“Hold on a moment,” Eva said.
She didn’t get texts often. Usually only when there was an emergency. Either Zoe or Nel using Zoe’s phone would send her something. Even rarer were actual phone calls.
Right now, her phone was ringing. They had been right in the middle of their conversation about demon hunters, tactics, possible offensive avenues, and defensive security measures. Now somebody was interrupting it.
Rude. Probably. Unless it was an emergency. In that case, Eva might be able to forgive whoever it was.
Genoa nodded an assent. Making a show of noticing that her glass was empty, she got up and walked to the kitchen to refill her water. She was actually using her own two feet. Half of their conversation had been spent on her feet, though she made liberal use of the chairs and tables around the room to lean against.
It was somewhat awkward, being seated on the couch while Genoa wandered about, but Eva ignored it for the most part. It was nice that she was on her feet in the first place. Her recovery was going well, it seemed. No brain damage as far as Eva could tell.
Though she hadn’t asked Genoa or Juliana if there actually was any. But having her heart punctured like that… even a few minutes of oxygen deprivation to the brain could cause permanent damage. It had been one of the main things Eva had tried to prevent by circulating her blood through the air.
Muscle atrophy was a whole other matter, unfortunately. After waking from her coma, she had been unable to move. Too much healing, too much risk of reopening a wound. By the time she had been able to get up for exercise, she needed a good deal of therapy.
Moreover, she was acting. A good act as she really was up on her feet.
But as Eva glanced down to her phone’s screen, Genoa let her facade slip ever so slightly.
Her smile lost its gusto. Still there, ready to reassure people that she was fine. But so long as she thought that nobody was looking, she didn’t put the effort into it. Her breathing changed to be just a bit more ragged, as if she weren’t getting quite enough oxygen though her lungs.
It wasn’t the first time she had let her act falter. Pretty much anytime she thought that her guests weren’t paying attention, she would sigh or pinch her eyes shut. Something to indicate an exhaustion that she kept hidden otherwise.
Eva hadn’t commented so far and she wasn’t about to start now.
Instead, she focused on her still ringing phone.
Irene’s name was lit up on the screen.
Which was somewhat odd. Eva couldn’t recall ever getting a call from Irene. Usually it was the other way around. Eva couldn’t think of a single reason why Irene would call. It wasn’t to hang out. Irene never initiated any kind of hang-out session.
If there was trouble at Brakket, Eva would have expected a call from Zoe first.
Unless Zoe was in trouble.
“Eva? Oh good. You’re alright.”
That instantly set her on full alert. “Should I not be alright?” she asked with a glance towards Srey.
The other demon hadn’t participated even once in the conversation with Genoa. Not that Eva had really expected him to. She felt a bit bad that Srey was being used purely for his utility and not for something like his charming personality… but he didn’t have much charm under his glower.
Still, he got the message the glance conveyed and shook his head. He mouthed, ‘no one watching.’
That calmed Eva a little bit. If nobody was watching, they probably weren’t about to be ambushed. Probably. Maybe somebody was outside watching the house. They couldn’t see Srey, but they were waiting for somebody to emerge or to walk past the windows. Or maybe they had blocked Srey out of their watching somehow and could keep an eye on the rest without triggering his sense of observation.
Thinking those thoughts erased the little calm that Eva had.
And made her eye the windows with suspicion.
Her blood sense wasn’t detecting anything abnormal, but it didn’t have the range that Srey apparently had.
While Eva had been analyzing her surroundings, Irene had continued on, babbling somewhat incoherently about Saija.
What is it with that girl and succubi?
“Stop,” Eva said, latching onto a word. “Someone with a sword? Were they armored up like a medieval knight?”
“No. Saija said that they were an old lady.”
“Old? How old? Maybe an eye patch and red hair?”
Eva could almost hear Irene shaking her head.
“White hair. And Saija says no eye patch, just a leather coat.”
Some other demon hunter? Eva thought. She knew that there were some around. The demons had killed a few hunters before arriving. None since, but she could understand even a demon hunter’s hesitation in attacking a school full of children.
Frowning, Eva tried to think up anyone she knew that fit that description.
“I didn’t actually see any of it,” Irene said, ignoring Eva’s momentary lapse in thought. “I was turned away. When I did look, I still couldn’t see anything. Saija said that she was running pretty fast.”
“Right. A white-haired, leather coat wearing sword wielder who moves quickly,” Eva repeated for the sake of everyone present. “We’ll be on the lookout. You stay safe, alright. We’ll be back to the dorms…”
Eva trailed off as something clicked.
She had seen someone who fit that description.
Just once. And not for very long.
Someone who had gone unnoticed by her blood vision. Someone who had apparently broken a domain and caused the domain owner to flee into Prax’s domain.
“The doll,” Eva whispered to herself.
But it wouldn’t be coming after Eva. She hadn’t done anything. Maybe it was looking for Prax and was merely unaware that he had died.
Eva glanced over at Arachne and Srey. Void had sent the former here. Unless she had broken some other rule that Eva was unaware of. Srey… Eva couldn’t say much about. For being around each other so much these days, Eva didn’t really speak with him unless necessary.
