Zoe was not enjoying her assignment.
It was new magic–new to her, at least. Exactly the kind of magic she liked getting her hands on.
But it was all wrong.
Zoe had always been a firm proponent of the idea that magic was inherently neutral. Magic that other mages might consider ‘white’ could be used for nefarious purposes while ‘black’ magic was just as suited towards helping people as it was to hurting people.
Magic was a tool. Nothing more. What someone did with that tool was entirely up to the individual and did not reflect on the magic itself.
The project that Ylva had assigned her was slowly yet surely sending that idea down the drain.
Zoe sighed as she turned away from the dagger. The small side chamber to the library did not have enough air. Something about the dagger just made her sick.
While Ylva had managed to stop the curse afflicting Eva from progressing, she hadn’t been able to reverse the effects that had already taken hold. Eva was still unconscious. After almost a week and a half, she had shown no improvement.
Finding out why and coming up with a solution was her job. It was everything she had asked for. It was something she could do to help out. And yet…
Zoe ran her fingers through her hair, brushing back a few stray strands.
“I am out of my depth.”
In thaumaturgy, there was no spell that could accurately fit into the category of curse. There were spells that could be used to harm. They could be used in a similar fashion by enchanting objects. Lightning weaved with order and chaos on a rod could electrocute anyone who touches it.
The dagger before her was different. Even feeding pure chaos magic into something wouldn’t get anywhere as hostile as the dagger was.
It was made of bone. A human femur. Based on the jagged edge, it had probably been broken at some point before being filed down and sharpened. Zoe had yet to determine whether or not the dagger being made of bone affected the enchantment in any way.
The enchantment–the curse was entirely contained on the edge of the blade. She couldn’t detect any signs of magic anywhere else.
Anything that touched the edge of the dagger died on a cellular level. It didn’t even need to cut something. Just resting it on the tail of one of the rats Ylva had supplied resulted in the death of the surface cells.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the dead cells would start attacking neighboring cells and eventually kill them. The newly dead cells would continue attacking like some sort of miniature zombie infection. It would spread faster as more and more cells were converted.
The only saving grace of the curse was that it did not create zombies. A dead rat stayed dead. Even exposing a healthy rat to a cursed rat, either in whole or by mixing their fluids, did not spread the curse.
The curse knew what organism was supposed to be cursed.
Ylva stopped the memetic effect in Eva. But the dead cells were still dead. There was no healing going on, no new cells replaced the dead ones.
The curse was still there.
Arthfael’s passive healing aura kept the rest of Eva healthy, but the area around the cut was blackened and dead. The only reason she hadn’t bled out from the hole in her back was thanks to what she did with her blood magic prior to passing out.
Zoe slid her chair over to the rat cages.
A good half of the rats were completely dead. They were dead, but even the oldest hadn’t begun to rot. That small oddity was something Zoe had yet to solve. She suspected it was caused by the same thing that prevented new cell generation. Once the cells died, that was it. They just stopped. The bodies never went into the bloat state of decomposition.
Inorganic matter was another story altogether. Despite rigor mortis never setting in on the rats, Zoe’s first pair of gloves were as hard as stone. A near perfect half-sphere of dirt turned to incredibly dense stone near where Eva had been stabbed. The spot where the dagger had fallen.
Ylva hadn’t needed to stop that. It stopped on its own roughly five feet from the dagger’s tip.
After turning a desk to stone, Ylva brought in a pair of clamps to hold the dagger so that the edge never touched anything. Zoe used a strong wall of solid air around the blade to keep any accidents from happening while she wasn’t testing it.
She slid straight past the deceased and the control group to the group on which Ylva had stopped the memetic effect.
Some were unconscious, others were moving around. It depended on where they were cut and for how long the curse had to act before Ylva stopped it.
“Hello, Charlie,” Zoe said with a sad smile. “How are you doing today?”
The rat squeaked once before running towards the little cave in his container.
