“What does it mean?”
Neither of them had dared to speak for the longest time. Her voice felt dry and hoarse–though not simply because of the time. What they watched drained all the moisture from her mouth. Most of it had gathered on the palms of her hands.
Jordan shook his head as the shadows around them faded back into the background. He’d waited long enough. It had been several minutes since anyone walked by.
“The professor is a demon of some sort,” Jordan said. “I’m certain of that. Not as friendly as Eva and Arachne, by the looks of it. I don’t even want to say his name. He might notice us.”
Eva was one thing. She kept Arachne out of sight and out of mind. Her own physical changes were easily overlooked simply because Shelby had known her for a year and a half.
But Professor Zagan was a demon too? And Professor Baxter knew about it? Not only that, but she looked about ready to attack him too.
Shelby walked up to the classroom door. There was a solid wall of air keeping her from even opening it, but it didn’t stop her from peeking in the window.
Just as Professor Baxter said, there was a magic circle in the room. A ‘transference circle’ according to Professor Zagan. Desks had been shoved aside to make way. A broken bit of chalk lay just outside the circle.
A book bag rested on top of one of the desks. Juliana’s bag?
“They’re not in there,” Shelby said.
“Of course not.”
Jordan paced up and down in front of the door, looking scary. Terrifying even. While the shadows that had been hiding them in the alcove of another classroom had receded, he still had shadows curling off of him.
This must be one of the things my sister was always talking about.
“Professor Baxter asked where they were. If they were in there, she’d know. Didn’t you hear how he dodged her question? He claimed not to remember their names.
“No.” Jordan stopped pacing. “He couldn’t be bothered remembering ordinary mortal names. That might be true, but he remembers our names. He says them in class often. He said it himself. A lie of omission.”
“Then, where are they?”
“Transference circle. Sends things to Hell. He answered that as well.”
“They’re in Hell.” The last word came out as little better than a choked up whisper.
Jordan reached out and gripped Shelby’s hand. “We don’t want to get caught around here.”
Under normal circumstances, Shelby might have enjoyed having her hand held. Now, her hand was cold and clammy. All thoughts of affection had been replaced by fear.
“We need to find Professor Baxter.”
“What about Irene?” Her sister was the whole reason they’d followed after Juliana and Shalise in the first place.
“Her too,” Jordan said as he led them through the halls in the same direction Professor Baxter had gone several minutes earlier. “Though she wasn’t with Shalise and Juliana. She’s probably not in Hell.”
That was only a small relief. Shelby had seen the army outside. If her sister had gotten mixed up in that…
She didn’t know what she’d tell mom.
“I still don’t know why she skipped class. It isn’t like her.”
“She has been on edge lately,” Shelby said. “Every day seems worse. I was hoping she was finally going to make up with Eva, or just relax, but now this. I can’t help but wonder if it was all a lie.”
“I doubt Eva had anything to do with this,” Jordan said, giving her hand a small squeeze. “Not unless I severely misread her personality.”
Shelby smiled at the reassurance. She wasn’t about to decide either way until she heard it straight from the horse’s mouth, but Jordan knew plenty she didn’t. More than that, Shelby trusted him to give a straight answer. Especially about serious issues.
“Come on, out there.”
“Out there?” All the faint happiness died with those four words. Jordan was looking straight out at the army. “We can’t go out there. Even if you can keep your shadow thing–”
“The little girl, the one from Professor Baxter’s class, is a demon too.”
“Another one? Then we definitely–”
Jordan shook his head. Shelby barely registered him pulling her close and putting an arm around her shoulders. “Arachne is out there too. They’re helping fight. And the fight looks almost over.”
Shelby’s vision went black before she could protest.
When her vision returned, it was accompanied by the cool outside air.
A black-nailed hand stopped moving just an inch from her face.
Shelby stumbled backwards with all the reaction time of a sloth. A drunk sloth. She fell to the ground, dragging Jordan down on top of her.
“You are students.”
The owner of the black-nailed hand stared down at the two of them with cold, dead eyes. Despite the fact that the eyes were sitting on the face of a ten-year-old, Shelby felt herself being weighed and measured.
If she was found wanting, she knew without a shadow of a doubt that she would not survive.
“We are. We need–” Jordan cut himself off with a glance to one side. After a brief moment, he nodded and looked back towards the demon.
“I apologize for intruding on your shadow.” He bowed his head until he was looking straight down at the ground. “We have information we felt should be delivered with haste.”
Shelby held her breath as the weighing continued. After what felt like an eon and then some, the demon–Ylva, Zoe had introduced her as–lowered her arm.
