An earthquake tore through the prison. Potion vials rattled, dust shook free from the walls, one of the runes providing light failed.
Eva snapped the treatise on necromancy shut with a barely restrained sigh. That’s the fifth time in the last hour. She glanced over at Juliana, Shalise, and Devon, all of whom were glued to the window.
“Any sign of them stopping for the night?” Eva asked. “I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep like this.”
“I think they’re trying to kill each other.” Juliana just shook her head. Apparently, this was business as usual. “‘Accidentally,'” she added in air quotes.
“You don’t sound too concerned about it, girl.”
“Please,” Juliana said with a laugh. “My mom was kicking Arachne’s ass with Eva’s distractions.”
Eva shook her head. “Arachne was gaining ground. She’s got the stamina and strength to continue even under a barrage of rock.”
“Even if she got close, mom could have just blinked away. Arachne can’t win.”
“That would only last until Arachne figured out a tell. Then she’d chuck a rock in the path and your mom would be down and out.”
Devon hummed while scratching his beard. “She steps backwards. Without looking. It might be difficult to tell for sure.”
“The difference between blinking and stepping?”
He shrugged. “Damned if I know. I didn’t have a fancy school teaching me the proper ways of things. But the endurance issue is more pressing for the mom than any sudden attacks. Arachne could wear her down until she can’t keep up. Endurance isn’t even a concept to it.”
Juliana turned to Devon with a sad shake of her head. “My mother’s been a fighter for a long time. She keeps herself in shape. I mean, look at her–”
“Trust me, girl. I am.”
An elbow found its way into Devon’s side. Or tried to anyway. He slipped off to one side. Juliana’s elbow passed harmlessly through his empty sleeve.
“Hey, you’re the one who told me to watch her.”
“That’s my mother and she is happily married.”
“Now you’re jumping to conclusions.”
“What I was trying to say,” Juliana said with a huff, “is that she’s strong. They’ve been fighting nonstop for five hours and they’re still going. More than that, she knows her limits. She’ll disengage and blink away if she thinks she’s getting tired.”
Devon opened his mouth to argue further, but Shalise cut him off.
“Well, I think they’re having fun.”
Everyone looked at her. Slowly, Eva glanced at Devon and Juliana. They returned the look.
A moment later and the women’s ward was full of laughter.
“W-what are you laughing at? Look, they’re smiling!”
Eva set her book on the table and stepped straight to the freshly repaired window. Genoa had the decency to repair the women’s ward with her earth magic. Someone of her caliber could apparently manipulate glass.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was much better than a giant hole in the building. She said she would spend some time reinforcing the entire structure over the course of her stay.
Being able to step again was like a breath of cool, fresh air. It was such a pleasant feeling. Eva couldn’t believe she made do without stepping for so long. Of course, she was a bit rusty. She had tried to step as soon as their little meeting with Genoa ended.
While her step had succeeded in that it moved her from where she was to where she wanted to be, it failed in other ways. Namely, she had left behind all of her clothes. Right in front of Juliana’s parents. Eva didn’t care half as much about being naked in front of them as she did about failing her stepping in front of them.
Eva shook her head and focused. Blink failures were in the past. Besides, she had figured out what went wrong quick enough. It was like riding a bicycle.
The battle raged on outside. Two titans fought, tearing the land to shreds.
If Genoa hadn’t promised to not only fix the ground but also reinforce the walls and buildings, Eva would have activated the wards again.
Arachne had adopted a new strategy for dealing with Genoa. Rather than brute forcing all the debris, she opted for the avoidance method. Her extra limbs wrapped around her chest as she danced and weaved over sand traps, holes, and flying rocks. A leg would dart out to catch her if Genoa managed to knock her unsteady or catch her over a hole.
Occasionally, a fireball would come in her direction, but Arachne headbutted those away like they were balloons.
Genoa adapted to deal with Arachne’s increased mobility by doing exactly as Juliana said. She blinked here, there, and everywhere. The rate at which she managed attacks was enviable on its own. Blinking every few seconds between the attacks just gave Eva a sick feeling in her stomach.
If Eva tried the same, she’d wind up vomiting everything within seconds.
The two combatants had one thing in common. That was their near identical smiles.
Under no circumstances would Eva ever describe their smiles as ‘friendly’ or ‘fun.’
Eva shook her head and patted Shalise on the back. “It’s okay. We’re all a little crazy.”
Shalise stuck out her tongue.
