Camping with her family was one of Juliana’s favorite activities.
All of it was such a drastic change from the asphalt streets, concrete buildings, and people. The fresh smell of the woods. The crisp, mid-May air. The crinkle of her tent in the cold air of wilderness mornings. The warmth of a blazing fire dancing in front of her.
And, of course, her parents.
She loved it all.
Not that she hated being in a city. It was just the idea that she liked. The idea of wandering for miles without coming across another person. Juliana felt that it gave perspective.
A trait inherited from her father, undoubtedly.
Her mother, on the other hand, thought it made a great training center. Darting between trees, jumping over creeks and ditches, and the uneven ground all enhanced Genoa’s usual rhetoric.
For three hours, Juliana fought her own mother. Earth flew between them. Trees were coated in dust and, in some cases, were completely knocked down by the force of her mother’s onslaught.
Juliana tried to avoid mass damage to the woods.
She couldn’t discount the effectiveness of the attacks as she found herself knocked to the ground beneath the full weight of a whole tree.
One wand was completely knocked from her hand. She managed to use one of her ring foci to create a depression in the ground just before she hit. The tree lay on top of the ground, just barely not crushing her.
Juliana scrambled out from underneath the tree. She shifted the earth to speed her out of the hole.
Just in time. Three honed spikes of earth pierced the tree and the surrounding ground. Exactly where she had fallen.
Her mother was getting dangerous. Not all out, Juliana doubted she’d survive for more than a few seconds, but her mother was definitely ramping up the force. Juliana blamed it on the ferrokinetic suit of armor wrapped around her. Her mother saw it and figured hitting harder was fine.
Genoa wasn’t limited to earth magics. She had the good sense to avoid burning down the forest, but she didn’t shy away from water magic.
As their engagement continued, Juliana found her foot frozen into a creek. She launched herself out by pushing up the earth beneath just before pointed icicles jutted out of the water and into her armor. A small ring of ice stuck to her ankle.
All in all, the spar was one of the more grueling sessions she’d ever had. Juliana hadn’t managed to take out her mother, but she survived. That was a win in her book.
Part of her wondered how Zoe would fare against Juliana in a forest rather than on a stage.
She had already resolved herself to not lose against her even once in the summer seminar.
After the battle finished–Genoa simply got hungry–Juliana settled in for some food with her parents. Hot dogs slowly cooked over open flames. One of her favorite camping meals, aside from tin-foil dinners.
Of course, dessert followed dinner.
She could still taste the marshmallow chocolatey goodness of the s’mores. The taste was, unfortunately, turning bitter as the conversation dragged on.
“A demon, Juliana?”
“What did it look like? Did you see it use any magic? How big was it? What color? What did it smell like? Do you have any–”
“Carlos,” Genoa snapped, “this isn’t some magical creature you can study and catalog.” She tossed another log onto the already roaring campfire. “This is a demon. A demon that stalked the city our daughter lives in. A demon that single-handedly ran a full chapter of the Elysium Order out of town.”
“Well,” Juliana said, “the riot consisting of half the city’s residents might have helped.”
“This is no laughing matter.”
Juliana was quite sure she was not laughing. She shook her head with a sigh.
They would have found out eventually. Juliana wanted the news to come from her mouth. Her mouth could dampen some of the more problematic events. Deaths of the nuns, Nel’s tale, and the destruction of their dorm room, to name a few.
Her timing in bringing up the subject was, in retrospect, far from ideal. The conversation had drifted towards events at school and flowed naturally into the eviction of the nuns. Mentioning that Juliana had witnessed the fight between the nuns’ leader and the demon was another thing she should have skipped over.
Now they were out in the middle of the Montana wilderness having an argument.
“What kind of school is Zoe running?” Genoa cracked her knuckles into her other hand. Muscles in her arms rippled as they flexed with the action. “I have half a mind to go down there–”
“She’s not running the school, mom. She’s just a professor.”
“The dean then. What did you say her name was? Martini?” Genoa let out an actual, audible growl. “Letting demons run around the school…”
“It wasn’t even a bad demon. It protected students from a nun’s attack.”
“Then it was ordered to protect the students. There’s no such thing as a demon that protects random children out of the goodness of their black hearts.”
