The long hallway.
Blood red walls with a black hardwood floor. A narrow carpet protected the hardwood from the sharp undersides of Eva’s feet.
There were no doors. No side passages. Nothing at all apart from a way forwards and a way backwards.
It looked exactly as it had every other time.
Eva took off at a run.
And promptly got nowhere.
It didn’t matter which way she ran. Neither direction ever took her anywhere apart from where she was.
Yet Eva ran.
There had to be progress somewhere. Even if she was dead, there had to be more to it than a hallway.
She passed by some scorch marks on the walls. Those were old. She hadn’t tried burning her way out of the hallway in what felt like forever.
It never worked.
On the plus side, if Eva ever managed to escape from the hallway, she was quite confident that her thaumaturgical flames had increased dramatically in temperature and intensity. Attempting to burn down a hallway several times over the past eternity turned out to be decent training.
Who would have guessed.
Eva tripped. Her face became intimately introduced to the carpet. Eva groaned as she pushed herself up to her knees. Rubbing the rug burn off her cheek, Eva glanced around.
She had never fallen before. Not without intending to at least. That change alone welled up excitement in her chest.
A lip of carpet. That was what had caused her to trip.
Frowning, Eva used her sharp claws to tear away at the carpet.
Nothing. No trap door. No secret tunnel. Clawing at the wood did nothing–it never had in the past either.
Sighing, Eva got to her feet. She froze half way there.
Before, it always looked like the hallway continued into eternity. Now there was a white light obscuring one end of the hallway. Turning around, Eva saw black shadows eclipsing the opposite end.
That’s not ominous at all, Eva thought. She stood in indecision, glancing back and forth. Neither had particularly good connotations.
The white light at the end of the tunnel was always where dead people went. But black had its own connections with Death. Namely reaper’s traditional attire.
With a shrug of her shoulders–anywhere was better than the endless hallway–Eva turned and started running.
The carpet beneath her feet bunched up behind her as each step moved the carpet backwards. Like the floor was a giant treadmill.
As soon as the carpet ran out, Eva’s feet hit hardwood. The walls started to bend and sway as the hardwood wrapped up as the cloth carpet had.
No matter how hard she ran, she stayed in the same position. The hallway moved, but she did not.
Even though she was making no progress, the black shadows at the end of the hall moved closer. Her shiny black legs hammered against the floor.
Until the mouth of the hallway opened up around her.
Eva’s foot came down, hitting nothing but air. She fell forward, tumbling end over end into a black emptiness. A white box with an opening into the hallway, not any larger than a single cell within her prison, shrunk into the distance as she fell.
The white box became nothing more than a pinpoint in the sky. A few more tumbles and the tiny star winked out, encompassed by pitch black. Dark enough that Eva couldn’t see her own hand in front of her eyes.
After a thought, Eva looked at herself again using her sense of blood. That was working at the very least, though it wasn’t all that helpful. She was the only thing in range.
There was no wind screaming past her face and no feelings of gravity acting against her. Her hair was straight and flat against her back. The star was her singular point of reference. Without it, she couldn’t even tell if she was still tumbling.
Her first thought was Void.
When demons died, Void snatched them from whatever plane of existence they found themselves on and brought them into Himself. From Arachne, Eva knew that demons then had to ‘claw their way back to their domains or risk insanity and oblivion within Him.’
None of that was particularly helpful now.
Devon would be pleased to know that she was demon enough to be claimed by Void. If she managed to escape before he died of old age.
The time to escape varied depending on power. Eva had a strong suspicion that she was not among the ranks of the more powerful demons.
Waving her claws around did not accomplish anything apparent. The only reason she could tell that her arms were moving was because she could still feel herself. A quick swipe of her index finger told her that yes, pain was very much a thing here.
Eva blinked, for all the good that did. She opened her mouth in an attempt to call out at whatever voice that had been. Though she could feel the vibrations in her throat, not a decibel of sound reached her ears.
Then the pain started.
It started in the small of her back. Ten thousand razor-sharp needles, heated on the surface of the sun. They poked.