Which might explain why he was so grumpy all the time. As far as she knew, nobody actually talked with him unless they were wondering if they were being watched.
“Well, I’ll let everyone know,” Eva said. “Thanks for the warning, Irene. Don’t worry about it though. I think I know who it was. It shouldn’t be a problem.”
“I’m sure. You just enjoy your time with Saija.”
If Irene was going to say anything else, Eva didn’t hear it. She hung up the phone and slipped it back into her pocket.
“Well, that’s interesting.”
Arachne, on her feet and pacing around the room, turned to Eva. “Should we be on guard or not?”
“Probably. Just to be safe.”
“You know who is after us?”
“The Keeper’s doll. I think. Could be wrong. Irene was somewhat unclear.” She didn’t panic as easily as Shalise used to, but when she did get worked up, she could be hard to understand.
Arachne froze in her pacing, staring at Eva. The carapace that made up her lips curled downwards into a frown as she let out a low growl.
Compared to her somewhat subdued reaction, Srey was on his feet and at the windows almost immediately. His eyes darted back and forth while his body lost most of its solidity. After a moment, there was nothing in front of the window but an outline of the gaseous demon.
A bit of an extreme reaction, in Eva’s opinion.
“Srey,” she said. “You and the other demons were all summoned properly, right?”
“As far as I know,” he said. His voice had the air of an echo about it.
Genoa came back around the counter, casually sipping at the water in her hand. “Eva doesn’t seem worried.”
“From what was explained to me, they’re sort of like prison wardens. Unless one of us has done something worthy of demon prison, nothing to worry about.” Eva glanced between Arachne and Srey. “Right?”
“If a doll is running around the mortal realm, who knows what minor offenses— little things that are normally overlooked—that doll might notice and decide to act on. Why would it be here? Did a human break a contract? They almost never come to the mortal realm for demons. They’ll wait for a demon to die or be banished.”
Reassuring himself a little bit, Srey managed to pull himself together. He returned to his human form, stepping away from the window partially.
“We just need to make sure we don’t do anything,” he said after a deep breath. “Play it cool. Don’t draw attention.”
“Are they really so dangerous?” Genoa asked. “I can personally attest to Arachne’s strength. Eva’s blood magic is fairly formidable. I don’t know about you,” she said with a nod towards Srey, “but you are a demon. You weren’t half as worried about actual demon hunters a moment ago.”
“I’ve seen one fight,” Juliana said from within a full suit of armor. “Only for a short time as we were escaping from the prison. So fast. And its sword cut straight through everything that it came into contact with. The way it moved was… monstrous.”
“That’s because they are monsters. Shells of humans, hollowed out and filled with unnatural machinery of the Keeper’s design. They’re his hobby. Emulating Void by creating his own beings. Worse, magic fails against them. A hundred could be watching us right now with the intention of killing us in five minutes and I wouldn’t be able to sense them in the slightest.”
Eva hummed. Her brief encounter with the doll fit with that. She hadn’t been able to sense it with blood. Though she had apparently tricked it into thinking that she could sense it.
Frowning, Eva looked around with narrowed eyes. Was it already watching them? Just standing out of sight somewhere?
“Monstrous or not, you said that we shouldn’t need to worry.”
“Not unless someone has violated the terms of their contract. Or something else idiotic.”
“Arachne,” Eva said, “you don’t have a contract.”
The spider-demon’s lip curled. “Shouldn’t be a problem. Contracts are not required. They’re merely there to protect both the demon and the summoner. If a demon escapes confinement and kills the summoner before a contract is made, they can freely rampage across the Earth if they want.”
“But you weren’t summoned properly either.”
Arachne snorted. Not a sound she made often. “Void himself sent me here. If the doll is here to drag me back because of that, I can only imagine how Void might dismantle it upon its return.”
“I see,” Eva said, turning towards the doorway that led to the rest of the house. “Then why is the doll sitting around spying on us?”
Everyone in the room, despite their reassurances that there was nothing to worry about mere seconds ago, spun to face the door. Genoa had a dagger out and in her hands in seconds, pointing towards the entryway. Srey was back to his gaseous form, backing away.
Arachne flexed all of her extra legs, moving around to block Eva’s view of the doorway as she stood protectively over Eva.
A moment of tense silence passed. Everyone wondering if they should flee or launch attacks against the walls just in case.
For Eva, she was just hoping that someone would come around the corner. Anyone, really. Saying something similar had worked back in Prax’s domain. If it had failed then, nobody would have been around to call her out. Now she had caused all this commotion in hopes that it would work again.
Given how hard Genoa’s heart was beating, Eva was regretting it. The woman had been acting tired. This was just unneeded stress.
Of course, if she wanted no stress, she shouldn’t have come back to Brakket.
“Sorry,” Eva said, breaking the tense silence.
Her voice was enough to make Juliana jump. She spun around with a sword pointing out towards Eva.
Arachne knocked it away with one of her legs. Eva immediately reached forward to grab her hand before she could do anything more.
“I wasn’t going to attack,” Arachne said, barely glancing over her shoulder towards Eva. Turning to face Juliana, she continued. “Do not point swords at Eva.”
