It only took six hours for Eva to regret ever performing the ritual.
By twelve hours, she was certain that she would be sick multiple times before the ritual wore off.
The doubled vision and senses, she could handle. Sitting in one spot with her eyes shut went leagues in preventing her from feeling ill. Anything that reduced her sensory inputs to only Sawyer helped exponentially.
No. Her regrets didn’t have anything to do with the ritual itself.
Rather, her regrets stemmed from ever thinking that peeking in on Sawyer’s deprived mind would be a good idea.
It definitely wasn’t.
Watching him dig up a graveyard wasn’t so bad. That had consisted of him standing around and watching a bunch of skeletons. The skeletons shoveled out dirt. Eventually, one would hit a casket and wave him over.
That was around where things started to go bad. Cracking open caskets was not something that Eva would recommend to anyone. With all of Sawyer’s senses, Eva could smell the body contained within.
She didn’t know where to begin in describing it. Horrible. Vile. Disgusting. No word she could think of had the proper impact.
Eva had barely managed to keep her lunch down. She was no stranger to gruesome things. Blood, violence, killing people even. None of it really bothered her all that much. She had become used to it.
But everything that she was used to was fresh. No time for rot to set in. Bodies she killed didn’t often fester inside a tiny box with no clean airflow. At least not while she was around.
She had actually started to regret leaving the bodies of those thugs lying around their warehouse. She actually hoped that the police had either found them immediately or wouldn’t until a hundred years after their bones had been picked clean by scavengers. Finding them anywhere in between would not be pleasant.
Sawyer hadn’t even wrinkled his nose at the stench. He reached in without hesitation and gripped the body’s chin. The leathery skin had holes in it, especially around the cheeks and eyes. He turned the head one way, then the other. A bit of cracking sound had accompanied the motions, but Eva couldn’t tell what it was. He was the expert, not her.
He plunged a bare finger into the eye socket. After wiggling it around for a moment, he withdrew, wiping the gunk on his finger on the cloth inside the casket. Closing the lid, he had checked the date on the tombstone before writing ‘three months’ on the lid with a marker.
“To the warehouse,” he had ordered.
Four skeletons had picked up the casket, one at each corner, and marched away.
In Eva’s opinion, caskets looked heavy. She had never lifted one, so she couldn’t say for certain, but that was just what she guessed by the size. How four skeletons could pick up a casket without their arms falling out of their sockets could only be explained through the use of magic.
That had been Eva’s experience with only the first of the caskets. He had stuck around, digging up tens of the things. Every one got an inspection like the first. Some smelled worse, other smelled better–or Eva was just getting used to the smell. One in particular had been damaged at some point. The casket hadn’t been sealed properly or it had broken open. Maggots infested the inside.
Sawyer hadn’t so much as flinched when reaching into the casket. He hadn’t taken any notice of the things as they crawled over his hands. Only when he removed his hand did he glance down at the maggots. A pale light washed over his skin.
The maggots dropped to the ground, unmoving.
Some of the bodies followed the first to the warehouse. Some went to ‘the field.’ A number of them got thrown back into their graves. Ones fresher than a year tended to go towards the warehouse. Older ones went to the field. Damaged corpses, those with missing arms or bashed in skulls for example, made up the bulk of those that were returned to their grave.
He never replaced them with any respect. He merely waved his hand and the skeletons shoved the caskets back into the pit, sometimes without even closing the lid.
Of course, Eva’s ritual had proved useful despite the obvious downsides.
When Sawyer had finally left the graveyard, Serena and Nel had been able to figure out exactly where he was and where his warehouse was based on Eva’s descriptions of the surroundings. There were three graveyards within the gap in Nel’s augur vision. Sawyer had probably picked the location specifically because of the close proximity to so many corpses.
She had managed to sketch out some crude blueprints of his warehouse as well. Every skeleton, zombie, ghost, or enigma that she saw, she noted down beside the sketch. Knowing that there were twelve enigmas patrolling the outside along with skeletons could save their lives.
