“Your grip has tightened since Halloween.”
“I heard you were staying in town for Christmas,” Eva shrugged. “I went out to buy a stress ball straight away.”
Genoa Rivas barked out a laugh. “Good. Good.”
She released Eva’s hand and clasped her own on the shoulder of her partner. With a light shove, the spindly man stumbled forwards. He managed to avoid crashing into Eva by inches.
“This is my husband, Carlos.”
A spindly arm stretched out to Eva. “H-hello,” he said in a high-pitched voice.
“Eva,” she said. Just as she had with Genoa, Eva carefully took his hand in her own gloved hand. She gave the lightest of squeezes, even lighter than she had with Genoa.
He still winced.
It had been getting better over the last month. The amount of crushed pens and pencils had dropped significantly. Almost. At least she felt good enough about her grip to touch other people again.
Carlos tapped the side of his coke-bottle glasses when Eva released his hand. “I heard you have an interesting pet.”
Eva shot a glance at a shrugging Juliana. The blond already took her seat at the large clock-faced table.
“She’s currently staying with my guardian out of town.”
The smile on his face faltered for just a moment. It quickly returned, though not quite as strong.
Eva wondered if she hadn’t ruined Christmas for the poor man. Not that she’d go around showing off Arachne even if it would have been the best day in his life.
“A shame,” Carlos said. He took his seat next to Genoa.
Eva followed suit, glad her seat didn’t have the spinning saw-blade beneath it. It wasn’t making noise and probably wasn’t real. She still wasn’t feeling up to testing it, given that she could actually see it.
If the Liddellest Cafe redecorated for Christmas, it wasn’t very apparent. As far as Eva could tell, it was the same quaint cafe she visited in November. One table was a large mushroom with several toadstools around for seats. Another table was completely flat. She recalled that it had been made out of cards the last time she was here.
No decorations hung from the ceiling. If anything had changed, it might have been the colors.
She hadn’t found a way around seeing colors.
A tea-pot wandered over and poured out a cup and some tea. Eva took a sip and winced. Oyster tea.
“Juli tells me that you two aren’t heading out into the Infinite Courtyard for the school’s Christmas party,” Genoa said.
Juliana coughed and pushed her tea-cup away from her. “A few of our friends decided to stay in and do a simple gift exchange.”
“Something I am very thankful for,” Eva said. “The cold and I are not on good terms.”
“Aren’t you a fire mage?”
“I’ll just say that I am still learning, and we’ll leave it at that.”
“Is the school’s fire magic teacher not very good?” Carlos asked after taking a long sip of his tea.
“I don’t have anyone to compare Professor Calvin to, but he seems alright. At first I was thinking I might be bad at fire magic, but others in my year seem to be having the same difficulty.”
A large platter walked onto the table and started handing out small plates of Christmas ham to everyone. Eva quickly took a large bite, thankful to be spared further elaboration. That the ham tasted like ham was also something to be thankful for.
Genoa didn’t seem so willing to let it go. “It doesn’t have anything to do with the…” Her fingers pointed at her own eyes.
“Mother,” Juliana started in a warning tone. “I believe we discussed this in my letter. No constant badgering over Eva.”
Eva just smiled. That answered the question of why neither of her parents asked about the blindfold.
“It isn’t constant and it isn’t badgering. It was a question.” Genoa dropped her voice to a low whisper. “I can’t believe those Elysium Sisters are parading themselves around as heroes. I knew they were no good.”
“Now, now dear,” Carlos said, patting her thigh under the table. “Let’s not make a scene.”
Eva decided to switch the subject off the nuns before Genoa did anything loud. She had apparently been told the version of the story where the nuns showed up too late to rescue Eva’s eyes.
“I don’t think my eyes are as much of a hindrance as everyone else thinks. Professor Lurcher taught me how to use fire magic to constantly detect the ambient temperature of everything around me. I can see as well or better, so long as things aren’t exactly the same temperature as their surroundings. Even then, the heat radiating off of me and other people hits the things and creates a sort of bump where they are.”
