“We decline your request.”
Eva blinked, not quite sure what to say. Her hands moved from the floor where she knelt to rub back and forth in front of her chest.
That had not been the response that she had expected or wanted.
“Rest assured, We do not decline out of malice.”
Eva looked up at Ylva.
The apartment adjacent to Zoe’s was a far cry from the splendor of Ylva’s domain. Everything was entirely mundane. The kitchen appliances were beige colored and looked like they belonged in the eighties. Black and white checkered linoleum covered the floor in half the apartment while shag carpet made up the rest.
Something that Eva had noticed inside of Ylva’s domain was that any messes that were made ended up disappearing in a short time. That seemed to have carried over to the apartment as well. Everything within was spotless.
Outside of Ylva’s room, the building wasn’t exactly a five-star dwelling. Inside, it looked as if someone had taken a fine bristled toothbrush over every inch of everything. The kitchen sparkled, the floor shined, the curtains looked brand new, and there wasn’t a hint of dust in the air.
Though clean, Ylva hadn’t acquired any new furniture for the place.
Ylva’s chair had clearly not been designed with someone of her stature in mind. It was too small by half. Ylva must have done something to it, or it would have snapped under her weight. Not to say that Ylva was overweight, it was just that she had a few feet on the average human. While not in her skeleton form, she had a good amount of meat on her bones as well.
Eva hadn’t gone into the bedroom, but she was willing to bet that the bed would be small even for a human. The apartment complex was just cheap like that.
It took a moment before she remembered that Ylva probably didn’t sleep much anyway.
All in all, Ylva stood out from her surroundings like the proverbial elephant in the room.
Despite the oddity and awkwardness that should be there, Ylva still managed to maintain her regal elegance. She did not, however, manage to retain the slouch that she so often posed in upon the throne in her domain. Her back was straight, poised as if she had an artist creating a portrait akin to those of middle-age royalty.
And yet, as Eva waited another few minutes, Ylva did not pour that elegance into words explaining her decision.
“I understand,” Eva said with a shallow nod of her head.
Ylva was supposed to have been the easy sell. The one who already knew what the treatment was from her times observing. One that knew Eva well enough and the one who Eva had the best rapport with.
That one had just declined.
Standing from her kneeling position, Eva clenched her fist.
Being disheartened was not only beneath Eva, but it was far too early. There were plenty of other demons around town and Ylva had merely been the first. The ritual wouldn’t be ready for an entire week. Plenty of time left. Eva intended to finish the search today in any case.
“I’ll let you get back to your…” Eva frowned. What exactly did Ylva do all day? The television had been on when she had first knocked on the door. The walls were thin enough that she had been able to hear it clearly. But only Nel had been in the room with the television. Ylva had been back in the bedroom standing statue still.
They had traded places after Eva knocked.
“To your day,” Eva concluded. A lame response. At least it was neutral and did not make assumptions.
Ylva stood. Her head avoided scraping the ceiling by mere centimeters. Her back wasn’t as straight as it had been while sitting. Perhaps that was why she sat straight; crouching around the place had put a kink in her back that was only relieved by sitting properly.
How uncomfortable must her miniature form be for her to not be using it here? Though it looked like a child, Eva couldn’t imagine the height impairment could possibly be worse than constantly scraping the top of her head against the ceiling. She definitely had to duck to make it through the doorways.
“Good fortune in your task,” Ylva said with a slight nod of her head. After a brief look over Eva, she strode off towards the bedroom where Nel had hidden herself.
Eva stood, watching. Just long enough to ensure that yes, Ylva did indeed duck to pass through the doorways in her apartment. A small part of her had insisted that the doors would stretch around Ylva to allow her passage. Not because of magic or her being a demon, simply because Ylva was that commanding.
Having been dismissed, Eva took her leave from the apartment.
She had made it five steps down the hall before a pitter-patter of footsteps came after her.
Eva turned to find Nel rushing up to her, anger plain to see on her face.
“Did I forget something?”
“Damn right you forgot something.” She thrust her fists to her hips. A glove covered her withered hand up to her elbow where her robe’s sleeve took over. “You didn’t even bother to give me an excuse this time.”
“Devon wants to perform my treatment in a week’s time. I’ll be ready after that.”
“Right,” she said, pouring a month’s worth of frustration into the single word. “Like you would be ready after your finals. Or after school ended. Or after you got back from your vacation.” Nel shook her head. “What’s next? After summer vacation? After next year? After you graduate? After the world ends?”
Eva crossed her arms and glared at the augur. “Are you finished?”
“I would prefer to have our revenge before it ceases to matter.”
With a light sigh, Eva closed her eyes. She could understand where Nel was coming from. They had both been through the same thing, after all.