“What are we going to do about Ylva’s place?”
Eva turned to give Juliana a shrug. “I asked Ylva to seal off some of the more problematic rooms. The torture chamber and that eye stalk room, for instance. The sealing didn’t leave a door, just a flat wall. Everything else will be explained away as space expansion, I guess.”
“My mother will never buy that.”
“Well, we could just stay here. Or one of the other buildings, though none of them are very habitable.”
“We already told her that we’re not staying here. She’d think it was suspicious. I’m actually surprised that she hasn’t insisted on a full inspection of the place.”
“Arachne is good for something I guess.”
“But what are we going to tell her when she does go inside? There’s a pit that doesn’t have a bottom and clouds. How are we supposed to explain away clouds?”
“Vertical space expansion,” Eva answered with a shrug. “There isn’t much we can do about it at this point.”
“Not going to help.”
“Might as well get it over with now. We need to stop the earthquakes to get some sleep soon anyway. I’ve got to be up early to meet with Martina Turner. We all have to be up early because Arachne is giving us a ride.”
“That’s kind of weird,” Shalise said. “Once or twice I could see, but every day?” She looked up to Devon. “Can’t we get a ride in the truck?”
He sneered at Shalise. “Steal your own ride, kid.”
“You stole it?”
“Do I look like I’m made out of money?”
“Anyway, I need sleep. You all need sleep. They’ve been ‘sparring’ for long enough.” Eva turned back to the window. Another tremor shook the women’s ward. “Now, how do we stop them without getting killed.”
“Don’t ask me,” Devon said. “I’d have left hours ago if I thought it was safe.”
Juliana and Shalise looked at each other with a shrug.
Eva let out a short sigh. “I’ll be right back.”
“You’re not doing that pain thing again, are you?”
“No. Just getting something.”
Eva left the three and headed towards the potion room. Luck had kept most of the vials from breaking during the earlier assault and the constant earthquakes. Most being the key word. It probably wasn’t safe to stay inside.
The jug that Eva needed was right next to the door. She hefted it up without stepping foot into the room.
“What is that?”
“Really? It’s black.”
“Yours? How much is in that thing.”
“Two, maybe three gallons? Somewhere around there.” Eva dropped the jug in front of the door. She pulled open the door just a crack.
“It is all worthless. Several mixtures from different states of myself, stored for several months in a container that is not properly enchanted. It isn’t good for attacks, it isn’t good for defenses. I’m lucky it is still usable at all.”
“Going to make a big sign that says ‘STOP’ in between them.”
Juliana and Shalise glanced at one another. Devon let out a laugh.
“That’s it?” he said. “I thought you were going to blow it all up or something exciting.”
“That’s plan B.”
“Arachne, you’re filthy. Shower now. I’ll not have you track dirt around my home.”
The spider-demon gave a happy nod of her head.
“Genoa, I can’t order you around, but you’re disgusting too. Arachne can show you how to work the showers.”
“Awfully cocky, aren’t you.”
Eva shrugged. “Like I said, my home. You’re not allowed to touch any of my furniture. Or walls. Or floors. Or anything, really.”
Genoa let out a loud laugh. She clapped her sweaty hand onto Eva’s shoulder and gave a firm squeeze. “Alright, I get it.”
I should have added myself in that list, Eva thought with a mental sigh.
She turned and walked off to follow after Arachne.
Her smile was exactly as wide as Arachne’s smile. It was somewhat disconcerting. Eva half expected Genoa to suddenly have sharp teeth as well.
The fight had both of them in a much different mood than they had been in earlier. Shalise might have been on to something with her comment.
No. There was no way.
And with that thought, Eva called out after them. “I swear, if my showers turn into a warzone, I’ll remove both of you from the wards and you’ll wish I was letting your heads explode just to end the pain.”
That earned a bout of laughter. From both of them. It cut off quick enough, but not so quick as to avoid a raised eyebrow from Eva.
“Something weird is going on here,” Eva mumbled to herself.
“You wouldn’t actually do that, right?” Juliana said as she walked up next to Eva.
“No,” Eva said. “Maybe. You don’t think Shalise was right, do you?”
Juliana just laughed.
“I’m right here, you know.” Shalise crossed her arms and huffed. “Didn’t you send them off together because you wanted them to get closer?”
“I figured they’d hate each other and take less time in the interest of getting away from one another.”
Shalise sighed with a disappointed shake of her head.
