Tag Archives: Alicia

008.025

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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.


006.031

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Shalise jumped to her feet, ready for another attack. Lynn was at her side in an instant.

It was somewhat off-putting. Lynn’s lightning and fire was far more effective at dealing with the enigmas than anything Shalise could put out. Sure, her muscles were strong and afforded her a certain level of toughness that she would otherwise lack, but not a single one of the creatures had actually made it within grappling range since Eva had brought along Lynn.

She shouldn’t be complaining, but Lynn just looked so exhausted. Dealing with the constant attacks kept her from having a proper sleep schedule.

This time, however, both women sagged in relief as they spotted just who it was approaching the alternate women’s ward.

Zoe and Eva were walking slowly, carrying something heavy between the two of them.

“She actually got it,” Lynn mused under her breath. “I half expected to never see her again.”

Shalise gave Lynn a frown, but didn’t respond. She threw open the door to the women’s ward and ran out across the closed trap doors to see if she could help out in any way. They were carrying her salvation, supposedly.

Salvation? You were not complaining while using me to escape from the prison.

Shaking her head with a frown, Shalise shot a mental glare at Prax. She was fairly certain that she had been complaining. Even before he had taken over her body.

That was entirely unintentional. I did not intend for us to become stuck this way.

“Sounds like you’re complaining about what might get us unstuck.”

There was an uncomfortable shift in the back of her mind. Between Zagan and the dolls, he started. Whatever he was going to say vanished with a spike of annoyance.

“Well, I can’t stay here. Even with Lynn here, those things will eventually kill me. Then you’ll be stuck dealing with Zagan and the dolls anyway.”

Brushing off the resignation from Prax, Shalise raised her voice to more conversational levels. “Is that the obelisk? Do you need help?”

“Just hold the door and show us where to put it.”

Eva’s words came out quick and strained, so Shalise wasn’t about to argue. She ran up to the door and kept it from swinging shut on them while Lynn directed them to the circle she had drawn.

“Set it down here,” Lynn said. “The corner needs to point towards the center of the circle.”

Zoe and Eva complied without complaint. Once the obelisk was in place, they both heaved out great sighs of relief. Eva collapsed into the couch that had been shoved against the far wall while Zoe just leaned against its armrests, sheathing her dagger as she panted.

Pathetic. Prax’s amusement was almost palpable. We could have lifted that with one hand.

“Shalise,” Lynn said, “strip down while I get everything set up.”

Feeling the heat in her face, Shalise almost protested. Zoe and Eva were still at the couch, now talking softly to one another while Zoe pointed at the ritual circle. Lynn had already moved on to the backpack that Eva had slung on the floor. She pulled a white feather out of the bag and placed it carefully within a small circle at the side of the larger circle.

No one was paying attention to her.

I am paying attention.

“Don’t be a creep,” Shalise hissed as she pulled off her shirt.

Despite his words, Shalise couldn’t feel a hint of interest towards herself from Prax. It was just him being annoying again. A way of protesting his imprisonment within her body without angering her too much.

Maybe he wanted her to summon him once they got out.

That wouldn’t happen, though Juliana had offered to summon him back at the prison. If Shalise never interacted with him again, she wouldn’t be too upset.

But he hadn’t been that bad. He did get both herself and Juliana out of the prison safely and with their souls intact.

And the conflicting combination of anxiety and eagerness towards the ritual had Shalise feeling just a little pity for him.

He would be back in his own body, but had Zagan and the dolls to worry about, as he had just mentioned a short while ago.

Setting her folded clothes neatly to the side of the room, Shalise sat at the edge of the circle, trying and failing to cover herself as much as possible.

Why bother? Everyone in this room has seen you in various states of undress.

“Not this undressed.”

Mortal sensibilities, he scoffed.

Shalise kept her mouth shut. She didn’t want to encourage his antics. He was just as nervous as she was, but his way of relieving that tension did not agree with her.

“Center of the circle, Shal. Remain standing and face me.”

After jumping slightly at being addressed, Shalise stepped into the circle. She moved to her spot, making certain that she didn’t scuff any of the markings on the floor.

Facing Lynn meant facing the door. Her back was to the obelisk.

An assortment of items lay out in an array around her. Sigils and markings were covering the floor, all designed to direct the magic in certain patterns, to make them flow through the objects, and all sorts of things that Shalise didn’t pretend to understand.

Both Eva and Zoe moved to stand near Lynn at the front of the circle, though Lynn moved back as soon as they came near.

Taking a bag of white powder in her hands, Lynn moved around to the obelisk behind Shalise.

Craning her neck to see, Shalise watched as Lynn opened the top of the obelisk and started pouring the powder inside.

As she did, the markings and sigils on the obelisk started to glow. It was a pale, white light that sent a shiver of disgust through her body.

Once full, Lynn replaced the cap of the obelisk and returned to the head of the circle.

“We’re going to start now,” she said. “Try to remain standing. Everything will be alright.”

Shalise took a deep breath, nodding.

As she nodded, she caught sight of her shadow. The light of the obelisk filled most of the room, so it wasn’t unusual that she would have a shadow.

But the shadow looked like Prax. She could see his hooves, his horns, and his muscles. Concerning, as Shalise’s arms were currently her own. No Prax’s muscles bulging through her skin. It was also far taller than it should have been, given the angle of the light.

Glancing up, Shalise frowned.

Neither Sister Cross nor Zoe had any shadow to speak of, as if the light was passing straight through them.

“Huh,” Eva said, back turned to Shalise to look at her own shadow.

Things sprouted off the back of Eva’s shadow. Like oddly angled wings made of bones. Except they couldn’t be bones. They were far too fluid. Liquid dripped off the tips of the bones to rejoin the mass of shadow making up the rest of Eva’s body.

There was more to the shadow. Shalise couldn’t see it very well. Eva’s body stood in the way to obscure most of it.

Without a word or glance at the others, Eva walked out the door and disappeared around the side of the women’s ward. Shalise didn’t see her pass by the window, so either she was walking straight out or she had chosen to rest against the wall.

Zoe started to follow, but appeared to change her mind as she set her eyes on Shalise.

Lynn took a step back. She looked over the circle, double checking everything for the hundredth time. Once satisfied, her eyes lit up like they did anytime she used her powers. She started chanting.

Shalise didn’t recognize the words. They weren’t English. Probably–

Latin, Prax confirmed. She could feel an air of dread coming from the back of her mind. I do not think that either of us are going to enjoy this.

“What do–”

Shalise couldn’t get her question out before the pain started.

A tearing, ripping sensation pulled at her back. Prax’s dormant muscles spasmed. They grew under her skin, then shrank, then grew again. Every time, they seemed to be just a little less attached. Her natural muscles strained as they pulled against each other.

All the while, Shalise screamed. Like the rest of her body, her brain felt like it was being torn apart.

Prax’s screams faded in and out of the back of her mind. Unlike her, he needed no air to continue his screams. His vocal chords weren’t wearing and tearing from the stress. His screams came in a constant tone.

Shalise couldn’t say how long it lasted. She was fairly certain that her consciousness lapsed more than once, only to be brought back by the crescendo of pain.

It ended with a sudden thud and a hot, wet, and sticky sensation against her chest.

Shalise slumped forward. The ground was quickly approaching.

She stopped inches away as a pair of arms caught her and pulled her into a tight embrace.

“It’s alright,” Lynn’s voice came faint and distant. “Shal, you’re okay. It worked.”

Shalise blinked twice, trying to clear her mind of the lingering pain. She was pressed tight against Lynn’s body, her head resting on the older woman’s shoulder.

Behind her back, Prax–red skin, horns, bulking body and all–lay face down on the ground.

Eva stood over him, nudging him slightly with her foot while Zoe stood to the side with her dagger out. When Eva had reentered the room, Shalise couldn’t say. She had no idea how long that ritual had lasted. Her muscles screamed at her as if she had been running three marathons in a row, but it had only felt like a moment or two.

A splattering of red and black blood lay about between Shalise and Prax.

Seeing Prax, Shalise’s eyes felt heavy. She tried to keep them open. She wanted to stay awake.

After two more blinks, she found it too difficult to lift them again.

“We’ll let her rest for a few hours,” Lynn’s voice came, distant and quiet. “Then we can return.”

“Fine with me,” Eva said from even farther away. “Keep watching her and don’t worry. If any of the enigmas attack, I’ll deal with them.” A certain violence entered Eva’s voice, one that Shalise couldn’t recall hearing before. “I hope more of the enigmas attack.”

There was a sound not dissimilar to the cracking of knuckles.

“I could use a little cathartic release at the moment.”

Her voice trailed off into a deep silence as Shalise lost consciousness.

— — —

“It’s time.”

Nel jumped at Ylva’s words. She had been concentrating.

Sawyer was on the move. At least, she assumed that Sawyer was on the move.

It was just her luck that he would have noticed that his augur shield wasn’t working. After preparing the salt for Eva, she had immediately returned to watching him.

He had been in the middle of surgery on the little girl when Nel got to her altar. While the girl had torn off the violet-colored organ attached to his hand, there were still traces of it left. Veins, purpler than they should be on a person, bulged from his skin.

He didn’t seem to pay it much mind, choosing to focus on the surgery. In just a single half hour, he had done something that caused everything to go dark.

Likely by repairing whatever he had done with Nel’s eyes.

But all was not lost. After a few minutes of experimentation, Nel found them again. She couldn’t actually see them–anything within a few mile radius just vanished from her sight. But she could monitor that blotch of darkness. The edges of it moved around. Not much, it presumably moved as the little girl moved.

Still, it allowed Nel to track their general movements, if not their exact position.

Five days after Sawyer had repaired the girl, they had started moving north. Not quickly. They made frequent stops in areas that held tiny towns. Perhaps ones that were just large enough to have a motel or some other hostel.

After three days of travel, they had crossed the Nevada border into southern Idaho.

Nel had a feeling that she knew their final destination, even if they weren’t heading towards Brakket Academy in a straight line.

She had been hoping that Eva would be up to enact their revenge on Sawyer sometime before Ylva closed off her domain, but that didn’t seem to be all that likely anymore.

Nel glanced up at Lady Ylva and gave her a resigned nod.

“Shall I stay here? Or do you need me somewhere specific?”

Ylva stared. She didn’t blink or tilt her head to either side, she just stared in silence.

Anyone else might have missed it, but Nel knew her mannerisms well enough after a year and a half of being constantly in her presence.

Lady Ylva was confused.

“You wish to stay?”

Ice cold fear gripped Nel’s heart. This was it. She had allowed herself to grow complacent–comfortable even–as Lady Ylva’s aide.

Now she was being thrown away. Dismissed.

Killed?

Nel could feel her breath quickening.

No. Not killed. Sister Cross had tried to kill her. Discretely, true, but the evidence was plain to see from her position.

If Lady Ylva wanted her dead, she would be dead. There were no superiors to hold Lady Ylva accountable for the death of an augur. No one to complain about all the effort it took to replace an augur.

But Ylva was sending her back to Earth?

Nel wouldn’t miss it. She hadn’t stepped outside of Ylva’s domain more than three times in the past year and not a single one of those times had anything good happened. Generally, it was the exact opposite.

No. Nel wanted to stay.

Nel’s eyes flicked from Lady Ylva’s face to just over her shoulder.

Alicia stood a step behind Ylva, still wearing the dark robes that Nel wore. Her eyes were narrowed in Nel’s direction, but her face was otherwise impassive.

Had she been asked to stay in place of Nel? Or had she chosen to stay?

Was it a choice?

“I want to stay with you,” Nel blurted out.

Lady Ylva nodded. A faint smile touched just the very edges of her lips.

That had been the expected response? Or it was a test?

Nel sagged in her seat at the altar as the tension drained from her body. She spent a moment trying to get her hyperventilating under control.

“Very well,” Lady Ylva said, taking no apparent notice of Nel’s distress. “Gather everything that cannot be left behind. Join Us in the throne room after.”

Nel’s breath hitched in her throat. She glanced up with confusion in her eyes.

Lady Ylva had already turned. Her long platinum hair and low-cut dress swung in the air, trailing after her as she left the room.

Alicia shot a look before turning to follow. Nel wasn’t quite certain what to make of it. Amusement? Ire?

With every passing day, Nel found herself liking the other former nun less and less.

Maybe I misunderstood the question. She was suddenly extremely relieved that she hadn’t said that yes, she wanted to stay.

But she had been left with an order.

Nel did not have much. She came to Ylva with nothing but the tattered remains of her Elysium Order habit. Everything she had, everything she wore, everything she ate, all of it was provided by Lady Ylva.

Aside from a few spare changes of clothes, there was only one thing that she could think to take.

Her fetters.

Most had containers already. Only the one she had most recently been using, Sawyer’s hand, was out of its jar. Nel wasted no time in sealing it up and dropping it into a bag.

She glanced around, ensuring she had everything. Several strands of hair, Sawyer’s hand, the little girl’s friend’s blood. She hesitated in taking the brass sphere that the devil had given her, but decided that throwing away a fetter wouldn’t do anyone any good, even one as disturbing as that.

And that was everything Nel could think to bring. She headed out to the main throne room.

Lady Ylva stood near the exit doors alongside Alicia and one of the professors.

It took a moment to understand the reason for the professor’s presence. Her apartment had been connected to Ylva’s domain as well.

“Ready,” Nel said as she ran up to the group.

“Let Us proceed,” Ylva said, moving to leave her domain.

The two former nuns and the professor all followed her out, with the professor watching Ylva like a hawk.

Once everyone was outside, Ylva gripped the handle of the door and swung it shut. She held on for just a moment longer than necessary.

“It is done.”

“That’s it?” Zoe asked, her voice carrying a hint of disbelief.

Ylva gestured one arm towards the door.

Accepting the wordless invitation, Zoe stepped up and opened the door once again.

Gone was the gigantic room, the pit, the throne, and the storm clouds overhead. What lay behind the door was indistinguishable from any other cell block in the compound.

“What do you intend to do now?” Zoe asked without taking her eyes off the interior of the building.

“The necromancer is still at large. We would stay near your presence until his termination.”

“Because of the ring,” Zoe said, thumbing the black band on her finger. With a slight jump in her stance, she tore her eyes from the cell block and stared at Ylva. “Juliana still has hers. She’s been gone all this time.”

