She refused to move, barely even daring to breathe. Not that she really could move, anyway. Claire simply declined to give the mist any small feeling of strength or triumph by struggling. Laying still allowed her to have some small semblance of control over her now hellish life. Silently, she dared it to attack her, baiting it with her stillness.

It likes me because I’m new and exciting. Let’s see how fun I am when I don’t cooperate.

For the moment, her plan worked. The mist had been expecting her to fight, to struggle for her life and call out to those she cared for. Instead, she lay still, offering no entertainment or surprises. She’d confused it. One moment, she was fighting tooth and nail to protect her lover; the next, she lay motionless inside its soft swirls. The mist raged at her once again, confounded by this human girl’s incredible ability to drive it insane.

Claire cracked a small smile. Knowing her captor was unsure of what to do with her made a small flicker of pride start to burn in her soul. It wanted her for control, for the ability to mask its intentions from the world. Walking around, she was able to decipher its darkest secrets and alert those in charge to any plans it may have. Trapped here, she was unable to be the alarm to any uprisings the mist had in mind. Here, she wouldn’t be a threat.

A long, painful silence deadened her soul. Despite her stillness and refusal to fight back, the mist still planned on finding a way to break her. Closing her eyes, she could hear the broken, indistinct whispers of its mind. Nothing clear or valid came through, but Claire nonetheless stayed alert. With her away from her lovers, without Darrow or anyone else to protect her, it had free reign over her fate. It could kill her if it wanted, break her into tiny pieces or shatter her soul completely. Being so completely at its mercy made her gut twist.

An icy coldness brushed against her arm, making her body jerk away automatically. The chill followed her, pressing hard against her skin, refusing to lose contact. She twitched again when the coldness began to seep into her skin, sinking through her flesh and into her bones. Her flesh tingled with the contact, drawing a harsh gasp from her throat as it sunk further into her skin.

Fear flowed through her, though she still remained silent. Realization followed soon after, the awareness that the mist was slowly soaking into her, becoming part of her. This must be what Tarrin had gone through when the mist took his mind. And now she was suffering the same fate: the possibility of becoming another mindless puppet it could use to wreak havoc. She shivered, pity, anger and fear melding together in her mind.

Oh, poor Tarrin. Not even that shithead deserved this.

Tears streamed down her cheeks, the horror and sorrow finally breaking through to the surface. She was terrified of losing herself, of losing everything she was to this awful, malicious coldness. She hated it, loathed it, wished it dead more than she’d ever wished for anything. She began to cry, her façade of strength and silence finally beginning to crack.

But through her fear, a small flame of happiness glowed softly. Even though she would lose herself, at least her lovers were safe. She’d let them go at the last minute, sparing them the same fate. Yes, they would weep for her and swear revenge upon the mist for taking her, but they would recover eventually. They’d find a new girl, someone who would make them just as happy but without the heartache and pain she’d caused. They’d be fine. Grief-stricken, but fine.

Another rush of cold swept across her back, sending a shiver up her spine. Again the cold sank into her skin, becoming part of her bit by bit. She felt her heartbeat starting to slow. Her breathing became more labored. Her eyes slowly began to close. She was losing herself, her soul being broken down into a useless pile of memories and dreams.

I love you. Take care of yourselves for me.

A final brush of cold shattered her completely. Taking a final deep breath, Claire sank down through the mist, settling gently onto the soft peat of the marsh. Her thoughts dissipated, leaving her mind an empty husk. Her eyes, once a warm gray, slowly faded to a sickly white color. Though her chest rose and fell in a slow rhythm and her heart still beat, her body was now an empty shell of its former glory. No life, no fire, no passion now existed inside her. She was as cold and hollow as the mist itself, but lived without the malice or ideologies of her new owner.

“Yes.” A soft voice, lighter than air and quiet as the wind, whispered by her ear. “Good girl. So compliant and gentle. You’re perfect, just as I’d imagined.”

Claire remained motionless, unable to respond or move.

“Sit,” the voice commanded.

Moving slowly, almost mechanically, Claire rolled onto her stomach and pushed herself up. She rested on her knees, her slender hands folded in her lap. Small clouds of hot breath slid from her mouth, stained white by the chill of the mist.

