Eva tossed the now slightly damp towel over her shoulder, not caring in the slightest where it actually landed.
She exited the showers completely in the nude. Arachne followed her out at her heels.
Devon still sat, snoring in his chair. For a moment, she considered waking him. After glancing at the large bruise on his forehead, Eva decided he looked tired enough to leave alone. Besides, he managed to sleep through all the noise of the showers.
Never had she felt so alive.
She stopped and stretched in her common room. The jolt of pain in her lower back went completely ignored. She was far too pleased with everything to care.
Well, Eva thought with a brief glance at the ceiling, almost everything.
It was nice being out of that nightmare and back with Arachne in the real world, her injury was healing slowly yet steadily, and Sawyer’s days were numbered.
Zagan just had to put a damper on it.
Prior to taking a shower, Eva got an abridged story from Arachne. Arachne, unfortunately, got it from Zoe. Zoe had experienced some of it first hand, but she got most of the information about Juliana and Shalise from Jordan.
Eva wasn’t about to take Arachne’s word for truth until she spoke to some of the others. Not that she didn’t trust Arachne; she trusted her completely. It was just that Eva had played the telephone game in elementary school. Third and fourth-hand retellings of events tended to become extremely muddled.
She couldn’t begin to guess at Zagan’s game. Whatever he wanted was likely related to what he had told her about investigating Hell back when he was terrorizing the nuns. Shalise and Juliana didn’t matter to that as far as Eva knew.
The thing that most aroused her curiosity was that Jordan and Shelby had gotten themselves involved in this mess. Probably because of her getting Irene involved. But somehow they had managed to spy on Zagan? There was a story there that Eva wanted to hear.
Arching her back in a stretch, half to look upside down at Arachne and half to exercise out her injury, Eva asked, “was Irene alright after all that?”
Arachne stared for a moment before shrugging.
A voice from behind Eva chose to answer the question. “Irene is perfectly fi–why are you naked?”
Eva straightened out to find Zoe Baxter standing at the entrance to the women’s ward with her back facing Eva.
“Just got out of the shower. Besides, I’m in the privacy of my own home.” Eva paused with her hands on her hips just long enough for Zoe to get curious enough to glance over her shoulder.
Her head whipped back hard enough that Eva felt that whiplash. “Are you going to get dressed?”
“If I must,” Eva said. It’s good to be back, Eva thought as she slipped into her room. As much as she would never say it aloud, she had missed everyone.
Which made the lack of Juliana and Shalise all the more depressing.
Someone, likely Arachne, had tidied up her room. Eva’s eyes were immediately drawn to the end table next to her bed. Five vials of pitch-black blood helped to prop up her void metal dagger. She picked it up, gripping it in her hand. It felt… nice to hold it again.
After tossing on the first tee-shirt and skirt she found, Eva attached the vials of blood and her dagger to her belt.
She walked out of her room to rejoin Zoe and Arachne–who never had complaints about her lack of attire–in the common room.
It took three clearings of her throat to get Zoe to turn around. When she finally did turn, she just stared for a moment.
Eva cocked her head to one side while subtly glancing at herself. She hadn’t put on shoes or socks or anything, but she was otherwise decently dressed. “So?”
“I wish we had more time to allow you to rest. You’re looking rather harried.”
Eva frowned. She only just got out of the shower and hadn’t had the time to so much as glance in a mirror. Eva waved Zoe off. “Well I feel great.”
“Indeed. I suppose that will have to suffice.” Zoe gave a weak smile. “Just don’t push yourself too much.”
“I’ll try, I guess,” Eva said with a shrug.
“That’s all I can ask. Nel, at Genoa’s insistence, has started her attempts to locate Shalise and Juliana. I was unsure as to whether you–”
“Of course I’ll come,” Eva said. She gave a brief glance towards Arachne, prompting the spider-demon to approach and place an arm around Eva’s shoulders. Turning back to Zoe, she said, “she’s in Ylva’s domain, right?”
