Zoe stopped before a well-worn wooden door with a familiar brass handle. She pushed the door open, fully expecting to be welcomed into the bar and parlor by Tom’s smiling face.
A bright light had her wincing away the second she stepped inside.
It took her mind a moment to catch on to the fact that something was wrong. The bar was never brightly lit. Lights were kept perpetually dim. Tom was not a mage, but she had often wondered if he didn’t have some sixth sense for incoming customers. The lights were low even when she had walked in during the off hours on occasion, when he was in the middle of cleaning–a task that Zoe would never consider attempting without decent lighting.
Blinking away the spots in her eyes, Zoe peered beyond into the rest of the room. Or tried to. With a frown on her face, she realized that the rest of the bar was pitch black. Even her enhanced eyes were having trouble seeing past the few spotlights that had been moved directly in front of the door.
Her enhanced ears, on the other hand, picked up the sound of heavy metal being lifted from a wooden surface.
Zoe slipped off her backpack full of ritual supplies in the same swift motion she used to draw her dagger.
“Keep your hands where I can see them!”
“Tom?” It sounded like his voice. For the most part. It lacked the ever friendly tones that it normally carried.
Zoe kept her hand firmly on her dagger, ready to erect a shield at any moment. “Tom? It’s me, Zoe Baxter. I’m not here to hurt you.”
There was definite hesitation in the darkness. She could almost feel the uncertainty.
“What did you order when you last came here?”
Zoe blinked, trying first to think when the last time was here. It had been at least a month. Two? A long time to remember something as insignificant as a drink.
“I didn’t,” Zoe eventually said. “I asked for a drink, you decided what.”
That was what she most often did, anyway. His question made her second guess herself, but she was fairly certain that she hadn’t actually ordered anything.
Her suspicion was confirmed a moment later as Tom sighed. Whatever he had landed on a table with a clunk. A half empty glass bottle scraped against the wood as the lights in the rest of the establishment slowly brightened to their normal levels.
After once again closing her eyes to help adjust to the light, Zoe surveyed the war zone–for a lack of a better word.
Tables had been flipped on end. Several propped up against the rear exit while the rest served as barricades and obstacles between the front door and the bar’s counter. Most of the chairs had been set up in the same manner.
Sitting behind the counter was a fairly disheveled Tom, currently in the middle of sampling his own wares.
“You gave me a right fright,” he said between drinks.
“I’m sorry about that,” Zoe said as she slowly stepped into the parlor, picking up her backpack before she moved. She kept a wary eye on the pistol lying on the counter. While not knowing much about mundane weaponry, the pistol made her somewhat nervous. “It wasn’t my intention. Has something happened?”
Despite being set up for war, Zoe couldn’t spot a single bullet hole around the room. She was fairly certain that she would notice anything made by that gun. It looked large enough to take out an elephant and still have enough punch to kill a horse on the opposite side.
“‘Has something happened,’ she says as she walks into my bar at such a strange hour. The lights in the sky weren’t enough for you, Zoe? Or did you miss them completely?”
“Well, yes. I had noticed that. But I hadn’t realized they warranted all of this.” She waved her hand around the tables, ending at the pistol laying on the counter.
“Apparently you missed out on the zombies and other monsters wandering the streets over the last few years.”
Can’t argue with that.
“New shop policy,” he said with a smile, “anything strange happens and I’m closed.” After taking another swig of his drink, he held out the bottle towards Zoe.
“No thank you,” she said, waving a hand in front of her. Realizing that hand still held her dagger, she quickly sheathed it.
“Suit yourself. So, what is going on out there?”
“Not a clue. Wayne is talking with some people to try to find out the answer to that. However, I’ve been wandering around and haven’t noticed anything immediately dangerous. No creatures running the streets, at least.”
“Well, that’s a small relief.” He started to take another drink, but paused with the bottle halfway to his mouth. After a moment of deliberating with himself, Tom capped the bottle and placed it somewhere behind the counter. “So, what brings you to my humble bar at such a late hour? I take it you didn’t come for just a social call.”
Zoe shook her head. “Nothing dangerous, but it might cause your business some problems. I need salt. Non-iodized sea salt. Everything you have, probably. I already cleaned out the local food mart–they didn’t have quite enough on their shelves. The woes of living in a small town, I suppose. Without a clerk present, I didn’t want to search around their back room.”
“Must be desperate times,” Tom said, lifting an eyebrow, “if you’re stealing from the local shops.”
“I left my name and number, along with a list of everything that I fully intend to pay for once someone contacts me.” Zoe let out a small sigh. She had had to teleport straight into the building. There had been a momentary concern over alarms before deciding that Shalise came first. “And I intend to reimburse you as well. But yes, something of an emergency with a student. One unrelated to the changes in the sky.”
