Category Archives: Book 008

008.027

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Eva stood in the middle of a small clearing. Not the one a short distance from her prison. This clearing was out in the Infinite Courtyard in the center of Brakket Academy’s main building. This would hopefully prove to be a much safer alternative.

Or at least, more difficult to reach for the hunters.

One, perhaps the more troublesome one, was dead.

If Eva didn’t miss her mark, the other might return with something of a grudge. Assuming she didn’t starve to death because she couldn’t feed herself with her paralyzed body. As much as Eva wanted that to be the case, she wasn’t going to get her hopes up too much.

But with the death of one hunter and the idol destroyed at Nel’s hands, Eva was feeling safe enough to attempt clearing out an area for the ritual again. There might be other nasty surprises waiting, but it needed to be done sooner rather than later. It needed demons to work.

Between hunters running around and the doll—who Eva hadn’t seen since she ran off after the battle—the ritual needed to be done before they all wound up dead. If they ran out of demons, there would be nothing to do but wait for Life to bring Void over on its terms.

Something Eva had accepted would likely be far more destructive than doing it their way.

But those were all concerns that only might come to be a problem. At the moment, not having a ritual circle—or even a place to start the ritual—was a far greater problem.

Eva glanced over towards Srey. The demon was relaxing on a toppled log, using it as a chair as he thumbed through the pages of a book.

Fiction. Some fantastical story about a steam-powered society, judging by the cover. Not a book on magic or any sort of useful topic. Much like Catherine, he was reading purely for the fun of it.

Demons and their distractions, Eva thought with a slight shake of her head. Maybe I should find a hobby.

“Anyone watching us?”

Srey glanced up from the page. “Nope. We’re good at the moment.”

Eva gave him a curt nod in return as he went back to his book. He didn’t look as if he had any intention of helping out. However, Eva didn’t much care. So long as he warned them of any approaching hunters, his value was perhaps greater than everyone else combined.

Lips tightening as her gaze connected with Arachne’s, Eva offered the spider-demon a small smile.

Arachne was still injured. Even two days after the battle, her chest still had a hole in it. Her legs as well, though she had managed to pull her severed legs back inside her body, making them far less obvious.

It was that sword. Something about it acted similar to nun lightning, though only towards demons. Not quite the same, as it lacked the magic eating property, but it did inhibit healing.

Arachne was healing, just slowly.

At the moment, Eva was torn between destroying the sword or keeping it around just in case she needed to fight some demons. A third option, one she had been considering more seriously ever since she realized just how slowly Arachne was healing, was handing it off to Zoe.

If Zoe could come up with a method of reversing the effects, that could prove invaluable. Any similar swords would be rendered useless as far as their magical effects went. They would still be sharp bits of metal and thus still dangerous, but not cripplingly so.

There was just one problem with that line of thinking.

She really didn’t want anyone else to touch the sword.

Eva trusted Zoe. Quite a lot, in fact. She had been given almost unquestioning support from the theory professor since they first met. That was more than she could say about most other humans.

However, the sword was a danger to Eva. A direct personal danger that couldn’t really be compared to anything else. Not to mention the danger it posed to Arachne, Catherine, Lucy, and… well, just about half of everybody Eva knew. So long as it was in Eva’s possession, hidden behind her blood wards at the prison, it wasn’t going to be used against them.

While Zoe would probably keep it safe, she didn’t exactly have a home to hide it in anymore.

Again.

Though, maybe now that her third residence in as many years had been blown up, she might actually consider Eva’s offer of housing her at the prison.

Of course, Eva wasn’t too thrilled with the prospect of her prison blowing up a few months after Zoe moved in. She seemed to have extraordinarily bad luck with regards to homes. Unless the bad luck followed Ylva around. But Ylva hadn’t been living at her first home when it was burned down by Qrycx and the jezebeth. So it couldn’t be Ylva’s bad luck.

At the moment, Zoe was living with Wayne at his house. A place Eva still didn’t know the location of. She had never once been there. Wayne had never invited her. Or even mentioned his house. For all she knew, he teleported in from wherever Serena lived—a place a few states away based on hints dropped by the vampire.

Ylva had moved into the Brakket dormitory. Eva didn’t know if she had asked Anderson for permission or simply decided that it would be her new residence. Either way, she was now living two doors down from Eva’s dorm room. Along with Nel.

Neither had mentioned Alicia, but Eva had noticed a certain hardness in Nel’s eyes when asked about the former nun. It wasn’t hard to put two and two together.

Of course, neither were in the clearing at the moment. Eva was still keeping the ritual secret. And she was doing a remarkable job of it, if she said so herself. Given her failures in keeping several other things about herself secret—diablery and blood magic, namely—she was quite pleased with the low amount of people around her.

Vektul was here. He had the exact designs for the ritual circle in his head, making him not only indispensable but also more knowing of the secret than most everyone. That said, Eva doubted that he would be helping much either. He really didn’t seem to be the strongest demon around.

And heavy lifting was what they needed at the moment.

Last was Juliana.

Eva gave her a smile.

She only half returned it.

“Ready to begin?”

Juliana fidgeted, glancing around to the other demons. After eying both Vektul and Srey for a moment—something that had Srey shifting in his seat, though he didn’t look up from his book—she turned back to Eva. “Are you sure we should be doing this?”

“Mostly sure.”

The metal coating Juliana’s arms rippled before returning to its still state. “Only mostly? This doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you should be mostly sure about.”

“Well, yes. I agree with that. However, we’re not actually performing the ritual today, as I said a thousand times, just clearing the area.”

Something that shouldn’t be too much work. The grass and brush were a tad overgrown, but it could definitely be worse. There could be trees and boulders littering the clearing. It was part of the reason she had chosen the location in the first place.

Finding the spot hadn’t been that easy. While the Infinite Courtyard was grossly misnamed, it still covered a fairly large space. Roughly ten square miles according to Zoe. Enough that the entirety of Brakket city could fit within and still have space left over. Eva had wandered around, picking the fifth spot she had come across that looked even mildly usable.

There might be better areas. In fact, there were almost definitely better areas. It was hard to imagine there weren’t any given the size. But they couldn’t be anywhere too close to the school, or near any paths leading to the handful of buildings that had been built out in the courtyard. Not to mention, Eva didn’t really want to spend ages just wandering aimlessly about.

“We should really talk to Zoe,” Juliana said. “I mean, bringing a Power to Earth? I’ll admit, I don’t know much about the Powers. But, that can’t be a good thing. They’re in their own planes of existence for a reason.”

Eva just sighed. Explaining things a hundred times got annoying by the second time. For some reason, she felt like she would be explaining things a hundred more times before the ritual was complete. They did have to bring other people in at some point, after all. More demons and more humans were needed.

“Like I said, Zagan’s theory is that Life is bringing Void and all of Hell over into the mortal plane. Probably destructively. This ritual should only grab the Power.”

“So says Vektul,” Juliana said. “This guy just shows up out of nowhere and you’re going to trust him?” She paused for just a moment, turning to the demon in question before adding, “No offense.”

Vektul just tilted his head to one side.

“But you’re supposed to be in the center of this circle. Arachne too. How do you know it isn’t going to do something terrible to you? You should at least have Zoe look over it. Catherine too. You said she was good with rituals, right?”

