Just as Nel had described, the camp was deserted.
Halfway around the world, a small forest held a small camp. Two small-sized tents occupied a small clearing. A fire pit in the center still had some smoldering embers amidst plenty of ash.
A bench and a makeshift table looked as if they had been fashioned from the surrounding woods. That and magic. With Shalise being an air mage, she would be able to use blades of wind in place of an axe. Eva wasn’t sure if Shalise was adept enough at magic to do so, but whoever had sliced up the trees into planks had to be an amateur.
Just looking at the bench made Eva shudder. Sitting down would probably fill her whole behind with slivers.
The least Lynn Cross could have done was to stop at a hobby shop and pick up some sandpaper.
A good portion of the forest had been cleared away. And yet there weren’t enough wooden things around to make up for the trees. Eva found herself wrinkling her nose at the makeshift latrine. It was the only other wooden structure around. It was more of a hole in the ground with some wooden boards placed over top.
The rest must have all gone into the fire.
Not a hint of actual civilization was anywhere to be found. Lynn Cross might be crazy enough to live in a place like this, but how could Shalise?
It wouldn’t surprise Eva in the slightest if Shalise had run off.
“No sign of them?”
Eva glanced up to Zoe and shook her head. “Nope. No spilled blood anywhere either, so I doubt there was a fight. What about you? Hear them?”
“I don’t hear anything that one wouldn’t expect to find in a forest.”
Eva knelt down on the ground, poking at a spider-form Arachne. The poor spider demon had yet to recover from Zoe’s teleport. Eva had only just managed to push herself to her feet when she started looking around the place.
Having only made one trip, Zoe had yet to bring anyone else along with her. Juliana and the others were still back in Brakket City. Wayne had just about come along as well, but Zoe had insisted that he remain behind. Someone needed to bail them out if they were walking into a trap.
“So what do we do? Wait around until someone comes back?” Eva asked as she stepped over to one of the tents and unzipped the door.
Shalise’s tent. At least, her clothes were lying on the floor along with a healthy helping of dirt around a sleeping bag. A good portion of the dirt was stuck to the clothes as well. Just how much were they roughing it that they couldn’t stop by a laundromat in a nearby town? Lynn Cross could teleport just as well as Zoe could. There was no excuse.
Eva winced as she realized that the two of them must be smelling awfully foul. There were no showers set up around the camp.
And the latrine…
“This has to be child cruelty or something, right? We can’t leave Shalise here no matter what.”
“Though she is her mother, Cross is still kidnapping Shalise. She doesn’t have guardianship over her. That rests with the state.” Zoe rubbed her forehead. “Really, we should have done something about it a long time ago, but everything has just been piling up.”
“Well, it’s good that we’re getting her now then. This just isn’t proper living for anyone.”
“So long as we find her,” Zoe said as she moved to the other tent. She unzipped it while Eva stopped by Arachne.
The poor spider-demon was just now stretching out into her humanoid form. She still wobbled back and forth as she got to her feet.
“Don’t worry,” Eva said, patting her on the shoulder before helping to steady her. “We’ll go back using my teleport.”
Zoe could teleport with Shalise. She would teleport back to one of her gate rooms on her own. Going through Zoe’s ‘Between’ was the epitome of distressing. It didn’t leave any lasting effects, quite unlike Eva’s teleportation on mortals, but that didn’t mean that she wanted to be shivering on the floor for a few minutes.
“Eva,” Zoe called out, waving her over to the other tent. “What do you make of this?”
Moving over and pushing the tent flap aside, Eva found herself frowning.
At first glance, there wasn’t anything wrong inside the tent. Just as with Shalise’s tent, there was a sleeping bag, a suitcase with clothing spilling out, and plenty of dirt that had been tracked in. Lynn Cross’ tent had a little broom and dustpan to one side and the floor looked as if she had made a few attempts at using it to no real success.
The tent was four-sided. Two angled panels making up the roof and two flat sides for the other two walls. The door was on one side and an unzippable window on the other.
