Juliana ran out of the small building titled Womens Ward.
Even without asking her, Zoe could see the blond hadn’t found her roommate.
Truly a troublesome student. If Eva just ran off somewhere with Mr. Carter without telling anyone, Zoe would be sticking a tracking tag on the girl.
If she hadn’t run off… well, she would probably still be getting a tracking tag, so long as she came back in one piece.
“I couldn’t go into her room,” Juliana said, “but I made a lot of noise at the door. I don’t think she’s home.”
Zoe frowned at that. She wished Eva had just added her to the wards set up around the place. She’d been warned not to wander aimlessly, but if this was an emergency then her professorial duty must be done.
“Let’s check the other buildings.”
“That building,” Juliana pointed towards a nearby cell house, “I think is her mentor’s building. I’m not even sure Eva is allowed inside; we should probably avoid it.”
“Good to know. Any others?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Let’s hurry then.”
Zoe and Juliana explored the rest of the complex. They avoided the two burned out buildings as well as the large machine shop. No one would stay in the burned out areas and the machine shop didn’t look like it had been opened in decades.
That left the remaining cell houses. The newer ones all seemed devoid of life. One, the furthest from Eva’s appropriated home, seemed less than devoid of life.
The smell leaking from it affected Juliana, Zoe could tell. She fidgeted. Her hand gripped tighter around her wand. Traces of flowing metal creeped up her neck to her chin.
Juliana’s nervousness only increased Zoe’s agitation. It was like some kind of paranoia plague leaking off the girl.
In truth, it wasn’t just Juliana. Necromancers were one thing. They dealt with the dead. What you would face fighting them was a known factor for the most part.
Diabolists were unpredictable. There were so many demons Zoe could think of and it wasn’t even a fraction of what a true diabolist would know of. Even that number wouldn’t be half the total number of demon types, let alone demons.
Zoe didn’t consider herself that great of a combatant. She could demolish students by the dozen, but they were just students. In her mock battles with Genoa, she did alright. If the mage-knight went all out, she doubted she’d be able to keep up.
That wasn’t even getting to nonthaumaturgical battles. The sisters favored lightning–an odd sort of lightning–there was no way that was all they were capable of. Their eyes glowed and they would suddenly know things a regular person shouldn’t know. Not to mention their lack of foci when casting. Whatever secrets they held, they never shared.
“You don’t have to come in, Juliana.”
The blond gave her a glare. “I can fight on my own.”
“Don’t. Demons are not to be trifled with. If a demon attacks us, I will immediately teleport us to the academy.” She rested one hand on Juliana’s shoulder and kept her dagger ready in her other hand. “Don’t move away from me.”
With no small sense of foreboding in her heart, Zoe opened the door to cell house two.
Luke warm air drifted out. The air smelled far fresher than the putrid stench outside the building. It was almost pleasant.
The interior consisted of a white marble ring surrounding a deep pit. Large arches held what looked like open doorways leading outwards. A black marble platform was suspended in the center of the pit. The only support it seemed to have were from chains bigger than Zoe herself stretching high into the sky.
There was no way any of this fit in the relatively small cell house.
From the gray clouds in the sky, a single pillar of light shone down on a black throne raised up on steps in the center platform. A skeleton clothed in a pure white gown sat the throne. Its legs were spread as far apart as the armrests would allow. It seemed to have sunk down into the chair, barely keeping on the seat. One elbow rested on the armrest; its knuckles curled at the cheek of the skull, propping it up. The other arm draped over the other armrest.
It hadn’t moved a muscle–figuratively–since the door had opened, but Zoe couldn’t shake the feeling that it was watching her.
Zoe exchanged a quick glance with Juliana. Nothing on the girl’s face looked like she wanted to enter. A sentiment Zoe mirrored.
Still, she was in charge of Eva. If Eva went in here then it would be neglect to not enter.
At least, that’s what Zoe told herself as she stepped into the room.
Echoes spread through the chamber as her heels clacked on the marble floor.
Now that they were inside, the room only seemed larger. The marble ring could hold a whole classroom without any students feeling like they might fall. Railings would make Zoe feel much better, but whoever designed this place obviously didn’t feel the same way.
The door slammed shut, sending more ominous echoes through the room.
Zoe immediately flicked her dagger to send them between.
The walls did not drop away. The room stayed exactly as it was.
