Elves. Loathsome beasts. They always found a way to disgust. Wallowing in their own filth as they served their human masters. Slaves without chains.
Every elf read the works of Tolkien as they grew up. Since their fall, they dressed themselves up after the elves of Middle-earth. Mannered themselves as wise and nature oriented.
An attempt at endearing themselves to humans.
Catherine couldn’t help but think it was mildly successful. The humans seemed to trust them enough.
Disgusting and loathsome.
Pandering their once great race to the whims of mortals.
Not that they had much choice. ‘Once great’ was a very literal term.
They were a dying species and they knew it.
All newborn elves were mortal. They might enjoy some longevity from their ancestors, but nothing significant. Every immortal elf that died from combat was an irreplaceable loss to their race.
Elves lost the magic that made them unique. The magic that made them better than mortals. Forced instead to learn the magic of the mundane to have any power at all.
Without their unique magic, the only thing left of their race and culture was their knowledge of unnatural plants and cultivation techniques. They kept the secrets to themselves while offering remedies to humans.
They clung to any scrap of relevance they could get, even if it meant associating themselves with those beneath them.
Of course, they could no longer consider themselves above mortals.
A testament to the fate of those who lost their Power.
A shudder ran up Catherine’s spine. Void terrified her. On one hand, He gave out everything a demon could ever desire. Their domains. Shaped by every whim and fancy to strike the owning demon. Taken a step too far.
Nothing to hope for. Nothing to yearn for. Everything a demon wanted offered up without challenge or effort. Everything except an escape.
Demons could freely move to other domains. Few ever did. Subjecting oneself to the whims of others within their own domains tended to wind up poorly.
Then there was Void’s namesake.
A demon’s death condemned a demon to the exact opposite. Rather than everything, there was nothing. Absolute nothingness. No stimuli save for the dalliances of one’s own mind. A mind that may not be entirely intact depending on how the demon met her demise.
Catherine had only died once. Slain in the humans’ sixteenth century after enthralling a small village. Everything had been going so well before…
Another tremor tore through Catherine.
She still didn’t know if she escaped the Void through conscious action on her part or if she had been let go.
Not an experience she was eager to repeat in either case.
Despite the cruelty He inflicted upon demons, Catherine would fight fang and claw for Him should He require. All demons would. Losing their patron Power would subject their race to near extinction.
Like the elves.
Catherine tried to keep the sneer of disgust off her face as the milky-eyed elf looked over the charred human.
His silver circlet glinted as he moved around the table. The flowing white dress he wore drifted in some imaginary breeze. Every motion he made was filled with more grace than a contortionist during sex.
Nothing like the fearsome warriors and conquerers Catherine had personally seen several millennia in the past.
“This one is far worse than the last one,” the elf’s flowery voice said as he turned his eyes to Catherine.
She clenched her teeth together. “Can you fix him?” Catherine ground out.
“Fear not, young one–”
Catherine did not consider herself violent. There were far more satisfying things to do with mortals than pulling them apart. That didn’t stop her from occasionally getting the urge to do just that. Especially when the elf gave her that patronizing smile.
She had to shut her eyes to retain control.
“It will take time, but his burns will mend with our aid.”
“Great. Brakket Academy will pay for whatever.”
Catherine tried to turn and leave before she did something she would regret. A polite clearing of the elf’s throat stopped her.
“If I might ask,” his flowery voice said, “what caused these burns?”
“He tried to fight a fire demon with fire. His own flames were turned back on him.”
“A demon?” Not a hint of surprise appeared on his face. There were probably detectable traces left all over Wayne’s body.
Catherine doubted the elf picked up anything about her. Her disguise was perfect.
“A demon,” Catherine confirmed. “It has been killed.”
The elf raised one of his perfectly styled eyebrows in a silent question.
Catherine wasn’t about to oblige. “If there is nothing else,” she trailed off as if expecting to be dismissed, but turned and walked out without waiting.
Politeness was wasted on such worthless creatures. Martina should have summoned a barqu or even a minion of Corrupter to fix Wayne.
Or just kill him. Catherine hadn’t found him to be that great of an alchemist. Surely he wouldn’t be difficult to replace.
But she was a familiar. She would abide by her master’s decision.
The organ notes of Toccata and Fugue echoed down the hospital hallway.
Speaking of the annoying woman, Catherine thought with a smile as she pulled out her cellphone.
For a moment, Catherine just stared at the device in her hand. She entertained the thought of ignoring the call simply to annoy Martina. That would only make her more annoying later. Still, that didn’t stop Catherine from waiting for the final note to play before she answered the call.
It was a good song, after all.
“About time.” Martina already sounded annoyed.