Zoe nodded. “Not the usual room. I’ll take you there.”
Eva followed after Zoe. She used the short walk across the prison compound to ask a handful of questions. Most related to finding out exactly what happened while she was out of the loop from Zoe’s mouth. By the time they arrived, Eva felt she had a decent, if brief, understanding.
The doorway they passed through within Ylva’s domain was on almost the exact opposite side of the throne room from the outside entrance. An endless ocean and a short beach lay on the other side.
It was her first time through that door in Ylva’s domain and yet it felt so familiar. The sand, the water, and the nighttime sky without a star in sight were exactly the same as her little island that she visited after escaping from Sawyer the first time.
A few steps out, Eva slipped out of Arachne’s grip and knelt down. A tingle of nostalgia tickled Eva’s mind as she lifted some of the sand and let it fall through her fingers.
Her island had been a refuge. She had rested there, half in the water, for a few hours. Upon entering, she had felt comfortable enough to slip into sleep for a time.
Considering that had been immediately after her torture session with Sawyer, that might have been more exhaustion than comfort. Still, it was a good memory; the island, not the torture session.
The island was similar enough that she might not notice the difference had she been able to see only a small slice of it. It was black and white then; her domain compensating for her lack of eyes in an imperfect method, according to Devon and Arachne.
The only real difference was that while her island was about the size of her dorm room, Ylva’s island didn’t even have curvature. As far as Eva could tell, it stretched on forever in either direction.
Other than that, the biggest change was the tiny tree. Eva’s island had one, Ylva’s had a massive black marble structure. It didn’t look anything like what she would have expected from seeing the inside.
For one, it was a whole lot larger. Inside, the space between the rooms’ doorways was the size of the doorway plus a few foot wide pillar. As Eva looked back at the structure, the door they had just come out of was a tiny keyhole in comparison to the main structure.
They hadn’t even walked that far away from it.
The area where the next room would normally be would take a good five minutes to run to from the beach.
The entire thing hurt Eva’s head. Escher himself would have headaches for weeks just trying to wrap his mind around the layout of the place.
Something of a large difference, Eva thought with a grin as she brushed her hands off and got to her feet. The grin fell by the wayside as Eva realized her mistake.
All the gritty sand she had picked up had stuck around, getting in all the joints of her chitinous hands. Her feet were worse by far. She hadn’t worn shoes–it was more comfortable not to under normal circumstances.
The beach was not normal circumstances.
“How can you stand the sand?” Eva asked of Arachne.
“Got used to it. That doesn’t mean it isn’t annoying, but I can ignore it if I have to.”
Eva frowned as she started using the sharp tips of her fingers to dislodge a particularly irritating grain of sand. “How many millennia did that take,” she mumbled more to herself than anyone else.
It didn’t take much longer before their group reached the edge of the water. As in Eva’s domain, the pitch black liquid stretched out to the horizon without a single ripple marring the glassy surface.
That was quite a feat on its own, given that Nel was half-submerged a short way away from the edge. An altar either floated on top of the water or was some sort of pillar sticking out. Floating above an incense burner were two strands of hair. One wavy brown hair and one long blond hair.
Eva wrinkled her nose as the scent of frankincense wafted over. She ignored it as she walked up alongside Genoa.
The older woman didn’t so much as twitch in her direction. She kept her eyes glued firmly on Nel. Her face was calm, but Eva could see her heart beating in a manner very reminiscent of nervousness.
Carlos stood at Genoa’s side. He was far less composed. His hands shook as they constantly fiddled with his glasses.
Ylva and the other nun–Alicia, if Eva caught her name correctly–stood a few paces to the side. Ylva was watching Nel with nearly the same intensity as Genoa, though her heart wasn’t in it quite so much.
The only other person on the beach was Devon. Zoe went and stood by him for whatever reason. He–
Eva frowned. Her master had been back at the women’s ward, sleeping.
It took a double take to realize that the man standing to Zoe’s side was a slightly scragglier looking Wayne Lurcher.