Eva had mentioned Hell’s changes and its likeness to the sky over Brakket City, but someone chasing after Shalise didn’t seem to line up with that particular problem.
“Welp, let’s take a look-see at what I’ve got in the back room.”
Tom pulled up the part of the bar that allowed access behind the counter. He gestured for her to follow as he slipped into the door labeled ‘Employees Only’.
The room itself wasn’t all that large. Larger than your average pantry–Zoe couldn’t touch the shelves on both sides at the same time–but not by much. It did, however, have a large trap door in the center of the floor. A wine cellar of some sort, Zoe assumed.
But they weren’t headed there.
Tom stopped at a section of the shelves labeled ‘Dry goods’ and bent over to pull out a large bag.
Zoe almost sighed in relief as she spotted the label. Twenty-five pounds of sea salt would work perfectly. She had eleven, single pound containers from the grocers.
“I think this is all I’ve got,” he said, hefting the bag over his shoulder. “Unless I start draining the table shakers.”
“That should be plenty. Thank you, Tom. You might have just saved a student.”
“Can’t say I’ve ever done that before. Strange day.”
“What do you want done with the salt?”
In response, Zoe pulled out her focus–her wand, not her dagger. No need to make Tom more nervous. With her wand, she dropped the sack straight to between.
Tom stumbled slightly at the sudden lack of weight on his shoulder. He looked around as if expecting it to be levitating above him. “Handy trick,” he said when he failed to find it.
“It is,” Zoe agreed. Especially for lugging around more than thirty pounds of salt and other reagents. She would have been making several trips without that little trick. “But I try to use it as little as possible. Items that I put away for long term storage have a tendency to become unrecoverable. Shouldn’t be a problem here as I intend to withdraw it in a minute or two. Speaking of, I should be leaving.”
“Don’t let me hold you up. I can handle myself.”
Zoe let a small smile touch her lips. “I’m sure that our illustrious dean will be releasing a statement sometime soon, but I’ll keep you appraised of the situation as I can. I don’t think you’ll need your barricade tonight, though.”
Tom gave a short shrug. “Can’t hurt.”
“Might scare off any customers that wander in.”
“Anyone who walks in this late, I don’t care if they return. Present company excluded. I run a classy bar, not a hostel.”
“Have you tried locking your doors?”
Giving the scoffing Tom a slight wave, Zoe used her wand to drop herself into the blinding white of between. The walls of his bar tumbled off into the light, only to be replaced by the women’s ward gate room.
She made her way from the ward to Ylva’s domain, stopping just outside to pull everything out of between that she had stored there. Most of it went into her backpack. Everything else, she simply levitated.
Wayne and Nel sat at the table that had been set up on Ylva’s throne platform. Both seemed deep in a fairly heated discussion. Most of the heat was coming from Wayne if the scowl on his face was anything to judge by.
After crossing the gap with only the slightest modicum of hesitation, Zoe dropped her supplies on the table. “This should be everything on the list,” she said. “Where’s Eva?”
“Off talking with her spider,” Wayne snapped. He let out a strained sigh through grit teeth as he ran a hand down his face.
Frowning at his entirely unwarranted hostility, Zoe narrowed her eyes. “Did something happen?”
“Not much… Oh, except for the Elysium chapel I need to figure out how to break into and out of without getting myself killed.”
Zoe blinked, going over what he said a second and third time in her mind. Just to make sure she had heard him correctly.
“The obelisk that you need is inside the Salem Cathedral,” Nel said, answering the question that Zoe had been about to ask.
“Alright,” Zoe said slowly. That explained Wayne’s mood.
“Spencer only wants a teleport nearby. She thinks she can do it alone.”
Again, Zoe had to go over what he said a second time. “She what?”
“That is roughly what my response was. Even with her pet’s help, maybe other demons, I doubt she has what it takes.”
“Alright. I’ll talk some sense into her. But,” Zoe bit her lip, wondering if she should say anything at all. With a side glance at Nel, she decided that it couldn’t possibly hurt. Nel had no love for the Elysium Order. “But can’t you do it the same way that you did it last time?”
Ignoring the expected stiffening and gasp from Nel, Zoe focused on Wayne.
He just looked confused more than anything. “Last time? Last time I…” His confusion vanished into a mounting look of horror. “You’re not seriously suggesting–”
“If it helps, why not?”
“I could think up a thousand reasons,” he grumbled. Pressing his hands into the table, Wayne stood. “I have a phone call to make.” Without a backwards glance, he walked out of Ylva’s domain, phone in hand.
With a smile on her face, Zoe turned to Nel. “Well, he wasn’t stealing an obelisk, but he got in and out. Otherwise, long story.”
— — —
Irene sat in the hallway with her back to the wall, staring at the door to Eva’s room and wondering just when Professor Lurcher was going to return.
Or if he would return.
