Irene let out a sigh. Something she had been doing a lot of recently. There wasn’t really any one thing that was making her sigh, just a lot of little things that all added up.
First and foremost would be the knowledge that one of her professors was a demon. A demon that had attacked Juliana and Shalise. Thankfully, he wasn’t around anymore. At least, no one had seen him since the ‘incident’ had happened. His class had been taken over by a substitute with no word on his return or permanent replacement.
She glanced over to her side. Another of the primary sources of her exasperation sat in the seat next to her.
Jordan had descended into a serious phase. Possibly because of the aforementioned demon wandering about. It wasn’t something Irene would have thought would bother him, what with his whole shadow thing. More likely, he had been acting as he had due to his father being around town.
Mr. Anderson had a way of stalking around that sent chills up Irene’s spine. And that wasn’t even related to the fact that he could do the whole shadow thing and plenty more besides.
As for Shelby, she wasn’t acting the same either. She still sat next to Jordan, yet she wasn’t so talkative. Not once since the incident had she reached over to touch his elbow during a shared laugh. Even now, as they sat in class, she leaned away from him, preferring to doodle on a notebook rather than to pursue her attempts to engage Jordan in conversation.
They both were… subdued.
Irene wasn’t all that different, but she had always been far more introspective than the others.
Someone towards the front of the classroom cleared their throat, ruining her peaceful reminiscence.
Dolt, Irene thought. They had been sitting in peace and quiet. Left to her own devices, she was more than happy to read through textbooks.
Drew–of course it was him–just had to ruin it.
Their substitute glanced up from the front desk’s computer at the noise. Upon seeing Drew’s eager glare, she rolled her blue eyes.
Irene joined her. At least that was something they shared; a mutual disdain of that idiot.
Eye-roll complete, Catherine–she never had mentioned her last name–finished a few quick keystrokes at the computer before standing. She sauntered around to the front of the desk. She rested against the desk, sitting on the very edge with her feet pressed firmly on the ground.
As she leaned forwards ever so slightly, almost the entire class sat up straighter. The motion wasn’t confined to guys or girls. Even Shelby sat up straighter, Irene noted with some disdain. Jordan did as well, though it felt different in his case; he was giving her attention as deserving of their professor rather than attempting to sneak a peek down her shirt.
Apart from Irene, the only other student who didn’t move for a better view was Timothy Dewey. He was one of the ones with a smarter head on his shoulders, so maybe there was some correlation with that as to why Irene didn’t care for the teacher. Everyone else seemed to enjoy her a little too much.
The substitute had to be doing it on purpose. The cut of that shirt alone should be against school rules. Not to mention the skirt–or lack thereof. It was a good thing that her legs were pressed together.
At the same time, Irene had a feeling that she couldn’t shake. Like the professor wasn’t actually trying to do anything. It was all just her natural state of being. There was a certain casualness to it that Irene had to admire, as if she had been doing it her entire life. It would never be something that Irene could just do.
“Well, class,” she said with clear disdain. The rest of the students didn’t seem to notice or care. “While I am certain that you are all itching for a continuation of yesterday’s lesson. Unfortunately, I’ve been told that such lessons are strictly off-limits pending excruciatingly painful punishment.”
Thank goodness, Irene thought. She did not need to learn how certain objects placed in very specific places would lead to various magical effects. Even more pleasing was that she wouldn’t be doing the continuation. Which, by her words yesterday, would have implied that Catherine herself would be demonstrating such magic.
Predictably, there were several groans from most of the class. Shelby included.
Irene vowed to punch her sister in the arm later.
“Today’s lesson plan, according to notes left by Baxter, was to be on the Stratogale Principle.”
Irene sat up even as most of the class slumped over. That was a topic she had been looking forward to discussing.
“But,” she said, prompting a groan from Irene. “Even with all the magical remedies and life extensions available to mages, not a single one of you will live long enough for it to apply. If you did live long enough, you probably would have done something to get reapers or some other minion of Death on your tail.”
Irene blinked. Death? She could almost hear the capitalization in Catherine’s voice, yet the substitute punctuated her statement with a casual wave of her hand. And she mentioned minions as well, as if He was a real thing and not some bogey man to scare children.
She shuddered anyway.
“The only beings that need worry about the Stratogale Principle are non-mortals. Demons, for instance.”
The hackles along the back of Irene’s neck all rose. That was a word she had heard far too much of in the past few weeks. There was no chance that it was a coincidence.
