Tag Archives: Willie

004.026

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Something funny?”

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

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

For that, she would need Zagan’s help.

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

Probably nothing.

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

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

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

What did make her special.

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

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

Juliana rubbed the smooth band with her thumb.

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

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

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

“What was that?”

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

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

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

“Not the answer I expected,” he said.

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

And then the tongue was gone.

The heat remained.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are paying attention, yeah?”

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

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

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

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

“Um,” Juliana started, “what now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probably before she awoke in the prison.

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

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

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

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

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

“Pick one.”

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

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

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

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

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

No. Her mother wasn’t a good choice.

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

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

Probably.

Juliana frowned with a furrowed brow.

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

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

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

No. Definitely not Arachne.

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

Taking a deep breath, Juliana opened her mouth.

“Willie.”

“The demon of this domain?”

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

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

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

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

Juliana let out a long sigh of relief.

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

He stretched out one hand towards her.

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

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

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

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

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

And her world promptly turned inside out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking up at him, Juliana took a step back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zagan smiled before turning his head away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He made no motion.

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

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

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

Juliana tried not to feel too offended.

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

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

“I’ll be back.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where Eva was, her mother would be.

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004.025

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“Mom!”

Juliana jumped to her feet. Fear beat in her chest.

That was… a lot of blood.

Eva pulled out her black dagger and jammed it into her mother’s chest.

Juliana almost started spouting a stream of profanity before she remembered what that dagger was for.

A moment later, the constant stream of blood stopped flowing from the arm-sized hole in her mother’s chest.

While the blood stopped, the wound did not heal.

“Eva, she is old.” Arachne moved closer as she shrunk down to her human form. “I am sure she would be happy to give up the short remainder of her life if it meant letting us get her daughter out of this place.”

“She isn’t that old,” Eva shouted back.

An ember of rage burned inside Juliana at the callous disregard for her mother. Arachne liked her mother. They enjoyed sparring together. This… This…

“She isn’t quite dead,” Willie said from her side. He too had stood up. He leaned over the top of the row of seats in front of them with wide eyes.

That ember of rage flared into a full-on bonfire.

He was at fault. This entire battle, setting them against one another. All of it was his doing.

If he wasn’t around…

Juliana’s grip on her dagger tightened to the point of her fingernails digging into her palm. She tried to ignore the warm liquid lubricating her hold on the dagger. Worried it would slip out, Juliana molded the metal around the back of her hand.

The only thing stopping her from lashing out with all of her anguish was the knowledge that her mother had failed not long before doing just that. Even with his back mostly turned towards her, giving her the element of surprise, Juliana didn’t know where to hit.

She would only be getting one chance, after all.

Head, neck, or even most of the chest area would take down most humans, but Willie was a demon. A demon with strings.

Juliana slipped the dagger out from underneath the hem of the green dress Willie had given her.

None of those ideas will suffice. A puppet master won’t be defeated through the demise of his puppets.

Juliana flinched. It had been a long while since she last heard that voice. Not since the prison. Still, the voice was probably correct.

She slipped her dagger back underneath her dress while eying the thin strings coming off the demon.

They didn’t go anywhere. A few feet above his body, the strings just faded out of existence.

There had to be a real body somewhere.

“Going somewhere, milady?”

Halfway out to the aisle, Juliana flinched again. “Just need to go to the bathroom,” she said.

“Do hurry back. I am not so certain that the show is over.”

Juliana gave a brief nod. She started walking out. That walk turned into a jog. Her jog turned into a full on sprint.

Soon enough, she burst out of the theater’s entrance and onto the small island.

As the doors swung shut behind her, Juliana collapsed to her knees.

Mom is okay, she told herself. Eva was patching her up. And Arachne… It must be a ploy. Something to put Willie off guard.

And if it wasn’t… well, her mother would be more than capable of paying Arachne back when she got better. It certainly wasn’t a fight that Juliana could hope to affect.

Her mother would get better. She had survived far worse. The scars covering her body stood testament to that. Arachne’s wound would be just another scar when she healed.

For any of that to happen, they needed to get out of here. And that meant dealing with Willie.

Juliana got back to her feet. Using the front of her dress, she wiped off her face. Ignoring the damp spots, Juliana took a step out of the theater’s entryway and onto the sand-covered beach leading towards the boat dock.

And promptly stopped.

Where was she to go?

Anytime Willie wanted her to be someplace else, he teleported her there. There was nothing to the island except for the theater as far as Juliana could tell with her strictly mortal senses. No bridges to the other places. She didn’t have a clue how to get to the old west town that currently held her mother.

And Juliana highly doubted that Willie would have taken her to see his real body.

To find the puppet master, one must simply follow the strings.

“I tried that,” Juliana hissed. “They just disappeared overhead.”

As she ranted at the voice inside her head, Juliana glanced towards the sky, pointing as if in demonstration.

An involuntary tremble shook through her arms.

The moon, shaped like an eye, stared down at her.

That couldn’t be it. It was a moon. Nothing more.

With a heavy weight in her chest, Juliana sank to her knees in despair. For some reason, she doubted the small dagger she had fashioned would be up to the task of killing whatever being existed behind that eye. The sheer size of it would mean her dagger would inflict nothing more deadly than a paper cut.

“Now what,” she said. It wasn’t a question so much as it was a statement of defeat. Even if she had a magical knife of instantly kill demons, there was no way to actually reach the eye.

“Well?” she asked, clenching her teeth as her anger grew. “What do I do now?”

It was probably foolish to shout at the voice in her head. Especially underneath the watchful eye of the moon. But Juliana couldn’t help it.

“You dragged me out here and showed me what must be done. And now what? Was it just to show how hopeless my situation–my mother’s situation actually is?

“What do you expect me to do‽”

Juliana stared up at the sky. Not at the moon. At a blank spot off in the vastness of the darkness. Whatever entity had taken an interest in her clearly had some level of omniscience to it, so it probably didn’t matter where she looked. If she hadn’t already heard the voice in the prison, she would probably have dismissed it as Willie further messing with her mind.

What’s more, she could feel its intent. She wasn’t entirely certain how. If asked to put the feelings she received into words, Juliana would find herself at a loss.

Juliana wasn’t deluded enough to believe that the voice was benevolent–this was Hell after all. Nothing about the voice screamed that it was warm and fuzzy.

But the feeling wasn’t malicious. There was no cruelty in it. Just cold truth.

Perhaps it was an enemy of Willie. Or some other demon that wanted to make her into its pet.

At the moment, Juliana cared little. So long as it helped her, helped her mother, Juliana was willing to repay the favor with interest.

Nothing but silence answered her.

Juliana’s head slumped to her chest as her palms pressed into the sandy beach. She gripped the sand in her hands, lifting it up and watching it fall.

“Fine,” she said, again moving to stand. “Fine. I’ll save my mother myself. And I’ll owe you nothing.”

Turning back to the theater, Juliana started forwards. Even if it wasn’t his real body, perhaps killing the puppet would buy enough time to get her mother out of this hellhole.

Reentering the theater, Juliana found it mostly unchanged. Willie still stood facing the screen. The intensity in his eyes had died down somewhat compared to the first few moments after her mother had been injured.

It was with some small reluctance that Juliana looked up at the screen.

Her mother was still alive if her laborious breathing was any indication. Her chest heaved up and down as Eva knelt over her with her face twisted in concentration.

Watching Arachne look bored off to one side renewed Juliana’s anger.

A sinking sensation of disgust welled up in Juliana realized that a good portion of that anger was more towards herself than the spider-demon.

Shaking her head, Juliana focused back on Willie. He made a suitable target for her anger.

Juliana walked up next to the demon and stood for just a moment. He made no motion to acknowledge her presence or even indicate that she had returned. That set off more than a few alarm bells in her head. But as she watched him, she got the feeling that it was more a simple case of him caring more about the others than her.

And if she waited too long, he might sit down again, ridding her of the opportunity to strike at his back.

Taking in a quiet breath, Juliana performed one last self check. Her dagger was about as sharp as it could get. She hadn’t been able to scrape together enough metal for a decent armor set, but if she kept a small patch flowing, intercepting some attacks might be possible.

Juliana struck.

Deciding to go for the strings first, she swept her arm in a wide swipe designed to cut as many as possible as fast as she could.

There was a momentary tension in each string her blade passed through. One lashed back as it snapped, drawing a thin line of blood from her wrist.

The strings pulled, leading off towards the stage. Willie followed an instant later. His legs kicked against the tops of the lower rows of seats as he ‘flew’ across the room.

Juliana wasted no time in chasing after him. She had to end this fast or he would tie her up in the same wires and strings that had trapped the others.

“What is this?” he proclaimed as Juliana ran up the steps to the stage. “Betrayal? Treachery? After I took the time to feed and clothe you.”

Juliana had nothing to say in return. No time for banter. She crossed the stage in hasty silence.

Willie’s arm hung limp at his side. Her blade had severed all the strings attached to his fingers and up his right arm to his shoulder. The strings dangled a few inches, hanging off of him like he walked through a bunch of cobwebs.

Keeping the lessons drilled into her by her mother in mind, Juliana aimed for all soft targets. She would have to find out the hard way whether or not they worked on demons.

Juliana’s dagger swiped through nothing but air. Her target–his groin–just wasn’t where her dagger was.

The strings on his backside and legs pulled back and up, dragging along her target. The rest of him did not move.

So Juliana followed through. She pushed her dagger upwards towards his chest and, more importantly, his neck.

Willie did not stay idle. The upper strings snapped back, leaving a small cracking noise in their wake.

Juliana’s eyes widened as she saw the feet swinging back in her direction.

She parried his kick with her knife arm, using the small patch of metal coating the outside of her arm to tank the hit.

It felt like a jackhammer on full throttle. Never-mind that she hadn’t ever been hit with a jackhammer, it still rattled her arm up her shoulder and into her chest. The only reason she retained a hold on her dagger was that the metal was shaped in such a way as to make it extremely difficult to drop, if not impossible.

Willie pressed his advantage. His still strung arm swung forwards.

No time to move out of the way or attempt to block.

Juliana took the blow to her chest.

Considering he was essentially floating in the air, his punch did not want for strength.

With a grunt, Juliana was forced to backpedal several steps. Only because her mother had trained her reflexes did she keep from falling flat on her back.

Those same trained reflexes screamed at her to follow up his opening with an attack.

The jitters in her arm kept her wary just long enough to see his next strike.

He never stopped his punch. He spun in a full circle. His other arm was kept horizontal to the ground thanks to the centrifugal force. It probably wouldn’t have been as powerful of a blow without the strings driving it, but it wasn’t anything she wanted to get hit by.

As it was, Juliana had to take another step backwards to avoid the severed strings.

And he didn’t stop there. He continued to spin like a top. The strings above his head wound around a single point.

Juliana waited. There might have been openings between the arms as there was a good space between each fist, but he was speeding up. Juliana wasn’t about to take the chance at getting knocked on the head.

Especially because he was lifting up and going lower every few rotations.

The spinning came to an abrupt stop with his back facing Juliana. His unstrung arm immediately fell to his side.

Juliana saw her chance and took it. She jumped in, swiping at another set of strings that were all running past his back. The ones attached to the backs of his legs and feet.

She jumped back just in the nick of time. The tension in his strings forced him in a backwards spin. Without the strings keeping his legs steady, they also flayed out at the force.

All in all, his attack, if it could be called such, was rather impotent. Perhaps if he used those strings to move about the room rather than remain in place, it would actually be somewhat threatening. All it really did was keep her at bay.

Which, Juliana thought as she slashed down at a wire that had appeared just in front of her, might be the point. Time is not on my side. She was uncomfortably aware of the happenings on the screen above her.

Standing there, waiting for him to unwind enough to attack while keeping an eye out for wires attempting to trap her, Juliana desperately wished that she had spent her time doing anything besides summoning demons. Learning how to conjure earth would have been extremely useful. Launched earth would at least be an attack in some form. Something she could do aside from standing around ineffectively.

That she likely wouldn’t be here in the first place had she not dipped her fingers into diablery did not escape her.

As before, his rotation stopped far too suddenly to be natural. The strings were entirely untangled. No extra rotations that she would have expected from inertia.

Juliana rushed in, slicing at another wire that had appeared between them as she moved.

Her knife thrust was a feint. She turned her motions into a heavy hit with her elbow along his cheekbone.

There was a crack. His head lolled off to one side. The lump of a displaced bone stuck out of his neck.

Juliana clamped down on the queasy feeling in her stomach. He wasn’t hurt. He was a demon. Even if he was hurt, good. That’s what she was aiming for.

Her momentary distraction at the sight of Willie’s broken neck gave him the opening to deliver a punch straight to her chest. Right in the pit of her stomach.

Juliana staggered backwards, clutching at her chest. She crouched down, collapsing at the shock.

Air wouldn’t go into her lungs. Each gasp was more like a choke. The pain in her stomach burned.

She tried to calm herself. It was just the wind getting knocked out of her. She knew that.

Knowing did not help the suffocating sensation go away.

Something hard met the side of her face.

Juliana’s vision went dark for a mere second.

The hard wood of the stage floor was there to greet her as she recovered. Her breathing came slightly easier. She pushed herself up onto her hands and knees.

Only for something to kick her in the side.

Juliana went back down. Her face pressed against the wood.

The wood fell away.

A hole opened in the floor, dropping Juliana down.

Painful groans escaped her mouth as she hit a cement floor hard. An unpleasant noise cracked out of one of her arms.

Juliana lay on the cool floor. Nothing was more enticing than lying in one spot until all the pain went away.

I can’t do that.

She clenched her jaw tight, pushing the pain away.

Mom is still in danger.

With her arm that hadn’t made a noise, Juliana pushed herself up.

Eva too.

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

And blinked.

A weight dropped in her stomach. Bars, she cursed.