“We will receive your information.”
Jordan glanced up with a faint smile on his face. “The male professor that is also a demon–”
Jordan flinched at the demon’s word, but nodded. “We watched him follow Juliana and Shalise into a room with a transference circle. He left. They disappeared from the room. He then failed to mention either of them when Professor Baxter asked. We knew you were associated with Professor Baxter and Eva. Not knowing where they are, we sought you out.”
Silence grew as they waited for her to respond. Every second that passed brought along a slightly colder wind. Shelby didn’t have her jacket with her and the cold quickly leeched away the warmth from being indoors.
Out of the corner of Shelby’s eye, she noted the black carapace of Arachne run towards one of the few remaining creatures that made up the army. She tore off the creature’s arms, then legs. Shelby pointedly turned away when she started pulling the thing’s insides out.
“We understand your implications. You wish to be rewarded for this information?”
“Yes,” Shelby cut Jordan off. He looked at her with wide eyes and slowly shook his head. Shelby ignored him. “My sister, Irene. She’s been missing since the start of this. The last time we saw her was with Eva at lunch.”
“We own a clairvoyant. She spotted Eva with a companion when this began, according to Arachne,” the demon said with a slight glance off to the side.
Shelby sagged in relief, not even caring that her own eyes had drifted to the other demon and the target that was being disemboweled.
Her relief ground to a halt with Ylva’s next words.
“Eva’s whereabouts are unknown. As are those of her companion.”
Jordan squeezed Shelby’s hand once again. “Doesn’t mean any harm has come to either of them.”
“I just want to find her.”
Professor Baxter appeared before them, a single step behind Ylva.
At least, she thought it was the professor. Shelby’s eyes widened as she took in the state of the woman.
Most of her suit was covered in dirt. Half of it had been burned clear away. Whatever hit her suit hadn’t stopped there. A massive spot of charred flesh lay just beneath her right breast. Several boils and burns spread out from the burnt circle.
Her mud covered face was twisted into a tight grimace. She had her lips pressed into a thin line and Shelby could tell that her teeth were clenched tightly behind.
Zoe looked like she was only standing though sheer force of will.
“Professor Baxter,” Jordan said, “we–”
“I’m sorry. No time.”
Professor Baxter twitched the dagger in her hand. Her voice boomed out over the battlefield.
— — —
Genoa narrowed her eyes. “Which side is the enemy?”
“The nuns,” Zoe said. “Eva did not part on good terms with them. Though I’m not sure who or what the peasants are. They could be just as hostile.”
Genoa had a look in her eye. One that Zoe had never seen before. It was a dangerous look, something she’d expect to see on Arachne. The only difference was that Arachne got the look for no reason, while Genoa had reason enough.
The rage of a mother was a scary sight to behold.
Noticing the look Zoe gave her, Genoa pressed her sunglasses up on her face, obscuring her eyes.
“We’re wasting time.”
Zoe gripped her dagger. With a deep breath, she glanced at her friend. “Right.”
In the blink of an eye, Genoa vanished.
A dust storm erupted over the combatants. Only Zoe’s enhanced sight allowed her to see the vague outlines of the nearest group.
She moved out while the dust had everyone occupied.
There wasn’t much cover in the prison aside from the walls of buildings. It was designed that way on purpose. Letting prisoners hide from guards would have led to ambushes and escapes.
Zoe walked out in the open. Room to dodge was more important than hiding behind the handful of sagebrush that had grown since the prison last saw proper maintenance.
Repeated slashes of her dagger sent razor-thin blades of wind through the air.
The black-cloaked mage didn’t even acknowledge the wind. A shield flickered up around her, tanking the hits. She didn’t even turn towards Zoe, choosing instead to incinerate one of the peasants with white fire.
For all Zoe knew, the mage didn’t notice. The wind was invisible and Wayne had said that their shields were ridiculously strong.
Zoe sent a light gust of air. Nothing big, nothing sharp. Air had to be getting through their shields or they would asphyxiate.
She was pleased to note the billowing of the mage’s cloak. Some things could get through.
Evacuating all the air was a possibility, but Zoe didn’t want to kill if she could help it.
Zoe set the wind around the mage’s feet to compress. More and more air pulled in beneath the mage.
There had to be a threshold between wind and attack. She’d love to run a few tests, but now was not the time. Finding a way around their shield was more important.
The mage noticed something. It must have been the wind moving strangely, though she did not look down. Had she noticed the sphere of compressed air at her feet, she would have moved.
After incinerating one more peasant, she turned to face Zoe. One hand raised up.
