Eva woke with a sheen of sweat coating her body. There was a twisting in her stomach, something she couldn’t quite explain. It wasn’t hunger. More like disgust or revulsion.
Something was wrong.
Throwing her blankets off, Eva took a look around her room in the women’s ward. Aside from the messy bed, everything was neatly organized. Her dresser held all of the various knickknacks that she had acquired over the past few years. None had been moved. Her room was just as she remembered leaving it the night before.
The windows were still barred and sealed. It was just barely getting dark out. Eva had decided to take a quick nap after having finished setting up her wards. With all the excitement, sleepless nights, and somewhat severe anemia in the recent days, she hadn’t wanted to fight demon hunters while in such a sorry state. She had intended to just take a short nap—she didn’t even sleep much these days anyway—but by the looks of things, she had somewhat overslept.
However, aside from the pale streaks of purple in the sky, nothing looked amiss outside of her room.
“So what is wrong?” she mumbled to herself as she threw on a shirt and a skirt.
Through the walls, Eva took note of her guests. Ylva, Catherine, and Prax were all out in the common room. None really appeared to be speaking to one another. Prax leaned against a far wall with his arms crossed in front of his chest. Ylva sat in a chair, reclining back with one arm on the armrest. She had her fingers curled underneath her chin, supporting her head as she stared off into the distance. Lying on the longer couch, Catherine fiddled with a cellphone.
Zoe and Juliana weren’t around at the moment. They must have gone back during Eva’s nap. Juliana’s father had given some strict instructions to Zoe regarding his daughter’s extracurricular activities. Something about a curfew.
She would have expected Zoe to return afterwards. Or send a message if she was in trouble.
A quick check of her cellphone showed no new messages.
As she was slowly becoming used to, Eva could sense all three of the demons in the other room. And more. The carnivean and the wax demon were somewhere around as well, though farther away. Along with all those demons was Zagan, though his presence was faint and in the vague direction of Brakket Academy.
But there was something else. Something disturbing.
Whatever it was, it had been the thing to wake her.
Pushing open the door to the common room, Eva looked around at the demons with her own eyes.
None of them turned to look at her.
“Do you feel it too?” she asked no one in particular.
“It’s Daru,” Catherine said in an exasperated tone of voice. She didn’t bother looking up from her cellphone.
Though, moving slightly closer and catching a glimpse over the succubus’ shoulder, Eva found herself surprised at the lack of a game on the screen. Rather, she was in some sort of drawing program, tracing out sigil-inscribed circles with her thumb.
Practicing? Or maybe continuing whatever she had been working on with Devon, Eva thought. Her own version of a treatment circle.
Eva shook her head. “Why does it feel like that? It’s… It’s… vile.”
“He’s in pain. Lots of pain,” Catherine said. “Active torture, I’d imagine. Enough to mess with his aura.”
“And we’re just sitting around?”
Catherine sighed as she set her phone on the couch cushion. She glanced over her shoulder and shook her head. “Martina might have asked me to help you out, but that doesn’t mean that I need to die for you. I rather like being around here. The mortal realm, that is.”
When Catherine failed to jump up and charge out to rescue Daru, Eva turned first to Ylva before moving on to Prax.
“It is a trap,” Prax said. “Your defenses give us the advantage over any who would attack us. Leaving their protections to rescue some morail would be foolish in the extreme.”
“So we’re just going to leave him to be tortured?”
As someone who had gone through torture herself, leaving someone else to such a fate did not sit right with her. Eva had recovered, true. Perhaps even becoming stronger than she had been before with the addition of Arachne’s limbs. But that didn’t mean that others would be the same.
“Eva,” Catherine said, sitting up on the couch. “What you fail to realize is that no one here cares about Daru. No one here cares about each other, except in how they will fare should we need to fight. So long as the others keep me from dying, they’re my best friends. The moment they become a liability to my continued existence…”
With a frown, Eva glanced towards Ylva, expecting at least the hel to deny having the same thoughts.
Ylva turned her head slightly, looking towards Prax. “The cambion’s assessment is correct. This is a trap. Wandering into it, blinded by revenge or some foolish heroism, would suit no one. The morail is not Our servant. His demise matters little.”