“Excellent. You’re more malleable than I’d imagined.” A thin strand slid up the length of her spine, caressing her skin with its icy chill. “Oh, the things I could do with you.”

Claire nodded silently.

“Now stand.”

Slowly, she pushed herself up from the ground. She stood on her feet, wobbling slightly as her now soulless body regained its balance.

“Good. Spin for me.”

She nodded again, turning slowly on the balls of her feet. She spun around and around, her nakedness on full display as she turned.

“Ah, yes. Perfection. Small and slender, but perfect.” The voice, still soft and low, had hints of lust and desire mixed within the whispered words. “You may stop.”

Claire stood completely still. Her pale eyes peered out into the marsh, staring at all yet seeing none.

In the shadows, dozens of human souls cowards behind the skeletal remains of trees, staring at her with horrified eyes. The old woman who had attempted to warn her days ago, the one who had smiled at her when she’d dropped grapes down into her withered hands, cried silently for her. The innocent she’d tried to protect had been lost. Those around her did their best to console her grief, yet they also watched the girl in horror.

The poor thing, they thought, she won’t survive long here.

Claire stared at them silently, waiting for instruction. Tendrils of mist wrapped lovingly around her arms and waist, caressing her gently as flashes of crimson and gold flickered across the silver surface.

“Ah, yes. The old hag,” The mist growled through her mind. “Do you remember her?”

Claire nodded slowly.

“Good. She’s been a nuisance for me from the start. Always keeping me from claiming more delicious souls like yours.” The voice purred in her ear and another tendril slid around her waist. “I want you to teach her a lesson for me, my dear. Teach her not to interfere again.”

Claire’s eyes narrowed, her mouth twisting into a disgusted grimace. Her body tensed, the lean muscles in her legs tightening, preparing for flight. Her fingers twitched restlessly. Her breathing quickened as excitement rushed through her veins. Her skin itched in anticipation, her thoughtless mind now focused solely on crushing her target.

“Go. Show that old witch the reason I rule this marsh.”

Claire snarled and leapt forward, charging across the quagmire and straight towards the old woman. Her eyes were wide with rage and joy, her chestnut hair flying wild behind her as she rushed forward.

Other souls scattered to the shadows, desperate to dodge her attack. The woman stayed where she was, never daring to move an inch. Recognizing Claire was no longer really Claire, she decided to take her punishment in silence. She quietly muttered prayers of solace and apology for the girl, hoping with the remainder of her heart that she may have a chance to break away. She gasped in surprise when Claire crashed into her, losing her breath when she fell to the ground.

Growling softly, Claire crawled forward and straddled the woman’s chest, her weight nearly crushing the fragile ribs. Pinning her former friend to the ground, Claire began dealing a series of blows to the woman’s face, giggling with insane laughter as tears streamed down her wrinkled cheeks. Fresh sprays of blood erupted from the woman’s mouth with every blow, staining her own face and hands a deep red. Claire’s smile turned feral, joy flooding her mind as she watched the woman’s strength fade through lifeless eyes.

She squealed with laughter after every hit, her cackles turning more manic with every spray of liquid ruby. Any sense of logic, reasoning or morality had left her the moment the mist had claimed her mind. She no longer felt guilt or pain; hunger and anger had replaced her old emotions. Spurred on by the screeching cheers of the mist, she continued to crush the old woman’s skull with her fists.

A strand of sticky rope shot through the clouds of mist, latching on to Claire’s hand an instant before she dealt the next blow. It pulled her wrist back sharply, nearly hauling her off the woman’s chest. Claire whirled around, screaming in rage as she clawed at the sticky substance. Another rope latched onto her free hand, jerking her sharply forward. She pitched headfirst onto the ground, still howling with fury.

“Damn you! I should have known better than to leave her unattended with you watching!” Kerion’s voice roared through the dark.

The mist screeched again, this time out of rage. Threads of silver lashed out, slicing at the webbing the held her wrists. They sliced through bit by bit, only to find that new strands would shootout of the dark and wrap tighter around her limbs. Gently but quickly, the strands of webbing dragged Claire forward, hauling her though the clouds of mist. She struggled fiercely, using her teeth to bit through one of her restraints. A final wisp of web covered her mouth, silencing her furious cries as she was pulled back.