“His hand,” Eva said softly. She didn’t want to speak too loud. Sawyer couldn’t hear her, but she could hear herself and that was bad enough. “I didn’t notice in the darkness of the cemetery, but it is discolored. There are stitches holding it to his wrist.”
Perhaps because it wasn’t a sense that Eva was leeching from Sawyer, watching her companions through her blood sight didn’t cause any extra sickness. She was free to watch Nel nod her head without any backlash.
“That makes sense. The girl was amputating his hand at one point. I didn’t see him reattach it, but given the state of the girl, I doubt attaching a new one would be beyond his abilities.”
Eva nodded, but did not respond. Unlike her blood sight, hearing Nel’s voice did cause some ‘double-hearing’ induced nausea. Instead, she just sat back and watched through Sawyer’s eyes as he went about his base of operations. She made notations where necessary. Anything that looked important or dangerous got marked on her blueprints.
She didn’t want Sawyer to get away, but he was the slippery sort. Destroying absolutely everything would be a suitable consolation prize. Especially if they then went to his Nevada home, either chasing after him or to destroy everything there.
“Hold on,” Eva said. “He’s leaving his warehouse.”
Sawyer hadn’t bothered to lock the doors on his way out. With all the skeletal guards and enigmas patrolling around, he probably didn’t need to. They would be more than able to handle just about any intruder. Especially ones that just happened to stumble across his hideout. Mundane police wouldn’t stand a chance.
Mage-knights of Genoa’s caliber or a group of Elysium Order nuns could probably get in. Neither of them would likely be stopped by a single locked door for very long.
“Where’s he going?”
Eva shrugged. “I see what he sees, not think what he thinks.” And wasn’t that a good thing. Peeking into Sawyer’s thoughts might give them insight into just what he was doing, but Eva doubted that she would remain all that sane. Serena and Nel would probably have had to restrain her.
“He’s headed towards his car.” A nice car. Eva didn’t know enough about cars to tell just what make and model it was, but it was nicer than Devon’s truck. She wouldn’t have expected a necromancer to drive around in a sleek sports car, yet there he was.
As he drove along the twisted roads, Eva called out his direction and any side streets that he passed by. Nel could write down any landmarks while Serena marked it down on their map.
“I think he’s headed towards the field he mentioned,” Eva said. “He’s pulling over to the side of the road and I can’t see anything around but wilderness. No buildings or lights. Not even a side road.”
His discolored hand twitched a little as Sawyer reached for the car keys. With his good hand, he clamped down on his wrist for just a moment before removing the keys from the ignition. In the same motion that dropped the keys into his pocket, he retrieved a syringe full of fluorescent green liquid.
Eva jerked back with a wince as he plunged it into his arm. The needle itself wasn’t the problem. A blood mage had to cut themselves far worse than the tiny pinprick.
The problem was the liquid. It burned. His pain came through their link loud and clear. And yet, he didn’t actually wince or anything to indicate that he felt the pain. Either he was much better at disguising the feeling than she was or he had a way to ignore it that didn’t prevent the pain from going to her.
“Are you okay?”
Eva started at Serena’s voice. She hadn’t even noticed the vampire placing a hand on her shoulder. “Fine,” she said without opening her eyes. “Just note down that Sawyer has problems with his hand. Twitches and loss of control. He takes some kind of injected potion for it that is not pleasant.”
Sawyer was moving again. Walking this time. There was a trodden trail through the sagebrush and dirt, so he had probably been this way a few times.
He crested the top of a small hill and looked down below.
“I don’t like the look of this.”
Skeletons meandered about in the shallow valley. Caskets and coffins were arranged into circular rings. Three in the innermost ring, five in the next, eight after that. The ring after that looked like it had room for thirteen, but four were missing. There was enough room for one or maybe two more rings of caskets after that, but neither had anything in them aside from meandering skeletons.
“It’s a ritual of some sort. Or Sawyer is just obsessive about how he arranges his bodies. I don’t have a clue as to what it could be for, however.”
“What kind of ritual?” Nel asked. “I’m no archivist, but I have been trained to recognize most common necromantic activities.”
“Rings of bodies. Three, five, eight, and so on. All centered around something in the middle. He didn’t look directly at it, so I’m not sure what it was.”