“Now, now, dear,” Carlos said. He pressed his glasses up his nose before setting a bony hand on Genoa’s ripped thigh. His hand gave two light pats and a soft squeeze before he said, “that seems like a wide generalization. And if it was ordered to protect the students, then Juli has nothing to fear.”
Genoa shook her head, clearly unconvinced. The yellow light of the campfire danced across her face. “You don’t know, Carlos. You’ve never met a demon.”
Her mother’s hand ran from her hip up to the opposite shoulder. Her clothes were, as usual, revealing enough to hide only the small bit of the massive scar that rested across her breast.
“I have. A few times, actually. Thankfully, I didn’t have to fight them most of the time. They’re psychopaths. All of them. We’re like flies to them–short lived and mildly annoying.”
“Genoa, darling, I know you don’t like to talk about that scar.” Carlos moved his hand up to rub Genoa’s back. “But the few that you’ve met is not a valid sample size for determining the temperament of a species. Especially not when the term ‘demon’ encompasses so many varieties of creatures.
“Perhaps,” Carlos said with a glint of excitement in his eye, “we can head down to the school and see if we can track the creature down ourselves, we could–”
“We could get ourselves killed? You can’t be serious.”
Juliana leaned back against the stump of a tree as she watched her parents argue.
She hadn’t actually heard any stories about demons from her mother. Despite the scar she touched being one of the largest and most prominent on her body, she never got around to telling the tale. Given that part of the scar–the lower part around her hip–actually ran along her back as well, Juliana imagined whatever caused it to be something out of nightmares.
By the look of the scar, her mother had been nearly bisected at some point before Juliana was born.
A terrifying thought. Juliana could understand where her mother was coming from if that scar came from a demon.
Even with that, Juliana agreed with her father. It was a generalization. Arachne and Ylva were nice enough. The bull demon had protected students. And she was fairly confident that a little twerp like Agiel would be nothing but chunky salsa beneath her mother’s boot.
It did mean that she would have to be even more careful. Juliana was suddenly glad that she did not bring Eva’s book with her. If her mother saw even a corner of that…
Of course, she’d have to be extra careful with Eva now. The girl absolutely must keep her hands and legs hidden any time mother visited. Her mother might not react well upon finding out that Eva introduced her to a handful of demons.
Her father would probably love the opportunity to look her friend over.
“Zoe will tell us what we want to hear, not what we need to hear.”
“That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak with her, dear.”
Genoa shook her head. She got to her feet and marched straight to the tent. “I’m going to bed. Let’s put it aside for the rest of our trip. I don’t want to ruin the rest of it with sour feelings. We will talk about it calmly when we get back.”
With a loud zip, the tent flap shut. Juliana bet it would have slammed shut if it were a door.
“Your mother,” Carlos started. He stopped and sighed. “I’m not sure I know the full story behind that scar.”
He glanced around for a brief moment before he picked up a lantern. “Come, walk with me.”
“At night?” Juliana asked. “Through the forest?”
Carlos let out his signature bird tweet of laughter. “Not scared of the dark are you? There’s nothing in these woods that can hurt us.” He took a few steps before stopping and glancing over his shoulder. “Well, nothing cataloged, in any case. But I’ll try not to get my hopes up.” He gave Juliana a small wink before walking forwards. “Coming?”
Juliana took her own step forward before stopping. “The fire? We can’t just leave it going.”
Carlos, without looking back, took out his bell focus. With a single note, a small sandstorm started up. It swirled around the campfire. After a moment, it collapsed into the fire pit. The flames died out along with every ember.
“Any other excuses, Juli?”
With a frown, Juliana followed after her father. She flicked her own wand to activate her ferrokinesis. No sense in being caught unprepared.
The metal she wore flowed beneath her clothes until it formed her usual armor. She left her head and face clear, but gathered metal around her neck to quickly cover herself just in case.
The only bits of metal that were not affected were her three rings. Two full-finger foci and the thin black band given to her by Ylva. At first, she didn’t want to damage the ring and avoided using her ferrokinesis on it. After accidentally trying to melt it, she found her spell did not affect the ring.
Not that she thought that was a bad thing. It was a pain enough to concentrate on not altering her foci.
“Your mother,” Carlos said, “is usually one to boast about her scars. Each nick on her body is another tale of danger, adventure, and heroism.”
“I know dad. I’ve lived with her for fourteen years.”
