“Has she woken up yet?”
Shelby stirred at the soft voice. She pulled herself out of the puddle of drool that had gathered on her sister’s bed. Wiping off her cheek, she looked towards the doorway.
“I don’t think so. What–” An involuntary yawn drowned out her words. “What time is it?”
“Ten o’clock in the morning,” Jordan said as he pulled up a chair. “I was just talking with Nurse East. He said that she should be waking up anytime now.”
“That would be nice,” Shelby said as she looked back down to her sleeping twin.
For the first time in weeks, Irene lacked the furrowed brow. She wasn’t smiling. She wasn’t frowning either. She seemed… peaceful.
“She’s going to be alright, right?”
“He said it was just a concussion. A bad one, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed with a few potions.”
“She’s not going to be like, possessed, is she?”
“Those weren’t demons,” Jordan said. His features darkened, looking like he wanted to spit. A look of pure disgust. “Just parts of them.”
His voice lacked all the inquisitive excitement usually present within.
Shelby shook her head. “And you knew about that Ylva girl? And Professor Za–”
A finger pressed to her lips. She felt her face heat up even as Jordan shook his head.
“Don’t say his name. There are ways to find out if someone talks about oneself. I don’t know if he is doing that, but I’d rather not give any excuses to draw his attention.”
He sighed, pulling his finger away as he glanced off towards Irene. “I knew about Ylva. She wasn’t doing a very good job of hiding herself. When you’ve got a family like mine, you notice things like that.”
“A family like yours,” Shelby said with a half-suppressed yawn. She didn’t know what time she had finally fallen asleep the night before, but it was clearly too late.
As she thought over what he said, Shelby slowly put her head back down on her sister’s bed. She had to wiggle a little in her chair to avoid the damp patch of her own drool. “You’re like Eva then? All into demons or something?”
“Well,” he said. His voice had an audible smile in it. “I like to think I can keep a secret much better than she can.”
Shelby snorted into the blankets. “I’ve known you my whole life. I’ve only known Eva for a year and a half. It’s clear who the secret keeping winner is.”
That got a small laugh from Jordan. “But my family values knowledge and an open mind, I guess you could say.”
“Irene knew, didn’t she. That’s why she freaked out about Eva last year and kept her at an arm’s length since then. She asked you, or you just told her.”
Jordan took in and let out a deep breath. “She stumbled upon me in a fairly compromising position a few years ago.”
Shelby snorted again. It came out slightly pained. Her heart just wasn’t in it.
“Not like that,” he said. “She just walked in on me manipulating shadows like I did yesterday. My family Swore her to secrecy. That’s Swore with a capital ‘S’ otherwise we would have told you too.”
“That doesn’t seem like something Mr. Anderson would do.” Shelby frowned as a though occurred to her. “Are you going to do the same to me?”
“We’re older now. I’ll have to tell my parents, of course, but that was mostly so that Irene couldn’t talk about it. Kids are known to talk about things they shouldn’t, after all.
“I actually wrote to them last night about Eva, all the demon-things, and Juliana and Shalise. I completely forgot to mention you.”
Shelby reached out and jabbed him in the stomach, eliciting a small grunt. That had to be one of the most offensive things she’d ever heard.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “you can tell my dad yourself. I got a call this morning. He said five words: ‘I am on my way.’ I don’t think he is very happy.”
“That’s not the point, Jordan Anderson. You’re not supposed to forget about your gi–” Shelby cut herself off with a barely disguised cough, “–your childhood friend.”
They weren’t officially going out. They hadn’t even been on a date. He didn’t pay extra attention to her. Their entire relationship felt entirely one-sided.
It was entirely one-sided. They were friends and nothing more.
Shelby sighed. He’d probably prefer going out with someone like Eva anyway.
“I couldn’t help it. So much went on yesterday. I decided to e-mail it instead of texting it because it was so long.”
Shelby froze as a light groan came from the sleeping patient.
Irene didn’t get any further than that before Shelby wrapped her arms around her. Carefully, of course–Irene wasn’t supposed to move or be moved much until the nurse signed her off.
“I’m so glad you’re okay,” Shelby said when she finally pulled herself away. She had to wipe something away from her eyes. Her vision had gone all blurry. It certainly wasn’t tears.
“Long story,” Jordan said. He stood up and headed towards the door. “I’ll go let Nurse East know you’re awake.”
