It was surprising how normal everything seemed.
Everything was normal.
Just like after Halloween, people’s lives went on. School went on. Learning went on. Everyone just ignored the empty table where her students usually sat.
And there was nothing Zoe Baxter could do about it.
The students who had come to class were not paying any sort of attention. Not surprising. Zoe was only going through the motions of her lesson. No personal touch, no emphasis or animation in her actions. Nothing to keep their attention.
She even had the students read aloud from the textbook. That was a first for her and her students. Normally, Zoe expected the children to read beforehand and discuss the contents during class. They would have their books open for reference, but not much else.
Reading during class was nothing more than time-eating busywork. Something a professor would do if they had nothing to contribute to bettering the future. Words on the board could tell children to read, a professor shouldn’t be assigning it.
Her students’ inattention was entirely her fault. And it was a thing that she could do something about.
But Zoe didn’t want to. She couldn’t work up the energy. It was a miracle she got out of bed every day.
This is depression, Zoe thought.
She looked up as Mr. Anderson finished reading his passage. Zoe still could not understand how he had caught onto the things he did. He hadn’t elected to share his methods, even with Ylva. Zoe had been quite certain that there was no one in the hallway save for herself and Zagan during their talk.
A frown crossed her lips at the thought of the missing devil. No one had seen hide nor hair of him since Zoe crossed his path in the hallway. His class had a substitute–a regular human, thankfully.
Both Devon and Ylva suspected that he had returned to his domain. Something to do with her missing students. Neither had puzzled out the reasons for his actions, though Devon had suggested pure boredom as the primary motivator.
Rather than call on the next person to read the next passage, Zoe let out a soft sigh.
A good half of the class didn’t need any explanation. They didn’t need time to pack up, having been ready to go since the moment they walked in the door.
“But we still have an hour left of class,” said a voice speaking for the other half of the students.
“Finish reading the chapter on your own. I’m certain it will consume less of your time than finishing it in class.” And less of my time, Zoe did not say.
With that said, Zoe waited for the students to file out. It didn’t take long for her to be left alone. Alone apart from Mr. Anderson and the Coggins twins.
“Something I can do for you?”
Shelby Coggins stepped forwards. “Are you alright, Professor?”
Her first instinct was to give a single word affirmative. ‘Fine’ was on the tip of her tongue before Zoe stopped and thought. With a barely constrained sigh, Zoe said, “as alright as I can be with our missing students, I think.”
“Is there anything we can do to help?”
“Not unless you are able to locate those students, Mr. Anderson. And, to be clear, I do not wish you to try. There are enough angry people without adding your parents.”
Mr. Anderson frowned, but nodded. “If you think of anything we can do…”
“Then I will contact your parents and you will be hearing from them.”
“One more thing,” he said after a moment of mutual silence, “any update on Professor Lurcher’s situation?”
Zoe smiled. It wasn’t even forced. Wayne was her one bright spot in all this mess. “He’s been cleared for release and will be in town by the end of the week, though he won’t resume teaching until next semester. I’ll arrange a meeting for you after he has had a chance to settle in.”
The smile slipped from Zoe’s face as she watched the three leave her classroom. She waited an extra minute before locking the door.
Zoe turned her dagger over in her hand, looking over the somewhat grimy blade. It needed a good clean and polish. It had for a few days. She just hadn’t felt up to digging out her cleaning kit and actually doing it.
The filth did not stop it from working. Not yet at least. Zoe picked up her cane in one hand. With a thought and some channeled magic, the walls of her classroom fell to between and the walls of the women’s ward appeared in their place.
Despite being relatively untouched by the battle with the nuns, the women’s ward had turned into something of a pigsty. Both Genoa and Carlos had been living in one of the spare cell rooms and neither seemed motivated enough to clean up after themselves.
With a sigh, Zoe used a little telekinesis to gather up the half eaten remains of a pizza and several empty bottles. She crushed the floating trash and dropped it all into a garbage bin.
A few sweeps of air cleaned up the scattered crumbs. It did nothing for the beer stain in Eva’s couch, but that was out of the purview of her abilities.
Cleaning wasn’t a big thing, but it gave a small amount of satisfaction. More than staying for the rest of her class would have given.