That was something that Eva actually had been considering. They would need to bring in more demons before the ritual actually started. Catherine was not only good at working on and developing rituals, but she was also a demon that Eva knew. Just because the doll hadn’t come back to kill off the rest of the demons did not mean that they were good, trustworthy, and not about to stab Eva in the back.

But Catherine had her own interests and designs. She was currently picking out demons for her upcoming ritual. While Eva had offered again, Catherine still hadn’t decided on what she wanted to do. And if she wanted one of the other demons around Brakket, she had to pick them while they were still around. Especially those who might become bound familiars.

They might not be around by the time she performed her next ritual.

“I might,” Eva said, voicing her thoughts aloud. “But not today. We need to clear out brush and grass from here to about halfway across the clearing,” she said with a gesture of her hand. It wasn’t a very useful gesture. Pointing at this distance wasn’t very precise.

“Preferably with as little burning as possible. I’d rather not have a column of smoke pointing out our location for everybody to find.”

“So I’m doing most of the work,” Juliana said with a sigh. “Great.”

“Well, I do recall saving your life. Wasn’t going to force you or anything, but consider it a nice way to pay me back.”

Juliana craned her neck, looking up to the sky. “How would smoke even look from outside?” she said after a moment. “I mean, would someone sitting on the dormitory roof see a great black plume that appeared to come from the whole courtyard or would it be a thin streak, barely visible?”

Eva shrugged.

Space manipulating wards were some of the most complex bits of magic that were possible, according to Professor Lepus. Wards that Brakket Academy made liberal use of in both the main building and the dormitories. Apparently that same professor not only created the wards when the school was first built several decades ago but still maintained all of the wards to this day.

All without looking a day over twenty.

Eva had considered asking her about it, but eventually just shrugged her shoulders and assumed ‘magic’ to be the answer.

“But don’t worry. I’ll help out as well.”

— — —

Zoe let out a long sigh. “For the last time, I didn’t even come close to dying.”

In contrast to her own morose exasperation, Zoe got a fanged grin in return. Hands on her hips, Serena spun around, walking a few steps away.

“Zoe, Zoe, Zoe. Wayne told me you know? You would have been a crispy corpse without him.”

“He exaggerates. I was fully prepared to escape.”

“But you didn’t. Wayne had to save you and you know it.”

Again, Zoe sighed. Arguing with the vampire was just not something that could be done. “Serena, what are you doing here? And how did you get here?”

Pausing, Zoe glanced out the window. Night had fallen a mere ten minutes ago. It still wasn’t completely dark. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that the sun had dipped below the horizon ten minutes ago. About a minute later, Serena had waltzed into her office.

She should have been back in Michigan. A bit far to travel in the span of sixty seconds. At least, a bit far for Serena to travel.

“I can’t imagine Wayne would have brought you here,” Zoe finished, looking back to Serena.

“But he did!” She spun back around, boring her eyes into Zoe. “His sister can take care of herself. She doesn’t need me babysitting her at all hours of the day. And if you two are going to get nearly killed every few months, I should be here. Somebody has to protect you. And I don’t sleep—at nights—so I can hover creepily over your beds and ensure nothing disturbs you.”

Zoe rolled her eyes, shaking her head.

Ylva had essentially performed that task for the last several months.

Serena spun back around, walking through Zoe’s office. A stack of ungraded papers caught her attention. She skipped over and started thumbing through the top few, pausing every now and again to read some of the text.

“So he just brought you over?”

“Well, there was a bit more arguing. As I told him, I’m not some pet to be chained up. I do as he asks because of respect and friendship. Also because your company is far more enjoyable than that of my brethren kin.”

“I hope you didn’t threaten him.”

“Of course not. Friends don’t threaten each other. I merely suggested that I would be making my way here anyway. The long and laborious task of crossing several state lines would be dangerous to only myself. Well, myself and whatever I was traveling with. I might have mentioned that his car might not survive the journey.”

Deciding to ignore the fact that she had threatened him, Zoe sunk down into her office chair.

“Well, I hate to break it to you, but there isn’t anywhere for you to stay.” She waved her hand towards the couch in her office. A small case full of clothing had been shoved underneath while a few of her teaching suits hung off a rack overhead. “I’ve been sleeping there almost every night.”

Serena paused her rifling through the papers, looking up to Zoe with a frown on her face. “Wayne doesn’t let you stay with him?”

“I spent a few nights with him, and I’m sure I could say longer should I ask.”

“Then–”

“I am not a little girl anymore. I prefer to live on my own.”

Though, she had been living with Ylva, Alicia, and Nel since being kicked out of the apartment, and next to them before that. But they were more like roommates than anything else. It was somewhat like being back in school dorms.

“Besides, its only temporary.”

“Moving into the dorms?”

“I– How did you know?”

“Even in a housing market as poor as this city’s, buying a house isn’t a thing you can do lightly. Burning one house down, being kicked out of your apartment for vandalism, and blowing up another house? I doubt that any insurer will cover you. Which means somewhere free or exceptionally cheap.” Serena dropped one of the essays onto the center of the desk.

Eva, read the simple print at the top. No last name. One of the longer essays in the stack. Then again, it was on the topic of demons. Not something Zoe usually included in her curriculum. With all their new guests around the school, she had thought that assigning a research paper on the subject wouldn’t be the worst idea.

“Prisons just don’t seem your style.”

“You’re right, but your deduction is off. The apartment and second house were both owned by or, in the apartment’s case, paid for by the school. Both were something of bribes to keep me in my teaching position. Anderson is not as willing to pay for my housing as Martina was.

“I could buy a smaller home. I’ve saved up enough. Wouldn’t even need a loan. But you are right. I don’t really want to talk to insurers. More, I’d rather not have another house destroyed in another six months.” Zoe sighed. Again. “If, in six months, the dorms have become uninhabitable for some reason, I’ll probably just take Eva up on her offer to live at the prison.”

Serena hummed a few times before walking over to the window. She took a moment, just staring out at the black surface that now made up most of the ground between the dormitory buildings.

After Genoa had taken down her walls, Eva went around smoothing the place out. There were still no patterns in it. Just a smooth sheet of glass-like material that Zoe worried might become too slick once the winter weather started up in force. On her suggestion, Eva had added a slight slope and channels for water to run down, as the crystallized blood was otherwise nonporous. It wouldn’t help with anything that stayed frozen, but would get the water off the platform.

Assuming they could remove the ice, magically or through mundane salt, it shouldn’t be much of a problem.

Serena’s interest with the world outside the window gave Zoe a moment to tidy up her desk. Papers which had formerly been in a neat stack awaiting reading and grading had been strewn about into a disorganized mess. It was a good thing that she kept her desk neat. With only one other stack of papers, one that Serena had barely touched, it wasn’t hard to put everything back in its proper place.

Whoever said that vampires had an obsession with order and counting had never met a real one.

“Wayne said that new students will be arriving soon.”

“The top ten students of the top four North American schools. Here to show off what they have learned.”

“How many are going to be demons, vampires, dragonkin, necromancers, or half-fae?”

“I would say hopefully none. We have enough excitement as is. However, the Nod Complex has been invited. I know at least a dryad will be arriving with them.”

“Yet a bunch of humans are expected to compete with demons?”