Irene would like to think that the condition of Eva’s room was worth at least an urgent rating. Unfortunately, she had a sinking suspicion in the back of her mind that it barely made it on the ’emergency’ scale at all.
Especially not after Shelby had dragged her off to their room’s window. After seeing the real sky, Irene doubted that Eva’s room was even worth remembering. Compared with purple veins stuck in the sky, a little sand was nothing.
Nothing for the people who weren’t sitting outside, constantly reminded of it, anyway.
Irene had had the sick sensation of butterflies in her stomach ever since Catherine left, something that should have provided some peace of mind. If Catherine didn’t think that it was that big of a deal, it probably wasn’t. But she had said to draw out the highest tier of shackles that Irene knew. That did not provide any comforting feelings.
Shelby had gone to bed. Right next door to Eva’s room no less! She hadn’t been worried about it. She just assumed that both things would be solved by the professors and security staff by morning. Shelby hadn’t been aware of the implications behind the markings that Irene had drawn.
And Irene, quite literally, could not tell her. Not without violating her contract. All of Shelby’s inquiries had been responded to with simple ‘nothings’ and ‘Catherine asked me to.’
Jordan could have. Irene didn’t pretend for a moment that he was unaware as to what she was drawing. But he had run off to find his father before the sky had changed. He had probably forgotten too, in light of the veins in the sky.
Irene sighed as she bit her lip. I suppose I should be grateful, she thought. Taking into consideration what had happened with the hot springs, watching an empty room was a vacation. Perhaps she had the easiest job of the people who must be awake this night.
So long as morning comes without anything coming through the room.
Irene jumped a good foot in the air as a wet slopping noise echoed down the hall. Heart beating a million beats a second, she gripped her wand and got off of her chair. Just what the wand was meant to do against anything, she wasn’t entirely certain. But it was a small comfort as she ran to the edge of the shackles and peered into the room.
Nothing. Not a single thing. The sand still held her own footprints, and those of both Professor Lurcher and Catherine, but was otherwise smooth and undisturbed. She couldn’t see into the corners of the room without stepping onto or over the shackles, but Irene felt fairly confident that the room was empty.
Unless it isn’t.
A shiver ran up Irene’s spine as she recalled the first sentence in their diablery textbooks: ‘Never make assumptions when demons are involved.’
Scenarios ran through her mind. What if there was something in there.
She couldn’t see it, so it had to be using a spell of some sort. Either it was invisible or capable of altering her perception.
Irene took a step back from the shackles. It could even be right in front of her, hoping she would step over the line.
But it couldn’t be invisible. It would still leave footprints.
Unless it could float over the sand.
The only other possibility was that it had burrowed beneath the sand. Mundane logic said that the sands would be disturbed at least somewhat. But mundane logic generally went out the window when dealing with magic. Any half-baked earth mage would be able to smooth over sands enough to avoid notice from the distance she was standing.
Well, that’s not the only other possibility, Irene thought as she pressed a finger to her temple. My imagination could be playing tricks on—
“What are you doing?”
Irene screamed. She would never admit to it, but a high-pitched shriek sprung from her mouth as she felt a hand come down on her shoulder.
Her mind took an extra minute to process Jordan’s voice.
Clutching her chest, Irene tried to calm down. Her efforts weren’t helped any by Jordan’s snickering.
“It isn’t funny,” Irene said, giving him a punch in the shoulder.
Jordan rubbed his shoulder, but didn’t stop his snickering. If anything, it only made him laugh harder. “You were concentrating so hard,” he said between chuckles.
“I heard something like a barrel of spaghetti being dumped on the ground. It scared me, alright? You don’t have to make fun of me for it.”
His laughter died down with a single, “ah.”
“What? Did you find something out?”
He shook his head. “Dad is meeting with Dean Turner and Professor Zagan. They wouldn’t let me in. I ran into someone who I thought might help watch Eva’s room, but…” Jordan trailed off with a glance over his shoulder. “See for yourself.”
Following his gaze, Irene spotted… something. Something had spilled? With a rag on top of it. Maybe. It was at the far end of the hallway, just at the top of the staircase.
“What is it?”
“Well, it used to be a security guard. Now however, well, your barrel of spaghetti example might not be so inaccurate.”
“Oh, it’s Lucy.”
Irene started towards the demon, moving around Jordan. Seeing Lucy was actually something of a relief. The day she had come into class, they got a brief introduction to contracts. Lucy’s contract was essentially to act as security for Brakket Academy and to protect the students at all costs.
If there was something inside of Eva’s room, having Lucy around would be a great reassurance.
Or not, Irene thought as she got closer.
Lucy was well and thoroughly disassociated with herself. She had flattened herself out on the floor, her spindly tentacles making no effort to maintain her human form. Or do much of anything at all. Only her security uniform kept her in any kind of recognizable shape.
