Sunlight crept through the second floor of the abandoned retirement home. It prowled through the corridors until it came to the last room. Ignoring the blood wards and avoidance runes, it pounced on the sleeping girl.
Eva groaned and pulled her covers over her eyes. She slept through her alarm and school with it, only to be awoken by the cruel morning sun. She missed some of the final tests for the year, yet somehow school just didn’t feel as important with all the events of yesterday.
Besides, what were they going to do? Keep her out of the magical school?
She sat up. Would Zoe Baxter reject her for ditching the last few days of eighth grade?
Eva threw off her covers and jumped out of bed. The sun, while not high in the sky, was high enough for her to have missed at least two classes. Eva cursed her lack of a watch and vowed to pick up a small mechanical pocket watch someplace.
She almost stepped straight through her window, but she hesitated. While books might not be needed for her tests, Eva didn’t think showing up naked would garner her any extra points. She threw on a skirt and shirt, grabbed her pens and Zoe Baxter’s card, and stepped.
She kept stepping, rooftop to rooftop, until she found herself at her school. It wouldn’t do to step right in front of someone even with how late she was running. Instead, Eva stepped behind a small tool shed on the school property and ran straight in the front doors.
The large clock adorning the main entry way showed quarter to ten. Math and English had both passed. Eva ran to her science class. It only started five minutes ago. With any luck they hadn’t started the test yet.
It took several lies about caring for a sick father and losing track of time, but Eva managed to finish the day. She even managed to make up her math and English test, though English had a part two the next day along with another science test.
Next was meeting with Zoe Baxter. Eva thought about calling her in the middle of school, or perhaps a little coffee shop, but if the woman wanted to meet in a public place, they wouldn’t have approached her in the alley to begin with.
So, Eva chose the original alley. After double checking to make sure there were no people around, Eva pulled out the business card. Realizing she had never given the card a second glance, Eva looked it over.
It wasn’t anything special. Any random person would probably not give it a second look. It didn’t mention magic or the academy. Zoe Baxter, Instructor, and a small circle on one side. The back was completely blank.
The circle was the obvious point to tap. Deliberately avoiding it, Eva tapped just beneath the name.
It didn’t matter. The circle faded slightly. Cupping her hands over the card, Eva found the circle faintly glowing.
Less than a minute after tapping the card, cold air blew through the alley. A light clearing of a throat startled Eva.
She reached for her dagger and vials as she whirled around. Yet all her hands gripped was empty air.
It was probably for the best. Standing in front of her was Zoe Baxter in her black suit with red tie. Her face was framed by her bobbed hair with not a single strand out-of-place.
It had to be done by magic.
Zoe tilted her head slightly. “Jumpy much?”
Eva relaxed her pose, trying not to look like she had been about to attack her future instructor. “Tired, actually. I had a long night and you startled me.”
“Hmm. Getting into trouble?”
“I wish.” Eva gave a small chuckle. “Studying.”
“Ah yes, your current school. Classes going well?”
“I have a few tests tomorrow and then I’ll be done until… well hopefully forever, I suppose.”
“I take it you spoke with your… person, then?”
“We agreed that it might be handy for me to learn ‘proper’ magic,” Eva said, emphasizing her air quotes.
“Indeed. And this person is who taught you magic?”
“I said last time that I learned from books.”
“Miss Spencer. Books are many things, but a substitute to thaumaturgical instruction they are not. If you wish to attend my academy, I would appreciate it if you do not lie so plainly to my face.”
Eva had to suppress a flinch, but compared to Ylva, the woman’s glare amounted to almost nothing. “I apologize,” she said, “I’ll keep my lies more subdued in your presence.”
The corners of Zoe Baxter’s mouth twitched, though Eva couldn’t tell if it was into a smile or a frown. “I suppose it would be too much to ask to meet this person?”
“I’ll ask, but he is a fairly private individual.” Personally, Eva didn’t really care if they met. Getting her master to meet with someone might just prove a fun side challenge to herself.
“Can you tell me if he uses a focus or does magic like you do.”
Eva considered for a moment. There probably wasn’t much harm in answering. “He uses rings.” She tapped her right ring and middle finger. “They connect to a bracelet that… does magic. I’m not sure on the exact details.”
“Ah. A fighter then?” The woman looked more interested than concerned that Eva had spent time learning from a potentially dangerous person.
