“Professors Baxter, Kines, and Zagan?”
“We’re a lot larger this year, probably because of Professor Zagan.”
The three professors stood in the center of the dueling rings. Franklin Kines spoke to the students about learning combat and a new outline and schedule for the mage-knight club courtesy of Zagan.
The majority of it was the same as last year, so Eva felt little need to pay attention.
Instead, Eva cast her sight around in full, inspecting everyone she could. Irene was correct. Including Irene and Max, almost the entire second year class had shown up along with more older students than the previous spring.
Not many first year students. Only two, though Eva couldn’t be entirely sure; some freshmen might be big enough to pass as third years.
The two freshmen bothered Eva. There was something off about both of them. The male barely had a heartbeat. It beat at about the same rate a regular person’s heart ticked at during sleep. Apart from that, he wasn’t that strange.
The female, Eva didn’t know what to make of her. Her heart worked fine, but the veins were all messed up. Every so often there would be a jagged point. It was like looking at her circulatory system through a broken mirror. Some parts of it seemed disconnected entirely. There were blood pockets that didn’t seem to move at all.
All that was in addition to her missing several organs.
Eva nudged Juliana and leaned in to whisper. “Don’t look too long or too obviously, but you see that girl over there?” Eva asked with a hopefully discrete point of her finger.
Juliana leaned around Eva’s shoulder. It didn’t take long to figure out who Eva was talking about despite the crowd if her elevated heart rate was any indication.
“Describe her for me.”
“Curly blond hair, short. One green eye and one brown eye. Stitches all over her face, down her arms, and around almost every joint on her fingers.” Juliana gave a small shudder. “She looks like she lost a recent fight with a lawnmower.”
Eva nodded her thanks.
“Something wrong with her?”
“Apart from everything you just said? Her insides look like they’ve been through a blender.”
More than a few people were staring at her. With Juliana’s description, it wasn’t hard to see why.
“Should we be keeping an eye on her?”
Eva shrugged. “I don’t see why we should. So long as she doesn’t bother me, I don’t particularly care about her.”
“That seems cruel,” Juliana said with a frown.
“Cruel would be making fun of her or otherwise bullying her. I don’t care about a lot of people in this room, because she has a few stitches and scars doesn’t make her special. I was merely curious about her appearance.”
A lie, but not an overly big one. The jagged veins and arteries didn’t disturb Eva so much as her missing organs. She had a stomach but no liver or kidneys. Her intestines were far shorter than normal, only a few feet. There were no reproductive organs at all. Or, at least, they weren’t receiving blood.
She did have three things inside her abdomen that Eva couldn’t identify.
A demon, perhaps. Not one she’d ever heard of, but that wasn’t saying much.
Zagan and Arachne had odd internal biology as well, Zagan having four stomachs among other things. Arachne’s tube for a heart and general weirdness due to a lack of an internal skeleton.
Of course, Eva’s own insides were off as well. Her lack of internal skeleton was confined to her hands and legs, but anyone who observed the world in the same manner that she did would be thrown for a loop.
Except Arachne wasn’t freaking out. The spider-demon stayed latched to Eva’s chest in a calm manner. Maybe she simply did not view the girl as a threat.
They’d need to have a talk later.
Eva focused on Zagan.
Uninterested. Eva couldn’t see anything else in his posture. His eyes focused off on some point above the student’s heads. With his arms crossed, he leaned back against a wall.
A wall that certainly wasn’t in the middle of the room.
Some invisible thing? Blood flecks passed through the area without resistance.
Eva wondered if anyone else noticed. His clothes might obscure the lean, but from her perspective, it was pretty obvious.
Still, he didn’t so much as glance in the direction of the blender girl.
Zoe Baxter, on the other hand, alternated between glancing at the girl, glancing over the students, and glaring at Zagan from behind his back. Surprisingly, Zoe hadn’t spoken to Eva about Zagan.
“Upper years will be instructed and monitored by Professor Zagan, middle years by myself, and lower years by Professor Baxter,” Franklin Kines said at the end of his speech. “Gear up and pair off.”