Eva closed her eyes. She took a deep breath, letting it out slowly.
With how much she interacted with them on a daily basis, it was easy to forget that most of everyone who she knew was a demon. And not demons like Arachne.
Arachne cared. At least about her.
Maybe that was the problem. She had a skewed perspective because of Arachne. Eva was willing to grant that Arachne likely cared little for anyone else. The only reason why Arachne had helped anyone else was because of Eva asking her to.
“But I care,” Eva said, looking Catherine in the eye. “I care about Arachne. I want her back. She was–is my friend and my companion.” Eva’s hand drifted up to the beacon set around her neck.
“Along with that, I care about you. Ylva too,” Eva said, turning to face the hel. “And,” she started looking towards Prax before snapping her gaze back to Catherine. “Lucy too. If any of you were being tortured, I would jump in and try to save you.”
Silence greeted Eva’s proclamation.
No one moved. No one said a word.
At least, until Prax let out a loud snort.
That broke whatever spell held them still.
Catherine rolled her eyes and picked up her cellphone again while Ylva just looked up at Eva and stared.
“A foolish notion. Mortals lack the ability to permanently kill demons. Any sacrifice you make would be pointless in the end.”
“I might as well try,” Eva said, fiddling with Arachne’s beacon once again. “By that logic, there aren’t any downsides to trying. If none of us die when we’re killed…” Trailing off, Eva stared at Ylva. “Can I die? Permanently.”
The air chilled by a few degrees. Enough so that Eva’s breath condensed into faint puffs of fog as she breathed.
Eva took a step backwards as Ylva moved to her feet.
Though she wasn’t standing in any sunlight, her skin vanished. All that remained was the giant skeleton, stooping over slightly to fit under the relatively low ceiling of the women’s ward. Two tiny white pinpricks of light emanated from the depths of her empty eye sockets.
Eva tried to take another step back.
Ylva was too quick.
Her hand reached out, digging her bony fingers into Eva’s shoulder.
Ice flowed through Eva’s body.
Not just ice. Whatever it was, it was colder than ice. Turning her sense of blood in on herself, Eva could see her very veins freezing beneath her skin. It spread, starting at Ylva’s hand and spreading.
Down her arm.
Down her chest.
Up her neck.
Eva managed only a short scream before her throat froze over.
She was only barely conscious of Catherine staring at her with wide eyes. The succubus made no movements to intervene.
Neither did Prax. He hadn’t even shifted from his position against the far wall.
Those white pinpricks where Ylva’s eyes should be captured her, forcibly holding her gaze and what little attention she could muster.
Tendrils of ice reached up Eva’s neck.
The moment they touched her brain, everything went dark.
— — —
“No one is coming.”
What little there was of the demon had just been swallowed by Void. Bits and pieces of him had been left behind. Void only took the largest chunk of the demon that was still connected to either the brain or the heart, if either were still intact.
Gertrude snapped her tome shut.
“No one is coming,” she said again with a glance around the empty wilderness. “All that work. All for nothing.”
Clement followed her gaze.
They had set up just to the side of the main freeway that passed by Brakket City. Several demon traps had been set up. Slick icy patches created by Gertrude made up the proper rings and symbols for shackles. Some out in the fields around them to capture any that might come by. Even a few on the roads themselves.
Some demons liked to drive for whatever reason. Clement had never talked with one, but he imagined that they didn’t often drive if they ever wound up summoned again. The look on their faces when they drove over a set of icy shackles was one that made him extraordinarily grateful to Gertrude for enchanting his visor with magnification settings.
A demon’s car would find itself relatively unimpeded by the ice. The demon wasn’t so lucky. Even the strongest of demons would find themselves hard pressed to survive both impacting against the wall of shackles at above eighty miles an hour and the crumpling of their car around them when their body got in the way.
A perfect trap if ever there was one.
Except when demons didn’t show up.
“All this sneaking around and trapping,” Gertrude said. She put her fingers into her red hair, giving a light tug. Not hard enough to actually pull the hair out, just enough to try to relieve stress. “I can’t take it anymore. I want to fight. That girl ruined everything,” she said with a loud groan.
Clement placed his hand on his sword. “Are we taking the fight to them?”
