Eva’s bed was empty once again this morning.
Ever since she disappeared for two days a few weeks ago, Eva spent the night someplace else about once a week. And she wouldn’t say where.
If Juliana had to guess, Eva ran around with her mentor going on fun adventures and bounty hunting.
But the girl didn’t trust Juliana. She avoided, dodged, deflected, or otherwise ignored any questions about herself. The times she did answer were either obvious lies or so vague they could describe anyone.
Then there was her obviously magical spider that Eva insisted was some generic tarantula. The spider that reappeared after a month ‘hunting’ right after Eva’s first disappearing act.
It still frustrated Juliana to no end that she had been unable to find the creature in any of the books she’d bought on creatures. That just meant it was in books not for student’s reading.
And that meant dangerous.
Hopefully at least. Juliana would be disappointed if it was just a rare tarantula.
If Mrs. Baxter hadn’t charged her with befriending the girl, Juliana probably would have found a different friend. Maybe even more than one.
She sighed as she stepped into the shower. I might be being hard on the girl. As long as personal questions were avoided, she wasn’t that bad. Plus she knew all kinds of crazy things.
Chaos magic and runes? What kind of first year knows chaos magic, not to mention doesn’t know what chaos magic is. What kind of anyone knows runes?
The runes were another puzzle. A puzzle that made Juliana money, but a puzzle nonetheless. Juliana looked up some runes not long after their business got going, mostly looking for other types of runes they could sell. She found a way to make an area unscryable. But the book listed around three characters. Eva’s anti-scrying papers covered the entire sheet. Either Eva was very bad at runes or those papers did a lot more than stop scrying.
Though, to be fair, they stopped scrying very well. The headache she had after testing lasted half a day. That had not been a happy day.
As long as the extra runes weren’t hurting anyone, Juliana didn’t much care. Though she felt they should be charging extra for whatever extra features were on their rune papers.
Juliana almost felt bad. Eva’s runes were over half of the Rickenbacker and business was spreading across the street without any effort on Juliana’s part. Eva had to spend hours drawing out and charging the runes while Juliana just delivered and got money.
Juliana pushed thoughts of her wayward roommate from her mind. She had her own plans for the day.
To say the area around Brakket Academy was dull would be an understatement. The ‘entertainment’ district and shopping areas had worn themselves out within two weeks. While Eva seemed happy to read through the library, and Juliana didn’t mind either, books were missing that spark of excitement Juliana needed.
Eva might be keeping from going stir crazy with whatever weekly escapades she disappeared on, but Juliana had nothing of the sort.
Her mother would never have taken her on any of her bounties. The few safaris she’d been on with her parents didn’t give her the exciting tales her father had.
Her solution might be a poor man’s substitute, but in the boring town of Brakket, Juliana would take what she could get.
She pulled open the drawer of her desk that held all of her exploring gear. She dumped the contents, a notebook and pens, a map of the town, a heavy-duty flashlight, gloves, binoculars, and rope, into her backpack. She checked the battery level of her camera and grabbed a few bottles of water from the fridge along with a few granola bars.
With that, Juliana put on a light jacket and headed out into the early morning air. She had her sights set on a very specific building today.
Business buildings were pretty easy to tell if anyone used them. If a business building was closed for any reason other than holidays or renovation, it was probably out of business. A for sale sign would be a for sure sign but that usually means the inside has been cleaned out unless it used to be a big factory. Boarded up windows indicated a goldmine.
Residences, on the other hand, were harder to tell. Even if no one went in or out for weeks, it might still be a summer home. Or in a school town like Brakket, a winter home for students during the school year.
The house Juliana had her sights on today hadn’t been used all summer. It had looked interesting at the start of summer, but Juliana couldn’t tell for sure back then. So she had discretely stuck a bit of painter’s tape over the doors and garage. They hadn’t been disturbed once.
That combined with yellowing grass from a lack of water, general disrepair of the exterior, and a broken window on the second floor led Juliana to believe it was, in fact, abandoned.