Eva sighed as she followed Juliana and Shalise over to the racks. She pulled on a knee-length vest and a helmet. Her own gloves were better than the ones offered. Even if they weren’t, it wasn’t like anyone she’d be up against could actually harm her hands.
“Well,” Eva said, “shall we get to it then, Shalise?”
“Shouldn’t we wait for Professor Baxter to give us instructions?”
Eva shrugged. “I was only half paying attention, but I think we’re meant to work on shields and basic projectiles. If Zoe has a problem with it, she’ll stop us and let us know.”
Shalise gave a hesitant nod before they moved to one of the unoccupied dueling rings.
“I’ll attack first then?”
“Got something that will hit me this time?” Eva asked with a grin.
A polite smile was all Eva got in return.
A polite smile and a ball of electricity. Eva could feel it burning through her flecks of blood as it arced towards her.
Eva held out her hand in front of her–forgoing her wand; there wasn’t enough time to reach for it as it was still in her pocket–and brought up an order magic shield.
Her shields were not very strong. Luckily, neither were Shalise’s lightning balls.
The electricity hit the shield, sending fractures through the ethereal wall. With a burst of extra magic, Eva repaired the cracks before any electricity could snake through to the other side.
“That’s a new one,” Eva said with surprise in her voice. The last time she saw Shalise fight, she hadn’t managed any kind of attack save for small bursts of air that were not dangerous even without a shield. “No runes?”
“I worked hard this summer,” she said with a smile. The smile slipped slightly as she said, “it isn’t as impressive as a proper lightning bolt, but Professor Baxter helped a lot to get this far.”
“It is quite impressive, I assure you Miss Ward.”
Shalise jumped a few feet as Zoe Baxter approached from behind the girl.
For once, I’m not the one being startled, Eva thought with a grin.
“I wouldn’t have expected you to be able to cast that for a few months yet,” Zoe continued, “though you could put more power into it. Keep it up and you might make a full bolt by the end of the year.”
Blood rushed to Shalise’s cheeks. She mumbled something that Eva couldn’t quite catch. Evidently, Zoe did hear it.
“Ah. Well, you best put in your greatest efforts. I shall be most pleased if you are able.” The professor’s eyes turned towards Eva. “You could do with Miss Ward’s work ethic. Do try to concentrate on your shield better, it shouldn’t have fractured like that. I will, however, commend your quick repair work.”
“Yes, Professor Baxter,” Eva said with a nod.
Despite her blood shield being near infinitely better than the order shields–twice over with Arachne’s blood–Eva could see the value in learning it. Blood was a limited quantity. She might not want to waste it on a shield when she could use it for an attack instead. Or she might not have any handy. A weak order shield could save her life.
Zoe nodded a dismissal towards the two and proceeded to another circle.
Left to their own devices, Eva and Shalise continued hurling magic at each other. Eva happily noted that her friend’s shield held up to all of her fireballs, weak though they were. Her own shield wasn’t so lucky. Every now and again, Shalise would put out enough power to take it down completely.
After twenty minutes of constant barrage, Shalise decided it was time to take a short break. Feeling worn out herself, Eva was only too happy to follow.
“I know who you are, Eva.”
Eva stopped in her tracks. She hadn’t even left the ring yet. With a sigh, she turned to face the little blended girl and her companion.
“Most people do,” Eva said. “They couldn’t stop staring at me for a good few months.” Even now, her speaking with the blended girl was drawing more than a few eyes. When she didn’t respond, Eva said, “can I help you?”
“Oh, I don’t know about helping,” she said with a wide smile, “I just wanted to talk to you. We’re a lot alike.”
Eva sighed. She waved Shalise off so the brunette could take her break. “It is generally proper to introduce oneself before starting a conversation.”
The girl slapped her forehead. Hard, if the blood rushing through her capillaries was any indication. Some of it seemed to leak out of the middle of her forehead and flowed along some stitching that became obvious as the blood–and Eva’s sight–ran down her face.
Eva frowned as the girl took no notice, even as some dripped into her eye.
“I forgot. Daddy always said to introduce myself and I forgot. My… friend is Hugo,” she said with a nod past her shoulder. “I’m Des.” She held out one hand, the hand she didn’t use to smack her face.
Eva frowned, but shook the girl’s hand anyway.
