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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.


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.

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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?”

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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?




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.”

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