If it was intended for use during the school year… well, school was going to start in two weeks and no one had shown up so far. If she was supposed to live in it, she’d probably just choose to live in the dorms rather than spend the effort fixing the place up.
Juliana made a quick staircase out of earth and hopped over the wooden fence, flattening the earth once she landed. She wasn’t particularly worried about neighbors being nosy, but going in through the back door would give her more time to get in without displaying her obvious breaking and entering to the whole street.
All the residences in Montana, or at least around here, were very spread apart. Large houses on larger properties. This house wasn’t the biggest she’d seen, but it was decent sized. There was bound to be something interesting inside.
Juliana removed the bit of tape on the back door. The front door still had the bit of tape over it. She tried jiggling the handle and was surprised to find it unlocked. Won’t have to force my way in at least, she thought as she cracked the door open.
Reeling back, Juliana began coughing and gagging. There was something foul in there. Wishing she was a better air mage, Juliana slapped a cloth over her face.
Right inside the back door was a small dining room and kitchen. Dishes had been left all over the table. There might have been a meal on them but flies and maggots swarmed over the whole thing. The fridge was hanging open and full of even more bugs.
Underneath the cloth, Juliana smiled. This was interesting.
She carefully moved forward with her wand out. It wouldn’t do to be surprised by some rabid animal that managed to get in. A quick test of the light switch produced no results. As expected of an abandoned building.
Carefully maneuvering her hands, she brought up the flashlight to her hand holding the cloth. Enough light was coming in through the large windows, but some corners still ended up dark. In all honesty, she should just toss the cloth. It wasn’t helping much anyway.
The dining room connected with a small room at the front of the house. Several couches and seats were set around a low coffee table. Several shelves of books lined one wall. Sadly none were both interesting and something Juliana didn’t already own.
There was a fancy mask hanging off one wall. It was half black and half white with what looked like tarot cards cut out over the eye holes. A fake gold medallion hung in the center of the forehead depicting a moon encircling a sun. Several sheet music covered curls sprang off the top.
Juliana plucked it off the wall. It felt flimsy in her hands, like papier-mache. She replaced it on the hook. If she wanted it, she’d get it when she left.
The rest of the ground floor had nothing of interest. A small office with some computers set up, a room with a big couch and a bigger television, and a bathroom.
Juliana crept up the stairs to the second floor. She made it to the top and frowned. Not a single step creaked. What kind of abandoned house didn’t have creaking stairs.
The stench, however, followed her up. It might have been stronger on the second floor.
The first door she tried led to a bathroom with nothing of interest. The second door was a bedroom. A single, small bed lay inside. Juliana poked through the dresser. Each drawer was full of small boy’s clothes.
Juliana’s heart hammered in her chest.
Something was wrong here. A half eaten meal she could see. The family decided to eat before abandoning the town. All the books, all the furniture, and an expensive looking mask were suspicious. But full drawers of children’s clothes? Either this kid had a lot of clothes or this family left in a hurry.
And the smell. Oh the smell. It got worse as Juliana crept towards the last door.
She threw it open.
And almost threw up. The smell assaulted her the same time the sight did.
A king sized bed had its sheets torn off. They were wrapped up at the foot of the bed. White sheets were stained black. A gray foot stuck out from one end. Maggots crawled all over and in it.
Juliana was about to shut the door quietly when the sound of a bare foot slapped against the hard wood hall. She slammed the door and spun around.
A half-naked woman stood in front of her. Her jaw hung slack. Her clothes were torn to shreds. A kitchen knife stuck out of her chest.
Her skin most definitely was not alive.
Rustling and a moan could be heard through the door behind her. Retreat was not an option.
Situations like this were why her mother trained her. She sucked in her fear and got serious.
Juliana flicked her wrist. Her flashlight melted in her hand. She launched bits of sharpened metal at the woman’s head. She swiped her hand over the brass doorknob before the shards even struck. Brass marbles flew from her fingers into the woman’s chest.
