Eva spun on her heel and caught the rock out of the air.
It was small and not pointed. That was a relief at least. Her fellow students weren’t trying to kill her. It crumbled under the might of her claws. Too easy, far too easy. Probably had been designed to shatter on impact to create dust and a large mark on her back.
“A-are you alright?”
“Fine,” Eva ground out while giving a long, hard glare at the group of three students that stood where the rock had come from. She knew which of the three had done it. It did take more concentration to use, but her blood sight didn’t suddenly stop working just because she got eyes.
Not that anyone else knew that. They didn’t know how she got around without eyes in the first place.
Being able to glare again was fun, Eva had to admit. Especially because her new eyes tended to cause others to wilt and run away. She very much enjoyed seeing those three students break into a full sprint down the hall, only to crash into someone coming around a corner.
“That was mean,” Shalise shouted after them.
“It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.” Eva let out a soft sigh as she turned back towards their next class. “I liked it better when they were avoiding and ignoring me.”
“You skip alchemy so you probably missed the rumors,” Juliana said.
“What, people think I had something to do with his injuries?”
“It is a well-known fact that you two hate each other.”
Eva gave Juliana a look. Even she shied away from it. New eyes are fun. Eva shook her head and glanced back at Juliana. “We don’t hate each other. I skipped class because he doesn’t let me work. He doesn’t let me work because he’s worried about chemicals soaking into my non-lab safe gloves. That’s a valid reason on both our parts. He isn’t my best friend or anything, but I don’t want him dead.”
“You don’t have to preach to me,” Juliana said with her arms up. “I’m just saying what they’re saying.”
“Yeah, well, they’re wrong.” Eva clenched her fists. The one she crushed the rock with grated at the joints. “I need to wash my hands before class.”
“Do you want us to go with you?” Shalise asked.
“I’ll be fine on my own.”
Juliana put on an almost evil grin. It was somewhat odd and didn’t fit on her. Then again, it had been almost a year since Eva last saw her face. She’d had to approximate everyone’s expressions using their blood vessels. Getting used to sight would be a chore.
“It isn’t you that we’re worried about,” Juliana said. “It is everyone else.”
“No guarantees there. Maybe if I knock some sense into people, I can go back to being avoided before Arachne gets word and does something everyone would regret.”
“I-is that–should we be worried?”
“Oh no. You guys have nothing to worry about.”
“Should we be worried for other people, I think Shalise means.”
“Probably not.” Eva shook her head as she changed direction towards the nearest restroom. “I’ll catch up to you guys in class.”
Eva kept her sense of blood fully in the front of her mind as she walked off. She’d never felt the need to be aware of every single person around her while in school. As such, she’d nearly fallen flat on her face when a gust of wind tripped her up.
Watching everyone’s hands was an exercise in tedium, but she wasn’t willing to risk a fireball to the face.
Luckily, most students moved out of her way as she walked past. Openly wearing nothing over her hands and even a skirt to show off her legs had people staring for sure. A giddy feeling welled up inside Eva when two older girls standing outside the restroom noticed her approaching. She didn’t think she’d ever get tired of the way they ran when their eyes met her own.
Sadistic? Maybe a little.
It was almost a shame that Arachne couldn’t see their faces. She would surely get a laugh out of it. Even if she could see through Eva’s shirt, she wasn’t around today.
She had elected, offered even, to help Devon track down the source of those demons. No one was interested in a repeat of that night.
Especially not Juliana.
The official announcement was that a fire had injured both Zoe and Wayne Lurcher. No word of demons or even an attacker was mentioned, though there was a statement that an investigation into possible arson would be underway.
Carlos, on the other hand, knew the truth. While he didn’t seem to have any issue with Eva or Arachne, he definitely objected to demons attacking and causing mayhem. He would be talking to Genoa. Keeping everything secret from her wouldn’t end well when she inevitably found out.
And Eva didn’t doubt that she would find out. She had a miserable track record for keeping secrets since starting at Brakket.
Most of that stemmed from her choosing to not be the loner that she had been in middle school.
That and Arachne forcing her contract. It would be so much easier to keep secrets without a demon clinging to her body. Not that she wanted to change that too much. Arachne was a good companion.
Eva shook the water off her hands. She flexed them several times, just to ensure nothing was grinding in between her carapace. Nothing felt odd in her joints.
She turned towards the door and was almost tackled in…
It took effort not to give into her instincts and crush the girl in her hands. Eva managed to shove her away without too much force.