He just chuckled. His voice turned somber as he continued speaking. “The scar across her chest wasn’t received while saving innocents or looting treasure. She was betrayed.”
Juliana frowned at that, but waited in silence for him to continue.
“I’m not sure on the details, I’m not sure she knows the details–it took her a long while to get back to normal. She was supposed to have been working with the demon. It attacked her. She lost.”
“Did mom summon the demon?”
“She said she found it along the way and it offered to help.”
“Did she make an actual contract?”
“I don’t think so,” Carlos said with a shake of his head. “You would have to ask her.”
Juliana leaned back against a tree. Something crawled onto her shoulder almost immediately. It went flying off into the distance with a flick of her metal coated finger. She was too busy running through every bit of knowledge she’d gleaned from Eva’s book to concern herself with insects.
“Demons are summoned to fulfill a task, generally one the summoner doesn’t want to do themselves,” she said after a few minutes. “They’ll form a contract that generally includes some sort of ‘go home afterwards’ clause. Unless they’re a familiar. I’m not entirely sure what that entails.”
There were two separate rituals for familiars which were not detailed in her book. Only mentioned briefly.
Juliana shook her head. She was rambling. “What I’m trying to say is that demon was probably already contracted to someone. Its master was the one to betray mom. I wonder if we could find out who. Does she know what demon it was? Its name?”
“You would have to ask her,” Carlos said after a small pause. “You seem… knowledgeable. Do they teach about demons at Brakket?”
Juliana snapped her mouth shut. She didn’t know where to look.
Her father turned to stare at her through his coke bottle glasses.
The forest floor became very interesting all of a sudden. All the little twigs and brush illuminated by the lantern looked somewhat moist in the cool night air.
“Juli, do you have something you want to tell me? You know I won’t be upset or judgmental.”
Sighing, Juliana pulled her eyes from a small beetle on a leaf to look at her father. “You can’t tell mom.”
“Why don’t we hear what all this is about first.”
“My friend, Eva, the one you met at Christmas.” Her father nodded at her to continue. “She’s got a demon contracted to her by the name of Arachne.”
“That would be the interesting spider you wrote about last summer.”
Juliana nodded. Her father caught on quick. As usual. “That was before I knew she was a demon. I thought she was just a magical spider. It gave me a bit of a fright when I first saw her shapeshift.” She paused, but quickly added, “not that she was bad or anything. I even rode on her back. She gets, uh, big.”
Juliana held her hands as far apart as they went even though she knew that wasn’t close to the size Arachne could grow to.
“I can’t say she’s nice, but she lived in the dorms for several months before the nuns showed up and never hurt anyone. She even helped save Shalise.”
“And this is the demon that fought all the Elysium Sisters?”
“No, that was some bull demon. I think Eva knows who its contractor is, but she didn’t say.”
Her father made a low humming noise as he readjusted his glasses. “This is a lot to take in,” he said.
“She’s a good person. Eva, that is.”
Under the flickering light of the gas lantern, Juliana watched as he got a look on his face. A look Juliana knew all too well. She had to keep herself from groaning.
“Perhaps I should have a long talk with her. And her demon. Without your mother around. Let’s invite them to dinner at our home when we get back.”
“I don’t know,” Juliana said. She was happy her father was willing to give them a chance. Even if part of that chance came from wanting to inspect Arachne. Unfortunately, there were other problems with meeting so soon.
“Eva might not be used to her new legs by then.”
— — —
“This is not a good idea, girl.”
“It is a fine idea, Eva.”
“You’re contaminating the experiment. You’ve already contaminated it with your hands.” Devon sighed and rubbed his forehead with his only hand. That hand fell to his chin and caressed his scruffy goatee. “I should have chained you to a wall and thrown away the key when I first found you.”
Eva frowned. “I don’t think I would have liked that version of the experiment,” she said with slightly slurred words.
“You wouldn’t have known any better. You were six. Your whole life would have been nothing but your treatment, chains, and a wall.”
“Glad we didn’t go with that then,” Eva said. “Now, are you going to help us or are you going to risk losing your precious test subject.”
“At least don’t go further than your ankles. What if you hate it? You’ll never be able to wear skirts again.”