Genoa had her own focus pointed at Arachne’s back, only lowering it as the tension bled off.
“Look,” Eva said before the woman could say anything. “Let’s just all just calm down for a moment. Take a deep breath and remember that we’re all allies.”
“Eva,” Genoa said, turning her attention back to the doorway. “Did you see something or not?”
“I… thought I did.”
With all the commotion she had caused, she couldn’t admit that she was just guessing that someone was there.
Genoa sighed, leaning against the counter.
Arachne prowled around the room, head swiveling around as she tried to keep an eye on everything at once. She made her way to the doorway, stopping just outside it. Before entering, she stayed outside, listening. After another moment, she started sniffing.
Seemingly satisfied that there was nothing around, she peeked her head around the corner. All of her legs were raised protectively around her head. She walked in, made her way around the front entrance and living room before coming back to the kitchen.
“No sign of anyone. Door still locked. Windows are unbroken. There are marks on the floors, but I assume that is from regular wear and use.”
“Thank you Arachne. I guess I was wrong.”
Srey whirled on Eva. “You guess? How could you assume someone was there? We just said that magic doesn’t work on them. Including my detection magic.”
“I’m relatively certain that I’ve met this doll before. Then, I was able to detect her. Not through sensing demons or even my ability to sense blood. It was just a feeling that I got. It was correct then.” Eva turned around to face the kitchen windows that looked out over the back yard of the home. “And I still feel something.”
If the doll was still watching and just from someplace else, she wanted it to know that she knew.
Even though she didn’t.
“A sort of instinct in your gut?” Genoa asked. She was leaning against the counter with her daughter at her side, using Juliana’s shoulder as a sort of crutch. She took in a deep breath, looking around the room. “I have the same feeling.”
Eva raised an eyebrow in Genoa’s direction. “Yeah, something like that,” she lied.
But if Genoa was feeling something off, perhaps there was some truth to the matter.
“Let’s search a bit more,” Eva said. “Arachne, with me. Genoa and Juliana, if you want to sit–”
Pushing herself off the table again—and away from Juliana—Genoa shook her head. “No. This is our home and my daughter. I’ll not sit idly while danger lurks.”
Eva let out a small sigh. She knew this would happen. Even if it wasn’t the demon hunters, she had still brought danger to Genoa’s doorstep.
“Alright,” Eva said with a light sigh. Not that she really had a choice in the matter. She wasn’t Genoa’s minder. “But don’t attack if this doll doesn’t look violent. Last time, the doll wasn’t hostile. It would be better if we didn’t have to fight.”
“I agree.” Juliana moved up to her mother. Not as a crutch, but ready if Genoa needed help. “The dolls… they didn’t help us escape the prison, but they didn’t get in the way either.”
Eva blinked then frowned as something clicked. They let Juliana and Shalise escape. Nothing was wrong with that… except Prax had been inside Shalise. Or had been in control of her. Eva was a little unclear on when exactly that had happened. Her concentration had been entirely on Genoa.
But if they had let Prax escape, would they really be here for him? Moreover, would the doll have been after him even back when Eva had first encountered it inside Prax’s domain?
She had said that cells needed to be refilled, and Prax was an escapee. But if the doll hadn’t been after Prax and Shalise, then the whole ordeal with the Elysium Order’s cathedral had been for nothing.
Well, not quite nothing, Eva thought after a moment. I’m sure Shalise appreciated my efforts.
So not a complete waste. In fact, that alone probably made it worth everything.
If this truly was a doll, she needed to find out why it was here. The simplest method was to find and ask it. If it was here to find Prax or something else that Eva really didn’t care about, its presence wasn’t a concern.
“Srey, if you stay here and just keep a cellphone handy. Any sort of watching you sense needs to be messaged to us immediately.”
“I don’t have–”
Juliana pulled out her own cellphone and handed it over. “Both my mom’s number and Eva’s are in the contacts list. You know how to use it right?”
Srey ran his thumb over the screen, pausing for a few moments as he examined the icons.
“This one,” Juliana said, pointing.
It took another minute of coaching, but he managed to send out a group text in the end.
“Right. So we split up. I’ll be with Arachne, you two check upstairs.”
“The house isn’t that big.”
“I’d rather it not slip by us. Arachne can skitter around in the crawl space as well.”
“You really think that this thing would be lurking down there?”
“If it is watching us and doesn’t want to be discovered, possibly.”
Eva glanced around. Not really to look for something, but just to make an idle action as she considered her words.
“I haven’t asked about him… but we’re not going to run into Carlos, are we?”
“When you called, I sent him away. He should be minding himself at the cafe where you and I first met.”
“Is that really safe? I mean, with all the demons and demon hunters, he is all alone and without a guard.”
“Carlos can take care of himself,” Genoa said with a soft smile. She stared off into space for a moment before shaking her head. “Juliana isn’t the only one who I’ve trained, though she has taken to the lessons with far more enthusiasm.”
“If you’re sure…” Eva trailed off, waiting for some disagreement from Genoa. When none came, she shook her head. “Alright. Let’s get moving.”