“You didn’t have eyes last time.”
Eva glanced down at the girl. Even without needing to sense her blood vessels, she was unmistakable.
The blended girl.
“Are you just lacking common sense or are you trying to get yourself killed.”
Blended burst out laughing.
A pure, childlike laugh.
Eva had to take a step back. “What is wrong with you?”
Her laugh stopped in its tracks. A shadow crossed her face as she looked towards the floor. “My body doesn’t heal properly.” She fiddled with one of the stitches that ran across her face. “Any cut I get has to be held shut.”
Most of her looked a lot worse than cuts. Maybe full dismemberments. Eva shook her head. “That’s not what I meant. First you remove my gloves in front of half the school. Now you get far too close to me.”
“Oh.” She tilted her head to one side as a wide smile spread across her face. “You’re fascinating. Look at you.” Blended reached forwards and gripped Eva’s hand. She ran her fingers up along the point where the carapace stopped and the skin started. “You’ve obviously had amputations. But no stitches holding it together. And they’re not even human limbs.”
Eva tore her claw out of the girl’s hands.
She didn’t even notice. Blended’s hands immediately darted towards Eva’s skirt and lifted it up. “Fascinating. Your limbs merge with your skin and work. There isn’t any endoskeleton if I guess right. How do they work?”
What a menace, Eva thought with a sigh. She gave the girl a fairly hard shove–
Or tried to.
The hand she tried to shove Blended with stopped just inches from the girl. Caught. Another set of fingers gripped her wrist. The blood within them barely moved beneath the skin.
Almost like Ylva.
Not quite. More like someone sleeping.
“Hugo,” Blended admonished the owner of the hand. “Be nice.”
A small chill ran up her spine. Both of them managed to sneak up on her. And they managed the same feat the other night. Who are these people?
As useless as she had been so far, Eva made a note to have Nel watch the two.
“Yes, Des,” Hugo said as he released Eva’s hand. He moved to stand next to Blended and went perfectly still. His eyes unfocused as they gazed off at some point behind Eva.
“But your eyes,” Blended said as she released Eva’s skirt. Her fingers darted towards her own eyes. They pressed and squeezed until a sickening pop echoed through the otherwise vacant restroom. Several stitches held it in her head by the optic nerve alone.
The boy standing at her side did not react in the slightest.
“How do you even see?”
“With my eyes. But your eyes, they’re definitely not human. You didn’t even have them the other day. Yet no sign of surgery?” She popped her own brown eye back into her skull. It swiveled independently from her blue one before settling into place. “Eyes don’t work like that.”
I don’t think eyes work like yours. Mine make a lot more sense.
“The dean said you were partially nonhuman. I don’t believe that. I think you are a human who has replaced your limbs somehow.”
“I don’t care what you think. In fact, I would be very pleased if we never met again.”
The smile on her face vanished in an instant. Water gathered in her eyes, but she managed to hold it in. “W-we’re alike though. We have unique physiology and everyone hates us.”
As her smile vanished, Eva smile grew. She let out a scoff. “Even if that were true–which it isn’t in my case–I am perfectly accustomed to being alone. As for ‘unique physiology,’ well, that’s hardly a thing to bond over. Because of your actions, you’ve potentially damaged my standing here. Damaged to the point where people might die if they realize the truth behind what the dean implied.”
Eva shoved past Blended and her little henchman–who, now that Eva thought about it, should probably not be in the women’s restroom.
“You mean, about those being demon lim–”
Hugo jumped in the way of her claws. One hand embedded itself into his chest. Eva barely took the time to note that he wasn’t even bleeding before her other hand gripped Blended by her throat.
“I think you mean to say ‘West African shapeshifting spider’ limbs.”
Blended struggled against her grip. She wouldn’t be able to break it. Eva wished she had Arachne’s upper arm as well as her lower arm if only because she wanted to lift the girl up by the throat.
Hugo struggled to get off of her fingers.
Eva threw him off, sending him back against the sinks. She wiped the surprisingly small amount of blood onto the hilt of her dagger.
As soon as she had control over it, the blood flew through the air to form two disks that pressed into his eyes. Eva released her control.
Blinded by his own blood, Hugo flailed around as he attempted to wipe the blood away.
Eva dragged Blended to the restroom entrance and pressed one foot against the door. The room was empty save for the three of them. She did not want anyone walking in on them.