It happened so fast, Eva was left gaping. The blended girl reached up with her other hand and pulled Eva’s glove half off.
“Oh, how pretty,” she started. “Oh, but you don’t have stitching at all, that is–”
Eva shoved the girl. She flew back to the opposite end of the dueling ring where she landed in a heap.
Hugo stepped forward, looking about ready to throw a punch.
Eva took half a step back before Des managed to sit up. “Don’t hurt her Hugo, she’s our friend.”
Coating the girl with some extra blood to get a better sight on her, Eva felt her heart sink. Des’ hands still gripped Eva’s glove.
Eva’s needle-like claws slowly unbent from the compressed position they had to keep while in the gloves.
Short gasps from the watching crowd told Eva it was far too late to hide.
Arachne started squirming beneath her vest and her shirt. Instead of bothering to hide her hand, she pressed one hand against her chest, pinning Arachne.
Eva stared. Or observed. Her conversation with the blended girl had brought some attention, but now even those who had been ignoring or oblivious to her turned to stare. Each person brought more gasps or gapes, in turn drawing more people.
The chain reaction of stares couldn’t be stopped.
What to do? Eva tried to stay calm. She could see her own heart picking up speed. Just seeing that caused her to panic more.
Flee, address students, tear out the girl’s throat, release Arachne.
No, Eva thought despite her panic. Unpinning the still squirming Arachne could only worsen the situation as would attacking the blended girl.
Instead she started building up magic within herself–preparing for an infernal walk. She wanted to leave immediately, but wasn’t willing to risk a one way trip to Hell with a botched teleport.
Juliana rushed up to Eva’s side. A pillar of earth stretched from the ground and wrapped around Eva’s hand before breaking off, hiding it from view.
It took Eva a moment to realize what was happening. She almost punched the blond’s face in before she realized she wasn’t being attacked.
“What are you all staring at?” Juliana shouted. “Got nothing better to do than look at my friend?”
Eva shook her head. “Stay, Arachne,” Eva hissed. She waited a moment for the spider’s movements to die down. “It’s too late,” she said, setting her still gloved hand on Juliana’s shoulder. With a flexing of her hand, the brittle earth broke away. Eva reached over and pulled her other glove off.
That got several more gasps. Even a scream as she set it back down on Juliana’s shoulder.
Zoe Baxter was pushing her way through the crowd of students, but Eva wasn’t about to wait around for her. It was too late, her magic built up enough to safely teleport.
“Let Zoe know I’ve gone back to the prison,” Eva whispered in Juliana’s ear. “Try to keep her from incriminating herself, if possible.”
Before the room disappeared, Eva heard the blended girl say something.
“Just wait until my daddy hears about this,” she said. “He’ll be so excited.”
Eva groaned as she stumbled out of the gate. She could still feel the sizzling heat on her skin. It was all in her mind. But it sure didn’t feel all in her mind.
Infernal walking became far more tolerable after swapping out her legs for Arachne’s legs. For whatever reason, neither her legs nor her hands suffered the burn. Her chest and face still flayed off during the teleport.
She had no idea how Martina Turner did it. The dean was fully human as far as Eva could tell. There had to be a trick to teleporting without the discomfort.
Arachne slipped out from underneath her shirt and vest. The moment she had a few feet of clearance, she grew back to her regular human size. Without warning, she stepped up and wrapped her arms around Eva.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “we can live here until we find a new place.” There was a slight pause while Arachne ran her fingers down Eva’s back before she said, “what exactly happened?”
Eva sighed. “Come on,” she said, “might as well explain it to my master while we’re at it.”
“Isn’t he back in Florida?”
Her blood wards and her sight already fed Eva the information that he was, in fact, not in Florida. Eva silently led Arachne into the women’s ward kitchen.
A one-armed man stood hunched over the kitchen stove. He had a pot of water in his one hand and appeared to be just now turning on the burner’s runes.
Devon glanced up at their arrival. He gave a short snort before turning back to the stove.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in Florida?”
“Nope, and I don’t think you should be back there either.” He shook his head with a frown. “Hunters are wandering around lately.”
“Looking for you?”
That was slightly unnerving. She had visited just a few months ago to collect the last of her things from the abandoned hospital. Had she stuck around, she might have run into them.