“Mr. Anderson,” Zoe said through pursed lips, “hopes to show off alternate methods of utilizing magic. A protest, if you will, against what he feels is a society stagnating by restricting itself to thaumaturgy.”

“Sounds like cheating to me.”

Zoe kept her mouth shut. The same thought had occurred to her. But it didn’t really matter. He would be getting the school’s name mentioned alongside the names of actually reputable schools. For the next school year, they might not have to go around, scrounging for students. Some might actually apply willingly.

“Who is running the betting pool on some disaster happening while the other schools are here?”

Zoe blinked in confusion. “I’m… What?”

“Figures you wouldn’t know,” Serena said, turning back to the window. “But somebody has to be gambling over this. Maybe I’ll try to sniff them out.” After a brief moment, she shook her head. “Though I don’t know why. Probably terrible odds on something happening and I’m certainly not betting against.”

Leaving her chair and walking around her desk, Zoe approached the vampire at the window with a long sigh. The fourth in seemingly as many minutes.

“Yeah,” she said, resting her forehead against the cool glass. “I wouldn’t bet against it either.”

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>>Author’s Note 008<<


008.026

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“This is a disaster.”

Eva took her eyes off Arachne for the first time since the hunter died and the doll ran off. She had plugged every injury that was bleeding, either stopping the blood completely or bridging the gap between veins with solidified blood. Of course, apart from patching them up a little bit, Eva couldn’t do all that much to fix Arachne’s internal organs.

Then again, Eva wasn’t sure how much they mattered. Her brain and heart tube were still intact. So the important parts were alright. But her stomach had a gaping hole in it. Eva had never seen Arachne eat, so it probably wasn’t a huge deal, but having whole organs had to be better than damaged ones.

However, the demon seemed to be alright at the moment. Not in danger of dying at least.

More importantly, a certain someone was walking towards them.

Governor—or Dean Anderson walked across the lake of blood. Though, Eva just about started laughing as she watched him.

He, like most of Brakket Academy’s staff, wore a suit. In order to keep the suit clean, he was walking while hiking up his trousers. More than that, he was tiptoeing across, trying to keep his shoes up and out of the liquid as much as possible. With his hands on his legs and his tiptoeing, the way he walked was almost more of a waddle than anything.

Stopping at the damaged fountain not far from Eva, he lifted one foot up on the ledge before releasing the leg of his trousers. He took hold of a small bit of rubble with his now freed hand, turning it over.

One side was obviously brick. The same material that made up most of the courtyard. As he turned it over, it glinted in the sun. The opposite side was a smooth and shiny glass surface.

The basin of the fountain had been destroyed by the doll. However, now that Eva was actually looking at it, the actual fountain itself was still intact. Functional, even. It spewed liquid out the top.

Black liquid.

Eva couldn’t be sure if she had turned the water to blood or if the damaged basin had let in enough blood to stain the water. Either way, she actually somewhat liked the effect.

And if it stayed like that—if Anderson didn’t clean it out, it could be a handy supply of blood in case the school was attacked again. It wouldn’t last. Open air preservation of blood was difficult. Her vials kept it nice and fresh for a good amount of time, but the fountain would be unusable after a few days. So not a real solution.

Fun to think about though.

After a moment of examining the rock, he set it down carefully so as to not splash the pool of blood. Hiking up his pants again, he started waddling towards Eva and Arachne.

“This,” he said as he got closer, “is a disaster.”

“I heard you the first time.”

Eva narrowed her eyes, waiting for Anderson to start laying blame at her feet for the mess the courtyard was in.

It wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t Arachne’s fault either. If anything, they had saved the school from far worse damage. Not to mention all the demons that the hunters would likely have torn through.

While the demons were demons without a doubt, they weren’t… too scary. From watching them since they arrived, Eva got the distinct impression that all of them were relatively young. They grew excited about things that Eva couldn’t even imagine demons like Catherine or Arachne blinking an eye at. And they socialized. Perhaps not the way a human would, but they still seemed almost eager to be around people.

Well, except for Srey. Eva had a feeling that his particular abilities made him far more paranoid than the rest of the demons.

They, as a group, had dispatched hunters before arriving. Eva couldn’t guess how dangerous those hunters had been.

Eva glanced over, staring at the remains of the hunter she had just killed. Given how much trouble he had given Arachne, Genoa, the doll, and herself, she was willing to assume that he was a step above the hunters that the demons had fought before their arrival.

Of course, had they not cowered away from the doll, the fight might have ended with far less difficulty.

Or they might have all died.

Hard to tell. However, should anyone ask, Eva was going to claim that she had saved all of them.

“We need to clean this up,” he said, interrupting Eva’s thoughts. “With your specialty lying in…” he trailed off, glancing at the blood on the floor, “all of this, might I ask for more of your help getting rid of it?”

She blinked, not quite expecting that. She had been expecting something like, ‘how could you have let this happen? Why did you destroy half the plaza? Your blood is everywhere!’ To which she would have mentioned something about not seeing Anderson anywhere around, helping out.

“The representatives from other schools are arriving next weekend. I need this place presentable.” Dropping his pant legs, he reached out and touched the web wall. After a sigh, he turned to face the giant earthen wall that had risen up around the Rickenbacker. “What am I going to do,” he mumbled.

Eva bit her lip. Now she was actually feeling a little sorry for the man. Not guilty, just sorry. He wasn’t blaming her and had even asked for her help.

“I could get rid of the blood,” she said slowly. With her control over it, that shouldn’t be a problem. Of course, how was the big question. She didn’t have anywhere to store this much blood. Leaving it out would render it useless soon enough. She supposed that she could clap her hands and be rid of most of it instantly, taking care not to kill herself, Arachne, or Anderson.

“But the ground beneath is quite a mess as well,” she continued part of her thoughts aloud. Blowing it up would only make that worse. “Especially where the sky crack hit. Maybe…”

Eva started to smile as a thought occurred to her.

The surface of the blood was perfectly still. Smooth and glass-like. It covered almost the entire courtyard between the dormitories. With a thought, she spread some of the blood out, evening the distance with the fountain as the main center point.

Starting at her feet, Eva hardened the blood. It crystallized, becoming as solid as the claws she had used against the hunter. The crystal portion crawled across the ground, growing larger and larger until the entirety of the blood had solidified into a smooth surface.

Eva grinned. It resembled obsidian. Black glass. She doubted there was anything like it in the world. Even if a solid chunk of obsidian existed at this size, this was made of demon blood. Which, in her opinion, was much better.

“Looks nice, right?” she said, turning towards Anderson. “I can’t do anything about the stone pillars. Genoa could probably…”

Anderson was looking around the landscape with a look a horror on his face. Though that horror was slowly receding to a more thoughtful expression as he crossed an arm over his chest and brought the other up to his chin.

Eva barely paid attention to him beyond that cursory glance. Apart from herself, Arachne, Anderson, and a certain hunter’s legs, the courtyard was empty. Nobody had emerged from either dormitory. Something that would be difficult for most people inside the Rickenbacker given the giant earthen shield blocking the entire front.

With the fight over, she had expected Genoa to have emerged at least.

But there weren’t any windows in the earthen shield. No way for Genoa to know that the fighting had ended. Something that Eva felt was a huge oversight.