Catherine let out an audible sigh before she said, “did you want something?”
“Still looking like cooked bacon.”
There was a pause and faint growling on the other end of the call. Catherine smiled as she imagined Martina’s face twisting into an ugly scowl. She was too easy.
“Can the elves help him?”
“I think that they think that they probably can.”
Another growl. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“It means exactly what I meant. I’m no elf. Why would I know what they’re capable of?”
“Is Wayne still with you?”
“I left him with the elves. He looks like bacon but he doesn’t smell very fragrant. Being in his presence was making me nauseous. Lucky for him, the hospital’s natural stench of sterility overpowers everything.”
“Fine. We need to find a temporary alchemist and theorist as well as prepare some sort of statement. Get back here immediately.”
The connection terminated with a faint click.
“Gladly,” Catherine honestly said, though she had lied about one thing. She could stand Wayne. It was the milky-eyed elves making her nauseous.
Just looking at them turned something in the pit of her stomach.
— — —
“They’re glowing,” Jordan said.
“Not that much. Hardly more than normal.”
Irene disagreed. Eyes weren’t supposed to glow. Any amount of glow was automatically more than normal. In Eva’s case, it was looking like a lot more than normal.
Jordan sported a wide grin as he pressed his face right up against Eva’s. The intensity with which he stared at her eyes was almost as frightening as Eva herself. Even Eva took a step away from him with a worried look on her face.
His antics weren’t winning him any favors with Shelby. Irene’s twin took on a cross look when he moved back up next to Eva. It wasn’t until she linked her arm with his and pulled Jordan away that he finally gave some space to the glowing-eyed girl.
Part of her wondered if they were dating yet. Shelby hadn’t said anything, but that didn’t mean anything; unlike most popular depictions of twins, Shelby and Irene did not share absolutely everything with one another.
They certainly lacked the stereotypical means of telepathic communication. If they had a telepathic connection, Irene would be asking her sister what exactly the girl was thinking when she smiled and put her hand on Eva’s claw thing.
Irene sighed as she glanced at the only other participant in their little meeting. At least I’m not the only one keeping my distance.
Max was hanging back at her side. His kind smile had turned into a frown the moment Eva took her gloves off. Irene thought he was going to make a run for it when Eva pulled the leather band off of her eyes.
Irene had the decency to keep her expression neutral. She knew something was wrong with the girl and had always maintained a polite atmosphere around her. At the very least, Irene possessed the mental acuity not to offend the girl who now walked around with what amounted to knives on her fingers.
And eyes she had stolen from a demon.
They probably had all kinds of inhuman abilities.
Irene had a sinking feeling in her stomach as Eva glanced up. Their eyes met for an instant before Eva gave her a small smile.
Oh no. She can read minds.
Every nasty thought she’d ever had for Eva surfaced. She tried to blank her mind and return Eva’s smile at the same time.
It didn’t help.
The smile on Eva’s face slipped.
Irene froze. Her eyes flicked down to Eva’s claws and then to her legs. Even if she wanted to run, she wouldn’t be able to get away.
And then what. She still lived next door. Shelby lived there too. She couldn’t–wouldn’t leave behind her sister.
“I’m sorry,” Irene blurted out. “I just need time. To process.”
“You could say that again,” mumbled Max.
“Irene,” Shelby said softly. “She’s the same Eva we’ve know–”
“I know. I know. It’s just, well, creepy. It’s how she’s seen all this time with her eyes shut. She doesn’t even need to open her eyes to know what’s going on around.” Irene glanced at the wall. “She can probably see through walls. That’s how she knew about the bull even when we couldn’t see it.”
Eva raised one shiny black finger into the air, pointing at her eyes. “Actually,” she said, “I only got these eyes last night.”
“I just, I don’t know.” Irene could feel her panic settling in. The situation was just too out there. She missed Shelby moving to her side until her twin pulled her into a hug. “I-I need a book. I need to know–to explain everything to myself.
“You just pull a demon’s eyes out and pop them into your sockets and it just works?” A small whisper of horror snapped in the back of her mind as she realized something. “And your hands are the same, aren’t they? Your pet spider is a demon too.”
Eva’s wince told Irene that her guess was correct. Magical creature from Africa my ass. “We’ve been living next to a demon.” Irene couldn’t keep the tremor out of her voice.
“Is that true?” Shelby asked.
“I didn’t want to mention. My hands and eyes are pushing the limits. I could potentially get demon hunters after me with them. Widespread knowledge of Arachne would definitely give hunters cause to turn their gaze in my direction.”
