“I understand that the dean’s secretary was filling in during my absence, the topic–”
“We discussed rituals again,” Mr. Weston all but shouted out as he hopped to his feet. “At first I thought it was going to be some boring thing we already learned last year. Then she started getting into all the gritty details.” He paused and glanced around the room with a raised eyebrow. “Or should I say gooey details?”
Several snickers ran though several of the students–both male and female. More than a few turned a few shades of color in embarrassment.
“Take a seat, Mr. Weston,” Zoe said a tad harsher than she intended.
“If you have to miss a few days, can we get the same substitute?”
The heads nodding in agreement rippled through the class with only two notable exceptions. Eva and one of the Coggins twins. Zoe wouldn’t put it past the former to already know or even engage in–Zoe shook her head. She did not want her thoughts trailing in that direction.
She tried to avoid looking into Eva’s eyes. It wasn’t that she was afraid of them and their unnaturalness. If anything, they were quite striking.
Those eyes were simply something different. She’d healed, for the most part, and had even found a temporary apartment to live in. As grateful as she was for Eva’s offer of ‘asylum’ at the prison, Zoe had turned it down. It wasn’t the location, or the distance. It was the company.
Though her opinion of Ylva had improved a good deal. Compared to the two sadistic monsters that had destroyed her home, Ylva was a kitten. An imposing giant of a kitten, but a kitten nonetheless.
She still expected to find something wrong with the world that would cause her to snap back to the choking smoke of her own house with another broken limb.
With a suppressed shudder, Zoe turned her head to the other student who didn’t nod her head. Zoe hadn’t spent enough time around Irene, but she worked hard and was always eager to learn. At least her desire for knowledge didn’t extend so far as to want Catherine back.
Oddly, Irene sat at the back of the classroom today at an otherwise unoccupied table. Her usual chair at the front of the classroom sat empty next to Miss Shallows and Mr. Wilcox.
It was a change that happened while Zoe was gone. With a frown, Zoe wondered if Catherine had done something as foolish as call for volunteers for a demonstration. That might have been enough to scare Irene away from them. She gave her head a shake.
“Tantric rituals are covered as part of sixth year theory. I will be reminding her of this. Harshly.” Zoe narrowed her eyes as she looked over the students again. “Are there any questions?”
“You mean,” Max started slowly, “if we take your class in sixth year, we’ll get to–”
Zoe cut him off with only a glare before he could speak even one more word. She kept up her glare until he sat back in his seat. “Discussion only, Mr. Weston. Are there any questions that do not relate to the ill-advised lessons in my absence?”
Silence. The students glanced around at one another for a moment before everyone faced forwards.
Zoe breathed a short sigh of relief. Her arm was still in a sling–the bone had healed but was still very sensitive to movement–and her leg required a crutch. Yet letting that woman continue to have run of her classroom was a recipe for disaster.
Before she could move on with the day’s lesson, and hopefully regain lost time, Mr. Wilcox sat up straighter.
“Yeah, I got one,” he said. One finger swung around to point at Eva. “What is the deal with that? I went to school last year and she didn’t have those hands then. She definitely didn’t have those eyes before you got injured.” His finger moved from Eva to point at Zoe. “You had something to do with it. And before you start talking, I don’t believe that drivel the dean spouted about her being half elf. She didn’t have eyes before that meeting either. At all.”
Zoe let out a small sigh. It came out more as a sharp hiss. Talking about this beforehand would have been a wise idea in retrospect. Something to corroborate whatever stories they told might have helped as well.
Before she could open her mouth for an explanation, Eva opened hers.
“They’re the eyes of a fire sprite. One was found at Zoe Baxter’s home the other night ago.”
Zoe didn’t catch which student asked. She caught on quickly enough. “A fae of the seelie kingdom. We’re unsure if it just happened across my home or if someone set it against me. My home burned down and I got trapped beneath a wooden beam that fell, breaking my arm and leg. Way–Professor Lurcher was severely burned in the incident.”
“So how did your fire thing’s eyes end up in her?”