“No!” the mist shrieked. “The girl belongs to me!” Another tendril lashed out, slicing at the air in fury.

“The girl has been claimed already. It’s too late for you to place your mark.”

Kerion continued to drag Claire along the soft ground, pulling her farther back despite the relentless attacks from the mist. The strands of webbing held her tight, never breaking their hold on her even after she’d reached the enormous wall surrounding the marsh.

“Quickly, my children! Move swiftly but do not harm her. She is not of sound mind.”

Soft squeals of excitement startled Claire out of her struggles. Seconds later, the gentle tickle of dozens of tiny legs crawling on her skin sent her into a fresh burst of screams and thrashing. Kerion’s children worked silently despite her resistance. Most of the tiny arachnids began to spin their own webbing, looping the soft strands of silk around her limbs to contain her. Others gently stroked her skin in a small effort to clam her. She still thrashed against them, but her struggles had become considerably less with the added stands of web.

The mist screeched again, sending threads of silver whipping out to impede her saviors. A few found their mark, slicing at the tiny spiders and splitting them open. But the mist struck out too late. Kerion and his brood had finished binding Claire with their webs. They hauled the small bundle up along the edge of the wall, pulling her over the railing and onto the hard stone floor.

Below the wall, the mist howled again. Tendrils of silver whirled about, reaching up over the ledge and whipping blindly for their prey. They found nothing. Kerion and his children retreated to the far side of the wall, well out of the reach of the mist.

Claire still writhed against her bonds, glaring out of the small slits of webbing at the mass of spiders. They’d been kind enough to leave holes in their net for her to breathe, a move that allowed her to continue her rage-filled screams. Her memories had not returned yet, keeping her mind in eternal silence as her friends did their best to save her.

“I’ll take her, Kerion.” Tarrin’s deeps voice echoed through her hollow mind. She was lifted into strong arms, pressed against a hard, warm body.

“Move quickly, Tarrin. She needs to be reunited with her owners. They can break this damned spell.” Kerion’s voice dropped low. “The quicker she gets back, the better our chances of getting her back. Don’t you dare think of taking her for yourself.”

“I’ll move as fast as I can.” Tarrin spun of his heels and took off with Claire in his arms.

She watched through the holes in the webbing as Kerion and his children scampered up the walls of the fortress, jumping to avoid the relentless attacks of the mist as they scrambled backwards. The tiny spiders gave soft yelps of joy as she was carried back to her room. Kerion turned to give her one final look before he and his brood dispersed into the shadows. She glared at them with pale eyes, fury still burning deep within her heart.

Tarrin cradled her as he moved, dodging pillars of rock and any remaining threads of mist that followed. She writhed in his arms, still struggling to escape. Despite her mind remaining hollow and her soul shattered into pieces, Claire slowly began to relax. Step by step, Tarrin carried her farther away from the mist, its influence slowly waning with every shadow they passed through. By the time Tarrin had reached the main hall, Claire lay still in his arms, refusing to fight but still glaring up at him though the holes in the webbing.

Finally, he reached the pools of shadows the lead to her room. Stepping through quickly, Tarrin made his way to the enormous table in the center of the room, depositing her gently on one of the chairs. Carefully, he used one of his sharp nails to split open her bindings, cutting through every restraint. His blood-red eyes never left hers, searching her expression for any hit of resistance as he released her.

He moved too quickly, tearing the webs away too anxiously. Her eyes narrowed an instant before she swiped a hand at his face. He dodged away, staring at her intensely. Taking a deep breath, Tarrin tore more of her restraints away and ducked from another haymaker.

“You got her back!” Silthos shot up from the bed and raced over. His eyes narrowed as he stared at her. “How is she?”

“Quieter, but probably still a bit hostile. She put up a hell of a fight with Kerion.” He cut through the last of her bindings, throwing an arm out to block Silthos from stepping closer. “Her mind’s still fucked up, so don’t get too close.”

“Damn it,” Silthos growled through his teeth.

“She’s been glaring at me the entire time I was carrying her back here.” Tarrin stepped back and brushed his hands on the bedding, leaving behind streaks of black blood. “That disgusting mist got me good.”

“I owe you for this.” Darrow’s deep growl rumbled through her ears. She watched as he stepped forward and clapped a hand on his old friend’s shoulder. “You know I’m not one to give apologies or appreciation, but we’ll consider this a special circumstance.”

