Clement walked down the streets towards Brakket Academy.
Well, not quite naked. He had jeans and a tee-shirt.
But he felt naked.
Without his armor, anything could kill him. A random bus that had its brake line cut, a brick falling from a high building, even tripping over his own shoelaces could send him to the ground and snap his neck.
Clement glanced down at his tennis shoes. They were still tied in neat little knots.
Too many things could end his usefulness to Gertrude without him being able to do a thing.
Most of all, demons would find him easy prey without his armor. Being a mundane human, Clement had no way to defend himself from the more supernatural threats that lurked in the shadows. He couldn’t cast a fireball to save his life. No teleportation would help him, nor any other miraculous interventions.
He did keep an enchanted dagger at his side. That might help against lesser threats, but not against anything greater. His dagger had been made by Gertrude and it was a marvelous work, even if he didn’t understand the magic behind it. However, it couldn’t hold a candle to his sword. A sword that had been designed centuries ago specifically for the purpose of slaying demons.
Demons were their current targets.
Clement hated this plan.
Walking alone in the chilly morning air, Clement felt more naked than ever. The academy building was the nest of the demons. And he was walking towards it.
But armor was too conspicuous. People took note of a massive hulk wandering down the street looking like a renaissance fair reject. They took far less note of a lanky man with a depressed air about him. Even in a city as small as Brakket.
Worse than people taking notice, armor made demons wary. It really didn’t matter normally when Clement charged at a demon, swinging his sword. They could be wary all they wanted to be. A slash through their chest ended their wariness before they could do much about it.
Brakket City was different from normal. Demons were everywhere. If the demons saw him wandering around in his armor, they would definitely think that something was up. Whether they would attack as a group or flee didn’t matter, neither would end well for him.
Though, all the demons in Brakket City would be more wary after tonight.
At least, all the demons remaining.
Clement just had to believe that he would still be around to see their wariness.
And he did believe. Gertrude was watching him. She wouldn’t let him down.
Pausing with his hand on the door to Brakket Academy, Clement took a deep breath.
He pushed the door open and walked inside.
The offices for the dean and other non-teaching staff were just off to the side of the main lobby. One of the demons around Brakket City, the succubus, constantly sat at the receptionist’s desk. They had spent time watching everyone, learning patterns and plotting out possible ambushes.
That desk was where both he and Gertrude expected the succubus to be this morning.
But the desk was empty.
The only other place where the succubus could be found was a small home near the academy.
That home had been empty as well, he had checked there first.
Clement froze in indecision. Something had already gone wrong. They had watched for weeks and had the succubus’ routine down to the hour. What had changed? Why was it different now?
Did they know?
A chill ran down his spine. He spun, hand going to the dagger at his side.
“Hello, did you need something?”
Clement just about collapsed in relief. He had felt certain that the pillar was the one behind him.
The voice came from a normal teacher. A woman wearing her hair in a ribbon. The ends of the ribbon stretched upwards, giving it the appearance of bunny ears. If he remembered their notes correctly, it was the warding teacher. Chelsea Lepus.
They had already dismissed her as not being related to any of the diabolical events aside from her employment with Brakket Academy. Damning, but not so much that she was a priority target.
He glanced around once before responding. “I don’t suppose you know what happened to the secretary.”
“Actually,” she said slowly, tapping her foot against the ground as she thought. “I don’t think I’ve seen her for a few days. Strange, now that you mention it.”
“A few days?” They had focused on other targets for the last week or so. The succubus’ routine was so regular that neither he nor Gertrude could have imagined that something would have changed. “She didn’t mention taking any vacations?”
“Oh hoh, not to me,” Chelsea said with a bright smile. “Catherine doesn’t talk much. I’ll have to ask the dean when she gets in. Was there something I might be able to help you with?”
“I think it will be sufficient for me to return at a later date. Thank you anyway.”
With their target gone, Clement had no intention of sticking around. He turned and left, trying not to betray any unnecessary haste in his movements. None of their plans had accounted for her absence. He needed to get back to Gertrude and find out what had happened.
He definitely did not want to stick around while there was a pillar wandering the school grounds.
Not without his armor.
— — —
Eva snapped to a sitting position in her bed, pushing the nausea to the back of her mind.
“Sawyer knows,” she said.
Nel jumped to her feet. “W-what do you mean?”
