A chilly breeze ran over the dormitory rooftop. Eva shivered. The early sunsets and low temperatures in mid September were nothing like Florida. She had purchased pants, but hadn’t expected to need them until November or December at least. At this rate, Eva would need to go out and buy some long underwear.
Or perhaps look into magical methods of keeping warm. Surely they existed. If not, her runes hadn’t failed her yet. She’d just use the same runes that heated her shower water.
In contrast to the shivering black-haired woman, a blond stood just half a head shorter to Eva’s side. She had a completely posed look about her. No shivering. No quaking in her boots. No smiles either. She glowered at the last rays of light as they disappeared beneath the horizon.
“What are we waiting for?”
“You can’t blink, right?” Juliana shook her head. “Any fast method of transportation?”
“I can create steps and supports to hop over fences and such, that’s about it.”
“Right.” Eva crossed her arms, resting them lightly on Arachne and trying not to look too cold. “Remember on the plane when I said no screaming, panicking, or just general reactions were allowed? We’re going to do that again.”
Juliana mimicked Eva and crossed her arms. “Okay.”
Eva patted Arachne’s back lightly. The spider slipped out from beneath Eva’s shirt and started transforming. Eva noted with a frown that the spider-demon was doing her best to make the transformation look and sound more grotesque than usual. The squelching noise as her body stretched was louder than Eva had ever heard it before.
When she reached her full height, Arachne had all her legs spread out behind her back like some kind of needly butterfly wings. Her mouth split into a wide grin, sharp teeth parted just slightly.
None of her intimidation seemed to work on the grinning blond. “I knew you weren’t just a regular spider,” she said. “I checked every book on magical creatures I could get my hands on and nothing fit your description. So what are you?”
“This,” Eva said before the demon could answer, “is Arachne.”
Juliana looked the spider-woman up and down. “The mortal weaver who challenged Athena?”
“The one and only,” Arachne half growled out. That Juliana wasn’t intimidated by her seemed to bother poor Arachne.
“So, which version is true? You beat Athena and were cursed for your hubris or you lost and were cursed for your hubris?”
“I won of course.”
Juliana hummed at that, giving Arachne another appraising look over.
“Anyway,” Eva said, “we should go. Arachne will carry you.”
“What?” came Arachne’s half shout.
“I can move on my own, she can’t.”
“You’re the one who said we should bring her.” At Juliana’s questioning look, Eva explained, “I believe her exact words were ‘if only Juliana and Shalise were fine with me, maybe I wouldn’t have to hide as a spider all day.'”
“I said nothing of the sort.”
“Pretty close. In any case, I’ll just step there and you carry her.” Eva turned to start stepping, but a squelching noise gave her pause.
She turned back to find Arachne’s legs shifting from her back to the bulbous growths emerging from her back. She grew, standing high enough on her eight legs for Eva to fit beneath her without much stooping. Her human body shifted, rising higher and growing larger to match her new body’s size.
Juliana took a step back, looking at least a little intimidated this time. Amusingly enough, Arachne wasn’t trying for intimidation. At least not as far as Eva could tell. Her transformation was quick and clean.
“I’ll carry the both of you then,” she said, reluctantly, as she stopped growing. “It isn’t good to exhaust yourself before we enter a dangerous situation.”
The poor spider-demon looked almost like she was pleading. Eva had never been carried by her outside her human form. She rarely even saw Arachne in full on Arachne-mode unless the demon was planning on hurting something.
Still, Eva shrugged. “I guess it wouldn’t hurt.”
Juliana turned and gave Eva a nod before going back to admiring Arachne.
Eva wondered if the blond would act like that when she learned of Arachne’s demon status. They had talked it over and decided not to mention it, though Devon might. Hopefully after seeing Arachne, living with her for a few months, and now being carried by her would dampen any shocking revelations by Eva’s master.
Arachne helped Juliana up onto her back. She fit neatly in the small crevasse between Arachne’s vertical human body and the bulbous mound of her abdomen. “Hold on tight, I’m not responsible for you falling off.”
She swooped down and picked Eva up in her usual one arm beneath Eva’s knees and one arm behind her back.
