“I don’t see why this is necessary,” Devon complained.
He struggled tying his tie. He last wore a tie around the same time he last participated in a demonology circle. Probably further back than forty or fifty years. And that had been a clip on.
“Zoe Baxter is a very precise woman. You don’t want to look like a schlemiel.”
“I’m supposed to examine a possible dark artifact. Not looking to date some girl.”
“Well,” Eva crossed her arms, “I don’t want to be pitied as the poor kid who was mentored by a hobo.”
“I lived in a train depot. You were mentored by a hobo.”
“So I am slowly coming to realize. I can’t believe you don’t have a better method of traveling than blinking. Zoe Baxter just disappears and reappears wherever she wants.”
Devon ignored the girl. She complained non stop about transportation since he arrived a week ago. Supposedly, instant teleportation was taught at higher levels of schooling. Hogwash. There were no safe methods of instantly moving oneself. Even stepping, developed on his own specifically to not kill him with short hops, had a chance at tearing an unskilled user in two as Eva was very well aware.
That this teacher had refused to teach the teleport only reinforced the thought. That didn’t mean he wasn’t interested. Only that he would be cautious about learning it.
“You’re idolizing her too much, girl. Don’t be disappointed when you see through her smoke and mirrors. Just because she trounces you in your little seminars doesn’t mean she’s the most powerful mage around.”
“I’m not idolizing her,” Eva huffed. “And our contests would go a different route if I were to use all the powers at my disposal.”
“You think you’re the only one with tricks up your sleeve? I bet even with full use of your blood magics, she still knocks you on your ass. You’re too arrogant for your own good. I can only hope you lose that arrogance before someone takes it from you.”
Devon finished fumbling with his tie, deciding it looked good enough. “How is it?”
“I’m sure you’ll have her swooning by the end of the night.”
He grunted, “let’s get going.”
Together they left the third floor penthouse suite Devon and Arachne had constructed in the cell house. It had turned out alright, all things considered. It had a nice sized bedroom, a room for books, and a room for potion brewing. It was no train depot, but it would do for now.
Best of all, it was out of Eva’s house. If he woke up in the middle of the night to catch Arachne staring at Eva’s sleeping face, he was going to be sick.
Arachne hadn’t been allowed inside since his penthouse’s completion. Shackles had been set up around the entire top floor. Eva had started having irritation when she crossed them. An unfortunate but not unexpected side effect of his experiments. Hopefully she would never be completely jailed by them. If she were, it wouldn’t be that big of a setback.
Speaking of the demon, it stood just outside in the night air. Thanks to his work, no lights inside the building shined their light outside. Moonlight was all that illuminated the complex. Upon seeing Eva, it immediately lifted the girl into its arms. Eva didn’t care or even react in any meaningful manner. She smiled at the demon and wrapped an arm around its neck for stability.
“Let’s get going,” Devon grunted once again.
— — —
“The only way that could have gone worse is if you straight up attacked her.” Arachne quivered beneath her shirt at her anger. Eva patted her back. “Did you have to antagonize her so much?”
“She asked personal questions, I asked personal questions back.”
“You didn’t have to ask her that.”
“This was a sorry excuse for a meeting. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you ruined that book yourself to get me on that date.”
“It wasn’t a date,” Eva protested. She frowned and after a minute asked, “you really didn’t think the book was anything special?”
“If it had anything on it, it is long gone now. If the ink was meant to disguise patterns, the ink itself would have damaged whatever runes or symbols they drew regardless of what the runes were made out of.”
Eva leaned back on the bench. The sky outside the dorms felt gloomier than late August sky should be. “Something is going on in this town.”
“Zombies and suspicious characters? I’d be concerned if it was business as usual.” He sighed and glanced over at Eva. “These guys were really necromancers?”
“They smelled like death and zombies were running around.” Eva sighed as she watched the clouds drift by overhead.
The silence stretched between them. Not an uncomfortable silence. Eva had never felt that around her master. Just companionable silence. Until her master broke it.
“Excited for school to start?” he asked.
“Can’t wait,” Eva said. “Not even being sarcastic. This town is terribly dull. Maybe if a few more zombies were running around.”
“Dull is nice sometimes. Relaxing.”
Eva snorted at that. “Yeah. Please find some jobs and bring me along.”
“In a quiet little town like this?”
“In a quiet little town with necromancers.”
Devon sat up on the bench, leaning forward slightly. “You haven’t seen them since, right?”