Eva felt somewhat vindicated when both of them returned in less than five minutes. Genoa, however, emerged with nothing but a towel wrapped around her and two knives in her hands.
“Carlos back with my suitcase yet?”
“I have clothes if you need something to wear.”
Genoa looked Eva up and down with a grin. “You might be my height, but you don’t have half the core I’ve got. I’d tear through anything you try to put on me.”
“I’m sure I’ve got some loose-fitting clothes,” Eva said as she marched to her room. Arachne followed close behind.
“So?” Eva asked as she shut the door.
“Oh, she’s fun. Every once in a while, I’d come very close to being damaged. Almost like she was going easy on me to get me to let my guard down. A sharp rock would fly straight at my forehead, or perhaps a boulder trying to take off my head altogether.” Arachne let out an almost content sigh. “Can I keep her?”
Eva turned away from her dresser and locked eyes with the demon. “No.”
“No ‘keeping’ my friend’s mother. You’re free to spar, but no keeping and no killing either. Even if she’s trying to kill you.”
Eva ignored the pouting Arachne. A skirt might work. They might need pins or something. As Genoa said, the former mage-knight had far more muscles than Eva.
In the end, Eva decided on her largest skirt and a button up shirt. Even if Genoa couldn’t button it up all the way, it would probably end up being more than she normally wore.
With as many scars as she had, it was a wonder that Genoa hadn’t gone the Juliana route. A hefty layer of metal covering her entire body would do wonders at keeping additional scars away. Then again, she seemed the type to take pride in scars.
That mindset always seemed odd to Eva. Advertising that you get injured on a regular basis did not appeal to her. Unless the purpose was to advertise that you survived grievous injuries. Wouldn’t that make an opponent try to put you down even harder?
Then there was the fact that she was covered in scars in the first place. Did she purposefully avoid healing them? Were all of them cursed? That seemed unlikely.
Eva shook her head as she opened her room door.
Carlos and Zoe sat on the couch next to Juliana and Shalise. Before Eva could greet the two, the door opposite from Eva’s room opened. Genoa stood there, wearing nothing but a tube-top and shorts with the top button undone. “Ready,” she said.
She came out of the library, Eva noted with a repressed frown. Few rooms were more damning. Though she couldn’t have spent much time in there. It hadn’t taken Eva more than three minutes to find clothes–clothes she tossed over her shoulder back into her room–and Carlos hadn’t returned before she entered her room. Not enough time to get dressed and to snoop around too much.
“You’re taking them to cell house two, Eva?”
Eva nodded to Zoe. “Might as well get it over with,” Eva said as she walked towards the women’s ward door. “Well, come on. It’s on the other side of the prison.”
“What do you mean by ‘get it over with’?” Genoa asked from Eva’s side. She started fingering one of the daggers at her hip.
“Nothing bad,” Eva said quickly. “But the place we’ll be staying at is one of the few places here that is not mine. You’ll need to be vetted before you’ll be allowed to stay there.”
“And what does vetting consist of?”
“Introducing yourself, being extremely polite, and not agreeing to anything, or offering anything. At all.”
“I think I see where this is going,” Genoa said without removing her hand from her dagger. “I don’t think I like it.”
“Probably not. I will say that it is the safest spot to be, probably on the entire continent.” Even if it isn’t technically in our reality. “So long as you’ve got the favor of the owner.”
“And you’ve got it?”
“We have it. We were already ready to stay there.”
“Ylva,” Zoe said, “will be there tonight. After tonight she will be living with me back in Brakket. We decided that the best course of action was to keep the children safe. I’ll be out in the open. Ylva will be there to help fend off anything that might attack me again.”
“Your plan was to leave the kids alone while you went off as bait? What’s stopping your assailants from hitting the softer, undefended target?”
“Assuming they made it past my wards, myself, and Arachne–”
Genoa scoffed at that.
“–they’d have to get into cell house two. She’s something of an expert on wards.” Eva stopped in front of the door to Ylva’s domain and pulled it open. “Especially space expansion ones.”
Genoa walked into the domain, mouth agape. Carlos wasn’t far behind her. Even Eva took a moment to stare.
Ylva must have been excited to host a few guests.
The throne platform was back in its proper place with all four chains properly attached. A waterfall of fog poured out of the overhead clouds, collecting in some sort of receptacle behind the throne before billowing out to spread across the platform. The floor of the platform couldn’t be seen through the fog.
The relatively small waterfall to the throne somehow spread out enough to fall off the entire platform and into the pit. There wasn’t a single spot of marble visible through the fog.