Eva had to fight down a scream. It was a lot higher than usual and she didn’t want to make a fool of herself in front of Juliana. She wrapped both arms around the spider-woman’s neck and held on tight.
With the girls in place, Arachne launched off the roof. Despite her added weight, or perhaps because she had more legs than normal, Arachne flew through the air. They landed on the ground far from the dormitory. Juliana’s scream turned into a groan as she bounced on the spider’s back.
Arachne skittered forwards. Her legs crashed into the ground, likely leaving marks as she propelled herself forwards.
Eva patted the spider’s neck and said, “no trails,” into her ear.
Arachne nodded and stepped lighter as they rushed through the Montana wilderness.
An hour later brought them to the front of the prison. Rather than climb or jump over the wall, Arachne ran to the large double gate. “Alright, off,” she said. She set Eva lightly on the ground.
Juliana didn’t need telling twice. She slid off the spider’s back and took several steps away. Her face looked a tint greener than when they left and she was rubbing her backside.
A small smile touched Eva’s lips. She was glad she didn’t have to sit for over an hour on Arachne’s back. Arachne was a lot of things but soft was not one of them. The hard carapace that covered every inch of her body couldn’t have been comfortable for the poor blond.
Not that being in her arms was very comfortable. To her credit, Arachne did seem to keep the jolts down for Eva. The lack of support for most of her body always left her feeling a bit tingly. However, Eva had gotten mostly used to it over the past few months.
Devon approached as Arachne shrank. He engaged the contraption they had set up to open and close the gates. As the group walked closer to the inner gate, he gave a hard look at Juliana.
“I figured it would be you,” Devon said. “The other girl looked like she was about to cry when I glanced at her. You looked about ready to fight me. The question is, can you?”
“I can handle myself. My mother was a mage-knight and she trained me personally.”
He scoffed at her reply. “We won’t be play fighting out there. If we fight, you aim to kill or you will be the one dead. If we run, you run or we’ll leave you to die.”
Juliana nodded, not breaking her gaze.
“Whatever. It’s nothing on my head if you get yourself killed.” He turned and started walking back into the compound. “We leave closer to midnight. Make whatever preparations you need.”
Juliana turned to Eva with a quirked eyebrow lit only by the pale moonlight.
“Like I said, he’s a ball of fun.” Eva shrugged at the blond. “But he isn’t joking. Are you sure you don’t want to stay here? We’ll pick you up before we go back to Brakket.”
“I don’t need you patronizing me.”
The girl was just going to have to learn the hard way. Eva sighed and led the way to her area of the complex. She paused just outside the gate.
“I’ll need a drop of blood.”
Arachne answered for Eva. “The last time I tried to go someplace Eva had protected without her keying me into her protections, I had a whole leg blown off.” She started laughing as if it were the funniest thing in the world.
Both Eva and Juliana gave Arachne a look. “My protections here are far more powerful than the runes we sell at school. They need a drop of blood to key you in. You’ll have to wait out here if that is not agreeable.”
“No, it is fine,” Juliana said. “How do we do that then?”
Eva pulled out her dagger, careful to conceal the bloodstone at the tip. She held out her offhand to Juliana. Small amounts of blood magic might be passable for an average mage, especially blood keyed wards. A bloodstone would land her in prison. A prison she wasn’t in charge of, that is.
Almost eagerly, the girl thrust her own palm out.
Eva gripped the offered hand and ran the crystal edge of her dagger along the blond’s lifeline. Juliana winced but didn’t complain. “We have potions inside to help you heal.”
Once a marble of blood had formed, Eva withdrew her dagger. Eva walked the floating marble past the ward boundary and snapped her fingers. The blood marble dispersed into the wards, integrating with the protections.
“So you know,” Eva said, “my room, inside and to the left, is not part of the same system. You’ll not want to enter it.”
“Or I’ll get my leg blown off?”
“If you are lucky,” Eva said with a smile.
Eva led the blond into the women’s ward building. The ritual circle used for her treatment was mostly covered with a large rug. Two small couches, two chairs, and a large table occupied the center room.
“Arachne, potions for our guest please.”
The demon sauntered off into the bedroom. She returned a moment later with a light blue vial and a yellow vial.
After downing the two potions, Juliana said, “this where you have been spending random nights?”