“Juliana has had Our personal attention for a time,” Ylva said, holding up one placating hand. “For the time, We may send Ali to watch over her. It would be preferable were she to return.”

Alicia opened her mouth just a hair. She snapped it shut in an instant.

Nel didn’t much care. She was too busy staring into what used to be Ylva’s domain.

There was something that she had forgotten.

She could almost feel the tears welling up at the corners of her eyes.

With a heavy heart, Nel wondered if she would ever see Lady Ylva’s bath again.

— — —

Embarrassed.

That was the only word that Riley Cole could think of to describe her situation.

Perhaps not her situation, but the situation of the Elysium Order.

They were an upstanding organization that hunted down the evils that lurked in the night. Anything that threatened human life or livelihood. Vampires, undead, zombies, liches, ghosts, ghouls, revenants, wights, wraiths, and even mummies. All fell in the name of protecting the living.

And yet, they had wound up a laughing stock. The inquisitors had been decimated. The few survivors claiming that a literal god of Death had stripped them of their powers. Scattered incidents around the country involving demons had further hampered their efforts to keep the living alive.

They had tried to keep the theft of the Obelisk of the Pure Moon quiet. The thieves had the gall to return it. When they did, they ensured that everyone in the area knew it was there.

Luckily, a stone obelisk with a handful of fireworks going off around it down the road from the cathedral had been passed off as a simple curiosity. No one who saw understood the significance of the obelisk.

Riley recognized the demon that had perished in the cathedral. As had a number of the Charon Chapter nuns. It had been standing on the roof overlooking their warehouse the night of the riot.

It all stemmed from here. Prioress Cross–Former Prioress Cross had antagonized the wrong people at Brakket City. They had spent far too much time around the city itself when they should have been hunting the necromancer. Their augur had been tied up spying on students rather than searching through caves, warehouses, and other necromancer haunts.

Given the demon infestation in the area, Riley could see the logic behind it.

But they were not demon hunters. They were undead hunters. Former Prioress Cross had failed to follow regulations. If she had truly been concerned about the demons, she should have put out the word for hunters to find. Otherwise, they should have stuck to hunting the necromancer and left the demons well enough alone.

Riley had lost more than one good friend to Cross’ madness.

The demons were the ones embarrassing the Elysium Order as a whole, now.

That could no longer stand.

“The tip was right. I would call this a ‘cursed city.'”

One of her companions–Riley restrained a sneer at thinking the word–had his head tilted towards the sky.

She couldn’t actually see his face. His entire body was encased in an armor that was, frankly, medieval. There was nothing to see of his face, the thin slit for his eyes was not wide enough to let any usable amounts of light inside. Faint clouds of mist curled off his armored back in the light breeze.

“We could have found this place on our own,” the woman at his side commented in a sing-song voice. She arched her back in a long stretch, jutting out an indecent chest as she moved. “This sky will be the talk of the nation if it isn’t already. I doubt that even the mundane news will leave it alone.”

Riley frowned. The woman had hardly glanced at the sky. Her sole eye had focused on the town below them and nothing else.

“Shall I cancel the payment?”

“Clement!” She slapped his armored side with her bare hand, not even wincing despite the loud noise it made. “If we don’t pay those who tip us, word gets out and we don’t get more tips. It’s bad for business!”

“I require no payment,” Riley said.

“Not you,” the woman snapped. Her head turned to face a single green eye in Riley’s direction.

Riley was somewhat glad that a simple black eye patch was covering the other side of her face. The sole eye had more than enough ridicule aimed in her direction.

“We only pay the first one to tip us.” Her sing-song voice took on a mocking tone. “Shouldn’t have sat on the information for a year.”

Riley started. That last word had come out harsh and throaty.

“You should leave,” the armored man said. “Gertrude and I can handle this. You’ll only get in the way.”

Narrowing her eye at the man, Riley said, “I’m not about to–”

“Let her stay,” she said, back in her sing-song voice. “She can watch.” Gertrude shoved one hand through her light red hair. Her green eye leveled back at Riley, cold and hard. “Someone has to show them how it’s done.”

Clement’s armor failed to make a single noise as he shifted where he stood. “Plan?”

“Investigate, poke, and prod. Find weaknesses, find domains, poke harder. Disconnect domains. Draw them out. And exterminate every last one of the bastards.” She looked up at the armored helmet with a disgusting smile on her face–it came to a sharp point in the center of her face with the corners drawing up far too high on her cheeks. “The usual.”

“Usually there are far less demons around.”

That already disgusting smile twisted into a too-wide grin.

I know.

Riley shivered as the two went back to staring over the edge of the cliff. The woman’s eye held a dangerous glint that forced her to take a step back. The two were absolutely insane. She had warned them about the devil and the death god.

And these two were excited. At least the woman was.

Taking up the armored man’s offer of leaving wasn’t looking like such a bad idea any longer.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


006.024

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Eva tore open the doors to Ylva’s domain and sprinted inside.

Ylva was on her throne, her skeletal form looking impassive as always under the light shining from the storm clouds overhead. Her pose was as relaxed as it always was. With her fist curled beneath her chin, she slouched back in her throne.

Four others sat around a small table set down at the base of her throne. Alicia and Nel sat at opposite ends of the table from one another with Wayne Lurcher in between the two. Wayne had a scowl on his face as he eyed his neighbors.

Surprisingly enough, Devon had been allowed back inside Ylva’s domain.

Desperate times, I suppose, Eva thought as she ran up to the table.

“It isn’t the entity known as Void,” Devon said. “I’m willing to put a lot of money on the sky being the doing of the Power that is attacking the Void.”

“The point still stands,” grumbled Wayne. “Whatever it is, it probably doesn’t have our best interests at heart.”

Ignoring the others and not caring at all that she was interrupting what was probably an important conversation, Eva placed both palms on the table and gazed straight into Nel’s eyes. “You found Sawyer?”

Zoe had already said as much. Eva trusted her not to lie, but she had to be sure. She had to hear the words from Nel’s own mouth.

Wilting under Eva’s gaze, Nel nodded her head. “He passed out somewhere in Nevada just as… well, you’ve been outside. Just as all that started.”

Eva grit her teeth and balled her fist. A thin layer of marble dust coated her fingers from where they scraped against the table surface. Of course, it would be now. He couldn’t just show up while nothing was happening like a good little necromancer. He had to show up while a potential apocalypse was going on.

If that was what was actually going on. Devon and Wayne’s conversation might have implied otherwise. Eva was too focused on Nel to pay all that much attention to their words.

With a heartfelt sigh, Eva slumped into one of the extra chairs set up around the table.

Even if nothing was going on except for Shalise and the doll, Eva couldn’t put Sawyer in front of her friend.

Well, she could. Lynn would probably kill her if she did. Though Eva couldn’t discount the possibility that Lynn wasn’t going to try to kill her the moment they made it out of Hell anyway.

Eva rested her forehead against the cool surface of the table, idly scratching a claw mark to the side of her head just a little deeper.

“Spencer,” Wayne grumbled with a slight tension in his voice, “what did you do with Zoe?”

She didn’t even have the motivation to protest his usage of her last name.

“Don’t worry so much. She’s just doing a little shopping for me.” Eva pulled out one of the copies of the list and slid it over to Nel. “Can you do anything about the bottom two?”

Nel didn’t even glance at the list. “What about Sawyer?”

“What about him?” When Nel didn’t move, Eva let out another sigh. “I’d love to go gallivanting across the country, but for some reason, I don’t think this is the time. It might have to do with the sky, and Shalise, and,” Eva glanced up at Wayne, “something about my dorm room?”

He opened his mouth to respond, but Nel slammed her fist down on the table.

“So he just gets to walk away. Is that it?”

Eva lifted her head. “Of course not. There’s just…” Narrowing her eyes at the augur, Eva said, “have you even looked outside?”

Nel glanced down. Not at the paper, more at her feet through the table. After a moment of silence, she mumbled something.

“What was that?”

“I said that something bad happens every time I leave. I get inquisitions sent after me. I get kidnapped. Or the sky turns purple! Next time I leave, it just might be the end of the world.”

“So you did go outside.”

Nel shifted. “Not really. I opened the door, saw the sky, and slammed it shut.”

Eva smiled. She wanted to laugh, but the thought of missing out on hunting down Sawyer did put a damper on her mood.

“As much as he is a personal priority of ours,” Eva said, emphasizing the word, “I think you’ll agree that other matters require our attention first. Like that list in front of you.” Eva tapped a sharp finger down on the piece of paper, all but forcing Nel’s eyes to it.

Those eyes widened a moment later.

“The salt is easy,” she said after a moment of rereading the list. “The obelisk, not so much.”

“Let’s start with the salt–”

Wayne, leaning over to read the list, cleared his throat. “What is this for?”

“A cleansing ritual,” Nel answered before Eva could. “The deep, soul level type of cleansing.”

“For Shalise,” Eva added. “Former Sister Cross thinks that she can get Prax out of Shalise and, therefore, Shalise out of Hell. Considering that things down there are possibly scarier than things up here, she’s willing to accept a small amount of danger on Shalise’s part to perform the ritual.”

“Scarier?” Devon said, genuine curiosity in his voice. “What is happening in Hell?”

“Same things, for the most part. The sky had purple streaks through it, much like here. They’ve since faded, I think. The difference between here and there is that Hell has Void actively fighting back. At least, as far as I can tell from a cursory glance.” Eva glanced up at Ylva, but the hel failed to move. Without skin on her face, she couldn’t even see any facial expressions.

“Sounds like her situation wouldn’t improve much,” Wayne said with a slight grunt as he centered himself back in his seat.

“Oh yeah, Shalise might also have some prison warden hunting her down.”

That actually did get a response out of Ylva. Just a slight stirring in her posture that, had she been anyone else, might have been mistaken as movement to get more comfortable. Eva would have missed it entirely had she not already been watching the demon.

Eva raised an eyebrow in her direction, wondering if she had anything to add.

Ylva just gave a slight, almost imperceptible shake of her head.

“Anyway,” Eva said, letting it drop for the moment. She turned back to face Nel. “Where do we get the salt?”

“Anywhere, I think. It needs to be natural sea salt–no iodine. Larger grain size. About fifteen pounds should work for this ritual.” Nel shook her head. “Wait, better make it thirty. I’m… well, out of practice. I’d rather have some to spare if I mess something up.”

“That’s it?” she asked just to be sure. Thirty pounds of salt sounded like a lot, but it wasn’t anything outrageous. It certainly didn’t sound like something that would cause much trouble. Quite the opposite, really.

“Well, I’ll have to prepare it. Shouldn’t take more than two or three hours.”

Still not too bad. Maybe Lynn Cross was simply worried about the time it would take to acquire and prepare it. “So the other thing? Where can I find an obelisk? I assume it is a specific kind of obelisk.”

“Of the pure moon,” Nel said, shaking her head. “It isn’t something you can go to a shopping center and purchase.”

“Then where do I find one,” Eva asked, speaking slightly slower as if she were speaking to a child.

“It’s an idol. Similar to the idol used to crack the sky.” She sent a mild glare at Devon. “The priceless artifact that he destroyed.” There wasn’t much accusation in her voice. Probably because she knew that she would have been far less angry about its destruction had one of those beams of light hit her.

Eva could guess that she would have preferred capturing it over destroying it, but that was in the past.

Devon, for his part, did not appear to be paying attention. He had his thumb on his goatee and his brow furrowed in thought.

“That’s all well and good,” Eva said, slowing down her speech further. “Where, Nel, do I get one?”

Nel bit her lip. She glanced over to Alicia–whose face had remained entirely impassive throughout the entire discussion–before turning to face Eva. “You’ll have to steal one. There are only six that I know about.” Again, she glanced over at Alicia. “The closest would probably be in the Salem Cathedral and Training Center.”

Eva snorted. “A bunch of vampire hunters made a home base out of the home of the witch hunts? Wonder if they worked together with the puritans back in the day. It would make sense, both have far too much zealotry for their own good.”

For the first time since Eva had shown up, Alicia laughed.

Actually, for the first time ever, as far as Eva knew.

It wasn’t a happy laugh. Rather, it set Eva’s nerves on end. Both Wayne and Devon–who had come out of his thoughts at the noise–looked a bit unsettled as well.

Nel shot a glare in the ex-nun’s direction, but turned a pained look on Eva.

“Um… Salem Oregon,” she said, voice barely above a whisper. “Not Massachusetts.”

Her voice wasn’t quiet enough to avoid Devon’s ears, evidenced by him turning a smirk in Eva’s direction.

“Point still stands,” Eva said, ignoring everyone at the table. She cleared her throat when Devon opened his mouth. Whatever snide comment he had could be kept to himself. “Anyway, can you spy on where you expect it to be? I’d rather not waste my time running all the way to Oregon if it isn’t there.”

“I can try,” Nel said with a nod. “But how are you getting there?”

“Well,” Eva shifted her glance towards Wayne, “there are two people I know of that can teleport without needing something at the destination. Although, Zagan could probably do it.”

Nel flinched while Devon glowered.

Eva shook her head before either could say a word. “I’m not going to ask him though. Even if he agreed, it would probably be at some exorbitant price that I am not interested in paying.”

Besides, Eva thought, if I help Shalise myself, I don’t have to answer his riddle about what would be worth having Shalise back home.

With an extra heap of gravel in his voice, Wayne said, “you feel you must drag myself and Zoe into this?”

“It is for Shalise. When I told Zoe before heading here, she essentially gave a blanket offer of assistance.”

He mumbled something under his breath that sounded roughly like a curse, but Eva let it pass.

“If you are scared,” she said, “you could just wait outside. Stealing it won’t be that hard, right? Just have to get around a couple of nuns.” Eva glanced at Devon.

While she was fairly certain that he hadn’t had to use her before, if he could summon up that waxy, headache inducing demon again, they could probably just walk right in. The demon would incapacitate everyone while they browsed the Elysium Order’s wares.

Eva tried not to consider raiding the place straight away, but she couldn’t help but think that perhaps there would be more of value than just the obelisk. The Elysium Order had to collect a number of artifacts and tomes that they could not or simply did not destroy.

