Hot air permeated the entire building. The pleasant kind of hot air. It wrapped around and enveloped Eva. She didn’t need all the heating runes covering her clothes here. She didn’t even need clothes, but she couldn’t muster the energy to pull them off.
Eva reclined with a soft sigh, sinking deeper into the cushions of the couch. All of her aches and pains leaked out into the leather. The couch accepted all of it without complaint.
If it did complain, she might have been a little worried.
Her vision of the surrounding room slowly flickered out of her mind as Eva let down her guard and stopped concentrating.
A low sound droned on in the background. It sent quiet reverberations into her very core. Any superfluous noise got caught in the sound and never made it to Eva.
Eva felt at peace for the first time in a week.
A crack shattered the atmosphere.
Eva jumped. She glanced around for a moment before settling her vision on Arachne.
Eight eyes stared back. The spider-woman held a book shut in her claws.
“You were falling asleep.”
“I wasn’t,” Eva said. She dragged herself to a sitting position on the soft leather couch.
“What was the last thing I said?”
Eva pinched the bridge of her nose as she scrunched up her forehead. “Something about simulacrum theory?”
Arachne glanced at the pile of books beside her chair. “That was at least two books ago.”
“Oh.” Eva flopped back down on her stomach. “Better restart from there then.”
“Eva, it is the middle of the day. You shouldn’t be tired at all with your constitution. Is something wrong?”
The part of the couch she landed on lacked the warmth from her body heat. The cold of the leather somehow managed to be pleasant anyway. With a content sigh, Eva said, “Franklin Kines’ class is hard.”
“The combat class or botany?”
Eva gave her a glare. “Which do you think?”
“I would say botany, but then again, I am naturally talented in the art of tearing people to bits.”
“Tearing people apart would be easier than what I have to do.”
“And what’s that?”
“A back rub,” Eva groaned.
Arachne’s mouth split into a snarl. “You have to give your teacher a back rub?”
“Give me one and I’ll tell you.”
Her snarl ceased immediately. Eva did not miss the small twitches of Arachne’s claws. She slowly stood from her chair and moved past the center table. Her fingers twitched again as she towered over Eva.
Eva didn’t need to use flecks of blood to see the demon. Everything inside her women’s ward was so steeped in blood magic that it was almost like having eyes again. She still couldn’t tell colors apart and books didn’t have enough embossing on the words to stand out.
It was still the most comfortable place to be.
“I don’t know how.”
“It’s a back rub. You rub my back. With your hands.” Eva didn’t know more than that herself. “If you cut me, I’ll punch you in your teeth.”
“Okay.” Arachne reached down. She stopped just inches away. “Your shirt might get damaged.”
Eva almost put forth the effort to think about sitting up and pulling off her shirt. The muscles in her back tensed for one instant before they went slack. “I don’t care. I have more.”
Without further ado, Arachne’s fingers plunged into Eva’s back. They sat there putting a light pressure on her. Arachne seemed to forget the ‘rub’ part of the back rub for a few minutes. Eventually, she started pushing around.
She settled into a rhythm of pushing and pulling up and down Eva’s spine. It didn’t do near enough soothing of her sore muscles.
“Don’t forget my legs.”
“I thought it was a back rub.”
“Well now it is a back and leg rub.”
Arachne moved her hands all the way down to Eva’s ankles. She started kneading them all the way up.
Much better than the back, Eva thought with no small amount of relief.
“So what is all this for?”
Eva sighed; her eyelids just started to feel heavy again. “Professor Kines decided that standing around flinging spells at one another wasn’t good enough. Especially the first and second years who are far worse at magic. We get a full physical training workout for most of the class.” Eva sighed. “I can’t run, but he makes me make up for it with other work.”
Arachne continued working her way up Eva’s backside and then back down. At the third repetition, she paused her fingers right at the cusp of Eva’s butt.
“Do you want my legs?”