At least, that was the cover Zoe Baxter told her to give. The school staff didn’t want it to become public knowledge that a student was actively using dark magic at school. They seemed to be under the impression that the dark magic was the necromancer’s doing.
That was fine with Eva. Zoe hadn’t told anyone. Juliana hadn’t told anyone. And Eva was certainly in no rush to correct that misconception.
“I see, that is clever. Air mages can sense wind direction almost innately. What you’re doing is probably something similar.” Genoa nodded, seeming to accept the lie easily.
They ate in peace while discussing school topics. How much Juliana hated history came up more than once, courtesy of her father. He didn’t mention either of their ecology classes. Eva thought he would be all over Professor Twillie’s class, at the very least.
Creatures found in a normal zoo were apparently too commonplace for him.
Eva briefly considered asking Genoa if she had any interesting stories. Carlos stood up just as Eva opened her mouth.
“Look at the time,” Carlos sad with a glance at the table. “We must be off or we will be missing our flight.”
He must have a supernatural sense for when someone is going to ask for a story, Eva thought with a frown.
“Your father and I are traveling to Russia for all of January and February.”
“In the middle of winter?” Eva couldn’t help but shudder at the thought. She though Montana was cold and yet Russia was known for freezing temperatures.
“Quite so,” Carlos said with a grin, “it is the best time to observe leshenka. All the Russians drinking to keep warm draws them out in hordes.”
Juliana opened her mouth but her mother headed her off. “Don’t worry, your father and I have other plans to keep warm.”
Genoa barked out a laugh as she pulled on her heavy fur coat.
Eva wondered if she planned on wearing more in Russia than the straps exposing most of her skin she currently wore.
“Oh, yes.” Genoa dropped a hand in her pocket and pulled out two objects. “Merry Christmas, you two. Good luck with your gift exchange,” she said. After dropping the objects on the table, she ushered herself and a politely waving Carlos out of the cafe.
Eva pulled all the tiny flecks of her blood off their clothes as they left. She moved some to the small box in front of her.
Juliana already had hers open. “Oh mother,” she mumbled.
Eva kept her blood off of it, wanting it to be something of a surprise for when she opened her own box.
It was a little cardboard box that folded back at the top. Eva gently pulled it open and flooded the inside with blood. A tiny flood. Just enough to get a good read on what was inside.
It took a minute to figure out what she was looking at. At first, she thought it was a coil of rope. It moved. A snake maybe? Except it didn’t have any blood.
Puzzled, Eva turned to Juliana’s and sent a few flakes to check her gift out.
Standing in her hand was a miniature bird. At least, it had wings and feathers and clawed talons. It stood up like a human and had a human-like face, minus the feathers making up its hair.
It was moving around too despite also having no blood.
“Oh,” Juliana said as she glanced over, “a basilisk. I think they’ve only made five or six of those.”
Eva sent more blood beneath the little snake. Sure enough, there was a head and very sharp feeling fangs. She carefully stuck her hand down in the box and picked it up. Eva didn’t believe Genoa would hand out things that could actually hurt her.
It squirmed over her gloves, wrapping itself between her fingers before settling down. Its tail threaded between the rest of her fingers and coiled its head onto her palm.
It stared straight at her.
“I suppose I’m glad I’m blind.”
“Don’t be silly, it can’t hurt you. They make these and sell them for a lot of money. I wish I knew how. They said they’d teach me when I got older.”
The little harpy in her hands flapped its wings and fluttered to her shoulder.
“The harpy is a humanoid though. If they’ve made five basilisks and they’re extremely rare, the humanoid ones are essentially nonexistent.”
Eva looked back at the snake in her hand. She wiggled her fingers. It didn’t like that. After scurrying between her fingers again to reset its position, it hunkered down on her palm with a glare.
“They’re not alive, are they?”