“Miss Eva was meeting with Professor Lurcher and myself over her Alchemy lessons. Before he was incapacitated, Professor Lurcher managed to kill the sprite. And then…”
Zoe trailed off with a pointed look at Eva. She had no idea how to explain anything. It wouldn’t be hard to project some false confidence and come up with a believable method of transferring the eyes–she was the premier theorist after all–but Eva likely had an idea if she brought up the fire sprite in the first place.
The students not looking up a picture of a fire sprite would already be too much to hope for. There were similarities to be sure, but the slit pupil was a defining feature of Eva’s eyes that fire sprites lacked.
“And then–” Zoe tried not to sigh in relief as Eva picked up without hesitation “–I decided that since I didn’t have any eyes, I might as well take the sprite’s eyes.”
“You just popped them in?” Mr. Wilcox shook his head. “Just like that? I don’t believe it.”
“There are many strange and cruel magics not taught at this academy. Or any academy,” Zoe said.
“Strange and cruel magics?” His question came out harsh. After a moment, his expression turned more to curiosity as he glanced towards Eva. “And you know these magics?”
Someone Zoe would have to watch carefully in the future. Looking around, several of the students had the same expression.
Eva let out a short laugh. “Of course not. I can barely manage a proper fireball.”
“Oh,” he said with barely hidden disappointment.
“Last year I was abducted by those necromancers. They did something to my body. I can attach the limbs and organs of magical creatures and adapt them to my body.” Eva shook her head.
Compared to the little girl the previous year who couldn’t lie to save her skin, Eva of today was doing far better at deceit.
Eva had explained it once upon Zoe questioning her. It helped a lot to see her own facial expressions as she made them, her own heart rate, and other such tells.
“Don’t ask me how or why. I don’t know. Ask the necromancer that escaped.”
Her barely-there smile widened into a maniacal grin that sent shivers down Zoe’s spine. It didn’t help that her eyes burned with a demonic glow.
“If you find him, let me know. I have words for him.” The skittering of her claws as they clacked together actually sent chills through most of the class.
Some people stared at her.
Some turned away.
Silence reigned supreme.
Until Zoe cleared her throat. “Yes, in any case, we’ll be turning to page one-fifty-one and getting started with the Manton Effect. We have a lot to catch up on and less time to do it in.”
That set most of the class into motion. A handful of students stared even as they groped around for books.
Eva’s smile turned far more polite. She gave Zoe a light shrug as she picked her own book out of her book bag.
The first time she had used her book in Zoe’s class since early last November.
— — —
“A right mess is what I found.”
Eva frowned as her master glared around the room. Being in Ylva’s private meeting room didn’t help his temperament in the slightest. He’d been getting grumpier and far more agitated every time something happened.
She couldn’t quite blame him for that. ‘Somethings’ happened an awful lot at Brakket.
Before Brakket, Devon would occasionally bring Eva along on jobs, sometimes with Arachne and sometimes without. Those jobs were always planned or, at the very least, Devon would know roughly what to expect. That could be anything from fairies to people with guns. Whatever the case, they could prepare.
At Brakket, they were the ones being attacked.
It didn’t sit right with her.
“The fire was demonic in origin. That much was plain to see. Beyond that,” Devon gave a one-armed shrug.
“Obviously from the jezebeth,” Arachne said.
“I don’t like that a jezebeth was involved, we can’t be sure of anything.” He swung his arm around to point across the table, though he gave an aside glance towards Eva and Arachne. “Especially first hand accounts. They tend to be skewed.”
Zoe bristled under his accusation. She opened her mouth, looking like she was about to protest. No words came out. She stared until her mouth clamped shut. Her gaze dropped down to the rich mahogany table.
It was… odd. Zoe looked older than Eva remembered.
The tests Eva had run on her eyes didn’t show significant improvement over human eyes. At least, not in a bright room. Seeing in the dark was far easier. Not much else. As such, Eva felt fairly confident that her eyes weren’t magnifying stress lines in Zoe’s face that she had simply missed in the past.