“Everything will be fine. Don’t you listen to him.” A sharp, needle-like finger ran down Eva’s cheek. “He’s just jealous that he hasn’t found anyone to donate an arm.”
Devon pinched the bridge of his nose. He’d never had children. He never wanted children. He didn’t like children.
This was exactly the reason why.
Maybe not exactly. Most children didn’t run around chopping off perfectly good limbs to exchange for demon limbs. They kept their own limbs and lived with it. Happily.
Most children didn’t go to schools run by demon summoners either. Especially demon summoners insane enough to summon a damn king of Hell.
Devon smiled at his own little joke. He wiped it away before either of the other occupants of the room noticed.
He doubted other children got kidnapped and tortured very often either. Sure, a few did. There were a lot of children in the world so statistically some must get kidnapped and tortured. But not most.
But who knew. Maybe they did. It wasn’t like he had experience with the little monsters.
A hospital gurney sat in the common room of the women’s ward. The gurney looked new; it surely wasn’t a fixture of the prison beforehand. Wherever Arachne got it from, he hoped it stayed out of sight and off the cameras.
The last thing he needed was demon hunters running around.
Eva lay on top of the gurney. She happily awaited having her legs chopped off at the hip. Not a hint of nervousness touched her face.
Was that normal child behavior? Or teenager behavior?
Or was it something to do with the treatment. Devon hadn’t observed drastic changes in Eva’s behavior over the course of the last eight years. There were no drastic, instantaneous changes to her body, so any mental changes would have been gradual as well, in all likelihood.
It was times such as this that Devon wished he had a control subject. Some little girl exposed to the same, or at least similar experiences who would have grown up with Eva. It would have been difficult to replicate the home life or events surrounding Eva’s first encounter with Devon, but probably not impossible to get close.
But that would have been just another incomprehensible child following him around.
Of course, her calm smile might be on her face simply because of a bucket load of potions she downed beforehand.
Despite all his complaints, Devon wasn’t actually about to stop it. Eva already had Arachne’s hands. He didn’t anticipate significant contamination to his experiment that wasn’t already there.
Above all else, he was curious about the procedure. Experiencing first-hand the merging of a human body and a demon limb had so far been unsuccessful. There were offers, to be sure, but none that asked a price he was willing to pay.
Eva underwent her treatment just a few days prior. Her teeth had sharpened further, though they were still largely indistinguishable from human teeth without a close examination. Her lack of eyes disappointed Devon. They had been by far the most rapid change to her human physiology.
Overall, he had a decent baseline to work off of and would be monitoring her closely over the next few weeks for any sudden changes the leg-change might cause.
Sure, he could find some other fourteen-year-old and chop off her legs. That wouldn’t risk any further contamination or the livelihood of his test subject. But then he’d have to find a new donor. Eva already had one.
Arachne was an interesting subject. It had a full exoskeleton with no internal structure. Arachne described in detail how the bone and the exoskeleton merged in Eva’s wrist. Eva had told him about her hands, how they felt to move and if she had to think about moving the extra joints in her fingers.
As far as he could tell, she didn’t have to think about her new hands any more than a normal human. Whatever demonic magics merged her hands had apparently rewritten her brain to be compatible with them.
That thought worried and excited Devon, mostly in regards to his own search for an arm. It opened plenty of opportunities he hadn’t been willing to consider before.
The legs were another matter. One he was, again, interested in seeing.
Arachne’s complete exoskeleton had no real analogue to the synovial ball-and-socket joints present in human hips. How would the magic cope with that. He assumed that it would rewrite her brain again to allow her use of the limbs, but how would the actual connection point articulate?
The spider-demon’s feet were only barely synonymous with human feet.
Rather than a human heel, the prominence at the posterior end of its foot terminated in a short, sharp spike. Just above that spike were four long claws similar to its hands. There was no connected tarse and metatarse in Arachne’s foot. Despite the similarity in appearance, the feet did seem less dexterous than its hands, however.
It would be fascinating to watch.
Eva was set on it. She’d already taken full body numbing potions. Devon carefully monitored her for any sudden health risks. It wouldn’t do to lose his test subject after so much work had been poured into her.
“Alright,” Devon said. “How are we doing this?”
“Last time, I bit off her arms. Human bone is nothing against my teeth,” Arachne said with a vicious grin. The grin quickly slipped into a frown. “But I don’t know that I can get her whole leg in my mouth. I could bite it off in chunks, but that might get messy.”