Lightning, probably, Zoe thought as she tensed her legs. Dodging lightning might seem impossible to a layperson, but Zoe knew lightning and she knew magic. The Elysium Order might use slightly different magic, but it had the same principles.
The instant Zoe’s enhanced eyes noticed a slight change in the mage’s arm, she threw herself to the ground.
Lightning careened through the spot where she had stood.
Not giving the mage a second chance, Zoe released her control over the compressed air.
The shock wave was like a little bubble expanding outwards. Zoe could see it coming. She pinched her eyes shut just as it rocked over her prone form.
A thundering boom came an instant later.
She tried to pop her ears, but nothing made the high-pitched ringing go away.
Looking up, Zoe found the mage knocked a good twenty feet away, slumped against the wall. Not moving.
Too much force? She deliberately kept it small, relatively speaking. Was it still too much in the end?
Zoe shook her head.
No time to check on her.
The cloud of dust had partially cleared away thanks to the blast, revealing another three mages. All turned to look at Zoe.
Zoe rolled away as spot she occupied quickly turned into a black scorch mark.
With a flick of her hand, a shield sprung up in front of Zoe.
It fractured and shattered as the mages released two lightning bolts.
The first mage had gotten to her feet.
She reached out, aiming her hand.
With wide eyes, Zoe saw white fire forming at her fingertips.
Buildings, mages, even the sky itself fell as the cool white of between replaced everything.
The opposite end of the prison compound rebuilt itself around Zoe. Far from any nuns.
Adrenaline gave her the strength to stand. That same adrenaline had her hands violently shaking. Zoe tried to wipe the thick layer of sweat coating her hands onto her pants and wound up with a thick layer of damp dirt.
Zoe knew that Genoa was still out there. Fighting. Winning, in all likelihood.
She slumped against whatever building she had teleported against. Devon’s, probably.
Their cloaks hid their faces. All features were obscured save for the brilliant white glow of their eyes. That first and last nun, staring into those eyes as she prepared to incinerate Zoe as she had to those peasants…
A fear-infused shudder ran through her body.
Breathe in, Zoe thought. And out.
A short laugh followed her exhale. To think she’d been worried about using too much force in that compressed air blast.
She should have used more.
Zoe slapped her cheeks, regretting the action immediately. Dirt ground into her sweat-covered cheeks.
Situations like these were exactly why Zoe never went farther in the guild than the initial trials. She liked research. Developing, discovering, and rediscovering secrets of magic were her passions.
Applying those passions to combat did not interest her in the least.
Zoe slapped her cheeks again. This time, she ignored the extra mud her slap smeared around her face. She had to get into the right mindset. The mindset she’d had to adopt when going through the guild’s trials.
The Elysium Order did not play nice. They acted with excessive force and violence.
Zoe let out a small laugh as she ran her fingers through her hair.
With a flick of her dagger, between enveloped the world.
Before the battlefield finished reassembling itself around her, Zoe raised her dagger. She fired off a lightning bolt at the nearest nun.
As expected, it collided with a shield about three inches from the nun’s face.
That was something she could work with.
Without waiting for any kind of retaliation, Zoe teleported.
She couldn’t do the rapid blinking that Genoa was capable of–something she was regretting never taking the time to learn–only the long-range teleportation that Wayne had taught her. Her way took more energy, concentration, and time. Only a few seconds but a few seconds was an eternity in combat.
Zoe reappeared in front of another nun.
The nun was in the process of incinerating another peasant. One who had a hatchet buried in his back.
Hatchets weren’t a weapon used by the order as far as she knew. Zoe didn’t have time to frown.
As the peasant collapsed into a pile of ashes–without a single cry of pain–the nun looked to Zoe.
Who had already been preparing her attack. With the flick of her wrist, a sphere of compressed air exploded. Zoe kept the air shaped so that most of the force would aim towards the nun.
It wasn’t large. She lacked the time to create one as large as earlier. It made up for it by being placed an inch and a half from the nun’s forehead.
The nun’s head snapped back, though no sound of cracking bones reached Zoe’s enhanced ears. The rest of her body staggered for a moment before she fell backwards against the ground. White glow faded from her eyes as she landed.
There was no time to check on the results of her attack. Zoe teleported away just as the lightning from one of the downed nun’s comrades crackled through the spot she had been standing on.
She reappeared just behind the attacking nun and immediately started compressing air next to her head.
As soon as the nun turned to fire, Zoe let the compressed air loose.
The nun’s shield flickered in around her head, only half an inch away.