The augur’s heartbeat had been constantly elevated during their little road trip. Every time she glanced in Serena’s direction, it jumped a bit more before settling back down. If Eva hadn’t known better, she might have guessed that the augur had feelings for the vampire.
Feelings other than fear, that was.
The moment the words left her mouth, Nel’s heart went into overdrive. She ran to the door and peeked out the peephole as if Sawyer was right outside at this very moment.
A groan came out from under the covers of the other bed.
Serena could keep herself awake through the day without much trouble. Younger vampires apparently had issues with that. At a half century old, Serena was hardly young. However, with all of the fighting that would be likely be happening in the next few days, she had elected to get some beauty sleep.
And she obviously needed it.
Serena pushed the covers off her with another groan, looking like the risen dead that she was. Her eyes were half lidded and there was a certain stiffness in her movements. With her hair unkempt in a halo around her head, she sat up and groggily glanced around the room. A stark contrast to her normally chipper and well-groomed appearance.
Eva, however, was barely paying attention. She was focused on Sawyer and his reading of the text message that they had sent. “He took one look at the message and realized that something was wrong.”
Eva jumped out of bed and ran to her backpack, fighting off the sensory nausea. She had to get everything ready. All of the demon blood and bloodstones, Basila and an engorgement potion, a certain cursed dagger, and her blood that she was going to use to bribe the vampires with. She would have to skip over one ritual that she had wanted to perform on herself.
The movements were making her sick. Sawyer’s agitated state didn’t help much either.
“They must have had some sort of pass phrase that we didn’t include.”
“Calm down,” Serena said slowly, her words transforming into a long yawn partway through. “He doesn’t know that it is you, does he?”
Eva paused her frantic movements, thinking about and watching what Sawyer was up to.
Sawyer had spent the remainder of the day making skeletons with Des. An hour after nightfall, he headed back to the graveyard and started looking through corpses, just as he had the night before. He spent some time sorting through a number of caskets and sending them either to the warehouse or the field. Once finished, he had gone to the field himself.
After he had his hands elbow deep inside the second casket of the night, Eva had sent off her text message.
A simple note about how ‘the boss’ was having him do a few tasks and the vampire might be out of contact for a time.
As Eva had hoped, Sawyer didn’t check his phone immediately. As before, he had forgotten about it until noon. Or maybe he had been deliberately not responding. Either way, he hadn’t looked at the message for several hours.
That was when everything had gone awry.
His eyes had roamed over the words. With an unnatural calm, Sawyer turned off the phone and slipped it into his pocket. He moved back into the room where Des was still slaving away with the skeletons.
“Des,” he had said, “if you would be so kind, we need to prepare for guests.”
The girl had looked up and raised the stitches that made up her right eyebrow.
“No, no,” Sawyer had said with a chuckle. “I imagine these guests are not the sort we want to set tea out for. Set all skeletons on alert and ensure that they are armed. I shall see if I can’t do something more about what may be occurring.”
Focusing herself on her surroundings as Sawyer wandered off, Eva shook her head.
“Sawyer doesn’t know that it is me. He just thinks that something is going to be attacking.”
Serena gave a light hum as she brushed a lock of hair behind her ear. “Is he fleeing?”
“No,” Eva said with a shake of her head. “He’s preparing defenses.”
“Then we still have time,” she said with another yawn.
Why vampires needed to yawn, Eva couldn’t quite understand.
But, at the end of her yawn, Serena pulled the covers of her bed up over her head, leaving only a few strands of curly blond hair peeking out at the top.
Eva stared for a moment at the unmoving lump beneath the blankets before shaking her head. Serena was right. There was no need to run into things right away. Sawyer had obviously invested a great deal of time into setting up his ritual. He wouldn’t just abandon it without a fight.
And there definitely would be a fight now.
Sawyer was pacing through his warehouse. Somewhere along the way, he had gained four enigmas and four skeletons at his back. One room that he passed through had a summoning circle set up inside.
Oddly enough, there were no shackles anywhere to be seen. It was a wonder that he was still alive.
Then again, perhaps he had found a way to specifically target the enigmas. Eva hadn’t seen any demons wandering around. Not even the demon hybrids that he had used to attack the academy. However he had managed to tame the enigmas, it probably worked instantly. Similar to Devon dominating demons. He would have no need of protection between himself and his summonings.