“The city has less demons,” she said, not even paying attention to Clement. “Ahh, but it has the devil.”
“Will your enchantments work on him?”
“I suppose that depends entirely on how playful he’s feeling. I wouldn’t rely on anything but your sword. That should work on the Devil himself.”
Clement glanced down towards his boots, opening his mouth to ask.
Gertrude preempted his question. “No amount of speed will matter if he gets serious.”
“Then we must kill him before he gets serious.”
“A trickier task than simple words make it sound.”
“I can handle it.”
Bright white teeth appeared between Gertrude’s lips as their corners curled up high on her cheeks. “If you handle him,” she said with a hum, rubbing her chin. “That might work. You won’t get any support from me.”
Clement blinked. Possibly the most powerful foe they had ever faced and she wouldn’t be there? He suppressed the chill on his neck and gave Gertrude a nod. “If that is what you need of me. Shall we set up traps?”
“The first one might work for a few seconds. I wouldn’t expect anything to work twice.”
Tightening his fingers around his sword’s hilt, Clement took a deep breath. “A few seconds might be all I need.”
“Alright then,” she said, turning and stalking away from the mess of the demon. After taking one step, Gertrude paused. “There is one more thing.”
She tossed a small object towards Clement. With the enchantments on his visor and the rest of his armor, he hand no trouble spotting and catching it in the dim light.
An old-fashioned signet ring. It was a dark metal, heavier than he expected though he had no trouble lifting it. Whether that was because of his armor’s enchantments or something Gertrude had done to the ring, he couldn’t say.
The signet part of the ring had heavy embossing. There were two main parts of the signet. The first, the outer circle, was full of dots and lines. Some lines were straight while others squiggled. None of the patterns made any sense to him.
The inner circle had a symbol that looked almost like an old-fashioned keyhole. There were a few excess lines around the keyhole along with the astrological symbols for Mars and Saturn.
“This is your ring,” he said, looking back to Gertrude. “Why give it to me? You aren’t planning on doing something foolish again, are you?”
“Me?” she said with a faux gasp, grasping at her chest as if she had just been struck. “Never!”
Gertrude took a deep breath, her countenance taking on a slightly more serious appearance.
“It’s called the Seal of Solomon,” she said. “Said to be able to seal any demon, including the seventy-two devils. Just press it into their skin and bam! One-way ticket to Hell.”
“You offered to fight him,” Gertrude said with a shrug. “Besides, I don’t know if it will work. You know me,” she paused to crack her knuckles, “I prefer to drag these bastards back to Hell in pieces.”
With that said, she turned back to the van and started walking, leaving Clement staring at the ring.
And wondering just how he was supposed to wear it with his gauntlets in the way.
Perhaps a small chain around his neck would work.
Shaking his head, Clement glanced back towards where their demon guest had been sent back to Hell.
Leaving the mess behind could present a potential hazard to any innocents who came across it. Though morail blood wasn’t caustic or toxic, it was still demon blood. He would hate to have to hunt down anyone who came into contact with the substance. Likely some random person followed by either mundane police or Brakket Academy personnel.
If it was the latter, he wouldn’t feel too guilty about it.
But Gertrude had already slipped through the window of their van. Roars of the engine filled the air as she revved up the vehicle. Three sharp blasts of the horn signaled her impatience.
With a sigh, Clement followed her footsteps and left the mess of the demon behind. With any luck, the remains would be picked off by carrion feeders. A lot harder to hunt down, but significantly less important than hunting down sentient beings.
He pulled open the rear doors of the van and climbed inside, setting the weight of his armor down on one of the reinforced seats.
Gertrude slammed on the gas pedal, lurching the van forwards, before he even had a chance to shut the door.
— — —
An empty void. Nothing existed anywhere. There were no landmarks, no scents, no lights. Nothing at all. Nothing but cold.
Eva couldn’t feel her fingers. She couldn’t feel her toes.
And yet, it was somehow familiar. Except for the cold.
The hallway that she had been trapped in after being stabbed by Sawyer. Or rather, the void that she had fallen into just before waking.
Eva had taken the entire thing to be a near death experience brought on by the cursed dagger. Some delusion that her mind had wrought as a way of coping with her imminent demise.