Devon grit his teeth and rubbed his forehead again. “You haven’t even decided on how to do this? And Eva’s already drugged herself up?” No wonder they wanted him to help. This was a disaster waiting to happen.
“Stab Arachne with my void dagger,” Eva slurred. “I’ll detach my own legs with her blood.”
“How do you know you’re not going to detach something important?”
“I have an acute sense of my own biology thanks to blood. I took numbing potions, not stupid potions.”
“Really? It’s hard to tell.”
Devon was certain that Eva tried to glare at him. Even if she had eyes, she couldn’t lift her own head.
“Fine,” Devon said. “And how are we getting Arachne’s legs off? You’re going to bleed out in seconds with your legs gone.”
“I can keep myself from bleeding out. Probably.”
Devon shut his eyes. A headache was on its way. “Probably?”
“Well, I’ve never recirculated my own blood before. There’s no reason why I can’t. Right?”
“You’re the blood mage,” Devon said with a shrug.
“And,” Arachne said, “she can remove my legs the same way. She’s done it before. Not to mention taking off Zagan’s arm.”
Eva winced in spite of the numbing potion. The last time that name was mentioned to Devon, several hours of angry shouting occurred. Mostly directed at Eva.
“So,” Devon said, pointedly ignoring the name for now, “why am I here?”
“If something does go wrong,” Eva said, “you would do everything you could to save me.”
“I’m considering finding myself a less troublesome test subject.”
Devon sighed. “Where’s your knife? I really want to stab Arachne right now.”
The women’s ward common room wasn’t that large. Large enough to hold several cells, but the cells weren’t gigantic. In it, there was only one table. The small coffee table that normally occupied the center of the room. It had been shoved off to one side for the treatment the other day and hadn’t been moved back.
Devon found the dagger without trouble and, without waiting for any ready signal, plunged it into Arachne’s stomach. At least, it would have been the stomach on a human. He wasn’t sure on the minor details of its anatomy.
The knife dug only an inch or two into it. Either the knife was something special–a possibility due to its void metal nature–or Arachne had done something to allow the knife in. He’d seen Arachne shrug off knife attacks from men far stronger than Devon.
If it did die from such a little stab, he’d at least have something to gloat to it about whenever Arachne managed to pull herself back together in Hell.
Unfortunately, it didn’t die. Actually, a good thing. The decades it would require to revive itself would invalidate Eva’s experiment. He’d have to find a new subject and a new demon.
Arachne’s grin widened as it wiggled itself further onto the dagger’s blade.
Streams of blood poured out of the wound. They formed rings. Two went and encircled the tops of Eva’s legs while another two mirrored the spot on Arachne.
Arachne moved to sit almost on top of Eva. Legs sprouted from its back to hold itself up.
“Ready?” Arachne asked.
Devon waited with bated breath.
He let out his breath in a long sigh. “Are you going to do this any time soon? Some of us have better things to do than stare at nothing.”
“I can’t clap. Or snap.”
“I thought that was just a crutch.”
“Well, yeah. Just because something is a crutch doesn’t mean you can just take it away.”
“Figure it out. Imagine yourself clapping,” Devon said as he walked over to a pushed aside couch. He sank into the couch and shut his eyes. “I can’t give you the antidote until we’re done. Unless you want to feel all the pain of your own legs coming off.”
“Or you could call the whole thing off.”
“Not a chance.”
Devon sighed and decided it was a good time for a light nap.
Light popping noises and a cry of joy woke him some time later.
Only that idiot girl would be happy her legs had detached, he thought as he made his way back to the gurney.
Sure enough, both of her legs and both of Arachne’s legs were lying detached from their owners. Remembering his task, Devon quickly jammed the dagger into her leg stumps. Supposedly, she could control it without the dagger. Neither of them wanted to take the chance with such a large amount of blood.
“Don’t forget to keep yourself from bleeding out,” he said.
Arachne was already in motion. It carefully placed Eva’s legs to the side. After centering and aligning one of the black legs on Eva’s body, Arachne placed its hands over the limb.
“Just like I did for her hands. Sure, I had my domain assisting me, but demons do this all the time in the mortal realm. I am positive I can do it.”
“That is not reassuring.”