“I can’t say I was really looking for them.”
“Maybe the family owed them money. They turned them into zombies as an example.”
“And the kid?”
“Kidnapped. Sold or used for parts to sell and recoup whatever losses they had.”
“There’s only one problem with my theory.”
Eva leaned forward to match his posture, forcing Arachne to reshuffle herself.
“No one noticed. No example could be made when no one noticed.”
Eva frowned. “Why tell me your theory if you’re just going to turn around and say its wrong in the next breath?”
Her master ignored her. He stood up and began pacing. “Why did no one notice? Did the family not have friends or relatives? Did the kid not have school? Did the parents not have jobs? You said a window was cracked? Even without that, how could a smell as bad as you say it was not be smelt outside the house?”
“I didn’t smell it myself. It could have been exaggerated.” Her words fell on deaf ears. She knew they would. Devon got like this sometimes.
“And the zombie,” he said, turning to her, “tell me again what happened?”
Eva recounted the story Juliana had told him as best she could.
“Where did the zombie come from? Your friend said she searched every room in the house until the master bedroom. And it just shows up right behind her? That doesn’t sound like a house full of zombies. That sounds like a trap.”
“A trap for who?”
Her master sat down and leaned back. “Don’t know. Could have been a relative or family friend. Maybe even your friend if she is a well-known urban explorer.”
Eva let a sigh escape. She slumped against the bench. Her master got her all worked up. Acting like he knew who, or at least why they did it. And then it all deflated. Just another theory.
She hated when her master did this.
Eva pulled herself to her feet. “I’m going to go to bed then. Unless you have any more amazing epiphanies?”
“Bah,” he said. He waved his hands in dismissal. “Get outta here.”
“I trust you can get back on your own?”
“I think I’ll stick around for a bit. The way your teacher phrased it made me wonder if there was any investigation going on at all.”
Reluctantly, Eva nodded. “Let me know if you find anything.” Eva started to walk away but paused. She turned back to her master. “And don’t get yourself killed. I’d hate having to delve into necromancy myself to finish my treatment.”
Devon barked out a laugh. He stepped away without properly responding.
Eva turned back to the dorms. Her roommates would want to know what happened during the meeting. Shalise especially would be happy to know that neither her master nor Zoe Baxter thought the book was a ritual component. The poor girl seemed torn between curiosity about magic and wanting to pack up and leave, or just leave, Eva didn’t think she had actually unpacked yet.
Unfortunately, they would have to wait. Zoe Baxter sat in one of the front lobby chairs. She just sat. No book in her hands. No writing down notes. Not even any fiddling with her hair or a pencil. She turned her head as Eva walked in. “A word, Miss Eva.” She stood and walked off down a hallway, not even looking to see if Eva followed.
Eva did follow. The woman had all but stormed off after their meeting. Further garnering her ire was not something Eva wanted.
She led Eva to a small study room. A fountain poured down one entire wall leaving a soothing noise in the air. The water changed colors as it went from top to bottom. Eva had dipped a finger in it one time to see if it was the water or the wall. She had been surprised to find the water on her fingertip changed color with the rest of the waterfall. It seemed like it would be easier to just install some lights in the wall.
Zoe Baxter withdrew her dagger and flicked it about the room. The windows darkened, but Eva could still see out them. She doubted people would be able to see in. That was the only noticeable change, but Zoe kept flicking her focus around for a good minute.
Seemingly satisfied with her protections, Zoe took a seat at one of the desks. She motioned for Eva to sit across from her.
Eva sat. She fidgeted. The instructor across from her hadn’t said anything yet. Did Eva stare at her or look away? Should she just start out with an apology?
Eventually, Zoe sighed. “You’re not in trouble, Miss Eva. Mr. Carter is an interesting sort, isn’t he.”
“That’s putting it mildly,” Eva said under her breath. Despite the instructor trying to reassure her, Eva didn’t relax. Her master had been quite crude to the stern woman.
“He barely glanced at the book before stating there was nothing special about it and trying to leave.”
“I’d trust his observations. And about his rush to leave, it is probably that my mentor doesn’t associate with people. Almost ever. It is nothing against you despite his crude comments.”
“He doesn’t look half that old.”
You’d be surprised, Eva thought. She didn’t say anything. His longevity would push the conversation towards more uncomfortable topics.
“I noticed something about him, brief though our meeting was. Something I’ve noticed in you as well.”