That’s a first, she thought. She’d have to check with Wayne, but Zoe never had between cut off before.
Zoe kept a firm grip on Juliana’s shoulder.
The blond scanned the whole room as if expecting an attack from anywhere. Her eyes kept darting back to the still skeleton.
“Show yourself,” Zoe called out. There had to be someone here. If not, she’d only embarrassed herself in front of Juliana.
“You would make demands of Ourself?”
The feminine voice boomed around them.
Juliana jumped. Zoe grabbed her shoulder and pulled her closer.
“Who are you?” Zoe asked.
“Another demand. Asking for a title before introducing yourself no less. Mortal manners have fallen over the centuries, We see.”
Juliana was all but torn from her hands as her knees slammed into the marble. Zoe didn’t manage much better. Someone tied ropes around her knees and pulled them into the ground.
She hissed as one of her knees felt like it cracked.
Juliana didn’t make a sound. Perhaps the metal flowing beneath her clothes cushioned her.
“We have observed you wandering about the grounds. We will not tolerate quidnuncs in Our presence.”
“I am Zoe Baxter, an instructor at a nearby magical academy. To my side is a pupil of mine, Juliana.” Zoe spoke quickly. She did not want to be on a list of intolerable things, not when a voice that could move her body against her will with a mere word had that list.
“We are searching for another pupil of mine, Eva.”
Zoe chanced looking around when the voice did not return. Nothing had changed in their surroundings. The skeleton, still sitting atop the throne, hadn’t budged and there was nothing else around.
“She has gone missing,” Zoe continued. “If you have any information, it would be graciously appreciated. If not, we apologize for our intrusion and will leave at once.”
“So mortals can display manners when their lives are endangered.”
The skeleton drew itself to its feet. It took one step down from its throne. Then another. At the third step, it moved out of the ray of light.
A woman stood in place of the skeleton. At first glance, she looked beautiful. Her square jaw kept high as she descended the stairs. Her eyes never left the two kneeling girls.
The longer Zoe stared, the more everything seemed off. Subtle cues, but they were there. Her dress was cut low enough that Zoe could see straight down to her navel. There was not even the slightest rise and fall of her chest for breaths of air. Not a sign of life could be seen on her blue lips.
Her eyes were like steel as the gazed down on her subjects.
When she got to the edge of her black marble platform, she took another step forwards. Small sections of a bridge flickered into existence with every one of her calm strides.
Invisible? Or was she materializing it with every step. Zoe’s mind couldn’t help but wonder.
She stopped just ten feet from the kneeling girls. “You mentioned Eva. Missing you said?”
Her voice no longer boomed throughout the chamber. It lost none of its power.
Juliana spoke up before Zoe could. “Arachne said she went missing from the school dorms. We came here, hoping she was safe in her home. There have been necromancers plaguing our school as of late, we were worried she was captured or killed by them.”
“Eva is not dead. We would know if she passed. This may prove providential.”
The woman paused, looking between her subjects.
“One of you will deliver a message to Eva.”
Zoe cringed at the wording. Before Juliana could say anything, Zoe said, “if you are planning on killing the other, Juliana will carry your message.”
The woman shifted and placed one hand on her hip. “You would die for your pupils?”
“I would,” Zoe replied without hesitation.
“Do you wish for death?”
Zoe hesitated. She didn’t wish for death. Not by a long shot. If this was a trick question where she said as much, the woman might kill Juliana instead. Zoe mulled over wording then said, “if it means saving my students, then yes.”
“Death will come for you on His own time. We have no wish to hasten His coming.”
“I understand,” Zoe said. She bowed back down.
“A man known as Griffin Weilks must die by solstice. That is your message. See that it is delivered and We will reward you.”
The hold on her knees vanished. Zoe slowly stood up, careful to avoid placing weight on her knee. Only at her full height did she realize that the woman before her stood almost three heads taller.
“We will deliver your message,” Zoe said as she helped Juliana to her feet. She started ushering the younger girl to the door.
Juliana stopped moving. She turned back.
The woman hadn’t moved a muscle. Her hand was still on her hip as she stared at them.
“I am Juliana Rivas,” she said with a deep bow. “If… If I can ask,” Juliana said, keeping her head down, “I mean, if it isn’t impolite. What or who are you?”