Shelby watched Jordan’s backside as he walked out of the room. She shook her head and looked back to her sister. “What do you remember?”
“I was–” Irene’s half-lidded eyes burst wide open. Her face heated up to the point where Shelby was wondering if some of the old Irish blood wasn’t showing itself.
“Are you okay?”
“Nothing!” Irene squeaked. She shook her head and immediately winced. “I was just in the hot springs with Eva.”
Shelby frowned and quirked her head to one side. “We don’t have bathing suits.”
Irene’s already red face turned roughly the color of an overripe tomato.
“Oh,” Shelby said with a nod. “I won’t tell anyone.”
“That’s not–It wasn’t–” Irene devolved into sputtering while Shelby tried to keep her face straight. “There were monsters! I was running and then… I don’t know. What happened?”
“Nurse East said one of the security force people brought you in. You’d have to get the full story from them, but I guess Eva was fending off the monsters until the security guard got to you.”
“Oh.” Irene went silent for a moment. “Where is she?”
“The security guard–”
“I don’t know. I heard Professor Baxter herself say that Eva had been stabbed with a cursed knife, but I haven’t seen her. It’s only been a day.” Shelby paused, but decided to add, “Juliana and Shalise are missing.”
She’d been told in no uncertain terms not to reveal where they went missing. Juliana’s mother was a scary woman and Shelby wasn’t about to disobey, even to her sister.
“One of the school nurses died. A different security guard is in critical condition, I guess.”
“Start at the beginning.”
Shelby shifted to be more comfortable in her chair before speaking. It could take a while.
— — —
The amount of paperwork involved with the recent incident was beyond staggering. Every form that Martina filled out and filed was replaced by three new ones. Catherine just kept digging out more.
While she wasn’t about to complain about her secretary’s new-found work ethic, Martina couldn’t help but think that it was yet another method of getting under her skin. Half the forms were only tangentially relevant. Half of the remainder were so out of date, Martina couldn’t see how they applied to the modern school.
Still, Martina filled them out. The attack was a large incident that had occurred on Brakket property. She wasn’t going to get herself fired over a misplaced RF-Two-Three-Three form.
It helped matters that Gregory had finally delivered his personal report over the incident. Martina Turner set the report down on her desk. It wasn’t everything she had hoped it might be.
While unexpected, the incident proved to be an effective test. Only Daenir, the elf, had been injured among the security team. Gregory’s claim that the addition of several unaffiliated allies had ‘saved the day’ was unneeded.
She’d be sure to leave that bit out when the time came to make a report to the administrators and whatever they ended up telling the public.
The specialists performed their task most admirably. Neither had been on either end of a friendly-fire ‘accident’ which, if Martina was being entirely honest with herself, was a concern she had had. Lucy even dragged that delinquent that had skipped class to an infirmary.
Without eating her. That was a success all on its own.
If it hadn’t been for that nurse, the day would have been almost perfect.
That was the biggest disappointment of all. If only Lisa Naranga had found a proper place to hide or simply escaped…
Nothing to do about it now. Catherine had already notified the next of kin.
The door to Martina’s office burst open, slamming into the wall.
A man wrapped in a black winter coat walked in. He stood in the doorway, taking in the room with a slow sweep of his head from one side to the other. Every inch his head moved only served to deepen the man’s frown.
Martina caught sight of Catherine. The succubus was in the middle of filing her nails into sharp points. As if feeling eyes on her, Catherine looked up and threw a glance in Martina’s direction with a nasty smile. The secretary’s eyes flashed red for a brief instant before the closing door cut off Martina’s view.
“Governor Anderson,” Martina said. She kept a scowl off her face and even managed to turn it into something of a mournful smile. “You should have sent word that you were coming, I would have arranged–”
“Spare me your pleasantries,” he snapped. “The administrators did not put you in charge so that you could run Brakket’s name further into the ground.”
Martina felt her smile slip. “I’m not sure what you’re implying,” she said slowly. “The new security team I assembled defended the academy against an overwhelming force with only one loss and no major student injuries.”
Governor Anderson shook his head. He folded his hands behind his back. “Have you done a headcount on your students?”
“Not as such,” she said with narrowed eyes. “I know that there are three students not currently at Brakket Academy. All three are known to… disappear at times.”