“Now,” Eva dropped her voice until even she could barely hear it, “we are going to have a little talk. I don’t know where you got the idea that any part of me is demonic and I don’t care–” for now at least. “If I find out that you mentioned the ‘d’ word to anyone, I promise to hunt you down. If rumors start going around the school, I will assume you are responsible. Do we understand each other?”
Blended did not respond. She continued to struggle against Eva’s claw.
Eva released her with a light shove.
She stumbled backwards, gasping for air.
Eva turned her attention back to Hugo just in time to see him rushing at her despite the blood still in his eyes. She kicked out with her foot and struck him square in the chest.
Rather than fly back like a good little ragdoll, he gripped her leg and held on.
Eva hopped forwards–there was no one on the other side of the door anyway–and used her stronger legs to force Hugo backwards.
He stumbled over and fell to his back with Eva’s leg pinning him against the ground.
“I believe I asked you a question.”
“I’m sorry.” Her voice rasped.
Eva didn’t think she squeezed hard at all, definitely not hard enough to cut off air. Then again, she might have some medical issues related to the unable to heal thing.
Blended coughed a few times before she said, “I’m sorry. I won’t mention it again. I just wanted a friend.”
“Well, you sure screwed that up.”
She hung her head. “This isn’t how it was supposed to go.”
“‘How it was supposed to go?'” Eva narrowed her eyes. “What do you mean by that?”
“You are like me. We’re not like everyone else.”
“We are not alike. Even if we were, that alone isn’t a good reason to be friends. Next time you want to make friends with someone, don’t antagonize them.”
Eva turned towards the door, but turned her head over her shoulder. “Remember my promise. One word to anyone.”
Blended nodded behind Eva’s back as she started to help Hugo up. He’d probably have a few broken ribs.
Eva wasn’t too concerned about him running to a nurse. He still was barely bleeding. Something was odd about him.
Odd about both of them.
She could only hope that the small marble of his blood that she reclaimed from his eyes was enough for Nel to work with.
— — —
Zoe Baxter leaned back into the soft padding of her infirmary bed. Too many potions had her feeling loopy, but her head had started to clear in the last few hours. Hopefully she hadn’t done too many embarrassing things.
She hated this.
Not just the potions and the infirmary. She felt groggy. Her mind wasn’t completely sharp.
A few key notes stuck out to her. Things she picked up despite the potions.
Wayne was off in some elven hospital. Her home destroyed along with all her research.
I hope those fireproof safes were worth the money.
Even if they worked perfectly, not everything would be saved. Definitely nothing she had been actively working on.
Zoe pinched her eyes shut as she tried to remember all her current projects. The ring stood out first and foremost. She hadn’t worked on it much after the end of last year, but plenty of notes hadn’t been filed away yet.
The notes about Des’ healing condition would be long gone. Not a big issue. She hadn’t been making any progress in that department. The biggest issue there would be the destruction of books.
Any material relating to demonology had been dropped into between. Far too volatile to risk anyone accidentally happening upon. At least she wouldn’t have to tell Eva that her books had been burnt.
Anything else would hopefully be in the safe.
The ring was the only thing that wasn’t between. Zoe hadn’t given it a moment of thought until just now. She had a sudden urge to find Eva and have her collect it. If someone else found it…
Zoe shook her head. Nothing to do about it at the moment. She’d have Lisa find Eva as soon as she could.
The ring was supposed to protect her. Supposed to dissuade enemies from attacking her. Provided Ylva was telling the truth, of course.
She should have been wearing it. Everything might have been different.
Again, Zoe shook her head. Worrying about the past was not constructive.
Zoe stretched out her arm.
She was quite certain that her elbow had been pulverized by the tentacle monster. Her arm flopped loosely for a good while before she managed to escape.
Whatever Lisa did to it worked wonders.
Her arm came down on the buzzer for the nurse. Sure, she could have used her other arm. Doing so wouldn’t have let her test out her injuries.
All in all, it wasn’t that bad. There was a strong tingle right in the crook of her elbow when she tried to flex it. Zoe wasn’t sure if painkillers were dampening a more intense feeling or not. If Lisa didn’t want her to be moving it, she should have put a cast on it.
Trying to move her leg didn’t end in such success. Pain wracked up her thigh before she decided not to hop out of bed just yet.
“You’re still injured. Don’t try getting up.”
“I don’t think I will,” Zoe said as she glanced towards the door.
