

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“Mother?” Shalise hissed, hoping she was being quiet enough that the demon couldn’t hear.

On the demon’s side of things, she did nothing but stand there, ignoring the ongoing battle out in the open area of the room. She wore a polite, almost regal smile. Nowhere near as elegant as some she had seen on Ylva. It might pass as an imitation in the right lighting.

Unfortunately, that smile did nothing to calm Shalise down. That wasn’t the kind of smile one greeted a friend with. It was something to wear when one had absolute confidence in her power over whatever was in front of her.

And currently, Shalise was in front of the her.

“I-is her being your mother good or bad?”

Shalise got the distinct impression that Prax was leaning back in a corner of her mind, sulking. Dearest mother did not free me. Maoa left me to rot. What does that tell you?

“That she didn’t know where you were?”

There was a mental scoff somewhere in the back of her head.

“Right,” Shalise muttered. Mentioning Prax wouldn’t help. In fact, it could get her killed.

Shalise swallowed despite her parched mouth.

Prax’s mother crossed her arms beneath her chest. She hefted herself up and down once as she adjusted her positioning. One glowing-violet finger began tapping against her arm.

The universal sign of impatience. Apparently it applied to demons as well.

“I’m sorry, I… um…”

Her lips peeled back to reveal a set of razor-sharp teeth. “And just what is a little human like you doing here?”

The demon took three sultry steps forward.

Shalise tried to take three steps backwards. Halfway through her first step, Juliana’s armor clanked against a wall.

She leaned down, putting her face right next to Shalise’s face. “Must I rend the answer from your mind?”

“It was an accident,” Shalise said as fast as she could. “I didn’t want to be here. Everything has gone wrong and my friend is sick. I just want to go home.”

“Accident?” she said with a frown. Maoa pulled her face away from Shalise, bringing herself back to full height. Her head turned back to the ongoing battle.

Shalise let out a sigh, glad to no longer have the demon’s immediate attention.

How the battle was going was anyone’s guess. Everything was such a mess. Demons torn apart by dolls. Machinery from the dolls lying around everywhere. There were more demons than there were dolls, but for all Shalise knew, the dolls were winning.

One particular doll–at least, Shalise assumed it was a doll. It didn’t have any rusted iron parts that she could see as its clothing covered it almost entirely, but it was fighting the demons. With a sword.

A very effective sword. Shalise winced and turned away from the demon whose waist no longer connected to his legs. She didn’t even see the sword wielder move other than a slight flicker.

At her side, Maoa’s saccharine smile twisted into a glower aimed at the sword woman.

Now that Maoa’s eyes weren’t on her, Shalise took a brief moment to look the demon over.

Like Prax, she had hoofed feet. Unlike Prax, tree bark-like armor covered her legs from her ankles to her mid-thigh. She wore similar gauntlets that ended in glowing violet points. Another bit of bark wrapped around her neck, ending in a glowing gem right on her sternum.

That was about all she wore. There were a few other ‘vines’ of bark almost mimicking a ribcage, but it did nothing to cover the demon’s assets.

A tail that looked like it was made from the same bark swished back and forth behind her. She had two straight horns poking out the top of her head and dark hair hanging down to her shoulders.

As Shalise looked at her, she said something that Shalise did not catch. Even if the demon had been louder, she doubted she would have understood. It sounded more like she was gargling curses under her breath.

Glancing back towards the battlefield, Shalise had a good idea at what.

Sword-doll stood over the pieces of at least four demons. All but one were being dragged down into some portal on the floor, much like the one that had swallowed the incubus Shalise had… killed.

Shalise shook her head. She couldn’t just stand around here.

Prax had been silent since his snipe gripe about being left behind. Shalise could feel him thinking and stewing, though she couldn’t tell what about. Probably his mother.

With all the speed of an extremely careful snail, Shalise inched a foot away from the demon back towards the direction from where they had come.

No! Prax shouted in her head.

Shalise froze as Maoa whipped her head around.

One gauntleted hand flashed out.

Shalise cried out as the nails of her gauntlet scraped against the top of her head.

With a fistful of her hair in hand, Maoa yanked Shalise’s face right up against hers.

In shock, Shalise nearly dropped Juliana. That she did not was thanks only to her fists involuntarily clenching.

“You escaped once before. I can,” she leaned in, nose touching Shalise’s hair, “smell it on you. A familiar scent. Thank you for not killing Orgaz and Tzlip. Otherwise I might still be stuck in my cell.”

Maoa gently, almost tenderly ran a finger over the brand on Shalise’s chest.

It felt like ice cubes.

Shalise sucked in her stomach, trying to put as much space between the finger and her skin as possible.

“Carrying out another prisoner? I should have thought of that first. Lucky for me, my imps proved worthless in killing you.”

The finger on her stomach continued dancing over her brand, tracing light circles over it. At the same time, Maoa’s grip on Shalise’s hair lessened, though she did not let go completely.

“W-what are you saying?” Shalise didn’t bother trying to whisper her words. Face to face as they were, there was no chance Maoa wouldn’t hear.

You escaped, Prax said. He sounded angry. The glare that Shalise could feel only emphasized his anger. But there was a hint of happiness. Or maybe smug pride. And she thinks that I am a genius.