What if things had gone poorly?

What if the hunter had circled around to enter the building through another entrance? Or if he had gone towards the Gillet?

Blocking herself off completely was simply irresponsible. More importantly, it wasn’t something Eva believed Genoa would do.

With a worry building in her mind, Eva started to walk away.

“Wait,” Anderson said, finally letting his pants down and getting off the tips of his toes. There were small indents where he had been standing. Things Eva could fix later, along with the spots where Arachne and the remains of the hunter were. “Where are you going?”

“Genoa isn’t here,” Eva said, not stopping. “She might be in trouble.”

“I’m coming with you,” Arachne said, trying to get on her feet.

This time, Eva did stop. She turned with a shake of her head. “You focus on getting better.”

Turns out that she needn’t have stopped. Arachne wobbled on her feet, trying to maintain balance. A futile effort. She overcorrected and fell flat on her face with a growl.

“Mr. Anderson, ensure Arachne comes to no more harm and I’ll help you do whatever you want with this,” Eva said, waving her hand around the plaza.

Without waiting for a response, she turned and ran towards the Rickenbacker.

Not directly towards it, of course. She couldn’t phase through the stone wall. Neither was her earth magic up to taking it down. But there should be doors around the sides. The webbed net posed no obstacle to her blinking past it.

There was a door on the side of the building. A good distance away. Windows were much closer. Eva blinked straight into an occupied hallway. Eva ignored the students—possibly first years judging by their shorter heights, wide-open eyes, and screams as they ran back into their rooms—choosing to run straight for the stairwell she had last seen Genoa in.

She skidded to a stop on the second floor landing, just in front of the large window they had all been looking out from earlier.

The good news was that Genoa was still there. Unfortunately, she wasn’t standing.

Genoa had collapsed with her back against the window. Her head had dropped to her chest with her eyes closed. However, she was breathing. Her heart was beating. Without any obvious injuries, Eva had to assume that she had simply pushed herself too much. Between managing that golem and creating the wall that obscured the window, it wasn’t hard to guess how.

“Genoa?” Eva asked in a quiet voice from several paces away. She didn’t want to startle the former mage-knight. She was liable to get her head chopped off thanks to Genoa’s instincts and reflexes.

Sure enough, that single word was enough for Genoa to snap both her eyes open and her focus up. She held her hand out, keeping the tip of her dagger steady as her eyes focused on Eva.

“Eva,” she said, dropping her arm back to her side. “I see you’re alive.”

“I am. The hunter in the courtyard isn’t doing nearly as well. The other hunter ran away. Again.”

With Genoa’s focus down and the woman recognizing her, Eva finally felt safe to approach a few more steps.

“We should get you to a nurse. I don’t want to explain to Juliana why her mother died of exhaustion.”

As soon as Eva was close enough, Genoa’s hand shot out again. This time, lacking her focus. Her fist gripped the front of Eva’s shirt before she had a chance to react.

“Where is Juliana?”

Eva winced at the harsh tone of voice. “She’s fine. I left her on the roof where we fought the other hunter. Not a scratch on her.”

“Alone?”

Wincing again, Eva nodded her head.

“You didn’t think the hunter might return?” Genoa pushed Eva back, releasing her shirt. “Go find her. Ensure she’s safe.”

“But you’re–”

“I can handle myself. Get out of here.”

With the glare Genoa was giving Eva, she didn’t try arguing again. As before, she ran up the stairs. She skipped over her hallway this time. The clothes and equipment she had on already would work just fine.

Now that she was running, she realized Genoa was right. Leaving Juliana alone was stupid. How could she have done such a thing? Even if the crippled hunter didn’t come back, she knew that other hunters were in the area. Someone might come along to check out what had happened with that second sky cracking.

Juliana was human, but would a hunter stop to ask? Probably not.

Eva reached the roof and immediately started blinking through the air. Having just done this, it wasn’t difficult to follow her path back. Thanks to Juliana having already destroyed all the shackles, navigating through the remaining wards wasn’t an issue.

She stopped on the first roof. Saija was still lying on her stomach with a slowly melting shard of ice sticking out of her back.

Eva paused in her rush to find Juliana. On one hand, Juliana could be in trouble.

On the other… Saija was looking pitiful. Very pitiful. And she had saved Eva from the first set of shackles, if only because she had delivered Juliana.

So Eva nudged the fallen succubus with the tip of her foot. “How are you doing?”

“Oh, just fine,” the succubus drawled without turning her head to face Eva. “This roof was so comfortable I thought I would just lie here a little longer.”

“In that case,” Eva said, starting to walk away.

“Wait! You can’t just leave me here! What if those hunters come back?”

“One is dead. The other hasn’t come back?”

Eva sighed. That was good news. If nobody had been around, Juliana should still be safe.

No longer in quite the rush, Eva knelt. Pressing one hand on Saija’s back, she gripped the icicle and yanked it out of her in a single twist of her hand.

Saija shouted out, clawing at the roof. “That hurts!”

“Oh quit being such a baby.”

Eva stood, inspecting the wound. She could block off the blood vessels and keep her from bleeding out, but it didn’t actually seem to be bleeding that much. Maybe the ice had helped close off the punctured veins or maybe that was just natural demonic healing at work.

Either way, Eva shrugged her shoulders.

“It missed your spine. You shouldn’t be paralyzed or anything.”

“I hurt when I try to move.”

“Well, just sit tight here then. I’ll be back as soon as I’ve found Juliana.”

The succubus started to protest, but Eva ignored it as she walked away. Following her path across the rooftops, Eva reached the partially destroyed, partially glassed building.

The roof was empty. No Juliana. No metal-encased idol.

But that wasn’t surprising. Nothing to worry about. Juliana wouldn’t have wanted to stick around on an unstable roof. She would have gone down inside, maybe even down to street level.

“Juliana!” Eva called out as she leaned over the edge of the roof.

No Juliana down on the street. No answer either. She must be inside.

Eva dropped down into the main building, landing roughly where she and Juliana had landed after the crack in the sky. Landing elsewhere could be dangerous. In fact, moving through the building could be dangerous. The kind of dangerous that wound up with her stuck in shackles.

And if Juliana was in trouble, it might be some time before someone came along to free her. A potentially deadly situation should the shackles drain her as the other shackles tried to do to her.

“Juliana,” Eva called out again.

This time, she actually heard something in response. Nothing clear. A mumbled noise coming from somewhere below.

The staircase leading up to the roof had fallen with the blast. The way down from whatever floor Eva was on looked more or less intact.

Unfortunately, she spotted several demon shackles just waiting for some poor demon to try to walk up it without glancing above them. They were much easier to notice while facing the stairwell from the wrong direction. However, they spoke of just how on guard she would have to be while walking through the building. Or any of the buildings around.

If she had her cellphone on her, she might have called up Irene to see if she could get a human walking her through the area. At the very least, Irene should be able to scuff up the shackles enough to break them.

Not a choice at the moment, sadly.

Eva overpowered a fireball, throwing it right at the shackle before it exploded. When it did go off, it took most of the ceiling with it.

Surprising, given the difficulty in destroying the shackles within the apartment building. Perhaps they hadn’t had time to make them difficult to remove. Though they had managed to set up all the other wards that littered the rooftops.