On the other side of the bars stood Willie, all strung up and looking like new.

“You just sit tight, milady. I am beyond certain that I’ll find interesting diversions involving yourself after the current show ends. Now I must return or I shall miss the climactic ending.”

With that said, Willie’s puppet slumped over. A trap door opened in the ceiling with a creak. After a brief pause, the puppet was pulled by his strings straight through the trap door.

It shut, leaving not even a trace of a seam.

Ignoring the aching in her chest, the thumping in her head, and the steadily growing pain in her arm, Juliana gripped the bars and shook.

The metal did not move.

She tried her ferrokinesis.

While it worked on the metal still on her–her knife, mostly–it failed to so much as touch the black metal making up the bars.

Changing tactics, Juliana formed up some of her knife into a serrated blade. With it, she set to filing away at the bars.

Juliana couldn’t keep it up for long. After only a few minutes, she had sweat out a kiddie-pool worth of perspiration. Her arm was sore. And, looking closely, Juliana couldn’t see the faintest hint of a scratch on the metal. Her own blade had dulled and required almost constant reinforcement.

Juliana sunk into the corner of the cell and slumped down.

She had failed.

Her mother wasn’t bleeding out, but only so long as Eva kept up her magic. If Willie decided to hasten matters by doing something as simple as tossing a monster into the picture, she wouldn’t be able to keep it up. Even if he didn’t, Juliana doubted that Eva would be capable of holding on indefinitely.

Hot liquid started to stream down the sides of her face.

Wiping her face on a torn piece of dress did nothing to help. It made it worse. Liquid smeared over her face as more continued to flow.

Everything was her fault. If she had never touched that book, she would never have summoned Willie. He wouldn’t have separated her from Shalise. And, as Shalise said way back in the prison, neither of them would have wound up in Hell had it not been for her.

Mom is going to die and it is my fault.

Such folly of the talkina. So confident is he in his control over my realm, he thinks he doesn’t need to block magic.

“Oh? You’re back, are you?” Juliana’s voice peaked and broke as she shouted at the words. “Come to offer me some more half-advice? What is it now, ‘a cell is only prison to those within?'”

Panting, Juliana took a breath before letting out an inarticulate scream. She pounded her fist into the grimy wall.

There is little shame in seeking help to accomplish tasks clearly beyond you.

“Oh, and I suppose you’re offering?”

Of course not, Juliana thought as the silence droned on. They were just words in her head. What were they supposed to do about anything?

Probably a sign of her own declining mental state.

But, she thought, not entirely sure whether it was her own thought or not, the idea might have merit.

Standing, Juliana took a moment to steady herself. She wiped her face again. The cloth did nothing between the sweat and tears already soaked in.

Extending some of her blade into a long pole, Juliana traced a wide circle in the grime of the floor.

A summoning circle works cross-plane only. You will find yourself unable to summon any demon currently within Hell.

“Shut up,” Juliana said as she continued to draw. Despite her words, she heard and understood the voice. None of the demons that she had already summoned would work.

That was fine. None of the demons she had already summoned would be able to stand up to Willie. He was at the back of the only book she had read on diablery for a reason.

Although your benefactor has free access to the mortal plane, she still resides within her domain. Her domain is still a part of my plane.

That caught Juliana’s arm partway in her drawing motion. Ylva. That had to be who the voice was talking about. Shaking her head, Juliana continued her work.

Soon enough, the summoning circle was complete.

Juliana stared at it. Everything looked right. The only thing missing was an enticement.

Stand within the circle yourself.

“W-what?” Juliana bit her lip before she could stutter anything else out. Of course he would need a virgin as his enticement.

Fire burned on Juliana’s face as blood rushed to her cheeks. The memory of him without his shirt on danced in her mind. The rippling muscles covering his well-toned body.

Juliana shook her head. With only a modicum of hesitation, she walked onto the summoning circle.

It was a small sacrifice if it got her mother out safe and sound.

Taking a breath, Juliana started channeling magic into the circle. Some demons needed to be called out with actual words, others simply needed their enticement in the circle. Since the voice hadn’t interrupted, it was probably the latter in this case.

The summoning circle started to rotate.

Juliana closed her eyes, hoping this wasn’t an even bigger mistake.

Ha, as if things could get worse.

Something pressed against her mouth.

Juliana snapped her eyes open, finding herself face to face with two golden orbs.

And a tongue worming its way between her lips.

Pressing her hands against a muscled chest, Juliana pushed as hard as she could.

Two arms wrapped around her body, drawing her in tight and lifting her up off the ground.

His tongue met her teeth. Despite her clenching her jaw as hard as she could, it pried her mouth open with the barest of efforts, moving to wrap itself around her own tongue.

Hot, Juliana thought, too hot. Everywhere his tongue touched felt like it had been coated in hot sauce. The burning did not cause quite the same need to find a carton of cold milk. In fact, the more his tongue moved in her mouth, the less it burned and the more it–

The pressure around her body vanished and Juliana found herself falling. Her body crumpled to the floor.

Juliana stared up at him. His long tongue ran across his own lips before snaking back into his mouth. She found herself mirroring his actions for a split second before she could catch herself.

“Salty,” he said. “Pathetic though you are, your tears are a redeeming factor. Delicious.”

Juliana swallowed. Trying to ignore the burning sensation sliding down her throat, she wiped off her face on the sleeve of her dress. Once finished, she sat there and waited.

He did not move.

“A-aren’t y-you…” Juliana bit down on her lip, she was talking as poorly as a nervous Shalise. “Aren’t you going to t-take your enticement?”

He blinked before bursting into raucous laughter. “If you’re so insistent,” he started.

Juliana involuntarily swallowed again.

“You will have to resign from Brakket Academy.”

It was Juliana’s turn to blink. “What?”

“My current contract includes a clause against, shall we say, ‘laying hands’ upon students. Tempting though you may be, it is currently against my interests to void said contract.”

“So, you’re not going to…”

“Since you are so insistent,” he said with an exaggerated sigh, “I promise to visit you the moment my contract ends. You can wait, yeah?”

“I don’t–”

He clapped his hands together, creating a sound akin to thunder. “You’ve summoned me, Juliana Rivas.

“There are two types of people who summon me. The first foolishly believe that they can command me. ‘Zagan,’ they say, ‘go forth and defeat my enemies.’ I slaughter them for their hubris.

“The second come to me with wishes, as if I were some ill-natured fairy ready to grant their every desire. ‘Great Lord Zagan, with a snap of your magnificent fingers, solve my problems.’ Them, I kill for daring to bother me with petty problems.

“Being the pathetic mortal you are, I suspect you fit within the second category.”

He leaned down. As he did, the lighting in the cell flickered and died. Two glowing gold eyes moved down, just a few inches from her face. This time, he kept his lips off of hers. His hot breath, on the other hand, washed over her face as he spoke.

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

<– Back | Index | Next –>


004.023

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Juliana sat in her seat, gripping the armrests.

This… she wasn’t sure what to call it. Farce was a word that came to mind. Whatever it was, it had gone on long enough.

By the looks of it, Eva didn’t even know how close she had come to having her skull caved in while pulling off her cowboy impression on the back of that beetle. She had missed a broken plank by mere inches.

Glancing away from the giant theater screen, Juliana frowned at Willie. He had leaned over, barely touching his seat. In fact, most of him seemed to be held up by the wires coming off of his body. The smile on his face was an almost exact inverse of Juliana’s own expression.

“Precarious situation for the young miss,” he said, not removing his eyes from the screen. “What will she do next?”

He sounds like a game show host, Juliana thought, straining to keep her eyes from rolling. “You never answered my question.”

“You never answered mine.”

“I asked first.”

“Humor me.”

Scowling, Juliana turned back to the theater screen. Eva simply stood there, atop the rubble of the building she recently fought within. After a moment, she blinked up to a nearby roof and started looking around.

A sudden gust of wind picked up her hair. She brushed a handful back, over her ear and out of her face. Black strands waved in the wind over her shoulder. With the way the permanent evening sun glistened off of her skin, she ended up looking very dramatic.

So dramatic that Juliana almost missed the movement at the bottom of the screen. The tattered remains of her friend’s skirt flipped around in the breeze. Eva gave no indication of noticing or caring.

Juliana felt her face heat up as she turned away. With her shirt having been torn off, Eva was practically naked.

Coughing lightly, Juliana said, “I imagine she’ll be fairly happy. I don’t think Eva is enough of a team player to want too many people around her. Especially not people as worthless as those hybrids you gave her.”

Willie hummed lightly in acknowledgment.

“As for what she will do, probably find Arachne.”

“And fight her?”

“I doubt it.”

“Oh,” he said, “that’s gloomy.” After a moment’s pause, he opened his mouth again. “As for your question, whenever I get bored. You, of course, are free to leave at any time. And I will stick to my promise, if one of them kills another, I’ll let the other two go.”

Juliana grit her teeth. “You didn’t keep your other promise.”

“Milady, you wound me.” He clutched at his chest and flopped over to one side, limp save for his strings. “Our promise was so rudely interrupted when they cut your strings. Naturally, I could not allow them to simply leave after such a grievous insult.”

Glancing up at him with a frown, Juliana had to wonder what would happen if she cut his strings. Maybe it would incapacitate or distract him long enough for her to get everyone out. Or at least give them a chance to take him out for good.

Disappointment sunk into Juliana’s chest. Willie, being the first demon to seriously speak with her, hadn’t left a poor impression. He was supposed to have become her Arachne. After treating her to tea and being all polite, Juliana felt that he was trying to do the same; endear himself to her so that she would summon him out in the real world.

And then this happened.

Forcing her mother, her friend, and Arachne into some sort of battle to the death?

She certainly wasn’t going to summon him now. There were tons of other demons out there. The prison and Prax had taught her that, at least. Some of those demons had never stepped out of their domains. Surely they would be willing to be her…

Her what?

Friend?

Bodyguard?

Slave?

Juliana pressed her forehead into her hand.

She saw the ease with which Arachne had barreled over skeletons and… and zombies, things Juliana had a tough time dealing with or locked up completely on. It reminded her of her mother.

Which probably said something very unflattering about her mother. It wasn’t a comparison she would be speaking aloud anytime soon, that was for sure.

The point was that it was a strength Juliana lacked.

In retrospect, borrowing Eva’s book was beyond foolish. Arachne could swat away zombies and skeletons with a flick of her finger. The same zombies and skeletons that had given her nightmares for weeks during that first semester.

Arachne should have been the one in those nightmares.

And now there was an Arachne-like being sitting just to her side, gleefully hoping that her mother or Eva would be dead within the next hour or two.

Sighing, Juliana looked back to the screens. Eva vanished here and appeared there, almost too fast for whatever relayed the image to keep up. Her mother continued to pace back and forth inside the city bank. And Arachne… Arachne had started brooding. Again. She wasn’t directing her swarm. She wasn’t even watching the little screens in her room.

Hopefully, she was thinking up a way out of this mess.

One thing still rankled at her thoughts. Something Prax had said–assuming he hadn’t been lying, of course. If Hell was such a hellish place, even for demons, why was Willie burning possible bridges out?

Surely he wasn’t so foolish as to believe that this battle royale would make Juliana want to summon him.

Having stewed in her own thoughts long enough, Juliana decided to simply ask him.

“What do you gain from this?”

He looked over, the movement caused the mask on the side of his head to slide slightly forwards. It wasn’t enough to cover his face, but it hid one eye. He simply stared ahead without blinking or moving it back. “Gain?”

“I’m not going to thank you for this. I doubt I will summon you because of this. In fact, I’ll be destroying the doll eye you gave me as soon as I leave.”

Willie smiled. Not an Arachne smile. Just a regular, human-kind-of smile. He reached up and pinched the side of Juliana’s cheek.

Juliana slapped his hand away.

“Oh milady, what an inflated sense of self-worth you have. Adorable in a delusional manner. You believe that I need you? That you summoning me would ‘make my day’?”

He scoffed. Twice. The second time, he swung his arm from side to side in a dismissive gesture. “You think you’re the only one to have summoned me in forever? Do you fail to realize that talkina–a species of which I am a most exemplary member–are listed in every treatise on diablery?

“I have been summoned more times than I can count in the last three decades. And that rate has only been increasing as of late. Do not presume yourself to be important on account of one destitute demon of Death deciding to take a liking to you. You, milady, are as desirable to me as a dainty bacterium.”

Juliana bristled all while shrinking back in her seat, away from the demon. She opened her mouth, but Willie was not finished.

“Initially, you were to be a source of amusement. Then you show up here. What a delight, claiming that others would surely be coming to your rescue. Of course you wanted to leave. A distraction here, a tea party there. You never insisted on leaving so I never showed you out. Well, I couldn’t allow that, not while there was a chance of others showing up. Others who had the possibility of not being bound by that Damned ring.

“I could hardly contain my anticipation.” He took in a deep breath.

“This,” he swung his arm out from one end of the giant screen to the other, “is entertainment. Entertainment on my terms. No mortals ordering me around. No humans making me their puppet.”

Willie sighed, apparently content with his speech. He sunk back into his chair, staring intently at the screen.

“Perhaps if they fail to kill one another, we’ll start up a new event with a point system. For motivation, of course. The one with the highest score will be allowed to leave. Second place will stay with me forever. And last, well, I have been thinking about brushing the dust off the old guillotine.”

He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. It visibly brightened, like the blazing of an ember getting fresh air. “Now silence, milady, or get out.”

Juliana just stared, wide-eyed.

“Ah, your dear mother is finally acting. I had been considering burning the building down to force some action on her part.”

Slowly, Juliana creaked her head back towards the screen. Sure enough, her mother had thoroughly exploded the entire front of the bank. Bug splatters lay everywhere in the blast area, quickly added to by pillars and spikes made of earth dispatching more of the critters.