They might have shown up because she went back.
Eva suppressed a shudder and looked back at Devon. “What are you doing in my kitchen?”
“Boiling water,” Devon grunted. “You’ve got a working kitchen. I don’t.”
Eva frowned, but didn’t have much to say against that. So long as he kept to the kitchen, that is.
“You’re here at an abnormal time. Something happen?”
“Gloves got pulled off in front of most of the school. Lots of staring. One or two screams.”
Her master let out a short sigh before sliding the pot off the burner. “I warned you,” he said. “I warned you and you didn’t damn well listen did you?”
Eva didn’t say anything. She thought about protesting. Her hands being Arachne’s wasn’t exactly her choice. Devon wouldn’t care.
“Do we need to leave?”
“Don’t know,” Eva said with a shrug. “I expect Zoe Baxter will stop by. We’ll take what she says under advisement.”
Devon grumbled under his breath for a moment before stalking out of the room. “I’ll start packing.”
“I hope we stay,” Arachne said once the front doors slammed shut. The amusement in her voice was borderline hysterical. “Just so he has to unpack again.”
“Quite evil of you.”
“Well,” Arachne puffed out her chest in pride, “I am a demon.”
Eva let out a small, much-needed laugh. After a brief moment of companionable silence, Eva said, “I think I’ll lie down until Zoe gets here.”
She proceeded to the couch set out in the common room to do precisely that. Arachne followed–as Eva knew she would. Eva flopped down on the couch and lay there, staring at the ceiling.
Arachne wiggled herself into the couch. She pulled Eva’s head up onto her lap and started massaging Eva’s head.
What a mess, Eva thought as she shut her eyes. Part of her still wanted to tear that girl’s throat out.
She knew that something was wrong with Eva’s hands.
Everyone knew something was wrong, but that girl knew. She expected what she saw.
Someone told her. Eva doubted it was either of her roommates. They’d lived together for a year, more in the case of Juliana, and neither seemed the type. Zoe Baxter was worried about losing her job if any part of Eva’s life came to light, not to mention she seemed to genuinely care.
Zagan, Martina Turner, and Catherine were all possibilities.
Or… Eva felt her stomach sink. Sister Cross and a good handful of her nuns knew.
She should have just let Zagan kill Sister Cross. Shalise would have been upset, but at least the only group of people who were openly hostile towards Eva would be out of the way.
That ship sailed, Eva thought with a sigh.
Eva just started dozing off when a hard knock came at the door.
“Eva,” a voice called, “are you in?”
Much to the disappointment of Arachne, Eva pulled herself into a sitting position. “Come in,” she called out.
Zoe Baxter stepped into the room. Her eyes drifted over the two seated on the couch. She shook her head with a frown and looked straight at Eva. “Are you alright?”
“I’m not injured, if that is what you are asking.” Eva made a gesture towards one of the chairs opposite from the couch. “Have a seat.”
Zoe nodded and crossed the room. She sat with her back straight and her hands clasped together in her lap.
Her heart rate was a good portion higher than normal.
“Dean Turner,” she started, “is going to address the school tomorrow. She appeared in the dueling hall just moments after you left and started taking control.”
Eva nodded. “Is this address going to be in my favor?”
“I am unsure, but I believe so. Judging by her ordering the students back to the dorms while telling them to mind their own business.”
“If the students start writing home about a girl with demon hands, there will be trouble.”
Zoe put on a kind smile that didn’t suit her. “You’re assuming students will recognize your hands for what they are. Those with knowledge of demons are few and far between. Look at Zagan. He parades his name around openly.” She glanced off to one side with a frown. “I didn’t notice.”
“Someone will realize. If not a student, then a parent. They’ll realize how I got these hands.”
“Then we lay the blame on Sawyer.” Zoe gave a short glance towards Arachne. “It is mostly the truth. No one will blame you. They’ve all gone to school with you for the last year.”
Leaning back into Arachne with a sigh, Eva said, “students maybe. Are you willing to risk several parents pulling their children out of the school over one person? I know Juliana’s mother has been freaking out about everything last year. She can’t be the only one.”