“Well, I don’t know about hunters, but that seems pretty cool. Is she like a–”
“Cool? Cool? You don’t get to dismiss a demon living next to us as cool. It is a demon. They’re–”
“They’re what?” Eva interrupted. “Evil? Going to kill us all? Please. I’m perfectly willing to loan you a book to educate yourself with, but use your head a little.
“She is a demon and I apparently cannot keep a secret if my life depended on it. Which it might,” Eva added with a sigh.
“Arachne has lived next door to you since I got here. She was on the airplane. How many times has she gone on a murderous rampage?” Eva paused and tilted her head as if thinking to herself, making sure her count was correct. “None. If anything, she’s saved people. We were the ones who drove the necromancers out of town. Not the Elysium Order.
“I’m well aware that I’m creepy. Especially now with,” she raised and clacked her fingers together.
“I quickly alienated everyone at my old school. I was the creepy one who sat in the back and drew strange symbols all over her papers. By the time I realized the niceties of social interaction, it was too late. I’d already alienated myself from everyone. Only two of my fellow students ever spoke to me and that was borderline bullying.”
Eva took a deep breath as she glanced around the group. “Arachne was my friend. My first and only friend for the longest time. She wasn’t around as often–she wasn’t contracted to me then like she is now–but we always managed to be together on Halloween. Sometimes we’d have a party or even an occasional trick-or-treat.
“I’m rambling, but what I’m trying to say is this: she isn’t a murderous monster who is going to go around killing everyone.”
Eva let out a long sigh.
Irene had almost been feeling bad. That feeling vanished in one word. “Probably?”
“A joke. Nothing more,” Eva said with her creepy hands raised. It was supposed to look placating, but it ended up more threatening. “If you really want a book, I do have one. It has no directions for summoning or anything, merely a neutral look at demons. Though you should keep it hidden anyway.”
“I don’t know. I just…” Irene shot her sister a glare as Shelby mouthed something to Eva. She’d probably be getting another lecture later.
A brief moment of silence reigned over the group until Jordan cleared his throat.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” he said, “how did you see?”
“That’s a secret.”
Jordan’s face fell. The look of absolute dejection on his face immediately turned Eva’s features softer.
The manipulative jerk.
Not that Irene was going to complain. She wanted–no, needed to know.
“Technically it isn’t a magic that proper mages should know, so I’ll skimp the details. Basically I constantly spread a dust in the air around me. Very tiny particles and not even that much, but I could sense them. Therefore I could sense whatever they landed on and get a picture of my environment.”
“I see,” Jordan said with a nod. “Improper magic?” He made a light humming noise.
A familiar humming noise.
Irene could see the gears turning in his head, searching through all the knowledge he had pilfered from his family library for any spell that resembled Eva’s description. Hopefully he wouldn’t remember anything. The shadow thing he did was bad enough. Irene did not want him becoming anything like Eva.
“Both Zoe Baxter and Wayne Lurcher knew about it, so you could say it was cleared,” Eva said with a dismissive wave of her hand.
“But,” Max said a little louder than he normally spoke. He shuffled his feet nervously as all eyes, including Eva’s, turned to him. “But do your new eyes do anything special?” The first sly grin appeared on his face since the start of their conversation. He put both hands on his hips and puffed out his chest. “Can they see through things?”
Irene let out a small groan as he wiggled his hips.
“No, Max,” Eva said with a very visible roll of her eyes, “I can’t see your dick.”
He immediately started sputtering, prompting raucous laughter from Shelby. Why the boy went through all the effort for the lewd joke and then got embarrassed when Eva called him out, Irene doubted she’d ever understand.
“As far as I can tell so far,” Eva continued, “these eyes aren’t much different from human eyes. A little sharper under certain circumstances and a little blurrier under others. Colors are off a little as well. Blacks are, well, blacker. Whites are slightly grayer. The colors in between suffer at varying degrees. Nothing that affects everyday living.”
Eva shook her head. “I can’t stay for much longer. Shalise, Juliana’s father and Juliana are still back at my other house and I don’t really want them exploring too much while I’m not there.”
“Other house?” Jordan asked.
“There was an incident last night–the reason we’re not in class right now. I’m sure you’ll hear about it. But I was entertaining Juliana’s father at a place I own in town. They decided it would be safer to spend the night there.”
“Safer? Is there anything we need to do?”
“Probably not. I’d avoid going into town. If you see anything suspicious like,” Eva let out a very forced cough, “strange creatures, then notify either myself, Zoe Baxter, Wayne Lurcher, Zagan, Martina Turner, or Catherine.”