Zoe immobilized it before it could hide by enveloping it in solid air. She left a little hole for it to breathe through.
Naming them had been a terrible idea in retrospect. After killing Gin, Ron, and Freddie, the rest had all been numbered. Charlie was one of those from when she still named them.
Zoe spent a moment of time building up the magic for a measurement spell.
“Fifteen point nine-seven centimeters,” Zoe said as she marked down the numbers on a chart attached to his cage. The same number as the last six entries.
Before cutting his tail, it had been eighteen point three-one centimeters. Using the cursed dagger, she had made a paper-thin cut at sixteen centimeters. Ylva had stopped the curse’s memetic effect less than a second later.
With a non-magical knife, Zoe had severed the tail at fourteen centimeters. Charlie’s tail had been regrown using purely potions.
Or rather, Charlie regrew one point nine-seven centimeters of his tail. It hadn’t changed in two days despite his continued potion treatment.
The stupid curse knew where it had left off.
Arthur underwent a similar experiment with the exception of Ylva’s intervention. He had lived just fine for a day or two while he underwent healing. As soon as his tail grew back to where the curse had spread, the curse took hold again and continued attacking the rat.
So far, Zoe had a decent idea of the effects and limitations of the curse. Yet she felt no closer to a cure than before she started.
One by one, Zoe checked over the other experiments. None of them were showing any real progress. Overpowering the curse with any kind of healing magic had so far been met with nothing but failure. They’d need to find a way to remove the curse.
The pressure in the room changed as someone opened the door. Zoe leaned back in her chair, rubbing her eyes as the footsteps approached.
“How long has it been since you last took a break?”
“An hour,” Zoe said as she spun her chair around to face the newcomer. “Maybe two.”
“Uh huh,” Carlos said. “I haven’t seen you since this morning.”
This morning? Zoe shook her head. “What time is it?”
“Eight. In the evening.”
“Ah. Maybe more than two hours then.”
“When did you last eat?”
Zoe put on a shallow smile. “An hour ago. Maybe two.”
Carlos adjusted his glasses with a single finger to the rim. “You’re as bad as Genoa.”
“Can’t have that,” Zoe said as she stood and stretched. There was a kink in her neck that wouldn’t quite go away. Twelve hours of sitting hunched over notes and experiments would do that. “How is Genoa? She hasn’t found any more alcohol, has she?”
“Not so far. She spent the day fighting Arachne.”
“That’s better than a few days ago.” Zoe raised an eyebrow. “She actually managed to coax Arachne out of Eva’s room?”
“I think they both needed to work out their frustrations,” he said with a nod. “It can’t be easy for Arachne with how Eva is, even though she is physically here…” He trailed off with a glance to the side.
“How are you doing, Carlos?”
Zoe regretted opening her mouth the moment she finished speaking.
He pulled off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose, scrunching his eyes shut. After resetting them on his face, he turned to face Zoe and smiled. “I don’t know how to answer that without either lying or being depressive.”
“I–I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”
“No,” he waved his hand as if dismissing her comment. “It shows you care. Let’s go eat.”
“A break might be good. I’ve been meaning to find Devon and share some of my research. Given his background, he might be able to do more with it than I.”
Carlos played the proper gentleman and held open the door. “I saw him walking out of Ylva’s eye-stalk room not long ago. Well, not so much walking as stalking out while muttering under his breath.”
“I hope he hasn’t gone far.”
Zoe grabbed her cane from its spot against the door on her way out. More out of habit than any real need. Some mages that actually needed the things turned their canes into foci, either for backup or for their primary focus. Zoe had considered and dismissed the idea.
A cane was far too large and unwieldy compared to a dagger or wand. If she was going to do that, a full staff would serve far better. As an air mage, she did not need the extra magic storage capacity. Most of her spells had a low enough cost that most of a staff would end up as dead weight.