That’s why he sounds smug, Shalise thought. If she wasn’t close enough to Maoa to smell her breath, she might have rolled her eyes.

Instead, her eyes widened. That was where she had heard her voice before. She was the person who had shouted at the imps just before they attacked.

Unfortunately, Prax spat out before her thoughts could go anywhere, I believe she desires a ride out.

Shalise’s heart skipped a beat. “A-a ride? My head is full enough with just you here,” she said.

Maoa nodded despite the comment not being meant for her. One lithe finger pointed up towards Juliana.

“I am happy we could come to an accord. This battle is–”

As she spoke, Maoa turned her head back towards the fight.

All at once, her eyes widened. She shoved Shalise back before leaping backwards.

Time slowed to a crawl.

No sounds reached Shalise’s ears. Her peripheral vision showed no movement in the battle to the side.

Despite it having been racing just a moment before, her heart didn’t beat.

Maoa’s expression had frozen in a snarl as she flew backwards in an arc.

Except, Shalise realized, Maoa isn’t the only thing moving.

From the very bottom of her vision, a shiny, silver line rose up a few inches from her nose. It was about an inch wide, but it stretched from one end of her vision to the other.

As it got higher, Shalise could see herself reflected in the edge. She only recognized herself by virtue of understanding how mirrors work. Her shocked expression had been bloated by Prax’s muscles.

The silver blade lifted up and out of Shalise’s vision.

And everything started moving again.

Shalise continued falling back until Juliana crashed into the wall with a loud clatter.

This time, Juliana’s leg slipped out of Shalise’s grip. She still had a hold on Juliana’s arms, but the sudden weight swinging down knocked Shalise off-balance.

They both fell into a pile.

Throughout her tumble, Shalise kept her eyes on what was before her.

Maoa landed a short distance back, bent over with her claws spread out down by her sides. She looked far more feral than the scary-yet-human-appearing demon that had been speaking to her just a moment before.

A lithe leather boot stepped lightly just in front of Shalise.

She followed the boot up past the tucked-in pants and brown long-coat to a pale face framed by silver hair. Two mercury eyes met Shalise’s own. The corners of her lips tipped down before she turned her head towards Maoa.

Heavy leather gloves tightened around her sword.

Shalise didn’t blink and she still missed the moment that the sword-doll moved.

Maoa, on the other hand, saw it coming a mile away. She moved her gauntleted hands up and caught the sword on a ridge in the tree bark.

Get up and run! Prax shouted in Shalise’s head.

Shalise wasted no time arguing. She didn’t believe for one moment that she could outrun that doll, but maybe it wouldn’t chase.

Scooping up Juliana, Shalise turned tail and ran.

Wrong way.

“The other way,” Shalise said between pants, “leads through that battle. And that doll. And your mother.”

We cannot leave without first entering the armory.

Shalise slowed to a walk. “What do you mean by that?”

Consider the other demons’ presence. Despite being slaughtered, they have yet to flee as you have. He paused, giving a chance for Shalise to collect her thoughts.

It took her a lot longer to figure out than it should have.

Shalise knelt down and placed Juliana on the ground, propping her up against the wall.

The blond was still unconscious, even after being jostled around so much. She wasn’t sweating much and her breathing was steady. Placing two fingers on the side of her neck, Shalise decided that she had a steady pulse. Maybe faster than normal, but she didn’t know what was normal.

Shalise couldn’t use her pulse as a baseline. Her heart was currently making repeated attempts at breaking out of her chest.

As far as Shalise’s dismal knowledge of medicine went, Juliana was perfectly fine.

She just wasn’t awake.

Whatever had happened to her must have been some sort of sleep inducing toxin. Even deathly sick people would wake up after being dropped a few feet.

Wouldn’t they?

Shalise leaned up against the wall, staying on her knees. What a nightmare, she thought in her own voice.

“What is behind those dolls that is so important?”

None of us can truly escape without entering–

“Stop dancing around words.” Shalise felt like shouting. The words came out too tired. Too quiet. However much sleep she had managed to get was not nearly enough.

You are missing something, servant. How mortals can be so ignorant of their own being, I will never comprehend.

“I’m not your…” Shaking her head, Shalise sighed and closed her eyes.

I see you finally understand your position. Every word he spoke radiated pure smugness. It is about time.

Shalise snapped her eyes open. She put on a smile she didn’t feel. The smile was for Prax’s sake, not her own.

“If you do not explain, I will go back to that battlefield. There I will wait. Either your mother or the doll will come out on top. If your mother comes out on top, I will tell her who you are–”

You would not dare.

“I am tired. I am hungry. I have a headache. I want to go home. I just don’t care. It couldn’t be any worse with her yelling in my head than you.”

You have no idea.

“If the doll wins, well, I might die. But your mother seemed to think I was on their side or something? None of you people can talk straight. But the doll didn’t kill me when it clearly could have. I’ll take my chances.”

Her speech finished, Shalise shut her eyes and leaned her head against the wall. Neither was a chance that Shalise was all that keen on taking.

