The end of class chime stopped Bradley Twillie’s lecture on eloko. They were a species of dwarf that prefer forests over the underground mountains of their cousins. A small group apparently lived not far from Brakket.
Curses that they put on unaware explorers and hikers were of particular interest to Eva. The one that caused traveler’s senses to swap seemed particularly interesting. Professor Twillie wasn’t entirely clear, but it sounded like the curse made someone smell sounds, see touches, hear light, and so on.
He also did not mention if they were thaumaturgical in nature or if the eloko used some other magic system. Zoe Baxter might know. Eva made a mental note to ask later.
Eva quickly snapped her notebook shut and tossed it into her bag. Shalise was already out the door along with Irene and Shelby. The wavy-haired brunette had been distant, though not exactly unfriendly since the incident with Sister Cross just over a week before.
Understandable though it was, it grated on her nerves. It wasn’t like Eva attacked Sister Cross. The nun attacked first.
Juliana fell in step with Eva as they walked out of the classroom. “Don’t worry about it,” the blond said.
Eva quirked an eyebrow at her friend.
“Shalise will come around. She’s just getting over the shock of walking in on a life or death fight between her roommate, her teacher, and her,” Juliana paused. She tapped her finger to her chin several times before shrugging. “And whatever Sister Cross is to her.”
“I know. I’m not holding it against her.” Eva flexed her fingers within her gloves. The lack of a cast over one arm felt so much more liberating. If only she could get rid of her gloves without a public outcry and condemnation.
“It would be like walking in on Devon and Arachne tearing each other apart.”
Eva gave a quick snort. “Probably not the same. I’d probably get popcorn and start cheering one of them on.”
“Arachne, obviously. Devon is a lot of things but my bets go on almost anyone else in a fight.”
“You don’t think a,” Juliana glanced around at the other students on the path leading to the botany building. “You don’t think a person of his talents would have the means to defeat someone like Arachne?”
“He’s a researcher. He might have something up his sleeve. Based on every other time I’ve seen him in stressful situations, I wouldn’t count on it. He might be able to overpower the mind of something with less intelligence, but I doubt that would work on Arachne.”
Juliana made a long humming noise as they continued up the path.
Right at the edge of Eva’s sight, it was there. Watching.
Beneath her shirt, Arachne gripped Eva’s back. Hard. Eva could see the small cuts where each of her legs clamped down.
Eva used some of the blood that dripped down to her dagger to send more flecks off in the direction of the bull. There were trees in the way. Lots of them. None of her friends would be able to see it.
A twisting in her stomach gripped her. The demon–the devil’s eyes were focusing on her even through the trees. She should walk. Go to class and pretend she hadn’t noticed.
Just as she was about to take a step forward, she changed her mind.
“You guys go on ahead,” Eva said. “I think I left something back at Bradley Twillie’s classroom.”
Arachne used three of her legs to repeatedly tap ‘no’ into Eva’s back.
Juliana stopped and glanced back, everyone else did shortly after. “I could come back with you, if you want,” she said.
“No thanks,” Eva waved her off while trying to keep the winces off her face. “It is just a pen. A nice pen, but just a pen. I’ll catch up in a few.”
“Sure,” she said with a slight slump in her shoulders.
Without another word, Eva spun on her heels and slowly walked back down the path. Her group of friends continued on their way with a moment of hesitation. Eva paid their quiet discussions no further mind and focused on dodging between other classmates she walked past.
The bull followed her as she walked. It kept its distance. Eva could see her own heart pick up the pace. For an instant, she thought of simply teleporting to the prison and finding Devon. Maybe checking on Nel as a pretense for hiding within Ylva’s domain for a few hours.
Arachne would not object. She ceased her poking, but had yet to relax her grip. Teleporting away would make her very happy.
That thought was banished from her mind. If it was following her, it likely wanted something. It didn’t seem overly hostile. If worst came to worst, she could always escape later.
That kind of thinking is what got her captured by Sawyer.
Eva paused in her walking. There were no students around, just the bull.