Unfortunately for Eva’s curiosity, he didn’t actually stop to summon more enigmas. He went outside the warehouse and into a smaller building that might have been offices at one point in time. It was dark inside; the windows had all been boarded up. The sunlight coming in from the door didn’t reach very far beyond the entryway.
Walking through the corridors made from cubicles, Sawyer eventually came to a small room deep inside. There were no windows at all, not even boarded up ones. Maybe a custodial closet of some sort.
Pulling on a string that led to an overhead lamp, incandescent light from a fading bulb washed the small room in an orange glow.
“Hello Amelia,” he said.
Eva just stared. Not that she could do much else, at least on Sawyer’s end of her senses. But Sawyer was definitely doing something stare-worthy at the moment.
‘Amelia’ was a corpse. And Sawyer was talking to it.
Its jaw hung wide open. With its lips rotted away to reveal the teeth, it looked like it was screaming in horror. Gaping holes and the back of a skull were all that remained of its eyes. Its skin was tight and gaunt around its bones. Both hands were frozen, clawed across its chest as if she had died while eating something upsetting. Its bony legs were pressed together, crossing right at the ankles. Rope had been strung around the ankles to suspend the entire corpse upside down in the small room.
Oddly enough, there was no smell. Not like the other corpses. Eva was mostly certain that she hadn’t just grown used to it.
The decay was different as well. All of the skin was a tan color with a leathery texture–she could tell when Sawyer reached forward to brush against the thing’s arm. Its stomach and chest were so sunken in that there couldn’t be anything left inside.
Which probably helped the smell, now that Eva thought about it.
“My dear Amelia. I might be having guests soon. Unwanted guests. Vampires, most likely. I don’t suppose that you might be able to do anything about them?”
The rictus gape of horror didn’t move in the slightest. No sound came forth. No motion was made on the part of the corpse.
It was somewhat surprising. Sawyer, being a necromancer with walking skeletons handling his laundry out in the other room, could easily make something like this move.
“No, no. The Elysium Order has quit. They decided that operating in North America is just too costly these days.”
Sawyer moved into the room and took a seat on a small stool. It was the perfect height so that when he sat, his head was level with the corpse’s upside-down face. They could stare at each other without having to crane their necks. Which was good for them. ‘Amelia’ might find turning its neck to be a little difficult given the fragile-looking state of its body.
That state didn’t stop Sawyer from nodding his head as if he were agreeing with something the corpse had said.
“It could be bounty hunters. But I doubt it. It is far more likely that my pet vampire was found out and now the rest of the coven is upset.”
Sawyer started to shake his head. “No. Just vampires. But do let them get a ways in before you do anything. We wouldn’t want any to escape, would we? Besides, their bodies may prove useful to me.”
With two pats against the corpse’s cheek, Sawyer said, “thank you, my dear.”
Eva started to get a bad feeling as he leaned forwards.
Her bad feeling was temporarily placed on hold as Sawyer jerked back.
“I come talk to you all the time,” he said, affronted at whatever he imagined the corpse had said. “It’s pure coincidence that I need your help every time we talk.”
“She’s doing well, as you well know,” Sawyer said after a brief pause. “I might expect a bit much of her from time to time.”
Sawyer was always insane. Eva knew that. Normal people didn’t unleash zombies on unsuspecting townsfolk or turn little girls into monsters. But this was taking it to a whole new level.
“No, the stitches aren’t necessary. She ruined one of my plans for petty revenge. It’s been a few months, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to give her another chance.”
He sighed, shaking his head back and forth. “Des’ abilities continue to improve, albeit slowly. Too slowly. I almost wonder if some of the modifications damaged her. She acts younger than she should. Her infantilism was possibly the main reason why she tried attacking–”
Taken aback, he paused for just a moment. “What? Never. I’m not blaming her for my–No! Don’t you worry. Our little honey will be better at this than me one of these days.”
Again, Sawyer patted the corpse on the shoulder. Given that ‘Amelia’ was upside down, it was somewhat awkward. He managed all the same. “No, but I do need to get going. People to kill and all that. You just keep a watch out for those vampires.”
The bad feeling that Eva had felt earlier resurfaced in full force as Sawyer leaned in again.
Sure enough, Sawyer’s lips pressed against the corpse’s teeth. His tongue traced the backs of the teeth and a good portion of the inside of its mouth.
Sawyer was kissing a corpse. Passionately at that.
Eva felt like screaming.
So she did.
“Nel! Is frankincense edible?”