“You can tell just by his focus?”
Taking on a pose Eva imagined she used while lecturing, Zoe Baxter paced up and down the short alley. “While wands are the standard focus, they are easily broken, dropped, or disarmed, especially in the heat of combat. Rings are none of these things and generally preferred by combat mages. They aren’t the only type, of course, but fairly common.”
“I see.” Eva thought for a moment. “Well, he may have been a fighter once upon a time, but he can barely walk right now. I doubt he’ll be having too many adventures at the moment.” And that, Eva thought, wasn’t even a lie.
“While I would like to meet this mysterious guardian of yours, we should go back to the matter at hand. You have decided to accept the Brakket’s offer for enrollment and scholarship?”
Eva nodded. “If you’ll have me.”
“Excellent.” Zoe Baxter pulled out a large manila envelope from somewhere within her jacket. How it fit without being folded around her body had to be magic.
Eva accepted the offered envelope and peeked inside.
“Within you will find a card, similar to a credit card. It will get you all your meals, uniforms, books, and other school equipment. It also has a small monthly allowance for other necessities you may have.” She paused and held up her fingers pinched together. “And I do mean small, Miss Spencer. We are not a charity.”
“Eva,” Eva said. “Will I be paying back this credit card for the next hundred years?”
“We highly encourage graduates of our school to donate money. Especially those who used the scholarship program. Donations are where the money on that card comes from, after all.
“The envelope also contains important school information, such as required equipment and book lists. Your plane ticket is also there.”
“Ticket?” Eva poked around in the envelope until she found a thin strip of paper. She had never flown before, but the ticket looked entirely normal. Given the business card had looked normal, that wasn’t saying much.
Eva’s eyes flicked over the date. “The seventh? That’s–”
“The day after tomorrow,” Zoe confirmed.
“So soon? When does school start?”
“The end of August.”
“Why the difference in time?”
“Mostly to get students acquainted and settled in. There are a number of summer seminars that most find interesting as well. The information for them should be in your packet.” She paused, considering. “If that is a problem, you are free to leave at any time, even during the school year. You could live here so long as you make it to classes on time. I will warn you, our campus is located in Montana. There is no daily transport between there and Florida.”
“No, that’s fine. I was just curious.”
“Very well. I will leave you to your packing. Should you need anything, another of my business cards is in the envelope. Should you miss your flight, tap the ticket five times in a star pattern and it will change to work with another flight in early July.”
Eva nodded. “One question,” she said, “are pets allowed?”
“Some students bring pets, cats are especially popular these days. I can’t think of any rules that disallow other types of pets. One student has a snake, but it is slightly unorthodox. What kind of pet is it?”
Zoe Baxter made a face. The first real expression of emotion that Eva had seen on her. It wasn’t particularly pleasant. Her sharp face was much more suited to stern expressions than fear or disgust.
Eva just gave her a smile.
“I will be sure to find someone else to take care of your dorm inspections.”
“Oh don’t worry. She won’t bite– She doesn’t–” Eva took her turn to frown. “I’ll keep her in a cage during inspections.”
“Your roommates may not be pleased. I’ll leave that for you to work out.”
“Two roommates.” Zoe pulled out her small notebook and flipped a few pages. “You are with Juliana Rivas and,” she flipped another page, “and pending. I suppose you’ll find out when you get there.”
“If there is nothing else then?”
Eva shook her head.
“Then I will see you in Montana.” Zoe Baxter turned and vanished.
Eva frowned as the cool air breezed through the alley. She had forgotten about her guest until the end of their conversation. She was still mad at the demon, but she didn’t mean to neglect her for an entire day.
Hopefully she wouldn’t be too angry.
Hopefully she didn’t wander.
Eva sighed. Hopefully the blood trail would be easy to pick up.
— — —
Arachne was having a bad day.
She filled up the blood vials, perfectly of course. Not a speck of dust made it in.
She settled down on the lobby bench and waited for morning. Being a demon, Arachne never had the need for sleep. Still, it was a way to pass time without doing anything. So she tried to sleep.
It didn’t go over so well.
The dust in the lobby kept getting under her exoskeleton. It itched in every nook and cranny of her body. She wanted a bath.
Instead of sleeping, Arachne wandered the first floor. None of the appliances or plumbing worked, not that she expected it to, but there was nothing that wasn’t covered in decades of dust to help clean her off.