“For the most part. We’ve got a king sized bed, shower, fully stocked kitchen, and plenty of books.” She smiled at the blond. “No offense to you, but sometimes it is nice to sleep on your own.”
“On your own with Rach, you mean?”
“Arachne,” growled the demon. “Every time I hear that stupid nickname I want to murder children. Mostly schoolchildren.”
“Pleasant imagery,” Juliana said. She made herself right at home by sprawling out on one of the couches.
Arachne grinned. “I think so.”
“So preparations then?” Juliana asked?
“I’ll be changing into my work clothes. Is there any equipment you think you might need?”
Juliana shook her head. “Not unless you can think of something.”
Was there anything Juliana could use? Eva didn’t think so. Maybe a handful of general remedy potions. She told the girl as much and went to change, Arachne following behind her.
She handed the demon two of the full-sized vials to fill up, having used them up in the new version of the blood wards. Then Eva got to changing into her work clothes. She took some time to draw out some infernal runes and slipped them into her pockets. The heat spread through her legs immediately. Much more pleasant than the cold September air.
With her belt secured in place, Eva slipped in five full-sized vials of Arachne’s blood, including the two fresh ones. She grabbed a handful of the half sized vials, noting that the blood was getting a bit old even with the preservation runes etched into the glass. She’d have to dump them and get Arachne to refill them later.
Eva very much looked forward to the day when she could stop relying on Arachne’s blood and just use her own.
She grabbed a number of potions, including some for Juliana, when Eva noticed something odd.
Atop her dresser was the blackened skull. It sat in its usual spot on an elevated dais. The same spot it had been in since Eva finished every diagnostic test she could think of. However, instead of facing out into the room, it now faced the wall. The wall separating her bedroom from the common room.
Eva peeked around the corner. Juliana still sat in the couch facing away from Eva’s room. She lightly kicked her feet back and forth.
The skull stared right at her, as if the wall wasn’t even there.
After the story Arachne had told her about it, Eva expected it to stare at other people. She cursed herself for not paying attention to it during its brief stay at the dorms. Had it been staring at people then? Had it stared at Devon the night her master arrived?
The spider-demon had laid down on their bed–Eva’s side of their bed–and was nuzzling the pillow. Eva nudged Arachne. The demon’s eyes narrowed as Eva pointed out the skull.
The destruction of the skull still ranked high on Arachne’s wish list. Eva still wasn’t ready to offend Ylva. She doubted she would ever want that.
Arachne reached up and tried to twist the skull back forwards. The skull wouldn’t budge and Arachne’s sharp fingers didn’t leave the slightest mark.
Eva attempted the same thing. It turned right around to her with barely any effort. Almost as if it turned on its own. Eva stopped turning it just before it faced directly at her.
Arachne tried again, twisting it back away from Eva. She managed it without any problem. Arachne gave off a low growl and shrugged her shoulders.
Eva faced the skull directly towards herself. She pointed past the wall. “She’s a friend. Don’t hurt her.” Eva didn’t know if the skull was going to hurt Juliana, or even if the skull could hear her. Still, it couldn’t hurt.
Few things managed to get under Eva’s skin these days. The skull certainly wasn’t one of them. She decided to believe the hel’s words when Ylva said it wouldn’t hurt her. There was a bit of fear for other people, but so far it had been completely benign.
Eva grabbed the potions for Juliana and headed back to the common room to await her master’s call.
The church they came to had seen better times. It was an old American church. It had a single room and a high steeple at the top. The steeple contained a bell at one point in time, but it had fallen along with a large portion of the roof. The hole it punched through the floor was clearly visible from outside the open double doors.
Eva looked back over the hill they had climbed.
During daytime, the church would overlook a large valley and grassland that once held a town. The town built in the valley was built during the frontier days. It was long since abandoned, leaving the rotting remains of wood structures scattered around.
“The catacombs beneath the church are where our interests lie,” Devon said. “The witching hour is drawing close, be on your guards.” He whipped around his flashlight and trudged into the building.
Eva wondered for a minute if he was playing up the drama for Juliana. He used to do that when Eva first started accompanying him on jobs. Always some quip about how they were sure to die horribly even in the most mundane of jobs.