Juliana bit her lip. She needed to get rid of Willie. Either that or her mother and Eva needed to kill Arachne. Arachne could survive, even if it would be a while before she would be back.

More importantly, her mother and her friend would be alive and, assuming Willie would actually keep his word, would be home.

— — —

Genoa kicked a stone out of her path. Without expending even the slightest amount of magic, it homed in and gouged out the eye of a nearby monster.

Her ‘troops’ trailed after her, sending occasional attacks at the enemy that drifted too close.

Genoa paid them no mind. It wouldn’t be any skin off of her back if they went and got themselves killed. They were efficient and respectably good at fighting, but they weren’t real.

Worse, they were ultimately under control of their puppet master. From a short discussion she had had with the things, Genoa knew without a doubt that they would stab her in the back if she attempted to act outside this little scenario. In that regard, having them die would actually be the better option.

Though Genoa very much assumed that the minions of both Eva and Arachne would turn on them as well. As such, she wouldn’t lose any sleep if her troops managed to take out a decent sized chunk of their forces on their way to oblivion.

Genoa flicked her dagger behind her. A dust cloud erupted from the ground, enveloping her. Remembering exactly the layout of everything in sight, she blinked forwards and up. Upon reappearing on the roof of a nearby building, she spun around.

The henchmen were scrambling about, being unable to blink themselves. Genoa ignored them in favor of watching the giant beetle that had charged towards her.

Unthinking, it continued its charge straight into the cloud of dust. The moment it disappeared from view, a multitonal cry of pain echoed out over the town.

Genoa twisted her wrist, settling the cloud of dust.

There it was, hanging slightly suspended in the air upon angled pillars of sharpened rock. Fetid ichor leaked from its underbelly. Using its own strength and momentum against it to puncture its relatively soft underbelly was pathetically simple.

Absently, Genoa considered whether or not the same tactic would work on her own henchmen. Probably, came the conclusion. They acted smart, but the way they sat down there panicking about her disappearance left her wondering all the same.

It wasn’t like she was trying to hide herself. Did they possess absolutely no battlefield awareness? At least they made a decent distraction. Their panic pulled all the bugs’ attention.

Oh well. Might as well make use of their worthlessness.

Sweeping her dagger from her left to her right, she created sinkholes directly beneath many of the smaller bugs. Not all of them, of course. There were so many filling up every available spot in the street. Even to the point of crawling over one another.

A group of five all fell into a single hole. That was a personal record, even if the top-most one managed to get all out save for a leg before she could collapse the hole. A few pillars of sharpened earth jumped out of the ground to finish the job.

Her efforts barely put a dent in the total amount of bugs in the pit. “Bugs,” Genoa said, “why couldn’t it have been snakes?”

“Ah,” Genoa let out a stilted sigh. She pressed her empty hand against her forehead. “Those idiots.” Or they were trying to get her killed on purpose.

One of her little minions had noticed her. With an over-exaggerated gesture, the mage had lifted his hand and pointed. He had given a shout to his comrades, alerting them to Genoa’s position.

Them and all the bugs.

Seemingly as one, the entire army about-faced and stared up at her.

For one pregnant moment, an unnatural silence hung over the assembled bugs.

Broken by the multitonal noise of one of the beetles, they rallied into a frenzy. Bugs scrambled in her direction. Many larger ones barreled over their smaller brethren, completely uncaring of any damage they were doing.

In fact, Genoa thought with a frown, they are doing more damage to each other now than I managed just a few moments ago.

Not about to be outdone by the enemy, Genoa lifted her dagger. A rapid series of loud cracks fired off. Sonic booms from breaking the sound barrier. Each crack accompanied a human-sized spike lifting out of the ground, angled off towards the oncoming bugs.

The sheer speed at which the pillars erupted from the earth completely and totally vaporized the parts of the bugs that they touched.

Which was good. There were plenty of bugs far too close to the building upon which she was currently standing on. Sure, she could teleport away again, but that would ruin her plan.

With the first row finished, half encircling her building, Genoa started on a second row. She staggered it, filling in the gaps so as to catch as many of the bugs as she could.

Sonic booms fired off loud enough to threaten her eardrums. Ignoring the reverberations in her chest and skull, Genoa grinned.

The spikes were performing better than expected. The large bugs in the back essentially pushed the smaller bugs upon the spikes. More bodies piled up thanks to the force. Technically, they were still killing themselves. Genoa was going to count it as her win anyway.

Each spike filled up more and more, becoming a shish-kebab of insects.

If she had a decent fire mage around, they could have a nice barbecue.

Genoa’s thoughts ground to a quick stop.

Wincing, she shook her head. While she had tried a scorpion on a stick–on a dare–one time, it didn’t bring up the most pleasant memories. And scorpions looked far more appealing than these demon-created abominations.

Unfortunately, there was limited space on each kebab. Only so many bugs could be skewered before enough of them had piled up for the others to climb over.

All at once, her line of death simply became a platform for the bugs to leap straight to her wooden roof.

Genoa blinked again.

From a safe distance, Genoa watched as one of the giant beetles actually used its wings to fly. It came down right where Genoa had been standing only seconds before, crushing several of the smaller bugs.

And promptly caused the collapse of the entire roof.

Turning her attention from the swarm around the now collapsed building, Genoa glanced over the rest of the street. There were still so many of the things left. A not insignificant segment of the army had been left behind around the four–three henchmen. One had become nothing more than a bloodied lump of snacks for a handful of the bugs.

The rest were quickly becoming surrounded.

For a moment, Genoa almost stepped in. There was a decent pile of bug carcasses littered around the group. Even if they kept up the pace with one of their number down, it was clear to see that they wouldn’t be walking away.

In the end, Genoa decided they were a liability more than anything.

Turning from the soon-to-be massacre, Genoa felt a few hairs rise on the back of her neck. Just a subtle tingling feeling.

Genoa blinked to the side without hesitating in the slightest. She hadn’t survived her years as a mage-knight through ignoring her instincts.

No attack came.

Frowning, she glanced around for anything that might have given rise to her hackles.

It didn’t take long. Genoa prided herself on her ability to keep total awareness of the battlefield in her memory. She quickly honed in on a building, specifically a window on that building. It was darker than the others around it with the shadow of something within.

There was a quick movement behind the glass as the shadow disappeared.

A brief disturbance in the air set Genoa on edge. She tensed, swinging her dagger out to the side.

It managed to cleave through nothing but air.

Genoa hopped backwards across the roof, keeping her dagger ready for anything.

Anything turned out to be a young girl with Arachne’s arms, legs, and long black hair.

“Eva,” Genoa said. It was a terse greeting, but then again, they weren’t allies according the puppet demon. Hopefully, she wouldn’t do anything drastic.

The lack of any sign of her little monsters was either a good sign or an ambush.

Genoa decided to keep her guard up in either case.

“You sure make a lot of noise,” Eva said as she crossed her arms beneath her bare chest. One hand reached up and brushed at some blood that had smeared across her face. “I could hear you clear across the town. It sounded like a machine gun.”

“Just taking care of some irritants,” Genoa said with a nod towards the bug-kebabs. Glancing in their direction for a moment brought a frown to Genoa’s face.

They appeared to have finally realized that the large beetle had not, in fact, crushed her. The littler bugs were scampering about each and every direction. All looking for her.

Provided they had any range on their vision, it wouldn’t be long before one of them noticed. Genoa wasn’t exactly trying to hide. It was a wonder they hadn’t noticed her up on the rooftop already. Sure, it was one of the taller buildings, but she was still standing in plain sight.

It seemed as if even the mutant monsters fell prey to the old adage of failing to look up. Most of them had the excuse of not having proper necks that could tilt upwards, but they could still angle their bodies.

Without her mercenaries to foolishly point her out, Genoa was feeling surprisingly safe up high.

From the bugs at least.

Genoa turned back to Eva.

The girl was also looking out over the street below. Her hair flowed in the wind, continually hovering behind her. Unlike Genoa, Eva had completely turned her body away. As if she had already dismissed the idea that she could be harmed by Genoa.

There might be some merit to that. Genoa had no plans to attack the girl until she felt especially threatened by her. And unless Eva had been keeping a whole lot more secret than some blood magic and demon limbs, feeling threatened by her would take something extreme.

“So,” Genoa started. She still had to ask to be certain. “Are we going to fight now?”

“I’d rather not,” Eva said, finally turning her attention back to Genoa.

It had only been a few seconds, but a few seconds could be an eternity on the battlefield.

“Have you seen Arachne?”

Genoa shook her head, using the opportunity to glance about for any potential ambushes. “Not since the demon split us up.”

“We should find her.”

“To fight?”

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

<– Back | Index | Next –>


004.018

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“I hope this washes out,” Eva said, tossing her sticky hair over her shoulder. No matter how much she tried to strain it out, it was like the gunk multiplied in her hair as her fingers ran through it.

Her fingers were covered in the stuff as well, so she probably was just wiping more through her hair than she was actually cleaning off.

“Better than sand,” Arachne said. She wasn’t even trying to clean herself off. The black ooze added a layer of sheen to her already shiny carapace.

Eva wiggled her fingers. Unlike the annoying grit of sand and large dust particles, the ooze… oozed out of the way as she flexed. Some of the sand left over from Ylva’s beach wound up caught in the gunk and pulled out as the rest of it moved. In that respect, it was somewhat helpful.

A short shout preceded a loud splash into the syrupy liquid to Eva’s side. She glanced over to find Genoa struggling in the liquid.

“Glad you decided to drop in,” Eva said, leaning over the side of the boat.

Arachne moved to the opposite side to keep it from tipping.

Spitting a large wad of the gunk out of her mouth, Genoa let out a sling of curses. “What is this stuff?”

“Something to break the fall,” Arachne answered. “Most civilized demons have something similar. Typically something that the demon has control over but would impede intruders.” A hint of pride entered her voice as she continued. “I use webs, of course. They entrap visitors until I choose to release them. Far superior to this muck,” she said, flinging a small amount of the goop off her arm.

Eva reached her hand over the edge of the boat.

There was a moment of hesitation in Genoa’s eyes before she clasped her hand around Eva’s wrist. An ache jolted through Eva’s back as she started to put weight on her arm. Eva winced, but did not let go.

With Arachne managing to keep the boat steady, Eva pulled Genoa up and into the boat. She lay on her back, ooze dripping off of her as she stared up at the sky.

Eva leaned back against the plank that acted as a bench. She took in a few slow and steady breaths. Zoe might have been more right than she thought. That had been decidedly unpleasant.

After a moment of rest, she followed Genoa’s gaze up to the disturbingly eye-like moon.

“So this is Hell? Not as hot as I expected.”

“That aspect has been grossly exaggerated in mortal culture. Though,” Arachne slid a finger down her own cheek in thought, “I suppose some demons play to that stereotype. Imps and other demons with high affinity towards fire.”

Genoa lurched into a sitting position and spent a moment glancing around. “So what now? This doesn’t look like a theater.”

“It is possible,” Eva said, “that we have ended up in the wrong place.” She licked one of her fingers. “Honey. Or it tastes like it. The color is wrong obviously.” Eva glanced over at Arachne. “Some bee demon’s domain?”

The spider-demon shrugged. “Don’t know of any, though that doesn’t mean there aren’t any.”

“So what, we jump back in and try again?”

“That,” Arachne said as she dipped a leg over the edge of the boat, “is not part of the waters of Hell.” Her voice dipped into a low growl. “I already said that this was a landing area. Somewhere in the middle of the domain, I’d say.”

“Great. Just great. So where do we go? There’s nothing around but more demon-honey.”

Eva picked up the oar. She almost pushed it through the liquid, but thought better of it and handed it off to Arachne. Best not to agitate her back at the moment. Not until it had healed more.

Arachne looked at the oar like she had never seen such a device. She looked up with the best questioning look Eva had ever seen her wear.

“No sense sitting around,” Eva said, gesturing towards the boat. “Pick a direction and get us moving.”

“I believe I have called you a slave driver in the past.”

“And I’m sure I will keep hearing that for as long as we know each other.” Eva brought a hand to her ear before swinging it straight out over the bow of their little rowboat. “Onwards!”

With a sigh, Arachne dipped the oar into the liquid.

Eva promptly punched a hole through the wooden planks of the seat in her haste to hold onto something–anything. Her other hand gripped something significantly fleshier than the boat. From the loud yelp that came from Genoa, Eva was fairly certain it wasn’t Arachne.

Her long hair was pulled almost perfectly horizontal behind her from the sheer speed of the boat as it twisted and zigzagged across the surface.

Arachne was, of course, laughing. Most of her mad cackles ended up carried off by the rushing wind.

It all came to a stop on the precipice of a hole in the liquid. Eva had just enough time to refill her lungs with fresh, unscreamed-out air before the boat plummeted over the edge.

Not a speck of light was showing inside the liquid tunnel. Had she possessed the ability to stand, her head would have been dragged through the liquid on the other side. It wasn’t that big of a tunnel. How she was managing to avoid falling out could only be explained by magic. Or demon domain cheating–basically the same thing.

Despite what it felt like, the ride didn’t last. Their boat emerged from the end of the tunnel and flattened out, moving much slower. If Eva had her sense of direction working properly, then they should be upside down relative to where they first entered the domain.

For several minutes, no one so much as twitched. Eva carefully pulled her fingers out of Genoa’s shoulder. The older woman didn’t even move a muscle.

The only sound was Arachne’s dying laughs. “Maybe I should replace my webs. That was an interesting ride.”

Ignoring the spider-woman, Eva took a few deep breaths as she glanced around, looking for anything that might ambush them while they were still dizzy.

Apart from a single dilapidated theater, there was nothing on the island. A few bright lights blinked on and off around a ‘NOW PLAYING’ marquee listing a single title.

REUNION

“What,” Genoa said as the boat pulled up next to a little wooden dock, “was that?”