After a deep breath, Eva walked off the path. She pulled out her dagger and bled out another few marbles of blood. It was too easy to get lost with no eyes. Arachne had no eyes beneath Eva’s shirt. Leaving a trail of blood would help return at the very least.
The bull turned and lumbered further into the woods.
She had no idea why. It was stupid. A stupid idea that her master warned her about. He specifically ordered her not to even think about the royalty of Hell, let alone approach it.
Yet Eva walked.
She uncorked all the vials of Arachne’s blood she had hidden around her person all while leaving a thin trail of her own blood back to the path. The vigil she kept on the surroundings was constant. Eva would not be surprised by anything.
It wasn’t long before the bull stopped moving.
Eva stopped with it at the very edge of her vision.
The bull didn’t turn around. It didn’t look back at Eva. It continued staring straight ahead.
Nerves in Eva’s body lit up like a wildfire. Something was wrong. She took a step backwards. Half the bull disappeared as she moved back.
Grunting bellows shook the very air of the forest. It repeated again and again.
The moment Eva stopped moving backwards, it stopped its bellows.
That can’t be a good sign. Eva froze and slowly built up the magic necessary for an infernal walk to the prison. If she wasn’t allowed to move, she’d simply disappear.
Before she could get even half way through the process, a voice carried through the trees.
“What is all this racket?”
Eva paused. She could only see the hindquarters of the bull. Someone either walked up or teleported just in front of it. The slight rasp was familiar, but Eva couldn’t place it.
Just as she inched forwards, trying to bring the figure into view, the bull rumbled.
Its insides twisted and shrunk while other parts grew and pulled. The great wings shrunk and shifted positions to rest against its back. Slowly, it pulled itself up onto its hind legs, though the knees still faced the wrong direction.
The process was very similar to how Arachne looked when she pulled out legs or her abdomen.
After everything else, the long face of the bull pulled in on itself. It twisted and shrank until a human sized head was left. Eva could tell there was a place for its horns to protrude, though no blood reached far enough into them to tell how long they were.
“You’re going to draw attention,” that same feminine rasp spoke.
A deep, throaty chuckle erupted from the former bull. “Let them come. I will decimate all without distinction.” If silk were a voice, that man had it colored in deep bass. The sounds all but massaged Eva’s ears.
“That’s what I’m worried about. We want distinction.” There was a long sigh from the woman. “You nearly killed two children last week.”
“They survived. A scare will go a long way for your plans. I merely took that into consideration.”
“Do I need to remind you? Killing students or staff will break our contract.” A smug tone entered her voice. “You don’t want that.”
If that worried him, he didn’t show it. The devil waved a hand off to one side. “I’ll keep my raids limited to maiming and breaking then. They have to be believable, yeah?”
“Was there a point to calling me out here or were you wanting my heels ground into your back again.”
“As enjoyable as that is, I think I will pass. For now. When am I to slaughter next.”
“I’ll see about tipping off the nuns sometime soon. It will be after school hours, but only just. My familiar will deliver the message. Be ready.”
Despite her being out of Eva’s vision range, she could feel the woman vanish after speaking. The strong scent of brimstone wafted over the woods before a light gust of wind stole it away. She waited to see if the former bull would vanish as well.
His head slowly turned to focus on Eva. There were trees in the way. She knew there were trees in the way–Eva was half crouched behind one. Yet his head stopped right on Eva without moving an inch too far.
A smile spread across his face.
“Come out, embryonic one. I know you are there.”
Eva assumed as much. As she slowly approached his position, Eva pulled the blood out two vials. Behind her back, it twisted and formed into the wire frame ball of her favorite attack. Three more marbles orbited around her with one forming the base for a shield.
Arachne finally loosed her grip on Eva. The muscles in her legs coiled, ready to strike through Eva’s shirt. The spider-demon wouldn’t be any use, by her own admission, but she still readied to attack.
Eva pressed one arm down on the demon, pinning her to Eva’s chest. Teleporting out was a far better option. One Arachne would benefit from if she stuck next to Eva.
She stopped with twenty feet to spare. No trees were in the way, or around in the small clearing where he stood.
They stared at each other. Or he stared at her. Eva’s vision didn’t change much with proximity.