They moved up her back, rolling across her arms and neck and head. She could feel them pinging off of her hands, wrists, and legs. It didn’t take long for the pings to pierce her exoskeleton.
Eva writhed. Her own claws joined the needles in raking across her body. Whatever flesh she herself flayed paled in comparison to the needles.
And the entire time, not a peep of her own screams could be heard.
All of it stopped as suddenly as it had started. Though the pain lingered on, no new needles poked in and out of her body.
It took hours for her brain to reboot enough that a thought unrelated to the pain entered her mind.
If this is Void, I am sorry I didn’t pick the white light.
There was that voice again. It was familiar somehow. Comforting. Something that would wrap around her and keep the needles away.
Another voice. More standoffish, but still familiar.
As the pain further receded, Eva came to her senses enough to take stock of her situation.
It hadn’t changed much. She still couldn’t see. Her voice stayed in her throat.
None of the needles had left any marks in her flesh according to her blood sight. That wasn’t the case with her own claws. She had cuts everywhere, though most centered on her back where she had attempted to reach around and protect herself.
With a thought, Eva set about healing.
As soon as she started, Eva hit something.
Something dug into her back.
Something entered her back exactly in the location Sawyer had stabbed her.
Inaudibly growling, Eva reached back and attempted to remove the offending implement.
Her fingers grasped nothing but empty air. With some exploration, she managed to find the hole.
She had healed that forever ago.
There was a tingle of pain as she set about mending herself, again.
Blinking her eyes, Eva almost yelled out in surprise.
Eight glowing red eyes and a shark-toothed grin filled her vision.
“Arachne?” Her voice came out soft and weak, but it definitely came out.
“Eva. You’re awake.”
For a moment, Eva just stared into the demon’s red eyes. Ensuring to herself that she wasn’t hallucinating. Seeing someone, anyone, was such a welcome relief compared to the isolation within the hallway.
And it was Arachne. Of course it was Arachne. Her first friend probably hadn’t so much as left her side since she first passed out. At least, assuming she wasn’t off in Hell. In that case, Arachne would have been waiting in Eva’s domain.
After drinking in her fill, Eva said the first thing that came to mind. “I think I’d like to kiss you right now.”
Arachne’s grin widened, bringing a small smile to Eva’s face.
“Let’s see how you feel after you see the get well present I’ve got for you.”
Someone cleared their throat. Loudly.
Arachne’s grin slipped slightly. She slid off to one side and wrapped her arms and legs around Eva, being careful not to jolt her.
Eva closed her eyes. She counted to ten. When she opened her eyes, Arachne was still at her side. And, unless she was very much mistaken, the ceiling of her own women’s ward common room was above her head.
Someone moved close, obstructing her view.
“Zoe Baxter,” Eva said.
“How are you feeling?”
“Like a vampire dropped a road-roller–covered in sewing needles–on my back and then proceeded to punch it a few hundred times.”
Zoe gave a weak smile. “That was probably us removing your curse. We were getting worried. That was almost three hours ago. The rats woke up almost immediately.”
At the mention of others, Eva attempted to lift her head and look around. She didn’t get very far. The pain in her back spiked, though not nearly to the same degree as earlier.
Undaunted, Eva used her blood sense in place of her eyes. Arachne cuddled at her side while Zoe looked down from a few feet away. Carlos, unless Eva was much mistaken, stood alongside Ylva near the entryway. Someone else knelt just behind Ylva. Eva guessed it was a nun based on the eye implanted in her chest.
Not Nel. There was only the one eye. Her circulatory system did not look familiar, though that did not necessarily mean much. Eva hadn’t paid close enough attention to the majority of nuns she had met to be able to identify individuals.
Nel had been in Sawyer’s clutches the last time Eva saw her. That probably didn’t bode well for her. But another nun? Did Ylva go out and pick up a replacement like the girl was some kind of goldfish?
The nun sat with her knees to the ground and her hands in her lap. Every few seconds, her vapid smile would vanish and be replaced with an almost blank expression.