Under her stare, Devon’s eyes grew wide. “Oh no. Nope. Don’t look at me. We’ve tangled with the nuns enough for one decade. Call me again in ten years when they’ve had a chance to cool off.”

“But just a few demons with the right abilities will make it our easiest job in years. Probably.”

Probably.” He let out a slight snort. “I wouldn’t count on them just laying down and allowing you to walk away with priceless artifacts because Arachne showed up.”

Eva gave a slight start. She glanced around the table to confirm her fears.

No Arachne.

“Has anyone talked to Arachne since all the sky and things have happened?” Eva was staring mostly at Devon, but was open to a response from anyone.

No one said a word.

With a sigh, Eva said, “I’ll have to go see if she has even noticed the sky after this.”

“If you’re done with that drivel,” Devon said, “I would like to hear more about the happenings of Hell.”

Eva shrugged. “I don’t know what more there is to say. There was an earthquake. Sky turned colors. That’s pretty much it.” Eva glanced up towards Ylva before asking, “were there tremors here?”

“Enough for only Ourself to notice, not enough to shake the walls of Our domain.”

“And your sky?” Eva asked, glancing upwards. She still wasn’t certain that sky was the proper term, but said it anyway for lack of a better word. The storm clouds overhead obscured any view of the dark void, but Ylva probably had enough awareness of her own domain to know what was happening regardless of whether or not she could see it.

Unless something had changed in the last several hours, there weren’t any storm clouds over the beach portion of her domain. She would be able to observe from there in any case.

Ylva’s head gave a slight incline. “It has since returned to normal.”

“That fits with what I saw.” Eva gave a sorry shrug towards Devon. “Can you make anything out with that little information?”

He hummed for a moment, again stroking his beard. “I imagine that the Void fought back. And succeeded, for now at least. Here, however, we have no Power to fight for us.”

Wayne leaned forward on the table. “So we fight back ourselves. Is that what you’re saying?”

Devon snorted, slowly shaking his head from side to side. “If you think you can match power with a Power, be my guest. If you can, you’re a far scarier person than I gave you credit for.”

Dismissing Wayne with a wave of his hand, Devon put a finger down on the table. “Here is my theory. The events of tonight are not caused by any mortal or demon. Rather, a Power is the cause. I do concede that a mortal, demon, or other non-Power entity may be assisting the Power, but they are not the primary cause.

“The effect observable in the sky does not extend far beyond Brakket City, ending within a few miles in any direction around the town with the exception of the direction of this prison in which it extends and encompasses this area as well.” He drew his finger around in a large circle around the initial point he had touched.

“The reason for this is the concentration of demons around Brakket City. I mean, there’s what, ten to fifteen demons in and around the city at any given time? One of which is a pillar.” He glanced down towards Eva as if asking for confirmation.

Eva just shrugged. “Sounds about right. That we know of, at least. Who knows what Martina has in reserve.”

“As someone who has dealt with demons in one manner or another throughout my entire life, I have never once heard of such a thing. Diabolists are rare. Typically, they won’t have more than one or two demons out at once and then, not often for any length of time.”

He leaned back in his chair, folding his arms before him. “I posit that this concentration of demons has given the attacking Power a medium through which to target Void.”

“So we send them all back to Hell,” Wayne said, rising to his feet.

Eva watched him, trying to keep the amusement off of her face, as he slowly realized just where he was. She could spot the very moment when he knew that he had done something wrong.

His shoulders jumped slightly. Slowly, he turned to face Ylva. He cleared his throat before speaking. “Ah, no offense,” he mumbled.

Ylva raised one skeletal hand and brushed his worries off to the side. “Nothing occurs to Us that might contradict the presented theory, given our collective knowledge is so limited.”

“Doesn’t matter anyway,” Devon said as he scratched at his chin with his tentacle. “Probably too late. Even if you sent back every demon currently roaming the Earth, I doubt the sky would turn back to normal. The connection has already been made.”

“But the sky in my domain is back to normal,” Eva said. She gave a short nod in Ylva’s direction. “Presumably everywhere in Hell.”

“That just means that the Power must try again on the Void side of things. In fact, I recommend the opposite. Limit the connections going between the Earth and Hell. No more teleporting. No more summoning. No more banishing. It might just slow things down while we learn more.”

He turned his eyes to bore straight into Ylva. “And I will put money on the notion that your domain will become more dangerous. The enigmas that have been attacking are just the vanguard. Placed there to weaken Void. More dangerous things will be appearing in preparation for another attempt.”

Devon narrowed his eyes in Eva’s direction. “Keep out of it. I have no intention of stopping my work just because of a little apocalypse. And that will be hard to do if you’re dead or trapped in Hell.”

Eva harrumphed, but didn’t disagree. All the more reason to get Shalise out sooner rather than later.

“Of course,” Devon said louder, angling his head back just so Ylva was in the corner of his eye, “that means severing this domain’s connection to the mortal realm. I’d say I’m sorry to see you go, but that would be the biggest lie I’ve ever told, and I have told a few.”

He turned away, mumbling under his breath just loud enough for Eva to pick up. “Stupid girl shouldn’t have allowed it in the first place.”

Eva glowered at the man. Instead of giving him a response, she watched Ylva. She half expected Ylva to come down from her throne and toss Devon around for a minute for the insult, but her actual actions surprised her.

After taking a moment to consider, Ylva’s skinless skull dipped into a grave nod. “We concur.”

Devon blinked, apparently surprised as well. The confusion on his face shifted into horror as he jumped to his feet, heart suddenly beating faster and faster.

“You’re not doing it now, are you?” He glanced towards the door and looked ready to start running.

Eva’s own heart jumped in pace. She did have an active beacon, having handed hers off to Zoe, so returning wouldn’t be that big of an issue. But it would still be an inconvenience as she still needed to go collect an obelisk.

Ylva shook her head as she stood from her throne. Her dress draped around the floor as she walked down the steps. “We have Our own business to attend before severing Our domain. We shall start with haste. Finish your business here and vacate at once.”

As she stepped down from her throne, she left the column of light. Her flesh returned just in time for her cold eyes to shift to Alicia. “Come,” she spoke.

Alicia snapped to her side fast enough that Eva wondered if she hadn’t teleported there.

Ylva’s eyes turned to Nel. The augur’s eyes ceased their glare at Alicia to meet with Ylva.

“Assist Eva in her task. Find Ourself upon finishing.”

“Yes, Lady Ylva,” Nel said, head ducking in a sitting bow.

As Ylva and Alicia headed off towards one of the back archways–not one Eva could remember entering before–Devon all but ran from the throne room. He paused for just a moment at the edge of the throne platform, hesitating. After tapping his foot against the thin air to reassure himself that he wouldn’t fall through, Devon walked across and out of the domain.

It seemed silly to Eva. She had walked across without even thinking about it, as she had on occasion in the past. Then again, she had also helped throw an enigma or two down the pit, and was fairly certain that she had dangled her legs over the edge one time. A brief bout of curiosity tickled the back of her mind as she considered just how it worked.

She dismissed the thought as quickly as it came. It probably wasn’t the most pressing of matters at the moment.

Turning back to those remaining at the table, Eva stopped her gaze on Nel. “Let’s check that the obelisk is where you think it is, then we’ll get you some salt. After that…” Eva gave an involuntary shudder as she realized that she would have to be teleported through that cold ‘between’.

But that was a momentary discomfort. Shalise being stuck in Hell would be worse.

Shaking her head to clear her mind, Eva looked at Wayne. “After, if you’d teleport us to wherever this chapel is, Dev–”

Eva whipped her head towards the door leading out of Ylva’s domain.

That coward just ran away.

“Actually,” Eva said after a short sigh, “I might need a few minutes to consult with Arachne.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


006.015

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“They thought I had lied to them. Led them into a trap.”

Shalise started at the anger in Sister Cross’ words. “So they threw you into prison?”

Lynn shook her head. “After the public relations disaster with the riot involving my chapter, my augur disappearing, and the failure of the inquisitorial squad after being briefed by me, they stripped me of command.

“Leading them into a trap was just an excuse to dispose of me. I warned them about the devil-class demon and his involvement in Sister Stirling–in the augur’s disappearance. When this ‘Lady Ylva’ stepped in–whom I knew nothing about, I might add–they used my lack of briefing them about her to toss me into the cathedral’s dungeon.”

“But you escaped.”

“I wouldn’t be here otherwise,” Lynn said with a sad smile. Her smile vanished as she threw a glance around the alternate women’s ward common room.

It didn’t matter how much Shalise insisted that Eva hadn’t hurt her. Even mentioning that Eva had saved her from that enigma didn’t help. Sister Cross was dead set on suspecting Eva of everything from mind-control to torture.

“The six inquisitors that returned from their assignment were treated with hostile suspicion. Especially after word of their report got out. The mission had failed when one of the inquisitors that didn’t return went crazy and started attacking the others. One that had spent time, by her own admission, with the demons. No one wanted to be around the six that might go crazy themselves.

“After that, three of the six disappeared. Mind you, I was in a cell with few methods of finding out information on the outside. I learned all this afterwards.”

Lynn took a hesitant sip of a bottle of water–one of those endlessly provided by the kitchen.

For the first few days, Shalise had actually been worried for Sister Cross’ health. She had been refusing to eat or drink anything, even going so far as to make attempts at keeping Shalise from consuming the food as well. The words ‘tainted’ and ‘vile’ had been thrown around more than once.

It got bad enough that Shalise had leaned on Prax’s support and abilities to force feed Sister Cross lest she starve herself completely.

Even now, she wasn’t eating as much as Shalise thought she probably should.

Baby steps, Prax reminded her.

Yeah, yeah. Shalise suppressed rolling her eyes. Doing anything to give away the fact that Prax was speaking with her again would only lead to another lecture. Sister Cross had not been amused upon finding out about him.

She felt Prax’s presence recede to a small corner of her mind. Luckily for her, he had agreed with Eva regarding Sister Cross’ presence. Having someone around who could fight, should the need arise again, was a plus in his book.

“Suspicion immediately centered on the three remaining inquisitors. The thought going around was that one of them had betrayed their comrades. The three were worried that the higher-ups were targeting them.”

Lynn shook her head. “A foolish notion. Had they been marked for termination by the higher-ups, all six of them would have been taken care of at the same time precisely to avoid what did happen. Namely, the three flew the coop.

“They sneaked out during the night through the old church catacombs. I managed to threaten them into letting me out as well.”

“You threatened them?”

“Well, asked politely for them to let me out. I might have implied that I would make all kinds of noise for the guards if they didn’t–they didn’t want to be found missing until everyone woke up for the morning, you see. Anyway, they–”

Sister Cross was cut off as the entire women’s ward started trembling. She was on her feet in an instant. Her eyes, aglow with power, darted in every direction, looking for any kind of threat.

Shalise stayed in her seat, casually catching the bottle of water before it fell off the table. This quake wasn’t even that bad. Nothing to get up in arms about.

Seeing the worry, fear, and alarm on Lynn’s face, Shalise decided to explain that fact.

“Just a hellquake. They come and go–in fact, they’ve been somewhat infrequent as of late. I wonder if that means anything for the whole Hell situation,” Shalise mused to herself.

“Hell situation?”

“We found out–”

Shalise paused and sighed as another quake rumbled over her words. Her sigh froze in her throat as the rumble was accompanied by an all-too-familiar noise.

A high-pitched whine.

Muscles already growing, she leapt to her feet.

It hurt that Sister Cross jumped away, putting up her guard against Shalise. Unfortunately, she didn’t have time to complain.

The whine ended with a cannon blast inside her ears. Both Shalise and Sister Cross stumbled in disorientation.

“T-that,” Shalise said as she steadied herself, “was not a usual part of earthquakes.”

“Those enigmas that Eva mentioned?”

Shalise nodded. Not wasting any time, she ran for the window with the trap door levers. “I don’t know how many t-there are, but they burrow under the sand. Don’t assume they’re all gone just b-because we can’t see any.”

A heavy hand came to rest on Shalise’s shoulder.

Shalise jumped a good foot in the air.

“Don’t worry,” Lynn said. “Nothing will hurt you so long as I’m here. They won’t know what hit them.”

And then she did something entirely unexpected.

She reached out her arms and wrapped them around Shalise.

In all of Sister Cross’ visits to the home, never once had she shown any kind of physical affection towards any one of the children. She brought gifts and kind words. Advice and support.

But a hug?

Shalise stood still, not quite sure how to respond. Eventually, she allowed her instincts to take over. She reached out and patted Lynn on the back.

Carefully of course. Prax’s muscle strength was not to be underestimated.

“Thanks,” Shalise said, voice barely above a whisper.

As Lynn released Shalise, her eyes started to glow. White light flooded through the room. Lightning crackled off of her fingertips.

“Let them come,” she said.

— — —

Ylva, Eva could tell, was not amused.

The corners of her lips were drawn back into a snarl. It wasn’t an expression that Eva had ever seen on the normally regal woman.

Though the time after Zoe had been attacked came close.

Eva just shrugged her shoulders as she kicked another of the enigmas down the giant pit. She felt as if she should be shouting some taunt with every kick, but after the fifth one, it lost its novelty. That they probably couldn’t understand her added to her reluctance.

“Is that all of them?”

Ylva gave a slow nod without glancing in Eva’s direction. Her eyes were focused off towards one archway where Alicia had just emerged. Nel trailed after her, touching the tips of her fingers together as her eyes darted around.

Alicia dragged the smoking carcass of another enigma behind her. With a grunt, she flung it over the edge of the pit.

“We no longer feel the taint left behind by those creatures.”

“Right,” Eva said. “So any clue? Any insights from the Death side of things?”

At this, Ylva finally turned to face Eva. Her eyes narrowed into thin slits.

Eva took an involuntary step back, wondering if she hadn’t overstepped some bounds. The only thing that kept her from fleeing and returning while Ylva was in a better mood was the fact that the gaze wasn’t hostile. She could feel herself being weighed and measured, but not being considered for extermination.

Ylva cricked her neck to one side while her expression returned to its usual regal impassiveness. The pressure on Eva lifted as she broke eye contact.

Whatever Ylva had been measuring her for, Eva breathed a sigh of relief that she had not been found wanting.