Arachne let out a short laugh. “Something to disorient us. I’ve revised my opinion. The way out of the domain was probably very close to where we started. Now we’re lost and possibly trapped.”

“On the plus side,” Eva said as she raised one of her fingers to point into the distance. “That looks like a theater to me. We’re probably in the right place.”

“Reunion?” Genoa asked, earning a shrug from both Eva and Arachne. “Whatever. If this is the right place, that’s great.” Genoa smiled as she climbed out of the boat.

Arachne and Eva both climbed out after her.

“Let’s find Juliana and,” Genoa paused.

It didn’t take long to figure out why. As soon as Eva’s foot had left the boat, it started drifting off back towards the hole in the liquid.

“How do we get back?”

“Round the world and home again! That’s the sailor’s way!”

As one, Arachne, Genoa, and Eva all turned to face the new voice. All three of them dropped into combat stances.

Eva forced herself to suppress a wince. She had to shift her weight to the opposite foot.

Before them stood a man. He wore a long-tailed tuxedo and one of those theater happy-masks. Most of it was predominantly green. A sort of dark forest green. Both of his arms were spread wide and, as soon as their group was turned fully, he bowed.

A very strange bow. Everything above his hips simply went limp until his body was parallel to the ground. His arms went limp as well. They swung forward to hug some unseen ball in front of his chest. Both dropped to his side as he pulled himself back upright.

“Welcome. I am Willie, host of this domain.”

His voice was light and jovial. It had a cadence to it that almost turned it to song.

Eva didn’t like him. The way he moved and spoke was dipping into the uncanny. Based on her low and constant growl, Arachne wasn’t very fond of him either.

“Miladies dallied far too much. The show will be starting soon. You in particular,” he gestured straight at Genoa, “won’t want to miss it.”

“Reunion,” Genoa whispered. “Juliana?”

There was an almost imperceptible nod from Willie. As slight as it was, he hadn’t even finished it before Genoa took off in a half-run half-blink mad dash towards the theater.

Eva hesitated for just a moment. “You haven’t hurt Juliana, have you?”

“Milady,” one of his hands swung up to grasp his chest. “You wound me. I am a gentledemon. I would never harm my fair guests.”

“Good. Then we won’t have a problem.” Without any further delay, Eva stepped after Genoa, chasing her up the short path to the theater.

Given her head start and general haste, Genoa beat her there by a good deal.

Eva pushed open the theater doors and walked inside with Arachne hot on her heels. Inside the seating hall was nothing but empty seats. So, essentially nothing.

Only one seat contained an occupant. The theater-demon, Willie, sat up at the front. Upon Eva entering, he turned in his seat and pressed a finger across the wide smile on his mask.

Blinking, Eva glanced up towards the stage.

Juliana stood off-set to one side with her back towards the entrance. She wore a relatively simple period dress in a shade of green that matched Willie’s tuxedo.

Genoa stood off-set to the opposite side. Slowly, she stepped forwards and reached out with a hesitant hand. After a moment’s pause, her hand lowered to Juliana’s shoulder.

The younger blond spun around. “Mother,” she said.

“Juli.”

They stared at one another. Both of their eyes watered up.

As their arms wrapped around each other, both equally pulling the other into a tight hug, the theater demon started up a soft applause.

It went completely ignored by the to Rivas women.

“I missed you.”

“I am so happy you are alright.”

Mother and daughter kept pressed against one another. Both of their words started to get somewhat drowned out by the tears.

“…lost and alone…”

“…drove myself insane worrying…”

“Boring.”

Eva glanced over at Arachne who was in the midst of an extremely exaggerated yawn.

“Hush, this is a touching moment for them.”

And it was. Though, Eva had to admit to herself as their tearful discussion droned on, it would be nice if they wrapped it up sometime before Christmas.

“But,” Juliana said loudly. She turned around and moved just out of reach of Genoa’s arms. With her back facing Genoa, Juliana shook her head. “You shouldn’t have come for me.”

“Why not? Of course I am going to come for you.”

“Shalise and I… we,” Juliana paused and brought both hands to her chest. She turned back to face her mother. “There is something I need to tell you, mother.”

“Anything, Juli.”

“I’m pregnant.”

A heavy silence dammed any further discussion. It stuck around until Genoa broke the dam.

“What.”

“What,” repeated Eva.

“What,” Arachne said, “is the big deal?”

The theater-demon turned. “Quiet!”

“It’s true, mother,” Juliana turned her back on her mother once again. “We wanted to hide it from you. We knew you and father wouldn’t approve of our relationship.”

Genoa stepped forwards and gripped Juliana’s shoulders. Juliana flinched away as if struck.

For a moment, they stood at arm’s length. Genoa then pulled her daughter in for another hug.

“Of course I would accept your relationship. Though, Juli, I might have done a poor job explaining some things. Maybe we’ll get your father to talk to you when we get home.”

After a brief session of tears, again, Juliana pulled out of her mother’s grasp. She moved out on the stage, getting closer to the seats.

Eva’s eyes zoned in on a faint glimmer of light a short way above Juliana’s head. It took some concentration and focus before she realized what it was.

“Arachne,” Eva ordered. “Strings.”

The demon didn’t nod, she simply charged.

“Shalise. She has cancer. It started as a cough. Then blood started coming up. Now she–”

Arachne jumped. All of her spare legs swept through the air above Juliana. The shorter blond crumpled to the floor in a heap of her own limbs.

Stepping forwards, Eva placed herself between Arachne and an angry Genoa. Infighting now could be problematic with Willie standing off to the side.

At least, she expected Genoa to be angry. Eva half expected to be trampled in Genoa’s mad rush to Arachne because of some perceived threat to her daughter.

By the time Eva was on stage, Genoa had her daughter cradled in her arms.

“M-mom?”

“Juli,” Genoa said, squeezing her daughter to her chest.

“I’m not pregnant.”

“I–That’s good, sweetie. And did–”

“No, no, no, no, no!” Willie marched up onto the stage. His mask was shoved off to one side. Age lines cracked on his face as it twisted into a scowl. “It was going so well!”

His arms swept out in a wide gesture towards the two Rivas women.

“Their passionate reunion, so strongly desired.” His hands clasped together. One moved up to wipe an imaginary tear from his eye. “Yet their reunion was marred by strife, illness, and forbidden love. They had to push one another away.

“It was perfect.”

“You didn’t have to stop it. I wasn’t going to keep her. Not with that Damned ring on anyway. She even agreed to it.”

Everyone glanced down at the rapidly reddening face of Juliana. She opened her mouth to speak, but the demon beat her to the punch.

“I thought it would make for an excellent jest. Entertainment for my guests.”

Willie’s body bent at the hips, his arms dangled in front of him as he twisted his torso to face Eva. “And you just had to ruin it. They didn’t even get to the best part! Young Juliana was just about to learn that not only did her lover have cancer, but her father does as well.”

The demon had gone completely limp from the waist up. His head hung, lolling from side to side.

Eva blinked. She couldn’t see his face to even guess if he was being serious. Slowly, she turned her head to glance at Arachne.

The spider-demon had her lips partially parted in a look Eva had long since come to recognize as disgust. Every one of her legs twitched at her back while her hair tendrils jittered lightly.

In other words, murderously irritated.

“I didn’t know they aired bad soaps down here,” Genoa said from her place next to Juliana. “Though, it might make sense if a few of them came from here.”

A small seizure jiggled the theater-demon’s strings as he turned. “And you,” he said, “you were doing so well. Then ‘what.’ It wasn’t even a question! No emotion. And everything you said after that paled in comparison to your earlier, tearful meeting.”

Willie sighed. His white-gloved palm met his face. “I know I am working with amateurs here, but the least you could do is have some real genuine emotion at meeting your daughter for the first time in weeks.”

He gave a quick glance over at Juliana. “Oh, don’t worry milady. You performed admirably.”

Looking down at Juliana, Genoa gave her a tight squeeze. Juliana looked up at her with a small smile. “There are some things that are just too strange to hear. I started suspecting something around then, but did not exactly have a way to disprove it. It wasn’t until I saw the strings–and Arachne is lucky I saw them when I did or she would be short several limbs–that I realized what happened.”

Arachne gave a small scoff along with a few mumbled words.

Genoa ignored her and talked over the noise. “When we get home, there will be several talks. Some will surely be joyous reunions. A few will embarrass Juli beyond belief–”

“Mom. I didn’t think I was pregnant with Shalise’s bab–”

“And one,” Genoa said with her voice as hard as stone. Her grip tightened on Juliana’s shoulder. “Will be all about how we don’t allow demons to control our bodies. Isn’t that right, Juliana Laura Rivas?”

Juliana bit her lip–Eva could see the blood break free from her skin. Slowly, meekly, she nodded.

“I believe I asked you a question, Juliana.”

“Yes, mother. That is correct, mother.”

“Excellent,” Genoa said. She stood up, helping her daughter as she went. “Let’s get out of here and have a party–”

A deep, rumbling laughter echoed through the theater hall. “Out of here?” Willie laughed again. “Who said anything about you being allowed to go?”

Eva tensed. The moment she moved, wires drew taut around her entire body. Without a moment’s hesitation, she stepped.

There was a brief moment of freedom before more wires stretched around her body. A sharp pain shot through her left calf–straight through her hardened carapace–that would have sent her to the floor had the wires not been keeping her up. Within her blood sight, Eva could see a steady stream of her blood dripping out of a needle-thin hole in her leg.

It didn’t just fall to the ground. The blood dripped along a fine line stretching out parallel to the ground.

She had clipped herself on a wire. An idiot mistake. Looking harder, Eva could see the glint of several thin wires stretched haphazardly around the theater room.

Eva didn’t attempt to teleport again. Instead, she tried to pull on her vials of blood.

It wasn’t responding. The blood didn’t even dance around inside the vial. It stayed still and unmoving.

Eva could think of only two possibilities. Either Arachne had forgotten to dip her dagger into the shed blood or Willie was doing something.

Since Arachne had not charged ahead or stopped by to cut her out, Eva could only assume her companion was trapped as well.

Genoa was under no such complications. She charged the short distance between her and the theater-demon. Both of her daggers seemingly teleported from their holsters to her hands with how fast she drew them. An iron pole started to form in mid-air behind her shoulder, but Genoa did not wait.

As soon as she was within range, Genoa let out a flurry of slashes, jabs, cuts, and strikes.

Not a single one found her target.

Willie flopped around. The sharp blade of a dagger would home in on his eye and Willie would simply fall backwards. His back bent beyond the point where even an accomplished contortionist would be able to extend.

As Genoa reaimed her missed attack to swipe down towards his thigh, the demon slid straight to one side.

Not slid. He was dragged by thin strings holding him up. The higher points of his body were dragged first with his feet scraping along the ground to follow after his body.

Genoa’s blade did manage to clip one of the strings. Despite it being severed completely, both sides reconnected before the cut portion could fully succumb to gravity’s grip.

She jumped forward to strike again.

Willie’s head hit the floor and his feet swung up into the air. A polished shoe knocked into Genoa’s hand.

One dagger went flying. It spun end over end before landing, point down, in the wooden floor just in front of Eva.

Undeterred, Genoa gripped the iron rod out of the air and started shaping it into a blade even as she brought it down upon Willie.

Who, once again, jerked to one side as the strings yanked him around. By the time Genoa’s attack had failed, he was back on his feet.

Throughout their fight, Eva was not idle. She struggled against her restraints. Even with Arachne’s sharp claws, she was unable to cut through the wires faster than they could regenerate around her. Given that the spider-demon was still restrained as well, Eva wasn’t feeling too put out by her inability to escape.

Arachne had an extra three sets of limbs and was still trapped.

Fire did not appear to help. Burning her hands as hot as they would go only left her with a few blisters near where her carapace ended and fleshy skin began.

Both of Juliana’s arms were bound to her side. None of her struggling produced anything but small cuts against her bare arms.

A moment of silence brought Eva’s attention back to the ongoing fight.

One combatant was panting and clutching her side. A small trickle of blood leaked between her fingers. The cut was extremely shallow, nothing dangerous. Though it was less of a cut and more of a tear. She must have tried blinking herself and wound up pulling the wire out while fighting.

The demon stood still in contrast. Absolutely and totally still. His arms were crossed in front of his chest.

For just a moment, they stared at one another.

Genoa lurched backwards. Her back struck a pillar near the edge of the stage. The pillar cracked with a loud snap in the silent theater.

She hit the ground, tumbling. Wood splinters scattered around her as she turned her tumble into a lurch to her feet. She blinked.

Gone from near the pillar, Genoa reappeared right in front of the demon. Pinpoint holes appeared in her body, mostly centered around her right side–her arm and chest.

Whatever pain it caused went completely ignored as she thrust forward with her left hand, burying her dagger inside Willie’s chest.

The theater-demon staggered backwards, taking the dagger with him.

Limp and unmoving, he hung in the air.

It didn’t last. He straightened out as the strings attached to him pulled him up.

“Foolish fighting fair maiden. My delightful domain does defy any attempt at defeating me. The very world itself despises the thought of my demise. Now disarmed of your dagger, you find yourself at the villain’s devious dispensation.”

“Don’t hurt my mom!”

“Sorry, milady, but entertainment must be had.” The demon slid his mask back over his face as he turned towards the three strung up women. “A human, a spider, and a…” He turned to Eva. “A whatever walk into a domain. Sounds like the start to a good joke. And the best jokes always have an air of tragedy.

“Unlike dear Juliana, none of you have Rings of the Damned on. That means,” he broke out into a short laugh, “we can have some real fun.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


004.016

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Eva tossed the now slightly damp towel over her shoulder, not caring in the slightest where it actually landed.

She exited the showers completely in the nude. Arachne followed her out at her heels.

