Eva nodded. It came easily. No big disappointment in Nel’s words. She hadn’t expected much from the ex-nun.
“That’s fine,” Eva said. “I’d appreciate it if you kept trying, but you don’t need to dedicate every moment of your time.”
“Of course I will!” Nel slammed her palms down on her marble altar. “I want that man dead as much as you. No! More than you.” She pulled up the sleeve of her robe.
The augur’s arm was looking much better than it had back when Eva first woke up. A good half of her arm still looked withered and dead. She hadn’t been able to replace a good portion of the eyes she had recovered. Either due to problems reattaching them, the eyes being rotted thanks to being improperly kept, or simply because they hadn’t recovered every eye.
Any time Nel showed it off–something she had been doing with a disturbing regularity–Eva got a sick feeling in her stomach. It brought back memories of her own time under Sawyer’s knife. Eva was beyond grateful that she only had two eyes to take.
“I want to be right there with you when the light in his eyes fades.” The woman spoke with righteous anger. Her hand, still pressed against the altar, trembled in obvious vexation. “He may have learned a lot from me, but he can’t hide forever. I’ll find him with or without your help.”
“It isn’t that,” Eva said, pointing at the withered husk that once was Sawyer’s fingers. “When I pulled every drop of usable blood from those things, I wasn’t just doing it for fun. I’ve started researching blood rituals.
“I know a few, of course. Mostly ones that I’ve used on myself in the past. Blood cleansing, the ritual that granted me the ability to heal small cuts, and one or two others. Unfortunately, I’ve never needed to locate myself using my own blood and the resources are not cheap. It might not work, whatever he did that is hiding himself from you might protect him from any ritual I find. We’ll have to wait and see.”
The resources were the real problem. One ritual she had found that might work to locate Sawyer required a bloodstone to be consumed.
She was currently the proud owner of four bloodstones. One made from the necromancer Weilks during her first year. It was not in the best of conditions. The only reason it was still functional was thanks to her only having used it twice. Once when she first made it and again, for a very limited amount of time, when Sawyer and the inquisitors had attacked.
Using it in the ritual would probably screw something up. It really should be destroyed just to prevent any accidents with it suddenly disintegrating.
The other three were all from the museum. It seemed so long ago now. Yet despite near constant use, the stone within the dagger’s hilt hadn’t decayed in the slightest. Considering its age, that was beyond impressive. She kept intending to research exactly why it had held up so well, but things kept getting in the way. Things like Sawyer.
Maybe it was made out of dragon hearts. Or some other extremely long-lived creature.
Unfortunately, she would likely end up consuming one of the gems embedded within the hilt. Unless she found a donor somewhere.
Things used to be much easier. There were plenty of scumbags lurking in the alleys of Florida. People that society really should be thanking her for getting rid of. Devon never looked down on her nor commented on where she got her bloodstones.
Eva had a feeling that Zoe and her friends might not act the same.
Which just made it all the more important to ensure that the ritual was completed to perfection the first time she tried it. Less wasted resources.
“But,” Eva said, “if you can find him first, I wouldn’t mind one bit.” It would save a bloodstone.
Her words seemed to mollify Nel. For the moment at least. The former nun nodded, letting her sleeve fall back over her arm. “I will. But first,” she said as she looked down at herself. Her nose wrinkled in disgust. “I need a break. And a bath.”
Eva happened to agree with that notion. At one point in time, she had thought that frankincense smelt good. A nice citrus scent mixed with wood.
Since handing over the remains of Sawyer’s hand to Nel, the woman had spent almost all of her time at the altar. She carried the unmistakable musk of frankincense on her clothes and her person wherever she went. The smell quickly became old. The few times Eva had been around Nel outside the altar chamber, she had practically had to hold her breath.
It was worse inside the room, but there wasn’t much Eva could do about that.
“Good idea,” Eva said, turning to leave.
Nel stopped her with a half-mumbled, “um.”
“Was there something else?”
“You haven’t seen Alicia around, have you?”
“Nope. Ylva was out on her throne with no Alicia around the last I saw. I came directly here from the entrance, so I don’t know if she is around.”
Nel’s shoulders slumped. “Oh,” was all she said.