The blond in question seemed more concerned with an aching backside after another ride on Arachne.
Eva sent out a few small light spells, illuminating the dark corners of the chapel. Nothing seemed out of place, apart from the hole in the ground and the musky scent of rotting wood.
She thought about trying to take a peek down the hole. The thought quickly vanished. Having rotting wood crumble away and falling into catacombs would not be fun on the best of days. With necromancers running around the thought sent chills up Eva’s spine.
With Juliana and Arachne just behind her, Eva followed her master to the opposite end of the chapel. He pulled open a trap door just behind where a priest would stand to give their sermon. He shined his light down the hole. A shiny metal ladder led the way into the dark pit. It was obviously a recent addition to the church.
“Arachne,” Devon whispered, “you’re up first. Anything we see is likely hostile. If there are any humans who don’t immediately attack, I’d like them disarmed for further questioning.”
The spider-demon shrugged and jumped down the hole, ignoring the ladder completely.
“Eva, you’re her backup. Girl–”
“Juliana,” Juliana whispered.
“Whatever. You’re after Eva. I’ll watch our backs.”
Eva tossed a small light spell to the bottom of the pit. It was deeper than she expected, but not deep enough. Eva stepped straight to the bottom, also ignoring the ladder.
Lacking the methods for a speedy descent, Juliana climbed down the ladder. The moment she touched the bottom and stepped out of the way, Devon appeared in her vacancy.
Eva turned and marched after the eager demon.
The dirt walls narrowed as they progressed. Mush and fibers clung to Eva’s fingers as she brushed a hand against a wall. Not an enjoyable experience.
Archways began opening up to the sides of the tunnel every few feet. Arachne ignored them completely.
Eva tossed a light down one. A solid wall of bones, mostly thigh or arm bones by the look of it, met Eva. The wall ran up to her chest and was capped with a line of skulls.
Nice place to hunt necromancers, Eva mused.
She left the light in the first alcove as she moved down, checking each. They were all the same.
Some seemed to have a row of smaller skulls topping the wall. Young children.
A half cry, half gasp signaled Juliana passing the first of the alcoves. Growling reprimands came from her master a moment after.
Eva didn’t mind the bones themselves. Under different circumstances, she might borrow a few to spruce up the prison. It wasn’t like the old owners would mind.
What really bothered her was the sheer number. There were far more bones making up each wall than the amount of skulls facing out on top. Even if the town had been ten times as large as the remaining buildings during its heyday, this number shouldn’t be possible.
Eva stopped at one alcove. Its wall was shorter than the rest, though still capped with skulls. Eva peeked over the top.
Rib cages, feet, hands, hips, collarbones, and several more skulls were unceremoniously tossed behind the bone wall. The rest of the skeletons were piled up as high as the front wall with no order or respect.
The rest of the alcoves were probably the same.
She left another light hovering over the mangled remains and moved on.
After creeping past no less than thirty of the crypts, Eva came up to a stopped Arachne.
They looked out over a much larger cavern.
Carved stairs complete with a thin metal railing led downwards, splitting off in two at the first step. They circled around a large pool of murky green water. The cavern extended back into a cave maybe half as large as the chapel above.
Magical lights, more permanent than the one dancing around Eva’s fingertips, kept the cave well-lit. Pews sat to either side of a small aisle, all facing towards the pool of water and the stairs.
Six cages hung from the ceiling on the outside edge of the benches. Each held a single corpse in varying degrees of decay. Most were barely more than skeletons.
The two descended the staircase. Eva sent balls of light scanning every nook of the cave for anything that might jump out. Arachne checked under and behind each pew.
By the time they finished, Juliana and Devon had entered the main room. The blond made a straight beeline to Eva.
“You alright?” Juliana quietly asked.
Eva looked up from the small alcove in the wall. One not filled with bones, just a handful of spiders. Juliana looked sick. She had a wand gripped tightly in each hand as well as her two finger rings on. “Yeah, I’m good,” Eva said. “Are you?”
Eva gave the girl a sad smile. “I’m sure it will be fine. There aren’t even any necromancers around right now.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” Devon said as he and Arachne marched over. He held a finger up to the ceiling.