During her thoughts, Catherine had continued talking. Irene quickly tried to pay attention. “–ends up not affecting demons much at all. Only a few especially stupid actually suffer for it. Since it is a vastly more interesting topic and one that, ironically enough, is quite related to you all, who can name a type or race of demon?”
Irene stiffened. This was definitely not a coincidence. At her side, Jordan stiffened as well. They shared a brief, worried glance.
Max–that traitor–lifted a hand in the air. He probably wanted to show off for his new best friend, Drew. Or Catherine herself. Probably the latter, more likely.
At Catherine’s nod in his direction, he said, “Arachne?”
“Incorrect,” Catherine said. “Arachne is an individual. She has no siblings, spawn, or progenitor to share her name with. Should she, Void forbid, decide to breed one day, that might change. There is, however, a demonic race of spiders called jorogumo, but they aren’t sentient. Not that you would be able to tell the difference. Anyone else?”
Jordan, to Irene’s great surprise, was the next to raise his hand. “Succubi,” he said without waiting to be acknowledged.
Catherine’s face split into a lecherous grin. “Ah yes, succubi. Arguably the most well-known race of demons among humans. And for good reason. We–” She stopped and cleared her throat for a moment. “We often hear tales of how beautiful and wonderful and perfect those enticing beings are.”
A sinking feeling settled into Irene’s stomach as the substitute went on about succubi. There was no sign of her diatribe slowing, nor a hint of an end.
There was, however, a small nagging feeling in the back of Irene’s mind. It made her look at the substitute in a new light.
And not necessarily a positive light.
— — —
Alicia Heiden gasped for breath.
She sucked in the air as fast as she was able.
It had only been thirty-seconds–she’d counted the first few times–but her lungs were burning all the same.
As soon as her head emerged from the water, the cranks of the wheel slowed. The clicking became audible as water drained from her ears. The rest of her body had to sit in that murky liquid until the wheel turned enough. By that time, she would have her head at the peak of the wheel. There wouldn’t be time to dry before she started back towards the water.
And then she would be fighting off all the blood rushing to her head. Once again, she would be sitting on the edge of passing out.
Every turn of the wheel made Alicia that much more exhausted. That much more tired. That much more likely to succumb to passing out.
She couldn’t sleep. She couldn’t nap. Early on, she had guessed that each revolution took roughly one half hour–that included the times the wheel sped up while her head was underwater. If she could guarantee that she would only sleep during the upward motion of the wheel, Alicia would take the chance in an instant.
As it was, she was certain that she wouldn’t wake up thanks to the blood rushing to her head.
Alicia knew without a doubt that she would drown if that ever happened.
After she caught her breath, Alicia started to relax. Going up the wheel was infinitely better than going down. Far less stressful. Enough so that she often felt bored.
Bored! During torture!
She had lost count after about twenty revolutions, but she was running out of things to occupy herself with.
Alicia had already imagined herself in each of the other torture room implements. In comparison, the water-wheel wasn’t bad at all. There was another wheel device across the room; except that one looked designed to move along a bed of hot nails, pressing the helpless victim into them as it turned.
Her wheel didn’t even have spikes! What luck.
Sure, she might have preferred a stationary chair or bed of some sort. Most of those she could see had something uncomfortable about them, whether that be flames, more spikes, or a bladed pendulum. One device looked designed to dip a restrained person into a trough of molten lava.
On second thought, the water wheel was one of the best devices to be–
Alicia shook her head. Her mind was wandering, becoming loopy. She would rather not be tortured in the first place.
But as long as she was…
The wheel ground on, clicking and clanking as it brought Alicia up to face the ceiling.
This was even worse. At least there had been something interesting to look at before, even if they sent her mind down weird tangents.
Here, there was just the ceiling.
She had already counted every tile in the room.
Boredom was dangerous. Boredom led to sleep. Sleep led to drowning.
So Alicia turned her thoughts towards the same subject that always occupied her mind during this phase of the wheel.
Why is this happening to me?
She wasn’t being asked questions. She wasn’t being held for ransom, as far as she could tell.
No one had so much as been in the room since she had first awoken strapped to the wheel. No tell-tale rattling of skeletons, no draining of her blood for vampires, no stench of rotting corpses.
Though Alicia was willing to admit that she might have simply become used to whatever smell permeated the torture room.