“These creatures do not die. Neither do they return from whence they came, as demons do. Their souls remain trapped and tethered within their unmoving flesh, tainting and corroding. No part of them touches Death’s domain.”

“Does that mean they can heal themselves and come back?” The corpses back in her domain had been dumped without ceremony within a small pit on the island. If they could indeed return, they would probably need incineration to ash at the very least. Removed and then stored someplace where they wouldn’t be able to escape would be a good second.

At the very least, she needed to warn Shalise and Sister Cross.

But Ylva shook her head. “They displayed a mild regeneration during their time in Our domain. Further study upon the one you captured may be required.”

“The source doesn’t know anything about them, Lady Ylva. Holy fire burns their bodies well enough.”

Eva turned to Alicia as the latter got to her knees before Ylva. Though she found the behavior to be disturbing to the highest degree, Ylva merely nodded an acknowledgment.

At least Nel didn’t feel the need to be so sycophantic.

“Then,” Eva said, “the tainting and corroding. There are a couple of these things dead in my domain. Will bad things happen if they aren’t removed?”

“That is how We feel. Surely you noticed the unpleasant aura surrounding these creatures.”

“I have,” Eva said with a slight shudder. Unpleasant was a light word for the feeling. “But it went away after the enigmas died–or stopped moving.”

“Went away?” Ylva asked with a raised eyebrow. “Or perhaps became too subtle to notice.”

Add getting rid of those corpses to my to-do list, Eva thought with a frown. Maybe I can find a good way of dumping the corpses in Willie’s domain. If he wasn’t already back, his domain might be all nice and ruined by the time he got back.

“I know what they are,” Nel blurted out.

She wilted as everyone turned their gaze in her direction.

“I-I mean… not what they are. But I’ve seen them before. That devil,” she spat, “he brought me an object to use my augur abilities upon. That happened earlier today.” Nel’s eyes grew to the size of saucers as she looked at Ylva in horror. “I-I meant to tell you immediately. But you were gone and then the earthquake and the creatures…”

“Calm yourself.” Ylva placed a hand on Nel’s head. “You have done nothing wrong.”

Being such a giant, Ylva’s hand encompassed almost the entirety of Nel’s hair. Slowly, she rubbed her hand back and forth as if she were petting a dog.

It struck Eva as an odd display of affection. Probably something she picked up while going to school with Zoe.

“Continue your tale.”

Nodding under Ylva’s hand, Nel did so. “I don’t know how to describe what I saw. Like a planet, except it was made up of things. Those things,” she gestured towards the pit, “and other creatures. There was so much to take in, I feel I only got a sliver. And that’s just what I could see.

“The most important thing was what I felt. The stretching and pulling of my consciousness. It felt just like when I was searching for Eva’s friends while standing in the waters.”

Eva blinked. “Another plane of existence?”

“That’s just what I felt. I can’t see into Hell without standing in the waters. And I can’t see into Ylva’s domain from outside. So I don’t know why I would be able to see some other plane.”

“These things have been popping up all around Hell related things. The imp summoning proves that it isn’t just me and Ylva. There is something with Hell,” Eva waved her hands vaguely around the air, “that connects with these things, and their home plane.”

“We concur.” Ylva brought a finger to her chin as her brows furrowed in thought. “Question instead what Power lies behind these creatures’ creation and actions.”

Eva waited, expecting her to continue on and reveal the Power’s name.

But she didn’t. Her thoughtful look continued long enough for the silence to become somewhat awkward.

“Perhaps we should speak with Devon, he might know,” Eva eventually said. “He has had a number of associations with the minions of various Powers.”

A look devoid of amusement appeared on Ylva’s face. “It is difficult to believe that a mortal would have knowledge on powers that We lack. That is aside from his distasteful personality.”

Eva just shrugged, heading off towards the exit of Ylva’s domain. “A second opinion then.”

Besides, she thought, if I’m to get rid of those corpses in my domain, I’ll need to get Zoe to accept another beacon.

— — —

“You are a despicable man.”

“Funny,” Devon said. He stood up from the circle drawn on the floor, cracking his back as he moved. “I imagined you to be the type to want to save kids’ lives.”

Zoe bristled. Her brief anger dissipated with a few soft words. “Not like this…” Louder, she said, “you’re going to turn him into the same thing that Eva is.”

“Maybe.”

Gritting her teeth, Zoe pinched her eyes shut. The only thing that kept her from physically assaulting Devon was her current task.

Tending to the child called Simon. Close up and despite her relative lack of medical skills, Zoe could tell that he was beyond feverish. If something wasn’t done soon, he could suffer brain damage just from the heat of his own body. She was doing her best to keep him cool, but that was superficial at most.

For some reason, she got the impression that Devon didn’t care either way. So long as he could perform his experiments.

Pausing for a moment to take a lackadaisical drink of his water, Devon meandered over to a circle drawn on the other side of his cell block.

Zoe had become at least somewhat familiar with summoning circles and shackles. Yet the patterns and designs formed around the standard summoning circle still boggled her mind.

He pulled a knife from his pocket and proceeded to shave a thin layer of skin from his tentacle arm. Not deep enough for him to really bleed. He placed it right in the center before stepping clear of the circle.

“What are you doing?”

“Wondering if I shouldn’t find a way to erase your memory,” he grumbled. “You were far more manageable a few months ago.”

“Try it and–” Zoe cut herself off as the circle started to glow and rotate. “You’re summoning a demon?”

“Course I am. Takes two to tango. Luckily for you, I haven’t worked out an agreement with a demon ahead of time. Saw the kid as an opportunity and took it. You might just get your wish of that kid dying a slow and painful death from whatever cancer he has if this demon declines.”

Before Zoe could think to interrupt, two thick tentacles erupted from the rotating circle. They slapped down on the ground before lifting out a body.

A small, childlike body.

With slit-pupil eyes as red as Eva’s new eyes.

No. They were Eva’s eyes.

A brief tremor ran though Zoe’s body as she remembered her home burning down around her.

The carnivean screamed out once she spotted Devon. She launched herself, slamming her whole body into the shackles.

The glowing inscriptions flickered, but otherwise remained intact.

Devon just smiled behind his goatee.

An awful look on the man.

“Yep,” he said. “Me. I was worried you would still be off in the depths of Hell. Glad to see you’ve climbed out since our last encounter.”

His words sent the carnivean into another rage. She slammed her fists and tentacles against the barrier, each causing the shackles to flicker lightly, but causing no sign of them being in danger of collapse.

Devon didn’t look alarmed in the slightest at the demon’s antics. His smile had slipped, but had been replaced with a narrow-eyed look of annoyance.

“I’m not afraid to dominate you. And I will if you refuse to settle down. But I would rather have you willing.”

“Here to take more of what isn’t yours?” the carnivean snarled, punctuating her question with another fist against the shackles.

“In a sense. I’ve had time to consider your proposition regarding the fae. Dangerous business, but I might be convinced to summon the queen. That is, if you’re still interested in your,” he scoffed, “wish.”

Zoe might have found his overly haughty attitude amusing. A small bit of schadenfreude against the demon. Unfortunately for Devon and her petty revenge, she distinctly recalled how his last encounter with this carnivean ended. Namely, unconscious and needing to be carried out by Zoe.

Despite his attitude, the carnivean calmed down. She actually appeared to be considering his offer.

“You want something for it.”

“Course I do. It isn’t much. Just a sample of your blood every few months and your cooperation. Two years of that and I’ll perform your little ritual.”

“My blood,” the carnivean said, voice flat.

“Not for anything nefarious. I’ll destroy any excess under your supervision if you insist.”

“Two years?” She shook her head. “Too long.”

“And you think you’ll find someone else to summon the fae for you?”

The carnivean shrugged. She paced around the summoning circle twice before stopping at the far side. Leaning against the invisible barrier provided by the shackles, she said, “perhaps I will. There’s always the necromancer. Or the little girl who follows him around.”

Devon’s smile grew to be downright predatory. “After failing him twice, you think he will summon you back? To torture you, I could believe that. Or to turn you into one of his creations. To give you what you want?” He shook his head. “Not a chance.”

“Someone else then,” she shouted, swinging her fist into the shackles at her back.

“I offer a two-year guarantee. Fulfill my tasks and I’ll summon your fae. It will be a full contract. Forged with blood rather than mere words, if you need the extra reassurance. But if you continue to be difficult, I’ve other demons to make the offer with. You have one minute to decide.”

With that said, Devon moved away from the carnivean. He went back to the circle he had been drawing and started checking it over against a little notebook.

Though she hadn’t stopped during their conversation, Zoe renewed her efforts at making the child as comfortable as possible. There really wasn’t much more she could do. Even if she brought him to a proper healer, they wouldn’t be able to help him. Some types of cancer could be cured by cutting off parts of the offending organ and regrowing it entirely.

Unfortunately, Simon was very obviously in the final stages of whatever his specific illness was. Cancer would have spread all over his body. And if it was in his brain…

Zoe wondered just how Devon’s miracle cure could possibly pull him back from this late stage. Her mind started wandering, considering the possibility of reworking his ritual for a cure without whatever side-effects his experiment was sure to have.

After what was probably just over a minute, Devon snapped his book shut. He wandered back to the summoning circle.

“Time is up and time to send you back.”

“Wait.”

Devon crocked his head to one side. “Waiting.”

“Two years? No loopholes? No wordplay?”

“If you want it all in writing–”

“I do.” The carnivean nodded, a shallow smile appearing on her face. “Writing. Blood contract. And I get to go over the entire thing before either of us seal the deal.”

“Excellent,” Devon said as he rubbed his hands together. “Assistant,” he called out, “drop the kid off on the left side circle–the one closest to the door.”

Zoe blinked. It took a moment to realize just who he was addressing.

“The contract details won’t take long. I just hope that kid doesn’t kick it in the middle of the ritual.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


004.019

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Catherine glanced back and forth between the two arguing people. She never would have expected Baxter to take her side. The professor had not left her with the impression that she was well liked when she kicked Catherine out of her classroom the last time she got injured.

Few humans would side with a demon in the first place, though the point may have been moot. The sides were between Catherine and Ylva.

“We cannot allow her to leave. She will betray Us the moment she perceives a lack of danger.”

Catherine shook her head side to side hard enough that her currently orange hair flayed wide around her. It wasn’t exactly untrue, but at this point, Catherine didn’t care what she said so long as she got to leave in one piece. It was, however, somewhat offensive that she was viewed as being so weak.

They weren’t the ones who had Zagan breathing hot air on their necks at random points throughout the day.

“If she stays, Zagan might notice her absence. If he comes looking for her…”

That was almost certainly untrue. She was fairly certain that Zagan didn’t care about her in the slightest. The only reason he bothered to drag her around was out of some sadistic desire to toy with her.

The whole situation was his fault. If he hadn’t dragged her off to the nun rally, she wouldn’t have Ylva’s icy breath on her neck.

Eva was right. Being stuck as the bottom feeder even among the few demons in the area was a nightmare. Even the two security guards were uppity towards her.

Well, the morail was. Lucy, Catherine decided, had a tenuous grasp of reality at best. She wasn’t deliberately annoying so much as she was unaware of what she was doing. Besides, Catherine was certain that Lucy would be extremely susceptible to her succubus wiles and charms.

The worst part was Eva herself. Whatever was being done to her was obviously unnatural. When Catherine had first arrived at Brakket, she wasn’t sure what to make of the girl. Catherine could feel her, much like she could feel Zagan or Arachne. But it was faint. Barely there. Weaker than even the weakest of imps.

That weakness had been steadily turning to strength. By the end of summer, weaker imps might have fled from her presence if she had ever decided to project some anger. By the time all the golems attacked Brakket…

Well, the potential was there, but Eva had a long way to go before she wound up giving Catherine real shivers.

When she had finished growing, the little girl–the little human girl was going to walk into a world so much larger than herself. So much larger than this mortal plane.

And she was going to be strong.

Stronger than Catherine at the very least.

Sighing, Catherine leaned back in her chair while the two argued. Not that it was much of an argument. Baxter was more making polite suggestions than outright objecting to anything Ylva said. Still, it didn’t seem like they were going to kill her–permanently or otherwise–so Catherine was losing interest.

Who knew? It might be fun to stick around in Ylva’s domain. Her cellphone had no signal. It was sure to put a stick up Martina’s ass if she couldn’t get a hold of her.

Though she was missing out on virtually murdering slews of foolish humans. She probably needed a break from that anyway.

Just as things were getting a little heated between Ylva and Baxter, a new head popped into the room. Not someone Catherine recognized, though most humans looked the same as one another.

“Nel says that she thinks she found Shalise, Lady Ylva.”

“Thinks? Clarify her words.”

“I’m sorry,” the girl said with a small shudder. “You will have to ask her.”

“Very well. We shall.”

Baxter was, surprisingly enough, the first one out of the room. Ylva left next with the other girl staying just long enough to shoot Catherine a glare before turning to follow.

And then the room was empty.

Except for Catherine.

No guards. They hadn’t tied her down. They had even been so kind as to leave Baxter’s bedroom door open.

Catherine tapped her foot against the floor three times before coming to a decision. After all, if they wanted her to stay then they would have at least said something.

Getting to her feet, Catherine walked out the door. She stopped in her tracks one step out of the room. After glancing left and then right, Catherine sighed. “Damn.”

Of course she would end up in the domain. It would be too easy if the door opened up back to the apartment building. To make matters worse, Catherine was willing to bet that she could check every archway and not find the exit until Ylva was ready to let her go.

Even if the exit was somewhere around, searching every archway sounded exactly the kind of tedious work that Catherine would rather avoid. Ylva and her little entourage disappeared through an archway three arches down. If they hadn’t been there, it wouldn’t have been any different from the rest of the place.

Martina had been asking about Baxter as of late–not directly asking Catherine, more of mumbling about it when she remembered that her secretary was off teaching a class. It was intensely irritating. Getting away from Martina was one of the few positives of teaching the human brats.

Maybe telling her about something Baxter had been up to would keep her complaints down, especially because it appeared that Baxter was doing the job Martina should have been doing–cleaning up after Zagan’s mess. She would have to carefully word her revelation to Martina so as to not ruin her carefully cultivated image of being unreliable and unproactive.

Having low expectations for her meant that Martina never bothered her with much of import. And that was exactly how Catherine liked it.