Studying through the necromancy books she had stolen might have been a good idea—even just bringing them along so that they could look things up. There was no guarantee that this particular ritual would be in any of the books that she had, but they would have been better than nothing.
Nel hummed in thought for a few moments. Eventually, she shook her head. “I would normally describe the more complicated things I see to an archivist to figure out what they are. Sorry.”
Eva just waved her off, though she kept that in mind for later. Maybe they could contact someone in the Elysium Order and ask. It wouldn’t be hard to claim that they were mage-knights on a job. Probably.
After surveying the ritual site for a few minutes, Sawyer walked down into the valley. He didn’t stop at any of the caskets. Neither did he stop at the center. He continued onwards until he had reached the top of the hill on the opposite side of valley.
Eva quickly counted up the caskets there were all lined up in a row. Twenty. Enough to finish the thirteen-ring, but not enough for even half of the first empty ring.
That was a relief. Whatever the ritual was for, it couldn’t be anything good. Eva decided to make the field a priority regardless of how anything else turned out.
She recognized a few of the caskets from the graveyard earlier. The rest might have come from the same place, but it was dark and she really hadn’t been paying all that much attention to the individual caskets.
He walked up to the first casket in the line and placed his hands on the lid.
Eva braced herself, preparing for the worst.
Once again, a stench belched forth from the casket that sent Eva’s head spinning. She had been hoping that she had gotten used to it, or that the casket might have aired out a little thanks to having been opened not long before.
That wasn’t the case. The fresh air in the interim just made the scent hit her tenfold as hard.
As Sawyer pulled out a set of tools, Eva stepped straight to her feet behind Serena and Nel. She rushed into the bathroom and proceeded to empty her stomach into the toilet.
— — —
Nel watched with narrowed eyes as the vampire took off after Eva.
Keeping the notebook in hand in case Eva had more for her to write down, Nel followed the two. She couldn’t let the vampire be alone with Eva while the girl was in such a vulnerable state. It wasn’t so much a matter of if but when the creature would stab them in the back.
Though, as Nel watched the vampire pat Eva on the back, she had to admit that the situation was disconcerting. Every vampire that she had ever met had been a bloodthirsty monster bent on killing as many of her sisters in the Elysium Order as they could before they got put down.
One acting… civilized just didn’t mesh with what she knew to be true.
She knew that they could act civilized. Sometimes, at least. If every vampire was in a constant state of madness, they wouldn’t be half as hard to find.
“I’m fine,” Eva said, shrugging the vampire off her back. She wasn’t too steady on her feet as she made her way to the sink and started washing out her mouth. “It’s just the smell. I don’t know how he can just ignore it.”
“Do you want to lie down for a few minutes?”
Eva gave a slow nod of her head. “I don’t think he’s going to be doing anything interesting for the next while. He’s performing surgery on the corpses. Currently, he’s removing the stomach–or what’s left of it–of one of the bodies.”
The vampire slung one of Eva’s arms over her shoulder and helped her over to the bed. “Sounds like you’re in for a long night.”
“Maybe Nel would be willing to light up some frankincense?”
Nel blinked at being addressed. “I thought you hated it.”
“I do,” Eva said. Her eyes were closed, but Nel could still feel some imaginary glare. “But if it overpowers the scent of rotting and bloated humans, I think I’ll take it.”
With a shrug of her shoulders, Nel went to her bag and started rummaging through. Frankincense had been one of the things she had brought plenty of. Keeping some lit for a while would hardly dent her stores.
It didn’t take her long to pull out the burner and a few pellets of frankincense. With her gemstone focus, Nel sparked the burner and stoked the flame. She carried it into the main room to help Eva sooner rather than later.
Soon enough, the wooden scent of frankincense filled the small room.
Nel gave a slight start as she realized that she had forgotten something. She grabbed the roll of duct tape and slapped a few strips over the smoke detector in the room.
That could have been bad, she thought with a sigh. She was relatively certain that incense wasn’t allowed in motel rooms. There were no smoking signs all over the building. Incense was quite similar to smoking, at least as far as fire-causing embers and staining smell everywhere went.