They sunk into her with a sickening squelch, but they managed to stagger her.
Juliana sprinted past, knocking over a small table in the hallway on her way.
The doorknobs melted into her hand as she ran past. Juliana desperately wished the banister down the stairs was made of metal. The supports holding it up were made of metal and she settled for grabbing that as she flew down the stairs.
Juliana dashed out the back door, not waiting to see if the zombie followed her. With another flick of her wrist, columns of earth erupted from the back porch to completely cover the door and window. Another few flicks of her wrist saw other windows being covered.
She jumped the fence with the help of a large earth mound and covered the windows in the front as well. Not waiting to see if anything had already made it out, Juliana created a platform on their front grass about twice as high as a person.
Finally she relaxed atop her platform. She could still smell that stench she knew was rotting flesh.
From her backpack, she pulled out a small business card. She gave it three taps and the circle began glowing faintly. She gave it three more taps. Then three again.
Finally Mrs. Baxter appeared next to her on the platform.
“What is it, Miss Rivas. I am quite–” She cut off as she noticed the house half encased in earth. “Mind telling me what is going on?”
“Zombies,” Juliana breathed out. She felt like choking.
“At least one. But I saw another corpse and I swear I heard it moan. Plus there was a kid’s room but I didn’t see any kid corpses.”
Kid corpses. Juliana knelt and hurled her breakfast off the edge of the platform.
A light rubbing on her back brought her out of her fit. She leaned back from the edge. Mrs. Baxter had her phone out and was typing something into it.
Juliana wiped the spittle off her lip just as Mr. Lurcher appeared on the platform.
“Zombies,” he grunted.
He gave a few gruff sniffs of the air. “I can smell it from here.”
“Zombies?” Juliana asked.
“Juliana,” Mrs. Baxter said, “were you injured in the slightest?”
She shook her head. “I just ran past one as it stumbled. It only got…” How close? Too close.
Juliana slumped down on the platform.
Mrs. Baxter knelt next to her and put an arm around her shoulder. “Hold on,” she said, “we’re going back to the dorm. Wayne, keep an eye out for anything unusual.” She pulled out her dagger and hesitated. “And Wayne. Do not go in until I return. I would hate to have to explain to Dean Halsey why our alchemist is a zombie.”
With that said, reality folded away. The sky, the house, all folded into nothing. A moment later, her dorm room appeared and Mrs. Baxter gave her a light push into the room.
Juliana felt herself spin around and get pulled into the bosom of Mrs. Baxter. The instructor held her close and began whispering that it was going to be alright.
After a minute of Juliana pretending she wasn’t crying into the woman’s chest, Mrs. Baxter pulled away.
“Let me get a good look at you,” she said. She looked Juliana up and down, carefully inspecting her hands and face. She walked around until she was satisfied. “Alright. Wayne and I can’t leave this sitting, but I will be right back as soon as we look around. We’ll have a talk then.”
Mrs. Baxter stepped away, pulling her dagger out once again.
“Wait,” Juliana said, “both the creatures were on the second floor. One in the hall and one in the master bedroom. The door was shut but I destroyed the handle for a weapon,” Juliana said as she lifted the metal still swirling around her left arm.
Mrs. Baxter nodded. “You did good. I’ll be back in half an hour.” And she vanished.
Juliana took off her clothes on the way to the shower. Eva was still gone and even if she wasn’t, it wasn’t like the girl cared about modesty anyway. And right now, Juliana didn’t care either.
She sat and let the hot water wash over her body. She took deep breaths of the hot, humid air.
Juliana finally had an exciting story. She just wasn’t sure she wanted to tell it.
— — —
That girl is going to be the death me.
Devon threw a glance over his shoulder at the smoky figure standing in the shadows. Red eyes gleaming in the shadows narrowed sharply at his glance. He almost got whiplash turning back to his work.
That girl is going to kill me.