Necromancers, or other undead, did not make much sense given that they had been battling demons. Alicia had no idea what to do about that. The meaningless torture made sense in that case; she wouldn’t put it past demons to torture her for fun. But something didn’t sit right with her about that. If she had been captured by demons or a diabolist, she would have expected there to be voyeurs.
Or more painful torture.
Someone was watching her. Upon first waking, she had attempted to connect to the source. The moment she had, the wheel spun and held her beneath the water until she stopped.
After refilling her lungs, she tried again.
Let it never be said that Alicia Heiden couldn’t learn a lesson. She hadn’t tried a third time.
The wheel clicked on. Alicia felt her heart pick up the pace as it worked overtime to keep all the blood flowing to the rest of her body.
While the other side of the room was as interesting as the first, she couldn’t spare it much thought. It only took a few minutes for the headache to settle in. Alicia pinched her eyes shut.
The clicking stopped.
Alicia snapped her eyes back open as the wheel ground to a halt.
Why did the clicking stop?
There was a low groan from somewhere deep within the wheel’s mechanisms.
Alicia had a bare instant to panic.
The wheel spun under her weight.
She tried to take a gasp of air, but the wheel spun too fast.
Alicia crashed head-first into the trough of water.
Her lungs burned for oxygen. The small bit of water she had inhaled before submerging gave a need to cough.
I am going to die. Whatever kept the wheel turning broke and now I am going to drown in knee-deep water.
Her head broke the surface of the water a second later.
There must have been enough momentum to bring her head all the way through.
Alicia gasped and coughed at the same time, resulting in nothing but pain. She forced through the pain and took in as much air as she could before holding her breath.
She waited for the wheel to swing back under the water.
It never did.
The wheel lifted her until she was almost facing the ceiling again.
Two dead eyes obscured her view of the five-hundred-thirty-seven tiles. Long, platinum hair fell down the front and back of a dress cut for a scandal.
Finally, Alicia thought as she coughed and sputtered again, gasping for more air. Finally someone is here.
There was joy in her heart at that very fact. Anyone was better than no one. After Lord knows how long, another person was a Godsend. Unless she was hallucinating. Alicia would rather have no one than a hallucination.
But she didn’t look like a hallucination. A fresh corpse, maybe, but no hallucination.
Maybe she would be lucky and that corpse would mean necromancers. Alicia knew how to handle necromancers.
Unfortunately, most of the things she had been fighting before being captured had looked like corpses, yet the source insisted that they were part of a demon.
As she finally got off the emotional roller coaster that seeing something else caused, Alicia had to remind herself that this person was not a nun.
That meant that she was not her friend.
“So,” she managed between waterlogged coughs, “my host finally shows themselves.”
Without waiting for a response, Alicia gathered what was left of the fetid water in her mouth and spat at the woman.
Her eyes went wide as the small bit of water turned to ice. She heard it crash into the floor a moment after, all without the woman even twitching her fingers.
Ice blue lips tipped down into a disgusted frown. “Your disrespect is unappreciated.”
With that said, the woman turned and walked out of the room with all the grace and dignity of–of something very graceful and dignified.
As soon as the door slammed shut, the clicking started again.
And the wheel started turning.
The cranks stopped. A moment later and the wheel spun up to force Alicia to face the dead-eyed woman.
Alicia didn’t speak. She waited, enjoying the reprieve from the clicking and the turning.
She closed her eyes. It was hardly a break if she had to look at that woman’s face.
Counting backwards from ten wasn’t enough. It would have to do. She couldn’t remain silent forever.
“Do your wors–” Alicia’s eyes flicked over to some of the more creative pain-causing instruments in the room. “I’m not going to tell you anything.”
“We had yet to speak.”
Alicia frowned. ‘We?’ She craned her neck. There was no one else in the room as far as she could see.
“Doesn’t matter,” Alicia said with a shake of her head. “Whatever you want, I won’t betray my allies.”
The woman tilted her head. She started bending over as if to sit despite there being nothing there to catch her.
Alicia smiled, preparing to laugh at the foolish woman when she sprawled herself out on the ground.
Her smile quickly vanished.
A massive chair–a throne, really–rose from the black marble tiles. Other than sitting down, the woman hadn’t made a single motion. She had no wand, no foci visible.
There must be someone out of sight casting these spells.
The woman’s elbow came to rest on one of the armrests. Her fingers curled under her chin.
Alicia’s wheel cranked downwards until she was eye-to-eye with the woman once again.
Alicia blinked. That wasn’t the response she had expected. “What do you mean?”