“Indeed. Apology accepted.” Tarrin offered a sarcastic smile to Darrow. “I hate to see the damned cloud get a hold on someone that doesn’t belong there. Especially your girl.” He gave Darrow a sinister wink. “I mean, she’s a beauty after all-”

Darrow nudged him in the shoulders. “No.”

Tarrin’s smile fell, though he took the disappointment in stride. “So…I get a reprieve form this, right?”

“We’ll see. It’s up to the Counsil, but we’re willing to throw in a few good words for you.” Darrow’s attention had turned to her, his dark eyes worried and heartbroken.

Silthos had crouched down beside her, his twilight eyes staring into her won. She stared at him silently, her hands folded into her lap, her body completely still. Carefully, Silthos stretched out a hand and cupped her cheek in his warm palm. He stroked his thumb along her cheekbone, his lips twitching up in a tiny smile.

“She’s not so hostile. I think if we use a gentle touch, she’ll be more compliant.”

“You sure?” Darrow’s brows raised a bit.

“Seems like it. The mist has wiped her mind of any thoughts of memories, so she’s acting on instinct. The slower and gentler we are, the easier she’ll be to work with.” Silthos continued to caress her face, smiling at her as he did so.

She stared back silently, calmer but still hollow on the inside.

“So how do we break this?” Silthos turned to look at Thaltos.

The old demon sat on the sat bed staring at the wall, his eyes cold and focused. The hold he’d previously cut for her — the window she’d been dragged through — had been completely sealed. The wall was smooth now; no trace of the hole had been left, lest the mist make another attempt at snatching her back.

“It will take a drastic measure to break her of this spell.” Thaltos’ voice was cold, emotionless. “The mist gave Tarrin up easily because it didn’t truly want Tarrin. Its target was Claire, so its hold will be much stronger on her.”

“What do you mean by something drastic?” Silthos stood, his eyes narrowing. “We can’t hurt her. She’s done nothing!”

Thaltos waved a pale hand. “No, never. But we’ll have to do something fairly unusual to shock her back to her normal self. The mist had to break her down before it could claim her. We need to break her back.”

Silthos sighed and returned to kneeling beside her. Cautiously, he reached out and stroked her thigh, running his nails teasingly along her tender skin. Claire turned her head to watch him stroke her, her breathing still shallow. Silthos smiled up at her, a mix of disappointment and relief in his eyes. He’d guessed correctly about a gentle touch. Though her expression remained empty and her mind hollow, she made no move against him as he teased her. That was a good sign. If she didn’t resist every card they played, they still had a chance to bring her back.

“What do you have in mind, Thaltos?” Darrow stepped forward and crouched down to peer at her. “You know how tiny she is. She probably won’t be able to take much more than we’ve already tried.”

“Yes. But unfortunately, this circumstance may call for more than she’s used to.” Thaltos stood slowly, his enormous frame casting a shadow across all three beds. “Tarrin, I must ask you to leave us. I do appreciate your help, we all do, but this is something that must be handled here and now.”

Tarrin nodded. “Don’t worry, I get it. Where do you want me to go?”

“Outside is fine. We’ll need privacy until we’ve managed to bring Claire back.”

The young demon’s eyes widened. “Fuck no! The guards are still on a manhunt for me. If I step outside, I’m dead.”

Thaltos raised a hand to silence him. “I’ve informed the Counsil of your actions here. The hunt for you has been called off, as have the orders for your execution. You may step out without fear of being killed off. The guards will notice you, but they’re under strict orders not to touch you until the issue with Claire has been resolved.”

Tarrin relaxed a bit. “You talked to them?”

“Believe me, the Counsil knows everything. The mist, Kerion, your help with Claire. They know enough to grant you a reprieve for your previous action.” Thaltos turned to face Tarrin, his eyes still cold. “Now I ask you again, please leave.”

Sighing, Tarrin nodded and turned to leave. Darrow stood and walked over to his old friend, clapping his on the back and whispering incoherent words in his ear. Tarrin threw his head back and laughed loudly. The two demons, reunited and forgiven, exchanged goodbyes before Tarrin slipped through the pool of shadow that led to the hallway.