Devon still sat, snoring in his chair. For a moment, she considered waking him. After glancing at the large bruise on his forehead, Eva decided he looked tired enough to leave alone. Besides, he managed to sleep through all the noise of the showers.

Never had she felt so alive.

She stopped and stretched in her common room. The jolt of pain in her lower back went completely ignored. She was far too pleased with everything to care.

Well, Eva thought with a brief glance at the ceiling, almost everything.

It was nice being out of that nightmare and back with Arachne in the real world, her injury was healing slowly yet steadily, and Sawyer’s days were numbered.

Zagan just had to put a damper on it.

Prior to taking a shower, Eva got an abridged story from Arachne. Arachne, unfortunately, got it from Zoe. Zoe had experienced some of it first hand, but she got most of the information about Juliana and Shalise from Jordan.

Eva wasn’t about to take Arachne’s word for truth until she spoke to some of the others. Not that she didn’t trust Arachne; she trusted her completely. It was just that Eva had played the telephone game in elementary school. Third and fourth-hand retellings of events tended to become extremely muddled.

She couldn’t begin to guess at Zagan’s game. Whatever he wanted was likely related to what he had told her about investigating Hell back when he was terrorizing the nuns. Shalise and Juliana didn’t matter to that as far as Eva knew.

The thing that most aroused her curiosity was that Jordan and Shelby had gotten themselves involved in this mess. Probably because of her getting Irene involved. But somehow they had managed to spy on Zagan? There was a story there that Eva wanted to hear.

Arching her back in a stretch, half to look upside down at Arachne and half to exercise out her injury, Eva asked, “was Irene alright after all that?”

Arachne stared for a moment before shrugging.

A voice from behind Eva chose to answer the question. “Irene is perfectly fi–why are you naked?”

Eva straightened out to find Zoe Baxter standing at the entrance to the women’s ward with her back facing Eva.

“Just got out of the shower. Besides, I’m in the privacy of my own home.” Eva paused with her hands on her hips just long enough for Zoe to get curious enough to glance over her shoulder.

Her head whipped back hard enough that Eva felt that whiplash. “Are you going to get dressed?”

“If I must,” Eva said. It’s good to be back, Eva thought as she slipped into her room. As much as she would never say it aloud, she had missed everyone.

Which made the lack of Juliana and Shalise all the more depressing.

Someone, likely Arachne, had tidied up her room. Eva’s eyes were immediately drawn to the end table next to her bed. Five vials of pitch-black blood helped to prop up her void metal dagger. She picked it up, gripping it in her hand. It felt… nice to hold it again.

After tossing on the first tee-shirt and skirt she found, Eva attached the vials of blood and her dagger to her belt.

She walked out of her room to rejoin Zoe and Arachne–who never had complaints about her lack of attire–in the common room.

It took three clearings of her throat to get Zoe to turn around. When she finally did turn, she just stared for a moment.

Eva cocked her head to one side while subtly glancing at herself. She hadn’t put on shoes or socks or anything, but she was otherwise decently dressed. “So?”

“I wish we had more time to allow you to rest. You’re looking rather harried.”

Eva frowned. She only just got out of the shower and hadn’t had the time to so much as glance in a mirror. Eva waved Zoe off. “Well I feel great.”

“Indeed. I suppose that will have to suffice.” Zoe gave a weak smile. “Just don’t push yourself too much.”

“I’ll try, I guess,” Eva said with a shrug.

“That’s all I can ask. Nel, at Genoa’s insistence, has started her attempts to locate Shalise and Juliana. I was unsure as to whether you–”

“Of course I’ll come,” Eva said. She gave a brief glance towards Arachne, prompting the spider-demon to approach and place an arm around Eva’s shoulders. Turning back to Zoe, she said, “she’s in Ylva’s domain, right?”

Zoe nodded. “Not the usual room. I’ll take you there.”

Eva followed after Zoe. She used the short walk across the prison compound to ask a handful of questions. Most related to finding out exactly what happened while she was out of the loop from Zoe’s mouth. By the time they arrived, Eva felt she had a decent, if brief, understanding.

The doorway they passed through within Ylva’s domain was on almost the exact opposite side of the throne room from the outside entrance. An endless ocean and a short beach lay on the other side.

It was her first time through that door in Ylva’s domain and yet it felt so familiar. The sand, the water, and the nighttime sky without a star in sight were exactly the same as her little island that she visited after escaping from Sawyer the first time.

A few steps out, Eva slipped out of Arachne’s grip and knelt down. A tingle of nostalgia tickled Eva’s mind as she lifted some of the sand and let it fall through her fingers.

Her island had been a refuge. She had rested there, half in the water, for a few hours. Upon entering, she had felt comfortable enough to slip into sleep for a time.

Considering that had been immediately after her torture session with Sawyer, that might have been more exhaustion than comfort. Still, it was a good memory; the island, not the torture session.

The island was similar enough that she might not notice the difference had she been able to see only a small slice of it. It was black and white then; her domain compensating for her lack of eyes in an imperfect method, according to Devon and Arachne.

The only real difference was that while her island was about the size of her dorm room, Ylva’s island didn’t even have curvature. As far as Eva could tell, it stretched on forever in either direction.

Other than that, the biggest change was the tiny tree. Eva’s island had one, Ylva’s had a massive black marble structure. It didn’t look anything like what she would have expected from seeing the inside.

For one, it was a whole lot larger. Inside, the space between the rooms’ doorways was the size of the doorway plus a few foot wide pillar. As Eva looked back at the structure, the door they had just come out of was a tiny keyhole in comparison to the main structure.

They hadn’t even walked that far away from it.

The area where the next room would normally be would take a good five minutes to run to from the beach.

The entire thing hurt Eva’s head. Escher himself would have headaches for weeks just trying to wrap his mind around the layout of the place.

Something of a large difference, Eva thought with a grin as she brushed her hands off and got to her feet. The grin fell by the wayside as Eva realized her mistake.

All the gritty sand she had picked up had stuck around, getting in all the joints of her chitinous hands. Her feet were worse by far. She hadn’t worn shoes–it was more comfortable not to under normal circumstances.

The beach was not normal circumstances.

“How can you stand the sand?” Eva asked of Arachne.

“Got used to it. That doesn’t mean it isn’t annoying, but I can ignore it if I have to.”

Eva frowned as she started using the sharp tips of her fingers to dislodge a particularly irritating grain of sand. “How many millennia did that take,” she mumbled more to herself than anyone else.

It didn’t take much longer before their group reached the edge of the water. As in Eva’s domain, the pitch black liquid stretched out to the horizon without a single ripple marring the glassy surface.

That was quite a feat on its own, given that Nel was half-submerged a short way away from the edge. An altar either floated on top of the water or was some sort of pillar sticking out. Floating above an incense burner were two strands of hair. One wavy brown hair and one long blond hair.

Eva wrinkled her nose as the scent of frankincense wafted over. She ignored it as she walked up alongside Genoa.

The older woman didn’t so much as twitch in her direction. She kept her eyes glued firmly on Nel. Her face was calm, but Eva could see her heart beating in a manner very reminiscent of nervousness.

Carlos stood at Genoa’s side. He was far less composed. His hands shook as they constantly fiddled with his glasses.

Ylva and the other nun–Alicia, if Eva caught her name correctly–stood a few paces to the side. Ylva was watching Nel with nearly the same intensity as Genoa, though her heart wasn’t in it quite so much.

The only other person on the beach was Devon. Zoe went and stood by him for whatever reason. He–

Eva frowned. Her master had been back at the women’s ward, sleeping.

It took a double take to realize that the man standing to Zoe’s side was a slightly scragglier looking Wayne Lurcher.

Looking at him again, it was obvious. His hair was far shorter and his beard was less of a beard and more stubble. The dead giveaway was that he was wearing a suit rather than Devon’s ragged trench coat.

Eva moved up next to him. “You’re looking good,” she said.

He turned his head and gave her a look.

Eva gave him a look right back. Surely he wasn’t blaming her for being injured. She was about to open her mouth and say as much when he opened his first.

“You’re awake.”

“I am.”

“Try not to cause so much trouble next time.”

Eva humphed and walked away. “I’ll show you trouble,” she muttered under her breath, prompting a short laugh from Arachne. “Try to be nice to a guy and–”

“I’ve found them,” Nel half shouted. “Or Juliana at least. Shalise isn’t anywhere around her. Something else is though.”

Genoa stepped forwards, sinking her boots into the water. “What is it?”

“I don’t–a demon, I guess,” Nel said while waving an arm.

It was then that Eva noticed her other arm. Or, more accurately, the shriveled husk that was in place of her other arm. Looking through her blood sight, Eva saw the problem immediately.

She had no eyes in that arm.

Nel’s extra eyes did something strange to her body. A full-sized eyeball wouldn’t fit in the palm of her hand even if all the bones were removed. Yet she clearly had one on her good hand. It pushed her meat around like there was more space than actually existed.

Without the eyeballs in her arm, whatever magic there was had broken and left the pushed aside meat… well, pushed aside and useless.

Eva couldn’t begin to guess how her arm wasn’t a rotted husk. The blood was barely making it to her fingers as it was.

Shaking her head, Eva tried to catch up with the conversation.

Genoa jumped into the water, waist deep in it alongside Nel, and gripped one of her shoulders. “They’re doing what?”

— — —

Juliana left the tea in her mouth for a moment, tasting it.

It wasn’t that bad. Sweet, but not overpowering. Unfortunately, it was a familiar sweetness. The black honey that had made it into her mouth tasted the same.

She would have spit it back into the cup, but the demon was watching her closely.

Too close.

Juliana swallowed the tiny mouthful and reset the cup on its tray. Leaning away from the overbearing demon, she said, “I appreciate the hospitality–”

“Oh my dear, you have yet to see the breadth of my hospitality.”

His hand stretched with the strings dragging it along. As soon as his hand touched Juliana’s shoulder, she found herself sitting on a stone bench.

A rather comfortable stone bench.

It was one of many, all seated in a half-circle around a lower central platform. An amphitheater. Almost the same as the one at Brakket.

In fact, Juliana thought as she glanced around, it is the same. He even dropped her off at her usual spot during Zoe’s seminars. The trees of the forest were in the background.

The only real change was the pitch black sky with the eye-like moon.

That and the fact that all the spare seats were occupied by the same statues of golden bees as the ones occupying the theater seats. Every one of them sat in a unique pose. She had a feeling that if she examined them a little closer, each bee would be different from the next.

Juliana jumped to her feet as two people walked out on the stage. “Mom! Arachne? Why–how–”

Juliana’s voice caught in her throat as her mother waved and said, “hello.”

Two lines ran up from her chin to the corners of her lips as her jaw dropped straight down. Her face was like stiff plastic. Five thin strings attached to her fingers glinted off the moonlight. Arachne was similarly strung up, though she looked more normal. Or it was harder to tell the difference between puppet-Arachne and the real thing. The ball joints on her limbs blended in a lot better than the ones on her mother.

‘Genoa’ and ‘Arachne’ turned to face one another. After a brief stare-down, the Arachne-puppet gripped the chin of Genoa and tore off her face. No blood or bone came out, just splinters.

Juliana sunk back into her seat as her mother started sparring with Arachne despite her lack of face.

“Not quite the spectacle of the real thing, is it?”

Giving a small start, Juliana turned to Willie. She had almost forgotten he was there. “You’ve been spying on my mother?”

“I do so enjoy a good show and you were so diligent in carrying around that doll eye. It would have been a crime not to watch. Sandwich?” he asked as a silver plate appeared in his hand. A pile of bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches materialized on top. The bread was a light golden brown, grilled to perfection.

And the smell.

Juliana had to wipe off a small bit of drool before responding. “I don’t think–”

A loud rumbling of her stomach interrupted her. Traitor.

“Nonsense. You must be famished. How long has it been since you last ate?”

Since before I can remember, Juliana did not say. Instead, she meekly took one of the sandwiches with a mumbled, “thanks.”

Her first nibble turned into a bite. A second sandwich found its way into her other hand before the first finished disappearing. A third and fourth followed without delay.

The entire plate was gone before she finally felt full.

“See,” he said, “famished.”

A tremor shook the entire amphitheater. Juliana gripped the edges of her seat to keep from tumbling off as the ground shook beneath her feet.

The two fighting imitations weren’t quite so lucky. ‘Arachne’ collapsed forwards, one arm striking through the wooden doll of her mother’s chest.

As the tremors died off, Juliana glanced to her side. Willie hadn’t budged the entire time. He did have a somewhat concerned look on his face.

“Dreadful things,” he said with undisguised disdain. “Are you alright, milady?”

Juliana narrowed her eyes as she frowned at the demon seated to her side. “Weren’t you trying to kill me the last time we met? Now you are concerned about me and, what, fattening me up?” She gestured towards the empty sandwich platter.

Willie gave an elegant snort. “I am not about to eat you. As I said then, it is a token effort mostly for the sake of tradition. No demon wishes to be beholden to a weak master even if that means a brief respite from this place.”

“And you still tried despite my ring?”

“Truthfully, I failed to notice. King Zagan’s presence overpowers your little token by far. He was a tad distracting.”

Juliana shuffled in her seat, trying her best to ignore the fight between the puppet versions of her mother and Arachne. “I don’t suppose I can leave to find my friend, can I?”

He turned to her with a smile–an Arachne smile. “And miss out on all of my hospitality? My dear, we are just getting started.”

— — —

Genoa shared a quick glance with Arachne at Nel’s recounting of the situation.

The spider-demon gave her half of a shrug in return.

“She knows it isn’t us, right?” Genoa asked as she turned back to Nel.

“You look significantly different from your puppet version. And she didn’t run up and hug you or anything.”

Carlos stumbled forwards, splashing into the water as he moved towards Nel. The augur winced back as one of his bony hands gripped her rotten arm, but he didn’t appear to notice. He put his face a few inches from hers and stared into her eyes.