The spells that did need more, well…
She’d need far more than a staff to perform the large-scale weather manipulation that Ylva had so casually used to hide the sun.
Walking alongside Carlos was relaxing, in a manner of speaking. Zoe could let her guard down around him. She found him to be the most normal resident of the prison; he wasn’t a demon or a diabolist and he wasn’t Genoa.
Ylva’s mess hall had every kind of food imaginable, and plenty Zoe never thought to imagine. It looked good and smelled great, but it was a bit too much. Normally, she stuck with something simple. Peanut butter and jelly had never steered her wrong so far.
Today, Zoe had an itch for something more. Hunger had a funny way of asserting itself when faced with food after not eating for a day.
Going around the table, Zoe loaded up potatoes, salad, some kind of purple meat–it tasted good, but she’d been afraid to ask what it was.
She started over towards the table covered in fountains pouring all sorts of drinks.
Carlos was behind her, gathering up food for himself.
Someone in a black suit stood against the table with a goblet in hand.
Zoe dropped her cane and her plate of food in the rush to draw her dagger only to freeze as the man turned to face her.
“What? You forget me already?”
The dagger fell to the floor with a loud clatter, joining the plate and cane.
Zoe put one foot in front of the other. And soon she was across the floor. Her arms snaked around him as she wrapped him in a hug.
There were a few gentle pats on Zoe’s back as he tried to squirm out of her arms.
Somewhere in the background, Carlos said, “forgot to mention, there was someone here asking after you.”
“Not that I don’t appreciate this,” Wayne said, “but my nerves are still itching.”
Zoe released him. “I’m sorry. It was–I was going to pick you up. I forgot about–There’s just been so much going on.”
“So I gather,” he said with a glance around the dining hall. “You’ve been eating all this fancy food while I’ve been gone?”
“More or less,” Zoe said with a genuine smile. “You’re looking… good. When Arachne described you as, what was it? Oh yes, ‘a charbroiled steak with emphasis on the char’, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Definitely not hair.”
Wayne ran a hand over his short, buzz cut hair with a slight frown.
His skin really wasn’t bad at all. There were some red scars covering almost the entire right side of his face, but they weren’t especially pronounced. His ear was gone on that side of his head. Merely a hole into his skull.
“What can I say,” he said after letting her look, “the elves know their medicine. I’ll have to send my doctor a bucket of flowers.”
Zoe laughed. A real, honest laugh.
She cut herself off with an awkward glance towards Carlos.
“Oh, don’t let me interrupt your reunion,” he said with a small smile. “In fact, I think I’ll go eat with the gargoyles. I think they like having someone around.”
Zoe and Wayne watched him wander out of the dining hall.
“Gargoyles?” Wayne asked.
“Later,” Zoe said. “I’ll show you around. Before that, when did you get back?”
“Stopped by Brakket this afternoon. Talked to the dean. Found out that you went and got a substitute and weren’t in your apartment.”
“I can’t teach right now. It’s hurting the kids for a failure on my part. I’m too… busy. Too worried about Eva, Juliana, and Shalise.”
“I caught a brief summary from Turner. Fill me in?”
“Let me just get some food and we’ll talk while I eat.”
Zoe turned and picked her dagger and cane off the floor. She left the plate and food, opting instead to get a clean plate and fresh food.
Messes had a habit of vanishing in Ylva’s domain. If the food wasn’t gone by the time she finished eating, she’d clean it up. The floor was probably clean enough to eat off of for that reason, but there was no reason to take the chance when new food just popped up on the table.
After finding a table, Zoe filled Wayne in on everything that had gone on since his hospitalization, going through the aftermath of the attack on her home, Ylva living in her apartment as a trap, the mass attack on both Brakket and the prison.
And on her missing and injured students.
“Sawyer? That’s the necromancer that originally kidnapped Spencer?”
“I didn’t see him, but that was the last word I saw Eva spell out.”
