Wayne Lurcher downed his second glass of absinthe.
She could have just told me. It would have been better that way. None of this skulking about, avoiding and ignoring needed to happen.
What did she think I would have done? After all the dubious magic I taught her. Of course, he hadn’t been entirely truthful on the origins of most of that magic. But still, she was the premier magical theorist. Surely she could have guessed. She had to have known that there was no chance Wayne would bring hunters to Brakket over a passive demon. The little town wouldn’t survive.
No. The demon wasn’t even a problem.
Spencer’s casual use of blood magic set off far more alarm bells in Wayne’s mind.
Not many people, especially among those learning ‘proper’ magic like thaumaturgy, knew anything about alternate magics. Few would know where bloodstones came from. Wayne had no formal education in the subject, but he knew enough. Spencer using haemomancy as a replacement for sight had to be burning through stones quickly.
The implications were troubling, yet Wayne had been unable to locate any sudden disappearances or deaths among Brakket’s population in the past few months. She either had an outside source or a large stock built up.
A closer watch on the girl would be prudent.
Wayne sighed. Worrying about it now wouldn’t help. He saw at least three bloodstones on her, it would be a while before she needed more.
Zoe did not know about bloodstones. If she did, she was awfully cavalier about Spencer’s possession of them. She only just mentioned the subject after Wayne brought it up before moving back to demons.
No, Wayne shook his head, she wouldn’t know such things.
Telling her might be a good idea. He’d have to broach the subject carefully; Zoe was already upset at Wayne’s apparent lack of respect for Spencer’s privacy. Maybe find out her source first. Zoe couldn’t be angry with him if people were being killed.
Of course, he’d need to tell Zoe about his own students eventually, if only to avoid a repeat of their earlier discussion with roles reversed.
Another sigh escaped Wayne as he looked up to the bartender. “Another drink Tom?”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” he said with a kind smile. “The green fairy has already gone to bed. You should as well. Haven’t you got a class to teach in the morning?”
“Eh, first class is my prep period. Tomorrow’s preparation is sleeping in. ‘sides, I’m hoping to meet with someone tonight.”
If he even got the message.
“Well, I’m open for another two hours. Perhaps you would like a water or a soda?”
“Water’s fine,” Wayne said.
Even a glass of water was given a bit of a flair when Tom poured it. If there was one thing he prided himself on, it was his bar tending skills. He’d never pass up an opportunity to show off.
“I don’t suppose one of your private rooms would be available for this meeting?” Wayne asked as a frosted glass of crystal clear water slid in front of him.
Tom quirked an eyebrow as a sly grin spread across his face. “Oh? Is this someone a special someone?”
“Just a private matter, Tom. More work related than anything.”
“I see. Well, I could go get one cleaned up for you. Haven’t used the back rooms much these days. It will cost extra.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Wayne said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Just bill the school in my name, they’ll take it out of my next paycheck.”
“It shouldn’t be more than five minutes. Watch the counter while I’m gone?”
“Not unless you’re paying me. When are you going to hire some help?”
“Haven’t had the time since Watson quit.” Tom didn’t stick around to elaborate. He slipped out from behind the counter and disappeared down a small hallway.
Wayne sighed as he turned to face the rest of the room. There weren’t many patrons apart from Wayne. A couple sat at one table making googly eyes at each other. A group of kids–kids to Wayne at least–celebrated something or other.
One of the Elysium Order’s nuns sat with her back to a corner. Her eyes roamed over the rest of the pub in between sips of a drink. More than once, Wayne caught her eyes narrowing at the couple.
Wayne couldn’t honestly blame her. They should have been partitioned off in one of the private rooms if only to spare everyone else the cooing noises they occasionally made.
Hopefully the nun’s presence wouldn’t scare off his guest.
With the lack of Watson, the piano sat idle on the stage. Classical music played over the speaker system instead.
Wayne had to stop himself from pulling out his wand and bathing the neighboring seat in flames. The man sitting next to him slipped into the bar and onto the stool without so much as a whisper. Wayne didn’t even notice the door opening. Quite a feat given the bells attached to it.
Must have teleported, Wayne thought as he turned to the newcomer.
He was a rough man with a scraggly goatee much in need of a good trim. The worn trench coat he wore smelled distinctly of sulfur.
