A white-robed nun stood outside both of the dormitory buildings. One in the short pathway leading to the Rickenbacker and one on the opposite end of the street in front of the Gillet.
Eva froze at the sight of them. There was still a good distance between her and the dorms. She spun and headed down an alley in the entertainment area just outside of the dorms. The thick snow crunched under her feet as she ran to a secluded spot.
“Arachne,” she whispered, “there are Elysium nuns outside the dorms.”
The spider stirred beneath her heavy coat. She slipped out and dropped to the ground. An instant later, Arachne stood in front of her on two legs. A grin split across her face. “Let’s take them out,” were her first words.
Eva shook her head. “If there are two, then there are more. Probably a response to the necromancers.”
“So? We can take them.”
“I’d rather not risk it. Even if I wanted to, I’d still like to be able to attend school, at least for now.”
“We running back to the prison until they leave then?”
“I’m not. You are.” Eva held up her hands before the protest could even start. “If they’re looking for the necromancers, they might look at the prison. All my books, my notes, my equipment. It needs to be hidden. I trust you to do that for me.”
Arachne still looked sulky even after the emphasized trust. “I can’t move that skull. Your other demon wouldn’t tell me a thing about it.”
“This again? Ylva is not my other anything. I couldn’t just leave her to wander on her own with that death touch of hers.” At Arachne’s continued bad mood, Eva unzipped her jacket and pulled her shirt down, exposing her modest cleavage and the small black sphere that nestled between. “You don’t see me carrying around that skull, do you? You should be aware that I never take this necklace off, given where you spend most of your time.
“Now, are you going to help me or should I really call up Ylva again?”
It was an empty threat, she knew it and she knew Arachne knew it. Arachne knew she knew it. It was a vicious cycle.
Having the daughter of Hel marching around the prison for the last week had been stressful enough. Her setting up a full throne room in cell house two and asking that it not be touched until her next visit made Eva even more nervous.
Arachne eventually sighed. “You should come with me. It would be dangerous if the nuns catch a whiff of your… treatments. I can protect you while I’m around, but not from the prison.”
“That is one of the reasons I want you back there. Stay there after you hide the books. Or wherever you decide to hide them.” Eva gave the demon a comforting smile, at least, she hoped it was comforting. “I’m only halfway done with the treatments and even further before I’m where you are. I look normal and no one has noticed anything amiss so far. I can’t say the same about you.”
A sudden pull in her wrists knocked Eva off-balance. She fell right into Arachne as the spider tightened her grip around Eva’s wrists.
“What if they find out anyway? What if the necromancers attack?” She half whispered, half shouted.
Eva let out a soft sigh as she relaxed into Arachne’s shoulder. “Arachne,” she said after a slow breath, “if the necromancers attack then the sisters will fight them. I’ll be fine. However, we run an increased risk of them detecting something wrong if we’re together.”
“I’m not staying there,” Arachne said after a few minutes of them resting against each other.
Eva definitely enjoyed the heat radiating off the spider-woman. She might have to look into making more heat runes for her clothes, or just upping the intensity; Montana winters were cold.
“At least for a few days, I’ll get a feel for the sisters. If it seems safe then I’ll leave a mark on the roof, a smiley face by the door.”
Arachne nodded. “I’ll have to accept that. But, I can’t take down the wards.”
“That’s fine,” Eva said. “Don’t worry about any of the furniture or my master’s area. Books and especially my spare dagger, but anything else easily movable. I don’t know any good hiding spots that are out of the elements though. I’d rather not have my books damaged.”
“Leave that to me.” Arachne let Eva go. “Eva,” she said, “I will be back, soon. I’ll know if something goes wrong.”
“I’ll be careful. Don’t get seen on your way back. I’m almost worried someone saw us arrive.”
“Who do you take me for?” Arachne chastised with a wide grin, though her heart didn’t seem to be in it.
If Arachne even had a heart. Something to ask another time.
The spider quickly clambered to the roof of a building in the alley and vanished from Eva’s sight.
With Arachne gone, Eva headed back to the dorms. It didn’t seem like a good idea to step straight through her window. They might have put up detectors for magical transportation.
Instead, Eva walked right up to the front door, looking her best like she was supposed to be there. I am supposed to be here, she thought with a mirthless smile.
The nun glared at Eva as she approached. “Stop,” she said. “I haven’t seen you before, who are you?”
The smile vanished off of Eva’s face. “My name is Eva. I reside in dorm three-thirteen.”
“Explain your absence for the past several days.”