Six skeletons all gazed down at the group. They were still slumped over in their cages, unmoving. Just their skulls pointed empty eye sockets at them.
Juliana clicked her tongue and readied her wand. “Do we destroy them?”
“Probably too late at this point. Someone knows we are here. I doubt they matter.” He glanced around. “There should be another room here. I wasn’t told it would be hidden. Damn vanth.” He grumbled more profanity under his breath and set to inspecting the walls.
Eva sent orbs of light crashing against spots around the room. If an illusionary wall existed, the light would simply pass through it rather than splash against the wall. She wasn’t having much success after ten minutes, and started searching the walls with her hands as her master had done.
“Here,” Juliana called. “This bit of the wall is metal, not earth.”
Eva moved over to the blond. She was standing with her wand out in front of a section of the wall that Eva couldn’t tell was any different from the section next to it. Devon and Arachne joined a moment later.
Rather than thank her or praise her, Eva’s master just grunted. “Let’s find out how to open it then.”
“I could just destroy it, if you want.”
Juliana flicked her wrist. Bits of rock fell from what now looked like a rusted sheet of metal. She tapped her fingers on the sheet. Metal turned to liquid and flowed up the sleeve on her shirt as her fingers moved.
The last of the panel disappeared, causing Eva to wonder just how much of Juliana’s body was covered in metal at the moment. Not a drop had been discarded.
Devon held no such wonders or if he did, he didn’t show it. He marched through the opening and opened a regular wooden door.
The room beyond was tiny in comparison to the cave. It had a modern cot from any sports store and a few blankets. There was a desk and a short bookcase.
Devon moved in and started snooping around the desk.
Eva leaned over to Juliana. “Do you have that shrinking suitcase on you?” she whispered.
The blond just shook her head.
Sighing, Eva moved over to the bookcase. Her small satchel for potions might be able to fit two or three tomes. Five if they were small enough. She grabbed a few with the most interesting titles and tucked them into her satchel. She handed another five to Juliana to do the same with her own backpack.
A grunt brought Eva’s attention to her master. He had procured a set of long-handled tongs from somewhere and was currently pulling a book out of a drawer of the desk. He set it on top of the desk.
The cover had no title. Just an embossed pentagram with a man touching the five points at his head, hands, and feet. Devon lifted the cover with his tongs and flipped a few pages in. Ink had been splattered over the pages, though not nearly as thorough as the book from Toomey’s shop. Large portions of text were visible and whole pages were nearly untouched.
“Poems,” Juliana said as she peeked over his shoulder.
“Yeah,” he said. He left the book lying open and flicked his hand towards it. Green fire instantly consumed the book and moved on to the desk.
“On a positive note,” he said, “I have an idea about that book you found. Downside is that I foolishly did not insist on its destruction upon seeing it.”
“What is it?” Eva asked.
“The contents of this book,” he pointed at the burning desk, “and the book you found were switched. How, I do not know. The book itself, however, is Exanimis de Mortuum. The title has vacuous meaning, something along the lines of Death of the Dead or Fear of the Dead. It is one of the few magical tomes that might be worthy of the title of grimoire, assuming it is the original.”
Eva frowned at that. She leaned against the bookshelf as the fire consumed the desk. She hadn’t given up hope on moving the rest of the books out of the small room. “They wouldn’t put this much effort into a copy, would they?”
“It is far more likely to be a copy. If it was the original, it wouldn’t be in the hands of a few backwater necromancers. They’re most likely trying to turn their copy into a grimoire with the powers of the original.”
“And the powers of the original are?” Juliana asked. She took a seat on the cot on the end opposite the one Arachne had taken.
“Supposedly able to call the souls back from Death and shield those dying from His gaze.”
“Doesn’t seem like something He would like,” Eva said.
Devon snorted. “Let me put it this way: if a second grimoire gets completed then I don’t want to be anywhere on the same continent. He will likely try to destroy it before it gets ‘settled in’ and I want no part of that.”
“Even if we destroy the copy, what stops them from finding or making another copy and trying again?”
A loud thunk interrupted her master. Eva blinked and Arachne had moved to standing in front of Eva.
Streams of profanity flowed from her master’s mouth as Eva uncorked her blood vials.