Wayne hummed as he drank from his goblet. “And the troublemaker has been unconscious since?”
“I’m working on fixing that, haven’t had much progress. The dagger that cursed her in the first place is a horrible thing. I’ll show you later on.
“Enough about me for the moment. You look good, but how is it really? Anything… problematic?”
“Nothing debilitating.” He flexed his hand on top of their table. “My hands, neck, and face are sensitive. It is supposed to subside eventually.”
“And your cane?”
“Just in case,” Wayne said. “I noticed you had one as well. None of your story explained why.”
“I don’t need it so much anymore. A nun got me in the chest and all down one leg with that lightning of theirs.”
“Nasty stuff. Got hit in both legs last year.”
“When–Oh, when Sister Cross attacked Eva.” Zoe leaned back in her chair as she thought back. “You never went around with a cane or anything. I might have needed a wheelchair for a few weeks had I been hit in both legs.”
“It was painful for a few days. I think she was going easy on me.” He muttered something under his breath about ‘being taken lightly.’ “Took a day or two before I could heal no matter what I tried.”
“A day or two? Ha. It’s been two weeks and my injuries are still breaking down healing attempts. Taken lightly indeed.”
At Wayne’s perplexed look, Zoe started to explain. “The nuns’ lightning has a very interesting property in that–”
Zoe slid her chair back and half stumbled to her feet.
“Zoe?” Wayne rose from his own seat and put his hand on her arm. “Are you–”
“Quiet for a moment. I need to think.”
Could it be that easy? How could she have missed it before.
“I need to find Ylva,” Zoe said as she ran from the room, foregoing her cane entirely.
Wayne started hobbling after her, but she barely paid him any attention.
Outside the dining room, Zoe stopped and looked around. Ylva wasn’t sitting on her throne. She eyed the alcoves. What were the most likely room Ylva would be in? The torture chamber? The prison? The bath?
Zoe couldn’t recall her ever entering the bath, but that didn’t mean she never went.
She started off with the prison. It was the most important room at the moment, after all. Though, stopping to think about it, she wasn’t entirely certain that their guest had spent any time inside after the first day. At least, Zoe hadn’t seen her leave the torture chamber.
Still, no harm in checking.
Ylva’s prison was almost an exact replica of the other cell houses found outside. It might have even been the original space for cell house two that Ylva had decided to shove off to the side.
The barred windows let in what appeared to be real sunlight, though they did not look out into the real world. On the other side of the glass was a massive beach.
A very wrong beach.
All of the sand had a dark-gray hue to it. The sunlight, while normal looking inside the prison, did not warm the solid gray sand or the black water. It was just a white orb hanging in the sky like some featureless moon.
One of the other archways connected to the beach, but all of the mortals had been forbidden from entering without Ylva’s explicit permission.
But, Zoe wasn’t here for the view.
She ran up and down each of the three floors. No Ylva.
Worse, no prisoner.
Zoe turned to head back down the stairs.
Wayne was hobbling up those stairs with his cane, panting for breath. “You’re sure in a rush,” he said between breaths.
“Sorry. You didn’t need to follow me all the way up here.”
“You ran off looking for a demon like you just got possessed by one.”
Zoe opened her mouth to tell him what she was doing. She changed her mind at the last-minute. “Do demons actually possess people?”
Wayne shrugged. “Ask the diabolist.”
“Anyway,” Zoe said with a shake of her head, “just had an idea that could solve at least one problem.”
She started down the stairs at a more sedate pace for Wayne’s sake. A difficult task. She was itching to run–to find Ylva as soon as possible.
As they headed towards the torture chamber, Zoe explained Eva’s condition. A summary. There wasn’t time to get into the finer details.
The torture chamber was directly adjacent to the prison. Considering the size, the chamber should have been visible from the prison windows if not completely obstructing them.
Should being the key word.