But she was willing to admit to a certain level of curiosity about the whole thing aside from Martina’s interests.

Following Ylva through the archway led her to a very familiar area. The waters of Hell.

And it was full of humans.

Wayne Lurcher, looking much better than when Catherine had last seen him, was standing near another human female. One who was half-standing in the waters. In the actual waters.

On a closer look, she might not have been human after all. Catherine hadn’t seen many humans naked, but she had seen plenty of bare arms and most arms didn’t have eyes all over them.

Still, standing in the water wasn’t safe. If the woman slipped and fell in, even for just a second, she could find herself whisked off to who knew where.

The woman had huge dark circles beneath her eyes. Her face was somewhat gaunt and she looked ready to tip over if a stiff breeze came her way. That only further compounded Catherine’s feeling that she really shouldn’t be in the water.

An innate, succubi sense picked up on something about the woman. She was bothered by something. And not in the simple sense of being disturbed–though she certainly was that as well.

In the end, Catherine simply shrugged it off. What did she care about, well, anyone anyway?

Everyone else walked right up to the edge of the water in front of the woman. Catherine caught up and stopped a few paces behind. She wasn’t trying to hide herself–there was nowhere to hide on the featureless beach–but at the same time, she wasn’t interested in being seen as part of the group.

“You found Shalise?” Baxter asked. “Is she alright?”

“I don’t know. I mean, her hair is the same, but…” The woman in the water brought up a hand to rub just above her eye–her regular, in the right place for humans, eye. “Did Shalise take up weight lifting? And, um, exhibitionism?”

Catherine blinked. Unless she was very much mistaken, they were talking about one of the mortals Zagan had dropped off in Hell. That meant the person was a student and Catherine was quite certain that there were no exhibitionists running around at the school.

She, of all people, would have noticed.

“Exhi–what? What are they doing to her?”

Catherine took a step forward, not wanting to miss out on hearing that explanation.

“Nothing. I mean, no one is around. I searched everywhere I could think of. It is just Shalise. She doesn’t… I mean, she’s just…”

The woman in the water cupped some in her hands and brought it up to slap against her cheeks. Some futile attempt at cooling her body temperature. After a deep breath, she started to explain.

— — —

Prax, Shalise thought to her ‘partner’ in her body. Prax, it isn’t working.

“Silence servant. I am trying to concentrate.”

Shalise couldn’t see anything but the insides of her own eyelids as Prax continued to fail at attempt number thirty-seven.

It was depressing. Sort of. Unless Prax was feeling the same emotion that she felt, she didn’t really feel anything but her thoughts. Upon reflection, that was probably the biggest reason behind her general blasé attitude and lack of constant panic. She knew, in her head, that she should be running around like a chicken with its head cut off about the fact that she was still stuck in her body with Prax in charge.

But it was difficult to care without the proper chemicals fueling her panic.

That said, if there was one thing she wished Prax would do, and that was opening their eyes. While it was an emotion that Prax was not feeling at the moment, boredom was driving her insane. Combined with the sheer irritation and anger projected by Prax, it was a very unpleasant situation.

“Stop thinking!” Prax shouted at her–there was no one else around. “Do you want me stuck inside you for the rest of this pitiful body’s existence? I could end it now and take my chances in the Void.”

I don’t believe you would do it, Shalise thought. You jumped into my body while neither of us had a soul and now it is all messed up. You’re worried about what will happen if I–if we die.

Prax’s silence was telling.

Not that she needed his silence to know she was right. Over the past however long it had been, Shalise was getting much better on picking up Prax’s thoughts. Nothing as clear as speaking, but general nudges in the right direction.

Prax hopped off the over large throne and started marching down through the castle’s corridors. He was in something of a rage. The scorch marks left beneath her feet gave Shalise an odd tingling sensation, but nothing more.

It wasn’t anything new and something Shalise had grown used to. Prax had been temperamental, to say the least, since they arrived in his domain.

So, Shalise thought, decided to change tactics?

“I think,” he said slowly, “that I will be taking a brief intermission from my attempts at escaping your worthless sack of flesh.”

Gee, thanks.

“Something cathartic sounds excellent. I have just the place.”

He turned down a staircase that descended for a short eternity. When the end finally came, Shalise found herself in the dungeonyest dungeon that she could imagine.

The upstairs castle proper had smooth bricks laid in neat, straight lines. All the bricks in the walls and floor were flush with one another. The ceiling had a smooth arch carved into it for some added height.

Ever since their initial trek through the castle, warm torches popped up periodically along hallways to lend their light. It was much better than the drab and uniform lighting arrangement that had seemingly permeated the entire place upon their arrival.

The elegant murals, paintings, and statues just added to the regal atmosphere of the castle.

Though she could definitely get by just fine without seeing the ones of her.

At first, Prax flew into a rage every time he saw one–given that they were everywhere, that ended up being more often than not. He went around smashing a few hundred of the golden statues and tearing down even more paintings. They always returned undamaged the moment he took his eyes off of them.

Eventually, Prax had decided to give up on that fruitless endeavor. He still glared at them–especially the ones of himself–every time he walked past one. Most of his time ended up with his eyes closed, concentrating in an attempt to escape Shalise’s body.

But the dungeon he had taken them to was anything but regal or elegant. The walls were less smooth bricks and more cobblestone and mortar slapped together. Particularly jagged cobblestone at that. Prax actually let out a cough as he walked through strands of white nitre hanging off the ceiling.

And the lighting. It was a good thing Prax knew where he was headed because there was the single torch at the base of the stairs and nothing else. It was probably meant to be carried along to the destination, but Prax had ignored it.

Before long, Shalise couldn’t see anything but vague silhouettes of the walls and floor. And the almost glowing nitre spider-webbing across the ceiling.

Prax’s footfalls steadily tapped against the floor alongside a faint dripping noise at the edges of her sense of hearing. He went left at the first corner, then took a right before stopping in front of a wood door.

The rotten wood of the door leaked light through small holes. Not much light. Barely enough to see that the door was made of wood.

When Prax pushed open the door, she saw the reason for the dim light. The large room was lit by a mere two torches. Both torches looked like they were on their last legs. The flames were small and dim, flickering in the room.

Shalise gave a short mental sigh. It set the perfect atmosphere for what the room was.

“At least this hasn’t changed much.”

I expected it, but of course you would have a torture chamber in your dungeons.

Prax strode through the room, gently caressing various tools and implements that Shalise was trying hard to ignore. It was a bit difficult when he started holding some of the rusted iron in front of his face.

If you don’t mind my asking–

“I do.”

What here is going to help us with our problem?

“Not a damn thing,” he said as he set down one object and picked up another.

Oh. Um. What are we–

“You are noisy for a servant. Cheeky too. I am hoping that something, or somethings, here will curtail that negative trait of your despicable personality.”

With every word he spoke, Shalise felt a sinking feeling in her metaphysical stomach.

Combined with the emotional bleed-over from Prax, Shalise had the odd sensation of being eager and happy about what could only be her own impending torture while still forcing herself to be disgusted, angry, and afraid.

You can’t torture me! Shalise thought as hard as she could. I can barely feel pain from you!

“I know,” he said. “That just means I will have to be creative.”

You’re just going to be torturing yourself!

He pulled out a thick rod from a long box and looked it over once or twice. “Should be fun. Besides, any proper servant knows how to torture their master’s enemies. I have always been a believer in teaching by experience.”

Shalise’s mind went into absolute nope mode. She did not want that rod anywhere near her body. The entire end of it, some sort of magic circle much like the one she had drawn on her chest, was glowing white-hot. Hot enough that she could feel the heat even through her diluted senses.

Something snapped in her mind. Only a vague awareness of her surroundings bled through. There was a crash followed by a shout from Prax.

The shouting turned into a constant stream of anger-speak. Nothing intelligible.

As Shalise’s mind sharpened, it didn’t take long to figure out what he was complaining about this time.

First and foremost, they were wet. A few stones in the far end of the room had come loose. Water filled the room up to their waist and–thankfully–extinguished the iron rod.

The second thing Shalise noticed was the two statues, one of Prax and one of Shalise, standing in front of her. Both of them had two hands on Prax’s arms. Even with all of his muscles, he couldn’t trash out of their grip.

“Stop changing things! This is my domain.”

Get out of my body!

— — —

“From there, she just started thrashing about in the grip of her statue and the other one.”

Catherine blinked. She couldn’t quite believe what she was hearing. “You said she has a familiar brand on her chest?”

Everyone stopped looking at the woman whose name was apparently ‘Nel’ and turned to Catherine.

Big mistake, Catherine thought as she took a step back, half expecting them to attack.

“Who invited the harlot?”

Catherine looked to Wayne Lurcher with a sneer. “Aww, still upset about being rejected by a succubus?”

Her sneer quickly turned into a smirk. He got all flustered and everyone turned to look at him. Double win. It didn’t matter that it was a lie; the seeds were planted. Baxter was already giving him a look with one eyebrow raised.

“Lies,” Lurcher said with a grunt.

“Perhaps not in so many words,” Catherine said. She shook her hips and ran a hand down one side of her body. “Succubi are the premier shape shifters in Hell. All the better to handle what our targets want. And I,” Catherine ever so subtly flicked her eyes to the other professor–who was still giving Lurcher a look, “know exactly what you want.”

Catherine blinked in confusion. Mentioning something like that often set minds on the subject. However, she was failing to pick up anything resembling lust from the older professor.

Her confusion vanished as he took a threatening step forwards. The tome chained to his waist swung into his hand.

Catherine hopped backwards a few steps, her smile vanishing from her face. That may have been pushing it too far. She had had a brief lapse in judgment regarding the fact that she was essentially surrounded by people–none of whom would be willing to take her side and one of whom was a demon that owned the domain surrounding her.

Lucky for her, Ylva decided to step in.

“Enough.”

Lurcher gave her one death glare before snapping his book shut.

“The succubus was correct.” Ylva turned slightly to give her attentions to Nel. “The designs you described are akin to a bonding brand.”

“You mentioned that a few times,” Baxter said. “What is it?”

“One of the three ways of dealing with demons. Well, four ways, but letting the demon go free doesn’t usually end well for anyone.”

Catherine ticked off one finger of three. “Arachne and, presumably, Ylva are contracted demons. You might liken them to human mercenaries. They retain full free-will, though violating the terms of the contract leads to heavy consequences. For either party.”

After ticking off a second finger, Catherine went on. “I am a familiar. We are bound to our master’s orders. If Martina wished, she could order me never to think the word ‘the’ and I would be entirely unable to until our contract is broken–typically by Martina’s death. There are a handful of topics that can’t be ordered around, such as the ability to willingly break the familiar contract.

“For upsides, I get a long-term vacation in the mortal realm and cannot be banished no matter how many silly words are thrown my way.”

“Not much for upsides,” Lurcher muttered.

“You would be surprised,” Catherine said as she ticked off her last finger. “The bound or bonded familiar is essentially two minds in one body, leaving the human in charge. The demon gets a massive–and I have heard addictive–sense of euphoria from having its powers used, but obviously they have no real body until the human dies.”

“The bond can be broken without the death of the mortal,” Ylva said. “It is not easy.”

“But it leaves the human in charge?” Baxter shook her head. “I can’t see Shalise acting like that. She can be–”

“She doesn’t act like that normally?” Catherine cut in. She paused as something occurred to her. “Here I was considering that I might have to start talking to the human brats if that was common behavior.”

Baxter winced.

Excellent.

Catherine had to fight to keep the smile off of her face. If she could guilt Baxter back into her class, then Catherine could go back to… being Martina’s lapdog. Well, she thought with a mental sigh, at least I can sit around on the computer at the secretary desk all day.

“Are you still standing in for me?”

“I am.” Catherine made a show of pulling out her cellphone. No signal, but the clock still worked. “Speaking of, I’m supposed to be babysitting a handful of the brats while they take a test in a half-hour or so. Not that it matters of course. Just like real life, I am deciding their success by the grace of Chance.”

Baxter’s lips pressed into a thin line. Catherine had the distinct impression that the students would be seeing their old teacher in class come Monday morning.

“So,” Lurcher said, doing his best to avoid glancing at either Catherine or Baxter, “what do we do about Ward?”

“We wait. She doesn’t appear to be in immediate danger, with no one else around. If Nel would be willing to keep an eye on her and warn us if anything happens?”

The poor woman looked about ready to fall over. Her head bobbed in a resigned nod.

“Then, before doing anything reckless, I would like to talk with Ylva and,” she paused, glancing around the room. “Where is Devon anyway?”

“Resting,” Ylva said.

“Ah. He’s–”

“What about me?” Catherine tapped a foot on the sand. “Am I allowed to leave?”

Baxter and Ylva shared a look for just a moment with Baxter giving a small shrug.

Catherine’s shoulders drooped ever so slightly. That’s not good. Ylva had been the one who had wanted her to stick around.

“Zagan’s experiment will end,” Ylva said. “Should he speak of these Void troubles, you will report to Us.”

Blinking, Catherine first frowned then nodded. Zagan had initially thought that Ylva might have something to do with all the trouble, though it seemed as if he had dismissed that thought after the whole nun rally. Thinking about it logically, Ylva was a demon in the same boat as the rest of them. She wouldn’t want her power disappearing any more than Catherine.

“Sure,” Catherine said. “I can do that.”

“Ali,” Ylva said, “show the succubus the way out.”

The attendant–who Catherine had honestly forgotten about–jumped slightly at being addressed. After a moment of hesitation, she bowed to Ylva and started walking towards the exit of the beach.

With a shrug at everyone else, and a flirty wave at Lurcher, Catherine followed after the woman.

From the archway leading to the beach, it wasn’t far to the exit. She used the time considering the woman in front of her.

The mixed signals coming off of this ‘Ali’ were a sight to behold. On one hand, there was a strong yearning and desire for Ylva. On the other, hatred. Like the woman couldn’t decide between punching Ylva in the stomach or kissing her on the lips.

She might be an amusing one to watch in the future, but in the end, it wasn’t any of her business.

Catherine found herself dumped unceremoniously in the hallway leading to Baxter’s apartment without a single word from the woman known as Ali.

