Ylva didn’t sleep.
Zoe wasn’t quite sure what she expected, but she had laid out a fairly fancy bed for the demon. She had a gigantic bed in her domain, after all. Unless that entire thing was solely for Nel.
It wasn’t until the first week had passed that Zoe got any kind of real sleep in. Her time was spent watching Ylva. Waiting for her to do something.
On the first night, Ylva had gone around and inspected seemingly every object in Zoe’s apartment. Some, she would pass by with barely a glance. Others would receive a good amount of attention.
The next night, Ylva watched the television. She didn’t watch any stations, just the television itself. As if she had heard that humans like to watch television but didn’t quite know what that meant.
Zoe tried to turn it on for her the night after that, but Ylva had lost interest.
She moved on to rummaging through the few research documents that Zoe had saved from the fire. The only surviving ring notebook was of particular interest to the demon.
Part of Zoe wanted Ylva to add her own notes to it. She didn’t even comment on them.
A combination of growing accustomed to Ylva’s nightly antics and sheer exhaustion had Zoe falling asleep without much trouble by the weekend.
All except for Halloween night, during which Ylva stood guard. It was as if she expected something to happen. Although she had slept soundly for the previous few weeks, Zoe got no sleep on Halloween.
The entire situation was all so surreal. Even though it had been two and a half months since the attack on her home, she still kept expecting to wake up back in her burning home in the arms of those two demons. Every day that passed was a fresh relief in that department.
And today is another day.
Zoe arched her back and held it in a long stretch. With a long, open-mouthed yawn, she slid out of bed and started unbuttoning her nightshirt.
“Good morning, Ylva,” she said to the little girl sitting on the end of her bed.
Ylva gave her a brief nod in return.
Undressed fully, Zoe tossed her pajamas in the dirty laundry and started towards the shower.
As soon as she touched the door handle, Zoe froze. The feeling of icy water ran down her back. She slowly glanced back to her bed where tiny Ylva sat in one of the dresses they had purchased for her.
“Is something wrong?”
Ylva had never just shown up in her room before. She always waited out on the couch.
“You were thrashing in your sleep. We observed to ensure you did not come to harm.”
“That’s… Thanks, I suppose.”
Zoe pressed her fingers to her forehead and stepped into the shower as she tried hard not to think about her casual undressing in front of Ylva.
Aside from the lingering thought about the demons attacking her home, Zoe didn’t feel very bad. Not like right after it happened. She even felt well rested. No aches or pains in her neck, back, or legs like she might find if she was tossing and turning.
Ylva might have done something, but Zoe didn’t think her abilities extended into dream management.
Zoe shut off the hot water and dried off. Moving to the mirror, she ran a comb through her hair–it would dry in her preferred style. A quick dusting of hairspray after breakfast would keep it in place for the day. She only applied the bare minimum of makeup. She could never understand her old roommates and their need to sit in front of the mirror for hours on end.
There were only twenty-four hours in a day and a third of that was spent sleeping. Spending an hour or two more on makeup was simply inconceivable.
Then again, she was the only one of her old dorm mates to still be unmarried.
“Ylva,” Zoe called out as she finished suiting up, “are you ready to head out?”
“We are prepared.”
Zoe walked out into her room to find Ylva standing beside the bed. It hadn’t been made before Zoe got in the shower, but now it was nicely smoothed out and tucked in.
One thing she couldn’t complain about was the demon’s propensity for cleanliness. Any time Zoe left something for later, she found it tidied up. Dishes, clothing, and the bed of course.
Placing her hand on Ylva’s shoulder, Zoe teleported the two of them straight to her office. Unlike Eva, Arachne, and even Zagan, Ylva was not bothered by the trip through between. Something to do with her natural affinity for cold.
At least, that would be Zoe’s best guess. She hadn’t devoted much time to researching that particular aspect of Ylva and she hadn’t asked.
The bell signaling the five-minute warning before class started for the day echoed through her office.
Today is another day, Zoe thought with a sigh as she opened up her classroom door.
— — —
Jordan’s eyes turned from his meal. He sat up straight and looked over Eva’s shoulder. His normally gray eyes lit up with burning interest. “An elf?” he all but squeaked.
Eva set down her fork and turned to follow his gaze. She wasn’t very interested in eating the breakfast burrito anyway. It wasn’t even breakfast.