The woman tilted her head once again. She went silent for a moment. “We found no room for ambiguity in Our query. What allies are you concerned about betraying?”
Alicia clamped her mouth shut. She shook her head back and forth before staring down at the woman’s knees.
The clicking started a moment later.
Alicia lolled her head from side to side. Have to keep awake. Have to keep awake. Have to keep awake.
The clicking stopped again. It took but a moment for the wheel to spin up and stop with Alicia facing the black throne.
Alicia closed her eyes with a sigh. Such a welcome sight. A reprieve from the spinning and the water and the turning and the clicking.
But she had to stay awake.
If she fell asleep, Ylva would leave. The clicking would start.
And the turning.
And the water.
She had almost drowned once already. There was still a constant need to cough from some amount of water that made it to her lungs.
“Last time we spoke, you seemed so certain that you would be rescued. How long has it been?”
Alicia shook her head. More than a hundred half-hour long revolutions. She had stopped bothering to count. “I don’t know.”
“And where are these allies of yours now?”
Again, Alicia shook her head. “I don’t know.”
Ylva nodded. For a moment, she was silent.
Alicia loved the dramatic pauses the demon–for what else could she be–often used. As long as she was not spoken to, Alicia didn’t need to speak. She was free to rest. Even as far as shutting her eyes for a few blessed seconds.
“Your allies abandoned you,” Ylva said, voice soft. Sad. Almost regretful. “They know you yet live. They know where you are. None have come to rescue you. None will come to rescue you.
“You are an expendable asset to them. A casualty paid in a meaningless conflict.”
Ylva went silent. She shifted as her head switched its resting spot from one hand to the other. Her free hand came up and gently rubbed against Alicia’s cheek.
Alicia leaned her head into it, savoring the sensation. She hadn’t felt anything except cold water and slowly drying skin in days. Weeks? Months? Lord, Alicia thought. How long have I been here?
“Do you know the reason for your suffering?”
Alicia jerked back from Ylva’s soft hand. It was a strain to keep her eyes focused, but she managed for a few seconds. That beautiful woman in front of her gained corpse-like features as she looked harder.
“You’re a demon!” Alicia shouted.
Ylva withdrew her outstretched hand.
And she frowned.
Just the corners of her lips. She tipped her head up, looking down at Alicia past the tip of her nose.
Alicia’s heart sank. She made Ylva mad again. She was so stupid. How could she have shouted at Ylva.
Ylva stood from her throne. She maneuvered around it and turned her back to Alicia.
“I’m sorry,” Alicia said, not even bothering to hide the desperation in her voice. “I’m sorry. Please, don’t go.”
Ylva stopped. Her head turned to align with her shoulder, not quite looking at Alicia.
“Our servant has been stolen from Us. We will not allow Our servants to suffer. All in Our path will be demolished until Our property is returned to Us.”
Her words said, Ylva turned and walked out of the room.
Alicia hung her head. Some lingering water started dripping from her face at a steady pace.
And the clicking started.
A cool hand brushed the loose water from Alicia’s face. It stroked gently, massaging away fatigue. Two arms wrapped around Alicia’s head. It was a cold embrace, but not an unwelcome one.
“We care for Our servants, Our property.”
Alicia nodded into the crook of a shoulder. She had to show she was listening. Had to stay awake.
“We care for those that assist Ourself. Those that help us. Friends, one might say.”
The voice was gentle. Soft. Soothing.
“And We assist Our… friends in return. We protect Our servants. We rescue those of Ours who have managed to place themselves in the hands of an enemy. Because we care.
“We wish We could care for you, Ali. Will you not let Us?”
Alicia pulled back from the fingers, from the voice. Her head lolled side to side.
And the clicking started.
Alicia crept along the wall. Keeping her own noise down was far more difficult than she had expected. Her habit was both soaked and torn. Soiled with foul liquids. Most of the fabric around her wrists, ankles, and waist had worn away thanks to her struggles against the restraints.
She slipped out of her robe, only wearing the undergarments. Parts of what she slipped out of were blessed. Tossing them on the floor so carelessly was disrespect almost to the point of heresy.
Caring about such a thing was incredibly difficult. It wasn’t like the cloth wasn’t ruined anyway.
Alicia slipped out of the torture chamber into a massive room. A throne, far larger than the one Ylva had used during their sessions, sat suspended over a gigantic pit.
There were doors everywhere. The walkway was circular and there was a door right next to one another.