Arachne returned to the lobby and sat perfectly still. She didn’t want to disturb more dust or agitate the dust already on her.
And she waited.
When the sun finally decided to wake up and spread its tendrils of light, Arachne perked up. Her Eva would be up soon and there had to be something to help clean up on the second floor.
She waited. Her new master never descended. But Arachne wasn’t going to disappoint her Eva on the first day of their contract.
As the sun rose higher in the sky, Arachne felt a small doubt. She knew Eva had school, and that it started some time in the morning. Morning had long since passed. Shouldn’t her Eva be up by now?
She twitched. Had something happened to her new master?
Five more minutes. Arachne would wait in the lobby, unmoving. Five more minutes.
But her Eva never descended the stairs.
Worry began to fill Arachne. What if it were too late. Their contract—their connection—was still there, so her master wasn’t dead.
Arachne stood and approached the stairs. She paced at the bottom. Worry rising within her. She didn’t think her new master had added her blood to the blood wards. Not unless she had a spare vial of it upstairs.
But could she chance her new master being hurt beyond the wards?
She walked up the first step. One of her long legs extended from her waist. She held it out in front of her and cautiously moved to the second step. The third step.
At the forth step, her extended leg began tingling. Just a light tickle of a feeling.
The sixth step the tickle turned to a small burn.
By eight, the burn had turned to all out pain and the rest of her body started the tingling.
The moment her feet moved to the tenth step, her leg at the top of the staircase exploded into a shower of black viscera.
Arachne stepped down three steps, bringing her leg closer for inspection. She grinned at the bleeding stump. As expected of her Eva. She doubted even a full-fledged devil would be able to survive more than thirty seconds in that killing field.
Her smile slipped into a frown. If a devil couldn’t survive up there, what chance did she have.
She retracted her bloodied leg. It would heal quick enough, benefits of being a demon. Now she needed a new plan.
Arachne walked outside. The sun had crossed the high point in the sky and was slowly descending towards evening. Still her new master was missing.
Four undamaged legs sprouted from her back. She used them in conjunction with her clawed hands and feet to scale the outside of the building. She carefully approached the second floor, but the tingle of the blood wards didn’t reach outside the building.
Moving from room to room, Arachne searched for any sign of her master. Several of the rooms looked just as abandoned as the first floor. Some were cleaned. One was used as a miniature version of Devon Foster’s library. Another held shelves of potions.
One room had obviously been set up as a summoning chamber. A small black skull sat in the center, staring at Arachne with vacant eyes. As she moved, the skull seemed to follow her, yet even with eight eyes she couldn’t actually see it move.
Arachne didn’t like it. It was obviously demonic in origin. If someone was trying to steal her Eva…
The concrete wall cracked and fractured under her grip. She stopped and calmed herself with several deep breaths. Unless that skull had something to do with her master’s disappearance, she would deal with it later.
For now, she still had rooms to check.
Eventually she found a room with a slept in bed, no dust, and clothes tossed about the floor. It was on the opposite side of the building from the summoning room.
Through the door Arachne could still see the skull, staring at her. She grit her sharp teeth, baring them at the skull. Nothing she could do about it while the blood wards were active.
Arachne did notice a problem, however. Her new master’s bed lay beneath the window. Even with the killing field of her blood wards, it was entirely possible for an attacker to strike from outside the window.
She made a note to mention it to her master later.
Still, the room was devoid of any masters and the adjacent room had no lights on.
Arachne grumbled, making her way to the roof.
Where could her master have gone. Arachne looked around the landscape. She didn’t know the direction of her master’s school. She could find someone and ask them, but then she would have to deal people seeing her. Getting blood on her dust-covered self didn’t sound like a good thing.
While trying to decide on a course of action, a flicker caught her attention. A second figure flickered on a rooftop closer than the first.
A grin spread across her face as the figure flickered once again. Her Eva was stepping back towards Arachne.
Eva noticed Arachne on the roof and stepped straight in front of her.
Arachne leapt forward and clasped her claws and her four extra legs around her Eva.
Her new master stiffened the moment her limbs wrapped around the young girl. It hurt that she reacted that way, but she relaxed as Arachne ran her sharp fingers through her long, straight hair. Arachne restrained herself to the point where her fingers ran lightly enough to not damage her skin. Damaging her Eva would be… bad.