Zoe had long given up trying to make sense of how the layout worked in Ylva’s domain. She was half convinced that the archways were portals to their respective rooms, given how much overlap there should be between some of the larger rooms. Especially the bedroom and the bathroom. Both of those rooms could fit almost the entirety of Zoe’s old house.
For as much wonder and awe that Ylva’s domain elicited, the torture chamber only brought up feelings of disgust. Even the eye-stalk room was more strange than disturbing.
It wasn’t the rusted iron cages lined with small spikes. Nor was it the wooden wheel slowly rotating through a trough of boiling water. The racks, and iron maidens, and tools that she couldn’t begin to guess the purpose of didn’t bother Zoe.
Just the very presence of the room implied its use.
What purpose could such a place serve to one who could induce kneeling with a mere word?
Zoe wrinkled her nose. The constant scent of urine and feces did not help.
And yet Zoe knew that their prisoner had spent time within. Almost all of her time, in fact.
Unfortunately for Zoe, the nun wasn’t in today. The racks lay empty, the cages wide open.
No torturer either.
Wayne limped up to her side, staring at the room with narrowed eyes.
Not waiting to answer the questions he was sure to ask, Zoe turned to leave.
She stopped short. Another step would have had her running into Ylva.
The demon’s dead eyes turned first to Zoe then to Wayne. Her ice blue lips parted as she began to speak.
“We observed your entrance.”
“Ylva,” Zoe said, “I was looking for you.”
Her gaze remained steady on Wayne.
“Oh, this is Wayne Lurcher. A colleague. He was hospitalized until today. I think I’ve mentioned him.” Zoe turned to Wayne. “This is Ylva. A, ah, demon.”
“Yeah,” Wayne said with a grunt. “We’ve met.”
Zoe felt her eyebrows rise as she turned back to Ylva.
“Your impropriety in failing to greet Ourself upon entering Our domain has been noted.”
Only after Wayne gave a light shrug did Ylva turn her gaze to Zoe.
“You required something of Us?”
Zoe blinked. It took a moment to remember what she wanted in the first place. “The nun, the prisoner. I need her for an experiment. Possibly a solution.”
“Regrettable. Ali has escaped as planned.”
“That’s…” Zoe’s shoulders slumped. “Is it too late to recall her?”
“Should Ali’s former companions notice her return here, she will become compromised. We will recover her when We recover Nel. Are you unable to enact this solution on your own.”
Zoe frowned. “I’d have to create a whole new spell to emulate their lightning. It is possible, but it would take a lot more time.”
Plans for a few variations of nun lightning flashed through her mind. It helped that she had thought about the topic in the past. There would be complications.
Zoe glanced to her side. Wayne would be able to help. He knew a good amount of non-standard magic.
“I’ll get started,” Zoe said, “but it may be faster to recover Nel. Do we have a time frame for that?”
Blue lips curled into a smile.
The theory was sound.
Elysium lightning would work. Either Ylva had to undo her halting of the curse or Zoe’s counter-curse would break the effect. But the lightning should overpower and consume the curse before it could spread further.
Watching yet another rat slide down into the incinerator weighed on Zoe’s conscience. Charlie, being one of the oldest of her experiments, especially hurt.
Zoe’s attempts at replicating the white lightning still needed work.
She had selected him specifically because Zoe had thought that she might be able to save him had anything gone wrong by severing his tail. It had been going so well too, but she had underestimated the tenacity of the curse.
After applying her counter-curse, it started off working exactly as intended. Her magic sought out and destroyed all magic within the rat. Simultaneously healing Charlie had his tail growing back beyond the point of the cut, though the healing efforts were stymied by her counter-curse before too much could happen.
The moment Zoe had smiled to herself and relaxed back in her chair, things started going wrong.
Her counter-curse ended up eating itself before it could completely eradicate the entirety of the curse.
Zoe snapped her gloves off and dropped them into the incinerator along with poor Charlie. Shutting the lid, Zoe watched and waited as the magic did its work. Soon enough, nothing but ashes remained.