The exit could be behind any one of the doors. But if Alicia had built the place, she would have built the throne facing the main entrance.
Assuming the throne couldn’t rotate.
Still, it was a better option than checking every door and stumbling across other people.
Halfway around the ring, Alicia heard voices coming from one of the rooms. A meeting perhaps? She considered stopping by and listening. Shaking her head, Alicia continued on. She had wasted so much time already. It was too important that she get back to the Elysium Order as soon as possible.
She hefted open the heavy doors.
The sun beat down on her.
It had been so long, she just sat, staring.
Voices behind Alicia shook her from her reverie. She sprinted out into the prison compound.
The cold air bit through her damp clothes, giving her instant shivers. Was it still November? December? Could it even be January?
It didn’t matter except to show how much time she had wasted with her foolishness.
She sprinted on, looking for any kind of exit.
Alicia stopped in her tracks and almost broke down in giggles. It had been so long, yet it was so easy.
With a moment’s concentration, Alicia connected. The source flowed through her, warming her cold body. It had been so long. Such a foreign feeling.
With a second thought, Alicia teleported. The prison fell away to reveal a pure, radiant white.
Elysium Grand Cathedral formed up around her.
Priests, monks, nuns, and all manner of other clergy turned as one to her direction.
She collapsed to her knees as the startled gasps and shouts echoed around her. Alicia had to remind herself to keep her hands as still and nonthreatening as possible. The Elysium Order wouldn’t hesitate to kill her if they thought she might be a threat.
“Sister Heiden,” someone shouted. That someone ran up to her, wearing the gold trimmed inquisitorial robes.
Alicia was sure she knew the inquisitor. It was someone familiar. She couldn’t quite grasp the name.
It didn’t matter.
“Water,” Alicia choked out.
Once the Elysium Order was certain that she was Alicia Heiden, it didn’t take long for her to find herself wrapped in a warm blanket with a glass of cool water in hand.
She had been sequestered away in one of the cathedral’s side rooms, probably with guards just outside.
The door opened. In walked one of the most highly decorated members of the Elysium Order. He wore black robes with actual platinum weaved in. The light always caught it in strange ways, giving it a shine unlike anything else.
He stopped just in front of Alicia, smiling down at her.
She smiled back. It was hard, forcing a relief filled smile. Probably not as hard as the smile he was forcing. The corners of his mouth kept twitching in a way Alicia had seen only once before.
During Sister Cross’ briefing just before they began their ill-planned assault on Ylva’s servant.
Brother Maynard reached out, placing a hand on Alicia’s shoulder. He gave a light squeeze before withdrawing his hand.
Alicia had repress narrowing her eyes. His face wrinkled slightly, especially around his nose. He was, however, less subtle in wiping off his hand onto his own robes.
Ylva had never done that.
Alicia knew she stunk. That water hadn’t got any cleaner as the days went on.
She didn’t need it rubbed in her face like that.
“My dear sister,” he said, “I can only imagine a fraction of what you must have gone through. Torture to leave you in such a state must have been cruel indeed.”
Alicia shook her head. “They care about the augur, Nel Stirling. I had no useful information on the subject, and they never asked me questions. I was kept, not tortured.”
Brother Maynard’s face lightened for a moment before his features turned downwards. “However did you escape, my dear?”
“One of the people there, a little girl. She would bring me my meals–a single roll of bread. Earlier today, I bit down into a key. I guess she felt sorry for me.”
“Most fortuitous indeed. Perhaps salvation is not yet out of reach for that one. I shall keep her in my prayers.”
Alicia nodded. She looked down into the glass of water she had been given, looking at her own reflection.
She wasn’t quite sure what was staring back at her.
I need a shower.
Repressing a small chuckle, she took a drink. It tasted… stale.
Looking back towards Brother Maynard, Alicia met his eyes. “Sir, I’m not hurt. Tired and hungry, yes. Give me a few days of rest and I will be fit for duty.”
His eyes darted between her own, looking left and right over and over again. Searching for something.
Alicia kept her own eyes steady, focusing on his right eye. “And a shower,” she said.
Brother Maynard laughed. A good, hearty chuckle, fitting for a slightly rotund monk.
She had to fight to keep her eyes steady. The nerve. He laughed at her.
“I’m glad you’re eager. We have much work to do, my dear. It is good you’ve returned, Sister Heiden. We were all very worried.”
“Yeah, it’s good to be back,” Ali lied.