Eva glared at the white clothed nun. She wasn’t sure if she should risk lying. On the other hand, telling her that most of the time was spent in the company of demons would probably not go over well. “I was in the company of a guardian following the Halloween debacle. Zoe Baxter was aware if you need to confirm that.”
Hopefully the instructor would come up with a better lie and be able to sell it.
The nun glared back and studied Eva. She whipped out a cell phone and tapped the screen a few times. “Your full name?”
The woman typed on her cellphone once again before glaring back at Eva. “Your full name?”
Eva grit her teeth. She knew she should have just stepped straight into her room. “I gave the fullest name I ever give.”
The nun’s glare intensified. Her free hand slowly inched around to her back.
Eva narrowed her eyes and mirrored the action, planting her hand on the hilt of her dagger beneath her coat. Her blood magic would be drastically slower than whatever the nun had planned, but hopefully a quick step behind the nun would buy time. Arachne wasn’t around, but she shouldn’t have a problem escaping at the very least.
A gloved hand clasped the shoulder of the white-robed nun.
The nun jumped half a foot in the air, whipping around to face her assailant.
The sudden movements almost made Eva jump into her attack. She managed to maintain her composure. Her arms dropped to their sides.
A nun wearing the more traditional black habit glanced between Eva and the nun. She narrowed her brown eyes at her comrade. “What’s going on here, Sister Mable?”
Her voice was soft, almost melodic. Yet the nun wilted under its tune.
Before the nun could respond, Eva decided to get her side of the story across first. “Your lunatic Sister was about to attack me for refusing to state my name. Not that she has any right to ask or deny me entry to my dorm room in the first place.”
“Is this true, Sister Mable?”
The nun glanced down at her feet under the harsh tone of Sister Cross. Almost as if she was slapped by the voice. “I asked for her full name, she refused. Under the scriptures of Saint–”
Sister Cross held up a gloved hand, stopping the cowed nun’s voice. “We’re here for the protection of the children, not to slaughter them ourselves. Consider yourself relieved. Return to your quarters and reflect on your actions.”
“Yes, Sister Cross.”
As the newly named Sister Mable made a hasty retreat, Sister Cross turned her narrowed gaze over Eva. “Do you have a death wish, my girl?”
Eva crossed her arms. Only now did she realize how hard her heart was beating. She could feel it beneath her coat. With a deep breath, Eva glared back at the nun. “How was I supposed to know your nutty order thinks attacking children is a good idea.”
If the nun took any offense to the insult against her sisters, she didn’t show it. A soft smile touched her face instead. “While that is a valid point and Sister Mable will be receiving a lecture, she would likely have merely incapacitated you until another authority could be contacted.” Her smile remained on her face, but it hardened somewhat. “You were going to attack her back. Escalating matters would only end in tragedy.”
“I have to object to ‘incapacitation’ in any capacity. You’re not police. You don’t have authority.” Eva struggled to keep herself from growling out her anger. “If this is the way your order acts, I’d rather take my chances with zombies. At least they aren’t difficult to put down when they decide to attack.”
Eva waited, but Sister Cross didn’t have a proper response. “If there is nothing else, I’ll thank you to get out of my way. I’d rather not spend more time than necessary in the cold.”
The woman moved to the side, her heavy boots clacking against the cement.
Eva glanced down to see shiny black, almost military boots laced up to her knees. She mirthlessly wondered if that was part of a standard habit. Probably for these nuns, it is.
“If I might ask, what do you call yourself?”
“Eva.” She said nothing else and immediately moved past the nun into the warm Rickenbacker lobby.
Not exactly how she wanted to interact with the Elysium Sisters. They’d probably watch her more closely rather than ignore her. Hopefully they would be gone along with the necromancers once the latter learned of the book’s destruction.
As she walked up the steps to the third floor, Eva tried to justify the interaction with herself. She might have been able to pass by saying her father’s name, but it was the principles of the matter. Zoe Baxter’s nagging words about foolish pride surfaced in the back of her mind.
She shook it out of her head and focused instead on her master’s advice. Don’t concern yourself over things that can no longer be changed.
The door to her room opened just before Eva could reach for the handle.
“You’re back.” Juliana looked Eva up and down as though confirming to herself the truth of her own statement.
“I am. You don’t look surprised to see me.”
“Zoe mentioned you were fine, though I had my suspicions when you took over a week to return. She mentioned you were ‘taking care of things’ outside the academy.”