Looking at him again, it was obvious. His hair was far shorter and his beard was less of a beard and more stubble. The dead giveaway was that he was wearing a suit rather than Devon’s ragged trench coat.
Eva moved up next to him. “You’re looking good,” she said.
He turned his head and gave her a look.
Eva gave him a look right back. Surely he wasn’t blaming her for being injured. She was about to open her mouth and say as much when he opened his first.
“Try not to cause so much trouble next time.”
Eva humphed and walked away. “I’ll show you trouble,” she muttered under her breath, prompting a short laugh from Arachne. “Try to be nice to a guy and–”
“I’ve found them,” Nel half shouted. “Or Juliana at least. Shalise isn’t anywhere around her. Something else is though.”
Genoa stepped forwards, sinking her boots into the water. “What is it?”
“I don’t–a demon, I guess,” Nel said while waving an arm.
It was then that Eva noticed her other arm. Or, more accurately, the shriveled husk that was in place of her other arm. Looking through her blood sight, Eva saw the problem immediately.
She had no eyes in that arm.
Nel’s extra eyes did something strange to her body. A full-sized eyeball wouldn’t fit in the palm of her hand even if all the bones were removed. Yet she clearly had one on her good hand. It pushed her meat around like there was more space than actually existed.
Without the eyeballs in her arm, whatever magic there was had broken and left the pushed aside meat… well, pushed aside and useless.
Eva couldn’t begin to guess how her arm wasn’t a rotted husk. The blood was barely making it to her fingers as it was.
Shaking her head, Eva tried to catch up with the conversation.
Genoa jumped into the water, waist deep in it alongside Nel, and gripped one of her shoulders. “They’re doing what?”
— — —
Juliana left the tea in her mouth for a moment, tasting it.
It wasn’t that bad. Sweet, but not overpowering. Unfortunately, it was a familiar sweetness. The black honey that had made it into her mouth tasted the same.
She would have spit it back into the cup, but the demon was watching her closely.
Juliana swallowed the tiny mouthful and reset the cup on its tray. Leaning away from the overbearing demon, she said, “I appreciate the hospitality–”
“Oh my dear, you have yet to see the breadth of my hospitality.”
His hand stretched with the strings dragging it along. As soon as his hand touched Juliana’s shoulder, she found herself sitting on a stone bench.
A rather comfortable stone bench.
It was one of many, all seated in a half-circle around a lower central platform. An amphitheater. Almost the same as the one at Brakket.
In fact, Juliana thought as she glanced around, it is the same. He even dropped her off at her usual spot during Zoe’s seminars. The trees of the forest were in the background.
The only real change was the pitch black sky with the eye-like moon.
That and the fact that all the spare seats were occupied by the same statues of golden bees as the ones occupying the theater seats. Every one of them sat in a unique pose. She had a feeling that if she examined them a little closer, each bee would be different from the next.
Juliana jumped to her feet as two people walked out on the stage. “Mom! Arachne? Why–how–”
Juliana’s voice caught in her throat as her mother waved and said, “hello.”
Two lines ran up from her chin to the corners of her lips as her jaw dropped straight down. Her face was like stiff plastic. Five thin strings attached to her fingers glinted off the moonlight. Arachne was similarly strung up, though she looked more normal. Or it was harder to tell the difference between puppet-Arachne and the real thing. The ball joints on her limbs blended in a lot better than the ones on her mother.
‘Genoa’ and ‘Arachne’ turned to face one another. After a brief stare-down, the Arachne-puppet gripped the chin of Genoa and tore off her face. No blood or bone came out, just splinters.
Juliana sunk back into her seat as her mother started sparring with Arachne despite her lack of face.
“Not quite the spectacle of the real thing, is it?”
Giving a small start, Juliana turned to Willie. She had almost forgotten he was there. “You’ve been spying on my mother?”
“I do so enjoy a good show and you were so diligent in carrying around that doll eye. It would have been a crime not to watch. Sandwich?” he asked as a silver plate appeared in his hand. A pile of bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches materialized on top. The bread was a light golden brown, grilled to perfection.