Ylva had changed the clouds as well. Rather than the overcast yet calm layer of clouds, there was now a raging thunderstorm. Without the thunder. Lightning illuminated the entire ceiling as it arced from cloud to cloud.
“Understatement of the century, dear,” said Genoa.
Eva didn’t think it was that impressive, but she had already seen the rest of Ylva’s domain plenty of times. Genoa and Carlos had much more to take in.
Genoa walked right up to the edge of the pit with her hands on her hips–very near her foci. Not even a hint of fear showed as she leaned over the edge to look down. “How deep is it?”
Eva blinked. That sounded like Ylva’s commanding tone, even in the single word, but it didn’t sound like her voice. She glanced off to the side.
Nel stood there in her red and white dress with her black robes.
A little kid stood next to her. She kept her back straight and her head held high as she looked over Genoa with dead eyes. Her lips were the same ice blue. The kid wore a miniature version of Ylva’s navel-cut dress despite the lack of cleavage necessary to pull it off. The blood in her veins failed to flow properly.
The death god Hel had children. Being one of those children, Ylva was known as a hel. Would one of Ylva’s children be called a hel or a ylva?
Eva wiped the smile off her face with a shake of her head. “Ylva?”
The kid gave a regal nod of her head. “We have disguised Ourself. This form will be unassuming.”
“Are you going to dress like that?” Zoe asked.
Juliana nodded and said, “and talk like that?”
Ylva quirked her head to one side before glancing down at herself. Her eyes snapped back up to Juliana and Zoe. “Our form is unassuming.”
“She’s so cute,” Shalise said. “Don’t bully her.” Before anyone could stop her, she had her arms wrapped around the tiny form of Ylva.
Zoe, Nel, and Genoa all drew in a gasp that went completely unnoticed by the brunette.
Shalise actually tried to pick up Ylva. And failed. “Kind of heavy though.”
“Our weight remains unchanged.”
“Oh.” Shalise let go of Ylva and took a step back. “Are you not normally this small?”
Ylva shook her head. Gray fog billowed up into a tall pillar around her. An intangible wind dispersed the fog as quick as it came. An eight foot high Ylva stood in its wake.
Shalise quickly backpedaled away from the giant woman. “I-I see.”
“Why don’t you stay like that for now. Maybe tomorrow too. You don’t want to introduce yourself as a child, do you?”
“Our form does not alter Ourself.”
“It isn’t so much about you as it is about how others will perceive you. A child would leave a disappointing impression compared to your usual, regal self.”
The frown wasn’t hostile nor directed towards Eva. It sent chills down her spine nonetheless. Eva almost started some verbal backpedaling of her own.
It occasionally slipped her mind that Ylva was one of the more powerful entities she knew. One that took great offense at personal slights. The demon’s general deference to Eva on account of ‘renting’ the cell house combined with her odd mannerisms often had Eva acting far higher than her standing would otherwise dictate.
Ylva’s nod stopped Eva’s thoughts. “We acknowledge your perspective. Our unassuming form will wait.”
“Good,” Eva said with a strained smile. “Anyway, this is Genoa and Carlos Rivas.” She gestured towards each in turn.
Genoa had moved away from the pit the moment Ylva appeared. She had her back to a wall and had dragged Carlos and Juliana near to her. Upon being addressed, Carlos gave a light wave while his wife kept a hand firmly on her dagger.
“They’re Juliana’s parents,” Eva continued. “Genoa has requested to stay with us to provide an additional layer of security.”
“You trust them?”
Eva was about to answer until she noticed Ylva’s gaze had turned towards Juliana.
It took the blond a moment to realize she was being addressed. When she finally did, Juliana looked offended. “Of course I trust them. They’re my parents.”
“We have no objections. Nel will provide a tour.”
“What, just like that?” Genoa said.
“You disagree with your own daughter?”
“No. Not that. You just let me in here without confirming that I’m an ally. What if I took control of her mind and made her say yes?”
Ylva glanced down at Juliana and stared. “Unlikely,” she said after a minute.
“How can you know that?”
“We have spoken with Juliana in the past. Her mental facilities are unaltered.”
Genoa shot a frown towards Juliana. She quickly rounded back on Ylva. “This place is dangerous. Even aside from the bottomless pit of doom. What happens if the outside walls are damaged? The entire place could explosively collapse.”
“Our domain is under Our control. We will not allow such an event. Have you more complaints?”