“Irresponsible. After an incident such as this, the first action you should have taken was to ascertain the location of all students. I don’t care where you think they are. If a student took a week off to visit relatives in Europe, you find out for sure that that student is actually there.”
Martina thought for a moment about calling in Zoe Baxter. That woman would have information about the girls. She stopped before her hand had even twitched towards the phone.
Something was wrong about the whole situation. A member of the board of administrators doesn’t just show up and start talking about missing students after a hundred hostile monsters show up on the school’s front porch. Perhaps the conversation would lead there, but he immediately went into the students.
“I take it you know something.”
“Two of those students are no longer on the mortal plane.”
Martina nodded. “One of those students is only human by the loosest definitions. It is somewhat alarming that she left our plane of existence, more so in that she took a friend with her. Their actions are not the business of Brakket Academy.”
Governor Anderson’s eyes turned dark. “I backed your plan. Convinced the others that there was merit in broadening the scope of magical curriculum. You assured me that you could keep your minions in line.”
“Find Zagan. Ask him about your missing students.” He turned on his heel and opened the door. It slammed into the wall with as much force as he had entered with.
Catherine did not look the slightest bit perturbed as he stalked by with his shadow curling up the wall. Rather, she looked interested. Her eyes turned a unique shade of red before she reined herself in.
“Find Zagan,” Martina repeated to herself as the outer door to the offices slammed shut with Governor Anderson on the other side.
“Ah,” Catherine said. She stood from her desk, grabbed a sheet of paper off the top, and tottered over through Martina’s open door. “Zagan stopped by last night, wanting you to have this. Slipped my mind until now.”
“A leave of absence?”
“He is taking a few days off, citing the traumatic incident as the cause.”
Martina tore the sheet of paper in two. She tore it again and again before scattering the pieces in Catherine’s face.
“Find him. And find all residents of Rickenbacker three-one-three.”
The lascivious grin on Catherine’s face died. “Is that an order?”
“Don’t try my patience.” Something had gone on. Something that the governor knew about despite not even living within Brakket city.
Something that involved a king of hell.
— — —
“If the immediate family would gather around for the final prayer and rites.”
A husband, a father, a mother, two older brothers, and a little sister all stood from their seats and approached the closed casket. Before a single word could be spoken, the mother broke down into sobs. The father pulled her into a tight hug while the eldest brother placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.
The other brother stood off to one side with an unreadable expression. Boredom? Perhaps shock. The reality of the situation might not have hit yet.
The sister stood back with her brother. Her face was twisted in an expression of confusion as she watched her mother. She had to be in elementary school. Probably too young to understand everything that was going on.
Especially since the casket had been kept closed. The body was in no state to be displayed. Only the parents and the husband had been allowed to look.
The husband stood apart from the family. Silent tears streamed down his face as he waited patiently for everyone to collect themselves.
Zoe Baxter watched the proceedings from the back of the room. She hadn’t gone up an introduced herself. None of Lisa’s family knew her and she’d only met Lisa’s husband once at their marriage nearly six years ago.
She’d considered pleading to Ylva. What about, she wasn’t certain. Restoring her to life or a last chance to talk, maybe. In the end, she decided against it. Even if Ylva could do something–and Zoe wasn’t sure she could–it didn’t feel right.
Lisa and her family were highly religious. Even if it could return her to life, Zoe doubted that they would accept it if it came through a bargain with a demon. Would Lisa herself accept it?
Zoe shook her head. She couldn’t get caught in that loop of thinking again. There was nothing to be done about death.
The family prayer had gone on while Zoe was distracted with her thoughts. She only realized that fact when the undertaker and pallbearers started taking the casket out to the hearse. The family followed and soon after, so did the rest of the congregation of Lisa’s friends.
Zoe remained in her seat until the last person had filed out of the funeral home. She pulled out her dagger.
Dirt and grime coated the blade. Normally, it would have easily caught and reflected the dim light in the funeral home. She hadn’t had the time to clean it after everything.
Or rather, she forgot. There was so much going on.
Still so much going on.
Zoe ran her thumb over the flat of the blade. Most of the dust was crusted onto the blade. It would need the full works when she found the time.
She took a deep breath, wincing at the jolt of pain in her side. Break over.
Rising to her feet, Zoe picked up her cane. She wouldn’t need it in a few weeks–she barely needed it now–but it was nice to have something to lean on during long hours of standing. The nun’s lightning was problematic to heal.