“I was worried something happened to you.” Arachne quickly tried to explain why she left the lobby. “I peeked in and I couldn’t find you and I didn’t know where you had gone–”
“I’m sorry Arachne.” She returned the stroking motion in Arachne’s own spindly tendril like hair. “I forgot. I– You don’t smell like human blood.”
Arachne sniffed herself. “No. Should I? I can fix that.”
“No. No. It is fine, I just was expecting… well, never mind.”
“Are you sure? I’m sure I could find someone around here to–”
“Arachne.” Her Eva gave one of those glares.
“It was just a joke,” Arachne lied.
“I know,” her Eva said. She patted Arachne’s back just lightly enough to send chills down her carapace. “Come on. We need to have a little talk if you’re going to be going to that school with me. I trust you finished filling those vials?”
“Lets get you keyed and then have our talk.”
Arachne scooped up her new master and held her tight against her chest. She ignored her master’s feeble attempts at escaping and leapt off the roof. Arachne knew her Eva could move about easier with stepping, and knew she didn’t like being held. Arachne ignored that. She liked doing the holding. Unless her master gave explicit orders not to, she would do as she liked.
Even if she did order it, Arachne might forget on occasion.
Eva took the vials and went up to the second floor.
Left on her own, Arachne fidgeted. Without the distractions of searching for her master or holding her Eva, the itchiness of the dust came back. She had agitated it with moving so much.
Cleaning herself wouldn’t be a fun experience.
A moment after she went up, Eva came back down.
“You’re keyed in, but there is black blood splattered around the staircase. Something you want to tell me?”
“You didn’t come down and I was worried,” Arachne said miming the human shrug expression. “On the plus side, your wards work very well against demons. So, congratulations.”
An expression of sadness fell over her Eva’s face. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I should have keyed you in last night. Or just not forgotten. I panicked this morning and–are you okay? You’re not hurt badly are you?”
Arachne had conflicted feelings. On one claw, she was happy her master was showing such concern. On the other, she didn’t like her being sad or weak. Arachne smiled a wide grin to try to dissuade her worries. “Already healed,” she said, flexing her still extended extra legs.
In truth, her damaged limb hadn’t healed yet. Something with her Eva’s blood wards had slowed her healing. It was healing, just slower than expected. She would probably be done healing by morning. Still, the power of her master’s blood… As expected of one she called her master.
Once again, Arachne walked up the stairs. The tingling pain was, thankfully, absent this time.
Eva led her down the short corridor to her room.
Arachne paused outside the room and glanced into the summoning room. “That skull,” Arachne said, “what is it?”
Eva walked back out of her room. “That was a ‘gift’ from a hel named Ylva.”
“I don’t like it. It was staring at me earlier.” Arachne walked around the room, careful to not get near the shackles around the summoning circle. The skull just sat, staring blankly at the wall. Arachne frowned and looked back to Eva. “I was climbing around the windows while trying to find you. When I passed this room, its gaze followed me.”
Eva did the shrug thing with her shoulders. “She said it wouldn’t hurt me and while I am not about to take the words of a demon at face value, I did give her quite the gift in return, apparently.”
Arachne frowned again, but didn’t say anything. She allowed Eva to lead her out of the room by her claw, but kept her eyes on the skull until Eva’s room door shut. It never once turned away from the wall.
Now in her new master’s room, Arachne took a look around. She wanted to skitter around and touch every little thing, but she was still dirty. Eva was sure to get mad at dirt in her bed. “Do you have a bath?”
“Oh.” Eva’s eyes ran down and back up Arachne’s body. She took Arachne’s claw in her own hand again and led her into the small adjacent room. “If you turn the shower head a quarter turn clockwise, hot water will come out.”
Eva left the room, shutting the door behind her, before Arachne could ask if she wanted to shower too. Her new master was looking more grimy than she normally did.
Arachne stepped into the shower and carefully placed her fingers around the shower head. Taking great care to not squeeze too hard, Arachne slowly twisted until water fell out.
It wasn’t as good as a bath might have been, but at least she didn’t soak in dust filled water. Arachne ran her sharp fingers between every nook and joint of her body. She started with her finger joints, then wrists, then arms, and so on.
Once satisfied, Arachne carefully turned off the water. Her armored carapace was once again a smooth and shiny black. While her skin didn’t trap near as much water as human skin, she was still wet. Not wanting to get Eva’s living place wet, Arachne looked around the small room.