The alarm on her phone promptly started warning her that she only had twenty minutes to get to Baxter’s classroom. For a moment, Catherine considered not showing up at all. Baxter could deal with it. In the end, she decided to go mostly because she was in a good enough mood about the high probability of not teaching again.

Besides, she had a number of games on her cellphone that she needed to check up on.

With a thought and a jaunt through the screaming inferno of Hell, Catherine teleported straight into the classroom.

And almost tripped over a little screaming girl.

Catherine blinked. All the mortal brats looked the same. It took a minute to realize who it was.

“The little mousy girl who had her name on the test and nothing else,” Catherine said as the girl got to her feet. “I have to say, you’ve got a work ethic I can admire. I mean, your score is going to be roughly the same as everyone else’s and yet you put in absolutely zero effort. Who is the real winner, hmm? Except you are here so early. You’re not having second thoug–”

“I know what you are.”

Catherine blinked again, this time allowing her eyes to return to their normal bright red, then laughed. “After that lesson on succubi, no one said anything. I was beginning to think all mortals are fools.”

Leaning in close to the girl, Catherine took a deep whiff of the air around her. No desire, at least not for Catherine. Maybe another student? It was muted and difficult to discern who without them present. She could delve into the girl’s mind a bit.

She gave a small shudder. But ugh, mortal teenager minds.

There was surprisingly little fear. Surprising less because Catherine viewed herself as an especially scary demon and more because of how much the girl stiffened up as Catherine leaned in.

“So what do you want?” Catherine said, finally pulling back from the girl. For a moment, she had considered licking the girl’s ear simply to see her reaction. Who knew where that had been. “Bigger boobs? Shapelier hips? You’re still growing kid. You’re going to be drawing plenty of eyes in a few years. Trust me, I can tell.”

The girl’s face turned scarlet from chin to forehead.

“Or maybe you’re wanting to jump some guy’s bones? Who is the lucky guy?” Catherine snapped her fingers. “There, twenty-four hours of irresistibility. Talk to someone with some confidence and they’ll be wrapped around your little finger.”

A lie of course. Watching her scarlet face twist into panic made it all worth it. Maybe she would bring the girl back to her domain–except by the time Martina kicked the bucket, the girl would probably be far too old to be fun to mess with. She would have to settle with messing with her now.

Hooray for finding more hobbies. More things to do that weren’t obeying Martina.

“No!” The girl said. “Take it off!”

“Can’t. It’ll wear off. If you really don’t want to have some fun, just don’t talk to anyone. It works on males, females, and cats, so–”

“Cats? Why cats?”

Catherine shrugged. “Why not?”

“Look,” she said, stamping her foot. “I just want to talk with someone. Eva isn’t here and I don’t know who else I can talk to.”

Catherine rolled her eyes, making it as obvious as was demoniacally possible. “First, I’m not a counselor, kid. Unless you want help pleasuring your lover–or yourself–go talk to someone else. And even then, you mortals have the concept that demons will grant wishes in exchange for souls. That’s the fae; djinn and fairies specifically.

“Any help I give will be by experience. And I can tell you don’t want that. Go find someone else.”

“I can’t.” Her voice went quiet. Enough so that Catherine had to lean in again to catch her words. “It is about demon things.”

With a sigh, Catherine pulled out her cellphone. Fifteen minutes before the testing started. The rest of the class should be showing up soon. “Talk and I might listen, but as soon as someone else shows up, we’re done. What’s your name?”

She looked mildly offended, but nodded. “Irene. It is my friend. Jordan. He…”

Blah, blah, blah. Catherine settled down on the top of her desk for what she knew would be the longest fifteen minutes of her entire existence.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


004.016

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Eva tossed the now slightly damp towel over her shoulder, not caring in the slightest where it actually landed.

She exited the showers completely in the nude. Arachne followed her out at her heels.

Devon still sat, snoring in his chair. For a moment, she considered waking him. After glancing at the large bruise on his forehead, Eva decided he looked tired enough to leave alone. Besides, he managed to sleep through all the noise of the showers.

Never had she felt so alive.

She stopped and stretched in her common room. The jolt of pain in her lower back went completely ignored. She was far too pleased with everything to care.

Well, Eva thought with a brief glance at the ceiling, almost everything.

It was nice being out of that nightmare and back with Arachne in the real world, her injury was healing slowly yet steadily, and Sawyer’s days were numbered.

Zagan just had to put a damper on it.

Prior to taking a shower, Eva got an abridged story from Arachne. Arachne, unfortunately, got it from Zoe. Zoe had experienced some of it first hand, but she got most of the information about Juliana and Shalise from Jordan.

Eva wasn’t about to take Arachne’s word for truth until she spoke to some of the others. Not that she didn’t trust Arachne; she trusted her completely. It was just that Eva had played the telephone game in elementary school. Third and fourth-hand retellings of events tended to become extremely muddled.

She couldn’t begin to guess at Zagan’s game. Whatever he wanted was likely related to what he had told her about investigating Hell back when he was terrorizing the nuns. Shalise and Juliana didn’t matter to that as far as Eva knew.

The thing that most aroused her curiosity was that Jordan and Shelby had gotten themselves involved in this mess. Probably because of her getting Irene involved. But somehow they had managed to spy on Zagan? There was a story there that Eva wanted to hear.

Arching her back in a stretch, half to look upside down at Arachne and half to exercise out her injury, Eva asked, “was Irene alright after all that?”

Arachne stared for a moment before shrugging.

A voice from behind Eva chose to answer the question. “Irene is perfectly fi–why are you naked?”

Eva straightened out to find Zoe Baxter standing at the entrance to the women’s ward with her back facing Eva.

“Just got out of the shower. Besides, I’m in the privacy of my own home.” Eva paused with her hands on her hips just long enough for Zoe to get curious enough to glance over her shoulder.

Her head whipped back hard enough that Eva felt that whiplash. “Are you going to get dressed?”

“If I must,” Eva said. It’s good to be back, Eva thought as she slipped into her room. As much as she would never say it aloud, she had missed everyone.

Which made the lack of Juliana and Shalise all the more depressing.

Someone, likely Arachne, had tidied up her room. Eva’s eyes were immediately drawn to the end table next to her bed. Five vials of pitch-black blood helped to prop up her void metal dagger. She picked it up, gripping it in her hand. It felt… nice to hold it again.

After tossing on the first tee-shirt and skirt she found, Eva attached the vials of blood and her dagger to her belt.

She walked out of her room to rejoin Zoe and Arachne–who never had complaints about her lack of attire–in the common room.

It took three clearings of her throat to get Zoe to turn around. When she finally did turn, she just stared for a moment.

Eva cocked her head to one side while subtly glancing at herself. She hadn’t put on shoes or socks or anything, but she was otherwise decently dressed. “So?”

“I wish we had more time to allow you to rest. You’re looking rather harried.”

Eva frowned. She only just got out of the shower and hadn’t had the time to so much as glance in a mirror. Eva waved Zoe off. “Well I feel great.”

“Indeed. I suppose that will have to suffice.” Zoe gave a weak smile. “Just don’t push yourself too much.”

“I’ll try, I guess,” Eva said with a shrug.

“That’s all I can ask. Nel, at Genoa’s insistence, has started her attempts to locate Shalise and Juliana. I was unsure as to whether you–”

“Of course I’ll come,” Eva said. She gave a brief glance towards Arachne, prompting the spider-demon to approach and place an arm around Eva’s shoulders. Turning back to Zoe, she said, “she’s in Ylva’s domain, right?”

Zoe nodded. “Not the usual room. I’ll take you there.”

Eva followed after Zoe. She used the short walk across the prison compound to ask a handful of questions. Most related to finding out exactly what happened while she was out of the loop from Zoe’s mouth. By the time they arrived, Eva felt she had a decent, if brief, understanding.

The doorway they passed through within Ylva’s domain was on almost the exact opposite side of the throne room from the outside entrance. An endless ocean and a short beach lay on the other side.

It was her first time through that door in Ylva’s domain and yet it felt so familiar. The sand, the water, and the nighttime sky without a star in sight were exactly the same as her little island that she visited after escaping from Sawyer the first time.

A few steps out, Eva slipped out of Arachne’s grip and knelt down. A tingle of nostalgia tickled Eva’s mind as she lifted some of the sand and let it fall through her fingers.

Her island had been a refuge. She had rested there, half in the water, for a few hours. Upon entering, she had felt comfortable enough to slip into sleep for a time.

Considering that had been immediately after her torture session with Sawyer, that might have been more exhaustion than comfort. Still, it was a good memory; the island, not the torture session.

The island was similar enough that she might not notice the difference had she been able to see only a small slice of it. It was black and white then; her domain compensating for her lack of eyes in an imperfect method, according to Devon and Arachne.

The only real difference was that while her island was about the size of her dorm room, Ylva’s island didn’t even have curvature. As far as Eva could tell, it stretched on forever in either direction.

Other than that, the biggest change was the tiny tree. Eva’s island had one, Ylva’s had a massive black marble structure. It didn’t look anything like what she would have expected from seeing the inside.

For one, it was a whole lot larger. Inside, the space between the rooms’ doorways was the size of the doorway plus a few foot wide pillar. As Eva looked back at the structure, the door they had just come out of was a tiny keyhole in comparison to the main structure.

They hadn’t even walked that far away from it.

The area where the next room would normally be would take a good five minutes to run to from the beach.

The entire thing hurt Eva’s head. Escher himself would have headaches for weeks just trying to wrap his mind around the layout of the place.

Something of a large difference, Eva thought with a grin as she brushed her hands off and got to her feet. The grin fell by the wayside as Eva realized her mistake.

All the gritty sand she had picked up had stuck around, getting in all the joints of her chitinous hands. Her feet were worse by far. She hadn’t worn shoes–it was more comfortable not to under normal circumstances.

The beach was not normal circumstances.

“How can you stand the sand?” Eva asked of Arachne.

“Got used to it. That doesn’t mean it isn’t annoying, but I can ignore it if I have to.”

Eva frowned as she started using the sharp tips of her fingers to dislodge a particularly irritating grain of sand. “How many millennia did that take,” she mumbled more to herself than anyone else.

It didn’t take much longer before their group reached the edge of the water. As in Eva’s domain, the pitch black liquid stretched out to the horizon without a single ripple marring the glassy surface.

That was quite a feat on its own, given that Nel was half-submerged a short way away from the edge. An altar either floated on top of the water or was some sort of pillar sticking out. Floating above an incense burner were two strands of hair. One wavy brown hair and one long blond hair.

Eva wrinkled her nose as the scent of frankincense wafted over. She ignored it as she walked up alongside Genoa.

The older woman didn’t so much as twitch in her direction. She kept her eyes glued firmly on Nel. Her face was calm, but Eva could see her heart beating in a manner very reminiscent of nervousness.

Carlos stood at Genoa’s side. He was far less composed. His hands shook as they constantly fiddled with his glasses.

Ylva and the other nun–Alicia, if Eva caught her name correctly–stood a few paces to the side. Ylva was watching Nel with nearly the same intensity as Genoa, though her heart wasn’t in it quite so much.

The only other person on the beach was Devon. Zoe went and stood by him for whatever reason. He–

Eva frowned. Her master had been back at the women’s ward, sleeping.

It took a double take to realize that the man standing to Zoe’s side was a slightly scragglier looking Wayne Lurcher.

Looking at him again, it was obvious. His hair was far shorter and his beard was less of a beard and more stubble. The dead giveaway was that he was wearing a suit rather than Devon’s ragged trench coat.

Eva moved up next to him. “You’re looking good,” she said.

He turned his head and gave her a look.

Eva gave him a look right back. Surely he wasn’t blaming her for being injured. She was about to open her mouth and say as much when he opened his first.

“You’re awake.”

“I am.”

“Try not to cause so much trouble next time.”

Eva humphed and walked away. “I’ll show you trouble,” she muttered under her breath, prompting a short laugh from Arachne. “Try to be nice to a guy and–”

“I’ve found them,” Nel half shouted. “Or Juliana at least. Shalise isn’t anywhere around her. Something else is though.”

Genoa stepped forwards, sinking her boots into the water. “What is it?”

“I don’t–a demon, I guess,” Nel said while waving an arm.

It was then that Eva noticed her other arm. Or, more accurately, the shriveled husk that was in place of her other arm. Looking through her blood sight, Eva saw the problem immediately.

She had no eyes in that arm.

Nel’s extra eyes did something strange to her body. A full-sized eyeball wouldn’t fit in the palm of her hand even if all the bones were removed. Yet she clearly had one on her good hand. It pushed her meat around like there was more space than actually existed.

Without the eyeballs in her arm, whatever magic there was had broken and left the pushed aside meat… well, pushed aside and useless.

Eva couldn’t begin to guess how her arm wasn’t a rotted husk. The blood was barely making it to her fingers as it was.

Shaking her head, Eva tried to catch up with the conversation.

Genoa jumped into the water, waist deep in it alongside Nel, and gripped one of her shoulders. “They’re doing what?”

— — —

Juliana left the tea in her mouth for a moment, tasting it.

It wasn’t that bad. Sweet, but not overpowering. Unfortunately, it was a familiar sweetness. The black honey that had made it into her mouth tasted the same.

She would have spit it back into the cup, but the demon was watching her closely.

Too close.

Juliana swallowed the tiny mouthful and reset the cup on its tray. Leaning away from the overbearing demon, she said, “I appreciate the hospitality–”

“Oh my dear, you have yet to see the breadth of my hospitality.”

His hand stretched with the strings dragging it along. As soon as his hand touched Juliana’s shoulder, she found herself sitting on a stone bench.

A rather comfortable stone bench.

It was one of many, all seated in a half-circle around a lower central platform. An amphitheater. Almost the same as the one at Brakket.

In fact, Juliana thought as she glanced around, it is the same. He even dropped her off at her usual spot during Zoe’s seminars. The trees of the forest were in the background.

The only real change was the pitch black sky with the eye-like moon.

That and the fact that all the spare seats were occupied by the same statues of golden bees as the ones occupying the theater seats. Every one of them sat in a unique pose. She had a feeling that if she examined them a little closer, each bee would be different from the next.

Juliana jumped to her feet as two people walked out on the stage. “Mom! Arachne? Why–how–”

Juliana’s voice caught in her throat as her mother waved and said, “hello.”