It actively undid any magical attempts to heal the affected area. The magic simply fell apart. Trying to remove the lingering magic from it had suffered similar failures.
Devon had said it would disperse on its own after a week or two and then magic-assisted healing could begin. He spoke from personal experience, apparently.
The effect was something that she’d normally be overjoyed to experience, in a manner of speaking. Figuring out how such a spell worked, especially given that it wasn’t thaumaturgical in nature, would have made an excellent project.
She’d only had time to do a cursory analysis. A theory had almost immediately popped into her head about how to replicate the effect using thaumaturgical chaos magic, but not without also unraveling the spell itself. She had yet to even write down her theories let alone solve the issue.
With a sigh, Zoe teleported through between to the prison.
The place still looked like a battlefield. Half-scorched body parts were still scattered around. All belonged to the minions of the ‘Lord of Slaves’ that no one had bothered to pick up. No one cared, not with their other worries.
Zoe shuddered as her thoughts drifted to that particular demon.
Ylva and Arachne were one thing. Arachne was a psychopath, plain and simple. Plenty of humans were psychopaths, and plenty more were worse than she was. Ylva was more of an enigma. While she did somewhat enslave Nel, it wasn’t the same thing.
The very concept of the Lord of Slaves was fundamentally disgusting. She would be all too happy if Devon never felt the need to summon such a creature again.
A shout echoing through the empty compound pulled her attention away from her thoughts.
“Why can’t you send me?”
Zoe turned and stalked off in the direction of the noise. She tried not to look like she was hobbling, an endeavor she wasn’t sure was entirely successful. Every step sent pain up her leg and around her chest.
Teleporting was, unfortunately, not an option. Genoa had been on a hair-trigger temper since she had been informed about her daughter’s status. Teleporting around her was liable to result in injury at best.
Both Devon and Ylva had advised them not to confront Zagan or Martina over the matter, or even let on that they knew. Not until they could recover the girls.
That irked Zoe more than anything. She was once again considering resigning in protest. And once again coming up with a lack of results that resigning would achieve.
Zagan would have to go.
Later. And with a lot of planning.
Zoe rounded the corner of Devon’s cell house. Genoa, Devon, and Carlos all stood outside. The latter was in the process of trying to calm the two down.
Carlos was looking thinner than normal. He looked far more weary behind his coke bottle glasses. An older look. The lines on his face were pronounced and deep.
It had only been a few days and he was already looking ill.
Her daughter’s absence took a different sort of toll on Genoa. In addition to her hair-trigger temper, she’d become irritated with everyone at the prison. She was eating healthy and took proper care of herself, all in the name of mounting some kind of rescue mission.
Even when the attitude turned in her direction, Zoe couldn’t fault the woman. They weren’t her children, but they were her students. Leaving them in Hell was not an option.
Zoe at least possessed the ability to acknowledge that she was so far out of her element that she wouldn’t be much use. She was willing to heed the advice of Devon and Ylva.
“I didn’t say can’t, woman, I said won’t.” He thrust a sheet of paper at her. The drawing, or a copy, of the transference circle Zoe had taken a picture of. “Draw it yourself if you’re so desperate. But you’re throwing yourself away.”
Genoa snatched the paper from his hands. “I won’t abandon my child.”
“You’ll be abandoning them no matter what you do. You might as well use the connection in Ylva’s domain. That circle has no destination sigil. You could wind up anywhere. Hell is a big damn place. The odds that you’d wind up with your kid are astronomical.
“Then we have to figure out how to get you back, potentially delaying the rescue of your daughter. What a pain. Damn Ylva and its damn payment. I don’t have the time for this shit. It was going to save Eva anyway, I could tell.” Devon devolved into muttering under his breath.
Zoe stepped forwards, ensuring that Genoa saw her before she spoke. She didn’t want to wind up attacked on accident again. “Is Ylva still gone?”
Both Devon and Genoa turned to glare at Zoe. Carlos was the one to finally respond. “Still gone. Is she really going to help get our daughter back?”
“I think so,” Zoe said. And she honestly believed it. Ylva had been protective of her ‘things’ if nothing else. “How is Eva?”
“No one is watching over her?”
“Arachne was with her when we left.”
No one responsible then, Zoe thought with a small sigh.