“Mom, you need to calm down a little.”
An uneasy silence settled over the group. Juliana moved up to take her mother’s hand.
“We have further preparations.” Ylva turned, gave a nod at Nel, and walked straight through one of the sealed off walls.
“Well, as Lady Ylva said, I’m Nel.” She clapped her hands together and smiled an incredibly shaky smile.
“‘Lady Ylva?’ What is with the majestic plural anyway?”
Eva shrugged. “She’s the daughter of Hel. Granddaughter of Loki. If she wants to talk funny, let her.”
“A-anyway,” Nel said, “the tour?”
It took the group a moment to get moving, but eventually Nel managed to herd them around the pit.
Genoa had fallen to the back of the group and started a heated conversation in whispers with Zoe.
“First off, the most important place.” Nel walked open armed into one of the chambers. “The bath.”
The steam-covered pool before Eva was nearly as large as the entirety of the women’s ward building. Absolutely superfluous. And impractical. So much of the basin likely never saw use.
But that was the nature of domains. It didn’t cost Ylva anything.
“The statues serve as faucets and–”
Nel blinked at Carlos’ interruption. “Yeah,” she said with a blank look. “They’re activated by distance. Just walk close and water comes out.”
“Activated isn’t the right word. They’re living creatures. Gen, gargoyles!” Carlos had a stupid grin on his face as he ran up to the one standing over a shallower basin. He didn’t seem to notice getting soaked as the gargoyle opened its maw and started a shower.
“I can see them, dear,” Genoa said with a sigh.
“This one is pregnant!”
Eva blinked. The obsidian woman didn’t look pregnant. She had chiseled abs. Literally.
“They’re all pregnant, dear.”
Eva blinked again. None of them looked any different from the one whose pedestal Carlos was hugging.
“Technically,” he said, “but this one is close.”
“Are we missing something?” Shalise asked.
Thank you Shalise.
“Gargoyles are powerful hydroturges. Somewhere in the top five of all magical creatures that can manipulate water. But they’re incredibly rare. Almost extinct. I’ve never seen one before. And there’s four here?
“The reason they’re near extinct is because of an incredibly slow reproductive cycle combined with people hunting them. The stone has tons of magical properties that aren’t found elsewhere, especially relating to water magic.
“The pedestal,” he said, patting the gargoyle’s pedestal, “is this gargoyle’s young. The stone slowly absorbs ambient magic over the years. Not sure on how many years, exactly. It could be upwards of a thousand.
“The stone starts out the size of my fist and grows to this massive pillar. When it is ready, the gargoyle will hop off and use its sharp talons to carve out a new gargoyle–born completely adult. Both will take a shaving of the stone to raise as their new young.”
“Take a moment to breathe, dear.”
Despite her earlier hostility against Ylva, Genoa’s smile had grown to match Carlos’ grin.
“Um,” Nel said. She had started looking somewhat sick partway through Carlos’ deluge. “So, they’re living things?”
“Of course. I wonder if I can be here when… I mean, it could be decades away still.” His eyes slowly turned over towards Eva.
Eva gave him a shrug. “You need to ask Ylva about that. I don’t know when and I’m not in charge of this place.”
“Of course, of course. I’ll be sure to,” his eyes flicked over to his wife as he stumbled over a few words. “That is to say, I’ll just–”
Genoa let out a long sigh. “Do what you want.”
His smile returned to full brightness in the blink of an eye. “I’m sorry,” he said to Nel, “I interrupted your tour. Shall I stay here? I’m all wet and I’d love to talk–do they talk?–or examine them.”
“Um, sure.” Nel turned and half sprinted from the room. She led the remaining members of their group straight to the bedroom. “The sleeping quarters. I don’t think there are any secretly living statues in here,” she added with a nervous laugh.
Genoa raised an eyebrow. “One bed?”
“It’s gigantic,” Eva said. “I’ve seen large swimming pools before, but this is as big as the stupid bath. Have you ever seen a bed even half this size?”
Shalise just gaped open-mouthed.
“That’s a problem though,” Juliana said. “You sleep naked.”
“And Arachne will be sleeping next to you.”
“Nel will be here too?”
“Don’t ask me.”
Eva shrugged and glanced at Genoa.
“I’ll be keeping an eye on Arachne. Ylva and Nel too.”
“Yes, Juliana,” Eva said, “your mother as well.”
The blond girl let out a long sigh. “Our little camp out got really awkward somewhere along the way.”