And the smell.
Juliana had to wipe off a small bit of drool before responding. “I don’t think–”
A loud rumbling of her stomach interrupted her. Traitor.
“Nonsense. You must be famished. How long has it been since you last ate?”
Since before I can remember, Juliana did not say. Instead, she meekly took one of the sandwiches with a mumbled, “thanks.”
Her first nibble turned into a bite. A second sandwich found its way into her other hand before the first finished disappearing. A third and fourth followed without delay.
The entire plate was gone before she finally felt full.
“See,” he said, “famished.”
A tremor shook the entire amphitheater. Juliana gripped the edges of her seat to keep from tumbling off as the ground shook beneath her feet.
The two fighting imitations weren’t quite so lucky. ‘Arachne’ collapsed forwards, one arm striking through the wooden doll of her mother’s chest.
As the tremors died off, Juliana glanced to her side. Willie hadn’t budged the entire time. He did have a somewhat concerned look on his face.
“Dreadful things,” he said with undisguised disdain. “Are you alright, milady?”
Juliana narrowed her eyes as she frowned at the demon seated to her side. “Weren’t you trying to kill me the last time we met? Now you are concerned about me and, what, fattening me up?” She gestured towards the empty sandwich platter.
Willie gave an elegant snort. “I am not about to eat you. As I said then, it is a token effort mostly for the sake of tradition. No demon wishes to be beholden to a weak master even if that means a brief respite from this place.”
“And you still tried despite my ring?”
“Truthfully, I failed to notice. King Zagan’s presence overpowers your little token by far. He was a tad distracting.”
Juliana shuffled in her seat, trying her best to ignore the fight between the puppet versions of her mother and Arachne. “I don’t suppose I can leave to find my friend, can I?”
He turned to her with a smile–an Arachne smile. “And miss out on all of my hospitality? My dear, we are just getting started.”
— — —
Genoa shared a quick glance with Arachne at Nel’s recounting of the situation.
The spider-demon gave her half of a shrug in return.
“She knows it isn’t us, right?” Genoa asked as she turned back to Nel.
“You look significantly different from your puppet version. And she didn’t run up and hug you or anything.”
Carlos stumbled forwards, splashing into the water as he moved towards Nel. The augur winced back as one of his bony hands gripped her rotten arm, but he didn’t appear to notice. He put his face a few inches from hers and stared into her eyes.
“That is my daughter,” Carlos said, “not some puppet? The real and true Juliana?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
Carlos held on, staring for another few minutes. His knees gave out beneath the water as he stumbled backwards into Genoa’s waiting arms. He turned, held her tight, and immediately started crying. “She’s alright,” he said between sobs. “Our little girl is alright.”
Patting him on the back, Genoa said, “I trained her. Of course she is alright. And now it is time to bring her home.” Over his shoulder, Genoa locked eyes with Nel. “How do I get there?”
“I don’t kn–”
“The waters,” Ylva interrupted, “connect all of Hell.”
Genoa glanced down at her feet. She was already waist deep in the dark water. Her feet looked like nothing more than shadows beneath the surface. “Great,” she said. “How do I use it?”
“Wade out and submerge yourself. You will feel a pressure. As the pressure mounts, think of your destination. Names of the owner will prevent undue wandering.”
“So just think of Juliana? Or a theater hall with an amphitheater? What do you mean by wandering?”
Eva stepped forwards, her black feet parting the water around them. “When I was in Hell, I managed to find my way around a bit. I wasn’t thinking of much of anything before finding myself in the abattoir. Thinking of home brought me back to my–a safe island I found myself on.”
Ylva looked down at Eva with her eyebrows ever so slightly raised. “The abattoir? Truly?”
Eva gave a small shrug. “That’s where she said I was,” she said with a gesture towards a nodding Arachne.
After a moment of silence, Ylva gave a brief nod of acknowledgment. “We do not believe any have accidentally wandered into the domains the Keeper keeps.”