“This is somewhat important. Potentially to my continued existence. If you cannot wait a week, perhaps try convincing Ylva to help you again? Or do it yourself.”
Nel continued her glare for a moment before allowing her hands to drop to her sides. “‘A servant of Ourself should be able to handle a solitary necromancer on her own,'” she said, mimicking Ylva’s slightly deeper voice.
“On your own?” Eva glanced down at herself. “That has changed definitions since the last time I read a dictionary.”
“I’m showing initiative in recruiting you. She meant without her help, not without help at all,” Nel said with confidence. That confidence shattered as Eva raised an eyebrow. “Probably. Look, you want this as much as I do, so why are you arguing? Was I mistaken? Have you–” Her good hand gripped her bad arm. “Have you forgotten what it was like under his knife?”
“I have not,” Eva said through grit teeth. “And that is why I am being cautious. We don’t have Arachne. Ylva won’t help. I could probably convince Zoe–”
Eva cut herself off with a glance over Nel’s shoulders. Zoe wasn’t at home at the moment—ostensibly to find more students for Brakket, though she had told Eva before leaving that she wasn’t sure if she wanted to bring anyone here—so talking loudly wouldn’t have mattered much. She didn’t want to tempt fate by shouting for the world to hear.
She had never felt guilty before. Not once in her life. Yet standing in the apartment building with four bloodstones clinking together in her pocket, she couldn’t help but imagine the disappointed look on Zoe’s face if she found out. Even the thought of explaining what scum they had been wasn’t enough to get the mental image out of her head.
“Look. One week. As soon as my treatment is finished. I don’t care if a full-scale demon invasion happened. I would ignore it to get to Sawyer.”
Nel crossed her arms, partially cradling the withered husk. She glared for a full minute before sighing. “I will hold you to that.”
Eva combed her hair back, running the sharp tips of her fingers across her scalp. Hair out of her face, she let out a long sigh. “He’s still in Idaho?”
“The large gap in my sight is. I’ve been unable to find him using his hand, so I assume so.”
“Good. Go keep an eye on him. If he moves, let me know sooner rather than later. Otherwise, one week.”
Turning on her heel, Eva left Nel behind before the augur could come up with any more reasons to speak.
She had a task set to for the day. Nel did not figure in on that task.
The moment that she arrived outside the apartment complex, Eva paused in her steps.
Ylva had been easy to find. She lived adjacent to Zoe. Eva had been to both of their apartments in the past.
School was out for the summer. Seminars hadn’t even started up yet. If she walked into the reception area, would Catherine be behind the secretary’s desk? Would Lucy and Daru be patrolling the hallways?
Or would they be at home? Did they even have homes?
Demons were supposed to be able to sense one another. Even keeping still and concentrating, Eva couldn’t feel much of anything. There was a vague sense of something powerful–Zagan perhaps–but not enough to pick a direction and start walking.
Eva gave a small shudder.
Despite her words to Devon, the thought of actually meeting with Zagan did not appeal to her. She wanted to. Zagan was a powerful demon and having him in the ritual would be nice, even if Eva wouldn’t get all that much out of it according to Devon.
At the same time, he wasn’t the nicest guy around. Case in point, he tore out her arms the first time he had met with Eva. He had put them back, but that was just because he had terrible mood swings. Or something.
It was hard to predict how he would react to being asked to join the treatment.
A light clearing of a throat startled Eva out of her thoughts.
“Excuse me. You’re blocking the road.”
“Sorry,” Eva said as she stepped to one side. She hadn’t moved from the doorway of the apartment complex. “Just a little lost in thought–”
A pair of hands clamped down on Eva’s shoulders as she found herself suddenly staring into the green eyes of a woman from about half a centimeter away. Or eye, rather. The woman had a solid black eye patch covering her right eye.
Eva tried to pull back, but the hands around her shoulders kept her from moving much other than her head.
The eye behind the patch had blood flowing through it. It turned left and right in tandem with the left eye. Having never seen a blind person that still had their eyes, Eva couldn’t say if that was normal or not. As far as she could tell through her sense of blood, the eye was working just as well as the uncovered one.
Eva would have jumped had the woman’s hands not been holding onto her. One word came out as coarse as gravel while the other was almost melodious.
Her hands disappeared from Eva’s shoulders and reappeared around her wrist. She just about pulled Eva’s arm out of the socket as she yanked the hands towards her sole eye for a better look.
“I thought these were gloves from behind, but they’re not gloves at all!” Her finger traced over the curl of chitin where the carapace melded with skin. She dropped Eva’s arm as abruptly as she had grabbed hold of it. “And your legs!”
Eva took a step back before the insane woman could wrench her feet out from under her.
Luckily, the woman did not pursue.
“I say,” she said, her voice taking on a light melody–almost a mocking sing-song. “You’re a fascinating one. What manner of creature are you?”