Contrary to her words, Shalise did care. She didn’t know enough to decide whether Maoa would be any better or worse than Prax, though she was leaning towards worse. As for the doll, it was true that she hadn’t killed Shalise. So she had that going for her.

There was the possibility that the doll had simply been concerned with the obviously bigger threat, but there was something about the way the doll glanced at her.

It reminder her of her youth in Mrs. Mendoza’s home. Usually when Shalise did something she knew she wasn’t supposed to do and Mrs. Mendoza found out anyway. A look full of disappointment.

But Shalise was unsure what kind of disappointment someone here would have in her. She was probably just misunderstanding things in the heat of the moment.

However, if it got Prax to answer her, the threat was worth it.

His presence in the back of her mind had been stewing in his own rage since Shalise closed her eyes. It was like the lid on a pot of boiling water, just shaking back and forth as the steam escaped.

Of course, the pot was inside Shalise’s head.

Shalise opened her eyes, wide in alarm.

Prax was laughing.

The boiling pot of water turned to ice.

Do you know how Keeper creates his dolls?

Shalise frowned. “N-no.” Cursing her stutter, Shalise bit her lip and waited.

After a turn through the abattoir, Keeper offers a mortal a choice. Death or doll. Most mortals are not in much of a position to respond, but he is fairly liberal in interpreting their screams, cries, or stillness.

And then, he strips their soul and hands it off to Hel or Aosoth. You saw what happens after. They become those half mechanical monstrosities.

“S-so what?” Shalise took a deep breath. “You think that doll wanted to turn me into one of them?”

Another chill came from Prax’s section of her head. Maybe not. But she is sure to report to Keeper that two little mortals are running around without souls. The last time a mortal was in charge of her faculties enough to respond to him, that mortal became the sword wielder.

The small chill in the back of her mind expanded outwards, encompassing her entire body. “W-what do you mean? ‘Without s-souls?'”

As I said, I fail to comprehend how mortals can be so ignorant of their own being. Surely you have attempted some kind of magic and have found yourself lacking.

She actually hadn’t. Juliana had said it wasn’t working and Shalise had taken her word for it.

Pulling up the hand that held the ring Juliana had given her, Shalise tried to channel magic into it. The effect didn’t matter. A gust of wind, a spark, anything would prove him wrong.

Nothing happened. She couldn’t even feel her magic moving. It just fizzled out somewhere deep inside her.

Sweat started dripping down her back as she strained from the effort of casting.

No amount of concentration did anything.

“It-it’s not working.”

Of course not. You have no soul. I can feel it. I am inside you, after all.

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Shalise said as a thought occurred to her. “It is a prison. Of course it wards against magic.”

I would know far better than you.

“You’re lying,” Shalise shouted. “L-liches can use magic. They don’t have s-souls.”

Prax didn’t laugh at that. He rolled his eyes. You are no lich, servant. Your education is woefully lacking. Fear not, in time I shall educate you.

Shalise slammed a fist into the ground. “I’m not your–what does it even mean? Am I going to d-die?”

Do not be foolish. So long as you reacquire it soon, the disparity should be kept to a minimum.

“What does that mean?”

Prax gave a mental shrug. You would have to ask Death, though I doubt He would share. Demons do not possess souls, though we have a similar concept.

Which brings me to my point. Upon being brought here, we are forced to touch a very specific crystal that strips our ‘soul’ until such time as we are to be released–should we ever be released. That crystal is the reason every demon ran into that fight.

Shalise slumped against the wall. “How does any of that help me?”

You are within this prison. Is it inconceivable that your soul is contained within that crystal? What harm could there be in touching it to be certain? Perhaps having her soul back will even assist your mortal friend in her recovery.

Shalise glanced down at the sleeping form of Juliana. She looked peaceful. Too peaceful. She placed her hand over Juliana’s open mouth to double-check that she was still breathing.

Everything seemed fine. Or the same as it had been for however long it had been.

“I don’t remember touching any crystals.”

Your mortal friend had many gaps in her memory surrounding your internment. Is your memory so perfect?

“No,” Shalise mumbled.

So get up, servant, and return to the battle before it ends. Use my kin as distractions.

“Touch the crystal and leave.” Shalise slapped her cheeks. She had to drag herself to her feet. The rest was nice, but she had a more important job. “Nothing else?”

Nothing.

She could feel his grin in the back of her mind. His eagerness was almost infectious.

Shalise found herself smiling as she reached down and slung Juliana back up around her shoulders. After taking a moment to adjust Juliana into what would hopefully be a comfortable position before taking a step down the corridor.

Alright, she thought, I can do this. I have to do this.

I so cannot do this.

Maoa and the sword-doll blinked around the wide open space faster than Shalise’s eye could track them.

Except she did not think they were blinking. Not the thaumaturgical teleportation. They were simply moving that fast.

At any point, the sword-doll or Maoa could notice her and take her head off before she realized what was happening.

The rest of the battle hadn’t settled down in the least. Twenty or so dolls were engaged with about the same amount of demons.

That building, Prax said, is our destination.

For the first time, Shalise looked beyond the bloody battle.

It was no wonder she had completely ignored the building before. It was a plain cylinder maybe three stories tall. No windows adorned its walls, only a single entrance facing her. A red barrier was stretched across the opening.