“Oh well,” Eva mumbled to herself. “No complaints here.”

She carefully descended the staircase, checking every nook and cranny for more shackles. Even underneath the handrail and the vertical slat on each stair. Rubble from the ceiling of the stairs or the roof itself littered the landing, nearly causing her to miss another set of shackles.

This time, she tried a far less explosive fireball. Just enough to chip into the concrete platform and disrupt the shackles.

She made it all the way down to the first floor.

And promptly froze.

“Am I glad to see you,” Juliana said.

Eva wasn’t sure what to say in response.

A half-sphere of water sat in front of her. Somewhat like an above-ground swimming pool. Except there were no walls. The water was entirely held in by magic.

Wards.

Juliana stood inside it, feet about an arm’s length away from the ground, standing on a pillar of metal. Her pillar let her stick out from her chest up, but she had clearly fallen in at least once. She was soaked from head to toe.

Obviously, given her toes were underwater.

The pillar was probably made of her armor; she was only wearing her regular clothes at the moment. The only metal on her was her ring foci and Ylva’s black band.

The metal-encased idol was lying on the floor right next to the metal pillar.

Eva reached out, about to touch the bubble of water.

“Don’t!”

Juliana’s shout had her pull her hand back, clutching it to her chest.

“What if you got stuck in here? How would we get out then?”

“I’m just confused as to how you managed to fall into this trap?”

In slow motion because of the water, Juliana placed a hand on her hip. “It wasn’t full of water when I walked in. I didn’t see a thing until I ran into an invisible wall. Then it started to fill with water.” She paused, lifting a hand out of the water. Her hand hit something about a foot over her head, roughly twice as high as the water level. “I’m glad somebody showed up before it finished filling. I was about to try summoning a demon.”

She pointed down at her feet. As she lifted one foot out of the way, Eva found a mostly formed summoning circle had been etched into the top of the pillar.

“Of course,” Juliana continued in a quieter mumble, “probably would have gotten an enigma which would have just killed me. Better than drowning though. Even if I got a demon, no room for shackles here.”

“Don’t worry about either. I’m going to get you out of there.”

An easy statement to make. Much harder to follow through with. Now she was wishing she had a phone to call up Professor Lepus. The warding professor should be able to tear it down in the time it took to snap her fingers.

“How fast has it been filling?”

“Fast enough that I’d rather get out now than later.”

“You didn’t think to call someone once you got trapped?”

Juliana pulled a cellphone out of her pocket. One long dead from the water.

“Was the first thing I thought of once I realized I was trapped. Unfortunately, the water was rushing in much faster then. Enough to knock me down.” She dropped the phone with a shrug. It sank down alongside the idol and her pillar. “I honestly thought I would drown before I even had a chance to form the summoning circle,” she said.

Faster before, but now the water was slowing? The ward is running out of magic. Or maybe not the ward but whatever is filling it with magic, Eva thought, slowly circling around the bubble.

She kept a careful eye out for any shackles as she moved.

Packing both the invisible wall and the water conjuring into the same ward wasn’t impossible. Difficult maybe. Especially for someone who had only been in the class as long as Eva. But probably difficult for others as well.

With the staggering amount of wards and shackles around the place, Eva couldn’t imagine that they would have gone with the more complicated and more time-consuming route of wrapping both effects up into a single spell. They would have built everything within the last hour or so, or people might have noticed. Two people did all that. Maybe a few more if they had recruited the hunters who were attacking Nel and Ylva.

They had to have made mistakes in their castings. Eva doubted that the water conjuration was supposed to have given time to escape.

“Maybe it will run out of magic soon,” Eva said, mostly to herself.

Apparently Juliana heard. “I’d rather not take that chance.”

“Right.”

Eva considered going back up the stairs and finding a decently sized bit of rebar and having Juliana smack it against the top of the shell for a while. But if the shell and the water were separate as Eva suspected, the shell could last for a very long time before running out of magic enough to release Juliana.

She would have to try deconstructing the ward.

It was simple in theory. Being able to tear down their own thaumaturgical wards was one of the first things taught. Otherwise the teacher would have to go around and dispel everybody’s practice wards every single time they went into class.

Professor Lepus had warned them never to tear down other people’s wards. It was possible to build traps into the things that activated upon attempts to break them. From simple things such as alarms to full on explosions.

But in the hunters’ haste to erect these defenses, would they have put more time and effort into trapping them?

Eva reached out again, keeping her hand hovering just above the bubble. She channeled her magic through her fingers as if she were conjuring a fireball. Instead of flames, she forced the magic into the shell.

All while focusing on the level of the water.

The water did not significantly rise from her added magic.

“Excellent.” She could toy around for a moment without accidentally drowning Juliana.

Forcing her magic into the bubble again, Eva waited just a moment before yanking it back. Much like removing excess hair with a strip of hot wax paper. Or so went the example Professor Lepus had used; Eva had never had a bikini wax in her life. They sounded painful.

Also, since about a half an hour ago, entirely unnecessary given her lack of hair.

Eva held her breath, waiting and watching.

No explosions. She was taking that as a good sign.

Trying again and a third time, Eva smiled.

A leak had formed in the shell.

“I see the water going out,” Juliana said slowly, “but it’s up to my shoulders now.” Her voice had just a tinge of panic in it. “And still rising. I can make my pedestal bigger, but not by much.”

Eva grit her teeth. Is it trapped then? Or worse, is it intended to cause slow and painful drowning? These hunters were terrible, if so. Still terrible anyway, but worse. Absolutely sadistic.

“Just hold on a minute,” Eva said, pouring more and more magic into the shell.

She tore it all away, peeling it back. More cracks were forming. More water escaping.

“My chin, Eva.”

As she had said she could do, Juliana’s pillar stretched, growing slightly narrower at the top. The water level moved from her chin back to her shoulders as her head bumped into the top of the ward.

“Working as fast as I can,” Eva said, continuing to rip apart the shell.

“Eva…”

“When this thing shatters, try not to get washed into another ward.”

“Gee, okay. That’s first on my priority list at the moment!”

The water had risen back to her chin despite the additional cracks in the shell.

“If you get washed into another one, I’ll have to do this all over again. And maybe it will be fire instead of water.”

Juliana grimaced without speaking. She had to tilt her head back to try to keep her mouth above the water line.

As she continued ripping apart the ward, Eva considered something. It might not have been designed to speed up because she was ripping apart the barrier. The fact of the matter was that the shell was in the shape of a sphere. Beyond the half-way point, for every inch the water level rose, less water would need to exist to fill the next inch.

That didn’t really help much, but at least she knew that she wasn’t fueling some trap.

Feeding in enough of her magic to detonate several of her most explosive fireballs, Eva tore it away in a single jerk of her hands.

It started around the middle. Water exploded outwards in a ring. The rest of the water held its shape for just a moment. All at once, that sphere failed. The ring traveled upwards and downwards, letting the water collapse in on itself as it rushed to fill the rest of the first floor.

It was enough water to almost knock Eva off her feet.

Juliana, being in the water, did exactly as Eva had asked her not to and started to head towards where she knew another ward was waiting.

Eva snapped a hand out, grabbing Juliana’s arm. Her other hand wrapped around Juliana’s waist.