The woman tipped her chin the slightest bit higher. “Ylva, daughter of Hel, daughter of Loki.”
“Thank you,” Juliana said, holding her bow before she slowly raised her head.
Ylva gave the barest nod of her head. “We will remember the name you have given.”
Zoe half pulled, half threw Juliana out of the cell house door. She slammed it behind her. She leaned in on the door, almost panting for breath.
Adrenaline left with the demon’s presence and the pain in Zoe’s knee flared full on.
Before she got distracted by the pain, Zoe grabbed onto Juliana’s shoulder and flicked her dagger. No small amount of relief flooded into Zoe as the world fell to pieces around her. The Rickenbacker medical room appeared around them.
A surprised Nurse Naranga stood up from behind her desk and ran over to the two women.
“Are you injured,” Zoe asked the younger girl.
She shook her head.
“Just a bone mending tonic for me, Lisa.”
The nurse nodded and rummaged through a cupboard. “What happened?”
“Cracked my knee falling on ice,” Zoe said. “Nothing big.”
Lisa gave a knowing look–one she often used when the two were still students–but handed a white vial to Zoe without a word.
Zoe downed it with a barely mumbled, “thanks.” She took hold of Juliana and transported both straight to dorm three-eighteen.
“Stay here,” Zoe said. “We’ll discuss ‘Arachne’ and your parting words to that demon later.”
“She seemed polite when we were polite,” Juliana said.
“Later,” Zoe said with a sigh. “For now, I think I will be asking the Elysium Sisters to help locate Eva.”
It would be remiss of her duty as an instructor not to use all the tools at her disposal.
Still, an involuntary shiver ran through Zoe’s spine at the thought.
— — —
Arachne crawled over the craggy terrain of her own domain in her largest form. It was the easiest way to move around in it. Her tiny corner of Hell had been designed to be difficult to traverse without Arachne’s mostly unique biology.
It kept her domain safe.
Her Eva nervously rode in her arms.
Without eyes, she couldn’t see. The small island granted her vision on account of it being her domain. At least, that was Arachne’s theory.
If she was demon enough to have a domain, she might be too demon to slip through a flimsy loophole. A loophole that might not even exist.
“There is no precedent for this, Eva,” Arachne said as she rounded the cave mouth into her lair.
“I don’t care. It is better than sitting around.”
“If I vanish–”
“Then we’ll get Juliana to try summoning me. Wasn’t that why you helped me make a gateway on the beach?”
That didn’t mean Arachne liked their alternate plan.
Any plan that relied on people who weren’t Arachne was a bad plan.
“Eva, there are two outcomes for this. Either I disappear, leaving you to find your way back to your island on your own–quite a feat for anyone in my domain, let alone you as you are right now–or we arrive together wherever the necklace is. That is going to be with the necromancers unless they decided to throw it away along the way.”
Arachne turned back into her human form, still with Eva in her arms, as she walked through her lair’s corridors. The cave mouth opened up into an expansive almost palace. Almost.
It was fanciful and enormous, carved almost entirely by hand, or claw, over the course of millennia. Tapestries, woven by herself of course, adorned key spots along the main hall. Some were simple images, other depicted legends–mostly hers.
Eva’s blindness was a travesty that Arachne intended to return tenfold and tenfold again on the necromancers.
“If Juliana can’t summon you, or something happens to me with the necromancers, you could be stuck here for a very long time.”
“Your point, Arachne?”
“Reconsider taking my hands.”
There was a short pause before Eva said, “alright, I’ve reconsidered.”
Arachne set Eva down on her bed. It was a rather normal bed for her. She didn’t sleep often, but on the occasions she did, it was usually in her human form.
It was a good thing Eva was blind. There were several tapestries hanging around the room. Most were of Eva, though one was of Devon–Arachne must have been ill that day–and the rest were all scenery.
The scenery ones she might have shown off.
“You agree then?”
“Eva, I am not going anywhere without you having something you can use as a weapon.”
“I have this,” Eva said as she tapped the crumbling bloodstone hanging from around her neck. She’d already vanished all the blood, it had grown too old to be used properly before her story finished.
“That is going to do you no good Eva, and you know it. It is barely holding together as it is. I know nothing about blood magic, but that can’t last more than another hour of use, can it?”
Eva said nothing.
“You can’t see right? You’re telling the truth?”
