“This is it?”
Zoe nodded along with Devon’s words. She had to double-check the address to be certain, but this was the building.
There were certain places that certain people tended to gravitate towards. A doctor might be found in a hospital or a well-to-do home. Police stations generally housed officers. If she were looking for a grave robber, Zoe would start at a cemetery at night.
A brightly lit five-star hotel in the center of a moderately sized town was the last place she would have looked for a necromancer. In fact, the lair near Brakket had been a dank cave. That was a far more reasonable place for a necromancer. A crypt would have been better, but according to Devon, Sawyer had had one of those as well.
The lights blinked out; the entire hotel went dark from bottom to top. They stood for a moment and watched. None of the windows lit up by any flashlights or emergency lights.
“Well,” Devon said with a sigh, “that’s our cue. Might as well get to it, if they’re even in there.”
Arachne stepped up to his side, looking rather like she wanted to tear down the building with her bare hands.
Zoe steeled herself with a repetition of something that had become a sort of mantra. Getting Nel back will help Eva, Juliana, and Shalise, all at once.
Arachne dashed forward, tearing the doors off their hinges in one swift move. She barely made it three steps into the lobby before an arrow chinked off her chitin.
Skeletons stood upon a balcony overlooking the entryway. Most looked… fresh. Fetid meat clung to the bones. One had an eye dangling from its socket. Some had enough flesh remaining that they could have doubled as zombies.
The only reason Zoe decided they weren’t zombies was because actual zombies were rummaging around the ground floor. All of whom turned at the noise of Arachne’s entrance.
Then the smell hit her. Zoe doubled over, gagging. There were few stenches worse than that of rotting corpses. At least no worse smells among those she had experienced.
But the smell might have saved her life. Through her acute sense of air, Zoe felt an arrow’s wake right through where she had been standing.
Forcing her disgust down, Zoe moved around the edge of the doorway and started forming a solid wall of compressed air. She slipped in a few motions to try to freshen the air, but doubted it would help much once they got inside.
“Careful,” Devon said from the opposite side of door. “Get hit by an arrow and you might be wearing one of these.” His arm squiggled around in the sort of wave an octopus might do.
“Indeed.” Zoe nodded and doubled up on her air walls before peeking around the corner.
Vaulting up to the skeletons in a single bound, Arachne started tearing the skeletons apart. They weren’t even a match.
“Seems like the nuns were correct,” Zoe said, “I doubt anyone is still living in here.”
“If we aren’t careful,” Devon said, “we won’t be living much longer either.”
Glass breaking around the outside of the hotel stole both their attentions. Kicking up her hearing a few notches, Zoe heard the distinctive sound of shuffling feet and vague moaning.
“Zombies. I’ll clear the lobby, you watch our backs.”
Ignoring his grunt of a response, Zoe sent blades of wind through her air wall.
Experience during the previous year had taught Zoe that zombies were relatively resistant to electrical shock. They were, however, squishy. A strong enough blade of air to the throat would have their head rolling on the floor and the rest of the zombie redead much quicker than anything else she had tried.
A burst of heat at her back broke her concentration.
She spun around to find three shrinking zombies and three growing piles of ash. All of it was engulfed in eerie green fire.
Zoe shook her head and went back to clearing out zombies from the lobby. There weren’t all that many left. Occasionally, one would stumble out of a doorway or crawl out from behind the front desk, but their numbers were dwindling fast.
“Clear,” Zoe said as the last head rolled off its shoulders. “At least, as clear as it is going to get. More could show up any second.”
Devon shrugged. “Good enough for me.”
The wall of air expanded enough to allow passage. Both of them slipped through. With another wave of her dagger, Zoe resealed the exit. No sense getting caught in the back with a horde of zombies that might have made it out of the building.
“Arachne,” Devon shouted out. He flicked out his wrist in front of him. Green flames flowed out of his rings to form a small orb in his hand. He held his hand up as if it were a torch.
Green light stretched far further than regular fire of that size should be able to provide. It irked the researcher within Zoe, but she forced the feeling down. She could ask later.
Zoe looked over the lobby as she increased the sensitivity of her eyes. Arachne had managed to dismantle all the skeletons up on the balcony and Zoe didn’t see any movement on the ground floor. No spider-demon in sight either.
The flame shot past her face.
Zoe jumped back and brought her dagger up, ready to fend off anything.
A zombie just exiting a doorway was engulfed within the green flames. He was already crumbling to ash before Zoe could think about what spell she wanted to cast. That green fire worked fast.
She upped the priority of asking about it a few notches.
“Missed one,” Devon said.