Eva was about to dismiss the tent until she noticed the light coming through the window. Even fully zipped up, light still made it through the thin material of the tent. And the window—still zipped up—was casting a shadow to the side of the sleeping bag.
A circular shadow full of lines and designs that couldn’t be an accident. Some of the sigils and runes were easily recognizable as such.
“Well, it isn’t a summoning circle.” Eva stretched out a finger and pointed at a few of the lines along the edges. “There are elements of demonic shackles, but I don’t think it would work like this.”
She made sure to keep her distance. If it was some odd set of shackles that Lynn had come up with, Eva didn’t want to get stuck inside. Zoe would be able to slash away the window, thereby breaking the shackles, but the idea wasn’t appealing to Eva. The last time she had encountered nuns, they had taken Arachne’s head half off with a well placed lightning bolt.
The eyes connected them somehow. A sort of shared learning mind, according to Nel. If one nun learned something that advanced their own magical theory, the rest would know soon enough. While Sister Cross wasn’t a sister or part of the Elysium Order anymore, she still had her implanted eye.
“Any ideas?” Eva asked Arachne. The spider-demon had moved up, staring at the pattern from outside the tent.
“Devon might know,” she said with a disinterested shrug and shake of her head. “You would be more knowledgeable than me.”
Glancing up to Zoe, Eva said, “Arachne’s right. Take a picture and take it to Devon. Or send it to Catherine, you’ll probably get a faster response and she knows things about ritual circles.”
Popping out of the tent, Eva left Zoe to her cellphone as she checked Shalise’s tent. Doing a full circle around the outside, she didn’t find any unusual markings. Whatever the circle was, it was for Lynn only. Perhaps protections for or against something.
“Alright,” Zoe said, emerging from the tent. “Don’t have any cell service up here, but I’ve got a few pictures. I’ll take them to Catherine if we finish up here and haven’t found anything. And if she doesn’t know, I’ll head over and ask Devon.” She said his name with palpable distaste.
“So what do we do? Sit around for a while or go looking?”
“They could be anywhere. We could pick a direction—three if we split up—leading out of this camp and still have an entire forest to check through. That’s assuming that Lynn didn’t teleport them somewhere.”
“You’re saying we should stay then,” Eva said slowly.
“We have a better chance at finding them that way.”
“Unless something bad happened.”
“You have a better idea?”
Eva frowned, not quite sure what to say. No, she didn’t have a better idea. But sitting around just felt too much like she was doing nothing at all. There had to be something left around. A trail of breadcrumbs that Shalise left behind. Maybe a trail out into the woods.
With a shake of her head, Eva went out to the edge of the camp, looking for anything in the forest floor that might lead to some hint as to where Shalise went.
There were a few sets of footprints going out of the camp. Most of them ended at fallen trees or berry bushes that had been picked mostly clean.
One path led away from the camp. Eva followed it for a minute before realizing that it wasn’t going to stop anywhere soon. Blinking her way back to camp, she stopped just in front of Zoe.
“There’s a path over here. I’m going to follow it.”
“You’re going to get lost.”
Eva shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. If I get lost, I’ll teleport away and have Wayne come tell you that I’m back at Brakket.”
At least, assuming that Lynn Cross hadn’t warded against banishment. But she probably hadn’t done so. The only reason to ward against banishment is if she wanted to fight demons. Physically fight them. Or to stop them from teleporting away.
“And what if you get into trouble?”
“I’ll have Arachne with me,” Eva said, placing a hand on Arachne’s arm.
“Because you’ve never found yourself in trouble with Arachne before.”
Eva shared a quick look with Arachne. “Well, things usually work out. Except that one time.”
“Not very reassuring.”
“Unless you have a better idea?” Eva asked with a half-grin. “Someone needs to stay behind in case they come back. Are you going to go pick up Wayne? Or Genoa and Juliana?”
Zoe shook her head, frowning. “We still haven’t ruled out the possibility of this being a trap. We definitely can’t bring Genoa into this.”
“She was all ready to fight earlier when that guild guy showed up. I’m sure she’s thought about ways to defend herself while in her wheelchair.”