The only other person in range was Devon. He was sitting sideways in a chair with his back and legs on the armrests. Sleeping; his heart rate was low and his head lolled off to one side.
Nuzzling against Arachne, Eva turned her attentions to herself. There were several cuts across her body, especially her back and sides. They all looked to be about the right size and amount to have been self-inflicted. It wasn’t as bad as the dark place. Most were shallow.
Healing them wouldn’t be much trouble.
Then there was the knife hole in her back. It didn’t hurt. Not unless she moved. Breathing too deep caused a good amount of pain as well. Given that one of her lungs had been nicked, that wasn’t too much of a surprise. But there was something odd.
“I’m not bleeding?”
Zoe glanced over her shoulder. “After removing your curse, Ylva stuck her finger into your wound. She said it would hold until you could take care of it.”
“Well, thanks,” Eva said as honestly as she could. Surviving whatever Sawyer had done to her only to die from bleeding out would have been far too embarrassing to stand.
Eva frowned as she attempted weaving her flesh back together. “I’m having trouble healing myself.”
“Lingering Death magic,” Ylva said in a calm voice.
Far calmer than Eva felt, she said, “Death magic?”
“The nuns’ lightning,” Zoe quickly said. Her growing panic must have been evident on Eva’s face. “It eats away at other magic, it is how we cured your curse. Unfortunately, it is probably going to interfere with your healing for a time.”
“Nun lightning is Death magic? With a capital ‘D’ and everything?”
Excitement crept into Zoe’s voice. “Oh yes. All their ‘white’ magic is. Hyper-specialized and tailored for fighting undeath. Would you believ–”
A loud snort from Devon interrupted Zoe as he rustled in his sleep.
“Sorry,” she said, speaking softer. “You probably don’t want all the details before you’re even out of bed.”
Eva closed her eyes and pressed her head up against Arachne. Not being stuck in that hallway was amazing, and talking was a huge thing she had missed. But Zoe had a point. “A little rest might be nice.”
Zoe nodded. She fidgeted for a moment as if unsure of what to do.
“There is something you must know,” Ylva said, stepping forward. “Our subject has been trapped within Hell. Nel will search for her and the other human after a brief respite of her own.”
I guess Nel isn’t with Sawyer after all?
Eva blinked her eyes open as the rest of what was said started to register.
Ylva had moved close enough to be seen with her regular eyes, but she turned and walked away before Eva could fully process what she had said. The nun got to her feet and followed her out, keeping a distance of about three paces.
Subject? She referred to Nel as a servant. Zoe was in the room, so Juliana must be in Hell unless that was a complete non-sequitur? The other human?
“Why are Juliana and Shalise in Hell?”
Carlos moved up next to Eva’s bed. “Your professor, Rex Zagan, sent them there,” he said softly.
“According to Jordan Anderson,” Zoe added.
Eva pinched her eyes shut. “Why would he send them to Hell? What for?”
When neither of them responded, Eva opened her eyes to find Carlos slowly shaking his head. Zoe had pressed her lips into a thin line.
“You didn’t ask him?”
“He hasn’t been in school since the attack,” Zoe said. “Martina doesn’t know where he is or why he did it either.
“Even if he was in school, I don’t think it would be wise to provoke him. It will be difficult to rescue them if we are trapped as well.”
Eva sighed. Always one thing after another.
“Two weeks. And a few days change.”
Biting her lip, Eva said, “that’s a long time.” A long time to be unconscious as well. That might explain her hunger. It was a rare occasion that Eva ate, but she was still human enough to need mortal sustenance.
“Ylva,” Carlos started. He stopped and pressed his glasses up onto his face before continuing. “Their souls are not in Death’s–with Death… They’re not dead.”
“That’s good,” Eva said slowly. Good unless they were trussed up like the people she had found. She elected not to mention anything about that.
“But we won’t have any plan for what to do until Nel finds them,” Zoe said. “You can rest until then. At the very least. I mean… we’re not forcing you to go to Hell–”
“It’s fine. They’re my friends. I won’t leave them there. But until Nel is ready, I think I’d like to rest.”
