The girl in question froze solid. Almost literally. The ambient temperature dropped faster than a lead weight in water. It reached the point where Eva could see her own breath.
With a stiff back and tense muscles, she turned around. Her hastily fashioned crutch clanked on the marble tiles during her maneuver. Putting on a polite smile, she performed a cautious bow.
“You came through Hell.”
“I did,” Eva said, suppressing a wince. “And I swear, it is not my intention to proceed back into the mortal realm though your domain. I’ll use the beacon that Zoe activated for me.”
Zoe had been activating beacons for Eva every time she went to visit Shalise. She even activated one for Arachne, though that had taken a good deal more pleading. Arachne had yet to use hers even once.
“You tread dangerous ground,” Ylva said, ice-cold eyes boring into her. “Our domain rests on the precipice of planes. We would find it displeasing should your presence offend the sensibilities of Keeper.”
“I know. I just had a warning for you. I’ll return the moment it is delivered.”
Ylva’s eyes narrowed. As the silence dragged on, Eva realized she had chosen poor wording. Calling it a warning made it sound almost like a threat. Just as she was about to rephrase her sentence, Ylva opened her mouth.
Eva took a deep breath.
She knew that coming here would be risky. Ylva had been quite adamant against using her domain to pass through realms, specifically from Hell to Earth. While she could have used the beacon she had asked Zoe to activate for her, Eva would have to track her down–or possibly Irene–to activate another immediately after. That and the fact that simply entering Ylva’s domain through the waters of Hell was the fastest method of getting a message to Ylva and the others.
Ylva appearing behind her the moment she had stepped out of the beach room was a testament to just how much she did not envy the attention of Keeper. Eva was just glad she was being afforded this chance to explain herself.
And explain herself she did. She went over a brief summary of the day’s events. From the creatures that not even Zagan knew what to make of all the way to her own encounter just an hour past within her own domain.
Throughout it all, Ylva remained silent. Her gaze never wavered. Not once did she express surprise, worry, or anger. She was blank to the point where Eva thought she might have already known, if not for what she said as soon as Eva finished speaking.
“This… is most concerning.”
“I’m glad you agree,” Eva said, some relief filling her. Mostly at the fact that her trespass hadn’t been for nothing. “I presume you are able to handle yourself. My worries were mostly for Nel and Zoe, as both reside within your domain. Zoe might be able to handle herself so long as she doesn’t find herself ambushed. Were Nel to come across them… well, let’s just say that I don’t know how good she is at self-defense.”
Eva tapped her crutch against her recently attached foot. “If they can bite through Arachne’s chitin, I doubt they would find human flesh much of an impediment.”
“Your missive has been received and considered. We must now insist that you return to Hell.”
“Of course,” Eva said without hesitation.
Under Ylva’s watchful eye, she marched straight back into the water room. Eva hadn’t even made it to the throne room proper, just the short hallway that separated the antechamber, so the walk wasn’t long by any stretch of the word.
So short was the trip to the edge of the water that Eva barely had the time to ask a quick favor of Ylva.
“Could you pass the word on to Arachne as well?” Eva asked. “And when she inevitably rushes off towards this room, could you tell her that I said not to come. That ensuring Sister Cross has all the potions she needs to heal up as soon as possible is more important.”
Ylva did not cease her vigil over Eva as the girl begun wading into the water. Still, she had curiosity in her voice as she asked, “have your plans for the nun been altered by these ‘enigmas?'”
Eva shook her head. “Nope, just increased the urgency of my plans. I cannot be constantly in my domain to protect Shalise. Sister Cross should suffice in my absence.”
After giving a slight nod of understanding, the hel’s voice turned as cold as the temperature around Eva. “Never attempt to enter my domain from Hell. We will not be so forgiving should it happen again.”
“I know. Thank you for your leniency,” Eva said. “I just thought it was an emergency.” My mistake, she thought with a hint of sarcasm.
Eva plunged into the water without waiting for a response from Ylva. Rude? Maybe. But not excessively so. She had been ushered out at top speed. She was merely expediting her exit without a proper farewell.