Well, she thought as she slid her chair back to her work desk, back to revising.
She had crossed out no more than three errant lines in her theory before the door slammed into the wall as it opened.
Zoe gave a light start. Her dagger was in her hands in an instant.
She didn’t attack. “Devon?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.
The trench-coated man took two steps into the room. One of his arms writhed and squirmed beneath the coat. The small bit that poked out looked like something from a giant squid.
Zoe suppressed a shudder as he glanced at the still warm incinerator.
“Getting there. Any fascinating insights from you today?”
His suggestion that all of her work might fail on account of Eva’s ‘quasi-demonic nature’ had almost caused Zoe to toss out all of her work with the rats. She would have to retest everything on demons anyway.
Aside from Arachne–she had immediately volunteered for testing–demons were in a distressingly short supply. Apparently she couldn’t just summon up some to start experimenting on. If she failed to convince a demon to submit to experimentation, she would have to dominate it. Tricking a demon into a false sense of security was against some ‘rules’ that Zoe had yet to come across in any of the books that Eva had loaned her.
Needless to say, Zoe was far from confident in her ability to dominate a demon’s will.
A short snort escaped him. “When you are ready to test on a demon, let me know. In the mean time… Ylva wishes to speak with us.”
That got Zoe to perk up. “Has something happened with Nel or Alicia?” Her pulse jumped as another thought occurred to her. “Or Juliana and Shalise? Are they alright? Nothing happened to th–”
Devon held up a hand–a tentacle. “Why don’t we head over and find out straight from the horse’s mouth? It didn’t sound mad or upset, but who can tell with that thing anyhow.”
Nodding, Zoe stacked her notebooks and dropped them into a drawer.
Devon and Zoe walked side-by-side as they moved to the conference room. Carlos, Genoa–soaked in sweat–and Arachne–covered in dirt–joined them partway there.
Arachne, Zoe noted, glared at her. The demon had taken it as a personal affront when Zoe had said that she wasn’t going to use Arachne as a test subject in a potentially lethal experiment. It had taken an entire afternoon for the demon to see reason and agree that waiting until the kinks had been ironed out as much as possible was the better choice.
If Zoe had it her way, she would only be using non-sentient demons in her tests, though she would defer to Devon’s advice on the matter.
Above all else, Zoe did not want to cure Eva only to have her wake up to find Arachne deceased–or whatever happened to demons when they died.
The conference room was almost a mirror image of the dining hall. The only real difference was the lack of food scattered around the massive tables.
Ylva had already taken a seat at the center of the table, facing the room’s entrance. She made eye contact and gave a brief nod with each person who entered the room.
Devon slouched down in the seat furthest from Ylva. He dipped his hands into his trench coat pockets and pointedly avoided eye contact with the hel. Arachne moved to stand a short distance behind him. Carlos and Genoa took their seats, leaving the final two open spots for Zoe.
Wayne had yet to stop by for the day. He had mentioned that he might head out and visit young Mr. Anderson and Mr. Weston, as well as a handful of other students of his.
I really need to get back in school, Zoe thought, before they make my substitute permanent. Even if there would be few complaints about Catherine reprising her position for a longer length of time, Zoe did not find the idea of any of Martina’s demons being left around the students appealing in the slightest.
Ylva waited until after Zoe had taken her seat to begin the meeting. She gave one last look at everyone.
“The Elysium Order is preparing to deal with Nel. Tonight.”
Genoa leaned forward, placing a sweaty arm on the table. “And you are certain that Nel will be able to find Juliana?”
“Our servant will assist. We have reason to desire the safety of Our subject.”
A short grunt came from Genoa. She looked to Carlos. For a moment, the two simply stared at one another. Then, Genoa nodded and turned back to Ylva. “What do we do?”
Ylva’s icy lips parted in a regal smile.