Zoe nodded, turned, and left. Carlos lingered for another minute, almost speaking a few times. In the end, he shook his head and followed after Zoe.
Eva shut her eyes and moved her head up against Arachne’s carapace.
It hadn’t felt like two weeks. Longer. A month. Maybe two. All with nothing but the hallway and its blood-red walls, black floor, and carpet. And two endless directions.
No Arachne. No Zoe. No Devon. No Juliana or Shalise.
Eva sighed in contentment as Arachne’s fingers brushed her arm.
Which reminded her of something. “You said you had a gift for me?”
“I think you’ll like it,” Arachne said. She skittered her way out from around Eva and moved to the women’s ward master bedroom.
When she returned, Eva found herself holding onto an actual wrapped present. With a bow and everything. A very silky bow. The wrapping was made of the same silvery material.
Careful to not disturb her back injury, Eva pulled open the wrapping and pulled out the box.
It was a clear plastic container. Inside was a… “mutilated hand?”
“Not just any mutilated hand,” Arachne said, radiating pride. “When we rescued Nel from Sawyer, he managed to escape. But, not before I got my claws into him. With Nel back and part of his hand…”
“We can find him.” Eva stared into Arachne’s wide smile and felt her own face twist into a mirror.
“I thought you might want a little vengeance.”
“Arachne,” Eva said, “I think I will kiss you.”
— — —
An uncontrollable shudder wracked through Nel’s body. It started at the useless lump of flesh her arm had become and worked its way through the rest of her body from her shoulder.
Given all the holes in it, keeping it out of the water would have probably been a good idea.
As it was, Nel did not care.
It was the first bath she had had in over two weeks.
Even better, it was in Lady Ylva’s bath. She never thought she would see this place again. She had been certain that her last sight was going to be whatever Sawyer pointed her chair towards.
Now, chin deep in hot water with her head resting in a perfectly shaped groove in the stone, Nel didn’t even care that the perverted gargoyles were watching her with their beady little eyes.
So enraptured was she in her little oasis of respite that Nel didn’t notice a second person entering the room until they slipped into the water and cozied on up to her.
Far too close for comfort.
Nel slipped a hand over her chest as she inched away from the woman with short and curly black hair. As her neck left the groove in the pool’s edge, the woman continued sliding along the little ledge in the water. Nel stopped, realizing that she wouldn’t have any peace so long as the other woman was here.
And it had been going so well too.
Shooting a glance at the woman’s chest through the crystal clear water, Nel caught sight of the small eyeball placed between her breasts.
An Elysium Nun. As Nel expected after their brief interaction the previous night. She might have even been told as much, but she was somewhat out of it until she woke up this morning. Most of her memories of escaping were hazy to some degree.
Hopefully, her memories of being under Sawyer’s care would go hazy in time.
Nel wasn’t counting on it.
Unlike the eyeballs rapidly darting about–looking hither and thither at every little thing–in Nel’s body, the other nun’s eye sat still in her chest. It stared dead ahead with a look that wouldn’t be out-of-place on Lady Ylva.
Nel let out a soft sigh of relief. The girl had no potential to become an augur. She wasn’t about to be Nel’s replacement. Since she had been rescued, Nel felt safe to assume that Ylva still wanted her.
The frown she had put on as the other nun slipped into the water deepened. Ylva wasn’t the one to rescue her.
“So,” the other nun said.
Nel started. She had been staring–frowning at the other woman’s chest for a few minutes. Clearing her throat, Nel looked up to meet the nun’s eyes. “I’m sorry,” Nel said. She cringed at herself. Now it looked like she was apologizing for staring at the other woman. Clearing her throat again, she quickly added on, “I didn’t quite catch your name.”
“Alicia, though Lady Ylva calls me Ali.”