A mildly uncomfortable few seconds later–nothing so unpleasant as her method of teleporting in the mortal plane–Eva found herself standing in front of the women’s ward. She performed a quick check of the area, spending time both on a visual check and feeling for the uncanny oddity that she had felt the last time she arrived.
As far as she could tell, everything was normal.
Inside the women’s ward, Shalise sat on the couch. Her worried expression lessened as soon as she saw Eva enter.
“It’s been quiet. Really, too quiet. Though not in the ominous sense. Without wind, people, insects, or animals, there’s an almost nerve wracking silence outside of my breathing and the beating of my own heart. You should get a music player of some sort.”
Eva smiled, glad Shalise was making jokes. They were a great way to relax after a stressful event.
Unless it wasn’t a joke.
Eva focused on the silence. It was comforting in some way she could barely describe. A warm and enveloping silence. But then, this was her own domain. If Eva felt uncomfortable within then something was wrong. Probably. Shalise was probably not afforded the same courtesy.
Maybe if she had better control over her domain, Shalise could pass the silence off as comforting as well. Unfortunately, such a minute thing would take a great deal of time to learn how to do.
Assuming she didn’t do it on accident one of these days.
“I’ll think about it,” was all Eva said for her eventual answer.
Shalise just nodded with a small smile.
“Now,” Eva said after a moment of silence, “what do you say to us getting this place really well defended?”
Eva stalked through the great throne room within Ylva’s domain. This time, she had returned to the mortal realm properly through the use of her beacon.
Immediately after returning, Eva had sought Zoe out to have her charge another beacon. Eva didn’t know what she would do if she found herself in Hell without one. Finding out how to summon herself had become quite the priority. Unfortunately for her, Devon would likely need to help her out the most. Perhaps one of the other demons as well, though Eva was less than keen to go to them for help.
She hadn’t forgotten Ylva’s offer of teaching Arachne how to create void metal in exchange for a few centuries of servitude.
Arachne didn’t even know precisely how to summon herself, which led to the question of how she got summoned in the first place. It could have been that one of the ancient Greek gods took pity on her and seeded the world with instructions. Her enticement, of course, was a single black widow spider. Any markings or sigil that specifically pointed to her was unknown. Eva had to wonder if Devon even knew, or if he didn’t bother caring as there was only one Arachne to summon.
It wasn’t like she had siblings or parents to accidentally summon instead.
Definitely something she needed to look into, but so long as Zoe kept accepting her beacons, figuring out how to be summoned wasn’t the absolute highest of priorities.
While she had accepted a new beacon, Zoe had not been happy to hear about Shalise’s predicament. She wanted to go jump into Eva’s domain straight away. It took a great deal of convincing her that Shalise should be perfectly fine until Sister Cross was ready to jump in.
That and mentioning the fact that Catherine would have to take over her class again.
But Eva was confident in her domain’s ability to fend off any new intruders. Through an intense bout of trial and error attempts over the course of three days, Shalise wound up with a multitude of traps and weapons.
Weapons were easy. She had seen swords before. Spears, maces, and other medieval equipment as well. Bows and arrows were easy to create. Crossbows, not so much.
Her attempt at a gun had failed right out. Eva still wasn’t sure why. She could create potions out of nothing, but a gun failed?
Traps weren’t half as easy as straight up weapons.
There were plenty of trap doors in the ground and floor around the alternate women’s ward. All lever activated, based off the real prison’s execution chamber. It was fairly easy to get rid of the noose and fill the pit of the trap door with swords.
Automating the trap doors or even swapping out the rather large levers with smaller buttons had all failed. Probably because of how it was set up in the real world. Luckily, Eva had been able to move the levers separately from the trap doors.
She was fairly certain that the levers didn’t actually connect to the doors in a similar manner to the drainage pipes in the showers.
But the rows of levers allowed Shalise to operate trap doors set up in the small outside courtyard from behind the women’s ward windows–all of which had been reinforced.