Zoe cried out even as the world fell apart around her. She held on to her dagger for dear life. Wayne had warned her about losing control while teleporting. She had no desire to suffer that fate.
When the far side of the compound asserted itself in front of her, Zoe collapsed into the side of the building. Her shoulder slammed into the rough, sandstone bricks.
Her dagger-less hand gripped her side. Zoe winced and immediately let go.
The side of her suit had been burned clean through. A black circle the size of her fist lay just under her right breast. From it, red lines reminiscent of natural lightning snaked down through the side of her body to some point beneath her clothes. Boils and blisters had already started forming.
Zoe took a few deep breaths. She tried not to expand her chest as she did so. Every movement caused pain.
She couldn’t sit idle. Gritting her teeth, Zoe teleported again.
Reappearing at the battlefield, she prepared to evacuate as much air as she could around the first nun she saw.
Blinking, Zoe saw not a single nun apart from the prone nun she had hit a few moments earlier.
The dust settled, flattening against the ground in an instant. A few of the peasants stood around, looking somewhat lost.
Standing where the thickest parts of the dust cloud had been was Genoa. Two nuns, or their remains, lay around her. Genoa glanced around, looking none the worse for wear.
Zoe didn’t feel up to much besides nodding.
Zoe nodded a second time. She could feel the adrenaline draining out of her. It was making her somewhat tired, though every jolt of pain kept her from falling unconscious on her feet. “Where did they go?” Zoe finally asked.
“Just up and vanished. Teleported away leaving that icy air you leave behind. Cutting their losses, maybe?”
“That one,” Zoe said with a nod towards the one she had hopefully just concussed, “might not be dead. Restrain her in Ylva’s domain. Teleportation doesn’t work inside, so she won’t be able to escape. Unless we want to let her go?”
Genoa walked over and slung the nun over her shoulder, fireman’s carry. She didn’t look at all bothered by the weight of a human body.
“Let’s find Nel and…”
One of the peasants ran over, waving its arms wildly. It stopped a few feet from them, just in time for Genoa to not turn it into paste.
Outside the heat of battle, Zoe noticed a few things. His clothes were definitely made from some type of burlap. There were rope burns around both of his wrists. Most notably, he was missing his entire jaw, though he didn’t appear to be bleeding.
The peasant outstretched one arm, pointing down between the cell houses. A second peasant was in the distance, pointing perpendicular from the first peasant.
“They want us to follow?” Genoa asked.
The first peasant stomped his feet and took off at a run. Genoa was quick to follow despite the nun over her shoulder.
Zoe simply flicked her dagger and teleported. Running would hurt.
From the second peasant, she could easily see what he was pointing at.
“Eva,” Zoe said softly. She teleported again to her student’s side with Genoa running up not far behind.
Eva was lying face down, wrapped in one of the security specialists’ trench coats. A gash had been torn in one side and through it, Zoe could see the inside of her student. Nestled within appeared to be one of her bloodstones.
A bone white dagger lay to one side, half sheathed in blood.
Zoe started to reach for it. A collection of blood appearing in front of her face stopped her.
“Eva? You’re alive?”
“Damn,” a voice behind them called out. “Damn.”
Devon ran up beside them, almost shoving Zoe out of the way. Two things, demons likely, followed him.
Genoa dropped into a combat stance. Something of an odd sight with the nun still over her shoulders. She seemed to recognize Devon just in time.
“What are those?” she said with a gesture towards the demons.
“Don’t shake hands and headache,” he mumbled as he stopped above Eva. “You couldn’t do one thing right, girl?”
The blood in front of Devon swirled around into a frowning face.
Devon didn’t seem to notice. He hunched over the dagger, pointedly not touching it.
“Where’s Juliana?” Genoa asked. “Alternatively, Nel?”
J NOT S̷̢͝͠Ị̸͓̪̹̝̼͈͠NCE LUNCH
“Kidnapped?” Genoa said with a growl. “Who?”
Before Eva could write out a response, Devon jammed both fingers into the hole in her back.
She spasmed twice. The mass of blood above her had a similar spasm. It formed into a spiked ball before splaying out a few droplets. A few landed on Devon’s face, causing him to pull his fingers out.
“Arachne has it,” Zoe said.
“Damnit. I can’t fix this on my own.”
Zoe was already readying herself to teleport to Arachne when Devon turned to face her.
“Grab the dagger and bring Ylva with you.”
“This is a necromancer’s work. If anyone can fix it, she can.” He turned back to Eva, mumbling under his breath. “Going to cost me an arm and a leg.”
“Necromancer,” Zoe said softly.
She saw one word written in blood before the world fell into between.