Prior to paying attention, she had assumed the room was triangular in shape with the building making up one wall. Looking around, it was clear that the battle was taking place within a diamond-shaped room centered around the cylinder.

At least there wasn’t a locked door. The other demons likely intended to break down the walls as they did to some of the cells. Unless that barrier was different from the cells, she could walk right though.

Now she just had to get there.

“A-any suggestions?”

Sneaking will be difficult unless you abandon your mortal friend–

“Not a chance.”

Do not interrupt me, servant. You asked for suggestions. I am providing.

Shalise bit her lip, barely paying attention. One of the dolls stared straight at her.

A six armed demon gripped both of the doll’s arms before anything more than eye-contact could happen, but it still sent a jolt of adrenaline through her body.

Join a side and hope that whichever side you pick will not stab you in the back once the fighting has ceased–if not prior to that.

“I-I can’t fight. What happened to using them as a distraction?”

By edging along the wall, you may be able to bypass much of the fighting at this entrance. Be warned: I would be surprised if there is not a battle going on of similar scale on the opposite side of the armory.

“Between the two fights.” Shalise swallowed a dry lot of nothing. “Okay.” Her dry tongue scraped across her lips, feeling like sandpaper. “Okay.”

Cease your panicking and get on with it.

“Okay!”

Shalise spoke too loud.

One doll turned a birdcage-entrapped head to look straight at her. To do so, it had to turn its head almost completely around.

As soon as their eyes met, the doll’s plain expression turned into a smile.

Taking advantage of the doll’s distraction, a demon thrust its fist into the cage.

The dented cage came clean off the doll’s shoulders, flew through the air, and rolled to a stop only a few feet from Shalise. Despite losing its head, the doll continued to fight. It impaled the demon on a rusted spear.

Shalise bit down on a shriek and started running along the wall.

Juliana’s weight did not make it easy. She almost fell off Shalise’s back as she started running. Shalise had to stop and heft her up more than once.

Prax was correct. The other side of the cylinder had another hallway leading away. At least twice as many demons and dolls were locked in combat.

Wasting no time gawking, Shalise ran for the cylinder.

“You’re not getting away from me, doll,” a voice rumbled.

Shalise skidded to a stop.

An arm as thick as her entire body smacked into the ground, cutting her off.

She followed the arm up to the hulking brute of a demon. If his arms were the size of her body, a single tooth was the size of her head. And he had a lot of teeth. Thorns and spikes protruded from his dark skin at various, asymmetrical points.

Shalise gaped, open-mouthed. I am going to die, she thought.

He thinks you are a doll. Show him my brand. Quick.

Shalise didn’t argue with Prax. She tore her shirt even further trying to get the scraps out of the way without dropping Juliana.

“I’m not a doll,” she protested as fast as her mouth would move.

A steady, deep tone came from the back of his throat for a few seconds.

It stopped as his hand swung backwards, knocking an approaching doll all the way back to the mouth of one of the hallways.

“You are a coward. Fight with your familiar or pre–”

Whatever he was going to say got cut off as his head slid from his neck.

A pair of leather boots stood on one of his shoulders. Some specks of black blood clung to the blade in the doll’s hand.

Again, that disappointed frown flittered onto her face.

As the behemoth sank into a void in the ground, the doll thrust her sword out towards Shalise.

Shalise flinched backwards.

When she opened her eyes, she was still in one piece. The doll had disappeared, leaving a splattering of black blood on the ground in front of Shalise.

Not wasting her good fortune, Shalise stepped over the line of blood, closing the distance between herself and the cylindrical building. After taking a short breather at the building’s wall, she edged around towards the entrance.

A few combatants noticed Shalise as she slunk around. None of the demons were in much of a position to approach. The dolls were doing a good job of keeping them away.

The few dolls that glanced her way unnerved her far more than any demon. They either turned back to their fight or worse, offered a small smile.

“Are they intending to help me? The sword one could have killed me again and passed it up. There’s no way she didn’t see the mark on my chest.”

Shalise waited a moment in silence, but Prax said nothing.

Shaking her head, Shalise slipped through the red barrier. “Where to now–oh.”

That had to be it.

Shalise stared into the pitch black crystal floating above them. Jagged tendrils poked out at various points.

It was transparent.

At least, it felt transparent. Shalise couldn’t see through to the other side. There was nothing but darkness contained within. Her gaze stretched off into the infinite distance despite it being only a few feet away. Like the horizon of the ocean stretching around her, about to swallow her whole.

Shalise shook her head, but her eyes followed the crystal. It was so difficult to turn away.

Stop staring and touch it, Prax shouted in her head.

Blinking at the noise, Shalise looked down at the ground.

“W-what is that?”

Void. Prax’s excitement was palpable. His feelings set her hands to shaking in anticipation. Touch it. Your mortal friend as well, I suppose. Then let us be gone from this place.

“Juliana first,” Shalise mumbled. Especially if it could help her wake up.

Keeping her head off of the crystal as much as possible, Shalise lifted up Juliana’s hand and placed it against one of the crystal tendrils.

Juliana gasped, coughed twice, and slumped back over Shalise’s shoulder, breathing normally.