The soft trickle of water from one of the gargoyles was the only sound following her simple statement. Before the situation could get any more awkward, Nel held out her hand for a handshake. So long as they were going to be Lady Ylva’s underlings, she could at least try to be cordial to the–
Nel went stiff as a board as Alicia’s arms wrapped around her and pulled her into a tight hug. She held on until Nel gave her two very mechanical pats with her good arm on the nun’s back.
“Please,” Nel said quietly as Alicia pulled away, “don’t hug me again.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, sounding almost genuine until she giggled. “It’s the eyes, isn’t it? I never interacted with augurs much before. Well,” she giggled again, “except two that I had to terminate. But they don’t count.” She waved her hand off to one side like she was laughing off a joke.
Nel found herself inching away again. Maybe if she went slow enough then the other girl wouldn’t move closer. “Are you… alright?”
“Perfect,” she said with intensity. “In fact, I got to be useful to Lady Ylva today. She had me help that abomination they’ve got locked up in one of the other buildings.”
Nel kept her face as still as she could. Eva scared her more than Ylva did most of the time. She had been trying very hard not to think of her as an abomination even in her own thoughts. For a moment, she wondered what Alicia would do if she knew that Eva practically ran the place.
She thought better of it. Something was very wrong with the other nun. Better to keep her interactions to a minimum.
Her stomach sank like a cannonball in water as a few words made their way through the haze of her memories. Arachne had wanted Nel to fix Eva. There was a sudden dryness in her mouth as she worried she wouldn’t have a spine after her next encounter with the volatile spider-demon.
That creature scared her more than Eva.
Hopefully they would be too happy with Eva being back to pay her much mind.
As she was thinking, Genoa walked into her sight through the door behind Alicia.
She did not look happy.
Genoa marched right up to the edge of the bath, soiling the crystal clear water with dirt and grime that came loose off of her combat boots. She started her glare at Nel. After a moment, it turned to Alicia.
Who had a vapid smile on her face as she waved back.
By the time Genoa returned her attentions to Nel, she had pulled her knees to her chest with her one good arm wrapped around them. Her other arm floated uselessly in the water.
“Are you finished with your bubble-bath, Your Highness?” She spoke with a sneer on her face. A very nasty sneer.
Nel ducked her head down, but couldn’t break eye contact.
“Shall I fetch you a spot of tea and crumpets? Perhaps you would like me to tuck you into bed and read you a nice story.”
Genoa cracked her knuckles one at a time. Each pop sent a tremor up Nel’s spine.
It did more to the nun next to Nel. As Genoa’s knuckles cracked, Alicia flinched and twitched as if each one caused a small seizure.
“Or perhaps you would like to get out of the damn bath and find my daughter. That is why we bothered to rescue your worthless ass.”
“Now, now,” Alicia said with a quiver in her voice. “There’s no need to get–”
For a moment, Nel thought Genoa was going to plant her boot into the other girl’s face. In the end, she only turned her glare on Alicia.
It still caused Alicia to cower back in what was perhaps the first real emotion Nel had seen on her face.
“My daughter has been trapped in literal Hell for the past two weeks.” Genoa spoke in an unnatural calm that was somehow scarier than anything else she had said. “If you are not out of this bath in thirty seconds, I will start breaking things. Whatever that necromancer did to you and your arm will be like a light massage in comparison. Do you understand me?”
That woman has been spending entirely too much time around Arachne, Nel thought with a poorly suppressed shudder. She nodded anyway and rose to her feet. She didn’t even bother moving to the stairs, instead choosing to climb over the edge where she was.
Her mouth came close to betraying her. She couldn’t see across planes of existence and almost told Genoa as much. The only thing that stopped her–aside from the copious pain that would undoubtedly follow such a statement–was that she could see the outside world from Lady Ylva’s domain.
Given that she was relatively certain that they technically were in Hell just by being inside her domain, maybe looking through the rest of Hell wouldn’t be an issue. Unless all the other domains were protected with powerful anti-augur wards.
Nel bit her lip as she followed Genoa out of the room.
This must be what it is like to be handed a shovel and told to dig your own grave.
She just hoped that Lady Ylva would be kind enough to dig her back out.