He drew in a long breath of air through his nose. “Demon blood. I don’t recognize its owner. Some nobody, I presume.” His voice kept the smooth tones even as it pitched into a mock. “I sense the owner with you. It won’t matter.”
Arachne prickled beneath Eva’s shirt at his taunts.
Eva, on the other hand, wasn’t about to give any satisfaction by rising to his barbs if she could help it. “What do you want?”
“A great many things, few of which you can offer.”
“What do you want with me, right now, here?”
“Still a great many things. You can offer significantly more when you phrase it that way, however.”
Eva put on her best eyeless glare and didn’t respond.
“No appreciation for literal interpretations,” he sighed. “You should work on that if you ever want to make something of yourself.” At Eva’s continued glare, he sighed again and said, “my master would find it somewhat unpleasant if some of the students were to get involved in her plans. At least, her plans for the nuns.”
Arachne called Eva her master maybe three times since the most recent June. All three times it had been spoken as a term of endearment. Affectionately.
His use of the term dripped with vitriol and hate. Eva could taste the absolute detestation. Still, his smile remained spread across his face.
“That doesn’t explain what you want with me.”
A wide grin curved across his face. “I want to hurt you.”
That was enough for Eva. Two marbles of blood launched towards the devil. Her shield sprung to life around her. She spun around.
Both of her hands plunged into the wire frame ball of blood hovering in the air.
Two claws materialized around the devil. Both clamped down, puncturing his shoulders. With a twist and a pull, Eva disarmed him.
Before the blood claws ran out of energy, Eva punched both into his chest. He went flying.
A thick tree all but exploded as he crashed into and through it.
Eva didn’t wait around to see if he’d get up. She shut off her shield and started hobbling away, keeping Arachne pinned to her chest as she walked. All of her ambient blood went into searching out the forest floor. Tripping over a branch was not something she needed.
She ran as best as she could, following her trail of blood back towards the pathway.
Before she could teleport away, her face scraped against a tree. Eva’s shoulder hit it a second later and she went tumbling to the ground.
That tree wasn’t in her way before she ran into it. She tried to pick herself off the ground.
Long nails dug into Eva’s shoulders as hands clamped around her. They hoisted her into the air. One hand reached into Eva’s chest and gripped Arachne. With barely a look over his shoulder, the devil flung the little spider out of Eva’s vision range.
“I tore your arms off,” Eva spat at the devil.
He didn’t appear angry. A calm smile with lightly raised eyebrows was his only expression.
“Off, on. Detached, attached.” His hot breath caressed her face. “It is all the same to me.”
Tension grew in one of her arms. She watched as her blood vessels stretched and pulled before they snapped. Blood erupted from her shoulder as the demon carelessly tossed her arm to one side.
The pain ceased before Eva even had the mental acuity to cry out. Her arm was no longer on the ground. All the blood returned to its proper place as the vessels stitched back together.
He pulled at her other arm. Like the first, it easily tore off under his strength. Unlike the first, he didn’t reattach it. He dropped Eva on the ground seemingly without another thought.
The demon pressed the bloodied end of her arm right against his nose and drew in a loud, deep breath. He tossed the arm at her.
It vanished on its way and reappeared, fully connected, where it belonged. The blood around his nose stayed where it was.
“Yes. That is the smell. It is thick in this school. Some of the students smell stronger than others. It smells,” he took another long breath of the air before releasing it with a small sigh, “corrupt.”
Eva repressed a sardonic laugh. “I don’t doubt it. Come back in a few years. I’m sure it will only get better.”
Eva bit her lip. She should have kept her mouth shut. No movement was made on Eva’s part as the devil indulged himself in the scent. Whatever he wanted, it didn’t seem to be to hurt her, despite his earlier words.
Tearing off her arms only caused a brief flash of pain before that vanished. Even with her sight confirming they were attached and properly so at that, it was hard to believe. Eva flexed and relaxed her claws. She tapped them against her legs just to feel the sensation of them moving.
“What are your goals?”
Eva blinked at him.
“Your desires? Your purpose?”