“A human,” Eva said through grit teeth. It was her standard response. One that she hadn’t had to use in a while. Everyone in school and most of the people in town were aware of her appearance.
“Well, isn’t that the most bold-faced lie that I have ever heard.”
Eva shook her head before she started on the other standard response. “Not a lie at all. I was born a human. In my first year, a necromancer had a ghost possess me, kidnapped me, tortured me, cut off my arms and legs with a chainsaw, gouged out my eyes with a rusty spoon, and then fitted me with replacements.” She clacked her fingertips together for emphasis.
“A necromancer? Truly?” Again, her hands just about teleported around Eva’s arm as she pulled it up to her face. “There are no stitches. This flesh isn’t rotting or in any kind of stasis.” One hand knocked against the hard carapace. “It isn’t flesh at all!” She took a deep breath through her nose. “And you don’t smell like a necromancer either.”
“I do bathe,” Eva said as she tore her hand out of the woman’s grip, not even caring that she gave the woman a few minor cuts on the way. Maybe the woman would catch the hint.
Or… apparently not.
Humming a short tune, she stared down at the small amount of blood pooling in her hand with a wide smile on her face. A small circular ring adorned her finger, becoming slightly stained with blood as it dripped between her fingers.
Normally, Eva would have dismissed a ring as being a ring. Or perhaps a focus. Nothing too strange around a magical school.
But the circular face on this ring was inscribed. Dots and lines embellished the edge. There was an inner circle with more symbols and a sort of keyhole shape in the center.
A signet ring with a ritual circle inscribed on top was certainly out of the ordinary. What’s more, it was so small. The smallest ritual circle that Eva knew about was the one for her bloodstones. That fit on the back of her hand. Unless it was a mere reminder so that this woman could draw out a larger circle, it was likely intended to be dipped in ink and pressed to a sheet of paper.
But what could such a tiny circle be for?
“Interesting weather we’re having,” she said without a glance at the sky.
Eva blinked, torn from her thoughts by the woman’s light voice. “An experiment by Brakket Academy.” Eva kept her eyes off the purple streaks in the sky as well. The woman was a whole lot more alarming than anything the sky could have been. “The announcement said that it isn’t supposed to be harmful, though they don’t know when it will go away.”
“An experiment? No extra details?”
Eva shrugged. “You would have to ask someone else. I’m just a second-year student.”
“I’ll see about finding someone,” she said. After patting Eva on the head with her unmarred hand, the woman slipped around Eva and went back inside the building she had just exited.
Eva watched her go with narrowed eyes. Even after she left Eva’s field of vision, she still kept track of the woman through her blood sight until the woman went out of range at the fourth floor.
Obviously, the woman was up to no good. Too curious. Too undisturbed by Eva’s hands. Most of all, she had been entirely too happy about everything, even after having her hand cut.
Happy people were never up to anything good. Simple experience had taught her that.
Eva lingered around the entrance for a few minutes. Ylva probably already knew–she was Ylva, after all–but a quick warning that she may be living under someone dangerous wouldn’t take long.
With a sigh, she decided to warn Ylva. She still stuck around for another minute longer—Eva didn’t want the other woman to think that she was being followed—and headed back into the apartment building.
As she ascended to the third floor, the woman came into view again. She and a taller man were in a room together. He stood still in one corner of the room while the woman spoke in an animated fashion with repeated gestures towards her hand.
Eva once again wished that she knew how to blood-lip read.
— — —
Sitting at the kitchen table, Clement stared down at his bowl of dry cereal.
A rumble of his stomach threatened to deafen any who heard it. Looking at the food just made him more hungry. It wouldn’t be hard to eat the cereal dry. He was aware that people did all the time, as a snack or as a meal.
But that wasn’t his way of things. Cereal required milk, protein powder, and a light sprinkle of sugar. Milk helped his bones, protein helped his muscles, and sugar helped his mind. A perfectly complete breakfast.
Gertrude was taking far too long. And yet, she had only just left. Not enough time had passed for her to make it to the store and back. A paradox for the ages.
Gripping his helmet in his gauntleted hand, Clement slammed it over his head.
If Gertrude couldn’t be back yet, that meant that someone else was at the door.
They hadn’t even knocked.
Clement was on his feet, drawing his curved sword before the door handle turned even a quarter of the way. By the time the handle had finished turning, Clement had crossed the room. He hefted his sword in both hands and brought it down without hesitation the moment the door opened.
Anyone intruding on their room without so much as the courtesy of a knock was either an enemy or rude to the point of deserving death.
The door slammed shut. The massive sword caught on the wood of the wall, sending splinters and debris exploding outwards.
Before he had a chance to dislodge his sword, the door swung wide open.
A flash of red slipped in and made it under his guard before he could react.