“Miss her?” Eva asked with an eyebrow raised.
“The opposite, really. She always seems to know when I’m bathing. And she always shows up, ruining an otherwise peaceful moment of relaxation.”
“You don’t like her.”
“I–” She cut herself off, glaring at Eva. “I didn’t say that. I would just prefer if she weren’t…”
Nel glanced off to one side, rubbing her elbow with her good hand. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “She scares me. The way she looks at me, it’s like she wants to kill me sometimes.”
“Have you spoken with Ylva?”
Nel shook her head side to side, sending black hair scattering over her shoulders.
“Given that she owns you both, maybe you should bring it up with her? I don’t know what you expect me to do about it.”
Though it was true that Eva wasn’t fond of the other former nun all that much. Nel had annoyed Eva from the moment she showed up on her front porch. A combination of being part of the reasons Sister Cross had attacked her, spying on her, and expecting Eva to just help out from the goodness of her heart.
At least Eva could understand Nel’s motivations.
Alicia wasn’t so straightforward. It didn’t help that she had eyes for no one but Ylva. And apparently Nel, though it didn’t sound quite the same in that case. Ali had been the one to pull Eva out of her little nightmare and yet she had yet to speak more than ten words to the woman.
According to Zoe, Alicia had been tortured into serving Ylva. No matter how she was acting now, Eva couldn’t be sure that torture was an effective method of recruitment.
One of the first things she had done was to fix up the wards around the prison. Alicia was not invited to the women’s ward. True, the other nuns had managed to break her wards. But that had been a group of them and it had still taken several minutes. They had likely been dedicated ward breakers as well.
Eva was quite confident that she would be able to notice any foul play on Alicia’s part and have plenty of time to react should she try anything. Especially thanks to a few tricks she had learned on the subject of blood wards.
“It’s probably just my imagination,” Nel said with a sigh.
“Are you willing to take that chance?”
Nel bit her bottom lip. After gnawing for a moment, she said, “you think she would do something?”
Eva shrugged. “I’m not the one who has been getting death glares. Do you think she would hurt you?” Eva held up her hand before the ex-nun could respond. “I don’t care. But I bet Ylva does.” Go bother her, Eva tacked on in her mind.
Update on Sawyer received and wanting nothing more from the augur, Eva left. Nel stayed still behind her altar with a thoughtful expression on her face.
The cold January air smacked her in the face with a bundle of snow the moment she stepped outside Ylva’s domain. After taking a few deep breaths to flush the frankincense from her system, Eva ignited her hands.
Fire crept up her arms, right to the edge of where her carapace met skin. She held up her hands to her face. Heat washed over her, blocking the cold from reaching her exposed skin.
Snow, Eva had decided, was one of her mortal enemies. Not quite as high on her list as Sawyer, but still somewhere up there. Maybe it was because of her treatments, or maybe it was just having lived in Florida for most of her life. Whatever it was, the cold just did not agree with her.
Running barefoot–the cold of the snow didn’t bother her exoskeleton much–Eva made her way to Devon’s building. She sprinted straight to the top, feeling no fatigue in her legs. She pounded out three short knocks on the door.
And waited some more.
Eva was almost confident that he was in. Devon never left if he could help it.
However, there would usually be a sign that he was in. The tell-tale sound of books snapping shut, drawers snapping shut, jars clanking closed, or some other manner of him hiding whatever he was doing.
This time, there was nothing but silence.
“Master?” Eva called out as she knocked again. “Are you home?”
Again, Eva waited. Again, nothing answered but silence.
Trying the handle, Eva blinked in surprise. It wasn’t even locked.
Something was definitely wrong. It didn’t matter if her master was in or out, he almost never forgot to lock the door.
She pushed the door inwards. With cautious steps, Eva moved inside, half expecting a trap.
No flames exploded in her face. No shackles had been set up around the door. There wasn’t even a trip-wire hooked up to a shelf of unpleasant potions.
Devon was missing as well.
His bed was made, his books were neatly set into the shelf, and his desk was clean of any work. The uncanny tidiness of it all served to draw Eva’s eye to the center of the room.