“Is it knowledge you seek? Power? Pleasure? Or do you have greater designs than mere base impulses?” He leaned over and cast Eva into his shadow, if the sudden lack of warmth from the sun was any indication.
“While I would–”
“A tremor tore through the Void recently. Something changed.” He drew in a deep breath and let out a hot wave of brimstone tinged air. “Nothing changes in the Void. Yet something did. I can’t help but wonder if you are the cause or an effect.”
Eva sat on the cold ground. She waited for him to continue. He didn’t. He just glared at her. “Whate–”
“You could be entirely unrelated. Still, I was drawn here. I pulled myself through an aeons old beacon into this plane of existence to find out for sure, yeah?”
Crossing her arms, Eva gave the devil a pointed look. She opened her mouth but allowed no sound out.
The devil stared at her, quirking his head to one side.
With a long sigh, Eva started to speak. She didn’t get beyond the first syllable. I knew it, she thought as the devil spoke over her.
“I digress. None of that is why you are here today. There will be time to investigate you. I have contractual obligations to ensure there is time. Obligations I think you will relish assisting me with.
“Tell me,” he said as his grin widened to split his head in two, “how do you feel about the Elysium Sisters?”
— — —
Juliana crept through the old house. Every inch of it had to be inspected every time she visited. Ceilings, cupboards, closets, and every room required a thorough inspection.
She was not going to be caught unawares.
Luckily, this house was not very large. One master bedroom with an attached bathroom, two smaller bedrooms, and a living room attached to a dining room and kitchen. It only had one floor, but Juliana always peeked into the attic and the crawlspace.
With every other room checked and cleared, Juliana stopped outside the door to one of the bedrooms. She leaned her head against the door and shut her eyes. A silent prayer was sent off; to who that prayer went, Juliana couldn’t guess. Not with what she’d done.
She flicked her wand to activate her ferrokinesis spell. Metal that had become as much a part of her body as her clothes melted. Thicker portions on her arms flowed up and around her fingers. Larger clumps on her chest moved up and around her neck. Her long, blond hair pinched back into a ponytail as a smooth dome formed over her head.
Eye slits were the last to form, along with small holes for fresh air in front of her mouth.
Unnecessary for the most part. Juliana wasn’t willing to take the risk of walking in unarmored.
With a sigh, Juliana opened the door.
The old room’s paint peeled off the walls in long curls. A light fixture dangled out of the ceiling, the rotting wood had given way long ago and left nothing but the wires holding it in place. Juliana had stripped the carpet out and tossed it in the other bedroom when she first decided to use the place. The small window had a thin sheet of metal completely blocking all light.
The only illumination in the room was a series of jars set up in the corners filled to the brim with a brightly glowing liquid. The concoction was made in alchemy class using liquid fire and liquid order combined with a handful of other ingredients. It should last for another month before needing replacing.
On the bare plywood was a large circle. It took up almost the entire room. Only a foot and a half of empty space was left between the door and the circle. Seals were inscribed all along the edges while sigils were chalked down on the inside.
Juliana wasn’t sure what the difference was. None of it looked very different from the runes Eva drew. The book told her where to put them and she wasn’t about to ignore that. She checked the book over and over again to ensure not a single line was out of place.
A six spoked wheel sat in the very center. Coming off of it at an angle were six lines ending in a half arrow. The center wheel moved. She drew it with chalk of the same type that Eva purchased on occasion, but it slowly spun and gave off a black light as it did so.
A short figure stood on top of the wheel. It didn’t reach higher than Juliana’s knees and she was one of the shortest people in class. The creature had pale purple skin that almost wafted off of it like smoke. Beneath the translucent skin was a skeleton highlighted by vibrant green dots.
Two horns curled off behind the creature from the base of its neck and two more curled off its back around the shoulder blades. All four were dotted with the same green lights.
Its face was smooth with no mouth, and no nose, and no hair. Two green lights around the area its eyes should be narrowed as Juliana shut the door behind her.
“Hi,” Juliana said softly. Her light voice echoed within her helmet. She quickly formed proper ear holes and widened the holes around her mouth. “You are still here.”
Its eyes narrowed further as a brief flash of pain hit the base of Juliana’s skull.