There was a bit of nervousness when Eva answered. “I can’t see.”
“What if you were asleep?”
“I think I’d wake up at my hands being torn off.”
Arachne grinned. Her domain, her rules. Mostly. “Human doctors cut up people all the time while they are asleep. Just say yes, Eva. Agree to sleep in exchange for my hands. A contract.”
“You’re forcing another contract on me.”
“No,” Arachne said as she took a seat on the bed. Eva shifting away from her pulled at something in her chest. Arachne shook it off. “No. If you don’t want to, I’m not forcing anything.”
Eva sat there. Thinking? Considering? Hopefully about ready to agree.
“If,” Eva started, “if I say yes…”
That was as far as she got. Eva slumped over.
Arachne gently caught her and laid her down on the bed gently. There was a brief thought about moving her off the bed. Arachne banished it as quickly as it came.
It was a rare opportunity to infuse her bed with her Eva’s scent, after all. She wouldn’t mind sleeping in her Eva’s blood. There shouldn’t be much of it if Arachne did this properly and quickly, in any case.
All of her extra limbs sprouted from her back. They couldn’t form into the fine fingers she used, but she was dexterous enough to overcome anything for her Eva.
With Eva’s arm held steady, Arachne placed her own hand inside her mouth. A sharp and firm bite severed her hand just behind her wrist. She pulled it out with her other hand and quickly snapped down on Eva’s wrist in the same spot.
She was in too much of a rush to enjoy the taste of Eva’s skin. Arachne quickly spat out the squarish pad of meat. It might come in handy later.
Her Eva’s wrist was much squishier. Maybe she’d accept a full arm later.
Arachne pressed her severed hand against Eva’s stump. She slowly channeled magic into the spot where they touched.
If there was more to it than that, Arachne didn’t know. Eva might wake up without working hands and then hate Arachne for a lot longer than she would if she woke up with working hands.
The trick she’d pulled, if she could call it that, would anger Eva far more than any issue with her hands. Arachne knew that. But Eva was about to say yes. So surely it wouldn’t be that bad. If she’d said no, the contract would have just dissipated.
Eva’s wrist made an odd noise. It almost scared Arachne into stopping the magic. She continued, not wanting to risk stopping and restarting.
Her bone stretched outwards to meet the edges of Arachne’s hand. A weird thing to watch. Arachne’s hand stretched over the bone in turn. Holes appeared in the bone and veins and muscle stretched through the holes, presumably connecting to something inside the hand. The black exoskeleton stretched over the openings in her wrist about half way to her elbow.
That was a good sign. Hopefully.
Soon enough, Arachne’s magic felt like it was being wasted, vanishing into the void. She stopped channeling and inspected the new limb.
It looked good. The exoskeleton dug into then slowly merged with her skin as it got to her elbow. She gave it a light tug–a very light tug for Arachne–and was pleased to find it didn’t budge. She could see the tendons moving in the skin part of Eva’s arm when she wiggled the fingers, another good sign.
Happy with how it turned out, Arachne repeated the process with Eva’s other hand.
It was a bit tricky getting her own hand out of her mouth with her legs. Something she was glad Eva was both blind and asleep for. It couldn’t have been pretty.
Once the other hand was attached, Arachne gave her a full once over. The hands weren’t quite symmetrical. The part that merged with her skin went up to about the same spot, but the designs formed large curls as it merged. The curls were different on each arm.
Overall, Arachne thought it looked good. Hopefully Eva would think so too.
Eva’s feet, Arachne couldn’t do much about at the moment. Their contract was only for hands. Even if it was for feet, Arachne wasn’t sure she’d go for it right now. Not with her hands needing to heal. If she was going to enter battle before long, she didn’t want to cripple herself too much.
Perhaps later, Eva would consider allowing Arachne to chop off both her entire legs and the rest of her arms. She’d have to be careful moving at full strength while her torso was human, but she could at least have extra partial strength.
Maybe if the unthinkable happened and Eva found herself captured, she’d be able to escape with Arachne’s limbs.
For now, she’d have to deal with and adapt to her lack of toes.
Arachne had no solutions for eyes. Eva would need all of Arachne’s eyes to have proper sight, and even if it was only her two humanish ones, they wouldn’t fit in Eva’s eye sockets. Something similar to what happened on her arms might fix that, but that left the issue of the other eyes.