Zoe walked up to the door with Eva’s name and rapped the handle of her cane against the door.
There was the sound of a brief scuffle before the door swung open.
“Oh. You.” Eight red eyes narrowed ever so slightly. “You’re early today.”
“I canceled class,” Zoe said as she peered around Arachne.
Lying in the middle of a sweat soaked bed was Eva. Long black hair twisted and tangled into a matted rat’s nest. A bowl of water and a bathing sponge had been haphazardly placed on an end table. It teetered on the edge.
A subtle flick of her dagger later and the bowl slid backwards, resting fully on the table.
The massive black and white cat curled up at the foot of the bed lifted up his head and gave a slow nod. Whether in a greeting or acknowledgment of her saving the bowl, Zoe couldn’t tell.
Devon and Arachne both talked to the cat–the cait si–as if it could understand them. What’s more, they would respond to it as if it spoke to them.
It probably could. There was a glimmer of intelligence in the cat’s eye that set the hairs on Zoe’s neck standing on end. There wasn’t a good reason for it either. The cait si wasn’t even a demon. It was an unseelie fairy.
That was only marginally better. According to Carlos, most species of unseelie fae ranged from ‘ill tempered’ to actively malicious.
“How is she?” Zoe asked. There wasn’t much point. It was clear to see that nothing had changed.
“Better than yesterday.”
“Are you sure you don’t want someone else to take a look at her? Nurse East and Nurse Post are both very good at their jobs. And I doubt either would object to you sitting at her side.”
Arachne growled a low, threatening growl. “Devon wants her here.”
“Devon is not a doctor.”
“He knows more about her biology than any other mortal.”
Zoe frowned. Both Devon and Arachne were of the opinion that Eva’s demonic limbs made her inhuman enough that regular medicine wouldn’t work. And they might be right, for all Zoe knew.
“That doesn’t make him any more of a doctor. I know that I would feel better if a proper doctor at least examined her. You care about Eva, I know you do. Why not do everything that has even a chance of helping?”
Arachne stared. She opened her mouth. For a moment, Zoe thought she was about to agree.
The door slammed in her face.
“Hiding out isn’t helping, Arachne! You’re not the only one who cares about Eva.”
There was no response from behind the door.
There was a response from behind Zoe.
“No one cares about Juliana though.”
Zoe closed her eyes and let out a slow sigh. She opened her eyes, steeled herself, and spun around, slapping the idiotic woman as she did so.
Genoa teetered back and forth before falling on her butt, eliciting another sigh from Zoe.
“Of course I care about Juliana,” Zoe said in a quiet voice. “Don’t suggest that I do not.” She knelt down and pried a brown bottle out of her friend’s fingers. “You need to stop drinking. Remember what you were like just after she went missing? You were ready to jump into Hell itself to find your daughter.”
Zoe stood up, looking down on the woman. “Now look at you. You’re no help to anyone. Even if we did find out something about Juliana, you’d be useless. Completely and totally worthless.”
Genoa flopped down, spreading her arms flat against the cement floor of the women’s ward.
She hadn’t ever been this bad. The closest was after two of Zoe’s classmates had died during the guild’s trials. Genoa had blamed herself for not preparing them properly.
It was misplaced, of course. Neither of them had taken anything seriously. It was their own fault.
Part of the older woman’s depression then may have been due to Zoe deciding to leave the guild at the same time.
“Come on,” Zoe said. She made a cushion of air to help move Genoa back to her bed. “Where is Carlos?”
“Having an affair.”
Zoe raised an eyebrow. “I don’t think Carlos would do that to you.”
“He is. I smell Ylva’s death on him when he comes back.”
Zoe opened her mouth to respond. And then closed it. “You… I don’t…” Zoe shook her head side to side. There was no way he was sleeping with Ylva.
She decided to simply ignore that part.
“I’m surprised you can smell anything at all. You reek of alcohol.” Zoe released her spell, dropping Genoa onto her bed. “I’ll be right back, just going to go through Eva’s potion closet. Maybe if you’re good, I’ll find something that will help.”
Eva’s potion room was set up to brew most common potions. Nothing that required any kind of specialized equipment. Simple, but it worked.