As soon as her arms were around Juliana, Eva stopped fighting the water and let it sweep her backwards. The stairs were already clear of traps. She could fall towards them all she wanted.

Juliana coughed a few times, sputtering out a bit of water.

She didn’t speak.

Neither of them did. They just sat, soaked to the bone. Eva had her arms wrapped around Juliana while the other girl coughed every once in a while.

As the water settled—save for a weak fountain floating in the middle of the air where the bubble had been—Eva gently shoved Juliana off.

“Let’s not do that again, shall we?”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


008.025

<– Back | Index | Next –>

With a long guttural noise from the back of her throat, Arachne tried to sit up.

Eva slammed her foot down on Arachne’s shoulder despite the sword at her neck. The sudden move shouldn’t alarm the doll too much. In fact, pretty much nothing alarmed the doll. Throughout that entire fight with the hunter, Eva hadn’t noticed a single recognizable emotion cross her face.

And even with a sword at her neck, Eva couldn’t allow Arachne to move. The sword had come perilously close to cutting straight through her heart tube. Of course, she probably shouldn’t have kicked her down so hard, but the sword didn’t cut anything vital.

So long as Arachne didn’t move more, everything would be fine.

To that end, Eva kept her foot firmly planted on Arachne’s chest.

“Look,” Eva said, turning her head slightly to address the doll, “I’m not going anywhere. No need to be so touchy.”

The doll said nothing. Only half looking at her, Eva couldn’t get a very good picture of what the doll was doing. Even if she could, she doubted she would gain any insight from looking at her face. The term ‘doll’ was quite apt in her case.

As the silence continued, Eva slowly raised a hand. She used just the very tip of one finger to slide the blade off her shoulder. When she failed to encounter any resistance, Eva grew a little confidence. As soon as the blade wasn’t touching her, she twisted around and stepped onto the other side of Arachne to face the doll.

Of course, she didn’t take her foot off Arachne as she moved.

“While running around, I had some time to think. I think I’ve come up with something that might convince you to not send me to Hell or the Keeper.”

The doll remained where she was. Now that Eva was actually facing her, Eva found herself somewhat disturbed.

Blood hadn’t bothered Eva in years. The sight of it didn’t elicit any real feelings. Nor did the smell. Not fresh blood at least. The memories of Sawyer’s autopsies while she had been in his head were about where she drew the line in terms of body decomposition.

So it wasn’t the blood alone that made Eva take in a sharp breath.

It was the doll and how she just stood there, covered in blood, as if she didn’t even realize it. Her whole face was stained red, losing the alabaster look. Her hair as well. And her eyes… she obviously had them open when Eva had clapped her hands together. Larger bits of flesh hung off her body as well. A chunk of skin clung to a matted strand of hair.

Perhaps she did realize it. Without it factoring into her current mission, she just didn’t care.

Eva grimaced, remembering that she had her back turned while the hunter was busy exploding. She had definitely felt some blood hit her—and now that she was looking at herself with her blood sight, her worries were confirmed.

She definitely needed a shower.

Shaking her head and clearing her throat in an attempt to take her mind off the matter, Eva moved on with her explanation.

“Ylva killed me.”

The doll just continued staring.

Perhaps it wasn’t the best explanation. Eva had more to elaborate upon it, but at the moment, Arachne was letting out an even deeper growl as she struggled to get up.

Which was exactly why she had never told Arachne about that little incident. She knew that the demon would become agitated. Eva did not want Arachne trying to fight Ylva.

Eva lifted her foot and slammed it down. A few cracks spread through her carapace.

“After this incident you’re concerned about,” Eva said as Arachne settled down, “the one where I took a beacon from Hell, Ylva killed me. It was an experiment. One I was somewhat displeased to be the subject of. However, no portal to Hell opened to draw me back in. If I’m not demonic enough for Void to draw me in, I must not be demonic enough to have the Keeper’s laws applied to me.

“That combined with my earlier argument about realizing my mistake and destroying the beacon should be enough to absolve me.”

Or so Eva was hoping.

“She’s out in the city,” Eva added after a moment. “You can even ask her if you don’t believe me.”

Throughout the entire time Eva spoke, the doll had just stood there. Her sword was not up and at the ready, but hovering off to the side. Her facial expression never changed from her impassive stare.

So Eva held her breath, waiting and hoping that the doll judged her innocent.

Though she did have something of a backup plan. Unlike Eva, the black pool of blood they were all standing in did not avoid the doll’s feet. It was all still under her control. While it might not have seeped up into her boots, a great deal had splashed around the doll just from walking. Much of it had joined up with and been contaminated by the hunter’s blood, but plenty more was still pure enough to work with.

Eva could distinctly tell the difference between the hunter’s blood and the demon blood. A clap of her hands and the doll should be crippled if not killed outright.

Hopefully, anyway. Before any of that, Eva would be blinking away to give herself some time to clap.

Just as Eva was thinking about good locations to blink to, the doll’s sword-arm shot straight up into the air. She didn’t have time to react before it came back down.

Eva winced, expecting to find herself split in two.

But the doll’s sword came down to the side, splattering a great deal of red blood into the pool of black.

In one swift motion, she slid it across the opening of her scabbard, stopping at the tip, and plunged it in.

With the doll’s sword put away, Eva breathed out her held breath.

Eva turned her attention to Arachne now that the doll had sheathed her sword. Ever since she had stomped on Arachne’s shoulder, she hadn’t tried to get up. That wasn’t to say that she was sitting still and content. Her fingers were scraping through the pool of blood as she clenched and unclenched her fists.

More, she had an almost constant low rumble coming from the back of her throat.

“Just sit still,” Eva said. “I’m obviously alive and fine. Ylva put me back together after killing me. And, thanks to her, I am no longer in danger of…”

Eva trailed off as she glanced back up at the doll.

Or where the doll had been standing. She wasn’t there now. It took Eva a moment to realize that the doll was walking away. And then, she only noticed that the doll was still in the area thanks to the ripples in the blood.

She watched for a moment as the doll approached the webbed fence, hopped straight over, and came down on the other side.

“Well, I think she has decided to let me go. Which is great news,” Eva said, looking back to Arachne.

“Ylva killed you,” Arachne snarled.

“And I’m still here. If you go off and attack Ylva, she’ll kill you. And maybe she’ll be mad enough to kill me. And if either of us die, I will be very upset,” Eva said, leaning over Arachne to better glower at the demon.

Arachne’s teeth clicked together. She somewhat shrunk in on herself. As much as she could with a sword through her chest, anyway.

Which just brought Eva’s attention back to how close it was to cutting into her heart tube.

“Now, let’s get that sword out of you.”

“My legs are still bleeding. I can feel it. They should have stopped by now.”

Eva blinked. Apart from her initial shock at seeing how dismembered Arachne was, she hadn’t paid all that much attention to Arachne’s legs. She lost them often enough that Eva never considered them all that big a deal. Just a measure of how dangerous whoever she was fighting might be.

But now that she was looking, she could see that Arachne was right. The stumps on her back were still bleeding, as was her chest where the sword had partially come out.

Most of it was beneath the surface of the black pool.

Which helped Eva immensely. She solidified some of the blood around each of Arachne’s major wounds and even a few of the minor cuts and cracks in her chitin that looked like they were leaking.

Now for the sword, Eva thought, reaching out for the hilt.