A slip of paper found its way into Wayne’s hands.
Questions regarding nonthaumaturgical magic. Meet at Victory–a bar located three blocks west from the ‘entertainment district. Look for a small sign with a headless, armless angel. Midnight. ~Lurcher
His own enchanted note. Designed to be noticed even when hidden. Wayne tore it to pieces before it could attract the eyes of the rest of the bar’s patrons.
The self-proclaimed demonologist watched as Wayne withdrew his wand and smokelessly incinerated the remains.
“I take it that was meant for me?” he asked.
“If it was meant for Spencer or her spider, I would have gone to them.”
“They might have gone back to the prison.”
“Naranga was livid when she found Spencer out of bed. That anger grew while she was gone. I doubt they’ll leave the infirmary any time soon.”
“I didn’t realize Arachne was gone for some time. The message might have been meant for it–though why, I’ve no idea. It wasn’t until I found a second note outside my cell house that I thought the note might have been for me.”
“Didn’t know your name. Didn’t want to write down anything incriminating. Just stuck one around the entrance to every building.”
A grimace crossed his face. “Every building?”
“Yeah. Why? Someone else live there?”
He stood up. “I should go before–”
Had there been live music, it surely would have screeched to a halt when the front door slammed open. Wayne half expected the weather to acknowledge the ominous presence standing in the doorway. It had been sunny all day; no such dramatic thunder rattled the walls.
Something about her sent chills up Wayne’s spine.
She had to almost bend over just to duck through the doorway. When she got through, every head in the pub that wasn’t already looking because of her loud entrance turned to face her.
For good reason.
She stood nearly eight feet tall. Mere inches saved her head from scraping against the ceiling. Her platinum hair blew behind her in a nonexistent wind. More than a few strands fell down her front, reaching all the way to her navel.
Two thin sheets of fabric hung from her neck. They managed to cover only the most essential of essentials before joining together a few inches below her hairline. From there it formed a long dress that reminded Wayne of his sister’s wedding.
The demonologist dropped back into his seat with a groan as the woman’s cold eyes turned to their group.
Wayne realized what was bothering him as she glided towards him. Where a normal person had blue veins running up and down their arms, this woman had black veins. She had no subtle rise and fall of her chest in a telltale sign of breathing.
He had to stop himself from shuddering again when she stopped a few paces from the bar.
“You are the one who requested Our presence.” Her voice carried throughout the room, further commanding the attention of everyone.
Not quite everyone. Half of the couple stared intently at the woman. The other half was trying to kill her partner with a glare.
“Ylva,” the demonologist said before Wayne could formulate a response, “does Eva know you’re here?”
There was a brief flash of anger in her otherwise dull eyes as she turned her head towards him. “Eva is not Our minder. We deign to respect her domain of Our own volition.”
“So you choose to disrespect it when it suits you?”
Her hand snapped around the demonologist’s neck. Black fingernails dug into his skin. Rasping chokes escaped his throat as curls of decaying skin spread out from the contact.
Before Wayne could decide if intervening would lead to anything but his own death, the black skin retreated to Ylva’s fingertips leaving a faint trail of gray. She released him with a light thrust.
“Do not malign Our honor, Devon Foster. We were under a,” her blue lips curled into a small smile as she glanced at Wayne, “deadline. Reparations will be sought.”
Devon coughed twice, rubbing his neck where her fingers had touched it.
“Wow, Wayne. These are the people you were waiting for?”
Wayne turned to find Tom standing in the hallway. Even as he addressed Wayne, Tom’s neck craned to stare at the woman.
“That room ready?”
“Yeah, just follow me.”
Tom backed down the corridor, keeping his eyes on Ylva as she followed after him.
A hand clasped down on Wayne’s shoulder before he could follow.
“Best to just go with it for now. Watch your words; it is an uncontracted demon. We’re not in its domain, so it can’t twist your meaning to suit its needs, but I’ve seen people bind themselves unintentionally too many times. Don’t offer anything. Accept information from questions freely, but retract questions if it asks for anything in return.”
Wayne gave a quick glance at the demonologist. His face was deadly serious. “Right,” Wayne said.
He’d know more. Wayne hadn’t even recognized Arachne as a demon on Halloween night. In his defense, he had other concerns that night.