“That would be destroying the book. Unfortunately, the method I used to destroy the book decided to stick around for a few days as part of her payment. I was loath to leave her alone.”
Eva shook her head. “Probably one of those things you don’t want to know about. Trust me, you’ll be happier about it.”
Juliana didn’t look happier. The opposite, really. She turned and grabbed a large coat off of the hook next to the door.
“Going somewhere?” Eva asked.
“I promised my mother I would have lunch with her every day until school starts. The Elysium Sisters running around seem to have calmed her, at least a little.”
“Well, at least something good is coming from their presence. How long until school starts anyway?”
“Monday. The school is undergoing ‘restructuring’ until then.” Juliana shifted, looking down at her wringing hands. “Eva. We need to talk. I haven’t said anything and I don’t think Shalise will, but I’d like some answers.”
“You know more than anyone else. Like I just said, you’ll probably be happier not knowing more than you do.” Eva said with a shrug. She knew she was deflecting again. It was almost second nature at this point. “Where is Shalise anyway? The hospital?”
“She went home.”
“Home? For good?”
Juliana leaned back against the table, slumping her shoulders slightly. “Don’t know. She wasn’t talking much before she left.”
“She was okay though, right?”
“Shalise isn’t a zombie, if that is what you mean. I don’t think she’s okay at all.”
That brightened Eva’s mood a little. If the girl wasn’t dead, she could recover. Since she went home, there wasn’t much to do about it. Maybe Zoe had a phone number Eva could use one of these days.
“What did you do to her?” Juliana blurted out. She quickly looked off to one side. “I mean, you saved her, obviously. Just how?”
“A ritual I read about one time.”
“A blood magic ritual.”
Eva gave a noncommittal shrug.
Her long blond hair flared out as Juliana shook her head. A short laugh escaped her lips. “Blood magic and demons. Any other surprises I should know about.”
“Probably,” Eva said with another shrug. “Though I should mention, Arachne might not be around for a while. The Elysium Sisters didn’t react in a very friendly manner the last time we ran across them.” It is probably dangerous for me to be around them, Eva thought to herself.
When Juliana did not respond, Eva said, “no other movements from the necromancers?”
“Nothing since Halloween.”
“Odd.” Eva didn’t know what to make of that. Was their only goal the book? What would they do now that it was destroyed? Well, what would they do after they found out it was destroyed?
Not for the first time since the crypt, she wished her master was around for advice.
“I should go.” Juliana stood from the table and slipped past Eva. “I’ve kept mother waiting long enough. Unless you wanted to come?”
“That’s…” Eva was about to decline. She wanted to decline. The prospect of meeting Juliana’s mother, a mage-knight, outside of combat gave her pause. She rather hoped she’d never have to fight Juliana or her mother, making friends now might help. “Alright. I’ll go.”
A look of surprise touched Juliana’s face. She quickly recovered and nodded. “I must warn you. My mother can be a tad… overbearing at times.” She turned and led Eva out of the dorms.
Eva didn’t know what to say to that. She shrugged to herself and followed after Juliana. “How’s the town anyway? What is the damage?” she asked after a moment of silence.
“Five students died. I’m not sure how many people in town died, heard it was a lot. Not to mention the people who became the original zombies.”
“It couldn’t have been too many. Brakket’s population is what, a thousand? Two? Not including the students.” Eva glanced around the streets as they walked. People milled about. Shops were open. If anything, it seemed busier than before.
Juliana stopped suddenly. Eva had to jump to the side to avoid crashing into her. “How many is too many to you, Eva?”
“Enough for the school to shut down, I think,” Eva said with a frown. She stepped off the sidewalk and into a bit of deep snow in her efforts to evade Juliana. She could feel the snow seeping into her socks and shoes.
It wasn’t very pleasant.
“This is a sleepy little town apart from the school. The kind of place where everyone knows each other. Even a handful of untimely deaths affect the people more than you could guess.”
“You shouldn’t let such things bother you. There are simply things you can’t change.” Eva thought about pulling out a pen and drawing some heat runes in her shoes. She didn’t know why she hadn’t already thought of doing that. Unfortunately, Juliana started walking again.
“I should have been able to change things,” Juliana said after a pause. “Instead I cowered in the dorm while you went out doing whatever you were doing.”
“Hunting zombies, and you weren’t cowering. You were watching over an injured friend. That’s far more important than helping random people.”
“Is that all they are to you? Random people?”
“Since you didn’t name any names, even when you mentioned students, I am going to assume that yes they were just random people.”