A half-drawn pattern covered the floor. It wasn’t like any summoning circle Eva had ever seen. In fact, it wasn’t even a circle. Part of it was missing, but it would have formed a triangle if it had been finished. The part that was missing looked more like a miniature explosion had gone off. Part of the stone ground was chipped and scattered about the room.
Eva knelt down right at the edge. Even damaged, she wasn’t interested in stepping in the center. In fact, because it was damaged, she should definitely keep out. There could be residual magic hiding in the inscriptions if the ritual had been activated. Who knew what kind of nasty effects that could cause.
Unfortunately, Eva didn’t recognize any of the scribbles on the whole side of the triangle. Some looked a lot closer to the designs within her treatment ritual circle than any other demonic magics. But, from what Eva knew, they were all wrong.
“Just what was he trying to do?” Eva mumbled to herself.
“None of your business.”
Eva jumped, whirling around to find Devon standing in the doorway. She had been so concentrated on the markings on the floor that she hadn’t even checked for any blood systems around her.
He stepped forward, trench coat billowing behind him. “You just barge into my room? I remember when you had some respect for me.”
“I was worried about you,” Eva said with a frown. That frown turned into a good-natured smile. “Besides, all that respect vanished out the window when I met some people who could actually fight with magic. Imagine my surprise when I find out that you’re not as good as you claim to be.” After a faux-sigh, Eva said, “I guess you’ll just have to content yourself with the fact that you’re the number one demonologist I know.”
“Such cheek,” he said with a sneer.
Eva just laughed.
“I suppose you being here does save me the effort of writing a letter. I got a job in Colorado.”
“A ‘job’ job?” Eva said as she stood up. “Or a real job?”
“There are rumors of a nihasa running around. Some kid probably summoned it and got killed, freeing it to roam.”
“A ‘job’ then. I’m not familiar with a nihasa.”
“Minor demon. Like if a succubus and an imp had a kid that took mostly from the imp side of the family.”
Eva frowned slightly. Imps were sort of disgusting little things. Almost like goblins, except worse. Barely sentient at that. And a succubus? Some people were into some pretty strange things.
After shaking her head, Eva asked, “need any help?”
“Not from you. I’m going to be giving out a few trial runs to some demons.”
Eva blinked. “Undominated?”
He just gave a grunt of acknowledgment, brushing around past her to his desk. He opened the bottom drawer and started rummaging through.
“Well,” Eva said, “if you’re going to be running around with undominated demons, maybe you would be interested in a real job.”
“And what is that supposed to mean?” he asked without glancing up.
“Martina Turner wanted me to let you know that there was a job offer at Brakket for you. Teaching kids.”
“I’d rather throw myself down that giant hole in Ylva’s domain.”
Eva nodded, curling a strand of hair around her finger. “I thought as much. When are you going to be back?”
“In time for your February treatment.” He continued rummaging for a few seconds before freezing solid. His neck craned his head over his shoulder. “Don’t you dare send a haunter after me again.”
“It worked, didn’t it?”
Devon pulled a small black rectangle from the desk. A tiny book. He shook it in Eva’s direction. “Don’t send any damn demons after me. I can take care of myself. Now get out. I’ve got to collect a few things and then I’m gone.”
Eva shrugged and started towards the door.
“And Eva,” Devon called as she reached the threshold. “Don’t get yourself killed while I’m gone.”
“I could say the same about you.”
Eva stepped into the spare room in her women’s ward. Even with the door opened, the light failed to penetrate far enough to reach the opposite wall. There was nothing but shadows.
And eight red eyes glowing in the darkness.
“You know, I didn’t ever say that you had to lock yourself up in the dark like this.”
There was a slight pause as the eight red eyes tilted to one side. “I prefer it this way.”
“Fair enough.” Eva slid the door open as wide as it could possibly go. Just enough light entered to reveal a thin fold of cloth held in Arachne’s hands. “Another one?”
Arachne held it up to the light, letting the long tapestry unfold in its full glory.
A life-sized portrait of Eva stared back at the real girl.
It looked like her, but the pose and expression just didn’t fit with reality. Arachne fashioned her as some sort of empress. Really, it was like looking at Ylva with black hair and red eyes. Though it wasn’t quite finished. Arachne was working upwards. The top half of her head was missing entirely.