She stopped her hands just before touching the hilt. As with the idol, this sword could be trapped somehow. Or worse, made of the same metal that hurt demons when touched.

Eva pulled back, choosing instead to call up the surrounding blood. The blood swarmed around the sword, swallowing it up in an inky blackness. Eva solidified a large portion around the hilt. As added security, she solidified more blood in a handle that extended well beyond the original hilt.

Even with all the crystallized blood, Eva still only grazed her fingers along the surface.

Really, she was probably being paranoid. Arachne had part of the sword buried in her and had gripped the hilt to get it away from the hunter. Though injured, most of that looked to be because she had been stabbed. Unless there was some enchantment that caused the blade to turn on its wielder, Eva should be fine.

As nothing had killed her yet, Eva gripped the handle with both hands and hefted the sword up.

And just about stumbled forwards, coming far too close to dropping it back into Arachne for her tastes. Even using her legs to do most of the work for her didn’t help much. The sword had to weigh twice as much as Eva did.

She did get it up enough to clear Arachne. Despite the demon’s injured state, Arachne managed to slide out from under the hovering tip.

As soon as she was out of the way, Eva threw it back down, fully encasing the rest of the blade in crystalline blood drawn from the pool it had landed in.

“How,” Eva groaned between sucking in gasps of air, “did that hunter manage to lift that thing.”

Even when it fell, some of the hardened blood cracked. Eva had to spend a moment shoring it up and ensuring that it wasn’t going anywhere.

With a sigh, she finally turned to face Arachne. There were still a few spots where the sword had been that were bleeding, so Eva fixed them up.

“How are you feeling?”

“Like I have a hole in my chest,” she groaned, sitting up properly. She paused, glancing downwards. “Oh. Look at that.”

Eva rolled her eyes. “You’re hilarious.” She took a deep breath and just sighed. Arachne was alright. “About Ylva… just let it go. Pretend nothing happened. She killed me only because I asked. It was all an experiment.”

Sure, she hadn’t explicitly asked to be killed, but if Arachne believed so, then all the better.

“Though,” Eva said before Arachne could do more than growl again, “Nel mentioned that they were fighting another group of hunters just a few minutes ago. I wonder how they’re doing.”

— — —

Nel shrieked as something flew right towards her. She ducked back behind her altar, letting it sail overhead. It bounced off a wall and…

Is that a grenade?

She scrambled around to the other side of the heavy marble, just barely making it with enough time to clamp her arms over her head.

An explosion sent her eardrums ringing. All the sounds of gunfire died off, replaced by a high-pitched whine. Shards of marble from the altar went flying through the air while the main bulk of it collapsed into where Nel had just been hiding.

The lack of gunfire was actually quite refreshing. Guns were noisy. Painfully so. Every time one of the hunters fired off a shotgun, she feared that she would never hear again. And not just because she was dead. The way it echoed in the small home burst her eardrums again and again.

Though, just because she couldn’t hear didn’t mean that the battle had stopped.

And, though her altar had saved her from the grenade, it was no longer protecting her from the flying bullets.

Marble dust exploded around Nel’s head as a bullet whizzed past her ear. She pinched her eyes shut, throwing herself back down as flat on the ground as she could possibly make herself.

Scrambling along the ground, Nel made it back to the safer side of her altar. Shrapnel and debris littered the small corner of the room. The wood floor had a hole in it at the main point of the explosion. One full of splinters that were just waiting to become slivers.

Nel pressed her back against the largest still intact chunk of marble and let out a breath. The ringing in her ears was slowly dying down, only to once again be replaced with the cracks of gun reports.

There had been five hunters to begin with. Two were little more than husks.

Nel took a quick glimpse of the area, making sure that none of the remaining hunters were circling around to get her.

A white lightning bolt crackled through the air. Alicia flung two more, but they both missed. The first hit the hunter that Ylva was stalking square in the back, sending him crashing to the floor.

He managed to roll on his back, bringing a shotgun around and leveling it at the skeletal form of Ylva.

The roof had partially collapsed thanks to one of the hunters and his fireballs. He had been the first to go. But the damage had been done and Ylva was out in the unobstructed sunlight. Her white dress was riddled with holes from the hunters’ bullets. However, with no skin or organs, it was nearly impossible to tell how injured she was. One of her ribs had broken off, but that was about it.

The hunter on his back unloaded three shotgun blasts straight into Ylva’s chest.

Not one of the shots gave her even the slightest pause. She reached down, brushing her skeletal fingertips across the hunter’s cheeks.

Screaming, the hunter writhed on the ground as black veins spread out from the touch. Within a few seconds, his screams died out and the hunter went still. As with the other dead hunters, it was as if all the water in his body had dried up, turning him into a sort of mummified husk.

“Hey Dean?”

Nel turned her attention to one of the remaining hunters. A younger man with somewhat long brown hair.

“Little busy at the moment Sammy,” the other one—shorter and with a crew cut—said. He leaned around the corner, brandishing a heavy pistol.

Nel clamped her hands over her ears. Despite that, she still heard the crack as if it were right next to her head.

Ylva’s head snapped to the side. The bullet had been traveling too fast to see, but a bullet-sized hole appeared in the side of Ylva’s skull. Only one side. It didn’t make it out the other.

Snapping her head back upright, she lifted a hand to just under her jaw. A single silver bullet fell down into her waiting palm. She looked it over for a moment before dropping it to the floor. Her skull swiveled over to face the hunter with the pistol.

“I don’t think this is a succubus,” the taller hunter said.

The hunter with a pistol ducked back behind a broken wall just in time to avoid a lightning bolt from Alicia. “You think? What gave you that idea? Was it the turning into a skeleton? Or maybe the fact that it didn’t die with a bullet to the skull. Find a way to kill it.”

“Just keep it off me,” the first said, opening a small leather-bound book. “I’m going to try to banish it.”

Alicia snarled upon hearing that. Emerging from her cover, she threw lightning bolt after lightning bolt at the wall the taller hunter was using for cover. With every step closer, the lightning grew more intense than the last bolt until it was almost blinding to look at even through Nel’s glimpsing.

The hunter with the pistol didn’t seem too concerned. He leaned around the corner, aimed, and fired all before Nel could even think to do anything.

Alicia crumpled to the ground, blood leaking from a hole in her own skull.

Her shield should have protected her. Nel saw it. It flashed for the barest moment in Nel’s glimpse. Nel had never heard of an enchanted bullet that could penetrate an Elysium Order shield with only a single shot. But then, perhaps Alicia hadn’t been maintaining her shield properly. Her fellow former nun did not display the best mental discipline. Something that had only been getting worse as time went on.

With her real eyes, Nel started to see ice crystals forming from her breath. She started shivering as the cold set in, penetrating straight to her core.

“I think you just pissed it off!”

Ylva marched towards the pistol wielding hunter, ignoring shot after shot even as parts of her body were pulverized by the bullets. Even while fighting with the other hunters, Ylva had a grace about her. A certain regal bearing that she managed to maintain no matter the situation.

That regality was gone. Her footfalls were heavy and angry. Her hands clenched into fists. The teeth in her fleshless jaw ground together.

Just outside her reach, the hunter decided he had stuck around long enough. He turned to run.

