“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.
“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?
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.
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.
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.
“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.