But it was already in motion. The exoskeleton on Arachne’s leg was stretching towards the bone in Eva’s stump. The bone itself extended forth to meet the exoskeleton.
There was a small amount of disappointment as he realized she hadn’t dug out the remains of her leg bone from the socket.
As soon as the bone and exoskeleton met, the bone started turning black. It was only visible for a moment because another portion of the exoskeleton stretched to meet the skin of Eva’s buttocks and hip. It continued onwards, turning skin to exoskeleton up nearly to her bellybutton. The exoskeleton formed swirling curls that dug into Eva’s unchanged skin.
It matched her forearms nicely, he had to admit.
Arachne repeated the process with her other leg. Devon carefully watched the white bone as it met the exoskeleton. Sure enough, it turned to the same chitinous black as Arachne’s exoskeleton. He wondered if it spread to the rest of her bones or if it stopped at the end of her femur.
“I’d love to get you under an x-ray,” Devon mumbled, mostly to himself.
The exoskeleton finished merging. Devon noted that it wasn’t symmetrical. The black curls formed different patterns. The black exoskeleton started high on her sides, curving down to a point beneath her bellybutton in a sort of ‘v’ shape.
Devon reached forwards to squeeze it and feel out its strength as well as check how much changed on her backside.
“Just because I can’t feel anything doesn’t mean I want you feeling me up.”
He gave her a glare he wasn’t sure she’d actually see. “I’m offended you think I’m ‘feeling you up.’ This is for research, girl.”
The exoskeleton on her back did mirror that on the front. The shiny black covered her entire lower torso in a sort of ‘v’ shape.
Her wrists were almost entirely rigid on the forearms. Oddly enough, her torso wasn’t. It stretched and flexed and squished in his fingers. Not quite like normal skin. It felt tougher.
Flexibility might be needed. The rest of her was still the human body and she had a human skeletal structure in her torso. The magic might have decided that it needed to be soft in order to work with the rest of the body.
Or perhaps it would harden later. He hadn’t gotten a look at her hands for several weeks. It could have started soft and wound up the rigid stiffness that it was today.
Something to keep an eye on.
“Are you done?”
Devon grumbled as he pulled his hands away from Eva.
“The antidote,” Eva slurred, “if you will. I’d like to look myself over.”
“You can’t even see properly,” Devon said. He pulled out the vial anyway. “It won’t look any different to you if you can move.”
“I’d like to at least feel it, maybe try walking around.”
Devon held the vial over her mouth. “Get ready. As soon as you can swallow, you must. Try not to inhale any.” With that, he started tipping the vial.
Just a drop at first. Then two drops. Two drops turned into four as her tongue started moving properly. The drops turned into a dribble that soon turned into pouring the rest down her throat.
Five minutes later and Eva was sitting up on the gurney. Arachne, walking around on six legs jutting from her back, was helping her sit.
Long clawed fingers, belonging to both Arachne and Eva, ran up and down her new legs. Devon noted with some disdain that Eva did not protest when the spider-demon started prodding her abdomen.
“That’s weird,” Eva said.
“No. It is just that I’ve only got four toes. And they move weird.” Eva sighed. “I’m going to have to wear clown shoes.”
“My feet are not that big,” Arachne protested. “You could get away with some nice boots. Or just go barefoot and claim you’re wearing boots.”
“That would work if it were perpetually dark. In the light, you can clearly see between the toe–claw–things.”
Devon jumped backwards as Eva swung her legs around, almost knocking into him.
“Help me stand up,” she commanded Arachne.
The spider-demon complied. It seemed she didn’t notice or care about her own leg stumps dripping blood.
Carefully, Eva drew herself up to her full height. Her eyes were level with Devon’s now. Maybe slightly higher. “You’ve grown,” he said. Devon wasn’t the tallest man around, but he felt five foot eight inches was a respectable height.
At least, it used to be a respectable height.
“That was expected. Arachne is about two to three feet taller than me–than I was. Some of that is in her upper body though.”
“You’re at least a foot taller.”
“Summer growth spurt.”
Eva tried taking a step forwards and almost immediately stumbled. If Arachne hadn’t been hovering around her, she would have fallen flat on her face.
A small part of him wished Arachne had been a few paces back.
“Yeah,” Eva said, “this is definitely going to take some getting used to.”