“Oh, I’ve no doubt about that. If Genoa doesn’t have backup plans and plots about how to avoid falling into traps, I’ll suspect that she has been replaced with a doppelganger. Especially traps related to demons,” Zoe added with only a slight glance towards Arachne. “But that’s just another reason why she should be backup and not in the thick of things if something does go down.”
“So unless you want to come with me and leave the camp unattended, I’m going to wander off for a time.”
“Just,” she started, closing her eyes and rubbing her forehead. “Just be careful.”
“My middle name,” Eva said as she turned. “Come on Arachne. Let’s go on a walk.”
While the campsite was clear of most brush and forest debris, only having some trodden down grass and flowers as its foliage, the moment Eva walked away, she found her arms and legs being almost constantly scraped by bushes. It wasn’t walking through a completely untended path. Someone had walked this way before, but not often enough to make everything smooth and flat.
Luckily for Eva, her legs and part of her arms were covered in smooth chitin armor. It was enough to brush off the stray twigs without a second thought. Using her hands, Eva could knock away anything that was in the path of more vulnerable parts of her body. Her head, for example.
Ten minutes of following the pathway had Eva wondering just where it was headed. Maybe another grove of berry bushes or other fruit. Maybe a small garden. Somewhere Shalise or Lynn would have needed to visit regularly but not often.
At least, she thought that was the case until she reached the end of the path.
“There’s nothing here,” Arachne said.
A tree stood right in the center of the path that Eva had been following. Moving around it, Eva found herself stuck in thick brush. Not the kind of stuff that anyone would drudge through on a regular basis.
The path simply ended. No gardens. No extra paths. The tree had nothing special about it. Eva wasn’t a botanist, she couldn’t name the type of tree. It had bark, was tall, and had green needles higher up. Like almost every tree in the area.
“No, wait,” Eva said, just as she was beginning to think that she had mistaken a natural formation in the forest for a human-made pathway.
Lifting a hand, Eva brushed over a portion of the bark. There was a thin line in the wood that looked somewhat unnatural. Tracing a finger over it, she turned to Arachne. “Does this look like an arrow to you?”
Bending down, Arachne got up close. “Are you sure you’re not reading too much into an odd vein on the tree?”
“It looks scratched in. Like with a fingernail,” Eva said. Using her pointer finger, Eva traced an arrow into the tree just above the existing mark. Her scratching was much deeper, more prominent as it stood out against the rest of the tree. Frowning at her own hand, Eva shook her head. “A human fingernail,” she amended.
Stepping off to the side, Eva stared. Even with the arrow—or what she believed was an arrow—she couldn’t see anything in that direction. Just more forest, brush, and trees.
Arachne stepped forwards, reaching out to a stray branch.
A broken branch, bent in the direction the arrow was facing.
Arachne looked back to Eva without speaking a word. She gave a quick shrug of her shoulders before walking on.
Keeping an eye out for any other oddities, Eva followed after her.
Every few feet, Arachne would point out another broken branch or bit of brush that had been trampled down ever so slightly. A bit of grass that had been bent in almost a footprint or a bunch of leaves that had been knocked to the forest floor.
The trail of broken plants led straight to a wall of bushes almost as high as Eva was tall. Both she and Arachne paused in front of it.
“Over the top?” Eva asked.
Jumping halfway up a nearby tree, Arachne peered over the wall of shrubberies. “I don’t see anything that might be more trail,” she said after a moment.
Frowning, Eva glanced around. There was a bent tree branch just a few feet away, so someone running through the forest must have come at least this far.
A pale lavender leaf caught Eva’s attention. It stuck out with all the greenery surrounding it. At first she thought it was a flower of some sort, but getting closer, she noticed a floral pattern on it. Eva didn’t pay attention to flowers all that often, but she was reasonably confident that most flowers didn’t have pictures of flowers on them.
Plucking up the bit of cloth from where it had been draped over a twig, Eva held it up for Arachne to see as she scanned the area around where the cloth had been.
“Another broken branch,” Eva said. She took a few careful steps, watching for any other signs of someone having passed through.