“Probably more than one. Be on your guard.” Zoe sealed up the doorway with a wall of air. Her walls wouldn’t last long and they’d fall faster if something was hammering away at them, but the plan didn’t call for them to remain in the lobby for any length of time.
“Must you shout?”
He started swearing under his breath as Arachne failed to respond. “I knew bringing her was a bad idea.”
“You said bringing yourself was a bad idea.”
“It is,” he snapped. “I could have summoned a demon and stayed at home, or at least far away. Lady Ylva insisted that I come in person. Then she had the gall to insist that I not dominate demons.”
“Sounds rough,” Zoe said, only half paying attention–it wasn’t the first time he had complained about that little argument. She was far more focused on not being ambushed by zombies or skeletons as they walked towards the stairwell. “But I told Arachne that finding Nel would help Eva. She wouldn’t endanger the mission, would she?”
Devon went silent.
Well that isn’t foreboding at all, Zoe thought as she solidified the air in a custodial closet doorway. Arachne was their group’s heavy hitter and hit taker. If she was off running amok, Zoe and Devon were going to have to slow down and take care going around every single corner.
As they approached the stairwell door, a loud crash came from the other side.
Devon held up his tentacle in what might have been a gesture to stop. Instead it just flopped around.
Zoe got the message despite his disability. She pressed herself up against the wall while Devon wrapped his tentacle around the door’s handle.
He brought up his human hand and counted down from three.
At one, he pulled open the door. Zoe slipped her dagger around the corner and created a cross of razor wind.
A squelch came from within followed by a few thud and a few slopping noises. When no other sound reached her enhanced ears, Zoe peeked her head around the corner.
Pieces of a zombie lay in a pile on the floor, faintly illuminated by the green flame in Devon’s hand.
“Good thing that wasn’t Nel,” Devon said as he walked around the corner. “Or Arachne.”
“Nel wouldn’t be here. And Arachne… well, she could take it, right?”
“Maybe,” he said with a shrug. “Depends on how much force you put behind those.”
Zoe glanced down at the zombie. She hadn’t been holding back at all. Despite the zombies being squishy, their bones were still bones. Zoe had cut clean through the ribcage and spine with enough force left over to make a mark in the wall.
“Of course, if you did not kill Arachne, she would likely be upset. I don’t know how attached to your heart you are, but I know that I don’t want mine torn out of my chest.”
“She wouldn’t,” Zoe started with a frown. “Would she?”
“Depends on how clearly she is thinking at the moment.”
If she had just had a cross cut into her chest, Zoe doubted she would be thinking straight. “I think I will exercise caution in the future.”
“Whatever,” he said, leaning back to look up the stairwell. “Thirteenth floor, right?” He sighed and looked Zoe straight in the eyes for probably the first time since she met him. “If I survive this, I am going to lie down on Ylva’s bed and I’m not going to get up for a damn year. At least.”
Before Zoe could formulate a response, he turned and started trudging up the staircase. His grumblings about cutting the power and elevators did not slip by her enhanced hearing.
With a sigh of her own, she followed him up. The thirteenth floor was up there, but at least she had stopped needing the cane. Teleporting was impossible thanks to the nuns. But so long as their warding kept Sawyer and Nel inside, Zoe wasn’t about to complain.
As Devon incinerated a zombie at the next floor, Zoe glanced up and murmured to herself, “I wonder how Wayne is doing?”
— — —
Wayne gripped the collar of his coat and pulled it tight around his neck. Even with a few heat enchantments in place, his face was still exposed to the early December air. Being on top of a thirty story building in the middle of the night did not help matters.
In contrast, Genoa Rivas stood at his side wearing clothing that Wayne might have felt a chill in while standing in the middle of a volcano. She didn’t have any spells keeping her warm that Wayne could detect. She didn’t even huddle up on herself.
Genoa stood with her feet apart–most of her weight centered over one leg–and one hand on her hip while her other hand flipped a dagger around. She tossed it up in the air, caught it, spun it around in the palm of her hand, and twirled it between her fingers.
Frowning, Wayne looked out over the edge of the hotel. Not at anything in particular, he just gazed into the distance.
His partner hadn’t stopped fidgeting since they arrived. Either because she was nervous or she was itching to get a move on. Wayne had a suspicion that it was the latter. He just hoped she wasn’t going to be too reckless once things started.
Wayne sighed, wishing he had a cigarette–wishing he hadn’t stopped smoking years ago.
Raiding the lair of a necromancer was not in his job description. He was supposed to teach alchemy and recruit kids. Maybe help them out if they got in a little trouble.
This was beyond a little trouble.