In other words, she was something that would be incredibly difficult to explain if anyone emerged from their rooms.
Irene glanced up and down the hallway, but apart from Jordan, there was no one around. And that was in spite of her earlier scream. The rooms had some protection against noise, but the scream should have gone through.
Then again, it was the dead of night. Most people were probably in deep sleep.
Irene stooped down to be a little closer to the mass of tentacles. “Lucy? Can you hear me?”
Something that might have been a response in tentacle-people language emerged from the mass. An effort was made, but whatever it was, Irene found it entirely unintelligible.
“You’re going to have to form a mouth if you want to talk to me. And everything else you use for speech.”
Irene immediately regretted saying anything at all.
Watching as the pile of wet spaghetti noodles twisted around to form a set of disembodied lips was one of the more disturbing things that Irene had witnessed in her recent memory. Possibly ever.
“This place feels gross.”
“I don’t feel anything,” Irene said. Though, now that it was mentioned, Catherine had been complaining about something similar before she had left.
But she wasn’t, Irene glanced down at the mass, like this.
“Do you think you can pull yourself together?”
Rather than give any verbal response, Lucy’s tentacles trembled. She was trying, that much was clear. Slowly, ever so slowly, her body started to gain some definition.
Irene jumped again. She shouldn’t have, she knew that Jordan was right at her side. He was just so quiet and easy to forget about.
At least he was a distraction from Lucy. When she had demonstrated her true form in class, she had only done an arm. Even that had been quickly and easily decentralized into the strands of tentacles and put back together. As Lucy was now, it looked almost painful.
Irene was thankful that her uniform was covering up most of her body.
“You don’t seem very surprised. I expected more shock.”
Putting on a frown, the only thing that Irene could think of in response was that the contract was incredibly inconvenient. Jordan knew about demons anyway. There should be an exception for people like him, if nothing else.
“Neither do you,” Irene said with a shake of her head.
“Oh, I was plenty surprised when she fell face first into the ground and exploded into ribbons.”
To avoid any continuation of the topic, Irene reached down and helped the mostly solid Lucy to her feet. She made sure to only touch Lucy on her clothes; the demon was covered in some slimy mucus.
She wobbled a fair amount, but managed to keep from falling on her face again. There was a bit of wet gurgling noises coming from–Irene wanted to say from Lucy’s throat, but that wasn’t entirely accurate. It was just coming from Lucy in general.
“Why is this place so gross?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Irene said. “I don’t feel anything.” Except a constant butterflies-in-stomach feeling, she thought. She was fairly certain that the feeling wasn’t related. Glancing over at Jordan, Irene asked, “do you feel anything?”
He shrugged. “Not particularly. Maybe a little unsettling sensation, but that could have just been from watching Lucy put herself together.”
“Something is here. But not? It’s,” Lucy paused, scrunching up her face in concentration.
Given her lack of bone structure or human muscles, the look sent chills up Irene’s spine. She was clearly mimicking what she had seen other people do in similar situations, but wasn’t quite succeeding. There was just something uncanny about it. If asked, Irene wouldn’t be able to point out any one thing in particular that was wrong with it. It just looked off.
“I don’t know the words,” Lucy eventually said, sagging in defeat.
On instinct, Irene reached forward to help steady the demon. When Lucy sagged, she sagged.
A stray thought couldn’t help but slip in. She’d be great at limbo.
“Maybe if you saw the room?” Jordan asked with a shrug. “Couldn’t hurt, could it?”
Irene wasn’t so sure about that. They might have to go get a mop if Lucy fell again, or worse, passed out. Just to sweep her down the staircase.
But Lucy had already taken one wobbly step forward. That was followed by a second and a third, each more steady than the last. Irene wanted to say that her eyes were unfocused as she moved, but that wasn’t all that different from the other times she had seen the security guard around school.
Considering for a moment that her eyes were strands of tentacles too… Irene shook her head before she could think about it too hard. Demon physiology was not covered in their course work and probably for good reason.
Moving up next to her, Irene stopped Lucy from stepping over the barrier of the shackles. If there was an invisible creature trapped inside, she didn’t really want Lucy to be trapped inside as well. Even if nothing attacked her, Irene would have to break the shackles to let her out, potentially letting out whatever had gotten trapped.
Irene gasped as she looked into the room from Lucy’s side.
There were definitely new footprints in the sand. She had spent long enough staring at it that she was sure of it.
Something was in there. Judging by the footprints, it had moved around to the blind spot to the side of the door.
A sharp noise from Lucy sent Irene’s heart into overdrive.
“Mushy mortals should stand away,” she said as her hands unfurled into their natural form. “Something in here is–”
Her comment was cut off by a high-pitched whine.
That whine terminated in thunder resonating between Irene’s ears.