“Yes,” Eva sighed without hesitation, “and the rest of your arms.” The smile that split across Arachne’s face almost made her want to leave it at that. She didn’t. “Over summer break, I think.”
“If your legs take as long to get used to as the hands, I think I’d like to be out of school.”
“I see,” she said. “I’ll be ready in three months.”
Arachne squeezed a pinch too tight, then resumed her massage as normal.
Eva snuggled her head into the leather cushions and started to doze off again.
A circulatory system entering her vision startled her to full alertness. She slumped back down into the couch as he walked towards the women’s ward. There was a familiar pattern she was hoping to see one of these days. Or rather, she’d never seen the circulatory system before, but it had other distinguishing characteristics.
“Arachne,” barked the one-armed man. “Get the treatment chairs set up. I need to go–” He cut himself off as his eyes fell on Eva. “Oh good. You’ve saved me the trip to your school, girl.”
Arachne hesitated with her hands still on Eva’s back. It wasn’t long before she reached her decision. Tucking a chair under one arm and the table under the other, Arachne started carrying furniture to the back of the room.
“Hello master,” Eva said. “Some things have changed while you’ve been gone.”
The heart in his chest immediately picked up a few beats per minute. “What changed,” he ordered.
Eva gathered together her willpower and raised her hand in a lazy wave. She clacked her fingers together as she did so.
Devon stood there, staring.
Arachne brought back the worn down barber chairs and swapped them out for one of the couches and the last chair.
Eva’s couch was the only one left. She sighed and crawled off of the couch. As she stood up, her shirt and skirt all but fell off of her. She tossed the tattered remains off onto the couch.
Taking a seat in her barber’s chair, she immediately flopped down into it and went slack.
Devon half ran up to her. He tore at one of her hands, pulling at it and prodding it. He pinched and bent the fingers.
“Odd,” he said. “This is a far more drastic change than I speculated might happen. They’re exactly like Arachne’s as well.”
“They are Arachne’s. Or were. Mine now.”
“They’re what?” he shouted.
“Well, my master was going off in search of a shiny new arm. I felt left out.” She smiled as she watched her master’s blood boil. “I see you haven’t had much success with that. Speaking of,” Eva took her free hand and pointed at her eyes.
Devon’s hand clasped against her forehead. He used his thumb to lift up her eyelid. He repeated the action for the other eye.
“I think you had better explain,” he said.
Eva sighed as Arachne picked up the last couch. She recounted her tale with only minor embellishments to her master.
His blood pressure went up and up as her tale went on. The part where she screwed up an infernal walk seemed to both infuriate him and calm him.
“That’s amazing,” he said when she mentioned Arachne’s theory on the island being her personal domain. “That means it is working.” His boiling blood tuned down to a low simmer after that. There might have even been a ghost of a smile on his face.
Eva wasn’t entirely sure. Even within the wards, some things were still difficult to accurately discern.
Whatever smile might have been on his face vanished as she got to Zoe Baxter discovering more than she should have. Sister Cross all but stalking Eva only worsened his feelings.
“This might complicate things,” he said as her tale drew to an end. “I need to run some tests before we begin.” He turned but paused. “I assume my cell block hasn’t been given over to some demon?”
“Nope. Ylva is the only one here.”
He growled. “It is still here?”
“She comes and goes,” Eva shrugged. “She doesn’t leave cell house two unless invited by me.”
“And you invite her often?”
“No,” Eva admitted. Only once since the hel set up her throne room had Eva invited her to wander around. Eva was getting something out of it at that time. A little lesson in how to properly slingshot through Hell.
Devon turned without comment and headed out of the building.
“Arachne,” Eva called out. “Pick me up and carry me to bed.”
She wasn’t sure how long her master was going to be, but the barber chairs were not comfortable.
Arachne didn’t come.
Eva scrounged up the effort to drag herself out of the chair. Arachne stood in the doorway to their bedroom. “Arachne,” Eva repeated.