Then there was the safe room. Basically, it was a recreation of the solitary confinement building in the real prison. There was a small hallway that had been filled with trap doors before the final prison cell. Eva had dragged a cupboard from the kitchen over to it and confirmed that it was always full of food before leaving.
Even with all that, Eva still wanted to get Sister Cross into her domain as soon as possible.
Eva passed from the throne room into the prison. It didn’t take long to come across Arachne seated outside one of the cells. As she had been doing almost constantly for the last few months, she was once again weaving a tapestry.
Or… Eva blinked as she got closer. Maybe not. She certainly had some cloth in her hands. But it wasn’t the square of a tapestry. She also lacked all of her spare arms holding up the vertical mesh.
It almost looked like a dress.
Shaking her head, Eva decided to ask later. For the time being, she gave Arachne a nod of her head before stepping right up to the bars.
Sister Cross looked about as bad as she had just the other day. Bad enough that Eva wondered if Arachne got her message about potions, or if she had decided to ignore that message.
Or if Sister Cross had refused any treatment. Eva couldn’t fault Arachne for that.
And with the glare she leveled at Eva, there was a good chance she had refused treatment.
At least she was awake this time.
Sister Cross’ mouth twisted into a snarl.
Eva preempted whatever vile insults she was about to spew.
“Shalise needs your help.”
The nun’s partially opened mouth snapped shut. She fixed a piercing glare for several minutes before opening it again. “What do you mean?” Her first words of the day. Potentially several days, if the slight rasp was any indication.
“Shalise has been attacked. Only once so far, but the possibility exists for more. I’ve kept her safe, but will not be able to constantly be around her. You can.”
Sister Cross’ glower was only growing. Eva once again interjected before she could start any outbursts.
“In fact, you will. You’re not being given a choice in the matter.”
Eva reached for the locking mechanism of the cell. Despite being barred, Ylva’s domain prevented any occupant from affecting the outside. That included reaching through the bars and unlatching the cell themselves.
“One wrong move and either I or Arachne will kill you,” Eva said with a nod back to her companion. Arachne had already stood up and draped her weaving project over the back of the chair. “And, in the absurdly tiny chance that we should fail, Ylva won’t. If you’re dead then no one can protect Shalise.
“So attack us if you must, but know that it would spell doom for your daughter.”
Speech delivered, Eva clicked the lock and slid open the door. “Arachne,” she said, nodding towards Sister Cross.
Arachne immediately moved to carry the nun, only to be shoved back.
“I can handle myself,” Sister Cross bit out.
Responding to Arachne’s questioning glance with a shrug had the spider-demon performing a shrug of her own. She stepped out of the cell and waited.
And was it ever a wait.
Sister Cross, while still missing large portions of her skin, used a bar along the back wall to help her to her feet.
The action made Eva wince in a short moment of misplaced empathy. She had skinned her knee before–back before she had Arachne’s knees. The experience was hardly pleasant. Even after learning blood magic and dampening her sensation of pain in order to use her magic unaffected, scraping large portions of skin off hurt like something else.
And the nun before her was missing far more than a skinned knee brought to the table. She had no gloves and no shoes. While the rest of Ylva’s domain was constructed out of smooth marble, the prison floor was rough. The material resembled something along the lines of cement or asphalt. In a word: unpleasant.
Despite the glacial pace at which she moved, Sister Cross allowed no emotion to cross her face. Not the slightest flicker of pain.
By the time she had finally taken her first few steps out of the room, Eva had managed to school any hint of emotion from her face. She knew Arachne wouldn’t have any emotion showing either.
At least, the old Arachne wouldn’t have any. Maybe a grin, if anything.
Eva shot a quick glance to her side just to confirm that yes, Arachne was as impassive as ever.
“Where is Shalise?”
“Follow me,” Eva said as she turned and started moving towards the exit of the prison.
She realized her mistake almost immediately. By the time she reached the threshold, Sister Cross had only taken five steps.
This was going to take time. It would have been so much simpler had Sister Cross just let Arachne carry her.