It was only tangentially related to a student–and not one of his at that–if he considered Zoe’s theory that the nun’s magic could help Spencer. Possibly Spencer’s roommates as well.
But Zoe had asked. He wasn’t about to turn her down. Besides, he thought as he turned back to Genoa, zombies will make for good exercise after my hospitalization.
“You’re not going to slow me down are you, old man?”
“I’m forty-seven. I’m more worried about you.”
“Don’t. I’m not much older than you. They won’t know what hit them.”
“That,” Wayne said with a sigh, “is what I’m afraid of. I heard about what happened to your daughter, but this is here and now, that isn’t. Are you going to be stable in there? Are you going to keep your head?”
“I will get the job done,” Genoa snapped. “If Nel can find my daughter, I will move mountains to recover her.”
That didn’t give Wayne any peace of mind.
The lights on the roof blacked out before he could say as much.
“Try to keep up.”
Genoa pressed her hand against the rooftop access door. It melted to a puddle of flowing metal in seconds.
She strode through without a glance back. The metal trailed after her heels.
With one last look at the cloudy night sky, Wayne followed.
He pulled out his heavy tome and started filling it with magic. Pages full of spells charged to a faint glow, each ready to cast a complex spell that might otherwise require multiple mages. He performed the first spell upon himself.
Time appeared to slow as his mind burned through magic. Information flooded into his brain, was processed, and stored or discarded as unimportant. It happened far quicker than any regular human could hope to achieve. He didn’t accelerate his thinking to his limits. Experiencing one minute as ten was tedious and unnecessary for walking about.
But he wanted the edge of faster reactions. Wayne would be the first to admit that he was rusty. Not only because of the hospital stay. Teaching was a safe and relaxing job. Normally.
Being brought down by that jezebeth was an embarrassment that wouldn’t have happened in his prime.
Genoa’s hasty strides down the staircase turned to a casual walk in his perception, though her face lost none of the intensity. A scrap of flesh hung from a railing. One of the doors was dented inwards with bloody handprints.
A corpse lay still in front of the door. One hand still reached up, gripping the door’s handle.
No. Not a corpse.
Its eye twisted up to the rooftop access doorway.
Genoa’s head didn’t move towards the corpse. Wayne couldn’t see her eyes, but he doubted they were focused on it. She hadn’t made any move to destroy the corpse.
In fact, her focus wasn’t in her hand. It spun through the air in slow-motion while her hand moved to catch it.
For a brief moment, Wayne had half a mind to wait. To test his partner in this exercise and see if she was everything he had been told about her.
By the time his foot touched down on the first step, Wayne was ready for his second spell.
A ball of flames gathered between the pages of his tome. It took off down the staircase at a speed that appeared normal even to his heightened perception.
The zombie didn’t stand a chance.
Zombies were too dangerous to be used as a test. While their fluids lost potency to propagate the magical virus within seconds of being removed from the body, a single bite or scratch from a ‘live’ zombie could spell doom for their mission.
And he had never got a straight answer out of Spencer as to how she cured Ward.
While his thoughts flashed along, Genoa had turned her head. Understanding her slowed speech wasn’t easy, but this wasn’t Wayne’s first rodeo.
“I had it handled,” she said.
Wayne had to drop his accelerated thoughts just long enough to speak. “I handled it first.” He paused, then smiled. “Try to keep up.”
He accelerated his thoughts again.
They continued down the stairs at a sedate pace–from his perspective–occasionally having to destroy zombies or skeletons. None posed much of a threat to his flames or her macroferrokinesis.
Wayne grudgingly admitted that she was good. Most earth mages skipped ferrokinesis entirely. Those that learned it tended to only be able to do so by touch. When she dropped half a door on a zombie like some sort of guillotine from a whole floor above, Wayne only managed to keep his face straight thanks to processing through the shock in an instant.
“Are they going to send anything hard at us? I mean, those half-demon flesh golems would have put up a better fight than this.”
“I don’t think they’re sending anything at us,” Wayne said after an instant of thought. “These zombies and skeletons seem to be lying around. Probably have been for a while.”
“If we get through this place and don’t come across any necromancers or Nel, I’ll knock the building down. And then I’ll knock Ylva’s cell block down.”
“Ylva seemed to think they would be here.”
Genoa turned her head with a glare even as Wayne sent a fireball over her shoulder. Only through his quick thinking did it swerve around her face to hit the zombie coming through a door.
“Ylva,” Genoa spat, “isn’t even here. She’s off gallivanting with the nuns, thinking that a single demon can keep them at bay.”
“She did it before.”