“It is doing the thing again,” she said. One long finger rose up to point behind the wall.
With a sigh, Eva walked up beside her demon companion. The black skull sat in its usual place on her dresser. Arachne’s gift hung from the wall just above it. Eva hadn’t felt safe carrying it around with all the nuns stalking the town.
The smooth metal of the skull had a glint to it even in Eva’s blood vision. A pale white light leaked from the eye holes straight into her brain.
“Alright,” Eva said. “Would you carry me over? I don’t want to walk.”
Arachne swooped down and gently lifted Eva into her arms. “You should have taken my legs.”
Eva’s vision lessened as they moved outside the women’s ward building. It was still there. Even without flecks of blood orbiting around her. She’d expended no small amount of blood filling the entire prison with blood wards, though none were actually active as defenses.
Sadly, even with the extra wards, Eva wasn’t yet at the level of nigh-omniscient seeing outside her home in the women’s ward.
It was a work in progress.
“It is like a grating in my skull when she does that.”
“You’ve said so before. I still don’t feel anything,” Eva said as Arachne carried her across the prison yard.
“I think she does it to me specifically, just to annoy me.”
“Or she just wanted our attention and it doesn’t work on me, at least not yet.”
Arachne huffed, jolting Eva in her arms. She let out a light groan as her sore muscles hit Arachne’s carapace. “You shouldn’t give a demon any benefits to any doubts.”
“I give you the benefit of the doubt almost constantly.”
Arachne bared her sharp fangs in a grin. “I’m special.”
“Uh huh,” Eva sighed.
Inside cell house two was another matter entirely as far as her vision was concerned. Blood spread out as Arachne pulled open the door. It hit walls and bars, beds and buckets. Her mental topography painted the picture of the cell house as it was before Ylva moved in.
She knew the cell house looked nothing like that anymore. Only once had she been inside before losing her eyes. It became unrecognizable after Ylva moved in. Eva could walk all around the chamber, touching the marble pillars and hanging her legs off the edge of the pit.
Moving through the chamber disoriented Eva to the point of throwing up the first time she tried to navigate by blood.
Eva pulled back all the flecks into a single ball that hovered just out of arm’s reach.
“Ylva,” Eva called out. “I would appreciate it if you stepped out of the light. I cannot see you that way.”
There were short taps of something hard against stone. The taps gave way to the sound of bare feet slapping against stone.
Slapping might not be the correct word for one of Ylva’s bearing. Without eyes, it was the most amusing thing Eva could picture.
Once the feet changed sounds, the rest of Ylva’s body entered Eva’s vision.
A disturbing body. Her blood didn’t move within the circulation system. It might not have been fluid at this point, yet Eva could see it.
“You wanted to speak, I presume?”
“We wish to make a request.”
Eva waited. The demon never made a request. With a sigh, Eva said, “what is your request?”
“The one you called master has returned to perform his, you called it treatment? We wish to observe.”
“I thought you could see through the skull.”
“It is not the same as seeing it through Our own eyes.”
Eva turned her head towards Arachne. Even though she could see her demon without moving, staring in one direction lacked the social cues necessary to nonverbal communication.
At her glance, Arachne started shaking her head. Her face was twisted into a scowl.
Almost exactly what Eva expected to see.
The blood making up the demon’s head gave a slight nod. “If they are reasonable.”
“You do not interfere with anything.”
“You do not act to harm myself, Arachne, or Devon.”
It was hard to be sure, but the hel’s face may have twisted into an offended look for an instant. “Acceptable,” she said as soon as she regained her features.
“I wish a favor in return.”
“We shall have to hear the favor. This is a small request We make. Our eyes are worth far more than this.”
I wasn’t going to ask for your eyes. They probably wouldn’t even work in a proper living body, Eva didn’t say. “I wouldn’t ask for your eyes without just payment. I believe my favor to be minor.”
“Very well, We will hear this favor.”