“They were people with lives, Eva.” Juliana stopped again and turned to face Eva. Eva was more ready for the stop, she didn’t have to dodge this time. “People who might have been eventually in your life if they wouldn’t have died.”
Eva frowned. Juliana seemed to be taking this conversation more personally than she should. “Did someone you know die, Juliana?”
“Not really,” she said. She turned and resumed walking. “I heard Mr. Toomey died.”
“He, well, probably didn’t deserve it,” Eva lied. “Thousands of people die every day that don’t deserve it and you don’t worry over them. Just because some died close to us–physically, not emotionally–does not mean we should lie down and act differently than normal.”
“That’s a cold way of looking at it.”
“Maybe so. There isn’t much I can do about it, especially after the fact. I’ll concern myself with those close to me before I worry about others.”
Eva wondered how true that actually was. The closest people to her before was a very short list consisting mostly of Devon. Arachne probably got on the list sometime more recently, but neither of those two really needed to be concerned over. Arachne was nigh-immortal and Devon was Devon.
Nowadays she had friends. Real ones. Probably. Did she concern herself over Juliana? What did that even mean? It sounded good when she said it, but now it started feeling weird.
How do people even know if they’re friends anyway?
My world was simpler when there were fewer people in it.
Juliana didn’t say anything the rest of the way. Eva wasn’t complaining. She doubted friends often talked about such morbid topics.
Eventually they came to a stop in front of a homely little cafe stuck between some decrepit looking buildings in town. A faded signboard let customers know the shop was called The Liddellest Cafe.
It was a quaint little cafe. Painted on red roses and giant mushrooms adorned the window. Glowing yellow eyes and a teeth filled grin were reflected in the window, but nothing was there when Eva turned to look. A magic trick of some sort, Eva thought. A neat little effect, even if the red spots on the teeth were a little odd.
“Well, don’t make a fool of yourself,” Juliana said, “she’ll tease you as long as she knows you.” She paused with her hand on the door. “And let’s try to keep the conversation light, shall we?”
Eva nodded in agreement. She’d had enough with heavy for one day.
Juliana opened the door and stepped through the large horseshoe that framed the doorway. She walked straight to a corner booth–a large table that seemed to be a giant clock–with only a nod towards one of the staff behind the counter.
The place smelled strongly of tea, Eva noted as she followed. Not the worst of smells, in fact it was quite good, but the cafe was missing a good food smell.
In her distraction, Eva missed a portion of the conversation. She perked up at her name being mentioned.
“–my roommate, Eva.” Juliana gestured to her side.
Eva gave a light nod of her head. “Hello.”
The woman didn’t respond. She just gave Eva a long look from head to toe. Eva decided to respond in kind.
Juliana was definitely her daughter. An older set of the girl’s piercing blue eyes stared over the rims of smaller circular sunglasses. They had the same shade of blond hair, though the mother’s was twisted into two short braids reaching just to her shoulders rather than flowing freely down her back.
She wore fairly revealing clothes though she didn’t have much to reveal. Eva’s eyes flicked to a heavy fur coat sitting over the back of a nearby chair. Her clothes did show off a very impressive set of muscles on her stomach and arms. Two knives hung off of a loose belt. They were probably foci similar to the one Zoe Baxter used.
The only real difference other than size was the number of scars running the entire length of the woman’s body. A particularly nasty one covered one eye and ran up to a small bald spot on her scalp.
A hand jutted out in front of her so suddenly, Eva had to stop herself from reaching for her own dagger. Eva took the offered hand with her own.
She immediately regretted the decision.
Juliana’s mother crunched down on Eva’s hand. It took all her effort to keep from wincing and to return the shake as hard as she could. She had a sudden wish for some of the strength Arachne possessed. Sadly Devon wasn’t expecting any drastic physical changes of that nature until far past ninety percent of the treatments, if not for several years after the treatments were finished.
Still, it seemed enough for the amazon in front of her. She barked out a short laugh and said, “Genoa Rivas. I take it you aren’t the roommate she spent a while caring for after Halloween?”
“No, that would be Shalise. I’m Eva.”
“The missing one then?”
Eva shot a quick glance at a shrugging Juliana. “I wasn’t missing. I knew exactly where I was. For the record, my guardian was considering taking me out of school over the ‘incident.’ I do believe the Elysium Sisters plaguing the town convinced him otherwise.”
Genoa Rivas shot her daughter a pointed look. Juliana returned it in full force.
“Plaguing? Interesting term to use.”
“Sorry, slip of the tongue. I meant infesting.”