“No, they’re enchanted carvings, basically. Each receives an imprint from whatever species it is. The smarter the imprintee, the more work has to go into making them.”
The basilisk in her hand continued to stare at her. Eva slowly brought her hand one way then another. The snake head followed her the entire way.
“I think it is trying to kill me,” Eva said with a grin. “I like it.”
“Figures,” Juliana said. Eva could see the blood vessels in her eyes going for a roll. “My mother has you pegged well.”
“Hopefully not too well.”
“Well,” Juliana shrugged, “she didn’t try to attack you. I’d say she doesn’t know everything.”
“Always a good thing in my book.”
Another teapot wandered over to their table. Eva watched as the blood in Juliana’s face scrunched up.
“Let’s get back to the dorms,” she said. “Shelby and company will be wanting to meet up soon.”
The two left quickly, arriving at the dorms just in time for curfew to settle in.
Eva did not miss the glare Sister Mable gave her at the door. Is she still sore about being berated by Sister Cross? Or could it be that she knows.
Sister Cross said she’d keep everything a secret. Eva wasn’t about to trust her word further than she could throw it. Eva caught more than a few of the nuns glancing in her direction more often than not. It was entirely possible that they found out on their own. Sensing her hands or even the cloud of blood following her around.
Eva returned the glare, or tried to; glares didn’t work so well without eyes.
They went to their room, the newly refurbished room three-thirteen, and gathered their gifts. Eva got the same thing for everyone. Everyone except for Juliana at least. She got a pen for her, but had an extra gift as well. That gift made her nervous. She wasn’t sure she wanted to give it.
Everyone else got a fountain pen and a vial of the ink she used on runes. Expensive, but they were nice and even useful if any of them wanted to learn some simple runes.
Eva focused on the harpy sitting on Juliana’s desk while getting her gift bag.
The little harpy folded its wings and curled up into a little ball, looking like it fell asleep.
“Basilisk off,” Eva tried.
The little snake that had been wrapped around her fingers the entire way home slithered out to the palm of her hand. There it coiled up and went to sleep.
“Handy,” Eva said as she set the snake down on her own desk.
“They are just enchanted.”
“I was wondering if they’d try to eat each other if we left them alone. I guess that solves that problem.”
Juliana chuckled. “I think my harpy could stay out of reach of your snake.”
“I don’t know, basilisks are supposed to be clever, right? Basila would lay a trap.”
“It needs a name, right?”
“Basiliska sounded too weird.”
“I don’t think you’re allowed to name things anymore.” Juliana sighed and glanced at the clock. “About time to go, isn’t it?”
“Give me one minute.”
Eva quickly hopped into the bathroom. Juliana didn’t like to be around when Eva pulled out her dagger.
The golden dagger had been performing admirably. Her crystal dagger still hadn’t gotten a bloodstone set in it; the bloodstone from Weilks turned out to be too large for the holder. It was depressing, but she’d promised the golden dagger blood.
The only real downside was its weight. It was a lot heavier than her crystal dagger. A lot heavier. She hadn’t noticed so much when she first got it, but then, she only carried it around for half a night with a bag of other gold.
Ylva might be able to turn it into the same black metal that she used with the skull. It felt heavier than gold but Eva could pick it up without even the slightest strain. The only problem was that Eva didn’t want to offer any additional favors to the hel. The demon got a good enough deal on destroying the book as it was.
Eva tapped the sharp edge of the dagger to her upper arm. Trying to cut through the black chitin lining her forearm was an exercise in futility. A single, tiny marble leaked from her arm before she healed it back up.
The marble split in two. Those two split in two more. Eva continued splitting the blood until there were barely above microscopic flakes floating around her. So long as she didn’t bunch them up or land too many at a single spot, no one seemed to notice.
With a clap of her hands, she vanished all the old blood. In a pinch, it would last about three hours before her control started to slip. She tried to refresh every hour, if possible.