Namely, to avoid being eaten by his own students.
Tom led them to the second door down the hallway and showed them in. Several couches had been set out around a small table. On one wall hung a large television that was playing a video of a fireplace.
Ylva sank into one of the couches, slouching with her legs spread and her head caught on her knuckles. Devon took the furthest seat from her possible.
Wayne sighed as he sat between the two.
“Can I get any of you drinks? We’re having a special on all of our sake tonight.”
“I don’t drink,” came Devon’s response.
Wayne had to quirk an eyebrow at that. He certainly looked like the kind of man who drank. When he could scrounge up the money for it, anyway.
Tom just shrugged and looked over to Ylva.
“We will accept your tribute.”
Tom’s kind smile became slightly strained as the woman failed to elaborate. “Okay,” he said after a moment. “I think I can come up with a good drink for you. Wayne?”
“Just another water for me, Tom.”
“Excellent,” he said with an exaggerated bow. “I will be back shortly.”
“You don’t drink?” Wayne said as soon as the door shut.
“I worry what I might do with inhibitions lowered. Or what I might agree to should I not be thinking straight,” he added with a glare towards Ylva.
The woman did not seem to notice or care. She hadn’t moved since her tribute line. At all. Not even a blink of her eye.
Wayne wasn’t sure he had seen her blink since she first walked in.
The demonologist shifted in his seat. Eventually he tore his gaze from Ylva and focused on Wayne. “I expect you are wanting to know more about Eva’s dabbling in diablery?”
“In part,” Wayne said. More so after finding out about Ylva. He hadn’t expected Spencer to have more demons around, though he was unsure what Devon meant by uncontracted.
His studies into demons were lacking. Far lower than any other type of magic. Mostly because Wayne didn’t consider diablery to be magic. He had likened it to knocking on a mage’s door and asking them to do everything in his place.
If Zoe couldn’t handle Spencer on her own, Wayne might have to shift his studies. That would be troublesome. He had his own students to look after.
“But,” Wayne continued, “I’m more concerned about her haemomancy.”
“Haemomancy? You’re more concerned about a little blood than things like,” he gave a brief nod of his head towards Ylva. “That’s just–”
There was a brief knock at the door before Tom walked in with a small serving tray in hand.
He set a glass down in front of Wayne. “Your water. And for you,” he set down a tall glass of murky green liquid in front of Ylva, “Death in the Afternoon. It was the first drink I thought of. I do hope it is to your tastes.”
Ylva reached down and took hold of the glass. She took a small sip after bringing it to her nose.
“We find it acceptable.” The glass frosted over in her hand as she took another drink. “Yes. Acceptable.”
“Excellent.” Tom gave another exaggerated bow. “I’ll leave you to your business then. If anyone needs anything, just holler.”
A small bit of tension drained out of Devon’s shoulders as the door shut behind the bartender. “When he knocks, he should wait for a response before walking in.”
“Even if he overhears, he won’t say anything. Tom is one of the few people I trust. Despite his lack of magical ability, he saved my life on two separate occasions. He’s kept more dangerous secrets for me than a schoolgirl’s dalliance in alternate magics.”
“Great for you,” Devon said with barely concealed disbelief. “He never saved my life and has no reason to keep my secrets.”
Before the man could say anything he’d regret, Wayne switched topics. “Where is Spencer getting her bloodstones?”
“I think she got some from the necromancers who kidnapped her. If she’s made more since, she hasn’t told me. It isn’t something I care to keep tabs on.”
“The necromancers gave her bloodstones? Aren’t they at least somewhat valuable?”
“I think you misunderstand.”
“Misunders–” Wayne blinked. “Oh. I see. How many did she get and what quality?”
Devon merely shrugged.
“We had an opportunity to examine Eva’s bloodstones up close recently. There were no flaws in any of the three We saw.” Ylva paused to take a drink of her drink. “Extensive knowledge of blood magics is outside Our expertise. Are you unable to ask Eva?”
Wayne took a moment to ensure his answer did not violate Devon’s earlier warning. “I am not unable to ask her. It is a question of wanting to.” Especially with her pet spider around.
“We fail to understand. Ask her if you wish to know or accept your own ignorance.”