Two lines ran up from her chin to the corners of her lips as her jaw dropped straight down. Her face was like stiff plastic. Five thin strings attached to her fingers glinted off the moonlight. Arachne was similarly strung up, though she looked more normal. Or it was harder to tell the difference between puppet-Arachne and the real thing. The ball joints on her limbs blended in a lot better than the ones on her mother.

‘Genoa’ and ‘Arachne’ turned to face one another. After a brief stare-down, the Arachne-puppet gripped the chin of Genoa and tore off her face. No blood or bone came out, just splinters.

Juliana sunk back into her seat as her mother started sparring with Arachne despite her lack of face.

“Not quite the spectacle of the real thing, is it?”

Giving a small start, Juliana turned to Willie. She had almost forgotten he was there. “You’ve been spying on my mother?”

“I do so enjoy a good show and you were so diligent in carrying around that doll eye. It would have been a crime not to watch. Sandwich?” he asked as a silver plate appeared in his hand. A pile of bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches materialized on top. The bread was a light golden brown, grilled to perfection.

And the smell.

Juliana had to wipe off a small bit of drool before responding. “I don’t think–”

A loud rumbling of her stomach interrupted her. Traitor.

“Nonsense. You must be famished. How long has it been since you last ate?”

Since before I can remember, Juliana did not say. Instead, she meekly took one of the sandwiches with a mumbled, “thanks.”

Her first nibble turned into a bite. A second sandwich found its way into her other hand before the first finished disappearing. A third and fourth followed without delay.

The entire plate was gone before she finally felt full.

“See,” he said, “famished.”

A tremor shook the entire amphitheater. Juliana gripped the edges of her seat to keep from tumbling off as the ground shook beneath her feet.

The two fighting imitations weren’t quite so lucky. ‘Arachne’ collapsed forwards, one arm striking through the wooden doll of her mother’s chest.

As the tremors died off, Juliana glanced to her side. Willie hadn’t budged the entire time. He did have a somewhat concerned look on his face.

“Dreadful things,” he said with undisguised disdain. “Are you alright, milady?”

Juliana narrowed her eyes as she frowned at the demon seated to her side. “Weren’t you trying to kill me the last time we met? Now you are concerned about me and, what, fattening me up?” She gestured towards the empty sandwich platter.

Willie gave an elegant snort. “I am not about to eat you. As I said then, it is a token effort mostly for the sake of tradition. No demon wishes to be beholden to a weak master even if that means a brief respite from this place.”

“And you still tried despite my ring?”

“Truthfully, I failed to notice. King Zagan’s presence overpowers your little token by far. He was a tad distracting.”

Juliana shuffled in her seat, trying her best to ignore the fight between the puppet versions of her mother and Arachne. “I don’t suppose I can leave to find my friend, can I?”

He turned to her with a smile–an Arachne smile. “And miss out on all of my hospitality? My dear, we are just getting started.”

— — —

Genoa shared a quick glance with Arachne at Nel’s recounting of the situation.

The spider-demon gave her half of a shrug in return.

“She knows it isn’t us, right?” Genoa asked as she turned back to Nel.

“You look significantly different from your puppet version. And she didn’t run up and hug you or anything.”

Carlos stumbled forwards, splashing into the water as he moved towards Nel. The augur winced back as one of his bony hands gripped her rotten arm, but he didn’t appear to notice. He put his face a few inches from hers and stared into her eyes.

“That is my daughter,” Carlos said, “not some puppet? The real and true Juliana?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

Carlos held on, staring for another few minutes. His knees gave out beneath the water as he stumbled backwards into Genoa’s waiting arms. He turned, held her tight, and immediately started crying. “She’s alright,” he said between sobs. “Our little girl is alright.”

Patting him on the back, Genoa said, “I trained her. Of course she is alright. And now it is time to bring her home.” Over his shoulder, Genoa locked eyes with Nel. “How do I get there?”

“I don’t kn–”

“The waters,” Ylva interrupted, “connect all of Hell.”

Genoa glanced down at her feet. She was already waist deep in the dark water. Her feet looked like nothing more than shadows beneath the surface. “Great,” she said. “How do I use it?”

“Wade out and submerge yourself. You will feel a pressure. As the pressure mounts, think of your destination. Names of the owner will prevent undue wandering.”

“So just think of Juliana? Or a theater hall with an amphitheater? What do you mean by wandering?”

Eva stepped forwards, her black feet parting the water around them. “When I was in Hell, I managed to find my way around a bit. I wasn’t thinking of much of anything before finding myself in the abattoir. Thinking of home brought me back to my–a safe island I found myself on.”

Ylva looked down at Eva with her eyebrows ever so slightly raised. “The abattoir? Truly?”

Eva gave a small shrug. “That’s where she said I was,” she said with a gesture towards a nodding Arachne.

After a moment of silence, Ylva gave a brief nod of acknowledgment. “We do not believe any have accidentally wandered into the domains the Keeper keeps.”

“Fascinating,” Genoa said in a tone that said anything but. “How does it help me get to Juliana?”

Ylva frowned slightly, but turned to address Genoa. “Talkina are few in number. Being theatergoing demons of puppetry, many will have theaters of varying types within their domains. Without knowing his name, you may end up in any of them.”

“So I just think of a theater and if it is the wrong one, jump in some water and try again?”

“That would be exceedingly foolhardy.”

Genoa grit her teeth together. “You just–”

“Bees,” Eva said.

“What?”

“A theater with bees. That is what Nel said, is it not?”

There was a small splash of water behind Genoa as Nel jumped at being addressed. “Y-yeah. Golden bee statues all over the place.”

“That should prove unique enough to find the proper domain,” Ylva said. There was a brief pause before she continued. “Barring any sort of sudden fascination in golden bees among the talkina population.”

“Great,” Genoa said as she started moving around Nel to get deeper in the water. She paused before taking a full step. “We can return here to leave, right?”

“Enter the waters and think of Our glorious name.”

Rolling her eyes, Genoa turned to continue out into the water. She paused as five sharp fingers curled gently around her wrist.

“You’re not going alone,” Eva said. “Juliana is my friend too.”

“You can’t be going yet,” Zoe said, stomping out into the water. “You just woke up.”

“And I feel great!” Eva stretched for emphasis. “Being mostly dead turned out to be a great bout of rest.”

“And you,” Zoe said, ignoring the younger girl. “Charging in without a plan? Wasn’t it you who was always going on about knowing what you’re walking into?”

Genoa frowned and took a deep breath. “The guild lessons I taught you are not law. Besides,” she said with a smile, “you dropped out before I could get to the most important lesson: follow your instincts.”

“So you’re just going to run off and get yourself killed?”

“I am going to run off and get my daughter back.”

Zoe crossed her arms in front of her chest with a small scowl.

“Eva,” Ylva said before Zoe could open her mouth again. “You will be unable to return to the mortal realm through Our domain.”

Eva blinked at the statuesque woman for just a moment before nodding. “I understand. I have a beacon and should be able to return when I need.”

There was an almost imperceptible nod from Ylva while everyone stared at Eva.

Zoe was the first to speak. “Why can’t you come back through here?”

“I can, it is just against the rules for Ylva to help me. I suppose I qualify for them now.”

“What is–”

“Later! Let’s get Juliana and Shalise home and then we can all talk.”

That was something Genoa was perfectly willing to consent to. Eva started leading her off into the water almost as much as she was leading Eva out. Arachne trailed behind with a hand on Eva’s shoulder.

By the time they were in up to their necks, it was easier to simply swim than try to walk along the sand. And there was definitely a pressure there. It was somewhat similar to her limited experience with diving, except that they were on the surface rather than down several meters.

“Alright,” Eva said. “Golden bee statue theater.”

And she dunked her head beneath the surface of the water.

Genoa paused, watching to see what would happen.

A hand shaped shadow reached up out of the depths of the water and gripped Eva. It pulled her under, dragging her for a short distance before it vanished from her sight.

Genoa started. She almost dived in to try to pull her back, but Arachne’s claws gripped her shoulder.

With a silent shake of her head, Arachne calmly allowed herself to sink into the water. A moment later, a hand gripped her and pulled her off into the depths.

So that is supposed to happen, Genoa thought. They could have warned her.

Taking a deep breath, Genoa dove under the water. She repeated the destination in her head over and over again.

It was awkward. Golden bee statue theater. It felt odd in her mind. That awkwardness was probably why she had never been able to teleport like Zoe. It used a similar, very awkward-feeling method of deciding where to go.

She waited. It hadn’t taken long for the hand to grasp either of the other two. Bracing herself as she continued to repeat the destination, Genoa held her breath beneath the heavy water.

The hand never came. One moment she was beneath the water and the next moment she was completely dry.

Dry and falling.

A single moon watched on as she plummeted into an ocean of viscous liquid.

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004.015

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The long hallway.

Blood red walls with a black hardwood floor. A narrow carpet protected the hardwood from the sharp undersides of Eva’s feet.

There were no doors. No side passages. Nothing at all apart from a way forwards and a way backwards.

It looked exactly as it had every other time.

Eva took off at a run.

And promptly got nowhere.

It didn’t matter which way she ran. Neither direction ever took her anywhere apart from where she was.

Yet Eva ran.

There had to be progress somewhere. Even if she was dead, there had to be more to it than a hallway.

She passed by some scorch marks on the walls. Those were old. She hadn’t tried burning her way out of the hallway in what felt like forever.

It never worked.

On the plus side, if Eva ever managed to escape from the hallway, she was quite confident that her thaumaturgical flames had increased dramatically in temperature and intensity. Attempting to burn down a hallway several times over the past eternity turned out to be decent training.

Who would have guessed.

Eva tripped. Her face became intimately introduced to the carpet. Eva groaned as she pushed herself up to her knees. Rubbing the rug burn off her cheek, Eva glanced around.

She had never fallen before. Not without intending to at least. That change alone welled up excitement in her chest.

A lip of carpet. That was what had caused her to trip.

Frowning, Eva used her sharp claws to tear away at the carpet.

Nothing. No trap door. No secret tunnel. Clawing at the wood did nothing–it never had in the past either.

Sighing, Eva got to her feet. She froze half way there.

Before, it always looked like the hallway continued into eternity. Now there was a white light obscuring one end of the hallway. Turning around, Eva saw black shadows eclipsing the opposite end.

That’s not ominous at all, Eva thought. She stood in indecision, glancing back and forth. Neither had particularly good connotations.

The white light at the end of the tunnel was always where dead people went. But black had its own connections with Death. Namely reaper’s traditional attire.

With a shrug of her shoulders–anywhere was better than the endless hallway–Eva turned and started running.

The carpet beneath her feet bunched up behind her as each step moved the carpet backwards. Like the floor was a giant treadmill.

As soon as the carpet ran out, Eva’s feet hit hardwood. The walls started to bend and sway as the hardwood wrapped up as the cloth carpet had.

No matter how hard she ran, she stayed in the same position. The hallway moved, but she did not.

Even though she was making no progress, the black shadows at the end of the hall moved closer. Her shiny black legs hammered against the floor.

Until the mouth of the hallway opened up around her.

Eva’s foot came down, hitting nothing but air. She fell forward, tumbling end over end into a black emptiness. A white box with an opening into the hallway, not any larger than a single cell within her prison, shrunk into the distance as she fell.

The white box became nothing more than a pinpoint in the sky. A few more tumbles and the tiny star winked out, encompassed by pitch black. Dark enough that Eva couldn’t see her own hand in front of her eyes.

After a thought, Eva looked at herself again using her sense of blood. That was working at the very least, though it wasn’t all that helpful. She was the only thing in range.

There was no wind screaming past her face and no feelings of gravity acting against her. Her hair was straight and flat against her back. The star was her singular point of reference. Without it, she couldn’t even tell if she was still tumbling.

Her first thought was Void.

When demons died, Void snatched them from whatever plane of existence they found themselves on and brought them into Himself. From Arachne, Eva knew that demons then had to ‘claw their way back to their domains or risk insanity and oblivion within Him.’

None of that was particularly helpful now.

Devon would be pleased to know that she was demon enough to be claimed by Void. If she managed to escape before he died of old age.

The time to escape varied depending on power. Eva had a strong suspicion that she was not among the ranks of the more powerful demons.

Waving her claws around did not accomplish anything apparent. The only reason she could tell that her arms were moving was because she could still feel herself. A quick swipe of her index finger told her that yes, pain was very much a thing here.

…oving…strain her…

Eva blinked, for all the good that did. She opened her mouth in an attempt to call out at whatever voice that had been. Though she could feel the vibrations in her throat, not a decibel of sound reached her ears.

Then the pain started.

It started in the small of her back. Ten thousand razor-sharp needles, heated on the surface of the sun. They poked.

They moved up her back, rolling across her arms and neck and head. She could feel them pinging off of her hands, wrists, and legs. It didn’t take long for the pings to pierce her exoskeleton.

Eva writhed. Her own claws joined the needles in raking across her body. Whatever flesh she herself flayed paled in comparison to the needles.

And the entire time, not a peep of her own screams could be heard.

All of it stopped as suddenly as it had started. Though the pain lingered on, no new needles poked in and out of her body.

It took hours for her brain to reboot enough that a thought unrelated to the pain entered her mind.

If this is Void, I am sorry I didn’t pick the white light.

…ucky…ur head…

There was that voice again. It was familiar somehow. Comforting. Something that would wrap around her and keep the needles away.

…ow…truistic…

Another voice. More standoffish, but still familiar.

Good voices.

As the pain further receded, Eva came to her senses enough to take stock of her situation.

It hadn’t changed much. She still couldn’t see. Her voice stayed in her throat.

None of the needles had left any marks in her flesh according to her blood sight. That wasn’t the case with her own claws. She had cuts everywhere, though most centered on her back where she had attempted to reach around and protect herself.

With a thought, Eva set about healing.

As soon as she started, Eva hit something.

Something dug into her back.

Something entered her back exactly in the location Sawyer had stabbed her.

Inaudibly growling, Eva reached back and attempted to remove the offending implement.

Her fingers grasped nothing but empty air. With some exploration, she managed to find the hole.

She had healed that forever ago.

There was a tingle of pain as she set about mending herself, again.