“Alright,” Nel said, “I’ve–”
A heavy knock at their door interrupted her. Though she had to wonder if it was actually a knock or not. It sounded more like someone took a sledge-hammer and used that as a door knocker.
Nel gripped her focus in her hand. No one had ever disturbed them at the other motels. Now they were extremely close to Sawyer and someone knocks?
She took a quick glimpse of the other side of the door.
As soon as she saw the motel logo on the man’s shirt, she let out a long breath. “It’s just the manager right? He works for the motel, at least.” Serena had taken care of the paying, so she hadn’t actually seen any employees. “He must have been walking by and smelled the frankincense.”
“Or he broke through my geas and realized that we didn’t actually pay him anything,” Serena said as she walked out of the bathroom, though she looked just as wary as Nel felt.
“It’s a human,” Eva said, still looking sick and leaning over the sink. “That’s all I can really tell you. I’ll stay hidden back here.”
There was another heavier knock against the door. If the guy knocked any harder, the door might come off its hinges.
“Best not to keep him waiting,” Eva said.
Serena stepped towards the door. “I’ll handle it. I’ll see if I can’t make him think that the frankincense is just his imagination.”
While Serena moved, Nel shuffled her feet. The chalk-drawn ritual circle was between the room’s two beds with part of it underneath one bed that had been shoved aside while it was being used. Most of it was out of sight from the door, but some poked out. She tried to disguise as much of it as she could before the manager saw. As long as he didn’t enter the room, it should be fine.
“Is something the matter?” Serena asked in a too-sweet voice as she opened the door. Her smile was just a bit too unnerving for Nel’s tastes. She had mastered the art of giving wide, polite smiles without revealing her fangs.
The manager didn’t respond right away. First, he glanced around the room. His eyes found Nel’s without delay. There was hardly any reaction before he dropped his gaze to the gemstone in her hand and again to the chalk dust around her feet.
Nel’s grip on her focus tightened. He knew.
But he still didn’t say anything. He wrinkled his nose slightly as he sniffed at the air before he turned back to Serena.
“My master wishes to meet with you and your two thralls. Immediately.”
All of the false humor vanished from Serena’s face as her smile turned to a grimace. “And your master is?”
“Lord Kuvon will accept no argument in the matter. Fetch your thralls and come with me.”
“There are only two hours until sunrise,” Serena said without so much as a glance towards the clock.
“Then I suggest that you make haste.” The manager took a step away from the door, back into the open air of the parking lot. He clasped his hands behind his back as he stared up at the night sky.
Serena turned back into the room with her grimace having shifted into pure anger.
Eva stepped out of the bathroom with her eyes still closed. “Tell me this isn’t what I think it is,” she said, apparently having heard the conversation.
“I used my geas on the thrall of another vampire,” Serena said through grit teeth. “And then I drank from him. This vampire is going to want a tribute for that offense.” Her eyes widened as she looked towards Eva. “He’s going to smell you. He’ll want a… taste. At the very least.”
Eva’s eyes opened. Just a thin slit of red peeking out from under her eyelids. She mouthed three very clear words. ‘I’ll kill him.’
“You’re in no shape to fight; that might not be an option. We’ll see. But we can’t ignore this. If we do, we’ll likely see a gang of thralls breaking in here. In the middle of the day.”
Eva grit her teeth. “Let me get my blood,” she said, turning towards her suitcase.
Nel hadn’t moved since she realized just what was going on. The hand gripping her focus was shaking. Her other hand was slowly stroking the black skull that hung from her choker. The symbol of Lady Ylva’s ownership of her.
It was a comforting motion, even though she knew that there would be no help coming from that front. Lady Ylva had asked her to handle the Sawyer situation. She wouldn’t be sending reinforcements.
Both Eva and Serena had completely disregarded Nel as any kind of possible help. Not really a wrong decision.
Nel was an information gatherer, not a fighter.
But she could use the magic of the Elysium Order. At the very least, she could unleash a wide blast of flame and give an opportunity for Eva to do something.
Vampires were the Elysium Order’s specialty, after all.