“That is my daughter,” Carlos said, “not some puppet? The real and true Juliana?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

Carlos held on, staring for another few minutes. His knees gave out beneath the water as he stumbled backwards into Genoa’s waiting arms. He turned, held her tight, and immediately started crying. “She’s alright,” he said between sobs. “Our little girl is alright.”

Patting him on the back, Genoa said, “I trained her. Of course she is alright. And now it is time to bring her home.” Over his shoulder, Genoa locked eyes with Nel. “How do I get there?”

“I don’t kn–”

“The waters,” Ylva interrupted, “connect all of Hell.”

Genoa glanced down at her feet. She was already waist deep in the dark water. Her feet looked like nothing more than shadows beneath the surface. “Great,” she said. “How do I use it?”

“Wade out and submerge yourself. You will feel a pressure. As the pressure mounts, think of your destination. Names of the owner will prevent undue wandering.”

“So just think of Juliana? Or a theater hall with an amphitheater? What do you mean by wandering?”

Eva stepped forwards, her black feet parting the water around them. “When I was in Hell, I managed to find my way around a bit. I wasn’t thinking of much of anything before finding myself in the abattoir. Thinking of home brought me back to my–a safe island I found myself on.”

Ylva looked down at Eva with her eyebrows ever so slightly raised. “The abattoir? Truly?”

Eva gave a small shrug. “That’s where she said I was,” she said with a gesture towards a nodding Arachne.

After a moment of silence, Ylva gave a brief nod of acknowledgment. “We do not believe any have accidentally wandered into the domains the Keeper keeps.”

“Fascinating,” Genoa said in a tone that said anything but. “How does it help me get to Juliana?”

Ylva frowned slightly, but turned to address Genoa. “Talkina are few in number. Being theatergoing demons of puppetry, many will have theaters of varying types within their domains. Without knowing his name, you may end up in any of them.”

“So I just think of a theater and if it is the wrong one, jump in some water and try again?”

“That would be exceedingly foolhardy.”

Genoa grit her teeth together. “You just–”

“Bees,” Eva said.

“What?”

“A theater with bees. That is what Nel said, is it not?”

There was a small splash of water behind Genoa as Nel jumped at being addressed. “Y-yeah. Golden bee statues all over the place.”

“That should prove unique enough to find the proper domain,” Ylva said. There was a brief pause before she continued. “Barring any sort of sudden fascination in golden bees among the talkina population.”

“Great,” Genoa said as she started moving around Nel to get deeper in the water. She paused before taking a full step. “We can return here to leave, right?”

“Enter the waters and think of Our glorious name.”

Rolling her eyes, Genoa turned to continue out into the water. She paused as five sharp fingers curled gently around her wrist.

“You’re not going alone,” Eva said. “Juliana is my friend too.”

“You can’t be going yet,” Zoe said, stomping out into the water. “You just woke up.”

“And I feel great!” Eva stretched for emphasis. “Being mostly dead turned out to be a great bout of rest.”

“And you,” Zoe said, ignoring the younger girl. “Charging in without a plan? Wasn’t it you who was always going on about knowing what you’re walking into?”

Genoa frowned and took a deep breath. “The guild lessons I taught you are not law. Besides,” she said with a smile, “you dropped out before I could get to the most important lesson: follow your instincts.”

“So you’re just going to run off and get yourself killed?”

“I am going to run off and get my daughter back.”

Zoe crossed her arms in front of her chest with a small scowl.

“Eva,” Ylva said before Zoe could open her mouth again. “You will be unable to return to the mortal realm through Our domain.”

Eva blinked at the statuesque woman for just a moment before nodding. “I understand. I have a beacon and should be able to return when I need.”

There was an almost imperceptible nod from Ylva while everyone stared at Eva.

Zoe was the first to speak. “Why can’t you come back through here?”

“I can, it is just against the rules for Ylva to help me. I suppose I qualify for them now.”

“What is–”

“Later! Let’s get Juliana and Shalise home and then we can all talk.”

That was something Genoa was perfectly willing to consent to. Eva started leading her off into the water almost as much as she was leading Eva out. Arachne trailed behind with a hand on Eva’s shoulder.

By the time they were in up to their necks, it was easier to simply swim than try to walk along the sand. And there was definitely a pressure there. It was somewhat similar to her limited experience with diving, except that they were on the surface rather than down several meters.

“Alright,” Eva said. “Golden bee statue theater.”

And she dunked her head beneath the surface of the water.

Genoa paused, watching to see what would happen.

A hand shaped shadow reached up out of the depths of the water and gripped Eva. It pulled her under, dragging her for a short distance before it vanished from her sight.

Genoa started. She almost dived in to try to pull her back, but Arachne’s claws gripped her shoulder.

With a silent shake of her head, Arachne calmly allowed herself to sink into the water. A moment later, a hand gripped her and pulled her off into the depths.

So that is supposed to happen, Genoa thought. They could have warned her.

Taking a deep breath, Genoa dove under the water. She repeated the destination in her head over and over again.

It was awkward. Golden bee statue theater. It felt odd in her mind. That awkwardness was probably why she had never been able to teleport like Zoe. It used a similar, very awkward-feeling method of deciding where to go.

She waited. It hadn’t taken long for the hand to grasp either of the other two. Bracing herself as she continued to repeat the destination, Genoa held her breath beneath the heavy water.

The hand never came. One moment she was beneath the water and the next moment she was completely dry.

Dry and falling.

A single moon watched on as she plummeted into an ocean of viscous liquid.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


004.014

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The surface of the liquid was so close. Juliana could see the light glinting off the surface.

She stretched high, pulling herself up through the murky liquid with a long sweep of her arm. Her metal was gone, left back at the prison. All that she kept was around her arms. The two bracers barely made up enough to form a dagger or two.

And Juliana was very seriously considering ditching that much.

Her movements were slow and sluggish. Like she was swimming in honey. The water she had entered at the prison hadn’t felt like this. It had been normal water.

Well, normal as far as Juliana could tell.

The fall from way up in the air had been bad enough. She hadn’t even been able to reorient herself to face what she was falling towards. It was the liquid. Had she known, she would have taken a deep breath instead of screaming her lungs out.

Screaming never helped anyone. Her mother always gave the best advice ever and she had gone and ignored it.

Now she was struggling through the liquid with no air and the bracers were at least partly to blame for keeping her down.

The surface was within her grasp yet her fingers hadn’t broken through.

Her lungs burned. She had to force herself to keep her mouth shut and not breathe in any of the sticky liquid.

There were spots forming in her eyes.

That can’t be a good sign.

Juliana thrashed in the muck until she felt the tips of her fingers touch air.

She was so close.

Her hand cupped and crashed into the honey, attempting to pull herself up.

The black spots in her vision grew larger and larger until her face broke the surface.

Juliana wasted no time in sucking in as much air as her lungs could hold. Some of the honey oozing down her face flew into her mouth with the intake.

And Juliana couldn’t bring herself to care.

She went still. The honey was thick enough that she didn’t need to tread it; it just held her up all on its own. Juliana didn’t move a muscle. The honey slowly seeped underneath her, pushing the rest of her body and legs up to the surface.

Juliana waited until her rapid breaths slowed down to a manageable level before even turning her head.

As the spots in her eyes disappeared, she realized that her eyes hadn’t been open at all; whatever she had seen of the liquid had been nothing more than oxygen-deprivation induced hallucination. They were almost glued shut by the honey.

Once she managed to pry them open, a thin film of the gunk spread over her eyes. It didn’t cause any pain, but she flinched back anyway. She had to blink several times before it cleared away enough to properly see.

There wasn’t much to look at.

The sky was pitch black save for a pale white orb. A moon, perhaps? The crater in the center and the lines spreading out from the crater gave it the uncanny appearance of an eye.

Raising her fingers in the air, Juliana allowed some of the liquid to fall between her fingers.

It was black, as the water in the prison had been. But it didn’t move like water. It slipped between her fingers and around the sides of her hand, meeting back up at the back of her hand. From there, it stretched long and thin while some of the greater mass of liquid rose up to touch the drip.

Only when it connected did the stuff clinging to the back of her hand finally fall into the pool.

There was a thin film left coating her hand and arm.

Juliana shuddered. It couldn’t be a good idea to stay sitting in it. Though, she noted as he tongue found some of the stuff inside her mouth, it doesn’t taste bad.

Sweet. Maybe with a slight acidic tang to it. Honey hadn’t been a bad descriptor; it was rather like licking honey off of a nine-volt battery.

Not that she had ever tried that.

Her stomach growled, its hunger reawakened at the taste of something edible. Juliana spat it out. She could go on a while yet.

“If this is some kind of a sick joke Prax,” Juliana said. “I swear, if you dropped me in the hive of a giant bee-demon…” She trailed off as she glanced around her. “Prax? Shalise?”

No one was around. Not even other thrashings in the liquid. Nothing but a small wooden boat with a single oar resting on top.

Juliana started paddling her way over. Despite being unable to sink, it wasn’t easy. The honey continuously sucked her back to where she was, only giving her a few inches with every paddle.

Moving those ten feet was the hardest workout she had ever had. Given who her mother was, that was quite the feat. By the time she made it up and over the edge of the boat, her arms were burning and she was panting as hard as she had been immediately after surfacing.

She laid back against the bottom of the boat and sat, once again recovering. Most of the honey dripped off while she waited. Juliana still felt sticky with a thin film over her body and the less said about her hair, the better.

Juliana couldn’t think of a single thing better than a hot shower at the moment. A hot meal came close.

Finally having had enough, Juliana sat properly within the boat and grasped the oar. With a final look around for any sign of Prax or Shalise–neither of whom were anywhere in sight–she plunged the oar down into the black honey and pushed.

The initial force almost threw her out of her seat.

She had expected to use a lot of effort just to move the boat a few feet.

She had not expected the boat to shoot off like a rocket powered speedboat.

One side of the boat dipped almost into the liquid while the other side rose up into the air as the boat banked around in a tight circle. The raised side and lowered side reversed as it turned again. None of it was her doing. The boat was moving all on its own.

The boat came to a sudden stop, almost throwing Juliana over the bow. If she hadn’t been gripping the seat with all her might, she would have gone over.

As it turns out, she needn’t have bothered. The boat was sitting on the precipice of a sort of circular hole in the liquid. A waterfall–though none of the liquid actually appeared to be flowing. Before Juliana could try paddling backwards or jump from the boat, it tipped forwards.

Juliana’s iron-like grip on her seat was augmented by actual iron from her bracers as the boat sped vertically through the tunnel of honey.

The boat stopped once again before tipping over onto another flat plain.

By all means, she should have been upside-down. Or falling.

She wasn’t. She simply sat in the boat as it lazily drifted into a worn wooden dock. The moon was even still above her.

With rubber legs, Juliana made her way out of the boat. She did not want to stay on that wild ride any longer.

The moment she was safely onto the dock, the boat reversed, spun around, and dove out of sight down the hole in the liquid.

Turning away from the hole, Juliana looked over the rest of the little island attached to the dock. It didn’t look very big. She could probably run a lap around the perimeter in less than ten minutes.

An old single-room theater building sat at the center of the island. It came complete with a ‘NOW PLAYING’ sign, though the ‘Y’ was hanging upside down beneath the rest. Whatever was playing was missing far too many letters to read the title.

The rest of the building was in much the same state of disrepair. Wood panels had warped and broken. Most lightbulbs around the marquee had shattered and none of the whole ones were lit. Cobwebs stretched from corner to corner over the entrance.

Juliana looked around. She considered walking around the building to see if the island continued straight back. Prax had said his domain was a great castle. This was neither great nor a castle. After a moment of thought, she decided against wandering around. May as well start at the start and avoid backtracking later on.

To the haunted theater, she thought with a sigh.

On her way up the splintered wooden steps, Juliana kept a sharp eye out for any metal. She felt naked with only her bracers. Part of that could be that she actually was partially naked; her clothes had been damaged during her unconsciousness back at the prison.

There were nails holding down the steps and in the walls. They could work for extra metal, but individually, they weren’t worth much. Pulling them out would not only take a lot of time, but… well, the building looked unstable enough without her pulling it apart.

She did take the iron handles off the entryway doors, though that barely added enough to cover up her upper arms.

Juliana pushed open the doors.

And promptly froze in an open-mouthed gape.

Red velvet chairs with golden trim filled the theater hall. White marble pillars stretched up the walls to the ceiling. Craning her neck, Juliana stared in awe at the painting on the ceiling.

The chandelier–roughly the size of a car–covered half of it. White winged, halo capped angels wielded golden spears against red skinned, horned and winged demons who used nothing more than their bare hands for weapons. The chandelier obscured the far demon side, but at the back of the angels was a massive winged being, cloaked in golden armor and wielding a sword.

She hovered, observing the battlefield through a thin ‘Y’ slit in her helmet. Both hands were around her chest, holding her sword point down. The sword was big enough to reach below her feet.

The mural was so lifelike. They looked like they were moving.

Or…

Wait…

They were moving. Juliana followed one of the angels’ arms as it reached forward, sending its golden spear through the face of one of the demons. The spear came out, looking as pristine as it had before entering the poor demon.

Juliana gave a light whistle. “Michelangelo has nothing on this.”

When she finally tore her eyes away from the battle overhead to continue her inspection of the theater, Juliana barely had time to duck.

Falling back on the instincts her mother had drilled into her, the golden spear sailed harmlessly over her head.

She moved her hand to grip the spear. The moment her fingers brushed over it, the gold flowed out of the hands of the angel and over her arm.

It was not as heavy as she expected. Gold was supposed to be some of the heaviest stuff out there.

Looking down, Juliana gasped. Her skin was red. Her muscles had bulged out to be as thick as Prax’s had been. Her meaty fingers ended with sharp and black nails.