“Me again? Why not you?”
“Weaving is something I do to pass the time. I have more than enough of myself back in Hell. There is no shortage of time there.”
“How about us then? Both of us, together. Defeating foes or just sitting around resting.”
“Maybe.” With a swift movement of several legs poking out of her back, Arachne pulled the tapestry back up into her lap. “After I finish this one.”
At the rate Arachne worked, she could probably start a new one tonight.
As if to demonstrate said speed, Arachne set to work. One leg held the vertical tapestry base taut and another maneuvered in and out of the vertical threads while the rest started weaving threads horizontally. Her hands focused on knot making and finer details of the colorful portions of the thread.
Without glancing away from her work, Arachne said, “what brings you here? Surely not to comment on my work.”
“I…” Eva trailed off.
If she told Arachne about the job that the dean wanted her to do, Arachne would insist on coming to school again. For Eva’s protection, of course. She’d been around the spider-demon enough to know how she would react to something like that.
But Arachne had chosen this self-imposed exile on her own. Forcing the demon out by putting herself in danger, perceived or real, wouldn’t solve anything. Arachne had to come out on her own.
So, instead of telling her about the lessons, Eva sighed. “I don’t like this. Our current situation, that is. I enjoyed spending time together. Just relaxing in the dorm room with Juliana and Shalise. No necromancers to worry about, no Hell encroaching on the mortal realm.”
The movements of Arachne’s hands slowed to a standstill.
Though she didn’t know what she expected, Eva waited patiently for a response.
“How is school?”
Eva blinked. She couldn’t remember a single time where Arachne had asked such a mundane question. Shaking her head, Eva put on a solemn smile. “Subdued. For me at least. Everyone else carries on like nothing happened.”
“No troubles from Zagan?”
“He teaches his class without acknowledging me any more than any other student.”
“Good,” Arachne said, fingers moving again. After another awkward moment of silence, she started speaking. “I am fond of you, Eva. It gnaws at me that I am not with you. But after recent events, I think I need time to consider what you said regarding trust. Weaving allows me to occupy my hands as much as my mind. Perhaps after my next work, I’ll rejoin you.”
Eva pressed her lips together. That was better than staying inside a dark room forever.
“Alright. I’ll leave you to your weaving then.”
With one last look at the melancholic spider-demon, Eva stepped out of the room, closing the door behind her.
One last thing before she could turn in for the night.
Eva once again dug out her book, The Arte of Bloode Magicks, and carried it into her bedroom.
Setting it open to a page roughly half-way through, Eva put the book on a small stand.
The top of her dresser was where Eva stored all of the nicknacks she had acquired in recent months. Years, even.
The original beacon and necklace that Arachne had fashioned for her hung from a nail sticking out of the wall. Just under was the void metal skull created by Ylva from a lich’s phylactery. An embossed copper engraving was propped up to one side showing a smiling Eva with a spider-mode Arachne sitting atop her head. Her old crystal dagger sat to one side along with Weilks’ partially decomposed bloodstone.
There were a few other odds and ends, mostly the non-perishable Christmas presents she had been given over the course of two years by Jordan and company. The moon pendant he had given a year ago was draped over the copper plate.
Eva’s attention was focused on one specific Christmas present.
“You thought I forgot about you, didn’t you,” Eva said as she nudged the miniature form of a sleeping Basilisk.
Its wide mouth opened in a long yawn as it always did when disturbed from its sleep mode–almost sending Eva into a yawn of her own.
“Alright,” Eva held out her hand. “Hop on.”
The nuisance took one look at her hand before settling its head back onto its coils.
Eva bopped it on the snout.
Basila snapped at her fingers. Whatever mental limitations the Rivases had installed kept it from actually biting, but it wasn’t afraid to show its displeasure.
With no small amount of lethargy, it slithered over. All the while, it maintained eye contact, trying its hardest to turn Eva to stone.
“So impotent,” Eva said with a chuckle. “But we’ll fix that.”
She carried it over to a pre-cleared section of the floor and dropped it on the ground.