“I doubt you’d have to worry about her taking offense, if that is what you’re worried about.”
“No. I’m far more concerned about the answer. What it will mean if I don’t like it.”
Devon leaned forward, narrowing his eyes at Wayne. “And just what will it mean?”
“We can’t have a murderer hanging around Brakket. The school has enough problems as it is. If her being a blood mage ever came into light, I doubt we could sweep it under the carpet. Even demons would be easier to explain away so long as they weren’t killing anyone.”
“Sounds like your problem. I don’t give a damn about your school. The only thing I care about is Eva being safe and available. If anything happens to jeopardize that, we’ll leave. Vanish into the night or something similarly poetic.”
Wayne frowned as he glanced over Devon. “You’re not her father. What is she to you?”
“A research subject.”
“That’s it?” Wayne asked with a raised eyebrow.
His frown deepened. Not a single protective emotion? The man’s face didn’t betray anything. “What is the nature of the research?”
“You’re not stealing my notes that easily.”
“It involves demons?”
Of course it does, Wayne thought. The self-proclaimed demonologist would have proclaimed himself something else if he was researching anything that didn’t involve demons.
“What’s the nature of her relationship with Arachne.”
Devon merely shrugged. “Lovers. Best friends. Bitter enemies bound together by a contract. Who knows? It is unrelated.”
Wayne hadn’t seen too much interaction, but didn’t get the impression that they were enemies. Just while they were arguing whether or not to take Arachne back to Brakket, Wayne noticed a certain closeness to them. Arachne stood over Eva–almost fawned over her–in a very protective manner.
But unrelated to his research?
Unless he was lying.
Perhaps some demon-human relationship experiment if that was the case.
“You mentioned before–”
A hurried knock at the door interrupted Wayne. Tom entered while still knocking.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, but several more of those nuns arrived. I didn’t get the impression that they came for relaxation and amazing drinks.”
“That’s my cue to leave,” Devon said as he stood up. “Ylva–well, whatever. I think I’d sleep better if you didn’t survive.” He started towards the door before pausing. “You got a back way outta here?”
“Yeah, straight down the hall. Last door leads to the alley.”
“Mr. Lurching was it? Perhaps next time a meeting place in a more discrete locale? Or not at all. I’d be happier with the latter.”
Before Wayne could respond, he stepped into the hallway and disappeared. Actually vanished. The sound of a door opening and slamming shut echoed down the hall a moment later.
Throughout the commotion, Ylva did not move a muscle save to casually sip at her drink.
“You’re not concerned?”
“Extensive knowledge on the magics used by the Elysium Order is within Our expertise. They will find themselves unable to harm Us.” She lifted her glass slightly. “We will finish Our drink prior to retiring. If you wish to depart, We will not take offense.”
“Right.” Wayne wasn’t too keen on being caught in the presence of a demon. Not when he could be hurt by them, as his mildly aching legs reminded him. “Tom, always a pleasure. I hope I haven’t caused you too much trouble.”
“Not at all. Everything on your tab then?” He asked with a nod towards Ylva.
“That will be fine.” Wayne pulled out his wand and, with a flick of his wrist, vanished from the room.
The walls fell away into a white void before rebuilding in the form of his bedroom.
He entertained the thought of visiting Zoe. She needed to know about the bloodstones at some point.
The glowing face of the clock stopped him. It was already an hour past midnight. He doubted she would be awake at this hour. Not when she had class in the morning.
No. It could wait. There was more to investigate as well. Perhaps Wayne would even question Spencer on the matter.
He cursed to himself as he realized that he forgot to ask about the pillar.
— — —
Arachne clung to the ceiling as that nurse walked into the room to poke and prod and ensure Eva was still in bed.
Foolish nurse. As if she had any power over Eva.
The nurse pulled out a potion. With no small amount of arguing, she finally got Eva to drink it.
Arachne’s fangs quivered when the nurse walked beneath her. All it would take was one scrape and a little venom would have her never touching her Eva again. She would never see it coming–humans never looked up.
No. Eva would be angry with me again. Arachne only just got her punishment revoked. She had to restrain herself. Not to mention that they’d almost assuredly be found out. Fleeing Brakket would not make Eva happy.
Even if that would be the best course of action.
Her anxiety had Arachne even more on edge than normal.