“You leave that to the adults. Just pretend it was all the necromancer’s fault. As I said, it was at least mostly their fault.”
There was a short pause in their conversation while Eva thought. “You want me to go back then?”
“Of course I do. Others… we will have to play by ear, I think.” Zoe sighed again. Her heart rate rose at the same time. “I feel I must apologize.”
“I was the one who brought Des to the academy. She was a last-minute addition while I picked up Hugo, the boy she was with. I didn’t know that she would do something like this.”
“It isn’t your fault,” Eva said. A nagging voice in the back of her mind told her exactly the opposite. Even with that voice, Eva didn’t think Zoe would intentionally plot against her. At least not with their current, amicable relationship. “Someone told her, I think. If it wasn’t her, it would have been someone else.”
“Who told her?”
Eva shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t think her intentions were overly malicious. She told her friend that I was a friend.”
“I don’t think she has many,” Zoe said in a quiet voice. “She only interacts with Hugo. I believe she’s frightened off most of her peers with her appearance and, quite frankly, disturbing mannerisms.”
“She looks like she’s been through a blender and glued back together.”
“I was told she had a condition. Her body has trouble healing itself, hence all the stitching holding her together. I’m not sure how she lives, but I’ve been researching obscure diseases and remedies to try to help.”
“Unsuccessful?” Eva guessed by the tone of the professor’s voice.
“Well, I think I could care less about her, but not so much that I’ll be ignoring her from now on. She’s caught my attention enough to warrant some snooping, I think.” Eva sighed again as Arachne gently ran her fingers through Eva’s hair. “I’m far more interested in who told her about me.”
“We’ll look into that. For now, let’s head back. Juliana and Shalise are very concerned.”
Eva allowed herself to be helped to her feet by Zoe. “I think I’ll teleport myself,” she said. “Your ‘between’ thing is unpleasant.”
“I understand,” the professor said with a frown. “Is Mr. Foster in? He should probably be appraised of the situation as well.”
“He went off to pack,” Arachne said with a grin. “We’ll leave a note saying we don’t need to go on the run quite so soon after all.”
Eva nodded and scribbled out a note to leave on the coffee table. “Arachne, if you’d be so kind as to shrink down, you can teleport with me.”
The spider-demon complied and started shifting to her spider form.
Eva froze as a thought occurred to her. “Oh no,” Eva said as she ran her fingertips over her scalp. “Irene, Jordan, Max, and Shelby were all there.”
“A good portion of the student body was there,” Zoe said quietly. “Think of it this way, you won’t have to crumple your fingers into gloves anymore.”
“That isn’t the issue. They’ve seen Arachne in spider form before.”
“Ah. Yeah,” Eva said. “How do I explain that away. Even if they haven’t seen her for a year, Arachne is quite distinctive.” Eva wiggled her fingers. “One of them is sure to notice the similarities.”
She wouldn’t be able to just claim that the necromancers forced the new hands on her. They’d see through that. Even if she claimed that Sawyer used Arachne in creating her new hands, they knew she was alive.
“Perhaps,” Zoe said, “simply tell them the truth.”
“The truth,” Eva bit her lip. So many people knew so many secrets that she had been trying to conceal. What were four more?
“At least part of it. Leave out the demon part and tell them Arachne is a magical creature.”
“That…” might work. “No. What if they went to Bradley Twillie asking him about magical spider-women?”
“Professor Twillie, while I respect him a great deal, doesn’t know of every creature in existence. I am willing to wager a good amount that Juliana’s father knows of more creatures than he does.”
Gears turned in Eva’s head upon hearing that. A small smile split across her face. “That might be the answer. I have a meeting with Carlos Rivas tomorrow evening. He wanted to meet Arachne in her real form.” At Zoe’s questioning look, Eva quickly explained, “Juliana let slip that she was a demon.”
Zoe Baxter’s mouth fell open for a moment. She looked about like she wanted to go yell at her student.
“But,” Eva said before she could say a word. “If the meeting goes well, maybe he could help me. We could weave some tale about Arachne being a legitimate magical creature.”
“That might be a tough sell. He has his integrity as a researcher to consider.”
Eva frowned, but nodded. “Can’t hurt to ask.”