“What was that? W-was that supposed to happen?”

I guarantee that she has a soul now. Touch the crystal.

Shalise bit her lip. I hope this is the right thing to do.

Squeezing her eyes shut so as to not become enraptured with the crystal again, Shalise stretched her hand out.

And froze an inch away.

Cold metal touched against her neck, just under her chin.

Shalise only moved her eyes.

The sword-doll stood to Shalise’s side with her sword out.

She looked… sad.

“The crystal,” she said, “you must not touch it.”

Her voice came out with such intensity that Shalise started shaking against her will. At the same time, it was soft-spoken–barely above a whisper. That the doll’s lips were all but touching her ear didn’t help calm her down.

Slowly, the doll leaned back. Her metallic eyes meeting Shalise’s own.

They stood, staring at one another. Shalise tried to remain entirely unmoving, not wanting to give any reason for the doll to strike. At the same time, her legs were trembling in fear, trying to run out from under her.

Her eyes flicked away to a wall behind Shalise.

The wall exploded inwards an instant later.

The doll whirled, her sword vanishing from beneath Shalise’s chin.

Maoa’s outstretched gauntlet stopped in its tracks as the blade made contact. She screamed out in fury and frustration at failing to reach the crystal.

Before any fight could break out, the ground shook.

Shalise stumbled forwards as the earthquake pushed, brushing her fingers against the crystal.

Two brief shocks pulsed against her finger. Nothing more intense than licking a nine-volt battery.

Her fingers broke contact as the earthquake pulled her back.

Shalise’s feet spread apart, widening her stance to help remain steady against the shaking ground.

There was a burst of confusion from Prax. The confusion gave way to laughter.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


004.006

<– Back | Index | Next –>

You must get up.

But the tiles were so cold.

At some point in her thrashing, Shalise’s shirt had come off. She couldn’t bring herself to care. With her bare stomach pressed against the floor, the metal tiles could take the heat away.

Get up, she thought in a masculine voice.

Grunting in resignation, Shalise pushed herself up to a sitting position.

“Oh,” she said as she glanced down. Her shirt hadn’t come off. Finger sized tears ran across her chest, centered around the black brand on her skin.

Shalise’s eyes went wide as she crawled backwards. She gave a light yelp as a stray shirt button dug into her hand.

The winged demon was gone. His restraints hung empty from the wall.

Despite the fresh marks across her chest–from her fingernails, if the bit of skin on her nails was hers–the marks she had drawn were burned in as clear as day. Prax was probably stuck inside her chest.

Shalise gave a light shudder at that thought.

At least her skin hadn’t turned red. That was what she had expected, anyway. That and growing horns, wings, hooves, and all Prax’s muscles. Transforming would have been helpful, true. As happy as she was that she hadn’t turned into a demon, she was still no closer to escaping.

Prax tricked me, Shalise thought with a frown. He was out of his chains, but failed to help her escape. He probably had a way to escape the burned in brand.

If he hadn’t already. If that was even the brand’s purpose.

Shalise could only blame herself. She had expected some sort of betrayal. She had just hoped it wouldn’t be until after Juliana was better and could help out.

Though the red barrier was still up. Shalise would have expected that to stop him from leaving so soon.

Outside the cell, the indigo demon still paced in front of the barrier. He had moved closer, almost touching it.

Juliana was still on the floor, drenched in sweat. Her breaths came out short yet steady.

That was good.

Well, not good good. Better than some alternatives.

Shaking Juliana did nothing to wake her.

There were clearly more desirable alternatives.

As amusing as watching you flounder about like some neonate is, we need to move.

Shalise screamed and jumped back from Juliana. That was not her thought. She did not use words like neonate.

She blinked. It actually sounded like…

“P-Prax?”

Her query was rewarded with deep mental laughter.

“Where are you?”

Fool, she–HE thought. Figure it out quick. I can’t have such mentally deficient servants.

Shalise felt her breath catch in her throat. He’s in my mind, not my chest, she thought with no small amount of panic. Thankfully, it was in her own voice.

Prax did not confirm her suspicion. He didn’t do anything. After a moment of him not responding, Shalise took a breath and closed her eyes.

Prax is a loser. The worst demon I’ve ever met. Arachne could beat him with her hands tied behind her back without breaking a sweat.

Again, Prax did not respond.

Shalise allowed a small smile onto her face. “I’m not your servant.”

Yet, he said without the slightest delay.

Her momentary victory disappeared along with her smile. His tone was far too confident for her liking.

She needed to wake up Juliana fast. Maybe she would have some idea on how to keep Prax away. Failing that, she needed to get to Eva as soon as possible.

That seemed like a good idea in either case.

Priorities. Shalise glanced down at her friend. Juliana should be the top priority. Her life could be in immediate danger.

“How do we help Juliana?”

Later. First, kill the incubus.

Shalise turned to the leering demon. Since she started moving around, he had moved right next to the red barrier. As close as he could get without actually touching it.

Frowning at him, Shalise held her torn shirt together. It wouldn’t stay without her intervention, but at least it kept him from looking.

“Kill him?”

Do not be squeamish, servant.

The hairs on her neck stood on end. She could feel him roll his eyes.