Eva tensed. Uncomfortable topics might be brought up without her help. If the instructor accused Eva or her master of demonic taint, she didn’t know what she would do.
Beneath her shirt, Arachne tightened her grip around Eva. She wanted to pat the spider’s back, but wasn’t going to risk it with Zoe Baxter sitting right across from her.
Despite her now biweekly room inspections, Eva always carried Arachne out of the room beforehand. The most the instructor had seen were Arachne’s legs peeking out of her carrying cage. Most of the time the cage was empty and Eva just had her under her shirt. Eva still remembered the suspicion Jordan had on the plane, even though that might have been imagined. She was none too keen on letting Zoe Baxter see the demon in full.
“There it is again,” Zoe said. “You tense up at certain topics, especially those about your past. You’ll deflect or outright lie about almost everything personal.”
Eva relaxed, slightly, glad for the more mundane talk than an accusation of dark magic.
“And now you’re relaxing.”
Eva frowned as did Zoe. She hoped she wasn’t quite so plain to read.
“I don’t know what is troubling you, and I am not a therapist, but I care for my student’s wellbeing. Eva, if there is anything you need to talk about. Please do. If you feel you can’t or don’t want to talk to me, we’ll find someone you can talk with. And if that man is hurting you at all…”
Eva blinked. She almost burst out laughing. “Oh no. That’s all wrong,” Eva said. Her jovial reaction must have come unexpected as Zoe’s stern expression shifted into one of confusion. “If it weren’t for my mentor, I would probably be dead. Or worse. He showed up on a shining white horse wearing full plate armor saying ‘don’t worry my lady, I will save you’ and proceeded to do so.”
Of course it hadn’t actually happened anything like that. Eva didn’t expect Zoe to believe it either. Just picturing her master doing anything so cheesy turned Eva’s stomach.
“If he were to hurt me now, however, be assured I would not stand for it. I’d probably…” What, kill him? I can’t say that. “Cut ties,” she decided.
Zoe frowned, perhaps even sensing the unspoken words. “Then why all the tiptoeing around everything?”
“Both I and he have mentioned him dealing with necromancers in the past.” Eva considered her words carefully. “Those are far from the least honorable people he’s interacted with. I’d rather not say anything to incriminate him. He’s a good person,” Eva said. “Mostly.”
Zoe Baxter gave her a hard stare. It was as if she decide on how to respond to that.
Eva wasn’t sure she wanted her to respond. She had basically told the woman that she was mentored by a criminal. Even if she believed the lie about him being a good person.
“He doesn’t have any current friendly dealings with necromancers?”
Eva scoffed at that. “I doubt he’s ever had ‘friendly’ dealings with necromancers. He doesn’t have much good to say about them.”
“Answer the question, Eva.”
“Then no. To my knowledge he has no dealings with any necromancers apart from investigating whatever happened in the house Juliana explored. If and when he finds them, I expect his actions to be hostile, not friendly.”
“And he intends no harm to any students or Brakket Academy?”
“That is correct.”
The hard glare started up again as Zoe scrutinized Eva. She relaxed slightly after seeing whatever it was she was looking for. “Then I don’t care what kind of past Mr. Carter has. You might be surprised at the backgrounds of some of Brakket’s benefactors and even students, or their parents at least. I doubt Mr. Carter could be much worse than the worst of them.”
You might be surprised, was Eva’s first thought. Demonology was generally considered one of the worst magics. Apart from the reprehensible idea of bringing demons to their feeding ground, willingly bringing demons to the mortal plane supposedly damaged reality to the point where it might one day be indistinguishable from Hell.
Eva had her suspicions about that. Devon didn’t seem to buy into it either. Demon summoning was well documented since before proper history began. If demons actually tore through reality, why wasn’t the world already a living Hell?
That brought up all the philosophical discussions on Hell and reality. Eva knew reality couldn’t be even close to Hell. She might not have ever been there herself but Arachne had. Arachne was quite adamant about how much better the mortal plane was than Hell.
As for the demons themselves; like she told her master, politeness and respect went a long way. Even the haunter her master had been so terrified of seemed pretty amicable after tearing through a herd of animals. He politely introduced himself and went to fetch her master without complaint. Sure, her master had shown up with injuries, but that was probably his own fault.
There were sure to be demons that were terrible monsters, otherwise where would the stories come from. Probably half of those stories were summoning rituals with poor enticements. Demons seemed to get antsy about that.