Genoa crumpled the paper into a ball and turned away. Without a word, she stalked off towards Ylva’s building.
Carlos started after her, but paused and looked back. “I-I better keep her from doing anything rash.”
“Is that true? About the destination thing,” Zoe said as soon as Carlos and Genoa were safely out of earshot.
“I consider myself an expert in these kinds of things. Demons and such. Frankly, that circle shouldn’t work. It’s like a mirror of a proper summoning circle. But if it does work, it will work the way I said it does.”
“You haven’t tested it?”
“Of course not. I don’t want to tip anything off and I definitely do not want to have anything to do with any of the seventy-two. I warned Eva.” He descended once again into mumbling complaints about seemingly everything he could think of as he turned and walked away.
Zoe stood there in the prison courtyard, leaning on her cane, wondering just what she could be doing to help her students.
— — —
Des sat in her chair without moving. She didn’t have much choice in the matter, but struggling would only make things worse.
She did glance over towards Hugo. Unlike Des, he wasn’t strapped down. He even had clothes on. Hugo simply sat and stared with his usual vacant look.
A second chair sat in the room, though it was facing the wrong way. The back was tall enough that she couldn’t see anyone, but it was probably there for a reason. A new test subject for her father, perhaps.
“You disappoint me, Des.”
Her father was smiling. Not at her and not because he was happy. In fact, that was one of the worst smiles she’d seen.
“Don’t worry, we can fix that. But first, let’s discuss why you disappoint me.”
Everything had gone so wrong. Des couldn’t even point out where things failed. Eva wasn’t supposed to have gotten away. She wasn’t supposed to have been an enemy in the first place.
Des was willing to admit that she had let her anger get the best of her. But it wasn’t her fault. If Eva had just played nice, none of this would have happened.
They were supposed to have been friends. Two outcasts joining together against mutual enemies.
That was what her father had said anyway.
“You took our little friends, Des, and got all of them killed. You didn’t tell me first. There was no plan.” Sawyer hung his head in mock sadness. “Worst of all, you ran. You got scared. They were held off by six people and a demon or two because no one was controlling them.”
His voice was soft. Calm. Completely unlike what happened when other people got mad. That was the fifth scariest part of the whole situation.
“That was the whole point in making them. Demons have far too much agency, but they’re strong. With us controlling our demon-golems…” he trailed off with another shake of his head.
“And Hugo helped you.”
Hugo blinked and glanced up to Sawyer. His eyes focused for a brief moment.
Her father snapped his fingers.
Hugo slumped forwards, falling out of his seat. He collapsed to the floor without attempting to catch himself.
Des tried to scream out. She struggled against the chair’s restraints.
They didn’t budge.
“Don’t worry, honey. We’ll build you a new toy. A better one!
“But that is the price he had to pay. Don’t disappoint me again, Des.”
The restraints didn’t even allow Des to slump back in her chair. She didn’t want a new toy. Hugo was hers.
“Not all was lost. I noticed your errant actions fast enough to act myself. I caught us a little souvenir.”
He spun the spare chair around.
There was a woman sitting in it with wide eyes and short, messy hair. Milky white eyes were inset in her body everywhere Des could see. At least, between the straps. Some of the spots shouldn’t even be possible. There was definitely not enough meat on her wrist to support an eye and have a functional bone structure.
A small spot on her other arm had dried blood crusted over a hole that might have held an eye at one point in time.
“I’m going to have to change my original plan. There were unexpected complications, but all will be well. We might have to move quickly over the next few days until I figure out how to hide us from the other nuns. Their inquisitorial squad is reeling from losing half the members and one other augur, but they’ll be back.”
As she tore her eyes from the woman’s eyes, Des noticed one odd thing. When her father strapped in subjects, he stripped them to ensure they had no hidden items on their person.
The woman had a choker around her neck. A small, obsidian black skull dangled from the front end. It was highly detailed. For all Des knew, it was fashioned from a real skull. A real tiny skull, but a real one nonetheless. All the teeth were perfectly detailed, the cheekbones had all the proper shapes, and the eyes…
It drew her eyes in. She couldn’t look away even if she tried.
And she tried. She wanted nothing more than to not have to look at the necklace.
Two tiny white pricks were set so far back in the eye sockets that they could be on the opposite end of the universe.
Two tiny white stars, fueling their burning with sheer anger.