Demons do not die when they are killed. They merely spend some time in the abyss of the Void.

“That’s not–What do you expect me to do about him?” Shalise did not bother hiding her irritation. “If I could have done something about him, I would have before I smeared your blood all over myself.”

Foolish servant. You were admiring my muscles–

I was not, she thought to herself.

Use them.

“And how am I suppos–”

Shalise blinked.

There was a tickling on her stomach.

Turning away from the indigo demon, Shalise opened her shirt and looked down.

And promptly gagged.

Cords of worms beneath her skin writhed around her body. The worms spread out, reaching down her legs, up her shoulders, and down her arms.

The only thing keeping her from all out panic was the lack of pain. There was just an almost pleasant tickle.

Like a cloth being tightened with a stick, the worms squeezed her. It lasted for only a few short moments before they stopped moving.

Shalise gasped as she glanced at herself.

While the more physically demanding nights in Professor Kines’ class had kept her in shape, she hadn’t spent much time actually building strength.

Her fingers ran over her new abs. Abs! A six-pack even. Genoa would be jealous.

Both her arms and legs were similarly beefed up.

She felt like she could lift a truck without breaking a sweat.

But… it was wrong.

Hmph. Pathetic.

“What did you do?”

Be more in tune with your inner demon next time, servant.

Shalise could feel him grinning at his little pun. She was too grossed out to care.

There was a brief mental sigh from Prax. It will have to do.

Her body looked normal. Normal for a bodybuilder, at least. Touching her new abs even felt normal.

But it didn’t feel normal. The worms were still there. Every little movement she made, she could feel them pretending to be muscles.

Disgusting.

All at once, the worms started pulling back. Her fingertips returned to their normal definition, followed by her wrists and arms.

Cease this foolishness, servant, Prax shouted in her head. Dispatch the incubus before dismissing my gift.

Startled by his voice, Shalise allowed the worms to return to their places.

At least she could get rid of it.

“I don’t know how to fight,” Shalise eventually said. She ran her tongue around the inside of her mouth. Her jaw, her cheeks, her face, and her tongue all felt infested.

Do not fight then, he said. Reach out and grip his skull. Pull him into the barrier and hold him there until he disappears.

Taking a deep breath, Shalise clenched her worm-infested hands into a fist. “I can do this,” she mumbled as she turned towards the indigo demon. Resigned, she walked up to the barrier with her eyes staring at the floor.

She stopped just at the edge and looked up.

He licked his lips.

Shalise wrinkled her face in disgust.

Fool, Prax laughed. Grab him and end this.

At a speed that surprised Shalise, her arms reached out of the barrier.

The demon’s eyes and mouth widened in apparent shock.

He didn’t have time to react. Following Prax’s instructions, Shalise used her full weight to pull him into the barrier.

The sizzling and the screaming started at the same time.

Shalise closed her eyes.

She wished she could close her ears.

Claws raked against her hands, but whatever the worms were doing, they managed to keep her from feeling too hurt.

It took several agonizing minutes, but eventually the screams cut off and the clawing ceased. A minute later and Shalise fell backwards, landing on her butt, as the demon slipped out of her grip.

Opening her eyes, Shalise caught the tail end of a portal closing. One just like the portal that had opened beneath the imp that Professor Baxter had killed at her seminar.

Shalise got up to her feet and just stared. There was no evidence of the indigo demon except for a few splatters of blood. The blood blended in with the black tiles and was only noticeable thanks to the angle of the ambient light.

And, Shalise noted with a glance at her own hands, it might not be his blood.

The backs of her hands up to her wrists looked like they had been put through a meat grinder. Red blood dripped off her hands, pooling on the floor in front of her.

Though they wouldn’t look like that for long. She could see the muscles and skin knitting back together in real-time. Strands of flesh jumped across gaps, pulling the flesh back to its normal position.

Her stomach churned. Shalise knelt over and heaved.

Nothing actually came out. She had been trying not to think about it because she would have only gotten hungrier, but she hadn’t had food in who knows how many hours. Possibly a full day.

Shalise remained on her knees until the tingling in her hands stopped. Only then did she stand up and look over her flawless skin.

Acceptable, Shalise jumped at Prax’s voice. I suppose. Let us move on. Gather your mortal friend if you must.

Shalise put her foot down.

“Not yet.” She had a hardness in her voice that surprised her. Shalise did not allow it to distract her.

Shalise concentrated as she had before. The worms pulled back, returning to the brand on her stomach. She kept up her concentration until she couldn’t feel them any longer.

She stopped concentrating.

The worms did not return.

A sigh of relief escaped her lips. She had been worried about needing constant concentration to keep them at bay.

Amazingly enough, Prax stayed silent throughout the process.

His indignation was, however, palpable.

As soon as she finished looking herself over and confirming that everything was back to normal, he mentally shook his head. You would reject my perfection for your mortalness? Pathetic servant.

“I am not your servant,” Shalise growled. With a frown, she added, “is mortalness even a word?”

It matters not so long as you understand my meaning. Now get a move on, that last notification announced the release of the dolls. We do not want to get caught by those things.

That was something Shalise could agree with. She didn’t know what the dolls were, but the prospect of getting out sounded excellent.