Eva half jumped. It took her a moment to remember she was still sitting in front of Zoe Baxter. “Sorry, was lost in thought.”
“Anything I should know?”
“Probably. After you…” Stormed off? “Ended the meeting, we started talking. He thinks the zombies in that house may have been a trap for someone.”
“He didn’t know.”
Zoe frowned and seemed to get a bit lost in thought herself. When she snapped out of it, she asked, “if there is nothing else, Miss Eva, you may return to your room.”
Eva shook her head and waited while Zoe undid the protections on the study room. A sudden rush of noise caused Eva to jump until she realized it was just the calming noise the fountain made. It had gone completely silent during their meeting.
Zoe half smirked at that, earning a glare from Eva.
As the windows lost their tint, Zoe Baxter stepped forward and held the door open.
Eva headed straight to the third floor.
Her roommates were still up despite the late hour. Sitting and chatting around the small dining table. When she entered the room, they both looked up and Juliana said, “Well?”
Eva shook her head and took the open seat. “Neither Zoe Baxter nor my mentor felt there was anything odd about the book. Zoe is going to continue her own investigation and my mentor is going to snoop around a bit on his own.” She turned to Juliana, “additionally, he thinks that the zombies were meant as a trap. Probably for a relative of the family. Someone who owed money or something similar.”
Juliana did not look happy about that. A scowl formed on her face and she started idly rubbing one of the metal bracelets that ran up her entire forearm.
“So the book was nothing? No big ritual?” Shalise asked.
“Nope. I was overreacting for nothing.”
Shalise sagged back into her chair at Eva’s words. The ritual seemed to have been a point of major worry for the girl. Eva was glad to see the tension leave her. Then it all came flooding back. She screamed. Shalise tipped over in her chair and continued scrambling backwards, pressing herself up against the short refrigerator.
Juliana snorted. “Oh right. Eva spent the night elsewhere last night. You haven’t met Rach.” She gestured at the spider climbing out of Eva’s shirt and onto her head. “Don’t worry, she’s harmless.”
Eva could see Arachne’s fangs twitch at the comment. She quickly moved to start stroking the spider’s carapace, shooting a glare at Juliana at the same time. “You’ll offend her,” Eva said. Eva ignored the shrugging woman and turned to Shalise. “Rach, this is Shalise Ward, our new roommate. She’s off-limits. Shalise, my pet tarantula, Rach.”
“Y-you have to say we’re off-limits?”
“I shouldn’t have to, but it is nice to make sure there are no ambiguities.”
“Like I said, don’t worry. She lives between Eva’s boobs and rarely strays from there.”
If Eva didn’t know better, she’d think Juliana was upset that Arachne had never hurt anybody. Did Eva know better? Maybe she was disappointed. Eva hadn’t forgotten the girl’s story about waking up to venomous bugs on her face.
Maybe she would have Arachne latch onto the blond’s head one morning.
“Anyway,” Eva stressed, “she won’t even touch you without permission.”
Shalise didn’t move.
It was too much to hope for that both her roommates would be fine with Arachne.
“But the book,” Juliana said, ignoring the poor girl’s fear, “it has to be something, right?”
Eva shrugged at that. “Not that I know of. You could try searching the bookstore to see if anything else is amiss.”
“They wouldn’t have destroyed it without a reason.”
“Maybe it was an actual accident. They just decided to blame us rather than admit to it.”
Juliana shook her head. “No. I don’t believe that and neither do you.” She massaged her temples with a light groan. “I can’t think. I’m tired and going to bed.”
Shalise hadn’t moved from her spot on the floor. Her eyes still tracked the top of Eva’s head with every movement.
“She’s really not going to hurt you,” Eva said. “If it bothers you, we have other sleeping arrangements. Although, once school starts I doubt we’ll be using them much. Might be good to get used to her now rather than later.”
Shalise got up slowly. She kept her eyes trained on Arachne as she circled around towards the beds. “I-I don’t want to kick you out of your room. I can handle it. There were spiders at my old home.”
Eva doubted she was going to sleep tonight despite her words. Still, better to get used to Arachne now than being unable to sleep during school.
“It really isn’t a big deal,” Juliana said, “the only time she detaches from Eva are when she goes out on ‘hunts.'”
Juliana was definitely waking up with an Arachne attached to her face one of these days. Eva would make sure of it.