Lisa Naranga stood there, staring with a half-sad smile on her face. “Glad to see you’re finally awake.”
“Glad to be awake.” Zoe returned the smile, trying hard not to wince as her leg resettled in the bed. “How long do I need to stay here?”
“Your knee is still in about thirteen pieces. Fixing it has been a nightmare. Both Laura and Eirin have been running through several options. I doubt you’ll want to leave before it gets fixed.”
“I seem to remember my arm bending in the wrong direction as well.”
“It looked worse than it was. Local bone regrowth injection had it mending well.”
Zoe stretched out both arms and stretched them back and forth. “Seems alright. A light tingle every time I move it though.”
“Aftereffects. They should wear off. If they haven’t by next week–well, if you’ve been released by next week–come see us.”
“I hope I’m released soon. So much work to get done.”
Lisa moved to the side of the bed and started looking over Zoe’s arm. “Any aches, pains, or general discomfort anywhere aside from your leg?”
Zoe rolled her neck back and forth with a slight cracking noise. “Lower neck pains. A small amount of strain on the actual bone, but that’s from being hunched over grading papers.”
“Dorsal lacerations likely aggravating the problem. They shouldn’t be a problem after another day or two. How long have you had the strain?”
“A few years maybe.”
“Grade papers in a different position. Invest in a new chair if that is the issue. You shouldn’t be having back pain at your age. At least not from grading papers.”
Zoe did not miss the momentary drop of her eyes. Lisa’s sad smile twisted into a lecherous smile before their eyes made contact.
And once again, her smile turned sad. “The official statement is that a fire ran through your house. Wayne burned himself to get you out.” She shook her head. “If he didn’t have that fire extinguished in three seconds flat, I’ll eat my syringes.”
“Zoe. What actually happened?”
Taking a deep breath of air, Zoe shook her head. “I don’t know much after I escaped. Just enough to catch that Wayne and Eva both survived.”
“Eva? The claw girl who has lots of ‘everythings’?”
“She has claws,” Zoe said slowly. She wasn’t quite sure what Lisa meant by ‘everythings.’
“What’s she got to do with this?”
Zoe chuckled. “She might just be the most qualified person to deal with creatures like these.” Aside from Zagan. Zoe wasn’t about to even mention his name. “Please don’t ask what the creatures are.”
“Fine, but I have my guesses.”
Zoe didn’t doubt that. The nurse probably wouldn’t need more than one guess; after treating Eva during the spring, she had to have researched anything that might be able to cause hands like that.
“What do you mean by escaped? And survived what?”
“I don’t know,” Zoe lied. “As for escaping, well, I am still wondering if I actually escaped.”
“You’re here, Zoe. You are safe.”
“That is what you said last time.”
The nurse frowned, but remained silent.
“I escaped at least twenty times,” Zoe said with a sigh. “I would teleport out. Get help. But something would be wrong. The colors of someone’s hair or pillow cases being inside out. The moment I noticed, the pain would start.” Zoe touched one of the healed cuts on her cheek. “It started small. A cut here or there. Then larger cuts. Broken bones.
“I don’t know how I escaped. What I did different. That scares me, Lisa. I’m still looking for something wrong.”
Lisa bent forwards and wrapped her arms around Zoe. It was somewhat awkward. Zoe didn’t want to lean forwards for fear of disturbing her knee.
Still, it was appreciated. Needed, even.
“We’ll find you a therapist. A good one.”
Zoe just nodded into her shoulder. She doubted a therapist would be able to do anything. How could anyone talk away an illusion indistinguishable from reality?
Disappointing her friend, assuming she was real, wouldn’t leave a good taste in her mouth.
But, once you encounter something like that, how can you ever trust anything?
Zoe shook the morbid thought from her mind. “If it isn’t too much trouble, could you send for Eva? I need to speak with her.”
Lisa pulled back with a glance at the wall clock. “It’ll be dark out. She should be somewhere around unless she is violating curfew.”
“I wouldn’t put that past her.”
“I’ll find her so long as she’s in the building,” Lisa said with a frown.
Zoe leaned back against her pillows. At least the clock didn’t have thirteen numbers this time.
None of her previous ‘escapes’ had lasted more than a few minutes before she noticed something out of place. That alone had to be good evidence that she actually escaped.
Assuming time wasn’t dilated in any way during the illusions.
The hands on the clock slowly ticked around for almost an hour before Eva walked into the room.