Turning to Juliana, Shalise realized the first problem with escaping.

Juliana was small. A good deal shorter than Shalise. Easily the shortest person in their class. While she was nowhere near as muscled as Genoa, Juliana had a well toned body. She couldn’t have weighed all that much.

Carrying her would be clumsy and encumbering, but doable.

Except for one problem.

Shalise’s unenhanced muscles strained to lift the armor-clad girl. The metal had to weigh at least… a lot. Shalise didn’t have any good reference points for eye-balling weight.

But it was one major problem.

Worse, he was laughing inside her head again.

“I’m not leaving without her. We need to wake her up. If you don’t have any solutions, at least be quiet.”

Leave her or carry her with us. Her body is in shock. Likely thanks to the toxin of the imps’ claws. Debilitating, but only deadly to a babe. The shock, however, does not come from the toxin. Rather, she lacks something vital to jump-start her body. She will not wake on her own.

“Lacks what?”

Perhaps I shall explain on the way. Perhaps I will leave your mental faculties intact. Either way, lingering would be unwise.

Shalise frowned. “And you want me to use your worm things to–”

Do not compare my glorious muscles to vermin.

Crossing her arms, Shalise said, “you’ve gotten haughty.”

I am free of my bonds for the first time in tens of centuries. And we are so close to true freedom. I feel haughty. Though it will all be squandered should you fail to get moving.

Shalise bit her lip. She glanced between Juliana and the empty hallway. “Fine.”

With a distressingly simple thought, Prax’s disgusting muscles erupted from the brand. Shalise closed her eyes and thought about how nice a hot meal would taste right about now. She sighed once the squirming beneath her skin squeezed and tightened.

Opening her eyes, Shalise glanced down at her friend.

It wasn’t easy to pick her up. Not quite effortless. Shalise managed to get her slung over her shoulder without too much trouble. After ensuring she wouldn’t fall off by gripping her arms and legs in front and looping her around Shalise’s neck, they moved up to the red barrier.

Her hands had passed through it not ten minutes earlier, yet Shalise still expected it to block her passage. Perhaps by catching the brand on her chest.

The barrier didn’t even cause an itch as she walked through.

Now move! Left, further into the prison.

“I-into the prison?”

My gift will prove deadly enough against lesser demons. Yet it will not suffice against anything especially powerful, including the dolls.

There was reluctance in his voice that might have made Shalise smile had she not been heading deeper into the prison. She did not miss the fact that they were heading in the same direction that they had been moving in before returning to Prax’s cell.

“All the other d-demons came this way,” Shalise said.

That could prove to be to our advantage, if we can convince them to work with us. We will need equipment from the doll armory to facilitate our escape. Entering will be difficult with just us.

“Won’t the doll armory be guarded by dolls? The ones that you just said we wouldn’t be able to fight?”

As you said, all the other demons were heading in this direction. For the same purpose. We shall slip by. If that is even needed. It is entirely possible that the dolls will have been defeated by our predecessors.

As nice as that sounded, she doubted it would work out so cleanly. Not if this prison had any sort of decent security. And they could wind up caught between demons if there was another earthquake.

Sighing, Shalise picked up her pace as much as she was able without jostling Juliana too much.

Shalise slowed to a careful crawl and barely dared to breathe. Her eyes scanned over every inch of the hallway, looking for anything that might be a threat.

Anything that escaped.

Half the wall was destroyed around two cells. Neither had red barriers blocking the way in. Or out.

“This is where we found those imps,” Shalise whispered. “They were breaking away the wall when we got here.”

Looks like they finished.

Shalise tightened her grip on Juliana, readying herself in case she needed to run. It was a good thing she had armor on. There might have been some accidental crushing of limbs otherwise.

Pressing herself against the wall as much as she was able, Shalise peeked around the corner.

Empty.

Shalise took a deep breath of air.

Unlike Prax’s simply empty restraints, both occupants of these cells had been far more destructive during their escape. The binding rings were bent outwards on one side. The other had broken the chain but, based on the lack of rings lying around, had kept the actual bindings.

Hmph. Seems like someone still has loyal minions. I wonder if I know who resided within these cells.

“Would it matter if you knew them?”

Perhaps, he mused. They could be old comrades.

“They didn’t come back for you.”

Watching out for themselves first. That or enemies.

“Great. Just what we need.”

Do not mention me. And keep your chest covered.

Shalise actually rolled her eyes at that. Keeping the remains of her shirt closed enough to hide the brand was an impossible order even discounting Juliana’s presence tying up her hands.

She was about to continue down the hall when a thought struck her. “Wait a minute,” she said slowly. “Arachne once said that she could sense other demons. Can’t they do that to you?”

Not as I am. Much like we can pass through the barriers, we can pass by other demons without them detecting my presence.

Shrugging Juliana into a more comfortable position, she started off down the hall once again, keeping an eye out for any more broken cells.

And demons.

Couldn’t forget about them.

Who is this Arachne? Prax asked after a moment or two.

“A friend of mine,” Shalise said. “She comes from here.” Frowning, Shalise added, “well, not here here. But Hell in gen–”

A demon? And you think you’re her friend?