“Fascinating,” Genoa said in a tone that said anything but. “How does it help me get to Juliana?”
Ylva frowned slightly, but turned to address Genoa. “Talkina are few in number. Being theatergoing demons of puppetry, many will have theaters of varying types within their domains. Without knowing his name, you may end up in any of them.”
“So I just think of a theater and if it is the wrong one, jump in some water and try again?”
“That would be exceedingly foolhardy.”
Genoa grit her teeth together. “You just–”
“Bees,” Eva said.
“A theater with bees. That is what Nel said, is it not?”
There was a small splash of water behind Genoa as Nel jumped at being addressed. “Y-yeah. Golden bee statues all over the place.”
“That should prove unique enough to find the proper domain,” Ylva said. There was a brief pause before she continued. “Barring any sort of sudden fascination in golden bees among the talkina population.”
“Great,” Genoa said as she started moving around Nel to get deeper in the water. She paused before taking a full step. “We can return here to leave, right?”
“Enter the waters and think of Our glorious name.”
Rolling her eyes, Genoa turned to continue out into the water. She paused as five sharp fingers curled gently around her wrist.
“You’re not going alone,” Eva said. “Juliana is my friend too.”
“You can’t be going yet,” Zoe said, stomping out into the water. “You just woke up.”
“And I feel great!” Eva stretched for emphasis. “Being mostly dead turned out to be a great bout of rest.”
“And you,” Zoe said, ignoring the younger girl. “Charging in without a plan? Wasn’t it you who was always going on about knowing what you’re walking into?”
Genoa frowned and took a deep breath. “The guild lessons I taught you are not law. Besides,” she said with a smile, “you dropped out before I could get to the most important lesson: follow your instincts.”
“So you’re just going to run off and get yourself killed?”
“I am going to run off and get my daughter back.”
Zoe crossed her arms in front of her chest with a small scowl.
“Eva,” Ylva said before Zoe could open her mouth again. “You will be unable to return to the mortal realm through Our domain.”
Eva blinked at the statuesque woman for just a moment before nodding. “I understand. I have a beacon and should be able to return when I need.”
There was an almost imperceptible nod from Ylva while everyone stared at Eva.
Zoe was the first to speak. “Why can’t you come back through here?”
“I can, it is just against the rules for Ylva to help me. I suppose I qualify for them now.”
“Later! Let’s get Juliana and Shalise home and then we can all talk.”
That was something Genoa was perfectly willing to consent to. Eva started leading her off into the water almost as much as she was leading Eva out. Arachne trailed behind with a hand on Eva’s shoulder.
By the time they were in up to their necks, it was easier to simply swim than try to walk along the sand. And there was definitely a pressure there. It was somewhat similar to her limited experience with diving, except that they were on the surface rather than down several meters.
“Alright,” Eva said. “Golden bee statue theater.”
And she dunked her head beneath the surface of the water.
Genoa paused, watching to see what would happen.
A hand shaped shadow reached up out of the depths of the water and gripped Eva. It pulled her under, dragging her for a short distance before it vanished from her sight.
Genoa started. She almost dived in to try to pull her back, but Arachne’s claws gripped her shoulder.
With a silent shake of her head, Arachne calmly allowed herself to sink into the water. A moment later, a hand gripped her and pulled her off into the depths.
So that is supposed to happen, Genoa thought. They could have warned her.
Taking a deep breath, Genoa dove under the water. She repeated the destination in her head over and over again.
It was awkward. Golden bee statue theater. It felt odd in her mind. That awkwardness was probably why she had never been able to teleport like Zoe. It used a similar, very awkward-feeling method of deciding where to go.
She waited. It hadn’t taken long for the hand to grasp either of the other two. Bracing herself as she continued to repeat the destination, Genoa held her breath beneath the heavy water.
The hand never came. One moment she was beneath the water and the next moment she was completely dry.
Dry and falling.
A single moon watched on as she plummeted into an ocean of viscous liquid.