The moment the nurse shut the door behind her, Arachne dropped off the ceiling. She reverted to her humanoid form before her feet clicked against the ground.
“We can’t stay here,” Arachne said. She paced back and forth in front of the bed. “I can sense that pillar. Almost smell him. He is too close to relax.”
“I’m being released tomorrow morning unless she finds some reason to keep me here. We can go back to the prison, if you want.”
“Yes. And we’ll stay there. You don’t need school. You got along just fine without it.”
“No. We’ll be coming back. Maybe we could spend evenings and weekends away.” She did not look excited about the prospect. Before Arachne could protest, Eva said, “everything I learn is a new weapon for me. Thaumaturgy is great. Or will be one day. I can cast it without any focus or bloodstone. Or anything at all except my own body. It is a weapon that cannot be taken from me.”
“By that logic, we should be training up your body. That can’t be taken either.”
Eva’s face took on a look of horror before she vehemently shook her head. “I think I’m getting enough of that in Franklin Kines’ combat club.”
Arachne frowned. “You don’t need that club. I’ll train you. You don’t need school either. I promise not to complain when I read you books.”
“Is this pillar really that bad?”
“He’s strong. Very strong. Maybe one of the top twenty of the seventy-two. I don’t want to do anything that might lead to fighting him.” Arachne sat down on Eva’s bed and looked the girl right where her eyes should be. “That includes staying here. He may take offense at my presence.”
“He can sense you?”
“Undoubtedly.” Arachne paused and tilted her head to one side. “Though, there is another demon wandering around town that wasn’t here in November.”
Arachne laughed. “Oh no. No, no, no. This one is weak enough that I could decimate it with my limbs blown off.”
Eva let out a small huff. “You were possessed,” she mumbled under her breath.
Waving her master off, Arachne continued. “If I had to guess, this demon is of the succubi family. It smells of lust. Very low on the succubi totem pole, though.”
“Working together with the pillar?”
“Can’t tell. If so, likely beaten into submission. Also not a fate I desire for either of us.”
“No,” Eva said with a shake of her head. “I don’t envy that.”
“See? We should leave. I’ll grab your things so we can go without delay.” Arachne jumped to her feet and started towards the door.
A claw gripped tight around Arachne’s wrist. It tugged hard enough that Arachne almost lost her balance and fell into bed with Eva.
Curse my amazing reflexes.
“We’re not running away. Even if we were going to, I can’t just leave Juliana and Zoe.”
“Oh, I’d be happy to tie up loose ends for you. While we’re at it, why don’t we add the rest of those humans you associate with to the list?”
“Arachne,” Eva said in that tone.
It sent all the right shivers up her exoskeleton.
“I know,” Arachne said with all the obvious reluctance she could muster. “You are getting too attached to all these humans who are going to be dead in a century or so. They’re not worth concerning yourself over.”
“Maybe I’ll feel like that someday,” Eva said after a moment. “It isn’t a subject that I have not thought about on occasion. But I guess it is hard to wrap my head around at the moment.”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“Yeah, okay,” Eva said with a shrug of her shoulders.
Arachne opened her mouth to continue to extol the merits of not sticking around in a town with one of the seventy-two pillars of Hell.
Eva stopped Arachne with a motion. She carefully avoided agitating her shoulder as she worked her way over on the bed until she sat on only one side of it. With a light pat to the now vacant space, she said, “come on. Nurse Naranga gave me a sleeping potion. I don’t know that it was effective as I was tired beforehand, but I’m not getting any less tired by talking.”
Arachne did not need any further encouragement. She slipped under the covers before Eva finished speaking. “That nurse is going to see me.”
“She said she wouldn’t come in again until morning with the promise of ‘unimaginable pain’ if I disappeared again.”
Arachne let out a low growl as she nuzzled up against her Eva. “I’ll kill her.”
“Thanks, but maybe just turn into a spider and hide after a few hours.” Eva let out a yawn inches from Arachne’s face. “Wake me if anything important happens.”
“Of course,” Arachne said. She’d be keeping an eye out. Just one, the rest could watch Eva.
If she sensed that pillar getting the slightest bit closer, they’d be gone regardless of Eva’s desires. Maybe by waking her after Arachne carried her to the prison.