Shelby and Irene knocked at their door while Eva was in the bathroom. Eva took special care to memorize the layout of all her friends’ circulatory systems. Despite being twins, Shelby and Irene’s were as different as night and day.
Or maybe I just don’t understand how twins work, Eva thought as she headed back to the main room.
“Hello Eva,” Shelby said with a bright smile. At least, it was probably bright. It was definitely a smile though.
Eva returned the smile, hoping once again that Shelby’s wasn’t out of pity. “Hello Shelby. Ready to head down?”
She affirmed and the four girls headed to one of the study rooms.
Eva fell in step beside Irene. She did not miss the slight increase in her heart rate as she did so. Irene had been getting better about it lately, but she still seemed on edge whenever Eva came around.
At least she was sitting next to her during alchemy again. On the rare occasions that Eva actually attended.
To her sight, the study room was a simple box. The night sky shone down on everyone else. Eva didn’t mind. Most of the study rooms had visual wards set up that she could no longer enjoy. The stars were at least subtle and out of the way, not something everyone would spend half the evening pointing out.
“Excited?” Shelby asked as she slid a table next to the one Eva set out. Irene and Juliana headed to the kitchens to pick up some food.
Eva looked up to Shelby. Even if she could see without looking at someone, it seemed polite to do so. “For Christmas? Maybe a little. Most of the Christmases back home were… lackluster.”
“You don’t talk about your home much.”
“Not much to talk about. I don’t have fancy parents like Jordan or Juliana, and no siblings to complain about like Max.” Eva sat down in a chair, satisfied they had enough tables pushed together. “How about you? We don’t hear much about the Coggins’ household.”
“Well,” Shelby started as she took a seat, “not much to say either, I suppose. Half the ‘household’ is here at school. As for the other half, one lost his job as a foreign affairs advisor and the other is a struggling musician. She plays a lyre, not exactly the most popular instrument these days.”
Eva wasn’t sure what to say to that. “More respectable than my family. My mother lies around on her back all day and my father couldn’t hold a job down if his life depended on it.”
“Let’s not play the who has a more troublesome family game,” Shelby said with a grin. “I’ve got an uncle who can’t be beat in that.”
They sat in silence until Irene and Juliana returned with Max and Jordan in tow. The girls seemed to have recruited the two in helping to carry the meal. Neither of the boys wasted a moment in setting the food out and cutting up the large turkey they stole from the kitchen.
Max set to arranging the relish tray in fancy patterns. The celery criss crossed with carrots, leaving holes for olives in the center. Pickles and tomatoes all but danced over the top.
If he was better at magic, they might have danced.
Together they ate, talking about nothing and everything. Jokes passed around. Some got polite chuckles while others got roaring laughter. They celebrated getting through the first half of their first year.
That making it to December actually warranted celebration seemed to be lost on most of them.
Throughout it all, Eva participated where she could. She laughed at jokes–mostly polite laughs–and kept up with conversations, at least ones that she related to.
Talking about football seemed to enrapture Max and Shelby. It didn’t interest Eva in the slightest. Thankfully, she didn’t appear to be alone in that. While Jordan politely nodded along and even offered input now and again, Irene and Juliana seemed almost disgusted with the topic.
Eventually, their party wound down. Jordan pulled out his bag of gifts and everyone else followed suit. They made a quick show of handing out gifts to each other.
Irene and Shelby gave everyone a large bottle of Twisted Doe. They handed out loaves of bread and jam made by the same company.
Eva couldn’t wait to try it.
Max also handed out food. Homemade food. He sneaked off in the morning to bake up a few batches of his great grandmother’s pastries.
The smell alone almost had Eva in a drooling mess. How he hid it before he pulled them out, Eva couldn’t fathom.
Eva handed out her pens next. They seemed to be more politely received than anything, except by Jordan.
“What is the ink made out of?”
“I don’t know the exact formula, but scarab beetles from Central America as well as seaweed from the same area.”
Jordan held the small vial of ink up to a lamp on one of the side tables, inspecting it carefully.