That she was experiencing it again did not fill her with happy feelings. The implications elicited almost the exact opposite; feelings of dread.
Ylva had killed her. Or, at least came close enough to throw her back into a comatose state. A state that, last time, Eva had required outside assistance to wake up from.
Though, last time, the emptiness had immediately preceded waking up. Perhaps she wouldn’t need to muck about with the hallway this time.
Of course, she had retained the ability to feel things last time. Eva distinctly recalled using her claws to cut herself as a test. No matter how much she tried to move, she couldn’t feel even the slightest movement of her own body.
And she was trying.
With nothing else to do, Eva continuously tried to flex her fingers. Back and forth, back and forth.
Slowly yet surely, the lack of any feeling gave way to a sort of tingling numbness. The sort of feeling that happened when a limb fell asleep. It was painful, but not overly so. Nothing quite compared to having her eyes pulled out. Or even the curse from the blade.
As the numbness worked its way up her arms, Eva started trying the same with her legs. Anything to get more feeling in her body.
After a moment or two of working over her fingers, Eva had a thought.
If Ylva had frozen her body, what was the best way to get rid of that ice?
The answer was obviously fire.
Eva ignited her arms and legs.
Warmth poured into her. She didn’t go further than her carapace–the flames would end up going too far and taking her from frozen to extra crispy. A few warming spells around her chest and stomach helped, though not to the same degree.
Still, Eva was quickly regaining her range of motion.
And her hearing.
A buzzing at her ears that slowly grew louder. Shouts, perhaps?
Cries to put it out.
What are they talking about? The fire?
Eva couldn’t put it out. Not before she was thawed.
Casting a heating spell right in the middle of her face seemed like a good idea. If she could hear, maybe she could thaw out her eyes.
Seemed was the key word.
As the heat melted away whatever ice had frozen her eyes shut, Eva’s eyes burned. It was not the tingling numbness in her limbs. It was shards of ice digging into her eyelids and the flesh of her eyes.
It was not melting fast enough.
Eva strained through it with clenched teeth. She pulled her eyelids open with as much might as she could gather.
Which wasn’t all that much. For as strong as her hands and legs might be–and even the parts of her that were human–eyelids were not very powerful muscles.
Thin strips of light widened until Eva could see again despite that lack of strength.
Eva found herself staring at the ceiling of the women’s ward common room.
Ylva and Catherine stood over her. Ylva looked as elegant as ever.
Catherine had changed into singed tatters of clothes for some odd reason.
And the couch was on fire.
Eva closed her eyes again and just sat on the cold hard floor. She still felt iced over just about everywhere. Lifting her arm, she cast a few more warming spells all over her body.
Whether or not there was actually ice, she couldn’t tell. At the very least, she didn’t feel like she was lying in a puddle.
After spending a few minutes warming herself, Eva opened her eyes again.
Catherine had skulked off to the side, but Ylva still stood over her.
Eva opened her mouth only to find her jaw stiff. As if she had been clenching her teeth for far too long. Opening and closing her mouth a few times to stretch out her weary muscles, Eva tried to speak again.
“You killed me.”
“Only for a moment.”
Eva blinked, not having expected Ylva to outright admit it. She tried to push herself up. A combination of pain in her back and stiffness in her shoulders and hips kept her from succeeding. Even moving her arms was a chore.
After a moment of failure, Eva let herself flop back down to the floor, lying flat on her back. Her lack of ability to sit up did not detract from the glare she leveled at Ylva.
“You killed me!”
Ylva stared. Her cold eyes looked down at Eva without a shred of regret, remorse, or even sympathy.
It was enough to send a chill up Eva’s still frozen spine.
This woman–this demon was someone who Eva had come to trust. She had slept within the demon’s domain, walked with her on the streets, talked with and sought advice from her on occasion.
Now Ylva looked down with alien eyes devoid of emotion as if she couldn’t understand why Eva might find it alarming that she had just been killed.
“To ascertain the answer to your question.”