His raucous laughter sent a chill down her spine. An involuntary shudder worked its way up her spine, nearly dislodging Juliana from her spot.

“N-no. More of a friend of a friend.”

That only made him laugh harder.

“Stop laughing,” Shalise said. “Arachne is way–”

She cut herself off. Better not to antagonize the person she was sharing a mind with. Even if he couldn’t actually do anything to her–something Shalise wasn’t entirely certain was correct–he could definitely make himself annoying.

“–nicer than you,” she finished. “She saved my life once. On orders from someone else.”

Does not sound like a decent demon.

Shaking her head, Shalise decided to change the subject. “How long are you planning on staying inside me.”

There may be more barriers I cannot cross without my servant. Until we escape from this place, at the very least.

Shalise stopped in her tracks. “A-at the very least?”

Continue moving, servant.

Shalise grumbled under her breath, but started moving again. “What do you mean by that?”

Leaving so soon may open me up to recapture. While I do not intend to trade one prison for another, this is by far preferable to staring at that blasted hellhound for the last nine centuries. Besides, mortals live for a century at the most? It will be temporary.

“I don’t want you in me for the rest of my life. I don’t want you in me now!”

You shall do as I say, servant.

“I’m not your servant,” Shalise said. And you’re not staying, she thought. Eva would have a way to get him out. She had to. Or maybe Sister Cross would know a way to exorcise him.

In the meantime, she grit her teeth and tried to ignore his laughter.

Red barriers stretched out as far as Shalise could see. Glancing behind her, the cells extended forever in that direction as well.

There was no end to this place.

They had passed by a crossroads. Prax had insisted on continuing in their current direction. His reply when she had asked if he even knew where they were going was less than reassuring. It boiled down to one corridor ‘feeling’ better than the others.

But even that had been an eternity ago.

Her feet were killing her. Her stomach clamored for food every dozen or so steps. And her back…

Shalise shrugged Juliana up her shoulders again. She kept slipping off.

At least Shalise hadn’t dropped her. Yet.

People, especially those clad in metal, were heavy. Prax’s muscles might have given her the strength and endurance to carry Juliana around, but she lacked the seemingly endless stamina that Arachne displayed during her fights with Juliana’s mom.

Every step wore her down that much further. She needed Juliana to wake up soon.

Juliana did not feel quite as hot as before. Neither was she as sweaty. Whether those were good signs pointing towards recovery or something far worse such as dehydration, Shalise was not qualified to say.

There was one thing she was qualified to say.

“This place is too big.”

It has not changed sizes since the last time you mentioned that. His tone was the very definition of exasperated. Probably.

“That doesn’t mean it–wait, probably?”

Relax. I doubt Keeper has had a chance to expand and inter new prisoners while all this is going on.

He gave a little mental nudge towards yet another barrier-less cell as they passed by.

Shalise had long since stopped slowing down and carefully creeping around the open cells they found. Both she and Prax agreed that no demon, sane or not, would willingly linger in their cells after having been freed. The damage around the cells made it clear that someone was purposely freeing the inmates. Given that, it was likely that all the freed demons were traveling as a group.

A group of demons that lay in the same direction she was moving in.

She tried not to think about that as she trudged along.

Another hundred or two cells passed before a small tremor forced her to stop.

Shalise waited, keeping her feet steady and stable.

The tremor never built up into a full-fledged earthquake. It died out as quickly as it came.

A faint cry of pain echoed through the prison corridor.

“W-what was that?”

We are closing in on our destination. Prepare yourself.

Shalise took a step forward. “F-for what?”

The same faint voice cried out again, this time more in rage than anything else. Another tremble ran up and down the corridor a moment after.

Anything.

Biting her lip, Shalise continued forward at a glacial pace.

Sounds of battle became louder as she walked forward. The occasional loud cries followed by shockwaves interspersed more mundane noises of metal scraping against metal.

It was terrifying.

Shalise could barely keep her legs steady as she moved forward. She’d never been in a fight before. And she didn’t count being eaten by a zombie as a fight.

And yet here she was, marching closer to the noises of an obvious war with a demon in her head and an unconscious girl on her back.

Shalise slugged ever onwards, wishing for the millionth time that hour that she was anywhere else.

Cells along the wall ended abruptly. For a good dozen paces, the walls were nothing more than the black metal. Beyond that, the corridor opened up into a much larger plaza-like area.

A plaza full of demons and what could only be the dolls–half rusted iron and half flesh.

Shalise shuddered. A massive bolt ran through one entire shoulder of something that otherwise looked like a little boy. Hanging off the bolt was a claw that it used to tear into a small imp.

The imp never stood a chance.

Three larger demons turned on the doll and set to tearing it apart.

Shalise looked away.

And promptly met the eyes of a violet-skinned woman. Two red eyes narrowed.

“Humans,” she said. She turned to face Shalise as if the battle raging on did not matter in the slightest. “The ones from earlier? And what’s this, a bonded familiar?”

Shalise took a step backwards. “What do I do?” she hissed to her ever-present companion.

Prax did not immediately respond except to let out a brief wave of anger. An anger that fed into Shalise, making her grit her teeth.

Hello, mother.

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