In addition, the professor seemed downtrodden. She had lost weight–not a lot, but enough. Her face showed off the same pallor as sickly hospital patients. The near fatal amount of lost blood might be part of the cause, but she should have been over that by now.
Eva made a mental note to talk to her afterwards about her health. Perhaps Arthfael would be willing to sit on her for a few hours.
Nel, who had been seated between Ylva and Zoe, unsubtly slid her chair away from the downcast professor. Several of her eyes sent accusing looks towards Zoe.
Looks that Eva had often been the recipient of. If it weren’t for Ylva, Eva would have demanded that the worthless nun not be a part of the meeting. It wasn’t like she had any useful information.
“Your implications are unfounded, Devon Foster. We can confirm, the mortal in question is undoubtedly Zoebell Baxter. She bears Our ring.”
And she did. Zoe reached one hand over the other and lightly rubbed the smooth, black ring. Arachne had recovered and returned it at the start of the meeting without a single complaint or snide comment. Likely fear at what Ylva might do after Zoe had been attacked once.
Devon stood from his seat. “And how do you know that you aren’t being fooled?”
“You doubt Us?”
Ylva spoke with the same calm authority that accompanied every word. No underlaid malice. No threat. A simple question that sounded more like a statement.
Devon stared for a moment. Slowly, he retook his seat.
Eva sighed and turned to Arachne. “Do you have any information that is actually useful?”
The spider-demon smiled as she brushed up against Eva’s shoulder. “We tracked them back to where they were summoned. A dilapidated house with a large summoning circle in the center of the room. No shackles around it, oddly enough.”
“No other protections?”
“Not even the sign of them being erased.”
Eva glanced up towards her master. “Dominated at the moment of summoning?”
He let out a short grunt. “You said they were arguing, debating. Not likely to be dominated. A botched job, if they were.”
“There were traces of other demons,” Arachne said. “Ones that had been summoned at a different location and brought to the dilapidated house. Possibly demons that kept the carnivean and jezebeth in line.”
Devon shook his head. “They just ended. No traces of brimstone from an infernal teleport. No trail.”
“Some other type of teleportation?”
“Possibly,” he said with a shrug. “I’m only an expert in demons.”
Arachne let out a short laugh at that. Her jovial mood died out almost instantly as she poked Eva in her cheek. “There is one thing you should know. We found a zombie. Second floor, locked in a bathroom.”
Eva felt her own mood darken.
If Sister Cross had done her job instead of hounding Eva day and night, he might have been found.
If Eva had kept his toes. She could have used them. Nel could have used them. She hadn’t been thinking straight at the time and Nel hadn’t been part of their little retinue.
Eva promised him pain and torture. Eva intended to deliver.
Some amount of her emotions must have bled through into her eyes. Both Zoe and Nel were shrinking into their chairs.
She closed her eyes and took a deep, calming breath.
“It might not have had anything to do with the demons. It could have been left over from last year. The zombie was barely animated. It had rotted to the extent that it couldn’t even crawl. Naturally,” Arachne split her mouth into a grin, “I dismembered it before crushing the skull.”
Devon grumbled from the side. “I incinerated the remains.”
Eva just nodded.
“So,” Zoe said after a moment of silence, “what now?”
“There is one more thing,” Devon said slowly.
Eva did not miss the glare he gave Zoe. She gave him a light nudge in the side.
Devon just harrumphed and looked towards Arachne.
“This.” She pulled out a small envelope from somewhere.
Eva actually took a moment to look over Arachne before she paid attention to the letter. There were only three places that Eva thought it might have been hidden in and none of them were very likely.
“We found it on a transferrance circle,” Devon said. “In a side room with no shackles around it.”
Zoe looked up at him. “Transferrance circle?”
“It allows sending things to Hell. This one was aimed at a carnivean’s domain, though I can’t tell if it was the same one that attacked you.”
Arachne cleared her throat, very unnecessarily, to pull everyone’s eyes to the letter. “‘Dear Ms. Baxter,’ it reads, ‘I offer my most sincere apologies for the simply dreadful state in which both you and your quaint adobe found themselves in. The fault, I’m afraid, lies with the liberal interpretation that two devious demons took with their orders. I must confess that I am unaccustomed to my minions failing to heed my exact orders. Perhaps next time will go over in a manner acquiescing to my desires.'”