“I have in my possession a golden dagger and sheath. They are quite the burden to carry. You turned a golden skull into a black metal that feels heavy but can be lifted without effort.”
“You would ask Us to turn your implements to void metal?”
“Is that asking too much?”
Ylva tilted her chin up. She stayed posed like that for a minute before she looked back down. “No. We will do this task.”
“Excellent,” Eva said. She let out a short breath of relief. “So you’ve agreed to my conditions, I agree to your request.”
Another light nod from the hel.
The three headed back across the compound and into the women’s ward. Ylva walked confidently, each step exuding grace and nobility. In comparison, Arachne sauntered. She carried Eva, but her gait barely changed from her usual lazy walk.
Ylva stepped outside her building and into the late February sun. The moment she did, her circulatory system vanished. Ambient blood wards allowed Eva to see her in her skeletal form. A long dress clung to her bones.
Even though the dress probably shaded her legs, her transformation into a skeleton seemed to be an all or nothing thing. Eva had never seen the hel in a state of transition.
“You should still be keyed into the wards. I’ve not removed you since November.”
The hel stopped in her step. She turned her skull and nodded. “We appreciate that.”
Her brief pause gave Arachne the chance to speed up ahead. She carried Eva into the women’s ward and set her down in the barber chair.
“Would you go retrieve my dagger? I think it is on the couch.”
Ylva stood to one side, frozen circulation system back now that she stood indoors. She tilted her head to one side as Arachne took off to the back of the room.
“Have you become incapable of walking on your own?”
“Just tired today.”
“This tiredness causes you to be incapable of walking?” The way she said ‘tiredness’ made Eva wonder if the demon had ever experienced the feeling.
She probably hadn’t. Arachne never appeared tired. Even in November after she lost all her limbs, Arachne still carried Eva around with no issue and no complaints.
“I can walk. I’d rather rest.”
Eva wasn’t so sure she did. Either way, Eva didn’t argue.
Arachne returned with the golden dagger. The three bloodstones gleamed in Eva’s vision. She tried to offer it to Eva. Eva shook her off and gestured towards Ylva.
If Arachne could, Eva felt certain she would be rolling her eyes. She had the unmistakable air of annoyance around her. Still, she walked over and handed the dagger to the hel. Arachne avoided touching the hel even though Eva was almost certain that she could control her death touch.
Prudent, Eva supposed. She certainly did not want to take chances.
Ylva accepted the dagger. She unsheathed it and turned it over in her hands. Her inspection seemed thorough. The still blood in her fingertips traced over the fine engravings on both the dagger and the sheath.
“These are the implements you wish to be turned into void metal?”
“They are,” Eva nodded.
“Tell me, why did you not have your familiar do so?”
Arachne’s face twisted into a sneer. Her claws flexed outwards. For a moment, Eva thought she was going to strike the hel. The moment passed and Arachne seemed to calm down.
After a glance at Eva, she turned her gaze towards Ylva. “I am not her familiar.”
Arachne’s voice was soft. It lacked the usual harsh edge so common in her daily speech. Something to ask about later.
“We assumed. You follow her orders without question.”
“It is the nature of our contract.”
“Does your contract prevent you from forming void metal?”
Arachne’s teeth ground into each other and her fingers clenched again. The harsh grating in her voice returned full force when she spoke. “I can’t make void metal.”
“No?” Ylva’s head tilted up. There might have been a hint of a smile on her face. “We could teach. For a price.”
A low growl emerged from Arachne’s throat.
“Five hundred years of service to Ourself.”
“Not a chance.”
“It is a fair deal. You will be hard pressed to find a better one. We would not mistreat Our property so long as our property does not become dead weight.”
“I’ve gotten along for ten thousand years. I’m sure I’ll be fine for another ten.”
“Our offer stands in the future.” There was the lightest of shrugs before her head tilted back towards Eva. “We will perform this task after We have observed your… treatment.”
“I have no problem with that.”