The augur, who had still been staring out of the room’s peephole, jumped at Eva’s outburst. “W-What?”
“I need something, anything, that might help get the taste of corpses out of my mouth.”
“This ritual is the worst thing that has ever happened to me. And I did it to myself. I’d rather have my eyes torn out again and again and again and again than spend another minute in Sawyer’s life. I swear, I’m going to burn the entire book just to spare anyone else this horror.”
Serena had woken up again, still looking like death warmed over. Both she and Nel were staring at Eva.
“Your necromancer is eating bodies?”
“Kissing,” Eva snapped. “He’s kissing a corpse! A husk of a mummy!”
The two continued staring.
“Affectionately,” Eva added before slamming her face back into the pillow.
“Well,” Serena said, “it ends tonight, right? Only about twelve hours to go.”
Eva just snorted. As if that would make everything better. All she knew was that Sawyer was going to pay for putting her through two days in his life.
Nel shifted, her fingers touching as she spoke in a soft tone of voice. “How does him finding out that we’re attacking lead to him kissing corpses?”
“He doesn’t know that we are the ones attacking. He thinks it is the vampires. And he thought that this corpse that he’s kissing could help defend against them.” Eva shook her head. “He’s crazier than I thought. The mummy didn’t even respond to him. It was just a hanging corpse. A really dead one.”
“H-hanging?” Nel squeaked out. “H-hanging how?”
“By a rope around its feet, head down,” Eva mumbled into her pillow as she watched through her blood sight. Nel was scared. That much was clear. She was trembling. Eva was almost worried that she was having a seizure.
“What is it, Nel? You know something. Quit shaking and spit it out.”
“A haugbui. Norse origins. It cannot move but it will defend the place it calls a tomb. Violently. W-we can’t fight it. If we get near, it will kill us.”
Eva sat up to stare at the trembling woman with her own eyes. “It can’t move but it will kill us? How?”
“I don’t know. I’m an augur. I just watch. You can always tell when a haugbui is in the area. A sister’s head will just fall from her shoulders. Or all their limbs will fall off. Or their stomachs will fail to hold in their insides. People just die around them.”
“Cutting attacks then? I wonder–”
“No. Armor doesn’t stop it. Nothing stops it.”
Eva crossed her arms, narrowing her eyes at the augur. “The Elysium Order must have plans and guidelines on how to deal with them.”
“Annihilation. They can’t defend too large of an area, so sisters will typically form a circle around the haugbui. Then, fire. Lots of fire. Everything within turns to ash including the haugbui.”
“Doesn’t really sound like an option for us.”
“It isn’t,” Nel said. She reached for a water bottle and tried to take a drink. Her hands were shaking enough that she ended up spilling part of it down her front. “We need to call in help.”
“There’s no one to call in.” Eva sighed, lying back down on her bed.
At least Sawyer wasn’t in the same room as that mummy anymore. He had wandered off. Shoring up defenses with orders for the skeletons and enigmas that patrolled the warehouse. Eva paid attention to them as they could help. But if that mummy was as dangerous as Nel’s shivers, none of them would be going anywhere near the skeletons and enigmas.
“You said that these things have a small area that they affect? How small?”
“I don’t know. A hundred feet?”
Eva sat up. Smile on her face. “Then it is simple. We don’t go to the warehouse. At all. We target the field and the ritual. Preferably while Sawyer is there.”
“We won’t know once your ritual runs out.”
“No,” Eva agreed. “But he has gone to the graveyard and then the field every night. He might take a break just in case the vampires attack, but I doubt it. That might delay his ritual.”
“What if he has another one? They’re hard to make, but he has one. He clearly knows how to make them.”
“I doubt it. This one feels personal. Like, an old lover or something.”
“Just send the vampires in first,” Serena said with a groan. “If they fall to pieces, who cares. Now try not to wake me again unless you want to do this all without my help,” she said as she flopped back down underneath her covers.
Eva looked to Nel and gave the augur a half-hearted shrug.
“Sacrificing vampires? Works for me,” the augur said. Her voice was a few notches chillier than normal. “As long as I get to stay here.”
As she returned to peeping out the peephole, Eva followed Serena’s example and covered herself back up.
If Sawyer did have another of those mummies, she desperately hoped that he wouldn’t be quite so affectionate with them.
Less than twelve hours left, she thought as she immersed herself back into his world.