A single towel hung over a rack. Her Eva’s towel.
Arachne grabbed it as delicately as she could. She hugged it to her body, taking a long smell.
Arachne frowned. It didn’t smell much of Eva. Was it fresh or did showers wash away too much scent to really stick to the towel?
Sighing, she dried herself off.
Arachne stepped back into the bedroom.
Eva sat on the edge of her bed, reading one of the books on hel. She looked up at Arachne’s entrance. The teeth in her smile had just a hint of the sharpness present in Arachne’s own. Her eyes, once hazel several years ago, now held a small glimmer of red.
“Do you need a shower as well, Eva?” Arachne asked with a smile of her own.
Eva pulled at the top of her shirt and leaned her head down for a smell. She pulled back with a slight grimace. “I didn’t take one last night and missed this morning as well. But talk first,” she said, patting a spot on the bed next to her.
Arachne accepted the invitation without protest. She nustled up right next to her Eva.
“Now,” Eva said, “we are leaving, via an airplane, for Montana the day after tomorrow. Tomorrow we will check in with master, and a few other people, and pack. Do you have anything you need to bring?”
Arachne shook her head. Apart from her master, she had nothing in this world to call her own.
“Okay. There is a problem, however.”
Arachne frowned, but said nothing.
“I may not know much about magical society, but I doubt demons are going to be widely accepted. If you’re not hunted down immediately.”
Arachne nodded. “Apart from summoners, most are heavily against demons. People like the nun from last night will attempt to banish or eliminate us on sight.”
“There is a solution, I hope anyway.” Eva stood up and moved to a closet. She rummaged around for a minute before pulling out a cage designed for small animals.
With a frown, Arachne sighed. She slumped her shoulders the way humans did when resigned to doing something they objected to. It was obvious where her new master was going with this.
“Don’t get too upset. Hopefully the cage is just for the trip there.” Eva returned to the bed, patting Arachne on her thigh. She perked up at the touch. “I’m sure there will be plenty of opportunity for you to stretch your legs.
“Speaking of stretching legs. There will be no attacking anyone while we are there. Not unless I am in immediate danger of grievous bodily harm.”
Arachne opened her mouth to argue. One of those glares snapped it shut again.
“I mean it,” Eva said. “Unless someone is trying to kill me, I will banish you. You’re the one who wanted to go, you are the one who forced the contract. You are going to follow my rules.”
Arachne just nodded.
“Good.” Eva stood up and started removing her clothes, tossing them into a basket of more clothes. “I’m going to take a shower and get some sleep. We’ve got a long day tomorrow.” She paused, half way to the shower room. “There are a few other rooms up here, some have beds in them. You’re free to pick one you like.”
With a grimace, Arachne said, “they looked dusty when I peeked in earlier. But,” she ran her fingers down her shiny carapace, “I just got cleaned…” Could I sleep with you? Could I sleep in here? “Do you have any work that needs getting done? I don’t sleep much anyway.”
“I’d say you could pack for me, but I don’t even know what I’m bringing yet.” She gave a soft smile and walked to her closet. She pulled out a few thick blankets and laid them out next to her own bed. “Here, try to get some sleep. We’ll deal with packing in the morning.” With that she disappeared into the adjacent room.
Arachne waited until she heard water running, and then laid down on Eva’s bed. She just sat with a smile on her face, breathing in the scent of her new master.
She should have switched masters years ago.
The sound of running water stopped. Arachne reluctantly moved from Eva’s bed to the blankets on the floor. It wasn’t very comfortable, but still a step up from the dusty bench in the lobby.
Soon enough, the door to the shower room opened. Eva walked out and slinked straight to her bed. She dove under her covers, whispering “good night Arachne.”
The words shocked Arachne. Devon, when he forgot to banish her, just ignored her. She smiled. “Good night, Eva,” Arachne responded.
Arachne lay on her blankets. Her sharp teeth bared full in a grin. She listened as her Eva’s breaths shallowed to slow, calm breaths.
Arachne sat up, propping herself higher with a few spare appendages. Her eight eyes watched her sleeping master, a smile frozen on her face.
One year. Arachne had one year to encourage Eva to keep her around after their contract ended.
Her smile grew wider as a plan began to form.