It promptly curled up, glaring at her as if to complain about being woken up in the first place. It was a sculpture, but maybe getting it some exercise every now and again would do it some good.
Shaking her head, Eva reached around her back. Her fingers curled around the smooth hilt of her void dagger. She glanced over the blade once, reaffirming that it was still as sharp as ever, before plunging it deep into the crook of her arm.
Just above where her flesh and carapace mixed.
Pitch-black blood exploded forth.
Eva drew it out, forming a circle around the basilisk. Following the directions in the open book, she drew out lines and diagrams within the circle. A squiggle here, a symbol of venom there.
It didn’t take long and it wasn’t backbreaking work in the slightest. Eva was almost certain that rituals had been phased out of use simply because of how undignified a mage must look hunched over scribbling out intricate patterns with a stick of chalk. Earth mages could alleviate the hard work if they were good enough, but controlling powder to such a fine degree wasn’t easy.
With blood, Eva could control the entire formation with her mind. It was fast, quick, and she could do it relaxed in a chair or standing with her back straight.
Circle finished, Eva withdrew a vial of Arachne’s blood.
She almost wished she had done this before visiting Arachne. Eva had never felt quite so awkward around the spider-demon as she had in the last few weeks. Just walking in and asking for blood was far more awkward than merely visiting for a chat.
Pushing the thought out of her mind, Eva used her magic to manipulate the demon’s blood into a hovering sphere just above the coiled snake. She added a few drops of her own blood to the sphere. It would dilute it, but she really needed a part of herself to ensure some control and loyalty.
She quickly scanned the book. Eva took a deep breath. She could see her own heart beating faster and faster. If something went wrong, who knew what might happen.
But nothing appeared amiss in her preparations, so she pressed forward.
Her magic channeled down into the ritual circle. Dark red light leaked out of the lines of blood. Eva kept up her channeling of magic. The book said they should glow white, so Eva would make sure they glowed white.
Of course, the book was written with human blood in mind. When the color turned a light brown and didn’t appear to change after that, Eva cut off her magic.
That didn’t make the glow disappear. Her magic was still trapped within the circle. It needed somewhere to go.
In retrospect, performing the ritual in one of the burnt out ruins would have been a much better plan. At least if it exploded, it wouldn’t destroy her home.
Eva extended a thin tendril of her and Arachne’s blood down onto the snake. The moment it touched, she could feel it working. More and more of the blood siphoned itself off of the blood ball and into the snake, fusing with its sculpted skin.
That was the most nerve-wracking part of the ritual. It was designed to work on an actual living creature. A cat, a dog, an owl… Whatever the mage had for a companion.
She hadn’t been sure it would work on the basilisk. It wasn’t real, after all. But everything proceeded as the book said it would. The tips of its dark green scales gained a deep black luster. Through its partially opened mouth, Eva spotted its white fangs turning as black as her carapace.
The book said the teeth would turn red, but again, it was written for someone using human blood.
Eva gave a sigh of relief as the last of Arachne’s blood disappeared into the snake’s skin. The ritual circle had lost its glow. After wiping away most of the circle with her hand, Eva picked up her basilisk.
It immediately curled around her fingers, winding between each before facing Eva and giving her a long hiss. Like the scales, the tip of its forked tongue had turned a deep black. Basila’s steely eyes remained as silver as before, though now it had black veins that started at its slit-pupils and spread out like jagged legs of a starfish.
In addition, Eva could actually sense blood within the thing. It wasn’t like any living creature she had ever heard of. The blood was in a thin tube that started at its nose and reached the tip of its tail.
Eva brought her finger close to its mouth.
Without hesitation, the basilisk lunged forward.
And was held back by the mental limitations of the sculpture.
Eva sighed. That had to go. Normally, she would just ask Genoa or Carlos. Unfortunately, she wasn’t certain that either wanted to see her at the moment.
“Maybe Zoe has some ideas,” Eva mused.
Basila just hissed again.
Behavioral problems could be corrected later. If this ritual worked properly, she should be able to keep it from attacking anything she didn’t want attacked.
“And maybe I can steal some growth potions from Wayne.”
After all, who wouldn’t want a giant battle basilisk.