After a short laugh, Genoa Rivas said, “at the very least, they’ll keep zombies from walking the streets unchecked.”
“Hopefully,” Eva conceded. “Might I have my hand back?”
She gave one tight squeeze before releasing Eva’s hand. “To be honest,” she said as she sat in the chair with the fur coat, “I don’t like them either. They’re a sneaky bunch that use odd magics. They don’t play by mage-knight rules when hunting their targets. I had to work with one condescending bitch wearing their robes one time. Worst job I ever took.”
“Turn out poorly?” Eva wondered if that was the story behind her scars.
Juliana shot Eva a glare. She then sighed and buried her face in her hand.
Eva just quirked an eyebrow.
Turns out, it wasn’t. An hour later, Juliana and Eva finished their meals while Genoa Rivas barely touched hers. She was too engrossed in telling her story.
The south coast of Africa had a vampire plague at one point in time. She had been bitten thanks to her partner using her as bait. She even showed the two round spots on her neck as proof, they had barely faded even after twenty years.
Despite the vampire not even performing the kindling ritual, the nun tried to attack Genoa due to her being ‘tainted’ by the undead. She’d escaped and didn’t know what happened to the nun. That she wasn’t being chased by sisters meant the nun was either dead or the rest of the order had better sense than their overzealous sister.
“But enough about me. I’m sure two youngins like yourselves think you have better things to do than listen to an old has-been blabber on.”
“Not at all, Miss Rivas. It was very interesting,” Eva said in her best polite voice. “You seem like the kind of person who has a lot of stories to tell.”
“Don’t egg her on or we will be here all day,” Juliana stage whispered.
“Oh, look at you, acting all standoffish in front of your friend.” Genoa Rivas looked to Eva and held up a hand to her mouth before doing her own stage whispering. “She used to ask me to tell her a story every night before bed. Couldn’t get to sleep without one.”
Eva shot a small smile at the sighing blond.
“Well, I’ll let you to get back to whatever youngsters get up to these days.” She stood and slid over to Juliana. “Come on, Juli, give your mother a goodbye kiss.”
Juliana gave her a very half-hearted hug, more like a pat on the back. Her mother just barked out a laugh and sat back down.
“Perhaps you’ll tell another story the next time we meet.”
Genoa gave Eva a wide grin. “Look forward to it.” She glanced down at her barely touched soup and picked through it with her spoon. “I wonder if I could get them to toss this into a microwave for a minute.”
Eva chuckled at her distress as Juliana led her out of the shop.
“She’s so embarrassing,” she said once they were outside.
“Oh? I thought most parents told stories about their children to embarrass them. She spent most of the time telling her own story.”
“That’s embarrassing in its own right.”
“At least the story was good.”
Juliana scoffed loudly and abruptly. Eva stopped moving to avoid running into her, but the blond didn’t stop.
Eva took a few quick steps to catch up to her. “I thought you liked your mother’s stories. You mentioned as much over the summer.”
“Yeah. That was before I got my own stories.”
“The abandoned house, the crypt, even Halloween. Most of them consisted of me running around scared or doing nothing at all.”
Eva frowned as she followed after the girl. “Well, I can’t say much about the house, but like I said earlier about Halloween; don’t sell yourself short because you watched over Shalise. That was important and I’m sure it means a lot to her. A lot more than me running off into the night.
“And don’t forget you took out those archer skeletons plus tunneled us out. We might not have lived if it wasn’t for that.”
Another scoff erupted from the girl in front of Eva. “You could have killed those skeletons. I saw that spell you did.”
“Could have, but we very well might have died if I had.”
“That was ‘your’ magic, wasn’t it.” The blond stopped, seemingly ignoring Eva. “You knocked away a massive horde with that.” She spun, facing Eva. “Teach me.”
Eva slowed to a halt next to the blond. “I can’t. Or perhaps won’t.” She moved in and whispered in the girl’s ear. “There are reasons black magic is called ‘black’ magic. You do not want to take that step.”
“How do you know what I want,” she hissed.
Eva shrugged and walked past the still blond. “You’re a powerful earth mage. Focus on that. I’d hate to see you stunt yourself the way I have.”
It was a lie to be sure. Eva didn’t feel stunted, just unpracticed. Still, it felt a good excuse for the girl.
“You’ll have stories to rival your mother in time. You just need practice and patience. And practice at embellishing as well as your mother.
“Trust me. You’ll be much happier with yourself if you can look your mother in the eyes when you tell your stories.”