Eva would have shaken her head had she the strength to do so. Instead, she settled with merely closing her eyes. This is my fault somehow, isn’t it. Rather than ask a question that Eva was fairly certain she knew the answer to, she just opened her eyes and said, “can we maybe talk about killing me before actually doing so next time? No, wait. Let’s just not kill me next time.”
“There was no danger,” Ylva said with a slight tilt of her head. “We have long suspected that your soul is too corrupt to be gathered by psychopomps and ferried to the Land of Death.”
“That…” Eva actually did shake her head this time. Forcing herself into a sitting position despite the creaking protests of her body, she leaned against the small table.
The couch was still on fire, as were her hands and legs. There wasn’t much left of her skirt either. Eva took a brief moment to channel her magic into the flames, controlling, dampening, and finally extinguishing them.
“What if you were wrong?” Eva turned to Ylva with a glare. “What if I had actually died?”
“There was no danger. Our initial purpose in placing Ourself near you was to investigate the status of your soul. We succeeded in Our task and were not wrong.” Ylva paused for a moment with a blink of her eyes. “Had your soul been uncorrupted, repelling a reaper is a simple matter for a short time. Time enough to restore your body and soul for one such as Ourself.”
Eva stared with her mouth half-open as she processed what Ylva had said. It took another minute for her to figure out anything to say. “There are so many things wrong with what you just said that I don’t even know where to start.”
“We were not wrong,” Ylva repeated.
Eva clamped a hand around her face to keep her from shouting out at Ylva. Offending the servant of Death who could kill with a touch and had done just that was not a good idea. Eva was self-aware enough to realize that.
The disgusting feeling was gone, Eva noted with a certain disconnect. Either Daru was dead or he was done being tortured. Eva was leaning towards the former. She couldn’t feel anything of him. While that had been true for most of the day, Eva doubted that he would have been kept alive for very long.
At least he was out of that pain and suffering.
Despite her speech earlier, Eva couldn’t say how much she cared.
The fact of the matter was that she barely knew Daru. He wasn’t a Catherine or Lucy and was certainly not an Arachne. He wasn’t all dead like Eva’s mortal friends would have been in the same situation. So maybe all the demons had been right.
Though Ylva hadn’t needed to kill her to get the point across. Probably. Maybe being killed had put things into perspective. It wasn’t a pleasant experience and not one she would be eager to try again. Especially not for someone she didn’t know.
A minute of calmly breathing and thinking had Eva feeling much better. Both in terms of the icy stiffness that permeated her body and in terms of dealing with Ylva.
She would be extraordinarily careful in her wording of simple questions in the future. Especially ones relating to dying.
But the question still remained.
“So I’m not going to see Death soon,” Eva started, trying to figure out exactly how she wanted to word her question. “But… neither am I floating in some void with–” With Arachne, she couldn’t help but think. She shook her head, banishing the thought from her mind. “No portal opened around me, right? Or did you stop that as well.”
“Void’s hold over your soul is unstable. He attempted to draw you in, but failed.”
“So… So what happ– Without killing me again, what happens if my head gets chopped off right now?”
“Your soul will stagnate, unable to inhabit your mortal form. Separate from your body, any with a passing knowledge in the subject will be able to collect it. We recommend not dying outside of Our presence or outside of Hell if you wish to continue with your existence as it is.”
Eva shuddered. Was that what the hallway had been? Her disembodied soul trapped until her body had been repaired enough to inhabit it again? Unable to die and yet unable to be claimed by Void. Would she be stuck permanently?
“I hate to interrupt,” Catherine said. “I just got a text from Martina. Apparently one of the demon hunters is marching up to Brakket Academy.” She let out a long and obviously fake sigh. “Prax and I are to return at once, I guess.”
“Is there a need?” Eva stood up, taking a moment to make sure she wasn’t too wobbly. “Zagan should be able to handle anything, right?”
That was the whole purpose behind him sticking with Martina Turner after all.
“I hope so. Fighting is not my thing.”
“Shall we–” Eva started, glancing towards Ylva. She actually flinched back when she met Ylva’s eyes.
“Nel, Zoe, and Juliana are all within the city. We will take steps to protect them.”
“Right.” Eva slapped her cheeks. Ylva isn’t bad, she reminded herself, she just doesn’t think like regular people. “Okay. Let’s go.”