At least whatever she said to it didn’t result in Devon waking up with his limbs spread across the room. It just wasn’t fair. He was supposed to be the demon summoner and she was supposed to be the blood mage. Yet she had the service of a haunter.
It is that damn Arachne. I know it.
She had been far too unstable before she ran off with Eva. It was getting to be a menace. If he didn’t need her, he would have banished and forgotten her long ago.
For a moment he wondered if being alone with Eva for a few months improved her personality at all. The haunter in the corner of his eye banished all such thoughts. This seemed like her idea of a joke.
He dropped the last notebook into his suitcase and double checked the workshop. Everything he needed was accounted for.
Devon turned to the haunter, keeping his gaze on the floor, and walked towards the shadows. Slowly. He took a deep breath and stepped into the shadow.
A claw gripped his arm. He suppressed a cry as his shoulder popped out of its socket. The claw tightened, puncturing his arm at no less than four points. This was such a bad idea, he thought as the floor dropped from below him.
He landed hard, hoping he hadn’t just injured his still tender leg. Devon stumbled forward not even half a step before his nose cracked against a wall.
The haunter released its grip and half spun Devon around in the pitch darkness.
“Thank you Ivonis, that will be all.” Eva’s voice came muffled through a wall.
Probably standing under the brightest floodlights possible.
Still, the demon’s presence vanished from Devon’s side.
“Are you insane, girl? Sending a haunter after me?”
His voice echoed strangely around him. He felt out the room to find it incredibly tiny. Only a few square feet of floor space and the entire room felt like cement except for one metal panel.
A small flap opened up in the metal panel, flooding the tiny room with light. A number of red eyes peeked through.
“He has already been paid in full,” Arachne said.
“You’ll forgive me if I don’t trust a traitor’s words.”
The red eyes narrowed. The flap slammed shut sending painful echoes through the tiny chamber.
The entire wall pulled away a moment later. Eva stood in the opening. “You’re being far too melodramatic, master.”
“Yes, well, let’s see how you react when you wake up to a damn haunter leering over your bed.”
“He did his job and you are,” her eyes flicked to the blood dripping down his arm, “mostly unharmed.”
Devon scoffed. “Mostly.” He slammed his arm against the wall, suppressing another cry. It wasn’t the first dislocated shoulder he’d had, and he doubted it would be the last. Unless she has worse ideas for sending me home.
“Well, if you would have shown up or simply sent a letter, we wouldn’t have to resort to these measures. Didn’t you read the note?”
“Note?” Devon thought for a moment. “That chicken scratch? Did you read it?”
Eva gave an uncertain glance towards a grinning Arachne. “No,” she said. “But there were pamphlets there too. That should have been plenty of information.”
“Yeah, plenty of information on how amazing this school your going to is. And then you just up and left me with a damn cat to heal me? I’m surprised you still call me master.”
“Arthfael did that as a personal favor. I hope you gave him plenty of fish.”
“Well,” Devon slumped slightly, “yeah. But at least he stuck with me.”
Eva shook her head. “I had a plane to catch. Maybe if you hadn’t hopped yourself up on potions, we could have had a more proper discussion.” She put her hands on her hips. “If you have any more whining to do, perhaps you can do it after we’ve started the treatment. I’m disappointed it took so long to find you and am eager to get a move on.”
She turned and walked down the hall with Arachne hanging off her shoulder.
Devon frowned as he grabbed his equipment and followed. The girl was getting far too uppity. And far too excited about her treatments. She should be fearful or at least wary.
He supposed it was an improvement over the dead-inside little girl who started the experiments. It was too much in the opposite direction. And the way Arachne hung off her, she didn’t even react. Devon doubted it even entered her mind what Arachne was capable of doing. What she had done in the past.
And Arachne, fawning over the girl like a child over a stuffed animal. One of its fingers idly twirled a lock of the long black hair. That simple action disturbed Devon more than Eva’s reactions, or lack of reactions. Eva could be attributed to simple naivety or ignorance.