Clement pulled his hands back, just in time to avoid an elbow coming down onto his wrist.
Despite only avoiding the elbow an instant before, there was already one hand on the back of his helmet and another gripping his wrist.
He didn’t have the time to react before his faceplate smashed into the wall, breaking through drywall and a wooden beam. His arm bent backwards, saved from breaking thanks only to the rigid limitations of his armor.
A pressure on his ankle culminated in his feet being kicked out from under him.
Clement’s helmet dragged through the wall under the pull of gravity. Drywall ground to dust. Enchantments on his helmet kept his breathing clear, but did nothing to help his occluded vision.
He placed his free hand against the wall and shoved.
His red-haired assailant released his arm and simply sidestepped as his massive bulk flew through the room.
Landing on his feet, Clement pulled himself to his full height. He unlatched his face plate to get a view of the room.
The sight caused a prompt frown to settle on his face.
“We’re going to have to pay for that.”
His sword hung embedded in the wall parallel to the floor. Its emerald encrusted hilt stuck out, pointing towards him. The less said about the hole his helmet had made, the better.
Gertrude’s sole green eye danced with mirth. “Hmm. Don’t care. A little sloppy aren’t we?”
Clement shrugged. There wasn’t much else he could do. He had never once beaten Gertrude in a spar. “Back already?” he asked after a moment.
“I just had the strangest encounter,” Gertrude said, spinning in a wide circle. Droplets of blood flew from one hand, speckling a still-intact wall with tiny red spots.
Clement glanced back to the kitchen and his bowl of cereal. It was far enough away to avoid the blood and most of the drywall dust in the air. Most.
It would probably be fine.
Still, his frown deepened as he glanced back to Gertrude.
“You didn’t get the milk.”
“I just had the strangest encounter,” she repeated in that voice. Mirth in her eye faded off as she glared at him.
Clement just sighed. He allowed the bulk of his armor to sink into the apartment’s couch.
The couch groaned out protests against the weight.
Clement never much liked protesters.
“Alright,” he said, “tell me about your encounter.”
“There was a little girl blocking the doorway–rude,” her snarl turned thoughtful. “And a fire hazard. Anyway, cleared my throat. She turned around, giving me a glimpse of her eyes. Black sclera, red iris, slit pupil. Sound familiar?”
“A demon? What happened to research first?”
“Well, I didn’t know she would be there,” Gertrude said as she skipped across the room. With a hop, she landed right on Clement’s lap. “But her hands and legs were made out of some hard exoskeleton. The hands were particularly sharp.” She waved her cut hand around as she wiggled around on his greaves.
Probably not the most comfortable thing. His armor was not as soft as the couch. Gertrude didn’t show any signs of discomfort. She simply angled herself to the side and stretched herself out with her head and feet on either armrest.
Throughout it all, the couch protested more.
It would have to go.
“But here’s the thing,” she said. “The girl said that she was human.”
“A lie. Incomplete disguise or natural form. Bad at hiding herself or unable to?”
“Neither. I believe her.”
Clement glanced down at Gertrude with his perpetual frown deepening further. “You believe her,” he said when she failed to elaborate.
“Her hands had obvious graft points. I couldn’t see graft points for her legs or eyes, but I’m sure they existed. She claimed to have been experimented on by a necromancer. Given her age, she probably mistook some diabolist.”
“The Elysium Sister did mention that they had originally come here to exterminate a necromancer.”
Gertrude waved her bloody hand around. “Details.”
“So? Course of action?”
“Eradication, of course.”
“Simple as that? No pity for an experimented upon human?”
Gertrude let out a melodious laugh. “Pity? And here I thought we knew each other after twenty years.”
Clement shrugged. There wasn’t much else he wanted to do. If she desired eradication, she would have it. He would dive head first into Hell if Gertrude asked.
“Besides,” Gertrude continued, “she reeked of demons. Even taking into account the limb grafts, she shouldn’t smell like that. That’s aside from the fact that she had probably been here to talk with that hel downstairs. Can’t let someone like that go.”
Opening his mouth to comment on the hel, Clement was interrupted by a loud rumbling.
Gertrude shot him a glare. “Fine,” she said as she threw herself off his lap, “I’ll go get your stupid milk. You better appreciate me.”
“Always,” he whispered to himself after she had disappeared out the apartment door.
Clement remained sitting for another minute before he decided that he needed to clean up. With his sword half out in the hall, it wouldn’t be easy to use should an actual enemy attack.
Before he did, he stopped by the target notebook on the table.
He quickly scribbled out a new entry immediately under the hel. There weren’t a lot of details other than grafted limbs, but Gertrude could help add more later.
Author’s Note: Minor note in comments for Patreon and PayPal supporters. And everyone else I guess, if you want to look.