Ylva nodded. With all the grace of a queen, she moved to the corner of the room. She didn’t move a muscle once she settled in. The way her blood didn’t flow made her look somewhat like a statue.
Eva slouched in the barber chair. Being able to see her own face at any time made it far easier to keep her emotions from showing so plainly. She exercised this ability to its fullest extent as she thought.
Arachne still glared at the hel even as she moved to her own chair. Eva didn’t miss the occasional half-snarl on the spider-demon’s mouth. Her fingers drummed on the armrest, poking small holes into the worn leather.
The fact that being called a familiar rattled Arachne so much was worrying. Did she think Eva wasn’t aware of the concept? Her master might not have a familiar, but he would probably tear off his other arm before he bound himself to a demon.
Speak of the devil, Eva thought.
A one-armed man strode up to her home. He marched straight past the still Ylva and up to Eva. Without asking, Devon grabbed her arm and plunged a needle into her skin. It stuck her just above the black curls of her exoskeleton meshing with her skin.
Blood flowed into the syringe as her master pulled back the plunger.
“I could just give you a sample with my daggers, you know.”
“I’d rather not contaminate the sample with more magic.”
Eva shrugged her free shoulder.
The needle left a tiny droplet of blood on her skin as Devon finished filling the syringe. Eva healed it near instantly.
He tapped out a small blob onto a square of paper. It must have had some sort of diagnostic ritual circle on it because Devon stared intently at the paper.
One soft sigh later and her master nodded to himself. “Alright. Your blood doesn’t show any increase in demonic influence. At least not any increase that is unexpected.”
He turned and paced back and forth across the short room. “That could be because there was no ritual going on. There is a lot more to this experiment than a simple blood transfusion.
“The ritual is designed to cause your body to integrate with the demonic blood rather than simply use and replace it with your own. With those hands, there may be unintended side effects during or immediately after the ritual if your body tries to further integrate the hands.”
He stopped pacing, facing away from a barely paying attention Eva. He sometimes went off like this. Demonology was his field, not hers.
“Given your experiences in Hell, I do not believe the addition of Arachne’s hands will invalidate my research even if something does happen because of them. I might need to find another person who isn’t tainted to act as a–”
He paused, frozen. At least, his body was frozen. His heart hammered.
“Eva,” he growled. “What is that?”
His only index finger rose to point at one corner of the room.
“Ylva,” Eva said, “agreed to perform a favor for me in return for being allowed to watch. Don’t worry, part of the agreement was her not interfering.”
The demon in the corner gave a light nod, her head still posed high.
Devon whirled on Eva. His face inches from her own.
Eva took a quick gasp of air and held her breath.
“You didn’t think to ask me before bringing some demon to watch.”
Hot air washed over Eva’s face. Even with her breath held, her master’s breath had a pungent odor she could never place. It wasn’t pleasant.
“I had a favor to ask, she had a favor to ask. It won’t hurt the experiment at all.” She tried to speak so her breath cleared the air. Eva took another breath of partially clear air before his hot breath pushed up her nose again.
Except it never came.
Devon whirled back to Ylva. He glared. His teeth ground together.
For a moment, Eva thought he might try to banish the hel.
He spun back to Eva and whispered into her ear. “You don’t know what you’re getting into, girl. I warned you about getting close to demons.”
“I’m not close to her,” Eva hissed back. “It was a simple request on both of our parts. Nothing more.”
His teeth grit in her ear. She worried he might crack his teeth.
“Fine.” He stood up. “Fine. You want to turn this into a playground for your little demon friends, I don’t care. So long as it doesn’t hinder my experiment.”
Eva sighed. She almost argued, but decided against it. The ritual would put her to sleep and maybe it would be a good nap. Of course, waking up never felt good after treatment, but that couldn’t be helped.
Devon pulled out the tubes and needles and started hooking her up to Arachne.
After double checking their connection, her master stripped down and stood in the circle’s smaller ring. There was a flare of pain and Eva’s vision went dark.