With her mouth open in a gasp, Juliana could feel her tongue. It reached out of her mouth almost on reflex. She could see it easily and there was still plenty left. She could have probably licked her own forehead if she had the desire.

She sucked it back into her mouth, feeling it as it brushed over a set of razor-sharp teeth.

Wide eyed, Juliana stared back at the angel.

And she gasped again.

The angel got over its shock of losing its weapon far quicker than Juliana got over being a demon. His white eyes brightened as he reached out a glowing hand.

Juliana was spared the touch of the light by another demon flying in from behind her and tearing the angel’s head clean off. White blood splattered over her face.

She almost lost her lunch then and there–not that she had anything to lose, having not had any food in a while.

Turning to block the sight of the corpse, Juliana gasped again.

She was at the head of the army of demons. At the very back, she could see a man-shaped amalgamation of rock and fire. His eyes blazed hatred out at his enemy.

For a single moment, his eyes met her own.

Juliana trembled.

She turned.

A burning vengeance filled her very soul.

Gold formed into a two-handed sword.

Juliana charged her enemy.

— — —

Juliana!

Where are you?

“Servant,” Shalise’s own voice came out of her own mouth, twisted by Prax, “your thoughts are too loud and they serve no purpose. Your mortal friend is not here nor could she hear you were she here.”

Where is she?

Shalise’s shoulders shrugged on their own.

What are you going to do about it?

Rather than answer, Prax directed her body up the carved stone steps leading to the massive castle. He had barely glanced over it when they arrived, but Shalise had a feeling–based on his emotions that she could pick up on–that he was attempting to act far more subdued about being in his own domain than he actually felt.

Prax approached the wooden gate. It was tall enough to fit a couple of elephants all stacked on top of one another.

And he promptly marched right into it, face first.

Prax stumbled backwards, rubbing his nose.

That’s my body. I’d appreciate it if it wasn’t battered and bruised when you get out of it.

He didn’t respond, instead using the next several minutes to look up and down the door.

When he finally decided to start pushing against the door, it took a good ten minutes to open it wide enough for Prax to slip through.

“Might be a little rusty,” he said.

The door?

“Me. Inside my domain, I should have been able to open it with barely a thought.”

Are you sure that we’re in your domain?

“Of course I am,” he grumbled as he started moving through the courtyard.

It wasn’t that impressive of a courtyard. Most of the square area was paved over with flagstone. The corners held small grassy areas, each with a tree. In the center was a large reflecting pool that, from the angle she managed to see as Prax walked, held the entirety of the castle’s tallest spire.

For a moment, she almost asked him to stop and look on for a few moments. She bit her tongue–metaphorically. There would be plenty of time for sightseeing after Juliana arrived.

Prax weaved through the corridors. He had to physically push open several doors on his way, though none were as large and heavy as the main gate.

The hallways weren’t much to look at. Save for the red rug in the center, everything else was gray granite stone. After a few turns, Shalise was completely lost.

Every hall looked exactly the same as the one that had come before it. There were no landmarks, no swords and shields hanging from the walls, no suits of armor or statues, no tapestries or flags. There weren’t even any fiery torches lining the halls.

Thinking about it, there wasn’t any lighting at all. Prax didn’t look down enough, but she was fairly certain that her body wasn’t casting any shadows. There was just some uniform ambient light that gave the place no tasteful atmosphere at all.

Disappointing, really. Prax desperately needed to hire an interior decorator.

Or not…

Prax rounded another corner.

That hallway was everything Shalise had imagined.

Red tapestries with black horns and wings–reminiscent of Prax’s regular body–lined the walls. Flames danced atop torches placed between the tapestries, giving the room a very warm color that moved as the fire moved.

There were no suits of armor, but plenty of statues. All of them depicted Prax in his normal body fighting elves. Utterly dominating them, really. Most had been torn apart violently.

One statue had him holding the head of a fallen enemy over his wide open mouth, letting the blood drip in.

Shalise was beyond happy that the statues were made out of bronze and not something extremely realistic.

It took her a moment to realize that Prax had stopped moving and was staring at the room as much as she was. Showing off for her.

A-a bit narcissistic, don’t you think?

“This is not supposed to be here.”

Where is it supposed to be?

“Nowhere.” He walked up and shoved one of the statues off its pedestal.

Hey! Shalise thought as it fell to the ground with a loud thud. It didn’t break. The floor wasn’t even damaged. With a mental sigh, Shalise thought, they’re better than empty halls. Though they are a little tasteless, I suppose.

Prax blinked, forcing Shalise’s vision dark for an instant. When her vision returned, the statue was back on its pedestal.

And it had changed. All of them had.

Shalise felt her embarrassment shoot through the roof as Prax turned to survey the room.

Gone were the scenes of battle. Half of the statues consisted of a very nude Prax performing muscle-man flexes in different poses.

If that wasn’t embarrassing enough, the other half of the statues were Shalise in similar poses. It wasn’t even her Prax-muscled body. It was her regular body.

“What are you doing, mortal?” Prax said. He had her teeth clenched together hard enough that she was worried they might crack.

Nothing! This is your stupid domain. I don’t want any of this!

As soon as the words came out of her mind, everything vanished. The castle’s hallway returned to the single red carpet and plain gray walls.

Shalise had never been happier.

Prax, Shalise could feel, was the incarnate of rage.

What,” he said, “did you do?”

— — —

Her bloody sword cleaved through another angel. She pressed her foot down on the golden spear laying in its grip and added its metal to her twisted armor.

Nothing had been able to pierce her armor for some time.

The demons rallied behind her unstoppable might.

The enemy was in disarray.

Routed.

All except for the judicator. She stared, unmoving save for the slowly flapping wings.

Juliana snarled. Her earth magic propelled her across the terrain. Her sword swept left and right, cutting down the retreating angels as if they were nothing more than flies.

The judicator finally made her move. With glacial power, she hefted her sword to an upright position.

And she moved.

Juliana brought her sword down to meet the upward swing of the judicator.

A demon dove at the judicator while their blades were locked. It simply exploded. Black blood splattered over Juliana.

Not a drop touched the judicator.

Juliana licked her lips, tasting some of the blood that made it through the holes in her helmet.

With renewed vengeance for her fallen comrade, Juliana kicked off the ground. Earthen spikes pinned down her opponent as Juliana’s blade came down on her head.

The ground shook, breaking down her spikes and sending dust into the air.

That didn’t stop her attack. The judicator couldn’t move in time.

Juliana’s eyes widened as her sword plunged through empty air and buried itself within the ground.

She tried to jump back.

A white-hot pain seared through her chest before she could move.

Looking down, Juliana saw the judicator’s massive blade sticking out of her armor. She hadn’t even felt it go in. It passed through like butter.

She looked back up to the glowing white eyes in the darkness behind the ‘Y’ shaped visor.

They looked… sad.

What was I doing?

Juliana’s sickness returned in full force as whatever possessed her died out. She promptly vomited black blood.

The judicator removed her sword. Again, not a speck of filth touched any part of the angel. She slowly turned from Juliana–who was standing solely through virtue of her ferrokinesis failing and hardening her golden armor around her.

She watched the wings sweep the angel away as her vision darkened.

The pain in her chest vanished as a light clapping noise echoed inside her head.

Juliana blinked. The theater was back. She was on the stage, looking out over the seats.

“Bravo, bravo. Good show, milady.”

Before Juliana could turn her eyes towards the front seat, she collapsed. First to her knees, then her face met the floor.

She gave a light groan as she manipulated as much gold off of her as she could manage. That stuff was heavy after all. Especially now that she was back in her normal body.

“Bit of an overenthusiastic bow, don’t you think?”

Juliana pushed herself up to a kneeling position and looked over at the marionette demon. As she watched, he reached up and slid a featureless mask off his face and over to one side. The strings puppeteering his hands danced around him as he moved.

“You–”

“Willie,” he said, standing from his seat and performing a bow of his own. “I cannot recall whether I introduced myself or not during our first meeting. I was in a bit of a rush before.”

Blinking, Juliana grasped her chest, feeling all around. There was no sign, not even the tiniest mark, of the angel’s spear or the hole it had made.

Juliana bent over and gagged. She could remember every moment of what happened. Cutting down all those angels. The blood. The liking it.

She spat out on the floor in front of her and tried to control her breathing. Juliana didn’t know how long she sat there, but it was a good while. All constantly thinking about what she had done.

It wasn’t real, she thought. Like a video game.

As she finally calmed down, Juliana looked up. Willie hadn’t moved. He just stood there, watching. It had to have been more than an hour, but he didn’t move.

Juliana spat on the ground one more time, trying not to think about tasting anything. “What was that?”

“I provided you with entertainment upon being summoned. As a theatergoing demon, I expect the same of visitors in my domain.”

“Your domain? How–I was supposed to be in Prax’s domain.”

“The gift I gave you marked you–”

“Like this?” Juliana held up her ring finger, wishing Ylva’s ring was on a different finger.

Willie tilted his head with a pained expression. “Not quite that strongly. Just enough that I could tell you had entered the waters of Hell. Quite the surprise. Nearly missed my chance to nudge you over to my humble abode.”

Juliana half rolled her eyes and half glanced around the exorbitant theater. From the stage, she could see a second floor. The place had to be bigger on the inside. Each of the second floor seats were filled by golden statues of half-humanoid bees. None of them were moving; given the honey outside, there had to be a connection.

“What are you doing in Hell, milady?”

Juliana frowned, wishing she had a proper answer.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


003.013

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Juliana walked through the streets of Brakket city. Despite being late September, the temperature was through the roof. Part of the problem might be the several pounds of metal she wore. She made air holes at strategic points to let it breathe a little; it didn’t help all that much.

What a horrible day to be out, Juliana thought as she took a long drink from a water bottle. The temperature was supposed to drop next week. Juliana had half a mind to go home and come out then.

That wouldn’t do. She was on a time limit and had already delayed to the point where things could get dangerous.

Juliana took a quick glance around her. No one in sight. She sprinted around the back of her abandoned house–the same one she had used for summoning demons the first few times. It didn’t take long for Juliana to decide on a more hidden location.

A Juliana-sized hole in the ground opened before her with a flick of her wand, her other hand turned on a small flashlight. After jumping in, she reformed the ground.

The small room she found herself within was neither elegant nor clean. Dirt walls, dirt floor, dirt ceiling. None of it had been smoothed over or polished up.

Juliana reinforced the walls and ceiling as she moved along a downwards sloping path. There were no supports in the walls. As much as she believed in her earth magic prowess, she couldn’t account for any settling of the earth in her absence.

She did not want any sort of collapse.

The path led to a larger room. Using her flashlight, Juliana went around to all the jars laying on the floor. She picked each one up and gave them a shake. The contents started glowing as the liquefied magic mixed.

Slowly, the room brightened to manageable levels. Juliana flicked her flashlight off and went around reinforcing the walls where needed.

She actually spent some time on it while initially creating it. The dirt floor had been compressed and hardened to the point where it was more of a smooth stone than actual dirt. The walls received a similar treatment, though not to the same degree.

Convinced nothing was amiss, Juliana set to work.

“You know what they say,” Juliana mumbled to herself, “twenty-forth time is the charm.”

Drawing out the summoning circle every time was tedious. Annoying. A pain.

Mostly in her back. Being hunched over wasn’t the natural state of being for humans.

But if she wanted to continue looking through demons, she’d make sure to do it properly.

After the imp somehow escaped her shackles over summer, Juliana wasn’t going to take any chances. She still wasn’t sure if the demons that attacked Zoe had come from her summoning circle or not. Juliana didn’t summon them, but she didn’t know if they could have used her circle.

Juliana vowed to erase it completely after she finished. Just in case. Until she knew more about demons and especially about how summoning circles worked, she would take every precaution with the creatures.

It didn’t help that most of the ‘benign’ ones were anything but. Few of them could actually speak. Most tried to break out of the shackles the moment they were summoned. Juliana didn’t have time to try forming a contract before she had to banish them.

And she was going to banish them. Every time.

The author clearly did not know the meaning of benign. Juliana actually doubted her own memory and had to look up the definition just to be sure. Maybe the meaning changed over time, but she would never have labeled any of those demons as benign.

She wasn’t going to give up. Juliana knew plenty of demons. Plenty of perfectly fine demons that weren’t running around killing everyone. With demons attacking teachers to the point that they had to be hospitalized, she wasn’t going to rely only on her own powers.

Her ferrokinesis was top-notch. The rest of her earth magic didn’t fall far behind. Yet Zoe could beat her every time. Professor Lurcher likely could as well.

Both had been gravely injured.

Even Eva hadn’t done much to help, according to her story.

Juliana would stand no chance on her own.

That was why she couldn’t give up.

No. Finding a demon on the level of Arachne might be hard, but it was worth it. A protective companion that, most importantly, would not lock up at the sight of dead bodies.

After the zombies, the flesh golems–she still could barely remember what happened during that encounter–and the nun, Juliana had recognized a major issue with herself.

She could fight. She would fight. She wanted to fight. Not only to call herself a friend and peer to Eva, but to follow in her mother’s footsteps.

Juliana doubted she would get very far if the sight of blood was enough to send her to her knees.

Oddly enough, she didn’t have that issue with the skeletons in the necromancer’s crypt. Juliana thought long and hard on why and came to the conclusion that they were far enough removed from a human being that it didn’t ‘count’ in her mind.

Juliana shook her head. She was getting distracted by her thoughts. The summoning circle was almost complete and she did not want to mess it up.

She double, triple, and quadruple checked her drawing once finished. Especially the shackles.

Allowing what she planned to summon to escape would be unacceptable.

Not to mention deadly.

She didn’t want to jump into the deep end so soon–the deep end of her book–but she was out of time.

Juliana didn’t know how much attention Eva paid to the books in her possession. With Eva having eyes back, she’d have to stealthily return the book before she realized it was gone. Luckily for Juliana, Eva seemed fairly preoccupied over the last week and a half with cataloging and reading the books she stole from the necromancers.