“If you find a use for it, I can tell you where I order it from. I mostly use it for runes.”
“I’m sure it will come in handy,” he said as he set the vial back into the pen case. “Thank you.”
Having friends felt weird. She’d never given gifts before, not even to Devon or Arachne. Obviously never to her father or the kids she went to school with.
Her present being well received by at least one of her new friends brought a confused smile to her face. Eva wasn’t sure she liked it, but it was nice all the same. At least Christmas only came once a year. Coming up with a gift to give had been unpleasant.
A person moved to stand just outside the study room. Eva almost groaned as the woman placed a hand on the doorknob. There was only one person Sister Cross would be interested in speaking to inside.
The nun’s hand stopped before turning the knob. She brought it back and leaned against the wall.
Eva suppressed a sigh. That was almost worse.
The rest of the room continued handing out presents, ignorant of the troubles standing just outside.
Jordan brought out his presents. Necklaces with heavy metal pendants hanging off of them. She couldn’t tell what kind of metal it was. The pendant was a small dot with a crescent moon over it. A flame sprouted from the moon.
Everyone had the moon, but their flames were replaced by water drops, wavy lines or a large square.
Juliana finished up the group by handing out very heavy metal plates. There was something etched onto the front of it. An image of some sort. Eva couldn’t get a full picture of it without covering the plate in blood and that would have been too noticeable. She slowly traced the lines and guessed it was a person.
A person with a spider on top of their head.
With all the presents handed out, they started cleaning up from their party.
It was then that Sister Cross entered the room. She had a kind smile on. “Eva, might I have a minute of your time?” Her happy, melodious voice almost sang out.
Despite her facade of peace and happiness, her muscles were tense. Eva could tell.
Eva sighed, making sure her sigh was very apparent to all her friends, and excused herself.
Sister Cross led Eva to another study room. Whatever the fancy effect of this one was, Eva couldn’t tell.
“I see you’ve kept those hands,” Sister Cross said after she looked Eva up and down. The song-like tone was completely absent in her voice. “They’re corrupting you. I can see it.”
Eva doubted it was the hands corrupting her; Devon’s experiments would be the leading cause of any ‘corruption.’
“If you’d like me to remove them, I’d be happy to burn them off of you. It wouldn’t even be painful.”
“Sister Cross, I know you delight in ruining children’s Christmases, but I was enjoying myself with my friends. Do you have anything I care to hear about?”
Sister Cross leaned in close, all but growling as she said, “you’re a murderess who consorts with demons. You should consider salvation before it becomes necessary to strike you down.”
“I thought we were past holding Weilks’ death against me. You agreed he needed to be put down.”
“The three bloodstones strapped to your back–you got one from Weilks and one from a flesh golem. Where did you get the other?”
If Eva had any doubt her eyes were aglow, it was quashed with that statement. “A museum,” Eva said honestly. “I didn’t kill anyone for them. Surely you don’t count the flesh golem?”
“Sister Prince died last June. She was attempting to apprehend criminals,” she stressed the word, “who stole a dangerous object from a museum.”
Eva took a deep breath. She prepared her magic, channeling it into herself. “I didn’t kill your nun.”
“I didn’t think you did. Sister Prince’s cross was found amid a pile of ashes belonging to a human. I’ve seen you cast fire magic, you’re abysmal.”
“Oh.” Eva sighed, allowing some of her magic to dissipate. She couldn’t be that bad, could she? For a first year at least? Max was worse at water magic than she was at fire, after all. Most of the students weren’t much better than she was.
“You were there. Who killed her?”
It was Arachne, unless she still had scrapes of life left when her master incinerated her. She didn’t want to give the nun more reasons to go after Arachne. And Devon was still missing. Perfect to play a scapegoat.
“A diabolist by the name of Harley Warren.”
“He’s the one who summoned the demon you were with?”
“We’ve been watching that demon. It hardly moves unless you are around.”
“I told her not to. She is being punished. I’d think you would appreciate that.”