Eva let out a sigh. “Two things attacked Zoe last night. My mentor is trying to find out where they came from or why. She’s mostly fine, don’t worry. Arachne, Wayne Lurcher, and I killed them, so don’t worry about rampant creatures. Wayne was injured. I think we will be having a substitute in his class for a while.”
Max’s momentary smile vanished from his face. “First zombies then ‘strange creatures?’ What is it with this place?”
“Don’t forget Eva’s bull,” Shelby said with a half-forced grin.
“Hey. It wasn’t my bull. I had nothing to do with that incident.”
Max just shook his head. “Are all magical schools like this?”
“Good question. Look up the answer or ask around. I’d be interested in knowing the answer when I get back.”
“When is that going to be?”
“Tonight if I have anything to say about it.” Eva shook her head. She walked to the study room door mumbling under her breath. “People having free reign of my prison while I’m not around is a recipe for disaster. I just hope everyone is in the same number of pieces they were in when I left.”
She stopped with one hand on the handle and spun, pointing a single finger in the other hand directly towards Irene.
Her heart skipped a beat before Eva smiled. “I’ll grab that book for you. And,” she swept her finger towards the rest of the group, “try to keep this a secret. If you must talk to someone other than me, please go to Wayne Lurcher or Zoe Baxter. Use discretion and no rash decisions. Please.”
With one last, almost pleading look, Eva left the room.
“Prison?” Jordan said.
Max glanced at him. “Same number of pieces?”
“I told you she was creepy.”
— — —
“That didn’t turn out near as well as I’d hoped. An utter failure, in fact. Despite their fearsome reputation, that display was lacking.”
“I thought we were supposed to make friends.”
Her father turned his overwide grin down on Des. “You are to make friends. I have other plans.”
Des frowned. That wasn’t what he told her before school started.
“Now don’t sulk. Come, give Daddy a hand.”
With only the most superficial of sighs–Des did like helping her father work–she stepped up to the slab. She couldn’t help but feel a tingle inside as their latest acquisition wriggled beneath the bindings.
Streaks of water ran down his temples and pooled in the bowl beneath his skull. Tears of Despair. They’d fetch a good price. Des sealed off the bowl–contaminating it would lower the potency.
The man’s watery eyes looked into her own, pleading for release.
Des was happy to oblige.
The snapping of gloves onto her hands was always a satisfying sound. She started her incision at the shoulder and brought it down to the base of the sternum. A second cut from the opposite shoulder drew past the sternum to the man’s navel.
“So,” her father said as he helped pin back the flaps of skin, “how is school going?”
“It’s like the old school, daddy. Hugo helps scare away the worst of them.” Des had to raise her voice to be heard over the whir of the bone saw digging into the man’s ribcage. “Using magic hurts too.”
“Hurts? What do you mean, hurts? You’re not supposed to feel pain.”
“I don’t know how else to say it. I get out of class and want to do nothing but sit in a corner without moving.”
“Rejection? No. I tested thoroughly. Are you eating enough? You must eat twice as much, or more, than you used to.”
“I’m having two helpings at every meal,” Des said with insistence. She really had. Even when it hurt. Even when everyone pointed and whispered behind her back. Getting a larger stomach might help with the first problem. Nothing would help the second problem.
Thinking about school brought up ill memories. Des shook her head and sighed. “I’m glad you got school canceled for the rest of the week.”
“That,” he said with an even wider smile, “was an accident. As I said, disappointing. I thought the short one had a good head on its shoulders. Then neither of them follows orders. Pathetic. What do people see in them?”
Des shook her head as she carefully removed the man’s stomach. Even without the proper ability to smell, spilling its contents always ended up with an annoying cleanup.
“Can’t I stay here with you, daddy? I don’t want to go back.”
“Ah-ah,” he said as he ticked one gloved finger back and forth. “At the very least, Hugo would be more useful if he learned magic. I’ll see about tweaking your caloric intake to something more manageable.”
“But daddy, I’m sure Hugo could manage–”
“Oh, take out the heart too.”
Des glanced down at the faintly beating heart in her hands. She estimated less than a minute, roughly thirty to thirty-five beats remained. Holding on until the last beat was one of her favorite parts. But removing it?
She tossed a confirming glance at her father.
“We won’t need it. I’ve got a different heart to try out.”
“A different heart?” Twenty. Nineteen
“Oh yes. I’m not sure if it will work, but no harm in trying.” As he glanced at their subject, his grin curled upwards until it started threatening to cut off the top of his head. “Well, except for you of course. I don’t expect you to be worried about that much longer.”
Des doubted the man was still conscious. Seven. Six. They hadn’t given him anything to keep him awake until the last minute.
A shame really.
Two. One. Zero. Des let out a satisfied sigh as the flesh went still. Perfect.