“Is this a joke?”
“Quiet,” Arachne snapped. “I’m not finished. ‘You’re a busy woman. I understand. If you would like to avoid any further property damage, I offer this chance. Your ring–specifically the lovely black ring you wear your on your left hand–is needed for a test. If you would be so kind as to deposit it on the circle where you found this note, I would be most pleased. Have a nice day, Your Friend.'”
Once again, a brief silence settled over the group.
Apart from the laughter of a certain spider-demon.
“My ring,” Zoe said. “Why?”
“This ‘Friend’ wishes to experiment on Our magic.” Ylva’s voice boomed with anger.
If Zoe’s expression was sickly prior to Ylva’s exclamation, it would not be remiss to describe it as deathly ill afterwards.
“Juliana has a ring as well,” Eva said. “We need to keep both of you safe while we–”
“No.” Zoe cut in with only a slight tremble. “You said your blood wards would kill anything?”
Eva gave a slow nod. “Arachne doesn’t believe even a demon of Zagan’s caliber would survive for more than thirty seconds. Though he could probably destroy them before he died. Or before he walked in. Things like the carnivean and jezebeth wouldn’t last more than a second or two.”
“Move Juliana here.” Zoe shut her eyes as she took a deep breath. When she opened them, much of the stress had disappeared. The lines were still there. Her weight hadn’t returned. The pallor in her face remained.
Yet she looked stronger. More confident.
“I’ll be bait.”
“You’ll what?” Eva jumped to her feet. “Absolutely not.”
A faint smile touched the edges of Zoe’s lips. “Eva–”
“You’re about the only teacher I actually like. We’ll move both of you here, Shalise too, until–”
“Until what? Until this person decides they can’t get to us? They give up and go home?” Zoe shook her head. “Given time, they might find a way through your wards. There must be ways to breach them. And if they did give up? How would we know? We could be stuck here for the rest of our lives.”
Nel’s small harrumph drew eyes off of Zoe for a brief moment.
Devon leaned forwards, rubbing the end of his ever-scraggly goatee. “The bait plan might work. We’d set up so you could get reinforcements in minutes.”
“You think it’s a good plan?” Eva scoffed as she retook her seat. “You’d actually put yourself on the line for someone else?”
“Of course not. Don’t be stupid, girl.”
“I didn’t think so.”
“That doesn’t mean that I can’t sit around here in safety and help. I might be willing to take the field after planning and preparation. Just like any other job. With less payment.” He glanced up towards Zoe.
Eva thought he was about to ask for something in return, but her master simply shook his head.
“She sticks her neck out, or hand out in this case, and waits. That one,” he points towards Nel, “can constantly watch her and alert us to any problems. The only real question is how much protection can we hide around her without tipping off anyone. And what kind of protection.”
“More demons?” Zoe asked with almost a sigh.
Devon shook his head. “While I find the idea unlikely, the demons could be compromised if this ‘Friend’ is dominating his own demons. He likely wouldn’t have trouble dominating others.”
“That’s good.” Zoe nodded. Her nod froze half-way through. “Except, neither myself, Wayne, nor Eva managed to even hurt the demons. That was all,” she slowly glanced over at Arachne.
Who promptly sported the widest, sharpest toothed grin that Eva had seen in months. It’s nice to have eyes again.
“That’s right,” Arachne said. “You should be on the ground, licking my feet.”
“Arachne,” Devon said with a cruel grin of his own, “while certainly more headstrong than most, is not insusceptible to domination.”
“If you try that again,” Arachne growled at Devon, “I will not hesitate to tear your throat out.”
Devon turned to her and smiled his own off-white smile. “And then what? Who would complete my research. You?” He let out a long laugh. “No. I have nothing to fear from you. But I wouldn’t want to dominate your sick mind again. Once was enough for a lifetime.”