Sure enough, an elf wandered into the lunchroom alongside a glasses-wearing-man. Both wore silver patches on the sides of their shirts identifying them as members of Martina Turner’s new security force. Eva had seen the glasses guy around on a few occasions over the past few days, but it was her first time seeing the rumored elf. She even had a chance to meet the two ‘specialists’ that were creeping around the halls.
He had his long platinum hair–that couldn’t hold a candle to Ylva’s own–drawn back into a ponytail. Eva couldn’t be sure from across the room, but his lips and eyebrows seemed to be drawn on. They were too smooth and held no depth.
Eva gave a small shudder. The more she looked, the more alien the elf appeared. His eyes were too wide and his nose too small. His lanky arms stretched just too long.
It was silly, she knew. Arachne had eight eyes and had plated carapace covering her instead of skin. Ylva was a giant. Neither had ever disturbed her like the elf.
“Wow,” came the soft voice of Shalise.
Eva turned to find Shelby, Juliana, and Shalise all in open-mouthed stares. They obviously did not agree with her assessment. Several students in Eva’s peripheral vision had also noticed the elf.
She met the eyes of a sighing Irene and for the barest of moments, they had an understanding. The moment was lost as she averted her eyes.
Giving a sigh of her own, Eva looked back to her other friends. “You’re gawking,” she said to nobody in particular.
“And I don’t even care,” said Shelby without breaking her stare.
Jordan had the decency to cough and look away. “I’ve never seen an elf before.”
Eva frowned. “You didn’t act half as starstruck when I told you my little secret.”
“Well, we had already seen Arachne and your hands before you said anything. The shock was dampened.”
Eva rolled her eyes. “Is an elf really all that shocking? I mean, it isn’t like humans are barred from entering their little communities.”
“True. But seeing one outside their hives? Definitely surprising. Leaving is some sort of stigma unless they were ordered to for the purpose of strengthening the hive.”
Eva glanced back over at the elf. He and the other security guard chatted quietly amongst themselves while gathering a plateful of burritos. The conversation seemed very one-sided with the elf doing most of the talking. By the time the two took their seats at a table, Eva hadn’t counted the glasses guard moving his lips more than twice.
At least they’re not hovering around the room giving me the evil eye, Eva thought as she turned back to Jordan. “And that one isn’t ordered to protect the village?”
Jordan gave Eva a flat stare. “He’s working as a security guard for a human school,” he said in a voice just as flat.
“But I suppose they aren’t all that interesting. They’ve got a basic human organ system with slightly denser bone and muscle groups, but nothing too out of the ordinary. Their inherent magical properties are interesting, but ultimately not too unique.”
“You can take a breath of air every now and again,” Eva said with a smile. “Where did you learn all this?”
“Oh,” his own smile slipped for a moment before it returned in full force. “My parents have amassed a collection of books that might rival the combined libraries of Brakket, Miskatonic, Dunholm, and Vincent. It might be impossible to read them all in my lifetime, but that’s not going to stop me from trying.”
Eva nodded. That was a respectable endeavor. She had her own pile of books she was working through.
The necromancy books she had acquired were far less interesting than she was hoping for. Eva had no real desire to kill people and bind their souls into ghosts. Zombies were even less appealing. That Ylva would likely object to most everything in those books didn’t endear her to them any further.
All in all, it was largely a waste of time. She planned on finishing the introduction to soul binding–the process of affixing spirits to items in order to create all kinds of nasty effects–and then switch back to her studies into blood magic. The rest of the books could rot in her library until she found a better use.
There were certain rituals she wanted to get into. Eva knew a few, the cleansing that she used on Shalise first and foremost. Another could be used to bolster a group’s general toughness and strength. The set up time and amount of blood required were not exactly feasible for that one. The ritual had been designed for large armies with sacrificial slaves for a boost in a coming battle. Her wards were technically considered a ritual, but it didn’t exactly act like it.
What she was really interested in was something that Sawyer had mentioned. As much as she tried not to remember, the surprise he expressed when Eva failed to simply reattach her detached toes had not escaped her. An ability to pull herself back together if she ever found herself in such a situation again would be invaluable.
Not that Eva had any intentions of allowing that to happen.
The ringing bell signaling the end of lunch broke Eva out of her thoughts.
Everyone started moving. Those who still had food left on their plates quickly ate. Eva didn’t. She tossed the remains of the burrito into a nearby trash bin. Max would have been appalled, but he had not sat with their group for a week or two.