Until she had found the scrap of torn cloth, she had been thinking that this path was her imagination. Perhaps an animal—a deer or something—had passed through. That would explain the broken branches without needing a human to be around. The arrow in the tree could have just been a natural mark. She could have been searching for nothing.
Now she was almost certain that either Shalise, Lynn Cross, or their agitator would be at the end of this path.
The path wasn’t such a straight line anymore. More than once, Arachne and Eva had to stop, gather their bearings, and look for anything that looked like a clue. Ten minutes of searching and Eva came across what they had been looking for.
Sitting on the forest floor, hunched over with her head to her knees and brown hair cloaking her face, Shalise stared off into the distance.
She didn’t stay sitting for long. A twig snapped underneath Arachne’s foot, sending a loud crack through the otherwise peaceful woods. Jumping to her feet, Shalise pointed her wand with one hand.
Two fingers on her other hand pressed together, sending a bolt of lightning straight towards Arachne.
Fear settling in as a chill in Eva’s stomach, she watched the bolt move through the air as if in slow motion. Not willing to lose Arachne so soon, Eva jumped. Unfortunately, she was moving in slow motion too. Her dive didn’t make it to Arachne in time.
Electricity crackled across Arachne’s carapace, focusing on her chest before darting down into the earth. A few loose leaves caught fire around her feet. Arachne had her mouth open, twisted into a frown as she glanced down at her chest.
Eva stood, blinking in surprise and shock. The lightning hadn’t even left a mark on the chitin. It was just as shiny and black as ever.
Whipping back around, Eva immediately recognized why. Shalise’s glove was covered in runework. The same runes that she had used back when she had first started on the glove. No alterations. Not surprising, Shalise wasn’t an expert or even mildly experienced in runes. The runes that did exist were not designed for seriously harming even a human, let alone a demon. The glove had essentially been solely to surprise Zoe during one of her training seminars.
Clutching at her chest and breathing out a small sigh of relief, Eva closed her eyes for just a moment. “You scared me,” she said.
“I scared you?” Shalise clutched at her own chest as she leaned back against a tree. “I think I’m having a heart attack.”
“You aren’t,” Eva said, voice flat. Being able to see into people’s bodies had greatly increased her ability to tell truth from lies. At least in relation to exaggerations like that. Shalise’s heart was beating, and fast, but nothing out of the ordinary. “But what are you doing out here?”
“Lynn told me to run. So I ran. We already decided on what I should do if something happened. I’m to run out here, pick a direction, run around, and essentially get myself lost.”
Shalise breathed a light, relief-filled sigh. “If you are all she was worried about, I suppose I can go back before she finds me. Unless you’re here to kill me.” She gave a weak chuckle, obviously—hopefully not believing that. “Or kidnap me. Actually, please kidnap me.” Turning her head to her shoulder, Shalise breathed in a few short breaths through her nose. “I haven’t had a proper shower in forever.”
Eva took a step away with a slight wince. The forest and a light breeze was keeping any scent from Shalise away, but no need to take chances.
“I hate to break it to you, but I have no idea where Lynn Cross is. She did something to you and herself to hide the two of you from Nel. We showed up and haven’t seen her.”
A crack echoed through the forest. Where it came from was almost impossible to tell by the sound alone. Unfortunately, there weren’t too many places where it could have come from.
“Zoe might be in trouble.” Eva took three steps before realizing that Shalise hadn’t moved. “Coming or not?”
“Might be in trouble too. Come on.”
Eva grabbed Shalise’s arm—carefully—and dashed through the woods. Going backwards was hard, the path through the forest was barely clear and twisted more than once.
A plume of smoke rising in the distance removed all need to navigate the thick brush.
Author’s Note: Along with this chapter, the preview site for my writing should now be live. For those who have read the two chapters posted on my Patreon, there is a third now available. For those who haven’t read them, the site should be available to everyone. Unless I screwed up the permissions. I don’t know if comment moderation will carry over from this site or not, so your comments may not be immediately visible. If something looks wrong or you can’t access it at all, yell at me here or there or anywhere.
TL;DR: Preview of possibly new series available at towercuratorpreview.wordpress.com