And found himself facing the bright pinpricks in the back of Ylva’s skull.

She reached forward, gripping his neck. As with all the other hunters, black veins started spreading from her touch. Unlike the others, the veins spread slowly. They crept from her fingers, lingering in spots before moving on.

Nel stopped watching. She stared at her feet with her hands clamped over her ears, trying to shut out the noises the hunter was making. She had thought that she had seen Ylva angry before. How wrong that was. Nel now believed that she had never seen Ylva more than mildly irritated. With a shudder, Nel considered just how grateful she was to be Ylva’s servant and not her enemy.

When she finally worked up the courage to look again, she found nothing but dust around Ylva’s feet.

And an unmoving Ylva.

The taller hunter had his hand thrust outwards towards Ylva with a look of abject anger tormenting his otherwise pretty face. His lips moved, murmuring something.

He was trying to banish her.

Judging by her immobility, he was succeeding.

Nel jumped up. She couldn’t fight, but she could throw a lightning bolt or two. Enough to distract him and let Ylva free to take him out.

But before she could properly connect to the Source, the hunter’s head fell from his neck.

His body stayed upright for just a moment before tottering to the ground.

A woman covered from head to toe in blood stood just behind him, not even tracking his falling corpse with her eyes. She flicked her sword to one side before sheathing it.

“I have an inquiry,” she said, stepping over the body towards Ylva.

Though she was obviously not frozen anymore, Ylva stood still, watching the sword-wielder approach.

“The individual known as ‘Eva’ claims to have been killed by you.”

“Her claim is accurate.”

“No portal to the Void opened beneath her corpse?”

“Your statement is accurate.”

“I see.”

The two stood, staring at each other for another minute. Neither said another word. Even still, as if by some agreement, both started moving at once. The sword-wielder turned on her heel, stepped over the body, and walked out through a hole in the house.

Ylva turned to face the crumpled form of Alicia.

Her strides still heavy though lacking their anger, she approached the body. Half-way there, she stepped out of the direct sunlight and into a portion of the house that still had a roof overhead. Her flesh returned, appearing on her body as if nothing had happened. Though her bones had been damaged and even broken in places, not a single blemish marred her skin.

The only evidence of a battle was her long dress and the tatters the bullets had made of it.

She stopped a foot away, standing and staring.

With the danger passed, Nel stepped out from behind the slab of marble. She wasn’t quite sure what to do. Comfort Ylva?

She wouldn’t know where to begin in doing such a thing.

For the time being, she merely stepped up beside Ylva.

Nel couldn’t say that she ever really liked the other nun. Quite the opposite, in fact. Nel frequently felt an uncomfortable sensation on the back of her neck only to turn and notice Alicia staring at her. It gave her the creeps. And after Eva had mentioned how Ylva recruited the nun, that creepy feeling only grew. She knew Eva felt the same. They had both worried that she might betray Ylva.

Yet here she lay, having given her life in an attempt to stop Ylva from being banished. All while Nel cowered behind cover.

Ylva’s face was set in stone. Yet there was a certain sorrow behind her eyes. Something Nel hadn’t ever seen before despite all the time she spent around the demon.

She couldn’t keep silent any longer.

“Can you not bring her back?”

“No.” Ylva’s voice came out heavy and full of conviction. Not the voice she occasionally used when she wanted to make an impression. That voice tended to echo everywhere and force people to their knees. Just one with a hint more emotion than she normally expressed.

Nel shook her head, not quite understanding. Was she not a servant of Death? Did she not have certain powers over death?

“But you killed Eva. She’s still around.”

“None came to collect Eva. She is unwanted by all. Perhaps in time, Void will stake a claim on her being. Even had a reaper come, We may have been able to stake Our own claim. Yet We did not kill Ali. She is not Ours to restore.”

Ylva reached over, tapping Nel in the center of her forehead.

Nel blinked as a rush of cold passed through her body. Not the uncomfortable sort of cold she had felt when Alicia had been shot. Just a chill. It lasted a mere instant.

When she opened her eyes from her blink, she could see.

The world had become muted. Blood from the hunters had turned grey. The pictures on the walls, grey. Everything she could see had been drained of color.

Yet Nel didn’t waste her time looking around.

An ethereal Alicia stood just in front of her. Her face was devoid of all expression. No staring at her own corpse, no longing for Ylva. Just a vacuous gaze that stared off to one side.

Another being stood nearby. A kindly old man stood just over the beheaded hunter’s corpse. Despite his somewhat disturbing location, Nel didn’t get any worrisome feelings about him. If anything, she found him pleasing to look at.

With his lightly wrinkled face, she thought that he might be the kind of person that might be found in a park, reading a book under the warm sun. While Alicia looked like a ghost, the man was far more solid. Nel could almost see through him, but at the same time, she felt as if she might bump into him were they to touch.

He drifted forward. Though his feet moved in proper steps, his body moved so smoothly that it was almost as if he were gliding. As soon as he reached Alicia, he reached out, tapping her on the shoulder.

Alicia’s face came alive. First, her initial snarl. The exact same expression she had on while marching after the hunter. That disappeared in an instant, replaced with open-mouthed confusion. She stared at Ylva first, then Nel.

Then down to her own body.

Nel clamped her jaw shut, not trusting herself to not make a noise. The anguish on Alicia’s face, the despair. It was enough to make Nel want to cry. As it was, her stomach was churning.

“Thank you, Ali, for your service.”

The former nun’s head snapped up to Ylva. Her eyes looked wet, full of tears. But not a single drop made it out. She gave a shallow nod of her head.

The old man spoke. At least, Nel assumed he was speaking. His mouth was moving and Alicia had turned as if listening. However, Nel couldn’t hear a thing. She watched as Alicia opened her mouth as if speaking in response before the old man started talking again.

After they had spoken, the old man turned to Ylva. He gave her an almost imperceptible nod of his head. One which Ylva returned.

He took Alicia by the hand. Both vanished in a flash of white light.

Nel blinked, looking around. They were well and truly gone.

“Humans have hourglasses,” Ylva said. “We know rumors of such have been distributed throughout the mortal realm. Not literally true, but a decent metaphor. Getting the hourglasses to turn around is difficult. Though not truly a crime. Attempting to freeze the sand in place through idols of gold is what Death finds most offensive. However, sometimes sand can be added. Sometimes, taken away. Alicia… was taken before her sand had run its course. Her hourglass had cracked, to continue the metaphor.”

Turning away from Alicia’s corpse, Ylva glanced down. She pulled at her dress, looking it over with a deep frown on her face. After a moment, she released the fabric.

“Alicia may prove worthy. A reaper. Maybe a valkyrie. Should she prove worthy, I may put in a request to have her assigned to me.”

Nel didn’t say anything. She was relatively certain that she should never have seen what Ylva just showed her. The churn in her stomach was still there. Worse now, with what Ylva had said.

She opened her mouth.

How long is left in my hourglass?

She almost asked. Came so close to spilling the words.

But she was afraid. Ylva would answer. She would speak honestly and probably bluntly at that.

Nel shook her head, narrowing her eyes. She latched onto Ylva’s other words.

“H-How do I become worthy?”

— — —

“Eh, I’m sure she’s fine,” Eva said with a shrug.

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Author’s Note: Specter chapter 2 up over on the other site.