Unfortunately, nothing was labeled. Some were identifiable due to their coloration, such as the light blue general remedy potion, but Zoe couldn’t name most of them. Wayne could have identified more had he been there.
One that Zoe knew, though she rarely took, was missing completely. It took Zoe a minute to figure out why.
Of course Eva would be missing an alcohol dissolver or hangover cure. She was far too young to be drinking.
Zoe pulled a light blue remedy potion from the shelf. It cured headaches, so maybe it would do something for Genoa.
“Alright,” Zoe said as she reentered Genoa’s room. She uncorked the vial and held it up to Genoa’s lips. “Drink this and then try to get some sleep.”
Helping someone else drink a potion, or anything really, always felt awkward to Zoe. There was just something clumsy about it that never sat right with her. Doubly so if the person was so out of it that they ended up drooling half the potion out of their mouth.
Luckily, Genoa did not drool. Zoe only had a single dose of awkwardness that Genoa probably wouldn’t even remember.
As Genoa laid back to get some rest, Zoe did a quick search through the room. There were only four bottles that had some liquid in them. More that were empty. Zoe gathered them up and dumped the contents down the drain in the kitchen.
She’d probably missed a few, but that might help a little.
With nothing left to do in the women’s ward–unless she wanted to shout at Arachne through the door for a few hours, which she didn’t–Zoe headed out into the prison proper.
If the women’s ward was a pigsty, the rest of the prison was a thing out of nightmares. Rocks and boulders littered the ground. While they had cleaned up the bodies, a few dried splotches of blood still lingered here and there. Mostly around where Genoa had fought the inquisitors.
Walking with a cane across the disturbed terrain was not fun.
Zoe made a beeline towards Ylva’s domain. She had no desire to take in more of the scenery.
The interior was much the same as it always had been. For the most part. The storm clouds overhead might be leaning more towards the storm aspect of their name. No ring of light illuminated the throne in the center of the chamber. The pinhole in the clouds had vanished.
Zoe stopped at the entryway and frowned.
The throne was empty. Ylva wasn’t in her usual place.
Carlos, on the other hand, sat on a chair fashioned from marble just outside one of the alcoves. Zoe wasted no time in walking up to him.
He didn’t even look up.
It was difficult to see through his coke bottle glasses, but his eyes were certainly closed.
From the way his head was slumped into his chest, he was either dead or asleep. Given his snores, Zoe was leaning towards sleep.
She reluctantly rubbed his shoulder. It was almost cruel to wake him. Carlos looked peaceful while he slept.
Just when Zoe decided to leave him to his nap and go find Ylva on her own, Carlos stirred. He pulled his glasses off, gripping the lens between the palm of his hand and his fingers.
Zoe shuddered. She had worn glasses when she was younger. Back before she could use air magic to augment her sight. Even the slightest speck of dust drove her insane.
After rubbing his eyes, Carlos replaced his glasses without even wiping them off.
“Have you seen Ylva?” Zoe asked, pointedly ignoring his poor glasses handling.
“She is,” he paused to yawn. His eyes went wide behind his glasses. “Oh. She’s um, talking to the prisoner. In the uh, torture room.”
For a moment, they simply stared at one another. Genoa, while she was lucid, had no issues with the current treatment of their guest. Carlos had been more outspoken against using the torture chamber.
Treating another human to the machines within Ylva’s torture chamber should elicit feelings of disgust or sickness. Zoe was finding it hard to care. Besides the fact that the nuns had attacked, she was all cared out between Eva, Juliana, and Shalise. Des and Hugo’s absence as well, though to a slightly lesser degree.
Hugo was dead. Ylva had confirmed that both with her mother and through her eyes on Nel. Des had been present during Hugo’s untimely demise, tied up like Nel. Since she’d been untied and had started working with Nel’s captor, Ylva no longer saw a distinction between her and their enemy.
“How long have they been in there?”
“What time is it?”
“Nearly three o’clock.”
“About two hours then. We were discussing possible places Zagan might have sent Juliana before she decided to uh, talk with the prisoner.”
“Any progress on Juliana and Shalise?”
Carlos looked down at his lap, slowly shaking his head. “S-she confirmed with her mother that Juliana’s soul is not in Death’s Domain. Juli is alive, somewhere. Since Nel is apparently in immediate danger, Ylva decided to focus on her.”