As it was, Arachne stuck to Sister Cross’ side. Apart from the occasional maniacal twitch of her fingers, the spider-demon never once appeared hostile.
When they finally reached the chamber directly adjacent to the prison, Eva took note of the definite shock plastered over Sister Cross’ face. That had been expected for the most part. She would expect nothing else from a prisoner being led to the torture chamber.
But it was the only room that Ylva had allowed her to use.
Sister Cross’ eyes started to glow with white power. That glow subsided and died off as Arachne snapped her hand over the eyeball inset into Sister Cross’ chest.
“You’re not in danger,” Eva said. She would have explained what room they had been heading towards had she thought it might have helped. Sadly, she doubted that cheerily stating their destination to be the torture chamber would have endeared her to Sister Cross.
Sister Cross, predictably, sneered and scoffed.
With a sigh and a slight rolling of her eyes, Eva said, “I’m not going to hurt you. Just the opposite. You’re not in any shape to protect Shalise. It took half an hour for you to move one room. A walker-wielding great-grandmother would be able to get the best of you.”
Eva pointed towards a circle drawn out on the floor. “Sit,” she said. “Seiza style.” Harsh? Maybe. Required? Not in the slightest. Vindictive? Eva’s middle name.
With Arachne just barely not having to force her, Sister Cross knelt down in the center of the circle. She leaned in, staring at the floor. “Is this blood?”
“It is,” Eva said with a smile. “So much easier to draw out ritual circles when you can just magic the lines around. Much less back pain.”
Eva reached into the pocket of her skirt and pulled out a flawless bloodstone. One of three from her void metal dagger. “Frankly, I’m unhappy about using this on you. Unfortunately, my other bloodstones are too badly degraded and I, almost surprisingly, have no one to kill for a new one at the moment.
“Well,” Eva said, “that isn’t entirely true. Sawyer is unfortunately outside my ability to reach. For the moment.”
Aside from a glare, Sister Cross didn’t respond. Part of that might have been Arachne and her claws being uncomfortably close to her.
Circling around the circle, Eva double checked everything. Especially the part where Sister Cross had stepped over to the center. All the lines and sigils had to be cleanly drawn. This was her first time ever using a bloodstone-powered ritual and she wanted to see it succeed. Academically, if not for Sister Cross’ sake.
Thankfully, Sister Cross had not attempted to ruin the circle by purposefully smudging any part of it. Probably a good choice, damaged circles had unintended effects. Assuming they didn’t just do nothing or explode.
“What is this?” Sister Cross asked just as Eva was setting the bloodstone down within a triangle at the tip of the circle.
“A bloodstone,” Eva said, purposefully ignoring Sister Cross’ real question, “as a matter of fact. Used in blood magic. They’re created from people I don’t like. Well, not this one. I have no idea where this one came from.”
Or how it could have lasted two years plus however many hundreds of years it existed before Eva found it in that museum.
“I’m surprised you don’t know this.”
“What is the ritual’s intention?” Sister Cross ground out. “I recognize some of it, but then it twists into the unknown.”
“As I said, you’re worthless as you are now. This ritual should mend all your flesh. Near instantaneously. Not bones, unfortunately, but everything else should be good as new.”
Sister Cross’ eyes widened in surprise. The expression twisted back into her regular glower a short moment later. “I don’t want any part of this,” she said as she tried to stand.
Arachne kept her down.
“That,” she glared at the bloodstone, “is someone else’s life.”
“Yep. One huge reason why I’ve been loathe to perform one of these kind of rituals.”
“Save it,” Sister Cross spat. “I can heal myself. Especially with a proper connection to the source.”
“Instantly? Because for all I know, Shalise could be being attacked right now,” Eva said, letting the implications linger in the air for a moment.
She pulled her bloodstone back into her hand, moving to pocket it. “But good to know I can keep this.”
Eva stood, moving towards the torture chamber exit. “Come Arachne. Since Sister Cross can stand up to demons as she is now, no sense wasting our time or my bloodstone. Let’s drop her off with Shal–”
Eva paused and tossed a glance over her shoulder. All the while keeping a slight smile from showing on her lips.