“Last spring, I inadvertently invited her to drinks at a bar.”
Wayne rolled his neck. “I meant to invite only Foster, but she showed up as well. Some nuns showed up with presumably hostile intentions. Foster fled as fast as he could and I wasn’t too keen on being caught in a demon’s presence.
“Ylva sat there, drinking her drink without a care in the world. She mentioned that they wouldn’t be able to touch her.”
“Sounds fishy,” Genoa said, turning back on Wayne.
“Yeah, well, demons. What are you going to do?”
Genoa gave a snort as she rounded on a door. “This is the floor, right?”
“Unless someone moved the signs around.” Wayne tapped a finger against the floor marker.
“They won’t still be here.”
“I wouldn’t be so certain. They cannot teleport, your husband is watching the exits that Zoe won’t pass by, and they didn’t head up to the roof.”
“If they are here, they’re idiots. If I knew that I was after me, I’d have jumped out a window. They have a better chance of surviving the fall than–”
The door exploded outwards.
Genoa took the full brunt of the impact and was carried down to the next landing.
Wayne managed to maneuver such that he only got clipped in the arm. He processed through the pain as fast as he could. It would probably need medical attention, but he would live for now.
Standing in the doorway was a stitched up human. One fist about the size of his head hung down by his knees. He had an arm to match.
His other fist was already raised and headed towards Wayne.
Selecting a spell, Wayne created a concussive blast just in front of the man’s chest. He sent a stream of fire before the pinpoint of magic had a chance to expand.
Meaty chunks exploded back down the hotel hallway, painting the off-white walls with dark blood.
He waited for a moment for any follow-up surprises before shouting out, “Genoa?”
The response came through clenched teeth. He could tell without even turning his head.
She walked up beside him, cracking her knuckles and neck. “Looks like this might be a better stress relief than I thought.”
“These must be the demon-golems?” Wayne said as two more stitched up monstrosities wandered into his flame’s light.
“Let’s see if they’re any better than the ones from the other week.”
Genoa kicked off the ground running. Metal trailed after her, forming spears in the air at her back.
The spears exploded into flames as Wayne coated them in a magical napalm. Just in time for Genoa to pierce every limb of one of the golems.
Wayne flared the napalm, incinerating the creature in an instant.
The sole remaining golem in sight lashed out with whip-like appendages. Genoa spun and dodged.
In a move that made Wayne wonder if she hadn’t somehow enhanced her reflexes as he had, Genoa grappled one of the whips and yanked.
It stumbled. The golem went off-balance just long enough for Genoa to step in and drive her focus through its forehead.
“Got any more?” she shouted. “Come on! These pathetic wretches cannot stop me!”
Nothing but silence answered her.
Well, Wayne thought with a sigh, silence and every door in the hallway being opened or broken down.
Wayne took a step back, making sure there weren’t more golems flooding up the stairs behind them. Genoa stepped forwards. The smile she wore would give him far more nightmares than any of the creatures around.
“You just had to open your big mouth, didn’t you.”
— — —
Des moved down the hallway, chasing after her father.
He wasn’t moving very fast–not as fast as Des might be moving had she learned that there was a contingent of nuns prepared to take them down–but with the recent ‘remodeling’ to her legs, Des had to move quick to stay at his back.
They walked into a room and stopped.
Their guest sat strapped in a chair. Almost all the eyes had been removed from one of her arms. Empty flaps of skin cried red tears.
“Some of your former compatriots have arrived, my dear.”
Her two normal eyes went wide, though she couldn’t speak with the bindings holding her jaw shut.
Something Des could empathize with.
“Oh don’t you worry,” her father said as he dug a finger into their guest’s arm, “thanks to our experiments, I am quite confident in my ability to keep them from using most of their abilities. My minions are well shielded against the unfortunate effects of their lightning. You are perfectly–”
The lights blackened with a heavy click. Only the ambient light from the window kept the room from becoming pitch black.
Sawyer stopped talking and glanced up at the ceiling light for a moment. He danced around their guest’s seat to the window.
“Huh,” he said. “It appears we have guests that did not make a reservation. Come Des, this hotel still has some vacancy. We will strive to serve.”
He turned and walked out of the room, leaving Des to scramble after him.
They walked down the hallway, passing straight by the staircase without a second glance.
“The elevators will be out. But that’s what magic is for.”
They made a sharp turn to where the elevators were. Her father stopped just in front of the door, almost causing Des to run into him. It took her a moment to realize that he was staring up the elevator shaft. The doors were already open.
Des glanced up with a frown on her face.
Eight red lights hung in the darkness above them.