Sister Cross merely hummed.
“You’re still watching me?” Eva asked after a moment.
“Always. One toe out of line…” Sister Cross held up a single finger.
Eva didn’t bother to point out that she didn’t have any toes despite Arachne being completely ready to chop off her own legs. The fake toes she currently wore were sufficient for walking, but she couldn’t run. Not without falling or expending a lot of blood to make herself toes she could control.
Eva wanted to take Arachne’s legs. She truly did. She almost went ahead with it more than once. The only thing still holding her back was not wanting to give Arachne the satisfaction. The spider-demon was being punished.
That, and the nun in front of her. Sister Cross seemed to be able to see through her clothes. Not that Eva could really complain about being able to see through things. She was far more acquainted with the intimacies of everyone’s biology than she ever wanted to be.
Sister Cross’ sigh brought Eva out of her thoughts. “Shal is coming back.”
“Good for her.”
“Despite my urgings, she doesn’t want to change roommates.” Another sigh escaped Sister Cross’ lips. “She yelled at me.”
“Good for her,” Eva said with a smile.
A hand reached out and gripped the sides of Eva’s jaw. “I swear, Eva. One toe out of line and I will kill you. You hurt Shal in the slightest–”
“Why would I save her if I wanted to turn around and hurt her,” Eva said through Sister Cross’s hand.
The nun released Eva with a light shove. She turned her back to Eva, not that such a thing mattered to her vision. “I expect you to catch her up in all her classwork. If you are anything but an exemplary friend, I’ll know.”
“I would do that without your orders. I’m sure Juliana will be willing to help with things I can’t.”
Sister Cross gave Eva an evil eye. She all but stormed out of the room.
Such an annoying woman, Eva thought as she headed back towards the party room.
The party seemed over, at least from outside the room. Only Juliana and Irene were inside. They looked like they were putting tables and chairs back in their spots.
Juliana immediately turned to Eva as she walked in. “What was that about?”
“Shalise is coming back. Sister Cross asked me to help her catch up.”
“Why did a nun tell you Shalise was coming back?” Irene asked.
Juliana answered, “Sister Cross knew Shalise before school. She apparently was a sort of family friend.”
Irene quirked her eyebrow and said, “it will be nice to see her again.”
“I was wondering if she would come back,” Juliana said as she shoved a table against one wall. “After what happened… I just wasn’t sure.”
Eva helped the finishing touches on cleaning the room. They went up to their rooms and parted ways with a merry Christmas.
“Taking a shower,” Juliana said as she jumped into the bathroom.
Eva took a seat at her desk and pulled off her gloves. They had to come off slowly and carefully. She’d torn one set of gloves getting it caught on the tips of her fingers.
Gloves off, Eva stretched out her fingers. Keeping them folded up all day was easily the biggest drawback. It wouldn’t even work if her finger’s joints weren’t weird. Each finger had six joints that could hyper-extend to a ridiculous degree.
None of that made it any more comfortable.
Eva placed the metal plate and Jordan’s necklace on her desk. With a quick swipe of her dagger, a decent sized marble of blood splashed down on the plate.
As she suspected, it was a very intricate etching of herself with a large spider sitting on her head. Arachne would love it.
Eva’s smile disappeared as she pulled open a drawer on her desk and pulled out a black marble. One part had a bright red streak running across it. She mulled it around in her fingers until Juliana popped out of the bathroom.
Eva tossed the gift back into her drawer and slammed it shut.
“What was that?”
“Nothing,” Eva said. “Just closed the drawer with too much force.” She wiggled her fingers as if they were at fault.
Juliana gave a light smile and said, “you haven’t crushed anything in weeks.”
“And I didn’t crush anything this time. Just startled by the noise was all.”
While watching Eva cut herself for blood magic seemed to disturb the blond, her new hands were almost fawned over. After the initial awkwardness was settled, Eva almost couldn’t shake her off.
“My turn for a shower?”