“You’re looking better.”
Zoe’s words choked in her throat as she stared at the girl. That girl stared back.
She could stare back.
With red, slit-pupil eyes.
That was wrong.
Zoe braced herself.
Pain would be right after noticing something wrong.
And then another illusion would start.
She’d think she escaped.
Zoe was so engrossed in staring at those eyes, she almost missed Eva’s diagnosis.
“Bruises are gone. No internal or external bleeding. There is non-insignificant asymmetry in your legs. Are they alright?”
No pain. No booting out of the illusion.
Zoe clenched her jaw shut. She didn’t know what to think anymore.
It happened so quickly, Zoe couldn’t stop herself. It took all her effort to ignore the pain in her leg as she leaned over the edge of her bed.
What had to be hundreds of dollars worth of potions wound up on the floor.
“Zoe!” Eva darted forwards around the non-vomit side of the bed. Sharp claws pressed against her back.
This is it. Zoe braced herself for the pain and tried to think of another way to escape.
No pain came. Again. Just a soothing and somewhat odd feeling backrub.
Lisa burst into the room an instant later.
“I’m fine,” Zoe blurted out despite the foul taste in her mouth. She didn’t want Lisa jumping to conclusions. “I just–Eva, your eyes…”
“Oh. Arachne got them for me. The original owner wasn’t needing them anymore. I didn’t mean–I’m sorry. You were probably tortured… I didn’t even think–”
Zoe cut her off with a shake of her head.
She had a feeling she had seen those eyes before. Recently. She was suddenly glad she had been trapped in an endless stream of illusions rather than extended torture underneath the watchful gaze of those eyes. Being afraid of one of her students due to trauma would never do.
Maybe seeing a therapist for that would be wise.
“You stole that demon’s eyes?”
“Demon?” Rather than fear or running away, Lisa had a smug grin on her face. “I knew it.” That grin vanished as she grabbed a few towels from a cupboard.
“Thanks,” Eva said with a roll of her eyes. She could do that now. “At this rate, I might as well just issue a public statement to the whole school tomorrow. Or flee into hiding. Devon wants to do that anyway. This place is ‘too damn hot’ for him.”
Zoe put one of her hands on Eva’s claw. “Don’t. I’ll vouch for you in front of everyone.”
“You’ll lose your job.”
“Perhaps. But sticking by their students is a teacher’s duty. Besides, you kept me from bleeding out.” Zoe couldn’t help but add, “as long as everything is real.”
Eva just blinked. It would take a while to get used to those eyes. “If you’re still worried about the jezebeth, don’t be. I mean, if you think this is imaginary then nothing I say will help, but I guarantee that it is dead.”
Zoe wasn’t sure that helped. It should have. It was meant to. Maybe it would if the weeks wore on.
“That isn’t to say their illusions are anything to be scoffed at. I stabbed myself in the heart because–”
Her outburst was echoed by Lisa.
Eva had the gall to just wave her hand. “Don’t worry. I’m fine.”
“You are most certainly not fine, young lady.” Lisa pointed at one of the other beds in the room. “Bed. Now.”
“What? No. I’m fine!”
“Last year, I warned you what would happen if you disobeyed me in my own infirmary. Do you remember?”
Any further protests died in Eva’s throat as she gave a timid nod.
“Bed. Now. If you aren’t in it by the time I get back,” Lisa let the threat hang in the air for a moment. She all but ran out of the room with the towels.
Eva didn’t hesitate. She scrambled into an adjacent bed.
“Before she comes back,” Zoe said, “there is a ring. You know which one I’m talking about. It was somewhere in my house.”
“Devon and Arachne have been snooping around all day. I highly doubt he would have missed a ring of that nature. Getting it back from him might be another story.”
“So long as it doesn’t fall into regular people’s hands.”
“Ylva was quite displeased. Not at you,” Eva quickly said.
And a good thing too, Zoe didn’t want another demon angry at her.
“She wanted both those demons to mount their heads on pikes. Apparently they broke rules by attacking you.”
“I didn’t have the ring on.”
“I gathered that and told her as much. I don’t think she cared, but you’d have to ask her.”
I don’t want to know that bad.
Lisa returned to the room. She dropped three potion vials into Zoe’s lap.
“Drink,” was her only command before she turned to Eva.
The final vial sent a wave of fog over her mind. Zoe passed out to the tune of a nurse shouting at her patient.