That would buy enough time for today’s events at the very least.

Juliana flipped through the book. Past all the crossed out ‘benign’ demons and crossed out ‘easy-going’ demons. Straight to the back of the book.

She’d already read the entry. Memorized it, even. Preparations had been made. The enticement, a children’s doll, sat in a jar to her side along with a single candle. She wasn’t a pyrokinetic, but she would be able to light a candle.

Juliana ignited the wick and waited.

It was just a simple candle. Unscented and black. A decoration for Halloween.

The book made no mention of any specific types of wax apart from black. She might be in trouble if it needed something abstract. Like tallow. Juliana hadn’t the slightest idea where to even acquire a tallow candle.

While waiting for enough wax to melt, Juliana turned her attention to the doll. Porcelain dolls were far harder to come by than a black candle. She had wholly expected to have to order one.

That would have caused all kinds of attention that she did not want. Especially if Eva or Arachne got wind of it. They would probably realize why she needed a porcelain doll.

Then she found The Little Shoppe That Wasn’t There Yesterday. It actually was there yesterday. And the day before. Juliana had seen it several times on her excursions into town. It wasn’t in the market or entertainment areas meant for students, but it wasn’t well hidden either.

And she fully expected it to be there the next time she passed by as well. It was just the shop’s name, after all.

It did, however, live up to expectations. All the decor was black and gray, dust and cobwebs–cobwebs she was quite sure were fake–lined every product. And all the products were suitably creepy.

Including a suitably creepy doll section.

She picked out one of the old dolls and paid for it with cash.

It wore an elegant red dress with white frills at the seams. Blue and white bows had been tied around its upper arms with a larger one on its chest. Its necklace had a large, red gemstone that might have been an actual ruby for all Juliana knew. A bonnet that matched its dress covered the top of its black hair. A red rose made from glass was pinned to the bonnet.

Deep blue, glass eyes stared back at Juliana, almost begging not to be subjected to her intentions.

Juliana had spent far too much to give in to some lifeless doll’s wishes.

After coating her fingers with metal, Juliana carefully picked up the candle. She dribbled hot wax over each of the doll’s eyes. Only one eye managed to get fully covered with the melted wax at hand. She had to wait for more wax to melt for the other.

Soon enough, both eyes were completely hidden by the black wax. Streaks dripped down the doll’s cheeks in a facsimile of tears.

Juliana tried not to think that the doll was crying as she waited for the wax to completely cool.

It didn’t take long. Juliana spent the time running through reading the book again to ensure she hadn’t missed any details. By the time she finished, the wax was cool to the touch and thoroughly covered the doll’s eyes.

Juliana placed it in the center of the circle.

She took a deep breath as she moved out of the circle. Juliana almost started channeling magic into the circle for the summoning. A quick worry brought her up short.

One more check of everything.

There were no problems. Juliana looked through everything two more times and didn’t find a single thing wrong. The idea of summoning the only demon labeled as ‘extreme danger’ had her nerves all jittery.

Before another thought of hesitation entered her mind, Juliana started channeling her magic.

The summoning circle’s innards started spinning. It pooled and bubbled like a basin of water with a faint light source just beneath the surface.

All that despite the fact that the floor was opaque. Not to mention Juliana’s sense of earth telling her that the circle was completely solid and unmoving.

The doll sat up.

Its little hands clawed at its eyes. Tiny tracks of wax peeled away with each swipe. The jaw had no hinges and could not be opened, yet its mouth opened wide in a silent scream.

Apparently giving up on trying to clear its eyes, the doll clambered to its knees. It crawled along the ground while using its hands to feel out the floor. Like a cartoon character having lost their glasses.

Or a blind person waking up in an unfamiliar environment.

Juliana suppressed a shudder. Despite her best efforts, she couldn’t tear her eyes away from the spectacle.

It froze as a loud crash echoed throughout the small room.

Juliana froze as well. Nothing like that, like any of this, had happened in any previous summoning. She could feel her heart pounding beneath her chest.

The doll slowly craned her neck; looking, or perhaps listening to some invisible entity behind it.

Another crash actually shook the room. Dust and dirt fell from the walls and ceiling. Juliana tried to jump up and reinforce the room.

She couldn’t.

She was stuck, watching.

Watching as the doll panicked. It scrambled to its feet and took off at a full sprint.

Its tiny legs didn’t take it very far very fast. Although it had ignored the movement while sitting or crawling, the slowly rotating summoning circle acted as a sort of treadmill. If anything, it was losing ground; every step forwards brought it two steps backwards.

Until the rotation stopped.

The doll stumbled forward to the edge of the summoning circle. It slammed into an invisible wall right where the shackles started. Cracks ran through its formerly flawless skin at the point of impact.

It let out another silent scream as it fell onto its back.

More dust fell around Juliana as a tremor shook her little room.

It pulled itself to a sitting position right in front of Juliana.

And it cried.

No sound came out of the doll’s mouth, but it was unmistakably crying. The doll even tried to wipe away nonexistent tears with the sleeves of its red dress.

A wide crack split the summoning circle in two. Flames belched forth, forcing Juliana to flinch away from the heat. A motion in her fingers had her ferrokinesis moving metal to cover her entire face.

As she felt the heat die down, Juliana formed two peep holes for her eyes.

The doll managed to catch itself on the edge of the crag. Wax melted away under the lingering heat. Two blue eyes met with Juliana’s own in fierce accusation.

The moment lasted mere seconds.

Another tremor shook away the small bit of land that the doll had managed to hold onto. It fell into the flaming pit with one last silent scream.

Juliana stared as the pit slowly mended itself. The doll’s face had been so lifelike in those last few moments. She could almost see herself in its features. Had its hair color been different…

She shook her head as a shiver ran up her spine. It was just a doll. Nothing more.

So absorbed was she in staring that Juliana almost forgot the next step.

Juliana brought her hands together in applause.

“Thank you, thank you. You’re too kind.”

Juliana had to hold in a scream. The man appeared without a single motion or noise. All the other demons she summoned had climbed out or otherwise emerged from the summoning circle.

None had just appeared, especially not mid bow.

At least he appeared human. She was still not sure that the vocabulary existed to describe one of the demons she’d summoned.

He wore a fancy tuxedo with a bow tie and a red rose in his lapel. On his head was a featureless, white mask. It had been pushed to one side of his head, as if he moved it out of the way to eat.

Held in both of his white-gloved hands were cross-shaped wooden planks. Strings dangled loosely beneath them.

Looking closer, Juliana realized that he had thin strings attached to his wrists, head, back, arms, legs, and several other points that extended up into nothingness.

Fitting for a demon subtitled ‘The Marionette.’ She wondered if there was something more, something hidden away beyond the obvious thing in front of her. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know either way.

“I trust you enjoyed tonight’s performance, milady?” As he spoke, he raised his head from the bow to look Juliana in the eyes.

And there it is, Juliana thought. His eyes were similar to Eva’s eyes. Red with slits for pupils. Most of the demons she had summoned had eyes like that. Sometimes color or size of the iris varied. In his, if anything was different, it was the amount of glow they had.

His didn’t seem to glow at all.

“Is something the matter, milady?”

Juliana blinked and shook her head. She’d been staring. “No. It was very, um, unexpected.”

“Excellent,” he said as he clasped his hands together. The puppet control sticks vanished as his hands connected. “Life would be so droll if nothing unexpected came along.” He flashed a smile full of sharp, interlocking teeth. Very much reminiscent of Arachne’s teeth.

“To whom do I owe the pleasure–” He cut himself off with a tilt of his head and a small sniff of his nose. “There are a number of other demons around, including one with almost overwhelming power.”

“That would probably be Professor Zagan.”

“Sounds familiar.”

“I think they were calling him a pillar.”

The demon blinked. And blinked again. “Well,” he said with a nervous chuckle, “I see I’ve overstayed my–”

“What? No. Don’t go.” Juliana bit her lip before letting some of the metal around her head retreat. “You’re the first demon that can talk and isn’t trying escape the shackles to kill me.”

He gave a deep, guttural laugh. Almost predatory. Quite the contrast to his otherwise affluent speech. “First, you need more experience at determining when a demon is trying to kill you. Second–”

“You’re trying to kill me?”

Another chuckle. “I hope I don’t offend. It’s like tradition. I will say that your shackles are well made. I might be able to get through them given some time. You might look into finding how to create stronger ones.”

“Um, thanks?”

He smiled, though it appeared slightly strained. “As I was saying, pillars are bad news. Lastly, said pillar is heading in this direction. Since you seem new to this, I’ll give you a tip: demons can sense one another for quite some distance in the mortal realm.”

“He’s what?” Juliana jumped to her feet. “Why is he coming here?”

“Probably to play with us before he kills us,” he said with a wave of his hand.

“You don’t seem that worried,” Juliana said far calmer than she felt.

“All I have to do is jump down there,” he said with a gesture towards the rippling summoning circle. “You’re the one who will be stuck here with him.”

“That’s–I mean–I should go. You should go.”

“If you want my advice, be far away when he gets here. If I were a mortal, I’d be at least a quarter of a planet away, if not hopping to another plane of existence. I hear the fairy queen’s realm is nice this time of year. Well, every time of year. She doesn’t allow it to be not nice.”

“You’re rambling.”

“Tell you what,” he raised one of his gloved hands in front of him. A blue eyeball shimmered into existence hovering in the air. A glass eyeball. “That was a nice doll. I’d love the chance to kill you later. Get away from Zagan and use that in place of a doll to summon me.”

“Why would I want that?” Juliana half shouted.

“Well, you summoned me for a reason, I assume. At least this way, you’ll get me instead of some completely unhelpful demon.”

Juliana frowned and didn’t make a move to grab the eye.

“Take it or leave it, milady.” He gave a brief nod of his head. “I hope to see you soon.”

With another nod of his head, the demon collapsed. Like all the strings holding him up had been cut. Rather than crumple into a heap of limbs, he fell straight through the floor.

A moment later and the ripples ceased rippling. The glass eye still hung in the air.

Juliana plucked it out of the air with only a moment’s hesitation. She wasn’t being forced to use it and leaving it lying around didn’t seem a good idea. Perhaps Ylva would be willing to talk to her later on.

For now, she just wanted to leave before Zagan showed up.

— — —

The glass of hellfire shattered in her hand. The room temperature liquid burned her hand as it dripped to the floor. Small whiffs of steam dispersed into the room where the drops hit.

Martina Turner paid it no mind.

“Nothing.”

“Nothing,” repeated that infuriating demon. He was enjoying this. The grin on his face couldn’t mean anything else.

“And the demons that attacked my professors?”

“Nothing.”

Martina was glad she hadn’t reached for a second glass.

“Except…” Zagan trailed off. Waiting.

For her to repeat the word.

Absolutely infuriating. Martina was having second thoughts about summoning up demons as guards. Perhaps hiring on regular humans would be for the best. Less insubordination that way. She wasn’t sure she could handle much more between Zagan and Catherine.

And he still hadn’t continued his report.

“Except?” Martina said through grit teeth.

“I believe the embryonic girl is looking into that. Or the one she calls master.”

Martina flipped through a report on her desk. “Ah, yes. Randolph Carter. Harley Warren. Devon Foster. All aliases. The school’s administrators were rather interested in him following Eva’s little reveal. The self-proclaimed demonologist with no familiar and no–”

“I am interested in him myself. However, he seems fearful of me–”

As well he should, Martina thought with a barely concealed scoff.

“I do not wish to disturb him. He may be the reason I am here.”

“The big upset in Hell?”

“Something like that.”

Martina made a small humming noise as she nodded. He’d been short on details over that particular incident. Whatever it was had been enough for him to submit to a contract. To ask for one, no less.

“The administrators are wanting to hire him on as a special consultant. Likely in relation to these demons that attacked my professors. The demons you continually fail to turn up any information about.”

Zagan just shook his head with a smile. His golden eyes flashed lightly before settling down. “They do not concern me.”

“They concern me!” Martina slammed her hand down on her desk. Shards of glass embedded themselves into her fist. Before she could even feel the pain, the glass vanished from her hand, reforming into an unbroken cup full of hellfire. Martina grasped it and took a quick drink.

The demon in front of her gave a polite smile.

Infuriating.

“Because they concern me,” Martina said, “they concern you.”

“Aren’t you hiring guards for this menial work? Surely they can handle it. The demon I sensed this afternoon wasn’t near as strong as a jezebeth or a carnivean. I have far better things to occupy my time with.”

Martina hit a button on her phone. Audio only, no video. She was once again forced to wait until the very last second before the other end picked up.

“Catherine,” she shouted. With any luck, the demon would have had her phone right up to her enhanced ears. “Would you have been able to deal with whatever demon appeared earlier?”

There was a short sigh on the other end of the line followed by what sounded like the turning of a page. “Undoubtedly. But…”

Martina could feel her blood pressure rising. “But?”

“It would have been too much work.”

Martina slammed the button to disconnect the call. Why that creature was considered a demon of lust rather than a demon of sloth, she would never understand.

“That doesn’t change that she would have been unable to deal with the carnivean and the jezebeth.”

“One would hope that whatever guards you hire would be better equipped to handle combat than a menial secretary, yeah?”

“After said guards are hired, we will be revisiting this conversation. In the meantime, be prepared to investigate any and all unauthorized demonic activity.”

“I don’t suppose you have any kind of time frame for when that will be?”

“October first. I fully expect you to be in attendance to vet all candidates.”

“I look forward to it.” He stood from his seat and turned towards the door.

“Zagan,” Martina said, “you have yet to adequately state your location for that night.”

“I was out of town. Farming. I believe I told you that I had fields to plow.”

The glass, now empty of hellfire, once again shattered. “Get out of my office.”

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