Eva felt somewhat responsible for that. She didn’t think he had been too freaked out by her little reveal, not as much as Irene was, but maybe it just needed time to sink in. One day, Max worked on a history report with one of the other students in class. She slowly saw less and less of him until he stopped sitting with them completely.
Arachne already threatened to tear out his spine if he ever said a word. By all appearances so far, he hadn’t.
Conversely, Irene was much happier. She smiled a whole lot more–though never in Eva’s direction. The girl hadn’t missed a beat in claiming Max’s seat next to her sister. She barely acknowledged Eva’s presence, but at least she hadn’t run off.
As Eva’s thoughts drifted to the girl, so did her eyes. For the second time in an hour, Irene met her gaze. If that alone wasn’t enough cause her eyebrows to creep up her forehead, Irene cleared her throat.
“Um, can I talk to you for a second?”
“Sure,” Eva said with what was hopefully a kind smile.
Irene held her gaze for another second or two before she glanced off to some point over Eva’s shoulder. As if looking at her directly would be painful. After a moment of standing there, she gripped Eva by the upper arm and pulled her off to a corner of the room.
Eva gave Juliana a shrug as she allowed herself to be dragged off.
“What did you need?”
“Nothing, really. I just wanted to make sure you knew. The girl over there, the one with all the stitches. She’s been staring at you.”
Rather than turn her head, Eva looked through her sense of blood. The blended girl had her eyes directly on the side of Eva’s head. Her companion seemed wholly engrossed with his meal, apparently unconcerned with the bell having rung.
“That isn’t entirely unexpected,” Eva said with a nod. “I was fairly cruel to her after she… well,” Eva lifted her hand in the air.
Irene flinched back.
Eva immediately dropped her arm behind her back. “Sorry.”
“No. No. I’m fine. I just,” she slowly tuned her gaze to Eva’s other side. “It isn’t just today. She’s been staring–glaring even–for weeks. Every time I look around, her, her mismatched eyes are just there.”
She ran a hand through her hair, leaving short, brown strands out of place on the side of her head.
“Irene,” Eva said, forcibly restraining herself from reaching forwards. “Are you alright?”
“I just… You, and her, and Jordan, and regular school, and Professor Lurcher being gone, and Professor Baxter’s injuries, and–”
“Irene. Let’s go sh–swimming.” Eva almost said shopping. She managed to stop herself just in time. It was her first instinct to say, but shopping was not on the list of things she was very interested in. “Or the hot springs.”
“What?” She actually looked up straight into Eva’s eyes. Her eyes darted from left to right, looking into each of Eva’s eyes. By the fifth pass, she seemed to realize what she was looking at. Irene took a step backwards and averted her eyes again.
“You’re stressed out.” A whole lot more than Eva originally thought. “When was the last time you did anything that wasn’t schoolwork or worry about the people around you?”
“Come on.” Eva put on her kindest smile. “Just you and me. I’m not going to hurt you. We can just swim or relax in the pool. We don’t even have to talk if you don’t want to.”
“If we go now, you can’t think about it. You don’t have time to worry and get stressed out about it.”
“We have class.”
“Professor Carr won’t mind if you explain that stress was getting to you. Neither will Zoe. And it isn’t even lying.”
“I don’t know…”
“I do.” Eva held out her hand.
This time, Eva did not withdraw when Irene took a step backwards. Eva did ensure the sharp tips of her fingers were all folded inwards. All the while, Irene’s eyes stayed glued to the claw.
They stayed frozen as the lunchroom cleared around them. Irene’s heart rate picked up as time wore on. Just as she started to reach her hand out, the bell rang.
They were late to class.
Rather than give Irene the opportunity to second guess herself, Eva reached out and grabbed the partially extended hand.
Irene let out a small ‘eep’ as Eva started dragging her away from their classroom.
“I-I don’t even have a swimsuit.”
Eva grinned. “Neither do I.”
— — —
Nel took a deep breath of the frankincense filled air. She much preferred the steamy air of Lady Ylva’s baths–even with the revelation that she had been spied upon since she got there–but she had a job to do.
It wasn’t even a difficult job. Quite the opposite, really. A mix between monotonous and relaxing. Nel had overworked herself to the point of passing out after the demons attacked.