No. Arachne had something deeply wrong with it. If Devon didn’t know better, he might have mistaken it for some other magical creature. A scary looking fairy perhaps. Ever since Eva’s treatment got underway, the demon stuck to her side. It even called her ‘sister’ on occasion.
The group moved outside the tiny building. Several more buildings, much larger than the one they just exited, were arranged with connecting pathways. Dry, yellow grass filled the gaps between the buildings. A rough wall could be seen surrounding the entire place. The tiny cell block they had just been in combined with bars on every visible window let Devon know what kind of place he was in.
“How did you get the haunter on your side?”
Eva half turned with a bit of a wince. “There are fifty dead cows, buffalo, goats, horses, and sheep inside cell house two.”
“Forty-six,” Arachne corrected.
“Right. Ivonis left two sheep and two cows. It doesn’t smell very pleasant in there at the moment. We’re headed to the opposite end of the compound, so don’t worry about that.”
Devon didn’t like the sound of that. It was less morally reprehensible than five humans, he supposed, but if the animals had been stolen off a farm… fifty animals was a lot to lose no matter if they planned to eat or sell them. They might as well have just killed the farmer and his family. It’d be a quicker death than starving, in any case.
Eva brought the group to a stop outside a small gate set in a nicer looking wall.
“I’ll need a bit of your blood,” she said as she withdrew a dagger. She smiled. “Unless you want to experience my wards first hand.”
Devon held out his already injured arm without a word.
Eva frowned at the droplets of blood already dripping off his fingertips. “Arachne,” she said, “could you grab a few potions to handle these cuts?” She looked back to Devon and said, “I’ll still need to make a fresh cut with the dagger.”
Eva leaned close and drew a small orb of blood into the air. Devon grabbed her shoulder as soon as the demon had disappeared into the building titled ‘WOMENS WARD’.
“You trust that thing far too much,” Devon said. “It is not human and it is not your friend. Demons should be tools and nothing more.”
Eva blinked twice. “Do they teach you that in demonology school? I’ve found being polite and treating demons like people seems to work alright.”
“You’re going to get yourself killed, girl. And take seven years of experiments down the drain with you.”
“I’m so touched you are worried about my health, master. As for Arachne…” she trailed off for a moment, thinking. She shrugged. “I like her. She is surprisingly thoughtful at times, if a tad protective. Without her,” she waved a finger around the air, “none of this would be possible. She found this place, spent a month cleaning it up, and has generally been good help.”
Devon frowned and released Eva as the demon in question emerged from the building. It walked down the short path to the gate and handed Devon a light blue vial and a yellow vial.
Eva walked just inside the gate with the small orb of blood floating above her hand. She snapped her fingers and the blood marble vanished. “Alright,” she said, “you should be able to come in now. You’re not keyed into my room, so don’t try it.”
Despite grumbling at her use of the word ‘should,’ Devon walked through the gate. Nothing bad happened as he walked up the path to the single story building.
The main room had some nice looking chairs and tables shoved off to the side. In the center of the room, two old-fashioned looking barber chairs had been set up in the center of a partially drawn ritual circle.
Devon pulled his notebook and flipped to the page with a copy of the circle. He had the entire thing completely memorized, of course. But it always paid to be careful. He wasn’t about to risk all the time and effort he’d spent on Eva, not to mention the wrath he’d undoubtedly get from Arachne, on a malformed ritual circle. He pulled out a stick of chalk and set to work.
“So,” he said, thinking it was about time for more pleasant topics. Despite his chewing her out, he wasn’t unfond of the girl. “Have you been learning much at this school?”
“No,” came her quick reply. “School hasn’t actually started yet, so I still have hope.”
“It hasn’t started yet? Why did you leave so damn early?”
Eva shrugged. “‘To settle in and attend seminars’ were the reasons given to me. Settling in took less than a day and none of the seminars are designed for students that haven’t even had a year of schooling. Although the seminar with my advisor is at least interesting. It is basically combat training. My adviser is apparently a highly rated combatant. Speaking of,” she smiled a smile Devon didn’t much like, “she wants to meet with you.”