Blinking her eyes, Eva almost yelled out in surprise.

Eight glowing red eyes and a shark-toothed grin filled her vision.

“Arachne?” Her voice came out soft and weak, but it definitely came out.

“Eva. You’re awake.”

For a moment, Eva just stared into the demon’s red eyes. Ensuring to herself that she wasn’t hallucinating. Seeing someone, anyone, was such a welcome relief compared to the isolation within the hallway.

And it was Arachne. Of course it was Arachne. Her first friend probably hadn’t so much as left her side since she first passed out. At least, assuming she wasn’t off in Hell. In that case, Arachne would have been waiting in Eva’s domain.

After drinking in her fill, Eva said the first thing that came to mind. “I think I’d like to kiss you right now.”

Arachne’s grin widened, bringing a small smile to Eva’s face.

“Let’s see how you feel after you see the get well present I’ve got for you.”

Someone cleared their throat. Loudly.

Arachne’s grin slipped slightly. She slid off to one side and wrapped her arms and legs around Eva, being careful not to jolt her.

Eva closed her eyes. She counted to ten. When she opened her eyes, Arachne was still at her side. And, unless she was very much mistaken, the ceiling of her own women’s ward common room was above her head.

Someone moved close, obstructing her view.

“Zoe Baxter,” Eva said.

“How are you feeling?”

“Like a vampire dropped a road-roller–covered in sewing needles–on my back and then proceeded to punch it a few hundred times.”

Zoe gave a weak smile. “That was probably us removing your curse. We were getting worried. That was almost three hours ago. The rats woke up almost immediately.”

At the mention of others, Eva attempted to lift her head and look around. She didn’t get very far. The pain in her back spiked, though not nearly to the same degree as earlier.

Undaunted, Eva used her blood sense in place of her eyes. Arachne cuddled at her side while Zoe looked down from a few feet away. Carlos, unless Eva was much mistaken, stood alongside Ylva near the entryway. Someone else knelt just behind Ylva. Eva guessed it was a nun based on the eye implanted in her chest.

Not Nel. There was only the one eye. Her circulatory system did not look familiar, though that did not necessarily mean much. Eva hadn’t paid close enough attention to the majority of nuns she had met to be able to identify individuals.

Nel had been in Sawyer’s clutches the last time Eva saw her. That probably didn’t bode well for her. But another nun? Did Ylva go out and pick up a replacement like the girl was some kind of goldfish?

The nun sat with her knees to the ground and her hands in her lap. Every few seconds, her vapid smile would vanish and be replaced with an almost blank expression.

The only other person in range was Devon. He was sitting sideways in a chair with his back and legs on the armrests. Sleeping; his heart rate was low and his head lolled off to one side.

Nuzzling against Arachne, Eva turned her attentions to herself. There were several cuts across her body, especially her back and sides. They all looked to be about the right size and amount to have been self-inflicted. It wasn’t as bad as the dark place. Most were shallow.

Healing them wouldn’t be much trouble.

Then there was the knife hole in her back. It didn’t hurt. Not unless she moved. Breathing too deep caused a good amount of pain as well. Given that one of her lungs had been nicked, that wasn’t too much of a surprise. But there was something odd.

“I’m not bleeding?”

Zoe glanced over her shoulder. “After removing your curse, Ylva stuck her finger into your wound. She said it would hold until you could take care of it.”

“Well, thanks,” Eva said as honestly as she could. Surviving whatever Sawyer had done to her only to die from bleeding out would have been far too embarrassing to stand.

Eva frowned as she attempted weaving her flesh back together. “I’m having trouble healing myself.”

“Lingering Death magic,” Ylva said in a calm voice.

Far calmer than Eva felt, she said, “Death magic?”

“The nuns’ lightning,” Zoe quickly said. Her growing panic must have been evident on Eva’s face. “It eats away at other magic, it is how we cured your curse. Unfortunately, it is probably going to interfere with your healing for a time.”

“Nun lightning is Death magic? With a capital ‘D’ and everything?”

Excitement crept into Zoe’s voice. “Oh yes. All their ‘white’ magic is. Hyper-specialized and tailored for fighting undeath. Would you believ–”

A loud snort from Devon interrupted Zoe as he rustled in his sleep.

“Sorry,” she said, speaking softer. “You probably don’t want all the details before you’re even out of bed.”

Eva closed her eyes and pressed her head up against Arachne. Not being stuck in that hallway was amazing, and talking was a huge thing she had missed. But Zoe had a point. “A little rest might be nice.”

Zoe nodded. She fidgeted for a moment as if unsure of what to do.

“There is something you must know,” Ylva said, stepping forward. “Our subject has been trapped within Hell. Nel will search for her and the other human after a brief respite of her own.”

I guess Nel isn’t with Sawyer after all?

Eva blinked her eyes open as the rest of what was said started to register.

Ylva had moved close enough to be seen with her regular eyes, but she turned and walked away before Eva could fully process what she had said. The nun got to her feet and followed her out, keeping a distance of about three paces.

Subject? She referred to Nel as a servant. Zoe was in the room, so Juliana must be in Hell unless that was a complete non-sequitur? The other human?

“Why are Juliana and Shalise in Hell?”

Carlos moved up next to Eva’s bed. “Your professor, Rex Zagan, sent them there,” he said softly.

“According to Jordan Anderson,” Zoe added.

Eva pinched her eyes shut. “Why would he send them to Hell? What for?”

When neither of them responded, Eva opened her eyes to find Carlos slowly shaking his head. Zoe had pressed her lips into a thin line.

“You didn’t ask him?”

“He hasn’t been in school since the attack,” Zoe said. “Martina doesn’t know where he is or why he did it either.

“Even if he was in school, I don’t think it would be wise to provoke him. It will be difficult to rescue them if we are trapped as well.”

Eva sighed. Always one thing after another.

“How long?”

“Two weeks. And a few days change.”

Biting her lip, Eva said, “that’s a long time.” A long time to be unconscious as well. That might explain her hunger. It was a rare occasion that Eva ate, but she was still human enough to need mortal sustenance.

“Ylva,” Carlos started. He stopped and pressed his glasses up onto his face before continuing. “Their souls are not in Death’s–with Death… They’re not dead.”

“That’s good,” Eva said slowly. Good unless they were trussed up like the people she had found. She elected not to mention anything about that.

“But we won’t have any plan for what to do until Nel finds them,” Zoe said. “You can rest until then. At the very least. I mean… we’re not forcing you to go to Hell–”

“It’s fine. They’re my friends. I won’t leave them there. But until Nel is ready, I think I’d like to rest.”

Zoe nodded, turned, and left. Carlos lingered for another minute, almost speaking a few times. In the end, he shook his head and followed after Zoe.

Eva shut her eyes and moved her head up against Arachne’s carapace.

It hadn’t felt like two weeks. Longer. A month. Maybe two. All with nothing but the hallway and its blood-red walls, black floor, and carpet. And two endless directions.

No Arachne. No Zoe. No Devon. No Juliana or Shalise.

Eva sighed in contentment as Arachne’s fingers brushed her arm.

Which reminded her of something. “You said you had a gift for me?”

“I think you’ll like it,” Arachne said. She skittered her way out from around Eva and moved to the women’s ward master bedroom.

When she returned, Eva found herself holding onto an actual wrapped present. With a bow and everything. A very silky bow. The wrapping was made of the same silvery material.

Careful to not disturb her back injury, Eva pulled open the wrapping and pulled out the box.

It was a clear plastic container. Inside was a… “mutilated hand?”

“Not just any mutilated hand,” Arachne said, radiating pride. “When we rescued Nel from Sawyer, he managed to escape. But, not before I got my claws into him. With Nel back and part of his hand…”

“We can find him.” Eva stared into Arachne’s wide smile and felt her own face twist into a mirror.

“I thought you might want a little vengeance.”

“Arachne,” Eva said, “I think I will kiss you.”

— — —

An uncontrollable shudder wracked through Nel’s body. It started at the useless lump of flesh her arm had become and worked its way through the rest of her body from her shoulder.

Given all the holes in it, keeping it out of the water would have probably been a good idea.

As it was, Nel did not care.

It was the first bath she had had in over two weeks.

Even better, it was in Lady Ylva’s bath. She never thought she would see this place again. She had been certain that her last sight was going to be whatever Sawyer pointed her chair towards.

Now, chin deep in hot water with her head resting in a perfectly shaped groove in the stone, Nel didn’t even care that the perverted gargoyles were watching her with their beady little eyes.

So enraptured was she in her little oasis of respite that Nel didn’t notice a second person entering the room until they slipped into the water and cozied on up to her.

Far too close for comfort.

Nel slipped a hand over her chest as she inched away from the woman with short and curly black hair. As her neck left the groove in the pool’s edge, the woman continued sliding along the little ledge in the water. Nel stopped, realizing that she wouldn’t have any peace so long as the other woman was here.

And it had been going so well too.

Shooting a glance at the woman’s chest through the crystal clear water, Nel caught sight of the small eyeball placed between her breasts.

An Elysium Nun. As Nel expected after their brief interaction the previous night. She might have even been told as much, but she was somewhat out of it until she woke up this morning. Most of her memories of escaping were hazy to some degree.

Hopefully, her memories of being under Sawyer’s care would go hazy in time.

Nel wasn’t counting on it.

Unlike the eyeballs rapidly darting about–looking hither and thither at every little thing–in Nel’s body, the other nun’s eye sat still in her chest. It stared dead ahead with a look that wouldn’t be out-of-place on Lady Ylva.

Nel let out a soft sigh of relief. The girl had no potential to become an augur. She wasn’t about to be Nel’s replacement. Since she had been rescued, Nel felt safe to assume that Ylva still wanted her.

The frown she had put on as the other nun slipped into the water deepened. Ylva wasn’t the one to rescue her.

“So,” the other nun said.

Nel started. She had been staring–frowning at the other woman’s chest for a few minutes. Clearing her throat, Nel looked up to meet the nun’s eyes. “I’m sorry,” Nel said. She cringed at herself. Now it looked like she was apologizing for staring at the other woman. Clearing her throat again, she quickly added on, “I didn’t quite catch your name.”

“Alicia, though Lady Ylva calls me Ali.”

“Nel.”

The soft trickle of water from one of the gargoyles was the only sound following her simple statement. Before the situation could get any more awkward, Nel held out her hand for a handshake. So long as they were going to be Lady Ylva’s underlings, she could at least try to be cordial to the–

Nel went stiff as a board as Alicia’s arms wrapped around her and pulled her into a tight hug. She held on until Nel gave her two very mechanical pats with her good arm on the nun’s back.

“Please,” Nel said quietly as Alicia pulled away, “don’t hug me again.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, sounding almost genuine until she giggled. “It’s the eyes, isn’t it? I never interacted with augurs much before. Well,” she giggled again, “except two that I had to terminate. But they don’t count.” She waved her hand off to one side like she was laughing off a joke.

Nel found herself inching away again. Maybe if she went slow enough then the other girl wouldn’t move closer. “Are you… alright?”

“Perfect,” she said with intensity. “In fact, I got to be useful to Lady Ylva today. She had me help that abomination they’ve got locked up in one of the other buildings.”

Nel kept her face as still as she could. Eva scared her more than Ylva did most of the time. She had been trying very hard not to think of her as an abomination even in her own thoughts. For a moment, she wondered what Alicia would do if she knew that Eva practically ran the place.

She thought better of it. Something was very wrong with the other nun. Better to keep her interactions to a minimum.

Her stomach sank like a cannonball in water as a few words made their way through the haze of her memories. Arachne had wanted Nel to fix Eva. There was a sudden dryness in her mouth as she worried she wouldn’t have a spine after her next encounter with the volatile spider-demon.

That creature scared her more than Eva.

Hopefully they would be too happy with Eva being back to pay her much mind.

As she was thinking, Genoa walked into her sight through the door behind Alicia.

She did not look happy.

Genoa marched right up to the edge of the bath, soiling the crystal clear water with dirt and grime that came loose off of her combat boots. She started her glare at Nel. After a moment, it turned to Alicia.

Who had a vapid smile on her face as she waved back.

By the time Genoa returned her attentions to Nel, she had pulled her knees to her chest with her one good arm wrapped around them. Her other arm floated uselessly in the water.

“Are you finished with your bubble-bath, Your Highness?” She spoke with a sneer on her face. A very nasty sneer.

Nel ducked her head down, but couldn’t break eye contact.

“Shall I fetch you a spot of tea and crumpets? Perhaps you would like me to tuck you into bed and read you a nice story.”

Genoa cracked her knuckles one at a time. Each pop sent a tremor up Nel’s spine.

It did more to the nun next to Nel. As Genoa’s knuckles cracked, Alicia flinched and twitched as if each one caused a small seizure.

“Or perhaps you would like to get out of the damn bath and find my daughter. That is why we bothered to rescue your worthless ass.”

“Now, now,” Alicia said with a quiver in her voice. “There’s no need to get–”

For a moment, Nel thought Genoa was going to plant her boot into the other girl’s face. In the end, she only turned her glare on Alicia.

It still caused Alicia to cower back in what was perhaps the first real emotion Nel had seen on her face.

“My daughter has been trapped in literal Hell for the past two weeks.” Genoa spoke in an unnatural calm that was somehow scarier than anything else she had said. “If you are not out of this bath in thirty seconds, I will start breaking things. Whatever that necromancer did to you and your arm will be like a light massage in comparison. Do you understand me?”

That woman has been spending entirely too much time around Arachne, Nel thought with a poorly suppressed shudder. She nodded anyway and rose to her feet. She didn’t even bother moving to the stairs, instead choosing to climb over the edge where she was.

Her mouth came close to betraying her. She couldn’t see across planes of existence and almost told Genoa as much. The only thing that stopped her–aside from the copious pain that would undoubtedly follow such a statement–was that she could see the outside world from Lady Ylva’s domain.

Given that she was relatively certain that they technically were in Hell just by being inside her domain, maybe looking through the rest of Hell wouldn’t be an issue. Unless all the other domains were protected with powerful anti-augur wards.

Nel bit her lip as she followed Genoa out of the room.

This must be what it is like to be handed a shovel and told to dig your own grave.

She just hoped that Lady Ylva would be kind enough to dig her back out.

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