Lady Ylva had been very clear afterwards that she was never to do something so foolish again. Her property was to be kept in good, working order. An unconscious augur was an unproductive augur.
Warm feelings fluttered around Nel’s stomach every time she realized that Lady Ylva actually cared. If in her own, slightly twisted way. Nel had a feeling that she would be worked as hard as or harder than Sister Cross had Eva been in charge of her.
So, Nel slowly and very relaxedly cycled through her fetters. She wasn’t even doing it every hour. Especially not while the children were at school. They were all together and Lady Ylva was right there with them.
A strand of platinum hair drifted over in front of Nel as her master crossed her mind.
Lady Ylva sat at her own table in the back of a classroom. Her head rested on an upraised fist as she slouched back in the chairs. An almost perfect recreation of the pose she had on her large throne; all except for the fact that her tiny legs didn’t quite reach the floor. They just kind of dangled in the air.
Nel wished she possessed the kind of impulsiveness required to just up and hug the little girl.
Zoe Baxter was in the same room as Ylva, teaching, so Nel skipped over that strand of hair.
Arachne and Genoa were out fighting. Again. Nel rolled her eyes. The first few days, she had been glued to watching them. Their fights were very flashy and interesting, but quickly dulled as Nel realized there wasn’t much actual danger. Neither had managed to kill each other. Nel suspected they both were holding cards in their sleeves just in case they ever had to actually fight one another.
Genoa’s daughter sat with Sister Cross’ daughter in a different class. History by the looks of the textbook.
An empty seat at Juliana’s side gave Nel pause. Her breath hitched as a long, black hair moved into position.
Nel let out a small sigh. She’d been worried for nothing. Eva looked extremely relaxed in a large pool of steaming water. Her eyes were shut and she had a faint smile on her face as she rested her head against a headrest set outside the pool.
Eva’s companion looked distinctly less relaxed. The girl, who Nel vaguely recalled seeing around Eva on occasion, had her knees to her chest and her arms wrapped around herself beneath the surface of the water. Only her head above her nose poked out. Her eyes darted between the ceiling, Eva, and the door to the room.
It was somewhat maddening. She was squandering the fairly impressive hot springs of their dorms. Not as impressive as Lady Ylva’s bath, of course.
Nel had half a mind to go and take her own bath right then and there. She restrained herself with no small amount of reluctance.
Her final fetter–a vial of blood that was heavily coagulated despite the preservative vial–drifted over in front of Nel. Eva wouldn’t be able to make use of such a decayed sample, but Nel didn’t use haemomancy.
The boy attached to the fetter was disturbing as always. He had a blank, vacant gaze that Nel normally attributed to victims of spectral possession. That Ylva had been in the same room and hadn’t obliterated the ghost was the only reason Nel second guessed herself about the boy’s condition.
That it probably wasn’t a ghost didn’t make it any less unnerving.
Nel blinked one set of eyes. He wasn’t in a classroom. Or the Brakket dorms. The floor had orange, interlocking hexagons with red hexagons in the center. Featureless white walls separated numbered doors. A hotel?
The little girl that never left the boy’s side was absent.
Nel detached her vision from the fetter and moved outside the hotel. The town didn’t appear to be Brakket. The roads were all different and it was missing the lake and Brakket Academy itself. It was not missing the mostly deserted feeling.
Back inside the hotel–and it was a hotel albeit a small one–Nel peeked into one of the rooms.
Her heart skipped three beats.
Three things sat in the room. One had sharp razors for arms. They hung in front of him like scythes. Another was a bird of some sort. At least, it had the wings and beak of one. Nel wasn’t sure it would be able to fly without a heavy dose of magic. The third looked like someone had literally stapled Arachne’s black chitin to its body.
With some morbid curiosity, Nel checked the next room. Four creatures, all similar to the first three. The next room only had two. Then six.
Nel stopped and focused back on the boy’s fetter.
He wasn’t in the hotel. The boy stood on the street between the two Brakket dorm buildings. A scowling, patchwork woman stood in front of him.
An army of monsters stood at his back.
Nel bolted, ignoring the fetters that fell out of the air. She ran out of her private clairvoratorium and around the massive hole in the throne room. Her hand froze as it touched the ornate handle leading out of Lady Ylva’s domain.
The Order was surely looking for her, at least cursory glances, if not active searches. They would not abide a rogue augur. Especially not one as ‘compromised’ as Nel.
Nel bit her lip and made her choice.