“You told her about me?”
“Didn’t have much option. I implied your name was Randolph Carter, so you don’t have to use Devon if you do meet her. She knew I was at the museum thanks to my runes and wanted to know what dangerous object we stole that had the nun’s habits in a bunch. I told her a phylactery that was destroyed and not to worry.”
Devon groaned. “Don’t even remind me.”
“How is your leg?”
“Better,” Devon snapped. And it was. Mostly.
That killed the conversation. Devon quietly finished the circle.
Eva already stripped down and took a seat in one of the chairs. Arachne took the other. He set to hooking the two up. Tubes connected various points on their bodies together. Magic kept them all going one way, from Arachne to Eva. He dropped a warded jar near Eva and attached a tube from her into it. She liked to keep the filtered human blood she shed for whatever blood magics she used.
Devon stripped and sat in a small circle within the larger ritual circle. Without even waiting to ask if they were ready, Devon let his magic flow.
Immediately the two subjects slumped in their chairs. Black blood flowed down the tubes from Arachne to Eva. A light pattering of bright red blood hitting the bottom of the warded jar filled the air.
Once the ritual began, Devon was no longer needed. He stood up, dressed, and moved to examine his research subjects.
He pulled one of Eva’s eyelids open and shone a light over her eyes. The wide pupils constricted immediately. Her pupils had developed tiny nubs at the top and bottom, and they were becoming less circular. No one would notice unless she got an eye exam, but in a few more months, maybe even by the time of her next treatment, people who paid close attention might start noticing. In a year’s time she wouldn’t be able to hide it without cosmetic contacts.
Though her irises might need contacts sooner. The red displaced the brown-hazel of her original eye color around the edges. Now that they’d crossed the half way point, the changes would only accelerate.
Devon flipped through the Subject Eva notebook. He made a detailed sketch of how her pupils looked while constricted along with some notes.
Devon set the notebook down and wrenched open her jaw. He ran a finger over her teeth. They were changing at a far slower rate. Her eyes were more of a side effect, the cells being replaced during normal body operations. The sharpening of her teeth was purely magic. They were already barely noticeable and hadn’t changed enough since their May session.
Her tongue might have been slightly elongated and thin, but that could just be her tongue. Unless more drastic changes happened, he’d note it as normal for a human.
Eva’s mouth was a healthy red and her saliva clear and smelled normal. He wasn’t about to taste it. Many demons had toxic saliva and he wasn’t about to take a chance. Of course, she could have developed separate venom glands, especially considering who the blood donor was, but there was no evidence of that.
Her skin color was normal. As was her hair, even at the roots. That was one of the things that surprised Devon the most. He expected some change, especially her skin, but it was the exact same as when she was six years old. Perhaps now that they’d crossed the fifty percent mark something would happen in the next few months or years.
Her muscles and body were developing well. She didn’t appear weak or fatigued earlier, though Devon made a note to ask about any strange feelings when the girl woke up.
All in all, Eva seemed healthy. Far healthier than expected, if Devon was being honest. His research had him laughed out of demonology circles for being too dangerous. Though they might have meant the result would be dangerous, not the process itself.
Her mental health seemed to be there as well. From their May treatment until she left early June, she acted consistent with her own behavior and not significantly different from a regular human her age, her experiences included. There would be a full examination after she awoke, of course. Based on how she acted between his arrival and the ritual, Devon didn’t expect much. Not unless Arachne had its claws in the girl deeper than he wanted.
Devon decided to stick around for a while. To check out this school and the environment his life’s work was being raised in. He wanted to do so over the rest of summer, he didn’t expect the girl to leave the day she told him about the school. Between his injury and the Elysium Sisters swarming around looking for him, Devon scarcely had a moment’s rest.
He moved to a seat in the corner of the room and organized his notes. There he’d wait until the magic within the ritual circle consumed itself and the treatment would finish.
At least there were no Elysium Sisters up here.