“I’m sorry,” Zoe said as she gave his shoulder a hopefully reassuring squeeze. “We’ll find her. If we rescue Nel, maybe her ability will help in finding Juliana and Shalise.”
“Yeah. Silver lining or whatever, I guess.”
Zoe went silent for a few moments. What to say to reassure someone depressed and unable to do anything?
Zoe was in much the same position. None of the girls were her daughters, but the situation was the same. Pretty words given as some sort of placebo would be exactly the opposite of what she would want to hear.
“I gave your wife a general remedy potion, put her to bed, and then took away as much alcohol as I could find.”
“She’s going to be angry.”
“Good. Let her get angry. She should be angry, not moping about at the bottom of a bottle.”
“You don’t have to live with her when she’s like… how she is.”
“If you can’t handle it then tell her to come talk to me.”
Carlos sighed, but nodded. Zoe was fairly certain that it was only her imagination, but she could have sworn she had heard his bones creak as he rose to his feet. “I’d better go sit with her. She shouldn’t be alone and it isn’t like I’m doing anything productive here.”
Zoe nodded and stepped to one side. Watching him leave brought up whole new feelings of despair. He had his shoulders hunched and drawn close together, making him look even smaller than he normally was.
She slapped her own cheeks once he was out of sight. There was no room to be depressed. Zoe had to hold her head high or there would be no one left.
The only person–the only human not affected by the atmosphere at the prison was Devon. In his own words, he cared nothing for Shalise or Juliana and was only going to assist due to an agreement with Ylva. Though she had no idea what, exactly, he was doing for Ylva.
Speak of the devil, Zoe thought as she turned to the archway.
Ylva stood there, staring. Her blue lips pressed together for a brief moment.
“Good day, Ylva,” Zoe said. “I’m not interrupting anything, am I?”
“No. We have finished speaking with the Elysium Nun.”
“Do I want to know?”
“Unlike Nel, Ali did not enter Our service willingly. We are merely convincing her of, as mortals term it, greener pastures.”
That didn’t answer my question, Zoe almost spoke aloud. She let it slide. Whatever Ylva did to the woman, she did not want to know about. Both because it could be very disturbing but also because she liked to think somewhat highly of Ylva.
“How does having her as a servant help Shalise and Juliana?”
“Information is key in any engagement. Ali will escape and return to her order. We will receive information from a specialized skull We intend to implant within her chest.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Your ring serves only to warn others that its bearer is under Our protection. The skull adorning Nel’s necklace serves a similar function, though through it, We are able to perceive what Nel perceives. The skull within Eva’s domain allows Us to view everything within the surrounding area.
“The skull destined for Ali allows that and more. Because of the relative low power of Nel’s necklace, Elysium augurs possess superior tracking methods.”
“And you’ll locate Nel through them?”
Ylva smiled. It wasn’t a murderous smile that Arachne might have upon locating her enemies.
It was polite and regal. Just seeing it made Zoe feel accomplished. She had to suppress her own smile. Understanding Ylva’s plan wasn’t worthy of feeling fulfilled.
“Is there anything I can do, Ylva? I don’t care what it is. I just need to be doing something. Anything that will help Juliana and Shalise. And Nel, I suppose.”
Ylva turned her head, staring off towards her throne.
After a minute of her staring, Zoe said, “I know Genoa feels the same way.” Or she would if she were sober. “We need to be able to see progress and assist in that progress ourselves.”
“We will require her power upon locating Nel. Your strengths lie outside of combat.” Dead eyes turned their gaze down toward Zoe. “There may be one task you are able to perform at this moment. You may not enjoy it.”
“I said anything, so long as it will help.”
“Excellent,” Ylva said with another smile. “Follow.”
For a moment, Ylva looked like she was going to return to the torture chamber. Zoe was pleasantly surprised when the library turned out to be her final destination.
That meant research of some sort. She could do research. Zoe was good at research. If it helped out Juliana and Shalise, all the better.
And in Ylva’s massive library. She couldn’t read most of the books, but perhaps Ylva had a way around that.
Zoe had a feeling she might actually enjoy this assignment.