Perhaps the hel would have a deal on eyes that wasn’t horrible. It left a bad taste in her mouth even thinking of the creature, but the hel seemed at least mildly interested in Eva.
Something to think on later. For now, she could adapt and deal with her vision.
Arachne sighed. She ran a leg over Eva’s hair and another over her cheek. It might be a while before the girl let her near.
“Eva,” Arachne said, “contract complete. You can wake up now.”
Her black-haired girl groaned. One of her new hands slowly rose up to Eva’s head. Not to be inspected, but in the way humans cradled headaches.
Arachne moved to stop it. She didn’t want her Eva’s opinions on the new hands to be marred by a pierced skull.
“Arachne,” Eva groaned. Her groan had a sharp edge to it.
“I’m here. Everything went perfect.”
“Arachne. What went perfect.”
Arachne didn’t respond. She watched as Eva flexed the hand caught by her legs. Even the extra joints flexed; not something Arachne even thought about when she started.
“Arachne,” Eva snarled, “what did you do?”
She winced back at Eva’s voice. She expected it, and it was much better angry than sad. Arachne just wished the anger was directed somewhere else. “I completed our contract.”
“You did it again. I can’t believe you.” Her fingers clicked as she tapped them together. “You couldn’t just wait for me to say yes, could you?”
“I…” Arachne sighed. “I didn’t want to risk you saying no.”
Eva turned away, pulling her arm out of the legs holding it. She carefully kept her hands away from her bare skin. Probably a good idea until she got used to them.
“I don’t know why I bother trusting you. You clearly have no trust in me.”
“I just want what’s best for you.”
“And this is what’s best for me?” She held up a hand, clacking the long fingers together. “How am I supposed to hide these from people. Let me decide what’s best for me and I’ll let you know how you can help. This is not it. You didn’t even let me agree on my own…”
“Humans have gloves. If you fold up the top two segments, you’ll fit.”
Eva sighed. She fell backwards on the bed and just lay there.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Eva should be fired up. Yelling. Angry. Or Eva should be thankful. Glad. Happy.
No. Arachne shunted the voice from her mind. This was her domain. Her rules. There would be no machinations of the Void here.
“Can we go now?”
Arachne looked down at Eva. She hadn’t moved except for a slight drumming of her fingers.
“Eva, I’m… sorry.” This felt gross. Arachne didn’t like it.
Using all of her legs to help hold Eva, Arachne picked the girl up. At least she isn’t flinching away.
She carried her Eva through the halls to the gateway chamber. It was a small place. No ostentatious carvings or tapestries. Apart from the last several years, it went mostly unused. The only real designs were the gateway diagrams on the floor. Almost a mirror of what summoners in the mortal realm used.
Arachne walked up to the gateway and channeled magic into it. She focused on the necklace as she did so.
“Remember, if you don’t make it through–”
“Place my left hand on a wall and follow it until I reach a sandy beach. Then think of the island.”
“I will come for you. I promise.”
Eva didn’t acknowledge anything. She stared off into a corner of the room. Or she would have, if she could stare.
The floor rippled. A black emptiness tore open.
Arachne fell. She kept all her legs tightly wrapped around Eva as the void swallowed them whole.
— — —
Nel Stirling concentrated on the floating strand of hair in front of her.
Her concentration yielded nothing even after hours of searching.
It was next to impossible to hide from an augur when one had something personal. Hair should definitely work. Yet there was nothing but darkness in her vision.
If this went on, she’d be excommunicated for being abandoned. Or worse. Very probably worse. The Sisterhood wouldn’t leave a rogue augur running wild.
With fear in her heart, Nel redoubled her efforts.
Nel pulled her hand away from the long strand of black hair as if it shocked her.
She felt her eyes fade from the glowing white back to their normal brown as she glanced at the person impatiently tapping her foot.
Sister Cross stood next to her, arms folded with an obvious question on her face.
“I found her,” Nel said.
Nel bit her lip. Sister Cross was already on edge from losing one of the sisters. Now this.
It wasn’t my fault. Sister Cross wouldn’t do anything to me. The reassurance rang hollow in her own head.
Delaying telling would only be worse. Sister Cross would find out anyway. In a quick decision, Nel began telling everything she saw in the instant the endless abyss opened in a small cave north of the academy.