“Why not use the heart in its own body? That’s better, right daddy?”
“Usually. This is a special case. An experiment, if you will.” He turned off to one side and shouted, “Hugo!”
The glassy-eyed boy wheeled in a sheet covered gurney.
“Killing them just makes everything disappear. But your future friend gave me an idea. Several actually, but this one idea is required for the others. You see, parts of them don’t disappear if they were detached before death.”
He whisked off the sheet and tossed it over Hugo’s head.
Three arms, a leg from the knee down, and several things Des couldn’t even guess at all lay on the table. Claws, tentacles, and even eyes. None of them looked remotely human.
“It was tricky and quite enjoyable trying to figure out exactly how much I could get away with before the things died.”
He took one arm off the slab and placed it over their current subject’s arm. “We’ll attach analogous limbs where they go, removing the existing meat. The rest,” he took a hook-like thing–Des couldn’t even decide what it might have been originally used for–and started placing it around the body. “Well, we’ll handle them on a case by case basis.”
Des took the knee-length leg. There was no indication whether it was a left or a right leg. Looking at it closely, it might have even been a hand. “We won’t be able to make these very fast.”
“We’ll get faster with practice. Once this one is finished, I’m sure he’ll be happy to help. Then the next ones we build will help build more which will help build more. And so on! Besides, trying new things is fun! And,” he reached up and pinched both of Des’ cheeks. She could feel the sticky blood he left behind. “It is good bonding time.”
Des would have blushed if she could. She was about to comment back, but her father already had the man’s arm off. How he managed that fast, Des had no idea. She’d have to work double time to even keep somewhat near him.
“Huh,” he said. He brought a bent stitching needle right in front of his wide grin. “I think we need the heavy-duty needles.”
— — —
Nel tore the tentacle out of the air in front of her and flung it across the chamber. It landed with a slop against the floor. She slammed her hands into the marble altar.
None of her tension left with that brief bout of rage.
She was so tired. Nel collapsed on the altar, putting her head against the cold marble. Just a short rest.
The peace was intoxicating. Relaxing every day with Lady Ylva. Being well-fed and well-rested. Nothing trying to kill her–probably.
Nel might be a slave, but it was a comfortable life. She doubted Lady Ylva would disallow short trips outside of her domain. She hadn’t bothered asking; it wasn’t like she could leave while the Elysium Order might still be looking for her. Maybe in a year, she’d risk it.
All the peace and quiet made her forget the demands of being an augur.
It wasn’t like she let her abilities wane. Nel kept up tabs on all the people who might potentially become a threat to her. Eva, Arachne, Devon, and Zoe first and foremost. She wouldn’t call it spying, at least not to their faces, but it definitely kept her from atrophying.
No. Simple scrying wasn’t the problem. Finding a target with no information about them or their whereabouts was not only stressful, but near impossible.
And the stupid tentacle monster’s limbs did not help.
Nel had told Eva multiple times, ‘I can only track back the last fifteen minutes of their lives.’ Tracing through someone’s steps further than fifteen minutes got exponentially harder with every passing minute. It was technically possible, but very difficult. The strain from attempting to look further back was the biggest source of her exhaustion.
She’d only been an augur for a year and a handful of months. A task like this would have been handed to one of the higher augurs in the order. The more experienced.
When working for the Elysium Order, any potential fetter would be shipped immediately to the augur. Even at the cost of nuns. Haste was important and they knew it.
What does Eva do? She comes in five hours after the thing died and has the gall to ask Nel who was the one to order the thing around.
Nel would have punched the little abomination in her face had she not been worried that Eva would kick her down the pit with her new legs.
Then there was Lady Ylva. She had a brazen personality at the best of times.
Finding out that two demons had ignored her ring set her off on a rampage.
Nel vowed then and there to never be the cause of ire for the woman. Only a single chain kept the throne in the center chamber from falling into the pit. She had yet to return from the room of sands and water.
There was no doubt in Nel’s mind that the demon would want to know who ordered the attack on Zoe. Nel hoped to have the information by the time Lady Ylva returned.
That wasn’t going to happen.
Nel could search through every building in Brakket within an hour. It wasn’t that large of a town. But the enemy didn’t need to be in town. They could be in Cuba for all Nel knew. When hunting for the Elysium Order, there was always some intel that led to even a vague location. Some starting place to focus her efforts.
This was so far out of her expertise.
But she would try.
Nel lifted her head from the marble slab and slid the frankincense right under her nose. She took a deep breath and started searching.
She couldn’t be useless. She couldn’t afford to be useless. Lady Ylva would realize her mistake in taking Nel in and kick her out to the nuns.