Sister Cross still knelt. She leaned forward slightly, her fists pressed into the ground in front of her. Both arms trembled slightly. Through grit teeth, she said, “Shalise… is she actually in danger?”
“The day that you attacked me–completely unprovoked, I might add–Shalise was attacked by three things. She managed to kill two on her own by the time I found her, but had passed out before she could kill the third. I managed to slaughter the thing, but not before losing my foot to it.”
Arachne’s head whipped over fast enough that her hair tendrils snapped through the air, creating the telltale crack of a whip.
Eva rolled her eyes. She held out her foot for both of the others’ sakes. It had healed a great deal in the three days since she first got the injury. Not perfect, there were still obvious lines and cracks, but it had mended enough that she could put weight on it.
“I got better,” she said. “Though I can’t say the same would hold true for Shalise should she fall prey to them.”
Sister Cross shut her eyes. After taking in a deep, shuddering breath, she glared up at Eva. “If this is a lie–”
“Why would I lie to you? If I wanted to kill you, you would be dead. If I wanted to keep you from Shalise, you’d still be in your cell.”
Closing her eyes once again, Sister Cross fell silent. Eva stood to the side while trying to ignore the worried glances Arachne kept sending her way.
Enough time passed that Eva was about to call it quits anyway. She could find some other way to keep Shalise safe until Sister Cross managed to heal on her own.
Sister Cross spoke up just as Eva turned to leave. “Fine. Perform your ritual. But if you’re–”
Eva didn’t have the time nor patience to hear out whatever threat Sister Cross had to say. The moment the first word came out of her mouth, it didn’t matter. She had the willing agreement of the ritual subject.
Technically it could be performed without the subject’s consent, but Eva didn’t want any resistance. Wasting a bloodstone on a failed ritual was not an option.
Plucking the bloodstone from her pocket, Eva tossed it out. A small amount of her own blood clung to the surface, helping to direct it through the air.
It landed right in its designated spot.
By the time Sister Cross started to speak her threat, Eva was ready.
She forced her magic into the circle, flooding the diagrams and sigils.
Sister Cross let out a scream. Visible tendrils of blood-red magic erupted from the bloodstone. They curled through the air, reaching towards her before settling in on her flesh.
The nun’s scream only increased in intensity as her body was visibly and forcibly mended. Her back arched and she clawed out at the air.
Chunks of flesh weaved in the air out of nothing–nothing except magic–before slapping down on her exposed skin. It stretched to her existing skin, almost hooking into place.
Some parts that Eva could have sworn were not actually injured received a similar treatment. Large spindles of muscle pulled through holes in her skin and disintegrated in mid-air. More magic-formed muscle then burrowed into her flesh before the ritual sealed the holes.
While the ritual was working, Eva had a sinking moment of disappointment. Because the bloodstones from the museum hadn’t decomposed or been otherwise consumed, she had actually held out a slight hope that this one would survive the ritual.
She could see now that it would not. As the tendrils of magic continued to work on Sister Cross, the bloodstone from which they stemmed was clearly shrinking. Dust blew off of it, disappearing before it reached the edge of the circle.
The last of the bloodstone vanished. Tendrils shrank to nothing as the final pieces of flesh made their way into or onto Sister Cross’ body. The glow of the circle fading was the final step.
Whatever tension had held up Sister Cross’ arched body gave way the moment the glow died. She collapsed to the ground, blood from the ritual circle smearing across her skin. Her chest heaved as if she just ran a ten-mile marathon in record time.
But her body was whole again. There wasn’t even the slightest hint of scars where her new flesh met old. Not even a sign that there was new flesh.
“Arachne,” Eva said, “get her on her feet and cleaned off.”
“Back to her cell?”
Shaking her head, Eva said, “no. Take her to the waters. I’ll fetch some proper clothes for her and join you shortly. She’ll be with Shalise within the hour. After that, we should meet with Zoe, Catherine, and Ylva.” Sighing, Eva turned to leave.
“Maybe Zagan as well. We need to figure out what is going on.”