“We would not be so weak as to succumb to the whims of a mortal.” Ylva showed off a regal smirk in Arachne’s direction. “We possess the power to defend Our subjects.”
“Subjects?” Zoe quietly whispered.
Eva couldn’t do much but shrug.
“It was lucky your brief stint into Brakket went relatively unnoticed. Attracting the wrong sort of attention could spell disaster.”
“We know the meaning of discretion. None would notice Us.”
“That I’d like to see. You can’t even go out during the day without losing all your meat.” Devon’s short burst of laughter was cut off by Ylva’s death glare.
If her looks could kill, Eva’s master would be dead ten times over.
“I mean,” Devon said with a light cough, “that might work. If you’re certain about the domination. Though you being in town would bring at least one individual’s attention that we definitely do not want.”
“Zagan,” Eva said. “I don’t like this plan, but if Ylva is protecting Zoe…”
The hel gave a light nod of her head.
“I could try to talk down Zagan. Or at least explain. He was unhappy about the random demons popping up in town, last I talked to him. He might even lend assistance.”
“Stay away, girl. You,” Devon said with a harsh glare, “are lucky you aren’t in chains, forced to spend every night dancing for and on him beyond the point of exhaustion.”
“He’s been cordial in our interactions. Like I keep telling you, politeness will take you a long way.” Eva frowned as a thought occurred to her. “Well, except for the part where he pulled off my arms.”
“He what?” “He what!” Devon and Zoe shouted together. They shared a quick glance before turning questioning gazes back at Eva.
“He put them back and didn’t even let me feel pain. It wasn’t worse than a flesh wound.”
“You’re going to ruin all my work, girl.”
“Work?” Zoe asked with a quirked head.
“Nothing for you to concern yourself over, girly. You just focus on staying alive.”
Zoe frowned. She mouthed the word ‘girly’ towards Eva.
Eva answered her questioning glance with another shrug.
“We’re going with Ylva’s plan then?”
“No objections here.”
A quiet squeak prefaced a light clearing of Nel’s throat. “Lady Ylva? I’m being left alone?”
“Use your powers to watch over girly here. Let us know if something happens. I can’t make it simpler than that.”
“Do–How do I–I can’t leave. I don’t think cellphones work in here.”
“Assuming we’re not completely ditching school, Juliana, Shalise, and I will all be around. We can stop by now and again.”
“If something does happen, I can’t wait for you to decide to visit.”
“We will lend Our domain for the duration of Our absence.”
Eva blinked. Devon and Arachne both gave Ylva a look. Free reign over another demon’s domain? There had to be rules against that. Or common sense. Or something.
Zoe was the one to break the sudden silence. “You want them to live in here?” she asked with a twirl of her finger around the room.
“Our domain has been modified for mortal needs,” Ylva said with a short glance towards Nel. “They will not find their stay uncomfortable.”
That would be great. Amazing even. A smile spread across Eva’s face. Ylva had a library that she doubted she’d ever get such free access to ever again. “That’s–”
“What’s your game, demon?” Devon cut Eva off.
“No ‘game.’ Our generosity knows no limits to those who serve Us.”
That term broke Eva’s smile. She mentally ran over all the words she could remember Ylva speaking, ensuring she wasn’t putting herself in a corner.
None of it seemed like a trap. Ylva hadn’t asked anything of them. The only thing that came to mind was her usage of the word ‘subject.’ That wasn’t negative either, nor in reference to Eva. A ruler protects and looks out for their subjects’ interests.
Subjects weren’t property or servants, like Nel, either. Usually.
Ylva’s authoritative voice broke Eva out of her thoughts. Her master had said something that Eva missed, if the glare on Ylva’s face was any indicator.
“Our generosity and patience with you wanes. You, Devon Foster, are not welcome in Our domain without Our presence.”
“That will work,” Eva cut in before her master could put any more feet in his mouth. Besides, the library was too lucrative to pass up. “Living here for a while won’t be a problem. And it can probably be better protected than my wards.”
Ylva simply nodded. “We expect an enlightening experience in the mortal realm.”