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