“Right,” Juliana said with a wince, “I know. I’m stating the obvious again.”
It continued its glare as it crossed its arms. One of its feet started tapping against the wooden floor.
Juliana sat down cross-legged just outside what the book called shackles. “I brought you something,” she said as she reached into her bag and pulled out an apple. She carefully set the apple on the far side of the shackles and withdrew her hand with haste.
The book said it was impossible to destroy the shackles on accident. Either the demon would smash through or the one who charged the circle had to intentionally break them. Juliana wasn’t going to take the chance by sliding or rolling the apple across.
Her haste in snatching back her hand seemed unnecessary as well. The small demon didn’t even move from the center of the circle until she was back with both hands in her lap.
With all the pride of an alpha lion, the demon strode forwards. It picked up the apple with both of its tiny hands and looked it over. Its mouthless head was only about a fourth of the size of the apple it gazed over.
No visible change came over the demon. A low scrape like nails on a chalkboard echoed through the room. It stopped with a crack. A head sized chunk of the apple vanished. The leftover apple tore at the vanished part. Small bits of juice and pulp flew around the room.
Five more of the same bites and the apple was gone, core and all.
The demon glanced up at Juliana.
A wave of pure pleasure hit the blond. It started at the base of her skull and spread through her body. If a brain could get a massage, it would probably feel something like that.
Juliana melted in where she sat. She collapsed against the wall and let the feeling tear through her core. It took several minutes before she even wanted to pull together the effort to tighten her muscles and sit herself up. She stared at the demon.
It just cocked one head to the side.
“Right. Apples huh?” Juliana said once she caught her breath. “I’ll remember that.”
Another burst of pleasure hit her. Not as much as the first time. Just enough to tickle the base of her skull.
“Okay,” Juliana tried to wipe the sweat off her palms. She had to peel back the metal before she could. “I’m going to ask a few questions now.”
Juliana winced, preparing for a flash of pain. The first day, right after it tried to escape from the shackles and presumably tear her apart, all of her questions had been answered with nothing but intense pain.
The next time she managed to make her way to the house, she brought it a notebook and pen. That was where she learned it could eat. If the agony was any indicator, it did not enjoy the notebook or the pen.
If the apple failed, she planned to ask Eva for help. She’d admit she stole the book and would hope nothing too bad would happen.
The apple was a success. Juliana shuddered again as a tickle of pleasure ran down her spine. A smile split across her face.
“Okay,” she said with a deep breath. “You’re Agiel, one of the seven intelligences. Right?”
A pleasure tickle answered her.
Juliana nodded. “That is what the book said.”
The book also said Agiel was benign. If the attempts at tearing down the shackles to get to her and all the pain from the notebook were any indicator, she did not want to meet anything that wasn’t considered benign.
Licking her lips, Juliana opened her mouth to speak. She stopped and paused. It would only answer two more questions and then either offer a contract or leave. The questions had to impress it if she wanted to use its power. The book had a long list of unimpressive questions and no impressive ones.
She already felt like she messed up by asking its name.
“Okay,” she said, “if I can’t secure a contract with you right now, can I summon you again and try more times?”
There was a brief hesitation before another tickle of pleasure hit her spine. This one was accompanied by a buzz of pain. Not a strong sensation, just a light pinch. Of course, it was pinching her brain. Still it was just a pinch.
“So an answer in the affirmative with a tinge of annoyance?” Juliana snapped her mouth shut the second she finished speaking. She thought several curses at herself.
Her spine tingled in pleasure despite her rapidly souring mood.
“I don’t suppose that was enough to earn a contract?”
The little demon’s head tilted to one side. Without warning, it tipped straight backwards. Instead of hitting the floorboards, it fell right through it. A ring of ripples spread outwards.
As the ripples stilled, the slowly rotating wheel ground to a halt. All light from the summoning circle faded as it went inert.
Juliana sighed as she stood up. At least she could try again. What questions would be interesting to a demon. Maybe Ylva could help clue her in when she met with her.
Next time Juliana would be prepared. She’d bring a whole list of questions.
And a whole bag of apples.